Tuesday, February 26, 2008

JSL & The Bird

Caution: Nerdy (yet slightly funny) linguist posting ahead.

Today I had a unique opportunity to learn a bit of Japanese Sign Language. This afternoon, as I was wrapping up lessons at one of my eight elementary schools, one of the homeroom teachers invited me to observe an after-school clubs. I was absolutely exhausted after teaching nearly 100 1st and 2nd graders (Sara-sensei, can I touch your hair? Sara-sensei, are you eyes really green? Sara-sensei, will you autograph my notebook/arm/forehead?), so the thought of sticking around for a rowdy game of basketball or dodge ball wasn't especially appealing. I was trying to think of a way to kindly refuse her well-intentioned offer, until the teacher said two magic words:

Sign Language.

Now, I've been fascinated by Japanese Sign Language (JSL) since I saw Babel a couple of years ago, so I jumped at the chance to learn a bit. Even if it meant being the token, my-Japanese-is-still-crappy gaijin and not understanding a word.

After school, I joined about a dozen students, a mix of third, fourth and fifth graders. Lead by a deaf teacher, they signed a song by SMAP (a wildly popular J-Pop boy band) for me. Then they taught me how to sign my name. Whereas I'd sign four characters -- S-A-R-A -- in American Sign Language, with JSL I only had two -- SA and RA -- which is reflective of Japanese syllables (hey, I warned you this post would be nerdy!!). Fascinating. So far, so good.

But the fun part came next.

Today's lesson focused on the family - the signs for grandmother, grandfather, mom, dad, and brother and sister. Lest that be too simple, however, Japanese has different words for older brother, younger brother, older sister and younger sister, so this distinction is reflected in JSL as well. Because I barely knew all the vocabulary in Japanese, I had a bit of trouble keeping up with the sign language lesson.

That is, until we got to the sign for onisan, or older brother, which is easy to remember: holding both hands at about chest level, you stick up the middle finger of your right hand and quickly raise it to your chin.

Imagine how hard it was for me to control my giggles when 12 elementary school students solemnly gave me The Bird.

Monday, February 25, 2008

私の手当たり次第の Weekend

This past weekend found me engaged in the following activities:

- Getting attacked by wild deer;
- Paying $12 USD for a potato;
- Squeezing my way through a giant Buddha's nostril;
- Losing 1,000 yen in approximately four minutes in a Japanese pachinko parlor; and
- Running out of money and being forced to eat at a Japanese Subway Restaurant.

Random? Yes. That's why this post title translates as "My Random Weekend." (I think. Kanji are still hard.)

But what made these activities even more random was the fact that I was accompanied by a friend, a friend -- we'll call him "C" -- from my undergraduate days who I hadn't seen in six years. It's random that we'd meet again in Japan after all this time, especially considering that he is currently working in Korea. C was on a two-week vacation from his gig in Seoul, so we decided to catch up in Osaka.

Randomness aside, it was nice to have a partner in crime for the weekend's craziness.

C and I descended on Osaka's Dotombori district on Friday night. Dotombori is an open-24-hours maze of neon lights, love hotels and overpriced drinks. Japan's answer to Las Vegas, if you will. We caught up over a few cocktails and then joined the masses in the street, taking in the sights: endless arcades filled with video games (American games will catch up by 2080 or so), multi-story pachinko (pinball machines - gambling is illegal in Japan) parlors shaped like pirate ships, and parades of literally thousands of teenage Japanese fashion victims, dressed in crazy Engrish t-shirts and mini skirts, despite the February chill (and ostensibly making up for their lack of season-appropriate clothing with gobs of hairspray).

We ate. We drank. We were merry. We lost 1,000 yen in 4 minutes. 'Nuf said.

Saturday morning found us recovering from Dotombori's sensory overload in a more tranquil setting. We took the train to nearby Nara, Japan's first capitol city, which is now home to 1,200 wild (and -- as we'd find out -- very hungry) deer. Excited to woo some deer for photo opps, C bought some cookies, and, instead of feeding just one or two, promptly drew a crowd of nearly 15 hungry hoofed friends. When the cookies ran out, the cuddly deer pulled a Jekyll and Hyde and started gnawing on our coats. Scary.

Deer aside, Nara's crowd pleaser is Daibutsuden, home of a 437 ton Buddha statue. Legend has it that if you can squeeze through the Buddha's nostril, you'll achieve enlightenment. Lest tourists be climbing on centuries-old statue, temple keepers have conveniently re-created a same-sized hole in a post at ground level. As you can see in the photo above, I made it through, but enlightenment certainly isn't pretty.

Squeezing through nostrils made me hungry, so I couldn't pass up a sweet potato cart outside the temple. However, as I continue to be blissfully illiterate when it comes to kanji, I misread the sign that showed the price for the potatoes. Instead of paying 200 yen per spud, as I'd originally thought when I overzealously ordered a large potato with the intent of sharing it with C, the price was actually 200 yen per 100 ounces. The vendor sold me the largest sweet potato known to man -- a 1,200 yen (almost $12 USD) monster that we couldn't finish and ended up feeding to the deer (which were still gnawing at my coat). Expensive deer treat.

Osaka Again
Sunday found us taking in more sights in the city, via a tour of the world-famous Osaka Aquarium, a trip to Osaka Castle, and a view of the city from the top of the Umeda Sky Building. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

But by the time Sunday night rolled around, I'd run out of money (damn potato! damn pachinko!) and couldn't find an ATM machine that would accept my inaka Fukui bank card. So, C and I were forced to scrape together our remaining yen and dine at Japan's mecca of gourmet goodness: Subway. Not surprisingly, the Japanese subs come with shrimp and all sorts of fresh-from-the-sea oddities. Sadly, Jared is nowhere to be found, but the J-Subway does have french fries! Eat Fresh.

So ended yet another random Japanese weekend. Here's hoping it doesn't take C and I six years to do it again.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

おっぱい Pudding

Yes, as you can probably deduce from the picture, おっぱい means "boobs."

And yes, おっぱい was on the menu -- in pudding form -- at a restaurant I went to with my Japanese tutor, her crazy scuba diving friends, and a few token gaijin last night. At 370 yen, and available in your choice of either chocolate or vanilla, this おっぱい hilarity was too cheap to pass up.

The kicker? The pudding was apparently too racy to actually picture on the menu. As a semi-illiterate but very hungry foreigner living in Japan, I've come to appreciate that most restaurants are equipped with full-color, photo-loaded menus. If you can't read the name of the dish you're ordering, you can just point to the pic of something that looks tasty and smile at the server.

This point-and-smile system is usually foolproof, except for when you're ordering boob pudding. In the case of おっぱい, the picture was highly pixilated -- censored, if you will -- so I couldn't figure out what it was. I thought the blurriness was a mistake on the menu until one of the Japanese scuba crew members noticed it and started laughing. It took some dictionary consulting and gesturing, but I got the joke and decided to treat my interpreter to some well-deserved dessert.

Chocolate, of course.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Japanese Clean Plate Club

I'm a picky eater.

My mom already knows this. She spent 18 exasperating years -- the time I lived at home -- attempting to prepare meals that I wouldn't wrinkle my nose at or push around on my plate. Sorry about that, mom.

But now that I'm an adult (specifically, an adult that's trying to fit into a new culture with new cuisine), I'm in the closet. My picky eater status is still (mostly) under wraps here in Japan. Perhaps I've turned a new leaf in the past six months. I've given almost all of the this-would-be-creepy-to-most-Westerners foods placed in front of me the ol' Girl Scout try. I've put these foods in my mouth. I've chewed and swallowed them. I've even forced a smile - or at least maintained composure - when the flavor is so offensive I'd rather spit it out. Included in this latter category are squid-flavored peanuts, fermented soybean (納豆) natto rolls, and, of course, the ever-delicious fried fish sperm sack I so memorably shared with the folks in my Thursday night English class this fall.

Fittingly, it was the Thursday night crew that outted me as a picky eater just last night. They very kindly treated me to dinner at an お好み焼き (okonomiyaki) restaurant the next town over. Okonomiyaki isn't for everyone - it's made of chunks of kinda-scary-looking seafood (think tentacles), mixed with cabbage and eggs, and then topped with secret sauces. It's then grilled at the table before it's topped with more secret sauces dried fish flakes. The flavor is unique, something that my Western palate certainly wasn't accustomed to.

But I like okonomiyaki. The Thursday crew was impressed by this, and asked about other Japanese foods that I liked. Unfortunately, my cover was blown when conversation turned to おでん (oden), a creepy-looking-to-me cuisine consisting of boiled eggs, faux fish cakes and various meats on sticks. These skewers of scariness are a winter seasonal specialty, soaked all day in hot soy broth and sold in big, steamy metal vats at the convenience store check-out counter. Of course, I understand how toasty warm food is über satisfying on a cold winter night. But personally, the idea of buying meat on a stick from a bubbling tub at a 24-hour konbini conjures up images of day-old hot dog water at the 7-Eleven. No, thank you.

When I told the Thursday crew that I wasn't that into oden (I think the word I used was "scary." Oops.), it was as if I'd insulted apple pie in the USA. If wooden chopsticks could make a metallic clanking sound as they're dropped in shock, there would have been a big commotion at our end of the restaurant. Their mouths opened. They audibly gasped and shook their heads in disappointment. And then - this is the worst part - they accused me of not being くいしんぼ.

That's kuishinbo, roughly "good eater." The fact that "good eater" is a part of the Japanese lexicon should clue you in to the value of being a member of the Clean Plate Club here. In a country where people went hungry after WWII, Japanese today are happy to enjoy a good, hearty meal every now and again. Last night, as we sat, stuffed, eyeing the final piece of okonomiyaki still sitting on the grill, I learned that the Japanese believe there is fortune in the last bit of food. Eating it helps makes you kuishinbo.

So long being kuishinbo doesn't require me eating the last bit of oden (or shirako, or natto, or squid-flavored peanuts), we're cool. But in attempts to change the subject, I assured my Thursday night friends that while I wasn't kuishinbo in their eyes, I am most certainly nomishinbo, which is a little Japanese joke I managed to pull off despite my limited language skills. Nomi comes from the word for "drink," so when tacked onto the "shinbo" suffix, makes the phrase "good drinker." The word doesn't actually exist in real Japanese, just in my little confused foreigner speak.

But the faux lexicon got a good chuckle. I'd redeemed myself after the oden incident. There's nothing like a little booze humor to remind us that we're all more alike than we are different. The Thursday night crew is good people.

Nomishinbo. You can decide for yourselves what that means I'm drinking. Suffice to say it won't be hot dog water anytime soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Shreddin' (Almost)

Having already defied doctor's orders to stay off my sprained foot (see my post about my race with a potato truck), I decided to sneak in some snowboarding this weekend. I swaddled my sprain in some amazing Japanese BenGay slow-release miracle bandages, and, foot fully numb, joined some friends at SkiJam, a beautiful (check out the snow-covered peaks in the shot above) Fukui-based ski resort about 45 minutes from my apartment.

My foot was great the whole time.

My performance on the mountain? A little less than great.

While the Ski Jam slopes are slightly less intimidating than the seemingly 90-degree drops I encountered while riding in Nagano a few weeks back, I still spent more time on my a$$ than on my actual deck.

However, neither my bum foot nor my common sense could keep me from attempting to do some off-trail riding. I ventured into a supposed-to-be-off-limits tree-lined pass with a fellow Fukui JET and rode through virgin powder before I lost my momentum and sunk, knee-deep, into the snow. The more I struggled to carve myself out, the further I sunk. You can see my "WTF?" expression in the up-to-my-knees-in-snow picture above as I contemplate my fate. Priceless.

I ended up unstrapping my board and holding it above my head as I hoofed it out of the pass, sinking deeper into the snow with each step but giggling the entire way.

Back on the main run, I sat to the side and prepared to strap my feet back into the bindings, but the board slipped out of my hands and proceeded to fly down the mountain. I chased after it, yelling a combination of all of the English, Japanese and Spanish vulgarities I knew.

You might appreciate that running downhill in bulky snowboarding boots is a difficult task. Running downhill in snowboarding boots with a sprained foot only exacerbates those difficulties. The snowboard got further and further away from me, a purple blur speeding downhill. Further down the run, an extremely kind Japanese skier, ostensibly hearing my multilingual cries for help, reached out and stopped the board with his ski pole. He looked up the mountain, trying to find the source of the renegade deck, only to see a crazy, snow-covered, obscenities-spewing gaijin girl barreling toward him.

I tripped once. I'm sure he saw me. Hazukashi (embarrassing).

I finally met him a good 400 meters down the mountain, gasping for breath and brushing the snow off of my face, coat, and pants. I pulled myself together enough to muster a deep bow (also extremely difficult to do in snowboarding boots with a bum foot) and my most humble "arigato gozaimashita." I expected him to laugh at me -- or at least crack a smile -- but instead he solemnly handed me the board, bowed, and then whizzed away on his skis.

Reflecting on his reaction (or lack thereof) as I type, it actually didn't surprise me that much at the time. He was saving face. (My face, that is.) I also wasn't surprised at the fact that my ski lodge lunch options were limited to curry, rice and sushi. It didn't strike me as out of the ordinary that I could hum along to almost all of the J-Pop songs blaring out of the SkiJam speakers as we rode the lifts. I didn't bat an eyelash at the crazy, straight-out-of-Harajuku fashion statements I saw on the slopes. And I obliged -- just once -- when someone asked to take a picture with me, the token gaijin snowboarder.

Could it be that I'm actually beginning to get this place?

Scary thought. I think I'd better stick to laps at the pool this week.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

For the Love of the Spud

Not more than three hours after posting the whoa-is-me-my-foot-is-sprained entry (see "Busted," below), I found myself sprinting full speed down the street, chasing after a...


These days, nothing stands between me and a nice potato. Sweet potato, that is. My family may find this bit of news very interesting, seeing as how I am possibly the only human being on the planet that doesn't devour the amazing marshmallow-topped yam casserole that my grandma whips up at Thanksgiving. I mean no disrespect to Grandma, it's just that I'm usually not that into potatoes.

Until Japan.

There is this amazing phenomenon called the potato truck. A couple of nights a week, it cruises around my neighborhood, with a cute old man belting out "oiiiiiiiiishiiiiiiiiii" (that's "delicious," please see blog title, above) from a loud speaker. You can think of it as the Japanese version of the ice cream truck, except it's more like a jerry rigged pickup with, well, a big pot of spuds in the back...

So I was over at The Best Neighbors on the Planet's house last night when we heard the call from the street.


Like Pavlov's dog, I started salivating at the very thought of a delicious sweet potato, or satsuma-imo, as they're called here in Japan. They're grilled to this state of not-too-tough, not-too-soft state of perfection and are served warm from the back of the truck. The inside is a sweet, carb-o-licious potato wonder. The perfect food to fill your belly on a cold February night.

A friend and I quickly pulled on our shoes and hustled to the road. We caught a glimpse of the satsuma-imo truck disappearing around the corner. If we wanted our potato, we'd have to hurry.

So, putting the doctor's "no running for three weeks" advice out of my head, I began a full-on sprint in the direction of the chant. The oiiiiiiiiiiishiiiiiiiiiii call got louder as I got closer. It was mesmerizing, hypnotizing, helping me temporarily forget about the pain shooting through my foot. Some things are worth suffering for.

Satsuma-imo. Satsuma-imo. Delicious. Delicious. Yum. Yum.

Unlike the slow, steady ice cream trucks of the USA, the spud mobile barreled ahead at seemingly neck breaking clip. It rounded another corner. We ran faster. We finally caught up to it, breathless, waving to the rear view mirror.

The cute old man -- the voice behind the loudspeaker -- tapped the breaks. The truck stopped. A sweet old woman -- ostensibly his partner in crime -- smiled at us as she opened the passenger-side door and waddled to the back of the truck to take our order. These two were driving that fast?

Futatsu. (I paused to gasp for breath.) Onegaishimasu. Two, please.

Oh, sweet victory. Sweet potato.

Friday, February 1, 2008


My dear friends, tragedy has struck: I have sprained my foot.

For those who know me best, you can appreciate that this is nothing short of devastating for me. My one daily indulgence -- long, relaxing runs -- has been taken away. It's been more than a week since my last runner's high, and I'm in need of a serious fix. With the quickness.

Ironically, it was running that caused the whole debacle in the first place. Hailing from Chicago, I'm accustomed to braving cold temperatures to go for my daily jog. Like any good junkie, I'll go to great lengths to feed my addiction.

So the little bit of snow on the ground last Wednesday didn't faze me as I headed out for my loop through the rice paddies. I got about halfway through my route when pain began to shoot through my right foot. I must've landed funny on a patch of ice without realizing it. I hobbled home and vowed to take it easy. I've since traded my rice paddy runs for laps at the local pool.

But a week later, my foot was still throbbing, so I decided to seek a doctor's advice. Thanks to universal health coverage in Japan, we English teachers can pop into any hospital to get checked out -- for next to nothing. So, with my insurance card in one hand and my Japanese-English dictionary in the other, I hobbled over to a hospital a few blocks from my apartment.

So, yes, there's a new addition to list of foreign hospitals I've seen. For those of you keeping track, I have gone to a hospital in nearly every country I've visited, thanks to Montezuma's Revenge in Mexico, a busted finger in Nicaragua, a dehydrated friend in Costa Rica...

I limped through the front door. Conversation in the waiting room stopped as all eyes focused on me. Ever polite, I greeted the nurse at the reception desk with a cheery "Konnichiwa!" The panicked look on her face is forever etched into my memory: her eyes widened. She audibly gasped. How was she going to communicate with this giant gimpy foreigner?

Lucky for her, I had already completed the "At the Doctor" chapter in my Japanese textbook. I was all over this one.

"Migi ashi ga itain desu." My right foot hurts, I said.

"Hai. Wakarimashita." I understand, she said.

Yes! The Japanese study is paying off.

Unfortunately, that's where my "At the Doctor" vocabulary ended and my confusion began. The nurse, apparently assuming I spoke more Japanese than I actually do, rattled off some rapid-fire instructions and handed me a new patient admission form written almost entirely in kanji.


She saw my blank look and resigned herself to the fact that she'd have to help me complete the form. So, right there in the middle of the waiting room, the game of charades began.

Do I have any allergies? The nurse pretended her skin had broken out in a rash and proceeded to scratch furiously.

How did I hurt my foot? She pretended to run, trip, and fall to the floor.

Am I taking any prescription medications? She opened her mouth and motioned as if she were popping pills.

An Oscar-worthy performance if I've ever seen one. The folks in the waiting room should've given her a standing ovation.

The next step was an x-ray and a consultation with the doctor, which involved more charades, dictionary consulting and giggles.

Final diagnosis: No break. Sprain only.

But, the sad news: No run. Three weeks.

Looks like I'll be spending some quality time at the Maruoka pool this month.

So, here's the damage:

X-ray, in-hospital theatrics, and take-home gauze: 2250 yen
Daily admission to pool for laps: 300 yen
Knowing that I have another appointment in a week, to repeat the humiliation and hilarity all over again: PRICELESS