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Things I’ve learned in Cambodia

Monday, July 18th, 2011 by Steph

A little list of Lessons Learned in honor of my 6-month anniversary here, one per week, just for fun:

  1. Everything is negotiable.
  2. Always look over your shoulder when changing direction, even if the traffic laws are on your side.
  3. There’s an art to cutting the perfect pineapple.
  4. To set up a cricket trap you need only some clear sheeting and a shallow pool of water.
  5. Duck embryos are best with lime juice and pepper.
  6. There’s a dark seedy underbelly to karaoke.
  7. If there’s less than 4 people on your moto, you are not using it to the fullest capacity.
  8. Why there are so many batman.tuk tuks (just because).
  9. The wats start rockin’ out at 4:30 in the morning.
  10. Sometimes it’s better to have your freedom than to have a full stomach.
  11. You can totally jump off that high tree branch into the river. Empirical evidence suggests that you get extra points for doing it w/o clothes.
  12. Sedans only rise to their true glory when filled with 8 persons (4 in front, 4 in back)
  13. 11am to 1pm is best spent sacked out in a hammock.
  14. The louder the music, the better the celebration.
  15. Nothing livens up a morning meeting like a fresh jackfruit. Or durian.
  16. There are better countries to be a dog.
  17. There are worse countries to be a dog.
  18. If the internet, power, or water goes out, it’s totally Vietnam’s fault.
  19. The New Year is an excellent opportunity to smash.powder onto people’s faces. And do lots of other.silly.stuff.
  20. Adults are crazy.
  21. Baby crocs don’t bite.
  22. Moms are the same across the world.
  23. $2 buys a lot of bananas.
  24. Monks can be flirty.
  25. There’s no where I’d rather than be in the dry season than floating on the Mekong. Preferably, without a boat.
  26. Never underestimate the utility of a good porch.

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Journey to Beng Mealea

Saturday, April 16th, 2011 by Steph

When someone invites you to join them on an epic journey to see a temple half-devoured by forest there is only one correct answer: When are we leaving?

I recently undertook such a trip with three fellow housemates and co-workers. I steeled myself for a long and arduous ride; I’m unaccustomed to biking 80 km at a stretch, and I had no idea what terrain was in store for me, or how well I would hold up under the increasingly warm Cambodian sun. All I knew was that it was supposed to be a 7-hour ride. Let the adventure begin.

We left early in the morning, to avoid the punishing heat of midday. As we cycled outside of the periphery of Siem Reap, highway gave way to side streets gave way to red dusty roads which wound through a maze of markets and villages. We were thankful to follow the lead of our Khmer friend, Chor (or Joe, if you like). As the kilometers sped by, he expounded on whatever facets of Cambodian culture came to mind, from the proper storage of rice, to the prevalence of bald old ladies, to the long white flags which indicate a funeral.

About an hour in to our ride, Joe made a sharp right turn, pulled up short and invited himself into a stranger’s yard. He beckoned to us – come see how rice noodles are made.

Our unexpected presence was warmly welcomed, and we witnessed an elegantly simple process, to which we were immediately initiated:
Step 1: Mash rice into a sticky paste.
Step 2: Fill sieve with paste, and use plunger to extrude long strings of the stuff into boiling water.
Step 3: Remove noodles when they begin to float. Season simply with chili and salt.

The ladies pushed fresh noodles upon us and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We happily sat in our new friend’s front yard, mouths full of happiness and hearts full of gratitude.

After this quick pit stop, we continued on through villages, weaving back and forth amongst the steady stream of traffic: trucks loaded up with improbably large pigs. Motos piled high with more mattresses than physics would seem to allow. Pickups packed with young women heading to and from work.

Monks were out in abundance, speeding by on motos, passing by on foot with containers for rice. We passed many a wat decorated for Magha Puja. Perhaps this holiday also explained the prevalence of households making rice noodles, a phenomenon we continued to see along our route with startling regularity. A few front yards even sported a see-saw type contraption, each one loaded up with 3 or 4 children eager to mix play with mashing rice.

At the cashew tree with a clutch of piglets underneath (the cutest I’ve ever seen), we hung a right onto an unforgiving road with little shade and a red washboard surface. The roadside houses had disappeared, replaced by parched shrubbery eagerly awaiting the rainy season. The journey at this point was between us, the road, and the sun. Infrequent stops for sugarcane juice (with a delicate hint of citrus and rust) provided just enough energy to propel us forward.

And then before I knew it: we had arrived. After only 4 hours, we had reached our destination, Beng Mealea. We celebrated our good fortune with more sugarcane juice (whyever not?) and sat for a spell to catch our breath. We proceeded to our homestay, a modest abode perched on long cement legs to accommodate the rainy season. Water buffalo munched single-mindedly in the front yard. Dogs surrendered to the heat of the afternoon, belly up in a sea of dust.

We retired to a small room with a wooden floor, an annex of the larger room where our hosts sleep. We were shown the shower: a full water basin upon which floats a small bowl in a cement room with a single hole in the corner for drainage. This met my needs. I began to scour the layers of red dirt from my knees and down my shins, and it was at that precise moment that the sky opened up to dump bucketfuls of water upon us all. This was the first rain of the season, which we chose to interpret as a good omen. While the rain would have been a welcome relief to a pack of hot and tired bikers, we were just as glad to have arrived before the downpour, and took comfort in hearing it crash and bang against the tin roof over our heads.

After a late lunch and sucking down the contents of a cold coconut, we retired to lazily wait out the heat of the afternoon. I made a passing attempt at sleep, but instead lay down, closed my eyes and took in the sounds of the neighborhood. A saw mill was running next door. Dogs punctuated the calm of the afternoon with a ruckus now and again. Chickens generated a farmy hum.

The rest of the evening passed without much consequence. Our hosts kindly fed us a savory porridge which served quite nicely for dinner. They told us about their children, who have mostly left home to start their own families. The father of the house is the only one left from his generation. He never had a chance to pursue education: the Khmer Rouge had required him to plant rice to the exclusion of all else. He now enthusiastically encourages his children to pursue what he could not. With this sober history in mind, we ascended to the balcony at dusk, candles in hand, set up mosquito nets, and passed the rest of the evening discussing Cambodia’s recent past while the nearby pagoda incongruously blared dance music late into the night.

I fell asleep on the wooden floor, only to be woken by chanting at 5am. This suited me just fine, as the plan was to be at Beng Mealea at the crack of dawn, before the tour buses started to swarm the place. We made it to the temple around 7am, the first ones on the scene. I soon found myself alone in the midst of strewn rocks and collapsed arches, listening to the jungle wake up and come to life. I enjoyed 30 minutes of this glorious solitude, where I could imagine that I was the first person to have stumbled upon this temple (Indiana Jane, as my Dad would say), until the tourists started trickling in.

Beng Mealea looks like some forgotten world out of a fairy tale. Unlike its close cousin Angkor Wat, you can climb all over the temple grounds. There are no risers for pictures. There are no guide ropes which dictate where you can and cannot go. Swallowed by forest, rediscovered only 10 years ago, it still retains a bit of wildness and mystery. The grounds are littered with broken naga, the 7-headed snake from Cambodian mythology. I tried not to imagine how many landmines may or may not be lingering just outside of the temple periphery, and sent a silent and heartfelt thank you to the CMAC for making it possible for me to clamber safely around the rocks.

After a morning of enraptured exploration, it was time to start thinking about the long ride home. We thanked our hosts, and began to retrace our steps: we said goodbye to the nearby wat and headed towards Siem Reap, fighting our way against the steady stream of tour buses. Asphalt gave way again to red dust and rocks.

Halfway through our afternoon, we stopped at a snackstall to refuel, where we rested, roadside. An executive decision was made, and we decided to pretty much try one of everything. On offer were crunchy sweet pastries which inexplicably also had chives. Veg slaw with peanuts and chili sauce. Shaved ice with sugar syrup, condensed milk, and what looked like black-eyed peas.

And just when we were getting ready to hit the road, almost as a nonchalant afterthought, it was mentioned that a temple existed nearby, only 2 kilometers away. Anyone with an inkling about my disposition knows that the word “temple” is like catnip to me; I am incapable of turning down a visit such a place, especially if it’s within a 5 km radius. The shopkeeper pointed us in the right direction, and we were off.

The detour immediately turned from dust to sand, which meant a strenuous ride. As we struggled to stay upright, we came across old ladies pushing several carts piled high with wood, who were having a difficult time navigating the terrain with their cumbersome baggage. We dismounted and gave each cart a bit of a push, sending the ladies on their way. A gaggle of boys watched the whole production, hanging out and wiling the afternoon away.

It was then that I saw one of the boys casually fling something through the air to his friend. The distinct silhouette caught my attention. Limbs splayed, arcing languidly through the air. Did he just throw a mouse?? I took a closer look, and yes, each boy had 3 or 4 mice clenched tightly in his hands. I inquired. The rodents were going to be dinner.

After a few more minutes of stubbornly pushing through the sand, I still saw nothing. It was hard to imagine finding anything out here in the middle of nowhere. Hot and tired, we started questioning our directional capabilities. I began to make mental calculations: how much more energy and time will it take to get home, and do I have enough of both in reserve?… when we came across a puddle bisecting our path. And by puddle, I mean small pond. We pulled up short. I was thinking leeches. I was thinking tetanus. I was thinking I don’t know how deep this sinkhole goes, and who else might be living in there. Which is when our fearless leader gamely plunged in tire first, not giving the matter a second thought.

The top of his pedals were nearly submerged before the resistance of the water unseated him. We watched him dismount his bike and escort it through, forging ahead knee-deep in murky swampishness. In seconds, he was across, no big deal. The rest of us threw caution to the wind and followed suit. If Joe can do it, I’ll be damned if I’m being left behind. Sometimes peer-pressure is the only way to conquer a mental roadblock.

We pushed on for a few minutes, when we found our destination. All this time I had been on the lookout for a Buddhist wat: Bright. Ostentatious. Ornamental. Imagine my surprise when we found another Angkor-style ruin, the muted stones barely visible through the trees. This monument was smaller than Beng Mealea, but this forgotten pile of stones certainly wasn’t in any guidebook. Incredulous at our good fortune, we peeked in and clambered about on the stones (again, I sent out a nervous and silent thanks to the CMAC). In our serendipitous surroundings, we frolicked. We climbed. We played.

It was tempting to while away the rest of the afternoon lost in daydreams of Kampuchea, but the sinking sun was a reminder to hit the road. We retraced our tired steps until we reached the outskirts of Siem Reap - happy to have gone, happy to be home, our bodies spent, our minds already racing with ideas for the Next Big Adventure.ИкониikoniПодаръциикониикони

England & Scotland

Sunday, August 30th, 2009 by Chris

Trip update: we’ve just completed the UK portion of our trip, spending some lovely time with the wonderful Brits we met in Noshiro during our first two years there.

The first week was in London, where we stayed with Francis, saw the sights (including the wonderfully quirky sport of Bike Polo) and gradually acclimated to life in the big city after three years outside of it.

After that, Frank accompanied us for a weekend in Oxford, where we hung out with Andy, who was coincidentally doing a summer program there as part of his law degree at the Ohio State.

Then it was a week Yorkshire to see Claire, with whom we overlapped during our first year in Japan. This portion of the trip involved visiting the eponymous York, and healthy portions of rambling and croquet. Yorkshire has been described to us as “the Texas of England” in that it has a strong independent streak and resists being characterized as part of a larger country. We are interested to see what Claire, a native Yorkshire girl, has to say about that!

Now we set out on our own to the great repressed nation of Scotland. August is festival month in Edinburgh, wherein the entire city is swamped for the ironically named Fringe Festival (which now dwarfs all the “mainstream” festivals it meant to mock when it started in the 1960s). Edinburgh is a lovely city, managing to feel ancient and modern at the same time. We spent a busy Monday through Friday cramming in as many off-the-wall performances and comedy shows as possible, with about a 50% hit rate for satisfying shows.

We had intended to spend a whole week in Edinburgh, but it was clear that five days were going to be enough. Fortunately, we were able to make a last-minute change in plans by renting a camper van from (we had seen tons of these vans in Australia last Christmas and remembered their quirky and very effective self-advertising) for about the same price that we would have been paying anyway for our Edinburgh hostel. So we spent three nights and four days driving ourselves around the Scottish Highlands, pulling off the side of the road to sleep wherever was convenient, and boy are we glad we did. This country is bursting at the seams with gorgeous hills and a truly unbelievable number of waterfalls, and not a few castles as well.

Now we are in Berlin until the end of September, and you can expect a report about that later on!

Things I will miss about Japan

Saturday, July 11th, 2009 by Chris

As we prepare to leave Japan in two weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to something that’s been in the back of my mind for most of the three years we’ve lived here: writing down the things I love and hate about the place. Last week I griped about the things I find most annoying. Now it’s time for the bubbly conclusion.

So here’s the stuff I’ll miss when I go.


Winter Wrap-up

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009 by Steph

There’s a bunch of holidays that hit in rapid succession early in the year in Japan, though they often go unnoticed under the shadow of the flashier festivals. Here’s a not-so-brief road map to the winter holidays and festivals we celebrated this year:

New Year’s Day is, of course, a huge deal here but unfortunately I have no idea what it’s like, as I’m always off exploring some other country for winter break. The first holiday that hits me when I return to Japan from abroad is Coming of Age Day, which marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone who’s turned 20 within the last year gets dressed up for fancy photo shoots in anticipation of all the drinking, voting, and smoking that they are now allowed to partake in. Considering I can probably count on one hand the number of people who qualify for this rite of passage in Noshiro, I rarely witness this spectacle first hand.

Instead of reveling in the glory of being 20 (a distant memory for me), I spent the day honoring the deliciousness of unagi. A friend in Tokyo took us to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in eel, complete with front row seats where you can watch the chef carry out the following process with alarming speed and precision:

Step 1: Place live squirming eel on chopping block
Step 2: Deftly drive metal spike through brain in one stroke
Step 3: Split eel down the middle, removing the internal organs and spine with a few subtle flicks of the wrist

For me, this scene resulted in a complex emotional landscape; my reactions morphed from horror to fascination to scientific detachment as I witnessed the raw ingredients behind the counter go from eel to meal over and over again.

Noting that innards were on the menu, it seemed a shame not to give them a go (they’re certainly not going to get any fresher), so we chucked our hat into the ring and tried a few. I’m certainly no stranger to organs on the table… I’ve gamely eaten my share since moving to Japan, including chicken hearts, raw horse liver, and intestines from anonymous sources. And while I don’t want to be “innardsist” by declaring all offal as, well, awful, I am definitely seeing a clear pattern emerge with repeated culinary experimentation.

A few weeks after this squirmy encounter came Setsubun. This holiday is supposed to be the day before spring, but I don’t really get how this works, as it’s on February 3rd, and still damn cold. Maybe it’s a lunar calendar thing. While you don’t get the day off for Setsubun, you do get the opportunity to toss toasted soybeans from the front door of your house while yelling “Demons out, luck in!” while wearing a kicky paper demon mask. I made sure to throw my beans this year right when Chris was leaving the house… just to cover all my bases.

Inhabitants of western Japan also traditionally celebrate Setsubun by eating a huge uncut sushi roll in one go that’s only slightly smaller than your forearm. I live in eastern Japan, but thanks to the glory of capitalism, conbinis all over the country have taken to selling these seasonal rolls, and now you can find them in Tohoku as well. Chris and I gamely shared one of these humongous rolls between the two of us while facing this year’s lucky direction (N by NE). Only afterward did we learn that you’re supposed to remain silent while you eat it, and eat the whole roll yourself. Double fail on our part. Perhaps two wrongs make a right, and we’ll have a lucky year anyway…

I was still pondering the ramifications of my festive faux pax when Foundation Day rolled around. When I asked my colleagues how they usually celebrate the foundation of their country, I failed to get a satisfying answer. Most people just shrugged and went back to whatever they were doing. This ambivalence was kind of a mystery to someone who’s used to celebrating her own country’s Independence Day with fireworks and BBQs.

A bit of wikipedia research revealed that the low key nature of Foundation Day might have something to do with the history of nationalism in Japan. This holiday (formerly known as Empire Day) used to be all about uniting the country by paying homage to the emperor, and used to be a really big deal. However after WWII, nationalism became a bit of a touchy subject, and this particular celebration was abolished. The current incarnation of this holiday was only reinstated in 1966, and was re-branded to avoid evoking the nationalistic sentiments that are associated with pre-WWII Japan.

In addition to being a bit awkward thematically, Foundation Day is also one of those uncooperative holidays that refuses to stay put on either a Friday or a Monday. In fact, this year, it landed smack dab in the middle of the week. What to do mid-winter with a free Wednesday at your disposal? We tried to make a go of it by hiking through Juniko despite the bleak weather. However after driving for 45 minutes to get to this set of small lakes, we discovered that the park was closed for maintenance. As a fallback plan, we explored the hills nearby, where we discovered a waterfall shrine and a plethora of monkeys. All things considered, I guess monkeys and shrines are as good a way to spend Japan’s Independence Day as any.

Mid-February, of course, is the most exciting wintery time in Tohoku, when snow festivals abound. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we’ve had very little snow this year, which has detracted from the ambiance a bit. Additionally, winter festivals in Akita are pesky in that they all seem to fall on the same day, making it difficult to see everything unless you live in the prefecture for multiple years. With a few exceptions, we were finally able to see the remaining festivals that had, up until this point, fallen through the cracks. This year’s festival bonanza included:

  • Hiburi fire swinging festival in Kakunodate, Feb. 13-14
    Hiburi’s been a surprisingly elusive festival for the last few years. Kakunodate is several hours away from us by car, and the festival is often inconveniently held mid-week. Last year, we even contemplated driving down on a Wednesday for the festivities, but a snow storm and slippery roads made this trek next to impossible. This year, several events aligned nicely which permitted us to attend. The festival fell on a weekend, and, thanks to a mild winter, ice and snow were not an issue this year.

    The festival is pretty straightforward: anyone wanting to work out their pyromania issues can light a bundle of hay (ok, rice fibers) on fire and swing it around until it explodes in a shower of embers. The fire-swinging was mesmerizing, and on occasion, comic, as old men and little boys almost lit each other’s hair on fire. While it all looked like good fun, I held back for some reason. Maybe the lack of snow and the ample drizzle dampened my ambitions a tad. Or perhaps I felt constrained by the work clothes I was still wearing. Even though this was my last opportunity to see such a festival, for some reason I didn’t seize the moment and participate, a small regret which I carried home with me that night.

  • Amekko Candy Market in Odate, mid Feb
    The gimmick here is that if you eat some candy from the market (which apparently grows on trees), then you will remain healthy for the rest of the year. As someone who consumed a piece of said candy who is now sitting sick in bed, I can assure you that this was NOT a sufficient prophylactic for the common cold.

    From the promotional materials for this festival, I was expecting some kind of tangential activities, like parades or dancing children. However, the little bit of Amekko that I saw was kind of a let down as a) it was just a bunch of people selling stuff and b) the weather was miserable (although, to be fair, the word for “candy” in Japanese is a homophone for “rain”, so I can hardly complain if I got both). But I didn’t mind too much because I was with a bunch of fantastic people, on our way to an even MORE disappointing festival. Which leads us to…

  • The Not-So-Frozen Waterfall Non-Existent Festival, Part II: When Chlorofluorocarbons Attack, third Sunday in Feb. (in theory)
    Last year by some fluke, I had heard about a frozen waterfall just across the border in Aomori. I somehow convinced all my friends that it was a good idea to squeeze into a car and plunge into the snowy depths of the countryside looking for this mythic specimen.

    Not only did we find it, but we happened to arrive on the one day of the year when the shrine members strap on their drums, dust off their flutes, and honor the god of the waterfall. We were treated to a beautiful little procession which snaked its way up an icy path to a shrine cradled against the rock behind the waterfall. The waterfall, which had become a column of ice, was awesome to behold. Despite my burgeoning jaded expat exterior, I had to admit that the day had a kind of magical air about it. I made a mental note to bring more people back to experience it themselves the following year.

    I followed through and returned with new friends in tow but nature, alas, did not hold up her end of the bargain. Due to an abnormally warm winter, the waterfall this year was nowhere close to frozen. And to add insult to injury, there was no processional to speak of this year.frozenunfrozen

    Our disappointment was palpable, but we made the best of it by taking silly pictures that would immortalize our sadness and act as a warning for generations to come: global warming means no more fun winter festivals, kids.

  • Tazawako Alpine Festival 3rd weekend in Feb. (21,22)
    Unlike the “Fire Swinging Festival” or the “Candy Market Festival”, you never quite know what you’re going to get with festivals named after places. As such, the Tazawako Festival has never been high on my list. It’s just too far away and doesn’t spark the imagination. However, with this being Our Last Winter in Japan, with little else to to, we made the long trek through the snowy mountains to Tazawako to see what all the fuss was about.To my delight, this proved to be one of Akita’s smorgasbord festivals, and featured scaled-down versions of events I’d been to in the past, including hot air balloons, snow sculptures, and holy-cow, Hiburi fire swinging.

    If I’d ever been presented with a bona fide second chance, this was it. Conditions were perfect: the air was icy. Snow was delicately floating down. So despite my continued misgivings about lighting my hair on fire (it would grow back, yes?), I stepped up to give fire swinging a go. After watching fire-swingers in Kakunodate and hearing their plaintive cries (「おも〜い!あっちぇ!」), I was a little concerned about trapping myself in a fiery inferno of my own making. But once I donned the fire-resistant happi and stepped out into the snow-covered clearing, all my worries dropped away. Nothing was too heavy or too hot. At the center of my own universe of fire, it was captivating. I was shocked at how quickly it was over, and giddy from the experience for hours. Swinging fire was without a doubt the highlight of this year’s winter festival season. Learn from my mistakes: given the chance, don’t hesitate to play with fire.

  • Garou Waterfall Light-up in Fujisato, 3rd week of February
    I’m kind of at a loss for words for this one. Not a festival per se, the waterfall light-up in the tiny town of Fujisato would struggle to qualify as an event. As explained in the local newspaper, the Garou waterfall is bathed in an eerie blue light for a few days, and then, in a shocking turn of events, the light is changed to a festive green for the final two days of the light-up. There was also a rather nice snow dome nearby, which was made, if the adjacent obnoxiously green sign is to be believed, by monkeys. Such is small town life in the winter, I suppose. Lest you think me ridiculous for driving half an hour to view this modern miracle, I’d like to inform you that there was also a photographer with a tripod from Akita City in attendance, which means he drove at least 3 times as far as me to capture this moment on film.

After the festival madness comes a big fat girlie fiesta called Hina Matsuri, on March 3. This is essentially an excuse to set up untouchably expensive displays of dolls to honor your young daughters. People in other parts of Japan float dolls made of straw out to sea to get rid of bad spirits. In Tohoku, however, the tradition seems to involve grabbing the nearest female foreigner, slapping a kimono on her, and making her husband serve you green tea.

And then, of course, the ultimate sign that spring is right around the corner: High School Graduation. For my school, this falls without fail on March 3rd every year, regardless of the day of the week.

The morning of graduation we all huddled resolutely in our chairs, shivering in a cold and unforgiving gym that was still icy despite the industrial strength heaters scattered about. After long and lofty speeches by the Principal, the Mayor, the head of the Board of Education, the PTA President, an underclassman, and a graduating student, there wasn’t much left to say. The ceremony closed with my former students filing of the gym, looking either somber, bored, or bewildered at their new status as high school graduates. You can see for yourself below: for such a happy occasion, there seemed to be a lot of crying going on. Perhaps these are the students who weren’t hi-fived by the basketball coach? You’ll have to watch closely and draw your own conclusions:

Onēsan at Last

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Steph

The honorific おねえさん (older sister) was first bestowed on me by the kids in my taiko group simply as a consequence of my age: I’m considerably older than they are, but not quite as old as their parents. My first two years here in Noshiro, I taught practically all of them, and Onēsan seemed like a convenient enough title when we were going about our business in taiko rehearsal.

This year, however, I was relocated to a bunch of new schools, and I now no longer teach any of my taiko kids. This has had some unexpectedly delightful side effects, as I’m now free to act more like a sister and less like an authority figure.

Last weekend we all attended a 2-day taiko workshop. At the evening’s enkai, I finally felt the taiko kids fully embrace the title of おねえさん and all of the responsibilities that it entails. All you older siblings out there know the drill, but I’ll break down my role for the rest of you.

Being おねえさん means:

  • issuing orders and having them carried out. In this case it meant getting an unusually bossy 10-year old to go and fetch a rag to clean up my drink, which she spilled while exhibiting excessive exuberance. The miracle is that she complied immediately and without complaint.
  • allowing fingers to be dipped in beer foam. Foam swiping is all good fun (who doesn’t like a finger or two in their drink?), but the problem was that this then escalated to whining and pleading for beer. When I looked to their usually no-nonsense mother for help, we found her curled up in a corner next to a friend giving us a hopeful and encouraging “thumbs up” sign.
  • making sure that one of the kids keeps my glass full of beer at all times during the enkai. I left this somber and sacred duty to the 14-year oldto my left.
  • wiping up spilled alcohol with the children’s socks that litter the floor. This is an excellent alternative which is readily at hand, in case those rags are just too far away.

and, of course, just generally inciting them to silliness.

Other pieces of information gleaned from the taiko workshop include:

  • A time-tested method for finding an enkai’s after-party, which is this: Wander the halls of the hotel which houses all of you, listen for the loudest room, and burst in with a full bottle of JINRO to join the party. I know this because that’s how the TWO roving bands of drunken Japanese taiko players found my modest post-party. By the end of the night, my small two person room contained 9 drunken men (some of whom had to be extricated by force) and one set of bongo drums.
  • How to drum for two days straight with a broken rib, as demonstrated by one participant from Kamikoani. Taiko people are hard core.
  • The first hard evidence I’ve seen in Japan of the global meltdown: enrollment in the workshop was visibly down from last year.

And, lest you think that taiko workshops are all about drinking beer and mistreating children, here’s the new piece we learned in 8 hours:


Thursday, February 12th, 2009 by Steph

One of the fun things about being friends with a reporter is receiving that 3 a.m. phone call, and doubly so in Japan. It’s always exciting to hear “Help! I need a foreigner’s opinion, ASAP!” on the line and realize that you are about to single-handedly represent everyone in your entire country to a sleepy little Japanese town of 50,000 in the middle of nowhere.

I got this phone call a few weeks ago, just after Obama’s inauguration. Reporter Friend asked me for my opinions on Obama vs. Bush and the current political climate in the U.S. (a place I haven’t lived for 2+ years, may I remind you). While Reporter Friend has a commendable working knowledge of the English language, there is still an appreciable communication gap between my faulty Japanese and her decent 英語, especially when it comes to topics like anti-intellectualism, wire-tapping, and fear-mongering. When it comes down to it, anything with a hyphen is probably kind of off-limits.

Nevertheless, Reporter Friend made valiant efforts to break through the 言葉の壁 and was able to produce her article. I know this for a fact because one of my spastically-endearing 15 year-old students texted me the morning the article was published to tell me how famous and amazing I was for having opinions (?_?). This all made me a little self-conscious… who knows if anything vital was lost in translation. For all I know, the article says that I’m a hard-core supporter of Gitmo and that I hate babies.

The finished product is below, peruse if you like. If any of you Japanese-speaking superstars out there would like to translate, I’d love to know what I “said”.

Until then, I can neither confirm nor deny that I may or may not have opinions about stuff… and things.

Unlike you, I blog about ASCII art

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008 by Chris

Several people have noticed that it’s been some time since we last wrote. Well, I’m here to end that drought. But I’m not going to write about a fascinating cultural experience or deep personal realization. I’m going to write about my own particular brand of font-tinged geekiness.

That being said, this is going to sound like a non sequitur.

As you may or may not know, a few weeks ago Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigned, out of the blue, with no hint he was thinking of doing so. (This is becoming something of a tradition, as the previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did the same thing almost exactly a year before.) Fukuda has been, I think, a good prime minister. He’s a moderate politician and has toned down the nationalist rhetoric of his predecessors, and is exactly the kind of “boring guy” you would expect to be a Japanese Prime Minister.

Fukuda’s popularity was in the dumps for his entire term, just like most of the the world’s leaders at the moment, and in part this was because his mild-mannered ways didn’t provide a lot of juice for the media to latch onto for their nightly newscasts. When he held a news conference to announce his resignation, a reporter apparently dropped the last straw by asking Fukuda if he had really put his whole effort into his job. (This is something that is definitely not kosher to ask a Japanese person “Do your best!” is essentially the national creed.) Fukuda responded with a delightfully snippy comment: “Unlike you, I’m able to see myself objectively.”

That comment basically ended up being the sign-off for Fukuda’s entire career, and it was pure gold for the news media. But the phrase that really inspired the Internet community was the “unlike you” bit, which in Japanese grammar comes at the end as a finishing punch-line flourish. The actual phrase is “あなたとは違うんです” which literally translates as, “I am different than you.”

This, naturally, brings us to ASCII art.

(ASCII stands for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange” and is one of the earliest definitions of a computer character set, covering the English alphabet, numbers, and basic punctuation characters. “ASCII art” is an ancient term referring to a graphical image composed on a computer using only textual characters.)

Japanese nerds are second to none, and an anonymous someone immediately hit the Internets with an anime-themed ASCII-art take on Fukuda’s parting press-conference shot, complete with guns blazing.


Click on the image above to go to Flickr, where you can see my annotations noting where Japanese characters have been used to great effect in the final image. As you may imagine, the characters 彡 and ミ are indispensable in representing politicians’ hairlines.

My favorite part of this Japanese “ASCII” art (and this is where I get really nerdy) is that it’s not really ASCII at all. ASCII is an extremely narrow standard, covering only the English alphabet. It’s not even useful for Western European languages since it doesn’t have any accented characters for French, Spanish, German, etc. So this Japanese “ASCII art” is really “Unicode art” (although I guess technically it’s Shift_JIS art).

This whole situtation was brought to my attention by a Japan Times article talking about this T-shirt that was brought to market within days of Fukuda’s resignation, and is still selling off the shelves. I am now the proud owner of one of these shirts (after waiting a week and a half for it to come back into stock). And that means you have the Japan Times to thank for waking up to a blog entry about two of the most entertaining subjects imaginable: Japanese politics and computer character sets.

Worth a Thousand Words

Monday, March 31st, 2008 by Steph

About a week ago, Chris and I returned from a 9-day visit to Okinawa. Instead of outright telling you about the complex awesomeness of the place, let’s see if our new vocabulary gleaned from the trip paints a vivid enough picture.

Of course, there’s all the uniquely Okinawan things you’ll find there: umibudou, awamori, chanpuru, gusuku, ryukyu, utaki, tebichi, habu, togyu, sanshin, bashofu, bingata, mozuku, rafute, beniimo, eisa and shisa.

But several other general-use words adhered themselves to my long-term memory as a consequence of the trip, including: hade (gaudy), kaesu (to return, as in a car), yakeshimashita (sunburned), kokusai (international), suizokukan (aquarium), yatai (a food stall without walls), yakimono (pottery), ei (ray), haka (grave) and jietai (soldier in Japan’s self-defense force).

Create a mosaic in your mind’s eye with that vocabulary (and these pictures), and we’ll return soon to provide the narrative.

I Can’t Hear You

Friday, March 14th, 2008 by Chris

As you surely know if you follow us religiously (and who doesn’t?), Steph and I have been playing with Noshiro Belabo Taiko,* a local drumming group, since last summer. We’ve had a few performances around town, and have gradually gotten better as we settle into the physically demanding technique that this activity entails. But as much fun as we have had, I don’t think anyone would describe us as “hard core.”

Well that all changed last weekend, when we attended a two-day taiko workshop on the nearby Oga peninsula. This is a yearly event put together by Akita-area taiko groups, where master senseis come and impart their wisdom to us regular Joes.

Most of Belabo attended, including all three of us foreigners (Frank, Steph and me), and we were happy to see a few other JETs from around the prefecture as well.

There were a variety of courses to choose from. Being the manly men that we are, Frank and I chose the ?daiko (???, literally “big drum”) course. We even went so far as to purchase the biggest sticks we could find for $25. This course consisted of seven guys and the teeny instructor (Go sensei, who I believe was 27 years old) who whipped our asses into shape. After the first day’s three-hour session, I had more blisters in a smaller area than I had ever known possible. Fortunately the second day (and four more hours) didn’t make them much worse, thanks to some strategic taping.

Steph took the “new song” course, which is the general one for experienced players who don’t need to develop any particular skills. Since most of the people attending the weekend are experienced players, “new song” was by far the biggest course with around 85 people.

At the end of the first day, everyone (about 130 people altogether, as Go sensei gleefully kept reminding us we’d be performing in front of) gathered at the conference hotel and got together for a giant dinner and drumming party. A huge tatami room was lined with four rows of exquisitely apportioned individual dinner tables, complete with every kind of gross seafood you could ever not want to eat. After the food was out of the way, the room was cleared and a rollicking drum party commenced. I hope there weren’t any other guests in the hotel because this was one seriously loud party. (I love a country where you can even have drumming conventions in a room with paper walls.) Each visiting taiko group got to get up and play a piece, and there were even a few widely-known pieces where everyone who knew it was able to get up and play whatever drum was available. At the end of the night, a spontaneous pulsing beat started up and everyone was either dancing or drumming. It was probably the most fun I’ve had in Japan.

We all dreaded the second day, with our bleeding hands and sore muscles. Fortunately it was less painful than I had feared, and Sunday afternoon closed up with a fun performance where all the classes showed off all the fancy skills they had acquired over the weekend. The ?daiko performance was a big hit (am I right, ladies? <wink>) and the 85-person new song was amazing. If you ever get the chance to see 85 people beating the crap out of some big drums, don’t pass it up. Here is a postage-stamp-sized video (starting with Steph at the very beginning!) taken with my cell phone from the second floor:

New Song

Although the pain and fatigue were intense in the course of the workshop, we had a huge amount of fun and are excited for next year. Perhaps then I’ll take a decent camera and get some better pictures and videos.

* If you follow that link, there is a (very bad) picture of us on the front page! It’s our first performance after we had been playing for all of two weeks. ?