Not Just Ninjas Mon, 12 Dec 2011 14:58:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Maybe Mon, 12 Dec 2011 04:24:30 +0000 If you were here,
we’d stare slack-jawed at the sky
as bats the size of small cats sublimated from tall trees at sunset.

We’d eat passionfruit by the spoonful
until our mouths puckered in protest.
We’d weave in and out of traffic like ninjas,
immune-oblivious to automotive laws.

We’d smile and then grimace
as garlic and fermented fish paste floated through the air
and then punched us in the face.

We’d take refuge from thunderstorms more ferocious than you could imagine
and listen to the fat raindrops play across a city of tin roofs.

We’d tease small children
and they’d tease us back.

Maybe you’re entertaining a temperamental redhead.
Maybe you’re winching and hoisting,
or doing battle with sparrows on your porch.
Maybe you’re respecting boundaries while searching for loopholes,
or putting the finishing touches on your fantasy football team.

But if you were here, you’d inhale your first breath of Cambodian air
perfumed and smoky,
as the intense red dirt worked its way into your skin,
then sank into your bones.

We’d watch cats chase geckos chase moths chase their own trails
placing bets on the victor over a 50 cent beer
and I’d tell you stories
that you wouldn’t believe…

I swear the flood waters rose this high
and the fire was just there across the riverbank
and that’s where they caught the crocodile.

We’d share an exasperated glance,
water shut off again after dinner.
Water shut off again before breakfast.
Water shut off again during your shower.

We’d be engulfed by proceedings both somber and joyful
then fight our way to sleep through dogfights
to be shaken from our beds at 6am by Khmer pop music
or chanting monks
or the horn repair shop just across the street.

We’d stuff ourselves silly on porridge and baby duck eggs
noodles and durian,
eggplant and pork.

Maybe you’re caressing clay.
Maybe you’re getting laid or getting high.
Maybe you’re 二日酔い.
Maybe you’re selling mattresses,
or assembling your shrine to Amanda Palmer.
Maybe you’re comfortable and inertia is a bitch.
Maybe you’re trying to figure out what to do with all the kale in your fridge,
or waiting for your Next Big Idea while corralling kiddos.

Which is really a shame
because we’d conspire like thieves,
and laugh like fools,
and live like there was no tomorrow
if you were here.български икони

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Things I’ve learned in Cambodia Tue, 19 Jul 2011 04:46:26 +0000 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.

икониПравославни икониикони на светцииконописikoni

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Can you come over? Mon, 11 Jul 2011 04:50:38 +0000 “I didn’t really plan. Can you come over?”

“Why not?” I thought. I think I remember the way: down the wide unpaved road, right at the asphalt, left at the vegetable stand.

You’ve kindly laid out a feast, including some shredded meat that ran around this very yard about an hour ago. The freest-range chicken. The sky at dusk is distracting; bats begin to trickle along in an anemic inky stream, dispersing to find their own dinners. Mesmerizing. I could watch those wings twitch to and fro overhead all night.

Banter snaps me out of the reverie. My companions are discussing Cambodian politics (it mostly flows over and around me like water). Pot (outlawed two years ago; delicious in soup). The alarming frigidity of snowmelt (“I thought I would die!”) An excellent pick up line or two (witty juxtapositions of mirrors and pants). The costs and benefits of keeping a cat around (fewer snakes; more mosquitos). The daily rhythms of a monk’s life (hunger and peace). The proper way to add fruit to your rice wine (roast before adding, no oil).

As the night wore on, and the conversation fell away thread by thread, one singular thought remained: what luck to be surrounded by such joy, hospitality, and camaraderie.

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Journey to Beng Mealea Sun, 17 Apr 2011 05:15:57 +0000 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

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Rant from a six-hour drive Tue, 29 Dec 2009 07:32:52 +0000 Today we drove from Los Angeles to Davis, California, a six-hour drive along mostly open highway. This gave me a lot of time to think while the car zoomed along on cruise control — and many opportunities to curse the dumb design of cruise control interfaces on just about every car out there.

Cruise Control

Who designed the “standard” cruise control interface? It’s a horrible overcomplicated mishmash of awkward abbreviations and mysteriously organized functions. I can’t decide if it was put together by an over-precise engineering team or a feature-obsessed middle manager.


  • Why is the on/off switch separate from the others?1 Setting the speed requires two button presses when it should only take one.
  • What on earth is the practical difference between “off” and “cancel”?2
  • Do we really need two extra buttons to make the car go faster or slower? Cars, after all, are already graced with eminently effective and much-used speed controls. Having “accel” and “coast” buttons is like adding a joystick down on the floor so that you can steer using the feet that are left sadly idle by the operation of the cruise control.

Imagine what the cruise control UI would look like as implemented by Apple. It would be like the iPhone without the fancy screen: one button labeled ON. You hit the button, the car keeps going the current speed. Hit it again and it turns off. I can’t believe nobody has done this yet.

Cancel rant. Rant off.

1As a computer guy, I can kind of see the logic in having a separate on/off control. After all, the system is managed by a computer that needs to know whether it should be listening for commands at any given moment. Maybe, back in the dark ages of computers when cruise control was first implemented, the system may have had significant startup time, requiring a few seconds of warning to get everything in order for the “set” command. But that’s certainly not necessary today — the whole car is essentially managed by computers nowadays.

2I understand the technical difference, but it’s a stupid thing to bother the user with.

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England & Scotland Sun, 30 Aug 2009 15:44:36 +0000 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!

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The Plan Sat, 15 Aug 2009 22:06:34 +0000 Some of you may be aware that we no longer live in Japan. Hello from the suburbs of Leeds, England! I thought I’d present a brief roundup of our current situation for those not “lucky” enough to be privy to all the messy daily evolutions of our “plans.”

The most common question, of course, is: Where next?

The short answer is: We don’t know. In fact, Steph came up with a brilliant scheme to postpone that very question: travel around the world until Christmas.

Over the years we have been lucky to befriend many lovely people with penchants for world travel. So now we’re visiting them, in this rough order:

  1. UK (August): London, Oxford, Yorkshire, Edinburgh, plus brief highland road trip
  2. Europe (September): based in Berlin + side trips to Italy and Spain
  3. Moldova (October): to visit my friend all the way back to junior high, Erin!
  4. Cambodia (November): to visit our college friend Katherine!

This is a mixed work-play holiday. I called in a “favor” at work (not really, but this is — actually to the day, I think — my tenth anniversary of being hired) and got a couple months off to spread over the rest of this year. The idea is to follow a pattern of a few weeks of travel and vacation, followed by a month of “settling down” somewhere where I will get some work done and Steph will do some volunteering and planning for her own future.

Right now we’re in the UK portion of the trip. We spent a week in London, a weekend in Oxford, and are now in Yorkshire staying with our friend and fellow Noshiro ALT, Claire. Next week it’s off to Edinburgh and after that, a month in Berlin, staying in a lovely cheap apartment found on Craigslist!

In the long term, we’ll be home for Christmas — probably in California, but who knows. After that, the book is completely unwritten. Where we end up is mostly down to Steph’s job prospects, so I’ll let her write about that!

We’ll try to keep you up to date as the trip progresses!

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Back in the USSA Sat, 01 Aug 2009 00:02:25 +0000 If you’re going to move from the Middle of Nowhere, Japan back to your home country of America, there’s probably no better place than Los Angeles to fully embrace all that culture shock has to offer. Amidst the hubbub of the big city, reeling under the influence of jet lag, I had difficulty creating a coherent thought. Numb and overstimulated, I could only think: big. loud. bright. backwards.

Have I been changed in any permanent, meaningful way by my 3 years abroad? Probably, but whatever. It’s the little things I’m confronted with on a day-to-day basis that fascinate me now. Firstly, you’ll have to forgive me: I am slightly disoriented because the air doesn’t smell like fish. I am embarrassed by the degree to which I am in awe of raspberries. Portion sizes seemed to have quintupled overnight (look, a salad twice as big as your head! Good luck, friend!) Also? Flushing a public toilet by hand seems unspeakably vulgar, now that I’ve become accustomed to flushing squatters by foot.

We’re only here in the US for 3 days before we leave the country again, so I feel little need to acclimate to my homeland. Instead, I spend my time obsessing over every odd little detail. Everyone gets a menu when eating in restaurants, revolutionary! Soap and paper towels in public restrooms, brilliant! I can explain nuances clearly and competently to my doctor, fantastic!

But a more sinister side of America has started to manifest. Isn’t it unsanitary to wear one’s shoes into the bathroom? Why are you prescribing me medicine I can totally do without for $400 that I clearly can’t afford? Why, in a country fighting an epic battle with obesity, does it cost $15 to go to the gym for the day? And when I arrived in LA, I witnessed a street so clogged with traffic that a fire engine literally could not get through to its destination. How is that a workable plan? Why has this city not yet burnt down to the ground in a puff of smoke? And why does the main topic of conversation seem to be about all the stuff people have bought and how they can buy more?

It’s a novelty to be able to buy nearly anything I need with a credit card, but living in a country with tips means I can’t get rid of the spare change which increasingly weighs down my wallet. The frenzied rush of the LA freeway system, which functions on a totally different level from the equally crazy landscape of Japanese driving, also takes some getting used to.

The California public schools, I am surprised to note, are gorgeous! No prison block educational facilities here to insult the eye. Small community parks are green and luscious instead of bare patches of dirt. The backwardness of this confuses me though: it is a desert here in LA. Shouldn’t we have the parks made of dirt, and Japan have the lush green grassy expanses for kids to play on…?

And then there’s that weird SoCal phenomenon: the perfect 72-degree day with cloudless skies that stretch blue and flawless to the horizon. The first day of this weather was glorious, but after 3 days I began to get twitchy; it seemed unnatural after coming from Japan where I felt I’d been living under a little grey raincloud for 3 years. It only adds insult to injury to Noshiro, which was still probably drying out from the flood less than a week before (the second flood to hit that tiny town in two years).

Where, may I ask, are the cats on leashes? The onsens to soothe the aches and pains from lugging 80kg of luggage by hand across the Pacific? Where are the grannies bent over nearly in half with their pushcarts, elbowing people in the ribs as they plow through a crowd or brazenly stopping traffic as they meander out into the road? Where are the ubiquitous vending machines (they seem to have been replaced with an ample sprinkling of trash cans, a fair trade in my mind). And then of course, there is the soul-crushing smog, which brings us to the Californian existential question: Is it possible to fully enjoy perfect weather if you can’t see the horizon?

And not to belabor the point, but where’s my cashmoney, America? My bank seems to have vaporized sometime in the last year when I wasn’t looking. Washington Mutual, where are you? I thought you were going to meet me with flowers at the airport? I can only hope that the remnants of my life savings are floating around in the aether somewhere waiting for me to reclaim them when I return home this winter, ready to exchange cash for goods and services for my loved ones this holiday season.

A few more words on:

When I arrived in Japan, I grudgingly got the cheapest cell phone and payment plan possible. I’d never had a cell phone before, but I quickly grew to love it (you most of all, emoji!). Sadly, J-phones aren’t really designed to outlast the attention span of the average consumer (which is like 3 days), and at the end of my 3-year tenure, my phone was rebelling. The battery refused to remain charged. It also developed a rather suspicious-looking bulge which was getting bigger by the day, leaving me to nervously wonder when it was going to burst in a shower of battery acid.

Now that I’ve canceled my phone service abroad and gone through this exact process again in the states and I have to say, my new American cell phone… it sucks beans. Like an old friend I just can’t say goodbye to, my old J-phone is tucked away safely in storage. In the ruckus of repatriation however, I forgot to remove and dispose of the suspect battery. The worrisome bulge is probably still growing in my absence like some kind of space alien baby.

In Japan, there were some hoops to jump through regarding food, for sure. Everyone deals with the scarcity of non-processed cheese, for one. And zucchini can only be procured during an obscenely short interval at the end of summer (pumpkin and daikon are, of course, available at any time). Some foreign foods, like Thai and Mexican are pretty much non-existent. So when I stepped into a Trader Joe’s a few days ago, I nearly wept with joy at the diversity I saw on the shelves. However, trolling the supermarket aisles later I was overwhelmed by the mind-numbing variety: do we really need Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con Limon and Cheddar Jalapeno Cheetos? Would America be any less complete if we did away with the whole aisle in the grocery store dedicated to Oreos and perhaps replaced it with only a pack or two? The variety of edible products really seems to have proliferated to an absurd degree in our absence.

When I first moved to Japan, I found the new language overwhelming. My brain overloaded as it tried to sift through all the text seen and sentences heard and come out with something sensical. And it would grind to a screeching halt every time. After 3 years in northern Tohoku, I’ve learned to filter efficiently: focus on the pertinent, and ignore the rest. But upon arriving in LA, I find that I’m experiencing the same phenomenon all over again, only in reverse. I’m compelled to read everything, listen to everything just because I can. Advertisements for real estate. Strangers’ conversations. Sensationalist TV shows on FOX. And this effortless and immediate ability to comprehend everything is, frankly, wearing me out.

I felt the old puritanical attitudes toward alcohol come flooding back as I sat in my favorite brewery, void of ID. Imagine my embarrassment when at 32, I had to ask my dad to order beer for me. I then covertly sipped said beer from a straw because I know how fierce California establishments are about monitoring underage drinking. I’d grown complacent after all those izakaya visits and forgotten to bring either my passport or my drivers’ license. At 32, why can I not just order beer in this country? You’d think the grey hairs on my head would be proof enough (although now that I think about it, some of my 12-year-old students in Japan sport more grey than I).

For the first time in my life, I felt average-sized in Japan, as I’m only slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions there. In America, I feel categorically small again. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I can easily find clothes that fit me again (yay!) but I am no longer the bustiest girl in the room by default (boo). I’m no longer comparing myself to the stick-thin girls I was surrounded by in Japan (yay!) but I have zero visibility now when in a crowd (boo).

You may be tempted at this point to ask: Where next? All of this culture-comparing is nice and all, but where are you going to live, girl? To which my response is: Run away! Yes, I’m avoiding such weighty questions by going on the gap year adventure that I was too serious and focused to take when I was actually 22. We’ll be gone for 4-5 months (I promised the fam I’d be home this Christmas) while we visit our friends living far and wide. Hopefully, whatever comes next in life will sort itself out in the meantime.

Wish us luck, stay in touch, and see you on the other side!

While I’m slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions in Japan, in America I feel categorically small again.
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Things I will miss about Japan Sat, 11 Jul 2009 06:57:35 +0000 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.


Shinto is Japan’s home-grown polytheistic/animist belief system, which I would loosely describe as a cosmology representing nature and our place in it. In day-to-day life, Shinto manifests itself by marking places of beauty, celebrating life events, and throwing really cool festivals.

The iconic red Shinto gate is one of Japan’s best-known symbols. These shrines are so pervasive in Japanese culture that their bright red-orange color has its own kanji, 朱, translated as “vermillion” in English. Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of Shinto shrines fully makes up for the country’s otherwise ugly construction practices. Nothing spruces up a wall of concrete like a bright and cheery shrine where you least expect it. The arches themselves aren’t always beautiful — sometimes they’re made out of concrete or even metal tubes — but the very fact that they’re there means someone thought this place deserved to be commemorated, and that makes life just a little bit brighter. And shrines only get better with age: a shabby arch is just as cheering as one meticulously maintained.

TowadakoSannou Shrine GateOld Meets NewMt. KattaKyoto Close ByItsukushima Shrine

And Shinto festivals are simply fabulous. The priestly costumes are out of this world. The festivals themselves usually consist of huge groups of people getting together to do something useless but entertaining, like carrying heavy shrines across town and back, or into a waterfall. Followed, of course, by drinking (see Non-Puritanism below).

Hanawabayashi 2008The Official PhotoOn Course

Some (probably not many) may wonder why I haven’t mentioned Buddhism along with Shinto. Indeed, the boundaries between the two are essentially indistinguishable in Japan — many Buddhist temple complexes contain Shinto shrines and vice versa. But as it was wonderfully described to us by Johnnie Hillwalker in Kyoto, Buddhism deals with death, while Shinto deals with life. Buddhism is much more of an organized religion: centralized temples, cemeteries, services, chants; whereas Shinto is more about appreciating nature and and our place in it. And while I love Buddhist temples too, it’s the Shinto shrines I’m going to miss when we leave.

Effortlessly Healthy Food

Japanese people live forever, and they always seem to look about ¾ their actual age. Some of that is genetic, but it doesn’t hurt that it’s extremely easy to get good, healthy, locally-grown food in this country.

Traditional Japanese food is known for its tiny portions and intricate preparation. Just the other day, in fact, Steph’s adult English class threw a going-away party for us, which involved of one of these 和風 meals. It consisted mainly of small bits of fresh, mostly unprocessed ingredients — by which I mean not fried, or sweetened, or greased. There was raw fish and shrimp, broiled salted fish, delightfully presented veggies, a squid stuffed with rice. (I have to admit, the latter tasted alarmingly like cat food.) With this as a traditional meal, you can see how modern Japanese cuisine would still tend toward the small and simple.

We’ve got it doubly good where we are, because the food only has to travel a couple of miles from farm to plate. Every supermarket has a section devoted to local produce: mushrooms, carrots, corn, eggplants, onions, potatoes, and various leafy things. If you go to a local restaurant, your meal is likely to be made by hand from fresh ingredients (seasonal, of course), not from a package. Even Mos Burger, Japan’s home-grown McDonald’s equivalent, exhaustively lists the farms where all its vegetables are sourced.

When we moved to Japan, I immediately lost 15 pounds — 10 of them in the first month. And my weight has remained around the same since then (ignoring the spike caused by going back to America for three weeks!) with no particular effort. So while I don’t always like Japanese food, I will definitely miss the effortless healthfulness of it.

Junsai DetailNikko Lunch


It’s a cliché that living in a foreign country teaches you things about yourself that you never knew. We all grow up immersed in our native cultures, not noticing all the biases and assumptions that surround us every day. Viewing America from the other side of the world has really brought home the degree to which the country’s social mores are descended from the Puritanism of the original settlers. Even after the astonishing social progress of the 20th century, American values still show their conservative roots, which I would describe roughly as: the body is sinful (so nudity and various bodily functions are considered embarrassing or obscene), and anything pleasurable (sex, alcohol, drugs) should be banned whenever possible… or at least done behind closed doors and never mentioned in public. I’m a pretty socially liberal guy, but even so, these priorities always seemed “natural” to me, though of course I was always aware of other cultures who weren’t as uptight about certain things — for example France with sex, or Amsterdam with drugs.

If I had to distill all of America’s social norms into one basic pattern, it would be that everything is treated as a moral issue. If you offend me, you are a Bad Person. In Japan, on the other hand, things tend to be treated as issues of etiquette. If you offend me, you’re a Bad Public Citizen. Most cultural norms here seem to come down to how your actions affect the group: If you’re not hurting anybody, usually you won’t be bothered about it.

And I love it that way.

Shirakami BeerAomori NebutaI am beer machineTake alcohol. Japan is just as buttoned down as America when it comes to drugs like marijuana or anything “harder,” but alcohol is a completely different story. By American standards, most Japanese men would be considered raging alcoholics. (In my experience, women tend to drink much less than their male counterparts.) But whereas in America drinking a lot would be considered a sign of moral depravity, or at least weak will, here it seems to function mostly as a tool for relaxation — a temporary release from the more formal day-to-day strictures of Japanese society. The lack of moral judgmentalism really hits home when you see how casually alcohol is discussed in the public sphere. A few weeks ago we were doing a taiko performance at a retirement home, when our good friend Mr. Bean, who was serving as MC of the event, happily announced to the crowd of wheelchair-bound octogenarians, “Sorry I’m a bit spacey today… I drank way too much last night!” And Steph regularly encounters elementary school classes where “Do you like beer?” is one of the lesson-plan dialogs for practicing English.

One Small Step for a ManPoo yatta!Then there’s nudity. Showing body parts is just not a particularly big deal. Public baths are a societal fixture; everyone has seen a million naked strangers by the time they’re old enough to even think about it. Parents bathe with their children at home. Japanese sporting events don’t have streakers, because nobody would care.

If anything, Japan goes a bit off the deep end when it comes to their love of one piece of anatomy: the rear end. Indeed, Japan’s “butt culture” is a head-scratcher. Store windows will have cartoon blobs of poo advertising products. NHK (that’s right, the PBS of Japan) created a cartoon character called oshiri kajiri mushi (“butt-biting bug”) who has his own catchy song. One of our friends in Noshiro has a plush poo-doll sitting on her living room bookshelf. Steph’s theory on the fascination with poo is that it comes from the traditional squat toilets — in which your poo greets you, up close and personal, when you’re done.

When I set out to write this, I didn’t intend to pen a big meandering philosophical treatise on Japanese vs. American culture! And poo. Nor do I mean to imply that America is repressive or not a good place to live. Every country has its hangups, and America and Japan certainly both have them in spades. But I have found Japan’s general lack of holier-than-thou moralizing to be refreshing. I’ll remember the feeling fondly.

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Things I won’t miss about Japan Mon, 06 Jul 2009 01:00:22 +0000 It’s now less than three weeks before we leave Noshiro, our home of the last three years. In that time we have come to feel at home in Japanese culture. Like any culture, Japan’s is a combination of splendid and infuriating traits, and I’ve been tossing this idea around in the back of my head for almost our whole time here. So now that we’re approaching the end of this adventure, I wanted to commit to writing my take on the better and worse parts of living in Japan.

In the spirit of leaving the best for last, I’m going to start with the negative stuff. Some of this may come across as a snarky self-superior bitchfest; if so, that’s certainly not my intent! Indeed, my aim is to attain an Obama-like state, wherein I float serenely above mere human opinion and see all sides of an issue. Only funnier.

And so, these are the things I won’t miss about Japan, in no particular order.

Bureaucratic Culture

Imagine the most formal, structured kind of event that you possibly can. Graduation, wedding, funeral… that kind of thing. Every Japanese event is like that. Public events of any kind are invariably kicked off and concluded with interminable strings of boring, monotonic, content-free speeches. God help you if there’s a politician present.

And that’s just day to day events. Doing anything that you’d actually expect to require bureaucracy, like getting a driver’s license, is taken to an absurd degree. I was going to go into great detail here, but I can’t do it justice compared to the actual getting-a-license document prepared by and for Akita JETs, which is actually pretty entertaining reading in its absurdity — especially if you don’t have to go through the process yourself.

There’s not much more to say about this topic. It’s one of those paradoxical experiences that’s endless and annoying to live through but quick and easy to explain.


What’s that sound I hear outside? Window repairman? Fruit hawker? Opera singer? Electronics recycler? Politician running for office? All these and more have shouted at me from their cars as I try to get work done in my house during the day.

Election season is easily the worst, because every candidate will have cars out yelling his name and thank you! at top volume, all day, every day. Japanese elections are notorious for being completely content-free. You think American elections are nothing but meaningless sound bites? Japanese political campaigns usually consist of – literally – nothing more than “vote for me!” (On this subject, I’ve been wanting to watch the Japanese documentary Campaign, about a no-name guy running for office in Japan based purely on the party name, as filmed by his friend.)

And it’s not just the mobile speakermobiles. Any remotely popular destination will be thoroughly laced with loudspeakers: tourist attractions, parking lots, gas stations, stores, sometimes entire towns. It’s common, especially in small towns, for important hours (typically 9am, noon, and 5pm) to be marked by playing horribly creepy and depressing synthesized jingles throughout the town. I am extremely glad that Noshiro doesn’t do this (we just have noon air-raid-style sirens!); if they did, I don’t think we could have lasted three years.

What is it with all the public announcements? In America, we tend to view these pervasive public-announcement regimes as a distopic totalitarian-state mind-control kind of thing (e.g., Big Brother addressing the people of 1984), whereas it seems to be pretty normal for Asian cultures. Japan is as TV-addicted as any upstanding Western nation; I’m surprised they still go for the old-fashioned loudspeaker-in-the-street approach when just about every establishment you visit will have a TV on in the corner anyway.

Ugly Urbanity

Japan exports an image of ancient temples, flashy neon Tokyo skyscrapers, fast trains and Mount Fuji. While all these things do exist, the vast majority of Japanese construction consists of ugly piles of concrete held together with an unbelievable tangle of aerial wires. When they try to imitate other cultures’ architecture, it’s often an exercise in painfully cheap-looking mockery. Home interior lighting more often than not consists of a single fluorescent light hanging in the middle of each room. I’m not the only person who has noticed this. This Japan Times article from last year laments the same phenomenon.

I’m not a keen enough student of history to know exactly when Japan started to slide from traditional beauty to unfortunate modernity. But I’m guessing it was around the time the new parliamentary government was established after the war. The Japanese government often appears to exist for no other reason than to hand out useless projects to the construction industry. They’re particularly good at expressways and airports. Our nearest airport, Odate-Noshiro, built just a few years before we arrived, handles a load of — wait for it — two round-trip flights a day. One to Tokyo, one to Osaka. We like this airport because it has free parking and is so empty that you can get from your car to the gate in about 10 minutes. But it certainly doesn’t make any economic sense. But that’s still better than the new Ibaraki airport which is scheduled to open next year. No airlines will agree to fly to it.

So, I blame Japan’s “constructionocracy” for the ugly predominance of concrete throughout the country. We are fortunate to live in a sparsely populated corner of the country, an area filled mostly with rice fields. But I’m happy to say that beautiful scenery is never far away, even in the extremely densely-populated southern half of the country. This spring we took the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo, a four-hour ride through a region that is home to 50 million people — almost twice the population of California! And throughout that ride, I was repeatedly amazed at the procession of lovely little fields and valleys going by the window. People will plant rice fields absolutely anywhere they will fit. You can find them if you step around the cinder-block walls and the tobacco vending machines, and follow those little back alleys toward the flashes of green glimpsed between buildings.

There’s No “No” There

This is one of those common stereotypes about Japanese etiquette that happens to be completely true: they won’t say “no.”

In many instances, there’s no real harm in this. You’ll ask a question, and instead of receiving “no” as an answer, you’ll get the famous “teeth-sucking” reaction, which consists of:

  1. Grit teeth
  2. Cast eyes downward
  3. Incline head slightly downward and to the side
  4. Inhale slowly through your teeth so as to make a hissing sound

You can’t go through a day in Japan without getting this a few times. It’s never a reaction you want to see, but you can just translate it to “sorry, no” in your head and get on with life.

Where the no-”no” phenomenon really gets evil in the service sector. It’s a bit of a paradox, because Japanese service is rightfully renowned the world over for its obsequious treatment of the customer. (We’ve certainly missed that kind of customer service when visiting other countries on holidays these last few years.) But the great service has a sinister side, which comes out in certain not-uncommon situations: when you’re the customer who wants something, and the service-person doesn’t have it. The cynical translation of the resulting process is: “We know we can’t help you, but we have to pretend to try for as long as possible, so that you can see we did our absolute best to help you, the customer, who is most important.”

This was more of a problem in the beginning, before we figured out the pattern. Our first real experience with this issue was trying to get cell phones a few days after arriving in Noshiro. We went to the phone shop and started the ball rolling, merrily filling out forms and all that other stuff you have to do to get a phone contract. We were helped by an absolutely delightful young woman who assured us that we’d be out of there in no time.

Three hours later, we left the store tired, annoyed, and phoneless. You see, you can’t get a phone contract unless you have a foreigner-ID card. And we didn’t have those yet, since they take a few weeks to be issued. The shop clerks probably knew this the second we walked in the door. And if they didn’t (which is possible, because there’s a decent chance they’d never signed up a foreigner before), then the two or three different English-speaking national reps they put me on the phone with most certainly did. But to simply state that fact up front, when it became clear we didn’t have the necessary documents, would have been too direct.

That was certainly the most time-wasting incidence of the “pretend to help” pattern. But it can rear its head even in situations so simple that you’d never expect there could be any confusion. Like when we were grocery shopping and asked a clerk if they had salsa. He ended up leading us around the store for 10 minutes, going up and down every aisle with us before sadly declaring that apparently they don’t have salsa.

This pattern can get almost farcical when combined with Japan’s extreme commercial seasonality. Japanese products are insanely seasonal, often only being on shelves for a number of weeks before being retired to make way for the next big temporary thing. The trouble is, you never know if the wonderful morsel you’ve just discovered is one of these seasonal products, or if it’s a mainstay you’d just never noticed before. This kind of quick product turnover happens even in restaurants, where we’re occasionally hit by a favorite item disappearing off the menu without warning. Invariably this happens right when we’ve gotten comfortable enough at the restaurant to stop looking at the menu, leading to the slightly embarrassing (for all sides) situation:

  1. Customer: I’ll have X
  2. Waiter: Certainly! I’ll just write that down here.
  3. C: That’s all, thanks!
  4. W: Oh wait! I’ve just realized I don’t know what you ordered.
  5. C: It’s the same thing I’ve been ordering for months!
  6. W: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
  7. C: It’s right here in the menu… <flip flip flip>
  8. C: Expletive deleted, it’s gone.
  9. W: Oh, that! Yeah, we stopped selling that yesterday.
  10. C: <grumble>

(I must admit the exchange above was influenced by this piece by Thomas Dillon in the Japan Times.)

Experiences like these have essentially taught us never to ask for help from anyone who looks like their job is to be able to help you, unless we know for 110% sure that they know the answer to our question.

Of course, me being a stereotypical guy, I almost never ask for help or directions anyway, so the whole thing is really just reinforcing my existing instincts.

End of Rant

Stay tuned for a high-sucrose summary of more pleasant things in the next few weeks!

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