Previous:...Just like I Pictured it? - Travelogue - Home

Date: 27 June, 2003
Time: 20:48
Subject: Sushi-Go-Round

A couple of the Nova teachers organized a party in Moriguchi with some of their Japanese friends from which I have just returned.  There were maybe twenty people gathered around a table, low to the ground, over tatami mats.  It was a private party and we occupied the upstairs of a set-price restaurant (everything is 290 yen).  Half spoke nearly no Japanese, half spoke nearly no English.  Everyone was drinking and most were smoking.  They are still there as I write this, drinking and smoking, and some of them have to be at work in the morning.  I caught one of the last trains home in an effort to be responsible, though most of them are going to be their till dawn at least.  I'm not sure what all I ate; some of it was raw; sashimi, some octopus perhaps, some chicken.  Vegetarianism is nearly impossible in this country.  Tofu was served... Another form of sashimi...  As the night went on, more and more people crowded in.  We began kneeling at the table; the Japanese were the first to sit cross-legged, or with one knee up.  I knelt for a while, but its impossible to stay that way for more than an hour.  Eventually, everyone was just sitting however they could manage, and the cushions on the matts were more of a hendrance than a comfort.  Drinking games ensued.  I downed a vodka drink in a race to which I was challenged... Fortunately I had the excuse of needing to catch the last train or it coulda gotten ugly.

But I'm back to drinking Saki, sitting alone in my apartment, writing to y'all.  Doncha just feel the love. 

Today I went bowling.  Near where I will be working is a bowling alley, and I had to check it out.  400 yen a game, 250 yen for shoe rental.  The balls were, of course, crap, but on my third game I managed to eek out a 160.  That was fun... There are, actually, bowling alleys everywhere; (now I regret not bringing my ball).  You see, today was another recon day.  Not only did I get my "Certificate of Alien Registration," but also applied for my "Alien Registration Card."  I met one of my two new roomates, saw my new apartment in Yamishima, visited the school I will be working at in Ishiyama, began my explorations of the greater Kyoto area, and, well, got a grip on the situation now at hand...

Ishiyama is totally the sticks, yo.  A small temple town at the bottom of Lake Biwa.  Run down, back-waters temple town.  Complete with bowling alley.  Yamashina is more like the suburbs of Kyoto.  Lots of old people, a really nice supermarket, a great subway stop.  And Kyoto's main train station is one of the sweetest examples of modern architecture I've ever seen.  I will do a photo shoot of that soon.  It is awesome.  Um.  But the "gem o' the day" has to be the temple beside my new apartment.  Its a non-descript, local temple in a region renowned for its temples.  If I had to guess I'd say it was "zen" but I have no tools to sort that out yet.  The grounds of the temple encompass two sides of my new apartment building, and the doors on the temple were unlocked, paper doors.  So I could walk right in in the middle of the day, sit down, and meditate.  Nice.  Nobody asked any questions, or even noticed I was there.  A group of Old ladies were meeting for afternoon tea, from what I could gather.  But otherwise, nobody was there.  In the back, a small enclosed area with some beautiful gardens, immaculately kept, but nothing too special so that it would draw the scourge of tourists.  Just another beautiful garden way off the beaten path.  In the distance, across the street, on the fifth floor of a highschool looking building, I could just see a kendo class being conducted; and from the "Hai's" they apeared to be school children learning the art.  I will be living in suburban, authentic Japan.

My first impression of Kyoto was not so favorable.  Shops line the main streets selling way overpriced "handicrafts" marketed to tourists.  A very overt tourist focus to the city.  It is, after all, the favorite city of the Japanese, and one of the oldest.  I didn't get to explore much, but I got a feel for the place;  it's comparatively small, the rivers form defensive barriers, with the chanellized river embankments doubling as fortifications on the city proper.  For a thousand years, this was the Imperial city after all.  From what I can tell, my apartment is about a forty-five minute walk from the center of its nightlife (Gion--haven't been their yet).  Yet, since its on the other side of a range of hills, I therefore live in a neighboring town.  Still, its nice to know that if I miss the last train, all is not lost, and I don't have to resort to the extortion of a Japanese cab.  (like taking a cab from Manhattan to Long Island or something...). 

Alien Registration.  That's what you have to do when you live in Japan.  You apply for your Alien Registration.  But in order to conduct business immediately, instead of waiting for the paperwork to go through, you apply separately for you "certificate" of alien regestration.  Funny terms.  But it was simple, straightforward and an efficient process. Went to the Yamashina Ward office, showed my passport, and a very friendly man who insisted I not call him 'sir' took care of everything in about fifteen minutes... 

The school I will be working in has about five teachers.   In the summer it is slow.  Most classes are one or two on one.  Intimate.  Low-level students mostly.  The teachers are fairly jaded as to the materials we are given; as they should be.  Nova uses a series of texts that were produced to teach emigrating Mexicans American English in the 70's.  So all the idioms are somewhat old-fashioned.  All the "small talk" is something out of a movie.  All the jokes are way too old.  However, the instructors pay little heed to the "intended" material, and instead, produce their own.   Which I suppose is better anyway.  I guess that's the deeper meaning behind why they haven't gone to the effort of updating the teaching material...  In the end the teaching method involves a fair bit of bluffing...  Nevertheless, there is a format, which is as follows:

Ice Breaker
  • Introduce oneself, and get the students talking with each other. 
  • NO Japanese allowed in the lessons.
  • Typically a game is used, like a die with question words written on each side; or a tic tac toe board with words they have to use in sentences in each square.   Anything goes at first.  Just get them to not be so goddamn serious about learning for a change...


  • Bring in the Target Structure (TS) and the Topic for discussion, subtlely; this is something like getting them to use past perfect tense; but you don't say that;  you just get them speaking in past perfect tense without realizing it...
  • Don't correct mistakes yet.  Just find out what mistakes they are making.
Picture Speculation
  • Every lesson has a picture and text.  Picture speculation is just that; from the picture, what do they suppose is happening?  What's going on? 
Listening Pre-task
  • Give them something to listen for in the text; a series of questions involving the Target Structure, the object of the lesson.
  • Read the text aloud in normal inflection, conversationally;  ACTING; thank you!
Post Listening Task
  • Ask the questions given before.
Listen and Repeat
  • Select sentences from the Text that include the target structure for the lesson (i.e. sentences in the past perfect tense; never use that label though...)
  • Have them use a static sentence, varying only the pronoun, or going from singular to plural, etc... simple excersizes
Silent Reading
  • Have them read the text (just modeled) silently to themselves.
Vocab Check
  • just that...
Question and Answer
  • Have them ask eachother questions about the text, or
  • ask them questions to make sure they understood.
  • Invent a game that will get them using the Target Structure
  • for example:  "Imagine you are at a dinner party; you two be the hosts, you two be the guests" 
  • Now, to make it more fun, tell the guests they are having a spat, and the hosts that they just accidentally ruined the dinner they were preparing...
  • this is really the focus for the lesson
  • the instructor (sensei, me) gives the instructions, and then listens passively, (ideally) while they converse amongst themselves.
  • The hardest part.
  • Correct their glaring errors as politely as possible (the Japanese are an overly sensitive people to criticism.  You don't want them running off and commiting sepuku on you, after all...)
  • Ask if they have another class next, so you can get their paperwork done first and hand it off to the next teacher.

So that's it.  Now you know how to be a Nova instructor... Oh wait.  The most important stage is to throw all these instructions away and do whatever you feel like.  But nevertheless, this is the format for which you will be called to task.  In the end, your job is to get the student speaking English, which, since they don't do it well, they are hesitant to do.  We are paid to get them to overcome their social conditioning.... Funny, huh.

Date: 30th June, 199uh 2003
Time: Quarter to eleven

The hardest part about my job is getting the young, insecure, Japanese girls to talk.  Imagine a fourteen year old girl; shy, insecure, afraid of the unknown, doubled with a culture wherein making mistakes is STRICTLY forbidden.  A culture where mistakes are viewed explicitly as a defect of character.  It's like pulling teeth getting young girls to talk.  Now compound the problem (for me) by making them excrusiatingly cute, and you see what I'm up against.  Not all the Japanese girls are shy, though.  Some are beautiful and outgoing and my age.  That's when self-control becomes a REAL discipline.  There is a real morality issue about the teacher-student relationship which cannot be ignored.  One in a position of power, one in a possition of submission, one looking to the other for guidance and support, encouragement and elucidation.  One living in a culture where its extremely hard not only to get a girl to talk to him, but where she more often than not is incapable of communicating, and he... oh well, we all saw THIS coming...

Overall, I love my job.  I'm paid something on the order of, what, 10-15 dollars an hour for conversation?  I have a lot in common with a geisha in that respect.  She'd make more I think, but then so would I with formal training...  I have eight classes a day, zero prep time between classes, and simply have to improvise whenever we hit a lull.  I read a stupid text in every class, and am encouraged to "act out" the parts; be they a boss and his secretary, a mom and her son, or three contestants on a gameshow.  Here.  I'll scan a couple of the lessons:

So This is where the fun begins.  These are two fairly low-level lessons, for students who are still thinking in Japanese, translating in their head, and then spitting out close approximations of English.  7C's have next to no ability, 7A's you can begin to have a conversation with, and 6's are able to form coherent thoughts.  By level 5 they are able to have conversations, and your average native English-speaking college student should be at level 1. 

More often than not, by level 5 they have realized the texts are shit and are more anxious to simply have a conversation than anything else.  I had one student at level 7A who ended up by himself with me in a lesson.  I asked what he did for a living and WARNING: <GEEKTALK>he said he worked for NTT, the local telephone company.  I asked what did he do there; he said he was an Engineer.  Again, I asked, but what do you DO;  He said he was an architect, and his English started breaking down.  So again, I asked, yes, but what do you DO!  I told him I worked in Network Security.  He looked a little scared, and a little thrilled.  He told me he works in the NTT Infrastrusture, designing routing and switching, and is involved with next-generation research and development, deciding the scalability of various high-level IP protocols;  When I mentioned that my company worked with MPLS/GRE he started sweating.  I asked what equipment he worked with and told him the Engineers who designed my network hated Cisco, and chose Junipers and Riverstones instead; he laughed.  You should have seen this guy sweat trying to fight through the language barrier at that point.  We ended up drawing network diagrams and giggling like school girls. I explained the term "Intrusion Detection" to him, firewalls, and so forth.  I was excited for I had found my niche in the ESL-teaching world...  In retrospect, I regret not asking for his card (strictly vorboten in working for NOVA; but I'd make probably fifty dollars an hour in private lessons of this caliber...) </GEEKTALK>

ANYWAY... wow, this is long already, and I haven't even opened my notebook... it 23:41.  Y'all are in for a hell of a ride...  Let's talk about sex.  One of the creepiest sides of Japanese culture I've discovered thus far is the ubiquity of brothels.  They are public, forthright, and everywhere.  The prices usually start around 5,000 yen for 30 minutes, but I've seen them advertised on the streets as low as 3,500.  I've seen signs, in Japanese, which have twelve girls in lingeree, four or five with "500 yen discount" written in red beside they're face.  Most of them are confined to the greater Umeda (central downtown) area and Shinsaibashi area, however, just tonight I realized what was going on at a bar in my own little neighborhood of Kayashima.  If there is a whorehouse in THIS tiny little, nowhere subway stop neighborhood, then they literally must be all over Osaka, if not Japan.  On one street in Shinsaibashi I actually walked for three blocks where girls were soliciting for "massaGEE" in person; Their pimps were pretty obvious as well.  I had realized days before that in Kyobashi two blocks from where I've been working, the large covered street with pachinko parlors everywhere, probably was also a red-light district, and some of my co-workers testified to being accosted by pimps and whores.

Its one of the most interesting aspects of Japanse culture that is often overlooked.  When people try to pass off Geishas as whores, they forget that this society until recently was as caste-based as India.  Within the last 100 years, they have tried to move away from this deep-rooted trend.  Now, a Geisha is not just a high-priced whore.  She is a cultivated, sophisticated, and educated woman.  There is not the stigma associated with prostitution in Japan as in the rest of the world, a prosititute is simply a prostitute;  There are also cafe' girls who work at certain establishments; bar girls who get paid 30 dollars an hour for their company, to giggle and look cute.  They are not prostitutes.  Nor are Geishas.  Prostitutes are everywhere, and they are cheap.  If you are looking for sex, you don't have to look far, and you don't have to pay the going rate for a Geisha.  Its sorta like fruit.  In Japan, your average honeydew melon is about 380 yen.  However, at the finer grocery stores, you have gift-boxed melons on a bed of straw with ribbons selling for 3,500 yen, 5,000 yen, and 15,000 yen.  Why would you pay 150 dollars for a melon when you could just as easily pay 3.50?   The sex industry in Japan is based on the same rationale.  The basic melon is cheap.  Quality is extrodinarily subjective and expensive.  What a Geisha is paid for is not the sex, but the thrill of the chase. 

Another interesting aspect to Japan is liquor vending machines.  Or more often, beer vending machines.  This is not as surprising as one might think.  First of all, they are usually attached to a liquor store;  they close around ten p.m. with the store.  And they sit beside cigarette vending machines.  The oddity is resolved when you consider that, by and large, like the Mormons, the Japanese do what they're told.  Kids don't rebel in adolescence as they do in western nations.  They have one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  They are genetically diverse, but nearly everyone in Japan is Japanese to the core.  I see Samoan blood, Philippeno blood, Thai blood, Chinese blood, Korean blood, Vietnamese blood, but they are all Japanese.  With a homogenous population comes some greater conviniences;  No one tries to scam easily scammable systems.  They do what they are told.  They are a responsible people, and so bars are able to stay open all night for private parties.  Vending machine and cigarette machines are able to be unsupervised on the streets.  The smoking and drinking age is 20, and you don't see roving packs of hoodlems on the street taking advantage of the permissible public drinking.   All the punks I've seen so far look really nice, clean, and fashionable with their piercings and crazy hair.

The homogeneity is startling. Starteling.  err.. anyway, everything is the same.  There are like ten different kinds of Japanese restaurants, and they all function according to the same rules.  "Ethnic" cuisine is rare.  You don't see Indian restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Thai Restaurants, etc. very often.  Fancy restaurants unabashedly advertise 5000 yen entrees as if its a great privilege to pay that much.  Yet there are an entire range of set-price restaurants where everything is 100 yen or 150 yen or 280 yen for EVERYTHING on the menu, from beer to skewers of meat.  My favorite places are the conveyor belt sushi.  Most of them are 100 yen a plate.  You eat X number of plates, tell the cashier on the way out, and they take your word for it.  There are also, or so I've heard but not yet seen, conveyor belt sushi restaurants which color-code the plates based on price.  The 100 yen per plate sushi restaurants ALL have, when sitting, cups above your head with teabags, and hot water taps for every two seats.  The pickled ginger is on the table.  The wet-napkins wrapped in plastic are on the conveyor belt, along with the wasabi, either in packets or a jar.  The sushi is most often actually sashimi.  They typically have the same offerings:  Salmon, tuna, squid, Sea urchin (umi), crab, roe, and a few things I'm at a loss to describe.  Tonight I had a strange yellow, translucent thingy that was kind of cruchy and flakey;  I'm still trying to imagine what it would look like swimming around.  They also all make an omelette, roll it up, and slice it like sashimi.  I think the green paste-stuff is a form of pate. 

Restaurants here use chicken and hotdog as if they were spices.  Ham is everywhere.  Its nearly impossible to find a dish that doesn't involve meat.  A popular dish is rice, wrapped in egg; the rice usually has chicken or hotdog mixed, and it is topped with various sauses; but at the bottom-end restaurants, its just katsup on top.  What I've been doing is walking around, looking at all the window displays of fake-food dishes they prepare, and picking the one that involves the least meat.  Mushrooms are often a substitute for meat.  Tofu is in no way an indication of a meat free dish; in fact, when they sell a "tofu burger" the tofu is usually mixed with chicken for flavor.

The trains.  The train network puts the rest of the world to shame.  You literally set your watch by the train's time;  its more accurate than  More relevant, at least.  The Keihan line (Kei from Kanji for Kyoto, Han, somehow from Kanji for Osaka) on which I live, has a local train, a semi-express, a sub-express, an express, and a limited express line.  The former makes every stop; the next skips every stop between Kyobashi and Moriguchi.  The Sub-express stops at Moriguchi and then skips the next five stops to Kayashima where I live; then hits every stop to... err somewhere.  The express Moriguchi, the stop after Kayashima and then the next five stops.  The Limited Express stops twice between Kyobashi (at the edge of Downton Osaka) and Kyoto.  In short its a progressive skipping of stops, with One or two hubs at which you can cross over to the local for the stop you actually live at.  Its taken me a week to see the inner perfection of the system.  The efficiency is breathtaking.  The Keihan Line effectively makes all stops up to an hour from Osaka nearly equidistant.  And advertisements for housing complexes will make an effective image include a picture of the limited express in the background and pretty woman in the fore.  It take 35 minutes by limited express to get from Kyoto to Osaka.  It takes 20 minutes for me to take the Sub-express from Kayashima to Osaka.  I now live maybe 50 kilometers from Kyoto, and the difference in time for the commute is only fifteen minutes.

I visited my future apartment in Yamashina the other day.  All I'll say right now is that in the adjacent temple I almost stepped on the pidgeons, they are so sedate. 

Another startli...startel... curious thing is the interaction between Japanese and their cellphones.  On any train there will be a handful of people with their nose burried in their phone.  Many are playing games, some are sending messages.  One thing that's worth noting is that these people have three alphabets; two have more than forty characters and the third has two thousand.  So how do they use a keyboard?  Well, the Japanese keyboard has about 109 keys to our 102 key keyboard.  The extra four keys adequately compensate for the extra thousand or so characters.  What happens is that different keys in combination produce all the Kanji, using certain bases and conventions.  One key switched to hirigana, the other to katagana, the other to Kanji.  The alpha keys are printed with the roots of the Kanji, or whatnot.  Now.  Take text messaging on one's phone.  Its not such a leap from a keypad of ten keys to one of a hundred keys, when in the end you have to get to several thousand characters (do the math if you're inclined; its a difference of one or two keystrokes).  Thus, for a Japanese person to send an email by phone or by 109 key keypad is not such a drastic difference.  Wheras for us, its a royal pain in the ass.  I don't see many people walking around talking on their phone; not nearly like in the states.  They are much too private a people for that.  However; you'll see them devotedly and laboriously entering text messages.  Now;  consider all that keypad work and put a camera on the phone.  Every phone that's given away today with introductory service has a camera.  If... still with me?  If, you are doing all this keypad work ANYWAY, hitting twelve keys to get to a word; its not such a leap to hit a few more buttons and attach a photo to your message.  Voila.  A new and alien cultural phenomenon.  For us, its a pain and slow to catch on; for them, not so much.

Bowing:  I talked briefly about bowing.  I saw a strange thing the other day.  A train conductor, passing from car to car, was bowing as he entered each car and bowing as he left.  He was wearing a uniform and a tie.  What does this say about Japanese culture.  When I was in my training session in Downtown Osaka, there was a meeting going on in an adjacent meeting room.  All the office workers who came in were dressed in identical navy suits.  All the girls were dressed alike.  About four or five of the men bowed when they walked in through the door, and bowed when they left.  What does this say about Japanese culture?

Bureaucracy.  Japanese are fanatics about it.  Paperwork is almost as much the national religion as Buddhism; if not moreso.  (speaking of which, there is a temple in Umeda which has a prayer vending machine.  Deposit a 100 yen coin and it spits out a piece of paper with your fortune, which you then tie to a nearby tree in a meticulous knot.)  When I went to apply for my bank account today, I had my name written "Hudson Cress."  When I handed her my Certificate of Alien Registration it was printed "Cress Hudson Palmer" as on my passport.  I had to fill out a new form.  This is very common.  The japanese are fanatics about staying in the lines on forms, about dotting every i and crossing every t, and not crossing your 7's or 0's.  My bank application was in quintuplicate.  I didn't even try to use my "hanko" and she didn't even suggest that I do.  I handed her my signature stamp, she inked it, tested it, wiped it off, inked it again, stamped the form, wiped it off, and handed it back to me.  I was mesmerized as if I had witnessed a tea ceremony.

There is also a surplus of extraneous staff whom in America would be the first on the budjet-cutting chopping block.  There are parking attendants in pairs, elevator attendants in pairs, doormen in pairs, train conductors in pairs.  Officious positions only occur in pairs.  Everyone wears a uniform it seems; one of the long-time NOVA teachers (a westerner) who's been in Japan a while (too long?) tried to very subtly and politely suggest that I dressed a little "too nicely" and pointed out that most of the rest of them wore short sleeve white or light blue shirts and simple ties, as if to indicate that there was an "unnofficial uniform"  I very politely and subtly suggested that he "fuck off."

ENGRISH for the day:

(seen on a woman's teeshirt at the bank)

I have a correction to make.  In an emotional past posting I implied that I descend from a long-past slave-owning family... This is not true.  There is nothing in the family history to indicate that my family ever owned slaves.  Aunt Peggy and Laura, I admit I was wrong to imply as much.  (ya see, my dad caught some heat from his sisters for "leading me to believe" this...).  Strictly speaking, my family is ALSO not responsible for the invasion of Iraq.  We are not responsible for the dark past of Southern slavery, nor for more modern United States Hegemony.   My bloodline is clean of American Imperialist decision makers and Southern aristocratic slave-holders.  However, what I was trying to convey in the above sited passage is that I believe in a very, very wide sphere of responsibility where no one privileged by a culture can cast a blind eye on their past or present; no American's hands are clean of the blood spilt in Iraq or Afganistan, nor of any of the injustices commited to provide the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.  I believe the psychic and karmic baggage of these things are passed on; to quoth The Good Book, "the sins of the fathers will be passed on to even the sixth generation" or something like that.  My point is, as a southerner, I carry the weight of my heritage, my nationality, my society and culture with me, even here in Japan...  Furthermore, when you study race relations in the south, the payment for "my family's" past inhumanities play themselves out every day.  There is still a scar in America known as the Bible Belt, which outsite of America is synonymous with bigotry and racism.  And even though I run to the other side of the planet, that albatross still hangs from my neck.  These are my people.  Look what we did.  Look what we are doing now.  One world, under the leadership of a man with an IQ of 90.   (...and on the flip side, good riddence to the Taliban and Saddam. What a bunch of fuckers they were.  The world is a complicated place).

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