Travelogue - Home

Date: 22 September, 2003
Time: 21:58
Subject: The Scent of Nostalgia

Fall fell and Nostalgia filled the air. Immediately the remembrance of times past, every place I've been in this season; many falls have I spent on the road, or starting school.  Twice moving with my parents, fall was the new beginning, bittersweet welcome for a foreigner at Pine View and East Mecklenburg.  Struggling to make new friends and leave the past in the past.  Twice I started new colleges in the fall.  Appalachian Mountains and Rocky mountains.   No less than five falls have been spent on the road, in New England, India, Thailand,  Boone...  Remembering places and faces long since past.  The youthful faces of my friends, and the friends long since lost.  This fall I was surprised by an old friend who found this site and contacted me.  Welcome back Tracy!  We missed you...  Fall is for reflection; Winter, introspection; Spring brings rebirth, and Summer, fruition.  Fall just fell and the scent of Nostalgia awoke me with its cool embrace.

I have crossed the three month mark in Japan.  To celebrate, I taught diagramming sentences.  It was exhilarating.  Tapping fifteen year old memories -- from Tenth Grade -- of my most obese and oldest-fashioned English teacher (anyone remember her name?), who bucked "modern learning" in favor of traditional education.  Thanks to her, I could respond to my own student's request to explain SVOO or  "subject, verb, object, object" sentence formation.   You must understand that most teachers would bluff a little, and change the subject, but not I.  I had been lying in wait of this moment, and grasped inspiration's horns.   I pulled from my "alternate lessons" folder, an article titled "Is Buddhism the new Prozac?"  It contained paragraph long sentences in scientific journalistic fashion.  I read a sentence to her and said, "find the verb."  You see, in English, no matter how complex the sentence may become, there is always, and must always be a single verb around which the entire contrived construction must pivot.  I then instructed her in reducing the sentence to its core elements; from there, everything becomes bite sized chunks. 

Linguistically it is amazing that we can speak at all... As the latest clever spam reveals, we can actaully wirte any wihch way and sitll be udnesrootd.  Maybe.  But what is fascinating is probing the limits of linguistic understanding.  As native English speakers, we take so much for granted.  It's hard to know our own language-- I'd argue 'impossible' -- without teaching it to a non-native speaker, or at least learning a non-Latin language fluently.  I, for one, have become fascinated by the function of prepositions (in, to, at, for, under, below, down).  Japan has a rough equivalent in "no, ni, wa, ga, o", etc.   But these always follow nouns instead of verbs... Verbs always come at the end of the sentence, forcing the listener to wait to the end of the sentence to know what in the hell the other might be talking about.  If one what one was talking about said, then we would a heck of a time have eachother's sentences completing.  Interesting.  I've photocopied 40 pages one Adverbs, Articles, and Prepositions.  For as few parts of speech as there are, language is a maze.  So I would have to say, that for all the "teaching" I do, my primary task each day is learning english.  And occasionally picking up new vocabulary in Nihongo. 

But back to Japan.  Historically, Kanji was for boys, and Hiragana for "illiterate" girls.  As time wore on, the gender/education divide was broken down so that now, 80 percent of a document is written in Hiragana and 20 percent is written in Kanji.  Kids these days are learning less and less Kanji since the computer or mobile phone fills in the Kanji from the typed hiragana.  So while they can read Kanji, the ability to produce it is diminishing.  So why do they still use Kanji?  There are an inordinate amount of homonyms in Japanese, and without the kanji, which "to" or "san" or "ko" one is referring to gets confusing.   So while several Kanji are verbally identical, the written form is explicit in meaning.  The confusion is doubled however, because each Kanji has its Chinese reading and its Japanese reading (kanji for mountain = Yama [JP] and San [CN]).  Thus, Kanji is more clear, and less understood..   Or What is written is easier but more obscure?  I donno.  Still working it out.   The net result is that Kanji is still useful and the average Japanese speaker recognizes about 2000 out of some 15,000+ kanji.   Words in Japanese are composed of most often two Kanji, but often three or Four.  Sometimes a single Kanji is used.  It should be remembered however that There are no spaces between words in writing...  Just to keep it interesting.   And, technically, yes, Japanese can be written entirely in Kanji, but you look like a nerd if you do.

One of the surest signs that I've been here long enough is that it seems absurd to me to use a fork to eat spaghetti.  Chopsticks and a bowl really is the only system that makes sense.  However, my friends assure me that spaghetti should be eaten with a fork, and Soba or Udon should be eaten with chopsticks.  Last night I was feeling really cool cause I had a traditional Japanese dish of cold tofu with ginger and spring onion  My students today told me that was a summer dish, and that now it was autumn, so the tofu should be hot.  And I shouldn't use Soy sauce (shoyu) but rather a prepared sauce using citron vinegar and soy sauce (Ponzu).  I explained that, as a hippie, I disdained using prepared sauces and would they please explain to me how to make it.  They said, take citron vinegar and soy sauce and mix it.  This should explain to you somewhat the steepness of the learning curve for living in Japan...

Autumn.  It arrived as punctually as a Japanese train.  The twenty first was a cloudy and rainy day, which cleared over night, revealing fall skies, crisp air, a stiff breeze, and the invariable smell of nostalgia.   I have moved into my own apartment and live alone for the first time since 1993, having signed a lease and everything.  It was a shit-hole when I moved in, but two weeks of cleaning and painting and it looks just like a Starbucks with tatami mats.  Its a 1LDK, the bedroom is a six mat room (roku-jo) and the living room is a four 1/2 mat room.  This translates to 12X8' and 8x8' respectively  The kitchen is also similarly proportioned, which makes it in all perfectly proportioned for myself, my two laptops, two futons, and small library of books.  I painted the bedroom Avocado green, with the south wall cream, The living room and Kitchen are cream as well, with the bathroom area painted a deep reddish brown, which, come to think of it, it's closer to red than brown.  Also, the cabinets over the sink are the same reddish-brown  (Sienna?).  out of the front door I see a bamboo forest, which is very melodic in breezy Autumn.  Out my bedroom window I see the neighboring houses,  and above them, hills which lead to mount Hiei.  The location is beautiful.  I am on the small hill that divides Yamashina from Kyoto, proper.  Which puts me within easy walking/skateboarding distance of Kyoto.   I have a table and an Alter as my only furniture.   And a fan with a remote control.  Everything in Japan has a remote control.

In this country, a refrigerator and stove count as furnishings, so I guess technically, it is a furnished apartment.  But among the stranger synchronicities of my new apartment is that is came with a stereo amplifier and speakers.  Joy!  The soundtrack for my new apartment is "The Ramones."  I really have become more and more punk rock, the older I become.  I'm calling myself 30 now.   And lately, all I really want to listen to is punk.  The Donnas, Social Distortion, The Damned.  And of course Johnny Cash.  Why he is punk rock is up to you to sort out.  I can only afford to drink cheap sake, which seems punk rock somehow; 780 yen for a 1.8 litre box.  "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" is always in my head.  My apartment is furnished almost completely from the 100 yen store.  Which is totally punk rock.  Also, I'm dumpster diving again.  The variety of things available from the 100 yen store is stunning.  I have dishes, bath mats, chop sticks, utensils, etc.  My favorite Sake is Oni Garoshi, cause that means "Demon Killer" and has a red demon on the box and really sexy Kanji. 

The sheer concept that I own an iron and ironing board, dishes, and bath mats is somewhat disturbing, however.

Also included in the package of this apartment is a variety of spiders that would make an entomologist drool.  The most impressive are these huge scary looking green ones.  I've been de-spiderifying the building, cause as cool as they are, they make the place look creepy.   Fortunately, most of the bugs are staying outside, these days. 

People.  Lets talk about the cast of characters in my life.  No, on second thought, lets not.  Its too confusing, cause I never know who's gonna be reading this...

Today I had a good conversation with some students.  I... don't really have the energy to go into it here and now, but basically, High School in Japan doesn't contain the same severity of clique-ish-ness that American Highschools do.  Maybe three or four big groups per class... Also, people feel really really uncomfortable expressing individuality.  Everyone wears the same suit to work, for to do differently would sorta be open rebellion.  One man pointed to the off-grey shirt I was wearing and said if he were to wear it to work he would be considered an outsider and would feel uncomfortable.  The other student was a Jazz pianist, and she said she feels most Japanese when she's doing what her friends are doing.  To act outside the norms is uncomfortable, and socially demoralizing. 

In the end, Japan fundamentally lacks the social subcultures that allow a person to break away as in America.  Where would I be without Boone and the comfortable conformity of Hippie Culture.  Or Seattle and the jaded discontent of Hipster culture, or Boulder and its quasi-spiritual new-ageyness?  These three environments shaped who I am by providing a new framework to mould myself into.  Each circumstance emboldened me, by giving me a different framework to conform and rebel within.  In every case I have been as conformist as the Japanese,  but there were options about what to conform to or who.  In my life I've found the freedom I have by laterally drifting from culture to culture.  Lately I've found the International Traveler archetype to aspire to.  I identify now to the extremely rare world-traveler subculture; an international subculture.  My subculture rarely meets outside certain third-world travel destinations.  Its a subculture of loners, solo travelers, people craving radical independence, incapable of maintaining steady relationships or jobs, and yet still a paradigm to be conformed to; modelled loosely on Kerouak and his antecedents..  Hence, I am following one of the scripts; Teaching English in Japan. 

I'm trying to meet Japan with a sympathetic eye, instead of a critical one.  I want to identify with the culture rather than to alienate myself from it.  And yet, it is daunting to realize that conformity is a virtue in Japan; the radical thinker is discouraged.  Perfection of an accepted system or concept is the norm,  but, innovation, truly speaking, is very un-japanese.   Likewise, independent thought is met with scorn at school, in the workplace, at home, and among one's friends.  The Japanese hesitate to express an opinion until they are reasonably certain it is shared by the listener.   Furthermore, EVERYONE in Japan wears a uniform.  From office workers, to school girls.  Salarymen, "Office ladies", train conductors, taxi drivers; nearly every walk of life involves a uniform.  School Uniforms continue up to University, but I think kids get to wear what they want then...  Still, its implicit in every walk of life that you'll be uniformed.   This all goes to produce a well ordered, safe, and gentle society, a low crime rate, and a very polite, friendly atmosphere.  However, as an American, its hard not to be appalled.  Another thing we don't realize in North America is how much individuality is indoctrinated into us as a virtue.  Like our language, we take it for granted.  Sitting down for seven hours a day with people for whom this is DEFINITELY NOT a virtue has proven to be a real eye-opener on my own culture, for which until now I did not really have a sharp contrast.

Fall, we change from, "Atsui, desu ka?"  To "Samui desu ka?"  Lets talk about something else.  How about PORN VENDING MACHINES!  An interesting addition to the cultural landscape.  Not only can you buy Magazines and videos, but dildos, vibrators, blow up dolls, and lubricants; all from the anonymity of  a vending machine.  This is truly an amazing country... ... ...I'm growing to love the bizarre rationale of the Japanese mind.  Porn occupies the same rack as the rest of the magazines in every convenience store, and browsing magazines is a generously tolerated past-time. Oh, and finally, in the vending machines, for a hundred bucks, there's a device that will remove the mosaic from the videos.   

I haven't seen liquor vending machines in a while, but beer and sake vending machines are common.  As are Battery vending machines.  And phone card vending machines.   Besides that, Soda and iced coffee and tea vending machines are at the corner of every few blocks throughout residential neighborhoods.   Porn Vending machines usually occupy special arcades of their own, however, with their own soda, coffee and tea vending machines, of course.

Time to heat more sake... Its fall, so, time to switch to hot sake I 'spose...

I don't know where else to go from there.  How about back to trivial facts.  My bathroom.  My shower is interesting.  My apartment doesn't have a central water heater.  There is a gas-operated water heater providing instant hot water.  The bathtub is attached, and through a series of knobs and levers, you can fill the bathtub (maybe just wide of two feet cubed?) and, if the water's not hot enough, it has a feature where you can recirculate the water through the heater.  The concept is that you leave the water in the tub, and heat it per diem.   I have started to use that system (there's a cover for the tub as well).   Since the tub is heated by gas, it has a pilot light.  That small flame serves to keep the water warm overnight, so heating the tub the following day only takes a few minutes.   Mecha Segoy! [very good].   This is all predicated on the Japanese hot-tub traditions of bathing before bathing; i.e. washing before soaking. So in effect, all Japanese bathrooms have mini-hottubs. (no jacuzi jets, though).

I'm tired, going to bed. Hope everyone is well, whereever y'all are around the world.  I hope this has provided an interesting window if not on Japan, than at least on my life.  Picture me rollin'.

 

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