“ There are certain times in your life when I guess you’re not supposed to have anyone…certain doors you gotta go through alone.”
- Joe Versus the Volcano
japanese boys are always sick in the summer time.
they don’t air condition the schools here. sometimes the teachers’ room will have air conditioning but they don’t often turn it on. the reason they’re apprehensive of using the AC in the teachers’ room is that it inevitably attracts a gang of smartass boys between classes. they come in complaining of being ill so they can have the opportunity to sit in the somewhat cooler air for a few minutes until they are deemed well enough to suffer further with the rest. each one of them comes in and dives for a chair claiming to be sick. each one is then entitled to their own thermometer to test the validity of their claims. they sit huddled together racing to raise the temperature of there respective thermometers by rubbing them vigorously with their thumbs…out in the open of course. there is no attempt to conceal their shenanigans or even convincingly play sick.
when i was in high school i didn’t have to play sick. although it didn’t happen very often, when i wasn’t well enough to go to school i would just tell my mother and she would commiserate immediately. maybe she trusted me. maybe she was just too tired to fight me on it after years of pretending and poor performances on the part of my three playacting predecessors, personified by my older siblings.
no, i would be granted the day off with noted disapproval. but as i said, it didn’t happen often. that’s because i would always get the exact same note written each and every time. and when i say exact, i mean right down to the letter. it started to become embarrassing…
“Scott was (absent from/late for) school on (date) due to a stomach virus.”
i could have my leg amputated and i’d still get the same note. whether my absence/tardiness was due to a bona fide illness (not likely) or from my friends and i mixing several assorted airport bottles of liquor with bong hits the night before (probably), i was always nervous to hand over the note which the office lady had seen exactly as many times as she’d seen me. i feared that the school suspected me of having the ability to forge my mother’s handwriting in only those specific words…or just a weak stomach.
those fears were substantiated when, one day late in my junior year, i was summoned to the office to speak with Assistant Principal Stephen Frederick (pictured above). my absences that year, which included a rather lengthy suspension for use of a controlled substance, had put me dangerously close to not meeting the minimum required amount of school days in attendance to be certified as “educated enough.” i remember it clearly as he said mockingly, “one or two more, ahem, stomach viruses, Mr. Kollar, and you won’t be able to graduate,” as he slowly shuffled a pile of my mother’s notes from a file folder.
i don’t know where i was going with that. anyway, the heat in japan…to say it’s hot as balls wouldn’t do it justice and it’s just downright crude. no…here…it’s so hot, you could wrap your balls around a cow’s neck. i know back home there was an intense heat wave this summer that had temperatures in the 100s, but it’s nothing compared to a japanese summer. to be honest, the highest temperature i’ve seen here all summer barely broke 90, but the humidity here is worse than any other place i’ve been.
showers are useless. i’m drenched in sweat before i even begin teaching a lesson and it just gets worse once i do. thanks to the lovely humidity, there is no drying off either. my clothes and i are wet until i take them off in late afternoon. it’s been like that since early May and i’ve been assured i can look forward to it well into October. they’ve actually developed a separate system of measurement just for japan that allows for 167% humidity. it’s true. it’s science.
it’s a miracle that the schools have off for the month of August or i would have come home by now. my junior high school just held an opening ceremony on September 1st to welcome the students back for their second term. during the assembly, not one but two children passed out from the heat. i actually saw the second one fall. it’s a good thing most of these kids have thick skulls because he went down like a sack of potatoes. they had to be carried out by teachers. i mentioned to one of the japanese teachers that it’s cruel to make students endure this. she quickly responded that students today have it easier than in her time, when they didn’t get any time off in the summer. i was quick to respond that, likewise, it seems that teachers have it easier now too…a comment that didn’t improve my popularity. she also went on to mention that this summer has been much milder than normal…a claim that has been confirmed by numerous others as well.
as if the heat weren’t enough, the better part of the summer is also the rainy season. it rains…a lot. so it’s not just a clever name. it wouldn’t be complete without typhoons. there are so many of them that they don’t bother naming them like we do hurricanes. they just give them numbers. the last one to roar through was typhoon #1112 and as luck would have it, my town was right in it’s path. school was still in session though. i think the roof has to be ripped off the building for them to cancel school. it wasn’t until it was declared a state of emergency that they finally sent the elementary students home for fear they might get blown away by the wind. the junior high kids weren’t as lucky, that is, until a couple hours later when the threat level was escalated. this time it was the teachers who were left behind. we all had to finish out our day in the teachers room as they sealed off all the giant steel doors that protect the school.
the japanese are very proud of their seasons. they refuse to believe that any other place in the world enjoys four season as japan does. photographic evidence doesn’t convince them. instead they’re offended by the claim. i first arrived here at the end of winter. spring lasted a week and a half and otherwise it went from freezing to sweltering. i don’t have the heart to tell them they barely have four seasons, but rather two, each with a short intermission. i hate to say it, but i can’t wait for the weather to get cooler. although, if autumn is anything like spring it’ll be a disappointment and i hear the winters are brutally cold.
oh, they don’t heat the schools either so stay tuned for my complaints once i get what i wished for…
***editors note: the highlighted items below contain links to visual references. please click on them.***
reflecting upon my stay abroad in italy, i recall that ITALIAN BEERS don’t tend to be typically too tasty. that fact was offset by the variety of delicious european beers that were readily available. the proximity of italy to its european neighbors kept the prices, not only reasonable, but downright cheap.
i distinctly remember an autumn italian afternoon, years ago, which found me and a couple of my compatriots fumbling on foot through a new route back to our apartment. in passing, we noticed a local watering hole that advertised Heineken bottles at the equivalent of 75¢ each. jackpot! you don’t pass that up. we went in and gave it a try and quickly professed this to be our new local hangout. as it turns out, we soon realized that it was a TRANNY BAR. but hey…75¢ beers!
japan isn’t proximate to anything. be that as it may, one of the things i quickly came to appreciate in japan is that the beer is decent. the same brands of japanese beer that are readily available in the US are the most popular brands here as well….ASAHI, KIRIN and my personal favorite, SAPPORO. so at least the domestic brew should command a modest price, right? wrong.
a six pack of beer in japan costs $15 or more. there is absolutely no discount for buying in bulk either. a case costs roughly $60. and i’m not talking about the fancy stuff. japan taxes beer at such a ridiculous rate that you can buy an entire bottle of liquor for almost the same price as a six pack. evidently the tax is on anything with a certain percentage of malt. and as luck would have it, the amount needed to make beer falls in that tax bracket.
to counter this “taxation without consideration,” the japanese have come up with an answer…fake beer. not JOKE BOOZE which they’ve got plenty of, but actual fake beer. they call it HAPPOSHU. it’s got alcohol. they put beer flavoring in it and it come in beer cans, but it’s not beer. this becomes apparent the next day when you feel the hangover which ironically is painfully real. it’s hard to believe the germans ever made a DEAL with these people.
fear not friends! i may not have much in the way of virtues at this point in my life but i have managed hold on to a shred of dignity, a pinch of integrity and an ounce or two of pride. i wouldn’t be caught dead drinking that swill. i leave that to my BRITISH FRIENDS.
in japan i don’t have a couch to relax on. i’ve got a fridge that i could pick up and carry around. and if it had the space, i couldn’t afford more than a couple beers at a time. they’re an expensive treat. what’s more is that i live in a place where you have to drive to do just about anything. truth be told, back in the states i’ve had a drink or two before taking a short drive. who hasn’t? here, the penalties for driving with even the slightest amount of alcohol in your system are extremely severe. it’s not even remotely an option, so if i decide to have a beer at home after a long day i have to be sure i’m not going anywhere or doing anything that requires me to drive.
my apartment in new york had a full-sized fridge. at any given moment, i had four or five different kinds of beer in there. this included a case of YUENGLING PREMIUM cans (delicious) which i would stock up on at $13 a case during trips back to pennsylvania. it was there if i entertained guest. it was there if i wanted to have a drink before going out and it was there if i just wanted to sit back and have a beer with my feet up on the couch.
this is one of those things that makes me miss home so much. it’s not just about the beer. it’s about the whole ritual…the amenity…the comfort it provided. it’s something i took for granted. it’s something so simple that it’s impossible to know you take it for granted. it’s almost impossible not to take it for granted. it may sound crazy but it’s something that i enjoyed so much and miss so terribly that it’s enough to make me want to come back home.
but i won’t.
i’m certain however that i’ll appreciate it that much more when i do.
my date with madame fuji…
what do you do if you live in japan? if you’re me, the answer is, “duck!” in the short time i’ve been here, i’ve hit my head on doors, shelves and ceilings more times than i can remember. even after a short break in my own bathroom, any feelings of relief are quickly negated as i ram my head into the door jam on the way out. nothing is taller than me here. nothing, that is, except for Fuji-San. that’s what they call Mt. Fuji here. it’s so respected as a symbol of japan that they refer to it honorifically as Ms. Fuji. That’s right She’s a girl. and, if you’ll pardon my japanese, She’s a miserable whore!
She’s not one of the tallest mountains in the world, measuring in at a humble 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) but the difference is, Her climb starts fairly close to sea level as compared our planet’s more prominent peaks where the climbs starts at much higher elevations. She’s known to be shy. She hides under cloud cover most of the time, offering unblemished views of Her peak only briefly before hiding away again. She’s extremely wide, so the climb starts out gradually, getting steeper the closer you get to the top, making Her seem very respectable. She’s not the kind of girl who just gives it away. She makes you work for it. Or does She?
most people that brave the climb to Fuji’s peak (including the men and women in the u.s armed forces and the elderly) start at the 5th station (base, if you will). this is roughly half way to the top. amateurs! they take a leisurely bus ride to a small tourist trap where they can buy an unnecessary walking stick and a t-shirt. at that point, they can begin their accent from just above the tree line. it’s by no means an easy task, but you would think that the military would do a better job of separating the men (and women) from the old and decrepit. not so.
my friends and i were up for an even bigger challenge. we decided to begin our climb from the shrine at the bottom. truth be told, we began our courtship of Lady Fuji by admiring her from afar, starting our hike from the town a couple miles away. since the temperature and weather varies as you climb (She’s also moody), we had to take enough gear to cover any contingencies. that means the hotter it is, the more crap you carry on your back. the nice thing about climbing from the beginning is that you get to enjoy the forested area and the shade it provides. there are hundreds of giant logs laid out along the way to help mitigate erosion, which act like huge steps, making it a bit like an obstacle course. it was hot and humid and She got more and more miserable with every base She let me reach…and that wouldn’t be the first time.
the problem with this climb…one of the problems anyway…is that it’s almost impossible to stay together as a group. everyone has their own pace and for those who move a little faster, to continuously stop and wait causes you to become even more exhausted. so anyone who decides to get this girl does it alone. also there aren’t many people below the tree line, so She’s devious as well. She’d have you believe that She remains chaste and that you’re the only one. that said, the bases serve as good checkpoints to regroup, reenergize and most importantly, rehydrate.
proper hydration proves to be a bit of an art form. there are no places to find water between the shrine and the 5th station, so one has to balance, not only how much they consume, but also how much they carry without weighing themselves down even more throughout the hike.
after several hours of hiking, torrential rain and shear exhaustion, She finally let me get to 5th base! it turns out there are two of them though. this being the one that the real adventurers happen upon as they climb before reaching the novice (military/elderly) portion; it was located just under the tree line and a few hundred meters below the aforementioned milestone. 5th base wasn’t what i expected though. it was little more than a small trailer-sized house/restaurant where we had a chance to eat some lunch and add some layers before continuing. at this point you start to feel the altitude a bit and the weather quickly changes from hot and humid to cold and rainy. apparently She gets a bit frigid as you zero in on Her peak. a word to the wise though…wear protection when climbing a girl like this!
once i lifted my way up Her lush and flowery dress to get a feel for Her mountainous landscape, i saw Her for what She really is…a big, dried-out, dusty, old mound that probably hasn’t erupted in years. everyone and their mother (literally) are climbing around on Her. at any given moment there are hundreds of families celebrating someone’s first time, as well as dozens of G.I.s all taking their turn and trying to leave their mark on Her.
the climb from the 5th station is anything but thrilling. a single trail zigzags its way up a mountain of nothing but black and orange volcanic dust and rock. despite your efforts, you climb for hours with little progress and this girl’s peak is NOWHERE in sight. eight hours into our climb we reached a mountain hut and decided to take a rest. hey, even the most virile climber needs a break now and again. as would be expected, if you want a room, that costs extra…and you only get it for a few hours! up again at 1AM to continue our climb so we can reach Her climax by sunrise. but by now a line has formed and you’ve got to contend with every other johnny-come-lately or you might as well not come at all. as it turns out, there are about 10 bases to reach. i never knew there were so many. i’m still not even sure what the first three bases are!
it was supposed to take another three hours of maneuvering to find Her sweet spot but i was determined to get there before sunrise, so i came up with a few new moves and did it in just under 2 ½. what can i say…i was anxious. when i see a piece of trail that looks good, i go for it!
all negativity aside, reaching the top was quite a rush. the sunrise was breathtaking. i have to admit, when all my hard work and determination came to a pinnacle, my eyes glazed over a bit, i got dizzy, felt a little euphoric and probably made a few funny faces that can only be the result of post-climber bliss. this was soon followed by the munchies and a strong urge to take a nap. but what conquest would be complete without snapping a few photos first? we took pictures of each other on top of Her. we took group photos on top of Her. we even took pictures with other people on top of Her, some old, some young, some in costumes, and some wearing almost nothing at all.
i never came to japan with the goal of climbing Fuji, but when the opportunity presented itself i decided to try Her out. however, had i known then what i know now, i probably wouldn’t do Her at all. after years of hearing stories of conquest, tall tails from other boys and general locker room braggadocio, i felt a little let down. i didn’t feel like more of a man. there was no beautiful music or urge to smoke a cigarette…just a bunch of sweaty old guys hanging around the top looking at me as if to say, “first time, eh kid?” She was expensive. She left me chafed, sore and feeling unclean since hundreds of others had a turn at Her. and to add insult to injury, none of them engaged in all the foreplay that i put in just to get a peek at Her peak or throw a couple rocks into Her mouth.
i felt disillusioned. but hey, i was out there fighting the good fight and got it out of the way. i think from now on though, i’m not going to go all the way up a mountain unless it means a little more to me. i’d prefer to get to know her a bit and see if she’s really got what i’m looking for in a mountain. you know, i want it to be special…for both of us.
marco polo and novocain
everyone wants to know what it’s like living in japan. while thinking about my newborn niece it occurred to me that being in japan is much like being a baby. it’s a lot like being relatively deaf, completely dumb and very nearsighted. i know there are people around me but i’m unable to reach them. it’s like playing marco polo in the pool as a kid, where i’m the one calling “MARCO!” and waiting for a response, except this time i’m also the “fish out of water!” [for those of you deprived of a proper childhood, please refer to this link]
like a baby, everything is new to me and i don’t understand a thing. at the supermarket everything is alien. i search for things that look appetizing and familiar…lettuce, tomatoes, onions, chicken, pork, beef…large breasts! fine, i suppose a carton of milk will suffice (besides, milk is much easier to find in japan). packaged foods are not an option since i can’t read them, which is a great benefit to my health. whole foods are where it’s at. i can see them and touch them and most of them don’t require me to be literate (boobs are not included in this category because i’m unable to touch them as freely as i’d like).
there are people all around. i can see them and they can see me. but since they don’t speak babynese they just look at me, heads tilted to the side wondering why i’m making so much noise, while they rattle off noises of their own that are equally as perplexing. what does he want? is he hungry? yes! does he need a nap? yes! does he need to be changed? probably! aw, poor thing. let’s just smile at him and maybe he’ll stop. wrong! the problem is that my needs aren’t as basic as just being fed, burped and having my ass powdered. as for that last one…i am certainly open to new things. however, the bum wash on my apartment’s fancy toilet is a great help in that capacity.
it’s unbelievably difficult to express just about anything in babynese and i certainly don’t speak big personese beyond a few confusing and mostly indecipherable ooohs and aaaahs. it leaves me so frustrated that i want to resort to crying in an attempt to get sympathetic attention. this frustration reached a boiling point last week when i had a little dental emergency.
while eating breakfast, i broke a tooth in half and swallowed it. apparently i’m teething now too! forget that it was difficult to find a dentist and set up an appointment, but once there, it seemed really strange that mr. dentist proceeded to drill out and grind away what was left of my tooth without administering novocain. it took everything i had in me not to cry in front of the beautiful hygienist operating the drool vacuum as i white-knuckled the chair and became soaked with my own sweat (possibly urine). it was absolute torture. i can’t remember clearly, but it’s possible that i gave up some national secrets…and i definitely told them the pin number to my dad’s ATM card to get them to stop. sorry pop, your $14 is no longer secure. i didn’t know you had to ASK for novocain! even less was my knowledge on HOW to ask for novocain! who doesn’t give novocain? i’ve never not had novocain. alright, i’ll stop saying novacain.
the point is, living in japan feels like being a helpless baby. i’m often frightened and confused and unable to express myself when i’m hugry, soil myself, or need something. and like a baby, a nipple being shoved into my mouth at any point might actually appease me. but let’s face it, they aren’t exactly being thrown my way. i digress.
as i’ve said before, it will be an entirely different experience when i’m able to communicate more meaningfully than, “i like banana” and “where is the toilet.” from students’ questions, i did learn early on how to say, “i’m single.” but no ones else seems to care. i am taking steps to learn. mostly self study. i can’t wait to replace overly used sentences like, “i’m sorry, i don’t understand” with just about ANYTHING more self-serving like, “where are the adult diapers,” or “can a brotha get a nipple or what?!”
many girls want to be carnal with me… because i’m such a premium dancer!
(click on the picture)
track suits are all the rage here in japan. if they have a well known label on them like adidas or puma, they are in fact the cat’s pajamas. most of my teachers wear them regularly in school and a lot of people sport them outside of work. they call them “jyaji.” i just received my volleyball team jyaji today and all signs point to AWESOME! i’m never taking it off. next up is a career in porn. i just need to start smoking winstons and work on my mustache.
fun with video…
not exactly sure what it was, but it was mainly daikon radish with fish flakes…piping hot and served at a local watering hole
Samba em Prelúdio
always nice to see a familiar face in japan…especially one with such a lovely voice. check out Chieko Honda on myspace and drop in for one of her shows in new york. you won’t be disappointed.
it’s been a while since i posted, leaving many to believe that the most significant thing to happen to me in the last few weeks has been my virgin run at the japanese style squat toilet. well to those i say, “damn right!” it’s no small matter when you’re used to the luxury of sitting and shitting…enjoying some reading material or catching up on all your cell phone has to offer. my friend nick over in Iwakuni is still losing sleep, feverishly worrying about what to do when the day hits and nature calls without wanting to leave a message. poor guy’s a nervous wreck. but i digress…
a major reason for my recent radio silence…not to mention a major shift in mood is due in part to an equally proportional increase in the girth of my social circle. after a locally sponsored day trip to a nearby island to promote international exchange, a few friends (foreign teachers like myself) made nice with several japanese contemporaries. and i couldn’t be happier. when i lived in italy a decade ago, my only regret was that my friends there didn’t spend enough time mixing it up with the locals and getting a more authentic italian experience.
after i expressed interest, one of my new friends invited me out to play on her volleyball team. yours truly is the newest, least japanese, as well as least talented and not surprisingly the tallest member of the Hyper M volleyball team (pictured above). i’m pretty excited about it. it’s an adult team that practices once a week at a local gymnasium. they’re a fun group of people ranging in age from late 20s to mid 40s. some of the older members have been friends since elementary school.
i made my debut this past weekend in a 30-and-over tournament held at a local junior high school gym. there was just one catch. the tournament rules stated that any four male team members’ (i was careful not to say “male members.” oops!) AGES had to add up to be 160. simple math aside, i had to pretend to be 40 all day. 40! it’s not that i find this age distasteful in any way, but practically every week i teach a new class or grade for the first time. when the students get to ask me questions, without exception, one of the first is always about how old i am. when i respond by writing “32” on the board, they go berserk and make sounds of disbelief. remember how old 23 seemed when you were in grade school? well 32 seems to cause more shock than they can endure. it’s starting to give me a complex. so here i am this weekend, already looked at like a freak because of my height and i have to claim to be 40. great. there was clearly some suspicion. i think some of the teams looked at the only foreigner/giant as a ringer, so several older women inquired about my age. not wanting to answer untruthfully (i let my teammates do that), i quickly responded by asking the same question back to the women…a question that is fairly impolite here in japan, but it did the trick and got them to back off.
the tournament was fun and i played well. the most notable thing about it was not the games or the outcome (my team lost all four best-of-3 matches), but the team names. teams from all over the prefecture of Kagawa and some from elsewhere came out to participate. a small few had burly names such as Team Samurai and Black Dragon, while others boasted slightly less intimidating monikers such as Peaches, Happy Smile, Ladies, Happy Day Climax (pictured above), Amigo, Wins, Dream, and my personal favorite…Water. the M in our team name is the first initial of our captain’s name. i don’t really know why they combined it with Hyper though, as she’s fairly calm as far as i can tell.
the best thing about my team is that they like to have a group outing every two weeks or after a tournament like this past weekend. there aren’t really a lot of proper pubs in most of japan. instead people get together at a place called an izakaya where they eat and drink together, usually kneeling around a low table. my team doesn’t mess around when it comes to this. they do it up right!. despite it being a sunday night, some of us even had the strength for a little karaoke after-party where, the night wasn’t complete until i got my purple rain on!
so yeah…in short…i’m enjoying myself…
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Oohama, Takuma, Kagawa, Japan