Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hasty and Superficial Rhythm

Turn your head in any direction and you’ll see half a dozen people pushing buttons on a smartphone, round a corner and bump into three others tense with passive-aggressive phone whining, while everyone else is walking and texting. Don’t let’s even look at what the adjacent drivers are doing with their phones. Meanwhile, up in the rarified air of executive boardrooms Apple is besieged by complaints about the new iPhone 5 at the same time that the Samsung Galaxy S111 gathers accolades and market share. And while these two companies taunt, bicker and sue over what is in the long run really only money, twentieth-century diarist, Anaïs Nin, who would not have known what a smartphone is mumbles in her grave.

“The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. ...This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked.
“This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.” — The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4, May 1946

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Blackboard Demon

Eight hundred and eighty-nine days have passed since my return from years of life in Japan and even now a random notion or sight of some small mikado-like doodad plunges me suddenly back again into memories and yearnings for Tokyo. Time perhaps has the power to erase many things but if that be true the process is delayed in my case.

Several days ago a friend in Tokyo sent me a movie made by the students in his tenth grade homeroom class at Kôsei Gakuen, a private junior-senior high school of all boys. In writing to me, Ken explained that his students made the movie specially for the annual cultural festival held over one weekend in September. The simple mention of this festival was enough to set my mind overflowing with a thousand images of those yearly festivals, events I attended dozens of times and in some cases participated in. Chocolate covered bananas, haunted houses, paper plates loaded with noodles or hot dogs, rock bands, art exhibits, concerts, and for one weekend students free to die their hair, wear hip hop fashions and get a little wild, with no harm done. This sort of autumn festival is a long tradition for all schools in Japan, kindergarten to university and provides students with an opportunity to show off their school to family and friends. It also provides a financial bonus for the student council, since a portion of all earnings from sales of food and drink are funneled into the council’s treasury. But the best part about these festivals is that students do every bit of the planning, preparation, shopping and management on their own, with only small advice and guidance from the teachers.

The movie below is student made from start to finish and probably was not too difficult for what their teacher calls ‘digital natives.’ You’ve heard it before—fifteen year-olds these days can do anything with computers and cameras. Take a look at the movie made by the students of tenth grade class 1-B at Kôsei Gakuen.

At the 1:28 time mark, you will see five lines of Japanese writing narrated by one of the students. He is giving the viewer an intro to the story, in English something like… 
‘Seeing a stick figure suddenly appear on the blackboard, a student peels the figure off, crumples it up and throws it away, but the figure returns as a vengeful devil and attacks the student.’

Have a look. The setting is in the classroom, hallways and area outside. It offers a very good look at the typical Japanese classroom, hallways and student uniforms.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Funny Popsicles

Forget for a moment the present and send your thoughts spinning back to the hot summer days of childhood. You’re riding your bike somewhere with a couple of friends, maybe on the way to read comic books at the drugstore, the temperature outside has sweat dripping off the end of your nose and you’re craving something wet, cold and sweet. Unable to hold out until reaching the drugstore’s air conditioned comfort, everyone skids to a halt at the corner store and dashes inside for that surefire relief buried in the store’s freezer—a Popsicle.

Back then the choices were limited to red, orange or purple and for your nickel you got a delicious freeze of water, sugar, artificial flavor and color that left the lips and tongue brightly stained, most of us ending up with a few cherry or grape splotches on our white T-shirts. The Popsicles or ice pops of today bare only slight resemblance to those summer treats of my childhood. Now we have something that is made from fresh fruit and quality ingredients and is low-calorie. Large cities like New York, San Francisco and Nashville have stores specializing in artisan ice pops with flavors like chocolate avocado, tangerine beet and cucumber mint lime and instead of a nickel you’ll spend more like $3.00 for one.

According to the popular line in our cultural history, one night in 1905, eleven year-old Frank Epperson left a mixture of powdered soda, water, and a stirring stick in a cup on his San Francisco porch. It was a cold night and the boy walked out onto his porch the next morning to find a frozen pop. He dubbed it the “Epsicle” and tried it out with friends at school. Everyone liked it and so Epperson continued making them over the years. Married and with kids of his own, he made them for the children and they began calling them “Pop’s ’sicle.” In 1923 Epperson patented the name Popsicle, but two years later sold the rights to the brand name. The two-stick Popsicles most of us loved were introduced sometime during the Depression.

But leave it to the Japanese to take the Popsicle to another level. We’ve heard before of their chicken wing and horse meat-flavored ice creams, so taking the ice pop to a new level should come as small surprise. According to Rocket News, Japan’s Gari Gari Kun has come out with a limited edition flavor that sold out within three days of its September 4 release. The company often comes out with different or seasonal flavored ice cream, usually something along the lines of pear or melon, or that perennial summer favorite, watermelon ice bars. This time they’ve veered off the charts with something called Gari Gari Kun Cream of Corn Soup ice bar.

A reporter from Rocket News described it this way… ‘On tasting this special treat, I was delighted by the flavor that melted in my mouth. Mmmm! The sweetness was just right. As the creamy corn flavor spread across my tongue I could picture the stalks, heavy with ears of fat corn, bending with the wind in the fields of Hokkaido.’ Overstatement perhaps, but worth a try?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hefty Hares Again

While still living in Japan in March of 2010 I posted a weird tale of giant rabbits in the Japanese countryside. Looking through my blog post archives yesterday I came upon this tidbit of hare-y fiction scribbled off after a weekend in Yamanashi. Worth a repeat I thought.

Here we see Professor Kaspar Bubalov of the Yamanashi Institute of Hares struggling under the weight of “Maximus” a Brute hare, and the end result of extensive trial breeding carried out with Bulgarian mountain hares and Polish bull hares. Professor Bubalov was for years a long-neglected east European lagomorphologist who found his way to the mountains of Yamanashi, Japan, and through his research discovered that both the Bulgarian and Polish hares flourish in Japan’s mountain climate. The Trifolium melilotus (sweet clover) that grows profusely on the lower mountain slopes of Yamanashi is a variety of clover the hares thrive on. Good conditions in Japan’s Yamanashi countryside convinced the professor to move his laboratory to a vacant farmhouse there. He now receives a substantial annual grant from the Polish Foundation for Lagomorpha Studies, a portion of which the local community shares in. This funding has provided for a mobile library, a bingo hall and a new town center. It has also allowed Professor Bubalov to build a state of the art laboratory, which includes two acres of Trifolium melilotus, and where his research is carried out with the help of three assistants. Little known to the general public, the grant has also helped to keep a lid on the sometimes frightening results of the doctor’s research. Several elderly citizens have suffered heart attacks when confronted by one or more of the now numerous and free roaming Bubalov hares, which occasionally wander into yards and open doors. The new breed of hare has also been less than welcome among small children in the area. Only recently three kindergarten moppets were trampled by four stampeding Brute hares excited by a tractor. Thankfully, a few bruises were the extent of the children’s injuries. Despite his contribution to science, the future of Professor Bubalov and his giant hares in Japan is now in question.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Smoking Lounge

Societies change and evolve in ways that make them nearly unrecognizable when viewed across a bridge of years. What worked for a majority in 1960 has become unimaginable to a society in the twenty-first century. I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK and commenting to the person beside me on how accurately, along with dress and hairstyles the director used smoking to recreate an atmosphere of America in the 1960s. In our society at least, 1963 was a time when everyone and their mother smoked cigarettes. Smoking was allowed in movie theaters, in college classrooms, in hospitals, courtrooms and in every room of every house in the land. “May I smoke?” was in those days a mostly unnecessary courtesy. But such times are long gone.

In arguments today over smoking and non-smoking spaces, more often than not proximity to others is the key issue. One may not like to be around cigarette smoking, but if it occurs in a place not nearby, then the complaint is without validity. Following this premise, crowded cities present more than a few challenging problems in keeping people happy, or at least untroubled by conflicting freedoms. In recent years health problems associated with smoking have given the non-smoking movement a great boost, leading both smokers and the tobacco industry to feel beleaguered by increasing restrictions and banishment.

During the years I lived in Japan cigarette smokers and secondhand smoke were often inescapable, but recent years have seen a definite decrease in both the number of smokers and the prevalence of smoked-filled areas. The problems of smoking are now a part of Japanese consciousness, but this gradual shift has gone only a short way toward providing solutions. Restaurants and bars are still smoky, if less so than in previous years, stations and train platforms are mostly smoke-free except for designated areas in older stations. Many stations provide small plexiglass smoking rooms normally so thick with smoke they’ve earned the nickname “gas chambers.” In the last few years a few of Tokyo’s wards have passed an ordinance against smoking while walking along streets, but enforcement has proven difficult. It’s important to remember that fifty-percent of Japan Tobacco (listed at number 312 on the Fortune 500 list) is owned by the Japanese government and profits are huge. Still, they have to be credited with selling one-sixth of their shares to raise money for reconstruction following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.

New on the Tokyo scene is a sprinkle of pleasantly appointed smoking lounges called Ippuku (one puff) which provide smokers with padded rails to sit on, small tables for a drink, cell phone chargers, and a continuous flow of fresh, circulating air. The lounges are equipped with a water-flushing system for cigarette butts, walls coated with a stain-resistant substance, and aromatherapy scents pumped into the air. Another comfort to smokers in these new smoking lounges is the peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about non-smokers and enjoying a cigarette in a space all their own. 

The entrance fee is a little more than fifty cents, easily paid at automatic entrances much like those at Tokyo train stations with a quick swipe of either of the ever-present Pasmo or Suica pass cards. General Fundex is the company behind these lounges and their belief is that smokers are willing to pay a small amount for a more enjoyable few minutes in a comfortable setting. They plan to open three dozen additional Ippuku smoking lounges around Tokyo in the next three years.

With the arrival of a movement in Japan decrying the dangers of tobacco smoke, a willingness among non-smokers to speak out has come with it. Traditionally non-confrontational in nature, the average Japanese until recently would never have dared to tell the nearby smoker that his cigarette smoke was bothersome. No question there are still many reluctant to do so, but the tide is turning.

About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America