Monday, March 30, 2009


When it comes to shopping, Japan is obsessed with the 'Point Card', which they prominently refer to as 'pointo cardo.’ Though this differs greatly from the store exclusive credit cards, or membership cards found in America. Instead, the point card is typically a free incentive program for repeat shoppers. At first, upon hearing of this rewards system, I was gung-ho and elated with point fever. Though my excitement was shunned when I was told that the points did nothing but occasionally allow you to spin a wheel of crappy prizes. Take for instance Kantaro Sushi, a popular keitan (conveyer belt) sushi restaurant. A friend of mine must have spent over a thousand dollars over the course of 18 months and all she has to show for is a handful of unsuccessful spins of the wheel. So naturally, a disillusioned fog clouted my view of the point card. That is until Sunday, March 15th, 2009.
After soaking in an onsen (hot bath spa) and frolicking in a Toys'R'Us, we paid a purposeful visit to Yamada Denki, the Japanese equivalent to Best Buy. But this store comes with an unforgettable catchy jingle. "Yaaaammaaaada dennnKI." Now the reason for this particular visit was simple, I was to secure a carrying case for my word processor and then buy other crap that I wanted but didn't need. Not only did I find a neat dai dai iro (orange) case, but also a cute Minnie Mouse CD wallet for the Mother. Though I was low on cash, I didn't mind dropping $30 on what I found to be useful purchases. Then the cashier asked if I had a point card, my lady friend made a costly error and said no. But then in broken Japanese I quickly asserted "hai," for I had a point card and I was proud of its uselessness. Don’t worry; I shot a dirty gaze towards her for that dumb founded assumption. But it was me who was offensive, for I was ignorant in calling this particular card useless. The cashier asked if I wanted to use this point card on this purchase or just add more points. I had no clue what using the card meant, so I of course said "hell yeah." The next thing I know is that the death screen that usually forecasts how much more money is being ripped from your wallet read 0.00. The cashier handed me the goods along with my receipt. I was done. Finito. Complete. And whatever other words there are that mean finished. "Holy crap, what just happened?" I felt like a winner, the retail industry had for once in my life got on their knees and kissed my hand. It felt good. didn't last long, for greed manifested a heavy cloud of selfishness. I looked at my point card and realized that each point equaled one yen, and I still had 4265 yen ($42) to play with. Then I couldn't even allow myself to enjoy the free gifts thinking, "Well I did buy an expensive camera here, so of course I deserve these points." But sadly, I was hooked more than anything, "What expensive stuff can I buy now?" It's funny how "free" trumps everything. And I wouldn't have it any other way. That's why when I purchased a few donuts an hour later; I made sure to become a proud Mister Donuts point card carrier.

Let There Be Light

Obsessively scratching my eyes while emitting a morning yawn I notice the Vice Principal stop dead in his tracks. Cautiously sipping his coffee his eyes bulge in my direction. 'Uh oh,' I think, 'here we go again with another Japanese conversation I won't be able to understand.' Though, I was joyously wrong, as glancing up I noticed what had elicited his attention. The eye-blinding fluorescent light bulbs above my desk have 'moved on to another place.' Then he pleasantly smiles at me which I translate as, "This is f***ing unacceptable! Don't worry little foreigner, you'll be blinded again shortly." Though it would be silly for him to do anything about it, so a teacher a few desks down picks up the phone and sends the distress signal. However, I was not prepared for the maintenance man to scurry over to my desk precisely three and a half minutes later. This guy responded faster than any ambulance ever has in America. I'm not much of a reader, but even a blind person (which I will now become thanks to the newly installed lights) could read the urgency within this dedicated servant's soul. I began to thank him, but I didn't get past 'domo' as he already flew to his next feat of heroism. The Japanese word for efficiency is noryoku, but I don't believe this can translate back into American English. When my classroom lights were out in Florida I had to conduct a delicate month long process of paperwork, reminders, bribery and kidnapping to get the lackadaisical 'live by the contract' fatass janitor to grace my presence. In closing, when your lights are out, I pray that a little gray-haired Japanese man rushes in for the rescue. Though apparently, the same people who love to install these blinding light bulbs also love running through them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Night of the Red Faces

Before arriving, I had read about the enkai, the coveted Japanese office party. It was touted by many a JET as the perfect opportunity to get to know your reclusive and shy co-workers. In addition, alcohol never hurt anybody.

Throughout the month of August I tried to paint a mental picture of the celebratory affair. I saw a handful of teachers mingling on a Friday afternoon at a local bar. There was mild chitchat with the occasional interruption of thunderous laughter. Every few minutes a Japanese college student elegantly adorning shorts afraid of legs would inquire if it was time for a refill. The drunkest of all would point his fingers southward towards every cup signaling yet another round. Though, this was merely an image influenced by the American experience. Having not even a smidge of Japanese culture under my belt, I couldn’t have been, thankfully, more wrong.

One would think that parties don’t belong in the rigid working society of Japan. But in actuality, it’s the secret to their success. As the saying goes, "work as hard as you party, and party as hard as you work." And the Japanese work hard. I think part of the reason they can handle their often 12 hours a day, 7 days a week schedule is because of their ability to embrace, as opposed to shunning, alcohol. Rather than a sin, drinking in Japan is a savior.

The enkai is not a casual encounter consisting of a few co-workers going out for drinks. Instead, it is officially apart of the workplace. Often, Enkais are mandatory, well planned affairs. These parties are so important that all employees must pay monthly enkai fees. Instead of union dues paying an Italian to complain how he's not getting you a raise, teachers in Japan pony up cash for a chance to be hung-over.

At my school, each sensei pays three separate fees. I, for example, must pay a 4,000 yen ($40) school fee, a 3,000 yen ($30) English department fee, and a 2,000 yen ($20) 1-nensei (10th grade teachers) fee. In total I pay over $90 a month for the right to party. Even if I were to refrain from drinking, pay I must, for it's one for all in Japan. Though it must be said, I don't always know if I get my bang for my buck, but I could care less. I enjoy being apart of a group and whenever I do choose to attend an enkai, I can relax knowing I won't have to dip into an already depleted wallet. It depends on your workplace, but I typically average one enkai a month. In addition, sometimes the money will be used to order a special lunch during exams or field trips.

So what do these Enkais usually entail? Well first off, they all feature a tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat) and more importantly a nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) beginning around 6:30pm and lasting for two hours.

Each enkai consists of anywhere from eight to 200 people and can range from a small sushi restaurant to an upscale hotel’s banquet hall. Strangely, the enkai is one of the rare times in Japan where there are no assigned seats. So feel free to sit where you please. Each table will be outfitted with starter foods, giant bottles of beer and if you're lucky bottles of nihonshu (sake / rice wine). Now while it is all-you-can-drink, it's typically limited to beer, sake, and/or shochu (Japan's less toxic version of vodka).

The most beautiful yet annoying part is that it's customary to pour someone else's drink. For most this equals a consistently full glass, but the gaijin (foreigner) is often forgotten. I don't know how many times I have to pour beer before some old lady comes over to relinquish the goodness into my hollow glass. Perhaps the Japanese assume impatient foreigners will pour their own beverage.

If you are to receive sake though, please always accept it holding your glass with two hands, this came straight from my 'etiquette nazi' principal. Though he looks like the kind of man who requires a robe and theme music for when he enters a room.

After a few rounds and some plates of food, it's time to play musical chairs. Out of nowhere the red-faced nihonjin will start venturing out to other corners of the gathering to strike up a chord. This is the ideal time to practice Japanese. You’ll be stunned at how the fat gym teacher who ignores you in the hallway is all of sudden asking you a variety of questions in exquisite English not to mention referring to himself as 'the fat man.’ Though my favorite part is the changing of the guard. The flurry of pale faces has now all adopted an embarrassing rosy shade of red. Often it takes just one beer to begin the transformation.

At this point it’s probably 8:30pm. While it may seem too early to end the party, one must realize that it's Wednesday. Yes, school night is a concept non-existent in Japan. Mainly because every night is a school/work night. Plus, if you're more daring, the party lives on. There is often a nijikai (2nd party) and a sanjikai (3rd party). Each usually consisting of yet another 2-hour nomihoudai. But sadly the funding for these parties must come from your pocket. Typically they will only run you $20, which isn't bad for 120 minutes of unlimited drinking.

That being said, there is no party like a Japanese work party. Long live the enkai!

Monday, March 2, 2009

How Stupid am I?

There's no need to say it, as the answer arrived today. Folks, I'm 'as stupid is as stupid does.'

Since living in Japan, Aomori Ginkgo (bank) has been my official money holder. Japanese banking is straight forward and user friendly. Except for ATMs. With each bank being regional, one can only dispense the cash in his/her respective area. Which explains Japan as a cash society. Thus, I've grown comfortable carrying upwards of 100,000 yen ($1,000) on a daily basis.

But that cash has to come from somewhere. Consequently, I have made countless trips to my local branch, conveniently located a mere 5 minutes away. Though this was when the sun was winning the battle and I could ride my bicycle. But then the snow invaded. What was once a joy ride has morphed into a 20-minute slip'n'slide as my clumsy tries to navigate across the slippery snow and ice. Oh and I forgot to mention you have to get there before 6pm to avoid a surcharge. That's okay though, considering you get there before 9pm when every single ATM shuts down. Thus, due to the bank's location I have had to forego many a lunch break, and cancel plans knowing full well I wouldn't reach the ATM in time.

Then there was today. During lunch to be exact. I decided to take my usual stroll to CO-OP, the neighborhood grocery store located within a 60 second journey from work and home. I'm not sure how it happened, but it did. Stepping across the yellow lined pavement, I froze. There, across the parking lot was Aomori Ginkgo's logo. 'Why is that there?' my subconscious must have thought. 'BECAUSE IT'S AN ATM YOU STUPID IDIOT!' responded Sense, Common Sense.
Talk about a sad realization for my intelligence, but a happy ending for my body, and social life. I can't wait to find an excuse to take out money.


Now I've heard of 'An apple an day..." but this is ridiculous. Regardless, today was a special day for Aomori prefecture, as they chose to open their wallets. What did they spend it on? Tax incentives? Nope. Bribing business to set up shop? Nope. Poorly developed tourist traps? Nope. Instead they did the honorable thing, they spent it on the children. Every student enrolled in an Aomori public school, elementary through high school, received a present. A book, paper, pens, condoms? Nope. Instead they received apples. Four of them to be exact.

The children need the apples, I guess. Or rather the apple farmers, since Aomori's claim to fame are their luscious thick apples. Throughout the year they are hidden away in special blue bags before they ripen for the taste buds. These diva ringo tachi (apples) are so exquisite they come in protective styrofoam wrapping. If there is but one scratch or scar it must be sold at a discount with the other disabled apples. Speaking of which, the apples the students got didn't look all that dandy. Aomori better be careful with dishing out those retarded fruits, as the saying goes, "you are what you eat."


Q: 'What do you do for a living?'

A: 'I deliver apples.'


I Love Box

presenting the goods

Apples Galore

Doctors are everywhere but near.


Bag Man

He loves those apples!


Caution: May Bite

I prefer my apples naked.

They've Got VD

When it comes to material romance, America is not alone. February 14th also marks Japan's celebration of Valentines Day. But instead of a cash cow for flowers and Hallmark, chocolate companies hold the monopoly. And did I mention that only girls buy the gifts? That's right, talk about equality. Tradition dictates that only males are to receive the oishi (delicious) chocolates. But that's not even the best part. You don't even have to be sleeping with someone. In addition to the romantic gift, women are obliged to dish out plutonic gifts to friends, neighbors, and co-workers. There's no need to feel lonely in this country.

By now, your feminist veins are boiling. Simmer down because the chocolate companies aren't done yet. Just like the Hallmark created Grandparents, Nurses, and I Wet the Bed Day, they have spawned 'White Day.' Personally this has been a long time coming. Though I'm sorry to say it has nothing to do with the great race of the same name. Instead, 'White Day' is the reverse of Valentines Day. Yes ladies, you get your turn. And even though the unspoken rule is that men should double the chocolate/gift given to them, this is brilliance in its purest form. Got a cheap girlfriend? No problem. Even if your lady splurged, you still received a stellar gift. Plus, at least there is a realistic expectation. Women in America have taken over Valentines Day and instead of embracing a man's heart they send it to the hospital over the stress and confusion. Luckily, I've never been in a committed relationship during Valentines Day, until now. I thoroughly enjoyed my lady's delicious brownies, not to mention the cute frosting Engrish sayings, "Eat Me Cravak," and "I miss you." Obviously, I will go well beyond a double batch of brownies, and I'm happy to know what to work with. In fact, I'm so thrilled I have no qualms in censorilly saying, "F*** you American VD, I'm in love with another country's holiday."



Gifts I received from co-workers and students.



Crave likes brownies!