Friday, December 17, 2010

BOO! Halloween in 青森

The western tradition of ハロウィン (Halloween) is slowly creeping its way into Japanese culture. Currently Halloween is limited to pumpkin themed decorations and school sponsored costume activities for young children. The idea of Halloween as a sinful, guilt-free party seems to only occupy areas where foreigners reside in full force, such as Tokyo's Roppongi ward. 青森県 (Aomori prefecture) in Japan's rural north consequently lacks in 外国人 (foreigners). But  that didn't stop a dozen english teachers from properly celebrating All Hallow's Eve.

Traditionally, a Halloween party is hosted by local charity Everest of Apples in the city of Hachinohe. This costume party is a popular event for the foreign population but usually lacks in natives. This year was different, and in 青森市 a public party was held at One-Shot Bar, a newly established 'western' bar owned by a former Tohoku Jet Ski champion.

It was delightful fun to see an equal mixture of stranges, local and foreign alike. Though, if there had been a costume contest, the Japanese would have came in dead last. Most Japanese just wear a hat or add an accessory. The ladies become a witch, and the men become Santa. Though, I don't think the lack of costume creativity has anything to do with the shy reserved nature of Japanese culture. While Party City would be a welcome addition, the Japanese are costume specialists. Most Karaoke parlors offer a selection of costumes to wear, women often transform into maids or school girls, and full body pajamas are made to look like Winnie the Pooh or Stich. In addition, it's hard to ignore cos players in Harajuku on Sunday.
If ex-pats continue to dress up children in costumes, and entice adults towards mischief, Japan will naturally adopt Halloween. I just hope trick-or-treating can eventually walk its way into the neighborhood.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wanna get away?

As an American 先生 (teacher)  in 日本 (Japan), I'm sitting on a gold mine of social research. Ulterior motives aren't part of the curriculum, but whenever possible I zoom in on the personalities, thoughts, and opinions of 青森 (Aomori's) teenagers.
Next week, 2nd year students (10th graders) will fly to Kyoto for the annual school excursion. While Japan's ancient capitol offers a buffet of temples, it just doesn't seem to be worth the ¥150000 ($1,785) price tag. Since many of our students will attend premier universities, I feel it's important to expose them to other cultures to prepare for a career in the global community.
Consequently, I was curious to when given the chance to choose the destination of the school trip, where students would wish to go. The students were told to be realistic in respects to time, cost, safety, and school policies. They worked in groups of 4 and were allowed to choose any destination, domestic or international, permitting they thoroughly explained their rationale.

It was interesting to see the reasons behind the proposed trips. For example, the chance to watch a soccer match was the prime motivation for venturing to Spain or the UK. Okinawa and Hawaii offered seaside relaxation. France offered style and culture, while many wanted Italy for the cuisine. If I heard the words pizza and paste one more time, I was going to run out the door and into the nearest Capricciosa. And you have no idea how many Japanese students are eager to bite into a Kangaroo.

Some groups were vague, citing only the country, while others were quite specific. One group chose Detroit to observe the American car industry while another selected Washington DC to take advantage of the Smithsonian Institution. But I'm still puzzled why Acapulco was pitched as a premier world heritage location to experience ancient civilization. I realize sand is old, but these kids just wanted some sun. I think there may be a few future used car salesmen in that class.

While the majority choose to go overseas, I was impressed with the groups adamant on discovering more about their own country. The students were able to think about school activities from an adult perspective while learning more about geography and culture. Though, in the end I think I walked away with the prize. I wonder if I can sell this data to JTB, HIT or any other Japanese travel agency?

Without further ado, below is the list of places in respect to popularity.
  • 13.) Kyoto, Japan (1)
  • 13.) Spain (1)
  • 13.) China (Beijing) (1)
  • 13.) Singapore (1)
  • 13.) Kumamoto, Japan (1)
  • 13.) Hiroshima (1)
  • 13.) Nagoya (1)
  • 13.) Mie (1)
  • 13.) Mexico (Acapulco) (1)
  • 13.) Canada (1)
  • 13.) Egypt (1)
  • 9.) Korea (2)
  • 9.) U.K. (2)
  • 9.) Kamakura, Japan (2)
  • 9.) Osaka, Japan (2)
  • 8.) Hawaii (3)
  • 7.) Hokkaido, Japan (4)
  • 5.) America (Detroit, Washington DC, NYC) (5)
  • 5.) Australia (Sydney, Great Barrier Reef, Ayer's Rock) (5)
  • 4.) France  (Paris) (6)
  • 3.) Italy (Rome, Venice) (7)
  • 2.) Tokyo, Japan (8)
  • 1.) Okinawa, Japan (9)
***The number is ( ) represents the # of groups choosing that particular destination.
***Please note that choosing Kyoto was prohibited, though this didn't stop one group. In addition, although ***Instead of being listed as one country, Japan is broken down to individual locations.

***Hawaii is a state, it is being treated as a separate destination.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Crumbing my way through a stack of Ritz crackers, I noticed a colleague with a giant bag of lanyards. Curious, I had to inquire. It turns out, as the faculty member assigned to the girl's volleyball team he enjoyed an assortment of tedious tasks. On this day, he was in charge of dispersing badges (pictured above) for an upcoming tournament. Five schools were sending both their girls and boys teams to compete in this city wide volleyball competition.

"What are the badges for?" I asked.

"So perverts don't videotape the volleyball players," he said.

Well... it made sense to me. I can't speak for the boys’ team, but when it comes to women, little shorts and hiked up socks make for an appealing ensemble. What's shocking is that this must have been a real problem for the schools to create these 'press passes.'

But something didn't add up. Each pile had 25 badges. Yet each team consisted of around 10 players. Meaning there were enough press passes for each boy and girl player including a bonus 5.

"Who gets to use this press pass?" I asked.

"Anyone," he said, "They just get it from the school."

The Japanese are stereotyped for being snap-happy camera lovers, but 25 that even necessary? So I wondered some more.

"What if someone gets a pass but is a pervert and publishes the footage on the internet? How do you track them?" I asked.

I couldn't believe it, but there was a rationale solution in place. "We look at the sign-up sheet and one-by-one locate the person responsible," he said.

So what's the lesson learned? In Japan, perverts have plenty of time to videotape your sons and daughters. But don't worry! Japanese schools have just as much time to implement a complicated yet 'effective' response.

Happy filming everyone, but do so professionally for if you don't the P.P.P. (Pervert Protection Plan) will put you behind bars or issue you a polite e-mail warning.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Professional Lost and Found

In America, locating the 'lost and found' is harder than finding your vanished object. When something is lost, we've come to immediately accept that it's never coming back. Somewhere along the line a wandering individual has claimed it for themselves, or a careless janitor tossed it into a metal cylinder.
In Japan, you retain ownership of your possessions whether they are in your pocket or abandoned on a park bench. Most foreign residents have a story of leaving behind their wallet only to have it returned in-tact within 24 hours. Great care is given to ensure that everyone finds their lost objects. Personally, I think it all boils down to responsibility and respect. Sure, who wouldn't wanted to swipe that Hello Kitty handbag for their own devices, but the fact remains: it's not ours to take.

As a high school teacher in Florida, I was aware that a lost and found existed, but was re-directed five times before finally meeting up with the 'man in charge.' This doofus made it seem that it was too much of a burden to be bothered with lost objects. The only thing about our school's lost and found that was apparent to everyone was how if something was not claimed within 10 days it became the property of whoever found it.

Things are different in Aomori, Japan. Well, a little. I still have no idea who's in charge, but it doesn't matter. If something is found it's immediately photographed and placed on a posted flyer. Talk about convenience. Missing a green mitten? "Oh look there it is on the flyer, it's found!" This could be embarrassing if you lost your Totoro underwear, but at least it's efficient. 

When I came to Japan, I was lost, and now...I'm found.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dance of the Dragonfly

I've never considered myself a man of the theatre. The closest I've come to Broadway is an 8th grade field trip to Toronto to hear a deep voiced man bell out "Old Man River." While I'm open to experiencing new things, theatre, dance, and operas just aren't my bag. It's fine to pretend to be someone you're not, but don't do it right in front of me. I'd rather watch it on the small screen or in a Cineplex when it’s masked in exotic scenery and special effects. And personally non-intoxicated rhythmic footsteps just aggravates me while public singing makes me nervous.
But this past summer I had front row seats to an impromptu performance: The Dance of the Dragonfly. Since high school students in Japan have their own class, teachers are regulated to an office. In this case, a long open air room filled with 30 plus desks. Mostly everyone was instructing, in a useless meeting or outside smoking. All that remained were four middle aged male instructors, the suited-up handsome foreigner (me), and...a dragonfly.
In Japan, you can exchange contact information through infrared and even order food in a vending machine but apparently they're still working on air conditioning. So with the windows open, a creature from the natural world decided to enter our plastic existence. To be frank, I hadn't noticed the insectual (it's a word now). But what I did see was four grown men rising from behind their desks. They were amazed to see such a vibrant yet disgustingly large and loud winged creature in the office. I'm assuming they had previously signed up for the Office Animal Removal Task Force. These boys wanted nothing more than to humanely send the dragonfly back out to its world. Though, I had to question as well as give their efforts a standing ovation. They didn't have a stick, spray bottle, swatter, or even a net. They had moves. Sleek and stylish ballerina-esque moves. They spun in the air, twisting and turning, their hands reaching to the clouds above. Their spectacles fell off their nose and slid down their bland ties. With each motion they "ohhhh" and "awwwed" each other. And lo and behold, it worked. Somehow that dragonfly was coaxed into flying out. Maybe he loathed dancing as much as I do. But for an improvised performance, the four gentlemen were in-sync and quite honestly...magical.
Now I wonder if I'll witness the Dance of the Dragonfly again. By the way, if anyone knows of an online dragonfly dealer, please let me know.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Dear people with awesomeness,
   For the time being my creative energy will be poured into Crave Writing, a sister blog looking at the world of writing, specifically for children. New posts should arrive here in about a month but for now how about strolling over there for a peeksy?
   A round of thanks on me.

much respect,

PS: You can never go wrong if you write.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye English, Hello Mandarin

My daydreams aren't limited to pulling up my gold laced driveway in the Ghostbusters mobile. I think about the future; where the world may be headed, and who will end up on top. Even as a high school student, I knew America's success would bubble suffocating our nationalism while shutting out former allies. I was certain China would emerge as the next global super power. My peers and family paid no attention laughing their way through Seinfeld reruns. I thought this change of power would happen when my glasses were thicker than a milkshake and while I was on social security. It's happening now. I feel like the scientist turned hero in those "natural disaster" movies. I know I'm not alone, but someone must spread the word.

You may be asking what proof I have? Not much. I failed to consult a recognized economist, I don't have any secret military blueprints, and I even put aside my addiction to wikipedia. Instead, I'm listening to the people. Specifically, over two hundred of the brightest teenagers in 青森市, (Aomori) a small city in Japan's northern 田舎 (countryside).

As the resident English speaking 外国人 (foreigner) at Aomori High School, it's my job to grade 3rd year students' (seniors) essay exams. Today's prompt read: "Do you agree or disagree with Japan adopting English as its second official language?" Now, I've seen this before. Two years ago, I recall perusing scores of adolescent thoughts on the highly debated topic. I was shocked though to notice how two thirds of students agreed. Even those opposed were able to devote some of their 100 words to include positive aspects to learning 英語 (English). I was partial to them accepting my native tongue, especially when their taxes were paying my salary. But more importantly, I was proud of them for escaping their pride and focusing on their future.

But that focus has changed. Today I estimate less than a third of students agreed. The majority was loud and clear: "We don't need to learn English." Why the sudden change of heart? One word, or country rather: China. The emerging Asian powerhouse peeked its head into more than half of the essays. "America is declining, and China is growing. We should be learning Chinese."

Though not all of the essays were pro-Chinese, the "let's move away from English" sentiment was clear. While quite a few students argued for the benefits of learning English, they merely claimed it was good for international business and for personal travel. It's painful to think that someone feels they need to learn a new language to travel. I've been fortunate enough to visit several non-English speaking nations, without ever adopting a new language. Of course, I speak English, and was accomodated with signage, guides, and brochures. It's just a discomforting thought that one language is thought to be the answer. They all should be.

These students get it, they understand, and they have a plan. The gist of the essays conveyed the feeling that Japanese people are becoming too westernized; losing touch with their own culture. The students are calling for a return to focusing on 日本語 (Japanese) as the one true language. Though, they also wish to study a second language, but one of their choice. The right to choose echoes freedom, and this generation is ready.

There's already rumors jumping around like vending machine bouncy balls about Japan shutting down the JET Program (my employer). While this may just be a way to cut costs during the recession, there's no denying the maturing concensus that English is not the answer. More so, people are waking up to the notion that there are other beautiful yet economically convenient languages to study.

China's emergence is a reminder that English doesn't have to be the cure. While many feel studying Mandarin is in their best interest, many are simply opening their eyes to other cultures and languages. This isn't a farewell to English, but it certainly is a hello to Mandarin and to the rest of the world.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How Not to Sing: The Unspoken Rules of Karaoke

Unlike baseball, カラオケ (karaoke) in America and Japan are two different ballgames. Take away the strangers. Condense the open air of a sweaty watering hole into a posh living room. Exchange the dodgy old man with his dusty equipment for a high definition wireless entertainment center. And the best part...dump the over-priced suds and drown in an all-you-can-drink ocean. Welcome to karaoke in Japan. It's all about fun!

Well...that's what I thought. Truthfully, karaoke in America can be defined as fun, also known as drunken humiliation. In Japan, it's all about singing; respectfully. Extroverted Americans may privately display their lack of vocals in the shower, but the shy Japanese publicly display their 'talants' in the company of friends, co-workers, and red-faced strangers. Just like the water dripping silently, we as 'honored guests' need to quietly admire the next Japanese Idol. Sound fun? Well it can be... if you politely break the rules.

If you've ever considered becoming addicted to nicotine, you may want a second opinion. Whom would you rather consult, a veteran puffer or a non-smoker? The expert of course! There's no better way of learning than by doing. Hypocrites make the best teachers. And from someone who was decreed by his 校長先生(principal) to "never sing karaoke again," I should be granted tenure. That being said, I'm happy to guide you on what 'not' to do in the karaoke booth while still dishing out laughs and lollipops.

I can't sing, and I don't like to sing. I don't like singing in a boat, I don't like singing with a goat. Also, hearing others sing within the same area code makes me want to karate chop my eardrums. Singing should be left to the professionals. If I didn't pay 50 bucks to hear your voice, shutup. But... since we're all friends here, or drunk enough to pretend we are, why not have a good laugh at the expense of a radio friendly tune? Japan needs to ink that statement onto their foreheads. Even more importantly,  外国人 (foreigners) should follow suit. Now, ex-pats are supposed to be assimilating to Japanese culture, which I agree with, but why bother in the comfort of a private booth? I say this as someone who was also black listed from his own kind! Can you believe that? I couldn't, but thankfully I'm the awesome, and was eventually invited back. Though this time I made sure to follow the proper karaoke etiquette.

Know Your Surroundings: Is this a tiny booth, or one with room to move? Are these all English speaking friends, or is it a mixture of nationalities? Just like a writer has to know their audience, potential singers need to be conscious of the crowd. Even though your principal may order you to sing, you better select a song familar to everyone, and more importantly sing it with class. Burning out your vocal chords while dry humping the floor to 'Born in the USA' will not make a good impression. However, if it's a room full of tourists, make Bruce proud! Just to let you know, strangely enough, the Japanese adore the Carpenters. If that's not your style, just choose something with a simple polite message.

Volume Control: Most of these booths are small enough to make microphones obselete. They're merely a prop to help you pretend you're on stage. With usually two mics per room, roaring the lyrics to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" induces more pain than laughter. During any song, respect the singer enough to not let your chatter compete with their singing. No one minds if you join in on the fun, but make sure your voice stays in the background. The Japanese may be a group oriented people, but they take selfish ownership of their selections.

Cursing: Remember, you're in a country famous for giving and receiving bombs. Why not toss in a F-Bomb or two. Don't just limit yourself to copying Old School's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'. I've learned that even the Japanese giggle themselves silly to an old-fashioned improvised "f***." Though try to avoid the other four-letter curses, especially sexually explicit words. You'd be surprised how sensitive a girl gets after gulping down three hours worth of 梅酒 (plum wine).

Pulling the Chord (purposeful spelling mistake): I get bored easily, so while I'm waiting for our drink delivery, I get mischievious. I flick the light switches, alter the volumes, and even turn off the TV. Once again, know your audience. If appropriately placed, some of these tricks may award you bonus points; especially when you know the crowd has turned on the singer who entered Mariah Carey's 'Fantasy' for the fifth time that night. Whatever you do though, don't cancel their song! With two wireless song-selecting machines in the room, anyone can take full control. One night I decided to be sad for a few minutes and tried my best at another Springsteen tune, this time 'Streets of Philadelphia.' But someone had a problem with my sudden seriousness and gave it the axe. By the end of the night, I was able to elicit sympathy from the others by branding this impatient bastard and friend a jerkface. As someone who was previously ousted, it felt good to return the favor. In general, leave cancelling up to democracy. If a nomination is heard within the delegation and the majority agrees: euthanize it.

Pace Yourself: It took over an hour of convincing to finally force my father into singing a tune. We had no idea Mr. Cravak said goodbye, for Mr. Hyde was now in the room. We had created a monster! He couldn't stop wailing away at rebellious rock tunes, and single-handily sang six straight songs. He was so consumed with the sensation that he forgot there were other wannabe Jim Morrisons, not including the aspiring Lady Gagas in the room. Never hog the machine! The trick is to avoid selecting more than one song in a row. As each song is selected, its title will briefly appear on the screen letting the others know what has been added to the queu. Following each song, a list of the upcoming selections will also be displayed. If you're itching to sing, keep an eye on the queu, and choose one song every five selections, or less depending on the size of the group. In addition, try to blend in with the flow. If the last song had Marilyn Manson inviting everyone to the 'Dope Show,' the audience may not be ready to smile their way through Leslie Gore's 'Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.' Remember, this all takes place in Japan, so probably only 30% of your choices will be in the system. Fortunately, if you speak the language, selecting a Japanese song can earn you respect.

Being Naughty: There are some innovative ways to remix the decorum. Feel free to experiment with your own ideas. One night I brought in hand-made signs. Each rectangular piece of cardboard had a numeral from 1 to 10. Everyone in the room understood what holding up an 8 meant after a song. I was careful enough not to avoid giving out 1s, unless the singer owed me money. In addition, most karaoke parlors have an eclectic wardrobe ready to be worn. Some may charge, but most will freely allow you to dress up as a monkey, school girl, or a North Korean soldier (maybe). As a teacher in America, I expressed myself by wearing eccentric threads and by rocking a mohawk. While this sort of behavior wouldn't survive the suffocating professionalism of Japan, I exploited its love for 'dress-up'. During the school festival I was well received in my french maid outfit, and even had my photo published in the PTA newsletter. So while at karaoke, take advantage and pull up that skirt!

General Tips: When in doubt, count your facebook friends. If you have over one hundred, you can trust your own judgement. If not, ask the others how to proceed. Overall, try to avoid being rude or selfish. Obnoxious behavior is fine, as long as it doesn't take away from the performance. Grabbing the mic to say, "Will the owner of a Ford Focus with licence plate number...." may be funny, it should be done during your own song. Feel free to adlib, change the lyrics, and alter the pitch in your voice; permitting of course this is your selection and no one in the room has branded it as one of their 'all time favorites.' And if you're under the impression you came only to listen, you're wrong. Everyone sings...eventually. So hop on the peer pressure express and enjoy.

If you get the chance, take advantage of karaoke in Japan. You can avoid emptying your wallet and sing for cheap in the daytime. Though I recommend you shell out 2000 to 4000 yen ($23-$47) and enjoy anywhere from a 2 hour to an unlimited open bar. Just keep in mind, that with karaoke, it's the crowd that provides the entertainment. Choose your crowd wisely, treat them with respect, and you'll be allowed to play the fool.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Truck Driven Nature

Tree Delivery
After 25 years of service, Papa Tree was laid off. He and Mama Tree had to pack their bags and move to a smaller apartment.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Halting the Hydration

I'm not sure how your eyes keep busy when using the bathroom. Mine watch the flow. I want to know if I'm  hyrdated. Today, while spraying within the comfort of the urinal, I noticed a golden current. "Oh no," I thought, "we need to remedy this!"

I powerwalked my way back to the office and quickly filled my water bottle. I had no time to pound the H20 as I had to meet a teacher downstairs. So I brought my bottle with me. Together we made out as I strutted the hallway saying "What's up?" to the dismissed students. My jittering hands had something to keep me busy and I was solving 'Crisis Yellow.' Damn was I cool. But someone disagreed.

One of my eccentric 3rd year students, immediately shoved her soapy hands in my face. "NO!" she shouted. Pointing to the bottle, I realized I had broken a social behavior code. Then with an absurd mixture of Japanese, English, Sign-Language, and caveman grunts, I was bestowed a proper Japanese culture lesson.

I knew the Japanese refrained from eating on the go, but with all of the beverage vending machines, I wasn't aware drinking and walking was taboo. It appears Project Hydrate will be scaled back to office based operations. While my career as a 'mobile hydrater' may have spanned all of 3 minutes, I am proud of my success, and greatly appreciate the kind words from that だいたんふてき (daring, brave) student.
Let it be known no one is more honest than a child. Especially, a weird adolescent girl. Sadly, society brushes off their opinions as trite fodder. Though Shakespeare taught me to value the 'fool,' and to take everything in earnest.

Drink responsibly!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

From Okinawa With Tax

What's in the bag?

     Walking the aisles of my friendly Japan super markets I often think, "I've never seen that before." Today, strolling past torii-themed displays thoughts of "I've REALLY never seen that before" brought me to a halt. I knew my wallet was a dead man.
     There must have been six kiosks full of "exotic" fare. Lost in a world of kanji, I searched for a familiar friend.
     "Where are you? Come out, come out wherever you are!" Presto, there he was, English! 'Okinawa,' was conveniently written on some of the packages. "All this crap is from Okinawa?" Then I recalled Japan's edible omiyage (souvenir) obsession.
     One could hit-up these displays and fake a trip to Japan's tropical islands. Simply pickup some goodies and hand them to a co-worker bragging about your vacation that NEVER happened. Or if Okinawa is in your future, stock up now to spare your luggage the burden.

Purchases from Okinawa
(by way of Aomori)

     I couldn't pass up the 'Are These Muffins' Muffins. I'm also a sucker for bizarre chocolate, which made the purple potato Kit-Kats impossible to ignore. Next came Pineapple and Shikuwasa (lime) hi-chew, followed by purple potato caramel and some soft pineapple candies. Things got pricey with 450 yen caramel boxes of Mango and Kokutou (Okinawa's traditional brown sugar). Though with only 14 pieces each, these caramels didn't disapoint. While the rest of the candy just tasted 'different.' Probably as a result of me sporting fewer taste buds than a corpse.
     Then I lawfully abided by the Girlfriend Act of 200 BC. Whenever buying something, a minimum of 25% of that said purchase must be set aside for the lovely lady. So I tossed in a bag of fruity gooey thingies.
     These edibles are intriguing and if you ever happen to be in Okinawa or a grocery store that pretends it is, say a prayer for your wallet.

The Flyer
Episode 1
The Phantom Chanpuru

The Flyer
Episode 2
Attack of the Fruits

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Englishanese: Round 16

Guest Starring: The Crave

Seriously Africa get with the program.

It should read "I skipped beauty"

It's true

Elton John Clothing Company

Monday, March 29, 2010

Englishanese: Round 15

Fun with Clothes

Made in America?

For Christmas, I'm buying Japan Ls.

Positive Message

Unexpected Surprise
Even the Japanese think Western New Yorker's are losers.
Please Note: I'm from the Buffalo - Rochester area.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hakodate: PR Suicide

"What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself."
Abraham Lincoln

函館市 (Hakodate), a southern port city in Japan's northern island of 北海道 (Hokkaido), is the ideal romantic getaway. Permitting, you avoid their tourist brochures. I haven't the faintest clue how well they advertise in native 日本語 (Japanese), but I get the feeling their English translator is not a fan of their job. Read to believe:

finishing a sentence can make all the difference

but not well enough to place them

honesty isn't always the best policy

and if you don't, good luck

American Mouth

"It's time for the party to make some sound."
Republic Tiger's 'Golden Sand'

Before arriving in Japan, I knew my crazy, obnoxious ways wouldn't get past Japanese customs. So I cut my hair, hid the earrings, and left behind the rainbow shoes. Though the most difficult trait to leave behind was my mouth. The days of walking out of a grocery store shouting, "JANICE!," or "My water just broke" became merely memories of my cherished past. 

This lavish tongue of mine came quite in handy as a teacher at an ignorant high school just outside of Miami. The school lacked discipline, not only with the students, but especially with the teachers and parents. Often times, I would put my Howard Stern meets William Wallace voice to use captivating the minions towards freedom and order. At the Christmas luncheon I served as the bouncer, and took pleasure in denying a handful of would-be free-loaders access to bountiful holiday treats. At a Sports Careers conference, I proclaimed to all of my students "Thank you for not being ghetto like these other schools." And while at the annual Grad Bash field trip to Universal Studios, a militia of misfit female hoodlums breezed their way past the wimpy white kids too afraid to challenge minorities. When they got to me, I said with no fear, "Hell no, where do you go to school, Ghetto High?" Sure they eventually snuck past me, but at least someone spoke up.

I will be heard, for good or bad. Despite my love of commanding the troops, my ulterior motive is strictly selfless. Unfortunately, my God given talent has no place to sail in the still waters of Japan. Most affairs are quite organized with participants full of respect for one another. Until one night...

It was the annual farewell party, 送別会 (soubetsukai), and things were as they should be. Bashful spies waited for their peers glasses to need a refill, installments of raw fish an unidentified salads were placed on the table's center rotating circle thingy, and of course a parade of speeches closed many an eye. The teacher next to me and I even took bets on the length of each speech. Then later in the evening, while trying to find a polite exit from the "You are scivvy (perverted), me too!" bonding session with the phys ed teachers, there was a call for help. 

The soft spoken master of ceremonies was asking everyone to return to their seats, which wasn't happening. So I vanished, and faster than you could dip your salmon into the soy sauce, I invaded the podium. And in Japanese equal to that of a fetus I shouted, "EVERYONE, SIT DOWN! THANK YOU, PLEASE!" I was like Moses, parting the red sea of drunken faces. I wouldn't know about herding sheep, but it was as easy as driving away women at a night club. In a flash, they had all returned to their seats, minus the geography teacher who's head could pass for a globe. When I made it back to my table, I was given a hero's welcome. The baseball coach gave me an authentic fist pound and poured so much beer in my already full glass that the carpet got tipsy. I knew the risks involved with "breaking protocal," but I just had to open my American mouth. I'm glad I did.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Poop Prick

"Don't worry, be crappy."
Guy Kawasaki

Perhaps, I'm just young. Or perhaps, just maybe, Japan gets too personal when it comes to health exams. Today my supervisor handed me my health exam packet. While looking through his, he pulled out a plastic bag filled with what appeared to be syringes. 

Shocked, I asked "You have to do your own blood test?"

"Not blood," he said, "droppings." I wanted to believe that by "droppings" he meant something else. 

Relief came, at least for half a moment, as he shook his head while I said "Fecal matter?" But when he folded out the pamphlet, my worse fears hit the fan. 

But the big question remained unanswered. "Was this vile bag in my envelope?" Like a log belonging to a constipated man, my hand moved cautiously. But to my smiles, no bag was found! 

"Maybe you are too young," said my supervisor. Whatever the reason, I'm just thankful I don't have to stab my turd. I don't even want to know where this is supposed to go down. In the toilet while it's floating about? Or do you build a paper towel foundation, 15 layers strong? But how do you even get the turd there? This sort of activity would have been enjoyable when I was a seven year old boy.

Well, at least I know I can't stay in Japan for too long. But now I'm wondering if this bizarre test will be waiting for me elsewhere.

I wasn't joking!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Caramel Caravan

"Love was always the goal, and my point every step of the way was that nothing is wrong with love, no matter what flavor it comes in."
Ani Difranco 

While on a weekend journey to Hakodate, a southern port city in Hokkaido, I noticed quite a variety of unusual caramel flavors. "Corn caramel? Cantalope caramel?" These boys were just too odd to sit on the shelf. So I quickly snatched up a few of the 18 piece boxes. But as I hopped from one お土産 (omiyage, souvenir) shop to the next, more intoxicating flavors surfaced. "Beer caramel? Wine caramel?" Ranging from 105 to 165 yen, they were too tempting to pass up. I knew Hokkaido, Japan's northern island was known for their caramel, but this was getting ridiculous. After the third round of purchases, my obsessive compulsive spirits overtook my soul and wallet. The goal of relaxing the day away quickly changed to storming every building with a cash register in search of additional caramel specimens. Twenty eight boxes later, I had captured every brand I could find. Though, sadly I've been made aware that more flavors such "Guarana" are hiding out there just waiting to be chewed. But without further ado, I humbly ask you to board the キャラメル キャラバン (Caramel Caravan), as we review 28 varieties of caramel, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 3 stars. Buckle up, it's going to be a sticky ride!

Caramel Caravan: Group 1

Corn Caramel
** / Novelty Worthy
If you can get past the instant realization that this caramel is corn flavored, richness will invade your tongue. Though sadly the initial taste of microwaved buttery mashed corn lowers this overall enjoyable caramel down to 2 stars.

Genghis Khan Caramel
*** / Must Purchase
Gengis Khan, a Mongolian barbeque of lamb and mutton has long been a specialty of Hokkaido. The Japanese have a PHD in taking the local food and blending it into every possible お土産 (omiyage / souvenir) item, in this case caramel. I must say, that these two foods are PERFECT STRANGERS! Talk about a tasty tag team. The saucy meaty flavor stays with you throughout the duration of your chewing experience.

Potato Caramel
* / Blandness Abounds
The state of Idaho has a reputation of being boring, probably due to it also being known for potatoes. We must realize that unless they are mashed with butter and milk, or fried in a pond of grease, potatoes are as boring as your couch potato uncle (pun intended). The initial taste is that of a raw uncooked potato, and while this soon fades we're left with an uninspiring non-distinct flavor. Consequently, I have no qualms in pummeling the potato caramel with 1 star.

Soup Curry Caramel
** / Uniqueness Not To Be Missed
Soup Curry, born in Sapporo, Hokkaido, as its name implies is a liquid curry loaded with vegetables and rice. While I thoroughly enjoy Japanese Curry Rice, this particular breed is quite the spicey beast! This caramel will turn your mouth into a curry fireplace. It may be not be a shot of whiskey, but a chaser is highly recommended. In fact, despite its parade of fragrant flavors, it earns just 2 stars on account of the spice factor.

Caramel Caravan: Group 2

Butter Caramel
* / No Thanks
Please pass the butter, but spare me the caramel. When my beloved butter loving Grandma joined heaven's roster, I adopted her buttery ways. Though, these pint sized caramels dropped the ball. You're treated to a 1/2 second taste of butter before it vanishes into a mellow faint flavor hardly resembling caramel. "Ya best butter not bite into 1 of deez boys."

Melon Caramel
** / Melonrific
Not too sweet, not quite sour, perhaps a drizzle of tangy. Whichever way you slice it, this Melon is a winner, and fruitily speaking one of the few caramels that run the flavor marathon. The wonderful aroma of cantaloupe will stay with you throughout your chewing endeavor. Though this fun caramel finishes shy of 3 stars merely because not all God's children embrace the cantaloupe as I do. But for those who do, treat yourself to a pack!


Melon Soda Caramel
* / The Pretender
If Melon wasn't enough, say hello to the "Melon Soda" flavored caramel complete with Hokkaido's infamous "uppity" mascot Marimokkori. Just like its brothers and sisters, this caramel starts the party right. A light carbonated texture crawls over the tongue as a sprinkle of melon tickles. And then the cops come to bust the party. But unlike its siblings, you're not left with caramel. It's worse! An uninvited bubblegum flavor shows up. Quite the disappointment, as Melon Soda Caramel goes flat fast.

Sapporo Beer Caramel
* / A Foamy Frown
Three chews in, and the anticipated beer flavor decides to show up. But instead of Hokkaido's own Sapporo draft goodness, your taste buds play host to skunky beer foam. Luckily, as in reality, the foam flavor fizzles. But like so many other novelty caramels, you're left with blandness. I wasn't expecting great taste, especially with a .01% alcohol percentage, but this caramel could have at least bought a round.

Caramel Caravan: Group 3

Strawberry Caramel
** / One Tough Chew
This caramel is from Japan's confectionary juggernaut Glico, the company most known for its pocky. While not that excited to sample a national product, especially with the January, 2011 expiration. With most caramel expirations hovering between 2 and 6 months away, I'm guessing that Gilco's Strawberry caramel is heavy on the chemicals. Oh well. I had to salivate on this sucka for 2 minutes straight before it let me to make a dent. It felt as though the strawberry flavor was playing hide-and-seek. But then I noticed the scattering of strawberry pimples in each piece, which explained the phemonenon. The caramel though had a much different flavor from its Japanese siblings, and reminded me of an American candy, which at this moment I can't recall. Overall, it scores 2 stars merely for the wonder of its strawberry pockets, though I was honesty scared this rock hard caramel was going to take a few of my teeth as a souvenir.

Condensed Milk Caramel
** / "Been there chewed that"

Milk Caramel is a common sight. Especially at Kappa Zushi, a popular conveyer belt sushi restaurant, where even they sell their own Kappa adorned milk caramel. But the thought of a sweeter "condensed milk" was tempting. Although smooth and rich, there was nothing remarkable here. While the taste is on the 3 star level, I knock it down to 2 based on the lack of individuality.

Hakodate Wine Caramel

*** / Cheers!
Being certified white trash, I'm unable to call myself a connoisseur of the finer things in life, especially wine. Though this Hakodate Vin Rouge (red wine) caramel gave me the royal treatment. While just .05% alcohol, wonderful red wine flavors splashed across my tongue with every chew. This 3 star caramel is also quite addicting but I now I find myself asking, "Where's the cheese?" This is one wine you won't want to spit out! But for those who aren't up for a wine tasting, I suggest trying a less cultured flavor.

Nanae Sweet Apple Wine Caramel

** / Cider in Disguise
After sampling the delicious Hakodate Vin Rouge, I decided to try the Nanae Sweet Apple Wine Caramel. You really have to give the island of Hokkaido props for producing such a wide variety of home-grown local specialties. But I'm sorry to say that this particular caramel is a little confusing. While containing .05% alcohol just like it's Hakodate sibling, the wine flavor was absent. Though, it's replacement, the taste of apple cider was warmly welcomed. Though oddly, the wine flavor surfaced as an after taste. Overall, a promising caramel that needs to re-work the balance of flavors.

Caramel Caravan: Group 4

Hakodate Seaweed Powder Caramel
** / A Quirky Chew
The name alone will send some swimming in the other direction. However, this particular flavor intrigued me. The fresh concrete color was curious. The taste, however, was lacking. The seaweed flavor is only sprinkled in what can only be described as a "quirky" caramel remix. There's nothing distinctively drowning about this caramel, but then again nothing floats to the surface. Guilty sugar snackers should pickup a box as Hakodate's Seeweed as it may carry a healthy edge.


Red Bean Caramel
* / Little Red
Given my love for the sweetness of red bean paste made from azuki beans, I was anxious to dive into this caramel. Only, it turned into a kamizake mission. For a nation that stuffs red bean paste into everything with room, it's a shock that they weren't able to properly master the caramel. There was no azuki flavor! Instead, it was just the standard caramel flavor with what appeared to be a masking of sugar. Perhaps, this caramel fails because it's unable to provide the mushy texture that makes red beans so much fun to eat. 


Kinako Caramel
** / Just2much
Japan has more uses for the soybean than they have shinto shrines. Soy beans are used for 醤油 (shoyu / soy sauce)納豆 (natto)枝豆 (edamame)豆腐 (tofu), 味噌 (miso), and in this case, 黄粉 (Kinako). Though disregard Wikipedia saying how this brown powder compares to peanut butter. It's sweet, it's fun, but it's not peanut butter. Instead it tastes like dried out hazelnut sand. Sadly this flavor should remain just a thin layer of dust atop 餅 (mochi). It was overkill resulting in a mediocre aftertaste.


Salt Caramel
** / Ocean Caramel
This Salt Caramel provided the expected: the taste of the ocean. This sure beats slurping up the water in the dolphin tank at Sea World. Though perhaps the salt concentration is too high. The salt flavor became stronger with every chew, by the end of my chewing journey my tongue was crawling towards the nearest river for fresh water.