Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thunder Run: Hit the Slopes in Summer

Over the past few decades, attendance at ski resorts in Japan has steadily decreased. To maximize profits, creative ways were sought to generate profits in the off season. Hokkaido's Rusutsu Resort built an 8 roller coaster strong amusement park. In Aomori, local favorite Moya Hills introduced their 'Green Season.' While nothing more than a scattering of playgrounds and tennis courts, they have something unique to offer.

"What goes up..."
 Hermann Maier said, "Ski racing, especially downhill, is a dangerous activity and there are many accidents. It would be really too bad to lose everything because of a crash." Now imagine plummeting down the slopes, but instead of blanketing snow beneath your feet, there's asphault.

Say こんいちは (konnichiwa / hello) to Moya Hill's ヒルズサンダー (Hills Thunder). Built in 1998, riders manually steer 3-wheeled carts down a 1,546 meter (.96 miles) long paved path from atop the chair lift all the way to the bottom at the club house.

The Course
All riders must first climb the hill in a trusty chair lift. Once your helmet is securely fastened, you unsecurely place yourself in the cart of your choice. Then you are instructed in Japanese, which for those who don't understand, it provides a great opportunity for photos. Basically you're told to pull back to brake, and to never never never put the cart in neutral (unless you want to fly). Then it's up to gravity to push you down.


The open air and single seat car provides the ideal thrill. Though, I'm not sure this would be legal in the states, for it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. While generally safe, it's not uncommon for beginners or speed demonds to run off course or flip over.


Hills Thunder is based off of a Roller Luge built in 1986 in New Zealand that boasted 600,000 riders in 1996 and in the following year received a "New Zealand Tourism Award." (Credit: Moya Hill's website). Obviously, Moya Hills wanted to emulate their success. Whether they were successful or not is up to their bank accounts, but judging how Hills Thunder has continues to remain in operation for 13 years, I'd put a check in the win column. Though the true victor are those who get to thunder 117 meters (384 feet) down the hill!

Price:
Adults: 1 time - 500円, 3 times - 1400円, 6 times - 2600 円
Elementary Students / Seniors / Disabled: 1 time - 400円, 3 times - 1000円, 6 times - 1800 円
1 Adult w/ a child under 140cm (55 inches): 1 time - 700円, 3 times - 1800円
*円=Japanese Yen (as of 06/09/11: $1 = 80円)

Hours:
Daily: 10:00 - 17:00
*HillsThunder is closed in the case of rain.
*Opening/Closing date depends on the weather. Typically it will open to the public after all the snow has melted in May.

Directions:
Unless you have a car, your only viable option is to take a bus. A taxi would cost more than 5000円, and walking would take around 3 hours. Click here for Moya's bus schedule in addition to a map showing the location in relation to Aomori station. (日本語/Japanese only). Please note that bus times are infrequent, so plan accordingly. If you don't speak Japanese, simply print out the bus schedule and at Aomori Station's Visitor Center / Bus Terminal. They should be able to steer you to the right bus. Don't worry about the return trek as there's only one bus to take and it will end up at Aomori Station.

For more pictures and information in Japanese please consult the official website.

It's such a funny comfort to see Japanese businesses make the effort to provide English.
By the way, is HillsThunder soon to be an Olympic sport?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

百物語: Hyaku-Monogatori

"An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself." - Charles Dickens

The power of strange and scary stories are epitomized in Japan's 百物語 (ひゃくものがとり) / 100 Stories. During the 江戸時代Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese people partook in this parlor game by lighting 100 candles. Participants took turns sharing scary stories and after each one extinguish one of the candles. As the night progressed, the room became darker. Finally, when the last candle was put out, it was believed that a paranormal event would occur or the room would be visited by a 溶解(yokai), a strange monster from folklore and pop culture.

Candle-Lit Ghost Stories
Copyright Kay Design Room
 Participants would marvel in this game by trading stories, often hoping to hear something even stranger or mor horrific than before. Perhaps this was the arena where many of Japan's famed yokai (kappa, tanuki, kitsune (fox), and tengu) left their own territories and ventured into the imaginations across the country. Eventually, these oral tales were written down into various collections of ghost stories, and are the precursors of Japan's notorious style of horror.



Truth be told, this ancient custom is not commonly practiced today. In fact, most Japanese people won't have a clue with what you're talking about or won't be able to offer any additional beyond what you already know. Consequently, while my 日本語/Japanese is lacking, my love for yokai (strange monster) is helping me to educate locals. While my job description states I am to bring over my own culture, I'm also reminding teachers and students of their own.

For those interested in a highly-engrossing academic analysis of Japanese monster culture, I recommend Michael Dylan Hoffer's "Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai." But those looking for an easy way out, just venture over to wikipedia for the incomplete story.


Sources:
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. University of California Press: 2009 

Noodling: The Soba Workshop

If you ever dined in Japan, outside of McDonalds, then you've eaten そば (soba), which are thin Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour. While soba is easy to find at the supermarket, few people today make their own noodles. For more on そば / Soba, I'll let google and wikipedia do the dirty work.

Thankfully in the off season, Aomori's local ski resort Moya Hills offers classes in Soba making. The best part being the results are edible, whether they're delicious is subject to skill and opinion.

I was fortunate to join fellow Japan-blogger Tesia, local hero Makoto, and a lovely Korean lady for this all important task. I must say it was a complete team effort. They did the work, and I watched. It's worth it to see how simple yet time consuming it is to make soba noodles by hand and to appreciate the old ways. If you ever get the chance to dine on Soba, make sure to make some of your own to better appreciate this ancient Japanese culinary custom.


You know you wanna...


"Let's get ready to noodle!"


Mr. Happy Dough


The Cutting Floor

Class Exam: Eating

Thursday, June 9, 2011

SUSHI LINK: Kantaro and the 100 Plates

Unless your diet consists soley of termites, you've encountered sushi. While more Americans are ignoring the raw fish stigma and dining on this Japanese treat, how much of it is authentic?

If you would like a taste of what a sushi restaurant truly offers in Japan then look further than "Kantaro and the 100 Plates", a comprehensive blog detailing one American's journey of sampling every dish on the menu. The location of the expedition is none other than Kantaro, a conveyer belt sushi restaurant, in Aomori, Japan. While conveyer belt sushi restaurants can sometimes offer lower-quality, machine made sushi, Kantaro is at the high end of the spectrum offering a variety of properly prepared dishes.

'100 Plates' not only describes each dish in English but also provides photos, prices, and ratings. Hungry for sushi? Then study up by feasting your eyes on Tesia Smith's personal 'made in Japan' feeding frenzy.

Extinct: Aomori's Fallen Amusement Park

It's hard to believe rural, snow-crippled 青森/Aomori played host to an amusement park. Though for over two decades, 浅虫ワンダーランド/Asamushi Wonderland thrilled locals over-looking scenic Mutsu Bay. In 2005, the park closed its gates, and now only a menegarie of abandoned infrastructure remains. For more on Asamushi Wonderland click here.

Abandoned Amusement

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Wooden Fish

You haven't eaten Japanese cuisine until you've swallowed 'dancing fish flakes.' If you're not aware of what I'm referring too check out this video.

Thankfully these yummy fish flakes are everywhere! You'll find them quivering on top of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, soba and they're even known to hang out in bento (lunch boxes).

I was aware that they were tuna shavings, but really hadn't thought about how they ended up on my plate. One day while under the tutelage of Ukei Sensei, my well-respected pottery teacher and Japanese culture guru, I found out the truth!

These 'fish-flakes' known as 鰹節 (katsuobushi) or ぼにと(bonito) are wooden...or made from what looks to be a block of wood. Either that or a mummified fish carcus.

A man and his wooden fish.

Hungry?
You could literally beat someone to death with this 'fish' and then shave off some pieces to devour your victim. I have a feeling katsuobushi is popular among angry cannibals.

A hunk of this stuff doesn't come cheap and sells for well over 1000円 ($12), though if shaven finely enough it will yield you plenty of fish flakes to last your tummy well into obesity. While anyone can shave at home, it's often left to the cooks, while the 'woodifying' process is best left to the professionals.

So how does a tuna fish become a deadly yet tastey block of wood? Instead of copying and pasting, I'll just now direct you over to wikipedia.

Happy wood eating everyone!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Say What? - "You poor cute bastard"

If you happen to encounter a tasty looking morsel and would like to express yourself in 日本語/Japanese then simply say おいしいそう (oishii sou), meaning "that looks delicious." Breaking it down おいしい (oishii) is an adjective meaning delicious, and そう has multiple meanings/uses but in this case translates into English as 'looks like.' In the polite culture of Japan, this expression is heard all too often. You could plop a plate of burnt tator tots in front of a guest and they would immediately gasp "おいしいそう" pretending to faint with anticipation.

I began to notice this formula repeated when colleagues responded to my charming smile with "元気そう" (genki sou), meaning "you look happy / full of life." While not a master of Japanese, I thought the time came to hone my skills and apply 'adjective + そう' to other situations.

But before I could, I heard it again, "かわいいそう"(kawaii sou). かわいい, not to be confused with こわい (kowai / scary), means 'cute.' I would go on to hear "kawaii sou" several times, and eventually came to the conclusion "everyone thinks I'm cute." Boy was I wrong.

かわいいそう can actually be translated as "You poor thing," or "I'm sorry to hear about that," and is used as a reaction to hearing of another's trouble or peril. I received the memo too late. Even with a math degree I wouldn't be able to count the number of people I said "かわいいそう" too. Oh well, at least I and now you know not to apply the formula to any other adjective.

Though...if I encounter a sad faced gorgeous gal, I may just have to say "かわいい かわいいそう," which using my own rules of language would translate into "You poor cute bastard."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"What did you call me?"

Despite the interconnectedness of the 'global community,' 日本 (Japan) remains a homogeneous culture. Due in part to centuries of isolation and nationalism, all things foreign may sometimes be treated equally but are always treated as foreign. While urban epicenters such as 東京 (Tokyo) or 大阪 (Osaka) are filled with thousands of 外国人 (foreigners), each one still sticks out like Godzilla on a low budget studio set (please excuse the insensitive simile).

But I enjoy being different. Having white skin, freckles, and a smile only a dentist could profit from automatically grants me oodles of attention. I like that! Sure, it may not always come with sprinkles, but nonetheless I feel alive.

Typically while strutting, bicycling, or moonwalking down the city streets I often hear guttural reactions to my presence.

"外人" (gaijin/foreigner)

Gaijin is a semi-derogatory term for foreigner is often uttered by adults. Thankfully, younger generations help to inflate my ego.

"かっこいい" (kakkoii /cool)
"かわいい" (kawaii / cute)
"すごい" (great)

Today, a new reaction was added to the glossary.

Turning the corner, a pair of rambunctious lads nearly crashed into me. Disgusted by their intrusion of my self-allocated temporary parcel of personal space, I stood still and...stared. I stared, and I stared. Not a word was spoken. The boys nervously battered out a spattering of English, "hello," "sorry," "yeah" as I shook my head walking away. And then it happened. Yards away in the trail of my dust, something was said. Something I've never heard before. From the mouths of two giggling girls came...

"White Bear"

I thought, "They can't possibly be referring to that lovable cute, and cool guy." But seconds later a grammatically incorrect sentence confirmed it.

"Mr. Cravak is white bear."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Evaluation Station: Reviews Are In Part 3

Following the 10th graders, my 11th graders have given me their two yen. Below is another assortment of juicy and odd nuggets from the evaluation forms. 

Laugh at them, use them to guide your own teaching of ESL students, or do both, the choice is yours. Grammatical and spelling errors were kept in tact to prove the authenticity of the responses.

Enjoy the ego trip!




"Smells good / Nice Guy / You are our English hero!"

"You said that you like Peanut Butter. Don't eat too much it. Please suggest your health."

"I remember being saying "Bless you" when I くしゃみ (sneezed). I didn't say "Thank you" to you. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you. Thank you very much."

"I like doing work with near classmates. Because I like talking and doing."

"Journals are a little hard for me, but it's useful to develop writing ability. So I'll work hard to go on."

"I like your lessons and your hairstyle!!"

"Your voice is occasionally so loud. It always causes me headache. I hope you control your feelings a little."

"I want t go to America!! I want to eat ice cream there."

"I think your English is good to hear."

"I studied a lot of things about English from you. For example, proverbs, comic strips, events in foreign country and so on. (I don't like "Journals")"

"Your funny talk is impressive. The class is good vibration."

"Sorry, I hate Peanut Butter, but I love mayonnaise."

"Your talk is very fun."

"Your story is amusing to me every time."

"Are the peanut butter in America better than Japan's one?"

"I was amused your shout and tension."

"Your transfer makes me sad."

"We occasionally met at not school. Then, I felt happy a little. Talking with you was very exciting."

"Probably you are great teacher. However, I am not too smart to understand your English. I regret to not enjoy too much."

"The red glasses very suits you."

"After you go back to your hometown. You do your best!"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Evaluation Station: Reviews Are In Part 2

Following the 10th graders, my 11th graders have given me their two yen. Below is another assortment of juicy and odd nuggets from the evaluation forms. 

Laugh at them, use them to guide your own teaching of ESL students, or do both, the choice is yours. Grammatical and spelling errors were kept in tact to prove the authenticity of the responses.


Enjoy the ego trip!




"You are a gentleman! I like you."

"I can understand a little word you speaks to us because I am an inexperienced person. But I receive your passion."

"You are cool and I like your clothes!"

"I often met you in the library. You are always gentle. I was happy."

"Your voice is very big. I was surprised at your voice when I joined the first team teaching. I love your voice because I can wake up clearly."

"You are handsome man and funny man, so I like you."

"Halloween in team teaching is my best class. I could learn an American culture and American monsters. I like a wearwolf because it is very cool, I want to take part in the Halloween party and become a cool wearwolf in America."

"You always wore a nice tie. I like your sense of fashion."

"I am not good at English, But Mr. Cravak's class was able to participate by very pleasently and enjoying it."

"I have three wishes. I want your great voice. I want your red glasses. At last, I want your strong body."

"I didn't like English much. But I could enjoy your class Because I like to think story and write some English."

"I wish you to marry a beatiful woman."

"You are a great teacher! But please lower your voice's volume. When you shouted, I was surprised."

"Your voice is too big. So I could unsleep."

"I think a cool you."

"I don't like your class because I'm not good at English. But I wanted to talk with you more."

"It's good that you teach alone."

"I like you very much because your talks are easy to understand and interesting!!"

"I like your class and I like your tie!! My favorite tie is smile's one. It's very suits you."

"I want to work at International airport in the future. So I must study English more. Your class gave me more natural English."

"I enjoyed thinking an original story in English."

"I liked to know about many kind of words which we don't learn in the English class."

"I like you very much. I'm sad to find that you will go back to the USA."

"English is not a language but also a way to communicate with foreign people. I learn English from you."

"Your jokes made me laugh. The better I understand English, the more interesting this class become."

"I like to make stories, it's dood for me to learn grammers and how to tell stories in English. So, I think Journals is also good, but I wanted to check more."

"I like your class since I was first grade in high school. I learned about foreign country's culture and songs through your class."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Taylor Anderson Remembered

Our sincere thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Taylor Anderson, a fellow American and JET.

CBS News has more information on her story and legacy.


For those of you who would like to remember Taylor, I encourage you to participate in "Cranes for Taylor, Cranes for JETs." Fellow JET Kitty Isom posted the following information about this event.

Taylor Anderson was a JET living in Miyagi Prefecture at the time of the Tohoku tsunami. Her body was found Monday morning and was not only the first confirmed American casualty, but also the first JET victim.http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/03/21/6313764-family-mourns-american-teachers-death-in-japan?GT1=43001

In remembrance of her and in hope for all other missing JETs/persons, let's make paper cranes. According to Japanese tradition, cranes are a symbol of long life, good luck, and peace. Although Taylor's life was tragically cut short, perhaps these cranes can bring her family some peace and some hope for others. Therefore, please make a crane and take a picture of it somewhere in Japan (or America, or wherever you are), then post it on the wall of this event. Let's show Taylor's family the country she loved so much.
For a few Taylor was a fellow Virginian, for some a fellow American, and for many a fellow JET. But for all she was person who loved Japan, just like the rest of us.

Just in case you need some help making a crane, here's a website:
http://origami.org.uk/origamicrane
And a video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSijU52XJ7w

東日本大地震が起きた時、テーラーアンーダソンが宮城県に住んでいました。月曜日の朝にテーラーの遺体が見つかり、地震による確認されたアメリカ人の犠牲者、そしてジェットの犠牲者、初めてでした。

T1=43001
テーラーのために、そして、行方の分からない方々のために鶴を折りましょう。日本の伝統によると、鶴は長寿、幸運、平和の象徴です。折り鶴で慰めの気持ちをテーラーの家族へ伝えられたらうれしいです。どこにいても(日本でも、アメリカでも、どこでも)鶴を折って、写真を取って下さい。その写真をフェイスブックにアップロードして下さい。テーラーの家族にテーラーが愛した日本を見せましょう。
ある人にとってテーラーは同じバージニア州から来た仲間、他の人にとってアメリカの同国人、他の人にとってジェットの仲間でした。しかし、私たち全員のように、テーラーは日本を愛している人でした。
鶴の折り方が分からない場合、次のウェブサイトを利用してください: 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

April Fools in a Bottle

"We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance."  
- Japanese Proverb

Japan has adopted several foreign holidays into its calendar. Luckily, April Fools Day is one of them. While Google Japan has opted out this year out of respect to the victims of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, I feel this celebration of childish antics couldn't come at a better time. 

March is typically filled with 'end of the year' parties, and with the recent tragedy, most of them have been cancelled. Even commercials on Japanese TV were pulled in favor of lighthearted animated public service announcements. With life slowly returning to normal, it's time for everyone to smile out loud.

But what to do? There's a great cultural and language barrier between my co-workers and I. I was banking on one advantage...all humans (the cool ones) love to laugh at the absurd. 

I decided to dust off one of my previous 100yen shop purchases. I knew one day a male urine bottle would come in handy, and April 1st was a fitting time to "relieve myself." In the photo copy room I covertly filled the bottle with water, then added generous drops of yellow food coloring. Shook that sucker and presto... FAKE PEE! 

Then I snuck the bottle under my jacket and strategically placed it in this the staff room refrigerator. My hope was that teachers would be appalled to see a bottle of urine placed in the community fridge. The icing on the cake was how all teachers have a mandatory health check up next week, making the placement of this 'urine' unbelievably believable.

In an office with 30 plus teachers and administrators, I knew someone would quickly find the bottle. Boy, was I wrong. I must have placed the bottle in there too late. Most teachers already ate their lunch, or were opting to warm up with tea or coffee. Regardless, I left it in there, and come Monday I may have some explaining to do. I can't wait to, in plain view of the entire office, drink from it!

Plastic Bladder

The Trap is Set

OGA for Aid

One of our greatest attributes as human beings, is our ability to care for one another. I want to take this time to say thank you to everyone for their sympathies, concerns, thoughts, and prayers. Many people have asked how they can help or where to donate. There are many wonderful charities out there responding to the dire needs of Earthquake/Tsunami victims. 

But let's be honest here. We all want to give, but sometimes it's hard too when you are not aware of how your contributions and donations will be used, if they are at all. I'm not advocating people give blindly during this difficult time. Instead, I would like to introduce you to one group I know is 100% altruistic and is diligently working to provide those in need with much needed goods and support. 

http://www.facebook.com/OGAFORAID

Say hello to OGA for AID, a family operated charitable cause ran out of Aomori's own Ortiz Global Academy. Every day they post more pictures of the great services they have been providing to the communities ravaged by the tsunami. They have facilitated hoards of donations and personally drove parades of trucks down south. 

I recommend paying a visit to their site, check out all the good they have done, and find a way to help their cause.

Sincere admiration and respect to everyone involved in OGA for AID and all charities responding to Japan's call for help.

Dear Japan,






Dear Japan,
     May the beauty of life inspire you to overcome disaster with a smile. We are one with the Earth and can not face our Mother with anger. Instead let us embrace our siblings and pick up the pieces. Our tears are planted in the soil, and our hope will evaporate the fog of fear.
     To my surrogate home and to a people I will forever cherish...my spirit is with you Japan. がんばってください

All the best, with a little more,
Stephen James Cravak

Friday, April 1, 2011

INTRODUCING CRAVECOASTERS!

"Life is a roller coaster. Ride it with your hands in the air."

Got Coaster?
CraveCoasters, the newest web portal by Crave Cravak, provides the common man, woman, and idiot with a 元気 (genki - happy/fun) look at the international presence of the ジェットコースター(jetto-kosuta - roller coaster). Crave has ridden more than 250 towering beasts across 10 nations and has oodles of photos to share and more than one story to tell. 

What are you waiting for? Fasten your safety harness, prepare to scream, and enjoy your stay at www.cravecoasters.com!


Monday, March 28, 2011

Drawings on the Wall: The Studio Ghibli Art Exhibition

Totoro Snowman
Say こんにちは/hello to Studio Ghibli, the Disney of Japan, responsible animated films including My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Currently the studio sponsors a traveling art exhibit full of art from all of their films. Though, be aware that this exhibit with thousands of pieces, has not one finished cell on display. Instead, it’s full of drafts drawn in colored pencils. While an America audience would much prefer to see the finished product, the Japanese are fascinated with the process of art. In 青森県/Aomori prefecture, crowds have waited patiently in line from October 9th through January 10th at the Aomori Museum of Art.

The Dotted Room

CUSTOMer DRAWINGS

Sadly, having viewed only a few films, I was unable to connect to this exhibit. Though, having seen Pom Poko, a tale about a tribe of 狸/raccoon dog fighting for survival as their habitat is demonlished, I joyously viewed each of its sketches. Cameras are not permitted within the exhibit. Instead, the only opportunities are the chance to lay on the floor where the belly of the giant furry Totoro has been painted and to snap a photo of the wall of patron drawn dust spots. Consequently, the same two photos have appeared on everyone’s Facebook and blog.

Most of us are only shown the finished masterpieces in art galleries, but after viewing this exhibit, you’ll hunger to see pottery that just didn’t survive the oven, or early sketches of a would-be mural. Overall, for fans of the films, it’s worth the 1,100円 to take a peak at a work in progress.

craveART

Belly Napper

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Unlikely Drinking Partner: Graduation Parties in Japan

Sitting at a table with colleagues, a mature woman hiding her age with golden jewelry and charcoal stockings approaches saying, “Let me pour you a drink.” Standing up, she fills your glass with Kirin beer. A few minutes of regulated chitchat and she walks off to find another man. Before you can sit back down to grab your allotted piece of salmon, another woman arrives. She rakes her hair with wrinkled fingers before carefully pouring from a giant bottle into your nearly full glass. She keeps the chatter brief bowing 5 1/2 times. You exchange the mannerly physicality realizing the salmon will have to wait. Three more women and a gray haired man have formed a line.

Are you a celebrity? I’m afraid not. Are you a prominent bachelor irresistible to not only cougars but also the same sex? Perhaps, but not in the case. You are a 先生/teacher, specifically at a top academic 高校/high school. You are attending the 卒業式宴会/Graduation Party hosted by the Parent Teachers Association.

Each year, on the evening after graduation your attendance is required at the city’s finest hotel banquet hall. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay, because you already did. Mandatory monthly ‘party fund’ dues cover the evening’s expenses. Though, parents of the graduates each paid 5000円($60) to get you drunk.

Let the Fun Begin

For the teachers who have guided the students for the entirety of their 3 years in high school, the night is primed for celebration. The Japanese love a good drinking party with co-workers. Yet these affairs are exclusive engagements where ‘plus ones’ are outlawed. Consequently irony flows over the rim, when protective parents are watching every move and listening to each word as you, while intoxicated, attempt to remain professional.

This party functions like most 沿海. Most guests arriving 20 minutes early, check in to receive their official name badge and program. Everyone waits patiently whisper in the corridor as they review the seating chart. At precisely 6:30pm, the doors swing open and everyone pretensiously “ahhhs” over the complimentary bouqet of flowers on their chair. The master of ceremonies, always a tall attractive mother, welcomes guests and introduces the speakers. It’s not an official party until you have key note speeches.

To escape the boredom, I set up my 携帯/cell phone’s timer and make bets with those next to me on how long each speech will run. Luckily for us, the 校長先生/Principal, and members of the alumni association all average 6 minutes. Might I add, not a single drop of liquor is consumed until the official かんぱい/toast, another elongated minute speech, is delivered on stage. Everyone lifts up their plastic shot glass and downs their miniscule drop of 日本酒/sake. In past years, drinkers number 95%, though this year it seems as many are opting to skip over the drinking and just get the formalities out of the way.

Rounds of food are placed on the rotating chinese top on each table. Often, each dish has been divided into exactly the right number of pieces for each person. Though, luckily none of the food needs to be warm, so guests can mind the interruption of pouring parents. As bottles are emptied, servers quietly replace them. Though the only liquids available are Kirin Beer and unsweetened tea. Though, strangely at one point a mother approaches with a tray of whiskey and 諸チュ/shochu, a Japanese distilled liquor.

After a half an hour of mingling, a slide-show of pictures and videos from the past year appears on a gigantic screen, but with so much alcohol having been consumed, this gets ignored. The party continues until the last half and hour, when the entire congregation sings the school song, an old man serves as a cheerleader beckoning the audience to scream and clap their hands, and finally a flower ceremony for the homeroom teachers of the graduating students.

Before you can dash out, you have to bow to a row of parents who have assembled in front and out of the door to respectfully see you on your journey. Most teachers will secretly meet up with their friends and commence with the “real” party at a local snack bar or izakiya.

“I don’t understand why the parents don’t want to be with their children,” remarks a co-worker. This is often the case in America, where families will gather at a fancy restaurant to celebrate graduation. In America, actual parties occur over the summer and are an excuse to receive monetary gifts and drink for the first time with friends and family. There may be a party, but it would be exclusive for teachers and their plus-ones, often hosted by the local ring or gown supplier as a means to “stay in business.” American teachers are often placed in the same situation as the Japanese when they are invited to graduation parties. Though these, in many cases, will feature a student’s entire family, all of their friends, with most of them drinking. This is why most teachers kindly refrain from attending, though some option only if they use “safety in numbers” and arrive with several colleagues. The Japanese teacher doesn’t have that luxury, but at least it’s not in front of students, and it’s the parents who are pouring their drinks.

“I do not like this party,” said a co-worker. While this is not a complaint against parents, it’s simply an argument against the unusual circumstance of the occasion. Those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, should realize that alcohol is not seen as taboo. Teachers freely discuss their favorite drinks with students and openly comment on how “hungover” they are with co-workers. At anytime after 5pm, you can see a parade of drunken well-tailored men, and on the weekends it’s not unlikely to see an 80 year old drunkily collapse on the sidewalk.

It’s also one of the rare cases of “popularity.” While some teachers act as quarterbacks amidst a huddle of listeners, others catch up on their sleep dozing off at their table. This graduation party is clearly evidence of what teachers contribute the most to their students. Though, just like America, those who coach sports receive the most attention. However, parents also seem to adore those notorious for dishing out “tuff love.” Clearly, some teachers enjoy the chance to boast or receive their fair share of overdue ‘butt-kissing.’ The problem lies in how the teachers want to “party,” but have to remain “on the clock” until they can start the unofficial, parent-free 二期会 second party.

This form of graduation party is a Japanese tradition. Though due to its unsettling formalities, the custom is changing. While 青森高校/Aomori High School continues the tradition, attendance from parents has dwindled over the years. 青森南高校/Aomori South High School abandoned the custom in 20___. While, 富山高校/Toyama High School has found a solution by hosting an alcohol-free parent, teacher and student gala in the gym. Afterwars is when the teachers gather together to drunkilly wash away their hard work and guidance.

If you fancy older women, but are too shy to approach them, my advice is to become a high school in Japan. For only once a year, do parents and teacher gather to celebrate student success over glass bottles of liquor.

Got Flowers?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Namecake

"A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes that he has got the biggest piece." - Paul Gauguin

Free Cake!
卒業式 (Graduation) is a time of celebration. Especially at 青森高校 (Aomori High School), arguably the top academic school in all of 青森県 (Aomori Prefecture). But for a society fueled by respect, rules, and organization, graduation is a piece of cake, literally. Every year, the head teacher of 3年生 (3rd year / comparitive to senior year) pushes a cart through the office. He delivers a piece of cake to everyone. But unlike Santa, he doesn't make a list and exclude the bad little boys and girls. Instead, everyone gets a piece, the same piece of cake. As the resident foreigner, and technically only an 'assistant language teacher,' sometimes I'm not professionally seen as an equal. But thankfully when the bakery bandwagon rolls into town, I'm one of the gang. What especially delighted my senses was a label with my Japanese name, クラバクステイブン (kurabaku, suteibun) attached to the package. Talk about organized fairness!

I'm sure whoever had the task of wrapping each box in the celebratory Aomori High School paper and labeling the names was dying for a drink, but instead of hiding behind a union, they got the job done. I vividly recall, these same 'kind gestures' bestowed upon the high school staff where I taught in Florida. However, with no intended disrespect, it was chaotic. Often times, people would be 'left out.' I'm not sure if the person in charge simply failed at math, or if others 'behind the curtain' were greedy and took more than they were allotted. Regardless, I love Japan's tradition of organized giving. Even though its お茶 (green tea) flavored, this rebel is happy to enjoy his namecake and bow to conformity.

Green Tea Cake?
Beggars can't be choosy!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Winter Blunderland

"A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water." - Carl Reiner

Enter the Igloo
Japanese is rich in festivals. While, they are often smaller in scale than fairs and carnivals in the states, the Japanese are professional festival goers. Therefore, you can't fault the festival organizers for not reeling in has-been celebrities or plotting a garden of spin and puke rides. These festivals are more about people coming together in harmony.

Organized Tubing
Personally, I like to put off outdoor harmony until spring. But when your city receives enough snow to bury a giraffe, you have enough courage to face Mother Nature head on.

Every festival has a party pooper.
Welcome to this year's Gappo Snow Fest, an annual weekend festival held in January in Aomori City's seaside Gappo Park. The main objective was festival food: candied strawberries, chocolate covered bananas, yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), and karage (fried chicken). Sadly, the food tents were scarce, and the quality decided to stay indoors.

Sold Out Performance
There wasn't much to do per say, but I suppose I'm turning Japanese as I found the atmosphere enjoyable enough. There was a snow tube slide, igloo, and even a shamisen performance. The strangest sight was groups of people throwing around taped up brown bags of ice. Overall, the snow fest didn't stimulate all of the senses as it's more intended for the youngsters, but like all Japanese festivals, it's worth the trek. Just leave your expectations at home, and feast on the fun of people.

Questionable Quality

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Leaf in the Parking Lot

"And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected." - Spike Milligan


A parade of "ohhh" and "ehhhh" shattered the office stillness like pebbles pouncing on a pond. Curious, I looked around, but none of my fellow teachers were behind their desks. They were staring at the parking lot. Welcome to another episode of "Why is everyone looking out the window."


"Teacher's Eye View"
What's everyone looking at?
In 2006, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," a documentary/obituary on California's electric cars premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Here in Japan, I think a sequel is in order. "Who Revived the Electric Car?" Well the answer lies in certain math teacher at 青森高校 / Aomori High School. For in the parking lot rests his newest purchase: a leaf. But this 'leaf' didn't fall from a tree. It came from engineers at Nissan. The Nissan Leaf is the newest bad boy on the road of 'eco-friendly' driving. When I heard that "Mr. Green," had purchased an electric car, I immediately pictured a 2 person micro-sized golf-cart. The kind of vehicle you would see janitors driving in Disney's Tomorrowland. I was shocked to find that this 100% electric car was the sexiest thing in the lot. It's moderately priced, seats five, and with some blue highlights has a hint of the future without looking like something only sci-fi nerds would drive.
Nissan Leaf
The most popular car at school.
I'm not about to advocate everyone rush out and purchase an electric car. At the same token, I urge all of you who are already guarding your brainwashed theories and looking to find fault with an electric powered car, to open your mind. Sure an electric car may not be the perfect transport for long trips, for rural areas, or cities with expensive electric bills. But at least for one man on a modest teacher's salary in the Japanese country-side, change is not only good, but it's fun.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Caring Co-Workers

"The best way to realize you're a jerk it to surround yourself with nicer people." - Me

All is normal in the office. My water bottle is halfway full, music is blasting from my macbook into my earphones, and I'm typing away at another post when..."CRASH!" Something, somewhere has fallen. My first and only reaction was laughter. Returning to my world of hydrated and seranaded writing, I can't help but notice EVERYONE leap out of their chairs and rush out of the office. "They really care," I thought which of course makes me realize that I didn't. Well I crashed the kindness party and followed the gang. As it turns out one of the teachers stood atop a wobbly desk to put a box of materials away in an overhead storage closet. Of course gravity ups the anti and sends him and a bundle of binders down to the floor. No one was hurt, but it was still a close call. That sound was not only the audio consequences of clumsiness, it was also possibly the signal of someone in peril. Therefore, I can't believe I laughed. Well...of course I laughed, and to be honest, everyone should have as well. Falls, fumbles, and anything klutzy is pure entertainment. But what I should have done is responded to the scene of the sound. Just laughing and ignoring the situation is cause for membership at the Jerk Club. So I want to personally thank all of my kind Japanese brethren for paving the yellow brick road towards kindness.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Secret Travelers

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware" - Martin Buber

Japan is an intricately organized society burdened with paperwork but maintained with policies, rules, and red tape. Part of the nation's success is due to its citizens seeing their jobs as more than a paycheck. Biologically speaking, everyone has two parents, a mother and a father. But in Japan, there exists a third, the company you work for.

In the case of teachers, it's very difficult to get away, and very few teachers even come close to using half of their paid vacation leave. Though with the existence of several large travel agencies, such as JTB or HIS, someone is hopping on those planes. But who?

The answer: everyone. When I first aquainted myself with the Japanese workplace, I was dumbfounded when many colleagues had confessed to never leaving the country, let alone a trip to the southern islands of Okinawa. It was only after befriending them did I realize that everyone was lying. While, Japanese people are portrayed as shy, and speak less English than neighboring Asian countries, they love exploring the world, if only for a few days at a time.

Then why do they, especially teachers, work so hard to keep their travel on the downlow? It's simple: they're lazy and want to be left alone, but you can't blame them. As a teacher in Florida, all I had to do was input my requested days on the computer and my vacation time was automatically approved. In Japan, not only does your Vice Principal and Principal have to sign off, but if you're traveling, you need to submit a detailed travel report.

Just like a child going on a camping trip with friends, educated adult employees need to supply precise dates, locations, hotel addresses, phone numbers, and emergency contact information. Perhaps, the true reason for keeping the trip secret deals with the return. For any employee missing work is expected to 'thank their co-workers for picking up the slack while they were gone.' This is done with おみやげ / souvenirs, typically of the edible kind. For the first two years, I loved picking up boxes of cakes from exotic countries for the staff room, and personalized presents for my favorite co-workers. But now in my third year, I've grown tired of the ordeal. With bag limitations, and strict travel budgets, it's sometimes difficult to supply the necessary 'thanks.' This is why one co-worker didn't publicize his relative's wedding in another prefecture, and why another secretly took his family to Europe during winter vacation. It also explains why I need to keep my mouth shut. For instance, I only told two colleagues that I was traveling to China, and then everytime I was at the photocopier, someone would approach me and say, "China!"

Consequently, I can't blame any of my co-workers for not telling anyone about their trips, well except me.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Winter Walk

"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking." - Friedrich Nietzsche

When a town drowns in snow, the likely response is to stay at home. While I agree in the power of heat, it's impossible to cage curiosity. So one day the time had come for a walk, a winter walk.
Location: 青森市 (Aomori City)

No one said it was going to be easy!


Snow Leaves



A pedestrian's eye view presents the obscure.



Talk about dedication. I've heard of fair-weathered fans, but these are cold-weathered athletes.


Commemorative Couple Shot

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Edible Statistics: McDonaldland Japan

"McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15." - Thomas Friedman


On July 20th, 1971, the first Japanese McDonald's opened in Tokyo. While that's 31 years after the first one opened in San Bernardino, Japan has quickly become 2nd ranking nation with the most McDonald's.

With an estimated 312,072,000 people, the United States accounts for 4.52% of the world's population. With an estimated 31,000 plus locations globally,  America's 13,381 locations account for roughly 43% of the world's McDonald's. In total, the US has one McDonalds per every 23,322 citizens.

While Japan, with a population of 127,370,000, has 3,598 locations. While Japan accounts for only 1.85% of the world's population it has nearly 12% of the world's McDonald's with one per every 35,400 citizens. Even my city of residence 青森市 / Aomori, with an estimated population of 302,068, has 5 locations providing one McDonald's per every 60,413 people. But 青森市 is in the rural Tohoku region. Now factor in Japan's bustling metropolitan areas, and that's a lot of McDonald's to make up for the numbers.

What about the competition? Burger King left in 2001, returned in 2007 and now has a mere 37 locations. America's 3rd fast food burger chain, Wendy's, left Japan in early 2010. Mos Burger, founded just one year after McDonald's landed in Japan, is the nation's 2nd largest fast food chain with an estimated 1327 locations. Consequently, McDonald's has nearly 3 times as many locations as its closest competition.

Of course these numbers don't account for competition, population density, tourists, economic factors, or dietary differences. Surprisingly using statistics alone, you're more likely to find a McDonald's in Canada, than either the US or Japan with one location per every 2,454 people.

Also surprisingly is that South Korea which shares some of Japan's food culture has only 243 locations with one per every 199,592 people. Lotteria, though first founded in Japan in 1972, is Korea's number one fast food chain accounting for 45% of the market.


McDonald's World Locations

*Please note: Crave Cravak, nor craveVSworld claim no responsibility for the contents of this post nor attest to their validity. Please visit wikipedia for their respective world population and McDonald's pages.