Keitai PictureWhy?

Why did I have to buy what I originally thought was plain ole mixed green salad, but turned out to be, upon closer inspection (at home and therefore five long sweaty minutes away from the combini), seaweed salad (with no less than three shades/species/types of seaweed, mind you).

Why, why, why?

And don’t give me that crap about cultural openness, nutritional values and all that stuff: I will gladly eat about anything (although a cold gun pressed against my temple might help) on most occasions. And that includes, caramelized wasp larvae, lapon reindeer sandwich or even that disgusting insult to generations of Italian cooks that is nori-corn-mayonnaise pizza… But right now, everything around me (including me) is hot and sweaty and all I wanted was to put my tooth on a nice crisp leaf of fresh iceberg lettuce (the mere name sends my taste buds in gustative overdrive, right this moment), not some kind of damp chewy pseudo-vegetable that looks like it’s been left behind by the tide.

If God had intended for us to eat raw seaweed at dinner, he would have made it sprout in my backyard while lettuce would be growing at the bottom of the oceans.

So, anyway, I guess with a bit of olive oil…

If you read any japan-related newspaper or blog, you have read that wire by now:

TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) — A Japanese teenager was forced by his teacher to write an apology in blood after dozing in the classroom, the school’s principal said on Monday.

Source: Reuter through CNN

Somebody interestingly translated a different article about this story as published by the Asahi Shimbun.
I know this is old material, but I could not miss this occasion to point out that the teacher did not get much grief and nobody involved even considered any kind of retaliatory action, beside some small verbal admonestation by the principal and, I guess, an invitation to use more traditional methods of discipline the next time around. While this lack of lawsuit probably shocked beyond words American soccer moms, it is hardly anything surprising in Japan.

As Galvin, JET teacher from hell, only half-jokingly pointed out: if you were to “accidentally” dislocate the arm of a student or gouge out a few eyes while experimenting with some novel educative methods with your class, not only would you be entirely safe from any blame whatsoever, but the parents would probably come and present you with their apologies for having raised such a clumsy troublemaker.
Japanese kids are no angels, mind you. They are, maybe as much if not more than they Western counterparts, unbearable spoiled brats. But unlike in the US, where parents expect teachers to live the same kid-ruled hell they go through themselves, Japanese parents consider school to be outside of their realm of lax leniency (and the kids better get used to it, because it doesn’t get any better for them until University, provided they get in, that is).

That being said, I’m glad my teachers never got this bright educational idea, as I would probably be long dead from anemia (instead of that, I left school with a flawless knowledge of irregular German verbs that has not abandoned me to this day, not in small part due to having copied them thousands of times for various punitive reasons).

Went to the Spiral Independent Creators Festival last Monday and finally took the time to upload a bunch of pictures on my gallery page.

On display were the creative works of about 30 artists, making the first of two groups to be voted upon by the public. I must say I was not really blown by any, though more than a few were worth the trip.

Works ranked from purely artistic to practical design ideas with a bunch of goofy gadgets in the middle.

Apart from a few graphic pieces that could not be given any justice with my crappy digicam, some things that caught my attention were:
Picture CIMG0010.jpgThe Playstation DJ Set-Up (only there as a sponsored product, not really an “independent creator”, but anyway). Although I was expecting the usual slick-but-useless PS2 gadget game, I was floored by the demo the guy gave me.

In a nutshell, the DJ Box presents you with a split screen, on each side of which you can load, play, cue and mess with, any audio track previously saved on the hard drive (an additional HD component is the only special requirement, according to the guy). When tracks are selected and played on each virtual turntable, beats are graphically symbolized by small lines moving vertically, kinda like a conveyor belt. You can either pitch and cue manually or use the autosync, which did a perfect job (at least on the prepackaged, extremely basic samples used in the demo: I’d be extremely curious to see how the beat detector behaves with more serious tracks). So far, quite the minimum you’d expect from any attempt at recreating a DJ setup on a console/computer…

But beyond this, I must say any standard feature I could think of had been covered. Not only did scratch and manual pitch work fairly nicely with the control pad (the two analog paddles controlling each one a turntable), but it also had effects (filters, delay etc) and even a sampler (did not get to play with it though). I thought I had found the flaw when I inquired about the possibility to monitor your mix, since there’s obviously only one audio output on a PS2, but the guy told me you just needed a USB adapter (speaker or headphones, I guess) to get a split monitor on top of the master out.

So all in all, it looked quite impressive, nearly too impressive actually, as I must say the interface did not look anything as easy as it could have (why replace nice easy presets “flanger”, “reverb”, “echo” effects by a single highly configurable but much less intuitive “delay” effect)… I guess that’s part of the game (you don’t want it to look like a wanabee toy, this has to be the real thing). Unfortunately, I was unable to see how it fared with real tracks and real DJing action, but I bet it won’t be long before there’s a bunch of Japanese Otakus out there able to rival Q-Bert with their console.

Picture CIMG0009.jpg Another cool idea, was this glass panel made to look like frosted glass (the kind where the glass seems broken in small pieces) that turned out to be filled with small bubbles. A pipe at the bottom leaked bubbles in the interstice made by two sheets of glass and the result was quite mesmerizing (especially when you realize the trick and start catching the small bubble snaps occurring randomly inside the window).

Picture CIMG0032.jpg Other than that, many minor but nifty ideas, such as these clothes entirely made out of tarpaulin or a project to re-brand Tokyo’s Subway with jungle animals logos for each line…

Picture CIMG0021.jpg Some guy was even showcasing the archives of what was essentially a moblog (keitai pics sent by email and archived online): presented very nicely, but quite far from groundbreaking…

When you thought this had to be the place where they would not come after you…

Guess who just knocked at the door in the middle of my midday porn-browsing session, to ask me if I had accepted Jesus in my heart yet?

Yes, indeed: the two middle-aged women (actually probably in their mid-twenties, but dressing as a neurotic librarian from the bible-belt always tend to make you look older) patiently though relentlessly knocking on my door where Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Of course, being Japanese before being JW, they were reasonably easy to get rid of with a polite “sorry I’m busy”, though not before one had started digging in her religious phrase-book for ways to greet me in my own language…

Which takes us to this amazingly funny statistics page apparently kept by the JW church itself, and giving a good insight on the amount of work involved in mass soul-saving ventures. With pearls such as this graph comment:

5. How many preaching hours does it take to convert a person to a Jehovah’s Witness?

Top and bottom 20 countries of the ratio of one baptism to hours. The higher the ratio, the longer hours are needed to convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example in Japan, it takes about 18,000 hours (!) of preaching to gain one baptism, whereas in Nepal it takes only 2000 hours.

So let’s not be too hard on those poor Japanese Witnesses: they got a much tougher gig than their counterparts in, say, Nepal, Congo or Tajikistan.

Another bit of some interest is that, according to these stats (let’s not forget they are provided by the JW’s church itself, therefore of more than dubious objective value, but anyway), Japan is the country where the church has incurred its highest number of defections last year, by a wide margin…

I guess the Freaky Religious Cult thing is not as popular as it used to be here…

Because my last entry on Japan might have sounded overly negative, and also because the tone of the last few weeks is dangerously edging toward serious and mature stuff, here is something to bring back the balance on both counts.

Although on some level, this might read as yet another episode of Wretchedly Altered Dave’s Comical Adventures in Magic Tokyo, it is also a heartwarming testimony to a people’s confounding sense of honesty underlined by the epic struggle of a man with the evil power of pharmaceutical-grade narcoleptics. A modern tale of hope and pride, if you will.
This is what I will be solemnly citing in answer to the usual insipid inquiry regarding my inspirations for coming to this country. Of course, I couldn’t have cared less about this when I bought my plane ticket, but I sure ain’t telling people the truth about coming here to complete my lifelong collection of worn Japanese schoolgirls uniforms.

Anyway, this all happened about two weeks ago. I know this is no longer fresh news, but, as you might recall, I have been quite busy lately ensuring that I did not have to find a spot for my tent in Yoyogi koen. And after the move, NTT persisted in taking more than ten days to move an ADSL account that had been created in three days, thus ensuring my internet activities were limited to the most essential stuff (which oddly enough, does not include ranting on this page).

This actually happened right after we had found a place at the last minute and gotten approved by the owner: all that was left to do was bring the cash and sign the lease, on Saturday morning, and move in the following day.
On Friday evening, I had planned to go play a few records at Bar Tokyo with Miss Kate, which seemed like a great occasion to celebrate at the same time. Lease-signing meeting time was 10:30 in Ueno: that gave me ample time to get back home with the first train, take a quick shower, maybe even a post-disco nap and then head over to the agency with Nordine and Yoshiko (who had been enrolled as our personal scribe). NOTHING wrong with this plan, right?
Oh yea… one important detail: a conjunction of factors such as daily ATM withdrawal limit, the scarcity of ATM accepting foreign cards in this city and the presence of one such bank, open 24h, in Roppongi, had caused me to stop on the way there to withdraw the last leg of the rent/deposit/gift money we were supposed to bring in the day after.

So it was half past midnight, I had about 60,000 yens in cash on me, and I was heading toward some seedy bar for the night.

Despite evidences to the contrary in what follows, I am not whining and moaning about life in Japan here: nor am I bitching about its ludicrous cost of living or its locals’ strong xenophobic prejudices. In fact, I am not even complaining about anything.
That, for three reasons: a) I hate these foreigners who make it a mission during their whole stay in Japan to rant endlessly about every single irritating detail they encounter: if I didn’t want to be here, I’d have got the hell out a long time ago. b) I know this type of thing is hardly a Japanese exclusivity: for instance, I have yet to see how a person with only vague notions of English and limited intent to settle for long-term would fare into getting a random landlord to rent him an apartment at market price in NYC. And c) I found a place after all… so screw all these other discriminated-against gaijins who will have to sleep in Ueno Koen next month… I love Japanese landlords.
Why am I writing this then?
Because the noise of my fingers randomly hitting keys on a keyboard has a soothing effect on my naturally psychotic character. That’s why.

As part of my lifelong ambition to stay away from the bore of a peacefully happy and enjoyably simple lifestyle, I must ensure at all cost that I do not ever spend more than three months at the same address (ok. it also helps keeping the feds off my back… but that three-count-of-felony-with-aggravated-manslaughter-and-international-drug-trafficking thing was a total setup anyway). So, in keeping with the plan to make my life a little more difficult with each passing day, I decided to give my notice a month ago, intent as I was on finding a new, nicer, cheaper house. Preferably a house where announcing rent price would no longer send half our friends into fits of hysterical laughter and prompt the rest to politely inquire about the state of our mental health. And indeed, it sounded like we were paying quite a lot compared to Japanese already vertiginous market prices.

That, of course, turned out to be even poorer an idea as it may sound (and if you are me, or know my tendency to come up with moronic plans, you are already expecting a pretty high level of stupidity here).

Let me start with a quick explanation regarding housing options in Japan. More specifically, housing options for this evil race of non-japanese people that sometimes attempt to invade this beautiful country; the one we commonly refer to as “gaijins”.
Though some of them can be insidiously hard to spot, due to their similar skin color or their impeccable mastering of local customs, rest assured that the average local won’t be fooled two minutes by any attempt at obsequiously bowing every twenty seconds while chanting “hai, sou desu ne, wakarimashita” as if you were one of them. Rest assured you will soon be reminded of your real status:
“Most honorable respected visitor friend, I must point out to you that, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you are and will remain for all practical purpose, a good-for-nuthin, bread-stealin’, virgin-raping, foreigner.”

So being a gaijin slightly affects your housing options.

At the bottom of the scale, you got the guesthouse, tellingly found under the “gaijin-house” denomination in most ads.
Overall, it’s not a bad option: it’s cheap, it’s convivial (you get to share your living room and your bathroom with all types of interesting people) and, if you pick carefully, you can even avoid some of the nastier short-term ones filled with european otaku backpackers and obnoxious american frat-boys (oxymoron added for clarity purpose) in favour of places that house equal numbers of slightly older foreigners and japanese nationals, with nicer atmosphere and improved wa as a result (it should be pretty clear by now that foreigner being the source of all evil, the fewer there are, the better). Guesthouses are ok, provided you don’t mind walking around your pockets filled with 100 yen coins, mandatory to operate about every other utility or household item (shower, heater, washing-machine etc. depends on the house), but it’s fair game since you don’t really pay utility bills after all.

The next evolutionary leap in the life of the profesional gaijin dweller is the gaijin apartment. Gaijin apartments are similar to regular apartments in every respect except for the noticeable fact that they belong to realtors who cater exclusively to the foreigner community in Japan.
I am not talking here about company apartments, residential hotels and other expat dwellings: no point going over these depressingly boring uber-expensive sanitized apartments sometimes provided by corporations to their foreign recruits (though less and less in those days of post-bubble economy). Beside, if that’s the kind of housing you are shooting for, you probably should be doing better things than reading this, such as trying to convince the boneheaded corporation that hired you that it was worth paying extra to import the US version of the upper-management salaryman droid, minus politeness and local language skills.
Gaijin realtors are targeting regular foreigners who still have to pay for their house and want/can afford better than shared housing. In addition to offering services in non-japanese languages, they usually provide lease conditions closer to western customs and will not run away if you tell them you don’t have a Japanese passport and that, indeed, neither does any member of your family that might sign as your guarantor. These places usually also come with basic furniture, unlike traditional Japanese rental, where you’ll be lucky to get a sink and a bathtub, let alone heater or fridge.
They make up for this convenience by charging roughly twice the price of any equivalent surface you would find at the Japanese real-estate agency across the street. Can’t have it all, can you?

Well “not true”, I reckoned.
Nagged by the intimate belief that the perfect house was just around the corner and required only a little extra effort to reward us with a significant cut in our ludicrous rent budget, I decided to take it to the next step and start hunting:

Equipped with my laughingly approximate Japanese vocabulary and life-savior sidekick: Atsushi, vital in helping to ask and answer any question not starting by “genki”, this is how I foolishly decided to get a Real Japanese Apartment…
Conscious I might very well end up sleeping in Yoyogi park and would in this case need a housemate, if only to take turns watching over the tarps and personal belongings at night, I convinced Nordine to follow me on this hapless venture (not like he was happy with our previously inflated rent either).

Man, was it a lot of fun or what!
Over the course of the last two weeks, not only have I got to dramatically improve my knowledge of kanjis (especially location names) by reading thousands of useless Internet classifieds, but I also learned about 2530 different ways to say “no” in Japanese kenjougo (super duper polite version of Japanese spoken by anybody who might have to be otherwise very rude in what he got to tell you, but will therefore do it in the most humble possible way)…
The most common answer from realtors after calling the owner to inquire about a house, being a somewhat embarrassed:

Gaikokuzei dakara, chotto muzukashii desu ne…

Which translates literally to:

Because you are foreigners, it might be a little difficult, huh…

itself the teineigo (polite Japanese) version of:

Muwahrharhar… Not in your wildest dream, you White Devil Foreigner!

And it’s not like you are begging for a special treatment either: moving in will cost you, no matter who you are, one to three months of “reikin” (礼金 or “key money”), basically a gift to the owner, on top of the one month-commission fee to the agency and the two to three months “shikikin” (敷金: deposit). If you’d rather they use lube during the whole thing, you probably have to pay another extra.
Because one can never be too sure in Japan, you will also be asked for two guarantors (保証人) to sign along. Needless to say: your guarantors must be Japanese and, preferably be your own blood. The mere fact that our two japanese co-signer friends were not family-related was already a show-stopper with most owners that had not yet hung up upon hearing the word “gaijin”…

So in short, we can say it was a bit tough.

But we found one…
It’s definitely second dip, it’s quite a walk from the station, not in the hippest neighbourhood by any stretch…
but it’s about 50% cheaper, bigger, and it’s even got some kind of backyard (two by three feet at the most)…

Conclusion: We don’t have heaters anymore and it seems like winter’s decided to play serious prolongation, with a bit of snow around here, but we got a kotatsu and a flask of rhum: domestic bliss indeed.

Picture 040126_0028~01.jpg “Attention Customers:
In order to prevent skipping out on a restaurant bill.
We strictly prohibit leaving before paying the bill.

See. Now I’m not convinced that this sign would be considered much of a walk-out deterrent in a US restaurant.

The beauty of Japan is that telling people it’s forbidden to shoplift or a very naughty thing to kill people and steal their money, is still considered the ultimate argument to freeze halt any dishonest plan in the making.

Update: Bigger version here

Keitai PictureOnly one thing harder than writing in Japanese: writing a letter in Japanese!

What with the weird structures, required formal expressions and the three thousand rules to follow lest a major cultural faux-pas be made…

I mean, for all I know, I probably misspelled half the kanjis resulting in my letter addressing yutaka’s parents as “most honorable silaginoids” or something like that… So how could I be worrying about the overall level of politeness of my writing.

Talking about that, a Google query for “mispelled” returns an alarming number of matches… and don’t get me started on “inteligent” in personal ads…

‘been thinking about getting a new tattoo lately… just as if I did not have enough trouble here as it is with my less than significant piece of body-art (ok, not really troubles, merely occasionally annoyances)… nonetheless, I think I want a new one.
tattoos are oddly addictive.

I was thinking about it, when I read a fellow japanese blogger’s entry on the topic: Barcode tattoos. Too bad it’s now tied with some cheesy teenage TV show, it had some appeal. but I think I’d rather go in more artistic directions…

Anyway, I need some more time to think about it. We don’t want to go for short-lived long-regretted ideas: I’m not planning to get “F.u.c.k. B.u.s.h.” tattooed on my knuckles any day soon, tempting though it may be.

I think I want an Irezumi… I have seen some pretty awesome ones.

And by the way, when I said tattoos get you “troubles” in Japan, I am quite serious. And I don’t just mean dirty look by uptight people in the street and overall job discrimination: mine is safely hidden from any non-intimate observer and does not really interfere with my daily life. beside, ever since my blue hair days, I’m way used to little old ladies instinctively clutching to their purse a little harder when walking past me.
No, I’m talking about stupid but concrete little things, like public baths and swimming pools that will often refuse entrance to any tattoo-bearer.

Public baths access might not seem like a big deal, but in Japan, it is a big deal: people go there all the time, it’s both health, relaxation, community and entertainment all combined in one. It sucks to be excluded from one of the most typical Japanese cultural element for such a stupid reason.

Even more infuriating was to get kicked out of my gym when the management came to learn that… horror of horrors… I had a tattoo (how they came to know this, though, is an interesting question, as it definitely doesn’t show when I’m merely exercising).

Oh, and what’s the deal with these? well, the short story is that tattoo in Japan means Yakuza… and since Yakuzas apparently dream of taking over public baths and fitness clubs all over japan, barring tattoos is a good way of keeping them away.

Now, how could a pale ass like mine be, even indirectly, implied to be a yakuza remains a complete mystery, more of a stupid joke actually.