Sunday, February 27, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 1.The Heated Toilet Seats

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

I will merely say, after leaving Japan, I have barely succeeded in muffling a yelp every time I lower myself onto a toilet seat. One would think this is just true of toilet seats in private homes, - but hotels, train stations, restaraunts, nearly every toilet seat in Japan is heated. A very few were not, much to my dismay, consternation, constipation, and surprise.

Friday, February 25, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 1. The Shoes

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

Okay, I'll admit this is more than a little bit of a pet peeve, but, Japan, what is up with your shoes? You are so often addicted to beauty, so regularly involved in craftsmanship, but in three months in Japan, I saw so many terrible shoes, and so few great dress shoes, I was truly bewildered. I saw, and counted, exactly four pairs of classic dress shoes in all my time in Japan, not counting the admittedly pleasant penny loafers which shod near every school girl, and some of the school boys.
I did, however, see more athletic shoes worn with suits than I had ever seen before in my life. Nor ever before have I seen so many bicycle-toed, glue-soled, scuffed, pleather examples of footwear. Truly, sad, and beneath them as a nation. An insult to human dignity.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 2. The Food

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

Not always, not every time, but sometimes, Japanese food is simply the best stuff there is. Saying that, I have to admit that there are some things I strongly dislike about the food in Japan. My wife will barely bear me to say it, but I simply do not comprehend why the single flavor in half the dishes is salt. Udon, Soba, Ramen, and many of the fish dishes tend to be dominated entirely with salt, or to be rather bland, or worst, bland and salted.
With that aside, the sushi, when it's good, is simply one of those foods for which there can be no equal, no matter how many foods are as good. That said, I will admit that I did not feel, after Japan, that I could not have sushi anywhere else. I still believe I will easily be able to eat sushi in American sushi shops - in fact, I still hold that the best sushi I have ever had was a piece of Tuna sashimi in Seattle. That said, in Japan or Stateside, it is an incomparable food.
For those who prefer to eat well on a tight budget, Japan, expensive as it is, is one of the best places to do it. The Oyaki, dumplings stuffed with vegetables, are far more savory and filling than they sound. For 120 yen (about $1.50, at any Konbini or Oyaki shop (of which there were no shortage in Nagano) one can buy a portable snack, and two or three will fill the modest appetite.
When the modest appetite is lost to the strong appetite, I have rarely found a match for Ramen. For about $6, one can get a big, steaming bowl of ramen in a pork or miso-based soup thick enough that even with an empty stomach, you'll be struggling to see the bottom of your bowl. Sadly, again, the best Japanese food I have had was in the United States - my favorite Ramen being at Daikokoukuya (sp?) Ramen in Los Angeles. I suppose I just didn't manage to find the unhealthy, greasy-spoon places where the really good Ramen is in Japan, but at Daikokukuya, you get a big bowl of rich and steaming pork-back broth, simmered for days, with plenty of toppings - a hardboiled egg, pork slices, and bamboo shoots.
Great, now my mouth is watering.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 2. The Blocks, The Maps, the what the heck.

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

Do you know what the most common point of reference is for Japanese directions? Convenience stores and Fast Food Joints. Second most common point of reference, stoplights. Now, this works all well and good when there are stoplights and convenience stores around. When you're trying to find the next temple on your circuit of the suburbs of Kyoto, you might as well be looking for highway signs in Wyoming, or cornfields in Manhattan.
This would be all fine and dandy if the streets had names.
That's right. You read that. The streets don't have names.
What? What do you mean?
Oh, you see, the streets are empty spaces. The blocks have names.
Oh, the blocks have names. Ah, that makes... What?
That's right. If you need to follow a street from point A to point B, and the street curves at all, you'll need a list of all the blocks between point A and point A in order to successfully navigate from point A to point B, and may heaven help you if you try to follow a parallel path.
Better yet, take your favorite map. Now try writing a name, the approximate length of "shinjikawaza" on each block. You'll quickly see why maps generally don't include block names. In fact, the blocks don't often have the block names on them.
How do people find their way? Well, they either know where they are going, or, as In Kyoto, they actually ask the direction-givers who stand at major intersections, and give directions to lost tourists.
That's right, Kyoto hires full-time direction givers at especially confusing intersections, to help the lost find their way around the city.
Now, if you know why one would stick with a system of naming blocks rather than maps, please, please, please, I'm begging you, tell me. I don't like being kept in the dark about why other cultures do other things differently, and I do long to marvel at the other ways of thinking I'm not familiar with. As it stands, I have no clue.
On a related request, if you can tell me how one could understand directions in block-format without a compass, please let me know. Assume that you have a point to direct someone to on the Northeast corner of a block, thirteen blocks away, with three turns involved in getting from here to there, and then give instructions. Please explain your work. I never succeeded, in three months in Japan, in getting or following directions in block-format.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 3. The Shrines

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

In contrast to the Buddhist temples, the shrines were for me a near pure pleasure. I am bewildered (if curious) at a people that can be so technologically astute and at the same time practice a form of animism and spirit worship usually relegated to the pre-Roman world by western academics. Of course, this bewilderment is all the more enjoyable because I imagine that it must have bewildered many an anthropologist, secure in his belief that science replaced small gods as a belief system and explanatory power.
I'm not even sure that with the prefix small, Japan's shrines can be said to be raised to any sort of god, at least not one that would in any way be recognizable by western eyes. I will admit some ignorance of Japanese Mythology (and anyone who could point me to a few good source texts would be amply thanked) but rather than ever having been sources of explanatory power, the shrines always seem to have operated more as parks. In fact, several of the shrines I went to included small playgrounds. They are relaxing, enjoyable places to find oneself. The Tori gates are beautiful, and sometimes bewildering and labyrinthine. Unlike the Buddhist temples, not one (at least as I remember) demanded any sort of money, though they do make money through donations and the selling of good-luck charms.
Furthermore, the shrines never close. People go through them, and pause in them, at all hours of the day and night. The objects of "worship" (if it may be called that) are locked up for the night, the foxes put to bed (some shrines are specifically fox shrines) but the shrines remain open, a garden for every traveler.

The Japanese attitude towards shrines is more like the American attitude towards fad diets than the American attitude towards Churches.

Whether or not this makes them religious or dangerous is another question.

But that's just my current pith, and I will admit that there are many things about the Japanese attitude towards shrines that I just don't understand, and that pique my curiosity greatly.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 3. The Temples

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

Now, there are many things worth seeing in Buddhist temples, and if you go to Japan without going into at least a few, you are missing out on part of the art and culture of an ancient culture, well worthy of study. That said, I must say the temples could very much be improved. Grace and I went to only two which did not demand an entrance fee of at least 500 yen (about $7.50 at current conversion), sometimes as much as 1000 yen - per person.
Now, I don't mind tourist attractions all so much, and I recognize that temples and churches alike in the old places of the world have become as much art galleries as they have places of worship - but this is precisely what dismays me about the Buddhist approach. In the west, churches have opened their doors, they demand no money, they merely say if you wish to come in, come in - even if it is only to get out of the rain. We ask only that you are respectful, and don't disturb anyone else in their reason for coming in. This attitude is both hospitable and, I believe, encourages the worshipers, who do believe that the places are sacred.
In raising their fees on admitting any, the temples, in my opinion, discourage the worshipers, and encourage the tourists, fully giving themselves over to their tourist and capitalistic ends. Not to say that there were not worshipers - but they were all so clearly from out of town. They all carried cameras and maps - even if they were Japanese. It bewildered me how they gave money at the gate and at the offering plate (actually a box, but we won't quibble), but they did.
My favorite temple of all those we saw was the Buddha at Yudanaka - a figure very nearly unknown, but some seventy feet tall, of a standing Buddha. There is a similar figure in Kagaonsen, which I did not have as much time to pause and see. there were more impressive figures, it is true, and the great Buddha of Kamakura is more than worth the price of admittance, as are the golden and silver pavilions of Kyoto, and all the more so the long hall - but these figures, which stand above Yudanaka and Kagaonsen are not hid (as are the others) by walls and trees, are not closed up at 4:00 each winter evening. They are there for all to see, all to walk up to. They cannot be hidden, and they have a religious meaning, whether one agrees with it or not. They are like a bit of true bold talk in a land of averted speech, and like some glimpse of the actual religion which all this time has been hiding behind the money.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 4. The Streams of Japan

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

I can't speak for most of the towns of Japan, but one of my favorite things about all of Japan had to be the streams. Now, these aren't streams in the sense that the Oregon-dwellers reading this missive will think of streams. Like so many things in Japan, the streams have been brought under the power of man. The streams have been redirected, and tamed.
In Obuse, where we spent the balance of our time, the streams ran beside the roads, in sunken aqueducts, laid over with concrete tiles. Everywhere one walked, the sound of running water was there. The sound of running water follows all the streets, muffling or mingling with the sound of cars. Between some back yards, these little aqueducts also run. They ran outside our bathroom window, and besides helping the human waste dance run smoothly, they muffled the sounds of next door, and made me wonder if it was raining every day.
If every man's home is his castle, in Obuse it is doubly true, for in Obuse, every man's home has a moat.

Monday, February 14, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 4. The Social Life/ Night Life

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

    I have every reason to believe that the Japanese are very hard workers. I saw plenty of it when I was there. The trouble is, this does tend to cut in a bit on the whole social aspect of life. Now, I'd been told, never you fear, the Japanese are great for night life - and indeed did my heart feel a great bouncing joy upon hearing it, for I was never one to turn down the pleasures of the nocturnal existence.
    Bollocks. The Japanese are no more for the nightlife than the southern California suburban Arizona-like hell from which I came. Most of the attractions close at 5:00 in the summer, 4:00 in the winter. Trains stop running in the rural areas around 10:00, and in Tokyo at 11:00. Trains from Santa Clarita (aforementioned Dante's Pit) go that late to Los Angeles (aforementioned place of terrible public transit) and back. After dark, nothing happens. There are a few 24-hour convenience stores, coffee shops, and even a sushi bar or two, but all that hard work usually means that the Japanese worker gets out of work, goes home, and goes to bed.
    This also leads to another criticism. I believe that Japanese social life is more stratified than the social life in just about any other country I know. From a very young age, Japanese children are assigned grade expectations, athletic expectations, and leadership expectations by their society. Those with high grades, especially in math, are expected to go into business. In business, their social life will consist of those they work with. In many cases, this will exclude even wife and family, who will be left to have other social lives in the absence of the father. Salarymen rarely have the opportunity to socialize with anyone outside their own company, and I think this is not only a human tragedy (which is really the more important point) but also (and sadly, this is the point where I might garner some attention) an economic tragedy.
    Where do you think most invention comes from? In a phrase, the collision of two previously unassociated ideas. This occurs when you are dealing with life outside of your normal sphere of work. Now, certainly, one can maintain an inventive class and a worker class, but at what human cost, and cost to invention?
    This brings me to my last point in the social life of Japan -  they are very hard workers, but I honestly think this results in a loss of productivity. I honestly don't think the average US worker is a very hard worker. This can at times be a true detriment to them, as it can result in intentionally looking for a job where they don't have to think or operate as more than a human calculator - but in some cases, in fact, in many cases, this means that they work very hard to do less work, using the time and materials they are given to build a system in which less human effort is required.
    It's kind of strange that the system most addicted to human labor - the Japanese system, which still employs elevator button-pushers, is the one most heavily researching robotics, but don't be fooled. Robotics, in Japan, are nothing more than one more thing to spend human labor-hours on, to be the hardworking society that they are. The Japanese could invent machines that would take care of man's every need, and they'd still hire someone and pay them to watch those machines all day long.
    Now don't get me wrong-in some ways, that's a far more humane approach than the US' approach, which seems to be, build the machine, and then fire the person who built it, stop paying whoever it replaces, they can both starve because they didn't have the foresight to manage the advertising plant that markets the machines - but the point is that both systems are inhumane. Japan could invent more, could do more, and yes, could relax more (which might actually result in them doing more) and it's that system I'm talking about now.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 5. The Tips

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

    So, this may be a point of some debate, but I really do prefer the Japanese tipping system. In Japan, it is expected that waiters and waitresses, bellhops and valet exist on their work and the salary accorded them by their employers, not by the generosity of the customers. I believe this helps both the customers and the employees, as it allows the customers to pay in a quick manner, and to budget their stop easily. It allows the employees to ask for a raise without protests of "but how much do you bring in in tips?" with little understand that tips are hugely variable, and it's hard for a single mother to plan her monthly budget on so variable a source of income.
    Besides that, really, think about tipping - are you rewarding service, or are you just automatically rewarding someone for having to see your face, and that arbitrarily? I've known cooks, and the work in the kitchen is as badly paid, and probably twice as thankless as a waiter's job. If a waiter is tired, and a family of twelve comes in, they can ask if another waiter can take the table, and will probably be taken up on the offer by some other more fresh face, hoping for a big tip (this fresh face will doubtless not have been a waiter long - large families rarely tip well). But when that twelve item order, with adjustments for the daughter's allergies, the son's distaste for pickles, the mother's unhealthy fad diet and the father's attempts to eat as "unhealthily" as possible while avoiding his wife's disparagement, when that steaming load hits the kitchen, the cooks on each station do not get to beg off, if the order comes in, the order comes in, and they have to fill it.
    Now, you might well say, "but waitressing (or waitering, or whatever you'd call the male variant) is an often thankless, tiring and hard job." And I would readily and vociferously agree with your incalculably correct argument - but I would reply, isn't that all the more reason to pay them well? Isn't that all the more reason not to make their wages, not to make their sustenance, dependent upon the whims, and indeed, the relation of the wealth of their customers to the tastes of the customers? Shouldn't their hard work bear its due reward, not dependent upon the generosity of the hundreds of masses who are also, admittedly, just trying to get by.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Submitted an abstract to a very picky journal. The next step up from blogging.

Sent the following to this: academic journal. I'll let you know what they say, if they say anything.

"Gombrichian text-subject relationship(s), as it relates to the nihilism of mathematical malfunction revealed in the Journal of Universal Rejection"

Peter Wallis

Abstract submitted for consideration of Journal of Universal Rejection, Febuary, 2011

Derrida said of deconstructionists who deconstruct popular media (eg Seinfeld, et al) that they should "read something academic." Thus he put what one might call a lower limit on deconstruction - lower, being only defined as lower or read as lower by the system in which this deconstruction takes place. The Journal of Universal Rejection (JoUR) extends this line, and actively deconstructs the idea of a high text, which is "academic" - the idea of an academic text as a whole. In doing so, the JoUR reveals the fundamental flaw in all reasoning, by creating a system in which no mathematics can function (2+2=0). Gombrich, in his own work, reveals the nature of the text (for him, mostly painting) and its transformative nature through the division of high art and low art by umbra and penumbra of subject-text relationships, in form as in fact. The JoUR reconfirms the Gombrichian idea that art has as its end a transformation of the seeing act, and even of the underpinnings of this act, while at the same time deconstructing all boundaries of quality and quantity of high art and low art, of umbra and penumbra, of subject and text, and thereby, long sentences which try to evaid understanding through the imposition of interior clauses, not excepted, reveals a nhilism which has always surrounded the heart of the academic-capitalist construct.

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 5. The Cheese

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

    Oh, Japan, Japan, Japan, for being such a closed country, you have a strange love of foreign things. I see in your hallowed streets hamburger joints, clam chowder signs, coffee shops, surfing stores, skateboard shops, and Italian restraints. Make no mistake, some of these things you do so wonderfully, your understanding of Italian ingredients sometimes surpasses the Italians themselves, and I'm sure the Lords of Dogtown had no clue that one day their taped-together kamikaze (see what I did there) inventions would be crafted by descendants of master swordsmiths, with all the detail and care given to those hallowed and ancient blades.
    But there is one thing you cannot seem to get right, no matter how you try. It is a strange thing, you have great milk, and your beef is famous across the world, so why has Japan never managed to produce, or indeed, hardly import, so much as a wheel of cheese with a plastic content of less than %50?
    Do you really like this? Is this just some strange conspiracy to avoid saturated fats? No! We must not have anything like the French paradox in our country! Our Sake drinking is a sign of red-nosed capitalism, not that puny and strange wine sipping communistic health! Let us fill our cheeses with processed fats, make them as unappetizing as possible, and then eat them anyway, that will teach those lousy French! Seriously, forget the French paradox, health nuts, take a look at the Japanese paradox. Longest life expectancy in the world, and somehow they don't drop dead from half a block of the pre-sliced cheese product they call cheese.
    And do they eat it? Oh, yes they do. As a matter of fact, stop the presses, and punch a proud purist in the nose, for I have seen, in a sushi restaraunt, in Japan, in Nagano, where there was narry a white tourist face around the block (save mine) much less in the sushi place itself, that served a sashimi with rice, fish, and cheese, and yes, there were a number of Japanese people in the place. Now choke down that California Roll, truly traditional or not, it's nowhere near this abomination of a national cuisine and one of the greatest inventions mankind has ever stumbled upon. The first cheese ever invented must have been some horrible or small stuff, otherwise, we'd never have heard of it, as whoever discovered it would have died of a heart attack gorging himself on the pure creamy bliss before he had the chance to tell anyone how he made it. And they tell me the Japanese people have national pride.
    It really deserves its own gripefest, but the bread is also unmentionably horrible - all white wonderbread, and square, in little packages of eight pieces of bread, pre-sliced.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 6. The Paperwork

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

    This really has more to do with customs than anything else. In Japan, oh country famed for its efficiency, if you want to enter, you have to fill out three paper customs forms, have an interview with a customs officer, have your picture taken, and give the address of where you will be staying for the majority of your stay. A paper is then stapled to your passport with a tag on it which any investigator with a cellphone can read. And that is all for a 90-day stay, nothing to declare.
    By way of comparison, when entering Italy, we got a quick glance at the passport, a barely noticeable glance at the face, and a stamping motion that left me wondering if the officer's elbow had slipped, until my passport was returned to me, and I was hurried out of the way. I am not advocating, dear Japan, that you go this far, merely saying that if you are going to all the trouble of tagging me like a wolf released into the wild (really, how long before tourists will have RFID radio transmitters in their passports, or should I not mention the idea?) you might make me fill out a little less work on paper for your line of customs workers to then enter back into the computer. At very least, give me the option of filling out your form from home, giving you some advanced notice by internet, so I'm not scribbling down my flight number in the haze of a twelve hour flight, while the landing gear falls out below me and the one and a half inches of elbow space I have is constantly being intruded upon by an elbow rest with a lust for blood and a mortal fear of landing.
    By the way, while all the customs officers were pleasant and helpful, was seeing three of them really necessary? Could not the one who checked my passport, the second who checked my paperwork, and the third who checked my luggage really all have been the same person?

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 6. The Service

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

    I have to admit, as much as I dislike the Japanese work ethic in certain things, it's incredible for service. We stayed at a hotel in Kyoto where we paid around $70 a night, and when we arrived our bags were all quickly loaded onto a bellhop's cart, and the bellhop showed us to our room, where she unloaded our bags, despite our attempts to help, and showed us around the room, apologizing in telling us that we probably shouldn't wear our Yukata in the hallways.
    This was much the sort of service we received everywhere. Even those who did not know English tried their best, and did not seem annoyed at our broken attempts to communicate in Japanese. Even the teenagers desking the Convenience stores, which I can only imagine is a mindless, boring, and thankless job, seemed to do their best to communicate, to help with a smile, to explain what they could, and to shout "Shiryaimasen!" upon the customer's departure.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 7. The Trains

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

    Okay, I know, I went all whiney on them last time, but there were times when they were the best things in the world. Of course, not to say they couldn't do with improvement. Let's not forget that Japan's Shinkansen are no longer the fastest trains in the world. But they're working on improving. Japan's JR just announced that it is working to build a 500kmph connection between Tokyo and Kyoto.
    That said, they are on time. Like crazy on time, always on schedule. We rode a fair number of trains in Japan, and not one we were on broke down, not one was late. One day, toward the end of our time in Japan, we made three connections at the last stop on the line, with less than ten minutes to spare between the scheduled arrival and the departure of the connecting train. We made every one with minutes to spare. Honestly, as much as I was annoyed at trying to read stops in Kanji (and, though the stops were announced over loudspeaker, you know how those loudspeakers are for sound, besides which the announcement was always in the middle of a sentence, making it hard to pick out what the station name was. That said, if I looked for the expected stop time on (use this if you're going to Japan. Seriously.) I could navigate Japanese trains blindfolded, had I an accurate enough talking watch.
    Several times, I was reassured I was on the right train by the time it pulled out of the station. I wasn't sure until it pulled out on the first second of the minute it was supposed to leave. Though you might know no Kanji, if you could find a train that is supposed to leave the station at the exact time your train leaves - and it was the only train leaving at that time, it's the train you want.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

8 Things Japan could Improve: No. 7. The Signage

I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.

    Okay, Japan, I get it, you don't really want me. You don't really want tourists, you don't really want visitors. I understand. They gum up the works. There's only one problem. We're coming anyway. You're a fascinating country, you know that. Sometimes, Japan strikes me a little like certain women I have known, the sort that are very beautiful, and know it all too well. When the suitors come, the women are all too happy to accept gifts, but when queried for a little help in attaining the high favors, these women will respond in a language so abstract and convoluted that one needs secret (as I have known a few to do) a recorder so that the message can be remembered and deciphered at a later date.
    Now, in women, this is all well and good. Rarely does it constitute a public danger or bother when men attempt to assail these women with affection. (Rather, it seems a public amusement) In Japan, it is not quite the same. Japan seems to refuse, unlike any other nation I know, to establish signs in anything other than Japanese. Let's not forget, this is not like the French establishing signs only in French. French at least shares an alphabet and some basic vocabulary with English. Japanese does not even share a writing system.
    Sometimes - and only sometimes - train stations and trains will be so kind as to put things as simple as stops in the dreaded romanji (english alphabet). This grows all the more confusing when two train companies meet in the same station, one putting up stops in english and Japanese, the other only in Japanese. Is it really so difficult? Really, Japan, we tourists would gum up the works less if you'd just give us a little more to go on, but guess what, like the suitor who is "just so insensitive" to the woman who intentionally misleads his sense of what to do, we tourists will stand around with a smitten and terrified look on our faces if you give us nothing more to go on than your extremely abstract national game of pictionary.
    Please do not take this as a rant by the "I speak english and so should all the world" person. I really wouldn't mind if the Japanese put the signs up in French, German, or Italian, if it made sense for them to do so. I could at least nearly decipher those languages, near enough to have more than a faint hope I was getting on the right train, or driving on the right road. Let us not forget that when we say all signs are in Japanese, we mean written language so difficult that one of our friends there, who has been in the country twenty years and could speak fluent enough Japanese to work reception with the Olympics, in Japanese, English, French, German, Italian, and enough Russian to get someone to a hospital, could not read "do not enter" on a road sign - and all the road signs, everywhere, are exclusively in Japanese.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

8 Unmistakable pleasures of Japan, No. 8. The Konbini (Convenience Store)

Concurrent with my list of complaints about Japan, I present 8 things I loved about Japan.

    Ah, Konbini. In so many ways, they represent everything I dislike so much about the modern city. The death of the small shop, the rise of convenience food, convenience shopping, convenience life. The absolute power of the corporate image, and the transformation of humans into interchangeable parts in a corporate machine, all bent to one end - money.
    That said, there are also many things to love about the konbini. Unlike the convenience stores that litter gas stations in the United States, the japanese Konbini really is conveient - to begin with, it's down the road, and one could literally survive (even in decent health, and without exausting one's funds) on its ministrations. There is warm food, which is not only healthy, but also seasonal and local. The Konbini in Obuse and Nagano tended toward soba, oyaki and oden (a fish-gelatin dumpling soup, strange, but good) the Konbini in Kyoto, more to onigiri and ramen, and though Oyaki was present, there was little soba, and no Oden.
    Konbini have fruit stands, and you can buy milk at prices approaching the grocery store - milk, eggs, raw meat and vegetables, if you are so inclined. There are of course, the other things. Huge magazine racks, odd-looking people doing odd things all day (the browsing of magazine racks, apparently a great pass-time in Japan, is particularly fascinating to watch, should you ever have the chance to do so unobserved, though be warned, many a businessman picks up more than one that is not family fare.) The Konbini also sells DVD's, and to see which US releases, and when, hit the Konbini stores can be quite amusing. The Japanese box art is also almost certain to vary from its stateside cousin, a point of much entertainment.
     All in all, the Konbini is a warm shop, a great landmark (on google maps for Japan, they are marked by symbols, I highly recommend you use them as landmarks) and is a little human carnival, all in one rediculously capitalistic package.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011