Sunday, 28 October 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"kayu". It's translated in the dictionary as "rice porridge" but if you read the kanji (or even into the word itself a bit more), you realise is "congee". There's actually two types, one being kayu and the other being jiko (or jika..... I forget exactly, but it's something similar haha). Kayu is a bit more like plain congee whereas the other has much more stuff put in it. I haven't actually had any yet but I will try some the next time I have a chance to.

I bring up food because in Japan, oh so many things follow a particular standard or process. The society itself is set up around formalities so things like greeting someone are just a touch more structured than it would be in Canada or America.

I bring THAT up because yesterday, I had my very first random encounter on the train. It was a rather nice man in a rather nice suit who asked me........... well.... I don't know actually haha..... it was something about Saitama and in Japanese, perhaps how nice it was. I pointed out that I'm not Japanese and thus began the explaining that I'm from Canada and the subsequent double take on how I look Japanese.

But, to my utter amazement, the follow 10 minutes of conversation were entirely comprehendable (did I mention it was all in Japanese?? haha). I wasn't just nodding and going off on tangents like I have been doing the past few months, but it was actually talk. Although, the conversation is buoyed by the fact that, as I mentioned just now, many things in Japan follow patterns.

And so, when talking to a foreigner, there are many things that people are bound to ask someone new to their country. Where are you from, why are you here, how long are you here for- those things aren't a surprise as anyone from anywhere asks those. But Japanese, I find, always like to ask if I like Japanese food. And they always act surprised when I tell them I do.

Which ties right back into the food point. I get asked how Japanese food is all the time perhaps because some Japanese food really is an acquired taste. I'm not a big fan of natto, for instance. Nor do I like umeboshi, which is a sort of uber-sour plum. But I always point out that Vancouver has lots of different styles of food available and while the Japanese food there isn't always what the Japanese eat, at least you give your tastebuds a try.

Case in point, I haven't seen beef teriyaki in any Japanese restaurant as of yet. And maki sushi rolls (with the seaweed on the outside) are really only eaten by kids or families on picnics. They're sort of "food for when you really need ease of access". But then again, some restaurants here offer what's called a "Hamburg steak" which is basically a ground beef patty the size of a small steak (it's a steak made of hamburger meat, go figure heh). They serve it on a hot plate with rice, kind of like what you'd get in a HK style cafe. The changes some food goes through as they cross the border is interesting.

Anyways, the point of today's ramble is that I'm very thankful for such patterns of conversation because, really, it means I can narrow down all the possibilities I will come across. This happens in any country of course, but I never realise what a boon it was to have. And, seeing as discussing how a foreigner likes Japanese food is such a fish and rice topic (they don't really do meat and potatoes here =P), it's all the better to keep the conversation going.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"face". Ok, you're right, it's not a Japanese word, but I do want to highlight it as a very dangerous word to teach children. See, I always try to encourage the kids to sound out the words they don't know based on the sounds of the alphabet and, with relatively simple topics like adjectives or body parts, it usually works. The only problem is that each letter usually has two sounds so when faced with a word such as....... well....... "face", rote memorisation sometimes beats out learning the theory that "ce" sounds like "s". So it inevitably ends up sounding something like this:

"F-.......... fah-.......... fah-?..... faaaa.... K! fak? FA-kuh?? fa-kee? fak! FAK!!"

The last one is usually the loudest since that's when they think they've got it. Really, above all else, it's ok because no one else realises what other word they're vocalising and, to be honest, you can buy shirts that full on spell it out in big letters from stores. People don't know what it means so it's just a nonsensical accumulation of the letters K, U, F, and C. But I still can't help myself but to not let them sound out that particular word.............. y'know, just in case.

However, I'm pretty sure I let a few of those words slip yesterday at the Sugito tournament. Held at the Sugito Takanodai Elementary school gym, it hosted dojos from Sugito itself and neighbouring cities like Satte and Miyashiro. The gym wasn't very big but still managed to pack 4 rings and 3 rows of chairs on three sides for spectators.

Starting at about 9, the nearly 400 competitors started off with kata. I didn't make it out of my kata division with a placing so I looked forward to the afternoon's kumite match. That's where it all went sour.

See, I don't really mind losing. I realise that a lot of the people here have trained just as long if not longer than I have, and a lot more seriously/frequently. Not to mention that I needed a lot of catching up to do when I arrived, which is really the overall goal of being here. But there's still some difficultly translating what I can do in training to doing the same in competition. My first opponent really wasn't that strong but perhaps I set the bar too high for myself and my lack of experience means I should be aiming for more realistic goals, but I was pretty upset with the loss. It didn't help that we were the last division so everyone was watching. I know I shouldn't be as vain as to really worry about what other people think and just to do my best, but I feel more like I let them down than myself.

But today is a new day and tomorrow is the start of another week of training. I just gotta keep my head down, really work on everything, and let the competition experience build as, really, the only place to gain it is in competition. The next one is Nov 3rd, where I fight with Richard sensei in the Kita-ku (North Tokyo) competition. He works in a high school in the northern area of Tokyo and I'm fighting for the school's "team kumite" group.

Onwards and upwards =)..........

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Your World. On Time.

Yes, FedEx had a very similar slogan a few years back, but they've since changed it. It's now "Relax, it's FedEx". I sort of liked the old one better. And being in Japan, it really gets under your skin. You've probably heard that punctuality is important in Japan and while people ARE late sometimes (they're not robots, despite what the economy and stereotypes are famous for), things always run according to schedule.

Take, for instance, one of my older students in my English class. Her lesson starts at 1:30 and she walks through the door when the clock (and my watch) shows 1:30. I've been teaching her weekly for nearly two months and she has yet to stray from that time. And it's not the west coast idea of "on-time" where its punctuality "give or take 5 minutes". Her margin for chronological error is down to the near side of 2 minutes. I don't know how close or far she lives, but it still rather intrigues me when this kindly old grandmother strolls in at 1:30.

And it's not only starting on time too. Tournaments, for example, said to end at a certain time are usually all packed up and ending at that time. The Japanese run a pretty tight ship and it's not long before you get on that ship and start aiming for that strike of the hour to show up for something.

The other part that promotes such promptness is that lots of people take the train, and the trains here, like they are known for in Germany of Switzerland, are accurate to the minute. It takes a lot of planning to have this many trains run this close together to move nearly 12 million people in Tokyo, so it's no surprise that they are accurate.

But taking the trains regularly means you're subject to this accurateness so if you leave work at your regular time, walk your normal pace to the station and get on your regular train, you're bound to get where you're going are almost exactly the same time, every time.

The punctuality begets more punctuality until your schedule is refined to the minute. And because transport is so important, it eventually sorts out the rest of your schedule for you. I certainly always have to fight the tendency to want to be "fashionably late" but here, fashion is only what you wear.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"kusai". It means "smelly" or "stinky". In recent memory, the most literally smelly thing around has been the farmer's gardens or fields. They work very hard, no doubt, but it appears that they favour smoldering piles of waste-flora as opposed to garbage removal (although that's fine, since it doesn't take up space in landfills) or, better yet, compost. So on occasion, perhaps once or twice a month, I end up biking past what looks like a mini-teepee of vegetable stalks sending smoke signals to the heavens. They do a good job of keeping it under control but it doesn't change the fact that as you bike into the smoke, you realise that while it doesn't smell putrid, it isn't exactly pleasant. It smells like necessity and I can usually smell it a few minutes out, especially since the wind always seems to blow against the direction I'm biking. That last one is something that continues to perplex me as I huff and puff my way across town much slower than I could be going because, it appears, I'm disastrously un-aerodynamic. Maybe it's the glasses =)...........

Thankfully, I need not have to bike to my recent outing this past weekend in Shinagawa, conveniently (if you call a nearly two hour train ride convenient) located in the southern end of Tokyo. I was there because a friend (really "a" friend, as in, one of two friends thus far that I talk to that I didn't meet from karate or work) invited me to her friend's daughter's dance show.
The dance school was called Soul and Motion and had probably 150+ students and nearly 20 teachers. The show took place in a wickedly high end hall with a massive stage, tons of stage lighting, a smoke machine, and a projector. How a simple dance school could afford such a place is beyond me, though having tons of students and charging almost $30 a ticket probably covers the expenses.

Regardless, it was a pretty great show. The choreography was pretty good even if, at times, there were some moves I recognized from lots of music videos. And the costumes were always interesting. The really interesting bit was that since I've arrived in Japan, I don't like I've heard as much swearing, sexually driven lyrics, and flat out gangster themes, let alone hearing 3 months worth of it in an hour and a half. Oh the bliss of not understanding the language =).

But then again, that's what is perceived as the current trend in western culture and so the Japanese assimilate it with much haste. And they ALL assimilate it. It's ok when anyone of the legal age wants to do it, and even I don't mind the music as it's great to dance to and not any different than what I'd hear in a Vancouver club, but when little 8 or 9 year old girls are gyrating to reggae music in pseduo-bikinis or 11 year olds waving home-made "Brooklyn" flags and pretending to "busta cap in yo ass", I can't help but laugh. Especially when half the audience is parents and grandparents. But it only looks weird when the children do it. It just seems to suddenly look more natural when the 18+ year olds do it. Even the 40+ year old adult class doing hip hop wasn't too bad =).

Which goes back to the not-understanding part. No one really knows what the words mean and in the lyrically twisted world of hip hop, even fewer can connect the dots to flesh out the true meaning between the lines.

And!... everyone loved it. No one found the scantily clad 10 year olds disturbing. They all comment on how cute they look or, as my friend proclaimed in her Japanese laced English, "sekushii ne!". It could, really, just be praise for the parents and their children which is ok, but I couldn't really bring myself to say such a thing. I think they genuinely like seeing people, especially their children, have a chance to break out from the world of school uniforms to really do something that captures the feeling of the world their in, in this case, hip hop. I think I genuinely think too much................

But prepubescent costumes aside, it really was a great show. The dancing was great overall, even down to the kids, and the final act by all the teachers was really great in that it wasn't just a 5 minute try out for a Snoop Dogg video. There were lots of different styles of dance and themes and, my most favourite bit of all, I noticed that the teachers had varying styles they preferred, but all made an effort to try all the other styles. It was easy to see since it never looked as natural as some others, but variety is the spice of life and I liked that the teachers embraced that.

So kusai the dance show was not, figuretively and literally. I would even go as far as to say the $30 was worth it. Well, some costuming aspects aside =). Hey, at least no Janet Jackson style wardrobe malfunctions......................

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"saikoo". It means best. Or supreme. Someone used it to describe my attitude when I told them I always try to be positive- "Saikoo desu" (It's the best). Of course, I'm not Japanese as you might have caught on, and so the first thought that entered my head was, what's so psycho about being happy?? Thankfully, I've been here long enough to probe for translations before I jump to conclusions... or jump kick whoever praised my optimism, for that would truly be psycho. Of course, saikoo and psycho are pronounced slightly differently (sa-i-ko-o vs psy-ko) but when people are speaking quickly, they do sound vaguely similar.

But no matter- this week I had some time and went shopping! Not in any place fancy mind you. Just around town and smaller areas near my work. One thing that really struck me is that some of the clothes here are really cheap! Perhaps I spent too much time in Vancouver malls and never really went out of my way to find smaller places, but I found even the smaller niche stores tended to be pretty pricey in Vancouver, marketing their niche-ness as a selling point.

Not so here. I suppose because fashion is such an integral part of Japanese culture (argue as you might how trendy Vancouverites can be, the proportion of people who care about every piece of their wardrobe is greater here I find), the demand drives the prices down. There are still the wallet-crushingly expensive areas of town with fancy brand names, but stray from that and there still some good stuff to choose from.

For instance, I bought a jacket for what amounts to about $40 CDN when, 4 or 5 months ago, I nearly bought a similar one in Vancouver for nearly $150. It looks good and the fabric feels decently nice (for $40, it's pretty darn good) so why not.

Then there's a store near my house called Avail. It sells tons of stuff, really rather trendy stuff too. Rather nice looking shoes even, for $20 although it's there where you start to see why they can afford to be cheap. For instance, when the inside of the shoe is faintly bright from the thinness of the material, that's a hint. Or the insole being made out of plastic and having a shape resembling a melted fish, that's another sign.

Really, I see some people wearing shoes that look pretty nice from 3 feet out but upon looking a little more closely (subtly, mind you, wouldn't want to be labelled as a psycho =P), it looks they just wrapped some construction paper around their foot. The clothes tend to fair better but when outward image and low cost are priorities, the quality stumbles at times.

So while Japan is sort of like shopping central, it's more quantity than quality. It still takes the keen eye to find the good stuff, it's just that with sooo much more stuff, it's easier to find =).