28 September 2008

And now, Sagas of Saga presents "Natto: A Comedy of Errors"

It all started at the ruggedly beautiful and yet refinedly classy Shikian Ryokan in Oita Prefecture, Japan. I'll save you the details of the ryokan, other than a fantastic main building and individual Japanese-style guest houses, each with a large private onsen bath made of solid granite and the size of a car.

Breakfast the next morning was a buffet style with really well made Japanese food. This is where our story begins. I piled up the rice, fish, soup and a small paper cup with the following label:

Me: Ohh... "yuu... ki... something-something mame." Mame means beans! It's probably dried soya beans. Mmmm!

Misato: I thought you hated natto.

Me: *thinking something else I took had a tiny big of natto on it* Oh, yeah, it's okay. I don't hate it. I just don't like it.

I opened the label and peered in at fermented soya beans reeking of ammonia and the sweat of the oppressed.

In pure desperation, I mixed in as much rice as possible and added a little packet of Japanese mustard, which is essentially like watering down poison. If anything, it just draws out the pain.

I started out optimistic. In fact, I decided that I'd man it up and eat it. Japan is a waste-not-want-not society, which means it's rude and shameful to leave even a grain of rice on your plate. This, I actually really respect, so I wanted to try my best.

Me: Wow! It's sticky! Fun... exotic...

It started out all fun and games until I started getting it on my hands. My enthusiasm wained after this.

Me: Um...

Misato: Ganbarinasai.

After finishing about half of it, and absolutely everything else on my plate in some depressing attempt to filibuster, I started to give up on manliness and maturity altogether, reverting to a child-like state.

At this point, a storm was brewing. In my bowels.

Eventually, I gave up and shovelled the rest of the beans back into the paper cup and tried to hide my shame with napkins and the label. An hour had passed and I had completely failed at Japanese food and table manners. Clearly, not my best moment in Japan.

21 September 2008

Top 10 Japanese Words that ALTs Use In Casual Conversation (Part 2)

Part two of my top 10 list of most common Japanese words used by foreigners in Japan. I hope you enjoy!

Konbini [kon-been-ee]
- noun

Ever wish there was a place where you could buy such things as snacks, stationery, a bottle of French wine, concert tickets, some lunch, DVD movies, clothing, video games, umbrellas, and "love magic", and where you can even pay your bills; all in one convenient store? Try 7-11, Lawson, AM-PM Mini Mart, Family Mart, or one of the many other fine Japanese konbini.

Yes, I know 7-11 exists outside of Japan. In fact, most of the Japanese konbinis started off life as American companies, then were bought by Japanese companies, but in Japan they're unbelievably highly competitive, doing very specialized and localized market research which they call "Dominant" (yes, an English adjective), and end up being something else altogether. So much so, that they go beyond the North American image of a "corner store" and little by little has become... the konbini!

[Origin: Japanese コンビニ, itself from the English convenience store]

Gaijin [gahy-jin]
- noun, adjective, interjective

I've been in Japan for about a year, and I'm willing to guess that anyone who knows a smattering of Japanese phrases has come across this one already, so I won't go into the details of the nuances or etymology beyond the meaning "foreigner", except that it's a shortened form of gaikokujin, or "person-from-a-foreign-country". And, it's pretty rude. And Japanese people say it all the time. And the Japanese people that use this shortened form of gaikokujin would be horrified if they I used the shortened forms of "Nipponjin" or "Japanese".

And let's not even get into nanban chicken.

All this, of course, does not stop the gaijin community from using "gaijin" in every other sentence. In fact, just the other day I was in Fukuoka with my gaijin friends and spotted some strange, suspicious, possibly criminally-active foreigner-looking gaijins coming our way and I said, "Goddamn, there're a lot of gaijins here!" with a bit of autoxenophobic excitement.

I personally used the word "gaijin" 46 times today. I counted.

See also: Gaijin Smash.

[Origin: Japanese 外人, itself a contraction of 外国人]

Eki [ey-kee, ek-ee]
- noun

Train station. I don't know why we use this particular Japanese word since Japanese train stations closely resemble their Western equivalent, but maybe because very few of us had lives so intimately connected to a mere train station. Ever wake up at 6:15 AM to be on time for a lonely commuter train? If you have, you feel my pain. Pushing through a noisey, hostile crowd of uniformed students, barely (and sometimes not) avoiding hitting your head on handle bars which are all at a painfully low six-foot level -- pushing through just to get out at your stop...

At the same time as I associate the eki with so many terrible things, it's also the home of plenty of good memories, so what can I say? I love my eki.

[Origin: Japanese ]

- noun

Ever feel like sitting in a bit bathtub filled with sulphuric water, ass-naked with a few of your best mates? Well then you'd best to Japan, me son! This is at first the most uncomfortable thing in the world, but after a couple of times, it stops being anything of an issue and becomes one of the most relaxing things to do on a Sunday afternoon. Especially if you're sipping a beer and are outside in the warm water on a cold winter day staring off at the mountains. Said to be quite healthy too.

The first time I went to an onsen was at the very end of operating hours, and as we were leaving, a security guard came to ask my naked self to bend over and pull out the big onsen bath plug to let the water out for the night. Awkward!

[Origin: Japanese 温泉]

- noun

Keitais! Teacher, mother, secret lover. While you Westerner types are spending X amount of dough on Blackberries per month ($100+?), my little keitai -- the Japanese word for "cell phone" -- was the smallest of the small and cheapest of the cheap, and it combines an ordinary phone with a dedicated e-mail client, web browser, mp3 player, video player, digital camera, digital video camera, dictionary, calculator, etc. Behold(!):

Much like Golem from Lord of the Rings, I love and hate my keitai. I love it because it's fairly useful for communication, but really because it's an endless source of entertainment. Get bored? Send an innane e-mail to all my friends. I hate it because, aside from brain tumors, and for that matter a tumor on my thigh where my pocket is, it's annoying! First of all, I use it as an alarm clock, with it's handy mp3 player playing Kid Koala's "Like Irregular Chickens" (starting at the one minute point) and so I associate it with waking up at 6:15 for crowded commuter trains, but also, it's like a computer in every way, but much less convenient. I don't LIKE typing e-mails with my thumbs, damn it! Lastly, I got that ultra-slim model. The purple one on the top right, actually, because I thought it was dark brown in the muted lighting of the store, and I think dark brown electronics will eventually replace the white lacquer look that Apple's been pushing, so might as well get behind this one now. But I got the smallest phone they had, because my goal was a phone the size and shape of a credit card, and the only drawback, or at least the principal drawback is, I have to endure all manner of folk telling me "It's cute that such a big man has such a small keitai." Pff! Whatever. At least I'm not overcompensating for anything.

I know this is a "top 10" list, but I didn't number them, let alone choose a favourite. Have a favourite? Post a comment and tell me which! Also, I put two movie and two TV references in this post: figure out which, and I'll buy you a beer.

19 September 2008

Marriage Proposal On the First Day

Friday was the first day of my class at Ichikoko. I did my standard, professional, squeaky-clean, painfully boring self-introduction amidst cries of "kawaii!" and "kakko ii!", and then had them write short essays introducing themselves to me.

Most of them talked about their hometowns, their love of studying and their dreams of someday going to America™ -- all very standard. One, though, one was a little bit special. It's both the scariest and by far the funniest thing I've got from a student, or anyone else for that matter.

For the sake of privacy, I've changed her name, age and hometown, but the rest is in it's absolutely original formatting right down to the colours of the hearts.

Dear Michael

Hello (: My name is Yuri.

I'm fifteen years old. I live in Saga.

My birthday is June 20th.

My hobby is singing a song.

Let's sing together!!

I love LL class. Because I'll meet you ♥_♥!!

My dream is to wedding foreign man

I like foreign man
you are foreign man

I want to be a good friend with you.

When you see me, please say "Hello" to me

good bye

Do you have a girlfriend?
or boyfriend?

13 September 2008

Top 10 Japanese Words that ALTs Use In Casual Conversation (Part 1)

I've heard the Japanese in Vancouver is rather "slangy". The English in Montreal's soaked up Francicisms enough to be considered a distinct dialect, and Acadian French contains such witticisms as "ridez le truck". Minority languages tend to work this way-- slowly creolizing, de-creolizing, and then eventually disappearing.

I used to be one of them Montreal English, and now I'm a foreigner living in Japan. There aren't too many of us, and if there's one thing that unites us, it's how we fracture the Japanese language at the expensive of our own. Here's the first half of my top 10 list:

Haro! [hah-roh]
- interjection

English, sort of. Think of this as English fried and then refried. If you've ever been within 50 metres of a group of 10-year-old Japanese boys, you've heard this. If you've been in Japan long enough, you've probably said it.

Today's kids are getting savvy to the fact that... not every white person is a English speaking American citizen, and they occasionally throw out the buenos días and namashites. One time when I got a "haro!" from somewhere behind me, I threw back a nice, crisp "bonjour!". You know, to internationalize. I assume it's the first time he ever heard this, 'cause I faintly heart a sad and confused "bon... jour?"

[Origin: Japanese school children ハロー!, var. of hello, itself var. of hallo, itself var. of hollo, itself var. of earlier holla]

Genki [gen-kee]
- adjective
Genki isn't in any English dictionaries I know of, but make no mistake: we gaijins have bastardised and Anglicised the sucker until it's Sino-Japanese etymology is just a painful memory. But what does it mean? Genkiness is a mix of exitement, happiness and healthiness, or in other words... "exuberance"?

A quick Google image search yeilds a genki carrot:

Notice the glassy look of excitement on his face and the gung-ho attitute. After spending even days in Japan, everyone's genki or not-genki. There are no other emotions.

[Origin: Japanese 元気]
-Related forms
Genkiness, genkize, genkify, genkerific

Nomihodai [noh-mee-hoh-dahy]
- noun, verb

All you can drink for two hours for about $15-20. Way to give'r to your liver, eh? Sometimes you get free food and it often it involves making an ass of oneself with coworkers singing terrible songs in karaoke.

I did this last night, in fact, and now I'm feeling not-so-genki.

Note: nomihodais may lead to liver failure.

[Origin: Japanese 飲み放題]

- noun, verb

All you can eat for about $10. Sometimes it's à la carte, and sometimes buffet. Either way, prepare to eat a lot of meat, fish, squid and pizza or indeterminable quality.

Sometimes, you can get "nomi-tabehodais", which combines the two into a swirling vortex of fatty meat, a cynical single vegetable serving consisting of some raw cabbage and an endless amount of watery booze. Highly recommended.

[Origin: Japanese 飲み放題]