Saturday, November 12, 2011

Japan is Here

It's kind of a shock to log in to this blog and realise that it has been nearly two months since I last blogged. It hasn't felt like that long, and at this stage I think any attempt at recap would be thin, and wasted effort, so all I can do is explain my absence...

Although I blogged - sparingly - since coming back from my holiday in NZ, I think this blog lost its central premise when I returned for my second year here. The problem is, I now know Where Japan Is. There is very little chance that I will ever again mistake it for Papua New Guinea on a map (I won't rule it out altogether, because my precedent is alarmingly bad on this front). I'll never be a local here; I'll never blend. But I am comfortable here, and though Japan still has the capacity to surprise me, on a day-to-day basis, I'm just living my life. I'm living in under the falling leaves, and amongst the giant crows; I'm living it under the imminent threat of an icy winter and amongst the shrines and the rules and the old men who follow me through subway carriages, and the students who express shock at my solo marital status at the grand old age of 24; but it's my life now. It doesn't feel like a weirdly distended holiday, or an experience on another plane (plain?... level).

It's almost cruel, then, that I've made the decision not to re-contract with JET for a third year. There will never be another autumn in Japan for me, and that's an exciting and an awful realisation. I've gone from being baffled, everyday, to being happy, everyday. The friends I've made here are people I'll know forever, and I've learnt things, mostly about myself, not always good things.

Japan is bitter sweet, but mostly sweet, and so I want to leave this blog as it is, a sweetly bitter recount of a strange and wonderful year. I don't want the tone to change; I don't want anything jaded or settled or knowing to creep into a diary that is largely wide-eyed and wondering.

So thank you to everyone who has been a reader. I don't know if I'll be writing any more non-fiction Japan-based blogs in the near future. If I did, it'd be more along the lines of an ordinary life, and that's not the kind of thing that hooks people. I have a fiction blog that I hope to keep updating with some regularity, but as for The Life of Scarlett - that is, for now, off the internet.

You know, except for Facebook. And Twitter. Apart from that, I'm a closed (face)book.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charming Japaneseness.

Today I am at the BOE office, it being exams at my high school (obviously, they have exams nine million times a year, it's more of a statement to proclaim that I ACTUALLY HAVE TO TEACH). At 12.15 today I went into the room where the majority of the staff work, to find them sitting in darkness. The lights were on in the corridor and the computer screens still glowed, so I knew the power was still on. Bemused, I presented my paperwork to my superviser, who squinted uncomprehendingly at the small text.

'Why are the lights out?' I asked, as he lowered his nose to within three centimeters of the print, trying vainly to decipher it.

'It is rest time' he said.

I looked around. Some staff members were, indeed, brewing coffee, or dipping chopsticks into bento boxes, but by far the majority were labouring, like my superviser, to continue their work by the dim light filtering in from the corridor.

'Do you want me to come back later?' I asked.

'No, no no'.

'Well, then, should I turn on the lights, just for a minute?'

Shocked face.

'It is rest time'.

I Turned 24 In Japan

... and it was kind of awesome.

Here's the thing about Japan, that I have discovered now that I am old and wise: if you get into a rut, and start to think that it's all a bit singular, all a bit monotone, all a bit samey, it's you that's the problem, not the place.

Anticipating my birthday was not pleasant for me - there's something about 24 that feels a bit close to 30. And I wasn't sure how I felt about spending it here, where I'm not building a career, or a life, where I'm coasting. I wasn't sure how I felt about spending it like I spend any other weekend.

And so, just to shake me up some, Japan put on a bit of a show for me. It started with cake. Everything good in the world always starts with cake.

I got three cakes, which seemed excessive, but didn't pose any particular difficulties (apologies to Adrienne, whose amazing home-made effort was eaten before it could pout). The cake with the name-tag was particularly poignant as I had, only the day before, listened to my long-suffering teacher-colleague spell out my name to an obvious non-English speaker over the phone. It took at least three minutes and I was certain that I was going to end up with seven t's on the end of my name, but Japanese communication won the day., and Scarlett The Cake was a triumph

My birthday fell on a Thursday, which meant it was spent at Kiyota High School. I didn't even have to work, it being Sports Day, so I wandered around watching people be more active than me, and then I ate two bowls of curry and a large piece of cake.

Yup, that's curry being cooked from scratch at the hands of two sublime Japanese men... I love my job.... Hang on. I've just realised that if I actually go into detail about the full events of the five days that I chose to allow my birthday to occupy, then I'll be here for one hundred years, and then I'll be 124, and who wants to sleep with that? So:

bikerideI'll skip right to the good stuff: Magical Camp.

IKNOW. I know, more camping. but I'll do anything as long as it has the word Magical tacked in front of it. Seriously. Magical Cleaning. Down with it. Magical Lobotomy? Sign me up.

Of course, because I went, it rained. Everywhere I go, I always take the (Wellington) weather with me...

But where did I go, you ask? Who did I go with? WHAT IS MAGICAL CAMP HOW IS THAT A THING?

Magical Camp is an all-night dance party in the forest. Magical Camp is rain on a hundred mirror balls, dark muddy paths through the trees, long-haired Japanese DJs. Magical Camp is candles and bonfires and black body paint and slender women dressed like cats. Magical Camp is Jack Daniels by the fire and a rave in an abandoned elementary school and curry eaten out of styrofoam containers and Japanese hippies campaigning for a nuclear-free Japan. It's dancing in a 100 yen poncho at 8am, and navigating your way through trees lit with fairy lights by the light of a torch shaped like a bunny, and collapsing next to strangers on sacks filled with straw.

I had a moment, somewhere in the small hours of my first Sunday as a 24 year old. I was thinking of how long I'd already been on my feet, how many more hours there were to go til daylight. I was tired, hungry, drunk, and I wanted the night to end. And then I remember how I'd felt for the last week, like my 23rd year had evaporated, how I wanted it back, and I realised how fucking contradictory it all was, wishing away my night while longing for my days. And then I let it all go and just danced, at the side of strangers, to the strange asymmetric beats of Ainu a cappella.

Magical Camp is a side of Japan known only to Hokkaido hippies, and those underground enough to know where they go. I'm no hippy, and I couldn't get underground with a hundred shovels, but I loved touching a side of Japan that doesn't have perfect hair, isn't worked to the bone, doesn't shop in the same stores. And when I found myself, at 2 am, posing for a photo to be posted on a website clutching a chalk-board on which I'd written "New Zealanders Say: No More Nukes", with mud up my legs and a blue poncho flapping around my soaked self, I thought, well, maybe 24 won't be so bad. It's already more political than 23 was, and who doesn't love politics?

The next morning, we got back to Sapporo, and the spell might have broken. I showered, snoozed, read five pages of Eat, Pray, Love, remembered why I'd always refused to read Eat, Pray, Love. I felt crabby about the fact that it was Sunday, even though Monday was a day off. And then, somehow, I ended up here:

That crowd shot might look like it shows a bored, staid group, but in fact what it shows is hundreds of people, gathered together to celebrate their sexuality, and that of their friends, kneeling and squatting and standing, paused in mid-gyration: watching shots of the Gay Pride Parade taken that day and projected on the wall; listening to Born This Way boom from the speakers; enjoying the spectacle of Japanese men showing some true colour and total bravery.

It also shows a Japanese man giving me the glad eye, who may or may not have mistaken me for a male in drag.

So, arigatou, Japan, for a fabulous birthday. It was queer, it was magical, it was camp.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ME ME ME mmemememememememe.

If you like the way I write but are just damn tired of reading about Japan and fish and host boys and weather and snow and whining and food and rice and beer and sunsets and sunrises and commutes and trains and insults and ignorance and earthquakes and ramen and old ladies and homesickness and schools and students and exams and crows (though I truly can't imagine why anyone would ever grow tired of all that) then please feel free to make your way over to my new tumbr effort, where I will be posting fictional musings of all degrees of quality (mostly bad, but hopefully edited). These will range from free-write passages to pop-culture mash-ups, all overindulging in the use of the adverb, just the way I know you like it. Give it a try. If you hate it, stay here. I'll continue to write about all of the above, because though I do enjoy fiction, my ultimate favourite subject will always be my own sweet self.

I Guilt-tripped Myself Into Writing This In The Last Ten Minutes

Japan is no stranger to tourists, but nonetheless there is never anything stranger than me on the subway. I have seen dogs in baby carriages. I have stepped around a leather-clad host boy passed out face first on the floor of a women-only carriage. I have watched an entire row of identical schoolgirls fall simultaneously asleep on the shoulders to their left.

I live in Sapporo, a city of two million on the island of Hokkaido, far from the glamour and international charm of Tokyo. It’s hardly the sticks – it’s a big city with big buildings, internationalized in all the most recognizable American ways. You can’t make a left turn without ending up in a Starbucks. The presence of other cultures is undeniable. On my daily commute I see women perfectly turned out in kimono rubbing elbows with girls sporting Lady Gaga t-shirts.

And yet: most days I will not see another foreign face (other than the few souls I work with). It’s not a tourist hub, Sapporo, though in winter the epic snow brings myriad noisy Australians dressed in neon, and the Snow Festival in February usually encourages a few Russians to make the ferry trip. Most days, I will in the subway, during rush hour on a Monday morning. I will sit quietly, plugged into Kimbra, demure, with elbows tucked in and knees together. Most days, I will keep my eyes closed for the majority of the commute, or I will stare at my knees, or I will peruse my Twitter feed for amusing #inappropriatefuneralsongs (“No Air” is my current favourite). My shirts are buttoned to the chin and, given that it’s 7am, I usually don't smell yet.

Despite all this, the seats on either side of me will almost invariably remain unoccupied. Little old ladies will stand, swaying gently, rather than risk any accidental physical contact with the dangerous red-haired foreigner.

I’ve never been stared at like I’m stared at in Japan. Some days, it beggars belief. The Japanese are a savvy people. They read. Their broadband speed is insane, so I know they’re kept abreast of the internet. The only logical conclusion from this is that they’ve seen at least ONE other foreign face in their lifetime. George Bush, perhaps. Oprah. And I know I’m at least four sixths more typical looking than either of the above. Perhaps it is something about being physically exposed to something so totally unfamiliar that does it. I mean they could – god forbid – touch me, if so moved. I did, in fact, have one elderly gentleman approach me once as I queued for the subway. I saw him coming from a long way off, so unflinching was his gaze. He moved querulously, as if his body were fighting his mind, but his stare held steady as he got within my phone-box of personal space, lifted one hand to my bangs and intoned solemnly ‘Akai’ (red), as if it were a mantra or a curse or a blessing.

I was strangely moved as he walked away. I’m pretty sure at least one of us had just had some sort of a religious experience. If he’d asked, I would have happily told him that the specific color is Red Passion, Shade #42, and that I thought that with his skin tone, he could just about pull it off.

You Can Cheat At Anything In Life, Including Blogging

I am being lazy in life and on the internet and feeling guilty about it; and I don't want to lose readers but NOR do I want to write about anything, so in order to allay my current guilts, I am re-posting a blog I wrote for another website, which means that you are subject to my sloppy seconds BUT on the bright side, it was edited so there are no whiney elongated vowel sounds. Thank you, you're welcome.

Why Living In Japan Isn’t As Healthy As You Might Think

The Japanese are a fascinating people. Almost inhumanly beautiful, they are unlike any other nation. When they’re not busy ousting a prime minister every year, or inspiring the fashion choices of blonde pop-stars, they’re pushing their way through all kinds of barriers, technological, cultural, geographical. When faced with disaster, they assume an automatic fight face, ready to rebuild. And then they bow.

When I moved to Japan, I had pretty shiny visions of my Japanese self. I’d be demure, technologically savvy, adept at sushi-rolling and so so thin. I’d wear short sassy skirts with long socks and clunky heels; my hair would be thick and to my waist, and I’d eat raw eel and raw eggs with aplomb. I’d read manga on the subway, standing, without holding on to the handles. I’d wear false eyelashes every day. I’d never sweat. Don’t stereotypes exist for a reason? Shouldn’t they be true? Doesn’t living in a foreign country allow for automatic assimilation?

One year later, and the vision has changed. The thing is, Japan is designed for Japanese people. I guess that’s why so many of them live here. It’s their optimum environment, the locale for which they’re genetically pre-dispositioned. I, however, am best designed for an antipodean environment, where I can shear things at will.

I like it here. I plan to stay. But, for any foreigner planning forays into the rice paddies of Japan, here are some things to avoid, or at least be wary of.

1. Rice: healthy on paper, dangerous when consumed routinely for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Face it, anything you can eat a thousand of and not feel full is not a safe food-stuff. Also, once the digestive process takes hold, it’s pretty much glue. Go ahead, eat as much as you like, it’ll be in there forever.

2. Beer: it’s watery, non-descript and it flows like… water. The concept of drinking in moderation is not something that made it past the Sea of Japan. In fact, typical methods of drinking involve party plans, where a set (small) amount of money buys you all-you-can-drink for a set period of time not less than three hours. We’re talking pitchers and pitchers of beer lined up along the tables, being poured by angular Japanese men, until suddenly it’s 4 o’clock in the morning and the sun is rising and the crows are attacking the garbage and you’re careening down the streets of the red light district on someone else’s bicycle.

3. Crows: oh my god, the crows. Daphne du Maurier was clearly Japanese (you can tell by her last name). This is what inspired the novella. They’re huge, like vicious, black, flying, dive-bombing beagles. And they like hair, particularly red hair, wrapped around their claws and borne aloft to line their nests.

4. Host Boys: it’s the hair that gives them away, bleached and spiked, gravity-defying, less coiffure, more elegant weaponry. They loiter on street corners, slouchy and smug and alluring. They take you by the elbow and into a tiny lift that smells of smoke, and then they seat you at a table and smile and bring you champagne; and then two hours later they turf you back onto the street, less $300, dignity and several years of your life.

5. Earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear power plants: not nearly as tourist-friendly as you might imagine.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Typhoons, Leopard Print Headbands and Peanut Butter Cups.

Another year of JET, another school. A new prime minister; an old country.

Earlier this year I was faced with a decision: to stay at the school I already worked at (which I loved), or transfer to a new one (new experiences, new teachers, new people to tell me how unbelievably attractive I am). The decision was made to encompass the best of both worlds: I would split my time half and half between one new and one old senior high school. I know, can't make a decision to save myself.

Two weeks in, and I'm fairly confident that the right decision was made. Of course, I'm confident right now, because it is midday on a Friday and I am flat on my back on my bed. It's easy to be confident about things when you're being lazy as all fuck. I have wasabi cheese and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups on the duvet next to me and I'm fairly certain that the only vertical motions I'll be making all afternoon will be one sojourn to the shower to wash off the sweat from ALL THE EXERCISE I'M DOING. This wasn't the plan for today, though, oh no! Today, in fact, I woke up raring for some physical exertion. Seriously, I was ready to, like, climb things. I bought new track pants and everything. I even put my hair in a pony tail. Today was the day that the entire staff and student body of Kaisei High School was supposed to spend wandering along the open road to Lake Shikotsu, some forty kilometers away, in a huddled mass of janitors, Hello Kitty and umbrellas. WHY? I'm not exactly sure. Bonding? A break from the monotony of studysleepstudysleepstudysleep? Sadistic governmental motives?

So we all gathered at 8am at Makomanai Station, clad in track pants and Sensible Shoes (no polka dots), with backpacks full of rice balls and water and (in my case) eyeliner. Alas, Mother Nature shook a hairy fist at bonding. "Back!" she said, "Back to bed with you!" and together with her second cousin, Typhoon, she ushered me, barely protesting, back to Sumikawa, back on to my bike and back up the stairs to my apartment. So here I lie. Who am I to question the powers that be?

It has been interesting, adjusting to my changed school environments. The new schedule means that I alternate days back and forth between the two schools, which means that when I crack a bleary eyelid at 6am, my first thought is "Bkufsvjdsld" and my second is "Wtf, what day is it?" The two schools are situated on opposite sides of Sapporo, so a mistakenly caught train would result in severe lateness and abject embarrassment, so my commute is now a focused activity. Left or right, that is the question. I know, I know, my mental capacity should be greater than this... oh, well. I've managed to avoid fucking it up so far, except for one fateful Tuesday where I attempted to go to school, despite being feverish and generally ILL, and ended up passing out in the disabled stall in a subway bathroom. Sexy.

So far, the new school is going extremely well. I have been called Rihanna once and Lady Gaga twice, which might be ground for quitting on anyone else's yardstick, but for me represents significant positive affirmation. The teachers are friendly and organized and my only complaint is having to go to a different floor to use the bathroom. Oh, and that there are too many mirrors around. How can I keep up my mental certainty that I look like Rihanna, if I look in the mirror and see my mother 30 years ago? (You're pretty, Ma, I love you).

Back at the old school, things are much the same, with a couple of changed colleagues and a different working schedule. And the refrigerator in the staff room broke. Don't worry, I'll be fine.

I have become bored with my own blog, and also distracted. Outside my window, the typhoon, which was the cause of this morning's cancellation, has hit. This is some serious weather. Lucky I'm on the eleventh floor. Somebody send an Ark.