Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Learn to speak Australian! (very EXPLICIT)

CAUTION: This post has Australians in it, so there is gratuitous use of the word cunt. Sensitive cunts are advised to tune out.   

Our first few hours in Nagoya were spent driving around in a sweltering car listening to our GPS yell Japanese instructions on how to get to Immigration. Somehow, we found the place, and got our residency cards.

Yay! We get to stay. Time to celebrate.  

We arrived at the hotel ravenous and headed out in search of food without showers. Bad idea. We found a restaurant in a basement and were served dumplings by the Chinese chef’s children, who were raised in Japan and spoke English. Energized by the globalism of the experience, we pressed on.

My wife wanted to go shoe shopping, and after 2 days of festival drinking, I was obliged to go with her. She thinks the women’s fashion in Japan is lame except the shoes. “It’s all tan and pastel pink, but the shoes are boss.” Unfortunately she was a half an inch too big for every pair of shoes she found. She doesn’t even have big feet. She’d squeeze into some sweet spiky platforms, stand and pout. Too tight. Eventually Raquel’s stench overwhelmed her and the salt flats growing on my shirt betrayed my misery, so we went back to the hotel.

We showered, napped, and went out to a bar called the Elephant’s Nest after hitting up the arcade next door.

The Elephant’s nest wasn’t very crowded, so we sat a table next to a group of gaijin. We caught them glancing at us, and not knowing how else to make friends, we glanced back. After a few sips of beer they asked us to help settle a bet. They wanted to know where we were from. “America?” We nodded. Their friend lost the bet, but he left before buying the next round. “Where do you think we’re from?” the two remaining gaijin asked, sidling closer.

“England?” I guessed.

“England? Do we sound like a couple of English cunts to you?”

That makes two times we have switched the Aussies and the Brits. They both hate it. We kind of love pissing them off. 

They guessed what part of America we called home by asking what kind of food we liked.

“Cheese steak?”






“Texas! You cunts are from Texas? We fucking love Texas! You cunts like the Rangers yeah?”

We pretended to care about baseball but the charade quickly fell apart.

“So you’re saying this cunt here’s been to more baseball games than you?”

We nodded, but explained that we were going to the Sumo tournament the next day, so it’s not like we didn’t like sports or anything. They were going too, and that somehow convinced them we were sports aficionados “Oh yeah, what sports do you like? Rugby?” No. “Cricket?” Nope. “You cunts would love cricket!” They showed us videos of glove-less catches while I tried to think of something else to talk about.

The beers set in and we talked of travel tips to our homelands, of kangaroo steak and the beauty of Sydney, of the pros and cons of 6th street and the Bar-B-Q hierarchy in Austin. They explained the rankings of cunts in Australia (Good and bad cunts are both good, as is sick cunt, in fact cunt is a compliment unless you’re called the dreaded annoying cunt). The conversation only grew heated when it turned to the metric system.

I agreed with them mostly, the metric system is superior in a lot of ways. I mean, who really knows how many feet are in a mile? What’s the relationship between gallons and tablespoons? Why are their two kinds of ounces? But I would not budge on my love of the Fahrenheit scale. Fine, use Celsius for science, but for the weather, Fahrenheit is ideal. Each degree of the Celsius scale covers too much sweat. Fahrenheit is more precise. Why does Celsius use negative temperatures when it regularly gets that cold? Zero degrees in Farenheit means you’ll lose a toe, plain and simple. And why only use numbers up to 45? In Fahrenheit, if its triple digits, you know it’s damn hot or you need to go to the doctor. The Aussies didn’t agree.

“In Celsius it’s hot if it’s over 30.”

“But that’s not really that hot.”

“Yeah but in Celsius 30 degrees is 30% of the temperature of the water boiling on your stove.”
Right because that’s what I compare shorts-weather to: a pot of soup.

“Why bother have days that are negative?”

“Well we got a right smart cunt here don’t we?” One Aussie asked the other.

They tried to talk to us about politics. It’s mandatory to vote in Australia, so it’s probably mandatory to talk about politics, but I deftly changed the subject.

“Whoa is this 1-Direction?”

“This cunt likes 1-Direction! You fucking cunt, you!”

We all laughed and finished our beers and agreed to visit each other’s countries once we got home. We hoped to meet again at the Sumo match, but being sports fans, they had much better seats than us, and we didn't see them again.

“I can’t believe these American cunts are going to’ve seen more Sumo matches than Baseball games.”
Yup. That’s me. The American cunt at the Sumo Tournament.

Joe Darris lives in Japan with his darling wife. Normally he lives in Takayama, but sometimes the schools close down for a week to give the teachers a break, and he gets to travel. If you enjoyed this story, please +1, and share with any Aussies you know. SUBSCRIBE if you want more!

Tune in Thursday to hear about the Sumo match that almost ended our marriage!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Gion Festival: Eating, Drinking, Collecting

Kyoto holds a false glamor. It’s a tourist town, filled with expensive cameras, sweaty foreigners, and overpriced souvenirs. I’m sure this is unfair, but that’s what I experienced. Kyoto’s power emerges, like a cicada from its mystical slumber, during the festivals.

During the day, Raquel and I went sightseeing like the tourists we were. We saw the Golden Pavilion overrun by Germans and hiked across the city to find Kiyomizudera Temple covered in tarps. The only thing I really liked was Inari Shrine.

Inari Shrine is home to more Torii Gates than any other place in Japan. There’s thousands of them, each paid for by someone (corporations included) eager to appease the gods. It might sound hokey, but I like it. Millions of dollars are spent to be part of this place’s power, and you can feel it. It’s not just me either, more people were praying at Inari than anywhere else I’ve been in Japan.

Walking up the mountain path, through the gates, is glorious. Tourists huddle here and there, and they add to the magic of the place. Because of their presence, you truly notice the moments when you round a bend and find no one. No family. No Germans. No National Geographic Photographers. All of a sudden you’re alone, with 1000 Torii Gates to yourself. When this happened to us, we’d do what any good tourists would do, I waxed philosophic about the timelessness and beauty and blah blah blah while Raquel shamelessly shot videos on her phone.

The real fun of Kyoto comes out at the festivals.

Raquel was eager for street food and I was excited to buy tallboys of Asahi “The Extra” and drink them on the street.

Crowds overflowed the Gion festival. People of all ages were dressed in Kimonos: beautiful couples, young women with exquisite hair and self-conscious men with that special look of pride and foolishness that only comes when a man knows he’s doing something to get laid. There were respectable older women taking pictures of floats, single twenty-somethings preening around for other single twenty-somethings, grandiose old men, adorable children and more beautiful women. There were so many people that one point that crowd simply stopped moving, completely, for 3 long minutes. No one seemed to know why, but we were all glad to escape the crush.

Everyone was there to see the floats. The floats are astounding. They tower over the crowds, decked in lights. Each is unique, hundreds of years old and home to the Kami, Japanese deities somewhere between a God and a spirit. Each float had a stamp, and for the low low price of 100 yen, I too could have a stamp in my notebook! This confirmed my suspicion that collecting is a deep rooted part of the Japanese psyche. Figurines, pokemon, stamps of the Kami, they collect it all. I, a former pokemaster, queued up with the locals. I got seven stamps before I got too drunk to continue, and I’m damn proud of that entire statement.
Meanwhile, Raquel was hunting for food. We bought ayu earlier (read more) but we also ate stir-fried noodles, crepe on a stick, tentacle on a stick, meat on a stick, and Raquel’s favorite,cucumber on a stick. It was lightly salted and served ice cold. She was in heaven.  

Other entertainment of the night included catching fish with paper nets, a task as impossible as it sounds. I am a pet addict, and could not pass up the opportunity. Drunk, I mangled my paper net in seconds. I resorted to dunking my bowl into the kiddie pool of dying fish. Victorious, the carnie (do you call them carnies in Japan?) bagged my catch and sent me on my way.

Raquel was not happy.

“What are you going to do with those stupid fish?” she fumed.

I laughed and boasted but quickly realized she was right. In my drunken stupor I believed I could get them back to Takayama without issue, but once there I’d need to buy a pump, a filter…

“Darling, do we have any big glass bowls or vases?”

“You are not putting those stupid fish in a Kitchen bowl.”

These fish were going to eat into my beer money. I needed to dump them, and fast.

Adults are for the most part, rational, sane human beings, so I targeted the exception: parents. “Sumimasen!” I’d yell to a dad already carrying a bag of fish and hold up my catch. They cursed me with cold smiles, then politely declined before their children realized I was offering them more heartbreak they’d have to flush down the toilet.

Then, I saw them. A young couple, sitting on the curb, holding plastic bags of water up to the light of a thousand paper lanterns.

Sumimasen!” I said, and held up my bag of fish.

The woman hopped up and held out her own bag, eager to compare our catches. They had turtles. Perfect. Getting turtles at a festival is even more irresponsible than getting fish. This was my moment. I held my fish to my chest, then extended them towards her. From me to you. She scratched her head, careful not to mess up her perfect hair. I repeated the gesture, gave a little bow. Thank the Kami. She understood.

She slowly reached out for my bag of fish. I shoved them into her hands, desperate to be rid of the commitment and the guilt I’d feel at their eventual death.

Arigato Gozaimas!” I yelled, and got the hell out. I glanced back and saw her boyfriend staring at the fish, terrified of all the time and money the little bag implied, of all the work and energy I had escaped, then I lost them to the paper lanterns and silk.

We stumbled back to the hotel, carefree, drunk on irresponsibility and “The Extra,” glad to have experienced Kyoto, and glad to leave.

Joe Darris currently lives in Japan with his wife where eats weird things, drinks too much, and generally makes an embaressment of himself. If you enjoyed this story please +1, share and subscribe for more! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Man vs. Fish, Round 2!

Ayu!” Raquel screamed through the throngs of people. We’d found it, the allegedly delicious river fish served whole, complete with guts, brains and bones. Tucked in between a fried noodles place and an ancient Japanese float, home of the Kami, Japanese Gods of Nature, a woman was grilling fresh ayu. Two Japanese teenagers had ordered one of the eight inch fish, caught in a nearby mossy river, then skewered and salted. The chef held their order over a bed of hot coals and carefully turned the fish back and forth before handing it to the young couple. They looked apprehensive as they sized up their meal.
Not wanting to get discouraged, I hastily ordered one of the ayu and a beer to wash it down. (My last experience with the fish was anything but pleasant).  The chef selected an ayu, already crusted in salt, and lowered it over the bed of coals. To my dismay, she grilled the fish for less than a minute before handing it to me. Wait! I wanted to say. That can’t be enough time to fully cook the viscera! But my Japanese skills are laughable, so instead I politely nodded and paid her for the fish.

I sized up the ayu. Its bony face stared back at me with eyes crusted in salt. Its fins looked like they’d choke me as soon as I tried to swallow one. Unsure of where to start, I bit into the plumpest part of the fish, its belly. Hot guts flowed into my mouth. It was salty and fishy and, actually, not that bad. Am I chewing intestines? I pondered as I masticated the strangely textured organs. Do fish even have intestines?

A note to eaters of ayu: Don’t look into the fish’s abdomen. I did, and immediately regretted it.  At the back of an empty cavity, dotted with brown and green specks of fish guts, the spine and ribs joined together, daring me to eat the bony cage. Sanity returned before I ate the fish’s eyes or brains, and I remembered: people normally eat the sides of the fish, not the guts! I sunk my teeth into the ayu’s tiny flank.

Oishi! It was salty and rich! Reminiscent of salmon perhaps, but different, delicious! The bones added a nice crunchy texture to the tasty meat. Half the fish was gone before I remembered to offer my wife a bite. She nibbled the ayu’s side and smiled. This really was a tasty fish!

I enjoyed every bite of that delicious ayu (the spine and fins were crunchy and especially delicious) until I chomped into the gills. They tasted how I imagine the filter of poorly maintained fish tank would taste, like rotten algae and fish shit. Isn’t that what gills are? They’re oxygen filters. Eating gills is like eating the lungs from a chain-smoking monkey. I gagged at the thought, then chugged beer, desperate to be rid of the vile taste.
The nearby Japanese teenagers noticed my disgust and politely giggled to eachother. I wanted to explain, possibly through pantomime, that the fish was delicious, just the gills were nasty, but I didn’t bother. I think everyone likes that feeling of belonging, of being home. That feeling that one only really gets when foreigners get excited or confused or even repulsed by something the locals take for granted. So I said nothing, and let them belong.
Instead I wandered off in search of the Gods and the delicious sights and sounds the mortals of the festival were offering them.
Joe Darris currently lives in Japan. If you enjoyed this story, please +1 and share with your friends and family!


Monday, July 14, 2014

Try the Moss Flavored Fish Organs!

Japanese people, like hipsters and bleeding hearts, like to eat seasonally. If I ask about a fruit or vegetable in the wrong seasons my students are completely confused. After tedious explanation, one of them inevitably looks up the word on their phone and understanding dawns.

“Ah, radishes! Hai, hai. Radishes now? Radish is a winter vegetable.”

“But they’re so big, and cheap! The grocery store is overflowing with them!” I reason.

Hai, hai. Radishes are a winter vegetable. Very delicious. Hai, hai.

Whatever, it works for me. We used to frequent the Farmer’s Market, so I can dig seasonal vegetables. Though in Japan, seasonally means more than just tomatoes in the summer and radishes in the winter.

The current seasonal specialty is ayu. It’s a river fish about 8 inches long that is typically skewered, salted and grilled whole. It’s known for its “delicious organs flavored from river moss that grow in limpid streams,” Yum! I mean, who can resist that? I tried an ayu, moss flavored organs and everything, and I thought it was disgusting. But I blame the unagi.

I love of unagi, or bar-b-q’d river eel. You’re probably tried some at a sushi restaurant. It’s that grilled piece of deliciousness often wrapped with a nori belt and slathered in sauce. I’ve never eaten more than a piece or two at once, but there are restaurants here that sell nothing more than slabs of unagi. They’re easy to spot; they’re the places belching clouds of wonderfully greasy smoke into the air.

My wife and I went to an unagi place our first week and got the “medium-sized” portion.

The chef presented us with a bowl of rice and huge chunks of delicious unagi. I happily inhaled mine, marveling at the richness and fastness of the eel, pausing only to sip at the ubiquitous miso soup and inescapable vegetable jello (I’m all for being adventurous, but vegetable jello is disgusting. I’ll take the horse-hoof variety any day). Beyond satisfied, we happily paid our tab, and stepped out of the air-conditioned restaurant into the heat of Tajimi city.

Immediately my heart began to pump faster, desperate to keep the oxygen flowing through the rivers of grease. We both began to sweat. Normally, my wife’s armpits lure me in with the tantalizing aroma of cantaloupe and sweet onions. But today, something was wrong. No overripe cantaloupe tickled my olfactory senses, no tangy and slightly acrid onion balanced out her sweaty bouquet. Instead, my nostrils were assaulted with just one pungent musk: unagi.

Delirious, we began to wander. We needed to buy something. Lunchboxes? Chop sticks? Samurai swords? None of it made sense anymore. I’ve only ever felt that way from food twice before. Once from The Buffet in Las Vegas (enough said) and once from a sandwich from Big Bites. The sandwich was filled with chicken strips, cheese steak, fried pickles, onion rings, French fries, a block of cheese, and slathered in Bar-B-Q and mayonnaise. I was high for hours. Tunnel vision, mood swings, nausea, hallucinations. The works.

One bowl of unagi did the same thing.

In our delirium we wandered into a Valor and what should I find but ayu. I’d heard all about this little fish and was determined to try it. It was already skewered, salted and roasted, completely whole. The head still attached to the spine, the viscera still inside. It had been prepped and cooked hours ago, then refrigerated. Raquel tried to dissuade me from eating this typical festival dish cold, but I was deafened by the unagi.

Everyone says it’s delicious!” I protested.

“Yes, when it’s fresh! You shouldn’t eat it cold, and especially not after all that unagi.”

I ignored her. What did she know? She stunk like eel anyway. I purchased one of the fish, already skewered, roasted and packaged in plastic wrap. Some dim ray of wisdom shined through the cloud of unagi and I knew not to eat it then. So I brought it back to the hotel, victorious. My wifey passed out. I mindlessly flipped through Japanese TV,

Hours later I sampled the ayu’s moss-flavored organs. It was revolting. Second in its nastiness only to vegetable jello. The skin was chewy and the little meat there was was riddled with bones. Each bite had a different texture and consistency. One bite contained the chewy heart, the next, green goo that spattered as I bit into the cold flesh. The moss-flavor was especially strong in the… liver?

Disgusted, I put the remains of the fish aside. Maybe without any unagi in my stomach it’ll be more appetizing. But even after a night of sleep, the thought of eating the last of the ayu’s flesh, spine and intestines was repulsive, and I finally threw it away, defeated.

But mark my words, I’ll eat their moss flavored organs at the festival in Kyoto tomorrow, this time hot and fresh, without any unagi pumping through my veins.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Japan: Food, Fish, and Grocery Stores

It’s finally time for the topic all of America has been waiting for: Food.

One of biggest differences between America and Japan as the sheer abundance of seafood here. The grocery stores overflow with seafood. There’s tuna, salmon, cod, mackerel, shrimp, and squid. There are clams, scallops, oysters, eels, skewers of sardines, and dozens of others unidentifiable creatures.  There’s ugly fish with their heads still on, beautiful striped fish cut in half, bags of alfalfa sprout sized fry, and every sort of roe. You can buy already cut sashimi, or fully prepared sushi rolls, cheaper and better than all but the classiest joints in Austin.

If do you visit Japan, I’d put the grocery stores high on the list of “must-see” places. There’s two grocery stores we frequent in Takayama. Valor is the safer of the two. Valor is ridiculously clean, well-organized, and almost always empty. The thing I really love about Valor is the music. It’s different than what’s on the radio. It’s some sort of super-shopping-fun-pop. No matter what’s playing, I sachet through the grocery store, cheerfully piling mysterious bottles of condiments into my cart while Super Sonico blasts on the speakers. It’s marvelous.

Valor’s great, but it’s definitely not my favorite grocery store. That title belongs to Asumo.

Asumo is located under a dollar store/ramen place and next to the “Santa Shop,” a second hand store topped with a Santa Claus statue that’s open year round. I don’t get it either. In front of the Asumo is a food stand that fills the parking lot with the delicious smell of dangos. Dangos are balls of sticky rice dough that are skewered, slathered in salty soy sauce and roasted. Dangos cost around 75 cents for a stick of five salty balls, and are an appetizing way to start your grocery experience.

Once inside, Asumo seems like a regular grocery store. The entry way is filled with produce, and shelves of products march off to the right, but it’s so much more than that. Careful hunting reveals cheap quail eggs, fresh noodles, still breathing clams, pickled everything, delicious fried sweet potato paddies as well as more exotic items. We’ve found olives, hotel mayonnais, marinara sauce, strawberry jelly and tiny jars of overpriced peanut butter. They even have tortillas.

The imports are great but as I prowl through the store, I study the careful choices of the Japanese. Clerks regularly brings out fresh boxes of fruits, vegetables, mollusks and fish, and the old Japanese ladies politely crowd around the fresh catch.  If one old lady puts a vegetable in her basket, I’m intrigued, if two old ladies choose the same cut of fish, I’m interested and if three old ladies pick the same organism, I buy it and make The Wifey cook it for dinner.

My most recent Japanese inspired purchase was a kind of never before seen mollusk. I know it was a mollusk only because it was  near the clams, squid, and snails. But what was it? A sea slug? An octopus heart? Perhaps a scallop and an oyster spawned near the shores of Fukushima and this orange piece of meat was the radioactive result. Whatever it was, the old ladies were piling the tiny packages into their carts. I grabbed two packages--proudly declaring them Kaiju testicles--then paraded them under the Wifey’s nose and demanded that she cook them for dinner.

At home, my pitiful attempt at researching the Japanese Kanji on the package revealed nothing. Dejected, I snapped a picture and left for school.

“What is this?” I asked, showing them the picture of the Kaiju testicles.

Tareto was the answer. Ah. This, of course, answered nothing. As usual I was doomed by my total lack of Japanese linguistic skills. Deeper probing of what sort of meat tareto was and where it belonged in the animal kingdom proved fruitless. Changing tactics, I asked if it was delicious. They all nodded. Hai, hai. I don’t know if they’ll ever learn English if they refuse to even say yes. I nodded my thanks and continued the lesson, not trusting a word any of them said.

I didn't trust their taste because we'd gone to yakitori place two nights ago had paid handsomely to try delicacies that Americans normally grind up and feed to public school students. Yakitori is just meat and vegetables skewered and grilled, though in Japan meat is a broader term than in America. At first we ate delicious grilled beef and chicken, while we threw back shochu and sake. But as the plates stacked up, and the alcohol dulled my senses, our new friends began to order more “traditionally.” We tried chicken stomach (too chewy) chicken cartilage (crunchy but flavorful) and a bowl of purple slime.

“What is this?” I asked, the purple slime dangling from my chopsticks as the server brought out our next dish, a bowl of soup covered in dried fish flakes. The fish flakes quivered and squirmed as they rehydrated; this wasn’t doing much for my appetite

“Try a bite then take a shot of sake! That’s how to eat these!”
I smiled, readied my sake, and ate the slime. It tasted of soy sauce and a dirty beach, and was very chewy. The pieces were so small all I could really do was swallow it and hope it didn’t get stuck in my teeth. Yes, sake made it taste better, but sake makes everything better.

“So, how do you like fermented baby squid?” they asked me, grinning like idiots.

I prefer my sake straight.

So, though my students seemed to believe that tareto was delicious, it did little to assuage my fears.

I arrived home to discover the Wifey was on strike.

“I’m not cooking those. Do you even know what they are?”

Of course I do! They’re tareto! Delicious tareto!

Unmoved, she forced me to don an apron and cook ‘em up. I know little about cooking anything besides eggs, steak and grilled cheese sandwiches, but in Japan, overcooking anything is grounds for hari-kari. So, thinking of the little old ladies who inspired this meal, I focused all my attention on not overcooking the tareto, and adding enough butter.

I cooked the Kaiju testicles just until they changed color, added lemon, salt, parsley and more butter, then poured it all over soba noodles. I cautiously set a plate in front of the Wifey.

She sniffed it, smiled, and looked to me. I nodded encouragingly and rambled about the succulence and umami and blah blah blah. She lifted a tareto to her mouth, took a bite, and loved it! We devoured them all, leaving nothing for leftovers. Wifey even said I handled them well (whatever that means) but we both agreed, next time she’s cooking the scallops.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I Risk my Life with a Duel-Bladed Barber.

I have an unnatural fear of barbers. Just the thought of sitting in that swivel chair, draped and unmoving while the barber hacks away at me with hinged razorblades fills me with dread. For years I’ve been going to my sister-in-law’s salon. Carla’s awesome. She knows what I want (shorter hair) and never makes me explain how to cut it. Still, going there is a harrowing experience. Techno blares, fashionable women eye my unkempt appearance, and the owner offers my coffee drinks I can’t pronounce. Sometimes in desperation I go to Bird’s Barbershop. They offer you beer while you wait and I always need a drink during stressful situations. I even got to know a barber there that I liked. He knew how I liked my hair (shorter) and we were both very comfortable with not talking.

But then I moved to Japan. Goodbye Carla. Goodbye quiet barber.

My hair was already too long when I got here. It’s barely been two weeks here and already I look like and Australopithecus (it doesn’t help that everyone around me looks so damn put-together).

I decided to go the nearest spinning blue and red pole I could find. I figured if the haircut went well, it would be easy to come back, and if he suffocated me with aftershave or drowned me in one of those hairwashing sinks, Raquel wouldn’t have to travel far to enact revenge. I parked my car, stifled the urge to vomit, and walked in. The shop was decorated with two barber chairs, a few plants, and a collection of miniature race cars.  Convinced it wasn’t a salon for old ladies, I politely yelled, “Sumimasen!”

That’s what you do in Japan when you need help in a place of business. You yell sumimasen and they come running. Most businesses seem deserted until you yell sumimasen. At restaurants waiters don’t come check on you or try to sell you desert or another beer. You want something, you yell sumimasen. Like many customs in Japan, it’s kind of strange, and it’s kind of nice.

The barber emerged from the back of the shop, like a demon summoned from beyond the Seventh Gate.

Sumimasen,” I said, much more meekly this time, showed him a picture of my head with shorter hair, and pretended my fingers were scissors.

He looked at me the way a master sushi chef must examine Fugu before he risks his diners’ lives and filets it for them to eat. I understood. I’m a hairy man. I’m not ashamed. I have chest hair, back hair, arm hair and toe hair. There’s hair on my ass and hair on my knuckles. In Austin my beard won the 6-month sprint division at the annual Come and Shave It facial hair competition, which basically means, I am way too hairy.

After a long moment he nodded. Hai. I sunk into one of his swivel chairs, and he began.

First he draped me in plastic (think Dexter), then extended two horrifying stirrup apparatuses. I thought of my wife’s descriptions of visits to the gynecologist and I stopped breathing. Was he going to probe me? Maybe at Japanese barber shops they didn’t stop the haircut at the neck, maybe they did the whole body at once. I hoped I had clean underwear.

Thankfully there was no probing. He got to work, and the little depression had made slowly filled with hair (who wants to see hair on the floor of a barbershop?). Like many Japanese crafts, his work was meticulous. Everyone in our neighborhood has beautiful gardens with manicured trees. In the city, I rarely see the majestic shade trees so common in every American neighborhood, those exist at temples and on the mountains. All the neighborhood trees are trimmed constantly, so they look like stunted old men. Each tip of each branch is cut with a pair of shears, one by one, so they tree never appears unkempt. My barber had the same zealous OCD. Inch by inch he worked, never moving on until that region of my scalp was finished. In America I think we tend to work in broad strokes, then refine the work afterwards. In Japan it seems to be about painstaking perfection one snip at a time.

The haircut was going well. No major arteries had been severed. He hadn’t removed my oversized ears. I couldn’t compliment his work because I can’t speak Japanese outside of bars, so, naturally, I began to grunt.

Grunting takes some getting used to. At first it can be off-putting. I’ll be telling someone a story, and my victim looks away and grunts. At first I thought I was boring them, but that’s not the case. It doesn’t matter if I complement the deliciousness of a meal or talk about Godzilla’s atomic breath and it’s relation to the Atomic bomb, my conversation partner stares into space and grunts. It seems like I’m being ignored, but really it means they’re politely listening. It’s considered aggressive to maintain too much eye contact, and grunting shows you’re paying attention.

I was definitely paying attention to the barber, so I grunted like a pig in slop. He seemed to appreciate my grunts, and smiled. He finished up, held up a mirror for me to see the back of my head and asked, “Neck shave?” I accepted, otherwise not only would I sound like a wild boar, I’d look like one.

To my dismay he whipped out a straight edge. Where was the electric clipper with its plastic guard to protect me? Oh god this was the moment. He’d spared me thus far because he liked his victims to be well trimmed! He clearly had a sick fascination with cleanliness. He was going to wrap me up in the plastic he’d draped me in so when he slit my throat, my blood wouldn’t leave any evidence.

I closed my eyes, and said farewell to the world.

I felt the blade scrape against the back of my neck as he plotted how to begin the mutilation. Would he go straight for the carotid artery or was he a windpipe kind of guy? Maybe he’d just sever my spine so I I’d be paralyzed while he hacked my body to pieces.

The seconds ticked on, my death loomed closer. Was he wiping shaving cream on his towel, or was it blood? I’ve read that there’s blades so sharp you don’t feel them cut you. If those exist, they exist in the land of the samurai.  

Finally, after an eternity of scraping and wiping, scraping and wiping, he was done.

I survived!

I politely declined the shampoo (it wasn’t too late for him to fill the sink with hot grease or hydrochloric acid), paid my tab (careful not to tip, tipping is rude), and bowed my thanks for the haircut, his English abilities, and my life. He bowed deeply, so I bowed again. This seemed to distress him so he bowed once more, very seriously this time. Fine. I still don’t get the bowing thing, so I smiled and left.

I got back into the car and looked at my haircut for the first time. I can never really look at my hair inside the barber shop, even in the States. I always just tip generously and get the hell out.
He did a fine job. I’ll probably go back in a month (who am I kidding? More like three) because at least I won’t have to explain how I like my hair.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

This Indepedence Day, Try "Sex Down Under!"

Happy 4th of July America!

Independence Day is very special holiday to me. It’s a pool holiday (I was a lifeguard for years). It’s a BBQ holiday (I love hotdogs and beer!). But best of all  it’s a birthday holiday! When I was too little to understand the deep and sincere sense of patriotism that goes with the 4th of July, my parents used to tell me they shot off the fireworks because it was finally going to be my birthday. Needless to say, it went to my head. I love the flags, the Sousa, the sparklers, and everything else America does in anticipation of my birth.  

Yesterday I found myself in Japan on this most American of holidays, and was homesick. No hotdogs, no drinking beer in a stars and stripes tank top. No fireworks. Nothing. So I did what any homesick American would do. I set out for the bars in hopes of finding fellow patriots.

I didn’t find any. Not one. There’s always Americans about in Takayama, but not last night. Instead I found the absolute worst thing an American can possibly find on the 4th of July, a bar full of Brits. Well, not the entire bar, just a table really, but the bartender sat us down with them (At Red Hill she always sits you down with someone), not wanting to mix us with her dwindling group of regulars being deafened by drunken Englishmen.

My wife actually asked where they were from and they became quite indignant.

“We’re city boys aren’t we? Me an’ this (dis) here bloke’s from London, this (dis) bloke’s from Northern (Nor-vern) London, and these (dese) two’s from-“ blah blah bother.

They were complaining about the beer not being warm and were surprised when I told them I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the royal Family (OK maybe I didn’t used those exact words but I implied them). My forefathers fought a war so I wouldn’t have to hear about the Royal Family on the 4th of July, and these blokes wouldn’t give it a rest! They had already cornered a poor Australian couple and a Brazilian, and were forcing us all to play a drinking game.

OK, the game was was actually the Australians’ idea, but dammit those Brits loved it.

I call it Sex Down Under. To play, you slap your knees while chanting “whee-a-whee-a-whee-a-whoop! Whee-a-whee-a-whee-a-WHOOP!” as a group. On the whoop, whoever started the round demonstrates their favorite sexual eccentricity (these are predetermined. My favorite of the evening was the fart in the eye, though the nipple twister was also quite popular), then on the WHOOP, you do someone else’s, then that person leads the next “whee-a-whee-a-whee-a-whoop!” This repeats, faster and faster, until everybody’s demonstrated their particular perversion. If you mess up, you drink, and if the round actually lasts through everyone’s eccentricities, everybody drinks.

It was a smashing good time and we were all quite stricken with it. So stricken in fact the owner of the bar had to keep asking us to keep it down and repeatedly tried to cut the Brits off.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any more clean glasses.”

“Well just fill this one up then!”

She’d smile and nod as her bar emptied out of everyone by the table of mad Englishmen (plus the two Australians, a Brazilian, and us).
Finally we left to, careful to slip out so the Brits wouldn’t follow us to the next bar. We had a great time with them, no doubt about it, but I’ll be damned if I talk about the Royal Family on the 4th of July.

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Joe Darris currently lives in Takayama Japan with darling wife. He misses his parents, peanut butter, a good cup of coffee, and his cat.

#Independenceday #Happy4thofJuly #America #Japan #Takayama #TheBritisharecoming