Monday, September 29, 2014

Raquel Rides God's Wooden Penis

The gyrating yoga instructor knelt and stroked the enormous wooden cock. I adjusted my loin cloth, then took a pull from the bottle of sake and watched in horror as the yoga instructor (penis-priestess?) pulled my darling wife closer and closer to the huge wooden wiener. Raquel shook her head, trying to protest but the cult of the phallus must be appeased!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had no intention of wearing a loin cloth and stoically standing around with twenty other scantily clad Japanese men as my wife did gods-know-what to a ceremonial baby maker. That morning we’d watched kindergarteners compete in Sports Day for goodness sake!
Chaba had invited us to this ‘party,’ and sent us a flyer detailing the event. If I’ve ever felt a there’s a reason to learn Kanji, it’s to not unknowingly go to a men’s fertility festival. True, the poster had pictures of shafts of flesh carved from shafts of wood, but I thought the party was just near a penis shrine or something.
Instead I arrived to find the only other American shucking his clothes and slipping on a ceremonial loin cloth.
“Come on Joe, man up! You don’t go to penis party in the woods and not dance around naked!” Steve is nothing if not encouraging.

But he makes a good point. Life is better if you participate. So I purchased a ceremonial loin cloth, declined an invitation to help put it on, and slipped into the tent. I tied the string around my waste, pulled the long rectangle of fabric through my legs, around my manhood, and tucked the remainder of the over the string so the cloth dangled oh-so-eloquently in front of El Torito. 
I emerged from the tent clothed only in the loin cloth, shoes, and my watch. Raquel tried valiantly not to melt into a puddle of giggles. Poor Raquel. What was to come was far more bizarre than any loin cloth. Steve asked how it felt and I admitted it was pretty nice. It’s totally adjustable, so no matter the size of your little guy, he’s comfortable, and standing around in a loin cloth is less awkward when everyone else is doing it. Sure, I was the only guy with a beard, chest hair, or tattoos, and the only other American understood everything they were saying, but hey, I belonged. 
The man leading the ceremony (a bartender in the city park that I’ve bumped into at the grocery store) chanted from the top of the hill and Steve and I marched over to watch Japanese men meticulously tie a five foot penis to a wooden frame. The penis was frighteningly realistic. It even had a crack down the side that resembled a bulging vein. The package secured, we all grabbed hold of the frame and erected the penis into the sky.
We marched up the hill, the leader calling out Japanese sexual innuendos and us responding, Yatai! Yatai! We lifted the penis above our heads, rattled it, shook it, sang to it, and spun it in circles. Appeased, the penis-priest commanded us to march back down the hill. We followed a man twirling fire and the yoga instructor as they danced down the hill, beckoning to the dong.
At the bottom of the hill, we set the five-footer down near a fire pit and got down to the business of drinking. The leader pulled out a huge bottle of sake, took a long pull, and passed it around the circle. The last man spit a mouth full of sake into the fire. The alcohol made the flames burn brighter as he anointed a new, smaller cock with more sake. The bottle was set aside, and we formed a tight circle.
Suddenly we were all bent over, each man facing the barely concealed ass of the man in front of him. Before I had time to understand what was happening, the man behind me passed the three foot model between his legs, and into my arms. I caressed it, gripped it hard, and gave the cock to the ass in front of me. The cock went around and around and we all moved with it, careful to never let it touch the ground as we ceremonially fucked each other’s butts.
The yoga instructor wiggled her hips, cheered the cock on, and at some point dragged Raquel into the circle. We passed the penis around the two women as the yoga instructor danced, and Raquel made sure she kept her hands clapping, busy, and away from the damn thing. 
But alas, her humble protests were in vain.
The leader called for us to stop and we returned the three footer to its rightful place next to the booze. We passed around another huge bottle of sake and chanted “Yatai, yatai!”
Then the chanting stopped. The yoga instructor pulled Raquel to the five foot veined behemoth we’d marched around with earlier. She cooed to it and continued to wriggle her hips as she pulled Raquel down next to it.
“She wants you to ride it.” Steve said.
Thanks Steve, but we figured that one out. Raquel shook her head as the woman tried to explain that it was for strength, and fertility.
“But I don’t want a baby!”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “this ceremony is good for a year.”
Drunk on sake and testosterone I offered my poor wife no escape. Gambare, I told her, do your best.
The only other woman at the festival, a mother with a tiny baby who looked nearly as uncomfortable as Raquel was pushed forward. Like deer cornered by a pack of wolves they looked for an escape. But seeing none, they surrendered and straddled the boner.
The leader called for the old heave ho, and the men all dropped to their knees and grabbed the frame that now held not only a monstrous penis, but a mother, her baby, my wife, and the excitable yoga instructor. I pushed my way next to Raquel, concerned for her safety instead of her embarrassment, and we lifted them all into the air.
They rode the cock as we wiggled it, shook it, and rattled it at the heavens. We briefly set it down and Raquel protested, “I don’t want to ride the fucking penis!” But the gods weren’t yet satisfied, so we hoisted them back into the vagina that is the night sky. There was more shaking, rattling, and a heart stopping moment where the men opposite me didn’t quite lift their side high enough and the riders almost tipped into the fire. We decided to call it quits.
We returned the penis and our sacrificial women to the earth, and I followed Raquel as she scampered off into the night.
The men lit up cigarettes, cracked beers, and put their clothes back on. The die-hards stayed near a fire and continued the ritual: they carved a daikon radish into a penis, danced to house music with a sperm cell, and fed us rice balls as they pointed flash lights in our faces and stared at us without blinking. I was the first man offered a rice ball, and had no idea what to do, so I ate it, unsure if I had just completed a ritual, committed an egregious taboo, or consumed ceremonial semen.
Even at penis parties, I think the old ways are best. I never doubted what I was doing as I hoisted my wife into the air riding that phallus. It was for fertility and strength and was undeniably hilarious. In contrast, the techno sperm dance and rice ball stare off were confusing and uncomfortable. That’s the strength of traditions that last: we keep erecting Christmas trees or penises because it feels right. All that modern stuff is just pissing in the wind.
Chaba offered us lodging in his tent and Raquel looked at me with murder in her eyes. Neither of us wanted to see any of these men in the light of day, so despite not getting any photos, we made our exit.
After all, we had a fertility ceremony to complete. 
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling (and undeninaly patient) wife. When he’s not making love to the heavens, he’s a teacher of all things. If you liked this story, read more about Chaba, or cultural acceptable nudity in Japan!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sports Day

Sports day, like many Japanese obsessions, sounds like something Americans should do better, but don’t. Trains, Bar-B-Q and outdoor sports have always meant America to me, but after seeing how Japan does them, I’m reconsidering.

Sports Day is the day when students compete in three legged races while their parents cheer them on. Except that doesn’t really happen in the States. My parents never made it to a Track and Field Day, they had to work and I never told them about it. But in Japan, Sports Day is held on a National Holiday, so parents have no excuse, and happily show up with pop-up tents and sunblock.  

As the resident English teachers, my wife and I were given a second row spot, one table from the principal. The perks were tea, a free lunch, and great seats for the most ridiculously adorable athletic meet I’ve ever seen.

There were sixteen events. Here they are in all their glory.

1.       Relay Race! Nenchu (4-5 year old)
The kids marched onto the field and broke up into teams. With chants of gambare from the crowd, the race began and the kids ran their little legs off. The parents cheered for the first kid to cross the finish line. White team won, much to the disappointment of the Red Team, but the parents cheered just as loudly for the last racer to cross the finish as the first. Gambare means do your best, and giving up, even in the face of an imminent loss, is unacceptable.   

2.       Hawaiian Dance! Nensho (3-4 year old)

About a hundred tiny children marched out onto the field dressed in different colored garbage bag pants. They wore tiny party hats and bracelets, and Raquel couldn’t stop saying kawai! Or Cute, cute, cuuuuuute! They did their best to dance in time to a Hawaiian surf number (a difficult task, as parents of 3 year olds know). Plenty stared at the clouds and forgot to dance, some stumbled and one fell down and sobbed miserably as he got back up and kept dancing. Gambare little guy. Gambare.

3.       Kenpo Nencho (5-6 year old)

The kids punched the air and kicked invisible combatants in sparkling white gi. But the show got really good when they started doing acro-yoga (I don’t know what else to call it. It’s more complex than human pyramids, but similar. Child stacking?) First in pairs, then triplets, then groups of ten, the kids held each other up higher and higher off the ground. I actually had a student break his arm doing this, and can’t help but think it would never fly in the States. His American counterpart’s parents probably would have sued, and no more child stacking, which is a shame. It is adorable and impressive.

4.       Father Fight! (rough translation)

In a heroic show of masculinity, the fathers of the Red and White teams lined up on either side of the field, and stared each other down over the sleeping bags, buckets, tatami mats, and giant foam ball that lined the middle of the field. The gun fired, and these grown men raced to the junk and wrestled it back to their own side. The fighting was so fierce they tore a hole in the foam ball the first round. Gambare is a way of life here. Seriously. Nobody acted aloof or too cool to try. These men were fighting for their children damnit. Gambare!  (check out the video on my Instagram)

5.       Cheer Off! (all ages)

Two six year old captains faced off leading armies of children. They tweeted on a whistle, waved a flag back and forth, and a hundred and fifty kids copied their moves or clapped to the beat. It was like something out of a videogame. I laughed so hard it hurt.

6.       Grandparents-ball

Grandparents threw balls in nets to score points for the Red and White team. The referee would blow the whistle to stop and none of them would, they all wanted that last point. It was somehow even cuter than the children competing.  (don't believe me? Watch the video)

7.       Father-kid Race

The first half of the track was a three legged race, in which the kids tried to run way faster than their dads and busted their butts, then it switched to a wheelbarrow and finally a piggyback. This was a great one to see the parents look a little embarrassed while the kids looked ridiculously happy.

8.       Torii Practice (Nensho)

Pairs of a boys and girls raced to a miniature Torii gate, made an offering (an oversized cardboard coin), then clapped three times, bowed and said a prayer, a Shinto tradition. One girl didn’t clap or pray, and the boy she was with (one of Raquel's students) refused to run back with her until she performed the obligatory ritual.

9.       Koala Parade (?)

Then came a parade of tiny children that tried and failed to dance to a song about koalas and pandas. Strangely not that cute. The only good part was the one kid who kept trying to escape but kept getting captured by his mom and being forced to keep dancing.


A choreographed dance to Disney music. It was the only event titled in English. I’m still confused about what it all meant.

      11.   Relay Race (Nencho)

The teachers chalked a racetrack onto the dusty field. Then a starting line, and lines for the kids to wait. They chalked reference lines on the field between every event, measured with string for perfection. The way they worked was in itself an amazing piece of choreography. Each event had a different set up, yet somehow they never seemed to make a mistake. The older kids took their race seriously, and some were heartbroken when they lost.

12.   Monkey-on-your-Back

Another cutesy race where the parents had to carry the kids in different ways.

13.   Grand Synchronized Marching Band

This was the event I’d been waiting for. The kids have been practicing it for weeks, usually during my English lessons, and I couldn’t wait to see the final results. It delivered. A six year old stood on the grandstand and conducted the rest of the students as they twirled batons, pumped pom-poms and banged their drums. They danced to Japanese versions of Disney songs (again with the Disney?), and theme song to a popular Anime cartoon. It was glorious.

14.   Missing Shoe

Dads had to race to a tarp covered in the shoes of all the children and find their kid’s sneaker while keeping their squirming, one-shoed child safely in their arms and off the ground. It was good fun to watch the little girls spot their shoes before the dads could.

15.   Alumni Tug of War

The graduates of this prestigious private Kindergarten (mostly 6-10 years old) lined up on either side of a pair of heavy hooks and grabbed hold of two thick ropes. To shouts of gambare, they heaved and hauled until Red finally won, and only event remained.

16.   Parent Relay Race

This was the event I was really there for. When the vice principal invited me to Sports Day, it was really a ploy to get me to run this race with all the moms and dads. Trying hard is really important in Japan, and its important for the kids to see adults trying hard at silly games they don’t understand just like the kids do. Sports Day was great because the kids got to see their families try just as hard as they did. Whether it was Grandparents-ball, The Missing Shoe, or Monkey-on-the-Back, almost everyone really did try their best, not something I often see in America (Most people won’t even dance at a concert because it might look like they actually care too much). I think the vice principal wanted me to run the relay so the kids could see that everyone tries hard in this world they’re going to inherit, even the silly foreigners. Either that or she was hoping I’d bust my ass on the sharp curves of the tiny track like the English teacher did last year.

With all this in mind, I lined up with the other men.

The women went first. Raquel's sweaty brow proved that she gave her best, but it wasn’t enough. Her team had already lost. I vowed not to let the same happen to mine.

I looked and saw the men around me shared the sentiment. What had been a laughing group of loosely organized guys was now four rigid lines of men donning headbands and stretching. I wasn’t going to be the only one to gambare.

We jogged out on the field. There were maybe twice as many men racing as women. Sports Day definitely had a daddy vibe. Lately the Japanese government has been trying to get dads more involved with their kids and these guys were ready to prove their commitment.

The first heat was off and we were all shuffling forward, crouch stand, crouch stand. Finally it was my turn. I ran my ass off. The men behind me was starting to gain, and I threw my legs into overdrive. I didn’t fall on those tight dusty turns, but I came close. I passed the baton and sat down with a bunch of other overly sweaty men. There was no doubt, we’d done our best, and we all congratulated each other as the rest of the men ran their lap. You can watch a video on the joquellives YouTube channel (soon)

And when White won the trophy at the end of the day, I basked in the victory because I knew I had given everything to the silly little race, and I saw that the losers wondered if they couldn’t have given just a little bit more. Giving your best makes victory sweeter, and loss no less bitter, something the States needs to remember. There wasn’t a “good-effort” trophy for every kid on the field, just one big one for the captain of the White Team, and a smaller one for the Captain of the Red, and they don’t even get to take them home. They stay at the school to remind everyone to gambare and maybe, if they work hard enough, they can hold this sweet, sweet trophy while their parents, friends, and sweaty English teacher cheer for them on for Sports Day.

If there’s any event you’re particularly curious to see pictures of let me know in the comments!
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife, and usually makes a living teaching English, not running laps. If you liked this story, share with your friends and read more about teaching young children in Japan, or drinking shochu with adult students.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Sounds of Tokyo

The sounds of Tokyo are what I remember most. We arrived in Shibuya to the sounds of chanting and pounding drums. We found traditional Japanese drummers dancing under neon and flashing lights, screaming for their ancestors in a part of the city bright enough to keep away any ghosts.

We crowded into a bar with about ten other people surrounding two sushi chefs who quietly slapped fish onto rice. “Aji! Hotate!” “Samon! Maduro,” “Sake kurasai!” the patrons chanted. The chef silently placed our food on an enormous bamboo leaf. I ate, relishing the sound of raw squid popping between my teeth.

We found an Irish bar and I sipped a Guiness while Irish-accented English rained down all around us. Our American accents embarrassed me into silence, so we left.

The bells of winning and the synchronized slaps of arcade dancers called us into an arcade. We boogied to anime theme songs and shrieked gleefully as Mario screamed when I shot him with a turtle shell.  

We sat down for a quiet breath on the third floor of a forsaken hotdog stand. I ordered the seaweed and mayo, Raquel the pickled onions. We listened to American music recorded in Australia while the glass kept the sounds of the city out. We watched the streets, silent vignettes of life in Tokyo. A group strolled through the city, then one collapsed, too drunk to continue. Her friends laughed and one of the men hoisted her onto his back. She slumbered on.

We followed the loud drone of a bass drum and found a club hidden beneath a thrift store with people lined up to get in. But we heard too much English, so we abandoned it for a deserted dance club where the bouncer screamed our drink orders over the blaring cumbia masic.
“What are you drinking?”

Kirin’s fine! I yelled over the music.

“We have a cheaper beer, you want that instead?”

The DJ kept the Latin beat as we sipped our Black Ninja lager. The bouncer and a smiling Japanese woman trounced a Latin couple at darts as they encouraged them to take more shots. Two Japanese men danced at the bar.   

“You know this song?” A dancing Japanese asked, fist pumping in time to the bass.
I nodded.

Satisfied, he danced away.

Exhausted, we checked into an internet café filled with the muffled sounds of Karaoke. Our residency cards earned us a room on the top floor so small I had to lay down diagonally to fit. We fell asleep to the sounds of keyboards typing and the man in the cubicle next to us snoring in fits.

We rode the train to the fish market at six AM, hoping to hear men bartering over tuna in another language. We raced crowds to get on the train, then found ourselves crammed in with droves of children in Mickey Mouse ears and teenage girls humming Disney princess songs.

We pressed on, only to discover the fish market was closed. We allowed ourselves to be lured into a tiny sushi place by an elderly couple who promised us English and fresh seafood. I ate sea urchin, tuna roe, and different cuts of tuna on a bed of rice. I drowned it all in hot tea and a bowl miso soup overflowing with seaweed; it seemed more decadent than fish after living in the mountains for three months.

I slept to the mumbled conversations of the Japanese as we rode the train to Akihabara. Raquel woke me with a whisper, and we ventured out to the videogame and arcade district of Tokyo. A sound stage promised a show at noon. Maids promised an escape from the madness of the streets in their cafes. We fell for the false promise on an arcade. We clanked coins into claw machines, and fought each other’s avatars as an announcer said “ready, fight!” and, “Way TO go!” in English thick with a Japanese accent.  

Back on the street, crowds jostled for space at the sound stage. Japanese women dressed in elaborate costumes sullenly moved to prerecorded voice tracks of their characters introducing themselves. Only the girl with the gun looked happy. With all the girls on stage and looking miserable, the announcer revealed a new pachinko machine that promised animated versions of the women standing before us. Most people crowded closer, we slipped away into a maid café.

If you ever go to Japan, go to a maid café. It is one the most bizarre things I have ever experienced. We walked in, and the head maid announced us, and all of the diners applauded. The maid taught us how to order. We had to pretend to clean our faces and say “meow, meow,” like a kitten. The maid vanished. We watched other people meow-meow, couples, old ladies, even a table of leather-clad bikers.

Thirsty, we cleaned our whiskers and meow-meowed. The entire café responded, “Kawai!” and shook their hands like our cuteness might make them explode. Our waitress arrived with water, took our order for coffee, and taught us to say kawai anytime someone meow-meowed. Now we would be able to overwhelm new diners, and pay the experience forward. She put rabbit ears on Raquel and cat ears on me and left us once more. The bikers laughed mercilessly at me, so the maids put ears on them and silenced their laughter. Finally the head maid dimmed the light, and began her maid dance. We were lucky to witness it. Normally one must pay double and stay for two hours instead of one, but another table had paid her for the show, so we got to watch, voyeurs of cuteness. She bounced back and forth, twirled around, and sang high pitched Japanese lyrics. It was the most adorable thing I have ever seen an adult do. The lights came back on. We snapped polaroids with the maids and caught a train to Harajuku.

Harajuku’s biggest shops had people boasting outside, begging us to enter; the smallest shops had persistent shop-keeps, who dared us to try their style. Overwhelmed, I hung on to Raquel as she whirred from shop to shop, like a song bird listening to competing males defend their territory.

We piled back on the bus home. Our bus driver was a tiny old man who whispered to us like a grandfather who didn’t wish to wake his youngest grandchild. He only spoke Japanese but I think he wished us dreams of soft blankets and kittens, and perhaps reminded us it was OK to have a cookie before bed. We woke to his gentle voice in Takayama, he waved goodbye and whispered “Gon ban wa.”

We crashed into our bed, hearing nothing but the sounds of the crickets, and the babbling creek at the end of our street, thankful for the noise of Tokyo, and the quiet of Takayama.  

If you want to read more about sightseeing in Japan, maybe visit Kyoto or Nagoya with Joe and his wife, or stay in Takayama for an amazing weekend.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama with his darling wife, and wants to know:
What sounds are unique where you live?  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sing Karaoke with your Students

These people got drunk and sang karaoke with his students this weekend. This is their story, only names have been changed.
Most of the week, I teach at a public school in the morning. I teach thirty minute lessons to about twenty-five kindergarteners. We sing the alphabet, play vocabulary games and their favorite, ‘TPR’ where we all march around the room chanting, “walking,” or “swimming” and the kids act out the verb. This is a great time for them to follow me and bury their heads in my butt (one kid per cheek). No amount of pleading can dissuade them from this task. They march along, chanting “flying, flying” as their skull applies gentle pressure to my gluteus maximus.

Most classes aren’t like that though. Most classes are at the private school I work for, and take place in the afternoon, once the kids are out of school and presumably tired out from all that butt massaging.

Our school divides the students by age and speaking ability, so most of my elementary students are all within a few years of each other in age, but may speak better English than some adults. As teachers everywhere know, it’s impossible to have a class of truly the same level, and that’s true even in my small classes.

One group has an eight year old, Yuki, who can speak English better than most adults. He’s grouped with the soul of a seventy year old man in the body of a nine year old, Rento-2, who is beyond polite and always perfectly clean, and an eleven year old, Rento-1 (the nicknames they gave themselves) who is one the dirtiest children I have ever seen. I have watched life forms evolve from the stains on his shirt. I don’t think Rento-1’s parents don’t care; I think Rento is proud of his stains. Cleanliness is very important in Japan (you have no idea), yet there’s a popular legend of a samurai who wandered the country, never washing his hair or clothes. I think Rento embodies this legend. He’s independent and not interested in social norms. For example Rento-1 always refuses my stamps--once kids get 100 stamps they get a present. I think he doesn’t want anyone to have anything on him. His stains are his way of showing he won’t conform.

All three of them are good kids, but Yuki’s English is far beyond either of the Rentos. Class consists of me teaching around ten new vocabulary words, then practicing speaking, spelling, and simple sentences. This takes the Rentos (and most students) a few weeks. Yuki never needs to hear a word more than once to memorize it. He spends class time giggling uncontrollably while he absorbs English like a sponge. He can copy anything I say flawlessly, like “Yuki be respectful or you’re not getting any stamps.” Even his grammar is impressive.  A popular question for my students is “what’s your favorite food?” To which they respond, “My favorite food is French fry.” Just that formula can be difficult for them, and we practice it endlessly with different topics, but Yuki will respond with varying phrases like, “I like tomatoes,” or “Sushi is delicious.” He should be bumped up, but considering that he already laughs at a struggling eleven year-old’s pronunciation, it’s probably not a good idea.

If I moved him into Kosuke’s class, Kosuke would probably die. Kosuke is eleven, overweight, and likes reading and French fries. He had a pet bacterium but it died. He told me of his loss by miming pouring out a bowl of water. He is THE master of a Japanese thinking technique in which, if you need to remember something, you sharply inhale over closed teeth. This creates a sound something like the last of a milkshake being sucked through a straw. Charming.

Kosuke is in a class with one other student, Ko, whose disinterest in English rivals my own disinterest in learning Japanese. Ko’s favorite day in class was when one of my other level six students missed her own class and had to come to theirs. Asami almost always wears tank tops (fairly uncommon) and short shorts (unbelievably commonplace), which Ko didn’t fail to notice. “How are you doing?” he asked in English, grinning ear to ear. “I’m tired,” she told him, then asked Kosuke how he was doing. “I’M FINE THANK YOU HOW ARE YOU?” he yelled. Ko didn’t mind asking her about her favorite animals and her hobbies, but Kosuke was glad the next week when things went back to normal.

Normally I teach Asami the same day as I teach two of my highest level students, Despair and Delight. They’re about fifteen, and have impressive English vocabularies, but basically refuse to use them. We finished their textbook, and I asked my coworker what to with them next.

“Ugh, those two, just get them to talk.”

About what?

“About anything.”

I tried for about a month (4 classes) and had to give up. I tried everything. I’d tell stories, offer candy in exchange for words, play games, bring music, I even let them make the curriculum. The curriculum thing worked for one class. They wanted to talk about Life. Great. There’s a lot of material there.

So, what’s important in life?

“Health,” Delight said. Health, and she smiled and nodded like she’d just solved the problem. Delight loves everything. She is oppressively positive. When her friend’s house was damaged from the flood in August, Delight was happy her friend had been able to stay the night with her. Delight wants to work in an airport so she can meet people and practice her English by giving one word directions. She likes Harry Potter, fruit, and playing the piano. She baffles me.

I turned to Despair and asked the same question.

“Purpose,” she said and slumped down in her chair.

Wow! Great answer.

I didn’t know her well yet, and asked the next question without thinking.

What’s your purpose?

She shook her head. “No purpose. Mother has purpose for me.”

Oh dear this wasn’t going well, private lessons are supposed to be fun, not existential probing of the familial structure.

You play guitar right? Maybe art can be your purpose. The two of you can start a band. Ha ha ha…

She shook her head, “I can never be good enough. I am not talented. Music is not my purpose.”

A bold statement for a girl who idolizes One Direction. I’m sure she’s already surpassed their music ability, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to say. I tried to comfort her.

You know, even I don’t know my purpose, many people don’t figure out their purpose until a lot later in life.

Despair shook her head, consumed by the future her mother has planned for her. In the States, that ‘thirty-is-the-new-twenty’ thing works, but not in Japan. As soon as students are in middle school, they’re expected to work incredibly hard to get into a good high school (all of which all require entrance exams) and then either start a career, go to college, or get married. I don’t know which possibility was in Despair’s future, but I know it’s not waiting tables, sleeping until eleven and figuring it all out later.

By the time Japanese students have made it through school and into my adults Intro-B class, they seem to be hard working but happy. They always tell me they’re tired, but that seems to be a respectable way to feel. They are all keep very busy schedules. They all have careers (some more than one, Kirito is a hair stylist and owns a curry and French toast restaurant) and hobbies they’re proud of. The word hobby has always seemed dirty to me, like something you do to waste time, but here, whether your hobby is cycling, boxing or videogames, its talked about with a head held high (it doesn’t hurt that all of those are one person’s hobbies). Some dote on their children, some garden or play volleyball, but all of my students love to drink.

Which brings us back to the restaurant. Ken and Kirito came out and sat across from my boss and me. They poured my beer whenever my glass neared empty, one of the most charming of all Japanese customs. They were drinking shochu, basically Japanese moon shine, and trying to convince me to have some because it wouldn’t give me hangover. Ken was going to cycle up a mountain at four AM, and he was drinking plenty. We stuffed ourselves on sashimi and fried vegetables, then left for karaoke. The karaoke spot our boss liked was full, so he called it a night and the rest of us followed Ken to a snack bar.  

They greeted us warmly, and put a half full bottle of whiskey at our table. I think Ken had previously purchased it, and we just paid for the hostess’s conversation skills and drinking pouring ability. She kept the whiskey coming, and applauded excitedly when us Americans sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocky Raccoon.”

Our students say songs in Japanese, and a hit by the Carpenters, but eventually we stumbled out, too drunk to sing. We hailed a cab and explained that, no, we weren’t tourists, and to please take us home. I woke hours later, happy I wasn’t climbing a mountain with the monstrous hangover had. Maybe I should’ve tried the shochu.

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan and teaches English. If you want to read more about him teaching, click here. If you want to read more drinking stories, click here forAustralians, or here for Israelis.
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Monday, September 1, 2014

Japan: Land of the Landlords

There's a wasp nest growing underneath our window sill. We showed our coworker and she examined it, hear face close enough to let the wasps crawl up her nose.
"Oh, those are good ones. They'll leave soon, don't bother Iwayam-san"
This coming from a woman I have seen destroy moths with a broom in one hand and a can of raid in the other.
Wasps below our kitchen window. The author apologizes for shakiness of the photo, but being a rational human being, fears these stinging demons and could not hold still for a clean pic.

 They view bugs differently over here, but I guess I'll take her advice, our landlord already avoids us needy Americans. Not that I blame him. I made the mistake of asking my landlord how to work the remote for the TV so I could watch the World Cup. After fifteen minutes of fiddling with the controls and mumbling to himself in Japanese, he called for help.
“The TV man can come today?” he asked.
Yeah that’d be great! What time?


Sure, yeah, how soon?

“That’s him now.”

The TV repair man was already strapping on his tool belt and leaning a ladder against the house. I have no idea how he moved so fast. He was a skinny old man, who looked like he’d been working with electronics since their invention. That didn’t stop him from climbing up the ladder, setting a foot stool on the slanted tile roof, and prying open the cable box.

He plugged and unplugged cables and yelled at my landlord in Japanese. My landlord would poke his head out of a different window or door each time and reply in the negative. Undeterred, the old man perched atop his foot stool continued trying connections. I reviewed the steps for CPR in my mind. Step one, survey the scene, if the scene is safe, proceed to step 2. I doubted a tiny man being electrocuted on a metal ladder would qualify as safe but I kept my hands out my pockets and ready to catch him if he died fixing my TV.

The two men yelling at each other through my home was quality entertainment for the whole neighborhood, and soon the owner of the house showed up to enjoy the show from a front row seat. He’s different from my landlord. My landlord is named Iwayama (Iwayama-san to us) and regularly brings us Iwayama-sauce to put on the 94 year old Iwayama-mama’s vegetables. Iwayama-san is one of the kindest and most generous men I’ve ever met. Evidence being how hard he was working for me to watch TV right now.

The owner of the house is a little different. Raquel thinks he had the parking lot repainted because we weren’t parking perfectly and rather than confront us about, it’d be more polite just to get the whole thing redone.

He stepped out of his truck, placed his straw hat on his head, hid hands on his hips, and craned his neck to watch the other two men scramble to get the useless American’s TV fixed. I got the sense the owner looked at my landlord’s inability to fix the TV with as much endearing amusement as Iwayama-san felt towards my own inability to do something as simple as watch TV.

The show went on. The TV repairmen poked around various wires while Iwayama-san poked his head out of various windows. I tried to compliment the owner’s home, but all either of us really wanted to do was watch the other two work and maybe see one of them fall off the house.
Eventually the TV repairman decided it wasn’t the cable, but the TV. The owner vanished and reappeared seconds later with another TV (Seriously I don’t know how they move so fast. Instant Transmission?)
The three men took turns fiddling with the remote until they got it to work. They flipped through the channels, and I quickly realized how pointless this all was. Everything was in Japanese. My brain malfunctioned as I watched game shows about eating Udon and anime about old people and their grandchildren. I had wanted the TV for The World Cup, but that would only be on for another couple of days. I felt terrible, I’d put these men through so much work, and risked one of their lives just for a couple of soccer matches? I don’t even care about soccer!
That was fine with the owner. The mystery solved, he vanished and took his TV with him.  
I tried to tell Iwayama-san to forget about the whole thing, but he would hear none of it. He vowed to return a few days later with a new TV.
But I don’t even watch TV in the states, just movies!
“Ah. You need a DVD player as well?”
No, I don’t need a TV at all, don’t worry about it! Please!
Iwayama-san nodded his understanding and returned three days later with a TV he’d found on Ebay, a DVD player, and a Star Wars DVD. I thanked him profusely, as he also brought more vegetables and a flyer of upcoming events. He’d circled which ones he thought we’d be interested in. He nodded a ‘you’re welcome’ and asked, if we need anything else.
Well, my bicycle tires are a little flat.
The bicycle tires are all flat here. In Austin, I’d be yelled at by dudes in jean shorts and fixies for riding 6 psi under, but here flat tires are embraced. It’s maddening, but I was sure that since the house came with bicycles, there had to be a bike pump somewhere. No such luck. Iwayama-san grimaced, then nodded and promised to return.
I sighed. Two points for the useless American! Now I’m terrified to ask him for anything, I don’t want to ruin his fascination of foreigners, but the car is making a weird sound (the last teachers drove it to Tokyo), and there’s slugs in the bathroom.
Aw well. I dealt with worse in the states, I’ll accept fresh vegetables as hush money. 

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan, with his darling wife and the occasional cricket (he throws them outside if they get too loud). If you enjoyed this post why not +1 or check out his Instagram at the top of the page?