Sunday, December 31, 2006

In the Dungeon

In the War Memorial Museum, there is a really cool exhibit of what the Koreans call a "turtle ship." Designed and built by Admiral (insert forgotten name here) in the late 16th century, it was used by the Koreans against the Japanese navy during one of their earlier invasions of Korea.

It is unique among ships of that period because the top is completely covered with a thick armored surface to prevent the Japanese from boarding the ship (something they were apparently adept at). The ship also had an unusual box shape that made it possible for sailors to use oars while still behind armor. Only a small opening in the top allowed the sailors to raise the mast.

They had a cool video about the boat playing in Korean. Seeing that there was an English button, I waited patiently to learn more about this very fascinating ship. 3 minutes into the English video, some little kid comes up and presses the Korean button while I'm watching it! I give him and his parents a dirty look, and the child rightly gets scolded by his folks nearby. I look at him and push the button again. About 7 minutes into it the second time, the same little brat comes up and pushes the Korean button again! I contemplated stapling his chubby little cheeks and snot covered nose to the polished granite floor, but thought that maybe it wouldn't be the wisest course of action. So I gave the impudent ilk (and his bonehead parents) another dirty look, and went off to see another exhibit that featured a medieval dungeon and torture devices.

I returned to finish watching the video later, when the coast was clear. I pushed the English button again, this time excited to learn about the brilliant Korean naval leaders from the days of old. This time, 15 minutes into the video, this same little rugrat shows up again and presses the Korean button for the third time! Now normally, I'm one who is willing to let things go especially when I'm in a new country and culture. But this kid already had a chance to watch the movie! I wasn't happy about having my time wasted by an impudent 6 year old! Other tourists weren't around, and his parents were nowhere in sight either (go figure), so I took matters into my own hands!

I picked him up by the shoulders and started carrying him back into the dungeon exhibit I had just come from! He started screaming something in Korean and crying, so I wrestled him to the grownd, put my hand over his chocolate ice cream covered mouth, and picked him up around the waste, careful not to let him make any noise. Fortunately, somebody had left a sweater on a nearby bench to tie around his face. And there was a scarf I could use to keep his hands tied up too. I pinned him again on a table to secure his hands and stuff the sweater in his mouth.

I also happened to remember I had left a magic marker from school in my bag! So I took the magic marker and gave him a lovely beard, unibrow, third eyeball on his forehead, and a "scratch and sniff here" on his stomach in Japanese.

Climbing up onto the exhibit, I dragged him right up to a cage the king used to hold suspected assasins. And what tremendous luck: the padlock used to secure the cage in an open position was itself unsecured! I threw him into the cage (big enough for 1 person) and shut the door.
After sealing the padlock on it (this time in the closed position) I ran as fast as I could. 30 seconds later, I heard the same kid squealing in the cage as his high pitched voice reverberated in the granite halls and spacious ceilings.

Leaving as promptly as I could, I didn't get to finish watching the dumb video!

Busan to Seoul

Yesterday marked my first day in Seoul, the capital of Korea. I'm staying with someone else from couchsurfing here. She apparently had another guest from staying, so we both got taken out to Karubi, which is Korean BBQ. It was very delicious. We also at a cold buckwheat noodle soup in an anchovie broth. We ate it with a vinegar topping. Good stuff! We later ate some really spicy food and a great soju-yogurt drink that tastes really good. is great. I think I'm gonna look at this as well.

Today I hopped on a subway to visit the War Memorial of Korea and Gyeongbokgung Palace. Near the Ministry of National Defense, the War Memorial is a museum that chronicles most of this country's tragic history of invasions by Chinese, Japanese, and North Koreans. It also seems to serve as a patriotic tool to teach the Koreans how tough they are and about all the equipment that the ROK Defense Forces use. Judging from the museum alone, the Koreans seemed quite boastful of their military strength. I had to smile at a number of the exhibits and that blantantly glossed over obvious defeats to tell stories of victory. One video in English said, "under intense pressure, the ROK army successfully withdrew..." I tried my best not to laugh.

But I still had lots of fun running around the outdoor exhibit, which featured a whole heaping helping of tanks, AA guns, bombers, helicopters, Amphibious Assault vehicles, Howitzers, fighter jets, trainer jets, Armored Personel Carriers, Naval Guns, from WWII to today. They also had the Soviet and Chinese counterparts for most of the tanks and artillery. Highlights included a submarine, A B-52, several transport planes you could walk through, and a Korean version of a M1-A1 Abrams tank (they failed to mention that it was developed in the USA).

I also went to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the center of King Taejo's Joseon Dynasty. Unfortunatly, the information display seemed more interested in telling about how many times the Japanese destroyed it instead of giving much information on the palace itself. I did get to see a cool changing of the guard ceremony, and got my picture taken as a guard for free.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Korea: First Impressions

I just arrived in Busan, South Korea by hydrofoil ferry this afternoon. What follows are my initial impressions in no particular order.

1. This place has more trash on the streets than Japan does.

2. Korean food lives up to its reputation and is quite good. I had a soup with all kinds of things in it and sampled all kinds of things little old ladies were cooking on the street. I don't know the names of any of them.

3. There are lots of Army surplus kind of places here.

4. Middle School and High School girls all wear the dorkiest glasses I have ever seen. I'm not joking they have to be seen to be believed. Were talking Steve Urkel and Woody Allen in 1984 dorky.

5. Knowing Japanese is useful in Korea. The guy who sold me the soup meal spoke Japanese pretty well.

6. Stores everywhere sell ginseng. They all have gigantic tubes with the root floating in formaldehide. If the store has too many of these, they look kind of creepy.

7. The Koreans have tons of great outdoor stores selling climbing gear and overpriced North Face waterproof shells.

Overall, Korea should be interesting. A bit rougher and more edgy than sanitized and polished Japan.

Himeji Jo Castle and Hiroshima

Traveling across Southern Japan, I'm realizing again why I stopped traveling extensively: Its too darned expensive to get anywhere and do anything. I am so overbudget right now, it is not even funny.

Nevertheless, I can report that Himeji Castle is the most spectacular castle I have ever seen, anywhere. Elegant, old, and all in a stunningly beautiful setting on a hill surrounded by parks. I only wish I could have been there when the cherry blossoms were blooming. Pictures coming soon!

I also went to Hiroshima to see the Atomic Bomb Dome. That's right folks, I stood at ground zero! Like the Alamo, the famous ruins of the world's first nuclear attack are smaller in real life. It apparently used to be a regional industrial showcase forum for local companies to promote their products. They light the place up at night and its quite pretty. Hiroshima itself is quite nice and otherwise indistinguishable from other Japanese cities of its size. Like most Japanese cities that were bombed extensively, it has the trademark wide avenues on a more logical grid pattern planned during the reconstruction.

Besides being the site of a nuclear holocaust, Hiroshima is also famous for okonomiyaki (a Korean pancake thing, but I don't know what they call it over here.) Only in Hiroshima, they stuff it full of noodles before frying it. Its pretty good but I'm not sure how to describe it to someone who has no idea what I'm talking about. Its not too bad on the budget either.

Unfortunately, I had to catch a bus early the next morning (to save money) and couldn't spend much time in the museum as I would have liked. So I went further South to stay with a friend I met on the internet who lives in a secure undisclosed location (like Dick Cheney)!

First Couch Surfed

On my travels across Japan, I've discovered the greatest thing ever. is fantastic. I went to the Southern Japany and stayed with someone teaching English down there (names and specific details have been omitted to protect privacy and security). There wasn't much furniture, so I slept on the floor. I promised not to turn into a homocidal axe murderer.

Anyways, we had a great time together (or at least I did). Anyways, this is a cool site. Everybody check out!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

My new nephew!

Well, it looks like I am no longer just a brother and a brother in law. According to all sources, my sister is pregnant. As my sister and brother in law appear to have ignored all advice about birth control, it looks like I will be the new uncle of a brand new human being!

Seriously though, I do think this is way cool (except that I now have to spoil this new kid as much as Aunt Dee spoiled me). While the shock of it wore off somewhere on the ski slopes of Central Honshu, I think I can accept this new little tyke into the family. With all due sincereity and joy, I hereby give my official congratulations: おめでとうございます!


I don't like Osaka

I'm currently in Osaka at an internet cafe/overpriced comic book library place for geeks. I am staying at a capsule hotel/ wacky (even by Japanese standards) bath sauna massage establishment.

These last few days have been somewhat exciting, visiting Nagano Prefecture, I had the chance to visit Matsumoto Castle, which is absolutely stunning. It is one of the best castles I have seen to date. I went up there with Erika, and we had a good time. I also got to sample several types of the local specialty: basashi. Basashi is raw horsemeat, and I can now say I've sampled several different cuts, including the hind legs and the mane (my new favorite).

I also went skiing in Hakuba, where the Nagano Winter Olympics were held for the first time. Unfortunately, there hasn't been enough snow around here, and only the higher-up runs onany resort were open. It was a pretty area though, with rugged looking mountains that should have been covered in snow!

I'm now currently in Osaka and growing to hate this place. I can travel almost anywhere, but every time I go to Osaka 2 things happen: 1. It rains cats and dogs. 2. My Japanese goes right down the toilet. It happened when my mother was here, and it happened again today. I'm never coming back to Osaka, despite being one of the few places in Japan where I can get Mexican food. (The burrito and Dos Equis were delicious).


今旅行します。昨日は長野県の白馬スキー所へ行きました。今大阪市にいます。大阪はあまりきらいです!大阪にくるときにいつも雨が降ります。そして大阪がすきじゃないよ! でもメキシコのレストランがあります。おいしかったよ!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hiroshima, Seoul, DMZ, Oh My!!

I’m currently in the midst of planning for a weeklong vacation in Korea and parts of Southern Japan. My Japanese itinerary includes Nagano, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and possibly Kagoshima. Pusan, Seoul, the DMZ, Skiing, and Hot Springs are on the agenda in Korea. Korea is also well known for its unique cuisine, which ranges from spicy pickled cabbage, Spicy BBQ, shellfish broth soups, and apparently lots of other spicy stuff. Served with difficult to use steel chopsticks as well!

For those who do not know, Japan hosted the 1986 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Obviously skiing and hot springs rank high on the agenda. It is a place I have heard about for quite some time and am looking forward to visiting. I am a little concerned that the resorts will not open, as very little snow is falling from Japanese skies. I may luck out over the weekend though.

The infamous site of the world’s first nuclear attack, Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome is the next order of business. Besides being the site of a several kiloton radiological tragedy, Hiroshima is also famous for okonomiyaki, a pancake dish of Korean origin. I don’t think that’s what they call it in Korea.

From Fukuoka Japan, I plan on going to Korea by ship, and have already booked tickets to Busan in South Korea. I’m still in the process of putting together my Korean itinerary, and the end is in sight for this blog’s nauseatingly insipid drivel. This is an exciting time on Daily Belly Button Lint, so be sure to stay tuned!



Sunday, December 17, 2006

Another One Bites the Dust: Chinese Baiji Gone

The Chinese Baiji river dolphin is now officially extinct, according to this article in National Geographic. Known in China as the baiji, this "goddess of the Yangtze" crossed its native river on the Stygian Ferry for the last time.

Endangered for the last 20 years, the rare Chinese freshwater dolphin finally kicked the can. Scientists blame this negative patient care outcome on several conditions non-conducive to life, including overfishing, ship traffic, pollution, and dam building.

Unless people wish to see similar endangered freshwater mammals feeding the fishes in the near future, scientists in this article warn for urgent action in China and elsewhere.


Picture from this site.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bon Enkai means Year-End Party

In Japan, this is the season for Bon Enkais or "year-end parties" as they might be translated. I went to Katahira-chu's Bon Enkai last night. They held the party up at a place called Dake Onsen, which is well known throughout the region for its fine hot spring waters (onsen means hot spring). We had an overpriced meal that was almost too pretty to eat and at a hotel and spent the night up there.

This appears to be a fairly common custom in the Japanese Junior High Schools. Unfortunately with my busy travel schedule last year, I wasn't able to make it to any Bon Enkais. You go spend the night at a hotel (girls and boys in separate rooms of course), take a bath together (also separate) and then eat dinner.

Following this, we went back up to our rooms. Can you guess what we all did when we got back to our rooms? You guessed right: more food! We chowed down on an enormous sushi platter, squid jerky, pizza flavored potato chips, and pink rice cakes.

After that, we all went to bed. Overall, it was a fun evening. Besides having to sleep on a less than comfortable futon, it was a nice place. The hotel had a great onsen. Most of the teachers were questioning me about my travel plans for the winter vacation. The music teacher, Ms. Sugita, is going to Prague and Budapest over the holiday. She's quite excited about seeing some opera, as Koriyama lacks somewhat in the culture department. Unfortunately, most of the other teachers don't have any big plans for the new year.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Minakami Blonde

This is Paula's website. Coming from Kansas, she is a Native Teacher in our city. This is her blog. It's called Minakami Blonde. You can read it. Her boyfriend is a real cool guy too.

Could have been Better

I rarely write about my work in here. My work is fairly routine, and not the most exciting thing to report on. But today I would like to reflect on and relate a mistake I found myself making. As I learn more Japanese, I am losing patience with my students, and must put a stop to this trend immediately.

My first year in Japan, I found myself infinitely patient with my students. Perhaps my inability to communicate in Japanese necessitated the need for more patience with their English. My second year I noticed this patience waning somewhat as I learned more Japanese. Translating, explaining, and communicating grew easier for me, so my student’s English was no longer required. Now going through my third year in Japan, I find myself losing patience with students more than I probably should.

Outside of the classroom, when I speak with them at lunch, in their afternoon clubs, or elsewhere, I almost always speak Japanese now, even when it is something they know in English. If a student is struggling to explain something to me in English, I often just ‘break out the Japanese’ if only to get the conversation rolling again. As my job and presence at the schools is partly to promote conversational English, I am in a sense neglecting that duty by doing this.

In the classroom, the opposite problem exists. I often think to myself, “I learned this sentence structure and vocabulary in Japanese, so why can’t these kids do the same in English?” Especially when it is a simple concept that the students can reasonably be expected to know and understand.

I was in a class today and conducting my own lesson designed to let students practice a particular sentence the students had previously learned. It was a game for the students to play, but it required them to finish writing several partially completed sentences. The students would fill in blanks in the sentence for certain missing words. During the game, they would translate for each other.

Problems surfaced when few of the students could successfully write (and sometimes understand) the required word or words in the sentence. I helped them as best I could, but I had little sympathy or patience for them, as most of them demonstrated that they could translate a completed sentence prior to this activity. What was standing in their way now? Moreover, the same activity was very successful at a different school, so why couldn’t these kids do it?

I asked the teacher, and she said the students were not accustomed to “writing on their own.” She is probably correct on that account. Japanese students are typically required to memorize and regurgitate information. English goes a bit further in requiring students to translate grammar. Rarely do their teachers in any of their classes require them to produce any sort of written product beyond a correct answer or solved math problem. And even if it is a written product, it is rarely something that allows creative control.

While I didn't get angry with the students, I did get somewhat patronizing. One particular instance occurred when I was helping a kid with this particular sentence:

When Mr. Tyler went to Tokyo, he ate sushi with______________.

The student was obviously required to write a name of their choosing when this student complained that he didn’t know what to do. After initial efforts failed, I painstakingly made him translate each word and then the clause. This was certainly unnecessary and may have been insulting. I then arrogantly drilled and questioned him on every pedantic detail of the sentence until he couldn’t possibly dismiss the requirement to fill the space with a name. My efforts still failing to bear fruit, I asked him in Japanese, “Who do you like? Who’s your favorite TV star/soccer player?” He still said “I don’t know.” So I responded with something like, “Throughout the entire world, you don’t know one person that you like? Do you KNOW ANYBODY in the world? Do you know him (pointing to someone nearby)?” I told him to write that boy's name. I'm sure it sounded even more outlandish in Japanese than it does in English.

After this episode, I eased up a bit, but I still wasn’t in the best frame of mind. Ultimately we weren’t able to play the game, because the students were unable to finish the writing part. While I don’t think the failure of this lesson was entirely my fault, I do think I am at least partly responsible. I wasn’t as patient and understanding of their difficulties as I could have been. I didn’t account for their lack of certain skills when planning the lesson. I MAY not have adequately explained to the students what was required of them.

More importantly, I didn’t respond correctly when the student needed help. Frustrated as I was when I felt the students should have been more capable, the patronizing attitude was detrimental and disrespectful. As doltish as this student was acting (and admittedly he was being especially dense), he still deserved better than his teacher’s condescension. In a culture where one’s reputation and dignity are very important this was wrong. And for that I am most chagrined.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Battlestar Galactica バトルスターギャラクティカー

Today I borrowed the series premiere of Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica on DVD. I almost never watch TV or movies anymore, but I heard great things about what the Sci-Fi Channel was doing with the program. So I took a look at what the fuss was about.

For those of you who don’t know, the original Battlestar Galactica was a TV program from the late 1970’s. Being a campy rip-off of Star Wars, the program was ultimately cancelled due to poor ratings, reviews, and an enormous budget. The story revolved around a group of people on a giant space-ship/aircraft carrier: the Battlestar Galactica, and their adventures and quest to find Earth. Unfortunately, the program suffocated under the sheer overpowering force of its own cheesiness.

A few years ago, the Sci-Fi Channel decided to resurrect the program (while I was in the process of moving to Japan) and bring it back to TV. The producers preserved many aspects of the original program, including the Cylon villains, numerous character names and the concept of humanity struggling against overwhelming odds. What’s gone is most of the whimsical silliness that both defined and ultimately doomed the original series. They still have some goofy names like Captain Apollo, and use words like ‘frakin,’ that make you cringe a bit. But the show doesn’t take its campiness too far or too seriously, and it isn’t drowning in such waggish drivel like its predecessor did.

More importantly, most themes of the program like the conspiracy plots, character struggles and the moral dilemmas facing the characters are anything but juvenile camp. Unlike my beloved Star Trek, the characters are anything but righteous paragons of virtue such as Captain Picard. The leaders are real people, and like most political leaders, they are often forced to choose between one of two lesser evils. Unlike Captain Picard, Galactica Commander Adama and President Roslin cannot fully depend on the unfailing loyalty and righteousness of their staff. In this sense, the characters could potentially be much more interesting people.

One particular moral dilemna involved a decision about who should live or die. As the human race was attacked by the Cylons, a small crew had the choice to rescue several refugees, but could only take a few. They took straws, until one man was recognized to be a brilliant scientist, Dr. Baltar. Unaware of his treason to humanity, a pilot gives up his seat for the scientist, believing the survival of humanity required the services of his brilliant mind. Commander Adama wisely keeps knowledge of a spy’s presence secret, knowing that public disclosure would lead to a frenzied witch hunt. President Roslin, a government minister of education made president through a long line of succession, rightly suspects the possibility of a military coup during the initial crisis. She knows that her tenuous legally prescribed political influence may hold little sway when surrounded by other people arguably more qualified to make very painful but necessary policy decisions. The characters try to do what is right, but like real people their judgment is often clouded by personal interests, emotions, and other negative character traits. Definitely not Trek.

Being a recovering Trekkie in a 12 step program, the existence of this show will not benefit my recovery. I now intend to watch the entire first season on Dan’s DVDs. While I worry about becoming a TV junkie again, I think this new series is sufficiently hip to justify watching from time to time. Also, with the DVDs I won’t be watching TV commercials, which is one of the reasons I have abstained from watching television for a long period of time.

Here are a couple of other articles to read about the new show. Apocalypse Noir and Battlestar Iraqtica.



Sunday, December 10, 2006

Seasonal Road Closings & Fukushima Snow

I was driving yesterday with my friend Erika up in the mountains. We were about an hour and a half Northwest of my town in a place called Urabandai and planned to drive over a mountain pass into a tiny little town in Yamagata renowned for hot springs and beef. But lo and behold, they closed the road down for the winter!

Had Erika not been there, I would have tried to drive it anyway, as there was simply a sign saying it was closed and a half hearted attempt at a road block that could have been driven around by anyone.

Seriously though, what's the point in going to the trouble of building a road if you aren't going to plow it in the wintertime? And if so few people use it that it isn't even worth plowing, why was it even built in the first place? These and many other questions I may never find answers to as long as I live in Japan.

There are a number of other routes that criss-cross the mountains in my area, all toll roads (the one I wanted to use yesterday was free) and they all close down in the wintertime.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Deadly Food Allergies in Japan

先週はALTの先生の研修がありました。福島県のALTは福島市で会いました。研修は楽しかったよ! 私の友達クリスチエンさんに会いました。クリスチエンさんはフランスのカナダ人です。クリスチエンさんは西会津町のALTの先生です。西会津町はすごい田舎ですよ。西会津はとても遠いので、クリスチエンさんにあまり会えません。でも彼は好きです。彼は日本人と結婚しました。彼はとても危険な食べ物のアレルギーがあります。


Sorry everyone! I am still way behind on posting the happenings in this end of the world. Last week, all the JET programme teachers assembled in Fukushima City for a regional conference. As usual, it left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t a complete loss when one guy I knew hospitalized himself for a food allergy.

It started off fairly simply. I was eating lunch with Christian Lapierre. Christian is a French Canadian doing what I do in Nishi Aizu. Nishi Aizu is one of the most isolated and rural places I have ever seen in Japan. For those of you not familiar with Japanese geography, picture Fredonia, Arizona or Gunnison, Colorado surrounded by terraced, snow covered rice fields. He described his new hometown as “a drinking community with a farming problem.” Amusing and very dramatic, he is probably an excellent teacher. He’s a quality guy, and I like him. The only problem is, he has a terrible set of deadly food allergies that force him into the hospital every once in awhile.

Our lunch started off innocently enough. I tagged along with him and a bunch of others at a Chinese restaurant. He gave the server a 5 minute detailed explanation of what he could and could not eat, followed by an interrogation about what was in each item he was considering ordering. He finally got his food, and begin eating, only to discover the servers had overlooked or been mistaken about something. He went to the bathroom to hack it up, but after being unsuccessful, we took him to the nearest hospital. Because it was only a couple minutes away, we walked. On the way, he explained what to do with an enormous adrenaline syringe should worse come to worse.

In the end, he was OK, and only late for the second half of the seminar that day. I felt bad for him though.

Watch out Grad Students!

Watch out Seth Holler, and all my other friends, relatives, and readers in the world of academia! Google Book Search is about to make plagiarism very difficult now! And while I wouldn't accuse anyone I know of such a vile crime, everyone should be a little more careful now!

Read this article written about Google Book Search on Slate Magazine.