Sunday, November 4, 2007

I Think I'm Turning Japanese, I Really Think So

"Yaki-mo. Yaki-mo."

After the sun sets on Tokyo, and the weather begins to go from cool to cold, a serenade floats out over the city. It's a song that has been sung for centuries by vendors selling their wares. The closest American equivalent is the Good Humor man. For Japan, it is Yaki-mo (sweet potato).

"Oishii yo..."

"Yaki mo..."

As I close my eyes, I envision an old man with a weathered face pulling a cart down one of old Edo's narrow streets (Edo is to Tokyo as New Amsterdam is to New York). The ginko leaves are ablaze in colors of orange, red, and yellow. He's passing samurai, geisha, and other characters from a by gone era. A lantern illuminates his path with a dancing light. It's not the kind of light you encounter these days: Cold, Consistent, Fluorescent. This light has the kind of personality that only a light afraid of a strong wind can have. The flame's fear is what warms you.

"Yaki mo..."

The song is getting closer and closer. His voice is gravelly but sure. Now, he's right behind me.

"Oishii yo..."

It seems that my nose and ears have fooled me again. Both are large by Japanese standards so it doesn't come as a surprise. Much to my chagrin, reality and my imagination are more than centuries apart. The dear, old おじいちゃん (Ojiichan or Grandpa) of my day-dream is not pulling a cart but driving a small pick-up truck. It's a late model, blue Daihatsu with a large megaphone strapped to the top, a-la the Blues Brothers. His way is lit by halogen lamps, not whale oil. Fortunately, the smell of baked sweet potato is not a dream. I wonder if there's a beer truck too...

Be well,

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The First Gig

Welcome back. With the Yankees' hurried exit from the post season fresh in my mind, it has been hard to muster up the energy to press my PC's keys in the right order. To make things worse, the latest Japanese export, DICE-K (Matsuzakasan) has converted most of the Japanese Yankee fans into Red Sox fans. Ouch...Anyhow, I had my very own Lost in Translation (a movie with Bill Murray about strange foreign experiences in Tokyo. It's R-rated so my students will have to take my word for it. Sorry Dogz...) experience. Really, it was out of the movie-literally.

Last Sunday, I received a phone call from a new, fellow foreigner friend Simon. He's British (which I don't hold against him) and quite a superb sax and piano player. Well, as all entries into the music scene go, he needed a bass player to cover a gig that night. I was more than happy to make room in my busy gig schedule. Oh, and by busy I mean non-existent.

As it turns out, the gig was at the Shinjuku Park Hyatt Hotel in the New York Bar. This happens to be the bar that was featured in Lost in Translation. It's on the 54th floor of this swanky hotel and overlooks the stunning Tokyo cityscape (Bladerunner anyone?). Unfortunately, my posterior spent most of the evening facing the beautiful view. There were folks from all across the globe listening (I think) to our music. There was one couple in the front that decided to watch TV on their cellphone (Yes, the technologically advanced Japanese have developed the TV phone. They initially tried the TV shoe but ran into licensing issues with the producers of Get Smart-and of course the smell). Being a veteran of apathetic audiences, I took no offense to this most basic of faux pas. I've played many years for audiences who preferred all sorts of other entertainment (flying cars, flying ladies, and of course just flies).

The highlight of the evening was when we received a request from a fairly inebriated Japanese gentleman. His request was unintelligible, even to the fluent Simon. Apparently, North America does not hold the patent for drunk requests. As is the standard procedure when in this situation, we both nodded and smiled and gladly accepted his ¥10,000 ($100). Then, we chose Someday My Prince Will come due to the fact it was the only thing that came to mind. Fortunately, he and his date disappeared before the end of the set. The bar manager relayed to us that that was exactly the song he was hoping to hear. Good thing we didn't play Don't Get Around Much Anymore...

Be well,

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Menu

We often take for granted the some of the basics of the English language. Punctuation, for example, is often misapplied. Take, for instance, my blog; I am a bona fide "native" speaker of "American" English, yet frequently make errors in both my vocabulary choices and the punctuation that organizes them. Why would I expect a restaurant in my neighborhood to have a grammatically-correct English menu?

Ordering in Japan (at my level of Japanese reading comprehension) is like visiting the Pyramids at Giza. With the reading ability of a 4 year old, deciphering the hieroglyphs can be challenging. After gazing upon the menu for what seems to be forever, I know that the series of pictographs mean something...but...but does this one mean "pork," "cow tongue," or "Big Mac?" Oh, the agony... The scientific method does work, although I rely heavily on trial and error. The robots over here react well to binary concepts (i.e. the old robot joke: 010100111? 01101!).

As it turns out, one of my favorite (Kana's, too) places to dine is an Italian restaurant called Grotto Diana. As I say, "when in Tokyo, do as the Romans do."

It's only about 5 minutes from my house by chari-chari and has great food and drink (although their meatballs are nothing compared to Marie's). The staff there is always friendly. Due to the fact that I visit Grotto regularly, I've become the pet foreigner-more of a Norm Peterson than a Cliff Clavin. The manager, Nishidasan, is my age and speaks English as well as I speak Japanese so it's a friendship based on mime and charades. Anyhow, in one of our broken conversations I explained that I was a teacher of English. So, when Nishidasan decided to have a bi-lingual menu, he consulted his resident expert, yours truly. After Kana and I finished our meal last night, this new marvel of globalization appeared in front of me (along with a glass of Japanese whiskey-payment I suppose. Maybe he wanted to influence my grading ability). There were a few strange spellings: "watar" or wudder in Philadelphianese and "basils" which only makes use of the New Jerseyan habit of unnecessary pluralization ("yous guys" is the most common application). Otherwise, he had accomplished the incredible task of translating a menu of Italian dishes into Japanese and then into English. The next step will be cooking the food without using chopsticks or a wok but...hey, who's complaining?

Be well,

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Welcome to the 'hood, Part II

Like all famous pairings-Batman and Robin, Cagney and Lacey, and Salt-n-Peppa, most major Buddhist temples come with a partner. In the case of Honmonji, it's the 5-story pagoda. As mentioned before, the original, built in 1607, is still standing. The one at Epcot must be older though. I actually think that Spaceship Earth might be older, too (My sister-in-law Mary is cringing at this point-sorry Mary). Anyhow, here's another shot of my neighborhood.
Be well,

Welcome to the 'hood, Part I

Who are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neigh-bor-hood? Well, Buddha is in my neighborhood. In less than 5 minutes, I can walk to one of Buddha's many houses (I can only imagine what his property taxes are...yikes). This temple is called Ikegami Honmonji (池上 本門寺). The Buddhist Monk Nichiren founded Honmonji in the mid 13th century, which makes the location even older than the Pulaski Skyway. I didn't think anything was older than the Pulaski Skyway. What is a "skyway" anyhow? Well, the original building was flattened during WWII. The current structure was rebuilt in the early 50's, explaining the "Leave it to Beaver" feel of the interior. As with all temples, this one is accompanied by a 5-story pagoda. Fortunately, it is in its original form, dating from 1607. In all seriousness, it is a wonderfully peaceful place only a stone's throw from my apartment. There is a huge festival called O-Eshiki next week that commemorates Nichiren's death. I'll try to send some pics.
Be well,

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The "Green Machine"

The automobile has become the defining element of the post"manifest destiny" period of American history. Like Lone Ranger and Silver or Michael Knight and KITT, we all develop relationships with our vehicles. It is hard to imagine a life without a stop to the gas station, bills from e-z pass, or obscene charges from the mechanic at the dealership. I hung up my driving shoes for an alternate mode of transportation-and I don't mean the train. Yes, my last entry was about the train but this one is about the jitensha or "chari chari."

In order to get to this point, I did have to spend a few hours at a "Family"-owned dealer on Route 46 (it may be more accurate to say "famiglia," if you catch my drift). I am not complaining-getting cash for a rubbermaid vehicle was quite satisfying. However, I was worried that Silvio was going to appear from behind a door. As they say, you can take the boy out of Jersey...

Jitensha (n.)- A bicycle that resembles the kind of bike your grandparents rode. Oh, but not the one with a really big tire that the guy with a monocle and handlebar mustache rides though.

Yes, it seems that even though Japan is known in the West for her automobiles, electronics, and Mr. Miyagi, bicycles from the 1940's are the preferred mode of transportation when no train is available. The only time I've seen a Chevy in Japan was when a 10 year-old was pedaling by (yup, Chevy bikes. I doubt they were UAW made either). I too ride a jitensha. Mine has been dubbed "the Green Machine."

My trip the bike shop was a fruitful one. Mind you, most bikes are not made in my size. Generally, they come in small, little, and almost medium. My test ride on these models was something like a one-man Shriners parade without the cool hat. The owner did quickly recognize that I was a "special needs" customer and had (as he said to me in perfect English) "an idea."

"Come back tomorrow," he said with a big grin.

My mind was filled with visions of a bike with a purple banana seat, streamers, and chrome fenders. Not that I am looking to stand out any more than I already do, but when the bicycle parking lot (yes, like car garages) has THOUSANDS of identically colored and designed bikes in it, I could use a hand. The next day I was indeed pleasantly surprised. No, there wasn't the banana-seated dream ride but something better-The Green Machine. It is the perfect combination of ancient design, modern technology, and a bit of improvisation on the part of the bike shop guy. Automatic headlight, front basket, extra long handlebar stem and seat post, tan-walled tires with matching seat and grip colors, fenders, and a click-shift, 6-gear system from Shimano-all of this wrapped up in a deep verdant hue. He even knocked off ¥4000 (approx. $36.00) from the sticker sale price to seal the deal. There's even a pun in The Green Machine as my family name グレン (Gu-re-n or Glynn) is often misinterpreted as グリン (Gu-ri-n or Green). There is no "schwa" sound phonetically in Japanese. (You know, that sounded a whole lot funnier in my head. Oh well...)


Although I do sometimes feel like I'm in Pee Wee's Big Adventure, looking over my shoulder for Francis, I have to say that I am quite proud to say I traded in my Saturn for The Green Machine. Happy trails!

Be well,


Friday, September 7, 2007

The First 2 weeks-Part 2: Helmets

When playing a sport, one should always buy the appropriate protective accessories: shin guards for soccer, ear plugs for 4th grade band, and of course a helmet for moving to Japan. The helmet needn't be one with a chin-strap or a face mask, although they might come in handy when I am fighting with the 2,304 other people in my train car for the last seat on the 7:03 train (there really are people that squeeze you onto the rush hour trains just like a human trash compactor. Thus, I always shower in the morning). A standard-issue steelworker's hard-hat should do. My brother Mike, the OSHA expert, might have some insight.

Living in Japan is a full-contact sport, albeit a polite one. Now that I have sustained the number of knocks to my cranium in two weeks that a NHL player acquires in a career, I have realized that I was remiss in not bringing a league-sanctioned helmet over with me. It's not that I am tall. I am neither Herve Villachez nor Manute Bol. Perhaps by Japanese standards 6'3"-ish is tall but in my family I'm "average height." My run-ins with ceilings and doorways (especially on the trains) are not due to a design flaw-either in the building or in me-but rather they are due to the fact that there is a conspiracy to make me perform the limbo in public at least 6 times a day. Mind you, there is no cheery calypso music behind me. The soundtrack is all in my head (this of course is going on right next to the gerbil on the treadmill). I wish I could sample the inner monologues of the local folks as they watch me try to navigate the perils of entering and exiting the train. They would go something like this (in Japanese of course):
"He should have ducked sooner," "That's going to leave a mark", and "I wonder if the train is okay." Unfortunately, due to the polite rules of Japanese society, no one will warn me BEFORE I contuse my noggin.

So, if you do have any head-gear suggestions, please let me know-and quickly too. It is likely that once I've exceeded 200 blows to the head that amnesia will set in and I will forget all about it.

What's my name again?

Be Well,

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The First 2 weeks-Part 1: Getting there

So, if you didn't already know, I've moved to Japan. Yes, the country on the other side of the big pond from California. First things first, I should clear up a few misconceptions about the "land of the rising sun:"

  1. Contrary to what often gets reported in the news (see The Onion), Japan is not populated by robots. They only represent a small portion of the population.

  2. Also, dogs speak differently in Japan. Instead of the popular "woof, woof" in English (or even "le woof woof" in French), they say "wan, wan." Who knew? I think they still sniff each other's rear ends though. Must be universal although I wouldn't suggest it to anyone.

  3. The train system here actually doesn't work well at all. When a train is late, the conductor will give you a note to give to your boss explaining that it wasn't your fault that you were late for work. How many New Yorkers could survive a week without using the unsubstantiated "oh, the bus/train was running late?" Late trains are national news in Japan. Of course, late trains occur about as often as murders in Japan (see #4).

  4. Murders and deaths do happen in Japan. It's just that the rate is even lower than the murder/death rate at DisneyWorld. (See #1 above for speculation-it's an endless cycle. Who really invented Audio-Animatronics anyway?). The word safe doesn't even come close to describing Japan.

Well, I have been here now for just over 2 weeks and have a few stories to share. I consider myself a lucky guy. This fact was confirmed upon my arrival in Japan. My current belongings (other than what I have stowed with Kirk and Katy) were jammed into 3 suitcases and a bass travel-trunk. All of this stuff safely arrived in Narita (Tokyo's international airport) and made it through customs. The customs official didn't look at the paperwork I was carrying. He just laughed at me (I think this was even in English). That was encouraging. The whole customs process, including getting my instructor visa took less time that it took me to get my daily bagel at the Lucky Star deli on 43rd (generally, less than 60 seconds). Again, I think this is where people think "robot-robot"...Anyhow, on the other side of the door was Kana. (Sigh) Here's where I reiterate lucky. Although she weighs less than my bass, she pitched in and helped me get to the train. If it wasn't for Kana, I might still be at the airport-or even in New Jersey.

After a 50 minute ride (and quite a comfy one too) to Shinagawa Station, we decided to take a gamble and try to find a taxi. Now, Shinagawa is a MAJOR transit hub in Tokyo. I assumed we could find a plus-size taxi (Lane Bryant style) there with little or no problem. Well, it is true what they say about when you "assume" too much. No big cabs. Whoops. Japanese cabs are about the size of a Corolla but with lace accents and are impeccably well maintained. Must be the Victorian influence. After waiting the the line (or queue) for taxis for an eternity, it seemed that no one would take us. Fortunately, our timing was perfect. Just as I was about to have a coronary, one little taxi waved us over. Apparently, this was a smart man. With the alacrity of a Transformer, he converted his cab into just the right size vehicle for Kana, me, AND my stuff (bass included). As it turns out, of the 20 million people in the Tokyo area and the thousands of taxi drivers, we hired a former jazz bass player. He even showed me some photos to prove it. Now there is lucky and then there is LUCKY. I only hope that this is not foreshadowing a future career option for me. Not only did he get us home quickly but also at a fraction of what it should have cost. I am a lucky guy.

Be well,
Pat (AKA-Patosan パトさん)


Irasshaimase: Hello and welcome to the inaugural posting on benthictones-the blog. Please don't confuse this for the site of benthictones-the breakfast cereal, benthictones-the tones to play when you're havin' more than one, or benthictones-mud. This is clearly not one of those other sites. However, this is a family-friendly site (I will keep it below PG-13 for sure). I hope you enjoy my attempt at an e-journal.