Saturday, October 28, 2006

do the Soba Slurp!

FYI: it is considered polite to slurp your soup in Japan. It means you think it is delicious (oishii!)
Here, me and Christina enjoy a hearty bowl of oishii soba at the cute little soba restaurant next to my house. i love this place, it's my new favorite hangout. don't forget to heap lots of pink pickled ginger on top!!!!

Okinawa soba
Oh so yummy
Life is good
With you in my tummy.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

タコライス (Taco Rice)

How often have those of us who dwell in Chapel Hill/Carrboro been filled with the desire to dine out, but hit our heads against that eternal question: Mexican or Japanese? Too many times, my friends, too many. It was a joyous day indeed when I arrived in my new home and discovered that God blessed this Earth with one and one place only where Human Beans do not have to suffer the after-effects of such agonizing decision making: 沖縄 (Okinawa).

One of the most popular foods in Okinawa is Taco Rice (hereafter to be refered to as TR). I swell with pride when I say that TR is an original culinary development of Okinawa. TR is not complicated: it's essentially the basic taco fillings devoid of taco shell and instead sprinkled atop a bowl of Japanese white sticky-rice.
If "why?" is your next question, then here is the answer:

After WWII, a large number of Okinawans emigrated, mostly to South America and Hawaii. Many second generation South American Okinawans have since returned, making the 47th prefecture a multi-culti place indeed compared to the rest of Japan. TR is the result of this Latin American influence. It makes perfect sense! The taco shell was an ever-present danger for me and my eating habits in America... will it crack when I bite? Will succulent beef and tomato juice pour onto my face and run down to splotch my white shirt when aforementioned crack occurs? etc, etc. Wary of the shell, I always opted for a soft tortilla menu item instead, but felt a twinge of sorrow that my cowardice kept me from the taco shell. The Okinawans may have thought the same. Who knows? Whatever happened, they clearly saw that the taco shell, though perhaps handy in its Day, had long overstayed its welcome. Let us, they cried, transform this into a chopstick-capable meal! And so they did.

TR is served as a general menu item at practically every restaurant. You can buy Taco Rice instant mix packages at every grocery store. In fact, there is no one in my new world who does not love Taco Rice. And Taco Rice loves them riiiiiiiiight back.

Here is a picture of a Taco restaurant on Kokusaidori (main shopping street in Naha). It's a funny picture because YA is the suffix meaning "shop" in Japanese, and its been blended together with the Spanish TACO.

This delicacy is served in various shapes and sizes. For example, they sell Taco Rice Onigiri. Onagiri are rice balls or triangles, usually wrapped in seaweed, with a bit of filling inside. Now, one of the things that pleases me most (probably because it's the most perfect culmination of cultural blending that I could ever imagine) in Okinawa is one particular form of TR that you can buy at コンピニ (convenience stores), which I call Burrushi (burrito + sushi). It's TR formed into SUSHI!!!! That means the taco filling is rolled in rice and then seaweed, but GET THIS, they make it big bad ol' burrito sized. Soooooo sorry I don't have a picture yet. But soooooo gu-reatto!

Douzo, have some Taco Rice!!!

Hakuuuuuuuuuna Matata!

I watch a lot of the Disney Channel here in Okinawa, as I find the Japanese is easier to understand than regular adult programming. Every morning I watch Winnie the Pooh and Chip and Dale (`Rescue Rangers! ch-ch-ch-Chipu and-o Daru, hayakuuuuuuu!`). This is not casual fun: contraire. I am sitting studiously at my desk, (moved specifically for this purpose from across the room to face the TV), caffeine source at the ready, vocabulary notebook, pen, and dictionary in hand, intently looking up every word that I dont know. Yeah yeah, you all know me. Anywho, the point of this is that there's this really annoying gig that Disney Channel Japan does during commercial breaks that I want to share with you. The Disney channel`s commercials are followed by a short musical interlude. The music: various famous Disney songs, performed by various famous Japanese Boy Bands (really popular here: Backstreet Boy-ish teenage trendy bands, stipulations on being a member of which include looking like a girl and having put many hours of styling into your luscious locks). The whole shebang is cheesy and horrific in that way that only Japan could make it. Soulful renditions of Chim-Chimeny (Mary Poppins) by heart-throbs, with one guy wrinkling his perfect brow in emotion and intent concentration as he dings the chimes, another making Aerosmith contortions of his face, lips pressed against the mike in Awesome Coolness as he croons, `chim-chimeny, chim-chimeny chim chim cherooOoooOooooOOoooo` creating a visual and auditory performance of such complete imbalance that it requires you to stop chewing your breakfast of kidney beans and corn and just drool. The highpoint of this morning`s Hakuna Matata was, just when i thought it couldnt get any worse, the lead singer breaks the routine to perform a gently crooning rap solo. First of all, gently crooning and rap just dont jive. Secondly, Hakuna Matata + rap makes me cringe. Pumba with some bling bling? What's going on, Japan?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Naha Tug-of-War!!!

I recently attended the biggest Tug of War in the world (or something like that... maybe it's just the biggest rope?) and I forgot to mention anything about it on the blog. I know, I'm a loser. A loser! Well, 15,000 people or so gather once a year in my capital on the island for a grand festival, involving many dancers and drummers and martial arts, and culminating in a ginormous tug of war. The photo above is one half of the giant rope being prepared to be tied to the other half of the rope. The entire rope weighed something like 44 tons. It is hand made every year in Okinawa. Clearly the thing is too big to tug on, so thousands of baby ropes run out of the sides, that hundreds of people line up on and pull. Many little children were doing spectacular things at this festival, such as this little girl performing on the, uh, shell. This is the first shell performance I've ever seen, and I bet it will also prove to be the best! Then there were these little dudes performing staff fighting. These two guys are awaiting their turn up. Though they look peaceful now, they will soon be wacking each other fiercly with blurry-whirling sticks. Kids here are all martial arts masters. You gotta watch out.

One of the most interesting goings-on at the Matsuri were the Pole Hefters. This is my name for them. I have to make up my own names for most things here. These are special festival "poles" which are quite large and heavy. They have different head-dresses and flags on each one, and there were about 2 dozen of them, perhaps. A group of about 10 men surrounds each pole. They wear special cloth pouch-belts that fit the bottom of the pole, and they raise the pole with these other sticks they all carry that have a cleft foot in them. Then one guy supports in in his belt and begins to bounce it up and down while moving his feet in a little dance, sweating profusely and concentrating intensely (as they should be, since if they dropped the giant pole it would crush about a dozen innocent bystanders in the crowd). The other fellows surround this guy in a circle and hold their cleft poles at the ready, to catch the big one if it falls (yes, it does fall. i saw it happen, and they DID catch it miraculously before it hit the bystanders. I still made a mad dash to safety and swore to never return to the pole's Radius of Death). All the while, they are chanting something and banging on gongs, moving up the street, and occasionally transfering the pole from one sweaty guy to a fresh guy. This transfer is very tricky: it is done in one BOUNCE of the pole, not by putting it down and putting it up again. Just heave a bounce from one pouch to the other.

At the end of the mighty Tug, everyone surges towards the rope, brandishing pocket knifes and the occasional machete, jumps on the rope, and begins feverishly hacking bits and pieces of it off. You can see from the photo that I too gave in the the hacking frenzy. Rumor has it that a piece of the rope will bring you luck for the year to come. My theory is that the Okinawan prefectural government started this rumor... because really, how else are they going to dispose of a 44 ton rope every year?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Japanese Toilet Revisited

The westerner`s first impression of toilet-related hygiene in Japan will vary from overpowering awe (when confronted with the high-tech ウォシュレット, woshuretto) to unpleasant dismay (when confronted with the squat toilet 和式, washiki). Now, having lived in Nicaragua, I felt no fear when I stood before the Japanese squat toilet for the first time. I was, however, astonished at the sheer number of squatties in this advanced nation. Squatties are to be found in many establishments like restaurants, government buildings, schools. Often a bathroom has one western-style flush toilet and the rest are squatties. BUT: I have come to cherish the squatty in my few short months here. Why? The convenience. The speed. No contact, just a quick hello and goodbye. You can imagine. But what you cant imagine without my help is the more advanced Japanese toilet. For those of you who are interested (which must be all of you since you are clearly still reading)let me explain the wonders of the woshuretto.

The ウォシュレット is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most sophisticated toilet in the world. My good friend Wikipedia can tell it better than I ever could:

While the toilet looks like a Western-style toilet at first glance, there are a number of additional features, such as blow dryer, seat heating, massage options, water jet adjustments, water temperature adjustments, automatic lid opening, auto flushing, wireless control panels, etc, included either as part of the toilet or in the seat. These features can be accessed by a control panel that is either attached to one side of the seat or on a wall nearby, often transmitting the commands wirelessly to the toilet seat... Some toilets play music to relax the user... Also, the latest models store the times of the use of the toilet, and have a power saving mode that heats up the toilet seat only during times when the toilet is likely to be used based on the collected usage data. Some toilets also glow in the dark or may even have air conditioning for hot summer days...Recently, researchers have added medical sensors into these toilets, which can measure the blood sugar based on the urine, and also measure the pulse, blood pressure, and the body fat content of the user. Talking toilets that greet the user have also started to be made. Other measurements are currently being researched. This data may automatically be sent to a doctor through a built-in internet-capable cellular telephone.

Woah! FEEL THE FEAR. The toilet that played God is back, this time with an internet-capable cellphone.

The first question that entered my mind when I read this was: how many people really want a toilet that talks to them? I mean, what might a toilet have to chat about, indeed? Whats up man! Corn for lunch again, eh?

Most high-tech potties aren`t as high tech as THAT, but it is completely normal here in Japan to find a confusing control panel covered in buttons and pictures on your potty in a restaurant or hotel, and to find a heated seat (which i find most unpleasant since its already a million degrees here), not to mention the ever-frightening Sound Princess.

It sounds foreboding, doesnt it? This could more simply be referred to as `that fake flushing noise`. I will dedicate some Wikipedia space to her as well:

Many Japanese women are embarrassed at the thought of being heard by others during urination... To cover the sound of bodily functions, many women flushed public toilets continuously while using them, wasting a large amount of water in the process. As education campaigns did not stop this practice, a device was introduced in the 1980s that, after activation, produces the sound of flushing water without the need for actual flushing. One brand name commonly found is the Otohime (音姫), which literally means Sound Princess, and is named after the Japanese goddess Otohime, the beautiful daughter of the sea-king Ryujin. This device is now routinely placed in most new public women's rooms... The device creates a loud flushing sound similar to a toilet being flushed. This sound either stops after a preset time or can be halted through a second press on the button. It is estimated that this saves up to 20 liters of water per use.

As you can see, Japanese women are a lot more serious than us when it comes to pee. If we could get serious like this, maybe we could manage to jack up production rates to Japanese levels. You never know where correlations lie.

Anyway, these fake flushing noises will get you everywhere. They totally freaked me out at first, since lots of them are automatic. And they are LOUD. I thought Id been hit by an earthquake when I first met Ryujins daughter at the hotel in Tokyo. Practically jumped right off the seat.

A last word to the wise from my friend Wiki (on the subject of the floundering gaijin):

Both the traditional squat toilet and the high-tech toilet are a source of confusion for foreigners unaccustomed to these devices. There are numerous reports of foreigners using a toilet, and randomly pressing buttons on the control panel either out of curiosity or in search for the flushing control, and suddenly to their horror receiving a jet of water... Many Japanese toilets now feature a brief manual in English attached near the control panel or have the buttons written in English to reduce the culture shock.

Good luck to you all! Dont let this stop you from coming to visit me!

Monday, October 09, 2006

学園祭 (School Festival!)

my second year students perform traditional Okinawan Eisa dancing

This past weekend was the biggest deal of the school year at Ginowan High. SCHOOL FESTIVAL! The kids prepared for months: dance routines, huge art projects, etc. For a long time I thought that Moulin Rouge/MC Hammer were just played on loop near our school pool for no good reason, but with the dawn of the School Festival, I realized that everything at Ginowan High School occurs with rhyme and reason. Rhyme and Reason.

my first year boys won first prize with their para-para dance routine

I know I talk about my 3-4 boys a lot, so I hope that you are all beginning to feel like you know them vicariously. So, if there were one thing in the world that you thought my 3-4 boys would NOT be famous for, what would it be?
How about synchronized swimming?

Well, you've struck gold. In America, I think male synch-swimming is simply not something that could ever be considered cool. Which is why I found the whole business very amusing. The 18 year old sports boys are famous around this place for their synchronized swimming team, known as the Water Boys. The Water Boys are nation-wide in Japan: all boys' synchronized swimming in high schools are Water Boys. There's a movie that you should watch if you want to understand the psychology behind this Water Boys business. It's called "Water Boys." Ginowan high is one of few Water Boys teams in Okinawa, which makes us SPECIAL!

Yeah. This school festival blew me out of the water in general. I've been assured by fellow JETs (after having viewed my video footage, thank you Yvonne) that it was not an entirely typical school festival. Most festivals are apparently more sedate. There are a number of things that I never expect to see in my life. Among those:

two boys in a drag-show making out on the runway

-Boys break-dancing through a double jump-rope IN DRAG. Talk about high level of motor skills.
-Forty 17 year old Japanese girls with no pants on doing the Hammer (as in MC Hammer)
-Boys in geese costumes doing traditional Japanese dances

I could go on. There were some things that were definitely too obscene for school by my standards, but I think we have, generally speaking, a loosish grip on authority at my school. The only thing the administration did was turn the spot-light off the going-ons on stage when they got too bad. Mostly kids weren't misbehaving, it's only some of the senior boys and girls that really try to do things that aren't allowed. But some of the approved performances seemed awfully risky to me. The whole 2 day affair ended in a mad rush to the sports field at 8pm and crazed dancing round a huge bonfire.

I'll tell ya, my kids sure know how to dance. Some of the worse behaved kids had miraculous performances at this thing. The bad girls did a dumbfounding hip hop dance war. And I've been convinced that a few of my male students have inner-body structures of snakes instead of humans.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Naha By Night

Hi. This is what it looks like where I live. And you thought it was rice paddies!