Monday, September 05, 2005

Smelly and Wet

The stranger walks into the store, his hazel eyes and high-bridged nose drawing stares from everyone else in the street. The staff blurt out "Irasshaimase" as an automatic reflex, but they too are taken aback by the stranger. He casually scans the shelves as other customers study him from a distance… then shakes his head. They don't have what he seeks, at least not on the regular shelves. Hiding his desperation as best he can, the stranger turns to the nearest clerk.

"Sumimasen. Doko wa Amerikan no… deodoranto desuka?"

The clerk's eyes widen in recognition, tinged with a hint of fear. He looks around and silently motions for the stranger to follow him. The other customers recover from their shock and join the pair as they go into a back room. A lone crate lies in the centre, bathed in a pool of light from the single bulb overhead. The clerk produces a crowbar and with a swift jerk, cracks open the crate, spilling hay all over the floor. The stranger digs through the straw and smiles when he finds the object of his search. Cradling it lovingly in one hand, he removes the cap and sniffs the contents… fresh, and far stronger than anything made in Japan. It is perfection.

He turns the stick of deodorant over, and his eyes widen in disbelief. The price is three thousand yen — over thirty dollars for a single stick.

**********

That's more or less how the dream went, which I've decided was the product of a number of influences… the most obvious being the serious lack of good deodorant in Japan. The vast majority of drugstores only offer aerosol sprays with a faint chalky odour, or very weak roll-ons. One of the explanations I've heard for the weak deodorant is that Japanese people don't sweat as profusely as Westerners, so there's no need for it to be stronger. I'll tell you now, I've been on enough crowded trains and in enough cubicle-sized classrooms on days where the humidity is thick enough to swim through to know it just ain't true. Japanese people stink just as much as any gaijin.

Countless sources on the web urge anyone moving to Japan to stock up on deodorant before they go, and somehow I missed all of them. I only brought one stick of Old Spice Red Zone with me, and after five months it was running dangerously low. Fortunately, the American Pharmacy out in Ueno had an American brand of stick deodorant called Tom's of Maine, which seems to specialize in deodorant sticks made from natural ingredients. It also cost me close to 1200 yen (about twelve bucks with the current exchange rates) but at least it's strong. There are a couple of companies such as the Foreign Buyers' Club that can ship American, British and Australian products to your door that I think I'll have to look into before I use up this stick.

**********

It's typhoon season in Japan now, and I've already gotten a taste of what my neighbourhood's going to be like. Last night, Tokyo and Saitama got hit with a heavy rain that flooded hundreds of houses. I encountered a few major streets that were temporarily turned into rivers about six inches deep en route to the train station, and no way to circumnavigate them — sidewalks and curb space are rarities, with most buildings resting right on the edge of the roads. Pedestrians have to walk on the edge of narrow roads to get anywhere, sharing space with the cars that go by. My feet were soaked by the time I got to the station… it looks like I'll have to invest in a decent pair of rain boots.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Popeye Beer Club, a.k.a. Beer Heaven

I've concluded the only reason to go to the Popeye Beer Club out in Ryogoku is for the beer. The food I sampled was decent but nothing special, and the waitstaff were all men (with the exception of one middle-aged woman) dressed in bowties and aprons. Usually the gender ratio is reversed, since the general wisdom (at least in North America) is that male customers spend more money when they have a cute server.

Fortunately the only reason I went to the club was for the beer, so I wasn't disappointed. The India Black Ale known as Divine Vamp III (which you can find a very descriptive review of here, thanks to my Dad for the link) was more than enough justification for the trip. It's easily one of the best dark beers I've ever had (if not the best), and now that I know it's available in bottles I'm going to have to hunt around the countryside for it.

Among its other 39 offerings was a special 20th anniversary pilsner which the menu stated was limited to one half-pint per customer per visit. Clearly, the Popeye Beer Club is a place that takes beer consumption as a serious thing, something to savour rather than get tanked on. After my first visit to the place I decided to sign up for a membership card (which gives a measly 3 percent discount for men but 10 percent for women and groups of women) and I'll definitely go back, even if I can only manage to do it once a month or so due to the long trip. It's that good.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I Like Beer… Do You Like Beer?


I seem to have a compulsion to insert a significant observation on the state of Japan's politics or social development every time I write in this blog. It's been keeping me from writing more often due to either (a) lack of a subject, or (b) a fear of taking on a topic so dense that I don't think I can do it any justice in a single blog posting. So I've decided to avoid any large social issues with this entry (though there's a wealth of things to discuss with the upcoming election called by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi after the legislature blocked his bill to privatize the postal service… there's a long history of graft and corruption behind that one from what I can gather).

Instead, I'm going to talk about beer and how much I love it.

I'm one of those guys who hates to drink anything from Molson or Labatt's due to the blandness of their product (though coming from an acting background means I'll drink any alcohol if it's offered for free), preferring the likes of Mill Street Coffee Porter. Most beer from major breweryies is kept pretty bland due to market concerns — the companies want to appeal to the widest market, and making something too distinctive might scare consumers off. Of course this isn't just limited to Canada — many Canadians think of American beer as awful swill, but the stuff that comes from American microbreweries is usually of a higher quality than Budweiser and Miller. Samuel Adams is probably the widest-known American microbrewery, and I have fond memories of Dixie Blackened Voodoo from New Orleans (though that may be due to memories that had little to do with drinking beer… but I digress). It makes me wonder how many beer elitists in the Netherlands hate Heineken, or how many Irish elitists refuse to touch Guinness.

Japan is no exception to the mediocre mass-produced beer. Four major breweries dominate the market… Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. I've sampled beer from all four, and the more expensive offerings are pretty decent, but nothing to write home about. I'm drinking an Autumn seasonal offering from Kirin as I'm writing this, and it pretty much tastes the same as any other beer I've had here so far. For a country whose business culture thrives on alcohol consumption (I make this judgement based on the number of stinkingly drunk salarymen I've seen late at night since I arrived here) one would think their beer offerings would be a little more exciting.

But never fear… I have discovered there are microbreweries here in Japan as well. My girlfriend (who loves beer as well, God bless her soul) has agreed to accompany me to the Popeye Beer Club in Tokyo tomorrow night. Apparently it has the largest selection of Japanese microbrewery offerings in the world, plus a number of offerings from other parts of the world that I've never heard of (the beer, not the parts of the world). It should be a good follow-up to watching Team America, which was only released in Japanese theatres a couple of weeks ago. Good beer and toilet humour that attacks both ends of the American political spectrum… how can you go wrong with that combination?

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Moment in History… and Kitty Sausage

Today marked the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, Japan's surrender to the Allies that brought an end to World War II. Again, there wasn't much to mark the occassion in the town I'm living in, but the federal government urged people to offer silent prayers for the dead at noon today, and a government sponsored memorial service was held in Tokyo. Sadly, Japan is still facing a number of issues stemming directly from World War II, perhaps the most visible points being the Yasukuni Shrine and the adoption of history textbooks that gloss over Japan's atrocities in the war. The controversy over Yasukuni, which has served as a shrine for Japan's war dead since the Meiji Era, stems from its enshrinement of several war criminals.

The controversy has heated up in recent years due to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to Yasukuni, angering China in particular (of course Koizumi's apology for Japan's wartime agression at the memorial service today might count for something). Akio Saka, director of the Yushukan (the military museum located on Yasukuni grounds) argues that the shrine's purpose isn't to judge who is good and who is evil, but rather to honour all of Japan's war dead equally and therefore no one should be excluded. Some of those on the Japanese right go so far to suggest that China's continued protestations are little more than a political maneuver to foil Japan's attempt to attain a seat in the UN Security Council and otherwise skew the balance of power in the region.

I visited Yasukuni and the Yushukan shortly after arriving in Japan, and I can say that it's quite easy to see where the sympathies of the Yushukan's administration lies. If one were to take the text accompanying the exhibits at face value, one might believe that Japan was a champion of the world's asian population. Texts gloss over the Nanking Massacre (referred to as the 'Nanking Incident') and claim that the United States deliberately forced Japan to bomb Pearl Harbour. At the end, the conclusion is reached that Japan's wartime efforts served as a shining example to asians everywhere, directly leading to events such as India's independence and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Quite the spin, I must say.

On another note, a friend and I managed to find another Hello Kitty product — Hello Kitty sausages. Not only can you find Hello Kitty on the package, her face is lovingly stamped on every sausage link. Of course, considering the fact that Hello Kitty "personal massagers" (wink wink, nudge nudge) exist, I suppose seeing her face on processed meat byproducts isn't all that weird. In fact, if you go to my friend's website, Odd Things from Japan, you'll find all sorts of bizarre things there.

Finally, on something completely unrelated to Japan, I saw the Fantastic Four movie about one month before its release over here thanks to the wonderful internet. It was mildly entertaining with so-so special effects and not many smarts, but what really surprised me was the cameo by Ben Mulroney (he's one of the reporters on the bridge). Even more surprising was that in the credits he's listed as Benedict Mulroney — I always figured Ben was short for Benjamin, but considering his dad's special place in many Canadians' hearts, Benedict seems like a suitable if ironic choice.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

No Clever Title Today

I worked at another school down the line in Omiya last night, and had an interesting discussion with several students about the corruption in the construction industry, the bureaucracy and the incredibly damaging effects of land speculation on the Japanese economy. Their opinions came freely with almost no direction from myself, and it seemed to confirm a lot of what I read in Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons. Based on what I read on that book and from the comments of the students, corruption seems to be the norm in construction and government contracts. Many construction firms are headed by former ministry officials (known as amakudari, meaning "descended from heaven") and engage in bloated, useless projects that seem to exist for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of ministry officials and the amakudari. I'd hazard a guess that the ridiculous amount of concrete lining the hills of Nikko was one symptom of the problem.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the 60th anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombing recently, though I didn't see much of anything to mark the date here. One thing I discovered was that the bombing itself ended up creating an underclass in Japanese society, the hibakusha. It seems there has been discrimination not only against the hibakusha themselves, but also their descendents, apparently in part due to the Allied Occupational Forces' enforced secrecy about the effects of radiation just after the war. Engagements have been called off due to fears of having deformed children (which seems to be unfounded except in the case of children who were exposed to the fallout in utero) and neighbours have been shunned.

On another note, I saw a charity concert/jam session at the Black Sheep pub in Ikebukuro last Sunday, that benefitted efforts to develop a rural village in Laos. There was a lot of good music, both practised and improvised, but probably the cutest had to be one young woman's cover of "Hey Mickey". In a country that reveres all things kawaii, Japanese women in their teens and 20s have turned being cute into an artform (even Darth Vader likes Japanese high school girls, as you can see). It's hard to imagine anything cuter and more sickeningly sweet than a 4'11" twentysomething Japanese woman dressed up like a cheerleader singing "Hey Mickey" to the accompaniment of a beat box and a xylophone — except perhaps kittens dipped in chocolate, covered in sprinkles and decked out in bows and bells. Though now that I think of it dipping kittens in foodstuff is a bit morbid, so maybe it's not the best analogy. Anyway, I managed to snap a very poor quality shot of her at the end of her performance which only manages to carry across a small percentage of her cute factor, which might be for the best (hint: she's the one in the middle).

And to end on a high note, this comic brought a smile to my face. That's it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

All Shook Up… or… Monkeys Make Crime More Fun

As many of you already know, a quake registering 6.0 on the richter scale hit Tokyo and the surrounding area, including the town I'm living in. I was teaching a student at the time, and when it hit she panicked, leaving the classroom and firing off rapid Japanese. I really wasn't sure what to do… I stood in the doorway of the classroom, and realized later that if things had gotten worse it wasn't the best place for me to be (the classrooms are made from cheap office dividers and their doorways probably wouldn't hold in the event of a severe quake). Fortunately, from what I understand there wasn't much damage and there were no fatalities, though so far there have been 37 reports of injuries. It's made me seriously consider stocking up on canned foods and fresh water just in case the "big one" hits.

In any case, the quake didn't keep me from travelling to Nikko, which has a number of shrines designated as world heritage sites. Anyone who wants to know more about the history of these sites should follow these links. The detailed work on these shrines is beautiful, as is much of the surrounding nature. Unfortunately, there are still areas that have been marred by too much construction; it seems the Japanese really like to cover things over with concrete. Apparently it has something to do with an extreme fear of the environment… so far, Nikko has the only Japanese river I've seen that hasn't been lined with concrete for the purpose of keeping flooding down. Still, when my friend and I travelled up into the hills we saw they were lined with concrete and fencing in a manner that was reminiscent of pictures I've seen of the bunkers at Normandy. If I didn't know better, I would have thought they were defensive measures against invasion. Maybe I'm just being more critical of Japanese construction work after reading Dogs and Demons, but I don't think I've seen that much concrete on a hillside anywhere else.

I also saw a couple of monkeys around Nikko which, as I mentioned previously, was one of the reasons I wanted to go in the first place. The first was just a brief glimpse as it ran in front of our bus to get to the other side of the road… the second sighting was a lot more entertaining, in Nikko itself. There were many shops catering to tourists with open storefronts along the main road, filled with food and the usual knick-knacks and souveniers. As my friend and I walked along the road, we heard a few screams and yells from across the street behind us. Turning around, we saw a monkey pop out of a storefront with a box in his hand (I assume it had candy or some other food inside). He was a pretty big fella, about the size of a toddler, and obviously a heck of a lot faster and stronger. The monkey paused out in front of the store, looking around for a second before dashing down a narrow alleyway where the middle-aged shopkeeper pursuing him couldn't follow. Sadly he got away before I could snap a picture of him, but I was thoroughly satisfied by the experience. Like any comic book fan will tell you, crime is a lot more entertaining when monkeys are involved.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Photos, Phrases and Prostitution

Not much new to report at the moment… a couple of days ago I went out to the Tokyo Museum of Photography in Ebisu to see the 2004 World Press Photo Exhibition. There were a number of harrowing images, particularly those focusing on the results of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia. I would have liked to take pictures of the pieces there, but for obvious reasons that wasn't an option. I did go up the line to Shibuya and took some pictures of the massive human traffic of the Hachiko street crossing. It's a pretty impressive sight even on a slow day.

Speaking of things to see on a slow day, I copied down a few of the more interesting t-shirt slogans I saw in Shibuya and Shinjuku. As I've mentioned before, there's a lot of nonsensical English on clothes around here, so there's a lot of amusement to be had for the native English speaker. I have to remember to have my camera ready for these opportunities… but in any case, here they are:

Refined Through by Blow (on a girl's shirt)

(Who's) a Yellow Ruby

and possibly my favourite…

Touch Me I'm Sick

There's not much else to report at the moment; I picked up a couple of books on learning Kanji so hopefully I'll be able to read public signs and menus eventually. I'll also be going up to Nikko next week, which in addition to having many shrines apparently has monkeys and ninjas (or at least acrobats pretending to be ninjas). All they need to add are pirates and robots and it'll be a geek paradise.

Oh yes, I also found a couple of flyers for escort services in my mailbox, which is a bit of a novelty. Of course one can find escort by looking in the back of Eye, Now Magazine and the Toronto Sun (showing the Canadian left and right can agree on profiting from ad revenues generated by prostitution), but it's a bit unusual for me to find advertisements waiting at home. Of course it's highly unlikely I could partake in these services even if I wanted to (being a hairy white gaijin who can barely speak Japanese) but that's neither here nor there. I figure it must be a pretty successful campaign if these services are willing to spend money on printing these slick flyers. It makes me wonder how many salarymen tuck these flyers away before their wives see them…

(By the way, if you want a closer look one of the pictures all you have to do is click on it and it'll open up a link to a much larger copy.)