Peace, beer, and bombs (that’s what Nagasaki does)

One of the things that appealed to me initially about the JET Program was its infrastructure. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are many places a person can teach English abroad, and many means to do so, but few among these offer a support system to rival JET. For advice-seekers or those simply in need of a sympathetic ear, we have at our disposal an embarrassment of riches, and from alumni to veteran JETs to the organizers at CLAIR, everyone seems eager to help. There’s even a hotline, staffed all night, every night by CLAIR, for questions or concerns that can’t wait for business hours.

All this is, of course, a good thing, but it comes at price. When you have a million people willing to listen, you probably have a million people willing to talk, and that is certainly the case here. Which is why on Friday, instead of going to school, I headed north to Nagasaki City for my fourth JET Program orientation. Now, all these orientations have been slightly different from one another and in some way meaningful or enlightening, but as a rule, four orientations is at least three too many. At some point, advice becomes rhetoric, and when that happens people need to be allowed to fail so that they know what advice to seek. That point was reached, breached, and scoured beyond recognition some time ago.

After many hours of speech-making, work-shopping, and power-pointing, we eventually reaped our reward: a welcome party, hosted by some of the veteran JETs at a bar/club in Nagasaki City. Now, I know nothing about Nagasaki City, but I’ve been to enough bars to be skeptical of a $13 cover (exchange rate is approximate). If this skepticism is valid anywhere, it is definitely valid in Japan, where–as I’ve mentioned–there are no open container laws. Thus, rather than actually enter the bar, my friends and I stood on a second-story landing immediately outside the bar, drinking (cheaper) cans of beer purchased at the convenience store (konbini) down the street. While this started out as a sort of grudging compromise, it quickly took on a life of its own, as people filtered in and out of the bar to smoke cigarettes or cool off. Pretty soon, there were 15 or more people circulating around the landing, and we had a party of our own going on outside. This lasted for a couple of hours, during which we were repeatedly told to keep it down or move inside, because evidently there are residential buildings nearby and somebody couldn’t modulate his/her voice properly. After attempts to intercede proved fruitless, the organizers gave up on coercing us, and waived the cover just to get us inside. Did we hold out until they let us bring our konbini beer inside? It’s called leverage, you dig?

Got to tip my cap to the party organizers for one thing, though: while the bar itself may have been over-priced, the konbini down the street sold Bud Diesel by the can. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If you’re in a foreign country, why would you dip into the Diesel when you could sample some local flavor?” (A) Japanese beer is, in general, not very good; (B) There is almost no variety among Japanese beers. (This is probably a whole other post, but basically, there are really only four major beverage concerns in Japan: Suntory, Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin. These produce basically all of the drinks–alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike–regularly available for purchase in Japan. As far as I can tell, craft or microbrewing doesn’t exist here on any kind of reasonable scale); and (C) I’ve got a Diesel engine, and she just don’t run right on premium unleaded.

After a month of exclusively Japanese beer, finding a can of the Diesel was a cause for celebration, and as a group I’m proud to say we bought out the house. Easily the best Budweiser I’ve ever had and, unless I become marooned on a desert island, the best I’m likely to have. But this isn’t America, and among citizens of the world, the King of Beers doesn’t enjoy the cachet he does back home. A South African girl I met accused me of being a “typical American” when she saw me sipping Anheuser suds. I asked her what was so wrong with that, and soon enough, she bought me a beer at the bar just so I would have to drink something else. (And, yeah, I got her number–how typically American of me).

The walk home from the bar was largely uneventful, with one wrinkle: I saw (albeit briefly) the second high-speed pursuit of my life. Unlike the first one, which happened in a park when I was too young to realize what was going on, this one was very apparent, as two people on a scooter cruised by us at what had to be maximum velocity, followed immediately by an officer yelling into a megaphone from his car. The whole thing was past us in about two seconds, but on the dark, narrow roads of Japan, I gotta think the scooter makes for a prime getaway vehicle.

The next day, we had some time to kill before heading home, so we went to check out the Nagasaki Peace Park, which as I’m sure you’ve guessed is built on the site of the atomic bombing. The park itself is quite beautiful and elegant, replete with statues, fountains and commemorative monuments. It is also the site of the Atomic Bomb Museum and the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral, a Christian landmark which was destroyed by the bomb and subsequently rebuilt nearby. I didn’t have my camera–you can see that this is becoming a theme–but there are plenty of excellent pictures available online.

The Atomic Bomb Museum was, as you can imagine, a sobering experience (especially for someone sobering up at the time). Jokes aside, for those of you who have visited the Holocaust Museum (I haven’t), I’m sure you can relate to my experience. The museum documents the war and its impact on Nagasaki up to August 9th, 1945, and then spends considerable time unraveling the events of that day. The footage is well-preserved and simply ghastly, although from an emotional standpoint, it doesn’t compare to the first-hand accounts of survivors also on display. There was one particularly moving piece entitled “Alone in Middle Age” that I am not capable of reproducing here because it doesn’t seem to be online. If you are able to find it, it is a powerful read, but brace yourself. The rest of the museum focuses on two main threads: the rebuilding of Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race that took off during the same time period. While the museum is largely devoid of judgment–the Japanese are not in the habit of pointing fingers when it comes to WWII–the subsequent arms race is presented, justifiably and for obvious reasons, as a perilous (and continuing) foray into human destruction. And that is one value judgment I think we can all agree on.

We saved the most famous part of the park for last: the Peace Statue, formally titled Aspirations for Peace. The sculptor, Kitamura Seibo (1884-1887), was actually born right here in Minamishimabara, making him something of a local legend. While he seems to lack for worldwide recognition, his work is masterful, and can be found in many places around Nagasaki. The Peace Statue was his magna opus, and he spent something like a decade on it from conception to unveiling:

Aspirations for Peace

Every aspect of the statue is thoughtful and significant: the right arm is pointed skyward towards the threat of nuclear weapons; the steady left arm signifies composure and strength; the right leg is bent in as if preparing for meditation; the left leg is outstretched and poised for action; the eyes are closed in prayer for the victims. The long-hair and cloth are, I’m told, designed to invoke Christian themes, while the dot on the forehead (not visible here) is supposedly an appeal to Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The statue is 10-meters tall.

All in all, the trip to Nagasaki City was fun, lighthearted, celebratory, solemn, and humbling at various turns. And the orientation itself? Already forgotten.

Assorted morsels from a busy week

When you don’t have any means of communication, every visitor to your home is unexpected. Last Monday, I had planned to attempt a trip to Nagasaki City for Obon, a festival for the dead. Then, the day before, it started raining. And it rained. And it rained. And the next morning, when I got up, it was still raining, harder than ever. Given that the trip was going to be tricky under perfect conditions, I was ready to give up, but just as I started feeling sorry for myself, somebody rang the doorbell. In burst three of my fellow JETs, headed for Obon, intent on picking me up. So two hours later, I was in Nagasaki City, trying to figure out exactly what Obon entails.

As it turns out, Obon is as much about fireworks as it is remembering the dead. This is especially true when you don’t speak Japanese but do know how to use a lighter. Basically, neighborhoods all over Nagasaki build giant wooden floats, then put a generator on board that powers dozens of lights. Many of these lights come in the form of Japanese lanterns like these. Then, people from the neighborhoods all over the city push these floats through the streets down to a central point by the harbor. Apparently, the festival used to culminate in burning these floats en masse on site, but it created too much smoke and people complained, so now they use heavy machinery to dismantle the floats and smash them to pieces, after which the remains are taken someplace outside the city and set ablaze.

We were staying with an older American guy who–in addition to being an awesome dude and gracious host–happens to have lived in Nagasaki City for 20+ years and is well-liked by his neighbors. Thus, when we showed up with him, the old men who run the neighborhood association insisted we join in. They gave us all headbands and traditional happi to wear (it looked something like this, only white and less ornate). Finally, they gave a couple of us red sashes and lighters, and we were informed that we would be what I think translates as “light-bearers.” As you can guess, our job was to light things on fire. (Note: Because of the rain, I didn’t bring my camera, but there was one picture of me taken in this getup. As soon as I get a copy, I’ll make it available to the public, and we can let the ridicule begin).

A couple of shots of sake later, it was time to start the show. The procession is led by the older men, who walk alongside a gong mounted on wheels and bang the shit out of it, ostensibly to tell the people pushing the float where to go but mostly because obviously, if you have a gong, that shit’s gonna get banged. Meanwhile, the younger people are alternating between pushing the float and setting off firecrackers. We were told by the head of the neighborhood association not to throw them at people, but evidently, that’s the only rule, because they were going off more or less continuously for miles along the parade route. This is loud. I had earplugs and was glad of it, although I was told that this year was muted somewhat by comparison because of the rain, which fell throughout the festival. Regardless, we pushed the float down to the harbor, stopping periodically to drink beers out of a cooler mounted inside it. Arriving at the harbor is pretty majestic because you can see the hundreds of other floats rolling in from around the city.

After taking apart the float, we were invited back to the banquet hall for dinner, which was pretty tasty assortment of traditional Japanese foods. Also, surprise, they had enough beer to fuel a sign-slapping rampage (given the circumstances, I kept it together). We got drunk with some old guys and went back to our host’s place, where he showed us pictures from Burning Man–he goes every year–while his 10-year-old son played some Facebook version of Sim City. (Note: His son was not drunk).

The next night, back in Kazusa, I went to the town’s slightly smaller-scale Obon celebration. No floats, but lots of fireworks, both amateur and municipal. I had inherited some fireworks from one of the departing ALTs, so I brought them down to Maehama and lit them off with a bunch of the area kids. Then, the real fireworks show started, and although it was small by Fourth-of-July-on-the-Charles standards, it was more enjoyable because you didn’t have to stake out a space hours in advance to be comfortable. Plus, with a smaller crowd, they could set them off much closer to us, so they looked fucking huge. I am an idiot and didn’t bring my camera so you’ll have to take that at face value.

Even after all this excitement, I still had one more day of summer vacation left, so I went hiking on Wednesday. Or, I tried to. I was out tooling around on the mountain behind my house for a few hours, but kept getting foiled by trails that ended abruptly without going much of anywhere. The trails around here are blazed rather haphazardly and suffer from a lack of maintenance, so every time I found one that looked promising, it would peter out after a mile or so. I’ll ask around before I try again.

On Thursday, I made my first visit to a Japanese person’s house. One of my neighbors invited me to join him and the outgoing ALT–my predecessor–for dinner. Despite the fact that I was an hour late–thanks, Docomo–he was remarkably understanding (I think my predecessor, who speaks Japanese well, covered for me). He’s a really friendly guy, and seems intent on helping me learn Japanese, although this is a little tricky since I really need to develop stronger fundamentals before I can benefit from extended conversations with a native speaker. We were over at dinner for about four hours and I think I reasonably understood maybe 15% of the conversation–even that is probably generous. Then, today, I stopped by to say hello and he insisted I go with him with to a car dealership to look at a used car he has deemed a bargain. This was a little awkward because while he knows I want a car–we talked about it at dinner–he doesn’t understand that I have no intention of buying a car. Renting is more expensive, but it’s much more convenient, and for that I’m willing to pay a premium. Not wanting to be rude (especially after being so late to dinner), I obliged him and went, “just to look.” The car looked fine, and I’m sure he’s right that it would be cheaper to buy than to rent, but that just isn’t my be all and end all. Next time I’ll be a little more forceful in explaining my priorities. All in all, though, he seems like a good guy to know, and he did bake me some delicious bread on Friday.

On Friday, before my Docomo debacle, I finally got to deliver my self-introduction to the students. They had a little assembly where the Principal introduced me and I gave a two-minute speech about myself in Japanese. It was pretty basic–my name, where I’m from, what I like to do and eat, as well as some other pleasantries–but I did try to put in a couple of lines that would amuse the students. As you may have heard, consensus is a big deal in Japan, so they have a lot of ways built into the language that you can appeal for consensus. One of which is to end a sentence with the particle “ne,” which basically solicits agreement from the listener (“Atsui des ne?” It’s hot, isn’t it?). This sentence form gets used a lot in conversation but not in something like a speech. So, thinking I was being clever, I slipped one in, hoping it might get a laugh or at least make things seem less formal. Specifically, I said, “Watashi no oki ni iri no tabemono wa kara’age des. Oishii des ne?” This means, “My favorite food is fried chicken. It’s delicious, isn’t it?” Fucking crickets and 194 blank faces staring back at me. Fucked up, right, because those kids have no qualms about pointing and laughing in my face at all other times of the day? But I try to make an actual joke and suddenly it’s a tough crowd at open mic night. Anyway, for what it’s worth, the teachers all seemed to think I did a decent job, and I got invited out to lunch with them. We went and ate champon, which is one of Nagasaki’s signature dishes: lots of seafood piled together in a broth. It was pretty good.

Over the weekend, I passed my first real test on the Chuck Town Racer, a trip up the coast to Minamiarima that was about 15 miles or so round-trip. I went on Saturday to visit a buddy who lives up there and then stayed overnight. We went for a run, then went to a yakiniku for dinner. Yakiniku is a restaurant where you order raw meats and grill them yourself on a little table stove. Delicious, and after 8pm, half-price beers. The next day, we fought off a hangover and soldiered out the door to go on a bus tour of Minamishimabara, sponsored by the local government. I know nothing sounds worse than hoping on a bus early in the morning after a night of drinking, but it was free, and actually fairly interesting (albeit three hours too long). The coolest thing we saw was the Mt. Unzen disaster museum, which has a lot of wild stuff left over from the eruptions that devastated the area from 1990 to 1995, when the volcano was active. This included the remains of an old elementary school as well as an entire neighborhood buried up to the rooftops in deposits from pyroclastic flow, preserved in its entirety.

This is my longest post–trying to get y’all up to speed–but before I end it, I want to bring up one other thing. File this under Curiosities of Japan:

While nobody here speaks English very well, everybody wears clothing with English writing. It’s amazing to me how ubiquitous this is and how truly rare it is to find a shirt or jacket with actual Japanese characters. I’ve asked people about this, and the consensus seems to be, people here think English is cool, even if they can’t speak a lick of it. I suppose this phenomenon does have its cultural counterpart in the United States, namely buff dudes getting kanji tatted all over them because it looks cool and foreign. Still, this transcends a trend like that by a mile. The other day, I saw a kid–probably eight-years-old–wearing a shirt that said, “STATE OF ALABAMA: THE HEART OF DIXIE.” Now, there’s just no way this kid could find Alabama on a map, and there’s even less chance he understands the concept behind “Dixie.” And, yet, somehow that shirt made it onto his back out here in the Japanese boondocks. Go figure.

And here my troubles began

Look, we’ve all been there: you wake up, jump out of bed with a hop in your step, and run–nay, sprint–over to your computer. You sit down, ready to cruise on over to, because hey, there might be a new post up (that dude is prolific). I can relate–I mean, if you wanna start the day with your finger on the pulse of an increasingly international world, you gotta go to the source.

But sometimes, man, it just ain’t that simple. You open up Firefox–or Internet Explorer, for the n00bs in the audience–but your homepage doesn’t load. You refresh, quit, reopen–nothing. You disconnect, reconnect, check the network diagnostics, slam your face into a brick wall, and then start to monkey with the hardware. Where’s the modem? Who got ketchup on the router? The lights are on–one of them’s probably blinking–but nobody’s home. So you get all huffy and start rifling through your drawers, trying to find the phone number for customer service, but everything’s buried beneath two years worth of receipts you’ve been saving. Finally, you’re on the phone, trying (failing) to keep your composure while describing the state of your router. Eventually, mercifully, somebody at Comcast presses a button that switches the blinking orange light with the solid green light, and all is right in the world.

Sounds familiar, right? And frustrating? Well, imagine a similar scenario, except now you’re in a foreign country. And you do not speak the language. And your dictionary doesn’t include the Japanese word for “wireless modem.” Fuck.

That was how my Friday night started. After two weeks in digital exile, I finally got my gaijin card on Thursday, so my supervisor and I made haste to the Docomo shop in Arie. If you’re counting at home, this was my third trip to Docomo in a week, so by now it’s basically like Norm busting into Cheers whenever I roll up. What would have been a breezy half-hour in the U.S. turned into three grueling hours, as the sales rep tried to explain the contract terms to my supervisor, who in turn explained them to me. Sufficed to say, technology is not her strong suit. Eventually, we’re finished, and I leave under the impression that setting up at home should be fairly straightforward.

I didn’t have time to set up that night because of a prior engagement–more on that in my next post–so after work on Friday, I got down to brass tacks. Everything starts smoothly enough–the instructions are all in Japanese, but a modem is a modem, so how different could it be? I turn it on and my computer recognizes the signal and I’m five bars deep and–damn it, where’s my internet? I go through my progression–see ΒΆ #2–but to no avail. Fortunately, though, I have an ace in hole: the Docomo rep gave me a phone number for English customer service as I was leaving. So I call and wait on hold until Miyuki–sweet, blessed Miyuki–answers in English.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, Miyuki is a saint, for reasons that will soon be apparent. And she’s a fluent English speaker. But you know what she isn’t? An IT expert. This becomes clear right away as I describe to her my situation. We’re out of her depth, so she excuses herself, and I’m back on hold for a few minutes until she pops back on the line. This time, she’s got reinforcements, in the form of an actual tech support rep conferencing in on the party line. Alas, the tech support rep speaks no English, so Miyuki has unenviable job of listening to me describe my situation in great detail, translating it into Japanese in a way that Mr. Tech Support can understand, and then taking his step-by-step instructions in Japanese and relaying them to me in English.

After two-and-a-half hours of this, we think we’ve pinpointed the problem: evidently in Japan, you need something called an “access point number” to use wireless internet. And, supposedly, my access point number should be somewhere in my contract information. Which, of course, is all in Japanese. So now I’m poring over reams and reams of Japanese wireless contracts looking for a 10-digit alphanumeric number that doesn’t seem to be there. And, of course, Miyuki and Mr. Tech Support are still on the line, trying to guide me through the contracts remotely. The problem is, in an effort to be helpful, the sales rep who filled them out for me was awfully liberal with her highlighter, so much so that it’s actually harder to tell which parts are important. It looks like it was left out overnight at the Clambake after party.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: shouldn’t they have that information in a database somewhere? This is customer service, right? Isn’t that the kind of thing they do? I thought the same thing, but see, here’s the rub: in Japan, internet is provided by two separate companies. One–Docomo–provides the hardware, my wireless modem. Another company, in my case OCN, is the actual service provider. And as such, OCN issues things like access point numbers, so Docomo doesn’t have that type of information (no one bothered to mention this earlier). OCN, it seems, does not have an English customer service number. Of course.

Finally, after three-and-a-half hours of devoted support from Miyuki, we’ve reached an impasse. I’m convinced that the access point number is not in my papers (spoiler: I’m right) and she can’t look it up for me. So now my only choices are to (a) give up or (b) call OCN and fly solo through Japanese airspace. I assess and decide that I am pot-committed. I gather myself and make the call. Surprise: I get put on hold. Double-surprise: when somebody answers, it is in Japanese. I try to blurt out one of my stock phrases–“Can you speak English?”–but my nerves are shot and I end up just shouting “Eigo! Eigo!” (English! English!) over and over into the phone like a deranged culture bomber. Very shortly, I am back on hold, and eventually someone answers in English. Am I home free? No, I am not home free. This guy isn’t actually customer service and isn’t really an English speaker–as far as I can gather, he just happened to be the most competent English speaker they had on hand, the one who deals with raving lunatics that shout into phones. What he is able to do, though, is give me an extension for someone who really, truly does speak English. Minutes later, I have this man on the phone, and within 90 seconds, he has given me my access point number and I am back on the grid.

In total, this took about four-and-a-half hours of telephone time, and I learned the following lessons: (1) Japanese customer service representatives are nicer and more patient than their American counterparts; (2) Sometimes shouting is the most effective means of communication; (3) Nothing–nothing–is ever easy.

Now, you probably feel cheated, since this is not so much a blog post as it is an orgy of pain and frustration. And you are justified in feeling that way. If you want to vent, I recommend calling Docomo customer service and asking for Miyuki. She gives great ear.

(I’ll follow this up with something approaching a real post in the next few days).