Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hooked on Hula

There's no better way to experience a performing art than to see it live, and to see it by the best in the business. Hangin' out with the band after the concert is an added bonus. Welcome to a short introduction of Hawaiian born Willie K, and a few other of the most talented people I've every had the pleasure to meet.

A few weeks ago I got a call from one of my oldest friends in Japan who now performs in a Hawaiian music band. Mike had organized a small-venue tour for a Hawaiian musician, Willie K. One of the concerts was near where I lived, so he invited me to go. It was amazing. And not just Willie K, but all of the other people who performed on stage. Maybe it's because I didn't know Willie that I went expecting just to see some "Hawaiian music" -- but the concert was so above and beyond any of my expectations -- I'd have to say that I'm one of his his biggest fans now. And not just him, but everybody else in the concert.

Willie K
Both me and a Hula dancing friend who went with me to the concert were blown away by the performance. It included Hula, traditional Hawaiian music, amazing Christmas music, opera (Nessun' Dorma -- one of my all-time favorites), all topped off with an amazing rendition of Hotel California. Willie is amazing on stage. He can play any genre and sing any style -- all insanely well. What a voice! Of all the songs, my favorite was Somewhere over the Rainbow. I couldn't record the concert last night, but here's a clip from one of his older performances.

Napua Greig
And just when I thought the concert couldn't get any better, out comes Napua Greig, yet another ultra famous, ultra talented and ultra charming Hawaiian singer and dancer. She did one song where she was both singing and dancing Hula. I came dangerously close to squirting tears during that song. Just gorgeous! Here's a youtube clip so you know who to look for if you're in Maui and want to hear some amazing vocals.

Natasha Oda
OK, there's nobody in the world who doesn't like Hula. It's beautiful to watch. But when my friend Mona heard that Natasha Oda was performing, she said it would be amazing. It was. All of the Hula styles were elegant and soft. Really breathtaking stuff...and I mean that. I was just sitting there completely still asking how somebody can move that gracefully. This is a clip of Natasha from when she won the Miss Aloha 2001 competition. It's a much faster style -- and it's just sick how good this clip is. The music and dancing go full blast from about 1 minute in, so keep watching. I guarantee you'll play this clip more than once.

After the concert, I was lucky enough to go with the whole group to Outback for some beers (and by some I mean too many). Super nice and down to earth people. Willie sang a couple of songs right in the restaurant with his ukulele -- amazing. Of course the staff were freaking out worrying that it might "bother the other customers." This is coming from a restaurant where the staff belt out "Happy Birthday" 15 times a night -- which IS truly annoying. Anyway, the customers loved it. Everybody was clapping. Except the restaurant manager, who was too uncomfortable to clap due to the stick up his ass.

Anyway, mahalo Willie, Napua and Natasha for an amazing performance. I hope you can make it back to Japan soon! And thanks to you Mikey for the invite and for doing such an amazing job organizing this tour!!

One more for the road...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mt. Fuji from the workplace

The view from my classroom is good on any given sunny day. But now that the cold weather is clearing the mist, it just keeps getting better and better.
This is the view from my classroom / office window this morning. Photos never do Fuji justice -- but it's really a beautiful sight!

What's that off to the right?

Yup, that's Fuji.

Still can't see it?

Not yet? Man, get some glasses!

And in super zoom...

Meanwhile, my students are oblivious as they practice speaking English...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Freddy Krueger spotted in Chiba, Japan!

People seem to spot Elvis all over the planet. Well, I've found Freddy!

Back in 1984, the horror series "A Nightmare on Elm Street" was a huge hit. It featured the horribly burned Freddy Krueger. He would appear in your dreams and if he killed you there, you died for real. Well, yesterday I ran into my artist buddy, David, channeling Freddy in his hat and sweater. 9, 10, never sleep again!
Click to enlarge photo

And just for those too young to have seen Freddy on screen, here's the rhyme that went with the movie...Sweet dreams!

One, two; Freddy's coming for you
Three, four; better lock your doors
Five, six; grab a crucifix
Seven, eight; gonna stay up late
Nine, ten; never sleep again

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Day at the Office: Pattaya Beach, Thailand

My posts on this blog are often about places to work when you're on the road. My ultimate goal, of course, is to convince everybody that you can have a great time on vacation and still get more work done than you ever would at home. You just have to find the right place. One of my favorites in Thailand is The Pattaya Beer Garden.

My Office in Thailand: The Pattaya Beer Garden

I've recently returned from a month "holiday" in Thailand...if you can define a holiday as a month of 8 hour work days, 7 days a week. This sounds a bit like cruel and unusual punishment, but if you find the right place to get your work done, work does feel like a holiday.

So what constitutes "The Right Place?" Well, much like "The Right Stuff," that's something everybody needs to define on their own. I've met one or two traveling workaholics who like quiet beach resorts. Tried that. Got bored after a week. Not to mention there's rarely WiFi in places where all you can see are coconut trees and bamboo huts.

Personally, I like places that have a nice atmosphere, but music that's loud enough to both make me feel like I'm having fun, and to drown out the conversations of people sitting around me. And if you've read some of my older posts you know I definitely need a view of a beach -- nothing else does it for me. And of course cold beer for when the work day is coming to a close...and I know that I can do my remaining work even when I have a beer buzz going.

The Pattaya Beer Garden has it all. If you're in Thailand and need to find a place to both chill and do a corporate takeover, give it a try. In fact, I'll probably be there, so buy me a beer while you're at it for this great tip!!

So without further ado, here's a short video.

Need to see the map in the video again? Here it is:

See you there!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

How to be an asshole at Disneyland

It takes some talent to be an asshole by accident. I've now done it Disneyland no less. There's just something about annoying young couples that brings out the worst in me

In my 4th year in Japan -- about 14 years ago -- me and an old girlfriend decided to go to Disneyland. The lineup for Splash Mountain was huge -- almost 90 minutes. And for the entire time we had a rather annoying couple behind us. Actually, the girl wasn't annoying -- just her date. He spent most of the time talking about where she should point her face so they could get a nice "kinen shashin" (記念写真) -- a commemorative photo of their date. So I was secretly thrilled when I saw the photos. I never would have bought this if not for the fact that I found it hilarious.

Check out how he made sure he had his arm around her (which is not easy to do on that drop off!) At least I was nice enough not to block her face out.

But then a few weeks ago, one of my oldest friends, Mike Kurucz, came to visit from Port Alberni. He wanted to see what Disneyland would sound like with everything in Japanese, so away we went. And once again we got a hopeful young couple behind us...and again the talk about the kinen photo. Luckily, being an asshole at Disneyland is something shared by all Canadians, and so we both managed to pretty much ruin the photo hopes of the guy behind us.

Interestingly, I just realized that my receding hairline was the same then as it is now. While it sucked having that hairline when I was young -- at least it's not getting much worse. Bonus!

And if you're wondering what Disney sounds like in Japanese, here's a clip from the electric parade. Who's kidding who, even at 44, I still love Disneyland!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Spring in Japan

I am an admittedly miserable git in the winter in Japan. It's cold here. There's no such thing as central heating. It gets dark before 5PM. And it's cloudy all the time. Then one day the blossoms come out. And the sun. And it warms up. As do I!
OK, I'll try to keep this one short. Not my usual long winded spiel. These pics speak for themselves. You can see what it's like around where I live.

First, here are a few pics from my balcony. You can see my cool made-in-china balcony table where I'll have my morning espresso. And it's just warm enough in the morning to start doing that.

Pictures not enough? OK, here are 33 seconds in living colour.

One thing I love about my apartment is that it's long and fairly narrow -- basically the same design as the short 5-storey one in this next picture. Which is basically the same as 99% of other "danchi" (団地) in Japan. I have windows on both sides, so I get direct sunlight from sun up to sun down.

Anyway, this next pic is from the other side of my place, from the bedroom window. The high rise buildings in the back are quite new and nice. It's like New York at night -- all lit up and gorgeous. So even with my low rent, I get a great view. They, however, do not. In spite of their high rent, they have to look at our plain-Jane danchi. I think I definitely have the better deal here.

And now a few perspective shots. These are from the road below my apartment. The first one is just a shot of the sakura trees. And the other pic is looking up at my apartment. I'm on the top floor on the leftmost end.

If you've never seen Japan in spring, think about taking a few days stop over next time you're flying over us. It's a fun place to visit!

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Japan is always said to be a land of contradiction. Foreigners also often say that they feel that Japanese society is a bit cold. Well, I found an example of both while going through the checkout at the local supermarket... No Regi Bukuro!!
Yesterday I stopped by the fairly large supermarket on my way home to get a few things. While waiting for the checkout, I saw a woman in front of me take a small cardboard sign, about 10cm X 8cm. and put it on top of her shopping basket. Hmmmm....what could that be, I thought. This is what it was:

The blue lettering at the top says "No Regi Bukuro", No plastic bags! Then in white, it says, "For customers who do not need plastic bags, please put this card in your cart." It's to promote the "My bag" notion of people bringing their own cloth shopping bags to reduce plastic use. I applaud this effort from a country that loves packaging. As an example, if you buy a package of cookies, each one will be individually wrapped in plastic. Several will be put into a larger plastic package, and several of these are put on a hard plastic tray. These are then packaged with the brand package. And all of this typically ends up in a plastic shopping bag. So by at least eliminating the shopping bags, they are 1/6th closer to reducing plastic waste. Kudos!

Now for my usual armchair critic opinion of this...

First, I think it's a nice example of contradiction in Japan. Not because of what they are doing, but because of how they are doing it. I mean, why create a dozen of these cards for each cash register -- using paper and plastic and paint -- for every cash register in every major supermarket in Japan? If people don't need bags, all they have to do is say, "No bags, please." Instead, they are reducing plastic in order to make more room in the incinerators for these cards. "Let's reduce garbage by making more." Ok, the cards are not used on the same scale, I admit. But the contradiction still exists, as does the foolishness of whoever created cards when all people have to do is say "No."

Which brings me to a small insight into Japanese communication. The cards are not at the front of the queue -- they are right at the register. In fact, you almost have to ask the check out girl to move your basket in order to take one and put it in your basket as she's already removing items and checking them. It's nice to know that Japanese people are equally cold to their own, and not just to the foreign community. I've been going to to the same sports club every week for the last 2 years, and still they greet me as if it's the first time they've ever seen my face. But they do that to the Japanese customers, too.

Interestingly, when teaching this kind of "transactional" language in English, corpus studies show that just as important as the language needed to shop is the language needed to small talk, as friendly interactions are a part of daily community life, even between strangers. I've found this to be true pretty much everywhere I've ever travelled. This shopping card device is almost an institutional encouragement NOT to be friendly, and NOT to interact verbally.

Never a dull moment in Japan, kids!

For the record, I would say that Japanese society is cold, not the people. As an example, a student of mine got a job at a family restaurant near the university, "Big Boy." I was in there for a few hours working on my computer late at night and watched the manager teach her how to serve customers. She had to repeat a highly formalized and ritualized set of utterances -- no room for smiles or anything but business. And she must have done it about 200 times. At school, she was a fun and friendly person. Lots of smiles. But to customers, she's a drone. As with a lot of service personnel, she's been more or less brainwashed that there's no place for civility in a business transaction.

I hope this will change soon!! I could use with a few more smiles when I'm shopping :)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to wash your butt in Japan

Japan is famous for using English in ways that have no meaning in advertising and on T-shirts. While this Japlish is funny, I find myself more interested in examples of correct English grammar.
To quote a once-famous TV commercial, "You've come a long way baby!" When I first arrived in Japan, finding a grammatically correct English sentence was about as likely as finding a good espresso. They just didn't exist. Everything was a bastardized form of English known as Japlish. There are plenty of sites out there that contain some hilarious examples.

Things have changed since then. Every year more signs, menus, instructions are at least grammatically correct. But I still find them pretty hilarious. For instance, I got a kick out of these explanations at a "washlet" toilet in Narita International Airport. For those of you who have never been to Japan, a washlet is a toilet with a heated seat and a rocket-ship control panel beside it that allows you to shoot warm water to clean your bum (you can, of course, control the temperature). You can then turn on an air dryer that dries you off. No chafing, no fuss, no muss. It's like a car wash for your ass.

Anyway, I found the explanation hilariously literal, especially the "washing the rear" and "rear washing stopped." It's quite typically Japanese to give too much information, to the point where it's almost insulting. Great vocabulary choices, however.

Advertising has also changed. (Almost) gone are the days of strings of "feel good" words like, Fuzzy furry bunnies we are love to everyone with happy dream. Now you can read complete sentences. But it still maintains a certain Japanese flair to it. Like, f'rinstance, this can of chu-hai. Chu-hai is a mix of Korean sho-chu alcohol with some kind of fruit mix. Yes, it's a bit foofy, but they go down as easy as fruit juice, and I can count it as a serving of fruit, as they have grapefruit chunks in them. Nutritionally intoxicating!

While the main slogan was fine, "Enjoy the refreshing real Japanese taste," I found the subtext on the "Samurai Chu-Hi" to be pretty chucklatious: "A samurai never breaks his word." The implication here is that if you drink this, you will have all of the character and integrity of a Japanese Samurai. And all the marketing savvy of an company that puts their most ethnically distinctive label on a can of Korean alcohol. Kudos!

OK, now that I'm writing all this here, it's lost its initial humorous impact, which probably means I was already nutritionally intoxicated when I wrote it. I'll try to find something a bit more refreshingly real to post next time around.


OK, I think I spoke too soon. Here's a sign from the bathroom in the city hall building I found today. Looks like they have a ways to go still.

And shortly after leaving city hall, I went to Starbucks where a girl was wearing a sweatshirt with grammatically perfect, but nevertheless wacky Japanese.

Ravishing Virgins Are of The Same Mind

A perfect candidate sentence to prove why Chomsky's Transformational Generative Grammar is bullocks.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Japanese Taxes: What do I get for my tax yen?

I recently complained in a blog entry about the huge waste of taxes being used to support an amazingly inefficient public sector. And so it was an ironic turn of events when I found myself seeing the benefits of my taxes even as I was on my way to pay a late tax claim.

In a recent blog entry I tore a strip out of the inefficiency of the Japanese public sector. Having to watch 11 people getting paid to do one address change for me was just too annoying to ignore. So you can imagine my frustration when I got my notice a few months ago that the Oami tax office had neglected to take almost $5,000 of taxes from my pay a few years ago. I found out this gem when I was in getting the papers I needed to apply for my permanent residence visa. There's nothing quite so infuriating as paying a lump sum of cash at an office where half of the staff is chatting, slurping noodles at their desk, and mistakes are made at every turn.

But then I had a small revelation. And it came, rather coincidentally, when I was taking out money to pay this very tax bill. How much money? Well, as shown in the photo, it was about $2,500 (¥250,000) for this installment. Is this a lot of money? Well, it's not chicken feed, but it's not a lot...not in Japan. What is notable about this photo is that it is not a check or a bank transfer. It’s cash. Cold, hard cash that I withdrew from a convenience store ATM. At midnight, no less. And I put it in my wallet and walked home. Alone. Can you imagine doing that in any other country in the world? I certainly can’t. Not without an armed escort, anyway. But in Japan, walking around with cash is no problem because Japan is so safe.

Ok, I admit. I was careful when I took the money out, thanks to my residual paranoia from being raised in a country where most people won’t even walk around with $250 in their wallet, let alone $2,500. So I made sure that the 7-eleven was mostly empty when I took out the money, and I did keep an eye on one guy who happened to be walking about 100m behind me. But mostly what was on my mind was, "Holy shit! I would NEVER do this in another country." It was a reminder that Japan is safe. It's so safe that I don't even think about it. Indeed, if you asked a Japanese person what are the "safe" and "unsafe" parts of Tokyo, I don't think they could give you an answer. Every place is safe. At least out on the streets. A lot of people seem to knife and hack their family and neighbors up in the privacy of their own home, but if you're walking in public, you can do so with no worries.

So I suppose in the end, I have something to be thankful about my tax money, or at least for having chosen to spend most of my adult life in Japan. In fact, it was really painful paying this tax bill. But I have to remember that I'm not just paying the salary of the guy with the 60s' hairdo picking his nose over his noodles at his desk at the Ooami Tax Office (yes, witnessed with my own eyes), I'm also paying for a system that allows me to work in a safe and secure environment. And you can't put a price on safety. So thanks for that one Japan. I owe you.