Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wednesday Weirdness, Korea Edition - Dokdo Propaganda

So Korea and Japan have been bickering for decades over a pile of God-forsaken rocks in the middle of the ocean. If you ask a Korean, he'll tell you that Dokdo is located in the East Sea and was an integral part of Korean territory for centuries before the Japanese occupation. If you ask the right kind of Japanese person, she'll say Takeshima is located in the Sea of Japan, and that Korea thinks it's theirs. If you ask almost anyone else, though, they'll probably stare at you and blink uncomprehendingly, or ask (rightfully) why anyone cares.

Well, apparently the Seoul Metro cares: they've installed these propaganda displays at various points throughout the city. If I were a more cynical person, I might say that they are positioned specifically to catch foreign eyes (the message is in both English and Japanese).

Seems like an odd way to greet a population of tourists who spend a ton of cash in your town.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween! And, Off to Korea

They love Halloween in Japan - that display above was already out in Nagasaki a month ago. I guess there's just something about dressing up in costume that appeals to the Japanese psyche.

Anyway, Nana and I are off to Korea for the rest of the week: we're taking a Model United Nations team to Seoul for a conference. While we'll have internet access for most of the trip, I don't expect to have a lot of time for blogging.

Take care!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fukuoka: The Magical Mystery Tour

Sometimes, when you live in Japan, you start your day watching baseball practice and end it playing rock-paper-scissors with the mayor.

Late one Thursday afternoon, a parent stopped by my classroom with an invitation for a free walking tour the following Sunday. Something about a baseball museum . . . pottery . . . lunch . . . a fitness, um, thing of some sort. We had little information, and even less in English, but we figured, heck - the tour was free, and we didn't have anything else planned for that day.

We signed up - and the parent informed us that Softbank would be very happy to have us along. (Yes, that Softbank.) A good omen: it's not every day you can please a faceless mega-corporation simply by showing up for a free tour.

Yet the freeness of the tour was a source of no small consternation. We knew that the city, like the rest of Japan, was doing everything it could to drum up tourism in the wake of last spring's triple disaster. But all the information I could find was in Japanese, and as far as I could tell the tour itself would consist mostly of local gaijin. Not the most effective strategy for boosting tourism in your town.

So what was this tour? The perversely ineffective pet project of some well-placed bureaucrat? The idle occupation of some bored ladies who lunch? A new recruitment tactic for an offbeat Japanese cult? No matter how hard I thought about it, there was no single piece of information about the day that could be made to fit with any other, and as a result there was almost no outcome that would have surprised me. I was equally ready to refuse shares in an ocean-view condominium, and the eternal salvation of my soul.

The mood that morning, as we gathered at Gate 7 of the Yahoo! Dome, was one of cautious optimism tinged with mild trepidation. We arrived at the appointed hour to no great fanfare: the souvenir stands were setting out their Softbank Hawks gear, and fans were beginning to line up for that afternoon's game, but there was no obvious group of tourists, and no one who looked like they were in charge: just us, a small band of gaijin milling about in the sun. At this point, I would not have been surprised if the tour had been nothing more than a figment of my imagination - or that I had fallen victim to a gross miscommunication and showed up on Sunday at the Yahoo! Dome for a tour that actually met, I don't know, on Saturday at the airport.

In the meantime, we paused for a handshake with a bronze cast of Frank Sinatra's disembodied left hand.
Admit it: that last sentence had you wondering
whether my mind had finally snapped.
Finally, we spotted a group of official-looking people having a chat. I worked up the nerve to introduce myself. This was no small feat, considering I would have been hard-pressed to explain what I was doing there in English, let alone in Japanese.

It was then that we encountered our first surprise of the day: the meeting time was 9:00-10:00, not 9:00. The tour organizers had, in fact, scheduled an entire hour for the complicated process of putting us in lines -  which we promptly broke at 10:00 sharp to walk halfway around the outside of the Yahoo! Dome (Note: Why not just meet on the other side in the first place?).

First stop: fifteen minutes of Fukuoka Softbank Hawks batting practice.

During this time, we were treated to a brief of the team and its stadium, in both Japanese and English, delivered over a set of portable speakers that were barely louder than the crack of a bat. (Luckily . . . Wikipedia!)

After the batting practice, we semi-cirumnavigated the dome once again to spend some time in the Sadaharu Oh museum, perched above Gate 7, where we started our day.

Sadaharu Oh is to Japanese baseball what some unholy fusion of, say, Hank Aaron and Tony LaRussa would be to the Major Leagues. (You'd probably have to add a dash of Pete Rose to the mix, too.) After setting the Japanese home run record with the Tokyo Yoimuri Giants and managing that team through the 80s, Oh took over the Fukuoka Hawks and led them to several pennants and league championships.
Oh's distinctive "flamingo-style" batting stance.
The museum itself focuses heavily on Oh's upbringing: Oh, who was half-Taiwanese, pretty much grew up in his parent's "Chinese" restaurant. He only got into baseball because his older brother was a huge fan.
A reproduction of the family restaurant. Alas, no actual food was served.
Like many Japanese museums, the place is also packed with postwar-era nostalgia kitsch with little or no connection to the actual subject of the exhibit.
サタデー ナイト フィーバー
Sataday Naito Feebah.
The last part of the museum a sweet hands-on exhibit where you could stand in a heavily shielded batter's box and watch a major-league pitch come screaming at you. You could also have your pitch speed measured in kilometers per hour (which measurement my feeble mind still struggles to comprehend).

After the Oh museum, we set out for lunch, which was the real reason most of us were there. The restaurant was about a fifteen-minute walk away, on the shopping street near our house. On the way, we stopped by a convenience store to learn something about some Japanese cartoon, and the fact that at one point the shore of Hakata Bay had been almost a kilometer further inland. But between the traffic and my rumbling stomach, I have to admit I didn't understand much of what was going on.

When we arrived, the shopping street was wrapped in a thick blanket of smoke. In Japan, this is a good sign, as it usually means grilled meat. Alas, our destination was the restaurant behind the smoking yakitori tent - but our disappointment would turn out to be short-lived.
We had passed the place many times before in our weekend ramblings: a traditional, wooden, expensive-looking place set back a bit from the street, almost like a temple - a temple of meat. Literally, as it were: the name of the place, 肉勉強, means "the study of meat." Three floors, each dedicated to a different aspect of Japanese meat cuisine: a gourmet butcher shop;   焼き肉  (yakiniku), which is kind of like Korean barbecue; 鉄板焼き (teppanyaki), which is the ancestor of the Japanese steakhouse; and   すき焼き (sukiyaki) / しゃぶしゃぶ (shabu-shabu), two Japanese approaches to the classic Asian hotpot.

The menu seemed to be based on race: Asians got もつ鍋 (motsunabe), a kind of tripe stew; foreigners got shabu-shabu - thin slices of pork and piles of veggies with a light broth, with a bunch of dipping sauces on the side.
You cook the ingredients in the broth, then dip them in one of the sauces above before eating.
Lunch was delicious - delicious enough, in fact, that we came back for more the following weekend. Plus, fear sharpened our senses: we all knew that, if there was a sales pitch coming, it would be right after lunch, when we were all fat and happy and too sated to move.

But the moment came and went - before we knew it, lunch was finished, and we were off to the pottery kiln, to make ashtrays for our mothers.

That was not, in fact, a joke.
The final stop on our little tour was a small shrine, not ten minutes from our house, which I never knew existed.
There, things got really weird.
That was a Japanese lunch-hour exercise routine, culminating in a communal back-rub. Here's a video:

The six-foot-tall plush monsters, while not essential, are highly recommended.
In traditional Japanese culture, one greets mascots with a polite display of jazz hands.
Anyway, just as the universe as a whole was starting to make less sense than it ever had before, the purpose of the tour itself suddenly came into focus: we were guinea pigs, testing out an itinerary for a new activity-themed, Softbank-sponsored tour. Fill out this survey, they said, and you can take part in a raffle for free Softbank Hawks gear.

And by "take part in a raffle," I mean "play rock-paper-scissors with the mayor."
Nana won a baseball signed by the manager of the Hawks.
That's the mayor, in the bathrobe. There's a video of our co-worker losing below.
For what it's worth, the mayor seems like a really nice guy!