Friday, January 29, 2010

The Minimal Life

Ever since early 2004 I’ve been living a kind of minimal life. Less is more has been my maxim. Few books on the bookshelf. As a matter of fact, I’d rather not have a bookshelf or any other furniture at all but sometimes necessity outweighs what we’d like.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Before 2004, I was a hoarder. I loved to buy stuff. I had been collecting records since the age of 13. Books strained the shelves on which they were placed. I knew the location of every thrift store on the Peninsula and in San Francisco, and could tell you which had the best clothes, which the best records, which the best ironic art. It’s sad to say, but acquiring things was one of the hallmarks of my existence.

I was aware that this might not be the best of compulsions (credit card debt was something else I seemed to be accumulating) and so it was with little regret that I began jettisoning my stuff in 2004 in anticipation of moving to Japan. I sold my record collection and turntables. I sold all my CDs (not before ripping them of course—been completely digital for six years now). And I’ve kept the thrift store trips to a minimum, although lately my collection of ironic animal T-shirts is growing again. Shipping overseas can be expensive, so I’ve tried to keep it to two U-haul boxes.

For the most part I’ve managed to keep my possessions to within these narrow parameters for the last six years. And while I don’t miss my old hoarder lifestyle—compulsively downloading music and movies on the Internet has sated this somewhat—I do grow tired of the waiting. There is no overriding philosophy for living minimally, you see. It is in anticipation of once again moving to Japan, and once again having to deal with shipping expenses. Given the choice, I would certainly have more stuff. But it’s more than that. The absence of stuff has become, for me, symbolic of being in stasis. I have been in a holding pattern over my destination, Japan, for six years and I’m so ready to land it’s not even funny.

After wandering with my two U-haul boxes for six years I relish the opportunity to set them down, unpack, and put my meager possessions on a shelf. Until it’s time to move again.

The JET Interview: Weighing My Chances

A few days ago I got the notice: I had been accepted to interview for a position teaching English in Japan for JET. Seems kind of funny to get excited about "being accepted to interview" but after all the hassle of the application, including letters of recommendation, an essay, etc., I was happy to have made it to the next stage.

And not everyone did. Apparently 5300 applied in the US alone, but only around 2200 made it to the interview stage (I counted up the numbers on the anouncement pdf). That's less than half. And I know there were some deserving people that didn't make it. A friend of mine with pretty much the exact same qualifications as me won't be interviewing in Japantown come February. Which is really too bad. I know he could have done a great job.

But still, 2200 people will be competing from the US alone. I don't know how many more applicants there are in the rest of the world but I imagine there's a lot. We have to include Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and places like Jamaica and Nigeria where English is indeed the first language. Plus places like India and Singapore and Germany where English might not be the first language but often they speak it better than we do!

America is, however, the largest native English-speaking country by a pretty wide margin, so it's safe to assume that a good chunk of the new JETs will come from the US. Let's be conservative and say half. Now, how many positions will be vacated this year in Japan? That's impossible to know but we can guess. There are 5000 JETs in Japan in any given year. Most JETs only stay a year, deciding to return home after the contracted year is up. Some will renew, according to a former JET friend, but of those that do, few re-up more than once. (You can do a total of five years.) Taking a stab in the dark, of the 5000, we can conservatively assume that 2000 will go home this summer.

So far, our conservative estimate, reached through pain-stakingly scientific logical analysis and good old groping in the dark, says that of 2000 vacant positions, 1000 will be filled by Americans. With around 2000 American applicants, that means I have a 1 in 2 chance of getting the job. These are excellent odds. Interview for a job at Google or Yahoo and you could be 1 of 20 actually interviewing. With 50/50 odds, I only have to be better than the person sitting next to me in the interview waiting room. And I can do that.

I've been steadily studying Japanese in preparation for the interview. I will likely be asked some questions in Japanese. I have no idea what kinds of questions but I want to be prepared to answer correctly, and with the correct level of honorific. I'm also going to start studying English grammar again. Knowing when something is wrong in your own language, and explaining why it's wrong are two very different things. If I intend to be a teacher of the English language, I had better be able to explain it. And lastly, I'm making sure I can answer such questions as "Why do you want to go to Japan?" concisely and with conviction. "Because Japanese girls are hot" might be the truth but something more along the lines of, "Because it's long been my dream to become a JET ALT" might be more appropriate.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #2: Nostalgia

Japan, it has to be said, is gaga for nostalgia. Anything that evokes that "takes you back" feeling is known as natsukashi 懐かしい in Japanese, and spend even a little time in Japan and you'll hear that word a lot. It's big business, this natsukashi. With something like 20% of the population over 65 and rising, anything that recalls the good ol' days is going to be popular. The number one music show on TV is a '70s-style variety show where aging superstars belt out enka tunes that last saw chart action in 1964. Even young people, such as American-born enka singer Jero, keep the oldsters giddy by singing the old songs. And should Japan's graying citizens want to have a little fun, the country is full of amusement parks for adults that resemble Japanese society in thr 1950s. Even entire towns have found that if they open a few penny candy stores and leave an old car lying around, people will flock to see it.

And I love it.

The time period everyone is natsukashi for is the Showa Era, from 1926 to 1989. It includes the war years, the post-war years and economic rise, and some of the bubble years. For many older Japanese, who were born after the war (as with our baby boomers), Showa was a time to look back on with moist emotion. They remember doing without in the lean years after the war, and doing with, during the wild bubble years. They remember their student days in the late '60s, when idealism shut down schools in protest of the college entrance exams (nothing was changed). And they remember the pop culture.

So what does this have to do with me? I was born in Showa 47 (1972), and thus I too am prone to Showa nostalgia. Of course, I was born in the States and didn't experience all that my Japanese counterparts did, but I did grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Japanese media was plentiful. I grew up watching Ultraman and Spectreman, Godzilla and the other Toho monsters, Gachaman (Battle of the Planets), Space Battleship Yamato (Starblazers), and more. The expensive die-cast metal Japanese toys were always the most coveted, as were the Japanese Game & Watch games that friends brought back from Taiwan and Tokyo.

Although I had no Japanese childhood, I have Japanese childhood nostalgia. Even things that were never part of my own experience, like '80s idols and samurai TV shows, instill me with a sense of nostalgia. Perhaps it's the way these things are packaged today in Japan. As I said, nostalgia is big business and anything old is presented with a sense of reverence.

But it's more than that. Watch a film from Ozu, the quintessential '50s director, or a Tora-san movie from the '60s, and you'll feel it too. Perhaps this has to do with the Japanese recognition that all things are temporary and transient, as with that ever-ready metaphor the cherry blossom, which blooms so beautifully for only two weeks and then passes, gracefully, like youth viewed from the midst of ever-increasing old age. Nostalgia is part of the national character, a sweet romanticism that I find enchanting and resonant.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include:


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #1: Punctuality

People often ask me why I like Japan. A good question, considering I plan to spend if not the rest of my life then a good portion of it there. I have a lot of reasons for liking Japan. I actually like it more every time I go, and for different reasons. As I get to know it, I find more and more to like. But as I've never actually written specifically about it before, and with the JET interviews coming up where they'll likely ask this very question, I thought I'd devote some blog inches to exploring this topic.

Reason #1: Punctuality

Since I can't remember when, I have lived my life under this maxim: If you're not 10 minutes early, you're late. I hate being late. I would rather be an hour early than 5 minutes late. When I have an appointment, whether that be personal or professional, I will figure out the time it will take to get there down to the minute in order to arrive on time. And not only on time, but comfortably early so that I do not arrive flustered and out of sorts.

However, given the society that we live in, I have never expected others to behave the same way. Americans aren't as lax about punctuality as, say, Indonesians, but they're willing to arrive 10 minutes late and expect that most people will let it go. Time is money, sure, but what's a few bucks here and there?

In high school, I had a girlfriend who absolutely took advantage of my punctuality. I would invariably arrive 10 minutes early. An hour or so later we would finally leave. In between, I would sit on the couch, watch TV and get glared at by her grandfather while she talked on the phone, put on her makeup, listened to records, etc. I was a pushover, it's true, but she could have at least made an effort.

It wasn't until spending time in Japan that I realized that I didn't have to be the only one on time. Although I always resented it when people were (grievously) late, I tried to let it go. I'm the weird one, I thought. Others aren't beholden to the same neurotic compulsions.

Oh, but they are, I learned. An entire country is. You can literally set your watch to the arrival and departure of trains in Japan. The conductors use stopwatches, and the bullet train will usually arrive within seconds of its posted arrival time. And it's not just trains. Set an appointment and get there 10 minutes early, and your friend will already be there. I can't stress how wonderful a thing this is: they will already be there.

I once had a Japanese girlfriend who ended up being a few minutes late meeting me. I saw her coming towards me from down the street, running. She was actually running to keep me from waiting any longer. It was embarrassing but also it made me feel good, that I was worth being on time for so much that she felt she needed to run to make up for being late.

All those times I thought I was ignoring the tardiness of my friends and loved ones I was actually feeling disrespected. I cared enough about them to arrive early so I wouldn't keep them waiting. Why couldn't they do the same for me? Yes, traffic can be bad so anticipate it and leave early. Buses often don't run on schedule so catch an earlier bus. America doesn't work this way, but I do. And thankfully so does Japan.

Monday, January 25, 2010

We're Not All Gun-totin' Maniacs

In yesterday's post I tried to address some misconceptions people have about Japan. Now, in the spirit of international relations, I'd like to address the Japanese on some misconceptions they have about the West, and the US in particular. These are all things I have personally experienced in my travels.

1. We're all Christians
I wonder where Japan got the idea that we're an overwhelmingly Christian nation? Could it be the President saying "God bless America" every chance he gets? I can understand how such a thing could come to pass, but let's not forget our religious freedom. And that also means freedom from religion.

2. We're all gun owners
Again, I understand. The world sees kids shooting up American schools on the news. But to turn this one around, from the sensationalist news reports I've seen, all Japanese carry around axes and knives to cut up their girlfriends, fathers and English teachers.

3. We all like sports
I am a pariah because I don't like sports. Actually this is pretty much universal. Maybe in France I could find good, sports-hating company.

4. We can't eat Japanese food
Sorry, friends in Japan. I hate to break it to you but your cuisine isn't all that weird. We've been eating raw fish over here for decades now. What else is there, rice and mushrooms? I think I can manage.

5. We can't use chopsticks
Again, been doing it a long, long time. The funny thing is, Chinese people don't think twice about Westerners using chopsticks. Of course they can, it's a useful tool. The next time someone praises me for using chopsticks I'd like to praise them for using a knife and fork.

6. We live amidst horrible violence
I have heard stories from young Japanese people about their parents being terrified to let them go to war-torn America. Killing in the streets! Mass confusion! I think Afghanistan and Iraq might actually be safer than the scenario they imagine for America. But compared to super-safe Japan, I suppose anything else must seem like a war zone.

7.We're loud, selfish and rude
OK, they've got on this one.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

De-wackifying Japan

As a Japan apologist ophile I often rankle at hearing my fellow Americans state the same misconceptions about Japan over and over. There are tons of them out there, reinforced by the popular media, the internet, etc. I tire of politely refuting them so, with this article that perhaps 10 people will read, I hope to put the entire matter to rest and open a clear channel to deeper international understanding.

1. Sushi is all raw
Not true. It may make a better story to tell people that you ate raw octopus, but octopus is routinely poached. Shrimp is also cooked—if it wasn't cooked, it would be gray, not pink. (Oh, and while we're on the subject, those fancy rolls covred with lava sauce or whatever aren't Japanese. They're American.)

2. Geishas are prostitues
The word "geisha" means "arts person," and that's what they are. They're trained in musical instruments, dance, that sort of thing. They may stroke your ego but that's all they're going to stroke.

3. Green tea can be sweet
Oh my God, no. It also doesn't have jasmine in it, or camomile, or whatever. It's bitter and it's good for you, so drink it.

4. Sumo wrestlers wear a "diaper-like" loincloth
I understand that it makes a handy metaphor to describe the mawashi as like a diaper but it's infantilizing, and is often followed by phrases like "giant babies." Yes, Japanese people can kick your ass. Get over it.

5. Panko is special
No, "panko" means "breadcrumbs." That's it, Rachel Ray. It's white bread torn into tiny pieces.

6. Anime is the pinnacle of Japanese artistic expression
Sorry, but it's not. It's also not real life. It is, however, a viable reason to learn Japanese. I have reversed my stance on this. Any reason to learn Japanese is a viable one.

7. Japanese game shows are crazy
They're not. They're not even game shows. What you see on YouTube are C-list celebrities being paid to do those wacky stunts. The shows like "Takeshi's Castle" have been off the air for decades.

8. Japanese TV is amazing
It's not, not any more. Clips of women having orgasms on TV and things like that are from 20 years ago. If you want crazy TV like that, go to Europe. If you want to see a chimp eat with chopsticks, watch Japanese TV.

Next time, to be fair, I'll tackle the misconceptions Japanese have about Westerners.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jet Interview Preparation

Waiting. Waiting to hear from the JET Program to see when (or even if) my interview is. According to the American site for the JET Program, interviews start sometime next month. Canadian and English applicants have already been notified, apparently. This is driving me crazy.

The JET Program is my top choice for teaching English in Japan. It pays the most, offers the most assistance, and has high recommendations from former participants. I really want this job. However, getting back over to Japan is, for me, the most important thing, so if JET isn't going to work out then there's tons of other places to send my application to. I just haven't yet because I'm waiting to see about JET.

Then there's the interview. Will they be friendly, or will they be terrible? There's no way to guess. I've done long job interviews before so I know how stressful it can be. As long as I'm prepared and can have high confidence—after all, it's in their best interest to hire me because I'll do an awesome job—then I'll be fine. And if I don't get the job, then there are lots of other places that can use me.

I really want this job though.

(I didn't make that image, by the way. I think it's from Tofugu. I found it on Google image search.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Finding Japanese Music Online

Ever since I started studying Japanese five years ago, my interest in Japanese music has steadily grown. In the past, having even a passing interest in Japanese music meant getting hit hard in the wallet, having to pay import costs on already expensive Japanese albums. Well, I won't say why that problem's been solved in the 21st century but if you're reading this, you likely know what I'm talking about. I don't want to out and out endorse the current (anti-)business model of music on the internet, but hey, it sure is convenient for us music fans.

OK, financial part solved. But how do you find the music? I'm the first to admit, it can be tough. Randomly stumbling on good Japanese music blogs is one way, as is getting links from friends who've done the same. I've been stockpiling bookmarks to some of the best Japanese music sites and I thought I'd share them with you.

Beautiful Noise
Not exclusively about Japanese music but there's a lot of it on this site that focuses on post-rock, ambient and shoegaze music.

Japanese Old Prog/Psych Rock
Pretty much what it says. It hasn't been updated in a while but there's still lots of great old bands from the 60s and 70s here, like Les Rallizes Denudes and Flied Egg.

Oldies But Goodies
Here is where I reveal my inner nerd. Yes, this is a repository for 80s idol groups. Yes, I love it. And you should too.

Name aside, this is a great site for discovering recent Japanese bands that don't make the charts. My latest faves Supercar are well represented (plus their solo material) and there's tons more like them.

This is a very recent discovery and as such I haven't had much time to explore, but it looks promising. More on the fringe than any other site mentioned here. A cursory look reveals Merzbow & Pan Sonic, the Japanese Eel, and lots of non-Japanese breakcore.

Another good source for Japanese music are message boards, particularly ones from Thailand, Russia and China (actually, this is true for anything Japanese you may want, like pictures or magazines).

Happy hunting.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

That's Entertainment

Being an American, it seems I've been lead to think that the world copies what we do. That we're the fashion leader and everyone else can't wait to mimic us. This may be true on some level, particularly when it comes to movies and television, but we are not the only force of influence in the world. Far from it. I personally was influenced by British mod and skinhead (this is late '60s skin, not '80s flight jacket skin) looks. And of course Europe, particularly France and Italy, continue to be high fashion leaders. And then there's Japan.

In Asia, Japan seems to be the culturally dominating force. Its music is popular all over Asia, despite the language barrier. It exports its fashion sense, through magazines. I'd even go so far as to claim that—particularly for women—it's the Japanese facial structure that is most desired.

First, music. Like Europe, Asia is comprised of a lot of small (and some not so small) countries in a relatively close area. It makes sense then that cultural products would go back and forth. Being from America, where everything not American is faraway and even undesirable, it's sometimes hard to grasp this. We might get a few British bands reaching into the Top 40, but when was the last time a foreign-language song was popular? The '80s? Japan has been selling its music into Asia for a long time with little trouble overcoming the language barrier.

In the past, concessions to local languages were occasionally made, like Puffy's Mandarin-language versions of its bigger hits. But now, the trend seems to be to co-opt and sell back. Take Morning Musume for example. The decade-strong all-girl J-pop group, like Menudo, graduates its members when they get too old. A few years back the group's producers held auditions in China to find new members and, one can assume, expand its audience. The new members sing in Japanese and are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable with the other members. But they're there, and China knows it. Likewise with Sweet Vacation, a techno-pop duo comprised of a male producer and young female singer. Same as it ever was, except the singer is actually Thai.

While May sings in Japanese almost exclusively, they have released Thai-language versions of some of their songs in Thailand. Discovered in Thailand, groomed in Japan, and sold back to Thailand. (And, although I don't remember her name, there's also another singer, discovered in her home country and now working in Japan with Japanese producers. I think she may be Nepalese.)

Japanese media available in other Asian countries are not restricted to music. Japanese magazines are readily available, depicting Japan's unique, homegrown styles and fads, which are soon adopted throughout Asia. One example is the recent school girl fashion boom in Japan, as worn by groups like Scandal and AKB48. May, Sweet Vacation's Thai-transplant singer, has even been hired to model school girl-inspired outfits.

Of course, along with clothes comes personal appearance. The Japanese "look," that being light skin and wide, doe-like eyes, is popular throughout Asia. However, for the Japanese this is as much of a construct as it is for non-Japanese, with everyone using skin whitening creams, eyelid glue to hold open the eyes, and contacts for maximum doe-eyed effect. I'm not sure where exactly the blame can be placed. Certainly there's a Western effect happening, with large eyes and white skin valued over Asian eyes and brown skin, but that's too simple. Japan has long valued white skin, centuries before ever encountering Caucasians. And in the West, we're more interested in being tanned brown, images we eagerly broadcast back out to the East. I suppose the stylistic hallmarks of anime and manga are somewhat to blame too.

As in the images in the picture above from a personals site, you can no longer tell whether someone is Japanese, Chinese, Thai, or even human. Japanese style may have been the jumping off point, but where it's going is somewhere else entirely. More than human? Time will tell.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

California Haikyo

Just south of San Francisco is the Gilroy Hot Springs, also known as the Yamato Hot Springs. It's an abandoned hot springs resort of the kind you might find in Japan. Yes, I do mean the abandoned kind you might find in Japan.

Abandoned locations are known in Japanese as haikyo 廃墟. It basically means ruins, but for a lot of people it means a place to explore. For many people, visiting haikyo sites is their hobby, and they take pictures and post them online. Do a search, they're pretty interesting.

I first heard about the Yamato Hot Springs from a friend, who claims there's a big torii (shrine gate) there and everything. Curious, I did a little snooping around online and found out about the place.

It was first established in the late 1800s as a place to "take the waters," as they used to call it. It was a rich person's destination, with the then mayor of San Francisco coming down to party with singers and business tycoons. By the late '30s it had fallen out of favor with the upper crust and was purchased by H. K. Sakata, a local Japanese lettuce grower.

Now known as the Yamato Hot Springs, it became a cultural center for Japanese and Japanese Americans, hence the torii. Although Mr. Sakata was interred in a relocation camp during the war, his business partners kept the springs open, and after the war many displaced Japanese American families used it as a temporary shelter.

The site is now part of a state park and is a State Historic Landmark. It remains closed while it is decided how best to handle the extensive repairs necessary to make it safe again.

Although I'd really like to go, it seems like just hopping the fence would be disrespectful given its history as a sanctuary. However, the Friends of Gilroy Hot Springs, the de facto caretakers of the site, offer guided tours for a small fee. Anyone want to join me on a tour?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

New Site

I've launched a new site, Dope Computer Music, as the home base for my musical endeavors, be they dubstep, ambient, downtempo or whathaveyou. Check it out!

Dope Computer Music

There'll be links to my mixes, songs, all that stuff, plus writings about music, which I feel is a little out of place here (unless it's about Japanese music, of course).

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Secret Life of Youtube Comments

Back in 2008 when I was living in Japan, I posted a short video of two baby monkeys playing at a monkey park to YouTube to illustrate a story on my then blog. Here it is.

For awhile no one commented, but then a funny thing happened. The more people randomly found it and commented, the more the comments took on a life of their own. It's as if the people didn't even watch the video and just commented based on what people had said before.

Here's the comments list, in its entirety.

  • thats so cute I love baby monkeys I want one
  • so cute
  • hehe this is kwl lol
  • cute
  • (So far, so good. Now watch what happens.)
  • LOL @ 0:24, "GIMME MY STICK BITCH!!"
  • if i had 2 monkeys id do that with banaanna
  • 69 forever
  • monkeys are awsome
  • lol so cute
  • that monkey got tea-bagged multiple times.
  • aww so cute lmfao 69
  • lol hes like gimmie the stick! then hes like fine ima hit u in the head then... SNEAK ATACK! then hes like we can share SIKE! then the other 1s like *sniffle* i wanted thats stick *sniffle* GIMMIE!!! NO!... SNEAK ATTACK! " FIGHT " THEN HES LIKE IM SITTING ON U!! HA HA!!!!! ROFL SOOO FUNNY
  • cute :)
  • is the one monkey jerking off the other at the end
  • hahahahaha thats what i thought.
  • -Judo floor practicing to me!
  • Borat: hotel scene...
  • wow what is he doing at the end???
  • Just like my junior school,but not the examining of the mating tackle!!!
  • stupid video
  • so cute
So there you go. This is the kind of inanity that 26,592 views will get you. Although, now that they mention it, it does look like something kind of fishy is going on there at the end.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Shinto and Me

The other day a Japanese friend asked me if I had done hatsumode, the first temple or shrine visit of the year, yet. (Take a look at a post I made a few days ago about looking for a suitable place to do hatsumode.) There are plenty of Buddhist temples in the Bay Area but no Shinto shrines. I explained this to my friend, born and raised in Japan, and she asked, "What's the difference?" For me, everything.

Buddhist temples are interesting, and I find the teachings of Buddha fascinating from a philosophical and psychological standpoint. I like the architecture of temples, I like their tranquility. But I am not spiritually moved by them. I am, however, spiritually moved by Shinto shrines.

That my Japanese friend was not sure of the difference of her country's twin religions wasn't all that surprising. Indeed, for more than a thousand years there was no difference. Buddhism and Shinto existed syncretically, supporting and completing each other. Shinto, Japan's native religion, is about life as it is lived in the here and now, Buddhism about life later (or after life). Shinto ceremonies cover children and weddings, and Buddhism funerals. Shinto is animistic and pantheistic, with room for ever more gods. Buddhas, come on in. It was only in the late 1800s that Shinto was separated from Buddhism as part of a political movement to deify the emperor and legitimize a new form of government. This lead to State Shinto and all sorts of unfortunate Imperial expansionist policies.

But getting back to the matter at hand, there are no Shinto shrines in California. The nearest one is the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, in Washington, near Seattle. Not being able to go all the way there myself, I sent away for two omamori, amulets blessed and purified by the shrine. I got one for business, as this is the year I start working again, and one to make sure I choose the right path in life.

That I, raised as an athiest, should care about these kinds of things at all is evidence of how much I feel an affinity with Shinto. What started as a fun way to participate in Japanese culture has become something important to me. Do I really believe that a god will help me get a job? No, not really. Do I believe that by making a commitment and focusing my energies on something, I can help it to come true? Yes, surely.

But there's more. In Shinto, I feel awe. This is harder to explain. In fact, I think that's part of the definition of awe, that it's unexplainable. Let me give you an example. For hatsumode in 2008 I traveled all day from Oita, in southern Japan, to Matsue on the Sea of Japan coast, to visit Izumo-taisha, an ancient Shinto shrine. Set in the forest amongst mossy trees, its beautiful, pre-Buddhist architecture a reminder of a Japan long past, the shrine complex so moved me I couldn't help but cry. It was as if I had been there before. The experience of awe was incredibly palpable.

The Tsubaki Grand Shrine has this to say about Shinto:

Shinto emerged and developed spontaneously as an expression of the deep intuitive connection with Divine Nature enjoyed by human beings in ancient Japan. Shinto, as natural spirituality, is based on a harmonious primal relationship with the "infinite restless movement or Great Nature" rather than on the written or reveled teachings of human beings.

That last part is especially important to me, and until reading this pamphlet that accompanied my omamori I had never heard it said about Shinto. I have long felt that, for me, for a religion to have validity I must feel it directly. To be told how and what to feel by a person, whether that person be the Buddha, Jesus Christ or Muhammad, even should one of those people appear before me to deliver a special message, is still one person removed from me. Shinto, however, does not proscribe. These are no saints or teachers. There is only nature. And this makes sense to me.

I was not able to find a local shrine to visit this year, but I was able to find the Tsubaki Grand Shine online, purchase omamori, and thus receive this message that helped validate my feelings about Shinto. Sounds like a pretty good tradeoff to me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2010 Horoscope

Normally I don't put much stock in horoscopes. Sure, they're fun to read, and we're always looking out for connections to things that are already happening in our lives, but the horoscope in today's San Francisco Chronicle was just too spot-on to ignore.

Here's my horoscope for the year in full.

(Jan. 19-Feb. 17)
This past year saw you thrust into the limelight in at least one unexpected manner. Now, as the world turns, your own private drama expands even further. Expect a dream to literally come true in 2010 as you move to solidify last year's gains. A friend (or friends) will be involved in a major way. In other words, it's one of those "not what you know but who" things. (Get out your address book.) What you do on Feb. 13 has the power to change your life forever. Come July 25, you'll enjoy celebrating yourself. You deserve it!There's a lot of stuff in here that doesn't apply to my plans for 2010 so we'll just conveniently ignore that and focus on what does.

1. "Expect a dream to literally come true in 2010 as you move to solidify last year's gains."
My dream that is slated to come true this year is finally being able to work in Japan. As I've talked about here before, I've been working towards this dream since the day I came back from my first trip to Japan in 2004. And last year's gains? That would be graduating college with a BA, a necessity for getting a work visa in Japan.

2. "What you do on Feb. 13 has the power to change your life forever."
Assuming I'm granted a job interview with the JET Program, the program to which I applied last year, it will be in February. Perhaps even... February 13?

3. "Come July 25, you'll enjoy celebrating yourself. You deserve it!"
Should I get the job, I'll be leaving on August 1 for Japan, which would put my going away party right around July 25. Uncanny!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Study Resolutions

I'm not really one for New Year's resolutions but this year it behooves me to stay on top of the Japanese studies. How is this year any different from the past five? Because this year I am no longer a college student and don't have things like teachers and tests to keep me in line.

The plan is still to go to Japan this summer to work, so at the very least I would like to not backslide in my knowledge. Best case scenario is I actually learn and retain something between now and then. So that the next eight months are not a total Japanese language vacuum, I have some books I'd like to finally get into. Most of these I've bought over the past few years but never had time to crack.

Japanese Respect Language, P.G. O'Neill
This is the first. With job interviews coming up next month I had better be clear on my keigo (respect language). I'm pretty good with verb conjugation but a brush-up is in order.

Read Real Japanese, edited by Michael Emmerich
An annotated reader of Japanese fiction. I'm at the stage where I feel I can finally tackle fiction, as opposed to expository writing. Comes with a CD too.

Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow, Kakuko Shoji
I've been going through this in my free time the past week and it's extremely helpful. It covers a lot of little grammar points that tend to be forgotten, like the fine differences between kara and node.

Jazz Up Your Japanese With Onomatopoeia, Hiroko Fukuda
Gitaigo and giongo are my weakest areas in Japanese, which sucks because they're so commonly used. Being able not only to understand but use these effectively will be a big jump towards fluency.

Beyond Polite Japanese, Akihiko Yonekawa
Slang is always fun and breaks up the tedium of studying things like kanji. Speaking of...

I've loaded up Anki with the JLPT level 1 kanji. Not that I plan to take that test this year but it's a good level of kanji to study. (I highly recommend Anki as a way to study kanji and build vocabulary. Get it here for free.)

Talking about the books I want to study is all well and good, but actually studying them is a different matter. There are all kinds of other things I want to do with my new-found free time, like get back into making music, something I missed dearly while busy in school. However, maintaining my Japanese is important as well. Perhaps if I can set aside a few hours each day and follow a study schedule, assigning different days to different hours. Hmm, that sounds suspiciously like school.

I'll let you know if I make it happen.