Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sea change

I was once very disappointed to hear that Keith Olbermann had left ESPN for MSNBC. Sounded like he would go from entertaining one-liners about the rookie goalkeepers in the NHL to tired obscurity on a wannabe news network. I am heartened to find that he is now one of the more eloquent voices of dissent against the criminal in the White House.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lost and found

This is why I love Japan:

Four days ago, on a holiday, I went to watch the Sumo matches with friends. The sumo "stadium" is in Ryogoku, near where I stayed last year for a couple of months. It was a sort of homecoming, one I'd put off for too long.

Needless to say, we had a great time, and Asashoryu, the current champion, was even more amazing in person than on TV, even if I was seeing him from the upper seats. I will go into sumo a bit at a later date if I get a chance.

But far more important was what happened later. Some time during that day I lost a very valuable item--my palm pilot, a pda I've used for a long time as my ipod as well as a Japanese-English dictionary. It's the best dictionary I've found because I can write kanji in directly, something usually not available with the dedicated electronic dictionaries. I had it by my side everytime I sat down with Murakami's Kafka by the Shore, a book I've been working on for well over two years now. Whenever I heard or saw a word in Japanese I didn't understand (all too often), I used my beautiful Palm.

But on that day, I lost that Palm. I don't know where. When I realized my misfortune, I really thought fate was against me.

But, instead of despairing, as I might have in the US, I remembered that Japanese people actually leave things alone; when a wallet is left lying on a train station seat, very often that wallet will sit there until the station-keepers clean up after the last train has passed.

So I called as many stations on my line as I could. Again, I'm trained by experience in the US, and though I hoped for the best, my heart told me there was no chance it had been left behind. I wanted to believe, but I couldn't. After 4 stations and two train lines, I thought it was over. But I still didn't give up.

Today, I thought of one last option: visit the Ryogoku local koban: the "police box" where police sit and watch over the neighborhood, giving directions and, well, sitting. They were extremely polite, of course, and though they didn't have much hope, they told me that after a month all items go to a collecting point in Iidabashi. I despaired again, though I still hoped that in a month I might try again. But then I told them it had only been a few days, and they tried the local police station, and, somewhat excited, told me there might be something there. They mentioned "hanko", or a handstamp that is used where Americans would use a signature. That threw me for a loop, and I thought I'd reached another dead-end. But they convinced me to head to the other station, even though I was running late for work (I would end up late for work, though some unknown person's kindness saved me from docked pay).

Can you guess the ending? I imagine you can, but please, read on.

I hope you understand that this Palm was quite meaningful to me: it was indispensible to my studies at SFSU and has been a constant companion here in Japan. Especially because now I am trying to save my money, it would be really difficult to replace. I know it's not very Buddhist to be so attached to material possessions; but I'm attached to a lot of things, and I'm not Buddhist.

So I was absolutely overjoyed when I saw the black case that held my prized possession in the hands of the policewoman at the lost and found desk: something so familiar, something that had not disappeared even despite my mistakes. I felt a rush of joy that is rare for me, and I wanted to kiss everyone there (also rare).

Over the years I've become quite pessimistic: though it maybe be hard to believe, I am still very much an optimist, though more long term. But I quickly become discouraged about the short term, and I really never expected to get my Palm Pilot back. Who can blame me? Would there really be much chance that I would ever see it again if I were in San Francisco? I'd go so far as to say that even in Lawrence I wouldn't have ever seen it again. But here, in Tokyo, in a metropolis of more than 20 million people, my $200 Palm reappeared, despite my pessimism. Lost near the Sumida River, it was transported (along with a couple of hanko that were somehow found in the same spot) four or five blocks to the station, and the finder requested no reward (the policewoman told me this, though I didn't really understand the full impact until I thought about it later). I won't go into what this says about Japanese and Western society; all I will say for the moment is that I have had my faith restored in the possiblities for human society.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dancing and earthquakes

I've settled in at school for the most part, so I have a bit more time to do some things I want. I do mean for the most part; every day is something new, and I certainly have my troubles and disappointments. But I have my victories too—particularly with the kids. My favorite story so far is of the young girl who cried uncontrollably the first two times I taught her, but now appears to be genuinely excited to see me, and races to get her shoes off before class. It makes me feel that, while I may not be the most polished or effective teacher, at least I have something in me that she finds safe and, well, fun. It's not a trait I thought I had, and it makes me happy in a way I haven't known before.

Got an email from my friend Maya from San Francisco State, who is living in Tokyo with her boyfriend Eric, also a classmate at SFSU. We met up at Ben's Cafe in Takadanobaba (where they serve some fine coffee, a rarity in Tokyo, as anywhere else), then met Eric later and went to a Hawaiian burger restaurant in Harajuku.

The real highlight lately, though, was last week's Awa odori festival in Kouenji, west of Shinjuku. It's a festival that originated on the island of Shikoku, and the biggest celebration is still held there, in Tokushima (once called Awa). But it is popular all over Japan, and there were several processions in Tokyo itself.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, the "Dance of Fools" started in Tokushima in 1587 when the townspeople danced like fools because they were drunk from the sake given to them by their feudal lord. Over the years it has been tamed and reduced to representative steps, but all the same it is a pleasure to witness and, even more I'm sure, a joy to participate in.

The instruments play an important part in all Japanese festivals, and are the real backbone of the entertainment in the Awa odori.

The kids joined in on the fun, of course.

Finally, yesterday we had quite a shock: while I was waiting for students to show up in the Shinjuku school, the building suddenly started shaking; though I've been in several earthquakes in San Francisco and Tokyo, this was sudden and more frightening. If it had lasted for any length of time I imagine it would have caused some damage.

The next day, yesterday, was the anniversary of the last huge earthquake in Tokyo, the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. I'm sure there's no relationship.