Friday, August 05, 2011

Saturday August 6, 12:14 p.m.

Before I came out here to the I-Cafe, I had found out via CNN that S&P had downgraded America's credit rating from AAA to AA+. All that sturm und drang of the last week in Congress for naught. In fact, Standard and Poor's pulled the carpet out of the Obama administration because of the shenanigans in Washington; they cited the "political brinkmanship". Basically that just means that S&P thought that the Republicans and Democrats were acting like a couple of brats. So, they took off an "A".

Boy, does that hurt Obama. That Election Day in 2008 just seems to be so long ago. And now I'm wondering how his re-election chances will go. If things get any worse, he may just give up the ghost and not even bother re-upping for a second term. But that would pretty much hand the next 4 years to The Republicans...and basically The Tea Party movement.
Saturday August 6, 11:33 a.m.
Of course, since this was a Speedy-subsidized affair, the nijikai (or next stage) of the evening was karaoke. Finding a karaoke establishiment in Shinjuku is like throwing a rock in JR Shinjuku and hitting someone. They're that numerous. Karaoke Kan is one of the most famous chains in the country for providing rooms for warbling. The name has no connection with our embattled Prime Minister although I'm sure he wishes he could spend a few hours in a room to decompress.

Welcome to our room for 1.5 hours. This room was one of the smaller ones in the basement and can probably hold a maximum of 8 people. There is a room service phone, and of course, the karaoke setup in the corner. Woman doesn't come up extra here; for that sort of place, you'd have to check out Kabukicho with a much thicker wallet...and a much thicker--well, you know what I mean.

The typical menu in a karaoke establishment. Just fry the heck out of everything! Mind you, the drinks have a fine range of beer to girly-girly stuff like strawberry milk.

Something that Geordi LaForge would be proud of. Instead of those phone directory books with listings of just about every song written by Man...and AKB 48, one can just tap away at a karaoke PADD. And all of us did. We got our Sex Pistols, Billy Joel and Carpenters in there. BTW, that control panel at the bottom looks pretty cool. I can probably drive a starship with that.

Yeah, it had been a year since my last foray into a karaoke establishment. Everyone except Miss Oxford sang; she was resolutely willing to remain a listener. The bossman was more than happy to be fueled on alcohol and wail away his blues. But I kept up with my renditions of Billy and Karen. I also threw in an enka song as well.

I barely venture into karaoke boxes these days. Pretty much with the exception of the bossman, I don't really have any friends who enjoy singing anymore. The Movie Gang is strictly just into the dinner-and-a-movie scene. It used to be that when I was at the ol' school, heading out with students and teachers to the neighbourhood box was nearly a monthly event. Now I tell everyone that I've retired.

I think there is a certain etiquette involved when it comes to a good karaoke experience. The first thing is that if you're not willing to sing, then don't come! Ray made it quite clear that she has no love for the Japanese pastime, and that's OK with me. Believe it or not, there is a substantial portion of the Japanese population that feels that only professional singers should be allowed to croon or belt out a tune publicly. Miss Oxford was lucky that the rest of us could let her non-participation pass.

Now, if you're willing to give karaoke a go but have never done so before, then pick out a song that you like and focus on it. That will become your juuhachi-ban or "No. 18"; I've got no idea why it's labeled as such, but it refers to your signature song, the tune that will be sung by you at any karaoke encounter. The multitudes of songs available in the hard drive make it impossible for you not to find something that you can sing. Pick up something, though, that you can handle. You may like Michael Bolton but do you really want to commit vocal suicide by belting out anything by him? Try something along the lines of Billy Joel or The Carpenters. That is, of course, if you like them. In this country, if you really want to impress your Japanese hosts, you can try something in the native language. Decades ago, I focused on the enka song, "Yukiguni" (Snow Country) since it's not that difficult to croon and, plus, it has that image of my own country although it's really referring to the Tohoku or Hokkaido. Once you've got that No. 18 mastered, you can start thinking of other tunes to add to your repertoire. Don't think that just because you've sung that one song, you're off the hook. As long as you're doing your 2 hours in the room, you'll be asked to contribute.

Also, don't start stuffing the ballot box, so to speak, with your requests. Perhaps if there is a lull in the singing, especially if your group is going for a marathon session, you may put in a back-to-back, but otherwise try to make sure that your karaoke buddies get their turns in. Years ago, we had a colleague (who's now providing simultaneous interpretation of NHK News) who thought that she was giving a concert during one of our trips to karaoke. We basically had to conspire to throw in a ton of songs while she was wailing away to achieve balance.

Don't be surprised if your buddies are either nattering away or searching their menus for their next songs. That's not being insulting to you. Karaoke is a communal activity and not "American Idol". Several things happening at once is the natural atmosphere in a karaoke room.
But do not believe for a minute the reassurance "Sing anything you like however you long as you try". Know who you're going out with. If it's with a bunch of office colleagues in their 50s, don't suddenly go for The Sex Pistols. If you're going out with a group of youngsters whose musicology is restricted to the sounds of Arashi or AKB 48, don't pick out an old folkie that their parents probably listened to during their university years. And again, re-emphasizing on the No. 18 rule, make sure that you've gotten some prowess at the song. Nothing brings a pall into a room faster than someone who just ravages the heck out of a tune. My old buddy, Chip Guy (who has a bit of a mean streak when it comes to karaoke), regularly and probably intentionally vocally treated his choices like that psycho in "Saw" did with his victims. I nearly begged him to stop singing after the 3rd hour.

Well, I've done my Michael Weston voiceover of karaoke.

Saturday August 6, 11:22 a.m. The Speedy gang had its farewell dinner for one of their own last night. At his request, we went to Karachi on a side street in West Shinjuku.

The Tandoori platter was unexpectedly spicy. Usually, when it comes to Indian food, things are rather toned down in Tokyo but these guys put the flame on these babies. Darn fine with me but I had to go through a couple of Strawberry Lassis to cool my mouth.

We also got a very generous heap of freshly-made naan. At first, the bunch of us wondered if we would be able to finish it all, but not to worry. There was still some curry in each of our pots.

And these were the curries, all bubbling away in their individual pots over sterno. There was the spicy keema, mild and creamy spinach, and chicken curry.

Indian food is quite the staple in The Big Sushi, so it was a bit surprising that we quickly ended up being the only party in the restaurant for most of the evening. Not a particularly good sign for surviving in one of the most demanding cities for cuisine. But we had a fine time.

Friday August 5, 6:51 p.m.

Well, talk about timing. No sooner than I had written my last entry concerning "NCIS" when I came across a CNN website article stating that none other than Pauley "Abby" Perette is the top actor in the Q Ratings. In fact, there is a bit of a log jam in the top 10 consisting of NCIS agents: Cote DePablo is No. 2, Mark Harmon is No. 4 and Michael Weatherly is No. 7. Kinda feel sorry for Sean Murray and the "NCIS: LA" gang, though. Apparently, the Q Ratings are quite useful information for the studios when it comes to the worth, monetary and otherwise, of their performers. At this rate, "NCIS" may last until the time I reach my first century.
Friday August 5, 6:40 p.m.

I think we're just about ready to head out to Karachi. Just another 5~10 minutes. Basically, spent my few hours here surfing the Net, including reading up on all that can be read about "NCIS". Gibbs and the team have a huge following here in Japan, and "NCIS: LA" is also making its presence felt and liked. I'm sure there are quite a few fans in Tokyo who would be thrilled if the show ever decided to have a special ep visiting NCIS Yokohama.

I saw the latest episode last night on FOX Japan; we're currently in Season 7 and it was the Thanksgiving episode where Gibbs has to save a genius girl from a think tank. Kinda struck me as being one of the weakest episodes of the entire series...the girl gets kidnapped from Ducky's mansion while Ziva and Ducky are handling the turkey; a little too similar to a Season 2 ep in which Ducky himself gets kidnapped from his place. The writers may want to consider getting back to a seasonal arc story.

Friday August 5, 4:37 p.m.

The sports headlines locally have been filled with the news of the untimely death of Japanese soccer defenseman, Naoki Matsuda. He was just 34 when he suddenly collapsed during practice a couple of days ago from sort of heart attack. Never regained consciousness. A lot of the late night sports shows were providing full-blown tributes to him. To be honest, I'd never even heard of the guy until Wednesday which shows how much I follow the game.

The weather is back to full-blown heat wave again. I've been sweating bullet trains all day starting from this morning, so I figure that it'll be time to switch the beach towel lining my futon before it gains sentience. I had The Bass and The OL in quick succession at their respective cafes in Funabashi and Nihonbashi. The OL's lesson went surprisingly fast...the hands of my watch just seemed to fly by.

Went down to Shibuya to get my brother's birthday present. Got a card from Itoya, bought a DVD at Tower Records and then picked up the envelope at Tokyu Hands. I got him the disc of that live-action version of "Space Battleship Yamato" that had been released in December last year and died a quick death at the box office. Well, I figure that my brother just has to see it at least once. I was able to send it out in the mail about a half-hour ago. Provided that the backlog has been straightened out at Canada Post after its brief mail strike, the DVD ought to get there by my bro's birthday in a couple of weeks.

Tonight is that goodbye party for the kids' school teacher. We're going Indian at a place called Karachi in West Shinjuku. Ironic name for the place considering that the city is in Pakistan but the cuisine is Indian...sending a hopeful message, perhaps. Anyways I hope the only explosive thing there is the flavor.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Thursday August 4, 5:34 p.m.

Feeling pretty exhausted after my two back-to-back lessons with The Bossa Novan and The German. Not sure what it was. Coincidentally, they are both nurses. The Bossa Novan was in the middle of a cold so she wasn't at 100% but we were able to make some progress in the text. As for The German, it was the usual barrel of laughs I often have with 001 but we actually did a couple of pages in her text which is quite an achievement since it isn't even a matter of sidetracking with her....we don't even get onto the road in the first place. The German will be heading up to Hokkaido for her summer vacation later this month via The Hokuto-sei, a famed train departing from Ueno Station and traveling some 18 hours until it reaches JR Sapporo. Not cheap and definitely not easy to secure a reservation, she has my envy. Apparently, she'll be having a ¥7,500 French dinner in the club car during her ride up. She said it was pretty expensive although I know that French dinners in the capital can be easily twice or three times as pricey. I guess she was taking into consideration the fact that this was on top of the transportation fare.

A new staffer came up from the kids' school. I'm not sure how old she is but she has this rather breathy way of speaking both Japanese and English. In fact, she reminds me of how actress Jennifer Tilly sounds (the one voice-acting Bonnie Swanson in "Family Guy"), so I guess she'll be JT. In any case, she's pretty friendly although she does need some help getting around the computer system. She'll be joining us for that goodbye dinner for that teacher at the kids' school tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Thursday August 4, 1:14 p.m.

I've got The Bossa Novan for her very first lesson today. She's a 90 like 001 and The Beehive. She's pretty shy but can open up once she gets into a roll. But she'll need a good foundation of vocabulary if we're to progress. Then I've got The German right after her followed by Mrs. Thursday a few hours later.
A new staffer from the kids' school will be coming in to help out this month so I'll be doing my intros with her. Actually, tomorrow, Speedy is having a goodbye party for one of the teachers at the kids' school so I've been invited to partake in some good ol' Indian food. Haven't had that in a while. Apparently, the teacher in question will be setting up his shingle in China somewhere. Just hope he doesn't have any need for high-speed rail right now.
MB has sent feelers about catching the very last "Harry Potter" movie. Since he works for a high school, he's now off for the next several weeks, and he's hinting at a weekday so I suggested next Monday.

Thursday August 4, 1:07 p.m.

Baum Kuchen....something that I'd never heard of in my native Canada until I came to this country where it's virtually a national institution when it comes to desserts. But it's actually from Europe, and in German, it is translated as "log cake". When I first heard it from one of my students long ago, I automatically gave one of my own German phrases: "Geseundheit".

And yet it is over here. As the translation will hint, it's a cake that looks like a cross section of a tree trunk since it's made by slathering a layer of batter on a rotating spit and once it's baked, another layer is slathered on and so on. Then a fine coat of icing over the whole log is spread on. The department store, Matsuzakaya, in Ginza has a storefront bakery specializing in baum kuchen so customers get to see the baking in action.

Of course, this being Japan, variations are bound to be produced. Mrs. Speedy kindly gave me a box of Maple Baum Kuchen...a bit of Canada in the Germany. I managed to finish the roll cake in about 4 days by taking a sector a day for breakfast. Considering its origins, it's not all that heavy.

Wednesday August 3, 9:34 p.m.

It was a pretty good night but I hadn't expected any less from 001 and Kirk. 001 did get her tickets for the very last Arashi concert for their 2011 tour...January 15 in Fukuoka. And Kirk and I had a good talk on the current political situation and the concept of retirement.

And in a not-unexpected about-face by the juku boss, I received an e-mail saying that she would continue as my guarantor until the end of my time here and admitting that her "mood" has been somewhat "dented" by the events of the last several months. OooooK....I'll just reply to her tomorrow.
Wednesday August 3, 5:43 p.m.

We've been getting the gerira gou...sudden downpours...over the past few days. It's still not in heat wave mode yet but the humidity is certainly back to sweat me out. I did watch the weather report last night and the meterologist mentioned that after a record-breaking first half of July in which temps soared even higher than tempers in Congress, the last half saw temps plummet to below was certainly comfy for me. I'm just wondering if August will see record-breaking levels of precipitation like South Korea has been getting.
Today, I saw The Godfather for his weekly lesson in which he landed a bit of a bombshell on me. Apparently, he and his fledgling company fell prey to a con artist. For the past number of lessons, he had been telling me about one of his partners who was allegedly able to speak 4 or 5 languages, and had a PhD in Marketing from UCLA Berkeley. And the swindler had shown some good work and had a pretty winning personality....made some oyaji jokes, too. Too good to be true? Yep, it sure was. For some reason, the con guy was able to access a lot of the company's funds and then absconded with them over the weekend.
Considering the situation, The Godfather seemed to take it pretty well. He was chuckling ruefully throughout the hour at his horrible luck although I think he looked like he was about to shed a tear or two early in the lesson. And in this country, smiling can be done through all sorts of emotions. The "Sukiyaki" song kinda came to me during this time since the original lyrics talk of smiling through one's tears. I was wondering throughout how my newest student and even his senpai, a Professor Emeritus from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, could fall for this scum. Well, it sounded like the con artist was quite a pro in his strategy and The Godfather didn't go far enough into the background check. He did say that he had found some odd things about him such as no photo in the UCLA grad rolls for this fellow and the fact that that he had always written his name in katakana, not kanji. But apparently the con artist skillfully evaded the questions. And I think there was that "can't happen to me" mind set of denial. But the fact is that fraud happens all the time in Japan. At this point, The Godfather will be meeting up with his professor and his other partner to try to recover from this embarrassment.
In any case, as it happens from time to time, I switched my cap from one of teacher to that of counselor. I really should be setting up a chaise lounge somewhere.
Well, in any case, I've got 001 for the first time in 3 weeks in just a few minutes.

Wednesday August 3, 5:35 p.m.

I have to take this time to kinda give my condolences to my family back home. The family cat passed away over the weekend.

My mother called me up as she usually does at the beginning of the month, and after telling me about her successful cruise in the Meditteranean she informed me of the cat heading up to Cat Heaven. She got somewhat emotional about it on the phone but I am really more worried about my father who seemed to be closer to the puss than anyone else in the family. Since I only got home once a year, the cat labeled me a rival and had always looked at me with a mix of suspicion and wonder (at how big a human can get without achieving critical mass). So I didn't really react too emotionally at the news. Plus, I knew that his time was nigh at the age of 16 years. My brother sent me e-mail about it to confirm. I did tell The Beehive about the cat since I've mentioned him over the years to my veteran class; Mrs. Travel informed me about Pet Loss Syndrome. I think my parents are probably going through that right now. I'm wondering about whether another cat should be introduced into the home but I'm of two minds on that one right now.

Anyways, I salute the cat!

Wednesday August 3, 5:24 p.m.

Back on Monday, CNN and the rest of the world media managed to make this entire American debt ceiling crisis look like a season finale of "24". Perhaps I can understand why Wolf and the gang, though, would label a lot of the shenanigans in Congress as kabuki theatre: slowness, long faces and meaningful gestures.

However, the final passage of the bill and all of the emotional sturm und drang that surrounded it reminds me of a Japanese commercial that had been playing for years here. See that picture to the left? That's a bag of kale powder...stuff that's used to make ao jiru...literally "green liquid". It's one of the most noxious things I've ever come across but it is good for you. I sometimes mix it with milk but I make sure I add some heaping teaspoons of honey before I imbibe the stuff. Anyways, there was a commercial for it in which a crusty old actor (I guess the Japanese equivalent of Wilfrid Brimley) drinks a glass of kale and water, puckers his face as if he'd ingested whole slices of lemon and sputters at the camera "MAZUI....MOU IPPAI!" Translation? "Ach, that's crap!....gimme another!" The House of Representatives from both ends of the spectrum treated the finished bill as if it were the plague and yet they passed it through like a really bloody stool (erk...sorry for the analogy).

In any case, the Senate passed it, President Obama signed it, and now this true-life summer blockbuster has finished...until the sequel in several months' time.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Monday August 1, 8:22 p.m.
It was nice, especially after having to deal with that e-mail response from the juku boss, to have another pleasant hour with Miss Genki. We managed to get through a few centimetres of text before we both lapsed into the topic of 80s music videos. As soon as we entered that rich world of our generation, I knew that it was game over for the rest of the hour. So, names like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Starship were sprinkled liberally throughout our conversation. But I can say proudly that my student fulfilled her duties and spoke virtually all in English. Now, when I hit home, I'll probably throw in one of my 80s compilation discs.
In terms of weather, it's been unusually nice in that the past couple of weeks haven't really been all that hot. Certainly the past couple of days have skirted on the upper edge of coolness. At this rate, TEPCO won't have to worry about the overusage of air conditioners. And I'm not complaining, either. There is another typhoon but it looks like it's heading northwestward although Okinawa is still in the target zone.
Got word from The Godfather. It looks like he may become a floater in terms of scheduling. He's asked for Wednesday morning this week for his regular session.

Monday August 1, 6:24 p.m.

To the left is the representative dish of the summer...broiled eel (unagi) on rice. Now, depending on the size and the container that it's in, it can be called either una-don (which is the one pictured in the supermarket plastic box) or unaju which is usually served in a fancy lacquer box and costs quite a bit more.

Forgive me for being the hypocrite here, but I'm not a big fan on how the dish gets made (live eel gets impaled through the head and slit open with a super sharp knife) but I can't deny the results...eel slices slathered in that sweet-savory sauce and grilled until the outside gets that smoky, crispy taste and then deposited on a bed of warm white rice.

Unagi can be served any time during the year but there is that day, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi, in which it's open season in all of the eel restaurants. Supposedly on that day, folks all over Japan got their fill of eel to restore their stamina, although that can easily be done by downing a can of cola. However, as anyone can tell you, nothing beats that combination of protein and carbohydrates when the aroma is wafted outside of the restaurant. This year, though, it seems that there are two such days...tomorrow being the second one. However, I decided to avoid the lineups and got this store-bought one for 580 yen. Perhaps it doesn't quite match up to the unaju made fresh in the eel eateries but heck it was satisfying enough for me. If there is one thing I'll definitely miss when I leave Japan, it'll be this dish.
Monday August 1, 5:59 p.m.

Feeling a bit melancholy right now since I got a reply from the juku boss concerning her wish to terminate her guarantorship of my apartment. I tried to be as even in tone as possible when telling her that I couldn't get anywhere with my application form since I had felt a little hurt that she wanted me to cut ties. The reply was civil but I did pick up that feeling of a debate rebuttal. And she suddenly decided to point out that if she had to end up picking up the pieces financially of any remaining rent (not that I would ever let it get that bad), she would be blacklisted by the banks since she could not pay for me due to her limited income once her divorce is finalized. I don't deny that fact but I think her timing in saying that is suspect...I think it's just a bit of a dig at me for inconveniencing her. Still, I wasn't interested in further straining our friendship by pointing this out so I stayed mum. In any case, it looks like my former juku boss may be letting her request drop which will be of some relief to me.

Also, the bit of the blue is due to the fact that I told The Jyuppies about my permanent departure from these shores in December. They took it with some shock and sadness which I felt badly about, but better to do it now rather than in the Fall. Mr. Jyuppie asked me about the possibility of setting up a Skype link between us once I got settled back home. I think that might be a pretty good idea, actually.

There are still some other key folks that I have yet to inform, namely Speedy, The Sisters of State and The Movie Gang.