Tuesday, October 30, 2007


To those who think I've been rather rude in not responding to my comments recently, I can only put forth my own technical ineptitude. For some reason or another, I can't seem to post a comment on my own blog! Not sure why. The gods have it in for me? Nah. The gods have other stuff on their mind, me thinks...

In any event, your comments are appreciated! (Just not, you know, answerable. At the moment...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


If you're ever looking for a 'ten minute haircut', I know just the place.

I've noticed these little venues a few times at various places in and around Tokyo. Little barber shops, essentially, usually embedded in the heart of a train station. The other day I was bopping back from picking up a couple of used books, and I was rushing through Ikebukoro Station -- me and ten, fifteen thousand other people -- and I saw one. One of the 'ten minute haircut' places. And me, not being particularly concerned about the latest style, the newest trend, the most current and happening hair-related fashions, figured 'fuck it'. Why not give it a shot.

What you do is, once you've wandered inside, and the automatic doors have done their opening-and-closing routine, you buy a ticket. That's right, a ticket. You put your thousand yen into the machine (roughly ten bucks), and out pops a ticket, and down you sit, and you wait.

There were two stylists, one male, one female, both in their twenties. They were hard at work on people's heads. Their motions seemed to be synchronized, these two. They finished at the same time. Took out a small mirror to show the customer the back of the head at the same time. Almost even bowed at the same time.

And then they both took out a vacuum hose and vacuumed their client's head.

Is this normal?

Is this usually done?

Do other salons, classy salons, non-ten-minute salons in other countries vacuum people's heads? I'm just wondering.

And I don't mean that it was an elegant, expensive hair dryer that had a suction cup nestled delicately on the tip; I mean it was a vacuum hose, and they vacuumed the person's head.

Soon it was my turn.

My bag was on the floor, by my chair, but the stylist motioned me to put it into the cabinet in front of the barber chair. Of course. There was a space provided. I took off my classes and placed them in a plastic case. Of course. There was a case provided. I told her how I wanted my head to look. She politely nodded and got to work.

Ten minutes later, precisely, I was done.

She took out another vacuum hose, different than the one that had moments before suffocated (but not unpleasantly) my head, and all of my hacked-away brown hair, which lay haphazardly decorating the white pristine floor, was suddenly sucked away into a whole in the side of the wall.

And that was that.

Sides clipped. Back snipped. Front closely trimmed.

And my whole head, of course, vacuumed.

In ten minutes.

How does it look?

Well, not much different actually.

By the end of the cut I was thinking: Ten minutes doesn't quite cut it. (So to speak.) I wanted it a little shorter at the back, a little closer cut on top.

But hey.

My ten minutes were up.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


A bomb blast that killed eight people and wounded seventy others in the Philippines yesterday occurred at the Glorieta shopping center in the business district of Makati, right in the heart of Manila, and I soon learned that this was the same mall at which I bought a copy of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger biography a little over a year ago, and once again the world has become smaller, and closer, and tactile.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Last week I mentioned to a group of students that I was a big fan of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer recently rumored to be up for the Nobel Prize in Literature (and ultimately won by Doris Lessing), and one young girl of twenty sitting in class said: "Oh, he's my neighbour! He lives in the town one over from me! He's good friends with the parents of my best friend, and she remembers him disciplining her as a child."

(What I sometimes love about living abroad, and its casual sense of displacement: I can mention, offhand, one of my favorite writers in class, and a student, offhand, will tell me that he's her neighbour.)

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is probably the most popular modern Japanese writer in the western world, if only because there are very few modern Japanese novels translated in the first place, and even though his latest book was just released here in Japan, I doubt it will be translated into English.

Why is that?

Because it doesn't fit into the perception of who he is as a writer in England and America and Canada and Australia.

The typical Haruki Murakami novel is an odd, rambling, metaphysical and philosophical exploration into the ordinary lives of ordinary Japanese people living humdrum lives, who nevertheless somehow find themselves on mysterious symbolic journeys into the underworld of our collective unconscious. (Rendered ably into clear and smooth English by translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum.) He's like David Lynch, but without the morbidity. He's Paul Auster crossed with Raymond Chandler mixed with Raymond Carver and a dash of John Irving and a smidgen of Garcia Marquez. (In his spare time, Murakami himself has translated all of these authors into English, as well as one of his personal favorite writers, F.Scott Fitzgerald.)

But his new book, written in his native Japanese, fits nicely into none of the categories that he's known for in the English-reading world.

It's nonfiction, to start with, and the title could be translated as: The Things I Talk About While Running. (Well, that's my St.Catharines-raised-so-cut-me-some-slack translated version of it; if translated directly from the Japanese, it might read something like: Regarding Running, While Talking, These Are The Things I Talk About. Hey, it sounds okay in Japanese...)

Is it another one of his patented dark and strange and otherwordly journeys into the unordinary minds of ordinary Japanese urbanites?

Um, not quite.

Best as I can figure out from a quick flip-through and rapid perusal, it looks to be a chronicle of exactly what the title implies: his life as a runner.

For Murakami is not only a serious novelist, he's also a serious runner; he's completed the Boston Marathon numerous times, as well as the New York one, and he's added the Hawaii Ironman Triathalon to his repertoire in recent years. He's famous for his disciplined writing and exercise routine, and the cover of the book features a photograph of the author running down the centre of a contry road, the middle yellow line splitting off into a perfectly split fork, the blue sky and green grass waiting just up ahead, beyond the frame of the photo. The book contains a series of photos of Murakami finishing various races around the world.

Serious book-aholics may ask themselves: Why, exactly, is a writer of Nobel-like qualities writing about the stuff that he thinks about and talks about while running? What's going on here? Not exactly hard-core lit, if you catch my drift.

What's going on is that Murakami has always written about his life in somewhat easygoing, easy to read Japanese prose, but none of this has been deemed palatable or marketable to western readers. (And, truth be told, he's not exactly beloved by the Japanese literary establishment either, who he's shunned and ignored repeatedly throughout the years.) I've got another little paperback sprawled across my desk that was written by him about ten years ago, all about his observations of American life as observed by him while teaching at Princeton in the early nineties. In the bookstores I've seen books by him featuring his travels around Australia and Greece. (I think.) He's written an enormous amount of material that has nothing whatsoever to with what he's known for abroad, for what his image is abroad. What his brand is abroad.

In the west, however, we want him to remain a mysterious and whimsical, brooding and fanciful Rod Serling of the modern age. We want him to fit in the box that publishers have created for him. We want to read the stories that we think fit the image of what his stories have been in the past, and the particular style that we have become accustomed to.

A book about his marathons? His love for running? What he talks about while running? That doesn't compute with what we've been given of him in English. It would be like David Lynch making a documentary about his passion for BMX racing.

One interesting trend I've noticed is that western media tends to pick and choose what they like about certain Asian artists, and they classify them, and the classification is then seen as the reality.

Japanese film director Takeshi Kitano is beloved by cineastes worldwide, but in his homeland he is better known as a former comedian who hosts silly and stupid variety shows on prime time television. Every few years he directs a movie, and it is usually strange and violent and glorious and artistic, and the western media takes notice, and the rest of Japan waits to see what goofy shit he comes up with on Saturday nights on TV.

Not that it matters much, I guess.

Maybe it's just the fact that I feel like people are missing out on stuff. (Or that I'm missing out on stuff.) On insight. On chances for reflection. I understand the economics of the situation; truth be told, there probably isn't much of a market in English for Murakami's book on his running and his various mutterings to himself while he runs. It would confuse and confound the reading public that has seen him been branded as his own, odd practitioner of a sort of eastern magic realism.

But the publishers don't give us his English reads the benefit of the doubt, me thinks; if we like a writer, we like a writer. Period. We'll read what they read, regardless of the subject. Bring it on, all of it, I say. Let us hear in English what he has to say, through the stories that have made him famous, yes, but also through his memoirs that have yet to reach the light of day in Canada and America and England and elsewhere.

In any event, were this to happen with his newest book, it wouldn't be for a good little while, so it's now my goal to make my way through his newest memoir in Japanese by the middle of December. If I can polish off five pages a day, kanji dictionary on my left side, Japanese vocabulary dictionary on my right side, I'll be happy. By the end of it, I'll probably not be able to tell you what it was all about, but my brain will be thankful for the exercise.

If I don`t make it all the way through, I'll dip back into the works of his that have already been translated into English, the stuff I'm familiar with, the style I'm familar with.

But something will be missing.

A sense, perhaps, that there's more to him, a fuller him, than the author bio on the back of the English versions of his books gives him credit for.

And therefore more to all of us, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Jamie Foxx looked confused. Befuddled. Slightly out of place. It's one thing to be promoting your latest flick, The Kingdom, on a morning talk show back in the States, but it's another thing altogether to be sitting in a TV studio somewhere in Tokyo, sandwiched between six hosts, all of them asking questions in a language you don't understand, with only an eager but harried translator to serve as a linguistic go-between.

I felt his pain.

I tune in as much as possible to Japanese TV to brush up on my listening skills -- which need a lot of brushing up on -- and so I was pleasantly surprised to see an English speaking guest on a morning 'wide show', as they're called, and even more pleased that that guest happened to be Jamie Foxx, who is probably the most overall talented entertainer to come along in the past, what, ten years? (Watch his diverse performances in Any Given Sunday and Ali and Ray and Collateral and Dreamgirls, and you'll soon realize that he is a startlingly good, probably great character actor. Catch a DVD of some of his stand-up, and you'll realize he's almost -- almost -- as good a stand-up comedian as Eddie Murphy.)

Alas, all his thespiatic skills were no help in Japan.

He did a good job of it, though. Played along. Answered the questions well, gamely, professionall, humorously. The way it worked, the multitude of Japanese hosts asked questions, and the translator tucked behind his ear translated them into English, and Foxx usually gave a long, rambling answer that made me think he had actually forgotten that the lady hovered beeside him had to eventually translate the response, and I felt bad for her, and she usually only bothered to translate about half of the answer into Japanese, the gist of it. And at the end of the interview, Foxx took a picture of himself and his hosts with a cellphone camera. (I think it was his own, camera, too.)

Much is made back in North America of the ostensible 'wackiness' of Japanese TV -- and, don't get me wrong, there is a shitload of that stuff. But the strangeness is more in the way that it resembles American or Canadian TV, just skewed.

Their talk shows feature celebrity guests numbering to five to twenty, and many times what happens is simply that a feature story is shown, and, in the corner of the screen, we watch the guests' reactions as they, in turn, watch the feature alongside us. Is this because in Japanese society it's important to know what everybody else is feeling and thinking before you can make your own judgement? I'm not sure. But last night there was a segment on a vicious ice storm that hit Montreal and Quebec and Ontario a few years back (with footage that seemed suspiciously like something stolen from a CBC drama), and the guests' screen-within-a-screen reactions were all perfectly, appropriately sympathetic, horrified, relieved. Which encouraged me to feel the same way. Which is maybe the point.

There are also an insane amount of food and travel shows, with guests cooking and tasting and oohing and ahhing. Major and minor celebrities alike also travel around various spots in Japan and the world, pointing out interesting sights, visiting northern Japan or the Middle East, southern Okinawa or the the heart of the Netherlands. The Japanese have an insatiable curiosity about everything, and more important, a desire to constantly improve, to know more, to do better, so there are a multitude of books and TV shows centred around improving one's skills, etiquette, and overall knowledge of the world.

Of course, part of the fun for me is trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on. My listening skills are getting better, but they still have a long way to go. The other night I flipped through a channel that featured a baby in the womb. Ah, maybe it's about abortion, I figured. The scene then cut to the panelists in the studio, who kept repeating a single word, an unfamiliar word, and so I popped open my dictionary and saw that it was the Japanese word for 'evolution'. (Which I have now, of course, forgotten.) So they're talking about evolution. Cool. The baby in the womb, evolution, that all make sense.

But then they brought out a pony-tailed expert in a suit, and he started pointing to various graphs, and then unleashed a photo of a man with three nipples. He pointed carefully at the third nipple, located just above the waist, while the guests oohed an ahhed.

Baby in the womb. A man's third nipple. Evolution. It all makes sense.

However, the next guest threw things for an even bigger loop. A woman in her thirties is introduced, alongside footage of her in the wrestling ring, throwing butch chicks over her shoulders with supreme agility and ease. Ah, a Japanese female wrestler. I got it. Then they cut to her giving birth in the delivery room. Okay, fine. But then they show her and her husband at the zoo, I guess, watching a giraffe, and it soon becomes apparent that this giraffe is giving birth, and so the scene cuts from actual footage of the Japanese female wrestler giving birth to her and her husband watching a giraffe give birth! (Have you ever seen a giraffe give birth? No? Don't.)

Baby in the womb. A man with three nipples. A Japanese female wrestler. The wrestler giving birth. The wrestler watching a giraffe give birth. Sentimental music all the while.

Gotta love it.

There are also programs that feature learning French, learning English, learning Korean, learning German, learning Italian, learning more about haiku, alongside the usual Sunday morning shows about politicians, and, of course, the inevitable Hollywood star whoring themselves out for a bit of extra cash.

A Softbank ad features Brad Pitt outside of, well, I don't know -- an office? a museum? -- arguing with somebody on the phone while the camera circles around him. We can see him mouth: `Baby, I love you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.` He grows steadily more exasperated before hanging up and shoving the phone into the hands of a befuddled businessman walking the other way. Hmmm.

There's also one featuring Tommy Lee Jones (!) sitting on an airplane next to Dave Spector, an American TV commentator who's lived in Japan for thirty years and speaks freakishly good Japanese. I can't quite figure this one out. Tommy Lee Jones is looking grimly out the window. (Come to think of it, does he ever look anything but grim?) Dave Spector is cheerfully saying...something. Next they're in Tokyo, while Jones drinks coffee from a can and Dave Spector and a stewardness look on happily beside him.

The moral of the story is: If you're ever bored in Japan, flick on the tube. At the very least, you'll get to see Jamie Fox or Brad Pitt in cultural, linguistic limbo. At the very most, you just might be lucy enough to see a giraffe give birth.

Which is not such a bad way to start a morning, is it?

Friday, October 05, 2007


Just a quick note to let everyone, all three of you, know that I'm alive, and well, and living in Japan, and bopping around various universities in the Tokyo area, checking on teachers, earning my keep, and the other day I happened to be at a women's university, which still exist in this country, and I was in a cafeteria with three hundred twenty-year old Japanese females, and one pasty-white Canadian male, that male being me, and I went to get a hot chocoalte from the vending machine, and I was actually feeling a little bit jaded, having been familiar with Japan since before Y2K, since most of these students were in elementary school, and I approached the vending machine, and I noticed that there was a digital key pad where I could conveniently place my order, and a lovely, digitized, smoothly synthetic version of Sonny and Cher's classic 'I Got You Babe' was pleasantly pumping out of the vending machine's speakers, and, the piece de resistance, hanging by a thread, literally, to the side of the contraption was a delicately designed, carefully crafted, covered in plastic, menu.

Let me repeat this, for it bears repeating:

The vending machine, which distributes hot drinks, had a touchpad screen. It played Sonny and Cher from its speakers. And it offered an actual, physical, tactile, honest-to-god menu for me to flip through before my purchase.

How could I have ever thought I could become cynical about Japan?