Happy New Year, 2008

Over the years, several of my relatives, friends and acquaintances have commented (sometimes kindly, sometimes less so) that I act younger than my chronological age. There has been some argument as to whether that springs from joie de vivre or simple immaturity; in the absence of any conclusive evidence, I prefer to go with the former. Two things are for sure: first, a sense of humor is key, and for better or worse, I can find humor in just about anything short of mass murder;  second, I can  be easily (maybe too easily) entertained by the most mundane things: street signs, t-shirts, refrigerators, car names, and the like. So, two years ago, I sent a New Year’s email to all and sundry, going on at some length about the wacky wonderfulness of Japan and its denizens. Here, at the urging of several friends, I have reprinted it in its entirety, complete with pics:

Hi everybody, and Happy New Year! One of my resolutions for 2008 (along with the perennially ignored weight loss rezzie) is to keep in better touch with friends and relatives, so to that end, I offer you my first missive of the year from the Mysterious East. 

It is lunchtime here, a bit before noon on January 1st; the illuminated ball has yet to drop at Times Square, but Yahoo News assures me that it is imminent. Apparently the new LEDs consume a buttload less energy than the previous incandescent bulbs; the electricity required is about the same as what it takes to power ten toasters. Some sixteen million hues are available from the 9000+ LEDs. Color me impressed! 

I have become something of a technology junkie since arriving in Japan, where a myriad of interesting toys exist for the consumer with a chunk of spare change. Last year, during the long-overdue remodel of my kitchen in Canada, I got what I thought was a high-tech refrigerator, a model made by Korean manufacturer LG. It has that “Euro” look, with the curved doors and reconfigurable layout; aesthetically, it is eons beyond the old Maytag it replaced. I was feeling pretty pleased about it until I saw the latest iterations of Japanese refrigerators, which up the ante considerably from anything available stateside. The name brands are all ones you would recognize, although not ones we typically associate with fridges: Hitachi, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Sharp. One that I quite like, priced at around $1000, has six doors, including one that slides out like a vertically oriented drawer, and which is accessible from both sides, for storage of bottled drinks. Each of the compartments is separately configurable both for temperature and shelving, so if you need more freezer space this week while gearing up for the holidays, no problem, just dial the temperature down; afterwards, you can easily convert the compartment to refrigeration use once again. Best of all, the finish, which replicates stainless steel, is remarkably resistant to fingerprints, an attribute that true “stainless” steel cannot claim.

Another high point of Japanese technology is the lowly commode. In the US, whether you are in a cheesy public restroom, or in the bath suite of a multi-million dollar McMansion, the toilets are basically the same. Sure, there are price differences between the Home Depot cheapie and the designer label offerings, but virtually all American toilets include a) one tank, b) one bowl, c) one seat with cover, and d) one flushing mechanism, and precious little else. Not so in Japan. The charmingly named Toto offers all of the above, plus e) soft touch heated seat, f) automatic up and down of the seat and cover when it senses your approach, g) a pair of heated water jets for rinsing your private bits when you are finished, h) a vacuum-like affair that purportedly deals with untoward aromas, although I have not personally verified that, i) a computer-generated “gently burbling brook” sound that plays the entire time you are seated (I am not sure if this is to help set the mood, or to mask the sound), j) a pair of comfy armrests (and on upscale models, footrests as well), and to top it all off, a built-in sink at the top of the tank so you can rinse your hands with the water that refills the tank after flushing. Just don’t go in with a thick book; you could be gone for hours.

Photography is something of an obsession here, and I have fallen victim to its charms. My camera is very tiny, a Canon ELPH about half the size of a standard IPOD, but it takes passably good pictures. That said, I get serious lens envy every time I visit a park or a shrine, where absolutely everyone has a top-flight Canon or Nikon digital SLR with enough lenses, filters and ancillaries to bring out the inner Ansel Adams of a generation of modern Japanese. I make harumphing noises about the content being the most important part of photography, and how a simple Kodak Brownie camera is all that is needed for good pictures, but the sad fact is that I am hopelessly outgunned by any Japanese photographer over the age of five, and likely by several under that age. 

On the plus side, I amuse myself hugely by taking pictures of things that are largely invisible to Japanese photographers, namely, the unintentionally hilarious signs, product labels, t-shirts, etc., featuring hopelessly mangled English. At a park in Kyoto, for instance, a sign instructed me to “Be Careful of the Bee”. I guess it was not bee season, as I neither saw nor heard any evidence of said bee, but I can only imagine that he (or she) is truly fearsome, if someone felt it necessary to erect a sign about it. Another one I quite liked hung from a museum doorway: “KEEP OFF The Concerned Person Only”. I paid no attention, as I was not on the concerned person, as far as I could tell. In the hallway of my hotel was a map delineating the escape route, with the helpful advice: “Take the low posture with muffled breathing”. Probably my favorite, although such a choice is extremely difficult, is a t-shirt with some pointed commentary about romance novels. On the front it said: “GOTHIC A Little Bit And Avoided The Romance Books”. On the back, well, you will have to have a look at the attached picture, which is worth the proverbial 10-cubed words.

Another minor, but exceptionally cute, Japanese butchery of the English language comes from the misunderstanding of the use of the present participle, a perfectly easy mistake to make, but most humorous in its consequences. Typically, if you are doing something now, you would say, for instance, “I am walking to the store”, or “I am watching tv”. So far, so good. Under no circumstances would you say “I am walked to the store” or “I am watched tv”, right? So, when my friend Sayaka took her first eagerly anticipated ride in a convertible car, she gushed, quite reasonably, “I am so exciting!” Now, most folks who meet Sayaka would agree that she is fairly exciting, I imagine, but still, it doesn’t do to toot your own horn too loudly. The converse of this, of course, is that depressing state of mind in which nothing appears interesting, when you just cannot seem to get motivated, when you want to heave a sigh and say, “I am so boring”. Perhaps the best variation on that theme was the occasion when my friend Saki commented on my cheesecloth memory: “Bruce, you are so forgettable”. 

A few random notes that didn’t fit anywhere else:

1) Until recently, my favorite Japanese car name was the Mazda Bongo Frendee, which narrowly edged out the Honda Life Dunk and the Toyota Ractis. Now, however, the ante has been upped: I just came across a delivery truck called the Mitsubishi Guts. How will I ever beat that?

2) The Japanese name for guys who perform the dreaded combover to cover their bald spot is “bar code man”. Think about it.

3) Auld Lang Syne, sung the world around at this time of year, can be heard daily in Japan; it is the music played to let customers know that stores are closing. It is titled “Hokaru no Hikari”, which translates roughly to “Glow of a Firefly”. The lyrics tell of a student facing hardships in his studies, reading by the light of fireflies when no other light is available. I got to thinking about the song, whose English words usually escape me after “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…”, and looked up the lyrics on Wikipedia. There I found the Garrison Keillor addendum, which should be permanently appended to the lyric sheet:

“I think of all the great, high hearts I had when I was young / And now who are these sad old farts I find myself among”. 

Benediction: May the peaceful spirit and kind intentions of the season be with you, and may you find surprise and delight in the offerings of the new year.

 All the best,   BT

ADDENDUM: I found this place recently, and I don’t even want to guess what goes on in there…

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