October 13, 1998
Hi all. I'll start with one of my favorite bits of absolutely useless trivia. Astound your colleagues! Annoy your friends! Be the life of every coffee shop conversation!
The combination "ough" can be pronounced in nine
different ways. The following sentence contains them all: "A rough-coated,
dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough;
after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed."
(author's note: "slough" has two possible pronunciations; in this context, it is pronounced "slou." In the sentence-fragment "to slough off skin" it is pronounced "sluff." Now try to teach this damn language to a thousand Japanese middle schoolers.)
I went to Tokyo this past weekend with Jeff. (You may remember Jeff from such updates as "Iranian rocket scientists and organized crime.") It was a combination sight-seeing and Tokyo nightlife trip.
Tokyo's subway system is quite possibly the world's most confusing. I mean, there are about eight or ten different lines, and they all run in different directions, and in fact change direction rather frequently. It seems like they were all built independently of one another. For instance, we were in a station that I was sure was right, yet we could not find the correct train. It turns out we had to get out of the station, cross the street, and go to another station one hundred yards away. There were, of course, no signs in English. Which brings up a good point -- in most cases, there are signs in English, which still does little to alleviate the confusion. After a weekend of non-stop training, however, we got the hang of it.
Speaking of training, there is an interesting misuse of English that the train system uses. I have as yet been unable to figure it out. Plastered all over the Japan Railways (JR) train stations, there are signs looking like this:
There is very little else on these signs, in English or Japanese, and I haven't met anyone who can explain them. I mean, I assume itís some kind of advertisement, but what sort of advertisement, and who is it targeting? Itís in English (sort of), so Japanese people can't understand it, yet it isn't really English, so we can't understand it either.
In any event, one of the missions on this weekend was to find shoes. Both Jeff and I wear a size 12, and so far we have yet to find a single pair of shoes that big in all of Gunma prefecture. So, with the help of Nancy and Hiro (the friends with whom we were staying), we located a place called "Big Shoes Collection Ten." This wasn't even close to the best shop name we saw -- that was a tie between "Nudy Boy" and "Store My Duck." I am not making this up. Anyway, miracle of miracles, we both found shoes. They weren't even that expensive. Now we need to find a restaurant called "Big Meals Collection 10" so that we might actually be full after a meal.
Ahhh, but speaking of being full after a meal (check out the schwerve on that segue), we found a Subway in Tokyo. Not the train, the fast food establishment. In fact, we scheduled one whole day around lunch at this Subway. Ohh, baby, did it hit home. Even more so for Jeff than for me, because the very first Subway ever is in his hometown in Connecticut. Suffice it to say that we both savored lunch. This may seem like a small thing to those of you who pass 14 Subways on your way to work everyday, but itís strange what you miss. For the briefest of moments, with the familiar bright yellow walls and tables and that familiar taste and smell, I could swear I was in the Subway on Lincolnway Avenue, right down the street from where the South Bend Harley-Davidson dealer used to be. Excuse me while I wipe away the solitary tear.
Ahh, now to the real interesting stuff -- Tokyo's nightlife. The hippest place for young people on a Friday and Saturday night is an area called Roppongi. It is basically several streets and intersections lined with enough neon to make Times Square jealous, and enough dance clubs and strip bars and other attractions to satisfy anyone. Jeff and I visited Birdland, a live Jazz restaurant/bar where the musicians are Japanese. We caught about an hour of some very smooth jazz, and we were almost too mellow to go clubbing. But, I mean, you know me, Mr. Party-til-you-drop. So, we went to a club called Maniac Love, whose name I got from a guidebook I bought in Indiana. Note to self: don't trust guidebooks about Japan purchased in Indiana. It turned out to be a tiny, out of the way, all-Japanese place. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, but we were sort of hoping to, you know, talk to people (read: girls). Neither of us speaks anywhere near the level of Japanese needed to hold an actual conversation.
But it was an interesting cultural experience. It was a very, very dark club, with the only light coming from a dimly-lit disco ball. It had an impressive sound system, though, and when the bass kicked in you were pretty much inside the music. That's the only way I can describe it; you were the music. At one end of the dance floor was the DJ, and all the Japanese 20somethings were facing him, in nearly straight lines, all dancing the same way. It was odd. I mean, they didn't face each other, or in any other way acknowledge each others' presences. For me, the fun part about dancing is connecting with the other people on the dance floor, if only to mock them. We stayed for only about 45 minutes; in truth we were a little bored. There was no break in the non-stop industrial techno hammerblows, just as there was no break in the formation of the dancers. We considered going up and standing in front of the DJ, facing the crowd, and trying to lead them in a different dance, but we didn't have the nerve.
Finally, an addition to the "poor uses of English" section. We went to the most popular Temple in Japan, where for 100 yen (about 70-80 cents right now) you can buy a fortune. The way this works is, you put 100 yen into a slot, pick up this nearly closed tin containing wooden sticks, and shake it until one of the sticks comes out. On each stick is a number, corresponding to a small drawer. You open that drawer and take out a slip of paper containing your fortune. Of course, this would never work in the states because a) nobody is watching to make sure you pay, b) you can open any damn drawer you want, really, and c) nothing is locked down, so all the pieces would soon disappear. Am I being hard on Americans?
Anyway, I am an honest person (no snickering), so I paid my 100 yen, shook the tin, and got the stick. Of course, the number wasn't in Arabic numerals. While most places in Japan now use the numbers we are familiar with, there is also a second set of numbers that is used here. So, with a little help from a friendly bilingual person, we found our drawers and got our fortunes. Luckily, they were in four languages. Unfortunately, none was quite English. This is my fortune:
No. 78 THE HIGHEST, EXCELLENT FORTUNE
You should keep a public and right way without selfishness adapting all correct means. Never mind misunderstand and blame of others if you have done your best to them even if result doesn't come out well.
Just like the pine tree and camellia are always green,
never change your mind keeping true sincerity. Then you can get abundant
fortune and happiness and coming future.
* Your request will be granted. *The patient will soon get well. *The lost, article will be found. *The person you wait for will come. *Building a new house and removal are both well. *It is good to start a trip. *Marriage of any kind and new employment are all well.
Try fitting that inside a cookie. Then, because I am a glutton for punishment, I did it again. This time, it didn't turn out so well. The funniest part is the asterisk section -- compare the two closely.
No. 79 REGULAR FORTUNE
The moon in morning twilight still keeps on shining, it means an old man holds young energy too strong in spite of his age.
Talk with tongue entangled by your getting drunk, but
gives no unpleasant impression to others. There may be a little trouble
in your family, but when you believe in God and ask for happiness, you
can get calm down like to be in mid spring fine day.
*Your request will be granted, but don't hope so excessively. *The patient will get well but takes a little time. *The lost article appear later. *The person you wait for will come late. *Building a new house and removal are both well. *It is good to start a trip. *Marriage of any kind and new employment are both well.
My favorite difference between the HIGHEST, EXCELLENT
and the REGULAR fortune is "the person you wait for will come late."
Now, don't think that I am being all uppity and making fun of their English.
I mean, I certainly find it amusing, but I also appreciate the effort they
went to to translate all of the fortunes into English. I certainly
don't speak nearly enough Japanese to have earned even a partial License
to Mock. Actually, in Tokyo there is English practically everywhere,
so it is fairly easy to find your way around. In Kiryu, it isn't
quite like that, which I think is good. I talked to someone living
in a big city (possibly Osaka) who called it "Japan Lite," since he never
has to speak Japanese and there is so much imported Western culture.
Sure, there is a movie theater and a McDonald's in Kiryu, but I am glad
I am in a place that is Japan, not just the Japan that tourists see.