Thursday, October 27, 2005

Perverts at Train Stations

I lived on Shikoku (the smallest of Japan's four main islands) for three months, in a town called Niihama. For the first month the district was short-staffed, so we had to alternate covering a school in Toyo. I had to do this a couple times, the most noteworthy on my first day of teaching.

The teaching itself wasn't that rough, or so low on the scale of horror stories I have about my former job that it doesn't register after two years.

The trains on Shikoku ran about once an hour. So when I was in Toyo, I always had time to pass before the train home. On my first day I was really nervous about missing the train, so I left the school with plenty of time. (I think I had like 20-30 minutes to wait.)

I was standing out on the platform, and there was only one other person around. It was a middle-aged Japanese man. I was walking towards the end of the platform, when I heard someone muttering in Japanese behind me. Were they talking to me? Were they talking to themself?

I turned around to see the man with his hand by his pants, muttering away. After a moment of going "what is this guy's problem" and debating whether or not I should tell him I didn't speak Japanese, I realized that he was waving his penis at me.

After getting over the shock, I walked past him (very huffy) and gave him a dirty look while adding "urusai" ('noisy,' 'annoying,' sometimes translated as 'shut up.' ) Then I got on the train and when I got back to Niihama, I called my friend to tell her what had happened.

She, like many people I know, had heard the story of the foreigner being flashed at the train station, but no one knew of anyone that it had personally happened to. (It was like an urban legend.) What an honor to get to be the person who says "oh no, it really does happen."

Oh, and a couple months later, at the same train station another foreign teacher was flashed by a middle-aged man. The teacher and I compared descriptions, and we believe it was the same man. As creepy as that is, it's even creepier when you consider the second teacher who got flashed was a guy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Japanese Vending Machines

I'm sure you've all heard tales about the vending machines in Japan, how they sell everything from beer on street corners to lady's underwear. My experience with vending machines is so-so, they're a pretty common sight on the streets. Before you ask, I can't confirm or deny these mythical panty machines. I don't doubt they exist/ed somewhere in the country, but I can't personally claim to have seen one.

Vending machines are standard for drinks, snacks, and cigarettes.

Beer machines are so-so common, I've seen a number of them. Usually they're near the cigarette machines, so you can pick your poison.

Drink machines depensed cans/bottles that were often heated or cooled. They're probably the most common kind of vending machine. It was from one of these machines at the JR station in Shibukawa, Gunma that I had my first taste of Iced Cocoa (Japan's version of chocolate milk: cold cocoa.)

From what I recall, snack machines are less common. In Fukuoka (on Kyuushuu) we had a Sweet 16 Ice Cream vending machine about two blocks from our training apartments. You put in money and picked between various flavors of ice cream or sherbet. I think there may have been a M&M vending machine in Gyoda, Saitama. Or it was just a machine with M&M characters on it.

Depending on your age and location, cigarette vending machines may be an exotic idea. The last time I saw a working cigarette machine in North America was sometime in the late 80s.

Japan doesn't have the same anti-smoking campaigns that we have here in North America. Cigarettes are still very cool and you can smoke just about anywhere. Imagine the accessibility. Cigarettes in Japan are cheap like borsch—perhaps a better analogy is cheap like onigiri. They're a dime a dozen—kind of like Starbucks (or just coffee shops in general) in Vancouver. You can't throw a rock without hitting one.

As for weird vending machines, I haven't had much luck. Maybe I just wasn't in the right areas. Near the school in Gyoda there was a machine that sold flowers. Fresh arrangements and bouquets were placed in it daily.

The best weird vending machine story isn't so much about the machine's contents as the brand if of the contents. In Fukuoka, during our training we would pass by this machine on the way to the school that sold sundries.

At least one of these items was a package of condoms. The package had those figures you see on signs and bathrooms. This one was a mom, a dad and a couple kids. The brand of the condoms: Happy Family.

That's right: Happy Family Condoms.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Adventures in Akihabara

Yet another true tale of Japan!

On one of our trips to Akihabara (Tokyo's electronic, anime, and game district) my friends and got on the discussion of if life was like a video game. Anyway, the talk turned to how we did not feel challenged anymore.

Wasim—who has since returned to Japan for more challenges—issued a bit of a challenge to the powers that be to make things more difficult in his game. All in good fun.

We left the subway station and headed out to Electronics Avenue. As soon as we turned the corner, we saw one of those outdoor patio umbrellas rolling down the street in a gust of wind. It almost hit Wasim, but fortunately he dodged it in time.

Wisely, he afterwards declared that he felt sufficiently challenged and did not need anything more.

Ask and you shall receive. ^_^

Friday, October 07, 2005

A true tale of Japan

A few months ago I was thinking about an odd encounter I had in Japan, and I finally came to understand what had happened. I scared someone. Not because I was a foreigner, but because they thought I wasn't.

Allow me to explain.

One winter night, when I was living in Kumagaya, I was walking down an empty street on my way back from the classroom to my apartment. This road passed the walled in area of a shrine, the entrance to the shrine was on the corner of this road and a road that intersected it. I had walked this road many times, and it was usually empty. Very seldom—given the time of night—had I seen anyone else on this road, other than a dog that was chained up out in front of a house. (He bit me once when I stopped to see if he would let me pet him.)

My winter coat that I bought in Japan (and was wearing that night) is overcoat length (just below my knees) and white. It has a fuffly/furry collar around the hood. (We speculate it's real fur, but we're not sure what kind. I'm still trying to find out.) When I put on the hood, you can't see my face. Just this figure in a white coat.

I have this, admittedly odd, fascination with watching my breath when you can see it in the winter. It just looks cool. So I was walking along down this empty street, exhaling in long, slow breaths. Not in a rush, just watching my breath and enjoying the silence of a solitary walk home.

Someone behind me starts yelling in Japanese. I assume they're either yelling at someone else. They keep yelling. Something-"ki"-onna (onna means woman) and "bakemono" (meaning monster) and other things I couldn't make out. And I think... huh, they must think I'm a hostess or something and they don't like foreign hostesses and are rude things at me.

I don't think much more of it than, wow that was very odd, and continue on my way. Eventually they stop, but not until I've gone out of sight or turned down another street.

Years later (two to be exact,) I happen upon a book called "A Field Guide to Demons." It's a real book, and it's a collection of information on various "demons" and potentially harmful spirits from around the world. There's entries in it on both the Japanese and the Chinese version of the fox spirit. This book is where I found the translation "fox fairy" which is what the Chinese term apparently means.

One of the entries is about the yuki-onna, or the Snow Woman. She's a spirit that looks like a beautiful woman dressed in white, and she lures male travellers aside in the winter and steals their breath. I don't have the book with me, so I can't confirm if the breath is just the breath or if it includes the soul as well. I believe she's like the Woman In White that we have tales of in America.

A few months after I read the article in the book, I recall the experience I had that winter night and how "yuki-onna" does sound like what was being yelled at me. And I'm thinking it wasn't a "oh look out, silly person, doing that will attract a snow woman." No, it was more like "A snow woman! Monster! Go away!"

So I apologize to that frightened woman, just doing her job to scare off evil spirits.

So I guess I was "Japanese," briefly, for one moment. And they still just wanted me to go away. ^_~