Sunday, September 26, 2010

Japanese Athleticism

It's easy for an average-sized American guy to start feeling cocky when they arrive here. I was just shy of 6" and weighed a fit 180 when I came here (about average for Colorado, I guess [unfortunately a fair bit bigger than that now...]), the average Japanese guy is about 3-4 inches shorter than that, and lean. I'm talking 5'8" and maybe 135 lbs. Whereas most of the guys I worked with when I was a fitness manager were wearing 44-48 inch jackets and were probably 8 inches deep, many of the guys here would be lucky to fit a 38 and are only 4-5 inches from back to breastbone. Makes you feel like a giant, it does.

Until you look at general levels of fitness, that is.

Every school in Japan has a Sports' Day festival; it's very similar to Field Day at my elementary school, with lots of running and other strength events, but parents and grandparents all come to watch. There are relay races, sprints, cheering contests, dances; every student participates to the best of their ability, and their parents all come to cheer them on. And having 4 kids who go to 4 different schools, I have gone to 4 Sports' Days this month - talk about a scheduling nightmare!.

Last Saturday was my youngest son's Sports' Day, which started at 9 am, with all kids listening to a short speech, then doing calisthenics together to warm up. Then 5th and 6th graders ran 100m dashes, followed by a group dance by the 1st and 2nd graders. Then the 3rd and 4th graders ran, with the 5th graders then helping the kindergarten and preschools kids do their activity. Now the 1st and 2nd graders ran, the 3rd and 4th graders did their dance, and the PTA had a tug of war. Last were gymnastics and human pyramids by the 5th and 6th grades.

After lunch came all the relay races, tug of war for the middle grades, and 4-person chicken fights for the older ones. They actually look like chariots, with three kids in a triangle formation carrying the fourth, who tries to pull the hat off their enemy, or knock them off their chariot, which can be pretty brutal, even with teachers trying to catch them as they fall (sorry, I just can't figure out where to split that sentence - some teacher, huh!).

But the general fitness level really struck me when I watched my second daughter's JHS Sports Day. The boys were making assorted pyramids, starting with three-person stacks, and culminating in an insurance company-nightmare 7-level human pyramid. And at her school, not one boy was fat. Not one! Usually there are one or two boys or girls who are large or even really big. But not one boy at her school is (I am, of course, immensely jealous...). Most of them play sports in after-school clubs, much like US high schools, but they don't have seasons - club is a year-round activity, and you specialize in one sport, then play it 3-4 hours/day, every day, including most Sundays and holidays. I think my daughter has maybe 15 days off this year.

So don't get cocky if you find that the average Japanese guy is smaller than you and doesn't have the macho guns and pecs straining his t-shirt, which probably just hangs off him. The little sh-- probably is much fitter than you are, and if they are/were in the judo club at school, might just kick your heinie.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Anyone got a quarter?

You know how they call Japan the “land of the rising sun”? I think they should call it “land of the omnipresent vending machine”.

I come from Colorado, also known as “land of the broken into, vandalized or carted-off-whole vending machine”. Several of my frat brothers got put on probation for bringing home several one blurry night. So I was truly amazed when I got here and saw vending machines on any corner, in front of so many shops, and even sometimes along a deserted stretch of highway.

There are the usual soft drink vending machines. Not so usual, I guess, they sell hot and cold coffee and tea. There are also beer machines (yeah!), machines which sell Japanese sake (rice wine), even ones which sell fifths of scotch whiskey, There are the ever-present cigarette machines, which now require special ID. I think it’s funny that the alcohol and cigarette-dispensing machines all turn off at 11pm, to keep minors from buying. Hell, the minors stop by on their way home from school, still in school uniform and are usually passed out by 11.

There are machines where you can buy 1-, 2- or 5-kg bags of rice (ker-THUNK!). Where you can get freshly microwaved burgers, french fries, cup noodles (peel off the top, put it back in, hit the hot water button), even Japanese fried yakisoba noodles. You can get ice cream by the cup or the cone, even Haagen Dazs. There’s a farmers’ coop near here where you can get cartons of eggs, fresh cabbage, carrots, onions, all at the push of a button. Some sell batteries, others sell razors. I even saw one near a ski area that sold dry socks.

And last but not least, there are the porno machines… The first time I saw one, I just had to walk back and take another look - for purely investigative reasons, of course! Along a lonely stretch of highway, near an area of factories, you’ll see one or more vending machines, all facing away from the road. They usually have a privacy fence around them, as well as security appliques on the glass which prevent anyone from seeing inside except from directly in front of the machine. Here you’ll find hard-core mags, videos, sex toys, even underwear guaranteed to have been worn by a porn queen. Ewww! Hope it wasn’t Flatulent Filly...

Yet not a candy and potato chip-filled monstrosity to be seen.

Japanese Manners, pt 2

So, I went to my son's junior high school last weekend, and had to do the whole slipper (or)deal which I talked about in my previous post: put on way-too-small plastic slippers at the door, switch to wooden clogs in the bathrooms while trying not to miss and plant my foot in the...

Here are some more manners for you to ponder -


Never, ever leave your chopsticks stuck in your food - rice, actually, but it's better to just avoid doing it with any food. Look at any Hollywood movie where Americans are eating Chinese out of the little boxes. The main character will shove their chopsticks point down into their box as they stand up to a) get important evidence, b) yell at the their love, c) answer that plot-defining phone call. But in Japan, leaving your chopsticks stuck into rice is a death omen! At a Japanese funeral, chopsticks are very often placed into a bowl of rice as an offering at the altar. So, basically, you just told your host to FOAD.

Passing food one person to another, chopsticks to chopsticks is another huge no-no. At the cremation ceremony, remaining pieces of bone are picked up using long, steel chopsticks and are often passed between several relatives before being put into the urn.

If you are eating with several common dishes in the center of the table, serve yourself by turning your chopsticks around and using the clean backs to take from the common plates, then turn them back around to eat. It's easy to remember: the pointy end goes in your mouth, the wide ends into serving plates. This keeps your cooties out of other people's food.


When eating a meal at someone's home, you should wait until the father begins eating, or until they ask you to eat, then say "Itadakimasu!" (I begin!) and dig in (some of my fellow gaijin said, "Eat the dog we must!" as a memory aid..). In a restaurant, go ahead and begin eating when your food arrives. Foods are brought as soon as they are ready, not held under warming lights in the kitchen until everything's ready as in American restaurants, so you should eat while it's hot. Then, when you have finished, you should say "Gochisoh-sama!" (Great vittles, ma'am! - also known as "My, that was a truly satisfying repast" in a Hugh Grant voice). And never wait for the lady of the house when eating - she usually will serve during the meal, and eat her own after everyone else has finished.

Oh, and learning how to use chopsticks before you come, if you don't know how already, will earn you so many "My, you use chopsticks so well!" comments that you'll be amazed. Or irritated. What-evah!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Japanese Manners, pt 1

I think the thing that has tripped me up, and sometimes tripped me out as well, more than any other in my life in Japan has been manners. You know, those little things your mom kept trying to drill through your thick skull as a kid. The ones you ignored or dismissed as “sissy” until you discovered the opposite sex, and saw the revulsion as you hawked a big loogie (or, ladies, scratched yourself in public..).

Now, most people know about the shoes, right? Well, just in case - when you enter a private building or home, or any of a hundred other types of place, you take your shoes off at the entrance, and put on a pair of painfully-small plastic slippers. Then you spend the next hour doing the granny shuffle, raising enough static electricity to give a poodle an afro.

But did you know that you then have to switch slippers if you want to relieve yourself? Leave the house slippers outside the bathroom threshold, step into the wooden clog-type slippers inside the bathroom, and try to keep the door from swinging shut and braining you in the bargain. Oh, and as all you ladies know, men have shitty aim, so to speak, so you really don’t want to miss the slipper…

And students wear their own shoes to school, then put on slip-on ‘inside-school shoes’, then have to don their slip-on ‘P.E. shoes’ when using the gym, but wear their outside tennies if it’s an outdoor day. So your kid has to have three pairs of shoes every day, plus you should have extra pairs of tennies because their shoes will get very wet walking to school on rainy days (which average about 1 out of every 3).

Blowing your nose is another big one. Remember mom always embarrassing you by wiping that snot off your face when you were a kid? Telling you to “use a tissue, don’t sniff”? Not here…

Blew my mind, the first time a really pretty, fashionable, sexy student did a Hoover, plain as you please. SSNNNnnnnnnnNNGH! I think my eyebrows crawled above my hairline and hid behind the scant cover of my male-pattern receding hairline. Then people looked at me like I had puked on the puppy when I blew my own nose - even now, kids laugh and cover their ears when I take out a tissue.

Of course, I could do like your average little old JapaGranny, and ‘Farmer John’ it. You know, place your index finger to pinch the right nostril closed, then lean forward and play the trumpet - Fortissimo!

Switch sides, repeat.