Friday, March 13, 2009

What's in a Name?

I have blogged in the past about Japanese car names like the Latte, the Naked, the Guppy and the one closest to my heart--The Prairie Joy. Before coming to Japan, I had never thought of the prairie as a joyful place. But now I know.

Here are some recently spied additions to the WTF Car Parade in Yokosuka:

The Turbo Joy Pop (Was it as good for you as it was for me? I need a cigarette...)

The Scrum (It's okay if the rugby players bleed on the carpet. Because there is no carpet.)

The Royal Saloon (This is a fancy saloon. Not just anyone can come in.)

The Sunny Super Saloon (This is the saloon for the peasant masses who like to be pleasantly medicated.)

And my new personal favorite...The Dingo. (I swear officer, before I knew what had happened, this mangy little hatchback came out of nowhere and snatched my child.)

Automobile nomenclature aside, the Japanese take driving seriously. They are generally conscientious motorists. Turn signals are de rigeur. No one blasts music from open windows. I rarely hear car horns, even in a megatropolis like Tokyo. It is extremely rude to use them unless an accident is imminent. In fact, in almost 4 years in this land, I have never seen anyone even gesture rudely. (Attention New Yorkers and Italians: offensive driving need not be a lifestyle.)

Perhaps you might consider such civilized driving unstimulating. Where's the action? Where's the human drama?

Never fear. The Japanese have zero parking for their businesses. So, just as you are being lulled into a false sense of serenity, some joker will suddenly halt and park his car in the road to run into 7-eleven for a drink/smoke/porn magazine.

Yes, IN the road. I would tell you they pull off to the side of it but that would be a lie because Japanese roads have no side (unless you count the 4 inches from the lane line to the curb). Speed limits are notoriously low here, about 50 kph (35 mph)--TOPS.

Intense frustration sets in when, finally reaching the maximum speed of a fast moving bicycle, one is forced to stop on a dime every 15 seconds. Then, of course, you also have to pay attention to the multitude of motorbikes and scooters weaving indiscriminantly through traffic. They have the right of way in all traffic situations as well as the oblivious pedestrians obsessively texting on their phones. As foreigners, every accident is our fault so we have to be super vigilant while on the roads.

I am fairly certain that if it weren't for the hilarious car names and No Porking signs, swearing and honking of horns would be way more prevalent in this culture.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Don't Believe the Hype

Bus tours are the Hamburger Helper of travel.

Hamburger Helper is deceptively convenient. Everything is already contained in the box (just add meat!) except a few essential ingredients...namely flavor and nutrition. Yet, at 5PM, in a crowded grocery store, with no discernible plan for dinner (and rapidly losing the will to live, much less cook), one's decision process can potentially become "compromised". One might just forget about the nauseating effects of dried, prepackaged food.

This phenomenon also happens when you suddenly become a single parent. Two months in to this glamorous lifestyle, travel in a box (just add YEN for souvenirs and lunch!) starts to look...well...palatable.

Thus, my neighbor and I decided to take the kids on a military bus tour to see the "legendary" snow monkeys in Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics). I had seen numerous charming pictures of these little creatures, relaxing zen-style in the mineral hot springs, little tufts of snow piling up on their furry heads. The girls were excited to see cute animals instead of those immensely BORING temples and shrines. I liked the fact that someone who was not illiterate in Japanese would be driving.

The bus left the base at 5AM and immediately got stuck in stop-and-go ski traffic outside of Tokyo.

The lovely tour guide warned us that the bus toilet could be flushed only 50 times, "so be velly calefur."

Six hours later, we arrived in Nagano where we had a half an hour to view the monkeys, after a thirty minute muddy hike in each direction.

In a dirty little canyon at the end of the trail, a billion (I counted) monkeys obsessively/compulsively foraged for seeds in the snow and hot springs. Those that weren't foraging were either fighting or engaging in hot monkey love. This unappetizing scene looked nothing like the picture on the front of the box. There were no monkeys kicking back zen style in the hot springs with little piles of snow on their heads. Plus, there was lots of poo. Everywhere.

Next we enjoyed a leisurely 25 minute lunch at a rest stop before moving on to historic Matsumoto Castle, a world heritage site. We only had an hour to tour this gorgeous wooden structure surrounded by a moat before returning to the smelly bus. The 50 flush threshhold was rapidly approaching.

The tour guide treated us to her own Japanese soprano singing on the 5 hour trip home.

Just as I felt my very last nerve snapping, we pulled into the gate at 9:30 PM.

I didn't have to scrape the whole meal down the drain, though. I took some interesting pictures and the girls had a blast playing 11 hours (!) of DS games with their friends while eating Japanese junk food. However, if in the future it even looks like I'm heading for the Hamburger Helper aisle at the travel agency, do me a favor and trip me. That might actually be helpful.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is Your Beer a Little Off?

The Japanese are incredibly hospitable. Not only will they quite literally go out of their way to help a person in need but they also package alcohol in handy, drink-on-the-fly, shot-size containers. The above photo depicts the "Adult Juice Box" size beer can for bentos or lunch boxes. (The neighboring glass is indeed a 2 ounce shot glass.)

You don't need to wonder...OF COURSE sake comes in this size, too.

Sadly, according to recent local news articles, beer no longer retains bragging rights as the Most Consumed Alcoholic Beverage in Japan. The new generation of young professionals can't afford sake or premium liquor and find beer too heavy. So they drink Shochu--a clear alcohol of dubious origins along the same esteemed lineage of the college classic, Everclear. Like its American cousin, shochu mixes with any flavor and then goes instantly stealth. (You never saw it coming until it dropped its payload, right?)

But, I am aware that slight differences do exist. For example, overconsumption of Everclear can lead to people from Norman waking up under Laundromat tables in Stillwater, Oklahoma without any recollection of being transported to such a humble locale. Shochu, on the other hand, creates a hallowed space for the high Japanese art form known as "karaoke".

(pregnant pause)

In any case, this trend to shochu worries Japanese beer manufacturers to no end. They have started to heavily market their product with all sorts of zany catch phrases. A few months ago, I blogged about an ad I saw on the train selling "Style-free Beer". (See the Sept 2008 post: )

I was still pondering the imponderable of showcasing a "style free" product when I spied a new advertisement this week selling a beer called OFF. Is it a bargain? Is it meant to repel the approach of ugly people at the bar? Could it be referring to one's garments after consumption or one's weight upon switching to it? Does it contain DEET?

Good Lord, what could it mean?

Like most cultural mysteries here in Japan, I am not sure I'll ever fully "understand". Although this can be sad, it's still comforting to know that should I be having an "off" day...Adult Juice Boxes, in a wide variety of flavors (and with itty bitty straws), are available at my local Japanese supermarket.