On Sakura and Leaving

 

I sometimes feel that my ability to write and blog humorously about Japan just died. Like it’s buried beneath the sea of rubble, debris and distraction left by the March 11th Tsunami. I look for it but I can’t find it. And if I ever do, it’s going to be old and rusty. In the same way, since the breakout of the Egyptian Revolution, it has become hard to jokingly list comparisons between my country and my host country; between Egypt and Japan. Like I’m subconsciously convinced that anything I made fun of, from Metro services (or the lack thereof) to public toilets, will be better.

Just as I reached a point in which my writer’s block has become as unbeatable as certain forces of nature, spring was just around the corner. And again I was pleasantly reminded why I love Japan.

One comparison I can still make between Japan and Egypt, is the significance of the seasons in the life of the people. Before coming to Japan, never have I in my life witnessed a change of seasons. My experience with seasons was limited to he fact that I know that in summer is it as hot as your oven after cooking your Thanksgiving Turkey, I know that  in winter (which lasts for about 7 days in January) it is nice, sunny and cool, but it might rain and then the Ring Road will be jammed, in spring I have always enjoyed being hit by the dusty  Khamaseen, and in Autumn, most of the trees remained still green anyway. Seasons might change but people remain the same.

But on the other side of the world, on this small group of islands, with tree leaves changing, Japanese culture simultaneously seems to slightly change. The kinds of foods that are eaten, the festivals that occur, the special editions offered by Kit Kat (cherry blossoms instead of green tea), and even the way people behave. The entire energy in the air shifts and you can feel it in you body and in those around you.

One especially significant event that has been popular with the Japanese throughout their long history is that of hanami 花見. This is the activity of viewing flowers during full blossom, particularly the sakura 桜 (cherry blossom flowers) which is the Japanese national flower and was even used as a symbol of nationalism at one point in Japanese history. When these flowers begin to bloom the Japanese visit temples, shrines, castles, or even nearby hiking trails or parks to admire the flowers’ beauty.

The celebrations may well have been a little subdued this year, but with the cherry blossoms pretty much at their beautiful best, and the weather pleasantly warm, huge numbers of people were out and about in Osaka’s parks and public places on the weekend.

Many people have already been out and about under the cherry blossoms this week. All of whom have, as expected, been enjoying themselves in a manner befitting recent events.

But, however people celebrate hanami, one constant is the military-like precision that goes into organizing it. Not only do a time, place, and numbers need to be finalized and finely tuned, but the actual spot itself can often resemble a small, well equipped village; the likes of protective sheeting, furniture, and phenomenal amounts food and drink feasibly allowing those present to stay there for months.

Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but at the same time, I always catch myself smiling when I see a group of fellas with some cans from the convenience store just potter over. Put down some newspapers. And happily settle down for a few hours. Or when I see an old Japanese man or woman, on some sidewalk, under a sakura tree, looking up and contemplating its beauty (among other things).

Sakura trees only bloom for a week of ten days. Then the flowers start to fall and are replaced by bright green leaves, which will then, by fall, turn to yellow, brown and red, including all the shades between, then fall off leaving their tree branches white by the effect of snow. Give it sometime, and sakura will be there again.

On a personal level, contemplating and living such a phenomenon has been, to say the least, revelational. It’s a reminder that nothing lasts for long: one day you have a dictator, the next day you don’t. One day you have a city norther Japan called Sendai, the next day you don’t. One day the tree on the sidewalk is pink, the next day it’s green. One day I’m in Japan, the next  I’m on an Egypt Air plane with Cairo as the destination.

My year in Japan has been a monumentally self defining one. I read back the first articles I wrote, I flip between the first pictures I have taken, and I browse the first blogs I posted, and only one thing is clearer; how much I have learned about the bottomless hat that is Japan and the troubled mind that is myself.

I don’t have that much time left but there is still a whole lot to learn. The list of things I will miss is endless, from cheap sushi to struggling to speak in Japanese to old Japanese women smiling to getting stuck doing outrageous poses in purikura boothes with some of the best friends I have ever made.

The Sakura trees may now be falling, but there’s nothing to be concerned about, for I know I’ll be back to see them again.

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Wannabe Essayist Gone Dry

For those who have read any of whatever rambles I wrote before I come to Japan, I guess you’d agree that, mediocre as the ramblings might have been, they were less mediocre than the content of this blog. Here I’m not talking about the experiences documented on the blog, but rather the quality of the documentation.

Here’s a list of  things I think helped in impairing my composition skills:

Japan

I love it. But here’s the dilemma; just as Faust made a deal with the devil by exchanging his soul to unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, I had to make a deal with Japan and give away my English skills I have accumulated through the years in exchange of having an almost-normal life in Japan.

The level of English literacy in Japan is one of the lowest in the world.  Even though when I came here my knowledge of Japanese didn’t exceed a couple of words I caught from Kill Bill, using sign language was (and still is) a lot more useful than any attempt to use English.

Those of you who have been keeping in touch via phone calls and/or Skype have commented on how impaired my diction has become. Some have indicated that I, after *only 3* months in Japan, already sounded like a llama more than my Egyptian self. I used to laugh but now, I realize it is actually very true. Not only on a verbal level do I now suck, I find that I have a very hard time conjuring up sentences that contain any vocabulary I have learnt after middle school (ok, apart from “conjure up”)…

Reading…Not!

It’s been a really long while since I started a book and finished it. Throughout my time here, and because of how easy it is to use amazon.com and other online shopping services, I have bought more than 12 books I had been looking for to no avail in Egypt. Any attempt to read any of the books has failed miserably. I partly “blame” it on the fact that most of  those books are really heavy stuff *eyes David Foster Wallace’s complete collection on desk*, but partly because I simply haven’t been reading any long, intense, literally works since I came here.

Revolutions, Tsunamis, etc…

For someone who hasn’t written or read real stuff for + 6 months, jotting down everyday thoughts and feelings becomes a very challenging task, a task I intentionally spent hours and hours procrastinating on.

But when a Revolution breaks out, when everything changes in the blink of an eye, when those “everyday thoughts and feelings” turn into something you’ve never experienced before, procrastination is not an option anymore – and complete brain blackout becomes inevitable. Same applies to the March 11 tragedy Japan has lived and is still struggling to recover from. Things are so immensely huge. My already impaired English stands in my way as I try to write down how I am going through this and that.

Twitter

I’m kinda new at this one. I have had a Twitter account for more than two years, but didn’t start “tweeting” until #Jan25 became a Trend (ie until the Egyptian Revolution). After things got slightly back to normal in Egypt, I became a Twitter junkie yet again, following real news from real people who know Japan for real, rather than reporters parachuted by CNN telling me that the world will end in hours because of radioactive clouds. When you spend that much time thinking in the realm of 140 characters, your already shrunken composition skills shrink further into absolute nothingness…

Too  Much is Going On…

This is an email I wrote to a friend of mine, only a couple of months after I made it to the Land of Rising Fun,

When mom or dad or my friends ask me how Japan is going, I have a hard time conjuring up an answer.

It’s because too much is going on. How some people expect it is possible to break it down into bullet points on a blog or articulate it through my Japanese phone to their Nokias and Blackberries is beyond me. Cheesy as it may sound, it is still all true: you won’t know it unless you try it… Just like love?
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I have spent nights in  public parks, soup shelters, and small Japanese houses which belong to families I had never met before. I have spent days in mountains with snow monkeys, in spas with garra rufas, on islands with map-eating deers, by 4 million year old lakes with 8 people who had no knowledge of any English whatsoever, on trains so fast I wish I could have a second round (or more money). I have witnessed murder trials, prisons where you have a quasi graduation after you do your time and coming of age ceremonies of beautiful 20 year old girls.  I have met A-Bomb survivors with hidden agendas and eloquent homeless people with chihuahuas. I have a part time job, I go to school five days a week and have a workload of 15 credits.
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Then I check my email while having Japanese Soba for breakfast and find people asking me “so, how is Japan?”
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Erm… Betsallem 3aleko.
.

Writing Suff People Want

I have managed to publish a few essays about my experience in Japan throughout my year here. However, none of those essays have had the depth or the range that would impress me, or that would do Japan justice. Why? Because of all the reasons I listed above.

Also, I was particularly assigned to write about how I experienced the revolution here (erm, alone? guilty? scared shitless?) ~ three times, and to write about the Earthquake, Tsunami and near nuclear disaster in Japan more than I care to count.  With every article I felt very redundant, fake, and generally lame.

Not exactly the kind of motivation I’d be seeking.

***

Going back home will not be an easy, all-smooth process. But I will have the summer to recover, and throughout that summer I will have a chance to go to inevitable existential solo-brainstorming sessions, restoring all of the rhetoric skills I have lost over the past year.  I’m almost sure that in the few weeks following my return home I will read and write more than I did this year altogether.

Key is to keep in mind that the Japan fairy tale is over, and that if I want another one, somewhere, after my presumed graduation, those suspended manuscripts had better be complete…

The Copycats… The Giver-uppers…

It is my opinion that Japanese businesses generally suck at marketing. My favorite example is The Chococro Cafe. I like this example, a lot –

Starbucks suddenly existed; people loved it. Starbucks made lots of different kinds of coffees and treats. People enjoyed drinking/eating/inhaling them. Every once in a while, Starbucks came up with something new. I guess around this time, a lot of Japanese kids whose parents had ridden high during the Pre-Sony-Walkman-Era boom were just graduating from college. Seeing as big business was the thing putting the Japanese all over the map, most kids around then had been studying business. Almost everyone wanted to work their way up a big company. I bet they’re probably still at their desks, answering the phones, right about now, at 2 am on Sunday, waiting for that day when they won’t be answering the phones anymore…

Anyway, apparently lots of people started cafes, for some reason or another, right around the time Starbucks really took off. I wonder why. As if having four Starbuckses on one city block wasn’t enough, you now had to deal with literally four Starbuckses and then one of each of two dozen other franchise Starbucks clones.

One of these Japanese franchise cafes was called Saint Marc’s. The Saint Marc corporation was founded about a decade ago by a couple of young people who didn’t know they wanted to have a cafe. Eventually, they had a cafe.

Okay, I’m not going to glorify this. They just had a couple of cafes in Osaka. They were known for an edgier decor than your old-school Japanese cafes, or than Starbucks’s down-home feel. They seemed to have made a lot of little pastries, you know, just flinging shit at the wall. Nothing stuck. Well, eventually, they made a croissant with a little bit of chocolate in it. They called it the “Chocolate Croissant“… What a name.

I’m not really sure how this happened, but it got popular. Some women’s magazine must have written a review or a recommendation of it.

Not two years later, Saint Marc’s Cafe had changed the name of all their locations to “Chococro Cafe”. “Chococro” is a little abbreviation, like “Pokemon” is to “Pocket Monsters.” “Chococro” is short for “Chocoreeto Corowasan”.

Starbucks evolved from a small chain of cafes to a huge one by consistently introducing new products, constantly pushing the envelope. Right? So what the hell? They just immediately changed their name to reflect the name of the first product that brought them moderate success.

I guess you can call this the “Japanese resolve”. A company sees its fate and resigns itself to it. I think it sounds more like someone just giving up and settling for what they have. Now, there’s nothing wrong with limiting one’s ambitions, in theory. I’m not the kind of person to say that everybody should want to rule the world. My main beef here is that there are just too many Chococro Cafes around me all the time.

Chococro Cafe has a smoking section, separated from the non-smoking section by a maybe-four-foot-tall wall of plastic. So yeah, maybe that’s not the reason, but I’ve kind of come to hate on Chococro Cafe at every opportunity: If they’re so willing to just settle down and marry their proverbial high school sweetheart, why do they try to keep expanding?

Eventually, they’re going to find they’ve expanded too far, spread themselves too thin. What’s going to happen, then? Businesses like Chococro Cafe are nonchalantly dumping tiny little rabbit turds into the ocean-sized reservoir of the world economy.

Yesterday, after a long day of walking around Osaka, I stopped by a Chococro Cafe. I ate one of the Chocolate Croissants

It tasted like a chocolate croissant.

Time Machine.

I have been reading some of what I have written during my first months in Japan, published here or elsewhere, and it felt weirder than I thought it would. For reasons we all know, I seem to have lost the ability to humorously blog about Japan, and  also lost the ability to jokingly list comparisons between Egypt and Japan. 

Rewinding..

Ssptember 11, 2010 :  From Hirakata, With Love

"Kinki" Osaka is the name of the main bank branch here... Says it all

Japan is strange. In its own sweet way.

George Carlin once said that when you’re born, yet get a ticket to the freak show. I say that when you’re born in Egypt, you get a front row seat.

Which means?

It means that having lived in Egypt for 20 years, my perception of what’s strange and what’s not strange is completely distorted:

It is strange to get paper work done without having to bribe some people. It is strange to have people bowing to you while repeating ‘thank you’ for 4878070897 times just because you bought a bottle of water. It is strange to walk around the street with a Hello Kitty towel in your hand. It is strange to stop walking when the lights are red even though the street is empty. It is strange to see a 90 year old man, riding a bike, holding an umbrella with his right hand, texting with his cellphone with his left, avoiding pedestrians on the 90 cm sidewalk and still maintaining his balance all the way. It is strange that when the bus schedule says that arrival is on 7:34, the bus does arrive on 7:34 – not 7:33, not 7:35, but 7:34. It is strange that one kg of tomatos costs you 20 dollars, while spending a night in a karaoke club with ‘all you can drink’ can cost you just about the same.

It is strange to find porn magazines being sold in supermarkets, one shelf away from children’s coloring books.

It is strange that you’re not allowed to use your cellphone on a train or a bus, or else people will start giving you looks as dirty as Egyptian trash.

Which reminds me: It is strange that you have to clean trash before throwing it away… Or else the trash company won’t take away your stuff, thus leaving your trash bags infront of your door for the whole neighborhood to see…

It is strange that last night I walked for an hour. Bare foot. In the street. And my feet didn’t become black as hell.

Even spetic tank covers have some kind of art... Remember the ones in Egypt? Wait! We don't have septic tank covers in Egypt, so people fall and DIE!

It is strange that an old man can stop you on the street, greet you and talk to you about Egypt, Tutankhamun and the pyramids, then give you candy… and he’s not a pedophile…

My point is, everything here is the complete opposite to what I have been learning, experiencing and living for the past 20 years. But the thing is, I like it. I like it so much and I can’t imagine giving it up anytime soon.

And it would be a lie to say that I don’t miss some aspects of my sweet Egyptian life (eg. mom’s kushari, friends, arabic curses and utter randomness).

But when you live in Japan, you’re not only in the front row seat of an excellent freak show, you’re actually the freak on the stage.

And everyone knows I love freaks.

Unjapanised Japaneseness

I’ve been to a couple of football games back at home, when Egypt hosted the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations. Good times. We’d  buy a bunch of flags, each for 20 pounds (or less, depending which ناصيه), hats striped with the Egy Colors, wear red and the works. The experience was rich because, like all Egyptians know, football was the only thing that gathered our tired voices in one strong chant. Of course all that has now changed. Now the Egyptian flag has a connotation with Tahrir Square and Jan25 Revolution rather than Abu Treika.

I was invited to attend a baseball game  from the Japan Central League, in which the Hanshin Tigers (basically the “Osaka team”) would be playing against Yakult Swallows.

I don’t know baseball. I don’t know who the Hanshin Tigers are, nor do I care where the Yakult Swallows came from. My experience with baseball could be summarized in the fact that I always wanted to acquire a baseball bat to hit people I didn’t like. I never got the chance, since where I come from, no baseball bats are in sight.

But I said yes. I mean, if now I can bike with only one hand on the handle, I might as well go to a baseball game and have fun.

الباعه الجائلين..حاجه سكر

I might not have gone through the black/red/white rituals I’d go though before a football game with the Egyptian National Team, but attending that baseball game was almost revelational.

For the first time I saw Japanese people being loud, and – ever so pleasantly – acting obnoxious. The Official Hashin Tigers Store on the Stadium was packed with supporters before the game. People would bump into you, then bow and apologize, or try to race you to the baseball cap stand, then bos and apologize. Rudeness with a twist.

We got the cheapest tickets so we were sitting all the way up. I didn’t mind one bit. For one thing, I didn’t really care what was going on in the game *coughs*. For another thing, our seats granted me a perfect view of the who stadium and were actually quite close to the visiting team’s crowd, who were energy incarnate.

And so the game started. I cheered when people cheered, I clapped when they clapped. Each player of the team has his own song, which the masses repeat the moment he hold the bat. I mumbled with what I wanted to illude whoever is around me was Japanese, and I cursed whenever the Swallows scored (whatever the hell they score in baseball)

In a country where beer is king, it is hard to be in such a social atmosphere without bumping into drunk Japanese. Halfway through the game, and by the time mission intoxication was accomplished, some supporters would come over shake hands and congratulate us on the new goal (strike?). At that moment I compare the attitude of the Japanese people on, say, train rides during morning rush hours, where we’re like sardine in a can, where I can hear nothing but the train smoothly sliding on the rail lines and  the breaths of salarymen getting ready for a long workday. Put the same crowd in a baseball stadium and they are 1st rate partiers.

The Hanshin Tigers were able to stop the Yakult Swallows 11 game winning streaks, which meant only one thing: After Game Crazy Celebrations. Outside the stadium a crowd of hardcore supporters started singing, dancing, flinging stuff through the air and doing the universally same random stuff hardcore supporters do after winning a game.

Because yours truly stands out in the middle of Japanese crowds, people would come over and congratulate me (I guess) on winning. If only they knew my dedication to the Hanshin Tigers.

It’s funny that the next day when skyping, I was telling the story and when asked about the result of the game I said “We won”… It took me 20 seconds to stop and thing… who exactly are “we”?

Everyone says its hard to blend in the Japanese society, which is true. But there are those times, those moments, when this wall of separation  turns into a tull curtain…

You’ll like Japanese Politics….

… if you like governors who declare Tsunamis as “a punishment from God”, right after one hits the country, killing tens of thousands, to be re-elected.

Graffiti on campaign poster. On Forehead, literally: “The tsunami is divine punishment.”

Epic.

Fail.

Japanese Kids…

… are the most beautiful thing in the world. I often catch myself holding my camera and snapping pictures of them, like an A-class pervert.

But…

الحلو ما بيكملش…

Too bad we’re running out of them…

Spring is Here

First off: apologies for my previous depressive post, thanks and hugs to any of you who left a comment on here or facebook, emailed me and even called. A really precious feeling is it to have such an emotional boost from such lovely people.

So yes, Spring has made its appearance in Japan. I have never seen anything that beautiful in my life. It’s amazing how the weather affects your morale. When the sun shines, when the sakura blooms, when parks are full with happy children…. its just like a revelation.

I feel pictures speak better than words, or I’d just be too bad if I tried to articulate how beautiful Spring in Japan is…



 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Last night’s aftershock was the strongest since the March 11th  14:46 tragedy. A live footage on NHK caught this insane fireball coming out of absolute nothingness and now people are trying to figure out where it could possibly come from. Proposed ideas so far include, UFOs and Harry Potter.

I’m not kidding. It’s pure horror.

Things I Need to Get Out of my System

I hate to make things all about myself. Which is why I haven’t been writing as much as I should in this blog. I mean, the blogs out there about great Japanese toilets, cute Japanese girls, drunk Japanese salarymen and corrupt Japanese politicians are more than I can count in Japanese, just waiting for a Google search.

So yes, I created a blog about my year in Japan, but ended up writing everything in my personal journal instead (which you might have access to if I die from Fukushima radiations).

This semester has been, simply, a little bit too much for me to handle. It started off with a Revolution. Did you get that? A REVOLUTION. From January 25th onwards, I lost something along the way. I definitely lost the peace of mind. I lost the thrill of being away from home. I instantly stopped feeling proud my myself being here. It was all replaced with terrible mixture of guilt, uselessness and shame. It still hurts. Every single day. Every single second.

Just as things got “better”, the Great East Japan earthquake hit us all, and again, I was taken over by this feeling of helplessness and uselessness – as I watch on NHK stories of mothers feeding their children snow because nothing else is available, stories of orphaned children whose parents were washed away by the Tsunami, stories of the elderly roaming around the wrecks of what used to be their lives.

It is so hard to enjoy anything anymore. Nothing makes sense any longer. I’m just tired and worn out. The last time I had a good nights sleep was so long ago I cannot even remember. I don’t know what time zone I should follow; Egypt or Japan. I stay up all night pondering the meanings of things, and if things actually had any meaning.

I feel pretentious all the time, trying to keep up with people and engage in conversations about things I don’t care less about, keep a neutral face as if everything is normal, while I’m torn on the inside.

They ask me to write articles about the quake and send them home. So I do. I write from the desk in my heated dorm room about the lives destroyed by the Quake and the dreams submerged by the Tsunami. I do that the same way I watched, from my padded chair, images of Egyptians, just like myself, revolting for their (and my) rights with live ammunition against them.

Then I think if I matter at all.

This feeling of guilt has become simply unbearable.

I really need to get my shit together… But I just can’t control my shit.

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