Highway To The Demilitarized Zone

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut 

Hey folks,

I just want to make sure everyone knows the title is a reference to Kenny Loggins. A belated Merry Christmas to you all. I hope all my adoring fans and disgruntled foes had a wonderful holiday. I spent Christmas this year in Seoul, which, let me say, is by far one of the coolest cities I have ever been to. Of course there were inevitably a range of Seoul puns that were made–all horrible–some of which include: Satisfy my Seoul, Han Seoul-o, Seoul-d to the man in the scarf, give me the beat boys and free my Seoul, and a surreptitious tribute to Seoulange Knowles, which I refrained from sharing with my fellow travelers but now must confess lest I burst from repression. We stayed near the Hongdae District, not far from Hongik University in the Ed House hostel, a place that I highly recommend to anyone going to visit to Seoul given the location and fun, knowledgeable staff that work there. Having arrived on Christmas Eve, we thought maybe we would take it easy. It wasn’t that the flight was long or we were overly tired, but maybe out of pure custom we decided it would be better to practice some restraint. Well, spoiler alert, we didn’t. We hit the large street near the University lined with bars and restaurants containing foods we have been craving for months. Christmas eve dinner was pizza and a local beer sampler, which left me feeling like I was in New York; but no, folks, stay with me–Seoul. After that we decided to hit a pub called the Irish Baby Guinness, and I don’t think it is necessary to explain why we were compelled to enter. The bar was great. Guinness was on tap and the look on our Irish friend’s face when he saw an eccentric entertainer walk into the bar wearing a Guinness suit encapsulated in itself all the magic of Christmas. We eventually pulled ourselves away and were met at the hostel by some great folks who wanted to keep it going. It was an excellent Christmas Eve that had only a mildly crippling effect on Christmas morning.

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Seoul (Photo Credit DBT)

Over the next few days we saw some of Korea’s both beautiful and tragic historical sights, and met up with some great friends who took us to lunch at a traditional Korean Market. There we tried new foods and drank Makkgeoli, a sort of rice wine that our new buddy Gil displayed should be consumed in one gulp.

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Makkgeoli

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Lunch in the market (take em down to tha fahma’s mahket)

A highlight of the trip was our tour of the demilitarized zone just below the border of North Korea. Our guide–who insisted upon being called Handsome Kim and was far too hilarious a person to be conducting a tour of the division between South and North Korea– provided us with some history of the North-South conflict, and painted a really good picture of the many infrastructural precautions each side has taken in anticipation of potential military dispute. For example, bridges that can be detonated to block invading tanks and miles of barbed wire and guard towers keeping watch of one another. It took some time to get to the actual DMZ, but once we did the atmosphere was tense and things were very regimented. We were able to enter the North-South negotiation room where we were granted access to cross the line into North Korea.

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Things are a little tense at the DMZ…

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(Photo Credit DBT)

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Handsome Kim (Photo Credit DBT)

Later that night we met up with friends for dinner and an experience in the Gangnam District. We had traditional Korean Barbecue, Soju and Makkgeoli, and toasts ranging from Kampai and Geonbae to Sláinte and Santé, I even tossed in the old English cheers a time or two. Composure was compromised. Dancing resulted. A cab was taken from a destination back to its original point of origin (transportation is unbelievably cheap in Korea, by the way). Seafood that would be questioned under normal circumstances was consumed without reservation. And in the exalted words of Forest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

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Dinner with good folks in Gangnam

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This dude

This was a very different Christmas, but a memorable one with great people in a fantastic city. I missed my friends and family, especially since I am so accustomed to spending time with them during the holidays, but I’m looking forward to many holidays to come with the people I love.

Okay, dance update:

Earlier this month I found out that Japan had a no dance act. I asked myself if I was in Japan or in the tiny town portrayed in Footloose. If so, call me Kevin Bacon, because in an act of defiance I danced all night, pulling out every move I know and then of course recycling them over and over because I only know about three moves. By the end of the night the No Dance Act was repealed and I’m confident will be replaced with the Please Dance Act.

The holidays are a time that we are grateful for the people we love and things that we have. It’s a crazy time to be alive, so might as well chase the craziest of dreams, babe. I just want to say I’m thankful for my support system of amazing friends and family across the world who inspire and guide me everyday. If that didn’t make you cry, then I’m removing you from the list.

よいお年をお迎え下さい! Happy New Year!

Jon

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Nightmare Believer

“If I hear daydream believer one more time I’m seriously going to lose it” – My subconscious mind

The convenient store in Japan (called the conbini) is, I believe, an integral part of the Japanese experience. You can get anything here: plane tickets, nearly healthy cooking ingredients, a variety of ready-made meals which the clerks will graciously heat up for you, and, of course, a late 1960’s pop classic played on what sounds very much to me like a harpsichord stuck in your head. For months.

They Monkee’s “Daydream Believer” hit the number one spot of the United States Billboard Hot 100 chart in December of 1967. It has since then, I can only assume, plagued the minds Japanese throughout the evolution of the convenient store. This may be a bold assumption, but I can say with statistical accuracy that I have heard “Daydream Believer” played a total of 66,547.5 times since first arriving in Japan. The .5 comes from the time when I thought I hallucinated an image of The Monkee’s front man Davy Jones himself and ran frantically from the store in an act of sheer and genuine fright.

I don’t yet have the capabilities as a writer to segue gracefully from this topic, so I’ll just say that things are going well. I know I haven’t spoken much on the actual reason that I’m in Japan, which is to teach, and so I’ll touch a bit upon that. Ever since I taught Nick Attard to dance years ago, I knew that I enjoyed teaching people and working with children. Attard and I were the exact same age, but I’ve always considered him a child, and not a well behaved one at that. Nick went on to work harder than anyone I know in his particular field of finance, and so I wasn’t sure if I was a great teacher, but I still see him showcase a leg twist or a pelvic thrust from time to time, and that it something to be proud of. I don’t know that I am capable of teaching 400 students English to the point where they are all bilingual, nor did I set out with this goal in mind. Maybe they’ll never be professional “dancers” (It’s never too late, Nick.) But if I can spark an interest in them to speak a different language, or give them a reason to want to learn English or about American culture, then I’ve done my job. My favorite teachers were always the one who taught me beyond the parameters of the subject they were teaching, and I want to mimic that and teach my own students to enjoy the time that they have and the things that they are learning.

Other than that, my Japanese experience is fun and interesting as always. Last weekend we were invited, after volunteering a few weeks ago at a Miss International event, to attend the Miss International 2014 winner celebration party. We were amongst many CEOs, Embassy Ambassadors, and the four finalists from the Miss International pageant. I quickly threw out all my past prejudices of beauty pageants after meeting the Miss International girls, who were all super down-to-earth, friendly and extremely intelligent. Some were pursuing law degrees and others medical degrees and all of them were hard working. My efforts to subliminally persuade the people of the gathering to allow me to be next year’s host were not only unsuccessful but went by undetected, and so after a while it was just about meeting really interesting people and drinking good champagne, even finer, if you can believe it, then the bottles that my friends and I have sprayed—religiously—all over each other’s houses for as many new years were deemed important enough to remember, which, had this been known to the guests of the Miss International party, would easily have caused many people not to mistake Luke, Ryan and I as members of the American Embassy. A cool experience to fall in to for sure.

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Just, you know, hanging with the girls

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The dancing has now reached an all-time low. My ambulant abilities now all resemble the electric slide and a simple handshake (thank god they have become rare) has evolved into that move where it looks like an electric current is going through your arms and into the arms of your partner, should they be willing to comply. They’re never fully willing. The amount of restraint I had to demonstrate at the Miss International event was startling and even then I found myself, quite naturally, performing a toe slide into a majestic hand swing. Thank god only Miss Puerto Rico saw before I regained my composure, the doll.

I miss everyone who is taking the time to read this (another bold assumption but spoken from the heart so please forgive me), so as always, feel free to drop me an email or to swing by the contact me page and plead for me to stop writing. I’ll be spending my Christmas in Korea this year, which I will be sure to inform you all on in my next post. Have a wonderful thanksgiving holiday; I’m truly thankful for the friends, family, and horrified spectators in my life.

Oh what can it mean,

Jon

Ashi-Rockin

“The measure of a man’s true character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” Thomas Babington Macauley

Hey everybody (mom),

Well, as I first started writing this post, typhoon vongfong was raging outside my window. Vongfong was categorized as a super typhoon, and everyone seemed to be quite wary of that. Last weekend, Sensei Luke and I went to visit Nithya in Kyoto and had an absolute blast. Kyoto is a beautiful city with lots of history and we were able to take in a lot of the scenery and enjoy the fall weather. On Friday night we took the night bus at 10 pm that put us in Kyoto at 6 the following morning. Everyone who has ever tried to sleep on a night bus has awoken to the nightmare that they haven’t actually been sleeping but rather finding ways to stay distracted in their small seat while the man in front of them is both fully reclined and fully aware of their discomfort. Since we should expect no special treatment, we too shared in this experience. I suppose the silver lining was that it made the arrival in Kyoto that much sweeter although full use of my legs didn’t come until much later that day. On Saturday, Nithya took us around to Arashiyama, a mountain inhabited by monkeys, and Fushimi Inari, a mountain that’s path is covered with Torii gates. It was a beautiful day and the company was wonderful, and we decided that in the evening we would sample another of Kyoto’s gems: Butterfly. After a great dinner and meeting some new folks, we were ready to dance and Kyoto’s prime club. I immediately knew we were in for a good time when I walked through the hallway and heard songs that were popular ten years ago in America blaring on the speakers. This was my spot. I could see a spark in Luke’s eyes and I accepted that I had lost him to the music. Chaos ensued.

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Fushimi Inari

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Two awesome teachers invited me to go hike Norikura in Nagano a couple weeks ago. We had an early 1 am alpine start from Tochigi and arrived in Nagano around 6 am. This allowed for a beautiful early morning summit and clear views of the Japanese Alps from Norikura, which sits at an elevation of 3,025 meters. We also had views of other famous Japanese summits like Fuji and Mount Ontake, which erupted an hour or two after we descended and caused a number of deaths and injuries. Unaware of the eruption until our return to Tochigi, we had a really nice day in Matsumoto, where we were able to check out the Matsumoto Castle:

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Matsumoto Castle

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View of the Japanese Alps from Norikura

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Oh, and we went to Ultra!

A few weeks ago Nithya, Luke and I took Japan’s famous Dale Baby tour of Nikko. We learned hundreds of facts about the beautiful temples of Nikko, some of which may have even been true. I would say the highlight of this trip came on Sunday, when we visited the beautiful lake Chuzenji. It was a beautiful day; the beginning of fall. After a boat race which robbed me of my title as king of the lake (Dale is a master navigator and tricked Nithya and I at least four times), we took in the area. I may have said this about every place I’ve been to, but it was definitely one of my favorite places so far, even if it was just because of the company, the brilliant tour, and overall just the circumstances. We will be heading back to Nikko next weekend to see the foliage change and enjoy Dale’s famous cooking. I am, of course, the prized sous chef, even if I’m the only one who know it.

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Chuzenji-ko

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Shinkyo Bridge

The dancing has gotten worse in every sense of the word. I am now dancing on a regular interval, and even find myself practicing the worm alone in my apartment. I don’t know why I persist; I’ve never had what it takes. My only comfort is that I haven’t gotten quite as bad as Sensei Luke, who has begun dance classes and is starting to look more like Channing Tatum every day.

Anyways, a quick note about the quote at the top of the post. I stumbled across it a few years ago and it was one of those things that stuck with me. I won’t share everything with the internet because well, it hasn’t bought me dinner. I find it important to walk the line between discretion and expression, which is a line that I believe, now more than ever, many people are either walking or neglecting. More importantly, I think certain experiences should done simply because we enjoy doing them. It’s easy to confuse our love of the experience with the satisfaction we feel from sharing it, but only one of those feelings lasts. I’m not perfect, and I get caught up in the internet(s) too; it can be difficult not to considering that we are inherently social beings and most of the time are just looking for some form of connection or approval. I guess what I’m saying is that I believe we are defined by the moments we choose not to disclose, and in an age where you can tell thousands of people instantly what you are having for lunch, I think we are losing that.

That being said, with everything there is a balance. We have the opportunity, with the right ingredients (hopefully not olive oil), to leave behind a useful footprint, and the internet(s) is a good vehicle for us to do so. So it’s important to find a balance and to think about what that may look like. And hopefully it isn’t this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L1tr0PIx20

(If you’re having as good a time as that guy, I think you’re doing it right.)

Enjoy your lunch,

Jon

Sends and Quakes

“The hardest thing about being James Brown is I have to live. I don’t have no down time.” –James Brown

Hey all,

Well a lot has happened since my last blog post.

I felt my first earthquake today. It was a 5…which is a big one. I was teaching and at the end of class everything just sort of shook. It was wild. The kids all got under their desk. Since it was my first one I was unfamiliar the procedure and so I guess a bit confused on the protocol, but apparently this one was rather large.  Before I could run and dive out the window it was over. So everyone really lucked out I’d say. Anyways, I came home expecting absolute mayhem in my apartment because I keep a lot of granola and crackers (exclusively) on top of my microwave, and boy was I right. I walked in the door and saw an empty cardboard box on the ground with one stray piece of Japanese candy lying helplessly beside it. I spent the next 30 seconds of my life cleaning this up, which, if you carefully assess the situation, is far too much time. Why did it take me so long?

Was finally able to do some climbing this past weekend. A friend, Aaron, and I went up to Kogashi-Yama to lead some sport routes. We had the intentions of climbing for two days, but unfortunately rain prevented us from climbing on the second day. That being said we had a beautiful day on Saturday. Got on some long routes and felt pretty good despite being out of the game for a while. It was great motivation to keep training here, even if it is a bit harder to climb. The crag was like nothing I’ve experienced. The main section of the wall had a really cool shrine and waterfall. Aaron was telling me that many mountains in Japan are considered sacred, which I love. The crag was clean, well maintained, and the climbers were great. We had to do a bit of route finding but all in all the bolts were well placed and we cruised some cool and difficult stuff. Hell yea!

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Classic Rock Selfie at the top of a route

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A small shrine in the center of the crag

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View from the top of a really fun 5.9

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Another view from the top. Photo Credit: Aaron

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This guy was tough…

I’ve been dancing a lot…probably too much. But I just can’t help myself. I feel like since I’ve gotten to Japan I’ve just become a much better dancer. I’ll let you in on a secret—I haven’t. In fact I think I’ve gotten much worse, but I think I’m awesome. It’s a mess. I’ve been pulling off moves that would be questionable at best in the United States, and overhand clapping much more than any grown man should. Please view this blogpost as a cry for help more than anything else.

Teaching is going very well. I love my students and get so stoked when they attempt to speak to me in English. I’m having a lot of fun with it and enjoying the challenge. My Japanese is getting better, although most of the time it comes out sounding like a mix between an uncomfortable moan and a nervous shout. That’s not exactly my end game so I’ll just keep trucking. Luke and I take classes every Wednesday and I study whenever possible. Everyone is super helpful, as I’ve mentioned previously, so that makes things a lot easier.

I stayed with a host family a few weeks ago. Some of the kindest people I’ve met here in Japan. They lived on a rice farm in central Utsunomiya. This was my first time in a traditional Japanese home. The architecture and design were beautiful. We went to an onsen one night, and after learning to cook guyoza the next day, we went to a Buddhist temple for a ceremony. I heard them chant my name at one point (so awesome) and later my host mama told me they said something like “Jon Fain will work for world peace”. No pressure or anything. I received a package from her a week ago with some food and a letter. They also gave me a book about a demon that turned into a mountain. I’m skeptical. I hope to keep in touch with them. Maybe a visit in the future.

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With my host family and some of their friends. Great folks.

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The room I stayed in. Very cool.

Those are a few of the things I have done in Japan so far. All is well and balanced and while balance never tends to stay balanced forever sometimes it’s fun just trying to tip the scale back.

Please send me a burrito,

Jon

Fuji Cruise and Other News

“Never postpone joy.” – Dennis Fendo

Hey all,

I haven’t wordpressed in a while because I haven’t had internet(s) access, so let me first apologize to the diehards (Peter Kaminsky). Peter, I know you forgive me because I’ve gotten at least a dozen phone calls from you in the middle of the night and when I frantically answer all you have to say is “wow.”

It has been a crazy couple of weeks, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I suppose the best place to start is with Fuji, partly due to the fact that it was an overall amazing experience and the other part being that it was easily one of the most wild sends of my life. Six of us decided to make the trip. Another ALT from Oyama, Alan, planned it and it just seemed too good to pass down. We grabbed some last minute gear really early the day of, grabbed a train to Tokyo and then a bus to station five where we would acclimate for about an hour and then head up to the summit around 9pm. All that went very smoothly. We were cruising along, graced by none other than the Fuji Cruiser herself, feeling pretty good despite the altitude and chill. I have to say that the group as a whole planned each acclimation rest point really well. Then, at about 1 am, it began to rain. Not just rain, downpour. We stood by station 8 soaked and tired, but were still optimistic that we would be able to see the sunrise when we summited. As we got higher the rain got worse and it got colder. At one point I could have sworn I heard a baby crying. We decided to say screw the sunrise and just summit. That was a bit easier said than done, as during the final push, winds of upwards 40-50 mph were knocking people down and others were strewn about the trail motionless in the rain from altitude sickness. It was just the sort of conditions you hope for. We helped a few people back on the trail and then cruised up to the last 200 meters of the climb where we ran into a line of people slowly trying to summit. We said that if we started to feel signs of altitude sickness we would turn back given the amount of people lying around unable to do much. I definitely wanted to sumimasen my way up but there was really no use, and everyone wanted to be there just as badly as I did. Finally at 4 am we summited, the rest our friends just 20 minutes behind us. We hung out for a bit in a cab up top and watched nothing because we were caught in a storm that seemed to be solely at the summit. I was a bit disappointed, but also stoked, and so I ran down the mountain to find a bathroom that would cost 200 yen and your left ring finger to use. It wasn’t too much further down until the storm broke and the clouds opened up:

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Alan. Noriko, Judy Cruise, Your boy, Matt, and Luke at the summit.

Alan, Noriko, Judy Cruise, Your boy, Matt, and Luke at the summit.

Oh boy.

Oh boy.

The lowest point of my trip so far happened in a grocery store. I had a bunch of great ingredients and was ready to make a stir fry unmatched to any other, all I needed was some olive oil. Easy, right? Wrong. Do you know how many things look like olive oil? I desperately searched what appeared to be the clear, ambiguous liquids section of my local grocery store and eventually picked out what I was convinced was olive oil. Upon arriving back at my apartment, I unloaded the groceries, smiling the whole time but not knowing the horror that was to ensue. I lit up the stove and began to chop up a variety of vegetables. I was singing the Frozen theme song because it’s the only song I’ve heard in the last two weeks when I thought, “man, this pan is plenty hot.” I said it out loud, just like that. I went to open the “olive oil” and was devastated to find that in fact it was not olive oil. It was vinegar. I fell to the ground in the shadow of my former self and remained there for some time. I just kept thinking about how much vinegar sucked. When speaking with some friends after the incident, they reassured me that olive oil labels just say “olive oil”. That didn’t help me feel better at all, but I’ve since gotten better at reading Katakana and deciphering what things are.

Things don’t always go according to plan. A man that I admire very much once told me that you should go through life with no preferences. I thought at first that it sounded a bit extreme, but now I think makes perfect sense.  You can’t catch a clear day on the summit every time, but I’ve never been in a situation that wasn’t worth it; you always walk away with something. I guess what I’m trying to say is, sometimes you want olive oil and you get vinegar, but that’s okay—put it in your cabinet and don’t tell your friends.

I’ve been to some really great festivals, spent time with a lot of really great folks, witnessed one of the most epic dance battles of my life (get em Luke), experienced the outstanding enigma that is an onsen, and learned quite a bit more Japanese than I expected to at this point. I’ll elaborate on some of this points in the near future, as too much writing can get wordpressing. You can check out the pictures page for some other photos if you’d like.

So far, Japan is amazing. Being able to experience something so vastly different than what I am used to is humbling to say the least. People here are kind and patient, and I think it’s amazing how much they are willing to help the foreigner who just wants some noodles and is trying to practice his Japanese. I hope I can pay that forward down the road somewhere. Start teaching next week and I’m really looking forward to it. The students seem great and finally, for the first time in my life, I’ll be Sensei Jon.

That will do,

Jon

Kid, Kid, Back on the Grid

“These pictures look fantastic.” –Anthony Wiener

Hey all,

Yesterday I picked up an Iphone so I thought I’d give an update of my first week in Japan. Well first I’d like to say that my coworkers read my blog (hello everyone!) so it was pretty funny when one of the teachers called me the Ashikaga Kid. Everyone at work has been really kind and I’ve been studying Japanese and working on lesson plans as classes don’t start until the end of the month. 

I like having a phone because I know I can connect when I need to, but the few days without it I was able to get a lot done. Some coworkers took me to my first festival, the Milky Way festival, at a shrine in town. The festival consisted of some of the local kiddos singing and dancing, and then a pretty amazing light show on the temple. It wasn’t like a Natalie Merchant laser show; much more culturally unique. Then they took me out for Sushi, which was oishi gozaimus (also got a nice language lesson in). Really great people. 

I’ve been riding my bike a ton, and I should mention that my bike is bright pink. I love it, and I’ve been getting a lot of interesting looks as I cruise down the road. I was ringing the bell a lot until I realized that the bell serves the actual purpose of letting people know you are coming so that they can move, and is not generally used as a non-verbal greeting. Anyways, Saturday I Steven Glansberged the old pink schwinn down to the fireworks festival in town. Little did I know there would be literally 100,000 people there to watch. I expected some Fairfield beach fireworks. These fireworks however, made the Fairfield fireworks look like Attard running around his back yard with sparklers. The firworks went on for THREE hours! It was amazing! I was in disbelief. 

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 I was a able to pick up a guitar yesterday as well so it looks like I’m all set. I’m digging my little apartment and Ashikaga is a great city. There is a whole district with old shrines and temples, and also a downtown area with shops and some great little restaurants. I’ve explored some of the historic sites, one of which was a Samurai’s mansion (pictured up top) that was later converted into a shrine. It is roughly 800 years old. Our history back home is relatively “young” compared to so many other places in the world, so it’s really cool to see something this old and well preserved. I will create a picture page and post some of the photos I’ve taken someday. 

Oh, and I sang “Never Too Much” with some friends in Tokyo at karaoke and it was awful. But everyone else crushed it so that’s all that matters.

**update: forgot to mention, found a photo of Justin Bleakers in my desk today. It appears he’s following me…details to come.

Latas on the menjay,

Fain

I’m Here

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Human nature, essentially changeable, as unstable as the dust, can endure no restraint; if it binds itself it soon begins to tear madly at its bonds, until it rends everything asunder, the wall, the bonds, and its very self.” –Kafka

As you can tell by the title of this post, I am here. Yesterday morning began with my mother warning me about what she calls “Flim Flammers” in the JFK airport who would rob me of all my money. I’ve never experienced such a duo in any of my travels but I’m assuming one Flims while the other proceeds to Flam. Luckily, no such misfortune became of me (love you, mom). Other than that, things went very smoothly. The JET Program is extremely organized and everyone has been very kind. Tokyo is amazing and just as my cousin, Justin, described it: a sprawling metropolis. I’ll admit it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that Japan will be my home for the next year, but I think I’m going to like it.

Above is a picture of a shrine we stumbled across today while exploring the city a bit. We took advantage of the free time as tomorrow seminars span from 9 to 5. Anyways, just a quick entry to let my friends and family back home know that I’m alive.  Despite my concern for the man in the row in front of me who watched “Frozen” three times…all is well.

Mata ne,

Fain