Icons and Optimism in Burma

“So, what do you think of ‘The Lady’?” my neighbor on the train asked me. He looked around conspiratorially before he asked – a habit left over from an all-to-recent era of government repression and undercover informants.

“The Lady? She’s great. I’ve been following the news about her since coming here,” I replied. I’ve been on this train for several hours and it’s hardly moved. Some sort of mudslide delay, not to mention the trains themselves are nearly seventy years old. Any chance for a conversation is more than welcome.

———-

‘The Lady’ is, as anyone who has been to Burma readily knows, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy and longtime opponent of the oppressive junta that has ruled this country for fifty years. Up until 2010, Suu Kyi had been in and out of house arrest. She spent most of the time since her party won a resounding electoral victory in 1990 confined to her house, unable to leave. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other honors, she is now, arguably, the most famous democracy and human rights advocate working against oppression in government.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of beloved independence leader, Aung San. After leading his country to independence from Great Britain, Aung San was assassinated when his daughter was only two years old. His status as a national hero (to both the general public and ruling military) likely prevented the junta from simply disposing of (in one unsavory way or another) Suu Kyi at the start of the democracy movement twenty-five years ago. Instead, they resorted to killing, torturing and imprisoning thousands of her followers, including many NLD politicians who had just won elections.
Despite everything they did to stop her, wear her down, or defame her (including refusing her British husband a visa to visit her in the last days before he passed away from cancer), she kept up the struggle for democracy in Burma. Her popularity kept growing both at home and abroad. She’s long been the thing the Generals fear most; a diminutive, peaceful woman, nearly 70 years old now, who petrifies a modern army.

———-

Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer the recent arbitrary name change imposed by the dictatorship) is a unique country. There are quite a few quirks that pervade daily life for a visitor. For example, cars have their steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle, but also drive on that side of the road (the only country to do this.) This is a fine case of how Burma marches to the beat of the Generals’ drums. The reason for this odd driving setup is because, first, General Ne Win — the guy who started the whole tyrannical military government — heard from his on-hire mystical soothsayers that he would soon encounter trouble “from the Left.” Rather than take this to mean “from Left-Wing political groups” (as it was likely intended) he spazzed out and took it to mean, quite literally, from the direction ‘left.’

Ne Win also once declared that all Burmese money was immediately worthless and re-assigned all bill totals to multiples of nine (45, 90, etc). Why? Because a fortune teller told him that nine was his lucky number. A seemingly comical move but, of course, this essentially left every Burmese citizen without any legal money, wiping out their savings.
Also, this is the guy who killed or imprisoned everyone and anyone he wanted for nearly thirty years. Needless to say, he’s not held in high esteem amongst your average Burmese these days.

———-

“Our government… it is still very crazy. Very bad,” my companion on the train continues. “I was with the student revolution in 1988. Still many of us are in jail, it’s very bad.” The fact that he is opening up like this could probably be attributed to the fact that, in 2011, the military dictatorship finally relaxed some restrictions on the press and public expression. This wasn’t out of the goodness of their own hearts. They just wanted to convince the West to lift sanctions and encourage investment and tourism.
Three years ago, however, my now-talkative friend might have been hauled off to the notorious Insein Prison at night for saying things like this. Even after the reforms and the release of Suu Kyi and others, the junta still goes wild at times and shoots up minority Muslim or Christian villages in the restive borderlands of the country. The idea is that, so long as they are fighting “terrorists” or “communists” in the ethnic divisions of outer Burma, people will still believe they need a strong military in control. The fact that visitors and aid workers aren’t allowed into these parts of the country, though, show you just how little the government values transparency to this day.

———-

2015 may herald a change, though. The ruling party has promised free and fair elections slated for that year. This promise has been made before, of course. Back then in 1990, their words proved a hollow as the coconuts sold in the markets of Mandalay. This time, though, there have been the gradual reforms of the past few years, allowing many to feel optimistic.
Everyone (except maybe the military) seems to believe that if the elections are truly free and fair, Suu Kyi’s NLD will win easily and she will be propelled into the Presidency. Nowadays, photos, posters and calendars featuring ‘The  Lady’ are proudly displayed in most homes and shops. The NLD logo is emblazoned across hundreds of t-shirts on the streets of Burma. Finally given the chance to voice and display where their loyalties lie, most in the country are seizing the chance. You’d have to bury your head in the sand to not see where this will likely lead given a free election. It just remains to be seen if the Generals will be willing to watch their sworn opponent of over two decades ascend to the head of a real government here.

———-

“Do you think the NLD will win in 2015?” I ask my neighbor back on the train. He has, by this point, loaded up his cheek with a leaf of betel nut — the ubiquitous, dark red chaw that seemingly every man in Burma chews. We’ve stopped at a new station and he buys a bottle of water from a vendor passing through the aisle.

“Will the NLD win? Yes. Almost certainly. Will they truly be allowed to properly lead after they win? We’ll see.” He snorts out a laugh and spits a stream of betel nut juice out the window, staining the station platform red.

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Friends?

I woke up sick one morning recently. One of those things where any food or drink I take in gets immediately ejected from my body at one end or the other. It happens to every long-term tourist in southeast Asia at least once. Anyway, what follows is my journal from that morning:

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8:30 – The strangest thing about the town I’m in right now, Vang Vieng, is that nearly every bar, guesthouse, or restaurant plays DVDs of the sitcom Friends  nonstop. Today I woke up with some sort of stomach bug. I can’t keep food or drink down for more than twenty minutes. I needed to get out of my stuffy, constricting room so here I am, sitting in the guesthouse’s restaurant, staring at the TV and Friends. I’ve never been a fan of the show, but I guess I’ll have to make peace with it today.

8:55 – This show sucks. It makes me feel like an alien. After years of watching comedies like The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and Eastbound and Down, I’d forgotten how bizarre a laugh track is. Every time Matt LeBlanc says something stupid and the “audience” laughs and I don’t. I’m not trying to sound elitist. I hate that anti-populism shit. But am I missing something? Wasn’t this the most popular show in the English speaking world at one point?

9:10 – Vang Vieng is ground zero for backpacker partying in Laos. As recently as two years ago, this tiny town tucked between limestone cliffs was constantly flooded by bathing suit clad bros covered in body paint. The homemade LaoLao whiskey was so cheap that it was served in beach buckets for a few dollars. It was cheaper than bottled water. This combined with the right-of-passage of tubing down the beautiful river outside town to make Vang Vieng a heaven for 18 year old kids tasting freedom for the first time. Then a bunch of them started dying. On average, one tourist every two weeks drunkenly drowned or dove into shallow, rock-filled waters. Or they succumbed to alcohol poisoning or OD’d on some cocktail of the other available drugs. This came to a head when a prominent Australian politician’s son fell off his guesthouse’s balcony while on a bender. His death prompted Australia and the Laotian authorities to crack down on the lawlessness. Today a lot of the drinking still goes on, but not nearly at the rate it used to. The tubing is certainly still big business. I would likely be doing it right now if my digestive system wasn’t fighting a bitter civil war with my body right now.

9:40 – There’s no way Jennifer Anniston’s character could afford this amazing Manhattan apartment on a waitresses salary. I know Courtney Cox is her roommate, but c’mon. I don’t imagine Cox’s character could float Anniston’s rent. Haven’t these producers ever looked at NYC rent listings?!

10:00 – I’m pretty hungry. I can probably stomach some mint tea, right. Just something to fill my stomach. Some calming tea to keep my stomach settled. I can handle that, right?

10:20 – Nope.

10:25 – It took all of ten minutes for my body to reject that tea. It came up so fast that I had to lunge for the gutter outside the restaurant and spew it all up. The waitress watched all this happen. Now, I’m calmly sitting here, writing in this notebook. She’s looking at me like I’m some sort of crazy person. I don’t blame her.

10:52 – You know what’s cool about Laos? I haven’t seen a McDonald’s in, like, two weeks. That has to be a record for me!

11:00 – I hate this show and this goddamn theme song and all these stupid characters and the fact that they live in NYC but every single person, minor or main character, is white and what am I doing?!

11:20 – Oh no. This particular DVD has finished its run and now it’s repeating! I’m going to have to see these same shitty episodes again! I don’t think my body has the hydration or necessary calories to climb the steps back to my room. I cant escape!

11:30 – I can’t take my eyes off the TV. What is happening to me? I’d better order something to eat. My body needs something else to focus on other than Friends. Maybe I can handle planed steamed rice. Maybe.

12:00 – Nope.

12:17 – A few days ago I was in Luang Prabang. It was an amazing town. It’s a small city of French Indochine architecture and cafes, centuries old Buddhist temples, and more fruit shake stands than you can shake a stick at. (See what I did there?) The who place is on a tiny peninsula jutting out into the Mekong River. At dusk the sun sets behind mountains, creating the sort of riverside views you find on postcards. I couldn’t think of a better place to lose a few days. And really that’s been my trip in Laos. Hopping from place to place, relaxing and enjoying the nature in each. I can see why the Laotians are so calm and laid back.

12:30 – Oh, Chandler, you big goof. Don’t change your name! Phoebe’s right! Chandler Bing is a fine name. It’s fine the way it is! Your name is what makes you unique! Be a free spirit, like Phoebe! You don’t need to change your name to “Mark Johnson” to trust in yourself! I can’t wait to hear what kind of clever sarcastic remark Ross has to say about this!

12:34 – Oh God. The horror. The horror! What have I become?

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My stomach was better before the day was out. Just one of those 24 hour things I guess. Whether or not I’ll mentally recover from watching over four hours of Friends, though, remains to be seen.

Sabai Dee, Falang

I’m in a place called Nong Khiaw – a small mountain-framed town in central Laos. A week ago I didn’t even know this town existed. The same could be said for all the other towns in Laos I’ve been through so far: Huay Xai, Loung Nam Tha, and Udomxai.

I’m in the opening stages of a round the world trip I’ve been planning for over two years. It should take me to five continents and however many countries. It’s a strange feeling when something that’s been an abstract thought in your head – a goal, but always one on the horizon – is now your daily reality. It’s especially strange when it manifests itself in the form of a giant eagle.

Really. That wasn’t a metaphor or whatever.

20131021-185539.jpg There’s a huge eagle, like, five feet away from me as I write this. It’s perched right on the railing of this cafe. It doesn’t seem too bothered by my proximity, or the fact that I keep staring at it. The eagle is undoubtedly the cafe owner’s pet. There is a little water bowl nearby. I wonder if the owner lets the bird swoop around and catch mice whenever it’s hungry.

But anyway, back to Laos. Right. I’ve been here for about a week. The country is an independent traveler’s dream. It’s beautiful, relaxed, and not at all over-developed. Nong Khiaw, home of my eagle friend, is basically a two street town straddling the Nam Ou river. It’s surrounded by huge limestone karst mountains. Not a bad place to lose a few days.

But there is one strange thing about it: here in little Nong Khiaw there are two (2) Indian restaurants. They are right across from each other on the main street! I haven’t seen any other Indian places anywhere else yet in Laos. Both are owned and run by Indians and I have no idea how they wound up emigrating to the middle of nowhere in Laos. I could ask but that would spoil the mystery. Besides, every other eatery here town is your standard Laos & Western joint found everywhere in the country. Now there are suddenly two ethnic places across the street from each other?! Why are they so close? They’re undoubtedly reducing each others profits.
But that’s not all! Throughout town, guesthouses and shops all display little laminated advertisement signs for one or the other Indian restaurants. Some places have an advert for Deen, the apparently older of the two. Others have signs for Chennai, the new upstart subcontinent cookery on the block.
I like to imagine the two restaurants battling it out over turf in this rural Laotian backwater. Like the Hatfields and McCoys but with more spices and Bollywood films playing on old TVs in the corner.

Am I the only one fascinated by this?!? Probably, yes.

Anyway, my guesthouse had a sign up for Chennai. So I proudly declared my allegiance for noble Chennai in the heated Aloo Wars and went there for lunch.
It was alright.

20131021-191842.jpg Wasn’t this post going to be about Laos?

I, so far, haven’t been to Laos’ bigger tourist cities. So, up to this point, Laos has been all unpaved roads, verdant forests, and sleepy towns. Laotians are a lot more laid back than their neighbors throughout southeast Asia. Next I’m going to the UNESCO city Luang Prabang. So maybe these realities of Laos are about to change. I doubt, however, that it will change my very positive impression of Laos. It’s been a great place to start my big trip.

Stay tuned for another update on Laos soon!

E-Book Sample for “Humidity and Humility: Stories from Southeast Asia”.

This is a sample from my newly published e-book, Humidity and Humility: Stories from Southeast Asia. The book is written in partnership with Stupid Cancer and proceeds from sales go to the organization to help and support young adults with cancer. The book is a collection of four stories from my travels in Asia over the past few years. It can be found HERE. It can be downloaded for any Kindle or Kindle app (which are available for free through smartphone app stores or on your PC or Mac) Also, if you have an account at the very cool independent publisher website, SmashWords, you can find it there, as well. Thank you and I hope you enjoy this sample and the rest of the e-book!

 

Vietnam:

Buses, Motorbikes and Preserved Dead People.

Part One

I’m going to die on this bus. It’s going to plow headlong into an oncoming truck and careen offthe road, fall into the valley below and burst into flame, killing everyone onboard.

Or, a water buffalo will wander into our path and the driver will swerve out of the way. The bus will careen off the road, fall into the valley below and burst into flame, killing everyone onboard.

Or, it might just spontaneously combust, killing everyone onboard in a plume of flame and black smoke. The engine is slowly grinding away. The muffler, loosely tied to the bumper, is clanging around, creating (I imagine, anyway) a shower of sparks that will ignite the gas tank.

It’s almost enough to make me get up and start praying at the mini neon-lit Cao Dai shrine next to the driver.

***

I’m riding to a place called Sapa, near the Chinese border in northern Vietnam. From what I’ve heard, it’s beautiful part of the country – more of a grand landscape painting than a rural borderland. Verdant mountains and expansive, overgrown valleys spread out before me. Rows upon rows of terraced rice fields, ripe with the new harvest, climb the mountains like stairways. Waterfalls, wind-swept forests, and buffalo add life and movement to the scene. All this is set around the small nearby town and former hill fort preserved from the French colonial days.

Too bad my eyes are glued to the road ahead, watching the driver swerve through incoming traffic along the narrow mountainside road like Barry Sanders cutting through a defense. I’m just hoping he doesn’t turn too quickly and end my time in Sapa—not to mention my life—before it even gets started.

Let me tell you something about buses in Vietnam: a great deal of them look like remnants from a bygone era when safety was an afterthought (or a not-at-all-thought). You might find holdovers from the long decades of war the country went through: hulking American- or Russian-made beasts that belch diesel fumes and lumber along the road, ready to give out at any moment. You could also find yourself in a much smaller Korean or Japanese minibus from the 1980s. You’d think these would be safer (and on their own they are) but the huge, older buses seem hellbent on obliterating them. Riding in one of these in Vietnam is the road version of sticking a “Kick Me” sign on your back.

The dilapidated buses wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the suicidal drivers. They wait until the bus is packed. If it can safely hold 40, he’ll wait until he has 80. If it can hold 80, he’ll wait until he has 1,207. After firing up the prehistoric engine, he’ll swerve in and out of oncoming traffic, going as fast as his old junker vehicle is capable of (a passenger can expect to go head-on with another bus in a high speed game of chicken dozens of times.) Unconcerned with the importance of axels, shocks and tires, the driver will speed over any bump, pothole or obstacle in his path. All the while, as gas fumes waft out the back of the bus, he’ll fire up a cigarette and look as if he’s ready to fall asleep.

You can also count on old, static-filled speakers being jury-rigged to the inside of the bus. These will play either Vietnamese metal (which, through the old speakers, sounds like distorted noise) or out of date American teen pop music (which, through any speakers, sounds like garbage.)

On this particular ride I’ve got the Vietnamese metal. Silver linings, I guess? With our bus fully loaded with passengers, a border guard takes a seat next to me, complete with an assault rifle slung across his lap. Every bump and hard turn thrusts the barrel of the gun into my side. He sees my discomfort and smiles.

No problem. Safety OK, safety OK!” he says in rapid-fire English while flashing a thumbs up.

He tells me his name is “Jimmy”, though he hastily adds “Not really”, and proceeds to tell me all about his job as a border guard. He has the enthusiasm of a new employee, which makes sense, as he looks about sixteen years old. His youth and easy smile only add to the surreal feeling of the gun pointing at my ribs.

As we zip around curves in the mountain road, going too fast in a bus that’s too old, I’m glad to have Jimmy as a distraction. He shows me photos of his family and girlfriend and gives me advice on the best places to eat in Lao Cai.

“Also, don’t go near the Chinese workers in Lao Cai. Maybe you’ll wind up in a box to be shipped to China,” he warns me, and laughs out loud. “No, no, that’s a joke… But seriously, don’t go near the Chinese in Lao Cai.” Having just left Lao Cai with no plans of going back I tell him I should be safe from any renegade Chinese smugglers.

Before he gets off the bus, he turns to me and says, “I’m going to the border now so please teach me how to ask for bribes from travelers in English.”

I’m in no position to refuse the kid with the assault rifle pointing at my gut, so I explain to him some of the complexities of the English language.

Your paperwork and visa is not in order” he says with a menacing tone.

I tell him that if he’s dealing with an American traveler he can say something like “I can’t grant you a visa. But I did just grant an entry visa to a Mr. Franklin and Jackson yesterday.” Jimmy tells me he doesn’t know who Mr. Franklin is, but he writes down the line anyway and practices it.

You’re a good man, James,” he says and starts to exit the bus. “If you’re ever in trouble in Vietnam, I will help.” It’s always good to be owed a favor.

***

Sapa is the center of tourism for the northern Vietnamese highlands. Much cooler and mountainous than the rest of Vietnam, it often seems like an entirely different country. Most of Sapa’s residents are not ethnic Vietnamese, but from one of the tribal groups that live in the region, the Hmong and Dzao. When I step off the bus several Dzao and Hmong women selling various handicrafts and clothing confront me for a sale.

Hello! Bonjour! Guten Tag! Hola!” they shout, covering many of the white-guy linguistic bases. I hustle to a guesthouse to set down my pack and rest.

The next morning, I’m sitting in an open air café sipping coffee and looking over hiking routes. The cafe faces out onto Sapa’s main business street, and the town is is waking up all around me with women setting up their market stalls. I hear a slow sputtering motor grinding its way towards me. I look down the street and see a small Honda motorbike crawling into town with a live, fully grown water buffalo strapped to the back. The buffalo is strangely sedate, moving its head around to look at other passing bikes. I’m stunned that the bike hasn’t collapsed under the weight. I’ve never seen anything like it. The buffalo is more than twice the size of the bike! Levered from behind, the front wheel of the bike rises ever so slightly every few meters. The driver notices me gawking, smiles and waves as he rolls on by. I take it as a sign to get out and do some hiking.

The valleys and hiking trails are worth the trip by themselves. Green mountains, calm streams and picturesque farming villages dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. I meet a group of Hmong teenagers walking back to their homes from Sapa and they guide me to a secluded rocky waterfall and swimming hole. They teach me how to play da cau, a game where you kick a badminton birdie back and forth between the players. I’m terrible at it, and my new friends laugh when I contort myself in circles. I think back to the bus ride. As beautiful as this place is, the memories of Sapa will fade. However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the deathtrap of a bus I took here, the feeling of chatting with Jimmy, gun pointed at my ribs, or the sound of the motorbike’s motor grinding away as it hauled a water buffalo through town.

Travel is about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the experiences we have and the people we meet along the way. In the end, the end itself doesn’t matter much. It was an important lesson and I’m better off for it… I just wish I didn’t have to have an assault rifle pointed at me to learn it.

Exploring Japan: The Beauty of The Abandoned Maya Hotel

I hope you’re ready for a quick history lesson! I’m taking you to one of Japan`s most popular historical urban exploration sites, the Maya Tourist Hotel.

The Maya Hotel is located (fittingly) halfway up Mt. Maya. Maya is the second highest peak in Kobe, part of the Rokko mountain range which bisects the city. Built in 1929, the Maya Hotel is a perfect example of Japan`s pre-WWII craze for Western art-deco architecture. During the war, the hotel`s roof was loaded up with anti-aircraft guns and used in the defense of Kobe. Kobe city, like Osaka and Tokyo, was heavily fire bombed and mostly destroyed. The hotel, as a converted military target, was damaged in the raids.

After the war, the city decided to sell the hotel to a private owner. The hotel was repaired and reopened for business 1961. However, in 1967 a typhoon and mudslide greatly damaged the building once more and its doors were shuttered again.

The hotel got one last chance in 1974 when it was repaired (again) and rechristened the “Maya Student Center.“ It never took off as a student center, though. It was rarely used and the final nail in the coffin came in 1995 when the Great Awaji Earthquake – which killed more than 6000 people in Kobe – badly damaged the grand old building once more. The hotel was sealed up, the hiking trails leading to it were sealed up, and no more business would be done there.

However, a beautiful building with such a tumultuous history wouldn’t stay forgotten for long so, of course, the Maya Hotel became one of Japan`s most famous haikyo (abandoned place). Since then it has been used as a filming location for various music videos and TV episodes. One of which, in fact, brought in an authentic B-29 Superfortress tire for a war scene and left it there. The tire can still be found today.

I had wanted to go hiking to the Maya Hotel for a long time. I finally got the chance recently and made the early morning trek 400 meters up Mt. Maya. Since the hotel is located directly under the Maya Cable Car, anyone interested in exploring it has to get there and do most of their walking around before 8:30 when the morning Cable Car staff comes to work. They have a reputation for calling the police whenever they see trespassers at the Maya Hotel.

After searching around for the now-closed hiking for trail for a half-hour, my companions and I finally found the “Do Not Enter“ sign and fence that marks the start of the path up. The hiking trail is short but intense. Ropes laid out by other hikers line most of the way since the path is steep and slippery in places. We reached the Maya Hotel sweaty and groggy but upon finding it we started zipping around the various floors and rooms like excited children exploring a toy store.

I’m going to turn it over to some photos now. I`ll just leave it with this: the Maya Hotel is one of the coolest buildings I’ve been to in Japan. For anyone willing to wake up early and make the steep climb up, you won’t be disappointed. For those interested in more information on the hotel and getting there, or in seeing more photos, you can email me through the contact page on this site or post a comment on this entry.

Hope You Like Bubbly Pea Drink

I’m sitting uncomfortably on the floor, legs coiled in a jumble underneath a too-low table, watching a coworker pour my drink for me. To someone who didn’t know better, it would look a lot like a surreal mimicry of toddlerhood – the child crammed into a baby seat next to the table, legs flopping awkwardly underneath, mom and dad pouring out juice for him. However, in truth it’s unlikely that a child would find himself in my position since I, and everyone nearby, have been putting away beer virtually nonstop for the past two hours.

​For something as basic as getting drunk, drinking culture in Japan is about as far removed from America’s as it can be. It’s entirely possible – nay, probable – that if America were to adopt many of Japan’s drinking customs, alcohol related death and crime would quadruple within the year. It was with thoughts like these that I found myself pondering such unique cultural qualities while jammed between a wall, a ten-inch high table, and two drunk coworkers.

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​Japan has surprisingly liberal rules regarding alcohol. Drinking in public is normal here. Often, you’ll see a salaryman throwing back a beer or cup of sake on the walk home from work. When they frequently stumble, fall asleep, vomit or just lie motionless on the station floor, everyone acts as if this is par for the course. Considering how people find you strange if you eat outside here, this is a surprising facet of everyday life. (Though, all incredulity aside, I see – and often enjoy – the advantages of buying a beer at the market for half the price of a bar and enjoying it outside in the park.) If displaying your Dionysian habits to the public isn’t your thing, there are always a bunch of watering holes around any central business district – some as small as a walk in closet with just enough room for three drunk salarymen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. These are, shockingly, called “standing bars“ and often offer the best bang-for-your-yen in a city.

​And if the bars and markets are closed and you can’t find a convenience store (ha!) where can you get that late night/early morning nectar of inebriation? Why, from the vending machines, of course! Japan’s penchant for selling everything and anything from a vending machine does indeed extend to alcohol. The best specimen that I’ve found is an early 1990s model that sells every conceivable size of Asahi beer can from 100 milliliters all the way up to 1000. However, this points to an odd dichotomy in Japanese society at large. Oftentimes the country goes to great lengths to ensure that people are safe and coddled at every turn (unnecessary crossing guards, announcements repeating banal safety catechisms, a maniacal devotion to having an umbrella in case a single drop of rain might fall, and so on.) But the booze machines show us the other side of the societal coin: a complete hands-off approach to underage drinking (the drinking age is 20, by the way.) The remarkable thing about it, too, is that it works. I’ve not once seen a teenager buying beer from one, nor heard any stories about it.

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​This laissez-faire attitude extends beyond just vending machines. My school’s staffroom garbage bin routinely contains emptied cans of beer. My students, when needing cans for a science project routinely bring in their father’s favorite brands. This sort of thing would cause a scandal in the United States. The teachers and parents here, however, see no harm in it. They practically say “The kids aren’t allowed to drink, so they wont.“ And they don’t!

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​While I’m on the subject, here are a few more interesting sides of Japanese drinking culture:

- The biggest beer companies – Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin and Suntory – have an oligarchy on brewing here in Japan. As a result, they push for large taxes on using malt in drinks. This restricts many independent brewers from getting a footing in the market (though a few of them do exist, and invariably brew a higher quality drink than the big four.) The result is that most of the common beers in Japan all taste the same – as in, they have almost no notable features. Going into a standard supermarket, a Japanese consumer will likely be confronted with dozens of variations of the same four or five beers. The illusion of choice, as they say.

- Along those lines, I have heard the following story from two separate sources, though I admit it might be apocryphal (even if it is, however, it’s completely believable to anyone who has lived in Japan.) The most widely drank beer in Japan, Asahi Super Dry, was the first drink designed entirely by focus groups. Every time it was tested by Asahi, they listened carefully for any complaints from the various members of the public chosen to try it. Then, they went back to the drawing board and changed it to appease each complaint. This was then rinsed-and-repeated until they felt they had a beer that everyone would be happy with. The end result was a beer so bland that even after drinking it dozens of times I have no other words to describe it other than just that – bland. But apparently the marketing/R&D geniuses at Asahi were on to something because, like I said, it’s the number one beer in the country.

- Also, about that abovementioned tax, anything over 67% malt is hit with a high charge here in Japan. As a result, the Big 4 all have released their own versions of what are called “Happoushu.“ (which means `bubble alcohol“) These are drinks – they are not legally allowed to be called `beer` here – below that 67% threshold. To make up for the lack of malt they are brewed using anything from soy to corn to peas. They mostly taste terrible, and they’re mostly incredibly popular. With these and Asahi Super Dry, I’ve come to think of myself as some insane person who thinks the other 100 million adults here are crazy when in truth its just me who doesn’t fit in.

- Lastly, beer isn’t the only national booze obsession here. There’s also sake (obvious to anyone who knows anything about Japan) and whiskey (obvious to anyone who has seen the movie Lost In Translation.) Despite there being only a few brands of beer in a given store, there are always plenty of variations of whiskey and sake. Anything from cheap stuff sold in two liter plastic jugs to bottles so fine that you’d have to be Bill Murray or Scarlet Johansson to afford them.  

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​Back at the party I remember that there is only twenty minutes before our All You Can Drink plan ends, and order another Asahi Super Dry. Can you imagine restaurant courses that include two hours of All You Can Drink in America? If the moral crusaders didn’t stop them the near constant alcohol related crime would.

​As the party ends and my coworkers and I filter out, I pass a vending machine selling Kirin and a handful of besuited workers hanging around nearby enjoying a nightcap. Sometimes it’s refreshing to live in a place where that just isn’t a big deal.

Japanese Baseball: Passion, History, and Phallic Balloon Rockets

Japan’s biggest claim to international fame, arguably, is its ability to take various aspects of other cultures and adapt, improve, and change them to fit their own national psyche. This has led to incredible success in fields as diverse as electronics and automobiles to traditional painting, religion, and architecture. After three years here, I’d say with confidence that you can add sports – more specifically, baseball – to that list. Nobody does baseball quite like the Japanese. Diving headfirst into the world of Japanese baseball provides a good number of surprises for lifelong fans of the sport. Ranging from the bizarre to the practical to the (according to some) sacrilegious, the unique traits of professional baseball in Japan has made the sport as much a part of this country as any other.

Still, to most observers, the game seems so intrinsically woven into the fiber of American history and culture. There’s even that old saying used by everyone from car companies to politicians that goes something like “As American as apple pie and baseball.” I’ve been a lifelong fan of baseball, but for the last three years I’ve been largely removed from the stateside version of the sport. I’ve filled the gap by embracing the pro league here and throwing my lot in with the local Hanshin Tigers.

It’s with this allegiance that I find myself often at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya (a town located pretty much halfway between Kobe and Osaka), most recently on April 11 for an early season matchup against the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo.

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We arrive at our seats far back in the left field bleachers shortly before the game’s start time of 6 pm. Fortunately, the cheapest seats in the house are also the best. The left field stands are the home team’s cheering section. Those of you who have been to a soccer game in Europe will know what this is like. Constant cheering, singing, flag waving, trumpet playing and so fourth. Each player has their own specific support song that the left field stands sings. Ditto for each situation in the game (late game rallies take on an almost tribal call-and-response frenzy of song). The effect is wholly different from the experience of attending a game in the United States, and often draws my friends (some of whom have no interest in the sport) to come along just for the experience.

And of course it wouldn’t be a Japanese social event without BEER BEER BEER! So, as the game goes on, young girls (and it’s always young girls) hike up and down the bleachers with literal refrigerated mini kegs of beer strapped to their backs. Sometimes I wonder how these 5 foot 2 inch girls haul these things up and down stairs for three hours. That trademark Japanese perseverance, perhaps?

Beer Keg girl

My friends and I order a beer and settle in for the first pitch.

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Despite the game being “as American as apple pie,” baseball has been in Japan for almost as long as it has in the United States. Arriving here in the 1870s, the game has been Japan’s most popular team sport for over 100 years. Koshien, Japan’s most hallowed baseball grounds, is one of only three stadiums still in use that the legendary Babe Ruth has played in. He came over during the 1930′s for a promotional series and there still stands a plaque memorializing the event outside Koshien’s main gates.

One of my favorite stories about baseball in Japan: During the war Japan’s secret police actively strove to eliminate Western influence throughout the country. All their best efforts couldn’t keep the Japanese from enjoying baseball. Despite this, however, they still instituted a mandatory change of vocabulary throughout the game. Having learned the sport from Americans, the Japanese used many English words to describe the game’s terms (including all of the positions and pitches). With the secret police breathing down their necks, however, the players had to make up new, hitherto unused words to use whilst playing, lest they be fined (or worse) by the authorities. After years of using a great deal of English to play the game, the players now found themselves making countless errors and mistakes on the field as the struggled to communicate and remember the new words to describe each situation, pitch and position. Of course, after the war, most of the terms returned to the original English. However, one holdover remains to this very day. The Japanese term for a hit-by-pitch directly translates to “death ball.” That’s always striking to read when looking over the box scores the next day.

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Back in Koshien the Tigers are leading 2-0 going into the bottom of the seventh inning. The left field cheering crowd is really letting the Giants hear it. One of the little known delights of sitting in the left field bleachers at Koshien is learning rude and crass Kansai dialect Japanese. Kansai, the region around Osaka and Kobe, has it’s own distinct version of Japanese. It’s used almost exclusively by both comedians and gangsters. People around Tokyo sometimes scoff at it – it certainly isn’t textbook Japanese. It certainly isn’t as refined and delicate as the dialect around the capital, either. I love using it, and it always gets a laugh out of my Japanese friends when I go on-and-on in rough Kansai speak.

Anyway, if you truly want to hear Kansai dialect at its most raw and rude, go to Koshien, sit in the left field bleachers, and wait til about halfway through the game. Likely confident from all the keg-girl beers, Tigers fans will really let rip with some nasty jeering. So, for your educational pleasure, here are a few of the most colorful Kansai insults, straight from the left-field bleachers of Koshien. I’ll provide a phonetic pronunciation guide for the uninitiated.

(Please note: the translations here are somewhat loose. Some of these I learned myself at Koshien, some I learned from a book and later used when at a game.)

“Keep acting like an ass and you’ll be wearing this bowl of noodles!”
つべこべ言うならうどんぶっかけるで
tsu-be-ko-be ii-u-nara udon bukkakeru-de!

“You look tired! Been swinging your bat in bed too much?”
腰振りすぎて、バットが疲れとるんちゃうか
koshi-furi-sugite bato-ga tsukare-torun-chauka

and the gangster inspired “Killing one more person wouldn’t really make a difference!”
3人殺るのも、4人殺るのも同じや
san-nin yaru-nomo, yo-nin yaru-nomo onaji-ya!

But, there’s little time to worry about denouncing the other team when it’s the bottom of the seventh inning, as it’s now time for the “Phallic Balloon Extravaganza.” In a tradition that’s immeasurably better than singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” every fan in Koshien stadium blows up a phallic shaped balloon and, after a thirty second tune, releases them together into the air. The balloons, not tied off, float up – whistling all the way – before running out of air and drifting back down to be picked up by staff and recycled into new plastic for next time.

It’s fantastic. Words can’t really describe it, so here’s a short video that captures the tradition perfectly.

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The Tigers and Giants are the premier rivals of the Japanese baseball league. They are the first two teams that were formed, and throughout the league’s history it often seems like these two teams are always colliding late in the season. Unfortunately for us Kansai folk, it’s almost exclusively the Giants who come out on top in these confrontations. The Giants have twenty-two Japan Series championships (earning them the nickname “The Yankees of Japan”) and the Tigers have, ahem, one. Despite this, they are still seen as the Giants’ main rival, and probably always will be. Hmmm.

However, that one championship, in 1985, led to one of the greatest stories and paradigms in all of sports history:

Upon winning the title, downtown Osaka (the heart of Tigers fandom) was electric with revelatory celebration. Fans who looked like members of the team would shout “I love so-and-so” and throw themselves into the nearby Dotonbori river to swim around. However, at the time the Tigers’ best player was a big Oklahoman named Randy Bass. Tall, bearded, and Western, no one in the area looked like Randy. So, in order to complete their Tigers team swim in the river, the fans smashed open the storefront of a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken and took from it the life-sized statue of Colonel Sanders. They then shouted “We love Randy Bass” and heaved the statue into the river, where – unable to swim, of course – it washed away, seemingly lost forever.

As it turns out, the Tigers haven’t won a title since then. Many started spreading conspiratorial claims that it was the angry spirit of the lost Kentucky Fried Colonel who was exacting revenge on the people of Osaka. Until they found the lost Colonel, they would never win again. They started calling it the “Curse of the Colonel.”

Finally, fourteen years later in 2009, the Colonel was found down in the depths of the river. Now, the statue is on display, under serious lock and key, in the Koshien KFC. Missing a hand and with most of its paint washed away, the Colonel strikes a creepy sight. I’ve watched fans pray to the Colonel before games, seen children make offerings of fried chicken to it, all in the hope of eliminating the curse.

The Tigers still haven’t won it all, so I guess the Colonel is still mad.

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I would be remiss in writing an piece on baseball in Japan without mentioning the strange quirks that separate Japanese baseball from its counterparts around the globe. For example:

- Japanese baseball games can end in a tie. This runs antithetical to arguably the most fundamental rule of baseball (that being the fact that there is no clock or time limit.) You see, Japanese teams are all owned by mega corporations. Yomiuri is a newspaper company. Hanshin is a private railroad. The Nippon Ham Fighters are owned by, um, a ham packing company. As a result, the corporations (which wield incredible power and influence over Japanese daily life and politics) conspired to institute a time limit so their workers (the fans, not the players) will get home early and be ready to work the next day. If a game is tied after nine innings, three more innings can be played, but usually the game ends in a tie after the tenth inning. If you ask me, this is downright ridiculous since it assumes that fans are akin to dimwitted children who can’t discern for themselves when it’s time to go home if they have work the next day. But the Japanese Professional Baseball League has yet to ask me about it, so…

- A team is allowed only four foreign players on their team (from what I understand this is also a rule in South Korea, as well.) When a foreign player is approaching a single-season record (for home runs, usually) opposing teams will often be ordered by owners to not pitch to the foreigner so as to avoid a Japanese player losing a record to a dirty, smelly outsider. The aforementioned Randy Bass famously flipped his bat over and offered to hit with the handle of it if opposing teams would pitch to him when he was close to breaking the single-season home run record. They didn’t, and he never got the chance.

- Both stadiums and TV networks have an odd fascination with showing highlights of insignificant moments of the game. In fact, the stadium screen or TV will often have a banner display saying “Big Play Highlights” and then show a third inning lazy fly out to right field that had no bearing on the game whatsoever. This happens every two innings or so. It’s really confusing.

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As the Tigers record the last out back in Koshien, defeating the Giants 3-0, we let off another wave of phallic balloon rockets (because if the team wins, what better way to celebrate?) As I leave the stadium, laughing and chatting with friends and other fans, I say a silent prayer to the baseball gods (and the KFC Colonel) for putting me in a place as fervently in love with the sport as I was growing up. It reminds me of childhood and connects me to the United States despite the 7,000 miles separating me from it. Decades after my first baseball experience, I still feel a small sense of childlike wonder when I attend a game today. It’s what draws me – and countless others, I imagine – to the sport.

Either that or it’s just the joy of seeing my team beat the damn Giants.

Til next time, Koshien.