Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reader Discretion Advised

There is a rumor going around amongst the English teachers I know in town. I've heard from multiple sources that Japanese psychologists often recommend their mentally anguished patients to sign up for English lessons. Perhaps they believe that interacting with a foreign teacher might be good for social anxiety? Or perhaps the activity of studying will ease a restless mind?

Regardless, one English teacher I know who has been working in Tokyo for years claims that quite a few of his students have forced him into the role of counselor, a role he doesn't feel qualified for. And on rare occasion, he has even be forced into taking on the role of sex therapist. Read this text message he received from one of his more troubled female students:

Ive lost my self-confidence.(;_;)

I stayed overnite @ his place yesterday.

He didnt cum again.(*u_u)

finally, I did it with my mouth. He came.

Well, at least her grammar isn't bad. Spelling could use a little work though.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Best Tracks from the Tokyo Underground

I've been getting repeated requests to post music to the blog. I can write as many good reviews as I want but it's the music that will do the real talking. I'll try to keep up with this more in the future.

Yuki Kawana - Yuki is a young singer songwriter with rock sensibilities. Rather than the typical acoustic guitar, she travels around town with a Fender Mustang that will melt your face. I saw her play this song last night and was blown away:
I actually just starting playing in a band with her too. Our first rehearsal is next Monday.

Sleepy Head - Pure shoegaze. One of my favorite bands in the Ruby Room scene but unfortunately I've only seen them take the stage once.

Sunset Drive - Toshi, Alastair, and Shin, three of my good friends in town. Remember all the obnoxiousness I've attributed to Toshi? Listen to his guitar squealling and you'll see why.

The Watanabes - These guys are Tokyo's answer to The Smiths, quirky and indy with introspective and well thought out songs, a rock solid stage presence, and a huge fanbase

Qypthone - lead singer Izumi Ookawara has quite the resume. She even has a song on the Grey's Anatomy Season 2 soundtrack.

Bankin Garu - Guitar monster Kei's band. I don't write enough about their vocalist, Shin, one of the more unique voices in town. Listen for yourself.

Little Turtles - This guy hangs out on the streets of Ikebukuro and plays love songs to passing teenyboppers. Pure, unadulterated J-Pop. One day I happened to walk by and heard him playing this absolutely beautiful tune.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Korea: Introduction

Korea, where do I even begin? It was easily one of the most action packed one-week trips of my life, one of those intense experiences where so much happens day by day that yesterday morning literally feels like a week ago.

Seeing Asia as a bona fide foreigner was also a new experience for me. In contrast to 4 years of studying Japanese, after one week in Korea, I only learned three words, "hello", "thank you", and "coffee". As a matter of fact, the first night in town, I bought some items at a convenience store and managed to mutter a tepid "kum sa ni da" to the clerk. She straight up laughed at me. "Silly foreigner," she must have been thinking. It was at that moment that I knew exactly what it must feel like to be a non-Japanese speaking Gaijin in Japan.

Seoul is a like a more realistic, working class version of Tokyo. Streets are dirtier, infrastructure is dodgy, and you immediately get the sense that people have less money. I think a tougher life means people have their priorities straight. Koreans are much more forward and animated than Japanese, which had great repercussions for me. Even not knowing a word of the language, people were inviting and easy to socialize with. Most groups of young people always had one or two English speakers. And if not, I would just point to myself and say "OOOBAMA!!" and all the Koreans would raise their glasses, cheer, and reply, "OOOOBAMA!!"

Their forward attitude and behavior can even get rugged. I saw quite a few couples screaming at each other in the streets and people yelling over their cell phones. Traffic laws and red lights are optional. I saw plenty of scooters and sometimes even cars drive up on the sidewalk for a shortcut. The streets were like a free-for-all version of Japan.

For me, the most hilarious aspect of Koreans' up front attitude is their spitting culture. Koreans spit everywhere. I kid you not, it's not uncommon to see a refined young beautiful woman huck the biggest loogie you've ever seen in your life.

Incidentally, the number one absolute coolest thing about Korea is most definitely KOREAN HOSPITALITY! I told my Korean friend whom I had barely corresponded with in five years that I would be coming to Seoul. A week later I had a place to stay, an itinerary, a social circle waiting to meet me, and plenty of traveling advice. Upon arriving in town, she picked me up at the airport and guided me into the city. During the week, she and her Korean boyfriend made sure to keep me well fed by taking me to hole-in-the-wall authentic Korean kitchens. And I should also mention here that Seoul is cheap. After the three of us had a so called "All You Can Meat" dinner, I offered to pay for everyone. My friend insisted on treating me. After all, the bill for the three of us stuffing our faces amounted to $6.

Stories from Korea: Part I

Korean people are extremely animated and social. It was from this quality that even within a week, I was able to meet and interact with so many people. For example, on my second day in town, I took the cable car up to Namsan tower to catch the incredible view. On the way down, a young Korean man stopped me.

"Excuse me. My girlfriend wants to know if you are from Seattle. She says only people from Seattle have that bag."

I replied that I was from New York and that the style (Timbuk2) was widely popular in the States. We struck up a little conversation and shared about each other's background. He mentioned that he had worked with people in entertainment in Seoul and that I should send him a resume. We traded business cards and made plans to meet later.

The next evening, a Sunday night, we met up and he treated me to some delicious Korean BBQ. While we were chatting about the differences between Korean, Japanese, and American culture, three Japanese girls sat down at the table next to us. "Psssst," he whispered to me, "You should talk to them," perhaps curious to see if I could really speak or not. I leaned over and started chatting with them in Japanese.

It turned out that they all knew quite a bit of English so Jeong-Hwan was able to chime in without a problem (he also knew a little Japanese). At one point one of the girls asked me how we knew each other. I was just about to respond that I met him on the mountain with his girlfriend when Jeong-Hwan gave me a stern look, a glance traded down from generation to generation of male heirs, the infamous "Bro Code". From the quiet fire in his eyes alone, I knew exactly what he was communicating; "Don't tell them about my girlfriend." Some things are universal.

Jeong-Hwan and I asked the girls to join us for a drink so we all made plans to go for coffee. It was an awesome night spent chatting for hours well after the last subway. I think I made it back to where I was staying by 2AM. It was an incredible night not to be topped.
One Korean Baller, one American Baller-in-Training, and 3 J-Gals

Stories from Korea: Part II - Jewish Babes in Asia

I know what you are all thinking (and worrying if you are my parents), Mr. Ethan has the yellow fever. Allow me to share with you a story from a Korean dance club that counteracts your image of me as a stereotypical westerner in Asia. This is copied verbatim from my journal:

"People always thought we were twins because of our ethnic background," she remarked. Both girls were dark haired, attractive, and wearing black. I was only joking that I couldn't remember to whom I told what.

"What are you?" I asked.

"Askenazi," she said.

I pointed to my chest. "Me too," I said. I was more than happy to meet a young attractive woman of kindred blood. We had the usual obligatory conversation about the tyrannical East European countries that exiled our ancestors.

"What's your last name?" she asked for confirmation.

"Green," I affirmed, "But my mother's family name was Zabeldovich before they changed it to Sable." Zabeldovich. I always loved to sound of the surname. It sounded so Polish and so authentic.

"Oh really?" she responded, quite surprised. "That's my family name too!"

I was also taken aback by the coincidence. "Maybe we're related," I suggested. "But don't worry," I continued, "So are my grandparents!..."

I guess you must be wondering if I got the girl. Well, not quite.

Stories from Korea: Part III - Racism?

I was accosted by a group of annoying Korean teenagers, but I knew it would be fun to play along for a minute. This is what I get for being white. The kids were their own stereotype, terrible English, puzzled looks on their faces, and wowed (and I mean an emphatic Asian-style wow) by every little thing I said.

One of the kids in glasses started pointing to his face. "Braque Face! Braque Face! What you think? Braque Face?" I wasn't sure what he was asking but I figured it had something to do with African people. I was noticeably puzzled.

One of the funny looking kids approached me. "Do you hate Nigga?" he asked with a raising intonation.

I immediately scolded him, crossed my fingers in a huge X and told him never to say that again.

"Sooorri," he replied.

I was very aggravated by the incident. Where do these kids learn these words? Or even worse, the assumption that American whites hate blacks?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good Deed for the Day

By the day, I mean one day three weeks ago. Sorry, I know how behind I am on my posts.

Shino Kataoka is one of my favorite reoccurring characters in this blog. The circumstances of our first meeting were truly uncanny and it still boggles my mind that we discovered that we have a mutual friend, Ayano Kataoka (no relation). As I wrote back in early November:

So what are the chances that I travel thousands of miles to a foreign country, head to a hole-in-the wall dive bar in the biggest city on earth with literally 12 million people, and then meet a woman who knows well one of my close Japanese friends from Yale? I don't even want to think about it.

When I wrote to Ayano about the experience, she emailed me back and said she would be in Japan over New Years. When she came three weeks ago, I made arrangements for all of us to meet.

It was quite the reunion. Shino and Ayano were classmates at Tokyo Arts University but hadn't seen each other or corresponded in over a decade.

(Counterclockwise from the right, Tamao, Ayano, myself, Shino, and Mari.)

And talk about musical head power in the room. Both Tamao and Ayano are premier professional percussionists and Shino plays harp in the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Little guitarist/percussionist/wannabe me is stuck in the middle.

Being the catalyst that brought the two together after so many years apart was a welcome feeling. Whether I sink or swim in Japan, whether I secure a path for myself here or am forced to return home, I can rest assured that my travels in this land have had an underlying purpose guided by fate.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Email While You Wait

While you wait for me to post about Korea (and now Kyoto) I have something for you to read in the meantime. Of all the people I met during my first trip to Japan, I've managed to stay in touch with just a select few, Masako being one of the Japanese friends I made that summer. She just returned to Japan from Kenya where she was working the past few years. We were trying to make plans to meet up but we are at opposite ends of the country. Read her email. It is sooooooo cute!


How r u?
Now i'm in Sapporo where my hometown!!
So my plan it will be like that.
At first, i'll study for pass the school of studying "Rehabilitation School".
Secound, if i'll pass that exam i'll study in that school for 1year!
Bcoz, i got boyfriend who is Kenyan!!Like Mr.OBAMA!!

So, and you? What is ur plan??

If we meet again in Hakodate it will be so cooool!!
What do you think about that??

Thanks, and have a nice time!!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Current Whereabouts: Kyoto

To the Readership,
Apologies for my utter lack of posting these past two weeks. My internet access in Korea was limited and since returning to Tokyo, I've been showing my parents around Japan. Expect quite a few great stories and photos from an 1000 mile radius in the coming week...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Current Whereabouts: South Korea

I've been in South Korea since Thursday evening. Stay tuned for many stories and wonderful photos...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Question to the Readership: Your Comments Requested

Dear Readers,
I've been grappling for a while with how to present this blog. I imagine the majority of you are chiefly interested in the Tokyo music scene, but I truly love writing about my personal impressions and experiences as a foreigner in the Far East. I developed in part to create a space focused purely on music.

Are you interested in my personal impressions? Do you care about my crush on the convenience store girl, the fight I almost started, how short my new friends are, or how lovely and how obnoxious people here can get? Do you want to read about the folks I meet, the places I visit, and the quirky things I find?

Do you find my Lost In Translation moments as significant as I do?

As I writer, I feel almost obligated to inject myself into the broader story I am narrating. I'm framing the Tokyo music scene with personal experiences, or perhaps, it's truly the other way around.

Please, leave me comments about what you think. What do you want to read about in Tokyo Werewolf?

Don't be shy.

Sayonara Ikebukuro

I've developed a little crush on the girl who works the night shift at the local convenience store. She's always there for me on those late nights and early morning hours at the crack of dawn when my stomach beckons for a little grub.

Alas, I'm moving from Ikebukuro tomorrow and knew I had to stop by for a proper goodbye. I bought a coke, a rice ball, and some ice cream. At the counter I paid and told her that I was moving tomorrow.

"Sayonara," I said.

A sad look came over her face, as if she was going to cry. "Is it true?" she asked me. She raised a hand and waved to me as I walked out the door.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Namba One!!

An example of the conversations I get myself into here:

I was at a bar last week talking with a middle aged woman, attractive, friendly, and a heavy drinker. I kid you not, she was working on an entire bottle of Jack Daniels. At least when it comes to small talk, I can pretend to be fairly fluent. I've answered the standard "where are you from" and resulting followup questions at least a thousand times.

She asked me if I had a girlfriend. After all, what was a relatively young American guy doing in an random Japanese dive bar at 1 AM.

I replied in the negative and asked about her. Perhaps in reaction to her own coy remark, she held up her hand to show off two rings and proudly declared to me that she was married.

"Where's your husband?" I asked, glancing around the room wondering if he was there.

She switched from Japanese to elementary English. "Many cute young gyaaru*," she said with a raised voice, motioning with her arms imagining each around a girl's shoulder. "But, I am Nambaa One! Rabu Rabu* Desu!" She laughed with a deep feminine voice.

*[gyaaru or girls]
*[rabu rabu or love love]

Monday, January 5, 2009

Bankin Garu - Live In Shin-Yokohama

Stayed tuned for the review.
For now, enjoy a few shots. I have to say, Bankin Garu is one of the most photogenic groups I've seen in town.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fight - Epilogue

Per request of the cool Japanese people I met last night, I returned
to Harley just before midnight. For some reason, my Japanese was
feeling more than stiff which was making me quite a bit more shy. I
talked a bit with the guy and girl next to me. He was a rock guitarist
and seemed interested in my Werewolf project. His girlfriend was a
literature student at Waseda University, only a year younger than

I figured the chap who tried to pick a fight with me the other night
wasn't a regular at the bar. Both the bartenders and patrons were
saying bad things about him. I figured he was just another drunkard
stirring up trouble.

I was wrong.

About an hour into the night, he walked right into the bar. I felt
that "oh shit..." feeling rise from my stomach.

Surprisingly, the very first thing he did was approach me and reach
for a handshake. He told me in Japanese, "She [the woman] told me
about what I said last night. Sorry. I don't remember." He then tapped
his head with his forefinger. I replied that everything was fine.

For the next hour, I made sure to avoid him, but at one point, we
ended up sitting at the same table in the barroom. Ironically, once
again, he asked me what country I was from. "America. New York," I
replied, this time tactfully leaving out the whole part about the US
being the best country on Earth.

The fellow's name is Nori. He's probably a few years older than me,
always wears a black hoodie, listens to techno music, and has very
long hair. His face is angular and crow-like, with slanted dark eyes and a dangerous glare, but I think my judgement may be biased from our last encounter.

After all, (at least tonight) he's not such a bad guy. He was goofing
off and joking with the other guys at the bar all night. Before I took
off, we even had a little heart to heart about the problems with
religion and politics in America as well as incidents between Japanese
and Americans at the military bases here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Yes, you read correctly. I came within a stones' throw of starting a fight tonight, but I didn't realize it till four people were holding the other guy back.

The night began when I woke up from a late midday nap with no plans in hand, so I decided to trek to Diglight, the bar down the road that I've written so much about. After a quick dinner, I was on my feet walking down Meji Dori to Takadanobaba. Unlucky for me, when I finally arrived 40 minutes later, Diglight was closed for the New Years holiday. I felt like an idiot for not checking their schedule prior to walking the whole way. New Years in Japan is like Christmas in the states, everything shuts down for a few days.

I stalled for a few minutes and then decided to go to Harley, a motorcycle themed bar next door to Diglight that happened to be open. I didn't know any of the patrons there, but it seemed like a cool place to grab a drink, and I didn't want to waste a long walk for nothing. I worked up the guts and decided to give it a try.

When I say 'motorcycle themed' I mean in the novelty sense. The place is definitely not a true biker hangout. The atmosphere was if an anime artist had recreated an American Hells Angels hangout. The signs were neon, the walls littered with rock n' roll and biker memorabilia, the bar shelves loaded with every brand of whiskey known to man, and guarding the door was an old Harley Davidson motorcycle polished up nicely but doubtfully in working condition. Of course, the soundtrack for the evening was pure unadulterated 80's Hair Metal.

I sat down, ordered a drink, and began a little small talk. The Japanese people at the bar were friendly and I wasn't feeling too shy at all. Not much later, I invited an old Yale classmate visiting from Osaka to come by with another friend. Both of the girls know Japanese very well, so when they arrived, I had all the more reason to converse with people at the joint.

I introduced myself to a middle-aged woman who was sitting next to me and talked with her for a bit. She took a liking to my friends and I and ordered everyone in the room a shot of tequila.

Next to the woman was a fellow younger than her who I at first mistakenly thought was her boyfriend. He was more or less toasted and had his head down on the bar table, as if he was taking a little nap.

Feeling the amiable vibes of the bar, when he lifted his head up, I told him my name and said it was nice to meet him. For some reason though, he just mumbled something and kept giving me the middle finger. To me, this was fairly typical. I'm no stranger to obnoxious Japanese people, especially at bars. I figured he was just jesting with me in poor taste.
"What country are you from?" he asked.
"America, the best country on Earth." I joked.
"I'm Japanese."
"You're not Chinese? Not Korean?"
Then he began to stand up from his seat and utter something that I didn't understand one bit of. The woman sitting between us grabbed him and tried to push him back down. I was convinced he was just kidding around with me. I've been to more bars than I can count here and experienced quite a bit of crude humor. Not once have I ever seen anyone become even remotely belligerent.
"Do you want to fight me?" I said with a facetious tone.
He was becoming more and more agitated. Both the woman next to me and another patron on the guy's far side got up and grabbed him. Then the two Harley bartenders came over and tried to calm him down.

I didn't realize until then that I was in hot water. I became fairly nervous and the thought of leaving crossed my mind. My friends were still with me though, so I turned around and stuck with them, hoping that things would cool off soon.

They calmed him down and must have asked him to leave since he was gone about 15 minutes later.

The bartender apologized to me. "He's not a normal Japanese person," he said. I replied that I was sorry for starting trouble.

The woman next to me said the same thing, that the guy wasn't a normal Japanese person. She kept saying that he was "mendoukusai," a strong word for bothersome.

Considering that I most definitely asked the guy if he wanted to fight me, I felt like a bit of an idiot, but since he was giving me the finger and acting belligerent right from the beginning, it seems he was just another drunkard looking to pick a fight no matter what.

Of course I was being completely naive and overconfident about my ability to communicate. Unknowingly, my tone of voice may very well have tipped him off. I told my Japanese friend Kiyoto the whole story and recalling an earlier conversation, he responded, "See what I mean? People here don't get sarcasm."

The story has a happy ending though. What turned out as a stop for a casual drink turned out to be another late night event. The patrons were very inviting. We shared laughs and drinks till 4AM. Upon leaving, they all asked me to come back again tomorrow.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Werewolf Guitarists cont.

I wrote about Chris Silva last week but had no pictures for the blog. We made plans to jam at Ruby last Tuesday so he came with his strat, loop station, and a few effects. I made sure to drag along a few friends, so photo credits on this page go to Kiyoto Koseki, Yu Araki, and Kaori Shiba.

When Chris arrived to Ruby, I whispered to my friends. "Psssst. Psssst. This cat is really good! Check him out! Shhhhh!"
We played mostly straight ahead this time around. Ruby has no monitor speakers, so I was struggling to hear the guitar, made more complicated by the loop station in which Chris would record a phrase on a digital stomp box, and then accompany his own playing with soloing. In short, while Chris was wowing the audience used to an amateur lineup (Tuesday night's show was especially weak for some reason), I was playing quite conservatively.

Actually, the sound situation was so desperate that I had to keep my eyes focused on Chris' hands and body to keep the time straight. I would watch his palm fall down the neck to find the beginning of each phrase. He would also do an awkward old man style ass shake from which oddly enough I could decipher the beat.
Read my last article about Chris' style. He is one of the most technical players I've met in town. Find the post here.

Of course, I had to take the stage and play a few  tunes. I stuck to blues this time but threw in some Weezer. Excalibur has been sounding nice lately. I tweaked her bridge last week.
Open mic ended quite early so Chris and I decided to get up there and do a few more blues tunes. We had figured out how to fix the sound issues by then so our sound and interaction was tenfold better. In the middle of a Hendrix jam, Chris and I motioned to one of the bass players in the room to come up to the stage and join us. She played bass with a locomotion like style, non-stop action with a round sense of phrasing. I'm thinking of Billy Cox from Hendrix's Band of Gypsies playing Chicago Soul.

We talked for a bit after the set. Her name is Tokie and she has quite a backlog of experience on bass. A few years ago, she was in New York playing full time in a rock band. I'll have to ask her more about it sometime. Chris was also impressed with her style. After he left, I got a text message asking me to invite her to play with us again.
And as a final note to this story, I keep thinking about female rock musicians that I am constantly meeting here. Back home, women in rock are generally singers or acoustic songwriters. Instrumentalists are literally considered to be, dare I say it, butch. I think that reflects rather poorly on our society.