Graduation

The junior high across the river from my house held their graduation last week. They’re not confused. All across Japan school graduation happens in March. Seems like a weird month to graduate. But I guess it doesn’t matter when you graduate… you still gotta go out and find a job. In Japan you get a lot of practice graduating. First you graduate from kindergarten, then from elementary school, then junior high and high school. Finally, if you’re lucky, you graduate from a good college and go to work for Sony or Toyota. If you’re not so lucky, you drop out and go to work making the styrofoam “Cup Ramen” bowls, or the styrofoam “Cup Ramen” noodles. In April all the companies in Japan conduct mass hirings, so if you don’t graduate in March you’ll miss out until the next year. No worries though. If you’re smart enough to get into college you’re smart enough to graduate. No actual learning occurs in Japanese colleges. It doesn’t have to. Most students have already learned everything there is to know by about the 6th to 8th grade, depending on which cram school they were compelled to attend on nights and weekends. College is really just a test of how much you can drink and how socially adept you are. Not so different from the U.S., I guess. Except most of us Americans didn’t learn anything in the 6th or 8th grade either. The good news is, if you have enough brain cells to keep basic motor skills operating at graduation, you have enough officially to graduate. Through high school the graduation ceremony is performed in school uniforms, but in college, men wear suits and women wear kimono with hakama pants. It’s a fairly non-traditional look to begin with, but it’s usually pretty jazzed up by these new graduates drunk with the short-lived feeling of freedom. So it’s pretty cool walking the streets of Nagoya’s Motoyama university district and seeing all the grad fashions. Some of these kimonos look straight off the pages of manga novels. Others look like they should be returned to the Venice Beach Salvation Army. But who would fault our promising youth for trying to make their own mark on society. So congratulations graduating class of 2012. I graduated too once. Course things were tougher then. Everyday I had to walk five miles in the snow to school… uphill both ways…

The Skillet Diner

My mother called the other day and told me that in Japan McDonalds makes hamburgers out of rice. And they make the french fries out of rice, and on top of all that they serve rice with your hamburger. I said, “No they don’t” After all, I live here, I should know. She said, “Yes they do, I saw it on CNN.”  I left it at that. I don’t argue with my mother. But my mother is right about one thing. The burgers here don’t taste like burgers back home. The Japanese burger is moist and soft, fatty, and exquisitely round and thick. Each bite melts in your mouth before there’s time to chew. American burgers are balls of meat squished by a greasy hand and tossed on a grill by a guy named Mac who bathes sporadically and has a fading tattoo and a pack of cigs rolled up in his sleeve. Mmm. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. So I set out to find a real American burger in Nagoya. I started with the phone book, but not a single Mac was listed. So I started hanging around places that sold Budweiser. If there were a Mac in Nagoya he wouldn’t be able to resist the King of Beers. I got nowhere. Then I saw it. Like a beacon calling out to me on an unassuming Nagakute street corner. “The Skillet Diner, American Food and Sweets.” Could it be? The name was right. (except for the “Sweets” part) I peered into the windows to see if I could catch a glimpse of Mac inside. But the Skillet Diner was closed! Closed on Tuesdays. I waited for another opportunity, and when  one arose at last, I got in the car and rushed back to the little establishment. I hadn’t time to even think about what day it was. It wasn’t until I got close enough to see the closed sign that I realized, it was Tuesday again. “Closed.” I could see the frustration on my wife’s face. “I’m not coming out here again,” she announced. “If it’s so good they should be open Tuesdays.” I couldn’t argue with the logic, but I knew I had to try the elusive Skillet Burger.”Oh no,” I pleaded “let’s just give it one more chance.” Last weekend we were free for lunch. I pounced on the chance, demanding we make our way back to the Skillet Diner. My wife acquiesced, and soon we stood before the holy site. The sign read clearly: Open. We went in and were handed menus. I ordered the cheeseburger. The words flowed from my mouth like a river. My wife ordered the same. I checked for Mac standing in the back with a spatula and a half smoked cigarette between his teeth. He wasn’t there. Maybe he was on vacation. After what seemed like hours, the Skillet burger was placed before me. I could tell instantly that this was no fru-fru Japanese burger. This was tough meat, hand-squished and charred to the point of cancer risk. “This is it!” I announced to my wife, while slathering the dry patty in ketchup and mustard. I closed the bun over itself and took a first bite. Suddenly I was back in the hamburger joints of my youth, counting my money to see if I had enough for a shake too. It was the perfect American burger. Everything was in order. Everything tasted perfect, just like home. Until I took a drink of the Coke….

The Japanese never give straight answers

True, I wasn’t the most attentive student in driver’s ed, but I could use a little help with this traffic signal… Maybe I’m too literal, but it just seems a bit contradictory. My wife says I have to be Japanese to get it, so suck it up and hit the gas. … and what does it mean if the arrow is pointing down?
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