headphonesAny geek like myself who listens to podcasts has probably heard the advertisements for Audible.com, the Amazon property that sells audiobooks. Their ads seem to have become a fixture on these podcasts, naturally enough since people who listen to podcasts are likely to be the most predisposed to listening to books narrated for them.

After remaining mostly oblivious to these ads — indeed fast-forwarding past these same-sounding ones most of the time — they eventually tempted me enough to sign up for a trial Audible membership. Now, some three months later, it’s hard for me to imagine letting my membership lapse, so hooked have I become on audiobooks.

I had not only been oblivious to the ads but to the audiobooks themselves. Once in a while I would see a passing mention on a blog or somewhere to “listening to The Da Vinci Code while traveling cross-country” and similar, but those little sparks never took alight. And podcasts — well, I’ve been listening to those from not much longer after that word was birthed (2004 according to Wikipedia). But to listen to a book? It simply never occurred to me, or if it did, it never seemed like something I could, or would want to, do. Now, I have that how could I have not known about this before feeling commonly experienced when becoming attached or obsessed with something that heretofore barely registered in the consciousness.

Now, I’m a book lover but not necessarily a reading lover — I read more slowly than molasses and with an attention span prone to distractions that gets worse as I get older — so audiobooks solve or alleviate a couple of problems I experience with physical books:

Convenience

My commute is a short one (door-to-door, 35-40 minutes), and involves two walks (home-to-station, station-to-office), three different trains, and three shortish waits on platforms. It’s a stop-start journey not conducive to reading a book (the printed kind). Also, some of those trains are too crowded with fellow commuters to allow one to hold a book comfortably and you can forget about holding anything other than a slim-ish paperback at that. So, roughly 20-plus minutes of distracted, stop/start book reading versus 35-40 minutes of more or less seamless audiobook listening — there’s no contest really, the audiobook wins hands down.

Space Saving But Not Necessarily Cost Saving

Audiobooks also have great potential to help me cure — or maybe curb is the better word — my predilection for buying books, books I often end up not reading. I recently learned that there is a Japanese word for this affliction, tsundoku (積ん読), which Sanseido’s Wisdom dictionary defines as “buying books and just piling them up without reading”. (On a side note, Japanese does seem to contain some very specific words and phrases that fit me to a tee — mikka bouzu (三日坊主) is another.)

Japanese photo booksNow you would think that being in Japan without easy access to English-language books would have reigned in this bad habit, but the reality is that when I’m on vacation back in the States, or through various “book fairs” here where book importers sell-off remaindered titles for very reasonable prices, not to mention the availability of any book through Amazon Japan (with free shipping no less), my unread book collection rivals the one I (shudder) got rid of when I moved here 11 years ago from San Francisco. And, being an online purveyor of Japanese photo books, I now have an equally impressive collection of photography books the shelves are quite literally heaving.

That said, the audiobook listener is not immune from the dangers of having eyes bigger than one’s stomach. Because of the way the Audible membership plan I’m on works out, I get one “credit” per month to spend on any book I choose, no matter the price. (For this, I spend $14.95 per month as a membership fee, so it’s not a free credit as might be implied.) As it seemed to take me about two weeks to listen to a 10-14 hour book — judging by the frequency with which a few of the Audible reviewers that I follow post reviews, it would seem that I’m a “slow” listener — initially I used a credit to get one book and spent money to purchase a second one. I thought this would help prevent me from becoming an audiobook tsundoku as well. Unfortunately, a massive April $9.95 sale shot that plan to hell, and I now have about ten audiobooks on my hard drive that I haven’t listened to. Now, at around 100-150 MB each, this is not a big problem, space-wise. The bigger problem is that, just as with the unread printed books I have, those I haven’t gotten to yet have lost their new car smell, even more so as they’ve essentially been reduced to a file name.

Despite their benefits — or because of them? — I still have my doubts about audiobooks. Those doubts can be summed up by the thought, something this good can’t be healthy. As with a lot of conveniences, I wonder if I’m not somehow missing something. There is a certain ephemerality about an audiobook, that once a passage has passed through my ears it’s gone. Though I haven’t tried, I can’t imagine scrubbing through one to find said passage, let alone to quote from it. For someone old enough to remember blackened hands after reading a newspaper, or the gut-wrenching disappointment upon discovering a scratch in his LP, or the ca-ching of a carriage return on a typewriter, tangible things still hold an incredible amount of attraction for me, even as slowly but surely I have replaced those things with RSS feeds, mp3s, and a writing app on my iPad. Audiobooks fall within this bittersweet pattern.

Somewhat sillier, I struggle for how to refer to this new (to me) way of “reading”, hence the scare quotes around that very word. Can I rightly say in conversation “Oh, I’ve read that book” when in fact no actual reading was involved? What kind of looks would I get if I said to someone, “Oh, I really enjoyed listening to that book.”? Will my conversation always be cluttered with qualifiers like “Well, actually I didn’t read it, I listened to it”? A semantically troubling worry, but one that also betrays a fear that the other party would view “I listened to the audiobook version” as only slightly less offensive than “I read the Cliffs Notes for it.”

One definite casualty of this newfound interests is that I no longer have time (or much interest, frankly) in podcasts, and have ceased listening to any of them sans one (the Guardian’s Football Weekly). So I’m no longer as up-to-date on the various Apple and other geekery I used to get via various 5by5 podcasts, the assorted zombie ephemera gleaned from any of three different Walking Dead podcasts I used to listen to, nor as up-to-date on Major League Baseball as ESPN’s daily baseball podcast used to keep me. Oh well, I’ll survive.

Some Recommendations

I won’t go through all the audiobooks I’ve read (if you’re curious, you can see a list of them at Library Thing), but in case you are looking to take the plunge, I can recommend the following:

Heft, by Liz Moore
This has been the most enjoyable audiobook I have thus far listened to, and indeed I would say that this is a great example of what an audiobook can be. The book features two different narrators, Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka, for the two major characters in the book who speak in the first person, and each character is so brilliantly portrayed by their respective narrator that at times this feels more like a radio play than an audiobook. Of all the books I’ve listened to so far, this has been by far the most riveting. It also happens to be about themes and situations that rub very close to the bone. It’s almost unremittingly sad and yet uplifting too.

Cooked by Michael Pollan
This is Pollan’s newest book, and he himself reads it. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years ago, and loved the way Pollan could discuss the politics of food without ever becoming strident, and Cooked is no different. His narration is very easy-going, yet still manages to allow his passions to come to the fore. Surely not all authors make good readers of their own material, but Pollan most definitely is one.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene
This 1951 Greene novel is read by actor Colin Firth. While I had some problems with the novel — I’m not a big fan of overly religious themes — what makes this audiobook is actor Colin Firth’s narration. If every book requiring a British male voice was read by Firth, I would die a very happy audiobook listener.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
This bleak but incredibly heartfelt novel is made all the more so by Tom Stechschulte’s brilliant narration. Nothing much happens story-wise — even more so for me, having seen the film adaptation first — but the whole thing is riveting. Of course McCarthy is responsible for much of that, but Stechschulte deserves some credit as well. His narration of McCarthy’s early novel Child of God is equally brilliant. What I said above about Firth doing every British male voice I could also say about Stechschulte for American male voices.

Of the 10 books I’ve read (er, listened to) so far, I’ve only experienced one dud, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, narrated by John Lee. While Lee is certainly an accomplished narrator, he decided to read any quote attributed to a German in a faux-German accent, any quote from a Frenchman in a faux-French accent, and so on. It really was B-movie stuff, and detracted horribly from any pleasure I might have gained from the book (and Tuchman uses a lot of direct quotes from the various combatants). That, and the fact that the book was just far too detailed to follow along in audio format, made this a less than enjoyable experience, one I couldn’t wait to end. The experience gives me pause when considering other history books, which is too bad since the genre is one of my favorites.

Goya by Flickr user mloge

Image courtesy of Flickr user mloge.

Today at one of my long-standing English-conversation teaching jobs, where I teach a group of five retirees over lunch in an upscale Chinese restaurant and have done so for over nine years, twice a month, I ordered this month’s “chef’s special”, which was a stir fry featuring 苦瓜 (nigauri, or “bitter melon”), perhaps more commonly known as ゴーヤー (goya), which is what the vegetable is called in Okinawa. Goya is one of those “acquired taste”-classified Japanese foods along the likes of fermented soybeans (納豆, natto) or sour plums (梅干し, umeboshi), and I’m sure there are a whole host of non-Japanese living here who hate the stuff, as well as plenty of Japanese folk who feel the same. For my part, although initially taken aback by its strong bitterness ten years ago, I quickly grew to like it, especially when served as it normally is in a stir fry along with eggs and tofu, which do a nice job of cutting some of the bitterness. In fact, in recent years I’ve grown to love it, so much so that on this same day one of the students gave me three pieces of goya that she grew in her community garden plot, as she has for several years now.

But the pleasures of goya will have to wait, for what inspired this post was what happened when I told the waitress my order. She replied, with a most concerned face,

「ゴーヤーは大丈夫ですか。」

(goya ha daijoubu desu ka, “Are you sure you can eat goya?”)

Now, I suppose it’s a measure of how long I’ve been here in Japan (10-plus years as of this writing) that this question fairly rolled off my back, though not enough so to keep me from answering her with a mock-seriousness to match her worry-contorted face, 「大丈夫だと思いますけど」(daijoubu da to omoimasu kedo, “I think it’s okay.”). And this particular waitress has asked this question before, regarding what I forget now but perhaps tofu, or baby shrimp, or some other food ripe for “foreigners must hate this” second-guessing. All to say that I was not entirely surprised by the question, but still tweaked enough to think this would make something worthwhile to write about.

The students for their part were of the impression that the waitress was 優しい (yasashii, ”kind; helpful”). In their view, no doubt, they thought the waitress was trying to stop me from ordering something I might not like, or find too bitter, and I can go along with that thinking somewhat. But it is my experience that a lot of what goes for kindness here in Japan would probably be viewed more as condescension back home in America. I tried to think of a similar situation in America where this might happen, but honestly I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything. Granted, the level of customer service being what it is, it’s not exactly a fair comparison. But in reality, in those places where customer service is top-notch, questioning whether a customer was ordering something they’d be able to eat just wouldn’t fly. I suppose a case could be made for the situation of the foreign tourist, struggling to read the menu, and the staff trying to steer them towards something less exotic and potentially unpalatable. But the waitress in my situation has been seeing me eat in this restaurant twice a month for over five years — not exactly a fledgling FOB needing to be coddled.

I’m not sure I really have anything “conclusive” to say about this whole thing. I mean, I find it curious that it didn’t rile me up more, but on the other hand I sort of take that as a positive. But I do think this level of do-gooder condescension does indicate, on some very small (but not inconsequential) level, that Japanese attitudes towards non-Japanese have a lot of room for improvement. But that said, won’t I miss the coddling when it’s gone — if I live to see that day?

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Channel 4 Documentary Screen Shot Ages ago — ten years ago, in fact — I wrote about Japan’s high suicide rate. Today I came across a documentary on the subject that must have been made around this time, commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, which someone uploaded to YouTube last year. Following this search will take you to all five parts (with the somewhat misleading title of “Secret Life of Japan”), or you can watch Part 1 below and continue on from there.

Not knowing anything about this film — and there’s very little information on the YouTube page aside from a (again slightly misleading) description, I assumed it was a Japanese made film (it’s completely in Japanese, with subtitles), yet couldn’t help but be surprised as it was quite unlike most Japanese made-for-TV documentaries I’ve seen. Alas, at the end the credits reveal that it indeed was not Japanese-made.

Of course this is not to say it couldn’t have been made by a Japanese, but I honestly don’t think any of your Japanese networks — to say nothing of the average viewer — would have been comfortable with the way the subject of suicide was treated, and the honesty of the opinions and stories of the various interviewees. The documentary also avoids, for the most part, the overly maudlin and manipulative tear-jerkingness of standard Japanese TV fare. The lack of a comforting and distancing narrator forces the viewer to listen to the stories — of the victims’ surviving family members, of employees dealing with the loss of what they thought were lifelong jobs, of people who for one reason or another ended up deciding not to kill themselves — as it these people were in the room with us.

Highly recommended.

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Vivo entrance

The entrance to Vivo, adjacent to a Starbucks.

[Originally posted to my nascent "Japanese craft beer" blog -- only two posts! -- last October.]

Today I took advantage of having to go to Shinjuku for an errand to check out the well-regarded Vivo! Beer + Dining Bar in Ikebukuro on my way home. (Or did I take advantage of a desire to drink good beer to do the errand?)

Vivo! is most definitely a beer bar, with 20 different beers on tap as well as bottles of import beer to choose from. I was there on a Sunday around 4pm, and there were about five or six other customers, with a few more trickling in as it got closer to evening. The place is non-smoking with a cubby hole looking booth for people to have a puff, and there’s free wifi (ask one of the staff for the password).

Kin-oni Pale Ale

Kin-oni Pale Ale, in a “Regular” size glass

One thing I was ambivalent about were the sizes on offer, “Regular” which equates to 360ml, and “Half” which is 285ml, which was ¥150 cheaper than the Regular. In other words, whether you’re talking American or British pints, what’s on offer is neither. On the other hand, the prices did seems to reflect that you were getting less than a pint (at least compared to other places I’ve been to in high-rent areas like this one), and the smaller sizes can help to make even a high ABV IPA a bit more sessionable.

Of the 20 beers on tap, 14 of them were from Japanese, a great ratio if you ask me, especially when all with the exception of a Ebisu were from domestic craft breweries. Breweries like Sankt Gallen, Baird (which also makes a special IPA for Vivo), Coedo, Yoho, and Tamamura were represented, amongst others. (On the import side, you could get two kinds of Lagunitas, a Rogue, a Southern Tier, plus the ubiquitous Guinness.) You can see the full list of 20 (in Japanese and English) at Vivo!’s blog. Based on past blog posts, it would seem they change the lineup (slightly) every two weeks or so. Bottles were listed in the back of the menu, but I didn’t pay too much attention as I figured why go bottle when there are so many choices on tap.

For my first beer, I purposely chose something from a new-to-me brewery, in this case the Kin-Oni Pale Ale from Noboribetsu, a hot spring town about a hour from Sapporo in Hokkaido (and not a good enough web presence to link to, if I’m being honest). It was very good, well worth the ¥1000 yen I paid even though it wasn’t a full pint.

I did use the small size to rationalize getting another beer, and this time I chose the Harvest Ale from Southern Tier, a brewery from New York I’ve often heard of and seen in the shops but had yet to try. It was also rather tasty, though it didn’t knock my socks off the way the Kin-Oni did.

Vivo beer menu

More beer than you shake a stick at!

I did not order any food but judging from the menu it seemed reasonably priced, but can’t comment on anything like portions or taste. And speaking of the menu, I like how they have all 20 beers on tap spread over two pages, with a fair amount of information or commentary about each beer. While this is in Japanese, important things like the beer name, brewery, and beer style are printed in English, a nice plus.

Here’s a link to the location in Google Maps.

A quiet Sunday afternoon at Vivo!

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Marukame's kamatama udon
The other day my son and I ate lunch at a local branch of the chain udon restaurant Marugame (丸亀). I usually let my son order in these situations, partly to give him confidence, partly because I’m self-conscious of speaking Japanese in front of him. However, on this occasion he stumbled on how to read the first kanji of the 釜玉うどん (kamatama udon, “udon with a half-boiled egg”) dish we wanted to order. We ended up pointing to the menu and no harm done, but I was curious as to what was this kanji that he couldn’t read.

According to Goo’s Shogakukan Progressive Japanese–English Dictionary, 釜/kama means:

an iron pot; a kettle; a boiler

which made sense in the context of a noodle dish. However, I wondered if this “kama” was in anyway related to おかま (okama), which is used loosely for men who want to be women or to mean “homosexual” (more about that below).

Looking it up in the New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, there is a mention under a “slang” heading of “homosexual”, confirming my suspicions. But I was also intrigued by another, separate slang sense of the character: “buttocks”. Now, no offense intended to anyone, but it’s not too far a stretch to see how buttocks and homosexual might be related. But how did we get from iron pot to buttocks/homosexual? Being a hobbyist etymologist of sorts, I felt I needed to get to the, uh, bottom of this.

Japanese iron pot, photograph by Christian Kaden

Photograph by Christian Kaden. Used with permission.

As best I can tell from a 30-minute whip around the internet, the iron pot of old bore a resemblance to the anus (or perhaps it was the other way around?). Although an anus wouldn’t be the first thing I would conjure up when idly looking at a pot (one hopes!), I can’t say the association is way off base either. Anyway, it was this image of the pot as an anus, so the armchair etymology goes, that led to the gay male being labeled okama.

Regarding what exactly okama means, I found it hard to pin that down for your average Japanese in today’s context, though it would seem that the “gay male” or “homosexual” meaning has taken a backseat somewhat to a meaning along the lines of “effeminate male”. My wife, no expert on the matter to be sure, but fairly representative of her generation, insists it has little “gay” meaning and basically means “a man who wants to be a woman”, and that it’s a sort of umbrella term under which you would classify terms like 女装 (jousou, drag queen) or ニューハーフ (nyuu haafu, transsexual). For her, and she claims most young people these days would do the same, she would refer to a gay male as ゲイ (gei, gay). However, it doesn’t seem nearly so cut and dried, as this old Usenet thread between mainly non-Japanese colorfully shows. (By the way, the apparently much newer slang term おなべ (onabe, literally “a pot”) refers to women who like to dress up as men, although I’m not sure how often such a term is used, to say nothing of how prevalent this form of gender crossing actually is.)

One interesting discovery made along the way was learning the Japanese for “fag hag”, that rather harsh-sounding but wonderfully assonant slang term for a straight woman who likes to hang out with gay men: おこげ (okoge). Literally, お焦げ (okoge) means the food that sticks to the pot after cooking, particularly rice. I really don’t know the level of perjorative nuance this word carries, but you have to give it points for cleverness. These days, the term やおい (yaoi) has a fair amount of currency both in Japan and abroad among those interested in manga and anime, and is a type of fag-haggery, if you will — it refers to romantic manga (usually written by females) revolving around two male protagonists, and is a genre favored in large part by straight women. As if that bit of subculture wasn’t interesting enough in its own right, the term yaoi, coined in the 1970s, is an acronym of sorts that comes from 山なし、落ちなし、意味なし (yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, “no peak/climax, no fall/denouement, no meaning”). Apparently this was a disparagement used by older established manga elite like Osamu Tezuka to refer to what they saw as the meaningless drivel being put out by younger (and often independently-published) manga artists in the early 70s. Not surprising then that the fuddy-duddy’s opprobrium got appropriated and mantle-ized by the new kids on the subversive block.

Which brings me on to 薔薇 (bara, literally “rose”), another genre of gay manga that is actually meant for gay men rather than okoge women and whose name might originate from–  No, I gotta stop there, or I’ll still be writing this post days from now. You see, this etymology stuff is both addictive and in reality, never-ending.

 

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Japan has been in a whisky “highball” boom for at least the last couple of years or so, if not longer, spurned on by the big makers like Suntory. There are “highball” bars and highball-focused izakayas and restaurants in Tokyo’s oyaji havens, and canned highball drinks seem quite popular.

Being a beer drinker primarily, I didn’t pay much thought. But I’ve been trying for the last year to “get into” Scotch after going to a Scotch society event in 2011, with moderate success (actually very little, a lot of it tastes “the same” to me which is a sure sign of failure). After reading the highball can post linked above, recently I asked my wife to pick me up a couple of the highball cans, and although it didn’t really seem to tickle my fancy, I was intrigued enough to buy a bottle of Suntory that came with a tumbler this past weekend – I figured at least this way I could pay around 75 yen per highball drink instead of the 150 yen the cans cost. And lo and behold, I’m liking what I’m drinking!

Mind you, Suntory’s packaging recommends a 4:1 ratio, and mine is more like 2:1! But this metallic tumbler really keeps the damn thing cold with very little ice-melting, for well near two hours.

The Japanese actress Koyuki (she was in The Last Samurai apparently, though I’ve never seen that) is Suntory’s main marketing presence for it’s whiskey/highball campaigns. I hope she gets paid a lot because I’d be willing to bet she has been a big reason for the highball’s resurgence:

This is a good overview of that resurgence.

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