Worst Bubbles Ever.

(WARNING: Please don't read this during dinner. Actually, just don't read it.)

I knew something was up the moment the Sato, a manager at the Roppongi
Hills Club, gave me the envelope. He looked over his
shoulder--twice--and then slipped it into my hand before I could get a
good look at it. Alarm bells sounded instantly.

"You know what to do, right?" His eyes shifted around the bar.
"Hmmm... Nope," I said, peering at the envelope suspiciously. It was
large enough for a generous nickel-bag, made of surgery-blue plastic.
My name was printed on a label on the front, above the words
"Microguard Food Service Research" in Japanese. Curious, I started to
lift the flap.
"Ha-ha!" Sato laughed nervously. "You needn't open that here."
"Oh. Right," I said, feeling more mystified than ever. I hastily
shoved it into my pocket, embarassed for no discernible reason. "What
is it, again?"
"Ha-ha!" Sato laughed again. "Ask Teranaka--he'll explain," he said,
and disappeared.

I asked Teranaka. Teranaka laughed, refused to meet my gaze and
engrossed himself in cleaning the coffee machine. Not really wanting
to know the answer, I repeated my question anyway. "Ask Kurihara," he
said, and scurrried around the corner of the bar. Kurihara had the day

I investigated that evening when I got home. Inside the envelope I
found what appeared to be... bubbles? A narrow bubble wand in a tube
of blue gel. I tried to blow bubbles through the wand but the gel just
flapped around listlessly. Apparently it wasn't bubbles. Well, no one
wanted to tell me what the damn thing was, and I didn't feel like
embarrassing myself by asking anymore, so I did the natural thing. I
threw it away and hoped no one would ever mention it again. An absurd
hope, of course. A different manager, Kobayashi, approached me a few
weeks later, just as I had forgotten about the sinister blue envelope

"Phirripu," he said. "Did you get it?"
"Get it?"
"The kenben. Did you bring it?"
"Kenben?" I was blank.
"Ah, yes. Ha. You remember?"
"Oh. That. Yeah, I got it."
"Where is it?"
"Um, I threw it away."
"You threw it away?"
"Hahahaha. Yeah, kinda."
He pulled another out of his pocket and slid it across the counter
like it was full of very illegal drugs. Damn. Dude was prepared.
"Here. We need this back by Saturday."
"OK... Only, what is it?"
"Eh? It's for your, um," he started searching for the English word.
"It's for your store."
"My store?"
"Your... stole."
A horrible realization dawned on me.
"Ohhhh.... my... seriously?"
I couldn't imagine what they needed that for.

Thus began a monthly ritual that I'm still not particularly
comfortable with. Management is very serious about preventing an
outbreak of the gastrointestinal norovirus, a bug that causes diarrhea
and spreads easily if employees don't take extreme, quarantine-level
precautions like washing their hands with soap. Every month everyone
gets a surgery-blue stool sample envelope and forms shuffling, guilty
lines for the toilets.

Japanese toilets are more high-tech than the first space shuttle. No
service is beneath a Japanese toilet, whether it's the water spouts,
the heated seats, or the drier fans. Everything is adjustable by a
remote control set in the arm rest (yes, the arm rest). There's even a
remote-control flush button, in case the handle is just too much
trouble. I find these toilets hilarious because someone has to design

I imagine R&D rooms where Japanese engineers study diagrams of people
crapping, taking notes with studious expressions. Or the studies
scientists must conduct to determine the optimal position for a water
spout, and how much they must have to pay the participants in those
studies. (They probably just use convicts.) There are probably laws in
Toilet Seat Ergonomics Science governing things too scatological even
for British television. Koizumi's Ratio of Hair to Fan Power. Abe's
Laws of Seat Temperature Tolerance. Fukuda's Table of Shit Types.

I'm a bit surprised that there's no Stool Sample Collection feature in
Japanese toilets, but if the dreaded norovirus continues to decimate
the populations of Europe and Asia, no doubt this convenience will be
included soon enough. Instead, employees slink into the men's locker
room and drop the (hopefully carefully-sealed) envelope into a
cardboard box marked with a big yellow arrow, then run away. Everyone
carefully avoids the box at all other times.

The monthly ritual is discussed pretty openly among the staff. It
leads to scenarios like when one of the cuter waitresses asked me, in
a weirdly flirty tone of voice, if I remembered to bring my stool
sample today. During dinner. I'm not sure why she wanted to know; I
half-expected her to follow up with, "Can I see it?"

I have overheard discussions between managers about whether certain
waitresses are able to, uh, produce results on time. I, myself, have
been been the subject of such discussions in full earshot of
everybody. Unfortunately it was around the same time that I was also
discovering the inhibitive properties of a rice-heavy diet.

"Phirripu," said Masunaga, yet another manager, "here's your kenben.
Are you able to get one out today? Because it's due in two days."
"Um," I said, not knowing the appropriate Japanese. She switched to
English for the one waitress who couldn't understand it.
"If you can't poop today, you should tell me. I can have the deadline
extended for you."
"Um, OK. I can't poop today." (I'm still astonished I that even had
this conversation.)
"OK, I'll tell them." She made a big "X" next to my name on a list
that was sitting out in the open on the bar. I noticed "X"s next to
other employees' names as well, but nothing would have persuaded me to
investigate who could deliver the goods and who couldn't. "Please poop
by Saturday."

I said I'd try.


Mr. Miyagi Must Make Mean Manhattans

Tomorrow is a national holiday, to my indescribable delight, so tonight I attended a small gathering at a friend's apartment in the suburbs. I provided the drinks and my friend made food, and I'm so stuffed now I can hardly move.

I made two cocktails for the occasion, fairly simple twists on standards. Before dinner we had Yuzu Sidecars made with Courvoisier, Cointreau and fresh-squeezed yuzu juice instead of lemon juice. (A yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit very similar to a lemon, but maybe a little more pungent.) With desert I made Maccha Brandy Alexanders. Maccha is powdered green tea used in Japanese tea ceremony. It's very bitter and a little goes a long way, but it worked quite well shaken with cognac, creme de cacao and cream.

I was happy to be able to come up with some drinks for the event, because I haven't been thinking about new cocktails at all in the past six months. My studies (if you can call them that) at the Roppongi Hills Club have been a back-to-basics approach: classic recipes (often lifted directly from the Savoy Cocktail Book) and the Japanese way of making them.

There's a lot to learn. My martini-stirring technique is coming along but my cocktail shake is still far from perfect. The difference between the other bartender and me is obvious. There's clearly a lot of practice involved, and the Japanese, ever-obsessive about such matters, spend hours learning and mastering the technique. But I don't have it yet; something's eluding me.

For research purposes I went last night to my Saturday-night spot, Lady Jane Booze and Jazz. LJBJ is a jazz club in my neighborhood, a very cool one with an extensive selection of obscure liquors on one wall and an extensive collection of jazz records on another. After listening to my iPod for six months I have become thoroughly disenchanted with the sound of .mp3s. Once a skeptic and a naysayer, I now completely understand the appeal of some good, warm-sounding vinyl.

So after my marathon double shift on Saturdays I usually find myself against the dark wood bar of LJBJ, admiring the jazz posters pinned to the ceiling and talking to the bartenders over a fifteen-dollar, two-ounce manhattan. After working fifteen hours straight, I feel like I've earned one expensive, carefully-made drink. I've learned a lot just talking with these guys and watching what they show me.

Tanaka, the head bartender, told me that Japanese bartenders fill a shaker with rice and practice shaking that, listening to the noise of the uncooked rice for rhythm. He also said that I would be able to tell if my shake is correct by filling a shaker with ice, water and maccha, the aforementioned powdered green tea. If my shake was good, the maccha would be dissolved in the water. If my shake was off then the maccha would be lumpy.

It doesn't matter if these little bits of lore are true measures of skill, or if they're nothing more than the bartender's equivalent of tying a cherry stem with my tongue. It's fascinating just to know that bartenders throughout Tokyo, on their days off, are filling shakers with rice and concentrating for hours on the sound like a percussionist. The dedication to focus and control is awe-inspiring.

When I was ten and taking tae-kwan-do, I broke a board with my bare hands. I have no idea how this was possible. I remember holding an inch-thick board in my hand and striking it with my fist. Then I remember watching the board tumble out of my hand in two pieces, broken on the first attempt. I also remember the shocked expression on my face. Since then I have tried occasionally to break a board with my fist but have never succeeded again. For some reason this came to mind last Saturday, when I learned how to crack ice with a knife.

We have changed the ice program at the Roppongi Hills Club. Instead of buying bags of ice--wonderful ice though it was--we are now hand-cracking our own cubes from massive blocks. Of course there is a right way and a wrong way to do it and I spent most of Saturday night practicing, a block of ice in my rapidly-numbing left hand and a chopper in my right, tapping away.

Cracking one's own ice cubes is a very soothing act (once your hand loses feeling). You can do it with an old, crappy knife if you don't care about the blade. You're not cutting the ice, you're cracking it, so the blade's sharpness is irrelevant. Strength is irrelevant, too. Ice will absorb violent attacks like stone, but light strokes will send chips flying. You could spend the entire evening futilely hacking at a block of ice where a few light taps would usually do the trick.

Light strokes are surprisingly effective. Hold the block in your hand and lay the blade against it. Start tapping quickly and gently, keeping the blade along the same line at all times. Smoothly increase the strength of the strokes, but never get to the point where you're hacking. Control yourself. Since you're holding the cube in your hand it is important to "snap" the blade up afterwards. If the cube suddenly breaks, the knife will not follow through and cut your hand. This snap also adds power to the strokes.

Rather than "cutting" the ice, the goal is to send shock waves through the block that crack it clean and straight down the middle. The blade should strike the same spot repeatedly with a ringing, metallic sound. If it sounds like it's "crunching", if you can't keep to the same line, or if ice shards are flying around then you're just chipping at the surface. You want to hear the clean, high-pitched chink of the entire edge striking the ice at once, distributing force evenly along a single plane through the cube. Ice fragments should be minimal.

If this technique is observed properly, shock waves will cause a long, straight crack to appear almost immediately and blocks of ice the size of my thigh can be cut in clean halves with a few strokes. I have this sense that people who are really good at this can cut a block with a single stroke, like the Karate Kid driving a nail into a board. Maybe after twenty years' practice, I'll be there, too.

Spring is Coming.

It's been a while since I wrote last, and it was one of those silences that got harder to break with every week that passed. I got back from England a few days into January and suddenly found I had nothing to say. It's a strange situation for someone who usually writes to excess.

Nothing's too new, is part of the problem. I'm in a bit of a rut, maybe. I exist in the gray spaces between days and nights; I wake before the sun comes up and arrive at my windowless dungeon as day arrives. I get home from my morning shift just before noon and usually take a nap. It's been so damn cold that I only want to huddle in my room until evening rolls and then trudge back to Berlitz for my night shift. I'm back home and in bed before night has properly fallen, usually. I have this feeling that I'm in hibernation mode right now. Spring is coming, and then I will finally be able to come out of the little shell I've been hiding in.

I've grown pretty used to this routine, the six-day weeks, the long, pointless breaks in the afternoon. Which is not to say I enjoy it. But I stopped feeling sorry for myself long ago, once I realized that most of my Japanese students, who make about what I make, also work from about 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., except they don't get the long lunch break in the middle. They work straight through. Most of them would love to work six hours a day in a foreign country. So what's my problem?

I've made so many plans, this dark winter, it's become hard to keep track of them all. I've planned trips to every continent on the globe, contemplated dozens of career changes and considered schools of every major and vocation. My latest plan is to save up enough money to buy a motorcycle next spring and explore South America for about six months. Seriously. That's fifteen months from now. I don't even know what I'll be doing next week, or who I'll be, but I keep making these absurd long-range plans.

There's anything wrong with that, but it does make me impatient. Last week I was stewing and fretting: "Why don't I have that motorcycle yet? Why? Why?!" Chill, dude. I need to learn the difference between planning and preparation. There is a difference.

Barely six months ago I was eagerly planning Tokyo. Have I given up so easily? I've realized all my grandiose plans amount to: "Anything else." I'm lucky to be here, even if I whine about teaching English occasionally. If I left, I would miss Tokyo. I'm trying to remember that, these days. There are still things to be done in this city.

It's been hard to move, these past few months. Literally hard to move; I've been sluggish from cold and malaise. The thermometers in my house have been hovering around 45ºF, sometimes dipping into the thirties. I can see my breath in every room. It's unimaginably cold and it sucks, especially showering and shaving. We have heaters, but they dry out one's throat terribly, and can lead to a cold. "IF (do OR don't) THEN damned."

But spring is coming, and I think it will be a good spring. I've been talking to a few Japanese guys about starting a band, and we jammed last week. I've found a jazz instructor and a mesh-headed silent drumset for under $400 which I may buy. Soon I can also buy a bike and take to the streets. I've decided it's time to start living a little more, setting some things in motion. Enjoying myself more.

Still not sure when I'm coming back, or if I'll even be returning to Minneapolis if I decide to leave Tokyo. Earliest date: September. Latest date: Never. More specifically than that, well, I have stopped making those kinds of plans.