Sunday, September 21, 2008

Japan Days 1 and 2

So, I had a 13 hour flight to a sport philosophy conference in Japan that got a little boring, so I thought I'd write a blog entry for the trip. If you are not interested in reading this, then don't - I won't be offended. Also, if it doesn't sound as good as our usual blog entries, then that is because my better half hasn't been able to help. Even though I know nothing about the Japanese culture or language, I had a good feeling at the beginning of the trip. At 5:50am John and I sat at the (only) gate at State College's airport waiting to board our flight. We had spent the last 25 minutes listening to a long-winded sports law professor we know talk about how annoyed he gets with "academic blow-hards" (profs that talk too much) and clean his ears and nose out with his pinky, when a woman on the other side of me threw me an elbow, saying she heard we were going to Tokyo.Yes! How providential!! This gave me an out with the sports law complainer (while John kept listening) and an in with the Japanese. The woman next to me (we'll call her Tina - I didn't catch her name but that's what she looked like) said that Yamaha paid for a vacation for her family to visit Tokyo because they had sold a lot of Rhinos and bikes at their central PA store.Tina, a caucasian, was not the expert I hoped for, but I gave her a chance anyway.

Chad: Can you tell me a bit about Tokyo?

Tina: Well, the culture is a lot different than ours.

Chad: I figured that. I don't even know the language.

Tina: Yeah, that's different than ours, too. You won't understand it.

Chad: (pause, with confused Jim Halpert look) Right. I thought so. I have a student here at PSU that's from Tokyo and she said I'll probably get lost.

Tina: Oh no, don't worry about that. They have a big sign that says "Narita Airport" when you get there and it says "Tokyo" there, too.

Chad: (long pause, with confused look) Right. Thanks. I kind of meant when I get into Tokyo. I think the pilot will get us to the airport.

Tina: Well you might get lost because you won't understand the language, but others will be able to find you.

Chad: Right. Because I'm tall and I have blond hair.

Tina: No, because you won't have a black or navy blue suit on. Everyone wears suits. There's probably like a million of them in Tokyo.

Chad: (longer pause, with confused look) Right. I thought there were more like 10 million people in Tokyo, so there's at least a million suits. But the women don't wear suits, do they?

Tina: No, but you won't be able to understand them because they're speaking Japanese. There culture is so different from ours. Oh, and by the way, remember to exchange your yen before you get back, especially if you have a lot of it. It just isn't as good back here.

Our 6am flight finally took off at 7:02.

We got into DC in plenty of time (5 hours) to catch our connection to Tokyo. John and I had some schoolwork to do so I opened my notebook and he plugged his in as we sat at our gate as far from blow-hards and central PA Japanese experts as possible. We split the difference between an old homeless (-looking) Japanese woman on one side of the room and a mother and 3-year old son on the other.The Japanese woman wasn't actually homeless, but her tattered clothing, frizzy hair, and the way she intermittently coughed up phlegm into a hanky didn't help her cause at all.
The 3-year old boy, on the other hand, was not homeless. In fact, he was very mannerly for being an annoying and ranbunctious little tike. He greeted everyone that walked down the hallway by asking, "What's your name?" It was cute as he met George and said his own name was Maharis. But after meeting Carlos, Joe, Wayne, and Bob, it got old. (One wonders if a young Calvin Broadus asked a similar question often as a child before producing his first hit "What's My Name?" under his more popular name, Snoop Dogg).

We shared row 33 on our 13 hour flight with Maharis and his mother, while the (homeless) Japanese woman with a cough sat in row 34.

Japan Day 3

Armed with courage and adventurous-ness, John and I set out on our own to navigate through this land of short, pigeon-toed people that are suspect drivers. Well, actually it was more an attitude of frugality with which we set out. The guided bus tour of Tokyo for sport philosophers cost 6000 yen ($60) and we didn't want to pay that, so we opted for the "Idiot's Guide Themselves in Tokyo" tour.

Like veteran world travelers, we navigated a changeover at Tokyo's busiest subway station, going from the blue line to the orange line on our way to three tourist attractions that boasted no entrance fee. (It wasn't until the way back that we realized we had been paying the children's price at the computerized ticket booths - in Japanese, the word "children" looks like the word "one-way," which happens to look like every other word in the Japanese lexicon to non-Japanese speakers.) We walked to the Imperial Palace first. Seeing the deep moat and majestic stone walls surrounding its grounds whetted our appetite for taking in Japan's most sacred structure.
The East Gate to the Palace was closed. We couldn't read the sign but the 4'7", 90-pound guard with a scowl indicated that we should go elsewhere. We met a similar fate (and guard) at the Southeast Gate. And at the West Gate. And at the North Gate. It just so happens that John and I were mistaken when we understood the Imperial Palace website's claim that "No Admission will be taken on Thursdays." We thought that meant we didn't have to pay. They meant it was closed.While the 2-mile walk around the Palace gave us a beautiful view of the entire aforementioned moat and stone wall, it also led us to our next destination - the Imperial Gardens. Deceivingly, when the Japanese talk about gardens, they really only mean "grassy areas with trees." We had seen one of those before so we left, toured the National Art Museum and caught the subway back. John enjoys the subway because its the only time he's taller than a large group of people unless he goes back to his elementary school. I enjoy the subway because I get a chance to mingle with the "rocars" - the people that are from the area.

Congratulating ourselves on our ability to navigate congested and foreign commuter traffic, we hopped off the train and went directly across the street to the local grocer for some sushi. Unfortunately, with sushi in hand, we took a wrong turn out of the grocery store. An hour and fifteen minutes later we still hadn't completed the seven minute walk to our hotel. After unsuccessfully asking directions to a Japanese cop who pulled out a Japanese map that looked like some of the abstract art we saw at the museum, we were officially lost. So, with our tails between our legs we found a park pavilion where a homeless man had just vacated a picnic table and sat down to eat our raw fish and rice. Sad and dejected, we ate in silence except for the piped in American oldies music that made the lingering smell of homeless men oddly familiar.

As we left the park, set on retracing every one of our missteps, we noticed an outdoor croquet field across the street ... that we had seen earlier that morning ... from our bedroom windows ... next door to our hotel.

Japan - The Highlight

What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? In Japan they call it Sumo wrestling, a traditional sport to the gods of Shintoism that has become one of Japan's most lucrative professional sports. I have wanted to see this sporting event more than any other since I found out about it from a Japanese foreign exchange student I met in the first grade.
What happens when you put a 6'3", 165-pound sport philosophy grad student in a building full of 400+ pound professional wrestlers that are built like rhinos? The grad student gets hurt. No, I did not actually get into the ring with the pony-tailed human road blocks - I would've come back in two pieces. And no, I did not get a chance to put on the sumo uniform - it looks like they're wearing thongs the size of papasan chairs (neither skinny nor fat guys should ever wear what they wear).

I did, however, sustain an injury that prevented me from ever trying my hand (and gut) at Sumo. While walking around the crowded concourse of Ryogoku Kokugikan trying to find the gate to my seat, I made a fatal mistake that changed the course of the rest of my trip. I wore flip-flops. In all my haste to get to my seat and watch the scantily clothed obese men squat and ram into each other, I did my own ramming. While looking to my left and walking to my right, I rammed into an ex-sumo-wrestler-turned-usher. As I rammed into him, my upper body went flying backwards and my lower body got caught underneath him. My entire foot slid underneath his except for my right toenail, which violently ripped off my foot and stuck into the weight-flattened rubber sole of his shoe.
"Yeeooow!" My primal scream sounded eerily similar to the Japanese word for "fire." My opponent (usher) quickly realized my mistake and calmed the frenzied crowd before they hit the exits. Embarrassed and in a great deal of pain, he then showed me to my seat. From my nose-bleed seat, I wondered, "do sumo wrestlers ever lose toenails?" Many of them had their ankles and feet wrapped in ace bandages and one of the yokozunas (grand champions) even had what looked like an athletic tape diaper underneath his papasan thong. I'll take nine toenails to having to wear that kind of outfit anyday.

Monday, September 1, 2008


State College, a sleepy summer mountain town of roughly 40,000 residents rapidly transforms at the end of every August into a diverse and cosmopolitan 80,000 residents electrified by the onset of football season. The average age changes from 62.4 in the summer to 21 (coincidentally) in the fall. Here are the tales of how our lives change with the advent of the student body back in action.

1. It takes twice as long to get anywhere in town. The migratory student population includes 18-21 year old Jersey kids driving expensive SUVs and living at an altogether faster pace of life (Chad needs to be reminded to look both ways before crossing the street), and international grad students trying to acclimate themselves to American culture (we heard our upstairs neighbors teaching their 3-year old "Jingle Bells" - in August!?!).
2. We were invited to our first wedding reception since becoming Keystone Staters. An alum of Chad's program exchanged vows earlier in the summer in California before having a reception back home in State College. After meeting him twice, Chad made enough of an impression on the new groom to receive an invite to the reception. Apparently impressions are easily made on this newly married sport philosopher, as Nigel the goat also received an invite. Nigel wore out his welcome quickly by drooling on the refreshments and becoming the party pooper - literally.3. The transience of move-in week on campus reverberates to the surrounding mountain towns as well, as flocks of "mountain people" swarm to the tented fields of the Grange County Fair - America's oldest covered fair. Every industrial corporation, including Kathi's employer, expects a massive decrease in production during this week as its tractor-pullin', animal-showin', tank-top-wearin', chew-spittin', cousin-datin' employees flock to the fairgrounds in neighboring Centre Hall. To fit in, Kathi had Chad wear his favorite #40 Coors Light Sterling Marlin racing shirt. It worked - as Chad fielded numerous queries about Marlin's crash at Brooklyn (we actually did not see it, but learned to act disappointed).4. To celebrate Chad's 28th birthday, Penn State invited its other 20,000 most die-hard fans for a pep rally the night before the opening game. We arrived 45 minutes early for 50th row seats to hear JoePa give a very inspirational speech about how he told President Lyndon B. Johnson to "shove it" when Johnson chose Texas as national champions instead of the undefeated Nittany Lions. Paterno's speech was so inspirational that he had students foaming at the mouth - so much so, that Kathi and Chad almost got spit on by a still-motivated fan from a 6th story apartment building later that night (beer may or may not have been a factor in the incident).5. We arrived 2 hours early for our (Penn State's) game against Coastal Carolina and got seats four rows off the field. We tried yelling at JoePa before and during the game but he didn't hear us. Unfortunately, his players and assistant coaches seem to have the same problem.6. In third-generation Carlson tradition, Kathi made Chad a red and white Waldorf Astoria cake for his birthday. This cake is time consuming and frustrating to make, but heaven-on-earth to eat. In the past, the baking of this cake has forced a normally serene Kathi to throw things, kick things, cuss, and hit the bottle in an effort to attain the frosting's right consistency. In only four short years, she is a WAWA (Waldorf Astoria World Authority). Shawna - best of luck as you make yours for Jeff.