Sunday, August 30, 2009

English Lesson: "Let's try it!"

Have you ever played darts?

No, never.

Me neither. There's a British pub in my neighborhood. It has a dart board. Do you want to play?

Sure! Let's challenge!


The Japanese language uses a lot of English words. But Japanese often uses these words in ways different from their original meaning. One example is "challenge." In the case of Kelly and Naomi, "challenge" doesn't make sense. Naomi should have said:

Sure! Let's try it!

We use "challenge" for starting a contest or a battle:

I challenge you to a game of darts.
The contender challenged the champion but lost.

"Challenge" is often used as a noun for a task or goal that will require a lot of hard work and luck:

Getting astronauts to the moon is a big challenge for NASA.

You can also use "challenging" as an adjective:

The most challenging part of this exam is the vocabulary section.

You got it? Okay. I challenge you to make three sentences using "challenge."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ooohs and Aaahs by the Lake

Lake Biwa (琵琶湖), the biggest lake in Japan, is just a short train ride from Kyoto. At the beginning of August, Otsu, the biggest city on the shores of the lake, has a fireworks show that's worth seeing. So we decided to take a look. Plus it was a chance to check out the lake, which we had never done.

The initial plan was to go early, rent bikes and ride around the lake and then, in the late afternoon, grab a spot for the fireworks. Well, the problems is, there is no bike path or even foot path along the lake in Otsu. On the closest road to the lake, you can barely see the water most of the time. It felt like we were biking in any old urban area in Japan, so the ride lost its appeal pretty quickly. I didn't even bother to stop and take pictures of the lake.

We were gonna eat lunch by the lake but ended up at Omi Shrine (近江神宮) instead:

Squint real hard and you'll see that I'm wearing my "Hiroshima Loves Peace" t-shirt. Unfortunately, it was August 8; I was two days late.

After lunch, we cycled around town and found some streets near the JR station that reminded Yuki of side streets in Kyoto. Many of the buildings looked old school:

By 4 p.m., the main street from the station to the lake was closed to cars and food stalls were beginning to open. Lots of people were making their way down to the show. Crowd control was very impressive. Also impressive was the statue of the exhibitionist near the station:





We realized we didn't have a picnic blanket or a plastic sheet to put on the ground so we ended up spending a good chunk of time hunting one down. Back by the lake, we found a spot to our liking, laid out the plastic sheet and held it down with rocks and pins and went back to the station to return our bikes. It's great that you can just leave your plastic sheet on the ground and no one would mess with it. When we picked out our spot, our part of the lakeside park was already covered with (mostly) blue sheets.

The walk back to the park was jumble of people:

We grabbed some food and sat down on our sheet for a two-hour wait until the show. At dusk, I spotted the riverboat Michigan:

I wonder how much it costs to watch the fireworks from the boat. Finally, showtime arrived. The first few rockets were weak. I started to think that we had waited for two hours for a shitty show. And that's when the sky lit up with bursts:

I tried to get some good snaps of the show but ended up failing about 90 percent of the time. That's a horrible batting average.

The fireworks show I can compare it to is the Niigata City fireworks show over the Shinano River. I used to think that one was the most impressive. Biwako's leaves a lasting impression, too. It's worth a trip back to the lake next year.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

English Lesson: "What a rally!"

Did you watch the final game of the Summer High School Baseball Tournament?

Here are the highlights:

Of course I was rooting for the team from Niigata. Which team were you cheering for?

The game was really exciting in the 9th inning. The team from Niigata was behind, 10-4. They needed a big rally -- six runs! -- to tie the game. They almost made it but lost 10-9. It was an impressive effort.

Sometimes, when a team is behind and needs a rally, the players wear rally caps:

I wonder how often that strategy works.

Do you have a favorite baseball player? Which star do you root for?
I follow Major League Baseball so I'll introduce a few Major League stars to you.

Joe Mauer plays for the Minnesota Twins. He is one of the best hitters in baseball. This year, his batting average is even higher than Ichiro's. Plus, he has 25 home runs and 78 runs batted in (RBI) so far. The most amazing thig is, he is a catcher. Usually, catchers are not great hitters so Mauer is an exceptional player.

Albert Pujols is the best hitter in baseball. He plays first base for the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols hits over .300 every year with lots of home runs and RBIs. This year, he's leading the National League in home runs, but it's a slim lead. If he stays healthy for his career, he can break a lot of records. Take your vitamins, Albert!

My favorite player is Mariano Rivera, the closer for the New York Yankees. In November, he will become 40 years old. That's not so old, except when you're a baseball player. No matter. Rivera is still the best closer in baseball.

When he enters the game at Yankee Stadium, it feels like this:

Rivera and Metallica's "Enter Sandman" are a perfect match.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer Gifts

We received a couple of seasonal care packages recently. Yuki's Mom sent us some udon (稲庭うどん) and soumen. (小豆島そうめん) They're usually eaten cold in the summer; you boil and wash the noodles then eat them by dipping them in a soy-based sauce.

Speaking of summer foods, our friend Aya sent us edamame and a watermelon.
Take a look:

This kind of edamame, which is from Niigata, is called chamame (茶豆).
If you read Chinese characters, you'll notice the first character means tea.
That character also stands for the color brown.
Chamame gets its name from the brownish tint of the skin of the edamame bean.

This beauty was born and raised in Uonuma, Niigata,
which is famous for super-expensive rice
(Uonuma rice is a brand name in Japan,
the Louis Vuitton of rice)
and the noted actor Ken Watanabe,
perhaps the only rice farmer ever to get an Academy Award nomination. ; )

An even more beautiful view.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

English Lesson: "The de Young Museum is in Golden Gate Park."

Articles drive students of English crazy. How can you learn to use them correctly?
Practice, my grasshopper, practice.

Learn the rules. Here's one:

Museums use "the":
I've been to the de Young Museum many times.

It was great living just ten minutes away from one of the best museums in San Francisco. Yuki and I went to a bunch of terrific exhibits, including the Gilbert and George exhibition and the Chihuly exhibition:

The tower of the de Young also has a great view of the western part of San Francisco. If it's a foggy day, you can admire the photo mural instead:

Nope, this photo wasn't taken on a foggy day.

My favorite museum in Japan is the Hakone Open-Air Museum. It's a bit out of the way, which makes it an even more worthwhile trip. I've only been there once, and I would love to go again.

Museums with nicknames also use "the." For example, the Met is the biggest museum in New York City. Just about every time I go there, I start in the cluster of rooms that contains Masterpieces of Western Art and I get exhausted making my way through them.

A nickname that doesn't use "the" is MoMA. It stands for the Museum of Modern Art. New York has a MoMA. So does San Francisco. Do you know of any other MoMAs?

Parks don't use "the":
Golden Gate Park is the biggest park in San Francisco.

Did you know that buffaloes live in Golden Gate Park? Or that you can play golf there...

Yuki's mom is approaching the tee!

...and a get a good BBQ sandwich? Right, Phil? Next time, let's try the BBQ ribs.

The U.S. has a bunch of great national parks. I've been to a number of them. Yuki and I saw Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park. Joe and I hiked in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Which one do you like better, Yuki?

Yuki in action in front of El Capitan in Yosemite.

Do you have a favorite park or museum?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ponyo Ponyo Ponyo

What does Ponyo want?

There is a theory about the formation of the self that goes something like this: Just after you are born, you cannot tell the difference between yourself and a chair. Of course you don’t know what a chair is, but in fact, that isn’t important to you at all. You only know that you are
, and you are the only thing that there is. The chair is you. The air is you. Your mother is you. In this state of being, you are everything and everything is you. And the only thing that concerns you is needs. You need food. You need to sleep. You need to do number one and number two.

But of course you are wrong. Your conception of everything is wrong. You begin to realize that the chair is not you. It is something else. And the fact that there are other things is the first thing that we ever learn. And it is very frightening.

It is as if you are suddenly broken into a million pieces. What was once whole and full and complete has become fragmented, forever separated. Who are you? That chair is not you. It is not a part of you. What are you?

Can you picture yourself? I mean your entire self? Of course you can. You’ve looked at yourself in a mirror. You know what you look like. You have seen the entire you. But what about when you were born? And after you realized that your idea of you had been totally wrong?

Who are you? What are you? You realize that the right arm is a part of you. The left arm? Yes, that too. And those legs. And that part near the bottom that gets wet a number of times a day. And the part where food goes into. All those parts are parts of you. But they are parts. And you can’t get a sense of the whole. What is the whole of you?

Sarasaちゃん asks: "Are you sure you're not me?"

At first, you felt only needs. But now, you feel something different. You feel want, which is different from need. Without satisfying needs, you will die. You are sure of that. You need to end the feeling of hunger. You need to relieve the pressure of number one and number two. Without satisfying wants, you won’t die but you’ll be miserable. You want to be whole again. You want to be able to feel that you are everything and everything is you again. You want to be full and complete again. But of course it is not possible. Once you realize that your idea of you is wrong, you cannot go back to that sense of being whole ever again. You are forever separated from that content feeling of completeness. You want but you can’t get what you want. As Morpheus said:

Um, welcome to spelling class.

Wants and Needs. Wholeness and Separation. Those concepts kept coming to mind while I watched Miyazaki Hayao ’s most recent film, “Ponyo.” The most powerful scene in the film is Ponyo’s storm. It’s a whopper of a storm. Maybe she didn’t mean to whip up such a frenzy. She may not even realize she had caused the mess. That storm came because she wanted something that we have all wanted since we realized that the chair was really a chair and not us. She wanted to end the Separation. Ah, but in her case, it’s separation with a small “s.”

Like Chagall. But, you know, for the kids.

“Ponyo” is a love story for the kindergarten set. Little boy meets little fish. Little fish and little boy bond. Father of fish comes to take little fish home. Little fish wants to be with little boy again. The want that the little fish feels is the most powerful force in the film, so great that it can change a fish into a girl and create a tuna-powered storm that dwarfs fishing boats and floods a town.

The storm is Miyazaki’s way of depicting want. And maybe it is the best depiction of want I have ever seen. Want is the storm that we make and we really don’t care about what the storm does or who the storm affects. We just want to be at the tip of that storm, pistoning our chubby infant legs so that we maintain our position at the front and get where we want to go. The younger you are, the more powerful that storm can get. And the easier it is to maintain that storm.

Ponyo’s storm is a mighty creation because she is, after all, a child. And anyone, from children to the elderly, can understand the power of that creation. Ponyo never once looks back while she is at the front. No, because her sense of want is supremely powerful, like the want you felt when you realized that you are not who you thought. But as I watched it, I was exhilarated and at the same time horrified. It’s one heck of a storm, and it can wreak havoc.

After the storm, the movie loses steam. It starts to deal with another character’s want and that doesn’t seem as compelling as Ponyo’s. The moments that will stay with you are Ponyo's -- when she wills herself arms and legs; when she makes Sosuke's toy into a sea-faring vessel; when she discovers ham, and later, ramen:

"あ〜〜〜〜〜〜〜!!"               "おいしそう〜〜!!"

"Ponyo" isn't quite up to the standards of "Totoro," the last film Miyazaki made with the kiddie set in mind. It's hard to be perfect twice, I guess.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

English Lesson: All about "Back"

Bo: What did you do last weekend?
Abe: I backed to my hometown.

Let's look at Abe's answer because it doesn't make sense. What is the verb in the sentence? "Back." When we use "back" as a verb, it means to support or endorse. For example:

Newspapers in the U.S. always choose to support a presidential candidate a few days before the election. Last year, The New York Times backed Barack Obama while The New York Post backed John McCain.

You can also use "back" at the racetrack for the horse you gambled on.
I backed the wrong horse in the last race and lost $100.

So, what should Abe have said?
Abe: I went back to my hometown.
go back = return

Phrasal Verbs
back up (driving) - During the driving test, you have to show the proper way to back up while parking.

A while back, my co-workers and I got into a conversation about what specific things turned each of us on. Yes, we were talking after work. I forgot most of the answers but there's one I still remember. One of the teachers said she really liked watching her boyfriend park his car. She said there is something very sexy about watching a guy look over his shoulder while turning the steering wheel, especially because he uses just one hand to steer. I wonder what the other hand is doing.


back up
(computers) - You should always back up your files. If your computer crashes, you may lose all your work.

back off - After their first date, John called Kelly every day, sometimes twice a day. That's just too much. He needs to back off a bit.