Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Shameful Penis

So today I went to an onsen for the fist time in several months.

God it was good. Several different baths, with different solutions of mineral salts with various beneficial effects upon a tired teacher's body. Outside bath. Massage pool. Sauna.

But it occurred to me that Japanese men are ashamed of their penises. 90% of men, though otherwise completely naked, were walking around with a face cloth held discreetly over their genitals. Funnily enough, I don't seem to remember this practice when I first came to Japan some 10 years ago. Is it really a recent phenomenon?

Well, it is only relatively recently in Japanese society that the bulk of onsens have been divided into mens' and womens' sections. Pre-war it was very rare. Everybody just washed up together, a healthy and open tradition compared to the Victorian prudery of the West. But in recent decades mixed bathing has become the exception rather than the rule. Who knows why. Maybe it was in unconscious emulation of the West. Maybe a consequence of the post-war consumerist objectification of women - after all, if a woman's body is so special, you can't just give away the sight of it for free! Maybe it was a response to the growing perversity of Japanese men ... let's face it, I wouldn't want wanking lecherous 40-year-old virgin underwear-stealing mummy's boys leering at me either. Whatever the reason, mixed onsens are few and far between these days.

But why should men, Japanese or otherwise, be ashamed of their penis? Doesn't every man have one? In a room full of men, who are you gonna offend? Is each individual really of the belief that his penis is so much smaller than his companions' that it must be covered up in shame? Surely that can't be possible. There is only one possible conclusion. There must be something inherently shameful about the penis itself, so shameful that it is covered up even in a Japanese bathhouse.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the penis is the most shameful part of the body. It is the last thing to be exposed to a lover; the most inappropriate thing imaginable to show in public, an object so taboo that I feel mildly embarrassed just writing about it. In most places in the world you'll be arrested more quickly for bringing a penis out in public than for bringing out a gun, sword, knife or rocket launcher. Hollywood movies will depict murder, assault, suicide, slavery, genocide, torture and Sarah Palin becoming president. They have no shame. Yet they won't show you a penis. Go figure.

I don't want to be ashamed of my penis. I want it to swing free. I want to feel the breeze. I want to glory in my genitalia.

I want to liberate the penis.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Running a marathon in Japan

So three weeks ago I ran my first full marathon.

It had been, of course, a dream for some time.

But running a marathon takes a combination of elements that are often not always available. You need to be ready to make a big committment to training. 42 kilometres is a distance that demands respect - it cannot be done without the training. And the training takes time. A lot of time and energy and psychological wherewithal.

So you need to make that committment, a committment for several months. Running several times a week. No late Friday or Saturday nights on the booze, because you know you will just not get up the next day and train.

Yep, the training is the hardest part. 200 hundred hours or more. I have often felt sorry for people who do shorter sports- sprinters, polevaulters, gymnasts. All that training and 1 mistake can ruin it all come competition time. A figure skater who trains for years to make the Olympics only to slip on a patch of rough ice, fall over and lose years of her life. That's not an issue in the marathon, as the hardest work is done in the training and the actual day is just the inevitable result, good or bad.

So my job gives me free time, back early enough most afternoons to run, and each glorious Tuesday all my own. That became my long run, starting at 10 kms and eventually weekly in the 30s. My longest was 38. Everything after 30 hurts.

Every time.

When the day came I was confident I could finish, just keen to do as well as I could. When you put in those hours, you start thinking about what your finish time will be, because you inevitably want to get the most out of your training that you can, get the most return on the pain you have invested.

The marathon is popular in Japan. It fits well with the Japanese psyche, the paradigm of grim endurance. And make no mistake: long distance running is about putting up with pain. And the solo aspect works well too; despite their much vaunted reputation for teamwork, the Japanese are hopeless at teamsports. Teamsports require leadership and flexibility.

So on the day I was one of a mere handful of foreigners amongst 10,000 Japanese running the Sakura marathon in Chiba. It was very well-organized, staffed and serviced.

And extremely cold. The temperature never topped 6 degrees and was often close to zero. Cold even for a marathon, when in general you want it to be cold.

The start was at a stadium. The feeling in the air was quite sober, unlike the atmosphere at Western races. A few people had funny costumes or hats, including a trio dressed as Ultraman. The gun went off. We were a couple of minutes behind the starting line but microchips we were wearing recorded the exact time we cross the starting line. I was with my friend Dave. We had often trained together, and planned to stay together for a large part of the race. Unfortunately that was not to happen, as Dave has toilet troubles and after the first 5 kilometres he stepped off to pee and I never saw him again. It was like he had been taken out by a sniper in mid sentence. I shall miss him.

That left me and the entire nation of Japan. Dave had been thinking that we had been starting too fast and should slow down. Left to myself, I decided to let my body follow its own pace and speeded up slightly. I settled into my stride. I was not yet tired and I was passing people. To my surprise one of the people I passed was the 4 hour 30 minute pacemaker. One of the disadvantages of competing in a country where you miss a lot of the language is that you miss things. If I had known there were pacemakers things may have gone differently. I resolved to keep passing people until I reached the 4 hour pacemaker and stick with him. In the event I never managed that.

I passed a lot of people. Up ahead I could see one of the costumed entrants, a young man in a yellow full body lycra suit and an umbrella hat. He was my next target. I did not want to be beaten by a cartoon character. For a long time I held him in sight, but he was passing people as I was and I gained on him only slowly. At about 15 km I stopped to pee and lost a lot of ground. My pace at that time was good. I was thinking I would keep the same pace until the 30km mark and speed up if possible, finishing in a negative split. At the halfway mark there was a timer displayed on the road that read 2:03. I was cautiously optimistic about finishing in under 4 hours.

After the halfway point I started to take drinks and sweets at the rest stops regularly. Until then I had only drunk once. After about the 25km mark I was still gaining slowly on Yellow Man but now I was starting to hurt. I was familar with the feeling but I was worried about how long there was to go. After a while the gap between me and Yellow Man grew no closer even though I was still passing people. By the time I passed 30km I was in pain; my goal was merely to maintain my current pace and then see if I had anything left at the very end. I stopped to pee again; it seemed to take a long time and when I rejoined the pack the Yellow Man was 400 metres ahead.

It really began to hurt. Each kilometre marker seemed much further than the previous one. Were they lengthening the kilometre as the race went on? I concentrated on maintaining my pace. In my mind I went through quotes from the movie 300, imagining myself holding the line against the enemy. I can do this. I can do this. It was still gruesomely cold. After 35 km the pain became agony. All around me the Japanese were moaning. It was the first time I had ever heard Japanese express pain; normally they are a stoic, reticent people. I had ceased to pass runners and concentrated on holding my spot; next to me an old man grunted "Oi!", "Oi!" with every breath. The strain was etched on every face around me. I knew I would finish now and exerted all my effort into not slowing down, holding the pace. Some minutes were easier than others. I swore I would never do this again. My left knee, never in good condition, was a ball of flame. The last 3km seemed to take forever. People were lining the course cheering us on. I just wanted it to end. The last 400 meters was a hill climb back up the stadium. It was Hell, but it was a short Hell and a different Hell to the flat. I shift and place my weight on the balls of my feet and keep running.

My finish time was 4:05. I wonder if I could have done better but I doubt it. When I finished I had nothing left. Nothing at all. I don't know if there will be a next time but if there is I would like to get under 4 hours. But I am not sure; when I started writing this I was excited about doing another marathon but near the end the memory of the pain came back and I have my doubts.

After the race I waited for Dave to finish (toilet stops had cost him 25 minutes) and we ate and ate. One of the good things about a marathon is you can eat anything you want when you finish. You have just lost 2 kilograms after all. And the fast Japanese food available was good: fried chicken and fried noodles, hotdogs and okinomiyaki pancakes.

I think I'll start training again.

Monday, April 05, 2010

More on whale meat

...being served in the university cafeteria.

I took this pic of クジラカツ (whale cutlet) at my university cafeteria. Didn't taste bad either; better than the curry. It cost about 6 dollars, a bit pricier than their usual fare of noodles and sliced beef on rice.

In universities in the West it would be inconceivable to serve up whale meat in the cafeteria. There would be riots and demonstrations. You would probably get less of an outcry if you put baby meat on the menu.

Part of the difference is the Japanese attitude toward whaling, but another part is the political atmosphere at universities here. There is none to speak of. No gender studies departments pushing political correctness. No campus clubs advocating action to protect the environment. No schools of thought, inside or outside classrooms, looking at society or history or politics from a leftist perspective.

The whale cutlet was consumed on a table surrounded by other tables full of students from the kendo club, the football club, the dance club, students studying chemistry, students applying makeup, students sitting in their class groups, students glancing shyly at me, students talking about teachers or tennis or the food or their boyfriends.

It is true that the combative atmosphere of the 80's, let alone the 60's, is fading from Australian universities. Full fee paying students have sacrificed for their place in the system and are therefore invested in protecting that system rather than rocking the boat.

But my Japanese university is ridiculous. Can't somebody be upset about something?