Wednesday, May 19, 2004

NOT QUITE OF MONTREAL: An interview with Jean Snow 

Jean Snow is THE Tokyo-based, thirtysomething blogger extraordinaire, originally hailing from Canada. The number of people who still haven't seen his superlativly keen blog is thankfully growing smaller everyday. [NOTE: For the sake of readability, this interview is link free and proud to be.]


Robert Duckworth: How far back do Jean and Japan go? Can you take us back to the first encounter, through the details of the courtship and recount the consumation of the relationship?

Jean Snow: I guess this question can be answered in two ways. As a kid, most of the TV animation that I watched in French ended up being anime (some of it I knew was Japanese, some of it I only learned about later, after having met my wife and talking about shows that we watched as kids). Then in the mid-nineties, Pizzicato Five released an album in North America through Matador Records, MADE IN USA (and my whole love affair with the Shibuya-kei scene developed from that), and Otomo Katsuhiro's AKIRA made it's American debut (which got me into manga). But the more direct answer would be to say that it started after I met my wife, who is Japanese, in China (we were both students there). We decided to move to Tokyo so that she could finish her degree (she's still going, now doing her doctors at Tokyo University). I fell in love with the place, and I've been here pretty much since.

RD: Does jeansnow.net have a credenda, agenda, manifesto, or whatever? If it does, please expound on it's nature. If it doesn't, why doesn't it?

JS: It didn't really at first, but it does now. At first, the site came out of the weekly columns I used to write about my life in Tokyo for a site I started with a friend of mine (the site was to promote underground Acadian culture). After 3 and a half years of that (barely missing 2-3 weeks a year for holidays), we closed down the site, and I decided to continue on my own. Comic writer Warren Ellis had invited me to do these twice-weekly photolog dispatches from Tokyo for a site called OPi8, and after doing that for a while, I basically switched over to my own site. The site initially had more of a diary feel (like my old columns), and I would talk about anything that interested me, but the focus on all things Japan (especially Tokyo) started coming out more and more, and I can now say that the main blog feed on my site sticks to things that relate to Japan ("thrills, chills, and happy pills from the Tokyo front"). A few months ago I started a sidebar blog called TB.Selecao for things that don't necessarily relate to Japan.

RD: Who would you list as your role models, cyber or otherwise?

JS: There are quite a few people I would probably consider to be role models, basically anyone doing something that I find interesting and/or cool. Be it Momus' music and online essays, or the people behind my favorite magazines (like CASA BRUTUS for instance), I look up to the people creating the things I crave and enjoy (and wish I was creating also).

RD: How many unique visits does your webpage average a day? What was the deal with your recent problems about exceeding your bandwidth recently? What steps have you taken/will you take to solve this problem?

JS: If we look at unique visits, I estimate (it's harder to tell because of the wide use of RSS feeds these days) around 2000-3000 a day. As for the recent problems, they had to do with the site exceeding its bandwidth allowance due to so many visits (which caused the site to go down). I've already had to upgrade my hosting account once because of this, and now doing it again with my current host doesn't seem likely (I've looked around and there are much better deals out there). In the meantime I've reduced the number of posts that appear on the main page, which has helped, but the next step will be to move the site to another cheaper host.

RD: If you could have tea and cakes with any personage (past, present, or future; historcial or fictitious) who would it be and why? What kind of things would you like to talk about with them?

JS: I think it would probably be with me, in the future, to find out where this crazy non-linear life I've been leading will end up taking me. I'm constantly being pulled in different directions for various reasons, and it sometimes makes it difficult to focus on one thing (or to decide on what exactly I should be focusing my attention).

RD: Talk to me about future plans, personal, media-based, or otherwise. Are you planning to be in Japan for the duration? What about this talk I've heard about your getting a record label together?

JS: Oh, so many things, and again, so many indecisions. Right now I'm thinking that getting out of teaching would be a good idea, to let me spend more time doing the things I'm passionate about. I'm of course continuing with my site, always trying to add interesting features to it (which are often linked to whatever new technology appears, like for the start of my moblog). I would like to participate more in the organization of the types of events I keep talking about in my blog (like what I'm doing now with the Tokyo Style in Gothenburg), or even in the creation or coverage of them (it's no secret that I'm a huge magazine addict, and it's something I would certainly love to be involved with). The label is another project I have in the wings. It's still in the planning stages, but it will be small, releasing one thing at a time, and hopefully it'll get launched before the end of the year. I'd rather wait a bit before giving out any more details. As for life in Japan, well, I've learned the hard way not to plan too far ahead (but I have no plans on leaving anytime soon).

RD: What are you listening to, reading, watching these days?

JS: My two favorite records right now are Tujiko Noriko's FROM TOKYO TO NAIAGARA and Tokumaru Shugo's NIGHT PIECE. I'm also enjoying the hell out of some bootleg recordings of the Pixies reunion tour (still hoping they add a Japanese leg). I'm reading tons of magazines (CASA BRUTUS, +81, PAPER SKY, ART iT, EAT, AXIS, OK FRED, RES). I just started reading William Gibson's PATTERN RECOGNITION, and when I'm done with that I have an old cyberpunk anthology called MIRRORSHADES waiting for me. The last few graphic novels I read were Chester Brown's LOUIS RIEL, Chris Ware's QUIMBY THE MOUSE, Adrian Tomine's SUMMER BLONDE, and one of Warren Ellis' TRANSMETROPOLITAN collections. As for movies, I've mostly been watching Asian films of late, like the Korean horror/drama SORUM, Zhang Yimou's THE ROAD HOME, and WARRIORS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. The best thing I'm watching right now though is Kon Satoshi's excellent animated series, PARANOIA AGENT.

RD: OK, let's set the record straight: You're mother tongue is French, but you also speak fluent English, but you're notone of them damn Quebeckers, and you're also not from France. So what was it again that you are?

JS: I'm an Acadian (or Acadien), a French speaker from Atlantic Canada (east of Quebec). When settlers first came to Canada, they setup shop where I'm from, in the Maritimes. Our accent is quite different from the Quebecois, which caused me countless frustrations when I moved to Montreal for studies (I'd use French and they would answer me in English). The reason I'm bilingual is that where I'm from, French speakers still form the minority (about 30%), so you couldn't expect to use French everywhere you went. Growing up, I had friends that spoke only English, and of course French speakers like me. I consider myself lucky to have had access to both languages like that.

RD: Compare living in Japan to living in China. What keeps you in Japan? What keeps you going back to China for more? What keep you from going back to Canada more often?

JS: Well, after having lived in China for a bit, I found out that I never want to live there again. I just had a hard time with everyday life, with the way things were done (having to bribe the police to live in non-foreigner apartments, because the official foreigner ones were too expensive), with being the center of attention all the time (having to argue over everything, because they figured I was a stupid foreigner who had a lot of money to spend). But culturally speaking, it also didn't offer the kind of environment that I wanted/craved. This is what I found in Tokyo, and it's why I love it so much here, and why there is nowhere else in the world I'd rather be right now. As you can see in my blog, I'm in love with so many aspects of Tokyo life, be it the design-friendly environment, the cafe scene, etc. As for not going back to Canada very often, it's mostly for financial reasons (and maybe time as well).

RD: Talk to me about your job.

JS: I teach English to children aged 2-12. It's something I've done for the whole time I've been in Tokyo, with the same company (a very old publishing company called Shufu-no-Tomo). I was lucky when I first arrived here to find the job through an ad in THE JAPAN TIMES (I came here with nothing lined up), and I'm happy that ended up teaching children, as it's something I enjoy doing. I don't think I would have lasted long at the job if it would have been teaching adults. It's also a schedule that is very comfortable for me, as I just work in the afternoons, which gives me a lot of time to spend on the other things I'm interested in doing.

RD: If you got a legit email from 'Cyber Cartel X' inviting you to be the first person to on earth to get exclusive rights to use their newly perfected, wireless, painless, 24/7 streaming, CD quality audio, DVD quality video, taste, smell, brain-waves, karma, be all, end all, Swiss-Army-Knife-of-an-implant/prothesis-thingy, for free for as long as you wanted to, would you do it? The only catch is that all of your sensory data would be streamed unedited, by unbreakable contract, on a website somewhere, for the viewing pleasure of your fellow netizens. (Naturally, you'd be famous.) Why or why not.

JS: It wouldn't interest me in the least. I value my privacy, and I'm not particularly interested in being famous. Now, this doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the growing popularity of my site. I hope that my site will continue to put me in touch with people that are interested in what I'm doing, and who can offer me a situation where I can further develop those interests. So one aspect of my site that I really do appreciate is this fact that it puts me in touch with people, and that others can quickly see what I'm about, and what I have to offer (be it to collaborate on projects, or just as acquaintances). But my blog has slowly gotten away from my private life, and become more of a guide to aspects of Tokyo that I find interesting. Of course, I do write in the first person, and everything is presented as it relates to me, but it's not a diary, and I'm not looking to present all of me online.

RD: What's the closest brush with death that you've ever had? Give us the skinny.

JS: It could have been around 10 years ago when me and my friends were almost beaten to a pulp by a gang of skinheads (we got away in time before they could completely surround us). Or maybe when I was living in China, and one night two foreigners living in the next building were attacked at night and seriously wounded (one of the could have died, but I'm not sure). I guess these aren't really brushes with death through, but more brushes with extreme harm. I don't think I've every really been in a situation where I thought it would be the end of me.

RD: What's the first really nasty thing you learned how to say in that language that they speak over here in Japan? How about that one over there in China? How did you learn it? Have you had a chance to use it yet? Did it go over well?

JS: I actually don't really know swear words in Japanese, maybe just impolite slang, which I would have learned from watching too much Japanese TV (I watch a lot of comedy shows). I have a book somewhere that's supposed to teach you really bad Japanese, but I just never got around to reading much of it. As for Chinese, I can't remember what it would have been, but I'm sure I had some good ones as I spent a lot of time there drinking in bars with Chinese friends, or old expats that were quite comfortable with the language. I certainly used some of it when having to deal with the taxi drivers of Tianjin (where I was living and studying). I've never been in a situation in Tokyo where I could/should have used some nasty Japanese.

RD: Talk to me about ramen, Jean. Are you a shyoyu or miso man? What's your favorite place that you've been to in Tokyo? Any ramen pet-peeves? What's the deal with this, 'I don't like the fish flava?' thing that I've heard you goin' on about? Any plans to really get around to doing that ramen crit. website in English?

JS: I absolutely love ramen (as is obvious to anyone who reads my site regularly), and I'm definitely a shouyu guy (this would be followed by tonkotsu, then shio, and finally miso). Living in Ikebukuro has its advantages, as there are so many good ramen shops in the area (often featured on ramen TV specials). My favorite place used to be Komen (there are quite a few Komen shops in Tokyo, but the main one is in Ikebukuro, and all the shops do not have the exact same taste - I know from experience), but a few months ago they changed the taste of their soup, to my great shock and dismay, giving it a strong fish flavour. Yes, I do not dig the fish flavouring, and I don't eat fish either. This has been annoying me a bit as a lot of newer shops are featuring strong fish flavouring, which seems to be sort of trendy now. So since the demise of Komen (well, for me at least), I can't say that I've found any true replacement. I quite enjoy the tonkotsu ramen at Tonchin, and the shio ramen at Santouka, but the perfect bowl of shouyu (like the one I used to have at Komen) has yet to be found. No worries though, as this is an ideal bowl I'm talking about. I still find quite a bit of satisfaction from having bowls at a lot of the shops in my area. As for an English ramen review site, sounds good, are you offering to collaborate on one with me?

RD: So how can we know for certian that your wife Yuko really ISN'T a 'ku-no-ichi' or something deadly like that, and that she won't be appearing in Kill Bill Vol. 3 with chains, whips, chips and dips? I mean, I was hearing her saying something about when she was a young girl, being able to disembowel herself with her keitai antenna in the event that her chastity were threatened...

JS: There are no certainties in life. When Yuko was 3 years old, she would run around the neighborhood terrorizing the other children with a plastic katana [a Japanese sword], a helmet on her head, and her doll tied to her back with rope. I hear she was quite the warrior (and she is actually a descendant of two samurai families).

RD: What are the pros and cons of life in Ikebukuro? What's your living situation like? Is there a Jean Snow Ikebukuro best 10? Oh, if you could live anywhere in Tokyo, where would you live?

JS: Ikebukuro is a great place to live. It has one of the biggest stations in Tokyo (with quite a few train and subway lines coming out of it), it has all the big shopping centers (Parco, Seibu, Tobu, Loft, Tokyu Hands, Mitsukoshi, and more), it's where Bic Camera got started (and there are 4-5 of them, including the big P-Kan for computer equipment), the rent is relatively cheap (compared to other parts of Tokyo, especially all the trendy towns), and there's of course the ramen. I don't know if I have a top 10, but there are certainly quite a few places I like to frequent: the Pause cafe near my place, the Junkudo bookstore (one of the biggest bookstores in the world), the Caravan used bookshop, the used CD shops (RECOfan, Disc Union), and of course all the ramen shops in the area. There are also quite a few movie houses, so I can usually see the latest releases here. Living about 5 minutes from the station at about half the rent of what I would pay in a trendier area, well, it makes for a nice place to stay. But to be honest, if I could live anywhere, it would certainly be Aoyama. Maybe one day...

RD: Did you ever have a fight (I mean of the knock-down, drag-out, ilk)? Who did you fight? What was it about? Did you win? If you lost, would you ever consider a re-match?

JS: I've had one fight in my life, and I was in 4th grade of primary school I think. I've led a very peaceful life.

RD: Is there anything that you'd just like to get off of your chest? If so, please feel free to do so here.

JS: The thing I've encountered here in Tokyo that annoys me the most, is the foreigner population that has nothing better to do than constantly bitch about every aspect of living here. If you don't like it, then please get the fuck out.

RD: If you took a test, and you bombed it, but you were given the following choice of three different scores at which to bomb it, which one would you choose and why? a) 50 b) 25 c) 0

JS: Probably 0. I wouldn't be satisfied with a 25 or a 50. I was quite a good student at school, and actually got a few scholarships after graduating high-school, which paid for my university years.

RD: Where would you go and what would you do on your dream date? Please go into detail.

JS: I am constantly describing my dream date in my blog. It's basically going to a place like Aoyama with a person whose company I enjoy (my wife), checking out shops and galleries, going to a few cafes, having a nice dinner, continuing with another cafe or lounge/bar, walking around. It's being in an environment I enjoy, with a person I like.


RD: Any advice for anyone out there planning to move to Japan?

JS: If you are from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or England, then apply for the working-holiday visa. It's easy to get, and lets you come here and work for up to a year. It's what I did when I first came here. It'll be easier finding work that way, and if you want to stay longer, then the company where you are working will probably sponsor you. When I came here 5-6 years ago, there wasn't really a strong online presence for job listings, so I looked in the Monday edition of THE JAPAN TIMES (features all the employment notices), but these days you could probably get a job through online sites before even coming here. As for living here, moving into an apartment can be quite expensive (you have to pay big deposits and give some money that you don't get back), so it would probably be best to live in a guest house for a while, until you know more about the city and figure out where you really want to live. But the most important thing to remember (and what I always tell people) is that it's doable. It might be scary at first, especially because of the language barrier, but you are not the first person to do it (move here), and it will lead to countless memorable experiences.

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