Monday, October 31, 2005

Where's my free time at?


I haven't posted in awhile. The guilt has finally coincided with a break in the action, so I can give you the play-by-play of what I've been up to. Warning: This past week has been a "settling in" kind of week- no real cool touristy stuff to report. Sorry. That'll be this Thursday- it's Emperor Meiji's Birthday, and as such another day off of school- when I go to Nara. Nara is famous for two things: Temples (REALLY COOL OLD ONES) and Deer. Yeah, deer- evidently, since they're the sacred shrine animal for the Nara temple, these deer are holy- and as friendly as a Mormon missionary in Japan. They just won't leave you alone.

But enough about what I haven't done. This past week was the greeting party for the new Superintendent (a whole lot more fun than it sounds), my last week at Hayama Jr. High, and the Halloween Party with the JET crew. I went as a devil. Should someone who took pictures of this thing post them online, I'll link them here- I, like an idiot, didn't take any. Suffice to say it was a lot of fun- and if you think you get stared at, if you think you're an oddity in your hometown, if you ever feel like you're being unfairly singled out...

Imagine what it must be like to be six and a half feet tall, riding a train in rural Japan with a bunch of salarymen, with a pair of horns sprouting from your forehead. Old men stared, women fled, and as I was getting off the train a brave young soul asked me for a picture. Once one guy did it, the floodgates opened- and I spent LITERALLY half an hour getting from the platform from the ticket gate- a fifty-yard walk- stopping every two steps for "picture time."

Speaking of trains, everyone at the party missed the last one out and we killed the last few hours hanging out in a 24-hour Donburi (various grilled meats served over rice) shop and at the local 7-11. Oh, thank heaven.

The next day, I went to Ryukoku University's big annual festival. It was awesome, and free- and entirely without photos. Curses. So here's the lowdown- it's a lot like every other college festival in the world. Food booths, six stages, live bands, performances, the works. The only real discernible differences are the language, the proclivity towards synchronized dances, and the fact that almost EVERY FOOD was served on a stick. Hot dog? Why yes. Egg? Sure! How about some salad? Oh yeah. On a stick. It warms the heart.

After that, off to Japanese class- we reviewed some more grammar from way back in the old days, and some vocab that I really, really ought to know- but don't. So it was productive.

The next day, I went to a barbecue on a mountaintop. This was absolutely awesome- first, a nature hike in Ritto's Nature Center (this whole thing was with my Japanese class:

of which only two Westerners came- so it was a crew of Japanese folks, myself, and Jake, the big guy mugging for a picture in the foreground) , and a game in which we had to find objects that embodied certain Japanese onomatopoeic expressions. Now, you go ahead and find something in the woods that won't bite you that also happens to embody the expression "fuwa-fuwa" (fluffy), and you're a better man than I. We found moss, and a big pile of leaves, but sticks and dirt don't scream fluff to me.

After the nature hike, we all piled on a bus and rode it to the top of a mountain. The roads here are NUTS- they're like a video game, I swear. The road cuts back and forth up the face of the mountain, with ridiculous switchback turns that pitch the bus to one side- we can hear and feel the bottom of the bus scrape around some of them. Add to this the fact that the bus driver is taking these turns with an enthusiasm that borders on manic glee, and that the fall from the side of said road is sufficient to turn the whole bus into a coffin built for thirty, and you'll begin to understand what the ride was like. This is the view from the top:

So up here, there's a restaurant at the top of the mountain. We ate outside, and every table had it's own grill in the center. We were also given one giant plate of raw meat and a giant plate of raw vegetables, and everyone got a bowl of sauce for dipping. All serving, eating, and cooking was done with chopsticks. It was actually a really fun meal to eat- very much a group effort ensuring that everyone ate enough, everyone at the table got what they wanted, and nothing burned to a crisp on the grill. Yay for teamwork.

Sated, we hung out on the mountaintop for awhile- someone brought a soccer ball (I don't know where it came from- I didn't see it on the bus!), so we kicked that around. A dangerous proposition at this height, but nobody seemed too worried.

We finished the evening (and consequently the weekend) in a cafe just next to the station. It was utterly unremarkable in every way SAVE FOR THE FACT that this cafe had a Kennedy Library- at least, a room with the words Kennedy Library emblazoned on the transom over the door. A peek inside revealed the room to be a shrine to JFK- old newspaper clippings, campaign posters, a bust... thoroughly creeped out, we decided it might be best to just not talk about that too much.

So now, Monday, I'm at a new school- the last of the three middle schools I work at. I've finally met all of my bosses. The new principal speaks English like a champ- he was an English teacher before he got the job. The kids are all going through what I've come to recognize as Gaijin Shock- the first week or so after I get to a new school, there's a lot of staring and running away. The second week, it's loud and energetic "HELLO" time- and by the third week, they're no longer so surprised to see me, and we can get some learnin' done.

So- in the week to come, I'll snag some pictures of Ritto Nishi (my new Jr. High school), and the ride to work, as it is the absoute polar opposite of my last school. Last one was in a rice field surrounded by mountains. This school's in the center of the factory district. I ride to school through no fewer than three loading docks (on recommendation from my coordinator, to avoid the highway- evidently, forklifts are less dangerous than Mack trucks) and past the bug dealership I showed you awhile back. It's pretty industrial-tastic.

Also, Nara should be awesome, so I'll make sure to document the heck out of that. I'm going to go get some dinner and prep for lessons tomorrow- laters.


Monday, October 24, 2005

Faith In Humanity

This past weekend was what I might term the archetypal weekend in the Kansai area. I woke up late Saturday morning, cursed the lack of insulation in Japanese domiciles and staggered down to the Starbucks to defrost. On the way, I bumped into Jake The Foreigner, my go-to guy and partner in crime here in Shiga- given that he's one of oh, five English speakers I know, we hang out quite a bit. He was headed down to the Yamada Denki (The only electronics store for miles around- if it needs batteries, the only place to find it is Yamada) to buy himself a new camera, as his is rapidly on it's way to kaput.

So we decide to go grab some lunch after he takes care of his photographic needs. We head to a little "Italian Restaurant"- I use the scare quotes for a reason. It's your typical Italian fare, of course. Lasagna, Ravioli, Squid Ink Spaghetti...

Yeah. Squid ink. All reports point towards two things with the squid ink- one, that it's delicious, and two, that it stains your mouth, gums and teeth a sickly zombie black. We decided to dodge that one- but a big Brazilian (maybe, he was speaking Portuguese) wasn't so lucky/attentive. So when they brought out his hot, steaming plate of purplish-black noodles, he didn't even have the wherewithal to try it. He just bolted for the bathroom, came back with a sour look on his face, and sent it back to the kitchen. This, of course, prompted a flurry of activity. The chef came out. The manager came out. They swarmed the table, apologizing, and quickswitched the offending dish for something big, and red, and meaty-looking. In a way, I'm laughing at the guy- he didn't even try to eat any, and it was still steaming when it was ferried away back to the kitchen. In another way, I kinda feel sorry for him- he probably had no idea what he was ordering (the menu was in Japanese and Italian) and I know exactly what it's like to be the absolute center of attention out here- it can be rough sometimes. Especially when you're confused. I'm sure adding "disgusted" to that litany doesn't help any.

All ended well- the waitstaff saved face by swapping plates, the manager didn't have a dine-and-dash, and the big guy didn't eat any squid ink. I'm definitely going to have to go back and try it, though. Maybe closer to Halloween, when a jet-black mouth won't arouse AS MUCH attention.

After lunch, I finally made it to the Starbucks. Inside, I spotted a Japanese Culture Lesson in the making.

Here, Playboy is just a brand. The person wearing this shirt? One of my students. My MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS. The cultural reference for this sort of thing simply doesn't exist- they don't know or care that it's a magazine of prurient tastes.

So anyways, like every Saturday, a college band was out in front of the Starbucks, jamming away. Unlike every other Saturday, today it was cold and rainy. This did not stop the band. A member recognized me (I kinda show up every Saturday- it's free) and charged over, ecstatic that I came back. Five hours pass, and I'm still hanging around with the band. Next week, they're having a big rock concert at Ryukoku University- three train stops down- and they want me to show up and hang out. I think I'm being adopted- which is fine, as people my age are as rare as foreigners in this part of Japan. The university student population is a fairly closed group- I'll report more next week as to how this "in" works out.

After the epically long chat and freeze session, I wandered back over to the Japanese class that's offered every Saturday. Fun stuff- review of some old grammar, some new vocab, same old stuff we worry about every week. It was refreshingly normal. Next week, on Sunday, there's a barbecue up in the mountains to watch the leaves change and get our culture on.

Called it an early night.

Sunday, I went back to Kyoto with some natives. Headcount was seven Japanese folks and two foreigners- Jake and I. Destination of the day? Sanmizudera Temple, a huge Buddhist temple on the mountain. Out in front of the temple, I noticed something that I haven't yet seen in Japan...

This monk is female. I knew they existed, I just hadn't seen one yet. Also interesting is that she's panhandling- just like in Tokyo, you can't beg for money unless you have a license, and you can't get a license unless you're a Buddhist monk- these guys aren't allowed to work.

The temple itself is notable for two things. One is its incredible view.

The corollary to this view is that it is the most famous suicide spot in Kyoto. Since the temple is built up on a cliff, it's a popular place to fling yourself to the abyss. Our friend Masa made sure to tell us that it was "mostly people who sick did, so it OK." Err, yeah. Evidently, most of the jumpers had terminal illnesses of one kind or another. So, no worries, right? Except for this next thing.

The other notable feature is it's natural spring, which people come in droves to drink from. It jets out of the cliff face, and there's this cool little shrine just below it. Three little waterfalls cascade over a covered walkway, and people stand on said walkway and reach out with silver cups on long sticks to catch the water from the spring.

Supposedly, this magic spring cures illnesses and grants long life. Interesting dichotomy here between the magic cure-all spring and the springboard balcony. Hope all these people KNEW that there was a curative fountain just a little further inside the temple. Maybe they need bigger signs- probably cut down on the suicides a great deal.

After the temple, we went to a really cool coffee shop- another five-dollar cup o' coffee, of course- that's just above the Sanjo subway station. Outside the coffee shop is a big Zen garden that they were in the middle of raking when we walked past- which is one of those magic tricks that isn't spoiled by knowing how it's done. It's still awesome.

Final stop on the Kyoto Tour was a trip to yet another Italian restaurant. This place was one order of magnitude (read: 10x) more expensive than Squid Ink Salieri's, It was worth it.

Since we went on a Sunday night, the place was ENTIRELY EMPTY except for our crew. I don't mean there were one or two other people- I mean that we were alone with the waitstaff. The restaurant's on the fourth floor of a ridiculously modern building jutting out of the Kyoto landscape like it fell from the sky. It looks like a giant cheese grater- the exterior is all aluminum mesh panels backlit by green lights. The restaurant was a white-walled, white-floored room lit from every angle by crazy orange light. The place glowed. It was the kind of restaurant you shoot hip-hop videos in. Using my Queer Eye for the Straight Guy Trivia Knowledge, I led the group through the ordeal of wine tasting and cheese appreciation- if you ever want to feel cultured, go to Japan and take your Japanese friends someplace vaguely European. As their culture has no concept of using a fork, let alone which fork to use when, you come off like a champ every time.

Another Culture Lesson: If you go somewhere where they serve food that doesn't look like noodles or rice, your Japanese friends WILL take pictures of the food. And the table dressings- the candles, the silverware, the whole nine yards. They will take pictures of you eating. The waiter will take group pictures- and they will email you the pictures when they get them downloaded.

On the train ride home, Jake and I met some very special folks. Two Westerners in business suits sauntered up to us, and started making small talk. This is nothing new- here in Shiga, meeting another foreigner is an event unto itself- one that merits wine and cheese, no less. Jake started to ask who they were- and I spied the nametags, and stopped him. "These," I said with my best pious smirk, "are Mormons."

And they were. Two Elders straight out of Salt Lake City, on mission to Convert Japan. They tried to hit us with a sales pitch, but we derailed them by asking about their methods, how they were trained, how long they were going to be here, et cetera.

Turns out they're on two-year contracts. The older one, who's on his way out, trains the new guy, always in pairs. There is always one master, one apprentice. Sounds a little Sci-Fi for me, but whatever. They gather converts (and this is sneaky, no matter what your intention) by advertising FREE ENGLISH LESSONS. The people who show up instead get a sermon. To be fair, half the sermon is in English. Neither one has taken any serious Japanese courses- they just get a week of Missionary Training before they "ship out". Evidently, there are five thousand Mormon missionaries in Japan. They whipped out their translated Book Of Mormon- since it's all in Kanji, it's absolutely huge.

I mentioned that I, too, was a minister, and that should I convert I would shame and dishonor all those whose marriages I had sanctified. I didn't mention that that was exactly two people. Either way, it blunted their missionary zeal.

Today, I taught AGAIN at Hayama-Higashi Elementary School after my morning classes at Hayama Middle School, and then took the time to go out and buy kerosene for my space heater. It ended up being twenty dollars for 35 Liters. Not sure how the conversion on that works out to gallons, but it seems a fair price, as my heater only takes three liters at a time. I should be warm for awhile.

My coordinator came over to teach me how to use the space heater, and noticed my PSP lying on the table. First words out of her mouth: "Do you know 'Puyo Puyo'?" Puyo Puyo is a ridiculously addictive puzzle game that's picked up a bit o' popularity both here in Japan and back in America. When she found out I had the game, she insisted we play.

So today, I played video games with my boss until 7 in the evening. I love this job.


I forgot the most important part! They have the "Three Second Rule" here in Japan. Somebody dropped a piece of food at the Hip Hop Italian Restaurant, and someone else dove for it and said "San-Byou Rule!" I had to ask-and when I did, they were as surprised as I was that we, too, had a three-second rule. Some things are universal.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Strange Synchonicity

Today was midterm exams for the middle school students. They were all freaked out yesterday- a phenomenon I don't really understand, as these exams don't really mean anything. I've already mentioned that it's impossible for these kids to fail- "fail" simply isn't an option in middle school, as they're going to graduate no matter what. Essentially, middle school is one big prep class for the high school entrance exams. All the same, the cultural weight of the dreaded midterm is, evidently, universal. We had review sessions yesterday (I am the worst review-session guy in the world) and all the kids were, just like American kids, pretty much freaking out.

So today, while they labored over their examinations, I got to teach elementary school. Why didn't I post on this earlier, might you ask? Because somebody else also taught Japanese elementary schoolers- and I promised not to tell anyone until he broke the news.

So I gathered up my now-burgeoning bag of tricks and spent the day teaching little kids how to sing Bingo, play Fruits Basket, and giving them a 50% English, 50% Japanese introduction to America and it's culture. There's an aspect of teaching on your own that closely resembles acting- you put on the Foreigner Show, and rule #1 is to make sure these kids have fun. Everything else is secondary- they MUST ENJOY THEMSELVES. Even if that means they "enjoy themselves" by latching onto you like so many barnacles and using their newfound freedom to climb all over you. Today, I taught one class of first graders, two classes of fifth graders, and one class of sixth graders. The difference was amazing. The first graders were enthusiastic about everything. They sang, they danced, they compared hand sizes with me and rushed me at the end of class for high-fives and one last chance to swarm over me and touch a real, live foreigner. I should at this point mention that the kids out here in the countryside of Japan have likely never before seen a non-Japanese person- there's one other in my city, and she works the high school circuit- and as such a visit from Andrew-Sensei is two parts amazing and one part scary. There was a kid who literally hid behind his homeroom teacher the entire time, peeking out every once in awhile with a huge grin on his face. As a contrast, I had another kid who latched onto my leg as I walked past his classroom towards the stairs- prompting a wave of kids grabbing my hands, my shirttails, my other leg, and just about anything they could get their hands on (hey now!) and holding on for dear life even while I tried to stumble up the stairs. I looked to the teacher for help, and got the same response I always get in these situations.

A smile and a shrug.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders are much more reserved. They have begun to learn that it's not proper to show that kind of affection to a teacher- so even though you can tell they want to (the handshake is long, the high-five is often, and they seem to be constantly assessing you for possible climbing opportunities, like a mountaineer sizing up the next peak), they don't swarm you en masse and try to take you down Lilliputian-style. The weakness of every Japanese kid who thinks he's cool is the song, however. No matter how cool you are, you're never too cool to sing Bingo. Especially the clapping part- they love that.

Lunch was at a little shop next to Ritto City Hall, and after that I held a conversation lesson with the students and teachers going to Birmingham. Since they leave next week, this week was a review of the essential tools one needs to survive in America:

"Excuse me?"

"I'm sorry. I don't understand."

"How do you say ______________ in English?"

"What does _____________ mean?"

Essentially, this week's lesson was "How to Give Up Gracefully." We also reviewed American gestures- which gives me a chance to quickly discuss a huge sign-language gap between Japan and America.

In America, when you want someone to come to you, you wave your hand, palm up, in the direction of your body. To have someone go away, you turn the palm down towards the floor and perform essentially the same maneuver- it looks like you're pushing or flicking the person away.

In Japan, "Come Here" is expressed by flicking your hand towards you, palm down towards the floor. It looks EXACTLY the same as an American "SHOO! Go away!"

As you can imagine, this causes me no end of confusion- and if the kids do it when they visit the States, they're going to get a lot of interesting looks. So we cleared that right up. Afterwards, a few students approached me with questions- how do you say ____________, will my electronics work in America, that sort of thing- and a pair of girls had me transliterate an entire English speech about Kendo into katakana- phonetic script that they use to spell foreign words- so they could tell the Birmingham students and teachers all about it. They're really working hard on all this- it's pretty cool to watch.

After that, the coordinator took me out for ramen to this hole-in-the-wall greasy-spoon style joint. In America, we have questionable hamburger shops- shops where you can buy silver-dollar sized hamburgers that are about 90% grease and 9% bun, and it's wisest just not to ask about the last percentage. Here in Japan, those kinds of establishments serve buckets of ramen. I am not exaggerating. The bowl I was served was as big around as a medium pizza. It was also six inches deep. And it was a "Small Ramen." The shopkeep had a TV on over the counter, showing the latest episode of Doraemon. My coordinator and I talked about horror movies and video games- two things that are decidedly mainstream in Japan. Everyone knows the latest video games. Everyone has seen the Ring. It's just the way it is. I name-dropped Katamari Damacy, and she knew exactly what I was talking about. Those of you who don't know it- google away, and become one step closer to understanding the Japanese mindset.

While we're on the subject of the Japanese mindset, Doraemon merits a little further explanation. This is the explanation that my coordinator gave me, when I had the typical "What the heck is this?" reaction to the television show that everyone else in the restaurant seemed enraptured by.

"It's easy. Doraemon is a robot cat who helps his friends by opening a magic door in his stomach that leads to Anywhere, and pulling out useful items. Like pirate ships. Then he takes them on adventures." And she said it with a completely straight face, like this was the most normal thing in the world. Doraemon is the Japanese robotic Felix the Cat. Doraemon has also been on the air for THIRTY SEASONS. That's right- thirty years of Robot Cat with Interdimensional Stomach.

Then again, The Simpsons is America's longest-running sitcom, and it features a yellow, four-fingered family that never grows older and recovers instantly from horrific injuries as if nothing ever happened. I can't count the times the Simpsons have been maimed and disfigured, only to have the next episode disregard everything that came before it.

So maybe an android cat with a hole in its gut that leads to Wonderland isn't so strange after all.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Q&A Day Off

I slacked off this weekend, and didn't do a whole lot of anything interesting. It rained like crazy Saturday, so I caught up on the mundane business of laundry. Quick culture note: Nobody around here does laundry when it rains. Why? They all hang their laundry outside. Now, I'm a paranoid man. I don't trust that. Either someone's gonna walk off with all my superbig America size clothing, or (more likely) I'll come outside and our burgeoning population of spiders will have used my favorite teachin' shirt as their new home base. Though I'm far from arachnophobic, these things are HUGE- I don't want to get in a fight with one over a shirt. If I'm taking on Spiderzilla, it's going to have to be for a better reason. So Saturday was boring- with the exception of another culinary delight. I have been to the mountaintop. I have eaten takoyaki- the aforementioned deep-fried octopus. It's delicious. It operates on the "stone soup" theory- if you throw enough sauces and cheeses and other things that I dare not ask about nor mention AROUND the chunk of octopus in the center, it just tastes good, rather than tasting like chowing down on rubbery eight-armed sealife.

Sunday, I returned to Otsu, as the weather was so nice that a day of studying Japanese by the lake seemed to be just the thing to recover from the past week of madness.

It was.

This is Lake Biwa. I believe you've seen it before on a cloudy day. This is a bit nicer. In Otsu, all of the beaches are in fact a rocky shoreline like this- which is perfect, as the locals have discovered, for fishing.

I saw, shortly after I took this picture, a man haul a fish out of Lake Biwa that was larger than most of my students. I no longer think of everything being smaller in Japan- things that ought to be small, like fish and bugs, are GIANT, and things that we're used to being big... like people... are smaller. Everything gravitates towards a standard size. I couldn't get a picture of this mystery fish, because the man was struggling to pull it up and then holding it steady until it was still enough to wrap up, and I'd feel like a jerk taking a picture of his battle rather than helping out- so I did the sensible thing, and walked on by.

The thing I really like about Otsu, besides the huge lake, is the way that Old Japan and New Japan rub up against each other. There's not so much of it as in the bigger cities, but the little instances are striking.

I also like the sense of humor. This, in case you can't read the lettering, is a hair boutique that specializes in bleach 'n color jobs. The name?


So Sunday was very relaxing, and got me ready for today. Today, in addition to school "as normal" (ha), the kids had an assembly about saying No to Tobacco. The presentation was mostly drawn from American Cancer Society material- they used the commercial with the smoking baby- but what alarms me is that this sort of thing is so very necessary. CULTURE TIME!

A giant majority of Japanese people smoke. Testament to this is the fact that there are cigarette vending machines one block away from EACH of my middle schools. The teachers smoke. The staff smokes. The folks you walk by on the street smoke.

And the students smoke. Not in school, of course- it's technically illegal for folks under 20- but they do, all the time. I see them at the shopping district, I see them on the corner. Everywhere. This presentation, though inclusive of some of the gory glory of American stop-smoking campaigns (the tumor-infested lung picture, the smoking baby ad) was by in large carried out with Japanese courtesy and efficiency. It wasn't "Smoking Will Kill You", it was "Please, say no to cigarettes. Please." A request, rather than a threat. I thought it was interesting.

When I got back to the teacher's office (where I spend roughly four of my eight hours a day) I snapped a quick picture, so everyone can see what one of these things look like.

My desk has big red Photoshopped letters on the side.
I also snapped a picture of the (somewhat despondent) view from the teacher's office window- it looks almost post-apocalyptic, on review.

All right, you're all up to date. Now, question time. (Proof that we keep our promises, no matter how late we fulfill them.) This week's questions courtesy of Vorrt.

1. Game Culture?

I haven't seen a whole lot of non-electronic gaming going on. There's Go, which is huge, and Japanese Chess, which is similarly huge, but they're huge in the "Old Guys Playing in the Park" department. There's one D&D style "game shop" here, called the Yellow Submarine, which has a branch in both Tokyo and Kyoto. For there to be two, there must be a market- but it's not one I've seen or found. Sorry.

What there is an incredible market for is card games. As one might imagine, the country that brought you Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon is flush with the things- kids play 'em EVERYWHERE, you can buy them in the grocery store, there are video games that operate by reading RFID chips in collectible cards, and there's never an empty seat at those in the arcades.

2. Do the students express interest in things outside of the school clubs?

The students express interest in nearly everything. They approach nothing without a great deal of gusto. Even the bad kids approach slacking off with a dedication that borders on the fanatic. The difference between American and Japanese school clubs, though, is that in Japan you belong to ONE club, and it meets every day all year round. You're in soccer club? Congrats. You just bought yourself 365 days of soccer. I don't know if they practice and meet on Sunday, but they certainly do on Saturday. You're in band? Have at. All year, every day.

Outside of the clubs, they have juku (high school prep), circles of friends from other schools that they grew up with, that sort of thing (like any kids), but the primary focus seems to be on what you've joined up to do. Your in-group, as mentioned before, is the alpha and omega of your social web.

People without an in-group (nerds and foreigners) are, of course, free to do as they please. They just can't expect a whole lot of company- everyone's got previous club engagements!

3. What do you miss most about American food?

I miss the variety we have in America. In Japan, it's pretty much Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, or "American" food. I put the last one in quotes because they're the only type of restaurant not staffed by members of the nationality in question. Chinese food, Chinese folks. Thai restaurant? Thai people. Korean? Yup. But American... Japanese. I hear tell there's a Brazilian restaurant out there somewhere, but I have yet to find it. In America, you can find as much variety in a mall food court as I can find for nine train stops. Nine goes to Osaka, beyond Kyoto, by the by. It's a long way. We're talking an hour by train.

4. -snip question about individuality and the Japanese psyche and replace it with...-
A question from Banky! "Do you like it? Do you miss home? How about a comparison between American and Japanese culture, just for kicks?"

a. I love it here. It's great.

b. I miss the people back home, but I really don't have time to get all mopey about it. Too much to do. Too much to see.

c. They do not believe in the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They merely have never thought of the idea. I was talking with a coworker today, and part of our school lunch was a pair of slices of bread and some apricot jam. I mentioned that this is all right, but we really need us some raspberry jam and peanut butter. She looked at me confusedly, and said "Why?"

Evidently, the combination of flavors is something they simply haven't been exposed to. My heart broke just a little there, just for a moment- until I realized that now, if I bring in a loaf of bread, two jars and a knife, I can make culture history.


Friday, October 14, 2005

Jump to Ludicrous Speed!

Today, my ADSL modem came. I have reentered the age of easy Internet access. Oh, thank heaven.

Today was also my first day teaching elementary schoolers. I've been laboring over this for WEEKS now- getting everything ready, trying to prepare myself. I thought I had enough material to last me at least forty minutes, and if I had five minutes left I'd throw in a round of Duck, Duck, Goose.

I had not counted on the fact that Japanese kids are A) geniuses and B) afflicted with nigh-terminal ADD. They crawl all over you- they want to see how big your feet are, how hairy your arms are, one of them pulled up my pantleg when I was turned around and rubbed my leg hair, another clamped onto the other leg like a bear trap and refused to release until I palmed the top of his head- and then he wouldn't let go of my arm. They're like little hyperintelligent barnacles- they seize onto an idea (or a Gaijin!) and just won't let go until it's fully explored. I had four other teachers with me, an army of backup, and we were still overwhelmed.

It was awesome. These little guys picked up everything I had to teach in fifteen minutes, and could spit it back to me with smiles on their faces. So I filled the rest of the time with a big grin and a grab-bag of games. I pulled out a mix CD I had prepped the night before and showed them some contemporary American music- and completely without self-consciousness they all started dancing. Dancing. So what can you do, when thirty two-foot-tall kids start breaking loose right there in the classroom?

You dance too. You teach them Big American Dancing Power. Do anything- no matter how silly- and they'll mimic it. It's unstoppable.

Afterwards, everyone agreed that it went well, and we sat down and plotted out the lesson plan for next Friday (I'm teaching another four classes of Elementary students- first graders through sixth graders). Why we couldn't have all huddled up and plotted out a lesson plan before is entirely beyond me- the process of working through this thing together has given me piles upon piles of things to do to keep these kids entertained and learning. It's breakneck pace compared to middle school, where the concept of "cool" has set in and they won't try anything beyond conversation. The little ones in Elementary don't know "cool" yet. They're great. It's absolutely insane, but they're great.

So, in the "anecdote" division, as part of my "Introduce your Country" segment (which they polished off in three minutes) I showed them a picture of the Statue of Liberty, along with a big construction-paper American flag (it took HOURS to cut out all fifty stars. I kid not) and a few pictures from home.

The flag, they liked. The pictures, they liked. When I whipped out the picture of the Statue of Liberty, every kid in class screamed "SUGOI!" (AWESOME!) and threw the peace sign.

Yeah, that's right. The only Statue of Liberty they know is the one on the love hotel. Later, the teachers asked if I knew what kind of a hotel that hotel was- and I looked them straight in the eye and said "The kind where you rent rooms by the hour. Do the kids know?" They replied, just as straightfaced, "Probably not yet. But you'll want to go into more detail about the difference for fifth graders and sixth graders- they might know."

Then, in a remarkable departure from form, everyone at the table bust out laughing. It was great.


Sleep is for the Weak

I've put this post off long enough- I've gotta get back up to speed. This past week/weekend has been insanely busy, and insanely productive. I've designed my first lesson (more word tomorrow on how that goes), taught a whole slew of classes, been swamped by work and run all over town- visited the teachers at my last school, and bicycled about eight miles. And that was today.

So rather than go at it piecemeal, here's the whole deal from the beginning- the most sensible place to start, usually. Dockett visited this past weekend, riding down from Tokyo in high style on the ultrafast bullet-train. You can read his account by clicking on the link over to the right that reads "Dockett's Blog", or just clicking here. That's his story, I'll let him tell it.

Mine begins, as so many do here in Japan, in the rain. I met Dockett in Kusatsu station, the little train depot in the next town over, and ferried him back to the house for the grand tour after dinner at my favorite little Ramen shop. This place is great- I think I've mentioned it previously- the owner was studying to be a pastry chef in New York, has one heck of a story to sell you with your heaping bowl of Ramen, and decided to come back home to Ritto to live out his later days. He was born in Kyoto, so he had some tips as to where we ought to go this weekend. Ever-helpful, he came out from behind the counter (shock!) to draw big red circles on his map, showing us the MUST SEE spots. Armed with knowledge and full of cheap eats, we depart.

Back at the mansion, I show an astonished Dockett around. This house is NOT SMALL. I think I've made this pretty clear. I don't know that I made it clear enough, so I'll say it again. I am UNCOMFORTABLE with how big this house is. I can't keep track of all the space. After boring him to tears with little architectural touches, we decided to go tour the town via bicycle. My bike's a giant- literally, that's the brand- and the previous teacher was kind enough to leave a mountain bike behind that I've dubbed "the Loaner." It's "the Loaner" for two reasons: One, it's pretty hard to get around town on foot without dedicating hours to hiking around the hills of Ritto, and two, it's a piece. The handlebars aren't on too tight, the brakes don't "work" in the conventional sense of the word, and it was until this weekend infested with spiders.

We cleaned it up a bit, and set out to adventure. Didn't get too far- just back to Kusatsu, to show him the covered Shotengai (old-style shopping district) and train station plaza, where students usually gather to hold impromptu outdoor concerts/breakdancing practice. Since panhandling's illegal in this country, they just do it for fun- which is awesome, in all sorts of ways. Unfortunately, as this story begins in the rain, it was too wet both for breakdancing and for guitarists. I did get fuzzy picture of the old 'n busted mechanical clock outside the station:

It's a kinda creepy mechanical number, with dancing animals and music that plays on the hour. I'm not sure what song. I don't think I want to know.

After showing him around the Kusatsu area a bit, we decide to call it an early night in hopes of getting a head start on the next day.

Ha Ha. Without work to wake up for, I sleep until ten. We don't get on the road until eleven, and as such hit Kyoto around noon. It's raining buckets, so we duck into an am/pm and buy some four-dollar umbrellas. The thing is, we considered bringing umbrellas. There were TWO INSTANCES where I looked at the sky, walked back into the house, grabbed my umbrella, and decided against bringing it. I figured it wouldn't rain ALL DAY. I was a fool.

That aside, I show Dockett out to Hongwanji Temple and East Hongwanji, the second having been built to draw attention away from the first in a questionable political move by the Shogunate. Seems the first one was getting too many followers, so the Shogun of the time built the second to split up the power base. This move, while it probably seemed brilliant, just gave the Buddhists another place of worship- and a larger congregation.


After Hongwanji, we hike (for quite awhile- Kyoto AIN'T SMALL) to Toji Temple. Toji's the temple everyone thinks of when they think of Kyoto. It's the one with the big ol' pagoda- five tiers of funerary fun. In addition to one impressive pagoda, it also has two HUGE halls filled with some really impressive Buddhist statuary. Unfortunately, they've been classified as objects of Great Historical Significance, and as such pictures are forbidden. Not just photographs- there's also a sign forbidding sketching in the halls. Literally, it says "No Sketching" in three languages. I really, really wanted a picture.

In a little museum just oustide of the temple grounds proper, there were four fire-damaged clay statues of the Terrifying Generals (signs of the Buddha's divine wrath against sin, sayeth the ever-informative brochure) that stood easily ten feet tall. The clay was cracked and scorched, and the faces were twisted beyond recognition. They were really cool. They too could neither be sketched nor photographed.

It seems that the fire didn't reach within the temple grounds, as the main halls were untouched and the pagoda still stood. It's possible they were reconstructions, but the apparent age of the things seemed to rule out that possibility. The support pillars inside the hall are so old that they're starting to crack from the pressure- in a few thousand years, when these halls crumble, it's going to make a heck of a noise.
This is the second of the halls- in the background, you can see the pagoda. A unique feature of this temple complex is the relative lack of ravens- the Buddhist monks feed the birds, and as such every other temple I've visited is patrolled by a flock of ravens that make themselves known the moment I enter the grounds. This temple, by contrast, is owned by the pigeons. Less dangerous, sure, but pigeon calls lack a certain atmospheric flair that a cloud of beating black wings provide.

I'm a sucker for little touches. There are plenty of beautiful pictures of these pagodas- so here's some more stuff you usually don't see:

The first is a pair of rain-soaked tourists providing size reference for this gargantuan thing. It's the highest pagoda in Japan. The pamphlet tells me it's burned down four times after being struck by lightning- hence the giant lightning rod up top, to make sure the same thing doesn't happen a fifth time. There are four Buddhas inside, but it's all locked up tight. Here's the security:That's right. Barbed wire. That red thing's a fire extinguisher- they're not screwing around with this pagoda. Four times is enough.

To be fair, the current incarnation of this pagoda has stood since 1644. That's a pretty good streak- it's older than my country. The first one was built in 826.

After the pagodacrawl, we toured the temple grounds, and were confronted once again by the genius fish. Koi in this country KNOW that people mean food, and will hang out near the shore if you pass by. It's pretty cool- you walk up to a pond, and in a minute or so the water just in front of you will be filled with koi. Fish on demand.

We stop for ice cream. This is important, and must be blogged. Ice cream is always an event.

Behind the big halls full of esoteric Buddhist statuary, there's a smaller, newer temple complex. We duck through that and out into the street- leaving Toji through an opposite exit than we entered. With infinite wisdom and forethought, we decide to "see what's down this street".

We wander for hours, lost, in the alleyways and backstreets of Kyoto. In a strange way, it's scenic- places like these streets are the negative space of cities. They're where people really live- sandwiched under train tracks, in narrow streets, over and under and around shops and cleaning services. Temples and pagodas are what they WANT you to see- these places are here because they're necessary, not because they're attractive, and that makes them fun to explore.

This underpass eventually leads us under the train tracks and through to the other side, where we find a huge, industrial fish market that a) smells strongly of halibut and b) nearly spells our certain doom. The front end loaders and trucks don't care if you're six feet tall. They just know you're not supposed to be there, and as such carry on as if you're not. This is all well and good until the place you are is the place they want to be.

A terrifying fifteen minutes later, we emerge next to a train station. There are two choices here- we can board the train and take the sucker's way out, or we can walk to the subway stop (many blocks away). Having read this much, you already know what we did next. There was nothing else to do.

My favorite Japanese expression translates closely as "It can't be helped" or "That's the way it is", with a strong connotation of "Oh well, so it is." In standard Japanese, it's shikata ga nai. Down here in the Kansai region, they just say sha'nai.

So we walk. Sha'nai.

On the way, we find this sign. BONK! Look out for bikes.

We also find Route 1- the same road that runs through Ritto. Should it become necessary, I can now hike home.

Dockett, incidentally, takes more pictures than I have ever seen anyone take... ever. He wins the prize- I think the longest his hand left his camera all day was the fifteen minutes we were sprinting down the fishmarket alley- and I KNOW it was killing him not to take a few.

Next, we finally stumble across a subway station and bop up to the old Imperial Palace. The palace is closed, so we only get as far as the inner gate.

Now, that's probably a bit of a misnomer. The inner gate is probably a solid 800 meters from the outer gate, and it's all in a straight line up a broad gravel path. It makes perfect sense- should an army invade, the Emperor has a good twenty minutes to prepare while said army runs down this ridiculously long path, and should they arrive with any fight left in them they are better men than I. It's discouraging- you keep getting closer, and the castle keeps getting further away. Upon finally arriving, we find everything locked up and a pair of very friendly guards around a side gate smilingly barring entry. Sha'nai.

After the Imperial Wall, we head out to Sanjo Keihan. It's the young folks' district, home of such quirky establishments as "Bar, isn't it?" and the "Pig and Whistle", as well as the shrines and temples that remind you that you're in Kyoto. Dinner, drinks at the Pig, and one very creepy American customer later, we end up in an actual Irish pub (Pig and Whistle being sort of "All the British Isles"), with a bartender whose brogue is in fact rich and sweet. I'm not sure if his name's Finnegan, but it ought to be.

The band here's an interesting mix- two Japanese folks on pennywhistle and guitar, and one ponytailed, mustachioed Western man decked out in Native American gear playing a bodhran (Traditinal Celtic Drum). The cultural catchalls here are AMAZING.

We grab an early(ish) train home, and wake up at a more reasonablle time the next day to explore Ritto. Dockett gets better pictures of my hometown than I do. I show him Ritto Jr. High, and Hayama Jr. High (my current workplace), as well as a few sights around Ritto.

Most notably, Lady Liberty (in daylight!).

The Beetle Dealership!

I considered picking this one up- it cried "Take Me Home"... but my contract forbids the operation of a motor vehicle during the course of my duties as a teacher.


So we poked around Ritto for awhile- I showed him Ritto station, and the concert hall where the choral competition took place- and Dockett said to me:

"I want to see a mountain."

Now, we're surrounded by mountains. Up here, we're MADE out of mountains.

"No, up close."

So, I think, why not? I really didn't have anything else planned that day- why not go on a spontaneous hike in the hills without supplies nor food nor prior planning?

So we go. We decide to climb THIS ONE.

The big one, on the left. It looks close. Really, it's quite far. It's in Yasu. Yasu's at least two towns over, and beyond a big river. The mountain is just so big it looks close. Do we pay that any heed?

No. Here we are in the parking lot of a 7-11 stocking up on drinks and energy before tackling this beast.

At the base of the mountain is this monument to a set of ruins. I'm not quite sure what it says. Here's Dockett, pondering.

We decide to let ancient mysteries lie and see how far up the mountain we can get. A little ways in, we find an abandoned shrine.
It's a little creepy, but there are kids playing on the mountain, and a woman searching frantically for her lost child. Don't worry, she found him. Not to be bested by little kids, we decide then and there to climb all the way to the top.

Which, upon reflection, was an awesome idea. The name of this mountain is Mount Mikami- Three Peaks Mountain. It's... a vertical kilometer up. It was a fun climb- there are essentially always two ways around any of the given challenges- one long, gentle grade, and one path straight up. Between the two of us, we made sure no path was left unturned. I like to hurl myself at stupid risks.

Nearly to the top, there's a fissure that evidently brings you good luck if you shimmy through it. As noted, I'm always a sucker for personal injury possibilities, so in I go.

Luck attained, we continue to the top. After a breathtaking view, ANOTHER shrine, and a chance meeting with a doctor who had a residency in Troy for a year, we descend. On the bike ride back, we find this monstrosity.

I'm really not sure what's going on here, but it looks really cool.

After our long bike journey back, we stop at KFC. Now, I'm not a fan of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the states, but hey... when in Japan, experience the local culture, right?

So Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken is exactly the same as American KFC. It's just as greasy. It's just as fatty. But here, on a diet of healthy fish and rice, it's DELICIOUS. Also, the service in all of these fast-food restaurants is amazing. They really go out of their way to make you feel like a priviliged guest, even when you're just in KFC or McDonalds. Another cultural note- there's no tipping in this country. None. It's just not done. So they go absolutely crazy to try and make sure you're comfortable... and you have no way to reward the staff. I say thank you, loudly in both Standard and Kansai (which always gets a laugh), but I never feel like I'm doing enough.

After that, back to the house to take a break. Fast forward an hour, and we're both incredibly bored... so back to Kusatsu! We chill for awhile in a coffee shop, doing EXACTLY what we would have done had we been back in the States, and call it a night. It is wonderfully surreal to sit in a Starbucks in Japan with people you know from America. One could almost forget where one was, save for the stares and the fact that all the background conversation is in Japanese.

Day 3: Otsu. I've been to Otsu just once before, and that was for the Eeyanka Matsuri- the South American Festival described in detail earlier. So I figure the park by the lake will be cool, and that's about it.

No, evidently Otsu is as close as you can get to Michigan this far away from America. It's like Traverse City plus Japan. It's a little, bustling, interesting town full of cool little stuff you didn't expect to find, but you're really happy you did. It was the capital for awhile, and every weekend it seems they're throwing another festival to commemorate SOMETHING. Example: We missed the big Otsu Festival, with floats and such, by one day. This weekend, they're throwing another festival, this one for middle school students. It's a party town- a very traditional, very Japanese party town. We wandered the shoreline for awhile, and Dockett noticed on one of the ubiquitous maps the "Shiga Prefectural Martial Arts Gym". So we check it out, and wander in. Nobody stops us, which is practically an invitation in Shiga, so we wander further...

And find ninjas. Literally, traditional Japanese archers, with the huuuuge longbows and interesting uniforms. They all look to be high school kids, with a few collegiate types about, and so we sit down and watch. It is amazingly cool. I really, really want to learn- there's a precise, methodical nature to the process, almost like a dance. The actual firing of the arrow seems an afterthought- they pay so much attention to the pattern of drawing the bow, aiming, and letting go that I can't help but think they're clockwork automata...

Until they notice us, and then when they're not on the firing range it's all smiles and waves. The class breaks to rush out to say hello to us ("THESE WESTERNERS- THEY SPEAK JAPANESE!") and we chat for a moment before they duck out and return to practice.

After the archery, I didn't think it could get cooler. What's cooler than Zen archery?


Real, metal-sword-wielding guys (and a few girls)- a whole room full of them, going through another set of precise, careful movements. I suppose that precision and care are pretty essential here... they are swinging REAL SWORDS. I thought this was banned in the Meiji era. I guess I thought wrong. I resolve to find out if I can learn this stuff, so we stop by the front desk. To my surprise, they seem perfectly happy to have me show up, and it looks pretty cheap.

Catch, though, is that all the classes meet while I'm at work. Darn. There must be other places to study this stuff... this has become my new mission.

After the martial arts gym, we go explore another temple, and are pressed into paying a couple bucks for a guided tour. Seems this is an important temple- the Tenno visits here every time he comes to Otsu, which seems to happen once per Tenno. I'm not sure who the Tenno is, but he's got a door leading into the temple that only he can use, so I suppose that's worth something.

The little museum attached to this temple is notable for one very interesting reason: It contains two scrolls that I haven't seen anywhere else. One details a group of monks repelling invaders by passing gas. Another is a very graphic depiction of all sorts of violence inflicted on some very innocent-looking figures. Both fart jokes and gore existed BEFORE modern media- it's not television that's killing culture, it's culture killing itself just as it has been for millenia. I'd just like that noted.

So we move on to the bigger temple next door; Miidera Temple. In the course of exploring this temple, we find an ancient Buddhist library.

It's really cool- it's a big rotating octagon lined with stacks of books. It's easily twenty feet tall. My mother is a librarian- this picture is for her.

Then, we find another pagoda. It's pagoda-tastic.

My favorite part of this temple? The huuuge graveyard. There are two graveyards, in fact. One is large, and rectangular, and new, and made of paved gravel. The other follows a narrow path that leads up into the mountain. I check out the one that involves the climbing, and Dockett heads into the big, orderly graveyard.

My trip up that path still gives me shivers. The graves that line the path are all different ages and styles, and don't really follow a set pattern. As the path winds upwards, there's a small clearning- a grove of new-growth trees- and in the center of the grove is a single grave. The clouds broke for a moment when I got there, and there was a moment- just one- where I didn't feel alone in the least. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling- it could almost be described as the same feeling as listening to your steps echo around an empty church hall. So I enjoyed the moment, took a few pictures, and got the heck out of there.

All my pictures of that path are blurry but one. In that one, there's a white splotch across the gravestone that I didn't see when I was up there. It's weird.

Then, I met up with Dockett in the other graveyard, snapped a few pictures, and we moved on.

Note the two red kanji on this grave. I have no idea what they mean. I might be doomed.

Further up the mountain, we find the last piece of the temple, and note with dismay that we have climbed YET ANOTHER mountain this weekend. We didn't set out to climb any, and now we've climbed two.


In a remote temple on the top of a mountain, there are plenty of handy vending machines. I love Japan.

So we wander back down the mountain, past another few shrines and down another Shotengai. We find the office for the Otsu festival, the Shiga Prefectural Offices and Courthouse, and a few other government buildings.

Nothing left now but to walk back to the train station, and say our goodbyes. My half of the story ends where it began- Kusatsu. I followed Dockett out to Kyoto station, and stopped in Kusatsu on the way home. The college students were playing guitar again, so I hung out with them awhile. I walked up, and the only English I heard was "Ohh! Sensei's back!"- and that's not even all English. They're good folks, though- they always make sure to play some American songs, and want me to sing for 'em. Yeah. Right.

I'm going to have to pay Tokyo another visit before Dockett's term ends- I can think of one more mountain we need to climb.



Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ninja Generosity

So I let it slip yesterday- the birthday thing- entirely by accident. Every new class I go to, I have to introduce myself, and every single class asks the same three questions. I have taken to writing the answers to these questions on the board, covering them with a sheet of paper held up by a magnet (yeah- all the chalkboards here are magnetic. If this is a property of every chalkboard, count me easily impressed) and then revealing the answers (to the students' amazement) as the questions are asked. The questions are this:

How old are you? (innocent enough.)
How tall are you? (fair enough.)
Do you have a girlfriend? (Wha?!!)

But on the "How Old" question yesterday, I stumbled. They asked, I said "Twenty-Two, wait, yeah, for another day." And that was that. The kids missed it, but it seems the team teacher caught it.

This morning, I found a gift and a handmade card (in English!) sitting on my desk, courtesy of my supervising teacher- and an entire teacher's office full of people saying congratulations in Japanese, putting on their biggest smile, and saying "Happy Birthday"- some perfectly, others heavily accented, but all of them so earnest about it that I was honestly taken aback. It was really cool.

Note to self- in a land where subtlety is king, always assume they notice EVERYTHING you say. Everything. This likely will be important in the future. These teachers are awesome people.

So the gift? A jar of Japanese "Starch Candy"- a bright green, viscous liquid that honestly looks like Godzilla blew his nose into a glass jar and sealed it up. This stuff is so much more awesome than it looks. The teacher suggested I eat it with a spoon, but a student of mine clued me in in Pantomime English (they love using the language, so much that they refuse to give me vital information in Japanese that could in fact save my life- they'd rather have a go in English for at least twenty minutes before giving up. This is, in my opinion, AWESOME. Makes my job cake.) that the real technique is to spin the chopsticks around each other until a glob sort of congeals around them, held in place by the constant twirling of the chopsticks- and then, ever twirling, you lift that spinning gloop to your mouth and stuff it in. So I can share it later, I only had one spinning bite- no re-dips - and it was awesome. Who knew that food tasted better when subjected to constant rotation?

Evidently, this student did. So when Dockett visits this weekend, he's gotta try some, and we'll get pictures- kind of hard to spin the gloop and snap a picture of it- it's a two-hand procedure.

Thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday- this has been a heck of a day, and I didn't really do anything. I think I spent a few hours cleaning the house, I went to Starbucks, and now I'm going to get some rest before a sure-to-be epic weekend.

I'll hit everyone's questions with the megapost that's sure to happen Monday. I've got a list of sites to see in Kyoto- some I posted about, some new ones- and I'm going to show City Mouse around the country here, provided there isn't another typhoon.

Though, before it's over, a quick word on the curriculum here- I know at least one person's curious. We teach from a set of government-prescribed textbooks that teach directly to the High Schol Entrance Exams. We're supposed to prep the students for these exams, so they get into a good high school and subsequently lead productive lives. More often than not, the teachers realize that just teaching to the test is going to kill these kids' interest in the subject, so they're having me be Mr. Games and teach things that AREN'T in the book- likely so that they know that the book stuff's covered, they've got that, and while I'm here I get to be the good cop and make English fun.

These three grades we teach go from Absolute Beginner English (Hello!, color names, body parts) all the way up to imperatives (must/have to/will) to conditional sentences (if... then) and their last year's book is full of interestingly bleak little short stories for reading comprehension- one's about a lullaby to a child dying of radiation sickness in Hiroshima. The next page moves along as if nothing was out of place. Culture shock? Maybe. But it still strikes me as pretty weird, and more than a little morbid. So these kids are larning a whole gamut of English words and phrases- "I'm fine, thank you!" and "The little boy never woke up again." are given equal treatment.

This is not an isolated incident- there's at least one other crazily morbid story in the 3rd year book. It looks to just be a 3rd year thing- kind of Zen. Your middle school years are ending, so let's learn about death. In English.

I really don't look forward to the day they ask me to make a lesson plan out of that one, though.

Today's classes were more talkative than yesterday's- it looks like talking a lot is only a problem in Japan if everyone else is silent. If everyone talks, so much the better- and my teachers expressed just such a sentiment. If one student talks in a quiet class, they're acting out. If the whole class does it, they're "genki"- "super happy active sunshine happiness", in the words of one Conservative Princess. Hello Kitty is the archetypal "Genki" personality. Guess it's still all a group-cohesiveness thing.

We'll see what tomorrow brings. Let's Enjoy Culture Happy Exchanges Together.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Night Before Christmas

Short post today- just wanted to try out some cool stuff I'm told I can do with Blogger, like embed pictures inside the post, rather than making eight thousand of the dumb things. Also, I'm beginning to appreciate the vast differences between Japanese middle schools. My last middle school was, evidently, the "problem" middle school. They were the bad kids- loud, disrespectful, and not at all good team players.

Which means I loved them. They were great- talkative, friendly, and individual. Note the subtle difference in perspective- I want students who will talk, they want students who won't talk back. Hayama, in this respect, is a model school for Japan. This is causing me no end of struggle- there are no volunteers. I've resorted to Question Ball (You catch it, you answer!) and calling student numbers out of the air to prompt some kind of interaction. They're so quiet I'm really not sure they're alive. There are a few kids who get up and go for it, but they're so quickly branded as disruptive by the teachers that they clammed right up after a few days. Time to figure out a way to reward the "bad kids" for wanting to speak English- because the "good kids" sure as heck don't.

While on the subject of Hayama, here's two pictures taken from Hayama's back porch. Marvel at....The picturesque soybean field and rice field! All right, so I really took this picture for the cool house and the clouds misting off the mountain, but it's fun to be glib. This next picture's only in here because the clouds made it look like the mountain was on fire. Hayama (by the way) means "Mountain Leaves" or "Leaves on the Mountain" or "Shrubbery on the Rocks, Half Twist of Lime Let's Enjoy Naming Time Together."

Both pictures were taken from the exact same spot, on the intersection in front of school. Should we get a decently sunny day (HA!) I'll post a pic of Hayama.

On to the good stuff- another snackyfood is being submitted to scrutiny. I have long bemoaned the fate of Japanese chocolate- it's just not sweet, nor is it very chocolatey. I evidently have not been buying the right Japanese chocolate- a friend tipped me off to "Lotte Gold".

It's really quite amazing. It's impossible to get a good picture of this, but the candy itself is covered in little sprinkles of gold leaf. Thin strands of white and milk chocolate woven together, topped with gold sprinkles. One bar (shown lower-right) is about the size of a domino, just right for piling in a bowl and inviting people to take one. Slightly inconvenient to have to unwrap each one to pig out- but that might be part of the subtle cultural "don't eat too much, as overweight people are like lepers or foreigners in Japan" vibe goin' on here.

Full Disclosure: I went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today, because a few friends were going and it sounded like an excellent idea. Note 1: Japanese movie houses are EXPENSIVE! I claimed student discount (using my Michigan drivers' license- English really IS your ticket to the world, like the sign says on the local NOVA office!) and still paid ten bucks. The non-discount price: 1800 yen, or about 18 dollars US. Wowza. On the upside, American movies are NOT dubbed over in Japanese- they're just subtitled, and the subtitles (crazy mistranslated subtitles) are half the fun of the movie. They insert Japanese cultural references (Charlie comes home, says "Hi, Mom!" and it's translated as "Tadaima", which is the Japanese way of saying "Hey, guys, I'm home!" and is yelled by most Japanese folks even when they come home to an empty house.), they gloss/ignore/destroy jokes, and they often miss the point of what is being said and go entirely off in a different direction. It's great. No wonder we were the only people in the theater laughing- a grand majority probably only had the slightest of ideas what was going on.

So all that was merely to indicate that I have good reason to be jonesing for chocolate- hence the biased review of gold-covered woven-chocolate snacks.

I think the picture embedding worked- and if it didn't, when I hit POST it'll certainly let me know. Tomorrow's the first birthday away from home- I think I'll celebrate by taking myself out to Starbucks and going hog wild on a large latte- a Japanese large, of course, which would be a small anywhere else. Sizes here go "Short" (kiddie small) "Medium" (McDonalds Kiddie Orange Juice) and "Large" (16oz cup).

I'm going to be a thin man pretty soon.

-Sparks Out

Monday, October 03, 2005

24 Hours OPEN

A weekend so good, I’m still recovering…

All of it, strangely, happened on what I consider Saturday. I’ve got this crazy idea in my head that a day doesn’t really end until I get a considerable amount of sleep- a “day” is always bookended by two nights.

On with the show.

Saturday, my coordinator and a friend of hers took me to Kyoto. It was amazing. I am left completely without words to describe the experience; I knew Kyoto was big, and I knew that my little forays into the city were severely limited by my hesitance to surrender myself to the bus/subway system, but I had no idea all the cool stuff that’s there. Due to my linguistic inadequacies, I’m going to lean rather heavily on the “picture is worth 1,000 words” cliché and just show you what I did- I ran the batteries out on my camera/phone (this becomes important later in our story) just grabbing shots of anything interesting… which is to say, I stopped every three feet like a tourist and pointed my camera in the general direction of all the cool stuff.

To begin: We rode the train in from Kusatsu to Kyoto Station, a megabehemoth whose only commonality with my little station in the countryside is the name. Here- have a look at the main hall.

We proceeded to board a bus that took us to Nijojo Castle- Japanese scholars and people who find "ATM Machine" funny, note that -jo means castle. So this is The Two (ni) Castles Castle Castle. Here's the front gate (gate):

Inside the gate, there are (whoda thunk) two castles. Here�s a pic of the inner gate, leading to the first of the two.

Here�s a close-up of some of the carvings up there.