Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Good Stuff

Head over to my man The Atomic Yak's blog for great pictures of the Sagicho Matsuri- the festival I mentioned involving parade floats and fiery violence- as well as some good shots of the rest of the Foreign Legionnaires. The Yak's sceptred-isle honed photography skills far outweigh my own- and the volume of shots he has is nigh unto alarming. Check it out- unless the concept of all-singing, all-dancing, all-burning giant sculpture borne on the backs of drag queens fails to capture your imagination.

If that is the case, I weep for what's left of your sense of wonder.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Catching Up- LONG POST

Give yourself some time for this one- if it took me forever to write, it'll take you forever to read.

Disclaimer: Most of the In Kyoto pictures are courtesy of Tonia and her awesome camera. The festival in Hachiman is all cellphone, all the time.

First night: Friday, March 10th, 2006. 10:30 pm.

I returned home from an evening of delicious, slightly odd dinner (note: Horse sashimi tastes pretty good. Kinda smoky, buttery flavor; absolutely nothing like chowing down on Mr. Ed) to find five large bags sitting on the front porch of my house- with no owners. It seems that Jon and Tonia have decided to take me up on my offer to introduce them to the myriad charms of Kyoto. Only problem? The bags were there, but the people weren’t. Figuring that the only place in town that Jon and Tonia know is the 7-11, I walked down the street calling for my lost foreign sheep, and found them fairly quickly. Ritto’s a small town.

Morning: Saturday, March 11th, 2006. 8:00 am.

We set out early for a lightning circle tour of Kyoto. First two sites of the day: Kinkakuji (the golden palace) and Ryoanji (the big Zen Garden). We donated money to the White Snake God that lives behind the Golden Pavilion, witnessed ninjitsu gutter-cleaning at Ryoanji, and discovered that the big, cool Zen Garden was being refurbished for preservation issues, and as such all tarped up. No fun. The West Garden (which I have never seen) was open, though, and we got to see the burial site of the temple’s patron and founder. There was one shot in particular- this tea offering to the sun goddess Ameratsu- that made me smile. Faith comes in a vending machine. After Ryoanji, we wandered south, intending to pass through a large park marked only as a big grey blotch on my map and end up at Hanazono Station.

Seems that this large, unmarked park is in fact a temple complex that adjoins to the NHK “Love Village”, a large period-piece movie and TV show set where they shoot Samurai flicks. We managed to sneak in behind a tour group and into the great hall of a temple that was locked until the moment we strolled up- and I’m pretty glad we did, as the ceiling of the temple was covered entirely by a charcoal painting of a Dragon of Heaven, and the temple itself boasted the Oldest Bell In Japan. Evidently, this somehow affects the quality of ring that emanates from the bell- striations in the copper or something. Who knows- either way, it was awesome to ninja in behind a tour group (like Tonia, Jon and I weren’t the MOST OBVIOUS PEOPLE IN THE ROOM) and see something I’d otherwise have missed. After stumbling across and through the temple and Love Village, we found an oh-so-creepy playground in a graveyard and decided to run, not walk, to the station and beat feet across to East Kyoto.

In the East, we visited my favorite temple (Kiyomizudera) and its surrounding market complex. The markets are tiny, winding streets reaching up the mountain to the temple, and the temple itself had an area open that previous to this had been all closed off every time I had been there. It’s a pagoda- an old, weathered, rusted, decayed pagoda. I love it.Here’s the bell. Niiice.

In a hole in a tree in front of the pagoda,

Jon spotted a glint of something. It turned out to be the tiniest shrine I have ever seen- the one-yen coins in this picture are about the size of dimes, for reference- and as such I am bringing the tiniest curse upon myself from the tiniest god by posting the picture here. In recompense, we left it an offering, stacked precariously on top of the rest of the one-yen coins. We joked for the rest of the day that it was that offering that found us all this cool stuff.

Jon, Tonia and I partook of the sacred mountain spring water- I figure it probably washed away the curse of the tiny god. Maybe the tiny god likes publicity- I haven’t felt any ancient wrath as of yet.

After Kiyomizudera, we wandered north through Gion until we hit Chion Temple- this is not me trying to be funny, these are their names- but before we could get there, we ran into a huge crowd of people. Seems Saturday was the kickoff day for “Hanatouro”, the yearly Cherry Blossom festival. We were still too early to catch the cherry blossoms, but we did see a LOT of lanterns stacked on the sides of the road and a really cool night art festival in Marutamachi Park, behind the Yasaka Shrine. The whole district was fairly packed with people- surprising, since the blossoms really hadn’t had a chance to get started yet.

We got Jon some takoyaki (the fried octopus balls) and steered him through the shrine and out into the street, where Tonia got (in my opinion) the coolest picture of the weekend:

That’s pretty much Kyoto. The rest of the night was spent scrounging up food and showing off the Sanjo district, whose praises I have sung quite sufficiently in the past.

Some bathrooms are awesome, like spaceships.

So anyways, I sent them on their way the next morning, off to see a festival in Nara (and see the deer and giant Buddha that make that city the awesome thing that it is), and I went to work. Well, kinda.

Sunday was Kids Day at the Ritto Community Center, which meant a little festival for birth-through-elementary-school kids. Some local highschoolers came in and taught breakdancing, and I was set up with a booth to sell candy for 10 yen a hit out in the hallway. The schtick? No Japanese could be spoken at my booth. So I was lucky enough to have three friends come by to help out (shout-out-roll-call: Miranda, Sara, and Veronica, you guys are awesome) and we cavorted and acted the fool with the kiddies all day.

Japanese children are crazy cute. They are also obsessed with touching, punching, holding, climbing, and sitting on you. Fair warning for anyone planning to teach elementary school here in the Land of the Rising Sun. Sunday went off kancho-free, for those of you concerned.

Sunday night was CRAZY. There was a festival in Omi-Hachiman that evening- the Foreign Legion attended en masse. The purpose of this festival was the display of giant parade floats, carried via interlocked logs on the shoulders of thirty cross-dressing men. The men, fortified with sake and eyeliner, hauled the floats up a street in front of the shrine (all the while screaming “Hasse! Masse!” which translates roughly to “heave-ho!”) and rotated them there to show them off.

Well, at least that was the purpose of the first twenty minutes of the festival. The rest of the festival was spent setting these floats on fire.

While each float burns, the men who carried it (and the crowd around them) dance in circles around the flames, jubilantly toasting each other with more sake and singing. Evidently, the day before, they jousted with these things, ramming them into each other to attempt to topple the other team’s float. This festival has, in the recent past, suffered casualties. People DIE doing this. Why they keep doing it is a question I cannot answer.

the flames die out

There’s a story behind the carnage, but it’s patchy and the people I asked on the street only knew bits and pieces. Yes, the Japanese people. Yes, I asked the people actively involved- and they DIDN’T KNOW EXACTLY WHY they were doing this. A touch concerning, to say the least. You could find the real answers on the internet, but the street gossip just seems so interesting I don’t want to taint it with any actual knowledge.

So here’s the story: A long time ago, a local feudal lord (nobody remembers who) had to escape from an assassin (nobody remembers why). So he dressed in drag and hid among women, and returned triumphant to the throne in some manner or another (nobody remembers how). FACT: All the floats this year were adorned with very realistic dog mannequins. This is because this year is the year of the Dog. Watching these hounds get consumed by flame was… shocking. The floats are patterned after the portable shrines that all feudal lords (kinda like the guy mentioned above) carry around to please the gods. I have yet to receive an answer as to why they get set on fire. Nobody knows.

To change attitudes entirely, Tuesday was graduation at Ritto Nishi JHS. The differences between an American graduation and a Japanese graduation can be summed up thusly:

There is no joy in a Japanese graduation. None. It is a somber, black and white ceremony that is more akin to a funeral for the entire graduating class than a celebration of accomplishment. Black and white are, in fact, the colors of the day; all the students wear their standard uniforms, adorned with a single flower, and all the teachers dress in black and white suits and dresses. One teacher was the exception this year- a fall kimono of oranges and greys. She stood out like a flower in a graveyard.

After the ceremony (which was long- lots of speeches) the entire school turned out to wish the third-graders well and say goodbye- we all marched outside (in the snow) and waved them off, and took pictures with them. I bounced from group to group, saying goodbye to my students, and managed to snap a few quick cellphone pics.

These are my kids. I’ll miss ‘em. The new batch of first graders come in after Spring Break- next week is the last week of school. In the meantime, the school feels pretty empty.

So. That was a crazy long update- sorry, guys. Hopefully, I’ll have more like this- adventure is GREAT. Be on the lookout for the inevitable “How could I have forgotten _____________?!!” post that should be arriving in a few hours.

parting shots
we're going to try to clear some of the backlog by including a few pictures that didn't fit anywhere else at the end of some of these posts.
no refunds or exchanges, some restrictions may apply. Offer not valid in countries ending with -ziewackobounds.
Down-home "country antique store", Moriyama-shi, Shiga-ken

concrete "boats" in Kamogawa (the Kamo River)


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Next: Pictures

Call this a solemn promise to download the contents of my camera tomorrow at work- I've got a backlog of pictures and the weather here in the Kansai area is turning absolutely beautiful. The kerosene heaters and kotatsu hot-lamp tables are all scurrying back into the closets at the first sign of spring like surprised cockroaches, and my lament of "it's the same temperature inside as outside" has been replaced with an exultation containing the exact same text.

I spent the last weekend bumming around Kyoto- visiting little cafes, leaping across stepping-stones in the river, enjoying the shock of shrines sneaking up behind me in unexpected places. There are pictures. They're trapped on my cameraphone.

Sunday evening, I recieved some visitors- Jon and Tonia, from Kalamazoo, MI. There's something both grounding and surreal seeing people I knew in the US here in Japan. We took them out for okonomiyaki, and afterwards picked up some dessert from the convenience store to be enjoyed on the sly in a little cafe near Kyoto station. They're staying in the country for a week, touring Tokyo, and I might be enlisted as a tour guide when they come back to my part of the country on their way towards Nara.

The kids graduate next week- for now, there's a lot of free time (as lessons wind down), outdoor lunches, and since the last of the highschool exams are today, the students are all either relaxed or resigned, and as such pretty happy to talk. Some are going to highschools where I know the foreign teachers- I'm a bit embarassed, as they don't speak too well, and it just might be partly my fault.

Planning this week is in high gear for the adventures at the end of this month; Australia and Vietnam. Three days in Oz followed by a week and a half in and around Ho Chi Minh City (nee: Saigon) with possible trips North into the jungles and tunnels. It's going to be nuts: watch this space for more adventures.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Recent Updates Make the Work Day Faster

The word of the day shall be loquacious.

So everyone's in a meeting today- I'm not invited, but I'm also not allowed to go home. Funny, eh? So I'm taking a break from the mountains of student reflection papers to let you in on a touch of the good work we're doing over here. As you can see by the following quotes from student papers, as far as English instruction goes, I'm a horrific failure.

The kids have just finished reading a depressing little story called The Fall Of Freddie the Leaf. The linked document is a fulltext of the story as written by Leo Buscaglia- the edition my students slugged through is slimmed down for the ESL community. It's developed a bit of a cult following here in Japan- the Japanese-language edition sells like crazy, and I've been told that it was in fact originally a Japanese story (fun fact: I have been told on multiple occasions with perfect seriousness that absolutely all stories were "originally Japanese"- the West hasn't come up with something on its own since the beginning of time. This includes the Bible. Willy Wonka? Japanese first. Roald Dahl or Roo-ru-do Dah-ru must be spinning in that grave of his)- with a name like Buscaglia, how could it NOT be Japanese?

Anyways, so they plowed through this real feel-good story about death, and then wrote short reflection pieces on how it made them feel, what they got out of the experience. All of my kids write reflection pieces, or talk about them in our debriefs- an idea that I blatantly have stolen from the ancestral masters over at Project Adventure (FYI: Originally a Japanese Company, should you ask my coworkers)- we debrief kids about every silly game we play, and believe it or not it's churning out some pretty interesting uses of the language. For example:

"When I go to sleep, I want to be smile... making people happy is important."

This is okay. This is not too strange- just MILDLY creepy, when you factor in that the story (above) uses sleep as a metaphor for death. This is the exception to the rule.

"This story is very short. So it story didn't make us boring."

"I'm good to read this story. Became very hot mind. I want to study hard in High School."

"I want to find my purpose in life. And I want to quietly die."

"I had the good things. I want to read it again."

"I feel something. I understand. A leaf give many happy for people."

"I think 'Change is Nature' is nice words. Because this words say real."

"I hope Freddie meet Daniel again. I think Freddie was happy and died."

These poor kids are TOO YOUNG to be thinking about how and when they want to kick it. Tragedy and psychiatric bills for them, strangely touching comedy gold for me.

There is one quote- just one (though I love "hot mind" up there)- that I think I'm going to treasure for the rest of my life.

"Art is long, life is short. I don't know what I mean."

I love my kids.