Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Giant in Wonderland

Had to come home early today to deal with my infestation problem- there are winged ants in the wood in the walls, and as a Japanese house is not constructed to keep anything in or out (nothing here really "seals", so it's the same temperature inside and out all year round, and bugs have essentially free passage) the best I can do for it is spray 'em when they appear, and wait for the exterminator to come- a Godot-like experience, as the exterminator was due yesterday, might have arrived today, and is due "sometime by Friday". Seems he's busy this season- perhaps now might be a good time to begin building the houses around here out of brick.

Anyways- that's not the real story. Since I was coming home around 2:40, the train platform was nearly empty. I managed to make an excellent train connection (only a minute wait!) and was silently glowing with glee at my amazing luck when...

I stepped into a train car full of elementary school students. Literally, the whole train car was packed roof to floor with kids- no adults in sight- who saw me and immediately SWARMED. My hands were shaken, my backpack tugged on, and it was only a combination of dimly-remembered skill and catlike reflexes that saved me from an armada of incoming Kancho attackers.

I spent two stops playing with the kids- essentially being subjected to a battery of personal questions, a lightning-fast test of my Japanese, and constantly hovering one step away from an abyss of Kancho pain. They were from the next town over, going on an after-school trip to some temple in Kyoto, and as such had never met me- it was like the first day I got here, all over again. Every new group reacts essentially the same way, but you see it from a swarm of grinning kids and you can't help but laugh. When I got off the train, the entire car gave me a "BYE-BYE" that resonated throughout the station like the ring of a temple bell, and I believe continues to susurrate in the hallway at this very moment. It was a good way to end a workday- now, I must continue my battle with the ants. As an apology for a curtailed entry, have some more Kyushu pictures!
One Ugly, Angry Dude; Shimabara Castle, Shimabara Peninsula, Kyushu. This peninsula was the last stand of Japan's early Christians- though it creates an interesting mental picture, many lords and samurai converted to Christianity, and when the edict came down that no "foreign" religion was to be tolerated, they holed up on the peninsula here and fought to the death. Many were killed in the fighting, and those captured were boiled to death in natural volcanic vents called "Jigoku"- Hells- that now provide water for hot-spring resorts.

A Hell.

The front-door arch of the Murakami Cathedral at Nagasaki, relocated to the epicenter site. The cathedral was largely ruined- the statues melted and bleached, the great hall fell- but this arch stood after the blast, and has been preserved in the state it was found.

Enough creepy stuff! Here's the Chihiro Waterfall on Yakushima- inspiration for Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi", released in America as "Spirited Away". It was INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL- there's a hiking path to the bottom, but we were short on time. I WILL go back to that island.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

100th Post; a word on Japanese Mountain Climbing

So a few weeks ago, I took a solo trip up Mt. Hiei, the holy mountain northwest of Kyoto. It's 848 vertical meters of rocky riverbed trail... the climb up takes a meager two hours, or you can ride a ropeway most of the way up- excellent for the physically or spiritually handicapped, but anyone else caught riding that thing should be shot. (Subnote: I wholly endorse handicap-accessible mountains, provided that those who lack an actual handicap are given one if they wish to use the amenities.) I saw one person on the entire climb up- about fifteen minutes in, an old man decked out in full pilgrim gear traipsed down the mountain and bellowed a hearty Konnichiwa that belied the fact that he looked like he could easily have been pushing ninety. Mt. Hiei is famous for the temple complex sprawled out across most of its upper reaches- Enryaku-ji, the home of the famous Tendai warrior-monks and keepers of an eternal oil flame, tended by the priests, that they've managed to keep burning for 1200 years. That's right, kids- since 806 AD, some poor monk has had to schlep oil into a little lantern every day, and make sure he doesn't sneeze while he's at it.

That, however, is not the story. The story is thus: I climbed the mountain, and in my quest to actually say I CLIMBED the thing I forsook the ropeway, skipped the stairs and scrambled up a dry riverbed to the temple complex, some hundred meters below the top. The temple itself is pretty cool- one of the nicer ones I've seen, and I FINALLY got to clamber up into the insides of a big ol' temple gate (usually closed, as it's believed they're demon-haunted; for the most famous gate of this kind, read Rashomon- the actual Rasho Gate no longer exists, but they've got a little marker in south Kyoto to tell you where it was)- but the road to the summit was nigh-impossible to find. Feeling like a thief, I traipsed through a graveyard and up an old trail that wound me past ancient gravestones and up to the final approach- where I found an ABC Broadcasting Tower sitting on the broad expanse just below the true peak. After a bit of searching, I found the false peak- 830 meters.

It was covered in concrete. There's a road that leads all the way up, and buses that run every half hour. There's a garden museum, some udon shops, and a gift stall. My heart broke, but the land was higher a little further away, so I kept climbing.

In a grove of cedars, a tiny marker indicated that I was standing on the tallest point of the mountain- 848 meters- and all around the little marker were wooden votive tablets with names of climbing clubs on them. The Kyoto Climbing Society, Otsu, Osaka- almost all the towns large enough to have a climbing club had made the effort and found the tiny-stupid-out-of-the-way trail to claw up the last muddy eighteen meters and stand in a viewless grove of cedars for a few moments.

I had a seat and wolfed a chocolate bar, listened to the engines of the buses groaning in the valley below, and silently thanked the mountain gods that no entrepreneur had decided to build an escalator to the peak.

pax yorochikubo

Monday, May 22, 2006

Beyond Kyushu

Forget it! I've been captive to these megaposts for far too long. The attempt to create another giant novel about a vacation is 1) impossible, given that in order to do that I'd need "free time", 2) not the point, as this is a blog about Teaching In Japan, and 3) just too stinking long.

We're gonna try an experiment: One post a day, next five days, get me back into the swing of things. One story, short, sweet, anecdotal. At the end of each post, one Kyushu picture.

I left my first school last week. Since I only visit each school for a month at a time, having three schools means that with the two months I've got left, I will never return to Ritto JHS. I will miss the kids; my rockstars were from that school, and though the world's tiniest rockband has graduated and gone on to high school, the atmosphere at Ritto was awesome. I'll miss it. By way of example:

Over the last month, I was adopted by a set of third-grade students led by a big guy named Kubo and his eloquent grand vizier, Matsui. Every day at lunch, they came into the teacher's room, brashly pushed past the magic line (there is a magic line on the floor of every teacher's room past which the students may not intrude- at some schools, it is enforced, at some, it is ignored. Usually, at Ritto, it was enforced with an iron fist) and charged up to my desk, to engage in a ritual halfway between a private English lesson and a Catholic confessional. Kubo and his crew would regale me with what they had done that day- what teachers they walked out on, what grand feats of athleticism they were intending to accomplish, how much noise they made, the proper pronunciation of Kubo's name (strong on the BO, and guttural- let the second half rattle in your throat like you're shaking a handful of gravel in a bucket)- and then attempt to teach me the Japanese for inappropriate parts of the body. Their big goal (stop me if you've heard this one) was to teach me how to imitate (and improve upon) a Japanese comedian who cleverly wordplays off of "nice to meet you" while twirling his hands around the sides of his chest.

They never managed to get me to do it, but they tried and tried, repeating the phrase and gesture and telling me why it was "Very important", and that I "had to"- and so a deal was struck. They pay attention in class, and learn to explain to me in English what the fuss was about, and I'd give it a go. Kubo and Matsui got better every day at giving me reasons to bow slightly and give a hearty "Yorochikubi" (the modified "nice-to-meet-you", half "yoroshiku" nice to meet you and half "chikubi"- nipple). They even modified it, slipped Kubo's name in at the end, so it was nothing but a garbled, mangled inside joke; YorochikuBO. Of course, as I am a professional teacher, I refused to humor them- wouldn't be proper. And so my final day came and went, and I did my farewell speech to the student body amidst crying kids and farewell notes and promises of mail to come (everyone's got my address in the States now- Mom, Dad, if you get some letters...) and as I was walking out towards the door Kubo and Matsui caught me in a hug, telling me how sad they were I was leaving... I couldn't resist. It had to happen.

My pronunciation was FLAWLESS. Slight bow, hands a-twirlin', the words from my lips ending forever my career in politics...


I love my job. They were the happiest kids in the world, and though I watch the inbox on my desk for a termination notice, one has not yet arrived.

A forest in Yakushima, home to living cedar trees (cryptomeria) older than the Bible. Forking away from this gorge was a dry, rocky riverbed that used to feed into it that led into the "Mononoke Forest" that inspired Miyazaki to make "Princess Mononoke" (sidenote: I'll show you the picture of the Chihiro Waterfall that inspired "Spirited Away" later- seems Miyazaki LOVES Yakushima.)Coastline, Yakushima. Yakushima is about two hours south of Kyushu by jetfoil, an unspoiled natural fairyland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Google Earth it. 30°20'48.42"N, 130°30'57.72"E.

pax yorochikubo!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Too many megaposts!

I'm back in Ritto- spent nine days backpacking around Kyushu, the Southern Island of Japan (well, as long as you don't count Okinawa) and the cradle of Japanese civilization. Religion plays pretty big down there- the gods lived on that island, and moved north with the early Japanese as they swept up to what is now Honshu, the Main Island of Japan, and Kyushu was also the holdout point for the early doomed Christians of Japan- they hid out on the Shimabara Peninsula, and put up quite a fight before being virtually exterminated and driven underground. Some of the coolest stuff I saw while I was down there were crypto-Christian artifacts that disguised Mary as the goddess Kannon, or Jesus as an incarnation of the Buddha, or worked subtle crosses into sword crossguards and the bottoms of icons of other religions- but more on that later. I'm trying to keep the epic length of these things down (so I can tell you more and slideshow less), so this post is really for one thing and one thing only:

Tale from the Issahaya Train Station, Kyushu, Japan
dialogue translated from the Japanese by A. Moll

A man in what appeared to be his late sixties, sitting on the wooden bench on the platform headed to Shimabara Port, adjusted his baseball cap and called out to me in laughing English. "You! Where from?" In my politest Japanese, I told him that I was from America, but that I live in Shiga Prefecture. With a broad smile, he asked me what I was doing down in Kyushu, waiting on a platform for a train that only comes once every three hours. Tourists, evidently, stick to cities with reliable transportation. I told him my story- I had just left Nagasaki, and was taking a shortcut across the bay between Shimabara and Kumamoto before heading on to Mt. Aso
(google earth 32º53'03.80" N, 131º05'06.43" E- the greenish blue pit is a lake of volcanic sulphur), an active volcano in central Kyushu. He laughed again, told me that was great, but had I heard of this other mountain, named Kaimon? Of course, I had not. So he told me about it.

Kaimon is called the Fuji of Kyushu. It's symmetrical like Fuji, fairly large- like Fuji- and holy. Just like Fuji. It's also the site of a peculiar ritual that this man felt the need to act out, in the train station, complete with gestures. He told me that during the war with my country, kamikaze pilots departing from Okinawa would circle Kaimon three times, waggle their wings as a final Sayonara, and depart for their targets. His explanation was joyful and enthusiastic- he stood, he walked in circles with his arms outstretched like airplane wings, he waggled them back and forth to indicate the Goodbye, and he ended it with his straightened hand slamming plane-wise into his other hand, which then crumpled. He told me that all the kamikaze pilots would do this- every single one- as part of their pre-mission ritual. And then he grinned that big grin at me, and touched the brim of his baseball cap, and winked.

"But me, I didn't go. Have a good trip."

A few stops down the line, he walked past my seat on his way out, saluted me, and said "Sayonara."