Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Mountains They do Call to Me

Ohio gonzaimasu, it’s 10:39 on a brisk grey day (which is quickly becoming the autumn norm here in Susaki). Hot coffee’s a must, and November’s coming to an unexpectedly quick close. It’s been a busy month. The weekend of the sixth saw an adventurous weekend in celebration of Guy Fox Day hosted in Nakamura by the illustrious Colin. The event was planned to coincide with his visiting girlfriend’s 30th birthday. Guy Fox Day in England is apparently all about having barbeques with the family in the cool of the fall, and a bonfire is paramount to festivities of this nature (at least that’s what I hear). I arrived in Nakamura early to aid with party preparations of all kinds: kitchen chop monkey, banter provider, fire starter, and grill master. Caroline was a joy to meet, and as people trickled in to the afternoon’s fun in varying intervals it quickly became the second largest gathering of JETs I’ve attended sense arrival in Kochi. The bonfire was built and started after a load of driftwood was delivered from a non-JET surfer friend from the US named Mike. I’m sure the fire could be seen from the large red bridge that spans the Shimanto River, and that all the Japanese people driving by had no clue what spectacle was (we even had sparklers and other fireworks). As most large gatherings of JETs seem to, the night culminated in karaoke (with the highlight being a KP inspired version of Sweet Caroline where all the men gathered around the shocked birthday girl and hoisted her into the air to an unfortunately off key rendition of a the song.). It was a great time. As always the Nakamura crowd (and the rest of the JET family I have) creates a very natural feeling of friendship and comfort.

This past weekend was the second leg of the Henro hike. Temples 12- 15 safely notched into my belt, but it’s fare to say the hike kicked back this time. We left Friday just after school let out, and thought we were going to get to Tokashima in time to park one car at 15, and then rive everyone back to 11 where we would start the next day. Unfortunately due to some GPs malfunctions and difficulties with camp sights we didn’t end up actually arriving at a suitable camp sight until about midnight, and though all four of us (Jasper came along on this leg of the trek) comfortably fit in my inherited tent – it was a cold COLD night, and my sleeping bag only comes half way up my body. . . (curses to Japanese sizes). I awoke fighting off shivers, to an unusually foggy morning. We learned form other Henro about to set out on the same trek that the fog was not fog at all, but rather a gift from China. They claimed that particulate and dust from the ever-growing Gobi Desert had blown over from China to grace Shikoku’s skies with domineering gray white haze. The trek from 11 to 12 is famously a challenge, and while definitively more difficult than the previous 10 temples (mostly across flat cement covered city streets) I don’t think as hiking goes it was ridiculous. The path cuts its way up and down the steep hills of Tokashima through cedar forests with tall narrow trunks coated in mosses in hues of green and blue, and hillsides softened by giant ferns. It’s an old feeling place, and the way the light, made strange by the Gobi’s Gift, trickling in through the leaves made it exactly the type of hike I wanted to have here in Japan. I’ve never been a church going man, and the closest thing my family ever came to it was a Sunday morning walk through the woods of West Virginia, so in a way the greens and autumn colors, the gnarled roots and weathered rocks, and the sounds of the rustling wind are my spirituality (or at least a piece of a greater whole that I’ve never been able to articulate because it’s always changing).

The hills were hard going, and we didn’t cover as much ground on day one as we wanted to, but the time in the woods, and the splendor of temple number 12 (the most spectacular thus far on this pilgrimage) was well WELL worth the hour hike with headlamps on through the darkness of 5:30. We stayed at a fantastic little hillside in with very comfortable beds, hot showers, and two good meals of hot rice, pickles, miso, and some type of fish (salmon for breakfast and grouper (I think?) for dinner). It was a much needed break from the train, because by the time we had reached the inn I was feeling a bit feverish myself (half due to being sweaty and then the chill of night setting in, and the other half being because I think I finally caught the nasty bug that had been being passed around my teacher’s office back at school). So warmed, and less sickly feeling we set out the next day to make it back temple 15 and the cars.

The second days hike started out steep and then was a long controlled decent all the way back down to level. The grayness had cleared to some extent. At least enough to reveal beautiful misty mountain views for the better part of the day, but after the difficulty, wooded beauty, and incredibly setting of temple 12 – temples 13, 14, and 15, seemed small and somewhat secondary to me. It was a good hard hike with a lot of great photos and images implanted in my minds eye of the side of Japan I came back to see. Fantastic!

There will be another post shortly on this weekend past’s Frisbee tournament and Hiroshima visit. In the interest of not making novel inspired posts I will keep this one a little shorter. More to come soon.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Recovering of Time (the great catching up session):

Well after a long day of sitting at my desk filling lesson plans, transcribing interviews, and helping Sakamoto Sensei grade some tests I finally have the chance to attempt to commune with the blogosphere once again. It’s been too long my silent friend, and while I could say I’ve missed our conversations . . . I always end up doing all the talking. Lots of ground to cover, and I have a meeting about some Jr. High Schoolers coming to visit my class in 40 minutes. I’ll start with a brief reflection on Sports day.

Almost three weeks ago now I awoke on a Saturday at the all too early hour of 6 and hazily ate a bowl of cereal and nursed a coffee. I donned my yellow bandanna, yellow shoes, yellow wrist guards, and specially crafted team banana jersey (yellow of course). Took the early train to school, and paced about for a good long while, wile the opening ceremony took flight. The ceremony, like all opening ceremonies in Japan, had at least three speakers, and concluded with the slightly over dramatisized touching of the three team flags and pledge of sportsmanship from the team captains. The games of the day were a spattering of relay races and more traditional Taikusai (sports festival) games. These are games that largely seem to fit more into Kingsley Pines, summer camp crazy fun than a judged competition that takes months and months of planning to execute. For example there is the game Happy Wedding: In happy wedding the team captains sit atop a small four wheeled cart and is pulled by two small girls around a sand track. In five different places around the track there are pieces of a brides wedding gown. The two girls must drag their soon to be emasculated captain around and piece by piece dress him in as their bride.

There is also the game called BBBBAAAAAAANNNN (yes it is really spelled that way in all capital letters). BAN is played by pitting girls against boys, the boys dawn hardhats with neon balloons taped to the tops while the girls are given bats made from tightly rolled newspapers. The wining team is the team with the last boy still running about with an unpopped balloon. These games sound childish and fun, but the students, and teachers, take the day very seriously. The cheering was perhaps the most impressive event of the day. Each team prepared a ten to twelve minute cheer/dance/jingle to be judged by high ranking community officials, the vice principals, and the principal. Needless to say, after a fantastic performance of thriller, a much anticipated triple back flip by the team captain, and excellent clapping coordination the yellow team immerged victorious on all accounts. Many of the other teachers assigned to the yellow team burst into tears, and upon given the excuse (for lack of a better word) man of the students from all three teams began to cry.
Emotion is not something to be shared in Japan, at least not openly (especially in the older more traditional crowd). Events like Taikusai give students (much like booze at an enkai, work related drinking party gives teachers) a “get out of jail free card”. It allows the heavy-handed social norms to be set aside. I think of my school as being a fairly relaxed environment with trace amounts of silliness oozing over into my daily interactions with students and faculty alike, however the level of acceptable silliness was unquestionably increased for Taikusai, and the Enkai that followed afterward. NEVER thought I would see my vice principal so red faced, dancing about, saying, “I don’t a understand Japanesu. We all mustu mustu speak Engrish to me” [stumble slightly, chorus of laughter from all]. . . . Twenty minutes later asleep on the izakaia floor with his pink raincoat draped over him.

So Takusai reasonably taken care of, onto the Henro. Henro means religious pilgrim. Shikoku is perhaps best known for the Hachijuhakkasho Meguri, or 88 sacred temple pilgrimage. The journey was originally made by Kobo Daishi, who achieved enlightenment and transcendence while on the journey, and people in modern times begin the trek for any number of reasons. These days the pilgrimage can be made by car, tour bus, public transit, or the more traditional left foot right foot. Having recently procured a fancy new pair of hiking boot I have chosen to walk the 88 temples. Unfortunately, I will not be able to walk them all at once, being that the 88 temples circumnavigate the entire island of Shikoku (the trek takes about 45 days solid walking to complete). I cannot take this much time off work; my friends and I must make the hike betsu betsu (peace by peace). My henro henchmen (henchwomen I should say) are Michele and Kavita. We’re all doing it for different reasons, and I won’t speak for them by attempting to paraphrase their reasons for wanting to embark on a journey meant to strengthen one’s spiritual awareness. My reasons, however, can be quite easily stated. I am a lover of many, many things. I am not a Buddhist, and to be honest do not aspire to become one. I did not, and will not, attempt to say the lengthy heart sutras typically chanted by the Japanese Henro. I am a guest both in this country, and especially on this ancient path that has been walked by many more people than I can imagine, and with that comes the inherent sensation of being the humbled outside observer. I have always been fascinated by places of great spiritual power and importance. Religion is not a piece of my reality, but that doesn’t mean I am not inspired by those who have faith (without fanaticism). To watch and experience the incense soaked air, the ringing bell to announce one’s arrival at the temple, or the rhythmic nature of the heart sutras delivered in unison by the couple set out on the pilgrimage because they just learned they will soon change from two to three.

I also love to hike, and what better way to really see Japan then by walking the winding roads of the pilgrimage all around Shikoku. The first day of our trek it rained all day. Luckily my rain gear proved it’s worth, and I stayed as dry as possible when hiking about 19kl in a continuous strong drizzle. The first temple is where one acquires the henro uniform, one conical bamboo hat with sutras scrolled across it, one staff (meant to be the physical embodiment of Kobo Daishi himself), one white shroud (meant to be your death shroud should you die on the pilgrimage), and one stamp book (each temple has a signature written over orange stamps and collected as proof of completion of that leg of the trek). These items are certainly not required to make the pilgrimage, and it modern times people of all capabilities and levels of faith do pieces, fragments, and chunks of this tradition as they see fit. It’s a personal adventure of the soul and the body. However, I will say that after experiencing vast amounts of unprecedented kindness due to the fact that I was wearing the Henro gear I WOUL STRONGLY ADVOCATE TO ANYONE SETTING OUT ON THE TRACK TO GET THE GEAR! We hiked through the rain through three small towns near Naruto City in Tokashima Prefecture. It is the flattest area of Japan I have ever visited, and though mountains could be seen in the distance, it felt very strange to be that far away from them (especially after living in Kochi where the cities are placed amidst the narrow valleys making fish bowl hamlets and a very clear division from town to town). The path is blazed with small red arrows, and cute stickers of cartoonish Henro, so it’s a bit like a 40 plus kilometer game of hide and seek.

Each of the temples (despite different gardens and typically one major unique building) are largely the same. The main shrines are barely discernable. A pilgrim can count on the temple’s main gate being unique.

On day two we hiked from 6 to 10. Along the way we learned that even though the guide book is very useful there are some changes in the route each year, and as the sun set we found ourselves being kindly told by a recently 83 year old gentleman blaring Mozart from his car that we were about an hour and a half walk away from the Henro Hut we were to stay at that night. When someone offers you help while Henroing it is important to note that they believe they are actually helping two people, you and Kobo Daishi. The Henro’s staff is believed to be a physical embodiment of the enlightened spiritual leader, and therefore by offering us a ride the kindly old man was actually helping three kids and three embodiments of a very potent spiritual being. He graciously gave us a ride (to which we were astonished at how far we still had to go). He also directed us to an onsen (Japanese bath house) where we could stay for free. To go to a hot bath spa after two days of damp hiking IS UNDESCRIBABLY WONDERFUL! I haven’t slept that soundly in quite some time. All in all, the hike was fantastic, and the banter (both comical and serious discussion) between Michelle, Kavita, and I was fantastic. In a few weeks we will be embarking on Henro part II #11-15, which is supposedly the most difficult portion of the entire hike.

Sense Henro there have been two weeks of absolute chaos. I am in a taiko group, and we’ve had three practices a week for the past two weeks in preparation for two performances. Both performances went well. One was at a candle festival in the mountains where rice fields are illuminated with something like 1,556 candles. I am sorry to say I have no pictures of this being that I was participating the entire festival, but it was quite the sight. There is a definite chill in the mountain air now, I love it! The second performance, which happened this Saturday, was in Susaki at a recently reopened shopping center. Less formal atmosphere, no great setting, but we sounded WORLDS better! No mistakes were made, and everyone generally felt that we rocked it this past week. Now we’re back to once a week practice, and hopefully I’ll up my songs from two to three by the next performance in late November.

My classes continue to grow in number and level. I have one class who remains obstinate to my attempts at making English fun. They don’t speak, besides to each other, and often when asked to speak English reply with “No, Andoriyu Nihongo onagaishimasu.” (Andrew learn Japanese Language Please). So . . . . they make my head want to explode, but they are late in the day on Monday, and my weeks seem to quickly recover from their frustration. I’m very VERY into the flow of my life here in Japan, and absolutely adore the new friends I’ve made. However the trials of distance from my family and friends at home does set in from time to time. My mother often asks if I miss home yet, and I think its very relevant to say I don’t miss West Virginia – I miss those morning conversations with my dad over two cups of coffee before going out to tend the garden, I miss fixing lunch for mom during her lunch hour (or the even more fun Panera bread lunch) where I ask her of her day (and typically try to make her smile), I miss driving out to Grandma and Granddad’s for political banter, breakfast, and stories of California, I miss driving and listening to music, and I miss all my family of friends from KP, Wooster, Holl’s, and older still (Nic, Chris, and Sam that ones for you). The time difference makes the level of communication much less than I would often like, and the feeling of community and family I have developed here would not exist if I spent all my time communicating with home. Travel, on the level that I have committed to travel, is a sort of double-edged sword in that manner I suppose. With the potential for incredible gain comes also the natural but highly undesirable chance for great loss as well, but perhaps friendships are never lost. They always live on in memory, and though people and places phase in and out of lives they remain in our memories, a testament to the human ties we all need to feel whole. I always feel lucky to have such great friends and family all over the world. Here’s to the adventure we’re all on eh. Different paths and different journeys, but so long as we’re all moving there will be bliss and discovery.

Sorry for the great delay. More dependable and regular updates to come.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Six Cups of Coffee for Safety (an old post finally posted): September 28, 2010

Well folks it’s drawing near the close of the first of two very long days. Last week I was asked to help participate in Safety Week at Susaki High School. Safety week basically means teachers take turns being crossing guards with giant flags and neon yellow plastic jackets (plastic so as they may hold in the maximum amount of body heat without allowing any of that nice breeze in to cool one’s quickly drenching upper body). So I awoke a little after 5 to catch the first train into Tosa-shinjo (the station my school is closest to). I stood in day glow yellow, hat, and jacket while cheerily saying, “Ohio Gozaimasu!” to any and all students brave enough to cross at the far side of the street near the giant hairy man.

That being said the rest of my week has been spent largely in preparation for Taiikusai (Sports Day). Taiikusai is one of two culturally culminating events in a high school students life here in Susaki City. While I love my school and realize that the teachers do their best (as all teachers should) to get the students excited about education and learning, Susaki Koko is not what one could accurately call an academic superpower. I have been told on many occasions that most of the students here will not go on to college, but will probably attempt to take the equivilent of the American Civil Service Test. The dreams jobs of most of my students is to be an office employee in one of the many city or municipal buildings in or near Susaki (or any other similarly sized city in Kochi). I can count the number of students who have told me they want to leave Kochi Ken to go to college on one hand. . . they are all young women who want to be computer programmers. Knowing this, what is a student’s typical day like then, you man ask?

Well, up until recently, their days have been consumed with sports club meetings, and classes missed in order to better plan, practice, and talk about Sports Day. Sports Day is an event that happens once every other year. If it isn’t a Sports Day year then is will be a school wide Culture Festival. (I must clarify that this is specifically for my high school not all of Japan). The school is divided up into three teams: red, blue, and (my team) yellow. It is done seemingly arbitrarily based on your homeroom assignment. These teams then must practice many traditional Japanese Sports Day events and make up an 8 to 10 minute cheer that will be judged by the Kocho, Fuku Kocho, and Kyoto Sensei’s of the school (so that’s principal, vice principal, and head of teachers for those Japanese challenged). The students are granted time off of class for these practices, and should it actually rain on Sports Day (heaven forbid) school would be cancelled in order to make room for Sports Day. Needless to say I’m very excited to see this event that has been steeling my students attention and time away from my classes.

More to come, as always.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Frisbee Camp and Drinking With the Dragon King

Well it’s been a while since I’ve last written (gomen, I’m sorry). I’ve been surprisingly busy, and for a time I was without internet due to lightning strikes. Thankfully I’m now reconnected. My apartment continues to feel more and more like a home. I love the process of nesting in a new space. Converting someone else’s clutter into your organization and the slow but steady patch work filling of once empty wall space is more rewarding that expected.

Two weekends ago I went to a very flat farming area of Kochi (that was rather unremarkable as Japan standards go) to attend the Ultimate Frisbee Training Camp. There were perhaps 25 other JETs and Japanese Ultimate players from our team there. Knowing quite a bit about the game (thank you Robert Olson, David Wigger, and the Wooster Ultimate team) from my time in college I was asked to help train up the new comers in the ways of frisbee force. So forehand throws were attempted, field positioning was explained, and in total 7 games were played in the span of two days. It was fantastic! The frisbee team has a lot of really great folks on it. The newbies really picked up the game quickly, and everyone seemed to have a great time, although it was very sweaty unrelenting weather both days.

My classes continue to go well, even though most of my students are still quite shy. The typical response to a question from me is to remain still as though I was the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and they are doctor Allen Grant. “If you stay still he can’t see us! Don’t move Ian, DON’T MOVE!” Luckily there are a handful of outgoing “crazy kids” (this is their description of themselves not my words) who laugh, speak frequently, and also are a great help in class. Some even go so far as to translate difficult directions for the other students. I have a small amount of frustration with the class sizes. I have one class of 7 and one of 3 or 4, and then four classes of 30 plus. The small classes go fantastically. They all remain engaged the entire 50 minutes of class. The 30 plus classes are difficult, and it’s a bit like herding cats to get 100% participation. Hopefully that will come soon. My JTE’s remain fantastic resources and are quickly becoming good friends. Sakamoto Sensei is my main JTE and she and I have developed a very light-hearted and humorous relationship that is quite refreshing to see in a Japanese friend. There are some issues with her and I both being new teachers. Many of the students are used to her predecessors team teaching methods of translating most of what Rachel or the other older JETs in Susaki said. We have been trying to force the students to depend less on translation and practice English listening more, however . . . it remains to be seen if that is working. There is a frustrating habit for most Japanese students of saying they understand when they really don’t. I typically explain a lesson then ask if they understand, and am met by smiles and affirmative nods . . . only to find out later that the students are running to other teachers saying they don’t understand me. Will be working on that.

Last weekend I hiked Kajigamori near Kochi City. It was beyond gorgeous! The hike begins with a waterfall whose name translates to “Waterfall of the Dragon King”. It’s customary to drink from the various streams and waterfalls for good luck as you climb the mountains. The water was sweet, the air cool, and the cedar forests were verdant. The climb begins with a steep scramble straight up over loose stones covered in moss. After a good bit, the mountain opens up and the views begin. Once atop (though slightly hazy when we climb) the view is astonishing. I know not why Buddha’s always seem to find homes atop the mountains of Japan, but they inherently add a level of reverence and respect for the effort you just put into scaling the summit (no matter the size). Unfortunately, the American Army decided to place some large antenna arrays atop Kajigamori. In a sense they are equally impressive and simultaneously offensive. The angular, cold, and obtrusive steel of man made towers surrounded by red and white signs and barbed wire dropped atop the rolling green everything sprawled before you. Makes you think at least.

We descended via the 1000 step course. This was fast in comparison to the vertical climb up, and ran us past many waterfalls. All in all it was a fantastic weekend. I must apologize for the time it has taken to finally get this post edited and up. I’m quite behind on my blogings, but hopefully this will satiate those of you frustrated by my relative Internet silence. More to come as always.

Hope everyone at home is doing well. ALSO, should any of you have any burning questions about daily life in Japan, questions on Japan in general, or interests you think I should pursue please post them as comments! I will do my best to answer, or do any of your questions and suggestions.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Friends, fireworks, and (yes oh yes) rain and river lobsters.

Minasama konbonwa (Good evening everyone). Well it’s the last Tuesday before I begin teaching classes. Tomorrow is opening ceremonies and my first official lesson, and to say I’m ready is about as severe an understatement as possible. I have been salivating for things to do about the office, however soon very soon I believe I will be quite pleasantly engaged in lesson planning, studying Japanese, and hopefully the art club.

This past weekend I hopped an express train out west along the coast to Nakamura, where Colin, Jamie, Marie, and many more dear friends live. I came down on Friday and stayed with Colin, our night was consumed with appropriate amounts of political, philosophical, economical, and travel related banter with wonderful interludes of serious modern dance outbursts provided by the immensely talented Jamie E. The next day was filled with sleeping in, and spats of rain all day. The rain held off that night for an excellent display of fireworks (made delicious with matsuri (festival) food: karage (friend chicken chunks on a stick) Yaki ika (grilled squid head on a stick with a sweet sauce), or, my personal favorite, takoyaki (imagine if you will crepe batter with onion and octopus grilled in ball form, and covered with dried fish flakes, mayo, pickled ginger, and sweet soy sauce). The rather large group of ALT’s from all over Kochi Prefecture then migrated in mass to a surprisingly fun dance hall where a few drinks were had by all, and jovial dancing (lead by Mr. Jamie E. of course) was practiced to what was probably the same damn techno song all night. Four other people were staying with Colin that night. We stayed up till 6 talking frisbee tactics and sharing college experiences. It was great fun, and (as I’ve stated before) I’m very pleased with the comfort and ease with which everyone seems to be getting along. Our time together seems more like a reunion of old friends rather than the creation of new ones. Maybe it’s the shared experience of being thrust into another culture, or maybe I’ve just been lucky yet again and landed in a wonderful place surrounded by wonderful people.

Sunday the skies were gray, and it rained on and off all day (making it borderline impossible to take any photos of the beautiful city of Nakamura, which is often called the tiny Kyoto of Kochi. The City is cut in two by the Shimanto River (the only undamed river, I think left in Japan (but just incase), on Shikoku. The sides of the river are public parks and vibrant green fields of reeds and manicured campsites. All the ALT’s met in the gray and rain clad in swimming attire to spend two hours floating down the Shimanto’s cool waters on various inflatable toys. The funniest of which belonged to Mr. Jamie H. (a Scotsman not to be confused with the ever dancing Jamie E.). He chose a large lobster as his trusty steed, although Thomas the Train Engine came in a close second). The lobster proved to be a continual source of entertainment as we drifted down the rivers picturesque curves. Floats were flipped, laughter was had, and yes it rained on and off the whole time, but it was relaxing and a pleasure I hope to repeat at least once more before the hot weather gives way to Autumn’s cool.

I didn’t return home until late Sunday night, and had barley the energy to toss my wet clothing into the washer before crashing down to my futon (and favorite pillow from home, thanks again mom and dad).

On Monday morning my head teacher (Kyoto Sensei) attended the Susaki High School rowing club, he showed up in swimming cap and scuba mask to attempt balancing in a Japanese racing kayak along with me, I was humbled and grateful. We both attempted 3 or 4 times and failed completely. Imagine a western style-racing skull without oarlocks and two paddles (thus the rower must use only his core muscles to maintain the set of the boat). So the students in the club laughed at us both, and attempted to give advice in childlike Japanese. I had attempted to show them the difference between our boats, but somehow the only parts that translated were, “Andrew rowed in high school”. Interestingly the cove where the team practices is a gorgeous place. Sky blue waters, jumping fish, green hills carpeted in bamboo, and hoards of opaque, non stinging, jellyfish. They float about curiously like gelatinous button mushroom caps. If I stopped kayaking long enough to look at them they would, at times, seem to drift towards my boat – as thought they were capable of being curious of this alien neon shaped parading loudly atop the water’s surface. It was a fantastic morning, and I walked away having a host of new memories and a rather unpleasant sun burn (everyone at school said I looked like a drunken tomato).

And lastly today was the first day of classes and students! Hizzah hurray for a real day of work. I taught one class of 7 students today, and it went better than I could have hoped. Japanese English students are well known for being very reserved in classes where speaking is the focus, but these students (for the most part) were loud, active, and constant participants in my various games and conversational lessons. The teacher said she could tell I had taught, or worked with students before, and I felt as though all the lesson planning (and money that went to The Boston Language Institute) was completely justified by my day. I also received the radiant news that my school is very generously going to buy me a new air conditioner (bye bye hot box, I’ll always reassure our month together). The rest of my day was spent assisting my JTE with the grading of an English quiz some students took in her class today. I was going to keep a list of funny errors, but I stopped recording them after the first test was nothing but comically misplaced verbs resulting in Yoda like speech.

Well it’s late and my futon beckons. As always, more to come!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Well it’s been ten days since I last posted. What have you been doing you might ask? Why haven’t great, glorious, and fantastical things been happening to you? I’ve actually been quite busy, but until yesterday none of it seemed. . . worthy of telling. So I’ll push through a quick summary of the droll. Don’t worry there’s sensationalism to come soon.
I had last Thursday and Friday “off” work so that I could attend the mandatory Kochi City Orientation. This was a large meeting with all of the new JETs from groups A and B. It was they stereotypical group meeting in Japan: an overly florescent room, the repetition of information we’d all heard maybe twenty times (although this was most entertaining presentation of all that information), and the overwhelming sensation that the meeting was secondary in importance to the multitude of fifteen minute breaks where one must take all the time they can to talk to any and all other JETs. It’s like an instant family. “Oh you’re apartment was completely empty when you got there too? You still don’t have Internet? What do you mean your predecessor transferred all her accounts to your name, lucky!?” and many a similar conversation, which always evolve beyond the basics into deeper communications. Each night there was a planned after orientation party. There was good food, bad beer, and what are very quickly becoming dear friends. Sunday I attended another fantastic frisbee practice, and the new comers to the sport have improved vastly sense just last week. Hizzah!
I took one of my summer vacation days (as a JET I get three extra each summer) and recuperated from a busy weekend of socializing, making my way through the long list of domestic items that living on your own requires: laundry, dishes, mop the floors, clean bathroom, groceries, ironing, and the like. This week I learned how to throw away broken kitchen utensils and my recycles, and I also successfully went to the city offices and picked up my Alien Registration Card and Japanese Health Insurance Card.
Now that we’re through with the lead up, on to the thrill and chill! It’s Wednesday, and Susaki City has been in a long three-day heat spell. The typical daily rain disappeared Friday and, unfortunately, has still not returned. This causes beautiful clear blue skies, a gentle but mostly irrelevant breeze, and a choking sticky heat that is multiplied in its intensity by the glaring sun beaming down upon us as though we were the anthill under a vindictive child’s magnifying glass. It’s hot, does not describe the cloudless days here. Needless to say after walking from the train station to my school I’m a sweaty unpleasant Merican mess. The teacher’s room however, where all desks are located, has AC. It’s glorious. So it’s Wednesday, about 11:25, and I’ve cooled from my morning unpleasantness. My Kyoto Sensei (vice vice principal, or head teacher) comes up to me and says, “Andrew san kanuing wa darume no ikimashtaka?” . . . in so many words and after much translation from my JTE, “Andrew, our high school has two boats racing in the high school dragon boat battle today. We need someone to stand in the boat and keep the pace by beating on a large metal drum. You leave at 12:15 please take lunch now.” How could I refuse an offer like that? So in my business attire dress pants and tucked in long sleeve shirt I spent my day bare foot goading young high school girls from the Susaki high school volley ball and soft tennis (your guess is as good as mine as to what that is?) clubs into greater feats of dragon boating strength. We did very well. Out of 12 teams my boat was the only boat with girls, and we came in 4th place. I returned a sweaty mess, and agitated that I didn’t have my camera for the multitudes of fantastic photo opportunities the day presented. None the less a great time. As always more to come!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thunder in the hills, flying discs, and terror on two wheels

Greetings fervent readers (I know you’re out there somewhere). Yet another busy weekend in Japan has blown bye. Saturday kicked off with a bang of laundry, house cleaning, and the terrifying discovery that my couch (given to me by my predecessor, and to her from hers, and so on down the line into antiquity) had been completely assaulted and corroded by a wholly unnatural neon red and green stinky mold. Upon moving it from my wall its cushions crumbled into dust leaving a powdery stench strewn across my tatami floors. Needless to say frantic cleaning and the vigorous spewing of foul language followed. After exiling the corrupt sofa to a huge trash bag in the guest room (because I still don’t know when I can throw large items away) I set out to the Home Store to look for a suitable replacement. I carried the thing atop my head all the way back to my apartment. Success in both “grown up” purchasing and the systematic irradiation of filth made the final product especially gratifying. My apartment however, still doesn’t feel completely like my own place. It’s getting better though, and hopefully soon It will be 100% nested.
Post lunch I hopped one town over from Onago (my neighborhoods name) to Aso where I had been told there was a very nice mountain to climb called Sodayama. I weaved my way through snaking streets, stopping to ask directions occasionally, and eventually found a very nice man who handed me a map of the two trail options. He attempted to explain to me that one trail was very dangerous right now and that I should not take it (due largely to venomous snakes and the fabled deadly Japanese Giant Hornet, 2 stings can kill you). The climb took me through terraced hillside hamlets made up of rice fields and lemon trees. The views became increasingly better as I climbed and by about 2 hours I had reached the top (which wasn’t really the top, but it was a nice view and the end of the trail). Unfortunately, the humidity played havoc on my camera, and resulted in many blurry and hardly tolerable photos. On my way down a drizzle set in, which quickly turned into a down pour. No big deal, I packed rain gear! Then with a clap of thunder that would have rattled the walls of any home the sky birthed lightning in great white-hot streaks. Luckily I happened to find an old abandoned shrine and hid beneath the fading and cracking timber roof, watching as the weed choked stone steps acted as tributaries for the amassing torrents of runoff water flowing down hill. In all it was a pleasant way to spend an hour, watching the storm pass with the handful of spiders hiding beneath those forgotten rafters. The rain passed, and so I continued my decent with the woods of bamboo and red barked evergreens (maybe seeders?) all a chorus of chattering insects and dripplets of water.
Sunday I took the hour train into Kochi city where I was met by Michelle a.k.a.: Wiggles. I met Wiggles at Tokyo orientation she’s a 3rd year JET and my fixer for Kochi city travels. She’s also my foot in the door for the Kochi Ultimate frisbee team. We threw for a while and after everyone showed up played some really fun ultimate. It was perhaps the hottest day I have experience yet in Japan. Any movement what so ever resulted in the most profuse and extreme sweating one could imagine, so naturally playing frisbee and springing around a field with no shade was the best course of action imaginable! It was a very cleansing day. Lots of physical activity, BUILDS CHARACTER. All in all the team was great fun, and the new faces, and handful of familiar faces from Tokyo Orientation, were great fun to see and get to know better. We went out for grilled meat after practice, and after an hour train ride I was home again home again.
Now. . . this next part I’m not particularly proud of, but it has it’s place and was a definite fixture of my weekend. To get from Kochi Station to the Frisbee fields one must barrow the Kochi JET community bike (a mustard yellow clunker big for Japan, but small for me) that lives in the public bike house next to the station locked up with a secret JET only code. For those of you that don’t know me that well. . . I haven’t really ridden a bike sense I was. . . . eleven, maybe? Even then I was never really a big bike rider. Things with wheels and I – we don’t get along so much. Well the 30 to 45 minute ride from the station to the fields was a hysterical effort on my part to not crash and burn. With my lengthy knees scrapping the handlebars of the bike’s fully extended seat I still, according to my friends, looked like a grizzly bear attempting to ride a child’s unicycle. Actually the bear would have probably appeared more graceful and at home than I looked. I wobbled, weaved, and walked my bike sketchily to our various destinations and apologized profusely for my relative lack of experience. However like a pimpled preteen’s first kiss, I hope that things can only get less embarrassing and awkward with more experience. All prepubescent voice cracks aside it was yet another highly enjoyable weekend. Sorry there will not be many pictures for this one, but I’m sure you’ll understand. As always more to come!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Yosakoi: Written Thursday August 12, 2010

The crowd closes in, you feel music blaring from speakers on moving trucks in your chest cavity, your nerves go taught as the performance builds to a crescendo, your fist clench as the performance ends, and you stifle the urge to belt out a good old, “HELL YEAH!” (of course one must resist this impulse because no one around you would understand those words, and it could easily be mistaken for anger or some other inappropriate emotional overflow). Yes folks it’s Matsuri (festival) season here in Kochi-ken. I took the day off of work on Wednesday and took the JR train into Kochi city early for the Yosakoi Dance festival. The festival hinges on the performance and judging of seemingly endless dance groups who all perform in a parade like exhibition led by decorated flat bed trucks that have been covered with various sponsoring team names. Teams can be sponsored by any one; rice companies, fish flake brands, hair salons, or even towns. They dance from 9 in morning until long after I had already left the city (about 7). I can’t say I actually know a huge amount about this festival, but I do know that every group performs to what can best be described as a remix of the Yosakoi traditional song. To compete the lyrics and certain rhythm sections of the original song MUST be present in your performance. This leads to groups being defined, at least for Japanese challenged gaijin, by their flamboyant costumes and how ganki (up beat, happy, and or great) their performance was. As the day wore on most of the groups became progressively less ganki. Their smiles faded to exhaustion and . . . perhaps even boredom. Imagine performing the same dance continuously for three days. The word challenging only goes so far.
I ended up meeting up with four other JETs who I befriended at Tokyo Orientation. Jamie, Marie, Sonia, and Amy. I played phone tag with Jamie until finally asking him where he was. His response, under a McDonalds sign. . . (there’s at least 4 of those). It was very good to see that group again. I find them wonderfully easy to spend time with. Unfortunately, they live about 2 hours West of me by train in Nakamura. I’m considering going to visit them this weekend for camping, depending on the weather. Great fun for all though.

I find there is an inexplicable quality to the festivals (especially the bigger ones) in Japan. There is a level of grandeur on the scale of the Macys Day Parade, but . . . very different. It’s difficult to describe. Between the claustrophobic, shoulder crushing, nature of the narrow streets one must navigate to find the best view, and the full frontal assault against all sensory receptors I always leave with a feeling akin to great self-awareness. Perhaps when confronted with so many colors, shiny objects, sounds, delicious smells from festival vendors, and the slight physical exertion of standing, walking, or pushing through a constant mob my mind kicks into meditation mode. I left Kochi with a sensation like I’d just finished a great run, or maybe like those crazies who do hot yoga feel (sorry if you’re a practitioner, but doing yoga in a heated room is farley close to the anti me equation) after a good long sweaty stretch. Maybe it’s the history behind every piece of costume and tradition, maybe it’s the dedication of the performers, or maybe it’s just a part of that quintessential Japanese thing that I mentioned earlier. That little thing, which is omnipresent here, that resonates within certain people to the point of creating a sensation of euphoria and comfort.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not running around beaming uncontrollable manic smiles every day as I simply stroll down the street. It’s a quieter kind of comfort, best linked to discovery. Silent astonishment at the 50 dollar mushroom individually wrapped in the super market, (why are you so special I wonder?), try and count the number of vending machines you see within a four block radius of my apartment (it’s ridiculous!), rice fields instead of corn, or just being able to see those mountains that surround my little city dotted with constant whisps of mist. More to come. . . pictures posted on facebook, flickr has currently out smarted my attempts at posting. . . . deal with that soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

And So it Begins

Greetings fervent readers. I never know how to start a blog. . . The first entry should be something monumental right? A declarative passage outlining your goals and reasons for spilling your inner thoughts into the digital data super highway for everyone to read, should they stumble across your tiny slip of a web-sight. Well my goals are two fold. Firstly and bluntly I am a teacher of English living in Japan, and a very happy participant of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. I teach, or will teach rather (once my students return from summer holiday), at Susaki Senior High School in Susaki City. I’ve been in Japan a grand total of nine days now, although it’s not my first time in the land of the rising sun. According to the Japanese government I am here to assist a Japanese Teacher of English (to forever more be referred to as a JTE) in the teaching of conversational English. All of the classes I teach focus on oral communication paired with cultural exchange.

On a somewhat more personal, and I suppose less practical, level I am back in Japan to experience some kind of awakening. No, that’s too divine sounding. When I last spent time here I lived in Nagasaki for three months, and it was a life altering experience. Japan holds an indescribable ability to change the way certain people view the world that surrounds them. There is simply something embedded within Japanese culture that once experienced leaves an unforgettable sense of longing. And so, I’ve returned. After three full years I’m back, but this time no English speaking roommate, no Japanese culture classes in English, and no host mom doing my cooking, laundry, cleaning. My first giant step towards independence, hell of a step hu? Maybe we’ll call it a jump.

So all the new JETs of group B (as in Boy) flew into Tokyo on Sunday August. it was a surprisingly quick 14 hour flight. Tokyo orientation is a blur of meeting someone new every five or so seconds, jet lag, and copious amounts of sitting and listening. There are multiple workshops put on by current and former JETs. Some of these, Budgeting Your Money, and Career Building and Management, were quiet helpful. Others, Japanese Pop culture, were . . . less than thrilling in their presentation, but given its ups and downs Orientation was a chance to really meet new JETs and also feel very grown up. As a 23 year old working his first “serious” job after college it seemed somehow relevant that for three days I was required to wear a suit and tie. However, Tokyo felt nothing like Japan. with around 800 other fresh JETs all eager to get to their placements Tokyo Orientation is a bubble of English, which is quickly shattered upon arriving at one’s placement.

Please don’t mistake my use of the word shatter. . . I LOVE MY PLACEMENT. My apartment (though lacking in air conditioning) has a beautiful view and is huge. Susaki High School has a great staff of friendly faces who always try so very hard to carry on conversation with me in gesture, laughter, and smiles. Very few speak English. Those that do are modest about it, and shy despite there very capable comprehension level. The students I’ve met so far giggle at me uncontrollably and sprint away, leaving me waving at them saying, “wait, wait, what’s your name?”. I look forward to teaching them, but certainly hope we are able to move past this shy giddiness.

With the help of my JET PA (Prefectural Advisor) and my predecessor (who decided to hang around for a while) I have thrust myself right into some incredible experiences. I immediately joined a taiko, Japanese traditional drumming, team that practices from 7 to 10 on Wednesdays. It felt really good to be reading music again. I haven’t seriously played/ practiced anything sense I unfortunately dropped piano after my senior year of high school. It’s a very physical activity though. One play’s taiko with a crouched wide stance that brings a slight burn to your thighs, the sound rumbles down into the floor in great vibrations that shake up into your bones and come echoing into your gut, and up humidity and lack of air conditioning in the theatre where we practice simulates a cleansing sauna. Unfortunately the group is going on holiday until the 25th so I’ll have to wait to get more involved with that experience.

Sunday morning I met a Chinese Dragon Boat team compiled from friends, family and patrons of two local bars in my neighborhood block: Kaijia (a delicious and very swanky Chinese influenced Izakaia) and @ Home (a smoky, over priced, western style bar). They apparently were informed that I was a rower in high school, and thustly a spot on the boat was reserved for the giant gaijin who used to row. None of the rowers spoke English very well, but it seems less and less necessary. Through gesture and broken Japanese I was able to learn quite a bit about the various patrons, employees, and family members of these two establishments. The actual rowing is quite different from what I’m used to. Crew is 80% legs, 10% arms, and 10% back. Dragon Boat races are 100% arms. Boats filled with 25 people taking fast short strokes and three crewmen beat drums and chimes to keep everyone catching at the same time. To have proper technique one must also yell “YA!” every time one’s paddle blade hits the water. This all took place on a beautiful lake cradled amidst green green mountains dotted with country houses and rice patties. My boat made it past our first heat, and came in a close 3rd in our second heat (which wasn’t enough to move on to the other races). Interestingly instead of water or perhaps Gatorade being given to the teams to keep them hydrated Kirin Ichiban Beer is distributed by the case to each team. I watched as at 9:00 a.m. my team, and hundreds of other’s on many other teams cheered kampai! and drank a prerace brew. This continued throughout the day, and left many is a hysterical state of semi intoxication (which lead to them trying to speak some very interesting English). When I chose green tea instead of beer right after we got off the water I received many questioning glances. . . “what do you mean you don’t’ want a beer after sprinting 1000 meters? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” I won’t lie, I drank the beer offered, and it was cool and refreshing. All in all it was a wonderful experience. To be surrounded by people who only speak a few words of you language is something hard to imagine being a mostly inclusive feeling, but somehow I left feeling as though I was a part of this team. We all smiled when the race was over, and a suppose it goes to show you that gratitude and kindness transcend even the most difficult of barriers. There will be much much more to come. After all it’s only the beginning.