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.