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.