Monday, June 27, 2011

The Dream Recurs

It happened again today; I was standing in the first year class while they were being led into a new grammar pattern, and then the variety of Japanese students, some of them bored, some of them shikkari-ly writing in their notebooks, dissolved and was replaced with equally half-bored half-shikkari American kids learning Latin.

I guess you could say, for all my uncertainty, I’ve never been a frequent changer; slow and steady goes this entire procession.

I mean, it gets emended: now I’m thinking, well, maybe a full-time Latin teacher isn’t so sustainable in this world of budget cuts. But maybe someone who teaches Latin 1st, 2nd, and 4th hour, and Japanese 3rd and 5th might be in a different class, however slight that difference.

Then I try to imagine what that classroom would look like.

And in the end, it’s all kind of a selfish circuit – to pursue a job that would encourage—nay, require that I continue to pursue the things I already pursue, giving them form and meaning beyond today’s desire to learn one more thing in a world of interesting things. It would be silly to learn kanji, only to leave Japan in a little while and never look upon it again.

And maybe that’s what’ll happen, but I’m still going to study it (as slowly and steadily as I do). And I rather hope I continue to study it once I’ve left. I like words; I like what they can do. I like the feel and shape of some of them, their power. I like, now, the way that some kanji look, how they pack in meaning. I bet Japanese poetry is really something else, what with kanji all over the place, sounding like one thing, looking like another, having a meaning all its own.

It used to freak me out that there were so many things I might do, that I wanted to do. I wondered, how will I find the right one for me? They all seem right in different ways. But sometimes, lately, I’m just glad to know there will always be something for me to do, and I need never be bored or without occupation, at least not for long.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Secret Perks of Speech Contest

So English Speech Contest is coming, and I know it's far too early to be thinking about it (it's October 17th or something), but I have basically already chosen my champion(s), and basically had chosen one of them as early as graduation.

I don't really care about winning, although a win would be nice. I always just want my kids to make a good showing of it, to do well and make me, their parents, and themselves proud. The kids I want to chose are two that are good, they're smart, but more importantly, they work hard, and I feel like I can trust them.

Our school will be hosting the contest this year. What this means for me is, I don't have to be a speech judge (woo!) and I do have to give the model speech.

The model speech!

What happens during the contest is, the kids speak English (or something like that) to the audience, and a Japanese translation of what they are saying is projected onto the wall or a screen off to one side, so their largely Japanese student audience can have some clue as to what the hell is being said.

The same goes for the model speech, if I'm not mistaken.

What this means is, I get three minutes to say something to my school, to all the kids at my school. Not just the ones who can understand English. I don't have to dumb it down in order to say it in my limited Japanese, or in order for them to understand it with their limited English. I don't have to tear my hair out in agony over being scared shitless at attempting to do a whole speech in Japanese in front of a gym full of native speakers. I can march out my secret (terrified, also) little orator and really say something. I can have the freedom of using whatever word is right for the speech, not just whatever word I think they'll know. And it'll all be up there for them to read along as I enthusiastically deliver my message. I can really say what I want to say.

Now I just have to figure out what I want to say.

You're So Jozu With Those Hashi

A few weeks ago, I saw someone had "shared" via facebook some article about how Japanese people need a lesson in diversity, and the headline had something to do with being "skilled with chopsticks."

It's kind of been a joke with JETs lately (and before lately), how you get complimented all the time on how good you are at using chopsticks. Until recently, I would just smile and say thank you, as with any compliment, occasionally adding that I "practice a lot," in a somewhat ironic manner. When I say that, the people I say it to tend to think I really mean practice. What I mean is merely that I get a lot of practice, because I kind of live here.

So I've been occasionally touchy lately, a little on edge, and when on Tuesday, the 7th, a teacher at elementary school had the whole class look and see how good I was with my chopsticks, I briefly considered flinging all the rest of my rice at her. It went on from there. Maybe I've just not noticed it and now I'm offended, but now it seems like every time I go to elementary, the class I have lunch with has a teacher who will feel the need to point out how damn skilled I am at using chopsticks!

(Punctuated, quite hilariously, by the first and only occasion I ever had someone -- being one of my middle school second year weirdos -- say in English "You! Can't! Use! Hashi!")

And I want to be careful, because I'm surrounded by 7-year-olds who perhaps do think of it as practice, and who maybe sometimes find handling those sticks a little difficult what with their hand-eye-mouth coordination all still in progress.

But I, dear reader, am a young adult, who can read and write and do long division. And though I am not the most coordinated among us, unless I am handling snakes on fire with my madly skillzed chopstick use, you need not tell me I'm so good. Because I promise you, reader, that even if you do not feel you are good at using chopsticks, you are really close. If I gave you a week of school lunch and only hashi to eat it with, you'd be jozu in no time, too. Two weeks if you're clumsy. You'll be smiling and thanking people for their compliments.

Two years in and I just want to fling rice.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Plum Wine

Today, I made umeshu. Or, I hope I did. I did what I thought you do to make umeshu. I even used plums out of my own garden, no kidding. Don't ask what percent, though.

The rock sugar has already dissolved a little in this photo. And I hope the plums are unripe enough. We'll take her for a taste test in a month or two and see how she goes.

From 2011_06_16

It's been that kind of a day?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

extra long weekend

Well, I think, I had an extra-long weekend that spanned three cities and was both destructive and productive, recreational, educational, and businesslike, pleasant and unpleasant. My feet are blistered at the front from one pair of shoes, and at the back with another. So I have to write about it.

Friday, direct from work, I drove north to the long-talked-of, never-seen onsen called Mahoroba. It really is one of the nicest onsen I’ve ever been to, and I think it’s the premier choice when it comes to Shiso onsen options. The only nicer ones I can recall are either the one Heke and I went to in Hakone, or the very historical and well known Arima or Kinosaki groups.

After that, I went almost directly to a work party held right next door to my house, and got to know some of my new coworkers a little better. I like Miss Piggy Sensei more and more as time goes on. She’s actually a little bit of a fireball, now that she’s found her feet. I think complaining was kind of her way of bonding, even though before I just found it a big turn-off.

It really began in Kobe, that city of flowers and culture, international port extraordinary. It was the last weekend of the “Body Beautiful in Greek Art” exhibit at the Kobe City Museum, on loan from the British Museum. I’ve never been to Britain, and it’s been a while since I got to see Parian marble.

I first checked in to my lodging for that night, the new R2 Hostel just a few minutes’ walk from Sannomiya. Since coming to Japan, lodging in Kobe has been one of my earliest and most recurring nightmares. I’ve learned that one, cheap lodging in Kobe is sparse, and two, thou must needs call ahead. I booked into R2 because I’d stayed there before with the group (on our way to Hokkaido), and it’s reasonable and close. When I checked in, the place was looking downright nice, with its cheery décor and helpful, laid-back staffpersons.

I was on the third floor this time (last time, it was floor 2, the mixed-sex dorm, third has private rooms and female dorms), and I settled all my stuff in my cute little room before rolling out to find the museum.

The pride piece of the display was the diskobolos, and the exhibit was all pretty nicely laid out and displayed. The titles of everything and room intros were in both English and Japanese, but the explanations of things were in just Japanese. Between what little I can read and what I already know about Greek (via Roman) myth, I was okay. It was nice to be amongst the gods again.

I had a little time afterward, so I wandered into the museum’s permanent exhibit on history in the Hyogo area, starting with Paleolithic settlements discovered, leading up through the Jomon, Ynantokanantoka, and Kofun periods, and then into the later civilization periods. I know pretty much nothing about ancient (truly ancient) Japan, so that was actually a little more interesting than the Greek Art I’d just seen; it was all new to me.

I then progressed to join my friends for a wedding party north of Sannomiya. Some of our JET friends have been in the process of getting married to their Japanese girlfriends. I imagine that now you’re picturing that special brand of Charisma Man that wants to catch a subservient Japanese chick to keep his house and rub his feet, but I assure you that this couple is far from that stereotype. Andrew is hilarious and smart, and Akina is a true match for him.
From 2011_06_11

I had worn some shoes with bows I got at the secondhand store, and they’d given me blisters by the time we got to the venue. I changed into flip-flops on the way to the afterparty, and immediately and accidentally abandoned those cute, punishing shoes in the streets of Kobe (no, seriously, I just left them where I had perched to change!), not noticing their absence in my bag until I thought to remove them from it and lighten my load at the hostel.

The next morning, I considered just not showering at the hostel (there’s always a line, it’s not like home, I’m not that dirty, etc.) until I tried to fun my fingers through my hair and discovered the wedding cake that was stuck there (yaaaay). Riiight. I slowly moved my bum through the motions of morning preparation, talked with some people in the common room, drank some coffee, pet the dog (the dog, it turned out, was the pet of a frequent customer of the hostel who  was always allowed to let the dog sleep in the common room overnight for free. The night before, this person had sought to stay at the hostel, but the place was booked solid by then, so they just kept the dog for this guy so he could stay somewhere else!), then rolled on to Kyoto to meet Dre and Nami-san at noon.

in Kyoto station
From 2011_06_12

Dre and Nami are a few of my favorite people (I <3 Hiroshi-san too!), so spending the afternoon and evening with them was really wonderful. We started off with lunch at a swank place in Kyoto station, then moved on to a temple famous for its hydrangea blooms this time of year (turns out, that’s on my pilgrimage, too!). We walked through the lightly rainy lanes, joking about Dre and Hiroshi’s matching (pink) umbrellas, and catching up.

From 2011_06_12

After dinner, I caught a semi-late shinkansen to Tokyo, and hung out with Allegranzi. The shinkansen was a lot more crowded than I thought it would be; I guess the last few trains at the end of a weekend will be like that, but I managed to get a seat by hovering next to a guy who was blocking a seat with his giant suitcase and looking around nervously at the people who’d just got on and who seemed like they would have to stand (or upgrade to reserved seats? Can you do that?). I left my bags on an empty rack above some old people and stood just behind this guy, assessing the situation, and he saw me and offered me the seat.

Hanging with Allegranzi was a pleasure, as always. Monday morning, I tried to sleep in a little, and eventually moved out to find my way to the meeting before it started just around lunchtime. Spent the afternoon planning our presentation for Tokyo Orientation in July, met the co-presenters, got a lot put together, got excited about going to orientation. Basically, it’s probably going to be a huge amount of work, exhausting, but also a lot of fun, and rather rewarding. I should also get first look at at least one of the new Shiso Ladies.*

It’s strange to be two years in, very often thinking about the end, about ‘what next,’ and one half my brain planning my great trips (the post-contract Japan trip, and the post-repatriation roadtrip), and then thinking about orientation, remembering what it was like to be brand effing new, trying to channel the sort of things those people want to hear in a presentation workshop at orientation.

This morning, I got to try my hand at Tokyo rush hour on the Tozai line. It was not quite as bad as I expected. My new shoes (got the day before, some sweet, comfy business-classy numbers) had, in the absence of stockings, rubbed my heels so badly by the time we reached the station that I actually changed shoes in this rush hour Tokyo and chanced flip flops on trains so crowded, at some stops they have to push you in.

So now I’m back on the superexpress, headed homeward; the rice fields are mostly planted, it’s almost Wednesday. For the first time maybe ever, I packed appropriately. I feel a little better about Tokyo as a city, maybe like it a little better, though I know I’m still a trees-and-rivers kid at heart. 

From 2011_06_12

* - term also applies to dudes

Friday, June 10, 2011

Weight Heavy

It's strange to miss someone you hadn't even spoken to in two years, but I think what I miss is the levity with which I used to think of her. My mind would wander idly, from time to random time, to her or her family, to wonder how she was doing, to make some half attempt at mental math to figure out how old her kids were now, giving up after two seconds. I miss the way that stuff didn't matter. I didn't have to know, I could just assume things were fine, that she was living her life, doing her thing, and her family was doing its thing, just as I was out and doing mine. I miss the way that assumption made remembering her light and easy.

Now, remembering her is weight-heavy, requires greater strength, takes a heftier toll. What's more, I can't stop remembering her now, of course, so I can hardly set the heaviness aside. It makes me tired. It's not that remembering her is in itself a sad thing. The memories are good, they were always good. They still make me smile. It's that the act of remembering her requires that I also acknowledge the heaviness of losing her. So it's strange to miss someone you hadn't even spoken to in years, someone you might not have seen for another year or more, but whose disappearance you still somehow feel. There was levity in not seeing her, but there is pain in being denied the opportunity.

Then, there is the fact that her death was not an accident, or the result of some illness: it was caused by a person, it was a single violent act. It should not have happened. That man should not have committed this act. Failing that, someone should have stopped him. But no one stopped him, and he did not stop himself, and that adds a dark heat to the weightiness of the feeling; it's like holding something hot that doesn't burn you right away, but which you slowly confirm is too hot to hold. It's not an uncomfortable kind, it's an unnoticed-dangerous kind.

I just liked the world better with her in it.

So there is a disquieting weight to be carried around, and maybe now and then some of it sorted out, or set down, some dispersed, the rest picked back up. And we grow strong enough to carry what we have not learned to let go.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

She didn't ask me "Do you remember Shannon Lawrence?" Such a question would have been preposterous. We had all grown up together. Of course I remember Shannon Lawrence.

When I was in the second grade, I knew her third-grade brother Justin. We were in the same 'aim' class, and I remember that I asked him, once I'd seen the rosters for our classes in the coming year, if he thought his sister would like me, and what his sister looked like, so I could make friends with her right away. He told me she looked just like him, except her hair was longer. I always smile at that memory because I knew her instantly.

Here and now, in my class of first-year students, there is only one who did not attend either of "my" elementary schools that typically feed into the middle school. But I knew her name the moment I saw her, because we call them by last name anyway, and she is unmistakably the younger sister of one of my second-year boys. Like him, she is kind and hardworking, and pretty sharp. I sat across from her at lunch last week and thought about Shannon and Justin. 

On Monday, I called on the older-brother student in class and he made me laugh.

I used to go to Shannon’s house to “play,” before we were even old enough to call it ‘hanging out.’ We had sleepovers, we played Amazon Trail. She came to my birthday parties and I went to hers. She took me to my first concert (it was the Backstreet Boys). In middle school, we gelled into the same group of friends, who worried and whined and were extra-dramatic together. She was always the most sensitive of us, the most tearful when it came to that. Sometimes I wanted to take care of her, sometimes I wasn’t so good. I was jealous that she was prettier than me, I wondered why she and her brother could get along so much better than I and mine; I did not want her home life because I knew she took it hard. Her parents divorced when we were in the 4th grade (which was not an uncommon thing, in those days or in these, but my parents were still fine, and so were L’s, so how could we really understand?), and we wondered, in 7th, why she hadn’t got over it yet.

I remember school projects and movies at night. I remember cakes and snacks and homecoming dresses. We got ‘lost’ in the woods once, in her neighborhood, and ended up on some other road. I remember her laugh, her brown eyes, her brown hair. I was looking at pictures of her last night and was a little bit amazed how familiar she looked to me, even though we haven’t spent much time together in so many years. I was a little bit surprised by how clearly she was, even in her newer photos, the very same girl I knew when we were children.

Once, I had dinner at her father’s house. It was very close to my own, walking distance, even, a rarity in suburban Georgia. Her stepmother made pasta, and we played hide and seek with her brother and stepbrother in the dark of the house while her father and his wife sat on the porch and allowed us the run of the place. After we tired of it, she and I jumped on the trampoline, then lay on our backs on the bouncy surface, talking. We were old enough then to be hanging out, wondering aloud about the future, thinking about boys.

Her stepbrother sat next to me in chemistry class. I wondered if it were okay to have a crush on her older brother. She went to the same church as my homeschooled friends, she was friends with L’s group in high school, and I drifted (though not lazily) between those friends, and the anime-nerd clutch that formed freshman year. We didn’t hang out as much, though. In college it was even less; I guess being away will do that. And we had different lives, by then, different perspectives and ambitions. I mostly saw her at gatherings of L’s group, but I was always happy to see her.

L has always kept me informed of things going on back home. She did it in college, and she does it still. Somewhere in the course of our conversations, she tells me about the latest family news (I’m an honorary cousin), and updates me on the friends I haven’t seen. I never met Shannon’s boyfriends, I only heard what they were like. I knew about what Shannon was up to only in the same vague background way I knew anything about what happened to the class of 2004, who was in school or out of it, who had a new job, who had moved where.

I remember pictures of her on facebook, pregnant and smiling, when I was finishing college. She looked beautiful still. She was still heart-of-gold sweet and good Catholic Shannon, too, and no matter how painful or difficult or awkward the relationship with that guy was, she was never going to not keep the baby. We may have all had our own opinions on the guy, on the situation, but so did she.

The last time I saw her, at L’s birthday party the summer before I left for Japan, she held that beautiful little girl and said that things with Chris were bad, but she didn’t regret all that, because Emma was the best thing that ever happened to her. She wasn’t just saying that, I saw it in her smile. I never fully understood that situation; I was never part of it, wasn’t really in, anymore, wasn’t deep enough in that group, in her life to get it. We only spoke briefly, she held her baby, and her love was clear. She would do anything for her kid. I thought, even though this situation isn’t ideal, I bet she’s a good mom. I bet she was.

When she got pregnant again, I was in Japan, and quite literally in no position to say anything about it. Like I said, we had our own opinions; anyone who could hurt a gentle soul like her (I don’t wish to report poorly recalled hear-say about threatening or abusive behavior, so I’ll say only that he wasn’t good enough to her, for her)… well.

When L called me at work after lunch on Monday, she said “So you remember Chris,” adding a line or two of ‘our own opinions’ to refresh my memory. I never met him; I only knew and disliked him from legend. L didn’t frame it like a news story, she didn’t use legal lingo or form a passive sentence. She spoke slowly because the line from skype to my cell phone wasn’t the very clearest. She told me all the information that was available. I checked later, when I got home from work. The news articles didn’t have much to offer.

We spent a little time in silence, because what can you say. When I hung up, I went back inside and printed two more worksheets I had been about to send to printer, then I looked at the clock. I canceled my dinner plans, went to the door, put on my outdoor shoes, and walked as though I were going to the elementary school for some reason. I walked through its parking lot and straight down to the river, where I walked along the bank. I didn’t greet anyone, I didn’t smile at them. Why should I have to smile at everyone all the time, why should I be expected to give a genkina aisatsu right now. It was too much, just too much.

I had put money for a water bottle, in case I needed it later, and some go-ens in my pocket. I intended to go to Iwa Jinja, big and solid and peaceful as it is, but I never made it that far. Somewhere along the riverbank, I walked down the slope and to the river’s edge. Bamboo was poking through the sand. It was sunny. I crouched in the shade of some little trees and promptly began to cry. It was kind of nice, really.. I never feel far enough away from stuff, at home. In our apartments, your neighbors can hear you chuckle, let alone howl. But down by that lonely riverbank, there was only rocks and rice fields to hear me. I thought about how we grew up together. I thought about what she became, and what I became, and what she might have become after now. I realized, at some point, looking up at the green of the leaves through my naked eyes that it was an absolutely gorgeous day. I sat and remembered, and cried. When it was 2:45, I washed my face in the river and walked back to school. I asked if I could go home on the four o’clock.

I didn’t know how to say anything to my co-workers about it. I very literally don’t have the words. Is it enough to say “My friend back home has died.” ? That’s what I told one teacher as I was leaving today, by way of explaining why I wasn’t very genki all day. But that doesn’t say half of it, that doesn’t say anything about fear and violence and damage done. That doesn’t beg the question, how will you persuade those children that everything is going to be okay, that the world is an okay place, and if you manage to do so, are you just lying to them anyway?  The only person I said it to as a sentence was my next door neighbor, and every clause, every extra detail that fell from my lips felt like a grotesque pantomime of news-giving. I fell off into a whisper, embarrassed to be even trying to say it out loud. “Last night [it was midday in the US, which means the middle of the night here], my friend back home was brutally murdered, in front of her two children, by her baby-daddy.”

I don’t know what any of those words even mean.

I know she was beautiful, and so sweet, and so good. I know this because I saw it, I grew up with it, saw her grow into it, in some ways.

The last time I saw her, she was beautiful, she adored her daughter, and she was doing okay. Therefore, if of course I remember Shannon Lawrence, this is the Shannon I remember.
The last time I saw her.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Omizutori is a famous event at Nara's Nigatsudo. My visit to this event has its roots in the first time I visited Nara, on Christmas 2010; our guide Osaki-san pointed out the blackening around the wooden rafters of Nigatsu-do.

お水取り, Omizutori, quite literally is the drawing forth (tori) of water (mizu), but the most famous and pictorally represented aspect of this yearly festival is the part where stuff is on fire (which is actually called Otaimatsu). Priests walk huge flaming torches back and forth along the porch of Nigatsu-do and shake them in certain places. If you have sparks fall on you, it's supposed to be good luck.

Different combinations of the spectacular event happen on different days, but the 12th presents 11 torches instead of 10, and visitors are circulated through by the crowd control machine that is the Japanese Way. Other nights, you just have to get there early and camp out if you want to see anything. The 12th is also the night of the "mysterious" water-drawing ritual, or actual Omizutori. Which happens at about 2am, making it a lot less accessible (trains don't run after about midnight, so you are walking or taking cabs from that time on.. and you better be staying the night in Nara, for this). I decided that I wanted to see it this year, because I was never going to travel all the way to Nara on a school night and stay up til 2, and this year, the 12th of March fell on a Saturday.

Nigatsu-do is part of Nara's iconic Todai-ji, home of the huge Buddha. 二月堂, Nigatsu-do is literally the hall (do) of the second month (nigatsu). And before you say, well then why do they have all their special events in March (三月), allow me to introduce myself: Hi, I'm Emily, and I'm obsessed with calendars.

I discovered this preoccupation most solidly when I chose the fasti as my topic for study and presentation in the ICCS Rome program (I just went looking for that photo and saw some rad photos which make me amazed again that I got to go to that program!), but here in Japan, it just means that the New Year's gift of a horoscope calendar book (given by one of my adult students) was very well placed. To make a short story long, the old Japanese calendar had 1/1 this year on our Gregorian February 3rd, so the old calendar's "second month" would actually be happening in the modernly conceived "third month," and so on. (If you care about this as much as I do, check out the wiki page on it too.)

So Nigatsu-do is pretty much named after its biggest event, the March drawing of mystical water. The water actually comes out of an unassuming-looking building at the bottom of the steps leading up to the hall.

You can see the well house at the bottom of the steps, to the right.
From 2010_12_25

And of course I was going to see that. Flash and fire and accessibility may seem awesome, but quiet mystical water is more my bag. Who needs trains? I'll walk across the city, my 10am wakeup be damned.

Now as you may already be mentally protesting to your silly blogging author, the 12th of March this year also happened to fall on the day after the 11th of March, which would be the day that a massive earthquake and tsunami completely tore apart the north-eastern part of the country. And I went to Omizutori anyway. I don't have much to say for that, other than there didn't seem to be much reason to cancel the plans. My traveling companion and I saw the last few torches, I took some grainy video, and then we put on every last layer we could find, and settled in to wait.

Spent some of that time exploring the area around Nigatsu-do, got a calligraphy page (as mentioned in the pilgrimage post), managed to get in to one of the small rooms around the outer wall of the hall, where we could hear the priests chanting and clattering around in their wooden clogs inside, and could see only the glow of maybe candles through the slats. The chanting was hypnotic. We meditated, we sat. It was cold. We had some sweet bean mochi and tea at a little shop that was staying open all night. Then we went down and camped in a spot right next to the door of the well house.

View from our sweet standing space, before the lights were turned out.
From 2011_03_12

Part of the reason Otaimatsu is more photographed is that the actual Omizutori prohibits flash, and is very very dimly lit. They extinguish all the electric lights and proceed by torch up and down the steps, drawing the water and carrying it up to the hall, in all three times. 

I took some video, partly because the lighting prevented any but the blurriest photos, and partly because I wanted to get the unearthly droning of the musical accompaniment. If you click through here, it'll only take you to the album associated with the post-midnight stuff. For pre-midnight, click the photo up above.

By the time they were finished drawing the water, it was way too cold and I was not Buddhist enough to attend the Dattan part of it, especially because I thought it would be a lot like the earlier meditation time, and we would need special badges to get in, which we did not have (and which we had not needed previously only because one of the door guys took pity on our idiocy). So we grabbed a cab back to the hotel and hostel area.

I assumed the following day would be a too-tired-to-enjoy wash, but it was actually really nice. We walked around Nara, checked out some lovely park areas, skipped a museum, and enjoyed the sunshine until it was time for dinner (Vietnamese!).

Friday, June 3, 2011

Plum Rain

My article is up on the Hyogo Times page. I would just reproduce it here, but I'd rather send you to read it there and boost the stats on that page.

So go read my reflections on Rainy Season!