Monday, October 31, 2011

I write things...

Sometimes I write them and they go up on other websites.

Here's a fun story about how 6th graders are better at phonics than my JHS students!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kagoshima by the Skin of my Teeth

this is the last of the entries I wrote, or mostly wrote, on the train to Tokyo. It's the most fun of them, though! ^_^ Er. The most fun to read, not to experience.

October 7th, 2011.

It was a three-day-weekend. One should know better.

I began my journey into well-paid-for hedonism by taking off work early. The situation was nearly perfect: with four morning classes, then lunch, I should be basically free to go once lunch was finished on Friday afternoon. I would have been, but for speech contest practice all the damn time. But, begging out of that, and giving my heartfelt yoroshikus to those in charge, I slipped off while the third years took their tests in what would have been, for me, a post-lunch fog of dreadful sleepiness.

Having left work early, I enjoyed enough time to finish packing and preparing my house for departure, distracted only a bit by the re-Japanated Miriam.

She is only a little distracting.
On a good day, it takes 45 minutes to get to Himeji, so I made sure I had at least an hour and 15. I wanted to be on the 4:30 bus to the airport, although since domestic flying in Japan suggests you check in at least 20 (twenty) minutes before your flight is scheduled to leave, I figured that in a pinch, the 5:30 would get me there at 6:50, which was just enough time for my 7:15 flight to Kagoshima City.

Oh, naivety.
I made great time until about halfway up the bypass highway, when I met traffic so hideous, it drove me to exit and try my hand at the surface roads instead. Riddled with stoplights, they were not much better. I watched 4:30 arrive but blocks from the bus station, aware that I still had to park and walk to the gate anyway. Shit. Oh well, there was still the 5:30.

I parked in the cheap section and dragged myself and my bag to the bus terminal. 4:48. Fuck it, I thought, I’ll go have a donut and eat this banana I carried along with me for some reason. The donut was subpar. I sat around for a bit, took a call about speech contest skit preparation from my former vice principal, and sat around a bit more before I heard some kind of announcement regarding airport buses. I couldn’t understand enough of it to know what was going on, but I did see that my bag was the only one in the airport bus line. It was 5:15 I poked my head out the door to see if I could see the airport bus, worried that the announcement had said “Well if there isn’t anyone who wants to take the airport bus, we ain’t sendin it!” No, it was far worse than that.

An oldish bald dude appeared as if from nowhere, and asked me where I was going. When I said Itami, he asked me what time my flight would be. He did all this in more than passably good English. I told him 7:15 and he said regretfully, “I don’t think you can take your flight. The highways are very crowded.” Well no shit, I had seen that myself in attempting to make it to Himeji on time. Of course. “You should take the shinkansen,” he said, “that is the best way. Only take shinkansen.” I thanked him and went outside to try to call my Wervs, in distress over the idea of spending 200 bucks on a shink ticket to Kagoshima when I’d already thrown 110 on a flight thinking I was saving money by doing so. At this point I was wondering, should I even go? Was it worth it, after a week like the one I’d had, and before the week I knew was to come? Was this a sign that I should just give in and take a damn rest for goodness sake?

I didn’t have her number in my phone, so I texted her instead with a plea that she give me a call.

But then it dawned on me that the little old man might have been talking not about taking a shink to Kagoshima, but rather to Osaka, and from there getting myself to the airport via train. Trains run at the same speed no matter how road traffic is going. With this revelation, I looked around to ask him, but he had vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared.

I power-walked to the train gate at Himeji station and asked a train guy what the fastest way to Itami was, and how long it might take. He gave me a wishy-washy answer that amounted to, I’m not sure you’ll get there as soon as you want to.

I dithered for exactly one minute more, then thought, fuck it, I will be way more upset if I don’t at least try my best to get my ass on that plane. I can deal with whether or not to take a shink to Kagoshima and spend a ton of extra money once I have really missed my flight, because I haven’t really missed it yet.

And thus began my training for the hit TV show, The Amazing Race.

I bought a nonreserved ticket from a machine and hotfooted it to the platform, taking the first Nozomi to come down the track. I was on my phone’s browser for the entire duration of the half-hour ride, figuring out exactly how to get from Shin-Osaka to the airport. Turns out, you have to take the subway from Shin-O, then connect to the monorail from the subway.

Thing is, connections never mean you hop off one train and onto the other. Usually they involve walking through a station, then through a tunnel or walkway of indeterminate length, then into a new station, where you wait on a platform for the next train to come. It takes way longer than anyone (I) ever reckons because all that time, one is in motion; so while time spent on a train is felt as time passing, time spent moving to a train is less easily felt. 

But I knew, this time, that it would be there, and would make all the difference. So I jogged from the shink/JR area all the way across Shin-O (which I quite thankfully know rather well by now) station and to the red subway line, bound for the outskirts of the city. I never got a seat on any of the trains that came after, but that’s how weekend (especially long weekend) travel is. I texted Wervs to tell her it was giri-giri (going to be close!).. Then I jogged (with all my shit on my shoulders, mind you) from subway station to monorail station, a farther jaunt than I liked. Then I basically bolted down the walkway from the monorail to the airport doors, aware that by then it was 7:00 and my flight was leaving in fifteen minutes, and holy shit.

I ran haplessly past a lit sign that proclaimed the check-in for my flight was officially closed and called out to a woman who looked like she was on her way somewhere. “To Kagoshima!” I whimpered, helpless against the motion of time.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked, moving toward a check in counter, “Do you have ID?” I basically threw my driver’s license at her as I shifted my bags. “Is this okay for carry-on luggage?” I asked, still panting, still sweating.

“It’s fine,” she confirmed, “gate 23, go!”

The line at security was too long for me to wait in. I showed my “hi, my plane leaves in ten minutes” boarding pass to someone near the line and she pushed me to the front, asking the pardon of people behind me, who nodded sagely, perhaps pitying, perhaps silently tsk-tsking this panting, sweaty foreign girl-child.

Once through security, I jogged the remaining length of the airport (because gate 23 was, for some reason, at the end of the entire thing) to find the tail end of the plane’s boarding line still being processed. I dropped into my airplane seat, wishing I could take off my shirt. Since domestic flying allows you to take along a water bottle (provided they take a smell of it, and why shouldn’t they, when you can take all those things on a train and go to the same place?), I chugged some water and sent a quick text to Wervs to tell her I had made it.

Having no checked baggage let me waltz out of the airport as soon as we landed, and I was one of the first in line awaiting the bus back toward the city center. I stuffed a combini egg-salad-and-ham (yeah, I dunno either, Japan) sandwich into my face because in the mad dash I had had no time for such trivial things as dinner. From there, Wervs met me and we took the bus back to her apartment, where I plopped down onto her couch and passed out into oblivion.

So you would think that at this point, we were done. Wervs had it under control from here. Yeah, we thought that too.

We had reserved tickets on the 10am Toppy speed boat to Yakushima. We figured if we left around 9, that should give us plenty of time to get to the port and sort it all out and settle into our seats before the boat sailed. It was all going to be perfect: our hostel was right next to the port on the island, and we could rent a car just meters from the dock. It was all going to be just. perfect.

So we got out of the house at 9, and we got the 9:10 bus toward the city and the port, and by 9:45 Wervs was getting antsy, but I was old hat at this game by now, and I, without knowing exactly what bus stop we wanted, or exactly how far that bus stop was from our current location, or thereafter exactly how far it was from bus stop to port, was convinced that we would make it. We would make it or… well, we would make it. The bus stop appeared. 9:50. Time to start jogging again.

Wervs said, “there’s always one in a few hours.. and it only takes an hour longer on the water..” I began to jog. “I can’t run!” she insisted, her hiking boots hindering her. I didn’t know what to say to that. I might have said “I’m sorry,” I might have said “I know,” but whatever I said, I kept running, sure that if even just one of us made it to the counter by the water, they would hold the boat long enough for both of us to climb aboard.
I kept glancing at my watch and what I saw there was encouraging. It was only 9:55 and the port was in sight. We would make it to the island in time to spend more than just the night there, today.

At the counter, Wervs presented the paper she’d printed out regarding our reservation. The woman began asking if we’d already paid for the tickets, and we explained we hadn’t, and wanted to pay her now.

If you didn’t pay for them,
she explained, they don’t exist. She pointed to a line of kanji-ridden Japanese that must have spelled out what she said next. You have to pay within 4 days of making the reservation, or it gets canceled automatically.

We glanced at each other, then turned back to her. “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s buy new tickets.”

I’m afraid the 10am boat is sold out.

Naturally. Another exchanged glance. “So we’ll be on the 1pm?”

That one is also sold out.

A breath. The 3:15 would get us to the island around sundown, just in time to not do anything outside or see anything interesting. But what else could we do?

The next available opening is the 3:15, she pointed out on the schedule, would you like a reservation there?

We readied our cash. Since we’d been getting round-trip tickets, and our returning boat reservation had also been canceled, we had to settle for the only open boat coming back on Monday, the 7am. If anyone cancels for the 1pm, we will notify you and you can take those seats, she offered helpfully.

“That would be so great!” I enthused, shrugging some of the run-to-the-port sweat off my brow.

We shouldered our shit and began to back away from the counter, but just then she called out to us again. Apparently, something was changing.

There is another possibility, it seemed like breaking news, there are two spots.. they are very narrow and uncomfortable. But these were the faces of two young women who did not give a crap about that, at this point. All we wanted was to be on that boat. Let me perch atop my baggage in the aisle for all I care.

In the spot where they write the seat number on the ticket, she wrote something like “ho 2” and “ho 1” on ours, and an attendant jogged (yes jogged) us out to the dock to catch the boat as it was just about to leave. 

The cabin attendant led us to our seats. One was the jumpseat in front of the back door on the first floor; the other was the jumpseat in the back of the second floor. They were pretty uncomfortable, but I just couldn’t believe our good luck that there were exactly two such fold-out fake chairs on the boat, and someone thought to let us use them. I wondered again if this was what it felt like to be on The Amazing Race.

Add Wervs has a brighter, more open jumpseat; mine was wedged behind the last row of chairs on the first level.
From Kagoshima by the Skin
By 12:45 we were on the island. But… Yakushima has two major port cities (I say that like they are major port cities.. they are the two ports on the island, and perhaps the two largest cities there). One is Miyanoura, location of our hostel and biggest little city on the place. The other is Anbo.

Guess which one we're at.
From Kagoshima by the Skin

There was, however, an Orix up the road from the port, so we began to walk. We passed a small rent-a-car company and paused, considering it, watching the old dude in charge set groups up with little k-cars. We thought maybe the other place might be cheaper, so we began to haul our stuff in that direction. As soon as we came to anything even remotely like a hill, and my phone told us we still had a five minute walk ahead of us, I stopped to question the wisdom of this venture.

“If we rent from here, we can return it right here, next to the port we’re leaving from Monday morning,” I reasoned, “so even if it’s a few bucks more, I don’t mind paying for that kind of convenience.” Not after all we’d been through.

So we went back. But now, most of the cars were gone from the lot. We watched as a group of five dudes too the last white-plate in visible range. The old guy looked us over, a bit wary. “So you got a Japanese license?” he asked. I proudly threw it on the counter, and was rewarded with a “subarashii!”

I pointed out the 48-hour rental rate and asked if that was what we’d get for a k-car. He said, we have no cars left. This was no problem.. we could just go to Orix, although I was a little pissed that by wasting time, we’d let the nearest-to-Anbo-port car rental get away. But before I could regroup, he went on, so we’ll give you a discount! He then yelled to a younger guy walking around the tiny car lot, hey, clean up that car, would you? And thus we were given the company crap car, and at a discounted rate.

At this point, we were so happy to be in the island, and free. We drove to Miyanoura and checked in, then spent the rest of the daylight hours exploring via the one main road that rings the island, about a three-hour drive around, although we also made some stops. We stopped at a few overlooks, a couple beaches, and some waterfalls, and enjoyed the winding forest path portion of this “main” road.

When we got back to the hostel, the dude there assured us that the hike to Jomon-Sugi (the like 7000 year old tree) was indeed possible, if we woke up at about 5 and got our early. We didn’t even have to discuss that: not bloodly likely; we were going to take it easy (at this point that meant sleeping the hell in), because we were on vacation, dammit.

Sunday, we rolled out at our leisure to explore the hiking trails of Shiratani, famed for being an inspiration to Miyazaki’s work Princess Mononoke.

Overall, I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking for me after this point. The island is pretty much amazing, and my only irritations were that, because of that, it’s pretty popular, so the trails were kind of crowded (of course our timing has something to do with this as well). They do take pretty good care of conservation up in there, though, and the sights were totally breathtaking. Everything in that forest was alive. The trees were alive (even the dead ones), the rocks were alive, the moss and river and mud were all alive. I can see why the used to think of it as a forest full of gods.

At some point a guide-type guy told us that in the old days, when the rulers of Kagoshima used to get their cedar planking from Yakushima's forests, the island's forests were barred to women: only men, and I believe he said important men, were allowed in to work in the sacred space. 

There are no photos of the onsen adventure on principal; I feel bad because it was wervs’ first onsen experience, and it was the most crowded naked space I have ever been in. I’m pretty comfy with onsen etiquette by now, but it’s not the kind of place I would have wanted to be a first-timer.

And that's how I did Yakushima! 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the results

Just to update from speech contest:
I managed to deliver my model speech without much terror. To my disappointment, there was no translation provided to the student body, so I was mostly just up there speaking heartfelt foreign words to them. It sort of reminded me of my own graduation at which I realized, after the fact, that no one of my intended audience had even heard me. I directed my words for a very particular audience and that is not who got it. Zan-nen.

But as I mentioned before, I couldn't care once it was finished, because then it was finished!

The actual speech contest was its usual grind, a bit better in overall quality of speeches and speechmakers this year, but I think that last year's clear winner was a ringer, an anomaly, who would have beaten the whole bunch again. The places were harder to negotiate this year. Who was really the best?

Like I also may have mentioned, I once more went in thinking my kids had a fighting chance. I'm better at knowing what kind of thing goes into speech contest now, and I knew my kids better too. When we chose them, I remember how I was sitting, staring down at a desk, when our female-speech-student to be began her mini speech in class. Her pronunciation had something the others didn't have. She wasn't a ringer, but she wasn't bad. Even before coaching she had a certain vocal quality that allowed her to somehow not sound quite so Japanese, or something. The boy I had picked out at last year's graduation ceremony, but he was also duly chosen by process of elimination. His pronunciation wasn't great, but he was eager, and so highly trainable; his energy was really good, too, strong. Moreover, having seen him cry, I trusted him.

By the time the contest approached, I knew the speeches were solid, content-wise, because we went through a serious speechwriting period sometime near the end of summer. I mean, we weren't messing around. None of this "I Love my Club Activity" teamwork BS, none of this "I want to be a golfer when I grow up." EVERYONE does that stuff every year. We ended up with variations on "I am proud to be part of this class/student council" and "my dream is to be a doctor," but they were solid variations, with proper lead-ins and shit.

My JTEs pushed this initiative, and MP-sensei kept coming back to it again and again. Memorize this because it is what you wrote and want to say. I coached them on sentence pattern and word intonation, but when they asked about gestures, we said, use your judgement, you know what the words mean, use the gestures you feel comfy using to emphasize what points you need to emphasize.

I really liked that in all steps, she made them do the work. When we were finalizing writing, she asked them both "What is your main point?" so we could make sure the speech was grounded in it and returned to it by the end. She asked them near the end of rehearsing, "What sentence or two is most important? And how will you make sure you show that?" So they each had a sentence near the end (their main point sentence, as it were) that they punctuated with louder voices, and fist pumps, etc.

They were good. I had no idea, though, what kind of potential ringers were lurking in the other schools, so I was cautiously optimistic. I cheerfully told the kids that I expected a one-two finish, with speech boy first and speech girl second. But, of course, I would be just as happy with her first and him second, I added.

I kind of did that to make sure she never felt like I was selling her short. To be totally honest, I did favor him, but didn't want to make that obvious. He had a better stage presence, and I knew the one thing that might destroy her chance of placing was her nerves. He seemed to have nerves of steel, and even though her pronunciation was better, I figured his energy and volume, along with the way I knew he wouldn't freeze onstage, would lead him to at least place. I hoped they both would.

Our positions in competition were 5th and 15th, so we sent steel-nerves boy to 15th to sweat it out and let her take 5th to get it over with sooner. When she went up to speak I was excited to hear how it would go. She got on that mic and was, for one thing, louder and more energetic sounding than I thought any of the first 4 had been. She absolutely fuckin' killed it. My jaw dropped as she plowed right through her speech with no memorable mistakes of any kind. She did better in the real thing than she had done in the most recent practices I'd seen.

I was thrilled. I looked over the previous speeches to see if I could remember any that had done better. Lots of kids had done rather well, and part of my joy was in seeing her do so well and overcome the things I thought might hold her back. I could not objectively rate her against the other students, so I just allowed myself to think she had kicked everyone's ass. Once the first half ended, I told her as much, and then grinned at our speech boy and told him he better watch out or she would beat him.

When he did his speech, I was beaming throughout. He brought it, and the other ALTs were admitting as much after the contest ended. I expected him to be that good, though, so I was just plain pleased that it had gone so well. I was proud of them both and figured they both deserved to place, at least, even if they didn't both end up getting it. After that, we did our role-reversal skit, in which a few students were the Japanese teachers, and we ALTs the students (terrible students, generally speaking, just for fun). The kids enjoyed that, as did the teachers.. got more comments on that than on my model speech (tear).

So then the judges came back, and in Japanese they announced third place(s) and then second, then first. They said it all so quickly after deliberating for so long that I wasn't sure I'd heard them properly.
This is what happened.

That's my speech boy with the second place plaque, and my speech girl, with the cup. Not only did we place, we got our one-two finish, and even with the mini-reversal I'd refused not to mention as possible. I'm very proud of them and all their hard work, and I'm very pleased that in this, my third and final year, we took home BOTH the plaque AND the cup.

From 2011_10_18

Fuck yes, I say.

"The Difference"

Well today is speech contest day. I've been really, really busy. You might be thinking to yourself, she can't be that busy, or she wouldn't have crafted such lovely photo-complimented blog posts and put them up within the last two weeks. Well, thank you for your kind words, but no seriously, I only wrote those because I was on shinkansen for hours and hours, and those kings of transport have electric outlets where you can plug in your devices.

Because my computer has begun informing me that my battery is "reaching the end of its usable life." Whatever that means is something I intend to deal with later. I have intended to deal with a lot of things later. A few of them got done on the train (I wrote those two entries and more, but the last is unfinished) or the bus or what have you.

Today is speech contest, the big event, what we've been preparing for these last few weeks, and I don't mean just my speech contestants (although I do, bless their hearts), but also the skit kids, and me, and the ALTs, oh and model speech (which I will type out for you, from memory, after this brief intro writing of mine). I'm actually kind of pleased with how the model speech turned out, although I despaired after my initial excitement, that I had too many things I wanted to say, that none of them were appropriate or comprehensible. What eventually came out of it was something that is about 40% crap and 60% awesome, so I'll settle for those stats. I have no idea how good the translation into Japanese is. I have my doubts, from looking over the page, but I'm hopeful, and also after this point, I can hardly care. Up or down, win or lose, it will be, oh thank God, over.

All that prep, all those evenings of staying late.. the pansies I bought that are still in little plastic containers because I was quite literally never home when it was light outside enough to do anything with them.

I like that image, of a battery that is used and recharged, used and recharged, but eventually it needs to just be replaced. Because it may seem small, the idea of an hour here, an hour there, staying late, missing one little thing, running to catch your transportation. But all those things add up. I think of being a JET sort of like having that battery. It gets drained all to hell sometimes, like this month, and then gets recharged, yeah, and it'll do, but it works less and less well, until such time as you need a major shift or change in your life. Some people upgrade regularly, but others can become stuck in a life pattern that never changes, and that's more my type. I won't get a new smart awesomephone until my old one actually ceases to function..!

Lately, I've had very little patience for anyone, including myself, and have been overly emotional when listening to Disney songs. I think about things while driving (since I can't bus and read) and have strange dreams at night. I can't wait to return to "normal" because I like the person I become better when I can be nicer to others (because I'm not so preoccupied trying to be nice to myself-- I do have to work at this, and when it becomes a priority, it's a lot harder to take care of anyone else, because shit, son, I'm a handful!)

ANYWAY! Today is the first day in a very long time I've not had a full schedule of classes (or been away on business) at work. I have no classes. And while I know it is frustrating and annoying to go to work each day and not have anything to do, I personally like these days now and then, to just sort of catch up, so I'm not clinging to the last edge of my sanity while crafting the crappiest of lesson plans at 6pm when I'm still at work on a Tuesday night.

I joked that it meant I could use the morning class periods to FREAK OUT ABOUT--haha, I mean "get ready for" speech contest, but honestly I won't get nervous until it's upon us, so all morning I'll just... do what I gratefully do with any given morning. Write, think, pace, try to get on top of the stuff I've let go in a big way, try to stay on top of the stuff I couldn't afford to let go.

My model speech is long, as has been noted by lots of people, but I have memorized it all, and fairly well. I paced around outside until that happened. How well I'll be able to keep it when standing on the stage remains to be seen, but I am sure that with my page in front of me to glance at surreptitiously, I will be able to give the appearance of knowing it excellently. And now, because I know you're dying of curiousity to know what today's model speech will say.

It's called "The Difference"

It seems like people are always asking me, do you have suchandsuch in your country? No matter what they are asking about, my answer is almost always the same. Yes, but it's different there.

Everyone wants to know what is different about a foreign place. My family back in America is amazed by some of the stories that I tell about how life is different in Japan. They want to know about Japanese toilets and Japanese festivals and Japanese hierarchy systems and Japanese food. Things that are different catch our attention, because they are more exciting and interesting.

People in Japan also want to know what is different about life in the US. Sometimes they are amazed by what I say. My school did not have uniforms, we didn't clean the classrooms ourselves, and we could eat snacks in class sometimes, if the teacher didn't mind. We never practiced for sports day, and we got to choose our lunches. Students moved from classroom to classroom, instead of teachers. Even though I didn't live in the city, there were 750 students at my JHS, and we rode the big yellow bus to school. But these are all examples of things American students do. This does not say who they are.

It is important to understand what is is different, but it is also important to keep in mind what is not. Because teenagers, whether they live in Japan or America, still want to be cool, and are afraid of being rejected. And people, no matter where they live, still want to matter and to do something meaningful with their lives. Families still love their children, and children still need their families. This is true not only in Japan, and in America, but everywhere in the world.

When people in Japan look at me, they can see right away that I am different. It takes a lot more effort to find out how like them I may be. If they only look at the surface, they will only see the difference. But if they open their minds and hearts, they can see what kind of person I may be, whether I am funny or serious, laid-back, or strict. Not everyone is what they seem to be at first-- for example, even though no one in Japan or America will ever think that I am Japanese, I'll tell you a secret. Inside my heart, because I lived in Shiso, I will always be a little bit Japanese.

What is most important to people is the same for everyone. We share in common our hopes and our fears, our happiness and worries, even if our actions and ways of dealing with them are not alike. That is why communication between cultures is possible, and that is also why it is important. The reason we need to discover what is different between cultures is so that we can discern what we have in common as people, therefore, what is most human.

Students in the US and students at Ichinan may be different, but we are all part of the human family. I encourage you to open your mind to people who seem at first to be very different from you. Although we are all unique, we are also all connected. When you understand this, you can truly appreciate the difference for what it is, and what it is not.
Thank you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Imakumano Kannon-ji

Temple number 15, and for me, number two.

West Country Number 15
From Kansai by the Seat

I realized belatedly that the idea of going in order was not only unnecessarily, but already had been violated by me when I purchased my book and had it stamped at Nariai-ji. I was so hot to get on the pilgrimage but I hadn’t realized I was already on it.

And even though my reasons for going on it have evolved with new knowledge and with encouragement from a Buddhist nun of Australian origin, I still wanted to do it Right, and In Order, insofar as I could.
But since the typhoon had sort of effed up that plan…

My first planned temple visit was Imakumano Kannon-ji.

I’m going to share here what struck me most about the place, and for more detailed information (and also the source for most of whatever info I can share) please see this page (specifically, here for temple 15), replete with photos and great information.

I used my phone to navigate me into the temple, so it took me the back way. This meant I missed out on crossing the special gateway bridge at first, but got to do it on the way out.

Just a shrine gate along the way.
From Kansai by the Seat

From Kansai by the Seat

The gateway bridge is in lieu of a classic large gate that temples usually have. The orange bridge is connected to the Kumano Gongen spirit, and takes the place of the vermillion torii gate you often see at the entrance to shrines (not temples).

One of the first things I saw, though, was the path through the graveyard area behind the temple. Then I saw the main temple building. I found my way around to the front and got a good look at a pretty interesting statue: Kobo Daisha. It’s called the Komamori Daishi, which means child-protecting Daishi. Apparently, Kobo Daishi opened the first school in Japan that was available to all children, and not just noble-born boys. Being involved in education myself, I gave my own special little salute to this statue.

From Kansai by the Seat

Another striking thing I discovered was the image of Bokefuji Kannon. I’m used to seeing images of Buddha or others holding/caring for babies, especially the mizuko (stillborn, aborted, or miscarried babies), but this statue of Kannon is flanked by old people, not children. Bokefuji Kannon is the one you pray to if you want to prevent senile dementia.  Since there are so very many old people in Japan, this seems a good image to have around; it’s not something I’ve thought seriously about in my own case, because at least for now, senility seems far enough off.

From Kansai by the Seat

In the main temple area, I lit some incense and got my book stamped. The friendly priests told me I could go inside if I liked. I took off my shoes and sat a little while, too haunt to take photos right there, instead staring at the decoration and offerings, the bell and meditative.. what, equipment? and thought about what kind of quest it was I might be on, and what I was doing there.

From Kansai by the Seat

On the temple grounds, there’s also a mini shrine to Kumano Gongen, the Shinto version of the Juichimen Kannon (eleven-faced Kannon), enshrined more grandly in Wakayama. I said a little prayer here for the recovery of the Kumano’s home area. Next to it is a little Inari shrine. I love the Inari, those foxy tricksters of good harvest, so I said my usual thing with them.

From Kansai by the Seat

There is also a miniature pilgrimage on the grounds of all 33 temples, which I glanced over quickly (but just quickly as the light was beginning to fail, especially on the woodsy path). I walked up to the pagoda, but didn’t spend much time there.

From Kansai by the Seat

From Kansai by the Seat

On my way out, I took the main road, and followed a family with their dog a little ways. Instead of going directly back to the station, I made an effort to find a bus that would get me to where the brothers were currently hanging about. On the way to that, I found the Imakumano Shrine. This happened when I was walking and I saw a giant awesome tree (and we know how I feel about trees) ringed with the telltale this-is-holy sign of a rope with the folded white paper things.

From Kansai by the Seat

This is a larger shrine, also connected to the one in Wakayama, but with even stronger ties. Observe:

From Kansai by the Seat

All in all, this my second visit to a pilgrimage temple was much more informed and also much more time-consuming than my first nearly unwitting one last May.

As I go to various temples, I want to share as much about the experience as I can via blog.. so if you have any questions, please do ask (leave a comment). Nothing is too silly or too personal (if it is, I just won’t answer it, hah!); also, I do realize that a lot of this is like a foreign jargon, all these names of temples and sort of.. versions? Incarnations? Of Kannon, and of mountain spirits, and whatnot. Rest assured that I’m only one step ahead of you on figuring out most of those, and that I experience the delight of discovery every time I make the connections (since the connections are not very-well forged) between temples with affinities or with similar names, or whatever. Don’t let the terminology scare you off, just ask!

Kansai by the Seat of my Pants

I’m going to start by saying I don’t really know the origin of that phrase, “by the seat of one’s pants.” I’m sure I could look it up on my smart phone, since we’re not in a tunnel right now, but I don’t really care quite enough to go to the effort.

The smart phone: a note on that, a new character as of September 14th or so, and a vital player in my ability to do anything by the seat of my pants. I lost my phone in the first big typhoon in early September, and after doing a little math and considering the benefits, I decided to replace it with an upgrade. I now don’t know how I managed without it. Actually, I do. I was late a lot, and lost even more often than that. It’s a great comfort to me now to know as I run out the door to catch the bus that I can look up train times from the bus ride itself, making use of that two hours for something other than drooling (while I sleep with my head tilted back and mouth open).

So as mentioned before, my plans for the three-day weekend of September 16th-19th were also typhooned out in the form of major damage especially to the area in Wakayama I was planning to visit. The weekend of the 23rd-25th, we were planning to go up to Tottori and attend the Ji BeerFest Daisen there on Autumnal Equinox Day (I love, by the way, that we get that day off as a holiday).

So, planless, I somehow decided not to make any new real plans, and just go with the flow. I knew Shiso was going clubbin’ in Osaka on Saturday night, and I knew the Italian and his brother (hereforward, the Mario Brothers) would be in Kyoto area, and I knew that Kyoto and Osaka were a stone’s throw from one another, so I figured I’d just throw some walkin shoes and some clubbin clothes in a bag and call it a weekend.

In my head, the ideal thing was going to be spend Saturday night in Osaka with the gang, then head into Kyoto on Sunday to hang out with the Mario Brothers and Nami-san, spending Sunday night with Nami. Monday I could make my way back to Shiso whenever it seemed good to go (there are only four direct buses, so, you know..).

But as it happened, Nami-san was making an awesome sukiyaki dinner on Saturday night, and was going to be unable to host me on Sunday. Way to like, inform people of your brilliant have-it-all schemes, Lemmon. So I shrugged and figured I would just miss out on clubbin’ because I was pretty guaranteed to enjoy dinner with Nami and Hiroshi and the Mario Brothers. I can go clubbin’ any old weekend. I took along a short skirt just in case, and told Shiso not to wait up for me.

Got to Kyoto station a little before the group I was meeting, so I set myself up at the counter overlooking the central gate and started to play with my new phone. I figured that while I was in Kyoto, I could hit up one of the temples on the pilgrimage. I had wanted to do them In Order, but I figured I might never get finished if I didn’t get started soon. I used some sweet features on google maps (it’s an android phone, because I’m AU and because I <3 google, the benevolent rulers of all the world) to discover that there was one temple within walking distance of the station. I looked it up on (the source, by the way, of basically every bit of help I have on this pilgrimage idea) and discovered that the temple is tied really strongly to Seiganto-ji, the first temple of the pilgrimage.

It’s called Imakumano Kannon-ji, “ima” meaning “now” or “present,” and “Kumano” being the name of the shrine connected to the first temple (the one that I linked photos of, all washed out). Kannon being the name of the major Bodhisattva we’re going to 33 temples to see, and ji just meaning temple. It turns out the temple in Kyoto a half hour’s walk from the station is in many ways an old stand-in for the first temple. You can read more about it here, and see some sweet photos. Reading about it in the station, I was warmed and floored. I like to think that omens are something, and this seemed pretty awesome as they go.

Then the group arrived, and we headed out toward the homestead for dinner. Alessandro (the younger of the Mario Brothers, and a resident of Tokyo) had brought along some sake from a brewery that no longer exists, that he received while volunteering in Tohoku, and Nami had me “make” the sukiyaki. Actually she put everything in the pan and instructed me to stir, then took photos that make it look like I am a great cook. We dined happily and sipped wine and chatted, and I so enjoyed their company.

The Brothers consume natto, because it's a must-try for any brave soul.
From Kansai by the Seat

As the hour drew near for the brothers to depart, I assured myself that an early bedtime would be good for me, and I could get up the next morning refreshed, unlike what I would have been if I had gone dancing… but part of me itched to get out and move and flail and generally go maenad. I told it to shut up just as Nami was saying, “If you go now, you can make the last train to Namba.”

So without knowing I was going to Osaka til I was on my way, I headed out the door with the rest of them, headed to more of my adventure.

I hit Namba rather late, and used my new phone to navigate the streets of Osaka, dropping my stuff off at the capsule hotel where “we” always stay (there was no one but me, this time, as the others were staying elsewhere), quickly throwing on something more appropriate to the evening’s plan (“slut it up,” as one might have said, once), and finding my way to the place that had been chosen. It was called “Jaws,” and although I was disappointed that we weren’t going to the legendary and disgusting Pure, the undersea theme of the place suited me just fine. It was crowded beyond reason and I was sad I had worn flip-flops until I managed to get onto a stage with Liz. I liked it better there because there was a lot less getting run over happening, and a lot less stepping on my feet. We danced the night away, or I did until my knees started to complain rather loudly to me. When I felt ready, I took myself back to my capsule to wash the club sludge off my poor toes and catch a few precious winks in my bed-sized room.

I’m struck even now by how independently I moved through this whole night, joining and leaving the group when I liked. I realize that this would not be safe in most countries, including my own. My first trip to Osaka, I was married to the group, unable to even begin to guess where I was, let alone march confidently back to my room, giving catcallers the evil eye as I went.

If you shake his hand, you get a free bag full of clover.
From Kansai by the Seat

Check out time is ten, unfortunately, and after grabbing breakfast and attempting to charge my phone, I met Lauren, Katie, and Kam for a brief lunch in Osaka Station City. I then trained it back to Kyoto and walked to the temple I had read about, Imakumano Kannon-ji. I had intentions to meet up with the Mario Brothers that afternoon, but the temple excursion took considerably longer than I planned (as these things often do), so I ended up not meeting them til almost dinner time. I was thinking I would be on the 7:20 bus back to Shiso (the last bus), because I’d called the hostel I like most in Kyoto and they were booked.

But Yasaka's gate looked read nice in the evening light.
From Kansai by the Seat
Unable to find a quick enough dinner, and settling for combini beers in the park in front of city hall (it’s always back to combini beers in the park.. some things do not change), Alessandro suggested a different hostel, and within ten minutes I had a room. I was dragging by then for lack of sleep, but we decided to all freshen up and then get a nice sit-down dinner somewhere.

From Kansai by the Seat

At least one of us is happy about this arrangement...
From Kansai by the Seat
I hauled myself to the hostel and back out again, and once more I greatly enjoyed the dinner company and conversation. I returned to the hostel, watered the potted plant I’d been given in Osaka station (I don’t even know) by some campaign, and conked out.

Monday, finding a coin locker took the better part of forever, so I met up with the brothers near Ryoan-ji after they had finished seeing it, and we wandered through another large temple complex in the nearby area. We also visited one of my favorite shops (across from Ryoan-ji), and it was a nice laid-back afternoon.

I thought the pair of shoes at lower left was really poignant. That is, I believe, one of those mizuko things I mention in another post.
From Kansai by the Seat

Kyoto station was full of music that evening for some kind of band presentation, or competition, or performance. The air on the roof of the station was chill and lovely. I took the 7:20 bus home.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Faking It

I now sit on my second shinkansen ride within this week. On Monday, I took one from Kagoshima back up to Himeji. Today, I take one from Osaka to Tokyo. Then, I was dressed in the ragged remains to be expected from one who just went hiking in the pristine natural wonders of the island of Yakushima, and today I sport the business suit look appropriate for a young professional on her way to a smart-looking conference.

Sometimes I like to step back and imagine myself from the outside looking in. What does it look like, the foreigner in the brown business suit who could not be older than 20?

I am older than 20, of course, and I suppose by Japanese standards, I do look it. In the US, I still get asked if I’m alright taking such long flights by myself, and I will be carded until I’m 35, but I’m alright with that. The business suit is mostly a ruse; I’m faking it, right now. A glance at my luggage will tell you that much. Where the men (it is mostly men, in their business attire) around me have their sleek black briefcases and tiny travel rollerbags, I am hauling the same stuff I dragged around Kagoshima last weekend: my tattered (what do you want, it was ten dollars two years ago) black backpack that gets my crap to school every day, and the weekend bag I recently inherited from Caito that has a picture of a lion on one side (“It will be dressed up with a ribbon”), and Sakurajima ash stains on the bottom. I like the lion bag because it’s just the right size for the kind of weekend trips I’ve been taking, and it doesn’t have a lot of confusing compartments. I have tried to be organized and sort things into pockets here and pockets there, but in the end, I can’t help it: I’m a throw it all in there kind of kid.

My hair is different too; got it cut in a sort of bob which it seems to be handling rather well (although one of those 5th graders called me Mr. Willy Wonka the other day and now they’re all doing it), and I have the straigtening to thank for that. The elementary teachers like to compliment my cute new styles, and it seems like I’ve been changing them a lot lately. I got my hair straightened in early June, and wore it like that to work for one day enjoying the attention it garnered, before much worse news came down—after that, every compliment seemed a mockery because I wanted to be invisible, and wondered how I, how anyone, could be expected to give one single goddamn about whether or not I changed my hair. It’s too easy, though, to say something about a changed look, even to someone to whom you can rarely find anything else to say. The bob, though, it’s still easier to control than the curls, though the old ways are coming back.

The business suit I bought in Hong Kong, very cheaply of course, but it does the trick.

The conference I’m headed to at the moment is the PA (Prefectural Advisor) conference. We PSG (peer support group) members get to attend because there is a lot of counseling training offered at this conference. I attended last year, and I remember really liking the learning feeling, and also the chance to meet the other members of our otherwise phone/skype/email-only group.

I tear myself away from my hectic ALT life to attend.

And while that normally would be just me, being sarcastic, I do mean it this time. Yesterday, we finished speech practice early. As usual, I’m very proud of my kids, and pleased with their progress. As usual, I think we have a fighting shot at first and second place, but I’ve been wrong so far.

Since we finished early, I knew it was my chance to memorize the second half of my model speech, an oration which is approximately twice as long as the student speeches. I took it outside so I could pace up and down by the river, muttering and proclaiming to the trees and clouds. I had initially planned to memorize it a paragraph a day, but that pretty much failed. I had to really buckle down, and walk laps around the elementary school during my free period to memorize the first half.

Now the whole speech is safely stored in my head, but if I know myself (and I do, better now than before at least), it will have a tendency to fly me when faced with a distraction as large as someone watching me. The other teachers don’t seem concerned. Of course you can memorize this much; it’s English, your native language. Why should you feel nervous? It’s English, your native language.

Having nothing to do with the language, I color red whenever I am placed in front of a large group of people. I can prepare and prepare, but I will still get flustered, if only for a moment. The key is to not allow that moment to snowball!

But I digress. Speech contest preparation, planning the skit to entertain my students while the judges deliberate, memorizing my own shit, and weekend travel are just set atop the usual go-round of planning elementary, and putting together entertaining (educational!!) activities for the daily grind. Oh and October, so kempo tourney, Halloween, and my birthday are coming up, not to mention tis the season to go festival-ing!
Immediately following this PA conference is the Japan Writers Conference, in Kobe (conveniently on the way home from Tokyo, for me). I’m not fully decided on how long I’ll stay, since Sunday (the 16th) is also Iwa Jinja’s major autumn festival and it is my last year, after all.

Until just now, I hadn’t considered how this week has neatly lined up the three different futures I still hold possible for myself: counseling, writing, teaching. The big three.

Anyway, I just wanted to check in with this before going on to write of a few long-weekend adventures: Kansai By the Seat of my Pants, and Kagoshima By the Skin of my Teeth. To complete the image of a young lady on a busy schedule, I will continue to get to work!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Since I do not yet have time to give you news of my adventures, please consider planning your own: