Saturday, December 19, 2009

Friday Never Ennnnnds

It is now Friday evening, for kind of the second time thanks to the time travel that is Pacific transit. I'm in the Denver airport awaiting my third and final plane ride of the day. Spent the last one sitting amongst a family of Australians who played Boggle with me.

I am tired. Where I'm coming from, it's 9:26am (Saturday), and I've not done more than nap. I also did not do a single page of my Japanese homework book. Mostly I just read The Egyptologist, which is affecting my blogging style. (Much of that book is written in journal form, but by the character of a sort of.. how to say.. pompous ass?)

Also, I realized that spending four months in Asia gives me a whole new reaction to white people. "I think I know that guy." Because in Shiso, if you see a white person, you probably do know that guy. And if you don't, well, you probably should.

But imagine a whole airport full of white people who speak English. Information overload. I must know all these people... does not compute... mental shutdown. Ooh, cute things in a vending machine.. am I still in Japan?

My seat on the long flight was E. Like, the dead center of the plane. I picked the seat though, online. I stared at my boarding pass and had to ask myself what the hell that was about.. until I found myself on the front row just behind a bulkhead. Extra legroom, ftw. Sure I'll take the middle seat.

Have just discovered that my flight from Denver is one hour earlier than I had thought. All travel is going to be completed within the calendar day of December 18th. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I suppose one of the prerogatives of my blogging endeavor is honesty, so it's not really fair if I only write about the sunshine-and-roses days. There are those, of course, where everything goes really well, and I'm on top of my game. There are also those where those little brats will not oh-my-God-shut-up and just play the game right, which requires at least pretending to listen to what I say despite the fact that I am speaking English.

So it's kind of funny to me that I was using basically the same lesson plan this day:
Seriously. Feel the joyful sweetness of that golden-leaf sunshine and those cute kids.

as I was yesterday, when my smile was actually plastered tightly to my face only by the grinding of my teeth.

But is it possible, dear reader, that children who are always little angels, serving daily to enchant and delight me with their happy antics, had turned into disobedient little wretched creatures for the entirety of yesterday? Or, is it more likely that they are always cutting up, and usually I am in good humor and it makes me laugh, while yesterday I was at the end of this thing they call patience, and that shit was not. funny.

Patience require endurance, of course, in good times and in bad. I'm sure we all come to moments where we look up and wonder just why the hell we tolerate certain things. I sort of feel like I've been on the edge of punching someone in the face with the boxing glove of the Awful Truth [, as I know it] for the last week or so. Just waiting for someone to ask "why" to any of my choices. And I may yet. It's not a bad thing to demand what you're worth from those who maybe are just forgetting to pay.

But you've got to pick your battles, and you're never going to make a roomful of unceasingly noisy third graders understand (especially within the space of 45 minutes) that you need them to shut up and listen to you because what you offer them is valuable. So you're going to have to grind your teeth into a smile instead and play "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" one more time. And take your value issues elsewhere.

Oh, yasumi.

Monday, December 14, 2009

An Assortment of Random Information

Questions about bonenkai to which the answer is no:

Did you do karaoke? Did you have to give a speech? Did you sit quietly while all those around you talked to each other instead of you?

Questions about bonenkai to which the answer is yes:

Was there a ton of delicious food? Were some of your coworkers rocking some mad 'Asian flush'? Were there games and did you win a cute prize? Was there an onsen? Does that mean you got naked with some of your coworkers?! Did they gossip about the male teachers? And did you pass out long before anyone else in your room?

One of the topics of conversation was how my main JTE (Mikan-sensei) is overworked. I totally agree. At first I thought he would naturally have been assigned to me because he is both the newest and therefore not likely to be shipped off to another school in the near future, and because he has the least other bunch of crap to handle. But the latter's not really true. On top of the regular classload that basically everyone has, he also is more than just nominally involved with his after school club-- that is, he is their coach and teacher, and not just partially in charge on paper. He also has a homeroom class, and unfortunately his class contains two of the three most badly behaved students in the school. They're mostly harmless, just cut-up a lot and get out of line, and he has to deal with them all the time. The patience and good humor with which he does so is sometimes astonishing; sometimes these kids can get on my last nerve.

There are a few students in the 3rd year who really need my help when we do worksheets in that class, which we'd been doing a lot lately. At first I liked that, because it meant I didn't have to plan anything. But I've begun to not like it much.. it makes me feel pretty useless. But, like I said, there are a few kids who can use my help as we go through these grammar things. There are two that come to mind first, and they couldn't be more opposite. One kid like, basically tries not to let me look at his paper even though he should know by now I'm basically going to ensure he gets the right answer. He scooches as far from me as he can and will. not. look at me. And seems entirely uninterested in getting an answer at all, much less the right one. It's frustrating. His opposite is in the other class, a girl who actually looks for me and raises her hand when I walk by so she can ask if the answer she's written down is right. It rarely is, but she always smiles at me and gets me to help her, and goes along with my coaxing toward the correct answer, which soothes my sense of ethics (I don't actually just give her the answer, although I do lead her right into it). And generally makes my day helping with worksheets not a waste.

Anyway, back from that tangent... Now, today, all of the woman who stayed in my room at enkai (there were five total) are keeping an eye on each other, because one of our number is out sick with OMGSWINEFLU. And another just took her temperature, and has been sniffling all morning. And they are like, "Are you okay? No omgswineflu?" (so maybe that was a loose translation..)

No, but it does continue to affect my life. The teacher who is out is the math teacher, and usually English classes are half normal class size because we split them with math. This means that on a normal day at middle school, I teach each grade in four sections, though there are two 'classes' of students per grade. Each of the sections I teach is about 15 or so students, rather than the 'class' size of around 30. Today, though, I'm only teaching two sections of 1st years, and they'll be full rooms. I've only ever done this once before, with the 2nd years and Mikan-sensei, but the chaos that day was a lot of fun.

The windows are almost entirely fogged over because our warm snap ended last night. I accidentally bought 47 New Year cards instead of like 20 (even the saleslady was like "That's a lot, isn't it!"). But when I made a list of all the families and friends I haven't seen for a while, to whom I should send assurances that I am still alive and well (the once-upon-a-time reason for these cards), I hit the 47 mark easily. That's what you get for having a huge family I guess.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bounenkai impending: let's forget!

An enkai is basically just a work drinking party. I've been excited about the prospect of going to one ever since I arrived, because I'd love to see what the other teachers are like outside of school. Basically everyone else has had two or at least one enkai since I arrived in August (one after Sports Day, the other after Culture Festival), but my school has either had none or hasn't invited me along. I joked to my fellow JETs that I was simply being secretly excluded, and while that was an actual theory of mine for a day or so, I don't think it's the case. We had this typhoon back in August, like three days after I arrived, and that was the reason Sports Day enkai didn't happen (I asked Mikan-sensei). By Culture Festival, I'd given up.

But a few weeks ago, I heard the teacher who sits next to me on the phone. I heard the word enkai, and a number of people, and December 11th. I heard a price. And I filed away that little bit of information by promptly sharing it on gchat with a fellow JET. If they didn't invite me to this one, I would certainly know about it!

I talked to my fellow ALTs about it, and they speculated that it was maybe the "Bonenkai" or 'the big one' which happens at the end of the year (as in, even if they skipped the Sports Day and CultureFest enkais, they would still definitely have Bonenkai).

Then on Monday as I was frantically downloading Christmas songs and trying to get a CD burned for elementary classes, one earbud in my ear, the other dangling into my lap, totally not paying attention to anything going on around me, the teacher next to me (who is actually pretty cool.. he's an older-ish guy, a math teacher, and an artist) was having a conversation with some of the others in our desk cluster.. he said "[Ah, Emily-sensei too]!" and I looked up like "Wah?"

They try to speak English to me. I forget this every time. But it still seems sort of sweet when random teachers with whom I've had very little interaction go out of their normal habits to say "Good morning," or "Have a good weekend."

So he said, "[December eleventh!] Big year end festival party!" and I just blinked and said "Bonenkai?" and everyone laughed and I was invited.

Now to me, who is a disciple of Latin and Latinate language, "bon" means 'good' quite literally. Not that I actually believed the Japanese have a party called "good party" every December, but it was hard for me to divorce the image of the year-end party from Christmas parties and the word "good." I found out while I was on the Dino-Weekend trip from another JET that Bonenkai literally comes out to "Forget-the-year-gathering." I laughed when I learned this, since it's a drinking party, and forgetting is fairly likely.

But the more I thought about it, the more I really liked that idea. First of all, I like when parties have themes; it gives me something to focus on. If it's a birthday, I can focus on a person, and other times and places, I can focus on an idea. Also, what better way to prepare to welcome a new year than to have a party dedicated to forgetting all the "unfortunate events" of the last? Because all that shit is gone now. The good too, when you get down to it... so whether this year was good or not, you still don't get to keep it. I personally can always do with a little more letting-go. And I can really get behind a culture wherein this concept is a yearly phenomenon.

Tonight is bounenaki, and I've toted some PJs and a toothbrush to work with me. I really don't know what to expect. I don't even know if I need to pay, or if the coffee-and-other-stuff-fund I've been paying into all semester takes care of it. It would be far easier to enumerate the things I do know rather than those I don't, so:
1. It will be in Haga, just northwest of where I work (which is just north of where I live).
2. It will be a spend-the-night, though there will be the option of going back early, I think.
3. There will be beer.
4. Everyone else will be Japanese.

I've been excited about enkai for so long, but now I'm kind of meh with it hanging right over me. It's a rainy, chilly day, and I am a bit tired. I had four classes today, but didn't actually do anything almost at all in any of them. Some days, it feels easy to try speaking Japanese, and some days it's a lot of work. Some days, you feel really "on." Some days, you don't. And today is a better curl-up-with-Harry-Potter-5 day than a let's-getting-drunk-with-non-English-speaking-coworkers day. I may be asked to make a speech. I was going to prepare something.. crap. My back is a bit sore still from kendo. Despite my hesitation to get naked with coworkers, I'll do it in a second if there's a hot spring where we're going.

Maybe my speech can be something silly like, "I had a great speech but.. I forgot."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

…But “Rice-Cake Ranger” has a nice ring to it

Today’s lesson is cool for me, but I’m also a bit worried about it. Around Thanksgiving, just at the beginning of my mildly different era, I typed up a long page describing a skit activity I would like to do with all the middle school classes. I did it mostly because the idea was pestering me, and I wanted to make it available to the school.

I find that the most demanding aspect of any learning experience is usually production. You can’t really produce anything of quality until you can first recognize and then comprehend.

We had to write and perform skits each year in Japanese class at Vandy. I did not really enjoy this activity, but I do recognize that it was valuable to both my learning and to my life. My first skit partner was Ex-Roommate, and I think working on the skit together is what sort of forced us to be friends in the first place (the first thing, not the only or necessarily most important thing).

It was a total drag to try to create a skit in the first year, when the only Japanese verbs we knew were to-be verbs, but somehow we all pulled it off. The idea has been sort of haunting me, so I made a write-up. I didn’t really expect we would have time to do this, so I didn’t really expect any of my co-teachers to go for it, but to my surprise, first the 1-nen teacher and then the 2-nen teacher both asked me to kick it off this week. Here’s the write-up:

Skit Activity

This is something that can be modified for all three levels, and this outline can be changed in any way the teachers want.

Students will write a skit as a group. It can be about anything, but they should include three of the grammar points they have learned this semester. They will underline their skit's use of the grammar point in the skit printout itself when they turn it in, and label it (and also submit a list of what three points they chose).

The skit should be three to five minutes in length. Every person in the skit must have at least two lines. Props are encouraged.

Students will write a first draft using dictionaries, which the ALT will review. She will write comments. Students will meet with the ALT to make sure they understand/are understood.

Students should practice together to memorize their lines and make their skits fun and interesting for other students.

They will make a list of vocabulary words (a handout for their classmates) if they are using any words their classmates do not know. But, they should try to use mostly words the others have also learned.

There may be appointments to rehearse with ALT.

On the day of performance, students will present their skits. They will be evaluated based on a rubric. Those not presenting will be making notes and comments (in Japanese). They will write one thing they really liked (a good point) about the skit, and one suggestion for making a better skit next time. They will rank the other groups, deciding which they think is the best.

Within the group, members will also grade their fellows' contributions to the skit, and make a list of what everyone did; they will turn this in after performance day. They will do this in Japanese, so JTE will use this in evaluation process.

If we do a skit soon, the topic can be Christmas, or winter, or something like that. It might help to give the students some direction and limits, but I do want them to be as creative as they can.


  • Clarity of meaning - can the ALT understand? Can the other students understand?
  • Energy - Do the students do their best at acting and presenting? Is the skit enjoyable to watch?
  • Pronunciation and intonation - Does their English sound pretty good?
  • Memorization (if we choose to have this; maybe for the first skit, students can look at notes, but I do not want them to stare at a paper and read instead of perform)
  • Use of three grammar points - at least three of the grammar points from the textbook are used and underlined.
  • Time - at least three minutes, not more than five (or whatever is decided by the JTE and ALT for that class)

Today, the 2-nen started working on theirs, and it sounded like they were having fun. I heard what may have been some good ideas, too. I felt strange because I wasn’t really doing anything but walking around looking over their shoulders, but I did want this activity to be student-driven. I think one of the strong points is that it is easily a student-driven project. I emphasized that I want their skits understandable and fun. We didn’t give them any topic limits other than that. Today I just asked them to come up with their topic, setting, and characters. This is often, in my experience, the hardest part.

So I’m happy that my teachers want to use my idea, but a little worried because I don’t know if it’s asking too much, or if it will take too long, or if they will enjoy it, or if I will. The problem with adapting activities from your own college experience is.. well, you were in college, and these kids are not. But the result, a funny skit in (easy) target language, might be attainable nonetheless?

The title comes from one of the groups who, while thinking of their main idea (mochi-ranger!), asked Mikan-sensei what “mochi” is in English. He said “rice cake," but just “mochi” is also okay. I threw in my two cents—while Mochi Ranger is cool, there’s a pretty sweet ring to Rice Cake Ranger. (I give them comments in English all the time.. they basically never understand them and have learned to just ignore it)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Mildly Different Era

Today was another magical day at shogakko, and I’d like to give at least partial credit to the hat Heke let me borrow. I had made a lesson plan yesterday before realizing it was my last lesson of the year at Small Elementary, and therefore ripe for “Christmas lesson”! I borrowed some kickass materials from her, including a sweet bell-toting Santa Hat which just made the kids freak out in my general presence.

I've gotten better at this as I've gone along. Not just at work. I feel like, about mid-November, something changed. I didn't want to say it was the "dawning of a new era," so I decided to note that week as "the beginning of a mildly different era." I'd known all along that no one really knows what my job is supposed to be. I began to recognize the reality that this means I can do almost anything I like, and should play to my strengths rather than try to fill some role that no one can make out anyway.

When I first arrived, I was kind of apologetic for my existence in Japan, sorry about being a foreigner, sorry about not speaking Japanese very well, sorry for not knowing this or that or for being in the way, or for not being as good at my job as I wanted to be yet. There was no real way around this, because these were all opinions I held of myself.

Around mid-late November, though, I started to shift out of that somewhat. I honestly think it was partly the mid-year conference they make us go to, which is largely a waste of time, but which contains tiny nuggets of inspiration for first years like myself. Maybe it was spending so much time with all my fabulous Shiso ladies, and maybe it was seeing JETs and JTEs in action, but I finally stopped trying to fill a role that no one really knows how to define and decided to just go with what comes naturally to me.

And somehow, recently, I’ve been getting more compliments on my Japanese. I don’t mean the kind that everyone gives you as soon as you say four syllables of su-mi-ma-sen, I mean I feel like they are legit. I don’t really feel like my Japanese has improved much, but rather that I’ve sort of recovered most of what I learned in college, and am a lot more comfortable using it than I have been up til now. In the car on the way to Monday night class, We’re-Not-Friends JET** and one of the Chinese students were talking about the recent Japanese language proficiency test (or JLPT for short) that We’re-Not-Friends took, and about how it’s changing next year, and stuff like that. At some point, WNF turned to me to explain, “We’re just talking about the test,” at which point I decided it would be kind of me to inform him that I knew that, I was following the conversation just fine (thank you very much). “Oh, your Japanese has really improved,” he said. I blinked at him (one of the reasons we’re not friends is that he thinks I am an idiot), and informed him that it was never really that bad, thankyouverymuch. “I never really hear you speak Japanese,” he said. When I said it was because with him I didn’t have to, he suggested that that “wasn’t a good attitude to have.”

“I don’t like speaking it with you,” I confessed, “because you kind of act like you know everything.” He was surprised, but the truth will out inevitably, especially in my case. Anyway, that’s not the point*, the point is, even though he said it, I took much better to it when Osaki-san (my Japanese teacher) said “I think you have a good grasp of the basics,” and when my Small-Elementary VP said it had improved. It’s not that it’s very good, it’s just that I don’t have to try quite as hard for it to be the same level of mediocre as it once was.

I’m gaining confidence in my precious abilities to exist in this country. We’re one-third in to this first year of mine, almost to the end of the first trimester of school. This is generally how I operate, so I’m glad to be here, at this point in my learning progress.

I began doing a lot of reflecting last night, annoyingly just as I was trying to fall asleep. Most of the JETs in my town are second-years, and most of them graduated at the same time I did. Their first year in Japan was my year in Kansas. I kept thinking about how strange and how important my Kansas year really is.

When I was in training to be a Kaplan teacher, we were evaluated on a bunch of different criteria. You had to get "excellent" in at least three to become a teacher for them, and have "good" in all the rest, or something. I had all "good" from the get-go, since I was also sub-teaching Latin at that time, and was finding ways to translate previous experience into my own teaching style. The last element I was able to raise was "speaks with authority" - the confidence one. Our instructor for training was kind to me.. he said that my knowledge and skill was not lacking, so I had every right to teach with confidence.

When WNF (who rides the same bus as me) found out about my major in school and my various potential future plans (Latin teacher, fiction editor, etc.), he asked why I would be doing something like JET. I could only stare at him for a moment, unable to form an explanation. Sometimes, a thing is so obvious to us that it can be baffling when another insists they do not see it.

I settled for, "Isn't it possible that I was born to do this?"

Yesterday, in the staff room, someone asked about the meanings of "BC" and "AD." My JTE, as many native English speakers actually tend to, began to want to use the A as "after." And yeah, I'm sure plenty of English speakers who took no Latin at all know what AD means, but it's a different feeling altogether to know /why/. Anno domini, in the year of our Lord. It's weird to say that to Japanese people, as most of them are not Christian.

Anyway, it is possible that if I was not born to do this, I was groomed for it (since childhood). It really does help that I’ll eat anything. It really is nice that I love nature and parks and trails, when my town is so full of them. It’s great that languages naturally interest me, because by golly, the only thing strong enough to prevent me from learning Japanese (if I weren’t so linguistically curious) would be my personal stubbornness. My understanding of English is greatly heightened by my study of Latin and Greek. My Japanese isn't really that bad, and I avoided the potential myopism of someone majoring in Japanese and East Asian studies.

There is recontracting paperwork on my desk. They gave me the first bits of it back in September. Because it's never too early to think about what you'll be doing next year. And though I can't ever say anything for sure, I would like to tentatively predict as I have predicted from my arrival, that I will be staying another year.

I feel almost every day like I'm living in an alternate universe, or a fairy tale world. This morning I stood at the bus stop and just watched the clouds book it over the mountain tops, underlit and a little pink with the sunrise. Last night I watched the mostly-full moon peek through the trees along the mountain ridges on the way to Salamander class.

When I watch the moonlight on the water of the Ibogawa river, I have to ask, is this my life? How did I end up here, and why is it so unbelievable? I have a much easier time rolling with situations and 'being flexible' than I do making lots of decisions. After last year, which was freedom at its freest (and scariest), I am quite content to do things more or less as I am told, safe in the knowledge that I have a support structure built around and beneath me.

And in retrospect, last year's catch-as-catch-can lifestyle, my hand-to-mouth money situation, they all seem a little dangerous, almost. But if I hadn't had that experience, would I really appreciate this one as much?


*It’s actually part of the point- the gaining confidence point. I tend to try to take responsibility for situations, but WNF and I.. just aren’t friends. And maybe it’s better to just be honest about the things we think, rather than apologetic for thinking them.

**This one time, he tried to tell me Latin is not a language, so I told him we can’t be friends. Hence the name.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving is an American holiday

Which makes it my job to educate the youth of Japan about it while missing it myself.

I’m not bummed, though. It’s sunny and looking like yesterday, which was warm for late November. And there’s nothing like trying to impress the meaning of Thanksgiving on kids who have never heard of it before, despairing of said task, then receiving a thank-you card right at the end of class.

Thanksgiving food game = the good side of “American food.” Apparently, according to another JET, it’s a Japanese tradition to get KFC on Thanksgiving evening because, ehh, it’s more or less the same thing, right?

I’m thankful for a lot of things. This is, I think, my favorite holiday!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The winter I hate is grey

I have a ridiculously hard time picking favorites out of things, so I’ve always found it kind of surprising that I could immediately announce that my least favorite season was winter. To the point that I couldn’t understand why anyone would like anything about winter, ever.

And while the winter season is something I’ve always just kind of endured, I realized I don’t have any particularly bad connections to the winter. There was never a really cold or hungry winter, for example, or even really an emotionally terrible winter that I can think of off hand.

Today wasn’t particularly cold, all things considered. Yes, it was chilly, and I wore The Longest Socks Ever, and I was sometimes uncomfortable. But the worst thing about this afternoon was the grey.

I identify grey-chilly-rainy-shitty with winter so much that months ago, when we had my first real true mudstain-grey day in Japan, where we didn’t see the sun at all, and you could never tell what time it was, I thought “this is like winter, to me.” Calling it cold that day would have been a long shot. I chalked it up to the fact that maybe in Georgia it is never cold. This is merely a myth, but you start to wonder if it’s true when you begin to see the way November ends in the mountains of inaka Japan.

And I realized that “This [grey rainy chill] is like winter,” and “I hate winter,” amounts to an actual statement of “I hate the grey of winter.”

I guess after this winter I may also hate the cold of winter, but last year in Kansas it wasn’t so much a problem. Partly because my poorly insulated apartment DID have SOME insulation, partly because there were random 70-degree days in the middle of like December or January or what the hell… Japan seems too true to season to pull a stunt like that, so I figure when it’s winter for real, it’ll be winter for real the whole time it’s winter.

Also, my house smells like kerosene. Probably because I spilled a bunch of it on the floor. I swear, sometimes I don’t know how I do it. I make stupid mistakes, rookie mistakes, even after being warned against them. I was told how to do this properly. I just can’t do more than one thing at a time, maybe? At least not properly.

Even if the winter I hate is grey, and that winter is coming soon, I still feel pretty good about where I am and what I’m doing. For today, that is enough.

I’m also excited that in one month, I’ll be in the States for a visit!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tuesday: ridiculousness quota surpassed

So I've mentioned My Life, the Sitcom. The recent past has been a bit more slapstick in its comedic endeavors. I'm going to give you Tuesday and its immediately following as I lived it, because it's just too ridiculous.

So. I went to bed very early Monday night, after an exhausting day of absolutely nothing. I guess I went to Jusco. I guess I made pumpkin mash. I wrote a letter to Johnny and to Christy. I went to bed at ten. Because that is eight hours before six, when I wake up. Heh.

When I awoke, I thought I saw light around the edges of the curtain, which is wrong. It's not light until after 6:30 at least. I realize what this must mean, and check outside. It is, though cloudy and raining, light outside. I utter a choice word. I look at the clock. 7:30. I utter it again realizing in a growing panic that it is the day I get picked up for work instead of riding the bus, 7:40 or otherwise. I get picked up at 7:15. Choice words abound as I fly out of bed, unsure of what to do first. I check to see that her car is still in fact waiting on me. I begin to take off my pajamas but am halfway through that when I realize I have worn these pants to elementary school before and they are just as good today as any. I put on some deodorant, and go to the bathroom, frantically trying to call back the teacher who is waiting for me across the street in the AU parking lot.

I almost dropped my phone in the toilet and it for some reason would not call her phone properly. I caught the phone by its cute little Corteo keychain and blessed the day I bought THAT at the overpriced booth wherein it was sold. I grabbed my bags and giant Brown Bear book and umbrella (raining, yes), and somewhere in the middle of all this, my VP called me to make sure I was alive, awake, etc.. I felt like the biggest tool that ever tooled. I got my shoes halfway on (enough to clop outside) and dashed to her car, still only half awake because I'd only been awake for about six minutes in total. I looked like shit and I probably smelled funny; I'd been taking night showers so I could also have a bath, but I put it off Monday night so I could have better hair Tuesday morning. HAH.

I apologized profusely for a while, then attempted to just sit in silence the rest of the trip. She is my co-teacher for 6th and 5th grades, and she doesn't really speak English. Japanese was kind of eluding me right then as I sat in chagrin, trying to figure out how the hell I slept until 7:30 anyway. I felt my pockets to realize I did not have my bus card. Sweet. The bus home will cost me like 6 bucks or something. Whatever. I'll suck it up.

At school, things went as well as could be expected. At some point I realized I did not have my purse, which would make taking the bus extra difficult. I taught all my classes to varying degrees of success (some of them ascribable to needing better planning, others to the kids' attitudes, for which I guess I just need better planning), and managed to text Big Brother JET and offer him GRE help in exchange for a ride home. He obliged. While I waited for him, I discovered an "American popcorn" vending machine which I could not use, because I had no money.

I'm getting ahead of myself. During lunch with the 1st grade (whom I'd just spent the previous 45 minutes teaching), I watched a kid go down to swineflu before my very eyes. One second he was eating lunch, then he was crying, then he was gone, and the teacher was packing his backpack so he could go to the hospital. Yeah, it was like that. I was still in enough of space-land for that to not phase me at all. And of course you have to open the windows after that. To change the air. It's not that cold.

Waiting for BigBroJET, it was that cold. My hands began to ache and the knuckles turned a little blue. But then, the car was warm, and we ate delicious ramen (avoiding the lesser gyoza), and spoke of many things, then we fought with triangles, which gave me a sort of perverse glee. Honestly I kind of love GRE questions now that I don't have to take the damn test. They are puzzles and many of them have a 'catch,' and I have the luxury of time, which on the test I did not have. At all.

Went to bed again at an early hour. 9:30. Don't know when I fell asleep.

Wednesday morning gets appended because it feels like a continuation. Awake at 5. Back to bed until 6. Get your shit, get out the door to catch the 6:30 so you can do kendo... but it's trash day and you haven't written your name on the bag! So, back in to get a marker, and you scribble it quickly, and as you finish, look up, and there goes the bus (you have to catch it on the other side of the street). You watch it forlornly, and it's really sad because the bus driver sees you, and knows what is happening, and can't do anything to help you. You shrug, figuring that's okay, you can just do afternoon kendo instead, and maybe right now you should just go back in. Your shoes are only half on, and as you turn, still watching the bus, wondering if there could be anything he might do.. you step in a slight hole, turn your ankle, and fall down. Knees covered with mud, palms scraped up, you take yourself back inside to clean up and make something of this newfound morning hour you now get to spend.


From there, things improved. Although I had to take the bus at 7:20 with the JET I don't really like who never shuts up, we were driving out of the sunny south into the rainy north (and yes I had just put my laundry outside to dry, hadn't I!) and that meant there were some serious rainbows happening once we got close to my school. All day, the light moved over the mountains in cool cloudpatterns. That was really pretty.

Since my quota of ridiculous had been overdrawn, I could enjoy a quiet rest of the day.

Although my ankle still kinda hurts.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Right now, there are three flower arrangements in my house. A few days ago, there were five.

I'm pretty good at recycling plants and re-vasing whatever is still good from last week's ikebana class.

Ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. I've learned since coming here that it's one of those refinements that makes a woman a good wife, and it's part of keeping house. What it means for me is, there are always a lot of fresh flowers at the grocery stores, and they are usually pretty cheap. Also, it means I get to take flower arranging class, and always have plant life in my house, while simultaneously fulfilling my need to participate in a cultural (and even community) activity.

The first kind of arrangement I learned was moribana, a very traditional setup with three levels and a sort of triangular aesthetic.

I chose this flower set the first time because of the yellow flowers' resemblance to the flowers I used to pick in Kansas.


My second go was also in muted colors, so I was having flower envy for the bright yellows and pinks other people got to use.. and also the sweet smells of lilies. But, I was sure that I too would eventually have a go at the big leagues. (That's mine in the back)

The woman here is doing a freestyle.

The following week...

Now, ikebana, like all things beautiful, must begin with a bed of rusty nails.

What, you think I'm kidding?


How else did you think the flowers stayed where you put them?

Then you put in your three principle points...

And viola!

October 23rd was my first time to try "freestyle"! Our ikebana sensei called it "Freestlye Halloween." Heck yeah.

Trick or treat!

In a traditional house, moribana can be placed pretty much anywhere. But freestyle isn't supposed to go on the tokonoma, or the traditional display alcove. It can, however, go in the front entrance of a house.

My apartment does not have a tokonoma, or for that matter, a proper "entrance," so my flowers just go on the table, always.

My birthday, I got to do a fancier little freestyle that I really liked.

I even ended up putting it in as a display in the cultural art show that happened in my Big Elementary school. When I was there, I saw some of my kids with their parents. Mine was the only name not in kanji.
This vase? Does not travel well.

There were some other sweet ikebana pieces in the art show. I really liked the 'scene' type best.

Finally, what I have now is a new kind which I am still kind of trying to understand. This type is supposed to be viewed from the front, like this:

But I actually have it on my table kind of facing sideways at an angle (so it'll fit better).. and I kind of like looking at it from here a bit better.

I've still got leftover flowers here and there all over, in little vases. One is a dry vase because on set of the flowers are crispy, and have been since I first used them.

I like having flowers in my house. The end!

Update: a spider seems to have taken up residence in the top 'branches' of this ikebana sometime in the last couple of hours. Am I weird for thinking that is really cool?

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Today, The Cat JET and I made a pre-Thanksgiving supply run to Costco in Osaka. Everything about this trip was epic in scope, from the anticipation of what we might find there, to the failures we encountered along the way, and of course the amount of food we purchased. Costco, as you know, doesn't sell things by the gram, ounce, or even pound. In metric-measuring Japan, a "shitload" is still a shitload. And that's how Costco measures, and now that's how my cupboard is stocked.

Half of my fridge is full of cheese. I am not exaggerating. (I have a pretty small fridge...)

We're planning a Thanksgiving meal, to which we can all invite our various Japanese friends who might be "hungry" for a little taste of American culture. We're attempting to make more or less traditional TKG fare, so we're renting a hall (yay, ovens!) and we've ordered some turkeys shipped in. My task this year will be pumpkin pie, and I'm going to use a recipe I got from our head professor (in Rome)'s wife. Lana is in charge of stuffing. Other various people are in charge of other various things. (I tried to nail down sweet potato souffle, but alas, some LA-ite had already dibsed "candied yams," whatever the heck those are.)

I'm really, really excited, because I feel like this is a really great gesture, and I'm dying for my main JTE to attend ("Mikan-sensei" I call him here), especially after all the kindness he's shown for me. Did I tell you about the time I forgot my lunch and he gave me half of his? I've seen the guy put away like three times my small-lunch size... so it was a pretty small lunch for him to begin with. By like 2pm, I was starving. I could only imagine how he felt, though. This, and other instances of fail make me feel like a total tool. So I'm excited to actually have something to give.

The Cat and I were also jazzed about the possibility of getting all kinds of food for ourselves and our own everyday lives. We daydreamed all the way to Osaka about what imported American goods we might find.

Costco was a strange world of wonder and a little disappointment. We filled a cart and a half, between TKG needs, requests from others, and our own desires. We did not find stuffing or canned pumpkin. We kind of missed out on our main targets, really.. they didn't have mac-n-cheese either, which felt strange.

But they did have peanut butter, and they did have jarred spaghetti sauce, and they did have refried beans. We even got one more turkey which is now in my freezer. My kitchen has never been so stocked in my adult life. I bought granola and bagels and cans of soup. I was sorely tempted by cookies and loaves of lemon poppyseed bread.. but they don't really use preservatives in this country, and I can't eat a (even a metric) shitload of cookies or bread before the 10th. Nor could The Cat eat an entire pumpkin pie. Sadly we put that back.

On the upside, now I know that if my pumpkin pie plans begin to fail early enough, I can make a mad dash to Costco, buy a pie or two, and be back in like 4 hours.

Our failures included getting lost, both on the ways in and out, and running entirely out of money. Like, I was overconfident in my ability to front the TKG fund (we are sorting receipts and getting paid back later, to even out the cost on everyone) because I had 'a bunch of hundos' in my wallet. A bunch of hundos does not security make. I made it home with about 372 yen or something. Classy.

But, if it were to snow up to the eaves tomorrow (not likely, since today reached all the way up to 71!), I for one would not starve, even if we stayed like that for a month or two.

The cheese is for The Other Georgian, by the way, who is making Real Mac And Cheese.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Holy Sh*t!

This comes in three installments. And it got better every time.

Part I:
One day in early October, I was helping out with an English lesson since, you know, that's my job. I've kind of gotten used to the fact that there is information all around me that I cannot really read. When I see English, though, I tend to gravitate in on it because I'm actually much more used to being surrounded by information I CAN read but do not actually care about (advertisements, etc.).

So when I happened to notice English at the back of the room, I read it very quickly. And when I read it, I almost giggled right out loud. And after that, I kept looking back at it and trying not to giggle. Because it was just so... well, look at it:

You might want to click on this picture for the full effect.

I later examined the words at the top of the board, and saw that they were "something for this month" .. later actually translated to "A murmur of this month." This made it even more fun, since I kind of felt that way about October, too. But it just cracked me up that a kid wrote this, and put it up. I assumed it was one of our brash and outspoken guys, and wondered where he might have learned it.

I also began to imagine it as myself, amidst a sea of kanji and other Japanese writing... me, not alone, but standing out, in English.. crying out this phrase, in surprise, and horror, and delight. It seemed a good image for how I sometimes feel in Japan.

Part II:
I was eating lunch in this classroom, and it was a totally different experience from eating lunch with any other grade level, ever. The third-years actually talk to me, and are not afraid to struggle through English to attempt a chat. After asking them their names and a bit of gossip about who had a girlfriend (it's apparently a big secret if you do.. we're all part of the Ichinan family, though!), I just had to ask.

"Who.." (giggle) "Who put that up, over there, on the board?"

They all looked at it, and then pointed to one boy in particular, whom I honestly had not suspected. He, it turns out, is the son of one of my adult students in the conversation class. This made me laugh even more, because it meant that maybe, he didn't learn it at school.. maybe he learned it from his parent, who learned it from Big Brother or from Predecessor. I tried to imagine them teaching a lesson, or accidentally dropping that phrase so often it became part of someone's vernacular. I then tried to imagine that particular student whose son it was picking up that phrase in her daily life. No. Way.

So, I was going through all this in my head, and then one of the student leaders (I was basically at a desk cluster full of them) turned back to me and said "Holy shitto? Holy shitto. What means, in Japanese?" I was overcome. I also had my mouth full of food. I also can't translate that.. there really is no Japanese direct equivalent. I just shook my head and said I didn't know, but that it wasn't something you wanted to say to someone's parents.

Which is totally vague, and just left them confused. This particular student frowned (not in an upset way, just in a I-will-discover-the-truth kind of way) and left the room. I know that he probably went next door to ask Awesome-Sensei what it was in Japanese. He returned with no answer. I tried to imagine how that conversation had just gone. No way. No. Way!

Part III:
The student whose son it is doesn't come to class all that often, but she was at my birthday dinner. I had a beer or two, and then there I was telling her that her son put something on the board that made me laugh and laugh. She assured me that he is crazy, her son, and asked what he put up. I didn't want to tell her, but I had to have known she would ask, so I told her (and the rest of the table).

The adult students had pretty much the same reaction "Can you translate that for us?" .. Big Brother cracked up when one lady (our leader, actually) was like "(Tell me holy.) I know shit!" So I spelled holy for them to look up in their dictionaries, but then I had to explain that this phrase is different than the sum of its parts. We tried to field a suitable equivalent, but there aren't really a lot of curse words in Japanese.

But I was still curious as to where he'd learned it, and his mother then mentioned "Oh, he heard it on this video game," and I instantly asked, "Was it Grand Theft Auto?"

And yes, dear readers, it was indeed GTA, and she was amazed that I had guessed so quickly.

Grand Theft Auto, in case you've never played, is a game full or violence and maybe even a little sex, and you get more points the worse person you are, basically. You steal cars and run from the police and run over/shoot down as many people as you can in the process.

Or, the few times I've played, that's how I played. I tried to procure this game once, because I was having a bad day, or a bad week, and I turned to my then-roommate and said, "I need a video game like GTA. I really want to beat up some hookers right now." But GTA 3 was not backwards compatible for my Xbox360, so you can imagine how I felt after I was already frustrated enough to want to beat up virtual hookers, at putting the game in to discover it would not work.

Anyway, in this moment, on my birthday, it made the entire saga that much more wonderful, to know that he had learned these words from a video game.

The end!

Friday, November 6, 2009

School Lunch

...and why I still love it.

About half the time, I don't know what I'm eating in this country. Once again, "Thank goodness I have neither allergies nor scruples," right? I have a tendency to eat whatever is put in front of me in Japan for two reasons. The first is, I have very little hope of knowing what it is ahead of time. The other is, if they say it's food, they must have eaten it before, and by golly that's good enough for me.

Especially school lunch, because, I mean, they're feeding that stuff to their kids.

School lunch has become a normal way of life for me by now.. its beginning celebrated chiefly because in the days without it, I was expected to bring my own lunch, and between catching the bus and forgetting my wallet, I was really bad at that.

But it bears mentioning that Japanese schools do not have lunchrooms (unless you count the little room where the staff eats at my school). Students eat in the classroom; they also serve the food.

When I first started eating school lunch, Big Brother JET would tease me and say that I better eat it all, or people would judge me. This was, of course, no problem ("Just wait for pregnant-fish day!" he says with relish), and still usually isn't. He'll know, though, when pregnantfish day occurs because we have the same food at his school and at mine. All the schools served by the same lunch center will have the same eats. The center delivers the food sometime in the late morning, and in pretty exact amounts from what I understand, with the right amounts of bowls and trays and chopsticks in each class's kit.

It's delivered each day to a special room full of warmers and fridges for holding until serving time. Then, the students assigned to food duty for the day go down in their aprons and masks and cart it on up, and dish it on out. We have to wait until everyone is served before we can begin eating.

I managed to snag a few photos one day when I was in elementary. Anytime I spent the whole day at elementary, they always would assign me to a class with whom to eat lunch. But I would always have to bring my lunch from the staff room (the bowl-counting thing, I guess), and bring the dishes back at the end.

I've been eating lunch with the students at the middle school now, too. I have a new schedule for eating.. it goes Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years, respectively. Thursdays are make-up days, so if I missed one for some reason (like, they were out for swine flu, I had a cold, we didn't have school, etc.) I will go eat with that grade. Tuesdays are elementary school all day.

I felt really crass even just thinking about photographing my lunch in the staff dining room, and I even feel a bit chagrined at taking pictures in front of students. For some reason, though, it seemed okay in the 4th grade.

The blue thing at the right is the rice container. There is always rice. Okay, well almost always. This one day there wasn't rice, and we had rolls instead, and I was like "OMG this isn't even lunch where is the riiiiice" ... also, please note the cuteness of these 4th graders.

Okay. So here is the layout of every single lunch (excepting that weird no-rice day):
First and most important is the rice. This happens to be rice with pickled plum mixed in, but it's usually just plain rice. Sometimes there is stuff in it, like mushrooms,, or tiny little fish still whole, or little pieces of vegetables (or, let's be honest, I really don't know what's in my rice, I just eat it). Then to the right, there is a bowl. It's always got something.. sometimes, it's soup (today it was some kind of cream of both potato and mushroom at the same time--so good, and with carrots and stuff), sometimes a kind of noodles dish, whatever. It's got something from every food group, pretty sure. In the center at the top is the greens-and-piece of meat. This time it is a chicken wing, but it's more often some kind of fish. The greens are usually some kind of cold vegetable concoction (today's included chicken, so kind of like a chicken salad..?). Usually, the milk is on the right instead of the left, and yeah that's whole milk (aka, "fat milk", haha). The apple down front is an anomaly.. they actually took it away from me after I took the photo when the kid passing out the apples realized I had gotten one already from the staff room. But the piece of fruit is the dessert.

Basically, school lunch is high in calories and sometimes not delicious, but it IS full of all kinds of nutrients (I assume.. it looks and tastes that way, anyhow. Again, all of this is guesswork for me), and I pretty much depend on it as a staple of my existence. Well, that and dinner by Osaki-san on Wednesday nights. And with a few exceptions, I've eaten all of my lunch every day! Big Brother failed on the chicken liver day. Haha.. some of us are from the SOUTH.

I hesitated a bit the day I asked "how do I eat this?" expecting instruction on how to remove the head and tail of the fish.. and the teacher told me to bite the head off, for starters. ...But hell, if they say it's food, it must be! Heads n' all.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I've had a request to explain the kotatsu. Only too willing to oblige.

Here is the wiki on it, which has some helpful photos. Basically, it's a table with a heater underneath, and a skirt (comforter), and you sit under the skirt so it can keep you warm. In a country with very little central heating and next to no insulation at all, localized heat is very important. Without things like a kotatsu, you are in fact attempting to heat the whole prefecture if you essay to keep your entire homespace warm.

Relatedly, I suddenly feel less like people with heated toilet seats are "spoiled" and more like I seethe with envy when I consider their situation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


You might have noticed an increase in the frequency of my blog updates since November began. This is not merely because of the fact that October, which was the busiest month of them all, has ended, although that is a contributing factor.

It's also because November has begun. November is, for many, "National Novel Writing Month," or NaNoWriMo for shortsies. I have had a novel lurking around my brain for far too long, and have decided that last year's sad excuse ("but I have to prepare for the GRE!" ... in retrospect, I suppose I did alright at this, as my GRE score helped to employ me through March) will not stand. I am not signed up for any test to take its place (missed the deadling for the Japanese proficiency exam signup.. ohh darn. /sarcasm), so that means November is as open as any month is going to ever be.

When I considered doing NaNoWriMo, I have decided that is it more important to me to "be a writer" this month than it is to finish 50,000 words of a novel. NaNoWriMo urges that quantity, even above quality, which would not be okay with me, considering that my story idea has been cooking for too long now to give it the short shrift on quality. So, my goal is broader: "Be a writer."

How should I consider to do that? Well it's actually pretty easy. A writer writes. So that's what I'll do.

I've made a daily task list, five things, of which doing all five is Awesome, but doing three is Important. Work on the novel, write a blog entry, write a letter (or e-mail of letter length/quality, write a journal entry (this includes any random vignette short story, also), and study Japanese. Of course, the "study Japanese" injunction doesn't fit in perfectly amongst the others, but it too is important, it too should be considered daily, and it too is related to language and will improve my life as a writer as well as in general.

In addition, JET upstairs, JET-M and I are creating a writing circle. I'm not sure what this will mean, except that I suppose I'll produce my novel-to-date and all the silly little vignettes I've written every two weeks at a local coffeeshop for their approval. This is intended to carry on much longer than November, of course.

I looked up NaNoWriMo (to make sure I had it spelled right, mostly) and discovered that it was assigned to November "to more fully take advantage of the miserable weather." On the first of this month, I scoffed, thinking, whoever made up this idea clearly did not live in Japan in the bright beautiful autumn sunshine while the mountains were patching out in bursts of vivid color.

Last night, I was thinking, it must have been invented by someone in Japan who realized that November would best be spent under the warmth of a kotatsu typing than by attempting to venture out into the room, much less outside the house.

November has come and I will probably buy a heater today. Because life without it will only suck more as time goes on. Seriously, I am learning what it's like to live in a castle: drafty, un-insulated, and populated by bugs. Last night, I complained to the JET next door, "But it's only 50!" remebering how in Kansas, when it was only 50, I wasn't complaining so much.

But, she pointed out, it's not only 50 outside, it's 50 in here, too, and that makes all the difference. And indeed it does. In Kansas, where it was 50 outside but still 70 inside (68 when I started winning the energy bill battles against Roommate), well that was a whole different thing.

I am a southerner, which is kind of a different species, and I'm afraid my blood is going to freeze at a distinctly lower temperature than Northern Folk, and the Japanese.

Long story short, I'm going to write more, and I need a kotatsu.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Today was a national holiday, “Culture Day'” .. so I did something cultural. The Other Georgian, Big Brother, Ex-JET, and I all went to Himeji for the Hyogo Prefectural Martial Arts Festival.

The first part was participatory. We rolled in late (thanks, lostness.. you’re an ever-present pal), and asked if we could still join some activity. At this point I didn’t even care what I got to do, because they all sounded cool, and I didn’t really know what half of them were anyway. Nipponkempo? Jukendo? What? But Big Bro had his heart set on Nipponkempo, so that is where we went.

We stretched for approximately 2.5 minutes and then they strapped us in to some sweet chest protectors made of what I think was real solid leather, like in heroic times or like in video games where you have to start with leather armor. Then we all lined up and Other Georgian and I punched each other a few times before they formed a ring and started the practice matches.

Nipponkempo, by the way, is apparently boxing. Only, you can kick. And throw people, too.

I was not sure I would get a moment in the ring, and sparring was never my favorite thing in karate, but I was secretly really really wanting a go. I did get my chance, and tried to do all the ritualistic part right (when to bow, when to touch the ground, touch gloves, etc.).. probably failed. But the dude who totally let me win the match seemed mildly impressed. After this they taught us some moves, many of which I’d learned in a different form in what feels like a different life.

So then we cleared the floor and watched some tiny gymnastic dancers rehearse for a bit, and I did some thinking. Being barefoot on a martial arts mat brings something alive in me. I’m not thinking it’s because I was in any way born for it. I am incredibly clumsy and lack all but the most basic of coordination. I’m small and not especially strong either. I think it has everything to do with the fact that I spent some of those formative years of my life bouncing on the balls of my feet on martial arts mats. I fought tooth and nail for what precious little physical balance or semblance of skill I attained there, and the vestiges of it still have a way of making me feel energized. Somewhere in the hours and hours of practice we put in, my muscles remember something. What they remember makes me feel like I might be a little bit stronger and faster and more capable there than I appear.

It was cool to watch people who are so in touch with their bodies do their various things. And I mean, little tiny gymnastic dancer girls, karate dudes doing kata, and sumo guys stretching… they all had a great understanding of their bodies’ capabilities, and a practiced ease in the things they did. I miss that. I am in Japan and I miss martial arts. So I think I’m going to work a little harder to get involved in one. I really don’t think it will be that hard. If there aren’t classes nearby that mesh with my schedule, I can’t imagine our school Judo coach would refuse me, and the two Kendo teachers are two of my JTEs.

The downside is, I’ve never been good at the more judo-aspects of karate, and I’ve never swung a sword. So I’ll be flailing and bad at both these martial arts, which defeats the whole idea of feeling powerful and capable. Plus, I’ll be flailing in front of students who are supposed to try to respect me. Also, I can’t see it really being okay for me to grapple all over the mats with fourteen-year-old boys.

I’ll have to give it some more thought and research.

The other thing the budokai reminded me was that.. it takes a certain amount of strength to hurt someone. It takes more to not hurt them. And that the ultimate aim of growing stronger within a martial art is to gain not only the power to do harm, but the strength to control that power. It’s honestly true, that green belts are the most dangerous.. they know enough to hurt you, but not enough to perform their techniques both correctly and with just the amount of force that will not harm.

But you have to go through that phase in order to get past it. Sometimes, I feel metaphorically like a green belt in a lot of things in life. More on this later, perhaps. November writing challenge continues!

Monday, November 2, 2009


I got to school today and immediately felt like I’d stumbled into an anthill. Over the weekend, I more or less came to the end of my cold, and got as far over it as one might hope to.. so in my head, hoorah, we’ve come out the other side, sickness is over.

Not so, in all the world. The fever board is repopulated, everyone is masked again, and Mikan-sensei (my 2nd year JTE) just informed me that he is going to the hospital now so we won’t have lessons together.

This worries me a little, personally, because the flu isn’t a big deal except to babies, old people, and people with pre-existing conditions.. but he has an infant at home.

What this also means is that I’ll spend another day just chilling. I was so grateful not to have classes Thursday and Friday, since I was so out of it anyway. Now I’m starting to feel a bit useless. I was supposed to attend Culture Festival practice with the first and second years today.. now I’ve looked up and the first year schedule has literally been erased from the board. I think that means they are sending those kids home after first period? Perhaps the fever board overstepped max capacity in their classes.

Good grief, swine flu!

In other news, it’s November, so the crazy overbooked month of October is ended, and now I can just be a writer for a month or so.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


So on Wednesday, I had a cough. I figured if I coughed and merely covered my mouth, or sneezed into my arm anymore, people would start to be afraid of catching my germs. I always feel like people are judging me when I’m carrying the creeping crud, wondering why I am invading their space with my little germ tagalongs.

So I did a very Japanese thing, and chose to wear a mask.

From what I understand, masks are not usually used here to keep the germies out. Instead, they are more often used to keep all those gross things swirling around in the air just against your face, creating a hot, gross, uncomfortable environment for your nose and mouth which can’t breathe in the first place, thanks to being hosts to all that snot you’re carrying. Right. But I am into new experiences, so I wore a mask to school.

The first thing I discovered was that the airflow was channeled directly up to my eyes. Which is uncomfortable, sure, and while that was a theme I had yet to discover in being masked, it was also problematic in that I wear glasses, and warm/moist air applied to glasses only results in them being fogged.

On the bus, this was no problem. I removed the glasses and shut my eyes and it was fine. I knew I had a different shaped mask in my desk, anyway (they have been handing them out since August and probably before).

The different mask was much easier to keep from fogging my glasses, but the effect of the mask on the perceptions of my co-workers, especially the principal and VP, was phenomenal. I guess they aren’t used to foreigners wearing masks? Or something. They freaked out. They were grilling me in seconds. Do you have a fever? Is it influenza? Are you going to the doctor after school? You have lessons today, but I think you should go directly once they are finished. Here is the name of a clinic near your house.

I really appreciated the concern, but the attention was overwhelming. I had done it to be less visible. Total backfire. And, the mask was really stupid insofar as I had to keep taking it off to blow my nose, and I wasn’t even really coughing or sneezing that much.. that comes in the later stages of having a cold. In class, the kids didn’t seem to care as much. I theorize that they are not surprised when I manage chopsticks/eat fish heads n’ all/wear a mask because they assume people just do these things… they have not yet been persuaded that ‘ferners’ are SOO different and cannot/do not.

Or maybe, and I get insecure about this sometimes, those JETs who came before me just left a legacy of awesomeness that my own personal attempts fill just so.


Monday, October 26, 2009

The Aki Matsuri IS kind of weird

but also all kinds of awesome.

I had been hearing about this festival for a while before it happened (October 16th). There were little colored poles along the road to work from about October 1st, and someone told me they were showing the routes of the different colors. That the different colors each carried a portable shrine called Omikoshi through the streets of Ichinomiya.

I was also told they pelt the onlookers with mochi, and that even though I couldn’t go down to the shrine, being at work all day, I would see Omikoshi because they would carry it up to our school.

They did not tell me I would get to see all five, nor that the entire day would be rife with anticipation because you can hear their drums from afar. Nor that the Omikoshi are so freaking huge that four dudes sit inside (they are the drummers).

All morning, you could hear the sound of drums in the distance, a stead thump-thumping. I think that was maybe my favorite part, because it meant something was about to happen.

After the first period class, Awesome-sensei told me I could go down to see the festival, when it came to the school. I asked when that would be, but even as he answered “Maybe in about five minutes,” I saw through the window behind him the first couple of dudes, wearing bright orange jackets in the morning light, coming up the path.

I basically dashed down the hallway to get my shoes and my camera, and met most of the school population outside as the rest of the orange guys followed these scouts, toting the omikoshi.

IMG_4643The kindergarteners from across the way were out and ready. I thought this was really cute: this is one of our students with, I think, his younger sibling.


The orange guys drafted a few of our students to be part of their omikoshi lifting excercise dance thingy. When they moved toward the kindergarteners, there was a high pitched squeal of terror and glee. Basically, some kind of Halloween was happening.


Did I mention that the dudes carrying this thing are basically naked? Nah, they’re not. But they are wearing fundoshi, which is a traditional piece of clothing, kind of like what sumo guys wear for matches. At 9:30 in the morning, this is a cold idea.


IMG_4674You can kind of see one of the four drummers in this one.

Well, eventually orange guys left so our students could have broom-water fights. I went back to class, happy that we were on the orange route.

You could still hear the drums. They got louder. I thought maybe the dudes did a sort of circuit of the neighborhood and were passing back by, because the drums were getting really close and loud. The next thing I knew, Awesome-sensei was giving the class the nod and saying “Oh, just go.” So we all took off down the hall again, grabbed our outside shoes again, and this time it was yellow.


One of the drummers hangs out.

IMG_4704They all had on those sweet ninja shoes.


Then before yellow had even left, green showed up! And for a second I thought there was going to be a brawl, Sharks-and-Jets style, only with teams hefting and crashing omikoshi.

But no, that only happens in Himeji, not Ichinomiya.

So the green guys did their thing, and it was cool too. Some of our students had discovered I was toting a camera, so they got me to take their picture on the omikoshi.


Then pink showed up too, shortly after.


Their shirts say “Aguro” which makes me think of ex-roommate. Because the first kanji means kind, and the second means black.


Lastly, there was blue.

IMG_4769 The guys with pants on are some of our students who are actually part of the team. Pretty sweet, eh?

I missed out on being pelted with mochi, because apparently that happens down at the actual shrine/festival area. My bus took an extra half hour to get through that area. I wish I’d had my camera ready when I watched a dude saunter across the road in front of the bus, pantsless, a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where Your Feet Are

Be where your feet are.
Wait, does that sound familiar to anyone else?

I've been more than a little distracted for a while now. I'll give you more details in person or something, but for now suffice to say that the sitcom that is my personal life had some kind of epic season finale (complete with potential cliffhangers) this weekend. At the same time, it was a working weekend (Sunday was International Festival, Monday afternoon speech contest, Monday night was the Sequim farewell party, etc.)... so I and my cohort have been extraordinarily busy even just with that.

And when I wasn't busy with work, I was busy complaining about work, preparing for work, or bitching about that sitcom bullshit that all happened in a row (seriously, it's great.. my life = ridiculous, squared). I had basically no time to do things like wash my dishes, put away the laundry that has been dry since Saturday, clear off the table, etc.

Today started out in an existential funk, the kind of day where you don't really know what anything is worth. I spent the whole morning hating life for no reason and pretending to be super excited and genki for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders about Halloween.

Try explaining to kids who don't speak your language that one night a year, all the kids in your country put on ridiculous clothes, go knock on other people's doors, yell "Trick or treat" at them and expect to receive candy. And you thought the akimatsuri was weird (okay, you haven't had a chance yet to think it's weird because that was last Friday and I haven't had a chance to post the photos yet... haha).

Anyway, after lunch I put my face down on my desk and zoned out completely until it was cleaning time. I wordlessly swept almost the entire genkan (students' entrance) and left piles of dust for the kids around me to dustpan. Somehow, my last class of the day was the best (again, even though last time I was at the Small Elementary, and today I was at the Big Elementary).. I suspect their awesome homeroom teacher. At the end, they gave me stuff they made for my birthday. It was pretty much the most amazing birthday card(s) I have ever seen. And I was thinking.. there are kids here, and they want my attention too.

And then it was dismissal time, and kids were literally crawling all over me, and I was giving them hugs and high-fives, and they were.. like.. hitting my arms too (I gave blood Sunday, and one of them kept hitting me right in the crook of my elbow.. ow, kid!), but then I was laughing, and looking at the way the sun was cast over the mountains, and the trees in the background were reddening as fall deepens, and all of that sitcom crap seemed very far away (because, um, it is far away. Freaking America), and there were these kids, and they loved me. And the one of them was dragging me across the field, and I wasn't wearing good shoes to be jogging after her, and I didn't know where we were going, or if we had time before we had to line up and dismiss, but we got to the edge of the field and she said, "Look. It's probably the last cherry blossoms of the year," and it was so cool, these little flowers here and there on this otherwise totally barren tree. And then my heart was in the same town as my feet, and I felt a lot better.

Because yeah, I did need to spend some time being upset about the drama. But for better or worse, this is where I am. Yamasaki town and Ichinomiya town are my towns. It does me no good for my confused heart to wander anywhere far from my feet. It only leaves me spaced out and sad.