Monday, August 30, 2010

Your Life Is Hard

An important lesson.

I’ve been thinking about Italy a lot lately. It’s partly the weather, partly the timing.. I went to Italy in 2007, in the fall, and it was a wonderful, important experience for me.

Allow me to share a moment from that semester abroad.

We lived in a converted nunnery, the 30-odd students from various US colleges and universities. Every Tuesday we had all-day field trips to some site visit or other, where we’d receive on-site lectures about whatever monument or event we were traversing that day. Other classes included Latin, Greek, Italian, and art history.

I was standing in a friend’s room, going on at length about some thing or other. I suspect it was complaining about Italian homework, and how unreasonable it was that we were expected to learn so many verbs before the next class, and how I was tired, and I maybe hadn’t had time to do this or that, and Greek, and friends back home, and…

My friend looked up at me and said solemnly, “Yeah, EmLem, your life is hard.”

I stopped, and burst out laughing. Good God, she was right! What did I have to complain about? What have I ever had to complain about?

I get reminders of this lesson all the time, but the latest one is delivered to my work desk as I eat lunch today. I’ve been reading about the experiences of one of my friends and former co-workers as he essays into the teaching world. Unlike my job, his is hard. Even my short spell as a Latin teacher was a blissful cakewalk in a lot of ways. Now, I’m just an assistant, and I deal neither with major lesson plan arcs (well, not above elementary level), testing, nor discipline. Basically I get to skip all the crappy sides of teaching and stick with either just the fun part, or ‘whatever I want.’ I can make lessons easy. I can make them only games. Basically, I am horribly spoiled and coming down from this into a ‘real job’ will suck very hard. Unless I find a way to never have a hard job, that is.

Summer vacation is hard in its own way. Mostly, JETs have to engage in whatever personal pursuit will most effectively fill their days and curb ennui. Some spend all their time playing various sports with their students.. I wanted to be that guy, tried to be that guy, but it wasn’t easy, with different teams all over the place at different times. I only Friday found the sannen (cats' class) dance party in the gym and joined in. They aren’t there today, though. I had many different ideas as to how I would do this, but in the end I’ve mostly studied kanji. I’ve “learned” 508 of those freaking things, some easy and others ridiculously complicated-looking. My plan is to try to nail that set flat before I try to pick up the other 1500 or so.

My thoughts turn over and I read about what real life classrooms are like stateside, especially in the higher-risk lower-motivation areas and schools. It’s not especially encouraging to someone considering teaching as a career move… although that does continue to be heavy on my radar as a post-JET option. I am thinking I would like to teach Latin, English, ESL, or Japanese. (After getting certified, of course)

Other options which I thought I would spend summer break researching (but have not) include: The Foreign Service (liiike being an ambassador or somesuch), Therapy (like, for your mind, yo), and as always, Editing Written Materials.

Well. I’m thinking about them, even if I’m not researching them. So there.

Another reason I have thought of Italy recently is that one of my centro companions, Ice, has recently contacted me to let me know she’s matriculated as a graduate student at Vanderbilt. Despite never having done that particular thing myself, it makes me feel nostalgic. I was a special undergrad, and I hung around the department office far more than your average kid.

One other notable summer-vacation thing is that I rarely use my computer at home, to the point that stuff I can’t do at work (consume youtube videos posted by my peers, for example… that doesn’t work here) online just doesn’t even get done, most of the time. When I get home, I just want to get out, or socialize, or clean up, or lie around… none of which are computer-screen friendly. I don’t even really watch movies. I guess that’s a good thing. I often end up feeling, though, like nothing ever actually gets done!

I guess, until summer vacation ends, I can kind of be okay with that.

Friday, August 27, 2010

It doesn't have to be undiscovered

(just not-yet-seen-by-me)

So I got home early from work the other day (okay, “early” is relative and I’m starting to see 2pm as my normal quittin’ time. Just sayin’) and I said to myself, I said, self, you know what we haven’t done in a while? Sweat through a shirt. And I don’t mean like get a little damp under the arms… any stroll through the parking lot will do that. I mean disgustingly and thoroughly soak through an entire shirt, front and back. And it’s August still!

In summer, the only fresh thing is the produce. Summer is for your hair to never do what you ask, for your clothes to never quite look right and be comfortable at the same time.. summer is for dirt and sweat and gross, an abandoning of fanciness or pretense of anything like it. I think this is why south-islanders live longer. They gave up pretending it’s not hot as balls and just embraced the right to do whatever it took to be both productive and comfortable in that situation.

Anyway. In all this longing for AC and attempting to be a good studious productive desk-sittin’ individual, I think I started to pretend that I could in fact get away without abandoning that pretense.

So I suited up in shorts and a good sweatin’ shirt, and I hopped on China Downtown (my bike) and pedaled off toward the great unknown. I crossed the river and intended to find a mountain “crevice,” or a place where the valley extends behind a mountain somewhere.. basically I intended to explore something I couldn’t see from the main road of my commute every day.

I have a tendency, when I do that, to find shrines. This is mostly because shrines are to be found everywhere, as long as you don’t expect a shrine to be too much more than a tori gate, some steps, a water basin, a little building, and a bell. Mostly they are deserted and look like they were lovingly tended, but that was about four days ago. Iwa Jinja is a pretty grand example of a shrine. But I love the rustic little ones too.

So anyway, there I was, biking along. I’d just wiped down the bike because spiders build webs on anything that you leave sitting for more than three hours (seriously, there was one inside my car, spanning from the rearview mirror to the steering wheel and dash) and oiled the chain, and I had the oil can and its little red spray straw in my front basket, with my bag of important adventure material (camera, cell phone, some change, water bottle, hand towel) in the back basket. I lost the red spray straw somewhere before the end of the bridge, but went on.

Saw some steps at the bottom of a mountain and guessed (rightly) that they led to a small shrine. I did not realize the shrine would be all the way on the top of that mountain, and that the steps would take me nearly all the way there.

I hit the first landing and thought, it must be close to here...

But it wasn't even halfway.

View near the top.


Don’t worry, it wasn’t a very tall mountain, even for Yamasaki. So this was Nakayama jinja - 中山神社 (middle-mountain shrine?). Then yesterday my VP was asking me if I had done anything lately that made me “good and tired,” or tired in a good way, like hard work, so I pulled up the googlemaps image of Nakayama and said, I climbed this by accident. On the map, though, I could see that a little valley snaked around this mountain, complete with settlement. I decided to bike through this sleepy hamlet, and so that afternoon, I did so.

View Larger Map

That 522 is a "highway" on this map is mind boggling. It's one of those roads that you swear has to be one-lane until you see someone coming the other way.

There is something in me that likes to go until I lose the road. To keep going until you don’t know where you are, and then go a bit further just to see what’s there, even though you can predict what it will be. And then, go back. I saw mountains, woods, and rice fields. Oh and a shrine gate (so I’ll go back there sometime). Houses and creeks and old people and little kids. But they smiled at me, all of them, when I said hello. (It kinda made me wonder if it was a new thing for them, too.. to have a random white chick biking up through their valley)

Trees at the end of the hamlet.

The angle of the light made the two zillion dragonflies striking, with their spun-copper wings buzzing.

I did sweat through my shirt. I did remember what it’s like to just go. There is a dynamic tension in my life between making thing happen and letting things happen. Sometimes, I try far too hard to force things to go a certain way. Sometimes, I am far luckier than needing to do that.. and should just accept things as they present themselves to me.

Oh, and on the second day, I found the red straw too, on the bridge. Win, overall.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

There are three kinds of people in this world.

Those who can count, and those who can’t.

In line for Pirates of the Caribbean.

It happened again. I’ll give you three guesses.

Tokyo this weekend was really cool. And by cool I mean hotter than four hundred hells. I had an image in my head of what the “classy” picnic would be like at the American embassy… it was instead a roasting hot sweatfest which had The Italian, Aa-chan, and myself drunkish at 2pm. I was glad I at least had not worn pants.

Shade was hard to come by, but we found a spot by this embassy garden area to generally be American.

We wandered into a shrine just outside the embassy gates with ten-yen omikuji (fortunes). Ours were pretty good.

I felt classy on the way there, though, because I was sitting pretty in my shinkansen seat, watching the morning world go by at bullet-like speeds, looking country-girl chic in my fluffy black dress and little straw hat (like all the Osaka girls wear). Once we got outside it was more like Sparta (see: madness), but that’s just August in.. anywhere.

But it was good to see The Italian (not a JET) and Aa-chan (a retired JET), my “Vanderbuddies,” as I playfully called them, and just sort of feel reconnected. I was worried that I would go all the way to Tokyo and only have a marginally okay time; that wouldn’t be anyone’s fault, really… I’ve been a bit out of it and distracted and on the whole a little emotionally unhinged lately. I assumed that no matter what I did this weekend, I wouldn’t enjoy it overmuch, but that I ought to do something. I had scheduled myself for Tokyo and Disneyland. Might as well.

But actually, it was rather fun. I got to see a bit more of Tokyo (Akihabara, for one), and a bit more of my friends.

We visited the SquareEnix store. Not in Akihabara. This is Sephiroth. IN THE FLOORING. We walked over him once without seeing him because we were staring at the merch along the walls instead.

It's a tonberry. With a lantern. And a knife. Right in the front entrance of the SquareEnix store. (these photos mostly for the enjoyment of my nerdy friends)

We never made it to karaoke, and our legs and feet were dead sore by the end of Saturday, but by the time Aa-chan and I were running around Disneyland like the overgrown children that we are, I was having so much fun that I had thoroughly forgot I was supposed to be miserable.

Lots of parades. This one we ran across in the afternoon. I took lots of photos, but I do love Toy Story's fated aliens.

Another parade, this one all about lights. And obviously a bit later.

Disney was hot, and it was crowded, and we didn’t get there very early, and the lines were long. But there was almost always a breeze, and lots of the waiting areas (for newer stuff at least?) are indoors, decorated to theme, and air-conditioned. The spinning teacups were way more fun than they had any right to be, and always had a wait of about seven minutes.

OMG teacups cause madness. We only rode them like three times that day. It was like a drug.

sea of humanity....

Japan loves Disney, and after visiting Tokyo Disneyland, I suspect that this park is perhaps one of that titan’s most successful endeavors. I looked out over a vast sea of people, and all of them seemed pretty happy. By the end of the evening, little kids were passed out on top of their parents and in their strollers all over the place. The park closed at 10, but my bus was supposed to leave only a few minutes after that, so we figure it would be best to get to the bus area sooner rather than later.

Okay. I thought my bus was supposed to leave at ten. It turns out 20:10? Is not that. There are three kinds of people in this world…

I happen to count in base ten, and I happen to have recently been to Universal Studios Japan, where there was a bus back to my town’s interstate stop; that bus left ten minutes after park closure. In my defense, it’s an easy mistake to make, although a very stupid one. In my defense… I was pretty distracted when I was booking the bus…?

So the lesson is, 20:00 = 8pm, every time, and that is something I will not forget again.

Unfortunately, that left me still in Tokyo, with no more overnight buses heading for Himeji that evening. And “work” in the morning, and out the money for the bus ticket, as well as the shinkansen ticket I would have to buy the next morning. Luckily, The Italian and Aa-chan were still around, so we all went back to the apartment of The Italian to crash. After a four hour fitful spell of sleep, I rolled out of his apartment at 5am to get back as quick as I could. I arrived in Himeji at 10, basically devoid of cash, and continued my mad dash, with a brief ten minute stop at home, to work, where no one said anything about my being four hours late, except to ask if I’d “had some trouble.” I chose not to call in and explain my lateness because I figured they’d make me take vacation time for that, and I did not want that. (I considered doing it and spending another day in Tokyo, but I had an engagement Monday night that I needed to be back home for by around 7pm)

The funny thing is, after days of having nothing really to do at work and wishing only to leave, wondering why we are expected to come in at all during the summer, the act of crossing half a country to get there makes you a lot more grateful to be there. I was actually rather productive in the few hours I was there before my VP suggested I go ahead and go home.

So I guess Tokyo was as it could be expected to be. Lots of fun. Very expensive. A bit of a dash there at the end. C’est la vie!

Just leave it up to The Claw.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Akashi Absolved

Akashi is a city almost-to-Kobe if you are coming from the west along the coast of Japan. It boasts a beautiful bridge to Awaji Island, some castle ruins, and its own style of takoyaki.

It is also the home of the driver's license center for Hyogo prefecture. So for some of us, it never mattered what Akashi had to offer. We were going to hate it anyway.

You can't associate a place with a long, painful drive, terrible wastes of time and vacation days, personal failure, and utterly ridiculous rules... without a little resentment.

I went back again on Thursday, to do battle with the beast.

Every time I had to go to Akashi (and take the requisite entire day off work, because it just takes that long), I labeled it on my calendar. My first attempt at the driving test was called "AKASHI - the practical" ... the second attempt was called "the finale" (aren't we hopeful!)... and the third attempt, "the charm" (as in, ", third time is").

I packed lighter for this go than ever before, since I would be carrying it all the whole way, rather than just putting it in the car. I had previously overpacked in a sort of heinous way, taking my heavy computer and all manner of things to do to the center, therefore condemning myself to carry them around on my back through the walk-through part of the course. I was much more judicious. Wallet, yes. Book, yes (but just one paperback). Notebooks, no, dictionary, no, camera, hell no, who wants memories of Akashi?

After managing to choose the wrong rain-fighting option (I really thought the poncho would work on a bike), and managing forget my paperwork (requiring another bike trip back to the apartment after getting off the bus at the post office, to which it traveled all of 50 meters), the morning was off to a splendid start. I roped the Other Georgian into driving me to the train station and at least managed to have nice conversations all the way there while my pants dried in the car.

The rest of the trip was more or less successful, only taking the wrong bus from Akashi station once. I made it to the testing center in the nick of time (according to the clock; the test starts at 12:55.. you can walk the course from 11:45 or so until then. But for some reason you have to be there between 10 and 10:30) and took my place on the seats in front of the endless test video, to read of course. I did watch some of the video and by now was able to decipher some of the information contained therein. They list some of the automatic fails for the test, such as "driving in the wrong lane," "running a stop sign," "collision or near collision with other vehicles on the course," and generally "being all over the road." They might have said something about "not looking at the correct mirrors in the correct order," too. "Not wearing proper shoes" was another part of the video (Jermaine-hostile shoes only!).. I walked the course twice at 11:45, then went in to treat myself to some mediocre (I'm generous) DMV-cafeteria soba noodles.

At test time, I was last in my section of line. This gave me the benefit of not having anyone ride along as passenger for my trial (you can sit in the back and observe the test of the person ahead of you in line). But also meant I had to wait a bit longer before my turn. Although I knew that this time I really had the test in the bag (after spending an hour with my good ol' driving instructor chanting "1, 2, 3, 4" as I checked each of the looking spots in the correct order for each type of turn again and again), I still found myself experiencing that very special brand of anxiety that brings its friend nausea along to hang out. I briefly considered throwing up in the grate drain to one side of the course 'road,' but decided against it.

The first girl received her talking-to inside the car while still in the driver's seat. That means fail. The guy ahead of me drove with such caution and ginger care, but I was worried for him because for all his fearful slowness, he didn't always check the bike spot right before turning, and goodness knows that'll disqualify the shit out of you! In the end, he was "too slow." Yes really. Fail. My turn.

I was passing the hell out of the test, and I knew it; I wasn't even rattled when I saw the lady making notes on the clipboard, even though writing = mistakes, generally. I could afford a few points. Things got dicey in the crank turn, as I reversed three times and was convinced right at the end that I was caught between the curb and a fourth reverse (4 times will disqualify you... one is fine, but two or three just loses you points)... although I made it out of there, I was scared that my point loss in the crank would cripple me right into a failing score. That's basically the end of the test, though, and it's a good thing, because my confidence was slipping.

I pulled carefully up to the finish curb and resignedly pulled the break, put it in park, turned off the car. "Lemmon-san," she began, and I turned my plaintive eyes on her, ready to hear my new set of "advice" about this test.

"Could you get out and come around to this side?" she asked. I blinked. That totally means pass (so long as you exit the car properly-- to see that last bit is why they do it). I exited the car properly and came around so she could tell me I'd passed. Happily returned inside to wait with the only other dude who'd passed that day (he turned out to be a friend of a friend, and resident of Himeji, so how about that?). They brought us upstairs at 2:30 and gave us a piece of paper that said we'd be getting our licenses at about 4:20, after the processing began at 2:40. I shrugged because at least the waiting was worth something now.

The man told us to be there at 3:30 and that we had free time til then. The Other Guy Who Passed pointed out that this suggested they were running almost an hour behind schedule. They had mentioned that they had a "lot of people" that day.. meaning, I guess, first-time drivers who had passed. We didn't have anywhere else to go, so the guy and I sat there for a bit, until another officer-looking man appeared and had us fill out a form. A lecture began to take place in the area right in front of us, but we were ushered into the photo booths along with about ten people who did NOT look like fresh drivers. We then waited another few minutes, paid our fee, and were handed our licenses by 3pm. I guess they rushed us to the front of the process since they were already running behind and would rather deal with us separately than along with the batch of newbies.

Whatever the reason, we were actually released an hour and a half earlier than we normally would have been. I was so happy that by the time we had bussed back to the train station, I felt like making something of this "vacation" day I'd had to take for this, so I parted with my new Himeji test-passin' friend and followed the signs that said "Akashi Castle Ruins."

Because, you know, castle ruins? Are kind of my thing.

Akashi has a gorgeous park. I was sort of sad I had tossed the camera. It had forest paths and ruins and athletic fields and ponds, and lots of kids and old people and dogs, and even one making-out couple (a rarity here). I felt like I kind of came back to myself there, because it was like (and not like) Centennial park in Nashville, and it was also just my kind of thing. At some point, upon hearing the ke-chi-ke-cha of trains at the nearby station, I actually began to sing out loud ("Train in the Distance"). I'd been really anxious and sad since returning to Japan, but being able to get out and explore just a little bit made me remember better why I wanted to come here in the first place, and why I put myself through the silly mess of dealing with Akashi too.

In the stone walls and bike trails and wooden benches, from the top of the castle-not-anymore-a-castle, with a view of the ultramodern looking Awaji bridge, treetops, the train station, ships on the water, and mountains beyond, I found it in my heart to forgive Akashi for our past encounters.

Obon: Reconnection

Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead. People invite their ancestors to come to their homes, back from the spirit world on the 13th, then send them off again on the 15th. The time is characterized by festivals and celebrations, and families typically flood out of the cities and back into the countryside, everyone heading for their ancestral homes. It is sort of like Easter or Thanksgiving in the way that people all go stay with family.

Which, understandably, is a bit of a strange time for us JETs. I mean, the festivals are fun, and this year I even got semi-invited to a family's BBQ dinner on Friday evening. There are fireworks and stall-food and children running around in yukata and jinbei and other outfits. The people watching to be had at the local park's celebration was pretty awesome. We did a little bon-odori (the special Obon dance) and watching a little fireworks.

But it's strange because of the timing, mostly. The JET year starts at the end of July or beginning of August, so all newcomers are just getting their feet on the ground. Often, Obon is the first Japanese festival they'll see. But Obon's all about going home and connecting with your roots... things which we all just left behind (if temporarily) in order to be here.

I thought it would be easier to come back to Japan than it was to come to Japan, and in some ways it was (my stuff was here already, and more or less set up.. I already know the people at my job, etc. etc.).. and in some ways it was harder. I think expecting it to be easy has contributed a bit to making it harder. I also have less pressing stuff to do at work (reading over everything I got from predecessor and orientation), so I have been really listless all week, affected by jet-lag (not a problem by the time I got to work upon first arrival), and also that emotional component of jet-lag that is perhaps peculiar to the notion of leaving a place that seems to contain every person by whom you feel loved and going far, far away.

And that is harder the second time, because you've been far, far away for a year already, and the first time you left, you'd been living there and seeing all those people for so long you might even have had time to get sick of some of them..! But the second time you only ever had like a few hours with anyone, or so it seemed.

And then you're driving south on 29, dismissed at 11am from work, glad you don't have to go north because the traffic is ridiculous, and every car is full of people and stuff, maybe grumbling about the traffic, dreading grandpa's endless stories, or grandma's stupid little dog, wondering if the kids will ever stop hitting each other back there, and good grief why didn't you go before we left? Instead, off you go, flying and not crawling, but solo.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Iwa Jinja

From the side entrance..

Yesterday, I walked to Iwa Jinja (伊和神社). I was on my way down the driveway toward the grocery store where it is my custom to buy lunch every day, when the notion took me and I started on down that way. It isn’t really all that far away from work. I said polite hellos to the people I passed on my way. One dude smiled and said, “It’s hot, isn’t it!” to which I replied, “It’s hot.” But I thought, it’s not all that hot.

By the time I reached the shrine and visited the important rock and the koi pond and threw my coins and clattered the bell, I was pretty hungry. I crossed the street to the road-station (michinoeki) where there’s a little restaurant. But there was a wait list, and I felt kind of awkward eating alone if someone was going to be waiting for my table. It’s one thing to sit down in a little half-empty cafe and quietly feed yourself, but in a hopping lunch crowd and in a place where every table looks like it’s for four people or more… ehh. I grabbed a bottle of tea out of a vending machine and decided to walk back up to my grocery store and just eat at work like always.

On the walk back, I discovered that it really is all that far from work. When a different dude was like “It’s hot, isn’t it!” I wished I knew how to say yes sir, fucking hot! in Japanese.

I like Iwa Jinja. It’s a pretty shrine, and a large one. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the main shrine of Ichinomiya and perhaps the reason for the name of the town. When you cross the town border, the sign uses the shrine as its icon. So it’s an important shrine in this area, but I also like it on some personal levels.

Shrines appeal to me based on the idea of a created sacred space. You might recall (or I might have kept that crap to myself) the way I tend to seek out a “favorite tree” or rock or just.. little place to go and collect myself when I’m wanting a reflective moment or having a total existential crisis. I have favorite trees in Rome, Italy (in Villa Pamphili), in Lawrence and Kansas City. Wherever I live, I hunt down a personal natural space. Shrines are just that, except better signed, and with more amenities. Oh, and pretty old, usually.

At a shrine, the idea is you throw your coin into the box, ring the bell, pray for whatever it is you are seeking, and go on. There’s more, of course. You can usually buy omikuji, the little slips of paper with your fortune written on them, and you can hang up wooden petitions to the gods for the stuff you are seeking. I personally have never done much, although I did get a fortune-slip in Kyoto once (at Fushimi Inari shrine) and I still have it, since it was the double-plus-good fortune.

I once biked to Iwa from my house (yeah, that took a while..) on a sort of pilgrimage. Certain shrines in my area have come to mean different things to me. There’s a shrine up high in a mountainside that overlooks this river I like.. I go there to seek “perspective.” At Iwa, I seek peace. Peace of mind, I guess. Which is maybe kind of a Buddhist thing to go after (shrine = Shinto, temples are for Buddhists), but hey.

The other thing that I learned more recently about Iwa has to do with the kanji. Erik pointed out that the first of them, the “i” (伊) is given the meaning “Italy” in the kanji study method I am using. That sort of seemed cool, especially since I assumed the second, “wa” (和) to mean “Japan.” (like in washoku, or Japanese-food) So this massive shrine, the principal one in the area, Iwa shrine, is Italy-Japan shrine?

I don’t assume that the shrine has anything to do with Italy in any actuality. It’s just a name, just a vague word connection. But I do like it.

The important rock area, which until this pilgrimage day was unknown to me!

The important rocks.

Sky over Iwa.