Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Alright. With one thing and another, there are a couple of things to make a short post.

One is, as part of one of my super-busy weeks (sports day practice week, actually), I hurried home from Salamander to take part in some highbrow discussion podcasting. If you’d like to hear my guest appearance on Impetuous Windmills, check out episode 16: Gravitass. I hesitated in posting this here only because of the content of our highbrow conversation, which is not really related to this blog. And also my unedited use of the f-word. But if you have an hour of mindless chores or driving to do, and want to listen to some college friends go on about some stuff, please enjoy! I’m including it because it is in fact the kind of conversations I tend to have at dinners and parties and dinner parties.

Another is, this entry which covers a lot of stuff, is now complete with pictures. That is to say, it was rather incomplete before, but now it’s better. Please click on any of the photos to see a larger image!

Please eagerly anticipate my posts about Kiso Valley (in Nagano, the Central Japanese Alps) and later, Iya Valley (Shikoku)!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Out of This World

I’ve reclaimed my commute.

When I first arrived here, I was totally stunned by it. You trundle past waving rice stalks and quaint-looking houses and uniformed elementary kids all in a line, cross over beautiful clear-flowing rivers and then run alongside them north through the mountains.

About a month ago, my commute was (surprise?) not so startling anymore. I mean, it’s a commute. You make it every day. And at that time, it was still summer vacation; after that day I was four hours late, it became very hard to motivate myself to catch my morning bus. So I’d trudge to my car, climb aboard, and navigate myself upriver in a haze of wishing I were still abed, instead of northbound on 29, about to spend a good chunk of hours doing just whatever.

But I’m back; today was my first day of middle-school classes of the new semester. And on the bus I read, or sit and look out the window. Every piece of town I peer at in passing makes me think, it’s going to suck to leave this place.

I mean, I know I can’t make a life here forever, but for a moment there it seemed kind of silly to think of coming all the way here, doing whatever it is we do, and then tearing ourselves out of it again.

Furthermore, the kids we love best will graduate and go away, and ever flower will fade and fall off, and even the co-workers we like will be transferred eventually, or move to new cities, or make new lives. You can’t really stay in any place, because a place is also tied to a time, and time will never quit changing on you.

Of course I think about whether I should stay a third year. Have I mentioned it? I might have. I think about it a lot. Like all the time, it’s quietly at the back of my mind, quietly hanging out. I’m not worried about it yet, or about the way I some days feel like I know, and some days don’t. I am making an honest effort to follow my heart, but let’s be honest and admit that sometimes my heart has made choices my head can only conclude are STUPID.

I’m not worried because I’m convinced that by constantly weighing the yes against the no, the stay against the go, I will just know by the time February rolls around.

For now, better to just enjoy the advent of the first coolish day of fall, without the pressure of thinking it’s the last fall I’ll have here, nor the promise (and therefore excuse) that there will be many more.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Well, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. I blame a total lack of weekends due to an inability to say “no” to stuff. This is going to feedback-reverse itself into a three-day-weekend, immediately followed by a two-day work week and a four-day weekend thereafter.

This change will have little effect on my blogging habits, though; posts will still be infrequent but muse-led.

What could I have been doing that would explain this? Well, let me go in order I suppose. Allow me to whisk you back about two weeks.

Two weeks ago, it was hot as balls. September had just begun, and preparations for preparations for the Sports Festival had also begun. I myself was still in do-what-you-want-at-your-desk land, which amounts to a lot of kanji studying, internet surfing (such as personal vacation-trip planning, or browsing as it were), and valiant attempts to not fall asleep. My focus had just shifted to the September 5th picnic, which was about to rule my weekend.

That Saturday, charged with the task of purchasing hot dogs, buns, cookies, and drinks (we added chips) for 100, JET Upstairs and I made the long drive to Costco in Amagasaki with her little sister and in her car “The Post Office.”

The cart. Carts.

The car.

We left pretty early, trying to make it not an all day affair, but of course, when Costco is two hours away, it just is an all-day affair. It’s unfortunately a total-car affair and is now recommended to be undertaken by no more (and no less) than two individuals, lest there be no place for the third to sit on the way home again. This is assuming you buy stuff for yourself as well as whatever mission you happen to be on that day.

Little sister pushed the pillows down so we could see her seat situation. Awesome.

And don’t get me wrong. Part of the joy of getting to be one of the Costco-goers is that you get to have your own go at the goods for sale. I bought myself space bags, bagels, muffins, cereal, soap, and of course, lunch. Costco lunch is effin’ awesome in any country.

Water balloon toss! We are so USA.


So that was one weekend day down. The next was the picnic itself, also not supposed to be an all-day affair, but we did have to fill a lot of water balloons. The picnic was a pretty fun time, despite it being (still) hot as balls and having way less than 100 people show up. The hot dogs were fantastic, and our ploy to clear out Costco’s bakery of all hot dog buns was a good one. The picnic plus cleanup was day two. Monday? Back to work.

Only it’s sports practice every day from there, so it’s a no-desk-sittin’ solid week of slatherin’ sunscreen, wearin’ hats, and sweating a lot in the gym and on the field (side note: to me, a field suggests that it is grassy. This is more like a “ground” that we are working with.). I got co-opted into the folk dance (which for some reason is the Oklahoma Mixer?!) but I didn’t really mind, because it was easy, and it was fun to see the reactions of the third-year boys who got stuck dancing with me.

We watch from the third floor of the elementary school while the JHS does Soran.

Turns out this is a pretty good vantage.

I spent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the middle school, and Tuesday and Thursday at the elementary school, but it was basically the same effect. Still wanting to browse for travel stuff, or maybe even book something, or make an actual plan. Fallin’ behind on kanji (I use a timed flashcard-box system, so if I leave it be for a week, I have like 300 kanji to review due). To boot, I was going to have real live CLASS on the following Tuesday when I went back to small elementary (their sports day circa springtime, 2010).

I spent my evenings in the usual way. Which means Wednesday night Japanese (but Osaki-san makes dinner on those nights, so really they are not stressful), Thursday night ikebana and adult English class, and I had added in this trying-Shorinji-Kempo thing, which was Tuesday nights.

I also had to do laundry about every other day, and buy myself some more cool sports wear to last through this hot-as-balls (still) week of all outside all the time.

A word on sports day practice. I like to complain about it, and I did sometimes stand there and wonder, as long as I’m not doing anything remotely useful or important, maybe I could go somewhere else?? But I also really enjoyed it this year. This year, I kinda know the kids, and it made a whole world of difference in how much I care about what is going on around me. I watched the races avidly and even found myself tearing up from time to time. Which is ridiculous, but also pretty awesome of me.

My more favorite kids hung around the main tent (the student leader group had their chairs there, actually) and talked to me sometimes, and I cheered them on and learned to appreciate that it’s totally Sports Festival, not just field day, and it’s kind of a community event, and that’s why they practice. They’re hosting an event in addition to having some game competitions along the way. So it’s kind of like graduation to me, in that it’s not really for the kids entirely. But it is kinda for them, too, and they did have fun (when they weren’t standing there wondering, as long as I’m not doing anything remotely important, maybe I could go sit in the shade??). I loved seeing their faces. I also loved on actual sports day, seeing them run the show. The entire shebang is driven by the student leaders, more or less, and that group is a good bunch.

Some sports day photos:

Some of my favorite kids, pre-festival.

Carrying the school flag! I love their faces. These are some of my favorite kids, again.

Getting ready for the relay.

This is from the giant jumprope competition. I love the look on the kid in the middle. He pretty much looks like that all the time.

Kibasen, or "chicken hat fights without a pool" commence.

Kumi mans the drums for kibasen.

Our announcers have opposite reactions to the camera but neither is rendered recognizable. (This is another couple of favorite kids)

This was something I hadn't seen: forcible crowd-surfing. That kid is flying because the lines are throwing him forward.

Soran dance is about to begin.

Here, they've finished the dance. Check out both the pyramid of boys and how low the girls are into their do-kai-shos. They did that every time. Also, the girl in front. Yeah, another favorite. Check out her face: that's her attitude on most things.

After lunch: the march of the clubs is about to commence. These are some of the banner bearers; each object is because we recently won some sporting event or other. Next time that event occurs, they add a ribbon with our school's name and the year, and pass it on to the new winner.

Getting ready for the folk dance. The boys make their team marker bands into neckties. The girls made theirs into bows for their hair. One was also pushed upon me (blue).

Every year, mukade (centipede) relay is a hazard and a thriller. Here, the first groups charge toward the leg-tying area. This is the last sport event of the day.

The blue-team teachers (classes 3-2, 1-2, and 2-2, left to right) prepare to cheer on their mukade teams and perhaps help keep them in rhythm.

Typically, third-years do best in mukade, being the most experienced. But on this sports day, 3-2 is running in dead last (note the other kids just kinda sitting by the finish line). Our cap-gun weildin' class president awaits their imminent finish.

But 3-2 is taking longer than anticipated and is actually slowing as they approach the finish line.

Then we see them do this.

Aaaand.. finish! They all leaped/fell across together.

It was Wednesday, in the wake of a typhoon that swung way north and pretty much didn’t cause much more than a light rainshower, that the summer’s persistent heat broke. I mean, from about 9:30 on it was hot as balls again until evening, but I knew something was different because I began waking up chilly (I understand our perceptions of this word may vary.. mine means only that I woke up with the fan on and immediately turned it off) in the morning, and have from Wednesday on.

So fall is on the way, and that’s my favorite (though it’s the most melancholic of them) season. Sports Day finished with an enkai, one of those work drinking parties at which I (as usual) consumed much more beer than is my wont because they just kept refilling the tiny glass. And it’s such a tiny glass. There’s a new teacher, come to replace the guy who quit at the start of the year in spring. The new guy is my age and is pretty good at English, too, so he talked to me through about the second half of the dinner party. He was about as beer-i-fied as me, and that was kinda fun.

I’ve spent the rest of my afternoons in lots of ways where I did a lot of work but feel like nothing is actually done, finished, complete.

Today, it’s cool for real. The kids are complaining that it’s hot, and I guess if you run around in the sunshine, it is, but if you cling to the shade like a redhead who forgot her sunscreen, it’s perhaps the most perfect bright-clear early autumn day you could ask for.

Highlights include the attractive special education teacher inviting me to sit under the giant cherry tree with him and have a conversation like a real human being. I guess otherness doesn’t scare him, anyway. He told me his specific student is in “his own world.” I watched the kid playing in the sand and dirt making happy noises and pondered the term “disabled.”

On the 9th, I decided firmly that it was a good day to be alive. On the 16th it kind of seemed like that was true with or without my consent.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My VP has made a dangerous discovery, being that I like to work.

So now, I'm always working.

It's field-day-week (and a half) again, and this time I am less baffled and more involved than before. I am also better prepared. I'm hatted, fully sunscreened, and double-fisting on the water bottles every day we are outside. Because of rain, we were inside today. I am perhaps even sweatier for it.

All this stuff is a lot more fun when you know the kids and can kind of enjoy their antics. My favorites among the girl students keep making me join their dance practices and I suspect I'll be expected to participate in that stuff in actual sports day too.

When I wasn't folk-dancing (the Oklahoma Mixer, no less) and sweating a disgusting amount, I was sitting in the upper level of the gym, sorting paintings for display, putting them in plastic sleeves, labeling them, and sweating a disgusting amount. Or I was outside raking grass clippings and sweating a disgusting amount. I wear real American-made deodorant and I am embarrassed at the way I smell right now sitting in the staff office.

But this post is already longer than I thought it would be, because mostly all I came to say is, I had like a whole month to be at my desk. And now I have no time, and I need to make a lesson plan for elementary school (little elementary.. the big one is doing the same stuff we are, namely running around outside all the time and sweating a disgusting amount), and I'm silly for not having done that sooner. Alas. I keep feeling like I have no time to take care of my own stuff. As little of that as there is. I'm tryin' to plan trips here, and classes. My apartment languishes in a seemingly endless state of disarray. I've got Japanese class and maybe karate and ikebana and eikaiwa. And my taxes, and sending money home (since it's like 84 yen on the dollar right now.. I just sent a couple thousand bucks), and trying to find better sports day practice clothing (this shit ain't cutting it), and preparing to be a guest on an hour long podcast to be recorded this week, and no weekend to speak of... Haha. Well.

I'll write more about Sports Day later, when I feel like I have time to reflect on it more. Just suffice for now to say I am enjoying it, more or less.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Problem of My Job

Just read this short article about my job.

Thought I would share it.

Japan Times, Don't Blame JET

Saturday, September 4, 2010

You Look American

I overheard a comment the other night that gave me a bit of pause.

You see, Little Brother JET (the replacement of Big Brother JET), who is very gung-ho, polite, and friendly, does not look anything like his predecessor either. Big Brother got his nickname partly because he has red hair (like me!) and so I figured we could pass, especially in Japan, as siblings.

But Little Brother JET is half Laotian by descent. He doesn’t look Asian to me, not exactly. I remember thinking the same of other half-this or half-that people I’d met before. She doesn’t look Japanese. She just looks American, to me. A dark-haired, brown-eyed sort.

But when we were doing our meet-and-greet with some group or another, and he mentioned his hereditary background, someone said, “Oh, that explains it. I thought you didn’t look American!”

What, then, does an American look like? I wondered.

Because after living here a year, I can almost see the difference between who looks Chinese, who looks Japanese, and who looks Korean.. kind of, almost. And I like to think I can spot British and Dutch and Italian. But when it comes to American, all bets are off. I assume that looking like an American looks like anything and everything, because it very often does.

I know a bunch of Americans. In the same way that, as a little kid, you just kind of assume everyone’s life experience is pretty much the same as yours, I tend to assume that people are American until I have reason to believe otherwise (an accent, a statement in a self-introduction). I’ve more than once mistaken dudes I have seen around the cities in Japan as being black Americans when they are actually from Africa. Not African Americans, dude, just African.

And the dark-eyed, dark-haired half Asians? Look just as American to me as African Americans, and dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian-descended Americans, and yeah, the pale-as-death Irish-rooted Americans too. It’s not that I maybe couldn’t have picked out the Asian in someone’s features, it’s that I never thought to look for it. My own heritage is half Dutch, the other half a mix of British, Irish, and some Native American too (plus some other stuff I can’t remember). The sheer variety of all that is sometimes a little bit mind-boggling for some of our Japanese students, because Japan tends to be pretty Japanese.

Some people get married outside of the nationality/culture/Japanese race; it’s not like it’s taboo or unheard of. But a lot more don’t. Because it’s who’s around. For a lot of Japanese, where you’re from and your nationality and your racial heritage is all connected to being Japanese.

Being American, though, is a whole different system. Virtually everyone there traces back to somewhere else before, at least partly.

What does it mean to look American? Is it a complexion? An eye shape or color? Is it a stance or swagger or haircut? Is it a fashion statement? Do I bear the stamp unconsciously, just because I was born of ‘mixed’ heritage in the state of Georgia, because I went to school in Tennessee, all the while pledging allegiance to the flag and memorizing things like “Give me liberty or give me death!”?

Whatever the reason, I am assumed on first glance to be foreign. I often feel like people ask me where I came from just out of politeness, although I suppose it’s possible that they can’t tell by my accent I’m not Australian, New Zealander, or European.

The other afternoon, Little Brother and I were up at Haga Castle. The caretaker there, an old man speaking only Kansai-ben chatted with us at length. I was proud of myself for following almost everything he said. He speaking pace was slow enough to allow this, and it made me kinda smug. I figured Little Brother was probably following it too, although he said later that it got difficult in places. Little Brother is good at Japanese (prrrobably better than me), but Kansai-ben is still kind of a trip for the newly-arrived; however versed one may be in classroom-taught proper Japanese, get yourself into the middle of nowhere (like, for example, Haga) and up on top of a mountain, and the local people aren’t going to talk that way. Anyway, after a few minutes of going on about the castle and the area and his job being to shut the gate when we left, he commented that kanojo wa nihongo zenzen wakar’en, na?

Hey guy! I do so understand Japanese! The conversation turned there and we realized that he’d not only recognized the half-Asian-ness of Little Brother, but he’d figured it was half Japanese, and assumed that was why he spoke Japanese and that this was what qualified him to be an English teacher in Japan. He missed the part where I was a teacher too; I guess he thought I was a visiting friend. I wasn’t offended, just kind of surprised. Like I said, Little Brother looks (sounds, acts?) really American to me. If anything, I kind of feel like my more reserved demeanor and conservative nature are more “Japanese” than his outgoing directness..!

Friday, September 3, 2010

To Nurture the Badass

When I woke up Wednesday morning, I felt like my body had been flung into a hardwood floor, perhaps more than once, on the evening before. Later in the day I discovered the bruises to prove it.

Because I had got to thinking again, and you know how dangerous that can be.. and I thought, you know, I’ve sweated through a shirt while outdoors in the afternoon climbing a mountain, but what I haven’t done in a while is sweat through a shirt indoors while punching at invisible targets. Basically, I hadn’t been to a karate class in an un-air-conditioned space in August in Japan.

Whyever not?!

Seeking to remedy this issue, I stopped in at the nearby sports center to inquire as to whether there were an available class. I did not perfectly understand the guy behind the counter, but he ended up writing down a bunch of stuff for me, all in kanji (really, I appreciate the implication assuming my literacy), the gist of which was, there are karate people, they get here at 7pm, they use that room right over there. Come on Tuesday and meet them.

Tuesday night, I toted myself and another ALT, I think I’ll call her Ze German (this is an almost totally racist application of nickname and may later be rethought; Ze German is the replacement for TheCat, and is strikingly her opposite in appearance. TheCat was short, dark, and Asian; Ze German is tall, fair, and blond/blue-eyed. But she also took German or participated in some kind of German club, so…), to the sports center, where she would have tennis and I would have “karate.”

It’s not actually karate, it’s Shorinji Kempo. They spent some time explaining the difference to me at different points during the class. On the ground, the punches are different, but the integration of self-defense and more natural stance work into the system is not foreign to my brand of karate.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

So there we were, but even just upon my arrival, the old dude behind the desk was trying to tell me he’d made a mistake (he actually just meant the I-sent-you-to-Shorinji-Kempo-when-you-asked-for-karate mistake, as well as a new revelation that the kids’ class started at 7, the adults were from like 8:30.. shoot). But then the sensei showed up and all seemed to be well. Older, with silvering hair that suggested he’d one day have the hairdo of Epic-sensei, he carried himself with that calm presence that martial arts guys sometimes have. The very self-assured, I can kick your ass if I have to, but I basically never have to kind of mien. He regarded me with a smile devoid of confusion or worry. My foreignness and potential inability to speak Japanese did not daunt him. My femaleness and potential inability to handle shit did not scare him.

True martial artists are rock stars, and beyond.

Before he’d even arrived, the kids began opening up the room, turning on the fan and opening the windows. I guess I expected there to be mats on the floor, but it was hardwood like any gym surface. Better for balance and harder on falling, I guess.

I recognized one of my elementary students in the class, the kid who plays janken like his life depends on the outcome of that rock-paper-scissors contest. I followed the class as best I could, encouraged by the presence of a girl beside me much younger and newer at all this than me. Encouraged, too, by the way the slumbering memory of how to move in a martial arts setting cocked its head and paid close attention.

All things considered, I was on fire. Of course, my arms had a tendency to resume the fighting position I’d practiced first, and my punches had a tendency to rotate. The guy assigned to work with me noted these things but was overall pretty impressed at how quickly I was picking stuff up. There was a zen meditation and I was also taught how to sit down and stand up and get into stance properly. We worked on ukemi, forward and backward rolls. All this and more I kind of remembered, and I threw myself into it all with intensity and alacrity. Maybe I’d been caged too long.

There was So. Much. Sweat. But that was okay, too. I noticed it and considered it a good sign of workin’ hard.

Another good sign of hard work is the soreness that follows. But apparently, your muscles will be mad in the morning if, after years of not doing a thing, you do it at 100% and many times. And, if you never really rolled correctly on your left side, you might end up with bruises to prove it. What cracks me up is that I have visible bruises on both my left shoulder and the back of my left hip (about where your backpack would sit.. ow), but not on the right. I did it properly, it seems, on that side. So Tuesday night felt good, even if there was so much sweat. Wednesday morning (and beyond), there was just So. Much. Pain, between my bruises and the ridiculous soreness of everything.

But that’s just the kind of thing that makes me want to try again, to see if it gets any easier.

I thought about my full schedule and how I might have to give up a little of my girliness or scholarliness if I want to pursue martial arts (and I do, whether it's this Kempo stuff, or straight up karate, to which the desk guy gave me info... they meet on Sundays). I spend a lot of time going to Japanese class, taking things like ikebana, etc. I feel like my badass side needs a little nurturing (martial arts, maybe taiko drumming) so I too can be as a Valkyrie going into battle maybe once a week-ish.

We'll see.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A return to good eatin'

Every day at school, my VP would ask, did you bring your lunch today. I would give him the are-you-kidding face and laugh or sigh and say noooo…

Then I would either fling myself in the path of someone departing to make a Lawson’s (a not inconvenient store) run (that person normally being the band teacher, whom I have always liked), or I would walk myself down the long driveway to the grocery store across the street to get myself some lunchies.

Dinner has been a similarly painful process. I would basically feel bad about the idea of eating out every night, and then do it anyway. And never manage to finish my whole meal because it’s just too hot outside for my body to accept a normal amount of food.

No more. Today, we had opening ceremony at school. And in return for wearing slacks (not shorts), and for standing in the gym sweating for 45 minutes, I get Teacher Bento! Teacher Bento happen almost anytime we have a special event. They are filled with all kinds of sashimi and special rice and strange pickled vegetables and little fried this or that.

Then, tonight my Japanese classes plus dinner times resume with Osaki-san. I go for the food, really.. I did for several weeks. The class itself is all kind of review for me (not that I don’t need it).. but let's be honest. I was kinda like, meh, Wednesday night classes. ...There's FOOD involved??

Star Sand Beach Just Out of Reach

First of all, I’d like to link to this entry. I wrote it a long time ago, but for whatever reason, did not publish it to the blog. So there is that. And here are the rest of the photos from that whole trip.

I think the reason I never published it might have something to do with a rewrite I was planning to do with it, a sort of reflection on the nature of a few turns of phrase I used to run through my head. One of them is “Star sand beach, just out of reach,” and the other is “Always more of Shosha to see."

The first time I visited Mount Shosha, I made it there with barely enough daylight to see anything at all. The second time, I had a little bit more, but still not enough to explore the whole temple complex. This was frustrating, because it seemed like I could never get my shit together enough to arrive with any kind of time. But it is also encouraging to think of always having a reason to go back.

I have a tendency to do things to death, because I have a hard time letting go.

So it legitimizes my hope to return to a place.. I’m more likely to actually return to a place if it’s not left me with a been-there, done-that sort of feel.

Even if one had been to Okinawa and done that, I’d want to go again. But I never did get to see the star sand beach I had hoped to find. And that’s reason enough for me to take another trip.