Saturday, December 24, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different

Hi there everyone. My name's EmLem. When I'm not shaping today's youth, or out being a scholarly pilgrim at the Kansai temples of Japan, I'm attending Kpop concerts in Osaka.

Okay so that's not entirely true. But it's not entirely false, either.

The other weekend, I attended my first Kpop concert, because ELove invited NeoShiso's ladies and a handful of us said, sure, why the hell not?

Permit me to put the brakes on for a moment; I can hear some of you wondering just what on earth is "Kpop"?!

An excellent question. In the vein of Jpop and Jrock (being Japanese pop and rock respectively), Kpop is Korean pop music!

I went to see Super Junior, which appeared to me about the equivalent of a Korean large (about 13-member?) boy band. The first concert I ever went to was Backstreet Boys, so I figured this was about up my alley.

And of course I love to experience new things, right?

Although my boy-band U.S. concert experience is far enough in the past that a comparison between that and this is meaningless, I will nonetheless use that middle-school attended concert more than ten years ago as a background for describing this one (it was, after all, my background for experiencing it).

First off is the prep and priming. Backstreet Boys are easier for me to understand, being American first of all (and therefore, producing songs in English). I heard them on the popular radio very often and knew most of their songs to the point that I could sing along.

As for Super Junior, they are Korean (but release songs in several languages). The exposure to their songs has been limited to YouTube videos at ELove's, and her varied attempts to educate me on their names, styles, special skills, and likability. I don't really listen to the radio in Japan (surprise surprise) and even if I did, I don't think Super Junior is mainstream enough to be on the radio. And even if they were, it would probably be the Japanese versions of whatever songs have been released with Japanese versions, which aren't all of them, or aren't all the best songs, or isn't the best version of the song.

Let me give you an example of this. One video that ELove showed me was Tai Wan Mei ("Perfection"), which is a really fun song that I enjoy a great deal. The version she showed me is the Chinese version of the song, which according to her sounds cooler than the Korean (while the Japanese version sounds stupid).

That brings up an interesting comparison between western boy groups and those here near the eastern edge: these groups are releasing songs in several languages, because their audience is spread over several countries, which have different languages. Western groups can, in their native tongue, reach a much wider audience with the same version of the same song. Super Junior is, by necessity, more versatile. They don't necessarily speak the languages in which they sing or record songs, but they do know many of their songs in several languages.

 But those several languages do not frequently include English. So this leads to another aspect of the difference of intelligibility. Not understanding the lyrics does not always mean a song is less enjoyable. Although I personally appreciate lyrics very much, it also means that a good sound can be ruined forever for me if the lyrics are (and they frequently are, in popular music) totally stupid (I won't get started on this because it'll go on for paragraphs). Kpop songs may be totally inane, but I don't know that just by hearing it, and this prevents me from hating on the songs. I can just have fun with them!

Something else fun: the level of ridiculousness at the Super Junior show is much higher than I remember it being with American boy bands. SJ doesn't seem to take itself that seriously. Their entrance was, naturally, epic, but by the end they had charged out onstage dressed as a random assortment of characters (seriously, ranging from Steve Jobs [too soon?], to Gollum, to Marilyn Monroe, to Hulk Hogan, to Britney Spears), and later on, they pranced around dressed as the cast of The Sound of Music. They were clearly having fun being ridiculous, so it was hard not to laugh along with them.

There are a lot of members of this group, which is its own way kind of ridiculous, but I'll attempt really quickly to give an overview of what I know of the members*. To be fair, I'll look up the spelling of their names, and also include a picture. Then I'll tell you what I know about them, which in some cases is jack.

*The matter of members is a bit confusing for me sometimes, as members are part of SJ in different capacities, and also some members are absent because they are serving in the Korean army as per the requirement of their country.

I'll go in SuperShow poster order. Also, I've pillaged the internet for these pictures because I thought visual aids would help. For this reckless usage I apologize to the internet. Find more with google!

 Kyuhyun sang "Isn't She Lovely" as his solo and is totally charming. He's officially one of my favorites. There's also something about his face (his mouth) I really like (since you wanted to know that). His costume was Steve Jobs, and apparently he is also a bit of a video game nerd? He's adorable.

Sungmin is a cutie, and is most memorable to me for the fantastic figure he cut as Marilyn Monroe during the costume bit. His solo was a Korean song I don't know, so it was pretty but I wasn't as engaged. Yeah, mostly all I remember is that he's a babe, and made an excellent Marilyn.

 Shindong is really fun. In some of the older videos ELove showed me, he is chubby and has a terrible haircut, but in the concert itself he looked great. He's possibly the least girly of the members (so this may be why he's always the one in a dress... or that could be because he is one of the most comical), and his solo was, I shit you not, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (remixed of course). His costume was Britney Spears, and he also played the Julie Andrews part in their Sound of Music skit. He's a pretty badass dancer, though to me his face tends to look worried or concerned/confused.

 Eunhyuk, known also as Hyukee, sang a song we're calling "What's My Name?" because it required the crowd to scream his name back at him at regular intervals. The actual title roughly translates to something along the lines of "I am radiant gem handsome man Lee Hyukjae." His costume was a big white chicken. Eunhyuk does a lot of the writing and rapping and is apparently very talented.

Siwon, famous for his eyebrows,  his abs, and his love for Jesus, is not one of ELove's favorites. He does come off as a bit arrogant, but then again, he's a pop star! I personally found him delightful. Did I mention the abs? His costume was Superman, and his solo at the show was a church song, I kid you not. And while "Moves Like Jagger" might fly with Japanese audiences because, though it's in English, those into popular music would recognize the tune, church songs do not enjoy the same kind of fame in Japan. They didn't get it, but us gaijin girls sure did. Also, have you heard about this guy's abs?

Donghae is a ladies' man, and it's easy to see why. I like his face too! His solo was more of a duo (I won't say duet.. it wasn't a love song) with his biffles Eunhyuk, and we'll call it "The Rise of Oppa," oppa being the Korean term (so I'm taught) that younger females say to older males that means something along the lines of the Japanese sempai... like higher-ranking male person, or big-brother. It's a term of respect and apparently girls yell it at their concerts a lot.

Leeteuk  is the leader of the band, and I think he's a hottie. Some fans are concerned about what will become of the band when he has to go into the army. He's a really hard worker; you know how I feel about that. <3 His solo was "She," and I don't remember as much about it.

Yesung, nicknamed "The Creeper," (but for this we have an affinity)... he was Chuckie for the crazy costumes bit, and his solo was "Kiss Me." I don't really remember it either.

Ryeowook, or "Wookie" is one of the main singers with (in my opinion) the most recognizable voice. His face is really small, and he's a bit too pretty, but his solo "Moves Like Jagger" was super hot so he earned extra points in my book there. He also dressed as Gollum. Nice. [note upon editing: I just realized why his face bothers me. He really resembles one of my students -- a fifth grader who is always calling me Willy Wonka and attempting to learn curse words]

Heechul was not present physically, though he was included in one song ("Oops!") via the giant video screen; everyone saluted him, as he's currently off being in the military. He's one of the most famous members, and several concertgoers were dressed up as "Lady HeeHee" - his rendition of Lady Gaga - in his honor.

 Zhoumi - a member of Super Junior M, the subgroup formed for the business of touring in China, Zhoumi is a Chinese member who is super cute and has shoulder dance moves that no straight man could hope to do. He sang for his solo "Because of You" by Kelly Clarkson and got lots of love from Elove.

 Henry - possibly my favorite, Henry is Canadian and also part of Super Junior M (and not the 'main group'). I know he looks like he thinks he is cool in this photo, but mostly he is adorable. His solo was a sort of Bruno Mars medley in which he sang "Billionaire," "Lazy Song," and "Lighters." I got to see him play the piano and the violin.

The members also vary in their performance styles and talents. Some of them have great voices, and others are better at dancing. One or two of them do a lot more rapping than the others. This has caused them to coalesce into subgroups within the main group.. for example, "KRY" (Kyuhyun, Ryeowook, and Yesung) is known for doing ballads. There are also the groups Super Junior T, Super Junior Happy, and as mentioned, Super Junior M.

If you want more, I'm going to attach below ELove's video suggestions (again with the reckless pilfering.. but I like her commentary!). Enjoy. ^_^

Super Junior Main:

Sorry Sorry Answer:

Don't Don (ooooold and everyone has Final Fantasy hair. Also Henry might make a cameo!):

No Other (aka the music video where Heechul is replaced by a pod person):

Super Junior M:

Me (everyone is adorable! especially Zhou Mi) (this vid has English subs cause I couldn't find the Chinese version on SM's official channel. I cannot vouch for how good they are):

U (everyone is hot and improves on the original. Also features Henry doing the violimbo ):

Super Girl (the Super Junior M song.  Zhou Mi makes eyes, you wish you were a gay man):

Super Junior T:

Super Junior Happy:


Well, it's Christmas Eve, and I'm doing all manner of things to get ready to go, finish up last minute stuff before heading out to the great south-east of Asia for warmth and relaxation at last. My living room is a maze of laundry, the new-year cards need to be finished, and I still haven't really packed (but I did get my passport photos at MaxValu, and my airport bus tickets from Lawson!)

Outside all day I've been hearing whistles and shouts, and I thought it was construction on the road, but silly me, I forgot, it's Christmas Eve and that means the entire town is stopping by the cake shop across the street to get their traditional Japanese Christmas cakes. I had Christmas cake last night. Tried to tell the kids we do cookies where I'm from. C'est la vie.

I'm going to try to put some music or movies on my kindle for the plane ride, which is longer than I always figure it'll be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior

It's finally here: Wednesday. I've been looking longingly at this day on the calendar since sometime last week when I realized what was happening on that pattern of numbered squares. It's a desk day, a nothing but do as you will you little ALT you day (oh, and o-souji), after weeks and weeks of classes and lesson planning and elementary and children being horrible brats and snide comments and terrorizing each other and I need a vacation for the love of God...

As usual, there's a lot going on. A lot of fun things, a lot of exciting things, a lot of tiring, tedious things, a lot of normal things, daily grind things, online course-taking things (did I mention that my TEFL course has been both more interesting and helpful, and also more demanding of me than I predicted it would be?).

I just checked to make sure my flights are all in order (that is, that I actually do have tickets for all the different flights I thought I had tickets for). Now I'm putting all the info on to one handy page, registering with the travel website of the US, and trying to generate a packing list.

But when I say there's a lot going on, it isn't all just out there in the physical world.. I also mean inside my head. It's been a bit of a mess in there lately. I don't mean to complain, but I do mean to be honest. I've been riding right up on the edge of a nice toasty meltdown.

A lot of it has to do with my ever more precarious position, timewise. As the weeks go by, things shift more and more. Everything becomes a game of now or never. I look outside and I resent having to leave this place. I look down and can't wait to get out. I say, it's my third year, so that means I have to go. "They've changed the contract," my fellow ALTs tell me, "look, you can stay up to five years, now."

Five years, three years: neither one is really permanent. The more I learn and the better I get at my job, the more frustrating become the confines of the system within which I am wrapped. They don't know what I mean when I say, it's my third year, so I have to go.

It feels connected to an inner need to own something, or build something, rather than just subsist comfortably between the lines of what the teachers expect and the students enjoy.

You can always tell a Dutchman, but you can't tell him much. When I arrived, I was daunted because the shoes were bigger than my feet, but the more I learn about language, about teaching, the more I wish I could run the city's English program (does it officially have one?), design its curriculum, lay out its calendar, and direct its activities. I want to do things my way, but not just my things. I want to be in charge of the entire affair, albeit in small scale. I would say, let me open a language school, but there are already plenty of those. Besides, I want it to be available publicly, to everyone; I want the English classes already happening four times a week to really accomplish something. I want to go at it in a systematic and real way, I want someone to see what a multi-layered approach to foreign language education starting in elementary school and pursued in earnest can really do. I mean, you'd have kids, like, fuckin'... speaking English and shit!

My dreams and desires are too big for my pigeonhole. So even though I like my salary, and I love my school (I seriously think my particular position is one worthy of envy) for its wonderful students and excellent fellow staff members and sweet new building, and I like my apartment, and I like my ALT friends, and my travel opportunities, and my Japanese townies and their gifts and their pets, and my Japan seasons and small town life, I don't like my job anymore, and I honestly think that for that reason, someone else will do a better job than me next year. Because they'll be excited to teach Halloween or whatever cultural holiday, and I skipped it entirely this year. Because I'm tired of fighting fourth graders, and enduring exuberant shouts of "gaikokujin!" (though it is pretty friggin cute that a four-year-old is able to include the "koku" part of that word... it's much more polite that way) I'm tired of "harro" and "ohashi jouzu," and all the stares and trepidation I encounter when I try to deal with people that don't know me.

And I'm tired too of missing holidays, family gatherings, weddings, funerals, parties, and babies. I'm tired of telling kids about holiday traditions in which I don't get to participate this year, and furthermore, knowing that they don't quite get it, because you don't know what it's like unless you're there, and moreover, there again and again every year. What is Halloween really like? How can I simulate or explain the experience of trick-or-treating, costumes, and also how your Halloween evolves from age 5 to 15? What is the true meaning of Christmas, especially to a roomful of Shinto-Buddhists?

I'm not part of Japan, not really, and in many ways never can be. In other ways, it could be a matter of time. Language barriers shift, weaken, and in some sectors come down, but in others they remain annoyingly in the way. But I'm not part of the lives of the people back home either; how much does anyone really know or understand about how my life goes on a normal basis, about what annoys, delights, gratifies, or frightens me? About what I enjoy, what I'm grateful for, what I need, and what I want? And what do I know about what it's like to be over there now? That feeling of disconnect has been approaching fever pitch.

I've complained before about people who say they want to start on their "real lives," how I think being here is just as real and just as part of life as going back home to a non-existent job and a bigger picture. But I do have to admit that there are a lot of things that are on hold while being here. This is another case of totaling up the little things -- each on-hold item is not a big deal by itself, but enough of them, and for long enough, starts to tip the balance over. Professionally and personally speaking, I can see the way the scales have slid, and I know it's time to go (relatively).

But I still hate to have to.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


About a month and a half ago, I was invited by the lady who runs the place where I rent my car to attend a fancy French dinner at her house, cooked by a chef visiting from Tokyo. She explained that they would have a bunch of friends over, and that a few of the ALTs of Shiso were already planning to come, and that I should also invite Lauren if I liked, but to let them know because they needed to know numbers in advance, for the chef of course.

Of course. And I thought, why the hell not, I like food, and I like when someone else cooks it for me, and I’m always up to get out my normal eating habits which consist mostly of eating at Laputa, eating at Namphu, or making pancakes. I wrote “fancy French feast” in my planner. It was going to be pricey as dinners go (well not really; I live in the countryside, so to me, thirty bucks is pricey), but once I arrived and tasted the (insert fancy French word here) I knew it was well worth it. We chatted with some accountants who do the books for the car people, and I noted that one of them was kind of cute (he was also wearing a jacket of my favorite color), but being moderately attractive in small town Japan pretty much means you have been married for five years. I marveled at Sam’s ability to communicate despite having no Japanese.

Once dinner ended, the chef came out and performed magic tricks for us, then left. It was fun and entertaining and I thought, well this was a nice evening. I thought that was that, and we would just chat a bit more and go home. Oh naivety.

Once the chef was gone, the hostess turned to the tallest Australian present and asked him what kind of woman he’s into. I thought that was kind of a funny question for various reasons, but he gave a ridiculous answer. She passed the question to the next person. And that was when I looked around me and realized there were exactly six girls and six boys at the dinner party, not counting the family of the hostess. I was at a singles party.

I’ve heard about these things in Japan, where people will throw sort of singles mixers with the intent that attendees will pair off in some way. I recalled that in our self-intros we also all included our age and occupation (occupation is kind of a normal self-intro thing I guess). We went on talking about these things for maybe close to an hour before we concluded the evening with assenting to allowing the hostess to give out our phone emails to the other guests.

They had another party several weeks ago, one month after the first one, but I didn’t attend. I also never got a list of phone emails or I might have attempted to type “what up” in Japanese to the accountant in the green jacket.

But then someone emailed me, gave their first name, cited the dinner party, said “I would be happy if you would talk to me more about your country,” and asked to meet me for coffee. I knew some of the last names of the people, but there was no way I had retained anyone’s first name. I could have asked, but instead I just went with it. I considered it for fun, like a blind date, only not. I ended up with lunch plans with one of the people I had met at the party.. but which one? I held out hope for the 37-year-old accountant, but thought it was probably the funny guy with glasses in the sweater (also acceptable).

Well, Saturday came, I went to the restaurant, asked for a table for two, and waited. I was joined at the booth by none other than one of the women from the party. Oh man. I thought “talk to me about your country” was just casual talk for “let’s get together, eh?” But she actually meant it. Disappointingly enough, it wasn’t really even a gay date, as by the end of it we were talking about boys anyway.

I had waited to write this post about it because I wanted to have the secret revealed for the semi-blind date identity!

Luckily, she works with the green-jacket guy. Yoroshiku, ne?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Merry Me a Little

Love me just enough.

When I found this, I thought I was hitting the Engrish jackpot, all the Starbucks workers wearin' their red t-shirts, all of them emblazoned with "let's merry" in capital letters.

But, it turns out, it's just an international campaign.

Oh well!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Temple Two For One: Kyoto City (Again)

Went to Kyoto last weekend, to get my fourth and fifth temple stamps, and also to visit "Mickie," and to get out of good old Shiso for a little bit. It turned out to be a pretty wonderful weekend overall. Mickie and I discovered yuzu white choco bagels in the bakery under her apartment (she has a wonderful apartment! ... check her out at shisopretty). We had dinner with Nami and Hiroshi. We walked with Lauren and Jimmy along streets lines with trees in their full autumn fire. This was almost by mistake, as it wasn't planned to be a fall foliage trip (though it was a lot more fun than last year's fall foliage Kyoto trip I took). Mickie also took me to Heian Shrine, and we went through the garden.
Heian Shrine garden
My camera was broken and in the shop for that weekend as well, but I discovered that my phone takes pretty decent pictures, so I got a few on there. I also managed to get a lot of Jimmy's photos.

The two temples I was able to visit on this trip were completely different places, and it's pretty amazing that they are so close together on the list and in the city.

The first was number 16, Kiyomizudera. One of the biggest and most famous temples in Japan, a must-see of Kyoto, and destination of countless tourists (both Japanese and international). Kiyomizu was having a nighttime light-up of the fall color; normally you can't get in after about 5pm, but for this event you could. It's great to see Kyoto from the Kiyomizu stage at night, with its lights below.

I wasn't even sure if the pilgrim stamp window would be open, but it didn't bother me too much to think it might not be.. Kiyomizu is another temple I've been to several times and will probably visit again. It's always beautiful, and always crowded, also. I daydream of going on a regular weekday, one day, when I don't have a job anymore.

Needless to say, the evening was full of people, and I did manage to get my seal somewhere in the mix. The lady at the window was surprised to see that I was actually in line for the right thing (I can recognize the kanji for the pilgrim stuff.. which is a good thing, because it's not well marked in English). We sort of pushed our way through, enjoyed the awesomeness of the beauty of the place and its incredible leaves (it's gorgeous), and then escaped back into the city in time for a late dinner with Nami.

Last time I was at this temple, I went through the pitch dark tunnel and drank from the spring that gives the place its name, but there are still a lot of little things around the grounds I haven't visited or tried yet, so I hope to next time I go up there.

The second temple that was visited the following day could not have been more different. As it was less overwhelming, I have more distinct memories attached to it. This was Kodo, temple 19 of the pilgrimage, the only one on the route run exclusively by nuns.

There's a small shrine to creative arts in the corner of the grounds, and this temple also is home to one of the shrines to Seven Lucky Gods (those 'seven dwarf' like creatures we see a lot). There were two old ladies in the front desk booth area, one with smart old-lady lipstick. As surprised as the lady at Kiyomizu was that I was in the right line, the lady here was shocked that I could understand her instructions on how to light my incense sticks.

All in all, the weekend was a beautiful gift!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The "fake" PEPY Ride and Engyoji again

The bike ride got postponed for all-day rains on November 19th. The caused us to lose most of our ride population. Over the last few years, we've had around 17 or 19 people every time. This fall we had 6.

But for the one-day reprieve, I was secretly relieved. I was sick with a cold after KobeConference, and the last thing I wanted on Saturday the 19th was to drag my ass out of bed into the rain to lead a bike ride. So I happily did chores, laid around, coughed a lot, and did some work online on things on Saturday, and felt much more ready Sunday to take on Himeji Riiiide.

Unfortunately, I was camera-less even then, though I did have my phone (which takes, it turns out, fairly decent photos!), so I don't have a huge album of ride photos like I do from previous events.

From Himeji Ride November 2011

Honestly, with only 6, this was the smallest (and chillest) ride I've ever been on (or led). We biked in leisurely fashion from Himeji Station up to Shosha. Engyoji, the temple on top of Mt. Shosha, is the 27th temple of my pilgrimage. And to me, it felt like a real pilgrimage. At least much more than driving would have, anyway. Under my own physical power, I pushed up to that mountain. Climbed it too!

From Himeji Ride November 2011

Compared to other temples on the route, Engyoji is basically my backyard. I've been there many times before, and will likely go again; Engyoji is an old friend.

This time, I was armed with a little more information (thanks to about the things I'd been seeing and wondering about for years, especially those images lining the path up the hill that we always climb. They are models of all the 33 images at the 33 Kannon temples of the pilgrimage!

For example, from a spring ride.
From Himeji Riiiiiide

The fall color was pretty nice, and it was Momiji Matsuri (Maple Festival), so a lot of buildings were open that are normally closed to public view. It was also 3-5-7 Day down in Himeji, so we got to see a lot of adorable children in their finest duds.

As we climbed the mountain, we saw the sacred hymn of this temple written on a rock about halfway up. The climb and bike ride combined pretty much killed my knee, but I've recovered by now.

Engyoji is temple 27 on the circuit, and it was my third stamp-and-seal attended temple. Unlike the other temples, where I was a guest and curious onlooker, at Engyoji I am a regular pro. I am shy at the other temples, but here I waltz right in and start chatting (silently) with Buddha. Engyoji, unlike the other temples, speaks back to me quickly and easily, the way you can shout a brief message to someone you know well as they hurry out the door, but it would be rude to do that to someone you just met. Engyoji, unlike the other temples, gives me a response and an injunction. I light my incense, take my message, ask my question, get my answer, and go on to finish leading my bike tour.

It was a gorgeous day, lots of sunshine, everything clean from the previous day's rain. I suppose I would call it more of a personal success than a fundraising goal-meeter, but that's how it sometimes goes.

A Walk in Uruka

Well, it's been a while since I've written. At first, I decided it was because I didn't have anything to write about. Which is pretty much a lie. The other reason is that I haven't had time to, which is at least a little true.

I'm going to do a post soon about the autumn bike ride, which was also a pilgrimage stop for me, but today I'd like to just catch up on the little things.

So it's autumn. Unfortunately, my camera is in the shop (I am starting to regret the model I bought.. takes nice photos, but not tank-sturdy to survive life in my purse, apparently?), so I don't have a huge album of autumn leave shots. This year has been weird on that front anyway. It stayed warm far longer than usual, even though there were snaps of what felt like bitter cold, it's really not as chilly even today as December ought to be.

So the fall color has been a little off, a little spotty, a little confused and confusing.

Today, I don't have any classes, so I get to (gratefully) spend a day doing whatever I need to. Last night, I bought bus tickets to Kyoto at the Lawson's near where we have adult English class, and the attendant gave me the receipt but not the tickets themselves. So I had to go back today to get them. The difference there is, last night I had a car, this morning I came by bus.

So I shrugged, put on my jacket against the wind, and walked off to the convenience store. It's not really that far, and it was nice to walk. It's cloudy and sunny in stages, the wind affecting the change. I have things to do, but would rather not spend ALL day at my desk organizing, studying, and otherwise driving myself deskmad.

As I set off, I looked across the river and noticed some bursts of red and yellow on the far mountainside. That part of town is called Uruka, and I've never been over there before. So after I picked up my tickets, on the walk back, I crossed the Uruka bridge and took a stroll through that area, drawn by the beacon of the red maples on the hillside. I thought, maybe it's a momiji park, like the momiji mountain in Yamasaki.

Wervs in autumn

Uruka, it turned out, was just like any other section of Shiso. Idyllic, Shire-like, regal, dusty, faded, sparkling, worn-out, poor. Laundry out in the chill wind, old people occasionally going by on foot or bike. Dogs barking from behind stone walls. Small momiji and winter rose, yuzu trees, rice fields littered with trash both organic and not.

Yuzu are the yellow fruits.

I am drawn by momiji even more inexorably than I am by the sakura of spring, because I identify more with the autumn leaves. Sakura are pretty, but I feel like the maples are my siblings. I admire the beauty of the blossoms, but there is something even richer to me about the maturity of the momiji's "bloom."

What was important about this walk was the freedom that it required. I walked right out of school and down to Lawson, on an errand, a mission. The teachers knew I was headed there and even knew why (because when I left without my tickets, the Lawson staff called the school.. it's funny actually, because in buying the tickets I mistakenly thought I needed the help of the staff, and ended up with two people watching me handle the ticket machine myself. They good-naturedly asked me about my home and job, so that is how they knew I worked at this school, and were able to call the school and tell my teachers to tell me I needed to come get my tickets!).

But sometimes, even on non-class days, or non-class times of days, I feel chained to my desk, like there's nowhere I can go. But today I thought, if I wanted to, I could just pop into a little cafe, have a cup of coffee, read a book for an hour, and who would it hurt? Who would mind that? They didn't notice or mind that I was missing far longer than it takes to walk to Lawson (which is ridiculous in the first place-- who WALKS to Lawson from here?!) as I took my stroll through Uruka.

The trees, it turned out, are like many things in Japan, and just there, sort of in someone's yard, sort of just on the side of the mountain owned by no one.
It wasn't a park, or a shrine, or anything like that, although there was a temple nearby..

It's nice to get out, sometimes.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Plz Send $$"

I just discovered this online presentation creator (that kind of kicks the shit out of my beloved PowerPoint).

So I was trying to avoid making a poster about this and made a prezi instead.

Please enjoy!

Want Your Money

It's my first one, so if it looks like it was made by a monkey on drugs, I am sorry. I predict I will use it in the future to better effect.

This one is basically for my eikaiwa class Thursday night, and to pitch at anyone with more money than they need!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Em writes things...

I have decided to try to do a little more networking between all the different things I write in different places. So, I'ma share this too!

You'll get some more on PEPY in the coming we prepare to take a tour with them in Cambodia (as opposed to lead one in Himeji)!

PEPY Ride Hyogo (aka, the article I write like every six months to promote my bike ride event)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Flowers from the Dead

I was going to write about these some time ago, then I totally forgot.

Things I like in Japan: the Death Flowers.

I like how this one came right through the crack in the pavement.

I'm not entirely sure whether they are flowers for the dead, or flowers from the dead. I think maybe they are flowers from the dead, rather, because of their timing, and the way they just appear seemingly uncultivated at the edges of things.

The edges of fields, for example.

I first saw them my first year, and when I pointed them out to Nami and told her I wanted to put some in a vase, she advised me not to give them to anyone, because they were connected with death! I later heard that they are called higanbana in Japanese, and that there may be a superstition about them involving fire as well.

Near the river rocks I just found in September.

You can read a touch more about them here; as for me, I was struck by their sudden, quiet ubiquity just around the time of the equinox. So they are associated with the death of a season, or because they line graveyards. But they line other things too, whether by accident or by design, I cannot say. They bloom along the edges of things, by paths and fields, the out of the way places where people do not dig or tread. They also look weird, these lilies opening their petals so far, they look inside-out as flowers.

More higanbana by the river.

And they seem like flowers from the dead, to me, because they crop up following the holiday season of Obon, the festival of the dead in Japan, where ancestors drop in for a visit, then are sent back to the spirit world. Graves are visited, cleaned, and rites are tended. A few weeks later, these flowers appear as if to say thanks for the nice party, we enjoyed it, and we got back home all good.

More higanbana, some of them fading, along the edges of a rice field.

Then as quickly and quietly as they appear, the flowers disappear. And summer is over, and fall begins.

Monday, October 31, 2011

I write things...

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kagoshima by the Skin of my Teeth

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

October 7th, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m afraid the 10am boat is sold out.

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

That one is also sold out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's how I did Yakushima! 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From 2011_10_18

Fuck yes, I say.