Thursday, April 21, 2011


I’m killing the calendar like I killed my bank account last month.

I’ve written two posts about the changes this year, but they just turned out to be unhappy, stressed-out rants. I also wanted to wait til at least my first day at Big Elementary (which was today) to make that kind of sweeping statement.

It’s hard, though, to have to be so flexible sometimes. Especially, I think, when you’ve scorched both ends off the calendrical candle. It’s hard to prepare for anything in a limited amount of time with a limited amount of patience; it’s hard to depend on nothing.

Today could have been a little better. It also could have been a shite sight worse.

I will write a more balanced report of the changes thrust upon me by the springtime’s arrival. But I also want to give an account of where I’ll be for the next few weeks, so if I vanish entirely, you’ll know why.

Right now, I’m sitting at a desk in Big Elementary. It was cold this morning, but right now it’s effing gorgeous. The office smells like coffee brewing. I borrowed a large piece of scrap paper so I could write down everything I have to do in the forseeable future (from “taxes” to “plan young teachers’ enkai”). The rationale being, if it’s on the paper, I can put it out of my head.

There is a lot of shit on this paper. I then color-code highlightered it, with orange for “by the end of today” and pink for “by the end of Friday” and yellow for “before the 30th.” Everything unhighlighted can wait til after Golden Week.

This weekend will be Osaka, going to the Tigers Game (basebaaaall!) then staying out all night, probably, then going to see Kabuki on Sunday. Business as hold-on-to-your-butts usual, Monday to Thursday, then Friday the 29th is a meeting for Hyogo Times (no school that day), along with a bunch of stuff that is for-fun, like Infiorata Kobe and I think a Shorinji Kempo hanami or something. The 30th, we leave for Okinawa, and I don’t come back til Sunday the 8th!

This stuff isn’t all stressful because it’s required. It’s all stressful because it’s voluntary and much of it is supposed to be fun. And almost all of it will actually be fun. It’s just getting all the other stuff done before the fun starts that’s a pain in the ass!

And I mean… it really is all voluntary. Why do I feel it is important or necessary to continue studying Japanese out of a textbook that I KNOW is less than superior? Why do I bother to benkyou at all? To be honest, that is one of the first things to fall off the schedule.. and it’s for that very reason that today, it’s the next thing I will do.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shiso fine, there's no telling

It's been really weird, the money thing, this month. My phone got shut off (just for a day, until I realized that is what was going on); the gas company called to let me know my account was too low for them to draw out the bill. Most of this was just mismanaging. I have two accounts, one that the BOE set up for me, which it the one my paychecks go into, and all my bills come out of. The other is the one I set up myself is a PostBank account, because it does transfers more easily and cheaply, and which is accessible in all of Japan (the BOE one is rather local).

So I often take a bunch of money out of my local account and move it to my Postal account every so often. After I have a lot of extra in the Post account, I wire it to the US.

It's not a well-kept science, and it's not something I do with great regularity or precision. It's just sort a flow-situation, and I keep an eye on it.

After I paid for spring break, and bought plane tickets for my two fellow JETs for spring break, I thought that was the tightest part, and it would be alright as soon as they paid me back. But it turned out that wasn't so. I was confused: where did the money go?

But I know, now, where it went. It went into the fact that I had no backup, having just sent a bunch to the US. After payday, I "manned up" three times, which shorts me 300 bucks from my normal mental calculation. It went to the fact that although my friends paid me for their tickets, they were not paying for mine. Spring break train tickets were 400. Golden Week plane tickets were 365. Throw in my two hospital visits of about 150 each, and there we were, scraping the bottom of the bank account.

The funny thing is, I know how to live poor. Part of my mind assumes that we all do, because we were all young-adults once, just starting out, but I realize it doesn't always work that way. Some people were never poor; some people's parents bankrolled them through difficulty or laziness and didn't cut them off even when they had jobs. That's how, I guess, some people I have known could be "so broke" and still buy $400 purses. To me, things like that never made sense. If you didn't have the money, you learned to go without.

Not without everything, of course, but without those things you want. Without expensive dinners and without ice cream, without the extras, without so many presents and prizes and new shirts. I never, not even when I was scratching a living out of a meager schedule in collegetown Kansas, had less than I needed. But I frequently had less than I wanted, or less than other people might have. Nothing for it but to tighten your belt and soldier on toward the future in which you won't have to worry about things like that.. which I did, and here I am, most of the time.

They say JETs are overpaid, and in some ways, we are. Exchange rates being what they are, we're living the sweet life, subsidized, making yen. A frugal JET could pay off college loans and save a good bit. A JET who wants to see Japan and make more of their time here might save a little less.

I guess this month's budget crisis has been interesting. After my first several paychecks, I started to believe I could just afford whatever I wanted to do around here, and in large part that is still true. I've grown indulgent: I get the ice cream, I get the extras when I feel like them, sort of just because I can, and that's pretty new for me. I am getting the HPV vaccine because, even though I think they are considering it optional and therefore not under insurance and it is therefore pricey, I can afford it. I can afford to go to Okinawa for Golden Week, and on some weekend trip.

But not today! Tomorrow's payday, and if I stay honest (that is, if I don't borrow against the cash stashes), I am down to my last $20 or so in my pocket (I have a bit more in the bank, since I dropped some in there after my bills stopped getting paid >.<). I'm eating leftovers and puttering in the garden and taking walks, thank you very much!

Tomorrow, there's a dinner planned, a sort of hey-it's-payday thing, plus everyone is going to settle their debts (M put down deposits for Okinawa rooms, people owe me for baseball game next weekend, gas and parking money, etc.). My first impulse was to not attend the dinner because I can't afford it. By then, I'll be able to afford it, but I don't switch so quickly and easily from one mindset to the other. If I cut it so close this month, I have to be more careful next month. Obviously. And that does not mean going to expensive dinner events just because our checks just hit the bank.

But I think I will go.. it's spring, which means our leaving JETs are leaving before you know it. I will hate it when they go. So I may not attend the PTA dinner the following Thursday, instead.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sakura, Sakura

Sakura in Japan is a big deal.

In English, we say “cherry blossom” for the flower, and “cherry” for the fruit. The fruit is the thing; the blossom is just how you get there. In Japanese, precedence goes the other way: the blossoms are sakura, and the cherries perhaps later produced are sakuranbo, the natural result of having sakura. But sakuranbo, I should mention, aren’t as big or juicy or sweet as the imported American big-ass cherry, or black cherry, or whatever.

First blooms, school driveway.
From Hanami 2011
But what makes the sakura so damn special? Why does it become the flavor of every consumable food and drink imaginable ‘ere springtime approacheth? Why does the weather start to carry bloom forecasts along with sun and rain? Japan loves the sakura for a number of reasons. One is the brevity of the blossoms: sakura blooms in an area for about one week before the petals start to drop. It’s kind of symbolic of the preciousness of youth and beauty, how shit fades really fast, and you gotta enjoy it while it’s there. I think the other reasons are that it signals the start of real spring. Sakura opens when the sun makes it warm enough, so normally, sakura time is open-windows, outside into the sunshine time.

From Hanami 2011

Last year, hanami season was right after I returned from spring break in warm sunny Okinawa. Last year, hanami season was cold as a bitch. We bundled up in coats and gloves and shivered in the dark outside Himeji-jo, snagging some good photos just before the castle went under tarps, and then hurried home to turn on heaters and crawl under blankets.

Himeji Castle hanami, 2010.
From Hanami

Hanami is supposed to be lying back on blankets, setting up BBQ pits on riverbanks, sipping sake in the warm sunshine (or in the evening, under lamplit trees). It’s supposed to be the way people enjoy the lovely warmth of spring.

From Hanami 2011

Last year, I didn’t really get into sakura season, partly because I returned from Okinawa and everything was in full bloom, and it’s only downhill from there. I was too busy with the new school year and post-vacay catchup to really go and enjoy them, plus there was the Cold of Winter-Ling’ring. I preferred, I found, the new-formed leaves of later spring, the robust appearance of the healthy living green that covered the hillsides after hanami-season was over.

Kagoshima, Yoshino Park
From 2011_04_02
But this year, it’s a little different. I spent spring break in Kagoshima, where at the time sakura was just blooming down there. Sakura bloom moves like a wave over Japan, starting down in Okinawa in like February, and moving up to Hokkaido by May. They’re blooming now around here, with the ones higher up in the mountains in full bloom maybe today, while the stuff closer to sea level was full-bloom about last weekend.

Center Ichinomiya
From Hanami 2011

Those gnarly, unimpressive trees draw the sap up from where they sent it to hide during the effing-cold of the winter months and their very first act is an explosive orgiastic excess of pale pink petals. The landscape is bare except for evergreens, the last of the plum blossoms, and then the ridiculous fervor of the sakura, branches nearly invisible beneath the blanket of blossoms.

From Hanami

They’re thick with the blooms, like cloud puffs of light pink. It goes well with the light blue of the sky, really. So this year, I like the sakura. I like looking out the window of the bus and seeing them like signatures across the mountainsides. I like the way they are just everywhere, their visual mating call resounding, each to each, as they line roads, riverbanks, fields. You don’t have to go to a festival or special place to ‘view’ them, because they’re along the driveway to work, and they’re along the river that the road follows north, and they’re in your neighbor’s yard.

And just as suddenly and madly as they bloom, they fade, petals fall like warm snow, get swept into eddies and canals, and dust the edges of paths.

From Hanami
From Hanami

Something else I like about sakura (this year) is the way that some of the trees are little and puny, some are like regular trees, and others are clearly masters of their respective areas. Last weekend, I spent Sunday riding the Himeji Riiide route with Illustrator JET to make sure we had that nailed flat (conscientious? you bet!), and I spent Saturday on a mini-roadtrip to Yabu with three other Shisonians. Our pilgrimage was to go see a sakura tree that is 1,000 years old.

You'd need scaffolding too, if you were a thousand.
From Hanami 2011
A thousand! This tree was around before.. before.. well, before lots of things! I love the idea of living things that are so old. They call it the Oya Daizakura (or is it O-zakura? I dunno) and it’s a monster of a tree, a huge sprawling thing, pretty in a sort of massive, oddly-shaped kind of way. The tree, sadly, was not in full bloom, being a bit higher up in elevation than the Himeji trees, but it was a great roadtrip and we packed a hell of a good picnic, and made several stops along the way there and back. The rules of the roadtrip were, each person in the car has to call for at least one stop (only one?) along the way there or back, at any place, be it combini for supplies, shrine that looks interesting, the dam that holds up the reservoir in Haga…

Hello picnic! We failed to bring utensils, so we ate the chicken salad by scooping it with bread or spinach leaves.
From Hanami 2011

On the path in Himeji, pre-PEPY-ride with the Illustrator.
From Hanami 2011

So overall, it was a good and exhausting weekend. I prefer to take my hanami on the road, because I feel like I see more, and I like the idea that I’m not just sitting, but moving through the picture. I biked from Himeji station to Taiyo Park and back again on a free rental bike (courtesy of Himeji tourism office) in flip-flops, while the riverbanks below the bike path played host to a hundred blossom-gazers and  their kids wading in the water and their uncles grilling on the BBQ pit. The smells were intoxicating. “It’s like Memorial Day weekend,” I observed to the Illustrator, “only not so damn hot out.”

 Click on any of the above photos to go to the full albums, including gratuitous overphotography of blossoms, and of the thousand-year sakura, and other spring things.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My Morning Hospital Visit

Your first question will be the same thing Mikan-sensei asked when I called to let him know I'd be meccha late to work that day. "Are you okay? Are you sick?"

I'm okay, and I'm not sick. But there are a few things we Amurcan's get checkups for regularly that do not come standard on the teachers' round-robin summer health check, and I figured it was time to go collect my latest clean bill of health. Truth be told, I hadn't been for some stuff since college, when the health center was 'free' and right across the street. It was spring break, so there were no classes, and I could spend the entire morning waiting on hospital benches stress-free.

In Japan, women's health is a little bit difficult for me to understand. First of all, I did get some weird looks when I marched my little self on in there, complaining of no symptoms, no irregularities, no pain or possible STDs, and wanted to get a pap test. I was prepared for this, as I had read that women in Japan generally don't go to the gynecologist unless they are over 30, or married (and soon to be pregnant). But listen, y'all, where I'm from, this is a yearly thing.

So yearly, and so regular, in fact, that I didn't quite know what to ask for. "You want us to check for cancer?" they asked. "Um, yes..." and found myself at a loss as to what else to ask for. What does a pap smear even actually test for, other than that? All I wanted was to have the same-old regular procedure I used to get from the excellent and practical nursing staff at Vanderbilt University.

Well I knew it wasn't going to be that, exactly. Usually, ALTs around here go to a doctor in Osaka, because he's discreet, works on weekends, and speaks English; and in some ways, you go out of town for these things for the same reason you buy your underwear out of town, so that no one will see you do it and report your size and color preference to approximately everyone in town. But, heck, try turning up at your very local hospital where you are guaranteed to run into at least one student and their parent (check!) and asking for a test that young unmarried women just don't get. Congratulations, your infamy as a probable slutbucket has just been achieved.

But I'm of the mindset that I hide nothing because I have nothing to hide, so I smiled at that student and said hello, I did (plus it was just in the hospital entrance area, so his mom totally did not know why I was there in the first place).

But I digress. The actual visit was pleasantly complicated. Mostly I read my book in between visits from my de facto interpreter Hatch, who used to work for the BOE (before my time) who helped me fill out the kanji-laden forms. Here's the thing.. hospital terminology is ridiculous even in English, let alone Japanese. Hatch broke down the questions for me, but this meant she was asking out loud all those wonderful personal things you fill out on a gynecological form. Once again.. nothing to hide, hide nothing...

The exam itself was conducted in a weird chair, and the doctor had a ridiculously light touch (much like the doctor who handled Jermaine last year), which I believe to be because Japanese women are shy/delicate flowers. This is also the reason for the curtain between you and the doctor. It was over so fast, I got nervous that he wasn't actually doing the test I thought I was there to get. It was weird, but I was in a very "this WILL be weird so just roll with it so you can get your clean bill of health" state of mind, so I wasn't bothered. There was even a screen which displayed for me, from my perch, all manner of things in a black and white sonogram-looking manner. According to the doctor, who peered around the curtain at me for a moment and pointed to the screen, all that looked fine, and they'd be able to report on the cells by next week.

As I was getting ready to leave, I asked Hatch about checking for breast cancer as well. A general probing once-over was the norm in college, right after checking out your 'down there' parts, the nurse lady would give your girls a good feel, pronounce them fit, and send you on your way. Hatch said you have to make appointments for those things, so I figured I might as well look into it...

When we went downstairs, she said they could fit me in that day! I didn't realize what I was getting myself into, but figured it was better to check than not, given my family history. What I was in for was a breast exam unlike anything I'd ever experienced, and which most ladies under 35 have perhaps not undergone. First I had an actual mammogram from a sprightly nurse who wrestled both me and the machine, and crushed me up down and sideways until I wondered if the pain was really worth an official statement of what I already knew, but it was too late, I was half naked in front of a big machine and it was almost over... I next (waited for an hour and then) received an actual sonogram to check them out a different way.

All in all, it took forever, was weird, and cost as much as a weekend in Osaka. I was the youngest person in the breast exam line, and everyone probably thought, oh those 'Mericans and their paranoia, feelin' the need to get checked out every year!

But we do what we do, and it had been a while since I'd collected this particular type of clean-bill-of-health, so I wanted a new one. Plus I was feeling keen to sample a whole new kind of Japan experience. I think I'll skip the dentist, though.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring Break Kagoshima 2k11 (Wooo!)

Well it’s Wednesday, and we just had opening ceremony. I thought it was yesterday, but that was the send-off ceremony, basically graduation cryfest 2.0, in which we said goodbye to the leaving teachers and they all gave speeches. It was a good ceremony, not especially fun, but I’m starting to learn that life is change and you cannot keep a thing, although I am the type to keep every thing. (Sometimes it seems like my strategy never was to learn to let things go, but rather to develop the necessary musculature to just carry it all around forever.)

I jumped right into send-off ceremony after returning from Kagoshima; it was a pretty direct transition. After getting home at 10:30 rather than, like, 7, I went to bed, and had to get up early for work. How did I get so delayed, you may well ask.

The trains in Japan do run on time, and the train from Kagoshima takes a whopping 3 hours and 46 minutes with the connections I was taking. On the way down, it was 4 hours; I got on the Sakura, the Kyushu shinkansen now making trips about hourly up to Osaka and back. I wasn’t the only one with my camera out as the Sakura rolled into Himeji.

Sakura, Sakura...
From 2011_04_01

I spent the train trip wishing I had spent seven dollars less and gone without seat-reservation as the old lady next to me remained asleep and with the windowshade drawn for almost the entire trip. It was a lovely afternoon, and I actually found a seat elsewhere for part of it so I could stare out at the mountains.
When I arrived in Kagoshima, my first impression was that it’s an excellent city. The information booth ladies were helpful in extreme, and there was a cute Japanese man tap-dancing on a stage just outside the station, which area was covered in flowers. Flowers in planters, in baskets attached to poles, growing everywhere. It was warmer, of course, than Hyogo. 

From 2011_04_01

Manderines (Wervs) came to get me, and we took the bus back to her place so I could unpack the ridiculously heavy bag I had toted along (and which she saved me from dragging up a huge hill by coming on the bus, not the tram), full of random supplies and books and things. Grabbed dinner in a nearby Chinese place and chatted until bedtime.

Saturday morning we walked down past her school and caught a tram into the city. We got lost, and then found again by a nice older guy who informed us that there were free shuttles running from the Chuo station to Yoshino park, where there was a flower festival. We decided to check it out, and discovered a whole bunch of awesome in the warm (almost hot?!) sunny gardenscapes. We walked all over the park. Wervs won’t have any money for a while (having just arrived, and not yet paid), and since I just broke the bank on tickets for 3 to Okinawa (plus the shink to Kagoshima is in fact over $400 round trip), we were in the mood for cheap entertainment. The flower festival was also excellent. The sakura were blooming, and I found real Belgian-style white beer from a booth vendor. (I realize I have not yet posted about Hokkaido, but I swear my beer obsession is because of that winter visit)…

From 2011_04_02

Wervs in spring
From 2011_04_02

Sakura, Lem, and beer. HA NA MIII!
From 2011_04_02

From 2011_04_02
Guribu (Kagoshima mascot), wervsi, and Sakurajima in the background.
From 2011_04_02

Once we were good and tired, we returned to the station to get tickets for the sightseeing bus, which we took up to Shiroyama. We looked out and took some pictures of Sakurajima, and then I proposed a little walk down the mountain to the main road where we might catch a bus or tram back toward the station. It was a beautiful day still, and the walk was really nice. We ended up walking all the way back to the station, though, which was hell on feet/calves/shins, et al.

After eating some Kagoshima style ramen near the station, we opted to just take the bus home and crash out. The following day was for Sakurajima.

Sakurajima from the flower park.
From 2011_04_02

Sakurajima is the massive volcano dominating the city of Kagoshima. I had heard about it, but I didn’t understand what a big deal this thing is until I saw it myself. It’s a big ol’ mountain, visible from all over the city, which sometimes erupts. There had been like 323 eruptions so far this year when we visited. Mostly it’s just ash, although some historic eruptions have overwhelmed villages (yeah there are actually people living on Sakurajima) and in 1914, the island ceased to be an island and became a peninsula. Wervs has to watch out for dustfall, the ash that will drift her way apparently in the summer more than other times, settling on everything from people’s skin to laundry left out… gotta make sure to carry an umbrella and a mask around I guess! It’s just something people in Kagoshima live with.

Sakurajima from Shiroyama.
From 2011_04_02

We took the ferry, a 15 minute windy ride, and walked one of the shorter trails. Our poor abused legs rejoiced when at last we stuck them into the hot water of an open footbath. I long to partake of Kagoshima’s many onsen offerings, but alas I was in no condition to go. Next time!

This important rock marks the place where an islet was before the eruption made it just part of the main Sakurajima island.
From 2011_04_03

Footbaths, YES!
From 2011_04_03

After our short jaunt to Sakurajima, we had lunch at Dolphin Port, and met up with her friend and contact Yoshi. He drove us to Sengan-en, the villa and garden site of the Shimadzu clan, long-time lords of Kagoshima. We walked around and enjoyed the scenery there, and saw a cloud of ash over Sakurajima. Basically, the Shimadzu clan was a group of badasses who by turns fought with and secretly worked with various powerful groups (England, the Shogunate, etc.). Their villa, and also their city, is excellent (and just as flowerful as the station area would have you believe). Yoshi is a cool guy and I’m glad he’s in Kagoshima, and taking care of Manderines.

We stopped by a few stores on the way home, and actually made dinner, kinda, after a bit of confusion. We watched some Miyazaki until we passed out, because Yakushima, an island off Kagoshima, is said to be the inspiration for the forest in Princess Mononoke; I want to watch the rest because that movie is better than I remember.

Wervs pours herself a drink. On the floor by the fridge. <3
From 2011_04_03

Monday we took it easy, walked around, bought a bookshelf for Manderines’ apartment, and then I went on my way toward the station. Overall, it was a pretty nice spring break trip. It was weird to be reminded so vividly of what it was like to be where Wervs is, knowing and having so little, yet. I actually found myself toying with the notion of trying to live in Kagoshima for a little while.. maybe I can make an extended stay at some point… It’s not that I want to leave Hyogo, no, I want to stay in Hyogo forever too. The longer I live, the more lives I want.

Which brings us back to the trip home, and the way our high-speed train slowed to a crawl, then a stop, then sat in Hiroshima station for two hours while somewhere further up the line someone took care of “an accident with casualties” or something like that. At first I thought they were saying jishin, which is earthquake, and I was like, no way, an earthquake damaged the train line?! But then I realized they were saying jinshin. I suspect somebody jumped a train, which is a harrowing and saddening thought. And a weird note on which to end spring break.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Then I ran myself right out of money

I joked around with the idea of driving to Kagoshima this weekend, rather than taking the classy-world-traveler shinkansen. I mean, it's like a ten hour drive, and ~$125 or so in tolls, plus gas. Plus the rest of my sanity, of course. I'm already plotting a cross-continental USA [andCanada!] tour for when I return to America.. I'm going to have to stock up on snacks, CDs, podcasts, and maybe a new car.

I was only joking about Kagoshima, because honestly I was already kind of annoyed at the way it's going to be a four-hour train ride, which means what with the way I felt the need to come to work this morning, I won't get there til about dinnertime, and I'll have to rush a little even then (BUT, I have no right to complain.. they just finished the Kyushu shinkansen improvements, which are actually shaving more than two hours off my trip!). I came to work on time today because I thought I needed to impress the New Vice Principal (about the loss of the previous one, I am still kind of inconsolable, even though it's great that he went off and became a principal somewhere) but New VP isn't even here yet, and I'm thinking of leaving even earlier than planned. Because getting on my way for longer-distance travel always takes about twice as long as I want it to.

But the joke is on me, because, as I mentioned yesterday, I basically bullied everyone into making their plans for Golden Week (the 29th of April, 3rd, 4th, and 5th of May are all holidays). Which means payment for our airline tickets is due by tomorrow. But two of our companions are currently out of the country. I assured them I could cover their ticket cost until they get back and reimburse me, confident as I am in my nicely padded bank account. It was only after I chatted with a friend about her financial worries that it dawned on me that this might not be true.

I hurried home and managed to scrape together the cash for three plane tickets to Okinawa and train tickets to Kagoshima (the train is quite a bit more expensive, but I'm still unsure how I feel about flying.. or did I never actually finish writing that post?) only by raiding the secret caches of money I have hidden in my life and writing IOUs to the box of PEPY money that's been waiting for the spring fundraiser. And then I had to scrape up a little more for incidentals like the fact that the secretary approached me yesterday to collect on that party we all went to Monday night (was that really a hundred-dollar dinner? I guess..), and any hope I have of, like, eating, this weekend. I'm thanking my luck stars I'm staying with Manderines and not in a hostel, however low-budget!

And I made it, just barely, but I did. And I did not feel smug at all.
So today I logged into my bank account in the US, and then I felt a little better. I don't actually have a lot of money, but I do have a lot more than I ever had on my own before, so that's something. I also suspect that when the world ends in 2012, how much money you have won't matter much.