Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ichijo-ji, Temple 26

Well, the first day of spring was sunny and only a little chilly, so I took to the road, with a brief stop to gather a traveling companion, and we set out for Ichijo-ji, the 26th temple of the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.

I had forgotten everything I knew about pilgriming in the hiatus known as winter, so I missed out on a few of the offerings scattered around the temple grounds, and didn't conduct myself quite as protocol would have me do.

However, it was a pleasant day, and the things we did see were lovely, so I'll go over it nonetheless.

Ichijo-ji was situated in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It was possibly the first temple I have driven to on the pilgrimage, as the others have all been part of a larger trip or excursion (and even Engyo-ji, the closest one to my house, I biked to from Himeji station!). So we started from the parking lot, rather than the front gate, and that threw me off a bit.

The parking lot is right next to the Jizo-do, or the part of the temple dedicated to Jizo, who is the helper of babies who do not survive pregnancy. This Jizo-do was larger than ones I have seen at the other temples I've visited, and a little less austere as well. The one at Engyo-ji is rows and rows of little statues, all outfitted with knitted things or other accouterments, but these areas were full not only of statues with bibs and collars and knit things, but also toys, a few clothing items for babies, pinwheels, and other such dedications. There were three hexagonal sections like this.

From there, we wandered up the hill behind an Important Rock to what we realized was the Miko Daimyojin, the shinto (not Buddhist) area of the place. I found the Inari area, but did not see the statue or "Welcome Home" sign as described in the website. This side was very pretty in the dappled sunlight, and felt very peaceful, nature-y.

After that, we took a sort of side/back path that led us to the area where is found the Benten-Do. I totally wanted to put a coin in there and give a nod to a water deity of eloquence. I would be worried about it if I didn't think (currently) nah, it's cool, we hang out all the time so no big.

We continued on a back path that ran uphill parallel to the main temple (which was to the left). We found the path to the Okunoin roped off with a big sign in all kanji. Mir deftly convinced me that it was worth ignoring, and so I followed her up the slope toward the small founder's temple.

The reason for the sign was quite clear even from the path below. The whole area had been washed out, probably this past fall with all the rain in the Kansai area, and a landslide had washed a bunch of mud and rocks down around the Okunoin. I took some pictures of the sides of it, where you can see the mud marks. They have cleared around the small temple itself, but the path leading up to it is still in disarray, and the upper part of the mountain whence came the mud and rocks is pretty obvious.

From there we wound our way around to the main hall of the temple, from the back, where I failed to look up at the rafters and also was kind of plebian when I went to get my book stamped and calligraphed. We looked out over the Sanjuto and sighed with gladness that spring is finally coming, then made our way down to the front gate to head out. Ichijo-ji does not have a gate in the same way as other temples, but there was a not-blooming cherry by the entrance.

A badass old tree. 

Not my best exploration endeavor, but I'll do better next time now that I remember how it's done.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Long Hiatus Known as Winter (in review)

It's Friday, it's raining again, but at least a bit warmer than the last time. Or at least I think so.

We get the first day of spring off in this country, maybe because you are supposed to visit your ancestors on the first day of spring (I just learned). Whatever the reason, I think having the equinox off is an excellent practice. The better to celebrate.

Winter is all about the holding pattern, post Cambodia, it was a fairly happy or at least nonchalant cycle of work, reading, writing, various exercise, and housekeeping. It was like an endless ongoing movement of maintenance. Keep on trucking. Every week was not the same, but the entire season seemed to fall into a pattern of total sameness. Maybe you'll go swimming today or tomorrow, maybe you'll feel too puny. Maybe you'll buy more kerosene, maybe you'll cook something. Maybe there will be a get-together this weekend, maybe you'll be social by hanging out with one or two people, maybe you won't see anyone and will just indulge yourself in reading/the internet/pretending to do chores. Maybe you'll make coffee, maybe you'll avoid it because it's bad for circulation and your toes are freezing off. Maybe you'll go to kempo and rock it, maybe you'll go and suck, maybe you won't go.

If anything changed this winter, it was a change that felt built-in right away, and was in many cases a resumption of something old. I took up working on that novel again. I moved up a little on the coffee snob scale, because I started hanging out at Rocky just like I always thought it would be nice to hang out in a coffeeshop and 'write.' (Then I started buying coffee [at Rocky] and making it at home. I had a coffeepot for two years and used it twice [then sold it], and now I can't stop pressing myself cups of the stuff -- luckily I just got ahold of decaf, so now it's on day and night, and guilt-free for the circulation issues). I started swimming more frequently. I didn't exactly feel like I had all kinds of time to waste because I was spending all my time doing all these maintenance or resumption things.

Lately, I swim less often, partly because I wrenched out my shoulder on the only ski trip we took this year. I still go occasionally, and rent a kickboard so I can gimp along. I've also stalled on the writing, as I will now confide. The irony is that it happened because of something I did to help myself along in that department sadly backfiring. I had some comments on the first part of the thing, and someone referred to the George R. Martin series A Song of Ice and Fire to sort of compare how I used a bunch of different POV throughout the story. I had heard about the series before, and had seen one episode of it on HBO at Sagramore's (the episode with ALL the spoilers), so I kindled up a four volume set and stared in on it, telling myself it would be instructive and help my writing.

The first few chapters were okay, but once I was sunk into it, it built a nice ice wall between me and my ability to write or even edit my story. It was good. And that was a problem, not because I was so absorbed I no longer had time to do any writing (that is always and never true of life, rather than any book), but because as I read on I get the distinct impression that my story is nothing like this story.

I could never have written this story.

But I like this story, and that's a problem because suddenly all I can see is everything that this story has that my story lacks, everything I like about this book I'm reading that is glaringly absent from the one I'm writing.

An' lemme tell you, that shit'll stop your pen. Writer's block is and has always been a failure of confidence, maybe.

I'm sweet-talking myself back into it, of course. I've begun to find things I don't like about it, as a sort of salve. And I've also tried to explain to the little kid version of myself currently throwing an I-don't-wanna-play-anymore tantrum that, well of course you could never have written this story, it's not yours, you weren't supposed to, it's about a totally different thing, has a totally different appeal.

At first I was confused, because this is not by far the first good book I've read since I began working again on the writing. I've read a bunch of really good things, strong works, classics, award-winners. But I realized, they were all of some other genre, they were all something else. So I'm working my way back to a place where I can like this one and still make that one, different.

We recently set the date of my black belt (!) test, for early June, which set me off into a mental tangent about Shannon (while the June connection is obvious, if you can't see why Shannon and getting my black belt are related, I can't really explain it.. they aren't, and yet for some reason they are), which caused me to have a Shannon dream, which made me decide to resume my pilgrimage on March 20th after its long hiatus known as Winter.

The first temple of the season was Ichijo-ji, stop number 26 on the original route, and the second-closest temple to where I live.

I think I'll post that as a separate entry, because I don't have the photos ready yet anyway!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

two of recent pieces of praise

Recently, I've been getting a lot of positive feedback from so many different sources in such a coordination, I hardly know what to think. I'd like to share a little of it, just to keep my head from exploding.

First, I'll tell you about the sixth graders. Although we've had middle school graduation already, they are still working their way toward a ceremony. The current 6th graders are kids I dubbed the "butterflies" back when I was in the business of giving them nicknames. They were just 4th graders then, and I have very little memory of why I chose that (probably just the progression downward from dogs to cats to mice to frogs to fish.. to butterflies. Maybe they were prettier?).

Anyway, as they move toward graduation, they undertake a lot of memory and forward-looking things, one of which is thanking teachers with written messages on plaques, and another of which is intercom interviews. They did present me with a plaque thing which to my surprise referred not to just this year, but to teaching them English for three years. The kid who was in charge of hanging it over to me had to make a little speech, and in it he said that he's grown to like English.

That is pretty standard; they weren't going to pick the girl who is always saying "I hate English!" (who, nonetheless, waves to me and calls out hello when I see her walking to school as I get off the bus in the morning) to give the little speech to me. But it sort of dawned on me that at the elementary school, especially having been there so long by now, the English program has slowly become my program. These kids had ALTs before me, but I've been the longest-standing and most current, so their English learnin' has largely been associated directly with me.

Also with that, the current sixth graders were 4th graders when I arrived; I don't see 1st - 4th grades as often, but I spend time with 5th and 6th once a week at that school. This means that this particular class is kind of my pinnacle performance because they didn't see as much of me during those first two trimesters, when I had no idea what I was doing, and came up through the years to be the first group with whom I even managed to finish the textbook.

The butterflies have always been pretty well-disciplined, I remember that from their time as 5th graders (and because they followed just after the fish, who as elementary kids made me want to tear my hair out sometimes, but which fish have later made excellent middle schoolers, what with the iron fist of authority dwelling here and all).

I suffered a spell of paranoia similar to what happened with the math teacher (and with similar results) wherein I really thought the guy hated working with me. We hardly communicated in the spring of 2010, but when he remained as my "English co-teacher" for the second year in a row come 2011, things just got a lot easier. I started joining his group for cleaning time (because it was outside and usually involved plants), and came to see that even though his English was less than fantastic, he really was trying. AND as a bonus, he is a great teacher, in the sense that the kids (even the worst of the 4th graders [umm, snakes class?]!) respect him totally. This may have something to do with the fact that he is a giant by some Japanese standards, but it's also a lot his way of dealing with the kids. I love it.

Last year's graduation.
Anyway, I've been invited to their tea party and all their graduation things, which is pretty new and I enjoy it.

What was I saying? Oh! Well, so it's normal to say something nice at the presentation of a thank you card, but no one is making the kids say anything in their barely comprehensible lunchtime intercom interviews. These are conducted by 5th graders against a background of terrible pop music (usually AKB, which I am against kind of in principle). It's difficult to hear and understand what's being said, and the first time I heard a kid respond "English class" to some question, I admit I didn't hear the question (but I still gave the air a fist-bump). Usually they are leading. "What do you want to do your best at in middle school?" "Studies and club activities!" Well... "What club do you want to join?" "What is your favorite memory from elementary school?"

So I have no idea what was being said or even if "English" was really what I heard. But it happened again on some other day, and I felt myself celebrating inside. Whatever the question was doesn't even matter.. some of these butterflies actually liked my class and look forward to pursuing English in middle school. Which, granted, they totally might have done with any other ALT and any other program. But they didn't, cause I was the one here.

Second, I'll tell you about the compliments at the party. Remember that post-graduation party my head wasn't in the game for? I spent my time at that thing alternating between so happy and overcome by emotion, and being a brick whose face felt so heavy I thought it might actually tip me over into the sashimi boat.

But here and there it would crop up within different topics. The other teachers were finding little ways to say really flattering things, which I hesitate to even print here because this blog is supposed to be partly for my successor, whosoever that may be, and I am shy to let them know how loved Ichinan was making me feel, by saying they wished I could stay, or if they had an unmarried son they'd try to make me part of their family, how they can't remember seeing me get angry.

I had been thinking a lot about my own departure and even what to say in my leaving speech during graduation, and I had come up with something that basically means, since I could have been sent anywhere, really, anywhere in Japan, I'm so glad I got sent here. Yokatta.

One of the teachers used almost exactly the words I had thought up for that to turn it around on me, Emily de yokatta. We're glad we got you. I cried a lil' in my cloth napkin. Those are high compliments, from all of them, but even more than that it felt good to know that doing what I do has had this result.. that the work I put in does show (across culture and language barriers), especially over time, and that maybe they love me here because they know I love it too. I mean, yeah I'm awesome, but I can only be as awesome as my situation allows, right?

Well. It's certainly doing nothing for my humility.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Graduation as an anniversary, and cookie-baking

My last class with the 3nens was on their last actual day of class, from what I understand. This was unusual; normally our last class creeps up on us out of the calendar and I'm halfway through conducting it before we realize there won't be any more.

But this year was different. We planned ahead, and I wanted to make it special. So special, in fact, it would require the assistance of those abroad. I was callin' in the pudding cookies.

Other ALTs have done cooking classes with their students, but I never had before. Mostly I felt bad for asking to use the computer room, so the prospect of taking over and making use of not only a special room, but also a bunch of ingredients (which at first I thought, heck I'll just pay for, until I realized that chocolate chips have to be imported too, unless you want to bake with mini bags of mini chips and they just don't make cookies here like they do back home-- which is entirely the point of doing a class like this, after all), and making such a big mess and deal, well it seemed too much to ask, and to do. Plus, I'm not much of a cook. I don't know any really special recipes, right? Or super delicious representative foods?

But this year, I thought, no, let's do this. My favorite recipe is a fairly simple cookie recipe which is fairly cheap and did I mention really easy to make at home. The stuff you need is mostly already in your house. But for twelve groups of middle schoolers with a big shiny new kitchen classroom, it's a bit different. In Japan, everything comes in smaller bags and bottles, and since it was a class thing, we needed massive amounts of all the ingredients. First, we put in orders with Foreign Buyer's Club and YoYoMarket variously for all kinds of things. For the butter and eggs and sundry, we put in orders at the local grocery.

I was struck again with just how much butter and sugar goes into this recipe, but it's my favorite for a reason. The special secret ingredient (which my mom mailed me, thank goodness), makes the cookies really extra soft and forgiving. A few groups were instructed to make the regular "bag" recipe (that written on the choco chip bag) since we didn't have enough pudding mix packets for all 12 groups (that was my bad), but I think the substitutions of measurement and flour type and whatever the hell else happened in the process of procuring and measuring the ingredients in Japan vs. back home caused those poor groups to suffer very flat cookies.

All in all, the entire thing was a great experience, and a clusterfuck, and it gave me a cold. 
The clusterfuck aspect is pretty obvious: the recipe which is easy at home is not easy with a bunch of kids who have never made cookies before. I tried to tell them when a pile of the gooey dough was too big or too close to the others, but having never made cookies (having NEVER made cookies, at home), they couldn't really envision it. Also kids will be kids. I too remember looking at the pan and thinking, this extra dough could be one. GIANT. cookie. Oh awesome. Or, I wonder if we could make a pancake that was ACTUALLY the size of the PAN. So they had to try it, and it was pretty awful.
Also, there is the fact that this was all supposed to take place within one 50-minute class period, which I figured we could totally do. We could not.

Given one whole class period to clean up, we did restore the kitchen to order and were able to move the cookies during 4th hour.

Thirteen batches total. This is more cookieage than I ever made on my own.
The greatness of the experience was in their joy at being able to try it, and also at my own realization that they had just been given a little piece of something American iconic: cookies and milk. They didn't even know the two went together, and were horrified to see my dunk my cookie in the milk box. I was horrified that they had never heard of doing that.

That it gave me a cold is only in the way I stressed out about the whole thing in a manner that increased exponentially each day approaching the baking project. For me, colds aren't simply germs getting in and making a mess. Well it is that. But it's something else, because in my situation, that is, my age and general physical health and occupation, I am around germs all the time. Not like really bad ones, but I do work in an elementary school half the week. Shit goes around. Little kids TOUCH EVERYTHING. Germs are always there; I don't stay healthy by avoiding them, goodness knows. 

No. Getting sick is actually the rearrangement of stress and negative energy into bad physical reactions. It is conducted through the emotional wearing out of a person which leaves the mind and heart weakened against the ever-present opportunistic germs. It wasn't just the cookies thing that wore me out, of course: there are a great many things, mostly small, but too many of them nonetheless.

One is, of course, graduation. Graduations were not ever my forte, and this year there are the added bonuses of 1: these are my three-year students, meaning that when I arrived they were first-years, and now they are graduating, and 2: this is March, in Japan. 

March in Japan USED to mean spring (finally), graduation, and at the very end, hanami. But, and a lot of people don't think about this because it is so different from the western schedule, for a lot of us in schools, March 11th was, before it was the biggest goddamn earthquake of recorded history and tsunami of nearly unwatchable devastation, March 11th was graduation day. So we all sat in chilly gymnasia and cried a little while our teenage students fixed their wet eyes on the future and took flight from us. We all shook hands and took photos and sang songs and then, while we were puttering around the office, the chairs all stacked up, people already out of those black suits (always black suits for these occasions), while we were attending to paperwork or just now turning our attention to the next two weeks of school with the other students (graduates leave early or something), somewhere after the graduation while we were biding time before the evening teacher party, then that terrible disaster happened. 

I have heard other stories, from people in other places. One girl said they were already having the post-graduation party when they saw the shaking roll toward them across the horizon. Their boss said, "save the beer!" so they all grabbed one of the hefty bottles and held it up so the shaking table wouldn't spill it. 

So kind of.. in the way that you remember where you were when such and such a thing took place, and for those of us who lived in Japan, knew someone who lived in Japan, any of those related things, maybe this is one of those things. Everyone in Japan will remember where they were when they heard about the quake (or, if closer than we were, felt it). And for myself and many, many of my cohort, it was graduation day. I was exchanging e-mails, making plans with Sagramore in Tokyo, who noted in an e-mail at 3:05pm that there had been a "big ass earthquake just now, btw," and then failed to respond to my subsequent emails. I'm not into worrying, but I wondered just how big he meant, until others started getting phone calls and we turned on the TV.

So although it's not quite the year-anniversary of that event, it is, because it's graduation again, another Friday afternoon just like that one was.

Today, I'm in that in-between time again, just waiting til I can go home and hopefully take a nap. This graduation has been extra tiring because, as I mentioned, bonus number 1, they are my three-year kids, and also my last graduation, and I can't look at the departing students without seeing my own future, I can't hear their speeches without writing my own. I can't think about "Ichinan Family" without starting to cry. Splice that with the cold I got from cookie-baking and guess how many packs of tissues I've used up today. 

Tonight is the teacher party and once again, my head's not really in the game.

Some second years, being goofballs.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I just realized I never posted about Laos!

Don't worry, it's not an epic seven-post series like Cambodia. The Laos part was a lot more vacation-y and a little less life-altering. Our group was smaller, and we were a bit worn out from the first week of travel, so we took it fairly easy, just enjoying our little hotel in Luang Prabang.

The Laos trip is a tale of two cities, first the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang, and second, the capital of Vientiane.Luang Prabang is a tourist site, altogether, but it is also incredibly pleasant. Vientiane is a living, moving city, so it's more dynamic and also noisier.

Let's talk about Luang Prabang first.

Hotel room!

My memorable impressions of Laos are mostly of sensory enjoyments, sleeping in, food (oh goodness, the sticky rice thing we ate in Luang Prabang that I spent the rest of our Laos time tracking down and eating at every restaurant possible), biking liesurely, "Tuk-tuk, waterfall?", and the way the market was so very different from that in Siem Reap.

Night market!
 Seriously, we went to the night market and the people would watch you walk by and just say hi to you, unless you stood there staring at something, then they might offer to show it to you. You were not accosted. I think we saw even more orange-robed monks in Laos than in Cambodia.

I thought this image was so cool (this photo taken at a temple). I later bought it in print form at the night market.

A tale of a like three? dollar foot massage.

It is as peaceful and sun-dappled as it looks.
Down by the river behind the hotel

The "bamboo bridge" .. quickest way to get into town from where we were staying. But only on foot.

When biking, take this bridge. Think about how cars have to go to cross this. One direction at a time.
Miriam left us not long after we hit the second city, Vientiane. We had signed up for a bike tour of the city on the 5th, our second day, but the morning was rainy and chilly. It got pushed back to the afternoon, but Kameron was feeling sick, so I went without him.

Our bike tour leaders are totally Dutch. 
Tank treads make good fencing

F-you, Thailand across the river!

The bike tour was a really good way to see the city, and I enjoyed it more than the walking around and self-guided sightseeing I dragged Kam along for on the following day. Memories of Vientiane are the bike tour, and the nightly movie on the movie channel in the hotel room.

Oh, and finding food on the last night, which led us around the area where our hotel was. We're far enough from downtown that it was a bit of a pain in the ass to go all the way there for dinner. But the places around us didn't have English menus (we walked to one and walked sadly away). The second place we stopped at didn't look too promising, but the guy seemed willing to communicate. Then he read my shirt. Which was in kanji.

Turned out, he had stayed in Japan and could speak Japanese rather well. We did all our food transaction in Japanese. Then he told us about how the movie Tokyo Drift is totally about him, so we took photos with him. I haven't seen that movie yet, but I now plan to, and when I do, I'll think of this guy.