Sunday, December 31, 2006

In the Dungeon

In the War Memorial Museum, there is a really cool exhibit of what the Koreans call a "turtle ship." Designed and built by Admiral (insert forgotten name here) in the late 16th century, it was used by the Koreans against the Japanese navy during one of their earlier invasions of Korea.

It is unique among ships of that period because the top is completely covered with a thick armored surface to prevent the Japanese from boarding the ship (something they were apparently adept at). The ship also had an unusual box shape that made it possible for sailors to use oars while still behind armor. Only a small opening in the top allowed the sailors to raise the mast.

They had a cool video about the boat playing in Korean. Seeing that there was an English button, I waited patiently to learn more about this very fascinating ship. 3 minutes into the English video, some little kid comes up and presses the Korean button while I'm watching it! I give him and his parents a dirty look, and the child rightly gets scolded by his folks nearby. I look at him and push the button again. About 7 minutes into it the second time, the same little brat comes up and pushes the Korean button again! I contemplated stapling his chubby little cheeks and snot covered nose to the polished granite floor, but thought that maybe it wouldn't be the wisest course of action. So I gave the impudent ilk (and his bonehead parents) another dirty look, and went off to see another exhibit that featured a medieval dungeon and torture devices.

I returned to finish watching the video later, when the coast was clear. I pushed the English button again, this time excited to learn about the brilliant Korean naval leaders from the days of old. This time, 15 minutes into the video, this same little rugrat shows up again and presses the Korean button for the third time! Now normally, I'm one who is willing to let things go especially when I'm in a new country and culture. But this kid already had a chance to watch the movie! I wasn't happy about having my time wasted by an impudent 6 year old! Other tourists weren't around, and his parents were nowhere in sight either (go figure), so I took matters into my own hands!

I picked him up by the shoulders and started carrying him back into the dungeon exhibit I had just come from! He started screaming something in Korean and crying, so I wrestled him to the grownd, put my hand over his chocolate ice cream covered mouth, and picked him up around the waste, careful not to let him make any noise. Fortunately, somebody had left a sweater on a nearby bench to tie around his face. And there was a scarf I could use to keep his hands tied up too. I pinned him again on a table to secure his hands and stuff the sweater in his mouth.

I also happened to remember I had left a magic marker from school in my bag! So I took the magic marker and gave him a lovely beard, unibrow, third eyeball on his forehead, and a "scratch and sniff here" on his stomach in Japanese.

Climbing up onto the exhibit, I dragged him right up to a cage the king used to hold suspected assasins. And what tremendous luck: the padlock used to secure the cage in an open position was itself unsecured! I threw him into the cage (big enough for 1 person) and shut the door.
After sealing the padlock on it (this time in the closed position) I ran as fast as I could. 30 seconds later, I heard the same kid squealing in the cage as his high pitched voice reverberated in the granite halls and spacious ceilings.

Leaving as promptly as I could, I didn't get to finish watching the dumb video!

Busan to Seoul

Yesterday marked my first day in Seoul, the capital of Korea. I'm staying with someone else from couchsurfing here. She apparently had another guest from staying, so we both got taken out to Karubi, which is Korean BBQ. It was very delicious. We also at a cold buckwheat noodle soup in an anchovie broth. We ate it with a vinegar topping. Good stuff! We later ate some really spicy food and a great soju-yogurt drink that tastes really good. is great. I think I'm gonna look at this as well.

Today I hopped on a subway to visit the War Memorial of Korea and Gyeongbokgung Palace. Near the Ministry of National Defense, the War Memorial is a museum that chronicles most of this country's tragic history of invasions by Chinese, Japanese, and North Koreans. It also seems to serve as a patriotic tool to teach the Koreans how tough they are and about all the equipment that the ROK Defense Forces use. Judging from the museum alone, the Koreans seemed quite boastful of their military strength. I had to smile at a number of the exhibits and that blantantly glossed over obvious defeats to tell stories of victory. One video in English said, "under intense pressure, the ROK army successfully withdrew..." I tried my best not to laugh.

But I still had lots of fun running around the outdoor exhibit, which featured a whole heaping helping of tanks, AA guns, bombers, helicopters, Amphibious Assault vehicles, Howitzers, fighter jets, trainer jets, Armored Personel Carriers, Naval Guns, from WWII to today. They also had the Soviet and Chinese counterparts for most of the tanks and artillery. Highlights included a submarine, A B-52, several transport planes you could walk through, and a Korean version of a M1-A1 Abrams tank (they failed to mention that it was developed in the USA).

I also went to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the center of King Taejo's Joseon Dynasty. Unfortunatly, the information display seemed more interested in telling about how many times the Japanese destroyed it instead of giving much information on the palace itself. I did get to see a cool changing of the guard ceremony, and got my picture taken as a guard for free.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Korea: First Impressions

I just arrived in Busan, South Korea by hydrofoil ferry this afternoon. What follows are my initial impressions in no particular order.

1. This place has more trash on the streets than Japan does.

2. Korean food lives up to its reputation and is quite good. I had a soup with all kinds of things in it and sampled all kinds of things little old ladies were cooking on the street. I don't know the names of any of them.

3. There are lots of Army surplus kind of places here.

4. Middle School and High School girls all wear the dorkiest glasses I have ever seen. I'm not joking they have to be seen to be believed. Were talking Steve Urkel and Woody Allen in 1984 dorky.

5. Knowing Japanese is useful in Korea. The guy who sold me the soup meal spoke Japanese pretty well.

6. Stores everywhere sell ginseng. They all have gigantic tubes with the root floating in formaldehide. If the store has too many of these, they look kind of creepy.

7. The Koreans have tons of great outdoor stores selling climbing gear and overpriced North Face waterproof shells.

Overall, Korea should be interesting. A bit rougher and more edgy than sanitized and polished Japan.

Himeji Jo Castle and Hiroshima

Traveling across Southern Japan, I'm realizing again why I stopped traveling extensively: Its too darned expensive to get anywhere and do anything. I am so overbudget right now, it is not even funny.

Nevertheless, I can report that Himeji Castle is the most spectacular castle I have ever seen, anywhere. Elegant, old, and all in a stunningly beautiful setting on a hill surrounded by parks. I only wish I could have been there when the cherry blossoms were blooming. Pictures coming soon!

I also went to Hiroshima to see the Atomic Bomb Dome. That's right folks, I stood at ground zero! Like the Alamo, the famous ruins of the world's first nuclear attack are smaller in real life. It apparently used to be a regional industrial showcase forum for local companies to promote their products. They light the place up at night and its quite pretty. Hiroshima itself is quite nice and otherwise indistinguishable from other Japanese cities of its size. Like most Japanese cities that were bombed extensively, it has the trademark wide avenues on a more logical grid pattern planned during the reconstruction.

Besides being the site of a nuclear holocaust, Hiroshima is also famous for okonomiyaki (a Korean pancake thing, but I don't know what they call it over here.) Only in Hiroshima, they stuff it full of noodles before frying it. Its pretty good but I'm not sure how to describe it to someone who has no idea what I'm talking about. Its not too bad on the budget either.

Unfortunately, I had to catch a bus early the next morning (to save money) and couldn't spend much time in the museum as I would have liked. So I went further South to stay with a friend I met on the internet who lives in a secure undisclosed location (like Dick Cheney)!

First Couch Surfed

On my travels across Japan, I've discovered the greatest thing ever. is fantastic. I went to the Southern Japany and stayed with someone teaching English down there (names and specific details have been omitted to protect privacy and security). There wasn't much furniture, so I slept on the floor. I promised not to turn into a homocidal axe murderer.

Anyways, we had a great time together (or at least I did). Anyways, this is a cool site. Everybody check out!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

My new nephew!

Well, it looks like I am no longer just a brother and a brother in law. According to all sources, my sister is pregnant. As my sister and brother in law appear to have ignored all advice about birth control, it looks like I will be the new uncle of a brand new human being!

Seriously though, I do think this is way cool (except that I now have to spoil this new kid as much as Aunt Dee spoiled me). While the shock of it wore off somewhere on the ski slopes of Central Honshu, I think I can accept this new little tyke into the family. With all due sincereity and joy, I hereby give my official congratulations: おめでとうございます!


I don't like Osaka

I'm currently in Osaka at an internet cafe/overpriced comic book library place for geeks. I am staying at a capsule hotel/ wacky (even by Japanese standards) bath sauna massage establishment.

These last few days have been somewhat exciting, visiting Nagano Prefecture, I had the chance to visit Matsumoto Castle, which is absolutely stunning. It is one of the best castles I have seen to date. I went up there with Erika, and we had a good time. I also got to sample several types of the local specialty: basashi. Basashi is raw horsemeat, and I can now say I've sampled several different cuts, including the hind legs and the mane (my new favorite).

I also went skiing in Hakuba, where the Nagano Winter Olympics were held for the first time. Unfortunately, there hasn't been enough snow around here, and only the higher-up runs onany resort were open. It was a pretty area though, with rugged looking mountains that should have been covered in snow!

I'm now currently in Osaka and growing to hate this place. I can travel almost anywhere, but every time I go to Osaka 2 things happen: 1. It rains cats and dogs. 2. My Japanese goes right down the toilet. It happened when my mother was here, and it happened again today. I'm never coming back to Osaka, despite being one of the few places in Japan where I can get Mexican food. (The burrito and Dos Equis were delicious).


今旅行します。昨日は長野県の白馬スキー所へ行きました。今大阪市にいます。大阪はあまりきらいです!大阪にくるときにいつも雨が降ります。そして大阪がすきじゃないよ! でもメキシコのレストランがあります。おいしかったよ!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hiroshima, Seoul, DMZ, Oh My!!

I’m currently in the midst of planning for a weeklong vacation in Korea and parts of Southern Japan. My Japanese itinerary includes Nagano, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and possibly Kagoshima. Pusan, Seoul, the DMZ, Skiing, and Hot Springs are on the agenda in Korea. Korea is also well known for its unique cuisine, which ranges from spicy pickled cabbage, Spicy BBQ, shellfish broth soups, and apparently lots of other spicy stuff. Served with difficult to use steel chopsticks as well!

For those who do not know, Japan hosted the 1986 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Obviously skiing and hot springs rank high on the agenda. It is a place I have heard about for quite some time and am looking forward to visiting. I am a little concerned that the resorts will not open, as very little snow is falling from Japanese skies. I may luck out over the weekend though.

The infamous site of the world’s first nuclear attack, Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome is the next order of business. Besides being the site of a several kiloton radiological tragedy, Hiroshima is also famous for okonomiyaki, a pancake dish of Korean origin. I don’t think that’s what they call it in Korea.

From Fukuoka Japan, I plan on going to Korea by ship, and have already booked tickets to Busan in South Korea. I’m still in the process of putting together my Korean itinerary, and the end is in sight for this blog’s nauseatingly insipid drivel. This is an exciting time on Daily Belly Button Lint, so be sure to stay tuned!



Sunday, December 17, 2006

Another One Bites the Dust: Chinese Baiji Gone

The Chinese Baiji river dolphin is now officially extinct, according to this article in National Geographic. Known in China as the baiji, this "goddess of the Yangtze" crossed its native river on the Stygian Ferry for the last time.

Endangered for the last 20 years, the rare Chinese freshwater dolphin finally kicked the can. Scientists blame this negative patient care outcome on several conditions non-conducive to life, including overfishing, ship traffic, pollution, and dam building.

Unless people wish to see similar endangered freshwater mammals feeding the fishes in the near future, scientists in this article warn for urgent action in China and elsewhere.


Picture from this site.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bon Enkai means Year-End Party

In Japan, this is the season for Bon Enkais or "year-end parties" as they might be translated. I went to Katahira-chu's Bon Enkai last night. They held the party up at a place called Dake Onsen, which is well known throughout the region for its fine hot spring waters (onsen means hot spring). We had an overpriced meal that was almost too pretty to eat and at a hotel and spent the night up there.

This appears to be a fairly common custom in the Japanese Junior High Schools. Unfortunately with my busy travel schedule last year, I wasn't able to make it to any Bon Enkais. You go spend the night at a hotel (girls and boys in separate rooms of course), take a bath together (also separate) and then eat dinner.

Following this, we went back up to our rooms. Can you guess what we all did when we got back to our rooms? You guessed right: more food! We chowed down on an enormous sushi platter, squid jerky, pizza flavored potato chips, and pink rice cakes.

After that, we all went to bed. Overall, it was a fun evening. Besides having to sleep on a less than comfortable futon, it was a nice place. The hotel had a great onsen. Most of the teachers were questioning me about my travel plans for the winter vacation. The music teacher, Ms. Sugita, is going to Prague and Budapest over the holiday. She's quite excited about seeing some opera, as Koriyama lacks somewhat in the culture department. Unfortunately, most of the other teachers don't have any big plans for the new year.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Minakami Blonde

This is Paula's website. Coming from Kansas, she is a Native Teacher in our city. This is her blog. It's called Minakami Blonde. You can read it. Her boyfriend is a real cool guy too.

Could have been Better

I rarely write about my work in here. My work is fairly routine, and not the most exciting thing to report on. But today I would like to reflect on and relate a mistake I found myself making. As I learn more Japanese, I am losing patience with my students, and must put a stop to this trend immediately.

My first year in Japan, I found myself infinitely patient with my students. Perhaps my inability to communicate in Japanese necessitated the need for more patience with their English. My second year I noticed this patience waning somewhat as I learned more Japanese. Translating, explaining, and communicating grew easier for me, so my student’s English was no longer required. Now going through my third year in Japan, I find myself losing patience with students more than I probably should.

Outside of the classroom, when I speak with them at lunch, in their afternoon clubs, or elsewhere, I almost always speak Japanese now, even when it is something they know in English. If a student is struggling to explain something to me in English, I often just ‘break out the Japanese’ if only to get the conversation rolling again. As my job and presence at the schools is partly to promote conversational English, I am in a sense neglecting that duty by doing this.

In the classroom, the opposite problem exists. I often think to myself, “I learned this sentence structure and vocabulary in Japanese, so why can’t these kids do the same in English?” Especially when it is a simple concept that the students can reasonably be expected to know and understand.

I was in a class today and conducting my own lesson designed to let students practice a particular sentence the students had previously learned. It was a game for the students to play, but it required them to finish writing several partially completed sentences. The students would fill in blanks in the sentence for certain missing words. During the game, they would translate for each other.

Problems surfaced when few of the students could successfully write (and sometimes understand) the required word or words in the sentence. I helped them as best I could, but I had little sympathy or patience for them, as most of them demonstrated that they could translate a completed sentence prior to this activity. What was standing in their way now? Moreover, the same activity was very successful at a different school, so why couldn’t these kids do it?

I asked the teacher, and she said the students were not accustomed to “writing on their own.” She is probably correct on that account. Japanese students are typically required to memorize and regurgitate information. English goes a bit further in requiring students to translate grammar. Rarely do their teachers in any of their classes require them to produce any sort of written product beyond a correct answer or solved math problem. And even if it is a written product, it is rarely something that allows creative control.

While I didn't get angry with the students, I did get somewhat patronizing. One particular instance occurred when I was helping a kid with this particular sentence:

When Mr. Tyler went to Tokyo, he ate sushi with______________.

The student was obviously required to write a name of their choosing when this student complained that he didn’t know what to do. After initial efforts failed, I painstakingly made him translate each word and then the clause. This was certainly unnecessary and may have been insulting. I then arrogantly drilled and questioned him on every pedantic detail of the sentence until he couldn’t possibly dismiss the requirement to fill the space with a name. My efforts still failing to bear fruit, I asked him in Japanese, “Who do you like? Who’s your favorite TV star/soccer player?” He still said “I don’t know.” So I responded with something like, “Throughout the entire world, you don’t know one person that you like? Do you KNOW ANYBODY in the world? Do you know him (pointing to someone nearby)?” I told him to write that boy's name. I'm sure it sounded even more outlandish in Japanese than it does in English.

After this episode, I eased up a bit, but I still wasn’t in the best frame of mind. Ultimately we weren’t able to play the game, because the students were unable to finish the writing part. While I don’t think the failure of this lesson was entirely my fault, I do think I am at least partly responsible. I wasn’t as patient and understanding of their difficulties as I could have been. I didn’t account for their lack of certain skills when planning the lesson. I MAY not have adequately explained to the students what was required of them.

More importantly, I didn’t respond correctly when the student needed help. Frustrated as I was when I felt the students should have been more capable, the patronizing attitude was detrimental and disrespectful. As doltish as this student was acting (and admittedly he was being especially dense), he still deserved better than his teacher’s condescension. In a culture where one’s reputation and dignity are very important this was wrong. And for that I am most chagrined.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Battlestar Galactica バトルスターギャラクティカー

Today I borrowed the series premiere of Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica on DVD. I almost never watch TV or movies anymore, but I heard great things about what the Sci-Fi Channel was doing with the program. So I took a look at what the fuss was about.

For those of you who don’t know, the original Battlestar Galactica was a TV program from the late 1970’s. Being a campy rip-off of Star Wars, the program was ultimately cancelled due to poor ratings, reviews, and an enormous budget. The story revolved around a group of people on a giant space-ship/aircraft carrier: the Battlestar Galactica, and their adventures and quest to find Earth. Unfortunately, the program suffocated under the sheer overpowering force of its own cheesiness.

A few years ago, the Sci-Fi Channel decided to resurrect the program (while I was in the process of moving to Japan) and bring it back to TV. The producers preserved many aspects of the original program, including the Cylon villains, numerous character names and the concept of humanity struggling against overwhelming odds. What’s gone is most of the whimsical silliness that both defined and ultimately doomed the original series. They still have some goofy names like Captain Apollo, and use words like ‘frakin,’ that make you cringe a bit. But the show doesn’t take its campiness too far or too seriously, and it isn’t drowning in such waggish drivel like its predecessor did.

More importantly, most themes of the program like the conspiracy plots, character struggles and the moral dilemmas facing the characters are anything but juvenile camp. Unlike my beloved Star Trek, the characters are anything but righteous paragons of virtue such as Captain Picard. The leaders are real people, and like most political leaders, they are often forced to choose between one of two lesser evils. Unlike Captain Picard, Galactica Commander Adama and President Roslin cannot fully depend on the unfailing loyalty and righteousness of their staff. In this sense, the characters could potentially be much more interesting people.

One particular moral dilemna involved a decision about who should live or die. As the human race was attacked by the Cylons, a small crew had the choice to rescue several refugees, but could only take a few. They took straws, until one man was recognized to be a brilliant scientist, Dr. Baltar. Unaware of his treason to humanity, a pilot gives up his seat for the scientist, believing the survival of humanity required the services of his brilliant mind. Commander Adama wisely keeps knowledge of a spy’s presence secret, knowing that public disclosure would lead to a frenzied witch hunt. President Roslin, a government minister of education made president through a long line of succession, rightly suspects the possibility of a military coup during the initial crisis. She knows that her tenuous legally prescribed political influence may hold little sway when surrounded by other people arguably more qualified to make very painful but necessary policy decisions. The characters try to do what is right, but like real people their judgment is often clouded by personal interests, emotions, and other negative character traits. Definitely not Trek.

Being a recovering Trekkie in a 12 step program, the existence of this show will not benefit my recovery. I now intend to watch the entire first season on Dan’s DVDs. While I worry about becoming a TV junkie again, I think this new series is sufficiently hip to justify watching from time to time. Also, with the DVDs I won’t be watching TV commercials, which is one of the reasons I have abstained from watching television for a long period of time.

Here are a couple of other articles to read about the new show. Apocalypse Noir and Battlestar Iraqtica.



Sunday, December 10, 2006

Seasonal Road Closings & Fukushima Snow

I was driving yesterday with my friend Erika up in the mountains. We were about an hour and a half Northwest of my town in a place called Urabandai and planned to drive over a mountain pass into a tiny little town in Yamagata renowned for hot springs and beef. But lo and behold, they closed the road down for the winter!

Had Erika not been there, I would have tried to drive it anyway, as there was simply a sign saying it was closed and a half hearted attempt at a road block that could have been driven around by anyone.

Seriously though, what's the point in going to the trouble of building a road if you aren't going to plow it in the wintertime? And if so few people use it that it isn't even worth plowing, why was it even built in the first place? These and many other questions I may never find answers to as long as I live in Japan.

There are a number of other routes that criss-cross the mountains in my area, all toll roads (the one I wanted to use yesterday was free) and they all close down in the wintertime.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Deadly Food Allergies in Japan

先週はALTの先生の研修がありました。福島県のALTは福島市で会いました。研修は楽しかったよ! 私の友達クリスチエンさんに会いました。クリスチエンさんはフランスのカナダ人です。クリスチエンさんは西会津町のALTの先生です。西会津町はすごい田舎ですよ。西会津はとても遠いので、クリスチエンさんにあまり会えません。でも彼は好きです。彼は日本人と結婚しました。彼はとても危険な食べ物のアレルギーがあります。


Sorry everyone! I am still way behind on posting the happenings in this end of the world. Last week, all the JET programme teachers assembled in Fukushima City for a regional conference. As usual, it left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t a complete loss when one guy I knew hospitalized himself for a food allergy.

It started off fairly simply. I was eating lunch with Christian Lapierre. Christian is a French Canadian doing what I do in Nishi Aizu. Nishi Aizu is one of the most isolated and rural places I have ever seen in Japan. For those of you not familiar with Japanese geography, picture Fredonia, Arizona or Gunnison, Colorado surrounded by terraced, snow covered rice fields. He described his new hometown as “a drinking community with a farming problem.” Amusing and very dramatic, he is probably an excellent teacher. He’s a quality guy, and I like him. The only problem is, he has a terrible set of deadly food allergies that force him into the hospital every once in awhile.

Our lunch started off innocently enough. I tagged along with him and a bunch of others at a Chinese restaurant. He gave the server a 5 minute detailed explanation of what he could and could not eat, followed by an interrogation about what was in each item he was considering ordering. He finally got his food, and begin eating, only to discover the servers had overlooked or been mistaken about something. He went to the bathroom to hack it up, but after being unsuccessful, we took him to the nearest hospital. Because it was only a couple minutes away, we walked. On the way, he explained what to do with an enormous adrenaline syringe should worse come to worse.

In the end, he was OK, and only late for the second half of the seminar that day. I felt bad for him though.

Watch out Grad Students!

Watch out Seth Holler, and all my other friends, relatives, and readers in the world of academia! Google Book Search is about to make plagiarism very difficult now! And while I wouldn't accuse anyone I know of such a vile crime, everyone should be a little more careful now!

Read this article written about Google Book Search on Slate Magazine.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Katahira Junior High School PTA

The Katahira J.H.S. PTA is a very cool crowd. They usually have a few parties every year and I count myself lucky enough to be able to go. I get to meet the mothers of several of my students. The ironic thing is, they are all so much more fun than their kids!

Japanese children tend to be pretty shy and insecure. Their middle aged parental unit counterparts are often the same way. But these people are polar opposites! They are all very outgoing, energetic, and thoroughly enlightened people. They know how to have a good time as well. We all went out for Chinese, and then went out to Karaoke. Everybody had a great time.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I don't want my little corner of the internet to become a showcase of my political ideas. But I just couldn't resist with this one. Here's a cartoon from Ted Rall. Some of you might find this amusing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sendai 仙台

Saturday marks my first real trip to Sendai. I went up there with my friend Kumiko to do some Christmas shopping, and I can honestly say I am now 75 percent finished with my shopping! Whether I get everything shipped in time is another matter.

Sendai is a very large city North of my city, Koriyama. It is famous for its lights festival, which takes place sometime in mid December, and is about the closest I will ever get to Christmas lights here in Japan. It was apparently heavily bombed during the Second World War, and has the trademark wide avenues and slightly more logical layout of Japanese cities that were extensively rebuilt during the occupation. Now the city center is filled with overpriced department stores.

We went shopping and looking around at a number of different places, and I ran across a LEGO store, and a big bookstore. I picked up a guidebook to prepare for my coming trip to Korea, as well as a copy of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. The book is an anthropological survey of Japan conducted during the War. It goes into extensive detail about Japanese culture, character, and attitudes. I have started reading it, and I'm finding it extremely fascinating.

Kumiko also took me to a great restaurant where I tried awamori for the first time. Awamori is a kind of liquor indigenous to Okinawa. It tastes kind of like a mix between yellow listerine and paint thinner. Think of a spicy Italian grappa, only served up steaming hot. It was definitely a kick in the pants.

Also in the big city of Sendai, they have Eddie Bauer! Unfortunately things were WAY overpriced (khaki slacks were going for about 80 bucks), and I figure I can wait until my next trip back to North America. They also have a Subway, but I had already eaten by the time I learned of its presence.

Stay tuned for when I visit Sendai again during their "Lights festival."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The American holiday of Thanksgiving came and went with little fanfare here in Japan. Things went pretty much as usual (extremely busy). As regular readers can tell, I haven't been updating things as much as I was before. This is because I am extremely busy! But, inspired by the section from Brenden, I have decided to write my own list of things I am thankful for.

I also feel extremely guilty, because I have forgotten to call, email, or talk to relatives back home during Thanksgiving! I promise to do this promtly. I also forgot to call my grandmother and wish her a happy birthday! I feel terrible!

Anyways, here's the list of things I'm thankful for:

1. A God who loves me in spite of all that I am and do.

2. Parents and relatives who also love and care about me very much. I also am grateful that I have a grandmother who is cool enough to love me in spite of the fact that I forgot her birthday! I promise I will make it up to her!

3. Yaki-Niku (Korean style BBQ restaurants they have here in Japan. Mexican food is kind of scarce, but this will do for now!)

4. Friends and relatives here in Japan and back at home that love and care about me.

5. A job and a paycheck that I can live on with some to spare. If only everyone could be so lucky.

6. The opportunity to immerse myself in another culture, language and society. I have learned so much and continue to learn so much. I honestly believe everyone should do this for at least 1 year.

7. The Katahira Chugakko (Junior High School) PTA. Your parties are always off the hook! I'll take your nomikais and karaoke over the BBQs and potluck dinners of the PTAs in the USA! Seriously, the Katahira PTA rocks!

8. A college education. I'm seriously glad that I have had the privilege of a well rounded education. Now I won't wallow in ignorance for the rest of my life. Thanks mom and dad! And thanks to NAU. Go Lumberjacks!

9. Toilet paper. How did we ever get along without it on a regular basis?

10. Health. I am thankful to be healthy and alive with few serious medical problems. Today, I was at a seminar for English teachers in Fukushima eating lunch with a guy named Christian LaPierre. Before he eats at a restaurant, he has to go through a long speech and menu analysis with the servers about his deadly food allergies!

11. Mexican Food. Kind of hard to come by in these parts, but I know its waiting for me when I get back to the USA. Rice and Miso Soup will have to do for now.

I'll add more things later on, so check back soon!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Learning in a Taxi

Because my Koriyama City Board of Education is concerned about my safety to a degree that surpasses all reason and logic, they send us to school in taxis as opposed to letting us drive ourselves or take the bus. If the school is close to our houses (as it most often was last year), we were expected to bike to school or walk. But if its too far, they send us in taxis.

While I have a number of problems with this practice (It often spotlights an otherwise hidden proclivity towards a paternalistic and patronizing treatment of foreigners), I usually don't mind taking the taxi so much. We often share a taxi with people traveling to a nearby school, and can chat during our commute.

I don't recall specifically what we were talking about beforehand, but it must have related to tourism or traveling somehow. I only recall her doing most of the talking. So she mentions that she has no interest or desire to ever see the United States, and says that this is because Americans are percieved to be incredibly rude. Now she had my attention.

I listened to her as well as I could and promted her to clarify and provide details. She immediately said that American border Protection guards were widely regarded as the rudest and most intimidating folks anywhere. I can personally attest to this. She goes on to cite some article she read where an American hospitality industry association was conducting a market research survey outside the USA to promote tourism and discovered that most foreign tourists who traveled to the USA found everyone in my country extremely rude and ill mannered. Moreover, they were so intimidated by customs officials that they were paralized with fear and "afraid of saying the wrong thing."

While I think there might be some truth to what she was saying (especially about Customs and Border Inspection), I have to say I was a little put off. Here was somebody, who had never traveled to America, lecturing me about the manners of my country. While I must concede that US Customs inspectors could be a little (a lot) more courteous and professional, she didn't cite one instance of rudeness within American borders. This woman demonstrated very little knowledge of my country or any understanding of my culture and told me to my face that America is filled with boorish cantankerous louts.

Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking. But I can honestly say I practiced everything I learned from Dale Carnegie and Cathy Hanson. I did my best to be a good listener and ask questions. Considering this woman's incessant motor-mouth, I found listening quite easy.

I'm writing this because I honestly do think Americans need to be more aware of how they are percieved abroad (and at home apparently). But yesterday, this American certainly learned a lot about rude and crass behavior from a woman who spent 10 minutes spouting imbecilic blather about my nationality (she wasn't very fair to the French either). I suppose we aren't so different after all!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ballet at the Bunka Centaa

I went to the "culture center" today to watch a bit of ballet with an English teacher I work with. Her twelve year old daughter was performing in the recital. The program consisted of numerous songs being performed by children of all ages. I got to see everything from little 4 year olds stomping around to middle and high school students whose performances were quite impressive.

They played all sorts of different songs. Not being a conosseiur, I could only recognize a couple songs from the Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. They also performed to numerous songs by Japanese Pop artists, which were not so impressive. Some of the music was downright painful to hear.

It also turned out that the teacher I went with was part of the volunteer staff, and couldn't see me. I also misunderstood her explanation of the event, thinking it was going to be a whole big production, instead of a collection of performances set to the latest bubble gum pop.

No matter how sophisticated and urbane a modern man might be, can only take so much. I reached my limit after 50 minutes of 9 year olds in fluorescent tutus prancing around to something like this.

Fox News Memo

While I don't want to make this blog a showcase of my political views, I thought some people might find this interesting. A memo at Fox News, which claims to be "fair and balanced." In this memo, the Fox Senior Vice president says (presumably to reporters and staff) "lets be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress."

Another Goofy Caption Contest

Haven't done a Caption Contest in awhile, so I figure we are long overdue! Post your captions here people!!

This particular picture comes from Hope they don't mind me stealing their picture. What kind of a person am I anyways? Stealing silly pictures from a Bible website!

Friday, November 17, 2006

One of the brighter spots about my emerging fluency in Japanese is that I worry less about grammar, pronounciation, and listening skills, and more on other more interesting nuances, phrases, euphemisms and expressions. Things are still very frustrating for me at times, but I’m catching a lot of things with my ear I didn’t catch before. When speaking to an English teacher at one of my schools, I heard her use the phrase “hakoiri musume.” 箱入り娘This literally means something like “boxed daughter.” Hako means box. As I was not sure exactly what she meant, I made her explain it to me.

It means something like sheltered daughter. Picture an insulated lap child, somewhat naïve and ignorant about the ways of the world. She is a girl or a young woman who still lives at home with well-to-do over-protective parents. It came up in conversation when we were talking about overprotective parents. The teacher I was talking to mentioned a mutual acquaintance, and I had to laugh because I was about to ask about her. I can think of several other women I know who fit this category quite well. So for posterity and my own personal amusement, I have decided to list a couple other phrases I have picked up lately.

Goma o suru – ごまをするThis phrase literally means “do the sesame” or “grind the sesame.” When you eat tonkatsu (a fried pork dish with a sesame sauce) you have to grind the sesame seeds yourself. You grind them into a powder and then mix it with some goo. Outside of this context, it means something along the lines of flattery, especially in a flirtatious context. Someone who is overly flattering or complimentary might be accused of “grinding” or “softening” the sesame. This would also be the case if you were insincere or were less than honorable in your motives. I have never heard it used seriously.

Haraguroi – 腹黒いThis literally translates to black stomach. In more traditional Japanese culture, people held the notion that one’s ‘heart’ or ‘mind’ existed in one’s stomach. So the idea literally means that somebody has a dark, or evil soul. They may be smiling and happy on the surface, but they have a ‘dirty mind’ as it were.

Hashinoshita – 橋の下 I was joking around with some teachers and practicing the first word hakoirimusume (boxed daughter) and trying to gauge its usage and people’s reactions. I asked one teacher, whose son I know, if he has a boxed son. Hashinoshita was his response. It means “under the bridge” or homeless, abandoned and disowned. Its not too dissimilar from the English translation in the same context. He wasn't being very serious either.

Nekojita - This literally translates to "cat's tounge." Cats will not drink or eat anything if it is too hot, so Nekojita refers to a person who doesn't eat or drink anything too hot. So while everyone else has finished their coffee or tea, this person is waiting for it to become lukewarm.

Shopping with Brenden & Debbie



The following day I took Brenden & Debbie to a "recycle shop" near my house. We had tons of fun there, even though it is right near my house and I frequent the place. It might be considered the Japanese equivalent of Goodwill, except that people shop there for style, not for economic reasons. In fact, we noticed numerous imported used items from the USA that probably cost more than their newer counterparts that Americans buy domestically. Having only been in Japan just over 3 months, Debbie was far more cognizant of American purchasing power parity than Brenden and I. We saw used (very used) Letter Jackets from High Schools across the Midwest go for over 120 dollars. Used Starwars neckties were going for 30 dollars, when I could probably buy them new in Target for half the price. The first thing they say to avoid culture shock is not to compare. But sheesh.

I also decided to take a picture of Debbie & Brenden with the giant Pooh bear. For whatever reason, Japanese people (and young Japanese women in particular) are smitten with Pooh Bear. Finally I took them both to the Koriyama branch of the Northern Arizona University bookstore for some Lumberjack apparel. It was actually a store called “North Rim” where the guy carries new NAU t-shirts for around 50 USD. NAU tees were out of stock, but he did have ASU shirts on a clearance rack. Yeah, the Japanese know where its at. I had met the guy several times before. Being a foreigner, people easily remember me, so we made a bit of small talk. He asked me to teach him English. For free. Fat chance.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sukagawa Fire Festival

Lying to the South of Koriyama, the sleepy little town of Sukagawa sprawls out into the rice fields of central Tohoku. While Sukagawa constitutes little more than a “suburb” of Koriyama, it is quite famous for its annual “Fire Festival.” Each year, thousands descend upon the town to commemorate the destruction of an ancient castle that once stood on a hill. Around 40 to 50 large towers are constructed to represent the castle. Standing 10 to 30 meters high, each tower is a heavy column filled with mostly hay and timber. At precisely six thirty, on Saturday night, they burn

While Brenden, Debbie and I spent the better part of the day worrying about precipitation ruining the festival, people were busy erecting the towers all day as the rain fell. We watched them finish hoisting the last two upon our arrival. Using extendable ladders, wooden poles, ropes, and pulleys, groups of uniformed festival volunteers shouted chants to synchronize and coordinate their efforts. Silence ensued for a short bit as several people shuffled around to prepare another lifting. As silence fell upon the audience shortly before the completion of this task, a cry penetrated the rain soaked darkness. A single lone voice from the swirling mass of uniforms shouted into the crowd,"HEY BRENT!!"
"Get a picture of this $#イと!!"

Upon closer inspection, this particular individual had blonde hair, blue eyes, and an Australian accent.

Prior to coming, I had agreed to meet another friend named Kaori at the festival, a preschool teacher who I know from my local gym, Peare. She showed up with a friend from her preschool, and we all ate tonjiru as I made introductions. I was happy when she did show up, because they both had umbrellas that we could share, and we weren’t stuck with Brenden’s. But the rain kept pouring, and we all got wet despite the umbrellas. I felt sorry for Kaori’s friend Maiko, who was wearing girly sandals in the mud.

As we stood around making small talk, an army of little children filed past. The children were holding small wooden fishing poles, on the ends of which were suspended arcane glowing balls of fire. Police and firemen shouted to make way, as over two hundred children marched up the hill and into the area. The burning of the columns was soon imminent.

Following this, people started climbing tall ladders up the sides of the columns, holding large torches. Shoving them into the tops of the columns, they quickly descended as the pillars slowly smoldered in the rain, and then lit up the night in a spectacular display.

Words cannot describe the majestic flaming maelstrom blazing right in front of us. Smoke poured into the sky as the burning conflagration rose up to defy the endless rain falling against it. We watched until nearly all the pyres turned to crumbled masses of embers on the ground. Then we all went out to eat at an Izakaya (bar &grill).

To read Brenden's take, see his blog here.

Friends from Hanamaki

My old college buddy Brenden Pitt has been teaching English here in Japan for as long as I have. Faithful readers will recall my visit to Pittmeister’s town in September. Coming down from his post in Iwate in the North, Brenden brought his friend Debbie Wong along with him.

Both of them were excited to see the infamous Fire Festival in Sukagawa that takes place on Saturday. At first Brenden and his friend weren’t sure if they could come. But after sending them a picture of last year’s festival, they quickly vocalized unbridled enthusiasm. Living in a remote farming village in the North (their town is like Helena Montana), both were eager to go shopping and sip lattes in the urbane, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Koriyama.

Being fellow Lumberjacks, Brenden and I spent a lot of time talking about our old professors at Northern Arizona University, especially Dr. Wilson, and Dr. Foley. We had plenty of entertaining stories for Debbie.

Coming from San Francisco, Debbie is a first year teacher in Japan. She seemed very nice, and was quite patient as Brenden and I related story after story of our antics and tomfoolery at NAU and Flagstaff, Arizona. Sill being quite new to Japan, she wasn’t speaking very much Japanese yet. She still seems quite impressed with all the cultural and social differences here in Japan, as I probably was during my first year.

忘れ物 Multifarious Friday night

An atypical Friday night.

Getting home Friday, I discovered that Adoni, neighbor and fellow teacher from New York, was overly eager to “go for a drive” with me. I quickly discovered however, that she had forgotten to bring home the power cord from her laptop, and needed me to take her to her school and pick it up. Feeling especially generous, and not having any concrete plans that evening, I decided to help her out. She thanked me by taking me out to dinner.

The drive took about 40 minutes, so we had plenty of time to chat. She told me she loved most of the teachers and students, except for one English teacher she worked with. This man has apparently given her no end of grief. Upset about the Iraq war, and Adoni’s involvement (being an American), he apparently yelled at Adoni one day until she was nearly in tears. The Board of Education visited the school on Adoni’s behalf, and berated the man quite severely for several hours. She tells me things have improved since then, but he still has a screw loose and does nutty things every other day. We arrived at her school and I met some of the teachers she works with, but not this guy. It might have been an interesting conversation.

After dinner with Adoni, I met up with a friend at the local watering hole. While we were there, I ran into some other friends I haven’t seen since March and had a pretty good evening. We later went to karaoke. I met another woman in this crowd that I had apparently met over a year ago. Her name was Natsu, and she said she met me on a camping trip during my first year. I remembered the trip, but I couldn’t recall meeting her at all. She said it was probably because she had put on some weight. She was probably right.

However, she had an interesting job as tour guide in foreign countries. She typically went to China, leading groups through Beijing and Shanghai. But she traveled all over the world for her job, including Rome, London, Paris, San Francisco, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and numerous other destinations popular with Japanese tourists.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Democrats take the House アメリカの選挙 


After careful consideration, I've decided I'm not going to use this blog to spout my political opinions (despite overwhelming faultlessness and indisputability) at this point in time. But I'm sure most of you know that myself and all the American expats I know in Japan are toasting tonight.

Instead, I thought I would leave you all with another stupid youtube video!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Day in Nikko 日光

金曜日は日光市に行きました。古い神社とお寺を行って見ました。日光市の渋滞とても大変でした。渋滞から私がちょっと怒りました。でも日光市は楽しかった。猿はちょっと意地悪と思いました。猿は一人だけ見ました。寂しいと思いました。日光市の秋はとてもきれいでした。 野生の猿を見ました。渋滞から早くで帰りました。

Nestled in the mountains north of Tokyo lies one of the greatest cultural and natural treasures in all of Japan. For over a thousand years, the temples and shrines of Nikko hid amongst the enormous cedar forests on rugged hills. Shrouded in mystery and seclusion, Nikko holds some of the greatest wonders of traditional Japanese architecture, art, history and culture.

But like most wonderful things that have been “loved to death,” Nikko is now an immensely popular tourist trap for Tokyo residents vainly seeking a respite from the crowded subways and sidewalks of one of the world’s most crowded cities. Their futile attempt at escape from an insane urban nightmare is thwarted at every turn in the crowded National Park.

Traffic slows to a crawl, inching across poorly planned public infrastructure with the speed of glaciers. Over one hour behind schedule, as I approach Nikko station to pick up my friend Erika I summon every ounce of self restraint to keep my temper in check.

Once I actually meet up with Erika, and she takes me into the temples, I jostle with only a mildly annoying crowd.

I also see my first wild monkey! I see one monkey and ponder the whereabouts of the rest of his clan. He sat on a sidewalk with busy traffic and started harassing people for food. He lunged at several passing tourists with plastic bags. Erika tells me that the monkeys pester unsuspecting travelers because they want food, the annoying product of ignorant tourists feeding wild animals and turning them into pests. I can’t help but recall living in the canyon and watching people do the same to squirrels, deer and any other critter brave enough to eat from someone's hand.

We left sooner than I expected, thinking the traffic will be just as bad leaving the place.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Alison Yeardley raises $400 for Breast Cancer!

My friend Alison Yeardley, if some of you will recall, is living in Houston Texas, where she is teaching at a British primary school. This is a better picture that she sent me, so that I could congratulate her for all the money she raised in the race. Unfortunately, lacking a credit card, I've had some trouble sending her some money. But I promised her that I'll send some money for her cause before Christmas!

Anyways, I'm thinking I can use this blog to promote other charities and pet causes that any of my readers might be interested in. So far, Alison Yeardley has promoted the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Being that I have a vast internet audience around the globe, all my readers should tell me about their favorite charities! If I decide that I like the charity, I will promote it.

So come on readers!! Everybody tell me where you give your money!!

彼女の名前はアリソ\u12531 ンヤールドリーさんです。私の友達です。彼女はイギリス人です。でも今はアメリカのテクサス州に住んでいる。イギリスの小学校で働きます。5年前カリフォルニア州でリソ\u12531 ンヤールドリーさんに会いました。最近は癌の研究のためにロードレースをやりました。

Another Silly Diet Coke and Mentos Commercial

Here comes another Diet Coke and Mentos video, this time from my brother in law and faithful blog reader Seth Holler. As you can plainly see in the video, they rig this ridiculous domino contraption to shoot soda pop and and candy all over the place. See the video here.

The first question anyone asks is... who has this kind of free time?

I'm kind of tired right now, so I'm going to write more on this later.

Around the World Farewell Party


Yesterday, a small group of friends of mine and I bid farewell to Mie, who is embarking on a 3 month voyage around the world. She and her mother signed up for a four month cruise, which will take her to 15 different ports of call around the world, including Vietnam, Seychelles, Kenya, Egypt, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Libya, Venezuela, Panama, California, and numerous places between. I am honestly quite jealous of her trip and wish I could do something similar myself.

I have been toying with the idea of doing an around the world trip, but I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to go through with it. Mie’s trip has a very strict itinerary though, and I’m not sure I would want that.

I met up with Mie and several other friends from the Japanese class where she teaches and I attend. Several others from the class joined us. The aforementioned Tomoe made an appearance and Malaysians Enchan and Amy came as well. We met at a local restaurant for dinner and joked around. The manager came over to fill our coffee, and Amy couldn’t stop giggling because the poor man had forgotten to zip his fly! Speaking English, she pointed it out to everyone at the table who could understand (me, Enchan and Tomoe). Like a gaggle of freshmen at band camp, muffled laughter and red faces quickly infected the table. This particular episode highlights my need to make friends who are more mature, or at least find more male friends.

Originally from Malaysia, Amy is married with children and lives with her Japanese in-laws in Motomiyamachi. I really don’t know her very well, except that she once sent me an text to my phone (at midnight) asking about my astrological sign. Because of her asian appearance, people often assume she is Japanese until she opens her mouth. Amy entertained us with ridiculous stories of a flasher that appeared outside her school playground when she lived in Malaysia. After the 3rd or 4th time, it wasn’t such a shock and kids just laughed at the guy. She was quite funny as well.

Also, my friend Tomoe is planning a trip to the USA and Canada in February or March, and needs people with couches to crash on. She speaks fluent English when she feels like it, and is very outgoing. So if you don’t mind showing off what a great country we have, let me know and I will send her your way.

We all wished Mie well on her voyage and asked her to bring back all sorts of trinkets and junk she found. We’ll wait and see what I get in February.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Diet Coke & Mentos

Today, I went to Tomoe’s church for the first time. Like the other churches I have attended here in Japan, this one wasn’t very different on the surface. They met at Tomoe’s house in Motomiyamachi, where Tomoe’s father was the pastor. And while most of his sermon went way over my head, I was proud of the fact that I at least could tell what he was talking about most of the time.

Following this, Mie, Tomoe and I drove to Koriyama in Mie’s car. talking about something or another, when the subject of youtube came up. Being a Youtube addict in dire need of a 12-step program, I quickly described a number of the videos I had seen. Tomoe also told of some videos and provided a detailed description of the site to Mie, who had never heard of it. One of the videos I described seeing was what happens when you drop mentos candy into Diet Coke.

When we stopped at a 7-eleven, I instantly made a beeline for the Diet Coke, which isn’t a product I typically buy in Japan. I also bought the last package of Mentos candy, which is something I'm not typically aware of in Japanese stores. Tomoe was laughing so hard just at the thought of me doing this at a 7-11 that I thought she might get a hernia. I put the bottle out in the parking lot and dropped one candy in, as they do in the videos. Unfortunately, it only fizzed up about 20 centimeters. I was kind of disappointed.

So I ran inside and got a second bottle, this time determined to drop 5 candies into the bottle. On coming out of the store though, Tomoe stopped laughing just long enough to point out the fact that I had forgotten to pay! I was risking deportation and all kinds of legal trouble for a stupid human trick! I rushed back inside as fast as I could, while bowing and profusely apologizing to the attendants. I summoned the most polite groveling Japanese I could. Having watched my antics on the sidewalk, the employees were somewhat amused and I think they understood that it was an honest mistake. My two friends will probably never let me live it up though!

Motomiyamachi Festival and the Dashi 山車


On Saturday, I woke somewhat early in order to go hiking up near a ski resort. The weather turned out to be perfect. A nice cool breeze and blue skies prevailed after a slightly foggy morning. My friend Mie and I drove up a dirt road that followed a ski lift, until the road finally broke off and made for a separate mountain.

We arrived at a trailhead to see numerous trucks, a construction crew, and a pile of rotten wood. It turns out that workers were removing old retainers that were placed along the trail to contain erosion and work as stairs. The crews were using these gas powered hauling devices with tank tracks to haul the wood up the trails. The things might have held about half a cord of wood, while the worker stood behind it and controlled it like a lawnmower. They were loud and obnoxious, and spoiled what was otherwise a lovely day. We passed three of them on the way in and passed another 2 on the way out. It was a lovely hike otherwise, but we unfortunately missed the spectacular autumn leaves that grace the Japanese mountains.

Following this, Mie and left early. We went to a festival, where we met another friend of ours. We promised to photograph her carrying a mikoshi, which is a portable shrine carried on the shoulders, (picture an Asian version of the Ark of the Convenant). We finally met up with Enchan, a Malaysian exchange student at a local high school. I met both Mie and Enchan through my new Japanese class in this town. She was carrying a shrine with a bunch of women in the town’s annual harvest festival/parade, and had spent the previous week begging somebody to come photograph her carrying the shrine.

We got there around sunset and conditions were pretty good, and I got some great shots of Enchan and a large dashi. A dashi is a shrine carriage with wheels that is covered with glowing paper lanterns called chouchin. This festival wasn’t quite as big as the one I saw in Hanamaki with my friend Brenden. But I liked it nonetheless.

Mie and I met up with another friend, Tomoe during the evening. Tomoe spent most of the time spilling gossip about all the foreigners at a foreigner’s Halloween Party the previous night. So I spent a lot of time listening to her tell about the philandering lifestyles of people I met 2 years ago and haven’t seen since.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Stretching with Students ストレッチ!


Today at school, they scheduled an entire afternoon for nothing but stretches. All of the ni-nenseis (8th graders) went to the gym for 2 hours of stretching excersizes. And by stretching, I mean that we did nothing but stretch all afternoon until cleaning time. I actually didn't mind so much. As I have been feeling kind of lethargic and sluggish for the last few weeks, I was happy to limber up.

Unfortunately, the woman leading the stretching exersizes wasn't particularly good at her job. The principal introduced her as coming from some kind of city sports program, although the details were lost in translation. On the surface she resembled my aerobics instructor and a lot of the younger female PE teachers, overly fit, petite, healthy looking (attractive) and extremely cheerful and energetic. She had some great stretches in her routine, but she often failed to lead everyone in stretching both sides of the body! So when we were finished stretching our left leg or whatever, she would forget to stretch the right one. At first I wondered if I wasn't hearing her correctly or paying attention, but after 30 minutes of this I realized that she was just incompetent.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

School Festival Weekend 中学校の文化祭


Saturday morning, I went to Hiwada Middle School’s Bunkasai, or school festival, as everyone is so quick to translate it. It is basically a big production put on by the students. The students showcase their artwork, raise money through selling food and donations, and spend several hours sitting in a darkened gym putting on various stage productions and presentations.

The highlight that all the parents and teachers talk about is the choral competition, where each class sings a choral song to the school, in a competition with the other homeroom classes and grades. Always accompanied by a pianist, some of the classes are quite good, while others obviously need work. My first year here in Japan, I found the format and everything very strange. After two years however, it seems just as natural to have the chorus competition as it is natural to have pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.

Katahira’s bunkasai was on Sunday, so my weekend was completely booked. Katahira has a unique tradition of incorporating Taiko drumming into their bunkasai. Unique to Japan, Taiko drumming is difficult to describe. Picture 30 uniformed people banging heavy wooden drums at fast paces and high decibels. Drums range in size from that of a small bowl to enormous cylinders large enough to contain a VW Beetle. I'll let you guess who got to help carry the “big drum” into the gym.

The students bang on them in unison. I have heard enough Taiko drumming at competitions, half marathons, and other events to know that Katahira’s middle schoolers were not going to win any prizes, but they were impressive nonetheless. I was proud of them for learning the songs (they had to bring in two outside teachers to put the performances together).

At the end of the class performances, 6 of the girls put on a REAL taiko production.
The six girls obviously do this quite regularly, and have done so for a long time. Having obviously put an enormous amount of work into it, this final drum performance was very impressive, and worth the 6 hours at school.

For those of you in the states who don’t know what taiko drumming sounds (and looks) like, check out another youtube video. The picture above is from last year's event, as I forgot my camera. This year we had one drum that was MUCH bigger. You can rent Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai” and there is a sequence in it somewhere with the telltale drums on the soundtrack. (The movie is basically scientology nut Tom Cruise ripping off “Dances with Wolves”, but in Japan.)

Katahira's Bunkasai then finished after several very weak performances, and I was happy to get home and salvage the remaining hours of an extremely busy weekend.

The Japanese Rice Harvest

Saturday was the day of Hiwada Middle School's school festival. It was scheduled to last until about 3 or 4 oclock, but something was happening that day that I just could not pass up. Today was the final day of the rice harvest.

My friend Sanpei Sensei, who teaches P.E. at Katahira JHS, was in the process of harvesting the rice growing from his modest little plot of soil in front of his house. He lives Northeast of my city, where I imagine most everybody has a rice field. It's quite common for families, especially in rural areas, to own a bit of land (usually about an acre or 2) and do this for a little free food, or make a little cash on the side.

Sanpei Sensei was excited that I could come and help him harvest. I arrived about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and saw about 5 people out in his field. Initially thinking he had hired some help, I discovered that they were in fact his family! Sanpei Sensei's mother, who I had previously only seen sitting hunched over in her orthopedic seat with a back problem, (I never saw her move during the 5 or 6 hours I previously spent at their home) was out there slaving away with his wife and sons. Meeting this woman 5 months ago, I wouldn't have thought she could even walk very well, let alone carry enormous enormous bags of rice.

As soon as I got there I quickly realized that a ratty t-shirt and my hiking boots would not suffice. His wife's maternal instincts quickly kicked in, and I was outfitted with a thick overcoat and gloves to protect my forearms from sharp rice stems. I would come to be very grateful for this. She also insisted I wear a hat and a face mask, which I would be less grateful for, as it just looked kind of dorky. I also lacked adequate footwear, and wished I had bought some long boots for wading in the mud.

I was set to work learning the most unsophisticated of tasks under the careful tutelage of Sanpei Sensei's son. About 2 weeks before my arrival, the rice was cut from the ground and tied along scaffolds to dry out. Our task was to remove the whole plant from this scaffolding and put it into a machine. The machine looked like a hunchbacked commercial lawnmower with tank tracks. He operated a the contraption that bagged rice, while I was responsible for the vital task of throwing the rice stems into the machine.

The machine then haphazardly spewed dust, dirt, and smoke out the front, used up stems out the side, and poured large quantities of rice into bags waiting in the rear. The bags were arranged on a track, so you could leave them behind as they filled up, seamlessly switching to another bag while you work. It was rather brainless work on my part, just throwing the rice into one side.

As a way of thanking me for an honest afternoon's work, Sanpei Sensei took me out with his family to a sushi restaurant. Sanpei Sensei and I had a good time, but I think his sons thought I was nuts for wanting to help with the rice harvest. For them I guess, it would be like some crazy foreign guy in suburban America who makes a visit to help his friend mow the lawn, clean the gutters and rake the leaves, or some other mundanity. I wouldn't have understood that when I was 16 either.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Karaoke with 5 year olds.

One thing I like about my neighborhood is the youthfulness. Most of my apartment neighbors consist of young mothers with their small children. Their children range in age from 6 months to 5 years old. If the weather is nice, I often catch them outside playing with their children in the parking lot if the weather permits. So I sometimes have fun playing with their kids and chatting with them to learn Japanese. They are friendly ladies, and over the last 2 years, I’ve gotten to know them quite well. My friend Adoni does the same, and we often hang out with them.

Awhile back, we were invited to a couple of the BBQs they held, and one woman, Aki, invites us to dinner parties she holds at her new house. She moved out of the apartments when she and her husband finished building a brand new home in a suburban area nearby. She still brings her kids over to play though, and we’ve become good friends.

So on Friday night, my friend Adoni (from New York) and I were invited to attend the birthday party of Aki’s son Shota. Another neighbor came along with her two sons, who are about Shota’s age. Another woman from the neighborhood joined us as well. This party was to be held at a sprawling Karaoke complex. Only the mothers with 5 year old boys came along.

The evening was kind of interesting, although a bit awkward. Aki is pregnant, and the third woman, Kaori, had just bore a child 6 months ago. So I learned lots of new words, like tsuwari (morning sickness). In fact, between listening to their five year olds scream pokemon songs on the karaoke machine, I spent most of the evening listening to the ladies chat to me about morning sickness, doctor's visits, and breast feeding. I just sheepishly smiled, and tried not to blush too much while pretending I could relate.

I wished they had brought their husbands along so I could have had some more varied conversation. I rarely see their husbands, as they slave away till 8 or 9 at night. As for the karaoke, I still can’t sing any Japanese songs decently, but I almost nailed a couple. The kids were singing all kinds of Dragonball and Doraemon songs that I had never heard. They also made a spectacular mess of the karaoke room.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Whale Meat for Lunch???

The school lunches in Japan typically consist of semi-traditional Japanese fare. The students put on a big production of serving it to each other and eating it together in the classroom. Typically one can count on eating rice, some kind of soup, a vegetable, and a piece of meat/fish on most days of the week. Some days they will have a variation with some kind of noodle dish or jelly sandwiches instead of rice.

Some of the teachers pay great attention to what they eat, largely because they aren't crazy about many Japanese foods. They read the school lunch menu, (or have it read too them). I on the other hand, usually enjoy the school lunch, and consider most of it to be fairly nutritious and wholesome grindage, despite its tendency to be quite bland. The curry & rice they serve is often particularly good. I pay little attention to what I'm eating, and often don't even know what it is. While I used to be a very finicky eater, I just couldn't be bothered to care about anything I stuff in my face anymore.

Then yesterday, another English teacher by the name of Christel asked me if I had eaten the lunch on Tuesday. I replied yes, asking why she was curious. She responded that the fish that day, was in fact a large Cetacean mammal! I had heard of Whale meat being served in Japanese lunches, but never actually had the experience of it being served to me.

Many of my environmentalist readers may be familiar with the controversy Japan is in right now, as they conduct "scientific whaling" under the auspices of "research." But everyone knows it winds up in Tokyo supermarkets and on the plates of Middle School Students. The Japanese have begun harvesting Minke whales, much to the displeasure of most of the planet.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, an informed opinion would suggest the Japanese government could certainly make an argument for a carefully managed harvest of certain whale species, assuming a thorough environmental impact study supports such a plan. But what has happened, is that they are killing whales in International waters against the wishes of the rest of the international community, which I find most disturbing. This is surprising, because I find Japanese culture often surpresses the needs of individuals to the needs of the rest of the group. So why then, is the Japanese government as beligerent and thickheaded as it is on the world stage with regards to whaling? I aslo find many people I meet to be concerned about how their country is percieved in the rest of the world, even if that only amounts to how popular sushi is in America.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sailing Inawashiro with the Koriyama Yacht Club

Every autumn in Japan, all of the middle schools across the land put on a big production called a bunkasai, or school festival. Students entertain parents and the day is filled filled with singing, dance productions, skits, other assorted activities, speeches, and what passes for entertainment in this country.

Because I had committed to attending two of these bunkasais, I wasn't able to join my friend Teppei Takahashi for our monthly moutaineering excursion into the woods. So he kindly invited me to join him on the waters of Lake Inawashiro at his "Yacht Club" the week all the Bunkasais ended. Teppei and I head up to the hills every other month or so for some hiking and mountaineering, but this was my first time sailing with him.

This would be fantastic! Spending a sporty day with mist and spray in my face as our vessel screamed across the water at breakneck speed! Whitecaps smashing over the deck and threatening to capsize our vessel! Rubbing shoulders with all the beautiful people while as a five course meal is served to us on the deck, complete with champagne, caviar, and all sorts of Japanese delicacies I couldn't possibly afford! Then kicking the boat back into high gear and returning to shore, as I stand triumphantly on the bow of a majestic vessel arriving at an exotic port of call!

Teppei picked me up before dawn and we drove up to Lake Inawashiro, which lies over the mountains to the West of Koriyama City. When he told me our destination, my preconceptions were already in doubt. We met up with a number of Teppei's Koriyama Yacht club friends at the Club's lake shore campground. Upon seeing the property, all the images in the previous paragraph were instantly shattered. Several people's
tiny boats, some ancient sheds full of life jackets and thick brush surrounded a dying campfire and 2 tents. Most people had camped the previous evening, sailing their dingys on the nearby lake shore. We gave them a hand as they loaded their tiny sailboats back onto trailers. Teppei seemed particularly proud of the fact that the club made (by hand) most of the custom trailers and roof racks hauling their little boats. I was a bit surprised that these little dingys, most of which were not much bigger than a large canoe, passed as yachts (yotto), but that's what they called them! But they reassured me we'd be in a much bigger boat for the afternoon.

After cleaning the campsite and eating breakfast, we all drove off for a marina on the other side of Lake Inawashiro. Twenty minutes later, we reached the marina where the sailboats were still small, but a much more respectable size. The marina crew lowered the club's boat into the water, and we all piled into a ship dubbed the "World Wind." The boat was apparently owned by one member of the club, but they all contributed to marina fees and maintenance costs. So THIS was the magnificent vessel everyone was boasting about at breakfast! While only 20 or so feet from bow to stern, it would be perfect for an afternoon of fun on the lake.

After some basic maintenance, our team was ready to go! We quickly departed after loading the ship with giant cases full of onigiri and a week's supply of beer. How long were we going to be out here? The sun had finally pierced the foggy haze and blue skies surrounded us. I had been concerned about weather, as Lake Inawashiro often gets relentless rain showers. At times, I've seen some scary storms on the lake as well. While relieved at the beautiful weather, we lacked a good strong wind, which surprised everyone on board. The area usually gets a good strong wind from the West. Consequently, we never did get moving much faster than two or three knots. Good thing we brought lots of beer!

Lake Inawashiro, the third largest freshwater lake in Japan, is located just West of Koriyama City. It lies right near the center of Fukushima Prefecture in North Central Honshu. Steeply terraced rice fields and rugged green mountains of cedar forests surround the beautiful lake on almost all sides. Besides sailing, Inawashiro serves as the local playground for numerous other water-sports enthusiasts, as wind surfers, kayakers and jet-skiers flock to its shores on the weekend. Siberian swans find refuge on its shores in the winter, and attract their legions of weekend ornithologists armed with cameras and binoculars. Winter also bring skiers to the slopes, who come from all around in search of decent powder, majestic views, and steaming hot onsens. The imposing slopes of Mount Bandai preside over the whole area with ominous doom, waiting for the day when the peak spews forth a cloud of toxic ash and violent pyroclastic avalanches of superheated gas and rubble.

Trying to keep my mind off the image of an eruption, I met some pretty interesting folks aboard the ship. There were a couple of guys who lived in the USA at various times, although they had forgotten most of their English. There was also a guy and his son who had lived in China for several years. His son had also gone to one of my schools, but long before I ever got there. Despite living in Japan for over two years, I was still impressed by everyone's hospitality. Everyone was curious about my impressions of Japan and Koriyama City and I entertained them as best I could with crazy stories from the local middle school I teach at.

Then there was my friend Teppei Takahashi, who works for the City. While he's never lived abroad as his friends have, he's an extremely adventurous and outgoing guy, often boisterous and very talkative. He's extremely sporty, and responsible for various city sports programs and the school lunch menu. He's at the head of his section, which is comprised almost entirely of former PE teachers. While most of the people in the city hall work late into the evening, (or pretend to do so), his section always goes home at 5 PM sharp. I can usually find Teppei pumping iron at our local gym after hours as well. Its very refreshing to see folks here with such healthy attitudes about work and play.

Anyways, back to sailing. I learned a few things about sailing by watching the crew, but I mostly just tried to stay out of everyone's way. I learned some important Japanese sailing terminology, including sutaba! (starboard) It was a great day, and everyone was having a good time until....we spotted GODZILLA rising from the lakebed!

To be continued......

去年郡山市役所で働いている私の友達の高橋哲平さんと会いました。郡山のヨットクラブは20人位います。ときどき高橋哲平さんと一緒に山登りします。クラブのヨットの名前はWorld Windです。ヨットは8m位だと思います。 いい天気でした。でも風は少し弱いと思いました。ヨットはゆっくり動きました。日焼けしてしまいました。痛かったです。クラブの人々は親切でした。楽しかったよ! 

Monday, October 16, 2006

Saturday at Xaverio Junior High School

Yesterday, I went to the International Day festival at Xaverio Chugakko, a private girl’s school here in Koriyama. Xaverio is actually a Catholic school, begun by a group of Canadian missionaries before I came here. I’m uncertain how strongly religious instruction is stressed at Xaverio, and actually know very little about it. The school does however, have an excellent reputation in the city for English Education. Every year except last, they have taken the city middle school English Speech Contest Prize.

I showed up at 9:30, and was put in a room with all the other foreigners. Then they held a big opening ceremony. Finally they escorted me to a class of first year students (7th graders). The students stood up one by one and introduced themselves, which went something like this: “Hello! My name is Akiko! I like cat! I play table tennis after school! I also like okonomiyaki!” (Okonomiyaki is a fried Korean pancake thing.)

After 20 or so variations on this, I gave my own introduction in roughly the same manner, something I’ve grown accustomed to in my own job. Following this introduction, we broke off into small groups and I was with roughly 8 girls who were supposed to ask me questions and practice English with me. This was to last roughly 1 hour.

After 5 minutes, all the kids had exhausted their questions and vocabulary, so I entertained the girls with silly impersonations of famous Japanese singers, politicians, and comedians. I don’t like to brag, but my group was laughing longer and louder than all the other groups in my class combined! (A special thanks goes out to my father, for teaching me the “finger in your ear, tounge in your cheek” thing). I finally thought of an English game to play, and we did that for the rest of the hour.

I was lucky they were younger, and there was less structure in the class. I felt sorry for the 3rd year students, who had to spend a whole hour talking about global warming and the merits of recycling PET bottles in English. (American readers, imagine doing this in Spanish as an 8th grader).

After this, there was a big closing ceremony, where the school presented a large donation to an orphanage in Rwanda. They gave us a lunch, and then I left.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Giant Japanese Wasps


During most of my classes, I have some measure of control over the activities, content, and control of the class. However, there are those days or classes when the teacher still wishes for me to follow their own strict lesson plan, or do something ridiculous, impossible, or both. Today was such a day, when I was asked (ordered) to lead the class in singing a sappy song about saving the starving children of the world. The song was aptly written by none other than...Michael Jackson.

Most of you know, I'm not musically, and especially vocally inclined, so I was mildly dreading a lessson involving a song about healing children by Wacko Jacko. I had never even heard the song before, as I managed to dodge it during my previous two years. But it is in the textbook, so of course we have to do it. And my luck ran dry, or so I thought.

However, halfway into the second round, I was saved from implementing such joyless and wearisome instruction by an enormous mutant wasp! I kid you not, this thing was over two inches long. And it wasn’t like the skinny American wasps, this thing was fat and beefy. It looked like it could tussle with a humming bird. I don’t call it mutant lightly either, as Fukushima prefecture's stable soils make it Northern Japan’s primary location for nuclear power plants (the soils absorb earthquakes better here). The size of this wasp suggests a dire need for a new environmental impact study. I suspect the behemoth and its brood can glow in the dark and read minds.

As soon as it flew into the room, I heard cries of “KOWAI!! (scary), and most of the kids quickly poured out of the room. They turned the lights off, opened the windows and waited for the Pilsbury insect to lose interest in my Michael Jackson lesson. The minute the wasp left, the bell rang, and the torture was over. Saved from teaching the King of Pop!

You can watch this cool video I found here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Mt. Adatara with my Japanese Class

Following the early departure of Couchsurfer Dan, I left with my friend Mie and headed up to the hills on my own very special mountain excursion. We met my Japanese class on the trailhead. All the students (mostly Chinese) and the volunteers whose hobby is teaching Japanese to foreigners every Thursday night gathered early in the morning at a ski resort.

We took the lazy way up, paying 800 yen (about 7-8 USD) for a 5 minute gondola ride. The weather early in the morning was rather crummy, but tolerable. A light drizzle came down, chilled by a strong wind from the Southwest, remnants of the typhoon that previously hit on Friday.

The Japanese volunteers were divided into 2 distinct categories. One group was totally unprepared for hiking and hardly had the slightest clue what to bring. Wearing jeans, casual shoes, leather purses, and pullover sweaters, any upswing in the rain might make their day utterly miserable. Their umbrellas quickly broken, or carried off by a strong wind, it was apparent to me that they didn't spend much time in the mountains.

The other group, was decked out in the latest yellow, orange, purple and red gore-tex raingear from The North Face or some other trendy, overpriced "trekking" brand. This camp came sporting waterproof hats over wollen caps, 4 layers of polypro (or whatever overpriced fiber was developed by Dupont last week), gators on their new boots (there was no snow), and colorful ski gloves. Their backpacks were capable of hauling enough supplies for 3-4 days. They looked prepared for Antarctica, and not the little pile of dirt known as Mount Adatara in the fall. These folks apparently spend more time in the gear shop than on the mountain, evidence that they weren't any more experienced than the first group. As an avid hiker and rock-climber, I won't try and pretend I don't like, own or covet some of these products, but to drag it all along for an easy day hike seemed rather pretentious and excessive.

The hike was very good, except for the weather and visibility close to the summit, and the massive crowd of people streaming up and down the mountain. The mud wasn't very fun either. I have climbed it once previously with a friend, but we did it in the winter, when nobody else was there (and the ski resort had not yet opened). This time, the fall colors were beautiful, and numerous different shades of red, yellow, and orange. With the lousy weather, I wasn't able to get any terribly good shots.

I also had fun talking to everyone, including my tutor Tomoko, who is pictured here.