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.

CouchSurfing guy hangs 5 at my place

私の友達は群馬県から郡山市に来ました。 Couchsurfing.comのウエブサイトで出会いました。彼はとても頭がいいです。私たちはたくさんの同じ本を読んだことがあります。わたしはダンさんの福島県の友達を知っていました。ビックリ! トンカツのレストランへ一緒に行きました。

Saturday marked my first experience with "The Couchsurfing Project" which is a website for people who love to travel, but either lack a budget or show interest in seeing and meeting people 'off the beaten path.' I had made an account several months prior, anticipating surfing couches from time to time in Italy. For reasons I cannot entirely recall, I never did get that opportunity, but I never deleted my account. And last week, I got my first request for someone to come and visit me.

The concept behind the Couchsurfing Project is very simple. You sign up, and then request to surf someone's couch when you are traveling. You have a profile page that tells a little bit about yourself, so they can decide if they want to host you or not. This is Daniel's profile. You can also pick and choose who you wish to stay with, if you think you would get along better with someone else. You also get to say how many you can host and control a number of other factors. It is fairly safe too, because all communications are monitored, and it is difficult to host or be hosted until you have been "vouched for."

Daniel emailed me Friday as he was planning a quick trip to my area to climb Mt. Bandai, one of the more picturesque mountains around these parts. I picked him up at the station at about 6 and we went to dinner at a well-known Tonkatsu place in town. The food was excellent, and I'm glad Dan came, because I don't think I would have gone otherwise.

But it also turns out that Dan is not a complete stranger from the internet after all. He works as an English Teacher with the JET Programme just like I do. He came over at the same time I did and we discovered we shared some mutual friends. After the post-arrival Tokyo Orientation conference 2 years ago, he moved to Gunma-Ken, while I was shipped to Fukushima-Ken. We traded stories about our travels, experiences in Japan, and many other things.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to climb Bandai-san with him, as I was climbing another nearby mountain with my Japanese class volunteers and classmates. I failed in my attempt to convince him to join my class on another peak. So after he stayed, I dropped him off at a nearby station so he could climb Mount Bandai.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Yanaizu & Enzou-ji

Over the weekend, I went with friends of mine up to the mountains for a hike. I drove Jake and his girlfriend Junko out to an area near Yanaaizu, about 2 hours East by car. I've been to Aizu before, but never so far East. Steep rugged mountains covered in green trees surrounded the narrow windy highway.

It was a relatively easy hike. It only took about 2 hours to reach some kind of radio transmitter on the summit. There was a lovely town far below. See the pictures.

We also found an injured preying mantis. Like most people in the world, most Japanese have an aversion to insects, although entomology is a popular hobby. But this aversion to insects seems to have 3 notable exceptions: big stag beetles, dragonflies, and preying mantises. While most people will freak out if they find a spider or an ant on them, if Japanese people see one of the above, it is typically regarded as cute, kind of like a hampster or a parakeet. This particular mantis was injured, as you can see from the picture, which is probably why he didn't try to escape from us.

Anyways, after the hike, we visited a unique temple where a guy was doing very unique throat singing. I've never heard anything like it live before. The temple also had an unusual amount of ornately carved cedar on it. Very pretty.

The entire Aizu region is famous for a mythical red cow that supposedly helped some farmers move a tree stump and then suddenly disappeared into the forest. A big bronze statue of the cow was there outside the temple.

Following this, we went to an onsen, which is Japanese for Hot Springs. You bathe off before you get into the water, and then you sit around and chat. You go in naked and they only give men a tiny loin cloth. Women get a substantially bigger towel for obvious reasons.

"Weird Al's" New Album


I normally maintain a very strict policy about never viewing internet advertisements, but I have to say I made my first exception in over a year when I saw Weird Al Yankovic's New Album in an add banner. It's called "Straight outta Lynwood," and I can't seem to find it in any record stores here in Japan. Family and friends now know what to buy me for Christmas. Only found a couple of the videos on Youtube.

I remember listening to him back when I was a kid, buying the album with my allowance at the nearest record store. I would put it on my father's stereo, and annoy him with the hilarious paradies of whatever pop music drivel came out the previous year. When my parent's tolerance was sufficiently exhausted, I would sit in my room on my old queen size waterbed, with the songs blairing in my ears through enormous headphones. After 5 or 6 weeks, I would be sick of it and never listen to it again exept when like minded friends came to visit.

Then I remember in college, driving around with Paul Brodar in his Blazer or Honda listening to Weird Al and Dr Demento tapes, usually on our way to go rock climbing or skip rocks on Lake Mary at some ludicrous hour.

It really is sad and pathetic when your life is reduced to excitement over the release of the latest "Weird Al" collection. To be honest, my life isn't so sad. I've got a great circle of friends, both in the States and here in Japan. I realize that I'm loved and accepted by good people and by God. I'm finally letting go of all my old self esteem problems that have plagued me for so long, and for the first time ever, I'm starting to live my life without thinking what other people think or say about me I'm not worried anymore about who I'm seen with or where I'm seen. I'm not going to let others try and put me down for my tastes in music or clothes or little idiosyncrasies. I'm not giving any details, but I've recently seen firsthand how insecure people put others down, and it is truly a pathetic sight. For the first time ever, I don't have a problem with being white & nerdy!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Caption Contest is Back in Action!

Last week's (2 weeks ago?) photo caption contest was quite memorable, with 2 entries from Skilz. So by non-participatory default, the winner of the previous entry, and reigning caption champion Skilz once again retains his title, this time with: "Too poor to afford a Dale Earnhardt t-shirt, Sasquatch decided that the next best thing would be to wax the number 3 into his overgrown back hair."

This weeks contest picture is the other picture. (Obviously.) A large black bull staring at the camera. This picture comes courtesy of Suzanne Gamelin, who I believe sent it to me over a year ago in some kind of forwarded email with fun pictures. Anyways, put a caption on it and challenge Skilz to his title in the heavyweight Belly Button Caption Contest!!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Basketball, Tennis, & Ping Pong OH MY!!

Last week my city held their large sports tournament for all the schools in the city. Each school sent their teams out to compete for the title in their sport. As there were no classes that day, I went out and about to watch the various tournaments at the various different schools. Having gone to Katahirachu for 3 years, I decided to stop in and watch their girls basketball team, whom I sometimes practice with. Unfortunately, their team was cut very short, and they only had 6 players! They never really had a chance, and were clobbered by a rival school.

I also got to watch some tennis during the first day of tournaments. During the second day, rain forced cancellation of the game. So I went indoors to watch the Hiwada JHS boys volleyball team completely slaughter a rival. As they were obviously not in need of my moral support, I went over to watch some more table tennis. I have never seen so many ping pong games at one time than when I first watched this tournament 2 years ago.

You can look at the pictures to see what went on.