Monday, December 31, 2007

Kabuki in Tokyo

Maybe the one thing that I most wanted to do in Tokyo during this trip was see a Kabuki play. We walked to a large kabuki theater called kabuki-za that I had first seen some weeks earlier with my parents. Located in the Ginza district of Tokyo, the building itself is very large and very traditional looking.

My understanding is that the usual kabuki ticket gets you into a series of back-to-back shows that last some number of hours. I didn't want to commit the time or the money to such a ticket, nor do I have any idea how to get one.

Luckily the theater offers "one show" tickets for those short on cash or deficient on attention. We had to wait in line for about an hour and pay maybe $15, and we were in business. For another 4 bucks, we each rented earphones that gave a loose English translation of the show itself, along with other little historical tidbits or facts about the actors.

We walked up several staircases to the fourth floor of the theater, and once on the other side of the door... "standing room only" said a theater worker without emotion. In their defense, there were seats available but they were all currently occupied, but its strange that I don't recall that being mentioned when I handed them my cash. So in addition to the one official intermission we took some little breaks of our own during the multiple hour long show, to keep our legs from snapping in half.

The "one show" ticket ended up covering two smaller shows. I really wish that they would have let me take some video of everything, or at least sold a DVD somewhere. Both of the shows were really cool and I can't possibly describe them fully in my own words... shame.

The first show was a dance performance supposedly from the Edo period. Two men in bright blue outfits danced in the street while they made something called awamochi, a cake of rice that is pounded with a hammer until it becomes one thick and sticky mass. Their faces were painted in a typical kabuki-looking way, super white with bright red around the eyes... maybe some additional red around the mouth area. The dance itself was awesome, and I realized what a good purchase the earphones were... sometimes these guys were acting out things that I never would have guessed in a million. They were accompanied by a maybe ten person band on the far left of the stage. Vocals, shamisen, maybe a drum or two.

The next show was a bit of a disappointment to me. Rather than the flamboyant costumes and the crazy expressions of a huge kabuki show that I was expecting, we were presented with what seemed to me to be a usual play, set around the time when the US forced Japan to open its doors to the outside world. The setting was a geisha house in a city whose name I don't recall. A geisha killed herself out of loneliness, unknowingly right before she was about to be purchased by an American. Although the two events were unconnected, her friend geisha invented a whole story about how the girl had killed herself rather than be touched by a foreigner, in order to make money from the nationalist samurai still roaming the city.

As an American I wasn't really bothered by the subject matter, I found it a very interesting look into a period in Japanese history that I have read about several times. The part that hurt me the worst was the Japanese guy who played the American. I felt like he was an awkward ass in an over-the-top fashion, perhaps to make it obvious why he didn't belong in polite Japanese society. And his English.... it was so awful. His accent was grating. At one point he and a Japanese store owner were attempting to communicate, and it just made me cringe. The store owner's purposefully bad language skills weren't that much worse than the guy who was supposed to be native. I don't know. Maybe I was still mad that I was standing for hours to see something that wasn't even kabuki, but it bothered me a bit.

Once that awful English speaker was gone the play was quite interesting, and ended with the lying geisha finally getting caught in her lie years later. This was my first time seeing a real kabuki act, and this place is one of the premier kabuki stages in the country. Very cool.

The main entrance to the theater. Even the building was dramatic.

Angelica standing in front of a wall of traditional sake barrels. This might be a New Year's season thing, not sure.

The theater right after the show. A massive crowd all left this place at once. There was a subway station named after the theater, I assume to accommodate these crowds.

We had pretty good success in dealing with the Tokyo subway. I often cheat and just ask someone for directions, and sometimes the maps are in English. Sometimes.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

12/30/07 Japan with Angelica

It has already been a week since I picked up Angelica from the airport, and we have been doing a ton. Where better to start that at the beginning?

We were already in the Tokyo area due to her flight, so I figured we could save time and money if we simply spent a few days sightseeing before returning to Ashikaga. We bought some tickets for a hostel in the Asakusa(wikitravel) area of Tokyo, so we took the subway to the station that was indicated in the hostel's literature. At this point we realized that although we were at the correct station, we still had only an address with no map to guide us. I was just about to give up and signal a taxi when a little boy and his dad walked up. I had earlier noticed them half glancing at us and discussing amongst themselves, so when then finally stepped up I figured we were about to be either assisted or mugged.

Luckily the two had decided on the former, and quickly snatched up the printout we had from our hostel. Via the contact information listed, they called the establishment and proceeded to walk with us several blocks all the way to the exact spot we were staying. Part of the way to our destination, an employee from the hostel was waiting for us on the corner. Rather than wave off our current guides, he simply joined our merry band and continued on towards the hostel.

I gathered that the motivation of the first group was that the father had worked in France at some point. He apparently wanted to practice his French despite my repeated protests in English and Japanese. He was unable to speak any English and he was similarly unamused that Angelica can speak Spanish. The son is a junior high school student so in order to be a gracious guest I spoke with him in my super slow English, something that I usually refuse to do outside of class.

Anyway, I thought that all of this random kindness from strangers was the best first impression to Angelica that Japan could possibly hope for. Good work, Japan.

The hostel ended up being pretty quality. A pair of clean bunk beds behind a door with a lock on it is all I really needed. They were even some PCs with internet access setup for our free enjoyment. Very convenient for the confused traveler.

We spent the rest of the night wandering around Asakusa. By that time many of the touristy places were already closed, but I think that we still had a good time.

Here we are at Kaminarimon in Asakusa. There is a cool statue on either side of the large gate, one depicting Raijin the god of thunder, the other Fujin, the god of wind. The giant lantern behind us is pretty famous and thoroughly photographed.

Opposite the gate are a seemingly endless amount of shop stalls. We arrived a bit late to make any purchases, unfortuantely.

Realizing that pretty much everything would be closed in Tokyo after 9pm, even on a Saturday, I took her to the only place that I was certain would still have some life to it. Roppongi (wikitravel). It is known as one of the party districts of Tokyo, and a favorite spot for foreigners. The streets were lined with non-Japanese men trying to drum up business for their respective clubs. Sure its a bit grimy, but there were plenty of interesting things to see. We were both too tired to do any partying, but just the atmosphere of this place makes it worth a look.

During our wanderings we caught a good view of Tokyo Tower, the tallest man-made structure in Japan.

The saga continues.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

12/22/07 Christmas Bingo

Recently one of my teachers just pulled the classic "wait until 4:30 to give you a bunch of work I want done the next day" song and dance on me, so I was scrambling around a bit to figure out what I should do. She wanted me to come up with a full 45 minute lesson, which isn't really a big deal, I just needed to be sure that I had enough material to keep everyone occupied. The little lesson that I devised isn't especially ingenious or complicated, but I am pretty happy with how it is working.

First, I passed out some blank bingo boards for everyone to play with. Then I gave a talk about Christmas trees: how we go to a tree farm to pick one, the cool little netting machine that wraps the tree up for transport, decorating, and my favorite part: the throwing of the dead trees next to the street for removal by the city. It makes me feel fuzzy and American inside when I can just throw things away and let industry take care of the consequences.

If I had a tree in Japan that I wanted to throw away, I would probably have to take all the needles off first and put them neatly in a bag, then maybe cut off the branches and stack them according to circumference, then set it outside on an odd-day, before 8 in the morning but not after 5 in the afternoon, on account of the stray animals that come out after night. Shudder.

So I have all the words in hiding, and every time I mention one of the "bingo words" I write it on the board. This way, if they want to play bingo and win the fabulous prizes, they have to at least halfway look in my direction. Genius.

About those fabulous prizes... I have a confession... I didn't buy even a single one of them. They were all free because they have traffic safety and other such government messages on them. The kids were more than happy to get the fun little key-chains, pencils, and rulers, plus now a large group of Japanese children know some important things about life: the legal alcohol limit in Illinois is .08, and only they can prevent forest fires. Luckily most of them are too indifferent to open a dictionary and thus uncover my operation.


Here are a couple little interesting things.

We already drank a bit out of the glass, but a restaurant-ordered glass of Japanese sake is often poured in this manner. A cup inside a cup on a plate is brought empty to the table, then the inner glass is filled until it overflows and fills the square cup. Its worth ordering just for the entertainment value.

The only American flag flying in town that I know of: gracefully fluttering on the side of a gun shop. Real guns being illegal in Japan, this shop is filled mostly with toy pellet guns. I feel really proud and teary-eyed when I see my culture taking root over here, ya know?

I'm leaving in a couple of hours to go pick up Angelica from the airport... exciting!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

12/19/07 Can Somebody Give Me a Ride to the Arcade?

I'm currently having a small dilemma. A bicycle dilemma. When I first arrived in Ashikaga, there was a nasty little bicycle waiting for me at my apartment. For the next week or so, I played hermit crab, trading my junky bike for other people's less junky bikes. Teachers and friends were nice enough to swap me. Us foreign English teachers are very temporary by nature, and it seems we leave a trail of beaten bikes in our wake. So I finally worked my way up to a bike that was tall enough for me to ride and wasn't all rusty and gross. That trusty little trooper lasted until about a month ago. I was riding down a hill when one of the brakes gave out, in a scary but failed assassination attempt. The next day, as I was riding my one-braked bike to school, one of the tires gave out.

I figured enough was enough so I took it to a bike shop. This shop is pretty much on the opposite side of town, but its the biggest bike store I've seen and I figured that they would best understand the art of two-wheeled conveyance. Once the bike mechanic gentlemen finished telling me how much everything would cost, it seemed like just getting a brand new bike was the best option for me. I picked out a fairly low cost shiny one and that was that. Me and my bike went everywhere together, and things were great.

The honeymoon was a short one. The right peddle soon developed an oval-shaped orbit, which got so bad that eventually the peddle scraped up against the side of the bike with every revolution. Not only did this condition make it quite inconvenient to ride, the clanking sound was quite unattractive as well. In the bike's defense, I may have made some contact with a fence post, but I didn't feel like I hit anything hard enough to deserve such punishment.

So I rode the clanker all the way back out to the bike shop. They "fixed" it for me by bending it back into place. Not perfect, but quite satisfactory, and it got rid of the feeling that I was riding a bike with square wheels. Maybe a week later, I found myself back at the shop with the same problem.

When I asked him if I was just too heavy for the poor thing, and that`s why it was degenerating, he said something along the lines that I was putting too much force of the pedals. Then he suggested that maybe my leg muscles were just too powerful for my own good(I ignored this theory as it sounded suspiciously like empty flattery to make me forget about the lemon they sold me.). He also made the unfortunate comment that even if I was to get the bike repaired, its possible that the same thing might develop.

So here`s the deal. I have a bike with an unfortunate condition. The parts and labor to get the one pedal`s mechanics replaced is almost half the price of the whole bike. They won`t take my used bike in trade for a new one, and I am afraid to buy the same bike for fear that this will happen again. Do I buy the cheapest bike I can with the understanding that it will just get destroyed anyway, or invest in a better one that can withstand my incredible hulkiness? Choices, choices.


Along with the usual arcade fare of shooting things and punching other things, lately the crew has become interested in the games of skill. You know what I mean, the claw games. While in the US claw games are mostly just the sad little glass boxes with loads of unwinnable (often unwantable) dusty stuffed animals, in Japan they are quite a bit more classy. The prizes are flashy, the games seem a bit more winnable, and they are so popular that I have seen several entire establishments where the mighty claw is the only thing you can play.

Well last night I won a huge candy bar after just two tries. Tung went into a fit of chocolate-flavored jealously, putting coin after coin into another machine, softly cursing to himself after each failed attempt. I tried to help, but to no avail. The trick is to pick your targets wisely. Only go after the prizes that some other poor soul has already worked on winning.

Eventually Tung needed the candy just to get the taste of defeat out of his mouth.

Me gloating with my huge prize. I think I`ll eat it for dinner tonight.

Too bad there aren`t any bicycles in these machines....

Sunday, December 16, 2007

12/17/07 Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful

This month has been cold. I wish I could give you a concrete temperature, but I am pretty isolated from the media here and haven't seen a weather report of any kind in months. Its not freezing, which is merciful. The way this country deals with the cold is continuously amusing.

A line that I have commonly heard is that "Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world". On that point, I am going to have to respectfully disagree. You see, Japan is super advanced in the world of consumer electronics, robotics, and automobiles, but it seems to be a bit behind in other areas. First of all, central heating seems to be almost nonexistant. When I casually commented on the chilliness of my apartment to my coworkers, they all started mentioning ways that they keep warm, especially in their beds at night. A common response is the kotatsu, the little table with a heater on the underside that keeps your legs warm. That's great, except that it sort of restricts my movement to a small square on the floor in one room.

The other heat making device in my apartment is a couple of gas heaters. No, not natural gas, liquid gas. So I am supposed to go out to a gas station and fill up a couple of these gas cans at a local gas station. Then, I use a hand pump to move the liquid from the cans to the heaters, which really stinks the place up. Then, I turn on the little guys and bathe in the glorious heat. But, wait, they have an automatic timed cutoff. Oh, that's because if you leave these heaters on too long, the fume build-up will kill you. So no all-night warmth for you.

I wasn't real excited about either of these options, so I went out and bought a couple electric heaters. I can move them around and leave them on all night without having to worry about waking up dead. One of them even has a steamer function, so I can pour in water and it will humidify the house. It's very handy, as the dryness of the winter can bother me sometimes. I haven't gotten an electric bill since I started using these little guys though, so I am preparing myself for the shock. I guess that will be some added warmth.

The heating situation at school is interesting as well. The offices and the teacher's room are generally well heated, to begin with. They seem to have some version of the kerosene heaters in use. When I enter schools hallways, though, is when the insanity starts. Open windows. This building has virtually no insulation that I can detect. The walls are impressively thin, and windows are everywhere. Sometimes so many of them are open that there is a considerable amount of wind in the hallways. In the halls, I wear pretty much the same clothing that I wear on my commute to work. The classrooms themselves have their own heaters, so they are a bit better. Still, though, open windows abound. Often both the windows to the wind-tunnel halls and the outside world are wide open. Beats me.

I often see the students carrying around those little sand packs that chemically produce heat when you shake them. Few things are more pathetic than watching one of these poor kids try to shake a bit more heat out of one at the end of the day. Luckily I have my love of teaching to keep me warm.


This weekend was a nice break. For some reason this last week has been especially long. Getting to work on time is a daily struggle. I have to fight the desire to stay in my warm bed just a bit longer. Maybe the saddest part of my day is when I open the shower door and watch all the lovely steam get sucked out by the room.

Monday starts off the last full week before winter break, so I expect the kids will be as excited as I am. By this time next week, Angelica will be in Japan, so I have been trying to clean the apartment up a bit. Several of my friends are going home for the holidays, and a couple others are going on little trips in the country, so it will be a while before we can all chat together again.

Here's my main crew. English Mike, Clarence from Springfield, and Australian Tung. We are passing time in a popular way these days, waiting for the next train.


The Simpsons Movie was released to theaters in Japan just a few days ago, and I have seen the odd promotional poster here and there. I was grabbing a donut tonight and saw something wonderful. Simpsons themed donuts, in their iconic bright red and yellow glory! I bought one of each. As I ate them, a bit of self-reflection snuck in. I remember seeing the film in Springfield just before I left for Japan, not 5 months ago. I am living quite a different life now.

Mmmm, cartoonishly bright colored donuts.

Here's my Mr. Donut bag. The Simpsons is spelled out in Japanese phonetic characters, which sound more like this: Za Shimpusonzu

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

12/13/07 Mercado de Ota

I finished my morning routine this morning and rushed out the door. It was raining. When I first arrived in Ashikaga, I would thoroughly ignore the rain in most cases. It was so hot that I welcomed any change in the weather. Now, its cold enough that I doubt I could go out in the rain without getting sick. I went back inside and retrieved the rain suit that my parents were thoughtful enough to bring and quickly put it on, then went back outside. The rain pants and jacket are big enough that the rain didn't have much effect, apart from making my hands cold and obscuring my vision through my glasses. I was maybe halfway to school when someone's bike jetted in front of me from behind a walled alleyway. It was perfect timing, and I probably wouldn't have been able to stop even if it hadn't been raining. I hit their bike pretty much full force, completely knocking them off. I smacked him at almost a perfect 90 degree angle. As I looked down on this person and began to apologize, I realized it was a student from my school. I started to laugh a bit and he said he was ok, so I didn't worry about it too much after that. The students aren't supposed to be riding bikes to school, probably because of the mayhem that the hundreds of bikes would cause to traffic. In addition, because of the rain this guy was holding an umbrella in one hand and steering his bike with the other, which is actually against the law. I decided not to mention it to anyone at school for both of our sakes.

This happened to be one of the spiky-haired kids that probably has yet to lift a pencil in my class, so I'd like to think that karma was in play. Maybe I knocked some sense into him.

We went on another trip to Ota yesterday, but this time we made a short detour to an arcade in Ashikaga that we spotted from the window of the train. The building to this yet-unexplored arcade bounty was large and cube shaped. It seemed very promising. Before we even got through the door I saw a group of teachers from my school. Normally I would be a bit annoyed to see the infringement of the work-world into my video game time, but I played it cool. I asked them what was going on, and they told me that they were on "patrol". I talked to them a bit and more today at school. Seems that a group of teachers watches this particular game center and two of the shopping malls to keep the school's students from hanging out there. So everyday teachers go out after a full day of work and wander around keeping kids from arcades. I feel bad for everyone involved.

A big screen stands, flashing with a population of overly happy puppies. Treadmill, plastic dog with a leash to hold. Yes, it is what seems to be a dog-walking simulator. I don't have anything witty to say about this game. It just hurts my head a little. Who plays this?

Well, the game center ended up being pretty entertaining, but unfortunately it is far enough out of our way that it's probably off the list. We continued on to Ota and ate at a Chinese restaurant. Upon closer inspection, the group of restaurants that I mistakenly thought were all Chinese have a few gems of their own. One is a Korean place and another is Mongolian. Something to look forward to on future trips. I had to make another trip to my beloved Brazilian super market. They are selling little cakes in square boxes, both chocolate chip and fruit-cakey flavored. I assume that this is a Brazilian Christmas thing. I bought one.

Mike trying to taste the Brazilian cakes through their boxes.

The whole trip really made me think about how mono-cultured Japan is. I feel like Ashikaga doesn't have much evident influence from other countries, and that's too bad. I definitely enjoy Japanese food, but sometimes I want something that is outside of the Japanese-box, ya know? It really leads me to appreciate American multiculturalism, if only on a selfish, food-based level.

An advertisement for the Ota Super Mercado. Looks like it just opened. Lucky for me.

Monday, December 10, 2007

12/10/07 Surrounding Cities

Lately we have been branching out in our activities a bit. Having scoured just about every new area of interest that we can find in town, we have turned our attention outward, toward a couple of nearby cities. Me and my friends have a joke that everyone our age has left Ashikaga in search of more exciting places. So on the rare occasion that I do meet someone under 30, I ask them where they live. One of the common answers is Ota.

Ota is only a few train stops away from Ashikaga and costs less than 2 dollars to get to from the station that sits a block away from my house. The first two times that I traveled to Ota I barely left the train station, as it is connected to a good size mall complex. This building by itself has maybe ten ethnic restaraunts inside, safely more than the whole city of Ashikaga. Apparently there is a large immigrant population(by Japanese standards) here. Without even asking I can tell there are a good amount of Brazilians in this town, as there is a Brazilian eatery as well as a supermarket. There are also a fair amount of shoppers of Hispanic decent, which is quite common in the US but in Japan it is quite rare.

Here's a fun one. Mike posing with an excellent looking arcade game, The Typing of the Dead. No guns to defeat zombies here, just keyboards. We both agreed to use our imagination instead of actually inserting money into this goofy thing.

As all we did in Ota was eat, buy things, and play arcade games, there weren't a whole lot of notable happenings. Fun, though.

Tung had to sort out an issue that he was having with a travel company in Utsunomiya in person, and being the awesome friend that I am I tagged along. We took care of business quickly and early in the day, so we had plenty of time to discover the potential of our surroundings. Utsunomiya is the capital city of Tochigi Prefecture, and it quite a bit more urban looking than old Ashikaga. There are at least two very long streets lined with shops and completely covered by roof, creating a little tunnel-like strip mall setup that so far I have only seen in Japan.

We were on our way to a shrine that we had noticed earlier when we walked by a store advertising Japanese handmade goods and an inviting window display, so we took a peak inside. The lone store lady inside began picking up and showing us quite a few little uninteresting trinkets and I started to wish she would leave us alone. I must have feigned too much interest in her explainations or seemed a bit too nice because she pointed to the staircase leading to the second floor and mentioned that there were Japanese dolls upstairs. Great. Dolls. I humored her and sighed a bit to myself as I walked up the stairs. I'm glad that I did.

She wasn't kidding around when she said there were dolls. The well lit room was lined on all sides with all kinds of expensive things. As she started to explain the first grouping of things for sale, I realized that she was just being nice to a foreigner. There is just no way that she could possibly think I would ever consider buying a 400 dollar, traditional Japanese doll set. I obviously couldn't even read the boxes let alone have any understanding of their significance. Yet, she chatted away about Japanese culture, and I listened intently, frequently asking for clarification of some Japanese word I didn't quite grasp.

Here's the nice lady showing off an intricately detailed paddle from a game played a long time ago. I chided her a bit about this while she explained the game.
She started: "So you take this little feather thing with a weight on one end-".
"You mean, like badminton?", I interrupted.
"No. You see, two people will hold one of these paddles-"
"Yeah, with a net in the middle, right? I think I've played this game before..."
"No, no. There was no net..."
I'm sure she thought I'm just as hilarious as I do. The one she is holding is priced about 315 US dollars.

Here is a multi-tiered Hina doll set(they get much larger) for sale. They are apparently displayed in people's homes on Hinamatsuri, or Girl's Day. The two at the top represent the emperor and empress, the next represent the imperial retainers, and the price represents about four months rent.

I didn't fully grasp the next explanation, but I took a couple of pictures of the signs that were about in case I was bored and needed something to translate later. I think the pretty badminton paddles are given to parents when a girl is born, and the ornate war-implements when a boy is born. Here's a couple shots of both groups.

These were especially cool. Little swords, arrows, and samurai helmets were set up in the glass cases.

This one was complete with little bows.

I thought that this little set up looked pretty dramatic. Perhaps a depiction of an old story or something.

I resisted the urge to play G.I. Joes feudal Japanese style.

Back in on the ground level after the tour of the expensive museum, I was pretty much bound by my moral code to buy something. I found a nice little something that might just be one of your Christmas presents.

Cats. In a sailboat.

We said our goodbyes and continued on our original quest, to check out the temple. While the approach leading up to the torii gate was really nice, the inside was like most temples I've seen. Meh.

I really like the contrast of the traditional Japan with the modern one.

Futaarayama Shrine at night. The lighting was sure nice, but not much to see on the inside. Maybe because it was dark.

Closer shot of the entrance.

Utsunomiya's famous food is the gyoza, called potstickers where I come from. We had a few of the little pork and veggie-filled dumplings on our way out of town. Yum.

Gyoza-man, Gyoza-man, does whatever a Gyoza can.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

12/7/07 Happy Birthday, Blog!

John Milito's Amazing Adventures turned 1 year old today. Time flies when you are rambling about every single thing that you do. Since December 13, 2006 this blog has received 1,587 visits from 29 countries.

Here are a few fun little things that don't have any relationship to each other whatsoever.

First, a new restaurant opened up on the road that I take to school everyday. I saw the building rise little by little so I was pretty excited when it finally opened. Its not amazing, but they did have some little treats that I had been wanting to try. Taiyaki! It's sort of a waffle kind of batter with either sweet bean paste or custard inside(I know that other flavors exist). The fun part is that they are always shaped like fish.

I caught one! I caught one!

This illustrates one of the biggest mysteries of Japan. Why doesn't anyone understand that when you buy alot of something, it should become cheaper? On this little sign, one fish costs 140, and 6 fish cost 840! Of course it does! Why the heck would I buy 6 fish with bean paste inside if its not any cheaper than buying 3? Hooo.. deep breath.

The assistant principle at my school pointed out that you can see Mt. Fuji from the office window on a clear day. Its right to the left of the tallest tower in the center of the picture. Probably need to click and make it bigger to make it out. Its the mountain with the white top.

Here is a really funny sign that we found on a train. It teaches about train etiquette in some of the most awkward English ever assembled.

I couldn't resist trying some green tea flavored Kit Kat. Not bad.

12/5/07 Busy Busy

I have had so much going on lately. It's been super crazy. Last Thursday and Friday I attended an English teacher's conference in Utsunomiya. I really enjoyed it. We had a few speakers at the beginning, as well as several workshops in smaller groups. We all traded ideas about effective ways to teach and interact with the kids.

One of the main ideas expressed in several conversations involved connecting English with the outside world. Quite often what we teach in class is restricted to the contents of the textbook. We were encouraged to try to find ways to connect the English we are teaching to some interesting things that are happening in the outside world. This makes everything seem more relevant and worth learning. The whole conference really motivated me to think about how I am doing my job. Hopefully I can put some of those ideas into practice.

Last Sunday I took a Japanese test at Hakuo University in Oyama. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is a standardized test that measures one's ability in reading, listening, and grammar. I took the lowest of the four levels, but I was still really surprised about how hard it was. I am not completely sure that I will even pass it. I won't get the results of the test back until February, apparently. An awful long time to run a paper of filled-in ovals through a machine, but whatever. If I pass I get a cool certificate and the supreme admiration of my peers.

Here's a clip from two weeks ago from a bar in nearby Sano. Its one song from a Japanese band that I particularly liked. Not only was the music good, but the lead singer had an awesome energy to him. He did lots of little dances that were super cool... only a couple of them are in this song. He wore a really nice suit, but he would strip a piece or two of it off every song until he was singing in his undies. Then at the end of the last song he mooned everyone. Unpleasant, but in a funny way. Enjoy. (Note: This is just one of the normal songs at the beginning. Moon-free.)

Oh, one last little thing. My favorite text message, maybe ever. So I talked a few posts ago about Nounours, a cool French guy that I met a few weeks ago. We were supposed to play poker last weekend. He replied with a pretty damn good excuse: married today.hanging with the family.
Mind you, he is the one that suggested playing poker the week before... We all had a good laugh.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

12/3/07 Last Day in Tokyo, Goodbye to Parents

Sunday, November the 18th: on my last day in Tokyo with my parents, it seemed like we should all do something a bit more classical, after the hyper-American culture we were soaked with at DisneySea.

Luckily the imperial gardens are a short walk from Tokyo Station, which made it an attractive choice. While the Imperial grounds themselves are not normally open to the public, the adjacent east gardens offered much to see. It was very cool to walk from crowded and loud Tokyo into a scene reminiscent of feudal Japan.

A guardhouse overlooking the moat that surrounds the imperial grounds.

I liked the idea that these walls that were built to keep out invaders were now doing the same to keep us safe from the invading city-congestion.

The Hyakunin-bansho Guardhouse. One hundred samurai guardsmen were stationed here to inspect visitors during the Edo Period.

There were a few buildings that were from the old days, but many of them hadn't made it. I started to laugh every time I read a placard. This building was important, yadda yadda, and then it burnt down. Rebuilt, then burnt down again. You'd think that maybe someone would consider the building materials used after everything important kept burning down. I mean, Japan is covered in mountains; there has to be some stone around here somewhere, right?
Here's a typical quote from one of the signs, this one from the Tenshudai Donjon Base:

Standing 58ms tall above the ground, five storied building outside, six storied within, it was the highest donjon ever built in Japan and symbolized the authority of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was burnt down in the conflagration of 1657, only 19 years after completion. and it has never since been reconstructed.

The three little pigs teach a lesson that I think is applicable. The definition of conflagration is a large, disastrous fire, by the way.

After seeing most of what the gardens had to offer, we still had a good portion of the day to fill with awesomeness. On my suggestion, we all walked to the nearby(sort of) Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine is a place that I have been wanting to visit for quite some time. Not only is it a pretty cool place in its own right, but it has played a small role in the relationship between Japan and its neighbors in Asia.

You see, Yasukuni Shrine is quite a unique place. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine that contains the souls of those who died fighting for the emperor, including those who died in World War 2. This includes many who were convicted of war crimes. Several prime ministers, including my favorite ever, Junichiro Koizumi, have visited the shrine to pay their respects. This results in condemnations and often riots in countries like China and South Korea, places that suffered under Japanese aggression.

I spotted a line of interesting vans parked on the street across from the shrine. Covered in Japanese flags and other imperialist regalia, they spout what I assume is propaganda from loud speakers. I recall seeing several of them in Kyoto, cruising around town, slogans blaring.

These vans are like the Batmobile for right-wingers. Uyoku dantai in Japanese, the groups are ultra-nationalist and quite vocal. So a place enshrining the empire's war dead is Mecca to these guys. I saw a group of about 20 of them wearing camo fatigues and standing at attention. A group leader was speaking to them as if they were receiving orders. I'm not sure if their rightwingness includes a dislike of foreigners or America's involvement in Japan or not, so I stay out of these people's way.

We approached the grounds through a giant, iron looking torii, quite different from the usual wooden or stone gateways. It looked as though it was made from battleship parts.

Mom and I before the entrance to the shrine. Giant metal torii in the background. Yes, I realize we are super tiny.

Directly after the big torii came this statue of Omura Masujiro, regarded as the father of the modern Japanese army. Constructed in 1893, the statue itself is notable for being the first bronze western style statue built in Japan.

Soon after we passed through the gateway, I saw something beautiful. It was a bunch of guys selling antiques! Yayyy. This being a military sort of place, much of the cool old stuff for sale was military in nature. My favorite. I was searching through all the stuff long enough that we almost didn't have time to go to the museum.

This was safe to say my favorite thing for sale. An abacus with a calculator backup. You know, in case one of the wooden beads breaks or something.

Next were a set of giant doors. The big golden seal is a depiction of a chrysanthemum, the symbol of the emperor.

Then came the building that I am sure I have seen in a newspaper article somewhere. It is where all of the praying happens. Not sure about the names.

The museum. The shrine itself is much like the countless other shrines that dot the country, minus all the souls of soldiers floating around. The coolest part for me was the military museum. The museum seems to tell the stories of every war whose dead are being honored.

Me and Tom standing with a statue honoring kamikaze pilots right outside the entrance.

The museum was super cool. I enjoy war related history, but obviously all I usually hear about are accounts of American wars. As a result I saw many things that I hadn't heard of previously. The more ancient stuff was as interesting as ever, with several full suits of samurai armor on display. The war that had the most fanfare surrounding it was the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. The Japanese put a pretty bad hurt on the Russians, so there were plenty of victories to be illustrated in the various video clips and scale models.

Then came world war 2. I was anxious to get to this part of the museum because I wanted to see how the history was handled. The various displays that were in English pretty much put the blame square on the United States forcing the Japanese to attack by cutting off oil and scrap metal imports. I'm not sure that I agree, but I am no war scholar, so I don't see much point in arguing.

In addition to the classic fly-a-plane-into-you kamikaze's, there were a host of other suicidal weapons on display. A human piloted missile and torpedo were on display, as well as a story about people in those heavy diving suits who were trained to simply swim a bomb over to an unsuspecting ship. Pretty serious stuff.

Unfortunately the whole museum was covered in "no photo" signs, so no pictures to be enjoyed. Only a few measly things in the lobby went unprotected.

A zero fighter manufactured by Mitsubishi.

This concluded my time in Tokyo. My parents were leaving early the next morning, and I needed to go to work the next day. I managed to show them one or two interesting things. Hope they enjoyed themselves.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

11/28/07 Tokyo Disney!

I was able to take care of my internet woes surprisingly quickly. Saturday the 17th of November has been waiting patiently. Here goes...

Having already wandered around the city one day, we thought that it might be fun to do something different on Saturday. So, we did what any family would do... we went to Disneyland! Yayyy!

Yes, Tokyo Disneyland. Yes, in late November. Common sense would dictate that since the weather was cool that there would be hardly anyone there, and we could just run through the park and ride whatever we wanted over and over until we got sick. We got off the at the Maihama rail station, and after two steps out of the station we had entered Mickey's domain. We sort of fast-walked our way to the Disneyland side of the park, anxious for the magic to start. We were almost to the finish line when I heard an announcement over the loudspeakers. "Park's full, we might start selling tickets again around 5pm" was the general idea of the message. It was too funny for me to be mad about it. I just mechanically turned around and started walking in the opposite direction, towards Disneysea(its sort of the opposite of DisneyLAND, get it? land/sea.... nevermind).

No room at the inn, baby Jesus.

Disneysea is a water themed park that only exists in Japan. Personally I think that it was good fortune to be denied entry into the other park, as that is just a small version of what everyone has already seen. While the park is water themed, it doesnt necessarily have any get-wet-and-die-of-pneumonia water rides, so its still worth going once the temperature has dropped a bit.

One of my favorite parts of the whole park is the little metro system that takes passengers to the different points of the overall Disney Resort. It is exactly like the train system elsewhere in Japan, but it is super clean, faster, and happier. We boarded it in order to travel from Land to Sea.

You still have to buy tickets to ride this train.

Here Tom is happily clutching one of the little Mickey-shaped handles on the train.

Mom biting her nails in fear as the Tokyo Tower of Terror looms ahead.

We bought tickets and entered the park without any additional incident. On the far end of the world, we could see the volcano that is home to one of the several themed areas. It is especially cool as it rumbles and occasionally belches some smoke and fire into the air. The park was probably healthily populated today to begin with, plus it had the additional overflow people who had really wanted to go to the other park. So it was crowded. I'm not going to complain a whole lot about the crowds, though, because I'm sure that it could have been much worse. We managed to hit a few rides and have a couple of good things to eat, so I would say that the overall experience was a positive one.

One thing that I think is interesting in the park is the use of language. For example, at one point we stumbled upon an outdoor musical-like show in progress. Singing, dancing, ridiculous costumes. To begin with, the dialog and singing was all part of the soundtrack, with the various characters and dancers simply lip-singing. Fine. The interesting part for me is when they decide to use English and when they use Japanese. The characters yammered on in Japanese at length and then started singing in English directly afterwards. I wondered to myself if this situation seemed strange to any of the Japanese people watching the show. I recall many of the rides being the same way.

A few highlight pictures.

Me in the Mysterious Island area of the park. Here is where "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" are located.

At the end of a hour-plus wait in line, my mom and I were finally able to board "Journey to the Center of the Earth".

An indoorish carousel in the Arabian Coast area of the park. I didn't want to ride it, but the building looked awesome.

This is a quick shot that I snapped while riding "Sindbad's Storybook Voyage". Yes, it was as childish as it sounds, but still entertaining.

Here's the fam posing in the American Waterfront area of the park.

Tower of Terror.

As the night began to draw to a close, I thought I might pick up a present or two for loved ones. So many other people were having that same thought though... so many people. You haven't seen a line until you've seen one in Japan.

I walked into a cookie store near the entrance of the park, and I quickly realized what a mistake I had made. These people were cookie-tin hungry locusts. They swarmed and pushed their way through a shop which was much too small for them. The scene was so unbelievable that my disappointment quickly turned to amusement. By this point the only reason I was still present was to get a couple good shots of the mob.

You know what happens when a bad winter storm is predicted on the news? Everyone rushes to the store and buys everything that isn't bolted. Hysterical people shove each other's shopping carts to get that last can of creamed corn on the otherwise bare shelves. It was sort of like that.

Back! Get back you ravenous masses! An amusement park has a way of turning overpriced, tacky souvenirs into the shiniest gold.

Emptier than a Soviet supermarket. Those things still left on the shelves are the plastic examples of what used to be available here.

And with that, the magical journey drew to a close. We had barely escaped from that cookie store with our lives, and we were all tired from the frequent walking.

Mom and Tom posing on our way out.

The DisneySea AquaSphere, one of the symbols of the park. The giant globe fountain looked nice in the dark.

Quick clip of our last train pulling into the station.

Quite the quality time.