Monday, September 29, 2008

9/30/08 Tournament Days

Friday was a nice time for me and my fellow ALTs. No classes were scheduled due to the tournaments held in school gyms all over the city, in every sport available. I enjoyed watching the kids strive for success after practicing so hard every day. I particularly enjoy watching the sports that aren't as common in the United States. The kendo in particular is fun to watch. The bamboo-sword-swinging action, combined with the little war cries from the kids make quite the spectacle.

A girls kendo semifinal match.

On the way back from watching a bit of basketball, these flowers by a little stream caught my eye.

These are quite bright and exotic looking. I have no idea what they are.

After watching several different sports, Zishan, Clarence, and I went to a city called Hanyu. It is fairly nearby, about 30 minutes by train, but I hadn't been there before. Nothing's more fun that checking out a new city. We strolled around on foot for a while, eventually ending up at the Aeon Mall in Hanyu. The same brand of mall exists in Sano and Ota, but this one was a huge version of the malls I'm used to seeing. We were there the rest of the day and probably saw only half of it.

After a week or two of making calls and taking tours, I finally took the plunge and joined the Gold's Gym in Ashikaga, as did Zishan. It was constructed during my time here, which makes it squeaky clean and nice inside. Another gym that I was considering informed me that because I was a foreigner, that I needed to know someone who was already a member at the gym who would vouch for me. Wow, I'll vouch for the fact that they can bite me. I signed up for an extra little boxing club plan, only to discover that all the boxing gloves offered were too small for my hands. Now I get to make a trip to the big sports mart and hope I can find something. Its hard having cannon balls for fists, ya know? Heh.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

9/27/08 Himeji

The second to last day of my late July travels around Japan with Tung.

Having successfully survived the Miyajima deer, we continued north to a city called Himeji. Our solitary reason for stopping at this place was to check out Himeji Castle, which wikipedia thinks is the most visited castle in Japan.

Himeji is a pretty straightforward place. You can see the castle from the train station. The train station planners couldn't resist their primal urge to place some stupid sculpture at the entrance though, which I think is a mistake. Which would you rather see, the giant castle on a hill or some nonsense attempt at art?

It's a very nice looking castle, and it looks like it actually might have some military significance, contrary to the others I've seen so far, which were little more than glorified palaces.

The castle was high enough up that it took a considerable amount of walking to get up to it.

I found this map pretty interesting. It depicts "Himeji Castle in the early Meiji period." There are several layers of walls. The less important you were, the farther away from the castle you would live, and the less protected from ninjas you would then be.

I wouldn't want to be the guy who had to force his way into this place.

The interior was completely wooden. As you can see from the outside shots, the castle had five or so stories, and a lot of narrow staircases to match. It was very hot outside, but the temperature became more and more comfortable as we ascended, due to the breeze I suppose.

Each floor had interesting exhibits and assorted artifacts to check out.

Tadamitsu Sakai and Tadanori Sakai's swords.

I didn't gather why this guy was important, but I wouldn't mind having one in my apartment.

Japanese armor is really cool.

Some arms arranged as they were back in the day. Guns, powder, and fuses waiting around to hurt someone. There were countless pegs on the walls throughout the castle for hanging weapons upon.

A commanding view of Himeji from a castle window. The fish creature hanging out on the roof is call a kinshachi.

I've got one last day to write about, and it's a good one.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

9\25\08 Druid's Day Off

I didn't have work Tuesday due to "shuubun no hi", which celebrates the autumnal equinox. There's something profound about holidays that correspond to the movements of celestial bodies. My leisurely day of meeting friends and cleaning my apartment probably doesn't have much meaning compared to such grand forces, but it was satisfying anyway.

Yesterday I went to dinner with some people I know who work at the Ashikaga Board of Education. I like to eat with Japanese people because they always know all of the secret little places that I've never heard of and would never have found on my own. One thing that I will definitely miss when I return home is the unique dining. I don't know of many restaurants in Springfield in the middle of nowhere with only three tables, where the owner lives on the second floor.

The meal began with what I refer to as "table food", as in, the simple act of me sitting at this table causes a small amount of food to be forced upon me. It bothers me on principle, because despite the fact that I didn't order this, I have to pay for it. Its one redeeming quality is that I get to try different foods that I would never order. Today's no-choice-dish was sliced eggplant marinated in something sweet. Again, it was interesting, but never in a million would I ever order this willingly.

One thing that I had never had before was the tofu steak. It's not something pretending to be beef, but it was a bit tougher than the average tofu. It was served with mushrooms and peppers on the side, and piled on top was a vegetable mixture with a light sauce. Very good. You can see some yakitori hiding in the back. I wrote an explanation of that here if you missed it.

I don't recall everywhere that this sauce ended up, but someone definitely put some on some fried oysters that we ate. It seems to be pineapple based. I was just amused by the English writing on the label: "Original Sauce for Pleasure". Indeed.

A worker from the city office is on my left, with the restaurant people on my right. The main reason I wanted a picture here was to point out the blue bottles covering the wall behind me. A common practice is for a customer to purchase and entire bottle of alcohol that they couldn't possibly finish. They then write their name on it, and the business keeps it for them until they next return, when they can drink more of their bottle. It seems like a deal that benefits the bar quite a lot and the customer only a little, but that's just me. Quite a few places in town do this, for obvious reasons.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

9/22/08 My First Rugby Game

My morning today started a bit earlier than I would have wished. I awoke to the uncomfortable feeling of my bed rocking back and forth: a mild earthquake. Nothing was broken or anything like that, so I can't complain. I don't drink coffee, so I guess seismic activity is a pretty good way to start my day.

I had my first taste of Rugby this afternoon with Ben and Zishan. They managed to score some free tickets from a nice Japanese gentleman than none of us had previously met, but that's another story entirely. It was nice to watch with them, as they are both from countries where people care about rugby, and they did a great job of teaching me the game.

The match was held at the big civic stadium on the north side of the city. It has been cloudy/rainy for the last few days, and this was no exception. One of my teachers alerted me to the fact that a typhoon was on its way and would strike sometime around Saturday. Luckily there wasn't much more than a bit of rain this weekend.

The Sanyo Wild Knights(hailing from Ota) faced off against the Coca-Cola Red Sparks(from Kyushu someplace). I was torn about who to cheer for, having to choose between love of Ota and love of American corporate sponsors. The fact that the Sparks got their faces stomped by almost 60 points meant that I ended up cheering for them out of pity.

I was shocked to learn that this little stadium had no concessions whatsoever. That's just bad business. We ended up walking ten minutes to the nearest 7-11 to get some snacks.

Our crew and the mascot of the Sparks, dubbed Coke Man by us.

This is called a scrum, where the opposing teams interlock and struggle for the ball. It was really interesting to watch. This is what comes to mind when I think of rugby.

Here is another interesting aspect of the game. When the ball is thrown back into play from the sidelines, one or more players will be launched into the air by their teammates in order to catch the ball. Why that is necessary, I can't say, but it sure looks cool.

Rain did strike towards the end of the match, but it wasn't anything to be worried about.

In other Ashikaga news, we found a newly opened restaurant/bar/pool hall on the north side opposite the Fressay supermarket. Its claim to fame is the giant red Ferrari parked in the middle of the room. They serve Italian food that is a bit on the expensive side, but it is good quality. It has an actual bar with stools(pretty rare in my Ashikaga experience), and the second floor is populated with pool tables and electronic dart board machines. Besides us, there was only one other group of patrons: an older affluent looking man with two overdressed girls who were my age. We guessed that he might be paying for their company. This restaurant probably doesn't offer anything I can't get somewhere else in town(other than the Ferrari ogling), but its cool to have a nice place to play in this otherwise pretty quite part of town.

The Ferrari in all its glory.

Friday night I was welcomed home by a couple of praying mantises hanging out on the wall. Awful lot of wild life out there.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

9/18/08 Broken Brazilian Dreams

Just a small observation.

My school has no buses. The kids aren't allowed to bring their bikes, either(not until high school). Parents seem to only drive their children to school in special circumstances, such as a handicap, injury, etc. So they walk. With close to 800 students, the backstreets are often clogged with them before classes begin. Younger children march into the nearby elementary school in a similar fashion, all wearing matching little yellow caps. I often ride my bike in the street on my way to work. The sidewalk belongs to the sunshine gang.

Only the youngest students (think kindergarten or day care) have the luxury of a bus. As the buses' clients are all little people, there are assorted friendly designs and cartoon characters painted on the sides. One that I often see looks like a huge dog, complete with molded ears on the sides and a big nose in front.


I have some sad news to announce. I was recently in Ota showing the new guys around, and I found something horrible. It seems that B-Mart, the Brazilian supermercado, has closed. It had been my only known source for real foreign groceries. I laughed there, cried there, bought olives and strange foreign candies there. They had frozen spicy chorizo type sausages that I loved. But from the ashes comes a new quest. There are a ton of Brazilians living in Ota, and I am going to find out where they shop!

They probably had a closing sale too. Nooooo!!

Nothing cheers me up like fake news. Enjoy

Sunday, September 14, 2008

9/15/08 Bats on Parade

On a bike ride home a couple days ago I witnessed this scene, some kind of unholy congress of bats. I don't know what they are planning, but it can't be anything good. I'm still not accustomed to sharing my reality with these animals. I had scarcely seen a bat beyond the safe confines of the zoo before I came to this place. Don't they belong in some cave in South America? Surely they are lost. I ducked a low flying one as I continued towards my apartment. They don't fly straight like birds, they are constantly diving and making sharp erratic little turns. I should get hazard pay for this.

I subscribed to The Onion channel on Youtube. It is so good. Here's one of my recent favorites.

I believe the badly pronounced Japanese at the end there means "white bird, black shadow".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/12/08 Miyajima

A short side trip took us to a small island near Hiroshima called Miyajima. We took a nice little ferry to get there. It was funny because it was a good size boat but we were virtually the only ones riding it. It must be subsidized somehow.

Tung practiced his street poses while we waited at the port.

The ferry approaches. It was named the Fast Beach in katakana. What the heck is that supposed to mean?

A bit of topographical texture from the boat's window.

One fun thing about the island is the deer that roam it. They are sort of wild, but have no fear of humans whatsoever. Miyajima's wikitravel page has a little paragraph about them here.

In the past, waffle-like wafers and pellets could be bought to feed to the deer. But at the end of 2007 the government introduced a feeding ban on the island. Because of this, the deer are not in a very good condition now and their numbers are declining.

It seems a bit cruel to abruptly stop feeding these animals. I imagine they had become quite dependent on tourists for food. It seems like gradually weening them off of people food would be much more humane. Bummer.

We had just got off the boat when we saw this group of deer gently harassing a family in front of the port. The deer have a comically broad diet. In the brief time I watched them, I witnessed two of them devour a map snatched from someone's pocket. Later I saw another chomp the tag off of a tourist's luggage. Gotta have that fiber one way or another, I suppose.

The Japanese must be the funniest sign writers in the world. "Welcome to Miyajima! We stopped feeding the deer. Now they eat children. Thank you."

The main reason people come to this place is not to have their pockets rummaged through by Bambi, however. The island is home to Itsukushima Shrine and its famous Floating Tori gate. The postcards show this giant red gate standing triumphantly in the sea. We came during the wrong season, or the wrong time of day though, because the only thing this gate was standing in was a bunch of smelly seaweed populated by crabs.

Due to my previously mentioned computer issues, this is the closest picture I seem to have of the gate. I think the red gate stands out quite nicely in its green swamp, don't you think?

Back on the mainland, I witnessed this awful display at a little shop located inside of a supermarket. They are apparently selling either seafood or nightmares.

Next up on my Japan travels: a castle. Oooh.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


A bit more of my Japan vacation time with Tung for your viewing pleasure.

So, after saying goodbye to my friends in Kyoto, I continued south by yet another shinkansen. By the time I met Tung at the Hiroshima train station, it was already dark outside. Not wanting to waste any time despite the late hour, we dropped our bags at the hotel and went right back out the door. A bit of random asking around bore us a bit of information about an area of town that would still be open. We wandered around a bit just admiring the city. The part of town that was still awake was quite seedy, however. I can handle grime from a safe distance, but after the first pimp approached us with his sales presentation, we grabbed the first taxi and got the heck out of there.

The main entrance to dirty town.

Of course, the main reason we were here was to see the atomic bomb related sites, and the following morning we set out for them. We used Hiroshima's unique system of street cars, that conjures an atmosphere out of the 1920s. They feature a flat fare regardless of how far one rides, which is unheard of in Japan.

A streetcar sliding into the station.

We went straight to the atomic dome, the famous building that was located almost directly beneath ground zero (the bomb detonated in the air above the city). Pictures taken after the blast show it was one of the few buildings in the area left standing. The dome was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The United States "dissociated" itself with the decision, stating:

The United States is concerned about the lack of historical perspective in the nomination of Genbaku Dome. The events antecedent to the United States’ use of atomic weapons to end World War II are key to understanding the tragedy of Hiroshima. Any examination of the period leading up to 1945 should be placed in the appropriate historical context.

The United States believes the inscription of war sites [to be] outside the scope of the Convention. We urge the Committee to address the question of the suitability of war sites for the World Heritage List.

The atomic dome.

Several additional related memorials stand in the area, and we checked a few of them out as well. Most notable is the Children's Peace Monument, standing in memory of the children that died as a result of the bomb. The death of a girl named Sadako was the inspiration for the place. She became ill from the radiation, and made numerous origami cranes until her death shortly afterwards. I think the cranes were for world peace... something along those lines. This place has a few pages dedicated to it in one of the schools' English textbooks, so Tung and I already knew a bit about it. A couple of the shrines have a hoard of these paper cranes. Sadako’s in particular has a huge amount sent from all over the world contained in transparent cabinets. There were even a few illustrations made entirely from the colorful folded birds.

Here you can see the girl above is holding a giant origami crane. You can see the boxes full of paper animals in the background.

Here are a few of the little artworks made out of the paper cranes. Pretty neat.

Then here is another random statue with lots of the cranes hanging about.

We hadn't quite ruined our good mood enough at this point, so Tung and I headed over to the nearby Hiroshima Peace Museum.

The museum was fairly straight forward with its presentation. It showed what the city was like after and before the bombing. It went over the effects of the bomb on people and objects (one scene was particularly gruesome, showing two life size statues in a destroyed building with their flesh melting off). It then went over the current level of nuclear weapons still present on the earth and why we should get rid of all of them before its too late.

A model of the city after the blast.

This was in the section about the city before the bombing. Its a light bulb with everything but the very bottom painted black in order to not be seen by enemy bombers at night.

Some melted stuff.

A watch stopped at the time of the bomb.

Well our trip to the bomb sites wasn't the happiest time in the world, but it was something that we had to see. It was time to move on to lighter places though, so we said goodbye and went to get something to eat.

Hiroshima is famous for a food called okonomiyaki. There are so many styles that it is a bit hard to explain, but the base of the food is made of a kind of batter. Often cabbage makes up a large portion of the food as well. The mixture can also include meats, seafood, vegetables, cheese. I guess I am making it sound a bit like an omelet, but its not the same. Anyway, the whole mixture is then thrown onto a skillet and grilled.

We ran across this sign and couldn't resist. If you have the gall to call yourself the Republic of Okonomiyaki, then you probably have something worth a try.

We took an elevator up a few floors and got off. It was an amusing scene. There were three separate little okonomiyaki shops all facing a common seating area in the center. All three of the cooks were idle, and all staring at us as we walked into the room. Not wanting to hurt anyone's little feelings, or disrupt the balance of power in this young democracy, we ordered food from all three! Hurray! I should be a diplomat.

A unique spin on the recipe involved the aforementioned deliciousness sitting atop a bed of noodles.

We ordered from them all at the same time, to foster a bit of a cookoff race atmosphere.

Try deciding who gets the last slice when you're sitting opposite this fearsome face.

One guy even had an English menu, which is a rarity.

The finished product is then lathered in a sweetish sauce, and some green confetti. Other popular condiments are mayonnaise and fish shavings. Hurray food!