Thursday, August 23, 2007

Good Morning Campers!

Actual classes at my school of employment don't begin until early next month. So, along with introducing myself to countless people, we also have the odd little assignment to take care of. The latest was to serve as a sort of summer camp counselor for a few days. Apart from a 2 hour segment when the foreigners were in charge, we mostly just led the kids around and did random classic camp-type activities.

One of my favorite parts of this camp (no pictures unfortunately) was the fishing. This amounted to the people in charge blocking off a small bit of a shallow river and filling it with fish. The children then proceeded to run around, chasing the fish and catching them with their hands. We carrying the fish back to camp in buckets, cleaned them, and cooked them for lunch. I think everyone had fun with that.

A typical meal at camp.

The students were all forced to get up ridiculously early in order to do morning exercises. I took this picture while standing in my room, in my pajamas and half asleep.

A few days earlier we did a bit of sightseeing around Ashikaga. I guess one of the reasons that Springfield is their sister city is that we both are cities of some historical significance. We like to emphasis our Lincoln heritage, and the Ashikaga clan ruled over Japan for some 200 years.

This is the main gate of the Ashikaga Gakko, the oldest university in Japan.

Here's a shot of one of the building interiors on campus. This picture has so many rectangles...

I don't know the significance of this building.. that happens when you can't read.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tokyo and the Longest Day EVER

The trip started in a way that was screaming for me to stay out of it. I had hoped to have everyone meet before we left in order to discuss what everyone wanted to do, and maybe look at some maps and make some timing decisions. If we wanted to stay the night then I thought that it would also be a wise measure to reserve some lodging somewhere ahead of time so that we wouldn't have to worry about it later. We opted to worry about it later.

So we all packed up a couple days worth of clothes and then just hopped on the train to Tokyo. Between the four of us, the only information about this place amounted to a guidebook or two that points out all of the major sites and hip neighborhoods. We were able to get to the city without incident, miraculously. We proceeded to hit plenty of the important areas all over the city, which was pretty cool. Each of the neighborhoods really deserve their own day to truly experience, so this trip really just served as a sampling of everything.

Here are a few random shots of the city lights. We walked to so many areas that I don't even remember which picture is which place, but they look pretty cool anyhow.

Here I am standing in front of Takeshita-dori, which is the main street in a well known area in Tokyo called Harajuku. My best friend Gwen Stefani is also a fan, as her Japanese dance-team minions are named the "Harajuku Girls" in a nod to the often outlandish fashion sense displayed there.

This was supposed to show how crowded the subway was. Unfortunately the only thing crowding this shot is my face.

After several hours of zipping back and forth on the subway, we thought we should chill out and have a drink someplace. We must have picked the wrong block, because maybe three bars in a row wouldn't even let us sit down, and were really rude about it. Normally restaurant workers and the like are annoyingly polite, so I was really weirded out by how curt the bar workers were being. Anyway, we were not real happy with the city by this point, and decided it was time to go home. Unfortunately we decided this five minutes too late. We had missed the last train out of town. After wandering a bit and trying to decide what to do next, we happened upon a bus station. They didn't have any buses going to our town, but they had one in Sano. I knew Sano was near Ashikaga just because I've heard people talk about going there. We didn't know what we would do after the bus ride, but we decided to take it anyway.

Once in Sano, we did a bit of wandering of the city streets. For a moment I seriously considered sleeping on a bench at the indoor bus stop until morning when all of the modes of transportation would once again be available. We all trudged along, weary and aimless, for some time. Someone mentioned hitchhiking, but it seemed unlikely that anyone would be brave enough to pick up four foreigners, let alone have room in their miniature car. Eventually we found a supermarket that was open 24 hours. Just out of curiosity I asked one of the security guards how much a taxi home would cost. It ended up not being that bad, especially divided by four. So we all rode a cab back to safety. The end.

The journey back probably ended up taking twice as long and costing three times as much, but it was definitely a bonding experience. I marked the three cities in question on a map here. Kinda reminded me of an episode of The Amazing Race.

This is unrelated, but awesome nonetheless. It is an advertisement, not for a church, but for a wedding stage. Apparently, some Japanese people want to have their wedding pictures look like they do in the West. However, the lack of Christianity in this country means there are few churches anywhere. Enter fake churches. I hear they also dress up random white guys as priests to preside over the photo shoots. Excellent.

Would it be immoral to dress up as a priest for money? Hmm...

Note: I was playing around with new things I could put on the left. There's a very important poll that you should take part in.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Hello, My Name is John Mirito

Today marks two weeks in my current setting, and they have been pretty nice. We don't even start our actual teaching positions until the beginning of next month. One of our main responsibilities at this point is to introduce ourselves over and over to people of varying relevance to our lives. As we are quasi city employees, government officials who are directly above us in a social ladder that pretty much extends to the sky get presents, while we get business cards. The Japanese love this because in the exchange of names and information, the newly acquainted learn who is more important than who, which is essential.

Me greasing the mayor of Ashikaga's palm with a box of Jelly Belly's. No parking tickets for me.

I did teach one small class to a group of third graders for an hour and a half, which was pandemonium. I am just sort of led to a room of 30 children and told "good luck". These kids seem to have been left alone for some time, and they are going nuts. Its all very Kindergarten Cop, with little old me instead of a bodybuilder. There are two high school volunteers present, but they are largely ineffectual and it was unclear to me what their purpose even was. Maybe ten minutes into my class two of them are fighting hard enough that one of them starts crying, and I have to take him outside. The main point of the few little games that we played was matching capital letters with lowercase, which is something that they definitely could use practice with. I really am glad that I am a junior high teacher.

I imagine that the more kids I interact with, the more flashbacks I will have to my own grade school days. I was pretty bad to my teachers I think, so hopefully I can avoid justice.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Crazy Thing About Garbage

Imagine the scene at the aforementioned fireworks festival. People everywhere. Drinking, eating foods on sticks, wandering to and fro with bags of picnic provisions. Trash cans? Nowhere. Not a single trashcan is to be seen anywhere. There are never (ever) public trash cans anywhere, in fact. If you buy something, you better eat it where you bought it, because if you don't, there is a real possibility that you will be carrying the resulting trash for the rest of the day.

And the insanity doesn't end there. I am required to sort all of the trash that I produce at home. Tuesday and Friday every week, the masters of trash will accept foodstuffs, yard waste, and everything that is burnable but not recyclable. The 2nd and 4th Monday of every month I am blessed with the ability to throw away metal things like pots and pans, electronics, pottery, aluminum cans. The 1st and 3rd Monday of every month I can... shoot myself. An amazing amount of time and effort is required with everything. Its to the point that when I go shopping for food, I occasionally make purchasing decisions based on how easily I will be able to dispose of the packaging.

Here is my very detailed poster explaining in excruciating detail how to handle the honorable trash. For example, when handling plastic bottles I should peel off the plastic label, then take off the cap. Wash it out carefully, then let it dry. One picture shows how I should then separate the bottles by color.

Phew, I just had to get that off my chest. This place is a madhouse! Hehe

Just a nice little temple up in the mountains overlooking Ashikaga. A nice escape from the daily pressures of waste sorting.

Monday, August 06, 2007


The fireworks display ended up being a much bigger deal than I had realized. As we walked towards the river that bisects Ashikaga, the occasional bunches of people waiting at stoplights turned into a mass of humanity streaming through blocked off streets. Both banks of the river were covered in place-saving blankets and tarps that people had staked down days in advance. Today was a favored occasion for people to wear their yukata, which is basically a lighter, warm weather kimono. I've been shopping for a male version for myself, but I haven't found many in fatboy size as of yet.

The firework display itself was most likely the best I have ever seen. Not only were the explosions of better quality, but the damn things went on for two hours. At several points messages from sponsors were displayed on the far bank of the river with masses of sparklers. Children filled with excitement at the onset were long asleep by the time the last colors had faded from the sky.

Not a single "OOH" or "AAH" was uttered within earshot

A particularly cool display

There were numerous vendors doing their best to capitalize on the crowd. I like them because they often have special occasion foods that can't be found under normal circumstances.

Quite a memorable experience.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Gathering Some Necessities

I've been able to mark off quite a few things from my to-do list the last couple of days. The biggest thing was some official paperwork that needed to be done. The Japanese require me to register where I live and everything and then give me a foreigner ID card. It allows me to make large purchases and other things that require identification. I opened a bank account so that I can start stacking all of my bountiful riches as well.

I was itching to get a cell phone as soon as possible. It is a very necessary possession to carry on with some semblance of a social life. Its also nice to be able to talk to my friends in other cities. The Japanese don't put too much emphasis on actually talking on their cell phones, they rely mostly on texting (my current plan gives me about an hour of talk time a month). My cell phone has its own email address as well, so I can receive those too. I don't want to get a bunch of spam so I won't include it here, but let me know and I will give it out... then you can harass me with questions about Japan anytime of day... hurray!

My phone company is AU which is owned by Toyota. The guy showing us around thought that going to a Toyota car dealership would be the way to get the best service. I thought it was cool to see how a car dealer acts in Japan, and since I don't plan on buying a car here anytime soon this was a unique experience. They were super polite, even for the Japanese(this is one of the few places in the country that I can remember ever being offered a free beverage). The best was saved for last though. As we walk to the car, the man who had been helping us along with a couple other random workers stood in the middle of the parking lot and bowed and everything. On our way out, I looked back, and there they still stood. They just stood there waving and bowing until we were out of sight. Pretty intense.

My new phone! One of the most advanced phones I've seen in action... they love their gadgets.

All of this wheeling and dealing means I have to affix my mark on contracts and whatnot. Around these parts, people never just write their name down and add a few curlies to make it distinct. I received something called a hanko, which consists of my name in Japanese script carved into a piece of wood(the more important ones tend to be made of more expensive materials). I put my little stamper in red ink, then sign away. I think its really cool because it is so classical, but I think that the stamp is more vulnerable to replication than a signature would be.

My hanko in its little self contained carrying case.

A couple of my name stamps. It was hard to focus on them because they are so small, but you get the idea. It just reads "Milito" in katakana.

There is some sort of large fireworks festival today. Should be entertaining.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Getting Settled in Japanland

I've had a couple days to scope out the town, and things are looking good. My apartment is situated in a pretty convenient area. The main mall and shopping district is fairly close, and one of the main train stations is also close by. One down side to the apartment is that it faces a pretty narrow and busy street, which makes my bike ride commute a bit tense. At this point I have resigned myself to the fact that I am eventually going to get hit by a car. I've already had a close call or two and I have a year to go. Kyoto was very bike friendly, and a lot of times there were more bicycles to be seen than cars. In Ashikaga, though, people are a bit less attentive.

The thing with Japan is that I am comfortable enough with it here that I can't document that initial shock of weirdness. Some things that were insane to me 5 years ago during my first Japan outing now actually make some sense. Here are a couple of just random shots I took over the last couple days. Enjoy.

One thing I've always enjoyed about Japan is the use of space. In this country there is really no such thing as a "vacant lot". Here is what I assume to be a rice field adjacent to a heavily populated area.

I just really liked this sign. I can read it, but it doesn't make any sense to me.

This is the toilet seat section of the main electronics store in town. They are pretty intense about multifunctional toilets around these parts. Note the key pads to the left of the lids.

Here is a case of delicately detailed plastic sushi. It is common for Japanese restaurants to have fake models of the food they offer for sale.

Nothing too exciting yet, just trying to survive. Hehe.