Monday, October 29, 2007

10/30/07 This is Halloween

I had been looking forward to the Halloween bash for some time. Halloween is definitely one of my most favorite holidays.. so much fun. Its exciting for kids to run around and get candy, and its fun for me now to dress up and act like an idiot. I was still in the middle of speech contest season, though, so I didn't have the energy to put a lot of thought into my costume. Tung came through with a nice little hat for me while he was in Tokyo though. I would have been stuck with something super lame otherwise, I'm afraid.

My costume consists of a pretty funny looking beetle head and a black shirt. During the night, I heard the word for beetle so many times that I finally learned it. Its kabutomushi. Quite an interesting word, I think. Mushi means bug, no big deal there. Kabuto, though, is the word for the big helmets that samurai used to wear.

So anyway, we started Saturday night off with a boisterous trip to the local Karaoke joint. See, there's a magical thing in Japan called nomihodai, or all you can drink. This particular karaoke joint has nomihodai, so we often go there for fun times. They figure that they can still make money because the Japanese don't generally drink a whole lot anyway, plus maybe you will be too distracted with all the singing to realize time is passing. But we frequently go in there and ruin all of their days.

This might be a good time to explain the karaoke situation in Japan. Karaoke in the US usually consists of just one machine, a couple of mics, and a performance in front of a whole smelly bar. In Japan everything is different. We show up with a group of five people or whatever, and we get a small private room to ourselves. So a Japanese karaoke place is more like a honeycomb of bad singers rather than just one at a time. You pay by the hour or half hour usually, and for 2 hours of karaoke plus all-you-can-drink, it costs a little under $20, which is awesome considering one beer at a restaurant costs $5 usually.

Here we are getting warmed up at Karaoke.

When we were finished singing, we headed over to the party. It was an unassuming little club on the second story. One thing that I have noticed about Japan is how hard it is to judge a place from the outside. More often than not, businesses here have no windows, and not being able to read many of the signs leaves me with few clues about an establishment. Quite a large portion of my foreign friends in town were present, along with even more Japanese people with whom I had a good time meeting and chatting. One English guy in particular had an excellent costume. He simply wore a suit and tie with the shirt partially unbuttoned and open at the top. Showing was the Superman t-shirt he was wearing underneath. So ridiculously easy but still so impressive.

As the night passed, several bands took turns making the place vibrate. Several times the random person I was talking to one minute was up on stage the next. Halloween is so good.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

10/29/07 Ding Dong, the Speeches Are Over!

For about the last month or so, my work day has been pretty devoid of resting time. That big sports festival that I wrote about a few posts ago was consuming every minute of people's days, so much so that something else crept up on everyone. The dread Ashikaga City Inter-Junior High School English Speech Contest! (whew, that title is a speech in itself) So, being the American guy, a very large portion of speech related responsibilities fell on me.

Thursday we finally had the contest. I along with several of the other native english speakers served as judges for the event. Over forty speeches on topics ranging from global warming to "my pet beetle" were covered, sometimes more than once. One of my favorites explored the lighter side of a little girl who's dad drinks a lot, including an anecdote about how bad he snores. At the end of it all, some flashy trophies were distributed and I took a sigh of relief that lasted about an hour.

Presentation of a trophy. Much clapping and bowing was had by all.

And now for something completely different.

This is a sign in front of the video arcade that we frequent. Give it a click, its worth seeing closer. My favorites include: no flirting, no walking and smoking at the same time, and no groups standing in geometric shapes. Oh, and no hitting the machines with a baseball bat. A couple of the pictures leave me without even a good guess.

Well, now that things have settled down a bit, I can step back from the edge of insanity. Nice. As an added bonus, I will have more energy to write fun stuff. Check back later.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

10/26/07 Dangerous Commute

A few posts ago I wrote a bit about the wildlife in Japan, and about how it is a bit more abundant and wild than seems natural. Well, on a bike ride back from work I got an unwanted chance to meet one of these creatures. I had just started on my way back home, but I had stayed at work a bit late, so it was a bit darker than usual. Not completely night, there was enough daylight left that I didn`t have a bunch of car headlights in my eyes. It was plenty dark enough though, for my formerly favorite animal to be out in force.

The bats. Yes, they are everywhere and a bit scary looking, but they eat the bugs that are super annoying. We had a pretty good agreement I thought. I get the first 6 or so feet of sky, and they can have the rest. They could do whatever they want, as long as they stay on their freaking side! We had an agreement!

So, while minding my own little business, one of them swoops down and hits me in the chest. I think that maybe it didn`t understand what had happened, because it flapped around on me for a bit before it finally flew away, presumably back to hell. So, there I was, one hand on my bike`s handlebars, and the other one waving around wildly, all the while continuing to peddle my bike in the direction of my apartment... Freaky. Horrid creatures, those.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

10/23/07 Music Festival

Sunday Tung (the Australian guy) and I went to a nearby city called Kiryu to attend the "Kiryu Music Fronts 2007" music festival. While I am not a huge music guy, these days I take just about every chance to be social or see another place that I can get my hands on. It turned out that this was an especially good chance to explore.

It didn't take long after boarding the train to Kiryu until we both realized that we really had no idea where in the city we were going. A Japanese friend of ours who works at a guitar shop in Ashikaga told us about the show and got us some tickets, but we failed to ask for directions. Sometimes I enjoy just figuring it out along the way, as it gives me a chance to practice my Japanese on the population and it makes me feel like a victorious master of languages when we finally stumble into our destination.

So when we took our first steps out of the station and saw the sun-rayed streets of Kiryu, I was ready to get to business. Definitely ask for directions a bunch of times, maybe take a taxi or two, I am independent and generally awesome and can handle it all. Of course, I didn't even have enough time to say this all in my head before we walked by a music shop with our event's posters plastered on the windows. So I walk right up to a guy in the store and lay out my demands. I ask him where might a ticket bearing individual like myself find said musical festival. His reply, "below". Eureka! My orienting skills had led us right to the spot! We triumphantly walked down the stairs to catch the end of one of the bands' shows, less than a block away from, and still in sight of, the train station. Around this time, we realized that the performances weren't all going to be in one place, instead they were scattered all over an area within walking distance of the train station. Pretty exciting. I won't go into the bands themselves... they weren't all that exciting. We only saw a couple, but they insisted on singing mostly in English, and their accents were so bad that it was hard for me to get into it. Oh well.

We also did a good amount of wandering around a couple of the main streets, and saw a few interesting shops and things. I found a used stuff-store and I had myself a look. Mostly a bunch of weird useless things... but one useless thing caught my eye. A cheap first day cover(a stamp fancily canceled on the first day it is sold, for those of you that aren't so hip) in a frame and everything has now entered my collection. Hurray! The old lady I bought it from yammered on about who painted it and whatnot, but all I gathered is that the artist lives somewhere somewhat nearby. Quite an enjoyable day.

I know a certain framed stamp that's going on the wall in my apartment...

Here's Tung trying to find his way out of a labyrinth of little robot models at a mom and pop toy store we discovered.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

10/18/07 Work... Argh!

Work has become a bit more taxing as of late. There is an English speech contest for the students coming up, and I am being asked to do a pretty substantial amount of work in a pretty small amount of time. In addition, I have another demonstration lesson looming ahead that another teacher and I are preparing for. On top of that, I have had to give three solo lessons in the past two days. The teaching part of it is fine, I can handle the lessons fairly well. Keeping them quiet and in their chairs is what I can't handle. The material I was given when I arrived clearly states that I am not supposed to take part in disciplining students. I am not a trained teacher. I don't know what the rules are in Japan in terms of dealing with trouble makers, and the students can barely understand what I am saying to them in the first place. Today a fist fight broke out in the back of one of the classes I was teaching by my lonesome. I had to separate the two little hoodlums and then take them up to the teachers room to have someone yell at them in their own language. Not a big deal, but its all quite exhausting. One day this week I fell asleep at 6:30 in the afternoon.

Today at lunch we had some whole fish that had been battered and deep fried. Fine, I can roll with that. The crunchy batter means that I don't have to look the damn things in the eye while I eat them. Oh, but this time was different, friends. I bit into this thing and I knew something wasn't quite right. It was filled with a mass of little white eggs! These weren't just entire battered fish, these were entire pregnant battered fish. A new low in the downward spiral of seafood despair. I thought to myself, just because an animal will fit in your mouth, doesn't mean you have to eat it. Its OK to pass on some things, people. Sometimes I feel like we are eating like refugees. I think a "no pregnant animals" rule has just been added to my list of dietary guidelines.

Here are a couple random pictures from around the school.

This is the staff entrance that I use everyday. Just inside the door is where I change from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes. The hieroglyphics on the wall there read "Ashikaga City, Yamabe Junior High School." Surprised?

This is what I guess you would call the great seal of the school. It is on several on the outside walls and on official documents and whatnot. The mountain part I get, but what's the other thing? Giant dragonfly? I should remember to ask someone about it.

That's all for now. Hopefully I can survive to complain another day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

10/17/07 Tea Ceremony

A few of the other English speaking teachers and I have been attending a weekly Japanese class run by volunteers. One class a week doesn't provide huge results, but it does help me to direct my own private studies, and its nice to have a guaranteed Japanese speaking time set aside. At one point I mentioned how I enjoy the Japanese tea ceremony, and my teacher's eyes lit up. She has been practicing it to some extent with a small group.

Some days later she calls my phone and sets a time that I can see a tea ceremony in action. Now this is the fun part about making plans with the Japanese. Many times they are unable to explain the details of plans, or they just don't think that it is really necessary. When I agreed to meet at a nearby mall, I assumed that we would be going someplace in the vicinity, as I know this teacher also lives nearby. Wrong. So my teacher shows up decked out in full kimono to pick me up, and as I stand in my tee-shirt and jeans, I wonder why no one mentioned that this was going to be so formal. When we get in the car and start to drive, she mentions that this event will be held in a city called Tatebayashi in nearby Gunma prefecture(prefectures are the political equivalent to US states only much smaller, as Japan has almost 50 of them squeezed into its landmass). The drive wasn't extremely long, but I was quietly amused and wondered if there were any more little surprises in store.

As my teacher is learning how to perform all of this tea business, we arrived way earlier than the normal guests in order to take part in the preparations. I actually really enjoyed this. I have been to several tea ceremonies previously, but I hadn't seen the preliminary setup before, so that was very interesting.

Ok, now for some explanation: the Japanese tea ceremony is a very solid expression of Japanese culture. There is always a little space with some decorations for the room, a piece of calligraphy and a little flower arrangement. These two things alone are something you could study your whole life, and many people do. Then, many of the tea bowls and things are hand made pottery, which is another big time art.

Here is the centerpiece of the the room. A scroll with a saying written in fancy calligraphy, and a small flower arrangement.

Then comes the tea making ritual itself. I'm not sure what the gender roles are regarding this, but every time I have ever witnessed this it has been a woman doing the tea making. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, "that's just some sexist Japanese thing where the women have to do all the housework". If you were thinking that, then you are just plain wrong and should be really ashamed of yourself. We talked a bit about how only a couple hundred years ago, women weren't even allowed to take part in this presentation, and men about to go to war often performed it as possibly one of their last moments alive together. See, you were super wrong. Anyway, so whoever it is walks in with very deliberate little steps, sits down in front of the water pot, mixes the water with the tea with a whisk, puts it in front of the guests one by one and they drink it. To the first time observer, it might look that simple. The reality, though, is the insane amount of attention to detail. If you watch 10 of these ceremonies at different places, chances are there won't be a whole lot of difference at all in each. The folding of their napkins is very specific, where they set down the bowl is specific, and how they walk is apparently very important as well. I was dying to take a video or some pictures of it in progress, but I figured it would be inappropriate in the face of all the formality that was happening in the room. Oh well, too bad for you I guess.

Here is where the magic happens. The big pot has the hot water inside. The little lacquer container has the powdered tea, and the little pot on the bottom must be for the leftover water.

Here's everyone that was present. This must have been foreigner day, as there was one other American guy, and the out of place girl is from France.

Friday, October 12, 2007

10/15/07 Harvest Time

The rice fields were a bright green color when I arrived, since then they have all turned a shade of yellow. Men ride around on miniature tractors doing whatever one does to ripe rice. It is starting to get a bit cooler as well, if I go out after dark I usually throw on a sweatshirt. I am actually a bit excited about the season changing. While this is my fourth trip to Japan, I have always come during the summer, so this is my first chance to experience the other times of year. Food in particular is very seasonal here, so I imagine there are all sorts of cold weather dishes that I will soon be discovering.

Some rice harvesting in progress.

This is another school lunch that needs to be noted. A single mandarin orange, milk box, a weird grayish colored cold sausage, two slices of bread with bits of juicy carrot pieces inside, a bowl of noodles with mushrooms and some other random veggies, and then the kicker. A bag of small, dried, whole fish. Eyes, tails, skin: its all there for my enjoyment. They were crunchy and foul tasting.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

10/11/07 Drum Lesson

Monday was Physical Fitness Day, so no work for me. One interesting thing that I did in my government-given free time was go to an introductory taiko class. Taiko is a Japanese art form involving people pounding various sizes of drums. We practiced various little beats until we eventually put them all together to make a whole song. My favorite part was when the instructors put on a little show of their own.

This show was specifically aimed at foreigners, and I was surprised to meet several working in town that I hadn't met yet, some Canadians and an Australian. Nice way to make a few more acquaintances.

My favorite is the guy in the back doing a little rain dance while he played. His drumstick was the size of a baseball bat. He was pretty lively.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

10/9/07 Demonstration Lesson

Friday, on top of all of the other stuff I had to do last week, I was tasked with giving a demonstration lesson. It was only a bit more complicated than the usual classes though, so it didn`t end up being so bad. Several head english teachers from other schools and their accompanying non-Japanese english teachers all stood in the back of class and observed. I was sure of my own ability to perform, but I was uncertain what affect our guests would have on the students. Nothing would be worse than the students turning shy and refusing to answer any questions. Luckily everything turned out ok.

Afterwards we all had a little meeting about the class and exchanged comments. The response was mostly positive.

I`m making kind of a weird Hulk face and pose here, but this is a good picture of the class anyway.

One of the games we played in class involved the students wispering their answers to me.

After all of the excitement last week, I really needed a rest. I took it pretty easy, forgoing another trip to Tokyo that my friends had decided to take. I did have one interesting thing happen though. I was checking craigslist one day and I found someone who was looking for a Japanese license plate. I figured that this would be an easy order to fill, so I decided I should keep my eyes open. Two houses down from my apartment is a taxi place/car garage, and I figured that would be a good place to ask. So I just wander in there one day after work and ask the first oil covered guy I see if I can possibly purchase some useless license plate that they might have lying around. After a very long, barely understandable conversation about how old license plates must be turned in to the government for destruction, I realized that this particular quest had come to an end. This slightly over friendly mechanic though, then wanted a short summary of my life story, which culminated in him realizing that his nephew is one of my students. So he proceeds to whip out his cell phone and call said student, who comes by on his bike in short order. So the three of us sit and chat in the garage`s office for a time about all sorts of random things. By the time I could return home the whole thing had ballooned much farther than could possibly be expected.

Of course, this guy works everyday in the open right on my daily path to work, so I consistantly see him. Eventually I stop to chat again and he invites me to a local eatery hole in the wall for dinner. This was a nice opportunity, because the place we went to was a particularly insular looking neighborhood place that I wouldn`t want to enter by myself. It was a nice establishment, and the head cook guy behind the counter was very entertaining. An avid Elvis fan, he had songs like Return to Sender playing in the backround... what song goes better with raw octopus I do not know.

I commented on the owner`s cool headband, called a hachimaki, and of course he gave me one.

One of my friends had a couple of questions about the sports festival video in the previous post, so I think maybe I left out a few important details. My school has over 800 kids, so everyone featured in that little clip were all my students. I have just under 25 classes a week, which means I see each students once a week. The field itself is pretty rough. Its a fine gravel, which means if you slip while running you are going to come back up bloody. There was a little medical station at the festival for those occasions. Due to the playing surface, they play something called soft tennis instead of the tennis that I am familiar with. The ball and even the racket is a bit different I believe. So there you have it.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

10/7/07 Sports Day

The big day-long sports festival had arrived. I had pictured the students running around outside, with maybe a couple of parents with nothing better to do hanging around. It was definitely a bit more than that. There were maybe a few hundred guests. Several large tents were set up along with sound equipment on one end of the field, where the opening ceremonies occurred and announcers bellowed whatever random information. The whole thing lasted from a little after 8 in the morning until after 4 at night. Pretty serious.

My coverage of the sports festival.

There were maybe ten different events over the course of the day. I took a few pictures of the interesting ones. I skipped covering the more familiar events such as relays and whatnot.

A fierce war of tugs being waged.

More tugging.

I thought to myself how horrible this could go if someone wasn't paying attention.

Leader boards were updated after every event. The overall winners from each grade were presented with certificates at the closing ceremony.

Closing ceremony. The students' colored headbands corresponded to their grade and class number.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

10/4/07 Sports Day Preparation

I've been so busy the last couple of days... things are very hectic at school this week. A big reason for the disruption was the upcoming day-long sports festival. Monday and Tuesday were also both half days as a result.

Monday afternoon's exercises were a bit scary. Everyone lined up in a huge mass and practiced their marching and whatnot. They are pretty hardcore.

We should probably be worried about this.

Tuesday was for setting up lots of tents, tables, and chairs. Quite a lot of work went into this thing. I was pretty surprised, I didn't initially realize how important this was to everyone.

Many of the students were tasked with picking up rocks from the playing field. This reminded me a bit of a prison yard scene.

Maybe even more than a week ago the students started practicing group jump-rope incessantly: in the morning before school, at lunch break, many times a few groups were still doing it when I left to return home after work. About 12 students all line up and attempt to stay in line as they jump their little cares away. More on this sporty business next time.

On a related note, here is an average school lunch. Little bowl of fruit with some chunks of gelatin stuff, a bowl of mixed meat, tofu, and vegetables, a couple of little chinese dumpling things, and a little milk box. The little metal box keeps the rice warm. Yummy.

Ok, now for something fun. I'd like you to look at the following picture and try to guess what it is describing and where it is located. No cheating!

think... think... why would a person put a bag over their own head?

No, its not Abu Ghraib. It's a fitting room at a Japanese clothing store! I can only read a couple of the words on this sign, but I can with out a doubt read "face cover". It seems that trying on a sweater with your dirty little face uncovered is unacceptable. Who knows where your faces have been. Oh man. I had a good laugh at this one. Thoroughly ridiculous.

Here's the basket of honorable face covers.