Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tis the Season

I've been even busier than usual, and thus my list of "Things Done" has even further eclipsed my list of "Things Blogged". The reasons are sundry and AWESOME (mostly), and you'll be privy to all of them in due time. But for now, a little aside to whatever few readers visit this site with regularity.

First off, sorry! I should be updating more, eh? Consider it a New Years Resolution!

Second of all, please donate to Child's Play! Child's Play is a charity that focuses on providing hospital-bound children with various games to improve the quality of their life, which means a whole lot when you consider why they might be in the hospital in the first place. The organization lets you choose which hospital you would like to donate to, and then provides an extensive "wish list" provided by those hospitals, further letting you specify your donation. Shoving money into a red Salvation Army bucket is a fine way to donate, but maybe the gift would mean more to you - and to the child - if you have chosen both the hospital AND the item.

The link, if any of you are looking to spread the word, is http://www.childsplaycharity.org/ . This has remained my favorite charity over the past few years for reasons that should be obvious to anybody who knows me, and so it's my honor to try and spread the word to all of you.

Thank you, best wishes, and Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 17, 2006

"What are you thinking about?" "Nothin`"

Believe it or not, it's been a long-standing dream of mine to run off to a monastery (preferably of the Asian variety, largely due to the awesome mysticism that surrounds them) and just meditate/train/whatever for a year or so, leaving everything else behind. There are quite a few reasons for this: I respect and - to a degree - yearn for that level of asceticism, never seem to have time to just sit and think about the deeper issues of life, and want to know if I could endure it. There may be a few other incentives I left out, but that's the meat of it. Needless to say, I was intrigued when I learned I might get the opportunity, even if it was for only five days.

Initially I was undecided on whether or not I should go. The whole affair ran at around $400 for only 5 days, and that was 5 days of sitting and doing nothing. Still, it was not a rare chance and the weekend was already one extra day long, so I would have to take minimal vacation days. I can actually pinpoint the moment I "decided" to go. I was talking to my friend Jeff, who likewise had ambitions of attending the Zen weekend. The exchange went something like this.

Jeff: "So how close are you to coming to this Zen retreat?"
Me: "Really damn close - 80 or 90%"
Jeff: "Well which is it?"
Me: "I think...yeah, I think it's 90% right now"
Jeff: *SLAP* "THAT'S your other 10%. You're lucky you didn't say 80%, I don't even know what I would've done then."

Is there any way to refuse a gesture like that? I submit that there is not.

So off we went. The trip itself was actually interesting in that A) it was my first time driving in Japan, and B) I haven't driven a manual transmission in a few years. I didn't tell my unfortunate passenger (who neither had an international driver's license nor knew how to drive stick) that I Googled "how to drive a manual transmission car" the night before we left. I actually learned a few things that I didn't know even when I was driving stick back in the day, so the search was well worth it. Also, as if those shenanigans weren't enough, we managed to get a parking ticket in the 30 minutes or so we spent eating while our car was parked in front of a nearby building. Some other foreigners who lived there said "it was probably okay," because a lot of Japanese people did it, but we must have missed the memo saying what time the ticketeer (as I henceforth like to call them) came, as a ticket we could not understand was posted on the windshield when we came back. Undeterred, we found our fellow Zen enthusiasts, and rode up into the mountains.

After about thirty minutes of blocking traffic and nearly driving off the road, we reached the temple. Tetsugyuji (translation - METAL COW TEMPLE[or Iron Ox, if you're lame]) has a quaint setup in the mountainous area of Oita. It has everything you'd need to survive - plus a meditation room, minus a bathing facility. The plan was to spend most of our time in the temple proper, ie the meditation room, where we would practice zazen for more than nine hours a day and sleep for less than eight. Super!

Although the sesshin (as such a retreat is called) has a cap of 25 people, it proved unnecessary - this year the retreat only garnered the masochism of six Zenners, Jeff and myself included. We soon learned that even though there was only six of us, the odds of all of us staying were slim. The head abbot, Reverend Silverman, told us that having everybody stay was the exception rather than the rule. It was around this time that I first began to grasp just how difficult it was going to be.

Our guide for those five days was one Paul Tesshin Silverman. He left Pittsburg at the age of 18 to fly to Japan and train in Zen, and was eventually ordained as the first non-Japanese abbot of a Zen temple. Now he does not live at the temple save the times of the year he runs the sesshin (I think it's twice a year for five days each time), but still acts as head Abbot. He seemed very much like a normal person when I first met him - so much so, in fact, that I did not guess he would be running the show after we left the station. But the more you're around him, the more you seem to realize there's an aura of content, control and purpose that directs all of his actions. But you don't understand this until a few days of zazen.

The last thing you need to know is what exactly zazen is, or at least the style we were practicing. Zen (and everything that I will say from here on out is still mostly armchair theory - this might be the only temple that does it this way, or it might be like every other temple) is the art of thinking of nothing. Nothing aside from what you're doing. The meditation involves thinking of nothing but your breathing, and I say this without exaggeration. The idea is that you sit on a cushion (in any style of sitting you like, although half-lotus/full-lotus/seiza are recommended), let your eyes relax (ie don't stare at any fixed point, but don't let your eyes close or wander either), and then...breathe.

Every breath should be deep, controlled, and tranquil. We were also counting every breath, but the catch is that the second you think about anything besides counting your breath - and I mean ANYTHING - you go back to one. And holy crap, is it ever frustrating.

*inhale*.....one....*exhale*...my leg kinda hu- DAMMIT!....*inhale*....one....*exhale*

The best part is that getting past number one is such an accomplishment it immediately leads you to think "WOW I'M PAST ONE! .... DAMMIT! ...*inhale*....one....*exhale*" I think my record was three, MAYBE four, but I'd be pretty lenient with myself to say that. I only once made it to twenty when I allowed my mind to wander the whole way through, although I tried many times. You quickly forget about counting at all if you let your thoughts swim around.

We first meditated the night we got there. It was fairly dark, a little cold, but we were fresh enough from civilization to not know or mind. After a paltry hour or so, we hit the sack, sleeping in the same place we had just meditated. Although I was in bed by 9:00 or so, I rolled around until midnight, and even then my sleep was not exactly fitful. Come 4:15am, Abbot Silverman ran down the adjacent hallway like a bat out of hell, ringing a bell as he went, waking all of us up to start our first day without solid foods, without speaking, and without bathing. Let the fun begin!

Our first real meditation block began at 4:30am. It was dark outside and it was cold. In my remarkable foresight I had only brought one thin pair of pants, a t-shirt, and a track jacket. You are also not allowed to wear socks inside the tatami room where we meditated, but it was just as well - your socks get a mighty funk when neither you nor them see any cleaning for several days in a row.

Only 15 minutes into the meditation I began to feel dizzy and nauseous. The cold, the lack of sleep, my numb legs and my hunger were all stacking on top of each other, and before I knew it I was being pulled up from the wall that I had fallen over headfirst into. I've rarely passed out before, although I'm not so foreign to the experience to not know what happened; but wow, was it ever hard to continue sitting in that position, hungry and cold, for another hour after I was pulled upright again.

I think I can safely say that this was when I most considered quitting. Yeah, I know, only 2 hours of meditation into a full three and a half days of it, but I was pretty shaken. When the session was over and we went on with chores (for my friends who know, it's very much like what you see in anime - running down the hallways with a rag on the ground, rapidly sweeping off the tatami with brooms, banging on the paper screen doors with odd dusters, etc) and finally had breakfast. As I said before, no solid foods, so we juiced a ton of oranges and carrots, and that was our meal.

Mmm...juice. Without any food at all, I wouldn't have made it - but I drank that juice like a fish drinks water, and a few full bowls found me reinvigorated. Once we started the second meditation (2 1/2 hours long interrupted only by 3 sessions of standing, walking in a circle while still meditating, and then sitting down and starting all over again), I felt a lot more confident about staying. It was probably for the best that I had such an awful experience within the first few hours - after that, whenever I considered leaving, it was very quickly followed by "well, at least you're not trying to headbutt a hole through the sliding door," and my doubts fluttered away like leaves in the wind (yes - it was that dramatic).

Every day was full of meditation, food preparation, chores (outside and in - in the middle of the day when it was sunny we would often go outside and weed the place, which is more or less impossible, but no moreso than counting to 20), a bit of eating, and one lecture from our resident Abbot. Routine sets in quickly with days like that, and even over just a few nights you begin to become accustomed to everything.

At least, most of us did. Two people left the very first day. One of them was the only girl in attendance, who had some recurring leg problem that made sitting in that particular fashion really painful for her. Or at least, that's my guess. The other guy, probably in his mid or late 20s, just couldn't hack it. We learned later that he rationalized why other people were staying while he was leaving, and told Silverman "Well, those two guys came all the way from Saga, so that's why they're staying..." which we found pretty funny later. Sure, we had come in the same car, and thus used each other as support for staying... but there ARE trains and buses that take us back home, should the need have arisen. This brought our numbers down to a paltry four. So much for the 25 limit.

You find a lot of ways to communicate when you can't talk. Pantomiming was huge, as was any kind of gesturing. We actually left with a lot of really good inside jokes that I'm laughing about even as I write this. Not being able to talk really only makes things more ridiculous, which - if you know me - really says something about how silly you can get just before bed, after all the meditation is done for the day.

Now so far, I've only told you about what happened around me...but inside my head is another story entirely. The goal of Zen is very simple, but difficult - it's to completely embody whatever task you set yourself to without considering a single other thought. When you are pulling weeds, you are pulling weeds. You're not thinking about how hungry you are or the food you'll eat or how much you'd like to sit down. You aren't even thinking, "I am only thinking about pulling weeds" - you just ARE. At least, this is the goal. I think I accomplished it on occasion and by accident, but it was always a flicker, and like so many things you destroyed it by examining it.

The same went for meditation. Your mind is a flurry of thoughts, and mine perhaps moreso than some others. My humor usually takes advantage of this by jumping to bizarre tangents all on its own, but for zazen meditation, this is exactly the opposite of what you want. The goal is 100% focus, completely undisturbed, unconcerned with everything that is not your present. It. Is. HARD.

But it's not a goal without benefit. As Silverman said, "we are absent from most of our lives," and in a way it's very true. Every single day we think of where we'd rather be or what we'll be doing or what we've done, with the result of wanting to be somewhere else. But what we don't realize is that by even thinking about those things, we remove ourselves from our present situation. We are no longer completely where we are meant to be, and it dilutes our present experience. This wandering can creep into any aspect of our life, which is why zen isn't a religion per se, but more like a philosophy or a discipline. It brings you back into your moment, back into your life.

To jump back into the practice of Zen, one of the most interesting parts were the daily one-on-one meetings you could have with Abbot Silverman if you felt up to the task. The first goal was to show that you had proper breathing. My first meeting proved that I had a lot of work to do on it, but the second time it was good enough for me to receive a koan. Almost everybody who reads this knows what a koan is, but doesn't realize what it's called. The best two examples: What is the sound of one hand clapping? And if a tree falls in the forest, and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? I was given neither of these koans, though the answers are probably completely different than you would think...I know that's what I found, at least. Here are the three koans I got in the time I was there -

You walk into a room. There are three tables. On the center table is a football, on the right table is a baseball, and on the left table is a basketball. Which ball is best?

The window is dirty. Clean it.

You approach a great castle. At the top of a castle is a flag. Is the wind moving the flag, or is the flag moving the wind?

I won't reveal the answers here, though as I said before, they are very, very different than what you would think. I had hours to consider each of them, and still the "solution" was difficult to grasp.

This post has gone out of control, so I'm going to wrap it up. I finished the course in its entirety and everything was glorious for the following week or two. Taking a bath was exquisite. The blandest potato tasted like filet mignon. Words came more carefully, their meaning felt more deeply. Unfortunately, this feeling was fleeting, particularly because real life grabbed me and shook me. I haven't had the time or presence of mind to sit since then, and it now feels ages ago. But I know that one day I will get a cushion, I will dim the lights, and I will sit and stare at a wall for an hour. When that's one of your greater ambitions, life comes easy.

Note: This post is super late in coming. The actual dates I went up to Ooita to do this is - October 6th - 10th. Also, this post is brought to you courtesy of Min Deng, who proved to be the final straw that broke this camel's back and finally got me plodding through to completion.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

In my country there is problem

Let's cut to the chase - I'm a little drunk right now.

And that doesn't even cover it. I've had a LOT to drink. This is only weird for one reason - it's a Wednesday night.

My friend Nirav invited me out to a yakitori restaurant where he received special treatment maybe a week or two before for being so great at Japanese. So he decided to take me along for run #2, and a random bhuddist decided to not only join us at the table, but handle our entire beer tab...which only became large because he continued on INSISTING to buy more beer for us. I only understood maybe 20-30% of the conversation he had with Nirav, but I understood the part where he said "your friend is like an animal, and he reads your face for the reaction he should have," hahaha which was enough to make the guy realize that I wasn't COMPLETELY clueless. Anyway, several beers later he left, after which the owner of the place provided us MORE beer and bought us a taxi to go eat with him at a local gyoza haunt.

Another beer and a lot of sake later, we were still chatting at 2am. The TV happened to be showing some....ah...risque material, and when I commented on it in English, it happened to be the only thing our Japanese escort understood. Funny thing, fate. Still, he bought us more than our fill in gyoza, and we would not have paid one red cent if not for the fact that we hid (I'm not even kidding, we had to HIDE about twenty bucks) some money back at his restaurant to pay for part of our meal. Japan. Is. Amazing.

Anyway, as I said, I'm a little gone right now, and only posting because one SAM KORTZ (that's right, Sam, live in INFAMY) put me up to it. Hopefully this won't look so bad in the morning.

G`night everybody, I'll post more soon, I swear.

<3 Brett

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chotto mate, ne

I know I started this with ambitions of nearly daily posts and now I'm hardly seeing one a week, but let me assure you it's not for lack of effort. I have one post that's nearly done, but thought I'd whip out a little "one day in the life of" filler to let you all get an idea of how things roll here.

6:45-7:30am - Wake up, prepare a few things for class, etc, etc
7:30-8:00am - Bike to school.
8:00-noon - Three classes with class-preparation before and in between
noon-5:00pm - Speech contest. I've been training 6 kids for the past month, every day after school for about 1 hour and sometimes on Saturdays for 2 hours. Not a minute counts as work time. Today they finally competed - I had a kid place in every age-group. Yay!
5:00-6:30pm - Back to school, where I prepare for more classes with a teacher and try and organize my desk
6:30-7:00pm - Bike back into the city. It's drizzling, dark, and on the way my bike chain jumps off the gears twice. My hands are covered in grease.
7:00-8:10pm - Christmas Charity Party Board of Directors planning meeting. I am (hopefully) designing the flyer, playing the role of Santa, and taking charge of the decoration planning. Until the party (Dec 10th), I'll attend at least 5 more meetings, and probably more to talk to other volunteers.
8:15-9:45pm - Ballroom dance class. I just started up, but it seems like it could be fun.
10:00-present (around 11:30pm) - Get home, eat a simple dinner (something I had half-prepared earlier), clean dishes, etc...and hop on the internet.

I do have a lot to write in this thing, but right now I don't have a lot of time to do it. I hope you will all continue to check back, and leave posts - I will respond to the old ones soon enough, and it's good to know people are checking in.

Translation of the title - whoa, wait a second!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Natsu Matsuri

While I'm making you all wait for a recap of my Zen experience (which should come tomorrow), here's another blast from the past.

Natsu Matsuri! Or "Summer Festival," if English is your language of choice. Japan has a glut of festivals - even the most rinky dink village tucked away up in the mountains has at least one special festival to call its own, and more often than not has such a celebration for each one of the seasons. When you first get here, you think, "oh boy, festivals! I must go to ALL of them!", but after awhile, you realize that they mostly sport the same offerings. Food stands, a few dances, and maybe some drums. This isn't meant to suggest that the festivals aren't worth going to - it's just to say that they aren't worth going out of your way to get to. (Except for big crazy festivals, which we'll get to sooner or later)

As hot dogs are to America, so squid/chicken/octopus-on-a-stick stands are to Japan. They sell these things in abundance with a price tag you'd expect (ie. high, but barely not high enough to prevent you from buying it). Also in attendance are shaved ice stands, which aren't quite the same as the sad little sno-cones you get in the States. Asian shaved ice is usually grated to smaller, finer chunks, and the syrup selection can be intimidating. Now that fall is quickly giving way to winter, these stands are becoming a memory... but they are absolute godsends in summer.

I had to take a picture of these guys because their sticks looked too much like some kind of double-ended battle-mop, which invokes nostalgia of the funniest sort (note: If you were not my friend in high school, you will probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But just roll with it and pretend you do, then everybody wins). The Japanese really do make it a habit to clean up after themselves, so I guess translating your primary cleaning utensil into some kind of weapon is a logical step in the fight against dirt.

Aside from the street shows, there was also a huge stage on which a variety of groups performed to traditional Japanese music mixed with the occasional guitar or synthesizer. Some of the dances got pretty complicated, but that didn't stop me from losing interest and idling elsewhere.

Back on the subject of things you can buy at a Japanese festival, these huge beetles can be found in the strangest of places. During my first trip to Japan, there was a claw machine (or UFO Catcher, as they're called here) in which little plastic cages held live beetles for you to catch. At the matsuri, there were at least three stands offering the big black critters. It's a favorite pastime for kids here to catch the beetles in the wild and raise them over summer. Sometimes the kids will have the beetles fight, as I think there's something of a stag-complex in the horned insects. Regardless, the owners were more than happy to let me take pictures of their bounty. Also note that next year I hope to capture and train one of the bugs of my own. I'll take suggestions for a name when the time comes.

Last on the agenda: fireworks! I remember hearing a lot about the marvels of Japanese pyrotechnics in the States, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. There were the occasional surprising bursts of color and different patterns, but it was nothing I hadn't already seen in America. I guess it's important to note that Saga is not what most people think of when they hear the word Japan, and thus probably has hanabi-lite (hanabi = firework(s)), but something was better than nothing, and it made a good way to cap off the evening.

Well, that was the summer festival, which I think was somewhere around August 5th, 06. Sorry for the big delay - expect the next update soon.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

You're Not Hardcore Unless You Live Hardcore

Unfortunately I didn't have time to post today...but I will go ahead and give you the heads up on what will keep me occupied this weekend.

Zen Sesshin - 5 days.
    • Wake up 4am
    • Morning meditation 4:15 – 5:45am
    • Cleaning/ Chanting 5:45 – 6:30
    • Morning meal/juice 6:30
    • Break until 7:30am
    • Zazen meditation / Dokusan 7:30 – 10:30am
    • Break 10:30 - 11am
    • Meal/juice 11am.
    • Break 11:30 – Noon.
    • Chores Noon – 1pm
    • Lecture 1pm – 2pm
    • Break 2pm – 2:30pm
    • Zazen meditation 2:30 – 4:30
    • Macha break 4:30 – 5pm
    • Break 5pm – 5:30
    • Zazen meditation 5:30 – 7:30 pm
    • Evening soup 7:30 – 8pm
    • Preparation for bed
    • Lights out 9pm.
This splendid little get-together will be taking place in the mountains in an adjacent prefecture. There will probably be just a handful of us, with a max of maybe 20 or so, staying at a temple there, living a ridiculously simple life with 9 or so hours a day spent sitting in a meditative trance...or at least that's the plan. Don't expect any updates before the 11th unless I'm blessed with a spare hour tomorrow.

Tsutzuku. Zettai.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Celebrity Status in Two Easy Steps.

Step One: Go to Japan

Step Two: Find elementary school children

Step Three: PROFIT.

While the previous post was a recap from more than two months ago, this little tidbit is Ziploc fresh.

Today I went to my first elementary school visit. I was super excited to go, but also a bit worried as they had only told me a little of what would be happening. I had a rough idea that there would be colors and numbers (as the elementary school English experience is limited to a few kindergarten-esque activities), but how much my own meager stash of flash cards (read: none) would be relied upon remained a mystery.

Anyway, the night before I did not get much sleep (somewhere in the ballpark of five hours), but at least I found the school on the first try and established an easy rapport with the teachers. Once everything started, it turns out I really had nothing to be worried about. Elementary school is easier/more fun than junior high (which I think was the case when I was on the other side of the teacher's desk, too).

The kids are MEGA-genki, meaning they must all have some kind of hidden sugar IV keeping them so hyper. It was strange, though, as every class was a different brand of insane. At the end of my first class, the 30 students MOBBED me, so I had one student on my back, one student trying to get on the back of the student who was already riding me, five students on either arm, and the rest either crammed in the open spots and clawing for any piece of clothing they could find or else clearing the path as they "helped" me back to the teacher's room. The second class was a similar experience, although there were a few kids were even more outgoing than the others, which I had not thought possible. One of the girls REALLY surprised me with English that could put some junior high kids to shame. As a note, these are 3rd graders we're talking about, and JH here is the equivalent of 7th-9th grade.

The final class was one of the most surprising, but also the most ego-boosting. At the end of this class, the kids mobbed be again...but this time to get my autograph. And not only did the want me to sign any piece of paper/workbook they could get their hands on, but they wanted me to sign THEM as well. I can proudly say there are probably about 30 kids right now walking around with my name sprawled in permanent marker on their hands and arms. One kid wanted me to sign his forehead, but reluctantly declined. I charge extra for that, of course.

Anyway, after elementary school I went back to the nearby JH to help some kids practice for various speech contests. After that I bought a long-sought-after soccer ball so my ragtag team could practice for an upcoming sports event, crashed at home for maybe 15 minutes, then wandered out for some sushi. At the sushi restaurant I finally initiated conversation with the sushi guys (more on the sushi place in a different post), and randomly met a cool Japanese guy. He initiated the conversation with very friendly English ("Is that delicious?"), and we managed a healthy banter with our loose command of either language. Turns out he is a professional fire dancer in Fukuoka, the big city near here. I said I'd love to come see him sometime, and we exchanged cellphone info. That should come into fruition in about 22 days, so he said...

Right after that, it was Taiko time. I zipped over and we practiced for one hour. It was more vigorous than usual, and some of my calluses peeled a little, which is going to be a huge pain in the ass if they start to bleed... Still, I'm really beginning to rock ass at those huge drums, and there's a chance I'll get to play at the halftime show of an upcoming soccer game. Booyah!

That pretty much brings us to now. This is pretty much a very standard day in my life here - packed from sunrise to sunset, and then some. It's funny because most JETs "warn" me about the unmanageable glut of free time you get once the school year starts, but my year has started, and I'm lucky when I get home before the sun has set. This is largely my own fault - by getting involved at the various schools (more on that later), I've invested a lof of my free time in the kids. But I'm having a fantastic time...so how can I complain?

PS - Sorry for the lack of pictures. I'm still getting used to the fact that, hey, I'm maintaining an online journal now. Seeing as I want to make this a way for everybody to keep in touch, pictures are going to be key. Expect more in the future.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Destination: Tokyo

Before I start, I'll warn everybody that there are going to be a lot of flashback posts. I've been here for two months of wacky hilarity, and far be it for me to rob you of said madness just because I'm really, really lazy.

The trip to Japan, the Tokyo Orientation, and the trip to Saga get a post if for no other reason than that's how I got here... and because it has pictures, which mean I have to write less. Joy!

A lot of my Japan happenings have forced me into more of a "real" schedule, meaning I discover daily how many things can happen before noon. Well...things other than sleep, anyway. This disturbing trend started the day of my departure, which required me to wake up at 5:30am to make the 7:00am gathering time at DIA. We all got into the plane without any problems, had a slightly extended layover in LA, and finally hit Japan. Everybody was burnt out by the time we hit the ground, but an hour or so on a bus still separated us from the hotel. Although I was impressed at the time how many JETs had shown up to help us, it has become less amazing in retrospect - a week off of work to get paid to go to Tokyo sounds about right to me. Anyway, I checked in when I landed, and then immediately tried to find a way to call my friend Takashi.

Quick background on how I met Takashi - Almost exactly two years ago, I visited Japan on Cornell's dime and went to Hokkaido as part of the trip. On the ride up (a night train from Kyoto), I had a completely random meeting with Takashi. He was reading a magazine, and I began idle conversation, as we were the only two like-aged people in the car. I had been hanging with the drunken business men (which, I continue to insist, are some of the craziest/funnest/vulgar..est people in Japan), but they all clocked out. Anyway, we began having a conversation, filling in pieces with the English he knew and the Japanese I knew until we built a pretty good rapport. So good that he gave me his number, and we arranged a meeting a few days later. We met up on the specified day, and then we drove around Hokkaido for about three days. We even went to a pretty ritzy sushi place on his birthday, and after I spent the last night at his apartment, he saw me off.

I did get his email, but our correspondence has been pretty limited over the past two years. The occasional "how are you doing?" sprang up, but neither of us ventured too far beyond that. When I started to fill out the JET application, however, our banter renewed, and he was one of the first people I emailed when I was finally accepted. We arranged another meeting (that took some doing, as I had to ask a ton of different people about what night wouldn't be dominated by JET-related activities), which just about brings you up to speed.

Anyway, I was busy trying to find a way to call him, when I suddenly heard someone call out "...Brett?" behind me. I turned around, and sure enough, bam, there stood Takashi. We talked and walked to a semi-famous yakitori place he knew about, and there I had what remains one of the best meals I've had in Japan. I can't even tell you most of the things I ate, but I can tell you that it was a grand "welcome," and continues Takashi's trend of taking me to really awesome places to eat. He even paid the bill (which I had said I would do before I even came), a favor I have sworn to repay when I am next in Tokyo and flushed with the spoils of teaching English.

The next few days went by in a flicker. There were plenty of different workshops and a few memorable quotes.

At a workshop about eating in Japan : “*lengthy talk about a certain dish on the PowerPoint presentation before she switched to a slide that just has a picture of beer* Okay. Drink Beer. Next Slide.”

At a workshop about transportation in Japan:
Attending JET : “What’s a good way to get a bike?”
Male Presenter : “Okay, here’s what you do - go to the subway station, and look for one that’s unlocked. Wait a week or two and then check on it to see if it hasn’t been moved. If nobody touches it, just take it.”
Female Presenter : “What?! No! Don’t steal things in Japan!”
Male Presenter : “Well that’s what I did, and you can all probably do it, too - nooobody cares!”

Nice to know that our teacherly responsibilities are a bit overrated, eh?

We also learned that Saga-ken lets to get its ALTS very, very early. How early? One of the main speeches was interrupted with this blurb: "there is a change in the Tokyo Orientation guide - the Hana Room D will have breakfast starting at 6:30 am for some of the earlier departures. Oh, and, uh...Saga-ken people...apparently you’ll be gone before that, so special arrangements will be made.” I wasn't kidding when I said I was going to have to adjust to all the early rising...yikes.

At least that night we were awarded with unlimited beer/food. The food was excellent, and the beer was served in enormous bottles...or so I thought. When they said "get a drink for the toast," I just snagged one of the giant bottles, thinking Japanese REALLY love their beer. I only discovered a few minutes later that almost everybody else was using these bottles to pour beer into the smaller glasses you can see hiding between the beer and the coke. Oops. Oh well - Japan will have to learn how hard I party sooner or later.

I met more people from my prefecture that night and we all did karaoke and dancing, both of which were fun. I hit the sack around 3am, coming to my hotel room when both my roommates were asleep for the second time, and then hit the sack. The next day, I woke up late (yikes), but only missed a few workshops I really had no interest in anyhow. After living here for awhile, I've come to realize that I probably didn't have to go to ANY of those workshops, as ESID (Every Situation Is Different) really does apply. Oh well - I had a pretty awesome time.

We woke up way, way too damn early the next day to go to Saga. The regular deliciousness of breakfast was closed, so we had to chow down on the smorgasbord you see to the right. While the eggs had the consistency of something you squeeze out of a tube and most other things were unremarkable Village Inn-esque affairs, the french fries were a pleasant surprise. Now I normally don't indulge in french fries for breakfast, but come on - can you trust or even RESPECT somebody who would pass up an opportunity like these little french fry animals? I submit that you canNOT.

That does it for the Tokyo pictures. Stay tuned for the next thrilling edition of Gaijinx - Destination: Saga.


Saturday, September 30, 2006


Hajimemashite. Sessha wa Buretto gozaro.

I'm Brett Staebell, age 22, blood type O+, and no, I don't have a girlfriend. I do, however, have a pretty sweet situation in Saga-ken, Saga-shi Japan. During the day, I am Buretto (or Brett-sensei, or Pan Sutaberu, or Doraemon, depending on who you ask), half-crazy English teacher, wielder of frisbees, and cyclist of a million meters. During the night, I am Brett (or vomit-sensei, or Yanki-san, depending on who you ask), taiko thunder striker, bar-biker, and proud reinforcer of the loud gaijin stereotype.

Douzo yoroshiku.

I've promised to do this journal for a long time - not just to my friends or parents, but to myself. I've never been particularly keen about the BLOG scene, but that has not stopped me from cultivating my own daily regimen of stalkerly journal-hopping. Although my life has been incredibly fulfilling and unusually lucky, I never thought it was worthy of chronicling. But being over 6000 miles away from your friends and family can alter ones perspective a bit. Plus, maybe something funny will happen!...now might be a good time say your tickets are nonrefundable. Welcome to the show!

Anyway, I suppose that's enough of an introduction. I plan on updating somewhat often at first to try and make up for lost time, but we'll all have to wait and see.