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.