Friday, October 20, 2006

Daily Life Part 2: One of the days I'll remember

6:30 I wake up with a particularly violent cough that projects a brilliant neon ball of mucus into my mouth. I have been sick for a week now, but the symptoms keep changing. My theory is that it is not so much one single cold as a series of colds. This one is the coughing kind. 15 hours of sleep don't seem to have done the trick, either. Oh well. I hop out of bed to spit into the toilet. After a shower, I sit down to watch the news and eat my yogurt. I feel much better.

7:20 I leave the house and go to the station, where I meet Brigg, another ALT who works at the school my students will be going to when they become middle school students. This morning, as we get off the train in Yagihara, the pack of high school girls that we surprised yesterday when we said "good morning" have laid an ambush. As Brigg and I step off the train 8 high school girls shout "GOOD MORNING" and jump onto the train, safe from follow up conversation.

7:40 I arrive at school before basically everyone else. So early, in fact, that when the really young female teacher goes to make tea, I try to help her. This is the third time I have tried to help. The first time I screwed up and filled the cups one at a time, meaning the first cups were little more than hot water, and the last cups were nothing but leaves. The second time I tried passing out the tea, but since I can't read everyone's names and I only know about half of the teachers anyway, one of the other teachers had to come do it for me. This time my mistake is that I let the tea get too diluted. Almost none of the tea has any leaves in the bottom. Since no one else is in the office, the young female teacher tells me it is OK, and then shows me a way to cheat (apparently she doesn't have much experience making tea either). She sprinkles in some leaves by hand, the whole time saying "this isn't how you are supposed to make tea". Don't worry, I won't tell.

8:10 After making 2 trips to the bathroom to purge my lungs and sinuses, each followed by a trip to the "Hand Wash Place", I sit down to plan my lesson. I am quickly distracted by my new Japanese grammar book.

9:00 For real this time, I plan my lesson.

9:25 I head up to the 4th floor music room to make preparations.

9:40 My second grade class arrives.

Allow me to briefly explain my lesson. All lessons these days begin in chaos. Kids run in, grab onto any part of me they can (usually the arm or the tie) and say "Hello, hello, hello." Then the homeroom teacher comes and tells everyone to sit on the floor in rows. The head students in class for the day announce the beginning of the lesson, then order everyone to bow. I stand there at attention, intentionally trying to force the smile off of my face (because sitting there looking like you are barely containing yourself usually gets everybody's attention). My lesson begins with "Good Morning!". For the next few minutes I introduce the target vocabulary for the day by walking between the students and introducing myself. Today we are learning about greetings. I am sure to make several dramatic spins in order to catch students who thought they were safe because my back was turned. Then I go on to explain about hand shakes, high fives, and the "OK" sign.

Second grade is my favorite grade to teach in a classroom setting. They are old enough where they can be orderly if necessary, but a still at an age where embarrassment is not a major problem. After teaching some gestures, I introduce where I am from. I begin with the Shaka, and teach them "Aloha". Then produce a lei, and run over to the teacher saying "Aloha!!", give them a big hug, and pretend to kiss them on both cheeks. The kids go nuts. Then I produce my loudest, red aloha shirt, and put that on the teacher too. And then my blue fish pajamas. I whisper to the student farthest from the teacher that those are, in fact my pajamas, and word spreads quickly. The students and I give the teacher a round of applause and say Aloha. I then produce a Hawaiian flag and an American flag and sing "E' Hawai'i". I Really over act this one. Especially the low "oli oli oil e"s. Having finished my song, I quickly remove my flags and produce a Manta Ray.

A stuffed one named Manta. This is my incentive to get the kids to ask questions. All the kids want to hold Manta (who has become my second most valuable teaching tool, after my frog hat). If they ask a question, they get to hold Manta while I answer. The girls hands go up right away (Manta is very cute). The boys hands don't go up right away, but as soon as I make it clear that I don't hand you Manta, but fling him to you by swinging him by the tail, all of the rowdiest boys in class suddenly have a question. Questions go on for about 5 minutes and it is absolute chaos.

After questions are over, Manta waves goodbye as I stuff him into my bag and pull out a pumpkin. I give a short lecture about Halloween. The names of famous Halloween monsters, an example of a costume (my precious frog hat which earned me the nickname kaeru-kun, which translates as "Mr. Frog" indicating that I am lower in status than the pre-schoolers that call me that), and a baseball sized jawbreaker. Candy is not allowed in Japanese schools, so to see a piece of candy so big it hardly fits in my hand just about causes a riot. The kids swarm the candy as they try to touch it, which gives me time to get my fake eyeballs out of my bag. When they have finally settled down I ask if there are any questions. If not, I turn around, drop the fake eyeballs on the ground and clutch my face screaming "Oh, my eyes!". Another riot.

Fake eyeballs don't show up at school everyday. And the kids aren't the only ones who go nuts over them. The other day I was talking to Y-sensei (the music teaher who, due to her control of the money that pays for school lunch, is the de-facto third most powerful person in the school) when one of the eyeballs rolled out of my bag. She was really excited by it, and spent a great deal of time trying to make it look like she had actually lost an eye. She then revealed that she was a huge monster movie fan. Not Godzilla, mind you, but the cheap Godzilla knock offs. I learned all this the day before she took the school's brass band to the National Championships and won third place.

Anyway, back to the lesson. After the eyeball riot has calmed down, I put on my frog hat and explain the next game. Leap-frog. But every time you are about to jump over someone you have to introduce yourself in English. We play that game until the end of class. I then, thank the students, tell them goodbye, and they don't leave. The bell rings and they don't leave. Finally the teacher tells them that they have to leave and go back to class, at which point half of the students make a dash for my bag to try to see what other goodies I have inside. I spend the next three minutes collecting my stolen belongings from students, shaking hands and waving "goodbye". Class ends, and a second one begins.

11:40 I go back to the staff room and drop my stuff off. Then hurry to the bathroom, cough and blow my nose for several minutes. I return to my desk and stare off into space. I am totally out of energy. Luckily, my desk is right next to both the fridge and the desk where people put the cookies they bought on vacation. I polish off the last of the cookies.

12:20 I head down and pick up the food for the people who eat lunch in the staff room. Yesterday I ate with the second graders, but today I feel terrible, so I'm going to take it easy. I return to find Y-Sensei and the Special Needs teacher looking at pictures of other teachers. They are in the middle of inventing an imaginary Pokemon like card game with the teachers pictures. Each teacher has special powers and weaknesses. For example, the principal is the strongest, but is weak against the young, attractive school nurse, who is otherwise not very strong. My special powers are my English ability, which can confuse other teachers and reduce their attack score. I am not told what my weakness is.

1:00 After lunch (bread, stew, salad and milk), I feel a little better. I go to the library and read "Happy Birthday Moon" to whoever will listen. Then me and a 3rd grader draw pictures of bears in her binder.

1:40 Cleaning time! All the students go to their assigned cleaning duties. I decide that today I am going to help out in the meeting room. It just so happens that the kids who clean the meeting room are awesome. We quickly clean the entire room (with only the occasional broom duel), and then sit down and pretend to be a court hearing a case. One student decides to be the defendant. The rest of us are judges. His crime: not cleaning with all of his might. He confesses that he is guilty, and is sentenced to being the last one to leave the room. Everyone runs out. As they run down the hall I remind them "Don't run" and the running turns into very purposeful walking.

2:00 I return to my desk, and continue to plan next week's lesson.

3:00 One of the teachers comes in with a student who seems to have no expression at all, at first glance. I say hello to her, and the teacher responds "she isn't well". I listen in on their conversation, and it seems like it is a little more serious than that. She's not just not well, her field of vision seems to be getting smaller. In other words, she seems to be going blind. The teacher leaves her in the staff room, calls her mother, and returns to class. I pull my books out of my desk and ask if she wants to hear any. She seems supprised at first, then shakily points to "Happy Birthday Moon". I realize that her expression is not one of exhaustion like I first thought, but one of supressed terror. I give "Happy Birthday Moon" my best shot, and while she doesn't understand the story at all, I see one side of her mouth raise a little several times. Almost a smile. I finish, and her mother comes in to take her to the hospital. I really hope she is OK.

4:00 I should end work at 4, but that never happens. There is always more work to be done. Besides, the train doesn't leave until 4:41. Besides, today something else amazing happened. Look closely.
Let me give you another hint.
Just in case you weren't sure, yes, those are grasshoppers. Today, one of the other teachers brought edible grasshoppers to school (because her grandfather caught them but she doesn't like them). Of course I tried them!!! Grasshopper is sweet, crunchy and delicious. As I suspected it might, it tastes an awful lot like shrimp. However, I expressed too much interest, because the teacher who brought them (eager to get rid of them) gave me half of the plate. Now they are sitting in the fridge. I don't want to eat them yet. They are so rare that I have to give everyone I know a chance to try them before I chow down. Come to think of it, I'll wait till I'm better to eat them. No sense in eating something that scratches the throat that just healed.

4:37 I reach Yagihara station. But some of the students I taught today have seen me. They give chase. 14 tiny hands try to make their way into my bag to touch Manta one last time. I say that I have to get on the train and enter the station. I am 4 minutes early, and only a chest high fence separates the parking lot from the platform. All 7 kids run over to the fence and we continue to chat. After talking to them for about 1 minute, a very stern looking woman comes over to the fence and looks as though she is going to chastise the kids for some reason. She is just about to let loose with some sort of lecture, when she hears me speaking Japanese to the kids. She then attempts to shoo the kids away with body language. The kids stand there and give the woman the "What's your problem and who are you?" look. The kids and I continue to chat for another minute, and the woman leaves. The kids stick around until the train comes. As I get on they all shout "bye, bye" and wave to me until the train leaves the station. I wave back, and make sure that the last thing they see is Manta waving to them with his fin. One of the high school girls behind me says "How cute". "Yeah," I tell her "I love being a teacher."

Monday, October 16, 2006

Mom and Dad in Japan

Well, I should begin this post by expressing my thanks that no one was seriously hurt by the earthquake on the Big Island, and that it sounds like everything is more or less intact. I wish that there was something I could do to help, but when it comes down to it, the most I can do over here is wish you the best of luck.

Anyway, this weekend Mom and Dad came to Japan!!! I had wanted to go to an Onsen with them, and I was extremely forunate that Ann was kind enough to make all the reservations for us. So on Friday night I took the train to Minakami.
And then got on a bus bound for Takaragawa Onsen. I arrived earlier than expected, and easily in time for dinner. It was really good to see Dad and Mom. Dinner was well presented, and served in our room. Here is mom with her chow. I think she looks quite Japanese in this picture.
Since Mom is the exact size of the average Japanese woman of her age, things were perfectly sized for her, I think. Sitting seiza style aslo does not seem to have been a problem. Anyway, here is my fish cooking. Man was that a good fish. Far better than the other meat that was served with dinner.
Bear. When the woman who served us our food brought this in and said it was bear soup, I thought "bear" was the name for some vegetable. After all, Kitsune (fox) Udon does not contain real fox, and Tanuki "raccoon" Udon does not contain raccoon. Nin (one of the words for people) niku (meat) is garlic, not human flesh. So I was convinced that it could not be real bear. Plus then John started saying it was real bear, and I took that as a good sign that it might not be real bear. But the woman was insistent. It was real bear meat. Farm raised. Sure enough, it was not beef.
perhaps you are wondering if I ate the bear soup. Well, the bear was already dead, and us not eating the soup was not likely to register as a protest to the chef. To not eat the bear would be wasteful and disrespectful to the bear. That was my reasoning for taking two bites. Add it to the list. Bear meat, like whale meat, is not delicious. Just like whale, it tastes like over cooked duck, but with a whole lot less fat than whale. I strongly DON'T recommend bear.

Aside from the bear, the Onsen was fantastic. There were four pools, 3 mixed sex and 1 women only pool. After dinner we went and soaked in the hot water. John and I went to the hot pool, and took an illegal dip in the freezing cold river during our time in the hot pool, while Ann, Mom and Dad went to the luke warm pool. It was all very beautiful. So beautiful that I decided to get up at 4 in the morning and take pictures of the pools while no one was in them. Here is the main pool.
Another part of the Main Pool (the hot one).
Here is the luke warm pool.
And the hot pool again.
Me, where the water comes out of the ground. By the way, swimming alone at 4 in the morning in a hot spring in the woods is both really fun and really reminiscent of a horror film.
Here is our whole party on our way to the baths the next morning.
And this is the valley where the baths are. There nothing over those mountains except more mountains.
And here is the hotel.
In case you are wondering, mixed sex bathing is not that embarassing for me, though I can see how it could be quite frightening if you were a woman. Especially since sometimes the guys hardly even make an effort to cover up with thier towels on their way out of the bath.

After the morning bath we checked out. Dad, Mom and I took the bus back to Minakami.
Where we took the train to Shibukawa.
Here they are at the Hezo Jizo. They weren't willing to show me their belly buttons, which would have made this picture more natural and more interesting.
And here we are eating Yaki Manju, the Gunma specialty food. They didn't seem that impressed.
And here is me at SATY. I filled up my card which means that I have brought my own bag 20 times. Doing my part to reduce consumption of plastics also got me a 100 yen discount today!
It was great for mom and dad to see were I live. They were greatly relieved to see that I have a fairly comfortable existence and tried to make my existence more comfortable by buying me a quilt so that I will survive the winter.

Shibukawa is a blast, and you should all come and visit me sometime, but there was a festival in Maebashi, so I decided to leave the Shibukawa sights (the Sibukawa art center, Chasson museum, the vegetable stand in Komochi, etc.) for their next trip. We went to Maebashi and saw all of the local Maebashi elementary school brass bands in a parade. I now realize why one of my schools' brass bands placed third in nationals! Grammar school brass bands are not normally that good. Still the parents that are running along side the parade so that they can videotape their son or daughter for the whole parade are really cute.
Here is the festival proper.
After Maebashi, we took the Shinkansen down to Tokyo and met up with Manabu in Harajuku. We tried to connect with Takaya and Koki, but it just didn't work out. Manabu was great, as always. He took us to a natural food restaurant, where, as always happens, we fought over the bill.
The next day, Mom, Dad and I wandered around Tokyo doing random errands and sightseeing but basically just hanging out together. Here is a security camera we encountered that did not intimidate me at all, but sure made me realize how soon I am going to be bald. It's getting pretty thin up there. Maybe I have been running so fast recently during my training that the wind has been ripping it out.
Speaking of body changes, I finally realized how much weight I have lost since coming to Japan and beginning marathon training. 20 pounds. Where did I lose that weight from, is my question? My earlobes? I don't feel like I lost 20 pounds. That's Japan for you though. Weightloss in Japan is a breeze. What rhymes with breeze? Japanese. Finally, I was able to buy some textbooks. Now hopefully my study of the language will have some structure.
Here are Dad and Mom at Meiji Jingu.
In Akihabara.
And in a Yaki Niku shop on top of Yodobashi Camera in Akihabra. Doesn't Dad look happy to see that meat? Cow meat.
The unfortunate part of Mom and Dad's time with me was that it wasn't that long (and I was slightly sick the whole time). We only got to spend 2 days together. They will be in Tokyo with John and Ann for the rest of their trip. Hopefully, though, this is the first trip of many for them. Hope they enjoyed themselves. And thanks for the quilt, it is getting quite chilly.
So, when are the rest of you coming?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Apples, Garlic, and Training

There are many nice things about training for a long distance race. Firstly, no matter how far you run, it probably isn't going to be as far as the distance you are scheduled to run. Thus, if you are me, you keep telling yourself "just a little farther, at least 1 more kilometer". When you run that extra kilometer, amazing things start to happen. Take Monday's run to Akagi. I got to the other side of the river and said to myself "I'm going to run up that hill before it gets dark." It just so happened that the top of that hill was one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Japan. Red flowers, green rice fields, blue dusk, white moon.
And then there was Wednesday's run to Komochi where I ended up on a freeway that hasn't been opened to the public yet. Then I stopped by a vegetable stand, started a coversation about how the vegetables were very good looking with someone who I thought was a customer and turned out the be the owner, and went home with 7 pounds of vegetables that he insisted that I take for free.
Friday's run, where I did speedwork on the bike path that follows the river in a typhoon at night. By the way, speed work is easy when you have the eire sensation that something is chasing you. And you've realized it's a stupid idea to run in a typhoon.

Or Saturday's run, which consisted of 8 kilometers of constant uphill, as I ran from Shibukawa to Ikaho.
Training for a long distance race is interesting, to say the least.

Anyway, on to other adventures. Well, the weekend for me started on Sunday, since I slept basically all Saturday. I needed it though. Anyway, on Sunday I went with my neighbor Kate (from Australia) up to the top of Mt. Akagi to see the Samurai festival that was being held at the Akagi shrine. Well, it was a beautiful fall day down in Shibukawa. Little did we know that the top of Mt. Akagi felt like winter, what with the wind and the rain and the water spraying off of the lake and the fact that it was 6 degrees.
But that didn't stop us once we had already driven the hour to get there. A pair of the cheapest and most worthless raincoats ever at least gave us the confidence to walk to the shrine, though they hardly gave us any warmth. Fall as you can see, is starting on Akagi, and Japanese hikers, as you can see, are often prepared for the weather. It helps when you can understand the weather report. Understanding the weather report helps you realize things like "oh, this rainstorm is a typhoon, maybe I shouldn't go running today".
Here is a guy in a Tengu mask at the shrine. His clothes looked warm at the time.
Guy with great hats.
And it isn't every day that you see a man in a samurai costume with antlers pulling a cannon down a wheelchair access ramp.
When we were quite frozen, Kate and I decided to leave, but not before I gave the cheap rain coat to her friend who was dressed in an even thinner shirt than me. It took me about 10 seconds to realize that the coat was actually very helpful. At least her friend was warmer.
Well, we drove down the mountain, went to one of my schools where there was a fundraiser bazaar on, bought some stuff and went our separate ways. She went to Shibukawa and I got on the train for Maebashi, where I had arranged to meet with a girl named Kyoko, who I had randomly gotten into a conversation with on the train the very first time I came to Gunma. We exchanged information at the time, and then I thought "nah, she isn't actually looking for a friend, she just gave me her information because I gave her mine." Well, one month later, she sent me an e-mail. Sure enough, she was indeed looking for friends in Gunma because she had just moved back to Gunma after 7 years in Tokyo/Korea. So we arranged to meet at Maebashi station, where I also met Yuma-chan, the mascot of Gunma.
Well Kyoko took me to her house, which turned out to be a huge Buddhist temple at which her father is the head priest. Her mother teaches ikebana (flower arranging). As you can imagine, my visit was quite interesting.
Here I am in front of the main entrance. I am very fortunate that I speak Japanese, otherwise it would be impossible for me to have experiences like this.
Finally, after chatting with Kyoko and her family for a couple of hours, we decided to go on a tour of Maebashi. I was thrilled to discover that the tour included climbing a jungle gym. By the way, if you can climb a jungle gym in heels, you are cool in my book.
After a tour of Maebashi, we went to Ninniku-ya, which translates as "the Garlic Shop". I have stated before on this blog that the major flaw of Japanese food is its complete lack of Garlic. Thus, every once in a while I get an urge to eat tons of garlic. Ninniku-ya did not disappoint. Each of us probably consumed the equivalent of a head and a half of Garlic, and emerged from the shop smelling like socks.
Then I caught the train home. On the way, I passed the Hezo Jizo, the statue of Buddha that stands at the very center of Japan. Well, his hat had come off in the wind, so I stood on the dais in front of him and replaced his hat. Just as I finished replacing his hat, I looked down, and there was a weasel sitting there watching me. It was the first time I have ever seen a weasel. It seems that this particular weasel lives in the bushes behind the statue and sustains itself on a healthy diet of garbage.

When I got home I discovered that, in my absence, our local farmer had harvested his rice. It was a little sad to see the rice go.
But it sure was a beautiful night. Almost a full moon after all.
Well, the next day I meet my coworker Aimi to go apple picking with her church group. It just so happened that the other passengers in our car were 3 of the most quickwitted preschool girls that I have ever met. They were able to come up with original ways to tease Aimi for the entire hour long car ride. She took it like a champ, and I laughed the entire time. The apple orchard was beautiful as you can see. As a disturbing footnote, at around the same time as I was picking apples, North Korea was testing a nuclear weapon.
Here is Aimi with my glasses.
And my apples.
Well, the reason I was invited to attend a church function was so that I could speak English to the children, and also so that I could teach this game. There is no such thing as bobbing for apples in Japan, believe it or not!
Since it is an American game, I had to wear my bandanna. Consequently, I was the only adult to successfully get an apple.
I didn't do as well in the apple peeling contest. The goal was to cut as long of a strip as possible. My knife slipped, and I lost within one second.
Here are the results.
Afterwards, all of the adults went to an Onsen together.
So yes, a good week. Next weekend mom and dad come. I hope you are all looking forward to it as much as I am. Here's hoping mom and dad don't mind the sound of the Japanese Self defense Forces (read as "Army") on high alert.