Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Marathon Fall Week

Culture shock is at least 1/3 dietary, in my opinion. Food makes up such a huge part of our lives that when it changes, either in flavor or nutritional content, it can really affect our mental well being. When you ask someone what they miss about home, they always mention food. I saw first hand the difficulty that my exchange student friends had eating American food and the stress which resulted. I experienced the same stress when I moved from home in Hawaii to school in California, and suddenly my diet contained much less rice and fish, and a lot more potato and beef. Knowing the stress of alien food in an alien place, I made an effort to adapt as best I could to Japanese food while I was still in California. I acquired a taste for Miso, Soba, sweet egg, and other Japanese staples. But the one food I could never master in California was none other than the infamous Natto.

Natto has a reputation in Japan as the food which foreigners hate the most. I have even heard it described by social conservatives as the food which foreigners are incapable of eating. Why do people hate it? It smells funky, it has a texture that is both slimy and powdery, and to the unaccustomed it tastes rotten. Which it is, in a sense. Natto gains its flavor from bacteria that grow in fermented soybeans. It is sort of like the plain unsweetened yogurt of Japan: commonly eaten with breakfast, and enjoyed by the elderly and health conscious but avoided by the general population.

Well, much as I came to love plain yogurt, I have finally come to love Natto. I eat it at least once a day now. Not only has it begun to taste delicious to me, but it is good for your health and is just about the cheapest thing you can buy in the supermarket. Liking Natto also has some interesting social implications. People are shocked that I enjoy Natto, and I found out that my neighbor Brigg (who works as an ALT in another school in town) that one of the teachers at his school even knew that I liked Natto.

Now that being said, please direct your attention to this picture. Natto and raw egg yoke sushi, I discovered, is just not that tasty.
So, enough about food, and on to the story of last weekend. Keiko had organized a trip for Manabu and I. We were all supossed to meet, go to the Subaru factory, and then go do "Ko-yo" or fall leaf viewing. Unfortunately, Manabu got sick during his trip to Izu last weekend and had to cancel. So, on Saturday morning I met Keiko in Ota and together we drove to the Subaru factory for a tour that she had reserved.
The Subaru "factory tour" turned out to only a guided tour of a Subaru museum. I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to see any machinery, but I can't really complain since I did get to hang out with Keiko. After the tour we went to a 7-11 and got lunch, then had a picnic in the park.
As it turns out, Keiko went to high-school in Ota, so she knew the town well. We next went to the national Kiku flower championships, which were being held at a local temple.
In reality, it is a little late in the year to do Ko-yo, but I was sick for the really beautiful part of the year. Anyway, as it turned out, the best place for Ko-yo last weekend was none other than Shibukawa! So back to Shibukawa we drove. We then walked along my daily jogging trail, which I saw for the first time in the daylight.
I never knew that the thing that I have been jogging through everyday was a park, but I did know that Keiko is a great sport. Any adult that is still willing to go down a slide is cool in my opinion.
So, then I thought it would be a good idea if we had a nabe (a winter dish in Japan that is basically a stew). So we went to the store where Keiko bought the ingredients. Then we went to my place where she cooked for me while I sat there feeling useless and conflicted. What I find I often what to say to girls, but don't have the Japanese skill to say yet is "Look, I consider myself a feminist, so when you so everything for me I feel like a real shmuck, so please at least let me do dishes." After dinner, Keiko wouldn't even let me do the dishes. By the way look at her beautiful Nabe!
The Nabe was delicious, and was just what I needed as the next day was my big race. Here I am at 6 A.M. outside Chau's house waiting to go to the Marathon. Temperature: ~4 degrees C.
And here is the starting line for the race. My race had over 2500 people in it.
during the race.
Another picture at around Km number 7.
And me after I had finished.
My results. For I ran 10 Km in 47 minutes and 46 seconds. I placed 615th. I am pleased with the results, but I had a lot of energy left at the end of the race. I am not used to running with so many people. I passed people the entire time, which means I probably should have gotten to the start line sooner so I could be nearer to the front. Oh well, it was a fun race, and I would like to do another, longer race now.

By the way, everything in Japan has mascots. Here are the mascots for the Gunma Kenmin Marathon.
Well, Keiko's nabe was so good that I decided to make a nabe of my own on Monday night (which is why this entry was not posted right away). I bought way too many ingredients, as you can clearly see.
So then on Tuesday I went to the local Japanese class for the first time. Brigg has been urging me to go, and the thing he finally said that convinced me was that is was more like conversation than a class. Indeed, he was right. I finally learned the names of shapes in Japanese. I can say oval now! I also met Go, a Japanese guy who is learning English so that he can move to Ireland in 2 months. Go and I kind of hit it off, and decided to go running the next day. Then after running, I treated him to dinner, then we drove to the top of Haruna to see the night view of Shibukawa.
While we were on the top of Haruna, we also got to see some authentic Gunma drift style street racing. Haruna is famous for drifting as it has many very sharp turns.

Alright, that is all for now. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Mid-November Report

I am in a strange place. And I don''t mean Japan. This is the first time in my adult life when I have no plans. I slacked off in High School to get to college. I worked hard in college to graduate. I graduated and then searched for a job and prepared to come to Japan. I came to Japan and got settled in. And now I am working harder than ever before, except this time I don't have any goals. I don't even have any vacations planned since I used up all my vacation time as sick days (darn it). It is a very strange place, and a little spooky. What if I get stuck here? Still, I don't want to be in a rush to find a direction, cause I have a feeling that the direction is going to find me real quick.

Alright, back to business. As I stated before, this was a full weekend. So lets start things off with a quick statement: if I could be a teacher at the grammar school I go to on Thursdays and Fridays permanently, I think I would. It is the best school I have ever seen because it is staffed by the best group of teachers that I have ever seen. All of them know that their job is important, and they all give their best. The administration is accessible and kind. Nobody dislikes anybody else. It is basically a really good team that fits really well with my personality and is a wonderful workplace. I am learning a great deal from all of the teachers there.

So, one of the teachers just passed her test to become a full teacher, so all of the other teachers threw her a party on Friday. Now, it so happened that on Friday I had already agreed to go to Chau's (one of 4 English speaking foreign women in town) birthday, which was scheduled to be held in Tokyo that very same night. So when I was asked if I was coming to the test passing party, I agreed, but stated that I would probably have to leave a little early so that I could get to my friend's birthday party. The other teachers seemed a little depressed when I said this. I promised that I would bring a cake to make up for my lack of attendance. Well, that next day, the birthday in Tokyo was cancelled so I could stay for the whole Enkai (office party). I didn't really need to bring a cake anymore, but I promised that I would, so I did. When I showed up, I announced that the party had been cancelled and that I could stay for the entire time. Had a good meal, served my cake at the end.
during dinner my phone rang with an e-mail, but I failed to check it. On the bike ride home I remembered that I had gotten an e-mail, and got off my bike to check it. It was from Chau telling me that she was celebrating her birthday after all at Cafe EN. Well, as luck would have it, I had stopped my bike 4 feet away from the door to Cafe EN. I looked over and in the window, and there everyone was. So I went inside to celebrate for the second time that night.

Unfortunately, I didn't end up spending that much time with Chau. One of the women sitting at the bar heard me speaking Japanese and realized that I could actually communicate fairly well. We struck up a conversation. Then somehow the topic of my age came up. The girl tending the bar overheard that I was 24, and came and joined the conversation. It turns out she is 24 too. I asked her where the young people in Shibukawa hang out and she said "here". Then, somehow, things got a little bit odd. For some reason the bartender and I started to play all of the games that I had been learning in preschool: rock, paper, scissors with your legs, "Alupusu", Achi Muite and so on. I think I'll be visiting Cafe EN again.

Well the next day I got up way too early and got on the train to Tokyo. Keiko had called me up with a problem. She and her 2 of her friends were scheduled to take an English exam on Sunday that included an interview, but they didn't have any one to practice with. Since I have been missing Keiko, I heartily agreed. We planned to meet in the afternoon. So in the morning, I paid a call on Manabu, who once again cooked for me. Another delicious dish that he can add to the menu of the organic Soba shop he is going to open in Puako someday.
Then, having nothing else to do, we went to an aquarium.
I never see these guys when I a diving.
Doesn't this look like a cool job! How do you get a job like this?
Unfortunately for Manabu, due to my lack of sleep I was a little crabby.
After the Aquarium, we went to a very small Middle Eastern Art museum. Then I went off to meet Keiko and her friends in Shinjuku. Shinjuku, by the way, is ridiculous at 5:30 on a Saturday. Not only are there littlerally millions of people passing through on their way home from work, but there are tens or thousands of others out on the town enjoying their Saturday night. And it is a maze that is also several levels high. Basically, it took me 20 minutes to get from one side of the station to the other, and I didn't even get lost. Finally, I met up with Keiko and her friends.
I didn't catch any of her friends names, unfortunately. They were both nice guys though. Here is Keiko in front of the building where she works in the job that she hates.
Here is the desert we had.
This was described to me as the biggest clock in all of Shinjuku. When I asked where the biggest clock in Japan was, the reply was "Shinjuku?"
So I spoke only English, which is a first for me since being in Japan. Usually, my day is filled with about 30% English, 65% Japanese, 4% gibberish that is accompanied by communicative facial expressions, and 1% total failure. Another strange thing happened on the way home, by the way. I guy standing next to me on the train just passed out and fell backwards. The ambulance came and everything. Kind of scary, but reassuring to see how people reacted. Rather than assuming that he was just drunk and ignoring him, about 10 people, Keiko included, sprung into action to help him.

The next day I went to Akagi. All of the Shibukawa ALTs had been invited to what I thought was a pottery and soba making festival that was being put on by the police. As it turned out, the police organized a thing that was only for us so that we could make pottery and see soba being made.
Here is my pot. I am very proud of it because it is the only one that the teacher did not alter, meaning he thought it was a good pot.
Here are the teacher, Brick (my neighbor) and Steve (from Honolulu). In the background are the signs for the "Crime prevention committee". I think the whole point of the police doing so much with us was so that they could get a picture of us with those signs in the background some sort of promotional purpose. Foreigners committing crimes is a big deal in Japan, and not because it is common, but because people worry about it.
The master making Soba. Manabu's was better. Way better.
Me cutting soba.
This, by the way is a really cool architectural feature. It is a fire pit in the entryway to a house.
And this is the neatest Bento I have ever purchased. It came in a clay pot.
Well, that was the weekend. Maybe it doesn't quite deserve to be called adventure, but it still was fun.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I did so much it deserves another post...

So, yesterday, something was out to get me. In one day I crashed my bike, fell down the stairs and was hit by a car. All three times I emerged unharmed (nothing injured and no pain), so something was also watching out for me. Allow me to explain. I was walking up the stairs at school when I slipped on the stairs and fell down. My knee hurt for 10 seconds and then was fine. Then when I was riding home from school, one of my more enthusiastic students thought it would be a good idea to grab the back of my bike as I went by. As I maneuvered so as not to hurt them, I ended up hitting a fence. Both of us were unhurt. The most amazing though was during my run. Despite the fact that I was wearing a reflective shit and bright orange pants in a well lit area, and that I was crossing at a crosswalk where I had a green light, a speeding car still came so close to hitting me that it's mirror actually hit my right hand on it's forward swing. Again, I miraculously emerged completely unharmed.

So whatever has been causing me problems lately seems to have used the last of it's energy on those three attempts, because today was the turning point for the week. From the beginning of this week I have been trying to break out of the doldrums that being sick gets you stuck in. Today, I successfully broke out. I wore my fluorescent orange track pants at school, which was a big hit since no other teachers would think of wearing something that stands out that much. I already stand out, and am already fluorescent, so no big deal. Another fun thing that happened today was I taught the 6th graders again. Now these are the same 6th graders that had the bad luck of being the first class I ever taught, so they had a bad experience with me and haven't really had much to do with me since then. I say hello to them, and most them just shuffle off without responding. My first class was that bad. Since my first class 2 months ago, I have not had another class with them. Well, I went into class today, and there were about 5 girls that were reading letters and crying. No, sobbing. "Oh no, they aren't going to have any fun today." I thought to myself. But I tried my best to make it a fantastic class, and half way through the 5 girls were all smiling through their tears, and when the class ended they actually shouted "encore". Cool.

So I also went to the library at school today to help tape the pages of ripped books, as I am apt to do in my spare time since it gives me the chance to be useful to the school (and earning my salary) and learn Japanese at the same time. I there had the wonderful experience of kids coming up to me and actually making a serious effort to learn English from me it their spare time. First time that has happened at grammar school (it happens all the time at preschool).

And also today, as I was walking around I happened upon some of the 5th grade teachers and members of the PTA learning how to make traditional Japanese rope with grass from a professional rope maker. I watched for a while, and then was invited to try it. My first rope was a total failure, but the second rope wasn't half bad. It wasn't as good as the professional, but it was better than all of the members of the PTA, some of whom have done this before. Thre truth is it was a total fluke, but what followed was both flattering and embarrassing, as the teachers began to brag to the PTA about how well adapted I was to Japan.

So the last really fun thing that happened today was that I went running. But this time it was with a partner. So there is one teacher in the school who is a huge runner. He does marathons all of the time and is in charge of the marathon practice that the whole student body is currently doing (by the way, marathon in Japan just means race, and I have begun to use it to mean the same). Anyway, I had expressed an interest to go running with this teacher last week, and this week he invited me to go running with him. Luckily I was prepared. Well, while my partner was getting dressed all the other teachers wished me good luck and then started talking among themselves. Apparently other teachers have gone running with him in the past, and he has been way too fast for them. Having been warned, I decided to go running anyway. Long story short, while I also got very tired, at one point he was so exhausted by our pace that he had to let me take an extra lap so he could catch his breath. Basically, though, he is a really good running partner. He has stamina, which is the thing that I don't have, but want, and knows about running in Japan. Where to go, what foods to eat, etc. I hope he'll invite me to come with him again.

So, basically, this blog entry seems like it is mostly me bragging about how awesome I am. I think I'll go slap myself now for being so full of myself today. But hey, when you've spent 3 weeks feeling pathetic because of all the people you are letting down, it is nice to feel good about yourself again.

Oh, and this weekend will likely be tons of fun, so be sure to check in again next Monday!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cold of various kinds

Hello. Sorry, it has been an unusually long time since my last post. Allow me to explain. I got sick. But I wanted to go to work. So I got sicker. But I still went to work. So it turned into bronchitis. So I went to the doctor and called in sick. But one of the medicines that the doctor gave me resulted in severe headaches. So I couldn't sleep. And I still thought I was going to be OK if I just rested, so I didn't ask anybody to take care of me. Soon I ran low on food, and rather than eating lots of food, I ate enough to not be hungry.

So basically, last Saturday morning, I was in so much pain that I had to go to the emergency room, where they put me on an IV, changed my medication and gave me a chest X-ray. I swore to myself that I wouldn't be hospitalized on account of neglecting my body's needs again. But there I was again, in the emergency room. This time in Japan. I guess I'm still not as good at taking care of myself as I should be. Man I'm stupid. So, long, lonely and depressing story short, I was really sick for 2 and a half weeks, missed 4 days of work, and spent essentially 10 days strait in my room alone.

This post does end happily. By the end of it I start having adventures again. But first there are several rants that I have to go on. First, Japanese doctors fail to impress me. I told the first guy that I had a lot of allergies to medicines, and he didn't even bother to look up if the medicine he was prescribing me had anything in common to what I was allergic to. And the nurse in the ER was not a nice lady. Just because I don't have a fever doesn't mean I'm not in agony. Second rant. Boy am I stupid. Even when all my fellow teachers, and boss told me to chill out, I still went to work. Trenton, I know you just want to do your best all of the time, but if you are coughing up green liquid you need to chill out.

And being alone for that long made me miss my cat. I really miss that cat. How did I fall so hard for that cat!? And why can't it be a girl, rather than a cat. Why do I so rarely develop this kind of attachment for women. Why can't I seem to move on? I think I might call sometime this week to see how she is doing. The cat, that is.

This blog entry is beginning to get really personal, so what do you say we move on to what happened this weekend.

Firstly, after living off the money from selling my car for three months, I finally got paid!!! So, that meant it was time to go out and go shopping for the things that I would have gotten before if only I had had the money to buy them. Important things, like winter coats, rice cookers, soap, underwear and, my biggest purchase. A kotatsu.
A kotatsu, by the way is a table with a heater on the underside. You also put a quilt on the table so that the warm air stays under the table and keeps your legs warm. It is very popular in central Japan. In fact, when I told people I didn't have one, they were shocked. "No wonder you got sick," was a regular remark. Of course, there is no way I could fit a kotatsu on my bike. Luckily, my friend and co-worker Aimi was willing to drive me to the store and help me pick out and set up my new kotatsu. Here is Aimi with the underside of the kotatsu.
Well, I got home and was beginning to enjoy my kotatsu and plan my first kotatsu party, when I heard English outside my window. I opened the window, peaked out, and was immediately invited to go to the new shopping mall in Takasaki with Kate (my aussie neighbor) and her friend Eri. Still racked with cabin fever from those 10 days in my room, I was in the car in 20 seconds. The new shopping mall is called Aeon. It has been praised by many people I have talked to for it's modern feel.
I was very pleased that there was a Mochi ice cream place inside. I need to gain back at least 10 pounds before winter or I am going to freeze.
By the way, a "modern" Japanese shopping mall would be considered a regular suburban shopping mall in the United States. It was just like a U.S. mall in every way. Even the shop names were almost all in English.
Here are Kate and Eri at Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks. First time I've been to Starbucks in a while. Shibukawa is not a Starbucks town.
Here are some good-looking girls playing fantastic classical music.
And a silly, but strangely fitting, clothing name for a clothing store.
Me, keeping myself busy as my companions shop in the blindingly cute store.
What is a Franch roll?
Well, the mall was fun. I bought several books, including "The Little Prince" in Japanese, which I am now trying to read (unsuccessfully).

The next day, I slept in. Got up late, and was going to walk to the Tsutaya were I left my bike the previous day, when I noticed there seemed to be a party just down the street. My curiosity got the better of me. As I approached, a man saw me and was very insistent that I come in. He ushered me in, sat me down and gave me presents and food. It was then that I discovered what it was. I had wandered into the neighborhood community center, and it was senior citizen's club performance day. There were actually only two clubs that were performing: the electric goto club...
and the traditional dance club, which this woman was the teacher of.
Now, saying that there were two clubs might be a little misleading. While there were 2 clubs, both clubs contained the same 10 women. How was it? Educational. The electric goto was not my favorite sound, I have to say. And there was something perplexing about the dancing. There was no smiling. Now, I thought at first maybe the women dancing were just grumpy, but then there were several women who were trying their best to suppress a smile. It makes sense actually. I think in Japan, on some level, smiling is not considered attractive. During practice for sports day too, I witnessed teachers telling students that having a strait, disciplined face was more attractive than a smile. Of course, I have seen many other instances where smiles are considered attractive. Anyway, I don't find not smiling attractive, so it stands to reason that I was not a huge fan of the performances I saw, though it was a good experience.

So, once again, sorry for the long wait for this post. I'll try my best not to let it happen again. My task right now is getting back all the momentum in life that I lost while I was sick. Luckily I already have the next two weekends planned. Stay tuned, the next two weekends look to be awesome.