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Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

The Little Things

This morning when I walked into work, I was presented with this from one of the teachers.

 

What a spontaneous and wonderful gift! I keep a little handmade vase on my desk, which was itself a gift from a kind friend. When she gave them to us, they were still all curled up into tight little pink buds, but by second period they had already started opening up to greet the day.

Despite the fact that Japan seems to have bestowed upon me a Permanent Cold, these flowers have kept me cheerful all week. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make all the rest of it worthwhile.

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Spring. The school year begins in April around here, so with the cherry blossoms always come farewells and new acquaintances.

My lovely third graders are all gone. I would like to think they’ll at least remember me fondly, but in all honesty I fully expect them to forget most of what they learned in Junior High. It would only be right, as they move on and live their lives. But then again, the Japanese seem to place an inordinate amount of importance on their school years. Seriously, they LOVE it. It would seem, if their pop culture is any reflection, that they spend a good deal of their lives after graduation waxing nostalgic about their uniform-sporting days and their pre-teen best friends. So maybe I’ll be more a part of their memoirs than I think.

Well, anyway, with those goodbyes also come new hellos. My JTE, the one I’ve worked with since the very beginning, the one who has been at my school for eight years, is now gone. The one other teacher who lived in my apartment building is gone as well. So now I have the whole building all to myself. I’m mostly happy about this, but surprisingly it does seem a bit “sabishii (lonely)”. I never thought I would say that, but I do sorta miss hearing her coming and going, even though I essentially never had anything to do with her, aside from the occasional “ohayo gozaimasu” and some awkward lines exchanged in the office kitchen about the weather or the deliciousness of the latest office snacks. Oh, human nature, how strange you are.

My new JTE seems like a sweetheart, though. She smiles easily, and she’s married to a JET. When I found this out, I immediately liked her and trusted her a whole lot more. I already feel more open with her than my other JTE. Not that I didn’t like my other JTE, but she was always kind of …distant. Professional, I guess, and I’m not sure she ever really “got” me, teenage as that sounds. When I discovered that this lady’s husband was foreign and a JET, I immediately rejoiced. I figured, she must hear all about the job from her husband, so she’ll surely not judge me if she glimpses my computer screen and sees me browsing Facebook! It also means her English is excellent, which is a nice bonus.

The rest of the new teachers all seem pretty good, too. All of the lovely blossoms and new beginnings make me wonder why I’m giving up this job with its sweet, sweet pay and its rewarding nature. Oh well, it’s too late now. And it still feels like the right thing to do. I think. Probably. Yes.

Speaking of cherry blossoms, my pals and I did some impromptu “hanami” today, minus alcohol, and ate pizza and read tarot cards under the trees. It was a good day. Not many left now…

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New Year’s in Japan

Kyoto was beautiful, that’s all I have to say. It was bloody expensive, but it was beautiful. I felt like I was truly getting a glimpse into old Japan. Or, at least, that I’d stepped onto the set of “Memoirs of  Geisha”. We joined the crowds in the cold in Gion periodically, hoping to spot one of the elusive dancing girls with their long sleeved kimono, but not a single maiko or geisha was to be seen. There were a lot of disappointed tourists. However, we didn’t let it get us down, and decided to don some kimono ourselves and become the talk of the town. There are far more foreigners in Kyoto than I’ve yet seen elsewhere in Japan, so perhaps to the Japanese it was less novel than it could have been, but nonetheless we did hear lots of comments and whispers and compliments as we wandered around the city. By night, although the geisha stayed hidden behind their bamboo curtains and paper screens, we spotted plenty of the more modern and flashy sort of entertainers, likely employees of Kyoto’s numerous “snack bars,” floating about in elegant gowns with outrageously styled hair and thick layers of make-up.

(Of course, as soon as I got back, I had to re-watch Memoirs of a Geisha, and I felt pretty special to notice at least one shot that I recognized of the canal in Gion!)

And then we made our way up to Nagano to see the world famous snow monkies!

No, but seriously….

Nowhere else in the world have monkies learned to enjoy a nice hot bath in the winter. We stayed at this lovely Ryokan (Japanese style inn) near the monkey park.

When I made the reservation, the owner informed me that the place was a thirty minute walk from the parking area. Lach poo-pooed this, sure that it couldn’t possibly be that far. Well, as it turns out, it was. A friendly father with his boy warned us of the length and slippery state of the trail just as we began to head up it. I only had about five minutes to curse and swear and haul my luggage behind me when someone from the ryokan showed up to take our bags on an ATV with chains on the front tires. From then on, at least I was able to enjoy the lovely walk through the snow.

The ryokan, at first sight, looked like nothing more than a confused collection of shabby wooden buildings and I had some reservations about the place. Could this place really get away with charging 12, 500 yen a night? Despite my doubts, it turned out to be quite nice on the inside, with sturdy wooden steps and a collection of indoor and outdoor hotspring baths.

The food was delicious Japanese style cooking, with soba noodles on New Year’s Eve for all the tenants (apparantly Japanese people always have soba on New Year’s Eve – I had no idea!) and a special New Year’s morning Japanese breakfast with black beans, bamboo, and other special foods I don’t know the name of. Nagano’s specialty is honey-glazed grasshoppers, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. Shame on me, I know. Lachlan informed me they were quite tasty, with a bit of a nutty flavor.

I wound up trying the mixed bath on the first night, braving the cold, exposure and potential strange naked man for the sake of snow and hot water – a combination I’d always wanted to try since I’d learned such things existed. Fortunately, it was just my boyfriend and I and one man completely covered in tattoos (this didn’t surprise me at first, until I remembered that tatoos have a very bad image in Japan because they are associated with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and in fact many hot springs will not allow you in if you have tattoos), but he didn’t stay long. Then we had the bath all to ourselves with a beautiful full moon, a man-made geyser just nearby, and snow drifting down softly from the few clouds in the night sky. It’s a wonderful memory. The water, though, was extremely hot and smelled strongly of sulfur, so we didn’t last long.

In the end, I wound up catching cold from going in and out of those baths, from boiling hot to below zero temperatures, and spent the rest of my time snuffling and sneezing and worrying about how we’d make it out alive. As soon as we arrived, it started snowing, and didn’t let up at all the entire two days we were there, and me with my little car and no snow tires! I was convinced we’d either get stuck somewhere horrible or slide ourselves into a ditch.

Fortunately, my worry was for nothing, and with the help of some snow chains (that broke the second we hit the highway, but at least got us out of the mountains), I’m back in Kochi, safe and snowless. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my JTE had written my reference letter for me already, so I sent off the application for my BEd programme today. For all the fuss and worry that went into assembling it, it seemed like such a meagre collection of papers! I checked it about 8 times but I still feel paranoid that I’ve left something out. Say a little prayer for me, guys! It’s out of my hands now.

P.S. All these beautiful photos were taken by Lachlan, because silly me forgot my camera’s memory card!

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Il neige

I woke up this morning and saw this out  my window…

So I grabbed my camera to take some snaps on my way to work. It was chilly and it almost made me late, but it was fun!

I was all ready to be cranky this morning, but the snow and then the cute “good mornings” from the little Japanese kids dragged me out of my cranky state, as they almost always do, whether I like it or not. Damn them! They’re just so cute!

Today, I found a link to this site on my friend’s blog. It made me remember my deep, dark secret; I desperately want to be an artist. I have had this dream for a long time, but it seems to be one of those things that gets constantly pushed aside.  I’ve never had formal training, which shouldn’t matter, but I can’t help feeling that plenty of artists are privy to tricks and techniques that I’ve no idea about!

So my new-found goal of attending University to get a Bachelor of Education is now three-fold. Not only do I plan to be back near friends and family, but I’ll finally have a chance to take some art courses.

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Fall has always been my favorite time of year. It’s the time of year when I feel like I wake up. It’s like you catch a wiff of that chill air on the breeze, and everything changes. The lazy dog-days of summer are officially over, and your mind switches modes. I know most would consider me a weirdo, but I like winter. There is just something about it, something about snuggling in under warm blankets, or a kotatsu, sipping a cup of hot something. The only thing I’m missing here is the snow….but it will be waiting for me in Canada.

Which brings us to another point, something betsubara brought up in his last post. Fall also means, for JET Programme participants, the distribution of our re-contracting documents and the time to start deciding on whether or not we’re going to resign it in February. It is a difficult decision to make and one that, either way, is going to be emotional. For me, I believe this year will be my last.

During my time here, I’ve done a lot of growing as a person, I think. And with the fall came some changes I’ve been needing to make in my life, both in my head and in the physical space around me. Don’t they say that the one is reflected in the other, anyway? Well, the main form this has taken is a rearrangement of my apartment. This may not sound like a big deal, but I am NOT a person for whom neatness comes easily. I have always struggled with “domesticity”, and this year, living in such a tiny apartment, the issue has become one of preserving my sanity. I have, gradually, organized the place and finally – FINALLY – I feel like both the room and myself are in a state I can be content with for the rest of my time here.

Too bad I now have to focus all my energy on going back….but I digress.

Without any further blathering, I present you, at last, with some photos of my apartment. It’s not perfect, but I can accept that I will never be flawlessly tidy. I’m too much of a clutter-bug, and to be honest I want to keep it that way!

uchi

I apologize that Photostitch made the join a little bit wonky, but you get the idea.

And, as an add-on, you get some Halloween-related pictures, because I was too lazy to post about it at the time. You’ll note that I don’t show my kids faces. That’s to protect their privacy and to protect myself legally. I wish I could show their cute smiles, but I DARE NOT! So just enjoy their cute…hands?

pumkin people

Pumpkins come in many shapes and sizes...just like people!

(more…)

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First, I would just like to apologize for not writing in a while. Summer/Fall seems to be the busiest time of the year in Japan for socializing.

Today, I would like to bring up a topic that’s been on my mind lately. As an ESL teacher you are forever aware that, regardless of how much you enjoy your work, inevitably you will one day find yourself seeking employment elsewhere.

Let’s be realistic: there are very, very, few permanent ESL teachers (living in a foreign country).

With that in mind, there comes a point during your journey when you’re forced to start planning (or at least pondering) what you will do after your ESL experience.

There seems to be two general groups when it comes to this decision: Group A are those that actively want to leave and Group B are those that do not actively want to leave. Within each group are different subsections.

Group A consists of those people that have had a good experience but realize they need to move on (whether it is to another country, or just a different experience), and those people that have had a bad experience and are just trying to get this period of their life behind them.

Group B consists of those people that either cannot decide if they want to stay or leave (both options have benefits and drawbacks) and those people that wish they could stay on forever.

It should be fairly obvious that Group B would have a much harder time than Group A. So, I have been asking myself lately, into which category do I fit? It’s tough.

While this has been one of the most significant opportunities in my life, I know that sooner rather than later, I’d like to move on (at least to a different country). I also know that I will always have reasons to stay in Japan, and that pursuing them all is impossible (mainly because the more I do or see, the more I learn and then there is more that I want to do).

Whichever your situation the fact is eventually you will have to think about an “exit strategy” and whether you want to leave or not it can be a stressful and time consuming process. The best you can hope for is that your experience has taught you something and that you can use these new abilities to help you make the most out of your every situation.

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Wadaiko

I quickly wipe my sweaty palms on my pants, then crouch behind the drum. Standing, it comes about to my thighs. It’s one of the smaller ones. My hands curl around my bachi – drumsticks – and I take a breath. I can’t see much of the audience from my crouched position, and because of the blinding stage lights. I try to pretend they aren’t there. The heat from those same lights beats down on me. In my long, blue costume I’m sweating already, and we haven’t even begun yet. I force all the thoughts from my head and stare down at my hands, waiting.

The first resounding boom of the big drum echoes over our heads. Our song has begun. The beat gradually gets faster and louder. It makes your blood pump. You feel it in your bones. Then comes the sharp to-ko-to-ko-to-ko of the little shime drums in the front row, followed by the throaty, rolling baritone of the big drums in the back row. I can feel the vibrations through my feet. The beat builds. I keep track of the count with my fingers.

And then comes my part! I stand and all that’s in my head is the song now, the one I’ve worked for months to learn. I’ve practiced it enough times that most of it comes without thought, but a few parts require more concentration. Halfway through the song, my muscles are burning and I’m dripping with sweat. I’m only too happy when the part comes where we get to throw off the blue overcoats.

I pound out the final beat with a feeling of accomplishment and power, glaring at the audience. I feel like I did my part fairly well. Maybe the best I’ve done so far. I feel strong, empowered by the drums and the passion that goes into playing them.

This is the joy wadaiko, Japanese traditional drumming.

wadaikoThe first time I saw taiko I was in my 2nd year of University. It was a Canadian group, the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble, who put on a show at my Uni’s Convocation Hall. Walking into the theatre that night, I had no idea what to expect. It blew me away. I’ll never forget the awe I felt watching them on stage. They were so strong and muscley! I marveled at their physique, especially that of the leader. Near the end of the show, he strolled out on stage wearing nothing but a white loincloth and posed himself dramatically in front of a gigantic drum. When he played, he threw himself at it with all his power, and he looked amazing, 50-something or not. I could feel the beats pounding in my chest. It felt like the power of the Earth was coming out of them. It was primeval, and transcendant.

Although I fell in love with taiko that day, I never imagined that I would eventually be on stage playing myself. Nonetheless, two years later, on a muggy September evening, there I was standing in front of a drum with the bachi in hand while a spunky, curly-haired Japanese woman walked me through the basics. Don-gu-ri, don-gu-ri, don-g-uri. She gestures to her arms. Lift them higher! Up around your ears. To-ko-to-ko-to-ko-to-ko DON DON. Put all your strength into each hit! Widen your stance! Hold your bachi this way. Te-tsu-ku te-tsu-ku te-tsu te-tsu-ku. (I can’t imagine trying to learn these beats in a language other than Japanese).

The next thing I knew, it was my first performance. It was awful. I was horribly nervous and I made so many mistakes, and I was the foreigner sticking out the end of the second row so everyone could see my blunders. In spite of all that, I don’t regret it in the least. Every Monday, from about 7:00-9:30 pm, I join those older ladies (and one man) to practice and sweat together. There are days when I don’t feel like going; days when I get fed up with all the repetition when it’s getting past 9:00pm and I just want to be lazing at home, and days when the sensei gets annoyed with us and I feel we are hopelessly amateur. But the moment I play that song all the way through the first time, the moment I start remembering the rythms in sequence, it all becomes worth it. I can lose myself in it. I can take all my anger and frustration or all my joy and just pound it into the drum.

Playing taiko has become a crucial part of being in Japan for me. It has helped me feel more a part of the community around me, as well as the Japanese culture, and it has helped me make new friends. Not to mention I’ve gained a few meagre muscles of my own that were decidedly not there before I began. It’s not only great for the heart and the mind, but it’s fantastic excercize to boot.

And I swear, if you let your mind wander while you play, you can hear beautiful melodies in the ringing echo of the drumbeats.

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