Monday, October 29, 2007

soaring sights and swimming through sasa

You're swimming through a dense undergrowth of bamboo brush that covers the forest floor. Climbing up the steep slope, you reach forward, brushing 6ft tall stalks out of the way, and then grab a handful and pull yourself onward as your arm completes the stroke. You as much feel the path ahead of you as see it.
When the bamboo thins, or clears temporarily, you look as far as the eye can see from the mountain ridge you are traversing. Hills and mountains extend to the misty horizon. You keep walking.
All around silent birch trees reach out of the brush, the last of their leaves shed for the season, their white bark gleaming in the sun. They thrive in this climate, and at this elevation, but their sparse branches and characteristic shredding bark make the silent scene seem more like a graveyard where the dead don't lie down, but stand and watch you passively, season after season.
After a gruelling ascent that allowed no glimpse of its summit, you emerge onto a clear peak, with a full panorama to reward your eyes, now sick of swimming through sasa. In the distant, Mt. Fuji's smaller twin, Yote, Fuji of the North, climbs up from its cloudy foundations, an impossible trapezoid reaching into the sky. Undulating hills and thrusting peaks surround a meandering valley that opens onto the Ishikara plain, where Sapporo sprawls. Looking around you know that the only place you have to be, is right here.

We started the hike Saturday morning, crossing just 6km's the first day, to find an amazing little hideway. An incredible two-floor wood cabin nestles in the bush, on the edge of a pristine little pond. Expecting a ten-foot shack which we would share with the squirrels, we were surprised to discover that a caretaker was keeping the cabin warm with a fire. My two friends and I passed the evening talking, having tea, doing some yoga, and most of all enjoying the stunning colours and thick silence of the forest - broken only later that evening by the caretaker's radio announcing the Fighter's win. It is baseball playoffs, after all.

The next morning, at 630 - when he heard us stirring - the caretaker came up from downstairs carrying a breakfast of mizo soup and hardboiled eggs for the three of us. This is in a little cabin in the woods where people can just pop in randomly and stay the night. This is Japanese hospitality.

Sunday was the real trek. On and off for around 23km's that day, with our big hiking backpacks in tow, we were swimming through that bamboo and crossing a slanting trail across the hilly ridge that was more slippery for the mud, decaying leaves, and bamboo stalks that made every step slightly precarious. My friend came out of it bruised and bleeding slightly from a dozen scratches across her legs. Luck and my hairy legs protected me, and I was left only with the wondrous feeling of trusting that the path I followed would lead me through the obscuring and enclosing brush.

At a hut near the other end of the trail, we stopped to chat with the caretaker. He was just heading home at the end of the weekend, so he offered us a ride - without us even asking, or saying where we were going yet. We hiked the remainder of the trail with him, and the three of us piled into his little sedan with our giant bags taking up ay available space.

He dropped us off in Jozankei - the closest onsen town to Sapporo - and we were quick to hop in the hot water in the bowels of a ritzy hotel. Hot water never felt so good, as when I stretched my legs out and gazed up at the brightening stars, and chatted with my friend about living in Japan.

Back in Sapporo later that evening, the three of us had tastey soba and tempura, and a nice cup of tea, at a quaint restaurant near our building, before saying farewell for the night.

Sunday night is my weekly scheduled phone chat with my mom, but I was just too tired to talk. I was exhausted from head to toe.

It felt great.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

real japanese people, yay

I'm sorry I left that last post on top for so long - what negativity and frustration I expressed! How can I be unhappy, with Nakagima-koen turning golden yellow and red. And so much has happened since last monday, how can I not smile in pleasant exhaustion.

I'm going to just summarize my week, cause it's been a pretty good one.

Monday after work I went to a used CD shop and asked for advice finding some music I would like. I got some Japanese folkish rock from the 1970's and some more recent softish rock: both not bad. The man was happy to try and find some good music, even if we only had so many words that we both could understand.
Then I went into a little cafe where I go every Monday, and I am forcing the owner to accept me as a regular. I have a spot where I sit and study, and we chat in a mix of english and japanese. Last week she kindly made me some vegetarian spaghetti for dinner.
Then I went to my weekly japanese lesson. I am excited, because I think the lessons are just about to get useful. They have been very slow moving so far, but I am starting to increase my vocabulary and the grammar we learn is starting to get more complex, so that slowly I am able to actually formulate sentences in regular conversation, though they make sense far less than half the time.

Tuesday was a short work day because we had a district-wide meeting of english teachers, observing a class and discussing its merrits. I had no idea what was said over the course of the meeting, but when my turn to contribute came around, I managed to say the correct formalities and surprise everybody by thanking the presenters for their teaching. Woot. I only had a little bit of trouble staying awake over the two hour meeting. So far, in most meetings, I have been one of the few people who DOES stay awake through the entire meeting. I figure that's fair, the rookie has to stay awake and the vets have earned the right for a little snooze here and there.
Even better, that night 6 teachers and 2 ALT's went to a classy Japanese restaurant for drinks and dinner. It was the perfect mix, because they knew lots of English, and yet were still kind enough to be amused by our incoherent efforts in Japanese. We ate some sashimi and sushi, and tomago yori, umaboshi, tofu habe, and susumi, or something, as well as other stuff. Multiple courses and samplings are the norm here. I can't remember what all the names were, and what everything was, but it was good!

Wednesday I left the office at 330 and went out to the soccer field. I kicked the soccer ball around for an hour by myself, doing some drills, and just goofing around. I get so sick of not having anything to do, but I've been there the whole time, and if they had something I could do for them, all they had to do was ask. So, I figure I might as well go and kick the ball around. When the kids came out at 430, I played with them for 530, just passing the ball and not worrying about speaking English, or speaking at all. It was nice.
Wednesday night was the only night this week I spent any time at home.

Thursday I saw two friends, and we chatted for a couple hours about fantasy books and american politics. Basically, they inform me, Terry Pratchet is amazing, and Bush is a scary dictator. There are so many ALT's here, it is easy to let time slip by and not see an individual for a while. It is great to have such an accessible network of basically instant friends, but the tricky part is maintaining ties with people as individuals, respecting them and putting the time into seeing them, and not just taking their presence here for granted.

Friday was a good day. My school's Chorus Contest was Friday morning, held at a beautiful music hall, Kitara, in the beautiful Nakagima-Koen. The music teacher says it is the fifth best music hall in the world, and I wouldn't presume to argue. I can't quite describe the whole event of the music contest, only: did I mention these kids are amazing? Every class has its own song, student conducted with four-part harmonies, accompanied by a student on piano. For the most part, practice was self-directed and corrected by the students, with occasional check-ups by teachers. Every day for a month or so, the kids have been working before and after school on their songs. On Friday morning, before filing into the theatre, after practicing their songs one last time, each class did a group huddle and a rev-up cheer. Again, the teachers just stood back and watched the kids at work. Every single student of the 750 got up on the stage, in front of maybe 1100 people in the audience, and contributed to their class song. They all tried as hard as they could to sing in harmony with the others. Each grade chose increasingly difficult songs, with the grade 9's involving changes of rhythm, solos, difficult harmonies, accapella, discordant harmonies, if there's such a thing, and lots of other technically hard stuff that I don't even understand. They performed incredibly. When the winners of the 9th grade were announced, a class that is always exceedingly friendly and chatty with me, I couldn't help but be touched by their shouts of joys and excited hugging and jumping. They work so hard, these kids, and they do some amazing things.

That evening, the teachers had an enkai to celebrate. I was so happy to see them all so bubbly and energetic. They could barely contain their happiness, it seem. Again I tried a bunch of things I've never eaten before, and it was all tasty. They were finally relaxed enough, it seemed, to have a few laughs at my expense, which really helped me feel included. They also assisted me with some new Japanese and were ever so congratulatory when I made anything resembling a sentence. My favourite quote was when I said (again) that I am from Vancouver, and the music teacher said "Oompaloompa?" I talked to many teachers, and it was so nice to share ever so slightly in their joy and triumph after the chorus contest.
After dinner, I joined a smaller group of teachers for the nijikai - the second party. Ten of us went to a little jazz bar in a basement somewhere, with a baby grand piano and an awesome middle-aged singer who sang jazzed versions of thirty and forty year old english songs. I learned more important vocabulary, like how to say 'drunk', and enjoyed every single time the teachers laughed at me or with me.

Saturday and Sunday were so amazing, I have to save them for a next post. I'm exhuasted and I need a snack before getting to bed early.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dear Diary: no class whine

(Disclaimer: This is an 'in the moment' rant written at work. The emotions expressed herein are indicative of a continued development in my life, yes, but they are not all-consuming of my life or thoughts or energies. If you don't want to hear me rant about my mood and perception of uselessness, then please don't read this post. On the other hand, I think it's written pretty well, so please read this post.)

It’s only slightly frustrating being a deadweight.

I got to work this morning actually excited to start my day. On Friday and the weekend, I had made the worksheet activity for my first class Monday morning, the same lesson to be repeated about 5 times throughout the next several school days. I was excited because I had a hint of the feeling that I could be an active participant in this whole ‘being an educator’ thing.

I made one worksheet last week that didn’t teach the grammar-point perfectly due to over-complexity and several formatting errors. It didn’t matter too much to me, though, because the kids had a fun time. Whether the activity today worked perfectly or not wouldn’t have mattered, either. What matters to me, after the kids having a bit of fun, is that I can learn to make lessons and activities that do work: I want to learn to contribute, learn to teach. Otherwise I will continue to feel as I have largely felt so far: like deadweight that the other teachers drag to class with them.

Well, I rushed to work this morning so I would have time to photocopy the worksheet. My shirt was still wrinkled and wet from yesterday’s wash. My rice and veggies were still cooking in the rice cooker, so I didn’t bring a lunch with me. I stuffed my stuff in my bag and walked out the door.

After my usual walk, subway, bus routine, by the time I was walking into the office, I had gotten over my nervousness and was only excited to try out the worksheet. However, as I opened the office door, an exiting teacher informed me hurriedly that my co-teacher for the class was ill and absent today. Another teacher would direct the class to work on preassigned materials and – unequivocally – there would be no need to team-teach the class.

Though I sidestepped personal offence at being so irrefutably dismissed, I wasn’t able to avoid the disappointment that followed my sudden uselessness. Suddenly, I had only one class scheduled for the day, in which I might speak five or ten sentences to the class. When I offered another teacher to help, on anything whatsoever, she politely and unhesitatingly declined. Just like last Thursday, when I knew the teachers would be there till 7 or 8pm marking English tests, and they still declined my offer to help, as I walked out the door at 5. Things like that make me feel moderately useless and unwanted, deadweight.

Now, I don’t define the worth of my whole existence on whether or not I can help mark tests, or whether I have one or two or three classes. And I don’t greatly desire remaining at work every day until 7 (or 8 or 10pm). Yet, a large part of my time every week is taken up pretending to be a teacher, and if you are what you do that creates an obvious potential for me to define my identity at least partly by that role. And so there is a tremor of cognitive dissonance when I am trying to define myself as a teacher, and all I feel like is a deadweight foreign-speaking clown who sits in the office and works on his meagre nihongo memorization every day.

As trivial as it might sound, and though friends who disdain work might disdain the following comment, I think I would be more at ease at work and happier with myself if I had a steady 3 or 4 classes a day. I think I would be happier if I was asked to contribute an activity or lesson idea with some regularity.

Life truly is unnerving for a public servant who is not serving. I think this is something you can only understand after coming to work for two months, having only one or two hours of constructive work each day, not being asked to help or contribute to anything else going on, and, what makes it all the harder, not being able to communicate at will with coworkers and alleviate these frustrations.

I have expressed that I would like to help more, learn to contribute more, and I am willing to work more. Usually they politely thank me, and we move on in the same fashion. It would be inappropriate to speak to them of my frustration, or even convey by my words or intonation or body language much negative emotion at all. This is hard, because I tend to function normally with my frustrations just behind the lines on my face and subtly worked into the stitching on my sleeve.

Now, my ‘constructive’ time is not entirely limited to the classroom. Before and after school, and in between classes, I roam the halls and chat with the kids. This might sound like, well, roaming, the opposite of hard work. Believe me, it is work. It takes not a small amount of creativity to think of something that will interest the kids, and make the effort of communicating worthwhile. And it truly is an effort. Sustained communication with such varying levels of comprehension can be extremely taxing and energy sapping. At times, I love it. And when we manage to successfully communicate on any topic at all, I am thrilled. Still, it is definitely tiring.

As I might have mentioned, I also eat lunch with the kids every day. I try to engage with the kids, but I definitely don’t demand that they talk. I feel this is a productive time even if we only manage to fit in five mutually intelligible sentences.

Other than that, the kids are in class or busy with activities every minute of the day, which means my raison d’etre ici, engaging with the kids, is unrealised for the vast majority of the minutes of the day.

I just don’t feel like I am worth the yen thrown my way, if this is all I do. More importantly, I don’t feel I am learning or being challenged as much as possible (or sometimes, at all). If I have a couple classes one day, and also chat with kids between every class, I will probably be exhausted by the end of the day. Even then, I’ll only feel fulfilled if I can actively contribute to the classes and feel useful to the other teachers, as well as engaging with the kids. If I have one class, and don’t see the kids that much, and feel like a deadweight carried by the staff, well, I just don’t feel like there’s much good in me being here.

Ok, I know: Patience!! I have told myself before that it takes time to become part of a team, especially when you don’t speak the same language. And I know it is my first teaching job, so I have to learn how to fit in with other teachers, and learn how to make useful and enjoyable lesson plans. And friends have wisely counselled me to shift my mindset, and enjoy the opportunity I have been given here. I get paid to interact with kids of a different culture, possibly expanding their purview as well as learning from them myself. And, even better, I get paid to spend a good amount of time each day working on my own interests, and refreshing my energy in my breaks. Said like that, it sounds like a pretty good deal. So, as overworked ALT friends at other schools have suggested, I should just enjoy the free time I’ve got while I’ve got it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

language loss

As promised, this post will be more deliberative and expansive - though still centring on me, as my whole universe does.

Why am I here?

I am here to help influence Japanese school students into learning English; to help them practice what they've learned so far and push them to learn more so they can talk to the big, strange man in the hallway who doesn't speak their language. Hopefully, as they get older, their English abilities help them to thrive in an increasingly globalized world where English continues to be the main language of international business.

Their parents' generation experienced interactions with the rest of the world to a degree never before seen in Japan. English became more and more important. However, many of that generation were not educated in English so intensively. And, by adulthood, many likely found that English didn't actually help in day to day life. Only certain industries and a certain level in the hierarchy of employment required English conversational ability. This will most certainly be less true for the current generation.

Japanese culture right now is in a fascinating flux. I definitely don't have the intellectual capacity to sum up Western influences on culture here. Most obviously, English is everywhere you look. Advertising and signage is awash with English, whether correctly spelled or not, and everyday language is chalk full of borrowed words. When words are borrowed into Japanese, they are translated into katakana, so the sound always changes to suit the Japanese syllabary. Sometimes the sound and meaning changes effectively constitute a new word. Sometimes, they are fairly obvious. For example, 'elevator' becomes essentially 'erebaita,' because the tongue-flap 'r' doesn't appear at the end of words, and the sounds 'l' and 'v' as used in English are not part of the Japanese phonemic (like lexicon, but for phonemes: don't know if phonemic is a word, but that's ok).
I recently read a news article pointing out some Japanese concepts and words of the past that are no longer used, and are now most closely referenced in a borrowed word. In fact, the writer points out that even the Prime Minister used borrowed words as parts of speeches calling for a greater devotion to and protection of Japanese culture. Japanese, in other words, is increasingly being diluted by foreign words. Of course, this isn't the first time this fear has emerged in Japan, or elsewhere. Some people in all cultures forecast the future demise of their cultures, as attested to by current changes in the language.

Yet in Japan, there is some validity to the fear, in the sense that foreign influence will only deepen with future joint economic and political ventures, and because less people are being born to repopulate the Japanese culture and language, thanks to a low birth rate. (This is a very real and immediate phenomenon, meaning a couple thousand or so less Japanese people exist each year). As Indian and Chinese speakers of English jump by the tens of millions over the next 20 years, English will probably gain more prominence in the global economic sphere. Of course, India and China have massive populations to maintain their indigenous languages, even if Western consumer-culture hegemony is unstoppable. Japan's declining population of around 130 million might not provide a sufficiently hermetic stronghold.

And, despite some conservative calls to that effect, neither can Japan seek to defend its language at the cost of its economy. In "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman points out that developing economies are wise to invest in mass English education programs. If only because the biggest economy in the world is (for now) the U.S.A., English is conducive to business. And that is why the government of Japan - and government sanctioned curriculum- eagerly and actively advocate popular English acquisition. And because of the government's efforts toward that end, I was able to get a job with the JET Programme.

I am contributing - on however small a scale - to the increased use of foreign language in place of traditional Japanese. Simply by living during this time, Japanese people are witnessing and participating in that process. I am getting paid to contribute to it.

How do I feel about that?

Yes, cultural change is inevitable, and I don't think language can ever be a set or static thing - at least, not for very long.

Yet... something still seems sad about the whole thing.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dear Diary: Woo Hoo Hiking!!

Randomata: There is a lot of randomness to the Japanese cityscape, to put it politely. It is hard to capture the helter-skelter character that seems pervasive in all urban areas; the awful colours of this picture are a meagre attempt. I recently read an article in a Japanese (English) paper lamenting the universal ugliness of Japanese cities, which lack any top-down regulations on appearance. The relatively beautiful little onsen-town of Noboribetsu had a balance of pretty and ugly sites, as did quaint little Jozankei, including one of the oversized, ubiquitious and hideous Pachinko gambling centres, complete with terrible blaring music and glaring neon lights that clash with everything around them. Every city and town I've seen so far has been a sprawl of construction that cares not one jot for a cohesive external aesthetic of any sort. With that said, please remember that I think Sapporo is a wonderful city with many, many beautiful buildings and places, not to mention the stunning natural beauty that surrounds.

This entry is a quick recount of my weekend, which may not interest you in the least. I promise I'll try to talk about more deliberative and expansive issues next post. But, if you want to hear what I sound like in a good mood, read on.

I am content and bubbly.
I had an awesome weekend, well-balanced in all the key areas, most importantly:

I FINALLY went for a hike. I've been itching and bitching to hit the hills for weeks and weeks and Saturday finally saw the fulfillment of that wish. I managed to keep the day free and tag along with some friends to hike up Kamui-Dake, just south of Sapporo and north of Jozankei. It was a 6 or 7 hour hike, with two peaks along the way. The views were spectacular; my eyes never tire of the contours of Hokkaido's volcanically and tectonically formed topography, rolling and jagged in turns.

Moreover, the dense and endless green of the forests is increasingly giving way to breath-taking reds and yellows that shout for your vision's attention. My friend said the scenery was middle of the road for what he's seen here so far. That means there is a lot more I have to get out and see.

Out of best hiking form, I hustled to keep up with my fit friends over the 14 or 15 km trek. It was worth every drop of sweat. It was worth the freezing cold wind near the summit that had froze the rivulets around us.

By the end of the day I was starting to feel the energy drain and muscle strain throughout my body. That was soon relieved. After hitch-hiking a short ride to Jozankei, we took in a lovely little rotemburo (outdoor onsen) with water at the perfect muscle-soothing temperature, picturesque landscaping, and an unobstructed view of the clear, star-filled sky. This is the primary reason I am so content this weekend.

But, balance is the key to everything, and my entire weekend was not filled with healthy and challenging treks through soul-filling nature. Friday was a fruitful (wine) and fermented (beer) evening for 'catching up with friends,' which meant Saturday's hike was done after a slight shortfall of sleep. This, in turn, meant Sunday morning was a write-off, good only for catching up on sleep. This is another reason I am so content: I took the entire morning - and then some of the afternoon - to get my beauty rest.

Everything went well this weekend. This evening, I chose a particularly friendly teller at the grocery store; he has blown me away with his friendliness before. I was so thrilled when he remembered me, seemed happy to see me, and proceeded to double check that the pasta sauce I bought was vegetarian! I think I was even able to tell him in Japanese that he's a really nice guy.
The big shop and money blow was so I could follow my parents' example and cram my fridge as full of food as possible, to enable better and more creative a diet, and preclude the annoyance of multiple trips the store. Consequently, for dinner, I made a tasty tofu dish for the first time, meaning I also worked on my personal goal of improving my abysmal cooking abilities.

Then, I studied Japanese for an hour, before corresponding with some people back home.

My spirit is elated, and my legs have been deliciously sore all day. And, incredibly, I don't mind the thought of waking up at 6:30am for work tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tourists: Noboribetsu, Otaru, Jozenkai

NOBORIBETSU: I've been to hell and back - and it's actually quite nice this time of year.

On my parents' last weekend here we took a train down to Noboribetsu Onsen, a famous hot spring town. The park pictured is called Jigokudani, basically 'Hell Valley', a tumultuous topography of volcanic rock and spewing sulfur vents. For centuries the area has been seen as the place where Hell and Earth meet; delightfully cheesy Oni ('demon', devil) statues bedot the numerous walking paths, which wind through incredibly luscious decidious forest. Much of the vegetation here, actually, reminds me of that back home; now moving through fall, sharp patches of red, yellow, and brown are emerging amidst the unbelievably rich green of Hokkaido's forest, to quite beautiful effect. The sulfur, of course, made me a little lightheaded, but I think that only contributed to the whole experience.

Courtesy my folks, we stayed in the biggest, poshest hotel in all of Noboribetsu (a tourist town with MANY hotels). A lovely woman in a floral kimono walked us to our room and sat down to tea with us while she explained the hotel amenities! An amenity to which I was most amenable was the hotel's MASSIVE onsen (hot spring bath). This was my first onsen, and I was most pleasantly surprised. (Onsen are where you go in and get naked with everybody. Today, most onsen are seperated by sex, though this hasn't long been the case.) Two floors held about 10 baths of different temperatures and 'healing properties', as well as several other interesting features: primarily, the indescribably soothing 15-foot waterfall-stream-massager, where you sit on a marble block at the bottom and let the steady plop and platter of drops and splatter ply your head and shoulders till the aches of the day are gone. Then there was the walking loop, with about 4 inches of cold water to help chill you between soaks. Periodically on the loop appear out of the tile contoured foot massagers that heal you from the bottom up. Perhaps my favourite, though, were the outdoor tubs, where the cool air and night sky breeze by you, and the warm water enwombs you.

We also hopped up a tram lift to check out the view of a perfectly circular crater lake, circumference 1 km. It is an interesting feature of all Hokkaido maps, and much cooler than I could make it sound. Atop the mount we also viewed the inhabitants of the Noboribetsu Bear Museum, a combination live-action, real-thing zoo and informational, dead and stuffed museum. Bears are amazing creatures. They are huge. They have so much personality. They are beautiful. Seeing them was enjoyable.

Yet, as with Maruyama Zoo (and perhaps all zoos), the living conditions left a great deal to be desired. I am left with mixed memories. The most prominent involve "The Human Cage," where you can stand in a little room and drop nuts through little slots, as the bears eagerly bang up against the window, and follow the shadows of your hand on the glass, hoping for their next treat. Outside people taunted the bears with nuts to make them stand upright and clap their hands. The bears might not have pride, but somehow it still felt demeaning. So, yea, mixed memories.

In an inexplicable strip next to the bear park lay 4 or 5 traditional Ainu grass huts (Ainu: Indigenous population of Hokkaido, basically iradicated or assimilated since the Meiji era, 1860's). Pretty near every single city and town in Hokkaido has some or other "Ainu Museum," which is a great tribute to efforts in cultural revitalization, and, perhaps, sometimes, just a little bit of a less than exhillarating money grab. Regardless, the dried-grain houses were remarkably ingenuitive, and much of the authentic assemblage was interesting to see.

OTARU: The weekend previous, we went to Otaru for just a day, and by no means did we explore all the activites and sites. Still, it was a nice visit. Otaru is a small city an hour's train southwest of Sapporo. The town, an unremarkable harbour on the ocean, has an undeniably beautiful cannal, surrouned by moss-laced brick and stone heritage buildings, many upwards of 150 years ago. We watched a tourist help make some blown glass - a fascinating and elegant process - and were content to peruse the numerous glassware shops. Other than that, we just walked around the town, which is a mind-boggling mix of old and new, touristy and industrial, fascinating and downright ugly.

JOZANKEI: I also haven't mentioned Jozankei, where we went two weekends ago. Jozankei is another onsen town, much smaller, just on the southern outskirts of Sapporo. There were two main features of interest: first, a pretty park in the centre of town with a small walking path and, delightfully, a stone-lined foot-bath where you can soak your feet and chat with the friendly fellow soakers.

Second: an unattended Shinto shrine that has an ordinary looking door at the back. A little box quietly asks for 300 yen. The door leads to a 200 metre, narrow tunnel dug into the side of the mountain. Dim lighting and dripping water aid the mysterious and mystical aeshetic as you wind through the tunnel. Dug into the sides of the tunnel are 30 or so alcoves that house small altars with intricate statues of religious characters (none of whom I knew anything about). The whole thing was... weird. I can't really convey.

SAPPORO: Just briefly, I wanted to mention that some of the most enjoyable wandering was within the city limits. Sapporo has several stunningly beautiful and serene parks scattered throughout, as well as tourist attractions like museums, galleries, and the TV Tower at the centre of town. The most wonderful thing, though, are the surrounding mountains and the way they hug the city. Please check out my flikr for a more in-depth profile.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

rents gone and good snoeshoes news

Randomata: Public consumption of alcohol is not an offense: feel free to pop the can, cap, or cork right outside the conbini where you bought the beer, liquor, or wine; feel free to walk down the street with beer in hand, with no fear of reprimand. However, think twice before you walk and EAT. Eating while walking around in public is considered quite rude, no matter how politely you scarf down your onigiri (tightly packed rice, often wrapped in seaweed, makes a great snack). You can sit down at a bench, or perhaps find a discrete corner at which to stand and eat, but don't eat and run, or walk, in public!

What has happened in the days since last I wrote?

I took a bath in hell and I'm going to Thailand. For an explanation of the former, please read "Noboribetsu, Otaru, Jozankei". For an elaboration on the latter, please read as much of this post as you can stomach.

Sunday saw my dear parents depart for Vancouver, capping off our tweek visit. They were great to have around, as I've said, because they made me get out and play tourist a little more myself. I think they had a great time taking trains hither and thither to Hokkaido's other towns and cities. Living with them over those two weeks (as I did for 21 years up till August) was... qualitatively different than sharing my home space with no one. It was hard to reconcile the 'new' live-alone me with hints of my previous 21 years of reality. Yet, I was happy to have them. And then, it was hard to see them go and I had to readjust to the realisation that I really am living, on my own, in Japan.

At work, I've felt more productive than I think I previously indicated: I had more classes, talked a bit more with teachers, chatted more extensively with students, found specific difficulties to help the kids with, helped with the English club - they even recorded my telling of two children's tales to help with their practice! Though I'm scheduled to be off at 4:15, somehow I managed to stay until at least 6pm every day last week. After seeing my parents off on Sunday I went in to catch some of the Band concert. (Those kids are incredible!!!! I was bored by the all-star guest performer!) Today after school, I stayed around a couple hours to play in a cross-school teachers' volleyball game.

None of this is to say I everything is perfect, or that I am even contributing all that much to the school as a whole. I still have a lot of dead time, and I still haven't connected with most of the teachers, and I still feel like neither they nor I know what I'm really supposed to be doing here.

And, clearly not all of the students are comfortable with me. One girl walked into a classroom to find me sitting down at a grandpiano therein (just admiring its magnificence). She was stunned into silence. I tried to tell her that anybody was welcome in the classroom, and she could just go about doing whatever it was she came in to do. She said nothing. For five minutes, I tried everything I could to assure her that I didn't mind whether she spoke or not, whether she stayed or not, or really care about anything she did whatsoever! But a long, long five minutes later she was still frozen on the spot, terrified. Yes, I could have simply walked out myself, but I am stubborn.

Over the last week or 10 days I've also been getting over what has been, for me, a terrible cough. My mucous-clearing hacks have reverberated throughout the halls of my school; I sounded like one of the monsters from the children's stories we recorded. It hasn't got me down too much, though, and I only lost sleep because of it for one or four nights. Now I'm just pounding my lungs to clear away the last of the tenacious phlegm. Apparently it is extremely difficult to stay healthy here, what with the cold weakening your general immune system and the hundreds of little junior high hellians swapping microscopic sick all over the place. So, that's something to look forward to!

Following the lead of a fellow ALT and shopper, I bought some snowshoes from a used store. I've never had snowshoes before, and I don't really know what to do with them. I am simply trying to commit myself: I WILL do fun and exciting and adventurous outdoor things this winter. I WON'T just stay couped up in my apartment and in the city, itching to get out and enjoy the hills and trees and wonderful nature. All I've done since I got here is itch!!

As for other exciting commitments this winter, a charming and rambuctious friend convinced me in about 5 minutes to buy a ticket to Thailand. We're going after christmas, over new years. That purchase was one of the most spontaneous things I've ever done, at least in terms of suddenly spending a fair amount of money. I don't know where we're going, or what we will do there, but my friend assures me we will know by the time it happens.

Hmm. My rambling thoughts are not exhausted, but I fear a rambling tongue outlasts the ear's patience. So, till next time.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

lunch and lively chats

Randomata: Lunch. Regulated school lunches were introduced during the occupation after World War Two, when food was pretty scarce. I believe every junior high school in the entire country offers school lunch of a similar form. Now, what I mean by 'school lunch' is a set schedule of meals that appears from the kitchen in the depths of the school, where it is prepared by the largely unseen kitchen staff. Old metal carts with noisy wheels are laden with exactly the right number of bowls, plates, forks and food for each student in a given classroom, and then rolled to that destination.
What I mean by 'offers' is that school lunch is mandatory and the students are not allowed to bring to school any other food whatsoever. They are most definitely not allowed to eat chips or candy, or suck on a soda during class. The meal is regulated by some board of health somewhere and, indeed, on top of smelling quite scrumptous, is healthier by countless kilocals than all the junk we ate back in school in nVan-city. The students arrange their desks in groups of 6 or so, while 5 or so aproned students play 'lunch-lady', doling out to everybody. Everybody says 'itadakimasu' together before eating (maybe 'we have been given,' loosely translated as 'let's eat') and, after, gochisosama deshita ('a feast it was,' -ish).

I have so many ups and downs every day I can hardly keep track of morning and night.
I am exhausted every morning when the beeping and buzzing starts at 6:15am.
I'm still exhausted when I stop pressing snooze and wake up at 7.
I'm slightly less exhausted if I wake up in a panic at 7:30 to find my alarm clock thrown out the window and have to rush out the door in 5 minutes to get to the subway on time. However, that is unenjoyable in its own way.

Gosh, with that opening, you wouldn't know that I'm in a good mood, happy with life at the moment! Aside from needing more sleep, I am pretty content today. And, as my mother always says when she wakes me up to watch the sunrise (practically), 'You'll sleep when you're dead."

Positive trends in indigenous communication continue since last week's post. I have ever so slightly broken out of my timid avocalic shell since my parents' arrival a week ago. I don't claim to be speaking volumes, or to be speaking particularly well; but I am speaking more - which is the important thing.

Since my delightful beer-enhanced conversation with those student teachers ten days ago, I have been more aware of the number of people who are eager to practice their english, and willing to listen to some choppy, butchered nihongo. Some people really, really dont know how or are not inclined to talk to me; that's fine. Many, though, are thrilled to say anything as short as 'hello' or as long as 'hey, welcome to the bar... ...(insert humourous conversation here)...'s 3am. go now. good night.' I am turning into a bit of a junky though, always asking people to explain to me what they are saying slowly, or what a certain word is in Japanese. I don't remember most of it the first (or fifth) time, but I'm hoping eventually it will sink in.

I have good news from my workplace too; perhaps my omiyage on Friday had a good effect. Yesterday, when i walked into the office, the as yet uninterested (or simply highly tentative) "business servant" (tea lady) said good morning to me. It might not sound like much, but when you have worked in an office with people for a month, and still not said a word to many of them, you'll understand its import. I also managed to glance at some names quickly and say hello to some people with whom I've yet to exchange even the most modest pleasantries - after a month!!! The simple pleasantries are huge in any office (or anywhere) in Japan and saying 'ohayo gozaimasu' in the morning is one of the only things many coworkers are capable/desirous of saying to me.

Later though, I was trying to say 'it is quiet' to the business servant, and I think i might have accidently told her to 'be quiet'... we'll see how she greets me tomorrow.

The contrite music instructor also seems slightly less distant. I sat in on a singing class yesterday - I didn't say anything, or draw attention to myself; I just listened. And I loved it!

The school is now preparing for the Chorus Contest, in which each class competes with a different song. We are not talking a one-minute comedic mock ballad; we are talking classic compositions with (grand)piano accompaniment and four sections of vocal ranges. All 750 students participate. Every class I have heard so far sounds incredible. If they are anywhere near as good as the band, I might just start crying right in the assembly. I'm not sappy, ok, I just like good music.

Hot on the heels of the School Festival, the contest ensures that teachers and students once more have of a ton of extra work to do, and so are no longer at risk of accidently going home after normal school hours. They work hard here. All the time.

After school today, I spent about an hour and a half chatting with two teachers in a mix of Japanese and English (meaning they switched back and forth, not me). They are the extremely friendly and delightful school nurses, one of whom received the omiyage moose. I was trying to explain to them that "I don't miss my home yet, but I want to. I am not homesick, but I want to be. I want to miss my home and be homesick because then I will know how important, how dear, my home is to me." This was quite difficult, because they weren't precisely sure of what I meant by homesick, and they didn't understand why I was saying 'I want to be...(sad + lonely + away + missing something dear). Then we tried to discuss learning other languages, and how difficult it is for a foreigner to understand the different ways of saying things, and how difficult it is for a native speaker to explain WHY we say things the way we do. It was most enjoyable to discuss something that induced more contemplative gravity than the obesity of my unlucky cat back home ("In Vancouver, I have a black cat. She is very fat, so I call her 'Fat'.")

omiyage at last

One long Randomata about Omiyage:
My parents were kind enough to bring some supplemental gifts from Vancouver, so I finally had to work up the nerve to give 'omiyage' to the staff of my office. Omiyage is the more or less obligatory exchange of gifts between coworkers at certain times. Especially when newly part of a team, one should definitely plan some gifts to help break the ice. After that, New Years and other holidays are somewhat prescripted times of giving. And it is a good idea, any time you take a trip somewhere special, to bring something small back for each of your coworkers (ie an individually wrapped goodie). That way, you can talk about your holiday without feeling bad, because everybody is sharing in the experience.
You are not contractually obliged to omiyage. You are not provided with a list of appropriate gifts or approximate costs, so it is a bit nerve-wracking trying to figure out what to give everybody. It is pretty obvious that you want to give a little bit extra to those on top of the ladder (ie principal, your department head). But how the heck was I to solve the conundrum of having 40+ coworkers to express my pre-emptive gratitude for?
Well, I gave the principal and vice principal bottles of canadian whiskey. I gave the english department head a slighty smaller bottle of canadian whiskey. I opened up a few boxes of tasty maple leaf-shaped Purdy's chocolates (thanks for bringing them mom) and quickly tossed them amongst the staff after a meeting before I could chicken out. I gave a little teddy-moose to a teacher who had been particularly welcoming and friendly to me, as a small sign of thanks. You can't really give just one person a gift, or focus too much on them. But as long as you give something to everybody, something extra to one person is ok.