Thursday, November 19, 2009

facts you didn't know about the world around you

So, we're currently doing variations of the infamous "Country Project" in four classes -- three low-level first year classes, and in the second-year international course. Essentially, students have to research foreign countries, make a poster, and give a presentation about it in English.

Without further ado, I present you some of the first-years' funnier presentation quotes.

“People eat many food in Austria. For example, they eat potato food.”

“People eat many foods in Egypt. For example, they eat dove. It is doves chicken.”

“Many picture are famous in Italy. Monaliza is very famous. It is by Reonald."

“Europa is in Prague.”
Oh, yeah? Do they know that?

And, my personal favorite:
“People eat many foods in Australia. For example, they eat Genghis Khan.”


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tokyo Orientation, and Hoooong Koooong~!

I swear, time flies. Mostly when you're having fun, but sometimes when you're just plain busy.

I see that last time, I left off just before Tokyo Orientation. On Saturday, July 25th, I caught the shinkansen (bullet train) up to Tokyo, to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. It's the same hotel where we had orientation when I arrived last year -- that is to say, super swanky. The first day, we had some information meetings for orientation assistants. Then on Sunday, we spent most of the day at Narita Airport, directing incoming JETs to buses back into the city. I was the leader for bus #7, which got back to the hotel around 8 pm. That was a lot of fun, because as bus leader I got a microphone, and was able to answer questions and tell funny stories to the newbies on our way back.

The next few days were a blur of meetings and introductions and my j-pop presentation, all of which went well. My partner for the presentation, Hui Ling, was an adorable girl from Singapore. All the new Kyoto JETs, for whom I was solely responsible, seem to be a good crowd. There is a certain someone that for all his friendly and outgoing energy seems a little bit KY (kuuki yomenai -- unable to read social situations) and I think he may give Amy, our prefectural advisor, a heart-attack. But otherwise, everyone is lovely, and I made several new friends among the other orientation assistants.

My new coworker at Sonobe is this South African guy named Paul, and he is wonderful. A psychologist by trade, he is just the sweetest, politest, most optimistic person. All of the students love him -- especially the girls! Paul doesn't speak any Japanese, so I'm always trying to tell him what the girls are saying: "They think you're really cool," or, "They want to know how tall you are," or even on one occasion, "She thinks you smell really good." (By the by, at 190ish centimeters, Paul is the tallest teacher at our school, just beating out the principal.)

Just a week after Paul got here, though, I abandoned him to go on vacation in the last stretches of summer holiday. Together with my erstwhile travel companions, Jo, Fig, and Mike, the four of us set off for...HONG KONG!

If you count the travel days at either end of the week, our trip totaled 10 days. We stayed at the Prudential Hotel in Kowloon. It was a great stay, and I would recommend this spot to anybody! First of all, the rooms were super nice -- more than large enough for two people. Double beds for all, holla! And we had a nice view out of our giant window. There was a lot of interesting stuff and nice restaurants within walking distance, besides the hotel sitting practically on top of the nearest train station. Plus, the rooftop swimming pool was almost always empty, so we popped up for a leisurely swim whenever we had nothing else to do and the weather was nice. (Alas, the weather got really rainy for several days in the middle, thanks to typhoon Morakot. But we just used those days as an excuse for museums!)

Anyway, on to the highlights!


Po Lin Monastery and the Tien Tan Buddha -- On Lantau Island. The train system doesn't cover all of Lantau, so at the last stop, we had to switch onto the Ngong Ping cable car. It was a really long lift ride, and pretty scenic, going over a bay and some mountains to reach the village around Po Lin. The walk to the monastery was a quaint cobbled road lined with souvenir stores and gelato shops. The Tien Tan Buddha, which had been massively visible even from the cable car, loomed over the area. The big bronze buddha is 34 meters (that's 110 feet) tall, seated on a lotus throne and surveying the countryside from the top of a high hill. Po Lin Monastery faces the buddha, across a sort of courtyard at the base of the hill. It wasn't huge, but it was very ornately presented. I particularly loved the winding dragons carved into the stone columns which supported the building. After wandering around for some photos, we ate lunch at the monastery's famed vegetarian restaurant. It was a set lunch, and apart from the soup appetizer - weak, dirt-flavored potato water that made me feel not unlike a medieval peasant - it was all pretty good. We ate until stuffed, and still couldn't quite finish everything. As elsewhere in Hong Kong, there was bizarro Mao merchandise available, and I made off with a tin-sided Mao CD case. Red, of course.

The Peak -- On Hong Kong Island. Pretty literally what it sounds like. The Peak is a mountain overlooking the city center, reached by a steep train line ending at a mountaintop shopping mall. There is a fantastic view from the roof, from which you can see the ocean on several sides. There are also about a million more souvenir shops (many of which we patronized) and apparently a wax museum. We didn't visit the latter, though I did insist on having a picture together with the promotional Jackie Chan figure. Heart Jackie!

Avenue of the Stars and the Hong Kong Light Show -- The southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula, at Tsim Sha Tsui. This is Hong Kong's answer to the Hollywood Stars. All the greats of HK cinema - many of them martial artists - have left their name and handprints here to be goggled at. We found Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and many more...including, of course, the untouchable Bruce Lee. He has a statue near his star, in front of which we all posed, mimicking his fierce kung fu! I also geeked out over a little store dedicated completely to Jackie Chan. In addition to all this, the avenue runs along the harbor front, with the absolute best view of the famous Hong Kong skyline. In the evening, the avenue is crowded with visitors, all eyes on that skyline for the Hong Kong Light Show. Music comes on over the PA system, and in a cool feat of collaboration, decorative lights go crazy on the opposite shore's office buildings, choreographed with the music. Not super amazing, but charming, especially to think how all those big corporations came together just to do something trivial and fun.

Hong Kong Museum of Art -- Near the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui. This museum was honestly so-so, but that may be due in part to several of the exhibits being closed for renovation or change or something. Much of the painting, especially modern, didn't suit my taste, though...a little too on the simple folksy side. After a point, I feel like any five-year-old could have done the same, you know? But I did get one nice print in the museum shop, of someone playing a flute.

Temple Street Night Market -- Smack dab in the middle of Kowloon, near Jordan, and thus, our hotel. I think we walked over after dinner one night. There were lots of wacky stalls selling wacky merchandise, much of it probably knock-off. There was a ton of Mao stuff here, so I bought a few funny souvenirs, and some interesting old communist posters for myself. (I've been pretty into art lately, as you may have noticed.)

Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas -- In the New Territories. The first and only Chinese graveyard that I've encountered, this was one of my favorite spots in Hong Kong. Really interesting! As opposed to headstones, there are rows upon rows of cubical rooms, almost like a rental storage facility in layout. (But nicer, of course, and peppered with buddha statues.) Inside each room, the three free walls are covered floor to ceiling in memorial plaques, most often with a photo of the deceased. I'm not sure whether ashes are interred behind each, or what. In any case, this temple went up and up and up a mountain, and it was fantastic and oddly enchanting, even in the seriously pouring rain. My only regret / complaint is that the upper reaches were sealed off - a shame, because we could see an interesting and different landscape starting just beyond. At least I befriended the temple cat, after an intensive ten minute petting session. BFF!

Hong Kong Museum of History -- Somewhere in Kowloon...I forget, but we walked there from the hotel. Now this was a fascinating museum. I didn't know much about Hong Kong to begin with, apart from it being sort of colonized by the British, and this museum was a great way to learn more. The exhibits were vast and detailed, with pretty much an entire period piece neighborhood contained inside. Really, you could go up back alleys from post offices to school rooms to grocery shops temples to western dining rooms. It was like stepping back in time!

Man Mo Temple and Cat Street -- On Hong Kong Island. Man Mo temple seems to have an interesting story, being dedicated to two deities that I would not intuitively associate; the god of war, and the god of literature, respectively. But the temple itself was not super extraordinary. As in some other HK temples, I found myself mostly captivated by the huge spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling. Even apart from smelling wonderful, they were aesthetically captivating. Cat Street is a nearby street market, selling much of the same weird Chinese goods and statuettes. I found a little statuette of a dragon, but instead of the dog-lion dragons I'd normally associate with Chinese tradition, it looked more like a panther. Now it lives on my coffee table.

Peking Restaurant -- Okay, this isn't exactly a sight, but if any of you ever go to Hong Kong, definitely visit this place. It's on Nathan Road, right across the street from Jordan station. We liked it so much, we actually ate here twice. The wait staff were super nice, even though we were the only foreigners in the place on both occasions. But more importantly, the food! Everything we tried was good, from the crispy rice soup to the fried bananas, but the real show stopper was of course the Peking duck. I'd never had it before, and let me tell you, in China is the way to start! So delicious. I can't even put it into words. Except that now I'm hungry.

The Noonday Gun -- Along the waterfront at Causeway Bay. We more or less found this by accident, and I'll admit, including it here is sort of a joke! We'd read about it in the guidebook, and its historical significance...something about the British firing it at noon, I don't know. So we were kind of amused to find it, especially since in real life, it is a really small old canon, painted blue. End of story.

Jade Market -- Kowloon, A long building crammed with stalls selling exactly what you'd expect -- anything and everything jade. (And, for some reason, Bruce Lee playing cards.) There was a lot of jewelry, beads, figurines, and the like, on and on and on.

And also, our day trip from HK to Macau!

St. Paul's Cathedral -- Only the front facade of this cathedral remains, which makes it almost more striking. The facade, though the only wall standing, seems in almost perfect condition, beautifully constructed with carvings and statues. Through the gaping windows, there is only open blue sky. You can see the facade for some time coming, as it sits at the top of a rise, with gentle European bricked roads winding down through the city, lined with sweet shops and souvenirs and even a Starbucks. The whole area was the most beautiful mix of sub-tropical and what I imagine Italy or Spain to look like. Thank you, Portuguese colonialists!

Monte Fort and the Museum of Macau -- Situated right next to St. Paul's, this old fort holds a commanding view of Macau. You can see all the nice pseudo-European architecture, right next to a variety of surprise!casinos. Many of the casinos were actually quite pretty, though, not necessarily detracting from the view. There were a ton of old cannons and the like still stationed around the ramparts, and the center of the fort now houses the Museum of Macau. This museum did a lot of the same things right that the Hong Kong Museum achieved -- intricate reconstructions, photo exhibits, et cetera, though generally on a smaller scale than the aforementioned.

Casino Lisboa -- I suspect named for Lisbon. This crazy golden structure dominates the Macau skyline, but somehow sort of compliments the scenery around it. It's like something out of George Lucas' mind, were he designing a delicate, futuristic elf city.


So there you have it. A nice trip, complete with a real-life Miyazaki character ("Fried noodow?!"), Polish escape tactics ("What? What?! I don't understand!"), insistent salesmen ("You look very nice! I respect you!"), and Giordano shirts for everyone (except for Mike, even though - or more likely, because - his last name is Giordano.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

the past two months

The upcoming weeks will be quite busy, so I'd better try to fill in the gap between Mongolia and the present before things get even more out of hand!

May 16th was a barbecue at a park in Kameoka. A lot of people turned out, and we had a really nice time. Nelis was in rare form that day, being totally silly. A bug got in his shirt, so he named it She and claimed it was his girlfriend. And during a conversation about mukade, the giant poisonous centipedes that roam Japan searching for victims, we had the following exchange.

Nelis: I like mukade.
me: What?! They're little black death machines!
Nelis: Have you ever spoken to a mukade? They're actually quite nice.

Nelis and I also made friends with a part-time English teacher named Minako, who by all appearances was a normal delicate little Japanese woman. When she heard that Nelis was South African, this happened!

Minako: Oh, I've visited there twice.
me: Really? Why?
Minako: For the World Power-lifting Championships.
me: What?! Did you compete?
Minako: Yes.
me: Did you win?
Minako: Second place.
me: !!!
Nelis: Could you lift me?
Minako: Easily.

Quelle suprise! Anyway, Joanna and I had to leave the barbecue a little early, which was maybe for the best, because shortly thereafter the police arrived to break up the party. I guess it was a slow day for crime in Kameoka, because apparently there were thirteen officers -- probably the entire staff of the local police box.

After the barbecue I went with Joanna and Alex R. to see a kabuki play. I don't remember now what it was called, but it involved probably the wackiest stage fighting I had ever seen, despite most of the play being a drama. These two guys staged a fight at an old mill, which actually had a giant pool of water with it on stage. First they fought across the roof, then one fell into the water, and then we he tried to climb up the waterwheel, the waterwheel actually started spinning him around on stage! It was ridiculous! Eventually the two samurai were both in the pool having a splash fight, not to mention intentionally soaking everyone in the front rows. And at one point they lost their swords and started hitting each other with carrots. Very funny!

On May 23rd, a group of us (me, Joanna, Neil, Alex, and Joy) climbed Mt. Hiei, which is along the border of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. There are some nice temple complexes at the top, not to mention some absolutely breathtaking views of the surrounding area. By the time we got to the top, though, we were all sweaty and now that I have the moral superiority of having climbed it, next time I'll take the cable car!

Towards the end of May, Alex R. kickstarted a series of movie nights at his apartment, beginning with Jean Claude Van Damme's epic "Bloodsport." In later weeks, this would be followed with "Big Trouble in Little China," "Half-Baked," and the JCVD classics "Kickboxer" and "Double Team." I also had the boys over to my place one afternoon for a "Space Jam" and "Live Free or Die Hard" double feature that was pretty grand.

We also went to see the new Star Trek movie as soon as it came out. Totally awesome! When it ended, I just wanted to stay in the theater and watch it all over again.

The evening after our recontracting seminar (which was largely not worth mention), Hosoi-sensei had organized a staff party with the teachers from our old section, like a mini-reunion. We had a lot of fun, and I got to spend most of the night talking to Kaneshiro-sensei, who I would definitely marry, if only he weren't married already. In the process, though, I managed to make a Japanese mistake that is now tied for first with one I made in college. (The college mistake was during an interview test, where adding an extra syllable changed "Where does your family live?" to "Where does your pirate live?" Apparently Imai-sensei's pirate lives in Tokyo.) The mistake this time was when I was trying to say I was recently being kind of lazy about studying. I switched the word for lazy person, "namakemono," with the word "bakemono." Kaneshiro-sensei looked mighty surprised, and upon consulting my dictionary, we discovered that I'd just told him I was the boogeyman. Whoops!

After a few drinks, Hosoi-sensei decided to make a short speech about each person present. They were all like, "Oh, Ueda-sensei has finished her first year, congratulations..." and "Kristin always works so hard..." I was sitting next to him, so the speech about me was last. Hosoi-sensei is my best buddy at school, and was a little drunk by this point, so his speech about me went something like this. "Anna wore her hair down at work today. I asked her if she had cut it, but she didn't." Okay, what? And then, "Anna is...crazy." THANKS, HOSOI-SENSEI.

On June 6th, we went out to celebrate my friend Neil's birthday. We got together eight people and went to Karafune-ya, a huge ice cream parlour. Neil had preordered a one hundred dollar parfait. It was gigantic. The size of my entire torso. The eyes of every Japanese person in the restaurant were transfixed as the eight of us faced off against the parfait, and eventually (eventually) won. I think we needed closer to twelve people, from the way we all staggered out afterwards.

School has been busy, with various exams and interview tests and the speech contest, not to mention 800 goodbye Kristin classes. A lot of the junior high kids sang songs for her, which were totally adorable. "I'll Be There" by the Jackson 5 was a particularly challenging choice. We also had goodbye English Club meetings, for one of which I shelled out money for a nice goodbye cake. It was a pain to get, but made worth it by the students' joy for cake.

After school on June 26th, I went with Kristin and Sumiko (our tea ceremony teacher) to a really cool pottery exhibit at the little Sonobe museum. We were the only people there apart from the potter, so we were able to talk to him for awhile. His art involved a lot of animals and sea creatures. My favorite was this beautifully detailed and stylized octopus that sort of resembled Cthulhu, if Cthulhu were pretty.

On July 12th, we went to see kabuki once again, this time in Osaka. It was a kabuki production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (my favorite of his comedies), and it was absolutely stunning. It opened with three little boys singing a beautiful rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" in Japanese. The same actor played both Sebastian and Viola, with by far the most unbelievable quick-changes I have ever seen. The sets were all gigantic, and there were probably a good ten of them, including a boat that actually traveled around the stage and an intricate cherry tree that actually had blooming branches drooping down over the actors. Everything was perfect and wonderful and lovely and comic. It was a great performance.

Tuesday the 14th, I took an hour and a half of annual leave to escape school early. Then I caught a train through Osaka to Hyogo, for my very first Hanshin Tigers game! It was so exciting. I adopted the Tigers as my Japanese baseball team three years ago when I studied in Osaka, but I'd never had a chance to go to a game. I wore my Toritani jersey, and bought a matching hat at Koshien stadium. The crowd was crazy, with all sorts of organized cheers that were specific to each Tigers player. The Tigers won 5-4 over the Chunichi Dragons, and the fans went wild! Twenty minutes after the game ended, we were all still in the stands, singing the Tigers theme song and the song for Hiyama, the MVP.

Finally, this past weekend! Sunday was the JET goodbye party in Kameoka, for all the folks who are leaving (or have already). We were walking to the venue, Liz's apartment, when the bottom dropped out and we were caught in the middle of a freaking flash flood. Our umbrellas helped almost none, and by the time we got to Liz's place, everybody was completely soaked. She gave us some towels, thank goodness, and the party was a lot of fun from there on out. A bunch of us stayed the night, and then went out for a late breakfast the next morning. Liz was kind enough to lend me an overshirt -- the one I had been wearing the night before had gotten crazily stained during the rainstorm (I think from my leather bag, somehow).

Monday was a holiday for Marine Day. (Marine as in the ocean, not the people. When I heard this was a national holiday, I thought, "Marine Day? Really? Well, I guess we have Arbor Day. But wait, we don't get a day off for Arbor Day. So it's still silly!") We did some shopping and said goodbye for now to Alex Ma. As Alex R. said, "It smells like burning marshmallows. Is Alex Ma on fire?"

After school on Tuesday I had to run back into the city, this time for Alex R.'s goodbye. We ate donburi at a restaurant we are fast becoming regulars of, had a beer at Ing Bar for old times sake, and did purikura together. Alex technically left Wednesday, but it's terrifically strange to try and envision our group without him. I hope someday we can really have our 2009 JETs Reunion Party back in America.

Nelis has also gone, and I probably won't see Liz again. The newbies start arriving in Japan on Sunday. I am leaving tomorrow morning for Tokyo, where I've been tagged to serve as a Tokyo Orientation Assistant. I get to meet them at the airport, and answer their questions at the hotel, and present a seminar about J-pop to several hundred people. (Death!) Then I will help escort all of the new Kyoto JETs back here. Among the group will be Paul (my new coworker), Paul's significant other (Liz's replacement), and Sabrina (my new neighbor). I haven't spoken to or messaged any of them yet...I hope they are cool people!

And wish me luck on my presentation. I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to end up kind of winging it. :P

Friday, July 17, 2009

everybody wants to go to MONGOLIA!

I finally finished writing about Mongolia! It's practically a book. Please bear with me.

So, Mongolia was a pretty wacky experience, and I know no other way to do it justice than in excruciating detail. In fact, there is far too much to say for one post, so I am hitting it day by day. If you want to do things chronologically, please scroll down down down to the first post about Ulaanbaatar and work your way up from there. I think you'll have to go back a page, actually.

After this, I get to play catch up for the past two months. Oh boy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mongolia -- Day 10 and 11 (the end)

The last two days are a little blurry now, because I didn't make any notes at the time. (Whoops!)

One morning we went to Choijin Lama Temple, which was maybe my favorite place in UB. It was small, but beautiful and ornate. The art of Chinese-influence Buddhism is significantly different from the Buddhism in Japan -- namely, more violent and prone to linger on the Buddhist hells. It was really fascinating. In the makeshift gift shop (housed in a ger), I bought a bunch of little hand-painted cards as omiyage (souvenirs) for some of my coworkers and friends.

We found a statue of Lenin, and visited the Victims of Political Persecution Museum. It was contained in an old house (belonging to a previous prime minister that had been persecuted). The exhibits were mostly about the occupation by Soviet Russia, only half translated into English, and consisted of a lot of old photos and personal stories. The most suddenly stunning part was when you walked into a small room upstairs and came face to face with a plexiglass case full of human skulls, most with bullet holes. They were from a mass grave of 600 people that had just been discovered in about 2006.

We also tried to find the Modern Art Museum, but when we finally did, we discovered that it had been pretty much destroyed in a fire that caught from the bank next door.

At the guest house, we spent more time hanging out with Nasaa, as well as this guy Go from Tokyo. We watched a pretty crazy and kind of low-budget music competition show (essentially Ulaanbaatar Idol), and helped Go learn the words to "Stand By Me."

At last, it was time to depart. Nasaa and Urnuun's mother came with us to the airport. As we drove there, we passed the end of some Buddhist festival, and saw these flaming lanterns flying up into the sky. It was a nice image to end on, I think.

We had a great time in Mongolia. I wouldn't mind going back, though I'd much rather spend time in the countryside than in the city!

Mongolia -- Day 8 and 9 (Back in the UB)

The day after we got back from our tour, Chanaa escorted me, Fig, and Pasi on the one hour walk to an absolutely giant outdoor marketplace that was literally called "The Black Market." It was divided into vague quadrants, where you could find clothes, or antiques, or furniture, or anything else that occurred to you. There were probably fifty stalls just selling shoes.

We bought various souvenirs, and I managed to get a copy of the epic kayak album by Javhlan that we'd been listening to all week. It is amazing in the absolutely silliest way. Javhlan's sound is difficult to describe, except maybe like weird nomad opera? I saw him filed in a music store under "Country," which kind of made sense thinking about the actual Mongolian countryside -- though it is definitely Mongolian country music, bearing little or no resemblance to the American counterpart.

We grabbed a late lunch at a cafe Chanaa recommended, stopped by Hi-Fi Music for a few more Mongolian CDs (I think Fig had accumulated something like six by this point), and then Fig and I went out for dinner.

The next morning we spent some time watching the music channel with Nasaa (the hostel housekeeper), and then walked to Gandan Khiid. Gandan Khiid is a pretty cool monastery in the north-west corner of Ulaanbaatar. There were a lot of students there for some kind of graduation ceremony or trip, and a huge flock of pigeons trying to terrorize the public. The main building had a giant bronze statue of a standing Buddha, and a ton of smaller Buddha figurines lining the walls top to bottom. There was also a long line of these things that I think are like prayer wheels, stretching all along the inside and spinning constantly as the line of people ran their hands over them.

After lunch we next went to the Fine Art Museum and the attached Red Ger Gallery. Both were quite interesting. The Fine Art Museum had a lot of traditional works, including some intricate and heavy-looking festival masks and an absolutely stunning mandala model. It was about as big as a car, built in the shape of a finely detailed palace with various deities and decorations abounding. The Red Ger Gallery held more modern art, several pieces of which really impressed me. I particularly liked the paintings of one E. Tsolinonbat, but I can't seem to find him (or her) online anywhere for more information. (By the way, Dad, this is where I bought your painting!)

That night, Chanaa had invited Fig and I to dinner at her house. It was our first opportunity to see an urban dwelling. Chanaa lived with her husband and her two or three year old daughter, Anojun, in this tiny one room house tucked into a crowded neighborhood. (What we in America might consider a slum or at least projects, though I think it was fairly standard for UB.) There was no bathroom (or, I think, running water) so there was a tiny outhouse shack in the yard and Chanaa had to fill the teapot from a bucket. But inside the house was clean and decently furnished, and Anojun was an absolute pistol. She and I played a sort of strange game that involved spinning a plastic radish, which for some reason tickled Anojun to no end.

After a while, we were joined by a friend of Chanaa's husband, who was a big merry guy. (He lied to us about being a Mongolian wrestler, and told us that Japanese men must be crazy if we didn't have boyfriends.) Also, a neighborhood boy of perhaps seven came over to play with Anojun. The food was plentiful and great (oh, that I could cook like Chanaa) and we had an all around lovely time.

Mongolia -- Day 7 (the return)

The fifth day of our grand countryside excursion was mostly consumed by driving back to Ulaanbaatar, being forced to practice the "mama song" a million times in the van. None of us were totally eager to get back to the city, so instead, Ankha kept insisting that we were driving to the moon.

We stopped at the same Nowheresville town that had surprised us with the maid uniforms on the first day, and several children kept eying us through the windows. Taking the initiative, I grabbed a can of Pringles we'd brought in the van as a snack, jumped outside, and started dispersing stacks to them. ("Pringles For the Children" has a nice ring to it -- brand new charity?)

We stopped on a hill with a nice view of the rolling countryside to have lunch, Ankha getting up to his usual antics and dancing around on the roof of the van. But all too soon (boy, I cannot stress too soon enough) we were back in UB.

After fifteen minutes at a police checkpoint, we entered the city, passing a building called "The Akuma Center." (This elicited another laugh from all of us, because "Akuma" means devil in Japanese.) Back at Idre's Guesthouse, Ankha led us in our final rousing rendition of the "mama song," delighting (or at least amusing) the Mongolian staff. We bid farewell to our tour mates, and immediately ran for our first shower in five days. I don't think I've ever needed one more in my life.

Tired, we just grabbed some spicy ramen noodles from the weird little grocery store across the street. But at nine o'clock, we had agreed to go out with Pasi, our pre-tour Finnish friend. We walked across town (which I definitely wouldn't do in Ulaanbaatar without a male escort) to the so-called Club Dorgio. It was sort of underground, with tables arranged in tiers like auditorium seating. There was a live band, and we were just enjoying the atmosphere when, bam! The lights go out.

And they stay out. They stay out for fifteen or twenty minutes. But no one leaves! The bartender dispenses candles with such competence that I think this happens not irregularly, and then service continues as normal. (Though finding the bathroom in the dark was something of a challenge.)

Then we made one more stop at a mostly empty though quite swanky place called The History Club, which had the most eccentric menu I've ever seen. (The only thing approaching it is Ing Bar in Kyoto, which boasts the "world famous garlic festival.") The History Club's menu offered such amenities as:

African Salad
Vodka with traditional horn glass
Traditional throat song
Mongolian girls dance

But they were out of pretty much everything we ordered. No African History (that's right, no History at the History Club). All they had was french fries, so we ordered them twice back to back. (And no, we didn't have the guts or the money to order the Mongolian girls dance.)

Mongolia -- Day 6 (Kharkhorhiin and Erdene Zuu)

In the morning we bid farewell to ger number three and Mogi, our horse guide. He grinned his mostly toothless smile and blushed heavily when I told him, "Mogi, bi chamd hartzee!" ("Mogi, I love you!")

In the afternoon, we arrived via our bushwhacking van at the (very) small city of Kharkhorhiin, site of Karakorum, the ancient capitol and vaunted city of Chinggis Khan. Our fourth ger was among a whole cluster of guest gers, and we were excited to finally take a shower after four days running around on smelly animals...only to discover that the shower facilities were out of water. One more night among the unclean!

While Chanaa made lunch, Ankha decided that he was going to teach us the so-called "mama song." By this point, we had been listening to Javhlan (the kayak guy) on repeat almost nonstop for the past three days, so we all knew the tune like it was our national anthem. He painstakingly wrote out the first couple verses in the English alphabet (though Mongolians actually use Cyrillic) and started drilling us mercilessly. "Study! Study! Boma, come in!" I'm pretty sure we mangled the pronunciation, because Chanaa just started laughing when she heard us.

Next we visited Erdene Zuu monastery, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. There were several buildings with various Buddhas enshrined inside, with stunningly colorful decorations. The ceilings in particular were painted in breathtaking patterns. The monastery was also host to a tiny marketplace, simply of blankets on the ground covered with trinkets, where we did some souvenir shopping.

To our surprise, there were several more girls in French main uniforms. I looked at Chanaa askance.

Me: Wait a minute. Chanaa, are those uniforms for every school?
Chanaa: Yes!
Me: Did you wear one in high school?
Chanaa: Yes!
Me: Oh my god! I want to see a picture!!

Alas, I never did. But Chanaa did explain to us that the uniforms had been imposed when the Russians took over. (Figures, hahaha.)

After Erdene Zuu, we stopped in the actual Kharkhoriin market to by (yet more) mutton, which was basically kept just sitting in huge chunks on tables in a bare white room. Fig and I didn't linger, instead wandering around outside, watching children in raggedy three piece suits playing pool on outdoor pool tables. Yuichiro wanted to stay and look around, insisting that he could walk back when he was finished, so we left him there (despite Ankha's cutely parental protests).

In the hour or so that it took Yuichiro to make his way back to the ger, Ankha spent most of it rolling around on Yuichiro's bed moaning, "Why, Boma, whyyyy? Boma where? Boooomaaaaaa!" And according to Chanaa, he wouldn't let her start dinner, because it needed to be hot when Yuichiro came back to eat. Hahaha, what a little dad.

That evening, a man (with excellent English) came and gave a concert at our campsite. He demonstrated traditional Mongolian throat singing and a several Mongolian instruments. (One which greatly resembled the Japanese koto.) Fig bought his CD, and I'm pretty sure that between the two of us we got the entire concert on video.

Afterwards, a group of Americans from another ger came and chatted with us for awhile, apparently using their recent layoffs as an excuse to travel abroad. At least one of them had been to Japan recently, so we spent some time discussing the things he'd seen and done.

But after they left, the gobi monster finally made his move! Switching off the lights, Ankha started growling and laughing like a crazier and more threatening Vincent Price. Needless to say, there was a lot of shrieking and pouncing and me holding a chair in front of me in self-defense.

Mongolia -- Day 5 (to the lake and back)

We started the day with bathroom adventure #3 -- no bathroom at all. We three girls (I, Fig, Miho) had snuck out the night before into the nearby woods, yelling "Hootie-hoo!" to keep track of each other in the dark. (A brief homage to Top Chef's Carla.) But in the morning light, it became evident that the woods were not as thick as one might hope for privacy, so there was some definite unease as we each tried to find a secluded enough spot and then keep our eyes peeled. This might have been all fine and forgettable, but...

As I was walking back to the ger, I suddenly heard Fig shriek in the woods behind me. "Oh my god!" Turning, I saw the source of her distress -- a guy on a motorcyle passed me with a vague grin, having evidently just motorcycled right past Fig. So much for the empty Mongolian wilderness.

We rode for two more hours on horseback, this time up into the wooded mountains that bordered the valleys. Most of the time we had to ride single-file, so it was very quiet and peaceful. Our goal was a pretty lake, which was still largely covered in ice. In some patches, the ice had melted into strange, spiky sheets stretched across the surface. We rested for awhile, took some pictures, and then rode the two hours back.

During our return trip through the valley, something spooked Miho's horse. I was riding right behind her when it started rearing like a wild thing, Miho clutching the saddle and flopping like a rag doll. My horse tried to follow suit, and I hauled back on the reins, thinking in a panic, "Oh my god, she's gonna fall! Oh crap, so am I!" Moments later, Miho was on the ground, but miraculously uninjured. I had managed to get control of my own mount, thank goodness, so it was just a matter of calming her horse. Miho was understandably wary, though, and since we were almost back to the gers, she elected to walk the rest of the way.

Chanaa made us khushuur for lunch (flat meat pastries), and I bribed the small children with candy and wet wipes. They were really into the wet wipes, for some reason...they watched the way I was cleaning off my face, and then mimicked me like little duchesses.

At last, it was onto the horses once again, to ride back across the plains to meet Ankha. By the time we were halfway back, my thighs were in pretty serious pain, so to distract ourselves Fig and I had a long conversation about Batman and other 90s cartoon shows. Then, Yuichiro had a spill of his own. It was quite odd actually. His horse wasn't going very fast, but when it stopped suddenly, Yuichiro just rolled over its shoulder in slow-motion, landing in a somersault that put him back on his feet in one smooth move, the way you only ever see on TV.

Finally we were back at the second homestead, Ankha running out to meet us and effectively stealing Chanaa's horse. We dropped off our mounts at the gers, had a cup of tea, and went off again to explore a nearby waterfall. Except, there had been no rain, so there wasn't actually any water. As Miho pointed out, it was less a waterfall, and more "just a fall."

So, we're all super tired and achy from the horseback riding - altogether, we had ridden for twelve out of the last thirty hours. But Ankha assured us that the just-a-fall was nearby, and we were willing to stretch our legs a little. What Ankha did not (and probably could not) tell us was that to get to the waterfall, we would have to scale down a practically vertical cliff. I think we must have looked pretty stunned with disbelief, because Ankha grinned and yelled, "Spiderman!" before bouncing down like a freaking mountain goat.

Eventually, we all made it down to the riverbed in one piece, but after about fifteen minutes, we just had to scale up it again.

We walked back (through a herd of yaks and a gang of herd dogs that I had to keep intercepting to protect dog-phobic Yuichiro), and had buuz for dinner (mutton dumplings). While getting ready for bed, we encountered bathroom adventure #4. As it turned out, while there was at least an actual outhouse this time, it was several hundred meters away through the yak herd. Fig went to find it in the dark, and just after she left, Chanaa came to tell us, "If you need toilet, please use near the ger. There are wild dogs." Whoops.

So, at least fifteen minutes later, Fig came back, looking frazzled, and having apparently crossed through some kind of dimensional rift in her attempt to find the outhouse. Lost amongst the yaks, she found a completely different set of buildings, and never encountered the outhouse at all, though it stood alone in the middle of a field and should have been easy to find. But at least she didn't meet the wild dogs!

Mongolia -- Day 4 (the grasslands)

We got up early to pack up our stuff, load into the van, and bid farewell to the desert. As was his wont, Ankha kept us all pretty entertained with his constant (and quite operatic) singing, pronouncing at intervals, "Mongolian pop star!" A few hours of bumpy off-roading took us out of the scrub and into some very pretty grasslands. They were these broad, open valleys surrounded by mountains, and occasionally cut by cool blue rivers still laden with ice. It looked like we had just driven into Lord of the Rings, or something.

Around lunchtime, we arrived at another homestead, where we ate some pseudo-spaghetti and outfitted ourselves for the next leg of the journey...on horseback. As it turned out, despite worrying about it when I was packing, I was the only one wearing acceptable shoes. So everyone else borrowed some pretty funny Mongolian boots (Miho's were HUGE on her), handed over one little overnight bag for the packhorse, and saddled up.

Chanaa had gone to great lengths to warn us that Mongolian horses are more dangerous than western horses (despite looking kind of smaller). Fig has a lot of riding experience, but mine basically distills to a week at a ranch in Arizona last year, Yuichiro's to one time in Peru, and it was Miho's very first time. We all found it funny that in Mongolia, instead of kicking your horse into a trot or gallop, you instead say, "Chuu, chuu!" (Mostly funny because we all knew that it was Japanese for "Kiss, kiss!")

Ankha stayed behind at the gers, temporarily replaced by our horse guide, a smiley middle-aged guy named Mogi. He was uber cheerful, and sang a lot. (A distinct trend of every tour guide we had in Mongolia, barring Chanaa.) We rode for four hours across the pretty valleys, and through the rivers (one of which Fig's horse almost fell into), passing sheep and yaks all over the place. As we approached our destination (yet another set of gers), Mogi's horse had a brief showdown with a big shaggy black yak, who (I kid you not) actually pranced back and forth like he was saying, "Hey, hey, whatchu doin'? Whatchu doin' here? Hey! Hey!" I wish I had it on tape.

Finally we got to that night's lodging, a cluster of gers populated mostly by small children and goats. The childrens' two favorite games seemed to be, grab-the-baby-goat-and-run-away-thus-freak-out-the-mama-goat, and try-to-ride-the-already-very-unhappy-mama-goat. Yuichiro, who was usually kind of weird and vaguely prissy, decided that these were the best games ever. He joined the two little girls in totally terrorizing the goats, and had this ridiculously big grin when he finally managed to catch one baby of his own. Baby goats are, by the way, called "ishik."

When it was time for dinner, we were realized there was no electricity, so the rest of the evening was mostly spent in conversation by candlelight.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mongolia -- Day 3 (the Gobi desert, sort of)

The beginning of our grand countryside tour. We were up bright and early to meet our tour group and head out of the city. The tour was six people in total: besides Fig and I, there was a Japanese girl named Miho (from Chiba, near Tokyo), a Japanese guy named Yuichiro (from Saitama, coincidentally also near Tokyo), the tour guide, and the driver.

The tour guide was a really nice woman in her mid- to late-twenties (28?), named Chanaa. Her English was kind of funny, but good enough to do the trick. The driver was a 23 year old crazy man named Ankha, whose English was virtually nonexistent (apart from "Why? Why? Why? Why?") and who provided 90% of all entertainment during our trip. On our way out of UB, he stopped and bought a tape from a freestanding cassette stand (cassettes? REALLY?). It was by a really famous Mongolian singer named Javhlan, who was featured on the front, for some reason in a kayak. Little did we know that this cassette would become so integral in our lives.

Driving through the Mongolian countryside was interesting, but also very soporific to all us passengers who had gotten up early. After some general self-intro (in which we discovered that 22 year old Yuichiro had somehow already been to 57 countries) we all sort of napped. Part way through the morning we stopped for a bathroom break -- the first of a devolving set of weird countryside bathroom adventures.

The place we stopped was a community of perhaps 300 people, and we stopped to use a set of old wooden outhouses by the road. They were next to a tiled building, outside of which we were surprised to discover three girls wearing french maid uniforms, complete with stilettos. Why on earth were they dressed like that, in Nowheresville, Mongolia? And as we watched, more and more of them kept appearing, walking around the building's packed dirt courtyard. What could it mean?!

Back in the van, I asked Chanaa.

Me: Why are they dressed like that?
Chanaa: It's uniform.
Me: A uniform for what?
Chanaa: Uniform!
Me: Like a school uniform?
Chanaa: Yes, school uniform!

WHAT. We all boggled at that for awhile, then napped some more until lunch. Yuichiro slept in the weirdest and most uncomfortable looking positions, with his head wedged between the seats or, a few times, conked out on my shoulder. We of course took some clandestine photos to mark the event.

Whatever lunch was, it was awesome. We had hot tea and some kind of noodles with mutton (Mongolia's meat of choice) at this totally abandoned restaurant. There was a TV in one corner playing music videos, which Ankha settled down to watch. Pointing at the screen, he insisted, "Mama song! Mama song!" After a minute, we realized that it was the same as a song he had pointed out to us earlier in the van, off that very Javhlan cassette. (And so it begun...!)

In the late afternoon, our sleep was well and finally interrupted when we suddenly turned off the paved roads onto no road at all. The van flew along over the bumpy desert landscape, and upon seeing we were awake, Ankha cranked up some techno music and turned on a set of flashing blue lights that he'd strung around the inside of the ceiling. Laughing and dancing and half-falling out of our seats, we had a most improbable moving techno rave through the Gobi desert. (Video to follow!)

At one point we stopped for about twenty minutes to explore some sand dunes. Thanks to the wind, our clothes and skin were immediately covered in grit. Ankha started chasing us around, pretending to shoot us with a stick-cum-machine gun, wrestling Fig (and losing), and carrying me to the edge of a little lake in an effort to throw me in. The whole time, he was grinning and growling and shouting, "Gobi monster!!!" (Which immediately became one of our tour catch phrases. When in doubt, "Gobi monster!")

At last we reached our berth for the night. Tucked in the lee of a mountainous outcropping stood a herd of goats and sheep, and three canvas gers (a.k.a. yurts). One was set aside for us to use, with a wooden floor and several cots. As it turned out, there was another tour group staying in the second ger, almost entirely consisting of Japanese people! At least eight of them. We were seeing more Japanese people in Mongolia than actual Mongolians! Anyway, one of them had a Japanese <---> Mongolian phrasebook, which we used to learn our very first (and most often used) Mongolian word: liar. So when Ankha came back from rustling goats (no kidding) we gleefully declared him to be a "hotarch!"

The bathroom situation continued in its steady devolution. Instead of an outhouse, this homestead had a pit cordoned off by two blue tarps. But the tarps were only waist-high, and formed only two sides of a small triangle, leaving the back of the latrine open. Now, this wouldn't be a huge concern had they positioned the tarps against the outcropping. But for some reason, they had positioned it sideways, leaving your backside open to the plains. We had to go in groups to use it, so that at least one person could keep an eye out for any approaching goat herders about to get a surprise eyeful.

After we threw our stuff inside the ger and got a quick look around, it was time for a camel ride! We went in pairs, me and Fig first. The camel guide was a wizened little Mongolian man who had to be at least 65, and spent most of the hourish-long ride singing Mongolian folk songs. The countryside was breathtaking, all wide desert and craggy mountains and grassy plains. We found out that "batok" is evidently the word for baby camel, as we were being followed by an adorably gangly baby camel that tried to eat Fig's boot. The singing guide kept pointing at it and happily exclaiming "Batok baby!"

Chanaa made us all the Mongolian version of chicken noodle soup for dinner, taught us a complicated card game called Camel that involved giving each other piggy-back rides, and then Ankha renamed everyone. Apparently, Miho resembled a Mongolian friend of his, so he decided just to call her by the same name. Then, he gave the rest of us Mongolian names for good measure.

Miho = I forgot, actually...something like Zolha (a common girls' name)
Yuichiro = Boma (a common boys' name)
Fig = Ulanaa (meaning "red girl," because her cheeks were flushed)
me = Tsetsgee (which is a kind of flower. Pretty good deal for me!)

Then we played around outside for a while. There was a totally cute and incorrigible dog named Sara that kept chasing us around, we took photos of the moon, and Ankha was full of mock threats about the Gobi monster. That light in the distance? Gobi monster! After we go to sleep? Gobi monster! Sara? Definitely Gobi monster!

It's a wonder any of us could sleep with that dire threat hanging over our heads.

Mongolia -- Day 2 (Ulaanbaatar)

Our second day in UB began with a schedule change. Originally, we had been scheduled to go on a five-day excursion into the Mongolian countryside from May 3rd, accompanied by a French person and a British person. But one of them pulled out at the last minute, and so could we leave on the tour tomorrow instead? Of course this was fine with us, and imagine our humor when we discovered that our new travelmates were two Japanese people.

After that, we set out for the Natural History Museum. Along the way we were pseudo-accosted by a man brandishing a shovel -- mainly, he ran at us shouting just to freak us out, eliciting laughter from his friends and some colorful language from Fig. We grabbed lunch at a restaurant called Nomad Legends, which was quite good, and proceeded into the museum.

It was really weird. Apart from the oft Engrishy exhibition text (for some reason I was particularly tickled by odd phrasing of "the big science of biology"), there was an eerie plethora of taxidermied animals. Though one would of course expect some stuffed animals in a museum of natural history, the sheer number of them -- and worse, their sometimes blatantly amateur construction -- was striking. Birds' feathers were tatty and mussed, fish were affixed with dollar store googly eyes, and snow leopards wore expressions of almost comical surprise. In short, the museum often walked a narrow tightrope between morbidly comical and just plain sad. Of course, that said, my suspicion is that the funding for the museum was so lacking that they didn't have much of a choice. Apart from the dinosaur section, which was decently impressive, the exhibits (while interesting) had a distinctly unembellished and haphazard air.

Next, we took a brief spin through the Parliamentary Gardens, such as they were, but most everything was brown and dead, so we kept walking on through to Sukhbataar Square. This was perhaps the first place in Ulaanbaatar that honestly impressed me. A broad open square in the middle of the city, it boasted the huge parliament building at one end, with statues of Chinggis Khan and some of his generals. In the middle of the square was another statue of the eponymous Sukhbataar, who evidently led some revolution in Mongolia in 1921. (From what I gleaned of history while we were there, I think that's the one in which Mongolia ousted the Chinese in favor of the Soviets...but don't quote me on that.)

There were people loitering around trying to sell things like postcards to foreigners, sometimes using English. To fake them out, I would speak in Polish instead -- "I'm sorry, I don't speak English. I'm a Polish woman." It worked like a charm.

Fig and I then attempted to visit the Mongolian Artists' Exhibition Hall, only to discover that they had just finished taking down the current exhibition. However, one of the artists stopped to show us some of his work, which was for sale fairly cheaply. In the end, we both bought some. As we were taking the paintings back to Idre's Guest House, though, they sustained minor damage when a Mongolian teenager essentially body-slammed Fig. Well, body-slammed might be exaggerating, but there was a definite collision. As consolation, we decided to write off the little crinkles on the paintings as part of the "genuine Mongolian experience."

That night we ate dinner at a spot called the California Cafe, did a little preparatory shopping for our countryside excursion (i.e. toilet paper, wet wipes, tea bags, etc.), and then had a nice long conversation with another traveler at the guest house. His name was Pasi, a Finnish guy somewhere around thirty years old, who was on vacation from his job as a market analyst in Lithuania. Pasi was super friendly, if also super talkative, and we decided to meet up again when we got back from our tour.

After that, it was just a packing extravaganza as we reorganized our luggage for the tour, and I managed to squeeze five days into one backpack. Mongolia, ho!

Mongolia -- Arrival and Day 1 (Ulaanbaatar)

The day of our departure was among the busiest days I have had in a long long time. Our flight was at about five in the evening, but I had to go into work that morning because Kristin had taken the day off, and I had classes to cover. I was scheduled for class in every period until lunch, but fortunately the first two periods were rescheduled, and I had some extra time to prepare information and such for Mongolia. (And to steel my nerves for third and fourth period, which were two new classes that I was teaching with two new teachers, one of whom I'd only even met the day before.) In the end, the classes went okay, and I was amused to see that I'm now teaching a kid who lives on my street, and has just moved up from another local junior high. His name is Ryoma, and I think he's going to prove to be a funny character.

Fourth period ended at 12:35, and I was in a hurry to go get my luggage and get on the train by 1:08. Fortunately, Hosoi-sensei had kindly offered to give me a ride. He was waiting at my desk when I got back from class, looking a little sheepish, and he said to me, "Are you ready? ...Actually, I forgot, I don't have my car today, because there is a party tonight." (Meaning: he intended to drink, and was using the train to avoid Japan's zero blood alcohol law.) There was a moment of surprise on my part, but before I could even process the problem enough to be distressed, he hurriedly told me that Kawabe-sensei, the funny PE teacher, had agreed to take us, instead. I guess Hosoi-sensei felt obligated to come along, even though he wasn't actually driving anymore, so all three of us piled into Kawabe-sensei's van.

To make a long story short, I made the train and my connection at Kyoto station for the airport express, and arrived at the airport around 3:45. Fig was already there, and after checking in, we grabbed a late lunch/early dinner and hopped on the plane! It was about two hours to Seoul, where we found out that our next flight had been delayed about two or three hours. So we mucked about in the airport, had an encounter with a really sketched out Korean Air clerk who looked incredibly nervous as if we were hydras come to devour him, and finally got on our next plane. We arrived in Ulaanbaatar after one in the morning, and were met by Idre, the guy who runs the guesthouse where we stayed.

(I'd like to take a moment to comment on an advert we saw in the UB airport. It was for one of the major banks -- maybe Khan Bank -- and the tagline was, "Your inevitable business partner in Mongolia." Um, WHAT? They sound like the mafia!)

The drive into UB was strange and vaguely post-apocalyptic. It was really dark, and there were these huge smokestacks with orange lights looming over the city. There weren't many people on the street, but there were some wild dogs, a whole group of them besieging a parked SUV.

The guest house, though, was very nice on the inside, with computer access and laundry service, a kitchen and several public sitting areas. Plus, we were the only two in our room. Not bad for four dollars a night!

The next morning we got our first daylight look at UB. Outside, we could see a battered playground slide, dirt, broken concrete, and some pretty miserable looking buildings. My first reaction was, "It looks like Soviet Russia!" Which was in some ways accurate, but probably a little harsh. The city was just much greyer than I was expecting, and maybe moreso than any other place I've been. (It was even more intimidating than my first visit to Wittenberg, in which we accidentally drove through the south side of Springfield.)

The first thing we did was exchange our yen for tugrik, the Mongolian currency, and set out to explore town. We had tasty dumpling soup for lunch, did a little souvenir shopping at the State Department Store, and each picked up a beautiful tablecloth from this tiny hole-in-the-wall quilting shop we stumbled across in the ubiquitous apartment complexes. (I hesitate to call them tenements, because like many other places in UB, they were probably nicer on the inside. ...Probably.) We looked at a lot of cool antiques, but they were unfortunately out of our price range. Our quest to find the North Korean restaurant listed in our guidebook ended in failure (though we did pass a bar that claimed to be, "probably the most stylish lounge in UB"), so we ended up at Dublin, Mongolia's first Irish pub.

At the guesthouse that night, we befriended the young housekeeper, Nasaa, and a little boy named Urnuun, who lived en suite with his mother, who also worked there. We sort of taught them gin rummy, and then they taught us a Mongolian card game, which we played for hours. Urnuun had amazing English, even though he was only about ten. I guess it came from living in the guesthouse, where English was the most universal mode of communication. As a person, Urnuun reminded me of no one more than Short Round, the mischievous wise-cracking kid from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." He continually used his abracadabra black magic to curse us other players into being "jumpers," which is about the worst thing you can do in the game. And he changed the words to "We Are the Champions" to make a new composition -- "We Are the Jumpers."

Of course, he beat us all in the end.

in which my students continue to be hilarious

Here's some recent greats from the genius minds of my students! If these kids were any more adorable, I might just have to hug them to death. I mean death.

One of my all time favorites. When asking students to look at a picture of an umbrella and make a sentence using 'though':
“Though I put out the umbrella, my body got wet because the umbrella is a picture.”

On Yoko Ono:
“She and John Lennon gave their massage to the world.”

“I have no time to enjoy because I got many homework. I have to finish the homework. So, I didn’t go somewhere. But, I went to stroll with dog lover. When I go there, I looked dandelion fluff. I think, I want to fly to not homework world.”

“I couldn't visit any places because of many many homeworks, from 3 to 6. But I had to catch some crayfishes or big frogs for Creation Rika, so I and Isojima went to drains between fields near the Kameoka station on May 2. After a while, we hadn't found any crayfishes. And I asked to a woman working in the field where crayfishes are. She said “They will be seen in the rice-planting season.” Oh my god.”

Well, it's the first time I've seen that word as a verb.
“People tend to have prejudice against people who coffin a dead person.”
“Someday we will been coffined.”

“Track and field athletes use their cerebral, too.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

the rainy season

It is supposedly the rainy season in Japan right now, though actually, it's only rained about twice. However, I became too lax and made several cardinal mistakes yesterday.

First, on my way to school in the morning, I considered taking an umbrella, but then decided not to, because the weather report wasn't predicting rain until after 6. MISTAKE. Then, when leaving the teachers' room that afternoon, I glanced out the windows and thought, "Oh, it looks like rain." MISTAKE. Next, as I was changing my shoes at the teachers' entrance, I smelled coffee from the infirmary, and thought, "A hot drink would be nice. Oh, no, that's silly - by the time I get home I'll be so hot that tea is the last thing I'll want." MISTAKE. And, finally, the last nail in the coffin. As I walked through the parking lot to the gate, I thought, "It would be a nice night for a thunderstorm." MISTAAAAKE.

Literally within ten seconds, as I was still crossing the lot, it started to rain. And I don't mean sprinkle. These were huge, fat drops, which hit so hard that I momentarily wondered if it was sleet. But they were widely dispersed, so instead of going back into the school, I hurried onwards. By the time I'd gone a block, it was an out and out shower. Even occasionally dodging under awnings when the rain moved from steady to torrential and back again, I was completely drenched by the time I was halfway home.

At one point as I sped along in the wet, I was considering all the aforementioned mistakes, and realized that all the conditions had been fulfilled - it was raining, cold, and I definitely could use some hot tea. The only thing missing was the thunder, and even as I thought it, there was an ominous rumbling from the sky. I actually laughed aloud and said, "No kidding." It was like some bored kami had just decided to mess with me.

Of course, I eventually made it home in one piece, though that was a particularly wet one piece. The bottom well and truly let out about a block from my apartment, and I gave up the ghost and ran the rest of the way. Of course, when I got to my building, I duly discovered that all my second floor neighbors were out in the hallway with their children, and were having a good laugh at my drowned rat expense. When I came up the stairs, looking like someone had thrown me into a pool with all my clothes on, they just lost it. (They lost it again when I came out of my apartment in dry clothes ten minutes later, at which point I said in Japanese, "Wow, it's really raining, huh!" That really set them off.)

The moral of this story is don't tempt fate, and especially don't tempt it a good four times.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

how to make a silent blog

One part busyness, two parts laziness. Shake with ice and serve with a sprig of mint.

Really, though, it's Mongolia that's holding me up here. So much happened, and it was all so utterly different from Japan, that I feel compelled to share the trip in excessive detail...and it's taking forever.

But somewhere in the semi-near future, I intend to finally put up the series of posts recounting our adventures with the Mongol hordes. So please continue to be patient!

The Management

Monday, April 27, 2009

off to join the hordes

Two more classes, and I'm off to Mongolia.


Monday, April 20, 2009

rolling along

Classes are finally getting into full swing! ...And I am totally confused at all times. Our schedules have finally been more or less decided, but it's a totally different dynamic in almost every class we teach. (Excepting certain junior high classes, which are thankfully still headed by the indomitable Nakatani-sensei.)

But not to worry, I'm slowly getting a handle on things. It helps that I now have the schedule in writing.

Last week we had club introductions. All the new students were gathered in our mini-gym, and then every single club at the school gave a short presentation to entice new members. It was a pretty charming experience, and I couldn't help but have a running list in my head of which clubs I would join if I could. The HS girls' soft tennis club was hilarious, for one -- their attempt to demonstrate volleys really just resulted in a lot of their own members cowering and shrieking, a near constant chorus of "FAITO!" and one stray tennis ball that got tangled in some window blinds near the ceiling. The brass band was also charming, playing a rendition of Dreamgirls with fully choreographed dance moves. Plus, the adorable Kaneshiro-sensei briefly marched around with them, playing his trumpet. (So cute, ha ha ha!)

Of course, some clubs were legitimately cool. Imagine my surprise, for example, when the JH girls' basketball team did a demonstration, and the shortest little girl on the team was suddenly dribbling between her moving legs like a pro. It was like a little Japanese Mugsy Bogues, or something! And there's some kind of dance club that involves fans and katanas, which was altogether pretty sweet. (Even when one girl hit herself in the head with a spear, bless her heart!)

Last Friday, in the midst of an already (and unexpectedly) chaotic afternoon, Kristin and I also had to go get chest x-rays in this little portable clinic that had parked itself on campus. The look on the poor young doctor's face when the two of us stepped inside was pretty humorous -- it clearly said, "Oh no, foreigners! I'm going to have to use English! Help!" But we understood enough of his Japanese to get by with the help of gestures.

My weekends have been mostly just shopping and hanging out with friends, with a little more flower viewing thrown in. But already the cherry blossoms have done and gone for the year, so I guess that's that!

The most exciting thing going on right now is probably this super adventure that Fig and I have been planning. (And by that, I mostly mean Fig.) You see, there's something called Golden Week coming up, which is three national holidays in a row, making for a five-day weekend. It is the most, the MOST popular time for traveling in Japan. No kidding. It's going to be crazy! (Especially living in Kyoto!)

So Fig and I are taking advantage of the days off to take a trip. In fact, we're taking a great big 11-day MONGOLIA!

It happened really suddenly. Apparently, Fig just up and decided she wanted to go, and I was lucky enough to be invited along. To make a long story short, it essentially went something like this:

Fig: I'm going to Mongolia.
Anna: Mongolia, huh?
Fig: Yeah. Do you want to come?
Anna: Sure. ...What's in Mongolia?

Evidently, there will be markets and museums and horses and yurts.

Especially yurts.

Monday, April 13, 2009


It's raining with intent today, and so it was during my walk to school.

At one point, I passed an old man walking what appeared to be an equally old dog. And despite the rain falling on him, the man was bent over, holding the umbrella over his pet.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

rest for the wicked

Turns out we sometimes get a break, after all.

I spent a lot of time relaxing this weekend. Friday night I met some folks at Good Bar for dinner -- specifically, I met Brad and the new Interac person replacing Tim. This person was theoretically a guy named Charles, but when I arrived, it turned out that Charles had quit the program before even making it to Sonobe. Instead, there was a Chinese-American girl named June, who seems alright. She reminds me of Dawn, my freshman year roommate, except maybe less awesome.

Saturday I accomplished pretty much nothing, unless you consider sitting around or watching "Road House" an accomplishment. (FYI -- if you said yes to "Road House," I have to disagree. It is a stunningly terrible film. If it weren't for Rifftrax, I probably wouldn't have made it through. The one good thing about the movie is Sam Elliott, because I think it is scientifically impossible for Sam Elliott not to be awesome.)

On Sunday, I trekked out to Yamashina for (I thought) Rob's flower viewing party. I met Fig at the station, we got pseudo-lost for thirty minutes or so, and then I phoned Mike, only to discover that the party was actually this upcoming weekend. Whoops! But Neil was on his way, the cherry trees were lovely, and we had a tarp, so the three of us just had a little picnic instead. We sat around for a bit over two hours, watching kids get into trouble and swapping stories of weird things done by people we know. (Josh, this is where you came in.)

We then killed some time in Sanjo, waiting for Joanna and her parents to meet us for dinner. At the bookstore in the BAL building I picked up "Mansfield Park" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (they have a pretty excellent English classics section). I also chanced across a copy of Edward Gorey's "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," which I had been wanting for ages. As a bonus, it has text both in English and Japanese! I geeked out a little. (They also had several others, including "The Doubtful Guest," which I considered. Maybe later!)

Fig and I then had kaitenzushi with Joanna and her folks, who were altogether lovely individuals.

School this week has been slowish. The worst was when we had three ceremonies in two days -- the junior high new students entrance ceremony, the term opening ceremony, and the senior high new students entrance ceremony. Even though the weather has turned nice, the gym remains stubbornly cold. Plus, we had to wear suits.

Oddly enough, there was at least one, possibly two foreigners in the crowd of parents at the senior high welcome. Me and Kristin are very speculative -- might there be some half-Japanese kids entering the school? It's a mystery!

Since it's the beginning of the year, there have also been some staff changes. Altogether, I think there are around thirteen or fourteen new teachers, including two or three in the English department. (None of whom we've actually met yet. Curiouser and curiouser!) I am sad to say that we lost Shiroshita-sensei, who was a nice woman and a great baker. The vice-principal has also vanished, which I almost feel worse about, because I didn't know ahead of time that he was leaving. By the time I got back from vacation with my parents, he was already gone. He was friendly, and I miss him.

The desks in the teachers room have also been shuffled. Now Kristin and I are sitting back to back, all the way across the room from where we sat before. It's not bad, though I miss bantering with Wakabayashi-sensei, who sat across from me before.

On the recommendation of my mother and Bill Price, I have started watching "The Mentalist." I was hesitant at first, since it struck me as someone deciding to remake "Psych" as a serious show, but it's actually pretty good. The main character reminds me a lot of one of my college professors, if Fitz Smith had a mischievous brother or something.

The cherry trees are blooming in Sonobe, and it's positively gorgeous. One of the streets I take to school is almost completely lined with them. They're like ghost trees, or trees covered in snow. Walking home from tea ceremony yesterday under the nearly-full moon, they were spectral and amazing.

Spring may be my favorite season in Japan.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I'm a bit behind. Let me start with the weekend before the folks got here.

Thursday I went into town after school, meeting Liz, Laurel, and Mike. We went to the photo exhibition that my coworker, Kristin, had helped put together with a bunch of other Canadians. It was all pictures of Canada, some of them really nice!

On Friday I was back in town for a going-away party. Fig's coworker Naoko, who I'd met a few times, was moving to Germany for a year or so. (Her boyfriend is German, and she's trying to learn the language.) Fig actually wasn't there, back in the States for her cousin's wedding, so it was all Japanese people except for myself and this other JET named Ashley, who's pretty great. The party was at this (Spanish?) restaurant in Demachiyanagi, which was really tasty.

I was shy at first, but eventually was able to practice my Japanese a bit with some of Naoko's friends. One of them, Taka, I'd met before. He is a pretty hilarious little guy! Afterwards, a few of us went for coffee, and Taka (the only guy present) paid for everybody. Naoko said, "But you're the only student!" He looked a little taken aback, because it was true -- we all had jobs! But then he smiled and said, "That's okay. Because you're ladies." Apparently, chivalry isn't dead!

On Saturday, I was in town YET AGAIN. I had arranged to meet Kristin and Sumiko (our tea ceremony teacher) at 1 o'clock Kyoto Station, so we could go together to Toji Market. Toji Market is like a big flea/antiques market on the 21st of every month, and it was lucky to have it on a nice sunny weekend day. I arrived at the station early, but even though I'd let them dictate the schedule, Kristin and Sumiko arrived over an hour and fifteen minutes late. Needless to say, I wasn't pleased, but there wasn't really anything to be done about it at that point.

Anyway, the market was awesome. I bought myself a lot of presents -- a stone bracelet, a hand-made scarf, and two gorgeous pieces of pottery. The pottery was killing me, really. There were probably twenty stalls just of hand-made pottery, and I wanted at least one thing from every booth. Next time I'm going back for more!

Afterwards, we took an atrociously crowded bus to the Higashiyama area, because Sumiko wanted to show me around before my parents came. We walked the path from Yasaka pagoda, past Kodai-ji, through Maruyama Park and out Yasaka Jinja. It just happened to be the last day of a festival, so we were able to stop and watch two real maiko (junior geisha, if you will) perform some fan dances. It was gorgeous!

Then I walked upriver to Sanjo, where I met Joanna, Neil, Joanna's visiting friend Rachel, and eventually Mike for dinner and drinks.

Monday was another uneventful day at work, followed by a run into town to hit Uniqlo -- a clothing store recommended as a place where foreigners can actually find things in their size. I needed some pants, having royally destructed one of the only two pairs of jeans I brought with me. (It was a gradual destruction. First, I broke one of the belt loops. Though generally bad at sewing, I took great care in repairing it, and returned with great result. But later that very same day, I ripped a hole in the inner thigh. Blast! Still not deterred, I fixed that split, too. Two days later, another opened in the exact same place on the other leg, except about five times bigger and impossible to sew up. Utterly foiled!)

And on Tuesday, my parents arrived.

They traveled with another couple we've known for years, Bill and Norma. I met the four of them at their hotel, the New Miyako, which is conveniently located across the street from Kyoto Station. (Which is, appropriately enough, the largest and best-connected station in the city, containing about a zillion different train lines.) They were tired, but also a little peckish, so I bought them an array of Japanese snacks from the 7-11 across the road.

Wednesday we got off to a good start. First we went to Sanjusangendo, famous for having 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon. They are a muted bronze and quite imposing in sheer number, and if I recall correctly, it took 70 or 80 craftsmen over 100 years to make them all.

Next we hit the Kyoto National Museum. The central collection is closed for construction right now, but they had another exhibit open of some really nice traditional paintings and scrolls and fabrics, et cetera. My dad bought a really lovely print of one. I'm a little jealous -- they didn't have a print of my favorite, which was a huge painting on a set of sliding doors, I believe of a blossoming plum tree.

Then we struck out to Nijo Castle, preserved close to its original state and containing a still functional nightingale floor. *geek out* I think I may have failed to explain this when I went in August. A nightingale floor is one specially crafted to squeak with every step, producing sounds like the chirping of birds. This is in defense of the shogun, so that assassins cannot sneak through the building undetected. So clever!

On Thursday, we started off with an hour and a half boat ride down the Hozu River. The weather was great, and the boat guys as funny as ever. One got really excited when Mom told him, "Good job!" and exclaimed in English, "I love you!"

We ate lunch in Arashiyama and stopped by Tenryu-ji, a nice temple with a simply gorgeous garden. The cherry trees and a lot of flowering shrubs were beginning to bloom, and I took a lot of close-up flower pictures.

Then we hopped a train up to Sonobe, where I showed them my apartment and my school. Dad and Bill made overtures about setting up my space heater (though survived the winter without it and won't need it soon, anyway), and at school they were able to meet several of my favorite teachers. Hosoi-sensei, in particular, made a good impression, being his usual outgoing and irrepressible self. He tried to tell my parents that I was a wonderful teacher, at which time I pointed out that we didn't teach together. Lovable little scamp!

We also ran into two of my all time favorite students. Erisa from 1-5 is possibly the most ADD person I've ever met in my entire life. It takes her several rounds of "Oh, hello! What? Hello! Ah, what? Hello, hello!" just to get out greetings, because she's so distracted she can't focus on the conversation. Her life dream is to be a pirate like Jack Sparrow. And Takuya S. from 2-5 is just plain adorable. I can't explain my affection for this kid except that he's like a friendly puppy, and I just want to give him hugs all the time for no reason. (But I don't -- that might break down the student/teacher hierarchy a bit too much.) I won't lie, it made me feel pretty great about myself when he saw me through the window, shouted my name, and came running across the classroom and into the hallway just to say hello. Hearts!

We ate dinner at one of the only real restaurants around, a nice place called Bisque where Kristin and I often go for lunch. We had a ton of super-great food -- so much that we had a box of fresh, wonderful sushi left over, which we later gifted to Sumiko and her husband (who had fortunately not eaten dinner yet).

At Sumiko's house, she showed off her hina-matsuri dolls and then treated us to a lovely tea ceremony. She made me and Kristin also make two bowls each. I think the tea itself came out fine, though I made a few dumb procedural errors -- having an audience really distracted me! Sumiko also gave each of the four visitors a really lovely piece of calligraphy that she had done herself. I was a bit envious until, at our last lesson, she gave extras to Kristin and I as well.

Sumiko and her husband were nice enough to give us a ride back to the train station. I rode alone with her husband, and we had our first conversation ever. Turns out he's a pretty nice guy -- just a little shy, I think, because he doesn't speak English. But we talked in Japanese about sightseeing and sumo and baseball.

On Friday we went to Osaka. First we saw Osaka Castle. My dad bought a really nice framed woodcarving of the castle as a souvenir, and Bill and Norma kindly bought me an awesome thank-you present for playing guide: Monopoly, the Osaka edition. (Or, as I like to call it, Osakanopoly.) I opened it when we got home that night, and found that the chance cards (thankfully written in Japanese AND English) were particularly hilarious. My favorites were "Daddy wins the public lottery" and "You drank too much" and something about getting an inheritance from Mammy. Yes, MAMMY.

After Osaka Castle, we went to an afternoon of sumo. You've heard me wax poetic before -- suffice it to say that it was just as fun the second time around, and worth every (admittedly kind of expensive) penny. Or yen, as the case may be. Mom bought me a really cute sumo wrestler plushie, who I named Yamayamayama. (In homage to the aforementioned Yamamotoyama.) He's cuddly and wonderful.

On Saturday, Fig joined us for our trip out to Nara, which consisted of equal parts souvenir shopping, giant buddha, and deer. As cool as the giant buddha is, the deer are fast becoming the draw for me, bordering as they are between overly friendly and outright aggressive. I bought some deer crackers to feed them, and before I could even get the pack open, about ten deer swarmed me. One particularly impatient bugger proceeded to try and eat my jeans when I couldn't get the crackers fast enough. They chased me in a big circle while my companions and some Japanese school girls watched and laughed (at my expense! The deer were chewing on my pants!). In desperation, I thrust some crackers at Mom for a distraction. When that was insufficient, I gave another stack to one of the high school girls, who all fell into a chorus of laughter and shrieks. In the end, we all made it out alive, but there's a frayed patch on my back pocket which I'm not sure was there before.

Man, those deer are cool.

We split up for dinner, I, Fig, and my parents going to Sanjo for okonomiyaki (which they both loved) and a stint in karaoke, just so they could say they did it. Plus, crepes. Yum!

On Sunday we went to Fushimi Inari, one of my very favorite places in Japan. I think there are some nice pictures of us at the overlook nearish the top of the mountain, not to mention plenty of us with the innumerable orange torii gates.

Next we stopped by Nanzenji for a look at the aqueduct. It's really pretty, and I'll probably go back now and again for walks now that the weather is getting warmer.

Dinner was kaitenzushi, which everyone enjoyed. Bill particularly loved the mini bullet train that brings special orders -- he's a train nut! (Not to mention cars and motorcycles.)

Then Mom and I made a brief pilgrimage back to Sonobe so I could pick up some different clothes, and she let me yak at her about my various writing projects. She's so very patient with me and my lack of a significant attention span.

Monday was a particularly special day, both because I was not in charge and because we went somewhere I'd never been before. Namely, Hiroshima and Miyajima. Miyajima is an island famous for Itsukushima Shrine and the big torii gate built out in the water. It was beautiful! The water was a very deep blue, and contrasted most strikingly against the green pines, pale beaches, and gray stone lanterns that lined the shore. We were traveling with a tour group, and the guide was able to tell us all about the island's history. I also befriended this great Indian lady named Padma, from Bangalore. She was frankly inspirational, and I talked to her for a long time about her life and travels. She has resolved in recent years to shy away from material things and use her money to go places and create new memories. But since she wasn't able to keep her train ticket as a souvenir (which I knew she wanted to) I bought her a good luck charm with a picture of the floating torii before we left. It was just small, but I hope she can look at it and remember her trip fondly!

After an amazingly delicious lunch of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (which is decidedly different, but excellent!) and grilled oysters (a Miyajima specialty), we went into Hiroshima proper to visit the A-Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Park/Museum. The A-Bomb Dome (or genbaku dome) is a large building near the blast's epicenter, which before WWII was famous for its architecture. It has now been left standing in its partially-destroyed condition as a testament to the power and horror of the atom bomb. It stands at one end of the peace park, which is dotted with various monuments. At the other end is the museum. The most wrenching part is the final exhibit, which displays items recovered after the blast, each with an accompanying story of the person who had owned it, and their fate. It was an interesting but sober experience. I was glad to finally go, though -- it's been number one on my list of places to visit in Japan for two years now.

Tuesday was, sadly, the group's last full day in Japan. Bill had a meeting with some business associates in Osaka, so I saw him to the train that morning. Norma was feeling a bit wrung out (understandable, after our busy week!), so after a brief shopping trip with my mother, she elected to rest at the hotel. My father and I made a short and only semi-successful souvenir run back to Fushimi Inari, and then I and my parents all headed out to Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion.

It was the nicest weather we had all week, and Kinkakuji shone in the sun. It is quite literally a pavilion covered in gold leaf, and it sparkles beautifully among its green gardens. Dad bought a pile of charms for his coworkers, and I lusted after a stunning metallic rendition of the pavilion, which I have more or less resolved to buy before I leave. It's a bit expensive, though -- about $50 US unmatted, and about $80 framed. (The frame looks worth it!)

We grabbed a Japanese-style buffet lunch and then wandered through Higashiyama, along the same path Sumiko had shown me. There was yet another surprise festival going on, so we were able to look at the food booths and listen to music and eat green tea ice cream. At first I thought this foreigner playing the guitar was really the background music for this extreme juggler, and was really puzzled by his choice of "Scarborough Fair," before realizing these were most definitely two separate acts.

Back at the hotel, we had drinks in "Bar Lagoon," and my mother got silly. It was capped, I believe, by her rendition of the Mission Impossible theme song in the hotel hallway. :)

Wednesday morning went quick. My mother started tearing up, which I quickly had to put a stop to, lest I start crying, too. They made it off to the airport in one piece (despite stealing my new yukata robe and the special momiji manju cakes I had bought at Miyajima for my coworkers, ha ha), and I made it back to Sonobe to collapse for an afternoon nap.

Then it was Wednesday night tea ceremony and Thursday work and straight back into the swing of things. Thirteen out of fourteen days spent downtown, and no rest for the wicked!

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Okay, so I'm going to ask a favor which is slightly out of character for me. Tomorrow my parents and two of their friends hop on a fourteen hour flight to Japan, and I am being a worrier, so...

If you guys could spare some thoughts, prayers, well wishes, good karma, or what have you, I would really appreciate it.

May they all have a safe trip!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I did approximately nothing at all on Friday and Saturday, apart from sleep and chill out, but Sunday! Sunday was...


I don't know how to describe it. The majesty of hefty men in loincloths shoving each other out of a wrestling defies verbalization.

A largish group of us met in Osaka and, after grabbing okonomiyaki for lunch, arrived at the venue just in time for the afternoon sumo matches to begin. It was the first day of the Osaka tournament, so all of the wrestlers were still qualified. Most bouts took less than a minute, with each wrestler fighting in only one that day. Watching the fights, which were short, sudden bursts of activity, was actually really interesting. Some bouts were just concentrated shoving, some involved more head slapping than a catfight between teenage girls, and one even employed an surprisingly agile sidestep maneuver that showed why sumo is the root of jujitsu.

There were a lot of incomprehensible announcements and strange mini-ceremonies in between bouts, but somehow we didn't get bored. Between figuring out exactly what was going on (and by the end of the afternoon, we were fairly well-informed) and spouting semi-baseless speculations about upcoming matches, we actually kept ourselves well entertained.

We chose favorites from match to match, largely based on frivolous reasons, like "That guy's picture in the program looks nice" (Joanna), or, "He's way smaller than the other guy" (me), or, "He weighs over 540 pounds" (everyone in our group), or, "He's from Osaka!!!" (everyone in the arena). We all had a good laugh that the biggest wrestler, that of the aforementioned 540 pounds, was dubbed "Yamamotoyama" -- funny because "yama" means mountain, and it was appropriately in his name not once, but twice. (Though probably not because of his size, as we liked to think.)

I was particularly eager for the last match of the day, because it involved the only sumo wrestler I actually know anything about -- the notorious Asashoryu. Originally from Mongolia, Asashoryu is one of only two sumo wrestlers to currently hold the highest rank of yokozuna, which is the only title that cannot be revoked. That said, he is constantly getting into trouble with the JSA (Japan Sumo Association) or with critics, for stuff like wearing street clothes in public (against traditional rules), or for skipping tournaments citing an injury, only to be caught on tape playing in a charity soccer match in Mongolia. But besides holding an irrevocable rank, he's the most popular wrestler in the league, and a giant money maker, so they can't do much but occasionally suspend him for bad behavior. I for one haven't decided yet whether I think he's a punk or awesome.

...That said, I may or may not have bought a rockin' Asashoryu t-shirt for a souvenir. It was just so cool!

The very next day (a.k.a. yesterday), I press-ganged my supervisor into buying another round of sumo tickets for my parents and their friends. Because really, you have to see it to believe it.

In other news, 7 days until my parents arrive!

Thursday, March 12, 2009


So, after Joanna and I had our evening of moderately successful cooking attempts and the Nodame Cantabile specials on Friday, the whole weekend was busy with sightseeing. I am scoping out a few more places to take my parents, and trying to plot how to get everywhere effectively.

On Saturday, Fig and I went to two temples called Nanzenji and Eikando, both of which I'll take my parents to if we have the time. Then on Sunday, after waking up early and doing trash duty at my apartment complex, I met Fig in town again for explorations at Tofukuji and Sanjuusangendo. I'll probably skip Tofukuji with the folks, because while pretty, it's not exceptional. But we will certainly go to Sanjuusangendo, which has really cool statues...alas, I cannot say more than that now, because I don't want to spoil the surprise for them before they arrive! (Mom, don't you dare google any of this!)

This week my high schoolers are all stuck in exams, so we've only had junior high classes. Yesterday we were cooking in JH English club, which meant that we had to go grocery shopping after fifth period, and also stay at school an hour and a half after our day officially ended. Kristin and I were both pretty tired and ready to go home, but there was only enough time to grab dinner before we had to meet again for tea ceremony lessons at Sumiko's house. At least that's fun, though!

Today I got to watch the JH second-years perform these funny little plays in English, about a girl who meets some talking puppets. Four groups each did the same play, but the performances were actually pretty distinct. I liked the all-boy group, who had drawn signs with pictures of their characters, and cleverly changed their lines to make the only overtly female character (Chris) into a male (Christopher).

And today, I am officially beginning the countdown.

12 days until my parents arrive!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

“It is very delicious and eat you, please.”

Or, if you prefer, here is a gem from a debate on the merits of living in Japan vs. living abroad:

“They can eat Japanese food.”
“But they can eat America too.”

I knew Japan's competitive eaters were good, but that is taking it to the limit!

So, on February 27th we had graduation. You see, in Japan, the school year begins in April, and ends in March. But the third-year students graduate about three weeks before the end of term, hence the end of February.

The ceremony was pretty nice, though the gym was kind of cold. There were some touching speeches, not to mention some tears from both students and teachers. When the students marched out, I'd say about 75% of class 3-5 was crying, which made me tear up, too, even though I barely knew the third-years. I only knew two of them by name, in fact, but they were both 3-5 students, and bright and cheerful and good English speakers, besides. Shiho and Michiko, we'll miss you!

That night we had an enkai (staff party) to celebrate graduation, but it may have been one of the least enjoyable so far. There were long (and in Eriko's case, again tearful) speeches that I could only moderately understand, and I ended up sitting with teachers I didn't know and who didn't talk to me much. Towards the end of the night, Hosoi-sensei and Kaneshiro-sensei (the adorable music teacher) came to visit me for a bit, but there wasn't much time before we all had to leave. Alas!

Saturday the 28th I tried to do some shopping in town, though all I actually succeeded in buying was an English copy of "Kafka on the Shore" by Murakami Haruki, probably the most famous contemporary writer in Japan. I've just finished his book "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," which is fairly trippy and occasionally difficult to understand, but a marvelous piece of literature overall. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested!

That evening, I somehow got roped into returning to Arabian Rock, for more fun and shenanigans. They performed "Beauty and the Beast" again, which only lost its puzzling charm in terms of the element of surprise.

On Sunday I and my neighbors went to Kameoka for kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi). The kids are a merry handful, but we had a nice time. Later that day I met Joanna for a little while, and we got dinner at a coffee shop we like. Their drinks and desserts are great, but honestly, their savory food leaves something to be desired.

This week at school has been a little crazy, up to and including my epic fall (see yesterday's post). It's the end of term, so everyone is rushing about doing exams and finishing projects. Yesterday I was finishing interview tests from 3rd period all through lunch, so I had to eat an entire sandwich in approximately thirty seconds before running off to my next class for more interview tests. When things finally began to calm down around 2 o'clock, I felt as though I'd been tossed around by a tornado all morning.

My walk home yesterday was also a little out of the ordinary. I think perhaps it was Appreciate Your Foreigner Day in Sonobe or something, because literally every group of people I passed on my way home spoke to me. First, an old man (who I'd never spoken to before, mind you) stopped me and asked in Japanese, "Do you eat daikon radishes?" I must have looked pretty confused, because he tried to mime it out. So I said yes, and he proceeded to give me three giant, sweet potato sized radishes, all freshly pulled and still covered with dirt.

At that point I must have looked pretty funny, a foreigner in nice work clothes, with a skinned knee and carrying three huge dirty radishes. Next, a group of girls (I think from Tim's junior high) called hello in English, at which point I tried to answer dropped one of my radishes. As they walked away, I could hear them asking each other, "Why was she carrying daikon?" I was sort of wondering the same thing. Then I walked past three kindergarteners who said hello (again in English), and freaked out when I answered. As I walked away, they shouted "Hello! Nice to meet you!" in a constant loop for about two minutes. Then came the group of junior high boys on bicycles, who said "Hello! See you again!" and the mob elementary schoolers by my apartment complex, who also said hello.

I don't know, maybe radishes and a skinned knee make me look really approachable.

Now I'm just wondering: what am I going to do with three daikon the size of my forearm?

Well, Joanna's coming over to dinner tonight. I hope she likes radishes.