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!