Tuesday, January 26, 2010

and oh yeah, silver week

So, just realized that in those two massive posts this morning, even despite their massiveness, I managed to forget about an entire vacation. Namely, when me and Jo went to Tokyo for Silver Week. Ha! There is a disparaging remark just waiting to be made here, but Tokyo is pretty okay, so I'll skip it.

Silver Week, much like Golden Week except that it doesn't necessarily happen every year, is a series of national holidays in September that line up to make a long weekend. In this case, a five day weekend. So, what do you do with a five day weekend? You grab a buddy and jump on the shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo!

In no particular order, the sights:

Harajuku -- So, anyone who even has a peripheral awareness that Japan is "hip" or that Gwen Stefani is a famous person has probably heard of Harajuku. This area of Tokyo is notorious for being populated by the young and the weirdly dressed. There is a particular bridge always photographed in travel books and fashion guides, where moody teens dressed as punk rockers, goth lolitas, and everything in between loiter to...well, to do nothing. Glare at the crowds, maybe. There is also a lot of shopping to be done here, much of it for clothing, and much of it for the type of clothing that would appeal to the above teens (and their less grumpy alt-rock counterparts). It's interesting, to be sure, but not quite as out there as people make it sound. Most people are dressed relatively normal (for Japan), so it's not like you've been swept away to a Marilyn Manson concert. At least, not quite.

Meiji Jingu -- Shrine to the Meiji emperor. Though it may surprise you, it's located right next to Harajuku, about a five minute walk from the Harajuku train stop. In fact, you have to cross the aforementioned weirdo bridge to get there, and the entrance to the shrine is visible almost immediately. Once you get through the first torii gate (marking your entrance into the realm of the gods), it gets remarkable peaceful for Tokyo. Broad paths lined with huge trees, winding through the forest for a pretty good distance before you reach the actual shrine. It's not the biggest shrine (though that might be my Kyoto snobbery talking), but it's a pretty nice one -- very serene and pleasant, and the surrounding forest grounds make up the space. There are also some little shops selling souvenirs (including cherry blossom sugar crystals, which sounded so charming that I almost bought them) and some mini museums. We stopped into one housing imperial relics. The most impressive thing was the full black coach emblazoned with the imperial chrysanthemum.

Sensoji Temple -- This is actually more of a temple complex in Asakusa. Probably the most popular in Tokyo, even. To enter the grounds, you have to go through a gate with a giant red lantern, done up with huge black kanji that read kaminari-mon, or, "Lightning Gate." Sweeeeeet! Once you're through, there's a long covered shopping arcade, with various gift shops. And finally, at the end of that, the temples. There's a whole collection of them, and wouldn't you know, there're festival stalls set up everywhere in honor of Silver Week. The temples were nice, but we probably spent as much or more time snacking on weird festival foods. Chocolate covered bananas, check. Shaved ice, check. Takoyaki fried octopus balls with whole tiny octopi inside? Well, that's different from the way we do it in Kansai, but hey, I'm game for anything. In the end, I think I prefer one small tentacle piece at a time. But we had fun naming the octopi as the were devoured, tiny faces and all. Alas, poor Franz, the last to go.

Ueno Zoo -- In terms of actual visibility of animals, this has got to be the best zoo I've ever been to. There wasn't a single one that we just couldn't see. The gorillas were just chillin', the elephants trundling merrily along, and the tigers were all like, "He~ey!" My favorites of the day might have been the big black bison, who just looked shaggy and huggable, and the giant anteater, who is my new boyfriend. As an added and geeky plus to this trip, I realized at one point in the zoo that we were walking through the location where a semi-important scene of the Japanese drama "Hana Yori Dango" had been filmed. Me and Jo both adore that show, and proceeded to have total girly meltdowns. I think we even took a video of ourselves just being there.

Meganebashi and the Imperial Palace Grounds -- You can't, of course, actually enter the Imperial Palace. Neither can you meet His Imperial Awesomeness. But you can poke around the gardens, and ogle the buildings from a safe distance. Perhaps the most picturesque place to do this is the area immediately surrounding Meganebashi, which literally means "Glasses Bridge." It's called this because of the double arched undercarriage, which reflected in the water forms two whole ovals that together resemble spectacles. As if this effect was pretty enough, from certain vantage points you can also see the white palace buildings in the background, making for a really nice composition.

Sunshine City Aquarium -- Let me be honest with you. If you are taking a vacation to Tokyo, do not bother with Sunshine City, nor its aquarium. Actually, Sunshine City is a pretty decent shopping mall, and the aquarium isn't bad. (Definitely nowhere near the enthralling grotesquery of Mongolia's Natural History Museum.) It just isn't worth going out of your way for if you've got limited time. Some neat fish, a brief birds of prey show, a mystery mammal that we couldn't find the name for, but suspiciously resembled a jackalope. (But those aren't real, right? Right?!) Also, why so many birds and mammals? Isn't this supposed to be an aquarium?

Yebisu Garden Place and the Yebisu Beer Museum -- Okay, let me be honest with you again, but this time in a "confession of my dorkitude" kind of way. At Ueno Zoo we accidentally found a scene from "Hana Yori Dango," but we specifically went to Yebisu Garden Place in search of one. (Specifically, the one where Domyouji waits by a sculpture in the rain for three hours because Makino has stood him up for their first date, but a guilty conscience makes her show up way late, and she discovers that he's still there just waiting for her, and then later when they get trapped in an elevator it turns out that Domyouji's got a fever from all the waiting. Ah, true love!) Of course, here comes the big cosmic joke. Perhaps the only time when I didn't want to see a beer festival, there is a great big beer festival totally surrounding -- and therefore, obscuring -- the sculpture where Domyouji spent those three hours. Curses, foiled again! On the upside, we did find the other two (peripheral) targets of our trip there, the Yebisu Beer Museum (the cretins sponsoring the festival) and the first official MLB restaurant in Japan. The beer museum was short and all in Japanese, but there was a sampler available at the end, and we had fun pretending to know about beer. And the MLB restaurant served seriously butt-kicking hamburgers, of a kind we hadn't had in at least a year and a halfish. Go figure, the chef owner had spent many years in America, no doubt perfecting both his English and said butt-kicking hamburgers.

Yasukuni Shrine -- A place that Joanna actually feared to go, but agreed to because I am geeky for war history and have big manipulative puppy eyes. The thing about Yasukuni Shrine is that it's extremely controversial. Every time a prime minister stops by, the entire nations of China and Korea start flipping out big time. You see, Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to the Japanese war dead, and this makes China and Korea particularly nuts because there are fourteen class-A war criminals enshrined there. Your first impression upon entering is the usual torii gate, except that this one isn't usual at all. First of all, it's massive in size, probably one of the biggest, right along with Heian Jingu here in Kyoto. (According to wikipedia, it was in fact the largest at the time of its construction.) But more unusual, and more eerily striking, is the material. Almost all torii gates are made of wood, or occasionally stone. But the Yasakuni torii is weathered steel, and right away there's a perhaps unintentional feeling of the industrial, of ships and planes and war. Inside, the shrine itself is about what you'd expect from a shrine (especially if you'd been living in Kyoto for a year) but there is also a really interesting museum attached to the complex. I found this part absolutely fascinating, because it is a history of Japan's various wars...from Japan's point of view. Reading their take on conflicts up to and during WWII was totally captivating, partly because of the things they said, but more for the things they didn't say. I wish I could remember all the details now that I was spitting at Joanna then, but I guess that means I'll just have to visit again (and write my thoughts down this time).

Hie Shrine -- Even as someone who sees a lot of shrines, I found this one really lovely. It's set up on a hill in Akasaka, in the middle of Tokyo, quiet and surrounded by trees, but you can see buildings on the horizon (particularly, Prudential loomed nearby). Maybe it was that proximity between new and old, or maybe it was the lack of people, or maybe it was just the nice arbor we were sitting under, but this shrine absolutely relaxed me. It was so peaceful that I didn't want to leave -- Joanna eventually had to drag me away.

I think that about sums it up. We had a good time bopping around town, having constant and impromptu writers workshops, and accidentally running into parades of half-naked men. Oh, Japan, I love you.

Monday, January 25, 2010

fall term, part 2 (November - December)

On November 6th, class 2-5 (our aforementioned unofficial favorite class) went on a field trip to Make Elementary. It was a student teaching excursion, where they had to have simple conversations in English with the 5th and 6th graders. Since we weren't especially busy that afternoon, Paul and I got to tag along. I literally took over a hundred photos, and mostly just hovered around grinning like a proud mom. Really, I would adopt almost anyone in that class. America, be warned; they're all coming home with me!

On November 22nd, I had one of those great and hilarious Japan experiences that I will always treasure. Together with Fig and our pal Amanda from Wittenberg, who is now doing the English thing in Osaka, I made my way to the town of Takarazuka. Now, this town is famous for one major thing: a popular all-female theater troupe of the same name. I can only guess that it was started as a reaction to all-male kabuki troupes, and there are some vague similarities (mostly in the outrageous overstyling), but this is about as far from traditional Japanese theater as you can imagine. It is a grand spectacle of singing and dancing and crossdressing and outrageous costumes and really, shockingly amazing settings. Modern Japan, nutshelled?

To make the inherent craziness of this theater troupe even crazier, the show that we went to see was a Japanese language musical adaptation of "Casablanca." By funny coincidence, I had just seen the movie for the first time one week prior, when one of the English teachers decided to screen it for a class. Thank god, because I never would have been able to follow the plot of the musical if I hadn't already known what was going on. Anyway, the songs were mostly great, though sometimes the greatness was directly tied to the silliness. Mainly, the silliness factor was in the constantly rehashed Japanese cover of "You Must Remember This," and the totally bizarre blackface performance of "Knock On Wood." Oh, Sam. Sam, Sam, Sam. You are not really a black person.

That said, the actresses playing Rick and Victor Laszlo were completely awesome, and had really interesting and compelling singing voices. (Made intentionally deep, as they were pretending to be men.) I may have a weird girl-crush on one or both of them. There was also a revolving stage that they used to amazing effect, walking on and off of it while it was moving, and going from room to room in Rick's cafe. There was even one section in the middle of the revolving bit that could raise and lower like a box, revealing an entire room inside. (And the sets themselves, let me reiterate, were stunning.) Mostly, it was faithful to the film, following the story with very little deviation, but some embellishments. It ended the same, with Rick striding off into the fog, and I start getting my stuff together to leave.

LITTLE DID I KNOW. Apparently, it is a Takarazuka tradition to follow every performance with a crazy four or five song encore, in which the cast reappears in insane costumes that have been bedazzled with in an inch of their life and does a few gratuitous dance numbers. In the grand finale number, a huge set of stairs came out from the back wall of the stage, and everyone came dancing down them to thunderous applause. The three protagonists, for some reason, had these crazy massive turkey peacock feather halo tailpieces that bobbed around while they danced, and we just stared in awe. Fig said to me, "Let's cook them up for Thanksgiving!" and I said to her, "Humphrey Bogart is rolling in his grave."

Anyway, if you can't tell by my veritable essay of description, Takarazuka was awesome. We have tentative plans to go again this spring -- they're putting on "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which is one of my favorite stories. Score!

Now, back to normal life. On December 1st and 2nd, we had our annual Mid-Year Seminar for Kyoto JETs. I had to give a presentation on the exciting topic of, "Effective Use of the Textbook With Other Materials." With some input from my vice-presenter, Takemura-sensei, I put together a pretty respectable powerpoint presentation, and the whole thing went off without a hitch. I can honestly say I've never had a lot of trouble with public speaking, and its times like these that I'm glad for that skill!

That Friday was the end of term staff party, at which I ended up sitting beside my BFF, Hosoi-sensei (surprise, surprise). We're like staff party magnets -- we always, always end up sitting together. He's a little bit of a maniac (in the best sense), so more fun for me! Unfortunately, Paul couldn't make it to that or any other of the staff parties, because his friend David suffered a punctured lung and was in the hospital, so Paul went to be with him. It just punctured on its own while David was sleeping. Scary! Apparently it can happen spontaneously, especially to young, tall, slender men -- all of which apply to David. (Fortunately he made a full, if long, recovery, and is fine now! Bless his heart.)

On Sunday the 6th, as a culmination of several months' work, I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I only took level 3, which is the second lowest, but I think I rocked it. The results still haven't arrived, alas, but I'm 90% positive that it was a pass, and maybe even a high one. I spent the day before in my apartment studying, and being total sweethearts, my Sonobe buddies Alex and June came by with cake for a study break Saturday evening. It's nice knowing people locally! Also an interesting point, when I actually got to the test site, in addition to seeing a lot of Kyoto JETs that I knew would be there, I ran into John Neal. (For those of you who don't know, John and I have lived on the same street in Atlanta for years and years, and went to school together from kindergarten all the way through high school graduation. He's now a JET in Shiga, a neighboring prefecture.) We hadn't seen each other in over a year, so we had a nice time catching up.

Then things started winding down into exams and Christmas classes at school, though I ended up missing most of the latter, thanks to...SWINE FLU!!! That's right, I survived the epidemic of the millennium. (Bearing in mind that there've only been ten years in this millennium so far.) I started feeling sick on a Sunday, but just crashed early and didn't worry about it. (On an unrelated note, that was the same day that I encountered a horror movie insect on my laundry: a hornet, longer than my thumb! TERRIFYING.)

Anyway, the next day I got up and went to school, though feeling a bit off. I thought maybe it was because I had skipped breakfast, or that I was coming down with a cold. The flu did cross my mind, but I dismissed it as the opposite of wishful thinking. Dire circumstances thinking? I sat at my desk for the first two periods, feeling kind of floaty and having trouble concentrating on my work. Then I barely made it through my third period class, actually having to sit down after giving them instructions. As we returned together to the teachers' room, Ueda-sensei asked me if I was okay, and suggested I go see the nurse, which I decide to do. I ask the nurse to check my temperature, and the results seem to startle her. "38.5 degrees!" Of course, celsius means nothing to me, so I ask, "Is that bad?"

Apparently, it's really bad. She told me that I should go home immediately and rest, and that I should go see a doctor tonight. Not tomorrow, not tomorrow morning even, but TONIGHT. I go back upstairs, and in the thirty seconds it's taken me to get there, the nurse has apparently phoned my supervisor (Wakabayashi-sensei) and explained the problem. He comes running over and pronounces, "You are not okay!" Within five minutes, they've shuffled me out the door, into a car, and back to my apartment, where I take the nurse's advice and go to sleep. A few hours later, Wakabayashi-sensei returns to take me to the doctor. The doctor is nice, but he tends to repeat himself a lot, and so for an hour I am sitting on a backless stool, getting progressively dizzier and just wanting to go home. They check my temperature again -- now, it's up to 39 -- and do a flue test. Bingo! I'm given some medicine and Wakabayashi-sensei informs me that, due to medical procedures outlined by the government, I am officially banned from school...for a WEEK.

To make a long story short, I spent that week eating Saltines and tangerines, watching TV, and not leaving my apartment. (Also forbidden!) On the upside, I had visibly lost weight by the end of the week! Too bad I probably gained it all back and more over vacation. :P Now I just need a record of my accomplishment -- maybe, "I Survived the Swine Flu and All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt!"

The day that I was pronounced safe to leave my house was, conveniently, also the day that my neighbor Sabrina was hosting a dinner party. I was so glad to get out of my apartment. The party was actually a matchmaking scheme by Jo Kan, an adorable New Zealander who lives one town over, who has seemingly made it her mission in life to set up all her single teachers with foreign girlfriends. There were some cute guys, and some numbers exchanged, but nothing has come of it so far, so let's leave it at that for now.

And that's the gist of it...at least, until MY BROTHER CAME!!!

But that's a story for another post.

fall term, part 1 (September - October)

I'm not sure when, exactly, we skipped from summer vacation to winter vacation. It may have something to do with fall term having been the absolute busiest of the four point five I've now lived through in Japan, both at work and in my personal life. At work, I and Paul have been kept hopping on any number of projects and requests, which can be hectic. However, I take it as a sign that we are considered useful members of the department, and plow cheerfully through!

As for extracurriculars, in addition to tea ceremony (which I've been studying a year now, since I got here), I've also been attending Japanese classes and shamisen lessons. The Japanese classes are actually not super useful, but it's been a good opportunity to connect with a few other foreigners in town. Sonobe now boasts seven of us altogether -- three JETs, three Interac (another English teaching company), and one mystery cyclist that we all see around town or in the grocery store. Out of that number, five of us attend the Japanese classes. Actually, we reached the end of the first run of lessons just before winter break, but if there's continued interest, the lessons will hopefully start back up again sometime.

My shamisen class, on the other hand, is populated by a bunch of old ladies, one middle-aged guy, and me. All the better -- Japanese ladies are hilarious! Our teacher is a man called Kawai-sensei, who is fantastically patient, especially with me and my bumbling. Shamisen, by the way, is a traditional Japanese instrument that looks something like a banjo. It's a lot of fun, but a bit tricky for me, A) because my hands are really small, and B) because most shamisen compositions are traditional Japanese folk songs, which I don't know and don't follow what I'd consider to be an intuitive western melodic progression. That is to say, sight reading is nearly impossible for me, because I can't figure out what the song is supposed to sound like!

So that's what's going on now. But, what's happened in the meantime? Let's see, starting from...September!

Before classes got started up again, we of course had the school festival and sports day. Both English clubs carried out a project. Junior high put together a pretty good performance of Snow White, and senior high made an absolutely hilarious video reenactment of the Lion King. It wasn't actually supposed to be as funny as it was, but we had no time, no budget, and no costumes, so it came off pretty slapdash...if by slapdash, you mean awesome. There was more dancing than usual too, this year, which was fun to watch. There were two separate presentations of "Thriller," complete with sweet Japanese zombie teenagers. And our unofficial favorite class won about a thousand awards -- every award they were eligible for, actually. The best part was during their traditional dance. The girls were all in little cotton yukata, dancing all cute, when suddenly they jump apart, and their homeroom teacher springs onto the stage and starts dancing with them! This is extra hilarious because the teacher is really tall, like a foot taller than any of them, plus he was wearing cat ears. (???) I got the whole thing on video, holla!

During sports day, I somehow ended up helping at the reception table for parents and guests, despite the fact that I'm not fluent in Japanese. It all went okay, though, because I only had to tell parents where to sign in, then give them a flyer and a visitor ribbon. Paul and I also ran in the teachers' relay...and lost, of course, but what do you expect us oldsters to do against the track team?

At the beginning of fall term, our work lives were dominated for weeks by the annual English speech contest. A lot of students made great speeches, but the two school-wide winners were both first years -- Asuka, who got first for her excellent pronunciation, and Ayaka, whose speech about children's books was well-written and frankly charming. Asuka even managed to pass through the next round, and went on to the area competition, but unfortunately, couldn't make it farther than that. They both performed well, though.

On September 12th, I and my pal Joanna went to a really cool art exhibition at Kyoto Kaikan. It was a huge show of the works of Seiji Fujishiro, who does stunningly intricate paper cutouts. They are displayed backlit, so the colors and scenes shine vividly. His work was really dreamy and childlike, and we enjoyed the exhibit a lot.

Time passed, some Australians visited our school, my umbrella got bent in a typhoon. On October 10th, a group of us JETs got invited to help out at a neighborhood festival in Momoyama. We got dressed up in festival coats, and the boys had to carry a giant contraption called a mikoshi on their shoulders. It had to way several tons, seeing as it took like forty guys in rotation to carry it. About halfway through our march around town, I and Kristi, a JET from Rokujizo, got tagged to help pull the ropes that stabilize the mikoshi. You see, now and again the men would stop and start jumping up and down with it, so we girls would just start hauling on the ropes and jumping backwards to maintain balance. It was fun, but actually really exhausting! I can only imagine how tired the boys must have been.

Through October and November, Paul and I taught the same five-week course for elementary school students that our school offered last year. This is lucky, because it means we got exchange holiday during winter vacation, saving a full three days of our annual leave. We also trucked our way through a series of Halloween classes, and on the Friday before Halloween, we both dressed up. Paul was an emperor penguin, and I had a full-body suit of Rirakkuma, who is a popular Japanese character. (He's a teddy bear, and his name is sort of a pun -- it literally means "relaxing bear.") Between the costumes and the candy that we were handing out, we caused a mob scene at school. Especially, when I made a special trip to visit class 2-5, they all started shrieking and pulling out their camera phones. I felt kind of like a rockstar, hahaha!

I wore the same costume on Halloween itself. We spent several hours at a party at an Irish pub called McLaughlin's, hanging out with nurses and greasers and President Obama. Then we stood around outside for awhile, being attacked by excited Japanese strangers who apparently love Rirakkuma. Finally, I joined the Kameoka crew on a trip to a rave at some place called Club Metro. It was crowded, and hot, and for some reason, the club is in a train station. But we had a pretty awesome time. I did, however, remember that I am officially getting too old for all-nighters. The train ride home at six a.m. was a serious struggle that I don't intend to repeat any time soon.


One of my students just came in 2nd in the 2010 Miss Japan Contest. WHAT. WHAT IS THAT.

15 year old Sayo Kojima

Go for it Sayo! English club co-president for the win! BAAAAAM!