Sunday, February 01, 2004

Hachi (8)

originally an email

Some days it's just not easy to bring myself to write. Today is one of those days. Sitting here in the office in front of a computer, I still have all that restlessness that follows a relaxing holiday. I don't want to be here, especially, I want to be back on the slopes in Nagano, continuing to learn how to snowboard. Really, I can't imagine a better place to learn how.
But let's return to the story before I mess up the chronology again.

When we last left off, I was about to go to the staff Christmas party. The party was pleasant. Japanese parties (enkai) generally have several stages, some apparrently going on well into the wee hours. My group of teachers is from a smaller school, and generally more tame. The first part of the party was a really traditional meal. I think that had I eaten the same thing at the beginning of the year, I would not have been able to handle it, but this time I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Absolutely everything was tasty. The meal was somewhere between seven and ten courses, and each course looked and tasted fantastic. I half-wished for more belly room and a second round, but as it was, I was full. I can only guess what the meal would cost, but I will guess that it was somewhere around $50 cdn, and that is my conservative guess. The reason I did not pay is that I contribute my $25 to the staff party fund (shinbokukai) every month. All the teachers do. That way, when a staff party comes around, they can do it up nice and nobody needs to worry about paying. We were seated by drawing cards, to mix things up a little. Each seat had a number. When we sat, that number went onto the gift we brought.

The gift exchange was as randomized as possible. Each gift had a number placed We were given blank bingo cards which had suit icons in the four corners of each square (hearts, clubs, etc). We filled in our own cards with the numbers of cards, circling the icon for the suit we wanted. I tried for the best balence I could think of, trying to keep the numbers and suits as even as possible. Then the deck of cards was shuffled, and cards were drawn. This is to prevent any kind of order of preference.

I had the first bingo. I then got to pick between 13 sticks which corresponded to the 13 gifts. Again, this keeps it random, so no feelings can get hurt (ie, why was mine the last gift picked?) I tried to pick the one that I thought was least likely to be mine. I picked number 10. My gift was number 10. I tried again and got a gift which later turned out to be a loofah.

=====19 day interruption in typing=====

err, so where was I? Ah. I went to the second stage of the party as well, which was karaoke. Around half of the teachers went. There is little to say of the karaoke other than that it was fun, I tried a Japanese song (biba*rokku by orange range), and the whole experience was worth repeating. Afterwards, I hitched a ride back into Kamikatsu with the math teacher, Mr Saito. He doesn't speak fluent English, but he can understand well enough to maintain a light conversation. He also speaks some korean, as do his wife and daughter (who both also speak some english). His daughter is in my elementary grade one class, and she is one of the smartest in her class. There was a little bit of snow on the road, so he drove carefully (ie slowly). Even a small amount of snow on these mountain roads can be enough to cause a lot of trouble. I think we arrived at around two or three in the morning, and I don't think I got to sleep until four.

The intention for saturday was to join a bowling game with a bunch of other foreigners. After waking and reading a book for a while, I decided I should check the time for the game. Much to my surprise, the game started at 4pm, which was about and hour and a half in the past. Oops. So I just lounged around for the rest of the day.

The intention for sunday was to check out the "Free Market" (garage sale) that some of my students have at the recycling station once a month. Had it not been for Ms Nakanishi phoning me at 10.30, I would not have made it to the free market at all, as it ended at noon. Afterwards I followed some others to find out where Taku-chan's Laughing Store was. (shou-ten usually means something like "general store", but Taku-chan uses a different kanji for "shou-" which makes it read as "laughing store". A play on words) He invited me into his home (the back half of the building) and we sat in the sun in his veranda and talked for a few hours. At around four I politely excused myself to go swing by Tom's house to make a cd or two.

Tom had given me a key to his flat and left his laptop accessible for me to use while he was on vacation. His kindness was much appreciated. It's nice to use a proper computer (ie, a Mac) once in a while.

Monday was the last day of classes, with the closing ceremonies, student presentations and awards, etc etc and so on. To be honest, I don't really remember anything of that day.

Tuesday the 23rd was the Emperor's birthday, a national holiday, another late-sleeping day, and there was a christmas party put on by a few of the townspeople. I was invited. The cost was ¥2000 ($20). I went early to help set up only to find that I had gone too early and had to wait for the decorations and organisers to arrive.

====several day interruption in typing====

The party was fun enough, being a combination of some of my students, some of their friends, a couple people who have really good English, and some people from my evening conversation class. there were also guests of honour-- three students from a couple other prefectures who were visiting one of my students. I suppose I could go into greater detail, but it really was not that interesting, aside from the chou creams with tabasco or wasabi, and the CC lemon with vinigar...

As far as Xmas eve went, I slept in a little and then went to school so as to be available to help my third year students study. Xmas is no more significant in Japan than St Patrick's day is in Canada.

In the evening, I went into town (an hour drive) to buy some chocolates for my third year students, and then wrapped them when I got home. Also, my dad called to say hello. I opened the container that they had sent, and viewed some of the things inside without disturbing too much. There was a 2kg jar of KRAFT peanut butter! I hope it lasts for a good long while, but at this rate there is little hope of that. I love peanut butter. They also sent marshmallows and butterscotch chips so that I can make one of my favorite desserts: peanut butter marshmallow squares!

After the call, I realized to my dismay that I had forgotten to charge my phonecard. I realized I would have to make a morning trip to the local Lawson's (3o minutes away, it's like a 7-11) in the morning to put some time on it. I cleaned my apartment and got most of my clothes ready to pack.

So on xmas morning I got up really early, showered etc, and drove to lawsons, got some breakfast and charged my phone card, and then drove home. At around 8 am I called my grandma and grandpa when everyone was over at their place for xmas eve. I had been planning to call at that time since November, but my dad intentionally did not mention it to my grandma, making it a great surprise for her. I followed up that call with a call to my other grandma, who was equally pleased to hear from me.

After that, sitting in my unheated apartment wearing thick socks, a pair of shirts, a sweater, a hat and my leather jacket, I opened the stocking that my parents had sent in the container, following which I happily consumed some of the sweets therein.

Just before noon I went to the school again to see my third year students. On Christmas, the only celebration the Japanese really do is to eat cake. So I ate cake with them, and passed out the small chocolates (mini toblerones) that I had bought and wrapped.

After that I returned home to make sure my place was still clean, and then headed into town to pick up Oli, who is an Icelander who was also had naught to do. On the way, I saw someone driving who looked suspiciously like Tashi, another JET. So I called tashi to see if he was indeed in tokushima and driving towards my town. To my surprise, yes, he was in town, but he has no car, only a bike. He had nothing to do either, so I invited him along. I picked Tashi and Oli up at Tokushima Station (which is the easiest place to meet) and we headed back to my place. On the way we stopped to get ingredients for a curry, and we rented pirates of the carribean. Before dinner or the movie, however, we went for a relaxing bath at the onsen. Then we went back, I made the curry, and we all chilled out in front of the "terebi" and watched the movie. When all was said and done, I took them both back into town, and made it back home just in time for the xmas morning call from my parents (23:30 my time). I opened all my gifts on the phone, and they opened the ones I sent on the phone, too. It was almost like being at home on xmas.

Lastly, I made sure that I was packed and ready enough to go that I could run out of the door 5 minutes after waking. I did not want to repeat the experience of missing my first bus back in October. This time I had checked, double checked and confirmed the time of the first bus.


I woke early enough (11 am -ish) to take my time and be properly ready and early for the bus. I caught the bus from Kamikatsu into Tokushima at one, putting me in town at three. I bought a gift for atsushi's family and I bought a couple cans of sudachi juice for atsushi and myself. I caught the bus at 17.00, putting me in Osaka at around 19.30. I locked my bags in a locker and wandered around, went to the bookstore (bought books), looked at toys, and came back in time to catch the bus to Niigata prefecture at 21.30.

At six ten in the morning, I got off the bus and collected my luggage amidst falling snow. As I descended the stairs at the side of the highway, Nobu and Atsushi arrived to greet me! It was good to see old friends again. We drove into Nagaoka, which is the city in Niigata wherein they are attending university. We went for breakfast at Sugiya, which is a gyudon (beef bowl) shop that Atsushi used to work at. Not your standard breakfast fare, but tasty. After that, we went to Nobu's flat, then Ryo's (to wake him up!), and then finally to Atsushi's. We played a little bit of PS2 and chatted until Nobu and Ryo had to go to work. Then atsushi and I decided to mess with our sleep habits by napping, but not before consuming those delectible cans of sudachi juice (a tokushima specialty).

In the evening we cruised around killing time, eventually meeting up with Ryo, and buying ingredients for nabe (nah-bay) and renting LOTR2 extended edition. Nobu got off of work late, but when he did, he came and brought the nabe pot and heater. We had a kimchi nabe. Nabe is a meal that gets its name from the ceramic pot you heat it in. Imagine a really flavourful soup base used to boil/heat vegetables, meat, and seafood, and this pot is in the middle of the table, heated over a gas fire, and everyone takes from it and puts into their smaller bowls. You keep refilling the vegetables until you have none left, and then at the end you can put noodles in and eat it like a proper soup. Also, everyone helped with the prep; nabe is a good social meal.

After the nabe, Ryo had to go home because he was driving back to his parent's place in kyoto early the next morning. The rest of us stayed up late watching Lord of the Rings 2; but not before making a Sev Run (but no slurpees in this country!).
We slept very late the next morning. I don't remember what we did in the afternoon, but Atsushi and I went for dinner at a monjya and okonomiyaki restaurant. I'll save the description of what those are for another time; there are more food descriptions to come in this letter.

hmm... seeing as how most of what we did in Nagaoka was just chilling out and relaxing, let's skip ahead to the next eveng: tuesday the 30th when we left for Nagano.

After an udon (a noodle soup dish) breakfast we made our way to Nagano. We took the longer, more scenic, and toll-free route, which happily took us by the sea. The name for the condition of the water at the time was "ooshike" (ohh-shkay). It was beautiful. There really is nothing quite like the sea, is there?

The drive to Nagano was well worth repeating. It was rejuvinating to drive through mountain roads lined with snow covered trees. I kept asking myself, "How could I think that I could ever live without snow?" After meating his family and his dog who hates me without reason, and after stowing my stuff in the guest room, we sat down at the kotatsu (plural) in the living room, and did what I would soon realize was the standard New Year's activity: we sat around and watched TV.

Apparrently, because life can be so busy and so stressful, New Year's is the Japanese people's opportunity to slow down and really take a break. I began to understand what Atsushi had meant when he said, "Japanese New Year's is nothing."
Part of dinner was a nabe of a different variety.

The next day, due to my still skewed sleep habits, I woke at around noon. Breakfast was rice boiled in the remanents of the nabe water (which inlcuded some tasty crab and other things). Atsushi, his older brother Yousuke (yoh-sue-kay), and I went for a walk around town, with the intention of ending at a theatre to watch the last samurai. We walked through Zenkouji, which is the temple that Nagano was built around. It was early enough in the day that there were not so many people there. I got a wierd feeling from the place.

We walked through the market area in front of the temple, and that was pleasant enough. The Last Samurai was good again on the second viewing, and I tried to watch it wearing my North American filter. I decided that it was a very Japanese movie. I Japan, it is worth 5 stars, but in NA, probably only 4. For me, caught between as I am, I settled on a 4.5 star rating. Atsushi and Yousuke loved it.

In the evening we ate "oomisoka" soba (soba is a buckwheat noodle, misoka means month end, and the prefix "oo" means big.) Big month end soba is eaten on New Year's eve. I think it has a different name if you eat it as the year changes over.
Against the advice of my mentor back in Winnipeg, I joined Atsushi an his sister Hitomi and her friends in going to Zenkouji at night. They were going for "hatsumode" (ha-tsu-moe-day), which is to pray to the gods and make a wish for the new year. I was going along for the walk. Zenkouji has three gates: an advance gate, a gate to the grounds, and a gate to the inner courtyard. Once we passed the gate to the grounds I started feeling dizzy, weary, headachy, and altogether like I should not be there. My mind kept trying to think that all would be fine and there was no harm in being there amongst the throngs (several thousand people in line), but I decided to make my exit before we passed the last gate. New Year's had already passed while we were in line. This was one of the quintessential Japanese experiences that I needed to opt out of, so I told them where I would meet them later, and left the temple area altogether.

I needed to go pray to the true god, so that's what I did. At some point I was feeling better and made my way to the exit of the temple from a route that a worshipper would not use. While waiting I was still praying, but to look less like a madman I was holding my cell phone to my ear. I thank God for the gift of tongues. It is times like those that you really appreciate being able to pray in tongues. Interestingly, when I felt like I was finished praying, and had put my phone away, my friends decended the stairs from the exit, and we all made our way back.


New year's day was more sitting around and watching tv, and the food was "osechi", which is the official new year's traditional food. At some point we went out to see the new house that Atsushi's parents were having built. Astushi's dad is an engineer, and because their kids have mostly moved out now, they are building a cottage up in the mountains to retire to. On our way back we went to an onsen that has an outdoor bath overlooking snow covered mountain vistas. I was speechless. And relaxed.


On jan 2 I intentionally got up earlier (9/10 am), knowing that the following day would be a really early day. Atsushi's mom made me a huge western breakfast of toast, eggs, bacon and other fixings. It was delicious. Everybody went out to go shopping for various things for a while, then we came back briefly and left again to go to a family gathering. It was at the home of Atsushi's grandparents and his dad's oldest brother's family. Everyone but me prayed to the family shrine shortly after they arrived. It's funny, but I don't remember the evening in Japanese. I could understand a good deal of what was being said, occasionally asking Atsushi to make sure I was following correctly. I cannot make my self as understood as I can understand, but I am getting better and that evening really encouraged me. Atsushi did not need to babysit me, so he didn't. It was good.


We woke early on Saturday the third. Why? To go snowboarding! We went to one of Nagano's best mountains, whose name I can't remember but is something like "Hoppa". Atsushi had worked there for a while before, so we dropped by the dorms first. Atsushi had brought some ohisashiburi omiyage (ohisashiburi: long time no see; omiyage: small gifts/souvenirs). The next thing I knew we all (Ats, Yoo, their dad, and me) had free lift tickets, and I was trying on the proprietor of the dorm's snowboard gear on. It fit well and he let me use it. What I was wearing was worth around $1000!!!!! Then Atsushi and I went to the rental place where I spend a mere $30 to rent boots and a board.

Atsushi trained me how to board. He forced me to learn to skate accross flat areas and mild slopes before he would let me even think about going on the lift. He was a good teacher. At lunch Atsushi had gone to the top of the mountain to visit his friends and bring them omiyage, so I spent the afternoon with Yousuke, who skis. We all met up again using the wonder that is the cell phone. Atsushi coached me some more, and by the end of the day I had enough control to take the forest road (15 feet wide and winding) down the mountain.

This was definitely the highlight of the vacation.

In the evening, Atsushi had a high school alumni thing he went to, and yousuke and hitomi had things to go to as well. Relegated to staying back, I made the most of it and replied to some emails.


On sunday the fourth Atsushi and I went around downtown, stopping at a starbucks, the station, and a bookstore, as well as a place where I got some omiyage for the staff at my schools.

Dinner was chinese food and the last of the osechi (which you eat until it is gone). Most of the family came to see me off at the station. I caught the bus at 22.30, and with changeovers in Osaka and Tokushima, I was back at my apartment just past noon on monday. I spent the next few days cleaning laundry and studying Japanese, and school resumed on the eighth.
Since then I have been mostly doing the school thing, studying Japanese, watching cartoons in Japanese (HunterHunter, Hikaru no Go, and OnePiece), reading, and practicing for the AJET musical. Somewhere in the last month was the mid-year seminar, where we got to share teaching ideas with eachother in some good little workshops.

Last weekend (24/25) was Burn's night in Scotland, so the scots here organized a party. It was a pot-luck with tofu haggis (due to the beef scare it was the best they could get; they had to order it from Tokyo) and whatever everyone else brought (which was a lot). Over the course of the evening, everyone read some kind of poetry. If they do it again next year, I'll go again. It was held in a lodge, and we rented cabins, so there was no late night driving neccessary. On the sunday I went to help with an Australia day event that another JET was doing. With his elementary school kidsWe played cricket, danced bush dances, and ate australian foods.

Judo was cancelled this past week due to the cold. Nobody wants to walk around in bare feet on floors and mats that are below zero degrees.

Oh, and the reason this email is so late in coming despite the fact that I have had few events worthy of note is that one of my friends back in the Peg, Dawson, has set up an internet forum for our friends to go and chat, and most of the slow moments I have had have gone there rather than here.