Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The last big bulkmail!

So it's about time I made some kind of account of what I've been up to over the last three-ish months, especially because my family is coming in like TWO WEEKS. That's going to be another big email in and of itself.

So let's recap with that good old date synopsis.

16- Eikaiwa Xmas party
18- go to Tom's to burn gift CDs, then back for carolling in front of Tokushima station
21- Intra-school marathon, 3km, 8th overall, 13:31.
23- Emperor's birthday, bleached hair, had dinner at Lindsey's
Tokyo/Nagano Vacation:
25- Caught ferry to Tokyo, saw beautiful sunset over the water.
26- Arrive in Tokyo, go see Wolfgang Tillmans show, Maewa Denki's nonsense machines.
27- Saw the Sex Pistols photo exibition and the Joel Strummer (of the Clash) exhibition. Toured around Akihabara (electronics and otaku district) and Ueno station market area.
28- Tsukiji with Keiko, Royal Art Museum to see terra-cotta soldiers, dinner with "otoh san", enjoyed comedy show with an ex-gangster
29- Shibuya, Ginza, waited in Roppongi all night to see if I could meet a friend, but couldn't. Shiatsu massage.
30- Woke up staring at Fuji-san. Caught Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano. Batting with Atsu.
31- New Year's Eve Day: Snowboarding at a resort, sukiyaki, red/white sing-off, soba at midnight.

1: Osechi breakfast, left for cabin, set up cabin and made snow hill. Chilled out.
2: went to Atsu's extended family's place again.
3: Cleaned cabin and left. Went shopping in aft. another chill day.
4: Snowboarding at Burnt Forehead Mountain, caught bus back from Nagano
9: Ni-dan black belt test could not be taken by after all, need to wait a full year bw tests.
11: school resumed
14: Book club meeting- 5 people only!
21: Sarah's B-day party at Saigon cafe
22-3: Burn's Night party, recited two poems I wrote for the occasion.
27-8: Mid-year conference: had to present on "Effective Team Teaching"
29: prep for the musical

Practices for musical every Wednesday in Hiwasa.
6: Musical practice
Hokkaido Snow Festival trip
9: Met Rehan at station, bussed to Osaka, flew to Sapporo, went to festival
10: Snowboarding at Teine
11: Chill out, shop for omiyage.
12: Return
19: Went to the Princpal's place for dinner along with Collin and Jenny, beautiful house!
20: "175R" (i-na-go-raidaa) concert, had the bigges ramen I have ever seen.
25: went to a small gallery show's last day
26-7: English camp (AWESOME TIME)

3: bought a 50mm 1.4 f-stop lens on ebay (ureshii!)
4: Rowan and Elaines farewell party - Freeform game!
5: Performance of Musical in Anan
6: Performance of Musical in Hiwasa
10: Graduation Preparation day
11: Third Year Students' graduation
12: Musical in Aizumi
13: Musical in Kamojima

Here is what I wrote back in December when I first started this email:
Well, I have sent my account of what I have been doing of late and what I have planned to do in the coming months, and that gives me some freedom to just put down some thoughts and talk about regular daily life kinda stuff.

It's drawing on towards Christmas, which means big romantic holidays! In Japan, Christmas is celebrated, sort of. There are trees and lights put up in various places, Christmas music is played, and cake is eaten. As for the Christmas lights, Kobe city is reputed to have a phenomenal display of lights to see that would certainly put Winnipeg to shame several times over. And "Christmas cake" in Japan is a light white cake with white icing and a strawberry or two on top. Restaurants currently offer a range of white desserts topped with strawberries. And though Christmas is just another day of the week (on par with St Patricks day in Canada), Christmas Eve is one of the big date holidays. It's a romantic day here. If you don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend, then you have a Kanashii Kurisumasu (Sad Christmas). But if you do have a lover, perhaps you might take advantage of one of the many fancy hotel package deals that include dinner, drinks, a room for the night, and breakfast. So on the one hand, with lights and music around I do get some of the feeling of Christmas being close, but on the other hand, in this country it's just not the same. They don't get it. And sometimes you get people claiming that "We Japanese are many different religions. We are Buddhist, Shinto, and Christians at Christmas," simply because they enjoy the frills and decorations of Christmas while missing its core and namesake. Even the standard "try to be good at Xmas" or "the world is full of cheer at xmas" seem to be non-existant here. Just the frills ma'am, just the frills.

It occurs to me that thought it has been nearly 17 months that I have been here, I still haven't really written about what I do on a daily basis. What does it mean to be an assistant English teacher in a small mountain town in backwoods Japan?

And it looks like I won't be writing about that today either. That's part of the reason I started this blog.

But what is not covered on that blog is everything between December 13th and Graduation.
And that is the reason for this letter.(though this has now been posted on the blog, too) I want to talk about what I did over Christmas and New Years', my trip to Hokkaido, transcribe my poems from the Burns Supper, and maybe mention a little about the 175R concert.

dec 23-jan 5 (10)

The break officially begins on December 23rd, the current emperor's birthday. As it was a day off, I decided that it was the perfect day to bleach my hair. A friend in the city helped me out with that before the nabe party she was having that evening. Bleached hair and free nabe, Score! (pronounced "NAH-bey") I had been a little concerned about what the staff would say, but the next day when I went in to school (the staff still have to go to school over the majority of the break) NOBODY SAID ANYTHING! It was like they didn't notice. I sat accross from one of the teachers and asked her a question. She stared at me for a long moment before answering but still said nothing about the hair. I began to wonder if they all noticed it but weren't 100% sure that anything had changed.

I left for Tokyo the next day, going by ferry. It was a 17 hour ride from noon to 5am, and I had the distinct pleasure of watching the sun set over the ocean. The next morning while I was in Shinjuku (one of the two main tall building parts of Tokyo) my parents called me on my cell phone. I sat down on a bench in the park, keeping warm in my snowboarding jacket, and talked to my family while they opened the presents I had sent. Later I made my way to a gallery in the far west of Shinjuku and just north of Shibuya to see a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibit. For those unfamilar with the name, he is a trendy photographer who takes pictures for magazines like Wallpaper and ID. His work can be a little risque as he tends to focus on hedonism and all its excesses. Aside from his interesting subject matter, he is skilled and his photos are fantastic. Coincidentally it turned out that one of the other exhibits I was hoping to catch was in the same building. Meiwa Denki and the Nonsense Machines. Meiwa Denki was at one time a bona fide electronics parts supply shop, but several years after going bankrupt, the brothers who had owned it made a comeback with really bizzare electric instruments. They are almost like Rube Goldberg-like in their roundabout way of doing things, but they have this unusual beauty to them. A lot of them are inspired by fish. It's like music and art with a sometime fish theme. They do concerts of a sort, big performances for their unique brand of electronics and art. I really don't know how to describe it. It was a great show too, especially since I didn't know what it was at all other than the rumor that it was not to be missed. The Maewa guys themselves were around and doing some small performances. There were videos and sketchbooks and animations about why and how all these things came about. Above all, it was all funny and entertaining.

I found the place I was to stay later that day, and by then my shoulders were killing me from lugging my backpack, camera, and daybag around the whole time. I was staying at really cheap hostel in Asakusa, "The old romantic part of Tokyo." I was not far from Kaminarimon, the lighning gate of the big temple in the area.

Because I was there at the beginning of the biggest vacation in the Japanese year, most of the big fantastic museums were closed. On my second day in Tokyo I walked around the Ueno park area which has a concentration of major museums. South of the park is an open market that reminded me a lot of the ones that take up so much space in Seoul. I also made my way to Akihabara, the electronics district, haven to model and comic shops for fanatics, Sega World, and a lot of electronics stores. Sega world was fun and helped me unburden my wallet a little. The model shops were fascinating, each floor had a different theme: Old space robots of floor one, new space robots on floor two, trains and western models on three, replica guns on 5 et cetera and so forth.
In the evening I made my way to Shibuya, the happening area for young people and took in the Joe Strummer gallery exhibit at the top of one of the department stores. If you don't already know, Joe Strummer was the main guy in the Clash, and died not too long ago. Pages from his sketchbooks and news clipping collections were on display, a video of the Clash concert in Japan, the tent that the band used when they were travelling around, and a CD made from a demo tape of his first band. That demo tape was presumed lost forever until his stuff was being moved after his death. I think it has been released as an album now, too.
After that I made my way by foot to Harajuku, which was farther away than I expected, to see the exhibit "Destroy" which was a ton of photos of the Sex Pistols by one guy, and some history and a video to boot.

I thought my sister and maybe my brother would be interested to see both of the exhibits, except for the locations. Each were at the tops of corporate giant department stores that cater only the trendiest and most superficial in fashion. A shame, really. But what do you do when it's only the posers who have the money? Both gallery shows were there on the second stops of their respective tours.

Back in Asakusa I was walking around looking for some dinner and bumped into Keiko, one of the girls who was staying at the hostel, who was on her way back from work with her friend. We went out for okonomiyaki at a place where Beat Takeshi had eaten. He's the guy in Kikujiro, Battle Royale High School, and Zatoichi.

The night before, when hanging out in the common room of the hostel I was talking about my plan to go to Tsukiji fish market at some point while in Tokyo. It's the kind of thing that a lot of foreigners go to see, but few Japanese ever do. Keiko asked if I would mind if she came with. We made a plan to go on tuesday morning. [To recap: arrived on sunday, saw the Clash and Sex pistols stuff and went for okonomiyaki on monday.]

Oh yeah, and okonomiyaki means "fried what-you-like" and is like a two inch thick pancake of cabbage, meat and fish, and vegetables. The table is your frying pan.

Tuesday December 28th could by rights have been the most interesting day of my whole trip.

It's not every day that you wake up by being punched in the back by an angry ex-yakuza.

Of course, I didn't know at the time that he was an ex-member of the Japanese equivalent of the mafia, I just knew that he was the Jpanese guy not much shorter than me and about twice as big and muscular. And he was angry.

Well, I'm exaggerating a little. I had this punch in my back through my mattress, by the fist of the person on the bunk below me, and it was accompanied with a loud "OI!" I said thanks and turned off my cell phone alarm (which I later learned had been going off for several minutes). It was four thirty in the morning and time to get ready to go to Tsukiji fish market.

Keiko and I caught the subway at just past 5 am. When we got off at the Tsukiji stop there were a LOT of people about. It took us a while to sort out which direction we should be flowing in, moving ever deeper into mess and confusion of people and cars. We passed all sorts of shops selling various foods with very fresh fish inside. When we finally found the market, it was shockingly massive. We entered from a corner, and looking as far as we could along the two lengths of the structure, we could not see either end. I have no idea of how large it really is, but it felt like it was a football field length or more in each direction, and everything was close and packed with people and these unique electric dollies for transporting fish. It was a photographer's paradise. MASSIVE frozen tuna being sawed to pieces on a belt saw, smaller fish being lifted out of tanks killed and put on a pile, business owners everywhere bartering prices with vendors, people constantly moving boxes an fish around. It was a mind-blowing frenzy of activity, and it is like that six days a week. There is even an auction spot, which we stumbled upon well after the auctions had ended. Too bad. We rounded off the early morning with breakfast at a sushi place in the area. I HAVE NEVER HAD BETTER SUSHI. There is one kind of sushi called uni (sea urchin) which when I previously tried it was like licking the bottom of a verr dirty fish tank. In a word raunchy. But so many Japanese love it. I tried it again here, knowing that the only way I would ever try it fresher is if I caught one live and like an otter broke it open. It was heavenly. The taste was so delicate and subtle, the texture smooth and creamy. Now i know why it's adored. The other sushi we ate was also, of course, fantastic. With sushi, freshness makes such a massive difference in the taste. The fish is cool and the rice is warm, the textures and temperatures mix in your mouth. The way sushi is meant to be.

That's not beef, that's TUNA!

Afterwards we made our way back to the hostel to get a little rest. I just crashed on a sofa in a sunbeam in the common room.

For 10:00 we made our way to the Royal Museum in Ueno Park, the only one which was open, but which at that time contained some of China's famous Qin Terra Cotta Soldiers. I had heard that there were no photos allowed, so I had brought my sketchbook along... but they stopped me from using even that after a while. At least they didn't confiscate it. It was really cool to see up close and in person a handful of these soldiers which I have heard so much about for such a long time. To see the detail in sculpture and individuality of face and garb. To see the rememnants of the paint on them and to know that they were once painted as real people as well. To think about these individuals about whom I know nothing, but who have been preserved to stand there before me hundreds of years later. To think about the men who sculpted them. To wonder whether they had taken into account the shrinking that clay does in a kiln, or whether the soldiers were taller than that. And there were more fascinating things besides.

After that we tried to get to the sword museum. The website had listed no closed dates over the holidays, so we were hopeful. And eventually disappointed. It was a long walk to the sword museum. In the afternoon we walked around the fun part of shinjuku and went to the biggest bookstore in Tokyo. It was cool hanging out with Keiko. She is a good five years older than me, and her English is better than my Japanese. We kind of floated back and forth between the two languages all day. I learned some new words, got corrected on some chronic mistakes I had in my japanese, and in general had a really good time. It was kind of like hanging out with a friend's older sister with whom you can flirt and know that nothing will ever come of it. It was fun.

We went back to the hostel again before dinner, and there was an old japanese punk guy there who we asked if he wanted to join us. One of the owners of the hostel reccommended a place for anko nabe (anko in this case is a kind of fish) that is frequented by salarymen, and thus, is mega cheap. We walked there, and it took about 30 minutes.

I never found out the old guy's name. I call him the old guy, as he was like 40 years old and still trying to be hip and wear fashionable clothes. He asked us to call him "otoh-san" which is like "father". I call him an old punk because he said he likes punk music, and the stories he told as we walked were of doing drugs in Japan and never getting caught, of nearly getting drawn into the yakuza, of school fights and general shenanigans. He only looked 30 at the oldest, but he said he was 40-something (I forget just how old. Early 40s though I think). Really 40 isn't that old, it's just too old to think you can still be a teenager.

He seemed really nice from the start. He was friendly and soft spoken, but still a little hyperactive in a nervous kind of way. As we walked along and then as we had to wait for a table for 40 minutes, other things started to show through. His humour gradually got dirtier and dirtier, and he started to get more physical with Keiko. Now, I don't mean anything dramatic, it was just little things like more tapping on the shoulder for getting attention, more touching the arms after a joke [ie, "get it?" "get it?" ], and things like that. At some point while we were waiting he wanted a smoke and as neither of us smoked he set off to find someone he could bum one off of. Keiko then confided to me that he was making her very nervous and she felt unsafe. A far cry from the nice, seemingly innocent guy that he presented himself as at the beginning. When he came back, she put back up the front of seeming interested and friendly again.

When we got seated (it was really packed) we made sure that the person on the other side of the table was 'otoh-san.' Over dinner the story came out that he was currently living in Osaka with a 20 [22?] year old girlfriend, whom he strongly suspected was cheating on her. Dinner was weird. The food itself was good enough, and we ordered two portions which were more than enough for the three of us. 'Otoh-san' directed most of his conversation at Keiko, and talked quite fast. For normal conversation I am usually okay to follow and understand, but his Japanese is really bad and full of slang and Osaka dialect.

On the way home I made more of a point of joking around with 'otoh-san' laughing loud and pushing him when he said something funny. I also stepped between him and Keiko a few times. He was short even for Japanese, and I am tall even for a foreigner. He paused along the way to brouse the street-side used-porn-comic vendors. When we got back he was a lot quieter.

When we got back the husband of the couple that runs the hostel and the ex-yakuza guy joined us in the common room. It was great timing because the absolute best show I have ever seen on Japanese TV was on, and we were there in time to see it.

First let me start by explaining manzai. Manzai is a style of comic duo that is really popular in Japan at the moment and is really stinking funny. Both of the pair take turns being straight man and funny man, and often they build jokes together. One of the more famous pairs, called Downtown, have a TV program. The pair are Matchan and Hamada. Matchan is the greasey bald crazy one and Hamada is the cool but stupid one who for some reason has the smarter jokes.

Second let me explain "Batsu Games." In Japan, correct is a big O and wrong is a big X. O is called maru and X is called batsu. A batsu game is a game where you play to find one loser, and then punish them. With my students this usually manifests as everyone taking a turn snapping the middle finger on the loser's forehead. The Simpsons was accurate when they went to japan and the TV show host said, "In America you reward intelligence, but in Japan we PUNISH IGNORANCE!"
And they love it.

So this program was a Downtown special where Hamada and two other comedians had to stay in an onsen hotel (hot spring hotel) for 24 hours withougt laughing. Every time someone laughed, a person clad in tight black clothing and a black mask would come out holding a kinky-sex-toy whip. The offending comedian would have to kneel and bend over and they would be whipped once. There were three of these black-clad, whip-bearing people.

So it sounds simple enough, just don't laugh. That's where Matchan plays in. He was like the evil mastermind coming up with bizarre random things to cause them to laugh. Sometimes there were things directed at only one of the three comedians. Sometimes the comedians recieved prizes with which they could try to throw off one of the others. And sometimes it was just too funny watching someone get whipped and they would laugh and end up whipped themsleves. And then there's the fact that everything's funnyness level is increased exponentially if you are not supposed to laugh. One chortle, one shicker or smile was enough to bring the black clad punishers out of some random door.

Things like as they are sitting in their room Star Wars music starts to play and a really crappy looking R2-D2 goes past in the garden outside the window, followed by a low quality C3-P0 who opens the door to outside and walks away. Then a little old lady in a Darth Vader costume walks in and around the room several times, stopping to breathe on one of the comedians. All through this the three of them sit silently and blank faced, not making eye contact with anyone. This is funny. Darth Vader leaves. A few moments later this happens again. C3-P0 has trouble with the door. And then it happens again. A couple of them start to laugh and the punishers rush in with swift retribution. Then C3-P0 just walks past outside again and opens the door and they laugh.

At other times they try to hold regular conversation. But they are comedians! They can't just be serious, and it always ends up with one of the two laughing, or even the person watching laughing.
Really, the jokes arent't that funny and the bizarre things could normally be pass-off-able, but the pressure of not being allowed to laugh, and watching the struggle in the faces of the three guys is unbearable. It's just too funny. And then when that inevtiable pressure breaks the guys in black are there all of a sudden and everyone is yelping in pain. It's hilarious!

All of us were in tears, gasping for breath and suffering from sore faces from too much laughing.

After the program ended, 'otoh-san' retired off to bed and the rest of us sat around and chatted. This is when we found out that the big guy was an ex-yakuza. He basically lives at the hostel because he is in debt. These days the yakuza don't want to be recognizable so easily, so the whole cutting-off-the-pinky-finger-at-the-middle-knuckle thing is on the decrease. Instead they can buy their way out with a LOT of money. The ex-yakuza we were talking to used to be into intimidation and extortion by way of running a construction company. He would intimidate people into hiring his company, and then charge more and more each month, and by intimidation keep them from backing out. In the end, he said he got out because the immorality of it was getting to him. He went on to explain a lot of other things as well, but the Japanese was a little too quick and slangy for me to follow well. Really, most of what I followed was by the aid of Keiko.

The next day was by comparison majorly sucky.

It started off with promise, as when I woke, Tokyo was covered with a beautiful blanket of snow. But as I got myself sorted and went outside with all my stuff, the snow was all melting. It was still snowing, but it melted as it hit anything. It made me desire one of the umbrellas which so many of the Japanese people walking around were carrying.

I deposited most of my stuff into a locker in Tokyo station, from where I was scheduled to ride a shinkansen (bullet train) out of the next day. The imperial palace is not far from Tokyo station, so I tried to walk and see if there was maybe a park I could walk around in. Sadly, all the stuff near to the side I was walking from was part of the palace grounds proper, and those are only open to the public two days a year-- the emperor's birthday, Dec 23, and Jan 2 as part of new years celebrations. And this was not one of those two days, but it was cold and wet. :P
I ended up going to Ginza, because I had not been there yet. Ginza is the upperclass rich shopping area of Tokyo. Its name is the pictograms for gold and sit. The nice thing there was the swank Apple store, but I didn't have the money to drop on anything there, not when all I want is a maxed-out laptop.

There was a friend who lives in Tokyo that I was trying to meet at some point, but his company was really busy. I sent him an email telling him I'd go to Roppongi that evening, and if he could come he should email my cell phone and we could connect. I went to Shibuya in the evening, tried out the new Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP, not to mention a little bit of combat with a stranger on one of my favorite games: the newest Naruto fighting game for the Gamecube. I then had dinner at a cafe at the top of that department store. If you ordered food you could use the internet for free for an hour on one of the many many ibooks they had laid out.

I did go to Roppongi, walked around as far as the Tokyo Tower, chilled out at a Starbucks, and spent a long time at a bookstore that was open until 5am. In the end, my friend never emailed me back. It turned out he was so busy that he didn't get to check his mail for another two days. Regardless, I had no place that I planned to crash at, and decided to go for a shiatsu massage (there was 24-hour place close at hand). Then I hopped on a subway to get myself back to Tokyo station. And fell asleep. When I woke up, I didn't know where I was. I was looking straight at Mt. Fuji, and I was confused because I didn't think you could see Fuji from Tokyo. It was 8am and there was nary a cloud in the sky. It was the perfect view. It took me a while for my head to clear and to sort out that I was WAY out in the suburbs, and was moving farther and farther away from where I needed to be. I got off at a biggish station and switched onto an express train heading back to the city. It was packed. I had plenty of time to buy some omiyage before I grabbed my stuff out of the locker and caught my shinkansen to Nagano.

By that time I was VERY eager to get to Nagano. Going from travelling solo to hanging out with people for a full day and then back to solo for a day and a half again, and not having slept more than maybe an hour, I really needed to see someone I knew. It was such a good feeling to get off the train and see my smiling friend waiting. Apparrently the house was not yet in a state acceptable to visitors, so we (me, Atsushi, and his older bro Yosuke) went to a batting cage place to hit some balls.That was, for reference, Thursday December 30th.

New Year's eve was a good day. We started off with a snowboarding trip to some resort, going with Atsushi, his friend Mika, Yosuke, and four of his friends. This was my second time ever on a snowboard, and the last time had been a year previous. I was amazed at how easily everything I had learned on that first day came back.

In the evening we ate sukiyaki and watched the KohHakuUtaGassen, which is the Red and White Song Battle that happens every year. One team (red or white) is all female performers and the other team is all male. At the end of the night the audience decides which was better. It's kind of like a showcase for all the talent from that year, starting off with the popular music and ending with the boring crap that mostly only old people like (enka). At night, following the custom, we ate soba (buckwheat noodles) as the first action of the new year, just after midnight.

New Year's Day was really chillaxed. We had the traditional osechi breakfast and then got ready to head off to the cabin in the mountains (finished construction over the summer!). When we got there we got everything set up, laid out the futons, turned on the water, installed venetian blinds, and of course, shoveled a walk and made a massive pile of snow in the yard to try and snowboard down, with a little jump at the end. In the evening we watched a weird humour program about types of girls (falsely cute voice girls, unlucky girls, gossipy girls) and the neigbors came over for a dinner of nabe and osechi, and a lot of drink.

Osechi in its boxes with side dishes.

Entering the cabin.
The inside of the cabin. That lump in the middle is the kotatsu.
The family around the kotatsu.
From left: Atsushi, Yosuke, Hitomi, Mr Karasawa, Mrs Karasawa.

The day after that we went to Atsushi's dad's family's place. It was the house where Atsushi's dad grew up. This was the big family gathering. Atsushi went out to meet some old friends in the afternoon, and then it snowed pretty heavy in the, making traffic slow and Atsushi really late for dinner. Last year that would have been a problem for me, but this year my Japanese was much better. I could follow and participate in the conversation at the table. Like last year, this was a fun and interesting night. We returned to the cabin in the evening.

Monday was a really relaxed day. We casually cleaned up the cabin and packed everything away again, did some shopping in the afternoon, and then just chilled out at home in the evening. Atsushi had a class reunion he went to. While he was away the rest of us watched some boring movie. I was the only one who didn't fall asleep at the kotatsu. At some point while the movie was playing and everyone was sleeping, I went off into another room to read a book. When I came back the movie was almost over. As it ended, the others started waking me up and asked me what happened and how it ended. I couldn't really answer.

I was to leave on Tuesday the fourth, but not before getting another day of snowboarding in. We went to Yakebitaiyama (Mt Burning-forehead) and had a really good time. I even tried to grind a rail... i think I need to get a helmet before I try that one again. the base of it is solid ice. Ouch. Other than that and the three or four other times I hit my head really hard in the last hour of snowboarding, I was really pleased with how far I had come for only my third day ever.
My last dinner in Nagano was yakiniku. After that it was the night bust to Osaka and then an early morning bus back to Tokkers.

jan 22

Robert Burns was Scotland's most famous poet. They now have a night where they celebrate his work, and Scottish culture in general, and poetry in general. It is becoming an annual tradition here in Tokushima to rent out some cabins at the Mikamo Highway Oasis, bring a lot of food and poetry, and have a big Burns Night Supper and party. Last year I read some poetry by Calvin Miller. This year I wrote and read my own. Here they are in the order I read them:

Sometimes I sit in my apartment
And think towards the morrow
of all I need to do.
Sometimes I sit in contemplation
Or bend my head in quiet sorrow
regretting what I did not do.

Sometimes I sit in my apartment
And plan until the night rolls on
and get to bed at half past two.
Sometimes I sit with pen in hand
The page staring back at me
and nothing happens.

Sometimes I sit in my apartment
Or I'll stand or pace or lie
and wish you all lived closer.
Sometimes I thank God for isolation
For the study and prayer and focus
and wonder if I'm a loner.

Sometimes I sit in my apartment
And idly waste the hours away
on movies and books.
Sometimes I stand in front of my mirror
Brushing my teeth, making faces,
worrying over my looks.

Sometimes I sit in my apartment
And gasp that I am here, having come so far
but also it's quite normal.
Sometimes I sit in the office or my car
Time and the world passing

Scritch, scratch
their pens twitch
Scritch, scratch, but their heads don't itch

Rub rub
erase that flub
Rabu rabu they're not in love

No sound
don't speak aloud
No sound comes from this crowd

I've asked a question.

Why why
is blue sky
Wai wai mecha kawaii

King kong
monkey song
Kin-kon the bell rings on

the game is won
Pin-pon there's no one home

They've gone for supper.

Munch crunch
eating food
Munch crunch in a solemn mood

Bye, bye
mata ne
bai bai we're open today

test for you
Sankyu I'm so glad I'm through

I'm out of ideas.


feb 9-13

So every year there is this big snow festival (Yuki Masturi) in Hokkaido (the northernmost island of japan). It's on my to do list, and it seemed to me that if I put it off until next year, I might not make it. So I put out a mail on the JETlist (a mailing list for the current tokushima jets) asking if anyone had a birthday at around that time and asked if I could mooch a birthday deal ticket offa them. It turns out that Rehan, one of the Jets in Anan (a "city" 45 minutes from me) not only had a birthday at that time but was also planning to go. So we went. We started making plans back in December, and flew out of Osaka on Wednesday, Februuary ninth. We arrived in the early evening, dropped our stuff off at the hostel, and decided to go check out the matsuri that night.

As a Manitoban, seeing snow every year is for me a neccessity. I need to know that the seaons change, and to feel that beautiful cold weather. Hokkaido was great for me in that respect. One of the things that typifies the yuki matsuri is the hundreds of large snow sculptures. Until I was there looking at them, it had not occurred to me that they might be outdone by the ones at the Festival du Voyageur. For the most part, the F.d.V.'s sculptures are bigger and better crafted, but the Yuki Matsuri has had the participation of the military (Self Defence Force by name). These ones are made with literally tonnes and tonnes of snow. The eight or so MASSIVE snow sculptures are a few stories tall and maybe 30m wide. The most impressive one this year was the replica of the Nagoya castle. It was really detailed.

Sculpture about Taiwan

The friday was going to be a national holiday, so we decided that it would be best if we went snowboarding on the thursday. The place we ended up going to was one of the Olympic sights, a mountain called Teine (tay-nay). Rehan was a little frustrated with snowboarding, and rightly so. This was to be his second day out, and his first day had not been great. He told me that his first experience with snowboarding was going with his girlfriend (who has 5 years experience). The put him on a beginner slope, he didn't know what to do and just pointed himself straight down the hill. Everyone said "wow, you're good" and put him on the advanced slope and left him. He still had no clue what he was supposed to do, and just fell fell fell until he took off his board and walked down the mountain. Not an auspicious start to say the least.

So knowing that, I decided to do for Re what Atsushi had done for me. I taught him from scratch. By the end of the day he could skate with the board okay and could pull off turning well enough to ride the forest road.

It was a beautiful day, too. One memory burned into my mind is of standing at the top of a slope, looking out over Sapporo on my right, mountains behind me, the ocean spreading away to my left, and clouds making a beautiful ceiling over the ocean. And it was sunny. That was the first time I had been snowboarding on a sunny day.

There was one scarey moment as well. No vacation is really complete without one, is it? Rehan is near-sighted, and doesn't wear contacts. You can't wear glasses under you boarding goggles, or at least not under the ones he had. That meant he was nearsighted on the slopes. This wasn't a problem until the forest road leveled out and a snowstorm moved in. Snowboarders need to have a slope in their forest roads in order to move, skiers don't. The last two legs of the forest road were made for skiers, and the last leg needs to be taken to get back to the bottom of the hill. It might normally be passable by snowboard, but the variety of light snow that was falling radically slowed us down. I can skate on my board without too much effort, but for Re it still took a lot of energy. The snowstorm was causing a whiteout, and we needed to have our gear back to the rental place by 4:00. I tried going ahead, and when I got off of the forest road and saw how little I could really see, I realised that there was no way Rehan could find his way back, and so started my way back up. It was frightfully hard to find him again, and couldn't see him until suprisingly close. It turned out that he was getting a bit of vertigo, or something like that. Because there was no real slope there, he couldn't feel which way was down. And he couldn't see which way was out. We made our way back and got to the bottom of the slope at about 4:25 on the way I had asked the people at the bus stop to see if they could hold back the 4:30 bus if it came. I took rehan's board and my own, ran ahead and dropped them off, got my boots off, shoes on, grabbed my things, and Rehan came in. I got his key from him and grabbed his stuff while he got his boots out. When we ran out the door the courtesy trolley was just outside and gave us a ride to the bus stop, where the bus was just about to leave. The driver saw our frantic waving and waited. The next bus would have been two hours later.

For dinner we found this random little place called Ouchi. it was an ET-themed soup-curry restaurant. It was great.

Friday, the national holiday (Founding the Nation Day), we basically walked around town exploring and buying our needed omiyage. At one point we were looking for chinese place mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, and we knew we were close, but both thought it was in a different direction from the corner on which we were standing. Suddenly, a Japanese guy who had been taking photos of something interrupted us with great English and told us how to get to the place we were trying to go to. We were shocked. First that this random guy knew the place, second that he could speak such great English, and third that he would actually interrupt an be helpful when not asked to. And then the odds of him being there at that moment... astounding. An uncommon Japanese.

Friday night dinner at a Malasian(?) restaurant
We flew out on Saturday at noon.

feb 26-7

There is a high school called Tokushima North Super English High School (Kitako - "North High" for short). It's super english because all the English classes are taught in English, and there is also a special English track that the students can take which has more English classes than normal. They also have three English events per year. The one in the third term is two days at a place on Awaji Island. They get a whole lot of ALTs to come and volunteer for this. It's a saturday and sunday, so the ALTs who volunteer also get two days off of regular work in return (called daikyu, which need to be used within the academic year). About thirty students out of a school of 1100 participate.
Last year I was too involved with the musical to participate. This year I volunteered. One of my star students from my first year in Japan is a student at Kitako and I was kind of hoping she would take part. She didn't, but she did tell several of her friends to come talk to me, which was cool.

My part in the whole thing was to be a group leader of three students, and to help lead a workshop. There were four workshops altogether each led by two ALTs. The students were divided into four groups and rotate through the workshops. We also helped with skit preparation and participated in whatever activities were going on, like debate sessions.

So what it came down to was that in return for spending two mega-fun days hanging out with a bunch of awesome high school students who have decent English, they gave me two days off of work to use whenever. There were no drawbacks! I will most certainly volunteer again next year.

Group Photo:

group photo from Awaji camp


So now that I am finally posting this, let me say my family is not coming in two weeks. My sister arrives tomorrow and my parents follow a week later.

I'm excited!


At 1:02 a.m. PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Matt! About your second poem there, I wanted to ask before I forget: the words which were written to sound similar to some of the english words, I assume some are regular Japanese words... however by context some look more like onomatopoeia - for instance 'pin-pon' I'm guessing is meant to be a doorbell. If so, are they widely used and accepted onomatopoeia (like say 'meow'), or just one of many common forms for their given uses ('arf', 'bark', 'woof', etc.), or are they just kind of spontaneous ones that you assumed the audience would understand.

Also, regardless of the other answer I wouldn't be averse to some clarification on some of their meanings.

- Tom K

At 4:27 p.m. PST, Blogger Fletcher said...

rabu rabu sounds a lot like rub rub, but is meant to be love-love.

wai wai is the sound of excited children.

Mecha is local slang for really

kawaii means cute

kin-kon is the sound of the bells at school. The full sound would be something like "Kin kon kan kon, kon kan kin kon."

pin-pon is the sound of the doorbell or the 'correct answer sound.'

These are standard onamatopoeia.

baibai means buying and selling. The kanji is 売買。it can be used to indicate being open for business, and though it isn't used much in everyday talk, it is one combination taught to a lot of beginning foreing learners of japanese.

The test levels in japan are kyuu. Level one, the highest, is ikkyuu. Level three, second lowest, is sankyuu, and that is the level of japanese proficiency test that most foreigners take.

sankyu is the sound that comes out when a lot of japanese try to say thankyou. There is even a convenience store chain called Sunkus, which to japanese sounds a lot like Thanks.


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