Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Be nice to the ghosties and ghoulies*

Halloween is not really celebrated here in Japan, though like so many other things, it is becoming more popular. I teach at a high school, so other than my Halloween-themed crossword puzzle in those classes lucky enough to have me the past two weeks (we've had a number of cancelled classes for some reason) and a Monster board game I made, the day passed fairly uneventfully. Heck - not that I searched high and low, but I didn't even see a single PUMPKIN that I was tempted to carve. I didn't even see a SINGLE pumpkin!!!**

I have never been a huge Halloween fan (well, I liked the candy aspect, of course), but here, in honour of the day, is a Halloween pic from days of yore (thanks, Mom!).

My first Halloween (not quite 3 years old). Awww.

I would have posted more pics but Blogger is cranky and isn't letting me. Anyway, there are more to be found on my Flickr site.***

My favourite costume ever was the one I did twice (almost ten years apart). I sliced off my head and served it on a silver platter. Runner-up is, I think, the year Chris and I went to the library school Halloween party (in 1999, my first year at Dal, incidentally) as a Hamilton small-time gangster and his moll (you can guess who was who, though Chris does look pretty good in my heels and skirts) - it was very simple, and I wasn't a particularly sexy moll nor Chris a very dangerous-looking gangster, but that was part of the laugh - no photo, sadly, unless Rebecca maybe has one? (I know there's one circulating out there somewhere. Though of course that year Michele totally stole the show with her awesome Boy George routine; I only actually was introduced to her the next day, when I ran into her and Stuart downtown, and was I ever SHOCKED that she was the same person! But anyway, enough library-school in-talk.)

Happy Halloween, all!

* Ghoulies, not Julies. But be nice to her, too.

** God only knows where Brian found his.

*** Those of you who care will also note I finally gave my Flickr site a proper name. Yay me!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Photoblog #1

I call this "Camera Theft: A Tale in Two Horrifying, Dramatic Pictures":

The little bugger.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Watashi wa ...

I had such a weird day today. Really up and down.

It started off badly. I got in to school early because I had stayed over at Randal's last night, and because of the bus schedule (I don't usually bike there anymore), I am always early when I do that (for some reason, there is a bus from his place twice an hour every hour EXCEPT between 8:00 and 9:00, where there is just one bus at 8:00, so I have to take that one, otherwise I will be late for work). I was in a bad mood - general discontent with Japan, etc. etc., kind of thing. Thursdays are also my busiest day; I have three periods in a row, a short lunch, and then a fourth, and I wasn't feeling totally up to it.

Partway through my first class, I remembered that today the entire school was going to see a play in the afternoon. So there would be no class that afternoon.

Partway through my second class, the teacher who I was teaching with took advantage of a lull when the students were completing an activity to write down the schedule for departures for the play on the board(students were either bicycling or walking over, as the prefectural Arts Centre isn't far away), and I realized the departure times started partway through my next class. Which I then realized meant that I had no next class.


The depressing lunch (tiny salad and egg salad sandwich) I had bought on my way to school this morning turned out to be quite tasty.

It was really surreal seeing how this kind of school trip was organized - every single student went, plus most of the teachers; the theatre was booked entirely for us; the students, as I mentioned, made their own way over either on foot or on bike, without constant teacher supervision (though apparently the teachers did do roll call for each of the homerooms upon arival). They all parked their bikes in one of three temple yards near the theatre, with the teachers directing traffic so everyone parked in the same yard as the rest of their year. Like most things in Japan, crazy weird.

The play was quite good. Of course, I didn't understand a word, but I got the gist of it. It was about a famous wood-carver in the first part of the century who lived up in Aomori prefecture (northern tip of the main island, just south of Hokkaido) - his trials and tribulations, etc. It was a musical! In one of the main songs, where the woodcarver gets together with the woman who later becomes his wife, they sing a song that repeated over and over "Watashi wa" ("I am"), hence the title of this post. It was colourful and bright; it was fun - did I mention it was a musical?

Went back to school for about 20 minutes (we got back at 4:00 and I am supposed to work till 4:10) and then decided to go shopping at UniQlo, the place where all foreigners shop because it's the only place that sells clothes that fit us. (They are all across Japan and are kind of like The Gap but not quite as pricey.) Though my day had improved, I was still kind of in a residual bad mood. In Canada, the sure-fire way to improve my day was to shop for pyjamas (god bless Old Navy!), so I decided to do the same here (I wanted some warm ones for the upcoming winter anyway).

I bought two pairs of XL warm pyjamas and a pair of sweatpants. But Japan really needs to start making XXL size. XXL! Since when am I... Heh, welcome to Japan. Anyway, thankfully pyjamas and sweatpants are home-alone clothing anyway, because there's no WAY I will ever be seen in public in the clothes I just bought. (Too bad too - the PJs are really cute - one is a fuzzy dark red plaid pants with a pink long-sleeved fuzzy top, and the other is aqua pants and blue top. The sweatpants are just boring pale grey.)

Then I headed, on a whim, to the shoe store near UniQlo. I had been telling my supervisor just today that I really need some new shoes, since for some reason I only thought to pack one pair (of non-sandals or non-heels) for the ENTIRE year. I also had been telling her that whenever I go into a shoe store and ask the salesperson to see ANY shoe they might have in "ni-ju-go-han or ni-ju-roku" (25.5 or 26 - that's centimetres, btw), they usually laugh and then tell me "something-nai" (we don't have any).

Well, this store did. I tried on two pairs of knee-high boots - one slightly stylish but terribly practical pair and one pair that was much girlier though cool enough to be a biker chick in, though just a bit snug at the toes. I will leave it to your imaginations which one I bought. Trinity never had such good boots :) . I also bought a pair of black loafers - they have a bit of a heel but not a girly heel, so I can wear them with skirts (my current shoes look stupid with skirts) AND wear them when I'm bicycling (which I do a lot).

Then somehow I managed to get this all home on my bike. Not quite sure how I made it (I only have a front basket, and I didn't have my backpack with me today), but here I am, at home and in one piece.

I got home and there was REAL mail for me! At least, it was mail in an envelope with the address written by hand. But it had been mailed from within Japan and, as far as I could make out in the return address, also from Gifu. Well, I opened it and I am still slightly mystified - it seems to have something to do with the bills I paid at the convenience store the other day - there is a printout of the POS and then a lengthy handwritten note with a number of things circled, highlighted and underlined. Thank goodness my supervisor knows Japanese.

And that brings you up to date on my day.

Tomorrow night, I am attempting to establish a bit of a social life - I have been invited to a fondue party at the house of a girl I know. It will be me and a bunch of crazy party-loving Brazilians. Somehow yes, this is very Japanese.

That is all.*

* Till I think of something else.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

35 bottles of beer on the wall...

No, not more karaoke. (Thank goodness.)

Rather, it is Randal's birthday.

Happy Birthday, Randal!

Old enough to know better, young enough to do it anyway. That's what I like about ya.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, please

I am an RCT addict. But I don't have #3. And now, after seeing this (thanks, Randal!), I think I must have it.

This is awful. And funny. All at the same time. And man, They Might Be Giants! How cool is that?

Ahh, decisions, decisions...

We have to decide where to go for Christmas. We are currently booked on two different trips and need to choose one of the two.

Should we go to:
(a) Bangkok for 10 days and Beijing for 3?
(b) Bali for 10 days and Taipei for 3?

It boils down like this:

Bali was our first choice for Christmas. Then it looked like it was going to be prohibitively expensive to go, and we started looking elsewhere. We have been recently quoted a decent price for Bali - after taxes, we're looking at just over $1000 each. There are no direct flights, however, so we would have to stopover in Taipei for at least one night, so we decided to make it 3 days and visit there as well.

Bangkok was the one place we had kind of decided we were NOT going, for various reasons. But our travel agent slipped it in somehow, and the price is right: $500-$600 each, after taxes. Again, direct flights were all sold out, so we would have to go via Beijing - this could be a straight transfer (ie., no overnight), but we figure it would be interesting to visit (though it's worth mentioning the Chinese visa is about another $100 each).

Bali pros: We love Bali. We want to go mainly to Ubud, the arts and crafts centre. Bali is just magical; like nowhere else on earth. We also want to scuba-dive. Did I mention we love Bali?
Bali cons: It is a little pricey.

Bangkok pros: Two words: Thai massages. Two more: Good food. Bangkok itself is a cheap city and we could probably get out of the city and to an island somewhere for a couple of days for not too much more money in order to do some scuba diving.
Bangkok cons: The main problem is that the outgoing flight is Dec 22, a Friday, and we are both currently scheduled to work. Our schools will not like us trying to take that day off (but it can probably be arranged). We are on a waiting list for a Dec 24 flight, but who knows if that will go through. Also, it's not Bali.

We have been to both before. We both like Bali better, but Bangkok is nothing to sneeze at.

We haven't been to either Beijing or Taipei (well, I transferred once at the airport in Taipei, but that doesn't count). Strangely, it sounds like we need a visa for Beijing but NOT Taipei (though last time I checked, Taiwan was still technically part of China).

What to do, what to do?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Weather talk

Faithful readers of this blog will recall that not only am I related to my father, I am turning into him. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to you (or at least to those of you who know my father) to learn that I am slightly addicted to checking the weather. I used to live in Halifax, where it was liable to change every five minutes. Don't like the weather? Just wait. ...Like it now? :)

Anyway, my new favourite website is that of the Japan Meteorological Agency. Not only can you look up daily and weekly forecasts for all of Japan*, but you can look up weather warnings and advisories, marine warnings**, tropical cyclone information, and information on earthquakes and volcanic activity*** (yup, Japan has it all).

Living in the centre of Japan in Gifu has thus far translated to us missing most of the nasty weather systems - typhoons generally tend to lose most of their oomph whilst roaring across the Kansai plain or whilst swooshing down through the Japan Alps.

However, I have noticed recently an increase in the number of weather warnings which include Gifu. What are they warning about? Dry air. I don't even know what that means! Is that some strange Engrish way of saying, "Not raining"??? I've had drier, more staticky hair in humid-air Canada than in allegedly-dry-air Gifu. I don't get it.

* Check out those balmy temperatures, snow-bound Ontario, and weep!

** Gifu is completely land-locked, so I must admit I have never checked that page, but I'm sure it has useful information for seaside types.

*** Gifu doesn't have any volcanoes, but I *do* check this one periodically, just in case. I guess I should be grateful that, in a country that usually has about one earthquake a day (though most are very small and barely perceptible), we have not had one yet. However, this just heightens the feeling that the earth is saving up its energy to someday be unleashed in the torrent that will be the big Tokai Earthquake. I originally thought Tokai was just Shizuoka prefecture (the area south of Mt Fuji, southwest of Tokyo) - turns out to be Shizuoka-and-area, which definitely includes the southern part of Gifu prefecture. (Footnote to the footnote: Only Japan would name its earthquake disaster before it happens, right?)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The world must be about to end

Last night I did the unthinkable. I was actually sort of productive.

I got home around 5:00 and after doing some "necessaries" on the Internet, I decided to cook. Yes, me, cook. Yes, in my tiny kitchen. Yes, in the little kitchen with only one burner and a microwave and a rice cooker. Until this point, I had not been more adventurous than scrambled eggs for weekend breakfasts, and (instant) noodle soups for dinners. But I blew the doors down tonight, if I do say so myself. Whilst overly familiar with the microwave (and its complete inability to make popcorn from scratch, I might add), I resolved to tackle, in one fell swoop, not only the virtually-unknown burner but also the complete stranger of a rice cooker.

Thankfully, my rice cooker is not as complicated as Elliott's. I didn't think to take a picture, but suffice it to say, it is a pale grey rice cooker with one dial and only two settings. I was also lucky enough that my predecessor left me a little note about how to use it. Basically: (1) add rice; (2) add water; (3) rinse; (4) add water; (5) turn dial to setting 2 and when it is done, it will switch automatically to setting 1; (6) let sit at least 5 minutes. It truly couldn't be easier. Japan really is the future.

So I threw some rice in. I chopped and boiled an entire fat carrot. I steamed some green beans in the microwave. Then I chopped and fried two small pieces of chicken breast. The rice was done (25 minutes - amazing). I decided to go out on a limb and pulled a bean-and-sauce mix that I'd bought about a month ago from the cupboard, and threw the whole in the rice cooker onto the freshly sticky rice. Mix mix mix. Taste taste taste. Oh my god, it was soooooo good.

In fact, I think I must never cook here again, because I'm sure nothing else will ever live up to it.*

Then, as if cooking weren't enough productivity for one night, I cleaned out the entire futon closet. So now I can put my futon away properly in the mornings again. The slightly unfortunate thing is that clearing the futon closet did not necessarily translate into putting everything that *was* in the futon closet into a logical place, so there are strange piles of things here and there over the floor of my living area. But hey - Rome wasn't built in a day. I have at least another 10 months to clean up and organize this place, right?

* I did, however, decide to leave the whole glorious mess left behind in the kitchen as a lasting testament to the excitement and thrill of the evening's cooking experience...well, at least until this evening, when I will clean it up.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Best. Story. Ever.

Today I had a bad last class. The teacher had been convinced going in that his class would not like my lesson plan (storytelling, capped off with them writing a traditional Japanese story in groups of 3 or 4), and as is wont to happen, that became a self-fulfilling prophecy as he did nothing to encourage the students to participate, despite occasional flickers of interest on their part. I was grumpy-grumpy. I went to my ESS club (English Speaking Society, though the moniker barely fits at times), where we had a great game of Scrabble,* then back to my desk fully intending to grab my stuff and go home grumpy.

But on my desk was lying one of the stories written by some of the students in today's bad class. (I gave them extra time to finish their stories, with instructions to drop them off at my desk within the next day or two.) I remembered this group, a bunch of geeky-looking guys in the corner who had not progressed any further than "Once upon a time, there was" about two minutes before the class was to end, and who were anxiously poring through their electronic dictionaries for inspiration (and vocabulary).

And wow. What a story they wrote for me:

Once upon a time, there was bean-jum bread man.

"I am bean-jum bread man! Do you know me? If you don't know me, please search by the Internet."

Then, the "virus man" appeared. "Ha hi hu he fhooooo!"

And he took a strange gun - those who are shot become hungry - out, and shoot at citizens. The gun's beam made citizens hungry, so they fell down. Then, "Wait! Virus man!", bean-jum bread man arrived there.

"I'm right man. I hate bad man, like you."

"Be silent. Don't disturb me! This is my dream. My company sell grocery. If citizens become hungry, my company prospers."

"Pardon?" bean-jum bread man said. And he took flame gun out and shot him.

"Fire! Oh noooo... Heat is sore spot with virus."

However, citizens were still hungry. "You should eat my face," bean-jum bread man said. They ate him face, and finished eating, they noticed bean-jum bread man were still dead.

Brave bean-jum bread man died, but his taste remains in their memory forever.

Honestly. Just. Freakin. Awesome. They are getting 10/10.

It made my day so worth it. This is the story I will show to the teacher when he says again that his class is not so interested in my activity this week.

Turns out brave bean-jum bread man is in fact Anpan Man - anpan translates to bean-JAM (not "jum") bread - a Japanese cartoon character of long standing (around since 1968 and still going strong), and you can read all about him here. CLICK THAT LINK! :)

* The Japanese do everything differently. For Scrabble, we all started with 7 letters like usual, but the point was to combine all 7 letters on the desk in front of you into one or more words (as if it were your own private Scrabble board). First person to do so "wins" that round, and the rest have to take an extra letter. You can make new words each round (ie., you do not have to keep words you have already created). And so on. I busted one of the second-years for trying to spell words the Japanese way - "gavament" turned out to be how she thought "government" was spelled, "hangly" for "hungry" - I felt bad because I couldn't stop laughing but luckily she thought it was funny too when she found out the proper spellings.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pictures, pictures, rah rah rah

Tonight was strictly labelled as one to be spent cleaning the dump that I call my apartment. I have dishes outstanding from last week. I have travel brochures and items from our trip to Hiroshima almost two weeks ago. I have unfolded laundry from last Thursday sitting in a pile in my futon closet. I have a futon loosely folded on the floor for the past EON since I have aforementioned laundry in the futon closet (and other junk too).

So, um, instead, I spent the evening eating my dinner (edamame (salty peas in a pod) and unagi on rice (barbecue eel) for like two hours, then I surfed the web at random, then I spent the last hour and a half posting pictures on my Flickr site. From the Bunkasai in early September, the Cultural and Sports Festival. It was lots of fun.

Now, I am going to cap the night off in perfect lazy fashion - start a new garbage bag for some of the junk that has been stinking up my kitchen, then make a nice steaming mug of Milo and drink it in bed while munching on two Japanese Oleo cookies (I promise I won't make any crumbs - that would be too yucky). I'm exhausted from all this non-cleaning procrastination!

Just when I thought I'd seen it all...

In one of those classic "oh my god WHY don't I have my camera here?" moments, today I took a double-take when looking at the contents of my school lunch. "Um, Hattori-sensei," I whispered to the teacher who sits next to me in the staffroom, "my lunch is looking at me."

She couldn't stop laughing. For part of today's school lunch we had a little salad of what I had initially thought was that skinny, shredded up lightish-coloured nori (seaweed) that they seem so fond of here. As I was about to dig in, I realized the nori had eyes. Then I realized the nori was, in fact, little skinny fish. With little beady eyes. Yup, we're definitely no longer in Kansas, Toto.

After she stopped laughing, Hattori-sensei told me the name of the fish (which I now forget, of course) and advised me it was delicious and that she eats some every morning for breakfast. I bravely tried some. And you know what? It wasn't half bad.

At the grocery store tonight, however, when I happened to notice package after package of the same little beady-eyed fish, pre-wrapped and ready to go, I must admit I kept walking. I'll stick to cereal for breakfast for now, thanks.

Friday, October 06, 2006

No one must ever know about this...

Today we went on a school trip. All the second- and third-graders were going to Kyoto, and the first-graders to Takayama. I accompanied class 2-2 to Kyoto. We took a bus. I was warned ahead of time by Hattori-sensei, the homeroom teacher of 2-2 who is also an English teacher, that the students might ask me to sing on the bus. So I have been busy the last few days reviewing words to songs like "Kumbaya" and "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall", maybe even "Hey, Jude"... you know, the kind of songs students sing on long bus trips to pass the time (3 hours to Kyoto).

Wrong. I forgot Japan is the future.

The bus was equipped with karaoke. There were plugs every few seats for the mikes (2), so everyone could easily have a turn.

I managed to slip unnoticed through the morning karaoke. But in the afternoon, on the way home, I woke up from my nap JUST in time to be forced to lead a rousing karaoke rendition of the only English song of the day, "My Heart Will Go On." Yes, the Titanic theme. Yes, by Celine Dion.

The only worthwhile contribution to the state of the world from this whole karaoke fiasco was that, afterwards, Hattori-sensei told me that I had shattered a stereotype for her - she has heard four previous ALTs do karaoke, and she has assumed that foreigners must not be able to sing since they were apparently ALL terrible. (Japanese take their karaoke seriously.) It only occurred to me later that perhaps the absence of beer on the bus (and we hadn't even had a chance to take all the bottles down and pass them around!) could have had something to do my ability to stay (remotely) on key.

There are, fortunately, no pictures or video of this event to prove that it happened. So I deny everything.

And now, please excuse me: I must go wash out my mouth my soap, many, many times.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Time flies when you're having fun...*

...and suddenly your 60-day assessment is being written and posted on Day 67. Oh well.

I've been asked a number of times recently how I like Japan, and I never have a good answer. So here are some random thoughts (and pictures).

The Job

My self-appointed "Japanese mother", Tanaka-sensei, one of the "tea ceremony club" girls, and yours truly...

My school is good. I haven't done a lot there yet. I did a number of self-introduction lessons (complete with Powerpoint presentation chock'a'full of pics of my family, maps of Canada, and lists of my favourite things) between Aug 28 (first day of classes) and September 15, but haven't taught an ACTUAL, regular class yet. We had a modified schedule the first two weeks because of the school's cultural/sports festival which took place Sept 5,6, and 8 - speaking of which, I will post some of my great pics from that event on my Flickr site soon. Two weeks ago, none of the teachers with whom I teach (there are six) wanted to start a new lesson, because the next week, last week, was exams. This week I have been at a junior high school, which has been fun, except it has entailed a new round of slightly modified self-introductions (which I'm sick of giving, and the new handout and lesson plans I made for the classes works well in some cases and fails dramatically in others).

The teachers I teach with, however, are pretty nice. A little hard to track down sometimes, and I am not known for running around trying to get noticed. But they all seem to have a fair bit of confidence in my ability to teach, which is nice. I only teach conversation classes, though of course I can work in some writing/reading components, and I only teach first- and second-years. I wish I was more involved in the other English classes (reading and writing) - Randal does a whole range of class types at his school, for example - but you can't change the system in a day.

The whole concept of teaching English here is a little strange, and could entail multiple blog entries in its own right. In a nutshell, English for many, many years was taught here in a fashion similar to how people learned Latin: as a language worth translating but not actually to be used. While the JET programme puts ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in a large proportion of schools across the country in an effort to get students actually using English in conversation and in an attempt to poise English as the natural second language of Japanese, the reality is far from this. Despite having the JET programme in place for 20 years now, the teaching methods are still often arcane (translation from Japanese to English, which never, never works, unless the students have a better idea of how English is actually used), and the ALT is seen as someone who comes to the class once a week (or so) to get the students running around saying "Iamfinethankyouandyou!" (It truly is amazing – I never realized that entire sentence was in fact just one word, not to mention one that must be stated quickly and even militantly.)

My high school does better than this, thank goodness, though it still has its fair share of moments. My instinct thus far tells me that they want the students to feel more comfortable using English as a spoken language, but they are hesitant to actually challenge the students to do so. I don’t want to bore the students with grammar and nitpicking, but at the same time, high school students should be expected to do more than ask directions in their second language. In my French class in high school, we were expected to debate and do presentations, etc. My French was higher level than their English is, but there’s no good reason for that; by my last year of high school, I had only studied French for maybe a year or two more than they have.

The Living Quarters

The beautiful night-time view from my futon.

I have already posted some pics of my little apartment, so not much to add. It’s small, it’s cute, the area is OK. Randal’s area is nicer – less urban and the people are friendlier, but I am more conveniently located to get downtown. But it is weird not living together and we wish we hadn’t decided to do that. Too late now to change our minds, unless we decide to stay a second year (which is looking doubtful at the mo’, but that’s another story for another day, and also subject to change at any moment).

The City

The streetscape of downtown Gifu (T) and inside the covered arcade mall, Yanagase (B).

Honestly, probably the best thing about living in Gifu City is that it is conveniently located in terms of getting elsewhere. The majority of places we are interested in visiting in Japan are within a four-hour train ride, so can be easily visited on a long weekend. Nagoya, the 4th largest city in Japan, is a 25-minute, 450-yen (about $4.50) train ride away, and from there it is easy to fan out to many other places. Similarly, Gifu itself is on the major local train lines (but not the shinkansen) and so well-positioned for local travel.

In all fairness, however, we have not really given Gifu a fair shake yet. We spent part of an afternoon a few weekends ago kind of lacklustrously (is that even a word?) shopping in Yanagase, the vast covered arcade mall downtown. There are some museums in town we haven’t visited yet. We have not even hiked up Mount Kinka yet (or been lazy and taken the ropeway, for that matter) and visited the castle perched on top. We haven’t even gone to see the ukai (cormorant fishing) yet, though I live right next to the river! Most of our Gifu excursions have been ones bogged down by logistics and practicality: Where can I buy groceries? How do I take the bus from X to Y? Where is the main Board of Education office? Where can I get a multiple re-entry visa stamp? etc.

Gifu is apparently a good place to buy paper items, especially umbrellas and lanterns. I plan on picking up a few before leaving. But as is so often the case, you get to know other places better than your own… I never visited the Parliament buildings in my two years in Ottawa, though I kept planning to (though in my defence, I did do a tour of the Centre Block about ten years ago).

The Country

Model of Princess Sen and maidservant in the "Cosmetic Tower" of the West Bailey at Himeji-jo, ca. 1618 or so.

Is Japan everything I’d hoped it would be, and then some? Well, yes and no. I think I initially came over here thinking that every day would be an adventure, and that there’d be enchantment for 365 days straight. At least, that’s how I felt for the 8 days I was here in Japan in 2004. But then I recall that, in fact, there was only enchantment for 7 of those 8 days. The last day was spent wandering the streets and shops of Osaka, feeling like a lost child, wondering where I could go to cool down, where I could sit and rest, where I could eat without breaking the bank. Until I got to my capsule hotel that night and the enchantment was renewed over the novelty of it all.

And that’s the main "problem", if you can call it that: Japan is not continuously novel. And really, it is unrealistic for me to think it should be. There are moments of novelty, wonder and amazement. But there are many days and evenings eaten up by much more mundane things, like sorting my garbage for recycling or wandering the grocery store in search of tasty-looking food whose cooking instructions I can actually understand. It is sometimes awfully like my life in Ottawa: I get up, I get ready for work, I have breakfast, I swear as I realize I am yet again running late for work, I get to school. Randal bicycles through rice paddies on his way to his school, but my surroundings are much more urban, though punctuated with the occasional garden or bonsai tree. At school, I prepare lessons, I chat with my co-workers, I run around and teach classes. Bento lunches at school are fun (I’ll take a picture of one in the near future) but again, the novelty quickly wears off. After lunch, if I don’t have classes, I sit at my desk and work, trying to stay awake through the afternoon doldrums. I leave usually between 4:30 and 5:00, and I either bicycle straight home or I go to the grocery store for aforementioned wandering or to the mall for shopping (I am addicted to 100-yen shops). Once home, I do laundry or clean (my floor is hardwood and constantly looks dusty) or read a book or waste time on the Internet chatting and surfing. I eat dinner. 85% of the time, I then stay up too late, going to bed after 11:30, and the next day it starts all over. There are no temples. There is no festival-dancing or sake-drinking with strangers who have decided to be your new best friend (for the evening). I have not yet learned even one of the 57 ways to wear a kimono, and no one sits outside their house in the evening playing traditional Japanese harp or practicing calligraphy.

So I could be anywhere. Though of course in Canada I would at least be able to communicate with the sales clerk that my bicycle light has burnt out, and I would be able to read the packaging which says to let noodles soak overnight before cooking. Heck, I would also be able to figure out how to use my washing machine!** However, I could be as functionally illiterate in any other country where they don’t speak English or French, right?

But then I wouldn’t be in Japan. And I guess that is the answer to whether Japan is all I’d hoped it would be.

If I wasn’t in Japan, I wouldn’t have spent last weekend train-hopping from Nagoya to Himeji and Hiroshima, where I visited one of the most beautiful castles in the world, discovered a small hall built into a hill that was filled with Buddha statues and hanging lanterns, and wandered through the rain past what I believe to be one of the most poignant monuments to remembrance and peace (the A-Bomb Dome). I also wouldn’t have been woken up, a few weeks ago while over at Randal’s place for the weekend, by neighbours asking if we wanted to accompany them and their children to a small picturesque town about an hour’s drive away for the day (I managed to climb up to and visit the castle there, oddly enough). Kyoto would not be a feasible weekend excursion, and Mount Fuji would not be constantly lurking at the edges of my mental horizon, taunting me to get into shape so that I may climb it (currently scheduled for sometime next spring).

Things can’t always be novel and exciting, and I realize that. So I look forward to the interesting moments when they happen. I still think it’s neat that at every day at 5:00 p.m., the Big Ben chimes ring out in electronic form from a nearby building.*** In Randal’s neighbourhood, apparently it is "Moon River" at 6:00 p.m. There is a guy who drives around my neighbourhood in a van with a loudspeaker playing flute music over and over – I found out a while ago that he is the tofu-vendor! If you want tofu, you come out to his van with a container, and he’ll sell you as much as you want. Little tiny hole-in-the-wall places turn out to serve tasty cheap meals, and small shrines pop up in the most unexpected places. There is a gecko that occasionally visits my balcony, and, well, when all else fails, there are the bats that swoop around every evening at dusk – surely they provide enough excitement for any girl.

So I guess for now I will settle for sitting in my little apartment, looking up at Gifu Castle looking down at me.

I’ve conquered the towering heights of Himeji-jo (T) (twice now, actually) and the much humbler Gujo-jo (B) … Will Gifu-jo be next? Stay tuned…

* AKA The Post That Caused So Much Grief And Anguish Yesterday

** Current standings: Julie = 0 ; Washing machine = 2. I think I will take a page from Erriotto’s book and check out the webpage he mentioned a while back, which allowed him to figure out his rice cooker (another piece of electronic equipment I own but have yet to tackle).

*** The Big Ben chimes are, of course, also used in what seems to be ALL the schools in the country for signalling the beginning and end of each period, rather than a regular bell or buzzer.

There, isn't that better?

I was heading for bed when I suddenly remembered the excursion to the grocery store had included a trip up the cookie aisle ... Thank goodness for the multinational corporate nature of Nabisco.*

* For the record, that is probably the first and last time the words "multinational corporate nature" will be used on my blog to mean an inherently good thing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Is there a "stop" button on this thing?

I'm having a frustrating evening. I left the junior high where I am teaching this week a little early (ha! it was 4:00 - that's not really early) to go to my usual high school to talk to a few of the teachers about lesson plans for next week. When I got there, it turned out they were all in a staff meeting till at least 5:00. I thought staff meetings were usually the first Monday of the month. Apparently not. So I left.

I bicycled over to the grocery store at the nearby mall, which is farther away from home than my usual grocery store but tends to have a better selection, because I wanted to get some sushi or (preferably) chirashi for dinner. They didn't have any nice trays. I ended up picking up some fried chicken and rice.

On my way home, I took some side streets to explore, and I discovered a small grocery store that is about two blocks from my house, rather than the one about 10-15 minutes away, where I usually go. Didn't go in, so I can't swear to its quality, but I saw a nice selection of fruits and veggies through the front door. I'll never be able to find it again - Japan is like that. I bet they sell sushi there too.

Got home and tried to upload the blog entry I wrote at school today (what can I say? JHS is not very busy; I'm only there for one week so it's not like I can plan ahead). Blogger goes through all the motions of letting me add pictures, then ultimately fails to upload them. I spent almost an hour fighting with Blogger over this. Shelve my blog entry for another day.

Remembered that the other reason I'd decided to go to the mall was to buy some pins to stick in my world-map that I have up on the wall (I'm marking all the places I've been, and I ran out of pins - that either means I've been lots of places or I don't own enough pins; not sure which). Maybe tomorrow I'll go back to the mall.

The fried chicken and rice was mediocre and forgettable. I can get better (and healthier) food at the convenience store next door.

I'm doing some research for a lawyer back in Canada, and I'm sort of on a deadline (she never actually gives me a date, but I assume she wants this soon), and I can't find anything useful. She told me to spend an hour to see what information I could find on the topic (IP-related stuff); I have spent almost two so far, not wishing to declare defeat. It is not a tricky topic; the world is obviously just against me today.

I tried calling Randal a few times in order to complain about the state of my life over here (lucky him), but there's no answer at his place.*

To console myself, I made a bowl of microwave popcorn but less than half the bag ended up popping even though I set it for five minutes. (My microwave here takes twice as long to do anything as it would do at home.) I remain, unsatisfied. I may have to make another bag (they're much smaller than the ones at home), and then I will have to bicycle back to the mall tomorrow to get more.

Tried Blogger again. No luck.

Stared at my world map for a while, trying to figure out how France (where my good friend Mark now lives) could possibly be only 7 hours behind Japan while Toronto is 13. Isn't it later in China right now than it is in Japan, and thus later in Afghanistan than in China, and so on through the Middle East to the Mediterranean and Greece and so on? Which makes France ahead of Japan by logical (to me) extension, but then Canada would also be ahead - it's like horrid Grade 13 math conundrums all over again. I just can't wrap my head around it.

I should have quit while I was ahead.**

* In his defence, he has to get all his marks in for his class by tomorrow, and he apparently got two hours' sleep last night as a result of sitting up late trying to finish the marking, so he's probably asleep ...

** Sometime around 7:10 this morning, right before I got out of bed.