Sunday, December 16, 2007

bloggus operandi

We're leaving for Winnipeg tomorrow for 9 days. That's all I have to say for now. Just didn't want anyone to accuse the blog of having once again kicked the bucket or anything like that.

In other news, we are snowed in. Almost literally. It's been snowing hard all day. Randal went out to the store in the late afternoon, and the snow had drifted up across our front walk so that it was almost halfway up his thighs. I haven't seen waist-high snowdrifts like this since we lived in Quebec City. I tried to take some pictures but they didn't really show the scale very well. I may try again tomorrow on our way out. It's really neat - I like it!

Monday, November 26, 2007

See that white stuff? It's called snow.

When I was a kid, we lived in Halifax, and I remember thinking that my birthday was the greatest day of the year because it was always the day we had our first snowfall. Now, I have no proof that it first snowed on November 22 consistently every year, and when I think about it, I'm sure there were years when it snowed much, much sooner. But for the last 10 years or so, it's been the reverse: No snow on my birthday. Winter has been coming later.* So I was thrilled this year, when on the 20th and 21st, we had little snowfalls, and then a big one on the 22nd!

First snowfall!

This is a picture of our little backyard and the park behind. Sadly, we are in need of more snow now, as it doesn't look so pristine anymore. The last few days have been mild, and it's started to melt and become half-icy, half-slushy. I never thought I'd say this, but I WANT MORE SNOW!!!

In other news, the birthday was well-spent. It was really low-key. I spent the first part of the day lazing around, then I went to the gym. Then Randal made me dinner and it was sooo tasty: bacon-wrapped scallops for an appetizer, butternut squash soup, salad with mangoes and pomegranates and apples, then a main course of baked salmon, and finally, birthday carrot cake and tea! Lovely.

Over the weekend, we painted one room - the little front bedroom that is now going to be our "office" (computer room, really). Instead of butter yellow, it is now a nice dark, mossy green. Today we are putting together the IKEA computer desk. Tomorrow, I'm off to the gym. Wednesday, we're painting our bedroom. Then, Thursday, we're off to Toronto for the weekend. Next week, more painting.

So you see, I don't just sit around in my jammies and play video games all day long. Though that sounds awfully tempting.

* And before you all start saying, "No snow! Isn't that great!", let me compare the lack of snow in Japan in Nov/Dec/Jan to the lack of snow in Canada during the same time period. In Gifu City last winter, the snow was almost non-existent. It didn't even get very cold, for that matter. (At least not for a Canuck.) The grass stayed green. The skies were often blue. Plants continued looking nice. And people grew flowers, yes, flowers, outside in pots throughout the winter. It was pretty and colourful. I told my students, when they asked me why I thought it was better to have lots of snow in the wintertime, that the snow, in Canada at least, where nothing else is growing in winter, hides the ugliness of winter. It is bright and crisp and clean. Of course, I left out part about the spring when it all melts and becomes a foot of slush. Yuck.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's my birthday. So there.

Things have been so up in the air around here that I just haven't really felt like posting, not that there's much to post about. Randal and I moved into our townhouse on October 30, and since then, there has a been a flurry of shopping and unpacking and organizing and going to Toronto and coming back and more unpacking and more shopping. I think Randal and I have done more shopping in the past few weeks than we've done in our entire relationship to date!

I'm working on taking photos of our place and will start posting them, bit by bit. Still no employment for me, so I really have no excuse other than my usual procrastination and laziness. I just put up the entire Roadtrip to Winnipeg, so please feel free to amuse yourselves with viewing those in the meantime.

In other news, after two tiny snowfalls in the last two days, we are now having our first real snowfall/storm of the year. It's beautiful, but what I really dig about the whole thing is the current feed from the CBC-Ottawa webcam:

anyone got a shovel?

God, I love Canada.*

* In other news, rumour has it that Elliott (he of the no-I'm-never-updating-this-again blog is thrilled.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Back to The Cap

Randal and I moved back to The Cap today. Well, half-moved. We drove up to Ottawa, picked up the keys to our new townhouse and dropped a few boxes off there, and went to my aunt's place for the night. The actual capital-M move is tomorrow.

It will be weird, having our own place again and seeing all our stuff after all this time. We're not quite sure what's actually in that storage locker - we just have a vague memory of there being a LOT of it. This time, however, we actually have space for things - we're moving to a 3-bedroom townhouse. In the, uh, suburbs. Yes, pixxiefish is becoming a suburbanite. We're moving to Orleans, which is about 20-25 minutes east of Ottawa by public transit. It's actually a quite nice neighbourhood, and a 5-minute walk to the large nearby mall where the bus to downtown goes. I'm looking forward to it. Every time I see the new place, I remember how much I like it. We're going to have so much space! And the dog will have a yard (our whole reason for getting a townhouse). And there's a garden! It's too cool.

I plan on taking photos of the place hopefully before it's all full up with stuff, and then again once it's all unpacked, and will post those before too long. More to come, I'm sure, though it may be a week or (god forbid) two before we get Internet, etc., at home. Now here's hoping it doesn't rain.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Roadtrip, Part I*

What do an inukshuk:
Another inukshuk

Winnie-the-Pooh (1)

and an inappropriate pair of shoes:
These are *so* not beachgoing or rockclimbing shoes...

all have in common?

ANSWER: They all lead to the cutest dog in the world:
Why we left Japan

Part I of the Roadtrip to Winnipeg is now on Flickr. Soon to follow will be the Winnipeg Days (just a few pics) and then the Torrent of Photos Also Known As The Photos Taken On The Trip Home, When All The Leaves Were Changing And Hence The Scenery Was Disgustingly Beautiful.

* aka The Blog You All Thought Was Dead, Isn't!

Monday, September 03, 2007

The long and winding road...

We are headed to Winnipeg in the morning. Not only are we going to Winnipeg, but, in fact, we are DRIVING to Winnipeg. My parents have loaned me one of their cars for the next 2 weeks or so, so that we may drive to Winnipeg, visit with Randal's family, collect our puppy, and then return to Toronto. I've never driven through Northern Ontario, and I'm really looking forward to it. I don't think I've ever been further north than Bracebridge, near Algonquin Park.

It's about a 28-hour drive, which we plan on spreading out over 2 1/2 days. Should be fun. We have made some room on our cameras for yet more photos, prepared some snacks for the car, and lined up a bunch of tunes (on old-fashioned CD technology - no MP3 plug-in for the car, imagine!), and we're off! I might stop traveling someday :)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Business Class, Baby!

We made it to Toronto in one piece, and just for the record, the best part of the trip was, for the 9 1/2 hour Nagoya to San Francisco flight, being upgraded to Business Class. I don't know if I can ever travel with the unwashed Economy Class masses ever again.*

* Proving myself wrong before I even get started, I of course flew Economy Class from San Fran to Toronto, and it was fine. Also, perhaps, more suited to my long-term budgetary prospects.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

pixxiefish on the road

I'm sitting in our hotel room at the Nagoya airport, watching Randal finish his packing (he's almost done). It's been a long day, but I feel pretty good. So far today, I have survived the following:

- waking up at 4:30 a.m.

- leaving our nice Bangkok guesthouse at about 5:30 a.m. in order to find a cab to take us to the airport for 6:00 a.m.

- making it on to our 8:10 flight to Tokyo with loads of time to spare (as opposed to, say, missing the flight entirely)

- sleeping most of aforementioned flight (except for when they tried to feed me a full fried beef, veggies, and rice meal at, like, 9:30 in the morning! yuck!)

- playing a mean-ass game of Tetris on the on-flight entertainment system when I was conscious

- transferring in Tokyo without any mishap

- a hop and a skip later, arriving in Nagoya

- reclaiming the suitcases that we left behind in storage a month ago, despite (of course!) being unable to locate the storage receipts

- repacking everything so that all the weight is evenly distributed between our bags, and in a reasonable amount of time so that we actually will be able to sleep tonight!

Now I am sitting in bed, using Randal's laptop (there's wireless internet here - how sweet is that?), while he puts the last few things away in his bags, and tomorrow, we start the fun all over again!

Tomorrow our flight is not till 3:25 in the afternoon - 2:35 a.m. for you Windsor-QuebecCity corridor-ites in the crowd.

pixxiefish will be back in the sea soon!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

11 days???

I just glanced at my Countdown Clock on my blog, and it seems I am actually returning to Canada in 11 days. That's wild! And for once, I don't have a thousand and one boxes still left to pack (because I did that all in July when I left Japan - fun, fun).

We are still in Luang Prabang, and struck with indecision. Luang Prabang is very pretty and very nice - there are some wonderful temples and some tasty food - but there's not really much left for us to do here. We've visited most of the temples and we've eaten lots of the food. However, we're feeling unmotivated to move on. See, Luang Prabang is cheap. There's cheap good food, and cheap good handicrafts at the market, and our guesthouse room has satellite TV with HBO movies every night and... god, I'm a terrible traveler.

Anyway, all good things must come to an end, and we're going to leave Luang Prabang tomorrow. Or, well, maybe the day after. On Tuesday, there is an air-con bus going northeast to Phonsavan, which is the town near the mysterious Plain of Jars (on Monday, there is just a regular local bus). It takes about 8 hours to get there, or possibly more at this time of year (rainy season). We'll head up there for just two nights, so one full day to visit the Plain of Jars. That takes us to Wednesday or Thursday (depending on when we leave here), and then we plan on flying down to Vientiane, the Laos capital. Cheap flights. 4-5 days in Vientiane, then either fly to Bangkok on the 26th or 27th, or take an overnight train there, with 1-2 days in Bangkok before we fly home to, first, Nagoya (on the 29th), and then Toronto on the 30th. Wow. Crazy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A little Heritage in my life...

So there hasn't been a lot of travel posting this time around, sorry. But there will (eventually!) be a lot of pictures!!! I promise.

We are now on Day 3 of Luang Prabang. This former capital of Laos is home to a number of World Heritage sites, and it's quite lovely. A little strange at first - I was expecting a small city, and got barely a town. It's quite small. You barely even see it as you approach by boat (the way most people get here). I don't think I've seen any buildings higher than 3 stories, and you can pretty much walk the entire town on about an hour. (OK, maybe two.)

Laos is a former French colony (they used it as a buffer for Vietnam from Thailand), so there are many buildings in the French colonial style. Some of the buildings look like they are direct descendants of some of the buildings in Vieux-Quebec, but many have a more "modern" colonial look to them (since Quebec was a 17th century French colony, while Laos was 19th and 20th). And did I mention it's tiny? I wasn't crazy about it at first - it felt like a built of a tourist circus - but it's grown on me.

Prior to coming here, in a nutshell:

Stayed in Bangkok for 5 days. Mostly wandered a lot, visited some wats (temples), shopped in some markets, that sort of thing. We are heading back to Bangkok in a few weeks and will visit the Grand Palace then. Then we took the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai which was as enjoyable a trip as I remember it being last time around (I love sleeper trains). I've been to Chiang Mai before, of course, but I didn't get to see much of the town - this time around, I got a much better feel. We were also staying at a great guesthouse called "CM Blue House" which was really central and uber-comfortable. We originally had planned to stay in Chiang Mai for 3 days, but we stayed 5.

Then, last Friday, we tore ourselves away from Chiang Mai and took a minivan to Chiang Khong, a small town on the border with Laos. That was a 5-hour ride, fairly un-noteworthy. We stayed overnight in a guesthouse on the Mekong River, and then the next morning, took a "ferry" (tiny boat) across the river to Houay Xai, where we crossed through immigration and into Laos. Then we were off to the slowboat docks, for the 2-day boat ride down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. You don't sleep on the boat - you spend the night about halfway down, in a small village called Pak Beng. We had a bottom-barrel guesthouse there - it was a room with a fan and twin beds, but the electricity was shut off around 11:00 p.m., so the room was SWELTERING. Not my favourite night. Anyway, it was clean, which is what's important. Day 2 on the boat was more enjoyable than I thought it might be, and then we got to Luang Prabang! We're been here 3 days so far, with the intention of staying 2 or 3 more. Right now we are trying to figure out the most painless way to get to Phounsavan, the town in northeastern Laos near the famous Plain of Jars site - there doesn't seem to be a painless way to do it (8-hour local bus ride seems to be one of our only bets) - and then after a day or two there, we head down to Vientiane, the Laotian capital.

You are now up-to-date.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I'm in Bangkok!

So as the title of this post suggests, I am now in Bangkok. Not much time to write, and we haven't done a heck of a lot yet anyway, so here's the rundown: We had a frustrating time getting out of Japan but now it is done. Flight over was excellent (I love free booze on airplanes). Took a cab into town and checked into our guesthouse (which was prebooked) with no problems. We are staying in a nice little guesthouse called Shambara just off Khao Sarn Road (THE road where foreigners go when in Bangkok - filled mostly with grubby backpackers, but there's lots to see and do), which is quite nice. Had an awesome Thai dinner last night (chicken and veggies in penang sauce with rice) - god I love Thai food. In bed by midnight, and today we got a late start, heading out only at noon, so, so far, all we have accomplished is lunch (I had pad thai with chicken, tofu, egg, and veggies) and, now, Internet. We are looking into going to a travel clinic this afternoon since we are both behind on our typhoid vaccinations (oops) and then some wandering. Dinner perhaps at a restaurant along the river - did I mention I love Thai food? Then we will discuss whether we are going to Laos or not (the other options are diving and/or Malaysia instead).

Yeah. It's a hard life.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

On the road again...

I'll be on a plane to Thailand in just over 12 hours (yes, I should be in bed, Mom, and yes, I am headed there soon).

I wanted to post some thoughts about Japan and my year here and the like, but a lot has happened in the last two weeks, the wind has been taken out from under my sails, and I just don't have the time/inclination anymore. I will at some point. There's been a lot of introspection going on in my little head over the past while, and I just don't have the energy to get into it now.

But Thailand! Wow! This will be my second time there, and I can't wait. It is also Randal's second trip, but our first trip together. Our plan right now is 5-7 days in Bangkok, then up to Chiang Mai (northern Thailand) for a few days. We then may go to Laos for about 2 weeks, though recently we've both been waxing poetic about Malaysia (where we have also both previously been), so plans might change, who knows? Anyway, I will try to keep you all updated as best as I can via this blog, and we return to the Great White North (for those of you who are counting) on August 30.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Déjà vu (more earthquakes!)

So Randal and I are lying in bed last night at our hotel in Tokyo, watching the news about the earthquake yesterday morning in Niigata-ken. (We didn't have much choice - it was pretty much the only thing playing on any of the channels.) It was a substantial quake, about 6.6 in magnitude. Of course, the earthquake a few months back north of here in Ishikawa-ken was stronger than that (7.1), but it occurred farther off the coast, and Ishikawa-ken is also fairly remote, so a lot less damage occurred. Yesterday's quake killed 9 people and 1 more is missing (as of earlier today, so that may have changed). Dozens of homes and buildings were destroyed. Some of the damage was pretty incredible. And the mystery of this one factory-like building that we kept seeing footage of (the news was all in Japanese, so we could only guess at some of the details), is solved, but slightly troubling: it was a nuclear power plant where some barrels of nuclear waste were damaged (leaked? I'm not sure). That's not very encouraging.

There was also a strong aftershock in Niigata-ken around 3:30 that afternoon that was felt as far away as Tokyo, but we were in Shinjuku at the time and didn't notice a thing. Some neat footage from camera crews who were out in Niigata-ken filming the damage when this aftershock hit.

Anyway, so we're lying there, watching the news, when the bed starts shaking. Yikes! Another earthquake. It was 11:18. This one was quite long, at least a minute in length, and picked up in intensity for about 8 seconds, about 30 seconds in, causing Randal's jacket, where it was hanging from a hook on the wall, to sway somewhat moderately. Of course, the news shows all start reporting on this right away. It seemed it was yet another aftershock, but today, now that I am home, I checked the JMA website, and it seems to be its own separate earthquake, and, additionally, the weirdest one I've ever seen:

OK, even if you're not an earthquake nerd (like me), you can probably figure out what's strange about this picture. The red X marks the epicentre of the quake. Normally, the strength of the quake diminishes the farther you get from the epicentre (with some variation, of course, but this is generally how it works). This earthquake seems to have done the opposite. It occurred in the Japan Sea well north of Kyoto Prefecture, but was felt the strongest in places along the Pacific Ocean coast, like Tokyo (it's listed as a 2-or-stronger in the area of Tokyo where we were staying). And the strongest reading of the earthquake - at 4-or-stronger - was in Hokkaido, which is many hundreds of kilometres away!!! The only explanation that I, as a non-geologist, can offer for this is that perhaps it had something to do with the depth of the quake: It was 370km below the surface, which is really, really deep. Most quakes at that depth wouldn't even be felt, but this one registered 6.6 at the source. Tectonic plates are funny things, so maybe at that depth, it had more time to travel outward before it started to really be felt above-ground - ie., in places much further away.

To compare, here is yesterday morning's quake readings. It was 10km below the surface (quite shallow, which is partly, I think, why it caused the damage it did) and, as I said before, 6.6 at the centre. In Tokyo, where we were, it registered as a 2-or-higher. (They only give exact magnitude readings for the epicentre.)

And in response to Stuart's comment after the Ishikawa quake - yes and no, earthquakes are and are not a semi-regular event in Gifu. Japan is one of the most seismically active zones in the world - it's dangerously sitting on three different tectonic plates. There are probably anywhere from 5-12 quakes somewhere in Japan on any given day. Most of these, however, are barely felt. Some areas are more active than others - Tokyo, for example, gets a small quake probably almost once a week, from what I hear. Upon coming out here, we were told again and again to prepare an earthquake kit with emergency supplies. The Japanese themselves seem quite blasé about earthquakes, but (kind of) prepared - I guess they're like Californians - they know earthquakes will happen. In a way, actually, they're better off than Californians - the Japanese know that the majority of quakes will cause no, or very little, damage.

However, that statement doesn't include the reality for millions of Japanese living in the Tokaido area (which, incidentally, includes Gifu, though it's at the far end) - the area south and southwest of Mt Fuji - this area is about 20 years overdue for a major quake, and the longer the quake takes to come, the worse it will be. Japanese earth scientists are confident they can predict when the quake will strike, with the ability to give anywhere from a few minutes' to a day's warning. I don't know if that makes me feel better or not, if I believe their ability to predict an earthquake at all - a beast which is, by its very nature, quite unpredictable, at least to date. (They were so busy preparing for the Tokaido earthquake 12 years ago that they missed any apparent "warning signs" (if there were any...depends on who you believe) forecasting the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Tokyo dispatch

We're in Tokyo and my Japan experience is now finally and utterly COMPLETE. I have now experienced a TOKYO EARTHQUAKE :) :) :) *

We were getting ready to leave our hotel this morning. It was about 10:15. I had just stood up from sitting on the edge of the bed, when I got dizzy and clutched the wall behind me. Randal was standing right next to me, and we looked at each other and I knew right away that I wasn't dizzy...we were having a 'quake, baby! Tokyo gets them all the time. Our hotel was well-built, however, so from our digs on the 10th floor, it was just a swaying, back-and-forth motion. But it went on forever ... about a minute (I timed it).

Checking the JMA, I see there was a REALLY BIG (over 6.0) quake northwest of here... I'll have to watch the news tonight. I hope it wasn't too bad. (I thought it was just a local Tokyo quake - they get those all the time.)

Anyway, so here I am, sitting in a fourth-floor Internet cafe looking down over one of the busy streets radiating out from Shinjuku Station. Today is a holiday in Japan, but the only way in which that is apparent here is that there are perhaps a few dozen less people on the street than there would be on a regular weekday. You know those shots you see on TV of Tokyo where there's just a sea of people crossing at the crosswalks and walking down the streets? Those are all shot in Shinjuku. It is the heart of the town. And for me, Shinjuku *is* Tokyo - it's the first part of Tokyo I saw when I came to Japan for the first time 3 years ago, and it's the first place we were sent when we arrived in Japan with JET last August.

We've had a few good days here. We arrived in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon, after taking a 1:25 shinkansen from Nagoya. When we got to the train boarding area, it was just after 1:00, and to our dismay, some of the earlier trains (eg., 12:47) were still being listed on the departures board with a message that they were delayed. You might remember that there were warnings of delays on the shinkansen on Saturday because of the typhoon. Well, luckily, our train only ended up being delayed about 5 or 10 minutes. I saw on the news that evening that there may have been others that were delayed a much longer period. (The news was in Japanese, so I didn't entirely understand, but that was my impression.)

Our first night, we were staying in a hotel in the Ginza area, which is one of the shopping areas par excellence. If you have the cash, that is. We were tired, and it was pouring rain, so we hung around our hotel room for a while, then headed out to search for some food. We found an out-of-the-way sushi place which was just awesome. It was a gorgeous place - a round sushi bar where the chefs prepared the fish right in front of you. I had a mixed plate of sushi and Randal ordered the chef's sashimi special. It was great!

The next day, it was still quite rainy, so we decided to go to the Tokyo National Museum, which was just incredible. As is our way, we spent way too long there, despite having promised each other that we would not exhaust ourselves and not attempt to read every single explanatory sign. The last part of the museum that we visited was a gallery of treasures from one of the major temples in Nara (where we visited a few weeks ago). One of the rooms in this gallery had a bunch of Kannon goddess statues - there were supposed to be 47, I think, but I counted 27 Kannons and 13 Buddhas, so who knows? Anyway, I will post pictures at some point - or, more likely, Randal will, as he has more pictures of the museum than me - I've made this a very low-photography day.

Last night, we went for dinner in our new area, Ochanomizu. A kind of nondescript area itself, but we stayed at the same hotel we stayed at the last time we were here, the Tokyo Green Hotel Ochanomizu, which we really like (but was full Saturday night). Ochanomizu is near the booksellers' area of Tokyo, which I think is called Nihonbashi (but I could be wrong), and for dinner we found another sushi place! We weren't planning on sushi twice in a row, but this was a kaitenzushi or revolving sushi restaurant, and it just looked so good. It was amazing. The chefs there were great, and we ordered some sushi specially for ourselves (in addition to taking some that was available on the revolving belt).

Today, after surviving the earthquake excitement, we went out to Roppongi and Roppongi Hills, which is a futuristic shopping/entertainment/offices/residences complex. It was only OK. Not our kind of shopping. So after an hour or so of aimless wandering, we hightailed it out to Shinjuku, and, as they say, the rest is history. We've been people-watching, and wandering from games arcade to games arcade, most of the afternoon. Not a bad way to spend a day in Tokyo...

* Elliott, eat your heart out.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Impeccable timing, as always...

We're headed to Tokyo tomorrow afternoon after a brief stop in Nagoya (Randal needs to get a few travel vaccinations before we hit Thailand in 2 weeks).

This will be our last trip to Tokyo (of 3, if you even count the stupid first 2 days we spent in Japan holed up in a hotel at a boring orientation conference), and I'm really looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones planning to hit Tokyo tomorrow.

Allow me to introduce Typhoon #4. It's expected to sweep directly across all of Japan over the next 24-48 hours (in fact, it's already over Okinawa and well on its way to Kyushu), with our area in particular being hit tomorrow during the day. Currently the JMA is forecasting nothing worse than thunderstorms in the region, but I've been told by a number of people that we may expect some shinkansen delays.

Of course, we're used to those by now.*

* For those who didn't hear the sad story, last weekend on our way home from Fuji, we were already a few hours behind schedule when our 9:30 shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagoya was delayed for HOURS because someone, at a station farther up the line, had committed suicide by throwing themselves in front of a bullet train (ouch). We ended up leaving Tokyo at midnight, and only got home to Gifu at 3:30.

How is Mt. Fuji like Halifax?

This is certainly a trick question. They undoubtedly have absolutely nothing in common.

Mt. Fuji, 5th station (2)

Their climates couldn't be more dissimilar, in fact.

Do not adjust your sets

The rocks at Black Rock Beach are nothing like those on Mt. Fuji.

How about now? Are we there yet?

Point Pleasant Park has some nice trees, but none that look like they fell out of the scene where Black Riders are chasing Frodo and the other hobbits.

Hikers in the mist

And, finally, I don't think there are any caves in Halifax, unless you count The Ovens to the west of the city. But those caves were man-sized, and slime- and ice-free. Child's play.

Icicle Cave (1)

In fact, the only area in which I am willing to perhaps concede the wee-est, littlest link between Halifax and Mt. Fuji is in the inhabitants' impeccably fashionable rain-gear.

Ready to go!

And in Halifax's defence, going from, say, Pizza Corner down to the waterfront isn't quite so murderous on the knees.

Thank goodness I don't have to go down there again

If this hasn't turned you off completely, you can view more (lots more!) Mt. Fuji photos here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Skits, Rounds 3 and 4

So yesterday I did two more rounds of skits. The teacher I was teaching with this time is one of my favourites; he always seems to come up with good additions and suggestions to my classes.

Well, it turned out that this time, he had raised the skit stakes by telling the class that they could get up to 5 extra points in their English classes through their skit presentations (which, since my class is officially worth nothing, were otherwise also officially worth nothing). So that raised the motivation and desire to do well. Each group was given a marking sheet, where they assigned marks to each of the other groups based on a variety of factors (memorization, use of English, volume, action, etc.).

The results meant the skits were better than the skits from Rounds 1 and 2, though, in a few cases, only moderately so.

Anyway, without further ado, here is Round 3:

Peach Boys - Another modern telling of Momotaro. A boy is born from a peach. Later, he sets off to save his village from a terrible demon, this time with a volleyball (rather than kibidango, a traditional Japanese sweet). He makes two friends (who, coincidentally, are also peach-born boys) along the way, and they go together. The "demon" turns out to be the man who raised Peach Boy. He can't fight and kill his own father, so they play janken (rock, paper, scissors) instead. The old man loses and promises to stop terrorising the countryside.

Unlucky Person - An original drama written by a group of girls about one girl who is very unlucky. She bicycles to school and has an accident - her wheel is broken. Her mother has forgotten to put chopsticks in her lunch. The drink vending machine runs out of her favourite drink right before she gets there. You get the picture. It wasn't very interesting, but I appreciated the effort they had obviously put into it.

CM collection -- Love and hemorrhoids - Truly, I don't make these titles up! This was two guys watching infomercials on TV, so the rest of the group acted out a few scenarios. It was very strange. There were commercials for an energy drink that is popular with airline pilots, a card game called "Life Card" that is well-known here, and, as the title suggests, the obligatory advertisement for medicine to get rid of your hemorrhoids.

Urashima Hanako - Urashimataro is a traditional Japanese fairy tale about a boy who saves a turtle from being bullied by other boys, and in gratitude, the turtle takes him to the Kingdom Under the Sea, where he is wined and dined by princesses. Well, this time, a turtle saves a girl named Urashima Hanako from bullying, and then invites her (the girl) over for dinner. The only problem is, Hanako is going to be the main course! Needless to say, the story does not conclude happily. At least, not for poor Hanako.

Yamauchi School - About a boy named Yamauchi who attends a school also called Yamauchi. Twist is, Yamauchi is a magician, and so is able to stop the terrible bullying of his classmates by others that is going on.

Pirates of Okhotsk - World End - A swashbuckling pirate (dressed in a red T-shirt, jean shorts and a straw hat) saves an unassuming sailor from being mugged. He then demands money. Sailor is shocked that Pirate is not helping others simply out of the goodness of his heart. Pirate shrugs and says, "Them's the breaks." (Or something to that effect.) FYI, Okhotsk is the name of the sea between northern Hokkaido and the (disputed) Russian Kuril islands.

Intel & Life Card - A story about a boy who wants to become an entrepreneur and start a business that will make lots of money. Or, as one of the actors put it, "Shall we success from scratch?" Yes, let's.

TV Shopping - Another infomercial. This time, the exciting item for sale was an electronic dictionary. They lacked energy, but they had the patter down quite well: "I don't believe it! You can look up words fast? But this must be very very expensive." "Actually, it is just $199.99!" "Really?" "No way!" "Wow! That's incredible!"

Most Memorable Scene : Yamauchi the Magician points dramatically at his classmate and, in a loud voice, incants the magic words, "Mountain fire!" There is a pause. The boy upon whom a spell has been cast starts to giggle and makes urgent pointing motions toward one of the other boys. Yamauchi is momentarily confused, but then recovers and says, "Oh, uh, Mountain FIRE!" while pointing at the boy he was supposed to cast the spell on (the bullier, not the bullied). The class erupts into laughter.

And, Round 4:

Anpanman - Anpanman is a popular cartoon character, and I've written about him before. He is a superhero who is actually bread with bean jam (anko) in the middle (quite tasty, too). Today, Anpanman was called upon to save none other than ME (played quite convincingly by one of the girls) from the evil clutches of Mr. Miyagawa, the English teacher for that class (also played quite well by one of the other girls). It was just hilarious.

Goku vs Majin Boo - I don't pretend to understand this one, because I didn't, but it was obviously something all the students are familiar with. An epic battle between Goku and Majin Boo. This skit wins the Prize for Best Use of Chalkboard Visuals - one of the boys' main jobs in the skit was to draw the laser beams and magic and so on that was flying back and forth between the two foes.

Hally Potter [sic]- These guys were originally going to do Star Wars, but changed their minds when it turned out another group was doing Star Wars. They did the scene from one of the Harry Potter books where they are practicing the "Experience" spell. Which, in this case, caused the person upon whom the spell has been cast to launch into a mean tap-dance routine. It wasn't very well-prepared, there was a lot of fevered whispering back and forth in Japanese, but the dancing was great!

Big Eater Alice : Kuishinbou Alice - Alice can't stop eating, and when she sees a white rabbit, she decides she wants to eat it, too! The rabbit convinces her to eat some cookies instead. Turns out the cookies belonged to the Queen, and as you can imagine, the Queen is not amused.

Super Police Billy - About a police officer, Billy, who is obsessed with his muscles. He goes off to check a problem at a pet shop, where he meets a man with even better muscles. This man goes to boot camp every day. They decide, then and there, to start their own boot camp. But they must also learn English, so they forcibly enroll Mr. Miyagawa and me in the boot camp as well. The strangest shuffle-dance I have ever done then ensued.*

The 3 Little Pigs - After the 3 little pigs' mama dies, they must make their own way in the world. But #1 is lazy, and builds a straw house. #2 is shy and afraid, so she goes to live at a friend's house and never leaves home. #3 builds a house made of sweets. The big bad wolf comes by and is hungry. He blows the straw house done and pig #1 runs away. He delivers a pizza to the friend's house, and that is the only reason why pig #2 opens the door. She runs away. But at house #3, the wolf gets distracted from thoughts of pig by the sweets smorgasbord that this house provides, and starts eating it. The wolf gets a toothache. Pig #3 gives him some medicine that makes him feel better, and out of gratitude, he vows to never eat pigs again. They all live happily ever after.

A Peach Girl - A strange take on Momotaro. Peach Girl is born the usual way, and sets off to kill a demon. On the way, she meets a giraffe. She feeds the giraffe parsley, and they set off together to Onigashima (where the demon lives). (Oni means ogre, actually, but only rarely do the students seem to use/know this word). When they get to the demon's lair, they decide - surprise, surprise - to janken. In recognition of her loss, the demon presents Peach Girl and the giraffe with a giant box of parsley. Peach Girl claims it is not as good as her own "home-grown" parsley, so the three set off again to do a taste-test.

Kasazizou - Jizou are the small stone statues that you often see along roadsides, just outside cemeteries, etc., in Japan. This is a traditional tale about an umbrella maker who doesn't sell any umbrellas that day in town (other times, the story is about a scarf maker). Saddened, he (she, actually, in this case) sets out for home. He passes some jizou on his way and thinking they look cold and wet, puts an umbrella over each one. That night, he hears noises outside - it is the jizou who have come to say thank you.

Star Wars Episode 7 - Darth Vader somehow manages to be resurrected in order to fight Luke Skywalker, the "Champion of Justice, and Soldier of Jedi", one last time. Best Use of Weaponry: Automatically-extending umbrellas in place of lightsabers.

Best Blooper of the Class: Following in the footsteps of Yamauchi from the earlier class, when Peach Girl challenged the demon to playing janken in order to determine the outcome of the battle between them, the demon played rock, smashing Peach Girl's scissors. Oops. Giggles and a rematch ensued.

Cast of Anpanman
The cast of Anpanman!

* I have since learned, in one of my 1st-year classes today, in fact, that "Billy's Boot Camp", upon which this skit seems to have been loosely based, is a series of weight- and strength-training DVDs. Who knew?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off...

Following on a comment made yesterday by Randal, I looked up the exchange rate for the Canadian dollar from Japanese yen today.

I have concluded that I cannot actually afford to come home.

When we left for Japan last year in July, the dollar and yen were almost at par: 100 yen for $1.01 CDN. It made for quick-and-easy conversions. But now, to my dismay, the Canadian dollar is far too strong - good for you cross-border shoppers but not so good for us country-hoppers - I need 115 yen to get $1.00 CDN.

For the numerically-challenged (such as, er, myself), this means were I to come home with, say, 300,000 yen, which used to be about $3,000, I will now only get $2,600. Yikes!

So I have two clear options:
(1) Spend most of my money in Thailand and Laos before coming home.
(2) Stay in Thailand and Laos forever.

While the idea of daily Thai massages for the rest of my life is quite appealing, I don't think Thailand nor Laos can offer me a reasonable culinary substitute for my mother's paté chinois (shepherd's pie) or tourtière. So I shall liberally invest in Thailand's and Laos' tourism and artisan industries, and come home, as planned, on August 30. Slightly broke and somewhat unemployed. What a great plan :)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Off to make a molehill of a mountain

I'm off to Mt. Fuji in the morning.

Thankfully, that is not a live photo. I think there is less snow now. Uh, I hope there is less snow now.

Our plan:
9:30 train from Gifu to Nagoya, then shinkansen to a town southeast of Fuji-san called Mishima. That takes about 2 hours. From there, it is another 2 hours or so by bus around Fuji National Park to a small town called Kawaguchi-ko. We are checking in at a guesthouse there. Nap for a few hours, then in the late afternoon or early evening, bus to the 5th Station. Start hiking.

Hike. Hike some more. Collapse for a while at a mountain hut. Have something to eat. Then start hiking again. Hike and hike and hike and hike.

With any luck, barring falling off the mountain and/or succumbing to altitude sickness (Fuji is just high enough that some people do get sick, but we plan on taking it very slow), we'll be somewhere around the summit at sunrise on Saturday morning (Friday evening for all of you New Worldies).

Then, after reaching the summit, it is a simple matter of hiking back DOWN (what comes up...) to the 5th station, taking a bus back to our guesthouse, and collapsing there upon arrival. Preferably for most of the remainder of that day. Then, with any luck/energy, explore a bit that evening, then on Sunday till late afternoon, when we leave town, this time, taking the faster (but, strangely, more circuitous) route home through Tokyo. (Tokyo is east of Fuji. Gifu is west. There's no reason it should be faster to go to Tokyo first and then all the way back, rather than simply around the mountain, but it is.)

I'm hoping that if I anticipate the worst of this whole escapade (but determined nonetheless to see it through), it will in fact actually be all that much easier. Of course, I haven't let any of you in on the secret of what the weather is supposed to be like on Saturday (bearing in mind that the bulk of our climbing will be done overnight in the wee hours of Saturday morning:

Low: 14    High: 16
100% chance of rain


Skits, Round 2

Today's offerings were not as stellar as yesterday. They also, despite my best efforts to drag out the proceedings as long as possible, finished well within the class time (aka, the skits were mostly all too short). This meant I had to spend the last five minutes in an improvised conversation with the teacher, and it was just brutal:

K-sensei: "Uh, Julie-sensei. You are going back to Canada in a few weeks. You have been teaching at Gifukita for almost one year. Uh, what is your impression of Japan?"

Me: "Ohhh, Japan is very...uh, interesting. The culture is very different. The people are very kind. blahblahblah different from Canada blahblahblah students work hard blahblahblah." I'm not sure what I said but I was cringing as I said every bit of it, as it was SO cliche.

K-sensei: "Uh, OK, thank you."

[He checks his watch. I check my watch. 4 minutes left. Damn!]

K-sensei: "Uh, Julie-sensei. What is your plan in Canada?"

Me: "Uhhh, I should have a plan???" I stammered something about not knowing yet (good one - make them think you're leaving Japan because you must escape while you still can, NOT because you have an actual reason to go home) and some drivel about if any of the students are ever in Canada in Toronto or Ottawa to please visit me. Ugh.

K-sensei: "Uh, OK, thank you."

[He checks his watch. I check my watch. 1 minute left. Damn!]

K-sensei: "Let's finish early. Owarimasu!"

Thank God.

Anyway, enough about me. Here's today's offerings:

Akazukin - This was fairly well-done, but it never ceases to amuse me that the Japanese are convinced that Little Red Riding Hood is, in fact, a traditional Japanese fairy tale. They are always shocked when I tell them that I, too, know this tale. This, despite the fact that, in Japan, you can't find a pumpkin pie to bring to grandmother's house to save your life.

Modern Momotaro - Peach Boy again. But this time, grandfather went to play pachinko (instead of to the forest to cut bamboo) while grandmother went to do the washing, not in the river, but at the coin laundry. Then grandmother went shopping for groceries and brought home fruit for dinner. But she forgot the laundry! So grandfather goes to get it for her, and he finds a baby floating in the washing machine! The plot thickens.

We Are Puppets! - Sounded suspiciously like a story I remember from a junior high textbook, except the English wasn't perfect enough to be directly copied. A boy dreams of 5 puppets, who try to convince him to leave school and become a puppet like them. He doesn't like school but he does like his World History class teacher (the puppets don't like history), so he decides to stick it out as a human boy.

Let's Go On A Picnic! - Another skit that sounded like something you'd find in a junior high textbook. 5 boys meet and after talking about food they like, decide to have a picnic the next day. Who will bring what? Where shall they picnic? Dramatic levels ran high.

Doraemons - Doraemon is a hugely popular anime character here. After the 6 girls introduced themselves each as one of the show's characters, they launched into a dastardly plot to convince me (yes, me) to not leave Japan for Canada. But they decided that was not nice, and gave me a gift instead: a big thank you. It sounds cute, and it kind of was, but it was also TOO SHORT (about 90 seconds long).

Harry Potter - These girls did the scene in the first book where Harry first figures out how to fly. They brought brooms! (But were in the end too shy to use them...) This skit had the Best Commercial Plug of the Day: "Oh, Harry! You're wonderful! You're wonderful! ...And remember, the new Harry Potter movie opens on July 20, so why don't we all go see it together? The end!"

Hero X Satan - This skit started with a lengthy caveat emptor all in Japanese which I couldn't get them to translate (turned out later to be: "We are sorry. We did not do a speaking skit. We are now going to tell you a story.") 5 boys each told a long story about how they used to be a hero but then had a brush with Satan ("Sah-tan") and now their heroicism is diminished. OK, I didn't really understand this one. I think it's a boy's thing. (The boys in the class seemed to enjoy it, but the girls all seemed slightly perplexed.)

Best Line(s) of the Day, from Modern Momotaro:
Grandmother: "What's that baby?"
Grandfather: "He was in the washing machine."
Grandmother: "You ... you're joking!" [She hits him.]
Narrator: "They fighted for three hours."

Stay tuned, next week, for more Tales From The Skits!!!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Skits, Round 1

Two weeks ago, I gave my ninensei (second-year, or gr. 11) students an assignment to write and prepare skits, to be performed in our next class, which was also our last class.

Despite it being MY idea to do skits, I was simultaneously absolutely dreading what the students might come up with. The few times I have attempted to give ninensei anything even resembling homework, the result has been pretty shoddy. However, a few of the teachers had expressed enthusiasm about doing skits, so I figured I'd give it a whirl.

Skit presentations got underway today, and I'm pleased to report that they were pretty good! Of course, having prepped myself for extreme disaster, there was no way but up, so to speak. There was just about the exact amount of giggling and horrid, awkward dead air that I expected, but most groups had obviously put at least an ounce-and-a-half of effort into their skits. Almost no one memorized all their lines, like I'd asked them to, but they did a good job of reading their lines with, for once, some emotion and a modicum of acting, unlike their usual robot selves.

Today's offerings:

Thank You From the Crane - Japanese fairy tale about a young girl who comes to live with a childless man and woman, and weaves them beautiful silk clothes. She turns out to actually be a crane that the man had saved from a trap a while before. The English was a bit too perfect, leading me to wonder if someone's English tutor helped out with it (though one of the girls in the group does have quite good, startingly accent-free English), but I don't care..

Peach Boy - Another fairy tale, about a boy who is born from a peach to a childless man and woman (a recurring theme). He eventually goes off to save his village from ogres that are threatening the area, bringing along with him his companion warriors of a dog, a pheasant, and a monkey. Best Fight Move of the Day: Peach Boy pointed dramatically every time she said "I am fighting the demon ... fight ... fight."

Cinderella & The Witch - Quirky spin on the well-known tale, complete with girly voices by the 6 male actors (spawning many giggle-fits, of course). A highlight was the offering of the brown glass slipper (their own indoor school slippers), as well as the request for a dress for the dance (but alas, no costumes).

LIFE - Quite surreal, maybe in part because they didn't seem to have practiced very much. A made-up story about a boy who kept running into people (who may or may not also have been him; I couldn't tell) in a strange forest. At the end, everyone goes for sushi dinner.

We Are Looking For Something - 4 girls each looking for a treasure (grandmother, rabbit, etc.) and one girl from outer space (or somewhere) who admits to having stolen them, but in return, she gives them lasting friendship. I think for everything else, there is MasterCard. Wins the prize for Best Acting: during a mock-fight, one of the girls actually crashed into a desk (by accident) when she pretended to be thrown! Very dramatic - the audience gasped in horror!

Three Wishes - My ESS leader's group, and they didn't seem very well-prepared, or perhaps inordinately shy (with the exception of Natsuki herself, who is a character and then some). A traditional tale: A man and woman find a genie who agrees to grant them 3 wishes. The man wishes he had some good sausages, and after his wife taunts him with his stupid choice, he wishes her nose were a sausage. You can guess what the third wish is.

ISHIKAWA the movie - Hilarious and pretty well done, if a little chaotic. Lots of giggling in this one (boys are worse gigglers than girls in this country). Ishikawa-kun, one of the students in the group, is a "Champion of Justice" (his words). He saves a woman from two attackers with guns...but then she later turns out to be a man. They shrug it off and, figuring justice was still done, go for sushi dinner together.

Pumpkin Girl - Same story as Peach Boy above, but with crossovers into Cinderella. It was well-written, but they didn't quite get the concept of "skit", telling the story ("then he said X") rather than acting it out, though they seemed to realize their mistake and made a few feeble attemps at actions.

Finally, the "Award for Best Line of the Day" goes to ISHIKAWA :
"Oh, no! You've shot me! You've shot me! You've ... [tastes his fingers] Mmmmm, tomato sauce. How tasty!" :)

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Tale of Two Festivals

So a few weeks back, on Facebook, I was asked by someone I know what my most memorable experience in Japan has been.

Without much hesitation, I responded that it was the festival in Inuyama (a town about 40 min SE of here) in early April. There were giant 2-3 storey tall floats being paraded down the streets, with karakuri puppet shows on the top storey of the floats. Then that night, the floats were draped head-to-toe with paper lanterns and re-paraded through the streets. It was utterly magical and other-worldly. It also took place during the height of sakura season, which didn't help diminish the beauty one little bit.

However, those who know a thing or two about Japan, and who know that I also attended, the very next weekend, the giant festival in Takayama (a town about 2 hours north of Gifu City that is also widely known as "Little Kyoto"), might be surprised that Inuyama is still my first choice. The Takayama Matsuri is one of the "Big 3" festivals in Japan - right up there with the Sapporo Snow Festival (which I missed - boo) and the Gion Festival in Kyoto in July-August (which I may or may not catch). People come from far and wide to see the floats in Takayama. Accommodations are booked solid weeks, or even months, in advance. Similar to Inuyama's festival, very tall floats are paraded around the town's streets. Many of these floats have karakuri puppet shows. At night, the floats are decked out with lanterns and re-paraded. Being a bit further north, the festival occurred just before the sakura were in full bloom, but for what it lacked in white and pink blossoms, it more than made up for with the pure, crisp beauty of the surrounding hills.

Well, Takayama is one of my favourite places in all of Japan (I think Gujo-Hachiman, a small castle town about an hour north of here, comes first, for being the quaintest and most purely traditional Japanese place I've ever been in), but with all apologies, its festival is a definite second to Inuyama's. The floats were beautiful, but not as stunning as Inuyama's. They also, quite importantly, didn't hold the same sense of drama - they were big, but had a centre wheel for when they turned a corner (the Inuyama ones were turned using plain old muscle), and they didn't quite seem to tower in the same way as Inuyama's floats. Also, as my night pictures clearly show, when Inuyama says it's going to drape its floats in lanterns, it REALLY MEANS IT.

Festival at night (5)

For the brave people in the crowd, feel free to peruse my pictures from Inuyama (100+ pics) and Takayama (130+ pics), and decide for yourselves.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Wow, that was weird.

We just had an earthquake.

It was the weirdest one EVER. I was sitting on my couch, debating going to bed (it was about 11:48 p.m.), when I heard a noise like a door being closed in another room, and then one-two-three quick shockwaves rattled my room just a little bit, like waves hitting a boat in quick succession, in a strange up-and-down fashion. I've never felt an earthquake like that. It really felt like a ripple moving across the surface of the earth. And it was so fast. About three dishes in the kitchen had time to rattle, then it was over. It lasted about 2-3 seconds.

I waited about 5 more uneasy seconds to see if more was to come (sometimes that is just an initial shake, then there is more), but nothing. So then I called Randal...except my phone was already ringing. He'd felt the same thing.

I'm such a fast blogger, it's not even on the JMA's radar yet. Ah, here we go:

And now I see why Randal called first - it happened in the west end of Gifu Prefecture, so he would have felt the shock first. Anyway, it's ringing in at 2.0 in the west end and 1.0 over here. Seems like my earthquake kit shall go unused for yet another evening...

Oh, crap.

So it seems death is not the only thing lurking on Mt. Fuji. Here's a photo of the finest of fine summer vacation destinations, taken near the summit of this most-venerated mountain, a mere two days ago (that would be, yes, June, not January, 27th):

Climbing season officially starts on Sunday (also known in some circles as "Canada Day"), and Randal and I are headed there in about 6 days, next Friday. Did I already say, "Oh, crap"?

Apparently Fuji-zan got a lot more snow than usual this year. Really? You don't say. Triple crap. :)

Monday, June 25, 2007

(Soon to be) On the road again...

So those of you who actually pay attention to these things (and who read my blog on my blog and not on Facebook's feed) might have noticed that Randal and I are headed to Mt. Fuji in about 10 days. We're going the weekend of July 6, though we haven't decided yet exactly which day we shall climb it. Or, rather, I should say which night we're going to climb it, as we plan on doing the classic climb-overnight-and-arrive-at-the-summit-in-time-for-sunrise hike.

Anyway, there are two problems with the Mt. Fuji hike:

It's probably going to be crappy weather. We had dinner on Saturday with one of Randal's teachers, and we were telling him and his wife about our Fuji plans, and after telling us some horror stories about climbing it (it's not easy), they started worrying that tsuyu was likely to unleash its fury upon us at the same time. It is that time of year. Ugh. Sounds delightful.

I'm probably going to die partway up. While, since my arrival in Japan, I've been bicycling more than I ever did in all my life to this point, I don't generally feel I've been as active as I was at home. I even started jogging about a month or so ago - the last thing most people probably ever thought I would do! - and while it is somewhat enjoyable, I am, to be honest, not very good, nor committed, to jogging. I'm hoping sheer determination will get me up that mountain. After all, that's pretty much all I've got!

In other, non-Fuji and non-rain news, plans are starting to solidify for our return home. Our last day of work is July 27. On July 28, I am moving out of my apartment. Randal plans to do the same on either the 28th or 29th. We'll get a hotel in Nagoya. On July 30, we are flying to Thailand! The plan is to spend about 2 weeks in Thailand, and 2 weeks in Laos. I can't wait. I love Thailand, and Laos sounds fascinating. Then, on August 29, we fly back to Nagoya.* Then, on the 30th, we fly home to Toronto via San Francisco.

As if that wasn't enough, after a few days in Toronto, we're heading to Winnipeg - either by plane or by car - to visit Randal's family and collect our pooch. Probably about 2 weeks there, and then back to Toronto. After that, we don't know: Ottawa is looking like the more likely option these days, though I have recently applied for a few Toronto jobs, so we'll see.

I'm exhausted just thinking about it. Either that, or it's 12:21 a.m. and well past my bedtime. ...Ah yes, the latter. Urgh.

* Before you have a chance to ask, our tickets home to Canada are paid long as we fly from Japan.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Tsuyu time

So the rainy season is finally getting underway. It's a little late this year, and it may last anywhere from 2-4 weeks (depending on who you ask). Longer in other areas, I think, but if Gifu has anything going for it at all, it's that we don't tend to get as extreme weather as some of the rest of Japan.

Japan has two rainy seasons - one through June and one through October. Last October's tsuyu was virtually non-existent. Two weeks ago, someone told me that tsuyu would be starting soon. Last week, after one day of rain, I was told that the Japanese weather people had declared tsuyu officially underway. But we had sunny and heat and humidity all week until today. It's supposed to rain through the weekend. But even when I ask, I am told, "Oh, no...real tsuyu will be much heavier rain and much more humid." Sounds marvelous.

Rainy day
Castle and mountains, gone.

Anyway, this post is just an excuse to show off how fashion-conscious I have become since coming to Japan. I learned long ago (from my days in Halifax) that when it rains steadily and hard all day, there's just no real way to keep dry and be stylish at the same time. I have taken to bicycling to school in a raincoat with hood, and oh-so-chic plastic pants.

She's got legs...and knows how to cover them.

It's a great look, I know. My old plastic pants were transparent, but this new pair is even better since I can hide the fact that I'm actually wearing a skirt underneat (which I am in this picture). Which means I don't have to be ladylike about pedalling to school in a skirt in the rain. Because no one can tell. I love it.

The Japanese way of cycling in the rain, however, astounds me.

Japanese cyclist
Abunai! (Danger.)

This lady is not wearing any rain gear at all, and is just holding her umbrella above her head with one hand, and steering her bike with the other. I see people doing this all the time. And what really gets my goat is that, no matter how hard it is raining, and no matter how wet and dripping yours truly is, these umbrella-wielding fools arrive at their destination DRY. I've tried to bicycle like this and refuse to do it anymore - it's dangerous as hell. I can barely pedal in a straight line with both hands on the handlebars, let alone just one and the other precariously holding an umbrella in high winds. Honestly, there's many better ways I can think of by which to die. No thanks!

Flooded roof
Flooded roof next door.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Earthquake...minus the earthquake bit

This morning at school, we had an earthquake drill!

As if that wasn't exciting enough, we all got to wear our indoor shoes not only OUTSIDE, but to the dirtiest, dustiest part of the school grounds, the sports field behind the school (the designated evacuation area)!

I now feel like I've truly experienced Japan.*

* It was a nice break to the day. I also couldn't believe that 1,000 students could clear out of a building so fast - in less than 5 minutes. I was walking with a bunch of non-English-speaking Japanese teachers, and they taught me the word for earthquake (which I already actually knew), jishin, and asked me if we had earthquakes in Canada (yes in some parts of the country, but none so big that we EVER have earthquake drills). Then, for some odd reason, they followed up the earthquake drill with a 20-minute awards ceremony for students who had recently won honours in karate, track and field, broadcasting, and handball. All under the bright, blazing sun. In my indoor shoes, outdoors. Crazy.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

V for Volleyball

When I was in high school (long, long ago), we played the same four sports every year in gym class - soccer, basketball, volleyball, and softball - with a bit of badminton and (urk!) dodgeball thrown in for variety. Not being the most athletically-inclined duck out there, I tended to loathe gym class. But volleyball in particular holds a special place in my heart - I hated it so much, I was actually thrilled to see spring roll around, when we were sent outside in the damp spring chill to play softball. At least with softball, you can stand in the outfield and know that you're fairly safe from the wrath of most balls (at least, you are if I'm at bat).* With each volleyball class, on the other hand, it was a down-and-dirty competition between my best friend and I to see whose arms more closely resembled a lobster post-game; aka, who was worse.

So, a few weeks ago, when I was asked whether I wanted to join the teachers' volleyball team, I breached Japanese protocol and laughed. Long and heartily. Then, having regained my composure, in a mix of Japanese and English (it was a non-English teacher who asked me), I made it perfectly clear : "Juri - baréboru - damé, damé - watashi wa ... very, very bad." (I'll be bilingual in no time, I'm sure.)

Whew. Having dodged that bullet, I went back to my less-than-spectacular life. Then last week, chatting with one of the English teachers after teaching a class with her, I speculated that perhaps her students - who were normally quiet but that day had been somewhat rowdy - were looking forward to the sports day that we were having the next day. Yes, she replies, and then says something about volleyball.

Uh. Yes, I heard right. Sports day is actually going to be volleyball. All day. Oh, crap.

We had a sports day back in early September, and it was so much fun. My memories of "sports day" from my high school days (we called it "field day") is a mish-mash of track-and-field events (relay races, javelin-throwing, and a game of basketball or two), a day in which most students sloughed around trying to figure out how to avoid the high jump or ring toss. Not so these kids, and not so this past sports day. They had been split into 4 teams (of about 250 kids each, mind you; almost as big as my entire high school!) and had spent the better part of the previous week under the tutelage of the student cheerleader teams, learning chants and cheers for the pep rallies that would form part of the sports day (practicing one to two hours a day). They played capture-the-flag, giant games of tug of war, "windsurfing", and much more, with just a bit of relay racing in the late afternoon. And lots of cheerleading, of course.

Piggyback Fights (2)
The always-popular "Piggyback Fights".

But volleyball all day? Ugh. In addition to my general dislike of volleyball, Randal had had to endure a sports day last fall that was entirely volleyball, and he was not pleased to report back that it was B-O-R-I-N-G. I wasn't therefore looking forward to it; however, I figured I was willing to watch. Really, I mean, it's not like I had any choice.


Well. Who knew volleyball could be so much fun?

Deck of cards

I forgot that when my school does something like this, they tend to go all out. Here, second- and third-year students had decked out their gym uniforms with various themes. It was hilarious just to walk around all day and see what I could find.


Sannensei boys

Sannensei alien chicks


As for the volleyball itself, there were something like 40 games going on at any one time (until the elimination rounds started in the afternoon), so there was always something to watch.

40 games

See the entire set here.

*Honestly, it's a miracle I ever passed gym class and was allowed to graduate.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Kyoto is coming! Kyoto is coming!

Randal and I are headed off to Kyoto again this coming weekend. We've taken vacation on Friday, so are headed out Thursday night until Sunday evening. Hopefully transportation there and back will go smoother than last weekend's Osaka outing (more on that another time).

So, uh, in anticipation of our upcoming return to Kyoto, I decided to finally post the pictures from our LAST trip to Kyoto, which was, uh, in August. Oops.

If you're wondering why I haven't been posting a lot lately, it's because not much has been going on other than travels here and there, and really - who wants to hear about travels??? Sheesh.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kemushi, or my close call with certain death

As the weather has gotten warmer and warmer here in Gifu, I am constantly reminded that the spiders here are insanely crazy-huge. Everyday, I walk carefully up three flights of outdoor stairs to my apartment, avoiding the myriad cobwebs that lurk in the corners of the staircase (both at floor- and head-level. Each morning, I get down to my bicycle and brush it free of yet another set of cobwebs.

Spider! (4)
Beware of monstrously large spiders. At least they're not this big yet this year, and I will hopefully be gone before they get this size again.

However. It turns out spiders are not my only foe.

Today, after school, I walked down to the bike racks, unlocked my bike, threw my purse in the front basket, and wheeled the bike out to the parking lot. I was about to jump on, when suddenly, on the right-hand handlebar (the side I *wasn't* holding - thank god), I saw THIS:

monster looking for a free ride

I almost dropped the bike. But I managed to put the kickstand down and then just stood and stared. What was I going to do? How was I ever going to get home? I couldn't bicycle home with that thing on my handlebar??? Where else might such fierce monsters be hiding??????

After scratching my head for a minute or two, I did what any self-respecting, independent, modern woman would do - I called my boyfriend.

Randal: "Hello?"
Julie: "Hi sweetie."
Randal: "Where are you?"
Julie: "I'm in the school parking lot. Uh, I have a problem."
Randal: [sounding concerned] "What?"
Julie: "There's a caterpillar on my handlebar and he's HUGE."
[more silence]
Julie: "Hello? Sweetie? What should I do?"
Randal: [starts laughing] "Aww, caterpillars are so cute! Take lots of pictures! Is he big? Is he hairy? I bet he'll become a big, beautiful cicada."


Finally I managed to get Randal to stop laughing at me and explain the proper procedure for caterpillar removal from handlebars; namely, take a stick and a leaf, prod the hairy beast onto the leaf, and then deposit him in the garden.

But caterpillars don't always do what you want them to do, and I couldn't get him to move! Where oh where are the students when I need them???

Luckily, just then, our school caretaker came out of the main doors. I ran over in my best damsel-in-distress fashion (luckily, I was wearing a skirt today, so it was pretty easy), and then, despite any Japanese-language skills whatsoever, got him to come over to look at my bike (my communications consisted of "sumimasen ... jitensha ... caterpillar ... onegaishimasu" and a bunch of hand waving). He laughed when he saw the caterpillar just sitting there, as content as could be, then went to the nearby storage shed, pulled out a broom, and gently brushed the caterpillar onto the leaf I had been using and put him in the garden. He then went on to carefully brush off my handlebar, and taught me the word for caterpillar: kemushi.

It was a close call and I'm surprised I made it through in one piece. Phew.

look at the size of its fangs!
I tried to get a face shot of the caterpillar in all its fierceness, but was obviously too frightened by it to get close enough to get a decent shot (yes, even using my zoom). What can I say? I'm a city girl.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Post, Interrupted

So I was writing a nice, long post about today's sports day (how's that for timely???), but one thing led to another and I realized it was almost 9:00 and there was just no hope in hell that I was going to get the post finished and all the accompanying pictures posted tonight, plus do all the other, non-computer things I want to do (I know, gasp!), and still get to bed at a reasonable hour. Just not going to happen.

So instead, I've decided to test Elliott and see how long it takes him to retract his comment to my previous post about the Kagoshima pics. To test this theory, I've gone ahead and posted a bunch of purikura from our trip to Flickr.

do as the japanese do ... in fukuoka

I'm surprised - there are at least four electronic copies of these pictures floating around, plus the originals of course - why am I the first to post them online? Does this imply something about me???

Anyway, for the unitiatied, purikura or "print club" photos are basically Japan's answer to the boring little photo booths that we have at home, that friends crowd into and take their pictures together in. Except these are photo booths on LSD. After you take a series of pictures (usually 8-10 photos, depending on the booth), you then all run around to the other side, where there is a counter and touch screen with magic pens to then decorate your picture further. Japanese teenagers are absolutely fantastically creative with these purikura, and it's a bit of an addiction for many of them. Case in point: I asked my students to make out name cards at the start of this school year (which is in mid-April here), including a drawing or photo of themselves, and I told them purikura were OK. Instantly at least half a dozen of the girls had whipped out small plastic cases, like pencil cases, that were just FILLED with tiny purikura of them and their friends. Just amazing.

Also in Japan, these purikura booths are not standalone booths stuck in an obscure corner of the local mall (like our photo booths seem to be). In most malls and shopping arcades, there will be at least one large roomful of them, often near or combined with a videogame arcade. There will be anywhere from 5 to 20 booths to choose from, each of which offers its own range of photo styles, colours, and decoration options.

I myself have only done purikura pictures once or twice this year, plus once a few years ago when last in Japan (with Rebecca T.), but I think I need to get another set or two before coming home.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Timely as always

I just finished putting up some more pictures from our Golden Week travels. This time around, we go to Kagoshima, near the southern tip of Kyushu.

In a nutshell:

Day One: We get lost.
Day Two: We get lost again.

God, I love traveling in Japan.

You can view the whole set (currently Fukuoka to Kagoshima - Nagasaki will eventually appear) here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A quarter of a century ago...

Happy Birthday, Robert!

My little brother, Robert, is 25 years old today. A quarter of a century. God, that makes me feel old.

Before he was born, I had been the youngest for 5 1/2 years. And I liked it that way. When my mom asked me whether I thought she would have a little brother or a little sister, I cheekily replied, "Maybe you'll have a chair!" But, alas - I was never allowed to sit on my little brother. When I first saw him, however, I was smitten. He had big chubby cheeks until the age of 2 or 3, and I gave him the nickname "Bushy", short for "Bush Boy" (I was also going through an Australian folk song kick at the time - don't all 5-year-olds?).

Anyway, Robert, I hope your day is a good one!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My mom is the coolest person ever*

My mother could barely type 10 years ago, and she has since taught herself to be quite computer literate. Her specialty is photoshopping pictures (she uses ACD-See, actually, which I have also just started using since it came free with my digital camera), and the proof is that she removed the telephone wire which was obscuring the nice view of the mountains and clouds in my previous post. (The other two wires remain, but they would be more difficult to remove, and they don't impede the view as much anyway.)

neat clouds, wireless version!

Thanks, Mom!

* And it's not even Mother's Day yet!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An afternoon in the life

So I left work at 4:30 (I finish at 4:10 but never actually leave then) and cycled to the bank and to the pharmacy. On the way, I passed a few students who actually called out to me and asked me how I was, and I told them, "Kyotsukete!", which means "Be careful!", as they cycled off. I took my time cycling home, and even stopped at the conbini (convenience store) to pick up a salad and onigiri (rice ball) for tomorrow's lunch. (I usually leave this till last minute on my way to school, which often translates into not going at all and then scrounging around for lunch food.) I also picked up a large package of edamame, the best beanpods in the world. I'd take a picture but, alas, they are already no more...

As I locked up my bike downstairs, I had a sudden moment where I actually thought to myself, "Gee, it might have been nice to stay here a second year."*

Halfway up the stairs, I realized I had left my bike key in the lock, so had to go down to retrieve it. I do this on a fairly regular basis (my mind is going). However, it's Japan, and even though bike theft is not unheard of here (and in some urban areas is apparently an actual problem), it's pretty likely my bike would still be there the next morning. Once I went away for the weekend and left my bike key in the lock the entire time. But I'll try to not repeat that.

In my apartment, it was hotter and stuffier than hell. I think I need to kill the rest of my plants and just start keeping the curtains closed all day long. My windows all face south. (OK, who'm I kidding - my ONE window faces south.) Out of short-sleeved dress shirt and light grey dress pants, into shorts and a tanktop. What I wore all last August, September and most of October. Summer is back.

It was quite hot today, and now it has clouded over and the air has that heavy feel it gets before it starts raining. I hope it rains. The rainy season is coming, however, and I've heard that can be less than pleasant. I'm not afraid of rain, but unlike, say, Halifax, where heavy rain will last an entire day and then go away, I have been told that here, heavy rain will fall for almost the entire month of June. In fact, when I mentioned to one of the teachers today that there had been some rain in Kyushu while we were there, she said, "Oh, has the rainy season started there already?" Maybe.

On my day off on Monday, amongst other things, I finally decided it was time to pack away my two heaters. I am stubborn, however, and refused to take the fan out - it's only early May! But last night, I slept with no covers and was still too hot. Resistance, I fear, is futile.

Anyway, all of this is really just an excuse to post a picture I took upon returning home on Sunday, in the late afternoon rain. I got to my floor, and was taken aback by the neat effect the low clouds and light were having on the distant mountains. (Now, if only someone could remove those telephone and electricity wires.)

neat clouds
* Luckily, it was merely a fleeting moment.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Once upon a time in Fukuoka...

After being harassed/goaded by unnamed person(s) on Facebook, I am slowly putting up my thousands of pics from the Golden Week travels. "Slowly" being the key word here. Fukuoka, the first city in Kyushu that we went to, is now online. I'm pretty sure we were in Fukuoka with Erin & Elliott, at least part of the time, though my pictures don't do a good job of proving this. I think Randal has more on his camera, but I haven't had a chance to steal any from him. When I do, I might add more pics at that point.

In a nutshell: Fukuoka was great. We were both really impressed with the city. It was vibrant and there was a lot to do and see. We proved this by completely exhausting ourselves by walking halfway across the city and back, visiting a mall with a canal in it, a castle, a giant park, a small park, a few temples, a glass-encased 234m tall tower (yikes!), a beach, a few good restaurants, and a video arcade or two (probably - I don't have any pictures to prove it, but I'm sure we did - we always do). Next time, I think we need to better acquaint ourselves with the city's public transportation system.

I have a friend who taught English for 4 years in Kyushu, 2 1/2 in Fukuoka and 1 1/2 in Oita, which is about 50km away (I think), and I can see why she liked it so much.

Anyway, still to come, of course, are Kagoshima and Nagasaki. Not tonight - I must sleep.

In non-Fukuoka-related news, I also reviewed the books I read in April (all 2 of 'em!), so knock yourselves out in the stacks.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

"Happy BIRTH-day, dear Mommy..."

It's my Mom's birthday!

My mom is 59 today. She has one more year before she will stop riding for free as a Senior's Companion with my dad on VIA Rail. Then she also becomes, well, I'll save that for next year's blog post :)

In honour of your birthday, Mom, I give you your Celebrity Look-Alikes:

Yeah, I don't know who most of them are either. But all 9 of you are beautiful! And Liza Minelli - that's pretty cool!

Here's me:

Apparently MyHeritage disagrees with 99.99% of the population and does not think we look alike, or at least that the celebrities that look like us do not look alike.

Warning: I plan on pushing the "I resemble Scarlett Johanssen" line as much as I can from now on. Sweet! On the other hand, let us never mention the fact that I also apparently resemble one of the Olsen twins.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A perfect evening...

Having spent way too long composing the movie review post, I was absolutely starving. I threw a frozen pizza in the toaster oven, and opened the fridge to get a beer. Except I am out of beer. A few words nice young ladies are not supposed to know escape my lips. It's Friday night, it's late, I'm eating pizza, and there's no beer. I drank the last one last night, I guess.

Debating whether or not I wanted to run down to the local convenience store (which is less than a block away) to get some (I decided on "no"), I looked for more drinks in my fridge. And saw a small package of dee-licious looking sashimi that I'd bought yesterday and hadn't eaten. So I am eating it now and ohmygod it is so good, and it suddenly does not matter that there is no beer, because the sashimi is lovely and there's also pizza coming and Julie's mouth is now singing.

Movie review time

Perhaps in an attempt to forget that we cancelled our plans to go to Kyoto last weekend because of rain that never actually ended up materializing, Randal and I watched four movies last weekend, as well as another one last night. I'm no prolific movie reviewer (or movie watcher, for that matter), but thought I'd share my thoughts, scant as they are, on each one. And unlike certain bloggers, who like to make a sport of posting only reviews of movies they think are terrible,* I thought they were all quite good.

So without further ado, in the order of viewing, I give you:

The Corporation

I'd been wanting to see this for a while. Made in 2003, it is a Canadian-made documentary that traces the rise of the corporation from its origins as small, non-limited liability enterprises, to the large monoliths we know today. It was fascinating and depressing at the same time. I'd be curious to hear what a more business-y person thinks of it. The pacing and visuals are a little too snazzy and jarring at times, like a recent film school graduate wanting to show off a little bit, but overall the message is clear and well-presented. It really makes you think. And the guy from the Fraser Institute really makes you shudder. Well, made ME shudder at any rate.


One thing I miss about Ottawa (yes, it is possible) is going to see movies at the Bytowne. It plays rep and indy films, and lots and lots of documentaries. I remember when Murderball swung through in, I believe, the fall of 2005, Randal and I really wanted to see it but for some reason never made it. This oversight has now been corrected.

The documentary follows the lives of a number of members of the US paralympics team. "Murderball" is the original name for wheelchair rugby (which was apparently developed by Canadian quadriplegics). The US team members talk very openly about how their injuries happened, how they cope in life, what their sex lives are like, and how the game has helped/changed them. There is also a recently-injured young man, in rehab, whose struggles to adapt to life in a chair are shown. Finally, quite unlikeable and very disagreeable, there is the new coach of the Canadian team, himself a former American quad rugby champion.

This film was gripping from the very beginning. It pulls no punches, and is just fascinating. It's a real eye-opener into living life with a serious disability, without being preachy or sentimental. An excellent, excellent film.

Dawn of the Dead

Ahh, no movie marathon would be complete without at least one zombie movie. Now let me clarify: This was the recent 2004 remake, not the 1978 original which, so Randal tells me, is pretty terrible. However, it was also apparently pretty much the first movie of the zombie genre. So when dead people start not staying dead, and go around biting and killing other non-dead people, no one turns around and says, "Zombies! Easy! Shoot them in the head!"** It takes a while for them to figure that out.

This is such an enjoyable movie. There are a number of plot holes and weak points, but overall, it was just a real good watch. Sarah Polley (yes, that Sarah Polley) does a fine turn as Anna, the nurse who witnesses firsthand the horror when her neighbour's child takes a chunk out of her husband's aorta, and then he in turn refuses to remain dead and tries to have Anna for lunch as well. No longer will death us part, I guess.

For those of you who run in the other direction when a scary movie comes along, it's worth giving this one a chance. It's actually not scary. There are a few points where your heart may leap into your throat momentarily, but mostly it is a story of survival...against the most definitely undead. Despite its grim premise, the film does a good job of striking a fairly lighthearted tone much of the time (though not as happy-go-lucky as, say, Shaun of the Dead, also from 2004, which is fun to watch, though it bogs down about 2/3 of the way through).

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

More corporate exposure. I'm not hugely familiar with all the twists and turns and ins and outs of the Enron story (and I'm still not, even after having watched this documentary), but I'm sure we have all heard of Enron, and the basic outline of its long-lasting meteoric rise on Wall Street, and its spectacular crash-and-burn in December 2001.

I'm biased. I miss being able to regularly see programs like this. I love The Passionate Eye on CBC, and PBS documentaries.

Even if you're not overly interested in the Enron story itself, the sheer magnitude of the greed and misdemeanour involved will astound you. It was truly staggering, in particular, to learn that "Enron", the scandal, did not in any way stop with the guys at the top, whose names we heard daily while the investigation and subsequent criminal trials were ongoing (Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow), but that quite a number of the traders on the floor were also heavily involved in this culture of greed. It won't depress you like The Corporation, but it might make you just a wee bit ticked off that this sort of thing could even happen, and will probably happen again someday.

Pan's Labyrinth

Last, but certainly not least, is Pan's Labyrinth. This is a Spanish-Mexican co-production. Set in 1944, in fascist Spain, a young 9-year-old girl with a passion for fairy tales goes with her pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather who is a proud (and ruthless) captain in the Spanish army.

Don't rush out and rent it for the li'l kiddies. While it is a fairy-tale, it's more a fairy-tale for adults. You take what you want from it. Randal and I were left with a sense of unease at the amount of parallels too easily drawn to today's time - where obedience without question is often asked of citizens, and torture too often seen as a valid means to an end. What I liked the most about the movie is how it is unclear whether this is an imaginary world created by the girl in order that she may deal with the reality of her life, or whether this actually is part of the world, but an aspect that we as adults no longer recognize. It's not a perfect story: some of the characters are written fairly black-and-white, but others are shaded just enough that we're not quite sure whether to sympathize or scorn. The movie requires a bit of a leap of faith and suspension of disbelief in order to lose yourself in it, but it's certainly worth it.

* That being said, I cannot agree enough with his assessment of The Illusionist. I read his review before watching the movie. Yet I forgot about this, and watched it anyway. Well, that is to say, I watched it for about an hour, and then complained so bitterly about its awfulness that Randal in fact turned it off and refuses to this day to let me watch the rest of it (he'd already seen it and thought it was okay). Anyway, don't even get me started. I don't even like thinking about it. Watch The Prestige instead. Though the only thing the two films have in common is that they're about magicians, it is quite masterful, in my humble opinion, in every way that the other one was not.

** Like I did one day, a year or two ago, at my parents' place, while watching Randal play a videogame (I think it was "TimeSplitters") on the PS2, when suddenly these zombie-like characters started attacking him and he was having trouble felling them even with a massive sub-machine gun. Once he started shooting them in the noggin, they fell down like there was no tomorrow...and for them, this time, there finally wasn't. In fact, I'm sure this is the only reason why we are still together today - Randal knows that someday, if zombies start roaming the earth, I might just come in handy. So remember: Zombies. Head. Shoot. Good.