Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Meanwhile, back in Winnipeg...

Cutest. Dog. Ever.

OK, so this picture is from January and was sent to me by Randal's dad months ago (well, in January), but I just stumbled across it, languishing on my desktop, as I furthered the continuation of my procrastination over packing for Hokkaido (speaking of snowy destinations). And he's my (and Randal's) dog, and he's a cute dog dammit, and it's one of the cutest pictures in the entire world, and I'll post it if I feel like it, so there!

Back to the Winter

Not starring Michael J. Fox, but Julie and Randal, and, of course, Simon, the Original Homie in Hokkaido.

We're headed to Hokkaido tomorrow night, and will be back in Gifu Tuesday evening.

Here, the weather has been lovely and mild as can be (with the exception of yesterday, which was chilly and damp as all hell*). Our temperatures are ranging in the 10-20 degree range. In Sapporo? Temperatures continue to hover around 0. Yikes. So I guess I'll pack my momohiki. You know, if I ever get around to packing. What's the rush? I still have exactly 24hours left (no minutes, no seconds).

* Yes, I realize hell tends to be neither chilly nor damp, even on the best of days.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

An effective alarm clock...

I need one of these at home.

Having ignored my earlier alarm clocks (why do I bother setting them on Sundays anyway?), I had no sooner fallen back asleep and was having a dream in which I was fleeing some now-unremembered foe in a car, which was rocking back and a dreamlike sway.

I woke up, instantly wide-awake, to realize that no, it was my apartment that was swaying. And it was no dream. I quickly put my glasses on, and made a mental note of the location of my earthquake kit (about four feet away, under my makeshift desk. Then I sat in bed, and listened to my dishes chink in time with the gentle rocking.

It lasted maybe 5-10 seconds at the most. Not as long as the last time and perhaps as intense (which is to say, not very intense at all, as far as these things go).

I see the JMA doesn't have its final results up yet, but it looks like a strong(ish) (5.0) earthquake in the Japan Sea north of here, which means we really only got the tail end of it. My end of Gifu Prefecture is marked at about a 2.0, which seems about right. They are showing two, at 9:47 (I remember it being a touch earlier, but it's possible) and 9:57, same intensity; I wonder if this will updated and consolidated into one earthquake as they get more information. I certainly didn't feel a second one here.

As soon as it seemed everything was going to remain stable and not shake any more, I called Randal. He'd also been woken up by it, and was diligent enough to get up to turn the gas off (I don't have a gas stove, so I don't need to worry about that in a disaster, thank god), but the earthquake stopped before he actually got there. Anyway, he has no internet at the moment (down all weekend), so let me tell you here that he's fine and in one piece. As am I. For now at least.

Update (10:27 a.m.): Huh. I just clicked my picture of the quake above to see what the most recent info was, and it turns out there was just an earthquake, at about 9:40 this morning, north of New Zealand, of 7.3. (The JMA displays distant earthquake info when the quake is of magnitude 7.0 or above, but this is the first time I've seen that function in action.)

Update (10:43 a.m.): OK, so I can't read maps. The earthquake (at 9:42, which is the time I thought - the two times I reported above is just the times they got different reports at, though they don't usually list them like that, I don't think)was a 3.0 seismic intensity in Gifu area, not 2.0 as reported above. And, it was a whopper of a quake - a 7.1 just off the Noto peninsula which is a little stick of land a couple hundred kilometres due north of here. If you don't believe me, full deets are here.

Things I suck at...*

So I haven't posted a lot recently because in between returning from Seoul** and getting ready to go to Hokkaido***, I've been busy doing absolutely nothing at all: aka, lazing about, reading up a storm, and wasting time on the internet.**** I've also been pretending to be artsy. With the stress on "pretending".

Recently, I learned how to make Japanese paper dolls, both simple and more complex. While the latter is with the help of a trained professional, I have been amusing myself some evenings by making a series of little paper dolls meant as bookmarks, wall hangings, and other such nonsense that I like to pretend is art. I went wild at the hyaku-en shop about a week ago, and bought a bunch of accessories with which to further decorate and accessorize my paper-doll creations - ribbons, stickers, burlap and textured paper for backgrounds, etc. I even got truly brave and modified the dimensions of some of the dolls so that they would be even smaller and more petite to fit onto some of the backings I have bought for them.

Tonight, I decided it was time to progress beyond mere dolls and create simple origami pieces, both 3D and flat, that could be used on a background or just generally complement the dolls. How hard could it be to make a paper crane, anyway? Japanese kids fold them all the time.

Well, I have never been very handy with, uh, my hands. In grade 4 math class, I was the only kid who couldn't manage to create and glue those damn 3D cubes, triangles, and octagons, without mangling them beyond recognition. In grade 9, my parents told my Industrial Technology & Arts teacher that it was no wonder I was unable to operate the machinery in his class nor build a simple dwelling or bridge out of popsicle-sticks - I couldn't even figure out how to use the electronic can-opener at home! While I still publicly hold this statement against them, in private, I know it is all too true. I get befuddled by most things that aren't book-shaped.*****

But grade 4 was a long time ago. ...Grade 9, too, for that matter. (God, I'm old.) Surely I can master the art of paper-folding! If nothing else, the mere fact of my presence in Japan, the land of paper-folding masters, would surely combine with some other weird, supernatural, ethereal force (or maybe just an alignment of the stars), and some of the paper-folding skill would rub off on me. Right?

Well, I found many Internet sites devoted to introducing me to the art of origami, and a few that had instructions I could actually sort of understand and follow. However, many, many, many attempts later, I remain without crane, star, duck, windmill, or frog.

I do, however, have many crumpled pieces of pretty paper lying about my apartment. I'm thinking of gluing them all into one giant ball, sticking a Japanese paper doll next to it, and calling it Katamari Origamacy.

* Undoubtedly not the first time I will use this post title.

** Which was excellent, and as soon as I weed through my 537 photos, you might hear more about it.

*** Which will be excellent, I am sure. And will undoubtedly spawn another 500 photos. I'm surprised my computer is still alive - I need another hard drive!!!

**** Out of respect for this most excellent of activities, I spent the entire day today (Saturday) in my pajamas, and for dinner I had the same thing I've had the last two nights for dinner: cheese toast and tomato soup, with ice cream and cookies for dessert. What a decadent lifestyle I lead.

***** And even then, I wouldn't put it past me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Three F's

Food, Futons, and Fashionistas.

Now playing on a Flickr site near you.

Oh, and if you're my mother and apparently have nothing better to do than check my blog and Flickr site first thing in the morning, this means you checked it before I had finished putting Notes on those special lunches pictures that I posted, and this means that you missed seeing the explanations of what the various parts of it were (including their edibility or lack thereof). For the rest of you, it's business as usual.

I was supposed to spend the evening packing for South Korea and getting other things generally done around the apartment. But I did not. What else is new?

On your marks, get set...


This is the report for March 8. Click here to get the most up-to-date report.

I only currently have one picture of progress here. Nagasaki claims to have started already, but I'm skeptical.*

* See, Elliott? I don't always blog about snow.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Random thoughts

So Randal said it best. I advise you go read his post first; I'm going to make some random comments about life and living in Japan, and our decision to not recontract.* He covers the general reasons very well. I'm going to talk more about teaching, and also a bit about Japan.

I haven't blogged a lot about how I like living in Japan, for the simple reason that, well, I don't think I really do. I like Japan. Gifu is even okay some days. I like teaching. My school is fine. There are a number of gems among my students, and every now and then, something happens that makes me feel GREAT about teaching there.

For example, last week I found out that two of the 3rd year students who have been coming to see me for the past month or so for a bit of extra help with translation work and conversational practice (I don't teach 3rd years at all, so this was nice) in anticipation of university entrance exams, BOTH got accepted into the Tokyo University of Foreign Languages (one to study Portuguese and the other, Polish), which is apparently a very difficult university to get into. That was nice.

The reason I usually give to other JETs when they ask me why I chose to not recontract is that my job is unfulfilling. (I didn't tell my school this, as I don't think they would have understood; a bit of a selfish Western concept. I simply told them that I wasn't in a position to commit to what was, in effect, another 18 months in Japan. That is also true.)

I like teaching. I have been lucky enough to do some teaching twice in the past - at Dalhousie, when I was assistant teacher for an undergraduate course in communications, and, of course, last year, when I taught a first-year law school course in legal research methods. Also, when Randal and I took a short certificate course in TESL methods in Jan 2006, I ate it up.

However, I just don't enjoy teaching in Japan as a JET. Though I am luckier than some others, in that I am pretty much given free reign with my lesson planning, teaching what I wish and what I think is important, most of the time I feel like I am more The Resident Gaijin - amusing, but a sideshow to the real work of learning and teaching English.

English is a mandatory course at all junior and high schools in Japan, for all grades, but there's a major disconnect between what the Ministry of Education says and what actually gets implemented at school level. Reading and writing are taken very seriously, in a let's-learn-English-the-way-they-used-to-learn-Latin kind of way. But speaking! Let's leave that to Julie. Oh, and let's make her class worth NO MARKS so the students know it's as important as dirt. I'm at a high school which is quite academic - we're the second-ranked school in the prefecture, and most of our students go on to university. However, being smart doesn't mean these kids WANT to learn English.

I come from a bilingual country. Most provinces allow you, at some point, to stop learning French if you should so choose. (Quebec is an exception, for understandable reasons, and you must take French every year; but note that students at French schools must also learn English every year until graduation.) The onus is then upon YOU to decide whether or not you want to become fully bilingual; that is, whether or not the second language (in some cases, of course, it is a third or fourth language) will be useful to you in the future. I think this is smart, and I think Japan could learn a lesson or two from this.

Part of the problem, I think, is that, in Japan, the group is more important than the individual. Always. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, is a well-known expression. In education, this translates to everyone learning the same thing at the same pace. Of course, they are streamed and re-streamed at various levels (the JHS students write tests to get accepted into various HS, depending on their academic level and career goals; students at my school can focus on science\math courses, or just take a general curriculum), but accepted to a school or university, everyone is pushed through at the same rate. It's really perplexing, and it doesn't work.

It also drives me batty a lot of the time.

Other than work, Japan is okay. There are many days where I wish I could go into a store and NOT have the store clerk say, "Irrashaimase" ("Welcome, thanks for shopping") and then blush furiously and avoid my gaze when he/she realizes I am not Japanese (and break into a sweat if, god forbid, I have to ask a question, which I only ever do if I'm fairly certain I will understand the response). Also, and don't tell my school I said this, but I don't really like a lot of Japanese food. I didn't think I was a picky eater. But they do weird things to vegetables, and are fond of weird cuts of meat. Ebi (shrimp) is virtually impossible to avoid (I'm getting almost fond of it...almost), and eating ika (squid) and tako (octopus) are, unfortunately, national pastimes. Mostly, however, it's the vegetables. No more tsukemono! Not every vegetable is improved by being pickled. Ugh.**

Anyway, I wanted to keep this short and I did not.

Before everyone freaks out and thinks I am miserable here, I am not. I find small moments, small tasks that give me some satisfaction. I plan on enjoying my last 5 months here. I want to do a good chunk of traveling, both in Japan and elsewhere. There are a number of things I still want to see and do. But could I do this for another 18 months? NO.

In other words, I'm looking forward to coming home, but I'm glad I'm not leaving next week. I think that's key.

So what's next?

When we return to Canada (we don't know which city yet), I want to go back into a library, and hopefully one where I can do teaching/training (not necessarily an academic or law library). I've even toyed with the thought of - gasp! - working in a public library for a bit, just to get the experience.*** Or maybe not. Anyway, I'm lucky, since, unlike many other JETs I know, I'm already highly employable in a profession I truly like. I would be interested, however, in teaching part-time at a private English school once I return home, if at all possible. I really do like TESL teaching. I'm also interested in maybe, maybe, maybe, at some point (in a year or two), doing some further studies in the educational field (like a Master of Curriculum Studies or something). Just ideas. I am also lucky in that, with my library training, I am qualified to work anywhere in the world, and I hope to someday be able to take advantage of that fact. If you hadn't noticed, I like to travel.

I am now going to amuse myself (and hopefully you) by posting some random pictures to Flickr.

* Or not-so-random. If your name is Mark Reynolds, please don't blow my cover by pointing out that many of the thoughts I have set down here are stolen almost word-for-word from an email I sent you back in January.

** Also, Canada has better sushi. Yup, I'm definitely a 3 on Randal's Re-contracting Regret Scale.

*** Public libraries scare the frick out of me. I'm not sure why. It seems to me that you'd need to be smart and quick-thinking as all hell to survive as a reference librarian in one, however.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Last blast?

Winter arrived in Gifu for just under 18 hours last night and this morning.

Midnight (a few hours after I posted the photos yesterday):
Snowy evening
Soudensakaemachi never looked so snowy!

Then, to prove for once and for all that I'm a bit of a nerd (or do I mean a loser?), I set my alarm for 6:10 - a full hour and a half earlier than I need to get up - so that I could take some pictures of snow before it was all melted away (as I was sure would happen):
Real snow!
Early bird gets the snow.

Even at that early hour, it was warm enough for me to stand out on my balcony in PJs and bare feet to take the picture. And I have to say, the snow made north-end Gifu look almost pretty :)

I went back to bed and can reassure you that at 8:00 that same morning, when I checked on the snow's progress, it was already steadily melting. I then took a picture of my favourite mountain, since it was looking plenty cool:
Kinka-zan in Snow and The Disappearance of Gifu Castle
Mt. Kinka In Snow and The Disappearance of Gifu Castle. Authorities are investigating.

I tried to convince Randal that he should call in sick and go snowboarding on Kinka-zan (nuts to this driving two hours just to find a hill with some snow on it).

Some flurries as I got ready for work, but by the time I was cycling to school at 9:15, I was glad I had peed before leaving, since I was accompanied by the steady rushing drip-drip sound of rapid melting. It snowed a few more times over the morning, but by noon (when I was set to head out with my camera to capture some real flaky goodness), the snow was gone entirely, leaving only giant puddles. And lovely memories. And purdy pictures.

With any luck, this may be the last time I blog about snow (or, more usually, the lack thereof) in Gifu. However, as we're headed to Hokkaido in just over 2 weeks, and I've been informed by none other than Elliott* that he was woken up yet again at 5:30 in the morning by a snowplow this morning after yet another heavy snowfall, it might not be the last time I blog about snow.**

* Who, incidentally, isn't going to be in Hokkaido when we go to visit him, the meanie that he is.

** Though, strangely, Simon, who will be in Hokkaido when we go to visit him, says that things have been rapidly melting in his neck of the Hokkaido woods. He lives northeast(ish) of Sapporo, while Elliott lives further south, so perhaps Elliott is (as he is wont) just trying to cause trouble.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

It's snowing!!!

It's snowing!
Look at those flakes fall...

Snow-covered goodness
Click to closer inspect the Snow Queen

Just a little while ago, it was snowing beautiful, big, fat flakes that stuck to my nose and glasses. However, in the 15 minutes that it took me to snap some pictures and post them here, I note that it has now largely turned to light rain. Oh well. For the briefest of moments, there was a smidgeon of hope left for something vaguely resembling winter.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Christmas Trip, Parts the Second and Third

In which our heroes R-- and J-- go on a cross-island epic journey to the edge of Bali and beyond, all the way to the wilds of Lombok and a virtually unexplored piece of land just floating off the northwest shore of Lombok called Gili Air. Once there, they indulge in much fruit and fish, and while away the hours of the day wandering, playing with kittens, reading, and generally doing nothing much of anything.

(They also try to scuba-dive, but the visibility is bad. J-- also gets caught in a slow-moving upward current, and gets separated from her buddies in water so cloudy yet brightly lit by sunlight that she can't see anything, and despite her best efforts, she surfaces too early, without so much as a safety stop, and she's still trying to forget that slightly bad, sufficiently disorienting, somewhat frightening experience. Needless to say, there are no photographs of the incident, but it makes for a kind of interesting, though lengthy parenthetical comment. And it allows J-- to mention the fact that the scuba-dive instructor remembered her from her visit 2 1/2 years ago when he taught her how to dive!)

After countless days of wrestling with the desire to never return home, our brave heroes acknowledge that they cannot avoid duty forever. They muster their energy and start the long trek back to more civilized (ie., urban) parts of the world. But wait! Fate steps in, in the guise of a slimy, underhanded domestic airline, and our heroes are stranded in paradise for a little while longer. Somehow, they manage to survive this horrible ordeal, though undoubtedly many sacrifices were made along the way (and many sleeping cats were also stepped over, incidentally).

Our heroes eventually reach the urban landscape of Taipei, and prove once again that, despite failing health and temperatures less than tropical, they can sightsee with the best of them.

And so, for now, our heroes continue to live happily ever after. Well, till the next set of adventures whisks them away, that is.*

You can view the entire Bali / Gili Air / Taipei saga here. If you view them in the set, they're all in order and then you can see my witty (read: overly informational and undoubtedly pedantic) commentary.

* We're going to South Korea in 1 1/2 weeks!!!**

** We're going to Hokkaido in 3 weeks!!!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Wish me luck...

It's only taken me 214 days in Japan to discover that I managed to come without packing a slip. Yes, I have worn skirts in Japan before. No, for one reason or another, this was never an issue in the past. (To put it succinctly, they either have a liner or don't stick to pantyhose or aren't worn with pantyhose.) I own 3 or 4 different slips of different sizes. But they seem to be all sitting in a storage locker in Ottawa, from where they do me a world of good.

So I'm off to the pharmacy/hyaku-en shop to look for either a slip or static removal spray (which I also don't seem to have had the foresight to pack along for the ride, despite the fact I often used to carry a bottle with me in my PURSE back home). A slip, I know where to find (if they sell them at all), and then I just have to guess at a size (damn metric system). For static spray, I am reduced to asking a poor salesperson, "Sutattikku supuree arimasu ka?", and hoping to God that makes a modicum of sense.