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.