Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesdays with sushi

Last Tuesday was progressing in a typical fashion (i.e. nothing much was happening) when my friend Hi-Kun called me up to see if I wanted to get some dinner. We drove around a bit, deciding what to have, and settled on a sushiya owned by one of Hi's friends. Takezushi is a small restuarant, though average by Japanese standards, with two tatami tables and and bar with stools for eight. The bar seats are the most coveted as you can pick your fish from the glass case in front of you and watch as it is prepared. Being a tuesday, it was slow and we sat at the bar. Gen-San, the sushi chef, was a very friendly guy and spoke very enthusiastically about everything whether in English, which he doesn't speak, or in Japanese which, in his enthusiasm was mostly too fast to pick up. Luckily I had Hi to translate and head up the ordering.
We were given a starter plate with various, perhaps experimental, rolls, one of which was described by Gen as Japanese fois gras. They were all delicious and we ordered some sake to accompany the meal. The sake was served in traditional fashion which means the glass is set inside a bamboo box and filled to overflowing. After you finish the spirits in your glass you tilt the square container to your mouth and finish the rest.
We had a perfectly fried tempura set with local mushrooms, fish, shrimp, and some delicate and pretty leaves-Japanese cuisine fully utilizes the array of flora found in Japan. After the Tempura Hi-kun ordered lamb. I was wary of this as I have never before enjoyed lamb, in fact, all previous experience I had with it involved some level of repulsion on my part. This, however, was ridiculously good. It arrived on a small plate, thinly sliced and raw, followed closely by a porous black stone beneath which a steady flame burned. We cooked each piece seperately, enjoying the hiss of the cooking meat. Like tiny steaks, we left the centers raw, while quickly charring either side. The delicate meat seemed to dissolve in my mouth and the taste was not strong like I remembered but flavorful, almost sweet. We had perfect, fresh maguro and salmon. We had another round of sake. Half-way through my glass I made the mistake of asking about some of the more mysterious items behind the transpicuous case. My questioning reached a stopping point when a particularly curious looking fish-part could not be adequately explained. Hi-Kun, seizing the moment, ordered me some before I could find out what it was. The nori served as a mere bowl for a collection of white organic undulations that, if it could produce sound, would surely have been making something of a "gluurg, glurrg" noise. I had to ask Gen-San whether I was expected to eat the whole thing at once as it was quite large but upon hearing his affirmation I went for it. It was not good. It was like cottage cheese though more slippery and less textured and much more unsettling. I finished it off and smiled, "oishi desu yo." I then made Hi-Kun eat the other one. After doing some reasearch later we found that Shirako, which is what the curious fish-part was callled in Japanese, is cod milt*.
After dinner we wandered around kakegawa a bit and met up with some friends for a beer later. Turned out to be pretty nice day, for a tuesday.

*milt is fish sperm.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

bloody toes

So, here is some advice for anyone who ever runs more than 5 miles at a time: If your toes start feeling numb, look at them after you finish running; don't keep running for the next few days while wondering what the hell is wrong with your feet. It's good to take a careful look because you could be bleeding profusely into your sock like I was and it is most likely best to fix the situation.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

How to Dismantle a School Lunch

Japan is a country that, while embracing modern western culture like a long-parted lover, still emanates a deep reverence for tradition and ceremony. The mere act of meeting a friend for a cup of tea can be, in Japan, a delicately orchestrated endeavor with more rules than sips, having more in common with a Freemason's meeting than the consumption of a beverage with company. In another remarkable complicating of a reasonably simple act, the actual dressing oneself (or another) in a kimono requires such refined skill that many Japanese women study it for years. Even the public waste disposal system leaves many an expat perplexed. It is, thus, unsurprising that dismantling one's tray after school lunch is, while simple compared to many activities (juggling and taxes come to mind), quite intense when weighed against the same chore elsewhere. It goes something like this: First set aside your straw and its accompanying wrapper. Then, reverse-engineer your milk carton until it is just a flat sheet no longer able to nobly contain liquids. Take the former-carton and rinse it thoroughly in the sink. When it has been cleansed of dairy, place it neatly atop the others in the gray Tupperware box. Next, empty any remaining food into the several, shining metal containers in which it was delivered, being careful to keep the various foods separate: salad with salad, fish with fish. If a spoon was necessary for the meal, rinse it and slide it onto the spoon rack. Place all plates and bowls in their corresponding slots-keeping the rice bowls separate though they are the same as the soup bowl. If there was a dessert (perhaps a small paper cup of yogurt or frozen jelly), make sure to separate all of the following: paper spoon, cup, cup lid, and paper wrapper from paper spoon. Place each in its designated plastic bag. Then, regardless of what your experiences may lead you to believe, take your straw and its wrapper and through them away. Now brush your teeth with the rest of the staff.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


I drove to school wednesday morning thinking only typical wednesday morning thoughts: "Weird, you'd think I'd be more tired. Why do they need so many old men in neon, reflective vests to supervise a single four-way stop? Do I have time to stop for an egg Mcmuffin? Damn, it's recyling day for milk I have to wait till next month." So engrossed was I with nothing that I completely forgot what day it was. In my defense, the japanese don't seem to fancy halloween as much other western holidays like say, Christmas, and hence there is nothing to stir my memory. No skeletons hanging from doorsteps, no bats or cobwebs, no obnoxious talking witches, not even sales on candy. (I never thought I'd miss that candy corn stuff but I feel oddly melancholy without it) Excuses aside, when I walked into the teacher's room I was ready for a normal day's work and was just about to start staring blankly at my notebook when I was persuaded into the hallway by a gang of three of my 7th grade students. As soon as I stepped into the hallway-It took a minute because, though I have been here a while know, I still always forget that the japanese hand gesture for "come here" is what we use for "please go away"-I was accosted by three miniature voices chiming out "trick or treat!" One of them, Mizuho, even went so far as to make a jack-o-lantern mask. Needless to say, it was ridiculously cute and I felt like an idiot for not having any candy-especially after my attempt to convince them that we usually give out high-fives failed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One of my schools,

one of my classes,

and one of my students.
The following are poems written by my third-year students. I especially enjoy how they often take two seemingly unrelated ideas or things and create a connection between them that we have, perhaps, not seen before. For instance, before reading them I had not yet pondered the relation of meat and peace.

Boiled meat
That smells good
Looks delicious

High jump
He is a destroyer
He has a red cap

Happy place
Very beautiful here
Time passes so slowly

*That last one reminds me of the Talking Heads song about the bar called heaven where nothing, nothing ever happens.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How much Peach is too much?

The Japanese enjoy repetition. This is apparant in oh so many ways. From language and food to the life of a junior high school student, this delight in similitude is everywhere, defending against the visscitudes of life.
You can see it in the speech patterns-one of the reasons simple spoken-japanese is quite easy to pick up is so much of what is said in normal conversations is said over and over, every day, with little variation. A glaring example of this unwavering use of the same words or phrases can be seen at Hanabi (fireworks) festivals where, while being dazzled by the fantastic colors and patterns above, you can also marvel at the echoes of "sugoi!" that surround you. The japanese all-purpose word "sugoi" meaning "great, big," or "cool," is practically the only exclamation inspired by the exploding sky. Picture yourself on the Fourth of July with people of all ages, everyone exclaiming only, "wow."
And, while japanese cuisine is certainly possessed of many flavors and styles it may be said that it all has a certain quality of subtlety and simplicity. There are no extremes in the food of japan, spice and flavor are mild and harmonious and, concordingly, the foreign food that can be found has been re-imagined in the japanese style and retains little of its original character.
This spirit of homogeneity naturally forms school life as well. The most obvious example is of course the uniforms worn by all students from Junior High on. Then there is the well-known group-oriented approach to everything that manifests itself in sports day events including the quite impressive 40-student simultaneous jump-rope competition whose execution would be laughable in many other countries or the general distaste for being singled out in any way. There are also not so commonly known examples. Let me relate what it is like to eat lunch at my school as a glimpse into one of these manifestations which strikes me as interesting in its unremarkability.
I have taken to eating lunch in the tiny windowed room adjacent to the PA room where all the announcements are made. It gets me out of the teachers room and I get to talk with the students who deliver the daily announcements. From this room I can clearly hear everything being projected through the schools speakers. A typical luncy period goes something like this (approximately):
12:35- Greeting: Good afternoon honorable everyone. Please, lets enjoy today's lunch together. It is rice, milk, fish, soup, and slice of apple. Please it it with gusto. Today we will be attending clubs and also will have time to practice each class's songs for the chorus festival. Thank you.
12:36- The song "Peach" by Otsuka Ai is played.
(note: "Peach" is a horrible song. Imagine if the backstreet boys were a girl and they teamed up with the creators of My Little Pony to write a theme song for Claire's mall jewlery store. It's like that but poppier.)
12:37- I note outloud and with an air of inevitability that we are listening to "Peach" again today.
12:40- The student in charge of the song rushes from her chair to the audio room.
12:41- "Peach" is restarted. (apparantly there is no replay option)
12:45- Same as 12:40's action.
12:46- We listen to "Peach" yet again.
12:50- See 12:45.
12:51 - Any guesses?

And thus lunch period is passed, everyday, without incident where surely, anyplace else where the students were not so accustomed to repetition the PA system would be quickly and systematically destroyed within days. Clearly then, it can be said that the Japanese admiration of predictability is pervasive and, occasionally, painful.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Cardboard Phones

It was another day spent predominantly in the classroom. Unlike much of my previous time working in Japanese schools I have been busy lately. Most days I have had at least four classes and during the remaining free periods rather than reading The Red Badge of Courage on Wikipedia's online library I have been planning and scheming for future lessons. Not surprisingly I have also found school much more entertaining and, in a strange twist, more relaxing. Today was exemplifying this new spirit quite perfectly until I came to one of the ni-nen (8th grade) classes where I attempted one of the new lesson plans I had been working on. You can never tell what will work and what will leave you with 30 Japanese kids dressed as 20th century british sailors staring at you, heads cocked to one side, completely willing to spend the rest of the hour silently not learning a damn thing. As entertaining as that may sound it loses its novelty rapidly and I could see today's lesson headed in this direction. The target language was basic phone etiquette, which seemed an easy sell but I took a wrong turn somewhere and they were getting bogged down. When a gust of wind blew the large curtain out against a student seated next to the window the rest of them tittered, glad for a distraction. When I began the final activity, wherein the students would use oversized cardboard phones to call each other up and ask one another to accompany them somewhere, I had pretty low expectations. Fortunately the first student I gave the phone to, Sho-Kun, called up his friend Ryota and together they brought the class back. Their conversation followed the prescribed pattern at first, "Hello."
"Is this Ryota?"
"Yes, what's up?" And then, incorporating his outside research into the final bit, Sho said to Ryota, "I will go to Hell...why don't you come?" He couldn't of done the role-play better and as Suguri-senseii and I laughed I watched the mood of the classroom change completely in seconds.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What's in a name?

Now, you may have gathered, provided you've been reading my previous posts, that the japanese like to use english in all sorts of ways, many of which appear quite odd to those who actually understand it. This is not to say americans don't do things like this as well, we do, just not nearly to the same extent. I brought up tattoos before and I will bring them up again now just to point out that while the Japanese misuse english to an extent that is staggering, and sometimes oddly poetic, I have yet to see a Japanese person with a tattoo in any language but their own-which means none of them are walking around thinking their permamant skin-art says "peace" when it actually says "gyoza." Okay, that said, they do however name their bars things that would not fly outside of San Fransisco.
Let's say you are opening a bar/cafe and you wish to attract a young surfer/stoner clientele. You've got a good location, hip employees, an above average selection of drinks; all you need is a name. Maybe something to do with surfing or the ocean? Nope, too obvious. How about a reference to some recent cultural movement or even something more retro, maybe swipe a few words from some literary or cinematic classic? What about just something about booze? No, no, and no. If you are the entrepreneurs in Kikugawa you go with, The Pony's Toy. I can't explain exactly why this sounds like the epitome of gay bar names to me but it is definately up there. Kind of like the equivalent of the Wildrose in Seattle, but not exclusively for women. The Pony's Toy, however, pales in comparison to the outright brazenness or random-chance-iness of those who named nearby Fujieda's, The Skin Flute. Seriously. Seriously! All in all though, a pretty nice bar...full of women. Somehow I didn't think to ask about the name while I was there but I did take a photograph of the sign for the incredulous.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Me and My Mantis

We share the world with all sorts of animals. Some are covered with tight coils of fur, while some are finely-scaled. Some have adapted colorful appearances to frighten enemies or attract mates, and some don't care about these flamboyant animals at all because they are unfortunately color-blind, like dogs. The continents support a staggering array of species while the ocean is home to even more. However, there is one animal that shines above its brethren. An animal whose good-nature and playful spirit bring joy to children and adults alike throughout at least a few parts of the world. A creature whose beauty and warrior-like spirit have doubtlessly inspired whole societies to do impressive societal things. I am, of course, referring to the distinguished praying mantis.
Now, I know what you're thinking, something along the lines of, "totally, warrior spirit, they definitely have that." But you may also be wondering, why now? Six months and nothing then suddenly, without pretext, I am writing about the praying mantis. Well, it happens that a few weeks ago I noticed a young mantis apparently in the midst of an expedition across my wall, his large forearms pulling him quickly across the textured surface with the strange gait that such large, oddly-jointed appendages always cause. I watched him with curiosity, having never seen one so close. He settled upon the edge of my laundry basket and seemed content to lounge there occasionally turning his elongated head to give alert eyes a direct line of sight, the eyes of a mantis being located on either side of its head. I thought I should make some sort of gesture of friendship and scanned my room for one of the many crickets that have recently invaded my apartment. As if volunteering, one appeared in front of me just I as finished my thought. I hastily snatched him up and set him atop the basket, near the mantis. Within minutes the cricket was in the mantid's grasp, his chest pierced by powerful, raptorial limbs. Needless to say, I was quite impressed with this display and bought a small plastic tank for him and, with a stick and a leaf to recreate what he's used to, I ushered him into his temporary home.
Let me quickly throw some mantis facts at you as quoted from some guy name Dan Feldman who wrote a brief and unintentionally hilarious research paper on the praying mantis.

"With an estimated 1800 species of mantids that cover the whole world, the mantis has become a prevalent and often revered part of human life." -yes

"In Arab and Turkish cultures a mantis was thought to point toward Mecca, a site of considerable religious interest." -naturally

"Ears occur in 60% of mantids" -I find this both hilarious and enlightening.

"The mantis is an auditory cyclops"-band name?

So as you can see Dan did his research and it is undeniably interesting, in fact, I think it should be used to teach children to read. Now that you are suitably educated about this fascinating creature let me return to my story.

I gave my mantis a name, Mantis, and tossed him a cricket when I was able to catch one. He was generally slow in capturing his prey and I tired of waiting quickly so I only saw him eat once but it was brutal. The mantis waited patiently on the ceiling of the tank until the unsuspecting cricket jumped to a twig that lay directly below him. He stuck quick and the cricket escaped but only by leaping so frantically that he left one of his legs in the inexorable grip of the predator. Undeterred the mantis moved fluidly to the corner of the tank where the cricket sat, the leg still in his right hand. Looking down at the tiny insect the mantis ate half of the cricket's leg while the cricket sat stupified no more than an inch away. I have to admit, I was a little shocked myself.
A few days after the mantis showed up I went on a three-day trip to Hiroshima. Knowing my own feelings regarding being left alone in a tank for three days without food, even if there is a stick and a leaf, I set the tank on my porch with the lid open and bid him farewell. I explored Hiroshima and the nearby island of Miyajima and when I returned home exhausted I had nearly forgotten my mantid companion. Thus I was surprised when days later he appeared, resting casually on my screen door. I considered it a sign of friendship and resolved to leave him be and there he has stayed ever since, silently keeping me company.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Our Duties as Teachers

Most Interac ALTs (assistant language teachers), including myself, are embedded in one or two schools, rarely more than three. However sometimes we are asked to visit other schools, usually those of the elementary variety. Before the day of the visit arrives we recieve a fax of the official request from the school describing what periods and grades we will be teacher plus a list of what they would like taught. The typical requested lesson plan will ask for "easy english" vocabularly, an activity, and foreign culture. (I usually consider myself just being there as qualifying for the foreign culture) I always add a further bit to the lesson plan which I call, "a demonstration of my height." It consists of, as you might guess from its title, me demonstating my height by touching something relatively high, like a door frame or sign. Though I have been to schools with teachers just as tall as me, this bit seems to always impress them and provoke shouts of, "sugoii!!" (great!!) But I digress. Invariably, during these visits, the kids crowd you and, especially with the five and six-year, hug you and are quite affectionate and exciteable. In fact, it's not unusualy for me to leave a class trailing a half-class of kids off of my arms and legs. However, usually they don't include this in the request forms. In a recent request to another ALT the school, apparantly in a fit of honesty, they wrote as follows: "We'd like to shake hands with you and hold your hand. Then, we'd like to have the opportunity to touch you." -And what an opportunity it is.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Advice to japanese owners of beer gardens that rest perfectly on the top of the city

Don't leave your doors unlocked even if you're closed for the season, especially if you still have full, tapped's not a great idea really-I mean, hypothetically, people could wander in and enjoy the beautiful view while helping themselves to some free beverages...hypothetically.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Two T-shirts

One of the best things about Japan is the t-shirts. Covered in nonsensical english seemingly picked at random from some strange database of english words-"fresh" is well-liked as are "sweet,"heaven," and "pressurefull"-the shirts make my days a little better. Yesterday I saw one that made good used of punctuation it said, "cheeseburger... cheeseburger? cheeseburger!." I would wear that! Also heard from another ALT that one of her teachers wore a shirt to school that said simply and yet somewhat mysteriously, "fucking." Japan... Japan? Japan!

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Mt. Fuji but Were Afraid to Ask

We set off towards the famous angular white slopes of Mount Fuji at eight on a Saturday night unprepared, sleep-deprived, and undoubtedly still nursing a hangover from the previous night’s revels in Hamamatsu. The four of us, Matt, Tim, me, and the slightly creepy Johnny Yi crammed into a efficiently-built Nissan after having a very obliging woman take the same photo with each of our four cameras and began what would be a trip so exhausting that I would almost forget how severely beautiful it was until I saw the photos two weeks later.
As we slowly ascended the mountain, car laboring and us bantering, I noticed the rather beautiful and eerily mythical forest that was slowly enveloping us. The ancient wood was so crowded with trees that pushed out towards the road as if with a plan to overtake it that you couldn’t see very far into it. The proliferation of rakish trees and heavy vegetation soon formed a dizzying wall that prevented any penetrating view. It seemed a place that could suck unwary travelers into its labyrinths and then bear down on them with all the treacherous devices possessed by an enchanted forest.
I later learned I was not the only one to notice a strange quality in Fuji’s guardian forest. It turns out that Aokigahara Jukai (Sea of Trees) is worthy of more than just a casual wariness. The soil that fuels Aokigahara is heavily veined with iron which causes traditional compasses to malfunction and leaves travelers unable to distinguish between North and South. More sinister is its apparent strong pull on those unfortunates who find themselves wanting to end their lives. The forest has for many years been Japan's location du jour for suicide with over 78 bodies dragged out in 2002 alone. In a coping strategy of questionable effectiveness authorities placed “no-suicide” signs throughout the area. Locals also reluctantly undertake a search of the macabre wood annually.
The road thinned beyond the forest and my ears began to pop as we drove steadily up the mountain and out of the treacherous forest. We pulled into the parking lot at stage 5-there are 10 stages or stopping points throughout the mountain-and had to navigate through an army of amateur astronomers and their equipment. At last finding a spot amid the telescope-village we stepped out of the car and stretched, suddenly alert in the cold night air.
We started the climb at what we thought was a moderate pace but soon found ourselves gasping from the steep trail and lack of oxygen. Johnny Yi announced his resignation from our team after around fifteen minutes of silently wheezing behind us; I was relieved. As Johnny turned around we quickly adjusted and vowed to keep the pace slow. We created a breaking system wherein every ten to fifteen minutes we took a brief respite, leaning against the large porous boulders scattered about, and let our raw lungs and bodies acclimate. After each rest Matt and I would trade the head lamp which carried with it the distinguished position of leader. Though it bore more responsibility, the leader regulating both path and pace, the lead position was actually easier-provided there was no avalanche-because directing the light made every step more sure and reduced the amount stumbles and unnecessary steps.Each dusty step we took up the mountain’s southern route, Fujinomiya, found us closer to the 6th stage. With burning lungs we reached the rusted metal shack that marks our first real stopping point and found to our dismay that the heavy iron doors were locked.
After a short rest against the sealed doors we snapped some photos of ourselves in front of the invitingly ominous, “trail closed for conditions,” sign before stepping around it. About 100 meters from the 6th stage we discovered why the trail was closed: it was completely gone. The guide-rope, our greatest alley against the steep inclines, had been covered by a season’s worth of iced-over snow and the correct path was decidedly non-existent. “Should we keep going,” someone asked but we all just stood, feet shifting, looking skeptically at where the rope dove into the white and the vast icy incline rose beyond. Though we were all thinking the same thing, namely that it would be stupid to try and continue, none of us wanted to be the one to say so and thus it was that after ten minutes of hesitation we dug our shoes into the ice and moved on.
With one flashlight, old running shoes, no climbing equipment, and no gloves climbing was, well, hard. Every direction held precarious steps and, as I realized about half-way up, a distinct possibility of serious injury. As it grew steeper we were forced to crawl. Our hands grew raw from grasping frozen outcroppings and it was with great joy that I discovered a discarded work glove stuck to the ice in front of me. We took a long rest at the metal structure that appeared before us at the end of our climb. After pondering our idiocy and eating a packet of Ritz crackers apiece we began our hike again. By then I had implemented a two-minute glove exchange between my right and left hand thus distributing the cold equally. As we hiked on I noticed Matt was wearing a pair of extra socks on his hands. Tim noticed too and for the rest of the trip he referred to us respectively as, “socks,” and, “one-glove.”
Two hours into the mountain, we saw a shadowy light to one side of the trail. We watched the light grow brighter until at a fork in the trail we saw two figures emerge as if from the fog behind. I knew, even before we found out they had both been climbing Fuji alone, that they were crazy. Both of them wore shorts. Dave, a Canadian Grad student turned out to be quite funny-if unintentionally so-and a bit strange. Daigo was Japanese and spoke literally five words the whole time I knew him but I found him an amiable enough companion. After introducing ourselves we voted to continue the climb together and set off bolstered by our new forces. The next few hours were tiring but pleasant, punctuated by frequent rests that allowed us to watch the dark skates of clouds that roamed the silent sky below. When not resting or trudging silently up the lifeless slopes we listened, bemused, as Dave explained how he came to be on Fuji that night. Apparently a concerned family had found him, unable to speak the language and lost, at a store in a town near the base of Fuji and had graciously taken him to their house and offered him some dinner. About half-way through dinner he began to feel tired and rather than attributing it to jet-lag or sleep-deprivation, both of which he was surely suffering from, he concluded the family had poisoned him. As soon as he came to this realization he rose from the table and announced his imminent and hasty departure. Somehow despite his boorish and strange behavior he still managed to extract a ride from the family to the 5th stage where he began his hike. Naturally we pointed out the danger he put himself in by accepting a ride from someone who had so recently tried to poison him. The other thing about Dave that I found hopelessly funny was that, unable to remember Daigo's name, he simply addressed him by a different one each time, some of which were little more than mumbles.
I had perfected my glove-transfer timing by this time and was rejoicing in my relatively warm hands when we came upon a sign proclaiming 90 minutes to the summit. It’s hard to tell distances when climbing a mountain; sometimes far looks near and sometimes near looks far. Whatever the approximate distance was then, I was ready for it to be half to a third less than the sign said but there was no chance of giving up then. We were right on for reaching the peak at sunset and had no intention of sacrificing that. The final 400 meters of the climb is broken up by steep but comparatively soft-terrain of wide snaking switchbacks. As we reached this fateful point we noticed we were now quite able to see our surroundings, the red-gray sand and rocks suddenly visible in all their dusty resplendence. This, however, was not good. Our time was running out.
I was starting to think that the sunrise would look quite nice from the bottom of the switchbacks but Tim and Matt had been re-energized by the slowly pinkening sky. Brains clouded by the race with the sun and noting that we could see the peak just beyond us, they suggested we ditch the trail and go straight up the rock-strewn rise straight ahead of us. It would mean taking the elevation gain all at once rather than slowly with the switchbacks but presumably we would reach our goal faster. Dave was against it, pointing out how steep it was, we would have to proceed hand-over-foot, and how dangerous it would be. Daigo was, per usual, silent on the matter-though his face seemed steeled to accept any decision-which seemed to leave the decision up to me. Sealing our fate, I looked up at the shimmering peak and said “well, we’re almost there right?” And with those marginally encouraging words we began to make our way, at a pace that seemed alternately very slow and ludicrously fast, up the mountain’s final feet.
It took less than five minutes for me to nurture a deep regret regarding my decision to skirt the path. By then we had then been hiking for over five hours at a time when we were usually in bed. Each successive movement was more exhausting. I was resting at least as much as moving forward and still with every rock I grasped my chest grew tighter. I was fighting off dizziness and nausea of which the former was alarming given the precarious situation I was in. The mountain seemed to drop off behind me. I looked up and saw Matt disappear over the top and cursed him to myself. When I finally pulled myself over the last rocks of our improvised trail every one of my muscles felt utterly useless and I wanted nothing more than to take a quick nap but as I walked into the icy gusts that batter the top of Fuji I forgot all that and fell into an awed trance, struck by the uncommonly perfect beauty surrounding me. The sun had just overtaken the horizon and bled a striking orange across the sky, enshrining the sharp outline of the far peak. As I watched fiery dark-red tints join the orange Matt walked over and we congratulated each other.
“God,” I yelled into the wind, "look at that."
“Yeah,” he yelled back smiling.
We walked carefully across the icy surface that flowed up and down like great motionless waves, keeping our heads down to avoid the wind. Looking down into the crater, tremendous and gaping below, I felt huge. Rather than overpowered by the immensity of everything, I felt strengthened by it. The exertion, the hours spent slowly climbing the mountain, and the fact that we alone had shared the night with its rocky curvatures led to a feeling of oneness with it all. I hadn't defeated the mountain and the mountain hadn't defeated me; we existed symbiotically.
When the biting wind became too much for our already-chapped faces we retreated to a nook about twenty meters below the peak. Huddled there in relative comfort we pulled out a small bottle of sake and with little delay passed it around following each drink with “cheers” and “kanpai” while looking down on the mountain we had summited.
The walk down, which at some points would have been more aptly described as a stumble, was still long though we cut our climbing time in half. Occasionally we would snap out of our exhaustion-fueled trances and glimpse the new mountain daylight had revealed. The tropical vegetation at the base seemed almost obscenely green and the large patches of snow sparkled white all around us. In all honesty though I spent much of the hike down imagining the meal I would have at Denny’s later and trying to ignore the pain in my feet. The last dusty mile of trail was hell. It was like a slow-motion dream or an exhausted astronaut's moon- walk, every step obscenely big and awkward. Our feet sank into the sandy ground and my legs functioned at about 30 percent of their capacity. When we at last reached the bottom we spread out in front of the sign that marks the start of the trail and took a group photograph. I wanted nothing more than to sleep but as I looked back up Fuji’s slopes, marbled white and dotted with porous red-brown rock, I remembered the vastness of the sunrise and the beauty we saw alone on the top of the mountain.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

While in Tokyo I happened across the Meiji-jingu shrine while taking refuge from the crushing 95 degree heat. Located among a somewhat vast (133 acres in fact) wood oddly close to skyscrapers and upscale shops it is a a lovely place to stumble upon. Walking through the wooded park on the way to the shrine-I didn't actually know where it lead at the time-I gaped as I passed beneath the towering cyprus torii that mark the entrance to the shrine

I would have been quite satisfied with just the park but the shrine was a fitting place for the path to lead, beautfiful japanese cyprus buildings, a couple having a traditional marriage ceremony to one side, and a huge, leafy prayer tree in the center of it all.

After studying the prayer tree for a while, taking it's geometry and authenticity, I became reasonably satisfied with its effectiveness and then purchased a tablet to make my own wish. As someone had already wished for Dylan Sprouse to be their boyfriend-one should always be wary of competing wishes on the same tree-I decided to wish my dad a good birthday.

-happy birthday Dad-be there if I could.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Some people, generally those of a more relaxed and casual nature, tend to misplace important items more than others. For instance my best friend used to lose his car keys almost daily, invariably finding them after a few frenzied minutes searching, in a neglected pocket-that cargo pants were at their zenith in popularity didn't help. Then there are others who seem always aware of precisely where all their possesions reside and never lose a second retracing their steps. *1 I am always teetering on the fence above the former category. Though I have made many improvements over the years, I no longer write my name inside my jackets, I still find myself misplacing things fairly frequently. However, the items I lose lately generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is that of important things which I have put somewhere safe so I won't lose them. This is, of course, ironic but nevertheless quite common. The second is things which I lose but immediately know, upon finding them missing, where they are or at the very least how to go about retrieving them. Last weekend I found myself faced with both.
When I awoke Sunday morning I knew something was missing. I shuffled around the room half-heartedly locating all my personal effects one by one till I had everything gathered but my wallet. As I slunk back to bed, I had awoke too early due to my still curtain-less windows, I checked my phone for the time and found my wallet falling neatly into category two, or so I hoped. I had a message from the local koban (police) which I could only assume involved my wallet though I didn't understand anything in the message besides my name and, "koban." Later that afternoon, after breakfast, I decided I had better go see about my wallet. Assuming they wouldn't return it to me without some sort of identification I figured I would take my passport-problem was I couldn't find it. After some minutes of throwing books around and rechecking my important papers pouch a minimum of four times I started to get a smidge nervous. After a thorough scattering of papers and books across my floor I checked my accordian folder-reserved for important things-and the passport fell neatly into category two.

Prospective Reader: Sure. Some people lose things. Some people don't. Who cares?

Matt: Well, it was sort of an examination of the different ways in which people, specifically myself, lose them and the processes they/I go through recovering them.

Prospective Reader: A bit slow isn't it?

Matt: No.

Prospective Reader: And aren't you supposed to write about Japan??

Matt: You interupted. I was just coming to that.

Prospective Reader: Well get on with it then.

Matt: Ahem.

I drove to the police office next to the station and parked my car where the taxis wait as I figured it would be an in-and-out thing. Inside the small building a police officer greets me from behind a short counter. I start to stumble through my request in Japanese-"Matt Dillinger." Stop, check for understanding. No response yet. "Yesterday, last night." Damn, why didn't I look up the word for wallet. Damn. "Yesterday...I don't have." Someone walks in and the policeman politely extricates himself from my babbling and begins helping the new guy. He needs directions to the onsen nearby but is either a tad slow or just appreciates very exact instructions as they spend around ten minutes discussing it. As they prattle on in the background I look at the "wanted" posters posted around the room. The photographers have captured each one at his most unsettling and I recognize the creepiest as one wanted for murdering a british girl a while back. I notice with some shock a poster of a young woman and idly wonder what she had done. As I am compiling a list of possibilites the direction-lover and the officer finish up and after a quick laugh about something the officer returns to me. I am ready this time and hand him my phone with the message they left on my phone. He nods as he listens. Says, "ah, Matthew Dirinja-San," and goes to the back of the office returning a short time later with a binder full of various lost items including my wallet. Inside the Lost and Found book I see a hundred yen coin (less than a dollar) sealed inside a plastic baggie and with a full report attached. I smiled imagining someone finding the coin on the ground and brining it to the police station hoping the rightful owner would come to claim it.
After recieving my wallet, we spent between five and ten minutes trying to understand one another as there was evidently something else he wanted from me but I had no idea what it was. Eventually a pulled together and realized he was trying to call the person who had returned the wallet so I could thank them personally. He seemed unable to reach them and eventually indicated I could go. As I walked to the car I checked my wallet and noted without surprise that the two thousand yen that had been there the previous night was still there.

Prosective Reader: That's more like it. But the stuff about the wanted photos was a bit dark.

Matt: Sorry, that's what happened.

Prospective Reader: Just didn't really fit with the rest.

Matt: Okay.

Prospective Reader: And what about Alex's request for more stories about kids?

Matt: On it, as soon as I start school again in September.

Prospective Reader: Good.

*1 Perhaps the energy spent keeing things uncomonly organized to make for easier retrieval later and filing the locations of all ones things in one's head is equal to that of an occasional few minutes lost to searching.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tropical Ointment

I live on a tropical island - i mean, technically - but before you conjure up visions of sparkling white sand beaches, drinks with umbrellas, blue oceans, and palm trees let me set the record straight. This is the other tropical, the un-sought out one. This version is characterized by a choking heat that never dissipates and leaves the air so moist you often find yourself unsure whether you toweled off after your showers. (on the plus side it takes only minutes for refrigerated butter to become spreadable) The cool ocean usually seems quite far off and much of it is not good for swimming. Guitars fall in and out of tune, as due their bowed counterparts. The seemingly peaceful and soothing green tea field behind my door has been doused with fertilizer and the stench permeates the neighborhood. I've even developed a charming heat rash for which the pharamacist gave me something that seems to be a japanese version of icy/hot which is in no way effective, though I can maybe follow her reasoning. On the bright side those ungodly-big winged beetle things that live in the trees and bushes and wake me up every morning with their deafening, and undoubtedly useless, crawing, cricking vibration sounds have been dropping like mere flies. Of course there is more good here than just dead beetles, though each new sighting brings me a little joy, there will be time for that later. For now, just trust that tropical doesn't always equal pleasant.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

In the crook of the mountain
the city lights blur,
below, struggling galaxies.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Before I Forget

It's odd, much of what makes unfamiliar cultures interesting is not the drastic differences but the subtle ones-the quirks. It's similar to love. Maybe at first you are drawn in by more immediately apparent things; their laugh, or wit, or how they fit into their jeans but it often takes a while before you notice the important things, the qualities that make them endearing are the ones that don't initially pop out at you, maybe even the ones you forget if you don't think about them. Why am I saying all this?? Well, because I almost forgot one such endearing feature of Japan: the unicycle. (1)
Unicyles are know throughout the world. No doubt you have seen one before, perhaps even tried to operate one. In Japan the majority of the population is proficient. At least those under the age of 15 are and probably the older ones too it's just less quantifiable in them. When the recess song begins (short melodies are used to alert you to the time, there are even loudspeakers throughout the cities that play one at noon and six everyday) the children scatter across the playground, organising their various activities. Soccer, dodgeball, and jumprope are all popular. But there are also groups of kids riding around effortlessly on their unicycles. It's pretty surreal at first and, of course, you feel like you are at a very strange, and possibly in violation of child-labor laws, circus but with time you grow quite charmed by and eventually accustomed to it. And then you forget about it, just like you forget your girlfriend's shoulder freckles, until some event, or passing conversation, or place reminds you and you make a note to remember it.

(1) I had to type that twice because the first time I wrote pogo-stick. Ridiculous.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A guitar, a drink, a typhoon

If you're not depressed at least weekly you're not paying attention. And if you don't enjoy hard rain and late nights and guitar strings there is something wrong. You know a hard rain's a comin means something's gonna happen.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Who doesn't love variety?

I know I do; whether in meals or blogs it's nice to have a bit of everything. Hence today's blog. First, before I forget, sometimes the best parts of your day are the little insignificant parts that you forget immediately after they occur. This occured to me in the midst of one of those exact moments yesterday and I will now relate it here:

It was cleaning time at school. Not the school that plays Strawberry Fields for cleaning time, the other one. Anyways, I had been playing basketball in the gym with a couple of the volleyball girls who insisted on shooting the ball as if it were a volleyball being set and was returning to the teacher's room when I was drafted into a cleaning group by two of the second year boys. They were kids I liked and who made a concerted efffort to speak english to both each other and me which is much more than I can say for most. The conversation at this particular time went something like this: "Matt-he is (gesturing towards his friend) gargoyle."
"Really, a gargoyle?!" I say with feigned shock.
"No, he is Gargoyle," says his friend again indicating with his hand.
"Hmm," I say.
"Matt...he went to hell tuesday." His friend puts him in a headlock. "He goes to hell after school," he chokes out after freeing himself from the headlock.
"That's too bad," I say, admiring their linguistic skills.
"We are undead."
"Undead?! Let's go to the Nurse," I say and start leading them towards the office.
"No, No," they protest, "We are no undead."
and so on. My favorite is, "he is gargoyle.'

The next thing on the plate is Mt Fuji and the conquering of its slopes. I will not go into too much depth because I want to do a post with photos and I have been having some technical difficulties but let me some at up like this. You think it's gonna be you climbing a mountain but then you get there's you climbing a mountain.

Things i wish I had right now: a stereo, coffee, a street map of Japan that made at least a bit of sense, the authority to convince the Japanese Diet to assign names to streets thus making sensible maps useful, Mexican food, a banjo, a washing machine, curtains, an apple.

Music of recent interest: Folk Implosion, Devandra Banhart, Residente Calle Trece.

That is all for now,


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Elementary visits

I had just chopsticked the last shumai into my mouth when a rapidly gathering circle of elementary school kids began requsting my presence outside for some event. Actually what they said was, "Mato Senseii,," while gesturing at the door. I took this to mean, well, to be honest i had no idea but that is quite usual here. Turns out this particular elementary school occasionally boils large amounts of potatoes and then serves them to the students outside. Now, you wouldn't think anyone would get too excited over plain, boiled yellow potatoes but they were ecstatic and I gave in to the potato excitement pretty quick. In fact in my excitement I even missed the main point of it all, we were to throw the skins from the potatoes into the flower beds presumably to act as fertilizer, luckily I was quickly reprimanded when I tried to eat my skin and made aware of the expectations. The lunch culminated with the delightful coining of a new insult which I sincerely hope catches on. One of the 6th graders, you know how it is when you are learning a new language, was desperately trying to find some way to make fun of a fellow student in English. She fumbled around a bit until she settled quite happily on, "potato ghost."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Like tiny, disgusting horses

A friend of mine used to begin his explanation for why he likes the tv show 24 like this, "you know, I am usually completely against torture...," and he would go on to explain that when the main character of the show tortured someone he thought it was perfectly called for and, in fact, very well executed. I am going to start this rant off the same way...
I am usuallyh completely against torture, even of insects and rodents and things we humans traditionally do not care about. However in the case of my new friend the cockroach I may relent. I have been trying to figure out what it is that makes these things so grotesque and unlikable but still cannot pinpoint it. Regardless I am disgusted by them and, recently, have been thinking about employing some crueler methods for their demise, that is rather than the ancient and reliable "shoe method." I want to encourage them to seek a home elsewhere and though I am pretty sure intellectually that they do not have any means of abstract communication, when I see them I can easily imagine their plotting to further inhabit my apartment. In light of this suspicion, I was not surprised when, after finishing dinner, I found a mid-sized fellow examing the dishes in my sink. I found this the perfect opportunity to test the effects of hot water on these miserable creatures. The most interesting of this effects was the repeated, and rather mocking, rearing up of the cockroach in what I can only describe as a good imitation of a horse bucking. It actually took me by surprise and I almost lost him in my astonishment but I quickly recovered and dispatched him using a new method which I termed the "side-of-the-cutting board method."

Saturday, May 12, 2007

These photos are from a ferry trip to the Izu Penninsula, to the small diving town, Toi, where my friend Rob lives in what amounts to a palace here. It was a damned lovely trip. The Pacific is warmer here and swimming is, well, actually its still cold but better than Washington. In the summer heat it will be perfect. However, you have to watch out for the spider crabs who grow to be as tall as me and will attack bathers in groups of three or four and drag the unsuspecting vicitim out to deeper water where they devour you as your lungs fill with water.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Almost forgot. Please do not worry about me being lonely as I share my apartment, including the sink, with a family of curious cockroaches whose numbers, sadly, seem to be decreasing with every attempt to console me.

Let me first say that hopefully I will procure internet for my home within a short while and then posts here will become much more frequent and, quite possibly, better written. And now to spew out random thoughts and experiences...

I just finished my first month of school here and to be honest I am pretty broke up about leaving my school.* I had really begun to feel comfortable at Sakagawa Chugakko and was getting to know the kids names and all. Damn it. Surely the new school will be good too; I hear they have a soccer club.

Also, in what is supposedly one of the lowest-crime rate countries in the world**, I have already experienced the devastation that lawlessness can inflict upon honest folk...somebody stole my bycycle. (Im really sorry steven....) It is a damn shame, even though my bike was pretty lowgrade, and I am sort of temporarily stuck relying on my friends, um, even more than usual. Hopefully it'll get replaced soon, maybe with a car or at least a nicer bike.

Oh, these are pictures of a little park area by the castle by the library. What? Oh, you don't have castles by your libraries???

*I switch Schools every month but just between two.

**I made that fact up though I think it is pretty true.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Okay, Fugi-San, and me and some brit, and then Kellen and Jenn. We are clearly as photogenic as the mountain.

A Day in the Life

This may be an atypical day in its positivity but it still hints at the average day.

I woke up at 6:15, got to sleep in a bit since I was getting a taxi to school, made some breakfast and studied japanese for twenty minutes or so. The 10 minute taxi ride was a relief after my usual 30 minute bike ride. Once I get to school, Sakagawa Jr. High, I greet all the teachers with an, "Ohayo gozaimasu," and a bow, and the the students with, "good morning, how are you!" My mug of hot ocha(green tea) is sitting at my desk and I sip it as I look over the lessons for each class I will be with this day. I am teaching a third year in first period and we go over passive sentence formation and some other rather dry stuff. Second period is a first year and we have a good time with pronounciation and the alphabet and whatnot. Third period is prep time for me and I throw together a game to teacher my 4th period second year students about is/was and are/were.
Then there is lunch. I eat with the kids and try and get them to speak in english but I also practice my japanese. Lunch was hamburger(something made with groundbeef not an acutal hamburger) and a potato/carrot curry stew and some cabbage thing and rice and milk. Pretty good as per usual. Then, and I think this is something I would always like to follow lunch with, we played a wicked game of badmitton.(sp?) After the post-lunch time there comes cleaning time. In Japan there are no janitors and the teachers and students all clean at some point in the day. Today I wiped the floor down while teaching the kids to say, "whats up" and "clean." As far as cleaning goes it was pretty allright.
For the final two periods I basically oscillated between emailing people and studying Japanese and trying not to fall asleep.
Here is the best part. I had been invited to "join" the track and field club and today was my first day. -Every student is required to be in an after school club, mostly sports. Often a students day, especially highschool won't end until late in the evening- We started the run and were going to slow for me to even stand so I started passing kids and then the teacher and two boys and three girls pulled up ahead with me. I found it was actually pretty easy to communicate running ideas to them and we did some sprints and talked about the beautiful country hills we were running through and if I owned a turtle and what japanese food I liked and what were their names and it was great. It was the most english I have heard from any students and I now know all their names and I am stoked to do it again tomorrow.
After the run I grabbed my stuff, threw on my IPod-which has been so unbelievably useful-and rode back to my apartment. I worked on some writing, took a shower and then rode over to my friend Gene's place where I am currently writing this. We are going to have some Yakitori and maybe go out to Mal's later.
Not too bad of a day.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Japanese maps are even harder to read than their english counterparts.

I decided to ride my bike to this mountain called awagatake but I sorta only knew what direction it lay in. So, in high spirits, I bought some ice tea-horrible stuff, turned out-and headed off. I am not sure I made it or not. I did go for a hike up this peak where, once you reached the top, you looked out over all these wheat colored trees and cherry blossoms. When I turned around to leave I realized that part of the peak was elevated a bit further and there was a small clearing where an old shrine rose, serenely from the ground. All in all it was a lovely trip.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Around four yesterday I ran out of things to do and decided to go for a bike ride-which is sort of funny since I already spend so much time on my bike. Anyway I road about ten or so miles then when I came back I found this spot like two blocks from my aparto. Not sure what I am looking at there.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

It is strange how much English is used in advertising here. Considering most people don't speak English, which is evident in the, sometimes hilarious, attempts, it is a really strange cultural phenomenon. The only equivalent I can think of in the States, which is silly, but doesn't even come close is that whole get a kanji tattoo phase everyone went through. Anyway, it's weird.

It's actually quite spacious, if sparsely decorated. The bathroom is an enlarged plastic doll house commode but besides that its pretty okay. The one-burner set-up isn't that great since I am only able to cook one thing at a time. Luckily I bought a toaster oven which, oddly enough, is called a pizza oven here.
I have been trying to cook japanese style food(ryori) and been doing pretty good I think. Miso with tofu-the tofu here is delicious, it actually tastes like some sort of food-Udon-this fried and pressed tofu stuff-rice. I had to consult with the grocery store worker to find out what miso to get and what sauce for the udon, etc. Next step is fish, which is super cheap here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Kellyn and Eggdog, respectively.

This is what parts of Alaska look like when staring down on them from inside a Jet where you sit next to a girl who, when you ask if japanese names mean anything or if they're just names like mine, says yes and that her name is a combination of the words meaning summer and hope.

This is what i look like after being at Fred's for an indeterminate ammount of time.


Sorry all,

I didn't have internet acces with my laptop and all the computers here are in japanese and this site was too damn difficult to figure out. Anyways, new posts will becoming forthwith-lose not hope.

Friday, March 16, 2007

I guess this is it, I am making the "packing entry." That's right, I have two suitcases which, as I write, are sitting-one empty one mostly full-in my room next to piles of clothes and miscellaneous things competing for the chance to come with me. Packing is not nearly as hard as I imagined. I have plently of room for everything I am bringing-if only I could make some space for a guitar. C'est la vie. I think I may have to buy one in Japan which shouldn't be too hard considering I will be living next to the city where Yamaha was born.
This last week or two seems to have passed at speeds much faster than the average week. Strange that when I have been trying hard to take everything in that time should go faster. It occured to me the other day as Josh, Justin, Jamie, and I were walking back from a epic game of frisbee at an elementary school that it was to be my last Wednesday before leaving. I tried to hold on to it in case I am asked what Wednesdays are like I can say confidently, "Wednesdays-oh man, they're great. The sun doesn't set till past seven. Everyone has picnics and sometimes we throw some dice. By the end of a Wednesday, you ar e exausted but it is an exaustion you are glad you have."
Gotta go figure out what Fridays are like-

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Everett Man to Fly Across Pacific in Possible Attempt at, "Finding Himselft."

As I have only eleven days left with which to write as an American living in the United States I better fire some posts off quick,then, later we can return to these early posts and contrast them with what will surely be more interesting, and possibly more singularly clear and concise, future posts. To those of you who are confused by the last sentence because of its implications rather than its longwindedness, let me explain.

I am moving to Japan to be an Assistant Language Teacher (or ALT) in public schools through a company called Interac. My contract is for one year after which I can decide to extend it if I wish. As you can infer from the address of the blog, I will be living in a city called Kakegawa and more than likely I will also be broke. We have only to wait and see.

As of today my expectations are as follows:

1) Being a farily tall, white, and blue-eyed American fellow-I will stand out

2) There will be many foods I am not familiar with, some of which may seem like things that were not meant to be eaten-I would be a fool not to eat all of these things and to eat them with gusto.

3) I run here, I will run there-which may add to expectation one.

4) The Japanese culture is different than mine and despite my research and training I will surely screw up, in fact I should probablly steel myself to the probability that at least the first few weeks will be almost a continuous string of cultural screw-ups.

5) Things in Japan are smaller, for instance apartments. (for which I am surprisingly excited)

6) Japan is pretty, in ways that here is not-or at least in ways that will occur to me because of my unfamiliarity with them.

7) I really don't have that many expectations.