Freedom Writers

I don't plug too many movie recommendations on my blog, so you know this one is special. It's actually about the school district where I teach: Long Beach Unified. Set just after the 1993 LA riots, Freedom Writers takes place at Wilson High School. The local paper ran an article about two months ago about students' reactions to the YouTube previews. I agreed with them that the racial tensions at school are almost unrecognizeable to how they are portrayed in the movie. So when you go and see it, remember that it's a period piece: things are a lot better these days!

I'm in the middle of reading the book that the teacher, Erin Gruwell, edited from her students' writings: The Freedom Writers Diary. The raw descriptions of after-school life and the lengths that their teacher will go to connect them with individuals who have moved beyond hate to tolerance is awe-some. Gruwell doesn't mention it in the book, but her work resonates with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed: giving literacy and voice to the voiceless. I'm still in Chicago until Jan 8. The movie debuts Jan 5. I wonder what the buzz will be like in LB? If you're at all interested in where I work, the plight of urban education today, or looking for a teacher inspiration movie, please go see this film!


Merry Christmas

Just a little note to let you know that I'm still here. At this point, "here" is Kildeer, Illinois, where I'm celebrating Christmas with my family. There's no snow on the ground, but it is markedly colder than SouCal. I'm enjoying being with family and will soon venture to my hometown of Naperville to visit with some old friends. There's something about living out of a suitcase for a week or two to simplify life just a bit. If I were home with all of my gadgets and doo-dads, I'm sure I'd waste away my entire vacation. No wonder I like travel so much: it keeps me focused and on the move!


Thanksgiving in Seattle

Safeco Field, home of Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners!

I promised Monday updates and pix from my trip to Seattle. It was a wild Thanksgiving week in the Emerald City for my brother, sister-in-law, and me. We expected typical Seattle weather: 40ºF and raining. What we got was 5 days of winter wonderland with rain freezing to snow and sticking! It did wonders for travel around town, but thanks to use of generous Uncle Bill's Chevy Tahoe, we got around just fine.

Highlights of our week include: day trips to Bainbridge Island via ferry and Vancouver, Canada; naps on the couch after overeating; movies on the big-screen TV; rummaging through family books and paintings; and impromptu snowball fights with cousins and siblings!

Me with the backdrop of Lions' Gate Bridge in Vancouver's Stanley Park

It was nice to get out of the country for a few hours. Craig's wife Gena was on a quest for a Harvey's Restaurant. So hunting down the only Harvey's in town made for a nice tour of the city. Wouldn't you know that the popular Canadian hamburger chain of Ottawa can only be found in Home Depots in British Columbia? Along the way, we got to see the beautiful waterline, sports arena, gastown, and Chinatown in Vancouver.

Here's Craig giving his seal of approval to Harvey's

We toured Stanley Park for the afternoon of increasingly heavy snowflakes, incoming fog, and lowering temperatures. Did you know that the park is as big as downtown Vancouver? Lots of hiking trails and sites to explore. Here's some totem poles from First Nations around BC.

After dinner with Gena's cousin, we braved the worsening roads back to Seattle. If it weren't for the 4WD, we may have had to stay the night. They run a tight ship at the US Border at Blaine, WA. We took an in-depth tour of their facility during the middle of the snowstorm. If you want the same tour, just make sure to leave important travel documents at home before you go!;)

Back in Seattle we were treated to tons of food from Uncle Bill and Aunt Shari. While the days are getting shorter anywhere above the equator this time of year, our days were even shorter with 10am sleep-ins each day. But with delicious breakfasts and short outings in the afternoons, we kept things simple for the rest of our vacation there.

As a parting shot, this photo sums up our activities for the week: Uncle Bill catching naps where/when ever, Craig catching up on the latest biz, Gena and Aunt Shari exchanging stories and recipes, and yours truly behind the camera! Until next week!


Getting back in the swing of things

View from Point Lobos State Park, Carmel, CA

Phew! It's been almost a month since my last post! I'm terrible. Bestest Blog of all time may just kick me out of consideration for a link. But sometimes inactivity on the web is a sign of busy activity at the old brick and mortar. Last year I was pretty good at posting at least once a week. I think the secret to doing that is to have a regular day of the week that I post. Probably a good day for me now will be Mondays.

Since I last posted about Chicago's Olympic hopes, I've gone up to Seattle, Washington for Thanksgiving; took another international trip: to Vancouver, British Columbia; and have been trying to earn more money down here in Long Beach with additional part-time work. Things agwon fi mi dat fuh shoa!

Right now in Long Beach I'm subbing a few days a week, teaching adult ESL at night, and looking for full-time ESL teaching work in SouCal. That's like looking for the Lost Ark if you ask me. But at least it makes for a good adventure!

I need to post pictures from my Monterey, Seattle, and Vancouver trips, too! Ok, like I said, I'm getting back in the swing of things.


The 2016 Olympics: Chicago

The more I wander, the more Chicago still feels like a home base. My upbringing in its green-lawned suburb of Naperville is always contrasted to the culture and values of each other state or country that I live in. So when I found this blog entry about Chicago's chances for the 2016 Olympics Bid, I got excited about the prospects of my city being all over the world so I could see it where ever I go in "Chicago 2016" t-shirts!

Chicago seems to be the humble "3rd coast" of the USA. Outranked in population by LA and NYC, seldom at the top of the podium for sports championships (with the exception of the repeat three-peat by the Chicago Bulls in the 90s), Chicago is often described as "big as New York without the attitude". What we lack in population and victories, Chicago makes up in political corruption. Every time I call home, Dad gives me the update on the latest federal probe into state and city scandals. The Governor was indicted today. The mayor's streets and sanitation department was subpoenaed today. And so it goes.

Well, like most cities who host major international events, Chicago will have to clean up their streets and their act to make a good impression. Maybe Chicago politics will be clean by 2016. Then again, maybe the Cubs will win a World Series by then, too. Like a true Chicagoan, I can always hope can't I?


Going Back to Monterey

Gilda and I went back to Monterey for the long weekend. It was great to get out of crowded LA (although it was loathe to let us go with heavy traffic on our way out). Monterey was colder, quieter, and less congested by far. Such a welcome relief! The town is a popular vacation spot, but Gilda and I had the distinction of having lived there for two years, so we knew all of the local spots to visit: Old Monterey Cafe, Point Lobos, parks, and old classmates and professors from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

It was wonderful to sit on a dune above Monterey Bay, watching the waves crash down blown by winter winds from way out in the Pacific. It has only been a year and 4 months since I lived there, but so much has happened since then. I'm just getting started to put roots in Long Beach. Revisiting Monterey made me want to pick up those roots and transplant them in Monterey. But Gilda would have to coordinate the same thing. It seems that moving so often gets harder and harder. That's why it counts so much to plan ahead and decide where to live. But sometimes it decides for us based on what's available at the time.

We grow up with horizon-less dreams but eventually we have to deal with the mountains, trees, and other landscapes that shape how those dreams will become reality. But then again, who am I to say that I know best? There's Someone who knows a lot better than I.


Getting to know the neighborhood

Happy Halloween!

Just posting some pictures from my immediate neighborhood in Long Beach. It is an historic district, so some homes have been nicely preserved.

This is the corner store behind my apartment.

Where I do my laundry. Can you get a flavor for the dominant ethnic group in my community?;)

One example of the historic homes in the neighborhood. This is where Long Beach began in the 1880s.


Music Influences

At this point in my life, I can enjoy any kind of music if there's talent and respect in it. I owe this to my sister. She was the first musical influence in my life. My parents didn't listen to too much music. Maybe they had some classical music on reel to reel tapes, but we never listened to background music at home. When Jen started to listen to folk music, I caught on. John Denver, James Taylor, and Janis Joplin were some of Jen's early favorites. In high school it was the Indigo Girls.

At the moment "Violets" by Push Down and Turn is playing on my iTunes. They're a very obscure rock band from the West Lafayette area of Indiana. My sister went to Purdue for three years and started liking the band. Being two years apart, I started going to Principia college when Jen was in her Junior year at Purdue. That was a hard year for both of us because our mom had passed away that summer. I remember some late night calls with Jen very sad about how things were going at her sorority, Sigma Kappa, and she didn't have her regular support network of mom to talk to. So she talked to me and I tried to be as encouraging as I could.

Later that year, 1995, Jen came to Principia for a visit. Push Down and Turn was "on tour" to a club in St. Louis. Jen and I went to their concert. I was finally "on par" with my sister in the music scene for a moment. Since then, our music tastes haven't converged too much. Actually, I don't know where my sister's went post-college but that's probably because we stopped living in the same town and growing into our own persons. But I'll never forget that my sister first planted that musical seed in my heart.

There's probably some study out there about why music is tied to memory. We all have stories about what we think of when a particular song comes on the radio. What song are you listening to now? What does it make you remember?


Celebrating 100 Posts!

For some bloggers, 100 posts happens in about 3 weeks of 5 posts a day. For me - thoughtful, reflective, and innovating new features on my blog from cool ideas seen on other blogs - it takes about two years. Do you remember my first post? It seems like such a short time, but the way technologies are accelerating these days on the Internet, 2 years can be the life and demise of many dot coms.

My 100th post comes at a difficult time in my life. I left a high-paying job in Japan to teach in the urban school district of Long Beach as a part-time substitute. Shortly after I returned to the States, my sister passed on. I have been overwhelmed with support from family members and friends who knew and loved my sister. At times like these, I find myself the receiver of comfort and not much of a giver of prose. It is almost as if writing out my feelings make them more real; it probably does. When I just want my sister back, that's the last thing that I want to do. But I've also been encouraged to feel my feelings so I can let them go, otherwise they'll come up again in less than recognizable ways that may be harder to deal with. So I write. Painfully. Slowly. But I write.

I have always been conscious that I have an audience for this blog, albeit a very small one. I don't want to bore you or burden you with my thoughts at this difficult time. If you want an exploration of death or grief, pick up Tuesdays with Morrie or something. But that doesn't mean that what I DO write here won't be genuine. Just that it is what I am comfortable sharing.

During this time I have had to break the news of my sister's passing to many people who were very surprised at the news. When I have to tell strangers or those whom I don't know very well, I really appreciate it whenever they responds with, "what was her name?" instead of, "what did she die from?" To me, it puts the emphasis on my sister as a person instead of the death or tragedy. Emphasizing life, not death. William Wallace in Braveheart said, "every man dies, but not every man truly lives". We all have a choice of what we're going to focus on.

I think what is going to help me at this time is to write down stories of my sister that I remember. We're two years apart. My brother is 3 years younger. So there was 3 years when it was just Jen and I. But, child development being what it is, I don't remember any of those years as "just the two of us". So my first memory that I can think of was when Jen jumped off the top bunk at the apartment in Caracas. For some reason we were cooped up in the bedroom and Jen decided to jump from the top bunk, not onto the floor, but onto the wood table. Crunch! went part of the table and I think part of Jen. She's such a daredevil. She got quite a scolding from Mom about that one.

I think that sense of daring carried over to sports too. Title IX gave women more opportunity in school and community sports. But in the early 80s, there were only boys teams. My sister wanted to play, so she had to join the boys' team. And she hustled with the best of them. By fourth grade, there were enough girls to make a soccer team league. And dad was her coach. I think Jen told me one time that Dad was her best coach. Gentle with the girls while pushing them to do their best. Jen made the basketball team in 7th grade. They were ranked 8th in the city tournament but sank a buzzer beating three-point shot to make it into the finals. They won the city championship. Jen was always so proud to tell visitors to Jefferson Junior High School in Naperville, IL that her picture was still on the wall to the gym.

Well, there's a few memories for now. Plenty more to come. I'd like to thank Mary, Danielle, Geoffrey Philp, and Nicole for their encouragement to write. They didn't say anything directly about doing it, but it is the caring of people whom I have met via blogging that gave me the courage to start writing again. Thanks.


Where do I go from here?

I have been struggling since my return from Japan to keep an outsider's view of my home country and maintain the tone of "Brave New Word". It has been a difficult month for me to say the least. Shortly after my Sept 5 post, my sister passed away. I have been busy trying to support my family members, to get a job, move into my apartment, and get into a routine. The past year has been a journey by foot, to Japan. It is very clear to me that now I need to go a journey by thought: how do I go forward from the loss of my sister? Both of these journeys are about healing. How do new experiences and ideas help us to become better people? Please look forward to reading how these two journeys weave together in the months ahead.


Old Mexico

Another weekend. Another destination. Another Mexico. This time I went to Ensenada in Baja California de Norte, Mexico. Something in me wanted two more days out of the US, so Gilda and I took off on a Thursday afternoon to beat the weekend rush. Of course, LA would not let us go without at least one traffic jam. But Gilda and I were carpooling, so in this picture I think we're sailing by in designated lane for cars with 2 or more passengers. Kinda sad that most of the cars stopped to our right have only one person in them, eh?

The border station between San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, BC is the most heavily traveled in the world. Gilda and I were all prepared to show our passports and answer scrutinizing questions by the border patrol. Instead a little camera took a picture of our license plate as we drove through at 20 miles an hour. Suddenly we were in another country. It was getting close to sunset and the Tijuana night life was just getting started. With ideas of Tijuana as a chaotic border down, we rolled up our windows and high-tailed it towards the toll road to Ensenada. Actually, Tijuana isn't that bad. Just don't go looking for drugs, shop for cheap souvenirs, or flash wads of cash around, and you should be left alone. It helps to speak some Spanish, too.

We stayed at the wonderful Hostel Sauzal, run by Maria. At $15 a night including breakfast, you almost can't afford not to stay there. Gilda and I didn't go for many activities while we were there. Just some together time at the beach, sitting around the Hostel reading books, and going out to taco stands and Mexican-Japanese restaurants to eat. Yes, there is a chain of fusion restaurants in Ensenada called La Cochinita. The portions were not Japanese (ie, huge) but it was still very tasty. I only wish that I could have tasted the other side of the fusion: Japanese-Mexican. Mexican food, being quite spicy, is not very popular in Japan.

Our trip was a short one, but it was fun to be immersed in another culture and language again. I got to practice some Spanish, but Gilda did most of the talking. I couldn't get enough of the tacos and paletas. But we had to get back for the start of the work week. Coming back, the immigration procedure was much more congested. We must have waited in line for 40 minutes. It is such a usual thing that vendors set up permanent shops right on the highway lanes leading up to the customs agents.

Now I'm back in the States for good. And the full re-adjustment begins. I'm struggling to figure out how to keep this blog going in a travel mood while I'm still in the States. Please bear with me in my efforts!

New Mexico

Some people say that the best way to readjust to your own country is to travel again. I would say that this is just postponing the inevitable. But then again, I'm guilty of it too.

A week after I arrived in LA, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico for some church business. I've been going there for an annual conference since 1999, so every year I get to track the changes in the town. I've seen a lot more new homes go up, more shopping areas and a revitalized downtown, and some local attractions that have been added. It's a funny feeling to go to a city for one day a year: you feel familiar and attached to the place yet you don't get enough time to soak up the daily culture and relationships. Albuquerque is along the famous "Route 66" which was the main route to the West before the Interstate Highway system was created. Plenty of kitschy motels lined the "Mother Road" with eccentric designs local to the area. Here you can see the "El Don" motel as a salute to the Spanish Conquistadors and American Cowboys who roamed the Wild West.

The city has a high population of Hispanic and Indigenous people. One of my favorite places to visit is a barber shop that still gives "shave and a haircut" treatment to its customers. Men may not go to a beauty salon, but they still need some pampering in the form of steaming hot towels and a straight-razor shave. Have a cut so close that you don't need to shave for two days is quite a luxury for those who otherwise have to shave daily! Also nearby is Old Town, where original Adobe-style buildings survive from the 17th century. Most people don't realize that while the English colonies were just getting started on the East Coast, Spanish colonies were thriving in the southwest. With four centuries of Spanish heritage here, is it really a wonder that there are so many Spanish speakers here?

On Sunday I traveled up to Santa Fe to visit the local art museum. It features a few pieces by Georgia O'Keefe, whose watercolors reflect the soft pastels of the desert landscape. Most of her works are in the eponymous museum, also located in Santa Fe. Also on display were some woodblock prints from an artist in the 1930s when times were tough and the government sponsored public works projects to employ artists, boost morale, and document local culture. Santa Fe, and Taos further North, host thriving artist communities that make for a very interesting visit.

I knew I would be in for a disappointment when I decided to take the train from ABQ to LA. Having experienced the Japanese train system in all its grandeur, I figured that I should try out Amtrak just to have a fresh experience to compare it with. It started with the train arriving 90 minutes late. This happens so frequently that Amtrak has programmed its customer service phone number to feature "train status" as its first option. I had called earlier in the day to check, so I knew this, and got to the station about 20 minutes before the train arrived. Japan's trains are mostly one level, run by electricity, and compact; Amtrak has gargantuan double-decker cars powered by diesel locomotives. More train, more to maintain. Shortly after I boarded the train, the lights went out and the A/C stopped blowing. This would be the beginning of a 3-hour delay to replace a bad engine. I don't mind the train being late or going slowly as much as I mind sitting on a train in the high desert that isn't moving when it's supposed to. My hopes to see the beautiful desert landscape at sunset were dashed as night fell and we still hadn't left the station.

Thanks to my sleeping mask and inflatable pillow, I was able to get some sleep through the night. I woke up at first light and watched the sunrise over Western Arizona. There's something about the barren desert that sets your mind to wander up to the soft blue sky for comfort. I got to thinking about my job and life prospects in LA which hadn't come together yet. Then I started reading some children's books to take my mind off questions that I didn't have answers for yet.

After almost 21 hours on the train, I arrived in Los Angeles. The slow way to go (trains) really needs an investment boost to become a viable alternative to airplane travel. Many train trips are marketed in the USA as preserving the "golden age" of train travel: luxurious dining, sleeping cars, and steam engines. Other people love trains, warts and all: I saw a few train buffs on my trip who had scanners to monitor the communications between engineers. The USA uses commuter trains pretty well, but intercity travel doesn't really compete with airplanes. It can. I've seen it in Japan. I will be closely following the developments of the California High Speed Rail Authority to build a bullet train between SF, LA, and Sacramento by 2020. Only 55 years after Japan. There ARE things the USA isn't the first and best in. Check it out.


Hawaiian Respite

It has been almost 3 weeks since I have arrived back in the USA for good. But I have yet to dedicate a blog entry to what I've done here. Perhaps I am trying to figure out how to keep up this web journal without the obvious prompts of adjusting to another culture. Seeing one's own culture with an outsider's perspective gives valuable insight. Or is it just reverse culture shock? That's what I'm trying to figure out.

I planned my flight back with layovers in Busan, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. My school, which graciously paid for my ticket, complained that I had such an indirect route but that was actually the cheapest ticket. A 12-hour layover in Honolulu... ok, I'll take it! Hawaii is a meeting point of East and West. The plurality of cultures there ensured that I wouldn't get the full "American" immersion for one more day. I needed to ease myself back into America.

It helps when I have family over there that I can hang out with. Stephen, my cousin, is a mechanic for a cargo airline that shuttles fish and mail to and from the tiny islands between Hawaii and Guam. His father was born in New York, his mother in Hiroshima, Japan, so he is half Japanese. His wife, Yumiko, is from Tokyo, so their four children are three-quarters Japanese. Staying with them when I left for, and came back from, Japan made for a gentle transition. We ate sashimi, fried rice, and edamame as I showed them pictures of my time there. They were impressed with how much Japanese I had learned while I was over there (I'm surprised at how quickly I think I've lost it since returning!).

What else do you do with family in Hawaii but go to the beach at sunset?! We piled into two cars and set off for Haleiwa Beach. All the way we chatted about our growth during the past year. At the beach, I played with the two youngest in the water while the college aged Jarel and Sara watched from the sand. Sara studies broadcast journalism at Hawaii Pacific University. She offered to take my camera and photos of the event. So the credit for the photos goes to her.

As the sun set and the evening cooled off, we drove back home. My flight would leave in 2 hours. Yumiko and I talked about what I missed and didn't like about Japan. I missed the food, I didn't like having to anticipate what other people were thinking. I have enough trouble figuring out what I think. I missed the public courtesy and customer service. I missed people who made sure they were taken care of by taking care of other people.

The overnight flight to Los Angeles gave me little chance for comfort or sleep. Japan Airlines fed me twice and always kept me hydrated on the 8-hour flight from Tokyo to Honolulu; American Airlines gave me one drink on the 6-hour flight to LA. Welcome back.

In the coming weeks I'll be searching for an apartment, a car, a job, and a voice for my new perspective on life with deeper knowledge of an Asian culture in my worldview. I hope I can keep the tone of my blog upbeat, insightful, and free of politics and ranting.


Hokkaido: a whole nother Japan

I'm back in the States now. For good. Have been here for a week. I wasn't expecting any readjustment shock, but that's exactly when it hits you. Here's some of my thoughts that I wrote in an email to a friend in Ukraine:

Waiting in line for Jamba Juice, I observe a line out the door and employees slacking off behind the counter. My Japanese sense gets me irritated to tell the manager to open another register so people don't have to wait so long. But I get the better of myself.

I still bow to drivers who let me cross the street before them.

I want to get waiters' attention by saying "sumimasen".

I start a lot of sentences or thoughts with, "it would be a whole lot more efficient if..."

And further more, I find myself talking less to strangers. Why? It can't be that I haven't spoken English fluently for a year. I spoke everyday with my English teaching colleagues. I find myself speaking very politely with anyone and getting nonchalance and casual speech back. Haven't I forgotten how to speak with pepperings of slang and lingo? Maybe.

But onto the title track of this blog entry. Hokkaido was awesome because it was the antithesis, remedy, and release from many of the things that frustrated me from Kansai/Honshu life. Kansai's tight spaces were opened by Hokkaido's open wilderness. Kansai's smog, haze, and pollution were blown away by Hokkaido's fresh air and dark skies. I saw my first clear sunrise and sunset in Hokkaido. It only took me a year! Kansai's busy-bodied, martyred overworkers were subdued by my pals at the Akan Nature Center who frequently napped in the office while they waited for their next gig.

I want to capture the spirit of my time there without putting it through the filter of my nostalgia now that I am back in the States. So I'm transcribing a page from my journal for your reading pleasure.

7/27 - It's hard to imagine hot air ballooning ever becoming a routine thing that I do, but that's exactly where I'll be a week from now. Today I felt more familiar with the procedure, so I could anticipate what needed to be done. Kurokawa-san (the pilot) took me up first thing and I was ready with my camera to take some pictures. It only occured to me afterwards that I was ballast for the test flight, with the possibility of crashing if something went wrong!

Afterwards, I hung out with the "guys" at the nature center. Ryo (owner's second son) was taking a long course canoe tirp and invited me to come along. Perhaps on the possibility that the lone child would want to sit "cleopatra style" with his parents paddling. But he wanted to paddle, so I took a solo canoe. Good practice for my strokes. And endurance! There was a headwind which sometimes blew my bow (front) from side to side. I wanted to be a model paddler, but sometimes I had to alternate paddling on each side to stay a straight course.

We took a tea and cookie break on the side of lake Akan where it was nice and calm. I chatted just a little to show that I could speak Japanese and they needn't feel shy to speak to me. "Nihon wa doo desu ka?" - How is Japan? This simple question still stumps me. I'm learning the basics even as I round a year in-country. I said "August, last year". That was the end of the conversation. Now I'll say, "Nihon wa suki desu." I like Japan.

We paddled through the reed cover on the way back to get some relief from the wind. I wanted to try my headstand before we got out but now show off at the same time. At the end I got my chance. A little shaky, but I did it! I'll need to teach that one to Ryo and company before I go.

I guess I was pretty pooped from the event because I napped all afternoon. Had dinner and a bath at Yoshidayama's and came back to the apartment. Sylvan (the other WWOOFer at a local restaurant, he's French) and I wated a pirated copy of Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. It reminded me of Tail Spin on the Disney Afternoon Cartoon circuit in the early '90s. Which one came first? Oh well, it was fun but in French. So I understood about 60%.

Stay tuned for more pages out of my Hokkaido journal in the coming days! Even though I'm back in the States, I will keep this blog up-to-date. I'll be recording my international and cultural adventures. If you can look at your own country with foreign eyes, it's just another adventure!


Suzushi Hokkaido

Well, I'm back from my Hokkaido adventure. It was incredible. The coolest place in Japan during my trip was Eastern Hokkaido, so I planned it right to beat the heat. I was actually cold one day when temperatures dropped below 15 degrees Centigrade like 55 degrees Farenheit?). I'd love to show you pictures, but I'll have to do that when I get my laptop connected to the Internet again.

I'm leaving Japan on Sunday. For good. Not because I don't like it here. If you've been keeping up with my blog you'll know that I have come to respect, be fascinated by, and enjoy Japan. However, I need to use my California teaching credential or risk losing it, so that is what brings me back to the USA. So with my two days left, I am trying to juggle administrative duties and personal appointments to insure that I leave Japan with an exclamation mark!

So back to Hokkaido. I couldn't have chosen a better spot to WWOOF. The Akan Nature Center offered hot air balloon rides, canoe trips, star gazing, mountain biking, and trekking. I got to experience all of them. Mr. Yasui, sons Gaku & Ryo, staff Fukushi, Arai, and Kurokawa all became good friends. I did my best to be helpful with setting up and taking down the balloon equipment. They were impressed and grateful that I had been a canoe instructor at Camp Leelanau, so they asked me to accompany as many canoe outings as possible, river and lake. Very cool. And you know what? Canoeing lakes and rivers in Japan is the same as in the USA! I found the climate and ecology of Hokkaido to be very similar to that of Michigan, where I spent my childhood summers.

Mr. Yasui was a mountain guide in his younger years, so he knows all the secret spots. On a dark night, he took a busload of tourists to go stargazing on a lake at the foot of an active volcano. Most of the tourists were city-dwellers like me, going North to escape the heat. Considering how many Japanese I know that haven't been to Hokkaido, this was probably their first time. So imagine the wonder that filled them as they saw the Milky Way, shooting stars (nagaboshi), and constellations for the first time. The urban ceiling is hazy and floodlit with neon. I saw my first legitimate sunrise and sunsets in Hokkaido!

The trip back was very slow as I relished my memories from the North and changed trains 15 times with my Youth 18 ticket. With each passing hour Southward, the temperature got higher and the humidity thicker. Once I reached Tokyo, I knew I was back in mushi-atsui land. But I had cool memories to relax with.

Stay tuned next week for a narrated slideshow of how I spent my week in Akan National Park! Genki de!


Fulfillment of a dream

After almost 24 hours of straight travelling, I have fulfilled a dream: to visit the island of Hokkaido. I've been using Japan's best-kept budget travel secret: the Youth 18 ticket. 5 person-days of unlimited travel on rapid and local trains. It is by far the best way to see the country if you have the time, logistical skills, and interest in the superb train system. Check, check, check all three for me! My day started by pulling out of the busiest train station in the world, Tokyo's Shinjuku station. I took a night train to Niigata, site of last year's powerful earthquake. I had 5 minutes to transfer to my next train, so no time to visit. Then things got interesting. Last week the Sea of Japan coast has tons of rain. So much, that a landslide covered some of the tracks that are on my journey Northward. In typical organized fashion, Japan Railways organized buses to detour us around the problem area.
On the way, I made friends with a very knowledgeable, semi-otaku train lover. He had the latest copy of the national train time tables. I showed him my itinerary and he was very impressed that a foreigner had the sense to plan it all out. He'd look it over, then flip through his timetable book. He did this 5 or 6 times and came up with suggestions to improve the efficiency of my trip. "You should take this later train so you don't have to transfer one more time". "Oh, when you come back this way, you need to take an express so you can make the bus and then your next connection." Do the Buddhist/Shinto religions have a concept for "guardian angel"? Because this guy was mine! Literally the entire 200 kilometers that our paths crossed, he was looking out for me. He booked a night bus reservation for me when I thought my "wing-it" style would be enough.
We said good-bye. I ate lunch in the city of Akita, famous for the dog breed of the same name. My next train was a 4-hour local to Aomori. Once the commuters got off in the outlying suburbs, it was clear who was going all the way to Aomori. I started chatting with an elderly trio. They were amazed to hear that I was from Nishinomiya, because they were from Kobe and doing the same Youth 18 ticket. It goes to show that you're never too young! Again, they took pity on the my inept logistical skills and helped me find the cheapest way across to Hokkaido. It turns out there's one exception to the local/rapid trains only of the Youth 18 ticket: the limited express from Aomori to Hokkaido! Score. I got on it without guilt and said goodbye to my second guardian angel.
Now I'm killing time in the international hotel while I wait for the night bus. For the last 3 nights I've taken overnight transport to save $ on hotels and keep making progress to my goal: Akan Lake. Still about 500 km to go. Stay tuned for the next time I get Internet access and an update. Genki de!


Gion Matsuri

I'm just about to leave for a week in Hokkaido (and 6 days on the train going and coming, phew!) so I wanted to write an entry on Gion Matsuri before I left. Matsuri means "festival" in Japanese. This festival protects the citizens of Kyoto from evil spirits for the year. It was started over 1200 years ago. I'm not sure if the festival has been held 1200 times since the first, but that is still a colossal tradition that I am still trying to fathom. The oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida, is just 450 years old. So the efforts to produce a living festival every year for so long speaks volumes for the value of traditions in modern-day Japan. It pales in comparison, but the Rose Parade would be the closest equivalent to the Gion Matsuri that I can think of. Americans think, "Wow! 118th Rose Parade, who can beat that?" Well, Kyoto has one ten times as old!

Merchants and wealthy families sponsor floats that are draped in expensive tapestries and are topped with an evergreen tree branch. I think it symbolizes long life, but don't quote me on that! I'm still learning Japanese and that's how I translated it. One of the women from church was involved with advertising for the Iwato Yama float, shown in the picture here, so we got a special tour of it. The neighborhoods around the Shijo area of Kyoto host the floats, which families opening their homes to display heirlooms of calligraphy, tapestries, and second floor access to enter the floats. Here is an example of the special furnishings on display. On the ground, merchants set up stalls to sell food, candy, toys, and souvenirs of the event. With our special host, we were allowed access to some of these homes. It was very special for me to see traditional urban homes because I live in foreigner housing in Nishinomiya. The thin, sliding doors between rooms were open wide to allow the slightest of breezes to cool off visitors.

I was so enamored with the atmosphere of the festival that I returned for a second day, just to see the floats after dark. I waited all day for the sun to go down and the lanterns to light up. With each passing hour, the streets became more crowded. Karasuma and Shijo streets were blocked off to vehicular traffic and the pedestrians took over. There must have been at least a million people walking the streets. Since Japan has no outdoor air conditioning (come on! what's with this country?;) all the big companies were handing out fans to keep people cool. I must have collected 8 of them that day. So as I wander around the area, I'm snapping photos. With all my excitement to take pictures of events leading up to the dark, my camera ran out of batteries! Aargh! I managed to get two pictures of the lanterns. Here's the best one.

There's a special kind of music that is only played during the festival. It consists of flute, drum, and cymbals playing rising and falling tones in an eerie tune. I'm sorry I can't put into better words. I don't write for Guitar World magazine! I took some video of it with sound, but it's going to take too much time to load that up before I go. Here's a parting shot: some of the young chanters playing "rock, paper, scissors (Jan Ken in Japanese) on the Iwato Yama float.

Next post: the trip to Hokkaido!


Baseball: Japanese Style

The final day of Chuck's stay, we went to a Hanshin Tigers' baseball game. The Tigers could be seen as the Chicago Cubs of Japanese Baseball: affable, long-suffering, and play in a vintage stadium. Almost all Japanese baseball teams are named after the companies that own them, instead of the city that hosts them. You can either see that as a corporate sell-out or transparency of the nature of professional sports. The Tigers' stadium is actually in my town, Nishinomiya. Koshien Stadium was built in 1924. Babe Ruth played there in a 1934 exhibition game. I had been meaning to get tickets for some time, but the task of ordering over the phone in Japanese was very difficult. A few weeks before I bicycled down to the ivy-covered stadium to buy tickets in person, only to find out that the ticket office was closed at that hour.

So it got down to 3 days before the game. We went out for coffee with a fellow teacher of mine at school. He offered to help us get the tickets. I had heard that one could buy tickets at a convenience store, but never saw any signs to that effect. It turns out that there is an all-in-one ATM-type machine for buying tickets for any event. But it was too soon to the day to buy tickets for the game. Chuck and I would have to stake out the stadium ticket booth to get tickets. It opened at 9am we thought.

To widen their fan base, Hanshin Tigers play a few games every year in the Osaka Dome (now the Kyocera Dome). On the night of the game we attended, that's where the Tigers were playing. So we had to find our way to the spaceship to get tickets to go inside. We didn't have any trouble finding the stadium, it was the wait for the tickets that took all afternoon. The box office wouldn't open until 4, the game starts at 6:30. What did we do in the meantime?

My girlfriend kept telling me that we couldn't go to a baseball game without cheer goods. What are those? The officially-licensed merchandise of every imaginable kind to show your team support. One could easily get carried away with the hats, jerseys, bats, fans, cup holders, and noise makers sold in the store. Chuck and I decided to buy one plastic bat each so we could take turns knocking both of them together to make noise for our favorite player. And "lucky seven" balloons for the 7th inning stretch. A fan with the picture of my favorite player, Akihiro Yano #39, on it. And I caved in and got a sun visor (even thought the Osaka Dome is, well, a dome) because I need a new one for jogging in the summer, too.

There's not much of a residential neighborhood around the Dome, so Chuck and I walked around the food courts and browsed the shops. It was a hot day and the box office was the in open sun, so we held out from waiting in line for as long as we could. I wanted to include some sightseeing in our day, but Chuck didn't want to take any chances on not getting tickets for the game, so we stayed close to the Dome. A wise decision. However, the line for the tickets wasn't too long. On this day, the Tigers were playing the Yokohama Bay Stars. Chuck and I wanted to get good seats, so we thought the left field tickets, which were 400 yen more than the right field tickets, would be better. We were quickly corrected by our comrades in line that the left field tickets are for the visiting team's fans. Evidently there's a profit markup on the visitors! Unlike MLB in the USA, a team's fans stick together so they can sing the songs and chant the cheers in unison instead of being spread throughout the stadium. Finally we got the tickets. Now we had 2.5 more hours to kill before the first pitch! Chuck and I decided to go to our seats, watch batting practice, and see the stadium fill up. My girlfriend, who'd been to several Hiroshima Carp games, told me that we wouldn't sit down the entire game because of the peer pressure to cheer for the home team. Chuck was actually looking forward to that feature because the seats were so close together with such small leg room, that his 6'3" frame was cramped without anyone sitting next to him!

Gradually the stadium began to fill. No national anthem was sung. Just the Hanshin Tigers' song: Rokko Oroshi (The Wind of Mount Rokko). We got to our feet, only to be surprised after a few minutes when most everyone sat down. What's this? Lazy fans? No, first off, the Bay Stars were up and no Tigers-loving fan would cheer for the visiting batters. When the Tigers were up, still no standing ovation. We were in the cheap seats where no TV cameras dare to go, so we weren't in jeopardy of being publicly exposed as unenthusiastic fans. As I would later learn from Gilda, maybe Hiroshima Carp fans feel obligated to stand and cheer the entire game because their team is so bad, they need all the help they can get. Tigers are first in the standings, so we can take it easy!

Still, in the 4th inning we were down by a few runs, so the fans got all genki (Japanese for powerful, energetic) and did some non-stop cheering until we rallied and took the lead. We'd hold it for the rest of the night.

All that cheering made us hungry, so this is a good time to tell what there is to eat at Japanese baseball games. Yes, you can have hot dogs and beer and popcorn. But the menu similarities with USA end there. Out in the stands, they have they chatty vendors coming up and down the aisle. Adkins Diet has taken off over here because the hot dogs are served on a stick instead of a bun;) Vendors carry a keg on their back to give beer refills instead of dispensing another cup. Nifty, eh? Everybody seems to share in the stands. Our seat neighbors gave us some sushi, grilled chicken, and edamame green beans to nibble on. Chuck and I shared some good ole American popcorn. I like dried squid, so I shared some of that, too. Always the adventurous one, Chuck tried it too. What a trooper.

Instead of singing "take me out to the ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, Hanshin Tigers fans let off 50,000 balloons simultaneously! This is known as "lucky seven". Evidently there's some sexual overtones to this phrase in English, but I am not familiar with it. The sight of all those balloons in the air accompanied by the screeching noise like fireworks is really exciting. If you haven't already done so, check out the video at the top of the blog to watch Lucky Seven for yourself. As a side note, I've found some other Nishinomiya bloggers online. One of them, Shiona, just went to her first Tigers' game, too.

By 9pm, the Tigers had the game in hand. Chuck was leaving the next day, so we decided to go home at the bottom of the eighth inning to beat the crowds. We proudly wore our cheer goods through the subway station and in the streets as we made our way home. Experiencing a familiar event through a different culture's lens adds another level of insight to it. Chuck and I understood a little bit more about Japan after our exciting foray into the world of Japanese baseball. Thanks for reading this far. Stay tuned for postcards from my trip to Hokkaido, which begins July 23rd and continues to August 2nd. Genki de!


Himeji: soaked

Day three of Chuck and my trips around the Kansai area. Today we took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Himeji, the site of the best preserved feudal castle in Japan. The city (sister city with Phoenix, AZ, complete with an amusement park, zoo, stadium, and about 450,00 people) shows up in the Lonely Planet guide as a small entry only featuring Himeji Castle. But I'm sure to its citizens, Himeji has a lot to offer. Chuck recently completed his assistant pastorship at St. John Vianney Catholic Church located outside of Phoenix, so I thought he'd be interested in the connection.

Anyway, I'm digressing about the bullet train ride. The high-speed train is one of icons of Japan, so naturally Chuck wanted to experience it to get a well-rounded view of Japanese life. I've been on it a few times before: Osaka-Tokyo and Kobe-Hiroshima. The most important thing I learned is that you need to line up well before the train arrives and be prepared to board and egress quickly. You can literally set your watch by the arrival of the Shinkansen. Recently, it's on-time performance has improved to within a 1/10th of a minute. That's right folks: 6 seconds. No airline in the USA can touch that with a 10-mile pole. Yet we're pouring miles of concrete and billions of dollars for airport expansion while California's high-speed train initiative gets postponed yet again. And the trains stop at the exact place where you are supposed to board for your assigned car. Nevermind that it requires rigid operating procedures and mind-numbing repetition for train operators to achieve this predictablity, it makes for great customer satisfaction.

As Chuck and I blazed the 55 km in 16 minutes, we watched the whizzing megalopolis of Kansai, with its high-rise apartments next to bucolic rice fields, through the large windows. Once we were in Himeji, we took advantage of a little-known service for tourists: free bicycle rental! We found the underground bike parking lot and checked out our bikes. Most people ride fixed-gear, front basket, granny-style bikes in Japan. When I first got here, I was baffled by the fact that no one rode with a helmet. A friend explained to me that they don't ride as fast and as crazily as I do to merit wearing one. Well said. And most bike riders stick to the sidewalks, avoiding a losing battle with a car. So we did the same. With Chuck at 6'3" and me at 6'0", the seats wouldn't go up as high as we needed them to. But we weren't out for a performance ride, just a leisurely coast around the gardens of the castle. We followed the moat road around the castle, finding some refreshing breeze and shade from the hot sun. Just before we came back to our starting point, we ran into one of my old students from school. He lives in Himeji. I knew that he made the 150 km round trip commute to school everyday, but never in a city of 450,000 people would I imagine to run into him on the one day I was visiting! Silly me I didn't take a photograph:(

The self-guided tour of the castle is quite extensive, speckled with English here and there. Unfortunately for us, there was no English guide available that day. We would around the castle's outer walls before going inside the Keep. It has six floors before you reach the top, where there is an interesting little Shinto shrine. The castle replaced the shrine when it was built on a hill. When the townspeople started experiencing some bad harvests, they essentially said, "it's payback for removing the shrine!" So they put the shrine at the top of the castle. To my knowledge, there are few examples of this kind of cooperating between military and religious institutions in Japan. Please correct me if I am wrong.

The view allows you to see far and wide from the town. It also allows you to see the approaching storm! Minutes after I took this photo, the heavens opened, pouring rain down on us for the next 2 hours. We'd evaded the weather for the past two days, but now it was time for us to pay up. We played a game of "wait and see" with the skies, hoping that it would stop long enough for us to make it back to the train station without getting soaked. No such luck. Riding our bikes back to the garage, our pants and shoes were drenched. It sure was nice to cool off, but I think this was overdoing it! You could hear the "squish-squash" of the water being pressed from our shoes as we made our way back to the station.

We decided to take the rapid regular train back to Nishinomiya, thereby saving 2000 yen or so. The air conditioning of the train helped to dry us out a bit, but we sure were relieved to make it home and change our clothes for good. Although the later part of it wasn't high on the feel-good scale, our day certainly was a memorable one!
Tomorrow, the grand finale of Chuck's visit: a Hanshin Tigers game!


Kyoto: East Side

Every other week I go to Kyoto to attend the Christian Science Society, which is located a kilometer up the road from the Imperial Palace. From the train station, it is a 6 km walk that takes about 45 minutes (maybe it's longer, but I've never measured). I often take it so I can walk through the Palace gardens before the church service. After church, sometimes I visit the sites of West Kyoto, such as Nijo Castle. But I have yet to visit the temples in the East side of Kyoto, which I hear are the most spectacular.

So when Chuck was in town, I decided that this area would be the best to take him to. We took the walking tour recommended by Lonely Planet, which was about 5 km long. As you can tell, I do a lot of walking in Kyoto! The rain was falling pretty hard when we left in the morning, but the skies cleared by the afternoon to give us a clear view of the city below the hills. Our first stop was to Shoren-in, the residence of the chief abbot of the Tendai school of Buddhism. The grand main building contains gold and black statues which have an impressive, yet calming impression on visitors. The cool breeze flowing through the building was a reprieve from the heat outside, so Chuck and I sat down to relax. As we sat, a Buddhist priest chanted sutras for a family worshipping at the front of the temple. His voice was creating almost a double resonance like the overtone singers from Tuva and Mongolia. As we reflected in the peaceful atmosphere of the Temple, I thought about what my world view would be like if I grew up with only the artifacts, typography, and beliefs available in Japan. How would the American views and behaviors that I express come across to someone who'd never had any exposure to them?

I didn't get too far along that thought track, but waypost by waypost I am beginning to make progress in understanding the Japanese world view. Chuck and I moved on to see some other temples along the well-worn walking path. One dedicated to the unknown soldier of WWII. A serenely faced statue looms over a reflecting pool. For the price of admission, we received an incense stick to place before the statue. History is written by the victors, it is said. Here we experienced a chapter written by those who lost. And the story is no less important, I think. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine can be seen as an effort to write a different perspective on that history. Gilda and I read the book, Embracing Defeat, by John Dower. It sheds light on an era of Japanese history that we don't hear a lot about in the USA: the 7 years of Allied (US) occupation of Japan. I remember hearing that the US Military was planting positive stories about Iraq in the press; during the Occupation of Japan, it was illegal to criticize the occupying forces or even to admit that there was censorship!

Anyway, I'm digressing. But these were my thoughts as I stood by the reflecting pool of this monument. Any further thoughts I had on the matter were scared off by this statute at the exit: Don't worry! I'm leaving! And I didn't pinch any yen out of the collection box!

Our last stop was Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It commands a stunning view of Kyoto and features a verandah that juts out over the hillside. After the morning rain, the view from here was quite clear. Most students are very shy to speak English with foreigners they meet in Japan, but every once in a while I meet an exception. Usually it is in famous tourists locations with students on school trips. Chuck and I chatted for a bit with these students, who begged us to take a picture with them. How could we turn down such genki students? By this time, we're both getting pretty tired from walking in the sun, so we head for home.

Just as the clouds open up with a strong downpour of rain, we reach the train station. It's a different line that I usually take, but what's a vacation without adventure? We hop on and head into Osaka. There, we debate seeing a castle with the skies clearing up and the afternoon light soft for stunning pictures. But we were already tired and it was time to get some rest because tomorrow we have to catch a west-bound train: to Himeji.


Nara: Revisited

The first stop that Chuck and I made on our sightseeing tour was Nara, the old capital of Japan. Back in the days of yore, capitals moved with every new emperor. Starting around the 700 CE, Japanese emperors basically said, "I'm tired of all this moving around! Let's just pick a new spot and stay there!" So they did. For at least 100 years. Then they moved to Kyoto. For almost a thousand years.

What really made the day for Chuck and I was the volunteer tour guide who led us around the city. She was a university student who wanted an opportunity to speak English with native speakers.
Being a tour guide is a great way to do that: you rehearse some set phrases for each city landmark and you also speak spontaneously about predictable and unpredictable topics in English. As a language teacher, I can see how it reinforces old vocabulary, introduces new vocabulary and accents, and broadens one's knowledge about their own and their guests' cultures.

I came to Nara last November and saw the same sites. Without a guide, they're just impressive structures. With a guide, they come alive and grow richer with the historical and anecdotal context. It is a luxury to have instant access to a cultural informant who can explain everyday things that baffle the visitor to Japan. I don't get this opportunity often, so you can imagine how many questions I had for our guide!

We ended up strolling around Nara for about 4 hours. June is the rainiest month in Japan. My Japanese co-workers and expat neighbors would have me believe that it rains for the entire month and nothing ever gets dry. So when we've had sunny days, I've been confused. The truth is, it is statistically the wettest month, it doesn't mean that someone turns the "rain" switch on June 1st and off June 30th. So on this day, Chuck and I escaped most of the rain. We had a strong downpour when we were inside the largest wooden building in the world: Todaiji Temple (2/3 of its original size. Tall wood things don't last long without lightning rods!).

Chuck was fascinated with all the deer roaming freely through the center of town. According to Shinto beliefs, they are spiritual messengers and therefore cannot be hunted. Apparently one of them had a message for Chuck. He was really surprised to hear it! Many vendors sell deer biscuits to feed them. The deer catch on to this and smell you up to see if your "packing" any. Could that be the message they are trying to send? We may never know.

On our way back from Nara, we stopped in a little restaurant for some tasty Okonomiyaki. I call it a "savory pancake" because it looks like a pancake but consists of egg-flour batter with seafood and/or vegetables mixed with strong sauces. This picture is of Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, with the ingredients layered on. Kansai-style has the ingredients mixed together. Obviously Kansai-style is better;) Chuck wanted "see-food" that night, reminiscent of the popular Benihana's restaurants in the USA where the chef does a lot of fanfare with the food preparation to entertain the guests sitting around the table. I haven't seen one of those here. They probably exist, but I just haven't had the large group of people to go with or the money burning a hole in my pocket to patronize the establishment. So at this restaurant, the cooks prepare the food in front of you, but you have to slip them a 10,000 yen note to get any hoopla out of them! Anyway, we crammed into the tiny restaurant and waited a good 20 minutes, but it was worth it. Chuck gobbled his dish up before me, and with chopsticks at that!

Nara was the first of 3 straight day trips to the cultural treasures of Kansai. Next entry: Eastern Temples of Kyoto!



Sorry I missed my weekly posting time. Things have been really busy in school and out of it. My best friend from 1st grade is visiting me for the week, so I've been working ahead to have some free time with him.

Even though Japan and USA are out of the World Cup (and few people are staying up late to watch teams that don't represent their country), students and teachers are still tired. Maybe just end of school blues? That's when I try to kick it into the next gear.

Chuck and I will visit the rich cultural sites of Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji, as well as the techo-urban side of Osaka, in the next week. Please look for more frequent updates and pictures of our adventures! Genki de!


Teaching a taste of French in Japanese

Today I had a personal encounter with the people who are responsible for making such delicious French pastries all over Japan. First let me back up and set the mood that I was in when I made the encounter.

I taught swimming lessons to two boys who will be going on the 2nd year students' trip to a wilderness island in the Inland Sea of Japan. The PE teachers needed extra help, so they called in "the ringer": me. I don't know about that, but I've offered my swimming expertise on previous occaisions, so I'm happy to help. It's something familiar to me. The boys are also my students in class, so they were comfortable with my voice and use of English. Swimming is a physical skill, so it is easy to mimic and one doesn't need to speak the language of instruction fluently to get the point across. I went over the basics until I found their weak points, then taught to those. After an hour, we got out and changed. There are few better feelings than air-drying off on the pool deck during a 90ºF (32ºC) day. Riding this natural high, I set off for the mall. Where else?;)

I had to buy some books for my English class at the book store. After that, I took a moment to read my free reading book on the deli/restaurant floor of the mall. I bought a milk tea and sandwiche au jambon. Eating the factory sliced bread day in and out sure does numb the memory of what freshly baked bread tastes like. The sandwiche was delicious. As I read, I could hear two girls attempting to count to twenty in French. "I wonder what that's about" I asked myself.

Then I remembered what my friend Nathan told me when I visited him in Mie-ken. Well-off Japanese parents send their children to Paris to learn the secrets of pastry baking. They bring their skills back to Japan and open their own patisserie. Maybe that's what thhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifeir up to.

On my way out, I asked them in Japanese if they were practicing French. They eagerly told me to sit down and invited me to pronounce some words for them. Their exercises consisted of food vocabulary, recipe instructions, and measurements. Yep, these women are going to Paris. They were amazed at the difficult phonemes such as the trilled and swallowed "r" and the vowel clusters that has one's tongue doing pilates to pronounce half a word.

Halfway through my lesson I admitted that I was an American, not French, and the women were even more surprised. At that point I realized that I had arrived as a multi-lingual: I was teaching my third language using my sixth language. Even using Japanese grammatical terms to explain French grammar. Phew! Maybe I wasn't too clear on somethings, but they seemed like they were less confused than when we began. After half an hour, I excused myself to go home, but not before I gave them my contact information if they had anymore questions.

What I should have done was to request a free pastry upon their return from France for my services rendered!

To me, French patisseries in Japan are a reflection of the Japanese value for experiencing and emulating the best with attention to detail. But don't think this is being done while they abandon their own cuisine. Japanese sweets and culinary treats abound here. I just can't find their chefs as easily as hearing French in the cafeteria! Genki de!


Bob Marley: soccer player

I subscribe to a daily posting of blog entries from the Caribbean. It helps me to keep in touch with my "roots" in Jamaica. Being that I now live in Japan and am in the best position to write a bridge blog for English readers interested in Japanese culture, I normally don't comment on links to other regions. But considering that it's World Cup time, I thought you would enjoy this blog entry from author Geoffrey Philip about playing soccer with Bob Marley.

Geoffrey is from the generation in Jamaica that came of age before the high crime rate and socialist flirtations gave genesis to the '80s brain drain. During that time, one could have these casual encounters with world famous people and it wouldn't be a big deal. After all, it's an island and eventually you're going to run into the same people again and again. To some degree, you still can have encounters with famous people, but there's a lot more security to get through. I high-fived Beenie Man at a soccer game; met the Ted Kennedy of Jamaican politics, Edward Seaga, while wearing the political colors of his opposition; chatted with Sean Paul's cousin; and sat next to the members of Black Uhuru on the plane. There's no cult of celebrity in Jamaica that keeps famous people from interacting with the public like a regular person. So that's why this blog on playing soccer with Bob Marley is so unique. Enjoy!


Keep the customers satisfied

I know it's been a while since my last entry and you're dying to see improved quality in the videos. As you all know, it's World Cup time. I've been balancing school preparation with bouts of world cup fever. It's not as bad as Olympic fever, but the symptoms from a loss are more severe. Japan and USA lost on the same day, so we weren't a happy bunch in the faculty room. Some students confided in me that they'd stayed up late or gotten up early to watch the match. There's a pack of little zombies going around school from lack of sleep. Why couldn't Germany schedule some 6 AM matches for the viewing pleasure of their Japanese fans? Or the other way around: why can't Japanese TV just show tape delayed matches during prime time? The slots are wide open during the midnight hours, so it works out better that way.

I had a cute encounter with children hunting otamajakushi yesterday. That's Japanese for tadpole. Language encounters and learning are easier when done in the presence of children: less pressure, simpler language, laughter and forgiveness of errors. 

Now that I'm in my last few months here, the langauge encounters with everyday Japanese that I meet on the street are increasing. And so is my language ability. A coincidence? Cause and effect? Sounds like a good research project. If only I had the time! Genki de and kyotsukute!


Video on a Train to Yokkaichi

I'm experimenting with posting videos on my blog. This one is from my recent train trip to Mie Prefecture. It's from my digital camera, not my video camera, so the quality isn't that good. Stay tuned for better quality and subjects of video. Genki de!


Japanese Train Nerd

It looks like my train travels documented in my previous email pale in comparison to this otaku. He has visited over 9,000 train stations in Japan. You can't do that without avoiding friends and work! Check it out!


Train Fares in Japan

May has been a big month for my blog. I've posted 6 entries, with many pictures. Thanks to Site Meter, I know that 356 different people have visited A Brave New Word. They live in 11 countries! USA, Canada, Japan, Jamaica, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, Belgium, Thailand, Taiwan, Bolivia, and Poland. I know people in the first 7 (except Canada) so the rest are people just surfing the web and finding me. Cool! Few of them show up in my Frappr map because they didn't choose to put a tag on it. Now how can I get visitors from Africa and Australia to round out my continental coverage?

Over the weekend I went to Nara, the old old capital of Japan, from 710 to 784 ce, for a professional association meeting. My friend Nathan lives on the other side of the mountain range from Nara, in Mie prefecture. He'd borrowed some camping supplies a few weeks ago and will be leaving for good next week. So I offered to "stop by" and pick them up since I was relatively in the area.

The train systems here track where you enter and leave the stations, by velocity instead of distance. So I arranged to meet Nathan in the station for the drop off and then head immediately back to Osaka. I would only be charged the fare from Nara to Osaka instead of Nara to Yokkaichi to Osaka. There's probably an ethical dilemma to this. I see it this way: if the train is of value to me based on where it takes me from and to, then I should be charged based on where I get in and out. You could live in the train system if you wanted to, but no one does. One has to come out sometime and the computer doesn't care where they've been in the meantime.

I still ended up paying more fare because I bought reserved seats on the limited express train. That made the Nara-Yokkaichi journey just about 100 minutes. If I took the rapid express trains, I would have had a much later night than I already did. I arrived home from the whole affair at 11 pm.

Feel free to lend your voice to the train fare ethics debate!

In other news, I'm giving a talk at the Junior High Chapel tomorrow. Entirely in Japanese. Thanks to a fellow teacher who translated my whole speech. I'll record it on MD (mini disc) and try to upload it to my blog. That could be my podcasting debut! Until then, genki de!


A Whirlwind Tour of Tokyo

It seems to me that Japan is nothing if not efficient. How many other places can you be in the downtown of one city at noon and then be in the downtown of another city 340 miles away by 2:30 pm? That is the beauty of the bullet train (shinkansen in Japanese). I took the fastest one available from Osaka to Tokyo right after I taught my morning class at KGJH. There was an alumni meeting for MIIS graduates in Tokyo that I really wanted to attend. Sure it would be an expensive weekend, but how can you put a price on friendships rekindled and a new experience and perspective? This trip was at the end of a very long week of test design for midterms, so I didn't get to give this weekend all of the planning it deserved. I'm not sure it would have done me much good. Take a look at the subway map of Tokyo, and you'll understand why. I budgeted 2 hours for myself to get my bearings, check into my capsule hotel (more on that later), and get to the party. It ended up taking me 3.5 hours. I didn't factor in the labyrinthian underground passageways that allow no one to get their bearings with cardinal directions or landmarks, just signs, of which there are never enough in English. Still, there are a lot in English and I'm grateful for the Metropolitan government to give me that.

It was a hot day and I wore my suit on the train because the dress code for the alumni meeting was "business attire". I've overpacked because I threw stuff together after class and didn't get to weed out the unneeded stuff like I usually do. I've double backed through subway stations, bought the ticket to the wrong subway line, and now I'm looking for a capsule hotel that's 5 floors up. I walk the streets of Shinjuku, passing girls dressed up as baby dolls, Goths, super tan barbie dolls, and men dressed in hip-hop gear like they live south of 8 Mile (but actually in their parents' condo). Quite the swinging urban scene.

I finally made it to the capsule hotel and began the second phase of my overwhelmtion in Tokyo. If you're totally new to the concept, check out this guy's blog entry on them. My hotel said no photos or you're out, so I played it safe. Too safe, but for the first time, just scout and take risks later. My impression of the capsule hotel was that it has all the amenities of a regular hotel room, but they're all spread out communally over several floors. Bed - 3rd floor, closet (locker) - 4th floor, bathroom - 6th floor, restaurant - 5th floor. The Green Plaza capsule hotel also ran a sauna, so they included admission to it in the price of the lodging.

I made it an hour late to the alumni party, but the hour that remained was enough to touch base with the other TESOL grads there and set up an after party with some other folks from the different programs. Half were Japanese, half were something else (mostly Americans). We got a private room in the basement of a bar, had a few drinks (I was the designated subway rider, so I had tea) and of course, exchanged business cards.

Sunday morning I checked out of the capsule hotel. I didn't get much sleep because I was 2 feet away from 6 snoring men while I could hear someone heaving up his yakitori in the bathroom, another one flatulating away his curry udon into the still air of the sleeping quarters, and I was lying on 1 inch of mattress between a plastic floor to my capsule. Still, it was a unique experience so now I can say, "been there, done that, probably won't do it again unless for kicks and whinneys". I didn't have a place to stay in mind for Sunday night, but I was hatching a plan to take an overnight bus back to Osaka based on the return of my prospects for meeting up with friends I had contacted prior to my trip.

I went to the Christian Science church in Harajuku. It is off a beautiful street lined with big shade trees and wide brick-paved sidewalks. I was warmly welcomed by the ushers and sat down for a nice respite before the service. The readers read the scriptural selection and benediction in English for the handful of English-speakers in the congregation. The architecture inside the Tokyo church is what I would call typical of churches of Christ, Scientist with two walls behind the readers bearing quotations from the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy, organ, pews, and vaulted ceiling. In contrast, our Kyoto society was formerly a Japanese home, so we have stained virgin wood beams, a small garden, and paper walls separating rooms. Even Christian Science institutions reflect Japan's new & old living side by side! There was a membership meeting after the service where a young new member was going to be welcomed, so I didn't linger too long to speak with many of the members. Instead, I headed off for a "nationally famous" ramen shop in search of the most delicious bowl of noodles and pork cuts. In a total coincidence, I ran into one of my classmates from MIIS as she ascended the subway steps and I descended. In a city of 11 million where both of us were in town for less than 48 hours, what are the odds of that? She was with two other friends and let me tag along with them as they searched for an art bookstore.

Then I enticed them to join me for ramen. The restaurant was touted by Lonely Planet as having usual lines out the door, but our word on the street was that is was "ma-ma" so-so. I held the jury for my own judgment. I was picturing some hole-in-the-wall that just relies on the recipe to draw its customers like some tucked-away Southern US BBQ joint. Ippudo apparently has chained off into a number of branches, so maybe that has dispersed the crowds. I ordered the lunch set with rice, gyoza (pot stickers), and extra pork cuts - what Suzanne would call "the carbohydrates lunch". My fetish with ramen noodles dates back to September 2003 when I saw the movie Tampopo in my language teaching methods class. So when the pork cuts melted in my mouth at my first bite, I knew that I had found a very special place. The others had their favorite in Nagoya, so I guess I'll have to try it before I leave!

My final sightseeing stop was the Edo-Tokyo Museum which chronicles the history of the city while providing a lot of hands-on opportunities to experience life for Tokyo residents of yore. You can pedal a rickshaw, walk through a era-specific home, bear a fireman's standard, and balance weighted water jugs on your shoulder. I give it two thumbs up!

Finally, I met some of my friends from Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) who visited MIIS on a study abroad last March. We went to an izakaya (bar) eight stories above the Tokyo train station. What an incredible view. We had a private room for the five of us where we ordered plate after plate of finger food and glasses of alcohol to chase it down (I was designated bus rider so I had ginger ale). This was a very special evening for a number of reasons. I have felt quite lonely in Nishinomiya for lack of Japanese peers who I can talk to. Here I could talk about some very personal things with them. At first I was watching my words and sentence construction so as not to say anything that was over their heads. Then Yoko said that I didn't have to do that because they've been to the USA and could handle the authentic speech. I felt bad for low-balling their English ability because I knew what a remarkable teacher they had at KUFS. And finally that we could have our own space to talk instead of competing against the volume of other restaurant patrons. It made our group interaction feel just a bit more special.

9:30 pm came and I knew that the night busses to Osaka started to leave around 10. We paid our bill (20k yen split evenly between 5 of us came to $35, expensive but worth it for the relationship building) and dashed across the street to get me on a bus. Two of my friends paid to come inside the train station to help me get my bag out of the coin locker while the other two went to find the bus depot. Then we all regrouped to find and purchase a ticket for the best bus to get me back to Kansai. I am constantly impressed by moments of unselfish teamwork like this from my Japanese friends. We walked out to the loading bus and said our goodbyes. There was an awkward moment when they stood there looking at me. I was waiting for typical bow and they were waiting for a typical American hug! Never the shy one, Yoko asked for one and then we all exchanged hugs. It is not typical to express such public affection, but things are changing in Japan, and these abroad-traveled students are on the vanguard in some ways.

I had a slow 9-hour ride to Osaka to reflect on the special moments that Tokyo gave me this weekend. I think it has been a turning point in my time here. On my first day back to Nishinomiya I had an extended conversation in Japanese with a past-student and another one with a woman on the street who was walking her dog. Most times I am left alone, but perhaps my trip to Tokyo to build relationships with Japanese friends has made me more approachable to other Japanese. Just a theory.

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA