Up the Yama, Down the Yama

10 days since the last post. In that time I've finished instruction to my third year students and prepared for administering the final exams which were Friday and Saturday. But probably the real reason that I haven't written is that I've had the Fever. Olympic Fever! I'm always a sap for the Olympics so when they're on, I'm watching. Being in Japan during the Olympics has certainly been an experience: we're ahead of Torino by 8 hours. That means that live coverage begins at 11 pm here. I'm usually going to or in bed by that time, so I've sacrificed a little sleep for some vicarious glory with the athletes.

Of course most of the coverage focuses on the Japanese athletes and their sports. The first week it was mostly women's curling. That's okay with me, I got to learn a lot more about an interesting sport. Chess on ice they call it. I saw one highlight of the men's gold medal game between Canada and Finland. With one stone, Canada used angles and ricochet to knock out 4 of Finland's stones. It was so precise. Beautiful. Anywho, the Japanese women did not advance to the medal round but beat Great Britain who won the gold medal last time. On Japanese TV during the Olympics or other times (I don't know), they have a tradition of receiving faxed letters and drawings of encouragement for the athletes. I got so caught up with the action that I decided to draw my own picture and fax it in. Unfortunately, the curling team was eliminated before I could find a fax machine. But, you're in luck: I'm going to publish it here on my blog for the world to see! Beneath the curling stone is says "Nippon ganbatte!" Which means, "Japan! Fight!" It's a typical cheer or encouragement. Japan has only won one medal these games, but it's gold and probably the highest profile event: women's figure skating. Shizuko Arakawa has been all over the news and has lifted the spirits of people the neighborhood.

Last week I visited a classmate from college who's teaching at an eikaiwa (private English conversation school) in Mie prefecture. He has the unique experience of being the only native English speaker in town. It is quite a rural place. You can literally see a waterfall and a mountain from his balcony. So beautiful. After a busy week of test preparation, I was excited to have 2.5 days to stay with him.

I was in Kyoto for church on Sunday when I began my trip. The national train line, JR, has friendly bilingual signs, but I didn't see my transfer station of "Nagoya" on the fare map. Except for the Shinkansen, the bullet train. At 4900 yen for a 15 minute ride, its quite expensive. So I bought a limited express fare for 2400 yen and set off. But the only trains with "Nagoya" on their destination list were bullet trains. So I got waived through the turnstiles by the conductors even though the computers rejected my ticket. Something was up but I didn't know what. So I got on the bullet train and got an unreserved window seat. Score! Except it was in the smoking car. Oh well. The view of the Japanese Alps, which rise abruptly and majestically with snow-covered peaks, was inspiring to the point of inducing guilt. "I'm paying too little for this wonderful experience," I thought to myself. And I was right. When I attempted to exit in Nagoya, I was directed by the conductor to the "fare adjustment" counter. I had to fork over another 2500 yen. Oh well, it was worth it.

The train to Komono, where Nate lives, approaches the Suzuka Mountains. The Rokko Mountains are the backdrop to where I live, but they don't rise 1000 meters over a flat plain. So this was very exciting. Here's a picture of my view from the train. Nate lives across the street from the train station and came out to greet me. Talk about a sweet location. He came to visit me for Thanksgiving last November and I was embarrassed at the size of my apartment because it actually is quite big compared to most Japanese living spaces. Nate's apartment is quite small by comparison, although I have no pictures to show for it. It was made even smaller by Nate's PhD work (Piled high & Deep) in every room. After catching up on years and months gone by since college and our last visit in Japan, we set off for dinner.

Nate has been here for about a year and a half, so he has developed a nice network of friends and eating establishments that he frequents. Being that most classes at eikaiwa are in the evenings, Nate doesn't cook for himself very often, so he goes to the restaurants of his students. He gave me a choice of his "frequent five". I chose pasta. So far in Japan, I have avoided pasta restaurants for two reasons: 1) I can eat a lot of pasta back in the USA whereas the kind of Japanese food served here is hard to find in good quality in the USA (just ask Gena and Craig about Kabuki in Pasadena); 2) I imagined pasta in Japan to be undercooked noodles with ketchup sauce and therefore not appetizing. Well, I was shamefully wrong in this case. I ordered a simple spaghetti set which included salad and tiramisu dessert. It was better than Olive Garden, giving it an above-average rating. The tiramisu even had real whip cream, something that few American restaurants can top without a hefty bill. So the after dinner buzz was going. What better way to top it off than with a trip to the onsen: Japanese bath?

It was very relaxing to soak in hot spring water and clean out the pores. They had a big screen TV with Olympic cross-country skiing on. What a great way to end the day. I was so relaxed that I slept in until 10 the next morning. Monday, Nate and I did personal errands. It rained all day, so outdoor recreation was out. Nevertheless, we visited the local temple (Buddhist) and shrine (Shinto). I finally learned the difference between the two. Though I was reasonably confused because often the two are right next to each other. We walked through the cemetery as the sober sky showered a cold, drizzly rain upon our umbrellas. People's final resting places are often on hillsides because of the scarcity of flat land that is reserved for rice production.

Tuesday morning, Nate left for Yokkaichi to teach a class. He dropped me off at the gondola that would take me up the mountain (yama). A school group arrived just before me. I could tell they were going to ski at the top because everyone was dressed in the same jump suit, hat and goggles. I went up a gondola with a ski school group and passed through thermoclines of fog which made for beautiful photographs. The summit of the mountain was covered in snow but quite warm and sunny. I hiked through the snow to the 1212m top (3972 feet). They say that you can see Mount Fuji and Lake Biwa from the summit, but there was a cloud cover that obscured my view. I was able to see an interesting shrine atop another peak nearby. After my trip to the summit it was time to come down. I had to begin my 5 hour journey home. It was easy to get lost in time with the wonderland feel of Mount Gozaisho, so I missed the most direct train back to Osaka. The second train had a few more connections and went a bit slower, but it made me a more hardened train riding veteran. I am becoming more of a train lover the longer I am here! Thanks for reading this far. I will try to write shorter and more frequent entries in the future.


Meet Idrissou

Well, the apartment managers say that I can't have pets here. But I don't think they'll mind if Idrissou moves in with me. He's a black moor goldfish. He loves to suck on gravel, blow bubbles, and generally wiggle about all day while I'm at school. The care guide says this breed is quite hardy and can survive near freezing temps. This is good because it gets almost that cold in my apartment! I chose the name Idrissou because it was a popular name for men in Benin while I was there in the Peace Corps in 1999. Its a muslim name, I think. So I thought it would be a good name for a black moor. What do you think?

Meeting Haiku

Wednesdays always make good blog posting days because I've got a 2 hour chunk of time when I can sit quietly and think. They're the weekly faculty meeting. Today I used the time to read course evaluations, write in my teaching journal, and join my fellow American ATE in a friendly competition of haiku poetry. Here are the 5-7-5 syllable poems that we created:

drip of foreign words
into murky conprehension
drown my feeble mind

a steamy kettle
words distilled from Japanese
dew not digest well

circle of sensei
throw thoughts into the room like
skipping stones in mud

a heater rumbles
ambient language playing
a song I only feel

sleepy sun setting
and heaving droning voices
pull my lashes down

this meeting bunker
could survive Apocalypse
will it ever end?


Getting back to the blog

Sorry its been almost two weeks since my last post. What have I been doing? Working late at school and catching up on rest. The 3rd term of the school year is the shortest and I was told by the other ATE that I would be teaching less due to all the special events, but the intensity of the school week seems to have increased.

For the first time I have had to eat a コンビに便と (a convenient store boxed meal) for dinner because I left the faculty room at 8:30 pm. And it isn't like I'm working at a relaxed pace for longer hours or dilly-dallying. If I'm not teaching, I'm planning the next lesson and creating materials to teach with. This term has given me the opportunity to apply what I've learned from last term regarding my students and the activities that work well with them. As a result I have been putting more time into the design and order of my lessons to make them more linguistically sound.

Well, I'm trying to make my blog more about my cultural encounters here rather than a teaching journal, so I'll end the teaching analysis there. Instead I'll just showcase a few photos that tell a story about my life in the past two weeks.

It snowed in Nishinomiya on the 5th. This is the view from my apartment door. It melted by noon, so it didn't disrupt activity in town. It does get quite cold at night with the thin insulation, but I sleep soundly with plenty of blankets!

This picture is actually from November when I went to Toyama on a WWOOF assignment. I almost went WWOOFing again this weekend but backed out from going to a farm in Nagano because it would have been too long of travel for too short of a stay. Maybe when I have 5 days during spring or summer break. Anywho, its a beautiful silhouette of a sunrise over the Japanese Alps that sets me thinking about the "other" Japan or self-sufficient organic farmers that seems so far away from the urban conglomerate of Osaka-Kobe.

Care for a $50 melon? That's the price of this "gift musk melon" at the local supermarket. For something that most Americans take for granted in their fruit salad, musk melon and other fruits (like grapes and pineapples) are a special gift for expressing appreciation. Given this, you could imagine the feelings of the Japanese campers at the English Village of Concordia this past summer when fruit salad was a daily item at lunch. Overall, fruit is more expensive here. I paid 300 yen ($2.50) for 5 bananas the other day. In the US, its 50¢ a pound, not a banana!

The Christian Science Monitor featured a list of the 10 most expensive cities in the world to live in (according to the cost in USD of goods and services). Osaka ranked 4th; Tokyo was 2nd (after being #1 for 14 years); Oslo, Norway was 1st. No US cities were in the top ten. According to this ranking, you would think that I'm losing money left and right. Not so. I don't consume a lot of goods, so I'm able to save money. But my grocery bill is substantially higher than what it was in Monterey (adjusted for the pauper's diet I was eating on grad student budget). So it goes to show: expensive is relative to the type of consumer you are.

See you next time in the blogosphere!


Can you ever be over-paid for over-working?

Spending 13 hours at work doesn't leave much time for blogging. Unless blogging is your job! Well, we all dig our own holes. Its Wednesday, so that's meeting day which makes it a rather long one. But yesterday was 12 hours. I'm not really complaining because my compensation package tells me that I'm valued and therefore I'm willing to put in the time to reciprocate. If convenience store clerks were paid $30/hour would they enthusiastically greet and help every visitor?

I'm no economist, my friend DoAnne is, and I don't have an MBA, my cousin Fin does, but wouldn't increased minimum wages impact the crime rates and quality of life in the USA in positive directions? Sure businesses would complain about the undue burden and how it would increase their costs, but aren't human costs the ones worth paying? And wouldn't those same cunning businesses find another formula for success if one of the givens was a living wage?

What about raising other operating costs like pollution mitigation or reduction to lower the impact on climate change? Perhaps a short-term downturn in the economy, but once the companies accepted the new modus-operandi, they'd find a way to succeed. Being an investor myself (in human lives as an educator instead of in financial sectors), I'm comfortable with the idea that somethings worth doing don't have a tangible return on investment. I try to buy some organic foods because I know that it supports a process of growing food that lowers impact on the land. I'm not a totally organic consumer, but I do what I can within my budget.

Okay, so I'm going on a tangent here. I hope I'm not being too political here, I hear it from the sooner if I am, just taking a position to invite comments. Maybe higher wages all across the board affecting the crime rate and quality of life is only germane to the situation in Japan. I sure know that if Americans lived in the space and proximity to neighbors that Japanese do, the crime rate would certainly go up with all the nerves-getting-on that people will do! Its the public manners, or the appearance of (if not actually expressing), in Japan that makes the peacefully close living possible. Maybe my view will change the longer I'm here, but that's my persective from now.

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA