Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, April 28, 2006

Blue Skies, Green Trees, and Some Gentle Winds...

...and brass.

Today was the final rehearsal for ye old academy's annual Taiikusai(Sports Festival), which will be held tomorrow. As always, the entire student body is divided into six teams, which will spend the whole day in intense (and sometimes even violent) competition. However, the event starts out civil enough. It all kicks off with the six teams marching onto the playing field accompanied by members of our school music club. It's the first performance of the new school year, and we let the students take care of it themselves for the most part. It's a good way to start off the new year.

As it turned out, it was a beautiful day today, so I became your proverbial gaijin with a camera and went crazy. Here are a few shots to add some color to this rapidly darkening blog:

Pianist/flautist/student conductor Chiaki Oshima is at the helm. She's an incredible musician, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her doing this sort of thing for a living...though she really should be on the stage.

The band is playing under a blue sky, pink flowers...

...and plenty of green leaves and greener needles.

A couple of smiling oboists and a collection of bored-looking string players wait to help haul away the gear as soon as the performance is done. The band is set up in C Team's stands.

The flutes look bored, too. So do the saxes. However, in the back row, Sanshiro Ogawa (Mr. Ogawa's son) is blasting a fanfare on his trumpet.

Okay! Now for some action! The clarinets are getting into the action.

So are the brass...and here and there a sax.

Down in front on stage right are the bass winds, including a bass clarinet and two bassoons. There is also a very young bass trombone player (no good picture, though), but no tuba at present.

It's okay, though. Ms. Sato is giving us plenty of bass with her History copy of a Fender Jazz electric bass. (Moody is turning greeeeeeeeen...)

All through the entire affair, the percussion line keeps the beat going. It's gotta be hard work...

And of course, our beloved chief director, Mr. Ogawa, is there in the background proudly observing his charges. It's a beautiful day for this annual ritual, and it feels pretty good to be out here. The band is sounding pretty good, too, even though we lost quite a few power players to graduation.

The main event is tomorrow. The weather forecast is cloudy with occasional rain in the afternoon, but everything is on schedule. Oh, bloody hell...

Have a good weekend, everyone!

With Apologies to Unker (FH2o)...

...which means he can keep posting more cloud pictures, and it'll be just fine!

(If you don't know what the Sam Hill I'm talking about, check out his ever-famous blog site.)

Well, here it has been a full week, and still no new modem, therefore no phone (other than our cell phones). Yes, I am irritated.

I finally got in touch with the local branch provider yesterday to ask what was going on, and they had no idea that I was being sent a new modem. They quickly double-checked with the main office in Tokyo and then informed me that the modem would probably be arriving on Saturday.

Then they said they would call me at home to make sure I'd gotten it okay.

Duh! If the modem hasn't come yet, my phone won't be working, will it????

Customer service can be such a sad thing.

It's like Sony.

Products - GOOD!!!! Service - AAAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

When the C drive on my Vaio desktop box got wiped not so long ago, and I reinstalled everything, I lost the device driver for the built-in Sony Memory Stick reader. I used that a lot for transferring images from my camera, so it is a bit of a disaster.

I tried going to their support website to get a new driver, and it basically said, "Those of you who have registered with our Wonderful Service Support Network (warm fanfare) may click here and enter your cult member name and passwords for quick, efficient service. As for the rest of you cretins, you can click here to start your doomed venture through a never-ending maze of websites designed to confuse and irritate you and make damned sure you'll never find what you're looking for! Your other option is to CALL Sony Tech Support, but the number to call is only visible if you first download this special software (only compatible with Microsoft Internet Explorer - Mozilla, Netscape, and Opera users can piss off) after first clicking here to apply for membership in the Wonderful Service Support Network (warm fanfare) and give us your e-mail address so we can bombard you with tons of assorted spam. (Of course, if you do that, you won't need to phone us anymore. That's why the phone numbers AREN'T POSTED!!!!!)

Okay, I exaggerated a little bit...but ONLY a little bit! It was almost that bad! (And the tech support phone numbers really did require downloading special software that was only compatible with MS-IE in order to read them.)

I really hate dealing with large companies...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Streak Continues

Or should I say "curse"?

As you can read on Pandabonium's site, despite a weather forecast of "cloudy, changing to clear in the afternoon", we wound up with some pretty impressive (and totally unexpected) storm activity last Friday.

That morning I was standing just outside the front gate of the campus on traffic safety patrol. It was looking to be a lovely spring day. The sky couldn't seem to decide whether to be blue or gray, but there was a pleasant sun peeking through, bathing the new, green leaves with a golden light. The air smelled (relatively) clean, and the birds were singing in force. It was a glorious beginning to a Friday.

At least it was till we started hearing the rumbling in the distance. Fortunately, it didn't hit until some time after I and the other teachers on duty had gotten ourselves inside. Then it was nightmarish. The sky was almost black, but there wasn't much chance for darkness. The flashing and booming going on all around us was like a post-apocalyptic war zone. If a tall, lumpy guy in leathers walked up and asked me if I knew anyone named Sarah Conner I wouldn't have been at all surprised, but he would've had trouble finding her in the gush of rain and violent wind that hit like a shot soon afterward.

Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the storm passed. The sky cleared up, and we saw the smiling face of the sun again. As it turned out, that had only been the first wave. At least one other sudden, violent thunderstorm (and one earthquake) came out of nowhere and battered the land.

Through it all, I was worried about my ADSL modem. Back in the days that I used ISDN, I had two DSUs (ISDN modems) cooked by just such sudden electrical storms. The first one was still within the warranty, so the replacement cost nothing. The second one didn't. It cost almost three times as much as the old dial-up modem I used back in prehistoric times. That's why I got in the habit of switching the thing off everytime I left the house. Unfortunately, the ADSL modem doesn't have a power switch, and trying to unplug it and plug it in again every day just didn't seem practical to me. It's a larger and more sophisticated piece of equipment than those DSUs were. Not only that, I'm renting it. (The DSUs were leased.) I spent all afternoon having nightmares of coming home to find its ever-playful lights cold and dark.

Actually, when I came home the usual lights were still on, and the link lamp was still blinking cheerfully as always. However, there was one extra light. It was the warning light, which had never lit before, and it was a very evil shade of red.

I dug out the troubleshooting manual and looked up what to do in the case of That Light glaring at me. I followed the instructions to the letter, and the malevolent, red LED thankfully went back to sleep. I then booted up the computer, ran the modem's diagnostic program, and connected to the internet. Everything checked out. I had full net access as usual, and all software and hardware was performing normally.

Then I picked up the phone. All I got was an obnoxious khkkkhhhkhkkhkhkkhkhkh. No motion. No activity. Nothing but that nerve-grating sound.

I grabbed my cell phone and tried to call the local provider office, but their staff had already signed off for the weekend. Since I still had internet access, I tried e-mailing the main tech support office in Tokyo. I got a reply early the next morning. Between lavish apologies for the late reply (apparently lots of people are in the same predicament as me) and long platitudes in very formal language, I was given a set of instructions for a diagnostic test to perform on the modem and a template for my e-mailed reply. Acting on Yahoo's advice, I also called the local phone company and had them test the connection. Then YahooBB tech support asked me to run one last test. The indications were unanimous. The modem was least as far as the phone was concerned.

They say that they are sending me a new modem immediately. They didn't say when it would arrive or how much it would cost. Hopefully it will be painless. In the meantime, I'll just continue using my internet connection...and be thankful that those annoying punks in my wife's tennis club are unable to call early in the morning or late at night like they usually do.

(Hey, why not look at the bright side for a change?)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

And Then There Were None...


Remember that program I talked about in the last post called "Partition Magic"? Well, I didn't find it during my shopping trip to Aeon yesterday. However, I did find a program that did more or less the same thing.

At least it claimed to.

The name of the program is "Partition Expert" by Acronis. The "J-Zone" computer shop in Aeon's Jusco department store had it available as part of a series of top-rated software utilities offered at discount prices. According to the package, the program can be used to create partitions, delete them, copy them, blend them together, or recover data when Windows gets trashed. According to a stick-on label, it can also be used to increase the size of the C drive by removing unused space from other partitions. In fact, there was a sign on the shelf specially recommending it for just that reason since, with the SP2 upgrade, lots of older computers are apparently having C drive space problems.

Well, I had been having just that sort of problem myself with this box. I was getting fed up with wiping everything possible off the C drive only to have it tell me yet again that I was down to only a couple hundred megabytes of free space. My experience with "Partition Magic" at ye olde academy gave me what finally looked to be the solution (short of buying a new computer). I didn't find Partition Magic, but "Partition Expert" looked to be just as good, not to mention a lot cheaper, so I snapped it up.

I installed it this morning, looked over the documentation carefully, read various related sites online (all of which spoke highly of it), fired it up, created a "rescue CD" just in case, set it to transfer about 7 GB of space from the D drive to the C drive, and clicked the "commit" button. I then watched with delight as it followed more or less the same procedure that "Partition Magic" had on the computer at the school. It moved data on the D drive, reduced the size of the partition, increased the size of the C drive accordingly, reconfigured the system, and then rebooted.

And then nothing happened.
After the regular BIOS settings flowed past, the thing just hung up and stopped. I hit ctrl+alt+del and it did the same thing.

Horrified, I booted off the rescue CD I'd just made. "Partition Expert" started, scanned the drives, and showed that they had, indeed, been resized according to my specifications. However, there was an evil-looking, little, red "X" on the C drive.

I couldn't even find the menu command for data recovery.

I tore out that CD, popped in the disk for the Windows XP SP2 that I'd bought and installed a few months ago, and booted into recovery mode. It showed that the C drive's data had been competely corrupted. Sighing, I started the "repair installation" (or however the Japanese translates) sequence only to get a message saying (in Japanese), "C drive is destroyed. Please either reformat or install on a different partition.")

Well, I chose the reformat option. I went ahead and changed the C drive from FAT32 to NTFS (which I now think might have been a mistake) and started all over again. Luckily, all the data and backups on the D partition were intact, which saved a lot of time and effort. I still wound up spending half of today getting this thing more or less back to normal.

I guess it's not so bad. I actually took advantage of this opportunity to cut out some gingerbread that I'd been trying to talk myself into getting rid of for months. I also now have 75% more C drive space than before. All the main stuff is working again, and it's probably running better than before since I don't have such a chopped up system disk anymore. Still, this whole thing is extremely aggravating. The fact that I bought a highly-recommended, supposedly reputable program from a supposedly reliable outlet only to have it butcher my system is frustrating, but I probably had it coming to me. After all, I tried to make do with a bargain-bin version (which may very well have been a bootleg or a phony imitation), and you get what you pay for.

Yep, I paid for it, alright. I'm just thankful I printed out my e-mail address book for no apparent reason a few months ago. Serendipity is the mother of salvation.

Happy Easter, everyone!!!!!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Morey, How Long's an Aeon?

Well, it's late Saturday afternoon, the weekend chores are all done, and here I am strolling through Narita's Aeon Shopping Mall with the kids once again.

The city of Narita is home to the famous Narita Temple, the New Tokyo International Airport (my gateway to and from the rest of the world), and a good deal of shopping opportunities that don't exist in the Third World city I live in. Yes, you could call my twice-to-thrice-monthly trips here an indulgence, but I consider them a staple of life. Besides, I usually try to find some kind of concrete reason to do so every time.

Of course, I consider "boredom" a concrete reason.

Actually, the main reason I came out this time was to buy a new alto sax mouthpiece. The girl who is now the lead alto sax player of the Seishin Flying Eggheads (really cool, jazzy fanfare) is also the new captain of the band. She already has quite a bit of experience and has demonstrated considerable playing power (read: "she kicked sand all over the girl who was playing lead last year"). However, though she got a pretty good sound out of it, she never seemed comfortable with the Otto Link 5 metal mouthpiece she'd been using for jazz. The only reason she got that mouthpiece in the first place was that I had provided a few of the same make of a couple of different tip sizes to the band years ago, and they're still being handed down. She figured that meant it was the ideal, so she tested out a 4, 5, and 6 and got the 6. It always seemed a bit iffy, though. Those Otto Link metals are really popular, but they can be problematic. They work well for some and not at all for others. They also vary widely from instrument to instrument. (To be honest, I own one for my alto, but I never use it. I far prefer my rubber Yanagisawa 6 for jazz. I do use a Dukoff metal on my tenor, but only when I want a really raucous sound.) After she got her own, new Selmer sax a few months ago, she struggled with her OL metal and then stopped using it. Anyway, I'm going to test her out on a rubber Meyer 5 with a medium bore. That should suit her better. If it doesn't, I'll happily add it to my collection and check out something else next. :-)

I have the kids with me today, but not the Mrs.. She has both PTA commitments and that damned tennis club of hers to deal with. She said she was finally going to quit that tennis club once and for all this year. She even gave official notice to her principal to that effect. With her mother down being treated for cancer and both kids now in elementary school as of this month, she figured she had too much responsibility at home to be tied up with that ever-busy, ever-bothersome, ever-ulcer-causing tennis club. Well, that lasted all of three days. Apparently the principal asked her to be an assistant coach of the baseball team instead while assigning a notoriously brainless, young, new teacher to be in charge of the tennis club. Not surprisingly, she soon informed me that she had changed her mind. We're right back in the same old, same old. Another year of me trying to juggle my own work and club commitments (and putting up with the in-laws) with being a sort of househusband. Yes, I am a bit less than enthusiastic. That's another good reason to be away from home and here at Aeon. I think the kids needed to get away, too.

Actually, the Bon Belta Department Store about two or three kilometers away has a better selection of import goods, so I'm more likely to find Easter stuff there. Bon Belta also has a bit more in terms of CDs/DVDs and computer-related stuff. However, Aeon is much larger. Also, the music store at Bon Belta, actually a branch of the one here but concentrating on used instruments, disappeared during Spring break. I could also point out the fact that Aeon also has a Tully's Coffee outlet (which I actually like a little better than Starbucks, which has stores at both Aeon and Bon Belta now), but I'm actually going to refrain from going there this time. As late as it is, it's going to be a snap visit.

We arrive at the music store, and the Meyer 5 alto mouthpiece is there. There is also one for tenor, which I am very tempted to grab for myself. (I have a really old Meyer 7 for my tenor, but that's a bit too wide for my liking.) I'm even more tempted to pick up the Yanagisawa 6 metal that they have there, since the Yani 6 rubber I already have suits me so well, but it is really expensive. Considering the amount I just shelled out for the construction work being done on my house, it's hard for me to justify buying it. I know I'll be thinking about it for days, but I'll take a rain check this time...and just get that Meyer 5 for the Eggheads' lead alto player.

She'd better like it, dammit!

One of the things I really like about strolling through Aeon is the fact that it's so multi-national. The airport is literally just down the street, and there is a direct shuttle-bus service between it and the mall, so a lot of people probably come here during their layovers. As I and my kids thread our way through the crowds, I can hear various forms of English, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Bahasa Indonesian/Malaysian, Tagalog, Urdu, Farsi, Sinhala, and probably other languages, as well. It's an ethno-linguistic smorgasbord, and it's all music to my ears. I almost find myself humming along with the tune!

Eventually we arrive at the Jusco department store that is the largest single retailer in the mall. The first order of business here is letting my son satisfy his trading card/video game obsession. Last year there was only one such game, the ubiquitous rhinoceros beetle duel game "Mushi-king (King of Beetles)", and the little tike had over a hundred of its cards. Now there are several games based on the same basic concept but using either dinosaurs or giant robot war machines to slug it out using collectible cards and rock-scissors-paper. My son's grandfather takes him out to play every day when he's looking after him. I'm not so indulgent (which my son finds baffling as well as disappointing), but he was very helpful today. I figure it's worth a 100 yen coin.

Once that's done, it's time to take care of some bits and pieces of shopping. I was recently made the official co-manager of IT in the English Department (which I thought I was already, but oh well), and I spent all last week doing maintenance on the cabinet full of laptop workstations that Mr. O should have done a year ago. One interesting thing I came upon during that endeavor was a handy tool called Partition Magic. One machine was suffering from very little C drive space even after I deleted a gigabyte worth of student-downloaded game and video files (and then allowed the machine to execute fully 40 Windows updates plus SP 2!). Using P.M., I took a bit off the D partition and increased the C partition by 50%. I was amazed at how simple it was. Needless to say, I know what I want to do now to solve my C-drive space problems on this box! Since the stationery department happens to be right next to the computer department, I do a little school supply shopping for myself and the kids. Then I head over to the supermarket to get things for tonight's dinner (since the Mrs. will be out again). Actually, I get two food items...and several bottles of Australian beer.

Victoria Bitter! Ah...memories of my trip to Brisbane/Sunshine Coast last summer! The beauty of it is that I'll be making more or less the same trip again this summer, too! Victoria Bitter is a wonderfully smooth, drinkable brew that goes great with a meal. It's too bad Jusco doesn't have either Crown Lager or XXX Bitter, but you can't have everything.

Okay, shopping is done...and we're already waaaaaaaaay behind schedule. Time to race home and throw together some din-din. Actually, the trip home is annoying only because it's so uneventful. There is no blue Mercedes this time. In fact, the expressway is almost totally vacant. It's smooth cruising at 125 kph all the way back with a sky too dark with clouds for there to be any visual appeal. Just gloomy, dark, mostly unlit road all the way back to Itako and then on to Namegata.

Oh, well. Time to relax and end the day with some spaghetti, salad, and Victoria Bitter.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Rite to Die

It was dark and still when I walked to Mr. M's house, but that meant I could entertain myself with the beating of my own heart. His family homestead is less than 100 yards from mine, but it seemed like one of the longest walks in my life. You see, Mr. M's mother had died, and it was the night of the meeting to decide what everyone in the neighborhood was to do.

Until then, I had always managed to weasel my way out of those. My father-in-law was always content to do it himself, partly to help reinforce his position as a pillar of the community and partly to reassure his (bloated) ego knowing that he was much better informed about the subject than me. The fact of my being an ignorant foreigner also led mother-in-law to come to my defense on those occasions when father-in-law tried to pop off. Unfortunately, with mom-in-law still in the hospital, dad-in-law going to visit her every day, and a traditional rule that only men of the family are supposed to participate (i.e. no help from the wife), that left me with no other options. I had to do it.

You have to understand; funerals in Japan are large, elaborate affairs that span several days, and the whole neighborhood is involved. Every household is supposed to contribute one or more members (not to mention cash) to help out.

Emphasize the supposed to. You see, I've found that support and participation are endangered species in this neighborhood.

I had attended the memorial service of a few funerals, but I had little exposure to the event as a whole save the one occasion that I participated at the reception desk at one. That didn't even qualify as the icing on the cake. I basically entered Mr. M's house knowing not and knowing that I knew not, i.e. I was a child in need of being taught.

The familiar faces of the menfolk of the neighborhood were there and showing obvious surprise at my presence. After we had each offered a prayer, incense, and a money offering at the (fortunately closed) casket, we sat in a circle, were served tea, and began the meeting in earnest.

The very first role to be filled was clearly the most important one, that of rokushaku (陸尺 or 六尺), for which there is no direct English translation. The first set of Chinese characters literally mean "land measure". The second, which are less common in funerals but far more common in general use, translate as "quarterstaff", or at least a pole of about 180cm length. In archaic Japanese, both sets of characters mean the same thing with regard to the role. Basically, the rokushaku serve as gravediggers, pallbearers, acolytes, and a whole lot of other things. They more or less carry the rite through in the service of the priest. They also prepare the materials used. It's an intimidating task, and few really know the ropes. (In fact, few Japanese I know, even at my school, even know what the word means.) Because of that, the job tends to fall to the same group every time.

Every time but this time, anyway. Two of the regular members immediately bowed out for uncertain reasons. That left both the neighborhood committee and Mr. M's family with a serious dilemma. You see, while dad-in-law is a chronic workaholic, the other men of the neighborhood are far less motivated. Actually, I've found them to be quite apathetic and uncooperative. Needless to say, when the chairman tried to find someone else to fill the spots, no one was forthcoming. The chairman asked everyone with increasing desperation, but the responses ranged from, "Well, you see, I, uh...well, uh...," to a brusque, "No way." A couple of men responded with icy silence.

As for me, participation was out of the question. The day of the funeral was the day that kicked off the new school year at the Academy. Classes weren't to begin for a few more days yet, but it was to be the day of the infamous First Meetings ("ta-da" in a diminished 7th key), when the staff and policy changes were announced and new roles decided. There is always a lot of work to do on such days, and missing them is never a good idea.

I put up my hand. "I'll do it," I said.

Every mouth dropped open. Hard.

When the chairman had scooped his jaw off the floor and put it back into place, he stammered, "Er, uh...are you sure your father-in-law can', uh..."

"He's not coming," I retorted. "I'll do it."

The chairman, no doubt afraid I'd change my mind, wrote my name down with record speed, and the meeting went on. Not surprisingly, volunteers for other, less bothersome roles were immediately forthcoming.

When it was all done, the other members of the rokushaku crew told me to be there promptly at 8 a.m. and suggested I stick close to them and follow their lead. As I walked home, I was barraged with comments of, "How noble you are," spoken with a tone of voice that suggested, "You're a bloody idiot!"

Cut to today, the day of the big event. I asked dad-in-law what I should wear, and he said as much black as possible. Therefore, I put on black trousers, black socks, a black, long-sleeve polo shirt, and a black coat. However, as soon as the Mrs. sees me she blows her stack. You see, the black coat was a birthday present from her, and my job promises to be a dirty, sweaty one. Frothing at the mouth, she demands I take the coat off and put on my black Oregon State hooded sweatshirt instead. I figure it's not worth fighting about, so I comply. Just in case, I toss my black suit and funeral necktie in the back of my BLUE RAV4 and head out.

It's cold and pouring down rain today, and I arrive at Mr. M's house to discover I have a flat tire. The first thing the rokushaku crew does is help me change it. Embarrassed before even having begun, I take my car back home and return on foot. Then the real work begins. Fortunately, Mr. M's family has provided us with rain parkas purchased at 7-11.

I can't help noticing that my fellows on the team are all wearing their regular (blue collar) work clothes. Not only am I the only foreigner, but I'm the only one all in black save the oh-so-noticeable, orange lettering on my sweatshirt. I feel like a total idiot. It's even worse when we set to work making the various traditional ornaments for the ceremony, because I've never even seen them before. I do manage to make myself useful, however. I also manage to slice my thumb wide open while whittling down a strip of bamboo with my old Boy Scout knife. (I cut it on the bamboo, not the knife. That stuff is nasty!)

Once the initial preparations are all finished, we take them over to the local temple and set them up as best we can. The rain is proving to be a serious nuisance. Not only is it cold and, well, wet, but the grass fibers used to bind everything together are soggy and snap at the least provocation. The paper hangings with their sutras in beautifully-written Chinese characters are disintegrating as we work. Things are taking forever, and we don't have forever. It winds up being a case of, "Oh, screw it! Good enough! Next!"

Once we are more or less done, we are taken to the funeral hall, where the first of many ceremonies is already underway. Accompanied by the eerie sound of the priest's Buddhist chanting and ringing of gongs, we pop into the back room for a quick bite and some tea, coffee, and vitamin drinks. (Can you say "WIRED"???!?) Then we're on standby for the next part of the ceremony. We tie blessed cloths around our chests and necks (foregoing the headbands because of the rain) and are given new, blessed shoes to wear so we don't wind up being possessed. Then we are ushered into the ceremony hall. Our job is to distribute flowers to the mourners, who then toss them into the open casket as they say their farewells. Needless to say, there is a lot of wailing going on (when people stop staring at me). After all, the deceased woman was a beloved sister, mother, and grandmother.

Unfortunately, the youngest grandson, aged 4, is a horrible, unsufferable brat. After watching him throw several screaming tantrums in the course of five minutes, noisily demand that he either be picked up or allowed to ring the gongs, and then try to open his dead grandmother's eyes (and go into a shrieking fit when he is stopped), I can't help thinking what an angel my son is by comparison (and that's saying a lot, believe me!) The little monster's elder sister, a classmate and friend of my daughter, gives a very touching, tearful farewell speech over her brother's screams and then does what the adults cannot: she literally pounds him into line. When reason and indulgence don't work, sibling violence often does. We're all very close to giving her a round of applause.

Once all that is done, we close the casket and carry it out to the hearse. It takes us a while to get underway because the little s**t is determined to get in the hearse, too, and he can' he is running and rolling around shrieking in the parking lot. Once again big sister comes to the rescue, and we finally get the parade going to the crematorium. I get on the charted minibus with the family, and it is a macabre ride. The atmosphere in there is, well, heavy. As we make our way along the road through the gloomy, rain-soaked fields of Namegata City, not a word is spoken. I don't feel like I could say anything if I tried. The stillness is oppressive, and it's only appropriate. This family is accompanying a dear one on her final journey, and I feel honored to be there with them...even in my Oregon State sweatshirt.

Fortunately, the rokushaku team doesn't tarry at the crematorium long. We carry the casket in, participate in the final words of farewell, and are in attendence as the casket is loaded into the cremation chamber, but then we are off to the temple to make the final preparations. As for the family, they will wait until the body is cremated, and then they will use special chopsticks to pick out the surviving bone fragments and place them in the burial urn. I don't regret not being there for that. Instead, we return to the temple to find the rain has made a mess of our earlier preparations. Somehow, I wind up being the handyman doing the repair work. Meanwhile, the other members lug the new, temporary gravepost (a post of wood on which the deceased's "living name" and newly-given "afterlife name" are written) up to the gravesite for Mr. M's family. (Hmm...a grave pole. Perhaps that's why the job is called "rokushaku" [六尺].) I join them as soon as my hands are free. The ground in the grave area is now the consistency of JelloTM Pudding, but we somehow get everything ready to go. Then we have only to wait standing under the eaves of the temple, shivering in the cold.

The bus arrives almost half an hour late (because of the brat? I shan't ask). Then we start the pre-burial rituals. Apparently funeral traditions vary widely from place to place, particularly if different sects of Buddhism are involved. Here I get a glimpse of that first hand. The relatives and well-wishers who have come from outside our area have no idea what to do (and neither do I), so the priest talks us through it. Basically, they form a circle around a sort of gate we have constructed. Then, carrying special ritual poles we have made and the burial urn, they walk around the gate three times and then pass through it as the priest chants. We then head to the grave, where the urn is inserted in the burial cell and offerings placed in front of the new gravepost. (I don't participate in this last bit because I'm carrying the incense. Determined to keep it dry, I bundle it under my rain parka and hold it carefully as we move along. As it turns out, the priest decides to bag the incense bit altogether. It's too wet. I get to bundle the incense back out again...looking like I'm pregnant or something.)

Our work is now complete. The last step is to burn our protective cloths and then go back to the funeral hall, where the family has prepared a banquet. This is when find I've made another grievous error. I gave a monetary offering from our family at the meeting, but I didn't bring one today. I didn't think I needed another one (and my wife apparently forgot), but it seems you're supposed to give money every time you go to any of the events related to a funeral. That can be expensive if you attend everything. I realize with horror that I've just insulted Mr. M, one of few men in the neighborhood who is always really friendly with me. Oh, well. I'll find a way to make it up to his family later. That would be the American thing to do.

Thus ends my experience working as a rokushaku for a neighborhood funeral. It was some pretty demanding on-the-job training for a very demanding tradition. Now that I have a better idea what to do, there is a very good chance they'll ask me to do it again. After all, not many people are able...or do it.

Then again, maybe they won't ask me again. Oh, well. Time to buy some new tires.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Springtime at Ye Olde Academy

Well, it looks like Pandabonium beat me to the punch as far as pictures of cherry blossoms in Kashima are concerned. (The fact that he took his pictures at Shiroyama Park, which is very close to my school, rubs it in even deeper!) Still, I thought I'd go ahead and make my contribution by sharing some pictures of the Seishin Gakuen campus and its famous, tree-lined driveway. (These are cell phone pics, but I hope you enjoy them anyway!)

Okay, these aren't trees, but there are flowers all over the campus, and they bloom at different times. It seems like there's a different color every week!

Wait a minute...those aren't cherry trees in the staff parking lot! Those are sugi!!! [ACHOO!!!! ACHOO!!!!!!!]

I hope you all have a wonderful Spring!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Okay, Time for Me to Be a Doting Dad

My, but time flies! It seems like only yesterday that my son was spending most of his time peeing and puking. (Well, he still does to some extent, but you know what I mean!) Now he has crossed yet another major milestone in his life; he has graduated from kindergarten. ("Hallelujah" a la Handel)

I thought some of you might like to share the experience (and if you don't, you know where you can stuff it), so here are some pics:

Here's the little guy in his sparkling, new graduation suit. Doesn't he look dapper? Hmm..."dapper". You don't hear that word much anymore, do you? It's kind of a baby boomer kind of word, or even older. So why am I using it now? Beats me, but he does look kind of dapper, doesn't he?

And now...the graduation ceremony! When his name was called, he said, "Hai!" ("yes") at the top of his lungs (*blush*) and stood up like he'd been electrocuted. He then bowed to his teacher, bowed again to the VIP guests, and then proceeded to The Spot Before The Principal (minor key fanfare):

The Principal (minor 7th key fanfare) looks at him with apparent puzzlement. He's probably wondering what the hell the world is coming to with a half-gaijin (two, actually, including his half-Thai classmate) moving up the education ladder in his beloved country. Maybe he sees it as still further proof that our beloved (hick) town of Aso is gone, replaced by Namegata City, whose rather kitsch-looking, new flag is there to the right of the Hinomaru. (Either that or he's upset because I won't have any reason to give his students free English or music seminars anymore. Sure, dream on, Moody!)

The question is...will he let my son graduate??!? (Drumroll please.)


No, actually, he is only bowing. The Principal (lochrian key fanfare) gave him his diploma.

Now formally certified as an ex-kindergartener, my son gives the audience a final bow of thanks before returning to his seat. After all the kids have gone through this routine, the formal ceremony ends. Then it is time for yet another cuteness overload. (diminished 7th fanfare)

(Are you non-musicians following all these fanfares?)

Here's my son enjoying the post-graduation fun with his "gang". Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Future of Japan!!! (Everybody sell your stock and move to Fiji while you can!)

Okay, let me pummel you across the face with one last pic. Here is the little guy posing with his brand new elementary school bag. Yes, grade schoolers in Japan traditionally use these bulky, boxy backpacks. Girls use red ones, and boys use black and blue ones. (Hmm...what do those colors signify, I wonder. Any theories?)

Okay, my exercise in parental indulgence is over. We now return to our regular program...if we ever figure out what it is...