Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, May 29, 2006

Remembering the Fallen

It's Memorial Day in the U.S. today.

Here in Japan, whenever PM Koizumi or anyone else in the government tries to honor those that have paid the ultimate price in the service of their country, both Koreas and China immediately go ballistic and set diplomacy back several notches for a period of several months. Of course, it doesn't help that the Shinto shrine dedicated to the nation's war dead, Yasukuni Shrine, not only enshrines class A war criminals but officially (and quite vocally) supports both Imperial Japan's brutal colonialism and the Pacific War as both "noble" and "sacred" endeavors. Yes, I can understand how China and the Koreas would have a problem with that.

Even so, I still can't help feeling that honoring those who have died in the service of their country is both a matter of course and a natural right of any sovereign nation. It doesn't matter who was giving the orders or whether the war was justified or not. These were all men and women who were called upon to leave their homes and families and serve their people. Therefore, their people should honor their memory. Cultures that were brutalized by Imperial Japan should remember what happened and should be angry, but they shouldn't try to interfere with this most basic right.

After all, many people consider the Vietnam War a terrible, atrocity-laden mistake, yet we don't forget the Americans who lost their lives in that conflict. I certainly hope we won't ever forget those who have died (or may yet die) in our latest costly error endeavor. Whatever the leaders at the time may have been thinking, those soldiers still died for us, so we must remember them.

With that in mind, I've decided to make my contribution by offering a poem in the traditional Japanese tanka (32-syllable) style:

Wareware no michi wo     我々の道を
Mamotte ita tsutsuji   守っていた躑躅
Ima kurai ha dake     今暗い葉だけ
Hana mada mieru      花まだ見える

The tsutsuji (Japanese azalea) that guarded our path,
Now only darkened leaves,
I can still see the flowers.

I hope we remember to see them again every year.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bean a Good Boy

Grind, grind, grind...

This has become a regular ritual for me at ye old academy. Almost every time I come to the school, for whatever reason, I wind up here in the music office grinding coffee.

I don't really have to do this. Over in the staff room they have what's called the ocha-kai (literally "tea association" or even "tea party"), though in these modern times it has far more to do with coffee. Basically, the members of the junior high faculty pay a small fee to the ocha-kai chief, and he or she ensures that there is a supply of coffee available in the staff room. Naturally, it tends to be regular, supermarket-variety fare. If it isn't instant, it is usually pre-ground, and if somebody does happen to bring in bean coffee, there is a very convenient coffee maker with a built-in, electric grinder.

It's quick, it's easy, it's convenient, it's readily available, and I wouldn't touch it with a three-meter pole. I far prefer coming here and grinding "gourmet" bean coffee by hand using an English-made, black iron grinder Mr. Ogawa received as a present from one of our visiting instrument clinicians. It's a lot of fuss and bother, not to mention slow, but I like it better this way. Just as real shodo (Japanese calligraphy) artists prefer scraping ink by hand from an inkstone to using the bottled, ready-made variety, I like taking a little time and effort to prepare a good pot of coffee. It not only makes it more meaningful, and adds an element of love, but it makes one appreciate the end result that much more.

Besides, Mr. Ogawa insists that electric grinders wreck the taste of the coffee, and I won't argue with Mssr. Maestro.

Grind grind grind...

The coffee supply here in the music office is mainly provided by me at my own expense. There is a very good reason for this. In Japan there is a twin tradition called chugen (中元 - mid-year gift) and oseibo (御歳暮 - year-end gift). Basically, you're supposed to give a summer and winter gift to the people you feel have done the most for you. As a general rule, I always give them to the principal at the academy and the homeroom teacher I'm assisting. I also give them to my nakoudou ("go-between", i.e. the guy who talked my father-in-law into letting me marry his daughter). Since Mr. Ogawa has done so much for me both personally and musically, I used to give the seasonal gifts to him, too, but he got really irritated. You see, whenever you receive any kind of gift in Japan you're obligated to send an immediate return gift. It can be a serious pain in the neck, to be sure, and Mr. Ogawa apparently hates to do it even more than I do, so he asked me to knock it off. Therefore, I don't give him the seasonal gifts anymore. Instead, I try to keep the music office well stocked with coffee. He doesn't complain, and, since I drink a lot of it myself anyway, neither do I.

Grind, grind, grind. At least my arm is getting a good workout.

We sometimes experiment with different brands, but the ones we tend to prefer are Doutor, Starbucks, and Tully's. There's naught to be found in the Kashima area, so they have to be bought at the respective cafes either up in Mito or down in Narita. Starbucks is the most expensive of the three, but we seem to like Tully's a little better. It tends to have more character, i.e. it's more flavorful. One could argue that Starbucks is smoother and therefore more drinkable, (a quality MOST Americans tend to prefer,) and one would be correct, but Mr. Ogawa and I seem to like having our taste buds kicked about a bit.

Today it's Starbucks French Roast. Mmmmmmm.....

I've heard that Starbucks, Tully's, and Seattle's Best (which I have yet to try) have all been proven to have a far higher caffeine content than normal coffee. I wouldn't be surprised, but all I know is that they don't grind the same way as most. Supermarket and lesser-known brands tend to be dry, so they grind quickly and easily. Starbucks, Tully's, and, to a lesser extent, Doutor are all oilier, so grinding them is a tedious process requiring an occasional helping finger. Yes, I do actually put my finger in the grinder from time to time. Yes, I still have all my fingers. Yes, my finger does tend to smell like coffee. (Yes, I do sniff...hey...)

In fact, I've had several students tell me that I tend to smell like coffee most of the time. Well, I'd much rather smell like coffee than sweat...or cheap deodorant...

Now I fit a paper filter into the drip funnel, moisten it, and place the funnel on top of the coffee pot. Once that's done, I pour the freshly-ground coffee into the filter, and a wonderful smell fills the room. Then, following Mr. Ogawa's advice, I put in a single drop of boiling water and let it settle for a minute. (Mr. Ogawa says that doing so reduces the "ambient bitterness". All I know is that it does seem to make it taste better.) Then I start pouring in much larger quantities of hot water, and an enticing froth wells up.

Ahhh...manna from Heaven...

Once the pot is filled, I pour a cup for Mr. Ogawa and another for myself. Then we both take our first sips and sigh contentedly. Our addiction is satisfied. At ye old academy, there is little better than relaxing in the music office with a cup of freshly-made "gourmet" coffee and enjoying the quiet (or classical music) and the solitude.

Actually, come to think of it, that might also be what it's all about. Ever since all that crap that happened back in 2000-2001 I still feel really uncomfortable being in the staff room for any length of time. I'm no longer in the state of "exile" I kept myself in during most of the 2000-2001 school year, but I'm still being rather withdrawn and reclusive. Even during the English department meetings, whereas the other teachers sit in a nice, cozy circle in the center of the room, (a habit started recently apparently for my benefit,) I still take up a position off near the corner. Face it: my privatensphäre is still a very wide one, and I still need that distance to keep my wits about me. I probably will for some time, too, if not forever.

What the hey. If it gets me good music and good coffee, it's worth it.

Is the Third Time the Charm?

I realize I'm probably running this thing straight into the ground, but I was reminded to take pictures of that Anne Frank rose for the PTA newsletter today, and on my way out I noticed that there were actually some blossoms on it. Wouldn't you know it, I just happened to have my camera with me, so I went in and shot a few close-ups. I hope these will be a bit more satisfying than the last few.

The story goes that a choral group from Japan performed at the town of Natanya in Israel back in the 1960s. After the concert, an old man approached the group and introduced himself as Otto Frank, Anne's father. Saying he was interested in promoting peace and world friendship, Otto began a regular correspondence with the Japanese choral group, and eventually he sent along a type of rose he had bred himself at his arboretum in Basel, Switzerland. This was the "Anne Frank" rose, named in memory of his daughter.

Grafts and bulbs of the Anne Frank rose were eventually shipped to schools, public buildings, and churches all over Japan. Ironically, the original Anne Frank rose in Basel died, so the Japanese sent several bulbs there so it could be replaced.

A colorful tale for a colorful flower, indeed!

(I think I need to buy a better digicam...)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Aw, Nuts!!!!!!!!!

Well, I guess it was bound to happen sometime.

Wednesday afternoons are my "substitute half-day off" for my "training/on call" time on Saturday, which is technically supposed to be a holiday. Are you with me so far? Anyway, that means that I'm totally free Wednesday afternoons and can leave ye olde academy without having to worry about using paid leave time.

It's really handy when I have a lot of errands to to do...nations to invade, etc.. (Ignore that last one, please.) Today was such a day, so I bolted out of the school as fast as I could go. I hopped into the BLUE RAV4 and ran about Kashima a bit doing various things. Then I bought some lunch at a Lawson convenience store and turned my nose toward home.

As always, I came down the hill to the crossing of the Kitaura boulevard, known here as "Route 18". The light was red, so I took the opportunity to tear the wrapping off my sandwich and start eating. Just as I stuffed the first sandwich in my mouth the light turned green, so I punched it (I don't like messing around with the people behind me), zipped around the corner, and shot around the big S-curve that follows immediately afterward...

...right into a red flag that a police officer was holding across the lane. When I slowed down, he gestured me to turn off onto the narrow side street leading to the lake...where there was a whole bunch of cars surrounded by a whole friggin' fleet of police cars...

Uh, fast was I going, anyway? That's what I get for watching my lunch instead of my speedometer!

A policeman walked up to my car and, with many apologies and honorifics, informed me that I'd been going "just a little too fast". Specifically, I'd been 26kph over the posted speed limit...and up to 20kph over is the "unofficial accepted limit".

Actually, I was lucky. Yes, I got a ticket and, yes, I have to pay a fine, but only of the minimum category. If I don't get in any other trouble during the next few months it will be almost completely expunged from the record. (I say "almost" because the city of Kashima will keep my name on record as someone who has been naughty there...but it won't count against my license.) If I'd been going just 5kph (3mph) faster, the fine would have been more than double, I would have gone to court, and my license would have been in serious deep do-do.

I'd better be careful. I'm rather proud of my "gold license" status (which also keeps my insurance costs down). One more mark, and I'm back to blue...and in the case of my license that's NOT a good thing! Okay...time to drive like a teacher.

(Okay, Robin...feel free to say, "I told you so...")

A Little More Color

Okay, as promised, here are a few better flower pictures.

Here's a much better picture of the Anne Frank rose using my digital camera (which isn't the best to be wife's is better...but it'll still do for now).

Here's a shot of it at a closer range from a different angle. Not so many blooms yet, but there are lots of buds. It should be pretty spectacular after a bit. Even so, it seems kind of lonely stuck there in the middle of the grass.

And now for something completely different:

This stairway leads from the administrative building to the central promenade. Talk about tsutsuji (a type of azalea) overload!!!

Well, the really big flower season is winding down, but not dying. I'm sure there'll be some brand new colors soon.

Integration: What a Concept...

The explanation and models are over, and it's time for the students to go to work. The kids, 9th graders in my English Oral Communication class, are already getting psyched up for the task at hand. It's a simple one, really. All they have to do is interview four other students in English, asking them three pre-prepared questions plus one of their own. The topic is their TV viewing habits. There are plenty of smiles to be seen. A lot of the kids in this year's 9th grade class really like speaking English, and it's both an easy assignment and a very accessible topic.

In other words, it's more like a game than serious classwork, right? That always makes it better.

Then Ms. Y, my new working partner for the class (since Mr. O was [THANKFULLY] removed...not that he didn't try not to be...) drops a bombshell. With a lovely, wide, sweet, innocent smile on her face (and a look of pure, murderous intent in her eyes), she says, "Okay, everyone. You have to ask two girls and two boys."

With an almost audible bang, the students' mouths and eyes open to their full limit, and they erupt into a resounding chorus of, "EEEHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.....?!?!?!??"

Actually talk to the opposite sex??? A root canal would probably be easier!!!

Yes, this is the same Japan which, in modern times, has come to be notorious for pornography, "hentai" comics, sexual harassment in the workplace, groping on trains, date clubs, middle-class teen girls selling their panties if not their bodies to middle-aged professionals, "sex bus" tours, sprawling soapland districts, foreign sex slaves tricked into their jobs, corporate sex tours to Third World countries, fliers advertising lurid flesh flick videos stuffed into household mailboxes, and things that might actually surprise or upset you. Yes, this is a culture which, while valuing both moderation and reserved behavior, seems almost neurotically obsessed with sex. However, at the same time, relations between members of the [PC] corresponding genders [/PC]have always tended to be very awkward, and this is something that starts at a very young age.

(I might add that, in my college days, my co-op house once held a dance party and invited students from the neighboring International Dorm to attend. A lot of them came, and it made for a lively party. I asked a pretty, little Japanese girl to dance, whereupon she and her friends promptly ran away...straight out of the building! I was kind of bummed about that, to be sure, but at least I had a bit more luck with the German, Dutch, Thai, and Chinese girls I asked. Guess which country I wound up living in??!? Guess the nationality of the woman I married??!? MY, BUT LIFE IS IRONIC...INNIT????!? )

[gratuitous bout of hysterical theatrical laughter]

Anyway, activities like this one, which require students to interview several others, are quite common in my 7th and 9th grade O.C. classes. It is a universal given that, when I say "Go," all the boys immediately congregate in one corner of the room, and all the girls do the same in another one. It becomes two very active and very distinct parties. The two masses rarely come anywhere near each other, let alone mingle. Well, this time the teachers have just asked the students to do just that. We're asking them to break one of the Fundamental Laws of Physiques. We're asking them to commit a Co-edinal Sin.

I say, "Go," and the students promptly separate into their respective gender frenzies, as usual. However, they quickly burn up their two-person quota for their own sex. Now we have it. The moment of mingling has come plowing in as inexorable as only fate can be. The kids are stumped. The exuberent chatter fades into low mutterings, shuffling of feet, and shifting of eyes. The tension in the air is almost as thick as the humidity (since maintenance has yet to activate those damned air conditioners!!!). Then, slowly but surely, the girls make the first move. Several of the boys immediately run for cover, trying to push each other toward their evil, female pursuers, but eventually they pull their heads out of the sand and allow themselves to be interviewed. After a little while, when they realize there really are no cooties to be found, tension actually gives way to curiosity, and the kids actually start having fun with it. It's almost as if they've found a new toy, or at least a whole new take on life. It's fun and interesting to watch. There's actually some noticeable disappointment when I declare that time is up.

The kids return to their desks, several of them sporting pinkish faces and ear-to-ear smiles. They've actually experienced a co-ed activity (in a co-ed class), and they have enjoyed it.

Now it's time for a listening comprehension test. [fortissimo diminished 7th chord]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

An Academy Full of Surprises...

I just never know quite what you're going to find here at ye olde academy. When you work with adolescents, whose minds are in constant flux with their changing bodies and surging hormones, and when you work with other people who work with adolescents, you have to expect the unexpected. I'm also inclined to believe that our school is an extreme case, too, and I've often wondered if our location (right next to Kashima Shrine on grounds that used to be part of its precincts...and were a bronze age village before that) has something to do with that. Just when I think nothing could surprise me, something does. Sometimes, but definitely not very often, it's something pretty disastrous.

Sometimes it's something much quieter. I like it so much better that way.

Take now, for instance. For once, it's actually not raining, so I'm taking my time heading out at the end of the day. No sooner do I make my way out the staff entrance than I notice something I've never seen before. There, next to the service parking area, is a low sign, kind of like a plaque, bearing the famous photo of a smiling Anne Frank. A closer look reveals the title, "Anne Frank Rose" in Japanese.

Anne Frank rose??!?

The sign is clearly oriented in a particular direction, so I look that way, and this is what I see:

I know; this is a terrible photo, but all I have is my cellphone. The "Anne Frank" rose bush is actually pretty good sized, and it has a number of colorful, yellow-and-orange blooms. The interesting thing is that, even though I've walked this way an average of ten times a week for the past ten years, I have never seen this thing before. Curiouser and curiouser...

There's more to come.

I leave the service parking area, winding my way through the ample flowerbeds I've posted before, and go down the stairs, through the dark "mini-forest" into the staff parking lot. As always, I glance up at the row of tall sugi sentinels that form the outer wall of the campus. Now that their withering pollen barrage is over for the year, they seem far more benign. On second glance, I also can't help but notice that they seem far more purple.

What the...?

(*sigh*...I really wish I had my digital camera right now...)

On closer look, several of the sugi appear to be sporting garlands of fuji (climbing wisteria). Wisteria has a lot of traditional significance in Japan. In ancient times, it was the symbol of the powerful Fujiwara clan, which more or less controlled the Imperial family until it was finally tossed out. Since the wisteria is purple, that color was restricted to members of the Imperial family and/or the Fujiwara (who were more or less directly related to the Imperial family anyway).

Well, our sugi are looking quite noble. I've never seen anything like this, though I know all those wisteria couldn't have climbed up those tall trees overnight! Were they hiding before, or did I simply not notice?

I finally get in my BLUE RAV4, start it up, and drive out of the staff parking lot to head for home. There, up ahead in the roundabout, is a sight which is no surprise, for it has welcomed me every year this season for the past ten years, but it is still glorious.

These are bushes of tsutsuji flowers. They are actually all along the various sidewalks in the middle of the campus, too, so everywhere you look you see explosions of violent pink. (Actually, I got a MUCH better picture of tsutsuji elsewhere on campus with my digicam for the class newsletter, of which I am the director, editor, and sole journalist. If I remember, I'll bring home a copy of the file so I can post it.)

Heh heh. Aren't color tags fun?

(All right...I know what SOMEONE is gonna ask...)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Taro, Did What I Just Said Make Sense?

This sign is on the entrance to the Aeon Shopping Mall in Narita. The Japanese part reads:

"The Aeon Narita Shopping Center, as a building kind to the elderly and the handicapped, is a shopping center in accordance with the "Heart(ful) Building Law" established by Chiba Prefecture."

That wasn't so hard, was it?

Now look at their English "translation". Doesn't that just build your heart? I'm especially impressed with their "aotivities" so as to be gently.

All your shopping center is belong to us.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Scenes from the 2006 Seishin Sports Festival

This year's Sports Festival began just as it did in the rehearsal I talked about in that earlier post. The band played the medley of marches, and the mass of students, divided into 6 teams (A-dan (yellow), B-dan (green), C-dan (purple), D-dan (red), E-dan (white), and...wait for it...F-dan (blue)), marched in. They assumed formation, saluted the flag, listened to speeches, warmed up, and then ran screaming to get set up. Then the real fun began:

Under pink blossoms, green leaves, and a forbidding, gray sky, it all started off so simply...

...and quickly became complicated.

Sometimes things were a bit hard to swallow, if not just plain silly.

Sometimes students were walking all over each other...

...sometimes pulling together...

...sometimes holding each other up...

...or at an angle.

There's certainly no lack of teamwork...or enthusiasm.

There's plenty of enthusiasm in the faces of the kids...and here and there a teacher.

The parents are there en masse, and they look proud.

The deciding event turns out to be the dance competition. B-dan's dance, which was choreographed and led by former music club members (the ones that torpedoed the Australian tour for the sake of this, I'm not bitter...) is really well done, but it only comes in second. Coincidentally, B-dan also comes in second overall for the entire Sports Festival.

A-dan wins the dance competition, and they also take first place overall.

My team, F-dan, comes in third in both the dance competition and overall. It's actually their best showing in years. Oh, well. Wait till next year!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Lunchtime View of a Dying Art

It is actually the day before the string of holidays known as Golden Week here in the Land of the Rising Sun. It's a work day for everyone else. However, thanks to my school's Sports Festival last Saturday, today is a substitute holiday, so I got to have an extra day off. Coincidentally, today is also the day that my mother-in-law finally gets released from the hospital, where she's been for more than two months. That means I get to spend half the day driving down to Tokyo to pick her up.

My trips down to visit her thus far were always on Sundays, so traffic was always rather light. That is not the case today. The streets are packed, sometimes to the point that a bicycle might have been faster. To make matters worse, it rains (and sometimes thunders) all morning, meaning not only poor driving conditions and even poorer visibility but also lots of taxis switching on their emergency flashers and waiting for customers in the middle of the traffic lane. Getting to the hospital with my wits intact is nothing short of miraculous.

Mother-in-law came through her surgery and various tests more or less okay, but she has thinned down a lot, and her voice is very weak. She's pretty anxious to get out of there, however, and she makes it clear that her first order of business is getting some "real" food. That'll have to wait a little while, though. It's only 11 o'clock when we roll out of there, and we'd rather put some distance between ourselves and Tokyo before we stop to eat.

Actually, the trip back goes rather quickly. I disobey my car navigation system, get off the crowded main route, and take an alternate route that is almost empty of traffic (go figure!). The rain also comes to a halt, and the warm pavement quickly dries. I manage to get out of Tokyo far quicker than expected.

When we get to the end of the expressway in the fabled city of Itako, mom-in-law decides she wants to have soba (buckwheat noodles) for lunch. Dad-in-law tells me he knows a really good place that's right next to Itako Station and easy to find. Guess what? It isn't, and it isn't. We wind up nosing around on narrow backroads and alleys I've never seen before for several minutes, dad-in-law mumbling to himself all the way, before we finally stumble on the place. We are definitely in the thick of old downtown Itako, and it is most definitely old! Several of the buildings are built in the Edo (17th to 19th century) style and may very well date from then. (In fact, one of the larger buildings nearby most definitely looks like an Edo period brothel...albeit converted into somebody's house.) Also, the street, which is so narrow and so insignificant, is crowned by an ancient-looking, wooden gate next to what looks like an old pumphouse or lock (on a street!?!).

If the neighborhood looks like a museum exhibit, the inside of the restaurant is even better. The owners, a very pleasant and energetic, elderly couple, have literally set up a sort of museum of their own inside with photographs of Itako dating back to the 40s and 50s, when almost all of the downtown streets, including the one outside, were still canals and the people went around by boat. (Well, that explains the pumphouse/lock next to the road!) Itako was a sort of Japanese Venice for centuries, and it drew visitors from all over the country. Unfortunately, during the industrialization boom of the 60s, when Kashima Port was built and factories started springing up all over, most of the canals were filled in and turned into streets. It became just another rural town trying to be a new, faraway suburb of Tokyo, but it still continued to attract visitors to its various resort hotels, particularly during the famous Ayame (iris) Festival in June.

The famous Iris Gardens of Itako (not my pic).

Just as Venice has its famous gondoliers, Itako has always had its boat ladies, known as sendousan (船頭さん). Dressed in a unique, traditional costume, they'd ferry people around the watery avenues in town. Well, the canals are all but extinct now, but you can still find the boat ladies. Most of them are elderly, but they still dress up in the traditional costumes and hang out on the bridges to hawk rides on their boats. Of course, the best time to see them, again, is during the Ayame Festival.

This isn't my pic, unfortunately. Here are a couple of sendousan rowing a boatload of costumed revelers during the Ayame Festival through a canalside garden in the city of Sawara, which is just across the Tone River from Itako.

For those wanting a memento of Itako, or for those unable to make the trip themselves, one of the best ways to enjoy the sight of sendousan has long been to buy a miniature copy. The crafting of sendousan dolls is an old and dear tradition. Gift shops in the area used to be full of them, and I have bought my fair share myself to keep and give as gifts. Note that I said "used to be". I noticed from the end of the 90s that the dolls were becoming harder to find. There is a good reason for that, and the restaurant owners explain with great regret. Apparently it is a dying art. It used to be a custom handed down from generation to generation and practiced by neighborhood circles. Now few people are even interested in trying. In only about a decade, a treasured, local custom of old has gone from being something many people practiced with pride to a dusty, old curiosity kept alive by a few lonely eccentrics.

The owner of the restaurant is one of those eccentrics. He doesn't make the dolls himself, but he knows the people that do, and he collects them. As we enjoy our lunch of chicken soba, he eagerly unwraps his most recent acquisitions, a quartet of sendousan dolls, an Itako boat-bride doll (another famous, old tradition that is now virtually extinct), and a hand-crafted, miniature boat complete with copper trim. It is then that I remember my cell phone has a camera, so I snap a quick pic:

The restaurant owner is clearly tickled with my curiosity for things Itako, so he gives me a little gift as we're leaving:

It's a copy of an old print showing three geisha dressed in the characteristic colors of the three geisha houses that used to exist in that area. Above them are the lyrics of an old song about Itako. The geisha houses are no longer operating, obviously. (Now there are lots of foreign bar hostesses...most of which were tricked into their fill that role.) The song, however, is still performed, particularly at the Ayame Festival every year.

I wish I had the music for it. It might be fun to arrange...