Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, July 31, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. VI

Monday, July 31, 2006
The weekend is over and BLUE Monday has arrived with a thump. Actually, it really is a BLUE day, because we have to say goodbye to Caloundra and our wonderful hosts at our sister school. The thump was from my suitcase, which now weighs about twice as much as it did when I arrived thanks to all the things I bought yesterday.

Our visit to the school is short and emotional. There's a morning assembly in which thank you and goodbye speeches are given. (I translate Mr. K's speech into English without any trouble.) Then the local boy with the excellent singing voice and a female student sing a beautiful rendition of "I Still Call Australia Home" that definitely caused eyes to water up. Of course, that's just the warm up. After the assembly, it's time for our students and their hosts and shadows to part company.

Needless to say, it takes a while for us to make it onto our bus.

Even then, the local students aren't about to let us go easily. (When I snapped this and other photos along the same lines the students behind me were pressed up against the windows wailing. Talk about an emotional parting!)

The drive to Brisbane Airport is uneventful mainly because the kids sleep most of the way there. All that outpouring of emotion has worn them out. Fortunately, it's a domestic flight, so check-in is quick and easy. We head to our gate, where we are given a nice surprise by our travel agents: Japanese-style bento box lunches with green tea. It's a nice, healthy change, and our group is pretty happy, but the kids seem far less enthusiastic than the teachers. I'm sure they'd be perfectly happy with sandwiches and Lamingtons.

The flight to Sydney is short and similarly uneventful. When we arrive at Sydney Airport, however, my gut decides to be despicable again, so I duck into the loo for what I hope will be quick relief. By the time I get out again, Mr. I has already gotten my luggage from the baggage claim carousel, and the students are waiting on the bus.

Guess where we go first...

And to think I was so close to performing here...until all those 11th grade girls last year decided that the dance competition at the school sports festival was more important, forcing us to withdraw from the event...but I'm not bitter. No, I'm not bitter at all. Can you tell?

Funny...I always imagined it would be a bit bigger than that.

The Harbor Bridge is certainly a lot bigger than I expected! It may not look like it in this picture, but when you're standing under one of those stone pylons and looking up it's pretty impressive!

Anyway, both of the halls in the Sydney Opera House are in use, so we can't go inside, but we spend a bit of time in the gift shop and walking around the outside, admiring the view. After that we're off to the Australia Museum

We don't have nearly enough time to spend at the museum. (One needs several hours to see everything. We have only half an hour.) We do manage to get into the Indigenous Peoples (i.e. Aborigine) exhibit on the first floor. I've learned a lot about the Aborigines and the way they have been treated, especially thanks to Andrew, but it still doesn't totally prepare me for the shock. The first part of the exhibit illustrates the culture of the tribes and also underlines how different they really are as well as how similar. Then it goes on to the institutionalized discrimination that endured for so long. Back in the 1960s the Australian government established the Aboriginal Protection Board which, in a misguided effort to improve the lot of Aborigine children, tore them away from their parents and put them in (white) foster families so that they would be brought up white. There is a section in the exhibit called "The Maze" which centers on the lives of such children and their trek not only to adulthood, but back to their own culture. It includes art, writings, and video interviews of people that had to go through that.

"I was made to feel like a white man in a black body." "I was made to hate what I am."

I'm nowhere near the extremist that Andrew is, but indigenous rights has always been something I feel strongly about. Even so, I'm not entirely sure why this is affecting me so deeply. I'm getting seriously choked up, and I have to quicken my pace. I just can't take this. Unfortunately (or even fortunately), it's all over the heads of my students, and I feel I have to explain what it's all about. I have a very hard time doing so, but at least now they've got it.

After that, we go upstairs to an exhibit on minerals and mining. It's quite fascinating. However, after having been through that very moving Indigenous Peoples exhibit and seen how Australia is trying to atone for some of the racist mistakes of the past, I am surprised to see a reference to "American Indians" here. Just for good measure, as we're leaving, I go to the main desk and point out that the term "American Indian" is obsolete, and that "Native American" is better. (I'm almost tempted to say "First Nations". Almost.) The three staff members there thank me.

(As we're leaving, I hear one of them sigh and say, "So it's 'Native Americans' now, is it? What's next, I wonder...")

Leaving the museum, we get a scenic tour of the city. My general impression of Sydney is that it is most definitely urban. Compared with Brisbane, it is much larger in scale, busier, and life clearly moves at a much faster pace. It's also not quite as congenial, though it is a very beautiful city. Whereas Brisbane is an odd mix of the very old and the very new, Sydney shows a lot more continuous development. I'd also have to say that, compared with Brisbane, Sydney seems a lot more...well...British. The look, feel, and style seem to remind me a bit more of London. (I sincerely hope that neither Olivia, YD, nor my various Aussie friends will take any offense at that!)

Anyway, after the tour we are taken to a famous duty-free shop in The Rocks. It is souvenir-hunter's heaven, and it is hardly surprising that almost everyone shopping there is speaking either Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. Our group goes hog wild. When we're done, we all emerge carrying massive loads of shopping bags, many of which are stapled shut and labeled "not to be opened until after boarding departing aircraft". Impatience can lead to a fine of several thousand dollars. That's fine. My souvenirs can wait.

We finally arrive at our hotel, the Sydney Boulevard. It's a tall, nice-looking hotel located downtown, and it offers a wonderful view from its top floor lounge/restaurant. There are some surprises, though. It's apparently part of a Malaysian/Singaporean hotel chain (Bayview Hotels), which might explain why the staff is overwhelmingly Indian (as in India, not Native American or even First Nation). In fact, it doesn't take long to notice that the place is packed, and the many guests are almost all Indian, Chinese, or Middle-Eastern-looking.

(Our students seem a bit nervous, as they are unaccustomed to dealing with so many different ethnic groups, but the Middle-Eastern-looking guests are actually the most polite.)

We have dinner up in the top floor lounge. It's actually the first Aussie beef I've had the entire trip. (It's also the smallest portions I've had the entire trip, but anyway...) Unfortunately, because of a miscommunication with the travel agency, they've cooked all our steaks well done, and they're rather tough. The kids don't seem to mind, but Mr. K is cocking his head and moaning again. (I'm moaning, too, but it's because I'm not allowed to drink anything alcoholic for the duration of our Sydney stay since our students are with us, meaning I'm "on duty". I'll stick to water. My gut will probably appreciate it.)

I don't think I'll have to worry about loud, drunken parties upstairs or people puking and spitting onto my deck (because I don't have one; nothing but a nice view of the city outside my 9th [U.S. 10th] floor window). However, they've put our full party on the same floor. Since this is the first night our students have all together, it's more or less a given that they're not going to be getting any sleep. They have a lot of catching up to do with each other.

Fortunately, I still have Kafka on the Shore.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. V

Sunday, July 30, 2006
Ah, Sunday, the beloved day of rest! There is absolutely nothing on the agenda today, so I and the other teachers from Ye Olde Academy decide to make it SHOPPING DAY (elevator music fanfare). Specifically, we're going to take a trip up to the Sunshine Plaza, the largest shopping mall in the Sunshine Coast area. It is located up in Maroochydore. Mr. K is all prepared to take a taxi there (which would end up costing around a hundred bucks). I convince him to let us take the bus instead. After all, there's a bus line going directly to Sunshine Plaza that runs every half hour and just happens to have a stop right in front of our hotel.

The bus isn't very big, and it winds up getting pretty crowded before we arrive at our destination. However, it is both efficient and easy to use (i.e. exact change isn't an issue). It also offers group rates, meaning the hour-long trip to the shopping mall only winds up costing about A$3 each. When we arrive at the mall we have lunch at a buffet-style Asian restaurant and then split up for the day.

Sunshine Plaza isn't the biggest mall in the world, but it is definitely the biggest in the area. It is also very attractively built. It straddles Cornmeal Creek, with most of the restaurants located along the twin creekside promenades with bridges between them. The enclosed mall section also spans the waterway. It has a good selection of shops covering both everyday needs and high-fashion concerns. The fact that it is in a native English culture also makes it extremely dangerous for me...

First I go into a drugstore and buy some Mylanta lozenges (my biggest priority right now). Next I go to a bookstore and wind up blowing more than a hundred bucks. Then I go into the Virgin CD shop and wind up toting to the cashier a stack of disks including Nickelback, Jethro Tull, Depeche Mode, Weather Report, and Muddy Waters. (The three clerks stare at me, and one of them comments that I'm buying the most interestingly varied collection they've ever seen. My reply that I have very broad musical tastes earns the comment that they wish there were more people like me. Considering how much I put into their register, I can see why!) I check out the K-Mart (yes, they have those there) and buy a few souvenir items a la Cadbury.

At least I've managed to unload a couple of those A$100 notes. Unfortunately, the currency exchange counter at Narita Airport (which has a better exchange rate than the one at Brisbane) gave me almost nothing but those, and we were warned by our guide that most people in Australia have never even seen them, let alone used them, and many stores won't even take them (just as with $100 bills in the U.S.). The bookstore and Virgin Records didn't have any problem with them. I have one more hidden in one of my pockets. Maybe one of the department stores will break it...

I go into the Myers department store and spot a couple of girls that are host sisters for our students, but no sign of the students themselves. They must have spotted me first and run for cover. Not wanting to become an issue for them, I change plans, go to Target instead (yep, they have that, too), and buy something I never thought I'd be caught dead in: a pair of cargo-pocket Bermuda shorts. (I really wished I had those at the beach yesterday...which is why I'm getting them now!) In the process I break the last A$100 note I have on my person. Then I pop into Gloria Jean's Gourmet Coffees (the most common "real coffee" chain around here, apparently) for a tall mocha before giving into temptation and going into the scented candle/essential oils shop to add a few items to my collection.

Almost as soon as I leave the candleshop the stores around me start closing their shutters. I look at my watch and discover that it's only 4:00 p.m.. Digging out my store guide in disbelief, I find that the riverside restaurants have their own schedules, but for the mall itself 4:00 is the regular closing time on Sundays. On weekdays the it is open till 5:30 except on Thursdays, when it's open till 9:00.

The problem is that our group planned to meet up again at 6:00 to plan for dinner. Sitting in a quiet, shuttered mall, I'm beginning to think that's a bad idea. Fortunately, the others use some common sense, and they soon appear. We leave the mall and stroll around the neighborhood, but we find that more or less the entire town shares the 4:00 Sunday closing time. Maroochydore is like a ghost town.

I tell them I wouldn't mind hanging out at the English-style pub until dinner time (Irish and Australian beers on tap!), but the others don't share my enthusiasm. Instead, we change our plans and hop on the bus for home. On the way we bump into one of our students and his host brother, who have spent the day playing around in Mooloolaba. The boy is clearly thankful for a chance to speak Japanese after a weekend of English overload, and he proceeds to talk on and on excitedly like a tape in fast-forward mode while his host brother sits and stares forlornly out the window.

We arrive back at the hotel, and we decide to try having dinner at the bistro there. It's only a step up from eating in a cafeteria, but the prices are quite reasonable, the portions are huge, and the food is very satisfying. (Fortunately, the Mylanta seems to have done the trick.) I also appreciate the schooners, and I'm not talking about the seagoing variety. In Australia a "schooner" is a large size beer glass.

First I enjoy a schooner of XXXX Bitter (after a bit of trouble at the counter getting the terminology and the pub-restaurant's system straight, which the barmaid clearly finds a lot more amusing than she's willing to let on). Then a group who appear to be our oh-so-lively upstairs neighbors come and sit at a neighboring table. It's a group of largish men, some accompanied by female companions, who are all wearing jackets with various emblems on them. Maybe they're a racing team of some sort. Maybe they're footballers. Anyway, I head to the bar for a second drink and get there just behind the apparent leader of the team. He says, "Schooner o' Mid," and gets a prompt response, so I follow suit. The man eyes me a bit warily as he walks past, so I just quietly return to my table and enjoy my first-ever Carlton Mid "mid-strength beer". (It has a delightful, chocolatey flavor, by the way.)

It's our last night at the Currimundi Hotel. I have a ton of laundry I need to do, and the laundry room is right next to my room, but the thing has been monopolized all day by somebody with a whole pile of stuff in great big cloth bags that almost fill the whole room. That sports team, perhaps? I don't know. I guess the washing will have to wait till Sydney. Tonight I'll just get some much-needed relaxation and go to bed early for a change.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. IV

Saturday, July 29, 2006
The weekend has arrived!!!! No sleeping in for us, however. We get up at the crack of dawn in order to be ready for our ride. It's too early for us to eat at the hotel, and I realize we haven't told them we aren't eating here today, but I figure it's a fair trade for the late-night entertainment we had to suffer through last night. Besides, maybe the people upstairs won't be too hungover to have a bit of break, but I image some of them will be hating life pretty soon.

It isn't long till our ride shows up: a pickup and two SUVs, all with 4WD, two with surfboards on top. It's still a bit nippy, so everyone is in coats, but nearly all of them are in caps, sunglasses, and sandals. Guess where we're going?

Well, actually, our first step is McDoorknobs McDonalds for breaky. Believe it or not, it's my first Egg McMuffin ever. (I never made it to Mickie-D's in time for those before...go figure...) I also make sure to be extra careful with my coffee, figuring that if I spill it all over myself and get third degree burns, I won't be able to sue them for a couple million dollars and get away with it. The Australian courts just aren't that stupid. (Come to think of it, the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck that case down, so I guess some judges in the Land of the Lawsuit actually think with their brains.) Once we're all fueled up, our squadron aims north and begins its journey.

The landscape changes with surprising swiftness. I'm not only talking about the topography, though that does become hillier. We're getting ever closer to the tropics, and the land around us just keeps getting greener. It's clearly farm country, but beyond the cows and sheep (and kangaroos), nothing is recognizable. For all I know they could be growing body-snatcher pods.

Somewhere along the line we pass a sign on the highway:
"No bananas beyond this point."

Oops...better dump 'em all on the road, mate. Oh, no, wait...
TOO LATE!!!!!!!

Oh, well. At least we kept our agriculture safe.

Seriously, now. We drive along for quite a while, and we finally arrive at destination number one: Tin Can Bay

Not only is Tin Can Bay a beautiful natural harbor and estuary, but it is famous for the wild dolphins that swim right up close to shore and let people feed them. It's apparently quite popular throughout the year. Unfortunately, we wait for a couple of hours, but the dolphins decide not to show up. (The park ranger on duty there says that the dolphins' visits have become less regular recently, most likely as a result of climate change. Uh oh...don't let Michael Crichton hear that!)

We are disappointed. Even so, there is a lot to see besides the lovely scenery. For one thing, it's not every day that a couple of massive pelicans come and perch on a nearby streetlight:

For another thing, did you ever see a police rig like this:


Actually, the policeman is the beat cop for the whole area. He's also an old friend of Mr. M's. Mr. M asks him if he'd like to stop by and join us for lunch later, and he says, "Yeah sure, why not? I'll be in the area." gotta love Australia!

The lack of dolphins also gives us plenty of time to enjoy some coffee and cheesecake. I guess I should take this opportunity to explain the coffee system in Australia. Yes, Starbucks has long since come Down Under (along with everywhere else in the at least semi-civilized world), but if you order coffee in most cafes, restaurants, or pubs, you are given the following list:

Short black, long black, flat white, cappucino, latte.

Cappucino and latte are easy enough to figure out. They are just what they are supposed to be. What about the other three? No, they are not jokes about racist anatomical stereotypes. A "short black" is an Italian-style espresso shot, i.e. an extra strong jolt in a small cup. A "long black" is a more typical cup of black coffee, but it still tends to be a lot stronger than typical (i.e. non-Seattlite) fare in the U.S. or Japan. "Flat white" is simply coffee au lait, i.e. coffee with milk, referred to as such because it is "flat" rather than foamy like a latte. I should also point out that every long black coffee I tried tasted very Indochinese, which makes sense geographically, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart. (For reference, Latin American coffees tend to be lighter and more acidic. North African types are full bodied but smooth, with either a chocolatey or nutty flavor. Central African coffees also have a lot of body plus a bit more bitter (winey?) edge. Indonesian coffee is nothing but edge! I've noticed that both Tully's and Starbucks "tame" their Java blends with Guatemalan or Colombian beans. Australian coffee is generally NOT tame. It packs a punch, and I like it, but it's bound to send most Americans and Japanese scrambling for the cream and sugar!)

Got it? Okay, you can wake up now. It's time to move on. The ride that follows is really quite an eye-opener. For a while we drive through an area that looks rather like a typical, sleepy beach-cabin village on the southern Oregon or northern Californian coast except there are no evergreens. Strangely, there's also no ocean. After a while signs come into view announcing that we are approaching the border of a national park and wildlife preserve (i.e. restricted entry), and then we are at the very edge of a lush rain forest. There is only one road leading to the beach, and it is marked "4WD vehicles only" for a very good reason.

The road is narrow, winding, sandy, and occasionally very steep. It may look peaceful enough in this picture, but it gets pretty hairy at times. It also really sucks when we meet traffic coming the other way...particularly when it's a great, big dump truck! (That wasn't fun...) Luckily, we only wind up with a stuck vehicle once during the entire half-hour drive. However, when we emerge at the other end, this is what we find:

It's called "40-Mile Beach" because (wait for it...) it's 40 miles (64km) of flat, even beach with no civilization anywhere nearby save the other brave souls that have made the trek out there. It's not as crowded as the picture might make you think; we are at the very end of the accessible strand, and that's a sort of gathering point for the beachgoers. Of course, quite a percentage of it is our own group:

(Note that the policeman really did join us briefly for lunch...after citing a biker who was riding wheelies drunk...)

For lunch we have a beautiful, well-stocked sandwich bar and a couple of different salads plus a cooler stocked with soft and not-so-soft drinks. I enjoy a couple of well-loaded turkey & cheese sandwiches plus a Carlsberg and (surprise, surprise) a Crown Lager. That's when my stomach starts ringing some very unpleasant alarms. As some of you know very well, my stomach is actually rather sensitive, and I have not been very kind to it on this trip. Up till now it has been behaving itself. Maybe that strong coffee at Tin Can Bay was the last straw. At any rate, my gut has decided to stop being cooperative. It goes into total indigestion mode, complete with reflux and a stabbing pain in the upper valve. The ice-cold beers burn like acid as they go in, and I have to work to get my first sandwich down. The second, which I accept partly because it's delicious but mainly so as not to upset my wonderfully kind hosts, comes very close to coming right back up. I curl up on the beach blanket and try to calm myself and my reeling system down.

After a while I sit up and open my eyes to find Mr. D out on his surfboard, Ms. Y and Ms. T wading in the surf, and most of the others off on a hike up to the nearby lighthouse. I'm left with Dr. D (our sister-school's principal), Mrs. A (the curriculum director), and Mrs. M, Mr. M's wife, who is the head art teacher. Mrs. M has brought her art supplies with her, and she is working on a mixed-media picture of the landscape while giving instruction to the other two women, who are doing the same. I realize that it has been years since I've attempted any real art, so I accept Mrs. M's invitation to join them. I haven't worked with mixed-media much, so I just stick with the devil I used to know and use just the colored pencils. This is the picture I produce:

(Compare this with the photo above. I left out the vehicles and people, obviously.)

After a while the troops return, and we decide to head out. This time we don't take the four-wheeling roller-coaster ride through the forest. Instead, we take the only other way in or out of 40-Mile Beach: timing the tide, we drive along the 40 miles of packed sand near the surf to the far end of the strand, where we take a ferry boat across the bay into Noosa. It seems that everyone else has the same idea; we form quite a procession of trucks and SUVs traveling along next to the pounding, foamy sea.

From there I get an interesting cross-section of the Sunshine Coast area. Noosa is still a rather old and sleepy-looking harbor town whose population seems to be families that have been there a long time. (I might also point out that Noosa is the location of the tribal council of the Gubbi-Gubbi or Kabi-Kabi tribe, the Aboriginal nation native to the region. Following Andrew's suggestion, I tried to get in contact with them to pay my school's respects to the traditional custodians of the land, but I wasn't successful. The tribe is apparently trying to revive itself, but it is still far too scattered.) Next comes Maroochydore, which is the new and rapidly-growing commercial center of the region. It has the area's largest shopping mall plus the Sunshine Coast Airport and the brand-new Sunshine Coast university. After that comes Mooloolaba, which is tourist central. Like Waikiki, it has a wide, open strand of beach directly across from a strip of very touristy clubs, boutiques, and resort hotels. It's all very beautiful, chic, overpriced, and, in my mind, plastic-looking (like a lot of the people you see walking around there). Then comes the various districts of Caloundra itself. Caloundra also has its beachside resort/nightlife areas, but they seem both more reserved and classier, mainly because a lot of people actually live there. It is also backed by a town that still seems quiet and family-friendly. Whereas Mooloolaba is mostly fancy hotels and neon, Caloundra is mostly condominiums and dark streets. There are also a lot of new middle- and upper-middle-class residential districts popping up all over the place, such as the area around our sister-school. In other words, Caloundra is a nice place to visit, but people are also very concerned about making it a nice place to live. That does make a difference.

Speaking of Caloundra's night life, after we get back to the Currimundi Hotel I am informed by my Japanese colleagues that "we" have decided to go out for Thai food for dinner. (Actually, as the only gaijin in the team, I am often finding myself left out of things, particularly the decision-making process. Sometimes I prefer it that way, but other times...) Apparently Mr. D has recommended a place downtown. I call for a taxi (using a computerized system that identifies where you are calling from and automatically dispatches a taxi there). After we circle around the hilly area around King's Beach, the driver says he doesn't know where the place is. I tell him to let us off at the next corner (over Ms. Y's protests), and we proceed to take a walk. We end up going to a different Thai restaurant, but it still seems popular. We are very lucky to get a table.

First I try tom kha, which is a chicken soup made with coconut milk. It is very rich and quite delicious. So far my stomach is being good, though it's not sure about the Victoria Bitter I'm drinking. Then we make a grievous error with the entrees. Apparently a few dishes are supposed to be ordered and shared by everyone. Instead, each of us orders one or two dishes, which gets raised eyebrows from the (unforgettably wonderful) head waitress. Again, this is Australia, and portions are LARGE even in a Thai restaurant. There's barely enough room on our table for everything. There's definitely not enough room in my stomach, either. My main dish is chicken and green curry, which is also made with coconut milk. It's spicy, of course, but not quite as much as I expected. However, it is extremely rich. After a few bites my appetite simply shuts down. I force myself to eat as much as I can, and I also sample some of the (even spicier) other dishes, but my stomach has had it. It's a lost cause. I'm sure the others think I simply don't like it, but that's not the case at all. After all, when you feel like you're about to hurl at any moment, nothing sounds good. Needless to say, we wind up bringing a lot of leftover food back with us to the hotel. (Sadly, we all know most of it will wind up in the garbage.)

When I try to go to bed my stomach goes into reflux overload. Not just heartburn, but heartinferno. I'm in serious agony here, and the pack of orange juice I am stupid enough to drink only makes it worse (citric acid, DUHHH!). I roll around a lot, and it's hours before I finally manage to nod off. Not a very good ending to a very good day...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. III

Friday, July 28, 2006
The clock-radio in my motel room goes off at the programmed time, and I wake up to the sound of some very excited radio announcers. The rains have finally arrived, and Brisbane is getting a fair share of it for the first time in ages. It's not enough to raise reservoir levels down there by any notable amount, unfortunately, but it's still most welcome. Here in the Sunshine Coast, on the other hand, there has been plenty of rain (ironically), there is no water shortage, and the people aren't particularly enthusiastic about today's sog.

It really is a sog, too. It's still quite warm, but the our sister-school's campus is definitely looking a bit waterlogged...

Most private schools in Australia are Christian. Our sister-school is obviously no different. The Christian presence, however, is everywhere yet not as conspicuous as one might think. You'll see a cross here, a poster with a Biblical quote there, a note with "Jesus loves you" elsewhere. You'll also hear "God bless you" quite a bit. Even so, for the most part, the Christian theme exerts a very positive influence on students and faculty alike without dominating or demanding. Religion is an important part of the curriculum, but it is only one part, along with everything else. Indeed, to a wide extent, one could almost forget the fact that this is a church-controlled school.

Not on Fridays, however. We learn that rather quickly. We're invited to the morning staff meeting, something that apparently only happens twice a week here. That in itself is strange to us. In any Japanese school...or company, for that matter...every working day starts with a meeting to underscore the group thing. That's clearly not the case here. However, what really raises some Japanese eyebrows is the fact that the first half of the morning staff meeting is a Bible reading, a sermon, and a prayer led by one of the teachers of Christian Studies. It does make sense, and I actually find it a very positive, uplifting way to kick off the day no matter what one's religious views happen to be. I'm not sure exactly how Ms. Y feels about it (since she herself attended a Christian school), but Mr. I seems to appreciate the novelty of it, if nothing else. Mr. K, on the other hand, is furrowing his brows, cocking his head back and forth, and clicking his tongue. Religion in school is clearly a concept he has trouble dealing with.

After the meeting, we are told that the day's morning assembly is actually elementary school chapel, and we are asked to attend. Then the school's popular and very interesting pastor appears, introduces himself, and calls me aside for a little private discussion. It turns out that he actually has some of the same misgivings that I do, and perhaps in even greater measure. He really hopes we'll attend the chapel, but at the same time he is concerned about offending the religious (or non-religious) sensitivities of our students, mindful that Japan is not a Christian country. In other words, while he hopes to spread the Christian Word in a positive, helpful way, he has no desire whatever to force-feed it. (My respect for the man immediately triples.) Also, since the main point of the day's chapel is the Lord's Prayer, he asks if perhaps one of our students or faculty might read it in Japanese. I tell him I'll see what I can do.

Mr. K has no idea (or interest in) what we're talking about, but both Ms. Y and Mr. I seem surprised. Maybe it's because I've never seemed in any way religious in their presence before. Actually, as I've already mentioned on this blog, religion has always been very important to me but also both personal and private. My views and beliefs definitely do not fit any traditional mold (unless "Zen Christians" or perhaps even "Shamanistic Gnostic-Taoist Christian-Buddhists" have been around for far longer than I imagined). However, my opinion on the matter is that this is the way God is worshipped here, so we should respect and honor that. After all, participating in chapel and reading a prayer couldn't harm and could help, so what's the problem?

Well, among our staff there are some misgivings over whether or not our students will be comfortable with the idea. My announcement that I intend to ask for a volunteer goes over like a Led Zeppelin (maybe "Communication Breakdown"...or was it "Misty Mountain Hop"?).

My coworkers shake their heads, and keep up a steady, negative muttering. Japanese kids rarely if ever volunteer to do anything, let alone read a Christian prayer in front of a couple hundred children! They are confident that I'm going to get at best blank looks and at worst a lot of whining and complaining followed by a very awkward situation.

As it turns out, the kids are puzzled when I explain the situation and make my request, but then one of our boys immediately volunteers. Amazingly, it's a rather aggressive-spirited (but also disciplined) boy who is one of our school's leading kendo competitors. Actually, the chapel turns out to be a lot of fun, and our kids get right into the spirit of things, even making an effort to sing the songs along with the children. My coworkers are astonished. It's definitely an interesting (if not befuddling) experience for them.

After chapel, our kids return to their "home base" room for another intensive English lesson. On the way there, I and the other teachers make an amazing discovery. Our own students are now speaking to us in English, and they are doing it both comfortably and confidently. Two nights with a host family in Australia has already had a dramatic effect on their English ability...and especially on their whole attitude toward it. That really is the bottom line, isn't it?

After the morning classes and lunch it is time for our kids to do their cultural demonstrations again, but this time they do it for the elementary school grades in their individual classrooms. It is pouring down rain now, and the elementary grade blocks are separated from the main, junior/senior high complex, but we somehow make it all work (and get rather wet in the process).


Year 3 kids learn hanetsuki, a game like badminton traditionally played during the New Year holidays. Meanwhile, Ms. Y happily takes pictures.

After that, the kids have one more class, a final Pastoral Care Group (i.e. homeroom) meeting, and they're off for the weekend. Barring any emergency, we won't see them again till Monday, and I'm sure they'll appreciate that in the end.

After school we're invited to kick back with some of the other teachers in the faculty lounge, and they seem kind of non-plussed when I tell them my Japanese colleagues are tired and would rather just relax on their own. Apparently they'd gathered their mainly for our benefit. I immediately coax my Japanese colleagues out of their hidey-hole and into the lounge, and we enjoy a bit of quality time with our sister-school's staff. Come to think of it, this is the first time we have really mingled and socialized with them as a whole. They really are an interesting group.

Inevitably, one of the topics that comes up (after I get done telling my life story and then wake everyone back up) is beer. I know that in both the U.S. and Japan (and probably elsewhere in the world) people see Foster's Lager as the archetype Aussie beer. The funny thing is that, during all the time I've been in Australia, I have never seen a single bottle of the stuff. In fact, I have only seen one or two adverts for it. I mention this to the teachers I'm talking to, and I'm greeted by a round of sprayings of their drinks. "No one drinks that shyte around here," retorts a health teacher, wiping his chin. Actually, the most all-around popular beer here seems to be Victoria Bitter, and it is a nice, gentle brew with no aftertaste that, for that reason, goes very well with a meal. However, it doesn't have a whole lot of steam, so when drinking just for drinking's sake, men around here tend to prefer classy Crown Lager, punchy XXXX (read "4-X"), or mild-mannered Carlton "Mid". (There are also Toohey's, Cascade, and Hahn in the local stores, but I don't get a chance to sample those and no one mentions them.) (Actually, it turns out that Crown Lager, Victoria Bitter, and Carlton Mid are products of the Foster's Lager company as are Toohey's and Cascade, but whatever. XXXX is made by XXXX, and the brewery is on Castlemaine Street in Brisbane!)

Speaking of drinking, there is probably going to be some of that going on later. The faculty here have a special surprise planned for us tonight, but there aren't many details. After it gets dark, we are picked up at our hotel and driven down to the classy-looking Pelican Waters district, finally parking next to a large tavern right on the waterfront. After meeting up with other teachers and a few spouses and friends, we are then led down to the docks and onto a large boat, the skipper of which is apparently the father of a student. And so begins a wonderful evening of delicious food and white wine (oh, yeah...and Crown Lager) sitting on the upper deck of a cabin cruiser as it plies its way around the Pelican Waters harbor and the canal network and partway down the Pumicestone Passage between Caloundra and Bribie Island. The sky has cleared, and it is a bit nippy, but not bad at all. The view is spec-TACU-lar!!!

After a while, though, I notice that two of our party have still not come up to join us. Ms. T and her best friend (whose name I can't for the life of me remember), a Japanese student studying to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology in Brisbane, are all alone belowdecks. Mr. I and I (Me, myself and Mr. I?) apparently both think the same thing, and we both make the excuse of going in search of more food in the main cabin so we go down and can talk to them. They say that they're staying below because they're too cold, but I have to wonder. They both seem a bit uncomfortable at our presence, but they start to warm up (figuratively, at least) after a bit. Then more people start coming down to find out what we're up to (read "see if there's more food left"), and I relocate to the bench along the stern transom, where I sit and look pensively at the beautiful night scenery.

Pretty soon Ms. T's friend comes and sits next to me, and next thing I know the conversation is starting to remind me of my lyrics to my song "Open Halls":

I took the time to come away and follow after you.
It seemed you needed someone there.
The line is open; it's for you.
You gave me answers to the questions that I gave to you,
But yet I sense there's something more.
My ears are open; share it now.
My heart is open; share it now.

When I wrote that song, my inspiration was a really interesting Hawaiian girl I met while on a school trip a couple of years ago. She broke away from her group and followed after me as I strolled through Himeji Castle. Mainly curious about my life in Japan, she wound up psychoanalyzing me, but she did it in a very casual, natural, "You know, from the beginning I had the feeling something wasn't quite right" sort of way. Yes, I was feeling pretty stressed out at the time, and her words proved to be uplifting, particularly when she ended it all with something like, "I envy you your life, and I love my life. So enjoy your life as I do mine." Definitely words to remember.

This time the case is very different. Ms. T's friend is training to be a professional psychologist. She's very perceptive, and she chooses her words very carefully. I'm not feeling stressed out at all; in fact, I'm feeling quite happy with life. Or so I think. How easy it is to be proven wrong! With very little effort, she succeeds in dragging out of me a couple of big issues that probably need to be dealt with, but which I've been more or less denying...or at least forgetting about and hoping they'll just go away. I'm left quietly venting out hidden pockets of my soul into the night over my wine worried a bout of depression might suddenly kick in (the last thing I want to happen with a psychologist sitting right next to me!) but in the end I actually wind up feeling better. I don't get a chance to express any gratitude, however. The crowd, already joking about my having been "ensnared and psychoanalyzed" by the resident shrink, quickly intervenes. We arrive at the dock, the group goes in different directions, and the night's merriment comes to a nice, comfy close.

For us, anyway. After returning to the Currimundi Hotel we discover the hard way why it has such a mixed reputation. A group has apparently booked into the rooms above us, and they proceed to have a loud party into the wee small hours. Sleep is more or less impossible, so I click on a light and read Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. After a few hours the raucous laughter and obnoxious shouts upstairs suddenly turn into a chorus of puking and spitting...onto my veranda. (Luckily, my curtains are closed so I don't have to see it.) After that things quickly peter out into an eerie silence.

Next: The Weekend!!!! (bold, brassy fanfare with a didgeridoo thrown in for effect)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. II

Thursday, July 27th, 2006
I didn't get a very good night's sleep, partly due to that noisy pump or whatever it is across from my room but mainly just due to jitters. Even so, it feels good to be rested and (especially) washed. I and the other Seishin teachers go to the hotel bistro to find a self-serve continental breakfast bar waiting for us. I have Weetabix (I love those things!) and toast with coffee and plenty of orange juice. Just to do the proper thing, I have my toast with Vegemite. Despite what they say, I actually don't mind the stuff at all. It tastes kind of like BLEU[sNic] cheese...only different.

It isn't long before we're greeted with Mr. M's bright smile and cheery good morning. He loads us up into his truck, and we're off to our first full day at our sister school. Our kids, all dressed up in their usual uniforms, but with their badges replaced with those of our sister school, come rolling in with their respective host brothers or sisters. Then the first order of business is the junior/senior high morning assembly, in which the main order of business is us. There are student speeches. Mr. K gives a speech in Japanese, which I then translate into English (and the local kids are quite entertained by my American accent). Our students introduce themselves in turns. Then there are announcements, and off we all go!

I need to point out here that the assembly is started, ended, and punctuated by various musical performances. The senior choir sings (pretty well, actually). The concert band plays (still building, but pretty good). The Australian national anthem is sung by a senior high boy who is one of the host brothers (and has a FANTASTIC singing voice!). Finally, the school rock band (!!! Wish WE had one!!!) finishes it all with a little Creedence Clearwater Revival (very enjoyable!). Our sister school is a very young school. It is literally still under construction. However, despite severe limits in personnel and rehearsal time, resident music director, jazz guitarist, and all-around interesting guy Mr. S has been doing a wonderful job. I hope our respective music programs can find some ways to work together in the future.

As with most if not all Australian schools, there are no chimes and few breaks between lessons, something the Japanese (and this American) find hard to comprehend. It's all a very laid back, no pressure, "no worries, mate", "if it works it's alright, right?" sort of thing. In other words, it's Australian, and we appreciate that very much. For our kids first period is taken up by a tour of the campus given by Japanese instructors JB (who I've known from the beginning of this project) and Ms. T (a very interesting Japanese woman from Hokkaido who has apparently spent most of her life in Australia).

Our entourage makes its way along on its tour of the school.

Our sister school's campus is very colorful and modern.

Ending our invasion of a Year 3 class. Note the Japanese sign next to the door. The blue and yellow posters were welcome messages directed at us. The hospitality we were shown was very moving!

Just for a little "awwww" factor, this is the Year 1 classroom, with the students divided into groups all doing different activities. Doesn't this look like fun?

After the tour, the next period is spent by JB and Ms. T giving our kids an intensive English lesson, which we all think is a VERY GOOD idea. The kids loved it. They seemed to have an even better time when some Year 8 students come in for some mutual interviews.

Between second and third periods there is a fifteen-minute break for morning tea. (Funny...we had the same thing in my school days, but we just called it "recess". Somehow I think "morning tea" has a nicer ring.)

After morning tea our students are picked up by their respective "shadows" and sent off to enjoy some everyday campus life. I'm not immune, either. Mr. D remembers that his third period history class is currently talking about civil rights and minorities in the U.S., particularly by comparing and contrasting Martin Luther King, jr. and Malcolm X. Having a real, live American on hand is an opportunity that is too good to miss, so he invites me in. It's quite an experience. The students are very interested in the topic, and I get asked some pretty intense questions. A couple of my own students are present, listening intently with apparent surprise and even taking notes. (Are they actually able to follow me? Amazing!)

The lack of chimes makes it extremely hard to stick to the schedule, but that just seems to be the way of things. Lessons start when they do and finish when they do. All this laid-backness is wreaking havoc on my wits since, as an American, I naturally have a stick shoved up my aft shaft (or so they say). Still, as I said before, the system seems to work.

After fourth period and lunch our students and our sister school's entire Year 8 gather in the meeting area for some demonstrations and explanations of Japanese traditions. It's a lot of fun.

A demonstration of kendo, Japanese fencing.

Kamishibai - the art of telling stories using pictures.

A round of the karuta card game.

A lesson in how to make origami shuriken (throwing stars).

There are other activities, too, but I won't overload this post.

Sixth and seventh periods are regular lessons. Once again I get scooped up by Mr. D, this time for a history class talking about the Vietnam War. Mr. D is particularly interested in how American society regarded that conflict and treated its veterans after it ended, particularly when I was growing up. It's a very sensitive and complicated topic, not always easy to talk about, but there's still a lot to say...and a lot of things for the kids to ask me.

Classes end, and the students leave immediately followed shortly afterward by the teachers. By four o' clock the place is almost totally deserted. My Japanese colleagues are shocked. Such a thing could scarcely be imagined, let alone practiced, in the Land of the Rising Sun!

Mr. M runs us back to the Currimundi Hotel, but we don't stay there very long. Tonight we are being treated to dinner. Dr. D, Mr. M, the members of the Japanese department, and the participants in last year's visit to Seishin join us for a wonderful meal at a restaurant in one of Caloundra's glittering, new condominium complexes. I forgot that in Australia you definitely eat well; servings tend to be VERY generous. I foolishly order a full four-course meal and am nearly wiped out by the appetizer! Even so, I somehow make my way through the whole thing while enjoying a very nice Hunter Valley white wine.

I'm stuffed, I'm tired, I'm comfortable, I'm happy, and I sleep VERY well.

(Oops...I intended to cover two days with one post, but there's too much to talk about here. Okay, more next time!)

And Now for a Commercial Break

Well, not exactly commercial...

Typhoon #7 (known as "Maria" in the Western world), as so many fortunately do, hit the Boso peninsula to the south of us and ricocheted back into the ocean, missing us with all but the outermost fringe of rain. Since the kids were off on a trip with their grandparents today, and my wife and I braved the waves of downpours to go on our first "date" in a long time, at least during the afternoon. The storm had already passed and the clouds were breaking up by the time we were heading home for dinner. Right after my BLUE RAV4 crossed the Kitaura Great Bridge from Kashima into Namegata we saw a brilliant rainbow coming down over the lake next to a little shrine set on pillars in the middle of the water. I quickly pulled off and snapped a picture with my cell phone:

It is only a cell phone shot, which doesn't do it justice, and you can't really make out the shrine, but I felt I should share it just the same. And now for the next post about the Australia trip:

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Under and Back Again - Pt. I

Maybe it's just me, but it seems strange for us to be gathering for a school-related trip in the late afternoon. All of our regular school excursions, camps, concerts, lynchings, festivals, etc. usually involve dragging oneself out of bed at some ungodly hour, ingesting a (un)healthy amount of caffeine just to keep one's eyes open, and arriving at ye olde academy in the early-morning mist to find the kids bouncing around like they're all on a record-breaking sugar high. (Actually, it probably has more to do with caffeine, of which you are equally guilty, but it always seems to affect teenagers more strongly...perhaps since they haven't become addicted yet?)(The little bastards...)

Not this time. Our flight to Australia is scheduled to leave at 10:30 at night (translation: hopefully it'll be underway by dawn), so our bus is departing at 6:00 p.m.. That means I can take it easy during the day, leave home at a reasonable hour, and relax up until it's time to go, right?

*Ahem* You forget that it's me writing this. Actually, I wind up spending the day running around in a mad fuss making sure all my luggage is ready, realizing I've forgotten half a dozen things I need, going on quick, frenetic shopping trips to get it all taken care of while trying hard not to get an ulcer, blow a gasket, or throttle one or both of my kids. By some miracle I manage to roll into ye olde academy a full hour early. Naturally, when I go into the school (big mistake) I wind up getting grabbed by various people for various last-minute explanations of just what the Sam Hill (whoever the hell he was) I'm doing. Naturally, I'm the last one to get on the bus...

Our party consists of nineteen students (since one of the original twenty was hospitalized with pneumonia three days ago), plus deputy principal Mr. K, Ms. Y, who is an English teacher and also chairperson of the international affairs committee, another English teacher named Mr. I, and myself. Mr. K, Ms. Y, and I all went to Caloundra last year, so it's a return visit we've all been looking forward to. Mr. I studied at the University of Michigan, but he has never been to Australia, so he's pretty excited. I don't think I need to tell you that the kids are nervous as hell. Some of them look ready to shatter if exposed to the wrong frequency. That means it's probably best to keep quiet for now. I'd hate for an errant shout to leave us with a nightmare of paperwork...

Traveling to Australia from Japan is about as convenient as it gets. The time difference between Kashima and Caloundra is only one hour, so jet lag doesn't even enter the picture. Since it's a night flight, we basically just sleep on the plane (hopefully) and wake up just before touching down. The only problem is the climate. The seasons are reversed, but winter in Caloundra is kind of like late spring in Kashima, i.e. a bit nippy at night and in the early morning, but quite warm during the day. However, the humidity there is only a tiny fraction what it is here in the Land of the Rising Spa. That makes dressing for the trip a tricky affair. It's pretty much a given that, no matter what we put on, we're probably going to either wind up drenched with sweat here, freeze there, or both. As for me, I just make do with a shirt with sleeves I can roll back. I'll deal with the rest later. The kids don't have it quite so easy. Their strict fashion rules limit their choices, and I don't pity them.

Check-in, security, and immigration at Narita Airport go smoothly and easy. Our travel agent explained to all of us in nauseatingly thorough detail just what we should and shouldn't do, so those in our group with little or no international flight experience have no trouble. We arrive at our gate to find it crowded. We also find that our flight has been (wait for it...) delayed. Just like last year. I figure it must be standard procedure.

I don't need to go into much detail about the flight itself. It's a code-sharing deal, i.e. a Qantas flight and a JAL flight both crammed onto a single JAL plane. We have Qantas tickets, which were cheaper than the JAL ones for the same trip...go figure. Then again, we get seated up in the upper deck, which seems to have simpler features and fewer conveniences than the main deck. The service is still just as good (and just as pretty), though, so I have no least while I'm awake. I manage to sleep during most of the flight, so it doesn't matter much anyway.

The flight delay was due to poor weather conditions in Brisbane. It was foggy. It wasn't a nice fog, either; it was a caustically sarcastic one. You see, Brisbane usually gets foggy after a heavy rain, something they desperately need. The city is experiencing the worst drought it has seen in a hundred years. Reservoir levels are critically low, and several small rivers in the area have been dried up for three years. Plans are currently being drawn up both to pipe in water from hundreds of kilometers away and to recycle sewage into drinkable water. Needless to say, Brisbane desperately needs rain, and they were told it was coming. The forecast the day before was for a drenching downpour through the night and into the next day. The eagerly-awaited storm front arrived, all right, but all it had to offer was a pitifully light and short-lived drizzle before it moved onward (and dumped its rain on Caloundra), leaving a nasty fog anyway as if to add insult to injury. We arrive in Brisbane about half an hour late to find it damp and overcast but clearing. By the time we get through immigration, baggage claim, and the much-feared Aussie customs (diminished 7th fanfare) it is already clearing up.

The locals are not amused.

Following in the footsteps of our exploratory trip last year (still more evidence of the lack of rain), we visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and then have lunch at the lookout on top of Mt. Coot-tha. (I'd probably like to visit the Castlemaine XXXX brewery, but oh, well. I have a feeling I'll be enjoying its products pretty soon.) Then our bus gets onto the highway heading north toward the Sunshine Coast region.

I remember commenting last year how much Brisbane reminds me of Portland. The downtown areas are rather different, true, but as we circle our way out of the city and onto the highway, it would be very easy for me to wake up and think I was pulling onto I-205 near the Portland Airport. The look and the atmosphere are very similar. The road signs are virtually identical to the ones in Oregon (but with different place names, obviously) and you see signs and adverts for a lot of the same chain stores. However, after looking and thinking carefully, you would realize you're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The trees aren't quite right, for one thing. A nearby car and "tyre" shop offers another hint, as does the sign directing one to the city "centre". Hmm...diesel is more expensive than gasoline here, too. Strange. Then there are those nifty, circular intersections all over the place (roundabouts). Oh, and wait...come to think of it...we're driving on the wrong side of the road!!! (Of course, living in Japan, I'm used to driving in the left lane, so I wouldn't think anything of it.) It doesn't take long for any illusions of Oregonness to disappear, however. Once we're away from the city we've clearly entered another world. The panorama is amazing.

The kids are all asleep. Maybe it's better that way. We wake them up as soon as we roll past the "Welcome to Caloundra" sign, and they immediately go into full panic mode. Caloundra itself is probably not so unusual; its hilly combination of glittering, new beachside resorts and quiet, old residential neighborhoods could be likened to the town of Oarai back home in Ibaraki. However, after the town gives way to bush, a new boulevard under construction, and then more bush, we are greeted by a wonderful sight: a great, big welcome sign showing the logos of our two schools and saying, "Proud to be sister schools!" It's truly a wonderful sight.

It isn't long before the colorful, art-deco buildings of our sister school come into view along with something else we hadn't quite expected:

The year 2-5 students are lined up along the walk from the parking area, all holding either Aussie or Japanese flags, and greeting us enthusiastically in both English and Japanese. It's a spectacular sight.

Our kids are now in total panic mode.

After that we have a sort of mixer where we mingle with the host families and the "shadow students" that will serve as guides and companions to our kids while eating all kinds of munchies...especially including that traditional Aussie favorite, lamington. (I LOVE those things!) Then, seemingly from nowhere, a sexy, blond woman appears together with a cameraman. Apparently she is from a local TV station, and she proceeds to interview students of both schools before organizing a couple of group cheers.

(We later find out that we appeared before and after the evening weather forecast and have been seen by most of the area's population.)

When things have calmed down a bit, we have the official opening ceremony. (The principal, Dr. D, asks me to translate her speech, but someone talks to me during most of it, so I wind up more or less improvising. Oh, well...) Then the students are introduced to their host families and allowed to go their separate ways. Everything is quiet now, so after a bit of visiting with some of the faculty we are taken to our hotel. The man who looks after us the most is Mr. M, the Director of Students. I hardly spoke to him at all last year, but now he is really going out of his way for us. He offers to take us out for dinner, etc. tonight, but we're pretty much burned out (and don't want to wear out our welcome just yet), so we decide to call it a night.

As it turns out, we decide to go for a bit of a walk to find a place to eat, but we don't have much luck. We are staying at the Currimundi Hotel, which seems to have a bit of a mixed reputation (because "hotel" in Aussie English can actually mean "pub", and the Currimundi complex does indeed include a bistro and a very lively pub in addition to a simple, no-nonsense motel) but appears adequate and comfortable enough for our needs. Unfortunately, it's located in a "quiet" neighborhood where mostly working class residential district gives way to a strip of supermarkets, gas stations, video rental shops, home improvement stores, and a whole lot of fast food, but no bonafide, sit-down restaurants. We wind up hoofing it for quite a while before we quite miraculously bump into a student from our sister school, actually one of the "shadows", in front of a health club. After listening to her advice, we have dinner at Red Rooster, an Australian fast food chain which is kind of like KFC only healthier. Not exactly gourmet fare, but it's enough...and our rooms at the Currimundi are plenty good for a nice shower and a good night's sleep.

(Actually, our sister school has stocked each of our rooms with all kinds of munchies and juice, to which I add a 6-pack of Carlton Crown Lager from the drive-thru liquor shop that is also part of the Currimundi Hotel complex. Okay, I'm content. Day One/Two is done, and the adventure is fully underway!)

Friday, July 21, 2006

High Water

When something broke the surface
Just to see the starry dome-
We still feel that relation
When the water takes us home
In the flying spray of the ocean
The water takes you home-

- Rush, "High Water" (from Hold Your Fire)

Water has held a special significance throughout history and through different cultures. In the Judeo-Christo-Islamic creation story God starts with the seas and then goes on to add the firmament which later becomes dry land. He then decides to wipe out said creation and start over by means of a great flood. In Christianity, one of the important sacrements is baptism, the ritual washing away of one's sins with water. One of the key symbols in Buddhism is the lotus flower, which emerges from a muddy pond bottom, floats above the surface of the water, blooms into a lovely blossom, and then sinks back into the water and returns to the mud to repeat the cycle of life. The ancient Celts believed that every body of water was inhabited by a goddess (possibly the source of the Lady of the Lake in the King Arthur legends) and a source of spiritual power. Japanese Shinto tradition also believes in the spiritual power of water, particularly if it emerges from a spring. The Japanese also envision the border between the "real" world and the afterlife as a river, the crossing of which represents the final break with life. One could draw an obvious parallel with the River Styx in Greek (Roman) mythology, across which Hermes (Charon)(i.e. "Death") ferries the souls of the departed. Clearly water is a powerful symbol of both life and death.

A picture from FH2o's "Kuching Kayaking" site.

Water also means different things to different people in modern times. For Malaysian architect, blogger, and increasingly-famous kayaker "Unker" FH2o water is not just a symbol of life, it is a way of life, and it is something that clearly holds very deep significance to him. It is also clearly very meaningful to Malaysian professor living in Japan Lrong, who is quite proud of the decorative pond he has recently created on his property and stocked with goldfish (and pit vipers?). On the other hand, in her blog post about her recent trip to the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon, my longtime pal Kami says:
"I have this thing about water. I love it, but I don't trust it. I respect that which can deal me death quite easily in a moment even when I'm being careful."

A scene from Kami's Nanopubye blogsite.

Meanwhile, Tunisian-living-in-America Leilouta just posted a couple of pictures of crystallized water (i.e. snow) on her blog in order to help us live through the summer heat, while young Palestinian poet, philosopher, political activist, and world traveler Saba posted not so long ago (the last we've heard from her...meaning she's probably in the West Bank now) on the new blog she's sharing with a couple of Israelis talking about her recent experience sunbathing at the beach in Aqaba, Jordan and watching American warships anchoring right off the coast...together with one ship flying an Israeli flag. (Funny...Iraq isn't even anywhere near Aqaba!)

Water as a source of life or doom...

Pandabonium, meanwhile, speaks of rainy days, and with good reason. The tsuyu, or "plum rain" season has lasted well beyond its normal three weeks this year. It has also been unusually violent. The trip to Kamogawa Sea World with my kids took place on the first sunny day we'd had in a long time, and it was followed immediately by almost a full week of hard, driving rain. My area hasn't suffered so much, but down in the Japan Alps region, particularly in Nagano Prefecture, there has already been a considerable toll in lives and property. These unusually long, hard monsoon rains seem intent to baptize the country by washing it away completely! If a river really is the border between the worlds of the living and the dead here, well, it has probably overflowed its banks together with a lot of others! I just hope it winds down and becomes real summer soon!

Of course, I don't personally have too much reason to complain. In just four more days I'll be flying high over the water...on my way Down Under! I'm counting the days!

Stay cool and dry, everyone, unless you intend to get wet! :-)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Going to Sea What We Can See

The first Saturday of a three-day weekend is never very conducive to waking up, especially if you have nothing to do that day. What's really weird is when you wake up at your usual time, remember you have no real reason to be awake, and try to coax yourself back to sleep again even though the superego Nazi that is your body clock is still insisting it's time to get up and go to work. Well, that's the state I'm in right now. It's the first Saturday in a long time in which there is absolutely nothing I have to do. It's also seven a.m. and I'm wide awake. Judging from the giggles, howls, and occasional yelps of pain I hear downstairs, the kids are up and about, too. I guess that means I'm trapped.

The wife is out for the day. Her whole three-day weekend is more or less wiped out by that damned tennis club of hers. That leaves me to take care of the kids in the meantime. Considering the level of racket I'm hearing downstairs as well as the frequency of my son's screaming, I'd really rather not be here doing this. So, what other plan is there?

Throwing on some clothes, I come downstairs to find the kids in their pajamas watching Cartoon Network (read "locked in a life-or-death struggle while Cartoon Network plays forlornly in the background). I ask them if they've had breakfast, and they stop trying to throttle each other long enough to tell me they haven't. I ask them if they have a lot of homework, and they reply that they have already finished it (and show it to me to prove it).

A quick decision is made. I tell them to put their clothes on and brush their teeth. While they do that, I get myself cleaned up, and then I head out to the BLUE RAV4 and secretly enter a destination into the navigation system. Then I herd Thing 1 and Thing 2 into the car, hop in, fire up the willing engine (responding with a...well, not exactly a roar, but a reasonable attempt at one), tires spitting mud, I commit my clever deception.

"Where are we going?" ask the two kids.

"Yes," I reply with a grin.

There's a brief period of silence, and then my daughter, the older of the two Things, says to her little brother, "Kamine Park. It has to be! We're going to Kamine Park!"

Actually, we're not, but I'm not going to tell them that just yet. I admit I thought about it, but I've already taken the kids there a number of times, and I want to do something different. Even worse, the drive to Kamine Park, made twice as long as it should be by backed-up traffic on a very unscenic road, doesn't offer much in the way of entertainment.

We arrive at the intersection of Route 50, and the polite, feminine voice of the navigation system (which I definitely don't need yet, but I have it turned on just for fun) tells me to turn right.

"Wait a minute," says my son. "Aren't we supposed to go the other way?"

(He can be a clever, little thing...when he actually uses his head.)

Big sister replies matter-of-factly, "Papa's just trying to trick us. Don't worry! I know we're going to Kamine Park!"

We buy our breakfast at the 7-11 down the street, and then I head on down the hill from Namegata to Itako. It's actually a beautiful day today; it's looking to be hot, but the humidity is down, and there's plenty of blue sky. With real, yellow sunlight, the tree-covered hills and the potato and tobacco fields between them look even greener. The rice paddies of Itako are greener still. It's a lovely view. We get an even lovelier panorama when the car climbs up onto the expressway and heads due south. (Best speed to Regula I!)

"Ehhhhh...?" fumes my son. "We can't be going to Kamine Park! This is totally the wrong direction! Where are we going?!?"

"Kamine Park," insists his elder sister self-importantly. "Like I said, papa's just trying to trick us! He's going to take the long way, and we'll be there before you know it!"

My son is unconvinced, and this same dialog plays out repeatedly as we head on past Katori (Sawara), past Narita, past Shisui and Sakura, and then, as per the gentle commands of the navi-system, take the exit onto Keiyo Road. (Diminished seventh power chord)

That's the biggest problem with using a car navi-system. When you enter a destination, it will scan the maps and plot the most logical course. However, that doesn't mean it'll plot the best course. It uses a net link to pay attention to traffic updates, and it will change the route to avoid accident or construction sites as well as jam-ups, but only if it thinks there is a logical alternative route available. In many cases it'll just shrug its invisible, electronic shoulders and say, "Oh, well. You're stuck with it," to itself. And then it'll guide you onto Keiyo Road. (There's that diminished seventh chord again!)

The last time I went to the same destination was seven years ago, when my daughter was a toddler and my son was a bulge in my wife's belly. I didn't have the RAV4 yet, and it was the first real trip we made in the dark blue Ford wagon my wife had just bought (yes, the one I saw in my dreams months before she got it). A navi-system was an impossible dream at the time, so we bought one of those map books and plotted our course carefully, taking into account what we knew of the terrain. I wound up getting totally lost in Chiba City, but at least we avoided Keiyo Road. (Yes, again.)

This time, however, I trust the oh-so-gentle-sounding navi-guide, and we wind up caught in the less-than-walking-speed traffic for which That Road (that power chord) is infamous. For nearly half an hour I nudge the BLUE machine along hoping that neither the auto-clutch nor my nerves get ground into oblivion (even with Enya trying very hard to soothe my soul). As it turns out, however, the jam-up isn't anywhere near as bad as it can be, and once we're through the gauntlet the pace picks right back up again. Soon I'm cruising at a nice, brisk pace into the Boso region of Chiba Prefecture.

"I really don't think we're going to Kamine Park," says my son.

His sister pauses with pursed lips. Then she demands, "What are you up to, papa?"

Boso is the southern tip of Chiba Prefecture, which juts out into the sea from the island of Honshu like a great elbow forming the eastern side of Tokyo Bay. It also serves as a handy shield deflecting most of the typhoons that come our way so that Tokyo (and Ibaraki Prefecture) rarely suffers a direct hit. Needless to say, Boso tends to receive some of the worst typhoon-related damage in the country, but it is still a very beautiful area. It consists of densely-forested hills and small, jagged mountains that remind me a lot of the Coast Range in Oregon (except that the trees are different). They even sing like the Coast Mountains. They're also traveled by means of the same sort of narrow, winding roads. (No log trucks or RVs, though...thank goodness.)

Another key difference between Boso and the Oregon Coast Mountains suddenly rears its head...or does it? It's road kill, but the cars ahead of us veer much more wildly than usual to avoid it. Whatever it is, it must be something really special, because it doesn't look very big. We get our answer soon enough. It's a monkey. Actually, it's a Japanese macaque, to be precise. That explains it. It's not talked about much, but monkeys seem to be revered here...not so much the animals themselves as their souls. No one wants a vengeful monkey spirit coming back home with them, so they give the road pizza a wide berth. Just to be safe, so do I.

Anyway, we zip around on the paved roller-coaster ride for a while, and then the mountains suddenly open up into a giant, circular valley filled with vivid green rice paddies. It's the area of Kururi in Kimitsu City, named for Kururi Castle. It's a gorgeous sight (and me without my camera)! Reentering the mountains on the other side, we wind about some more, shoot through a couple of enchanting, little resort towns, and then we cross the beautiful Kamogawa (lit. "Duck River"). In fact, the city of Kamogawa is our destination, and the kids figure it out as soon as they see the large billboard with an orca on it.

"Kamogawa Sea World! We're going to Kamogawa Sea World!"


Just as we're rolling into the last kilometer, the city starts to disappear, fading into an eerie white. A fog bank has just rolled in off the ocean. The scenic value of the city has just dropped to zero, but at least the mist brings the temperature down. It's actually a bit on the chilly side when we park the car and get out.

Kamogawa Sea World is an aquatic theme park. Its aquarium exhibit isn't the biggest I've ever seen, but they constructed it to look like a natural progression from a river source on down to the ocean and then to different oceans of the world. It's almost like the visitors are the ones in the glass cases. It's not so crowded, and both kids enjoy it far more than I expected. The real attractions, however, are outside.

First we go to see the famous sea lion show, and we finally find the crowds. It is only ten minutes to showtime, and the stands are already packed. Well, no, actually, they aren't. The trouble is that several people are blocking off seats if not whole bench rows, saving them for friends or family that are off playing elsewhere. I find the practice both unfair and extremely rude, so I finally tell my tired little boy to sit down on the edge of one such bench row anyway. The old man that is blocking the thing off tries half-heartedly to shoo him away, but I tell my son to ignore him...just waiting (hoping?) for the old asshole to try to make a scene. He doesn't, and it turns out that his family has more than enough room anyway (especially since one of them, a mother with a baby, leaves only a few minutes into the show anyway). The show is a lot of fun, well worth seeing. However, I admit I have a thing about the mentally handicapped (autistic?) boy that is jumping around and making weird, loud noises a few meters away from me. I'm glad he has a chance to enjoy the attraction like anyone else (if he's even aware of it), but he's getting a lot of annoyed stares from the people around him, and it's pretty much a given they're all thinking, "What's up with that freak?" Is it really right for the poor boy to be humiliated like that?

After a quick bite of lunch, we arrive a couple of minutes late for the beluga show, so we're forced to sit on the floor off to the side and see what we can till we give up and leave. Doing so allows us to get to the dolphin show early enough to get good seats plus some food.

Hey...they sell churros here! I always thought churros were exclusive to Disneyland! Well, apparently not. I've always liked those things, and it's nice to know I can get them without having to deal with Disneyland! (Oh, gripe, gripe, gripe...)

The dolphin show, naturally, is a lot of fun, and the kids are impressed. The two bottlenose and two grampus that they have there do all kinds of funky things. At one point one of them tosses a soccer ball up into the air with its nose, leaps out of the water, and kicks the ball with its tail, sending it flying out of the arena. It's quite entertaining, and it also ends early enough that we're able to hustle over to the main attraction, the orca stadium, and actually get seats.

I've always been fond of orcas. (Don't call them Killer Whales, dammit!!!!) Every once in a while wild ones wander down from their usual haunts up north, come into the bays of the Oregon Coast, and eat the seals, which pisses off the tourists but delights the locals. Even so, it's hard to tell just how big those things can get until one of them lobs itself up out of the water. There are four trained orcas in the stadium, three female and one male. The females are big enough as it is. The male is f****** HUGE. When he does a "splash jump", as he does repeatedly, he kicks up a massive blast of water. I'm sitting far enough back that I only get my shoes and pantlegs wet. Some people sitting a row or two closer get absolutely drenched.

There's one more orca in the pool, too, but it's not performing. It's a baby which was born earlier this year. Named "Ran", I think he was the real darling of the show even though all he did was race around trying to imitate his parents and aunts. Actually, there are a number of babies here. There's even one baby dolphin that was born not even a week ago. There are also baby seals, sea lions, and a whole clutch of squid eggs. (Hey, let's be fair! Mollusks are living beings, too!)

The fog is gone now, and we can see the ocean. It's time to do our souvenir shopping and go home. The kids are tuckered out but happy. The car is sounding less rough than it did this morning. The temperature is warm and comfy. All in all, a good start to a three-day weekend.

Tomorrow is cleaning day.

Friday, July 14, 2006


My third period class has ended, I've finished preparing for my afternoon classes, and I'm off to spend the remainder of my free fourth period having a bit of lunch and catching up on various things (such as blogging). It's my usual routine on Fridays. However, as I emerge from the English department office I'm immediately bathed in a wonderful sound. It's the students of the 10th grade music elective course. They are in recorder ensemble formation practicing Vivaldi's "Spring" in the lobby. It sounds great, and there's nothing for me to do but stop and enjoy it.

There must be between three and four dozen kids in the ensemble, and they have all manner of recorders: sopranos, altos, tenors, basses (but none of those monstrous great basses), and even a couple of tiny, little sopraninos. They are being accompanied by a girl on an electric piano set to sound like a harpsichord and another girl on a double bass. It's bloody hot and humid in the lobby, but they're are sounding really good this year. Usually the 10th grade music elective groups have a bad habit of, well, to put it frankly, stinking, but now they're playing together, balanced, and in tune. Add to that the pure, simple cheer of Vivaldi's "Spring", and you have a nice bit of musical entertainment for a sunny afternoon in the lobby.

However, just as I'm really starting to enjoy the performance, Mr. Ogawa stops it in the middle and starts lecturing the students. One of the parts has wandered a bit off tempo. Do it again, and this time do it right. As we used to say in the Oregon State music department, "Fix it! Fix it!"

As they say in Japanese, "Yarinaoshi!" (lit. a noun meaning "redoing")

Speaking of which...

The other day I finally asked Mr. Ogawa politely to give me some proper training on the clarinet. Judging from his reaction, I suspect he had always hoped I'd do so, but out of respect for my pride (and moodiness) he never said anything. The fact is that, though I've had a considerable amount of training and experience on the clarinet, I haven't been satisfied. For a long time now I've felt that perhaps I've been doing something not quite right. That feeling got even worse when I started playing principal with the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra. Somehow my tone response, control, and quality just didn't seem quite right. I tried changing reeds, which helped a little. I tried working on my embouchure (mouth formation), which helped a little more, but it still didn't seem right for some reason. Since the Kashima Philharmonic has just started rehearsing our first Beethoven symphony (5th...which is technically easy but musically very difficult) I figured it was a good idea to learn from the master.

The first thing he did was ask me if I had a box of new reeds. I did. Then he asked me if I had tried all the reeds out and selected the ones I considered suitable. I had. Then he asked me to give him the ones I had rejected. I did. He then took a couple of my rejects, went at them for a while with his reed-shaping tools, and then handed them back to me, saying, "These are your training reeds. Use them when you practice." He then told me to get my clarinet out and put one of the "training reeds" on it. I did just that. Then he told me to play one long tone.

Oh, boy. The training reed was really sensitive, meaning I overcompensated immediately.

Mssr. Maestro Ogawa shook his head and sighed. "No. Wrong. Totally wrong. Your embouchure, your way of blowing, your way of holding the instrument...all wrong."

I was shocked. "But that's the way I was taught to do it! That's the way I've been doing it for more than thirty years now!"

Mr. Ogawa nodded. "That's the way people usually do it if they don't know any better. It's still wrong. Go to any music conservatory in France, and they'd get mad if they saw that. Now try this..."

And so it began. I am trying to unlearn fifteen years worth of training and more than thirty years' worth of experience. This is going to take time. I have to say that I've noticed some difference. My tone quality and response have definitely improved a bit. However, my mouth muscles are being used in totally different ways, so they are cramping up like they did all the time back when I first started.

I'm happy to be doing it, too. You're never too old to learn...or relearn.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Rolling On The Floor Laughing At Zhidane...

Blogger Leilouta, who is a Tunisian woman married to an American and living in the States, has put up a classic of a blog post in which she gives French soccer legend-cum-headbutting-jarhead-with-a-World-Cup-red-card Zhidane some very brilliant advice on how to save his career. Apparently she Photoshopped the images herself.

Whether you're a rabid soccer/football fan or couldn't care less if all the players died in a freak lightning strike, check it out!

Reflective Interlude

I really feel like posting something today, but I'm feeling decidedly uninspired (or was that "inspiredly undecided"?). I guess I'll do the traditional blog thing and just post my random thoughts for the day...what one might call "diary-a of the keyboard"...

Thursdays are weird this year. I have fewer classes per week than I usually do, so I have a bit more extra time. However, I also have a lot more things to do. The sister-school project probably eats up the most time followed by all these student compositions that I have to check every week. I'm also in charge of my grade's newletter (and I've been going a bit overboard on it...thanks to CorelDRAW). Add to that the newly revamped and reorganized district PTA and all the extra work that has created, and you have a pretty full list. That's why I'm thankful for Thursdays. I have a 7th grade class in the first period, a 12th grade composition seminar in the seventh period, and naught in between. It's kind of like a balloon sandwich, only more pleasant. I appreciate it because I tend to get bored during that big, open space in the middle. When I get bored I look for things to do, and I often settle for doing what I'm supposed to do. That's a good thing. On all the other days of the week I never get bored enough to do anything except either what's put in front of my face with an "urgent" label attached or what I happen to feel like doing at the time.

What do you know? Today is Thursday! I guess I should write up that page of "useful English expressions" to put in the students' handbook for the Australia trip. Naaaaah.....

Thursdays are also when the homeroom teacher I assist has her "training leave", so I have to take care of morning homeroom. I don't have much contact with my homeroom beyond this one morning every week, so it's a good thing. Today is the first time in a long time that all of the students are present. We just got over a bizarre, unseasonal flu epidemic. (Fortunately, I wasnt affected.) We also had a couple of kids that were skipping school for social or psychological reasons, an increasing trend in today's "kinder and gentler" education approach. I guess it has all passed, because all of the kids were there this morning. So was the little Tanabata tree they made.

After morning homeroom was over, one of the girls came and told me that her grandmother had died...on her birthday. What an unhappy way to turn fifteen! The poor girl will probably be away from school for the better part of the following week. I've said so before, but Japanese funerals are a long, complex process, particularly for the family. It will be a busy and somber time for the girl. How ironic that the weather has finally cleared up a bit.

It has been so miserable the past week or more. We've had day after day of hot weather with punishingly high humidity. Add to that the fact that it has been continually overcast if not raining. Warm rain. Hot fog. Bloody nasty. You spend most of the day covered with sweat that just won't go away until you either wash it off or inadvertently wipe it off on your chair or your bed. Not only your clothes, but everything in your pockets winds up soaked. Then, when you walk into an air conditioned room, you freeze. At my school, where the rooms are cooled but the hallways are not, you are constantly bouncing between hot and cold...unless you stay in one place all day. Wouldn't that be nice?

The upper floor of my house always gets really, really hot this time of year because there's little attic ventilation to speak of. When the weather is calm and humid opening the windows does absolutely nothing except let bugs in. I've been really tempted to get one of those newfangled portable coolers to keep up there, but for the most part I just deal with it. My bedroom is upstairs, so sleep quite often means my waking up in the morning in a small, salty lake. My home studio is also up there, and trying to practice my instruments or record anything is just a sweaty, unpleasant chore. Even so, I heard a new tune in my dreams night before last, so last night I stayed completely away from my computer, got busy, and recorded it. It's a relatively simple pop/rock tune, quite different from the complicated electronic extravaganza I concocted last time I braved the sauna. Everything is done except the vocals and perhaps something else I might decide to add later, like a keyboard or wind instrument part. Considering I hardly touch my studio much these days, let alone my guitars, it was amazing that I was able to pull off the rhythm guitar track flawlessly in one take. The bass and lead guitar tracks required a couple of punch-ins, and the drum part was a mess that took a whole bunch of takes to complete to my satisfaction. I had the windows open and a fan blowing in my face, but I was still a clammy, sticky mess as I went through the routine. Still, it felt really good to be doing it.

The clouds are actually breaking up today, and I can see the first patches of BLUE sky I've seen in days. It doesn't feel quite so muggy, either. That's good. That sauna weather just saps one's strength, and my students have all tended to be rather dead these days. Well, no, not dead dead, but, well, you know...just kind of...dead.

The morning news was still awash in talk about North Korea's recent fireworks display over the Sea of Japan. No one knows just what "Dear Leader" Kim Jong (mentally) Il is up to, and that bothers people. If the missile launches themselves seemed daft, the recent threats coming from North Korea are even more so. In effect, they're saying, "If you reduce the aid you're sending us, you're MEAT, bub!" Well, if they really want that aid so badly, why did they do something so blatantly provocative even despite the warnings? Now the U.N. is a (typically) chaotic and spineless mess, with Japan, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France pushing for condemnation and possibly sanctions while Russia and China are saying a pat on the wrist and a "Now don't do that again, okay?" is more than sufficient. No, Japan isn't happy about it. In fact, some Japanese politicians are saying the country should prepare for possible pre-emptive strikes against North Korean missile facilities.

Say WHAT??!? And this is the country in which people went into a mad frenzy when Japan Self-Defense Force planes were deployed overseas to help with a relief effort? Then again, the deployment of actual troops to Iraq received a far more muted reaction. Strange.

For the record, just as much if not more of the morning news was wrapped up with French soccer star Zhidane's violent outburst at the World Cup final, the one that got him sent off with a red card. France wound up losing, and, everyone is saying that the Italian player he head-butted should be punished for having provoked him. It seems the Italian didn't like Zhidane's arrogant attitude, so he called his mother and sister "whores" and then apparently called him either a terrorist and/or an Islamist. (Zhidane was born Algerian.) Zhidane said in his press statement that he had no choice but to respond.

Well, Zhidane, that also holds true for the ref, and he did respond. You may have defended your pride, but you helped lose the game. In other words, shove it.

(Why do soccer players tend to be such whiners, anyway? Then again, I used to play soccer in junior high, so I guess I should shut up.)

Okay, it's almost lunch time. Time to try to figure out what I should or shouldn't have for lunch. I'd prefer a sandwich, but for some strange reason the Japanese can't seem to comprehend the idea of a sandwich without cholesterol. Here in the Land of the Rising Blood Pressure a sandwich always has to have either egg or ham in it. Our cafeteria is even worse; its sandwiches are either fried pork cutlets or egg salad with tons of mayonnaise. Ack. I can just see the cholesterol oozing out of those. I don't usually get the tray lunches (too big...and I don't usually eat big lunches), so if I have cafeteria food I often wind up eating a curry roll and an apple pie.

Gee...why isn't my gut getting any smaller?

Okay, time for lunch. Bye for now!