Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pleasure? Simple!

Well, let's see...over the past few months I've been tagged more than once by Selba and most recently by Shlemazl. Now Um Naief (aka TBFKA Tooners) has decided to join the fray. The point of the tag this time is to list ten simple pleasures that you enjoy. Normally I post my tag responses over on the Snabulus blog so I can keep this one focused on my life here in Japan. However, since simple pleasures have long played a significant role in Japanese culture, I'll go ahead and do it here. So now...I give you...
10 SIMPLE PLEASURES (a la Moody)
1. The smell of newly-fallen rain, especially on warm pavement.
2. Looking out the window on a rainy day while listening to melancholy music. (Tea adds to the effect, as well.)
3. Driving down a street that's lined with flowers.
4. The smell of a bakery.
5. The sound of a warm breeze rustling through a grove of trees.
6. Grabbing a musical instrument that just happens to be nearby and fiddling around with it.
7. Being greeted on arrival at work by the song of a mockingbird.
8. The sight of a beautiful woman walking in a beautiful place.
9. The gift of a smile (of non-malicious intent).
10. A moment of quiet.

That was fun...and I'll tag anyone who hasn't done this one yet. about some definitely NOT simple pleasures, but significant nonetheless:

1. A former student, now in graduate study, coming to you for professional advice.
2. A 7th grade class getting an average of 70 on your first midterm exam of the year, which until now has gotten an average of only 50 or so every time.
3. Feeling like every single one of your students is understanding you and keeping up with your course...something that doesn't happen very often.
4. Finishing a load of work well ahead of time...and well ahead of everyone you loads of time to write blog posts.
5. Dark roasted coffee and dark chocolate, especially when things are running slow.
6. A hike in the woods, especially if it's a place you've never been.
7. Playing a tune on a brand new musical instrument (or an old one that hasn't been touched for a long time).
8. Hearing an orchestra play an arrangement you've written and realizing there is nothing at all wrong with it.
9. That wonderful feeling of exhaustion that comes after a good performance, a good sports match, a long hike, or something much more intimate.
10. Getting yet another tag done and out of the someone can lob another one at me!

Okay, that was fun. Now it's time for coffee and chocolate.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Mounds of Mystery

Along the route I take to and from Ye Olde Academy there is a place where the road goes around a sharp bend tucked into the side of a steep hill. The side of the hill was thickly forested with trees that hung out over the road, and it had a very eerie atmosphere to it. Since the road was also kind of narrow and broken, it was a place I was only too happy to pass through as quickly as possible, especially after dark. Then a few years ago I noticed that the woods there had been thinned out a bit and the trees hanging over the road cut back. Soon work had started on what looked like a path, and the side of the road facing the woods was marked at intervals by what looked like miniature torii. Then, just over a year ago, the city of Kashima put up a very conspicuous sign on the corner identifying the site and indicating its significance. It's called "Meotozuka Kofun" (literally "Husband and Wife Burial Mound"), and it's an ancient kofun, i.e. a tumulus dating from the appropriately-named Kofun Era (250-538 a.d./c.e., or early Yamato period).

Since I drove by that sign and obviously ongoing work about a dozen times a week, I was always tempted to stop there and have a look, but I never got around to it. Well, today I had to drop by the school for a quick errand with my kids in tow, so I figured it was as good a time as any to find my round to-it.

This is the sign the city put up on the corner along the main route, looking away from the mound. The white letters on the turquoise background read "Kashima City Designated Historical Ruin". The large, dark-colored script reads "Meotozuka Kofun", and the smaller letters beneath it spell out the unusual name "Fubaicho" (kind of archaic, but would mean "accompanying mounds" or possibly even "retainers' mounds"), which is a cluster of smaller, satellite burial mounds in the same area. The white writing on black at the bottom with the arrow indicates a parking area, but the only one we could see was a recently-widened shoulder on the side of the road. I went ahead and parked near the nearby trailhead.

Work on the path has been proceeding very slowly and is clearly far from complete, which has made me wonder whether it is actually a neighborhood project rather than a municipal one. (Then again, Kashima has never seemed to be all that concerned about improving its image, unlike the neighboring city of Kamisu, which would be on anything with any tourist potential like fruit flies on a rotten banana.) I also can't help but wonder about the flowers placed at the trail entrance. Yes, I realize that this is a grave, but I sincerely doubt the people living nearby are direct descendants!

Here is the main tumulus viewed end-on. It is actually about 75m in length and has the keyhole shape typical of burial mounds for people of importance. If you look closely, you can see a lot of little stumps where smaller trees were cleared out to make the mound more visible. It used to be completely overgrown.

After looping a quarter of the way around the mound (and passing one of the satellite mounds), the path leads to a large, fresh-looking clearing that is obviously being developed into a sort of park. A large area marked with ribboned stakes has a sign indicating it is actually the parking area (probably due to be graveled if not paved eventually). There are also a couple of new-looking potties (but my son freaked out when he tried to use it because there was a huge spider on a web inside). A large, new sign gives a detailed, contour-map depiction of the various mounds and explains that Meotozuka Kofun was built in the early 6th century as the burial place for a clan chieftain and his wife. Apparently the contents of the satellite mounds is still a bit of a mystery.

Oddly enough, however, is this sign, perched at the edge of the tumulus' surrounding ditch. It gives the name of the tumulus (Meotozuka Kofun) superimposed over an image of its shape. The post seems rather new, but the sign itself is quite old. There is also a small, vaguely gazebo-like structure nearby which doesn't really look new. It contains only a few old metal chairs set facing the mound. Obviously the park and trail work is new, but the site itself has been known, designated, and visited for quite some time (though it's not on any of the maps or in any of the city's guides). I'm not really sure what the gazebo is all about, though, except that it faces directly toward what was probably once (and may still be) a shrine atop the mound, and there is a fire pit nearby. Have they been performing rituals there? Hmm...

As I was reading the new interpretive sign, my son noticed some old, log steps set directly in the middle of the tumulus and immediately made a beeline for them, crying, "Papa, papa, there's something up there! Look!" But when my daughter then said, "What are you doing, you idiot? That's a giant grave," he immediately froze and then tried to act non-chalant. His sister's warning that he might get cursed encouraged him to high-tail it back out of there...still trying to act like nothing happened. (It was pretty funny.)

We stuck to the loop path instead, but it wasn't long before we found where the work was still unfinished. (Directly ahead is the main road and an apartment block across the street. The whole area to the left has been cleared out quite a bit, [robinleach]and I don't know why![/robinleach] Maybe they're planning on making a whole picnic area with a view out over the lake. That would be cool!)

For a brief period the path vanished altogether, and we had to pick our way along the base of the tumulus. The kids seemed pretty nervous, especially since the ground was a crunchy layer of peat (humus?) that was tricky to walk on, but it wasn't long before we were on a finished trail lined with logs and paved with barkdust. It was actually darker than it looks in this picture (my camera adjusted for the light).

The trees growing on the tumulus are a mix of sugi and a few different dissiduous (i.e. they lose their leaves) types. The ones up on top look rather old and gnarled. If I had a bit more time (and a few less antsy kids) maybe I'll go have a look up there.

Not all is dark and eerie, however. Here are some pansies growing near the front sign. Flowers of the same type and color were planted either on the ground or in planters in various locations in the park. Grave memorial flowers for someone who died 1500 years ago? Hmm...

These fungi growing on a log also caught my eye. They seemed interesting and somehow colorful.

Unfortunately, the weather was even more colorful. It was calm and warm when we arrived and most of the time we were there, but there were also some clouds here and there that didn't look friendly. By the time we finished our visit and were heading back to the BLUE RAV4 it quickly turned several shades darker despite being mid-afternoon, and the sky over Lake Kitaura looked just plain bizarre, even spooky. We headed for home with a dark and ugly-looking thunderhead bearing down on us quickly from the West, but the sun was peeking through it here and there in streaks of bright light that were diffracting strangely, possibly because of desert dust blown over from Mongolia (a common occurrence this time of year). It wasn't long before rain started falling plop plop plop in slow, bloated drops that left yellow, grainy stains on my windshield. By the time we were across the Kitaura Great Bridge there was a steady downpour, and the wind was kicking up high waves.

And then, just as suddenly as they had started, the wind and rain stopped as soon as we came close to home. However, as we pulled into the local Seimiya Supermarket/Shopping Mall for a few errands, we were still being glared at by that freaky-looking sky:


It cleared up soon after we got home, but it has stayed eerily cold...and windy...clear up till now. Weird.

Was I supposed to pray or leave a sacrifice at that tumulus? Hmm...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Updates and Downdates

Gee, it has been a while since I've posted anything. I've been suffering from a lack of time, energy, and motivation. I'll go ahead and stick something in now in hopes that I'll be able to write something more interesting later.
I've never been one to put biblical admonitions on this site. After all, its main purpose is to illustrate my life here in Japan, so I've always tried to keep it as politically and spiritually neutral as possible (while putting my rants on other sites). However, recent events have kept me thinking about one particular Bible teaching, specifically the one about "turning the other cheek". I seriously have to wonder about what it really means.

Regardless of your own religious background, I'm sure you're familiar with the teaching. Jesus said that, if someone slaps your right cheek, you should respond by offering him your left cheek to slap, as well. You know what that means, don't you? The generally accepted interpretation is that, even if he falls victim to aggression, a true Christian should offer submission rather than resistance. In short, it is a lesson in humility.

Or is it? Let's just think about this now. I once read a very interesting article about that particular teaching ( link at present, but maybe I'll look for one later). It made perfect sense, and it really got my mind going. Jesus said if someone slaps your right cheek you should offer your left one. Now tell me; assuming your aggressor is both right-handed and facing you, how does he slap your RIGHT cheek?

Answer: he backhands you. In the Roman Empire, backhanding someone was an act of degradation. It was what parents did to children, teachers did to students, masters did to slaves, soldiers did to prisoners, Roman citizens did to non-citizens. It was the same as saying, "You insignificant scum! " On the other hand, a slap on the left cheek, i.e. a full, open slap, would have been seen as an act of violent provocation directed at an equal. Such an act would actually reflect badly on the slapper, for it would show him to be ill-mannered and boorish. In other words, in Rome, if someone slapped your right cheek he would be someone of superior class humiliating you, but if he slapped your left cheek he would be an asshole. In that respect, the teaching could very well be interpreted as: "If someone tries to push you around, stand your ground." Jesus really urging humility, or is he telling Christians not to be intimidated in the face of bullying or harassment?

Like I said, I've been thinking a lot about this for a number of reasons. There have been plenty of situations lately when I've had to debate whether "turning the other cheek" means just to smile and pretend to enjoy the mud or to turn around and smear it on certain rather deserving people, such as:
(This portion of the post has been removed by the blog administrator.)
Speaking of the executive committee, last Saturday was the dreaded PTA General Assembly (fanfare played by banging head on keyboard). I was put in charge of getting the microphones and sound system set up but told I didn't have to do anything (i.e. the chairman did it himself rather than allow me to execute my responsibility). As it turned out, the whole mike thing wound up being a nasty mess of miscommunication, conflicting schedules, changing priorities, and general lack of thought. I wasn't about to let it go (since I'd probably wind up being the scapegoat), so I jumped in and personally helped the chief of the broadcast media club fix everything. Problem solved.

Part of General Assembly Day (BANG BANG BANG) was the District PTA meetings, something they started last year. This year I was put in charge of the district in which I live. I carefully reconfirmed everything I needed to do and consulted with everyone that was involved. Just before the actual meeting, I quickly called the teachers in my staff together for a quick briefing. I explained what to do, following the recommendations set forth by the committee chairman and last year's chief. As it turned out, one of my vice-chiefs didn't attend my briefing, and when the meeting actually started he immediately took over, issuing orders that at times directly contradicted my instructions. Half the staff followed what I said, the other half followed what the vice-chief said, and we were left with a horrible mess. Add to that the fact that a couple of the teachers in my staff never even tried to listen to my instructions, went off on their own tangents, failed to do their jobs, did things that actually interfered with the whole project, whined about it when I told them it was unacceptable, and drove me to make them go back and do their jobs over again properly...until the vice-chief countermanded me on account of "lack of time"...and you had some pretty bad comedy. I made a pretty big stink about it at the next executive committee meeting before anyone had a chance to blame me for the mess. (At least the vice-chief of my district apologized. Damned straight!)
On a brighter note (D. I've always liked D), my in-laws and I have compromised and are cooperating on the garden thing. My father-in-law is still not being entirely rational (no surprises there), but my mother-in-law has been really good about it so far and has also been moderating. The fact is that they apparently thought they were helping me by taking over the project (since I was clearly too busy with my job). It's just the sad fact of my FIL's meddlesome, self-important, "save the people from themselves" attitude that led him to change my plans and redo things in his own "more enlightened" way. At the same time, though I was a little upset at first when MIL went ahead and set a whole row of planters along the inside edge of my decorative path, which I'd intended to line with stones or bricks to make a flowerbed on the other side, I realized that it was actually a good idea. MIL offered to move the planters as soon as FIL finished his work, but we both decided it's best just to leave them there...killing three birds with one stone. Definitely a productive compromise.

Actually, the patio and decorative path that I made are still there and in more or less good condition. The only problem is the drainpipe, which FIL has plugged up for good on account of the brick-and-rock "table" and new flowerbed that he has set up directly in front of it. Water does drain off the patio normally, but it still tends to pool up a bit in that corner. The pipe solved that problem, but now that it's full of mud it has created a new problem, i.e. muddy backflow. (I may try running a longer pipe under the "table" and along the new flowerbed to the back corner, but I'll worry about that later.) The lilies that they went ahead and planted in the flowerbed I made have already sprouted and are coming along nicely. Meanwhile, FIL actually followed my lead and used the same design I did for my flowerbed on the new one he made (respect for my work? Wow!).

As it turns out, I unwittingly got a bit of revenge. Most of the garden spaces in the backyard are horribly overgrown. It's a total mess. The main reason is that, unlike the grandparents that lived there before, my in-laws believe in "natural gardening", i.e. most of the plants are there because the seeds arrived naturally. Such an approach means there is a wide variety of flowers there without much work, but it also means it's often hard to distinguish the weeds from the desirable plants. That can present a problem.

When I got a bit of free time one day I decided to leave off my own garden work for a while (since FIL was still in the thick of it) and do some weeding and trimming all around. In the process I noticed one type of plant that had sprouted in more than one location all over the back yard. They were big plants, kind of ugly, and they looked totally out of place. Only one of them was even in a flowerbed, and it didn't look like it belonged there. One was right under the clotheslines, and another was right in the middle of the main path, i.e. in the way. I'd never noticed them before, but they were huge. I was surprised the in-laws had let them grow like that, but they'd let other weeds go nuts and get in the way before, so I chalked it up to similar apathy on their part. I immediately went to work yanking up all of them, doing my best to make sure I got the entire roots out as well.

Guess what? They were wild hydrangeas. They'd taken root naturally, but MIL had been taking care of them. She says that, if I hadn't chopped them up, they would have produced gorgeous, BLUE flowers that would have been visible from the big, new bay window in our living room. Oops.

Oh, well. They would most DEFINITELY have been in the way if I'd left them. I only wish I could replant them somewhere else. Maybe I can put something else there...

Okay, 'nuff said for now. Hopefully I'll have something brighter to talk about soon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Great Kitaura Hike of 2007-Day Two

In our last episode:

It only took a few rounds of knocking on doors and scolding to get the kids to quiet down. I mean they were really quiet! Amazingly quiet! I was thankful, because it meant I might actually be able to get a much-needed good night's sleep during a school outing! What a concept!

And, as it turned out, what a total fiction! At approximately 3:00 a.m. I woke up suddenly to what sounded like a wolf on LSD howling at a (no doubt technicolor) moon. This was followed by a raucous chorus of adolescent male shouting and a lot of sickening thumps. The boys from Room One, who were in the room across the hall, had apparently lost their patience and/or fear of teacher retaliation, and they had launched themselves into full spastic mode.

The (not really very) funny thing about it was I was sharing a room with the homeroom teacher of Room One, and he just snored right through the whole room-mangling session, pagan ceremony, sacrifice of random underwear, or whatever was going on in that room. As for me, I felt too sore, burned out, and apathetic to move, so I just stayed put. Eventually (at about 4:30) the homeroom teacher of Room One finally woke up and went to admonish the boys, but unfortunately he's a notorious pussycat of a homeroom teacher, and the boys more or less ignored him. By the time they finally quieted down (at around 5:00) we could hear the whole mass of kids getting up and mobilizing themselves on their own, a full hour ahead of schedule, because they wanted to watch the sunrise over the far hills of Kashima on the other side of the lake.

At least that meant we didn't have to try to get them up. As it was, I had enough trouble getting myself up!

At 6:30 the kids gathered on the assembly ground for the "radio workout" session. Yes, every morning NHK radio (the state-sponsored station) plays a tune that's background music for an exercise session. Well, we couldn't use a radio, so the P.E. teachers in our grade staff brought a CD player and a dubbed CD copy of the "radio workout" tune.

The Hike18

Unfortunately, it turned out to be either a comedy of errors or some bizarre curse brought on by the Room One boys' pagan ritual (or sacrifice of underwear...whatever it was they were doing!). First the P.E. teachers put brand-new batteries in the CD player only to find out that the battery power didn't work for some reason. Someone ran inside and asked the camp staff for an extension cord, but about a quarter of the way through the routine the CD started skipping and repeating...which made for some very confused exercises before the teachers gave up, shut the poor machine off, and led the routine the traditional way, but calling it out.

The Hike19

After that I was asked to lead the kids in an a capella practice singing our school's song (because the accompanying tape was useless). First I tried to get the kids worked up and get a little spirit going, but there wasn't a whole lot there. This year's 7th graders as a whole are not a very responsive lot, but I did manage to get them to sing the school song with some small measure of energy.

After that my head began to ache, and I desperately wanted to go back to bed.

We had breakfast, which wasn't bad, but I had little appetite. After that the grade chief gave his morning inspirational anecdote/lecture, and I started feeling dizzy. Then it was time to pack up, clean the rooms, and move out, and I felt languid. I went to inspect the Room Three boys' room, got kow-towed again (this time they all yelled, "Sorry, [moody]-sama! Sorry, [moody]-sama," though I'm not sure what they were being sorry about!), and my headache got a lot worse. As we gathered up to move out, a couple of the teachers tried to talk to me, but I couldn't focus on what they were saying. We relocated to the cookout hall, where the students were to learn how to make udon noodles, and I felt a little nauseous and twice as heavy as usual. I noticed that all the other teachers had come equipped with aprons, towels, and gear to make noodles themselves, but somehow I either hadn't been informed or, more likely, had slept through the obscenely dull yammering session meeting in which they'd discussed it, and I felt really irritated. I tried to listen to the cooking instructor's lecture, but my mind started losing all cohesion, and I soon felt as though I was suffering from a terrible hangover.

I couldn't take it anymore. I ducked outside for some fresh air. Next thing I knew, the nurse had me lie down in the school van, where I managed a two-hour nap before I just got too restless (and tired of teachers opening the doors and rustling through bags), got up, and went back in again. I was just in time to get a bowl of udon, which hit the spot, and then I went to work helping clean up the horrible mess.

(Did you know that udon starch makes a very good glue? That would be nice if I were actually using it as glue instead of trying to scrape it off the side of a one-meter-wide pot!)

We finally got the mess tackled about an hour behind schedule, so the students' "impressions about the experience" speech session was mercifully cut in half. Then we went outside with our luggage, and each of the five rooms posed for the obligatory photos.

(Sorry...I had to remove the picture of my class I'd posted here out of reasons of PRIVACY. I hope the spies are satisfied.)

The bus ride back was quick, but with my headache returning, it wasn't quick enough. Back at Ye Olde Academy, the other teachers discussed having dinner and/or drinks afterward, but I just wasn't in the mood or the condition, so I took my leave...only to be called by my wife on my cell phone and asked to go haul some furniture.

Maybe someday I'll actually get some rest. Oh, well. Chalk up another adventure in the ongoing saga of my days at Ye Olde Academy!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Great Kitaura Hike of 2007-Day One

As if leaving elementary school and entering Ye Olde Academy weren't adventure enough, the Powers That Be (slap-brass Fmaj7add9 chord followed by a corny bass hook) decided to kick it all off with an adventure.

As if the Sports Festival and all the practice leading up to it hadn't been enough of a workout, the Powers That Be (repeat last fanfare) decided to follow it up with an even bigger workout.

I actually participated in the first 7th grade study camp, which took place back in 2003. At that time we just rode buses to the Shirayama Youth Nature House, a prefecture-run camp/convention center, and did a whole bunch of activities once we were there. This time the location was the same, but the content was very different. You see, this time getting there was more than half the battle. We actually hiked the entire 15-kilometer (about nine and a half miles) distance from Ye Olde Academy to SYNH with backpacks.

I realize that was nothing compared with the backpacking I did back in my own school days, but you have to remember that these kids lead very sheltered lives. Moreover, it had been years since I had hiked any distance with a backpack, let alone 15 kilometers (with 150+ spastic adolescents)!

It was cloudy and rather chilly when we assembled at the north parking lot of Ye Olde Academy, but the sky cleared almost as soon as we set out. When we turned off the main road onto the hill that would take us down to Lake Kitaura, we were greeted by a patch of wild hanging wisteria up in a tree.

Hike Prelude

Wisteria was the symbol of the once-almighty Fujiwara clan, who controlled the Imperial Family during the Heian Era (late 8th to 11th centuries, one of Japan's golden ages). I took it as a good omen.

Eventually we found Lake Kitaura.

The Hike1

As you can see from the water in this pic, we also found the wind. It was blowing hard.

The Hike2

The kids were all supposed to be wearing hats to protect them from the sun. Most of them opted for Ye Olde Academy's official hat (as did I). The strong gusts meant most of the hike was an ongoing battle between hat and wind. Quite often the wind won, and the sight of a kid running after his or her hat was a common one. Then there were times, like in this pic, when kids sent their friends after their hats.

The Hike3

It wasn't long before many if not most of the students gave up on the hat thing altogether.

The view as we went along was mainly the choppy lake (actually, the word root "ura" in the name "Kitaura" means "salt-water lake" or "large lagoon", and that's what it is. Actually, "sound" is probably a better translation, but whatever) on the left and either grass or endless expanses of rice paddies on the right.

The Hike4

However, every once in a while we were greeted by something different, such as this tiny Shinto shrine on an island in the paddies. (I would've gone closer, but the trail was separated from it by a steep bank and a canal.)

The Hike5

Eventually fatigue, apathy, and social concerns began to affect the students, and our formation suddenly fragmented into chunks of mixed classes. After stopping to take the shrine pic I wound up in a gap between such chunks.

The Hike6

Occasionally we'd round a bend and the wind would suddenly die down. The flatness of the terrain also brought about some interesting optical illusions. Things that looked to be just right up ahead would turn out to be far away once we went around another bend or cleared an interloping rise.

The Hike7

Eventually we stopped for lunch at a small pier and harbor next to one of the many locks. The wind was screaming, so a lot of kids' garbage (which they were supposed to port) wound up "accidentally" flying away.

The Hike8

One of our school vans remained on standby to haul away kids that were overcome with fatigue or whatever. In this case, it was serving as a shuttle to a nearby elementary school, where the kids could take a toilet break. (I decided just to deal with it till we got there.)

(picture censored for reasons of PRIVACY)

Yes, the kids were tired, and some of them were already kind of fed up with the whole thing, but it didn't seem to dampen their spirits any.

The Hike13

Here's a shot of the shrine that stands in the middle of Lake Kitaura. For much of our hike it was just on the horizon, visible just over the rise of the land, and it seemed to be getting nearer and nearer. Then we cleared the rise, and Presto! As you can see, it was still quite far away! I guess it was the same optical illusion that gives rise to the Harvest Moon.

The Hike14

Another incidental view, this time of some white storks hunting frogs in a rice paddy...

The Hike15

...a truck with a load of rice sprouts ready for planting...

The Hike16

...and heeeeeeere's the planter! (Actually, I tried to get a shot of the thing in action, but the driver suddenly pulled up on the bank and jumped off just as I was getting my camera ready. The JERK!!!! )

The Hike17

Finally, ofter several hours of walking, we drew near to the Sun Bridge (also known as the "Kitaura Great Bridge"), with the Shirohama Youth Nature House near the other side. Our hike was almost over.

Once we finally got there, the kids were assigned their rooms, received their bedding, unpacked, and assembled for an hour of "getting-acquainted activities" (no pics, unfortunately) before bathing, having dinner...and then attending a "how to study effectively" seminar followed by an hour of supervised homework. (That's right; having any kind of fun was strictly against the rules this year.)

As for me, I was surprised at how good I felt. Mentally, I was still feeling very drained by the stress I'd been suffering, much if not most due to the family problems at home. However, physically I was in excellent shape. In fact, when I realized I'd forgotten to pack my shampoo I promptly took advantage of the students' bathing time to run down to the nearest 7-11 (about a kilometer away) and buy some! (In retrospect, that was probably the straw that broke the camel's back, but anyway...)

The kids were told to be prepared to bed down for the night at 9:30. Lights out was at 10:00. At both those times I went to check on the boys of my class, who were all in one, big room. Both times I went there the boys leapt from their futons, kow-towed in front of me, and chanted, "[Moody]-sama! [Moody]-sama!" (Sama is a high-level honorific. If -san is equivalent to English "sir", -sama is more like "lord"!) Nothing like that had ever happened to me before in the eleven years I've been a full-time teacher at Ye Olde Academy, so I wasn't sure quite what to make of it. Unfortunately, our grade's disciplinarian showed up right behind me and, seeing the boys kow-towing and chanting instead of in their futons, promptly blew up at them. (I felt bad about that.)

It only took a few rounds of knocking on doors and scolding to get the kids to quiet down. I mean they were really quiet! Amazingly quiet! I was thankful, because it meant I might actually be able to get a much-needed good night's sleep during a school outing! What a concept!

To be continued...

And If Anyone Is STILL Interested...

I just added another musical "era" to my Minstrel's Muse site. As I'm still working chronologically backward, this one, the "Blue Era", covers the period from 1992 to 1993, which was both very eventful and very productive. It was kind of a troubled time, but it inspired some pretty good songwriting, I think...though my studio production was nothing like it is today. Go on and give it a listen!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Flowerbeds and Family Politics

One of the few sad results of our recent home improvement was that we lost a lot of the garden in front. Last year we dug it back about three meters to make room for the expansion. This year we dug it back a little more and also cleared out a wide swath of trees, rocks, and potted plants to create more space for the workers. It made perfect sense while the work was in progress. After it was done, however, we were left with a sadly barren, lonely-looking, clay-filled gap between the house and the remaining garden.

That got my creative wheels turning.

I asked my in-laws if they minded if I did a bit of landscaping on my own. My MIL thought it sounded like a great idea. My FIL, who is strangely reluctant to let me do any kind of work myself (even while he gripes that I never do enough around the homestead), told me it would probably be too much trouble and recommended I just let it be for the time being. It only took a little bit of pressing for him to change his mind and give me his blessing. The timing was just right. A combination of substitute holidays for Ye Olde Academy's sports festival and Golden Week gave me several days in a row to play with and nothing in particular to do (not to mention the in-laws and our children being gone for a couple of days), so I decided to use that time and beautify the ground in front of the house.

The first thing I did was lay down a sort of brick patio next to the porch. It wasn't particularly big, so I didn't bother going to too much effort. No gravel bed or matting underneath, just a good, strong loam made of mud, sand, and ash to glue the bricks in place. It took a bit to get the ground flat but not perfectly level (to allow drainage). Unfortunately, the grade of the land meant one corner was up against a dirt bank, and I discovered water tended to pool up there, washing mud back onto the patio before draining off. I solved that problem by digging a shallow trench around the patio, filling it with decorative gravel, and also extending a small drainpipe from the corner bank.

Next I set a brick step into the bank and laid down a small path of decorative gravel between the garden and the house. I used some old ceramic roof tiles to shore up the dug-out bank of the garden. I also hauled some leftover stones from where they'd been dumped and arranged them so that they secured the bank over the patio, protected the drainpipe, walled one side of the path, and formed a circular flowerbed. I knew it would probably be a good idea to wall off the other side of the path with bricks or something, but I decided to wait. After all, I had already put in a good many hours of work (and a fair amount of money) on the thing, and I was tired.

My in-laws, with our children in tow, came back the evening after I finished, and they were surprised and impressed at my bit of landscaping. They both said I'd done an excellent job and told me to keep it up. Then my FIL asked me if I planned to plant something in the circular flowerbed. I said yes, but I was still thinking about it. Then my MIL informed me that my uncle-in-law (the carpenter who built our house) had given us some lily seeds from Hokkaido. I said that would be great, but I recommended they wait until my work in that area was finished.

The next day we were hit by heavy rains that lasted all day. I was worried my work would be washed away, but apparently my makeshift drainage system worked. Not only did the patio, step, path, and flowerbed remain intact, but the patio stayed remarkably clear of water even during heavy downpours. I was relieved, and I patted myself on my back for having done a good job.

Then I came home from work the next day and just about puked. You see, my work had survived the weather okay, but it had been less fortunate against FIL's cavalier attitude. You see, he had decided to go ahead and plant the lilies in my flowerbed immediately instead of doing as I'd asked and waiting for me to finish my work. The soil in the flowerbed had still been hard-packed clay, so he'd gone at it with a hoe with his usual, recklessly cavalier "whatever works for me" attitude...flinging dirt and rocks in all directions. The patio (and our house's front porch) was covered with mud. There were also little heaps of dirt and clods all over the decorative gravel path. Several of the large stones had been knocked all over the place by the hoe and/or FIL's careless tromping about, damaging the bank, screwing up the shape of the flowerbed, and burying the drainpipe.

I confronted FIL with the issue (albeit politely, since I just wasn't in the mood for a spat and might have killed him if one happened), and he was totally unapologetic. He'd been totally unaware of my design plans for the area (even though MIL understood perfectly and got on his case about it), and he frankly didn't give a damn. The only thing that mattered to him was that he'd gotten the lilies planted.

"Those are Hokkaido lilies," he said in his Great Educator tone, offering up one of those pure, unadulterated bullshit meaningless, self-glorifying (self-deifying?) lectures that make me want to wring the mother fucker's scrawny neck that he's so famous for whenever he can't explain his actions logically. "You have to understand that the soil we have here is special soil. It's unusual. There's nothing like it anywhere else in this neighborhood or even on this property. It's just perfect for Hokkaido lilies. Nothing else will work for them, especially store-bought soil. They have to be planted now, and they have to be planted there. Nothing else matters right now."

"Alright," I said more than a little menacingly, "the lilies are fine. However, I will fix the damage you caused, and I'd appreciate it if you'd be a bit more careful next time you suddenly decide to go in there while I'm out."

As I left, MIL started scolding him, but he just shook his head and said, "Whatever."

It was already dark, but I took the opportunity of uncovering the drainpipe and replacing the stones as best I could. This morning before I left for work I swept off the porch and patio, but couldn't get them clean. I'm hoping to straighten the rest up and do a bit more landscaping later in the week, but I'm almost afraid to go home today. I'm almost worried he either dug up the flowerbed worse, making an even bigger mess, or decided the flowerbed wasn't big enough and wiped everything out. No, I wouldn't put it beyond him...especially since he seems to have a problem with the idea of me doing anything without his "involvement". And now we no longer have the luxury of my uncle-in-law to keep him from shoving his nose in and screwing everything up. politics...

UPDATE: Well, I came home from work today after all (obviously), and what I found surprised me. The patio was dirty again, as expected, though not as bad this time. It turns out that FIL apparently decided that the "special soil" wasn't special enough, because he had filled my flowerbed with a nice, thick layer of fresh topsoil (clearly from somewhere else...on top of the 20 lily seeds he'd planted?)...and then apparently run through it with his wheelbarrow so he could start weeding the rear part of the garden! (What was he saying about not planning to do anything in that garden because it was too much trouble and he had too many other things to do? Oh, well!) He'd cleared some of the stones to allow the wheelbarrow passage, but nothing that couldn't be easily fixed. He'd also put in a new wall of cement blocks between my flowerbed and the area next to the fish pond, which was a good idea. And he left the drainpipe alone. It looks like he cleaned up some of the dirt he'd dumped on the gravel path, too, so I guess I'd better chill.

Hopefully I'll get more pleasant than unpleasant surprises with this thing...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

And Now...The Moment You've All Been Waiting For:

(Well, okay, maybe some of you have been waiting for this, but anyway...

I will begin with a little bit of background.

foundation kids2

This is what the front of our house used to look like. When my in-laws had it built 36 years ago they never really intended to live in it apart from the upstairs bedrooms. The house had a very traditional Japanese design, i.e. most of the outer walls were sliding glass doors that open into an outer hallway ringing the living areas. However, although there was a porch, there was never a proper front door, let alone a genkan (entry vestibule), so we had to keep our shoes outside. In this picture, taken in March of last year, you can see where we laid down the foundation. That can give you an idea of how far we extended the front of the house.


This is what the front of the house looks like now. As you can see, all of the sliding glass doors are gone, and we now have a real front door. We also have a big bay window in front. (Both the front door and window were shipped down from Hokkaido by my uncle-in-law the carpenter, who was dissatisfied with all the locally-made models he saw.)


Pulling back a little bit, you can see the front window on my son's new bedroom to the left. You may also note the skylight over the living room. It is also obvious from this pic that our upper floor was untouched, so it is still the original size (and the aluminum siding is horizontal, whereas it is vertical...the usual way it's done here...on the ground floor).


Now we are looking in through the front door into the genkan (vestibule, which is longer than it appears in this picture) and the foyer behind it. This is perhaps my only disappointment with our rebuild (other than the mismatched aluminum siding), the fact that the enormous shoe cabinet on the right, which can hold 100 pairs, makes the entry so narrow. It sure didn't look that big in the catalog when we decided to order it! Oh, well. At least we have room for all my wife's shoes now. I also like the fact that we have lots of real doors inside...doors that LATCH!


Here's a view of the genkan and front door from the inside, giving a better idea of its layout. (Tora couldn't resist getting into the shot.)

old lvgroom

Please don't look at this picture too long. This is a shot taken last January (on my birthday) to show you what our "living room" USED to look like. As you can see, it was surrounded by traditional Japanese shoji (sliding wall partitions made of framed paper). It was also tiny. The kotatsu (electric, foot-warming table) and surrounding sofas pretty much filled it up. If you were to turn around, the TV would be right in front of your face, with the doorways to the kitchen and study on either side. (Any guesses as to which one is me?)


This is a picture taken today from the same corner, but turned a bit more to the right. As you can see, things are completely different now. The shoji and outer hallway are gone, and we now have a "real" living room...more than twice as large as it used to be. The space occupied by the old "living room", which is just out of the picture on the left, is now a dining area with a table, chairs, pantries, and a piano(?). Space is no longer at a premium. Also, with the bay window, skylight, and light-colored wallpaper and ceiling, things look much brighter!


The light from the bay window wiped out this pic, but I included it anyway so you can see the ceiling fan (I'd always wanted one of those!) and the beautiful windowsill and chest of drawers my uncle-in-law built under the bay window. The latter is a combination of sugi, hinoki, and maple, and it's just beautiful. (The drawers were a bit hard to open until I gave them a shot of silicone spray, but that's cool.)


Looking to the right at our new TV/stereo setup (the flat-screen TV is brand new...a birthday present for my wife) and the door to my son's new bedroom..with a real, latching door. (He is tickled pink finally to have a room of his own rather than share with his sister!) You can also see where we now keep our fax/phone...and that damned phone line from our satellite TV tuner! (I'm gonna tack it to the door frame eventually...just haven't gotten around to it yet.)


Alright, just for good measure I decided to throw this in. I don't have any pictures of our old bathroom (thank God), but the toilet was a Japanese-style "squattie" tucked back under the stairs (and I was always banging my head!). Now we have a brand new, separate water closet with a Western-style toilet...and what a machine it is! We knew it had a heated seat and a bidet when we ordered it, but it is fully automated! In other words, it opens for you when you enter the room, flushes automatically (or when you push buttons on a control panel over the toilet paper dispenser), and closes again when you leave. It also plays music from mp3 files on an SD card. (Right now it has a selection of light classical, nature sounds, and Japanese koto music, but I'm thinking of torturing everyone by popping in a card full of...something else...he he...)

And that, my friends, should give you a basic idea of what we've done with the house. For a number of reasons I haven't shown you the new bathroom sink/mirror, which is huge and has a detachable, extendable multi-nozzle spigot. I also haven't included pics of the kitchen, which has been widened and now has more than twice as much walking space, and the study, which also has a much better layout than it used to. We also refloored my daughter's room and put her bed up on a cabinet frame to give her storage space underneath. Yes, we've been busy, and there's still quite a bit left to do. We also dumped a bundle, but nowhere near what a whole, new house would have cost...and that's what it seems like! (Now, what to tackle next...the garden or the upper floor...?)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Just so this doesn't get missed...

It has been a while since I've done a word verification poem, and now Olivia has given me a challenge (in the comment thread for the DS Lite post below)! Well, m'lady, I have risen to the occasion, and here it is:

Delightful, now a challenge given forth!
Queen Arty wants me to do this again!
West winds are blowing, but they're turning north,
Green fighting ice; I wonder which will win.
Alas, indeed I'm seeing blue,
But it is not from me or you.
We've friends who need a shoulder true.