Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, October 29, 2007

2007: A Splash Costcodyssey

I needed to go to Costco.

In fact, I REALLY needed to go to Costco. Not only did I need to stock up on some items not usually available at the local supermarkets (at least not without having to forfeit a vital organ), but Halloween (Samhain, "Harvest Festival", whatever) was coming fast. Kids at Ye Olde Academy were already starting to barge their way into the English department office after school yelling, "Trick or treat!" Trying to deny them was like trying to keep a school of pirahnas off of a wading cow; you could hold a few of them off, but the others would have their mitts in the jelly bean jar in an instant. And that was almost a week before Halloween. It was clear I wouldn't stand an Avon lady's chance in Kandahar of surviving the feeding frenzy on the 31st if I didn't have a decent stock on hand.

As it turned out, my wife had to go with her school's volleyball team to a practice meet for most of the day on Saturday, so that left me and the kids with nothing to do. It was a good chance to get the necessary mission out of the way. As soon as we were all finished eating breakfast and cleaning up, I loaded myself and the kids into my BLUE RAV4 and headed southwest.

The weather forecast had warned that it would be a rainy day, and they were right. There was a bit of rain falling when we headed out, but not bad. Visibility was good, and there was little standing water on the pavement, but I still figured I'd forego my usual fast pace and travel at a nice, easy cruise. By the time we passed the Narita exit on the freeway the rain had increased considerably. When I pulled off at the Makuhari Messe exit it was a raging downpour. It was a good thing that Costco was relatively uncrowded; I was able to park inside the garage instead of up on the roof for the first time ever.

Thanks to the lack of crowds, shopping went quickly and easily. I already had a good idea of what I wanted to get, so I didn't need to muck around much. Inevitably, I saw a lot of items that were too tempting to pass up, so I wound up with a bit more fluff in my cart than I'd planned (Costco's most severe danger). The only disappointment was the Halloween goods. There weren't any. I was told there were lots the week before, but they had already been replaced with Christmas stuff. Oh, well. I was still able to get pumpkins and candy, the main point of the trip in the first place. I finished the shopping, paid (almost a week's salary...AAAAH!!!!) for the lot, and jammed it all into the back of my car by around noon, far sooner than I'd expected. In fact, that gave us a bit more time to play around with, so I suggested to the kids that we have lunch at Subway (warm, cheesy fanfare) ...the first time in ages. Needless to say, they were pretty excited.

The only Subway outlet that I knew within a 20-kilometer radius was the one I sometimes go to over in Sakurai City, but that was a bit out of our way. Figuring there had to be a closer one, I fired up the R2 unit navi system, and it told me there were several within 10 kilometers. I locked onto the closest one, which was only one kilometer away, and drove out of the parking garage...into a screaming cloudburst. Visibility was basically spit (well, rainwater, anyway...) so I just followed the navi system blindly. It led me to the complex of shopping malls in the center of the Makuhari Messe area, so I headed for the parking garage that was nearest the Subway's indicated location. I then spent something like ten or fifteen minutes circling around until I was able to grab a free parking space. Then we got out of the car and quickly found out that:
  1. There were no connecting passages between the various shopping malls, and even the bridges linking their upper floors were open to the elements. Needless to say, we got soaked.
  2. The Subway had recently gone out of business and had been replaced by a Tully's Coffee.
We were bummed (and wet) but not defeated. We went back to the car and spent almost five minutes threading our way back out of the labyrinthe of that parking garage. Then I asked Sir Navi for the next Subway on the list. It showed there was one a little over three kilometers away, so I headed for it. Of course, "three kilometers" was definitely "as the crow flies", and the maze of twisty, little roads, all alike, that we wound up on ("plugh") made for considerably more travel distance than that. We finally spotted the Subway (yaaaaay!) embedded in the back of a large Jusco shopping center, so I pulled into its parking garage...and spent a good fifteen minutes circling through its labyrinthe of a parking garage until I gave up and parked on the roof. When we left the car and sprinted for the store entrance the rain was coming down in sheets.

I tell you, those Subway sandwiches were wonnnnnnderful...

We ordered one more foot-long sandwich to take home to my wife, and we headed back through the store to get to the car. Of course, the kids spotted a video game arcade along the way, and they just HAD to play one game of "DragonQuest Monster Duel" before we could go. (Otherwise there would have been a disastrous conjunction between critical points of six hundred sixty-six different planes of existence that would have summoned Satan, Sauron, Morgoth, Lord Foul, Arawn, Juiblex, Slaanesh, Gargamel, Nyarlathotep, Mullah Omar, PeeWee Herman, Soft Cell, the Strontium Fuller Brush Man, and maybe something even worse! Perish the thought!) Naturally, there was a whole line of kids backed up behind ONLY ONE MACHINE IN WORKING ORDER. That at least gave me time to look around in the bookstore and musical instrument shop, but by the time we got back to the car it was getting dark.

The journey home was scary. It was one thing to be trapped in traffic in one of the downtown districts of Chiba City during rush hour. It was something else altogether to be driving on the freeway in gale-force crosswinds and rain that might as well have been spray from a fire hose. Anytime a truck or bus came within fifty meters we were caught in a cloud of spray that made visibility more or less zero. All I could do was creep along keeping my eyes fixed on the lights of the car in front of me and hope he was in his lane. It was a damned good thing that we lost almost all of the traffic once we got past the Narita exit. Even then I had to deal with my car bucking like a bronco every time we went across a bridge and got caught in that crosswind. We were thankful to arrive home in one piece, though lugging the goods from the car to the house wasn't fun. A jet-ski probably would have sped things up, but I don't happen to own one.

It wasn't until after we got everything in the house, peeled off our soggy clothes, and turned on the TV that we found a typhoon warning was in effect. I guess that's what I get for not reading my newspaper. Oh, well. Another Saturday, another tale to blog about. Besides, I'm ready for Halloween!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

News of the Week (and the Weird)

Okay, allow me to take a bit of a risk here, but I just HAVE to talk about this...

It was near the end of lunch break on Thursday, and I was sitting in the music office at Ye Olde Academy. Suddenly the door opened, and in walked two 7th grade girls, both of whom were from my home room. One of them was lugging a music department CD player, and the other was thanking Mr. Ogawa for having let them borrow it.

Mr. Ogawa glanced up from his desk and asked, "So, how did the practice go?"

The girls responded by launching into a very emotional tirade. Not only had it not gone well, but it had been a total disaster. In fact, listening to them talk, it sounded like the class's entire effort to prepare for the upcoming Chorus Festival (mumbled, off-key fanfare) was a total disaster. I had heard that things hadn't been good, but I hadn't suspected the picture to be quite so bleak.

The fact is that something has been very wrong with our class ever since the school's Anniversary Festival last September. Up till then they had been a very bright, spirited bunch with lots of (maybe even too much) energy and personality. After the festival, however, it was like they'd all gone cold. During home room sessions and classes alike the kids would just sit at their desks dead silent, dark-faced, and distracted. You'd talk to them and, though they were quiet, you could just feel that they weren't hearing a word you said. Getting any kind of response out of them was like trying to encourage a moai to smile. Tellingly, if you split them up into groups they'd suddenly come alive, returning to their pre-festival exuberance as if nothing had ever changed, but once the whole class was reunited it was like switching off a record player in the middle of a tune (if you have any idea what I'm talking about). It wasn't just me, either; I heard identical complaints from just about every teacher dealing with that class. The ones that seemed the most concerned were Mr. Ogawa and our vocal music teacher. My class was lagging well behind the other 7th grade classes in preparation for the Choral Contest (mumbled, off-key fanfare). It was like they had started out by giving up.

Interestingly, however, though the home room teacher herself knew there were problems, she either didn't know or didn't pay any attention to how serious those problems had become. As a veteran teacher who has earned a lot of respect, particularly with regard to student guidance, her indifference to if not ignorance of the situation surprised and disturbed me, but as her assistant I didn't want to overstep my boundaries.

Well, now it was clear to me that things were reaching a breaking point, so I decided to take a risk and take some action. Thursday is my home room teacher's "training day", so she usually leaves the class in my care, as she had on that day. I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity. As soon as lunch break ended I entered a room reservation in the computer. After sixth period ended I ran around to ask some favors from a few teachers, and then I went to closing home room. I quickly called the zombies kids to their desks, got them to at least pretend to turn their attention to me, gave my closing announcements with record speed, and then finished with a declaration that shocked all the kids out of their dark stupor:

"Today all cleaning details are canceled. We will now assemble in the AV Room for some intense practice for the Chorus Contest (mumbled, off-key fanfare). I will conduct it personally. Dismissed."

The kids immediately gathered themselves together and marched off to the AV Room, chattering among themselves in a confused manner. This was something they hadn't expected, and they didn't seem to know how to deal with it.

Once we were in the AV Room I told them to form up as if they were on stage. Most of them did so immediately, but some of the boys went right into horseplay mode. The looks of annoyance on the others' faces told me that that had been a regular problem.

"Look you guys," I said, "is the team going to work together, or are we going to give up and go home? You choose."

The boys told me they wanted the team to work together and fell into their ranks.

"Great," I said with a smile. "Now, where are the accompanist and the conductor?"

Gasps. Looks of bewilderment. "B-but sensei, we haven't gotten that far yet! We can only sing along with the CD..."

I shook my head. "I didn't bring you here to listen to a CD. I brought you here because I want to hear what you can do. Where are the accompanist and the conductor?"

The accompanist and conductor for the compulsory piece sheepishly came forward, and the kids performed it. Actually, it wasn't what I'd expected at all. The kids sounded pretty good and, amazingly, were very much in tune! The problem was that they were singing the whole thing stuck in pianissimo mode (i.e. a couple of crickets and a medium-sized housefly could have overpowered them). It sounded like only two or three members of each section were singing while the others just pretended. I called them on that. I also led them through some warm-up exercises that my high school a cappella choir used to use. I'm sure most of the kids found it all bizarre if not amusing, but they participated, and we actually had some fun with it. After that they actually managed to coax a bit more gusto out of their singing.

The accompanist for the free piece was missing, so we used the CD, and I conducted. It was a more difficult piece, but now the class seemed a bit more fired up. The boys were still far weaker than the girls...though they outnumbered them...but they were sounding better. I was still amazed at how nice and IN TUNE they sounded, though I knew the lack of power would hurt them in the contest. By now the members were starting to trickle away as bus and club schedules started to conflict, but I was surprised at the number of students that stayed and wanted to continue practicing long after I'd declared the session over...and even shut ME down when I started horsing around a bit! All in all we got a good hour and a half of solid rehearsing in, far more than I'd expected, and the change in the kids' demeanor already seemed dramatic to me.

I went back to the staff room to find the regular home room teacher there. I told her what had happened, and her reaction was difficult to read. It was kind of a combination of "Good job," "You did WHAT," "Why bother," "Why did YOU do this," "I'm fed up with the whole thing," "Yeah, whatever. I'm busy," "You didn't need to interfere," and, "The kids actually did that?" I wasn't sure whether to feel good or even more disheartened, but I had put my hand on the bridle, and I wasn't going to be letting go.

Cut to Friday. The home room teacher was in, so she naturally took care of the class while I concentrated on my own lessons and chores. After school, however, I decided to take advantage of yet another opportunity. You see, ever since the Anniversary Festival ended and the strange problems in my class began, I had been determined to find out what was wrong, but I kept coming up empty. I had tried talking to students about it, but they'd always made it clear that they didn't want to discuss it. However, perhaps the most trustworthy girl in the class had joined the music club only a couple of weeks before, and now I just happened to see her coming out of the music classroom saying she was on her way to her class's chorus rehearsal.


"Excuse me," I said. "Can you give me a minute? I'd like to ask you something."

We proceeded to the nearby English department office, where the girl immediately gave me the whole story. It was like she'd been waiting all along for a chance to talk about it, and now it all came pouring out like silver dollars gushing out of a slot machine. I hit the jackpot, and I now had all the information I'd been hoping for: what happened during the preparations for the Anniversary Festival, the mistakes that had been made, the conflicts that had arisen, the soured relationships, the factionalism...

The bullying.

The girl didn't stop there. Still excitedly chattering like a tape player set at a high speed, she went on to describe how the class had tried to practice during lunch break again that day, but the same problems as before had arisen. Apparently thanks to my rehearsal and pep talk the day before, the other kids were now far less tolerant of the horseplay, but the troublemakers had responded by turning up the heat of their resistance. The leader of the alto/tenor section had wound up in tears, and the conductor of the free piece was saying she wanted to quit.

I sighed heavily and longed for a good, solid tree against which to bang my head.

"But sensei," the girl went on with a smile, "it's not all bad! After that happened, everyone sat down and talked about what we could do to make it better! It's sad that the one conductor wants to quit, but now the class wants to practice! You should see the picture we drew together on the back blackboard! It's a symbol of our new sense of teamwork! It's so moving! Come and see! They're practicing now in the classroom, and [the home room teacher] is leading!"

My jaw dropped open. Even without the other things, that last bit was surprising enough. The home room teacher had made it clear, especially the day before, that she'd had no intention of intervening in the choral rehearsing and wasn't exactly appreciative of my interference. She'd wanted to leave it, as well as the solving of the problems, entirely up to the students themselves.

"Come and see!" said the girl again, now excited in a much more sparkling way. "I know everyone wants you to! Don't follow me back, though, because they'll be suspicious, but if you come down the hall I know they'll invite you in!"

Well, I did, and they did. She hadn't been kidding; it was a beautiful sight. The home room teacher was leading the rehearsal, and the kids were really into it. They sounded really good, too, though they still didn't have a whole lot of power. Of course, I couldn't help noticing that the most notorious screw-offs weren't there, but the change in the overall atmosphere was nothing short of dramatic. I have to say point blank that some of the most worrisome kids in the bunch were now proving to be an asset, putting their energy into teamwork rather than conflict. What was perhaps even more moving was the appreciation they expressed both to me and the home room teacher for (finally) getting involved. I get the impression that they'd all believed we didn't care. I hope we can continue to prove that assumption wrong...and actually have some real good come out of this. At least there's cause to hope now.

(Sigh...why does my life keep seeming like an afterschool TV movie?)

And now for something completely different...and a WHOLE LOT WEIRDER...

We celebrated my father-in-law's birthday today. As usual, we got the whole family together for a dinner party followed by a cake and presents. Oh, and also photos. My father-in-law really likes his cameras. That was why my wife and I had decided to give him an Epson portable digital photo printer as his present this year. It turned out to have been a very good call; he fell in love with it immediately. You see, he had filled the compact flash card in his better digital camera (he has a few of them) with pictures over the past few years but, it turns out, he had never bothered to have them printed up. He has his own laptop and printer now, and I'd shown him how to connect his camera to it, but it was too complicated for him to bother with. He also wasn't willing to shell out the 20-30 yen per image cost for professional printing. Now he doesn't have to. The little Epson printer is quick, easy, and prints out nice-looking photos. I'm sure he would have happily printed up the entire 200+ image contents of his compact flash card if we hadn't talked him into doing just a few dozen tonight and saving the rest till tomorrow.

But that's not the weird story. That happened after I took my turn in the bath this evening.

Right after I'd left the in-laws' house, turned off their outside light, and headed toward my house, I glanced back and saw something strange. In the dark, I could see something small and white zip out from under a nearby stack of cement blocks and zig-zag quickly along the path toward the storage shed. My first impression was that it was probably a mouse; it was about the right size, and I'd seen mice there before (and Tora has caught quite a few of them!). However, all the mice I'd seen had been dark gray, and this thing was white. In fact, it was pure the point where it almost seemed luminous. No, it didn't give off any light per se, but it stood out plain, clear, and white even while moving through shadows under a cloudy night sky. It also moved in a very smooth, flowing manner at a constant speed without making any sound at all.

I watched it thinking, "Woah, is that a mouse, or what?" Then my mouth dropped open in surprise as the object all at once rose up about a foot (30cm) into the air and abruptly vanished.

Needless to say, I went into my house very quickly.

For the record, I'd drunk one can of beer about three hours before the experience. No, I'm not in the habit of hallucinating. Maybe it was a clever mouse with a penchant for optical illusion. Maybe it's time to give the neighbor dog a cheese sandwich. Maybe I'll keep Tora indoors tonight.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lucky Thirteen?

Our wedding anniversary has long been something of a dilemma for me and my wife. The problem isn't the usual date amnesia that tends to plague so many men; on the contrary, I can't recall a single time when I have forgotten it, particularly since the date (10/9, or 9/10 if you're in Europe or Australia)is so easy to remember. The problem is being able to celebrate it at all.

It wasn't quite so bad during the first few years we were married. When my wife was an elementary school teacher, and I was employed at the Kashima Oil Company English school, we always had lots of free weekends. Even after my daughter was born, the in-laws were only too happy to look after the baby any chance they could, so getting out was never a problem. That was then. This, however, is now, and it's a completely different story.

As if the music club and other things at Ye Olde Academy didn't tie me down enough, the junior high school where my wife now works basically doesn't allow its faculty to have lives, period. It's a common problem at public junior high schools around the country. The teachers have a contract obligation to work eight hours a day, five days a week, but they're expected to work at least thirteen hours a day, six days a week, if not more. The workload and level of responsibility are nothing short of preposterous, yet the government is determined to reduce the number of teachers for the sake of cutting public spending. When my wife first got yanked out of the elementary schools and stuffed head-first into the junior high system, she tried to make allowances for the fact that we had small children (i.e. sticking as close to the contracted schedule as possible). She just wound up getting yelled at by coworkers and parents alike, accused of being lazy, spoiled, and irresponsible, until her principal more or less ordered her to give up her evenings, weekends, and holidays.

The in-laws weren't much help, either. Once the kids were both old enough to walk, the in-laws refused to look after them unless it was a work-related event. One year we tried asking them to babysit the kids just once so we could go out for dinner to celebrate our anniversary, and all we got was a curt, angry negative followed by my father-in-law boasting about how he never celebrated anything in his life because he was always so totally dedicated to his work. (Actually, everyone in Namegata city if not all of southeastern Ibaraki Prefecture knows he went out drinking with his coworkers and/or people of importance virtually every night until he screwed up his health and the doctor ordered him to stop, but for some reason he keeps trying to insist it never happened.)

Last year we somehow managed to scrounge up a free weekend on our anniversary, mainly thanks to a convenient national holiday, so we went ahead and took the kids with us and enjoyed an overnighter at a hot spring resort in the coastal town of Atami not far from Hakone. It was kind of a nice trip, but the nasty cold I suddenly caught and the even nastier migraine it gave me kind of dented my enthusiasm. Of course the in-laws were upset about that, too...because we didn't take them with us! (Story posted here.)

This year, ironically our thirteenth anniversary, also saw the same national holiday falling on a Monday which happened to be just the day before our anniversary. We were thinking of using Sunday and Monday to take another overnight trip somewhere, but my wife wound up getting manacled all day Sunday by her new position as assistant coach of her school's volleyball team. That shot our plans to tiny bits and left us with only the holiday itself. But then a miracle happened. The kids informed us that the family of my daughter's best friend had invited them to join them for an afternoon outing to a movie theater and amusement center. We happily granted them permission to go. We now had virtually a full day to play with, just the two of us.

Monday came. We were all up early so we could get the kids ready and out the door as quickly as possible. Once that was done, unfortunately, my wife was suddenly hit by a nasty case of "housekeeper syndrome" and decided to get some extra chores done before we left. We wound up getting out of the house several hours behind schedule.

Our plan from the start was to go somewhere we really hadn't been before, so I aimed my BLUE RAV4 for a short-cut I had recently found up to the city of Hitachi. It was a moody, gray day, rainy and chilly, but we were happy and thankful to have the time to enjoy together. Everything was fine until I got as far as the town of Tokai (famous as the site of Japan's worst nuclear accident back in the late 90s). Then my wife started complaining. She was hungry, she wanted to use a rest room, and she wanted to go shopping. (Arrgghh...the S-word...) Remembering an ad she had seen for a giant, new shopping mall in the Mito area, she asked me to change course to go there instead. First I pulled off at a rest stop so she could drop one reason to complain, and I set about trying to find the mall on my navi system. I couldn't. It was too new. Instead, I tried plotting a course to a landmark in the same general area, figuring we'd probably find a sign or something along the way. Then I headed out into totally unfamiliar territory.

We were both quite hungry by now, so we decided to stop somewhere to eat. As it turned out, we spotted a strange-looking building that at first looked like a rest stop or church or something, but when we passed it we saw that it was a bakery/restaurant. We decided to reverse course and stop there for lunch.

Meijiya Tokai-1

Meijiya Tokai-2

It looked a bit unlikely from the outside, and it was in kind of a strange neighborhood (adjoining what looked like a camp or something), but it turned out to be a great choice. The name of the restaurant was Meijiya. The whole atmosphere there suggested hand craftsmanship, i.e. everything looked handmade, even the hand-tooled, ceramic sink in the restroom! The layout suggested that it used to be a traditional Japanese restaurant, but now it's a "healthy Western" establishment. It was crowded, but we came in just as a whole group was leaving, so we quickly got a table. We both ordered one of the lunch specials, which got us a bowl of "mountain delight" spaghetti (spaghetti topped off with various herbs, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, and tuna) and access to their salad buffet, which reminded me of a potluck dinner. Instead of just fruit and vegetables, the salad buffet included a number of (rather experimental-looking) casserole-like concoctions, all of which were fresh and tasty. Their handmade bread, though in rather small pieces, was excellent, too, as was the Saza coffee available for self-service refills. Needless to say, we filled ourselves up, and all of it was for less than a thousand yen each.

My wife said that alone had made the whole trip worth it. I wasn't sure I'd go quite that far, since I was enjoying the sheer adventure, but it was still a good place for lunch.

Our course brought us into traffic, as I'd feared, and the going got slower. Still, it wasn't as bad as I'd expected, and soon we were cutting through downtown Mito. It wasn't long before I remembered exactly where the new shopping mall was because I'd seen it under construction the year before. I shut off the navi system and drove the rest of the way on my own.

(Not my pics. Sorry. Source with more pics and info [in Japanese] here.)

It turned out to be a new Aeon Shopping Mall like the one we often go to in Narita. However, it seems to be bigger. It has three floors of shops (compared with Narita's two, though the Narita mall seems to be a little longer). The selection of shops also seems a bit better in some ways, e.g. they have a Tower Records and an even classier musical instrument shop. It was already late in the day, so we couldn't stay there long, but we did some exploring We bought some things for ourselves and each other (and fortunately talked ourselves out of buying certain things). Then we headed for home. It really wasn't all that far from home in terms of lateral distance, so the trip was surprisingly short.

We arrived home to find there had been quite a comedy of errors and confusion there in our absence. Naturally, the in-laws were miffed. Oh, well. It was an anniversary adventure, something that only happens once a year...if that. I think everyone can just put up with it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Some Haikus for the New Semester

October is like a new beginning. For one thing, the weather demons suddenly figured out it was autumn, flipped all the switches, and hot and muggy suddenly turned into chilly and rainy. The new semester has started at Ye Olde Academy, and the kids are back in their winter uniforms. The whole profile and tone of my work seems to be changing, but again, I can't really talk about that. It's a whole new season, a whole new chapter, and I need to kick-start my languishing muse. How about some haiku?


kosumosu no
egao wasureta
to omotta

I thought
I had forgotten the smiley face
Of the cosmos (flower).


asa yohou
hare yutta no ni
aki no ame

Even though
The morning forecast said clear,
It's autumn rain.


imo tanonda ga
piza tabeta

The children
Ordered potatoes
But ate pizza.


ame no oto
yorokobu kotori
komaru neko

The sound of rain
Joyful birds
Troubled cat.

Hmm... Not satisfied. My muse really is being lethargic these days. Maybe it's time to start doing word verification verses again...

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