Wednesday, January 23, 2008

a year turns into two

Yes, you've heard right. I've decided to prolong my time in Japan. As a JET, I've had to decide whether or not I want to "re-contract" for another year by February 8th, the time of year when you're most likely to be holed up in your apartment cuddling your kerosene heater and suffering from S.A.D.. But alas, I think I am having too much of a good time here to say that I am ready to leave logically. I have plenty more exploring to do in Japan, and I love the ease of travel to the rest of Asia as well. I enjoy my job, and although I can't say whether I would seriously consider an ESL or even teaching career, it is a pretty sweet deal for now, even if it is a sabbatical from reality (and who wouldn't love a long-term vacation?). I've been able to continue working my fundraising bones (muscles?) through involvement in a volunteer group, and I love that a good part of my workday everyday is spent studying Japanese. Furthermore, I am in love with akita, in all its snowy beauty. What also had a significant effect on my decision was that I was so lucky to be placed with such a great community of local fellow JETs, their friendship has made my time here simply amazing so far. It was smiles all around when we found that most of us were re-contracting at Amelie's recent birthday party. I am also lucky that my parents will be visiting me in the spring, as well as, hopefully, a few friends from home. Knowing that I will be seeing them soon enough makes the thought of another 18 months in the country seem doable.

Here is some proof (re: recent purchases) of my settling in for the long haul:

my new (real!) bed! the headboard is made of bluuuuue velvet

my ultra-kawaii car accessories

also here's a pic of my apt building and car, a typical evening scene for me, waiting outside with my skis to be picked up by a kind friend to go nightskiing

edel and i in a kamakura, can't wait for the upcoming festival of these snow forts in yokote!

Some other school-related info: I recently found out that my junior high school is ranked #1 in recent average English test scores, as well as comprehensively, for all subjects, out of the 10 or so schools in the area. Wow, Higashi, I'm impressed. Also, a few of my fellow ALTs have been getting evaluations at school, and I, in a fit of pro-activeness, asked one of my teachers if I could have one as well. Looking a bit confused, she pointed to the principal. "Oh, will I have a meeting with the principal?" I asked. "No no no," she said, "He asked me if you were a good ALT, and I said 'Yes.' That was your evaluation." A far cry from the 360 degree evals recommended in my industrial psychology class, but it looks as if that's all I can/will get.

I'll end with a few "omg, why are you so ridiculously cute" moments with my students. There's a bunch of 1st graders who like to accost me at elementary school even though I haven't taught them (yet). Their favorite activity beyond staring at me and saying "hello" "bye bye" or "smile again" (which I recently found out was intended to mean "See you again") is to show me their name tags and make me read them. This past week a girl named Sakura (which means cherry blossom) approached me, whose name tag I easily read. She replied with "Ping pong!" which is I guess the equivalent of "ding ding ding" as in correct answer, which was ridiculously cute. The other day at junior high, we were doing a cultural "What does this sign/symbol mean?" and in response to a few, one kid quietly guessed "F--- you?", with absolutely no awareness of what he was saying, and the teacher either ignored or genuinely didn't hear/understand. I smiled at him, amused by his matter-of-fact tone... "Actually, xoxoxo means hugs and kisses!" In the textbook, there are characters that continue throughout the 3-year series. One of my teachers makes the students name all the charcters in the pictures at the beginning of each new lesson. When the kids see a character they haven't seen in a while, they say "Ohisashiburi desu ne!", which is like a polite statement of "long time no see!". Cute. Today in elementary school I was teaching countries and the statement "I live in...", and they kept getting it wrong and saying "I love in Japan!" Also cute. and true!

This weekend I'm going to a candy festival!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

naked men!

this morning I got up early to have men in diapers throw tangerines at me in the snow. true story. today was honjo's "naked man" festival. presumably it has a more official-sounding name in japanese. Basically, men in diapers paraded around honjo carrying a large fish and other items, eventually ending up at a shrine on top of a big hill, where their presence, gifts, and songs were hopefully enough to convince buddha into bringing good luck to the homes, on the roads, and in the businesses of honjo for the year. oh, and the participants periodically violently threw tangerines and ricey gelatin snacks at onlookers.

just out for a stroll, whatever

neverending steps to the shrine

evidence of violent tangerine throwing

Monday, January 14, 2008

coming of age

today was coming of age day in japan, when the nation's 20-year-old's are celebrated as adults. i sort of accidentally stumbled upon yurihonjo's ceremony yesterday, en route to an enkai (party) with the board of education. It was the middle of a snowstorm, and there were hundreds of girls in kimonos and boys in suits staggering through the snow and wind outside the community center. it was quite a sight - there were over 800 participants in the ceremony, which was apparently organized by my board of education, which was what the party i was going to was celebrating being done with! they listened to speeches and were given gifts at the ceremony, then of course took approx. 567788999 keitai photos with eachother outside the hall. what was interesting was no parents or other family were involved in the ceremony, they simply picked them up afterwards so that they could go home and get changed to go out to parties with their friends.

also today, the woman whom i tutor in french confessed to me a fascination for psychics, and told me that her psychic informed her that the two of us were friends as native americans in a past life. cool!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

ski ski ski

so I am sitting in my chilly bedroom when I should be skiing, my excursion today was unfortunately postponed due to me being scared off the roads. my upstate new yorker-ness is certainly not coming out in terms of fearlessness of snowy roads, which is probably a good thing. anyway, here are some pics from last weekend at beautiful tazawa-ko ski area. I also went night skiing for the first time this past week at a nearby small slope, it was fun, I fell a lot which was unusual but I enjoy falling, especially in ungroomed fresh powder, such that lined almost every trail, and i'll blame it on my second-hand skis that I bought for about $20, which suspiciously weigh about 3oz.

I also went to the mall again this weekend, which i quite enjoyed, it is just so bizarre to have this slice of new jersey here in akita. my only student who has submitted an essay for my special advanced composition writing challenge wrote in response to "What is your favorite place in Akita and why?" about the mall. He wrote about a day he spent there with his mother, after which they sat together at a cafe and said to eachother "I really enjoyed spending this day with you." Cheesy but so cute. on that note, I'd like to say a special thank you to my mom, who sent me a down-covered hot water bottle for christmas, which keeps me warm and toasty at night! thanks mom!

Friday, January 4, 2008

beautiful, beautiful, wish you were here

so i just got back a few days ago from my wonderful and exciting trip to thailand. I had an amazing time, but in case you don't want to wade through my uncreative chain-of-events storytelling, here's the link to my picasa album of literally hundreds of pictures.

thailand (and tokyo) photos, oh so many

after a brief jaunt through tokyo via night bus, which inevitably included a trip to tower records (which stocks english magazines, books, music), off I flew to bangkok. Notably, my 5 traveling partners (cathy, edel, juls, maureen, and jesse, all fellow JETs from akita) and I had a hard time booking travel together, so we were on 3 different flights. On my flight I sat next to 2 unaccomapanied small thai children who were friendly enough. I watched the movie "Stardust" with the little girl while her little brother crawled beneath our seats. At the beginning of the flight, an adult relation of theirs handed them a self-acupressure device resembling an eyelash curler, something i had never seen before, which they used liberally.

I arrived in bangkok late at night and explored the rambuttri street (where our hostel was) and khao san road area a little with jesse a bit before retiring to bed. Although there were plenty of gaijin running around, especially of the hippie variety, the area was not as hopping at 1am as we had thought it might be. The next day juls, maureen, jesse and i made the obligatory visit to the wat pho / grand palace, which was a ridiculous feast for the eyes. There was blindingly brilliant gold and beautifully detailed mosaic at every turn, the whole complex was such a marvel, it was overwhelming. after lunch at a fancy (ie. dishes were $5 instead of $2) riverside restaurant, we explored a few markets including amulet alley. what was interesting was the city's fanfare over the king's birthday/anniversary of his coronation - both of which were celebrated in december. forget the other holidays, these events were clearly the most important, and the king seems to be quite adored by his people.

king's birthday commemorative fanfare

grand palace/ wat pho

at the market

get your live eels here!

we had an early flight out the next morning to our tropical island paradise and arrived at the luxurious koh samui airport once again on 3 different flights, this time to 2 drivers patiently waiting to take us home to our new abode. we were again overwhelmed at our arrival, graciously greeted by a few housekeepers, who showed us around the guesthouse, and 2! pools. For the rest of the day we giddily made ourselves at home. after finally finding a travel-weary jesse, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon meal - with tropical cocktails! of course.

where we spent most of our time on the vacation, in the pool

the 'big buddha', as seen from the house's balcony

the next day our driver brought us on a tour of the island, including visits to the grandmother and grandfather rocks, a mummified monk, elephants, and a beautiful waterfall. we went into the town of chaweng for dinner, randomly meeting a couple of edel's friends from ireland, and setting giant lanterns/tiny hot air balloons into the night sky in celebration of the coming new year.

the whole group - cathy, jesse, me, maureen, juls, and edel

'grandmother rock'

the mummified monk - who wore ray bans!

elephant trekking to the waterfall

launching the magical miniature hot air balloons

after a christmas eve day spent on the beach at chaweng, we traveled to another island, kho phangnan, for the "full moon party", essentially a rave on a beach. The trip there incited fear in my heart as partygoers were packed like (forgive the reference, but...) refugees into a small speedboat, which to get on you had to wade out in semi-deep waters, pushing and shoving fellow gaijin and their thai 'girlfriends' to gain a seat on the boat. I was so fearful of the transportation situation, and after hearing a few stories of people falling off the boat being met with nonreaction from the boat drivers, I decided to stay pretty sober in hopes of getting back to samui alive. the party was a hedonistic mess (in a good way), friends were made, and thankfully, we all did make it back alive.

chaweng beach

full moon party

which brings me to a new subject of fascination for me, the thai escort industry. I had previously heard stories of the aggressive prostitution within thailand, as well as its nightmare human trafficking problems, but what I encountered on samui was the throroughly permeated practice of the male gaijin having a thai 'girlfriend' during their stay. They simply go to any bar and are solicited by several women, but what was interesting was that it seemed very common for the men not to just take these women home for the night, but for them to be their companion for all or a part of their stay, going out for meals with them, accompanying them sightseeing, relaxing on the beach (all for a price, of course). I am adding an in-depth report on these women to my list of reports I'd like to write (the other, of course, would be on the hassidic jewish women of brooklyn). I'd love to conduct interviews with these women, but that will have to wait till my next trip.

Christmas day was simply relaxing. We were each able to speak to our families through the beauty of the nearby internet cafe and skype, and we enjoyed a christmas brunch at the local restaurant. This was unfortunately the day that Juls realized she had lost her passport, and began the process of figuring out what she needed to do in order to get back to japan.

christmas brunch

The next day Jesse, Edel, and I went on a boat trip to the nearby Ang Thong Marine Park, where we kayaked, snorkeled, and visited an emerald green lake in the middle of one of the small islands that made up the park. the lake reminded me of the carniverous island in the book life of pi. but don't worry, the island didn't eat us, and we had a great time despite grey skies, cloudy water, and "jelly bugs" that lightly stung us in the water. That night we went out for a fancy dinner at a fancy restaurant at a fancy hotel, celebrating our last night on the island all together, as juls and maureen had decided to make their way back early to bangkok to start the necessary consulate visits, etc.

the emerald lake

our boat(s)

kayaking - my favorite!

jesse jumping off the boat


After another day on the beach in chaweng and a massage at a beautiful spa, jesse and i partook in a ladyboy show, where the performers were stunningly beautiful in their elaborate costumes and flawless over-the-top make-up.

I was obviously extremely jealous of her fantastic wings

The day after edel and i visited a new beach, Lamai, which I had picked based on its frequent appearances in postcards I had bought. We enjoyed a leisurely day in and out of its jellybug-free waters. That night we bid adieu to our fairytale vacation paradise, back to busy, dirty bangkok.

last sunset over bangrak pier

the guesthouse looking sad the night we left

My last day in bangkok was spent doing tai chi at dawn (as per a recomendation from my superior guidebook from the time out city guide series) with the local bangkokians and visiting some of the other sights around phra nakorn, including golden mount, 'the giant swing', and another temple. In the afternoon we traveled to the enormous jatujak weekend market, which sold everything you could possibly ever want to buy, and was filled with incredibly fashionable looking young thai people. in the evening a ridiculously cheap spa/salon pampered us. our last excursion in the city led edel, cathy, and i to the after-midnight flower market via tuk tuk.

tons of younger thais favored an high energy dance aerobics group over the dozens of tai chi groups throughout the park (more for the elderly)

golden mount

at a timber merchant's

a bangkok canal

the giant swing, which men used to swing from to catch small bags of money in their mouths in an oldentime festival

at another temple

devotional lotus blossoms for sale

fluffballs for sale at JJ market

JJ wants you to "think of us sometimes"

the market scene

getting facials

in the back of the tuk tuk

piles of orchids at the flower market

mr. tuk tuk driver

rambuttri street, where our hostel was

Then back it was to Tokyo, for a bit of new year's eve fun. Edel and I spent the day on odaiba, a man-made island in tokyo bay, where (surprise!) there were some malls, one of whose decks (the mall was aptly named "decks") afforded beautiful views of the rainbow bridge and tokyo. After passing a giant ferris wheel, we made our way to the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a "hot spring theme park" where we (manditorily) picked out yukatas to wear throughout the complex, which included a edo-period re-created marketplace, outdoor co-ed "foot bath" area, onsen, and several spa service areas. After exploring a bit, we were about to enter the onsen, when, at my most vulnerable, I was eschewed away by one of the staff, because of certain, er, body art that I have. Now, I had heard that this was common practice at onsens in japan, but after being welcomed at several onsens throughout akita, I did not predict a problem and thus the being kicked out seeemed harsh and I was quite upset by it. I was relegated to the foot bath area, where I could (fully clothed) walk on painfully sharp rocks, or alternatively, pay to have small fish nibble at the dead skin on my feet. I did manage to get this photo while there, though, the photo you've been waiting to see since i got to japan: me in a yukata, standing on a traditional foot bridge.

view of rainbow bridge from 'decks'

in the onsen 'theme park'

in the 'foot bath'

anyway, I asked to speak to the manager on the way out (who I intended to make known my complaints of their rule being out-dated and discriminatory, and really sir, do you really think I am a member of the yakuza?) but upon being offered the bus schedule as the solution to my problems for the 3rd time, I gave up. Also notably, Edel and I have become more japanesey (as edel would say, meaning skilled at japanese etiquette and traditions) than japanese poeple themselves. On the monorail platform on our way to odaiba, I instructed edel to wait standing inside a designated green box on the ground. a young japanese couple watched us and then followed suit. and at the onsen, we were struggling with how to put on our yukatas, but having eventually figured it out, we noticed the group of girls standing next to us were watching us to figure out the correct way to tie its compicated bows and such.

New Year's Eve was spent at a delicious italian restaurant and subsequently at Meiji shrine in harajuku, where we joined thousands of young tokyoites to hear them gong the bell however many times, throw money and make a new year's wish. The crowd control in the shrine was really amazing, I've really never seen anything like it before. Then it was out to a club and home to our capsule hotel.

new year's eve dinner

at meiji shrine

The next day Edel and Cathy headed back early on the shinkansen, and as I had opted for the night bus, I had a day to kill in tokyo, so I visited a new neighborhood I had not been before, ikebukuro, where there was (surprise!) a mall. I tried first to visit my fabled childhood fantasyland of the sanrio store, but it was sadly, basically closed due to the holiday. The mall was sheer madness, the post-holiday sales having started. It was interesting people-watching, but I soon grew tired and headed back to tokyo station where I killed time browsing in the (joy!) dean and deluca store before heading back to akita. I am now back in school, killing time, as the students are still on break, and will be for the next week. On saturday I visted one of the bigger ski slopes in akita, which was really wonderful, and I am trying to re-embrace the snowy coldness that is akita.