Tuesday, March 25, 2008

serow desu!

Hurrah! We can now all have an answer to that plaguing question - what the heck was doug's spirit animal? According to Jesse, whose animal expertise I trust, it was a serow - a goat-antelope (nihonkamoshika, in its native language). Mystery solved!

Monday, March 24, 2008

taki & zo

If you asked me what I thought I'd be doing this past weekend, trudging through several feet of melting snow to see a waterfall up the side of chokai and visiting the animals at the local zoo may not have been at the top of my list, but that's what I found myself doing none the less. Here's the waterfall, called hottai-no taki. Looks like it will be a great place to visit in summer, when you don't have to sink to mid-thigh in snow with each step because the last km of road to it was never plowed. It did have a magical quality being so isolated, though. The magic was marked by a large animal crossing our path that looked like a sheep/dog, possibly (a wild sheep?), which I declared to be Doug's spirit animal.

mystery spirit animal running away

The zoo was pretty cute, if small. It had a nice wolf and friendly looking red pandas, but for some reason only my pics of these birds and this horsey-looking camel saved on my camera.

At the zoo, I was convinced I had found the spirit animal from the day before. I had never seen one before, it was called a capybara. Unfortunately, my friend Maiko pointed out that these only live in South America, so it was unlikely that this is what we had seen. She also said she thought her boyfriend looked like a capybara. Maybe it was him who I saw running through the mountains of Akita?

Friday, March 21, 2008

the rules

I remember in high school being jealous of public school friends who did not have to worry about their out-of-school behavior getting them in trouble in school, as was the case at my Catholic school. But my school's policy was kind of vague, probably just to instill a "big brother is watching" type of general feeling. Of course, at the city public high school near mine the principal used to drive in circles around the school for about an hour after school with a megaphone out his open window so that he could yell "Go home!" periodically, as the school's method of discouraging students from loitering on school grounds. Not sure what kind of trade-off that was.

Anyway, today I found evidence of the Japanese education system taking controlling out-of-school behavior to the extreme. I just attended my school's year-end closing ceremony, and was happily surprised when I actually understood some of the guidance counselor's remarks, but asked my JTE to clarify for me afterwards, as I did not see the significance of "konbini" (convenience store), "pan" (bread), and some verb in "do not" form. Turns out, my students are expressly forbidden from visiting convenience stores, specifically from buying bread, snacks, and drinks (although this may be limited to weekdays). They were just reminding the students that this rule would be in effect during spring vacation as well. They ended on a happy note, though, announcing that starting tommorrow the students would be able to ride their bikes around town (up until now the potential for snowfall had made it too dangerous) to visit friends, etc. I guess hearing this struck me as pretty ordinary-seeming, having been in the school environment here for a while, but it is strange to think how strictly the school controls the students here.

A couple nights ago I went to a fellow ALT's eikaiwa (english conversation group) for adults. There I met a woman who proclaimed "My job is DIE!" meaning, her craft, really, is dying silk used to make kimonos using flowers, tree bark, and other natural methods. There was also an older man there who had a pen pal from Texas for 50 years, from the time when he was a boy, and when his pen pal died, he continued to exchange letters with the man's wife and children. Man, I want one of these classes!

Also, as I write this, a few fellow teachers are smoothing out the used plastic bags that our bento lunches came in and are perfectly folding them into perfect squares with perfect creases for re-use. The one I tried to tie in a knot in an attempt to emulate one of the other teacher's method was promptly undone and properly folded for efficent storage. I tried!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


This past weekend I celebrated the end of winter with my favorite kind of vacation, a ski trip! I went with Edel to Appi, one of the best resorts in the area, in our neighboring prefecture to the east Iwate-ken. The drive there was surprisingly short, which was my first time on the highway with kenji-kun (my car), who performed beautifully, cruising at 120km/hr at some points and at one point even passsing a mercedes!

I had previously been quite disillusioned by the Japanese ski experience, which thus far had not included any lounging by fireplaces, taking in some sun on lodge decks in adirondack chairs, nor drinking overpriced and over-topped with whipped cream hot cocoa, the fine accoutrement of the New England ski vacation experience. Lodges at the ski-jo's around here are very industrial-looking and do not give any hint of a log cabin vibe. Anyway, at Appi, it was thankfully a different story - they seemed to have caught on to this idea, if not so much in the on-mountain lodges (which included a random skyscraper hotel) as in the pensions in the "pension village" below the slopes.

We arrived at our pension called Rocky and were enthusiastically greeted by the owner, who we decided to call "Rocky" despite his actual name being Sato-san. We had picked it based on a blog entry from friends Tricia & Jason, who made a trip there last month. When we said we lived in Akita, Rocky immediately made the connection to Jason, and proceeded to present us with a photo of himself and their family outside the pension. I think he had a little man-crush on Jason, as he avidly recalled things Jason had said and done while there, but had little to no recollection of Tricia and Jonas (their ridiculously cute son). After taking pictures of us pretending to eat the fish on sticks that had been roasting in the fireplace, we retired for the evening.

Conditions were questionable on our first day of skiing after a night of rain but we explored the mountain and quickly found our favorite areas. I would say the mountain was just a little smaller than Mount Snow, despite the fact that it claims to have just 21 trails (Mount Snow claims 107). It had 2 long runs both over 3 miles, a la Deer Run, and also had 2 high speed gondolas to the peak. And for a daily lift ticket of about $50, it was quite a value. Also, I've figured out the snack of choice here for ski breaks is not hot cocoa, but, inexplicably, soft serve ice cream (sofuto kurimu) which is a real treat mid-morning.

Afterwards, we (of course) visited the onsen, which was nice but nothing too special. We noticed the water temp there and at our pension's onsen were both significantly cooler than what we were used to - apparently "some like it hot" in Akita. We were then served a lavish several-course dinner, probably the best meal I've had since coming here (I think Tricia said something similar), and at this point I will one-up their blog entry by actually having pics of the food.

salmon, salad, and beef

Edel and I spent dinnertime mockingly moping the hard life of being an ALT in Japan. Seated across the fireplace from us were an older Japanese couple who took a liking to us and sent us over some beer inc. a Guinness (or Guinness-like substance) for Edel. The rest of the guests were fairly young and in larger groups, which started the wheels turning for me of arranging a big trip here next year possibly somehow to the benefit of Everest of Apples. After dinner, I rooted through Rocky's movie collection and found one english-language non skiing-related video, The English Patient. Demonstrating his superior hostess-with-the-mostess skills, he rewound the movie for me and sat through all 3 hours of it with me (Great movie, RIP Anthony Minghella).

edel with guinness

Rocky's breakfast buffet

The next day, breakfast (a combo of japanese and western including, strangely, a baked egg) was served buffet style and our time on the slopes was sunny enough to take amazing pics with the nearby Iwate-san in the background. We cut out early and had lunch at a French restaurant we had found in the pension village called Chez Johnny. The food was great, and we ate in what seemed to be the living room of the woman owner's house. She even had patee and espresso. She invited her husband out to meet us after telling us she had named the restaurant after him and we were surprised to find that he was not a frenchman as we so thought, just a regular nihon dude. Anyway, a surprisingly culinary weekend, and I highly recommend Appi, Rocky and Chez Johnny to anyone and everyone.

mount iwate

this is an abandoned pension (sadly, there were a few) called the pamplemousse, that inspired daydreaming of pension-owning

This is the omiyage (souvenir in the form of snackfood) I brought back for the teachers at my school, yummy appi bunny cookies!

On Monday I celebrated St. Patrick's Day for the second year running. Apparently, I came to Japan to hang out with Irish people.

Leprechaun-san with his friend, shrimp sushi

the irish girls of honjo, cathy and edel

the irishman of honjo, owen

even phil, the resident englishman, reluctantly donned a shamrock

Tomorrow I am providing entertainment for kids' "Tea Party" and Friday is the last day of school for the year -school year runs April-March. And a disclaimer from my ikebana sensei, the plant I liked from last week's class is not called bracken, but instead "osmond shoot".

And some news for you: nearly half of japanese people bathe with their cellphones and an article about self-mummifying monks. Please enjoy!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

fun in the sun

Some happy things that happened in the past few days:

  • My 2nd graders at elementary school got so into a game of color basket this week that they started looking down their pants to check the color of their underwear. One of them also gave me a note that said, roughly translated "everyone in our class loves you". Could there be anything better than love letters from 8 year-olds written on origami?

  • Had another great skiing/onsen day on Monday, my comp day for graduation. It was sunny, warm, and there was plenty of non-melted super-fast snow on the slopes of Tazawa ski-jo, with once a again a beautiful view of the lake. I had a scary fall, but the sulphurous waters of the local onsen made everything OK again. Looking forward to more late-season skiing this weekend at Appi, the area's biggest and best resort. (thanks Mike for the pics!)

  • It's springtime! Most of the snow in Honjo has melted, and my bedtime routine no longer includes boiling a kettleful of water for my hot water bottle! Hurrah! Yesterday I went to the beach after work, and the sun wasn't even close to setting, it was lovely.

  • I started another course of ikebana classes, and this week's lesson included the use of bracken, probably the coolest plant I've ever seen, as well as tulips, my favorite (except they were pink)!

Upadte: my new fishies are temporarily named Pumpkin (the all-orange one) and Oishiiso (meaning "looks delicious" for the white-faced one), until any better suggestions come along. Thanks, mom, for yours, but I didn't really feel Redneck fit the orange one's character.

And one not so happy thing - today in school lunch I was munching on pickled vegetable salad but noticed the sauce tasted more fishy than the usual sesamey and upon a closer look I discovered the salad was full of tiny tiny fish - head, eyes, tails, and all! Ahhh!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

live sashimi!

Tonight at sushi, I watched the chef slaughter a live fish that had previously been swimming around happily in the large tank (which I falsely thought was decorative) in the entranceway. He let it flop around on the chopping block for a good long while before he put it out of its misery. Not sure what kind of fish it was, but the customer who ordered it ("fresh!" he must have said) certainly found it delicious. At least it wasn't as bad as this.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

fishies and fatties

oh, and graduation.

Today was my junior high school's graduation ceremony. It was quite emotional, the tears began when the 7th and 8th graders sang a "Sayonara" song to the graduates, and lasted until they formed a pathway outside the school clapping for the 9th graders as they left Higashi for the last time. Even I shed a couple when the uber-friendly school president stumbled through his goodbye speech, getting very emotional and dropping his notes. My JTE who is also a 9th grade homeroom teacher wore a full kimono for the ceremony, and notably got way more gifts from her students (inc. a kawaii scrapbook) than any of the other 3rd-year homeroom teachers. Yeah, she's pretty great. When we were doing a conversation activity with her class, I asked each student who their role model was and most said she was, to which I had to agree. Anyway, after plenty of yearbook signatures and picture-posing, I am now left with a dull Saturday afternoon in the teachers' room at school, awaiting the movement from school to the teachers' graduation party.

Yesterday I helped the 1st years decorate the 3rd years' classrooms. When I heard about this activity, I was like "Great, sign me up," envisioning homemade posters, writing messages in the fun color chalk on their blackboards, balloons, etc. Boy, was I mistaken. The 1st years had been given photo print-outs with diagrams of the classroom to dictate exactly what the decorations should look like, using only the prescribed red and white paper flowers, and one computer-generated uniform sign "Omedetou gozaimasu!" (congrats) in each classroom. Disappointed, I kind of tricked a few of the kids into letting me write messages on the dry erase boards ("Good luck!" etc.) graffiti-style. They loved it, I just hope they didn't get in trouble for letting me do it!

Last night I went with some friends to a place in akita city I believe is best described as a 'fun palace'. For a fairly inexpensive admittance fee, you could get unlimited access to the complex's range of recreational activities, including batting cages, mini-bowling, karaoke, taiko drumming video games, indoor fishing, mini golf, badminton, curling (!), roller skating, darts, pool, massage chairs, kickboxing simulation games, etc. etc. etc. It was ridiculously fun. Anyone who comes to visit will be brought there by me post haste.

Also, I have recently started using google reader and it has seriously changed my life, mostly because a significant part of my workday is spent reading information on the internet. I highly recommend it and am available to give an infomercial-style presentation on it to anyone interested. Anyway, one of the feeds recommended to me by reader was called "WaiWai", and it seemed like another interesing Japan-interest newsfeed so I subscribed immediately and one of the first articles to come up was this. Weird, to say the least. It sounds fake-satirical, but sadly I'm pretty sure this is a real news article, the main subject of which is 3 Osaka-area female criminals' not-thinness. The lady crime team certainly have an interesting story, all 3 being single mothers with severe pachinko addictions, but the article strangely concentrates on the women's impossibility of comparison to a manga female criminal trio because of their weight. What?!
PS, I predict more article links on my blog thanks to google reader.

Lastly, yesterday after finally getting an aquarium set up in my apartment after a series of follies that included the aquarium water boiling, I bought 2 new fancy goldfish with which to share my cabin fever! And now is your chance to name them!

PS - It's hard to get fish to pose for pics - the one hiding behind the one in front has a white face, if that helps in your naming suggestions.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

japan (does not heart) women

The Japan Times recently wrote about newly reported rankings of gender equality from the UN. Japan fared quite poorly, coming in 54th out of 93 countries, due to its lack of women in leadership positions in the public as well as private sectors. Not surprising, but certainly not encouraging. Change is slow, though existent (see announcements today from Shiseido and Resona) here in the land of the rising sun.

Does anyone remember this city commission's branding influx of their logo "NY (hearts) (women)" into subways and taxis everywhere? But no one was too sure what it was all about?
Well, don't worry, I'm sure that would never happen in Tokyo.

In other women's news, a nytimes reporter came to Kyoto to try on a kimono and perform tea ceremony. You can read about her experience here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

a perfect day

Yesterday I think I had a near perfect day. Edel and I awoke with the sun (or around 8am, close enough?) and drove to Jumonji (not just a board game where animals come to life, but the name os a town in akita as well!) to meet some friends for a day of skiing at a slope called Jeunesse. It was a beautiful sunny day and the extensive trails put our little old Yashima Ski-jo (where I usually go nightskiing) to shame. We wore ourselves out on the slopes, skiing till the last possible moment before our lift tickets ran out, and left happy (youth restored?) despite sun and windburn. We stopped for a delicious dinner with another friend in Yokote at the best indian restaurant in akita (It's all about the nan), picked up some necessities at the local import food store (perrier and popcorn, of course) and then drove through the mountains back to Honjo, stopping en route for the perfect end to the perfect day, an onsen! Is it strange that communal bathing in burning hot spring water has become one of my favorite activities here in Japan? In this long akita winter, I think not.

Last Friday I was invited to the home of my school principal for a special, secret enkai for all the teachers at my school who do not have homerooms. The principal likes to call the group "the 4th grade" (haha, there are only 3 grades at junior high). His wife had prepared for us a ridiculously lavish feast of a dinner, including sashimi, beer-marinated bamboo shoots, and baked cod. I lucked out bringing the principal a bottle of local sake called snow sake, as it turned out to be his absolute favorite. His house was quite impressive, a very big, old house in a little neighborhood surrounded by rice fields, all tatami and wooden beams and shrines for the ancestors. One room held the family's hinamatsuri display of dolls and another their collection of ancient calligraphy documents (his wife is a calligraphy teacher). Most memorable was being invited into the principal's "private room" to listen to classical music on his formidable stereo system, to the music teacher's delight. Most of the furniture in the room was made by the principal himself and he also had a collection of flies he makes for fly fishing. I was so grateful to be invited, apparently this was the first time he had ever had staff members over to his house.

In other news, this is my 50th post!