Dana Goes to Japan


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Friday, August 29, 2003

Back in the USA
The adventure in Japan is over, so begins a new adventure in grad school. Come join me now at MSU.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Around the World
Where's Dana now? Click to find out.

Things I Will Miss About Japan
convenience stores
snack foods
the subway
riding the shinkansen early in the morning
kids riding double on their friends’ bikes
pretty yen bills
feeling tall
everything seeming new and interesting, all the time
incense wafting through the air as I walk past a temple and graveyard
the Date Masamune statue in Sendai Station
cell phones
the world’s friendliest and most earnest customer service
all the people I met here

So long, and thanks for all the fish! So ends my saga in Japan...

There It Goes
Well, that’s about it. At 4:20 this afternoon, a very nice Australian man called me to tell me the moving truck was on its way to my house to pick all my stuff for sea mail shipping. He said it sounded like I was very organized and ready to go, after ascertaining that I had already written out the packing lists, labeled all the boxes, and dealt with labeling my suitcase appropriately as well. If I was well organized, I wonder what other people are usually doing when the moving truck arrives. Still packing? None of the boxes are closed yet? They can’t read instructions on how to label things? Yeesh. Here I was worried I had missed something important.

Anyway, about 10 minutes after Craig called, saying the truck was 15-30 minutes away, the truck arrived. Gotta love the Japanese sense of “on time.” If it’s not 5 minutes early, it’s late. There was only one man, and we had a lovely little confused conversation about whether there were breakables or electronics in the various boxes. He then hauled it all, small boxes, heavy book boxes (yes, two of them, I wouldn’t want to be inconsistent about my reading habits in a foreign country), and then the huge box and the monster purple suitcase, down my narrow little stairs without seeming to have much problem. I applauded him.

Now all that remains is to pack what will be going on the plane with me, possibly mail myself some extra stuff by regular mail, get through one more day of work, and then I’m off to Germany and France for 10 days before I hit US soil again. I was even clever and called to confirm my flight. I’m looking forward to my flight on Malaysian Air, as all reports make it out to be excellent, and it sure as heck has got to beat Delta. I think I am becoming a somewhat jaded airline traveler.

Tomorrow afternoon, I turn my trusty phone over to Kamiyama-sensei, who will see if the new ALT wants to take over its contract. This means that tomorrow at school is my last chance for internet access, and therefore blog updating, so consider this the penultimate entry.

It’s been fun, y’all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Grinnell PSA
We interrupt the regular Japan content of this blog to bring other Grinnellians this important announcement.

Please go sign the Plans petition here.

Thank you.

(If you did not go to Grinnell College and have no idea what Plans are, you may ignore this.)
The Horror
It finally happened. I was almost through my whole 12 months in Japan without once going to a karaoke palace, and I was happy with that. But no, it was not to be. Last night, my perfect record was ruined as I was dragged off to a “second party” following my farewell dinner with teachers from Mukaiyama.

Let me start with the dinner. It was the more pleasant part of the evening, the part I would prefer to remember. Kamiyama-sensei had arranged everything, when I said I had no real preference or specific ideas about where to go. It turned out to be a very nice traditional Japanese restaurant, and the party was fairly small. It was mostly just the English department and a few of the teachers who have been especially nice to me, like tiny little Ms. Handa, who sat across from me last academic year, and the current 1-5 homeroom teacher, who always likes to talk to me from the end of our row of desks. Ms. Kokuta wanted to come, but had to stay at school overnight with the girls’ volleyball and basketball teams. She gave me a present of two more Kitty-chan phone danglies, because she remembered me buying the one in Fukushima. Also, the kyoto-sensei wanted to come, but he had to go visit another teacher in the hospital. I found out later that the restaurant was one of his favorites, so I think he suggested it.

The dinner was a procession of about 7 courses, all meticulously arranged. My favorite was the long, skinny rectangular plates of three little bite-sized arrangements of fish and meat, with a flying fish fin standing as the decoration in the middle. I also liked the tower of tempura squares, with one tempura-ed asparagus shoot leaning on the tower at an angle. Additionally, I wasn’t the only one not drinking alcohol, which made everything that much less awkward when dealing with ordering drinks.

I was sitting across from Kamiyama-sensei, and in between Mr. Yokota and Mr. Kasahara. No Japanese party, particularly a farewell party, is complete without speeches, so each person had to take a turn in addition to the opening, closing, and toast speeches. Mr. Yokota, who was my supervisor last year, gave his speech after a number of beers, and spent much of the time asking me if I remembered my first day in Sendai, when he had come to pick me up from the BOE after the arrival ceremony. This brought up the story of how they decided on the kanji characters for my hanko with Mr. Yamagata, so my hanko had to be passed around and inspected. Mr. Kasahara’s speech was actually very quiet and serious, surprising many of the other teachers as being rather out of character.

But then Mr. Kasahara needed to go home to his children, and Ms. Chiba needed to go home to study, since she was taking the test to become a full-time teacher today, so the first party broke up. I would have been just as happy to go home then, but I was informed that Mr. Kikuchi had given money when he found out he couldn’t come, (due to having to visit the parents of a student being disciplined), and we simply had to use it to go sing karaoke. And wouldn’t you know, there was a karaoke palace just around the corner! Oh, goody!

There were only 5 of us who went, me, Mr. Yokota, Mr. Kamiyama, and two other teachers. All of them were men at least twice my age, and when they declined the nomihodai (all you can drink) option for the karaoke package, it set a kind of tame mood. Thank goodness. Most of the songs chosen were the ever popular Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, or the Eagles. There was some Celine Dion and Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. When Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” came up, you could definitely tell it was a group of nerdy English teachers, because in between verses, the comment was, “Hey, look, it’s all in the subjunctive!”

The funniest thing was the video playing behind the words. Because most of the songs chosen were oldies from before the era of music videos, the karaoke company just had random scenery from various large cities around the world, most notably London, Rome, San Francisco, and New York. Except all the footage was from the 80s, so the Twin Towers still existed and ugly cars figured prominently in street scenes. Only the two Japanese songs seemed to have videos that tried to match the songs. When Puff the Magic Dragon came up, the video was not the world scenery, but instead this incredibly 80s-chic Japanese woman walking around looking pensive outdoors, at one point artistically pouring bottled water out artistically so she could watch it fall.

I sort of sang two songs. Fortunately for me, the microphone didn’t pick up my voice almost at all. I have noticed that many Japanese people have amazing mastery of handheld microphones, such as students at the school festival and whatnot, and now I know why. Because they’re all obsessed with karaoke. Maybe I wasn’t holding the microphone right, or whatever, but I’m grateful for small favors. Also, I think Kamiyama-sensei was right when he said later that no one pays attention when other people are singing anyway, since they’re all looking for the next song they want to sing in the book. Perhaps that is also out of self-defense, since I also noticed that there is something about karaoke that makes everyone try to sing in a really stupid falsetto.

So I survived karaoke. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It is also not something I would willingly subject myself to ever again. But now I’ve done it, so my Japanese experience is complete. Guess there’s nothing to do now but go home, right?

Monday, July 21, 2003

Roaming Culture
You know, the nice thing about living in Japan is that I don’t have to do anything in order to have an interesting life. It just happens. Sometimes, it even comes right to me. I can be totally lazy, and still fulfill my duty to you, my loving audience. Amazing.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my apartment, pondering how much I did not want to be packing all my stuff and trying to think of a good reason to procrastinate, when I heard drumming in the street. There have been flags up all over the neighborhood, advertising the upcoming festival for Atago Jinja, the shrine on the hill behind my house, and the temple at the other end of the street is all fixed up, too, so I went to the window to see what was going on. As it turned out, it was the procession carrying the Atago Jinja portable shrine. First was a very slow-moving truck carrying the taiko drum, with a man walking behind it to beat it. Then there were three priests, two banner carriers, and the little shrine, with about 20 men supporting it, and a crowd of relief carriers or otherwise hangers-on. I was the only person who came out on the street to see it, so the procession spent about as much time looking at me, the strange gaijin girl, as I did looking at them. I had my camera, though, so I think I win the gawking contest.

When I say it was a portable shrine, I really do mean a perfect tiny replica of a very ornate shrine building. Little steps with railings, lots of gold scrollwork, dangly bits hanging from the ends of the rafters, and a big metal phoenix at the apex of the roof. All Shinto shrines have one. The end of July and beginning of August is matsuri season, or festival season, when it seems like all shrines and temples have events.

In the afternoon, I went downtown to do some final shopping on Ichi-ban-cho, and this was conclusively demonstrated by a much larger procession of not one, but three, larger and ever more ornate shrines from the area around downtown. The first one had a tiny woman up on the front of the shrine carrying base, holding onto the corner post and waving a fan back and forth in time to chanting bearers. Luckily, I had my camera there, too, so hopefully my pictures will come out well when I get back to the US. It is too bad that I’m going to miss Tanabata this year, though.

Plea for Entertainment
I don’t like packing my entire apartment. I need to take breaks every few hours. If you love me, you will send me email, so when I obsessively check, I will not just sit in front of the computer pointlessly combing the internet for random entertainment. Pretty please? I’m not allowed to go outside anymore until I’m done, so it’s up to you to keep me sane.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Sukiyaki Party
Last night, my landlords invited me to their apartment for dinner. About a month ago, before they took their vacation to Russia, I had been over to their office for tea, and it was determined that I had not had sukiyaki. This would not do. I had to have it before I left Japan. Thus, my farewell party.

At 7:00, I went across the street, bearing NC taffy in a tin I had cleverly covered in origami paper so it didn’t say it was oatmeal anymore. It’s amazing what one can do in 5 minutes with paper, scissors, and tape when attempting to be creative. Presentation is half the gift in Japan, and unfortunately, the original box had gotten rather squished. Apparently, I chose well, because my landlady seemed to like it.

When I came in, she did the modest housewife thing, which must be scripted the world over. “I’m sorry, it’s very small, not much to look at, please come in.” Really, their apartment is very nice. My estimation of “small” has become somewhat different after living in my apartment all year. I mean, they have a whole actual kitchen! Amazing. The living room is full of displays of things they’ve picked up in their travels around the world, but unlike many Japanese homes, it manages to not seem overly cluttered.

On the coffee table/kotatsu in the middle of the room, a feast was set up. Sukiyaki is made in a kind of cross between an electric frying pan and a crock pot. First, Mrs. Watanabe greased the bottom of the pan, then added soy sauce and sake. When it had heated a bit, she started adding the main raw ingredients set up on a platter on the side; cabbage, about 4 kinds of mushrooms, konyaku noodles, tofu cubes, and very thinly sliced beef. She then cracked a raw egg in each of 3 small bowls, set them at our places, and bade us dig in. Everyone just took what they wanted from the pot in the middle with their own hashi (chopsticks), dipped it hot into the egg, and ate. I was kind of wary of the egg, but I swear Japanese eggs taste far less strong than eggs in the US, so it was good. I also haven’t died yet, so I don’t think I got salmonella either, despite the horror stories of my childhood.

But wait! There’s more! In addition to the huge amount of food cut up for the sukiyaki, which was quite filling on its own, there was also preparations for homemade sushi rolls. Each of us had a plate with small squares of nori (seaweed paper). There was a large bowl of sticky rice, and then various sushi toppings. Or middles, I guess, since it got rolled up. You can figure it out. There was cucumber, miso pickles, salmon, tuna (“sea chicken”), caviar, eggplant, umeboshi (pickled plums), and natto (weird sticky fermented beans). We spread rice on the nori, added whatever else we wanted, rolled it up, and ate. Very good. Do you see now why I want a Japanese wife? Really, I want a private Japanese chef.

During the course of the evening, we talked about all sorts of things. We compared the US and Japanese high school educational system and determined that the Japanese do math really well, whereas the US does far and away better with foreign language. I don’t really know about any of the other classes. We talked about their trip to Russia. The brought back 5 sets of the little nesting dolls, and told me to pick the one I liked best to have as a gift. My landlady won their bet about which one I would pick, when I chose the green one with white flowers. My landlord’s favorite was the natural wood one with gold painting. Their pictures are still being developed, so there isn’t an amazing scrapbook yet, so we had to make do with the picture calendars they got. They had traveled the Golden Ring, which they said was beautiful, but did not find the Russian people to be as friendly to lost tourists as people in other countries. My landlady then found the set of Japanese traditional prints she had been looking for last time I was in their office, and told me to pick out two. They give each ALT they get to know their choice. They were all lovely, but eventually I chose one of a woman combing her hair, and one of two women by the ocean.

For dessert, Mrs. Watanabe and I had red tea from one of their Middle East trips, grapes, and cookies from Hokkaido. Mr. Watanabe declined his cookie and most of his grapes, because he was drinking alcohol. We decided that I would eat his cookie for him, because he was drinking my alcohol for me. Then we got into a discussion about the food in America and in Japan, particularly serving sizes. The Japanese interpretation of American steaks is that they are as thick as mattresses, and nearly as big. I said that many people in the US get too big because they eat too much, and I liked Japanese portions better. But I added that Mark eats and eats, and stays really skinny. My landlady said, “Ah, he gets (consult electronic dictionary) very bad mileage. Like an American car. Much fuel, few miles.” I laughed a lot. It’s probably the most original, and accurate, way of putting it I’ve ever heard. I, on the other hand, am like a Japanese car, small and able to run on little food.

When they tried the taffy, they thought it was good. They said when they were growing up, there was no candy in Japan, except what the US soldiers gave out to children. Now, children in Japan just think candy is normal. Then Mrs. Watanabe made me little boxes of rice and sushi toppings, plus some nori, and gave me instructions on what to refrigerate and what not to. I made myself a little feast for dinner tonight, too. Yum, yum, yum.

Friday, July 18, 2003

See You!
Today was quite a day. In fact, I’m having to split it into two parts, it was so full. Tonight, I shall tell you about the work part of my day. It was rather full. I got to teach two classes in the morning and give a speech in English and Japanese both at each school in the afternoon. But let’s start at the beginning.

This morning, I went to Minami as usual. Because they were having the closing ceremony for summer vacation in the afternoon, the schedule was all different. Not that such an occurrence is at all unusual. Once I figured out my schedule, I found out I had classes back-to-back in the second and third periods, just before lunch. The first class was with Ms. Shiokai, and since she is now the head English teacher, or at least the head first-year teacher, the principal had asked if he could visit one of her classes. This is the man who lived in New York for 5 years, working at the Manhattan branch of the Japanese 77 Bank. His English is very good, and I’m not really sure why he decided to become a principal. Anyway, about halfway through the lesson, he came and amazed all the students. His English is really better than most of the English teachers. Today’s lesson was about introducing one’s family, so he talked a bit about his daughters. One of them in working for MTV in New York now, which of course was very impressive. Ms. Shiokai had also planned a game where she asked the students multiple choice questions about me and Mr. Sato. Things like, “What is Dana-sensei’s favorite kanji of these three?” and, “What is kocho-sensei’s dream?” Oh, and, “How many centimeters taller than Dana is kocho-sensei?” Mr. Sato also revealed his weight to the class, but I declined. Not really because I care, but because I haven’t got a clue what I weigh in kilograms. I emphasized to the class that he is tall in both Japan and the US, since he is 6’1”.

Then I taught my last class with Mr. Takisawa, the cute part-time teacher who sits next to me. The lesson in that class was about looking sad or happy, and giving the reason why, so I wandered around the class a lot embarrassing students who thought they had finished talking to their partners for the assignment and could then speak in Japanese or sleep. Nothing like seeing that look of panic as the teacher is all of a sudden standing over your desk, asking, “And you? Are you happy or sad today? Oh, really? What happened?” That aside, I think they actually had fun. It was a pretty easy lesson. And they did all look sad when I told them I was leaving and they should be nice to the new ALT. After class, I found out that Mr. Takisawa was on his way to Nagoya for a job interview at another school. He taught at a private school before, but quit so he could go to grad school full time. Now, though, he’s almost done with that, and doesn’t want to be a part time teacher after this school year is over. I hope he did well on his English exams. He kept asking me for help and clarification while he was studying for them.

In the afternoon, both school’s were having closing ceremonies. Today was the last day of school before the month-long August vacation. (I only mean vacation loosely, of course, because most of the students will still come to school for club activities nearly all day, every day.) There had been much discussion between my two schools about how to coordinate my attendance at each ceremony, because it was also to be my farewell ceremony. At Minami, my farewell started the whole thing. Mr. Sato gave a speech thanking me and talking about what I would be doing next year, all in English. He gave me a signed copy of it, as well. Then I gave a short speech in English (“I had fun teaching you, I hope you will continue to study English, blah, blah.”) and then in Japanese, (trans. “Everyone, my year in Japan was wonderful. It was a good experience. Truly, thank you very much,”). After I was done, a student representative brought me a huge bouquet of flowers. It was very sweet. Apparently, the International Communication Club had planned to give me a party after school, too, but I had to go to Mukaiyama right after my speech, so one of them gave me a letter from her before I left.

Then, after my speech, I went and got my bag, walked to the office with all my stuff, and got picked up by Miwa-sensei to go to Mukaiyama. There, my farewell was at the end of the ceremony. I got to listen to the principal admonish the students not to have part-time jobs, to study, and to read enlightening books, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in translation, over the summer. Somehow, I’m not convinced they are going to take his advice. Two other teachers gave little advice speeches, too, and then the principal introduced me. This principal does not speak English, and in truth, I have no idea what he said, other than he mentioned America a lot. I gave my little speech, no one gave me flowers, and the ceremony was over. But then I went back to the staff room, where I attempted to put my desk in some sort of order, and all of the second-year classes sent representatives to me with cards signed by the whole class. I also got a letter from the girl in Kamiyama-sensei’s homeroom who is going on an 11-month exchange program to Ohio and Wisconsin, leaving next week, who came to ask me questions about America during lunch yesterday. And yesterday, both of Ms. Chiba’s first year classes gave me crane chains with messages written on the birds’ wings. I feel loved. Yay! My favorite comments were the ones saying, “I didn’t like English, but now I do,” or, “I don’t like English, but I like your class.”

Thursday, July 17, 2003

As I mentioned, I asked Mr. Kamiyama what the difference between a vigil and a funeral was, but he said he didn’t know. Today, he asked Mr. Nagane, who in addition to being young, just married, and a social studies teacher, also turns out to be a trained Buddhist priest. He said that a Buddhist funeral is actually an entrance ceremony for the person’s spirit into the next world. The person, who is no longer mortal, is given a new name, usually much longer and written completely in kanji characters, to start their new life. The vigil, on the other hand, is really just a ceremony at which friends and acquaintances can demonstrate their sympathy toward the remaining family members.

Last week, I was walking home from the subway station. It was night, after dinner, about 9:00. As I walked past the Buddhist temple, three men were working by the light of a lantern in the small shrine outside the main temple, repainting the tiny portable shrine house inside with equally tiny brushes. I looked up at the large hill across the bridge, where my giant cell tower lives, and saw that the misty clouds stood so low, they were touching the tops of the hills. The tower had completely disappeared, it’s mellow floodlights unable to pierce the mist to light even the base. There were no cars on either my small bridge or the larger one also spanning the river just a block’s distance away as I paused to listen to the water running in the Hirose-gawa, the leaves rustling on the vines growing on the steep banks, and the insects chirping in the dark. The street lights reflected in the water, making the ripples sparkle. All this was mine.