Dana Goes to Japan


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Friday, August 30, 2002

Some random observations:
Japanese students have no idea how good they have it. The food they get served in the cafeteria is so good! The way it works is like this: You look over the days menu offerings, decide what you want, buy a ticket for that meal, take it to the counter, where the super nice and friendly cafeteria ladies dish up whatever you ordered nice and fresh. I had “curry rice” today, and they even added garnish of pickled peppers on the side. Pickles, by the way, a extremely popular. I think they’ve figured out how to pickle every vegetable in existence. Yesterday I had pickled radishes, and they were really good. It never would have occurred to me to pickle a radish.

Linguistic phenomena
When making requests in Japanese, the “please” always goes at the end. For example, “Juuzu o kudasai,” which means “I would like some juice, please.” However, when the Japanese translate request statements into English, they end up sounding kind of annoyed and peremptory. Try it. Say out loud, “Be quiet, please.” It’s really weird, because it’s not something I ever would have thought about without hearing it, but now I can’t think of any good rules for how to typically form truly polite requests in English.

As the opposite of this, they also add gratuitous “maybes” and “I thinks” to what should be definite statements, in an effort to keep from sounding too forceful. For instance, “I think that on Monday you will maybe have 3 classes.” Coming from the person in charge of making my schedule, hearing that is initially kind of worrisome. If he doesn’t know, how am I supposed to? Oh, wait, he didn’t really mean “maybe.” Thank goodness.

TV news
I hope, for the sake of the sanity of the general Japanese populace, that the news when reported in Japanese isn’t as incredibly repetitive as it is when dubbed into English. I really hope that I’m just missing out on some subtleties of meaning, and they don’t actually waste an extra 3-5 minutes per story saying the same thing over and over. In any case, the big story tonight was Koizumi’s upcoming trip to North Korea for a summit on reconciliation. The preparations for this are such a big deal that, even though he hasn’t even left Japan yet, and he’ll only be in N. Korea for a day, the news people contacted all their foreign correspondents to find out what foreign leaders thought of the trip. Apparently, Putin thinks it’s great, and is all in favor, while Bush is in favor of Japan trying to extend ties, but he still insists that N. Korea is conspiring against the US. I don’t think we’re ever going to live down that stupid “Axis of Evil” comment. And I’ve decided that Bush looks dumb on TV, even when you can’t hear any of the words coming out of his mouth. Perhaps it is good that most of my students won’t have vocabulary sophisticated enough to ask me about politics. Although they’d probably agree with me. Bush isn’t very popular here. In that respect, the news here is more refreshing than in the US.

The other fun thing that happened with the news for me was that I got to watch it trilingually. A big story last week was about a guy who embezzled a bunch of money and sent it to his Chilean wife to deposit in her account in Chile. She's now being sued in the courts there to return the money, so there she was, being interviewed in Chilean Spanish, subtitled in Japanese, and dubbed 10 seconds behind what she was saying into English. I thought it was very cool. And I was amused by all the references to Chile that ended up in the Japanese news for days afterwards. I'm probably one of a very small minority of people in Japan who knows what the TV show "De pe a pa" really is.

I love the Japanese postal system! They tried to deliver me a package the other day while I was at school, so they left me a note in my mailbox. I assumed that I would have to go to whatever post office they had taken the package to after that attempt at delivery, so I went across the street to my closest post office with the notice, and the very nice man there told me where the other post office was, but then read further on the card and managed to explain that I didn’t have to worry, because they were going to try again, between 5-8 pm! I was totally amazed by this, since when this happened in Chile, they just held my birthday present hostage for 2 weeks until I could take the half hour bus ride to the post office half way to the Andes from where I lived on a day and time when the place was actually open. I have found, in general, that people in service jobs here are incredibly nice and helpful. They don’t expect tips, or thanks, or undying gratitude; they’re just doing their jobs, and doing them well. No wonder my predecessor says he’s having trouble adjusting to New York now. He emailed me that he wishes he was back in Japan, as everyone there is so rude. Reverse culture shock proves its existence

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Insights from Kamiyama-sensei
"There are going to be [high school] bands playing [in the gym] all afternoon. Their playing is not so bad, but some of them, hmmm, do not sing so well."
My reply: "That's how high school bands are supposed to sound. Besides, no one actually knows all the words to that Nirvana song, even in the US. They can make up anything they want to, as long as it fits the music, and no one will know the difference."

K: "Those kind of socks [that girls wear with their uniforms] are called 'ruusu sokusu', which means 'loose socks'. Most teachers hate them because they look so untidy."
D: "They look so uncomfortable, though, in this heat."
K: "Yes. But those girls who wear uniforms, whether it is hot or very, very cold, wear those socks and mini-skirts. Most of the girls at our school [Mukaiyama] hate those socks and uniforms, too. That was one of the reasons they want to come to our school."

D: "Is David Bowie very popular here?"
K (looking surprised): "Yes. He has been for about 20 years."
D: "I thought so. Many of the rock singers here that I have seen look like they are trying to dress like him. I saw him in the movie 'The Labyrinth' when it came out when I was about 6 years old, and he had that spiky hair and spectacular eye make-up."
K: "Oh, yes. I was in my early university days. Damn..."
(I make him feel old. And "damn" said in a rueful way is one of his favorite "natural" English expressions.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Japanese high schools
High school is now back in session. All of Japan has a long summer holiday in August, which comes right in the middle of the first semester of the school year. I know that seems weird, but it’s true. The second semester starts in October and runs through March, when there is a closing ceremony and a “Leaving Ceremony,” because this is also when teachers get transferred to new schools if it’s their turn to do so. All of this means that I start working in the middle of their year, which is very confusing, especially since the previous ALT had the opposite schedule from me, in that he was at Mukaiyama SHS only on Mondays and Fridays, and at Minami Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. So I feel like I’m already throwing a wrench into the works, without even really doing anything yet. I guess they’re used to it, though. It happens every time they get a new JET.

There is much more of a feeling in Japan that the kids own their schools. They all stay in their classrooms, while the teachers switch rooms. In the breaks between classes, they’re all up out of their seats, wandering around, talking to their friends who are in the same class with them all day long. The room is most definitely theirs. They are much more likely to start talking to each other in class than high schoolers in the US, because they come to rely on the people around them to help them understand, since they all basically live at their desks.

And then of course there are the famous club activities. Everyone is a member of some after-school club. (Sports teams, by the way, are “clubs” here.) They all stay after school for hours, for sports, or English, or newspaper, or tea ceremony, or band. Most of these clubs were also meeting during the month of break, but not all at once, so it didn’t feel like there were that many students around. I felt really sorry for the soccer and baseball teams, since they were always having to practice outside in the blazing heat. There was a story on the news about an entire soccer team in Tokyo getting taken to the hospital with heat stroke.

The school festivals are happening this weekend and next. I’m not really sure what’s involved with this, but there are signs of preparation all over the schools. Minami SHS, which I finally got to visit this past Monday, has an amazing art club, evidence of which is displayed in the stairwell going up to the staff room on the second floor, so I am looking forward to seeing what they will produce for the school festival. Japanese high schoolers in general seem to be very artistic. I think even Ms. Vaughn would be impressed by the paintings I’ve seen at both schools.

Mukaiyama is one of the top five academic high schools in all of Miyagi prefecture. Interestingly enough, as such a high ranking school, it has done away with school uniforms, so there are no Sailor Moon girls there. The students all study very hard. At Minami, however, there are uniforms. Not particularly spectacular ones, being gray pants (boys) or short skirt (girls), and white shirts, which apparently can be accessorized with either a white or dark blue sweater vest. The most amusing things to me are the girls’ socks. There is a reason sock stores in Japan sell what look like 6 foot long tube socks. The girls wear them scrunched down like leg warmers, so they still come up to mid-calf. It looks rather hot to me, given the current weather.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Living abroad
Last night, riding home on the train from Shiogama, I “met” some other Westerners. It is an amusing thing here, since there are two typical “fellow Westerner” interactions: 1) ignoring the other person trying to make tentative eye contact in an effort to keep them from intruding on one’s “Japan experience;” and 2) boisterously accosting the other person, regardless of their reaction. This second interaction happens much more frequently when the person doing the accosting is drunk. Thus was the situation last night. While I find this state of affairs generally irritating, that’s not the point here.

To return to the story, last night, the drunk Canadian who has lived in Japan as an ALT for several years, his Japanese girlfriend, and his newbie ALT noticed me on the train, where I was calmly sitting halfway down the car, doing my best to ignore them while reading my book. I had resolved that if they spoke to me, I would speak Spanish back to them and pretend I didn’t understand English, so as not to associate myself with their obnoxiousness, but I had too many involuntary reactions to them for that to have worked. Therefore, when they yelled down to me, “Hey, are you an ALT?” I said yes. The experienced guy then asked me what I thought of Japan and made the comment, “Japan will really open your eyes.”

This simple statement, made to me without much meaning intended behind it by a drunken lout on a train, has stuck in my mind for nearly 24 hours now. My immediate question was, “It will?” followed by, “Open them to what?” I know from my past experience of living in Chile that my experiences here are bound to change me in ways I cannot yet foresee. But these changes are so much easier to see in hindsight. It is very hard for me to see right now what this statement will come to mean for me.

Last time I learned something of the limits I could be pushed to and still survive. I had to function completely in a foreign language, without my usual support network, all while frequently being ill. I came back far more independent and confident of myself in pretty much every way. My own summation of the feeling was, “I can handle anything thrown at me.” But I had no idea that it would have that effect on me until I got back to the US.

It certainly seems to be aiding me now. I have been in Japan for a whole month, and I have not gotten sick. I can’t truly make myself understood here in a foreign language, but I can function, and I haven’t felt truly thrown by anything strange. I think a great part of this is that I have my own apartment here and am truly living on my own now, so my life is not having to collide so frequently with other people’s. But, as well as I seem to be adjusting now, I do wonder, what will my year here in Japan teach me about myself? How will this stint abroad change me? How will Japan open my eyes?

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Banking here is very neat. Yesterday I got paid for the first time. Kamiyama-sensei took me to the bank to show me how to deposit it. I get all of my salary in cash from the school office, after they take out the money for my apartment rent. The neat thing about depositing my salary was that I can do everything from the automatic teller. I put all the money in the slot that opens to take the money, insert my bankbook into the appropriate slot, and the machine calculates what I put into it, reads the account number off the book, deposits the amount, and electronically prints it in the book. I also have arrangements with all my utility companies and the bank for the monthly bills to be automatically withdrawn after I receive a statement in the mail. The Japanese don't write checks, and rarely use credit cards, so this is the way everyone here pays bills. It certainly makes my life easier, since I wouldn't be able to read the bills if I got them and had to pay them from my house. The next time I go to the bank, I can just put my bankbook in the slot and have it print out all the withdrawals that were made for my bills. No one in Japan writes in their own bankbook; it all gets printed in there by the bank machines. I think it's really cool. I don't have to worry about balancing my checkbook here. Also, my bankbook and cash card have, of all things, Tom and Jerry on them. The Japanese put cartoon characters on the weirdest things.

To celebrate getting my first paycheck, and following the advice of all the second-year ALTs to spoil myself in the first two months to ward off the culture shock I haven't really been feeling, I bought myself a pair of knee high black leather Doc Marten-style combat boots. I've wanted something similar for a long time; the Japanese have narrow feet; and they were on sale. Those were my justifications, anyway. ^_^

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Oh, I so incredibly rock. In case you didn't notice, I just changed the time date stuff to Japan time. Now the dates will actually be current for me, even if they aren't for you. I'm so cool.
Point of interest.
The kanji characters used for my name on my hanko mean:

“Wa” as used in “peace” or “togetherness.”

“To” as used in “capital.”

“Son” as used in “to admire” or “to respect.”

It’s time for another edition of “Weird Observations of Japan!”

High school baseball is followed more closely here than professional. When one of the play-off games ended yesterday, the pitcher for the losing team was crying as he pretended to throw pitches for the photographers. The coach of the winning team got a press conference.

The creamer sitting in the jar near my desk is called “Creap.”

Lifeguards here are called “life savers” and wear red and yellow quartered beanies. Yes, beanies. With elastic straps under their chins to hold them on.

Waiting for people in Sendai Station is like watching an 80s fashion parade. Tight jeans with high heels, rock band t-shirts, hair styled to look like one just rolled out of bed but it took 3 hours to make it look that way and no one’s hair is its natural color. Converse All-Stars still rule, and can be found in every conceivable color, as well as some animal prints.

Cell phones really are useful for locating people in a crowd, as well as getting directions when lost, as there are no street signs many places. Navigating is mostly by instinct.

At home, where normally people don’t even see another’s socks because they always have their shoes on, we’re taught that socks should match your outfit. Here, where everyone sees your socks, neon orange or pink argyle are apparently considered to be quite versatile.
American ignorance
After my weekend jaunt to Starbucks and feeling some measure of comfort in a place that uses all English words to describe its merchandise, I am forced to consider what it is to be an American living abroad. Not that going to Starbucks was the only thing that made me think about this; it’s been swimming around in the back of my head, forming coherent sentences on its own since I got here, but especially since the television broadcasts of the ceremonies held earlier this month at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commemorating the anniversaries of the bombings there. Both of those ceremonies had speeches by government officials, mayors and the like, who condemned the US for backing out of nuclear weapons treaties under the excuse that terrorists must be considered. In the minds of the Japanese, the only nation to have ever been bombed by an atomic bomb, there is absolutely NO reason to not rid the world of these weapons. None. Not terrorists, not further research, nothing at all. I certainly can’t find any reason to disagree with them.

I feel much more American here than I did when living in Chile. (I keep comparing the two experiences over and over, until I’m sure that the other people I hang out with here are getting tired of the phrase, “When I was in Chile…” I can’t help it.) I’m sure that part of it is being so obviously non-Japanese, whereas in Chile I could be taken for anything from American to Chilean to European. But also, here I have nothing with which to attempt to blend in. The entire point of living in Chile was to perfect my Spanish and become functionally fluent. I had studied the language for 5 and a half years before moving there. I could understand pretty much everything said to me, and I left there with a Chilean accent in my own speech. I could have properly lived there, had I wished to, and not have had to spend all my time with other ex-pats in order to have an intelligent conversation. Who knows, after another 5 months there, I might actually have used the subjunctive properly.

But here in Japan, I am illiterate. I cannot understand most of what is addressed to me. I cannot speak and make myself understood beyond very basic sentences and some key words punctuated by miming. I am forced to do the thing I so long despised in others; I must wander the city, speaking in English on the horrible American assumption that people everywhere speak it. I try not to feel too guilty about it, since I can’t do anything about it except be silent or never leave my house, and I was brought over here to encourage people to use English in everyday situations so they will see the utility of learning a foreign language, but I still hate doing it.

No, I don’t intend to have to do this forever. One of my main, selfish reasons for coming, beyond wanted to altruistically help the high schoolers of Japan learn English, was to learn Japanese. But in these first few months, I have no choice. I must speak English mixed with very little Japanese and point at things. That’s fine. I’ve accepted that. But I do think it unfortunate that the thing that makes me feel the most American in my entire life is ignorance.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Orient me
This past week I spent at the Miyagi-ken official orientation. This was for all the new ALTs in the whole prefecture, who had arrived in both Tokyo Orientation A and B. We were housed in the government’s training center in Tomiya, one of the wealthiest areas of the city. We each had a single room with its own sink and clothesline, but communal bathrooms, so it was basically like a nice dorm. We even had lights out at 11 pm. We were to have 3 and a half days of workshops and general bonding. Yippee.

On the first day we came to the center, we had the afternoon to get settled and listen to some introductory lectures. We got one from a police representative telling us which side of the street to walk on, say no to drugs, and be firm in putting off potential stalkers. We think it was a talk he usually gives to middle school students or something, perhaps without the stalking bit. He even brought an example of what drugs sold on the street look like so we know what to avoid, and went so far as to inform us that marijuana is usually smoked. Thank goodness he told us; we never would have known. Then we got all dressed up and went to a buffet welcome party at one of the fanciest hotels in Sendai. Since this was all going on during O-bon week, we even got a miniature fireworks display. Not nearly as impressive as the Tanabata display, and much shorter, but neat in that they were the closest I had ever seen fireworks. We all looked quite lovely in our professional finery, and several of the Japanese organizers and the second-year ALTs did some impromptu accapella karaoke for us. We got some Beatles, some Elvis, and some impressive vocals from the ALT who used to be an opera singer in Canada.

The next 3 days were given over to class workshops. In the morning we had totally pointless Japanese classes, which compared to the intensive language program I was at this summer, were not at all impressive. It put me in such a bad mood to be wasting my time like that, the final day I just got permission to study my textbook from this summer in the library on my own. Aside from that, though, we got some very good workshops from the second years who teach in high schools on how to do self-introductory lessons and what will generally be expected from us in a team teaching situation. One of them, Graham, teaches in Shiogama, where Sharon and Danola also live, and is very nice. All the people I seem to be getting to know and like live in Shiogama for some reason. No matter; it’s only half an hour away by train, so I see Sharon and Danola frequently on the weekends, and I can easily go see them.

This weekend, in fact, I spent Saturday really truly organizing my apartment, so it is well and truly clean and put away, and then Sunday I went to Sendai Station and did the Westerner thing with Sharon and Danola again. We hit the cream puff place, and then Starbucks. Sharon and I decided to be touristy and got Sendai Starbucks mugs. Mugs here are really rather small, so we had been feeling cheated in the amount of tea we could prepare at home. So now I have a properly American sized mug that I can take home with me. The Starbucks logo is very small, I swear.

In other big news of this weekend, I got my cell phone! It’s a lovely silvery purple, with a color screen and marvelous reception. No doubt this is due to the fact that I live at the bottom of a hill with an enormous Eiffel Tower style cell tower. It was lit up green last night. I'm not sure why. It's usually just regular light. I can also get dial-up access to the internet through my cell phone at home. So I am now back in the civilized world. Yay!

Friday, August 16, 2002

August 11, 2002
This was the greatest day in Japan so far. I got up at 7 am, true, but jet lag induced morning-person-ness has to have some uses. I was at Sendai Station at 8, to meet with 4 other ALTs, Richard (S. Carolina), Sharon (UK), Katie (UK), and Danola (S. Africa). If some of the wording of this narration sounds strange, it’s because I’ve been around British accents all day, and everything in my head is being narrated in an accent.

Anyhow, then we got on a bus for a two hour ride to Mt. Zao, or as the Japanese would say, Zao-san. Zao is famous for the crater lake near it’s summit, which occassionally changes colors according to some whim that no one has quite figured out, from green to aqua to blue. Our bus took us all the way to the top visitor’s station, and from there we hiked out onto the trail running around the edge of the mountain we were standing on, overlooking the crater. The lake was green while we were there, which I think is its habitual color. The terrain up there was quite rocky, with scrubby sierra vegetation, as it is above the tree line. I was very glad I hadn’t left my hiking boots behind in North Carolina.

The truly surprising thing to most of us was that the weather up there was quite cool. At one point, we found an outdoor thermometer that it appeared someone had left as an offering at a temple, oddly enough, that said it was 15 C. Compared to the 33 C we had left behind in sizzling Sendai, it was quite a change, and one that most of us, except the ever-prepared Katie, hadn’t planned for. I now vow to not leave a sweatshirt behind if going on a trip out of Sendai ever again. At least I didn’t leave my camera behind this time. I do learn these valuable lessons eventually.

The bus ride up there was very interesting. Japan is so green! All the trees on the mountainside were lovely pointy-topped pines, and every now and then the bus would make a stop at a roadside temple/visitor’s center. I even spotted a waterfall cascading down one mountainside, through a gap in the trees. That’s the one picture I regret not being able to get today. We started out in the bright sunlight, but the further we went, the more cloudy it became. By the time we got up to the top of Mt. Zao, the mountains were shrouded in fiercely blowing mist. Richard and I climbed almost to the highest reachable summit before deciding that the mist would obscure any interesting view by the time we got there, but the rest turned back far earlier. But honestly, I like mist, and the wind was invigorating. By the time we got back to the visitor’s center for lunch, I was famished. Inspired by the cooking show I had seen on Saturday, as well as Danola’s mention of longing for her mother’s curry, I had pork curry and rice, which was nicely warming after being in the windy coolness outside. I still don’t understand how the Japanese eat as much as they do and still all stay so thin. Of course, I think they also get a lot more exercise than we do, given the number of people we saw today. Especially people over the age of 50. It was impressive.

Then we explored the temple on the nearby peak, opposite of where we had gone to view the lake. It was pretty, but the view was somewhat marred by the souvenir stand. Ah, well. So, because we were getting tired and cold, especially Danola in her shorts, we caught the next bus back to a JR train station that would take us to Sendai Station. I like trains here, even if travelling here will always seem obscenely expensive compared to Chile.

When we got to the station, we hit all the unhealthy stores. Danola and Katie had been rhapsodizing about a cream puff store they had found in the station, and several people had a longing for coffee, so we went to Beard Papa’s Pipin’ Hot Cream Puffs (I’m not making this up) and then Starbucks. After indulging in totally unhealthy amounts of sugary Western food, we visited the foreign food store. I was very bad and bought more than I should have, but it was such a relief to be around food I recognized and could read labels on. Besides, I can’t really be expected to survive here without peanut butter and jelly, can I?
Some things I learned from Japanese television this weekend:

Japanese men make excellent drag queens.

You can make a two hour television show just about finding out how people make curry around the world.

With the right mascara, I should be able to levitate men just by blinking at them in a suggestive manner.

Breakdancing is making a big comeback over here.
Some random observations about Japan:

Mid-summer days are anything above 30 C. “Real” summer days are above 35 C. This summer is unusual in that it is having entirely too many of these kinds of days. Lucky me.

Women here wear some of the most uncomfortable looking shoes I’ve ever seen, all for walking around on the street, and wear comfortable shoes or slippers inside. This seems rather opposite of how it is in the US. I keep expecting to see one of them break her ankle right in front of me.

Escalators in subway and train stations only go up, not down, as if people would only want to be lazy about going up stairs. Which I can understand, as all the stairs here are obnoxiously short, and even I have to take them two at a time to not go crazy or trip.

Pineapple KitKats are real, and are strange, but not bad, actually. Pocky sticks and Toppo sticks are addictive.

There is much more greenery within a Japanese city than in many others, most certainly more than in Santiago de Chile. Much to my relief.

The Japanese definitely have electronics down, as I can plug my laptop into any jack in the school and have it work. Yay!

Japanese people can do anything while using a cell phone. Walk, drive, ride a bike… Also, cell phones are highly individualized, with little decorative bits hanging off of them, like keychains.
August 5, 2002
This past weekend I actually did something interesting, and on my first weekend here, too. I’m so proud of myself. So here we go, the first edition of “What I did this weekend.”

On Sunday I met with Richard again, as he had found out about a festival in nearby town, Shiogama. There was going to be a boat parade, the pictures of which looked really cool. All the boats get all decorated with streamers and flags, and some of them have bits added to their hulls make them look like birds or animals.

But when we got there, we discovered that the boat parade wasn’t until the second day of the festival. The two lead boats were there at the docks, so I took a couple of pictures of those. One looked like a rainbow rooster with peacock feathers. I liked that one a lot. But then we had to find something else to do.

What we ended up doing was taking the municipal ferry, not a tourist boat, out into Matsushima Bay, which is dotted with little island communities. There are all these neat rock formations that the ferry chugged past on its way to all its stops, too. We took the ferry to the furthest stop, the tiny island of Ho-jima. We had two and a half hours to explore the island until the next ferry came to take us back. When we got off there and didn’t get right back on after stretching our legs or anything, we got a lot of strange looks.

The main industry of Ho-jima is oyster farming. They have lots of wooden frames set up in the bay, from which they hang ropes of stacked clam shells down into the water, for the oysters to attach themselves to. On the docks when we got there, there were huge piles of these shell ropes stacked up, waiting for people in boats to come and load them up to take them into the bay.

We wandered all over the little town, which took about 20 minutes, and then went up into the hills, where we found a shrine. There were also lots of spiders and mosquitoes, so we didn’t stay there for too long. We backtracked some and found another path into the hills, and discovered where they do all their farming. They’ve built their town in about the only flat place on the island, and do all their small plot farming in the hilly terrain. The one farmer that was up there at the time looked at us like we were insane.

So we left and went back through town in the other direction, to see what was on the other side. What we found was a small, deserted harbor, waiting for all the oyster farmers to come back. It was very quiet, with only the noise of the water hitting the dock and birds in the trees. The sky was gray and overcast, as it had blissfully rained, cutting the heat for the weekend back to something actually rather pleasant, and there wasn’t another soul to be seen except for the occassional boat in the distance. I just sat and listened for half an hour.

Eventually, the ferry came back, and I tried to hold on to my peaceful mood, while Richard went up to the roof deck and met some obnoxious drunk American who was saying that he had lived in Japan for 10 years without really learning Japanese, so it was totally unnecessary. Richard stayed for the overcast fireworks; I took the train home and smiled at my adventurous day.
August 2, 2002
On Friday afternoon, my second full day here, I ran into another JET program ALT, who lives very nearby. Since it was nearly dinner time, and I didn’t particularly want to eat the Cup Noodle I had just bought at the nearby convenience store, we decided to go find somewhere to eat.

We wandered down a side street, having determined that the main drag offered nothing in our vicinity beyond coffee shops and fast food of dubious quality, and noticed a small place with a man making food in the window. We went in, and in painful Japanese and lots of hand gestures, were attempting to figure out what on the menu was food and what was alcohol when another customer who had some English came in behind us and offered to be of help. She helped us actually get food, at which point, the wife of the cook apparently decided we should try some of everything, so what we ended up with was basically a 4 course meal, including octopus in dough balls, pork slices in a sort of omelet, a salad, and udon soup. I tried everything and thought it was all good, or at least interesting in not a bad way. Octopus is rather rubbery, but the dough ball was good, so it evened out.

While we were eating, the cook went across the street and brought in a family friend who spoke English. He was about our age, born in Guam and just graduated from college in, of all places, St. Cloud, MN. Needless to say, his English was quite fluent. He and the other woman who had been helping us before that kept talking to us for quite some time, with pauses for translation, and eventually we found out that there was a small festival happening at the neighborhood temple that night.

We got there just in time to see the traditional dancing and singing. This festival was in honor of a spirit who looks over children, so there were lots of little kids in kimonos running around and getting toys from the booths set up along the entrance to the temple. There was also a group of women in formal kimonos who were the dancers that evening. They performed a circular sort of repeating line dance, and once people in the crowd started getting the steps, they would pull them in, too. And then all the little kids wanted to join in, so some parts of the line weren’t quite as coordinated as others. It was all very colorful and happy and friendly, a very good way to start out discovering Japan.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

I finally have semi-regular internet access, so let the updating begin! I did indeed get bused off to Sendai last Wednesday. When we arrived, we were all taken to a ceremony for the presentation of our contracts and then turned over to our supervisors. My supervisor, Mr. Yokota, then brought me to my base high school, where the rest of my luggage was waiting. Mr. Yokota, though the head of the English department, is not that comfortable with his English, so he turned me over to one of the other teachers, Mr. Kamiyama, who has been in charge of all my shopping trips for furnishings, setting up my bank account, and talking to my landlord. After I met the principal of the school and they had all discussed what would be the best "wa" character to use in the kanji rendition of my name for my hanko (name stamp), I was taken to my apartment with all of my stuff.

My apartment is, of course, tiny by American standards. The first room that one enters from the extremely narrow second floor landing of my apartment building is the hardwood kitchen/living/dining room. I have a dorm-sized refridgerator, a microwave, a rice cooker, a sink, two burners for the stove, no oven and no counter space. I also have, blessedly, a tiny little air conditioner above the window, which is quite appreciated in the weather here. The first two days after I arrived, it was above 32 C, and humid as could be. On Friday it finally rained, making the weekend much more tolerable, but I have a feeling it is going to start getting hotter again. Sigh. Oh, I also have a television, which is ever so important for trying to absorb Japanese even when alone in my apartment, and for the half an hour of English dubbed news in the morning and evening. The second room is the tatami room, which is my bedroom. It's size is denoted by the number of tatami mats it takes to cover the floor, hence it is a "6-tatami room." I also have a bath and shower room, a toilet closet, and a washing machine, the model of which is apparently "Fuzzy Logic."

On the first full day I was here, I was taken to the department store by Mr. Kamiyama to buy my very own futon. The school had rented one for my first night in Sendai, so I needed to get my own. The entirety of my bedding, including futon mattress, sheets, pillow, blanket, and comforter, weighs about 30 pounds. When I think of my brother going to move his queen-size bed from his old apartment, I laugh. My biggest challenge in buying bedding was trying to find sheets and blankets that matched and didn't have hideous gigantic flowers all over them. Despite what we have all seen in Japanese art, their modern taste in home furnishings is not exactly what I would consider very Zen. But I perservered, and ended up with a bedroom ensemble in shades of green and light brown. Thank goodness.

On the same shopping trip, I had to stop and get shoes to wear in the school. When I was originally brought to the school that first night, they gave me guest slippers to wear, but of course my Watson feet were so narrow, I kept losing them on the stairs. That wouldn't do at all. So I got some normal black casual running shoes that I can pull on without unlacing, but I also found, and am now the proud owner of, the brightest, most neon green running shoes I have ever seen in my life. They were on sale and amused me so much, I couldn't resist. You can all laugh at them when I get home.

Sendai as a city is not very big. Although it has 1 million people, making it twice the size of my native Raleigh, one must remember that the Japanese build up, rather than out, and all exist in much smaller spaces than those of us in the West. Thus, Sendai is easily navigable on foot or by bike. I can walk from my apartment to Sendai Station, the hub of downtown, in about 15 minutes, and I can walk to my base high school in 20-25 minutes. There is a subway system, but after my time in Chile, where I got used to walking anywhere within 20-30 minutes, using the subway feels like cheating most of the time.

My base school is Mukaiyama Senior High School, and, as the "yama" part of the name indicates, it is on the top of a very high hill. If nothing else, I will be in good shape by the time I leave here. My other school is Minami Senior High, but I haven't been there yet. This will be fixed soon enough. Actual classes don't start until the 26th, so until then, I am just supposed to come to school and let the students see me, and more importantly to me, use the internet. Other than that, I'm just supposed to explore and have fun entertaining myself, for which they are paying me a full month's salary. I live a hard life, let me tell you.