Dana Goes to Japan


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Tuesday, October 29, 2002

After the budo demonstration, Kaoko called her best friend, Noriko, to come and meet us. The plan was to go for a drive into the mountains, as it is autumn leaf viewing season, but Kaoko’s sporty little convertible isn’t the right vehicle for the job, especially with 4 people. This was my first time meeting Noriko, and she’s very nice. Kaoko is the English teacher who has been to 50 countries and got bombarded with ALT questions about dating customs, and Noriko is her best friend, a much shyer elementary school teacher who has traveled to most of those countries with Kaoko. During the winter holidays, they are going to Australia, along with their parents. Also, Noriko has a bigger car.

We drove to Naruko, which is sort of northwest of Sendai. Driving in Japan is always interesting, because most of it is done on small windy roads through towns. We were on an expressway for a little while, but it was still only two lanes. Or maybe it was four. I wasn’t really paying attention. When we started out, it was sunny, but by the time we stopped for lunch, it was raining. Ah, fall in Japan. Lunch was good; I introduced Danola to the wonders of don, or dishes served over rice in a bowl. Not that she tried one, but now she knows a bit more about Japanese food. Her school didn’t spend all of August ordering lunch in.

Then we went to Naruko Gorge, which was beautiful. As we were walking from the car to the hiking path, we saw a rainbow, against the backdrop of fall leaves on the mountainside. Absolutely gorgeous. The gorge was, well, a gorge, with lots of contrast between the changing trees occasionally interrupted by rock face, and a river running down the middle. And there was slightly silver rain still falling, with golden light showing through the clouds. This description is all sounding kind of clichéd, but it’s true. Apparently, Danola and I were scenic as well, as a man stopped to take a picture of the two gaijin as well.

After hiking around the gorge, we got back in the car and went to find an onsen. An onsen is a hot springs public bath. It can also mean a resort based around having hot spring baths, but we were just looking for the bath part. The first place we stopped had closed its bath to the public at 3 pm that afternoon, presumably because they were full of tourists out to see the leaves, so we went to another place, which I think was like a hostel. Kaoko and Noriko apologized that it wasn’t as nice as where they had wanted to take us, but I thought it was fine. When I say public bath, by the way, I do mean segregated by sex, but yes, you do go get in the water naked with a bunch of other people you’ve never met. This place was popular with the local people, so there were all these nice little old ladies who were very surprised to see gaijin there, and were all excited that I was my first time at an onsen. As Danola had noted from her first experience, it’s really no big deal to be naked. None of the women notice. It’s not like going to the pool, where the point is to show off your bathing suit; here, the point is to get into extremely hot water with all sorts of natural minerals in it and feel relaxed. You do have to remember not to stay in the water for too long at a one go, or you’ll get dizzy and end up with a headache, but you can cool off with some cold water from the rinsing tap, or sit on the side of the bath, or get out to switch from one pool to the other. I thought it was neat. And it was certainly relaxing on a cold day. Danola has plans to take us back to the first place she went, which was apparently quite luxurious. Sounds good to me.

On Sunday, the morning following my escape from the bar, I went to, you guessed it, Shiogama to meet Danola. It wasn’t the smoothest start to a morning I’ve ever had, as I hopped the wrong train to Shiogama, as I knew I would eventually. There are 3 train stations in Shiogama on the Senseki line, and to get to the proper one, I must take the local train, rather than the express. Of course, the sign saying which train it is at the platform doesn’t say anything obvious, like “Express,” or at least, it doesn’t to me, as it’s all in kanji, and I just got on without thinking about it, since there was a train right there, just as I came down the stairs to the platform. After all, all the other people were getting on. I very quickly realized my mistake when the train sped past the first stop, but of course, I couldn’t do anything about it then. Not that it really mattered, since Shiogama isn’t really that big, but I was somewhat embarrassed. Now I’ve made that mistake, though, so I never have to do it again, right? Right.

Anyhow, the reason I was going to Shiogama this time was because Danola’s Japanese friend Kaoko had found out about a martial arts (budo) demonstration from some of the other teachers at her school, and upon hearing that I have studied karate for so long, told Danola to invite me. So we went and watched for a sorrowfully short period time, at least to me, which was about an hour and a half. This was an all day demonstration put on by all the various martial arts groups in Shiogama, I think. In the time we were there, we saw a karate school demonstrate, (I’m not sure what style it was, but it certainly wasn’t Shotokan), a judo demonstration, and the beginning of some women with the naginata (that spear with a sword thing that I got to try the first time I went for a karate class.) Danola was fascinated and decided that she wanted to learn karate, especially after she saw the difference between karate and judo, and decided she definitely did not want to do judo. I got to look all smart and cool by explaining to her that the judo kids were warming up by doing breakfalls, and that it really wasn’t that dangerous to do the throws, because they all knew how to throw and fall properly.

As for me, I just enjoyed being there. I was surrounded by people who all did martial arts again, for the first time in years. I was watching people who all knew what they were doing, and who all loved martial arts as much as I do. I could look and compare styles, watch the kids who were already done or waiting for their school’s turn running around the bleachers in their uniforms, see the interactions among people who all do something physically active together. I’ve missed that. I don’t regret not competing in tournaments anymore, but I do miss going to them, especially as part of a school.

Ex-patriate Wives
or How I Know I Hate Bars

This past Saturday night, I went out to dinner with a group of 14 women. This was a “girls’ night out” organized by Deb, a woman I met at that international association hike several weeks ago. Deb is from Michigan and has 3 boys all under the age of 10 here in Japan, two of whom are twins. Deb’s family moved here when her husband got transferred for some kind of engineering exchange program in his company. Deb has nothing to do all day, besides take care of her kids and talk to other mothers. Deb likes to get out of the house. So she organizes girls’ nights.

All told, there were 3 other women there, besides me, from outside of Japan, two from the US, and one from Mexico. Most of the others were mothers of kids who also attend the international school, and the rest were friends and acquaintances who also (mostly) speak English. Almost none of these women have jobs. They were constantly trying to organize things to do during the day while the kids were at school. It felt very strange to me. I also felt totally out of place with the other foreign women.

The thing is, they are having a totally different experience in Japan than I am. They didn’t really choose to be here. They’re here because their husbands’ jobs transferred them. They don’t really have any interest in learning Japanese, they’re just trying to make their lives manageable until they get back to the States (or Mexico, or wherever). Their community is constantly shifting, as people move in and out of the ex-pat community, as kids come and go from the international school. They are, on the whole, rather stressed people. They remind me a lot of the stereotypical portrayal of English Victorian women in India and Egypt, going to the foreigners’ club, speaking only English, their only concession to having to communicate with natives being a few horribly mangled and mispronounced phrases and speaking English louder, commenting on the quaint customs of this foreign country. These women weren’t quite that bad, because as far as I know, they don’t spend all their time hanging out at the American club, if there is such a thing in Sendai, nor did they disparage Japan, given all the Japanese people in the group, but heaven help them if they had to speak the least bit of Japanese.

The dinner part of the evening was fine, as we ate in a nice restaurant, where you basically prepared a stew communally in the middle of the table and then served it up to everyone, and there were only a few complaints about the variety of “weird” seafood, such as the fried squid bits on a skewer. There was, of course, a lot of beer, this being a large group of people eating in a Japanese restaurant, after all. With more alcohol, Deb’s willingness to speak Japanese shrank, culminating in the rather loud attempted explanation of why one particular mixed drink was “nasty” due to lack of sufficient vodka, and it should be sent back with no charge. The dessert, which I thought was good, was also proclaimed yucky, being an interesting icy sort of thing made of daikon, drizzled with chocolate. (Daikon is kind of like a gigantic radish or something. I’m not sure how to describe it. It tasted kind of citrus-y to me, in this form.)

Then came the part of the evening I had been hoping to get out of: the trip to the bar. The bar itself, I will admit, was not that bad. It was a 1950s American themed place, complete with a period-costumed live band, singing oldies songs phonetically, which was rather amusing. However, it was small, crowded, loud, smoky, and of course, concentrated on getting people drunk. As I don’t drink, smoke, or particularly enjoy crowds, this is not my idea of fun. But the other women were determined to have a good time. The key word here for me is determined. It was a rather forced, not-quite-desperate kind of fun, and all it did was depress me. I hope they got some stress relief out of it. I left as soon as I politely could, with a woman who needed to go home because her husband would assume she was getting up to deal with the kids the next morning no matter how late she got in.

It was not the most enjoyable experience of my time in Japan. It did teach me several things, though. First of all, I am very glad that I chose to come to Japan and I have something to do with my time here. I should really just hang out mostly with other ALTs or people my age, because our situations are much more similar and easy to understand. Also, I have a low tolerance for people who do not want to try to learn anything about the culture in which they are currently living. I will renew my efforts to teach myself Japanese even more. And finally, I will do whatever it takes to avoid ever going to a bar again. Lying to politely excuse oneself in Japan is perfectly acceptable, and I can find other ways to depress myself if I want to.

A kotatsu is translated usually as “a Japanese foot warmer.” This is a completely misleading definition, not quite completely wrong, but certainly not right by a long shot. A kotatsu is a table with an electric heater mounted on the underside. During warm weather, it just functions as a normal table that happens to have an electric plug running from it. When it gets cold, though, one takes the table surface off, spreads a quilt over the under-top, and then replaces the table top-surface. Then one plugs in the heater, sits with the quilt on one’s lap, and enjoys the heat being contained under the table, keeping one’s legs (and feet) warm.

Why am I explaining all this? Because I want one, that’s why. My apartment is cold now. It’s only autumn here, but my apartment is quite chilly inside, thanks to a lack of true sunshine coming through the windows, not to mention insulation and double-paned windows. I did discover, (or rather, Kamiyama-sensei showed me), that my tiny little “Beaver” air conditioner is also a heater and a dehumidifier. This is great, except for the fact that it’s mounted on the ceiling, so none of the heat really makes it all the way down to the floor, which is where I’m sitting all Japanese style, without real furniture. I also have two kerosene space heaters, one of which works, but I can’t sleep with those on, and al the heat escapes through the windows about 20 minutes after I turn it off, so my mornings are freezing. I can’t wait for winter. And I really, really want a kotatsu. It’s next on my list of things to get, in addition to more blankets.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Tea for Two
This afternoon, the entire school went to see a play at the city hall theater. Or something like that; I wasn’t really clear on where we went, I just know it was somewhere downtown. In any case, there were no classes after lunch, which is why my teaching schedule for the whole week has been screwy. Of the 6 classes listed on my official B week Tuesday through Thursday schedule, I only taught one of them in its listed time slot. As Yokota-sensei noted, there’s not really any such thing as a normal schedule at Mukaiyama. Something’s always happening to change it. I did manage to teach 5 classes this week, though.

Anyway, after lunch we all went downtown. I was lucky and got a ride with some of the other teachers. All the students had to walk or ride their bikes. It turns out we were going to see “12 Angry Men,” translated into Japanese. While I have at least heard of this play, I didn’t know the story. I sat next to the nice woman who has a desk two down from mine at school, and with her very limited English, she managed to explain to me the descriptions of all the characters and the basic plot. I’m always amazed at how willing some of the non-English teachers are to talk to me. I appreciate them all the more after having talked to Dayle.

It’s a good thing she did try to explain things to me beforehand, because once the play started, I didn’t have a clue. This is a play about a jury deliberating their verdict at a murder trial. It takes place all in one act, in one room, with no action beyond their discussion. All the information in the play is contained within the dialogue. As it was all in Japanese, I was totally lost. I do know that they moved from having 11 people saying he was guilty to unanimously deciding the defendant was innocent, but I don’t know how they did it, other than there was some discussion about the floor plan of the apartment where the murder took place (they held up a diagram, helpfully), and some theatrics with a knife over how the stabbing might have happened. Why any of this was convincing, I don’t know. I nodded off in the first half, in a sort of head bobbing, “I’m not really sleeping” sort of way. I didn’t feel bad, because the teacher behind me was snoring slightly for a while, and he understood what was going on. So my conclusion about theater in Japan is that it’s a lot more interesting if you can understand it.

Afterwards, the principal caught up with me as I was heading for the subway station and invited me to tea. It turns out that there is a nice little traditional tea house right across from the theater, in one of the few actually traditional looking house buildings I’ve seen in Sendai. We went in and pointed to which traditional tea snacks we wanted, and then sat down at a table next to an old-fashioned hibachi brazier. First they brought us some sort of cleansing tea, or at least that’s what I interpreted it as, and then brought out our snacks and green tea. My snack was a slice of red bean paste cake with some kind of fruity nut in it, which had looked like fudge when I ordered it, but wasn’t. It was still good. The green tea was frothed up the way it’s supposed to be, all traditional like they did at the school festival in the tea ceremony room.

The principal is a very cute man, even if the students do think he gives the most boring speeches in the world. They apparently dread school assemblies. But he’s very nice, and he loves to use his limited English vocabulary, so today we talked about his daughters. He has three, aged 30, 27, and 23, living in Tokyo, Osaka, and at home, respectively. The oldest one has a 2.5 year old daughter and used to live in Australia for 3 years. Her husband is a computer engineer. The middle daughter went to a specialty cooking school and is now a chef or something. The youngest daughter is an assistant teacher and school nurse, but she apparently didn’t pass the test to be a full time teacher. Along with this daughter, the principal lives with his wife and both his parents. He has lived in Sendai his whole life, and when he was growing up, they still used hibachis for heat. He gave me some caramels one of his friends gave him as omiyage from a famous prison (why would you take a vacation there?) in Hokkaido. I’m amazed we managed to have such a detailed conversation. After we were done, he bought me some little tea cake things to take home. He’s so nice.
Karate, Part II
Yesterday, I went to karate practice for the second time. This time, I just watched, though, because my left knee has had something bad happen to it, and it hurt just to walk to and from school. So what do I do when I get home? Walk on it some more, in order to go over to the karate school so I could watch. I’m so stubborn. I need someone around to tell me when I’m being dumb. But I think it made a better impression to show up and watch than to not go at all. I’m starting to feel like the robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy though, with complaints about the diodes all down my left side. First my shoulder, now my knee…

Anyway, this week there were more people there. There were the three guys from last time, plus a woman who is a third level black belt, I think, and an All-Japan grand champion. She’s really good, and seems really nice as well. Also, two kids who are just beginning came in a little late, and that’s when I got to see the instructor for the class show his stuff. He really likes teaching kids. The kids are a brother and sister, much like me and Zack when we first started. It was interesting to get to sit and watch the kids get corrected for the same mistakes all beginners make, and then turn and watch the grand champion woman doing kata. All in all, it was an interesting night for observation. I also think it helped me to just sit there and observe without having to figure out what I was supposed to be doing next. Maybe next time I go, I’ll have a better idea of what I’m supposed to be doing in general, having just observed the mechanics of a class.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

This past weekend I spent… not in Shiogama! Aren’t you amazed? No, this weekend I actually did something original, as well as with a completely different set of people, apart from the JET program entirely. Go me!

So what was this marvelous, fun-filled, amazing activity, you ask? Let me tell you. This weekend I went to the prefecture just north of me, which, for those of you without a map of Japan just hanging around conveniently, is Iwate-ken. My friend Dayle, whom I met at the Japanese language program in Beloit this summer, is an ALT there with a different teaching program. She got to Japan about a month after I did and lived with a host family for her first 3 weeks. Now, though, she is fully moved and settled into her apartment and declared herself ready to receive visitors. Jamin, the architecture intern in Tokyo, promptly said he was ready for a vacation from his 14-hour day, 6-day-a-week lifestyle and organized a trip up to see her.

Iwate is just an hour’s shinkansen ride north of Sendai, at least to get to the main city of Morioka. Dayle and Jamin were there already when I arrived Friday afternoon, having caught the first train I could after leaving work. We wandered briefly in downtown Morioka looking for somewhere to eat, and in honor of the fact that we were together for the first time in Japan, all of us Americans who had been very good and Japanese for their first 2-3 months in Japan, we went to McDonald’s, followed by dessert at Mr Donut, which really counts as Japanese dessert, since Mr Donut is a very different thing here. (Yes, I am rationalizing. No, I do not feel sorry. I enjoyed my french fries and choco-custard doughnut, thank you very much.) Then we went back to the train station, got Jamin’s luggage out of the lockers, and caught the train to Iwate-machi.

Iwate-machi, which literally means “Iwate town,” isn’t so much the town where Dayle lives, but rather the county. Technically, she lives in the town of Numakunai, as was pointed out by her know-it-all student that we met later in the weekend. She teaches at three different middle schools and six elementary schools, or something like that, plus an adult English class in the evenings. In order to get to all her schools, which are spread out and tiny, her BOE has given her a car, which she greatly enjoys. In fact, it was parked at the station waiting for us when we got there. Dayle drove us back to her apartment, doing a lovely job of staying on the left side of the road.

Dayle’s apartment is very nice, for all that she complains that the town just built a big concrete box, divided it in half, and stuck the foreigners there. Honestly, her building looks nicer than mine, which is quite seriously a two story rectangle, and a Japanese person lives in what must be just one room underneath me, so it’s not like they save all the ugly buildings for the gaijin. She has a giant (by Japanese standards, which are now mine) kitchen, a bathroom with a real sink, and two tatami rooms. She says the last person never cleaned and had a dog that had trashed the place, but since she moved in, everything has been cleaned quite nicely, the tatami has been replaced, and the doors to the closets are new as well. She actually has shoji screens separating rooms and across the sliding glass doors that look out onto her little backyard area, which is right up next to a running stream. I’m jealous.

That night, we just sat around and talked. For Dayle, it was the first time since she got to Japan that she got to speak so much real, intelligent English. Her teachers are not very fluent, and her fellow ALT next door is not the sharpest tack in the box. Her first letter from him began with “Me and Jess are really looking forward to you coming…” Yes, he teaches English. So we talked and talked and talked, and it was lots of fun, and then we got out the extra futons, rearranged the living room, and went to sleep.

The next day, Dayle and I woke up, or rather, got up and out of bed, at around 10. Dayle demonstrating amazing culinary abilities and initiative by making crepes. These do, of course, take a long time when making enough for 3 people, so we were certainly still at it when Jamin got up finally and joined us in the kitchen. Crepes are yummy. Eventually, we got dressed and ready to explore. Dayle drove us all around Iwate-machi. There are lots of rice paddies there, in what is primarily a farming community. She got to help harvest some, and pointed out which fields were in the process of drying, which fields were bundled, and then the fields that hadn’t been harvested yet. We also drove past a few of her schools, including one that only has 13 students. We didn’t get to see Iwate-san, her gigantic mountain, because the weather had turned genuinely fall-like, leaving the mountain completely hidden in clouds, but it was fun to drive around looking anyway.

That evening, we embarked on a rather large cooking project. We decided to make tempura vegetables and yakisoba, which meant a fun “look at all the foreigners” trip to the grocery store. While we were there, we also picked up a bunch of stuff to send to our only Beloit compatriot still in the US, Drew. (He says he’s going to visit over Christmas, and we’re looking forward to it.) Then we headed back to Dayle’s place to begin the cooking!

I was not a great deal of help, I must admit. I was struck down by my ever so much fun seasonal allergies, for which Jamin gave me an antihistamine, and then I spent the next several hours sort of spaced out and not allowed near fire. Not that I was needed in the kitchen anyway, so instead, I just sat around being “in charge” of the music selection. The meal, when ready, was delicious, and extremely filling. We scrapped the plans to make dessert afterwards, as we were all ready to explode, and instead watched a movie. We were going to watch a second one as well, but we fell asleep instead.

When we eventually woke up on Sunday, it was decided that a very good breakfast would be the caramel brownies we hadn’t made the night before, and fresh fruit. Very balanced. Healthy, really. We had apples, pears, and, a first for me, persimmons. Persimmons are an interesting fruit, rather mild and sweet, with a texture and color similar to cantaloupe. They are very in season right now. I’m thinking of getting some for myself later today. Our plan for later was to go to Morioka for a few hours before I had to go back to Sendai, but after we got everything cleaned up and put away, we just missed the train to Morioka and had to wait an hour and half for the next one, at which point it was dark and they wouldn’t have had any fun, so I went back on my own and caught the shinkansen leaving conveniently right then. In the meantime, though, we drove around a bit, (that’s what there is to do in Iwate) and went to the travel plaza, famous for its cabbage ice cream, in which we did not indulge. We did go to the omiyage shop, like good Japanese travelers, so I was able to fulfill my obligations to my coworkers.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Shorin Ryu
Last night, after a mere hour’s rest at home following the Long Walk, I repacked my backpack with a different style of exercise gear and trundled off to the Martial Arts Center. I thought I was supposed to be there at 6, but it turned out that the karate class on the third floor didn’t start until 7. The woman I asked turned out to be an instructor for the neat women’s style of fencing which I forget the name of, done with what is basically a spear, except the end is like a short one-sided sword blade, rather than a poking spear point. (Or, if you read the Wheel of Time series, it’s Mat’s ashanderei.) So for the first 45 minutes or so that I was there, some very nice older ladies in the class, who have been practicing it for years and years, started teaching me how to do some basic moves, such as splitting a person’s head open and taking out their leg. And people think medieval Japanese women only served tea. I thought this was a really cool thing to learn, and if the karate class had turned out to fall through, I knew exactly what I wanted to do instead.

But the karate class didn’t fall through, and since the classes are at the same time, I can only do one. Hmm, unless I can figure out what the thing was called and find it on the schedule to see if they have another class. Ideas, ideas. Anyway, back on track, the karate style I found a class for is Shorin Ryu, another Okinawan style which, according to all the family tree charts of karate styles, is related to Shotokan. The instructor is a very nice older man whom I cannot understand at all. At least he’s patient. There were only two other students there that night. I’m not sure if that’s the entirety of the class, or if it was just a particularly sparse night. The other two students are, of course, high school boys. There was another high level student, shodan rank of Shorin Ryu as I am of Shotokan, who came about halfway through, I guess either because he doesn’t need the basic level practice or because he can’t get out of work earlier than that.

The main thing I learned in this first class was that I was right to be reluctant to switch styles. As one website on how to pick the right martial art for you said, the right one for you is whichever one you study for a long enough time for it to become second nature. The illustrative story in his example was about a long-time teacher of aikido who, when attacked one day by a mugger, fell back into his childhood judo training. While I certainly can’t claim that level of expertise, I can definitely sympathize. How am I supposed to make my body erase the muscle memory of how I’ve been throwing roundhouse kicks for the past 12 years? It is going to be frustrating. But it still felt good to actually be doing karate stuff again after so long. It felt especially good to not be the one in charge of the class. Teaching is tiring.

The most interesting thing to me, of course, was to watch the two other students practice kata. The instructor stood over to the side and told them which kata to do, and then they did it, each in their own way, rather than the rigid unison I am used to from my past training. Now that I think about it that way, it seems backwards that in the US my school encouraged everyone to do the kata exactly the same way, in unison even when no one was counting out the moves, and in Japan, land of synchronicity, the students do it individually. In this case, it certainly makes sense. The two students are very different. They are about the same height, but one is rather stocky, and tends to perform his kata with more powerful, forward thrusting moves. The other is built more like, well, me, thin, with longer limbs. His kata are the most gorgeous ones I’ve seen in a long, long time. Every move he does is exquisitely controlled. His isometric moves are slow and measured, but can transition immediately into explosive, quick moves. He did the most utterly controlled jumping front kick I’ve ever seen, and got amazing height on it too, without making it look like it took any effort at all. He performs kata with the same style a trained ballerina performs en pointe, effortless grace. I was enthralled, in case you couldn’t tell.

The interesting thing, beyond just admiring form, was the way some of the kata contrasted with their Shotokan equivalents. Compared to Tae Kwon Do, Shotokan is a very slow moving style, but it looks rushed when placed next to Shorin Ryu. Two of the kata I recognized as what I know as Bassai-dai and Hengetsu, but there were all sorts of differences that I can’t even begin to describe. (Not that it would do most of my readers a lot of good if I could, since they wouldn’t have a clue what I was going on about.) The instructor asked me to join the other students for Bassai-dai, but there were too many differences for me to do it their way, and eventually I just gave up and did it Shotokan style, which I thought preferable to just standing there looking useless.

I didn’t do any sparring, since the instructor wanted me to work on basic stuff with him at that time. I think this is a good thing, not just because I haven’t really sparred in four years, but also because the only part of the sparring that I saw was when the shodan ranked guy got kicked in the nuts and had to stop. They train basics by a series of strikes and blocks done back and forth with a partner in 8 sets, which of course I don’t know the order for, so I’m going to have to learn that. They’re also much, much more fond of spinning techniques, which I’m definitely not used to. If I can get them to teach me from the basics, though, I think this could be lots of fun, despite the fact that my Japanese skills are woefully deficient.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

The Long Walk
Today was the day of the Long Walk at Mukaiyama. There were no classes; instead, we all got to walk 25 km! (That’s approximately 15 miles, for those of you too lazy to find your conversion chart and a calculator.) This was the 25th year of the walk, according to the matching souvenir towel they gave me. No, I am not making that up. They really did give every single person at the school a matching hand towel. It’s Japan. I was one of only 3 teachers actually walking the whole thing. I think it’s like a first year teacher initiation rite or something, based on the other two teachers who were walking with me, one of them being the brand, spanking-new PE teacher, and the other being Chiba-sensei, the youngest English teacher.

A little after 9 am, we started out at the back of the mob of students, bringing up the rear to make sure none of them trailed too far behind or wandered off the course. I don’t think this is a big problem, but they do everything they can to make sure the students can’t cheat. They have 6 stations along the way at which each student has to get a stamp on their route card, with class lists to be marked off and everything. Anyhow, there we were, walking along in the back, and I quickly found out that this was a bad place for me to be. I like to walk fast. Ask anyone who’s had to walk anywhere with me. I get complaints about how fast I walk in the States. Here, in the land of people with shorter legs than mine, I am a speed demon. And I was trapped in the back of the pack, herding along the laggards who wanted to stroll along talking and checking their cell phones.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean this to make the Mukaiyama students look lazy. They’re just high schoolers. Pretty much any high schooler in the world who is forced to walk 25 km is going to want to drag their feet. The amazing thing is that in Japan, they can be forced to do it. Every kid at Mukaiyama was either walking, directing people, or manning a check station. They all took part, and no one complained. It was amazing. In the States, if they tried to make students walk that far, half of them would come in with doctor’s notes, and the other half would protest. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, but they’d still never get everyone to do it. Did I mention there were also some kids who were running the 25 km? Yokota-sensei ran with them, and Kamiyama-sensei directed their route on a moped.

Back to me in the rearguard. I stayed here for the first 8 km. We kept stopping at every cross light, and waiting for kids to come out of convenience stores where they were getting food and drinks for later, and then chasing down the three girls that wanted to go to a convenience store off the route, and slowing our pace to stay behind the slow people, and it was just about to drive me nuts. So a little bit after the first check station, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I took off at my normal pace. I think I passed about half the students in little over an hour. They would look over their shoulders and see me, get a very surprised look, and say, “Oh! Hayai! (Fast!)”

The beginning part of the course was all throughout our southern side of Sendai. We passed through a really neat children’s park on the back way down Mukaiyama hill, and then hit the main drag, featuring the large sign for the “Hard Off” store. (This is an amusing exemplar of Engrish, meant to indicate a discount hardware store.) Then we moved into more residential areas, gradually fading into small farms. I’m not kidding. There are farms within walking distance of Sendai, a city of 1 million people. And then we entered the park.

This park is like what we would think of as a state park in the US, much like Umpstead Park, for my NC people. When we started in, it was on the gravel drive that allows vehicle access. It was very picturesque and green and kept crossing a stream and everything. But then we were directed onto an actual trail. It went up. And up, and up, and up some more. At this point, students were no longer telling me I was hayai, but that I was sugoi (strong). This was not a path with stairs or anything sissy like that. It had roots and rocks. It was very steep. I started wondering how the runners who had started first had ever managed to get through it without killing themselves. We stayed on paths like this, although not all of them were climbing upward, obviously, until we got out of the park. I’m sure the rest of the park was very nice and scenic, but mostly I just saw the parts under my feet, since I was trying not to trip. It was much more like hiking than walking.

Eventually, we left the park area and reentered Sendai proper, crossing over the river and then back again, meandering through side streets. To be quite honest, I was doing totally fine until about the last two kilometers. This is because Mukaiyama, as I may have mentioned, it at the top of a gigantic hill. The end of this lovely 25 km course involved climbing not just one, but two very steep hills to get back to the school. One of them went through a neat temple/mausoleum/park area, but by then I just wanted to be done. And I was hungry. I had not stopped at any of those convenience stores, so I had had nothing eat since breakfast, and had been walking for about 4.5 hours. I think those last two hills were just unnecessarily evil.

But I did make it back to the school, and I did it in 4 hours 45 minutes, which isn’t bad, considering that my first hour was so slow. I was the 127th person to complete the course. (Poor Chiba-sensei was the last person.) Once they gave me my final stamp and recorded the time I came in, I was directed to the canteen for nourishing stew. I’m sure it was nourishing because 1) it was made by the school cafeteria, which doesn’t make unhealthy food, and 2) it had totally unidentifiable objects in it, like the tasteless, grayish balls, and the cubes of opaque gelatin-like substance. It also had recognizable things in it, like tofu and meat and vegetables, and overall, weird tasteless bits notwithstanding, it was quite good. I ate it all, at any rate.

And then I went and changed clothes and proceeded to sit in the teachers’ lounge and read my Dave Barry book until it was time for me to go home. Because, of course, I wasn’t allowed to leave until 4, just like always. Whatever. I was pleased with myself, because I proved I’m in better shape than a lot of Japanese high school students. Yay, me! It didn’t stop there either, because my other activity for the day was going to find out about that karate class for the first time.

But now it is time for bed, and I am justifiably tired, so I will tell all about karate on the morrow. Oyasumi-nasai. (Well, I was going to post this last night, but Blogger wouldn’t let me. I did write this on the actual day of, which was 10/16, just for the record.)

Friday, October 11, 2002

This morning, on my way to work, I nearly stepped on the biggest spider I have ever seen outside of a science museum. Just sitting on the sidewalk.

There are two little twin boys who walk to the elementary school in front of me going up the hill, and they are always dressed identically. It’s terribly cute. I did finally notice that one of them wears blue shoes, and the other black, but since they only wear shoes outside, and their socks match, I wonder if their teachers can tell them apart. They even swing their umbrellas the same way.

I should really be careful what I wish for. I’ve been complaining too much about not doing enough active things, and now the universe is repaying me. Next Wednesday, Mukaiyama is having its “Long Walk,” in which all the students, and all the teachers, I presume, walk 25 km. I could have been one of the people manning the check points to make sure none of the students drop out or take a short cut, but that would be incredibly boring, and it was rather obvious that they wanted me to walk. It had better be over before 6, though, because I absolutely refuse to miss the chance to find out about that karate class.

I am becoming dangerously drawn to all the Japanese instant food. They’re just so good here! Instant ramen here is nothing like it is in the US. It has the noodles, a pack of miso, and a pack of vegetables and sesame seeds and flavoring and stuff, to which you just add hot water, and you get practically a gourmet meal. I am definitely going to miss this kind of stuff upon my return. Instant food and convenience stores.

I will not, however, miss the lack of central heating or insulation. It’s just barely fall here, and already I’m cold when I get into bed.

Today has been the most marvelous Friday! I was actually entertained at work. I have determined that, despite both being large high schools in the same city, approximately 30 minutes walk from one another, my two high schools are about as different as they can be, at least in terms of the way in which they conduct their English classes. As noted before, Mukaiyama rigidly uses textbooks, so my part of the class can usually be replaced by a tape recorder if I’m not there. At Minami today, when I was asked to make a lesson plan for the next batch of classes I’m going to teach there, now that my self-introductions are finally, finally over, I discovered that they do not use a textbook at all. So I was given free reign to draw up a lesson plan all about Halloween. I was actually doing work all day. Such a novel experience.

I taught my last self-introduction lesson to the boys and girls of 1-7 today. They were the most genki class I’ve ever taught here. Of course, this did mean that they had a slight tendency to talk when I was making my speech, but they also seemed to understand more of it than many of the other classes, so it all evened out. They actually asked spontaneous questions! More than one! They asked so many questions, in fact, that we didn’t get to play Bingo. Oh, darn. I was asked if I knew Michael Jordan, and if my mother had ever taught him, since I mention that she teaches at UNC. They seemed a bit more cognizant of where things are in the US, perhaps because one boy in the class spent a month in Pennsylvania over the summer. They did miss the trickiest question on the T/F quiz on America, though, that being “Everyone in America loves McDonalds.” Yes, I’m sorry to have to tell you all this, but McDonalds is most definitely what Japan thinks of as American food.

After that class, I returned to my lesson planning, and proceeded to make a lovely word search with Halloween vocabulary, which I decorated all on my own on the sides. This was very impressive to Ms. Shiokai. I also wrote a little speech about the origins of Halloween (let us all hail the power of the internet for providing me with such information), and made some comprehension questions. At the end of class, their activity will be to draw a Halloween costume. As Ms. Shiokai noted, we must give them something more active to do in class, or they will get bored. At Minami, I am there to make English interesting and teach about culture. At Mukaiyama, I am there to force students to actually speak English and steal time from their intensive grammar study.

Since I didn’t have a class during third period, I was able to go to the cafeteria before the students got there. I am an endless source of fascination and gossip for the cafeteria ladies. The woman behind the snack counter today wanted to make sure that I was settled in Japan, and then gave me advice about which food was good that day, and then the women behind the lunch counter all looked absolutely thrilled to see me. I say the simplest things to them, and it’s treated like the most interesting fact they’ve ever heard. For instance, I said “Nihon ga sukii desu.” (I like Japan.) There is immediately a repetition of my statement in a surprised tone, and then it is relayed to all the other women who might possibly have been out of earshot or, heaven forbid, not paying attention to my fascinating self. Then another woman came back from running an errand and the entire performance was repeated. She then wanted to know where I was living, so now they all know that I live in Chaney-san’s apartment, and he left me his TV. It was also noted that I am very “cute” (kawai) about 20 times. Of course, I think the same of them, so it seems a fair trade. It certainly is encouragement to use my minimal Japanese.

Then, on my way home, as I was passing the building that I’ve been thinking is the martial arts center that’s supposed to be somewhere near Minami, but is unhelpfully labeled in kanji, I saw an old man walking toward it carrying a kyudo bow. Now, I know from the English schedule of classes that I saw in the foreigner’s “map” of Sendai that they gave us that they teach kyudo at this place, so, perhaps bolstered by my success at lunch, I stopped the man and asked him if they taught karate in that building. He said he didn’t know, but he knew kyudo was taught on the 5th floor. I explained that I had tried kyudo at Mukaiyama, but I had been studying karate for 12 years and didn’t know any dojo in Sendai. He offered to take me in to the front desk and help me ask. The Japanese are so nice. So in we went, and he asked the man at the desk, and eventually, after some discussion and much pointing at the schedule board, I found out that they do teach karate there, and what’s more, it’s Shorin-Ryu style, which is related to Shotokan and from Okinawa! Yay! Or as I said while I was there, “Yatta!” I’m to go back on Wednesday and talk to the sensei. This means that I may have found a karate class not 15 minutes flat walk from my house.

So I walked the rest of the way home in a very good mood, which was increased by the fact that I discovered a more scenic way to get home on the bike path by the river, rather than on the main road. And I said “Konnichiwa” to my little old man neighbor, too.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

On a lighter note, I thought I'd share my most recent collection of T-shirt engrish:

On a bag seen at school yesterday: "Naturally obey. We need to stop destroying nature."

On an ever-so-trendy workman's shirt today: "Liphilps 66"

On another trendy teen, with the design reminiscent of an instruction label: "How many times do you clean your room a week?"

And finally, in sparkles, no less: "Go Selfishly with Yes. It is Caused by a Changing in Opinion."
Kyudo: Epilogue
After a weekend of rest and reflection, I have come to a sad conclusion. I must give up on practicing kyudo. Although I think it's a lot of fun and a really awesome thing to learn, I'd rather not get my shoulder back to the point where it needs surgery again. Kasahara-sensei looked rather relieved when I told him that. I think he was worried it would be seen as his fault if I managed to severely injure myself. Oh, well. Back to my search for a karate dojo. Thought I had a lead on that mysterious ALT in Sendai who supposedly knows everything there is to know about martial arts in the area, but he moved and his email address from last year is inactive. My attempts to get actual exercise beyond the arduous walk to school and back are being thwarted at every turn. *sigh*

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Anticipation vs. Expectation
Not to sound repetitive or anything, but this Friday I went to Shiogama for dinner. Don’t worry, this isn’t about to launch into yet another epic recitation of my weekend activities, so keep reading. The reason for my most recent sojourn was ostensibly an Italian lesson from Sharon after dinner at Danola’s. Really, though, it was just an excuse for people to get together at Danola’s and have Sharon cook Italian food for us. Which she did, and it was very good. But it was the conversation after dinner, (which included very little Italian, as you might have guessed), that inspired my current introspections.

The cast: me, Danola, Sharon, Laura (2nd year ALT from Canada), and Alex (2nd year ALT from California)

The subject: Living in Japan, communication and connection with the Japanese

The whole thing started because Danola and Laura are trying to decide whether they should stay for a second and third year, respectively. We were all talking about our reasons for coming to Japan, things we wanted to accomplish, and so forth. Laura started talking about her frustrations here. She’s finding the beginning of her second year to be far harder than last year. She thinks this is because she’s now comfortable enough with simply being in Japan that she can take the time to realize that she doesn’t really feel like she connects with anyone here. She has been thinking about all the ceremony and conformity in Japanese society, and now thinks that, even though the Japanese are very big on including people in groups, there is no true sense of belonging, because there is no real sense of connection beyond the idea that you all belong to this group/club/society together.

But then Alex came over after he got home from the late shift at the school where he works, (he lives next door to Danola), and added a much different perspective. He loves Japan. He feels like he connects more with people here than he ever did in the US. He loves the fact that when he comes into work and says “Ohayoo gozaimasu,” everyone responds, as do they when he goes home. Laura said she didn’t think this was expressing any sort of connection, because it’s all just ritual phrases. It’s what you’re supposed to do for every single person who enters or leaves a room, whether you know them or not. But Alex’s interpretation was that it expresses a connection, not just with those individual people, but rather within the entirety of Japanese culture. He also noted that he has spent a lot of time thinking about why certain things in Japanese society bothered him, and he now thinks that it is only the unfamiliarity of the customs that bothered him, not the usual reason given that they have no point. And when he thought about the things that he just accepted without feeling taken aback, he realized it was because it was what he was used to, what he was expecting.

That’s the comment that really hit me. Comfortableness is based on expectations, and expectations are different from anticipation, which all ties in together with whether a person adapts well to living in a new environment. We’ve all been told that if we come into our new life in Japan anticipating a bad experience, it probably will be, so we should all endeavor to have a positive attitude. However, this indicates that anticipation is a far more general thing than expectation.

Expectations are specific. They deal with exactly what we want to happen, or think will happen. If we expect that the Japanese will deal with interpersonal relationships in some universal way that is the same as people everywhere, we cannot help but be disappointed and frustrated. I’ve always had a difficult time with the question, “How did (this experience) differ from your expectations?” They ask this at the end of nearly every kind of exchange program or intensive language program I’ve been to, and rarely can I think of a truthful answer. I learned so very long ago that if I built up a lot of really specific expectations, scenarios, and precise desires about what I wanted to happen, I would definitely be disappointed.

So here’s my conclusion. It’s best to approach these kinds of experiences with your mind as much like a blank slate as possible. It’s okay to have goals, but general ones are better, and a positive attitude, or at least not a negative anticipation, is most helpful. But expectations are more likely to unfortunately bias your view, and leave you less able to roll with what your new life throws at you. Expectations make your mind less flexible. You should try to keep your mind in a stance of relaxed readiness, hachichidachi, as it were, not tensed and focused in one particular direction, but relaxed and taking it all in, noticing the world around you and able to react in the manner demanded by the situation. So far, I seem to be doing okay with that.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Kyudo Update
I went to kyudo practice again this afternoon, and I think I've mostly figured out how to keep my shoulder to stay in joint. It only came out at the very end, and it took forever to go back into place, but the nurse gave me this neat cold patch thing, which seems to be helping. The thing I don't understand is why it has to come out when I release tension on the string, which is all done with my right arm. My left arm doesn't have to move at all. Oh, well. The boy who was put in charge of me this afternoon was one of my victims from class earlier today, and he practiced a lot more English trying to tell me about kyudo than he did talking about shopping. He was sort of volunteered by all the other kyudo club members to be the spokesman this afternoon. He doesn't seem to have held a grudge, though. I was told that I have very good posture for the drawing move. I will give my shoulder the whole weekend to rest, and then try again on Tuesday.
Office equipment
While I’m thinking about it, I wanted to take a quick minute to rhapsodize about the copy room. The copiers here are so neat. They can translate stuff from one size of paper to another, for 4 different standard sizes, and have an actual button for making it do two copies of the same worksheet side by side, when there is only one original and it’s a different sized piece of paper than the two other copies will end up being. Perhaps I am just ignorant of American copiers, but this seems amazing to me. Or maybe I’m more amazed by the fact that every single person in the school knows how to make the copier do all these miraculous things, and they all know how to fix it when it stops working. This never happens in the US. I know, because I was a receptionist. There is always one, and only one, person in any given office who knows how to work all the functions of a copier.

But the copier isn’t the neatest thing. The neatest thing is the gigantic mechanized paper cutter. You put your big stack of double worksheets under the cutting blade, which projects a beam of light onto the page, so you can see where the cut will actually be before you make it, twirl the handle on top so the bit that holds the actual blade is holding all the papers down firmly, and then press the buttons. Ta-da! Perfectly cut pages every time, in about 5 seconds, with none of that weird sliding of the papers at the bottom of the stack or anything like you normally get with a manual paper cutter. I love this machine. It is my favorite thing at school. If they could just get my computer to talk to the network printer, then I might actually start believing that technology is meant to make my life easier.

My job
This has been my first week of teaching real, meaning non-self-introductory, lessons at Mukaiyama, so I now feel that I can start to make some more definite observations about my job. According to my schedule, I will see each class in the first and second grades of the high school once every other week. This is because their schedule is divided into A week and B week. I’m not really sure what the difference is, since the only classes I have any contact with are the ones I co-teach, but they have to get in all their subjects somehow, since they only have 5 periods a day. Several of the teachers have expressed amazement over the fact that my high school had 8 stable periods a day and students attended all the same classes every day for the entire term. Also startling to them is the idea that school clubs aren’t that big a deal, there are 4 grades in the high schools, each grade does not take a big trip to somewhere far away all together, electives are offered during the regular day, all of our textbooks do not have to be approved by a national governmental agency, and my school had over 2000 students. (Class trips are a big thing here. Second year students (ninensei) all take a trip together. This year, the ninensei at my school have the choice of going to Kyoto or Hokkaido.)

But back to my job. My job is to teach on oral communication day. They also have grammar days and presumably writing days, but I’m not supposed to do anything for those days. I only come so they can hear me speak “native” English and then force them to try speaking themselves. A regular lesson goes like this: We, the teachers, enter the room. The students all go back to their seats. The class leader for the day (or week, or month, I don’t know) says “rei” and everyone bows and then sits down. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) makes any necessary announcements, such as the fact that, like every oral communication day, we will be using the Progressive Oral Communication textbook, instead of whatever other one they brought. Students who don’t have their book partner up with ones who do. Then the JTE and I model the example conversation for the current lesson. This week, for example, is shopping, and the model conversation contains such key phrases as “Can I help you?” and “Can you give me a discount?” After we model it twice, the students then pair off and practice on their own. They are supposed to substitute in the alternative phrases in the gray box to the side of the page when they get to a part in bold, but they never do. Then I get to be mean and call on students at random to demonstrate. The victims stand up and very carefully read the exact conversation we modeled for them, as if they have never seen it before. I have caught on to their tricks, though, and forbade them to do that today, so Kamiyama-sensei made the next pair use the alternate phrases. Then there is an activity.

This is what ALTs are supposed to do best. Some JTEs think of ALTs as only “game boys/girls” who come along with loud obnoxious games that disrupt the class and waste time. If we are good ALTs, we do our best to dispel that myth and make activities that actually have something to do with the lesson. It’s supposed to make the students excited about speaking “living” English. My activity was certainly relevant to the lesson, but I don’t think they were very excited about speaking English. Anyway, my activity was to make 7 students into shop clerks, complete with lists of the things their store could sell, and all the rest of the students were customers, provided with shopping lists of things they had to buy. After the first time, Kamiyama-sensei was quick to add the rule that the clerks weren’t allowed to sell anything to customers who spoke in Japanese, and also that they should write down the price of the items that they bought. He’s my favorite teacher to teach with so far, because his English is so good and his classes seem to respond to him better. However, not even he can get students who really don’t want to to speak English. My favorite technique for avoiding doing the actual assignment while still appearing to was to find someone else who had completed the same list as the one s/he had, and write down the prices from that, thus neatly avoiding having to speak to clerks in English or having to understand prices.

Then I start randomly calling on students again. I ask them “What did you buy?” and “How much did it cost?” It was very obvious that no one had tried bargaining, because there were a lot of people who bought bread for $100 in one class. After that, depending on whether the first half of class was taken up with handing back tests or not, we then get out the textbooks again and go on to the listening section. For this, the JTE and I read a conversation that is not printed in their books (oh, the horror!) and they have to answer questions about it, and then fill in the blanked out words in the printed copy of the conversation that we hand out. This means I get to read the exciting conversation about buying shoes or showing Ken around the house 4 times in each class, twice at “natural speed” and twice very, very slowly. And then the class is over.

I think that my activity technique will improve with time, since this is the first real one that I’ve done, but I do wish I had more to do with the grammar classes. That way, I might feel like I was actually teaching them something. As it is, I think the main thing I teach many of them will be that they should volunteer for the things they know they can answer, otherwise I will call on them as a victim anyway. I feel kind of like I’m torturing them.

My other class-related duties have been making worksheets and grading. Kamiyama-sensei was incredibly pleased when he found out that I can make crossword puzzles really fast, thanks to the wonders of the internet, so I’ve made a bunch of those. I also apparently grade English exams faster than anyone else, probably because I actually know what all of the words mean without having to think about it. This meant that last week, when they had the end-of-semester exams (this is the first week of the second semester, by the way), I got to grade about 100 fill in the blank, multiple choice, and reorder the words style questions. I still say that the sentence “His death was owing to an accident,” sounds ungrammatical, even if it was in the textbook. Also, for that exam, they made a recording of me reading a conversation with questions that they had to answer, and then reading dictation sentences. The weirdest thing was, they broadcast it over the PA system, since they can do that specifically by floor, so for exactly 12 minutes, I heard my voice all over the school.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Typhoon No. 21
Some regular readers of this blog may have heard about the typhoon last night and been concerned. It's okay, it really is. Yes, this was a much stronger typhoon than normal, and made much more widespread landfall than normal, reaching all the way up to Tohoku, where I am, and Hokkaido. It caused many flights to be cancelled and even managed to stop and delay the Japanese train system. I was soaked on my way home from school in the rain, and then it got much harder, and the wind was strong enough to shake my apartment building.

However, it all stopped without causing any sort of major damage. I vaguely remember waking up around 3 am because the noise had stopped. Today dawned bright and clear, and the typhoon trailed in a warm air front that bumped the temps back up from what's usual in mid-October to what's usual for August. And I would like to point out that there have been about 5 other typhoons since I've been here, as well as at least 3 small earthquake tremors, and none of them made the news around the world, or even really here. It was just because they stopped the trains that anyone noticed.
Cultural Note
This isn't a note on Japanese culture, but rather an observation for all Americans inspired by my constant contact with Brits and a S. African. I have solved a long standing mystery. The reason that they all stare at us as if we are insane when we talk about eating peanut butter and jelly all the time is because they think that "jelly" is "jell-o." I'm not kidding. All these years, they've been horrified by the thought of eating a peanut butter and jell-o sandwich. So there you go. Go forth and spread enlightenment into the wider world, now that you understand the breakdown in communication.

And while you're at it, send me some peanut butter and grape jelly. It's all in the interest of enlightening my poor non-American friends here, I swear. It has nothing to do with me wanting to have my favorite stand-by food. Nothing at all.
I did the coolest thing this afternoon. Well, maybe not the coolest, but very exciting for me. That's right, today I had my first kyudo lesson!

Kyudo, for those of you who aren't up on your Japanese sports or translating skills, is Japanese archery. As luck would have it, Kasahara-sensei is the advisor for this club, so it was easy for me to ask if I could join or whatever it is I've done. Anyhow, kyudo is a bit different from Western archery. First of all, it is a traditional sport, which means it is accompanied by lots of ceremony. Each move is prefaced by another person calling the order. First you spread you feet double shoulder width (doesn't that phrase sound familiar to all of us in the martial arts?), then you place your hands on your hips, then you extend your hands to a relaxed ready position, then turn your head to the target, then raise your hands over your head, then prepare to draw the bow, then draw, then hold, then release, then hold, then bring your arms back down to your hips. (That was a really ungrammatical way to describe the process, but oh, well. Yes, I do teach English.) Mind you, I was taught to do all of this with a "practice bow," which consists of a hand grip attached to a big rubber band, to simulate actually drawing the bow.

And actual Japanese bow is between 6-7 feet long. I'm not really sure, because I was estimating from across the room, and everyone here is under 6 feet tall, so my estimation system is thrown off. The kyudo dojo has notches high on the walls for sticking the top end in while stringing the bow, which I thought was really neat. The grip of the bow is about 2/3 of the way down the bow, as opposed to in the middle, Western-style. Also, the bow is oddly curved, looking much more flat than how I usually picture a bow.

I would love to be able to go into more detail about all the neatness of kyudo, but that's really all I've learned so far. For my little lesson, no less than 5 students and Kasahara-sensei (for translation purposes) took me outside of the dojo, so we wouldn't be in the way of the people who actually knew what they were doing. Kasahara-sensei kept telling me that I was doing better every time, but then, just as I was getting it right, and right after we all narrowly avoided getting hit with a baseball, my shoulder decided to pop itself partway out of joint. *sigh* This hasn't happened in the longest time, but it seems that the proper position for holding my left arm straight out in front of me after releasing the bowstring and then holding position until told to move again is also just the right position for my shoulder to shift itself forward in the way it's not supposed to anymore. I am hoping that because it didn't do this the first 6 or so times I was practicing, I can keep my arm from doing this all the time. It did it twice this afternoon, which is really embarrassing, since I have to stand there and hold my arm up in the air until my shoulder falls back into place, and it's such a stupid way for my shoulder to try and sabotage me. But I get to try again tomorrow, and maybe I'll figure out how to stop my shoulder from doing this. I really want to practice kyudo; it seems like a very neat thing and something supremely Japanese.