Dana Goes to Japan


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Thursday, January 30, 2003

Entrance Exams
So we’ve all heard the stories about how stressed Japanese students are. What most people don’t realize is that the really stressed students are in junior high, not senior. Today was the explanation of why. Today was entrance exam interview day at Mukaiyama High for those privileged students who received good recommendations from their junior highs. Other students will apply through the general admissions process in mid-February.

Getting into high school is a big deal. It’s more stressful than getting into university. The right high school is what will get you into college, really. To get into high school, or at least into Mukaiyama, students with good recommendations have to come and be interviewed. 90+ students were interviewing for regular admission, while 30-some more were interviewing for the special math/science track. Each interview team had one science or math teacher involved, so they could ask specific questions about theorems. Of these, only 60 will be admitted to the general course, and only 16 to the math and science track. Remember, Mukaiyama is one of the top 5 schools in the prefecture, so high level, our students don’t have to wear uniforms.

Students were asked why they want to enter Mukaiyama, what’s their motivation, and what they have accomplished in junior high, among other things. They were called in random numerical order to go in for their 10-minute interview, and the interviews spanned 2 hours in all. My job was to stand in the hall and gesture to Kamiyama-sensei about which room was finished so he could then call the next student out of the waiting room. These kids all looked incredibly nervous. I’ve never seen students act so scrupulously polite. Each one would come to the door of their interview room, put their bags on the shelf in the hallway, knock on the door, wait to be told to enter, carefully opened the door, stopped, bowed low while saying “shitsureshimasu” (excuse me for disturbing you), and then turned to close the door.

I’ve been working at Mukaiyama for 6 months now, and let me tell you, none of the students normally act like that. None of our students wear uniforms, they joke with the teachers all the time, and they’re in and out of the staff room all the time with only the sketchiest of bows and an absent-minded “shitsureshimasu.” The contrast is evident; these poor kids today were terrified.

There was one girl who was nearly shaking when she entered her room, only to be sent back out into the hall after her ID slip, which she had put back in her folder in her bag. Just a little thing, but it totally threw her off. When she came out at the end of her interview, she immediately started to cry. This being Japan, one does not offer physical comfort by touching a shoulder or anything, so all I could do was stand there and get her to take deep breaths. I at least know enough Japanese to be able to say, “It’s alright.” After she got herself a little bit back together, she bowed deeper than any student has ever done to me, and thanked me.

Geez, but I’m glad I’m not a Japanese junior high school student. I really am.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Your ALT wants You to speak in class
Noooo!!! I just taught a class with my teacher who doesn’t like team-teaching, and it actually went well. I had the students as engaged as bored 5th period Japanese high schoolers get, I had the teacher working with me to some extent, I even had kids volunteering to answer the questions! That never happens, and now I’ve had it happen in two classes in the past two weeks. So why is this a bad thing? Because March 1st is graduation day. After that, all these students move up to second year and I have to start all over with a fresh new crop of reticent first years. Oh, I could just cry. Well, maybe not. But the whole idea makes me very tired.

On Sunday, Sharon and I went out to Matsushima to see all the islands in the snow. It was very pretty, there were hardly any people around, it got me out of the house, and we built a very sad little snowman on the train platform while waiting for the right train to come. Someone came by and stole his head right after we got on the train. Maybe they just thought it was extra; there seems to be some sort of cultural phenomenon determining whether people think snowmen are supposed to be made of two balls or three. He also had no arms, so maybe the person just thought it was an odd pile of snow.

Anyhow, after Matsushima, we went back into Sendai before Sharon had to go to church. I introduced her to Uni-qlo, and miraculously, we both exited without making any purchases. Then we went for coffee, of course. Despite our best intentions, Sharon still ended up leaving 5 minutes late for church, and I headed for the nearest subway.

And now the point of this story starts. When I was in elementary school, Sanrio characters were really big. What’s a Sanrio character, you ask? Think Hello Kitty, My Melody, Kerokeropi, etc, etc. It was the store to go to for elementary school girl birthday presents. I still have stationery in my collection from that time.

But Hello Kitty never went out of fashion here. She’s been exceedingly popular for the past 20 years, and will most likely continue to be so. They have a Hello Kitty theme park here, for goodness sake. And between the coffee shop and the subway station, there is a Sanrio store. I’ve walked past it dozens of times since I arrived in Sendai, but I never went in because there were always other people with me, or I actually had a destination in mind, or whatever. Sunday night, though, I had no one with me and nothing to stop me, so in I went.

Almost all of the store here is taken up by Hello Kitty, or, as they call her here, Kitty-chan merchandise. The other characters barely make it onto stickers and stationery. And on the first floor, they have a whole wall full of Kitty-chan keitai bobbles. Like I said, in Japan, everyone has things dangling off their cell phones. Originally, I just had the plain, boring strap that came in the box with the phone. After New Year’s, I added the little bell that came with my fortune, but that was still quite tame compared to most Japanese cell phones. What I needed was a cartoon character.

What I got is so incredibly Sendai. It’s Kitty-chan dressed as Date Masumune, the guy who ruled this whole region way back in the 17th century. Good ol’ Date lost his eye to a childhood illness, so he sports an eye patch, and he has this helmet with a big crescent moon on it that looks like horns, or, if you’re Danola, a banana. I’ll assume he was also something of a musician, as Kitty is carrying a violin as an accessory to her full armor, helmet, and heart-shaped eye patch. Needless to say, the original’s eye patch was not a bright red heart. At least, I assume it wasn’t. Maybe that was the style back then, and Kitty-chan is more historically accurate than I give her credit for. Somehow, I doubt it.

Anyway, now my phone is looking very Japanese. I even figured out how to program numbers into it, a mere 5 months after I got it. So if I’d just play games on it or send text messages while on the train, I’d blend right in. You know, like all Caucasian Americans here do.

Friday, January 24, 2003

Stuff and nonsense
First of all, all of northern Japan got lots of snow yesterday and today, including, for once, Miyagi. Usually, we’re surrounded by this weird, anti-snow force field, so all the prefectures around us have little snowmen on the weather map, but we just have a cloud or an umbrella, or even a sun. But yesterday, about half an hour after I got to work, it started snowing hard and sticking, so we ended up with 4-5 inches in downtown Sendai, which is apparently the most in 10 years. I’m thinking that the entire northern hemisphere is undergoing a cold snap right now, from all the cold weather reports I’m getting from people in other places as well.

Now for some odd cultural notes. For those of you who’ve been to Japan now, you may have noticed that a lot of women here tend to walk in pigeon-toed fashion. I have now found out there is a reason for this. Traditionally, the lady-like way to walk is with the toes pointed slightly inward, especially when wearing kimono and appropriate footwear. Thus, all those pigeon-toed women in the perilously heeled boots are actually walking in demure, womanly fashion.

I have also found out the reason for some cars having yellow license plates and others having white. If a car has a yellow plate, it means that it is not fuel efficient enough to travel between prefectures, nor on large expressways within prefectures, I think. I at least know for sure that the drivers can be fined if in a yellow-plated car from another prefecture. Japan is very concerned about the environment. In the second-year textbook, I just helped teach a lesson about the spread of deserts and the hole in the ozone layer. How would you like to try to teach a bunch of Japanese speakers to pronounce “chlorofluorocarbon?”

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The Kyoto/Tokyo Epic Adventure: Part III
And now you get to hear about all the other stuff we saw that was neither temple nor castle. I guess the best way to describe this section is Etc. Isn’t that precise?

The biggest thing in Kyoto, and I’m probably not exaggerating at all, is the train station itself. It’s huge. We didn’t realize it when we arrived, but the part of it that’s actually dedicated to the arrival and departure of trains is miniscule in comparison to the whole. It is quite possibly the largest single structure I’ve ever seen. Or maybe it just seemed that way because the central part was open air with escalators and stairs appearing to continue up the side of the building for miles, and we were standing there in the cold, wondering how we were going to find anything for dinner in the middle of all that. We did inadvertently go all the way to the top of the building, which is something like 12 stories up, but oddly stair stepped and confusing, and see one of the guidebook’s “best views of Kyoto,” but we weren’t very impressed because, as I said, it was cold and we were hungry, and on top of the building is where all the wind was, which wasn’t helping. Besides which, we had climbed all the way to the top of some gigantic hill (Daimon-ji?) with many, many, many steps earlier and seen a much better view of Kyoto, in the daylight. Anyway, the main part of the station building is actually 2 gigantic department stores, with restaurants and tourist offices and train platforms occasionally thrown in for general interest and confusion. And in case that wasn’t enough, you can go outside and down into the pedestrian underpass that connects all the bus stops and subway stations out in front of the main station, so you don’t have to get hit by cars. There you’ll find a whole other shopping arcade, with more restaurants, and a confusing circular layout, since they couldn’t really expand upward.

What else, what else? We tried to go see Gion, the geisha district, but we were there at the wrong time without a guidebook or a very good map, so we didn’t see much of interest at all, although we did find a Starbucks. Kyoto seems to have missed out on much of the café craze that grips the rest of Japan. We went for days without seeing a Starbucks. We nearly died. Well, not really, but I’m surprised all the Japanese tourists from more coffee-rich cities like Tokyo haven’t dropped dead in the streets or staged and uprising or something. But to get back to the point, Gion was kind of a bust, so I suggest that if you want to find out more about geisha culture, you read Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, which is fiction, or Geisha, by Liz Dalby, the only non-Japanese woman ever to train as a geisha.

The only other thing I can think of that we did in Kyoto was visit the traditional craft center. 6 floors of quality tourist souvenirs, as well as some really tacky plastic junk in the back, too. Most of what they had on display was woodblock prints, pottery, jewelry, second-hand kimono, and handmade paper. Oh, and swords. On the first floor, my dad and brother immediately found the sword section and had this very nice, English-speaking young man in white gloves showing them all the various long and short swords, and explaining the difference between the ones just for show, and the ones actually properly balanced and made of cutting-grade steel.

On to Tokyo. Perhaps you are thinking, “What? Just now? How long is this blog entry going to be? Should I go to the bathroom now, or maybe get a snack?” To put your mind at ease, no, it’s not going to be that long. We really didn’t do that much in Tokyo. We were there just before New Year’s, and almost everything we wanted to see was closed for the holidays, so it was really a lot of wandering around in the streets.

Most notably, we wandered around in the streets of the neighborhood where the sumo wrestlers train. Originally, the plan was to find their training stable and see them actually doing stuff, but they train from 7-11 am, and presumably spend the rest of the day eating or whatever. We got there right around 11, discovered that our map was, like every map in Japan, quite vague when actually put to use, and then proceeded to wander aimlessly until someone spotted… actual sumo wrestlers! Walking in their natural habitat! Barefoot and in yukata (think kimono, made of cotton, and without trailing sleeves or wide belts), at the end of December. Just out, wandering around like we were, although they presumably were out cooling down and knew where they were going.

My mother and I also wandered around looking for the flagship Muji store after we all went to the Meiji Shrine, but we never found it. My dad really liked the Meiji Shrine. This time we were visiting it much earlier in the day than the last time I went, and we were able to explore more, without fear of getting kicked out because they wanted to close the gates. There are all sorts of paths and parks and stuff back there. The shrine itself wasn’t as much fun as last time, for me, because they had all sorts of banners and booths set up in preparation for the vast hordes expected at New Year’s, and there weren’t any people in wedding finery getting their pictures taken, but really, you can’t have everything.

Item of note: Harajuku Bridge, just outside the main entrance to the Meiji Shrine, is where all the cos-play people hang out. “Cos-play” is short for “costume players,” and means people who dress up like their favorite manga (Japanese comic books) characters. They are truly bizarre looking. Lots of short hot-pink dresses, platform boots, goths in black, outlandish hair, weird make-up, and cross-dressing. And they just hang out like that. They’re not doing anything, not reciting lines or acting scenes, just chilling, looking strange.

Two things we actually managed to do successfully in Tokyo were go to the Traditional Crafts Center, and go to dinner with Jamin, Dayle, and Drew. The Traditional Craft Center was, conveniently, in the shopping area right across from our very nice hotel, and my mom and I bought lots and lots of paper. Or rather, I bought lots and lots of paper. My mom was original and bought other things, too, like a teapot and some fabric. They also had displays of all the different kinds of wood found in Japan, and kimonos, and pottery, and we spent a lot of time in there.

We went out to eat with Jamin, Dayle, and Drew, who are all the people, minus Darin, who I knew from Beloit. Drew’s still in high school, but he got a trip to Japan for Christmas, and he and Dayle were staying with Jamin in Tokyo for a few days. After demonstrating the real use of cell phones in Japan for my parents, that being to find other people in a large crowd, our two little groups managed to meet up, and then Jamin led us to a good Thai restaurant. It was fun to see all of them, and we were in Shinjuku, with all the bright lights and hordes that people expect of Tokyo, so my parents and brother got to experience that after all. Of course, my dad and brother went to Akihabara, the electronics district, so I guess they got to see it then, just not at night. I refused to go back there.

And then the trip came to an end. My family caught a shuttle bus directly from the hotel to the airport, and I shinked (ALT for “took a shinkansen”) back to Sendai. So ends the Kyoto/Tokyo epic adventure.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Castles, addendum
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, there was one more castle. More of a palace, really. The Imperial Palace in Kyoto, to be exact. How did I forget the Imperial Palace, you ask? Well, because it’s been several weeks now, and also, it just wasn’t as impressive. We weren’t allowed to walk inside it or anything, and one wing of it was under renovation. So phooey to them.

The Imperial Palace does lead me to address some comments sent to me by “alert readers,” as Dave Barry puts it, namely those about furnishings in castles in general. (Geez, some of y’all are fast! What are you doing, checking my blog every day? You’re gonna make me feel bad about the sporadic updating!) I think I may have been slightly misleading when I said that the audience chambers at Nijo-jo were meant to overawe with ornateness. In the Western tradition, this would imply lots of heavy furniture with gilt and drapes and whatnot. In Japanese palaces, this means very nicely painted sliding screen panels, open tatami floors, and not much else. The Shogun got an armrest stand when he was lounging at his ease, and small tables could be brought out and places before people kneeling on the floor, but that was it for furniture. Screens, scrolls, weapons on walls, and clothes were really how the Japanese conveyed status and ornateness. Not even the really wealthy had chairs and tables and beds. Kind of like me; I’m living in imperial style!

Also, when I said that castles were cold and drafty, I was apparently somewhat mistaken in that generality, at least as it applies to castles toured in Scotland by my friend Will. Japanese castles, to be specific, are drafty, and for good reason. There are very few stationary walls. Especially at the Imperial Palace and at Nijo-jo, almost all of the walls of the buildings could be slid to one side or raised up and fixed in place to allow for air flow and a good view. While I’m sure this was great in the summer, in the winter, the floors were rather cold.

Anyway, the Imperial Palace was a vast complex. You have to apply for permission to tour it ahead of time, and give them your passport number and everything. The tour takes you around the outsides of the buildings, but you don’t get close enough to many of them to see much of the insides. The courtyards are all raked white gravel, and the torii gates at various entrances are painted bright orange. There are various theories about the why of this color choice, from orange traditionally repels demons to the architects were trying to copy the Chinese and got orange confused with crimson as the color for luck. In any case, it’s striking, and it doesn’t look at all bad with the white walls and cypress bark roofs.

The only furniture of note was the Emperor’s throne, which has to be available for all coronations. For the coronation of the last emperor, it was actually transported to Tokyo, if I recall correctly, rather than the coronation being moved to Kyoto. As near as I could tell, from across the courtyard, it was impressive.

We also saw the private imperial gardens outside the private quarters, which were very nice, with streams full of koi to make my father very jealous. It was at this stage that we were also informed about the difference between the sliding walls and the hinged ones. Apparently, the big heavy wall panels that hinge at the top and swung outward to be hung from hooks on the rafters were the old style of architecture and much less convenient than the sliding panels that soon came into fashion. The private residence can be seen as a melding of the two styles of architecture, as it incorporates both kinds of walls.

The imperial family still occasionally has to do official stuff at the palace in Kyoto, so I assume that’s why we weren’t let into any of the buildings. In any case, I think that really does finish off all the castles and palaces and otherwise official dwellings that we visited.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

The Kyoto/Tokyo Epic Adventure: Part II
Okay, where was I? Right. Castles. While we were in Kyoto, we did occasionally look at things besides temples. Not that the temples weren’t great, but everyone has to admit it, castles are just way cool. Deep down, we all wish we could live in a castle. Now, though, we can ignore the facts of castle life, like it would have been drafty and cold and take you a really long time to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night if you didn’t want to just go in the pot under your bed, and instead just wander around these restored and preserved structures, idealizing everything while reading little informative plaques like, “This is a murder hole! Murder holes were used to dump boiling oil on invaders! Isn’t that exciting?” We are free to think, “Yeah, that is exciting! The guy who thought that up was pretty clever,” and ignore the implication that it would have really sucked to be living in a castle that was being invaded. So yay for living in an era of central heating and war devoid of boiling oil! Yay for the preservation of our mental fairy tales! On with the verbal tour of food for the imagination.

In the actual city of Kyoto, we visited Nijo Castle. (For you Nipponophiles, that’s Nijo-jo.) From the English brochure we picked up, I do quote: “The castles was originally built in 1603 to be the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu, and it was completed in 1626 by the third Shogun Iemitsu…” It then goes into a lot of detail about the architectural style of the buildings, where some of them were moved from, when the respective gardens were finished, and how many times the palace had been turned over to different branches of the government, so we’ll skip that and talk instead about the palace itself.

It’s so cool. You have to take off your shoes, of course, but once you’ve done that, you can walk all around Ninomaru Palace. It’s really a series of about 5 connected buildings, but with only one entrance. In the first building, where one enters, there were the inspector’s rooms and the imperial messenger’s rooms, where all the visiting dignitaries had to be verified, as well as the retainer’s waiting room. The next little sub-building held the shogun’s ministers’ offices and their reception room. Further into the building hierarchy, the third building held the waiting room for daimyo, more important than mere retainers. This building also held the two most official audience rooms, meant to overwhelm visitors with the lavish use of gold and lacquer, and complete with a bodyguards’ room, in which the bodyguards of the shogun could hide without detracting from the scenery or whatever. Oh, and the Shogun’s weapons’ room was in this building, as well, properly decorated with the military themes of pines and hawks. All the rooms are properly decorated with themes of something or the other. Honestly, pines appear to be appropriate for all occasions.

Set a bit further away from the first 3 buildings, we come to the building housing the Shogun’s personal audience chamber, which he used only to grant audiences to the Shinpan Daimyo, who were closely related to the Tokugawa family, and Fudai Daimyo, who had actually sided with the Tokugawa before that family won the battle of 1600 and consolidated their power. The daimyo who were relegated to the previously mentioned third building were the kiss-ups, trying to curry favor after the fact.

And then, ta-da!, we come to the Shogun’s private chambers, set the furthest away from everything, accessible only through one narrow hallway off the fourth building. Besides the Shogun, only female attendants were allowed to enter. Nice set up, huh? The screen here were decorated with “mountain and water scenes,” which “served to create a relaxing atmosphere for the Shogun’s daily life.”

The neatest and most interesting feature of Nijo Castle, though, in my opinion, in the “Nightingale Floor.” Despite its picturesque name, this is quite the security feature, as each and every board of the wooden floor in the hallways of the palace from the entrance onward squeak when anyone walks on them. There’s a little diagram explaining the construction of the floor, which I can’t show you, but the written explanation goes like this: “When the floor is trod upon, the clamps under it move up and down, creating friction between the nails and clamps which hold them in place, causing the floor to squeak.” I, of course, spent my entire time in the palace not admiring the lavish screens as proper tourists are expected to do, but instead trying to see if I could walk completely silently, without making any boards squeak. I am a dork, and I embrace this part of my personality. I’ve read too many fantasy novels. Anyhow, my conclusion was that I probably could have done it if I stepped on the joins between the ends of boards and there hadn’t been all those other people who would have looked at me funny if I tried to walk in truly sneaky fashion. Besides which, they were all making the boards creak all the time, so it was hard to judge.

The other castle we visited, on our last day in Kyoto, was not actually in Kyoto, but instead in the town of Himeji. The castle is, originally, Himeji-jo. This castle was constructed in various stages from 1333 to 1609, when it reached its current form, which includes a 5-story pagoda and 3 moats, among other things. Like Nijo-jo, you can walk all over this one. The main quarters of the castle are not in the pagoda tower, which is the most impressive feature, but instead in the “Cosmetic Tower,” or west bailey building, built for Princess Sen, eldest daughter of the Shogun, married by arrangement to the lord of Himeji-jo. As I recall from the information plaque in the room said to be her bedroom or something, it all came to a bad end, with her husband getting killed by an opposing lord and her forced to marry someone else. But as the brochure says, “Cosmetic Tower and Long Corridor remind us of her happy days.” This building was also the home of the women’s quarters, bracketed on each end of the corridor by extra thick, barred doors that were locked and guarded at night.

After leaving the Cosmetic Tower, you can wander around in the nicely designed courtyard with tall stone walls, or follow the stone paths and steps first down and then up a bunch to the main tower. This tower is now used to display relics of the past lords, museum-style, so it’s hard to tell what the larger rooms used to be used for, but the basement floors were quite obviously, (even without the plaques,) storage, and the corridors are all lined with weapons racks for spears and guns. The top two floors are quite small, and I think I recall that they were only meant as attic space, but now on the top floor there is a Shinto shrine and lots of tourists wandering around taking pictures of the view. All in all, the main tower seemed very militarily focused, and, a blow to our poor imagined castle life, unlikely to have had anything to do with actual domestic life in the castle.

Outside again, we also discovered the “Harakiri-maru” or seppuku building. Yes, this was the official building for ritual suicide. There was a stage set up for the person committing suicide, and a convenient nearby well for washing off the beheaded bodies. What fun! There’s another well said to have been haunted by the ghost of a serving girl wrongly tortured to death for the theft of a treasured serving dish, in truth revenge on her by a retainer whose plot to kill the lord she had foiled. He threw her body down the well.

Stay tuned for the quickly forthcoming (I swear!) conclusion to this epic.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Mark goes to school
Mark, who is never at a loss for words, will now entertain you with his rendition of his trip to Mukaiyama SHS. -dkw
Hello out there! For reasons that I do not fully understand, I have been given the opportunity to share with all of you readers my impressions of going to visit a school in Japan. Bwahahahahahahahah! A captive audience! Actually, I suppose you could all leave whenever you feel like it, so I’d better behave.

My day began when I was awakened at an unholy hour of the morning. Like, say, 7am. Had I not been jetlagged so badly, it would have been much worse. Still, if I have to get up early enough that the crack of dawn would have seemed like sleeping in, I’m known to be a little groggy.

After breakfast and a shower, I bundled myself up in my coat, which makes me look like a six-foot tall smurf, and set out for school. The walk there took us up one of the largest hills I have ever had to climb. Those “Buns of Steel” videos have nothing on just walking to school in the morning here. Dana is going to be able to pound nails with her butt by the time she leaves here.

When we arrived at the school on top of the hill, I took a moment to admire the view. You can see the whole city from up there. I took a picture, and was then ushered inside. Just within the door was a big set of lockers for all the teachers to keep their shoes in. The students keep theirs in a similar set near the cafeteria. Dana’s locker is on one side in the middle of a rack, and she went over to change into her “indoor” shoes.

Now, I knew that in many places in Japan, including in the schools, one does not wear one’s shoes in the building. I had not realized that the practice was to keep a set of sandals or sneakers in a locker at school and wear those during the day. It makes a lot of sense, but I guess I had always just assumed that people wore their socks around at school.

As I had no indoor shoes of my own, I was given a pair of “guest slippers.” These are just a set of brown slippers, made out of some fake leather material, with the name of the school written in Japanese across the toes. I can’t actually read the name, but the first two symbols I recognize as saying “Sendai”, so I can only assume it’s the name of the school.

Now, I wear a size 13 men’s shoe, by the US system of sizing. My big-assed steel-toed boots were the largest pair of footwear I could see sitting out by the lockers, including a pair of knee-high snow boots some student couldn’t fit into their locker. The Japanese are simply unprepared for people with feet as large as mine. The slippers I was given (and they are considered one size fits all) were so small that they did not touch my heel at all. Fortunately for me, they are open in the back, and my feet could just hang off the rear of the slipper, but they were very uncomfortable because the heel of the slipper would dig into the arch of my foot as I walked around.

I would have been tempted to just take them off and wear my socks, but the hallways of the building were not heated at all. Apparently they only heat the rooms of the school, and just leave the hallways freezing cold. The cement of the floors would have been enough to make even me a bit chilly, so I kept the slippers and did my best to walk around without them falling off. Of course, I was promptly asked to climb a flight of stairs. This is not exactly an easy task if your shoes don’t fit.

I followed Dana to the staff room, where I got to see her desk. The room is very crowded, and stacked with all sorts of things, most of which I couldn’t read. The staff were very polite, and while they were all very obviously not expecting to see somebody who looks like me in their staff room, nobody said anything to me until Dana introduced them.

We sat at her desk and I amused myself with my new MD player, purchased the day before, until homeroom was over. Dana had a English conversation class for her first period. After sitting waiting for the teacher a little while, we set out in search of him, and ran into him running down the hallway to inform us that because there would only be 3 students that day, the class had been moved.

So I was introduced to the tiny class. We talked about where I was from and what people had done for the holidays, and New Year’s resolutions. There was a clear hierarchy of the students in the class. The taller girl was the one who would always talk first, and seemed to have the best grasp of English. The other girl would speak, but only after the first girl had and she had an example to work from. The boy barely said a word, and most of that was in Japanese to the teacher. Even when provided with a Japanese to English dictionary, he really didn’t say anything.

The students, who are all in their last year at the school, talked about what they were going to do next year. Eventually, I was asked what it was that I wanted to do after graduation. I told them, and then quickly came to realize that words that I consider very basic to my vocabulary are not the sort of thing that Japanese high school students ever learn in English. Try to describe what a database is to somebody who doesn’t speak English and is not in a technical field. Go on, try it. It’s hard.

Dana and I then returned to the staff room and found Kamiyama Sensei, who Dana was scheduled to teach her next class with. The lesson for the day was on weather, and Dana and Kamiyama spent a few minutes working out what they wanted to cover before we headed upstairs to the classroom.

I was unprepared for the response I got when I entered the room. The students went wild, clapping and cheering. I have never had such a reaction to my entrance before. I was told later that the students like it when they get visitors because it means that they will get to do something new and interesting that day. In addition, being tall and Caucasian, I was a bit of a novelty.

I did a brief self introduction, and the students were given the chance to ask me questions. It’s a very strange phenomenon, but whenever students were asked if they had anything they wanted to ask me about, they would always cluster up and have very intent little conversations among themselves. I can only conclude that they were trying to decide if any of them had enough English to ask a question of me. Usually, they would finish up their little discussion and then remain perfectly silent. Still, they asked more questions than Dana had led me to believe they would.

During the lesson, I was asked to read a sample weather report to the class. I did it twice, and both times I made a real effort to speak very slowly. In spite of this, I still seemed to go way too fast. Nobody has ever accused me of speaking at too sedate a pace, so I suppose that when I intentionally slow down I talk at about the same speed most people speak at normally. I felt kind of bad about it, as I really wasn’t trying to confuse the kids.

After the second class, Dana and I went to the cafeteria for lunch. I was given the largest meal on the menu. It was tasty, but I still had an insulin reaction later in the afternoon. The meals here are just really small, by my standards. Most of the people here would likely be horrified to learn how much I eat in an average day.

During lunch, I got to meet the principal of the school. He was very nice, and seemed quite earnest to use his limited English to speak with me. Most of the conversation ended up going through Dana, so that he could supplement his English with Japanese when he needed to. He asked if I was cold. The question didn’t make a lot of sense to me, until he said something about my being in short sleeves.

As usual, I was just wearing khaki pants and a t-shirt. It seemed a perfectly reasonable outfit to me, as I was inside what was supposedly a heated building, but it seemed to surprise him. Thinking back over the course of the day, I realized that I was the only person in the school who was wearing short sleeves. Most people had on sweaters and even coats. It suddenly made sense that earlier in the day I had seen many students gesturing to their arms in their little huddle discussions, and why they kept asking me what I thought about the weather.

I did the only thing I could, and told him quite honestly that I thought the temperature was fine for short sleeves, but that the cafeteria building seemed a little over-heated to me. The look on his face seemed to indicate that he thought I was pulling his leg. A day in the life of the metabolically deranged.

The last class of the day went very much like the one before. Students cheered at my entrance, and then didn’t ask many questions, though they did ask if I was cold. I noticed that most of the students still had their coats on, and many of them had blankets over their legs. I would have been roasting in my own juices, but they seemed cold. The lesson was on asking directions, and they handed me a map of one of the local bus routes and then had me play the poor lost tourist (not far from the truth), and ask the students for directions.

Right in the middle of class, everybody stopped and looked around. I realized that the ground was shaking. This was a new experience for me. It was the first time I ever felt an earthquake. I remember that when I was in elementary school, we had one that you were supposed to have been able to feel, but I don’t remember being able to. The quake ended quickly, and class went on as if nothing had happened.

After class, we were expected to sit around until 4 o’clock. We wasted time until we could leave, and then headed back downstairs. I never thought it would be such a relief to put on a pair of work boots, but I was thrilled to get back into my shoes. On the walk back down the hill, we watched some of the students go for a run down the hill past us (can you say “shin splints,” boys and girls?) as we headed home.

Overall, school here seems very much like school at home. It’s just the little things. Like shoes. Very, very little shoes.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

The Kyoto/Tokyo Epic Adventure: Part I
Now that I’ve had some time to get back to Sendai, do New Year’s, and host my last guest before Mark gets here, (that being Drew, the last of the gang from this summer’s Japanese program at Beloit, who was just here for Christmas), I feel ready to tackle the recounting of the Watson family’s adventures in the more southern parts of Japan. For those of you without access to my mother’s two volume trip log, here’s some of what happened.

On 21 December, we left Sendai by shinkansen headed for Kyoto. This of course requires one to get off in Tokyo Station and switch shinkansen lines, as the Sendai to Tokyo line only runs north-south, and the Tokyo to Kyoto one of course runs east-west. All in all, this was about 5 hours on trains, which isn’t bad at all, considering what it would be like in a car in Japan’s horrible traffic. And shinkansens are just really neat anyway.

We arrived in Kyoto around 7 pm, and found the hotel easily, as it runs a shuttle bus to the train station every 15 minutes. It was a nice hotel. Very fancy, with footmen or whatever they are to open the doors for you, even though they’re automatic anyway. Our rooms were complete with 3 kinds of tea and a hot water kettle. The shower had truly hot water, with decent water pressure at the same time, amazingly enough, and there was a full-sized tub in which to soak. Living in a Japanese apartment in the winter will definitely teach one the values of luxury.

Kyoto is the city of temples. Lots and lots and lots of temples. It used to be the capital of Japan, before the capital seat was moved to Tokyo in 1868. It was built as a fully planned and designed city in an era of Chinese influence, which leads to an amazing occurrence: a Japanese city that actually makes sense. I mean, the streets all have names and street signs and everything. Streets going one way have numbers in their names, and streets going the other way have regular names. Bus stops are labeled either by the important landmark the bus stops in front of or by the intersection. It’s all amazingly logical. And they gave us a bus map in English, which helped even more.

And so, armed with our English bus map, a not-so-keen sense of direction, and a guidebook, we set out to see the sights of Kyoto. Or rather, some of the selected sights of Kyoto, as there are in total just entirely too many of them, and really, you can only look at so many temples before you need to look at something else. Also, since I don’t have access to my mother’s two volume set either, I can’t remember when we did all the stuff, so we’re going to try a different sort of organizational narrative here.

First temples. As noted, there are a lot of temples in Kyoto. They are also all famous. Every single one is a tourist attraction for one reason or another. This one is where the sect of this subset of this branch of Buddhism was founded, and that one over there boasts one of the three largest statues of the Buddha holding his hand just so in all of Japan (and no, we won’t tell you where the other two statues are), and that one still further over there has the world’s most painstakingly cultivated garden of 2,000 different kinds of moss, which you must not, under penalty of monks coming out and beating you with bamboo sticks, step on.

So we had to pick just a few to go to. The first one we went to, and the one that made the biggest impression in my mind, was Ginkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. This was meant to be a compliment, and copy, of Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is actually covered in gold and supposedly very impressive, but it was under renovation when we were there and covered by a big white sheet, which was not so impressive. However, the Silver Pavilion was never covered in silver, and so remains a very nice natural wooden structure surrounded by gorgeous gardens, overlooking a reflecting pond. There are rock gardens, moss gardens, trees, flowers, vines, waterfalls, streams, ponds, and hedges, and I cannot possibly describe what it looked like in words to follow the winding paths through them all. I’ll just stick with suggesting that you visit Ginkaku-ji, should you ever find yourself in Kyoto.

Another temple of note was Ryoan-ji. This temple apparently has one of the most famous Zen gardens in the world. I’d like to say that I found enlightenment there, or maybe even mental peace, but honestly, it was rainy and gray and my knee hurt and there were too many tourists. But in any case, it was neat to see. My uncle Bruce now tells me that he used the translations that Kamiyama-sensei made for him to get permission to use his tripod there and take fancy artsy pictures in the morning before any of the tourists were let in, so I’m jealous. Maybe, someday, he’ll have a working website and we can all see the photos.

Eikan-do was another neat temple. It’s really a vast complex of several (4, 5?) buildings all connected by covered walkways. They have two very nice altars, one with a neat statue of the Buddha looking over his shoulder, which is meant to illustrate the story about some famous monk actually having the Buddha come down from the altar and walk ahead of him, which astonished him so much he stopped chanting and the Buddha looked over his shoulder to ask why he had stopped. Once you leave the buildings, you can also walk around the grounds and up to the 5-story pagoda up in the trees at the top of the hill. Zack got an ink drawing of it from a street artist.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of temples that we visited, but these were the most important and interesting ones.

Stay tuned for the next installment on castles!

Friday, January 03, 2003

Ringing in the New Year
This New Year’s Eve I spent, originally, in Shiogama. I am near the Atago-jinja here in my apartment, which is apparently a famous shrine in Sendai, but the only other ALTs around for the remains of the holiday season are Danola and Alex, both in Shiogama. Also, Danola was particularly determined that I not spend New Year’s alone, especially since her mother is here visiting from South Africa. So, less than a full day since I got home from Tokyo, I was off again to Shiogama.

The original plan was to go to Shiogama shrine with Kayoko. (Note: Shrines are Shinto, temples are Buddhist.) However, going to a shrine is the traditional Japanese thing to do for New Year’s, and the Shiogama shrine is particularly popular, so the police had gone so far as to block off the streets surrounding the entrance to the shrine, which indicated to us that there were going to be a *lot* of people there. Instead, Danola, her mother, and I opted to go to the nearby temple with Alex and be Buddhist.

The Buddhist tradition is to ring a gong 108 times at midnight, once for each of the traditional sins, to wash each person clean to start the new year. Or at least that’s the version Alex told us. At this temple, they let each person who was there ring the gong once and then draw a fortune from a box. I didn’t count, so I don’t know if it ended up being 108 times or not. Ringing the gong was really neat. There’s a thick stick (or log, in the case of larger gongs) hanging in front of the gong, which is really more of a bell without a clapper, and then a rope hanging down from the stick. You grasp the rope and use it to swing the stick at the gong, letting it strike only once. Then you pause to pray, move out of the way for the next person, and draw your fortune from the box.

The fortunes were inside these little wooden carvings painted to look like demons, I think, and had a string with a bell on it wrapped around them so you could pull your fortune out of the wooden doll. We all got “big luck,” which is the best of the five levels of luck you can get. There were lots of bits of advice and predictions for the coming year, too, but we couldn’t read many of them. The only one I could read said, “A person you are hoping for will come to visit.” Since Mark is coming tomorrow, this seems fairly accurate, so maybe I will indeed have a very lucky year.