Dana Goes to Japan


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Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Today the coolest thing happened. I only had one class to teach, and it was yet another self-introduction class, so I wasn’t thinking much about it. Everything went well, I got the students to interview each other and introduce their partners, and they actually asked me questions in English in the last 5 minutes of class. As I was gathering all my stuff to go, one student came up to talk to me. I thought she looked kind of familiar, but then again, all my students do.

“Last January 26, I was standing in the hallway crying. You talked to me. I was very happy. Thank you.”

It was the girl who had been so nervous and crying after her entrance exam interview. I’m glad she made it into Mukaiyama. And I’m glad I made a difference for her. I feel like perhaps I’ve done some good here after all.

Both of my schools just had their PTA days. This is a big deal at Japanese schools. They are held intentionally on weekends or holidays so all the parents can come without taking time off of work. Minami had theirs on Saturday, and Mukaiyama’s was yesterday, which was Greenery Day.

The day starts with two periods of classes, which parents can observe. Then the “school day” is over, and the PTA meetings start. There’s a general meeting, then each grade has a meeting, then each classroom has a meeting. When I left Mukaiyama at 4 yesterday afternoon, the class meetings were just starting. Thank goodness I got to leave.

After the classes were over yesterday, the English club asked me to bring the Monopoly board they gave my predecessor and play with them. I have never before played Monopoly with people so dedicated to such cut-throat strategy. I’d never actually gotten to the point of building houses before, but I did this time, and that was nothing compared to the boy next to me who was determined to get a hotel. The rent on his properties was above $200 by the time I left. I auctioned off all my property after two hours, and he was very eager to get my full set of green properties. He reported that he won the game when he brought back the box.

A few of my teachers asked me if we have PTA in the US, which I thought was funny, since it’s an imported English term. There’s no way that’s a Japanese acronym, but they don’t even think about it anymore. The idea that PTA day is not such a humongous, involved production in the US was very foreign to them.

Back in the Day
On Monday, I finally saw Brian, my friend from home who has also been teaching in Japan all year. He and his brother Paul are much further south and west than me (Paul is almost in Hiroshima), so it has been hard to find a way to see either of them. It turns out that Brian’s girlfriend Victoria is has a good friend from university, Jane, who is also a Sendai ALT, so they used this holiday weekend to make the long bus ride north.

Brian and Victoria got to Sendai on Saturday, but I had PTA day at Minami, as did Jane, so we both got Monday off to make up for it, which seemed like a good time to try to get together. I met them downtown in time for lunch, and then we wandered around “shopping,” or rather, talking. Jane and Victoria spent the whole time talking about friends they knew from uni, (just to be British about it,) so Brian and I retaliated by talking about our parents and people we knew from high school. Nothing like reminiscing about the politics of high school orchestra.

Brian and Victoria, and Paul, for that matter, are all staying next year, and they’ve already started planning how to maximize their vacation time. This weekend started the Golden Week period, with yesterday (Tuesday) being the first of the Golden Week national holidays. This year’s Golden Week is very disappointing, since two of the holidays fall on the weekend anyway. Next year, though, people will be able to take nearly two straight weeks off by only using two or three days of paid leave. I feel cheated. But since I won’t be here next year, I’ll just have to read Brian’s blog about his fabulous vacations like everyone else.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Geography Lesson
I really ought to start making locking myself out of my apartment a regular occurrence. I ran over to the post office when I got home this afternoon, and automatically locked the door behind me without thinking about it. It is by far more convenient to do this at 4 in the afternoon, rather than after 11 at night. I just walked across the street to my landlord’s office and got the key this time.

It’s great! Every time I go over there, I get plied with tea and snacks, and get an entertaining bilingual geography lesson. Today I got to see pictures of Nepal and Tibet. I love mountain countries. I want to go. My landlords appear to have made friends all over the world simply by handing out origami cranes and Polaroid photos wherever they go. My landlady also showed off her black face-covering head cloth thingy from Yemen, and gave me my choice of little purse from Nepal. I chose purple, of course.

Among the interesting things I found out was that they make candles out of yak butter in Tibet. And women wear these really heavy-looking turquoise-studded headdresses that then run down to a belt, which is tied to the end of their many long braids. My landlady was dismayed to hear that I had hair that long before I cut it all off.

Now I just need to find something nice to get her from Iowa when I go in a week. Somehow, corn isn’t quite as interesting as stationery from Tibet.

The fastest way to bike to school is to ride your bike while holding onto one of the handlebars of your friend’s scooter.

Judging by the big grin on the little boy’s face, the best way to get anywhere at all is in a front-mounted child seat on your dad’s bicycle, with the wind in your face and able to see the complete view.

I passed a 60+ man today wearing black leather pants, a plaid dress shirt, and a windbreaker.

According to the guy driving the truck, the guy in the car in front of him should not have chosen waiting for the light to change as a good excuse to get engrossed in reading his manga.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

How’s their English?
This past weekend, Sharon had another one of her parties where she tried to see how many people she could pack into her apartment. I think she figures she has to put all that space to good use, since she has to pay the rent on it anyway.

This time, she’d managed to invite a lot of Japanese people, as opposed to mostly ALTs, and I had a very interesting conversation with Sato-san, the English whiz at Map Tour, a travel agency a lot of the ALTs patronize pretty much solely due to him. He asked how the English speaking ability of most of my JTEs was. He said that when he went to Minami, the teachers didn’t speak much English at all, and very much concentrated on grammar all the time. He thinks that if he hadn’t gone to private English lessons for 4.5 years, he never would have survived his year and a half in San Francisco.

On the train home, I mentioned this conversation to another college student who had been at the party, and she said she agreed. It seems to be the opinion of most of the young people in Japan, that being anyone who graduated from high school in the past 10-15 years, that the JTEs don’t speak enough English in the classroom and don’t encourage the development of speaking ability in their students. So how is it that ALTs can realize this, and ex-students can realize this, but so many JTEs can’t, not to mention the Education Ministry?

That’s not really fair, though. JTEs and the Ministry do realize this. But change comes extremely slowly to the educational system in Japan, witness the fact that the JET program has been in place for 20 years and ALTs are just beginning to have an impact on the true method of teaching oral communication. The Ministry has announced that a listening section will be added to the national English exams in 3 years, so entering first year high school students are starting to be prepared now, but I find it really depressing that this is the only reason that some of my JTEs think oral communication class is important now.

Several of my JTEs, the ones with better speaking ability, oddly enough, have expressed the same dissatisfaction that I have with the way grammar, reading, and oral communication are taught as completely separate subjects, even by different teachers for each class. While this division of labor may make academic sense, it fragments the learning process and serves to make English, one of the most living languages on the planet, into something as dead as ancient Greek. It’s no wonder students rarely develop the ability or confidence to speak out loud on a regular basis. They’ve been terrorized into a complete fear of using the wrong grammar. None of the stuff they learn in grammar classes taught almost exclusively in Japanese is translating over in their brains as something that actually applies to spoken English. Alas.

Lady’s Tea
I’m getting behind on my blog entries! Oh, no! I blame it all on having to actually do work now. A radical concept, I know.

This past Friday at Minami, we had the “Lady’s Tea Party” during the lunch hour. For once, I was actually there while they were doing something fun! They’d tried to invite me to ladies only parties before, but always on days when I had to be at Mukaiyama. I’m not sure how often they do this tea party, but I think maybe it was just for the beginning of the year.

At the noon recess, Mrs. Shiokai and I went downstairs to the conference room with all the other women of the school, that being maybe 12-15 in total. The tables were set up in a square, with each place around the perimeter set with a slice of cake and some rice cookies. We got to pick where to sit based on which cake we wanted, and then told the office lady which kind of tea we wanted.

This being a Japanese party at the beginning of the year, each person of course got up and made a short introductory speech. This is the kind of thing I really know how to do in Japanese, so I got a nice round of applause and some gratifyingly surprised looks. Yay, rah, I can speak Japanese! Sort of.

Anyway, it was all very nice and pleasant, and the cake was really good, and there was bonding. Oooh, aaah. Judging from the materials left on my desk, I don’t think Minami has ever had a female ALT, so this was no doubt a novel occurrence.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Sushi Bar
Apparently, I should have lost my key earlier. Now that I’ve reintroduced myself to my landlords, they want to adopt me. I went to the post office last Friday, and on the way over, my landlady saw me and invited me into their office for tea. We had a nice visit, with one of those long, involved conversations that take place even when neither of the participants speak the other’s language much beyond key nouns and unconjugated verbs. (This once again makes me truly wish I could convey to my students that perfect grammar is totally unnecessary. Getting your basic meaning across is what counts in real life, at least to start.)

During this conversation, I found out that she and her husband, and one of her friends, otherwise known as her “travel friend,” have gone all over the world. She went through an extremely impressive list of countries she’s been to, basically sorting them by continent. When you’ve been so many places that you have to sort them by continent to keep them straight, you’ve traveled a lot. I went and got the few pictures of Chile and Peru that I have here, and she showed me a few from the Middle East that she had there in the office.

Somehow, the conversation got around to what kinds of Japanese foods I like, (this is a frequent question,) and she asked if I’d had sushi. I said I’d had some in the US, but not in Japan. Well, that just would not do! With superb timing, her husband came back to the office just then, and she conferred with him about which would be the best day to take me out for sushi. Which is how I ended up spending this past Wednesday evening in a sushi bar.

It was really neat! When I’ve had sushi in the US, it was always brought out from the kitchen on a plate. At this place, though, they make the sushi right in front of you, as you order it. The restaurant is set up as a long bar facing the fish displays. Every 5 or 6 places, there is a different sushi chef stationed to take orders. When you place your order, he picks out the appropriate slab of fish, cuts off two pieces, molds little rice balls, applies wasabi to the fish, and places the fish on top of the rice. Both sushi were then placed in front of you on a leaf that served as the serving platter in front of each customer.

My landlady put herself in charge of ordering for me. I know I had maguro sushi twice, which is lean tuna, and salmon, and some other white-colored fish, as well as egg sushi, which involves no fish at all. I had a little dish of shoyu (soy sauce) to dip them in, and they were all very good. The chef was at first concerned that I might not want wasabi, but I assured him it was fine. I like wasabi. Mmmm, spicy food.

The most interesting thing to watch, though, was when he made sushi rolls, or maki. I really like kappa maki (cucumber roll), which I knew from having had it before. To make this, the chef took a long piece of nori (seaweed paper), spread rice on it, sliced two long, thin pieces from a cucumber to put on top of the rice, and then used the little bamboo mat that the seaweed had been placed on top of to roll the whole thing into a perfect, tightly packed cylinder. He then sliced the cylinder into 6 little rolls, each about an inch thick. At the end of the meal, my landlady ordered umeboshi maki (pickled plum roll), just to see if I’d like it. I’m apparently a very strange foreigner for actually liking umeboshi. The roll was made pretty much the same way, except the umeboshi used to put down the middle of the rice is actually made into a paste, rather than being individual plums that have to be pitted and placed there. Umeboshi is really salty, and has a bit of a bite to it in concentrated form as well, so the three of us shared those rolls. I thought they were good.

At this point, I was very full. My landlady told me I’d hardly eaten anything at all, but I’m sure I had about twice as much as she did. Maybe it’s just because I’m Western, or perhaps because I’m American, from the land of “big steaks.” In any case, we’d all had enough to eat, so then it was off to the world’s tiniest bar/lounge, owned by some of their friends. There was one male bartender and two women who seemed to be functioning as hostesses. They took our coats when we came in, sat at our table with us, and prepared our drinks. If I’m not mistaken, my landlord excused my not drinking any alcohol by claiming I was Muslim. I’m not sure if they took that as a joke or not, but in any case, I managed to get away with only drinking ginger ale, which made me happy.

One of the women was just extremely happy to have me there, as it gave her an excuse to try out English. She was, as one says in Japan, very genki. The other woman was quieter, but extremely nice, and they both took turns teaching me words of Sendai and Iwate dialect. The bartender came and sat with us, too, after he’d finished preparing the little snack dishes. After a while, my landlady pulled out her very impressive photo album from their latest trip, which was to Yemen, and we all looked at those pictures. If I heard correctly, one of the stops on the tour was to see the house of Osama bin Laden’s father, who had 46, or maybe it was 64, wives, and over 100 children. There were also many gorgeous desert pictures and quite a few of my landlady and her friend in native dress, which caused much giggling.

When it was time for us to leave, the hostesses went to the elevator with us and escorted us all the way back out to the street, saying “thank you” and “good-bye” several times, in both English and Japanese. My landlady said they were very excited that I had come. I’m such a celebrity. However will my ego adjust when I return home?

Peach Collon Update
I am pleased to report that Peach Collon lives up to tastiness expectations. It’s not quite as good as Mango, but this is not a major failing by any means.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

It’s All for You
You, my dedicated readers, have no idea the sacrifices I make for you, but I shall attempt to enlighten you. It is just for you, I swear, that I purchase the newest flavors of Pocky and Collon to be found in the convenience store. Someone with dedication must taste-test these new offerings, and report back the findings. I have decided to let that person be me.

The very latest on the Pocky front is Choco Banana Pocky. It comes in attractive yellow-and brown-striped packaging, to mimic the appearance of the Pocky sticks themselves, and the box features a background of bananas. As for taste, there isn’t much chocolate making itself evident, but the general flavor is much like that of banana pudding. Not bad at all, quite edible. Much better than Green Tea Mousse Pocky, in my opinion.

Another recent discovery was Peach Collon. I have high hopes for this snack item. I was bitterly disappointed when the delectable Mango flavor did not stay in the stores for much longer than a month this summer. The basic flavors of Chocolate and Cream are all right, but nothing special, and Cheesecake, the star of the winter season, palled quickly. Peach shall be sampled sometime this week and reported upon forthwith, rest assured. I shall not rest until I have updated your knowledge of Japanese snack foods!

Monday, April 14, 2003

Easily Entertained
I just have to point out that the themed ads at the top of this page, which change according to what my latest posted content is, are hilarious. After I lost my keys, they were for electronic locks for home or office, and after "Bad Hair Day," they were about finding electric hair clippers on-line. I check my own blog just to see what they'll be next. But then, I'm easily entertained.
Enkai Season
Aaahhhh, finally, it appears that enkai season may really be over. In the past month, I have been to one overnight onsen and 3 enkais. There are too many obligations, in my opinion, associated with the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. One must go out to expensive dinners and drinking parties one week to say good-bye to the teachers who are leaving, and then a week later, one must do it all again to welcome the new ones. But this past Friday was the welcoming enkai for Mukaiyama, and I think I’m now done “celebrating.” This is a good thing, since I’m also expected to shell out ~$50 each time.

Friday night I went downtown to the JAL City hotel. Of course, I hadn’t been told it was a hotel beforehand, so I was concerned from just looking at the name that it might be a karaoke palace. Engrish-named buildings are suspicious to me. But it turned out to be a hotel after all, owned by the JAL airlines because it’s right across from Sendai Station, so I was much relieved. I’m still on target to complete my goal of avoiding karaoke for my entire year in Japan.

We were assigned to the different tables in the banquet room by picking a paper crane with a slip of paper in its wing. I was at a table with several of the PE teachers, the science teacher who sat next to me all last term, and one of the English teachers who used to teach 2nd-year classes with me. He and the science teacher started the evening by discussing the merits of various brands of Japanese beer as they filled people’s glasses preparatory to the toast. As he proceeded to drink more beer, he also became more willing to translate things for me and in general talk, so this enkai was much more fun than the farewell one, which was so boring I didn’t even bother to write about it.

The general purpose of the evening was speeches. First there was the toast. Then the new principal was introduced, and he made a speech. Then each of the new teachers was introduced by someone in their department, after which, they made a speech. This is not very exciting, particularly when you can’t understand what’s being said, but at a Japanese party, this doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because no one is paying attention anyway. Throughout the entire party, the wait staff are taking old dishes away, replenishing the communal beer bottles, and bringing in the next courses. People are constantly eating, talking to their neighbors, pouring drinks for the people around them, whatever. It’s all very quiet, but it’s rather obvious that no one is really giving much more than the corner of their ear, so to speak, to the person at the microphone.

The main thing is really the food. And the drinking, I suppose, for those other people who like alcohol, but I’m not one of them. There were about 8 different courses in all, each on an individual little dish. We started out with some sort of appetizer, followed by a sashimi plate, then little ham and cheese squares, and an egg cup. Then came the main dishes. First there was fish with asparagus, followed by a small steak with a slice of eggplant and tomato. By this point, I was getting rather full, but we still had bowls of rice with vegetables, and for dessert, cheesecake and melon. I thought I would explode.

The evening ended with one of the men who works in the office, a very small, quiet man, doing his traditional “Bansai” speech, which is basically throwing your arms in the air three times while saying “Bansai!,” something along the lines of “Hip, hip, hooray!” As far as I can tell, this is that poor man’s only job at the school, because I’ve never seen him do anything else. He’s asked to do this at every party.

And of course, no event would be complete without singing the school song. Japanese high schools have a real thing about singing the school song. We’ve sung the Mukaiyama one so often in the past month, I’m actually starting to remember it, even though I still have no clue what any of it means. There’s one part about the Hirose-gawa, otherwise known as the river that runs through the middle of Sendai, but that’s about all I can pick up.

Afterward, everyone broke up without anyone inviting me to go to a second party, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about making an excuse. I walked back to the station with the teacher who had been sitting next to me, and we had an interesting conversation about the merits of a school year schedule with an actual summer break between the years. He says he really wishes the schedule would change to a September – May cycle, so the teachers would have adequate time to prepare curriculum changes for the coming year. As it stands, they get barely 2 weeks. I certainly agree with him. I see no advantages to a year that starts in April and gets broken up by long breaks in the middle of semesters. I doubt it’ll change any time soon, though. I wish them all good luck with that.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Bad Hair Day
This is not a terribly insightful entry here; in fact, one might even call it shallow. However, it’s also true. I don’t know what it is, but once men in Japan reach a certain age, say about 50, and find that they have any sort of hair scarcity, they cease to be able to get a decent haircut. It’s like there’s some law of nature that says they have to grow their hair long on one side and do this elaborate swirling comb-over that does nothing to hide a bald spot and everything to emphasize it. If they realized they had thinning hair early enough in their lives that they beat the law-of-nature deadline, they can have a decent haircut forever, but those lucky men are sadly few. The worst thing is that all the other men in Japan are so incredibly fashion conscious, so the comparison makes the contrast all the more unfortunate. Japanese men either look like manga characters or complete dorks. I can’t watch the news anymore, because their war analyst’s hair is just too painful. It’s enough to make you want to attack them with a set of electric clippers. Poor guys.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Bringing Politics to You
It’s that time of year. Yes, it’s election season. Oh, goody! I’m so thrilled.

Japanese politicians are really annoying. They aren’t satisfied with giving publicized speeches in some central location where interested people can go and I can avoid it. Oh, no, they have to get out and interact with the public. Most specifically, they have to get out in vans with loudspeakers mounted on the top and drive down my street at about 5 mph, giving their little spiel, complete with many, many “onegaishimasu”s, or pleases and thank yous. At one point this past weekend, I had two vans going past my house in opposite directions. Most of them have perky women speaking into the microphones, just as representatives, but just a little while ago, while I was trying to watch my mere half hour of English-language news, there was an actual male politician giving a full-blown speech pretty much right outside my window for about 10 whole minutes. It really annoys me that I don’t know how to lean out the window and yell at them to go away. I can be properly annoyed in English, Spanish, and a bit in German, but in Japanese, I only know how to be nice a polite.

These same people feel compelled to park their vans on the side of the street and stand around in a group waving at the passer-by with their nice little white-gloved hands. That’s all well and good, except when it’s on my way home, on a narrow, winding two-lane road with no sidewalks, so all the cars have to swerve into the other lane to get around them and I have to cross to the other side of the street so as not to get run over. Honestly, they’re a public nuisance. Which, come to think of it, is how I feel about a lot of politicians in general anyway.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

We Want You…
…to join our club!

This morning’s main activity was to watch the student council’s presentation of after school clubs to the new students. Mukaiyama has a lot of clubs. Some of them just told the students what their club was, and wouldn’t they consider joining it, but most of them went for entertainment value in their presentations.

Kyudo started it all off with an archery demonstration, no talking at all. Baseball sent one player forward to slide into “base” in front of the students, then take his shirt off and demonstrate his swing. (He was embarrassed and put his shirt over his face as he went back to his seat, while all his friends teased him.) Soft tennis had a video presentation. Regular boys’ tennis had their star player return serves while yelling in an amusing fashion, hopefully not hitting any of the audience members. Women’s basketball did running circle passes, women’s volleyball batted balls back and forth in pairs, men’s volleyball did spikes. Men’s badminton set up their net with one team member sitting on the floor with an apple on his head, another next to him tossing the birdies over the net, and two other boys on the other side trying to hit the apple. They never did get it, but they did nail the sitting boy in the chest a few times. Kendo staged a massacre with kills designated by popping the balloon they each had taped to the top of their helmets. The soccer boys did a coordinated dance routine, complete with the removal of shirts and some macho muscle posing. Gymnastics had girls doing rhythmic routines with balls and hoops, and boys doing tumbling, one boy being the star of the show with impressive tumbling passes and some break dancing, and another being the class clown, with a lot of impressive posturing before doing very pitiful somersaults and cartwheels. I’m not sure if everyone knows he’s actually very good and he was just clowning, of if he’s just a clown in general. Junior Red Cross had a little pantomime about saving one of their group members who had been in a “gun battle” after throwing candy at the crowd. The chemistry club showed off their color-changing mixtures. There was some sport I didn’t understand at all that looked like a cross between basketball and soccer, with the boys passing lightweight volleyballs back and forth with sticky-taped fingers on one hand, faking around another player, and attempting to throw the ball into a soccer goal past the goalie. These were just the most memorable ones, too. To end it all, the boys of the cheer squad came out in their black uniforms and long headbands and proceeded to cheer/yell at the crowd in grand traditional style.

It was a lot more entertaining than most assemblies I have to go to in the gym.

Back to School
And so the new school year officially begins. Yesterday was the first day of school, which pretty much meant a full day of ceremonies. Well, at least it was for me. The students and homeroom teachers also had to deal with getting organized in their new classes. But this blog is all about me, me, me. Sort of.

Back to the point. In the morning, there was the Opening Ceremony, during which the new principal was introduced. He’s rather more charismatic than the one who retired. He did a little a capella karaoke at one point, and all the students were clapping along. Then all the new teachers were introduced, each of them giving the requisite “Hello, my name is…, please treat me kindly,” speech. Then the new homeroom teachers were announced for the second and third year reorganized classes, as well as the coaches and advisors for all the clubs. This was the part that the students had been waiting for, since their homeroom teacher will be an important figure in their lives for the next year. One student jumped in the air when Kamiyama-sensei’s name was called for class 2-1. I thought that was pretty cute.

After the ceremony, the students all went to their new homerooms and worked on preparing for the Entrance Ceremony in the afternoon. Around noon, the teachers all had to go get the staff picture made. The female teachers all stood on the row right behind the principal, vice-principal, and other somehow significant teachers’ chairs, while all the male teachers took up the three rows of risers behind us, just to give you some idea of the male/female ratio. Other than waiting for a couple of the PE and science teachers to remember their suit jackets so as to look presentable, that went quite quickly. The Japanese are very good at group photo organization.

In the afternoon, the Entrance Ceremony took place. This was when all the new first year students officially entered the school. It wasn’t much of a ceremony, as far as length and pomp go. The students marched in with their homeroom class, dressed in basically business attire, and were seated by their homeroom teacher. The principal, now dressed in a tux, gave a speech, followed by a representative of the new students. Each of the students’ names was called by their homeroom teacher, and they stood up at their name. That was pretty much it.

What I had the most fun noticing was what the teachers and parents were wearing. All the male homeroom teachers had changed to nicer black suits if they hadn’t come to school in one, and had changed their normal ties for white ones. Cute, tiny little Handa-sensei, the woman who sat across from me in the staff room last school year, was such a contrast to all those suited men, since she only comes midway up my chest. All the parents were wearing fairly nice clothes (I only spotted one mother in kimono), but they had all brought house slippers to wear in the gym. This makes me suspect that all Japanese people have a pair of cheap cloth slippers to take to formal occasions at any time. This is not to say that the slippers are particularly formal themselves; rather, they are predominantly flower or plaid print. Who am I to smile at this, though? My indoor shoes are bright purple.

Monday, April 07, 2003

It Had to Happen
I knew it was going to happen at least one time in my year here in Japan, from the very moment I saw my front door. I was going to lock myself out of the house. And as predicted, this weekend, I did. In the rain. At night. It’s all too easy to do this in my apartment. My door just has one of those push-button locks that are locked from the inside. This of course means that if I lock my door, pull it to, and then realize that my keys are inside, well, that’s just too bad for me, now isn’t it?

Up to now, I’ve been really, incredibly paranoid about this. I would end up checking my bag or pockets for a key two or three times before closing the door. But after 8 months, my brain finally got to the point where it assumed I’d automatically put in a key, and this one fateful time, I didn’t check.

It was Saturday night, and I went to Shiogama to have dinner with Sharon, Laura, and Kristel to welcome Kristel back from Shanghai. It did, of course, turn into a long dinner of lots of talking and chatting and sub-conversations. We were in an izakaya, which is sort of like a Japanese version of an idealized English pub, that neighborhood bar/restaurant where everyone knows the proprietor and each other. The only other people there were a group of men in the back raised tatami area, and after we had been there for nearly two hours, and various of them had cruised our table on their way to the bathroom (presumably after quite a few beers), they got up the nerve to send the proprietress over to us to ask if 1) we spoke Japanese, 2) were going to be in Japan for a while, and 3) if we’d care to join them at their table. We decided we had perhaps been there long enough. This was an extremely rare occurrence. Men in Japan just don’t make moves toward women that way, especially foreign women. I think Laura might have been thinking about going back some other night to see if it happened again.

In any case, I caught the train back to Sendai at about 10 pm, and about 2/3 of the way there, I just knew I didn’t have my key. I checked. Sure enough, it wasn’t there. I knew exactly where it was, in my house. Both of my keys actually; I could see them in my mind, each in a bag that was most definitely not the one I had with me. I had, of course, looked at a key before I left and thought, “I should put that in my bag. Oh, but wait, I’ll take the other one,” and then didn’t.

I got back to my apartment and considered my door. It’s a very thin, unconvincing door, and I had been somewhat cynical about its ability to keep out a determined bad guy. But now I was the one considering breaking into my apartment, and I suddenly developed a far greater respect for my door. First of all, it opens outward into a very small landing, so there’s no use in throwing one’s shoulder against it. The hinges have no exposed screw heads. The key hole has deep grooves that can’t be faked with the screwdriver attachment of a pocketknife, which in any case was on the other side of the door, where the actual keys were, too. There’s a protector plate that sticks out over the doorjamb to cover the area with the latch, preventing the clichéd attempt with the credit card. (Also, I think that may only really work on doors that open inward.) I have a broken umbrella outside, courtesy of my predecessor, which I broke a metal bit off of to try to pick the lock, but it just kept bending, so I gave up.

I called Richard, since he lives not 7 minutes away, but he didn’t answer his phone, and I knew his girlfriend had just had her first week at work, so he was only getting to see her on the weekend. My landlord supposedly lives above his office across the street, but so do a bunch of other people in other apartments, and I didn’t know which was theirs, nor could I remember their name, which wouldn’t have helped anyway, as I couldn’t read any of the kanji on the mailboxes in the foyer. In the end, I called Sharon again, caught the last train back to Shiogama at 2 minutes to midnight, and spent the night there.

As Sharon said, I was meant to be in Shiogama for the weekend, because Danola came back from her 2 weeks in South Africa on Sunday morning. We went over to her apartment around noon, where Sharon made her lunch and she filled us in on all the gossip from her soap-opera life back home. She and Laura have been particularly vociferous in their observations about Japanese men not treating them as if they were females, with curves and figures and all, but instead as intimidating foreign women who speak English and just aren’t Japanese. So her big observation about being in South Africa was that she definitely felt like a woman again. (This might have had something to do with the fact that she was around her ex-husband and two ex-boyfriends.) I told her that by the time she goes home for real, she’ll be the biggest flirt in the world just because all the men will react to her again. She didn’t deny it. In any case, she had a ball and was very happy with life in general.

But then I had to deal with getting back into my apartment. I called Kamiyama-sensei. I said, “I’m locked out of my apartment,” and he responded with, “Why?” which Danola and I thought was hilarious. When I explained that the keys were inside the apartment and I was not, he understood and called my landlord. The landlord did indeed have an extra key, and provided, via Kamiyama-sensei, his phone number and a description of where exactly his apartment was. I also got his name, which I am a terrible, horrible, very non-Japanese person for not remembering after meeting him one time 8 months ago. I made my way back from Shiogama, got the key, unlocked my door, and received a bag of snacks from my landlord’s wife upon returning the key. They’re such nice people. I’m going to have to get them some sort of nice gift before I leave.

So that was my rather more adventurous weekend than I intended. Now that I’ve done it once, I never have to do it again. That’s the way it works, right?

Friday, April 04, 2003

Studio Ghibli Magic
Before I left the US, I’d never heard of Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli. I’d vaguely heard of “Princess Mononoke,” and I did actually see it during the summer while at Japanese summer language school, but I’d never seen anything else from the most famous Japanese animated movie studio. Thanks to the wonder of my television actually receiving 5 whole channels, I get movies every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. So far this year, I’ve seen (in edited form, I grant you) “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” (undubbed), “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” and “Porco Rosso.” These are all by Hayao Miyazaki, but the other main Studio Ghibli director is Isao Takahata, who did “Grave of the Fireflies,” which you may recall I saw with Richard a while ago.

Last night’s contribution was “Porco Rosso.” It’s based on an Italian story, or at least set in Italy, judging by all the writing on the newspapers and such. I find it really interesting how most of the stories come from all sorts of different cultures, but still manage to have a lot of similarities. “Laputa” is very Holland-ish influences, with lots of windmills and such, but still a very fantastic setting. The next projected movie from Miyazaki is “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a children’s novel by a British fantasy author. “Mononoke” is basically set in ancient Japan, while “Spirited Away” is kind of wherever, modern-day, and then really obviously elsewhere. Oddly enough, “Laputa” and “Porco Rosso” have similar airplane and pirate themes.

Another similarity is the presence of very strong female characters. The lead pirate in “Laputa” is female, as is the main character. The airplane mechanic’s granddaughter in “Porco Rosso” designs and builds the plane with the help of all the neighborhood women, no men. Her grandfather just installs the engine. In “Mononoke,” all the strong leaders of groups are female (the princess, the warrior-woman, the spunky bossy woman, the wolf goddess). In “Spirited Away,” the owner of the inn is the witch woman, in charge of everything, and the maid Chihiro is put in the charge of is strong-willed and always talking back. If I were still in college, I’d be tempted to write a paper on gender roles in Miyazaki films, but I’m not, and I wouldn’t get any credit for it, so instead I’ll just sort of vaguely mention it here on my blog, without having to do all that tedious analysis. Anyone still in college who can manage to get credit for this should feel free to steal the idea.

Even having seen the majority of these movies in Japanese with no subtitles or anything, I’ve enjoyed them immensely. I love the animation style, and there are some very clever little things you start to notice after seeing a few of them, like the fact that the brand of the airplane engine in “Porco Rosso” was “Ghibli.” All Miyazaki’s movies manage to capture a feeling of magic and wonder that I feel like Disney’s been missing for a while, as they pursue comic relief more than fantasy. (And those that know me know that I don’t have an anti-Disney bias by any means.) If buying DVDs here would do me any good upon returning to the US, I’d get myself a nice collection of Studio Ghibli work. Instead I’ll just have to wait.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Baseball Fever
Today was the finals for the spring senior high school baseball tournament. All week long on the news, there have been updates about which schools were still in, who had lost, which teams have players with a parent from Iran or Taiwan, how the pitchers match up against each other, and on and on. When the high school tournaments are happening, they get more coverage than any professional sport in Japan. In the semi-finals, one game had to be re-played the next day, because the first time it went into 15 innings and was still tied. Basically, they ended up playing a 24 inning game over the span of two days.

The two teams that made it to the finals were Yokohama SHS and Hiroshima Koryo SHS. Yokohama had been the darling of the news all week, or at least the bilingual version, which might have something to do with the fact that NHK is based in Tokyo, of which Yokohama is basically a suburb. But today, Yokohama just couldn’t do it. I saw the beginning of the game during lunch at school, and their pitcher was having some trouble keeping the ball in the strike zone without the ball getting hit. (The news just now did mention that the strike zone in Japan is smaller than that in the US. Matsui is reported to be having a little trouble with this, playing for the Yankees.) Then I left work early, as I can during these spring holiday days, and by the time I turned the TV on again at home, it was the 8th inning and Koryo was ahead 10-2. The final score was 15-3. Some of the Koryo players were crying for joy, perhaps 3rd year students for whom this was the last game. The Yokohama pitcher was sobbing as he left the field, his hat held over his face. I might cry, too, if I gave up 20 hits to the opposing team, while my own only managed 9. Not that his friends in the outfield were helping much by the end of the game. Two separate players dropped the ball on one play, allowing at least one runner to get home. Poor Yokohama.

Another big thing in the news right now is the SARS scare. So far, there have been no reported cases in Japan, but people are keeping a close eye on the news. Herby, an ALT from Hong Kong, is very worried. He says he knows people who live a block away from the apartment block that has been quarantined. His girlfriend is coming to visit for a week, and he’s kind of concerned that that’s the length of the standard incubation period. He was going to make sure his apartment was extra-clean, and he says he’s been trying to take a lot of vitamin C, to boost his immune system, just in case. Several other ALTs, such as Kristel, have been going to China and other parts of SE Asia during the spring holidays, and I’m really hoping none of them get sick. Kristel got back last night, so they’re not stopping people from coming back in the country. I did notice that the US held a flight coming in from Tokyo earlier this week to check all passengers and send 4 to the hospital, but they let all the others go. Some Japanese companies with branches in affected areas have told their overseas employees to stay home, rather than expose themselves to more risk than necessary. As for me, I’m not feeling so bad about my decision to put off a possible trip to China. Mysterious deadly pneumonia does not sound like much fun, particularly for my asthmatic lungs. I’d rather stay alive, go to grad school next year, and see the Great Wall later.