Dana Goes to Japan


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Friday, May 30, 2003

Look! It’s a giraffe!
No, really, I’m not kidding! Yesterday, on my way into downtown Sendai, I saw a real live giraffe. And several zebras. They’re part of a circus that is setting up in what is now an empty lot, and up until sometime last month was a large building in the process of being torn down the entire time I’ve lived here. It’s right next to the big pedestrian overpass on the main road that I take to get to Sendai Station, and everyone was pausing at the top of the stairs to look at the animals. I didn’t notice the giraffe until I was up there, because it had been hidden behind the other trailers and stuff from street level. After I saw it, I smiled all the rest of the way to the station. I like giraffes. Seeing one in the middle of downtown made my day. I think I’ll get to see it again tonight when I go to pick Jamin up from the shinkansen. Yay!

Last week, I saw one kid riding his bike to school while air guitaring. A day or so later, I saw another one air drumming. If they got together with a kid lip synching to his headphones, they could have a whole air band on bikes. They could start a roving entertainment business. (The thought amused me, at least.)

On my way home one day, while waiting to cross the street, I noticed a woman on a bike with a large bag of plastic bins in the child seat on the back of her bike. Then I noticed that the bag had small legs and a very small hand holding it in place. When the light changed and they started across the intersection, I also discovered that she had a son, about three or four years old, on the world’s smallest two-wheel bike, pedaling along quite efficiently ahead of her.

And finally, as I was leaving Mukaiyama a few days ago, I walked past the entrance yard of the elementary school behind us and saw two little girls riding around on unicycles. Yes, unicycles. I wonder if I will see anything like this in Michigan, or if life in the US will seem pale in comparison forever after.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Rent to Own
Somehow, I’m doubting Japan has been paying much attention to the whole music copyright argument. They have a much different attitude toward music distribution and ownership here. There are lots of CD stores, true. But everyone listens to MDs all the time, a form in which no one actually produces music. So what do they do? They rent CDs just like videos, take them home, and rip them to their computers or record them directly to MDs.

I did this last weekend with Richard, who has taken to this idea quite quickly. He owns approximately 8 bazillion MDs now because he’s been renting so many and trading with his students. He wanted suggestions of different music to listen to, so I had a flashback to my brother’s skater-punk days and suggested The Offspring’s Smash and some No Doubt. I have no idea what Richard thought of them, but once he was finished with them, he gave them to me, and I’ve been having lots of fun. Last year for my research paper, I read some articles on societal memory formation, and from the mostly useless bits that I scanned, I remember reading that we remember music best from our early teen years, from about 11-13, and I’m certainly finding this to be true lately.

Now I’m going to walk home, listening to my obnoxious early-90s punk all the way. Heeheeheehee….

Monday, May 26, 2003

Another Earthquake Update
The earthquake does not seem to have disrupted life here at all. They got the trains running again, including the shinkansen, so no teachers or students have been absent because of it. The one teacher who takes the shinkansen to get here every day was 2 minutes late to the morning meeting, and he got applause.

To answer the question, "What were you doing when the earthquake happened?" I was sitting on my futon, typing on the computer. When it first struck, it felt like a normal tremor, so I didn't think anything of it, but then it kept going and got really strong. I put the computer on the floor and sort of put my arms over my head, even though there was nothing that could fall on me, (at least, nothing that wouldn't kill me anyway, like the ceiling, or the building next door). I watched the building sway and mostly wondered what was going to happen next. It was actually kind of neat, since nothing bad happened, and I was not at all traumatized. I keep finding little things around the apartment now that fell down, like the little stuff animals I had on the windowsill, but that's it.

I sent out an email to nearly everyone I know in the US, letting them know I was okay, but none of them had heard more than a short blurb on the news, if anything. In South Africa, on the other hand, it made the lunchtime news and Danola received many frantic text messages from her brother. I bet it was bigger news on the West Coast.

I also got a technical explanation of the earthquake from a geologically inclined friend, so here's the precise explanation of what caused the quake:
"If you want to be perfectly accurate, the Northern Pacific Plate is moving in a clockwise direction and spiraling against North America - which is pushing right back due to Atlantic seafloor expansion. This results in the Pac Plate being pushed under and slightly tipped up back towards Asia and the rest of the Pacific rim. As those plates are also slightly less dense and also already car-crashed on top of the Pac Plate, you get an entire plate surrounded by subduction zones! Sudden irony develops in that "pacifica" meant "peaceful"... It's called the Ring of Fire for a reason, kiddies, and this volcanic morass is the Earth slowly swallowing the Pacific Ocean whole."
Earthquake Update
According to Dayle, the quake was right off the coast of Iwate-ken and registered as a 6 on the Japan earthquake scale of 0-7. The news now specifies it as 6-, with a 5+ in surrounding prefectures. They also say that it started several kilometers down in the ocean off the coast of Miyagi-ken, registering as 7 at the epicenter. There is no possibility of tsunami. There have been no damages reported so far, but many places in Iwate are without power and phones. In Sendai, they now report that there is one fire and two people got trapped in an elevator. They are checking the condition of the shinkansen tracks and have suspended the trains for the time being. So far, I've counted 4 little aftershocks.
Just now, at approximately 6:25 pm, while I was writing that last entry, there was a huge earthquake in Sendai. It was the largest one I’ve ever experienced. It was violent enough to shake the apartment enough that the automatic shut-off feature on the heater kicked in, the lights swayed all over, the dish detergent fell off the side of the sink, the microwave shifted on top of the fridge, and the stereo did the same on the shelf. Nothing was broken, though, and it only lasted about two minutes.

It is now time to venture into a new land in the world of Japanese snack foods, that of the flavored pretzel stick. The Japanese really seem to have latched onto the idea of stick-shaped snack foods. The last time I went to the grocery store, there were new things on the shelf. And they were on sale! So of course I bought them.

“They” in this case are flavored pretzels. There’s a popular brand of these called Pretz, which I’d had before, specifically the Tomato Pretz flavor, which is kind of like pizza or bread sticks with tomato sauce. I rather like them, but Mark thinks they’re disgusting. Poor boy, he has no taste. There's also Salad Pretz, but I haven't tried it, so I don't know if it's meant to just be regular pretzels to accompany salad, or actually salad-flavored.

This time in the grocery store, there were two new flavors of some other brand, the name of which I can’t read. But I can understand the pictures telling the flavors, and they were quite unique, which is pretty much guaranteed to get me to try things here, at least on that aisle of the grocery or convenience store. I shall now analyze for you the edamami and umeboshi flavored pretzels.

I really liked the edamami flavored ones. Edamami are steamed or boiled soy beans in their pods, usually served at izakayas, or sort of Japanese pubs. They’re warm and a little salty, and the only thing I like about having to go to such places, since I don’t drink. The pretzels managed to actually take on their flavor quite well in the “flavor dust” coating them. They were even vaguely green. I was greatly entertained.

The umeboshi pretzels were meant to taste like super-salty pickled plums. I like real umeboshi, but I don’t think these pretzels really did it for me. They were mostly just weird and not very satisfying. I think I’ll stick with the real thing or umeboshi-maki, the sushi roll I tried on sushi night with my landlords.

Friday, May 23, 2003

Student Essays
Kamiyama-sensei's latest idea for getting students to actually learn English is to get all the second-year students to write essays. They have to be at least 10 sentences, on their topic of choice, and they have to bring the essays to me for correction before presenting them in front of class. (Guess how I've been spending my "lunch" hour since this project started.) Really, though, I like this project, because some of the essays are hilarious, some are really good and creative, and some are actually informative. So here you go. Enjoy. Pretend you're a teacher.

Favorite Sports by Shota Moriuchi

I belong to the soccer club. Soccer is loved by people all over the world. I think this sport is very simple but very difficult. Soccer is interesting, not only playing it but watching it, too. For example, the World Cup and J League. The World Cup is watched all over the world. People hope for their country’s winning. Soccer is life for them. It makes them excited and hot. I think soccer is more intersting than any other sport.

My Dream by Kanako Sasaki (This one was even better when heard out loud.)

I have a small dream. It is that I go to America to do one thing. I have been to America. I was in grade five. I couldn’t speak English then, but my mother made me buy and ice cream alone in an ice cream shop. My heart was pounding. I said, “Vanilla please.” But she gave me a banana ice cream. My mother laughed at me. From that experience, I want to go to America again. And I will buy a vanilla ice cream next time. It appears that Americans hear “banana” when Japanese say “vanilla.” Everybody, please be careful if you buy an ice cream in America.

My Life by Takako Suzuki (This one gives you insight into everyday high school life.)

I will talk about my life. Every day I get up at six. It is hard to get up early when I stay up late. But if I don’t get up, I’ll be late for school. So I have to do it. It takes me an hour to get to school. In that time, I can do a lot of things. Studying, reading books, listening to music, sleeping, and so on. I come back home at eight fifty usually. After dinner I try to study. But when I’m tired, I can’t.

What is Love? by Tomoko Sugawara (Note the next to last sentence.)

What is love for me? I thought about love recently. It may be a foolish idea, but I want to think it out. Somehow, humans are attracted to one another. It is a wonder, isn’t it!? But I think it has many reasons. For example, I was prepossessed by someone’s gentle manner. I feel excitement at heart over what someone said to me. Then, I want to be kind to others, too. But I can’t be kind to others because I am a wrongheaded girl. I think it’s good to be absorbed in love. But it is hard to do because we have responsibilities. For example, studying, club, and things I have to do. What is love for me? I will not be able to understand it. But, I want to remember that love is not for only me, but love is for each other. Love is more difficult than math. I want to keep on thinking about what is love.

A Book For You by Keita Yoneya (This student is hilarious, and wrote most of this completely on his own, with no corrections.)

I read my first touching novel in junior high school. At first I wasn’t interested in novels, but as I read, I found it was wonderful. Now there are more than one hundred novels in my life. Let me tell you about one of the best novels which I choose. The fantasy novel is named “Flowers for You and Moon” – Tsuki to anata ni hana taba wo. The story is about “Werewolf.” A hero, Touma Tsukimori is general college student except having the strongest power named “Ragnawolf.” One day a woman named Miyuki Yuzumoto came to him and said, “I am your wife.” Then the gear starts to turn. Bond, friendship, fight, hatred, sin, and love. Against them, Touma and Miyuki create their future which they believe with their own power. An action after the last battle was very impressive. The miracle wasn’t because of the power neither “Werewolf” nor “Ragnawolf.” It was love that had done miracles. But I won’t tell you more. If you are interested in the book hearing my explanation, please come to this library. The book is waiting for you.

Basketball by Toyohachi Yamashita (Another one that needed very little correction.)

I began to play basketball when I was ten. This was because I had read “Slam Dunk.” I remember buying a basketball after I had read it. Then I commuted to the park or to the gym to play basketball every day. I could make friends with basketball players. In a few countries, basketball is a national sport. In the Philippines, there are more than twenty professional teams, they are competing every day. There is a lot of basketball information in newspapers and magazines. I was surprised at the large treatment of basketball. In the sports shop, the basketball’s department secures a large space. Basketball is very popular. There are basketball goals in every park. I looked at children playing basketball there. I played it with them. I couldn’t understand their language, but basketball led me to communicate. One of them said to me, “My dream is that I will play in the NBA.” I was glad that I could have supported their dream. I think that my favorite player is Reggie Miller. He could be a “Hero” if Michael Jordan would not have existed. His 3 point shot is calm like time has stopped. I had a dream of becoming a great player like him. Because of fatigue, I strained my knees. Now, I can’t play basketball for a long time. But my feeling of “I like basketball” won’t change. In the future, I will be concerned with basketball.

Baseball by Hironori Konno (Let me never say I learned nothing from my students.)

I like baseball, because baseball is very interesting. I like both professional baseball and Senior High School baseball. Today, I’m talking only about the National Senior High School Baseball Championship Tournament. It has been played 84 times. But the final has been played 82 times, because Komesoudou and WWII forced it to stop. And WWII forced it to not be held from 1942 until 1945. The governmental orders forced the metal for Koshien Stadium to be recalled. After the war, the tournament started again. Today, it is played peacefully. Don’t make war to play. Enjoy sports in peace.

Self Introduction to Your Friend in Another Country by Yurie Sato (Yes, the title is from a textbook assignment. This one is just classic Japanese-student-speaking-English, and she worked really hard on it.)

Nice to meet you! My name is Yurie Sato. I’m sixteen years old. I’m from Iwate. I have moved seven times since I was born. You must be surprised. It was hard for me to part from my friends. But I could meet many new friends. Next, let me introduce to you my high school life. I am in the second year at Sendai Mukaiyama High School. My classmates study very hard and they are very cheerful. We study math and science very much. Those are difficult subjects, but I am interested in them. I belong to the brass band. I play the trombone. I spend my high school life practicing the trombone. I’m leading an enjoyable life every day. I like music very much: playing, singing, and listening. My hobby is playing the electone. When I am playing the electone, I am very happy. My electone is one of my friends. Please introduce you and your life to me. See you!

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Dana-san, can you tell me…?
Yesterday I spent about an hour and a half sitting with Kasahara-sensei, explaining strange phrases in a Larry King interview transcript. His family gets cable, and to practice his English, he watches American TV, lately apparently choosing to focus on really understanding Larry King Live. After he watches the show, he finds the transcript online and prints it out. He had highlighted all the phrases he really didn’t understand, and asked me to explain them. I can now definitively say that there are many weird things in the English language, and it’s terrible trying to explain some of them. Some of the most notable examples were, “Keeping it real,” and, “Did you fall out of the dumb tree and hit every branch on the way down?” I told Kasahara-sensei that it’s really best to not try and use the last one, as tone of voice is really what makes the difference with whether you can get away with saying it or not. As noted, his inflection isn’t very good, and gives native speakers the feeling that he’s being rude or insincere even when he’s not. Not much that can be done about that at this point.

So Cute!
Last night, I watched a nature program about baby animals. (“Baby” in Japanese is “aka-chan,” which literally means “red child.” Makes sense for humans, but it was kind of strange to hear it applied to pandas and dogs and seals.) It started with a segment about pandas in a zoo in China, and it was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. There were two babies and their mother. One of the babies was always climbing around on the mother, including lying flat on her back while she walked around at one point. The other one was very inquisitive. He wandered all over their indoor cage and started pawing at the bars. Then he decided to see if he could get out, so he stuck his head through. And it got stuck. He made the most pitiful little noises until one of the zookeepers came and pushed his head back through. Five minutes later, he did it again, and tried putting his paws through as well, to see if he could get all the way out. This time, his mother came over, grabbed the scruff of his neck in her mouth, and pulled him back through herself. He looked rather distraught.

The program then went on to Germany to explore the history of Japan’s favorite dog, the Miniature Dachshund, and then to Canada to look at baby seals, but it was the panda with his head stuck through the bars that made me laugh out loud.

I’m not eating chalk
Today, one of the other teachers brought in some hakka candy to leave at the end of each island of desks in the staff room. I’m not really sure what it is, but it’s kind of minty and sweet, and looks exactly like sticks of chalk. I didn’t realize it was there until the teacher who sits next to me picked up some and started eating it. When I looked up, he quickly said, “Oh, I’m not eating chalk! It’s candy. Really.” One of the other teachers then pretended he was going to put some chalk from the blackboard in the candy box to see if anyone would try to eat it. He didn’t leave the chalk there, but I wonder if anyone would have. There are advantages to sitting next to the collective candy dish.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Proud to bring you the very latest in snack food updates from Japan, we present to you the new spring line! This month’s discoveries are Double Berry KitKats and today, Hershey’s ‘n’ Fruit Lemon & Lime. It is, I quote, “White chocolate with Tangy Lemon & Lime.” It tastes, in my opinion, kind of like key lime cheesecake. I find myself saving the wrappers of all these things so I can prove they exist. Or at least of the KitKats. They come is such nice little boxes.

I am sitting here at my desk in the staff room and I look down the row. I didn’t really notice teachers’ desks last school term, but now I sit next to the most hyper-organized teacher in the staff room. His desk has a white sheet under the plastic protector, rather than green like everyone else; he has a pristine whiteboard that he sticks things to magnetically, all exactly lined up; he has a file box to contain all extraneous pieces of paper, all in upright folders; there’s a pen holder on magnets stuck to the front of the desk drawers with the pens organized by type. Two desks down from him, there’s a teacher with papers piled every which way, spilling over, stacked on top of files, stuck between folders. My own desk is kind of in the middle, more cluttered, but mostly organized. I can’t help that I’m expected to store the Monopoly game for the English club! It takes up a lot of space. It’s not my fault.

All of my female students are really into the skirt over jeans look. I really don’t get it. It doesn’t seem practical at all, as I’d imagine you’d have to buy all the skirts you intended to wear over jeans in a larger size than normal.

Another thing I really like about spring in Japan is all the wisteria. It brings back memories of the playground at my elementary school. Speaking of which, I was walking home just now behind two elementary school girls who had to stop outside this one office building to excitedly study bird’s nest built under the overhang.

Last night on TV, they showed an American sci-fi puppet show from 1965 about the Thunderbird International Rescue teams saving one of their spaceships from crashing into the sun. What saved them? A robot acting as a calculator. He then beat his creator at chess at the end of the show.

Tragedy has struck! Laox has been reduced to a mere one floor of its building, from its previous five. Yodabashi Camera proved to be too much competition, just across the square. Kamiyama-sensei reports that they have no more Mac merchandise. I wonder how many points I have left on my Laox card and what I should use them on. It’s going to be so sad to visit the store in its new incarnation. *sniff, sniff* It served me so well.

Oh, and I know that my plan link before I went to the US didn't seem to ever have anything new on it. Plans got switched to a new server while I was gone, and I didn't know until I got back. It was a good thought, in any case.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Sakura, Sakura
Spring has finally sprung in Sendai. About a month ago, the cherry trees were in peak blossom, making my walks to and from school extremely picturesque. Everyone hears about the cherry blossom viewing parties in Japan, which seem to indicate that you have to go to specific places to really see them, but that is hardly the case. There are cherry trees growing all over Japan. They line bits of the sports fields at my schools and grow in patches all over the hills beyond Minami. They grow along the river walkway I take to Minami, the hills I climb to Mukaiyama, in the middle of the bamboo at the edge of the school driveway, even amongst the trees lining the parking lot that is my backyard.

But eventually, with rain and wind and passing time, sakura season must end, and the petals fall like snow to the ground. (I’m not just being poetic here; the Japanese use the verb “to snow” to describe the falling of cherry blossom petals.) Though cherry blossoms mark the beginning of spring for the Japanese, I consider it to be really spring now, with the coming of dogwoods, (I am a North Carolina girl, after all,) and tulips, pansies, and azaleas galore. The azaleas in particular just came out this past week, and my walk up Mukaiyama is infinitely more colorful now.

It’s spring, y’all! Happy, happy, welcome back the sun!

Monday, May 12, 2003

Single Servings
You know, I really don’t usually have problems with culture shock, let alone reverse culture shock. (For those of you not indoctrinated into the whole abroad experience pop psychology rap, that’s culture shock experienced upon return to one’s home country.) I mean, sure, it was weird to realize how much taller, blonder, and, well, bigger Americans are than the Japanese, but I thought the same thing when I came back from Chile. It’s a perpetual thought, nothing new. I stayed in the US for a whole week and had no problem adjusting to being back in Grinnell, nor did I find myself slipping languages (unless it was to annoy Mark) or bowing to everyone. It all just seemed normal.

But then I had to get myself something to eat between flights in Minneapolis before returning to Japan. I didn’t have that much time and was down to $4 of American money, so I decided to just get a muffin and coffee. And lo, a Caribou Coffee did appear before me, and I did order a muffin and a medium coffee of the day, and culture shock did strike me most cruelly. What happened? The medium-sized cup of coffee they gave me was HUGE. I got a medium because that’s what I would have gotten in Japan if I was wanting a bit more than a casual cup. This, though, was about twice the size of what my brain tells me is a large in Japan. I couldn’t drink it all. I couldn’t believe anyone would ever order that much at once, nor could I comprehend what one would do with a large cup, if this was a medium. It was very disorienting.

Joy in the Journey
I am back in Japan, my vacation done, and I am reminded all over again of why I actually sometimes enjoy the traveling involved in arriving at my destination more than the arrival itself. (That wasn’t the case this time. I had a marvelous time in Grinnell. I’m just trying to make my point here.) The entirety of my 20+ hours of traveling to get to Iowa was a joy.

I picked a good weekend to ride the shinkansen. Compared to my father, I’m not much of a morning person, but if I got to take the shinkansen all over Japan in the early morning of gorgeous sunny days, I’d get up without a single complaint. Because May 3-5 were the three main Golden Week holidays, one of which is Children’s Day, there were all sorts of decorations up. On Children’s Day, the koinobori get hung up. I knew what these carp-shaped banners were before, but the image I had in my head of what they would look like hung up were totally wrong. Because so much of northern Japan between Tokyo and Sendai is made up of small towns and farming areas, they have more space to go all out. I had thought that the koinobori would be relatively small, on poles for each house, off of balconies and such. Instead, many towns had erected giant flagpoles in open areas, sometimes several connected to each other with rope, sometimes just one really tall one with two rope lines coming down to attach to the ground, but all with huge, giant, brilliantly colored koi of various sizes fluttering in the breeze, glowing in the morning sun against the green spring fields and trees. When we passed through cities, I would smile when I saw smaller, more modest koinobori attached to people’s balconies and on the rooftops of apartment buildings. It was amazing to see, and I doubt I would have seen it at all if I hadn’t been on the train.

After an amazingly painless breeze through the ticketing process at Narita airport, I was ensconced in my window seat on the plane, and made another wonderful discovery. This is why I will never become a truly jaded airline traveler. Oh, sure, they may lose my luggage forever or cause me inconvenience or delay on occasion, but then, well… Then I get on a direct flight from Japan to Minneapolis, see sunset and dawn up above the clouds within the space of four hours, and watch in wonder as we fly over the snow-capped, endless peaks of Alaska and northern Canada. Mountains never fail to remind me of the meaning of the word “majesty.”

And then I landed in Minneapolis 15 minutes early, walked through customs confused about the extreme lack of people, and spent my 4-hour layover eating lunch with Ann at the park by the river. Idyllic.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

It's time for a vacation! Whoo-hoo! However, this vacation is most likely to only be really interesting for me and the people I see, as it will be at the ever-lovely, though somewhat remote Grinnell College, and thus totally unrelated to Japan and not on this blog. I do promise to wander around unconsciously half-bowing to people and doing annoying Japanese conversational things, like saying "Nn," all the time, instead of "uh-huh" or "yeah." I'll even wear Engrish-y clothes! But I'll be gone from blogland for a week.

Should you find yourself totally bored or terribly distraught by my virtual absence from your life, you can go check my less thematic, much more random plan, which is a Grinnell thing.

Now I have to run off to buy Pocky for all those deprived people in Iowa. Ja, ne!