JET Programme

Dancin’ at Kindergarten

If you’ve never seen a five-year-old do the twist, get on it. It’s one of the cuter things you’re likely to witness in this life.

Now imagine 20 five-year old Japanese children all shaking their little hips as best as their uncoordinated bodies will let them and you get an impression of my morning. I spent the morning at Gembi Kindergarten and doing an impression of Vincent Vega with the kids is an image I hope I never lose from my mental imagery file.

Visiting a kindergarten is actually pretty easy. The instructional component of each class is minimal (even more so than elementary school). For the most part, I just play games with the little tykes. In today’s case, I spent half the time dancing with the budding Baryshnikovs. Okay Baryshnikovs is a stretch, but you get the idea.

Any difficulties are addressed (mostly) by the Japanese teachers I work with. Shy or undisciplined students are given hugs or glares respectively and not too much trouble ensues. Really, the only concern I had was for my health. If they weren’t trying to shake my hand with their snot-encrusted fingers, they were plotting ways to get close to my butt to either grab it or poke it. Not that a four year old can do much damage to my butt, (in fact, my butt can probably do more damage to a four your old’), but you can never be too careful. Not to mention, you don’t want to set a bad precedent – bum poking now turns into the infamous kancho later.

I didn’t fear for my safety while being tackled by a hoarde of three years olds. You could probably pile a couple dozen on top of me before I would be unable to burst forth like He-Man in a swarm of enemies. No, the tackling was good fun and the kids made no effort to exploit my vulnerable position.

Instead, the only time any harm came my way was while playing London Bridge. In this harmless game, it’s pretty hard to get injured in any way, but one kid managed to help me to that end. While filing into line, one boy ahead of me decided that giving me an upward-motion karate chop to the groin. He landed a direct hit. But again, he was only four. So, while such a blow delivered by an adult would have landed me in a heap on the floor, this was only mildly surprising.

Though it wasn’t painful, it was, however, a little disappointing. I had managed to make it ten months in Japan without any of my students hitting, groping, poking, pinching, slapping, fondling, kicking, head-butting, elbowing, biting, setting fire to, or otherwise making obviously intentional and inappropriate contact with my genitals.

Sure, at every second urinal where I have a neighbour, I find them trying to sneak a peak at my gaijin endowments (I swear, one day, I’m just going to pee on someone), but no one has really tried to do any damage there before. Fortunately for me, his attempt to render me infertile was unsuccessful (at least, I assume so – we’ll have to wait for the test results).

So aside from the testicle punching and germ-ridden hands, kindergarten is actually a good time. But next time, maybe I’ll wear a cup.


Recent Memories

I want to share all these thoughts, memories and experiences with you, but the days are too short.

I want to tell you about chest bumping with my students and being hurled halfway down the hall when one of them, with the build of a junior sumo wrestler, bumped me and sent me flying. His low centre of gravity and pudgy frame makes him into an immovable object and me into an off-balance, stumbling clown. He is the chest bump champion.

I want to tell you about how I utter miniature prayers for deliverance every time I walk to Yasakae Junior High. There is a stretch of road where the sidewalk ends and I have to walk on the street while 18-wheelers carrying crushed cars, agricultural equipment, or toxic waste scream past. Their unstoppable frames push me aside with their currents and each time I hear them approaching from behind, my brain whispers, “Please don’t kill me.”

I want to tell you about the low-flying clouds and the light and shadow they cast over these rural hills. I want to stop and set up a tripod, but instead I have to continue on from the bus stop to the school to do my job. But these clouds, you would just have to climb a low hill and you would be able to jump up and touch them. I had never understood how enormous Calgary’s skies were until I left them.

I want to tell you about teaching my students to call me “handsome sensei” and hearing them giggle endlessly through class.

I want to tell you about the girl at in grade four Ichinoseki elementary who speaks better English than any of my other students at any level. When I told her that her English was great, she matter-of-factly told me, “I’m half.” I later learned she has lived in America. But every time I see her, I am so thrilled because I get to interact with one of my students in a more meaningful way. We can actually understand each other. The language barrier doesn’t exist and it is so freeing.

The other day, I was playing basketball with her and some other students when one of my shots bounced off the back of the rim, over the backboard and got stuck between the backboard and railing above it. Already giddy from playing with the kids, I laughed, “I don’t think I could do that again if I tried!” She understood perfectly and said, “I don’t think you could either!”

Now, I don’t know if I can communicate to you just how significant this is. As I have often said, my Japanese is terrible. And I must now say the awful truth here: these kids, their English is terrible. It’s an unfortunate fact that I am trying to change, but for now, it’s a fact. Yes, we can communicate with each other, but it’s only through considerable effort on everyone’s part and the messages are always simple.

But with this girl, I can actually converse with her. In the middle of English class with me, while learning such simple phrases as, “I like baseball,” she occasionally turns to me and blurts out, “This is too easy!” I think I might make her teach the class next time.

I want to tell you about every moment of my recent tour of Japan and how I felt so alive behind the camera. My feet ached after 15 hours of walking in a day, but the only reason I went to bed was so that I wouldn’t get sick and prevent myself from seeing more. If I could have, I would have shot and explored all night.

I want to tell you about every soccer goal I’ve scored and every basket I’ve made. And I want to tell you about every shot scored against me and every basket scored by the opposing teams. I’m competitive enough with myself that I still get excited when I score a basket – even if it’s against a bunch of 12 year olds. But, I love these kids enough that when their efforts against me yield success, I am just as happy.

Sometimes, I actually impress myself. At one of my schools, the basketball games sometimes resemble rugby more than basketball. The gym often gets full way past capacity and a hundred kids crowd a single court. At any given time, there may be three or four basketball games going on one court and dozens of other kids playing tag or twirling hula hoops or just running over to say hello. This turns the gym into a living obstacle course. When I impress myself is when I am capable of running the length of the floor without toppling over a tyke. Occasionally, I’m able to finish a play with some Jordan-esque reverse lay-up or a dunk on their less-than-regulation height baskets. At those moments, I truly am the best basketball player in Iwate.

But then, they come back at me. They get near the basket and start their passing. I’ll get in front of one determined to take a shot and he or she will pump fake. I’ll jump into the air and while soaring above a body I already dwarfed, the young star will step around me and deftly flip the ball in for two points. And I yell in mock frustration at my defeat, then in praise and celebration of their skill. We all smile together, then run the other way so I can try to get a pass to a teammate to score.

I want to tell you about the caretaker at Yasakae Junior High and how, if I were staying in Japan for longer, would probably turn into a very good friend. He’s my age and likes video games, snowboarding and punk rock. He’s a kid like me and that’s hard to find in Japan. Something seems to happen to people here when they go to university and enter the workforce. They each emerge from that cocoon as a worker any and only let loose at the occasional enkai.

But not Sato-san. He chest bumps the students with me. He plays soccer and basketball with the kids and me. He takes every chance he can get to ask me about the Rocky Mountains because he would love nothing more than to carve trails through endless powder on his snowboard.

I want to tell you all these things. I want to empty the contents of my brain into a bucket from which you could drink. I want to let you see through my eyes and hear with my ears – hear not only the world around me, but also the din in my head.

But I can’t tell you all these things. There is no time to express everything I feel and think. I am greedy. I want more of these experiences. And I don’t want to miss anything because I was taking too much time to write about yesterday.


A Star is Reborn

When I first arrived in Ichinoseki, my foreign, white skin made me into an instant local celebrity (at least, that’s what it felt like at times). I was interviewed by a few different publications and a television crew followed me to a couple of my schools to watch the JET in action.

After the initial torrent of media hype surrounding the arrival of such a handsome and charming (and modest) gaijin in this sleepy town, the interviews halted and I was left to believe that I was just a normal individual. How gauche. We can’t have that.

But, thanks to the fine casting of Telebi Iwate and the zealous willingness of my Board of Education to get me out of the office for a day, I became part of Sunday-morning programming. The station was airing an informational piece about the foreign-language guides available for tours in Hiraizumi and they needed some fresh gaijin faces to act as hapless sightseers in the area.

Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into. One week earlier, my office asked me if I would want to do it while also telling me that Kurt was already signed up. I thought to myself, “Well, since I’m so clueless about what the production might entail, I’ll trust Kurt’s judgment on this one. Besides, it’s good excuse to get out of the office for a day and hang with a buddy.”

I signed up thinking I was going to have to do little more than follow some guide around the Hiraizumi sights with cameras trailing behind. I thought it would just be some sort of informational video for a tourist association.

When Sarah arrived home from vacation, the office enlisted her help as well. She made the same assumptions I did and decided to join the fun.

On the morning of the filming, the first surprise was that no one had ever actually told Kurt about the production. The organizer of the shoot herded us into his car while we protested that Kurt was being abandoned at his office. Confused, our new friend told us that Kurt wasn’t coming and we sped away. Text messaging Kurt only confused him and prompted him to come to City Hall to find out what we were going on about – of course, no one was there to help him.

We later determined that Kurt was probably a backup plan in case Sarah chose not to participate. We think they wanted Sarah and I instead of Kurt and I lest the latter be confused for some gay couple that would make the whole experience just a little too foreign for Japanese TV.

A duo instead of a trio, Sarah and I headed North. In Hiraizumi, we met the camera crew and out English-speaking guide for the day: Asai, a lovely Japanese woman who had lived four years in Vancouver. We were then carted to the station and got our second surprise of the day.
We watched as the camera crew set up in front of the station’s steps and started rolling. To our mild horror, one of the men we had met earlier had metamorphosed into a nauseatingly genki Japanese TV show host. He had the energy of an entire classroom of elementary students and was zealously overacting his way through his lines. Off to the side, we nervously anticipated what our role in this slapstick production might be. This was no informational video…

Now guided in front of the camera, we received instructions from the director and host while Asai translated. The host was meant to be a hapless Japanese tour operator whose language abilities failed him when the foreigners arrived looking to see the wonderful sights of Hiraizumi. Sarah and I were, of course, to play the role of the English foreigners while two Chinese women (dressed to the nines I might add) served as our more classy Asian counterparts.

Our instructions were as follows: The host would deliver a few lines then I would enter and give a big, friendly, “Hi!” We were to banter back and forth with simple English like, “My name is…” and so on. Then came my show-stopping line, “We’re here to do some sightseeing!” (Because that is, after all, how westerners talk.) Rescuing the hapless host from English hell, the Chinese contingent was to approach and deliver their lines. I can only assume they exchanged similar banter.

Then came the real star if the show. Sarah was to arrive on the scene and drop this bombshell: “I would like to go somewhere to learn about Yoshitsune!” And with that, the host’s synapses were to be fried, leaving him incapable of even the simplest of cogent statements and in desperate need of aid from one of Hiraizumi’s new foreign-language guides.

After a few takes, everyone had nailed their lines. Sarah and I stood to the side, bewildered at this bizarre situation and wondering how much more hammy acting we would have to do before the day was done.

We were soon back in front of the camera, but this time, we were little more than props behind the guides. Our director didn’t give us much to go on, so we never really knew if something was expected from us or if the host was going to freak out and start humping legs. (No, the latter never happened, but I wouldn’t have put it past him.)

Next stop was Motsu-ji. One of Hiraizumi’s star attractions, this temple complex oriented around a lovely lake was the scene for the guides to strut their stuff. This was more of what I had expected. The guides lead us along the paths near the temple while explaining a little about the site’s history while the cameras trailed behind. Again, unsure of what was expected from us, we just tried to act naturally and follow along. The genki host only had one episode where he could have required a slight sedative: as we entered the complex, he marched through the gate with high knees and lifted a flag like the grand marshal of a parade. As far as we knew, we were not required to mimic him.

Our whirlwind tour of the temple finished, we were then transported up to a temple dedicated to Yoshitsune where Sarah’s desire to learn more about the legendary warrior would be fulfilled. Again, the cameras trailed behind while we learned about the history of the area.

In order to wrap up the production, the director wanted us to give our feedback about the guiding experience. We were happy to tell them how interesting it was and how much information we had learned, but Asai had to translate our words back for the Japanese viewing audience. How terribly un-Japanese: She had to take our praise and repeat it about herself on television. I hope we didn’t damage her humility too much.

With shooting finished, the crew took us back down the hill to town where we all ate lunch together. We had a good chat with Asai before being escorted back to city hall.

When we arrived, both Sarah and I didn’t stop shaking our bewildered heads for hours. We wondered at how this production would actually appear on TV and whether heart and star graphics would be swirling about our heads on screen.


Graduation at Hagishou

Yesterday, I was privileged enough to attend the graduation ceremonies at Hagishou Junior High, one of my favourite schools. Donning my tie for the first time in a long time, I cycled in the ever-improving spring weather to the 200-strong school South of Ichinoseki.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the ceremony. Graduations are a significant affair here in Japan and each transition to a new school level is rewarded with a graduation event. I don’t recall any such formal events marking my exit from elementary or junior high school, but here, they’re the norm.

Red and white fabric hung from the walls of the gymnasium while the heaters roared their warmth into the normally chilly space. The first and second-years of the school sang as the graduating third-years stoically filed into their seats. Speeches, songs and parchment presentations filled the schedule until all of the graduating class was positioned in tiers at the front of the gym with girls on the left and boys on the right.

There, the somber stoicism continued as the entire class recited a speech with each student completing a new line. And then the crying began’

As soon as one girl stumbled through her line as she began to sob, a trend was set. Few of the girls retained their composure and the graduation started to feel more like a funeral.

Next on the schedule was for all of these now sobbing children to sing together. Thus far, each of the songs echoing in the gym had been flowery, sentimental melodies laden with melodrama. You could easily visualize the videos that would play behind the text at karaoke for these tunes:

A young Japanese couple wistfully strolls through a park in autumn. Hand in hand, they gaze longingly at each other. They reach the edge of the park. The girl must continue one to leave the boy standing alone. Cut to a shot of their hands separating. Cut to a shot of the distance between the two figures increasing as the girl can’t help looking back on her forlorn former love. Cut to a shot the last leaf falling from a tree branch. Fade to black’

Of course these students are going to weep during such schmaltzy songs. Japanese kids eat this stuff up. So, while trying to sing what was undoubtedly some anthem for change and rebirth, the girls sniffed and sobbed forming a background noise like the hisses and pops of a dusty record.

The weeping youth eventually departed the gym, again ushered out by emotive melodies. The ceremony had finished and left me wondering when they actually got to celebrate this period in their lives.

Fortunately, a short time later, all of the kids were back in the gym for photos and their glassy eyes were now shining. Friends hugged and cameras flashed while parents posed with happy graduates. A good number of my students paid me the compliment of asking me to pose with them for photos and I flashed the peace sign with the best of ‘em.

Of course, Toshie, the girl with the crush, was ecstatic to see me. All of her friends lined to get a shot of us together: Toshie and her future husband’

I mingled with the kids and even did a couple celebratory chest bumps. That doesn’t compare with Josh, however, he told me in an email later that day that his students managed to pick him up and toss him in the air. An impressive feat considering Josh’s respectable height.

The students continued their mingling outside as they bid farewell to their school and their teachers. More handshaking, hugs and photos ensued and waves goodbye with jovial chants of ‘See you!’ punctuated the day’s events.

What a gift to watch these people grow. These third-years have been some of my favourite students to meet. They’re an outgoing group and always made a great effort to communicate with me in English as well as teach me Japanese. I have so many great memories with them and I wish them all the best.


The Phantom Kancho

10:30 am

My guess is that the most remarkable thing that will happen here at the office today has already occurred. At the end of this minor catastrophe, Michiko-san’s desk was covered in coffee. Her miniature computer, calculator, papers and cell-phone all received a liberal dousing and now reek of something resembling barf.

I have no idea what prompted it, but it must have been a spectacular twitch to set so much coffee flying. My theory is that a Japanese elementary student was running loose in the Board of Education offices and snuck up behind Michiko-san to deliver a tragically on-target Kancho. If you don’t know what a Kancho is, you have obviously never taught at the elementary level in Japan’

Basically, Kancho is a bizarre ‘game’ the kids play where they clasp their hands together with their index fingers pointing upwards. Well, those two little index fingers need someplace to poke. What better place to put them than in someone’s unsuspecting ass. Yup, it’s a bum-poking game.

What strikes me as particularly odd about this game is that there really are no winners. Obviously, anyone who ends up with two fingers in their rear is on the wrong end of invasive tomfoolery. But, really, can the proprietor of those two fingers truly be called a winner? I mean, your fingers were just in someone else’s ass crack for Buddha’s sake. No hero cookie for you my friend’

Now, I haven’t exactly done a lot of research on the subject, but someone mentioned to me that there is actually a Kancho video game in Korea where you guide those same pointed fingers towards the posteriors of unsuspecting, bent-over animated characters on the screen. The more accurate you are with your penetrating prod, the more surprised the character will be and the greater reaction you will receive.

So, to the Kancho ninja who so stealthily maneuvered behind Michiko-san and prompted the coffee explosion. Congrats dude, I think you just got a high score.


A Crush (Part II)

1:40 pm

My Hagishou girlfriend has struck again. At lunch time, two of dear Toshie’s friends entered the teacher’s room with a Hello-Kitty-adorned gift bag in hand and presented it to me. They stammered out, ‘From Toshie,’ and giggled when I reacted to the cuteness of her crush.

As they laughed and left the room, I opened the package to find one heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in pink foil, a bag filled with incredibly delicious soft chocolates (I want more of these, they really were wonderful) and a letter from Toshie. Her note reads as follows:

‘This is a little days late valentine’s chocolate. I heard you come today. So I made it yesterday. Be my valentine! I love you.

I will graduate from Hagishou junior high school soon. So let’s keep in touch. Let’s exchange letters.

Please write me back if you have time.

Lots of love,

Toshie’

She neatly transcribed her address in both Japanese and English and also provided her email. I can’t really think of too many reasons not to give her my email. The only concern I would have is that it might get passed around among the students resulting in a few unsolicited messages, but that probably wouldn’t be a big deal. I could tell her it was secret too. She’d probably like that.


I Wear My Sunglasses…

I’m sure I must look like a bit of a curiosity right now. I’m melting in my chair from exhaustion and wearing sunglasses inside the teachers’ room at Hagishou Junior High. The teachers all now seem to know of my eye’s condition, but any student that sees me today is just going to think I’m hungover or something. If only there was an equal part of pleasure to go with this pain’

I have had my one and only class today and managed to stumble through it without too much trouble. If I didn’t have Prednisone coursing through my veins at present, I would be feeling chipper and playing basketball in gym class with the kids right now. That’s a bit more fun than chronicling this dreary disease afflicting me.


Metamorphosis of a Cyclops

I seem to have forgotten that I like writing. Actually, for the last few days, I’ve been a little preoccupied. I’ve had some health trouble. My left eye is now an inflated disk of blurry evil. So, I was also a little worried about looking at the bright, blank, white page that comes with each startup of Word.

But, it’s not so bright that I want to scream. And a little writing might keep me occupied until my next set of eye drops (which, considering I have to put them in every hour, won’t be long).

In truth, I expect I won’t be returning to this text anytime soon. These are not days upon which I will look fondly in the future. Monday may have been my worst day here in Japan and I spent a good portion of it in tears. I can only talk about this now because I believe the worst is over and the worst never got as bad as it could have.

It began on February 12th. After taking a trip out to Geibikei Gorge with Sarah to meet up with some slightly more Northern Iwateans, we ventured back to Sarah’s for dinner and a movie. While viewing the film, I grew fairly fatigued and when it was over I was ready for bed right away. I had also had a headache centered around my left eye. Nothing too spectacular, but enough for me to reach for a couple pills to dull the ache.

As I was leaving and turning to say goodbye to Sarah, I got a shot of pain in my eye as I turned from the dark exterior of her apartment to the brightly lit kitchen. She also noticed that I had a rather bloodshot left eye. I suspected it was just yet another symptom of my chronic fatigue of the last few months, so I went home to rest and, hopefully, take care of the problem.

The next morning, however, did not bring the relief I desired. Prying open my left eye revealed a world of fog. A photographic trick for achieving a certain kind of blur is to smudge some Vaseline onto a filter in front of the lens. That’s how the world appeared to me.

I hoped that the feeling would pass, but while I went through my morning rituals, the improvement was minimal. I called Sarah and she, in turn, called her friend Sayumi who happens to be a pharmacist. The Sayumi cavalry arrived with multiple eye drops in hand and a recommendation for an eye clinic on Monday.

Never having been a fan of inserting anything into my eye, the drops proved to be a bit of a challenge at first. I treated myself and hoped this was a one-day freak occurrence.

St. Valentine brought no love for my fuzzy vision. I woke and saw no improvement in my condition. I prepared to make my first visit to a Japanese health care-professional. I had hoped to avoid the experience, but that was not in the cards.

To try to break down the inevitable communication barrier, I first stopped at the Board of Education and got Aya to write down my symptoms so that I would be able to tell the doctor what was wrong with me.

I trudged over to the clinic, handed them the sheet of my problems and hoped this wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal.

They patiently dealt with me and my horrendous Japanese while administering basic eye check tests. Soon, I was in the doctor’s room where he did some more checks on the culprit eye. Routine checks with lights pointed into my eye were no problem, but then, I was asked to keep my head and chin pressed against a support. Slowly, some kind of instrument approached my reluctant eye and they told me to look down.

A gooey lens of some sort was being pressed up against my cornea. Not having a clue what was going on combined with my eye phobia and I became a little bit panicked. My eyelids kept pushing the instrument out from its intended target and I had to fall away from the test to relax.

They calmed me down and I eventually completed the test. I’ve later learned that it was a fairly routine way of checking the pressure in my eye, but considering the circumstances, I think my apprehension was completely understandable.

Aya was kind enough to write down her phone number on the sheet of symptoms and the clinic was quick to call her to try to relay information to me. They wanted to put drops in my eyes that would make it difficult for me to see, so they wanted someone to come to the clinic so that I would be able to safely return home. Thankfully, Aya was able to join me at the clinic and serve as a translator for the rest of my time there.

After administering eye drops a plenty, the doctor went in to inspect more eye issues. Eventually, he diagnosed me with Acute Anterior Uveitis (AAU). Of course, I didn’t really know what that meant, but he tried to explain what was going on. Essentially, my iris and parts of my eye near the iris had become inflamed. He said that it can happen when a patient suffers a trauma to the eye (which I hadn’t) or when the patient has recently battled an infection (again, I hadn’t).

So, the cause was a mystery, but his prescription was three drops I had to take four times a day. They were to take down the inflammation and things should get back to normal. I would see him in a few days and we would check my progress then,

Thursday rolls around and it feels as though my eye has improved. I go back to the clinic and he affirms my self-diagnosis. The iris was still inflamed, but not as badly as before. He showed me photos he had taken of my eye on each doctors visit and in the first photo, there was a streak of white cells in the cornea that were no longer present in the newer version. My vision was getting better, so I was pleased that things were going smoothly.

I continue along on the same course of medication and I am scheduled to return to the clinic in a week.

Up until Sunday, I believe I was progressing. My vision continued to improve ever so slightly, so I was content to continue on the same path. But then, Sunday rolls around and I open my eye a sheath of impenetrable murk. I could hardly make out any shapes at all. This was not good. This was scary. Why wasn’t this getting any better?

I start doing some more research on this affliction of mine and learn something startling. The AAU plaguing me is most likely caused by another condition from which I suffer: ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Now, AS affects my back and hip. I never thought it could somehow be related to an eye problem, but apparently, 30% of people who suffer from AS end up suffering AAU. In fact, many people are diagnosed with AS when they are first attacked by AAU.

I started looking up more information about AS and learned more about what causes it and the effects it can produce. I won’t go into a bunch of medical jargon that I don’t really understand anyway, but the easiest way to put it is that I got blessed with an unlucky gene that makes a naturally-occurring bacteria in my digestive system do nasty things to me.

One of the weird things about this particular bacteria is that it feeds off starch. So, one of the means of combating the symptoms of AS is to go on a no-starch diet (NSD). Often, this is preceded by a three-day cleanse diet during which the menu features nothing but apples. The apple thing seemed pretty extreme to me and the NSD is nigh impossible for a vegetarian living in Japan (not to mention my total incompetence in the kitchen).

But I was getting desperate. Instead of my favourite food, pizza, Sunday night’s dinner would be a salad-oriented affair.

The next morning, my vision had not improved, so I became even more desperate and decided I might give the apple diet a try. Two apples for breakfast later and I was off to city hall to get further translation work done by Aya. I wanted to be able to tell the doctor that I suffered from AS and perhaps this would help in guiding my treatment. Aya, however, was able to join me in my visit to the doctor and Michiko-san tagged along as the third member of team Darby.

After the initial tests, I went back into the doctor’s office and he began taking more photos of my eye. Well, I was no longer making progress. Just the opposite, actually. The inflammation had gone up and I was now hosting some disgusting looking white fluid at the base of my iris called hypopyon. I believe it is actually an accumulation of white blood cells that drifts down from the middle of my cornea. When he showed me the picture, I was shocked and terrified. ‘What is that? Please tell me what that is,’ was all I could stammer out and he couldn’t really explain it to me fully.

And the panic came back. I started to get really worried about the state of my eye and if I was going to be okay. Also, I detected a hint of desperation in his voice that didn’t exactly inspire confidence in me. I got the impression that things were not exactly going well here.

He wanted me to go to the hospital to get a complete physical to better determine what was going on. I started to get terribly worried and one glance at the disgusting photo of my eye up on his computer screen was enough to drive me to tears.

The doctor wrote down all of his findings and we were sent off to the hospital. After a series of maneuvers through the hospital’s bureaucracy that would have baffled me completely without Aya’s help, I was eventually admitted to the eye unit. There, the same tests repeated themselves and I was again administered some slow-acting eye drops.

Lunchtime was rolling around and my two-apple breakfast was hardly sustaining me. We went downstairs to the snack shop where we were accosted by a bizarre English speaker who thought I would really want to chat with him in the middle of my hospital visit. Since that wasn’t exactly the case, we diverted our course to the nearby convenience store where my search for apples to continue my cleansing diet was fruitless (sorry for the pun).

A few snacks later, we wandered back to the eye ward where I was promptly ushered to the doctor’s desk. Here’s where it gets a bit ugly.

After blazing what felt like concentrated sunlight into my eye, he started giving me the bad news. I was in danger of losing my eyesight. With an inflamed iris, fluid from behind the iris cannot escape to the front of the eye. Thus, pressure can build up inside the eye creating strain on the ocular nerve and eventually damaging it leading to glaucoma. A cataract was also a possibility.

Now, if the pressure got really bad, I would likely feel a sharp pain in my eye or a bad headache or severe nausea. If this occurred, I was to return to the hospital with all speed and I would be given emergency surgery that involved blowing a hole through my iris to relieve the pressure.

Not eager to face that prospect, he told me one of the steps that might be necessary to halt the inflammation and pressure before it got to such a critical stage: I would have to get an injection of steroids into my eye. Yes, into my eye. Not around it. In it.

This qualifies as, literally, one of my worst nightmares. Now, I’m an incredible coward when it comes to needles in the first place. I’ve passed out from blood tests and vaccinations and yes, during my tattoo session. It’s not a pain issue. I’ve felt pain far worse than any needle I’ve experienced and came out conscious. It’s psychological. I can’t really explain it, but I simply cannot relax properly when it comes to needles.

I already told you how awful I was when it came to eye problems, so just imagine how petrified I became at combining these two phobias. I asked if it was going to be possible to knock me out for such an endeavour and the answer was no. He told me that a local anesthetic would be dropped into my eye and then the injection would follow. I didn’t even understand how this could be possible. In all seriousness, I couldn’t see a way for me to allow this procedure to be done to me. I would freak out, perhaps punch someone and run screaming from the hospital bed. Huge doses of Valium or something were going to be required.

Needless to say, when informed of this horrendous prospect, I was back in tears. My fright got the best of me.

With my adrenaline still pumping like mad, he gave me orders to double my eye drop dosage and to take steroid pills. If the eye hadn’t improved in 24 hours, I was to have the injection.

I went home in terror and spent much of the afternoon in a panic. Calmed ever so slightly by friendly visitors and phone calls, I was able to get some sleep. Sarah was kind enough to remain at my house in case of emergency and as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to have to burn a CD thank you gift for her.

I woke the next morning with the most minor improvement from the previous day and set out to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible. My research suggested that I was actually being under-medicated (possibly a first in Japan). I took it upon myself to up my dosage of steroid drops that morning.

A couple hours later, my vision seemed to have improved a little and I was feeling a bit more relaxed. While I was feeling more confident, that relaxation didn’t last long when I arrived at the doctor’s office in the afternoon. A few tests preceded my trip to his darkened desk where he peered into my afflicted eye once more.

No injection! I can’t express how relieved I was. The pressure was down. The inflammation was down. My pupil was wide open and the fluid from the back of my eye was properly draining. I actually raised my fists in triumph and yelled a celebratory Japanese ‘Sugoi!’ in the doctor’s office, which prompted giggling from the members of team Darby.

Things were looking better. He decided to keep me on the raised dosage of steroid drops and I also got him to give me a nighttime ointment for my eye that was recommended to me. Also, I was to keep up the steroid regimen. He said I would be able to go back to work as well. In my excitement, I said I would try to go to work the next day – I was feeling great at the time, so why not?

I felt great when I got home. I talked with Sarah who was now suffering from a bad headache, so I figured I would repay her previous night’s kindness by fetching something from the grocery store for her. I quickly experienced one of the side effects of the steroids: fatigue. By the time I had purchased the milk and shuffled to Sarah’s I was exhausted.

Today, my vision seems to still be improving by small degrees, but when I woke, I felt quite exhausted. I told the office I didn’t think I would be able to teach today. Aya responded that when I said I would be able to work the previous day, the schedule at the school had been changed to accommodate me and making all the changes was difficult for them, so could I please go and teach the classes?

I conceded and grumpily prepared to amble through the snow. Unfortunately, the previous night’s fatigue promptly invaded and the walk to school left me spent. Ready to collapse, I entered the teacher’s room at Yamanome elementary school and tried to prepare myself for a couple hours of teaching.

All the present teachers, however, saw my wretched state and quickly cancelled my visits to class. I was driven home with a bit of an ‘I told you so’ attitude being projected in the general direction of the Board of Education.


A Crush

One of my students has a crush on me. No doubt, this is a common occurrence and hardly noteworthy in circles occupied by teachers, but it’s new to me, and thus, good fun.

Her name is Toshie and she is one of my grade nine students. Each time I have been at her school, my presence around her has induced giggles and blushing a plenty, but this most recent sojourn to Hagishou Jr. High has seen her step up her level of involvement.

Last week, while engaging in snow-based combat with my students after lunch, a sing-song yell of ‘I love you Darby-sensei!’ chimed from the school balcony over the battle cries and sounds of snowballs slapping exposed heads. Ok. Well, I guess I can play along with a harmless crush, ‘I love you too!’ Screams and delighted giggles followed.

Yesterday, in her class, I was asking questions to each student such as ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘What are you going to do next Sunday?’ All these questions are from a set list and I was randomly choosing questions for each student.

When I reached Toshie, I randomly chose, ‘Do you want to go abroad?’ She happily responded with the canned answer of ‘Yes, I do.’ Now, this question comes with a couple of follow up questions. Next on the list is, ‘Where do you want to go?’ Her face beginning to flush, she answered, ‘I want to go to Canada.’

Before I asked the third question, I naively thought to myself, ‘Cool, she wants to go to my home country. I wonder why.’ And so I asked the follow-up, ‘Why do you want to go there?’

Before finishing, my naivet’ had faded and I already knew the answer to her question. I couldn’t stifle my laughter and neither could the rest of the class. By this point, Toshie was as red as the bars of the Canadian flag. Her classmates giggled at her and she slapped back at them while laughing at her predicament.

But, brave girl that she is, she managed to regain her composure long enough to ignore the hilarity surrounding her and blurt out her reply, ‘To meet Darby-sensei!’ Laughter and applause erupted in the classroom while the red-faced girl re-took her seat. My belly ached from laughing with all the kids.

The next morning, in between classes, Toshie appeared in the teachers’ room and stopped me as I passed her. She handed me a miniature envelope sealed with a sticker featuring the faces of her and a friend while adequately delivering a, ‘This is for you.’ She also passed me a small, hand-stitched Hello Kitty head with a little, green bowtie. In her other hand she held another of these most-beloved Japanese icons with a pink bow-tie. She pointed to the one she had just given, ‘This is you’ and at her own feline friend, ‘This is me.’

Before I could finish expressing my gratitude, she had giggled her way out the door.

In the Hello Kitty envelope written on Hello Kitty paper was a note that read as follows:

‘Dear Darby

Thank you very much for everything. You are so cool, so I am in love with you. We can’t meet some days. I’ll miss you. I’m looking forward to seeing you again. Do come back to see us.

Lots of love,

Toshie’

Not only is that that the cutest thing in the world, but the English is pretty good too!

So, to Toshie, I want to thank you for providing the most memorable and uplifting moments of an otherwise grey week.


Here Kitty!

Yesterday, while riding my bike to Ichinoseki elementary school, I almost ran over a dead cat.

While crossing a small bridge and nearing the last block of my journey, I was confidently peddling along the street. Up ahead, in a quick glance, I noticed what I thought was a discarded plastic bag resting about a foot away from the curb. I thought little of it. I would steer between the curb and the bag and if I should happen to navigate poorly, I would err on the side of the bag. So what if I run over an empty plastic bag, right?

Still confidently riding along, I approached the gap and glanced down again to plan my trajectory when an alarm when off. The alarm sounded something like my voice rising in shock at the sight fast approaching my front wheel, ‘Whaaaaaagh!’ Yeah, something like that.

Someone’s poor, little, white cat had suffered some mortal injury and was now sprawled on the pavement. Really, it looked like it was just resting comfortably, but I know for a fact that this was indeed a dearly departed feline – no living cat would allow a cyclist to pass within inches of its ears without darting away let alone not blinking.

So, little Fluffy would have had the shock of a lifetime, had her life not already been over. And I had a good fright too. I was surprised enough by the discovery that while my cry of shock was still escaping my lips, I veered away from the corpse. The sound of my pedal scraping along the curb awoke me to the fact that there really wasn’t any place to veer to. Grating along the concrete, I poured all of my willpower into not hitting the cat and not toppling over the curb.

I narrowly escaped both of those fates and came through with little more than a racing heart. If luck were more cruel to me, however, I could have easily noticed the cat’s presence earlier, veered into the curb, lost my balance and face-planted into the body of the former pet. Not only would that have been a traumatizing memory worth of at least a couple therapy sessions, but it would have given me the allergic reaction of a lifetime. It might have made this story more interesting, but I’m damn happy it didn’t turn out that way.


Here Comes November

I’ve been going through a bit of a slump lately. I think a few things are catching up with me. My lack of sleep is running me down and the cold I’ve had keeps lingering. Combine that with the increasingly short daylight hours, the increasingly intense work hours and what I think might be the onset of culture shock and you have a boy struggling to stay smiling.

The good news is that step one to solving these difficulties is now complete. I’ve identified them. So, let’s move on to potential solutions.

Tomorrow, I’m planning on tracking down an alarm clock. A loud one. It has to be loud because I’m going to start wearing earplugs to bed. The loading dock, the ravens, the baby next door – their cries will all fall on my deaf, plugged ears.

That should help with the cold and that should be on its way out anyway. To prevent this from happening again, some serious hand washing has become a part of my school routine. Those kids are going to have to put their boogers directly in my mouth for me to get sick from them. And if they try that, it will be their health that’s in jeopardy.

The daylight hours thing is tricky. This bothers me at home too. November is always a problematic month for me and frequently sees me pining for some equatorial region when the sun’s hours are constant and where I won’t have to worry about these long nights. I think one thing that’s important for me is to make sure I get outside at least a little bit each day. A lunchtime walk or something will keep me a bit more sane. This might be difficult depending on which school seeks my services, but the more I see of the friendly ball of fusion up high in the sky, the happier I will be.

The work hours seem to be slowing down a little and I’m starting to learn how to deal with the long weeks. I’ve had a couple quite challenging ones and I took the second one much more in stride than the first, so hopefully, I can continue that trend.

And lastly, the culture shock. This one’s a bit trickier because I haven’t exactly been in circumstances like this before. Sure, my time in Ghana gave me my share of fits, but this is a whole new situation. (And I still blame the Larium for much of my African instability.) But, I do have a number of coping strategies to try out and some thinking to do. I’ll manage.

But for now, I think the lack of sleep is catching up with me. Keeping my eyes open is getting rather difficult. I best stop typing lest I faceplant into my PowerBook.


Catch-up

Again, I am way too behind on things. I think I will have to resort to the horror that is point form catch-up.

August 31:

  • My first real typhoon rattles my windows and keeps me awake most of the night. After a series of changes to my schedule, I am supposed to go to city hall, then I will get driven to school. I ploughed through the driving rain on foot and emerged soaked at city hall. Soon after arriving, I am told my first day of school is cancelled. I have nothing to do all day at city hall except read and try not to fall asleep.
  • At 11:30, clear skies have rolled in and I can only ask, ‘Typhoon wa doku desu ka?’
  • September 1
    My first day of school at Hagishou. It’s a great building and the people there are very helpful and friendly. The kids are jubilant and inquisitive as could be. One boy, Kenta followed me around and tried to teach me some Japanese while also trying to absorb some English.
  • Takahashi-sensei and Koiwa-sensei are both good English speakers and did a good job of translating my many self-introductions.
  • The introductions went well and all the students introduced themselves back to me. A couple girls went so far as to ask me if I liked them. I went with the politically correct answer of saying that I liked them all.
  • I tutored Misuki after school with her Freddie the Leaf speech, or in her ever-so-cute case, Fweddie the Leaf.

September 2:

  • Back to Hagishou. They held a morning assembly to welcome me, the highlight of which was probably the welcome yelling/clapping/drumming.
  • The kids call Koiwa sensei ago-sensei. He has a strong jaw and they try to make fun of his chin. He, in turn, wrestles with them and shuts them up ever so briefly.
  • Kenta learned a couple English phrases to try to say to me like, ‘This is a present for you,’ At which point he would look around for anything he could hand to me.
  • I had lunch with Koiwa-sensei’s class where we talked about Canadian ways of doing things, Poland (Koiwa sensei spent three years there) and my ability to use chopsticks.
  • After lunch, I had my first real class with Takahashi-sensei. We taught the students the usage of ‘How many?’ then played a game where they had to janken (rock, paper, sciscors), then ask questions to their classmates.
  • I tutored after school again. Both Mizuki and Momo (her name means peach, how cool). Mizuki was doing okay, but Momo needed to memorize her speech more.

September 3:

  • A day spent at the BOE bugging Sarah until she went home sick. Guess I bugged her too much.
    That night was the Mizusawa party. Sarah wasn’t going to go since she was ill, but I twisted her rubber arm and she joined Jo, Brent, Alice and I for the ride North.
  • The dinner was great and there was a ton of vegetarian food for me to sample. And they had pineapple juice. Lots of it. I dreamed of South America.
  • Met a few of the second years, most notably Alicia and Jerry who live in Mizusawa.
    Had a good time joking around with everyone and continuing to build up a little social circle here.
  • Went back to Ichinoseki and hung out at Sarah’s until 3:00 am.

September 4:

  • Thanet woke me up at 9:00 am, as she was supposed to. I was supposed to go visit her and watch her in the festival in Shiwa, but she said it would be fairly dull for anyone not participating in it, so I stayed in Ichinoseki.
  • I tried to sleep more to no avail.
  • I got up and visited Sarah to take her some flowers and a bit of food for her weak stomach.
  • I then headed of to Gembikei Gorge on my bike for some photos and exploration.
    As I was hitching up my bike and pulling out my camera, a man with a horse and carriage came over to me and we eventually communicated with each other that he was offering me a free ride. I climbed aboard and he cranked up his stereo so that it was blaring themes from Western movies while the horses carted us past the gorge. Allergies aside, I was a lovely, hilarious ride.
  • I explored one small portion of the gorge and took a few photos, then I wandered in the direction of the flying dango. A woman who spoke good English befriended me and gave me some of her dango to sample. Not bad, but not necessarily worth the trip to the gorge for only some fancily-delivered rice paste.
  • I cycled back and met up with Sarah and Rachael. Again, we had to persuade Sarah, but we all ended up going to Kurt’s band’s show at the bunka centre. Their dramatic singer belted out some rock ditties while Kurt donned his rock star sunglasses to pound out the beats.
  • The next act was a group of 17-year-old high school students called The Joes playing three-chord punk rock. The singer was so full of energy. Just wicked. They sang Blitzkrieg Bop and made my night.
  • After the show, Rachael and Sarah made some yummy stir fry at Sarah’s. Kurt joined us and we watched my goofy movies from the Internet then watched Signs – Sarah squealed.

September 5:

  • I woke early to get to the train station where Gemma and her friend Homiko (damn if I could ever remember a Japanese name – I’m sure that’s wrong) picked Josh and I up to drive to Sendai.
  • First stop was the glorious Yodobashi electronics store. Good thing they don’t have one in Ichinoseki or I’d be broke.
  • Our whole day consisted of shopping, shopping, shopping. We checked out a number of book stores and some clothing stores. And anything else cool we could find. We embarked on a quest for the elusive domo-kun and at last we found him. My life is now complete.
  • I should mention the drag queen we saw in the underpass. Incredibly tall wearing a pink boa and a bikini, face painted white and eyes painted black. I was too intimidated to ask for a photo.
  • The domo-kun was found in a mall outside of Sendai’s downtown core. There we also hunted for Engrish shirts for Josh, but without much success.

September 6:

Monday and back to work. My first day of elementary school. I went to Yamanome Elementary school which isn’t all that far from city hall. One teacher there spoke very good English and served as a translator for the whole day, especially during my introductions to the kids. Predictably, the kids were cute as could be and they all loved the photos I brought from Calgary. I was interviewed by a few kids for the school paper. So cute. I ate lunch with them and while we didn’t talk much, due to the language barrier, I think they still liked having me there.

September 7:

  • Spent the morning at the BOE then took the bus out to Hondera Elementary school and all of its 38 students.
  • Karihara sensei guided me there with some photos he had taken earlier and I was able to make it to the bus stop without a problem.
  • I sat with some of the staff for a while and we tried to communicate, then I was ushered to the gym where we held our class.
  • I did a self-intro, then they introduced themselves very briefly. They were cute as could be. We played a game where they all got some miniature Canadian flags at the end of it (which were later attached to chopsticks and waved feverishly in my direction).
  • They then sang their school song that was just beautiful and nearly brought a tear to my eye.
  • Again I sat with some of the staff and then I was taken home by someone whose English was as bad as my Japanese. We attempted to converse while I had my nose buried in my phrasebook.

September 8:

  • Had fun with Sarah all day. She is great.
  • Well, yes, Sarah did write that, but she’s right too.
  • Anyway, yesterday was the speech contest so Sarah and I took the bus to the school and met up with Kurt, Josh and another ALT from Hiraizumi, Sean.
  • Tried not to fall asleep through all of the speeches, though some of them were quite entertaining, it was just that there were so many.
  • Sarah was quite pleased because all the students from Maikawa did rather well. A first for Kyoko, a first for Daichi and a second place finish in the original speech contest for Yusuke.
  • Josh walked home with us and we watched some BBC and Simpsons then we headed over to an enkai organized by the teachers’ association at La Marengo (a Japanese version of a French restaurant). Good times, good food.

Yay! I caught up. Mind you, reading all that would be pretty dull, but at least I’m no longer committed to transcribing some past events that I feel compelled to record for some reason. I’m free to write anything I like’


Miyako, Morioka, Tono, Bono

Catch up time. I’ve been rather busy and unable to write, so I’ll just give some run down of recent events.

August 20: I took the day off work to wait for my modem that was actually delivered the previous day. I tried going to the post office to get it. Arrived one hour before the post office opened. I figured everything else starts so early here, so why not the post office? Went back home then back to the post office where I was turned away and told to call a number to have the package delivered.

I decided to go to the office to get Aya to help me. They were shocked to see me on my day off, but soon understood. Aya called and arranged the delivery. I waited around my apartment and finally got the package. And the downloading commenced. Yay for connecting with my friends at home again! Yay for bittorrent! Yay for Yayhooray!

I hardly remember if I did anything more that day. I probably just surfed around like crazy.

August 21: I believe I spent a good portion of the day preparing some photos to show from my first few weeks here. After that, I wandered down to the beer festival near the station just to see what was happening there. I bumped into Randy who has been living in Ichinoseki for 18 years. Go figure. I think it might be getting to him too (or it was the beer), but he seems a little strange. Small world though – he’s from Didsbury, not too far from Calgary at all.

I also ran into David another JET from Southern Iwate. He studied economics at Berkeley and seemed nice enough. He might benefit from a bit more positivity in his life, but that seems to be the case with a few people around here.

The festival featured a day of big bands, but I only caught the last one. A creepy old Japanese lady was singing ‘The Girl from Ipenema’ (not a clue how to spell that actually) among other showtunes. Weird, but fun. Actually, that could very well be Japan’s motto.

I believe I spent the evening hunched over in front of the computer, bathing in its glow and also preparing for the conference. It was an early night so that I could catch the early train up to Morioka.

August 22: That early train was necessary because Hazuki and I were catching a bus to Miyako for some sightseeing. Without a hitch, we hooked up and got on the bus. The ride was gorgeous. I kept thinking it was reminding me of something, but I couldn’t pinpoint what. It was not lush enough for Hawaii, but it didn’t suggest anything Canadian. Maybe some spot in Ecuador – I really can’t say.

Hazuki and I chatted along the way and before we knew it, we were in Miyako scouting around for the tourist information centre. We (well, mostly Hazuki and her knowledge of Japanese) figured out where we were destined then quickly grabbed some soba before our bus arrived.

The bus took us directly to Miyako’s most famous beach, Jodogahara (another spelling nightmare, provided by the Japanese). White stones lead down to the water where sunbathers admired the view of the sculpted rock formations a short swim out to sea. The white cliffs made for a gorgeous view that I could have photographed for hours, but alas, no one is patient enough to bear the tectonic pace of my photography. So, I tried to shoot quickly and not hold Hazuki up – I think I might have to travel back and plan for more time to shoot.

We wandered along the coastline and came to the docks were the ferries shipped people along the water to view Miyako’s sights. This ferry is renowned for the number of seagulls that flock alongside the boat and take food directly from the hands of the passengers. The timid Hazuki feared the seagull droppings, but we were spared their filth and enjoyed a nice ride. Along the way we passed a rock spire as well as a blowhole. The entire coast featured interesting rock and cliff formations that called to have their photos taken if only some calmer seas were available.

After the boat ride, we wandered back to Miyako. Along the way, we passed shady docks, fishermen and their shady fish from the boat-filled bay and some birds of prey I wish I could identify. I think they may have been hawks, but possibly falcons. I had no idea there were any such birds in Japan, so it came as a nice surprise to watch them circling overhead and mingling with the crows.

We arrived early back at the train station and decided to take the bus back early. Hazuki slept much of the way home and I was able to read my book.

We went for dinner where I got my first experience with the notorious fish-flakes in Japan. They wouldn’t be so bad if they just didn’t stick to everything, but once they’re made contact with your food, they are more tenacious than Spiderman’s webs.

After dinner, we were going to go to Hazuki’s but we ran into Ciara (who lives near Morioka, in Shizukui-shi) and sat with her at the coffee shop while she waited for her train (or bus, I can’t remember now). The Irish lass with the gravel voice chatted with us a while then ventured home, as did we.

There, Hazuki showed me around her colossal apartment and we talked the night away while watching the finale of a charity telethon. On TV a girl was running the 100th kilometer of her past 24 hours and slowly approaching a stadium in Tokyo. She reached her destination and much weeping ensued.

August 23: I had the morning to kill before the conference started so I took the bus into town with Hazuki then wandered Morioka’s streets. Nothing to stellar jumped out at me, but it was a pleasant enough morning. I visited their cherished bridge, the Iwate bank that many of the tourist brochures had raved about (which turned out to merely be an example of fairly ordinary colonial architecture – an oddity in Japan, but nothing spectacular on the world scale) and a few other minor sites.

I met Hazuki for lunch and we hit the conbini then the park for a picnic. Soon after, I was back at the kencho and hanging out with all the other first years. That afternoon held some speeches and a trivia game for us, then the different regions of the prefecture gathered together to chat more intimately. Some of the cynics started emerging early, but I had a fine enough time, so no worries. We learned about some of the places to visit in Iwate and started mingling with a few of the second and third-years before we ambled (or in my case with my heavy bags, trudged) over to the hotel.

I may be mixing up nights, but I believe that was the night they held a welcome party for us in the hotel. Again, we had a few more speeches, met the superintendent of the prefecture and mingled to our heart’s content. Afterwards, the Irish pub was the venue of choice and a bunch of second-years joined us. I was excited because they were actually showing Olympic basketball on TV. The only way I had been able to see a game up to this point was by downloading one. The U.S. was playing and, predictably, thrashing Angola. But then everyone got the bright idea to up and leave for who knows where.

I believe a large group went of to karaoke or perhaps some other nomihoudai extravaganza, but the group I was with (led by Claire) headed to Moonsoon where we piled into a smoky room and those of us who weren’t drinking were ostracized from the other nomihoudai folks. Allan, April, Sarah (a different one, staying in Northern Iwate) and I were forced to sit at a different table, but we got all the smoke we could consume for free. We didn’t last long and went home in the rain. Apparently, later that night, one of the Mikes threw up in the fountain at the restaurant. Classy.

August 24: The conference shifted to its main venue, the International Plaza where we listened to a bunch of speeches and had our first Japanese lessons. In my dopey group of Japanese rookies, we fumbled through the greetings and such. Apparently, we were too dopey for a couple people and they switched to a higher grade (though I suspect one person did it because we weren’t cool enough – and that wasn’t Krista). Krista, Ciara and I went to a little coffee shop and I had grilled cheese sandwiches and a smile.

After lunch, we struggled to keep our heads up during more presentations. The best part of the afternoon was the tea ceremony demonstration. I sat hypnotized by their movements. Their graceful hands flowed between each movement, never jerking, never abruptly stopping. Just gorgeous.

Once the day was finished, we were scheduled to have a scavenger hunt around Morioka. We met in the lobby where Thanet and I bounced between groups and got abandoned by others. I eventually ended up with Ciara, Evelyn and Krista who decided shopping would be more fun than a scavenger hunt. We headed to Daiei where they picked through the trashy outfits and found a few things worth buying. God help Evelyn if she ever gets a high credit limit.

After shopping we grabbed a pizza (Krista and I picked off the meat) at some restaurant Krista had previously visited. Then the girls made the mistake of ordering some dish that they thought was desert. It turned out to be some foul-smelling egg concoction with soy sauce on it. Then again, it was egg, so of course it would smell bad to me. They got through some of it though, so it couldn’t have been all bad, even though it smelled that way.

We then went back to the Irish pub where everyone was meeting after the scavenger hunt. Maybe this was the night the basketball game was on. Hard to say really, but regardless, I was dragged along to Moonsoon again. And again, the nomihoudai was flowing. I said hi to a few people, but I didn’t stay long. David and (I’m blanking, who was that?) walked back to the hotel with a stop at a cool little indie record shop on the way. I hung out in my hotel room for a bit then went to bed.

August 25: More of the same followed at the next day of the conference. Talks on life in Japan and Japanese lessons were interrupted only by our trip to Gusto for lunch. Krista, Evelyn and I indulged in some pizzas and plumped up in the process. I almost fell asleep after lunch, but held myself together until the origami presentation. There, we learned how to make some paper hats, but I have recently discovered that I forgot the technique completely. We also made some paper airplanes and tossed them across the room to see whose would fly the furthest. I made a stunt plane, so mine didn’t fare to well in the distance department. If only I would have known that was the point of the competition. Thanet fared well I later learned because one of the Japanese ladies present helped design her plane. Cheater!

That night, AJET organized a restaurant night where the group could choose among five different locations. Ciara, Colin and I raced to get to the sign-up sheet for Bangkok, the Thai place. I went with the masses on that one. Ciara said it was great, but I had no idea. Colin ran interference then got all out names on the list before anyone else could steal the sheet from him.

The place was popular and our accomplishment was undermined when they opened up more spots. What a shame, now we would have to have more company. In a little basement restaurant, I sat and talked with Raechel most of the time – she also did me the favour of ordering a vegetarian dish for me.

With satisfied bellies, we headed over to Shidax for karaoke. It took me a while to warm up to things in the non-drinking room, but I did a decent version of Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’ then started wandering to the other rooms where the parties were in full swing. My breakout song was Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ and I don’t know that I stopped singing after that. Shouting rather. I had to compete with the din of the drunks after all.

Then, I think it was Thanet that just started wandering into random rooms full of Japanese people and a new trend was born. A bunch of us joined three young lads who liked punk rock songs and sang some song about cherry blossoms (a.k.a. Sakura) to Sakura. Then, Erin dragged Matt, Garry and I to a room of Japanese women who giggled at our every broken note. I ended the evening hoarse and capable of only singing Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’ as a finale.

Ciara finally allowed me to leave and we set off for the hotel at about 2:00 am. I think the alcohol may have actually been more plentiful in her system than blood. I headed upstairs for as much sleep as I could cram into the time before breakfast.

August 26: More sleepy eyes for more speeches and lessons on Thursday. For lunch, we dined buffet style in the basement of Kawatoku. The highlight was, of course, the ice cream. Such yummy gelato. Oh hell, I want some now. Actually, after the speeches, I went back with a few folks and got more. It turned out to be my dinner.

The cultural demonstration that afternoon was Shogo (a.k.a. calligraphy). The calligrapher showed us some of the history of the kanji characters and how they have evolved over the centuries then set his brush in the ink and swept it across the papers.

After this demonstration, the ice cream and the exploration of Kawatoku, the evening was filled by a trivia contest at the Irish pub. Our team was competent and threatened to take the gold at one point, but our final round was miserable and we slipped off the podium to fourth. Just like a Canadian. Though, irritatingly, there was not a single Canadian content question the whole night. I was useless in the rounds dominated by questions related to Irish football managers and Kiwi geography.

After the pub, Ciara, Leslie, Mike, Claire and I searched for a spot to drink and eventually found some nook with a hidden elevator that lifted us to a bar meant to be kept secret from first-year JETs. Though, such elitism deserves sabotage. I should really do something about that kind of exclusion’

We talked for hours and I got to bed at around 3:00 am. Considering how tired I was all day, it was an impressive feat.

August 27: One last day of orientation that put our new Japanese lessons to test. We had to perform a skit featuring our new (and slim) knowledge of Japanese. Ours focused on a restaurant scene, as most of them did, but our twist to the subject was the ordeal of attempting to order vegetarian food in Japan.

After some parting words, we went back to Kawatoku for lunch then to the immigration office to get our re-entry stamps. That took forever and we rushed back to the hotel to grab our bags. I decided not to go to the night’s festivities/parties/nomihoudais/carnal orgies of general debauchery or whatever was happening. I was just too exhausted to bother, so Thanet and I took a cab to the station and explored until we found the foreign food shop, Jupiter. We feasted our eyes, but restrained ourselves and only ended up getting some peanut butter and a Perrier for Thanet. In the hustle of leaving the hotel, however, I managed to forget my coat in the lobby. Very clever of me, but apparently they do have it, so I might be able to retrieve it later.

Thanet and I rode the train a while and got to know each other. She has determined that I am going to be her best friend in Japan. Apparently I have no say in the matter. It would be more flattering if she had deliberately picked me rather than just casting a wide net and only getting my bite. But I don’t mind, I’m just using her for her car. Ha!

Back home, I barely made it back to my house with my two big bags on my bike. I tried an alternative means of riding and it was decidedly unsuccessful. I even managed to hit a pole while after making only one push of the pedal. Grace and style!

Soon after I started settling in, I got a call from Uri. He, Sally and Isaac had missed their train in Morioka and needed a place to stay in Ichinoseki since their respective busses and trains wouldn’t be running until the next day. Of course I happily obliged and I was soon heading back to the train station to meet them.

I made the mistake of suggesting that the walk to my house was 25 minutes. It actually took 50. We were walking slowly and everyone’s bags were weighing them down (and were falling over to boot), so our progress was indeed slowed. Poor Isaac couldn’t get his bags to co-operate and he just looked dead tired. He also had to get up to take a bus at some ungodly hour the next day to get to his school’s festival.

When we finally arrived at my place, they all marveled at its apparently palatial beauty and luxurious amenities. Go figure. I guess I have to do a better job of appreciating what I have. We all hung about and chatted for a while before it was bedtime. They were able to squeeze into my living room (Sally not being exactly an Amazon helped fit the puzzle together).

August 28: Isaac parted early and Sally and Uri decided to go shopping in the Rodeo Drive of Southern Iwate, Ichinoseki. I slept like a log and didn’t hear them get up, get ready, leave, return, have breakfast, wash dishes, and leave again. Yay for earplugs! I felt bad though, I forgot to leave out some towels and such for their morning showers. Bad host. Bad!

Anyway, they were just happy they didn’t have to sleep on the station floor. They were appreciative enough to bring me some omiyage from Morioka too. So nice of them.

The previous day, Thanet and I had decided that we should make use of that car of hers and take a little road trip to Tono. I took the train up to Shiwa that afternoon and met her at the station (after wondering for a while if I was in the right city).

She took me to her apartment and gave me the grand tour, complaining all the while of its shit-holedness. It wasn’t that bad though. No, it wasn’t great, but it was livable. But again, I am appreciating what I have ever more. Even though my rent sucks in comparison with many other arrangements.

We hung about, chatted and snacked a while then headed over to her drumming practice. She is participating in the Shiwa festival and will be drumming on a float while wearing the sexiest garb imaginable. Those split-toed shoes really get my mojo workin’. I was free to roam through the practice and take photos, including many of the children’s practice. They were adorable, especially this one little seven-year-old girl who couldn’t take her eyes off me and smiled every time I returned her stare.

We returned to Thanet’s apartment after the practice and we chatted the night away while making plans for our road trip.

August 29: I woke early to the melody of Eidelweiss ringing through the Shiwa streets at 7:00 am. It’s a reminder for everyone to do his or her daily exercises. Sort of like call to prayer, but less spiritual and more annoying. I read while Thanet attempted to sleep off her cold. She was unsuccessful, but I think the only decent sleep she got that night was when I was out of the room in the morning – she said I didn’t snore though, so I feel no guilt.

After slowly preparing ourselves for the day, we excitedly got in the car and headed for Tono on our inaugural road trip. Maps in lap, I was barely able to guide Thanet through the kanji-labelled streets, but we did make it, much to our mutual satisfaction.

After looping through the city a couple times, we found parking then went to a place called Picasso for lunch. Again, we reveled in our new independence as we successfully ordered vegetarian dishes and rewarded ourselves with some indulgent sundaes.

We called Garry and met up with him at the station. He guided us to a temple, then, when he realized he didn’t really mean to guide us there, we started off for the 500 Buddhas.

What a gorgeous spot. Moss-covered rocks initially seem quite unassuming. Jungle trees surround the stones and shaded us from the sun. As we wandered into the woods, however, the unique nature of the stones became apparent. Each of them has an image of a Buddha carved into it. The moss covers most of them, but you can vaguely make out their shapes if you make careful examinations. But, some of the stones have been scrubbed clean – each year, some children are sent into the woods to clean a selection of the stones.

The mosquitoes could hardly dampen our wonder as we kept finding more hidden faces staring back from the rocks.

After exploring the nearby woods and determining that we were only wandering logging roads, we headed back down across the road to find a couple more temples. The first tiny shrine was a lucky place for girls who want to get married. Thanet got a fortune, tied a ribbon and hoped for a happy marriage. Garry interpreted that her fortune told her she was going to marry Bono. That was okay by Thanet.

We then trekked up a good set of stairs to another temple. After that, Garry led us on a wild sheep chase through the forest. Our circuitous route eventually took us back to Tono and a little market where flowers were abundant and cheap. Merely on principle, I had to buy a bouquet for Thanet. It was 100 Yen, how could I not?

We dropped Garry off, took a look at his apartment and Thanet proceeded to complain adamantly about the state of her place once more. We drove back to Kitakami where we eventually parted.


Beauty Will Save the World

Life at the office has been slow. No complaints, just a statement. In that down time I have been allowed to think about my upcoming self-introduction (yes, I have actually thought about the teaching side of living in Japan), and touch up photos galore. Today, however, I parted ways with my trusty laptop and ventured to work solo. The rains this morning were threatening to drench all who dared pass, and with a typhoon on its way to these parts, I felt caution with my most precious cargo was in order.

But, like a certain episode of the Simpsons where Bart’s day takes every bad turn it could, I walked to work in the rain and the sun burst through the clouds as soon as I stepped into the parking lot. It didn’t rain the rest of the day. But no worries; better safe than so terribly sorry.

Really, that could have been the introduction to a miserable day. But for some reason, today’s grief actually rolled off my back. Imagine the surprise of this overly sensitive lad when all efforts to discern R’s from L’s with his students failed miserably and didn’t frustrate him in the slightest. Imagine the shock when the entire afternoon was spent with absolutely no productive endeavours to occupy his time, but still the best was made of the situation by reading anything his English eyes could understand. And the idiotic drivers. And the multiple household mishaps, not the least of which was the ingestion of unwanted meat products in spring rolls that looked ever so delicious in the store. And the aching body from the previous night’s badminton. And the post office delivering my modem a day early instead of the promised due date when I planned on being home to receive it. And the solitary confinement. And the distance from my friends and family.

No catastrophes, certainly, but certainly, these separate incidents were easily enough to shake me up in days past. They would definitely qualify as enough to put me into a not insignificant depression in circumstances where I have no recourse to friendly counselling. But here I am, alone, and happy. (And full of meat. Eww).

I have a few theories on the matter.

Number one: Perhaps I’m finally just growing up. Is this part of what happens? If so, aging isn’t so bad after all.

Number two: The good of today is not insignificant when compared to the bad. For lunch today, Michiko-san, Aya and Kazue allowed me to tag along for a lunch of hot soba and it was the best meal I have had to date in Japan. Kazue and Aya expressed excitement at their upcoming trip to visit Sarah in England. Even Michiko-san, made respectable efforts to use her English skills – her confidence sometimes fails her and she resigns herself to her native tongue, even though she is capable enough with my mother tongue. She even properly used the idiom, ‘It’s my treat’ as a final bonus to the lunch hour.

Continuing with theory number two: I received an email from the good Mr. Stiem and as brief as it was, it was nice to be in his thoughts. I don’t know if it is exclusively his influence or the fact that I am currently reading Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum,’ but I have been prompted into a bit more introspection than is customary for me these days. Let me explain; first Tyler: his fondness for intellectualism his habit of asking piquant questions (even though today, they were as brief as could be) often force me to delve a deeper into the shallow pools of my brain. As for Eco, there we have the intellectualism again, but perhaps more importantly, a well-written first-person narrative always prompts me to make a greater effort when exploring my own thoughts. I inevitably walk in the shoes of the storyteller and hope that my thoughts might (at least occasionally) be as clearly and eloquently elucidated.

And lastly, for theory number two: Chocolate-covered almonds. So good.

Now, onto theory number three: I think I may have found some sense of purpose in my life. I’ve been hunting for so long and so earnestly. Too earnestly. The weight that I have placed on my own shoulders while trying to discover my place in the world is a good explanation for why my back has been hurting for so long.

But, while my back continues to ache on occasion, the pain has been lessened, the burden has been significantly lifted. In a movie called Unbreakable (an enjoyable film – go check it out) one character suggests to another that when he finds his purpose, the mundane, melancholy life that has plagued him will disappear and satisfaction will then dominate.

Another film reference – this time from Fight Club. I am Raymond K. Hessel. Mr. Durden’s gun has been pointed at my head and I have run off into the night to make my dream come true. And indeed, my corn flakes taste great in the morning. Even the soba I eat for lunch every single day has not become dull.

And the purpose? Travel photography of course. For the last year, I have trained myself to be here, to be in an exotic land and to make beautiful images. I have to resort to another film reference, this time, Adaptation. After watching it, I remember Kevin and I discussed it and both expressed envy at the main character’s passion, his drive to succeed in his field. Neither Kevin nor I could completely identify with such intense desire. I made misguided projections about what mine might be, but even at the time, I knew I was fooling myself. I suspect Kevin knew as well.

Well Kevin, I think I may have found a place next to whichever Kaufmann was so zealously scribbling his manuscript. May it last. May it last because this feeling is wonderful. It is contentment. Contentment has seemed to elude me, but here I am, uncomfortably resting my back against the world’s most poorly designed love seat, feeling satisfied.

I get excited at the prospect of the next time I will raise my camera. Maybe tomorrow, if the typhoon dodges Japan, I can mount my bike and head to Gembeikei gorge. If not, perhaps Saturday. If not then, maybe Hazuki and I can find some spot on the coast free from the rain, if not there, then damn it, we’ll go underground at Iwaizumi and take some long exposures in the caves. And when next I’m shooting, I will lose myself, as I have with every other time I have watched Japan through my lenses. I forget I haven’t had dinner, or lunch. I forget that I woke up at 5:00 am. I forget that it’s above 30 degrees and humid as the inside of Ruben Studdard’s butt crack (just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention with that lovely image). And when I’m done, I’ll look forward to processing the photos and seeing the results then learning from my mistakes and taking heart in my successes.

I realize I still have so much more to learn, but that’s part of the fun. I have always loved learning and photography is something that will forever challenge me. I will always have room to grow or a new subject to explore in a new way. I will always have to learn about those subjects and I will, no doubt, be forced into writing about them as well (another minor passion of mine). I want to see the world, capture some of its wonder and share that knowledge with others. I want to learn how to better communicate with subjects and to create a mutual comfort between model and photographer. I want to continue to use my web skills to further my ability to share photos. Photography is very much a synthesis of many of my past pursuits. (now I just have to better integrate it with my love of music – some concert photography along the way perhaps?)

And I have not forgotten what Dostoevsky said: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ I can easily adapt his words to fit my needs. For him beauty was that which made life tolerable. Often true. But eventually, I hope eventually my photos can become even more than an escape from drudgery. I want to learn to convey a message. I want to inspire people to experience this world for themselves. I want people to make connections to these faraway lands, these foreign faces.

I’m verging on sounding like a hippy here. But for all this sentiment and idealism, I believe in these words. I hope they keep ringing true for me for some time. I recognize I have a lot of work ahead of me to be able to make this into any sort of viable career and that there are some daunting and terrifying tasks ahead of me (especially for a closet introvert like me). But I suspect this thing I have found, this passion might actually prompt me to stay the course.

Finally, while I was writing this, one of the songs passing through my randomized playlist uttered the following lyrics, the theme for the evening: ‘So, this is continuous happiness”


Office Giggles

I hope I never stop giggling at:

  • The way Torou-san says ‘moshi moshi’
  • Aya’s low-pitched laugh
  • Michiko-san’s grunts when she is the listener in a phone conversation
  • The simultaneously surprised and contemptuous stares of old ladies as I pass
  • The chorus of ‘Ohayo gosaimasu’ that everyone repeats ad nauseum in the morning and the way it transforms into ‘uhsssss’ after everyone says it a few times
  • Karihara sensei’s enthusiastic attempts at speaking English to me


Noh! Matsushima Matsuri! Fun!

Get ready for a long day of nothing! I have a completely empty schedule and no Sarah to bug. So, today, we really get to see if I am capable of amusing myself. If only City Hall were like Pangaea and I could adjourn to the lounge for some darts – I miss you Charanjeet! At least I don’t have to fill in a timesheet here. Such an ordeal would bend truth way past it’s limits. I’m not sure how Sarah and I could manipulate playing chess into something relevant to teaching’

I’ve already managed to while away an hour and a half of this morning and I haven’t even gotten to journaling yet. No, I haven’t been a productive, little JET, but I have been a somewhat productive little Darby. My time is being passed going through photos from last night and emailing. Go JET go!

And now, I’ll attempt to keep up with the week’s events. Friday, a group of the Ichinoseki JETs went out for dinner and Sally and Michael from joined us nearby towns. Brent and I met outside Lawson’s near the station, as planned. The rest of the group, however, decided not to inform us that they were waiting around the corner. So Brent and I chatted a while then figured out that we were being neglected.

We walked to a second-floor restaurant whose menu suggested I would be able to eat some tomato and cucumber sandwiches. What the plastic foods outside neglected to include, however, was the egg that was crammed into every nook of the sandwiches. As appealing as that was, I had to do some scraping – the end result was rather unsatisfying, so I followed it up with an all-too-satisfying foot-tall sundae. So expensive, but so good.

Afterwards, we said some goodbyes to Sarah who was soon leaving for home for a two-week vacation. The night was young, but everyone else was off to other venues so I biked home by myself and relaxed there.

The next day, I got a late start on my plans to go to Hiraizumi. I confused my train schedules and ended up planning for the wrong time. That meant, however, that I was home when Sarah arrived to drop off her key so I could pass it along to Jo, so we got to say another farewell. Then, we repeated the procedure when I biked past her on the way to the station.

My destination in Hiraizumi for the afternoon was Motsuji temple for a walk and some photos. As with Chusonji, my photos describe the location better than I can, so I will keep my descriptions brief. However, the photos don’t capture what the place would have been like in centuries past. A mural at the site depicted the sprawling temples surrounding the lake and suggested that Motsuji was one an incredibly glorious location. Now, it is only somewhat glorious.

As I wandered, I met a couple of other teachers who work in Ichinoseki and we exchanged information. It’s always nice to know more English speakers here, so hopefully they can be an addition to my small circle of friends in Japan.

A short hike later and I was back at Chusonji where I hoped to attend the Noh performance. Unaware that a ticket was going to cost me an arm and a leg, I happily strolled toward the stage, but was confronted by the ticket sellers. I found one who spoke English who informed me that a ticket to stay until 7:45 would cost me 4000 yen. I drifted to the side of the path and deliberated. Eventually, I came to the conclusion, ‘When am I going to get the chance to see this again?’ and I bit the bullet.

But, my biggest lesson learned from this experience: Before purchasing a ticket, always ask if photos are permitted. I’m sure you can guess where this goes. As the performance was starting and the chorus was warming up for their guttural, inhuman growls and comical, high-pitched yelps, I started snapping away from my tripod. A gaijin with a tripod, a big camera and no press pass is, apparently, pretty easy to spot in a crowd of Japanese tourists and I was quickly halted in my photographic tracks. Disappointing to say the least – one of my main reasons for attending was to take photos. For me, it was like going to the theatre and not being allowed to wear glasses (if I needed glasses).

The performance itself was as bizarre as it gets on stage. After fires were lit around the viewing area, the cast slowly entered. This ancient, traditional, Japanese art form defies description. The non-rhythmic drum slaps, growls and yips from the chorus and incomprehensible melodies from the singers were the delivery method for words that only seemed like backwards gibberish to me. I couldn’t actually make out any sounds that could have been words and wondered if I was the only person so bemused.

I made an effort to follow along, but the movements were so sparse and the drama so austere, I couldn’t exactly piece together any sort of narrative. I started assembling something in my head, but it ended up being a Kafka-esque tale related more to my experience of the performance than to the performance itself. Since I couldn’t take photos, I think my brain wanted to have this experience inspire something creative, so now I have a story I need to write in my off time.

The next sketch was not accompanied by the chorus and seemed to be more amusing to the audience. A little physical comedy even drew a chuckle or two from me. From what I gathered, the story in this episode was related to an old worker who kept falling asleep at his job of stirring who knows what. He was miming the action – how could I know what he was supposed to be stirring? Some superior of his was constantly interrupting him from his naps by stomping his feet and yelling. Beyond that, I can’t elaborate much more on the subject matter.

Another operatic movement followed and was just as obfuscated as the first. All I really know about this one is that archers were somehow involved. They had arrows – I’m so astute. It did, however, give me further material for that story I might write’

I left a bit early and took some photos along the way back through Chusonji. Only a few of the locations were adequately lit, but I managed to find a few shots. There was something haunting about being near these shrines alone and in the dark.

When I reached the train station, a minor festival was underway with drumming and dancing. From the platform, I was able to watch a homemade fireworks display shooting from the road outside. I rode home with another JET, Joe, living in Miyagi prefecture then once again, ran into Sarah in the Ichinoseki station. She was waiting on her train to Sendai and caught a glimpse of me and decided to say hi and goodbye again – I guess she’s just having a hard time letting go of me. Har!

The next day I waited through the morning to hear from Jo about our trip to Matsushima. I talked with home for a while before I had to clear the line.

In the afternoon, Jo, Brent, Alice and I headed south along the expressway. We were soon in Matsushima and began a desperate search for parking. As in Aomori, our gaijin proclivity for bending rules the Japanese would deem near sacrosanct proved useful. Our options were either to park more than a few kilometers down the road or to park at the omiyage shop across the street from the viewing area. The choice was obvious.

Jo tried to justify the violation by making a purchase at the shop. After she left it in the car, we wandered around the back of the store and dodged the view of the security guard directing traffic in the parking lot. This route allowed a quick scan of some of Matsushima’s sights and I think a return visit would be worthwhile. Temples, caves and of course, the beautiful view of the bay would make for a lovely day of photographs.

We found a good spot on a bench to watch the fireworks after buying tasty crepes from one of the many festival food stands. The couple next to us was hospitable and moved the bench for our gaijin butts. We took turns gathering sustenance and then I wandered in search of photo opportunities. I carried on this way until the fireworks were set to launch from barges in the bay over top of the thousands of floating lanterns set out onto the water. When the sky burst into action, I procured one of the best possible spots at the sea wall and snapped to my heart’s content.

The yellow and red lights slowly drifting in the distance were a gorgeous sight to behold. I wish we could have been closer to them, but I suspect only the boats in the bay got an adequate view ‘perhaps next year this will be an option’

With the chest-pounding booms still echoing off the nearby hills, we started back from home. Now, Matsushima isn’t an especially large urban centre. In fact, it might best be described as a burgh. One road leads in, one road leads out. And guess where everyone needed to be to leave for home: that one road. It took us about two hours to get onto the expressway. In the meantime, we were able to people watch, swear at the idiocy of Japanese drivers, and marvel at one of the worst traffic jams I had ever experienced.

Earlier that day, Jo and Brent had been telling us just how the licensing system works for drivers in Japan. They have to take a test that is actually performed on a road course – they are never tested in actual roadway conditions. The driving schools all prepare the drivers for passing the test and little else beyond that. So, when they get onto the real roads, they have little to no experience of driving around other cars or at high speeds. Merging and following distances are left to instinct. The mystery of bad Japanese drivers has been solved.

But another interesting point is that in the case of an accident involving a cyclist and a car, it is always the driver of the car who is at fault – even if the car is parked and the cyclist runs into the vehicle. That would explain some of the courtesy the cyclists are offered here and it also hints at why the cyclists sometimes speed through city streets with an air of invincibility.

While I’m thinking of interesting facts, talking with one of the junior high teachers last week revealed that she is putting the poor kids through some serious paces while they attempt to enjoy their summer holiday. Each child continues to engage in his or her club activities during the break, but Ms. Asanuma prescribes an additional five hours of homework per student, per night. The poor kids are missing their childhood. They went wide eyed at the thought of me having more than two months vacation during the summer at their age and no homework to speak of. Once they had picked their jaws from the floor, they settled back into the chronically fatigued states of Japanese school children. The next day, Sarah and I were supposed to tutor them again, but Yusuke’s cold had not been allowed to subside and it had also spread to Daichi. Surprise, overworked kids get sick – didn’t see that coming at all.


Mosquitoes Make Baby Jesus Cry

Let’s see if Sarah is reading over my shoulder. Maybe if I type her names a few times, she’ll take notice. So, here goes. Sarah sometimes asks, ever so impishly, ‘Whatcha doin’?’ and then takes a peek at what I’m writing. Ah, I think my experiment here will be a failure – she’s just moved to the computer across from me. I suppose I can leave all that text there if she returns’ Not that I mind at all. I just like teasing her by any means at my disposal.

Anyway, what has happened since last I wrote? Not an excessive amount really. Perhaps I’m actually settling in here. Though, staring at my hands as I type, I am reminded of last night’s mosquito attack.

I went to the hill North of City Hall to explore and take photos. There, I found’

Woah. I just remembered my dream from last night. Odd. I won’t repeat it, but it was indeed odd and a little amusing.

Anyway, sorry to leave that sentence hanging – so much anticipation, I’m sure. Unfortunately, the payoff doesn’t warrant such a buildup. I found a small shrine and a somewhat disheveled Japanese garden. Beyond them was stairway leading up into the woods that passed by more of those tiny stone shrines I like so much.

While taking photos in this area, the mosquitoes caught a whiff of my scent and descended upon my exposed flesh with the ferocity of, well, a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. The little bastards left plenty of their itchy marks on my hands, arms neck and face and now, the little red spots catch my eye as I type.

Why would God make mosquitoes? I was trying to figure this out last night. The only person who could see mosquitoes as a positive addition to Earth’s bestiary is a social Darwinist. From their point of view, the disease-transmitting insects serve to weed out the weak from the strong and to kill off those whose genes would not have made a good addition to the pool.

But everyone knows that social Darwinists are idiots and assholes. No, the existence of mosquitoes is indeed further proof of God’s non-existence or it suggests that he/she/it is either not especially benevolent (downright sadistic is more like it) or doesn’t have control over all we are lead to believe (a.k.a. everything).

But here I am talking about God and Darwin in adjacent paragraphs. It’s philosophy class in the ’50s! The point is, mosquitoes are fuckers and I hate them. They marred what was otherwise a quite enjoyable photo session – a no-no in Darbyland.

Dodging the irritating little bloodsuckers (and slapping at them when their landings lacked subtlety) I ascended the hill and found a larger temple at the top of the long flight of stairs. After scolding myself for not having brought bug repellant and taking fewer photos than I would have liked in the fading light, I turned to the left where I found a confusing map of the trails on the hill.

I tried to decipher it, but I could hardly determine which way was up. I struck out on a trail at random that led me to a winding staircase and finally the transmission towers on the top of the hill. I tried to take some photos of the staircase, but I had to concede to the bugs. They were victorious and I retreated down the hill. My war wounds are visible, but fortunately, today, they are not especially itchy. I will live to slap mosquitoes another day.

Part of me almost feels bad when I kill them. The whole respecting life ideal that guides me runs contrary to the slaughter of insects, but I have to argue that it truly is in self-defense. I should have been more prepared I agree, but still, I’ll leave them alone if they don’t bother me. Actually, I’m not entirely sure I would. I really do hate the bastards. They’re just so bloody evil.

So, that was the highlight of my evening last night. Tuesday night was spent first cleaning my grubby apartment then watching ‘About Schmidt’ with Sarah. Great movie. Parts of it reminded me of my Dad – maybe because he was so keen on it when he saw it and recommended it to me. It had a perfect message for the small pessimist within me.

After the movie, we watched a bit of my illegally-procured BBC World, then listened to music. A good night.

Today, I have been trying to get a hold of people to go to the lantern festival in Matsushima on Sunday. I may have the interest of Brent and Jo piqued so we’ll see what happens.


Matsuri-rama

Back to the office routine. I’ve managed to survive until just before lunchtime without getting bored. As long as I bring my laptop along for the ride, I have a few options for make-work projects. But so far today, I haven’t resorted to my usual work-unrelated tasks – I have been taking a trip down memory lane with a stint of editing.

Yes, the speech competition is fast approaching and the entries require the assistance of native English speakers. First the student writes his or her speech in Japanese, the teacher then translates and passes it off to Sarah and I to add our gaijin flare to it. I am reminded of the early-year experiences working as an editor at the Gauntlet attempting to correct the endless strings of mistakes produced by new writers (ah, Mr. Teeuwen, how could I have predicted you would provide valuable, usable experience for later in life).

I don’t mind editing and a little typesetting so much, but compared with my weekend, office life is not nearly as invigorating.

I took Friday off with one of my summer leave days and made the quick trip North to Hiraizumi. The Chusonji temple complex beckoned my camera from afar, so I followed the signs and soon reached the base of a cedar-covered hill where temples and shrines lurked in the shade.

I arrived at about 8:30 and I don’t think I left until about three in the afternoon after I had explored every inch of the place. Travel photography is definitely the life for me, and Chusonji was a fantastic place for my camera to get a workout. Each turn revealed some new wonder and I found myself either grinning or frequently uttering ‘wow’ to myself. The photos I took do a far better job of describing the marvelous temples, so I won’t belabour their description (though I really should be practicing for the potential of writing any travel articles). I think I might make the trip back during each of the four seasons to explore the complex under different conditions.

Many sweaty, giddy hours later, I started back in the direction of the station. I took a short side trip up a hill to Takatachi Gikeido where one of Hiraizumi’s ancient heroes ended his life. A climb up a couple staircases revealed a lovely view of the river valley and a one-room museum then another short climb exposed a small shrine.

Though I had not yet seen many of Hiraizumi’s sites I returned to the station with impeccable timing to catch the train. The town is so close to home, I will have no trouble returning.

Back in Ichinoseki, two of the main streets were choked by vendors, kimono-clad teens, and tanabata (streamers) galore. I briefly wandered amid the colours and ran into one of my students from the previous day, Sayaka who obliged me for a photo with her friends. But, I had little time to dawdle if I wanted to get home then return in this direction for the fireworks.

After quickly freshening up I reached the bridge to get to the shores of the river where future spectators clogged the footpath like cholesterol stalling blood to the heart. I normally wouldn’t have minded, but the sky was brilliantly lit and I wanted to get behind the lens to see if I could capture any of the fleeting hues. I managed to make it to the riverside for only one worthwhile shot as the sun set.

I chose a spot to set up my tripod in fairly random fashion and ended up placing myself in the perfect location. The display shot from across the river to my left – the river meandered past in the foreground and a lit bridge filled out the background. The display itself was rather impressive especially for such a small city. It lasted for nearly two hours with bursts of one to five minutes followed by a short breaks when a loudspeaker would babble about who knows what in Japanese. The only word that seemed at all recognizable to me was something that sounded like ‘Starmine.’ I could be wrong even though they repeated it about 60 times through the night.

At the end of the night, I talked with a few students who offered me drinks and also another girls whose English was quite good who let me use a cardboard box she had rather than resting on the damp grass. I couldn’t stay long, however, since I had to get up at a dismal hour the next day and I wanted to get at least a little sleep.

On Saturday, I woke at a quarter to five and bolted to the station to catch the train to Morioka. Once there, I explored for a while, but I had to use the help of my Japanese phrasebook to figure out where to buy a bus ticket to Aomori to meet up with the other JETs to see the Nabuta festival. One good man working at the station was kind enough to guide me to the ticket dispensers and point me in the right direction for the stop. Yay for customer service!

The bus ride was uneventful (though I did try to get off too early), but when I arrived, Maria and I had one hell of a time actually crossing paths despite being within a block of one another. A series of phone calls to her cell from various Aomori payphones eventually guided us in the proper direction.

We walked outside to Jonathan’s car and in the process of climbing into his car and being introduced to him, the sticky heat that makes clothes cling to your body in unexpected ways caused my pants to tear in the crotch. Honestly, it wasn’t my enormous genitalia (this time). I can’t say it was my classiest introduction ever, ‘Hi, I’m Darby and I’ve just torn a hole in my pants.’ Really, the gash was only apparent when I sat cross-legged (which, admittedly, occurred often during our day of sitting on the ground to see parades and fireworks). Attempting to look on the bright side, it did provide some welcome ventilation on a hot day.

Jonathan seems quite nice and is a fellow philosophy major. He and Maria make a good couple and should be fun folks to adventure with when possible. Though he’s a fellow philosophy major he doesn’t have the pretension or complete lack of charisma that woefully besets so many of our ilk.

We parked the car and crossed the Aomori streets to find Brent and Jo sitting at the sidewalk along the parade route. The tail end of the parade set itself up directly in front of us and eventually started marching forward with a long gap trailing behind. When the loop had been completed, drummers, dancers, floats and odd characters a plenty trundled past our position.

The floats were indeed impressive. Enormous paper constructions hoisted on the backs of hot, sweaty and tired men bobbed through the parade route while colossal drums boomed their rhythms deafeningly. One drum was large enough that you could have probably built a comfortable house in side. The 33-degree heat didn’t bother me so much as I was caught up in the spectacle. Maria brought a plethora of yummy snacks. The passing dancers who delivered a respectable supply of their lucky bells rewarded her generosity to us.

After looking at a number of my photos, however, I’m a little disappointed by the results produced by my telephoto lens in particular – that and my metering. The telephoto doesn’t focus quite quickly enough for such a spectacle, it’s a slow lens and I made the error of waiting too long before taking the photo after I had focused. Poor form. As for the metering, the sky seemed to encroach in many shots and I underexposed a lot of them due to its intrusive presence. Live and learn.

After the parade, we stopped at Gusto for some food and air conditioning. The most fun portion of the lunch was trying to determine the words on the front of one man’s shirt. The back read ‘because my feet get wet,’ which lead to all kinds of wild conjecture. The truth proved far less amusing than our possible answers. Maria had to go ask and it was something about building a bridge over a river.

Maria and Jonathan went back to the car to try to find a better spot, but this proved a big mistake, the spot they ended up getting was about 45 minutes further than what they originally had. A bit of a screw up really. But it just meant we got to take a walk later and see more of Amomori (though perhaps not its best side).

Meanwhile, Jo, Brent and I waded through the masses towards the harbour. Elbow to elbow, we could hardly move through the swarms. After much indecision, we settled on a plan to sneak into the area that was reserved for ticket holders. It was spectacularly easy. Originally, we were only going to sit on the steps behind the ticket checkers – that wasn’t part of the pay area, so it was no problem. Then, we just had to walk through the gate and we were in. They didn’t check tickets at the gate, so it couldn’t have been easier.

We planted our flag and sat down to watch the show. Jonathan and Maria, due to the parking fiasco, came far later after the pay area had been opened to the public. Fireworks blazed through the sky and eventually surpassed the Ichinoseki display in grandeur. Later on in the show, the best floats from today’s parade were placed on barges and illuminated from the inside while the fireworks exploded above.

At the end of this impressive display, Jonathan, Maria and I headed back to retrieve the car. Apparently, some exchange during the show had left some tension between the two couples, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how such an innocuous story could have left them all brooding as they were.

Things seemed more amicable, however, after we picked them up and headed south. Crammed in the back with Brent and Maria, I sleepily nodded through the first part of the journey, but we all conversed later on when sleep was not to be found. My inability to censor myself made me blurt out the worst of my jokes and stories – hopefully I haven’t offended anyone and they will invite me along for another road trip.

(more…)


Leady, Set, Go!

Today, I became a teacher. Well, okay, I’ve taught before and sometimes for money too. How about this: Today, I became an English teacher. No, not quite. I feel like I was an English teacher to a few people at the Gauntlet. An English teacher in Japan? That works, but it’s rather specific. Oh well, that will have to do.

A teacher from one of our schools brought in two boys who were competing in the local speech contest and needed tutoring. I’ve already forgotten their names – I’m going to be great in the class: ‘Hey you, can you say forgetful Canadian teacher?’ A few dozen Japanese names per class for me to remember is going to be more than my brain can handle. My neural pathways will get overwritten too quickly and mistakes are bound to happen – I’ll probably end up believing I’m an Egyptian camel with a fondness for bratwurst then collapse to the ground with my formerly-capable brain liquified and spilling from my ears. Or not.

The point of all this is that I did manage to do a capable job with these two teenage lads whose R’s and L’s become indistinguishable without some guidance. I was working with them to improve their pronunciation with English sounds and they genuinely had improved by the time we parted. A slightly satisfying event. I mean, I could actually tell the difference between when they said ‘very’ and when they said ‘berry.’ At the start of the lesson, we could only speak of the tasty little fruits that sometimes are a good addition to pies. Mmm… pie.

It felt like it was just endless repetition, but it seemed to be working. I didn’t want to bore them too much, so I tried to joke with them a little bit making motorcycle sounds for them to remember what an R sounds like. It’s looking like I’ll have to be doing this a fair amount in the near future, so I hope all my students are able to show progress like this. Honestly, I don’t know enough alternate techniques to try with them if things aren’t working, so it could be a challenge if their development is dawdling.

After work, I went straight to the area that made me crash my bike a few days ago to take some photos. There, I found a lovely hilltop temple circled by tall trees and small statues. I think I need a guide to Japanese culture though since I don’t know much about the significance of each item at the temple’s site. For example, behind the main temple was a small set of steps leading up to a small shrine surrounded by a complex of tiny stone buildings no more than a foot high. On the other side of the shrine was a series of four marked stones that resembled gravestones. Rookie to Japan that I am, the significance of each symbol was lost on me (but it was fun to take the photos nonetheless).

I then wandered over to a complex that stood as an entryway to a cemetery. Grand buildings at the entry suggested they were the main attraction, but behind them was a condensed graveyard where the plants and tombs were tightly intermingled. I climbed to the top and watched as the sun started creating patterns in the early sunset sky. I couldn’t find a good position to take advantage of the textures above so I headed back down through the plants, bugs, trees, and stones.

Without a doubt, I will return there with more time and light on my hands. The area was so jumbled, it was difficult to distill its image down to anything simple enough for a photo. It will take some time to explore it fully and pinpoint the best tiny Buddha statues to frame.


How to Irritate a Geek

Some things here are going to irk me eventually. Here at the BOE, I can’t connect my PowerBook to the network and if I tried to get any help doing it, it would cause unending amounts of bureaucratic trouble and constant questions about why I need to be online in the first place. ‘Why can’t I just use the computer across from me?’ Well, I can, but wouldn’t it be easier for me to be working from my desk and free up the resource of the other computer?

Yeah, I’m going to check my email, but is that really going to chew up bandwidth? Yeah, I might surf a news site or two, but am I really doing anything more productive here? Ah, the underutilization begins. (But the odd thing is that I would rather be underutilized so I can work on my own projects – selfish little me would rather be thinking about photography than teaching thank you very much.)

Damn it, now my mood has gone south. No fun. I wish Joe from Pangaea were here to fix my Internet and tell everyone else to screw off. That would be good fun to see.

Here’s another major reason I would like to connect. This morning, I would like to work on my self-introductions and my instinct is to type it out, keep it organized and make it look presentable (even if I’m the only one who reads it). Well, I can either try to wrangle some time on the other computer (potentially keeping someone from using it themselves) or I could work on it at my desk. When finished, I could email it to myself (or, if there is any sort of real network here, I could just download it off my computer) then print it on the other computer (or even better, just print it from my computer!). I would only need a minute on the other computer to do this and I wouldn’t have to work on a Japanese operating system with a Japanese version of MS Word.

In weeks to come, I will want to design teaching resource materials and I can do a way better job of it on this computer than over there and again, I would not be using up a resource. Logic fails here when someone wants to try something different, even if it is more effective.


Settling In

And now, I attempt to settle in. After work yesterday, I began opening up the boxes my predecessor, Polly, had left me. Sifting through the jetsam to find anything useful has proven to be time-consuming and I find myself wishing Polly had made a greater effort to weed out the garbage. I have no use for her knick-knacks – they were probably gifts to her and perhaps had some meaning, but to me, they’re trash. Though, they couldn’t have meant that much to her either if she left them behind.

That evening, Jo, Brent, Kurt, Maria and I hunted for someplace to eat that would accommodate the vegetarian needs of yours truly. We visited a couple of izakayas that turned us away. Wandering Ichinoseki’s small streets, we eventually wound up at a Korean restaurant named, oddly enough, Toronto. I can’t explain that one.

The emerging trend in all my meals has been the attempt to find suitable meat-free dishes. Japanese speakers and even locals have been doing their best to find food that won’t be topped with some vegetarian unfriendly fare, but inevitably, some ham finds its way onto my plate. Always ham. Odd. I suppose with their shortage of beef and the avian flu scare that ham is the best animal product to throw, unwanted, onto the gaijin’s food. I had something resembling a pizza and the ham was plentiful. We stayed and chatted a while and Sarah joined us, then Brent but he couldn’t actually stay for the meal due to his choir practice.

With bellies full, Kurt, Sarah and I strolled to Sarah’s favourite little bar (whose name, of course, I can’t remember. Yoshi runs the place and Sarah exchanges English and Japanese lessons with him. It’s a small place with about six tables and orange retro chairs. To the right, as you enter, are three turntables and, behind them, a powerbook cycling through some mp3s of ambient music and 70′s soul. The large windows at the front of the bar are, apparently, uncommon in Japan – people seem to seek some privacy in the bars. Not so at this place – any trip is likely to include some stares from outside.

We were joined by Hanna, a friend of Sarah’s, who is also a teacher in Ichinoseki. She works for GEOS and had only just completed her workday at 10 pm. She has been teaching here since January and has had a decidedly different experience from what I (or any other JET) might expect. She begins work at 10 or 11 each morning and seems to be staying to 10 each night. Her work is much more formal and, I suspect, rigorous. Sarah pointed out, however, that Hanna may see more results for her work than we do. She does seem content despite some of the difficulties of her workplace.

We walked our separate ways when we had our fill of Doritos and drinks. Sarah and I passed through the warm streets while Kurt and Hanna walked to the opposite side of town.

I think my body is still adjusting to the time difference. I stayed up a bit later than I should have then woke too early once more. It did, however, allow me to make a good dent in the boxes left and I have managed to sort my kitchen items.

I tried to have a nap – I only succeeded for a short while, but I couldn’t seem to figure out the controls for the air conditioner. Still with fogged mind, I tried to navigate Saty’s aisles by myself. Perhaps not the best idea. I managed to pick out some ‘Body Shampoo’ a.k.a. soap, spaghetti and tomato sauce as well as some more Pocari Sweat. There’s nothing like the juice of real pocaris to keep you hydrated.

I managed to cook lunch without burning the house down and only had to call Sarah once for instructions on operating the gas stove. She later guided me to some of the more useful local shops. I may join her and Hanna for dinner and a movie later this evening if I feel up to it.

Tomorrow, we plan on going to Morioka to view some of the festival there and meet Hazuki once more.


My New Home

4:00pm

Aya sits at the computer across from my desk. She has guided me through the process of obtaining my gaijin card as well as my bank account. Her English comprehension is quite good and, I’m told, her speaking has improved considerably. She is the best translator we have in the office and serves as the liaison between the speakers of the two languages here. On Monday, she gets a gift.

The fan oscillates and the brief second it is pointed in my direction is far too fleeting. In truth, the heat is bearable and I shouldn’t complain. The humidity makes life more interesting, but overall, I’m not dying (as I was sure I would that one day in Ghana when thermometers were popping). Life at my new home isn’t too bad because I can wander around in next to nothing and I don’t have to share the fan with anyone. Ah, the single life’

There goes that fan again. If this were not Japan and I was in a more relaxed office environment, I would turn off the oscillation and point it in my direction just to see how long it was before anyone noticed. But I doubt such harmless hijinks would be especially well-received here. Who knows? I may be underestimating their senses of humour.

I could probably joke with them about turning the fan my way, but to actually do it would no doubt be some terrible faux pas. How gauche! Laughter is all too uncommon in the office. I must think of ways to alter that trend without offending everyone’

I left off describing yesterday. Sarah and I chatted all the way to Ichinoseki and she graciously answered all of my questions. She will, no doubt, be the person on which I rely the most in my early time here. She’s very helpful and kind and her desk is next to mine in the office, so what could be more convenient?

When we arrived in Ichinoseki, we first went to the office where I was decidedly impressive with the four lines of Japanese self-introduction that I fumbled through in front of the office. I met my co-workers and was shown my lovely desk. Sarah and Aya had decorated it with a large ‘Welcome Darby’ sign that currently sits below my computer. I will have to take a photo before I disassemble it.

Everyone seems very friendly and genuinely excited to have me here. From what I’m told, Polly, my predecessor had been stirring trouble here and was wearing out her welcome. The office seems happy for the change and the men seem content to have a change from all the female ALTs that have been occupying the office for so long.

The short stay in the office lasted until 4:15, the set time at which I am permitted to leave. After that, I was driven to my new apartment. Now, this is my first real apartment to myself, so it’s a rather exciting time for me. The location seems unproblematic though my view isn’t all that spectacular (I really can’t complain about that in Japan though). Basically, I am immediately behind Ichinoseki’s largest department/grocery store, Saty. Getting food will never be a problem.

I’m on the second floor, middle apartment. Stepping inside the door is the foyer (whose proper Japanese name, I’m forgetting) where shoes are placed before entering the room. Then comes the kitchen in all its hardwood floor glory. Boxes are scattered throughout and will make for a fun weekend of unpacking. To the right of the kitchen is a washing area including the commode, the shower, the washer/dryer and a mirror/sink area.

Past the kitchen, the left room is my living room space with a love seat, table, shelves, closet, television and boxes a plenty. It’s a nice enough space, but despite its relatively small size (by Western standards) it feels rather vacant at present.

My bedroom is to the right. It feels even more vacant. A bed and some linens were all that greeted me there. I also have a balcony that opens out from the two back rooms and looks onto another apartment block behind me.

Sarah took me shopping for breakfast foods at Saty, put me through the grocery store paces, then walked me home. I must confess I got a bit giddy after being shown around the place. After everyone left, I started playing Tom Waits’ ‘Big in Japan’ and dancing around in my underwear. I mean, what else was I going to do?

After freshening up a bit I was dragged off to my welcome enkai. Sarah wanted to have it next week after I had settled a little and wasn’t quite so tired from the journey, but no luck. We went to a small restaurant where an incredible assortment of bizarre vegetarian dishes was paraded in front of us. To give some sense of how strange they were, even the Japanese people at the table were surprised by the contents. The effort that went into finding an entirely vegetarian menu was not lost on me and I very much appreciated that the rest of the staff was going to give a meatless meal a go. That lasted all of ten minutes before they ordered fish.

Nearly a dozen of us sat and kneeled around the table. I had a good view of the fish tank, which is always a bonus for an animal lover (even though their fate is pretty much sealed – being fish in a Japanese restaurant and all). My supervisors and co-workers watched my every bite with eager anticipation for my reactions to the foreign flavours. Each new dish sampled was a new smile for them as they gauged whether the gaijin liked these odd concoctions.

Their friendliness was infectious. Each of them desperately wanted to try to use English and when they were successful, rousing cheers and applause erupted. And each time they understood something I said was like opening a Christmas present. With every new phrase, they repeated as much of it as they could, replayed gestures and laughed uproariously. I can only hope that the same joy in attempting to learn a new language is as prevalent in my future students.

I would list off some of the dishes we had if I could. I know there was some wonderful tempura and tasty soba noodles (which were presented in a cute little box made of sticks – at some future date, I’m sure I will be able title them properly and not have to resort to ‘sticks’ for identification purposes. Other dishes included a nice tofu and daikon, some vegetables topped with mayonnaise (mayo, twice in one day!), an unidentifiable jelly, soup with who knows what in it, a dish that may have been eggplant and many more similarly alien culinary creations.

As a parting touch, they offered me a sour plum that usually seems to send foreigners into fits. I munched on a small portion and, whole it wasn’t a nice thing to have in my mouth, I have had to eat some far less tasty treats in my life. I didn’t gag, but I may have made a bit of a face. I offered the rest to the man sitting beside me and he gladly wolfed down my leftovers.

All this must have cost a fortune – innumerable dishes sat before me at the end of the evening. I think everyone had a good time and enjoyed trying to make conversation and jokes with me. Sarah said it was a good enkai; it didn’t get out of control with the drinks and everyone’s spirits were still high.

I walked home with Sarah and Aya. We stopped briefly at Sarah’s favourite bar. Near home, we crossed paths with two other Iwate JETs, Jo and Brent. They cheerily welcomed me to Iwate and we chatted about all things Ichinoseki. And after some time spent at Sarah’s I ambled home where I experienced a minor emergency – I violated one of the cardinal rules of moving into a new apartment: make sure you have toilet paper. A quick shower solved that problem, but I had to shake my head at the novice error.

I eventually arranged myself for sleep, but I fought with the futon through the night. This morning, my back was not especially pleased with me, but it loosened up as I awoke and got on with my day. Again, I rose too early and I’m now feeling the fatigue because of it.

This morning saw me meet the mayor (who received my Calgary calendar). The meeting was brief and didn’t involve any cameras (as Sarah’s did). Then I met the prefectural board of education and one of the other Ichinoseki JETs, Kurt who later joined us for lunch. The morning’s other errands were to fill out the necessary forms for my gaijin card and also stop at the bank to open an account. Lunch was with Toru san, Aya san, Sarah and Kurt at a place just around the corner from city hall. I must have been spoiled last night since today’s small portion of spaghetti with tomato sauce had, of course, a couple pieces of ham on top. Surprise, surprise – even though we asked for no meat.

And as you may have guessed from the length of all this, I haven’t had much to do in the afternoon. After cleaning up my desk, I was left with nothing to do. I get the impression that I will have more than a few of such days, but once I get some of my personal projects on the go, that shouldn’t be too much of a worry. I suspect my years of training in boredom prevention will come in handy here.

My impression of Ichinoseki and the relatively insignificant portion of the area that I have seen is that I will enjoy my time here. I can very much see myself spending another year unless the teaching aspect of my work is abhorrent. The beginning may be difficult, but I suspect it will get easier with time, so I’m not too concerned. I’m comfortable, the people are warm and the area offers so many opportunities for exploration. Unless I’m miserable, it would only be logical for me to stay.

Though Ichinoseki itself isn’t especially vibrant or attractive, it sits in the heart of a wonderful area and it will serve as a good place to call home.


Ichinoseki, Finally

8:00 am

Ichinoseki. I’m finally here. And still, everything remains hard to believe.

I’m sitting in my lovely new apartment, tatami mats underfoot, paper screens diffusing the outdoor light. I am in Japan. Music from home playing on my computer is my only immediate reminder of my former life. Though I doubt I’ll forget who I am anytime soon, it’s good to have those reminders of where you’ve been and who you’ve become.

Yesterday, kept the group of Iwate JETs going through the paces. We had a mini-orientation in Morioka where some additional points specific to our prefecture were addressed. Then, each of us underwent brief testing of our language ability. I was among the first and the test consisted of them asking me two questions – which I’m sure were quite basic in nature – to which I had to reply ‘wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand). They said thank you and I was done.

While waiting around for the rest of the group to finish their testing, I was recalled for some reason for additional testing, as though perhaps I had learned some Japanese in that time. This time, they asked me to say the words for various numbers they had printed and I passed that test after having to count out loud a couple times. Next was some hiragana (or possibly katakana, I can’t yet remember which is which) that they wanted me to read. No dice. Then, they showed me a picture of a room and, I was able to figure out that they wanted me to point to some specific object in the room, but I missed the vital piece of information about which object it was. They bid me farewell once more, but at least this time I wasn’t completely incompetent with the language. I could count damn it!

After much waiting about, we then strolled over to the local chapter of Gusto, a chain of family restaurants in Japan that sell some Western food and actually have a non-smoking section (a novel idea!). Allan, April and Collin joined me at my table and we indulged in the drink bar’s carbonated delights then chowed down on our mayonnaise-covered pizzas. Yeah, mayonnaise. It serves as a substitute for tomato sauce here and I assure you the pizza was as appetizing as you might imagine. It was a fun time though. Definitely an adventure learning to use the bells on the table to call for service and get our fortunes read by the computer at our side.

After Gusto’s artery-clogging fare, we returned to the Hotel Ace for the ceremony where we would meet our supervisors. I actually met one of my co-workers, Torou-san, and a fellow Ichinoseki JET, Sarah. I was just freshening up in the lobby washroom and just as I emerged, there was a man in broken English asking me if I was Darby. Surprised to be meeting the man I thought was my supervisor in this manner, I casually introduced myself to both Torou-San and Sarah and we started chatting immediately. Apparently I fared well with the introductions though – Sarah later said that Torou-san suggested I seemed quite relaxed upon meeting him; I suppose that’s a positive.

We proceeded upstairs for the formal greeting and after a few more speeches, Torou-san and I shook hands in front of everyone and we were ready to go.
Bless the inventors of air-conditioning as the car ride back to Ichinoseki might have been a nightmare without it. The temperature, at present, is about as hot as I am likely to experience in Iwate.


Impending Independence

I woke early this morning and wandered back to the park for more photos. Such a gorgeous place. I hope each city can offer up a place so remarkable.

On my way back to the hotel, I met a man named Mr. Sakamoto who was going for a morning run. He greeted me in English and we conversed all the way back to the hotel with a side trip for a drink at a communal pool. Atop a small waterfall/fountain, a couple of mugs sat in a plastic bin. Mr. Sakamoto drank and insisted I have a try. He said he frequently stops there on his hour-long morning runs. This marathon runner managed to make me feel rather lazy since he’s 73 years old and I wouldn’t even come close to keeping up with him.

Today, the major event that has everyone on pins and needles is the meeting of the supervisors. This afternoon marks the last of our time being hand held being by the JET programme. Group life will come to an end and we will begin coping by ourselves.

As I was saying to Chi-Wei (I remembered her name finally) last night, I’m looking forward to settling into my new home, but at the same time, I’m dreading being alone. The language is truly going to make my life difficult and I’ll have to adjust rather quickly. So far, I’ve had people to help me along, but I don’t know what kind of resources I’ll have when in Ichinoseki. Just so long as I don’t starve or get sick from eating meat, I’ll be okay.