Posts Tagged ‘japan’

Contentment

We shifted only slightly with the movement of the car through the turns. Sarah flirted with falling asleep in the back seat while Kurt serenaded the smiling chauffeur Racheal to the tune of Wilco’s ‘Passenger Side’ from, of course, the passenger side. The afternoon sun was golden and the air shimmered in its light. We were all at peace weaving past the rice paddies and cedars on the way to Ichinoseki.

Racheal’s birthday weekend brought a group of us North to Mizusawa where the fine food of a restaurant named Ajito beckoned. (Of note, Ajito is not too far from a thrift shop named Second-Hand Sixty Nine, and a pub named Swallow among other establishments with suggestive Engrish.)

Crammed into a reserved room, Tim (it was also his birthday party) and Racheal had gathered a good crowd for the festivities. We feasted. We brushed off the drunken rudeness of one of the Japanese guests as his social coordination became more lax with every sip of beer. With Josh and north-side Sarah, we discussed the endless tragic possibilities of motivating pets through a liberal smearing of peanut butter. We laughed a lot.

At the post-dinner karaoke, we rocked the mic. My opening salvo was a duet with Josh of the Darkness’ ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love.’ My falsetto wails must have pierced through the doorways and out into the Mizusawa streets for all to hear. They were unstoppable. But, the only thing that could have made the performance more homoerotic would have been a couple of Justin Hawkins unitards for Josh and I. I suspect we might have cleared the room had we been so attired.

The duet was enough fun to warrant a couple follow ups. Kelly and I did ‘Hey Ya!’ and Kurt and I rocked ‘My Name is Jonas.’ Of course, I had to get in a couple solo performances and Price’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was a fine choice. It was, however, eclipsed by my finale of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jesse’s Girl.’ I’m surprised none of the girls threw a bra in my direction.

With most of the night behind us, we retired to Racheal’s for bed. The next morning, Kurt, Sarah and I had to wait while Kelly took Racheal for a birthday massage. We found our way to the bakery to abate our hunger and to a park to enjoy the perfect spring day.

The park we found was a truly strange bit of landscaping. Hills dipped down toward a small amphitheatre whose only purpose could have been to watch the small drainage stream immediately in front of it. Resting in the sun on the grassy hillside, we munched out bakery goods then Kurt broke out the Frisbee.

We could have been anywhere. We could have been in Calgary in May, somewhere near the university with final exams completed and the exercise of freedom the only responsibility for the day. We could have been in Kurt’s South Carolina, tossing the disc through the air and feeling like a champion each time we defied appearances and made a catch that looked impossible. We could have been on a hillside in Sarah’s Durham, laughing with each other in the blue sky. We could have been anywhere. It almost defied logic that we were in Japan. Who would expect this in Japan? How did we get here, with this Frisbee, with these great friends, here in Japan?

Kelly and Racheal returned from their pampering and we sought out a new location for lunch when our original establishment was found to be closed. We filled ourselves with pasta and pizza then headed south.

And Sarah snoozed. And Kurt sang. And Racheal laughed at him. And I smiled in the golden sun.


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.


Recovering from Convalescence

With my eye on the mend, my medication has dropped significantly and I am now returning to a normal level of physical activity. Not feeling exhausted every moment of the day has allowed me to once again enjoy basic activities like walking and breathing.

Really, I had been doing that for a while. Last Monday, however, it was time to get my butt moving a little. Blue skies beckoned and I decided to ride northward into the hills. With no idea where I was going or how long it would take me to get there, I was excited just to explore someplace new.

I criss-crossed roads on the Western side of Route 4 and eventually found myself scaling a hill that my now enfeebled legs and heart didn’t appreciate. But, only twice was I forced to dismount: once when the uphill rise was just too long to bear and again when the slope was too steep for me even on the best of days.

When I finally crested the hill, expansive farms and rice paddies greeted me on the other side. The wind whipped cotton clouds past the pastel blue sky and gave me more momentum than I needed to descend the rural road. My brakes threatened to start smoking, but never failed me.

I stopped for a few photos of the landscape and noticed a secluded hillside cemetery in the distance. This peaceful place was my next stop. There, I spent most of my time photographing the small Buddha statues placidly keeping watch over the graves.

Continuing on my uncharted path, I quickly departed my hard-fought high ground and again was skirting the base of the hill. The road home followed Route 4 up the hill once more, so my daily exercise only ended when I sped down the other side into Ichinoseki.

But Monday was only a warm-up for yesterday. The Japanese school year ends in March and re-starts in April. During that time, I am left to my own devices in the Board of Education offices. This has, in fact, been a boon – I’ve been able to work relentlessly on my new website. But, in an effort to get me out of the office and interacting with students during this month-long break from teaching, the office has suggested I go play basketball with the kids at Hagishou.

Considering how often I play with them when I teach at the school, it only makes sense that I should want to go and shoot some more hoops with them. They’re great kids and good little ball players. (I’m loathe to admit it, but there are actually a couple 15-year-olds there who are already better than me. One boy kept hitting threes and I pretty much had to give up on defending him – he just wouldn’t stop hitting them!) The only problem was that, in my weakened state, I like an octogenarian. I was panting like a husky in desert heat after only a few minutes of one on one.


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.


Duck Hunter

Battling a cold and the exhausting side effects of my ongoing steroid treatment, I decided yesterday afternoon’s warmth wasn’t going to be lost on me. The rising spring temperatures necessitated a departure from my cloistered apartment.

Of late, a favourite location for afternoon wanderings has been the banks of the river. There, Siberian swans make their winter home and mingle with the other local water foul – ducks galore. The slow-moving, shallow river is an ideal place for the birds to flock in the middle of the city. Families swoop down the river’s embankments with bread and birdseed a plenty and a virtual torrent of gastronomic delights showers over the rivers residents.

The river is always a relaxing place for me to visit. I can always find something there to fill the frame of my camera. The swans and ducks are usually willing (and challenging) subjects and families fronted by cute Japanese kids are frequently mingling with the birds. Occasionally, some other surprise shows up too – last week, I witnessed 20 men learning how to carve wooden owls using chainsaws. I love these random encounters.

But yesterday, my random encounter of the day wasn’t quite as amusing as watching 20 grown men learn to create art using power tools.

It began as I was taking photos of my feathered friends. Since I have become a semi-regular patron of the riverbank, I have started to become attuned to the behaviour of some of the birds. At least, I can now sense when their behaviour is abnormal. Today, the ducks seemed to have something disturbing their watery peace. With a noticeable frequency, large groups of ducks simultaneously were taking flight, circling around in the sky and skimming back down in another section of the river. With limited ornithological knowledge, I guessed something was bothering them, but had no idea what.

I didn’t think too much of it drew my camera from my bag. Crouching down to put myself at eye level with the swans, I was approached by an old man who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. He had been feeding the ducks and swans and seemed curious about my camera.

Now, some of the Japanese people I meet are much better at communicating with this ignorant foreigner than others. If they can speak English, they try to use it. If they can’t, they dumb down their Japanese so that I have a chance to follow them with my rudimentary knowledge of the language. Combine that with animated gestures and expressions and usually we can cross the cultural divide – messages get successfully transmitted and received.

This miniature man, however, was not so accommodating. Barely having to stoop down to put his eyes level with mine in a crouching position, his words came quickly and didn’t slow even when they were only met with my repeated responses of, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’ He didn’t relent and continued to ask me questions about who knows what. Usually, I can catch a word or two and can start to assemble some intelligible information, but he didn’t seem to want to give me any simple words to work with.

Eventually tiring of my inability to comprehend his questions, he wandered off to feed more ducks and left me to continue my photographic pursuits in peace.

Shortly thereafter, however, I heard a strange sound and turned to see another group of ducks quickly taking flight. The only person near that now fluttering mass of feathers was the old man. Looking slightly closer, I noticed something in his hands besides his bag full of birdseed and bread. He was turned away, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw a slingshot.

Shocked, I tried to get a better look, but his hands didn’t reveal their cargo. He wandered up the bank of the river to another group of docile ducks bobbing near the shore. He slowly approached them and, sure enough, quickly loaded and took aim with his weapon and proceeded to pelt a duck with his missile.

The duck was not killed, but he was obviously hurt by the attack. The other ducks from the same group had taken flight and the victim of the shot was now hobbling up onto the shore. The old man slowly took a couple of steps towards it before it was able to shake off its injury and take to the sky.

Meanwhile I was striding towards him, asking what on earth he was doing. I wasn’t about to start flipping through my phrasebook to try to get to the bottom of this. Japanese doesn’t exactly roll off my tongue at the best of times, but with an elevated temper, there was no way anything remotely close to a real sentence was going to be formed by my lips.

‘What are you doing? Why are you shooting ducks?’ Was about all I could stammer out. I kept asking him ‘Why?’ in Japanese and for all I know, he answered me and gave me some explanation, but I couldn’t make any sense of his responses to my angry questions. I did, however, remain composed – he could easily have gotten more of a verbal offensive than he did.

But all the while, I got a sense from him that he knew he was doing something wrong. I can’t say exactly what tipped me in that direction, but he didn’t seem like he was defending himself with any sort of self-righteousness.

With me angrily shaking my head at him, and both of our words failing to reach their mark, he started wandering further down the bank of the river. Bewildered by the exchange, I tried to determine if there was some good reason for his actions. Given the information I had, I just couldn’t see how it was okay for him to arm himself with a slingshot in the middle of the city to try to pick off ducks in an area frequented by families.

I decided there wasn’t going to be any more ducks hurt by this man today. He slowly ambled away, but constantly kept turning back to see if I was looking at him. Indeed, my icy glare greeted him each time and he nervously turned back towards his path.

As he approached another group of unsuspecting ducks, I followed at a distance. He stopped next to them and appeared ready to repeat his previous actions, but he took one look at me and apprehensively restarted his walk. He continued on to a distant park bench where he sat and continued glancing in my direction. Not having a tight schedule for the afternoon, I was free to remain in position, at the ready to shoo him away from the riverbank if necessary. Not on my watch, buddy.

He eventually yielded and I saw him wander over the embankment. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to be bothering the ducks any more, I strolled to a nearby tennis court where a group of my students were practicing. While I chatted with them, I noticed the man was now sitting inside the tennis courts watching the practice. I don’t know if he was somehow related to any of the students, but he didn’t remain there long. I didn’t see him leave, but when I was departing the courts, I saw him walking his bike away. He noticed me and resumed his uncomfortable backwards glances in my direction as I steered myself in the other direction.

I’m confident he didn’t return to the river that day, but I have no idea if he makes a habit of inner city hunting. Hopefully, the thought of the scary, duck-defending gaijin is enough of a deterrent and he won’t be disturbing the peace of the riverbank again soon.


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.


Focus! Focus!

10:00 am

I’m fairly tired of being preoccupied with my eye. I would like to be able to move on and resume a normal life (insofar as that is possible for me here in Japan), but every time I look at something, I am reminded of my niggling concern.

In a way, becoming focused on this one worry has been beneficial. All my other cares fell by the wayside and healing myself became my one and only priority. The only real stress I’ve felt has been related to my health. Problems that once kept me awake at night have been swept off the table.

But now, as my eye begins to heal, I have to find some way of tidying up the messes without getting overwhelmed again. This ordeal has brought in a little perspective, so I hope that will sustain me for a while. I do feel a certain carpe diem drive that hasn’t been present for a couple months, so maybe I’ll be able to ignore the door when my troubles come knocking.

Of course, as soon as I write about getting better, I notice a new symptom. I’m now seeing small spots. Maybe one at a time will dance through my vision like a fly on potato salad. When I try to look at them, they dart off and can only be found in the periphery. Let’s hope that’s a symptom that doesn’t last long.


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.


How to Irritate a Geek (Part II)

I just need to point out that if the network had been down for this long at a real company, someone would have been fired by now.


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.


Christmas Vacation

My fantastic winter vacation to Bali and Malaysia has gone largely undocumented in the written word. My camera, however, was rarely resting, so some idea of my trip’s stories should be available by browsing through my many pixels.

January was largely occupied by re-acquainting myself with Japan and my work routine, developing a (rejected) proposal for taking paid leave during the March school break, attempting to figure out what I wanted to do with my life in the near future and dealing with all of the ensuing drama and stress.

The dust has now settled and here’s what’s in store for me: When my contract with JET is finished, I will be accepting an invitation to come to Kuala Lumpur to be the roommate of my earstwhile travelling partner. There, I will be allowed to enjoy a low cost of living and build up my business as a full-time photographer. It’s scary as hell, but pretty damn exciting too.


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.


A Story About Poo

Two days ago, I was enjoying a fine evening with Sarah and Hannah. We had enjoyed a delicious meal and were in the middle of watching a recent episode of the Daily Show when that ubiquitous Japanese song starts playing. You know the one, it rings out to herald the arrival of anyone to anywhere. During any given five-minute visit to the convenience store, the bubbly tune will pierce your eardrums at least a dozen times as new customers enter. It’s a wonder the employees don’t go mad.

The same tune plays when a guest arrives at my home. Perplexed at who might be interrupting my half hour of comedy power, I went to the door to find a flustered man speaking loads of fast-paced Japanese to me. He was treated to my usual barrage of wakarimasen and gomen nasai, but undaunted by my ignorance, he pressed on.

Eventually, I heard the word toilet and started to suspect what this evening call might be addressing. Sarah approached behind me and offered her assistance with translation. Apparently, what this blustery fellow was rambling about was that my toilet tank was full.

Yes, the modern industrial nation that is Japan still relies in good part on septic systems. They have some of the finest technology in the world, but they haven’t quite figured out plumbing yet. And this from a culture obsessed with cleanliness. What may be worse, however, is that some areas have sewers, others don’t. So, you know they have the technology to efficiently dispose of human waste, but they simply have chosen not to use it or upgrade to it.

A given apartment’s waste tank needs to be emptied every once in a while. The poo truck must be summoned and employees with what might be the worst job the world jump to the task of transporting feces from your tank to their truck and off to a god forsaken facility where, hopefully, it’s dropped into a bottomless pit.

The pit at the bottom of my toilet, however, is not bottomless. And this distraught neighbour of mine was coming to inform me of this fact. You see, the poo truck has to have some kind of access to the tank – there must be some opening to the outside world where their hoses can reach the effluent. That hole just so happens to be directly outside the door of this neighbour residing below me. And when there is too much shit in the tank, guess where it goes…

Yeah, it bubbles over. It bubbles over even if there is a welcome mat on top of the lid. It bubbles over then flows down the front step into the parking lot. A stream of shit, right outside his door.

How was I to know? I couldn’t really. I didn’t know when it had last been emptied or how often it was required. And I rectified the situation as quickly as I could by calling for ye olde poo truck the following day.

Today, however, while I was at school, the neighbour called city hall and complained of the stains left behind on his front step. Rivulets of feces left their mark on the concrete as they made their downhill journey to the parking lot. He stated his messy case to city hall, and while I was unleashing my unending genki powers on the good children of Nakasato Elementary school, two of my co-workers went to his apartment and cleaned it. I wish they would have waited an hour for me to get back and I would have gone to do it myself, thus being spared the guilt of a totally uninvolved party having to scrub my excrement from my neighbour’s front step.

So that’s my poopy story for the day. It leaves me wondering what demented architect would think to place the lid for the tank directly outside another apartment’s door. Even a seven-year-old, if told to solve such a design problem, would not have made such a completely illogical choice (unless he was playing a malicious joke). There’s no good reason why the hatch couldn’t have been at least a few feet from the door and in the parking lot. Nope. Right under his doormat. Good thinking.


Bo Knows Soft-Tennis

I suppose I could be processing images right now, but I’m entitled to a lazy moment or two aren’t I? Instead, I’ve started up a game of chess and, for some reason, the computer seems to be taking an age to make each of its moves. Really, I’m not that good; it hardly needs that much effort to best me.

So, that affords me the opportunity to write a few lines in between turns (though, I suppose I could be studying the board – but like I said, I’m not that good). Again, I have lapsed in my journal scribbling duties and this will be yet another half-hearted attempt to repent. Though, in truth, I wish the computer would just hurry up.

Here’s a quick rundown of last weekend. On Friday, Kurt, Racheal, Sarah and I headed downtown to partake in some of the yumminess that is the Paper Moon Pizza Company. We chatted the evening away while celebrating Sarah’s birthday. I’ve had a lingering cold and on Friday, it was consistently keeping me coughing, so I decided against continuing the evening after pizza.

On Saturday, I woke up late and had trouble gaining any momentum. I was originally thinking of a more ambitious trip, but my slow pace suggested a relaxed day of shooting photos near the river. I wandered there and found some kids, an old man, some ducks and crows to snap then started ambling South. There was a great stretch near the river where dozens of small gardens nestled together to form a small community farm.

Once I crossed the river, I found a Russian Orthodox Church. I don’t have a clue what this thing is doing in Ichinoseki, but there it was. I then followed the sound of some loudspeakers and reached the previously unexplored (by me) Ichinoseki Sports Park. Yasakae Junior High was playing a baseball game, so I challenged myself to try a bit of sports photography.

A few of my students from Ichinoseki elementary were there and said hi. Then a few students from Hagishou arrived and said more than hi. They were rather chatty and we passed the Japanese phrasebook between us a number of times to facilitate out communication. Their school played in the next baseball game, so we watched that for a while, then they invited me to go play soft tennis with them.

The three girls and lead me to a couple guys from the school who were to be their tennis partners. We gathered under the lights and started smacking that bizarre little ball around. Why they don’t just play normal tennis is a mystery to me, but this was plenty fun once I got used to the ball. After a bit of warming up, I was even able to blast one colossal serve into the opposing court much to the delight of my students who quickly dubbed me “The Rocket.”

On Sunday, I went up to Hiraizumi to catch the temples in their fall colour glory. The day would have been great if it weren’t for the people. I just don’t get it – everyone took an inconsiderate pill and the active ingredient was highly effective. I don’t feel like getting into the methods used by everyone to treat me like crap, but suffice it to say, jerks the whole lot of ‘em.

Sarah and Hannah happened to be on the same train back, so they invited themselves over to my place to watch BBC world. Sarah also cooked dinner for us, so I think I actually came out on top in the deal.


Okay, a Little Bit o’ Lebron

The last two days have been great – happy as could be. I’ve had a wonderful time at school. Classes have gone smoothly and have been fun. Yesterday, I stayed after school and took photos of the kids in wood shop. Today, I was just going to watch the kids play volleyball when they asked me to join. Then, their teacher asked me to join for a later class in the day. I had lunch with one of the third grade classes and we actually communicated. I’ve had good conversations with other teachers and when I wasn’t doing any of that or marking homework, I have been processing photos. Not a bad time at all.

Not to mention last night’s basketball game. Yeah, we lost, but I learned that I’m capable of summoning up a bit of fire when my will so dictates. We were down by a lot after the first half and it was pissing me off a bit. In the third quarter, I lifted my game and managed to get a bunch of baskets, steals and so on. Just to be a full on nerd, let’s take my stat line and double it to get the equivalent of 40 minutes of playing time. So, in 40 minutes, I would have had 24 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks. Pretty good. I’m pretty sure I had 12 points, anyway. It was 10 or 12, so maybe I should say I would have had 22). The rest seems about right (I wasn’t sure about 2 or three assists, so I split the difference there). And I should have had another block, but the ref called a foul on a play that was all ball. Hell, it was all ball twice. I got ball on the way up, then again at the top.

Anyway, I had fun challenging myself to play better. One of my elementary students from Yamanome was there with his dad who was playing on my team. I gave him five for good luck. He didn’t get it until I gave him ten. He was pretty cute and so was his dad who complained of not having played in 15 years – golf was his game now. He played just fine though.


Tokyo

I think I want to live in Tokyo. At least for a while. Until my money runs out.

I have to try to sum up everything I did in five days there. Unfortunately, my sister’s knee problem prevented her from joining me, but since I had the time booked off from work, I decided to make the most of it and venture sSouth on my own.

Wednesday, October 13

  • Woke early to catch the shinkansen. Happily I was able to nap a bit. Then I was joined by a man named Kei, a Japanese tour guide whose English was impeccable. We talked about travel and his job and he made a few recommendations for things to do and see in Tokyo.
  • It was raining when I arrived, so I decided to get off at Ueno station and go to the museum until the rain relented. The museum was interesting enough. I was a little tired and anticipated a busy schedule, so I hurried and didn’t retain as much as I could have.
  • I wandered quickly through the other building that housed the Gallery of Eastern Antiquities then went back into the gardens behind the museum.’
  • It turns out, I wasn’t supposed to be there. After about ten minutes, a security guard came and escorted me out.
  • I took some photos in Rinno-ji where the groundskeeper had a bunch of small porcelain statues of puppies and such lurking in his garden. The grounds were beautiful and a nice introduction to the temples of Tokyo.
  • The next stop was the Tokugawa Shogun cemetery. A gorgeous place with a myriad of hidden visual treasures. I think it may have been at this point where I started thinking I wanted to move to Tokyo. There are just so many places to explore – you’d never get bored. I started thinking that if you’re bored in Tokyo, you’re probably dead.
  • I Walked back through Ueno park and fought the temptation to go to the zoo. If I had more time, I would have taken a look. Instead, I walked past the five storey pagoda and headed for Tosho-gu – another lovely temple. I also strolled past the blue tents of the homeless that had taken over the empty spaces between the trees of the park.
  • With much of Ueno still unexplored, I headed back for the train station where I soon figured out the difference between the JR stations and the metro stations. I eventually found the station I needed and headed for my hotel. After getting lost in Jimbocho, I got to the Sakura hotel and checked in.
  • The hotel was a little dingy in places, but it got the job done. The room was minuscule, but adequate. I couldn’t have slept on the floor if I wanted to. I was bothered by the fact that my booking said en-suite and that was nowhere to be found, but so be it. The actual commode areas were close at hand and their only fault was an inadequately removed vomit stain on the wall near the light switch. In both toilet rooms. Not sure how that happened.
  • Once settled, I headed for the bright lights if Ginza. What a place. A neon marvel. I gawked at buildings and the hurried shoppers. I salivated at the electronics. I got lost looking for specific shops. I then found the Apple store and I was in heaven. After that, I went for Indian food and heaven continued.
  • I wandered back in the direction of my hotel and past Bic Camera, which I noted for a later visit when it was open. Then I walked through the soaring International forum building.
  • Back onto the subway and I was headed home where I began my nightly ritual of transferring photos to my hard drive and cursing the dripping air conditioner behind my head. I don’t know what it was that was dripping inside, but it was mighty irritating – I went so far as to try to disassemble the thing, but I couldn’t get to a crucial screw to do it. Earplugs in, I drifted off to sleep.

Thursday, October 14

  • With an early start and some free toast under my belt, I made the early morning trip to Asakusa. The avenue leading to the shrine was not yet hopping with its vendors. I reached the shrine and started snapping away while trying not to inhale all the incense smoke and joking with a nearby information guide about not being able to breathe. Schoolchildren a plenty piled by and some were happy enough to have their photo taken in front of the shrine or pagoda.
  • I also explored the nearby garden, but I couldn’t get inside the usually-closed larger gardens. Instead, I wandered the shopping avenue and went to find some food for myself. I ended up in a little place that happened to sell pancakes. That sounded like an appealing second breakfast, so I deciphered the katakana and made my order. They turned out to be only okay, but the kept me going for a while, so they served their purpose.
  • With excellent timing, I caught the sea bus to the Hamarikyu teien gardens. The boat ride was fun and let me relax my already aching feet for a while.
  • The gardens were lovely. They were overlooked by some rather modern skyscrapers which made for a striking contrast of old and new Japan. A hilarious goose followed me (rather, I followed it) along the paths for a while. It was quite acclimatized to humans and made for a good walking companion. I also attempted to have a conversation with a painter, but that, predictably, fell a bit flat.
  • I think it was those pancakes that disagreed with my stomach, but something prompted me to tour that area of Tokyo from toilet to toilet. I actually ended up at Tokyo’s world trade center and then found my way to the subway to go to Roppongi.
  • Aya recommended that I go to Roppongi Hills, so that was my destination once I got there. I wasn’t sure I was headed the right way since I couldn’t see any tall buildings, but it eventually popped out from nowhere.
  • It’s a wonderful bit of architecture. It’s truly modern, but has an organic feel to it all the same. I headed up to the observation deck to go to the gallery and see the city view.
  • The gallery was all about fashion, so it didn’t hold my interest that much, but at least the rooms were extremely well designed.
  • The city view was spectacular and I wandered around the circuit a number of times. The only problem with the place was its no-tripod policy. After taking photos of a couple people, I got one to translate why I couldn’t use my tripod – it is a blanket policy because they are afraid people will damage the windows. With an eye roll, I went and propped my camera on my bag to take some shots. A silly no tripod rule isn’t going to keep me from getting the shots I want, damn it.
  • Once I had my fill of the view, I went back downstairs and wandered around the building and its many nooks and crannies. The theatre, gardens and mall were all noteworthy.
  • I headed home exhausted once again.

Friday, October 15

  • Today was my trip to Kamakura, the former capital of Japan that now houses an impressive collection of shrines and temples. I took the JR line in that direction (and without much hassle even) and an hour later, I was ready to hop to it.
  • I rented a meager bike from near the station. It was to be my transport for the day. If nothing else, it gave my feet a bit of a rest. Even though it only had one gear and the lock was, well, a piece of crap really, it still got me from A to B a bit faster than my weary feet would have.
  • The first shrine I visited was Tsurogaoka Hachinan-gu. Over the bridge and up the path, the hillside shrine revealed itself. It made for a lovely scene in the clear blue sky. Once inside, the monks of the temple began chanting accompanied by a flute, a drum and an instrument I can’t for the life of me name. I’ve never seen it before and I only got to see it from behind so I can’t even describe it. It sounded almost synthetic though. Either way, the whole experience was great. A group of monks filed into the main temple area and did some chanting while school children crammed into the area nearby.
  • I returned to my bike and attempted to tackle the hill leading to another group of shrines. I couldn’t quite make it all the way to the top without disembarking and walking up. Oh the shame. I blame the single-gear bike. The downhill ride was nice and quick though.
  • Engaku-ji was the first stop. An enormous gate lead up to a good sized temple where zen monks did some incredible chanting. It was completely monotone and the monks chanted as many rhythmic syllables as they could until they ran out of breath. While they recovered, there was always someone else chanting in their place, so it became one unbroken string of the single-toned syllables. I felt so privileged to witness it. I also climbed to the top of the hill where a huge bell hangs and took in the view of the valley.
  • Tokei-ji was next. The grounds of this temple were being maintained, so there wasn’t that much to see, but it was a nice, peaceful place nonetheless. There was a museum, but I didn’t enter. I don’t know if there was anything past that. It looked like there may have been more to the grounds, but I didn’t bother to check through the museum.
  • Just up the road, I stopped at Jochi-ji, another small temple with peaceful grounds. This time, however, the highlight was the cemetery that hid behind the temples. Bamboo grew next to cliff faces, some of them with tunnels and shaded the tombs that stepped up the hillside. As with most of these temples, I wanted to stay longer, but I wanted to see as many as I could, so I pressed on.
  • I went to Kencho-ji next and marveled at the vast, open grounds. The wide space was complemented by oversized buildings that were a spectacular sight.
  • I cycled back down the hill and made my way to the giant Bronze casting of the Buddha. It’s a damn big Buddha. What more can you say really?
  • The last stop in Kamakura was Hase-dera, a shrine well known for its jizo statues that are meant to protect the souls unborn children. I saw a mother place flowers with one of the statues and weep. A sad place. I actually missed the large kannon statue as time was running out on my bike rental and the gardens were closing. I good excuse to go back I guess.
  • After the train ride back to Tokyo, I wandered through Ginza a little more and eventually found myself at the technological showcase that is the Sony building. They had some fun stuff there, but the Aibo dogs were the most entertaining by far. I had dinner at a spaghetti place where everything was cooked right in front of you.
  • After a little more wandering and a stop in Bic Camera to play the seriously fun driving game, I stumbled home on those feet of mine that were rapidly turning to bloody stumps.

Saturday, October 16

  • I meant to wake up much earlier than I did, but my body rebelled against the punishment I was giving it and slept through my alarm. The fish market’s ridiculously early schedule was too much to ask of my weary bones.
  • But, even thought I woke later, the market was still buzzing when I arrived. Actually, it’s probably just as well. Any busier and it might have been too much (or I would have been run over by one of those fish-carrying carts). The sights, sounds, of the place were powerful, but I thought the smells would be more overpowering than they were. The sound of a saw cutting through a frozen fish, however, is a little grating – like a dentist’s drill. It was difficult to get any good shots because the lighting was so bad and I could not set up my tripod – I would have been far too in the way. Not to mention, being a tourist bothering folks who were busy trying to make a living was not that appealing – I tried to let people go about their business.
  • There was also another section of the market more devoted to vegetables. It was a little less hectic and jarring. Near the wholesale market, I found where a lot of the sold fish was headed – to the regular market. People were flocking there and lining up for ages to get to their favourite vendor. I elbowed my way through the crowds and checked out more of the hubbub.
  • I stopped briefly at the temple in Tuskiji then walked toward the Imperial Palace (with another stop at Bic Camera for more driving action). I got a bagel on the way and also stopped at the Marounochi building. The ritzy restaurants on the top floors held little interest for me, but the view was nice and there was a wedding party there having their photos taken – a good spectacle.
  • Back on street level, I crossed the moat of the Imperial Palace and attempted to tend to a developing blister. I wandered outside the palace for a while and chuckled at the passing tour groups.
  • I turned back and went to the East gardens where I wandered some more. I stopped to take some shots of mothers and their young kids playing in the park and later to try to capture some of the gardens.
  • I went back to the hotel to pick up my coat since the weather was cooler than the previous day then got back on the train system and ventured out to Odaiba.
  • The modern and clean train line dropped me off at a great lookout point for the Rainbow Bridge. I went down to the beach, set up the tripod and started snapping.
  • When I felt I had the bridge shots under control, I headed back up to the eclectic malls, where I found some delightful Indian food to pack into my gut. I get hungry thinking about it – so good. Then I washed it down with some delicious gelato. Two of my favourite consumables back to back.
  • I wandered a little further along the boardwalk and started to realize that, in Odaiba, you might just be able to get anywhere without touching the ground. Snazzy hotels and modern architecture surrounded me and invited me to stay, but the evening was getting on and I had to go home to rest up for one more day.

Sunday, October 17

  • My first stop today was the temple in Akasuka named Hie-jinja, famed for its Tori avenue. I made the most of the vacant early morning and took my photos with little interference.
  • I continued on to Harajuku where I was expecting to see freaks galore, but I only saw a few upon arrival. I wandered in the direction I thought would yield the most absurdity and eventually found myself in the middle of a market.
  • The main sale item was used clothing, but all kinds of nonsense was on offer there. It seemed anyone could set up a tarp and lay out there wares. Bands played in the background including a nauseatingly genki all-girl group who played Avril Lavigne covers. There was also a band playing pop music, but I think they were guided by their three female singers – the members of the band seemed to want to play some ’80s metal instead. I strolled among the vendors and took some photos while chatting with a few folks.
  • I then headed for the NHK building where I dropped the 200 Yen to take a tour. I mean, it was guided by signs featuring domo-kun, so I had to go. It was fun enough and they you can never get too much domo-kun.
  • After going back through the vendors, I came to a walkway skirting the park where bands had set up, each about 75 metres apart from each other. They came out to promote their upcoming shows or simply have a good time rockin’ in the park. And they were good. There was one named Gorilla who sounded like a cross between the Chilli Peppers (without the suck) and Skunk Anansie. Then I walked further along and found a band that almost reminded me of a more electronic version of the Appleseed Cast.
  • I miss seeing live music so this buffet of bands was such a welcome treat. At that moment, I didn’t want to leave Tokyo. Yeah, I didn’t really want to leave at any point, but this was the culmination. I would be at this place every Sunday. I would be here taking in all the different bands and trying to tell them I wanted to buy their CD (even if they hadn’t recorded one) and taking their photos (and telling the other photographer that his shots are great) and just generally enjoying life. It’s more of the Japan that I wanted to be experiencing. I love living in Ichinoseki and all, but Tokyo is a hundred times more exciting.
  • I shouldn’t forget to mention the band called Custom Mummy whose giant costume heads and breakbeats made for good entertainment. While these bands played, a painter bounced manically to the music and slapped paint onto the page with his spastic movements.
  • I then headed towards Meiji-jingu, but not without first seeing the freestyle bikers spin in the park and then, possibly the coolest thing I have ever witnessed: a group of seven or eight 40-something greasers dancing in a circle to ’50s rock. Some shirtless, most clad in black leather, they all twisted their hearts out with one occasionally strutting his moves in the centre of the circle. The WTF factor went through the roof.
  • The Shrine was lovely, but it was the people and their costumes there that made the (now painful) walk worthwhile. People in all sorts of traditional dress came and went from what event I’m not sure, but they were nice enough to stop for photos. I also saw two wedding parades pass by. I was again forced to go tripodless by security, for what reason I can’t determine this time, but I still had a blast.
  • I wanted one more decent Tokyo meal before I left so I managed to find a pizza place near the station where I scarfed down a nice vegetarian delight.
  • Back to the station, I got to Tokyo station just in time to make the shinkansen home.


Wipeout Number Three

Today, bike wipeout number three. I’m starting to get tired of this and I’m considering taking up drinking – at least then, people would expect me to fall down all the time. A new hobby is born.

I don’t know that I ever wrote about wipeout number two, but I’ll save that for another time. Right now, I must tell a story that will be funny to me sometime in the future. So here you go future me, have a laugh.

I started the day feeling good. The typhoon had passed in the night and I was confident I would have the opportunity to get outside and take some pictures. The weather was still a bit gloomy, sure, but it wasn’t raining, that’s all that counted. After a few chores completed, I was ready to set off. I was thinking I would head in the direction of Gembi. I could stop there for some photos of the gorge or I could continue up that road towards Hondera. Alternatively, I could have turned at Gembi and headed toward Hiraizumi, perhaps catching that cave temple along the way.

Things looked promising as I began my journey. A real estate company was holding a showing of their homes in the area and a man dressed as a Japanese cartoon robot crossed paths with me. I had time enough to stop and get my camera out for a few snaps of this awkward, silver automaton whose metallic lobster claws were certainly capable of pinching their way through whole automobiles. The Jaws of Life were no match for him.

After bidding adieu to robo-lobster-man, I headed West along the main road. There’s one section that heads down into a small valley, then back up an incline the other side. No problem, I have a mountain bike. Gearing down, I ascended with relative ease.

Reaching the top of the slope, I attempted to resume my course in a higher gear. One set of gears didn’t agree that this was the proper course of action. I was able to get back into second gear, but third was out of reach. If I knew the names for any of the parts involved with switching gears on a bike, I would elaborate, but the best I can do is to say that the metal guide thingy wouldn’t move far enough for the chain to slip from second to third.

I stopped and manually switched the chain to third. My hope was that if I moved the chain to third, then switched down to second and back again, the problem might be solved. Really, I was being optimistic that a bicycle could develop muscle memory. Not so. Down to second and that was where it stayed. I twiddled around some more with any of the devices that seemed to be related to shifting gears and soon learned that I couldn’t even shift to first anymore.

I decided to ride along a while frantically wrenching the gear shift up and down in a desperate attempt to have the chain move to a new gear, any gear. Hell, a non-existent fourth gear would have been a welcome change. No luck. I pedaled along while staring down at the chain, willing it to switch.

Now, looking down at your chain while riding a bike poses an obvious difficulty when it comes to successful navigation: you can’t really do it. At least I can’t. My balance is not such that if I stare directly below myself while riding, I will continue to go in a perfectly straight line. Maybe this will come with more biking practice, but it certainly was not with me on this day.

In the top of my peripheral vision loomed a fast-approaching object. I hit the brakes while looking up to see a bush waiting with open arms to give me a prickly embrace. My brakes could only do so much to slow my appointment with leafy destiny. I was launched over the handlebars, through the bush and onto the pavement, skidding along on my side.

I rose, covered in the top few layers of dirt that once covered the sidewalk, and inspected myself. My Dad would always jokingly make the sign of the cross while chuckling, ‘Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch,’ as though making sure all his parts were in place. While I made a similar self-examination, I discovered that much of my body was covered by the barbs formerly attached to the bush. I plucked a few from my clothes and a few more from my skin where I soon learned that I was slightly allergic to them. Small welts started appearing where I had removed the barbs from my skin.

Just then, it started to rain. I conceded defeat to the day, turned around and rode home, wet, dirty and swollen.


Lebron I Ain’t

Yesterday was another BOE day. I spent most of the morning looking up things to do in Tokyo when my sister arrives. I’m worried about her knee and how mobile she’ll be. We may have to take it pretty slow sometimes. I’m sure we’ll still have a great time though. As long as she doesn’t slip on any chum at the fish market.

I talked to Thanet after work and we determined her plans for the weekend were just too unaccommodating for Sarah and I to join her and Grainne and Erin. I would love to do something more with my extra time this weekend, but the weather is determined in its efforts to keep humans indoors.

I did a little cheering up of a sad Sarah then headed off to basketball. On this night, the Forties were playing’ well, the twenties. We just couldn’t really keep up. My long-range shot was off and my body wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. I need to do some more running or something. But I think next game, if it plays out in a similar fashion, I’m going to just start driving the lane like Iverson. Throw my body into the fray and create some opportunities by going to the hole. My shot was such crap last night I should have just kept going at their defense. I need to be a bit more confident with my ball handling though too. If only I could actually practice somewhere.

I may have to start going to gym class at my schools.

Today was a day in Sendai with Jo, Brent and Sarah. A fairly uneventful time spent shopping in the rain. I did, however, make a couple large purchases worth noting: new speakers for my computer and a new, enormous hard drive.


When Computers Become Televisions

I had a whole day at the Board of Education. Processed some photos and wrote a pile of emails in between chatting with Sarah. She wrote me a lovely little note during the afternoon. I scooted home after work than went out to the hill behind city hall to shoot some photos. It was too dark already, but I managed to get one decent shot in there. Hung around at the base of the hill and tried getting some shots of the vending machines, but I don’t think any grand images were meant to be.

Once I was home, I started downloading some evening entertainment. Sarah came over and we watched Jon Stewart. Desmond Tutu may just be the cutest man alive. Jon Stewart let him talk for far longer than anyone I’ve seen on the show. The Archbishop was talking about God’s love with such genuine care that he just could not be interrupted. Stewart’s comment after the speech was simply, ‘I think you’re the nicest person I’ve ever met.’

A little later, Sarah and I watched the new episode of ‘Lost.’ This show rules. It’s so nice to have some good television to look forward to each week. I hope it can continue its run successfully (and I hope ABC doesn’t drag it out as their new cash cow). Sarah actually got scared enough that I had to walk her home.


A Clear Day

Finally, a clear day. I can see the mountain to the West whose name I can never remember and patches of blue are tearing through the formerly impenetrable cloud. The sounds of some loudspeaker-carrying car passing by bounce up through the window – they are not drowned out by the white noise of rain. I guess the rain had some advantages.

I find myself anxious. I have not gone outside to take photos in a couple weeks. I feel the same way as when I go through an unproductive period at home. I’m a little surlier and I feel incomplete. When I was at university, one of my courses was a philosophy course studying madness. I tended to focus my studies on depression since that subject was a bit near my heart, but I remember finding a web site linking madness and creativity. If I recall correctly, its focus was on artistic therapy for various mental diseases, but there was one case in particular that intrigued me.

It showed an image of a piece of toilet paper. On it was a portrait of a man. It was dirty and rough as any portrait drawn on toilet paper would be, but had an interesting style. It turns out that the portrait was drawn by a man with a compulsion to be creative. He couldn’t help himself. In this case, he was at a restaurant, found some toilet paper for himself and used cigarette ashes to create the portrait.

I sometimes wonder if I have a weaker version of the same condition. Here I am writing, and I feel better already. For some reason I haven’t written much of anything in the last two weeks and I’m sure that exacerbates my problem. And it’s not like I would have been short on material. Yes, I have started settling into a routine here, but there are details a plenty worthy of a note or two here on my trusty laptop (which still needs a name, by the way).

I know part of it stems from my obsession with time and mortality. I keep finding myself saying there aren’t enough hours in the day and that life is too short. When Sarah and I have to say goodbye to each other late at night lest we while away the hours before dawn without sleeping and I haven’t completed any of my chores for the day, 24 hours is far too confining. When I consider all the places in the world I would like to explore and all the places I will never see because of my limited time here, I would beg for more years so that I could experience more of this incredible planet.

So, when I fail to be productive or creative, I feel like I am not making the most of that limited time. Mind you, I haven’t exactly been wasting away here. There are certain changes I could make to tighten up my schedule, but I don’t know that I have been excessively lazy or anything of the sort. Socializing is an important pursuit and I’d rather not cut that from my life. Maybe I could ease up on the Internet surfing and try to be a bit more efficient around the house. I could try to get more of my emailing done at the Board of Education (when possible) and actually complete the tasks I set out for myself while there.

Okay, that’s good. I’ll start today. Here I am, I’ve done some writing and I could easily do more (though I do have two more days here on Thursday and Friday – perhaps I should save some of my writing for then) and I have some other tasks that deserve my attention here.

I also should re-start my old routine of a paragraph a day to describe the day’s positives. It was helpful before and for those times when the rain is keeping me and my camera inside, it will keep me focused on the good things around me and in me.


Iwate-san

I took the day off yesterday for a welcome convalescence. My weekend left me weary, but more importantly, it left me ill. On Sunday, starting at noon, germs began their assault on my body and, by the time I went to sleep, they had planted their victory flag. My immune system was defeated and I finally had to acknowledge that I was sick.

But a day of nothing but sitting in front of the computer, processing photos and surfing the Internet after sleeping late was just what my body needed. By noon, my immune system had rallied and the germs were on the run. Today, there are still some rebel groups attempting to fight the status quo, but with another good night of sleep, the uprising will be crushed. Huzzah!

What left me so fatigued on the weekend was my trek up Iwate San with about two-dozen other JETs. That and the fact that I just generally don’t seem to get enough sleep here (partly by my own doing, partly because of that raucous loading dock).

The weekend began with a trip up to Hanamaki to meet Thanet and watch the Hanamaki Matsuri. On my way out of the station, I had the good fortune to run into Racheal and Kurt who tagged along to find Thanet. We soon found ourselves surrounded by JETs while we took in the spectacle of the festival floats. The gaijin are easy to spot in a crowd, so that explains why we met up so easily – that or our desperate flocking instincts, ‘I need to speak English to someone! Now!’

Thanet and I hunted down vegetarian festival food and sampled some delicious pancake concoctions filled with either custard or bean paste (actually, I’m not entirely sure about the latter; it was brown and it didn’t look like it had meat in it – good enough for us). Unfortunately, that filled me up before I could get a crepe. The one I had in Matsushima was so good and I was tempted to stuff myself with whipped cream once again, but I was already nearing my belly’s breaking point – better not to push it lest I burst wide open. Undoubtedly, that would be some breach of Japanese etiquette.

I guided the aimless Thanet back to the bus station (I swear she could get lost in a straight hallway) while we chatted about her life back home. Things have been difficult for her and she has been preoccupied with thoughts of people outside of Japan. Well, we couldn’t have that – there was fun to be had. Actually, at that point on Friday night, there was sleep to be had – we didn’t linger in wakefulness long after arriving at her apartment.

The next morning, we prepared for our ascent up Iwate’s highest peak. Grocery store errands and culinary concoctions were the order of the morning. We made short work of our chores, but didn’t budget enough time to drive to our rendezvous point with the group. With a panicked Thanet behind the wheel and a focused Darby behind the map, we headed North and didn’t even break that many traffic laws in our hurry (yes there was one small incident where we were driving down the wrong side of the street, but that only occurred after we made a wrong turn – both members of the crew will share the blame for that lapse in concentration).

It turned out the hectic pace was unnecessary – we arrived exactly on time. We had a few moments to organize ourselves and have a bite to eat before gathering more members into the car for the journey to the mountain.

Iwate san loomed somewhat impressively over the parking lot and the not-so-hardy band of travelers tried in vain to disguise their displeasure at the thought of ascending such a height. I suppose it can look quite daunting if you have little experience with such hikes. I can hardly call myself an intrepid explorer, but I’ve hiked up enough trails to know that you will reach the top of this peak and come down with your health. But more importantly, if you have the right attitude along the way, you’ll have a blast.

What a shame so few people have learned that lesson. Yes, here it comes, my complaint. In the last year or two, I have learned something about myself: the one thing I will really complain about is people who complain too much.

When I was young and a vocal supporter of the Calgary Flames, the arch rivals to the North, the Edmonton Oilers, were led by a certain player named Wayne Gretzky. Any time he made any complaint to the referees about a given call, I joined the chorus of Flames fans melodically chanting, ‘Whiner! Whiner!’ Can you blame us? You couldn’t criticize any other part of his game. We had to razz him for something! Telling him, in whatever colourful language at the disposal of a drunken hockey fan, that he sucked would have been just plain unrealistic. Might as well make up some plausible avenue of attacking the indefatigable enemy.

Well, a few of these hikers joining me are, certainly, good people, but they could have used a chant of ‘Whiner! Whiner!’ aimed in their direction. Did you expect escalators rising to the top? Perhaps cherubs would swoop beneath you and carry you effortlessly by your arms to the top of the mountain. Were the burdens of carrying water food, sleeping bags etc. so far beyond the scope of your imagination that they actually caused you surprise?

The unfortunate answer was: ‘Yes, cherubs sound lovely, thank you.’ Here we were, spending time with new friends on a gorgeous Japanese day walking up a wonderful mountain and people somehow figured that the negatives associated with some fatigue outweighed the positive.

In fact, I don’t think I’m emphasizing the positive quite enough. The weather was just about perfect. It was cool enough to keep you from overheating while you hiked, but it took a while for the wind to actually drop your body temperature when you had stopped. Climbing the highest mountain in your prefecture in Japan is not exactly an opportunity that presents itself to many Westerners – such a gift deserves some appreciation. This was a great chance to hang out with some of the people who will be sharing these incredible experiences for the next year; shouldn’t we be enjoying their company instead of griping about minutiae? I mean seriously, you’re in Japan! What’s your problem?

Okay, there. I’ve whined about the whiners enough. On to better things.

The first half of the hike was not so difficult and offered glimpses of the lava flow that once poured from the mouth of the volcano. Dirt paths wound through forests that sheltered us from the slight breeze. The group spread out quickly with me and my camera gear beginning at the very back, but slowly progressing to the front. People kept commenting on my companion, the tripod, but when we reached the top of the mountain at dawn, I was glad to have lugged it along. As I walked, I had the chance to talk with a bunch of different groups along the way.

We stopped at a gorgeous lookout point where the trail mix Thanet and I had made became the envy of all the other hikers. Sitting atop a hardened lava flow and viewing the land below us while munching on some yummy trail mix was a nice way to spend lunch. But the wind soon kicked up and began cooling the sweat sticking to our backs. It forced us back onto the trail where we soon hiked along a more exposed portion of the mountain.

The slope was covered with loose gravel that made the climb a bit more challenging in places, but the ropes lining the sides of the trail and the spectacular view out to the surrounding peaks and the villages below made it an easy ascent for me. We then cut back into the trees and had to scramble over some steep rocks and boulders to continue on the way. By now, the sun was setting and the golden light was illuminating the peak. I would have loved to have been at the top a half hour earlier – the light would have been wonderful for photos, but alas, the setting sun dipped below the horizon before I could get to the top.

But, I soon arrived at the cabin with only Stian ahead of me. I had packed up the tripod, but now broke it out again for the few shots I could get before darkness enveloped the entire landscape.

Our cabin was cozy. Three locals had already claimed refuge there and were gracious enough to move their gear up to the loft (but not gracious enough to allow anyone to join them there – not that I blame them entirely; a gaggle of gaijin invading your hard-fought space deserves a little bit of contempt I suppose). With flashlights guiding them up the now-dark trail, the rest of the group eventually reached the night’s rest stop. We all had our dinner and Susan served smores to after roasting marshmallows over Kurt and Racheal’s stove.

Thanet and I took a walk outside to wonder at the stars. The night was mostly clear and the sky was well-dotted with distant suns. It reminded me of the three times I have seen such vast numbers of stars it was almost excruciating.

First was in junior high. I had a strange episode on a camping trip with my school. We were camped in the Rocky Mountains and looking up at the clearest night I had ever seen away from city lights. I can’t completely explain what I thought happened, but the impression I had was that I was seeing past the stars. I felt like the stars were projected on some black dome, like at the science centre in Calgary, but I was somehow seeing beyond that dome. I almost felt like there was something looking back at me. A nervous breakdown ensued. I started crying and I think I may have tearfully bellowed, ‘I saw past the stars!’ before getting carried back to the cabin by one of my teachers. Nothing like a good panic attack prompted by an incomprehensible mystical experience to gain teenage popularity’

The second time I saw anything comparable was in Switzerland. On our trip through Europe, our stop in Switzerland was in a town called Lauterbrunnen. Waterfalls tumbled from mountain walls surrounding us and echoed through the valley. Our altitude in the Alps made for clear view of the stars, but we only realized this when, in the middle of the night, nature called. The cold weather forced a dash to the toilet for me, but on the way, I looked up and was stopped in my tracks by the light from overhead. I wanted to stand there, jaw gaping, to stare at the sight, but my bladder’s pitiful strength and the cold snapped me back into motion. On the way back from completing my business, the prospect of returning to the comfort of my warm sleeping bag pushed me on. Laura was awake when I returned and had to make a similar trip. I made sure she took a look up as she walked.

The third occasion that featured such glorious night skies was when I was traveling in Peru. We had departed from Puno to cross the waters of Lake Titicaca and arrive at Amantani Island (or am I mixing it up with Taquille – damn place names, tripping me up). After a busy day of sightseeing, hiking, and soccer, we were invited to a dance with the locals. my travelling companions and I were fitted with some traditional clothes and we followed the bands’ rhythms through the dark to the dance hall.

After making efforts to keep up with foreign dance steps, we watched the dancers who had moved outside and were circling the fire. I remember saying it was a scene you could never capture with a still camera. By now, the full moon had risen and was casting a blue grey glow over the rippling water of the lake. That moon became the only light source when we walked back to the house of our host family. Again, slack-jawed, I gawked at the scene above. I can only imagine how it would have looked had the moon been new. Even with a full moon, the sky was brilliant. Infinite stars projected themselves from eternities in the past. I was happy.

And so I was on the top of Mount Iwate. I once dabbled with the idea of becoming an astronomer simply because of the wonder the stars held for me. But now, I am content to catch these glimpses. If only the mercury had not fallen so much, I would have slept beneath them.

But alas, I am not durable enough to get any sleep in that kind of cold, so I returned to the cabin and the hard wood bench that would become my bed. Surprisingly, my earplugs and a sideways sleeping position actually allowed me to get some sleep. Not much, but some.

Our wake up call was 3:00 am. We wanted to reach the summit before sunrise. Gathering up what we needed, we departed in the dark. Racheal, Kurt, Thanet, Mike and I blazed the trail. I couldn’t help messing with Kurt and Racheal’s heads by suggesting there might be a few of the aliens from Signs (we watched it the previous week and it freaked them out a little) might be active in this area. They only seemed mildly bothered at the prospect.

I reached to top by myself and bundled up in the wind. The stars were still peering through the darkness while I waited for the others to catch up. They arrived and we all headed along the spine of the mountain to the very top together.

My tripod was now earning its keep as the dawn sky slowly started turning blue while the lights from the villages below struggled to break through the clouds. The group eventually caught up and huddled together like penguins to keep warm. Bursts of light from cell phone cameras splashed in the relenting darkness as the sun’s light crept up through the clouds. Bands of red formed along the horizon and the profiles of the mountains began to take shape.

I busily snapped photos in the beautiful light until the wind started driving our troupe back down to the cabin. The sun was only directly visible through the clouds after we had started our descent. It illuminated our cabin and the rock formation behind it – they glowed like a beacon to guide us down the hill.

After gathering all our gear and cleaning the cabin (some more courteously than others), we descended to the parking lot. I flew down the path, stopping for photos wherever appropriate and only managed to fall once. Josh witnessed my tumble and subsequent skid and said the first thing I did was lift my camera to protect it from impact. Good to know I have the right instincts in that situation.

Reaching the bottom, we waited in the parking lot a while then decided to try our luck to see if the onsen was open. We were able to find comfy chairs in the lobby where we snoozed until the rest of the group slowly filed in.

The onsen experience rates second to the Turkish bath I visited in Istanbul, but was indeed pleasant after a nice hike. With brand new onsen towels in hand, the men and women separated and found their respective locker rooms. We disrobed completely then headed for the rinsing area. Sitting naked on top of specially made onsen buckets, we scrubbed away the grime. Once clean, it was time for a dip in the boiling pool. Apparently, this onsen had the heat cranked up a bit high, so perhaps it wasn’t the best experience, but it was fun enough to soak a while then make for the cold pool. A little frigid water splashed over the head while your feet soaked and you were ready for more steamy steeping. I also made a brief trip to the sauna where the heat was topping 90 degrees Celcius. A bit much for me so I withdrew to the baths.

With my clothes back on, I had to wait for the rest of the group to reach the base of the mountain. Racheal was my ride home and her knee was giving her problems on the way down. I managed to take a nap, but it was at this point that I could feel the germs fire their opening salvo. I tried to counter with some orange juice, but I suspect it was too late. My immune system had already been beaten back by the meager nights of sleep. I was defenseless. A few hours after reaching home, I was as good as useless.

Sarah, however, was kind enough to stop by after she got home from a night out. She brought me peanut butter, drinks, soup and apples (but great minds think alike, I bought apples earlier that day). We briefly visited before I collapsed into bed.

But as I said earlier, I am on the mend and one more night of good rest will vanquish this foe for good. Not to mention, I get a proper home-cooked meal tonight from Asanuma sensei as a thank you for the work Sarah and I did for the speech contest. That ought to send the germs packing.