being sick sucks

It finally happened. I got a cold. It's only natural, as I work with children and about 50% of them are also currently sick. The worst part is it's not bad enough to stay home... just bad enough to be annoying.

In other news Sue (formerly of Peace Corps Benin) and a friend are visiting right now which is pretty awesome. I went to Tokyo on Monday to pick them up from the airport. That was a long trip. I didn't realize how far the airport was from Tokyo. It's about 1:20 from Tokyo center... so that means it's almost as far as I am from Tokyo. Craziness. It was good practice though, especially since there are about 10 million trains going to the airport and they all cost different amounts. I almost accidentally took a train that cost 4,000 yen. It would have been comfortable. But, considering the alternative cost about 1/4 of that. Well, yeah.

Yesterday we drove up to Lake Haruna and Haruna shrine. At the elevation I'm at the leaves are only barely starting to change, but up at the higher altitudes (like the lake and shrine) it's gorgeous right now. Haruna Shrine itself is absolutely awesome. I had no idea something so cool was so close to my house. It's up in a narrow mountain canyon with streams running through it. It's about a 15-20 minute walk from where you park, but the walk itself is really pretty. You go over old bridges, see statues and Torii gates. I was seriously impressed.

Ah, culture festival. It was fun. Kids sang, I played sax and didn't make a total ass of myself. Then came the afternoon stage show. It was put on entirely by the students. It really couldn't be described... but let's summarize. It included:

- multiple boys in skirts
- a boy in a bowling pin costume
- a boy in a shiny metallic suit
- break dancing
- a girl with a mustache
- many girls dancing with a single chopstick each
- a male teacher in a skirt

It was something else.

kendo

I think I mentioned before that I started doing kendo with the Kurabuchi Kendo Club. It's been a lot of fun, but this week has been the best. Why? Well... the main sensei noticed I exist. Why this is significant is a bit more complicated.

I think I went about joining up in the wrong way. A friend who works at the City Branch Office told me when club was. I didn't know really where, and only a rough when. So the first time I showed up I was in the wrong building and there at the wrong time. Additionally the friend who said he'd be there to help introduce me didn't come. Thankfully the kids teacher that came in after a bit was very friendly and didn't mind my watching. Finally after a few times of this, and a sort of introduction by my friend I started participating.

In retrospect I think this rubbed some people the wrong way. A formal introduction into a group seems to be incredibly important here. And even though I myself have relatively high status in the community as a teacher, it's meaningless in the kendo world. So I think the teachers were a bit miffed. As a result my name wasn't ever called in roll call, and I was an after though in the lessons. (That is to say the lessons in the main group, when the kids teacher came it was always great... he's super nice)

Finally, on Wednesday the head-sensei came and asked me for the spelling of my name and told me to answer in a loud voice when my name was called. I was thrilled. Even more though, he actually came over and helped me when we were practicing! Today he helped me even more, and afterwards actually talked to me. It's nice to have finally joined kendo.

I don't think this type of thing is all that uncommon. It's probably compounded by the fact that no one starts kendo at my age. The competitive martial arts (Karate, Kendo) are usually started in elementary school and continued forever. No one starts at 26, you'd never be able to compete!

So, I'm happy. Integrating into a new community is hard, especially when you don't share a language. Every step is important.. and I feel like I've finally made a few.

***
On a completely different subject, this weekend is Culture Day at my school. I'll write more about it after the event, but this week has been incredibly busy with preparations for it. Including the music teacher coming and asking me to play sax in the advanced band (5 people) and handing me 5 pieces to learn by Sunday. Yikes. It's been fun though. I didn't realize how much I missed playing music in a group. In any case, between Kendo, Japanese lessons and band practice PLUS getting ready for culture day it's been a really busy week.

natto

We're having natto for lunch today. Wish me luck.

---UPDATE----

I'm not dead. I don't think I need to bother describing the horrors when someone else has described vile, vile natto much better than me. Thanks Steve.

haruna matsuri

This weekend was Haruna Matsuri. Literally this means "Haruna Festival". This should tell you two things: 1) It was in Haruna and 2) It was a festival. What it won't tell you though is how awesome it was.

First though, let me explain about Haruna. It's more or less the next town down the mountain from me. It's where there is McDonalds, grocery shopping and gas stations that are open past 7:30p (all the way until 9p >_< ) It's also on the way to Takasaki, Maebashi and pretty much everywhere. There are 2 JETs working there.

So, last month one of them sent me a message inviting me to come and play taiko at the festival. I've always thought that taiko was awesome, so I thought "what the heck." So for the last few weeks on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I've been practicing in what amounts to some guys garage. Except inside the garage is not a car... but a 25 foot tall rolling shrine. All of the neighborhoods in Haruna have one, as they figure intimately into the festival.

This Saturday was our big performance. They wheeled out the giant shrine (山車 'dashi'), attached some ropes and off we went. There were four gai-jin (外人 'foreign') drummers in total, and we rotated with 2 other groups (women and kids). The whole neighborhood, and whoever wasn't drumming, pulled the thing. It was great. Especially since the other neighborhoods all had them too. It was like a rap battle. We wheeled around the city, ducking under power lines (men on top were charged with the duty of using a stick to move them out of the way) and street signs. We finally ended up in front of the former city hall. (Like Kurabuchi, Haruna was recently absorbed by Takasaki... so the city hall has been changed into a city branch office) That was when the real battle began. All of the 'hoods had their shrines and drummers and it was chaos. Awesome, loud chaos. There was also the normal stuff that exists at the festivals here: Yakitori (焼き鳥 lit. 'grilled bird'... in reality grilled chicken on a stick), beer, festival games and other entertainment.

All in all it was a great time, although my arms were sore the next day from drumming and pulling. I can hardly wait for next year!

a child named 'pork'

I've been here for a couple of months now, and have been asking other JETs at every chance if they ever tried using Western names in class. When I took Spanish in HS for at least 3 of the years we chose names in Spanish. I was "Paco" and "Juan" (different teachers, different names). It seems though that no one had ever tried it. I don't know if being called "Juan" really improved my Spanish, but it was fun. I also have been having a hard time with names. Not so much in memorizing, but not knowing which name is the proper level of politeness to use. Do I use their first name and attach -kun? Do I use their last name with -san? Or something else?

So, my solution to the problem was to rename them all. Well, more accurately: let them rename themselves. I printed out, and translated into katakana, a list of the 100 most popular baby names from last year. I didn't want them to feel like they had to pick a name off the list, so we told them they could have any name in English they wanted (or their own name if they didn't want to participate). Most chose names from the list, but there were some names that had hilarious similarity to Japanese words.
- Nathan: sounds a lot like "姉さん"('nee-san', older sister). Boys weren't too keen on this one.
- Elijah: sounds similar to "偉い(じゃあ)"('erai', excellent -or- terrible.. adding another 2 syllables to the full name: "nai", would negate the meaning)

Another situation came up where the students wanted to know if they should write their real names, or new names on their papers. The solution my teacher and I came up with was to use the form "Lyle 'the crusher' Kozloff" where they would quote their new name. One student had chosen the name Samantha... so when we used her name as an example "Sakura 'Samantha' Shiroi" they all burst out laughing half-way through; 'Sakura-sama' would be an extremely strange way to refer to her.

A few kids chose names for themselves. We had one 'L' (named after an anime character from the series 'Death Note'). Although he has since changed his name to Alan. Then of course there was one kid that wanted to be "Pork". He was very clear that it was Pork like pig's meat and not some other sort of Pork.

So far we've only made it to about 1/2 the classes that will be named. I wonder what other names we'll get?

snacking and pooping

Those that have spent time in West Africa are no doubt with the idea of a 'cadeau' given after traveling. The same custom holds in Japan, and as a result nearly every week there is some sort of treat being handed out in the teacher's room. I have to say that I absolutely love it. This week someone came back from Hawaii with Neiman-Marcus chocolate covered Pringles. This sounds horrible, but in fact it was awesome. I don't know how or why, but it was probably one of the best snacks so far. There have been many, many other things though. Small doughy birds, sesame cakes, well... even more than that actually, but 90% of the time I don't know what I'm eating.

The trend of not knowing what I'm eating falls true for most of my time at school. There is a monthly menu published of all the school lunches, but sometimes what you get is not what you expect. "Pork Beans" (ポークビーンズ)is pretty much what it sounds like; pork and beans. "Mushroom Spaghetti" (きのこスパゲッティー) was too. Today's "Fish and Soy Bean Chili Sauce" (魚と大豆チリソース)... well, it was delicious. If it was given to me though I never in a million years would have guessed that it was a) fish b) had anything to do with chilies or sauce. In its defense there were soy beans in it. The other complication can be the kanji. I've learned the important ones: beef (牛肉), pork (豚肉), chicken (鶏肉 or 鳥肉). Today's fish (魚) was a blessing though. Normally it's what kind of fish it is, and I don't even know their names in English... let alone the kanji for it.

Sometimes though it's better I don't know though. Last month they served fried pork liver, and I was eating it fine. I just thought it was crappy quality meat. When the some other teachers came in and were complaining about it (and not eating it) I finally learned what it was and lost my appetite for it.

So, after eating... pooping! Japanese toilets are awesome. Sadly I don't have a super fancy one in my house, but I love the fact that most businesses (and my school) have the full featured amazing toilets. What features? Well... heated seats, squirting nozzles for bum-cleaning (with adjustable pressure), automatic flushing. The list goes on (but that's about the level most places seem to have). It rocks, I wish I pooped away from my house more often.

when things just work out

Isn't it great when things that initially seem disappointing work out for the awesome? Case in point: this weekend. There was supposed to be a BBQ on Saturday with the local JETs. As such I set my weekend goals thusly:


So when the BBQ was canceled on Friday I was at a loss for what to do. I made some efforts to find something, but ended up deciding that it wouldn't be so bad to stick to my original plan. So Saturday I stayed home, played video games and did nothing. At some point, my neighbor kid came over to see what I was doing. I was hungry, so thought that I should go ahead and accomplish point one of my plan. I pulled out the grill, started it up and grilled the chicken and fried the fries. Since the neighbor kid was over he ate with me. His first comment was "This is the first time I've eaten foreign food!" and I said "Um... have you ever eaten McDonalds?". He agreed and amended his statement to "This is the first time I've ever eaten meat prepared by a foreign person!"

A slight side note: The chicken I'm referring to is the famous delicious chicken from Benin. My mom sent me the spices that chicken-man gave me before I left. Mmmmm, it's so delicious I could eat it everyday (and in Benin often did)

So at this point it's the early afternoon, and I was pretty content that my plan was already half-complete. Neighbor-kid jumps in and says "Hey, there is a festival tonight. You should come!". I thought it would be cool, so found out the details. He leaves and I play video games.
A little later I get a knock on the door, and he's back: WITH DONUTS. I guess his mom felt guilty that I fed him at lunch, or something so she sent him over with donuts. It was possibly the best thing she could have sent over. Earlier in the week I ran out of cereal and had planned to get a donut at 7-11 on Friday. For some reason I forgot this plan on Friday, and ended up eating an apple or something... only to remember later in the day and be sad. When donuts arrived on my doorstep it was the best moment yet in Japan.

Around 6, Omika-kun (neighbor kid's name... sort of. Maybe I'll talk about names/suffixes later) came and got me and I walked over with him and his family. Strangely, after I finished greeting everyone I got a "Hey, how's it going?". Turns out one of my neighbors brother in law is Canadian and lives on the other side of Gunma. He and his wife had come up for the festival. Very random. More randomness... it turns out there is a Shinto temple about a 1 minute walk from my house that I had no idea existed. This festival evidently was just for my neighborhood. There was tons of yakitori, beer, sake and another drink I hadn't had made from sake-filterings. It was warm, ricey and only slightly fermented. The whole affair was really cool, people in stylized dog costumes danced in honor of the kami (gods, spirits? It's a somewhat difficult word to translate correctly in this case) that brought a good harvest of rice.

So, I finally met all of my neighbors all at once. Ate more chicken, drank beer and had a great time. I even got to stay for the after party where the we ate more chicken, drank more beer and had a great time. After the after-party they loaded me up with leftover beer, hard-boiled eggs and snacks. It was awesome.

So, this weekend was perfect and totally random. It seems like things like this happen a lot when you're living abroad. Stuff just works out perfectly, you meet some cool people and have a great time. Does it happen like this at home too?

another week...

... another three day weekend. I like this trend! I think I've had three 3-day weekends in the past 5 weeks. Sadly it's a trend that won't continue... My calendar says my next three day weekend won't be until late December. A depressing prospect. Actually, in reality Mondays for me are great, even if I have to work. 90% of them I'm at elementary school, and I'd probably go even if it wasn't my job! (Shh... don't tell the board of education)

This weekend I went canyoning, which was totally awesome. It was also way, way more professional than I thought it was going to be. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but I was not expecting what we got. Awesome guides, great equipment, sweet location... the list goes on. The run we went on was rather short (only about 300 meters of canyon) but really fun. There was a 10 meter waterfall to slide, a drop of the same height, jumping, sliding and lots more. We were in the canyon itself for a pretty long time. It was a bit weird to be wearing so much equipment (full body wetsuit, harness, helmet, lifejacket) but we used every bit of it in some way. As for thrills, well it was fun... but nothing beats the waterfalls in Tanagou.

After and active Saturday, I was ready to relax. Last week was actually fairly tiring, although I'm not sure why. It was just a normal week. So I hung out at the house, and eventually moseyed over to Maebashi for the International Festival that JET had a booth for. It was fun, but probably the coolest part was the car parking system. You drove your car into a room, and got out. The attendant handed you a ticket, and you watched your car zoom off on rollers to who-knows-where. It was AWESOME! When you pick up your car, it actually comes out in a different room. I was amazed.

I then drove over to Yamada Denki (electronics heaven) and made the final leap. Yes, I bought an XBOX 360. It was going to happen eventually, and with Halo 3 out I really couldn't wait any longer. So, yeah. It was actually pretty cool, they had a special deal going on so I got Halo 1 and 2 free with the system. So I spent most of Monday playing with that.

Earlier this week I also replaced the stereo in my car. My car is about 10 years old, and still had stock speakers and stereo. The speakers were completely blown beyond reason, and the stereo was just janky. The tape adapter was constantly getting stuck in it. I ended up with a pretty sweet deck, plays mp3 cds and all the like. The really cool part though is it also plays music off USB devices. There is a USB port on the front of the unit, and you just plug in whatever you want. Sadly iPods aren't included, although you could work around it... even so I've just been using a 2GB memory card. I've toyed with the idea of putting my 120GB little HDD in my car, but between the heat of a parked car destroying the drive and the prospect of navigation through the files makes me think this probably wouldn't be as cool as it sounds. In any case, it's awesome to be able to hop in my car and listen to music rather than futz around with cables and iPods.

So, while I'm not broke yet... I'm headed in that direction. Actually, that's not true. Even with all this ridiculous spending I've still manged to save money. Having a job with pay is awesome!