stop shocking me japan!

I'm not sure if it's because of the lack of humidity, the clothes I'm wearing or what... but I get shocked at least ten times a day. It's horrible! One would think I would learn all the places I frequently get shocked, and figure out a way to not get shocked by them. Truth is, I bumble into new ways to get shocked every day! It's getting ridiculous. Maybe I'm developing a super-power, but I have to say 'getting shocked a lot' is about as exciting as being able to grow your fingernails at twice the speed of normal humans. Why couldn't I have teleportation?

In other news, my 2nensei are all future fatties, alcoholics and materialists. We were doing 'if' clauses today, and 90% of them wrote the same thing to the prompt 'If I was an adult...". If I were an adult, I would drink alcohol. Actually, some put liquor... one girl put chu-hai. To the prompt 'If I ate cake everyday..." they responded "I would be happy". Actually a few responded "I would be very, very happy". And the best response to "If I were rich..." was "I would buy a big house, a nice car and brand goods". When pressed for which brand? Coach.

Actually there is some hope, one of my neighbor kids said from cake he would get cavities, and that he would donate his money were he rich. He'll still be an alcoholic though.

updates

I updated my gallery (finally), as usual you can find it at http://jet-7.net/gallery/. Included are pictures of Shane's visit, Spencer's visit and my visit to the Monkey Park.

This weekend wasn't too exciting. Actually, no I take that back. While there was no long crazy trips there was delicious food. Mindy had promised a trip to an okonomiyaki place with a drink bar. Truly a holy combination. It was everything that was promised and more. Plus I discovered a new japanese food favorite: monjayaki.

Okonomiyaki is often referred to as the 'Japanese savory pancake'. This is the worst description ever. Chiefly because pancakes suck, and okonomiyaki is awesome. But more because okonomiyaki is stuffed with deliciousness. The batter that holds the creation together is just that. Certainly not the focus. I think it's a bit more like Japanese pizza, only cooked like a pancake. By you (sometimes). At your table. It's pretty sweet. HOWEVER, as sweet as okonomiyaki is monjayaki is even better. Similar idea, delicious ingredients and batter mixed together and cooked on the griddle in front of you. It's a lot runnier though, so rather than getting a slice and eating it with chopsticks you scrape it off the griddle with a special tiny spatula. It has the consistency of melty cheese, but the taste of heaven. A good time indeed.

Snow has fallen again, and the winds are strong. Yucky. But, I'm going skiing next weekend! Yay!

omg

Graduation time is coming up. Japan's schedule starts and ends the school year in the Spring, so in a little more than a month our 3-nensei will be graduating. Preparations are already underway. The 1-nensei, and 2-nensei are all preparing their goodbyes in the ceremony. Everyone is making paper roses for decorations. All this, plus taking the final tests.

The poor 3-nensei are, from the point, going to finally get a much needed break. No more big tests, most of them know where they are going to high-school. I'm glad for them, many were looking haggard.

The teachers are also making preparations, helping the students with theirs... and their own. A few days ago they played a song during our morning meeting. It was interesting, and we had the lyrics. I thought we were just approving it for the ceremony. Imagine my surprise when during our staff meeting this morning everyone stood up and sang along. Yes, not only are students singing to our graduates; our teachers are. The real kicker is that it's not a classic graduation song or anything. (Well it may be, something akin to Green Day's "Time of Your Life") It's a pop song!

In a way it's really sweet, but from my US-centric perspective absolutely bizarre. I mean, teachers singing to students?!

This should be interesting... although I suppose the fringe benefit to this will be that I'll be able to sing a song in Japanese at karaoke.

shaking things up

I was reflecting this morning on why it is I've so much enjoyed living outside the US. I finally settled on the idea that living in a new country provides an opportunity to deconstruct. Living in one place for a long time locks you in to habits and ways of being that are difficult to break out of in a familiar context. With that context removed, it's a lot easier to evaluate your behaviors, and the eventual ends of your decisions. On stable ground, I think, familiarity breeds a near ignorance to how the way you act makes you who you are and what you'll become.

Coming to a new country is a clean slate. You have your old stories, but you aren't bound by anyone to behave in a way that you have before. No one here remembers "that one time when...". It's liberating, but scary. You simultaneously have to deal with the self-analysis inherent in cross-cultural integration (watching what you say and do) AND the eventual questions of why you want to say and do things in the first place. It bleeds between areas in your life, and soon you find you're not just modifying behaviors to be culturally appropriate. You're modifying your ways of being because they're destructive, don't make sense or you just plain want to. It's a great opportunity for self-development, or self-destruction.(I wouldn't be surprised at all if the proportion of alcoholics in a given expat community is substantially higher than that of their home country) Yet still, it's a great way to live if you want to find out about yourself.

Another interesting factor is language. I think a country where you don't speak the language gives another tool of self-analysis. When language is removed as an establisher of context, with what else do you have to interpret an ambiguous situation with but your self? It's interesting seeing how unclear situations bring your own thoughts and feelings about people, life and the way we live into focus.

Time in a new country is really sort of equivalent to the time you spend at university. You cast off your old high-school self, make new friends and experience new things. All the while, finding out who you currently are and figuring out what you'd like to become.

I think life is like a box of crunchy, delicious fruit granola. Everything is all mixed up: the big clusters, the annoying granola dust that makes the milk disgusting, the yummy dried fruit, and naturally occurring food contaminants. Most people just pour their bowl and eat what they get. Sure the milk might be gross and you'll get a couple of insect bits or rodent filth, but you'll get some fruit and clusters here and there too. And, it's good enough to get you out the door on the way to work. Other people try to pick and choose only the most savory bits they see... but miss the dried strawberry covered in clusters not worth their time moving in the short time before they sprint for the door. Other people toss the box in their pickup truck and set off down the bumpy road to see what's out there. In the process the future foretold by the label on the package that says 'settling may occur' becomes reality. All the bumps and shakes drive all the delicious bits to the top. So, when the box is opened up it's all good stuff that pours out. (Okay fine, there is probably still a stray rodent hair here and there. Overall though, it's damn good granola though)

***

On a non feel-good-about-myself note, one of my students for the writing prompt "Judy is from Kobe. One day...." spun a wonderful tale.

June is from Kobe. She wants to be Astro-boy, but she can't because she's not a boy. One day she goes to the doctor...

Sadly I don't have the paper to retell it in all of its goodness. It was wonderful.

Another student wrote something to the effect of

June is from Kobe. She wants to go to Disneyland. One day she goes to Tokyo Disneyland and expects to meet Mickey Mouse. But she doesn't. She meets poo (sic) of a bear. She's very complicated.

I had a feeling that 'poo of a bear' secretly meant "Winnie the Pooh" ('Pooh-san' here), but had to verify. I of course had to let him in on my private joke... so I wrote on the board: Pooh = プーさん poo = うんち. The class loved it. One student even immediately used it in a sentence: "You are poo". For the record, "poo of a bear" is actually a pretty accurate translation of Winnie's full name in Japanese. In Japanese he's くまのプーさん (kuma no Pooh-san) or literally 'Bear's Pooh'.

monkehs

Ah Japan, land of glorious 3-day weekends. Yes, this weekend was yet another of the numerous little blessings that seem to cover the year in the same way I like cheese on pasta. I'd been cautioned, nay threatened against wasting it doing nothing. So, it was not wasted.

Okay, that's a lie. Saturday was sort of wasted. I did my usual Saturday morning routine of cleaning up the weeks worth of dishes, trash and clothes that somehow make their way into my living room. My neighbor kid came over to play DS like he usually does on Saturday when my car is at my house. He also, as usual, begged me to make french fries with him. (This all started one weekend oh-so-long ago when I made fries for myself, which he found incredible) Since it was his birthday, I relented and had a nice snack of fresh fries. It was actually really sweet, he told me as we were making them "Your fries are my favorite fries of all". I think he secretly just likes being allowed to cut things with a sharp knife and throw them in boiling oil.

In any case, it then started snowing. Previously I'd made plans to have a couple of friends come over to watch Firefly (which we've now termed 'space-machine show' in honor of an endearing question). Juggling people is always difficult, so in the fall out we ended with 2, and lots and lots of extra pizza and hamburgers. Nothing went to waste, yum.

The snow piled up quickly, and its volume screamed for time at the onsen. Snow falling at night while the branches of trees grow heavy with its weight, all seen through the steamy spectacles of a hot spring make the heart light. It was a good time, although a shame D had to be all alone on on the female side.

The next day, the same juggling that pruned my group of space-machine show watchers, also pruned our plans to go to see the bathing monkeys in Nagano prefecture. It worked well though, as the car was less cramped and I didn't have to do such a good job of cleaning it. A quick drive on the expressway led us to an amazing little town in north Nagano. The streets were narrow, there were ryokan everywhere and their clients walked the streets in geta and traditional dress trying the many hot-springs. It was amazing. Even more though was the original intent of our trip. 2.4k outside of town there is a natural set of hot springs where wild monkeys gather in the winter to escape the cold. It was amazing. The walk was long, but the forest it was in beautiful. The monkeys were everywhere, and absolutely not scared of people. If I'd had the mind, I could totally have punched any of the 200 monkeys that live in the area. They were also adorable, sitting in their own private onsen. Would that they had little towels to perch on their heads the image would be hilarious.

On the way back from the monkeys, we stopped in Nagano city to pick up a friend I hadn't seen in nearly 10 years who happened to be in Japan on a ski trip. I'd gone to school with Spencer from 5th grade up through the middle of high-school. It was great to see him again, and surreal to hear names I hadn't even thought of in years. Also depressing, in the number of names that were mentioned that were followed by 'got married' was much higher than I had expected. Oh well, so far no children. It was a really fun time showing him around my favorite little spots near my house, but sad that we didn't have time to see more.

***
During a run yesterday with my friend, I was surprised at how I was both less tired ready to go further than I am when I go it alone. On the way to school today I wondered if there might be a nice metaphor for life in that.

strange men

Someone, at some point, sent me a link that I've since lost to these long sticks that they have in schools here. At the time I hadn't ever seen them. Today they finally came out.

They're called Sasumata, and they're... well, I just don't know. Why they exist in schools needs a bit more explanation though.

At some point in the past, somewhere in Japan, some asshole came into a school and killed some kids. As a result schools are quickly becoming more and more prison like. All schools are now completely surrounded by fences, and all entrances (save the student entrance) are supposed to be locked. My schools fences are all pretty casual. Existing, but not unscalable walls of protection like I've seen closer to the city. There is an elementary school on my drive to the city completely surrounded by steel walls. The gates have thick glass portholes through which you can see in, but that's the only part. I asked about it, and they said it's not entirely for protection but for noise. It's still really surprising when you see it for the first time.

A further result to this are drills like we had today. The "Strange Man Drill" is designed, like all school drills, to give the students a plan of action in the case of an emergency. One of the teachers dresses up weirdly and wields a fake knife. There are secret codes and complicated contingencies, but it's pretty much like a fire drill in the end. Students run out of the class and meet at a safe place.

So where does the sasumata come in? Well look at this place that sells sasumata. As you can see if they're handy, people (teachers) grab them and pin the intruder to a wall, or pretty much just keep him away from stabbing people. I really don't know what to think. It doesn't seem like it would be very effective though. Maybe if you had a few people armed with them, but I just don't know.

In any case, our staff enjoyed playing with them this morning. Several of the teachers were fighting with them in the staff room, and it was quite hilarious. At one point one of our smaller teachers got pinned, but he just started walking with determination and slid the person pinning him across the floor. I guess these ought to come with warnings to wear shoes with tread, and to only pin people if you're not on a slippery surface!

Sadly the satsuma will go back to their home: one of our local elementary schools before I'll probably get a chance to play with them. Oh well, there's always next year! (or when I go and visit that elementary in a week)

snow!

I had a good weekend. Played Settlers of Catan with the most random and unexpected group. I'll just put it this way: it was 90% girls. Many were first time players, but it seemed like everyone had a good time.

The next day I went hiking at Mt. Miyogi. Beautiful, fun and cold. Especially when we got to the part with the snow, and I was still in my sandals. Thankfully the others convinced me to bring along my shoes just in case, so I just changed out. It was pretty cold there for a spell. Miyogi was really, really nice. I look forward to heading back up there again. There are lots of trails all around the mountain. Some of the parts we went up were only really accessible by scrambling up rocks. That is, until Japan installed chains. It was still a bit scary at parts though!

I really love the mountains in this area. They all have really unique looks. You really can't visit Gunma without hearing about our 3 famous mountains; Akagi, Miyogi and Haruna. They're on the prefectural flag, they're the names of sports teams during school sports days. They're everywhere. For good reason too, they're really cool all three.

Post hike, we visited an onsen. I haven't really talked much about the public baths here. First some definitions. An onsen (温泉) is a natural hot spring. It's a public bath, but with a bit more class. They often have the temperature and mineral content of the water listed, and many places are purported to have special healing powers. Or at least be good for one ailment or another. An ofuro (お風呂) is just a bath. Onsen are great. They're cheap, relaxing and an overall good time. As long as you can stand being naked with other people. They are sex segregated (usually), so no worries about leering perverts... but the first time is a bit strange. You get over it fast though when you realize how awesome they are.

Local to Kurabuchi, we have 3 onsen. One of them is within walking distance to my house. It's really nice, and was exceedingly nice on Sunday when we got about 10 cm of snow! I was surprised how much was falling, and how much had fallen when I woke up on Sunday. It was a winter wonderland. I knew when it was still snowing, I had to go to the onsen and enjoy snow like it was meant to be: naked, outside and sitting in hot water. It was wonderful, and I had to repeat it the next day... which put me up to 3 onsen visits in 3 days.

The snow is slowly starting to melt now, but it's still hanging out. There is supposed to be more this weekend, but we'll see.