Winter

So here’s a dangerous combination that I haven’t really encountered before: a paycheck, a city, and a vacation. Dangerous because it really throws a dent into any habits I’ve made in the past couple months. For the first time in my life I’ve become not only comfortably but naturally waking up before 6 o’clock in the morning. I’ve bought groceries without needing to forgo flavor. And I’ve gotten used to spending my time in a two mile radius (something I learned in good old Northfield). I can tell you none of those habits were continued through my winter break; although in school I usually say vacation because they tend to think of something completely different when I say the word break.

So the Christmas holiday comes and goes along with seemingly every other foreigner around. To be true a couple of my neighbors were still around, but it’s pretty easy to get lazy about trying to meet up or even just better to travel alone sometimes. Honestly I hate it, but there is the appeal of doing things on your own time. Luckily right before break  I was introduced to two great people.

First, Carmelo took me out the week before break to meet Yukie, a retired English/Math teacher with a part time job at Curves and a love of wine. We had great sashimi and washoku at a restaurant actually operated by one of student’s family. He showed up to see me, and I suspect boosted my street cred a little as he messaged all my other students about my unexpected appearance at this completely local dive.

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Then around the same time Amber,  who has probably met more people in the past months than I have total since leaving college, introduced me to Gavin who’d taken over the English tutor position of one of her friends. It was a bit uncanny the first time I met him, as we started to seem pretty identical in terms of interests. He started off by saying he was from Washington and lived in Seattle (my home away from home), and that he was into rock climbing, anime, and Magic the Gathering. Now if those weren’t already too specific the real kicker is the fact that he worked at Trader Joe’s after college (the exact job that I did on the opposite side of the country). At the end of the night I was beginning to think maybe we’d be too similar to get along. (After all, I do like to spend a lot of my time disagreeing with people.) Thankfully with our similarities it’s pretty easy to understand his way of thinking while there’s still enough difference to have some great conversation.

He’d only been in the country for a month by the time winter vacation hit, so we both hadn’t made plans and didn’t know where to go. On top of that it was his birthday right after Christmas (a fact he claims he almost forgot), I insisted we go to the city to celebrate.

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Thus begins the downfall into thinking like we could afford to do anything and go anywhere. After all my paycheck was still fresh, and there was nothing to do. We ended up going back to the city a couple more times in the next week to shop, explore, or drink. It was weird to see this different social side of Japan. One night we went to find dinner after 7 o’clock and went through at least ten restaurants before we found one that was open. Granted many people had time off because of New Years, but coming from the inaka, I wasn’t used to seeing so many crowds.

The New Years was also a strange thing for me. New Years eve has never been a big selling point for me. It seems like in the past every party I’ve been to has been a bust of either people getting to drunk or awkwardly having no other reason to come together. One time four years ago I wound up on the couch of a frat house at the U of M with a bunch of high school friends and company, while not knowing really anyone who lived in the house. It was almost awful, and awkward coming from a tiny liberal arts school with no frats/sororities or drinking culture.

So Yukie invited me to join her for a wine tasting party on the New Years eve and figuring it could be the best New Year’s eve to date I accepted. Her house is about a fifteen minute walk away from my apartment, so I left without a hurry after getting ready in whatever apparel I’d hoped could compete with the always on point fashion trends of Japan. I should also mention that I’d been growing out my facial hair since the vacation started and was now spotting a lackluster mustache and goatee. By Japanese standards it was pretty envious, but on a whole I’d call it dasai. Not to mention within a moment of heading out the door the entire sky unleashed a torrent of horizontal rain. I arrived with two tone pants and a hardly functioning umbrella thankful that this was the type of tasting where we wouldn’t spit out the wine.

All in all it was probably the best New Year’s Even I could’ve hoped for. When I arrived I met Yukie’s four other guests, a mother and her three sons. Two were in college at 21 and 23 while the other who was 26 worked for Toyota. Now before this Yukie had invited me over twice before. Once I met another one of her older members at Curves, while the other time was with two high school sisters who were going abroad to Seattle. As someone who’s yet to really make any Japanese friend (or even at most acquaintances) they were not quite the company I’d been hoping for. Also the dating culture is a bit hard to understand so at many points I kept thinking she might’ve been trying to set me up, too. And yet now she’d introduced three incredibly smart and stylish guys my age, two of which lived in Osaka and Tokyo. Finally my potential for leaving my hermitage and exploring Japan gained some motivation. We opened six bottles of wine and one of champagne while, possibly, going through at least two more. We also ate mochi and osechi to celebrate the new year. In the end they even offered to give me their old bike (probably at the prompting of Yukie, I didn’t mention the subject), and gave me a ride home.

That night I went over to Gavin’s where we tried to figure out something to do while watching anime. As the inevitable midnight approached, I pulled out some fresh soba noodles Yukie had left with me and cooked them. Apparently there’s a tradition of eating them on New Year’s eve because they’re long and represent a long life or something. We chowed down, and then went outside to the chiming of temple bells to see what the night had to offer.

There were still people shuffling together down the empty and dark streets as we wound toward the river and a temple by another ALT’s apartment. It was weird walking around so late, and taking the back roads we passed through the normal road I take to get to school without me recognizing it until we were a block away. It really made me acknowledge how much I have to discover even in this city that I live in.

When we arrived we accepted a piece of dried squid and shot of hot sake from the oldest band of Japanese men manning the shrine. Not a bad life. We met the two other ALTs and hung out at an apartment for a while longer. It didn’t quite feel like 3 in the morning when we left, and it definitely didn’t feel like New Years. On the walk back home we stopped in a McDonald’s to truly celebrate like Americans.

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Soba

As I wrote in the last post Christmas time just wasn’t here in Japan. Maybe if I came from the west coast like the majority of my peers I would’ve been more used to it, but alas the heart of the country always offers snow, time with family, warm blankets, and good food.

I guess one out of four isn’t too bad.

I went to work on Christmas day, a mere two days into Winter Vacation looking forward to relaxing a bit without any classes. After all, the picture above is literally what I came home to so it’s not like I could complain about the weather. Remember I’m still walking to school every morning (uphill both ways if it rains).

It’s a bit weird because this was basically my first time experiencing a school break since in the summer I had only just arrived and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Also during that time everyone was still around because of the Sports Festival, the Culture Festival, and just generally kids in this town don’t have too many other options as far as places to hang out. Now it’s a bit different because the end of the year happens to be a pretty big holiday in Japan with a decent amount of meaning attached to it so people tend to have better things to do than go to school. Unless you’re a teacher of course.

So there I was, without much direction, without even my American co-worker (who decided to go back to America), having the weirdest Christmas to date, sitting in the teacher’s room trying to plan what I’d be doing for the rest of the day when one of the teachers comes by and asks if I’d like to make soba.

“Right now?” I think at this point plenty of responses would’ve been appropriate, just cracking ten o’clock this did not seem like the right time to be making soba. But it’s not quite like I had anything else to do so, I followed him and a group of other teachers out and down to the home ec classroom.

They quickly unpacked all the good and I saw how much of operation they planned. One of the older teachers said that he usually made soda once a week, so I did my best not to look like a fool when he was teaching me the techniques.

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Up until now I haven’t really ever looked at the food that I was eating. Occasionally – especially when having yakisoba – I’ve tried to discern what exactly goes into the dish so that I can try and buy and make the foods myself. The biggest problem I’ve found is so many ingredients in Japan are misleading at first glance. Take for example daikon (in the picture above). It’s a unique Japanese vegetable whose name literally translates to “big root.” I’m not quite sure how to explain its flavor. It’s sweet and bitter like an onion with the texture of a potato but seems more like a radish on steroids.

The actual materials that go into soba noodles are equally as flummoxing. As far as I can tell soba is the literal word for buckweat, but otherwise it’s sometimes used to refer to any sort of thin noodle. (For me this was a huge revelation when I finally understood that yakisoba is not made with soba noodles.) And the actual process of making the noodles only included two ingredients: buckwheat flour and water (and you can hardly include water as an ingredient).

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Luckily the process of folding the dough and then rolling it out was as simple as the ingredients and coming from a family of bakers and cooks I think I got the gist out of it pretty quickly.

We also made a crap ton of dough. I wasn’t even sure what kind of time was passing because I was so focused on making the stuff. We were doing all this for some sort of holiday cafe. Obviously it was all on school time so we had to have some sort of focus for it. As we were going occasionally one teacher would peek in and ask if it was ready. Most of them were engaged in whatever sports club they were leading so they still had a lot of free time.

After rolling out the dough for the longest time, we folded it delicately in half three times and then brought out the biggest knives I’ve seen. In fact they could’ve easily been mistaken for butchering, but they were specifically made for the sole purpose of slicing these noodles.

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When they’re all chopped the cooking process doesn’t take any bit of time. I’d say they can’t being in the boiling water for over two minutes and I was taught to let the water get to boiling over at least twice before you knew they were ready. Noodles, I find, are such a particular thing. Some people prefer them firm, which I’ve never really noticed or understood, but if you don’t pay extreme attention to them then they’ll instantly become chewy pieces of goop. So I think I got the gist of how to cook them, but really I can’t really know if anyone else noticed.

Also an unusual thing we were doing, at the end, was dunking them in ice water. Because of all the flour, the noodles need to be washed vigorously. I haven’t really figured out how you would serve them hot, or even if this recipe produces that kind of soba, but all the well, our noodles would be served cold. Which before thinking about it might seem try, after trying it is unusually delicious. I can only compare them with a pasta salad, but coming from America all my pasta salads have been drenched in mayonnaise or salad dressing. Instead this was pretty fresh on its flavors.

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With the combined ingredients and a little bit of soy sauce to fill the bowl it was a tasty snack, a filling lunch, and definitely a new favorite. I’ve been told it gets to be a great refresher in the summer when you don’t want something hot. Although, without the materials I doubt I’ll ever be able to make it at home, at least this time I’ve got all the ingredients checked off so I can actually buy them and know what to do with them. If we could do this every holiday I think I’d be set. For now maybe I’ll just try to convince the Home Ec teacher to let to sit in on the classes where they cook food. I’ve seen the kids skewer and fry whole fish, so it’d probably be a good way to get over my queasiness of cooking with foods that have eyes still attached to them. After all, my hatred for the niboshi they serve in the school lunch has slowly diminished.

Anyway, a big hit and fulfilling Christmas. In the end I could do without the snow and warm blankets, and it was spent with what’s become a kind of family, at least the closest I can get within three thousand miles. Itadakimasu.

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Christmas

As you might expect from a country where only 1% of the 127 million people identify as Christians, the concept of Christmas isn’t really hashed out. In fact, if you presented my students with a picture of Jesus, Santa Claus, and Disney’s Olaf from Frozen I can tell you that they’d only be able to recognize two out of the three. With that said, a couple of my students are Christian which is pretty neat (though, they’re mostly Brazilian), and on a whole Christmas is still a pretty well known day. Of course, as many American conservatives would point out, the change in Christmas (is not a war but) stems from the fact that anything that can make a buck will.

The same hold true over here, as Christmas is mostly celebrated between young lovers going out and having a date, while some parents–especially those keen on Western cultlure–will break out a present for their kids. For me this hardly feels like Christmas time. I blame a lot of it on the lack of Christmas songs, though, my local grocery and convenient stores have an instrumental playlist going. I think the entirety of the issue probably stems from this:

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As someone who has literally never spent a Christmas Eve away from his Grandma’s house in snowy Minnesota, how the hell can I consider this appropriate winter weather?

*That picture was actually taken on Christmas day, meaning December 25.

So, weather wise it was such a lovely day, if  I learned anything from the Whos down in Whoville, it’s that the spirit of Christmas is all that matters. And with the last day of school the day before Christmas eve, it was hard for the mood in the teacher’s office not to be a bit festive.

This leads into what is probably the most formal celebrations any school has during the year: the bonenkai, or as I’ve been told in literal translation: the forget-the-year party.

After a pretty tiring day I quick walked back home to change after school and returned to school to make the bus up to the city. Not gonna lie in saying I was totally looking forward to the night. I was ready for the experience, but I was also extremely exhausted. I basically napped on the hour long bus ride up to the hotel where we got dropped off.

It felt kind of like going to a school dance. Some people where dressed up, and we shuffled into an elevator up to the banquet room. Our seating place were random, though I’m not sure I entirely believe that since I’ve been seated next to my adviser the past two times (not that that’s any bit a bad thing). It’s another time when I realized how lucky I usually am to have another ALT at my school. She sadly had to leave early to catch her plane back to America, but I was desperately wishing to have an English speaking friend go through this new experience with me. This time I got placed in the center table just a seat away from our kouchou-sensei, or the principal. While people were filing in, hardly anyone coming to our table, I figured I’d have to do my best to get into a conversation with him.

He’s actually a bomb guy. I’ve hardly had many interactions with him that don’t involve me being polite and letting him pass by me in the hall, or saying good morning, but I’ve heard enough fantastic stories. Even at the nationals race I went to in Yamaguchi, I met his wife who was a former English teacher and I think we mostly talked about him (and the fact that her somewhat British accent was some of the most fluent English I’d heard from a Japanese teacher). I knew that he was formerly an art teacher so I started off with that.

Lucky for me this topic of conversation hardly went beyond level 2 Japanese. It went something like this:

Me: So, I heard that you were an art teacher? My college major was art. What art do you do?

校長先生: Oh, really? I enjoy painting.

Me: Last year, I worked as a printmaker, but I enjoyed painting, who is you favorite?

校長先生: I really enjoy Pablo Picasso.

Me: (thinking about the only period of Picasso that I enjoy) Oh, me too. What is your favorite series?

校長先生: I have to say… his blue period.

Me: Fantastic! Me too (true story).

We then went on to talk about how–in about three months–he’ll be retiring. Completely new news to me, and even if I don’t get to see him all the time, pretty bummed to hear he won’t even be nearby. He’s got a motto around the school called “yaruki smile” (somewhere along the lines of shining smile) and he really lives up to it himself. He just seems like a completely jolly dude. He mentioned how after he retires he wants to get back into painting and visit Spain to see the art there. He’s been studying Spanish for a while now.

Me: Eh! Amazing! When I was in high school I spoke Spanish really well, but now, it’s just a bit. But I will try to practice with you if I can.

校長先生: por favor, un poco hablamos bien.

Off to a great start, and as my supervisor came and sat down next to me like clockwork the night started off with a highlight reel projected in the front of all the fun things that happened this year. A weird feeling to see how recently it was that a completely different person got to take care of all the students like I am doing with a completely different approach.

Then the servers brought in the beer, and like bees in a hive a rush of order beyond comprehension was occurring. We naturally had a moment to pause with filled glasses and say kampai lifting them in the air and clinging them against each other. But as I drank and sat back down, it’s like I entered the twilight zone.

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Eventually I looked over to my adviser and whispered, “Do I need to do anything?” He laughed looking around and said “No, I think it’s Ok, you’re kinda like a guest so you don’t need to worry.”

I was worrying because probably more than half the teachers were jumping around the seats and tables with bottles of beer cradled like a diamond in their arms stopping at anyone seated to fill, almost longingly, their drinks to the brim. Guess it’s a basic custom, not hard to figure out, where the lowlies and newbies serve the higher more respected. I felt kinda bad for kouchou-sensei because every time he took a drink he had to pause to have someone offer to fill his drink again. Usually it’s a good way of making sure everyone has a good time, but often also a very tenuous way to drink as well.

Anyway, once the drinks were thoroughly distributed our appetizers were served, and people got ready for the second year teacher committee who organized the night to perform their main act. It consisted of a somewhat racy and raunchy skit about how one of the teachers was looking for a boyfriend, and turned into a sort of Dating Game style act. I simultaneously wanted to understand everything they said and was thankful that I didn’t get all the jokes they were saying.

This was followed by games that even I was involved in, more drinking, more socializing, and all the while plates of delectable food placed in front of me.

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There were three forks, three knives, chopsticks and a spoon, so I’m thinking that’s what you call a four course meal.

While mingling for a couple more drinks we got organized to move onto the next event, whatever that was to mean. And then kouchou-sensei leaned over to make one last comment.

校長先生: (in English, with yaruki smile) I’ve never seen an ALT do what you’ve done… (he pauses to figure out from my adviser what words to use next) to join running club every day. You care about the students so much. When I saw you at Yamaguchi, I was so proud that you are at this school. You’re a good person, and I think you will do big things in Japan.

Honestly, I blame it on constantly having to have his glass filled, but by the time he finished I was practically rippling in tears of happiness. Like, the last time anyone has ever said such a great thing about me is lost in my recent memory. My adviser was totally loving it watching on the sides, too, because kouchou-sensei was probably on the verge of keeling over in drunken glee.

The rest of the night was similar to the night I spent in Yamaguchi after we’d gotten dinner at the Korean BBQ restaurant. I went into a group with about six other teachers, some of my favorites, and we headed out on the town, winding down an alley to a legitimate bar, literally the first I’ve been to here. We order more drinks, so food, and I felt again like I was the most interesting thing in the room, but more than happy to answer the questions shot at me and practice my Japanese. When it got to be a little after 11 o’clock I was hoping to stay out more–do karaoke, or bowling, or anything–but since I was forced to take the bus home, I had to call it early.

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All together, though, a great way to end the first phase of being here, start the winter vacation, and make up for not going home for the break. It might not look much like winter, but it’s not too far away from feeling like it.

 

Skywalker

SPOILERS

Tonight I saw the newest Star Wars movie in theaters. It’s something that could join because at the beginning of the month one of the other JETs were able to round a group for pre-sale tickets. I couldn’t believe it’d been a decade since the last one came out, and really I only remember seeing Episode I in theaters with my dad and brothers back at the turn of the millennium because afterwards me and my older brother spent more than an hour with fight with stick swords on a sandy volleyball court pretending we were Jedi.

So after avoiding watching almost any trailer I was ready to be blown away by not only a great series, but one of my favorite directors. I also felt morally obligated by the value of Star Wars knowledge instilled in me through my piano teacher.

And it was great, and weird, but the Japanese subtitles were hardly noticeable. Anyone who’s seen a movie with me, though, will know how I react and can make a guess at how that is completely opposite to how Japanese people see movies. I mean, come on, when the Millennium Falcon is blasting away and Finn is matching almost the exact moves of A New Hope how can you not just want to shout with glee. Well, basically I did while trying to contain as much of it as possible pinching the other American sitting beside me and basically lacerating his arm as Han Solo steps onto the walkway. But really no reaction from the crowd, to anything, no cheers, no gasps, no sighs of relief gave me that rare realization of another thing I’m missing in America.

After experiencing it all–and literally all, because lights don’t come on until after the credits–I can say it was a great idea on my part, and I would’ve failed not seeing spoilers. Although, for once I was pretty impressed with the internet’s ability at restraint.

Also, short story to the featured photo. I have know clue who that person is. While I drove with the woman taking the photo, the storm trooper came up beside her and joined in my picture. I was convinced it was one of the guys we were meeting at the theater, and greeted him as such with a, “took you long enough.” It was only during taking the photo when the guy I expected then actually finally walked up beside the photographer that I realized if my life was a scary movie I’d have already been doomed.

Salsa

So it’s a Wednesday. Winter has fully arrived with rain in the morning and rain at night. Within two weeks the second semester ends and Winter Break is here. Yet school is in full force with interview tests for the third years and worksheets to correct for the younger ones. So, what is a foreigner to do?

Ever since arrive I’m pretty often finding myself a little late to the party. I’m not quite sure if it’s always been like this, but some time long ago I really kind of just stopped paying attention to Facebook. I’d even considered deleting it, but in today’s age–in the long run–I think that’s just simply madness. So it was when I arrived to Japan, and even still I hardly use it except to occasionally check in and communicate with the less available people in my life. In those cases, it’s pretty easy to miss out on the things people plan. If someone–especially someone who lives outside of the same city–puts up an event online sometimes they just sort of let it go off on its own without any sort of promotion. So after a while I started to become vigilant with emails and Facebook events (including the things I did around Thanksgiving). Thus after being recruited by Carmelo, I wound up looking forward to this Wednesday event quite a ways out.

Really it’s a strange occurrence that we mostly twenty-something adults have the system in place to create such a space. Voluntarily submitted to the somewhat isolating experience of living in a foreign country, I wonder how this community formed at first. Maybe it’s something the program put in place all along, or maybe it’s something that developed organically. Either way it’s something I don’t think most people are lucky enough to have. That’s mostly last year New York me talking, where even with the greatest city in the world at my doorstep I often found it hard to figure out what to do alone with my free time.

So a small group of us looking to escape the toils of monotony convened in the small dance studio at the whim of one of the coolest Brits I’ve met (granted I haven’t met many people from England). It’s hard to describe what happened in the following three hours, but it was all a lot of fun. Basically imagine us getting into teams of six and doing winter themed…well, not really winter themed, but games that involved the silliest of silliness.

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It started pretty simple, some college games using solo cups and ping pong balls, but let’s just say it escalated quickly.

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This was kind of like reverse limbo, and well, I’m just gonna let you figure it out on your own. Just a note, though, I wasn’t wearing those green tights to begin with.

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Photos courtesy of www.whereisamber.com, she’s my neighbor and a new JET too, with a lot more wanderlust than me, so check out her website.

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Really, it’s cool to do these kind of things every once in a while. Like really, I feel like I’m constantly forcing these types of activities on my students so it’s good to be in their shoes and experience how to make things fun and have fun doing things completely random and unattached to anything important in life.

I was thoroughly exhausted by the end of the night, and it only emphasized how ready I was to take a bit of a break soon. I’m planning on sticking around to work on some awesome lessons for the next semester, but that hopefully won’t mean I don’t get down time, then again hopefully that means I won’t be too lazy either.

Yamaguchi

Maybe I’ve said this before, but even if I have it bears repeating:

It’s sometimes unbelievable how much a constant running has been throughout my life.

Out of so many other sports, clubs, interests, religions, hobbies, and places I’ve gone in life, it’s the only thing that’s stayed there. It’s responsible for some of my closest friends, my biggest achievements, and quite entirely my college experience.

So ever before coming to Japan I was doing research on what the running scene was like. My expectations for a low interest and slow field were pretty wiped when I found out that there’s a decent crew of fast runners throughout the nation (though mostly central, like America’s heartland of talent). Especially with the Olympics approaching, the government is encouraging and funding even more programs specifically towards younger people to do well in sports. (For example, this 16 year old track star will likely podium for Japan in Tokyo 2020.)

I was pretty happy to be put in Fukui just out of the fact that it’s got some nature to make long runs through. I’ve been holding off talking about my own running experience for the proper post, but I’ll just add that this is the first time in a while I’ve been running without a direct goal.

Even last year, my first seasons out of college running I still looked forward to my alumni races or the season in the fall. Unfortunately here, the season is less year round and more marathon focused. And I am one to swear against any sort of marathon in the foreseeable future (though Tokyo was tempting).

After busting my foot for a month and then working my way back for another, I was pretty set come October (when it finally started getting cold after I left work) to join the track team at school. It let me do something other than crushing my mind against correcting pages for the last hour of work and deleted the excuses I’d later come up with to convince me not to run. I’d been told how great the school’s track team was, and looked forward to running with a team again. Turns out the rumors were pretty true, or I was just really out of shape (and probably a bit of both). After a 3000 meter time trial where the top time was around 9:40 I decided that at least three of them could be faster than me (the equivalent of an American ninth grader). It intrigued me to find out how fast the actual elite were, and I immediately vocalized my interest in going to the national race at the end of the season.

So, the days go by, and the time I enjoy at school grows exponentially simply because I recognize more students and know more about their lives. I’d been thinking about my counterpart back home, Kelson, who’d signed up for his second season of coaching and get why he enjoys it. At the least it keeps me from getting fat, at the most it keeps me young.

And finally it the week of the race, and I’m psyched. I came in to the teacher’s room after practice on a dark December night to see some of my co-workers huddled in the end of a discussion. “So,” one of the teachers says, “it’ll be about 1 mansen yen, is that OK? That’ll cover everything, transportation and hotel.”

I shrugged, not quite expecting it to be that much, but really can you put a price to anything nowadays. “Sure.”

And we’re off. The end of the week there was no practice because over ten kids were going to this race in Yamaguchi, which included all the long distance side of the team and even a couple soccer players. There was a lot of nostalgia on my part, remembering packing up the St. Olaf vans for the rides to Regionals and Nationals. Thus was the feeling that came to me as I got picked up a little after the afternoon on Saturday to make the eight hour ride to the end of honshu Japan.

Now, a long time ago, I wasn’t really considering how long it would take to get to Yamaguchi. When accounting for the less than three hour trips in each direction to get to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Nagano, I’d always had this skewed image that Japan as an island couldn’t take any time to get to any important point on the map. But whatever, I was committed with a notebook and Clive Cussler novel and ready for the trip.

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As much as I love to go into the menial details, I’ll skip over the drive to wind up the night sitting at the end of a table full of raw meet and drinks. By the time I was at number two, everyone else was telling me it was number three, but the food was delicious so I didn’t care. It was my first time eating this kind of Korean bbq, and I topped off the meal with bibimbop thinking of Stef in San Francisco. One great common thing when getting meals with a group of people in Japan is the evenly split bill at the end of the night. It’s pretty nice for everyone just to take responsibility for the whole, and encourages a pretty good time. It can get a bit awkward if you’re sure someone has been hogging the drinks or food, but then you just deal with it through a bit of moral superior karma. Of course, the 5000 yen bill at the end kind of hurt, but at that point in the month I still had time to live wealthy.

Of course, that wasn’t the end to the night by far, and as we left I quickly got a small glimpse of Japanese social (gender) expectations, as the women of the group headed of in one direction (presumably to the hotel, but I’d have to guess that’s strictly a presumption) while the men stroll in the other direction. I ended up in another bar, somewhat izakaya style, while we brought up another chair to a table and ordered a nomihoudai. It’s times like these, only a few so far I’ve had, that make me feel like I fit in exactly how I should. Even in the presence of two other English teachers, I was shooting out Japanese back at the questions asked to me.

Not too much excitement for the night, but enough contentment for me.

(And I got to sleep in a bed! Always a good time, compared to the futon that I roll out on my floor every night. I hardly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, but sleeping in an actually bed still comes off like a luxury.)

Thus, it came that I woke up within ten minutes of check-out time–luckily before my co-workers messaged me to ask if I was ready to go–as I rushed to put on some athletic clothes and shove the rest of my stuff into my backpack. I scanned the room with the inevitable feeling I was forgetting something, and went to the lobby sheepishly ready to start the day.

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It was beyond impressive to see the extent of how the race was set up. It’s basically in a state park, but the park from what I gleaned is set-up specifically to hold outdoor running events. Now, I know we’ve got shoe companies in America that host these races–this one was sponsored by Mizuno–but even at my college level I never saw such support built in for running teams, let alone for junior high school level. The tents alone were a little over fifty teams, each with a tent the size of my apartment and a decent amount of people there to watch. (Also, take into account that only 6 of the dozen students they brought were racing, but all of them rode the shinkansen and hosted up in a hotel for three nights. Quite frickin’ awesomely unbelieveable.)

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We waited around for a good couple of hours. I took a chance to walk around. It’s weird because back home, I never feel too far out because plenty of my students are mixed race, not to mention a decent amount of my neighbors are Brazilian. Now, at this pretty specific Japanese event, I was quite certain I was not only the only non-Japanese person, but the only dark skinned human over six feet tall. I mean, I certainly have that constant look over your shoulder in America, but here’s it’s a similar feeling for a completely different reason.

Anyway, I ended up running into a couple of my students heading down to the merchandise stall. They helped me in choosing a sweater, and I ended up meeting some of their parents. It was weird because I could hear them talk about me before I turned around to them, and even though I’d never met them, they already clearly knew who I was. Later on, one of the third year’s mothers thanked me so much for joining the team and even a little sister from one of my elementary school visits recognized me with a surprised, “Dillon-sensei?!” We’re talking first graders here that I taught for one hour two weeks ago remembering me by name. It was a crazy realization just to point out how connected I was to the community without even doing anything–or much, at least.

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The boys race went off after the girls, and anxiously I crowded around to saw a mass pile through the first curve of the track hardly distinguishable from one another until they passed beyond the treeline to the 3km trail. Basically over the next hour it was me running back and forth trying to cheer at all the good spots, take times and pictures, and keep warm. The weather started decent, but actually got a bit shady and chilled during the middle. An hour went by, and well, the lead team was dominating and my team, well, was not. We weren’t in last, or too near it, but we definitely weren’t towards the front or, maybe even in a standard deviation of the middle. Oh well, it was inspiring to see everyone try and think about pushing them through the winter to make a better performance for next year.189188

And just like that we were back on the road, literally as the students were bowing in the traditional appreciative thanks my group was shuffling back to our van to make the eight hour return trip. Can’t say it was as much fun as the way up there, but I was satiated on a well spent weekend full of nostalgia and inspiration. As I start to expect snow any time soon I can already say I can’t wait for the spring. I know I’ll keep up running, but really it’s just awful compared to the rest of the year. Luckily I’ve still got a great team to keep me motivated.

Haikus

Trying to pass boredom and the lull as Winter Vacation approaches and also fulfill my half of the bulletin board decorations. I figured an appropriate and easy to understand activity would be creating some Haikus. Perhaps even more popular or parodied in American culture, these quintessentially Japanese poems a typically written to coincide with the season. It’s yet to feel quite like any winter I’ve experienced, so I created a couple to get in the festive mood.

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The instructions are quite simple–I even typed them out in Japanese–unfortunately, no one has come up with anything yet…

Winter Haikus / 冬の俳句

  • 3 sentences long / 3文です。
  • About nature / 自然についてです。
  • 5-7-5 syllables / 5-7-5音節です。

 

Elementary

Look, whatever follows, I’m not saying I don’t like little kids, I’m fine with taking care of them, they’re super cute and imaginative, but I will never again want to educate them, and I hardly think I can manage to believe they’re all anything but demons in disguise.

After meeting with a teacher from one of the two elementary schools I would visit in the coming week, I woke up around 5 o’clock to get a jump start on the day and make sure any final lesson plans I had were taken care of. I’m not exactly sure when we said to meet, some point around 9:45 I’m sure, which would normally mean I get to sleep in a little. Without having car, though, I didn’t want to risk underestimating the amount of time it would take to make the 5km walk to the school. So naturally I left before nine o’clock bag packed with scissors paper and crayons.

Early would underestimate how quickly I got there, and even though punctuality in Japan is stereotyped towards the ten minute beforehand  arrival, this was awkwardly coming in at over thirty minutes. The teacher I’d previously met greeted me at the door and brought me in and showed me to an empty desk in the teacher’s room. I felt pretty proud of myself for figuring out to introduce myself to the vice principal who then in turn showed me to the principal’s office, a stoic man who was a bit more intimidating than my vice principal which is like comparing Jack Nicholson to Robert Deniro.

Then I got to work cutting out the remaining props for my plan. They were to provide me with an oversized version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear. It’s kind of creepy to see my education finally come full circle where that book was being used back when I was in kindergarten and now I’m teaching it to kindergarteners.

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They weren’t much, but I must say (off the tail of my Batman outfit) that they’re little you can’t do with a couple of crafts from the dollar store. Finally the bell rang, the door to the teacher’s room opened and what can only be described as the most adorable interaction I’ve had thus far in Japan commenced.

Imagine yourself for a moment being six years old again. Probably hard to do, I was even struggling after today, but just think about how little you know about the world, how fun and exciting each experience is, the longing and jealousy to just be older like everyone else. Then, imagine you’re in a homogenized society where virtually everything you see conforms to a single cultural lifestyle (plus or minus a few) so that anything that is ever out of place is magnified disproportionately. OK, so you’ve got that situation, and you’ve got this tall (ginormous by their standards) (handsome) opposite skin color guy who doesn’t speak your language, and you’ve been commanded to fetch him from the teacher’s room and bring him to your classroom. Remember, you’re six so your grasp of anything let alone the language you speak is just barely becoming functional.

Thus I was put, as three kids waddled in through the aisle between the desk wearing their red track suits (gym uniforms) and boshi (caps) practically sucking their thumbs and stopping in front of my desk staring at the ground. The teacher accompanying them flapped her hands and whispered in broken English, “Please come with us.”

They rocked back and forth and then together in a squeaky accordion call repeated, “Please, com-mu, withsu, us.”

And then I stood up, and realized that if I wasn’t careful I would trample them. They barely made it past my knee.

Once we got out in the hall, their territory, they livened up a bit. One girl grabbed onto my pant leg while a boy instantly put his hand between mine. The questions were equally as flurried but I found them easy to answer. Finally a group of students on my level of Japanese. I made it to the classroom without stepping on anyone and my guts still in tact.

I guess now’s as good as anytime to mention that this first class I was teaching was special education. I had been told this beforehand, but really didn’t have much to compare it to apart from my own junior high school’s group of ten students. Really, it was nothing like what I expected. Along with the teacher who came with the students, five other teachers were in the room to greet me with a horseshoe of desks with a dozen students. That was almost one teacher for every two students! Seemed like incredible resources and certainly made the class more fun. I started by asking each student their name, and had them ask me questions. Pretty fun, pretty simple, and almost all of them were involved. Then we went over the characters of the book–going through names and colors. I read through it once, and then had them (attempt) at repeating me and take turns at guessing which character would be on the next page.

I realized about halfway that I had know clue how long the class period would go, and so while I stalled for time at the end I pulled out the always (but hardly) faithful “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I don’t remember it being so simple, and really it’s a terrible song to captivate little kids for any amount of time. Or maybe it’s not, but I just felt like after three times, and then going slow and going fast, no time had passed at all and I was still on the clock for their attention. Luckily just as I stumbled for time, the bell rang, and they all jumped up to carry me back to the teacher’s room.

And that’s where the highlights of the day end.

I mean, not really, at least, at the time I didn’t feel that way.

So, I’m back in the teacher’s room where I started, and the bell rings, and another group of students slink into the teacher’s room and bashfully warm up to me as we walk to the next classroom. Only this time I enter a classroom with one teacher, who doesn’t speak English, and about thirty more of these shrilling minions.

I read somewhere online that kids are just tiny drunk adults, and that’s never been more clear to me before today.

Really, it’s more like their classroom was a rock show and I was Def Leppard. Probably even worse than fans at a Def Leppard concert, maybe Poison is more accurate.

I walked in to a literal rush of screams as the tiny devils leaned over their miniature desks with mouths blaring and eyes squinting together. Once I calmed them down the first time, anything I did or picture I showed would incite the squeals again like the tsunami after an earthquake. It got to the point where I looked down at one girl who was plugging her ears, while the girl behind her screaming full force also plugged her eyes then continued to scream louder. An hour of that happened, and I ran out of time again resorting to playful songs and handshakes. At least this time I took more questions and was able to understand and functionally answer in Japanese.

The time passes eventually, and I wind up with another ten minute break before I have to prep myself to do it all over again. The second time was with third graders and a bit more manageable. I made it through my introduction slideshow with my ears ringing, answered most of their questions successfully, and made it to the end of reading “Teacher, teacher what do you see?” just as the bell rang. So, overall not too bad. But now it was lunch time. And I was so confused.

A couple of students rushed out the classroom to come back donned in the most typical outfit of a white apron jacket and chef hat. The rest of the students either organized a table at the back of class or moved their desks together to form small groups. So, I supposed I had to find my place to sit. One of the boys waved me over to a open desk by the window, so when everyone was being directed to take their turns and get in line at the main prepped table, I decided to go and sit over there. Not exactly a perfect fit when a guy over six feet tall tries to cram into a desk chair made for pint sized devils. My back ended up bucked against the window, and there was little way I would’ve been able to chopstick my food to my mouth sitting parallel to the desk. Instead, I grabbed a chair and sat between the group of desks next to the little brother of one of my first years who is on the track team.

Anyone with experience with kids, puppies, or drunk adults will probably already understand why that was a terrible idea, and it wasn’t long before I looked back at the group of desks I’d left to see the defeated face and bubbling eyes of the boy I just left. Of course, as time goes on those bubbles bubble over his eyelids to be a steady stream of abandonment and betrayal and I was faced with the fact that out of many of the potential stumbles I made that day, the worst came unexpectedly and within the last half hour.

After lunch I tried reassuring the kid that it was not in fact him that made me move, I signed his textbook, I drew him a picture, I played with him at recess. Ever time the essence of a smile would creep up on his lips, though, his eyebrows would furrow and I’d be shut down. Oh well, win some lose some.

I did have one of the best moments of my time living here so far when the lunch bell rang and the students were getting ready to go out to the play ground and one of the students tugged on my hand and ask, “Ani, will you come and play with us?” using the Japanese term for older brother and in the cutest voice you could imagine a little kid using.

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So, they’re not all bad, but definitely not enough to get me to ever want to do it again.



Update: So, as it turns out it’s was only a week later that I had to go to another elementary school. This time it was with fifth and sixth graders so they’re energy was a bit more controlled and they were definitely used to being in the classroom. I made sure to have extra small games and activities in case I ran over time, but it never happened and their English was actually pretty impressive compared to my junior high first years. Most importantly I didn’t make anyone cry, but I did have to assist when during recess a kid got blasted with a soccer ball to the face. Seems like these visits will be a once or twice a semester thing, so I can only hope the next one takes its time…