December 1, 2009
I’m on a living stipend. Which means I don’t really have “income,” but if you were to just pretend that this stipend was a salary, it would look like I make $1,000 a month. Maybe in Tanzania that would afford me a comfortable life, but in the place I call home, the upper east side of Manhattan, it’s not going to get me far.
With a disposable income of about $100 a month in a city where I formally spent that much for one night of eating and drinking, I’ve no choice but to cut down and cut out as much as possible. I only buy cups of coffee (never Starbucks) if I’m using spare nickels, dimes and pennies. My neighbors donated half the furniture in my room when they kindly placed it on the street to be thrown away. I pleaded with the manager of a local hardware store for 20 minutes trying to get a refund on a $5 drill bit that didn’t fit in my drill. I decline invitations to go out much more than I want to, but I can’t justify spending $6 on a beer when I know that $6 could be 6 meals.
I’m not complaining though.
I quit my job at the Kitano New York to accept an Americorps position with the brand new stimulus package funded New York City Civic Corps. Now I’m working with the New York City Housing Authority. In the authority’s mission to green their developments, it’s my job to organize the residents into “green committees” to get the job done. I went from working for rich business types who think they run the city, to working with not so rich people who without a doubt keep the city running. And I must say that I prefer the latter.
I love my new job and while I don’t necessary love being broke, there are benefits. I’ve been in the kitchen a lot getting more creative than ever. Who knew that eggs, onions and rice with some soy sauce and sugar would turn into a recipe worth repeating? Nights out partying are replaced with nights in playing chess (no hangover involved in that one!). And, instead of buying new clothes, I’ve worn my old ones in every combination possible. Fun!
Even if it doesn’t seem as though my new domestic activities are really that exciting, I can say that even without money New York city is just as exciting as ever. There is no place I would rather be. More to come on why!
April 7, 2009
The Hawaiian Islands are a work in progress. They aren’t finished yet. Six million years ago a northwesterly crawling plate inched over a hot spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the top of a mountain peaked out for the ocean to form Kauai, the oldest major Hawaiian Island. The plate kept sliding and Oahu, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Kaho’olawe and Maui were born. Currently, Hawai’i, or the big island, is being shaped by this hot spot and pretty soon (10,000 years) the plate will move on and a new island, Loihi, will form.
Hawaii is not only geographically perpetually changing. In fact, the population of Hawaii changes every day. Hawaii is seen for the first time though the eyes of thousands of new tourists each day. Those who inhabit Hawaii and enjoy the trade winds everyday of the year are also diverse. Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Americans from the mainland, Chinese and many others. Yet, the fast food restaurants, super markets, over-sized SUVs and road signs with “miles” are a constant reminder that we are still in the USA.
Collisions were a central part of our time in Hawaii. The first three days revolved around exploring geologic collisions while the last two days were the cultural collisions. “Collision” is not meant to be negative, but indicates the sudden meeting of two different things and how they form a whole. Collisions are the source of Hawaii’s existence, life and island spirit and constant evolution.
On the Big Island we rented a cabin on the slopes of Kilauea, one of the most active and luckily, most understood volcanoes in the world. The high elevation and dampness made it much colder than my apartment in New York (even though this Hawaiian shelter was significantly more expensive to rent), but waking up and stepping outside to plant life so green it seemed radioactive, tropical birds’ songs and the summoning of nearby volcanoes made it worth it.
Our first breakfast in Hawaii prepared us for a day of hiking. The breakfast buffet at the Volcano Inn included papaya, pineapples, bananas, French toast, pancakes, bacon, sausage, potatoes and Kona coffee. We ate at a table overlooking the smoky crater of Kilauea.
The extravagant breakfast came in handy on our 14 mile hike over solidified pahoehoe lava. Other than the red firework flowers breaking their way through cracks in the solidified lava, there was no life to be seen. Yet the fossilized curves of bulges of the ground spoke of past movement and gave the ground a life of its own. The foggy skies and smoking earth made it seem like we were traversing the mountains of Mars. Then suddenly, we’d come upon an oasis of trees, vines, soil, moss and ferns. This patch of land wasn’t hit by lava anytime in the recent past and gives testament to both the power of the lava and the persistence of green life.
The following day’s morning fuel was coconut pancakes with guava, passion fruit and coconut syrup and Kona coffee at Ken’s pancake house in Hilo. Our bodies couldn’t really handle another double digit mile hike, but found ourselves in the middle of crater, underground in a tube of lava and relaxing among the black sands, crashing waves and banyan trees of Hilo.
Then came the whole reason behind the trip. My best friend in Japan, Maki was having her wedding in Honolulu. In the spirit of the trip so far, we took showers with the insects in the campground bathrooms (thankfully it was hot, somewhat justifying the price of shelter) and I threw on a vintage Hawaiian print dress I picked up in a Queens’ thrift shop the day before leaving. The flight to Honolulu went smoothly and we arrived in time for the wedding.
Oahu in the Hawaiian language means “the gathering place,” and besides being the most populated and ethnically diverse islands, it was the place for Maki and I to rekindle our friendship and enjoy laughing together again. Maki was a volunteer Japanese teacher at the Sakata International Center that took me as a student. After a few sessions, structure and grammar were thrown to the wind and we spent our time together gossiping and learning about each other’s worlds. Whether it was on purpose or not, her support helped give me the confidence to make the most out of my time in Japan. Also, because she lives for experiences and can find anything, even a trip to the grocery store, to be extremely interesting she’s a great companion. After all she had done for me in Japan, I felt like the least I could do is show up for wedding.
On Oahu, speaking Japanese with Maki, being surrounded by Japanese girls that reminded me of my students, turning on the TV to see Japanese TV channels, I was constantly disoriented. I wanted to be a guide for Maki in America, but I didn’t know much more about Hawaii than she did so just we so many times before in Japan, we explored together.
The four of us drove around the entire island stopping for pineapple plantations, monuments to kings of the past, sea turtles, and quesadillas and tacos (one part of “American” culture that I was happy to introduce Maki to, Mexican food).
My trip to Hawaii was very reinvigorating. In a way, reuniting with Maki was a way to close the Japan chapter of my life. The things that happened there have now become “memories” but at the same time I can see more clearly the good things I took from the experience. Namely, a friendship with a woman whose independence, bravery and kindness will always inspire me. Also, I feel less stressed about life directions and future careers and economic recessions. I think the volcanoes worked some magic (and I don’t mean the toxic fumes). I feel more able to handle the lack of control I have over my life and its course. Collisions and eruptions and wrong choices are going to happen no matter what, but what they ultimately create may look more like a masterpiece than a disaster.
October 7, 2008
Some of my writing is currently being featured on a blog called Japan-US Business news.
Geared towards those who want to expand their businesses into Japan. Check it out to read about why I think the service in Japan so good from a cultural perspective.
October 7, 2008
Before I ever started learning Japanese I heard that the most literal way to translate “Sayonara” into English is with the phrase “If it must be so.” I always thought this was a nice way to say goodbye to someone or something. Accepting the inevitable nature of parting.
I’ve been back from Sakata for two months now and I’ve yet to feel like it’s gone from my life. I’m trying to stay connected to my friends and the language as much as possible. But alas, things have and will continue to change just as they are supposed to.
These are the words that I left the teachers at my school with.
二年２ヶ月間前に私はアメリカで家族や友達に『さよなら』を言ったり、もう一回好きな物を食べたり、引っ越しの準備をしたりしていました。 皆さんから離れるのは怖くて、日本でどんな経験をするかよく考えていました。 その時をまだ良く覚えているので、この２年間はあっという間に経ったような感じがしますが、日本で経験した事や学んだ事全部を思いやれば、この二年間は一つの人生のようです。 今はまた出来るだけ沢山手打ち蕎麦を食べたり、毎日鳥海山をよくみていたり、また皆さんに『さよなら』を言ったりしています。
日本で何を学んだかというと、頭に思い浮かぶのは日本語です。最初来た時、日本語はあいさつしか分かりませんでした。席の近く人は皆さんが笑っているときに、私はなぜ皆さんが笑っているか分からなかったので、寂しくなったことがありました。その気持ちを味わいたくないので、日本語を一生懸命勉強したわけです。 今は日本人とコミュニケーションをとることが出来るので、生活は前より楽になりました。中央高校の先生が居なければ、日本語を習うことが出来なかったに違いません。忙しいのに、私の質問に答えてくれて、間違っているかも知れない私の日本語を親切に聞いてくれてありがいたいと思います。 そのことを考えて、私も英語を教えることが出来るといいなと思いました。皆さんは自分が思うより英語の力があると思うので、自信を持って頂きたいと思います。
教育についても沢山学びました。 日本に来る前に生徒の前で授業したことが無いので、経験をとおしての授業しか出来ませんでした。最初の授業は生徒と先生の言葉両方通じなくてとても恐かったものです。 生徒の言葉が分からなくて、私の事を笑っていたかしらーと思うこともありました。 でも、うちの英語の先生のおかげで、だんだん女子高校生の前で授業が出来るようになってきました。 そうしたら、生徒の話が分かってきて、話はほとんど私の服とか髪型だけでした。
実はなぜ日本に来たかと言うと、外国に住む経験がしたかったからです。でも、日本について習えば習うほど、日本の文化に興味を持ってきて日本人の心を分かりたかったです。 ですから、２年目は他のアジアの国より日本で旅行したかったわけです。 北海道の支笏湖から徳島県のうずまきまで日本の穴場を発見するように頑張りました。しかし、どこで一番沢山学んだかと言えば、庄内です。
庄内の人達は自然や季節の変化に深く関係していると思います。私は八月に日本に来たので、最初に覚えた日本語は『今日は暑いですね』でした。 ペンシヴァニア州にも四季がありますが、日本に住んでみて初めて、季節の変化のきれいな事や大事な事を実感しました。 日本では、料理や行事や伝統などが季節に関係しています。中央高校の先生のおかげで酒田の自然や文化を沢山学ぶことができました。竹の子取りや伝統的な祭りに連れて行って頂いたし、学校でぞれぞれの季節の特別な果物を食べる機会があって感謝の気持ちでいっぱいです。
日本に居る二年間、だいたい毎日中央高校に来ていました。 ですから、 私が会った日本人の中で、中高校の先生達は他の日本人より一緒に過す時間が多かったです。 それで、私がアメリカを体表していたように、先生達は、気付かなくても（気付いたかどうか）私にとって日本を体表していました。うちの生徒だけでなく、私も先生達から沢山教えていただきました。 強い印象が残っているので、帰ってからも先生達を忘れないに違いありません。
うちの学校の中庭で生まれたカモは信じられないほど早く成長しています。その庭でとても大きくなって生活に必要なことを全て学んでから、羽ばたいて行きます。（はばたいて） 私は日本の料理のせいで、少し大きくなったけど、日本で学んだ事はそのカモと同じぐらい沢山学んだかもしれません。 そろそろ私はカモのように全ての学んだことや思いでを抱いて（いだいて）新しい生活をはじめるために羽ばたいて行きます。 お世話になりました。
In the USA, two years and two months ago I was busy saying goodbye to friends, eating my favorite things and getting ready to leave for Japan. Leaving everyone I loved was quite scary and my mind was preoccupied wondering what kind of experience I would have in Japan. I can remember that time so well that it seems like these two years have flown by. But at the same time, these two years have contained a lifetime’s worth of lessons and experiences.
Now, I’m eating as much handmade soba as I can, taking a good look at Mt. Chokai every day and once again, saying goodbye to everyone.
As far as what I learned in Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is Japanese. When I first came, I didn’t understand anything more than standard greetings. Konichiwa, Arigatou and Sayonara. When I would hear the people who sat near me chattering away and laughing, it made me feel extremely lonely and lost because I just couldn’t get the joke. Resolute to avoid this feeling, I attacked the Japanese language from the very beginning.
Now, because I can communicate with all Japanese people, my life has become much easier. If it weren’t for the teachers at Chuo Koko, I would have never been able to learn so much Japanese. Even though they were busy, they always answered my questions and patiently and kindly listened to my most likely mistaken Japanese. I’ve really appreciated their help. In addition, I really hope that I was able to teach everyone English as well. Because, you all have greater English ability then you realize, I encourage you all to be confident.
I learned a lot about Education as well. Before I came to Japan I had never taught a lesson in front of students so I had to learn how to teach through first-hand experience. In my first lessons, the teachers and students languages were completely different and it used to be quite frightening. I couldn’t understand my students’ words so there were times when I thought everyone was laughing at me. But, thanks to our English teachers support, I gradually got the confidence to be a teacher at an all girls’ high school in Japan. Also, as time went on I began to understand my students language and I realized that there were only ever talking about my clothes and hair.
Truth be told, the real reason I came to Japan was because I wanted to live in a foreign country. But as I learned more and more about Japan, I started to become interested in Japanese culture and wanted to understand the Japanese heart and soul. That’s why in my second year rather than the surrounding Asian countries, I traveled exclusively around Japan. From Hokkaido’s Shikotsu Lake to Tokushima ken’s whirlpools, I did my best to find all of Japan’s secret treasures. However, The place I learned the most about Japan was without a doubt, Shonai.
The people of Shonai are deeply in tune with nature and the changing of the seasons. Because I came to Japan in August, the first Japanese phrase that I remembered was “Isn’t today hot!” In the state of Pennsylvania we have four seasons, but it wasn’t until I lived in Japan that I realized the beauty and importance tied to the changing of seasons. In Japan, food, events and traditions are connected to the seasons. Thanks to the teachers of Chuo Koko, I could learn much about Sakata’s nature and culture. I was taken to the mountains to pick baby bamboo trees in spring, I was invited to a traditional festival and at school I had the opportunity to eat the specialty fruits from each season. I cannot express my thanks enough.
In the two years I’ve been in Japan, I’ve pretty much come to Chuo Koko everyday. Therefore, of all the Japanese people I’ve met, I’ve spent the most time with the teachers of Chuo Koko. With that, just as I’ve represented America to you, you, whether or not you’ve realized it, have represented Japan to me. You have been no only our student’s teachers, but you have taught me many things as well. You’ve all left such a strong impression on me that I’m sure after I’ve returned to the USA I will not forget you.
The ducks born in our schools garden grow up so fast it’s difficult to believe. In that garden they grow very big and after they’ve learned everything that’s necessary for life they fly away. Me, because of the delicious Japanese food have only gotten a little bit bigger, but the things I’ve learned in Japan are just as many as the things those ducks learn in the garden. Soon, just like the ducks, for the purpose of starting a new life, I will take all the memories and fly away.
July 1, 2008
While preparing to move to Japan, one of the things that made me nervous and a bit scared knowing that more than ever before in my life, I would be spending a lot of time alone. Throughout childhood, I shared a room with my sister, in college and after I never had less than a couple roommates. My first chance to live on my own would be in a foreign country where I had no friends and couldn’t understand my neighbor’s language. I knew I would be lonely. When I arrived in Sakata, as a way to postpone or ward off this anticipated loneliness, I immersed myself.
First priority was Japanese. Japanese has three writing systems, katakana, hiragana and kanji. Katakana and hiragana are two different ways of writing the same 58 sounds and kanji are the Chinese characters that no one ever stops struggling with. Out to dinner with some more experienced JET programme ALTs, they forced me to stumble through ordering the meal for everyone. Fired by a sense of inferiority, I learned katakana in one weekend. Soon, I knew as much more or more Japanese than those experience ALTs (not all of them) but I still felt a sense of inferiority. Japanese people are so good at speaking their mother tongue. The way the sounds grow and extend, how they naturally adjust their level of politeness, and their usage of very specific onomatopoeic “sense” words, everyday conversation sounds like poetic versus to my foreign ears. I wanted my words to roll out just like that.
With this lofty goal in mind at all times, I never turned down an invitation and surrounded myself with people at all times. Teaching yoga in exchange for okonomiyaki, going out drinking on a Sunday night before a long week of school, volunteering, climbing mountains, I was always busy. But I kept going, I couldn’t let a chance to learn a new expression, learn about a new spot in Sakata or feel a bit more accepted pass me by.
Something was missing though. A sense of myself. In my urgent rush to integrate, I put myself under so much pressure to absorb, adjust and grow, that I often had a difficult time enjoying my life or understanding what I was doing with it. I realized that no matter how many people you are surrounded by, loneliness can still creep up and wrap it’s cold arms around you, preventing you from being wrapped up in the warm arms of others. But slowly, after weeks, and after months, with the melting of the snow the grip of loneliness also seemed to melt away. I wasn’t so afraid of being alone on a Saturday night (or every night) and I got better at turning down invitations. I became more aware of how I wanted to spend my time and the people who were really my friends started to shine a bit more brightly. I was comfortable living a life in Japan and no longer felt like everyone was waiting for me to make a mistake.
When I wasn’t afraid of being alone anymore, the chance of it actually happening seemed impossible. I became more aware of what I was doing and why I was doing it, but that didn’t mean I got less busy. I enjoyed my time with others, but promises, visitors, appointments, obligations, thank you gifts and thank you gifts for thank you gifts left me feeling a bit overwhelmed. What I longed for now was solitude. Being alone didn’t equate with loneliness and negative feelings anymore, it now meant relaxation. An evening alone in my apartment was something I started to look forward to and work hard to schedule in when I could.
I’m not sure my new desire to hide from people is all and all a good thing, but there is a certain sense of accomplishment and power that comes from the realization that I am not afraid of being lonely anymore. I decided to take this new seed of confidence, put it in the nutrient rich environment of Hokkaido and let it blossom.
Hokkaido is the farthest north of the four Japanese islands and it’s known for its vastness. Vast stretches of sky, of roads, of preserved wilderness and as the only place in Japan where the indigenous “ainu” people can be found, its history. I’ve been wanting to go to Hokkaido since I came to Japan and I wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do there so I jumped on the chance to make it a solo journey. My plan was to eat the famous Sapporo ramen in Sapporo, hike active volcanoes that encircle the second deepest lake in Japan in Shikotsu ko and soak in the healing geothermic waters of Noboribetsu onsen. When you travel alone you can make your own perfect plan and then you can decide to stick to it or to change it without ever having to worry about what anyone else wants to do. I got quite bored after a few hours in Sapporo and after having the long awaited for Ramen, I skipped ahead to the lake.
Before going on my trip, I asked a teacher from Hokkaido what he thought of Shikotsu ko. He said that there is nothing there, just a lake and mountains. In a country where no mountain summit is without a neon lit sports drink and corn soup selling vending machine, Shikotsu ko sounded like a dream come true. There did end up being a row of shops that sold ice cream and asahi super dry and swan shaped boat rides to the tourists who stopped by throughout the day, but the morning and evening felt like it was just me, the volcanoes and the lake.
I woke up early the first morning for a breakfast of toast, eggs, bacon, potatoes, and coffee. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I was ever served a breakfast like that in Japan. It was good fuel for climbing a mountain. I jumped on a rented bike from the youth hostel and pedaled out to the trailhead for “eniwa dake,” an active volcano that still smokes and smells of sulfur. The climb was characterized by the geometric formations of the leaning and falling tall thin white birch trees. From the bottom to the top, I saw a change in landscape four or five times. The leaves got smaller and coarser, the trees get thinner and shorter, the air gets cooler and quieter, the change is exciting and keeps pushing me to go up and up. The chorus of bugs and birds gets less and less harmonious, I hear a sample from here and there until it stops and then it’s just the wind, the leaves, my breath and my steps. In everyday life, at any second, how many sounds do you hear? Engines, dogs barking, sneezes, beeps and sqwaks, electricity flowing, but on top of the mountain, it’s just four sounds. And when you stop, and it’s quiet, sometimes it’s none. As I climb to the top, listening to my breathing, only thinking about each step, nothing worries me or stresses me out. My life is not defined by my job, or by clothes, or my interests or even my loved ones. It’s just cellular processes that create energy, just like every tree, cricket and earthworm that surround me.
Later that afternoon I recruited someone from my hostel to go canoeing with me on the Chitose river. The deep, cold, still waters of this ghostlike river form a mirror for the green trees and blue skies to admire their beauty in.
Dinner that night was grilled lamb and vegetables with my buddy, Taka. Taka was a 17 year old high school student from Alabama who grew up in the USA but was spending the summer helping out at my youth hostel. I had a good time chatting with him and when he told me I looked just like a teacher I made him share a bottle of wine with me.
I crashed at about 8pm again to early rise with the sun. I had one more chance to climb a mountain, so I passed by the “danger bears: do not enter” sign and searched for panoramic views of the lake while singing Amy Winehouse songs and shouting at the bears to stay away. I found the views, and there were no bears (that I know of).
Noboribetsu Onsen draws its bath waters from a swampland of sulfuric earth water packed full of minerals and things that make your skin feel slippery and soft. I gave myself a big present by booking a room in fancy schmancy Ryokan (a japaense style hot spring hotel with dinner and breakfast included). I cleansed with charcoal soaps, soaked in mineral rich white water, ate a dinner of fresh mountain vegetables, grilled scallops, rice and miso soup, cleansed and soaked til I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, woke up, cleansed, soaked, then ate breakfast. I let all the soreness and tiredness from mountain climbing seep out of my body and into the white waters and let the cool breezes clear my head.
I spent the last day wondering around the boiling marshlands of Noboribetsu onsen and got excited by the chance to observe the earth’s secret underground chaotic hell.
It’s not such a big place so I found myself with a lot of time to spare before taking the overnight ferry back to Sakata. What do you do when you’re alone and have a lot of time to spare? That’s when a good book and a cup of coffee can really be appreciated. The point of the Hokkaido trip was to hang out with myself and with my surroundings whether they were on top of a mountain, in a hot spring or with a slice of cheesecake and cup of coffee.
I made it back and felt accomplished that I spend four days with myself and enjoyed every minute of it. I didn’t get bored and I didn’t regret coming on my own, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to meet up with everyone and show them the pictures and tell them about my trip. Perhaps I realized that the ability to enjoy being alone comes when you know that when you start to itch for company, there will always be loved ones and good friends waiting to hear about everything.
May 18, 2008
It’s mid May now. They say it’s the most lovely time of year in Sakata. The new green is lush and full of life. The flooded rice fields sharply reflect the sky and mountains. The smells and colors of flowers dance in the breezes. Freshly picked mountain vegetables appear on the dinner table and the smell of kerosene inside every building finally dissipates. The rainy season will be starting soon and after that comes the heavy heat of summer. Before that though I thought I would follow the footsteps of my sister allibear and recap whats happened before I move on. Not only to the next season, but I only have two months left in Sakata Japan and I’m thinking, planning, applying, contacting, basically, preparing for the next step. Here are some things about the spring.
The support and friendship I’ve received from people. Maki and her mom, Hayashi Sensei, Dorrie and Jeff. They are my lifelines, the barriers that stand in front of depression and loneliness.
Skype and my webcam. Time difference aside, I can easily and limitlessly talk with my family and Jordan.
What I’ve achieved
*I organized a trip around Japan that was the best vacation of me and Jordan’s lives.
We spent one week in Sakata and then traveled to Nagano Ken to see monkeys jump in hot springs. We met up with Brad and Caitlin in Osaka and then spend a night in a super fancy hotel room in Tokyo.
*Until this spring, my role in the Sakata international community was to perform my famous “Michael Jackson Dance.” I would get on stage and gyrate to Billy Jean like a Japanese woman would never dream of doing. Although just a bit of fun at first, I eventually I felt exploited and silly and as if this ritual misrepresented me, my culture and my purpose in Japan. I was asked to give a lecture for the Sakata branch of UNESCO on foreign countries. I spoke in Japanese for one hour about Kenya, India, Cuba and South Africa, the hardships faced by the people of each country as well as the things we can learn from them. I made people laugh and ask provoking questions that I could barely answer. It was the most exhausting and mentally challenging thing I have ever done in my entire life. By doing it, I proved to myself that I could communicate the things most fundamental to my way of thinking and its formation in a language other than English. (I can speak Japanese!) My experiences and the things I had to say, rather than my wind up monkey moonwalk, were given a chance to come into the spotlight.
-Maki and I organized a great “Hanami” party under a sunset and snowfall of cherry blossom petals
-I enjoyed four days with my good friend, Tokyo (may 3-6). Seeking out interesting restaurants, used CD stores with great selections, karaoke on a rainy afternoon, being confused and amazed by Japanese fake food models, discount designer shopping in Shibuya, getting in good with the Turkish community, riding lots and lots of trains.
-On the day after I finished I speech I almost didn’t do anything except make chocolate chip pancakes and eat just about all of them by myself.
-Going to conveyer belt sushi with Jordan on his first day in Sakata and watching him be amazed.
-Going to dinner at Hayashi sensei’s house with Jordan and skipping polite conversation about natto and kimonos to try and translate the meaning of art in the human experience.
-Talking about the teachers at Chuo koko with the only other person in the world who knows them like I do. (my predecessor, Alyssa, came to visit).
-Not doing things I don’t want to do anymore.
-Opening my eyes one morning and immediately seeing Andy Horbal in the other room sitting up straight, eyes wide open, smiling as if he had been sitting that way for hours for me to wake up and start showing him around his new adventure land, Japan.
-meeting a student at the onsen by chance.
-when I came back from spring break and couldn’t find my desk because everything, including the principal and vice principal, had changed.
-Drinking way too much shochu with Ueda sensei and mountain buddies and getting home and trying to make half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but unable to figure out how to make half and ending up with a quarter of one. The next day was really bad.
-Seeing the dismay on my students’ faces when they find out I’m not staying past July.
-Meeting Jordan coming off the train for the first time in months and being interrupted by a smack in the ass from a drunk Japanese man who said “like, JA PAN!?!”
-Missing Jordan after he left and getting his cold, but feeling sort of glad I had his germs inside me still.
-Having leaving ceremonies at my favorite elementary schools and realizing that my time here is ending quickly.
-Being exhausted from all the thank yous and thank you for the thank you thank yous.
-Finding out Maki got in a serious car accident right outside my house when she came to drop off some tofu cheesecake four days after it actually happened. (She didn’t want to worry me before my speech)
-Loneliness all the time.
-Going to a fancy Japanese restaurant with Andy and being served “Awabi” (abalone). It tastes like nose cartilage.
Happiest moments in the area
-I was taken take no ko tori (baby bamboo shoot picking) on Mt. Chokai with Ueda sensei and felt like one of the guys.
-When Nakazawa came over to my house to bring some clothes I forgot in his car and surprised me with a cheesecake for white day.
-When we went to Matsushima and Jeff pretended that we had just settled on a deserted beach and that would be pioneers and carry out our lives there. The men would hunt and the women would bear many children and Julia would dance around the fire
-Going to watch the Japanese movie “母べえ” with Koichi san and realizing I could understand almost all of it.
Worst moments in the area
-When the guy from NTT came and told me I owed him more than 100 dollars and he would come again after I get paid at the end of the month. Waiting for him to come again.
-Having to sit next to a new English teacher that seems to be confused by and petrified of everything.
New assets in Sakata
-Ueda sensei and the mountain buddies. We have a plan to climb Mt. chokai
-Maki’s Aunt who lovingly pats my shoulder when she runs into me by chance at the onsen.
-The young pretty girl who came to see my speech and then who I ran into by chance TWICE in Tokyo, a city of 11 million people.
-The students who I’ve been teach for two years now and know ALL about me and tell me that they don’t want a new ALT because there is no way she will be as pretty and as good at Japanese as me.
March 6, 2008
In Japan, the four seasons mean a lot. There are festivals, foods and customs meant to accentuate their best aspects. Setting a blue tarp down under a cherry blossom tree and throwing back some Asahi Super Dry and sweet sticky rice cakes celebrates the new growth and warmth brought on by spring. In the summer, drums sound, fireworks explode, okonomiyaki and yakisoba fry, and girls dressed in “Yukata” appear in the many festivals across the country. Hot bowls of newly harvested rice or taro potato stew are eaten after a day of viewing the leaves’ striking colors in the fresh crisp air of fall. But in winter, with more darkness, more coldness, and more trouble because of the snow appreciating this season takes a bit more effort. And therefore, we must indulge in the good things and cherish the comfort we find in them. Which is the real beauty of winter in Japan. Like a warm mug of hot cocoa after playing in the snow, soaking in a hot spring while looking out at frozen mountain scenery or putting on a kimono and visiting an ancient temple decorated by the clean white snow gives us a warm appreciative feeling that can’t be experienced any other time of the year. It’s empowering and revitalizing to recognize our capability to not only survive the winter, but flourish and create even though all living things around us seem to die away.
Being in my second year in Japan and being prepared for the feelings of loneliness the winter intensifies, I was able to step out of my hiding place of an apartment a bit more this year and experience more of Japan’s winter customs. Also, my eyes and heart have become more adjusted to Japanese senses and I think I can appreciate being taken to a Buddhist ceremony, drinking local sake or being served tempura fried “milky” cod testicles more than I would have a year ago. I hope I can better recognize the “omomuki,” or the elegance, the simplicity, the grace of maybe what a foreigner could call the inherit “Japanese ness” of something. The frozen stillness of winter illuminates this feature more than any other season.
The kimonos were laid out on table. Maki’s mom and her aunt were ready to wrap me up in layers and layers of fabric that would ultimately give the illusion that my body was a flat straight board with not a single indication of fertility or curves. I chose a rose colored one with long thin butter colored flowers wisping across the material. My obi was a complete contrast with a blue and purple homespun feel. I took a deep breath, knowing that for the next couple hours it was going to be a bit difficult to breath. Today we would visit Zenpoji temple, attend a ceremony and ask God not to saddle us with too much trouble in the next year.
In the exposed temple it was so cold, but my feet were warm on the heated rug. Perfect. Being completely warm would have felt too artificial, but having cold felt would have felt unbearable. Thirteen Osho san (priests) take their places in front of the alter. All but two sit under their own small short table behind three high piles of books. Another sits in the middle and another off to the side with a drum. The drum pronounces itself; a single strike vibrated the intricate golden vines that wove themselves together around the central shrine. It filled the large open cold sanctuary and wound up the osho san so that slowly, the man in the center began to chant, steadily, in a monotone and sacredly. Soon, the rest joined him. This continues until the drum starts beating a bit faster, the chanting increases in intensity and speed and then… Hup! In unison, amongst the sea of chanting and drumming, each osho san grabs a pile of books, takes each one and opens it with strength to have it unfold like an accordion. Quick! Open and close, grab it, open and close. The pages flap and snap back into place. Hup! The drum slows down again.
The chanting slows down again.
They’ve just brought to life all the knowledge, thinking and words in those books, not by reading them, but by forcibly clapping it out into the space. Now, the main Osho san can begin to read the prayers of the people present today. Aaaassoooo maaaakiii, (name) hiiiiggaashi chooo (address), I can barely make out a word, but I am swept up in the magic. I don’t feel the coldness or the tight kimono anymore, (but perhaps they are also partly responsible for bringing me to my state of rapture) and feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience this tradition that is hidden from everyday life in Japan. It’s different than ubiquitous conveyor belt sushi, excessive illumination, and manga characters that the foreigner might usually associate with Japan. “Hatsumoude” or visiting the shrine at the beginning of the year is a custom almost all Japanese families make sure to do. This ceremony slightly opens a window into seeing what is carried in the deep inside the hearts and minds of Japanese people.
Another way into the hearts of Japanese people is food. Much more than in America, Japanese people seem to recognize the relationships between food and seasons. From a practical standpoint, they more exclusively eat the produce that’s in season, but also from a symbolic standpoint, certain foods are eaten to help one feel the essence of the particular season. There is no better love story than that of a boiling clay pot of nabe and cold beer. Your feet and legs are warm under the kotatsu and the hot soup and alcohol take care of the rest. Winter’s seasonal vegetable, “hakusai” (a kind of chinese cabbage) is cooked in broth with onions, piles of japanese mushrooms, tofu, pork and any other desired ingredients. Anything goes as each region has a nabe specialty. In cold Hokkaido they fire up salmon, miso, potatoes, onions, daikon, tofu and butter. Sukiyaki is very thin slices of beef, just barely cooked in a soy flavored broth and then dipped in egg before massing your mouth with flavor. In Sakata, we specialize in cod cuisine. In cod nabe, big white soft chunks of cod meat fight for space with organs, hakusai, mushrooms and tofu. There is even a weekend long festival in snowy February to celebrate this fish and it’s meat, soup, and testicles. Fresh “shirako” tempura and it warm milky surprise that pops out when you bit down is one of those foods that walks on the fine line between unique deliciousness and inedibility, a delicacy.
It’s March now. The snow is melting, the sun shines a little bit brighter and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Once again, it looked like I’ve survived winter. In fact knowing that my time in Sakata is limited and trying to appreciate it as much as I can, I’ve made the best of winter and I’m ready for the next phase of year and of my life.