Thursday, March 15, 2007

special lunches

I mentioned previously that we get "special lunches" on occasion, at least those of us in the school "social club", which appears to be everybody.

Having talked recently with my parents (hi mom and dad), I know that people back home are interested in what there is for food out here. You know sushi, but that's not very typical fare out here. Well, I suppose, neither is this, but it will give you a good idea of the kinds of things found in school lunches. Just more of it, in this case, with a nicer presentation. I grilled my staff room neighbour for details on just what everything was.

Wednesday we had an unagi (eel) set. It was delicious, but just one single piece of eel!


I recommend following this Flickr set to get details on everything you see here, but there is lily bulb, namafu (gelatinous flour-based cube), Japanese cedar buds, cod in roe, boiled eggplant, sweet potato, kamaboko (sea urchin), ebi (shrimp), roasted sake (salmon), Takuam (pickled daikon, named after a Buddhist priest), shibazuke -- common, purple cucumber pickles, shimeji (a kind of mushroom), the one piece of grilled unagi, and rice.

Thursday, we had another special lunch. It's final exam marking week at Motosushoyo. Not much for me to do now that I'm done marking all of my first years' compositions, but the other teachers are all busy.

This one came in a pretty but disposable box.


Again, you can get details on all of the food in a Flickr set for this meal, here. But the meal included: one piece of ebi tempura, pumpkin salad, chicken, pasta, okra in white soy with tuna (avoided -- I hate the slime), a cube of sweet potato in sesame seeds (delicious), herring roe on cedar buds and fish, a kind of compressed fried lotus root patty, ika and seaweed strips, a mushroom top, a chunk of boiled pumpkin, a tied tofu bag with diced veggies inside, a bamboo chute, and a whole little squid!

One compartment also held a piece of "Bavarian cream" cake, a strawberry, a slice of lemon, and what looked like glass noodles. Well, we've seen these before. There are glass noodles, but they're not alone.


Do you see the eyes? A kind of "whitefish" (though they are pink).

The little squid, I have to say, was adorable. Here he is with the tied tofu bag and bamboo chute, and again from a different angle. Very photogenic.


Here he is making friends with the fish-shaped soy sauce bottle. And here he is wearing a jaunty sea-captain's hat.


Yes, he likes his sea captain's hat.

Sadly, he was beginning to show signs of wear at that point, and had to be eaten before any Shakespeare could ensue.

* * * * *

Well, we leave for South Korea tomorrow, and I need my sleep. It's exciting but rather nerve-wracking. I feel wholly unprepared. We do have lots of things planned, though, and have even booked a USO-sponsored tour of the DMZ. See you in five days.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

the two saddest words

So it's the end of the academic year.

Most senior high schools had their grad last week, and ours was no exception. The only graduation I'll ever see here.

It should have been both a happy and a sad event, but they managed to drain all the life from it. After a (solid) hour of speeches, some students stood to receive recognition of honours, but none crossed the stage. Certificates were not even handed out at the ceremony. They were distributed later.

I was also a bit miffed that I was discouraged from taking photos. The bright spot is that, as I was passing a stairwell on the way to the gym building, I found all the 3rd years packed into it, instructed to await the cue for their entrance. They were only too happy to pose for a picture.


Japan manages to be the only country I know of where people are genuinely happy to have anyone take their picture, and thank you warmly for it.

In any case, the morning was a bit long, the speeches sombre in tone, and we all returned to the main building and our kerosene heaters while the students began to show signs of life, gathering outside in the sun and chatting happily. There were few tears that I saw, but that likely came later. I hadn't realized they were having parties upstairs in the classrooms until wandering across a building catwalk and passing several students lugging huge emptied trays that, judging from the scraps, had been covered with some extravagant fare not long before.


That sounds a bit cold. I should add that I was a bit emotional about the graduates and would have been more so, but I've only had ten 3rd year students, so the vast majority of the graduating class I did not know. It would be different to be here next year and see my second-years graduate, or again the following spring and see the students I knew as first-years go.

We also had another "special lunch". I have to admit, the staff "social club" seemed like a bit of a ripoff when I first arrived. Membership costs according to salary; at my level, I was paying 2850 yen (that's $28.50 Cdn) a month, and yet there were no uses to which this money would be put until Christmas. But since then, we've had one or two special lunches a month, and they're fantastic. Given the strong value of community in Japanese culture, I wasn't going to decline membership in the social club regardless, but it's nice that something good comes of it.


I think I was in a bit of a funk that day, to be truthful. While some friends I haven't seen in a few months recently noted that I seem a "bit happier and more settled", it's still fairly easy to fall out of step here. For example, I've recently become persona non grata I think because I failed to attend a retirement party for one of the teachers. How long this will last, I don't know, but I'm tiring of this kind of thing. Which itself is probably alright, since the biggest issue Julie and I have had to deal with over the past month or month and a half is the decision whether or not to recontract with the JET Programme. We went back and forth on this a lot. A major part of the problem is that you are forced to decide six months in advance. It's hard to know how you'll feel then, having gotten past the winter and partway through a new year in which you actually understand at least in part how things around you work, both inside of the classroom and out. When it came down to it, I was slightly leaning toward recontracting and Julie was slightly leaning away. I tried making a weighted pro-con list, and the scores came out: Japan: 0; Canada: -1. Julie remarked wryly that that sounded about right.

In the end, we talked about it every night for a week, for anywhere from 3-5 hours at a time. There were some pretty heavy considerations being lobbed around. We have a dog at home that we need to get back to. But he's in good hands. I have a job at home to go back to. But it bores and depresses me. Julie has no job to go home to. But she could acquire one and is itching to move on in her career. A second year would allow us to move in together again, get a car, and explore more of Japan. But we would be merely extending the experience -- is it worth the cost? Added to that, with having to decide six months in advance, we weren't signing on for merely another year, but another year and a half from the point of decision. That's a long commitment to make, considering how highly variable our feelings were concerning our time here. Hell, a long commitment, regardless, and I'm a bit of an options-freak (but hey, it kept me out of the armed forces -- I couldn't say yes to nine years DEO). In the end, we grew tired of talking about it but lacked any way to make the decision. There would be regret with either option. Which would produce more?

In the end we declined to recontract. We made one small concession to keeping options open, and that was that we agreed to check out a few places for possible relocation if, approaching our actual finish we knew we needed more time for Japan. But that's a hard slog to be sure. Here we have apartments set up, bills being paid for the most part automatically, and steady work with people we mostly like. Elsewhere, we'd have to sort out the work visa, find work, find an apartment, and basically start all over again. Not something to do for a month or two, so again it would entail more time. 6 months we figure or not at all. One of the big downsides of JET is that you cannot choose where you go. Our own choices were marred by misinformation or lack of information, and perhaps the biggest downside of JET is that you cannot move between years. Not between cities, not between schools or levels of school. So you either have to like your experience enough exactly the way it is, or drop the program and strike out on your own. Not impossible, but difficult. We'll see. (Those backup cities, incidentally, are Tokyo, Nagano, Sapporo, and Hiroshima. It would be nice to try out a location of our own choosing, though I would miss quasi-inaka life near the rice fields.)

Immediately after sending in the paperwork with my answer I felt substantial regret. I needed work for the new year. I could go back to my old job (depressing), or to a new job (difficult and not lucrative) or to school (a probably impossible expense). So the question shouldn't be limited to: do I truly want to do this for another year, but also do I have a better option for the coming year? Where staying had originally seemed like pushing a luxury too far, it began to seem like the practical thing to do. To make matters worse, as I think I've described before, it's pretty much impossible to have a very bad time in my job for very long. Something surprising and pleasant is usually just around the corner, and in the meantime, the delight of the students to see you, to start a conversation or just say hello, makes it difficult to walk around feeling down. I knew that there would be days where I would think that refusing the option to recontract might have been a mistake. I didn't anticipate days where I was sure of it.

A little bit of time has passed since then. Cold weather has unexpectedly struck, bringing big, lazy flakes of snow -- more than we've seen all winter. And while it is beautiful, the cold helps remind me of the comforts of a Canadian home. (though the heaters used in yesterday's assembly were something out of science fiction and worth the chill on their own) Since arriving here, Jules and I have remarked that Japan has many virtues (many, many) but it is a difficult country to feel comfortable in. In addition, the recent social imbroglios, as I mentioned, have also left me feeling a bit detached, and now with classes finished until the new school year starts in April, I don't have these happy, smiling students to keep me feeling so connected to the place.

But regret is a highly variable thing. I usually have no problem with making decisions between bad options. It's the situations with multiple good options that are tortuous. If all else fails, I'll decide something daily and see if a pattern emerges over a week or a month and go with that. If pressed for time, I'll flip a coin (as I eventually did when faced with having to choose between a big law firm and Justice -- though that was more to produce an emotional result and take a read off that). So here's the new regret-o-metre, both to keep track of feelings about staying longer in Japan, and as a yardstick for how things are going here and to what extent I'm missing home.

the recontracting regret scale - black no periods

Currently, I'm freezing in my living room (it was 8 degrees in here this morning) and doing a little research on South Korea for our upcoming trip -- this Friday! I'm very excited about it, though the food looks to be daunting (chili peppers in *everything*?!). Between South Korea, Hokkaido, and whatever we get up to for Golden Week, I'm going to need a new hard drive to store all of these pictures.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday Night Videos: polar bear clip

Another classic.

Busy Weekend part ii: Meiho

I was a little apprehensive about my snowboarding trip with one of the physics professors from my school. He spoke less English than anyone I'd done something outside of school with, and I really didn't know what we would talk about in the car for two hours.

We managed, covering all the expected terrain. Favourite Japanese foods? Japanese foods I don't like? Where have I travelled in Japan? Where do I want to travel? What did I take in school? And so on. In return, I peppered him with questions regarding where he's lived (born in Gifu) and taught (around Gifu prefecture) and for how long (23 years). Every once in awhile he'd crane his neck to look up at the surrounding mountains and mutter "chotto".

"Chotto" is one of those handy Japanese skeleton-key words. Literally, it means "a little", so you get the expected combinations. Chotto muzakashii (a little difficult) Chotto yasui (a little cold) But it can also be used to express doubt, hesitation, or reluctance. I scanned the surrounding hills and agreed with him. chotto... I don't see any snow...

We passed highway signs with digital readouts that informed us that it was twelve degrees Celcius outside. It would be colder on the mountain, but not much colder. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to drive two hours to a closed ski resort. The website the night before had claimed a base of 160cm, but there wasn't a speck of snow on these hills. I felt a little bad for my companion, who would be culture-bound to show no frustration; only slight disappointment at what was, effectively, my plan to go snowboarding this weekend.

It was a nice drive. I'd actually been most of the way before Meiho turned out to be just about 20km past Gujo Hachiman, the destination of one of my first road trips with Julie in Japan, taken by neighbours of mine in my old building last fall. Beautiful town. I've recently been told that it's a "little Takayama". We still haven't made it up there but it's a must. (when we found out we were to be posted in Gifu, I wanted Takayama. Julie, on the other hand, doesn't like the cold, so she was happy ending up on the southern plain)

It was also a long drive. The speed limit was 50kph. The whole way. We passed some beautiful cedar-covered mountains, responsible for much of the terrible hayfever problem in Japan, I am told. And we went through some really neat, lengthy tunnels.

Finally, only moments after we spotted the first specks of snow on some surrounding mountain tops -- and I'm talking specks -- and likewise saw bits of snow in deep troughs beside the road, we caught our first view of Meiho.

It was pretty crowded, too. People getting their last bit of downhill in of the season, I think. We parked a good distance away and made our way up to the rental shop to start. I needed some equipment. Alas, I probably wasn't saving a dime coming up by car, since the lift ticket and round trip bus go for about $80 and include a rental discount. The lift ticket and rental cost me $80 by themselves. I was given some papers to fill out by a Japanese girl with the expected boarder aesthetic. She spoke pretty good English, which was fortunate for me, since the only thing I was able to make out in Japanese was "regular or goofy". About fifteen minutes later, I had my equipment and lift ticket, and up we went.

Man, was it warm. Little streams ran beneath most of the lift runs. It was mostly bare rock under most of them, too. All around was snow, and we passed two monster snow machines which must have been working overtime to produce that 160cm.

Left: my chaperone. Super-nice guy. Not much English, though. We bond over mutual dislike for raw ika. Right: It was too damn warm for a touque. I risked ice cuts the first few runs down until I pulled it on.


A bit rusty, to be sure. I took a few falls while I practiced carving. The snow was pretty slushy, which didn't help, but I think I only had one jarring tailbone fall, while slowly pulling into a lift line, yet.

The day didn't have the kind of atmosphere I loved in BC, and I kept trying to figure out why. A good bit of it, I think, had to do with my companion's decision to not leave me alone. He'd either received instructions to that effect or had decided on his own to keep an eye on me. Of course it's possible that it's simply the Japanese way to be communal in all things. Either way, I couldn't get a single run to myself.


The Japanese mostly ignored me, which was nice. Occasionally I'd get smiles and even waves, but few were brave enough to chat: a couple of girls building a snowman just off the lift at the top peak, and another girl that screamed and wiped out when I vaguely headed in her direction. (there was plenty of room!) And I nodded to one boarder in the lunch area who calmly nodded back to me, then turned to her friend and did an excited little dance. All in all, pretty low-key. Lunch was four pieces of fried chicken, five french fries, and a Coke. One thing I have a bit of trouble with is the indirectness of Japanese communication. I couldn't get my companion to tell me whether he wanted to head out again just yet or not. Eventually he hinted that he'd like another 15 minutes of rest, so we did. People were beat. There were heads on tables all around us.

We did another couple of hours on the hills and called it a day at 3. It was actually getting pretty cool by then, and I'd left my warmer layers in the car. Equipment also had to be returned at 4:30 and I really didn't want to be caught in a traffic jam where the fastest vehicles up front can only go 50, so I was happy to go. I was also pretty beat. Not in the shape I was last time I did this.

The drive home took forever, and we didn't have a lot to talk about. It was a good weekend, and the company was good, but next time I go snowboarding I definitely think I'll take the bus, where everyone involved can sleep the whole way if they like. The highway readouts told us that it had reached 20 degrees Celcius. This might be the last weekend for Meiho -- far, far earlier than usual.


Monday, March 05, 2007

A busy weekend, day one: Kegon-ji, re-birth, and the Hina Matsuri

Faced the weekend with a few good options. Go off with a dear co-worker of mine, and Jules, to a nearby temple/shrine, or go snowboarding. As it happens I did both.

I was chatting with my co-worker about weekend plans, and mentioned that I was intereted in snowboarding when another teacher overheard and asked about it. I was in the science staff room in a building facing the persimmon orchards on the north side. I sometimes go there to teach. I hadn't really met this physics teacher before, so thankfully we were introduced and I suddenly found myself being rather sheepishly invited skiing/snowboarding. It was kind of strange. He seemed to be amazed to be offering. And equally amazed when I accepted. So I went from looking forward to a relaxing weekend to mostly looking forward to a very busy weekend, with a full day trip with one co-worker and Julie on Saturday, and a snowboarding excursion starting early Sunday morning.

It was beautiful weather Saturday, thankfully, and it was really good to hit the road with my co-worker again. We had taken one trip previously with him and his wife, but it had been awhile since we'd done anything together. He picked us up at the Circle K across the way and off we went.

We were going to Kegon-ji, the last temple/shrine in a pilgrimage route of thirty-three sites called the Saigoku, in the greater series of the Kannon 100, across Japan. Their festival had been held a couple of weeks earlier, and it was still early for sakura, so it promised to be not too busy a time to visit.

Well, the place was thoroughly breathtaking, and I realized for the first time, I think, that Jules and I are almost insatiable temple-goers. We just don't get tired of them.

IMGP2259 IMGP2286

Seeing a map of the place, we realized for the first time why my co-worker had planned the entire day for this activity. It was huge. The site dates back over 1200 years, and evidence abounded of past pilgrimages, from posts along the way stating how much had been donated to the site (generally hyaku-yen -- $1) at the time, to papers covering the gate with the names of people who had visited, and at some of the shrines about the site framed photos of some of the more recent groups to attend.

I think I enjoyed this site more than many I had seen in Kyoto. Kegon-ji was surrounded by towering cedar trees, and there was no sound but the wind blowing and occasional temple bells. On the walk up I had the distinct impression that my mom would like the place immensely.

There were a few surprises here, too. A large-ish shrine covered in paper cranes that we were told was the shrine for lost infants and fetuses. But upon closer inspection, it turned out that it was also a place of thanks for healthy children, so that brought the mood up a little.

We also ventured beneath the hondo (main hall of the temple in which the main image -- the honzon -- is enshrined) in a symbolic re-birth, moving carefully through a corridor apparently devoid of all light. Well, there was the occasional crack, but indeed these were shockingly brilliant. The whole experience was a bit disorienting. The path curved and did not stay level. At the end I was convinced that we had emerged out the other side, intead of arriving where we in fact were: the front of the main temple. Inanely I wondered how the man permitting admission had made it to the back of the temple, and what are my shoes doing here, and oh I see...


After this we had lunch at a fantastic unagi (eel) place. We arrived a bit late for lunch but they graciously took us in and served us a wonderful meal of unagi-don -- eel on rice -- with japanese pickles, fresh fruit, a kind of consomme (rather than miso) that held something that looked like a mushroom but turned out to be an internal organ of the eel (possibly the heart), and a delicious plum wine.


They also had a beautiful looking sashimi setup that we didn't have the chance to sample this time around.
Just look at that block of tuna. Those are two huge crabs from Hokkaido on the top.


Then we were off to a kawaramachi ya -- a paper and paper doll house. It turns out that Saturday was the Hina Matsuri -- the day of the paper doll festival in Gifu. So the place was quite busy. It's not really my kind of thing, but it was interesting, and some of the displays were quite impressive.


A tiring day but enjoyable. Then resting up for the day of snowboarding ahead.
You can access the entire Flickr run from the link at the top right.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Night Videos

Does anyone remember that show? Classic. And far superior to Samantha Taylor's Video Hits.

Anyway, most of you have probably seen bits of this but maybe not the longer clip. For the rest of you, enjoy.