Saturday, January 4, 2014

I sai ni naru! (Turning one)

And now, for a break from our regular romp through my memories, we have a post of current events.  One year ago, my son was born!  Huzzah!  Your first birthday is a big deal, no matter what culture you come from, for certain.  However, in Japan, there are several interesting events leading up to the celebration of your first complete trip around the sun.  In America, we love to celebrate a baby's first's.  First Christmas, first Easter, first Halloween, but aside from a torrent of photo ops, very little happens that first year that doesn't happen each proceeding year.  Not so, Japan!  Baby is celebrated six times in the first year, and even after that, there are increasingly spaced events that celebrate the child until they turn the big 20.  At that point, you are an adult, and good luck to you, sir, the party is over.  But today we will follow my son through his first year.

Event #1 - Birth!
     Arguably the most important event of all, this is where it all starts (of course).  My son was born in a "Ladies Clinic," which is like a Birthing Center in America.  Small staff, friendly atmosphere, and an attempt at a nice, homelike feel to the building as opposed to the other option, hospital birth....oh no!  Our clinic was run by a husband and wife OB/GYN team, and was a mere 5 minute walk from my apartment.  They promoted natural childbirth, so from day one, we knew that ours would be an unmedicated birth.  I have to admit, I was a little worried about that, but my lack of a choice made the decision easier to live with.  My little one was about 11 days late that Saturday morning, and I was feeling like I would never have the baby.  We'd seen the doctor that morning, and they had even gone as far as setting up my inducement appointment if I hadn't gone into labor by Monday.  Inducement of labor in Japan is seen as a last resort, and I was getting a bit distraught when finally, that evening, things got started.  Bad news was, the baby was facing backwards, so he was pushing against my spine instead of the exit.  While not dangerous, it was going to make things take longer than they would normally have... but, 23 hours later, it was finished, and Baby Tigger was born!  Japan standard is 5 days in the clinic for mom and baby, which I did gratefully, allowing the nurses and staff to do the cleaning, cooking, and baby bathing until I recovered, and then back home to start our lives together.

Event #2 - O-shichi ya  (The seventh night)
     Technically, when a baby is born in Japan, you don't have to have a name for it yet.  Seven days after the birth, the baby's family comes together and has the naming ceremony.  There is a little party, with lots of food, including "sekihan" (meaning red rice).  The rice is made with red beans, so that it takes on a reddish color itself.  Sekihan is usually used in celebrations, though recently it is possible to get it pretty much whenever you feel like it.  The color red is lucky in Japan, and so it's inclusion in celebration parties is seen as a call to good luck.  Another dish is often included is "tai," (red snapper).  Baked whole, tai is also seen in most celebratory meals in Japan, and is my favorite.  At this party, the baby's name is "decided", and then written on a small slip of paper which is displayed in the home (I've heard several reasons for this, but it seems to me it is a way for the family to be constantly reminded of the kanji used in the child's name.  Each section of a name can have one of several kanji, and it is difficult to remember which ones the parents have chosen. 

Here is our little feast... Miso soup, tai, noodle salad, fried chicken, a laquered box of sekihan, pear slices, and red and white mochi (pounded rice with sweet bean paste inside).

Event #3 - O-miya Mairi  (First trip to a Shinto Shrine)
     When baby boys are 31 days old and baby girls are 33 days old, they are taken to a Shinto shrine for the first time to give thanks for a safe birth and pray for a healthy life.  For a small fee, the family is taken into the inner shrine, where a priest tells the gods the baby's name, address, and asks them to watch over the baby in the coming years.  The baby itself "wears" its first kimono... though of course it's too small to truly wear it.  Instead, the baby is held in the mothers arms, and the kimono is draped over both of them to display the design on the back.  The family is then given a small wooden plaque to keep near the baby's bed, and an amulet to carry around with the baby to keep them safe.

Event #4 - O-kui Hajime (The first feeding)
     At 100 days, the baby is big enough to "eat" solid food for the first time.  This calls for a celebration!  The family gathers for a party, and the usual suspects return... sekihan, tai, mochi, so on.  For us, when we took Tigger to the shrine for his O-miya Mairi, we were given a little dish set to use for O-kui Hajime.  A little tiny piece of the tai, the sekihan, and the soup are placed into the dishes, and the baby is "fed."  Now, in reality, it's unlikely that a 100 day old baby is ready for solid food.  This is just a photo opportunity/ reason for the family to get together and have a good time.  Either Dad or Mom will hold the baby and bring small amounts of the food to the babys mouth, hold it there for a moment, and repeat.  When each of the foods has been "eaten," the rest of the family divides the remainder, and everyone gets to eat!

Event #5 - Hatsu Sekku (The first seasonal event)
     On March 3rd, girls celebrate the Dolls festival, Hina Matsuri.  On May 5th, boys celebrate Children's Day, Kodomo no Hi.  The first time these festials roll around in a child's life is a big event.  Girls receive their hina doll sets, and boys receive their kabuto, a replica samurai helmet (sized down for display only).  These displays are quite expensive, and often are the responsibility of the grandparents to purchase.  For my son, we went to a store that specialized in these displays, where there were literally hundreds of armor sets to choose from.  Anything from a simple helmet to a famous samurai's helmet replica to a full set of armor.  On the girls side, its similar.  The most simple doll set consists of the bride and groom.  From there, more and more dolls can be added until you have almost the entire wedding party, including 3 ladies in waiting, 5 musicians, two archers, and a host of wedding gifts.  We managed to decide on a replica of Date's helmet, and displayed it through April and May.  We will display it each year until he finishes elementary school!

Event #6 - I sai ni naru (Turning one)
     Congratulations!  You made it all the way around the sun!  In addition to the very common traditions of getting presents, eating cake, and generally having a fuss made of you on your very special day, Japan has a couple of traditions that it has saved for this!  Actually, it's like two events mixed together.  It's called erabitori, meaning "picking one up," and involves one kilo of mochi, a bunch of random objects, and one little baby who just turned one.  The mochi is put in a bag and tied to the baby's back (we decided to break it into two sections and put one on his back and one on his front, to even him out).  Then, the baby in encouraged to totter over to a selection of objects across the room.  The idea is that whatever object the baby picks up first is going to predict what his future occupation will be.  Traditional objects include a writing brush, an abacus, and a set of chopsticks.  More modern choices have been making their way into the tradition, such as make-up, microphones, or running shoes.  Tigger made it almost all the way across the room before he had a little breakdown from the weight dragging him down, but managed to make it the rest of the way by crawling.  His choice?  The microphone.  The prediction?  He will be an entertainer of some sort.  Well, I guess we will see!
Happy Birthday, Tigger!  May you have many more ahead of you, happy and healthy!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ramen-ya (The Ramen Shop)

Wow!  It's been a really long time!  I apologize for the long break!  My son, in getting more and more mobile, is now learning how to get into more and more trouble.  And so, without further delay.....

Japan is full of delicious foods.  There are so many delicious things to eat in Japan, from simple snacks to filling meals, and delightful desserts.  Sushi, shabu-shabu, okonomiyaki, all of these taste treats are tempting me as much now as when I first came to Japan.  The different areas of Japan also boast of local dishes that are well worth looking into as you travel around Japan.  In Hiroshima, okonomiyaki reigns supreme as the local food and momiji manjuu is their (delicious) snack.  Oksaka offers a different variation of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and kushikatsu.  Nagoya claims miso flavored pork cutlet, kyoto has hot tofu, the list goes on and on.  Each area has it's own dish, and most of them are well worth trying at least once.  And just like in America, Japan has taken local foods of other countries and subtly changed them to suit the Japanese taste. And from this comes, Ramen!

Ramen is Chinese noodles in soup, usually with a piece or two of roasted pork and some vegetables as a topping.  If you've seen Kung-Fu Panda (and if you haven't you should, as it's a very worthy movie) the panda, Po, and his father own a ramen shop.  This amazing noodle/soup combo came over to Japan, and is now one of the most loved foods around.  Many areas in Japan have customized the combination of ingredients to make their own special tastes, but almost all of them are worth a try.

The most basic form of ramen comes in four "flavors" based on the type of soup used.  These are miso, shouyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and tonkotsu (pork bone).  The toppings are generally the same, including the pork slice, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, sometimes a piece of roasted seaweed, and often a half or whole egg.  Almost any ramen shop will offer several of these options.  From these basic tastes, many variations have been created.  Tan Tanmen has a spicy soup seasoned with ground beef.  Tsukemen has the noodles and the soup seperated, and you dip your noodles before eating them.  Hiyashi Chuka is a chilled version without soup popular in the summer.

A typical bowl of ramen with (from the top clockwise) seaweed, bamboo shoots, green onions, pork slices, fish cake, and an egg

Hakata, in the north of Kyushu, is a regional variation on the tonkotsu soup base, though the noodles are slightly different than the norm.  Onomichi ramen in the east side of Hiroshima prefecture adds little white clumps of pork back fat to the soup.  Sapporo ramen is miso flavored with a topping of corn and butter.  And there are many more besides.  Almost ever area in Japan boasts its own style of ramen.

My first winter in Japan was terribly cold.  Even today, most of Japan does not use central heating.  Instead, a kerosene or electric heater is set in the room where people are gathering (for example, the dining room, or the living room) doors are closed to hold in the heat, and the rest of the house is left unheated.  Which for me, coming from a central heating culture, was REALLY cold.  It was not uncommon for me to wake in the morning and find frost on the insides of my windows.  I had a kerosene heater loaned to my by my company, but you can't leave a kerosene heater running while you sleep, or you might risk not waking up at all.  Another chilling factor was my lack of car.... I had a bicycle I was borrowing from the company, but it was the first time since I was 16 that I didn't have a car of my own.  Riding a bike through the snow, rain, wind and weather was had for me to get used to.  On days that my classroom was quite far (like in another town) my company would let me use one of the company cars, but if the distance wasn't too great, they insisted that I make my way there by bicycle.  This was Japan, after all, they liked to say.  And this is how the Japanese get to work.  Biting back my reply that Mimi herself had a car, as did the owner Jerry, and both of the secretaries, I just smiled and bundled up.  Oh joy.

Tsukemen, where the noodles are dipped into the soup before eating.

Tuesday nights I was teaching at an electric company not too far away from our school.  On a warm sunny day, with lots of time to kill, I could make it from school to the company in about 30 minutes.  On a cold day, trying to hurry, It could take about 15.  And just one time, when I forgot my pass to get into the company compound and had to turn around halfway to grab it, I was able to make it in 12.  There were a lot of interesting things to see on the way, but the thing that jumped out at me the most were the delicious smells wafting from a small family run ramen shop.  At that time, I had never had ramen, and also never dined out by myself.  My inability to read the menu or speak Japanese intimidated me to eat at home more often than not.  But as the nights got colder and colder, I finally decided that I would have to go.  The day I finally decided I would give it a try, I cornered Tall Dea who had been in Japan for a long time and asked his advice.  Thus prepared, as I peddled my way home after a night of teaching, shivering the whole way, I parked my bike and went in to get some noodles.

Fried rice, a popular side dish when eating ramen.  Nothing goes better with carbohydrates than carbohydrates!

The restaurant was really cute.  The windows had been painted yellow with little cutsie dragons flitting around them.  Inside was a long counter that faced the kitchen, and two tiny tables crowded against the wall.  The walking space between the counters and the tables was barely enough to walk between, but luckily besides myself was only one older fellow, already tucking into his bowl.  A bookshelf of comics was pushed against the wall next to the door, and reached almost all the way to the ceiling, with what looked like hundreds of well thumbed copies of the all kinds of manga from Slam Dunk to Naruto to Majors.  A mother and daughter were behind the counter making the noodles, while a 2 year old played at one of the unoccupied tables.  Thanks to all the boiling water, the shop was pleasantly warm and humid.  The ramen itself was delicious, and it was very relaxing to have a book in one hand and chopsticks in the other, taking my time before heading back outside into the cold.

I don't know why, but I never did go back to that shop, though I passed it to and from the company three times a week.  About a year ago, I returned to Fukuyama to visit some friends, and decided to drive by and get lunch, only to find an empty building with the painted dragons slowly chipping away into nothingness.  But even though the shop is gone, it will always be a yellow colored memory of warmth in a very cold winter.  Since then, I have had innumerable bowls of ramen of all types and flavors, but it was that first time, when I had to work up the courage even to go in the doors that started it all.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Saisho no Bokken (The First Adventure)

The Japanese calender is positively littered with holidays.  Almost ever month has at least one or two national holidays, plus the three (yes, three) week long holidays of O-shogatsu, Golden Week, and O-bon.  In fact, the only month that has no special days of any sort is June. Technically, August also has no official holiday, but almost every company gives its workers the 13th, 14th and 15th at least for the O-bon festivities, and most companies will extend that a few days before and after, leaving poor little June all alone.  I have even heard rumors that the government is trying to decide about adding a holiday, so that there is at least one day a month that workers will have off.  I, of course, am all for this idea.

About two weeks after my arrival in Japan came the first of these holidays for me.  I had no idea what I was going to do with myself, but luckily for me Merissa, a fellow ECS teacher, knowing that I hadn't been around long enough to make plans invited me to join her and a friend of hers, Janessa from Australia, on a little adventure to a neighboring prefecture.  Janessa worked for a cram school (known as a juku) not too far away from ECS, teaching English as well.  I'm not too sure how the two of them met, but Merissa was a social butterfly, and seemed to know ... well, pretty much everyone!  Now, traveling is one of my most favorite things to do.  It was one of the biggest reasons that I decided to come to Japan in the first place!  Gratefully I accepted, and off we went.

Our destination was a fairly large town called Kurashiki.  It's the second largest city in Okayama Prefecture, only about 45 minutes by train.  As it was my first train ride in Japan that wasn't in the dark of night, I spent most of the time watching out the windows as Janessa and Merissa chatted about work.  I was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was, small towns, rice fields, rivers and mountains flashing past, and all of it different from the view I was used to in Oregon.  However, I was one of the only ones in the entire train that was enjoying the view.  Everyone else was busy, mostly with their cell phones, textbooks, or sleeping.  Nowadays, I also join the crowd and take the free time to read, but at the time, I felt like I would never get tired of watching the scenery go by.

Our goal in Kurashiki was the Bikan Jiku, or the Beautiful Quarter. 
                                                                  Kurashiki's Bikan Jiku
 This is a small portion of the city that still retains it's traditional look.  Kurashiki is well known for a particular white and black pattern on its buildings that resemble old fashioned warehouses, or "kura."  Our guide books said that it wasn't far from the train station, and the weather was beautiful, so we decided to walk.  Of course, we lost our way, but I had also brought along a phrase book, and finding a kind passerby, we managed to make out way to the Bikan Jiku without too much fuss.
                                                             Three adventurers!
Like it's name, it really is a beautiful area.  Basically, it's the area on either side of a small river that winds its way through town.  In the summer, they have little boats that will punt you up the river and back for a small fee.  
                                                                  Kurashikigawa, that runs through the quarter
It was even recently filmed for part of a set in a historical movie.  For those of you who have seen the recent Rurouni Kenshin movie, they use the river and it's bridges as the location for outside the Akebeko.  Rurouni Kenshin is my all time favorite manga, so I spent the first day of my maternity leave last fall going to see it at the theater.  As the fight scene spilled out of the Akebeko and into the streets, suddenly I realized that I had seen that place (I've been back to the Bikan Jiku several times since that first trip).  I waited to see the credits, and sure enough, they had filmed in Kurashiki! 
                                                                                           Fall at the Bikan Jiku

Our first stop was the Japan Rural Toy Museum (Nihon Kyoudo Gangukan), one of the most famous toy museums in Japan.  The bottom floor is a small toy shop, selling kaleidascopes, tops, paper balloons, and so on.  Behind the shop is a small corridor that winds up stairs and around display cases, displaying all sorts of toys from different areas of Japan and different eras, plus a small display of foreign toys as well.  It was pretty interesting, but a little narrow.  When the three of us going up ran into a couple coming back down, it took a little maneuvering to get out of each others way.
                                                                   A little bridge over the Kurashikigawa

Our next stop was the Ivy Square, a little off the main way.  A large, ivy covered brick complex, it began as a weaving mill, and still holds a textile museum, as well as a few small boutiques, a small art museum with Japanese and western art, and the Ivy Gakkan (academic hall).  They were setting up for a wedding in the courtyard as we visited.  Merissa and Janessa took photos with the ladies in kimono that were gathering, and then off we went.  On the way back to the Kurashiki-gawa, the little river, we stopped at a small shop to buy senbe, rice crackers. 
                                                                              A wedding at Ivy Square

Our last stop in Bikan Jiku was a run past the I Love Candy Museum, a large pink building emitting a delicious smell across the street.  
                                                      The I Love Candy Museum, Kurashiki
Sadly, we were 10 minutes too late to take the tour around the museum!  Oh noes!  We took a few pictures instead, and headed back to the train station, where a fabulous lunch at McDonalds awaited us.  

As we headed out the opposite exit from the train station that had led us to the Bikan Jiku, a giant ferris wheel loomed ahead of us.  There was a theme park just across from the train station!  Trivoli Park, it was a Dutch themed amusement park, mostly dealing with Hans Christian Anderson and his collection of fairy tales.  Merissa and I were all for going in.  The prices dropped significantly after 5 PM, and it was just 4:30.  Perfect!  
"I can't," Jenessa said, sadly.  "I have to be back in Fukuyama by 6."
Too bad, but it had already been a long, full day, so in the end we decided to all head back together.  There would be other chances to go to Trivoli.i
                                               Trivoli Park, as seen from Kurashiki Station
                                       *                                *                               *

Flash forward 7 years... I now live in Okayama City, as close to Kurashiki as you can get.  I have been to the Bikan Jiku several times, in every season (though fall is the best by far).  I did manage to make it to Trivoli Park several times as well, once for their Christmas illumination, which was beautiful!  Sadly, the park is now gone, and in its place is a large shopping mall.  Almost once a week, my husband and I bundle up the baby and head for Aeon Kurashiki, another large mall about 20 minutes from our apartment.  It's easy for us to get dinner there even with the baby, and we always need to pick up something for our son, diapers or clothes and so on.  Aeon had the movie theater I went to to see Rurouni Kenshin and discover the Bikan Jiku on the big screen.  A lot has changed since my first visit, but Kurashiki has always held a special place in my heart.  It's a good place with lots of parks, museums, friendly people, and is a very convenient location with a shinkansen stop, a port, and access not only east-west, but also north-south (for those wanting to go up to the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea).  If you have some extra time while exploring western Japan, I highly recommend it!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Seitotachi (Students)

Students...the bread and butter of the English school.  Good students can make classes fly past, teach their instructors as much as they are taught, and leave their teachers with warm, fuzzy memories.  Bad students can make time CRAWL, cause sleepless nights and tearful worries, and make teachers wonder why they left the comforts of their home countries to teach in the first place.  Every English school has its own different collection of classes, students ranging in ages from just a few months old to well into their 80's.  At ECS, I taught classes for several different groups.

                                             Sometimes you even get invited to a students wedding!

*Salaryman (Business men/women)
     There are several different kinds of business classes I taught at the companies I was sent to by ECS.  Private lessons, group conversation, English certification classes, freshman classes (freshies are the new employees in their first year with the company).  The common theme running though all of the different kinds of classes, however, is usually the same.  The students themselves didn't choose to be there.  Most of the time, these students are ordered to study English by their companies.  For whatever reason, they have been chosen for lessons.  Salesmen often find themselves in these lessons due to the need to converse with international customers.  Most employees at shipbuilding companies find themselves studying English at one time or another, since both the customers ordering the ships and the crews of ships coming in for repair are often from foreign countries.  Occasionally, I have also had the four hours a day, 12 week long slog for a group of employees being sent over seas on business trips.
      Generally speaking, these classes are somewhat difficult for me, since the desire to learn the language in the classes is pretty low.  The daily life of a business man or woman in Japan is pretty brutal by American standards.  Technically, the work day is from 9 to 5, but you should only leave "if your work is finished."  And even in the rare instance that you are finished at 5, no one wants to be the first person out of the office... encouraging people to find work for another hour or two.  So you might work until 7... or 9... or even later, depending on how much you have left to finish.  And this extra time?  Yeah, usually not paid.  While there is overtime in Japan, usually this kind of over-work is deemed "service," meaning your gift to your company.  You didn't finish your work on time, so you will continue on unpaid!  Yikes!  Add to that there is no guarantee that when you do finally put the last touch on your work you can go home.  If your boss wants to go out drinking, guess who's going with him.  Or if your customer has come into town, guess who gets to take them out for dinner and drinks until THEY decide it's time to go home. With all of this, it's easy to see why the excitement level for a 90 minute English lesson might be a little low!

*O-toshiyori (Elderly)
                                             Oh no, a fuzzy picture!  My lovely "Sunflowers"

      Many classes at ECS are for groups of elderly people that want to study together.  Even my current company, Solina, has many elderly students, though now I usually teach them in private, one-on-one lessons.  At ECS, the classes were often of two types.  The first was those people who wanted to keep themselves busy and their brains working even though they had retired.  Their classmates were often friends, or would soon become friends, and they might make a day of their lessons, going out to lunch or coffee after English was over and chatting together.   Often these lessons were enjoyable for me, as the students were very relaxed.  More than trying to learn the language for communication purposes, they were looking for a good time, were quick to laugh and friendly.  Rarely they had anything in particular they wanted to practice, and were happy to leave every detail of the class up to the teacher.  Sadly, this was not always the case, and one class in particular stands out in my mind as a group of grumpy students who were quick to point out my faults and unwilling to accept a lesson that was different from their previous teacher.  The class was named "Dream" but in reality, they were my nightmare!
      The other type of elderly classes I have taught were for those people who were planning on spending their retirement traveling to many countries (or the same country multiple times) and wanted to be able to communicate during their travels.  Unlike the previous class type, the students are there to actually learn English, but still these classes were very often equally enjoyable.  My students could talk indefinitely about places they had visited and trips that they wanted to take.  Often they would come to class with specific questions, or conversations they wanted to practice, and would often return from their travels with pictures (and if I was very lucky, little local snacks they had picked up along the way).

*Hoikuen/ Yochien (Nursery/ Kindergarten)
                                             Graduation day at a kindergarten in Onomichi

      By far, my all time favorite lessons were when I was sent out to visit different kindergartens or nursery schools.  These were the lessons that I could really let loose.  The kids like to dance and sing and be silly, and they think their teachers (especially teachers who only come once a week, like us English teachers) are the coolest things ever.  It really helps boost moral when the moment you walk in the door the kids are jumping around cheering "Eigo no Sensei!  Eigo no Sensei!"  (English teacher!!!)  Good for the self esteem.  I got a chance to visit several different pre-schools for these lessons, and I always looked forward to going.  Usually the students normal teacher would stay in the classroom with us in case of trouble.  Some teachers would join the lesson with their students, and others would take a little break while I over.  The most important thing I learned from these lessons was TPR, or Total Physical Response.  It's a technique that encourages students to physically use their bodies to remember the lesson rather than just memorizing words.  For example, in teaching colors, practice the words a few times, and then have them race around the classroom looking for things of the color you call out.

*Bukatsu (English club)
      Very rarely I was asked to go to a school (most often a trade school or a high school) and teach their English club.  I didn't have to go often, but the schools I went to didn't really have much interest in English.  Sadly, most of the students wanted to join tea ceremony, dance, or calligraphy clubs, but all the spaces were full, and the only club with space left was... English.  So they would come to club, sit in the back, and chit chat with their friends, do their homework, or just put their heads down and sleep.  I was a bit surprised by this reaction, but my company had prepared me a little.  "It's just a club," they had said.  "There arn't any tests, or grades, or anything else, so if they don't want to pay attention, don't worry about them.  Just teach the students who are interested."  Well, I didn't think that was a good idea, but who was I to say so?  So, half of my club would check out for the 90 minutes, and the other half would have a good time.

Currently I'm again teaching at an Eikaiwa, but it's a little different than ECS.  My main focus now is Elementary and Jr. High School kids.  I have a small classroom, and the kids come to see me after their normal schools are over.  Every day has a few small classes of pre-schoolers and a private adult or two, but the main focus is first to ninth graders.  While it's nice to have my own classroom, and a little more control over what I want to do in my lessons, I do sometimes miss going out to other kindergartens.  I will always have good memories from my very favorite kindergarten of all time.  
                                           The highlight of my week.  I adored these little guys!

Good students and good teachers.  I often wish I could have become the English teacher for them, but they didn't have enough classes to keep a full time English teacher.  Alas!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tanabata (Star Festival)

What do you see when you look at the night sky?  There are as many answers to this question as there are cultures around the world. The moon alone holds a variety of images depending on who you ask.  In America, we see the face of an old man looking down on the earth, while in India they see the hands of a goddess.  And here in Japan, a rabbit pounds rice cakes with a mortar and pestle.  Add that to the multitude of constellations, astrological phenomenon, and human creativity, and the night sky becomes a tapestry of imagination.

But look up into the Japanese sky tonight, the seventh of July, and stargazers are captivated by Amanogawa- the River of Heaven- known in English as the Milky Way, and the stars Vega and Altair.  This is the night of Tanabata, the star festival, an ancient Chinese story of two lovers (our two stars) named Orihime and Hikoboshi.  Star-crossed lovers, indeed!
                                                                       Tanabata festival decorations in Fukuyama
Gather round, all, for story time!

Mukashi, mukashi ... (Long ago and far away...)

The princess of the heavens, Orihime, was the daughter of Tentei, King of Heaven.  She would go every day to the Amanogawa to do her weaving, which was of the highest quality.  It always pleased her father to see how seriously she took her responsibilities.  But one day, while she was weaving on the banks of the river, there appeared Hikoboshi, the heavenly cowherd, bringing his cows to the river to drink.  They gazed at each other across the river, and instantly they fell in love.  At first, King Tentei was overjoyed that his daughter had found her true love, and blessed their match with all his heart.  The two were quickly married, and lived together happily, their love growing every day.  However, as their love grew, they began to neglect their duties.  Orihime stopped weaving in order to spend more time with her husband, and Hikoboshi did not attend to his cows, allowing them to freely roam across the heavens.

At first, Tentei didn't mind, thinking that the two lovers would return to their work once they had had a chance to settle into their marriage, but as time went on and the two showed no signs of returning to their duties, he became angry.  In a rage, he seperated the two lovers with the Amanogawa, and vowed that they would never again meet as punishment for their irresponsible behavior.  Cry as she might, Orihime could not sway her fathers decision, and the two remained seperated.  As the years passed, Orihime became more and more despondent, until she no longer smiled, or laughed, or sang, but pined for her absent husband.  Finally, her sorrow reached her father, and he agreed that one night a year, the two lovers could be reunited, as long as they completed their work to his satisfaction before the night of the meeting. Gratefully, Orihime and Hikoboshi agreed to the terms, and spend the year diligently attending to their tasks.  On the night of July 7th, if the sky is clear, then Tentei bridges the Amanogawa, and the two lovers are united until sunrise.

Medetashi, medetashi! (And they all lived happily ever after.)

So the story goes.  Of course, there is the small matter of what happens when it rains on the night of the lovers meeting.  Sadly, the two remain separated, as the river cannot be bridged in the rain.  And July 7th lies smack in the middle of rainy season here in Japan.  In the seven summers I've spent here, it has failed to rain only three times I believe, leaving our two little stars only meeting about half as often as we hope they could.

                                                                                                Little Huka enjoying the Fukuyama Tanabata Festival
As with all festivals, the story is only half of the fun.  Tanabata Festival has a series of traditions that make for a fun evening, even if the rains.  The main event is the decoration of bamboo branches with foil shapes, paper chains, and tanzaku, which are colorful strips of paper on which people write wishes.  Usually done by children, tanzaku were originally for wishes like, "I want to be better at handwriting" or "I want to become a great seamstress," (following the tradition of Hikoboshi and Orihime vowing to be diligent about their work.)  These days, however, those kinds of wishes are rarely seen.  Much more common now are wishes like "I want to get more Pokemon cards" or "I want to become a hip-hop dancer."

Every year for Tanabata, I have my students write tanzaku in English.  The kids seem to really enjoy the exercise, and I try to encourage them to think of wishes beyond their current English ability.  Nothing helps you remember a foreign language better than using it to express something that is really meaningful to you.  So far, my favorite has been, "I want to be a super hero," from a 10 year old girl, complete with drawing of her standing on top of the planet in a cape. 

In the days, weeks, and sometimes even a month leading up to Tanabata, most cities offer a night festival, where kids and their parents can write out tanzaku and hang them on waiting bamboo branches, buy festival food (always a favorite) such as snow cones, fried noodles, or takoyaki, play games like goldfish scooping, shooting games, and lottery chance games, and so on in the evening.  Usually these mini festivals are Saturday and Sunday evenings only, though it depends on the city.  Kids usually dress up in traditional clothing, either a yukata which is a colorful cotton kimono especially for the summer, or a jinbei, an outfit with shorts and a wrap around shirt.  My first year in Japan, I really enjoyed visiting the Fukuyama Tanabata festival, where a kindergarten I taught at (contracted through ECS) had put up their own decorations, and I ran into many of my little students having a great time with their families.  

Sadly, this year my son is too young to enjoy the Tanabata festival.  Alas, for the sky is clear today, and it's very likely that Orihime and Hikoboshi will cross the Amanogawa.  I haven't had the chance to go to the night festivals in several years now, though I think that I should every year.  I'm really looking forward to going in a few years, and for the first time, I'll go not alone, but as a family.  

                                              Two of my students, the girl in a kimono and the boy in jinbei at the Fukuyama Tanabata Festival

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Junbi o shiteimasu (Getting ready)

There are two main types of privately run English schools in Japan, the eikaiwa and the juku.  The eikaiwa (literally English conversation) is popular among companies who need their employees to communicate internationally, the elderly looking for a hobby, and parents of young children who want their kids to be able to speak English.  The focus of an eikaiwa is first and foremost the ability to communicate in English.  The other kind of school is the juku, or cram school.  There are juku for any school subject you could imagine, and the focus of these kinds of schools are not communication of any kind, but the ability to pass the dreaded high school and college exams.  It is possible (and I've seen this first hand) for a student to truly excel at English juku, and not be able to have even the simplest of conversations. The Eikawa is also where you will find the majority of native English speaking teachers.  Most juku require their teachers to have certifications, where the eikaiwa only requires a four year university degree (in anything) and they only need that to get your working visa.

I had signed my teaching contract with a small company called ECS (English Communication Services), an eikaiwa.  There were six full time teachers, two secretaries, our manager, and the owner, Jerry.  Jerry was a trip.  He was a second generation Japanese American, but he tried to pretend that he was Japanese born and bred.  He said it was better for business.  He had several other companies that he ran, most of which were of a somewhat... mysterious nature.

                                                               River on the way to work

I met Lisa at the office in the early afternoon the day after my arrival in Japan, and she introduced me to the others that were there.  Lisa, I learned, was not actually our manager, though she had most of those responisbilities.  Instead, as a Japanese American, she was the liaison between the foreign and Japanese staff.  Being well acquainted with both cultures, she had the exciting job of smoothing ruffled feathers on either side, as well as teaching duties.  That afternoon she introduced me to the actual manager, Mimi.

"I don't like foreign people," Mimi said as she looked me up and down.  "Did you know that foreign people are responsible for the majority of traffic accidents here in Japan?  And foreigners are so unreliable.  You can never trust them to be anywhere on time."

".  .  ."

A million comments ran through my mind in moments, none of which were probably appropriate at the time, the most prominent being 'if you hate foreign people, aren't you in the wrong job?'  And I'm pretty sure that Japanese people cause the majority of traffic accidents in Japan, since foreign residents make up about 1.5% of the population.  Ah, racism.  Little did I know at the time, but racism was about to become a constant companion. 

The six other teachers were from a rash of different places.  Lisa from Hawaii, Marissa from Canada/Ecuador, Mark from Michigan, and then the two Dea's.  Big Dea and Tall Dea... not only did they have the same name, but they even looked similar.  The craziest part was, even their last names were only two letters different.  Personality wise, however, they couldn't have been more different. Big Dea was from the same state as I was though from a different part, and Tall Dea was from Michigan, like Mark, but also from a different area.

                                                                      Fukuyama by Night

That afternoon, the only other teacher was Tall Dea.  We had what I have since come to call the Introduction Conversation.  It seems that anytime two foreign people come together in Japan, we always seem to have the exact same conversation that consists of the same five questions. 

Question 1: Where are you from?
Question 2: Why are you here?
Question 3: How long will you stay?
Question 4: What do you think of Japan?
Question 5: Do you like going out drinking?

After we had chatted for a while, he stood up to head off to his first lessons.  

"See you tommorrow, then," I said.

He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned to face me, a condescending smile on his face.  "No, probably not," he replied.  "That's not how it works here."  And with that, he swept out of the office, leaving me to wonder if I had really made a good decision to come to Japan in the first place.  Suddenly I felt very lonely.  

When she had a chance, Lisa came over and started explaining the schedule for the next day.  ECS's students were mostly company workers, and instead of coming to our school, the teachers would drive out to their companies.  That way, the workers could easily return to work after lessons were over.  (The fun life of a Japanese business man.  Work from 8 AM to 6 PM, have mandatory English lessons for an hour and a half, and then return to work until 10 or 11 PM before being forced by your boss to go out to dinner followed by drinks, allowing you to return home at about 3 AM, giving you about 3 hours to sleep before it all begins again.  No one needs more than 3 hours, right?!) "You and I are going to go to the company together.  Both of our lessons are at the same place."

                                                                  View from my apartment... can you find the castle?
Both of our lessons?  A sense of welling dread began in my chest.  "Wait... Aren't I observing your lessons?  I mean, when is my training?  I told you when I applied that I'm not an education major, I'm a theatre major... I don't know anything about teaching!"

"I hired you because you were a theatre major!" she said smiling.  "You're so expressive!  Don't worry, you'll be fine!"  The mantra for all work related worries.  You'll be fine.  And with that, she too left for her afternoon lessons.  I walked back to my very empty apartment through the beautiful October sunshine, slowly wondering what the HELL I was going to do.  When I got back, I stood out on the veranda for a while.  As I stood there, I realized that I could see the very top of the castle.  Funnily enough, that small thought was enough to make me start feeling a bit better.  I was going to be fine.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nihon e yokoso! (Welcome to Japan)

"You'll never see anyone in a kimono."  These were the words my mother left me with as I boarded the plane, on my way to Japan for the first time.  It was supposed to be a year long contract for teaching English, just a little adventure.  It was a way to see Japan, learn about a different culture, and try and figure out my next step.  Just one year.  And here it is, almost eight years later, still in Japan with a husband and a brand new baby.  Not only do I see a lady in a kimono almost every day, I have my own.  Every day is an adventure, but one thing is for sure, life in Japan isn't all wine and roses... or sake and cherry blossoms!

The morning I left, I headed out for the airport, nervous and excited. I had flown alone many times, but I had never been to Japan (I also couldn't speak Japanese, but I was overlooking that slight problem).  I had a quick one hour flight to San Francisco, and then a two and a half hour layover until the 12 hour slog to Osaka.  Ready to begin my tearful farewells to my family, I stepped up to the ticket counter.  

"We're sorry, but due to fog in San Francisco, your flight has been delayed."


"How long has it been delayed?"

"We're not sure yet.  When the fog lifts, San Francisco will let us know."

Well great.  This was a good way to start.  In the end, the flight was delayed for two hours, giving me only thirty minutes to get to the international terminal in SFO.  Which, if you've been there, you'll know is quite the undertaking.  I don't usually check baggage on international flights, which in this instance was good and bad.  Good because it would never have made it onto the flight to Osaka, leaving me to start my new life with whatever would fit in my computer case.  The bad?  Picture me, hauling down the international terminal, suitcase in hand as the intercom calls my name, warning me that if I don't get my booty on the plane, it will leave without me.  If you've never been the subject of a PA call telling you you're late for your flight before, trust me.  Not a good feeling.

I barely made it, and it couldn't be more clear that they had been waiting for me.  As soon as I was on board the flight staff made their final checks, and I walked the length of the plane with the glares of delayed passengers following me to my seat.  While I really didn't want to piss off the hundreds of others that I would spend the next 12 hours with, I was extremely happy to make the flight.  I was on my way to Japan.

That could probably be said to be the longest flight of my life.  It's a long flight under any circumstances, and such a major life change as this gave me plenty of time to rethink my decision to move across the ocean to a country I had never been to that spoke a language I had never studied.  Long before I was born my parents had lived in Japan, and my childhood had been full of Japanese things, photos, music.  It was because of that I had wanted to go to Japan in the first place, but now, the closer the plane got to our destination, the more nervous I became.  Finally, we landed at Kansai Internation Airport, outside of Osaka.  That, I knew was the easy part.  From here, I had two train rides ahead of me, plus navigating two train stations. 

The train from Kansai Airport was easier than I expected.  It took about an hour, and I found myself in Shin-Osaka station.  This was the hard one.  It's a huge (and I mean HUGE) station, including subways, local trains and bullet trains, and I had five minutes to get from where my train arrived to where my bullet train would depart.  Luckily for me, a very kind family, also from America, who lived in Osaka took pity on me and gave me great instructions on how to get to the platform I needed to go to.  Still, once again I found myself racing to catch my train with suitcase in tow... and again, I just made it.  From here, the only hard part was staying awake so as to not miss my stop.  I managed somehow, and before I knew it, I was off the train and standing in Fukuyama, my new home.  As I left the train, three ladies in kimono pushed their way past me.  So much for never seeing a kimono.  Realizing that everything I had ever heard about Japan was probably wrong, I followed the ladies down the escalator to meet my manager, Lisa, who was supposed to be waiting for me outside the ticket gates.  As I headed down, I realized that I didn't know what she looked like.  How, I wondered, would I know who she was?  But, there was no need to worry.  I may not have known what she looked like, but she knew my face from my resume (not to mention that I was the only non-Japanese person coming off the trains).  As I walked for the ticket gate, I could see her, waving at me.

 "You must be hungry!" she said as we walked towards the doors out of the station.  "Let's drop your stuff off at your apartment and then get something to eat.  We live close to each other, and it's not so far, so it won't take long to walk there."  We stepped out of the station, and directly in front of us was a giant (or so I thought) castle, lit up beautifully in the night.  It was amazing.

Just as Lisa had said, our apartments were fairly close, about a fifteen minute walk.  It was towards the end of October, which is a great season in Japan, and the weather was nice, making the walk rather pleasant.  My new apartment was larger than I had imagined, though completely empty of furniture except for a futon set borrowed from my company, an old TV set, and a low table called a kotatsu.

We had dinner at the neighborhood izakaya, which is a Japanese pub-ish kind of place, lots of emphasis on alcohol and food that matches it.  I asked Lisa to order for us, since I didn't know anything on the menu.

The first thing she ordered was "shishamon", little fish that are fried and served five to a plate.  Whole.  With their heads on and everything.  Pushing the plate towards me, Lisa smiled.  "Eat them while they're hot!" she said as she grabbed one for herself.  Gingerly I took one myself.  I figured if I just snarfed it headfirst, at least it would stop staring at me.  And the truth is, it was pretty delicious.  Lisa smiled again.

"Welcome to Japan!"