31 October 2008

Ye Aforementioned Video

Sorry to overload on posts yesterday, for those of you who get the digest version. I wouldn't have read all those entries had they arrived in my inbox, so thanks to those of you who did. :D

It took a couple of hours to upload the video, but here it is for your viewing pleasure: http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=m3IGKQaDDQk
This is the performance I mentioned in my Chorus Competition post. I'm actually pretty impressed with the video's sound quality, considering I took it with my Canon SD600 (aka - not a video camera). So...enjoy!

30 October 2008

How Japan is Green

And How We Can All Be Green, Too

I've recently fallen in love with a website: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ (more specifically, with its sub-site, http://www.re-nest.com/). Aside from having lots of tips for living in small spaces that you may or may not own, it has an entire section (aka: re-nest.com) devoted to do-it-yourself projects and to being as green as possible without crossing the line into insanity. It also features a lot of green/diy options that don't look as if they were done by 3rd graders in science class - it can be quite the accomplishment.

Living in Japan has opened my eyes to a lot of realistic green options I've been taking for granted. It's rare, for example, for a house to have a full-sized oven, a dryer, or a dishwasher. Having "made due" with a toaster oven, line drying, and hand-washing for a year now has made me realize just how well I can function without the larger, energy-wasting versions.

Recycling is huge here. This is largely due to training in schools and heavy fines for those who throw away things inappropriately. While no one I have spoken to fully knows the system for separating out burnable and non-burnable trash (the requirements are very strict), everyone knows to recycle cans, plastic bottles, and glass. On top of this, many drinks come in paper cartons - these, too, are recycled. Recycling can be picked up or can be taken to the grocery stores for those of us who, like myself, don't produce enough to make taking the recycling out for pick up worthwhile. Indeed, it is generally easier to find a place to recycle a can or bottle than it is to find a trash can.

There are rarely paper towels in bathrooms - while some have air-dryers, many do not. Instead, most people carry a handkerchief or a handkerchief-sized towel for drying their hands. This is a general-use towel, too; students use them as drop cloths for their school lunches, for example.

I work in a middle and elementary school, and I'm impressed with the efforts made in these two places as well. Paper that has been printed on one side (but is still good for further use) is collected and reused for inner-office memos and other prints that often build up in an office setting. After that use, they're recycled. Machines in the copy room are unplugged at the end of the day; many are left turned off when not being used. Teachers leave a coffee mug at the school for use with drinks, and most teachers take a policy of washing their mug at the end of the day and rinsing quickly between uses rather than between washing fully after each use. Lunch comes with a carton of milk every day, and these are rinsed in a single bucket of water in each classroom rather than with gallons of water from the tap. Even the design of the school is such that it will save power - the classrooms are built with south-facing windows so as to get as much light (and heat, for winter) as possible during the day - the lights are turned off regularly when a class isn't in session, and even during breaks.

Saving energy at home is an impressive feat as well. Water heaters are connected to a panel in the kitchen which can easily adjust the temperature of the water, as well as turn the heater off when hot water isn't needed. Few houses come with central air; in fact, many function with one or two A/C units in the entire house, and these are run at selective times, if not on a timer. In winter, space heaters and kerosene heaters come into play, also being used at selective times. I'll only mention the kotatsu by name, and encourage anyone who's reading to look it up on Google - it's an amazing invention for winter and quite a power conserver.

Of course, it's rare that one thinks of Japan without thinking of the public transportation options. Due to expense, I decided against getting a car while here, and have been traveling on bike and by train instead - I've found it to not be as limiting as I had originally feared. While it's a pain during excessively cold, excessively hot, or rainy weather, it's nevertheless amazing to me that the idea of biking to the nearest mall (45 minutes one way) doesn't overly phase me anymore.

Not to say the Japanese are perfect by any means - for example, they are obsessed with packaging in a way that is frightening, women flush the toilet multiple times rather than allowing others to hear them pee, and good insulation seems to be a fancy dream. Still, they accept so many green practices as daily life that I can't help but hope that America will soon follow suit after their examples. For my part, I hope to maintain my green training when I return to the States next year. After a year of "making due" with options that at times are less convenient but are always exponentially friendlier to the earth, I've clearly come to see just how do-able these options are.

Chorus Contest v2.0

AKA: Practice Makes Perfect

It's that time of the year again - the Chorus Contest! You may or may not remember it from last year, so here's the short version: each of the homerooms compete against the other homerooms in their grade in a singing contest. They sing two songs - one that the entire grade sings, one that each homeroom picks for itself. Each homeroom picks a student to conduct and a student to play the piano accompaniment; the competition completely relies on the students. The teachers judge each performance and the winners are announced at the end of the competition.

So ... this glorious event happened yesterday.

This year, as far as the official part of the contest is concerned, wasn't very different from last year. The conductors were a little more reserved in their conducting, which was sad - I rather enjoyed the flamboyant Maestros from last year. The performances were also a little disappointing as far as ability was concerned - many of the pieces seemed unbalanced, in that the boys were not informed that their voices would carry much more easily than the girls', making the bass-lines much too prominent.
Or maybe I'm just more critical this year than I was last year; who knows!

Outside of the official competition, however, there was much more unofficial activity. There was a handbell performance, a jazz band performance, a percussion band performance, an a cappella performance, a gymnastics routine, a rock band performance which featured the Vice Principal on rhythm guitar, a skit, a piano duet featuring a third year student (9th grader) and a teacher wearing a student uniform, a PTA chorus rendition of Angela Aki's "Letter," a dance done by the extracurricular music class, and a brass band performance of two popular songs which involved teachers dancing. Pretty chock full of stuff!

I was involved in the a cappella performance (3 people, including myself, singing "Amazing Grace" - I had the melody, which was fun) and the teacher's dance for the brass band (I was dancing to the Ponyo theme song). It was nice to be selected for things and to be included in this way.


We never had a dress rehearsal. The a cappella group never practiced the whole song together. The Ponyo dance didn't ever practice, and only one person dancing knew what the order for the dance was. Other performances, too, reflected a general lack of practice; only the PTA seemed to be on top of their game.

The kids had fun, which was the important part; that being said, the whole thing, as a performance, was very sloppy. Were it just a performance for the students, I wouldn't mind, but here were many relatives and other visitors who had come to watch. I hated that what they saw reflected so poorly, in general, on our school. Still, lack of preparation (and my severe anal-retentive streak) aside, it was a fun occasion.

Of all of the songs, I took only one video, and it happened to be my favorite performance and what won first place for the 3rd year homeroom that performed it. I think I will try putting it up on YouTube so y'all can get a feel for what the students do; more on this in the near future. :)

Gunma Prefecture Day

Last Tuesday was "Gunma Prefecture Day" - all I really ever heard about this was that the students, as well as those with certain jobs, had the day off. Teachers, unfortunately, were not considered to be among "those with certain jobs," but most of the ones in my office took the day off. I decided to do the same, and celebrated Gunma in the way I feel most of her citizens do - by going somewhere else.

I finally made the trip to Odaiba that I've been wanting to make for ages. Odaiba is the bay district of Tokyo, as well as home to the Fuji TV building, the Museum for Maritime Sciences, the Museum for Future Innovations, a very large ferris wheel, and my personal favorite - a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

From right to left - the Statue of Liberty, the Rainbow Tower, and Tokyo Tower.

It was a gorgeous day, so I ended up not going anywhere in particular while in Odaiba and instead just taking pictures from outside. The whole area is gorgeous and is one of the few places in Tokyo where I could actually see myself living and not being miserable. The train ride was scenic, the water was beautiful (though not clean, as far as I've heard), and the sights were wonderful to see. It's not surprising that it is known as one of the more romantic places in Tokyo - the scenery is bound to put anyone in a good mood.

After spending some time wandering around Odaiba, I made my way to Harajuku. For those of you playing the home game, Harajuku is famous for two things - clothing stores and the most bizarre displays of fashion ever. This is where the gothic Lolitas come to roost. I went there for the former rather than the latter; I found a listing for a used clothing store with affordable prices and decided to check it out. I miss my thrift stores, I must say - the opportunity to make ones own clothing modifications is just too few and far between around here when you can't find cheap clothing. (Oh Lord, I'm turning into my brother.)
Long story short - I found the place and was rather pleased with what I found. It was a pretty large store, well-organized, and was understandable at a glance. I found several interesting things, but my best find was either a pair of tweed-esque pants that fit me as though they were made for me or a thigh-length coat with a removable, fuzzy lining that is fairly warm and flattering. All together, I bought a pair of pants, a skirt, two coats, a shrug, and a turtleneck for something around $70. Not bad at all!

I hopped on the local train again and made my way down a couple of stops to Shinjuku, home to the busiest train station in the world. This is where train conductors are known to, at peak hours, push and forcibly pack people into the trains. I was going for something a little gentler - the best view of Tokyo from above.

While many think of Tokyo Tower when it comes to seeing out over Japan, it is well known as being an expensive tourist trap. While I still want to make my way to see it at some point, the $15 or so it costs to go to the topmost observatory was a little more than I was willing to give after my Harajuku buying spree. Still, due to some bad directions / my own stupidity, it took me around an hour longer than it should have to get to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Being 45 stories tall and having two observatories (north and south) makes this an attractive place for tourists who want a view over Tokyo, and, to top it off, visiting the observatories is 100% free of charge. On the recommendation of the ladies at the information desk, I hopped on the elevator for the South tower and arrived with a half hour to spare before the sun set.

Everyone knows Tokyo is big, but it's fairly different knowing that Tokyo could swallow New York whole (and would probably not even notice, at that) and seeing it for yourself. Tokyo is truly immense. The sheer size of it, though, was nothing compared to the spectacle of the sun setting. Japan may be the Land of the Rising Sun, but the sight of the sun sinking down beside Mount Fuji and light reflecting off the buildings as if the whole capitol were a rippling pool of water ... I can't think of many things to rival it. As a mother near me was saying to her son, "Save this image in your head. It's too beautiful for a camera."

Can't see Mt. Fuji yet...

The bump in the cloud cover to the left of the sun (as you look at the image) is Mt. Fuji - the light and clouds obscured it for most of the sunset. You may have to click on the image and enlarge it to see it clearly.

"Seishin" - in Japanese, it is often used to describe an activity that eases the soul. Lately, various things in my life have made me trend towards an ill-temper. As I made my way back to the train station, though, beginning my trek back home, I was feeling at peace. I can't help but feel that this particular trip to Tokyo was one rather full of seishin for me. Despite the general hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and its way of making me constantly feel like a stranger, I can easily think of worse ways to have spent my Gunma Prefecture Day.

02 October 2008

"Shotgun Wedding"

AKA: Aaaaaaawkward...

I was sitting in the staff room recently, chatting with my neighboring teachers, when my birthday came up in conversation. I moaned and said, "24? I'm going to be Christmas Cake soon!"

In Japan, it is a tradition to eat "Christmas Cake" on or before Christmas - I like to call it " 'Happy Birthday, Jesus!' cake", as it's basically the same as a birthday cake, but with a variety of Christmas-themed decorations instead of birthday ones. In the Japanese mind, eating Christmas Cake is law; the idea of skipping out on this tradition is, simply put, an act against nature.

How does this relate to my age? In Japan, a single woman of or around the age of 25 can be granted this title. A woman explained it to me as thus: "Christmas Cake sells for full price until the 24th; it goes at half-price on the 25th, and then down from there." In other words: If you're not married by 25, you get put on the sale rack.
It's an awful saying that I've embraced as my own; it's so terrible that I have to laugh at it as often as possible.

So, back to the staff room and my conversation with my teachers. After my bemoaning an impending "Christmas Cake" label, one of my teachers revealed that she married at 23. I looked stunned, and she said, "It was an accident."

My mind reeled. The Southern woman in me screamed in horror at the sheer number of faux pas waiting to happen from this. Of course, in this panicked status, I did the smart thing (/sarcasm) and decided to reveal a great Southernism: "shotgun wedding."

Don't ask me why I thought it was a good idea at the time - maybe I was assuming that she meant "mistake" instead of "accident." In any case, I explain the principle behind a shotgun wedding - a man is forced, at the end of a shotgun, to marry a woman whom he has impregnated. As I explained, my teacher was nodding, and when I finished, she said, "So, so, so, so, so" in quick succession, the Japanese equivalent of "Yeah! Yeah, that!"

. . .

I still have only one response to this, and that response is: "AWKWARD!"