18 March 2008

St. Patrick's Day!

AKA: I'm Just a Poor, Wayfarin' Irishwoman...

St. Patrick's day is pretty much unheard of in Japan. While there seems to be (according to the Japanese wikipedia page) some small celebration of it in Tokyo, there is little to none of it out in the inaka ("country-side") where I live.

Still, St. Patrick's Day is one of my favorite holidays, so I did what I could. I decorated my English board with a St. Patrick's Day theme, I taught a couple of St. Patrick's Day classes, and I wore green. After that, I went home, and did what is turning into my annual tradition - made an Irish dinner, drank beer, and watched an Irish(-themed) movie.

Now, making a traditional Irish dinner here would be next to impossible, or at the very least required more effort than I was willing to give. I compromised with a dinner of green, white, and orange, all of which are the colors of Ireland.

My mom pointed this out to me, and, while I already knew it, I will pass it on to my readers - the flag of Ireland represents the two factions of Christianity, Catholicism (green) and Protestantism (orange), and the hope for peace between the two (white). My mother, who comes from a Catholic line, said that orange was never allowed near her St. Patrick's Day meals when she was young, but that "a meal of all green is not very pretty."

In any case, I was proud of the results of my cooking.

The whole spread...
....and a view from above.
The sides: salad with cucumbers, 2 kinds of lettuce, orange bell pepper, carrots, and homemade dressing; rice with sweet potato; and some random, heart-shaped, green and orange chips.
The main dish: salmon sashimi on a bed of shredded radish, with a side of spicy-marinade cucumbers and some delicious vegetable for which I don't know the name.
My beer; I couldn't find any Irish beers, so I just went for one in a green can and my normal Asahi Super "DRY" (scare quotes added by Asahi, not me).
My dessert: green an-mochi, white an-mochi, and mandarin orange segments. See, it makes the flag! I'm so cute.



Of course, I couldn't finish all of this; I never got around to the bottle of Asahi, and most of the rice in that bowl went to waste. Still, it was delicious and I was pretty pleased with how well it all turned out! :D

Oh, and by the way, if you were curious about which movie I ended up watching, it was:

Graduation

AKA: "Bye bye, baby..."

Graduation was bitter sweet for me. On the one hand, I was excited to see the ceremony here and glad that my students were at this exciting point in their lives (think high school graduation, end of compulsory education, etc. for back home). On the other, I was seeing the best behaved and most interesting of my students leave, knowing all the while that the worst behaved group of students in my town, arguably, would succeed them.

The Japanese love a good ceremony, and this was no exception. The preparation was intense, and the staff room had been gaining a progressively more and more stressful air as graduation came nearer. Even I was recruited to help - I helped pass out programs to the "important visitors" we had. This was quite the category, as people were invited from the Board of Education, other schools, and God only knows where else. The gym, the center of the ceremonies, was completely decked out in red and white, the ceremonial colors of good fortune and happiness, and flowers (both fake and real) graced most of the stage.

The ceremony began, as most do, with an official statement from the vice-principal ("This marks the start of the graduation ceremony!"). After that, everyone sang the "start of graduation song," which everyone but myself seemed to know, giving me the impression that it's a common aspect of graduation. Immediately following this was the school song, which I could at least join in at certain parts.

Then, suddenly, diplomas were being handed out. "Where are the speakers?" I thought in horror-turned-joy, for I realized that I would have quite a hard time looking attentive through several lengthy speeches in a language I don't understand. The diploma ceremony itself amused me for a couple of reasons.
1. My principal was wearing a coat with tails. He very strongly reminded me of a bellhop.
2. The walk to the podium was very regimented and ... clockwork. It was almost funny.
3. The first and last diplomas were read in full; all of the others were handed to the students only with the announcement of their names.
4. During the time when the students were rotating (as it seemed to be to me) to the platform, everyone was completely silent. The only sounds that could be heard were the faintly-playing recordings of the Chorus Competition songs for each of the classes.

After this, to my disappointment, the speeches began. Telegrams from teachers who at some point taught these students and wanted to make their well-wishes known were read aloud, and representatives from the Board of Education, the PTA, and others spoke. The main difference in these speeches from those made in American graduations was that each of the speakers had their speech written on a formal, folded piece of paper, which he or she than gave to the principal. To quote one of my mom's favorite (stolen from a movie and said in a French accent) lines, "Why? We do not know." Another odd part was the standing. At times, everyone stood during a speech; at others, only a certain group of students would, or just the teachers and the parents. I didn't question, but stood whenever I heard the word "shokken" (teachers) in the midst of a lot of Japanese from the teacher who played the role of Head of Ceremonies from behind the microphone.

After (and sometimes in between) the speeches, there were several times of singing. The graduating 3rd years sang to the 1st and 2nd years. Everyone sang to the 3rd years. The 1st and 2nd years sang to the 3rd years. In short, it was a lot of singing. Still, I rather liked this aspect of the ceremony, as the songs had special messages (I was told later) to the group to whom it was being sung. The songs from the 3rd years were full of thanks and good memories, while those sung to the 3rd years by the younger students and by the ceremony attenders at large were ones of well wishes and thoughts of the future. It had a good feeling about it, even if I didn't understand the words.

At long last, the graduating students left the gym as they had entered it, in lines of boy-girl pairs, the main differences being the presence of flowers in hands and tears in eyes. The 3rd years went back to their classrooms and gathered their things while those attending the graduation lined the walk to the front gates. They exited the school in ceremony, with cheers and clapping from their onlookers, finally leaving behind junior high forever...


...only to return most every day they could thereafter. :)

I gave out 5 presents to some of my favorite students: my four speech contest girls, and one other. She should have been in a special education class, but, because that is quite the black mark here even after school, she instead stayed in the normal class and fought through both the difficulty of the classes and the teasing of her classmates. While her English was at a level lower than that of any junior high school student, she tried so hard in class to do my games that I felt she deserved a little special attention.

All in all, it was a good experience, though I will say that I'm glad it's something I only have to go through once a year. (Speeches rarely grab my interest, especially when there's a rather tall language barrier involved.) I already miss my wonderful 3rd years...

Nagano

aka: MONKEYS!

I have a bad habit of avoiding posts like this one. The trip to Nagano was a full one; I don't want to leave anything out, but I have a hard time telling myself that I have the time to write up the entry properly. So, forgive my brevity - it's all in the name of getting something down "on paper."


Early on a Saturday morning, I met up with Caitlin, Odelia, and Aaron, and we made our way up to Nagano. This brought about my first ride on a shinkansen, or bullet train, and I can say we had quite the experience. There are two "classes" on the bullet trains - reserved, where you are given a seat number and are ensured a place to sit, and unreserved, where seating is first come, first serve. The former is some $30 more expensive than the latter, but, after our experience, I understood why someone who was riding the train for a while would want to do it.


So, we got to Nagano after several long train rides, only to embark on another long train ride (and, subsequently, a bus ride and a half-hour long walk) to get to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The lengthy travel time was worth our while, however, for the monkeys were a wonderful addition to my "Look What I Did In Japan" stories.

For starters, there's no distinction between "monkey areas" and "people areas." In short, anywhere they monkeys want to go is classified as "monkey area," even if that might invade one's personal-space bubble.


All in all, though, the monkeys were cute and we had a good time.

After our run in with monkeys, the four of us went back to Nagano to see one of the largest wooden buildings in Tokyo, the ZenkĊji temple. It was beautiful, and featured one of the better sights of my Japanese trips - a vending machine for protective charms.



Dark was falling as we left the temple, so we hurried to buy our famous, Nagano-only shichimi ("seven flavor") spice mix from Yawataya Isogoro and find a place where we could eat miso-flavored ice cream, both of which I officially label as "awesome and delicious." We then made our slow way back to the train station, claimed our spots on the Shinkansen (no problems getting seats on the ride back), and relaxed our way home.

One thing I should note is that I finally got my hands on an ekiben, or a "train station boxed lunch." I even bought a kind that is famous: the Takasaki "daruma bento," which comes in a box in the shape of a daruma doll. Sadly, I was disappointed by my bento for not being delicious and tasty. Perhaps I would do better to get one earlier in the day, rather than when the store is almost completely out of bento...

(Credit to Odelia for the shinkansen shot and the monkey-on-Leslie shot.)

12 March 2008

Kimonos and McDonald's

...are two rather unrelated topics.

Yesterday, I asked one of my teachers if it would be OK for me to wear a kimono to graduation (tomorrow). Her reply was one of great hesitation. Yes, it would be fine, of course, but did I know how to put one on? Upon my negative response, she began to backpedal fiercely on her previous "yes."

Now, this is coming from the teacher who supports me the most on practically anything I bring her, so I found this sudden (and yet very Japanese) "I don't think it will work" to be somewhat troublesome. "I wish I had known earlier..." (...than two days in advance?) and "Do you really think it's possible?" became a constant litany in our conversation.

In the end, I figured out the problem: no one knows how to properly put on a kimono. In fact, most of the women on staff pay someone else to help them when they wear more formal attire, an affair that can cost anywhere from $50 to $100. Not only this, but one even has to have a consultation with these "kimono beauticians" (as my teacher called them) beforehand to make sure one has all the right pieces and that they coordinate with each other.

Does anyone else see a problem with this picture? So many things here are treated with such ceremony and with such commitment requirements that few ever seem to learn them. Ikebana, tea ceremony, kimono, kabuki ... and that's just naming a few ... are arts that are losing numbers at such rates that they are dying out as arts. Even saying that, though, something about keeping things traditional does seem to help them hold their magic, even when "magic" translates to "inaccessibility."

In short, I'm wearing Western clothes tomorrow, to my great disappointment. I don't know when the opportunity will arise where I could wear a kimono and "get away with it," but, in all likelihood, it will be at next year's graduation.

---

On a completely different note, I went to McDonald's for the first time tonight and spent a buck fifty on a hamburger and a drink "peh-ah" ("pair"). Amusingly, while the burger was what I was used to, the drink was what I would consider to be a children's size, though it may just be that I've not ordered a small drink in a long time. All in all, it tasted the same to me. So much for that!

10 March 2008

Kawagoe

AKA: Candyland, Japan

When Caitlin's father visited a few months back, one of her teachers suggested they take a day trip to a city well known in Japan for, among many things, the production of candy. While this fell through for them, it became her goal (and, subsequently, mine) to visit this special place.

Kawagoe is also known as "Koedo," or "Little Edo" ("Edo" is the old name of Tokyo), as it is the home of a couple of summer palaces of one of the Tokugawa shoguns. On top of this, Kawagoe features a unique architectural style (long and steep roofs) and is also the home of Kita-in, where there are over 500 statues of Buddha. Legend has it that, if one walks through the Buddha statues at night, feeling each one, one will find a statue that is warm to the touch. Mark it and come back the next day, and you will find the statue that most resembles you.


There's something about Buddhas that I love; my enjoyment of the Kanmangafuchi Abyss in Nikko showed my same predilection for the varied statues. The Buddhas of Kita-in were wonderful to walk around, in part because of the tourists there (as lots of people were intently trying to find their resembling statue), but mostly because the statues were just as varied as one would expect from the "find one most like you" legend. The faces and activities of these statues range from stately and nobel to silly and playful, so walking around and looking at them, and even how they interacted with their neighbors, was quite a fun experience.


The temple grounds, too, housed many areas of disinct impressons. One of my favorites, outside of the buddha statues, was a quiet area of graves, all made from the same stone. Few tourists were there (indeed, the only thing there other than ourselves was a mangy cat), and the uniformity of the stone across the grave markers lent the area a formal, but not distant or removed, air.

After visiting another of the palaces and the main drag, both of which lend little to be described, we made our way on to Candy Street. We got there late in the day, unfortunately, and weren't able to spend as much time on the street as we would have liked, but the things we saw were fun indeed. There was a man who was forming animals and other things out of what looked to be taffy on a stick, reminding me strongly of the glass blowers I saw at Third Degree in Saint Louis. We also spent quite a bit of time watching two older people making taiyaki with various fillings.


Along with candy, Kawagoe is well-known for sweet potatoes, so Candy Street featured many unexpected sweet potato products. While I had eaten sweet potato frozen yogurt before in Nikko and Kamakura, I had not yet been exposed to sweet potato beer. In the end, it ended up being pretty much like regular beer, only with a slightly sweeter taste.

Perhaps the best part of living in a country for a while is being able to enjoy those places that are off the beaten path. I surprised many of my teachers upon my return as they themselves have not yet seen the Candyland of Japan. All in all, Kawagoe was quite the nice experience, being a place of many sights, scents, and flavors, made all the sweeter (if I can use the phrase) for it being rich in history and yet not a major tourist attraction. And hey, how many people do you know who've had sweet potato beer?

The Doll Festival

AKA: Girls, You'd Best Get Hitched (And Quick).

The 3rd of March is the celebrated "Hina Matsuri" here - this can be translated as "Doll Festival" or "Girls Festival." From late January on, huge doll displays start appearing everywhere. These displays feature an emperor and and an empress, both in traditional Japanese court attire from the Heian period (aka: 12 layers of kimono!), and their attendants, belongings, etc, all on display stands. The more accessories with the doll, and the more elaborate the doll's clothing are, the more expensive the doll set is; I've seen some priced at a couple of thousand of dollars, and that was just at a mall. Mothers pass on sets to their daughters, so personal collections can get quite elaborate over the years.

The displays stay up for months, drawing in and trapping bad spirits, thus protecting the girls of the household. Then, exactly on the 3rd, the dolls are quickly packed away, because, as legend has it, the longer the dolls are up, the longer it will be before the girl gets married.


Outside of this last superstition (and the general "you'd best get married" sentimentality Japan seems to have), I have rather enjoyed the festival. The dolls are truly beautiful; I bought a set for myself (a VERY small one of just the Emperor and the Empress which still cost me $30) for displaying in the future. Still, my best experience was going to the prefectural capital and seeing a display of Japanese wooden dolls, called "kokeshi," in honor of the festival.

Kokeshi are, at their simplest, wooden spheres on top of wooden cylinders with painted faces and kimonos. However, over the years, these dolls have become more and more elaborate. Modern kokeshi, a set of kokeshi that break the strict, traditional rules of kokeshi making, can be very elaborate and wonderfully beautiful.


It took me less than half an hour to see all of the dolls on display, which was somewhat depressing considering I had traveled some four times that long in order to get there. Still, it was very much worth going, as the displays were gorgeous and invited longer investigation. Themes ranged from nature to culture, and one pair even featured a US Naval officer standing next to a Japanese soldier, a touchy theme at best due to continued US occupation in places like Okinawa and Yokohama. It was an interesting view of culture across the boards.


I also had the opportunity to paint my own doll for a mere 500 yen, something that I started and was unable to finish due to time constraints but am excited about working on in the near future.

In short, though know every culture has its lingering bits of "marry 'em off quick" celebration, and though I know that the Hina Matsuri is much more than this sentimentality, the holiday leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. While I'm not a rabid feminist by any means, I can't help but wonder how many times these girls get the message "marry soon, or else" ... and how many more listen.