31 January 2009


I love rainstorms and thunderstorms.

When I was young, I used to watch storms out my window at night. I loved sitting in bed, warm and curled up under my blankets, listening to the rain fall and the occasional rumble of thunder. I loved the way the lightning would, for just a moment, illuminate the wild dance of the trees in the storm. Somehow, while others would be scared, I was relaxed and enjoying the show.

Gunma doesn't have rainstorms the way Georgia does. There is a storm every so often, more so in summer than the other seasons, but they don't have the frequency or the duration of my Southern storms. Instead, Gunma lays claim to wind. It was one of the first things I heard when I arrived - 空風(からかぜ or "kara kaze"- made up from characters meaning sky/air/emptiness and wind), half of the famous description of Gunma prefecture: "Strong wind, strong women." While I don't know so much about the latter half - it tends to be a complaint of cuckolds - I will say that I've become a little too acquainted with the former. For example, I tend to not ride my bike during the winter months because walking seems easier and faster than battling with the wind. On the whole, I'm not a fan.

Tonight, however, I realized that I'm comforted by the sound of an intense wind blowing by my apartment building. Maybe it's the white noise quality of it, or just the feeling that, though Hell may be breaking loose outside, I am safe and cozy. Maybe it's an innate knowledge that battling with nature rarely lends itself to a happy end, and so instead I take comfort in accepting what comes.

But, for what it's worth, there are worse things than sitting at a kotatsu with green tea while kara kaze howls outside.

29 January 2009

Things About Japan: Juku and School

In Japan, students go to juku, or cram school, after they get out of (compulsory) school. While this is technically optional, it seems that everyone, from the brightest to the dumbest, goes to juku. Juku is supposed to help students pass their entrance exams for getting into high school. Whether this is by challenging them outside of the classroom, which is below their level, or by helping them stay afloat in class, depends on the level of the student.

What this means is there is another few hours of schooling a day for these kids, as well as the homework assigned by the juku. Thus, the average student goes to school around 8:20, has classes until around 3:50, participates in club activities (usually sports) until around 5, goes home to eat dinner and then goes to juku. I have honestly come back from hanging out with friends on a Friday night around 10:30 and, upon exiting the train station, have seen my students leaving the juku. After juku, the students go home and work on homework until around midnight. (This is the general average my students have told me for their bedtimes.) They then go to sleep and then repeat the process.

When I reveal to students or teachers that America has no juku, I am often met with a complete lack of understanding. How could we not have juku? What would you do with all that extra time? When asked this, I often have to bite back the response that comes to mind: "Have a childhood."

Another interesting thing to note about Japanese schools is that a student cannot fail out of a grade or out of the school. In fact, a student can skip school every day for years and still graduate with the rest of his or her class. Thus, even if a student doesn't understand a concept and shouldn't continue to the next level of the subject in question, he or she will be moved forward. These students eventually turn into either the silent, who won't ever interact with the teacher and attempts to hide as best as possible in class, or into the delinquents who try their best to disrupt class because they are bored and can't follow along with the material at hand. Even worse, students cannot really be disciplined in any way; there is no detention, no expulsion from class or from school, and all a teacher has is the power of authority to hold his or her class in order. Should the teacher lack this authority (or the respect necessary to wield it), a class can often degrade into a crippled mess.

It's no wonder that there are an increasing number of students who are flaking out in their classes and giving up on a variety of subjects, if not high school all together. (Compulsory education ends with 9th grade, the last grade of middle school here.) While I don't want to say that the American system is perfect by any means, I can't help but feel that there are some serious flaws in the Japanese system.

26 January 2009

Korea, part three - Gyeong-ju

December 28th - 30th

Gyeong-ju is the home of many older, historic sites, having once been the capital of the Silla kingdom. As such, the city has some truly beautiful places - the largest wooden temple in Korea, for example, was within walking distance of our hotel. There were also more than just a few burial mounds of kings and royalty of the distant past that dotted the landscape in various places. By far, my favorite location was Seokguram, home to a stone grotto containing a beautiful Buddha.

[This image taken from Wikipedia]

That being said, our trip to Gyeong-ju was surrounded with complications. We had to abandon our day-trip plans to a different city, one of Brendon's to-see locations, because the location was nigh impossible to travel to on a one-day schedule, despite its proximity. Our first night in Gyeong-ju, we voyaged out at 7 pm into a nearby restaurant-and-store area, and found the place that had been bustling in the afternoon to be a dark ghost-town after the setting of the sun. Our lack of knowledge about the layout of the city and the routes the bus system used had us backtracking often and, at times, with greater expense than we would have liked. I, at least, was beginning to reach the dreaded point where the phrase "yet another temple?" inevitably would come to mind when reaching a new "must see" site. On top of all of this was the wear of lengthy travel and required companionship; we were at the midpoint of our travels and we were beginning to tire.

We lucked out in other ways, however, most notably in our hotel. When we arrived at our hotel in Seoul, the Bali Tourist Hotel, several things began to worry us. The staff spoke little to no English, a surprising development at a hotel claiming to be a tourist local. The trappings in the room revealed, by their embroidering and labeling, that the hotel had changed management and names three times in the recent past. The bathrooms were encircled with glass rather than opaque walls, and only a small strip of this glass was frosted. In Glenn and Brendon's room, there wasn't even a door for the already-too-visible bathroom. Worst of all, we were told upon returning to the hotel after dinner on our first night that our rooms were being changed, though no reason was given for this change. One night later, a police officer in riot gear woke Brendon and Glenn with his pounding at the door, only to see foreigners in residence and leave. (I can't help but feel that the room change and the police visit were related.) The hotel was better than nothing, but I would not ever plan to stay there again.
This is all to say that, thankfully, our hotel in Gyeong-ju was the complete opposite of the Bali Tourist Hotel in practically every regard.

While we did see some interesting things while traveling in Gyeong-ju, the best part of my visit there was actually outside of the city. We took a bus from Gyeong-ju to Busan, as we were flying to our next stop. On the bus were two adorable little girls, who looked to be 6-year-old twins but were actually, we later found out, 2 years apart in age. Jennifer and Glenn were playing Mario Kart on their Nintendo DSes. (The DS is a portable gaming device that has wireless capability, allowing up to 4 people to play against each other providing they all have DSes and one has the actual game. Mario Kart is a racing game featuring characters from the Mario games of the 80s and 90s.)

These two girls watched the match between Jennifer and Glenn avidly from their seats in front of the gaming pair. At one point, one of the girls pointed to the free seat next to Jennifer and asked in beautiful English, "Can I sit here and watch?" Within 10 minutes, the pair of the girls were playing Mario Kart against each other, each being coached by Glenn and Jennifer. As they played, the astounding level of their English was revealed. For example, the younger called out to her sister at one point in the midst of a game, saying, "I'm catching uuuup!" Later, this same child asked us where we were going to go and, when she found out our flight destinations were the same, she asked us what time our flight was. We were heading to the airport really early - we would arrive at 3 when our flight was at 7. When she heard the time of our flight, she said, "What will you DO for four hours?" with the perfect inflection of a 6 year old who cannot possibly understand those older than her.

We arrived at the airport and said our goodbyes to the girls, still rather overcome by these children's level of English. We checked in to our flights and settled down in the airport lobby, seeing no need to go through security quite yet. As we were sitting, the girls and their mother came around and settled down with us. The mother disappeared for a couple of minutes, leaving me to believe that we were truly being regaled into babysitters, when she suddenly returned with a tray pilled with donuts for us all to eat. (This brought about a wonderful moment where the younger and the older were comparing, in English, who had eaten more donuts. Upon hearing the totals and her sister's higher number, the younger responded with, "Piggy piggy.") A few hours of playing later, the girls and their mother left for their flight, leaving us exhausted but happy. Not much later, we ourselves were off to our final destination in Korea: Jeju Island.

This is a woeful account of the things we saw while we were visiting Gyeong-ju - I would recommend my facebook photo albums to any who wish to see more of the city. Still, Gyeong-ju leaves me with the impression of being a tourist city, and it knows the fact entirely too well. It left me somewhat unsatisfied.

24 January 2009

Things about Japan: Face masks

This is probably less a thing about Japan and more a thing about Asia. In any case, it's especially noticeable in the winter and early spring when everyone is either battling with or trying to prevent catching a cold or, in the case of spring, to prevent the aggravation of allergies.

In general, face masks are worn first and foremost to prevent passing a current cold on to others. While it isn't required, it is considered polite to wear one. Most Japanese, when told that this habit is almost purely an Asian one, find this to be a most interesting bit of news. To them, I suppose, someone who doesn't wear a face mask when sick is akin to someone who doesn't cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze. Fortunately for me, teachers are exempt from this while teaching, as speaking in muffled tones often prevents one from being able to teach effectively. This is especially true of language teachers, so I'm given somewhat of a break in his regard.

Masks come in different shapes and sizes. Some are rectangular layers of gauzy material that sit over the mouth and the nose; others are thick paper that is cut to form around the top of the nose and down to the chin. In Taiwan, I noticed that many people wore fabric face masks, an environmentally friendly type, though I have yet to see this in Japan.

I've tried wearing a face mask and managed it for about five minutes. I would generally equate the sensation with a slow and stifling suffocation. Being sick means one already can't breathe well; add a mask to this and one is forced to draw in air through a layer of fabric or paper that holds in the dampness and heat of one's breath. The longer it's worn, the worse this sensation becomes. I can't imagine wearing it for longer than a few minutes, though I suppose one can become used to it after repeated use.

I have to applaud the Japanese (and Asians in general) for their adherence to this system. I do admire the way in which it puts others before one's own comfort. That being said, I don't think I'll be able to follow such polite suffering any time soon.

23 January 2009

Korea, part two - The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

December 27th

For this entry, I've decided to type up what I wrote in my journal after the trip. Please excuse any poor writing involved; I have a rule with my journal that I will not correct or change anything after I've finished writing the entry, nor will I worry overly about the flow or the readability.


Today was (is?) most certainly an おつかれさま [ed. note: this means "you must be tired" and is a common saying for telling someone they've worked hard] sort of day. We were up at (before!) the crack of dawn, getting on the tour bus at 6:30. By 8, the bus was on the road and heading to the DMZ, carrying some 20 tourists, our guide, and the driver.

We first stopped at Freedom Bridge, having suffered a bumpy ride and several propaganda-filled messages from our tour guide and a video. The bridge (rather, the original) burned down some time ago, but it was originally used to exchange prisoners of war when the border was first made. We then went to the Third Invasion Tunnel, being the third of four (found) tunnels dug by North Korea and aiming toward Seoul. We then watched another, propaganda-filled movie about the DMZ before going to the Observation deck, where one can look out on to North Korea. We culminated our trip with a visit to Dorasan station, the last point to which a traveler from South Korea can go by train [ed note: before getting into North Korea, not that you can do that anyway].

I have to say that the propaganda appalled me. The others seemed to expect it, but I was caught unawares by the double-talk. "We want to be reunited with our Northern brothers," quickly followed by "we are very frightened by the enemy, North Korea." I suppose I was naive to expect more from the Joint Security Area [ed. note: as in, both North and South Korea working on the area together], but still. I was expecting more grit and seriousness, like Checkpoint Charlie or Potsdam. Instead, I got happy-looking, cartoonish characters representing North and South soldiers.

Also, the Japanese tourists were frustrating. They kept making comments about there being "so many gaijin [ed. note: word for "foreigners" with the connotation of a redneck saying "furriner"]" ... um, hello? YOU'RE GAIJIN. I wanted to say that, but never got the chance. (Talk about witty come-backs you'll never use.)

There were serious parts of the trip, of course. The way was covered with barbed wire. The tunnels (the 3rd was some 1.7 km in length, if memory serves, though most of that is in North Korea) were made to get by the MILLION landmines spread in the dead zone. Several large, concrete structures over the road were pointed out to us - not billboards, they said, but blocks filled with dynamite so as to protect against North Korea should they invade. At the Observation Deck, one could look out over North Korea and see towns. I kept my eyes peeled, through the use of binoculars at the facility, for any signs of life or movement, but none could be found. There was a North Korean and a South Korean flag flying, but we were told there was a "flag race" to put each one on a taller tower than the opposing side. The North, we were told, won. In short, the reality was there, even if the tour was meant to cover it up.

The tunnels' story is both frightening and funny. An informant, a defector from North Korea, informed the South Korean inhabitants of plans for 5 invasion tunnels, each like the fingers on a hand, coming in toward the palm, Seoul. They've only found 4, and the 4th was found in 1990.
But, when the 3rd tunnel was found, the captured North Korean soldiers said that they were mining for coal (despite the fact that no coal is to be found in that area). They sprayed the walls with a kind of coal paint, hoping to prove the point.
...Seriously, North Korea?

The train station was kind of awful. There were 2 South Korean guards there, and everyone was taking their pictures with them [ed. note: and treating them like objects rather than human beings]. I honestly felt sorry for them, though I suppose there are worse duties to have in an army setting.


In short, I was disappointed and depressed by the tour, and it gave me a lot to think about. It really was a scary situation, and the cartoons and propoganda just barely distracted away from the number of things both sides were doing in regards to the constant and continuous battle. I look forward to a day when the border will fall, and even more to a day when this can happen without strife and suffering but instead with celebration and reunion.

22 January 2009

Korea, part one - Arrival in Korea and Seoul

The Four-Part Series on Leslie's Winter Vacation

When I told my teachers I was going to Korea during the winter break, the reactions I garnered were of three types:
1. "Kimchi!"
2. "But won't it be cold?"
3. "Oh, how nice! I want to travel more ... "

To be honest, I wasn't much better myself. I knew we were going further north than my own location in Japan, so it would be cold, and that Korea is known for kimchi, Hyundai, and the pop-star Rain. As for expectations from the nation, I had few. My fears were more wrapped up in my ability to interact with my travel companions. I had met two of my three companions only once, and the third was someone whose acquaintance, as Mr. Darcy would say, I could not claim.
I'd clearly be learning a lot from this trip.

My flight to Busan on the 23rd of December was good; as a matter of fact, it was great. I somehow managed to land in business class while having paid an economy-class price. The four of us (Brendon, the trip-planner, Jennifer, Glenn, and myself) met at our hostel that evening and then voyaged out into Busan in search of dinner. Busan is the second largest city in Korea, a fact that I only learned on our return to the city on the eve of our departure. My impressions of the location made me inclined to think that the port town was unused to seeing foreigners, and even less used to dealing with them. Still, I had little time to experience the city, as we were out early the next morning and on our way to Seoul.

Seoul certainly let one know of its size and population density from the start. While having the metropolitan feel of other large cities (Tokyo and New York come to mind), it also maintains the negatives of those cities - throngs of people hurrying to their locations and very unappreciative of those who slowed them down in any way. Still, we gathered our strength and repeated the process from the previous evening: checked in to our accommodations, shifted the contents of our luggage, and then sought out a place to eat. As it was Christmas Eve, we bought a Christmas Cake to share in the hotel. All in all, we were excited and ready to begin sightseeing the next day. We were fortunate enough to have a tour guide in Korea - Chantelle, a friend of Jennifer's from college, who lives in Seoul and teaches at a cram school there. We would be meeting with her early the next day and then traveling from there.

The Confucian tombs of the royal family at Jongmyo Shrine, the bustling shopping areas, and the 63rd building - Korea was not to be taken lightly on Christmas day. I grumbled to myself that attempting to make our way around the busiest city on the biggest dating holiday on the Asian calendar was probably not the wisest thing we had planned to do, but one could hardly expect less from a bitter singleton. We walked, we talked, we learned - it really was a good day.

The next day, the 26th, we let Chantelle rest (by which I mean, we let her go to work as usual) while the four of us traveled to Suwon, a nearby city that had the claim to fame of being the sister city of Brendon's town in Hokkaido. We weren't expecting much - Brendon's town is small, and we were mostly going to satisfy his coworkers, who would be sure to ask if he had made a trip to the city. Reality proved to be very different from anticipation as we stepped out of an immense train station and out into a busy town. Blissfully fazed by this, we hailed a taxi and made our way to the beautiful Suwon Fortress, a location that taught me two important lessons:
1. Losing ones companions among a large complex is disconcerting but unavoidable, and
2. If the wax statues and English descriptions are to be believed, Suwon fortress was home to a formidable number of eunuchs.

The 27th saw us to the Demilitarized Zone, the border between North and South Korea, a trip which is deserving of an entry all on its own. The 28th, our last day in Seoul, we made our way to one of the royal palaces of old, Changdeok-gung. There we enjoyed a tour by a guide whose humor and English were both brilliant. The palace was one of my favorite places for pictures during our time in Seoul. The grounds were gorgeous, housing both locations that were recently repainted and those that had been left in their original state, and the time of day was perfect for interesting shadows and sunset photos.

I was tired and called it an early night, leaving the others to karaoke while I made my way back to the hotel, picked up a pizza to go, and relaxed with a book and a beer. In the morning, I was fully recharged and ready to be off to our next location, Gyeong-ju.

07 January 2009

Things About Japan

I'm fortunate enough to be friends with a very international crowd during a time when the world is made small by the internet. I get to learn about places far and wide, like Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan, all while I'm experiencing my own, unique life here in Japan.

One friend of mine from college, Jocelyn, is Taiwanese by birth but spent most of her life in the US. She's now living with her family in Taiwan and has been experiencing a sort of double-vision, being both very much a part of the culture and life there and yet very separated from it due to her time in America. The benefit of this, especially for readers of her blog, is a series of entries called "Things About Taiwan," where she explains a variety of things about Taiwan that outsiders to the nation might find interesting.

There are many things about Japan that I want to memorialize in this blog, and yet I often find that I can't tie it in to a larger theme. "Why write a paragraph-long entry, especially when I should write about last weekend..." I also fear that my view is too much the outsider, that I will be making assumptions about a culture that are based in a lack of understanding rather than a full perspective. Still, the will to write these quirks has not faded over my almost year and a half tenure here, so bear with me as I note my "Things about Japan."

You've suffered through a long appetizer, so here is your main course.

Things About Japan - Green Tea
Every day in the office starts off with a cup of green tea. It will always be green tea, and it will always be pipping hot, despite the weather conditions. After this first cup, one can drink whatever one likes, but the first cup must be hot, green tea. In fact, electric water-heaters called "mahoubin" ("magic bottles") are a staple in office settings for the purpose of serving tea. In many places, a specific person is put in charge of the tea preparation; this person is generally a secretary of sorts for the office and, along with his or her other duties, makes sure the mugs are ready in the morning, there is water in the water-heaters, and the tea supply is full. This person does not necessarily serve the tea, however; within the group divisions in the office, the least-senior person is delegated this task. Generally speaking, this is the newest, lowest-ranking woman within the group, though it's becoming more and more common for men to take on this task.

Also, when guests visit an office, they are served a drink within minutes. This is often green tea, hot, though they may be served something different, it seems, if they visit in the afternoon instead of the morning. This drink is often made by the aforementioned tea secretary, though a low-status office member (in this case, it's bound to be a female) may be called upon to do this job if said secretary is unavailable.

05 January 2009

A Contradiction

AKA: The Silver Lining.

An Introduction is to introduce people, but Christopher Robin and his friends, who have already been introduced to you, are now going to say Good-bye, so this is the opposite. When we asked Pooh what the opposite of an introduction was, he said "The what of a what?" which didn't help us as much as we had hoped, but luckily Owl kept his head and told us that the Opposite of an Introduction, my dear Pooh, was a Contradiction; and, as he is very good at long words, I am sure that that's what it is.

- A House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The night before my physics midterm, back when I was in high school, I was stressed to the breaking point. Physics, along with most math-based subjects, eludes my talent for aural learning. In a wild attempt to prevent my mental collapse, I pulled A House at Pooh Corner off of my shelf and opened up to the paragraph you see at the top of this entry. That alone was enough to break my tension and, without reading much further, I happily went to sleep.

Unfortunately, my stress-breaker for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) was not so happy and kind. My friend and I, due to some confusion, took a train going in the opposite direction. By the time we had corrected the incident, we were too late to take the first part of the exam. We were told by the proctors that missing the first part of the exam would result in an automatic fail, though we could take the next two parts and get our scores for those sections.

Frustrating? Beyond belief. I was in hysterics.
Disappointing? Hell yes.
An all-together bad thing? I don't think so.

I had devoted so much time and effort to studying for this test as it approached. I told my mother the night before that I couldn't wait for the test to be over so that I could "finally be a real human being again." But why? What was the reason behind it?

When I first arrived in Japan, I decided I wanted to take the JLPT. Not wanting to stress myself out too much, I decided to not take the most basic level, level 4, a few months after I arrived and instead would take the next highest level, level 3, the following year. That was the last time I really considered whether or not I would take the JLPT.

I'm not planning on staying in Japan; even if I were, I would have to pass the 2nd or 1st level exams - the 3rd and 4th levels are fairly meaningless as far as professionals are concerned. It's amazing, then, that a test that had no real value, outside of being a manner in which to test my level of Japanese, left me in hysterics when I was told I missed the first part.

This thought occurred to me as I sat outside of the testing location, waiting for the start of the second section. And, with it, came a wave of relief. Had I taken the whole test, would the general lack of importance of it have occurred to me? Probably not. At least, not for a long time. Nor would I have been relaxed enough to tackle the next two parts as effectively as I feel I did.

While it's still unfortunate that I can't have this accomplishment under my belt, I think I've learned a better lesson about evaluating my situation. Truth be told, it's a lesson I've needed the past month. And that, friends, is the silver lining.


AKA: Happy New Year!

The New Year is a big deal in Japan. Last year, I mentioned, briefly, the levels of politeness required when you meet someone for the first time in the new year. At that time, I was rather confused as to what to do - I hadn't prepared for saying "Happy New Year" several days after the new year had come. This year, I was ready.

So, steps for entering the workplace on the first day back:

1. Get there early. Fewer people, fewer greetings, and you can just stand up, bow, and mumble every time someone new comes in the office. Ahhh, how the tables have turned!

2. Enter through door closest to highest-ranking office member - principal, president...whomever. Say "Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu" ("Happy New Year. Please be kind to me again this year"), bowing all the while.

3. Repeat for next senior member. And the next. And the next. In fact, repeat for every person you run into.

4. Sit down at your desk some 20 minutes later; faint.

OK, maybe not 20 minutes, but you can see how this would cause for some traffic jams when first coming into the office.

In other news, I'm awful about updating. I'm planning on spending most of my day today catching up on das Internet, so I will hopefully have more things for you soon.

So, to one and all - Happy New Year!