30 August 2005


A group of older male teachers love talking to me about sports. This is to be expected, since I'm an expert on professional American games. (Detect the sarcasm there?) We talk about tennis a lot, which is fun because I actually do keep up with that one. They got excited when I knew who Michael Chang was, even though I thought he was Chinese (?!). When they asked me about baseball, I told them honestly that I didn't pay much attention, but that I had been to a Braves game once. Then one teacher asked me if I knew Ichiro, a Japanese man who plays for the Mariners. At the time I wasn't too informed, so I said "Ummmmmm, no." His eyes got huge, and he laughed at me and said,

"You don't know Ichiro?? You are not American!"

Well now I know, and because of that I'm significantly more American than I was before. Funny how moving half way around the world makes you more of what you were before you left. :)

Class Schedule

I finally understand my work week. Before it was all numbers and kanji so I had no clue what was going on. But here it is, decoded:

  • 3 times / wk I have a small, "higher level" English class called OCII (Oral Communication II). It's the same group of students, so I make 3 lesson plans per week. The class is team-taught and I really like the other (Japanese) teacher.
  • 8 times / wk I teach beginning English (called OCI) to freshman. There are 40 different students per class. So for OC I, I make one lesson plan per week and teach it 8 different times, with 5 - 8 different Japanese instructors. I asked my supervisor if the lesson plan would change with each class, according to preferences of the Japanese English teacher. She smiled at me--actually, she grimaced--and said slowly, "For OCI, you are not assistant teacher. You are teacher. So it is up to you. "
  • To summarize, I make four lesson plans and teach 11 classes per week. Not too shabby.

29 August 2005

Daily Life

There are some things about Japan that never really come up in discussion, but that affect your daily life. This is not a list of complaints, just some necessary adjustments if you're coming from America:

  • The bathrooms (almost) never have towels or hand-dryers. This is great because it saves energy and creates less trash. But until you remember to buy a little handkerchief or washcloth, which the Japanese carry at all times, your pants are gonna get wet.
  • Most public restrooms are ceramic holes in the ground. No seats. Using these successfully requires enough skill to go on a resume.
  • No dryers. You develop an intimate relationship with your clothes and their (lack of) wrinkle-free abilities. As a result, the iron becomes one of your most prized possessions.
  • No dishwashwer. You develop an intimate relationship with your plates and silverware. You also become much more conscious of how much water you use, especially hot water.
  • Futons must be de-humidified. This involves hauling your little mattress through the apartment to the balcony, where you flop half of it over the railing without allowing the whole thing to jump ship. Then you clip it to the railing with giant, giant, plastic pins, leave in sun for 3+ hours et voila. Fresh bedding.


I am very concerned -- well, worried -- for all the friends and relatives I have who either live in New Orleans or have close ties to New Orleans. Mom and Dad, Charles and Peggy's family, the Parrys, Lindsey & Eric's family, and all the people I didn't meantion, I am thinking about you and hope everything goes as well as it possibly can.

26 August 2005


Yesterday at school, a teacher I thought could not speak English approached me said, "Lauren, may I ask you a question?" Of course I said sure.
"Well last night I watched a Robin Williams movie, and he said something I didn't understand. I think it was a joke but I was wondering if you could explain it to me."
I nodded and told him I'd be happy to explain. A smile was already forming on my lips, in anticipation of what cultural mystery I was going to reveal with the help of Robin Williams.
"Okay well it goes like this: 'What did the Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor?' (...) 'Make me one with everything."
I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this, and I cracked up. I'm not even sure why I thought it was so funny. Maybe because I've been doing a lot of serious thinking about Buddhism lately, so when it came up in a light-hearded context, the surprise made me laugh. The teacher waited for me to finish laughing, obviously still confused. Then I explained how the term "one" often means "unity," and that if you order a hotdog "with everything" that means you want ketchup, mustard, chili, slaw, the works.
"Ah, I see," he said seriously. "Yes, I think this is a joke."
No doubt the teacher understood my words, but for some reason he didn't laugh.

Another post on Buddhism is coming up, but this one will be serious...

Character Flaw

I AM BAD AT MAKING DECISIONS. If you call yourself my friend, you have to know that I am one of the most indecisive people I--and probably you--have ever met. Why I'm so indecisive is a mystery, but I justify it by saying that I want to make clear, purposeful choices. And this is only achieved by considering the pros and cons of every angle.

But who knew that situations have 50 angles to analyze, instead of just 2?? It's not "yes" or "no." It's "yes for X but then Y...," or "no because X means Y, so then Z..." The upside of this personality trait is that I'm usually very prepared and have good reasons for my actions. If you ask me "Why?" most likely you will never hear me say, "I dunno, I just felt like it," or "'Cause it's cool, man." If you ask me why, you will get a response longer than you expected, or perhaps wanted.

There are, however, a few things in life I know I want. If I make a decision quickly, you know I mean business, and once that decision is reached I'll probably never change my mind. For instance, I knew the only job I really wanted out of college was to be here, teaching English in Japan. Lucky for me it worked out.

25 August 2005

After the Typhoon

The cicadas are dying and feeding the ants. Fall isn't here yet, but it's on the way. Today in the recycling room at my school, I found a ceramic bowl piled high with little brown crunchy things. I stepped closer and realized someone was collecting cicada skin shells (for lack of a better word). There must have been 30 in the bowl and when I first saw them, I gasped. Gross! But a few seconds later I decided this was really cool. At a public place in the US, the bug remains would have been tossed a long time ago, unless they were in a biology lab. Someone liked paying attention to the outside, and they collected it so the people inside could notice, and remember.

The typhoon was pretty harsh yestserday (they say the translation is "hurricane," so in a word, it was pretty darn windy), but now the sun is beating down again. Except for the leaves and twigs strewn all over the place, things are back to normal.

The idea that the Japanese are closely connected to nature seems too stereotypical. But with little AC, screaming winds, sudden rain, earthquakes, deafening cicadas, tatami that smells like grass and straw in your bedroom, poisonous centipedes on your doorstep, and views of cloud-covered Mt. Fuji from everywhere...how could you not feel close to nature? It's like the outside is not a separate place anymore. This is very different from my life in the States, or my time in Paris.

I like it.

23 August 2005

Ode to Sports

People cherish sports for many reasons--what they can do for both your body and mind--but also what they can do for relationships. The classic story is about the son who, no matter what else was going on, could relate to his dad through sports. They could spend hours discussing batting averages. Or yell at the football refs on TV. Or take a trip for a college basketball game. (Wow, that really made me miss Duke.) If they had nothing else in common, men always had sports to understand each other.

It was my third or fourth day of work, and I walked past the tennis courts on the way into the school building, like I do every day. But this time there was more activity than usual, and I realized the girls were having a tournament. Instead of going inside I walked to the sidelines, to show my support as well as check out their tennis skills. Some of the matches had already begun, and as I watched the girls I realized that I was learning more about their personalities than if we had spoken. I saw the sweat, the stress, and the concentration on their faces. I saw how each girl displayed it a little differently. I saw their body language change throughout the sets, some slapping hands or squealing when they earned points, some showing no response at all. Because I played tennis in high school, I automatically understood what these girls were feeling, and I felt like I knew them: I could tell which ones were like me, and which ones were different. And when the guys had a tournament, I felt the same sense of understanding with them. Watching the students play told me tons about who they really were, more so than asking what their favorite food was, or if they had ever been to America.

Even if you come from a different world and think you can't relate, some things are just the same. And you know.


If someone is struggling to communicate in slow English, or if I am sputtering elementary Japanese, I am fully aware of the fact that we have different backgrounds and cultural expectations. The labored communication makes it painfully obvious. But if English just rolls of a Japanese person's tongue with little effort, I temporarily forget that I am in HIS country. The sad result of better communication is that my Japanese etiquette goes down the drain.

I read somewhere that Japanese men can be repulsed by a firm handshake. With my best interests in mind, my dad drilled into me the proper (Western!) introduction procedures: offer your hand if they haven't already, give it a firm squeeze, smile, and look them in the eye. In most cases I've already gotten over this impulse to stick out my hand. (It only takes a few awkward introductions to keep your hands to yourself.) But yesterday I met a tennis coach from another high school. He was young, in his mid-twenties, and had some of the best English I've heard in Japan. In fact he was SO easy to talk to that he asked if we'd met before. We had not, so I smiled, told him my name, and stuck out my hand. There was a split-second hesitation on his part, and when I firmly shook his hand a look of disgust came over his face. It wasn't until then that I realized how un-Japanese and weird I seemed. I pretended like I didn't notice, but I was really embarrassed for forgetting something so basic. Minus one for Lauren.

I doubt I'll make that mistake again...

20 August 2005

Tokyo Skyline

These were taken from the hotel during Tokyo orientation...on a very clear day. I saw Mt. Fuji the day I arrived, but have only seen it twice since then! The haze will clear up in the fall, and Fuji San will be visible every day...

18 August 2005

a few more...

Fire Festival Photographs

Other ALTs in the Fuji area! From left to right: Sofia, Lawrence (dating, from England), Doug (San Fran), John (Tennessee), and Brian (Hawai'i). Too bad Jeff missed this one...

17 August 2005

Food, Glorious Food

Earlier I listed strange foods I've eaten in my lifetime (see 'Weird Grub'). Some of you are asking what I've been eating in Japan, so here's a list or three.

What I LIKE and/or Can Cook
  • soba (buckwheat noodles, yum) with daikon (big Japanese radishes)
  • Japanese curry! (not as spicy as Indian curries) with boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, chicken, and white rice (haven't found any brown or wild rice yet)
  • garlic, garlic, garlic - Garlic makes everything better. It's the new butter.
  • rice, rice, rice - I've eaten more rice in 3 weeks than I have in my whole life. It's good.
  • SUSHI - can't make this yet but it is GOOD. Sushi means "stuff rolled up with rice," which usually includes seaweed, rice, and then fish or vegetables. Unlike Duke sushi, they don't put avocados in it here. Usually the vegetables are pickled, not fresh. Today I had something that translated as "pickled gourd shavings." It was better than it sounds.
  • sashimi - raw stuff. Tuna, salmon, and some random white fishes are the best.
  • tempura - fried stuff. Usually real food like fish, and unsweetened, but the batter reminds me of funnel cakes.
  • tofu - They serve big blocks of plain tofu, but I like it mixed into dishes. Fried tofu is okay plain, though. You can also get some that is wrapped around rice, and this is really good with pickled ginger. Ginger is good with everything.
  • onigiri - These are awesome little triangles of rice with other ingredients thrown in. Sometimes they have fish in the middle, but my favorite are the ones covered in sesame seeds (very refreshing), and the ones with umeboshi (pickled plum - not sweet but still reminds me of candy).
  • Japanese omelettes - cold, sweetened egg. Sometimes served with rice inside. I like this in small amounts.
  • gyoza - like Japanese dumplings. The Japanese fry them but the Korean (or Chinese) boiled style is better. Cheap and tasty.
  • edamame - boiled salted soybeans, still in their fuzzy green pouches. Use your mouth to pop them open and eat the green beans inside. I LOVE these things, but they're usually served as an appetizer. I could eat them 24/7. My supervisor will only eat them with beer. I like a lot of things that my supervisor will only eat with beer, like edamame, crunchy peanut snacks, and grilled chicken & onion on a stick. We have an inside joke that goes like, "yes but only with beer." We laugh at my food choices and nobody knows why.
  • miso soup - salty, hot, and good. They say it's good for you but I'm not sure why. Theraputic.
  • yogurt - I think I'd die without dairy. All the yogurt here is sweet and soupy, but it's good mixed with cereal. You can also get expensive camembert at my little supermarket, which passes as real cheese even though it tastes more like brie.
  • other - black sesame seeds, nuts (almonds are good here but the pistachios are too stale), too much chocolate, cereal (5 dollars a box), spaghetti, real coffee (thank you Em! - I love coffee), green tea (it's good here and my 'pearly whites' are suffering), Japanese beer, Chilean wines (the French ones are too expensive).

What I Could Learn to Like

  • nato - Oh, the notorious, stringy fermented soybeans. The beans are brown and held together by this creamy, gooey stuff that strings like hot cheese. Nato tastes like fermented cacao beans, or coffee gone bad. So if you like French cheeses, coffee, and chocolate, you could learn to like this stuff. It may not deserve its reputation.
  • some random, unidentifiable pickled veggies
  • Asian potatoes - kind of weird and clingy (cloying?) in the mouth
  • fish eggs - bright orange and translucent like bath pearls. I hear they're very salty and good but I haven't tasted them yet.
  • grilled eel

What I Don't Like and/or Don't Want to Try

  • fish flakes! You know that fishy flavor we work to avoid? They like it here and add it to soups and dishes all the time. It smells and tastes like fish food.
  • raw horse and raw chicken - Need I say more.
  • squid pops - John named this one. Who knows what they're called in Japanese, but they're whole squids on sticks, like popsicles. All weird parts included.
  • the tentacled creatures at the supermarket
  • green tea ice cream - I was disappointed because I thought I'd like this one. I like green tea, but not creamy green tea with loads of sugar.

16 August 2005

Just Right

It may come as no surprise that Japan is made for smaller people. It's awesome.
My feet touch the ground in all chairs. My back is comfortable in all chairs. Usually food portions are just right. But I only discovered the truly wonderful epitomy of Japanese smallness last night: 4 oz. aluminum cans. (Actually, they are 135 ml cans, but my guess is that they are roughly 4 oz each.) You can find a variety of beverages this size, including a 6-pack of Coke that is now waiting in my fridge. They look like shots of Coke, not actual servings, but you pop one open and - guess what - it's the PERFECT size for Lauren! The funniest part is that I found BEER in cans this small. Tiny, tiny 6-packs of 4 oz. beers. Once again, the perfect size for Lauren. I had to buy them, because where else in the world is there a real market for 4 oz. beers? I had to contribute and keep the demand rolling.

Japanese Fairy Tale

The librarian at my school is super nice, and she bought me (really the school) a book of haikus with English translations. Japanese students also wrote contemporary fairy tales to go along with the haikus, and I thought one was so beautiful I had to share.

How many things
These cherry blossoms
Remind me of!
-Basho (very famous poet from a few centuries ago)

"This cherry tree still vividly reminds me of that event. I was in the 6th grade. When I passed by this cherry tree on my way home from school, I felt that there was something unusual about the cherry tree.
I stopped at the tree, and then I noticed a pretty girl gazing at me from its shadow. At that moment I could not help speaking to her.
'Hi there!'
'My name is Ryo. What's your name?'
And then she just smiled without a word. Somehow I was embarrassed and left.
But I became interested in her and almost every day I went to the tree to meet her. Staying with her made me feel very peaceful even if we did not talk to each other.
One day I heard that the cherry tree would be cut down, and I hurried to see her. Having already known the fact, she looked so sorrowful I thought she would cry. I did not know what to do. So I tried to pat her on the shoulder to comfort her. Then she smiled somehow happily. I felt relief to see her smiling.
A few days passed and the day came when the tree was to be cut down. It started to bud a little.
When I went to see the tree for the last time, I found a lot of people in front of the tree. I made my way into the crowd and saw an unbelievable sight. Light surrounded the tree as if the light defended it. The sight was so beautiful that many people just gazed at the tree silently. They thought that they should not cut down such a beautiful cherry tree, and they decided not to cut it down.
When I went to see her under the tree the next day, the tree was in full bloom. But since that day the girl has never reappeared.
I still believe the girl may have been the spirit of the cherry tree."

15 August 2005

First Earthquake

I just experienced my first earthquake. "In Japan?" my supervisor asked me. "No," I replied, "my first earthquake ever."

For the record, everyone and everything is fine where I am. I'm at school so have not been able to investigate my apartment. Nothing was damaged at work, so I'm hoping that's the case for home as well.

I was sitting at my desk studying Japanese when I felt dizzy, and felt my chair roll backwards. I thought it was just my body, tired from concentrating. But then my supervisor made a noise and I realized she felt it, too. It was like being on a lopsided merry-go-round, with the ground swaying back and forth in a loopy, asymmetrical circle. Pause. More swaying. Pause. More swaying, longer and slower this time. The earthquake occured many miles north of where I am, and evidently it was large (6.8 at the source, according to BBC). We had the aftershocks, which my supervisor said were much slower than usual.

At the Kakegawa orientation, one topic we covered was earthquake safety. Of course it's good to be prepared, but that session left us all shaking waaay before any of the earth's plates began to shift. Basically, they said there is a large earthquake near Mt. Fuji every 130-150 years, and every time it gets worse. The last earthquake was 151 years ago.

When I was cleaning out my apartment, I revamped my earthquake kit and got extra bottles of water. Glad that is taken care of, at least.

Hope all is well where you are.

14 August 2005

Kakegawa and a Bath

I spent the end of last week at a JET orientation in Kakegawa City. It was held at an educational center "in the boonies" (I hate that expression) that also served as our hotel, with a strict lock-in at 11pm. So after attending seminars from 8 am to 8 pm, the English teachers bonded in the air-conditioned tatami rooms.

The goals of the seminar were two-fold: 1) to familiarize JETs with life in Shizuoka prefecture, and 2) to share teaching tips and hints for planning English lessons. We were swamped with information but I found most of it very helpful. I planned my first self-introduction lesson and had a chance to practice in front of a group. The key is to use SIMPLE SENTENCES and use LOTS of gestures, photos, etc...anything that incorporates more than one sense. My lesson went well so I feel pretty good about starting in September. I was not expecting to be responsible for lesson plans, but I got lots of teaching ideas last week so I'm in good shape. I was in a room with people from the US, Ireland, Canada, and England, and I laughed a lot more than I expected. One guy's introduction was absolutely hilarious. Kieran is from Ireland and when reviewing his family tree, he said that his one-year old neice looked like a sausage. He also taught us that Pierce Brosnan is not English, as he leads us to believe, but is actually from Ireland! Kieran drew a stick figure with a gun in one hand and a martini in the other, and combined with his Irish accent, this was too much for us to handle. The whole room cracked up.

Another guy (this time from England) made us laugh during the grading discussion. We learned that in Japan, a check mark means that it's WRONG, just like an X. If you want to mark a CORRECT answer, you draw a small circle. Evidently, the British call check-marks 'ticks.' One guy raised his hand and told a story about how he was asked to grade the English journals. He had no idea what the English standard was at his school, so he graded generously. Only he worded it like this: "I didn't have the heart to be cruel. I thought to myself, 'Hey, I can't write this in Japanese, they're doing great' so I gave them loads and loads of ticks. I showered them in ticks." Imagine that with a British accent. And remember that ticks = check marks, which to a Japanese person means he did poorly or got it wrong. Maybe you had to be there, but we died laughing.

The next morning, we met for announcements in the Main Hall. After the official words, we were told to stand up for "traditional Japanese morning exercises." This was the highlight of my infant professional career. Two hundred people in suits (or some form of business attire) jumping up and down, touching toes, leaning to the left, stretching to the right, and counting in Japanese to the exercise music. Light, Eastern aerobics in suits. It was absolutely hilarious and I had to bite my lip in more than one place to hold back the laughter.

Overall Kakegawa was a good experience, but I did not arrive in the greatest spirits. I had a 2-hour train ride, then a noon hike with luggage to a non-airconditioned educational center, where I did not get to eat lunch. Drenched in sweat, we had to change into suits, but we could not check into our rooms until later. I was starving, tired, and sweating in business clothes, stepping over 200 suitcases and 200 people to find a seat in the conference room, when they announced that the showers were typical Japanese showers. Read: They were communal. As this educational center was NOT a hotel, no towels were provided. We were told to bring our own, but I missed that memo and had nothing more than a package of Kleenex. So as desperate as I was for a nice cool shower, the prospect of a COMMUNAL one without even the slightest "protection" of a towel did little to brighten the day.

Fast-forward to that night: Shower-time. (Read this at your own risk.) I was so hot and sticky, there was no way I would go to bed dirty. The girls in my living group decided to investigate the situation together. Considering we were embarrassed about being naked together, it's ironic that we showered at the same time. But I guess there can be safety in numbers, regardless of the situation. We changed into our pajamas, and five girls and four towels headed shyly towards the bath. (Don't get my wrong, I HAD planned to visit a traditional Japanese bath at some point...but occasionally, "opportunities" arise before you seek them out. You just gotta jump on the train when it rolls by...or in this case, jump naked into a tub with 4 other naked girls when you're hot and tired and desperate to feel clean.)

We walked through the red curtains (the blue side was for boys, so this was NOT co-ed), took off our slippers, and walked into the dressing room. In a blur I saw girls toweling off in front of cubby holes stuffed with soap and clothes. They were laughing loudly and might as well have been at a bar. My group must have looked terrified, or very intimidated, because the half-naked British girls flashed us big smiles and said, "Go on lovelies, take it off!" We waited for the British girls to clear the way, a little put-off by their enthusiasm. Then I walked to a cubby, staked out my little territory, and got undressed. I walked into the shower room, turned on the faucet, adjusted the temperature...and...took a shower. No stalls, lots of girls, but so what? Nobody cared. Nobody paid attention. Some girls chatted but for some reason I didn't feel uncomfortable. I'm pretty independent, but it's amazing what I'll feel comfortable with if everybody else is already doing it.

After you get clean in the shower, you have the option of soaking in the HOT tub. Half of my girls threw their clothes back on and left, but the other half was in the tub. So I got in and enjoyed my first real soak in a long time. A few minutes later I got out and rinsed off in cold water again. In the dressing room I struggled to get dressed without a towel, but I left the bath feeling very clean, refreshed, and if I do say so myself...proud. If an American chick can take a communal bath when she expected privacy, she starts to think there aren't too many embarrassing situations she can't handle.

You realize that what may embarrass you, others may not find worth writing home about. And once you get over the brief euphoria of undeserved pride, some things just aren't a big deal.

08 August 2005


This post is for mon amant Bill. I have mastered the chopsticks. (Apparently I have not yet mastered the bus system...more on that later.) When I was in Tokyo, an American guy gave me some good advice. I was trying unsuccessfully to pick up shredded carrots--basically I was starving--when he said, "Don't squeeze them, just rely on surface tension." I'm not even sure if that statement is grammatically correct, but I understood what he meant and I loosened my grip. It worked wonders and now I can pick up pretty much anything.

After a week of using the bus with no problems, I thought I had it down. I have to be at school by 9am, and today I had an English Club meeting at 10am. I am the head of the English club so it was important to be ON TIME. The bus came on time at 8:38 and, recognizing the destination on the display, I got on. About 2 minutes into the route I realized that I didn't recognize the neighborhood...but I did know that I was WAY southeast of my school. In Japanese I asked the bus driver, "Does this bus stop at Fuji Higashi High School?" For some reason he could never respond with a simple "Yes" or "No." He rattled off Japanese and pointed in various directions, so I thought he was saying, "Yes this goes to Fuji Higashi but it takes a different route." Well half-way to Yoshiwara I cut my losses and admitted to myself this bus was NOT going where I needed to be. More importantly, I knew that I read the bus correctly, so why wasn't it going to my school like every other bus with the same final destination? By that time the whole bus (literally) was talking to me in Japanese, trying to help me figure it out but to no avail. I was so embarrassed that everyone on the bus was involved. Finally I just motioned something to communicate, "I'm getting off now and turning around," and the bus-load of nice Japanese people said, "Hai hai hai." Luckily I had a vague idea of the direction I needed to go, so I walked...and walked...and 40 minutes later made it to school dripping with sweat. My supervisor is great--she had been worried but wasn't upset at all, and I made it in time for the meeting. Turns out she was just as confused as I was about the bus route and told me she would have made the same mistake! Maybe language barriers aren't always, and simply, language barriers...

Fire Festival

Last Saturday was Fujinomiya's annual Fire Festival. If I understood correctly, this festival is held to appease Mt. Fuji so it won't erupt and kill everyone. I met some other ALTs for the festivities, and it was definitely worth the transportation time and money. Supposedly this is one of the top 3 Fire Festivals in Japan. There was a parade with floats, beautiful iconic women (not sure who they represented), and school bands, so this part of the festival was recognizable by Western standards. Our group followed the parade to the Shinto gate where the festival got REALLY interesting. There were groups of drummers dressed in traditional clothing, which for the men looked like t-shirts, underwear, and socks. The women added a smock-like shirt on top of this outfit. Drummers spend the whole time with their legs far apart and their knees bent, swaying to throw their whole body weight into the drums. The movements are very fast, powerful, and precise, and their timing was impeccable so the effects were quite impressive. I was most impressed by the variety of drummers--men and women, from age 5 to 75. They all had the same level of focus and attention, no matter how young or old they were. The drumming went on for hours, and eventually I noticed that the performers would switch out without disturbing the beat. Trying to spot them switch was like trying to watch a clock change time--I'd look up and see a different drummer, but I could never catch anyone in the act of coming or going.

Then there was a spectacle I've seen in photographs: large groups of "underwear"-clad men carrying "rafts" through the streets. The rafts were supported by large beams that rested on the men's shoulders. Each raft held at least four women and a large bonfire. The women were jumping up and down, shouting, and singing. I thought the Japanese had a reputation for being uptight and serious all the time, but this festival was a real throw-down. The raft groups paraded all over and later they ended the festival by walking waist-deep into the cold river, splashing water everywhere and eventually putting out the fires. It was a really beautiful night and we decided to "close the ceremonies" with some Japanese beer in a quiet little pub.

And of course, I must add the ever-paradoxical Japanese image of past-meets-present: half of the spectators wore Western clothing, but the other half wore kimonos. I kept staring at the kimono women with their little fabric bags, only to see them pull out cellphones and send text messages...elaborate hairdos of the past bent over electronic gadgets of today.

And did I mention the bugs? I still can't get over the bugs. Japan is like the Hollywood of the bug world--they're all bigger than life and look like they belong in the movies.

I apologize for the lack of pictures...once I get the internet at my apartment, I will come back and add photos!! Thank you for reading!

Standards of Beauty

At one point the girls were talking to me about haikus and "old-world" ideas of art and beauty. They showed me a centuries-old painting of a beautiful woman, but one image wasn't enough. The girls squished and pinched their faces to demonstrate all the traits, which evidently include: VERY long hair, full puffy cheeks, a round squishy mouth, and very narrow, slanted eyes. Today, of course, the standards are very different and if you are a decently-attractive Westerner, then they think you're beautiful by default. Especially if you are light-skinned with light eyes and/or hair. John, who looks like an ex-football player with long blond curls, is regularly stopped by strangers who think he's handsome. Some guy even asked to take his picture last weekend, just because. He's not THAT good-looking :) ...but the point is, if you are not Japanese, you stand out, and usually it's for the better. What's funny is that I usually think the people who tell us WE are beautiful are beautiful as well. Oh, the allure of the Other.

Bonding Over "Chocolate"

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I had my first "real" assignment on the job: I met 4 other ALTs at Fuji High School to lead an English Summer Camp. The high school is about an hour away but I managed to get there with no problems. Fuji High School is one of the best schools in the area, so the students (all girls) probably speak the best English I will encounter. We split into informal groups and my 4 girls were adorable. Mostly we played games, but I also helped them pronounce "Ls" and "Rs" and write & perform a skit in English. They taught me some Japanese words but they only responded when I said them in the breathy, high-pitched tones used by almost all Japanese girls. If I pronounced the words in a normal English voice I just got blank stares, like they didn't understand me! I feel like Marilyn Monroe speaking Japanese, and it's surprisingly exhausting, just for the few words I know.

The supervisor at Fuji High School was very nice and brought lots of food for the ALTs, including these orange chocolates that were waaay too sweet to be considered real chocolate. They were more like orange-flavored cocoa butter. I 'stole' a couple to give to my students, and you'd have thought I'd taken them diamonds. But when they put the chocolates in their mouths, they squinched up their faces and shook their hands as if they were on fire. For a second I was afraid they hated them, so I asked, "Are they bad?" But the girls assured me that they LOVED the candies and were excited I'd taken them some. I couldn't get over how enthusiastic the responses were. Later during a debate, I had to make statements for them to agree or disagree (with)... At one point I threw out, "Ice cream is better than chocolate." And this, of course, was the most difficult debate topic in the world. They grabbed their stomachs and doubled over, moaning because I was making them choose which sweet was better. Finally one girl shouted, "Chocolate ice cream!!" And I let it go at that.

03 August 2005

Teaching Myself Japanese

Learning Japanese is harder for me than learning Chinese. The multiple writing systems confuse me because I don't really understand why they have hiragana. Why didn't they just keep kanji and add katakana for foreign words/pronunciations? Of course all language questions like this are rhetorical, but I had an easier time learning Chinese tones. I never thought I'd say this (actually, that's a lie, because I like school) but I wish I had a Duke class here in Japan to teach me Japanese...some formal instruction and quizzes, dare I say it, would do me some good. Instead I'm creating more flashcards than I can carry...by the end of the year I'll have a heya full of abused index cards.

02 August 2005

Two Short Stories

Yesterday I was wandering around the school, very far away from the teachers' room, when I heard a familiar sound: ping-pong! I didn't know the school had a ping-pong club so I was excited about that. There were no girls, only boys, and they were very shy about using English. The 'coach' knew a little English so he pointed at the students and declared, 'Boys!' This made me crack up and then the boys started laughing too, but I'm not sure if we were laughing for the same reasons or not.

I broke out the Japanese flashcards yesterday and my supervisor came over when I got to the card that said, 'zasshi.' Somehow I remembered this was 'magazine,' so I said it out loud. My supervisor said, 'Wow, you have mastered Japanese!'

Oh, boy do I have a long way to go...

01 August 2005

Why August 2, 2005 Will Go Down in My Personal History

  • I made my own cup of coffee this morning for the first time in my life. No Starbucks brew but hey, it's 4 dollars a bag instead of 4 dollars a cup. Real cream is 5 dollars per half pint so for now I'm sticking to the cheap creamers. But there's something to be said for waking up by yourself in your own CLEAN apartment, making your own cup of coffee, and drinking it in silence while the sun rises.
  • I also woke up to my first tatami-bug bites on the soles of my feet. Not sure what to do about that yet.
  • I got my first invitation to a Japanese person's house. In general the teachers at Fuji Higashi are extremely nice to me, so I'm lucky in that respect.