29 March 2006


I don't know what's worse -- the current immigration debate, or the fact that some people actually think Bush's stance could help keep Republicans in office. I don't even want to discuss how furious the immigration issue can make me -- forget immigration. I don't care what Bush does from this point on, if a Republican is elected next, I'll flip.

Faith in the government?? Where is my faith in THE PEOPLE? COME ON, USE YOUR HEADS!!!

Not to mention the current problems in France...

Early Evening Sakura

laterns for the cherry trees

Sakura Photos 2

All of these cherry trees are in my neighborhood...a benefit of the suburbs!

Sakura Photos

See how the blossoms appear to disperse the light like snow?

Baseball Under the Sakura

These little guys have been outside every day of spring...

Hina Doll Photos

In Japan, March marks the coming of spring, as well as a time for families to celebrate the health of their daughters. Parents set up a large, extremely expensive, hand-painted and hand-crafted Hina doll display. Every day in March, little girls can admire their dolls (without touching, of course) and on special days, wear kimonos to 'match' the dolls on the display. My supervisor has a 2-year old little girl named Hinako. Essentially, her name means "little girl of spring," because she was born during the same month as the girls' festival. It was Hinako's first year to have a doll display, and my supervisor was kind enough to invite me to her house, to see a doll display in person. Unfortunately I couldn't meet Hinako, because she was in kindergarten, but I hope to go back again. I love my supervisor. When the new school year begins in April, I have to move to a new desk, like all other teachers -- but that means I also have to change supervisors!! No!!!!!

In this display (as in most), the Emperor and Empress sit on the top, with servants underneath. Notice the many layers of kimonos -- in the past, members of the court would actually wear these 12 layers!! Carrying all that silk must have toned some royal muscle.

The Egg Vending Machine

The quintessential offspring of technology and traditional Japanese life...one block from my apartment!

27 March 2006

Most Beautiful Tanka...

Of all the tanka I have read recently (over 200), I think the following is the most beautiful. It uses so few words to say so much, and the effect is quite powerful. Once the implications sink in, they hit me like a bunch of bricks.

A day will come
when my eyes
no longer see.
To me my husband whispers,
"It will be alright."


Back to Japan

Recently my mind has been in many places. Japan is only one of those places, which is a change from how things were a few months ago. But nothing stays the same, ne?

Indeed, nothing has remained the same. Some things are predictable, but still different. Early morning frost has been replaced by cherry trees in full bloom. The blossoms, which were pink buds only a few days ago, are now white flowers with all the grace and fluffiness of giant snowflakes. When I look into a cluster of cherry trees, it's like looking into a freeze-frame snowfall -- the kind with fat, feathery flakes that seem to build resistance and slow down as they float to the earth.

I ran into a plump brown lizard yesterday. I haven't seen any of these guys since you could sweat just resting in the shade. The lizard startled me so I yelped, but then I laughed, because his presence could only mean one thing: heat is coming! He stuck his pink tongue into the air as a greeting, then dove into the nearest ditch.

So spring is coming, but it's not quite warm. This means that my camera batteries won't stay charged, because my apartment is still too cold. But as soon as possible, I will take cherry blossom photos to share.

For the first time since summer, I have no work to accomplish at school. I can get a head-start on some lesson plans, but there is no need. If I get a head-start on work now, there will just be more free time in the future, free time that I would appreciate filling up with work that I have not already completed. The other teachers are busy--not everyone is sitting around with as much free time--but since I am an ALT, I don't have as many responsibilities. I will actually be glad when spring vacation ends, and I can once again fulfill my purpose of being an English teacher. (But have no fear, I am finding plenty to do in the "free" time. I don't allow myself to stay bored all day.)

In other news, the teacher changes are officially complete. Mayumi and Jun are gone, which makes me sad. They will return on Thursday for a teacher party and a final goodbye. Then the desks in the teachers' room will be rearranged, and a new school year will officially begin, complete with new staff.

It occured to me this morning, as it has many times before, just how small your world can be. No matter how many things you learn, or how many places you go, your world will always be as big or as small as you make it. When classes aren't in session, my world at work consists of set patterns and routes and routines. I thought this while washing my hands in the teachers' room. There are 2 sinks, but I always use the same sink. I use the exact same sink and wash my hands the exact same way, every time. I'm in Japan but sometimes your world can be only so big. I thought the same thing when I was in Paris on the metro: "I ride the exact same route to the university every day; I see the same strangers and I recognize the same people who take the same route as I do. I have come all the way to Paris, but in many ways, my world can stay so small." Funny, isn't it? Expansion doesn't happen without a conscious effort.

This weekend I'm going to a concert with Mayumi in Nagoya. Yay!! Then I'm going to a hanami party (cherry-blossom-viewing festival) with a few other teachers. The batteries will be charged by then, so I hope the blossoms will still be there for me to photograph!

Camping in Japan

...by Sara Ursin. This "Top Ten" was published in the same journal that published one of my blog entries. I thought the list was hilarious and strikingly realistic.

Top 10 Reasons Why Living in Japan is like Camping

10. Garbage must be carried with you wherever you go.
9. Inside and outside are the same temperature.
8. Cooking is done over an open flame.
7. Raingear is brought everywhere.
6. The neighbors hear and see everything you do.
5. The neighbors invite you over for a cold beer.
4. You sleep on the floor.
3. The floor is made of grass.
2. Bugs, bugs, and more bugs.
1. The Squatty-Potty.

Honorable Mentions
  • BYOTP - bring your own toilet paper
  • the large variety of meat on sticks
  • like a campfire, people huddle around a kerosene heater
  • laundry is air-dried for all of the neighbors to see

24 March 2006

The Feminine Mystique

"Girls must make a lifetime commitment (call it a "life plan" if that dirty word career has too many celibate connotations) to a field of thought, to work of serious importance to society...As boys go on from the liberal arts core to study architecture, law, the arts, science, girls must be encouraged to go on, to make a life plan. It has been shown that girls with this kind of a commitment are less eager to rush into marriage, less panicky about finding a man, more responsible for their sexual behavior. Most of them marry, of course, but on a much more mature basis. Their marriages then are not an escape but a commitment shared by two people that becomes part of their commitment to themselves and society. If, in fact, girls are educated to make such commitments, the question of sex and when they will marry will lose its overwhelming importance. It is the fact that women have no identity of their own that makes sex, love, marriage, and children seem the only and essential facts of women's lives."

--Betty Friedan

1963 and again in 2001

22 March 2006

Mc, Wal-, Star- -- Did I Stutter?

Wal-Mart has moved to China, and it pisses me off. Certain aspects of American culture wouldn't be allowed to take over the world if the rest of the world didn't buy (and buy into) the crap. How many times do people have to see "Fight Club" before they get the message? When did people start believing that crap defined them? (In Japan, the answer is always, "After World War II.") I don't understand how the world can hate America so much yet continue taking their kids to McDonald's. The people who complain about strip malls and overconsumption and franchises are the same people ordering fried potatoes or buying seafood and pigs' ears from Wal-Mart instead of their neighborhood markets. Damnit people, if you let American consumerism succeed, it will. This is not a hard equation.

Japan is definitely a consumer culture. What is "cool" to buy runs the gamut, but usually the more Western and "exotic" something is, the better. McDonald's is still a little too fatty for Japanese taste, but you can hardly find a place to stand in a Starbucks. It's always packed.

Now, what about picking and choosing your franchises? I haven't set foot in a McDonald's, but I have gladly walked into these crowded Starbucks, a place I would not be caught dead if the country had its own good coffee (Italy, France, etc). So if I'm pissed about the Wal-Mart in China, but relieved to stumble across a Starbucks in Shizuoka, does that make me a hypocrite?

Evidently, picking and choosing is not a good idea, because you can pretty much guarantee that if you're sitting in an American-owned franchise, somebody somewhere wants to bomb it - even in Japan. I couldn't help but question my appreciation of Starbucks, a decidedly Western space with a Western feel in an Eastern land, when I read a tiny sign in the bathroom one day (see below - I was so struck by the clear but delicately-implied message that I got out my camera and took a photo of the sign.) But as for my new-found appreciation for Starbucks.... Could that nostalgia for America, for Western atmosphere, even my poorly-sated nostalgia for a Parisian cafe, one day cost me my life? What if someone decided he hated Starbucks as much as he hated America?

The difference in consumer culture in Japan and America boils down to a lasting gift from our founding fathers - Puritanism. Maybe I speak too much about myself here, and what I say can't be generalized for fellow Americans. But after shopping with Japanese friends, I noticed a difference. They buy the thing, revel in their newfound happiness, and then move on. Whoo, an accomplishment, isn't purchasing power great. I buy the thing, revel for a few minutes, then move on to an inevitable cycle. Yeah, this is great, but it doesn't change my reality at all; it doesn't define who I am; it doesn't make me more capable or smarter or more beautiful; it doesn't make me more fulfilled, don't I know not to put that much stock into a thing? into a luxury? If I get too excited about this, it will just make me feel empty, because it doesn't fulfill any kind of real need. Gee, I should be ashamed for even getting excited about this in the first place. In fact, I might even be a better person WITHOUT this thing. It just adds to the clutter.

Case-in-point, pre-purchase: one day I was shopping with a friend. I was looking for a new sweater, which I found almost immediately. It was expensive but it was comfortable, sexy, fit perfectly, and looked unlike something I could find in GAP or the usual places. I bought it. Ah, a brief moment of satisfaction and excitement as I daydreamed about donning my new purchase.
But my sweater only caused my friend grief. "Oh, I need something," she said. "What are you looking for?" I asked. "Well nothing in particular, but you got something, so now I just NEED something. I want to buy something too." Was she kidding me? That blatant, blind desire to buy something for the sake of buying something wouldn't pass in America. Maybe I'm an oddball or maybe I hang out with weird people. But I couldn't believe my friend was saying that with no trace of guilt or shame. Even if the thought had crossed my mind, I never would have shared it aloud. I think the major reason for this is the complete lack of Christianity in Japan's history. (And currently, only about 2% of Japan is Christian). There are no Christian or Puritan values. (One of the strangest things about Japan for me is the obvious lack of "rest" on Sundays.) The reason Japan is so easily a consumer culture, why this tiny country "boasts" the highest Louis Vuitton market in the world, is the same reason abortion is often a perfectly acceptble method of "contraception." Japan does not distinguish between a "baby" and a "fetus," yet there are no moral consequences to terminating a pregnancy. The birth control pill was introduced only recently, and I have yet to hear of any woman actually interested in using it. Why dump your body full of "unnecessary" hormones when the problem is easily solved by abortion?

From Wal-Mart to abortion in one post? I must have been pissed off for a while.

Disclaimer: I am not against abortion.

For some reason I had trouble uploading the Starbucks bathroom photo, which is of a sign that reads, "Please let our staff know if you see any suspicious packages."

11 March 2006


After the coldest Fuji winter in 60 years, and my first winter without central heating, there is nothing like pink plum tree blossoms and the songs of little birds.

But the real testament to the coming of spring is that the bugs are back.

07 March 2006

Life Lessons, Love Lessons

I think as women, America teaches us that if we need someone, then we are not worthy enough to have someone. If we need it, then we don't deserve it or haven't earned it. So we learn to be super independent, which ultimately backfires because we don't learn how to receive or need in a relationship, and that results in a lack of relationships (or a lack of satisfying ones).

What I learned in Japan is totally unrelated to romance, but hugely applies. (Hugely, it's a word now, for all blogging purposes). When I first came here I was totally illiterate, I had no car, and I didn't know about the local transportation. I have never needed anyone else so much in my life.* I needed help grocery shopping, getting anywhere, creating hot water for my shower, using the crazy public restrooms, reading labels, understanding the train schedule....EVERYTHING. At first it was a huge cause of frustration because I hate feeling helpless or dependent in any way. But let me tell you, if you try to live in Japan but can't speak Japanese, you have no choice but to suck up your pride, because you can't do things alone. This is because you are illiterate, and because Japanese society is built to make everyone need everyone. So never in my life have I needed other people like I have here.

What I realized is that, despite needing so much from other people who owe me nothing, they still loved me. I needed them but that didn't make me unworthy of their care. It didn't make me needy or annoying or a drag. This was a major change and understanding that I never expected to gain from my experience in Japan -- that you can need so much, and be given so much, and eventually find a way to give back while still receiving, so you discover a balance. And I think that balance will pave the way for all kinds of amazing relationships.

* This discussion completely excludes my family and especially my parents, because it is taken for granted how much love and support--both emotional and financial--I have needed from them. My family has been there from the start, so needing them was not something I had to learn, it was simply innate. To really need friends and significant others, however--this has taken a lifetime of lessons.

Guest Blogger: Chris Manz

"Just Another Day"
written by Chris Manz
edited by yours truly

So, I went to New Jersey today and came back via the Port Authority. Now, the L is down yet again, so I needed to take the ACE to the JMZ, then get a shuttle to where I live. Not so bad. It began strangely when there was a D train running on the ACE line, but no matter, I took it anyway. Then in the middle of the ACE line, the D train--which was pretending to be an A-- decided to become an F train, for no apparent reason. Unusual, but not a big deal for me, as it was still going where I needed it to go. Things would only get more interesting when the poser F train decided to stop little more than halfway across Manhattan, making its last stop at a station where there were no other lines. And it stopped on the uptown side of the tracks. After crossing to the other side of the station, I waited for a real F train to take me one stop further, which is all I needed, and waited for quite a while, staring at something that resembled a tusk from a decent sized cat, or perhaps really large rat. But the train eventually came before I could figure out exactly what it was. As we crossed over the Williamsburg bridge into Brooklyn, there was a somewhat crazy woman sitting near me. She was seated next to a man (who I think was with her) when she proceeded to stick her pinkie in her ear and shake it vigorously. Then she pulled her pinkie out slightly and whisked the air toward the man, as you might have done as a child, when you farted and wished to blow the foul air towards someone else. Lovely imagery. I made it to brooklyn only to get on a bus with a bus driver who resembled a cross between Matt Dillon (who I always thought was kinda creepy) and the main guy from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with a thin moustache of the former and the "I'm tripping on acid" look of the latter. I wanted to put on a seatbelt, but alas, there was none. All of this occurred as I was transporting a backpack full of brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and a delicious roast beef, compliments of my dear aunt.

Waiting for Moss

This is a re-vamped, edited version of an old blog. The beginning and the end are the same, but the thought process in the middle is different. It's an important one, I think.

I’d spent a packed weekend with other teachers playing volleyball, eating a gluttonous steak dinner, and squealing out multiple hours of karaoke. In the prefecture-wide volleyball tournament I injured my thumb; at the steakhouse I was the only one who chose steak instead of hamburger and potatoes instead of rice; and in the karaoke room, only four songs in four hours were sung in a language I could understand. Yet when the pictures were developed and circulated through the teachers’ room, I smiled inwardly at the undeniable expression on my face: in this place so far away from home, I was happy.
With little time to recover after a busy weekend, Monday was challenging. The third-year students were preparing for college entrance exams. With test day looming, they wrote short English compositions that I was responsible for correcting each day. The afternoon was spent with my good friend and fellow English teacher, Mayumi, as we struggled to come up with a grammar rule that explains why you can say “this summer” and “in summer,” but not “in this summer.” My grammar knowledge is strong, but as a respected language teacher you must limit the use of “because it sounds right” as a satisfactory explanation.
By that evening I needed to unwind alone, outside of my apartment. I wanted a coffee-shop atmosphere, but as I live among tea fields in the suburbs of Fuji, Mos Burger was my best bet. It was a rare occasion and I decided Japan’s native fast-food chain, along with a good book, would help me relax.
I ordered oshiruko, a sweet, red bean soup with rice cakes, and pulled out a novel. A few minutes later, two uniformed girls plopped down in my booth. I looked up to greet them with a shocked face – I was amazed they sat down without even speaking to me first. Usually young students are too shy and polite to approach with such nonchalance. But in Mos Burger the girls were more willing to speak English, as if being off school property gave them more leeway to make mistakes. We had a great discussion about pet rabbits, cram school, and traveling in Australia. It was a special opportunity to know the students better, without a list of rote phrases for them to memorize.
The girls downed their burgers quickly before biking to cram school. We said goodbye and once again I was alone with my book. About two hours later, I felt someone staring at me. So many people stare outside of Tokyo that I didn’t take notice, until the man did something no stranger had done before: he spoke to me, in English.
“Excuse me, may I talk with you?” the man asked politely. He was a fairly attractive, middle-aged businessman. In his tailored, expensive suit, he looked out of place behind a burger wrapper and a crinkled paper cup. I realized that he finished eating some time ago and had been staring for longer than I thought.
My reaction to strangers who approach me unsolicited is to totally reject them, especially if I am alone and the stranger is male. I’ve never felt unsafe in Japan, but I’m not one to throw such caution to the wind, so I was annoyed and nervous when this man spoke to me. Who cares how nice or affluent he looked? I’m a young, single female; can’t he see that I’m alone? How rude of him to put me in this uncomfortable situation. His language skills were far too advanced for the “I just want to practice my English” excuse.
“Actually, I have to finish this,” I said, pointing at my book with urgency. I made my expression as pained as possible. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, I see,” he responded, looking incredibly disappointed, and worse, lonely. Turning back to my book, I started to feel guilty.
Guilty! Why did I feel guilty? I began to rationalize. All the kindness you have been shown by strangers in this country, and you can’t even speak to this man in a well-lit, public place. Maybe he looks lonely for a good reason. Maybe he was just trying to add a little variety to his boring night at Mos Burger. Maybe you should put down the book and talk to him. Besides, your bus comes in 30 minutes, so you have an excuse to leave.
I looked up at him then, debating whether or not to get his attention after turning him down. But soon the man glanced back at me, made eye contact, and said, “May I just ask you one question?”
So I agreed, and ended up having a very pleasant, entertaining conversation with this man who had just moved from Tokyo. He missed the big city, and he was bored. Although he had never lived abroad, his English was superb and he was obviously an intelligent, well-spoken man. Towards the end of the conversation he asked my name. The fact that he never asked for my contact information made me feel safer. So I told him my name was Lauren, and then I sang a tune just loud enough to reach his ears. Japanese people tend to pronounce my name like “rolling,” and during more than one introduction, men have burst into song with, “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, rawhide!” When I sang the chorus I was hoping to make this man laugh. But instead, he seemed quite serious, almost sad, and said,
“What does that mean, anyway, “rolling”? I know it means moving on…” he made a forward-rolling motion with his hands. “So that must mean you have a wandering spirit – never in one place for too long.” And for only the second time, he looked straight into my eyes.
I didn’t say anything but just smiled at him. I felt oddly exposed after his comment, as if he’d unexpectedly pegged my character 20 minutes into the conversation.
“Wandering spirit,” I repeated. “Yes, maybe so.” While the idea made me happy, it only seemed to make him sad.
In my experience, the Japanese barely express their emotions in public, much less to someone they hardly know. The secret is to watch their eyes. Even if they don’t make eye contact, you can gather a lot of information not only from inside them, but also from around them; for many Japanese people, stress or sadness will show in the fine, delicate skin above the cheekbones. And I could see, just barely, that his muscles tensed when I said that.
Much later, I remembered a conversation I had with Mayumi. We were running through a temple garden like children, excited by the discovery of such a beautiful place so close to our school. The grounds were green and lush even in winter, fed by water that trickled down from the clean snow atop Mt. Fuji. Bright green moss fell over the smooth stones like a long velvet gown.
“Look,” I demanded. “It’s so beautiful.”
“Mm-hmmm,” Mayumi agreed. Then she knitted her brows. “Don’t you say, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss?”
I smiled at her and laughed as the peaceful landscape blurred with my visions of Mick Jagger and that huge red tongue.
“Right,” I said, returning my attention to the green fuzz.
“That’s one example of how our cultures can be totally opposite,” she pressed. “You think it’s good to keep moving, because gathering moss means you’ve been in one place for too long.”
“Yeah,” I blinked. “Moving is adventure, and adventure is exciting.”
That movement is a crucial exercise of freedom. At least, this is my Americanized, individualist point of view. Leaving everything behind to live someplace new was in large part why I came to Japan. My main goal was to learn more about Japanese culture – what motivates these kind and generous people in a world so different from—yet so connected to—my own. But the other reason I came to Japan was because I didn’t have to stay in America. I had to take advantage of that freedom, so I accepted the challenge, and I moved to a strange new country.
Every day I try to appreciate the immense privilege it is to be here: to step inside another culture and immerse myself in a different world, all the while knowing that I possess a very special trait perhaps Japanese people do not: if I start to gather moss, I can choose to roll. I can leave Japan for another place the same way I left my home for Japan. As a JET participant, this is ultimately what distinguishes me from others in this country. Most JETs come knowing they will leave in one to three years.
Many times I’ve thought that I could settle in Japan, because I’m happy enough to consider it a home. And many times my friends in America have asked me, “How do you do it? How did you pick up and move to this place where you knew no one, where the customs were different, where the food was unfamiliar? You’re so brave.”
Perhaps the strength to jump into something new comes from the knowledge that I can choose to leave it. And I ask myself, is this actual bravery? Have I really earned a badge of courage? The rolling stone may seem impressive, but the truly courageous rock is the one that gathers moss. This was never as clear to me as when I sat in zazen (Zen meditation) at the same temple. With a modest knowledge of Zen Buddhism and a far cry from any stage of Enlightenment, I learned something during meditation that might have never occurred to me otherwise. My third time sitting in zazen, I finally noticed a pattern. Very soon into the meditation—indeed, within the first three minutes—I would begin to panic. The temple interior was quiet, the monk was kind, and the rain outside was soothing; yet in those initial moments of sitting still, my heart rate would increase, my breathing would become labored, and my head would scream with the desire to wiggle, shift my weight, clear my throat, scratch my nose – anything to move. It had nothing to do with comfort, for I could sit another twenty to thirty minutes without any lasting problems. On the contrary, it had everything to do with a fear of sitting still. I feared the chains of immobility and the (albeit temporary) suspension of freedom; I feared time moving too slowly and even stopping; I feared that thirty minutes would become an eternal commitment I could not escape…in short, I feared I would gather moss. Surrounded by old stones who couldn’t speak my language, one of them carrying a large stick to whack anyone who moved, I had no choice but to accept it, and sit still. Eventually I could simply watch the panic rise in me, knowing that it would subside, and that sitting still would later bring a deep sense of peace.
Before I could make this connection, however, Mayumi had to teach me something.
“In Japan, we think the moss is beautiful. We have the same expression, but with a completely opposite meaning. We also say ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss.’ But we want the moss. If you never stay in one place, you’ll never grow any. Sometimes it’s good to be still.”
I gazed at the stones, lost too deeply in her words to respond.
I thought moving to Japan required courage, and to a certain extent, this is true. But perhaps the real test will come when I leave Japan, when I commit to a career and a place, perhaps a significant other, and choose to settle. Then I must forge a lifestyle to incorporate the wisdom gained from rolling down foreign soil and from gathering moss elsewhere. Perhaps that part of life will be more painful than sitting in zazen – but I hope that it will be equally rewarding.
It wasn’t until much later, relaxing at an onsen, that it occurred to me why my “rolling” joke may have dampened the Japanese man’s spirit. Maybe he was hoping I would just sit still.