Friday, June 29, 2007

KODO Taiko

I recommend everyone to watch a LIVE taiko performance at some point in their life...
They Yoshidas got me tickets to watch KODO, the famous Japanese taiko group, for my birthday. Although a little over-produced, it was simply one of those "Japanese experiences".

We were not allowed to take photos or video footage of the show, but this clip is from their show at the Acropolis.

The energy, power, and beauty from the tiny little handrums to the giant taiko drums takes your breath away.

"Kodo" literally has 2 meanings:
1) "heartbeat" (the primal source of all rhythm, like the sound of a mother's heartbeat felt by a baby in the womb) and 2) "children of the drum"- like the performers' desires to play their drums with the heart of a child.

(Masami & me at the performance- I wore my black summer kimono!)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

...totally unrelated to Japan....

When the process is as inspiring and beautiful as the end result, you just have to post something like this... and it's making me nostalgic for US street signs and street life! (Well, except for the homelessness part...)

Max Tyrie's Handmade Modest Mouse Video:

"Myself and a couple have friends have entered the above into the Modest Mouse video competition. Using green screen footage provided by the band we cut a simple music video. We then degraded the images and printed out each frame sequentially. (all 4133 of them) We then nailed each "shot" of 50-100 posters to various structures and posts. Then using a digital SLR camera with a long exposure we frame by frame shot each poster. Oh, and theres a little video projection (again, frame by frame on the SLR) just to mix it up. There is no compositing, no shortcuts, just lots of blood, sweat and tears, and a huge Kinkos bill!".... Max


So this afternoon around 3pm, there was a short siren in the teacher's staff room, and all of a sudden everyone jumped out of their desks making all this commotion. They were running around, pulling up the blinds, shutting windows, and chatting excitedly.

I thought we had a school evacuation or that it was going to start pouring at any second or something. Finally a teacher explained to me that the school just turned on the air conditioning system! Even though the weather has been in the 70s and 80s everyday for the last few weeks (some days it's so muggy that our papers curl up on our desks), the Japanese have exact dates when things can or cannot happen.

For example, Japanese swimming season is only from like July 20th until August 15th or something- if you go in 1 day early or 1 day late, you are either politely asked to not do it, or you just get horrified stares.

Or, the "heating" season that they have in schools... The kerosene fueled portable heaters are brought into the classrooms and staff rooms only from a certain date to another date (like December 15th until March 15th) even if it's incredibly cold before or after that. What killed me is that one day in March, I was walking around the school and noticed like 10 of the portable heaters grouped at the end of a hallway, all turned on. I asked a teacher what was going on, and he said that they obviously can't store the heaters with the kerosene gas in them so they just fire them up and leave them on until they run out. WHAT?!?!? How about bringing them into the classrooms a little earlier and keeping them a little later so that the people who NEED them during the awful bitter winter could use them?!?

Today's air conditioning is just a "test" though.

Officially, they are not allowed to turn on the air conditioning until July 1st.

Ooooooh.... I'm teling.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Lots of rain these days... rice paddies and vegetable gardens are abundantly green. And when the roads are wet, the teeny green frogs jump out of the paddies and are all over the place! I was walking to school the other day and must've seen like hundreds of these tiny little frogs hopping all over the road!

I was scared that I would step on one, or even worse, one would jump on me, but I soon found out that if I took heavy steps, they hopped away from the source of the vibrations in the road. Unfortunately, cars and bicycles didn't give advance warning to many of them, so there were also many squished frogs on the road as well... It's kind of like "Frogger" in a way.... except there's like hundreds of frogs and a few cars on a narrow little road!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer Kimono

On Sunday, Becky, Kumi, & I went over to Oe-san's house. She's my amazingly talented Japanese "grandmother". All Becky and I knew was that we were going to wear kimono and see some patchwork quilt exhibit.... We have come to not have any expectations or ask questions when we hang out with the Yoshidas.

So, after a filling lunch of about 9 different dishes, we were rushed upstairs where Oe-san (who was a former hairdresser) did our hair amazingly fast (20 bobby pins and a can of hairspray, sprigs and garlands of flowers!) and cinched us into our kimonos. My black kimono is a sheer summer one, but the underlayers and all the ties were suffocatingly hot (as was the weather). I borrowed one of Kumi's obis because apparently the obi I got was a "winter" one, so it didn't suit it. (sad.... I wish I took a picture of it- there was a beautiful blue peacock on the back of it!) Becky wore Kumi's light green kimono and red obi.

Finally we shuffled out of Oe-san's house and awkwardly climbed into Kumi's SUV, where we were whisked to an exhibition hall in Omiya. There was a beautiful exhibition on patchwork quilts made from old kimonos- some were really modern and abstract, and others looked like they were right out of some midwestern quilting bee! Of course, we were the only ones in kimono so we got a million stares (mostly Becky).

After about an hour, we went back to Oe-san's house to change out of our kimonos. Leigh met us there (she had done the same thing the day before). It was crazy, like 2 hours of prep work and hairstyling and all that, and then it was back into our tank tops. We looked at her handpainted obis (this woman is seriously multi-talented), and then she turned around and presented me with a gorgeous deep purple obi with maple leaves on it. Since I had to borrow Kumi's obi to match my kimono, she felt that I ought to have my own!!! I was in shock. She shrugged it off like it was no big deal and ushered us downstairs to have tea and sweets (probably all homemade and hand pressed or whatever).

Then, Leigh and I went to the mom & dad's (the Yoshida's). Kumi handed each of us a pair of muddy rubber work boots and shears. It was an interesting look with my skirt and my hair still all done up, and I was thinking that earlier, I was wearing an elegant kimono. We followed Masami outside and found a huge patch of blooming purple and lavender irises!!! He told us to cut a big bouquet, for each of us to take home and then showed us around their garden, pointing out the summer fruits and vegetables- eggplant, watermelon, asparagus, herbs, etc. Came back inside and they whipped up dinner in like 5 minutes. Grilled salmon salad, a grapefruit salad, some sort of root salad, and rice made with green beans. I love them, and am soooooo going to miss them when I leave!!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Fun & Games

Last Saturday, a bunch of us AETs spent a day sitting out in the sun, cheering on our students in the Tango region's track and field meet. I was the only high school AET there (it was a junior high school meet), but one of my favorite 3rd year students was also there to cheer on his little brother, so we ended up hanging out and talking the whole time!

Aftewards, we got together at Andrew & Desirae's house for a wholesome game of Cranium, fueled by Desi's homemade brownies, their wonderful assortment of imported cheese (yum!!!) and crackers, and drinks. Then we packed into the izakaya across the street and ate/drank for a few more hours.

Then, we moved on to the bowling place in Mineyama! We got there pretty late, so we had to rush through our games. Of course, I was absolutely terrible (my score is the lower one, Jun is a fabulous bowler). Besides everything being in Japanese, it wasn't much more different than a normal American bowling alley. Well, the shoes came out of a vending machine- you just put your 300¥ in, and out tumbled a pair of gleaming (velcro!) shoes!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Visiting American students

Last week, my high school got a sister- city school visit from Delray Beach, Florida. The 7 students had homestays with Miyazu high school students and their families, and participated in regular classes and clubs. In typical Japanese fashion, not a single minute was wasted from their late night arrival on Saturday night until the morning they left on Thursday!

Unfortunately, I was really busy and stressed out preparing for many of the classes and "field trips" but it was fun to have native English speakers around. I was curious to see what their reaction to Japanese culture was. Their uncertainty and awkwardness when they first arrived at school on Monday reminded me of myself when I first arrived. However they quickly bonded with their host brothers and sisters and amazingly never complained about their packed schedules and jet lag... Many of the Japanese students were sooo shy, but it was really cute that the girls kept covering their mouths when they laughed.

My 3rd year class did a cultural exchange with them, introducing them to different aspects of Japanese culture (food, holidays, clothing, kanji, etc.) while other classes mainly relied on games to promote internationalization. As a foreigner myself, I was also invited to participate in some of the other tours and classes. I got to go to "shodo" (Calligraphy) class, and had 2 Japanese students instruct me on how to hold and use the big fat brushes. I was even able to get a tour of the private Catholic high school in town and then participate in a tea ceremony there!

One of the highlights was going to my marine high school with the Americans to see the 3rd year "boat class" students off on their 10 day journey to Russia! The school has their own boat, and the 14 students looked great in their starched white uniforms! There were the usual ceremonies, but instead of the traditional Japanese bows after each speech, they saluted each time. Shipshape!

When the time came to leave, each student threw one end of their colorful streamers to their friends or parents who came to see them off, and as the boat pulled away, the streamers stretched out until they finally broke. It was such a nostalgic scene, kind of like soldiers going off to war in World War II!

I felt so proud when I watched the students finally succeed after struggling to communicate with each other. As cheesy as it sounds, seeing the smiles of relief and understanding was gratifying for both them and me. And one of my favorite students now has been so inspired by his homestay brothers that he has initiated lunchtime conversations and emails with me, and has already made plans to visit them (and New York) next spring!!!

Friday, June 15, 2007

"Uzushio" Whirlpools in Naruto

Seeing these natural whirlpools was probably one of the highlights of my year here in Japan....

The Naruto Strait is about 1.3 km wide and is where the Pacific Ocean and the Inland Sea meet. At low and high tides, water rushes through the channel causing these huge whirpools!

We took a boat tour to get closer to the whirpools, and surprisingly, the water wasn't as choppy as I had suspected. The video captures the excitement of all onboard. "Sugoii" roughly translates to "SOOOO cool!!! awesome!!!"

We also went through the Uzu-no-Michi Museum (w/ glass floors at some points!) below the bridge (ummm, hello?!? architecture senior thesis!!) to get a view from above of the whirlpools/water....

The walkway went out about 450 meters (a bit more than a quarter of a mile) and we were about 45 meters (150 feet) above the sea!

It was badass... and "one of nature's most exciting spectacles!"

Konpira Shrine, Kotohira, Shikoku

Konpira Shrine is a famous shrine at the top of a fairly steep mountain in Kotohira, Shikoku. Becky, Jun, and I climbed up the 1368 stone steps to the top and we were very proud of Jun for not taking a single cigarette break!

There were many shops situated on the sides of the stone path/steps where we could rest and browse for souvenirs.

The shrine and the view at the top were beautiful but because there were so many other tourists there, it didn't feel as intimate as the one we visited the day before. We threw our coins in and clapped to get the Gods' attentions, and prayed for health and all that good stuff. I love how people tie up their wishes on paper and wrap them around trees!!!

Many Japanese tourists were prepared with walking sticks, backpacks and water bottles!

We went to a relaxing onsen complex with indoor and outdoor baths (with floating flowers!). We splurged on an "akasuri" treatment (exfoliation & body shampoo)... can't say that I enjoyed that too much though- my OCD-ness was kicking in after I realized we were all just getting on top of this padded vinyl table one after another and the woman was like mechanically flipping us like burgers and vigorously scrubbing us with the same exfoliating gloves! Questionable.

However, we did enjoy a huge dinner afterwards. Shikoku is famous for its udon, so of course we had to try it. The menu offered a big wooden tub of it for 4-5 people, but the 3 of us polished it off, along with a few other side dishes effortlessly. Behind us was a group of yukata-clad older men, maybe on a company retreat or something, with their "company" (beautiful paid female "escorts" dressed in smart green skirt suits who would "accompany" these men for the night (paid by the hour!)... I suppose sort of like what "geisha" used to do back in the day.

At one point, we passed an impressive blooming onion field- the green leaves (stems?) were at least 3 feet high, each one topped with a ball of white flowers! It looked like something out of a Miyazaki film!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bridges, Bikings, & Marriage Shrines

I've been crossing stuff off my list of "to-do's" and reluctantly starting to get into all my paperwork for going home. We had a seminar last week in Kyoto to discuss all that stuff, which turned into a nice long weekend for me! Jun, Becky and I were going on a road trip to Awaji and Shikoku!

Friday night in the city was as usual, a long late night of dancing, drinking, and karaoke-ing with JETs, singing our hearts out & then listening to the birds singing as the sky grew brighter... There was a "biking" (all-you-can-eat buffet) along with 2 "nomihodai's" (all-you-can-drink" parties at a rooftop beer garden and the other at a karaoke booth which all 16 of us squeezed into. We met a friendly drunk Japanese woman who was "beautiful in drinking".

It was pouring rain in Kyoto early on Saturday morning, but Hide drove me bleary-eyed to meet up with Jun and Becky. However, our drive southwest to Awaji was gorgeous and we left the heavy clouds behind us as we drove over the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the world)!!!

We were on our way to the Onokoro Shrine, a relatively small and humble shrine (with an enormous torii gate!) in the middle of the small island of Awaji. It is apparently famous as a place where single people come to pray for marriage! Jun generously threw her coins into the offering boxes and reverently prayed to meet the love of her life. I also threw some coins in and prayed at the shrine- for Jun to get married soon, of course!!! ;)

***NOTE: This was and has been Jun's plan for many many months (not my idea!), so finally Becky and I decided to indulge & accompany her. Curiously enough (ha ha?), I received a random text message from a special someone on my phone as I walked under the giant torii gate entrance to the shrine....

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Quit "bugging" me!!!

Current situation: Warm and rainy, about 22C (72F)- it's rainy season now.
Rice fields are lush and green, frogs are croaking, flowers and vegetable gardens are in full bloom- as are all the other creatures of our animal kingdom.

So, I am REALLY a "city girl", but now that I live in the countryside, I have to refer to myself as an "inaka-ette" ("inaka" means "country-side" in Japanese and the French suffix "-ette" gives a more refined sound than just "girl"). I wish I could be comfortable lying on the grass without worrying about ants crawling up my skirt or getting squeamish about insects and rodents.... But no. I am a total pansy.

My apartment is full of moths, flies, mosquitos, crunchy delicate-ish black insects these days.... i'm killing at least 30-40 a night. Last night I sprayed insecticie all over my window screens and the edges of the window where they slide past eachother. Guess what happened? All the tiny little insects that could get in between the window and screen flew in, and got STUCK to the insecticided glass. So now I have like hundreds of dead insects stuck to my windows.

On the other hand, I have found several lizards crawling around on my windows, and I'm told that they are good luck- they are known as "protectors of homes"- I couldn't imagine how many more bugs there would be if I didn't have these little saviors around.

Apparently, I don't know how to open and close windows properly. Jun came over yesterday and told me that I either have to keep the windows ABSOLUTELY closed and locked OR they must be ALL the way open so that the edges of the window frames are butt up against each other to close the gap between the glass and frame... OH!!!! Well, that might help.

At least I'm not Jannie- she had a 1 metre long snake slithering around her school yesterday. And these creatures were found IN her house....

The "mukade" - a scary and poisonous centipede- was found only a few centimeters away from Jannie's hand crawling down her stairs!!

And these "koorogis" are harmless crickets... ugh!!

Semi-related rant....
I showed up at school the other day and got to my desk- there's a big purse on my chair, like one you'd put a laptop in, and there's a form on my desk from my supervisor to fill out. The paper, and my desk was covered with like 40 tiny dead insects!!!

I asked my JTE who sits next to me what the hell was going on, and she explained that at night, the insects fly into the teachers room because of the lights, and then they just hover around the lights and then fall and die on top of our desks. She was like, yeah, we have to wipe off our desks every morning. (Um, what?!?!? Is this efficient?!?)

So, i wiped off my desk, stamped the forms, and then saw my supevisor coming by, I assumed, to pick up her purse off my chair. She walked by and said good morning to me, and reminded me to stamp the form, and walked back to her office... So, I finally aske the JTE about the purse on my chair since I still haven't sat down, and she's like, "OH! That purse? Oh, that's mine! Sorry!!!"

What the hell?!? She's seriously got some issues. Paul said I should fill her purse with dead flies.