The past two days were my first kind of sort of half-days of work. I went to my middle school, sat at my desk, and read the teaching materials that were left for me while also periodically sticking the Ethernet cable into my computer to do email stuff. I wish I had more time, or didn't feel as bad about surfing the web while everyone else was working. Either way, it was interesting and kind of enjoyable to observe the different ways my colleagues approached the ‘new foreign girl.’ Most people (especially the English teachers) were very nice and interested in what I was doing with my life (either that or just interested in practicing English). Other teachers would look at me shyly so all I’d say was ‘konichiwa’ and then they’d go crazy saying ‘wow, your Japanese is so good, I’m so glad, this is such a relief, wow your Japanese is so good, nice to meet you.’ All this after only saying ‘hello’ and then I’d get all uncomfortable because in Japan, you’re not supposed to say ‘thank you’ instead you say ‘no, it’s not that great yet,’ and then they say that ‘it’s so good, oh my goodness it’s so good’ and on and on. Thankfully this usually leads to other conversation and then later to an invite to do this or that with their family. If just half of all of the invited are actually followed through with, I am going to be one busy girl.
This weekend was the most fantastic weekends I’ve had here so far. The Niigaa Matsuri (festival) was going on all weekend long. My grandma informed me that there would be dancing on Friday, parades on Saturday, and fireworks on Sunday. I didn’t have to work of Friday so I decided to visit Colleen at her little ward of Niigata in Toyosaka, and from there we would go to my grandma’s house in the city. When we got to Obaachan’s (grandma’s) house she yelled at me for being so dark and then told us “Hiroko-obasan (my aunt) brought over yukatas (cotton summer kimonos). You girls don’t want to wear them do you?” “Uh, YES we do!! Can you dress us?!?!” “OK!” There were three to choose from. Colleen decided on a pretty blue one with a yellow obi (sash bow tie thing), and I decided on a darker blue one with a silver obi. Obaachan dressed us and made us look like pretty Japanese girls and we were SO happy. Obaachan brought her best friend, Yasai-obasan (yasai means vegtables. The reason we call her that is because she helps obaachan grow tomatoes and is constantly bringing over her own eggplants and cucumbers and more. Obasan means aunt, or a name you would call an older woman.) and we were off by taxi to the bridge where all the dancing would be. We had assumed that we would just stand to the side and watch when Hiroko-obasan showed up and asked her group of purple dancers if we could join. They agreed and learned the Niigata Matsuri dance from a couple of ladies and eventually got it!! It was SO much fun and we just kept on dancing the same dance all along the bridge over and over again until there was a break at which time my aunt grabbed us all drinks. Everyone else got juice, but she handed me a beer for some reason?
Me and my Obaachan :)
Colleen, I, and the Niigata Geisha
Niigata Matsuri Dance
That night, I stayed over at Obaachan’s house, and we woke up early to see the parades. But before that, my uncle randomly showed up on a moped with cheesecake and jelly. Yasai-obasan, obaachan, and I took a bus over to the parades were the floats consisted of taiko drummers, Japanese flutes, samurai, cheerleaders, marching bands, Miss this and that city or town (like Miss America), Disney characters, traditional dancers, Niigata geisha, Mikoshi, and on and on. For lunch we had ramen, and since obaachan doesn’t eat that much, she immediately forced half of her ramen onto me (haha, remember last time Ericie?)
My uncle randomly and unexpectedly showed up on his moped...ahaha
Niigata Kirakira Parade, I vaguely remember doing this as a child "Washo, Washo!!"
I went back to Murakami that evening, and found out that Geneva, Katrina, Flo, and Jess were all planning on going back to Niigata City on Sunday to shop and see the fireworks. So then on Sunday, it was back to Niigata for food and fireworks. After the fireworks, we tried out a couple of bars that were ridiculously expensive, but it was a good time and I couldn't be more pleased with how wonderful this weekend was :)
I woke up debating about what to do with my ‘home study’ day and thought that a run would help with that decision-making. On my way out, I passed my land-lady, saying “Ohayou Gozaimasu” and she replied with “Come in, I want to talk to you.” I guess I had no choice so I went into her house and she proceeded to tell me all about sorting trash, saying hello to the neighbors, taking turns with them in cleaning the trash area out, and so on. Then she made me eat some of the most delicious dessert thing: a grape wrapped in sugary mochi and it was mmm, mmm, good!! We talked about this and that and she started talking about the nearby little mountain, Oshiro-yama. She asked me if I had climbed it yet and I said “no, but I think I will right now.” So after she got a phone call from someone, and kicked me out, I went back home to grab my camera and followed the path up and around Oshiro-yama.
Although not very high, there is a beautiful view of Murakami from the top. It’s intriguing that each side of the mountain is covered in different types of trees. I’m so lucky that this mountain is so close, and I think I found a new thing to do on slower days.
View of Murakami City from the tippie top of Oshiro-Yama
self-timed portrait at the top
I live at the end of this cute little street
Man oh man it’s a good thing I didn’t leave town today because as soon as I got back I got a call from Fuse-san (my supervisor) saying that our alien registration cards came in. Woo hoo!! After getting this, I can do anything. We immediately set up our bank accounts and when we were done with her went to get phones. I should have known better that what are relatively easy tasks in the US are long, confusing, tiring processes in other countries. It was such a hassle for all parties involved, I don’t even want to write about it. Long story short, I got a super cute white and green phone for free, probably paying too much for calls and mail a month, and after a year will be stuck with a $200 cancellation fee. They didn’t have it in stock so we’ll be getting our phones on Thursday.
I also made an attempt at getting the internet at home. It should be coming within the next 10 days, but now that I think about it, I think I did something wrong…so we’ll see.
Unfortunately, the Niigata ALT orientation was scheduled for today, which is the same day as Obon (mourning dead family members with living family members). Fortunately, it was a great time seeing and hanging out with the other new JETs from all over the prefecture. After the orientation, we headed to Shame for some tabe-nomi-hoodai (all you can eat and drink) and the next logical thing on a night out: karaoke.
Oh man, it was pouring elephants and moose today but nothing could get me down because today is the day I got my keitaidenwa (cellphone)!!!!!!!! #: 080.6605.8490 & email: firstname.lastname@example.org FYI: You can send emails from a computer and I’ll be able to read them and respond from my phone :)
Jess needed a ride back to the Station, and this is my 'ride.'
What better way to spend another day of rain than to spend it shopping in the city?! I had another ‘home study’ day and since there’s not much going on in Murakami or in my apartment, I rode my basket bike with an umbrella in hand (which is actually illegal but I’ve seen locals do it so I’ll do it too) to the train station and caught the next train to Niigata-city. I’d say that it was a moderately successful shopping escapade, as I came out with some much needed towels/sweat rags, a big backpack for the many many weekend trips I plan on taking, a kanji book, Vogue Magazine, and hello kitty slippers. As it turns out (and because I have a cell-phone now), other JETs were planning on heading over later in the day so after my unsuccessful quest to find the perfect pair of shoes, I met up with them for dinner and darts and drinks. As it turns out, sloppy day turned splendid day :)
Despite hearing through the grapevine yesterday that the Murakami Matsuri (festival) was going on this weekend, something fantastic and spur of the moment came up. Yesterday night, Jon (a CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) for the US) mentioned that he would be going wind surfing with Shim (a CIR for Korea). Naturally, my eyes got huge and I over-expressed how awesome that sounded and got myself in on the plans. So without much sleep, and a couple cups of semi-homemade iced coffee (you can buy cartons of it at the grocery store here), I set off for the second day in a row to Niigata City.
Shim has been working for Niigata for roughly one year and is an incredibly personable guy, which has made him an array of friends from all over this country. This windsurfing friend, Maeda-san, is known as the ‘Windsurfing God’ among the locals, as he’s been doing it for just about 50 years and makes it look much easier than it actually is. He was overly nice and accommodating, setting us up with the proper equipment, showing us what to do, feeding us curry lunch, and even coming out to rescue us when we drifted all the way down to the other side of the beach.
Today’s weather pretty consistent with what it’s been like for the past couple of days: storm clouds and the constant threat of rain above us with a strong wind coming from all directions. What would have been a great day for experienced windsurfers to practice their moves and speed was a less than favorable day for beginners and first timers. We were all so excited about doing this though, that as soon as the windsurfing contraptions were set up, we jumped right in and began what would be hours of trial and error on top of the board and falling into the sea. Jon and Shim were eventually able to get up and move with the wind for a couple of meters, but my struggles stayed stagnant at what to do with the sail after finally raising the mast. The idea behind windsurfing is that you’re supposed to stand on the board, pull the incredibly heavy mast and sail up while maintaining your balance, widen your stance while maintaining your balance, grab on to the bar that runs horizontally along the sail while maintaining your balance, and then use the wind as a friend to move along while maintaining your balance. I think my difficulties arose from weak arms, fighting the wind, and not being able to stay up on the dang board. Even with these struggles, today was a BLAST!! The weather was basically perfect without the humidity we’ve been experiencing, we were fed and surrounded by the nicest people, and we were on the beach for pete’s sake!!
Sim and Jon practicing the ways of the wind
Niigata City Beach
The Wind-Surfing God: Maeda-san
I would have to say that the highlight for me came when Maeda-san asked his friend if he would take me on a jet-ski ride in the ocean. The beaches in Niigata are for the most part lines with tetra-pod rocks to break the huge waves from crashing into shore. They warned me that it would be scary as we would be going to the other side of the tetra-pods where the huge waves are, and that this guy drives like a wild man. I said ‘bring it on’ as best I could in Japanese. I don’t know if it was because of the weather or if the conditions were normal, but the waves were ginormous!! This jet-ski man was driving into, over, along, around, and between the waves. One second I’d see a huge wave above us, the next we’d be on top of another wave and I could see the entire world below, and the next we’d be falling over the edge of that wave. That was when we weren’t racing along the side of waves and water was splashing into my face making it hard to see as I was trying not to loose my contacts ;). At one point he said that his jet ski doesn’t go that fast and I said something like “Are you kidding me?! We’re going SO fast!! This is SO much FUN!! I LOVE going FAST!!!” I don’t know if I said that right or if he understood me because I immediately got the notion that he interpreted what I said as “FASTER FASTER GO FASTER!!!” because he put that pedal to the metal and we were FLYING and I was sure we were going to flip at any second. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some pretty exhilarating things, and this jet-ski-in-the-wild-ocean probably comes out ranking in the top 5.
Great day, great fun, and it even ended with a kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) dinner with Jess and Flo when I got back to Murakami.
I got back from an early run to see Flo and Jess waiting for me on my doorstep. We had made plans to meet up and try to find the Murakami Matsuri, so I showered, watched the US men’s medley relay team win gold, and we were off on foot in search of music and food. I think we got side tracked by the hunger pains in our stomachs and brains so we stopped by a fantastic soba restaurant for lunch. We all left with the feelings total bliss because each one of our meals was heaven in a bowl. In a slothful effort to continue our search for the Matsuri, we went on with our walk around town, going to a beautiful park, the river where Flo and I run, and through some little streets that appear to be filled with hundreds of years of history. Flo mentioned a delicious green tea ice cream place, and from that moment that was the number one thing on all of our minds.
Pretty Park in our Town
LOVE the close-ups
Get jealous runners, this is the path Flo and I run on. Going the other way is even prettier with the view of distant mountains.
As it turns out, this ‘green tea ice cream place’ was actually a green tea shop and school. The owner invited us in to eat our ice cream and on top of that served us cold green tea. We got to talking and he explained the Murakami Matsuri, which is actually more of a Tanabata Shishimai, which is a parade of people pulling Mikoshi, which are portable shrines containing deity, and traditional dances to drive demons away. Apparently all of the action wouldn’t actually start until the evening. Then, one of his friends walked in, and he was like “Oh, you have to meet my friend, Tatsurou Kudo. He can speak English.”
So lively 60 year old man walks in, and starts talking to us in Japanese (he knows some English words), and tells us that he’s Murakami’s best tour guide. He decides that he wants to show us around his friend’s tea shop/school and explains what to do in each of the rooms for a tea ceremony. Then he asks us if we have time, and of course we do since the Tanabata Shishimai doesn’t start until later, and he says that he wants to take us to his sake shop. Naturally, we all jump into his car and as we’re driving he’s pointing out a bunch of shops that his friends work at, including one that he did the calligraphy for on the outside sign. He points out a Japanese sweet shop and Flo’s eyes light up, so he pulls over and introduces us the owner lady, another friend (Murakami proper is a REALLY small town). She invites us in to see her old-style Japanese home, and they teach us how to bow formally when being invited into someone’s home. Then she gives us some Japanese anko (red bean) sweets we say “Bye” and “Thanks so much” and we’re back in Tatsurou-san’s car on our way to his sake shop. Apparently this guy loves making friends and giving them gifts and talking to them about his hobbies, which are Japanese calligraphy, singing, playing the guitar, and collecting old sake bottles, and his granddaughter. The whole time he was showing us around, he would take our picture, and when we got to his sake shop, he told us to wait while they were being printed for us. While we were waiting he served us two of his original sakes, a ume-shu (plum sake, my favorite), yogurt sake (surprisingly fantastic), and a ninja sake (46% alcohol). At this point we’re all happy and even more talkative than before and he’s inviting us to a party that he sings at in November, and asking us to teach him English and the saxophone, and telling us that we have to see his country house and go eat and play music there with his friends. When the pictures were done, he wrote Chinese characters on each of them. Mine said ‘dream,’ Flo’s said ‘road or path,’ and Jess’s said ‘smile.’ Then he pulled out some fans and wrote some more characters on them, then he printed more pictures out and gave us those, and then he squirted some ink on the table, and smashed a piece of paper into them to make us pretty little flower prints. By this time it was dark and we only had a little bit of time before the Tanabata Shishimai, but he insisted on showing us his country house. About a 5 minute drive away into the country (don’t worry, he didn’t drink a drop of sake), we were at the most beautiful old-school completely decked out in traditional Japanese decoration house. He showed us the Japanese-style barbeque room, his collections of sake bottles, his calligraphy, his photos, and then pulls out a banjo and a guitar. With Jess on the banjo and Tatsurou-san on the guitar, they start playing a couple of the songs from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and Flo and I sing along. Then it’s Flo’s turn to play an amazing original song on the guitar and we’re all totally impressed. Then Tatsurou-san pulls out a saxophone and tells Jess to play a little and teach him how to play someday. By this time, it’s completely dark outside, and it’s time to go to the Tanabata Shishimai Festival. He drops us off and tells us to come by and we promise that we will.
Tea Ceremony room
Kudo showing us the proper way to get through the tiny door.
The Sweets Shop
One of the gifts Kudo made us
Flo and Jess and Kudo's Sake Shop
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine..."
Then at the Tanabata Festival, we met up with Katrina and Geneva and told them all about our crazy, awesome, what-just-happened-today-was-amazing, adventure, while we ate tako-yaki and candy covered bananas and sweet bread and crêpes. We walked along the road that the festival was being held and marveled at the Mikoshi and people and music, while the Japanese people gawked at us. Of course the 5-person foreign group that we are gives us celebrity status and everyone wants to talk to us and feed us and take pictures and introduce us to their kids that we will soon be teaching. After Jess and Geneva called it a night, Katrina, Flo, and I walked on and were invited to drink and eat with a little group of orange-shirt-Mikoshi-pullers. When we were about to call it a night, some of the guys gave us their orange festival jackets to wear and take pictures with and then told us that we could pull the Mikoshi with them. Then when we were really ready to leave, we gave the jackets back but were told to keep the bandanas as souvenirs. Flo and Katrina went one way, and I went the other. On my walk to my apartment I couldn't help but smile at how crazy cool today turned out to be. Small town Japan truly is a country of overly generous and friendly people who are curious about the outside world. As I was passing the last Mikoshi, a girl who we were talking to earlier asked to exchange our phone numbers and email addresses via infrared, so I’m curious where this will lead!!
Murakami's Tanabata Festival
Celebrity Gaigins, AKA Foreigners
Every day, I’m happily surprised to learn how friendly everyone in this area is. Being a ‘foreigner,’ in a way, is a free (well, not quite all the time) ticket to getting invited to do this and that. Sim started a Korean cooking/eating event that happens twice a month in Niigata City where Japanese people and, more recently, foreigners get together to learn about Korean food and other peoples’ backgrounds. While talking and answering questions about our home countries and interests, we peeled, chopped, fried, boiled, and cooked ‘chijimai’ or Korean-style pancakes and a soup/stew thing that included spam and ham and sausage and other vegetables and Korean spices. While drinking bear and tea, we ate and talked in English and Japanese, and even learned a little Korean ~ ‘Aniseyo!’ I overheard this cute little girl asking her mom what a ‘half’ person looks like: “Are they split in half, is one side of their face Japanese, and the other side foreign, or is it all mixed up all around?” When I heard this I laughed and told her “I’m half, it’s all mixed together, right?” She went from being a talkative little bumblebee to completely silent and without blinking, staring straight at me. She could have been amazed, but I thought she looked more terrified.
One of the members of the Board of Education invited us to a ‘nagashi-soba’ or ‘long-soba-noodle’ neighborhood event that happened today. Prior to this, Geneva and I were excited to attend, but had absolutely no idea what the heck to expect besides soba noodles. When we got there, we witnessed the cutest thing EVER!! There was a long bamboo trunk that was hollowed out and cut in half length-wise, and placed at a small angle. A hose poured water through the trunk, and every now and then someone would plop a cluster of soba noodles at the top and the noodles would travel down the bamboo. The kids from the neighborhood were standing next to the trunk with hashi (chopsticks) and a bowl of soba soup in hand, waiting to catch the slippery noodles with their hashi. It was so much fun and so yummy in my tummy!! After ‘nagashi-soba’ we went upstairs and were able to play with the kids and teach them English songs. Even after all this kindness, on my walk back home, I was stopped 3 times by my neighbors who were curious about me and told me to go over to their houses to ‘play.’
I guess that it comes as some relief that the big rains are happening during a week of ‘work.’ By ‘work’ I mean that I’m visiting a different elementary school each day and talking with the staff and the English teachers about what the school structure will be like in the upcoming year. It comes as some sort of surprise that each one of my schools is completely different. Ranging from class size (one school has an average of 7 students per class, while others have 30+), location (from beautiful beachside, seriously you look out the windows and can see and hear the beach and ocean 20 meters away, to a smaller town more inland), teachers (some English teachers want to talk to me only in English while others can’t speak a lick of it), motivation (I made a speech, posters, and a bulletin board at one school, but then only talked and laughed with the staff at another school for an hour before being sent home). Despite their differences, it looks like all of the elementary school teachers I will be working with are overly nice and fun. From what I’ve been told, most of the students are ‘genki’ or ‘full of spirit and vigor!!’ (translation compliments of my new cell phone which comes in very VERY handy)
Seriously, SERIOUSLY. This was one of the best weekends in the month (exactly) I’ve been in Nihon. Sado is a little Island off the coast of Niigata City, and though kind of sort of isolated, is the third or fourth or fifth largest island of Japan, and is kind of a big deal. The ‘Earth Celebration’ was announced and promoted as one of the coolest happenings in Niigata Prefecture so clearly it was a MUST-do. In Tokyo, we made friends with some of the Sado-islanders, and Courtney in particular welcomed us and showed us a FANTASTIC time.
Anyways, we caught the poor-man’s car ferry from Niigata’s port to Sado Island’s Ryotsu port. The cheapest tickets are 2440 yen in the what some would call, ‘army barracks’ where there are no seats, just carpeting where old people rush to set up camp on the floor. The car ferry got us to Sado in roughly three hours, compared to the Jet Foil which probably costs billions of yet and would get us there in one hour. In fact, we saw one of these Jet Foils leave after us, pass us, and then arrive in Sado hours before we had a chance to get there. The awesome thing about the Car Ferry though, are the birds that follow the boats. Passengers are allowed to go outside on the deck to check out the view and feed the birds. They especially like these shrimp-flavored senbei (rice cracker treats for humans) and can catch them in mid-air, and sometimes even grab them from your hand!! There was a group of smart kids on a ‘delegation trip’ (thanks to the Japanese-English dictionary on my phone we were able to translate the word ‘delegation’) to Sado, who spotted us foreigners and immediately made it a point to become best friends with us. It all started with them giving us candy, then working up the courage to ask to take pictures with us, then waving at us 500 times, then giving us more candy, and then inviting us to feed the birds with them. It was all fun wild and especially funny (for me) when Colleen got pooped on.
Car Ferry barracks
Jet Foil passing us
Feed the birds!!
Upon arrival, Courtney and other Sado people picked us ‘main-landers’ up and took us out to a fantastic kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) place. They even had some American-born crazy makis, which you NEVER see here!! After the delicious meal, we headed to the campsite which, guess what, was on the BEACH!! With the sand keeping the bugs at a decent distance from our blood, and the clear skies, we were in the perfect position to party with the other campers in the area. Apparently this Earth Celebration is an International even that brings people in from all over the world. There were campfires, musicians playing their guitars, drums, and flutes, and dancing like hippies.
Josh and Courtney taking the shortcut to the beach
We woke up ridiculously early for some reason, and headed over to the festivities of the festival. The Kodo (taiko) drummers of Sado pair up with a musical group from a different country for the Earth Day Celebration. This year’s theme was Brazil and the group called Olodum from Salvador da Bahia. Along with the Brazilian-Kodo theme was food from all over the globe, other rhythmic hippie groups, and the beats of traditional Japanese taiko interpretations. We saw amazing performances where the rhythm touched my soul. Courtney and I decided that we’re going to somehow learn how to play taiko drums, the shamisen (Japanese guitar), dance and sing so that we can eventually form a band and perform next year. We got bandanas to fit in with the hippies for the rest of the day and the concert at night.
These pictures were from my phone (not too bad of quality). Unfortunately for one reason or another, I didn't have my true camera with me during the day. I'm waiting for Colleen's pictures.
The concert was…WOW, words can’t describe how spectacular it was. First of all, the location of the outdoor amphitheater was in the mountains were we had to hike up a steep path to get to. At first I was kind of bummed that I missed both Friday’s show (Kodo only), and Sunday’s show (couldn’t take off my first day of class) where Olodum and Kodo performed together. As it turned out though, Olodum was fantastic and turned the crowd into a whole bunch of rebels. All of the work that went into controlling the crowd (letting people in at staggered times, placing people in an ordered fashion on the open grass, and forming designated dancing sections on the sides of the spectators – the people in the middle were to sit on their tarps the whole concert and bop quietly on their butts) went out the window when the lead singer yelled the only Japanese phrase he knew, “Minasan, Odorimasho!!” He had to say it a few times before people hesitatingly looked around and slowly got up even though it was against the rules if you were sitting outside of the designated dancing sections. Once everyone stood up and started dancing, they never even thought to sit down. And then…KODO came on stage!! They played an awesome song, all smiley and dancing around stage while throwing their sticks around and sounding PERFECT. Olodum then came back and they performed together and I couldn't help but smile and think that life as I knew it couldn’t get any better.
But it could. After the concert, the crowds headed back to where they were staying (mostly on the beach), but then it started to rain. At this point we’re thinking, ‘Aw man, now we can't hang out on the beach.’ Quite a few groups of people decided to take cover in the beach house where everything was kind of mellow until a hippie band with tap-dancers started to play music under the awning. It was nice background music for a while until Courtney announced, “I want to dance.” I whole-heartedly agreed, and we went out into the rain and started to jump around and get soaked. Within seconds, we had a group of ten or so crazy people dancing in the rain; within minutes that number tripled, and within the next hour, I swear, all of the campers were out and moving to the beat. The band members kept on asking for volunteers to play the bongos (I was the first volunteer), the taiko drum (couldn't pass that opportunity up), and the maraca shaker things (why not do it all?!). Another tap dancer joined in, and there was a tap-off. They ended up playing for quite a few hours, and once they were done, we continued to play outside ~ a little bit of Frisbee, and a little bit of ocean water.
Unfortunately, all of the fun we had in the rain didn't carry over to the whole sleeping situation. Our tents were completely soaked, it was cold, and boarder-line miserable. But we were all still alive in the morning, and Josh kindly let us shower in his apartment (which ended my being a scummy hippie), and then drove the people who had to work the next day off at the port. The weekend was 100% beautiful, and I’m nervous that it just might be untoppable.