Friday, May 29, 2009

A Nice Wednesday (Wednesday, May 27, 2009)

It might seem obvious that I’ve been living life here mostly for the weekends.  The weekdays can be quite dull, though I try to fill them up with mini happenings: dinner at Himalaya, swimming with Flo, increasing my mileage (well, kilometer-age), learning easy songs on the guitar, catching up with MTV shows, my addiction with the ‘Twilight’ series, going to bed early and on and on.  I almost always come back from weekend excursions smiling, thinking ‘aaahhhh what a great weekend’ … not so much on the weekdays.  Though today, I really did think ‘aaahhhh what a great weekday.’ 

For one, they remembered to feed me.  Lunch with the 5th graders at Minami was super sweet.  I like it when the kids see me as more of a friend than a teacher from a foreign land.  Do you remember those monster cards the boys in grade school used to play with?  I can’t remember what they were called but I think each card was a different kind of fighter with different powers, points, and something like that.  With kids spending too much of their school time competing and fighting due to these cards, they were probably banned at some point, along with the Tamaguchis, POGs, and Poly Pockets.  As we all know, Japan’s population is filled with brilliant people, and it seems as though some of them have come up with a clever way to combine that monster-fighter-game with school supplies: pencils with that circular octagonal shape, each side containing the information of a different sort of battle attack, or something like that.  The kids, mostly boys, play by spinning the pencils and scream when they land on a good attack, or something like that.  Anyways, during the course of the pizza-toast lunch, they found out that I’m into baseball and got the whole class to agree to play during their lunch break.  Even better than playing with the 3rd/4th graders at Iwafune, these kids at Minami actually know how to play!!  A couple of the other teachers came out to join also, and I was able to show off a couple of my skillzz by smashing a homerun all the way into the soccer field!!  Next week I’m going to bring my own mitt, I can’t wait!!

Last week, when Senami Elementary hiked up Gagyuzan, I met one of the volunteering mothers of a first grade boy: Rochelle.  She’s from the Philippines, married a Japanese guy, and is now stuck here in Murakami.  She speaks perfect English, so Hiki-sensei, her, and I impressed all of the kids on the trek with our English-speaking skills.  We hung out again at the Senami Undoukai, and she invited me over for dinner this evening.  She had purple sweet potato cake from the Philippines, delicious Italian-style pasta, and orange juice all ready to be eaten since I didn’t have much time before my Eikaiwa class.  All that AND she let me borrow Eclipse, the 3rd book in the Twilight series!!  It’s just too bad that we’re just becoming friends this late in the game for me.

The first Eikaiwa class is always a little difficult for me since I don’t know what to expect of the students.  Since this was the second class, I was able to cater the lesson plan to the general level of the students and it went shockingly great!!  I taught them all about how we REALLY greet one another in English, past, present, and future tense verbs.  My problem is that I always accidentally go over the scheduled ending time.  I remember hating teachers for keeping me after class was supposed to be over, so I’m really going to have to work on that.  The positive feedback I received after class was over though really left me with that: ‘aaahhhh what a great weekday’ feeling. 

Dinner with Kasai-san (Monday, May 25, 2009)

At 6:30pm sharp I pulled my car out of my parking space and parked it 0.01km away, in front of Kasai-san’s house.  She told me that she wanted to take me to a Chinese Restaurant where they serve delicious fried noodles.  She’s not able to go as often these days due to her back and it being a little far for her to walk or bike to.  The meal was indeed great, but even better than that was the conversation we had.  We talked about how life was like in Murakami when she was younger. 

She remembered how Murakami used to get so much snow in the winters.  It would pile up to the second story of their house, and she and her brothers and sisters would leave from the second floor windows!!  She was 12 years old during the time of WWII.  She had 7 siblings, and when I told her that was how many siblings MY grandma had, she told me that that’s the way it was back then.  Families were encouraged to have many kids in order to help the future war efforts.  Families were allotted a certain number of tickets for food, clothing, soap, and all other daily materials.  Her parents were worried about being able to supply their children with enough food, so illegally bought rice at inflated prices from local farmers.  She laughed at how she could remember her mother practicing how to use a stick to protect her family from an intruding American soldier, but that’s what all mothers did at the time. 

After dinner, she invited me over for beer and snacks again and we continued to talk about life, people, and her very first airplane ride.  

The City (Sunday, May 24, 2009)

It’s been a while since I’ve been ‘out on the town,’ and a ‘Sado-onsen-reunion’ was a good excuse to do it.  Courtney and her Sado buddies were in Niigata City for the night.  They made reservations at a Spicy Market, a hot and spicy Thai restaurant.  It was very nice to be with old and new friends, though I made the conscious mistake of putting a chunk of a red pepper in my mouth.  Within seconds my tounge and throat was on fire and my ears were in horrible pain!!  After drinks and 5 billion different Thai dishes, we headed to good ol’ Northern Lights, a lame house event at Immigrants Café, and then a wild hip hop event at Shame. 

It goes unsaid that I didn’t get much sleep the night before meeting up with my darling grandmother.  No worries though, she supplied me with enough coffee to keep me going through a day at the Aquarium.  I’m pretty sure out of all the museums that exist, the aquarium is hands down my favorite.  This aquarium wasn’t even that THAT special.  I was still memorized and calmed by the beauty in the bright fish, funnily shaped sea creatures, jellyfish, eels, dolphins, otters, sea lions, sea anemones, sea turtles, stingrays, sea horses, and on and on. My grandma might have been even more interested in the little fish tanks than I was.  She was so cute the way she marveled at the way they swam.  I asked her if it made her hungry because it kind of made me hungry.

The hugest sea lion I will probably ever see in my life.

Funny thing is that Flo and her visiting Aussie boyfriend invited me out to dinner at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Murakami after I got back.  No matter how tired I was, I can never turn down kaitenzushi!!

Senami Undoukai (Saturday, May 23, 2009)

In Murakami, the month of May signifies the month of Undoukais, or Sports Day Festivals in the elementary schools.  The first through sixth graders practice all month long for the final competition: Red Hats vs White Hats.  In fact, many of my elementary school classes have been canceled due to the Undoukai practices/rehearsals.  On Saturday, I made the effort to stay in town and watch Senami Shougakkou’s Sports Day Festival.  It opened with an opening ceremony where the Red Team chants to the White Team, then the White Team returns the favor.  The Red Team then Chants to themselves, and the White Team follows by doing the same chant to their own team.  After the bands march around, the kids wave their flags, and the Principal gives his speech, let the games begin!!  Along with the traditional races, relay races, beanbag-basket game, tug-o-war, and pyramid poses, each grade comes up with their own competition.  The 4th graders did races where they had to hit a tambourine a certain number of times, jump rope for however many counts, and crawl through something.  The third graders had some sort of fishing with magnet, carrying water race.  The kids seemed really happy to see me there and kept making me help them jump higher and higher.  I hung out with Rochelle (Riki’s mother), and we had our simple lunches next to mats and mats of families who had packed extravagant bentos.  

A Few with the Landlord (Thursday, May 21, 2009)

I have this problem where I don’t like to ask for help.  If I don’t understand something I either say that I understand it, or just plain ignore it.  Apparently my landlord, this really REALLY nice 70+ year old lady, Kasai-san, has been trying to contact me about getting a smoke detector installed and my air conditioner fixed.  When I finally realized what was going on, I set up a time and date for her to tell the boys when to come over.

Immediately after school, the guys came over.  The smoke detector went quick enough, but whatever they were doing with the air conditioner took hours!  They were in and out, in and out, and it was super awkward letting them in and out, in and out, them taking their shoes off, excusing themselves, me saying that’s OK, thank you, and then doing it all over again.  When it was all said and done, it was about 7:30 pm. 

Kasai-san felt so bad that it had taken so long and invited me over to her house for dinner, snacks, and beer!!  So yes, on Thursday night I got drunk with my 70+ year old landlord.  It was so much fun for the two of us, we planned a second date for next Monday!

Spring Soccer Tournament in Nagano (Sunday, May 17, 2009)

The Fall Tournament was so much fun that I’ve been looking forward to this one all year long!!  There were a couple unfortunates: I wasn’t in as good of shape as I would have liked to be due to the Road Trip and sternum pains, the weather was rainy, cold, and windy, and I had to play again with kiddie shin guards.  Aside from these three things, it was a grand GRAND time.  Though collectively, our girls’ team was THE most inexperienced teams there, a couple more girls DID have previous soccer-playing experience and were able to share both their knowledge and skills on the field.  We. Actually. Won. A. Game!!  At the end of Day One, we were in 3rd of 5~6 teams.  The food and party were a good time as usual.  I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked but then again, but mostly everyone was in the same boat for Sunday.  Sunday was really cold and wet and oh boy was it ever windy.  While it would have been nice to win some and move up, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who was happy with loosing and not having to play in that wretched weather any longer.  We ended Sunday in 5th place out of 6 teams … only the 6th place team forfeited… Our Niigata boys were AWESOME!!  They actually got together to practice before the tournament and kicked BUTT!!  They might got 3rd out of 12 teams!!  Watching them play and work their feet was almost more enjoyable than actually playing!
The Boys
Game On
Jason, Hina, and Lauren braved the elements to cheer us on!
Niigata Josei

The mid-party

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Hokkaido Road Trip

Departure: Saturday, May 2nd.  Murakami, Niigata, Japan.
Sasagawanagare, Niigata: we stopped for a look at one of the top-rated beaches in Japan and what-do-you-know, a helicopter was about to land.
May 5th is 'Children's Day.'  People all over Japan hand koinobori, or giant carp flags in celebration for their children (especially their boys).
Zenpouji in Yamagata
a really REALY old shrine

monks were singing
the birds were chirping

I really like it when the sakura are 70% flowers, 30% leaves

Jenelle's in Akita-ken, Ruu's in Yamagata-ken

Taking roads through the mountains leads you to things like THIS
and THIS

but be careful of Bears
Fresh Spring Water on the side of the road.  Fill-er-up!!
Info about that fresh spring water in Akita
Kakunodate, Akita-ken
Kakunodate and it's hidden samurai houses ... and doors
Nenokuchie Campsite
Sunset over Japan's deepest lake: Towada-ko
First night of camping on the beautiful Towada-ko
This place was so nice, we probably could have made a couple day vacation of it.
LOVE コロッケ - croquet 
Nyuto Onsen.  Ruu found this place on the map.  Apparently it's been featured on TV as one of the best onsens in all of Japan.  
We even went in a co-ed onsen!!
Good thing we got there early; it got PACKED!!
Ruu whipped out the 'air-guitar'
Oga Peninsula
this guy seemed famous enough for a statue pose

Baba Aisu (grandma ice cream) - actually sold by grandmas ALL over Akita-ken.

Hokkaido waterfall
Hokkaido sake, not as good as Niigata's 
No one but us on the open road.
Hokkaido Sea
Billions of hanging fish on the side of the road.
Rebun Island

Ruu and our taxi buddy, Masashi
On and around Rebun Island 
The taxi driver cut us a deal, and we were able to go EVERYWHERE on Rebun.
Pretty view from Rebun Island
Sukoton, the most northern point of Japan
Opening a LIVE Uni
The insides of an Uni
Cleaning out the Uni
Eating a male Uni
Eating a female Uni
Ferry to Rebun Island
I just really want to learn how to ride a motorcycle!!
To: Futoshi.  With love, Ruu
Actually high-kicking a bell
Point to where you're from.
Statue pose
A Japanese tour group taking pictures at the most northern point of the mainland Hokkaido.
Finally, a Russian store.  Too bad for Jenelle it was closed due to the Golden Week Holidays.
Still practicing...
Apparently that stuff is GOOD.
Jenelle goes crazy when she sees waterfalls.
THIS much snow
We were hiking up this mountain thinking, this kind of looks like a skii-slope, and then we saw a skiier. 
Yup, we were definitely hiking up a closed ski-slope
Made it to the top ... or as high as we were up to going that day. 
Not going to lie, I was a little nervous about bears.
We met some snowboarders on the top, barbecuing lamb.  They had also hiked to the top of the mountain to practice jumps.  
Running and jumping down the mountain.
Lake Daisetsu was still frozen.
Hokkaido's pretty pretty.  
The reason Japanese farms look so perfect is because they do most of the planting by HAND.
We were shocked to see that we passed through a town called Saroma ... isn't that where Sean lives???  Yes, yes it is.  
Ocean, farm, mountains
Utoro sunset.
Made it to the Shiretoko Peninsula just in time to see a beautiful sunset.  
We made a couple friends from Tokyo while watching the sunset.  
Closed Campground = Free Campground
All these warnings about bear, but no sightings ... which is perfectly cool with me. 
Jenelle has never seen so many deer in her life ... AND she's from Canada!!
Cleaning and repacking the car while waiting for the visitor's center to open.  
Shiretoko National Park's Go-ko, or Five Lakes.  All but one was closed to it being too early in the season, or construction, or some other kind of BS
So we hiked around the one open lake.  
Tried to get around the gate to the natural waterfall onsens in Kamuiwakka-no-taki
Couldn't quite make it up the curb
So we hiked some more around that one open lake.
Disappointing but still stunning.  
Bear Onsen, why not?
FINALLY we see Russia
'Cow' mowed into the side of a hill
Grazing Cows
This was probably the first time I've ever worn flip-flops in the SNOW
Akan National Park's Mashu0ko, an ancient volcano crater that has become a beautiful lake.  
Good ol' suburban house.
Akan National Park's Kussharo-ko
Reminds me a little of Indiana
Free Open Campsite.  It must have been early in the camping season as we had the whole place to ourselves.  
Hanabatake-bokujo Caramel Factory
Nama-Caramel Shop
Holy crap this ice cream topped with hot caramel was delicious!!
Pretty in pink Nama-Caramel Ice Cream 
Futoshi to the rescue.  The place we went to for dinner was really interesting.  In the old days, all throughout Japan, little portable restaurants filled the roads.  With modernization, wide streets, and cars though, these little box-restaurants nearly went extinct.  In very few areas, they still survive.  We ate some pretty delicious Hokkaido karaage (fried chicken), omelette, and salad.  
Obihoro Hospital
Futoshi's Hokkaido ride. 
They grow GRASS to feed the COWS in Hokkaido!!  AMAZING!!
Waiting and reading 'Twilight' in the police station ;)
Inside a famous chocolate shop in Obihiro.
It's difficult for me to read kanji as it is, but this crazy Ainu-inspired Hokkaido kanji is impossible even for Japanese-Honshu people!
Bathroom break.
Actually, the reason Jenelle went walking around with a bandage on her head for a week was because of this very Ainu bear. 
The set of 北の国から, or 'From the North Country.'  Futoshi told us to sleep in the car while he secretly searched for Furano, the town of one of his favorite childhood TV shows.  
Futoshi, happy as a kid in a candy store ... or as Futoshi would be with good sake, on the set of his favorite drama.  
Pictures from 'Kitanokunikara'
Life on the farm

Shockingly, raw chicken is delicious!