Summer and Winter, those are the prices we pay for Autumn and Spring in Japan. It’s February, the coldest month of the year here, and this weekend brought a strong snow storm to most of Japan.
I was *supposed* to go to Hiroshima on Saturday, but when I woke up, there was six inches of fresh snow. I couldn’t even get my car out of the carport. Which is fine, because the busses to the train station weren’t running today due to road closures. Which is fine, because many of the trains weren’t running / were running irregularly due to the snow storm.
Across Japan, flights were cancelled, trains delayed, people stranded, there were even a few deaths due to the adverse weather. But the sun is up today, the snow is beginning to melt, and I may just make it to Hiroshima next weekend.
March is just a few weeks away…
The view from my flat first thing in the morning.
I didn’t get very far on my trip to Hiroshima.
My feet were stinging and turning blue against the cold gym floor. Students squared off and the sound of colliding shinai and shouts of “Men!” and “Kote!” made for discordant background noise. I jumped up and down repeatedly to get my feet to stop stinging. Outside, it was snowing.
Somewhere around week 2 of my living in Japan, I enrolled in a kendo class hosted by one of the elementary schools in the area. When I arrived, they had a shinai, keikogi, and a hakama for me – for free. I was very appreciative of their generosity and I enjoyed the lessons.
I attended regularly for about two or three weeks, but then other things came up – travel, meetings and trainings put on by CLAIR and JET, visiting with new friends, etc. I would show for a week, not show for a few weeks, rinse, repeat. This went on for several months. But come the New Year, my schedule started opening up. Today they were about to present me with something I really needed: armor.
I’d been attending so irregularly that I never progressed much past the first few lessons. Now, however, the sensei felt I’d learned enough that I could start going on the defense instead of just focusing on offense. Up to that point my sensei would “spar” with me only by defending himself. Now that I had armor, the gloves were off… or on as the case may be.
First lesson: Let’s see if this armor works!
Sensei and I squared off. He called “men!” meaning “helmet” and he struck me in the head. It was jarring, but not too bad. This was followed by “do” (side) and “kote” (glove). I barely felt the strike to my side, but the glove blow stung my wrist.
We squared of again and he had me run my practice strikes, calling out where I was hitting him, then striking him there. I shouted “men” and the swung down on his helmet, missed, and grazed his chest. I stopped mid move and apologized.
He struck me across the head. “Keep moving!”
Seemed like a good suggestion, so I took his advice.
Turning around, we squared off again. I called out “kote!” and swung and just barely grazed his glove. Again I stopped to apologize. Then my ears started ringing, I staggered, and slowly focused enough to feel the stinging of the blow I just got.
It’s important to understand that my Japanese is minimal and my sensei barely speaks English. We can’t communicate very well directly. But his message was coming through loud and clear:
“The middle of a sword fight is not the time to apologize.”
The remainder of the evening progressed “better” in the sense that I stopped apologizing. He still hit me regularly as I am just now learning defense.
I took a break from the sparring to collect my thoughts and realized what I was doing wrong.
I was mirroring everything he was doing – bad move. If he moved to strike me, I would raise my shinai as well, completely opening me up for a strike. He was mostly going for my head, so I had to think of how to block that.
Obi-wan’s voice came to me “Use the Force.” – I laughed, but only for a moment. That’s a brilliant idea. How did Luke defend against Vader? Like this:
He raised his shinai.
He brought it down towards my head.
I lowered my stance, brought up my shinai perpendicular and blocked his strike.
Then I shouted “do!” and struck him squarely in side, moving behind him at the same time.
He raised his hand, lowered his shinai and called me over.
“Good!” he said to me.
We bowed and he moved on to the next student.
My sensei and I posing after class:
“I think there are few things as beautiful as Kyoto in November.” – Sato-sensei
I won’t complain about the weather. I’ve done what I can to winterize my flat. And, thankfully, my kerosene heater doesn’t make me ill. Moreover, the cold weather so far hasn’t been too harsh, though January and February are just around the corner. The cold weather has arrived and I will take on the aspect of a bear – warm and strong and enduring.
When discussing my move to Japan with my professor, she indirectly asked me to promise her I’d go to Kyoto in November. And I did, twice.
I took a five day trip at the start of November. The weather was just beginning to turn cool. The Autumn colors (koyo) were beginning to show. I visited more temples than I can count and walked so much I wore holes into two pairs of pants.
The best find was an Irish pub called Gael’s. I happened upon it on Friday evening when they had live music. A pint of Guinness, fish and chips, and a chocolate sundae. Welcome to Kyoto!
While at my hostel, I made friends with people from Taiwan, The Netherlands, and all over Japan. Most interesting was a young Japanese girl who was quite a fan of Fidel Castro.
Since I’d hit Kyoto a little early for full force koyo, I made a second trip at the end of November. A shorter trip – only three days, but the city was awash in red, gold, and orange. I also spent more than I should have on hand made Japanese paper.
Autumn in Japan is nothing short of stunning. The gardens of Okayama Castle are sharp red and as gold as a dragon’s trove. Even the hills of my small mountain town are ablaze with Autumn.
Sato-sensei, thank you. In some ways I feel that Autumn in Japan is a gift from you.
I was wrong, there wasn’t a single marine mammal show to be found.
The train arrived at Maihama Station around 9:00. Entering the park was breathtaking. As one enters, Mount Prometheus fills the horizon much the same way various castles dominate the skyline of the different Magic Kingdom parks around the world.
The entrance to the park is very Mediterranean – modeled after Venice, though I felt it also was quite like Cinque Terre. I explored a little, but realized that, other than a map, I’d little to go by. So, I went to the customer service area for a little guidance.
At the customer service area, I was offered a three hour premium tour of the park. I jumped at the offer, and it was the best decision I made all day.
My guide, Sugiyama-san, was outstanding. She showed me a list of things we could do and asked if I had any special requests.
“It’s my 40th birthday, make me feel like a child again.” I said.We did almost the whole tour in character, acting as though everything was real.
Some highlights from the tour.
“But Ryans sounds more exciting.”, I said.
As we boarded the ride – it’s a similar set up to Star Tours – Captain Ryans came on the radio.
Sugiyama-san turned to me, “Looks like you got your wish!”
After the ride, I asked, “What’s it like with Captain Scott?”
“I’ve ridden this ride many, many times and only ever gotten Ryans.”
She winked at me, a smug yet teasing look on her face.”Oh, well done, Sugiyama-san. You’re good.”"Am I? Really? Thank you.”
The ride was fantastic. The wiki entry for it says it has multiple endings, but I don’t think that’s the case.
–On 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:
This ride is themed on the Jules Vernes novel. People are placed in two-person pods and descend deep in the ocean. As is normal for a Disney ride, nothing in the storyline goes according to plan, and park guests are attacked by various monsters and end up going far off course. During the ride, Suigyama-san and I had a little fun:
“Since we’re about to die, Sugiyama-san, I want you to know I’ve loved you since we first met!”"You mean at the customer service area an hour ago‽”
“Oh, if only you’d said something sooner. But thank you, my sweet, now I can die a happy woman!”
While walking between rides we both saw a girl with a shirt that read, “Round Eye Dwarf Domain.”
We looked at each other and asked, “Uh, what does that mean?”
Sugiyama-san added lot of little touches of her own:
Next day I went to Tokyo Disneyland. I hadn’t been there in 17 years and it has changed a lot. It is much brighter than I remember. There were a lot of little things that made the overall tone of the park seem darker years ago – the night time parade was very ominous and used black lights and there was tour of the castle where one had to battle ghosts and demons.
But now it is much brighter. However, I didn’t go on any rides. The park was packed and rides had three hour waits. It was quite overwhelming. Instead, I shopped (holy hell, the omiyage shop made Christmas at the mall seem like kind in play), and saw all three parades and the fire works.
It was a long, tiring day, but quite enjoyable.
I may make an effort to go back when the park is less crowded.
To really understand this past weekend, we must first backtrack a year.
A year ago I was lecturing at San Jose State University. I was teaching English to students from Kyushu University. At the start of the semester, I asked the students to introduce themselves to the class, giving them the freedom to share whatever they like.
One student stood and shared some basic information about herself. Oddly, she was the only student to share her birth date. Even more surprising, she has the same birthday as I do.
When her birthday came around, I brought in chocolate cupcakes for the entire class and we celebrated in fine style.
Since then, she and I have been planning to celebrate our birthdays together. This was especially important as she was turning 20 and I 40. In Japan, 20 – called Hatachi – is the age of majority and adulthood. It is an especially important birthday.
Happily I was able to make it to Fukuoka-shi this past weekend where she and I and another student met up for dinner and a matsuri.. A good time was had by all.
However, that evening, as we were making our way to the subway, an elderly man across the street from us fell over.
We rushed over, called an ambulance, but it soon became clear that he was drunk. Really drunk. He had a good command of the English language, though and swore up a colourful string of insults – and this was BEFORE he saw me.
Once he saw me and realized I was from the U.S., he put up his fists as if to fight and said, “I’ll beat your ass, you son of a b—-!”
It was all I could do to keep from laughing.
The next day, my student showed me around Fukuoka a little. We went to a temple with what I believe is the largest wooden statue of a seated Buddha. The temple also featured an exhibit on Heaven and Hell in the Buddhist tradition.
I was struck by two things in this exhibit:
- It focused almost entirely on Hell and very little (nearly not at all) on Heaven. It’s as if we understand what a lifetime of suffering would be like, but not a lifetime of joy and bliss. I feel the same holds true for most artistic expressions about the afterlife… a focus on Hell and suffering, but very little ability to depict Heaven.
- They had a great “interactive” exhibit on Hell. We entered a hallway, and almost immediately were completely deprived of light. We had a guide rail to our left and a wall to our right. Otherwise we were sightless with no way to judge our path. I reckon the passage was no more than a few meters, but it took me sometime to go through it as the sensation of falling kept overwhelming me.
Birthday celebrations will continue tonight with a small dinner with some friends – the downside to having one’s birthday on a week night.
Next weekend will find me in at Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea. The following weekend will be a prefectural-wide party for my 40th. I’m quite excited.
I don’t know how I ended up forgetting this, but school is hard – both academically and emotionally.
I began teaching in Japan two weeks ago. Since then I’ve seen students cry, vomit, run screaming in embarrassment, grab each other’s crotch (what is up with that?) and play “tingles” (if you don’t know, you missed out when you were younger).
One of the most emotionally moving aspect of teaching is how heart breaking it is to see my students cry – whether in class (usually because they’re too shy to speak English and therefore didn’t get a sticker) or outside of class (and likely are being taunted or otherwise made fun of).
This happened in one class as I didn’t get to call on every student who had a question. After class, one student was crying quietly at his desk. I figured out he was upset because he didn’t get a sticker. The teacher and I told him to ask me a question – Japanese or English – and I’d give him one.
We explained that if he didn’t ask a question, he’d get no sticker.
He still refused.
I had to leave without giving him a sticker, and I he started crying as I left.
Sharing this with some friends, someone suggested that stickers aren’t that big of a deal – and I should either give the kid one or the kid shouldn’t get so upset about it. I explained that stickers are rewards for participation. If there are no guidelines for getting them, then likely the kids will simply expect stickers without having to contribute in class.
Conversely, a sticker may not be that big of a deal, but some of these kids I see for 45 minutes every two weeks. I have no idea what is going on in their personal lives. Perhaps their parents are distant or abusive. Maybe they’re poor. Maybe the kid is having a bad week and he really wanted a sticker to brighten his day. I make no judgement (overall) about a kid wanting a sticker. And as long as they participate, I’ll happily give out stickers… even if it leads to weird questions like, “What tools do you like?” or “What is your favourite kind of transportation?”
But, just as heartwarming as that was heartbreaking:
I have a special needs student in one of my classes. Today she asked a question, so I gave her a sticker. You’d have thought she won the lottery. She beamed happily as she put the sticker in her folder.
I miss the days when such small rewards has a huge impact on me.
A few days ago, a very young student, maybe third grade, greeted me in the morning with a big hug. I hadn’t yet met her, but she came running up to me shouting “Daniel-sensei! Daniel-sensei!”; she grabbed my leg and hugged it.
Later in the day, I saw her throw up in the hall. Someone later told me she was embarrassed that I saw her getting sick.
If I understand things correctly (and these days, that’s always a gamble of an assumption) she insisted they let her come to English class.
She came in half way through class, with arms wide open and a big smile. “I’m here Daniel-sensei! Hello!”
My heart melted. So sweet. It was like a Shirley Temple movie… until she threw up again.
A little bit of insecurity has been alleviated. I was slightly nervous that the students wouldn’t want a 40 year old teacher, but the like it… and it makes the “Guess my age” game go extra long as they never suspect I’m so old.
Loving it here.
Life in Okayama-ken continues to progress smoothly. I spent the weekend preparing for winter – was looking at insulated curtains to help reduce the amount of temperature conducted by the windows. Will likely have them installed by mid-October, along with the remainder of my new furniture.
Went to a welcome party for people in Okayama-ken. Met many people and had a great time of it.
The communication mishaps keep coming, here’s a few of the more interesting ones:
“Hello, I’m a honeybee. Teacher, yes, hello, I’m a honeybee. Mr. Daniel Teacher, excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m a honeybee!”
- A student in my grammar school – all class long.
“So, you’ve been punching holes in the door at you flat?”
- A JTE, after I told her I need to meet my landlord to get a hole in my door fixed. No amount of clarification could convince her that the hole was there when I arrived.
- This one is harder to explain. Kids play a game called Oni gokko (鬼ごっこ) – which in English, we call Tag. However, “oni” means “demon” and I was trying to figure out what “gokko” means. I ran it through Google translate and got “come cum” as the result. I was slightly scared as to what the game really symbolized. But a little jigger with word placement, and I found out that it really means “pretend”. So “oni gokko” means, “pretending you’re a demon” (more or less).
“Ah, hello, Mr. Daniel-sensei. I am very… ah… I am… so… aaaaaaaaaaah! English is so 難しい (muzukashi – difficult)!!”
- A student at my Junior High, who then ran screaming down the hall.
Ah, Japan… you never cease to make me smile.
I come from a very mild climate in the U.S. Summers may get hot (sometimes surpassing 100 F), but summers are usually dry and generally the weather is bearable overall.
Not so in Japan. Before signing up for The JET Programme, I knew summer would be humid and hot and winters would be insanely cold. What I hadn’t counted on, though, were typhoons.
Okayama-ken is getting hit by it’s second typhoon in a week. The ground is already saturated, so there are reports of flooding throughout my town. Schools are closed and I suspect that if I wanted to get to Okayama-shi, I’d be hard pressed to find an open road.
On the way into work, I saw several accidents and many of the rivers that run through town are nearly over their banks. Thankfully my flat isn’t too close to a river, so I should be okay, but I worry about the fact that it is in a small valley and the rains may pool.
But, this is the price of admission. It’s a mindset I took when I signed up for The Jet Programme. When I was first offered my position, I was hesitant to take it due to the very cold winters I’ll have to endure. I was speaking to my Japanese professor about it and ask her what she thought.
In a sort of stereotypically Hollywood-Japanese way, she said, “I think there are few things as beautiful as Kyoto in November.”
Translation: Harsh Winters and humid Summers are what have to be endured to enjoy the amazing weather and sights of Spring and Autumn in Japan.
By the way, I took her advice: I’m planning to take a very long weekend to explore Kyoto in November.