Fuji-san awaits

Heather, Miguel, Scott and I are off to climb Mt Fuji. If it goes according to the plan we will be watching the Saturday sunrise from the summit. Wish us luck!

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Japan’s top 10 pt1

I decided that the best way to battle my homesick funk wasn’t to wallow in self pity and loneliness, but to appreciate where I am. When my students are especially bad, and I don’t have plans for my Wednesday night, its easy to forget how lucky I am. This has been an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for all the Chipotle Burritos in the world, bad days included. To focus on the good rather than bad I have decided to put together a list of my ten favorite things about Japan. Here’s the first installment:

10. Trains: Before moving to Japan I have never really used public transportation. That quickly changed in Okayama when trains and buses became my primary form of transportation. I couldn’t have picked a better place to learn about riding the rails. The trains in Japan are amazing. They run on time so consistently that you could set your watch to them. Considering the massive amount of people that ride commuter trains they are clean and safe to ride at any time. (*disclaimer- there is one major drawback, most trains stop running around midnight, even in Tokyo, so that means that nights on the town have to end before midnight or aim for the sunrise…) Then there’s the Shinkansen or Bullet train, the single greatest way to travel. It may not be as fast a a plane but there’s tons more leg room and you don’t have to bother with the whole security checked baggage thing. You can buy a ticket and be on a train in 10 minutes, I’ve done it. Shinkansen even has it’s own kawaii little character.

9. Green Tea: I was a fan of the stuff before coming here, but my love was taken to a whole new level here in Nihon. Its not just because its everywhere, but green tea actually tastes different here. It is much more delicate and almost sweet. Not at all super healthy tasting and bitter like it usually is in the states. I think its because its made differently, the water isn’t boiling and it is only steeped for 30 secs rather than being left in boiling water for 5+ mins. Now that’s is summer I’ve been known to drink almost a liter a day….its hot here.

8. Covenie’s: I’ve expressed my love for them in a previous post, but they really are a life saver. Where else can you buy dinner, travel snacks, freshly fried chicken, airplane tickets, and underwear? I don’t even think Wal-Mart can say that. I’ve gotten into the 100 yen snack bags, discovering the mini donuts, chocolate cheese puff stars, kakipea, and not so tasty squid jerky. Squid jerky aside, I may not have lasted this long in Japan without the warm glow of the Lawson’s down the street.

homeward bound (i wish i was)

Its true 9 months later the time has finally come, I am homesick. Just a bit, like a chocolate chip craving that just won’t go away. My craving to be home is hitting a little hard. Let me be clear though, I am happy. I’m still having the time of my life. But now and then I would like nothing more than to be with my family, ride my bike up the monument, throw on my climbing shoes and head over to dynamite shacks, or spend a day at Newport beach. This has really been the first time I would say that I have been homesick. There have been too many distractions up to this point. But 9 months later the shiney-new-ness has worn away a bit, and I’m craving something familiar. When I lived in California for school I would go home every May to visit for a couple weeks or a few months. As May came to a close I started to feel like I should be heading home. Nope not gonna happen. In fact, instead of going back to a familiar place I moved to a new town, where I didn’t know anyone, and the few people I did know in Japan were at least 2 hours away. How’s that for a homecoming? Yeah I didn’t think so either. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that I stayed for another contract.  I love the people that I have met here, and I feel like I have started to develop a community here. But it isn’t easy to lose the little life that I built for myself for the last 8 months, only to start over again. I know that this will pass, in fact I’m going back to Okayama to see some friends this weekend. And next weekend I’m climbing Mt. Fuji with some friends, so really I don’t have time to dwell, I’m too busy having fun.

[insert emo photo taken on my computer’s camera where I look like a sad puppy trying to win your sympathy and cute at the same time]

Happy Dad’s Day!

Hey Douglas Diekman, guess what? You’re awesome! You probably already knew that, but this is just a good time to remind you. Happy Father’s day, I miss you today, but sending my love over the pacific towards Colorado. Thanks for being my favorite adventure partner and a fantastic Dad all these years. I love you.

 

Japanese noodles pt 2: Soba

During my Oki adventure we had the opportunity to make our own soba noodles. Soba is much healthier than ramen since it isn’t friend and  made from buckwheat flour and cut very thin. Soba originated in Tokyo during the Tokugawa period when there was a widespread thiamine deficiency and they found that eating buckwheat products such as soba helped to alleviate the symptoms. Soba is served as a noodle soup in the winter, and chilled with a dipping sauce in the summer.

Step 1: mix buckwheat flour and water with hands

Step 2: knead

Step 3: Roll out to about 2mm in thickness. (that’s right I just went metric on you)

Step 4: Cut. The tricky part is getting it nice and thin.

Step 5: cook and eat

our delightful and patient soba instructors

Obserbitorting Oki Island

A week ago I took a delightful trip to Oki island off the Northern coast of Japan, above Shimane Prefecture. The resident JET on the island, Liz, organized a weekend worth of sightseeing and activities. Heather and I went together and met 12 other girls for the weekend at “camp.”

Our first stop of the Okitour ’11 was making and eating our own soba noodles. From there we were taken around the island to see the various sights. We arrived at our loding for the night, a pair of log cabins with fire pits out front. It was just like camp!

 

The next activity on the schedule was “making bamboo dixie.” None of us knew what dixie was, we figured it was just some native Okian dish that we hadn’t heard of. We were then handed machetes and saws and directed to a stack of bamboo that had been cut down. Our challenge: make the plates and chopsticks for tonight’s dinner. Go! hahaha, then we found out they weren’t joking…..dixie was the english word they found for disposable plates.

The process may have been a little messy and bloody at times, but the end result was pretty good. PS-none of the injuries were serious enough to require more than a band aid.

The island was larger than I expected with a population of about 3,000. There are 2 ALT’s on the island, and that’s about all the foreigners that most of the residents have ever encountered. When not just 2 but 12 white girls were spotted walking around town, it was enough to stop most people in their tracks. When word had circulated that there were 12 additional young ladies on the island we were invited to the opening of Oki’s new “night club.” In a town that small the term night club is used rather loosely. The “club” ended up being a small cafe that pushed aside a few tables and added a DJ behind the counter. Not a typical night club experience, but it was fantastic. There was just enough space to get my dance on and small enough the the DJ didn’t have to play top 40 songs,  I even got to hear some Vampire weekend. That’s right Vampire Weekend is known across the Pacific on Oki island. Although jammin’ to VW was a great night, it didn’t make for a great Sunday morning, winding through the small mountain roads.

But the motion sickness was well worth the sights.

We were taken to an incredible forrest shrine. It was so wet and green that is could probably be considered a rainforest.

Complete with a waterfall.

The next stop was a sake factory tour. Not exactly the first place I wanted to be at 10 in the morning. Despite the strong smell of alcohol, it was interesting, and almost educational. (the tour was given in japanese)

40 year old tanks of sake

Then it was festival time. I had no idea what the festival was about but I didn’t care because festivals mean one thing: Japanese street food. I love Japanese street food, similar to the unhealthy offerings at many american fairs, but with japanese flair. My current favorite is the Taiyaki. A fish-shaped crispy pancake filled with cream or anko. I may or may not have had 2 or 3…

After I was done stuffing my face, then getting seconds, I found out the basics of the festival, well everything except the name. Eight of the shrines around the island have sacred horses, and once a year all the horses are brought to the largest shrine and raced down the road. Instead of riders men run along side the horses, it is said that the gods or spirits are the only thing that can ride these horses.

first the horses are blessed..

then its time to run

Sadly it was time to leave Oki, but the trip was a great time and well worth the 7 hour trip home. (boat -> bus -> train)

 

 

 

 

school tour

Its funny that I spend most of my time teaching but I haven’t talked about it much. I thought that I would give a quick rundown of the Japanese elementary school basics. Japanese elementary schools or Shogakko are very standardized from the buildings to curriculum and uniforms, so it its fairly easy to make  generalizations.

Its safe to say that 98% of Japanese public schools look just like this. They may differ in size or have a slanted roof instead of flat but that’s pretty much it. And yes that’s a dirt school yard, no grass. There are advantages to this way of gardening, its super low maintenance, and saves lots of water. Not exactly welcoming however and  I do see quite a few kids with bandages on their knees and elbows from spills at recess. I bet you’re also wondering how you keep an area that large weed free? Well remember the whole students clean the school thing? Well there’s a group that weeds the yard during cleaning time. And just before the sports festival in the fall students go through the ground and pick out all the rock that are too big. Sounds like a good time eh?

In addition to the school yard, every school has a pool. PE turns into swimming during the summer. The pool gets cleaned by (you guessed it) the students. It is pretty much abandoned the rest of the year. When I came in the fall I found it hard to believe kids actually swam in the weed infested water, but they get cleaned up nicely.

Japanese schools aren’t just identical on the outside, their interiors are almost the same as well. I could be in almost any classroom and feel like I’ve been there before. This is a junior high classroom though, Elementary schoolrooms have more artwork on the walls.

Although homeroom teachers have their own classroom, that’s not their “head quarters.” All the teachers do their school preparations and down time in the “teacher’s room.” Each teacher has a desk in this huge room even me. The desks are arranged by grade and subject. At the head of the room are the desks for the head teacher, Kyoto sensei or Vice Principal, and Koucho Sensei or Principal. This is by far the busiest and messiest room in the school. Students are allowed in the teachers room, but they must state their purpose and ask for permission  at the doorway before entering.

1) these aren’t my students. (i’m not allowed to post photos of my students online) . But these are the same uniforms that my students wear. Not all schools wear uniforms, but all of mine do. Once again there are little changes such as skirt color, jacket collars, but lets not get too fancy.

And no Japanese school uniform would be complete without these backpacks. I think every student has once. They are made to last all 6 years of elementary school, and made by hand out of leather. However you pay the price for high quality these bags cost around $380 each. Yes your read that correctly 3 hundred and eighty dollars. I just about passed out when I saw the price for the first time.

Although there are many similarities between the schools each one has some quirks that make each school unique. For example one of my schools has a pet goat, they use it to eat the leftovers from lunch. He gets to go outside on a leash during cleaning time. Another one of my schools grows onions as a school project. I’m not talking a few rows, they have a full farm and sell them every spring. I was lucky enough to teach on onion harvest day, and was recruited to help carry onion bins. Another one of my schools has a beautiful garden that is carefully tended by the…… bus driver. Each of my schools play little jingles throughout the day. My personal favorite is the marching band Beatles melody, songs include: Yesterday and Hey Jude. Another school plays “I just called to say I love you…” during lunch followed by a track of birds singing. Classy right?

School may not be the most exciting, and sometimes close to mundane, but I wouldn’t trade this unique insight into Japanese culture.