Monday, February 27, 2006

Devastatingly, achingly, wonderfully beautiful...

I just finished watching Dancer in the Dark, and I know I'm a bit late in watching this movie (okay, 6 years), but there are some movies you have to ease into and watch in your own time. For example, I haven't watched Boys Don't Cry because I know that will be a tour de force. It was the same with this movie. The only reason it's here and I watched it is because I bought it about 4 months ago on VHS at a Japanese video store for about 500 yen. Honestly, how could I not?

Dancer stars Bjork as a young Central Europeon woman who immigrates with her son to America in the 1950's. She's hardworking, has an amazing spirit, and is going blind. And the tragedy is that her son will suffer the same fate due to a genetic condition. However, there is hope for him in the form of an operation he must get by the time he is 13, but he must never know of her condition, or his own fate as it will exacerbate it. I won't go into details because it's something that should be experienced first hand, but the character development and story arch is one I haven't seen in a very long time. It is exquisitely heartbreaking and I haven't cried that much because of a film since Schindler's List and Requiem for a Dream. The emotional devestation is sublime and aching, but such a thing should not be missed. See it, for its atypical style, its moving story, and lush, affecting lyricism.

While I'm on the subject of reviews, I will also wholeheartedly recommend The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I haven't seen the film (yet), but from what I've heard, I am sure that it will do justice to the book. Remains is a story of a kind of love that is more sorrowful than one that is unrequited for it is unacknowledged. It revolves around an English butler and a maid who spend years of their life in service and have a sense of obligation to to a Lord and a house, but not to themselves. It is written like how a beautiful ballet is performed. And while the climax is anything but, it is still heartwrenching and cardiac stopping. I loved this book for its restraint and it left me wanting, just like its characters.

Love is love. It's inside me and everywhere.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

My body is confused...

It's early Saturday morning and my body is supposed to be recovering from the fun I had last night, sealed in a cocoon of futons and body heat. But instead, it's animated, fueled by Special K and obligation. I am at school today and I'm suffereing from major cognitive dissonance: I'm here, yet I'm not supposed to be. Everyone else is here as well, though the vibe is they much rather not be (or maybe this is just normal for them since they are Japanese teachers).

The reason for this weekend blasphemy is my 3rd grade JHS students will be graduating in a couple of weeks and there is a special PTA meeting and some kind of goodbye ceremonyl going on later in the day. But make no mistake - this is a real school day filled with classes (I have 3) and tests. But the good thing is I have daikyu on Monday, meaning the school will be closed + there will be an enkai tonight, and I plan on drinking copius amounts of sake to deaden the sting of the 5,000 yen charge.

I don't have any news to report so I'm just going to wax on about life at a Japanese JHS. This is my first experience in a junior high school, as there is no such thing in Montreal. There are 3 grades in a Japanese JHS: grades 1, 2 and 3, which is the equivalent to 7, 8 and 9. The kids run in age from 12 - 15, which is probably the toughest years of adolescence. Remember dealing with puberty, acne, unrequited love and algebra? No? That's nice. I'm reliving it here, but this time in a foreign language. Luckily, I only have to deal with 12 to 14 kids at any given time, not the average 40 most of my counterparts have.

The kids at Neo JHS are great - truly exceptional young 'uns who are polite, well behaved, friendly and bright. Maybe it has to do with the clean moutain air, or inaka living, but I've never once had a problem with these kids. That and they are maddingly good looking. I've never seen so many dimples in one place.

On an average day, you can find the kids here sometime before eight. I don't know the exact time because I only get here around 8:20, but I see them biking to school from my apartment. Their day is composed of 6 periods where they learn Japanese, English, music, social and moral studies, phys ed., math, science, homemaking, geography and other subjects I'm probably forgetting. They also have an elective class where they can choose conversational English, art, cooking and other things. They also have 35 minutes for lunch, 20 minutes free time, and 15 minutes for cleaning (I'll break these down in a bit). On top of that, they have to practice their musical instrument, the okarina, everyday because they participate in concerts in the Gifu area. They also have about 30 minutes at the end of the day for club activities where they can practice badminton, ping pong or kendo.

The middle part of the day is designated for eating, playing and cleaning, and with the exception of playing, the other components are completely different to school life in Canada. I've mentioned before that there is no cafeteria here. Instead, the school lunch is prepared at the kyushokku centre which is conveniently right next door to the school. Everyday around 11:30, containers containing the rice, protein, vegetable and soup components of the meal, as well as the milk and occasional dessert, arrive at the back of the school. While the cleaning lady takes care of the lunch for the for the kocho and kyoto senseis, and the teachers that don't have homerooms, the kids are responsible for picking up the containers, dishing out the servings, cleaning up after themselves, and delivering the containers. Each classroom has a designated team that rotates on a mysterious basis. Everything is in order right down to the number of plates, bowls and chopsticks. During lunch, the atmosphere is really laid back and it's a time when the kids can tease each other and the students and the teachers (including me) without fear of a reprisal. Things get pretty wild when there is a piece of fruit/fish/meat leftover because all the kids that want whatever there is must settle things by janken (rock, paper, scissors). For those who don't know, everything in Japan comes down to janken. I'm sure major deals and policies have been made by janken. Sometimes, when there is something that I want (always fruit), I get in on the janken, but I've always lost (so far).

Shortly after lunch, the kids break up into groups of 3 or 4, with minimum 1 from each grade, and go to their designated rooms for soji, which is Japanese for cleaning. This is where it's really different from Canada because as opposed to having janitors who clean the whole school, the kids do it. I think it's really great because it teaches the kids to take responsibility for their surroundings because they know that if they mess something up, they'll just have to clean it later. Soji can probably also be thanked for the stark cleanliness of Japan. Dan in Japan just posted a really good commentary about this that you can find here:

It didn't take very long for me to get completely used to the routine of the school day and I love interacting with the kids. During today's sayonara ceremony for the 3rd graders, I actually started tearing up because I realized that in a few weeks, these kids, all 14 of them, will be gone and the school won't be the same without them. Soon, I'll have to say goodbye to Mamie, Mai, Rie, Honami, Aki, Akari, Yuki, Tsubasa, Takahiro, Keisuke, Kyohei, Kota, Kazuyuki, and Koji. I'm going to miss them asking me what "pimping" means and having them be my translators during lunch hour. I've only known them for 6 months (since September), but I'm going to miss them. I'm not looking forward to saying goodbye to this year's 2nd grade when they leave next year because I've gotten even more close with them.

A bientot.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Earthquakes big and small...

We had an earthquake here that registered from my mountain village to the city centre. It was my first large earthquake, and it wasn't even that bad because it registered between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale (apparently the highest magnitude is an 8). I was in bed having just fallen asleep and I felt the shaking. At first, I had to shake off the sleep drunkeness and was momentarily awed by this extraordinary sensation. This quickly gave way to fear when I remembered that I was sleeping under my seemingly heavy ceiling light. I sprang up, fully aware that I had some difficulty walking in a straight line and made my way to my door frame (I remember this training from elementary school, I think). While I was holding unto the frame white knuckled, or as white knuckled as I could possibly be, I wondered if I should turn off the gas. And then it stopped. Yeah, I was freaked, I admit it. But Shi and Dave made me feel better and I was relieved that it wasn't bigger. I can't help to think about all those people who died in Kobe 6 years ago, and the lives that were lost in my village 100 years ago. I think I've already mentioned that Neo lies on a fault line. Goo-dy. Also, a quick survey of my apartment revealed fallen photos and shifted items. Luckily, no cracks.

Had a great weekend though. Headed up to Ena to see Dave, where I recharged my batteries by watching Family Guy episode after episode, watching a couple of movies including Batman Begins, which I thought was phenominal, and eating a little too well. The work week begins again tomorrow and I feel good about it. I have to work this Saturday and go to an enkai after it, but I plan on spending Sunday and my day off on Monday relaxing, reading and possibly baking in my apartment for the first time. I'm really looking forward to the baking then eating part.

I'm getting hungry so I'm going to heat up some leftovers and watch my bootleg DVD of Memoirs of a Geisha. Before I go, here's a nice pic of a notoriously infamous Japanese dirty little secret: the underwear vending machine. Yes boys and girls, for either 3,500, 7,000 or a whopping 10,000 yen, you too can buy panties worn by a cute little schoolgirl. Doesn't it just make you want to puke?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The first bite is the nastiest...

After living in Japan for nearly 7 months, I finally did it - I ate natto. For those of you that are unfamiliar to natto, it is nasty ass, sticky, fermented beans. I failed to bring my camera to school yesterday, but you can see pics of it here (taken from Yamada3 Flickr site):

This wasn't the first time I encountered natto: The first time was a few months ago at the JHS (which incidentally, was where I did the deed yesterday), and I just flat out passed on it. The kids were eating it and I swear, I felt the bile rising. I've read so much about it, that it felt like I've already tried it. So when the principal called me over while he was eating it and asked me if I'd be willing to try it, I said no thank you. But then I changed my mind for a few reasons. I'll try to explain as best as I can:

For a little while, I've been riding the culture shock wave, probably from sometime while I was in China. It's been up and down since then and while I've felt like things were going up and I was getting better, I'd have a crash. They were usually subtle but there were there. I have been working on getting out of this funk and I felt like I finally succeeded yesterday. At first, I didn't think Monday would be a good day because my mind was racing from the moment I got up about things too personal to write about in a public blog (the main reason why I haven't posted for a little while). Even though the day was beautiful, I couldn't really see any of it because I was lost in my own headspace. When it rose into a fine mental crescendo, I decided to take out my paper and pen and just write a manifesto of sorts. I felt my heart rate lowering and my mind clearing. And that's when I decided to live in today, worry about the future later, and find my faith again. Shortly after that, I decided to eat THE NATTO. I know trying something different is really what life is all about and this was totemo chigau (super different).

See natto just isn't a culinary adventure, it is also an exercise in physical prowess. You get a dixie cup sized portion of the food and you peel off the cover. Right away you'll notice the sticky-cum-snotty consistency and it would be too easy to get turned off. But you gotta perservere.

Next, there is a liquid packet you must open and pour into the cup. Then you mix. And mix. And mix some more. After a sufficient time has passed, you can add the fish flakes. I'm not sure how usual this ingredient is in eating natto, but we had it yesterday. Fish flakes are strong in smell, but more subtle in taste. So you pour it in, and mix again. Then you should be ready to chow down.

Ok, I gotta admit that the first bite was disgusting. The stringy and slimy textures did not bode well for my Western stomach. I thought I was going to upchuck into poor Ami-chan's tray. It also didn't help that I didn't eat rice yesterday with the school lunch, which seems to take the edge off the natto, but I kept chowing down. And you know what? It progessively got better. It wasn't great, but I didn't die. I actually felt proud of myself, and my kids that I was pretty cool too.

The day ended well, even though there is a full on flu pandemic at both schools now and half of my classes were cancelled and first and third graders were sent home. Before I left school, I decided to get off my ass and do 30 minutes of cross country skiing in the school's field. It felt great! I felt so alive. I feel whole again.

So here I am. Sitting in my living room, somewhere between contentment, a regular routine, and wishing for Canada. I'm knackered because I went to the Tomidaya grocery store after school because I'm out of food. I don't usually venture anywhere during the week because the sun goes down about 5:45 now, but I needed to be independent plus I was hungry. It took about an hour round trip (by train) to do a modest grocery store run and I'm tired. Proud, but tired. I gotta get off this thing to watch an episode of Degrassi downloaded for me by David in preparation for my 3rd grade JHS class tomorrow. Yes, that's work.


Oh yeah, I know about that weird space at the top of this blog. I don't know how to fix it and it happened to Dancing Chaos, and according to her, it eventually went away. So we'll see.

Monday, February 06, 2006

I feel the light returning...

Wow - did I ever need that. January was a hell of a month, and not in a good way. The last leg of the China trip, returning to cold and moist conditions inside the apartment, getting sick, and battling homesickness and another cycle in the culture shock tornado all made for a less than stellar Kaki. But support from abroad and closer to this new home, as well as a self-inflicted kick in my own ass, got me working on seeing my world with my eyes wide open again. Some people were a little worried about me and I can honestly say I'm fine. Even stars dim from time to time. But I think this weekend, actually, I know, this weekend rejuvinated me, mind, body and spirit.

I guess it started on Thursday night when I got an unexpected phone call from Shauna. It's nice to be going about your business (in my case, I was getting ready for bed), and have someone who loves you ring up and brighten your life. We carried on like I was 10 km down the road, rather than 14 hours away.

On Friday, I was feeling particularly anemic at the end of the day and I came home with sheep in my eyes, but too tired/restless to sleep. I scoured the internet for god knows what and decided that I really needed to take a nap in order to wash my (oh so difficult) hair and make dinner. Just after I made a ragtag bed on the tatami did Todd call (another unexpected phone call) and we started to hammer out details for his trip here. After a while on the phone, and then another call from David, it became painfully obvious that sleep was not to be had.

I disconnected with the motivation to simulatenously prepare dinner (spaghetti) and wash my hair in the kitchen sink when I turned on the TV for a little company, and lo and behold, the Golden Globes were on. Being a reformed awards show junkie, I felt the familiar thrill of watching the rich, famous and talented collect awards for movies and TV. Heroin for my celebrity obsessed soul. And as much as I delighted in rekindling this love affair, I was upset that I've missed so many interesting and attractive movies. I made a mental note to check out the movie listings for the (relatively) nearby theatre, and continued with my multi-tasking.

Nearly 2 hours later, after my brillant meal was consumed and the awards/fashion show/Brokeback Mountain love-in was finished, I was still on the sofa with a towel wrapped around my now moist hair. I was also waiting for Aya to call so we could have our planned phone catch up. She was late and I was waning, but when she did get through, I got my energy back up. I heard her son in the background and felt like I was there, even though I've never seen him in the flesh. When I talk or email to my girls in THE CORE, I truly feel like I'm back home in Montreal - lunching in Ogilvy's, promenading on Ste. Catherine, driving to Carrefour Laval and going for brunch on Sunday mornings. Can you tell that I'm looking forward to going home? I'm not planning on sleeping while I'm there.

After a long while on the phone, I was physically tired (so much so that I dragged my futon into the living home, slept in my lounge clothes, and reveled in the warmth of my kerosene heater), but mentally stimulated. These two things equaled a restless sleep. But I had to get up early to go to Nagoya to get my hair hooked up. My networking with the closest Black guy came through and I had an appointment with Heather in Nagoya. We talked on the phone for a while and I like her vibe. The fact that she was charging me NOTHING also put a spring on my step.

So I got my ass in gear and headed off to the train, where I'd be meeting Ed several stops down. He was there and we went for coffee and eats. We also made our respective travel plans and everything is solidifed for me now. He decided to come with me to Nagoya and play in the denki (electronics) store while I did my beauty thing. It was really nice to get some alone time with the "old boy", and made me remember how awesome I think he is.

After a wee mishap with the subway line, I met Heather on her block and she gave me a hug! I've never met her before so it was a bit of a shock, but it was a nice shock - one that was warm and wanted.

We went back to her cozy (read - cozy, not small) and gabbed for a bit. Soon after, Kenton, who I had met at the Gifu Japanese where I had volunteered a few months back, came over. Heather started my hair, and over the next four hours, we talked, laughed, ate a delicious lunch Heather had prepared, watched 24 and got to know each other. She took her time braiding my hair and I didn't mind because she is so darned nice. I had a a feeling that she would be so I bought her some Valentine's Day chocolates because I knew her man wouldn't be with her, since he lives in Toronto. She then told me that her bday is on V-day, so a double "boo-ya" for me.

After waxing poetic on our favourite stores in Canada an the U.S. (Jacob and Bath and Body Works (FYI), I had to go to meet Ed and Shi to move on to the next part of the day. We hooked up and made our way to the movie theatre to watch Munich. Let me tell you: this movie is soul-stirring, thought-provoking and riveting. I'll try really hard to post about it, but check it out on line. I was thinking about for 2 days. My hope is that I can see all the Oscar nominated films here in Japan.

Our minds stimulated, we moved on the Shiloh's to decompress and have a good old sleepover. Let's just say there was some wine, a lap top full of pictures, some self-revalation and a lot of positive energy. We went to sleep way too late, but the fruits of our discussions were well worth it.

The next morning, we headed to a temple in Shiloh's town for a Setsubun festival (see previous post). The short of it was I got to really experience Japanese culture again, from a view not seen by foreigners. But the best thing about it was that I got to walk on fire. Honestly. Part of the tradition is that the "elders" build a huge pyre, light it on fire, then smash it down after a while. Then everyone who wants to can walk on it. Initially, I wasn't going to do it because my foot was aching and I was still getting over being sick. But something in me told me to. Maybe it was becase Shi, Ed and Ryan had lined up to do it and I didn't want to miss out on the experience. Maybe it was because I saw little kids and grandmas lining up to do it. Or maybe it was because the whole thing seemed greater than me and my ailments, and who was I to pass up this experience? So I did it, and something shifted in me. The gloom had officially passed.

Things only get better when we went shopping for dinner and I saw one of the kids I met at the elementary school I visited. I don't think I can ever forget him: he has some kind of degenerative muscle condition that prohibits him from walking on his own. But he always had a huge smile on his face and wanted me to talk to him about Canada and point out things in his "Canada" book (in Japanese, of course). So when I saw him, I went to ask him if he remembered me and he said "Na- Kaki sensei", and I thought my knees were going to buckle right then. Tangible proof that I meant something to someone. I will never forget that and have something to remember when I'm feeling low.

And that's it. Just when I thought I couldn't get anymore detailed, I've surpassed my expectations. Thanks for reading and thanks for letting me share. I needed the release.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Save, delete, save, delete...

Sometimes I wished I had a tiny disk inserted in my brain so I could record my thoughts then when I got home, I could plug the USB into my head and upload. I've had so many good thoughts and feeling over the past 48 hours, but I've gone and done lost them. Shucks. I guess I'll have to give it my best shot...

In a recent post, I mentioned that I received the responses to my 3rd and 4th grade students' xmas letters from dear old Santa. Yesterday, I informed the grade 4 teacher, who also happens to be my neighbour, who also happens to be a half-wit in the classroom and in social outings (well, with me anyway), and to my surprise, he seemed happy. He made a photocopy of the rather long letter (which I don't have with me right now - it's at school) and asked me translate it into Japanese for his class. With a huge gulp, I did what I was told and translated a nearly one page exercise in jibberish xmas speak (signed by incarcerated baddies, no doubt), into a succinct, typically Japanese efficient, 3 lined synopsis. With a hoarse voice and a low level of confidence in my Japanese speaking abilities, I did my best infront of a tough crowd: 10 year olds. Usually, these kids are nuts, but as they sat enraptured by my ghetto fab Japanese, my confidence grew, and I spoke slowly and emphasized certain parts. Then I was finished. In like, 2 minutes. Then one of the usual ring leaders started CLAPPING. Then others followed suit, and then the whole class erupted in frenzied clapping with shouts of "sugoi (awesome)!" and "subarashi (wonderful)!" And they were just blown away, which blew my ass out because I thought their hearts would never thaw to me. But I was wrong, so freaking, mercifully wrong. And then we had a great lesson and I left with my eyebrows raised. Wonders never cease.

Later that day, their teacher told me that when he was their age 20 years ago, he did the same exercise and when he received the response, he was as excited and happy as his class was yesterday. He said the letter meant so much to him that he still has it in the original envelope in a box at home. I think he got nervous as he observed my agape face.

The other day, when I basically boo hooed in a post, Stacy told me to keep my head up because these kids would remember for years to come and I was making an impact on their lives, even if I couldn't see it right now. At the time, it cheered me up and gave me that little extra push. Yesterday, it kicked my ass down the stairs. And guess what? It felt good. Thank you 4th graders, thank you Sakae-sensei and thank you Stacy. I needed that.


Today is Setsubun in Japan, which is the day before Spring. Apparently Spring will be here in 1.5 hours, however no one told the 3 feet of snow still hanging around town. On the day of Setsubun, people partake in mamemaki, which is throwing beans at demons to chase out bad karma. After they shoo away evil, they take some fish and impale them on a stick and put them outside their front door. Then they sit down at the kitchen table, grab a sheet of nori (seaweed), put some rice on it, spread some egg and other stuff on it, roll it up like a great, big sushi roll and proceed to eat it in the south-east direction. Gosh, I hope I got that right. My second and third grade students, with the help of the JTE, filled me in on this uniquely Japanese experience this morning. Unfortunately, no one invited me to their home to see if it was true, so I have to assume it was all lies. Just kidding. I asked a couple of kids and no one does the fish thing anymore, but apparently it's pretty common place in my village.

Tsukareta desu. Neitai. Mata ne.
I'm tired. I want to sleep. Later.

BTW, FYI Flow, my ref. to "Turning Japanese" really had nothing to the do with the song, ergo, nothing to do with maturbation. You're a nasty, nasty man. And now everyone in the whole world knows. All 5 people who read my blog.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Okay, quick update: My downstairs neighbour, the music teacher at the JHS, just came to my apartment to give me some honey ginger tea (which I've been wanting for months now, but kept forgetting to look for it), half of a peeled apple, with the other half wrapped up for break fast tomorrow, and a whole pot of ginger honey. I've always heard of JETs' neighbours checking on them while they were sick, and I guess my turn came. I feel cared for, like my own mom was here. Anyways, that's my "chicken soup for the soul" moment.

Transmission out.
Fear of a white mask...

I think I'm going Japanese, I think I'm going Japanese, I really think so. I've been feeling shitty since Monday, and when I woke up on Tuesday, I knew I had a full blown cold. So I decided to follow my co-workers leads and protect them from my germs by wearing a mask. It worked out pretty well yesterday because I was at the elementary school, and no joke, about 80% of them was wearing a mask. I also found out that there is a full blown flu pandemic at school and kids have been dropping like flies. Of course, this is worrisome to me since I can't afford to get sick like that right now, so I was taking extra precautions. But by the end of the day, I felt sick to my stomach and achy all over, so I left at like 4:31.

This morning, I felt a bit better because I went to bed really early, but my cold was severe. So I fastened on the mask and did my business at the JHS. I got a whole bunch of "Kaki-sensei, kaze desu ka?" and while I wanted to say, no, I'm not sick, I just like the contrast of the white, white mask, against my dark, dark skin, I simply replied that I was in fact sick. Well, their concern turned into something far more sinister. They were insistent, to the point of great discomfort for me, that I go to the hospital. Well, if you remember, I went to the neighbourhood hospital several months ago to get my cut finger repaired and observed the obvious differences between Japanese and Canadian hospitals. I was not eager to repeat this experience. But several teachers tried to convince me and after much polite yet forceful Japanese pushing, I caved and said I would go, but if it was just a cold, I would come back to school. I didn't want to go out like a sucka, especially since these folks are here every day, in sickness and in health. I'm sure they'd even come to school if they had Ebola. Well, the science teacher actually took me aside and said she was really sorry, but it was a really important time of year for the 3rd grade JHS students because they were getting ready for entrance exams and had to be in peak physical and mental condition, and I should take care of myself and think about them. Really, how could I argue with that? So I did what I was told and did the hospital thing. I don't have "infurenza", they stuck a nasty piece of gauze coated with something that looked like iodine but tasted like roasted shit down my throat, gave me three types of drugs to take 3 times a day, charged me 1100 yen (about 14$ CAD) and sent me on my merry way.

But I'm in better spirits now; I made myself a very nice lunch of gyozas, pan friend veggies and brown rice, sent off a few emails, did some internet research, had a bit of a nice nap, had a good chat with David, and stared at my flowers for a while. The colours really make me feel good.

I also watched today's State of the Union Address from Dubya and going to look up what exactly is the U.S. Patriot Act, because when he said he wanted to initiate it again, Hilary Clinton had such a look of sheer disbelief on her face that it intrigued me. I'm also thinking about Bradgelina's pregnancy and how it's possible for these people to have pinned the tail on the donkey so quickly. Seriously, don't people take proper birth control precautions anymore? I'm also still a little shocked about finding out that Japan has a terrible AIDS problem, apparently one of the worst in the industrialized world. And I am absolutely perturbed that I haven't seen any of the movies that are Oscar nominees. I've fallen off. Damn Japan and their limited release of English movies! Joking, joking. OK, half joking.

Oh yeah, I received a stack on envelopes from the "North Pole" today. Before xmas, I got my 4th grade ES kids to write letters to Santa, and I really did send them to him (Canada has a program where kids can write to Santa and he'll write back). I can't wait to see the look on their faces when they receive their bonafide letters from Santa himself. Even if they can see through the bullshit, I'm sure they'll be stoked at actually receiving a reply.