Thursday, June 30, 2005

Happy Canada Day!

Dear Canada,
Happy Birthday, it's been a long road since 1867, and I apologize for not being there for your birthday. You should know that we are celebrating this occasion here on the other side of the planet with our little version of Canada Day festivities. Stacy and I will be passing out some Canadian memorabillia to students today to mark you 138th birthday... and then after work we're heading out for dinner... unfortunately no fireworks, Tsuyu (Rainy season) has started and I doubt we could light anything off. Remember the bash we had for your 125th? Man was I ever lucky to live in Ottawa for all the great times on Parliament Hill over the years. It's funny how the Canadian Flag only really comes out maybe one week before Canada day and then disapears back into closets and drawers until next year. On the flip side, the Canadian Flag was the first thing to grace my walls here in Japan... as they say absence makes the heart grow fonder... maybe everyone should go abroad for a while to learn how to really appreciate what they have. Anyways, I've got to go in to work soon... yes I know I usually have the day off for your birthday but not this year...
Take care, have a good party, don't drink too much beer (but have one for me!) and have a blast on the Hill with the hundreds of thousands of people who will be partying all night to great music no doubt...
With Love, Michel

Anywho now that my mini tribute to Canada is done, let's move on... The Internet Connection thing looks like it may take a few weeks... for all Japan's advanced technology they still seem to be bogged down by bureaucratic procedures like I've never seen! Forms filled out in triplicate, stamped here here and here, faxed copies of this and that, calls back and forth... sheesh! But it will get done eventually.
So Tsuyu finally showed itself this week after a couple of weeks of delays. It has rained at least once per day/night since Monday and I'm fine with that. There was begining to be talks of water shorteages in Western Japan and that's just not cool. Speaking of cool, the rain cooled things down too... from 36 on Saturday to mid-twenties today...
We've had a schedule change at work due to government bungling. (and here I thought I would escape that by leaving Canada) The Social Insurance Agency decided that foreign workers working more than 30 hours per week were required to sign up for Social Insurance, which includes health care and pension. The problem is that the cost of this thing is 30,000Y per month, or roughly $300CAD... kind of ridiculous since I'll never touch the Pension money... and we have private health insurance. So to stop from losing a significant chunk of our income, AEON cut back our working hours to 29.5 hours per week... I still teach the same ammount and this doesn't change anything in my salary so it was nice of them to give us this out...
Anywho, I'd better run in to work.... I hear Thunder coming in and don't want to be stuck out in too hard a downpour... I hear Tochigi is susceptible to some pretty amazing lightning shows... hopefully I'll be able to witness some over the summer and take some nice pictures too.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Confound it and damnations...

My first thrust into the world of Internet Providers in Japan was parried without doing any damage. Yoshi met me this morning before work and we headed in to CATV with which Stacy has her Internet connection. Even though I couldn't understand many of the words being said, I knew when he pulled out the maps and started pointing at stuff that it wasn't good...

Kencho-dori, the street which starts at the Utsunomiya City office, a beautiful street with trees lining either side is the main artery which intersects Hanawada, on which I live. Trying to keep some level of aesthetics, the city government decided that no above ground telephone poles were to be errected, and the phone lines were burried. Unfortunately, this means no cable is running into my area and I thus cannot get cable Internet. I will need to pay for a land line, and ADSL... which hopefully will be setup soon!

Anywho, on to better things...

Yesterday, I watched Lost in Translation... and I'm quite glad I waited until being in Japan to first see it. I could relate to many of the situations and really liked the movie. Bill Murray is fantastic in it, and it has so many typical Japanese moments (Box Karaoke, the rape fantasy hooker (lip my stockings!!!) among other things that it kept a smile on my face the whole time.

Also, I got a response to my question about the flowers in my post yesterday, they are called Celosia and can also be found in Canada. Sheilagh mentionned that maybe it "took Japan for me to stop and smell (and look at) the flowers." I think that may be true, things are pretty mellow here and while I've never been one to stress out over things, I'm sure my pace has slowed down quite a bit since I came here.

So anywho, I'm off to work... take care.

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Another great weekend

The Beijing trip for August is officially dead in the water. The JTB cannot act for me with the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo and I will not be doing two trips down to get a Visa... I wouldn't want to pay for the tickets and then have a problem getting entry... know what I mean? But that's ok, I think I'll take the opportunity to take on Tokyo instead... Trip to Beijing postponned until Golden Week 2006... on to the Weekend Update!!!

On Saturday night after class, we had a little get together to kind of mark my one month anniversary in Utsunomiya. After a quick swing by Tobu to pick up Riyo and her friends, it was off to RickyRickyYa's for a little grub and some drinks on their patio. A good time was had by all and we were finally kicked out around midnight because of the proximity to a residential area... a few of the pictures turned out well... here they are:

Here is a shot of Myself, Scott and three of Riyo's friends. The far right one is Chikiko, I think and the other two are Akiko and .... I'm drawing a blank....

Here is a shot of Motoki, Masuko and Tatsuo. Masuko works for Kirin brewery... notice the shameless attempt at product placement? (look closely at the logo on her beer glass)

Here's Motoki trying to figure out how to get our phones to talk...

And here's smiling Motoki yet again.

Unfortunately, most photos of myself, Riyo and others were not of high enough quality (many faces were being made) for me to safely post them on the web without reprisals.... too bad but that's that, will try again later.

So Sunday, I met Scott and Yoshiyuki (Scott's student) at 9AM for a day trip out to Ashikaga for a museum tour and general gallivanting. I must admit I wasn't too excited about going to see a ceramics museum but hey a trip is a trip and the best way to get to know Japan is through its people right? So if its people go to ceramics museums... so will I.

Oddly enough, this museum tour turned out to be not so much about ceramics but more about passion, love, dreams and how to achieve them. What does this have to do with ceramics or the museum? Read on and you'll find out.

Mr. Hideo Kurita made his fortune in (or inherited them from) the clothing business but his true passion had always rested in Japanese ceramics\pottery and the story they tell. To say Kurita-san was a collector is almost an insult to the man. Not only did he collect pieces through conventional means but he sponsored and participated in major archaeological excavations to uncover more of these hidden treasures throughout Japan. In 1968, having amassed a large collection of priceless artefacts, Kurita-san exposed his collection in Tokyo. In the meantime, he had major plans which were either already under way or shortly to be undertaken. A rather interesting insight into the man behind the collection can be found in a quote in his introduction to the museum: "It is my belief that every cultural property should belong to the people and absolutely must not be monopolized by any private individual." In order to make his vast collection even more accessible, he began construction of the Kurita museum in Ashikaga, a project that has been under way since the early 1970s and which continues I assume to this day. We were lucky enough to visit this museum today and needless to say it has left an impression on me.

The first thing that stands out when one enters the museum grounds is the sheer scope of it. The Kurita museum is spread out over a hill and is comprised of a few dozen buildings surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens, trees and rock gardens. All the buildings are built in traditional Japanese style and the effect is like stepping back in time. There are 4 main exhibition buildings and a small village comprised of houses with more intimate displays along with many other buildings including a guest house which serves as a venue for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and a wood fired kiln used to cure pottery\ceramics. To think that one man's resources were poured into this place is awe inspiring. No expense was spared from the marble floors to the glass display cases and the lush rest areas provided for visitors. Nowhere is there the blatant money-seeking advertisement or money grabbing techniques I've seen elsewhere in Japan. The gift shop is in fact located outside the main grounds next to the parking lot and contains thousands of nice pieces and an exhibit of Inca pottery dating to 100 B.C. This museum, from start to finish was a labour of love and the attention to detail Kurita-san put into this is obvious. Another of his quotes is this: "All these wares have been collected by myself and displayed in stands designed by myself. In other words, it can be said that the Museum as a whole is a symbol of my love of the Imari and Nabeshima wares."

Another thing which struck me was Kurita-san's respect for the artisans which toiled to create this artwork that he so desires. Not only is he showcasing their skill and talent but this museum is obviously also meant to honour the men and women involved from the quarrying of the stone to the ones who fed the fires in the kilns to the final painstakingly detailed painting of each individual piece. To this end, Kurita-san chose the very top of the hill to erect a memorial in their honour. Due to the fact that many of the potters are nameless since the artwork they were creating does not lend itself to a signature, he called the building the "Unknown Potter's Memorials Temple." It is a beautifully designed building with a Buddhist statue on the roof, a shrine on the second floor and a nice personal reflection area overlooking the forests around the building. I think I like this Kurita-san guy...

So yeah, it's an amazing museum, very beautiful architecture and landscaping, well designed... and the ceramics are nice too... here are some pictures. Unfortunately for the photographer in me, all the ceramics were under glass which makes pictures a little difficult... I should get a polarizing filter....

One of the rooms in the main exhibition hall

Ceramic dish dating back to the 1500s

Ceramic dragon

The ground of the museum was covered in stones, which were raked the morning before we got there... here's a shot of the front of the main exhibition hall.

More rocks surrounding the hall.

One of the statues guarding the way to the second exhibition hall, also in the picture.

Golden shrine to the unknown potters, the stone on the alter is the raw material used to make the ceramics.

Buddhist deity Jibo-Kannon on the roof of the memorial temple.

Small temple on the grounds seen from above.

Potter's workshop exhibit

The gift shop was worth the visit just to see the timber that was used in it's construction... the ceiling must be at 5 stories above the main floor...

Inca pottery dating back to 100 B.C... over 2000 years old!!!

More multi-thousand-year-old Inca pottery.

After the museum tour, we moved on to Ashikaga Gakko (School) said to be the oldest surviving school or University in Japan and possibly dating back to the Nara period in Japan from 710-784. Many of the buildings have been damaged by fire in the thousand plus years the school has been in operation and the grounds were even used to train students to fight during troubled times, now that's dedication to one's school! The Ashikaga Gakko has very special links to Confucianism and has many statues and shrines honouring the Chinese philosopher. The school underwent major excavation and restoration work starting in 1980 and has been restored to it's state during the Edo Period (starting in 1600). There are still many markers and remnants to remind you of the school's rich history, one of which is the cemetery for the school's principals, some of the stone markers are so old they barely have a shape left to them...

Here's an aerial (kinda) shot of the school grounds, yes that is a moat surrounding it... troubled times called for the school to erect such fortifications.

Statue of Confucius created in his hometown in China in 1991 and donated to the Ashikaga School.

Yoshiyuki and I in front of the school.

The front entrance of the main school building.

The roof is constructed using the period accurate straw-thatching popular at the time. Unfortunately not exactly fireproof when a lightening bolt or flaming arrow hits it...

Traditional classroom inside the school, with lovely views of the koy ponds out the sliding paper walls...

Myself in said classroom... yes the doors are small, I had to duck to get through.

After the Ashikaga Gakko, we had a quick walk to a nice Shrine and Temple nearby. Here is an odd flower we spotted in planters on the way... any ideas what they are?

To enter one of the building we stopped in at, we had to remove our footwear as is customary in Japan... they had these lovely slippers for us to put on... my toes are just about where the writing is on the sandal... I have a feeling my feet are too big for Japan...

Scott and I at the Temple

A ladle used to scoop up water and clean your hands before visiting a Temple.

Old lantern next to some Agisai (Hydrangea)

Following our return to Utsunomiya after my first trip on a Japanese Expressway, I gave Motoki a call since we had made plans to do some Firefly watching. We hooked up with Stacy and Noriko (TOEIC student at AEON) and headed to the rice fields... it was a lot of fun. The fireflies here are neon green, I seem to remember the ones back home as more of a white/blue...

Happy Motoki was then kind enough to take me to Trial to get my desk and chair. Unfortunately they didn't have any more of the one we had looked at 2 weeks ago but I got a nice unit nonetheless and stayed up until 2AM to put everything together and organize the jumble of wires that had created itself with my temporary setup. So that's that... all I need now is Internet access, a cell phone case, something to put on my wall, and a better bike... but with time, all will fall into place...

I'm meeting Yoshi tomorrow morning and heading in to a Cable company to get myself some Internet... wohoo! Not sure how long it will take to actually get connected but it shoudln't be that long.

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Pre-post advisory...

I am currently in a car, zooming along at high speed down the Tohoku expressway on my way home from a lovely day in Ashikaga.

Tomorrow,I will be posting some pictures from last night's festivities as well as today's trip.

Please stay tuned...

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Slight cracks appearing in the Beijing trip....

After looking into it a little bit, acquiring a Visa to enter China may end up being a little too much of a hassle than I'm willing to deal with in the next few weeks... but there's still hope!

From what I've read, Canadian citizens need a Visa to enter the country for tourism... not the smartest thing a country can do to encourage tourism but hey, who am I to question the People's Republic. So I talked to Scotto who had been to China before and he was able to apply for a Visa by mail, send his passport by registered mail and get it back within a week. Not too bad right? Well I got some help to translate the Japanese Embassy in Tokyo's web site and there was some conflicting information. In the English section, it said they do not accept mail applications, and in the Japanese section they mention something about foreigners being able to apply via their travel agency???

The bottom line is this: If I have to make 2 trips in to Tokyo to go to the Embassy (1 to drop off the passport, then another 4-5 days later to pick it up) I'm affraid I will have to divert my holiday plans away from China... sad but there it is. Maybe I can find some golden asian paradise where the Canadian passport is taken at face value and that's that... who knows. But the plan now is to go in to the travel agency Monday with some Japanese support and work this out one way or the other. If it doesn't happen this time, it will happen some other time... I will visit China while I am in Japan.... it'd be stupid not to.

Anywho, I see my Cell phone posting last night made it on here ok. Much better formatting than I had expected considering I was typing an email on a 1" x 2" screen. I don't know how long it actually took me to type all of that, maybe 5-10 minutes? I'm sure my keying skills will improve with time but I doubt I'll be using the service much, unless I'm sitting on a train for a while or something.

So tonight is the Welcome Party, Part Deux. Some students are coming along and I've also invited Riyo from the library and her sister and friend. Should be a nice time, just some food and a few drinks since I have plans to go to Nikko tomorrow morning at 9:30, gotta keep a leash on the beer tonight... lol

Hopefully Monday I can also get going on this Internet thing... I think my best bet right now is Utsunomiya Cable, which provides Internet access and I wouldn't have to pay for a phone line. And furniture! I still have yet to pickup that table and chair, though it's not a big deal until I get the Net...

Anywho, off to work... ttyl

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A first attempt...

This is my first attempt at posting to my blog from my cell.
Judging from my keypad speed I will not be doing this unless something is very important or I am very bored.

Rice cooker just rang so I had better get going on the curry.

Until next time...

Mobile sushiandmaplesyrup signing off.

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

I'm halfway there!

Finally, after a long six weeks of incommunicadoeness, I have now opened the portal to the wonderful world of Japanese telecomunications. Long story short? I have a cell phone!!! And not just any cell phone, a Japanese cell phone which automatically adds layers of coolness to the simple act of buying a phone. Now, I've never been one for gadgets all that much (stop laughing) but damn...

Case in point, I opted for the free model, which in Canada would be somewhere between the tin-cans-connected-with-a-string model and the most-components-made-of-lead model. Well here in Grande ol' Japan, free gets me the Docomo P506iC, which has so many features I killed the battery last night trying to figure it out. It's even got a 2MP camera, which I don't really need since I've got my Sony and carry it with me whenever I go out... but that's cool too!

So that's half the communications chalenge over with thanks to Madoka! Now, to tackle the complex world of Japanese Internet Service Providers and their relationship with the phone companies... should be an interesting ride... I'll keep you posted...

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Made up my mind

Yup, that's that... I've decided I'm leaving for Beijing, China on August 10th for a quick 5 day trip. I dropped by the Japan Travel Bureau Tuesday morning and while the tickets are expensive, I think they're well worth the cost. Travel is one of my priorities while I'm here in Asia and national holidays are the only stretches I have to travel so I have to take advantage of it now. When else in my life will I be a few hours flight away from Beijing, Bangkok, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Manilla, Shanghai, and Seoul???

So here's the plan... Monday I will go buy my tickets, hopefully with some Japanese help. Then I will visit the immigration office and get a multiple re-entry visa, which means I can leave and return to Japan as often as I want. I also need to figure out how to get a Visa for China through the Embassy in Tokyo. Scott says I should be able to send them my passport and get it back with the Visa in a week or so. Someone left a comment saying they knew a good guide in Beijing, I'll try and book him and a hotel and that will be about that!

I will essentially be doing the typical tourist visit of Beijing with one deviation. Instead of visiting the Badaling Great Wall, where all the tour groups go, I would like to go out a bit further to Simatai where the wall stretched accross some pretty rugged lands, which means not as many tourists and a good hike.

Other than that, I'll see the obvious sights... Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tienanmen Square, etc.

So that's about that... oh and I really should learn to heed my own warnings as posted on this blog of mine. Went out for "a" beer again last night and while we didn't have 7, we had more than "1"... sheesh... cooking dinner at midnight was interesting... lol

I get my cell phone today! Assuming things don't go crazy at work that is... and hopefully the Internet soon as well...

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Plans, gotta have plans....

Well it's been another great weekend in Utsunomiya. Went to see Sahara yesterday with Shige and Sayaka, then had dinner at a nice place called Robert's. I only spotted 3 major differences between Ottawa and Utsunomiya movie Theaters.
1. They're a good chunk more expensive (1800 yen or 18$ CAD for a movie as opposed to 1000 yen or 10$ CAD back home)
2. For the relative height of Japanese people and thus the length of their legs... there's a heck of a lot more leg room in the theater we went to. I could fully extend my legs and not touch the seat in front of me... in Canada, I have to get up to let people by because there is so little room.
3. The movies are subtitled, in Japanese.... kind of distracting for the first little bit of the movie... I was trying to figure out why 2-3 word senteces were being translated using 3 lines of Japanese characters....
4. And it's pre-selected seating! You choose your seats when you buy your ticket, so no scrambling at the last minute to find seats for your entire group!

So that was great. Then today, just to prove to myself I have as good a sense of direction in a city than I have in the woods, I found my way back to Trial, the super center department store thing which is about a 15-20 minute bicycle ride from my apartment. Keeping in mind that I had only been there once, in the dark, as a passenger in a car and that we came at it from a different direction... I'm quite pleased with myself for finding my way back there....

It was proven to me again just how small a town this is, though it really isn't.... as I was exiting Trial, who should be coming in than Yoshi... we made plans to meet somewhere for lunch, he did his shopping and I went home to put the food away... Then as I was waiting for him at our pre-established meeting location, who should bike on by but Stacy... said hello and she went on her way. Then after lunch I decided to stop by Cairns, and arcade place with Internet access and who should I find there but Scott! So what are the odds of all that happening? I realize we all live relativley (maybe a 5 KM radius?) close from each other but come on!

So that's pretty much that, I still await a knight in shining armour (said armour tohave 4 wheels and some storage space) to go pickup my furniture with. I had a half idea of taking it home on my bike today but the boxes are a little too big.... oh well.

Now, for the plans I mentioned in the title of this entry... Twice today it was asked of me what I was doing for the August holiday... and both times I answered that I had no plans.... no more. Depending on costs, Visa requirements and travel planning, I'm thinking of visiting Beijing China for maybe 4-5 days during the 7 day stretch we have off. It's only a 4-5 hour flight... and I'm sure I can find some kind of package tour thing for not too much cashola.... so there you go... my research will begin shortly. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square.... should be a nice trip... even if I will be doing nothing but the touristy things everyone else does.

Oh yeah and it seems there was some shaking going on in the region last night around 1:20AM, no damage or anything but it was a Magnitude 5.6 quake followed by a 4.1 in Chiba prefecture, maybe 100km away from here. I was sound asleep and didn't feel a thing.

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Warning to all Canadians travelling to Japan

(This warning also applies to Australians, Germans, Irish, and other beer-loving nationalities)

When visiting Japan, all foreign nationals from the above noted nations should be advised of one important fact. Unlike beer in America and other places where they attempt to pass off slightly alcoolized versions of carbonated water, the breweries in Japan have mastered the art of making beer and it is oddly addicting.

Before coming to Japan, I considered myself to be a non-beer drinker, that rapidly changed due to the cost relative to my beloved Vodka and due to the fact that Japane beer (of which I've tried quite a few kinds) goes down quite easily... especially when served in an iced mug as seems to be the practice in some Izakayas (Japanese Pubs).

Case in point, Scott and I decided to have a quick beer and a little food last night after work. Well one beer turned into 2, turned into 4 and I think we stopped at 5 around midnight or so. Scotto-sensei is quite the travelling man, having visited 35 (or more) different countries in the last 8 (I think) years. He's experienced a whole lot and it's really interesting to sit around with him at a table with a couple of beers.

This afternoon, I'm going to see Saharah with a student of mine, my first visit to a Japanese movie theater... wish me luck! lol

Tomorrow Satomi and I will take the walk down to City Hall to get my ARC, and then open a bank account. Will be nice to get the final little details sorted out... I think I'll try to get one of the Japanese staff to come to Docomo with me on Tuesday to pickup a cell phone... it's been really difficult making plans with no means of communications... will be great to be back in touch!

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Thursday, June 16, 2005


The battle with between myself and Rician forces is over. Last night at 2200 hours, we moved in for our final assault with information garnered from master-code-breaker Noriyuki-Sensei. Within 15 minutes, it was all over, the rice was cooked and rather fluffy... I now have a base on which to build other meals... woohoo!

Secondly, had a minor teaching meltdown this week... though that may be exagerating a bit. My last lesson on Tuesday was an Encounter group lesson dealing with Interupting. I only had one student, it went well, we had fun, talked a bit about self-study before he left. I put all my things away like I usually do and headed on home around 9:15. The next evening, I had to teach the same lesson again... I go to the folder... no lesson. I look on my shelf, there's the textbook... but no lesson... A mini panic set in, though I knew I could teach without the materials... but a small searching frenzy ensued with the help of Scott and Stacy but the lesson didn't turn up. So I taught with no lesson plan and no materials, which went fine.... so I guess it wasn't really a "teaching" meltdown... So yesterday morning, I got in to work an hour and a half early to search for the missing lesson. Checked every classroom, every folder that made sense in the teacher's room, and reception... nothing.

Scott and I have come to a conclusion. Some time between Tuesday at 9PM and Wednesday at 6PM, a UFO landed on our building and dispatched a group of alien English teachers to come and seize this most excellent lesson. They will no doubt use it as a template to teach our language to generations of alien travellers, so I guess I should be kind of proud... they certainly wouldn't have gone through the trouble for a NOVA lesson... lol

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

May as well give me Japanese citizenship now...

Yup, there's no point in just making me a resident... make me a citizen... I think I passed the final test this morning. When I woke up and saw the rain, I debated walking to work instead of biking. However the fact that that would in fact DOUBLE my commuting time (6 minutes instead of 3) meant that I chose to bike to work anyway. Of course seeing as it WAS raining, I had to join the other Japanese hardcore bikers and bike while holding an umbrella... So there it is, the final test of foreigners before they're admitted as citizens of Japan, I have ridden a bicycle around the busy morning streets with one hand while holding an umbrella in the other... is there a form I have to fill out now or something???

As for the ongoing saga of my battle with the rice cooker... the opening salvo was fired Monday afternoon around 5PM and casualty reports from both sides are still coming in. At first glance, the rice seems to have lost the battle, since it was in fact cooked. However an early offensive by rician special forces caused me some damage and the rice was rather pasty. As with most military operations, better intelligence may be the key to cracking this one. A small commando unit was dispatched deep into enemy territory and returned with a highly sensitive document titled: "Instruction Manual". However, this document seems to be encrypted using some kind of Asian-language based code which I hope the staff at the office can help me crack. Armed with this new found information, I feel victory is inevitable. More on this subject later.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Just call me Flower Mountain...

Exactly one month ago, on May 13th at 2PM, I was landing at Narita International airport in Tokyo. Still have a difficult time believing that all that time has passed... so much has happened since then... I am having the time of my life, truly... thanks in great part to the wonderful people who greeted me both in Tokyo\Omiya and here in Utsunomiya. It's been so great to have Scott and Stacy as resources for those things which only a foreigner living in Japan would know about. Also on the Japanese side of things, Motoki and Yoshi have been a great help with anything I've asked of them. (2 examples that come to mind are Yoshi's help this morning to cash in some traveller’s cheques and Motoki's offer to use his car to carry the furniture I'll be buying shortly back to my place.) Don't know what I'd do without these people and the staff at the school to turn to for help.

As for the flower mountain thing... that's my name in Japan... In order to open a bank account, or for any multitude of other official uses, you must get a stamp (Hanko) with Kanji on it to use as your signature. Since they don't really have any French sounding sounds here I decided to translate my last name to Japanese, the flower... and the closest thing that sounded ok was flower mountain (Hana-san). And after yesterday's climb up a mountain to look at some flowers, I found it appropriate.

On to my story about this weekend. Friday night, I tried Korean BBQ. Every table is equipped with an exhaust fan and they bring a pot of glowing red embers from the stove over to your table so that you can roast your selection of meat. Very cool... and apart from a small salad, the entire meal consists of meat. (Patty would like Korean BBQ)

Sunday morning, I was picked up by Motoki (cars are a wonderful invention) and taken to meet with Stacy and Yoshi for a trip out to Tochigi-shi (Tochigi city) where we met up with Yukiyo, the other assistant manager who lives there. ***Side note alert Yukiyo's mother gave her some gifts to give to us... 2 frames and a few little baubles which she had made herself... I'll hang them up soon*** The five of us putted around the main street there for a little while and then proceeded to drive out to the base of Ohira-san to see the Hydrangeas which have started to bloom. Much to my surprise, I was soon greeted by a series of steps leading up into the mountain and found out we were going to climb Ohira-san (Ohira-san is one of the mountains surrounding Tochigi-shi and I believe denotes the end of the Kanto plains) to see a temple at the top. To encourage visitors, a sign at the bottom listed the number of steps (it said 1000 but I think that may have only been up to a certain part of the mountain and the elevation of 345M) So up we went, and up and up and up... every time I thought we were there, we'd turn a corner and be greeted with another bunch of steps to climb. It ended up being well worth it though... even though we skirted the temple in order to get some fluids into our bodies (the temperature must have been hovering around the 30 degree mark with the humidity). Quick side note here... after climbing 1000+ steps, we had to climb down some to get to the refreshment stand... makes sense to you??? Anywho, as we got to the stand, we were greeted by a beautiful view from the top of the mountain South-East towards Tokyo and Fuji-san. Unfortunately, due to the humidity we could not see all that far but on a clear day you can actually see Mount Fuji, about 200km away. After getting hydrated and relaxing a bit on these table\beds they had there, we treaded on back down the steps to the car.

We drove back in to Tochigishi to try and find a tea house but didn't have any luck so we then drove out to a type of restaurant called (I forget but something like Mashongji) where you cooked an interesting cocktail of things right at your table on a grill. It's difficult to describe and I didn't have my camera with me so I'll document the event with pictures next time... Everyone was quite amazed at my stir-frying skills... I think I may have more cooking experience than most men in

We were then surprised to be invited out to Yukiyo's home, a wonderful large traditional Japanese house with a lovely garden. Her mother greeted us with Genki drinks and we had a nice time playing with their kitten Ku who they rescued about 3 weeks ago. Apparently the crows here are pretty vicious... one had taken up this poor little kitten as lunch and dropped it in Yukiyo's garden... As usual Japanese hospitality is un-matched.

Afterwards, Motoki took us to Trial, the Japanese equivalent to Wal-Mart but even cheaper. I picked out a great table and office chair which I'll buy sometime soon... am now just about officially out of cash, which is why I need to open my bank account and deposit them traveller's cheques... life in Japan is cheap but I have been here for a month after all!

Now, here are today's pictures:

First off, here's a traditional building where they were selling all kinds of straw items... I'm assuming home-made...

Motoki and I next to a Koi pond at the museum

We were lucky to be in town while there was a festival\flea market going on. Here's a shot of the Omelette man in action...

This guy was amazing... notice no hands! And he went one stick higher and then balanced it on his chin but my camera didn't have the width to take it all in... my fault for now taking my lenses with me...

Here's a road which leads up the mountain to the lookout... the road we didn't take.

A quick shot of the climbers before a journey of one thousand steps up to the 345 meter summit of Ohira-san.

The first few steps.

Lovely gate in the lush green forest.

Two thirds up... only 0.1KM to go.

I thought this was it... but this was just the Gate for the temple... there are still more steps to go...

Lantern and sculpture behind the gate

The view to the South-East of Tochigishi, if you could see it you'd have ocean on the left and Mount Fuji on the right.

More view

More view, see all the rice fields? Very cool!

Statue and old building in front of the now vacant courtyard where the festival was held. It was odd to come back after our hike and see the place totally vacant and all cleaned up...

So that was that, another marvellous weekend... visiting Japan one village at a time... it's great! I should have my Alien card by this time next week which means I can finally get hooked up to the Internet at home... and get a bank account... and a cell phone... woohoo!

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

I am culinarily challenged... in Japan

There I was in the middle of dozens of aisles of food packaged in 99% Japanese packaging having very little idea what was what and it dawned on me... for the first time in my life, I'm eating like a bachelor... This must be the feelling someone who does not know how to cook gets when he walks into a grocery store. I'm like a cooking infant all over again... lol
So far, I've got eggs, which are pretty easy to find... I've also figured out how to make
Miso soup, a kind of Japanese staple... in which I can add either a hard boiled egg and/or finely chopped green onions... makes a good easy meal at 9:30/10:00 at night when I get home...  I've also found spagetti and spaggetti sauce which isn't half bad and extremely cheap... I think I'm averaging around 1-2$ per meal at the moment.
Yesterday Stacy showed me to the Curry section which will be my next challenge to master... the curry itself isn't all that difficult since all you need to do is boil the bag of curry and pour over whatever... the problem is still that darned Rice Cooker.... I will take the time on Sunday and try to figure it out. Much rice will likely perish in the battle but I will not relent! Our cause is a valiant one and their death will be remembered with each biteful of curry and rice I eat from that day forth.
Vegetables? Well I haven't quite brought myself to pay that much money for them yet... I figure I get my intake of vegetables when I eat out... but some day I will get around to it. Tomatoes are fairly cheap, so once I find the mayo and pepper at the store, I can start making myself toasted tomato sandwiches, expanding my culinary repertoire another notch...
Sad isn't it? I love cooking, and baking for that matter... but I find myself rather constrained by the 1 burner and no oven kitchen I have... and the tiny fridge... I will get used to it, and some day soon I may even crack open that lovely Japanese cookbook the AEON recruiters suggested we buy and try some actual Japanese dishes!
And yes, I eat with chopsticks... even at home depending on what I'm eating of course. People keep asking me that... And yes I've tried sashimi (raw fish) and have enjoyed about half of what I tried, Maguro (tuna) being my favourite. I've also tried some kind of squid, which was quite tender and some kind of clam... which was very rubbery... still refuse any invitation to try Natto that anyone sends my way... and I'm totally ok with that. Have also tried Wasabi, and a bunch of Japanese dishes I have no idea what they're called.... but all were quite good... even the chicken cartilage at the Izakaya (Japanese Pub) the other night.
So I'll keep plugging away at expanding my Japanese culinary skills... In the meantime, it's sushi, spaggetti and Curry Rice (I hope)... more on the story later!

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Counselling week...

This week is counselling week at the school, which means we have no regular classes. We are doing demo lessons for the Self-Study materials AEON has put together, offering counselling sessions for students and Free-Talk (free as in not constrained by rules, not free as in no money needed) and a few other very interesting tid-bits for our students. The days are a little more relaxed, since the demo lessons are only 25 minutes as opposed to our full fledged lessons which are 50 minutes and I enjoyed yesterday immensely. The slow down also lets us work on lessons for the next few weeks, so this Counselling thing is just perfect timing for me... after 2 weeks of teaching, I can sit back, have a look at what worked and what didn't and rework any lessons I need to so that the next time around (in 4 months) all goes smoothly.

That isn't to say that things are not going smoothly, they most certainly are... I can't give my students enough credit... they are so motivated to learn it makes my job very easy.

This morning, I was up rather early so I started writing out postcards to be distributed throughout Ottawa. Luckily I grabbed 2 packs this weekend in Mashiko because with every card I write, I seem to remember someone else who should get one!!! Still haven't attempted to figure out the postal system here but I'll be able to get a hand with that if I have any problems. Apparently the Main Post Office here in Utsunomiya has English speaking staff so it shouldn't be a problem.

I MISS MY POLITICAL DISCUSSIONS!!! I've been kind of out of touch with the news and such the last few weeks, just now starting to get caught up and some of the things I've heard (little miss Belinda allowing herself to be bribed with a Cabinet position and crossing the floor to save the Fiberal government... Aaaaarrrrggg!) makes my blood boil! I used to be able to turn to any number of people to vent but down here, Canadian politics aren't exactly a hot-button topic. Thankfully both Stacy (from BC) and Scott (Aussie) have been kind enough to let me throw some talk their way for a bit...

Oh, and I'm now officially finished eating out of Lawson's or other convenience stores.... mostly... I did my groceries on Monday and have been eating dinner at home since... My next food-related mission it to find instant-curry, and figure out how to make my rice cooker cook rice... sounds sinple right? Well it would be other than the fact that the control panel is entirely in Japanese.... and I think Matt was only using it as a clock (considering it was next to his bed, not in the kitchen) and so I didn't really get much in the way of instructions... shouldn't be that complicated though, I have a translation of the control panel somewhere....

So that's about that, on Sunday, I think I'll make a trip to some kind of superstore Stacy told us about and see if I can fill in my apartment with more junk... lol

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Monday, June 06, 2005

IT finally happened...

You’ll find out what finally happened a little further down, please bear with me.

I’ve got a business card! Yoshi presented them to me as I was having a wonderful Bento lunch on Friday at the office... most if it’s in Japanese but here it is one side with my name and info, the other with what my responsibilities are at AEON.

Now, yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to join Stacy and Takashi to go visit a town nearby called Mashiko which is famous for its pottery. Stacy also wanted to go visit a nearby temple while we were there. First of all, just the chance to start visiting Japan is amazing enough... getting around by car is one up from that... and then the thing that totally blow this out of the water is that this Buddhist temple is one of the oldest in eastern Japan AND that Takashi is a trained\training (not quite sure) Buddhist priest! How amazing is that... kind of like getting a tour of Microsoft guided by Bill Gates... so here are the day's happenings along with some shots I took. Please forgive the relatively poor picture quality as the weather didn't cooperate...

So first of all, this was my first time in a Japanese car... why is this a big deal you ask? Well I must remind you that the Japanese (like the Brits) drive on the left side of the road, which means the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. This means that multiple times through the day I would attempt to get into the driver's side door of the car... to Stacy and Takashi's amusement I'm sure. Not only that, but the experience of being a front seat passenger in a car zooming through a foreign country's countryside on narrow roads AND on the wrong side of these roads made for a rather trippy experience... though much fun. Here's a quick shot I took from the car once I realized it was my first time in a car in Japan, notice the oncoming car on the RIGHT...

As I said, Mashiko is very famous for it's pottery artisans who craft some truly beautiful pieces of pottery... some of which are worth more than I make in a month... a few of which are worth more than I make in a few months.... but as you arrive in Mashiko, and park in this wonderful lot, you get a glance of this odd animal, a Tanuki. Now they had one of these at the Japanese Village which always freaked Sherry out... thank god she didn't see this multiple story effigy... oh yeah, and he's not riding a broom and those aren't his feet....

Essentially from what I understand the Tanuki is an animal which signifies or brings wealth and prosperity to people\towns\etc??? And the bigger lower carvings of the statue, the more prosperity is brought. Now, by comparing the size of THAT and the price of some of the pottery in the stores, I'd have to say it works... After our arrival, we walked on down the main street of Mashiko.

Here's a quick shot of a very nice pottery gallery\shop. I'm sad I didn't get many shots of some of the pottery but I felt odd taking pictures of stuff and not buying anything... lol

This is a place called Indigo, which dies wool using traditional methods, ash of some kind I think. Notice the roof, very old building...

The wool is placed in the pot things on the floor which is filled with die and somehow heated??? Things were bubbling interestingly left and right.

Some of the hanging wool.

These were just some huge heels I just had to take a shot of... they were like 30cm high, I have no idea how she was walking in them... and also, the fact that she would wear these shoes to come and hand paint some pottery at a little tourist place makes me wonder...

A wall-o-pottery with a little wishing pond of some kind and line with Buddhist (I think) statues.

Little guy with reflections in a Pond.

Here are some of the largest wood-fired kilns which I don't think have been used wince WWII.

The pottery would be placed inside and I'm assuming the doors would be sealed and then they would be baked until dry and hard.

THIS is where IT happened. I was kind of waiting for it... wondering when it would happen. This whole come-to-Japan has been such a long process and I guess I knew what to expect due to the research I had done and such so I wasn't excited\nervous\anxious when I left Canada to come here. I'm pretty sure it hit some of the guys during training week, walking down the streets of Omiya and not seeing\hearing any English. For some IT happens when they get settled into their apartments, as Stacy predicted would happen to me. For me, I think all of those things came to a head after the drive into the mountains near Mashiko as I stood at the bottom of these steps and looked up at a Temple which was hundreds of years old.

I am in Japan.

Kind of took me a few moments to shake the feeling of awe I felt as I looked up into the trees at this structure looming in the distance. The picture cannot grasp the moment but it was just perfect. We were under a canopy of trees shielding us from the drizzling which had kind of started and everything was so quiet. Then taking my first look up at Saimyoji Temple, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I am, halfway across the planet looking up at steps which have been climbed by countless people since the year 737 A.D. more than one THOUSAND years before Canada came to be. It was quite the moment.

Halfway up the stairs, another view of the gate... again, the climb up the stairs was absolutely quiet with practically no sounds and no wind.

The gate, protected on either side from intrusion by two rather frightful statues of guardians of some kind. They're protected behind those slats of wood. As we stepped up to this level, after the relative quiet of the climb... we were hit with a pretty good wind... kind of like a welcome or a warning or something... kind of spooky considering that in this temple is enshrined some kind of hell-demon....

One of the buildings on the Temple grounds. As we were starting to look around, it started to rain...

Shot of the outer buildings from the Temple. I didn't feel quite right taking any pictures of the Temple itself... not sure why since I'm sure Takashi would have told me if it wasn't respectful to do so... but I felt odd so I didn't... Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that we were essentially confined to the porch around the temple by the heavy rains which hard started coming down.

I had another mini-transcending moment when I left Takashi and Stacy at the front of the Temple and walked down the porch to the rear of it where I came face to face with this statue... poking out of the woods in the pouring rain...

So we waited a bit for the rain to die down and eventually dashed down the 100+ steps trying not to slip and headed in for some tea at the bottom a nice end to my first temple visit. THANK YOU TAKASHI AND STACY!!!!

So once we'd fought our way back into to city and said our thanks\goodbye to Takashi, Stacy took me on a little bike tour of the city, pointing out various important stores and points of interest... great to have a personal tour guide. Afterwards, we headed to Modern (of which I need to get pictures) and met up with Scott, Yoshi and one of my students for a great dinner and some drinks... In true Japanese style, we ate one small dish at a time over the span of 5 hours or so... ate and drank like kings for the modest sum of 4000 Yen per person. A truly great way to end a great day.

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