Friday, March 31, 2006

Another week just about over...

I've never started a post with a picture before, but I thought this one deserved it. This was the view this morning as I crossed the street and went right about a hundred meters from my apartment. Low and behold this bugger had blossomed without telling me! Students tell me this temple is know to have some of the earliest cherry blossoms in town. Lovely place it is... and a great way to start the day off.

After scoping out the sakura, I headed down to old Tully's where the tradition of the morning coffee is slowly being revived with the return of spring. I am glad to report that both Matt and I are doing well in our hiragana memorization, and have 3 out of 5 groups down pat... not bad for just a couple of days of work.

For anyone trying to learn this lovely thing they call kana, you should check out this site, which is really great practice help. You can randomize the characters on the screen so they're not in an obvious (a,i,u,e,o,ka,ki,ku,ke,ko...) order, then just listen to the sound clip and hit the proper symbol. Once it has cycled through the groups you've selected, it'll display a blue, red or yellow star depending on how well you did and will start another randomized loop. Very cool! And a great tool to use to learn. Now I think I'll spend the weekend solidifying the ones I've got before taking on the second half of the basic characters. If things continue at this pace, I should be reading stuff in no time.

People have been asking me about this controversial topic I mentioned earlier this week... but I've been in too good a mood to blog about it.... lol Guess this spring thing and the additional sunlight has gotten me out of the winter blues I must have been under. Let's leave the topic of right-wing nationalism in Japan to another day for now... maybe after the blossoms have fallen off the trees.

Anywho, here's the same tree, but different... gotta love Japan in the spring. Too bad these buggers just hang around for a couple of weeks at the most.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Watashi wa nihon go no seito

This morning, I got up early and warily made my way to the Tochigi International Center for my first Japanese language lesson. It's about darned time I guess, since I've been here going on 11 months now. After making my way upstairs for the first time ever and taking a seat in the large room reserved for meetings and lessons, I listened in on a leveling interview going on a few tables away and shrank into my seat as this first timer rattled off seemingly perfect Japanese sentences explaining how he had studied here and there and blah blah blah. It was at this point that I was quite pleased Matto would be joining me, at least we'd be two low students in class...

Of course, I had nothing to worry about. As the room filled up with people, three groups were formed after testing the newbies for levels (my tables was the 0s and 1s from what I understand) and Yoshida-sensei took over. It was quite interesting to be on the receiving end of a lesson for the first time in a long time. I would say he used about 70% Japanese during the lesson, explaining some things in English and translating from Hiragana to Romaji on the board for us since only 2 of the 7 of us can read it. It was an eye opening experience to say the least.

It made me appreciate a series of things:
  1. My students and the hard work they put in to learning English. You guys rock! (of course I knew this before, but being on the other side of the lesson reminds one of such things)
  2. The fact that I learned English AND French as a child. The Advanced group table was half made up of kids.... here we are all adults trying to cram this complex foreign language into our overstuffed skulls....
  3. The AEON lesson structure! Damn but this guy was all over the place... there was almost a method to his madness but it was difficult to pin it down. I will have to transcribe and re-organize my notes after every lesson, which I guess would be a good idea to do anyway.
  4. Yoshida-sensei is a volunteer teacher coming in on his own time in his retirement to help us out... he was quite good and enjoys interacting with us just as much as we do with him.
The 2 hour lesson went by pretty quick, considering... as we covered a lot of things from personal introduction and introducing someone else to some basics such as dates and numbers. My cleaned up notes take 4 letter sized pages to fill, quite the volume of information. Luckily, since I seem to be one of the longer term folks in our group, I do have a distinct advantage in that I know lots of the basic things, a fair amount of vocabulary and my listening is pretty damn good. I would say I am in the top half of the group, and once I learn to read hiragana will be much better off. To this end I purchased a book today entitled "Let's Learn Hiragana" which I will devirginize tomorrow. Matt did well today, considering he's only been here a couple of months. He is certainly more motivated than I am, being constantly beaten at Japanese language games by his young niece and nephew.... soon he should be able to get his revenge. It's great to have him as competition, will keep us motivated to study for sure.

Yesterday, Scott and I headed out for another one of our trademark walkabouts and here's a few pics I snapped.

First off, the cherry blossoms are coming along nicely, and have started to come out in earnest. This weekend should be prime time in Ueno according to predictions and we should have a great day.

Little scene from Sho'unji temple.

This feller was toiling away in a traditional oya stone building, making all kinds of little concrete things.

And finally, the busiest train crossing in Utsunomiya stopped us once more as a freight train was passing by.

Anywho, now for some studying, and dinner at some point too.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

They're heeeere

Well it's official ladies and gents. With the arrival of Cherry Blossoms here in Utsunomiya, Spring is finally here. On the grounds of a temple nearby stands a multi-century old cherry tree which is just about to erupt into flowers. This is the old boy here and you can see it is just covered in buds at the moment.

A few of the buds have begun to bloom, marking a very early return of sakura to Utsunomiya.

The cherry trees in Hachiman-yama park are also starting to get going, with a few flowers just on the cusp of coming out.

Needless to say, Yoshiko and I did a bit of walking today, even though the weather wasn't that great. Our trip to Ueno was postponed to next weekend since the blossoms in Ueno park were only at about 30%, we'd prefer to hit them at their peak... next week should be perfect so long as it's not too windy or rainy this week.

Took this nice shot of the plum blossoms and an old gate at the temple as well.

There was also this bike which nature was slowly reclaiming as its own.

All in all a relaxing day. Slept in a bit this morning, then a quick breakfast and we headed out to the temple and Hachiman-yama park. Spring really is a great time to be in Japan, especially now with the sakura blooming, the atmosphere is just fantastic with people out for walks and picnics in the parks and such. I can see why Scott extended his contract just to enjoy one last spring here. After the walk, we headed to Starbucks for a quick frapuccino (they have green tea ones here, they are great!) and then to Nagasakiya to stock up for dinner. Tonight, I made Ginger pork chops and mashed potatoes and carrots.... almost something I would make at home. Unfortunately, I forgot to cut the soy and ginger with some sake so they were a bit too salty... but live and learn I guess. Tomorrow Scott and I are likely headed out for our monthly Yamaya run where I'll pick up some nacho chips since I intend on trying out Matt's great guacamole recipe which he made for us a couple of weeks ago.

Look at me, all I talk about is hanami and food... I truly am turning Japanese! Tomorrow I'll post with a bit of a bite into a taboo subject I broached in class this week for a speech unit about a "controversial topic." Predictably, most of our students picked safe topics such as dieting or school uniforms... but I initiated a full frontal assault on the right-wing groups here in Japan. If I'm up to it, I'll write up a bit of a rant on the subject some time this week.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Manly men doing manly things

What a fabulous long weekend this has been, both productive (travel-wise) and relaxing at the same time, couldn't have been better! Sunday was spent chilling out with Yoshiko, watching a couple of movies and doing a bit of shopping, some well deserved alone time together was nice.

Hooked up with my homeboy Scotto Monday morning and while talking about recent culinary discoveries we made our way to the train station to go see some lovely flowering trees in Mito. While the above sentence may seem a little on the effeminate side, we are both perfectly secure in our heterosexuality that we find nothing wrong with making a trip to see one of Japan's truly beautiful places, Kairakuen.

Kairakuen is currently listed as one of the three top gardens in Japan, the others being Kenrakuen and Korakuen in Kanazawa and Okayama prefectures respectively. This garden's biggest attraction is the 3000 plum trees which were planted here in the early 1800s when Nariaki Tokugawa, the 9th Lord of Mito, decided he wanted a new place to party. It also became a place of enjoyment and education for the vassals under his umbrella of protection\taxation\servitude. Without a doubt, this is one of the most beautiful places East-Japan has to offer.

So this morning, Scott and I hopped on a train a little before 8 in direction of Oyama, where we switched trains for Mito. The total time to get to Mito was about 2 hours, and this officially makes it a sin for anyone living in Utsunomiya to not have visited Kairakuen, which many many people have not. Immediately upon disembarking in Mito, I could feel a difference between the cities, though they are similar in size and looks, as the picture below demonstrates. Mito's downtown seems to have a certain life that Utsunomiya seems to be lacking, possibly due to the slow death of the core and the migration of shoppers to the mega-shopping malls in the suburbs. Mito's downtown core seems vibrant, helped along no doubt by lovely lake Senba and Kairakuen being relatively close by.

Starting from Mito station, we started our walk by going around the lake, which would eventually take us right into Kairakuen. The weather was fantastic, skies were blue and the birds were out in force looking for some grub from the passers by.

There were lovely black swans all over the place, not too too shy.

The white ones were just as curious, so long as there was a chance of them being fed of course. You'll also notice a large swan in the middle of the lake... no it's not a pedal boat but seems to be some kind of pumping\purifying equipment cleverly disguised as a 400kg swan....

As we walked around the lake, I couldn't help but snap this picture of a couple enjoying the view near a newly blossoming plum tree. Across the lake and to the left, you can see Kairakuen.

And here she be, after about 30-40 minutes of walking, we came upon Kairakuen, luckily just in time to see the Joban Line train running through.

After grabbing some Yatai (food stall) grub and wolfing it down, we were surprised to find out that entry into Kairakuen was absolutely free... a nice change in a country where I've seen fees to take an escalator. (Enoshima) And it would have been worth the price, had there been one. We arrived shortly before the prime, but had we waited another week, many of the blossoms would have already been gone. Some were already falling in fact. Needless to say, the fragrance was amazing, very soft, not overpowering... very nice. Here you can see two types of plum trees, not sure of their names, but you've got the light pink ones and the darker pink ones... lol

And here are two plums of a different kind... the official city of Mito plum princesses, posing for some pictures.

As we made our way around this immense garden, we came across Kobun-tei, the love-shack erected (mind the pun) by the Lord of Mito. The "official" description states that this cottage was built as a place of education and amusement... but I would definitely say amusement was the primary reason. It was quite interesting to be walking around this house which was once filled with lords, ladies and samurais. In fact, I spotted one room which was called the "Escorting samurai waiting room" where the guards escorting whatever lord would wait one floor below while he partied with the ladies upstairs. Really a nice feeling to walk these halls.

The views from all sides were of course splendid, and I just love that whole straw roof thing, though not exactly fire proof. This reminds me of another factoid. The secondary purpose of this complex was to serve as a refuge for when the castle was on fire... obviously a frequent occurrence back in the day.

After Kobun-tei, we entered the plum forest proper and it was just great. One must stop to smell the flowers once in a while, and we sure did that on Monday.

In the lower section of the garden to the North, we saw these trees which were much darker than the rest, quite lovely.

We then headed back to the Yatai for more munchies, and had a seat in the grass to eat and relax for a bit. These trees were at 100% bloom.

Throughout the day, we also encountered countless very serious photographers, many with thousands upon thousands of dollars in photo gear. Caught one in the act here, trying to get the perfect shot of a blossom. Photography is one heck of a popular hobby here and one can usually get to where one needs to go just by following the gentleman with the large camera bags.

So after checking everything out, we took the path on the opposite side of the lake from the walk out and headed back to the station. On the way, spotted this swan bedded down in it's nest. The eyes popped open when I approached, but it stayed otherwise motionless.

Unfortunately, we were just a few minutes too late to hop the direct train to Oyama, and instead got on a local to Tomobe and were lucky with the rest of the transfers coming within 5 minutes of us arriving at Tomobe and Oyama. Got home a little after 4 and headed in for a shower and a change of clothes to get ready for phase two of my birthday. What's a trip in Japan without strange English? I can understand what they are trying to say, but it still didn't come out right. Maybe spend a little less money on colour and graphic design, and a little more on translation here folks... google language tools will only get you so far.

I was then picked up at home by my girl and taken out to a great Italian restaurant called Visconti which had the best Italian I've had so far in Japan. They even had Lasagna, something I've been craving for quite some time. After a wonderful meal, we headed back home and turned in for the night.

Today, we woke up relatively early and headed to Fukudaya and Movix to see Brokeback Mountain. It was in fact a heck of a good movie, and I can see why it picked up a few awards. Afterwards, we did a bit of shopping before heading back home to relax some more and where I was treated to tasty Japanese style fried chicken... mmm mmm good!

So that's about that, back to work tomorrow and plans to hit Ueno for cherry blossoms next weekend. The first blossoms in Tokyo bloomed this weekend, at Yasukuni shrine where we were last week. Due to the warmer temperatures we've seen, the cherry blossoms are about 7 days ahead of schedule and a full 10 days earlier than last year. This unfortunately means that the ones around Tokyo will be all but gone by the end of the month. Luckily Utsunomiya is a bit colder and ours are lagging behind a bit so we'll get plenty of chances to check them out here as well.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Happy Birthday to me

Well that's that... March 20th has turned over and I can now officially no longer say I am 25. Although technically speaking since I was born in Canada at 11:43 on March 20th, I won't really turn 26 until tomorrow afternoon at 1:43PM Japan time, but that is a mere technicality.

I'm up at this ungodly hour (6:30) because I'm heading out to Kairakuen garden in Mito with Scotto today to check out the plum blossoms, should be a good day. Then dinner with Yoshiko tonight and off to see a movie tomorrow. Lovely way to spent a long weekend, which was certainly well deserved.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

On the edge of a long weekend...

The scheduling gods have come together to offer us Tuesday to Saturday folks a long weekend. Next Tuesday is a National Holiday, marking Spring I believe, and so I get a 3 day weekend for my birthday... excellent! This has been a good week in most respects, I definitely feel energized with the return of the sun and am anxiously awaiting for things to come alive again.

Found out this week that the Tochigi International Center offers Japanese lessons once every week for a measly 200 Yen! That's about a buck an hour... not bad eh? I will be taking advantage of those starting in the next few weeks. From what I understand, they'll start us (Matto sensei is also considering joining) off with hiragana and katakana and work our way up from there. I think it'll be a good way to stay motivated to learn the language. When learning at home, there's no incentive to keep going. If I have a teacher and a class to go to, I certainly won't want to look stupid in front of them! I'll keep you posted on my progress.

I also found out an interesting tidbit of information this week from a student of ours. Apparently, the shrine behind my apartment which I have repeatedly names Futara-san is not Futara-san after all! It's name is Futara-yama to avoid confusion with Futara-san shrine in Nikko. Most people call it Futara-san though, and many don't know any better since the kanji (Chinese character) for yama and san are the same. Now I know!

So that's that for now, will likely do something picture worthy on Monday, keep your eyes peeled for pics.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Spring has sprung...

With the arrival of the plum blossoms in Utsunomiya, I think it is time to officially declare that Spring has finally arrived out here. I found the winter pretty harsh this year. Not because of the cold of course, -5 degrees as a nighttime low isn't much to get excited about when you're used to seeing temps down to -30s and -40s, but because everything was just dead and there was no snow. I guess in Canada, the snow piles up on top of everything and makes things look nice... out here is was just dark and grey... but all over now!

Scott and I took a quick walk yesterday out to a temple near Hachimanyama park where I had seen some plum blossoms sprouting when we drove by last Friday. Not sure the name of this temple, but it will definitely be a prime destination when Cherry Blossom time comes around as they've got loads of trees around, including one behemoth which is over 400 years old. For now though, the ume is just starting to poke out of the buds, and the fragrance was wonderful.

There are a few varieties of trees out here, some white, yellow and purple ones, and most of them are at about the same stage.

This plum tree overlooked a graveyard.

This is the main temple building, with of course Utsunomiya's answer to the Eiffel, CN and Tokyo towers in the background.

Behind this temple was an interesting gaggle of sculptures, some new, some very old. They seem to each represent an aspect of day-to-day life, with some eating Ramen and others playing Rugby or taking a bath. Quite interesting.

I think this feller was my favourite, just taking a nap on a bench somewhere no doubt.

After the temple, we headed up into Hachimanyama to see where the cherry blossoms were at, at there's no action on that front yet. But the viewing will be amazing here. There are quite simply hundreds of cherry trees sprouting all over the grounds of the park, and work crews were there yesterday getting ready for the throngs of people who will be moving through this park in the next few weeks. All of these are cherry trees, and many more are in other sections of the park.

So needless to say, you can expect to see this blog take a pictorial turn to the flowery side as that is essentially what early spring is about in Japan. We'll be having lunch under the trees quite frequently so long as the temperature holds, since there are apparently food stalls that pop up here and there throughout the park for people to do just that.

On another note, the Japanese Self Defense Forces seems to be in exercise mode. Last Friday and again this morning, I've seen flights of military helicopters right out of Apocalypse now flying around. About 12-20 choppers in tight formation making swooping runs over the city... I assume based out of Suzumenomiya, just one stop down the JR line from here. Thankfully they have some consideration and aren't doing this at 6AM....

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

A whirlwind tour of Tokyo...

A lot can be said about today's trip to Tokyo. We visited several different areas of the city, with our itinerary taking us from Utsunomiya to Ueno to Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace Gardens to Yasukuni-jinja to Omotesando to Harajuku to Shinjuku to Akabane and finally back to Utsunomiya. 8 (or more?) different stations in one day, in the world's biggest city*. It was quite the whirlwind tour, but unfortunately there was more whirling and wind then there was touring... and I will take a few lessons from what happened today. Making a quick tally of my goals for the day, I think we did pretty well. I got to see Steve and Leah again and bought myself a kick-ass DVD player, but after our visit to Yasukuni shrine, the organization of the day disintegrated pretty quickly and I figure we wasted anywhere from 3 to 4 hours waiting for various parties to arrive, depart, find their subway tickets (that one was me) and travel to (and subsequently get lost in) a different station to recover belongings, and on and on and on. So what did I learn today? When planning a trip to Tokyo, where you actually want to get stuff accomplished since you're spending 4 hours on the train and expending lots of Yen no matter what, it's better to liken the trip to a military operation. Plan it out, keep it simple, be flexible but stick to the plan. I think our biggest problem was size, From the initial 2 it quickly grew to 6 and eventually up to 9 people... all of this somehow happening in Tokyo of all places (a miracle we even pulled it off, thank the cellphone gods for our good fortune)... with only a few of the group living in Tokyo... it was quite the challenge, and we paid the price. It was nonetheless a lovely day, thanks to the company of course.

Our day started at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM, in order to be at the station to catch the 8:04 train to Ueno. After a quick breakfast, we took the first steps of a long day and hoofed it to 宇都宮 JR Station. After a long 2 hours riding local trains, we arrived in Akihabara, the first stop of the day where I wanted to get my hands on a region-free (plays both North-American and Japanese DVDs) DVD player that could also play burned discs. Akihabara is known as Tokyo's Electric City... it's where otaku people come to play, and my students were all very concerned that their totally hip teacher was heading there. Otaku are the subclass of Japanese society who devote a large (some would even say total) part of their lives to such subjects as computers, anime and the pursuit of all things geeky. I guess the English word for it would be nerd, but at least nerds have some limited social skills... from what I understand, otaku do not, and feel extremely uncomfortable in social settings not specifically dealing with their obsession, whatever that may be. This was certainly in plain sight today as large numbers of these gents were floating through the streets of Akihabara, getting their weekly fix of electronics.

You can be just about 100% certain that somewhere in Akihabara, you can find whatever electronic item you are looking for. From nose hair trimmers to a cell phone with a blood pressure monitor and cordless vacuum cleaners, these mega electronics stores have it all! After checking out a few different stores, I settled on Laox and proceeded to make my purchase. We tried in vain to find a maid cafe nearby, but couldn't and so my answer to the "what the heck is a maid cafe?" question you just asked yourself will have to wait a bit... unless you decide not to be lazy and google it. After a coffee at the Beck's near Akihabara Eki, we headed out to Tokyo station to meet up with Leah and Steve.

From Tokyo station, we proceeded to the Imperial Palace where a small section (the gardens) are open to the public. It was a nice walk and I'd definitely like to return in the later spring\summer to get the full effect. Looking out from this hill on the grounds of the palace, I couldn't help but wonder at the changes the area has seen since the palace was built in 1888. (note that the palace was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt again in 1968, so the current buildings are nowhere near as original as the Forbidden City in Beijing) When it was originally built, Japan had just opened it's doors to the world again after being closed to the world for better than 300 years. It is fascinating to think of the pace at which change has occurred since then.

We were also lucky enough to spot this lovely early flowering plum tree in the gardens... just a taste of the beautiful scenes to come as plum and cherry blossoms bloom throughout Japan in the next few weeks. (and months for those in Akita and beyond... ahem... Alex)

After the gardens, it was suggested we head to Yasukuni shrine to check that out and grab lunch. After a slight train mishap, we got back on track and chowed down on some subway before heading to Yasukuni. On the way, I spotted this amusing use of our old friends from Sesame Street to remind commuters to be courteous to others.... which just makes the packed rush hour train rides that much more bearable.

Yasukuni Shrine is by far the most controversial site in Japan. This shrine is dedicated to honoring those who have died in military service for the emperor. It's literal translation is "Peaceful Nation Shrine" and you'd think the story would end here as every nation has some kind of memorial to honor it's war dead.

Where this gets a little trickier here is that in 1978, over one thousand war criminals (including 14 Class A War Criminals) from World War II were enshrined there in secret. When this act was revealed to the media the following year, it caused an uproar which has yet to quiet down. Countries such as China and Korea who saw countless atrocities committed against their citizens by these convicted war criminals feel that this act is proof that Japan has never fully atoned for it's actions in WWII, and that relations should not be normalized until this happens. (Another interesting note along this line is that Japan and Russia never signed a peace accord following WWII and still remain in a state of war... on paper... due to some small disputed islands North of Hokkaido) These feelings have only been amplified since 2001, when Prime Minister Koizumi (leader of the conservative LDP party) began official visits to the shrine. Japan's current Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is the likely candidate to replace Koizumi upon his departure from the political scene, has made matters even worse by suggesting the Emperor should resume visits to the shrine which stopped in 1975. I feel somewhat split on this subject. On the one hand, I feel it is important for Japan to honor the approximately 2.5 million soldiers who have been lost in wars, 2.2 of which are from WWII. I think it's important to remember the horrors of war so that we are not so quick to jump back into one. On the other hand, the inclusion of war criminals has sullied this place of worship and this has essentially turned into a tool to be used by the right-wing nationalistic factions within Japan. For example, a pamphlet published by the shrine states that the war criminals enshrined here were "wrongly accused by the Allied tribunals." Since these people are the Japanese equivalent to those convicted during the Nuremberg trials in Europe, I think it is frightening to hear such rhetoric being used 60 years later. I think everyone agrees that Germany has atoned for it's part in the Second World War, and has subsequently moved on. Japan, it seems, has only outwardly apologized, while still claiming to have been justified in it's actions. There are still those within Japan, including some in high positions within the government who deny such things as the Nanking Massacre of 1937... these people can be likened to those who deny the holocaust ever happened. Anyways, these are all very taboo subjects here in Japan, which is why I think this is still even an issue, and I've gone on long enough on the subject. It is pointless and yet I find it necessary to add that I did not join the line of worshipers paying their respects at the shrine. I consider it to be primarily a symbol of the resurgence of ultra-nationalism in Japan. (cuts to ultra-nationalist picture of the Japanese flag flying over the gate to Yasukuni)

Following our tour of Yasukuni, we headed in the general direction of Harajuku, and walked down one of Tokyo's most popular shopping streets, Omotesando. This place was ridiculously packed with people, the Luis Vuitton store was at least 4 stories high and packed with people, and all the designer labels have a presence somewhere within a 2 mile radius. That solid black you see on the sidewalk to the right... yeah those are people... enough said.

We made it to Harajuku, but unfortunately were a little too late to see the cosplay people do their thing, another postponed blogging event. We left Harajuku at 4PM, grabbed some Starbucks in Shinjuku and waited for some folks until 7 before trying to make an attempt at dinner. Unfortunately, all places had a long wait time and due to the fact Yoshiko and I had to come all the way back out here, we opted out of dinner with the gang and headed home early. We ended up eating some passable pasta at the station in Akabane before hopping on a Rapid train to get back here, which was great since it only made like 10 stops max from Akabane to Utsunomiya instead of the usual 372. On the train, I struck up a conversation with an elderly lady from Minnesota who is here working with an interesting group in NishiNasuno. You can read up on it here, it's refreshing to see such a thing in Japan, though she tells me it is funded and staffed outside of Japan. I saw Yoshiko off on her bus from the station and hoofed it the rest of the way home.... man was I glad to get here and take those shoes off.

Tested out the DVD and it works great, plays multiple region's DVDs, plays the DVDs I got in China AND the Video CDs I brought from Canada... woohoo! I'm not quite sure what to do yet with the player that's given such grief in the past few months. I am seriously considering packing it to take home with me in May and taking out my frustrations on it using my 12 gauge...... I dunno.

For now, off to bed... maybe a walk with Scott tomorrow to see some of the early blossoms... we shall see.

*Note on that statement... I said today that Tokyo was the world's largest city and Tsukuba Steve was surprised to hear it. While it may be true that Tokyo proper (8-12M people depending on your definition of"proper") does not match populations of some South-Asian nations, I believe that Tokyo includes the surrounding area encompassed by its suburbs. The inclusion of Yokohama, Kawasaki and Saitama push the greater Tokyo area's population to a staggering 34 million people, more than the entire population of Canada. This website details the agglomerations of the world by population, fascinating that Tokyo's runner up is more than 10 millions people behind.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The Entrance Examination

This morning was an early day for the troops at AEON as we arrived at the office at the break of dawn (for us 1 to 9ers, the break of dawn is approximately 9AM) for a promo activity.

Today was a special day in the lives of Japanese Junior High School students and their families, and the weeks leading up to today were no doubt filled with stress and worry. This morning, at 10AM, the results of High School entrance exams were posted at schools everywhere in Tochigi. (or Japan?)

One major component of the Japanese education system is the infamous entrance exams. There are entrance exams for Junior High, High School and University, and some private schools even have tests for kindergarten\elementary students. The purpose of these standardized (in the public system) tests is to rank the students from best to not-so-best and assign them to the appropriate schools. The school system in Japan is still very much reflective of the class systems of the past, with the top students attending top schools, the average students in the middle level schools and the rest relegated to the bottom tier. Since the school a student attends has major weight in his\her future employment, this is a rather stressful time for many parents and kids in Japan.

This morning, we were there to witness the unveiling of the results... along with the corresponding cheers and cries of pain. Immediately after the numbers were shown from a second floor balcony at the school I was at, the gaggle of students erupted into a cacophony of shouts, and it was immediately clear which of those did not do well. Some students and parents erupted into tears upon seeing that the score just wasn't good enough to get into the top tier schools, no doubt (in their mind) relegating the kid to a life of servitude as a janitor somewhere. While I do not agree with putting this much stress on kids at such a young age, that's the way things are here and I can accept that. What I refuse to accept is the reaction of some of the parents whose children didn't do well. I saw several cases of parents immediately turning their backs to their kids in shame and strutting off to their cars leaving their whimpering 15 year old to follow behind them. The worst offenders were the fathers in the crowd, at least the mothers attempted to comfort their children in most cases with a pat on the back. (while their husbands' backs were turned of course) I certainly wouldn't want to be at the home of some of these folks for dinner tonight.

Sad really that the system puts so much stress on the family. It's especially sad considering that grouping lower level students together has been proven to negatively affect their learning. In a mixed class, the stronger students often help to motivate lower level students to do better and the higher level students learn useful skills by helping their peers. It seems that Japan focuses on the best of the best and tries to hide the rest under the carpet and pretend they don't exist. The sad part is, this whole charade will happen again in 3 years with the University entrance exams. Quite the interesting place this is.

So today turned into a 12 hour day, I am bushed and turning in soon. This week also saw the latest chapter in the Alts Bandai Ski incident saga with an insurance investigator coming to interview me to get the facts of what happened. This guy apparently goes around and gathers the facts from all the parties involved and then presents the facts to an insurance adjuster who assigns a certain percentage of guilt to all parties. The corresponding insurance companies then have to pay out according to that percentage. This is what happens when a country doesn't have good national health insurance... anything that happens you have to figure out who's gonna pay. Makes me proud to be Canadian. The highest percentage of liability in cases like ours usually goes to the upper skier\boarder, which would mean me. However, in this case, since the boarder cut me off while running perpendicular to the slope, the liability will likely be his. Either way, I don't really care since the insurance company will handle anything that comes down the pipes... it's just ridiculous that this is still going on two months later...

Tomorrow promises to be a long day with Scott off sick (minor case of the flu) and us left to take up the slack. But I do have a great day trip to Tokyo to look forward to on Sunday... should help me get through the day alright. AND, I am getting older soon... March 20th is the big day when I officially get closer to 30 than I am to 25...

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Monday, March 06, 2006


Nice end to a nice weekend. Yesterday afternoon, the boys met at Tullys for a coffee before we initiated Matt to the joys of Yamaya, our friendly neighbourhood (well somebody's neighbourhood) liquor and foreign foodstuffs store. It was a nice walk, relatively nice weather, and I was glad I brought along my backpack since I filled it with 3 bottles of Mission St-Vincent Bordeaux, to bring to a few dinner parties we've got coming up along with some pasta and other stuff.

The plan was then to head back to my place, cook up some Mexican and watch a couple of flix. When we arrived, Matt made up some fabulous guacamole, which is much easier to make up than I expected... I think I'll try my hand at it sometime. The gods of Yamaya had provided us with some great black corn chips, and we chowed down on the guac while watching Hurricane.

It's quite a good movie, but after doing a little research online I was surprised that the debate is still raging about his guilt or innocence. Essentially people are saying that either an innocent man was convicted twice by two separate juries and wrongfully jailed for 3 years or a triple murderer was released from prison in a gross miscarriage of justice. There seem to be some major discrepancies between the movie and the real case. For example, there is no racially motivated detective in real life, in fact a series of detectives arrested him throughout his life, one of which was black and sent him to jail for 4 years for a mugging. Carter was not a top contender at the time of the murders, his career was in a slump and he'd recently fallen to 9th place following a 7-7-1 record for the year. The Canadians involved in the case never actually found exonerating evidence as the movie suggests, and Carter has never been declared not guilty of the crimes in question. There are many other things I found different between the movie and the facts of the case, and it was certainly a reminder that "based on a true story" doesn't mean the facts are straight in a Hollywood movie. Of course it is still a great movie, and Denzel is amazing in it, but it shouldn't be taken as factually accurate. People are always looking for a cause, and sometimes the truth gets in a way and has to be ignored.

Following the movie, it was my turn to cook up some grub. Since Scott is culinarily challenged, he provided the wine, juice and tequilla for the evening, and I decided to make up the last box of fajitas my folks sent me for Christmas. Made up beef and chicken with peppers (at 3 dollars a pop... ouch!) and onions... they were mexicali-licious!

We then watched Billy Elliott, which while good couldn't help but make us laugh throughout due to our somewhat inebriated state. We couldn't help but make cracks about it, but it was interesting that the story had the mining disputes of the Thatcher era in Britain as a backdrop... it added a certain je-ne-know-quoi to the story. After the movie, the boys headed on home and I cleaned up a bit. Then I encountered something which was at the same time funny, disturbing, scary and disgusting.

As I went outside to drop off my bag of trash at the foot of the trash tree for the block, I was surprised to find a car up on the sidewalk blocking the driveway to my building. The car was still running, had a guy passed out in the driver's seat and a pile of puke on either side of it. The scary part was that he apparently jumped the curb and clipped the pile of trash on the way up and still had a couple of bags lodged underneath his car. Lucky no one was putting out their trash at the time. How he managed to vomit on both sides of his car I don't know, but I'll leave that up to your imagination. I briefly considered going to the Koban a few doors down and having a cop come down and take care of this drunken jerk but quickly thought better of it. Language skills, endless paperwork and a possible search of my apartment (I've heard some interesting stories about people reporting crimes in Japan) made me forget about getting involved. It's amazing how one's civic duty evaporates when one doesn't trust the police. I'm assuming he either slept it off or someone else called in the cops since he wasn't still there when I woke up this morning.

Now, all morning I've been hearing this truck going around the neighbourhood blaring some message over a loudspeaker. Since it's all in Japanese, I have no idea what the heck he's moaning about but I finally got a glimpse at the vehicle in question. Neighbourhood electronics recycler maybe? He's got a TV and some speakers in the back of the truck, either a recycler or a thief, I dunno. I am still annoyed at the amount of noise pollution generated here in Japan. Intersections chirp, buses and elevators talk and bleep, stores often have recorded messages playing in the streets, biker gangs prowl the streets all night with their overly loud mufflers, vendors are always yelling welcome to passersby, there is a multitude of vehicles driving around blaring music or recorded messages, and this only gets worse during election time! If this were Canada, I'd be out there with a baseball bat to knock the speakers off these loud stupid trucks who interrupt my peaceful existence... and I'm in a quiet neighbourhood! I've heard the stories from Alex, Scott and Matt who've had to deal with much more of this than I have and I'm thankful for my location.

Anywho, better start thinking about possibly getting ready to go to work. Oh yeah! Blackys, the tanning salon across the street from Cafe Praktica which I pictured here a few months back is pictured on! Check it out here. It's nice to know Utsunomiya is well represented. I submitted my picture of the strawberry abomination I spotted in Motegi the other day, we'll see if it makes it up.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tack on another prefecture to the "been there" list...

After a lovely dinner of Niku-Jaga (meat and potato stew) last night, and a breakfast of Risotto this morning, Yoshiko and I headed out into the wonderful spring sunshine to spend a bit of time outside. The initial plan was a visit to Fukuroda no taki (Fukuroda Falls) in Northern Ibaraki Prefecture. Fukuroda no taki is well known not merely for being a nice waterfall to have a look at, but for the fact that ice climbers have a chance to do their thing over a good chunk of the winter when the falls freeze over. Of course, we're a little to late to see them in that state, but it was as good an excuse as any for a drive in the countryside.

So we departed at a leisurely 11AM or so, and after consulting the map and finding out we were driving through Bato, decided to make that our first stop of the day to visit the Hiroshige museum there. On the way east, we encountered a sign which said we were a mere 1.7 kilometers from Ryu-mon no taki (dragon gate falls) and decided to modify our itinerary and head out that way. It ended up being a nice opportunity to stretch our legs, and enjoy the fabulous sunshine and spring weather.

I also caught a rainbow with my camera, neat! What impressed me even more than the falls was the bamboo forest nearby. I really like the feel of the bamboo groves you find sprouting up here and there.

After about a 20 minute pit stop, we hopped back into the Pajero-mobile and got back on track. Once we arrived in Bato, we quickly found the Hiroshige museum and checked it out. Hiroshige was born in 1797 and became one of the last great wood block print artists in Japan. While his early works were not considered great, his later ones include the famed "36 views of Mount Fuji" of which a few are exposed in Bato. It was also interesting to see a few familiar places in his works such as Asakusa and Ueno in Tokyo and Enoshima near Kamakura which we visited a few weeks ago. The museum itself was also quite a different looking building and included a bamboo grove in the rear. A nice last minute addition to our day.

After crossing over into Ibaraki prefecture, which becomes the 9th prefecture to have been graced by my presence, (after Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi, Tokyo, Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Kanagawa in that order. I've pretty much covered the North-East coast of Japan, need to hit the North-West next with trips to Yamagata, Nagano, Niigata, Gunma and such.) we stopped for a quick lunch of Ramen before getting to our main destination for the day. Here is the lower section of the falls as we approached them, the weather really was ideal to be walking around outdoors a bit.

Must be quite interesting to visit here in the winter and see this as one solid chunk of ice. I can see why these are one of the three (the Japanese seem to be obsessed with grouping things into three: 3 famous gardens, 3 famous views of Japan, etc.) famous waterfalls, after Kegon Falls near Nikko (visited in October) and another set of falls in Wakayama prefecture in West Japan.

After hopping along the river and checking out the falls, we started to make our way to Motegi to savour some fresh strawberry ice cream... but were impeded on our way there. We kept getting stuck behind these slow driving school cars, packed with high school students learning to drive. At one point (pictured below) we were behind 3 of them at the same time! It was quite interesting to see that these cars were decked out with an extra set of mirrors, both inside and out, for the instructor to see... how ingenious is that? I think it's a great idea. The car I practiced in was an unmarked white sedan, the only way you could tell it was a driving school car was the break pedal in the passenger seat!

All three cars eventually pulled out of our way and we hit the open road. One thing I noticed today about Japan is that driving in these small towns sucks! The signs aren't always clear, or present in both directions, which would be helpful. I guess part of it is the age of these cities and the fact that the roads were built around existing infrastructure while in North America, most of our cities were designed and built with the car in mind since we're so young in the grand scheme of things. So after a few U-turns (it's a good thing our sense of direction is good enough that we know when we're not heading in the right direction) we did find our way to Motegi. We were even lucky enough to be 2 of the final people of the day to enjoy some fresh strawberries mixed with ice cream before they ran out, to the disappointment of those behind us.

While devouring our ice cream cones and looking around at the Omiyage selection (a tradition in Japan which presses upon us the need to purchase gifts anywhere we go... a tradition I have not followed since my first month in Japan, believing it to be merely a money grabbing tourist trap since most of the goods are manufactured in China and not in the place you're buying them anyway) and spotted this lovely EngRish gem here on a box of strawberry cream filled wafers.

You know the sad part? After 10 months here, I can actually make a bit of sense out of that... though I think it ranks near the top for the worst English I've seen printed on something. I mean come on people, pay for decent translations! Not that I am one to flaunt my Japanese abilities, but if I were to produce something on which I wanted Japanese writing or if I were to put out a Japanese sign for my business, I would at least get someone to check it for god's sake... before printing off thousands of these and sending them off to the four corners of the nation.

Anywho, so we then made our way back to Utsunomiya, picked up some grub at the Supermarket, a sub at Subway and headed home for a relaxed meal. Fantastic day, nice and relaxing (for me since I wasn't driving... Thanks Yoshiko!) and got to see lots of countryside. Ah and the supermarket reminds me of a stupid thing I did today... yes even I can have blond moments... So in case you are not aware, loaves of bread in Japan pretty much come in one standard size, about 8-10 inches long. This loaf is then cut into anywhere from 4-12 slices depending, with 6 and 8 being the most commonly found. The 10 slice loaf of bread is the most coveted of loaves and is usually snatched up early on in the day. Well tonight, at the supermarket, I made quite the interesting discovery. There on the bread shelf were some bags which indicated 9 slices. 9 slices? Can this be possible? After pointing this out to my (obviously) more intelligent half, she was quick to point out that an upside down 6 looks like a 9. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

Tomorrow, Scott and Matt are coming over to watch The Hurricane, since I'm the only one with a VCR in my apartment. We decided to make it a pot luck affair, I'll be turning out some fajitas and tacos, Matt may bring some Guacamole and Scott (being the culinarily challenged one of the three) will bring wine. Should be a good evening.

This past week also marked the successful return of Takahiro Cho, whom I had the pleasure of helping to interview for a part-time teaching position with us, after his training in Omiya. He was in observing lessons this week... Welcome Taka-sensei!

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