Sunday, October 29, 2006

Happy Halloween!

As most everyone knows, Halloween comes early in schools here in Japan. AEON Amity (our children's division) and the regular AEON school which have children have had their staff dressed up all week long leading up to the 31st. Here in Utsunomiya, we dressed up for Saturday's classes, Sunday's party and will don our costumes one last time tomorrow for Halloween proper. The above jack-o-lanterns were carved by Matto yesterday during a special Sunday lesson.

Yesterday went pretty well all in all. Some people didn't put much effort in their costumes, but some others went all out which balanced everything out. In the "went all out" category were definitely Matt and Yoshiko (manager) with matching (planned???) Indian\Middle-Eastern costumes. The best thing about Matt's costume was that he picked up the garments in person during his trip to India... some of the accessories were bought here at the Indian shop (Mugendo) on Union Street, one of Scott's favorite haunts.

Stacy was a giraffe.

Party got going around 5PM, with most guests having arrived and changed by 6PM or so. We all ate entirely too much food, a few people drank a little too much and a great time was had by all. Mid-point in the party, I noticed this new "costume" standing in the middle of the crowd. Hadn't seen this delivery guy yet... oh wait! It is a delivery guy! Since there was no staff at the counter, he stood there in the middle of the party and calmly waited for someone to notice him. Hilarious!

I think the Kawaii prize goes to Kokkoro, our little private lesson student who comes in with her father and 2 brothers every Saturday. That's one family bent on learning English! This picture is unfortunately a little blurry, but she made a very cute Mickey Mouse.

For the better part of the evening, she went around pulling this guy's tail... quite funny. It's been great to see her open up since I started here a year and a half ago. At first, when we tried to say hello to her she would run and hide, now she's joining parties... Cool!

Some of the other notable costumes were Mayu as a Shibuya girl (as outrageous as her makeup is, the real girls are WORSE, ick!), Emiko as a gangster and Setsuko in a Chinese dress and wig combination.

Speaking of Chinese dresses, here are two crazy guys who got dressed up in skimpy little dresses for the party. They were hilarious! We call them the crazy guys because whatever class they take can be heard from 4 classrooms away due to the laughs... they're practically a comedy duo. Great guys, too bad I won't get to teach them before my contract ends. Not sure of their names, but the Doctor in the middle is Kotaro, one of our outstanding students.

The AEON female segment of the staff, all decked out for the party.

Two of our more social students also went all out in these clown costumes... Kentaro on the left and Yuji on the right... Gotta love the pig snout!

Disco James in the middle here is Aki who brought her daughter to the party as well. She, along with the two hairy Chinese girls on the right, took home the top prizes for costumes.... notice the chest hair on Aki!

Our three winners.

And finally, the group shot... great turnout this year and it was a lot of fun.

For more pics, you can check out Matt's blog.

So that was that, as I said... waaaaayyyyy too much food... but it was great!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The calm AFTER the storm

After the hellish weather we had yesterday, it was quite nice to find nice blue skies when I walked out this morning.

Yesterday was simply miserable. How miserable? I took out my kotatsu and hid under it for the evening because my apartment was so damp and cold from the pummeling rain and winds. All day, the region was hit with extreme winds, oftentimes up around 100 kilometers an hour according to some of my students. I believe the exact measurement I was quoted was 27.4 meters per second, which is just 2 categories down from hurricane on the Beaufort scale for measuring wind. Incredible! Evidence of the storm was everywhere. On the way to work, I first noticed the fence across from my place had been ripped apart. Lord knows how many typhoons that thing has withstood, and it's in a fairly protected place too.

If you look up in the centre of the picture above, you'll spot this crew working on the power lines. I saw about 4 of them on the way to work today, that's the problem with having wires all over the place people... BURY THEM!

This building across from work had its roof damaged as well... vacant and obviously not well maintained.

So I took advantage of the clear weather today to really try out the new S3 I picked up last weekend. So far so good. Halloween is in the air on Union Street with inflated pumpkins lining the street.

Just for fun, I popped in to the 10th floor of the building and got a few pictures. Here is Tsukuba-san in the distance, with the Kanto plain stretching out as far as the eye can see.

From up here you can also see the almost completed Utsunomiya Castle, which is set to open up soon I think. Big huge waste of money as far as I'm concerned, plopping a castle in such an ugly neighborhood in the shadow of a coms tower... but I guess it's hard to compete with Matsumoto-jo after all.

Parlour Beat is a local Pachinko parlour whose slogan is "Parlour Beat: The Beat Ringing High" and it's always packed with gamblers. If you're unfamiliar with Pachinko, you can think of it as slot machines but with about 10 times the noise and smoke. And since gambling for money is illegal, you win these little metal beads which you can then trade in at the counter for a gift such as a Teddy Bear or something. What's the point then you ask? Well then you take that gift to the little shack outside the building you can see here on the left of the building and exchange it for money. Gotta love being able to run around the law like that, must help that the police are involved in the operation...

Fooling around with my stitching mode here... here is the lovely city of Utsunomiya, looking south towards Tokyo.

On my break, I managed to get a nice shot of the sunset too... camera is holding up it's end of the deal, I just need to figure out more things that I can do with it.

So that was the day, only 3 more work days to go before the weekend. I've started looking into my Visa Application process for Vietnam, with any luck I can do it by mail and not have to pay a travel agency to do it, but I don't know yet. I'll give the Vietnamese Embassy in Tokyo a call tomorrow and see if someone speaks English... hope so!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lazy day

Yup. Lazy Lazy Lazy day... that's the only way to describe it. Just about the only productive thing I did today was to wash the dishes and clean up my closet a bit.

Since the weather wasn't too too nice out there today, I didn't make it out of the house, but I did manage to test my new camera thoroughly and am pleased to report that I can't find any problems with it.

Took pictures of some of the Yen I had lying around. Paper money in Japan comes in 4 denominations: 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000 Yen notes. The 2000 Yen note is quite rare, I had never seen one until my mother brought some from Canada... go figure. Here are the pictures on the 5000 and 1000 yen notes.

And some of my spare change. Coins in Japan come in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 Yen.

I am still amazed once in a while at the amount of cash I use here. Back home, everything is done through debit cards now, and I rarely had more than 20-40$ on me at any time. Here, I whip it out of the bank in 300$ or more increments. When my mother was here, she pulled out a 10,000Yen note to pay for coffee, which is totally fine here, but when I pointed out she'd just broken the equivalent of a 100$ bill at a coffee shop, she was quite taken aback. I must admit that my change counting abilities have increased dramatically since I came here. After discovering a drawer full of spare change which the previous teacher had left here, I decided to use up everything I could, and it's worked out so far.

Anywho, enough with being (semi) productive, I think I'll start in on season 2 of Seinfeld... cheers!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I win!

Pretty mellow day today, highlight being some alone time for Yoshiko and I.

After breakfast this morning, we headed out to Yamada Denki prepared to do battle over my defective Canon Powershot S3. I was fully expecting them to put up a fight and insist on it being sent in for repairs, which would mean me being without a camera for god knows how long. In preparation for this confrontation, I'd received advice from a number of people, some of which advised me to use my gaikokujineness to my advantage and just go in alone and use English and gestures to make them understand I want a new camera. I seriously considered this tactic, but chose not to make use of it in the end. Yoshiko and I went in together and the conversation went something like this: (The "Us" mentioned here is Yoshiko, my Japanese voice for the exchange)

Us: This camera is broken, won't take a picture unless the button is pressed down very hard.
Them: Let me see. (snaps three quick pictures) I don't see any problem. Are you sure the mode dial was properly clicked in?
Me: D'oh! (Can't believe she thinks I'm some amateur who can't run as simple a mechanism as a mode dial. Fiddles with camera, recreates the problem after about thirty seconds) See?
Them: Ah, ok well we need to send it in for repairs.
Us: I would like a new camera. I really need my camera, I use it all the time. Also this was a very expensive camera which I expected to last more than 3 months.
Them: I'm sorry, since it's been three months, I can't exchange the camera.
Us: But I talked to someone from Canon who said you could, or if not you your manager.
Them: Hold on a second. (Comes back with new camera in box) Please fill this out.

Of course, the camera just HAD to work when she tried it at first... other than that, everything went fine. Seems dropping the Canon name worked well, even though she didn't ask for any further information. She obviously had the power to make the decision and just needed a little extra convincing. So once more, I am equipped to photograph the world... but it'll be raining for the next little while, so who knows when I'll get to try this new one out.

Watched Rabbit Proof Fence again today, such an amazing movie. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's an Australian film which follows the true story of two half-caste aboriginal girls who were taken from their families and put into a government-run camp. The movie follows their 1500 mile journey home, an astonishing odyssey for such young children. Highly recommended. The rest of the day was spent lazing around, watching some DVDs of Ally McBeal, enjoying tea and snacks... nice mellow day.

Tomorrow's plans depend on the weather, but probably not going to do much. Next weekend is AEON's Halloween Party, which means Saturday, and Tuesday we are allowed to wear costumes in class instead of suits. Unfortunately for me, my costume (devil) is only complete when coupled with a black suit, but at least I can go without a tie!

This week also marked another milestone for my return home. My contract will end in (now a little less than) 4 months, with a return to Canada in the works for 2 months beyond that time. I know it will go really fast, especially with the Vietnam\Cambodia trip smack dab in the middle of things. We've got to get started on Yoshiko's Visa application process, prepare to read some complaints about the inefficiencies of the Canadian Government!

Friday, October 20, 2006

It's been one week...

...since Yoshiko and I sat down at City Hall and became man and wife. Time flies when you're having fun they say.

Yesterday in the meeting, I was spacy, not quite in the conversation, not quite grasping what was being said. I'm fumbling when speaking a little too, like yesterday when I told Matt about "the girl with the Pooh on her Bear" instead of "the Pooh bear on her bag".... why is this happening? I haven't taken a picture in 5 days, a first since I came to Japan almost a year and a half ago. In fact, my beloved Canon S3 isn't even in my possession, since I brought it to my lovely wife's apartment earlier this week in advance of our trip to the store for (hopefully) an exchange. I figure I'll go in to the store alone, with no Japanese support and act frantic using only my limited language abilities. Hopefully the sales clerk will just get flustered and replace the camera instead of sending it in for repairs for god knows how long. It's only been 3 months since I bought it, and now that I think of it, the shutter has been acting up for a little over a month now, but I thought it was just me.... so I should be getting a new camera tomorrow... but we shall see.

Other than that, not much going on. Just going to spend a chilled out weekend with my new wife, recuperating from last week's festivities with a little alone time, which will be nice. Next weekend has the possibility of a Halloween Party on Saturday night, but we're not sure if we'll be attending yet. AEON is also holding their annual party on Sunday, which I will be going to.

Anywho, off to work. Cheers.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Great big thanks

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who've left comments and emails and such congratulating Yoshiko and I. We are very happy and I'm glad that people are happy for our happiness.

My dear mother left Japan yesterday after a final whirlwind shopping tour in the streets of Ueno. We made our way down to Ameyokocho first and I was surprised to find it rather crowded for a Monday. The weather must have made people come out a bit more, it was a lovely day.

Unfortunately, it was at about this time that I encountered a problem with my camera. When I press the shutter down, it won't take the picture unless I push REALLY hard. Will need to have it taken back in to Yamada Denki and see what can be done about that... hopefully a straight exchange since it's been less than 3 months since I got it. So I didn't get to snap many pictures, but I did get one of this building which I've always found interesting near Ueno Park.

After a little shopping, we settled down for a quick lunch at the News Deli in Ueno Station before taking the train down to Narita. After being processed and checked-in VERY efficiently along with hundreds of other people, my mother went through security and disappeared into the bowels of Narita Airport.

Great big thanks to all of you who greeted her so warmly, you guys are fantastic and she's really looking forward to seeing you all again next March!

It was at this point that my day sort of fell apart, probably due to my being pretty tired from a big and busy week. When I got to the bus counter, I found out I'd just missed it and it would be over an hour before I could catch the next one, so I decided on the train. Then as I got to the platform, I and another woman just missed the doors closing and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. Then when I go to Ueno I also just missed a Shinkansen and had to wait for another one. And when I got to Utsunomiya, my ticket wouldn't work in the machine and I had to back out into a sea of people and go through the manned gate... with no problems mind you. What a crazy evening! Never have I had so many travel related issues in one day... must be because my good luck charm, Yoshiko, wasn't with me.

Anywho, better hang my laundry and start getting ready for work. Cheers, and thanks again to everyone!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Now presenting....

Mr. and Mrs. Lafleur

And just like that, we are man and wife. Very simple it was. Woke up early on Saturday morning and headed out to Utsunomiya City Hall, handed in the paperwork we'd already filled out, made a copy of my passport and Gaikokujin card, turned it all in and that was that. We exited the building legally married, but not even carrying a certificate or license or anything, which is the one thing which surprised me. After a quick coffee with my new wife and the newly appointed Mother-in-law, I made my way to work while the girls went off to Mashiko for the day.

During my 5PM break, I headed over to the Tobu Grande Hotel and checked in to the Rose Suite on the top floor of the hotel. Very nice room, the floor space of the two bathrooms alone was larger than my apartment, and then you tack on the living room and bedroom with king size bed. I was pleased with the accommodations and headed back to work for my final lessons. I was also surprised at how easy it was to incorporate the words "my wife" into my daily vocabulary as in "My wife will pick up the room key later" and "Is there parking available? My wife will be driving here tonight." When I got back to the hotel after work, Yoshiko was waiting for me and we spent a few hours at Kegon downstairs trying out a few drinks before retiring to our suite.

This morning was again an early one as we got ready to head off to Kirifuri Kogen for lunch. As we arrived shortly before 11, people had already begun congregating outside and I started off the rounds of introductions. One character which really sticks out in my mind is Yoshiko's spry 90 year-old grandfather. That man was cool! Still very robust and very chatty, complete with gold tooth... I'm always amazed at the health of the elderly here, a tribute to the traditional Japanese diet no doubt. Here we are with my new parents in law.

We eventually made our way inside where I was semi-surprised into being asked to make a speech in front of everyone. I'd pondered preparing something and practicing the Japanese, but I've never been one to follow a script. At John and Sarah's wedding a few years back, I'd prepared a speech but didn't even glance at it, reeling freely from one anecdote to another. I would have felt too constrained in Japanese, and so after using my limited skills to thank everyone for coming, I had Yoshiko translate for me. We then went around the table a bit, with my mother and Matt having the chance to say a few words to the crowd.

The lunch at Yama-no restaurant was absolutely FANTASTIC. I'd have to say, with no disrespect to the wonderful steaks we've enjoyed over a campfire, that this was one pretty damn good piece of meat. My first try at Japanese beef actually, and now I get why people love the fatty meat so much... soooooo tender.

After a few rounds of gifts and some parting words, people filed out to leave and we made our way down to the Falls to take a few pictures. Of course, as one of the main actors in today's celebration, I couldn't take the photos myself and so left that up to Matt and my mother.

Here we are with my mum.

And alone.

And with Matto the Natto.

After heading back and hopping into our vehicles we headed further into the mountains for a bit more sightseeing and some of that marvelous Ozasa Bokujo soft ice cream. What a fantastic day we had! The weather was lovely.

I did manage to take a few pictures of the fall foliage, which is mostly rust coloured up here near Ozasa, but a lovely view nonetheless.

My mother and Yoshiko's family said their goodbyes and we headed back home. And that was that, the Japanese Chapter of my wedding diary is complete. Tune in next year for the Canadian Wedding installment.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Last blog posting as a single man, and I am totally cool with that

In less than 12 hours, Yoshiko and I will be filling out the paperwork at Utsunomiya City Hall making us legally man and wife. How cool is that! I am pretty mellow about it, and I think Yoshiko is as well, though we are of course both happy and excited about taking this step. My mother, (who is currently trying to convince me she has a better way of doing the dishes in my apartment than I do, she hasn't won her point yet) is quite giddy about everything and quite pleased to finally be getting a girl in the family.

Today, we got up early and made our way down to the station to hop on our train into Tokyo. The initial plan was to hit Shinjuku first and make it up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building while it was still relatively clear out, but the cloudy\hazy weather convinced me to head directly to Shibuya instead. As we exited the train and made our way into the station, the sheer scale of Tokyo started to hit my mother as we saw hundreds of people marching down hallways in every direction. Little did she know, this was but a taste of busy Tokyo. Our first stop was Shibuya Crossing, where we spent a little time watching people and my mother tried to get her head around the fashion sense (or lack thereof) of some of the passers by.

We did eventually actually cross the crossing. I have yet to see it really busy... maybe on the weekends?

Here are some decidedly different characters walking on by, gotta love the hip hop guy in the winter jacket. It was around this place that my mother got a little taste of some of the little irritations of life as a foreigner in Japan. A girl handing out tissues in Shibuya REFUSED to give my mother a pack, which did not make little Anne too too happy.

After checking out Tokyu Hands where I picked up my Halloween Costume, we grabbed lunch at a so-so Italian place before making our way to Harajuku on the Yamanote Line. Thanks to my soon-to-be-wife, we had a pair of tickets allowing us free rides on the JR lines all day! Upon arriving in Harajuku, we immediately made our way into the park and headed towards the Meiji Shrine. These doors are ornamented in a rather subtle and elegant way, totally Japanese.

The sun did eventually make an appearance, making the shrine quite lovely.

The tree you can see above is surrounded by plaques on which people write their wishes\thanks\etc. The thing I am always surprised by is the variety of languages present. I love the way the light was hitting these.

As we walked around, we noticed this sign shouting out "No Pedestrian Only"... any idea what they're trying to say here? Kanji translation anyone?

We then did a quick tour around the streets of Harajuku and down Omotesando where my mother admired (from a distance) 10,000 dollar purses and some of the gaudiest shoes you could ever come across. We then headed to our final destination, Shinjuku, and made our way through underground tunnels to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which towers over the landscape.

Here was the view from the top on a hazy Tokyo day.

This is Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine, which we walked around earlier, as seen from 45 floors up in Shinjuku.

My mother towering over Tokyo.

And after a little bit of shopping around the station, back down the Utsunomiya line to our little slice of Japan. Quite happy to be back, we dropped by Nagasakiya for some grub and I made a basterdized version of Sukuyaki I'd like to name Sukiyakidon. Quite yummy.

Now, off to bed, early day tomorrow and a full day of work too. Only a little over 4 months of Saturday teaching left! Starting in two weeks, I will be teaching lessons for the final time.

Next time I write here, I will be a married man!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Rainy day in Utsunomiya

Woke up this morning to cloudy skies and a light drizzle, quite different from the blue skies we'd been experiencing since Saturday. As we headed out, I spotted a cat making a move on a group of birds who were lounging around on the vacant lot next to my building. He did eventually pounce but failed to get anything for his efforts and just sat there for a while looking sad. Here he is, before the pounce... can you spot the bird?

We dropped off my dry cleaning where the lady is finally learning my name, piece by piece. She still says Ma before remembering that I am not Matt and then says Mi and waits for me to fill in the blanks... progress! My mum attended the free chat I had with Tomoko, Mieko and Megumi which was quite enjoyable. We then headed out into the rain for my mother's first shrine\temple visit. We first went up the stairs of Futaarayama Shrine, the main shrine here downtown. I got this nice shot of an old sign there.

It was of course raining, and this pigeon seemed quite content on waiting out the rain inside by the vending machines.

Futaarayama is really quite a lovely shrine, nice view from the top too. Here's my mom on the steps of the main shrine building.

We then headed to a temple nearby before making our way to the curry shop where we yet again were given freebies due to my mother being there. The owner was very happy that I chose his establishment to visit with my mother while she was in town and threw in some apple juice and tea for free. I am also pleased to report that my mother completed an entire meal using ONLY chopsticks for the first time. Woohoo!

After lunch, we headed over to Nagasakiya for a bit before meeting Yoshiko at her office and hooking up with Yasuko and Kanako for some coffee. Yoshiko ordered milk tea which came with this teeny-tiny thing of cream.

After draining my coffee, I had to run up and teach for the evening, leaving the ladies to their own devices. My mother showed up again for discussion class and came along for the weekly beer at the Lion's Head. Yoshiko and I even got our first wedding gift... THANKS Yuki!