Wednesday, February 28, 2007

San-gatsu.... wow

Big surprise this morning to find out it was already March. I remember when I first started counting down to the end of my AEON contract... I think I started at the 9 months mark... lol Now all of a sudden, I find myself one week beyond that day and with just about six weeks remaining "in-country"... wow. It certainly does seem to go pretty fast.

The next few weeks will be pretty busy, here's a preview:
March 3rd - Skiing with Keizo
March 5th to the 7th - Skiing at Shiga Kogen in Nagano
March 8th - day trip to Mito to see the plum blossoms at Kairakuen
March 11th - Last ski trip of the year with Yoshiko, Nozomi and maybe others
March 12th to 26th - Travelling with my family to Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, Hiroshima, Nikko, Utsunomiya and Tokyo...

Phew! Looking forward to it though! Skiing, traveling and seeing my family, what more could one ask for? After my folks head home, we'll be making preparations in earnest for our departure on April 18th.

My first full week off has been good. On Monday, Yoshiko and I picked up Matt for a quick run out to Nikko for lunch and a bit of walking. We had lunch at Yama no Restaurant, which is where our wedding lunch was held back in October. As usual, the place did not disapoint and the meal was quite good. With all the trees being bare, you get a very nice view of Kirifuri Falls right from the restaurant's dining room. This shot is from the party room on the second floor. Not as colorful as summer\autumn, but a nice view nonetheless.

This winter has been exceptionally warm, which is obvious when looking at old Nantai-san and the surrounding mountains which are already losing their blanket of snow. In fact, this year is set to be the first year ever with no snowfall in Tokyo, or here in Utsunomiya for that matter. Luckily, the ski slopes in Fukushima have gotten enough to keep the season going to a little while yet.

After lunch, we headed into Nikko proper to seek out the hotel we will be staying in with my family in a couple of weeks. We dropped in to have a peak and it looks very nice, right at the end of a road bordering the river and a little park. It is also right by Ganman Ga Fuchi Abyss which we took a walk down while we were there. The path walks by a relatively unspoiled river, which is fantastic if you've seen what they've done to a majority of the streams here, and is lined with dozens of Bake-jizo (ghost? statues) with their little red bibs. It is said that these mysterious little guys are uncountable. If you walk down the trail counting each statue you encounter, you will come up with a different count every time. Interesting, and something I'll have to try the next time we head out there.

As we walked down the path, we were often presented with views of Nantai-san. I will never get tired of admiring the mountains around Nikko. I think this really is my favourite place in Japan. This is partly due to our proximity to it which has made it a common destination for us when we feel like escaping the concrete jungle that is Utsunomiya, but there is a certain intangible reason to this feeling as well. It's just a very special place I think.

The rest of the week has gone by quietly. We met up with Matt and Anthony on Tuesday for coffee, and I made a really good lasagna for dinner last night. As I sit here typing this, the intoxicating aroma of Yoshiko's banana and chocolate-chip loaf is emanating from the kitchen, making my stomach grumble... mmmm! We're going to head out now for lunch and maybe a visit to the Chagall exhibit at the Utsunomiya Museum of Art. Depending on the weather, I hope to take my camera skiing with me on Saturday and will post the first snow pics taken with the Canon S3. Wish me luck!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The springing of Spring

Well, that's pretty much that. Last night, with my farewell party, my obligations to AEON have all been taken care of and I am officially a free man. The party was nice, though the venue leaves a lot to be desired. Good turnout though, and as always, it's the attendees who make or break such an event. I am picture-less since I was too busy talking with people to snap photos, but I'm sure I'll get some by email at some point and I will be sure to post a few on here. One of the highlights of the evening was when Matt and I sang an ode to Scotto-sensei with a slightly modified version of "Country Roads" by John Denver. Priceless! That was pretty much it for the big goodbyes. From this point out, I foresee just a few more intimate get-togethers.

On a significantly lighter note, after having lunch with Mattoto, who was unfortunately forced to work one of the dumb Sunday Open days at the school, I embarked on a stroll reminiscent of the days Scott and I would bum around Utsunomiya for hours on end. I started out at the temple behind the Tochigi Prefectural Office which has a series of plum trees. As I approached, I could smell the fragrance of the blossoms on the air and knew I was in luck. Plum blossoms are considered by most as a mere preview to the fantastic cherry blossoms which follow, but they are special in their own way. My favourite thing about them is the fragrance, which is strong but not overpowering and permeates any area where plum trees are in bloom. Quite lovely and the first real sign of Spring's arrival. This is the front of the temple in question, The old cherry tree which blooms here is definitely worth the visit.

While some of the trees were just starting to bloom...

Others were much further along... say 60%? due to their location in full sun for most of the day.

In a sort of blog reply to Masanori, who took a great picture of chestnuts with the moon in the background and posted it on his blog, I snapped a few with plum blossoms in the foreground. Thanks for the inspiration! Here's the first with some yellow plum blossoms in the foreground.

And with white blossoms.

This is the gate to the graveyard on the temple grounds, these trees will flower up really nicely and frame the gate very well. I took a photo like this last spring as well. After looking back at my pictures, these guys are about 3 weeks earlier than they were last year... testament to this warm winter we've enjoyed here.

After spending a bit of time on the temple grounds enjoying the blossoms, I headed out to Hachimanyama park for a bit of a walk. The Cherry trees there are just starting to bud, figure another couple of weeks before the blooms start popping out, though it will depend on the weather. On my way out of the park, I found myself perched on the side of a hill overlooking the city. I guess the reason plum and cherry blossoms are so wonderful is that the are an oasis of beauty in the concrete jungle that are are typical Japanese cities. This tree is the only one in view from this vantage point.

But of course, as with most things, so long as your modify your aperture and limit your depth of field, the beauty manages to shine through despite the surrounding concrete.

I completed my afternoon of wandering by making my way all the way home on foot, rounding out about 4 hours of walking. Not so bad.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

This whole "not working" thing really is great!

For quite some time now, I've been saying that Japan would be a much better place to live without the whole "work" aspect. Sure enough, I was right, lol.

3 days since I finished working, and I'm feeling pretty mellowed out. It's really great not having to work this Saturday, where at this time I would be finishing up my 5th lesson of the day with 2 more still to go. So needless to say, my first few days of unemployment have been good.

On Thursday, Yoshiko and I stopped by H.I.S. Travel and booked ourselves onto a Delta Airlines flight which will take us to Atlanta where we will then transfer for Ottawa. If all goes according to plan, I will be walking on Canadian soil again at about 11PM on Wednesday April 18th. And we got a pretty good deal on the tickets, less than I paid to come out here back in 2005 and MUCH cheaper than when I went home for Golden Week last year. So that's that, another step closer to home.

In skiing news, I've booked myself into a cute little place right smack dab in the middle of the biggest ski area in Japan... Shiga Kogen. After debating whether it may be best to go to Hokkaido since the price is similar, I opted for the bigger resort rather than the better snow. From the web cams I've seen, this shouldn't be a problem. I leave on Monday March 5th, and return Wednesday the 7th. Looking forward to it!

Today, I had planned to make that bike ride out to Oya, but the wind is really whipping around out there so we opted to go by car instead. Having already explored the area quite a bit during past excursions, we headed up little Mount Tage to visit a temple that some students had suggested. This is the approach to the temple steps. Ever time I visit Oya, I am surprised at how isolated and rural the area seems, despite being within easy reach of downtown Utsunomiya.

The temple itself was pleasant, due to it's natural setting, though I must admit to being pretty templed out after almost two years here. The Oya area does have some truly OLD stuff, so it's definitely worth the trip out.

On a small shelf near the temple, some people had left these little daruma dolls. As I believe I have mentioned before, these little guys are bought when one has a goal or objective in mind. After deciding your goal, you paint in one of the eyes. The second eye is painted when your objective has been reached.

This was the view from the temple grounds. Utsunomiya is off to the right, hidden by the trees. A lovely day indeed.

In search of a view of the majestic mountains to the North of Tage-san, we ended up hiking up a trail which took us to the mountain's peak at 377 meters. The little clearing near the summit had a nice view, but we unfortunately couldn't see Nantai-san or the surrounding mountains which are quite breathtaking these days with their dusting of snow. We did manage to catch a glimpse of them through the trees from a different vantage point before making our way back down the mountain.

After stopping by the Oya Kannon for a quick look at the ongoing construction, we started looking for a Thai restaurant Yoshiko had been to before and that I'd heard about.

After circling around for a bit, we did manage to spot it. It's right near the Lawson's just as the main road splits into two should anyone be interested. The food was quite good and the chef spoke pretty decent English.

And that was about that for the trip to Oya. Tonight is my farewell party where I make the final break with good ol' AEON. It's been one heck of a run, and I will miss many of the students - not all ;-) - but I am glad to be putting the eikaiwa life behind me once and for all. For some reason, there seems to be some rumour or feeling that I may some day return to teach again... not sure where that's coming from. I will come back to Japan, to visit the Japanese side of the family, not to teach. Aside from the lack of true opportunities within the company, (obvious in the fact that even the trainers who've been with the company for a decade or longer are not hired as permanent employees but kept on 1 year contracts) I have a life waiting for me back in Canada. It's plain to see that many of the people who opt to stay in the eikaiwa system as a career have some reason for it other than the great sushi and hot springs found in Japan. Whether it be a lack of social skills, education or job prospects, they stay here and teach because it's easier than dealing with whatever they'd have to face back home. There are of course a multitude of reasons to stay in Japan and this may have sounded like a blanket statement, but if you've ever met some of the long-timers (like the jerk we nicknamed Michael Moore at the Lion's Head) I've run into, you'll understand what I mean here... lol

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Another ending, a new begining...

And just like that, my 1 year, 9 month and 9 days of employment with AEON are over. Quite the roller coaster ride it has been, especially these last few months. After a frustrating lead up to my final days, I've felt at peace with things for my last two weeks here.

Japan is a very interesting country with fascinating things to see and experience, but I think what will stick with me once I get back home is the people I've met and interacted with during my time here. From the xenophobic student who wishes all foreigners would just go home to the open-minded human rights activist, our students certainly run the whole gamut of characters, and my life has been infinitely enriched by having gotten to know them. Some goodbyes are over, the next set will happen at the farewell party this Saturday where an over-capacity crowd are gathering to say goodbye to me and welcome Anthony to Utsunomiya.

My last few weeks of employment went well. Despite some last minute inflexibility and stupidity on behalf of management, I decided not to punish the new guy for it and offered up a chunk of my Monday afternoon off to help get my replacement settled in to life in Utsunomiya, and I'm glad I did. My last two days at the office were spent running Anthony through the various hoops and mazes that make up the daily grind at AEON Utsunomiya, and I'm glad to report he will do fine once he gets some time under his belt.

After class tonight, I was offered the traditional card with pictures from all the staff. Kumiko did a fantastic job taking very candid pictures and the messages from my coworkers were as usual priceless... right down to their spelling and grammatical errors. A great big thanks goes out to my (now) former coworkers at AEON. Selective memory being what it is, I will only remember the good times... and there certainly were plenty of those!

I was pleasantly surprised that a group of students had taken half of the Lion's Head and waited for me to complete my final paperwork. We all had a good time over a few drinks in "room 11", and I hope to be able to make it for another few of those Wednesday night get togethers before we leave next April.

On my break today, I decided to take my camera along and was somewhat surprised to see that the plum blossoms have begun to bloom... in February! After checking my pictures from last year, I've confirmed that this is a full 3 weeks earlier than Spring 2006. A strange year indeed. Here is a tree doing its thing up at Futarayama Shrine in downtown Utsunomiya.

As I wandered around the grounds of the shrine, I happened to catch a glimpse of my first apartment building out on Hanawada, and snapped a quick shot for old times sake.

It really was a gorgeous day, and I hope tomorrow is just as nice. Seeing as I am now a free man, I think I'll hop on the bike and do a bit of touring. Maybe a run out to Oya? We shall see. I also have to decide what's going on with the skiing thing. Have to get my next trip lined up and book. Definitely leaning towards Shiga Kogen, but Niseko is still a contender.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Almost done

Just as my final days at work are winding down, the next countdown is ready to go. 3 days left until the end of my contract, 2 months left in Japan. I dropped by a travel agency last week to inquire about pricing for a flight our of Tokyo on April 18th, which seems to be the mutually agreed upon date of departure at this time.

That reminds me of a conversation I had today on a ski lift somewhere in Fukushima Prefecture. Ayako, a students from way before my time at the school, asked me what was my favourite thing in Japan, adding the caveat that I couldn't say Yoshiko. I pondered the question for a few moments. As my time here flashed before my eyes, I thought of places I'd visited, things I'd tried and experienced, but the answer which finally came out was: our students. They really are what have made this whole "coming out to Japan" thing worthwhile. And seeing as Yoshiko was a student, I even got to work her into my answer... lol

So yes, today, we hit the slopes for my third ski trip this season. This time, we hit up a resort I had only heard rumours of... a so called "skiers' paradise" where boarders are politely turned away and Olympic skiers come to compete: Takahata. Very different vibe to this place, probably due to the caliber of skiers who were here. Takahata's skiers usually only include the most hardcore aficionados, willing to drive deeper into the mountains for the experience of snowboarderless runs.

Unfortunately for us today, the conditions weren't so great for the first half of the day. A steady snowfall severely limited visibility, to the point where you could only see a few feet ahead of you at times, which is very unnerving when skiing a resort one is not familiar with. At least it wasn't cold.

I finally strapped on the short skis, with disappointing but I guess predictable results. While lightweight, easy to travel with and easy to skate with to get around on flat areas, they certainly don't offer the stability and control that I've gotten used to with my full sized skis. I did a couple of runs on short skis before zipping back to the chalet and going back to long ones. Funny thing is, after switching from short skis to long ones, I sucked! My skis now felt heavy and awkward and I kept crossing my ski tips, something I haven't done for years! Thankfully after a lunch break to make my feet forget about the short skis, I got back into the groove of things and by mid-afternoon I was zooming down with the best of 'em. During lunch, we actually met up with Kotaro, one of my students who makes Takahata his home on Winter weekends. We managed to ski one run together before he had to go off and take a lesson in preparation for his test next week. He will be passing the Ski Association of Japan's Grade 1 level.

Here is a shot of the group, taken by Kotaro. From the left: Keizo, Sayaka, Ayako and of course myself.

After finding a run we really liked and making a couple of runs down with the skies clearing which offered us great views of the surrounding mountains... bad luck struck and Ayako went down with an ankle sprain. The ski patrol whisked her off in a snowmobile and we packed it in for the day a little over an hour earlier than usual, which is no big deal. Today's injury marks the third (first was Christian's broken arm while boarding at Camp Fortune, second was my collision with a stupid boarder last year at Alts) where I've had to put up the ol' crossed skis distress signal and have the ski patrol drop by.

I think I've shifted my skiing energies away from distant Hokkaido and settled them on Shiga Kogen, a massive amalgamation of over 20 ski resorts in Nagano which served as grounds for the ski events during the 1998 Winter Games. Heading there instead of Hokkaido means no plane, and the web sites seem more foreigner friendly, likely due to the large number of expats from Tokyo who make runs out to Nagano to ski. I've got an information request out to a ski-out hotel, we'll see what comes of it.

And that's about that. Great day of skiing, work is almost done, skiing plans are in the works and we're making plans for Canada... things are looking pretty damn good to me at this point, which is good because the ol' company pulled some crap this week I was not pleased with... I may need to post a bitching blog about things later this week, we shall see.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Aaaaaahhhh... long weekends....

Pretty mellow couple of days off this has been, and the best part is that I have yet one more ahead of me! And hey, I even got a couple of pictures taken!

Here's a quick one I shot of a candle Yoshiko had on the go. I like the detail in in the reflection above the flame.

Sunday, after a morning perusing the Internet for cheap hotel deals, we got a call inviting us out to Yoshiko's hometown of Imaichi where a flower festival was being held. Figuring it was a pretty good opportunity to try and kick start this here photography hobby of mine, which has been sadly lacking these past weeks, I strapped on the ol' Canon and we headed out to the big city.

As usual, it was nice to see Yoshiko's parents, always a warm welcome when we drop by. After a spot of tea and some Okinawan mango flavoured sugar candy, we headed on out to downtown Imaichi where the festivities were being held.

From what I saw of it, this flower festival was pretty heavy on the yatai food, and pretty light on the flowers, which is totally cool with me! I'd had a hankering for some festival food for a while now, and hadn't had the opportunity to indulge. The festival was essentially comprised of 3 streets which meet at one intersection. 2 of these streets were lined on both sides with food stalls and stands selling daruma. Daruma, by the way, are these funky little dolls on which you write something you want to achieve. When you achieve your goal, you paint in the eyes of the doll. Pretty neat idea, good way to keep focused on a goal if you see its blank eyes staring at you every day. Anywho, the 3rd street has a couple of stands selling plants and these lovely miniature cherry and plum trees. But of course, the food was center stage. After giving some fried chicken a go, Yoshiko and I were surprised to see a kebab stand and we quickly picked up a couple to munch on. As we were eating on a bench behind the action, I snapped a couple of backstage pictures of the food stalls. Here's a lady and her karaage (garlic battered fried chicken).

And an old timer working the yaki soba (fried buckwheat noodle) grill.

As we wandered through the crowds, we made our way into this relic of a sake shop which, as many rural businesses do, doubles as the family homestead.

On our way back, we stopped by this Hiroshima style oconomiyaki stand and picked up a couple for dinner. Hard to believe that in a little over a month, we'll be chowing down on this great stuff in Hiroshima itself!

The smells around here were great, including those emanating from this stall roasting chestnuts. All in all a great if slightly chilly afternoon.

Today was a relatively frustrating day of running into wall after wall when trying to book hotels for next month's grand tour with my family. Luckily, the day ended well with Kyoto and Nikko hotels confirming our reservations and me spending some time in the kitchen whipping up some grub.

Tonight, I opted for a taste of home of sorts, though this is one of my own creations. I started with the idea of making "pate chinois" a definitely French-Canadian take on shepherd's pie consisting of subsequent layers of ground hamburg, creamed corn and mashed potatoes. I opted to go back in time a bit closer to the original and ended up with my own version of Cottage Pie. Only two layers on this one. Top layer was mashed potatoes with roasted onions and garlic and the bottom layer was a gravy-infused mixture of meat and vegetables. Yum! We also finally popped the cork on the bottle of Champagne that some students gave us for our wedding, and Yoshiko whipped up some mixed-berry milk pudding, a great meal!

Tomorrow, my darling wife has requested pasta in a tomato sauce... I'm quite happy to finally have a bit more of a kitchen to work with!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sayonara Ark Daikan Bldg.

After 4 months of marriage, we are finally living together and I am now settled in to my 3rd Japanese apartment in 2 years.

When my mother came down to attend our wedding in October, she gave us two little bride and groom teddy bears, which we decided to keep in our respective apartments until we moved in. These little guys have now been reunited.

The move was completed relatively quickly, which leaves me a full day off tomorrow to chill out before working on Saturday. Woke up this morning and quickly finished up my packing in between visits from the gas and electric companies to cancel service and have me settle up my final bills. Yoshiko swung by at 11:00 and by noon we were on our way with the ol' Pajero packed to the gills with my stuff. I threw out about 7 bags of garbage this time around, and from the looks of it (3 suitcases, and a series of other bags) I'll need to throw out a bunch more before we leave Japan in April.

On another note, I'm pleased to report that some aspects of life here still manage to coax a smile out of me. Yesterday afternoon, I stopped by the 1000Yen hair cut place to get my seasonal buzz-cut. After putting my name down and grabbing a seat while the lady was finishing up with a client, I started leafing a magazine while waiting for my turn. When my turn came up, the fantastic lady who has been cutting my hair broke out into calls of "teacha, teacha, teacha". This lady has been cutting my hair since I came here and she always does her best to keep a conversation going, despite our language barrier. Somehow, my bad Japanese has always managed to meet her bad English halfway and we always reach some kind of understanding. Ain't communication grand?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Skiing, moving and farewells, will be a busy month!

As expected, my impending departure from AEON is first and foremost in my mind these days. Thankfully, however, there are some things which keep my mind occupied and not thinking too much about work. This weekend's entertainment was centered around my second ski trip of the season, a return to Daikurayama in Fukushima prefecture.

As most ski days do, this one started early, with a 5:30 wake up and a quick breakfast. For all of those day-working people who think that's not so early, you should take into consideration that as far as our work and sleep schedule goes, 5:30 is usually about 3 and a half hours into my night of sleeping. Working this 1-9PM thing will not be something I miss when I leave, it will be nice to match up my sleep schedule with Yoshiko a little better.

As I was ferrying my stuff down from my apartment in preparation for the taxi's arrival, both it and Mattoto arrived and we loaded up for the trip to the East side of the station where our bus was leaving from. I was a bit surprised at the cost of the taxi, will have to look into the possibility of a bus for the next trip down. We arrived way too early, since the taxi arrived early, but the bus finally arrived and we loaded up our gear. We were then met by Ray, whom I think I will now classify as a friend and not as a former student, since he's been gone from the school for almost a year now, and his daughter Rina.

We loaded up their stuff and after waiting for the only 3 other people who were getting on the bus with us, headed for the second bus stop. Here is a picture of the three of us, somehow sporting smiles despite the early time. All photos posted below were taken by Ray by the way, I haven't felt up to lugging my camera around recently.
As the bus started up, Ray told us "kampai" and handed out some nice cold beer! Not sure I've ever drank at 7AM before, I guess you can consider that avant-ski to match with the usual apres-ski.
I decided early on that I really didn't like this bus driver. We ended up arriving at the resort more than one hour later than last time, and only part of that can be blamed on the snow... we made 4 stops on the way up instead of the usual 2. Regardless, we did eventually make it up and were quite pleased to see that we were blessed with a genuine snow storm which promised some great conditions all day long.
I was quite impressed with Mattoto, who after a 20 year hiatus from skiing, did quite well out there. Rina also did really great, though this was only her second time out. She would make us smile as we waited for her down the hill and heard "aaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaa" as she passed us by on her semi-controlled journey down the mountain. Here's the gang, posing in the falling snow.
As far as the skiing goes, conditions were quite good on the left side of the hills, but VERY windy on the right as our one foray into that section of the mountain proved to us. It was at that point that I lost my nerve and my sking went to shit. Last year, I was following Alex along on intermediate and advanced runs and we would zoom our way down the mountain with no problems. This time around, I got spooked and ended up taking a couple of slow-motion tumbles on the hill. Part of it is that I'm still not used to so much snow, which means I'm still learning how to ski in some ways. The conditions around Ottawa are nowhere near this fluffy.
At the end of the day, the skies cleared up and we were afforded a nice view of the surrounding mountains. For which we posed again of course.
After a good day out, we piled back on the bus for the ride home. Yoshiko picked us up at the station and we headed out for some Subway sandwiches for dinner... YUM!
Today was a bit of a lazy day, I did some work on my farewell stuff, and we went out to Bell Mall to pick up some grub, but otherwise did nothing productive. Call it the calm before the storm. I only work two days this week and move on Thursday... and have I mentioned that I have yet to pack anything? lol Should be a busy week. Wish me luck!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Our students rock...

...and that's what's going to make leaving so damn difficult.

Already, I've had to start saying my goodbyes. A schedule change over the next few weeks and the 3 days of vacation I'll be taking, means that I won't be seeing some students again. In fact, this was my last Saturday teaching a full 7 lessons, only 6 and 5 for my last two Saturdays... woohoo!

It's difficult sometimes to think of the friendships that are being lost. I know that in reality, most of these people and I will never cross paths again, no matter how much we promise to "keep in touch". In many ways, goodbyes are a way of life for the foreign teacher doing his\her thing out here. In fact, before even coming to Japan, we have to say goodbye to our family and friends and all the things we leave behind. Most of us are only here for a while before returning to the real world and the things we left behind. Had I not met Yoshiko, I would have been just another one of those 12-monthers who blow through Japan for one reason or another on their way to something else.

Luckily, I did meet Yoshiko, and beyond that amazing relationship, I've also been able to forge some deep friendships which I know will withstand time. Scott, Matt and Alex have all been a huge part of my life here, and we already have plans to meet again back in the US or Canada. Some of our students will also surely take the opportunity to visit Matt and my part of the continent some time, and (for some) I'd be willing to make the trip down to New York or Chicago just to have dinner and catch up a little.

The reason I'm on this whole "goodbye" subject is of course the ongoing countdown to my departure (9 working days remaining) as well as the fact that we had a bit of a "goodbye" get together last night. Some students took me and their second favorite teacher (:-p) out for a coffee at Chat Noir. Emiko of course had to make me say something in front of everyone, even though this wasn't really a goodbye. I was taken aback at the emotions which welled up inside me, so I kept my comments short. Emiko took a shot of the group enjoying some coffee, tea, cake, pizza toast, egg sandwich and toasted mochi with red beans.

I also got a surprise visit from Kyoko, a student who left us last year to focus on her University entrance exams. She stopped by the school today on the way home from classes to say goodbye and to chat for a bit. Very cool little lady.

Luckily, the next few months will not only be filled with sad goodbyes. For one thing, in less than a week I will finally be moving in with my dear wife. There are parties to be had, skiing and traveling to be done and of course a whole new life waiting for Yoshiko and I on the other side of the Pacific! 2007 will be one hell of a year.

On the subject of skiing, I dropped in to HIS yesterday and was saddened to hear that my English speaking contact there, Tomoko, was no longer working there. The only other English speaker was busy with other people. For air fare, I could have dealt only in Japanese, but arranging a ski tour to Hokkaido with accommodations and everything... nope... will have to try again. Of course, Matt and I are joining Ray and his daughter tomorrow for some skiing, looks like snow is going to be hitting the resort so the conditions should be good!

In other news, a group of NOVA teachers were arrested this week for possession of cocaine and marijuana... dumb asses. Aside from the fact that anyone doing drugs in a foreign country must have the IQ of a rock, doing so in Japan is even dumber. Their arrest has sparked a wave of media interest of course, since people truly believe that most crimes here are perpetrated by us foreigners. Apparently the news reporters have been running around interviewing people who live near foreign teachers and have come out with such insightful quotes as: "They are loud" GASP! and "They don't separate their trash!" OMG! The horror! And all this on national news, quite amusing really. The sad part is that this was likely a political arrest, and the police will certainly not investigate the line up from the buyers to the dealers and into the organized crime rings that sell the drugs. They're happy to have netted these dangerous foreign criminals. This will of course now be used by the Ultra-Right factions, which in Japan influence the ruling LDP and it's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as propaganda to prove that Japan would be better off if it were left only to the Japanese. Lovely.

Also, this warm weather we've been having has had a predictable effect on the flora in the region, with plum blossoms and daffodils sprouting up in Tokyo, anywhere from 2 weeks to a month earlier than usual. This bodes well for my parents' visit since they arrive March 10th and were hoping to see Cherry Blossoms... we shall see.

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