Friday, August 22, 2008

Up By 5 am, Again

This jet-lag stuff is tough this time around. It’s one thing to jump continents, but traveling clear to the other side of the planet has thrown me for a serious loop. It is almost 5 am and I am wide-awake.

Although, I am pretty sure it’s the tummy ache that has me stirring. Maybe I lose the ability to eat fried foods like tempura upon arriving in Japan, and the ability to eat ice cream on my return home.

It's like one of those ridiculous hypothetical questions, “Would you rather never travel the world and enjoy eating all of your favourite foods, or travel but lose the ability to eat something you really enjoy every time you take a flight that is more than 10 hours long until you can only stomach lettuce, dry toast, and green tea?”

Tempura fried ice cream anyone? Forget about it!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I'm Home

I am in Toronto, Canada. It’s Wednesday here and I arrived late, Monday afternoon.

I would have posted a message sooner, but the 13-hour time difference has kept me pretty much keeled over for the last 48 hours. And, it’s cold here too. Only 22 degrees today, yet everyone still seems to have their air-con cranked. Burrrrrr!

It’s been nice to catch up with family. On Friday, I will make my way to Ottawa and Noah and set myself to the task of finding some sense of normal around here.

So far, I find the rice here to be very inconsistent, the streets amazingly wide, and the beds far too soft. But, the bread is good, the sunsets late, and the ground doesn’t shake, so I guess you win some and lose some in this moving game. I also have the familiar sound of the cicada for consistency.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

How The English Club Tried to Kill Me: Saying Goodbye

On Friday morning, I will wake up, shower, inspect the apartment so that I can be sure I haven’t forgotten anything, and head for the airport.

The last few weeks have been all about goodbyes. My goodbye tour, I call it. Saying goodbye to the city and country that have been my home for the last year and all of the wonderful people I have met. And, it turned out to be very different from the tour I had planned. But, such is life. The girls’ trip to the beach didn’t happen and Fuji remains to be conquered (I was thinking about letting myself be talked into that one.)

Instead, my trip to Kanazawa with my friend Reina was my last far-flung adventure, and plenty of afternoons were spent at the hospital. There is, of course, the packing, but nothing could have changed that.

The first big goodbyes were said on June 27th. This was my last day of classes at Nitta Akatsuki and the teacher and students managed to organize a lovely surprise party complete with singing, snacks, presents, and tears.

After school that day, Maruhashi-sensei’s family hosted a sushi party. Giant platters of the stuff along with freshly, homemade udon noodles. It was so lovely to spend some time with this family. Three generations sharing a meal and laughs together. Just wonderful.

Ota’s city festival was on July 18th and 19th. I wandered the streets on Saturday afternoon watching the food stalls set up and visiting with my friend Minoru, a volunteer organizer for the day. He treated me to shaved ice and yakisoba. As the afternoon cooled off, my friends began arriving and we enjoyed the energy of the night outdoors and in local pubs.

On the Sunday, I headed off to meet my Japanese family, the Ueda women, for some farewell fun in Yokohama and Tokyo. Lunch was our first stop and we went to an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. Then Chinatown. Then fireworks. But the fireworks ended early for us after the police decided we could no longer sit in the place they had seated us only 20 minutes before. So, we found a fantastic Chinese restaurant and savoured our meal before the crowds descended. We capped off the nigh with cocktails at a hotel bar with a view.

Tuesday was a double-header. At 4 pm, I was in the school cooking room flipping pancakes for students and working up a sweat. By 6:30 pm, I had showered and was running late for a yukata party organized by my cooking school teacher.

Otsuka-sensei had bought me a lovely blue yukata and red obi, along with gaita and the valuable time of a kimono teacher to help me put it all on. The women from my cooking group were there too. And, so was a cable TV cameraman!

The next night was my goodbye work enkai. About 30 of us piled into a second floor Japanese style restaurant for mountains of sashimi and bubbling hot sukiyaki. It was lots of great fun. But, by the end, I was too tired to go out and enjoy the second party.

One day of rest. The official goodbyes at school were Friday. There was a speech for teachers and staff and a big goodbye address to the whole school, which for some reason I forced myself to attempt in Japanese. It was nerve-wracking and incredibly hot. I think some of the students actually melted away. In my dress clothes, I was dripping with sweat and trying desperately to imagine life in an igloo. I survived the day. And, at four o’clock, a raucous thunderstorm helped wash away some of the stress and sadness.

Saturday was full of laughter. I ended up smack, in the middle of Japan, or so the people of Shibukawa claim, for the annual Heso Matsuri (Bellybutton Festival.) ALTs from all over the prefecture turned out and we took turns wishing each other well before setting off on our separate ways.

Sunday was lunch with my good friends in Ota, Minoru and Tsugio Urano. We went to a little café in the city centre and then sipped homemade ume juice at their home just chatting and swapping travel stories.

On Tuesday morning at 10:15, the English club threw a party in my honour. It was a candy party and we laughed and played games while indulging in all things sugar. At one point, I was instructed to mix a candy concoction. It turned colours and grew into a foaming mass of purple goo. I was then told to eat some, and so I did. It was awful! And I suddenly recalled the time my sister and I tricked my aunt into eating a fizzy candy. Oh, how the tables turn. But, I survived. And it was so touching to know that some students felt so strongly about my time with them. I am going to miss them a lot.

Tomorrow night is a little sushi party with friends.

I met my successor, packed up my stuff, gave up my bike, and will soon be on my way. I have so many memories to take will with me. I am a very lucky person.

(P.S. A couple of large cockroaches also came by to wish me well, but I put a stop to that by patching up the hole in the bathroom wall. YUCK!)

Monday, July 14, 2008

It’s HAWT!

The temperature climbs to about 35 degrees Celsius daily and I have become addicted to air-conditioning, a concept I normally hate.

I walked in the door about half an hour ago, exchanging the wretched and buggy humidity outside, for a hot and stuffy apartment. I stripped down, cranked the air, doused myself in cold water and downed several glasses of ice cold water (I normally avoid cold drinks along with air con.)

Giant and LOUD insects are taking over the city and I’m renewing my commitment to freeze my garbage to keep the toasty apartment from stinking up while I’m working at school.

Speaking of which, there is air conditioning in the staffroom, but that’s basically it. The fans are cranked and the widows are opened wide in the hopes of generating a little breeze. But then, there’s the giant insect issue again as the indoors and outdoors merge. Only, the students are less than eager to share their classrooms and lessons are suspended while bees, and even butterflies, find their way out.

Tuesday and Wednesday are sports days at school. The students will be exerting themselves in this unbearable heat.

Oh, and it gets hotter. Last year, the region of Gunma, Japan that I call home hit about 46 degrees. It was the hottest place in Japan – hotter even, than the southern prefecture of Okinawa.

This year, I have the advantage of warming up with the weather. Maybe it’s a little less of a shock to the system this way. Maybe.

But you know, the one consolation I have is that I’m not alone in my suffering. Even people here from hot countries like Trinidad and South Africa admit that the heat here is pretty intense. So there! See, it has nothing to do with me being Canadian, even if my students are shocked to learn that we get warm temperatures in the double digits. Now, where is that ice pillow…?

An Update…

Yeah, so I disappeared there for a bit again. Not as bad as the April blackout, but still a lengthy hiatus. Sorry.

There are reasons that I haven’t been blogging as much as I, and perhaps you, would like. (Yeah, I flatter myself, I know.) Usually, the whole blogging thing gets backlogged if I am over-busy, or over-stressed. And, given that I am getting packed and ready to make my way home to Canada in a few short weeks, that definitely applies. But only to a degree.

This time, the biggest reason from my not writing was that I just didn’t know how to even begin describing a real-life nightmare.

Exactly two weeks ago, a good friend of mine here in Ota was riding her bicycle when she was hit by a truck. It was a Monday afternoon.

But, it wasn’t until about 9 am the next morning when I learned of the accident by cell phone text message. I bust into tears in the school staffroom. And it took an entire eight hours after that before some of her friends were able to work our way into the ICU just so we could hold her hand.

The last two weeks have been a blur, an absolutely heart wrenching blur. And everything, everything, everything has become a second priority. Packing for home, eating and sleeping, cleaning my apartment, even my lesson plans have taken a bit of a hit, which I feel horrible about.

I will spare you the details of all that has been going on around here. I will spare you the litany of emotions I have experienced.

What I will say is that now I actually feel ready to mention this and, perhaps, even get some sleep. My friend has been recovering little by little. She finally opened her eyes this weekend. And somehow, having that good news to report, I am finally able to tell you what happened.

(P.S. Thank you to my family and friends for your love and support. A little bit of strength from loved ones at home goes a long way towards being able to support those who need it most here.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008


This is post number 60: an anniversary of sorts. And now that I am in contact with my successors, and getting ready to move my life yet again, it seems like a good time for some reflection.

Things I accomplished:
- Coming to Japan - I am so happy to have followed through on this dream. I truly believe that everyone should experience living in a different country at least once.
- All that I have learned - Whether was developing a teaching style, or exploring new places, or even discovering new things that I really enjoy, I have learned a lot over the last ten and a half months.
- Re-learning how to ride a bike - It is possibly the closest feeling there is to flying.
- Learning to cook Japanese food
- Maintaining a strong relationship with Noah
- Living truly on my own for the first time in my life
- New friendships

Things I regret:
- Not learning much Japanese - I intended to but found there was just too much to juggle.
- Not finding the clear vision I was looking for about what to do with my life
- Missing important life events with people at home
- Not doing and learning enough art here - I wish I could have had time to learn woodblock printing or Japanese pottery or drumming. I go to the Ikebana club from time to time, but I am at a loss to understand what is going on.
- Not climbing Mt. Fuji - No time, and no energy
- Getting sick when Erin came to visit
- Living in a Leopalace - This is only an occasional regret. Sure, it’s not traditional and there is no tatami… but its clean and comfortable.
- Forgetting my camera on days like today
- Not seeing monkeys with Noah
- Not blogging and writing more about my experiences
- Having to go home (rejoicing and regretting)
- Buying pineapple wine - Now I need an occasion to drink it and I don't know when or how I will get a chance.

Things I will miss about Japan:
- My new friends here
- Riding the trains and watching the beautiful scenery go by
- Riding my bike on the sidewalk
- Having my own little apartment
- Feeling like a celebrity and those jaw dropped looks I get when my students spot me outside of school.
- My students
- The flowing green rice fields and the mountain backdrop
- Lots of delicious Japanese food
- Having a good, steady job
- The sense of safety and security I have here
- Exploration and discovery
- Onsen!
- A given price is the total cost… taxes are accounted for and tipping isn’t done
- It’s so clean!

Things I will be glad to leave behind:
- The feeling of illiteracy and dealing with language barriers
- Having to carry large wads of cash and remember to hit the bank before the weekend
- The more rigid gender roles that exist in Japan
- Hierarchy
- The loss of anonymity (I still can’t believe the post office called my school. Twice!)
- Sticky, sticky humidity
- Being told I have a “small face”, whatever that means
- Being a foreigner
- Winter without indoor, central heating
- Really big bugs and random snakes
- Needing help to do simple things, like reading a bus schedule

Things I miss about home:
- Noah!
- My family and friends
- Plentiful and cheap fruit!
- Conversations about politics and other important issues
- Central heating
- Cultural diversity
- Favoruite foods cooked by the people I love

Things I am worried about dealing with when I get home:
- Re-learning how to share a home with someone
- Having to move apartments… or not move…either way
- Being in Ottawa
- Making a plan
- Food portions - I know this sounds silly, but I don’t want to go back to North American servings.
- Being misunderstood or misunderstanding others

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Symphony of Frogs

It rained today. Not something unusual considering it is the rainy season here now. The rice paddies are flooded with just the tops of new plants peaking out above the water.

And, at night, the paddies come alive.

A chorus of frogs is making good use of the little paddy at the end of my block. And, on nights like this one, their songs fill the humid night air. They sing me to sleep.

I wanted to share with you a true audible pleasure. Please listen to the the video.