Saturday, July 29, 2006

Summer: yukata and fireworks

Now is the time for yukata. Even for me.

You see, in the summer, in Japan it is common for Japanese to enjoy festivities in yukata, a lighter version of kimono. They are quite cool, but it is a little embarrassing for us non-Japanese without slight builds. I actually taught for a day last week in the too-small yukata pictured here.

It is also time for fireworks. It seems like almost everyday there is a huge fireworks display somewhere in Tokyo. On Thursday my part of Tokyo had its own festival, shooting off over 16,000 individual fireworks, but I was working on the other side of the city and couldn't go. Instead, I went to the Sumida fireworks festival, something I have been looking forward to since last year. It has been around since the 1730's or something, and there is a woodblock print I am quite fond of that shows the fireworks. Today's version doesn't have the elegant majesty of the woodblock print, but it makes up for that in sheer spectacle. The show lasts for an hour and 20 minutes; over 20,000 fireworks are fired; and there must be a million people or more in attendance, half of them in yukata. It is an event; it is something that will be remembered when life changes in the next 10-20 years.

I managed to find my friends from training even with the madness. Well, 2 out of 5 ain't bad. This is Steph and Bjorn, from (opposing sides) of Australia.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Cell phone

My new cell phone, after almost a month of waiting. I had to sign up for two years but I got the phone free.

I have to go to work pretty soon, and am pretty anxious (three kids classes in a row), but I'm also planning my getaway into the mountains when we have our summer break in a couple of weeks. This guy gets around Japan, and he's got a good eye:

On Gaien Higashi Dori (Hiking)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hallelujah! I have survived!

My first day. After a grand total of 4 hours of sleep, I went through a rather hurried training for so-called "A1" classes—more intensive classes that have year-round schedules—before rushing to a town to the west of Shinjuku I'd never seen before. I meant to do a little preparation before being thrown to the wolves (in this case, rather harmless-looking 6-9 year-olds, but wolves nonetheless, I tell you). A half-hour's prep time is not enough, and so I flubbed through as best I could. Kids give you the benefit of the doubt, at least until they turn nine or ten, so I was able to make do. My greatest pleasure in the kids department was a little girl who began to cry at the prospect of being left alone with me but who smiled and later yelled and laughed a little after I had her jumping around and turning in a circle with the other kids. I remember being the "sensitive" kid when I was young and I have a special place in my heart for the ones that, for some reason, start crying at the drop of a hat. Many people think they want attention or "are cry-babies," ie just lost causes—I know neither is the case, and my heart always goes out to them.

The next group of kids, a bit older, were also good kids, but I can tell I'll have to wow them next time or they may turn on me. I can honestly say I completely failed this lesson, though it didn't feel that way because they were, as I said, willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Next time (two weeks from now, because of a fluke in the schedule) I will be better prepared, and deserving of that benefit(?).

The rest of the day was spent working with adults in more structured classes. This was more comfortable and I had been prepared by my training—once you learn a formula, you should be able to teach any lesson in the books they give us. I say "should" because I did a pretty poor job in training, but having real students making real mistakes is actually much easier to handle than the artificial setup required in training. I made mistakes, but they were far more manageable than the kids' lessons.

I'd better get some sleep—I've got more of the same tomorrow, as well as the longer, more intensive A1 lesson I wrote about earlier. I'll say, though, that I enjoyed today, I enjoyed overcoming the first hurdle, and after weeks of "I wonder if I can do this" alternating with "There is no way I can ever do this," I enjoy feeling that it might be possible.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Sad fireflies

Yesterday I made a rather long trip on my bicycle around the city. I first went to Akihabara, the electronics district, to window-shop for cell phones—I can't get one until my foreign registration card, showing I have an address in Japan, comes through, so I just took a look at the deals and continued to be patient. From there, I rode about 20 kilometers (I'm using the metric system as much as I can these days, but that's about 12 miles(?)) to see a "firefly viewing." I got there about 7:30, but like many events in Tokyo, you get a ticket with a number on it and have to wait until that number is called before you go in.
So I went over to the corner store and bought some nuts and a bottle of tea and waited. It was a nice night and, as might be expected at a firefly viewing, there were many families with their children at the event. I was alone, so I just watched: across the street a family was enjoying sparklers with their young son, boys and girls were chasing each other, others were running races one after the other. It was pleasant, though I would have liked to have been a participant rather than observer. It reminded me of my childhood: not any particular memory, but of excitement, magic, and anticipation. I saw a young girl jump into a car after seeing the fireflies, and it reminded me of so many rides home as a child, riding home after a movie, after a trip to Grandma and Grandpa's, maybe even after going to see fireflies. I remember a satisfied tiredness, a peace with the world and a belief in miracles. That was a long time ago.

I was allowed in at 8:45. The fireflies were a disappointment, in the end. I mean, they were fireflies, like any other, but they were enclosed in a tiny room, they mostly stayed in one place, and really there were more humans than fireflies, walking in a line, talking, constantly moving. Only a month ago I was sitting on my mom's back porch watching fireflies zigging and zagging through the sky, cutting little lines with their green lamps, thousands at a time so bright that they could be seen even under the street lights.

We reached the end and one of the kids said "is it over already?" There was a hint of derision in his voice. I wondered why the fireflies weren't let loose in the nearby park. A Canadian Japanese working at the event explained that they had developed a way of sustaining fireflies in an aquarium. I thought "is that what it's come to?" I said it was a good thing.

Tokyo is a wonderful city, a real marvel. If one is interested in the dynamics of humans, in literature, in religion, in technology, in Japanese history, in almost any human endeavor, it is a great place to be. There are even several ecological organizations located here. But there is no escaping it is a city, a monstrous city, largely dead and concrete.

I was really disturbed when I saw those fireflies. Fireflies are beautiful and magical; but the magic, for me, is tied up in their freedom, their flight through the night sky over head. I think of my childhood and it saddens me to think that children line up to see the caged fireflies, as if it were a Disney land ride, quickly over. After all the trouble, I can imagine the kids would rather stay home and watch TV. How can we save the earth if this is their view of "nature"? I know I'm not the first person to say this, and I don't have any solutions myself, but every time I see this sort of thing it seems counterproductive.

Tomorrow is my first day of teaching on my own. I alternate between abject fear and an occasional and unreliable conviction that I will make it through the day, making mistakes but hopefully able to learn some things that will make the next day less frightening.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lanterns at Yasukuni

Today was a day off from training, so some fellow trainees and I went to the opening of the mitama festival at Yasukuni. It seems to be sort of like a Japanese Memorial Day. Yasukuni is a controversial shrine, however, as it houses the remains of war criminals from World War II.

Still, the shrine is quite beautiful, as are the lanterns that are a prominent part of the festival.

We had a good time, sampled a bit of okonomiyaki,

and found this, a haunted house.

Japan can be very strange sometimes. Imagine a haunted house on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran's day. Then imagine a burlesque show next door to the haunted house, at the same cemetery. Then see if you agree with the above statement.

Monday, July 10, 2006

An odd situation

I'm in an odd situation—my life is about as good as I could expect, outside of work. It may be a bit inconvenient to get into the city from my apartment, but it is still near the city; the compensation is being near the Arakawa with its bike path. An initial chill of depression and cold feet has cleared up, and now I love just walking around the city when I get a chance. My apartment is excellent, I really like my room, and my roommate is better than I could ask for: funny, intelligent, and willing to do his share of the housework. I see us getting along well, no matter what happens. I don't think I've felt this comfortable straight off the bat with a roommate since college.

But this job scares me. I have never been so out of my element. I can't use the one skill I came here for, my Japanese, but instead must fight 31 years of self-consciousness and reserve, a general feeling of inadequacy, and difficulty getting a good night's rest, to try to do something I didn't really want to do in the first place. Honestly, I'm pretty excited about some of the classes I'll be doing, of interacting with the students who are engaged and interested—despite my reserve, I love learning about people and interacting with them. But kids. Kids, now. I just can't see myself jumping up and down and getting them to follow along. I'll say it again: I've never felt so out of my element. I'm not convinced two weeks of training can change a man. Or rather, I'm quite sure that, short of a miracle, it can't. I hate feeling guilty that I am not the person that can make that shift, but I do. As if something is wrong with me.

Well, the point of this was more to count my blessings than harp on my fears; I guess I also want to list my fears so that if I ever overcome them I'll have a record. But I don't think I've ever been so well placed, as I've said, and I am very thankful for that.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

My new toy

I finally couldn't take it any more and bought myself a bike (sorry for the blurred photo, but you get the idea). Not the high-speed tourer I'd like to get—with any luck, if I really budget myself I'll be able to buy one of those in a year or so—but a "mamachari" (from "Momma Chariot", I guess): it'll get me around town, and I can get a little bit of exercise and let off steam after (more likely before) work. And it was only ¥15,000, a little under $150.

Having a bike makes me feel more independent, more able to spend hours searching around the city without wasting money on the trains and without getting blisters. Not so great on the knees, though.

Another nifty result is I had my first contact with people in the neighborhood. The bike shop where I bought the bike is a tiny little place just south of Gotanno station. I talked the owners up a little bit in Japanese, and we parted bowing and smiling—of course, they had sold me something, but that's not the point. I now have a relationship with them, will be able to smile and say good morning when I bicycle by, and will go to them any time I need anything fixed. It's one the steps to widening my circle of relationships. It is important to me to do this to avoid the feeling of alienation I would feel if, two or three months on, I had no familiar faces in the neighborhood.

I rode along the Arakawa river for about 20 miles! I was a little surprised I went that far, and with only one gear.

A final note: one of the nifty things about these mamacharis is they have a light that uses friction against the wheel to generate electricity. It slows the bike down, goes out when the bike stops, and eventually rubs through the wheel, but it's still pretty cool. I haven't used it yet.

Friday, July 07, 2006

No news is good news

I haven't written much lately, but that's mainly because I've been consumed in training. I'll be brief and say training is not exactly enjoyable. You choose six people, tell them very little about what is going to happen to them, give them no help when they get here, then act condescending and unsympathetic when you are training them, and you are going to have breakdowns and, possibly, people leave. I have neither broken down nor do I plan to leave, though I very often question whether I will do the job up to their standards. I do know people who are about to crack, and I think it is extremely unfortunate. Sure living in another country can be difficult and employers are unsympathetic, but a similar lack of sympathy is not an appropriate way to prepare people who have come to work for you.

I've said my piece, and I shouldn't say more. I hope working with actual students will be more rewarding than training. Having said that, I enjoy the company of my fellow trainees very much. I certainly hope they aren't driven away by these early difficulties.

I, though, am glad I'm here. I walked around yesterday, something I haven't done much since I've been here because of an initial depression followed by this intense training. Honestly, I love to people-watch, and there is no place better than the largest concentration of people on earth. I feel alive walking through the streets of Shinjuku, the neighborhood atmosphere changing every kilometer or so, just as alive—though in a different way—as I do visiting a beautiful shrine or park, or watching a moving film. Uplifted, to put it in one word. No matter what the conditions of my life, the political situation in the world, or the troubles I have with work, walking through a crowd of people talking excitedly, passing by an open-air cafe—one a European style coffeehouse, another serving Korean barbecue—or watching joggers running in Yoyogi park on a path in front of a group of theater students practicing a play, I feel that life and humanity are vibrant and daily pressures and uncertainties are worth the struggle.

Just a quick note about Yoyogi park—which isn't, by the way, in Shinjuku, as I may have made it appear above; I just needed another example;) . This is a great place to shake off homesickness a bit. The other parks, including the sublime Meiji Jingu next door, are very often "too Japanese": they don't let you walk on the grass, you are very confined, and there isn't much incentive to linger. Yoyogi is like the parks I am more familiar with in the US: you can walk, and sit, on the grass, you can run around, you can ride your bike or go for a jog, and it is littered with benches if you just want to listen to an odd mix of the ubiquitous crows and someone practicing their saxophone. Unlike much of the rest of Tokyo, it is a place to be publicly selfish, if that makes any sense: do what you want, as loud as you want; nobody will notice, because they are doing their own thing. Certainly a break from the constant pressure to conform.

Quick note: I just walked to convenience store, and on the way I saw a hair salon called k u, which reminded me I saw a typically inane game show where one of the celebrity guests (as I've noted before, guests on almost all game shows in Japan are celebrities) was wearing a KU shirt (the one with the eyes and beak making up the entirety of the front). I wasn't sure what to make of it, but I thought it was humorous. Also, an alley leading off the same street as the k u salon had a US-style street sign that said "Marilyn Monroe St." Again, humorous, and it fits the Kansas theme as Norma Jean was originally from Kansas.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

First day

I feel pretty good about things after my first day. I had a good time, and it was helpful to be around people in a similar situation. I'm pretty tired, though—I got home at 10 pm and it is now 12, and I'd gotten into a schedule of going to sleep at 10 the past few nights. I've tried really hard over the past 10 years to get into such a schedule for work, but now it appears I'll have to immediately switch back to one I'm more accustomed to, as my classes will primarily be 3–9pm.

Anyway, tired.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Organic stores 有機販売

When I came here the last time, it was enough for me to visit the parks and historical places of Tokyo; I didn't worry much about eating well or taking care of the environment. This time, I am starting out very differently; I have seen the sights, I know a great deal about the city, and it is more important to me to find the niches that satisfy my interests.

Over the years, I have added to my love of literature and Asian culture a concern for the environment and health. In line with this concern, one thing I don't like to compromise on in any country is the quality of the food I eat and the methods used to raise, harvest, and preserve it.

Japan, well-known for its long-lived citizens and the homeplace of the diet that influenced Macrobiotics, is unfortunately not leading the way in organic foods; they are quite a bit behind many other developed countries.

So I was very excited to find one of the few organic markets in Tokyo is not far from my house, about a 15-minute walk, near Gotanno station. It is called Haru-na, and while it is a tiny place, their produce selection is good, they have household products (I got a huge bottle of biodegradeable detergent for a fair price), and they even have a tiny selection of meats. They even have a delivery service (I'm not sure how far they go, and I won't bother anyway, since it is so close). I'll be visiting there quite often.

There is another organic market nearby, again tiny, in Kitasenju. They have a slightly larger shop and thus a little better selection; however, this no Rainbow Market in SF (god how I miss it!). It was called Tsubakiya 2 (not sure where the other Tsubakiya is) and is just a couple of minutes from the Kitasenju station, though it is difficult to find. I want to go here again, as their selection is different from the one in my area, and when I visited it I forgot there was a restaurant on the second floor—I would have liked to see the menu.

I have to consider myself very lucky to have these unexpected resources available.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Got a bed

My bed, a thin but deceivingly comfortable piece of foam, came in yesterday, and I feel much less bruised today. It fits well in a corner of my room.

I decided to explore the walking/biking path along the Arakawa river near my house yesterday. Like all of Tokyo, it is intense, with one baseball diamond after another and numbers of young (but extremely talented) baseball players cheered on from the edges of the path. As a biking/walking path, it is not good for high-speed cycling at the point I visited, but I imagine it gets better further along. There were quite a few high-perfomance bikes on the trail, and I could taste the envy I felt for their owners. I could really use a good 20-mile ride right now (though I might die in the heat and humidity).

I followed a 3 mile portion of the path, first on the far side, and then on the near. The near side has the disadvantage of being right next to a highway, but might be better for it, as there are fewer pedestrians. Depends on what you want, and, of course, on what is further along.

It seems the Arakawa river was once a wetland/swamp area, and there are some stretches where the native(?) plants are allowed to run wild. I found a couple of kittens tucked away in some of the grasses, following with their tiny eyes the pigeons nearby. Unfortunately, I took too long to get my camera out, and they hid behind their mother. I took a picture anyway, to show what the area looks like. Back where the mother is looking, there are piles of trash, presumeably from well-meaning passersby who feed the cats.

One cool thing I have not seen elsewhere was this obstacle track for wheelchair users. I was tempted to give it a try myself, and one day I might—I think it would be a great way to exercise the upper arms.

Tomorrow is the big day—my first day of training. I'll be honest, I feel absolutely unqualified, and wouldn't be surprised if they told me to hit the door after a few hours. My attitude may change if the atmosphere is supportive.

For today, I'm just going to take it easy and run over to Kitasenju and pick up a Japanese fish cookbook. I know a little about cooking Japanese cuisine, but Japanese fish is pretty unique and I think trail and error could lead to quite a few unappetizing dishes. But I love fish, and I think it is cheaper than meat anyway. After that I'll just sit in my room and sweat.