Sunday, November 02, 2008

Oku Nikko Loop

It's now the tail-end of fall, and I had hoped that this year I might do something special for the season of the changing leaves. I've been to Nikko before, but never during that period; from what I'd seen in pictures it seemed quite spectacular there.

I'd been to Nikko a couple of times, as I've written elsewhere. I spent a lot of time hiking there, but this time I wanted to bike around to get a better view of the whole area. I was able to find a great route on a mapping site, and set out.

I managed to get a great deal of sleep the night before--often, because of the early hour I need to rise in order to have time to do everything I want to do, I only get a few hours sleep. This time I was well rested, and it showed--when I got to the top of irohazaka, a daunting hill of switchbacks, I thought "that's it? It used to be a lot harder!" It was a great feeling, and I laughed and sang through a tunnel to Lake Chuzenji.

When I reached the little town that lines the northern edge of the lake, I overheard a woman say "looks like the changing of the leaves is over." Indeed, Mt. Nantai was bare. I was a little disappointed, but I had expected this, and was really more interested in the ride around the park.

I continued riding on to Senjogahara, a meadowland I mentioned in my previous post on Nikko. All that was to be seen this time were the beautiful white birches and, of course, the sense of wide open space not easily found in Tokyo. I ate lunch--a Koyadofu mabodofu, great with rice for bike trips.

Next, I headed to realms new to me: to that point I'd stuck near Chuzenji, but the path I'd found led off the beaten track into the mountains north of Mt. Nantai.

This new track, though, led to a series of switchbacks nearly as steep as irohazaka. I went up as fast as I could, though I was beginning to tire, but they were soon over. My effort was worth it: I found some really fantastic areas that I hope to explore further on foot some other time. There was a tiny valley that, from my vantage point up above, looked like a place made by magic (I didn't take a picture because I didn't want to ruin my memory of it), and a group of mountains still boasting a few trees with colored leaves, one of the mountains touched by an early-winter's frost (I did take a picture of this one). It was one of those places that but for the freezing weather you might want to stay forever, just taking it in.

I rode from there down into the valley around a lake called Lake Kawamata. This was less impressive, and the road seemed to go on forever--even looking back I cannot understand why it took so long to go around the lake. Next I met my third irohazaka-level series of switchbacks, and by this time I was ready to call it quits. It was getting dark and it was near or below freezing; my legs were out of the juice that had powered them on the way up the real irohazaka. But I made it to the top, or what I thought was the top; after that, it hit a ranch area that I thought would be flat before a descent into Nikko city, but in fact it steadily rose, at steep grades nearly as difficult as any of the other hills on the trip, and longer. Frozen and discouraged, I went up these hills at 9 kilometers an hour, not a whole lot faster than walking, telling myself how happy I would be, and proud of myself, once I got home. And then I looked up and realized that in compensation for my hard work, I had a good view of the stars, which I hadn't seen since since my trip to Nagano last year.

I finally made it to the top and began a chilly and surprisingly long descent to Nikko city. I made it just in time for the train home.

I want to do this ride again as it gets colder, watching the snow creep down the sides of the mountains. It is much clearer in colder weather, and I may even camp later in the year so that I can see the sunrise over white-clad mountains.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Update: Second Jobs Can Be Hazardous to Your Health!

I just a got a second job last week. Out of the blue, I found a job asking for proofreading/checking help, so I responded, and that day I was called in for an interview. It was at a legal office ten minutes from my current work, 6-8 hours a week, so I thought, what the heck. The interview went very well, and they seemed to be impressed by my Japanese. More than that, I felt a certain amount of trust from them, for no reason I can explain.

There was one dark cloud, though. I mentioned, for some reason, that I rode my bicycle to work at the other job, and we talked about that for a bit. But at the end of the interview, the main lawyer asked me "If we ask you to do so, will you not ride your bike when you come to this office?" At that moment I regretted telling them so blithely about my bicycle riding. I hesitated, but said I wouldn't ride to work.

At first, I was a bit down because I thought maybe that would make me a less viable candidate. But when I got home, I found an email from them offering me the job. So now I'm making enough money to live on, though I'll probably find some other work to help me save money or "enjoy the finer things".

And it's a great job. It pays even better than the other job, and experience in legal work will definitely lead to things in the future. Plus, I like the guys. But the requirement that I not ride my bike to work really chafes. After a month of riding 30 km, four days a week, it's something I've grown used to. I feel freer, I get to watch life as I pass by, and, best of all, I am getting some exercise. I've lost a few pounds and my legs are really getting muscular. And I'm just getting started.

I usually take off one day a week, though, to let my body recover, and so I've been on the train a few times. I used to enjoy the train, just from some weird fixation on the things. But I feel so drained after a train ride, where I usually feel calm and relaxed after a bike ride.

But I understand his position: apparently, companies can be held liable for their employees' accidents. So it's a difficult situation for both of us.

That's one reason for the (unwarranted) alarming title. Another reason is that there are some lawyers who smoke in the office. Bleah. But it's only for three hours, a couple of times a week.

Friday, May 02, 2008

A New Job; or Golden Week Sucks

I started a new job today at a (very) large soy sauce interest. I'm working as a proofreader/researcher (thus, my official title is perhaps proofreaderslashresearcher) a few hours on weekdays. It's really an exciting opportunity, and I finally feel, in a little way, that I'm doing what I want to be doing. It's a Japanese company and all of my coworkers are Japanese speakers, so it should be a good chance to get some practice with the language, as well as hone my abilities as an editor. Even better, the company makes an effort to be environmentally and health conscious, and they have an organic version of their sauce in addition to a line of vitamin supplements.

It was a bit of a long process getting to this point, and a couple of times, through miscommunication with the Japanese-speaking staff at the recruiting company--as a well as a personal tendency to expect the worst--I thought I had been shot down. But, in fact, I got the job: they must have been impressed by my interest in cooking, or maybe I was the only person actually willing to work for three hours in the middle of the day.

Because that really presents a problem. It's difficult enough to get a job here, and good part-time jobs are rarer still; it will be hard to find something that fits around a 2-5 schedule. The only thing I've come up with so far is teaching English, and while a job as a kid's teacher would get me doing something active and away from the computer a few hours a day, I just ran screaming from that party, didn't I? But I rationalize taking this job thinking this is a good opportunity to break into proofreading/editing/translating (sorry for all the strokes today), and even more than that it is an interesting subject. There are two things that I am especially interested in these days: bicycling and cooking. To have one of those subjects be a part of my job is nothing less than fantastic. I've had many jobs, but while the job may have been interesting, I'm not sure a single one of them was focused on a subject I was interested in. The hourly wage is good, so even at the few hours I'm working, I'm making a fair amount, but I will have to get another job soon. In the mean time I'll just have to cut down on the prime rib lunches I've grown accustomed to. Seriously, though, I plan on saving money on train fare by riding my bike to work everyday, which will be a great excuse to get in shape.

Today started with a meeting with the recruiters who set this up, an English woman and a Japanese man, who have helped me through the process for the past month or so. They went over some administrative stuff, and I learned an unfortunate fact that further strains my budget, but shouldn't have been a surprise: as an hourly worker, I am only paid for days I work, so I will not get paid through the rest of Golden Week. Golden Week is a collection of holidays at the end of April that are often used along with personal holidays to take off a whole week, and it seems like the whole country travels during this time. I used to get paid for this time off at my old job, but I will not this month, so not only can I not travel because there are just too many other people traveling, but also I won't get paid for the time off (I'd rather work at the moment). One less stay at the Tokyo Prince hotel, shucks.

After the meeting, they took me over to the company's office. I noticed a sign that said Fridays are "casual days", and despite the fact that the three young women at the reception desk wore their usual uniforms as they bowed in unison to us, my boss certainly was in a casual outfit when he arrived to take me to our office. It was a welcome change to see him in a fairly relaxed shirt and light-colored pants. I am not against wearing ties and suits, but I prefer casual wear myself, mainly because I hate dealing with dry-clean only clothes.

We took our leave of the recruiters, then headed upstairs, where he showed me to my locker, then proceeded to introduce me to the international department. The office is set up in a "traditional" Japanese style, meaning there are no cubicles or walls (except of course the walls between us and the outside), and everyone works in the same room. During the course of introductions, the department manager called everyone's attention to me, introduced me, and asked me to say a few words. I unexpectedly had 50 or more pairs of eyes on me, so I made it short and in English; now I wonder if I should have said a bit more. But it was all very cordial, and I think perhaps it was better to leave it at that than to grasp for words. After that I was shown around to some of the other important people, then led back to my desk.

My boss then explained some of the tasks I would be doing. He handed me some brochures to look over. One of these I was to check for any awkward expressions, and that is what I spent most of the next two hours doing. It was enjoyable work, and I feel pretty confident about my decisions, but I know I am no expert in editing. But I was able to score a point when I just happened to check (more out of personal interest than for business purposes) the name of a Dutch city; they had misspelled it twice in the brochure. When I saw that I felt like a kid that had been given some candy: it was so clearly wrong to someone who knows such things, but would be passed over by someone who didn't know anything about the Netherlands or hadn't taken the time to look it up.

I finished the brochure, then went through my changes with the supervisor, then prepared to go. I felt a little awkward on the way out, as I know it is normal for Japanese office workers to leave only after their boss has left, and they will often be working late into the night. I was leaving at five, almost on the dot. I wasn't sure of the etiquette, so I just slunk out after saying goodbye to the boss.

Now, after a month-long weekend and one day of work, I have another four-day weekend ahead of me! Not such a bad thing, just wish I was getting paid for it like I used to!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Seasons; or Farewell Eikaiwa

It's cherry blossom season again in Japan, perhaps the most celebrated season of the year. In the US, of course, everyone loves the beginning of warmer days and it's easy to list songs that talk about love blooming with the first flowers, but I remember such sentimental thoughts being in the background of life; here it is very much in the forefront.

The pink and white blossoms are a signal for more than spring in the natural world; they also mark the beginning of stages in Japanese life. The school year ends in March and begins again in April, so very soon new elementary school students will shoulder their huge book bags and leave their moms for their first day of school, while new junior high school students will shed their cute sixth grade personae and begin being too cool for school and too tired for anything else. The same process happens with new high school students, and the old high school students begin their wild years at university. And new graduates begin their new jobs, while their seniors are transferred to other departments or cities.

The easiest way to tell the season here in the city is to look at the subway advertisements--about a week before the equinox this year, ads were changed literally overnight as they are every three months or so. The ads focus on a few major features of each season, and are usually color-coded. In winter it is hot springs and white; spring is cherry blossoms and pink; summer, if I remember correctly, is hiking in the mountains and green; and fall is the changing leaves, of course red. The seasonal changes are most appropriate for companies offering products that are dependent on natural variations, such as the travel industry, swimming pools, organic grocery stores, and so on, but everyone, from car makers to cell phone makers to English schools, takes part in the advertising trends.

Spring, as I said, is perhaps the most important. Children go to school, people start new jobs, and people move. It is an exciting time, and it is a stressful time. It is the end of the fiscal year for many Japanese companies, and workers often do even longer hours than usual. Unfortunately, it is also a time for desperation: suicides, especially the spectacular train suicides that shut down entire train lines, seem to increase during this time.

Life in Japan is generally stressful and especially so here in the capitol. The antidote, in every season but especially in spring, is alcohol. Cherry-blossom viewing, called hanami, is a ritualization of the consumption of alcohol. A junior member of a company sets out early, claims a spot under the best cherry tree he can find, then is later joined by his coworkers.

They gather and drink, and eat, and drink, proverbially ignoring the gently falling petals in favor of the food and alcohol. It continues until every face is pink as the cherry blossoms, and you can usually find mobs of salarymen vomiting or sleeping outside of train stations. Instead of pictures of vomiting salarymen, though, I'll give you more of Ueno park in nearly full bloom and the sea of humanity that flows beneath them.

With the coming of the new school year came the end of my stint as an instructor: in order to try to get on with my life, I decided not to renew my contract at the English conversation school (abbreviated in Japanese as eikaiwa). It's hard to believe it's been almost two years; on the one hand it has seemed a limbo or purgatory that dragged on forever, and yet, looking back, it doesn't seem like such a long time. I have no regrets about leaving: being a basically asocial person, leading six or seven conversations a day took its toll; two years of practice did very little to alleviate the tight ball in my stomach I carried with me every day to work. But I met some really great people, teachers, native staff, and students, and though it's hard to say I wouldn't rather have gotten a more suitable job from the outset, I have learned a lot from the experience.

One big surprise is that I actually like children. I was absolutely terrified of the prospect of teaching children when I first came here, but in the end it was the children's classes I enjoyed most. I found that I could handle it and, in fact, I enjoyed getting crazy with them once in a while. I even sang songs, and I enjoyed it, sometimes more than they did! You never know...

But now I'm hoping to move on to the next stage, where I use Japanese and, hopefully, my English writing skills. I've never been known for my conversation skills, but I might be able to do something with writing, and I'm looking forward to putting that to the test. And Japanese, ah, to use Japanese! Living in Japan and not speaking Japanese brings to mind the lines from the Coleridge's Rime: Water, water, everywhere/ nor any drop to drink. Recently I've been going to interviews conducted entirely in Japanese, and I feel that after two years of swimming in the salty ocean I've found a well of fresh water.

Postscript: My mom and I went for a nice trip to Hakone and Kyoto earlier this year. My mom's enjoyment of Japan reinforced my own feelings about the country, and it was a spectacular trip for us both. I'm going to let my mom tell the story, so please take a look at her blog.