Archive for August, 2009

Due to popular request, I have decided to give you attentive and curious readers a peak into my first and second day of school this week. My apologies for it being a bit tedious.

Monday, I wore a suit.  A modest navy one. The kind that adults wear. And I felt a bit like I was wearing a costume.  But just a bit.  I arrived at school promptly at 7:45am, travel tea-mug in hand (a girl can keep some habits, can’t she?), just as the bell rang its melodious jingle.  I changed from my outdoor shoes into my indoor school shoes in the genkan (foyer) and made my way to the teacher’s room.  Most of the teachers were in their homeroom classes with the students, so I set my desk up in the company of our Vice Principal.  When the teachers returned, the Principal came out of his office for the daily teachers meeting, which begins and ends with everyone standing up and bowing.  The next most exciting thing was the Opening Ceremony.  I sat nervously in the teacher’s room while everyone else was in the gym, waiting for a student to come retrieve me.  I was soon ushered into the gym, to find all the chairs set up in neat rows, boys on the left, girls on the right.  I calmly yet confidently sauntered down the aisle and took my seat on the opposite side of the podium.  There were a couple stand-up/bow/sit-downs, and then the Principal introduced me briefly, stating that I was from Colorado and that, as everyone has probably already noted, I’m a relative young’in, but to respect me anyay. That’s right – respeK.  I did my little two part self-introduction, and in typical Karissa fashion neglected to turn on the microphone during my first English part.  There was a minor rehash once I turned the mic back on.  After both my English and Japanese introductions, there was a set change, where all the students filed onto the stage in perfectly choreographed order, and I took a seat in front of them to listen to them sing their school song.  What they lacked in enthusiasm, they seemed to make up for in melody.  Sounded pretty good.  Anyway, not to dissapoint but the rest of my day I mostly sat at my desk and worked on my self-introduction lesson for next week.  At one point, I got bored and wandered around the school.  The girls have taken quite a liking to me.  They always say hello and twitter around like I was the coolest thing since Kumi Koda, who if you didn’t know, is very cool here.  The boys seem mortified.  Won’t make eye contact, try to avoid me at all costs.  This has only made me want to interact with them more, and goad them a little bit.  Oh to be surrounded by awkward teenage boys – middle school memories come flooding back…

Today, Tuesday, was pretty awesome, if not an accurate depiction of what daily life will mostly be like.  This morning I arrived at school at my 7:45am time, beating the bell by a minute.  After the morning teacher’s meeting, I got to change into comfy clothes and helped harvest all the potatos from the JH garden with one of the other teachers and our school’s Special Needs student.  After the potatos were unearthed and collected, I sowed 4 rows of daikon radish and some red radish.  It was a beautiful, sunny day, with little wind.  Everyone was VERY surprised/concerned that I had not worn a hat, as Japanese people seem to melt at even the thought of the sun.  Little did I know that this seemingly insignificant fact would travel back to my Board of Education in time for my arrival 3 hours later.  Just a taste of the rumor mills this town can run, I’m sure.  After lunch, I had the pleasure of accompanying my elementary schools to a special Musical performance for kids roughly called, Kinta and the Colorful Fish.  It was pretty good and given that it is targeted towards children, I understood almost everything!  More than anything, though, it was fun to be around these little guys who I am getting really excited to hang out with!  After work, I closed my day off with an amazing run and vaccumed my whole house.  Ahh, the little things that make me happy.  All in all, not a bad way to start off the semester.


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A quick update

Yesterday I:

Hiked a mountain on Shimokita Pensinsula

Saw my first wild monkeys!!!! (Too fast, no picture)

Soaked in an onsen overlooking the sunset on the Tsugaru Strait

Had a delicious dinner including a strange, but tasty fish with eggs in its belly, mashed potatoes with nori, wasabi, garlic, cream, and butter, and sauttéed eggplant with a miso reduction

Today is:

My First Day of School – same jitters as the 5th grade

The time when I risk embarassing myself in front of all my students and colleagues by giving my intro speech at the opening ceremony

The day I get summer tires for the Beast (for free!)

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Solitude, the somber kind, can hit you in the oddest places.  It’s not always a welcome guest but it’s always half-way expected.  There are the warning signs, of course.  Several long days, too little sleep, maybe too much to drink the night before, lots of people around and the need to entertain, to charm, to perform.  Exhaustion.  Being a little dehydrated and a little overheated.  Maybe not enough food, or maybe the wrong kind.  Too much sun, or sometimes too little.

I should have known.  I should have known that the stoplight was a sinkhole.  That some overly cheesy music on my ipod was an instigator.  That I had been surrounded and overly stimulated all day, only to suddenly find myself alone, in the dark of night, bone-deep tired, the Beast purring beneath me, waiting at a stoplight, and that all the freaking signs around me are in Japanese.  Japanese.  What?  And that’s when it hit.  When I realized that in two days I will have been here for a month, and yet it seems like three.  That I miss home.  Colorado.  America.  With an ache in my chest.  That there’s a chance I won’t be back for another eleven months.  And at that moment, and perhaps right now, eleven months seems like a very long time.

I put my heart on spin-cycle and it wrung out all the water through my eyes.  And then I took everything out of the laundry and hung it up to dry.  It’s not dry yet.  Might storm at some point.  But for now, it’s hanging in partially sunny conditions and the forecast is looking decent.  Who am I to complain about the weather?

Laundry Outside

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Celeb Status

I’m not sure if any of you know this out there, but I am a really big deal.  In the US, it’s one thing getting asked for my autograph all the time, the paparazzi always interrupting my conversations with Lindsey and Mary-Kate for a photo-op, etc, but in Japan, I mean, they take it to a whole new level.  Since arriving, I have already met not one, but two, of the mayors in the Shimokita Peninsula.  Also, I am invited to all the coolest parties.

For example, last week, Ellie and I were invited to the Oma Matsuri (Festival) where we went to pre-game at the Oma mayor’s house.  As I’ve become accustomed to, we had some pretty delicious maguro (tuna) sashimi and got to witness the getting-ready chanting ritual, which was pretty cool.  (I’d like to be able to embed the video but have yet to figure out how to change the file to a form wordpress allows.)  Then, we got to pull the big light-up float, see below, which was not that difficult, as there were little kids also helping pull.  When the floats (of which there were four) arrived at the jinja (shrine), they proceeded to crack open large barrells of sake and pass it around, toasting everyone’s good health.  My kind of party!

Oma Matsuri Float

On Sunday, we were also invited to the Hebiura (a neighborhood of my village, Kazamaura) Obon Festival.  Obon in Japan is a very big national holiday, the basic premise being: this is the time when all the ancestors whom have passed return to their families.  They are shown the way home by all the lanterns hanging in the doorway of every house in Japan.  On the final day, when it is time for them to return to whence they came, families send them off with mini-picnics on boats that they send down rivers or out to sea.  It’s actually quite a lovely holiday, rooted deeply in Buddhist tradition.

In any case, the Obon festival in Hebiura included kareoke (which I unfortunately missed), a regional folk singer performing traditional songs, a lantern lighting ceremony presided over by a monk, followed by sending the lanterns out on the water, and Bon odori (Obon dancing).  Ellie and I, dressed in Japanese yukata (summer cotton kimono), were ushered out to dance with all the old ladies to the traditional Obon songs, circling around a taiko drummer.  As the token gaijin (foreigners) in almost any situation here, I got the impression that this was not only encouraged, but expected.  No worries, though, because you can imagine their surprise when we picked up the dances with such ease and grace – we are Bon odori naturals!  The dancing continued for the better part of an hour, and at the end, they anounced that everyone was to get a prize, but only two people got the very special first place prize of “Most Improved.”  I’d like to humbly share that Ellie and I won that prize.  We graciously accepted our immaculately wrapped gifts, eager to open the heavy packages.  What could they be?

They were two boxes of laundry detergent, apiece.  What was second place?  Tissues.  Oh Japan, how practical you are.

Getting ready

Getting ready


Lanterns at Sea

In between action shots

In between action shots

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Yesterday, my dear supervisors at the BOE took me on a little field-trip to the Abalone Farm in our village.  They showed me around the operation, starting from the tiiiinnny little abalones which they pluck from the sea, bright green shells and an 1/8 the size of my little pinky, up to the four-year old abalones, their shells a murkier, mossier green, measuring the size of my palm.  In their endless kindness, one of the farmers took out his knife and separated three abalones from their shells and slapped them down on the side of the tank, saying “Douzo” and motioning me to get to work.  As I forcefully pried the unrelenting muscle from its safe perch, it noticeably shrank from my touch.  This thing was obviously, very much alive.  So, under the scrutiny of everyone involved, I willed myself to eat this living creature.  No soy sauce, no vinegar, no toppings.  Straight up and on the rocks.

Unlike oysters, which I could happily devour dozens at a time, their briney bodies slipping down my gullet like a ten-year old on a water slide, the abalone is a much more substantial foe.  It took atleast three strong bites to eat it, not to mention all the time it took chewing the crunchy creature.  The flavor – mostly tasted like ocean water.  The texture – pretty damn tough.  The site – a dead-ringer for a woman’s anatomy.  (I must admit, this last part made me a bit uncomfortable as I stood talking with my male supervisors, small vajays gaping up at us.  At one point, I surreptitiously flipped them all over to their more modest side.)  Even in my attempts to not be rude, however, I was hard-pressed to eat two more of these babies.  So what did they do?  They threw a couple more in my ziploc and they are now sitting in my freezer at home.  Apparently, sautteed with a little butter and soy sauce is the way to prepare them, and I believe I will enjoy that recipe much, much more.  (A note: a recent google search has uncovered a pound of fresh farmed abalone as $60, on the cheap side.  This was a truly generous gift.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me at the Abalone Farm, so the following photo shoot took place at my house later that afternoon.  Which do you think is its better angle?

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up - Shot 1

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up - Shot 1

All right Mr. DeVille, I'm ready for my close up - Shot 2

All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up - Shot 2

Moving along, I wish I could say (or not, actually) that my abalone snack was the last living creature I ingested yesterday, but au contraire.  I, along with the new ALT in my neighboring town, Ellie, were invited to  Sai (about 25 minutes away) to dine with Sai’s ALT Carly, her visiting brother, and Carly’s supervisor and her family.  Carly’s supervisor and her family were so welcoming and invited us into their home for a fantastic, home-prepared authentic Japanese meal.  Instead of make-your-own taco night back home, last night was make-your-own sushi night, with some of the most delicious tuna and salmon I have ever eaten in my life. Regionally caught.  There was also edamame from her front garden, an awesome pork dish with Japanese eggplant and cucumber, some tasty potatoes, and two kinds of white-fish sashimi caught by her brother, who is a fisherman.  Just as the evening was winding down, however, Carly’s supervisor, whose name I lack, disappeared for a second, and we heard the car in the drive way.  About ten minutes later, she reappeared carrying a bucket of…live, incandescent squid.  Unable to pass up such an opportunity, I watched her dress the squid.  First, covering its beady little eyes and head, she pulled off the head and tentacles, cleanly severing its innards from its outards.  Next, she deftly skinned the creature in a couple minutes, sliced it into small, thin strips and served it to us with soy sauce and freshly shredded ginger.  It was awesome.  Slightly chewy, but so incredibly fresh-tasting.

I waffle.  On one hand, it is slightly disturbing to consume a live, or recently killed animal.  On the other hand, as a meat eater, I feel like I am actually coming into direct contact with my food, with few intermediaries, and it is a refreshing reminder that the meat that nourishes me was once a living entity.  Packaging tends to dilute that bloody fact.  I like to think that that squid, only minutes before was happily swimming in the ocean and that it had a good squid-y life before it became my dinner.  And, also, it is really cool to have such fresh food.

Update: Ate the abalone for dinner the other night, sautteed as suggested in Hokkaido unsalted butter, soy sauce, salt and pepper.  DELICIOUS!  No longer chewy, but rather super tender and meaty.  Definitely cooked is the way to go!

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Oh, Monday morning.  I almost forgot what these were like, having lived my Telluride round-the-clock work, round-the-clock play life for the last year plus.  But yes, Monday morning indeed.  I haven’t had to set my alarm for such a consistent hour, so many days in a row since high-school.  What is this work business?  Not that I’m “working” yet.  For the past week, since school isn’t in session (not till 24 August) I report to my BOE every morning by 8:15.  I proceed to write back to emails, peruse the nytimes online, update my blog, and get my pop culture fix via Jezebel.com.  When I force the computer away, I study, by which I mean, I go through my Japanese for JETs book and copy down vocabulary I don’t know, and star things I have the intention of looking back through later.

I did, however, start coaching my Speech Contest students – 3 Junior High Schoolers, Grades 1, 2, and 3.  (Equivalent to Grades 7, 8, and 9 stateside.)  For the two younger grades, the Speech Contest will consist of them memorizing and reciting (with pizazz if I have anything to do with it) Japanese folk stories in English.  These are two boys, Taiki and Yoshiki.  They have a little work yet on the pizazz front.  (Sidenote: there is nothing more endearingly awkward than that whole voice-change stage, especially when it comes to public speaking.) The Grade 3 student, Nanami (name translates to Seven Seas) is my fave.  She is a cute, bright, athletic 14 year old girl.  The “speech” she is doing is something she has written in Japanese, and which was “translated”/re-written by my predecessor into English.  It goes as follows:

<“WHAT is this?!”

“They’re not even paying any attention.”

“They’re so rude.”

“Yeah! They have no discipline.”

Doshisha Junior High School is our sister school. Every autumn, the second year students of Kazamaura Junior High School go on a trip to Kyoto and we spend a whole day visiting Doshisha.  But last year, my classmates and I were feeling that we really didn’t want to go.  You see, our teacher had shown us a video of the previous year’s trip.  We saw our school mates standing on a stage in an auditorium filled with one thousand noisy Doshisha students.  When our school mates began to sing, their voices were drowned out by all the chatter.  How could the audience be so inconsiderate? They were just as rowdy when our school mates were performing the soran dance for them.  My classmates and I were disgusted.

We were a little scared, too, because the two schools are so different.  Our school is tiny.  We only have twenty people in our second year class.  On the other hand, Doshisha is huge!  Also, in Kazamaura Junior High School we must wear school uniforms and there are rules about what kind of haircuts we may have.  At Doshisha, may students wear brand-name clothes and some of them have fancy hair styles.  I think the biggest difference, though, is that our school emphasizes unity and discipline.  At Doshisha, they emphasize individual freedom and independence.  It seems that their teachers never tell them what to do.  After watching the video, we felt that their freedom must not be a very good thing.

However, when the day of our Doshisha visit finally arrived we were in for a surprise. At first glance, it looked like our Doshisha hosts were completely disorganized, with everybody just doing wht they felt like…just as we had expected.  But we soon realized that their student government had planned everything very well, and they knew how to get things done.  One event they hosted was a kickball tournament.

“Oh no, that’s no fun! The two Kazamaura teams have to play against each other in the semi finals.”

“You’re right! We had better switch up the fixtures for this round so that they both have a chance to advance to the finals.”

Wow. How considerate of them! And they were able to make a decision and to solve the problem just like that.  At our school, we would probably take a long time to discus that kind of situation.  We might even ask our teachers what we should do.  I began to realize that the Doshisha students were able to think for themselves and to have confidence in their own decisions.

Finally, the moment we had all been dreading the most arrived. We said to each other: “Let’s rock this place! There’s no way we’ll let them get away with ignoring our soran dance this year!” But we needn’t have worried.  Sure they were noisy, but they were not ignoring us.  One of our teachers even overheard a Doshisha student say: “Wow, those Kazamaura guys really know to put on a good show!” We were so proud when we heard about that.

Our visit to Doshisha had turned out to be a wonderful experience.  Most importantly, though, I now understand that there is more than one way to be a good school.  I love the unity and discipline of my own school, but I have also learned to appreciate the independence and freedom of Doshisha.>

On top of being judged on memorization and pronunciation (Bs and Vs, Ls and Rs, Sing vs THing, and plurals!) the speech contestants will also be judged on their style.  Basically, how much umph they can put into it.  Which is where I come in.  I think Nanami thinks I’m crazy, since I’m all trying to get her to gesture widly with her hands – a certain habit of mine, I’ve realized – wag her finger all sassy-like, and put her hands on her hips in fierce indignation, as well as really drive home those words and phrases which need emphasis: thousand, disgusted, different, completely disorganized, wow, etc.  The actual meet is not until September, so there is still time, but I have to say that the rest of the JH schools in Aomori are going down when I roll in deep with my b.a. kids.  Pictures forthcoming.

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A note on fish

I’ve just made a horrible, horrible mistake when it came to dinner.

Steer Clear

At the market, yesterday, I picked out some tasty looking fish in the ししゃも section.  They were strung together 4 to a large toothpick, straight through their eye sockets, and I figured they would be tasty grilled.  めざし (mezashi) is what they’re called.  I’ve found no translations on the internet.  Even as a fairly strong fish eater, I have quite never tasted anything so unnappetizing.  The meat of their little bodies was actually not much more fishy and bitter than a mackeral (which I enjoy), but their bellies held a brown paste so bitter and pungent that I should have sensed my mistake the first ‘pop’ I heard coming from the grill.  I tried to salvage them by boiling them for a stock – unfortunately, that, too, proved inedible by me.  Now I’ve got all windows open and the fans on to try and eliminate this fish smell pervading my house.  With only three meals a day and life being so short, there are very few things more dissapointing than a wasted dinner.

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