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Archive for December, 2009

Snow’s the Theme

It’s been snowing for the past week in northern Japan.  Mostly the snow has been these soft little pebbles, brought on by very cold temperatures and high winds.  Everything was covered for the most part, but because of all the blowing, nothing really collected in my town, though the major inland towns and cities got dumped on.  Then the temperature rose to around -1 or 0, and the winds calmed down on Sunday.  Within 20 minutes, it was blizzard weather, with no visibility and these fat, fluffy, faceted crystals. Now that’s what I’m talking about!  If it’s going to be freezing cold (which it is: I now regularly wake up to ice coating the inside of my bathroom window), there might as well be snow everywhere. And lots of it.  However, I am claustrophobic on the coast.  Yes, it’s beautiful and vast and changes colors breathtakingly, but I feel like a regular fish out of water, a billy-goat out of the Andes, a snow-leopard in the desert, without my mountains.  Whether it’s snowing or not, give me 14,000 foot peaks any day of the week.  There are things you realize thousands of miles away from home, and one of those things is where exactly home is.

Kazamaura Coast

Kaza Coast 2 - about a 10 minute walk from my house

In any case, the good news is that it’s snowing.  I woke up Monday literally plowed in to my house – but at least that meant the plows were working.  The conditions of the winter roads here are terrible.  They hardly ever plow unless there’s significant snowfall, they don’t sand or salt the roads, and in some towns, their method is actually to water the roads.  (This entails a slight slope, and sprinkler-like systems constantly spraying water, with the idea that running water doesn’t freeze??)  This week seems to be a snowy one in many places – on the East coast in DC and NY,  in Paris, in Colorado, and of course, Aomori-ken, Japan.  I like the idea that there’s a unifying link in the weather between me and the people I love, a big beautiful blanket of calm ringing in the upcoming winter festivities.

Setting sun, snow on ricefields

The Beast lurks, waiting to plow through feet upon feet of snow, rejoicing in her natural habitat

And on that note, very Merry Holidays and despite how gorgeous all this winter white is, in three days I’ll be spending Christmas in 90 degree heat in Bangkok and I cannot wait!  I’ll be back next year!

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Nothing gives your hair that extra voom like some aged, sharp parmesan cheese

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Ikebana: Week 2

Yesterday’s ikebana arrangement was Christmas themed, with white roses, red carnations, gold painted branches, Mimosa Akashia clusters – the green leafy plants with the tiny bits of yellow at the tips – and Silver Brunia – downy grey orbs on sea creature-like furry stalks.  Enjoy!

Xmas Ikebana

Xmas Ikebana Closeup

Back at the ranch

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I discovered today that one of my 3rd year students in Junior High will not be going to High School next year.  Not necessarily because he doesn’t want to (though his effort in school probably indicates otherwise) but largely because his grades are so bad that he is unable to gain admittance into even the lowest-ranking public High School in the region.  Instead, his education will end at the 9th grade level, and he will become a fisherman, working alongside his father, presumably for the remainder of his life.

I get the sense that this case is not an isolated event.  I live in a very small village that’s livelihood is based primarily on a severely dwindling fishing industry, in a prefecture that is consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the country.  While Japan remains a world-leader in many regards, I often perceive my geographical location to be somewhat developing. Many of the old houses around here still have drop toilets that need pumping.  My internet is far from wi-fi, and I trail my DSL cable cord around with me from room to room.  I can tell the students who come from wood-stove heated homes in my classes, since they give off the comforting, yet pungent odor of campfires.  Needless to say, for many students and their families in my village, education is not a priority, and further, this is incredibly evident in the classroom.

Most of my classes are divided into the bright and hard-working students, who are vastly outnumbered by the students who couldn’t really give a damn.  Kids sleep in class.  They hand in homework without a single filled-in mark.  Some are absent at least one day every week.   And what astonishes me is that they are never reprimanded, and are allowed to coast through their Junior High education without encouragement, prodding, or even badgering. In fact, they are pegged from Elementary school as either low-achievers or high-achievers, and the teachers leave it at that.  When questioned why a certain student is never called on in class, the answer I’ve received is: “He is a nice boy but he doesn’t know English.”  Well, of course he doesn’t know English – he’s never been required to actually study it.

Is this hopeless mentality my fellow teachers share a product of the region or is this the nature of education in Japan?  Certain students are expected to excel, and thus energy is put into their development, while the vast number of students are allowed to flounder, and eventually flop, simply because that was the outcome forever expected of them.  What happens to late bloomers who decide to focus on school later in life?  In Japan, it seems that elementary school is the cut-off time when determining how successful of an adult you’d like to be.  Currently, my 3rd year students are nervous and busy figuring out which high school they will attend next year – as even public high schools require a strenuous admission process.  It then goes without saying that the more elite the high school, the better the chance of gaining admittance into a top-notch university.  The better chance of getting a better, higher paying job in the future.  In Japan, you see, it’s all about rank.  I explain this to underline how early Japanese school kids are set up for success or failure in life, and how upsetting it is for me to see teachers give up on students so easily, and at such an early stage.

How frequently my thoughts return to wonder about the difference in Japanese culture in a bigger, more cosmopolitan city.  And all I can figure is that it’s hard for me to say…

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In a couple weeks, I will embark on my first solo international adventure – aside from actually living independently abroad.  I’ve booked tickets and planned two weeks of gallivanting around Thailand, a country I’ve long wanted to explore.  I am going alone because the pals with whom I would have liked to travel can’t go for reasons including time, money, and being on the other side of the world.  So, I decided to go by myself.

If I might hypothesize (why thank you, I will), I think Thailand is going to be a perfect place to cut my solo wanderer teeth.  I consider myself a curious person.  I love traveling, and I love being self-dependent, and personally, I am excited to test my mettle embarking on an adventure of one – and getting to make all the decisions!  Thailand seemed like a good fit because the busy holiday season sees a lot of other travelers and so chances are I won’t be alone all the time.  It also seems to have a great infrastructure for easy transportation, and it’s cheap enough that I can financially do it by myself.  It’s relatively stable and there’s little serious threat against foreigners.  However, they still speak a completely different language (one I don’t know), have a completely different culture, and I’m still a small statured woman.  (In many regards, the most inconvenient type of person one could be.)

Some people think this is dangerous.  Some think that a young woman is naive and stupid for traveling alone somewhere where getting taken advantage of (by “natives” and other travelers alike) is a possibility.  (In my opinion, it’s a possibility anywhere.) Some people are just plain worried that something might happen to me.  These people comprise mainly of those with a vested interest in me staying alive and well.  It’s perfectly understandable.  However, I would argue (and dare speak for them) that they would rather me be an independent, self-assured, adventurous soul rather than a person that stays at home afraid of her own shadow – or more precisely, afraid of all the perfectly terrible things that could befall a woman (or a man) out in the unknown.

So, what must one do to stay safe?  In my opinion, keep in mind the same travel basics as you would if accompanied.  Keep your wits about you.  Be skeptical, but not overly.  Make friends and contacts.  If you’re a woman, stick to places where there are other women and/or children around.  Make copies of all your important documents.  Travel lightly and without expensive or important trinkets.  For me, I spent a lot of time planning and organizing my trip so that on any given day, I am able to be accounted for by someone.  Give your itinerary to family or friends.  In my opinion, this (traveling somewhere foreign and alone) is something that almost anyone can do if confident and prepared.

I’m not going to tell you that I’m not a little nervous, not a little unsure, and not afraid that I might just be a little lonely at times, but as far as challenging myself in the face of all these insecurities, big and small, I’m thrilled!  I’m sure I’ll have lots more thoughts on the matter come January upon my return to Japanland.

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Said by none other than Mr. Charles Darwin. He would know.

Snow Monkey Sighting Count to Date: Around 30 (including drive-bys and on runs behind my house). Good pictures of the wiley guys: .5

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Ikebana: Week 1

About a month ago, an opportunity presented itself.  I have long been fascinated with ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement, and prior to coming here, had thought how cool it would be if I could learn it in Japan.  Unfortunately, unlike schools in bigger cities where club activities run the gamut from baseball to Japanese archery to tea ceremony (ikebana falling somewhere in there) our small schools offer limited club activities, none of which I’m particularly interested in, and so my search took me elsewhere. (Brass band has never been this girl’s forté.)

Using the wear-them-down-with-enthusiasm tactic, someone finally took pity on me, probably just so I would stop asking about and showing so much interest in all this “culture” stuff.  Thinking that in order to participate in a set class I’d have to travel at least an hour to the nearest big town, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that once a week, on Wednesdays, an ikebana teacher from a nearby town comes to my village and instructs ikebana to a group of middle-aged Japanese ladies.  I was graciously invited to sit in on a class to see if it was something in which I’d be interested.  It was.

Action Shot

I started my official ikebana instruction last week.  I bit the bullet on pricing (kindof expensive considering start-up fee, monthly tuition, and materials) when I realized that two things I’d wanted to accomplish by November were joining an ikebana class and befriending the old ladies in my town.  How convenient to kill two birds with one stone!  Classes loosely start around 7pm, and it’s obviously a time for the ladies to chat and gossip about the week.  Then, the teacher provides the flowers and plants to all the students, carefully naming them, and sets everyone to work.  When they are done, they onegaishimasu (politely ask) the teacher to assess their work.  She comes over, either gives the thumbs up, or rearranges their arrangement whilst explaining her reasoning.  In my case, as a new student, she offered feedback, and then had me do it all over again.  My first project included: two pink carnations, three branches of a red mizuki tree, and one large green asahi haran leaf I’ve been unable to translate.  Once the arrangement is set, the students sketch it in their notebooks and wrap up the materials in a plastic sheet to transport home.  While still fresh in my mind, I redid my “bouquet” chez moi, and now have it displayed in my genkan – makes me smile every time I walk past.

my first ikebana arrangement

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