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Year +

Everything lives on and builds upon itself, stalagmite-like, in the belly of the internets. 

I was creeped out amazed to Google myself this morning, and to see Sailforth pop up at the top of the screen.  If ever I believed I was a static creature, the first page of Google Results is enough to remind me that nothing stays the same, that all definitions of ‘self’ are relative in time and place and space.  Hah.

As if these reminders all hit at once, just yesterday someone asked me:  “Oh, have you ever been to Asia?” And how to describe the weight and effect of not only spending a year of my life in some rural corner of the globe, but one in which I probably spent a little too much time alone with my thoughts, working towards that pesky little euphemism “self-aware.”  Couple this with all that’s happened in the last year – new (old) country, new focus (school), new relationships, new goals – and how to even discern which building blocks really compose this version of ks8.10?

This current/next chapter can’t fit quite so neatly in a tagline. Or a finite space of time.  Yet, if there’s one thing that gives me solace as I wade through all this ambiguity of full-time grad school (a holding cell of a life stage), is that no one I’ve spoken with has seemed to have a firm plan, but rather way opens, as it only can.

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Chu(gakko) = Junior High

6:43am: Alarm goes off.  Check email on phone, hit snooze.

6:51am: Snooze goes off, drag myself out of bed, wash up, make breakfast and tea, pack up school bag.

7:40am: Leave my house, travel tea mug in hand.  (So not Japanesey.  Everyone has since gotten used to it.  Though it took them months to ask what was in it.  Black tea? With soymilk?  Incredulosity.)

7:42am: Roll into school as the last of the students do, greet kids and teachers with a big smile and a friendly Ohayo-gozaimasu! Change from outdoor to indoor shoes.  Continue to teachers room where I stamp my hanko on the books.  Boot up computer and start making the rounds of email, facebook, and then the daily blogs and NYTimes.

8:00-8:10am: Teacher’s Meeting.  Refrain from typing while others are speaking, and keep my ears perked for anything that might be possibly related to me.  Don’t want to get caught oblivious.  Mostly, scroll quietly and continue reading Jezebel, glancing up occasionally.

8:30am – 12:20pm:  If classes: Discuss morning classes with JTE.  Usually have between 2 and 3 classes.  For especially hard or slow weeks, (and if I get my way), we eschew the daily boring Warm Up game “Criss Cross” with activities with a little more pizazz.  Feel triumphant if kids actually seem to be having a good time.  Pace the room while robot repeating, or use their worksheet time to cruise around, and start small conversations.

If no classes: Wonder what the hell I’m going to do at my desk for four hours.  Expand my internet perusal to some other favorites: McSweeney’s, ApartmentTherapy, HuffPo, NYMagazine, 101 Cookbooks, Salon.  Participate in the modern-day version of clipping articles and sending them by e-mailing links to all my favorite people.  (Likely irritating at times. Sorry, friends!)  When this grows old, update the ol’ blog.  Respond at ridiculous length to emails which weren’t that long to begin with.  After thoroughly exhausting my English, turn to my Japanese text books and study.

12:20pm:  While reheating leftovers in the kitchen, get pulled into a conversation with the school nurse about my lunch.  Always along the lines of What is that?  No, I’ve never heard of pita bread.

12:45pm:  Hear kids getting rowdy out in the halls.  Wash my dishes, and saunter out to the main hall and watch as they play ping-pong.  Thoroughly embarrass myself with my poor ping-pong skills.  If the weather is nice, cruise outside and sit with the 3rd grade girls while they watch their crushes play baseball.  Recent question alone with the young ladies: Do you like pitchers or catchers better?

1:20pm: Back at the desk.  No more excuses.  Start thinking about lesson planning for the Sho (Elementary school) the next day.  Devise a method of attack.  Armed with Kid’s Songs and enthusiasm, I am impenetrable.  Most days.

2:00pm:  Force myself to study.  Intersperse studying with replying to emails.

3:20pm:  Cleaning time!  Go out to the Main Hall and putter around while kids sweep, mop and dust.  During the Cleaning Time end meeting speak English to keep them on their toes.

3:40pm:  Cruise around the school during grade-separated Chorus time and listen to them sing.  Thoroughly enjoy this part of my day.

4:15pm:  Pack up and excuse myself with a polite Osaki-ni Shitsure-shimasu.  Feel slightly guilty to leave so much earlier than the rest of the teachers.  Get over it on the walk home.

4:30 – 9:30pm:  Possible activities could include: making a snack; going on a run followed by stretching overlooking the water; my weekly yoga class; my weekly ikebana class; a trip to the post office, bank, or grocery store; making dinner and lunch for the next day; watching whatever HBO series du jour by streaming illegally on the internet; tidying, studying.

9:30pm: Wash up.  Have turned into a night shower-er since coming to Japan, mostly because it was one of the only ways to get warm during winter.

10:00pm:  Climb in bed.  Skype with loved-ones in the States.  Read a bit.  Unless completely addicted to the Stieg Larson books (like now), hopefully asleep by 11 o’clock.

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In October, I talked about Harvest Season here: the many garden plots and the plethora of potatoes, soybeans, cauliflower, tomatoes, and daikon that grace the fields and plates of our little town.  I also mentioned getting to harvest rice with one of my elementary schools, which we then used for the big Omochi Party in November.  Well, seasons have changed, winter has come and gone, and now planting season has begun in earnest.  My happiness level and appreciation for the beauty around here has skyrocketed with each blue-sky day and the rising temperatures.  The lack of Daylight Savings Time this far north makes me feel a little like I’m living in the Arctic Circle.  At 4:45am it’s bright as day outside my window and the sun doesn’t set until well past 7.

Baby rice starters

Ofcourse they got dirty! They're kids! **PS. This is for all you NYers out there...mad love from Kazama

Yesterday was no exception.  In the afternoon, I joined the same elementary school to plant the rice that they will then harvest again next fall.  Although I arrived with galoshes, it became pretty clear that they were impractical for the procedure.  So, like my kids, I rolled up my pant legs and waded right in, baby rice starters in hand to plant in perfect grid-like rows already established before we arrived.  The mud was warm, thick and squishy.  And it made me really, superbly, blissed to be out in the sun, calf-deep in earthy sludge, listening to the shouts and giggles coming from my students and fellow teachers.  Sometimes there’s not much more to say than: it was fun.

See the grid rows here? They are made with an archaic looking cylindrical metal tool (about 5ft wide) with spokes, and rolled across the mud (which has been flooded in preparation the last week or so).

Modeling the finished product

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The return to school is often coupled with the reminder of butterflies in my stomach, a carefully-chosen outfit, new sneakers, and most poignantly, the crisp feeling of a Maryland Fall morning that warms up as the day progresses.  I recall, year after year, proudly shouldering my newly purchased backpacks, folders inside still clean and shiny, the leaded points of my brightly-colored mechanical pencils still sharp, climbing into one of the many Volvo station wagons of my youth.  Yes.  To me, school and September sit side-by-side in the playground.

Not so in Japan.  The mornings are crisp here, certainly, but not from an incoming suggestion of cold, but from a still lingering reminder of the winter months we fared.  The breeze is warmer coming off the Tsugaru Strait.  Tokyo finally seems to be blowing cherry blossom kisses our way.  I spied yellow and purple crocuses sprouting their cocky heads out front of the Nursery School.  It’s about time.

So, after having endured not one but three separate ceremonies in the last day (Opening Ceremony, New Teachers Introduction Ceremony, and 1st Graders Welcome Ceremony), it seems that the new school year is transitioning smoothly.  In comparison with the elementary schools from which they just came, the incoming 1st Graders were big.  To compare them to the Junior High students, they’re just babies!  Sweet and chubby kid faces poking out of their too-big uniforms.  At the all-school health check (height, weight, eye-sight, etc), they were all made to strip down to their shorts and undershirts; scurrying around, looking naked and embarrassed like Samson after a bath.  The training has already started: the correct way to enter and announce yourself to the Teacher’s Room, the right way to perform cleaning duties, the proper greetings at the beginning of class.  One more day of Orientation and then the fun stuff starts on Monday, with real classes.

In some ways, the beginning of the school year corresponding to the beginning of the warm months makes sense.  Fresh starts abound.  But I can’t get past my own nostalgia and conditioning, where Spring heralds one thing, and one thing only.  The freedom and fun of a full three months of Summer Vacation – where Japanese school kids definitely miss out.

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This past week, and up until Wednesday, is Spring Break in Japan.  On Wednesday, the new school year begins.  Instead of taking paid vacation leave, I elected to stay in town and have a low-key, quiet week of work returning emails, studying Japanese, and preparing for the new semester.  Turns out, that was a pipe-dream.

1: Day off

4: Days at the Nursery School

There are few things in the world cuter than a Japanese little girl

3: Bloody noses to deal with on the first day

5: Kanchos* all week

14: Portraits drawn of yours truly

That's me, on the left

89: Times I’ve had to say “Please stop pulling on me.”

95: Times I’ve had to say “Okay, I’ll be right there.

15: Easter eggs dyed, decorated, and consumed

Easter egg dying with the Panda Class (pre-1st grade)

1: Time given a shoulder rub and kissed on the cheek

2: The total number of foreign people Gin-kun has ever seen

6: The total number of times I’ve been informed of this

12: Times I’ve thought to myself how amazing it is that these women have the energy to do this every day for work

8: Minutes during lunch time I listened to a 5-year old tell me how cool smoking cigarettes is (disturbing)

6.51: Hours of sleep I’ve averaged

16: The number of home-made gyoza I ate at a Gyo-Pa (Gyoza Party) with some of my fellow teacher lady friends from one of my Elementary schools

3 different types of gyoza: Regular minced pork & veggie, Minced pork with shiso & cheese, Minced pork with celery & shrimp

11: Hours of driving to see friends and go skiing (over the course of 3 days)

Last couple runs of the season at Mt. Hakkoda

60: Minutes of karaoke we sang at 1:30am on Saturday night

40: Minutes it took me to drag myself out of bed the next morning

13: Degrees Celsius that the weather topped out at yesterday (read: Spring has sprung!)

*A kancho for the uninitiated, means ‘enema’ and is a shockingly invasive attack on your rear end.  Kids will clasp their hands together, index finger pointed menacingly and aim at the unsuspecting victim whilst gleefully shouting “Kancho!” It’s real, and it’s happened to me.

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The preparation began weeks ago.  They met in the gym, row upon row of gangly, pimple-faced, dandruff-haired, smiling students.  And they bowed.  They bowed until they had it right.  The timing, the straightness of the back, the angle of the head, the perfect placement of the hands.  (Stuck to your sides, if you’re a boy; folded demurely on your thighs, for the fairer sex.)  They practiced standing in unison, sitting in one quick movement, like a military maneuver, like a drill-sargant’s dream.  They practiced the correct way to walk to the stage.  Which direction to turn first.  How to receive their diploma, fold it, place it under their arm.  The right loudness and clarity of response after their names are called forth.  And it payed off: Wednesday’s Ceremony for the graduating 3rd grade students unfolded without a hitch.

The gym, before the students bring in all their chairs

Parents attended (of which there were more mothers than both parents), as well as representatives from all the neighboring schools, and even one so distant as the Vice Principal of Kazama’s sister school in Kyoto.  The dress code was strict – black suits for everyone and light colored (white or silver) ties for men, unless as a female teacher, you elected to dress in traditional kimono and hakama, the ceremonial over-skirt reserved for graduation ceremonies, that was once worn daily by students and teachers alike.  For two hours, we sat, stood, bowed, and sang in the freezing cold gymnasium.  At the end, there wasn’t a dry-eye in the house.  The 3rd grade girls sniffled and wept throughout much of the ceremony, and I even spied some trembling lower lips and chins on some of the fellas.

ooohhhh...ahhhh...hakama

The PTA, Graduates and Teachers After-Party just continued the waterworks.  Each student and his or her parent(s) were called forth, and the students had a chance to thank their parents for such things as raising them, ask their good favor for the coming years, and exchange a note from child to parent and a small gift from parent to child.  Not one trio didn’t mist over.  Oddly (and culturally) enough though, none but two of these heartfelt messages ended in a physical embrace.  In most cases, bows were exchanged and both parties crept off stage looking embarrassed. Where were the hugs?  Where were the reverse words of pride and encouragement?

My fan club, consisting largely of hormone-driven 15-year old boys

My girls are so kawaiiii

Throughout the day, though, I was struck with how good these kids are and how difficult transitions are for people everywhere.  Often, my time in Japan makes me realize the differences in culture, but it has also opened my eyes to many of the unifying themes of human nature – these themes that transcend country, culture, gender, education, religion, and language.  While in many ways, it seems silly to make such a big deal out of a Junior High School Graduation (they’re only 15 after all!), it makes sense in that this juncture is really the first time in which this group of young people will part ways.  While in America, our “moving on” chasm opens with the transition from High School to College, many of these kids will go far away for High School.  The small group of people and place with which they’ve spent the first fifteen years of their lives will soon be replaced with new and different people and surroundings.  So here’s to onward and upward to my graduating 3rd graders, and to transitions big and small in their lives, your lives, my life… And to Spring, which is on its way.

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Obento Mama

This blog is not a food site.  Neither is it an obento site.  I’ll leave that to the many, many other blogs out there on the interweb.  However, being in Japan, and loving food as I do, it’s nigh impossible to spend a year without mentioning the glory-praise-on-high that is the Japanese obento.  While Japanese food in and of itself is pretty dericious, the obento is a great example of Japanese cooking gone right…or at least can be.

A traditional Japanese obento is made for lunch, and probably was conceived at 5am by the overworked and under-appreciated matriarch of the household.  They sell cute little obento sets everywhere, but mainly they are comprised of two sections: a starch section (read: rice) and an okazu section (read: sides).  The stress is not only on the food inside, but on the placement and aesthetic of the food.  Portions are small – pretty much sample size – and almost exclusively placed in little mini cupcake wrappers to separate them from one another.  The outside package is also subjected to scrutiny, wrapped in furoshiki, Japanese all-purpose cloths, or in obento specific bags.  Online, there are numerous web sites devoted to the obento, and in Japan, there are cooking shows on TV, as well as cookbooks and cookbook authors who focus solely on this portable lunch meal.

I, the heathen American that I am, rarely bring my lunch in such cute obento forms.  I prefer the previous night’s meal in a tupperware or a sandwich when truly lazy.  However, the lucky heathen that I am, at one of my schools I have somehow managed to work my way into the heart of the school nurse, who has become my “Obento Mama.”  She says that it’s because her son is all grown up and it’s lonely to make obento for one, but I personally think that she enjoys seeing if I’ll eat some of the “weird” Japanese stuff she puts in. Regardless of the reasoning, I will graciously take and happily eat any food she sends my way!

On my desk in the morning....hmmm....what's this?

Oh look, another cute wrapping!

The Obento Box - the epitome of Japanesey with bunnies and cherry blossoms

Cha-ching! What you see here: below, Rice topped with funori (a form of seaweed that is special to Northern Japan), above, from left to right: sweet pinto beans, gobo (burdock root in a spicy, sesame sauce), strawberries, croquets, squid, and an egg salad

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