Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Beginnings of Goodbyes

     I slipped quietly into the elementary school gymnasium so as to not disturb the singing sixth years. They were lined up, accordions in the front to flutes in the back practicing their farewell song. In a few short weeks they will graduate and move up the ladder of life to the middle school up the road.
     A short time later they filed out, and things got underway for the "goodbye party." Party seems like the wrong word, though that is what it said on my schedule. I'd call it a "farewell assembly." Each class had prepared a song to sing to congratulate the sixth years on their completion of elementary school. Even the youngest kids had instruments and had obviously practiced quite hard for the day. The fourth year classes even had coordinated dance moves!
     The fifth years did something a little different, with various skits reenacting the whole elementary school experience. They even managed to squeeze in some pretty pointed jabs at some of the teachers that had the whole audience laughing. At one point, a rather rotund young man came bursting out dressed in a toga to pose as the great Buddha statue at Kamakura. I am always amazed at the depths of creativity in these kids, especially as it doesn't always show itself in class.
     Even the teachers (sans me, who is only there once a week) got into the act, with a rousing rendition of the popular song Kiseki complete with electric guitar, violin and trombone! The whole thing was a lot of fun, even though a lot of it went over my still tragically limited Japanese listening skills.

    On the middle school side of things, I got a chance to go to the big end of year drinking party attended by staff from every middle school in Maebashi. The invite went something like this...

"Grant sensei, are you coming to the party on Friday?"
"Uh.. this Friday?"
"Uh... sure."
"Ok, be there at 6:00"

     So I was expecting just a normal staff party, with just people from my school and a nice, casual dress code. What I got was 200 people in suits, and me in jeans and a t-shirt. Oooops. Luckily once the beer starts to pour, nobody cares, and honestly as a foreigner, they don't really care anyway. The before party speeches did drag a bit, looking around I saw a great many teachers had nodded right off!
     As always with a big event like this, the food was excellent, and the beer was plentiful. During Japanese drinking parties you never pour your own drink, you allow others near you to pour for you. Also, people will often get up and walk over to an authority figure to pour their drinks as a sign of respect. Well, I was sitting next to the Vice-Principle and a lot of people came over to pour his drink, then went ahead and topped me up since I was right there. Being that I am by nature a thirsty person my glass was often in need of some attention. (Seriously, it doesn't matter what I'm drinking, water, coke, juice, beer, margaritas... I drink lots and a drink fast.)
    One nice thing about this particular shindig was that since every school was in attendance, I wasn't the only foreigner for once. Several good friends were also there, so I got to have some nice chats in something other than broken Japanese.

     The school year is rapidly winding down, and everybody is in for some big changes over the next few weeks. Good thing too, without change life just wouldn't be interesting would it?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


              Falling snow really does make things better. The way it cloaks the hustle and bustle of daily life in a layer of cold fluffy cotton makes everything seem positively ethereal. There is already a certain magic at work in the curves and ridges of Japanese Castles, and drenched in snow they look even more beautiful.

At the center of Aizuwakamatsu is the hill castle Tsuruga-jo. I have always enjoyed Japanese castles because in addition to being imposing fortifications, they are also works of great beauty. Tsuruga-jo is no exception. Like most of the castles around, it is a concrete reproduction. The original was pulled down when feudalism was abolished in the early Meiji Era.

The castle grounds were a hive of activity as volunteers prepared for a lantern festival that was going on that night. Our group sidestepped the work, and stopped for a look at a small Inari shrine on the castle grounds. The falling snow and older accumulation did make everything that much more beautiful, but it also made the steps that much more treacherous.

The ticket taker standing at the entrance was dressed up in full samurai gear, and jumped right into our group shot with a grin and some pretty decent English skills. The interior was dedicated to a museum showcasing the history of the area. Tsuruga-jo is fairly unique in the realm of Japanese castles, as it actually saw combat. The Aizu area was a stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and resisted the Meiji Restoration during the Boshin war. There was a battle that burned much of the town, and the castle itself held out for a month under siege before it fell to the Imperial forces.

I got to pick up a replica firearm from 1800s Japan, and boy was in a heavy and unwieldy piece of junk! The stock was shockingly small; I suppose to account for the user wearing armor. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to fire it with any hope of accuracy.

The top floor of the castle was devoted to an observation deck, but here was where the snow was a hindrance to our enjoyment. The view hemmed in by low clouds, blowing snow and was decidedly unpanoramic.

Near to the castle was a small garden and tea room that was included on our combo ticket. It didn’t take very long to wander through, but was all the more enjoyable for its small size. Our legs were getting tired from walking, and the chill was taking its toll. And so we walked up the mountain, to the wonderful onsen I talked about earlier. Post bathing, we taxied it back into town for a dinner of Thai food. I ordered the spicy pork salad, and it about burned my tastebuds off. I was the only person at the table who could eat it! I have had the same meal in Thailand, and that stands to this day as the spiciest thing I have ever eaten, and I love spicy food!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

School Lunch

              A bright point of any work day is lunch. The day is at least half over, and a nice break with good food is always appreciated. Working as an ALT, eating Japanese school lunches, lunch becomes both a break in the day and a bit of a game of roulette.

              In some ways I am luckier than a great many other ALTs, in that I have always made learning how to read Japanese menus a high priority. At the beginning of every month all the teachers receive a list of every lunch for that month with a nutritional break down. For those who can’t read much Japanese this is not a big help, and every day brings a new surprise.

              I can usually read most of what is coming, and at least figure out if the lunch will be good or bad. This being Japan, there is a lot of fish on tap, though it is usually a random hunk of cooked fish, a meal that rarely appeals to my landlocked taste buds. The variety is actually rather amazing. Naturally most of the time lunch is Japanese food, but there are plenty of meals inspired by Chinese, Korean and Western cooking.

              I say inspired by because like most things here, these cuisines have been filtered through that uniquely Japanese sense of taste. Things that should be spicy have been robbed of all pep, and beware of anything that should have cheese in it.

              Each lunch is actually quite balanced though, with fruit, veggies, protein and carbs. Really, aside from the occasional bad tasting clunker, the lunches are pretty good. The real problem for the ALT is that each serving is intended for a growing young junior high school student. They pack a pretty big punch calorie wise, and yet the serving size rarely seems like quite enough, which makes seconds a tempting but risky proposition.

              As someone who never ate school lunch growing up, I have nothing to compare my lunches too, but I think that generally they do a good job. Not every lunch is a winner, but that holds true when restaurant hopping in downtown Denver too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Steam and Snow

              The roaring of the nearby waterfall filled my ears as I settled back in the warm waters. Before me I could see a canyon lit by floodlights, with scraggly snow covered trees dotted along the slope. Snow blew through the air, sometimes dancing into the alcove the bath was situated in. Beams of light shone through a slatted ceiling through the steam and snow, subtly illuminating the scene. One wall was open, showcasing the winter vista of the snow covered canyon. One word floated to the top of my consciousness, magical.

              Japan is so geologically active that hot water bursts from the ground just about everywhere. In the mountainous regions it can be hard to find a town that doesn’t have a hot springs bath nearby, but as always some places are more famous than others. The town of Aizuwakamatsu, in the northern prefecture of Fukushima, is justly famous for its onsen baths.

              Bandai-san, a massive active volcano that erupted explosively in the late 1800s, looms near Aizu, and helps keep the area well supplied with natural hot water. The particular set of baths we found was in the onsen resort area of Higashiyama, within walking distance of central Aizu. From the road we could see the steam billowing out from the near river level outdoor baths below and we knew that this was a good place for hot bath in the snow. 

              The interior was pure high class modern Japanese hotel. Lots of wood and white paneled walls, with broad windows overlooking the river and a well stocked bar welcomed us inside. Because it was a hotel onsen, there were no lockers in the changing room, so we had to leave all our valuables at the front desk.
              Our group of four ranged from myself, a regular visitor of Japanese bathing establishments, to a total onsen newbie who said she felt nervous butterflies of the type you get when you stand in line for a roller coaster.

              The offerings on the men's side were one very hot indoor bath, one tepid indoor bath and two medium heat baths outside exposed to the elements. One of the outdoor baths was large enough to fit a fair number of people, and one was just a deep barrel, only large enough for one. The temperature was very well balanced, with the outdoor baths being warm enough to withstand the snowy weather but cool enough that you didn’t overheat. Many places have a cold bath to cool off in, though usually the cold bath is truly frigid. This one was more tepid than cold, and provided a nice way to cool off without being a major shock to the system. We reconvened outside after almost two hours in the baths, and everybody agreed it had been a fantastic time. The hot water was the perfect antidote after a long snowy day of tourism.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Red Castle in Snow

              Snow wise this winter has been very mild. Maebashi is protected by the Echigo mountain range to our west, and so all the precipitation falls on my old stomping grounds in Kanazawa, and points north. The city itself has seen flurries only rarely, and only this week have we got anything worth the name snow. It snowed Wednesday morning, but the accumulation was gone by 10 am. It is snowing now, as I write this though, and is forecast to keep it up over the weekend.

              While it has been very nice to not have to deal with the daily tribulations of regular snow fall, it doesn’t really seem like winter without at least an occasional glimpse. Luckily, Mt. Akagi, my backyard dormant volcano, has had a nice snow cap since late December. Recently Peter and I decided to get some  use out of my snow tires and see how things looked up top.

              It was a clear day with a deep blue sky, but even from my apartment I could see how fast the wisps of cloud were moving around the summit. Did this inspire me to grab a hat and gloves? Of course not! The drive up wasn’t bad at all, I continue to be impressed with my little car, it really is a champion.

              The summit lake is very popular for ice fishing, though I have never really seen the appeal. Fishing itself is fun if a tad boring, but add in biting wind and sub zero temperatures and it just seems like torture. Though there are obviously plenty of people who disagree with me, as the lake was dotted with a fair number of small shelters.

              Hatless and gloveless as we were, we still walked from the parking area to Akagi shrine. The area is always beautiful, but the red shrine, white snow and blue sky all came together to be particularly picturesque.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Kusatsu in Winter

Ever since I first visited Kusatsu Onsen in August, I have been a big proponent of this mountain top hot springs resort. As a big fan of the Japanese style of public bathing, when I call Kusatsu my favorite bath, it really means something. 

While Kusatsu is an attractive destination all year round, the appeal of a nice hot bath in the depths of winter is hard to beat. In an effort to been the creeping chill of mid winter, I got together a group of friends who were eager for a bath in the snow.

My friend Marcos is from Miami, and while he has seen snow before, he had never seen falling snow. He was thrilled from the moment we arrived, with a light snow delicately falling as we explored the city. Even being the hardened winter warrior that I am the scene was magical. Marcos was like a kid in a candy store, drinking in the experience with such glee that I think we all had an even better time.

While there are tons of baths around the city, my favorite is on the edge of town, and offers a sauna, indoor bath and outdoor bath. In the basement there is a selection of pools of different temperatures and acidity. Along one side of this room was a patch of wooden floor with a log headrest to lie down on and cool off. Relaxing on the wet wood with sulfurous steam making patterns in the beams of light above was a simply amazing experience.

Fully warmed and relaxed from the baths, we angled straight for an okonomiyaki lunch. Clustering around the hot griddle with the thickening snow fall outside was the perfect end of a winter day.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Wa and you, a guide to not rocking the boat.

     An aspect of Japanese culture that is both wonderful and annoying is the emphasis on group harmony. Criticism is always veiled, and nobody ever says no. They will instead say "maybe" or, "hmm it is a little difficult..." In the dating realm, rather than face a confrontation with someone they may not be interested in, they will simply not respond to messages. This goes for boys and girls, of all age ranges.
     This embracing of at least the appearance of consensus and harmony is called "wa" 和, and it permeates life here. I was reminded about wa today when I had a conversation with my company about a leave request. I had wanted to go home for a spell to take a badly needed break, and had found an excellent airfare for early February. It was all a little last minute, but I figured at best I could see friends and family and grab a few quick bites of Mexican food and at worst they'd just say no.
     But of course, they can't say no. Rather, they let it sit for two weeks, long enough for airfare to go up, and then said "well it is a little difficult..." I noted that the airfare had risen and that it didn't really matter anymore. My supervisors voice brightened at that, and she said, "Oh, so you will cancel the leave request, that is wonderful." They don't have to say no, and the group harmony is maintained. Or it would have been, if I was Japanese. My more western sensibilities were a bit knocked out of joint by the passive aggressive maneuvering that led to me "not needing to take a vacation anymore." I would have much preferred a straight yes or no answer two weeks ago, but that is simply not the Japanese way, a lesson to be remembered. After all, you don't need time off, if you have wa!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Double the Daruma

The nearby city of Takasaki is renowned as the birthplace of the Daruma dolls. A Daruma is a round wooden doll with unpainted eyes. After buying one, you color in one eye and make a wish. If and when the wish comes true, you then color in the other eye. 

While this can be done at any time of the year, the New Year sees a bevy of festivals celebrating a fresh start and fresh hopes for the oncoming year. People bring their old Daruma with both eyes filled in, and give them back to the temple for a ritual burning. They then buy a new blank doll for a new goal or wish.

I had the fortune to go to two different Daruma festivals. The first was in Takasaki, and was at the temple popularly known as the birthplace of the Daruma. A few days later the festival took over central Maebashi. While it was much the same the second time around, with even many of the exact same booths and vendors, I never pass up a chance for festival food.

I bought a small Daruma myself, and made a wish. It hasn’t come true yet, but it has only been a month so I suppose I should be more patient!