Thursday, March 31, 2011

The same old moving song

I hate moving.

I think almost everyone does. It is without a doubt one of the more annoying and life disrupting things that we do to ourselves. Ironically, I have moved almost once a year since 2004. In some of those years I moved twice. 3 of those moves were across the Pacific Ocean.

You'd think that for all that practice I'd be really good at it. But I'm still terrible at organizing packing and unpacking. Luckily, all that moving has kept me pretty possession light, so I don't have much stuff to worry about.

The past week has seen me move myself across town, as well as assist one friend in a move up the hill from his current apartment, and the cleaning out (looting?) of the apartment of a friend who decided to decamp from Japan in the face of the earthquake aftermath. So essentially, I spent last week moving 3 people. To say that I am sick and tired of carrying boxes and appliances would be to drastically understate the case. If I never have to help carry a large appliance again it will be far to soon. Though of course there is still a couch to be fetched...

Between the moving and the rather frequent pre- 8 am aftershock wakeup calls I find myself at the end of my 2 week break rather exhausted. I am looking forward to school starting next week though, and getting back into the daily routine that has been so thoroughly disrupted by everything. As always I look at my new schools with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I'm sure I'll enjoy them just as much as the ones I've taught at this past year though.

All in all though, despite the stress, the bodily aches and pains, the still occasionally shifting earth and whatever else the fates have flung at me of late, I still feel generally content, perhaps even happy.

In other news, I don't have internet at the new apartment yet. I will try and keep things updated as much as possible, but post frequency may drop for a few weeks.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

新しいアパート The New Apartment

Despite radiation leaks and the occasional aftershock, life is moving on steadily. Today I signed the lease on my new apartment. It's a thing of beauty. I love it already, and I haven't even finished moving in yet.

The entryway is an actual hallway, and not a hallway / kitchen/ bathroom/ washroom as it is in my current place. The cabinet on the side is for shoe storage. I'm actually standing in the genkan, a lowered area built for taking off shoes.

The main living/ dining room is larger than my whole current apartment.

The bedroom is of decent size, and has a tatami floor. Tatami is one of the quintessentially Japanese things that I've only ever slept on in traditional inns and the odd temple, so that is pretty exciting. Though we will see how I feel about it in a few months.

I also have a kitchen. Its a small kitchen, but its a KITCHEN, with actual storage and gas burners. I must say, I'm quite excited for this new place, after a total of 3 years of living is cramped, expensive, transitory housing it will be nice to live in a real apartment.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring, a time for Beginnings.

The week since the great quake has certainly been one of the strangest of my life, filled with hopes, fears, friends, endings, beginnings and more. People around the globe have had an eye on the unfolding nuclear crisis in Fukushima. While the affected reactors are pretty far away, they are close enough that everybody in the Kanto region have been keeping at least one eye on the news.

There has been a bit of an exodus here of late, with a lot of ALTs taking a quick vacation home. Some aren't coming back either. I'm not sure how I feel about that to be honest. I understand the desire to ensure your own safety, and to seek comfort in family and friends. But I also feel that the crisis, while certainly very serious, has been blown out of proportion by the media. Though I also wonder if I should be less sanguine about it all. I'm watching the news, and prepared to leave if I have to, but I'm not losing any sleep about my possibly glowing in the dark someday. I suppose only time will tell if I am foolish or simply sensible.

The weather is turning warm as April approaches, which makes things seem even more surreal in some ways. The weather this weekend has been amazing. Warm, sunny, the sort of days that just make you want stroll aimlessly around enjoying the blue skies and budding flowers. There is a stark contrast between the feelings of rebirth and hope offered by the changing seasons, and the feelings of sadness and fear coming from the disaster area and the departure of close friends and confidants.

I had my own last days at my current schools this week. I was really sad to say goodbye, especially at the elementary schools. Even now the kids are so full of life and energy that you can't not smile when you see them. While I won't deny that my eyes filled with tears a few times, it was a good sadness, and a nice counterpart to everything else.

The aftershocks are slowing down, but are still coming. Last night another large one hit while I was driving, and I will admit to an awful sense of deja vu. Thankfully it was soon over and caused no damage. Counting the large foreshocks last Wednesday there have been 613 earthquakes in Japan in a week and a half. To see an amazing visual representation I highly recommend this website. It is hypnotic, and almost beautiful, like fireworks. Relatively few of these movements have made it to us here in Gunma, but enough have that I figure I am OK if I never feel the earth move again.

Monday, March 14, 2011


It is one thing to know that terrible things happen in the world. It is another thing to understand this fact.

              Even as you watch CNN and see dramatic footage of whatever tragedy has befallen some obscure corner of the world, you always assume it won’t happen to you. Even living in a country as seismically active as Japan, you know that the chances of being affected are so low, you just don’t really worry about it.

              I know that I am a very lucky man. Gunma prefecture is far enough from the fault, and the sea, that we have hardly been affected. The city of Kiryu has seen some property damage, and one death, but most areas were fine. A few books knocked off the shelf, a broken fish tank, smashed dishes. These are things that are a pain to clean up, but things that CAN be cleaned up.

              My apartment lost power for about 12 hours, but even that came back on pretty quickly. Some friends in neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture were without power until late Sunday, and still don’t have water. The further north and east you go of course, the greater the disruption and devastation.

              Life around here is desperately trying to return to normal, but I suspect that true equilibrium may take a while to return. In Gunma prefecture schools are open, and classes are going on as normal. Though since the 3rd years graduated last week there aren’t as many classes to teach.
 I hear that even not counting the potential for a nuclear disaster to the north, the probable permanent loss of those plants means that Japan has lost between 15 and 20% of its total nuclear electrical generating capacity. There have been warnings of rolling blackouts starting today, and possibly lasting until late April. The morning blackouts didn’t go off as planned, which was good news for my coffee maker, though there is still an outage intended for this evening. Despite being an Eagle Scout with my Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge, I actually don’t own a flashlight, an oversight I may not be able to rectify now.

              The local stores are running seriously low on food stocks, and gas deliveries have stopped. Gasoline is being rationed, 10 liters per car, and the lines at the pump are out of this world. I have a half a tank myself, which should last a pretty long while if I am careful with it, but who knows when that supply line will be restored. A lot of restaurants are open, though there are shortages there too. Transit links are slowly being restored and brought back to normal, though the planned blackouts will be affecting train travel.

              The aftershocks themselves are coming more slowly now. Friday afternoon and Saturday morning saw a lot of shaking, including three quakes large enough to wake me up through a sound sleep. As I have been writing this post another aftershock struck off of the coast of Ibaraki and shook the school rather hard. Worryingly enough the authorities have said that there is a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 or higher aftershock over the next 36 hours. Everybody is feeling pretty jumpy anyway, and even bumping a desk or table is enough to get people looking around a little wide eyed to see if the world is indeed shaking again.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Sendai Earthquake

Well I was going to write a post today about the Junior High School graduation, however Mother Nature had other plans. At 2:45 this afternoon a massive earthquake struck near the northern city of Sendai. Thankfully for my city, the quake was far enough away that there is little to no damage, though we certainly felt it. I was driving at the time, and could feel the world shaking as my small car rocked back and forth for three minutes.  Thirty minutes later I was in the City Hall when a strong aftershock hit. The lights and signs were shaking back and forth and everybody inside paused to see if they needed to duck under the desk or not.

My apartment was mostly intact, with a few things knocked to the floor. Cornflakes all over the entryway.While there was no visible building damage in my area power had been knocked out over a wide swath of eastern Maebashi. My friend in neighboring Ibaraki prefecture, closer to the epicenter, reported some damage to walls and as well large swaths of power outages. Clearly, damage in the north is of epic proportions. Japan Rail has stopped running, so now several of us are ensconced in a friends house that is near the center of the city that still has power, and internet.

The aftershocks have kept coming, though most of them have been pretty minor. I think we are all ready for the earth to stop moving.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Life Lessons Through Snacking

For such a generally conservative society, Japan has a strange fascination with change. Concepts like the cycle of life, the change of the seasons, and the transitory nature of existence are found throughout Japanese culture. Poetry, art, religion and food are all outlets for this melancholy celebration.
              One vector for the idea that nothing stays the same is in junk food and snacks. Go to any grocery store or convenience store and you will be confronted with a very wide variety of limited time sodas, beer, and snack foods. Some are seasonal; some are simply specials.
              This approach does have its benefits. Every trip to the store brings the possibility of discovering something amazing and delicious. Items like the winter special chocolate almonds, with a dusting of bitter sweet cocoa powder on the outside. Some years ago several companies offered tomato and mozzarella flavored potato chips, an interesting combination that I grew quite fond of that has since disappeared for good. Not every new product is a hit though, for example the cheese flavored Kitkat bars or the famous cucumber flavored Pepsi. I tried that one myself, and while it wasn’t as atrocious as one might expect, neither was it something I cared to revisit. It pretty much tasted like cucumber though, which really is a triumph of better living through chemistry.
              McDonalds has also seized on this, and regularly features rotating special sandwiches. In the fall there were four chicken sandwiches, including a Fondue sandwich that had the chicken dipped in a cheese sauce, then slapped on a bun with bacon and another slice of cheese. There was also the German Sausage sandwich with chicken, a slice of sausage, sauerkraut and mustard sauce. Each sandwich lasted two weeks, and once the time was up, that sandwich was gone.
              Currently they are running a campaign called Big America 2, a sequel to last years Big America Burgers. The offering include the Idaho Burger, with a hash brown on top of the patty. It is probably the most delicious McDonalds burger I have ever had, though as you can imagine it is NOT for the calorie conscious. There was also the Miami Burger, with corn chips and chili as a topping. How they got from chili to Miami I'm not entirely sure. However, both of those are gone, and now the last burger looms large, the Manhattan with its deli looking bun and pastrami topper. I haven't tried it yet, but I suppose I should, in the interests of  completeness.
              The real downside of and lesson in all this is that nothing lasts forever. When you find an interesting flavor that excites your taste buds you know that you had better enjoy it now, because it will be gone soon. A fitting lesson for life brought to you by potato chips.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The White Tiger Corps

Aizuwakamatsu has another more tragic facet of history connected to the castle. During the Boshin War siege a small group of young samurai who were members of the White Tiger Corps (Byakkotai in Japanese) retreated to a hill overlooking the city during a battle. They looked back at the castle, and seeing the smoke from the burning town wrongfully assumed that the castle itself had fallen.

              This would have meant that their lord, his retainers and many of their own samurai fathers were dead. Thinking that their cause was lost, the twenty young men, most around sixteen or seventeen years old, committed suicide. The story is known because one failed in his attempt at an honorable death, and was rescued by a local farmer.

             All twenty were buried at the top of the hill, and today Iimori Hill is one of the main sights in Aizuwakamatsu. There is a cluster of souvenir shops around the bottom, and then a series of shrines and temples line the path to the summit.

              The snow that had fallen the day before covered the path and made the paths up the hill a much more treacherous proposition. About half way up we came upon a tower with two spiral ramps to the top, one for the ascent and one for the descent. Hidden in the core of the tower are Buddhist statues of Kannon, the goddess of Mercy.

              Nearby was an automated omikuji dispenser. Omikuji are small paper scrolls that tell your fortune. They usually cover the general outlook on life as well as specific details for love, business, tests and more. There are many levels of luck that you can receive, from the very best to the very worst. If you get the very worst fortune, you tie the paper off nearby so the bad luck won’t attach itself to you. My fortune this time was for uncertain luck, so some was good and some was bad.

              At the top there is the graveyard of the Byakkotai and a monument to their sacrifice. Interestingly enough, in the late 1920s Benito Mussolini heard the story and was so touched by it he donated a pillar from Pompeii topped with an Imperial Roman Eagle. The Eagle is still there, watching over the hilltop.

              For a place that has such an unfortunate claim to fame, Iimori really impressed me. It has just the right proportions of history, natural beauty and a lot of amazing things to take photos of.