Me, and the Quilt

It’s mostly been the shame that I couldn’t keep up with the nearly daily posting about my time in Japan that’s kept me from updating about more present happenings. I’ll be sure to finish that project as best I can with the notes I made (years ago now, jeeze), but that can’t be what stops me now, not because things are so important; things are as common as ever, unfortunately. So in the end I have no excuse to write.

That’s not true. I’m making a quilt.

First, the basics, because I’m a sucker for chronology. I’m back from Japan, as of July 2015, arrived on a Sunday, and started work on a Monday. It sucked. But with very little support or guidance, I became an excellent ESL teacher. I enjoy teaching, and creating and improving curriculum for classes, and dislike nearly every other aspect of it. My annual contract was not renewed last summer for just five weeks, a decision my boss (who is capable and intelligent) had nothing to do with somehow. There are men I work with, colleagues, who are blatantly disrespectful in nearly every counter, and it’s a wonder human resources hasn’t burned the place to the ground by now. Otherwise it’s grand.

Nicholas and I are together, and not disastrously apart, as I believe I predicted last, years ago, before I left town. We spoke nearly every day while I was abroad. My breakup with my ex happened months before I came home, and upon my return, I discovered that nothing was as I had left it: friends had lost touch, my partner of 7 years was erased from my life completely, I had no home, and a job I felt (and was made to feel) totally unqualified for. I was in mourning, depressed, anchor-less and overworked. I stayed with my parents. By the fifth day, my jetlag had finally completely worn off. By the tenth day, my mother began asking me “how the apartment hunt was going.” It was not an easy transition.

I live now in the same place I discovered on damn craigslist within two weeks of my return to my hometown: an early 20th century studio with recessed lighting, fake but convincing wood floors, and a new, modern refrigerator that’s much too large for this building’s era. I’ve done that thing I do in every apartment: I see points I could improve easily (curtains rather than blinds, shaving the edges of cabinet doors so they shut properly, refinishing the table I got from Nicole), but then I think, “I never stay more than a year, so what’s the point? I’d just have to undo it all anyway. And where would I store the blinds?” So. My quality of life stagnates in little ways, and those little indignities wear me down when I look too closely. At the end of the day, it’s in a shit neighborhood with loud neighbors, a very active fire station two doors down and an equally active police station a block away. They have a helipad.

So I’m making a quilt.

Nicholas was thrilled to have me back in the US, but I struggled to share his joy fully. I loved him so much, but I was crushed by the loss of what had been my best friend and partner of several years, in addition to all the other stresses of moving back to a city where I’d done a thorough job of tearing up my roots. “Does your breakup still bother you?” I asked him one night as we sat in my little car as we always did. “Are you in pain?”

“No,” he said. After two years together, they’d broken up a few months before. “We’d already been drifting apart.” He was quiet until he looked my way. “Are you?” Of course I nodded and burst into tears. He was very patient, but I could tell it bothered him. “If you need time,” he told me, but how could I push him away? What else did I have? I’d finally gotten my hands on him, he was finally mine, and I’d be damned (exhausted, depressed, disappointed in my pay, yes, but also goddamned) if I was going to let him get away that easily.

Then he moved away. He was accepted to every single law school he applied to with only one exception. When he heard from #26, he was on the verge of accepting their offer. It seemed like a good idea, it was a great school, and it was local. Then #8 came calling, number eight in the whole damn country. It could not be further away without crossing a border or an ocean. The first year was horrible, there was nothing to be done about it. I gave him all the support I could: calls, texts, letters, care packages. At the end of the first year, he told me he was considering extending his time there by a year or more to include a master’s degree. I said, “I can’t believe you’re considering not doing it.” It made all the sense in the world, but it was Spring then, and it snows in Virginia in the winter.

So I’m making a quilt. It sounds simple enough: cut colorful cloth into pieces, put the pieces of cloth together, the end. And yet it’s much more complex, and I’m struck by its similarities to life in general, and I cannot believe how many different ways there are to fuck this up. I’ve already had to undo all the work I’d done (I didn’t dog-ear the strips: shocking, I know). The first fuck-up is the best one though, because it wasn’t my fault: it was Nicholas’.

Summer was ending when I got it in my head to make this quilt to keep him warm in the winter. I’d sewn a few skirts by that time, how hard could a quilt be? I looked online and was immediately overwhelmed until I found what I wanted on the cover of a magazine: a red and white blanket that oozed warmth just by looking at it. I bought the magazine, and the cloth, cut it without the proper tools, and brought a good pile of it to Virginia work on while he was in class until we moved him into his new apartment. We were taking a stroll one evening after dinner down a small main street on the other side of the train tracks. The evening was balmy, and the breeze was no help. We passed a shop with soft pillows placed in the window just so in a very cozy fashion (not at all in keeping with the weather), one of which was the same colors of the quilt I’d just started. I asked Nicholas, “What do you think of that?”

“I don’t like it,” he deadpanned. My heart dropped. “Oh?” I asked casually. “Why not?”

“Red is so… aggressive,” he mumbled unhelpfully. No amount of coaxing could get him to say more. We went back to the hotel, where I showed him a Pinterest board of saved images of quilts under the premise of our future home’s decoration. He’d never used Pinterest before, so he didn’t know what I meant by “my board,” and flatly (occasionally brutally) shot down every single quilt I’d so carefully selected without realizing I’d selected them. Imagine this: your loved one’s head resting on your shoulder as you listen to him destroy the gift you’d been planning for weeks, the pieces of which rested at that very moment in a bag at the foot of the bed, which you’d bought, cut, and carried across the country to work on while he was in class. Feel, now, how your eyebrows jump higher and higher with every unabashed rejection: “No. No. Ugh, no. This one has ninja stars. Why are they all so sharp? No way. No,” and so on until all motivation to continue this project has left your body, like a ghost that whispers, “Nevermore” as it flips you off and turns the corner out the door.

Eventually he realized why I was showing him these pictures. “Baby, did you buy me a red quilt?!” No, I said, and brought out the pieces I’d brought: red, all. He thumbed through them with more tact but equal disapproval. The next day we took another look at Pinterest, at his insistence, and he found one he liked. That was August. It has been three months since then, which is apparently how long it takes me to mend from an emotional blow like that.

So I’m making a fucking quilt.

He knows better by now than to tell me he doesn’t like it when he finally sees it. I hope he likes it anyway.



Pebbled paths, a drizzled expedition, and being alone

When I found my apartment on Google Maps, I noticed that I’m not far from a wooded area, and made up my mind to go check it out on a day off. Today I rode out to find it, and eventually did. I got side-tracked by a brilliant roof (a tiny local shrine, it turns out), and after riding up a couple steep hills, and walking my bike the rest of the way in a sudden drizzle, I found the foot of two paths leading into a forest. I took the narrow, rougher path, and thought myself something of an adventurer. It was pebbled at first, but luckily became overgrown quickly by the forest.

The trees were tall and regular, as though they were planted by humans, growing close together and blocking out the glowing sun that took turns hiding behind the clouds and staring at me. They didn’t seem more than 30 or 40 years old (but seriously, wtf do I know about the age of a tree just by looking?), and one had fallen over across the path, pushing a few other trees away and showing the ground to the sky, creating a natural spotlight that I thought would be neat to walk through until I got rained all over as I stepped over the fallen trunk and into the soft, clean light where plants grew verdant and lush, soaking in the only sun in sight.

chestnut-20115-400x250Open chestnut pods were strewn about, emptied by local animals whose paws are small and tough enough to get past their prickly exterior. I attempted to pick one up and was skewered several times at once.

Finally, I happened upon a large community garden with a gravel path down the middle and a view of the city, and felt thankful for the uphill push that brought me up the hill. One part was fenced off with a quaint wooden fence decorated with birdhouses, surrounding a 4’x10′ area with a little gravel path going in a right-angled U shape, with plants on either side, the tiniest personal garden designed to be walked through and enjoyed I’d ever seen. I attempted to call Nicholas, Jon and my dad, but the rain was coming down hard, and I lost the signal when I stepped into the treeline. I ate chestnuts and wandered back through the dark forest, stepped over the fallen tree, under the blink of sky that stared boldly at the opportunistic foliage, and waited out the rain under a tree. In my orange shirt and teal sneakers, I took a bite of the yellow apple I brought. As I surveyed the little path leading back to my bicycle through rain-flecked glasses, my solitude was finally a gift.


My chronological crutch

A lot has happened since I stopped updating this blog. I’ve landed a job teaching ESL at a university, basically a dream job. I’ve traveled for another project I’m shocked and thrilled to be a part of. I’ve fallen out and back in love. I’ve torn up roots and put new ones down. What’s known and comfortable has come rushing back in a storm of whirring airplane engines and apartment searches, quiet nights spent alone in my first roommate-less place in LA, the dripping Spring Tides of loss upon entering a familiar space. The things that were here before are still here, and a part of me that was in constant motion has finally come to something resembling a state of rest. It gives a false new sense of confidence with which I find myself more and more at ease.

Regardless, I’ve neglected to document these things for several reasons: I got lazy, I got busy, I got both (living in Japan was all the excuse I needed). Once I came back, the guilt of leaving early with so little notice repelled me from that little notebook that held my Honshu life with such quaint efficiency, and I just couldn’t bring myself to recount it with detail. But I owe it to myself. My time there was nearly always beautiful, and beauty of that magnitude and consistency is worth my while.

Putting everything down in the order in which it happened seemed very important to me, and this time-sense has also contributed to holding me back from documenting my life in real time. I’ve been obsessed with chronology, everything in the right order, or else who knows what? Something awful, definitely. But there’s something to be said for time and its effortless gait, over which I pretend to have any grasp by putting things in the right order, or else, as I’ve said, who knows what would happen? Something awful, probably.

I’ll start again, now. Sorry, past self. I know you did your best. I’ll stop talking shit about you now. Probably.


Spawning salmon, a recipe for rice, and hot crazy types


I found a second hand store near Sakanacho Hotline today. The stuff in these shops is much higher quality, and far more fashionable than in American second hand shops. Maybe I need to spend more time in second hand shops in the US.

On the recommendation of some of my Wednesday coffee house students, I went one bridge further south than I usually do to observe the salmon spawning on my way to work. Several other people of all ages stopped to look, too. One man didn’t notice he had dropped his cane as he took a photo with his phone. I picked it up for him, and he chatted a bit about the fish, but I didn’t understand a word. Afterward, I took the river route to work for the first time. It’s faster and beautiful.

Yuko and Chiyako gave me a recipe for kurigohan (mixed rice):
-3 cups rice (standard amount of water, to 3)
-1.5 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled (“Kiotsukete!” [be careful!])
-a little salt

Chiyako is apparently a huge Korean movie fan, and has been to Korea ten times in four years. She even goes to Korea just to enjoy a special winter dish. We discuss the word ‘fanatic,’ the kanji for which literally reads: heat, crazy, type.

In a private lesson, the topic of ‘warrior poet’ comes up, and I mention Nicholas. My student says, “You, too.”


Mascots, athletic Japanese, and evolution denial


When you arrive in Morioka, the first of many mascots you’ll encounter is Sobachi, the black-and-red-bowl-headed… thing that is just super jazzed you’re finally here. Sometimes his head has wanko soba noodles inside, sometimes tofu, sometimes rice, the list goes on. He is the multi-talented, highly edible mascot of Morioka City.

Kumamon is more recognizable; he’s the black bear mascot of Kumamoto prefecture. He’s on everything from purses to tshirts to these little pieces of paper you can stick to the top of your cup to keep your tea warm. I’ve even seen him in Los Angeles. Sobachi could learn a thing or two from Kumamon.

Today, my students and I were discussing markets in the area, and one of them mentioned D & Delica, a somewhat expensive grocery store (“I like the cheap stuff,” one student specified). Another student chimed in: “I like donkey!” Everyone nodded. I was lost. Apparently this is short for Don Quixote, a “discount grocery store,” whatever that is.

Within a month or so of my arrival in Japan, my coworkers, a few students and I were sitting in the upstairs lobby area enjoying tea and cake together to celebrate something. Everyone was chatting and being friendly. One of the students was asking me questions, to which I was replying “Hai.” I looked to my right, and saw my coworker Hiroko shaking with silent laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with the effort of containing herself. “Hiroko-san,” I said. “Daijobu desu ka?” (are you ok?), to which she burst out laughing in earnest, and in between gasping breaths, managed to say, “You sound like an athlete!” Of course, I learned to say yes in Japanese from my father, but have used it far more at the Shinkendo dojo, where we are taught to say it sharply and clearly, a habit that Hiroko-san finds endlessly amusing.

I mentioned this incident to my students today to illustrate how Japanese can sound sharp of soft depending on the speaker. We practiced my “female Japanese,” which was more entertaining than instructive for all involved.

6pm Dr. Sasaki
I’ve picked up some valuable skills during my short time here so far, one of which is training my eyes to see something new without reacting immediately. This gives me time to observe others to gauge their reaction. I learned this skill from Dr. Sasaki, who has taken to bringing something interesting, strange, or disgusting with him for every class. Today, I enter the room wearing a practiced, neutral expression to find skis and poles leaning into a corner of the room. They’re for “mountain skiing,” which means they’re used for going uphill, which sounds absurd.

Dr. Sasaki has made a couple dozen gouges on the bottom side of the ski to prevent backsliding, and help the seal skin grip the ski. That’s right: there’s a strip of seal skin strapped to the bottom of each ski (which also helps prevent backsliding). “This is my invention,” he preens. He mentions “ant traps” on the mountain in Hachimantai, a surprisingly perilous feature if Dr. Sasaki’s description holds any truth: “If I fall in it, is very dangerous. I must climb out, or I must die.” The lesson takes a distinctly more medical tone from there.

Hemostatic forceps are used on veins or arteries to stop bleeding temporarily.
Motor nerves are under our control. Sensible nerves feel hot, cold, itch, etc. Autonomous nerves control blood vessel dilation, sweat, digestion, etc.
We review the post-stomach digestive tract: ascending, transverse, descending, s-shape bowel, straight bowel, rectum, anus.

Dr. Sasaki sits and asks me if I believe in god. I say no. This is not an unusual answer in Japan. He asks if I believe in evolution. I say there is a lot of evidence for it, so yes. He says there is no evolution because different species cannot inter-breed, therefore this is god’s will. I point out the production of a mule from a horse and a donkey. Yes, he says, but mules cannot procreate, therefore this is god’s will. We have not found the missing link, therefore evolution is untrue. I reply that god cannot be seen, therefore it doesn’t exist either. He thinks for a second, then smiles and says, “Let’s talk about this again next time.” End of discussion.


Butterflies, and English: The silent language


I’m told I should visit Nanshyousou, an old wooden house with a beautiful garden. It’s a historic landmark in Morioka. I’ll have to go.

Private lessons with a high school girl who doesn’t talk much tend to be very slow and quiet, but that’s the same issue most Japanese students have: they don’t want to volunteer information, even if they know it’s right, because they don’t want to stand out. It makes the teachers’ jobs very difficult, which is probably why they rely so comfortably on reading and writing. But languages are alive; no modern language exists solely on paper, so I try to get my students to talk as much as possible, sometimes using something comfortable like a written prompt. Today, I provided a worksheet with sentences she had to complete.
I’m afraid of… “butterfly.”
“Really?!” I ask her to clarify. Turns out it’s moths.
On weekends, I like to… “watch TV.”
“What do you watch?”
“…and drama.”
I’m good at… “soccer and table tennis.”


Bribes, German, parental figures, and inter-cultural lunch


While discussing politics in my reading class, my students brought up the topic of bribes, how they are a problem with politicians all over the world, and Japan is no exception.  In fact, the history of bribery is in part preserved in its name: sodenoshita, literally “under the sleeve,” hearkening back to the days when people would slip money into the large kimono sleeves of the influential in exchange for favor.  Today a more modern term is used: wairo, which means bribe.

One of my students told us about when she visited a friend of hers in America whose child was in the process of being potty trained.  She randomly asked, “Pee, and what’s the second one… excrement?”  “Ah,” I said sagely, “Poo.”  Another student chimed in: “Yoo-reen.  Urine is pee.”  Another chirps, as though reading from a dictionary, “Stool, excrement, feces.”  I change the subject.

The woman mentions that English goes up and down, while Japanese is “flat.”  I say that Italian has even more musicality.  One of the men says German is also flat. The other man starts spouting German phrases: “Das ist. Ich bin,” and then, “Heil Hitler!” several times with his arm thrown out in a Nazi salute, chuckling softly to himself while I attempt to give examples of how German can sound harsh or gentle depending on how it’s spoken.

In the evening, I teach a private lesson with a high school girl named Mayu. We chat freely; her parents just want her to talk with and hear a native English speaker, and she enjoys chatting about random topics, so there is no preparation necessary.  Today she told me about her family.
“My mother is so scary!”
“Really?  Why?”
“Mmm… She is 46.”
“Yes… 46. So…” She thinks for a moment, then types something into the translation app on her phone. She holds it up for me to see: menopause. I laugh loudly. She calmly concludes, “Maybe that’s why always angry.”
“Does your father get mad about your grades?”
“No, he is very smart. He got good grades. He things we are…” She consults her phone again, and comes back with: idiot.

There’s a medical student in my advanced Monday evening class who asks excellent questions about the finer points of English, and who, if he had more exposure or lived in an English speaking country, would be capable of communicating at close to a native English speaking level. Having said all that, his grasp of American cuisine is shockingly stunted, which I learned when I explained what PBJ was.  I said, “It’s a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly.”
“So, it’s one sandwich… with both?”
“Yes, jelly goes on one piece of bread. Peanut butter goes on the other piece of bread. Then you put them together.”
“The peanut butter and… jelly are… in the same space?”
“Yes, they touch.” He is visibly disgusted.
Since he comes straight from the medical school to join our class, he typically spends time in hospitals with patients, or, like today, observing routine (aka. bloody and graphic) surgeries, presumably without making any of the faces he made during this discussion about a lunchtime staple I’ve literally eaten thousands of. Here’s hoping his amusing frankness and total lack of a poker face doesn’t leak into his bedside manner


Honey on tap: Beekeeping innovation for a modern age

bees cleaning up honey

A couple of the ladies from our hive clean up some spilled honey on top of the bars. Inside, brand new comb shines brilliant white while other bees build even more.

My dad and I have been beekeeping for about two years.  It’s been immensely rewarding, and not just for the sweet liquid gold the ladies under our care produce.  Bees are incredible creatures, and the more I learn about them, the more I admire them (and the less I fear them).  Here are just a few examples of the marvels of bee-life, and their bizarre, wonderful, occasionally adorable habits:

-They utilize complex forms of communication, from pheromones to the “waggle dance,” which employs the sun’s position, and the angle of the bee’s trajectory over the comb as she dances to show her sisters that she’s found a plentiful patch of flowers, how to get there, how far from the hive it lies, and how abundant their harvest will be; the more energetically she dances, the more bountiful her discovery.

-Bees employ an entirely democratic decision-making process to find and choose a suitable new home for the colony.  Hundreds of scouts are sent out, and each of them reports back to the colony with data in the form of dance: location, size, defensibility, and overall desirability.  The scouts then check each other’s proposed locations, and, if one scout decides that another bee’s location is better than the one she already saw, she’ll vote for it by adopting the dance for that location.  This continues until all the scouts vote (usually) unanimously for the same location by doing the same dance.

-Every honeybee you’ve ever seen peeking out from a flower is female; males only make up 15% of the colony’s population at their peak numbers in the Spring, and in areas that experience harsh winters, get forcibly ejected from the hive in Autumn in order to preserve resources for the rest (at that point, more valuable members) of the colony.  Come Spring, their numbers are back up.  How, you might ask?  The queen bee actively selects the gender of her offspring, and therefore chooses when to create males.

Honey never spoils; it has a potentially infinite shelf life due to its chemical makeup.  In fact, jars of honey found in Egyptian tombs have been tested, and determined edible even now, 3,000 years later (some 5,500 year-old honey was discovered in Georgia in 2012).  If you have honey at home that has hardened or crystallized, just warm it double-boiler style, and you’re back in business.

-The rule really is true: if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  While Africanized honeybees are known to be more aggressive than European honeybees (the most common kind you’ll find in the United States), they’re not as scary as you’ve been led to believe, and have already been breeding with local European bees for quite some time.  Beekeeper Ruth Askren, who tends nearly two dozen hives for clients all over Los Angeles, said it best: “If we really had serious Africanized bees in LA, people would be chased down the street every day.”  You can get inches away from a worker harvesting nectar and pollen from flowers, and she generally won’t mind.  Get some nice close-up photos while you’re at it.  Impress your hipster friends on Instabrag.  If you’re unlucky (read: stupid) enough to upset a hive, just run away.  Eventually they’ll stop chasing you since it makes less sense to leave the hive undefended to pursue a single threat (that’s you, you’re the threat, you giant, hulking, honey-eating mammal).  Don’t bother taking a few steps to jump into a nearby pool, though; the water won’t protect you forever, and they’ll wait for you to surface.  Distance is the key.  If you happen upon a hive, I recommend at least 4-5 meters of distance between yourself and the hive, and try to stay out of their flight path while they enter and exit.  Bonus: Try to stand downwind from the hive so you can catch the sweet, heady scent of the pollen and honey inside.

-Most beekeepers are gentle folk with an enormous respect for Mother Nature borne from the patient observation of some of her most misunderstood creatures, but bring up the topic of wasps at a beekeeper’s meeting, and get ready to tell your kid to cover his ears if he wants to enter his teen years with his innocence intact.  Bees produce honey for food, and generally mind their own business.  Wasps do not; they invade hives, kill all the bees, then eat the baby bees (brood), and the honey their dead sisters worked so hard to make.  They produce nothing but pain and fear, and we hate them with the fire of a thousand suns (and so should you if you ever want to be my friend).  The problem is that wasps can sting more than once without dying, while honeybees cannot.  Plus, bees’ stingers aren’t strong enough or long enough to do any damage to wasps, so they’re basically defenseless.  Having said all that, leave it to the Japanese (bees) to figure out a strategy that involves a self-sacrificial approach to defeat their dreaded enemy, the wasp.  When attacked by wasps, Japanese bees surround each wasp, forming a tight ball around it, and flex their wing muscles rapidly to raise the temperature of the center of their bundle, literally cooking the wasp alive, and killing it.  Unfortunately, this also kills a few bees next to the wasp, but a 20% mortality rate is better than a 100% mortality rate, so the bees take one for the team, and the colony survives to fight another day.  IFLS featured a video of this incredible behavior last year (check out the queen bee taking a walk at 0:50).

A colony sets up a feral hive in a neglected bucket

Getting into beekeeping is easy and fun, but not everyone is enthused about the prospect of a beehive in their neighbor’s back yard.  A close friend of mine decided to inform his neighbors that he had recently taken up beekeeping, and had just placed a hive in his back yard.  One neighbor replied that this was fine, but if his bees stung her dog, she would sue him (insert giant eye-roll here).  Fortunately, the sheer multitude of feral hives (roughly 10 per square mile in Los Angeles, for example) makes threats like this beyond absurd.  The fact is, bees are everywhere, and they should be.  There are still laws restricting beekeeping, but they’re all but unenforceable for obvious reasons.  The running joke about laws against beekeeping is: Some cops show up to tell a beekeeper she can’t have a hive in her back yard.  She replies, “Ok, no problem, go ahead and take it.”  *cue cricket chirp*

Fortunately, beekeepers are coming together with groups like HoneyLove to advocate for their right to keep hives in their back yards, on their balconies, even their rooftops, and working hard to change the oddly restrictive laws currently in place.  In Los Angeles, an ordinance has been proposed to allow single-family residences to keep bees, thereby adding beekeeper oversight to what would otherwise be feral hives.  What people seem to forget is that the bees will be there anyway, so putting them under the watchful eye of a beekeeper is an improvement to a feral colony setting up a hive in a BBQ, under the hood of an old car, in a trash can, or anywhere else they might find suitable.

Urban beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby, and with demand comes supply: a new way to harvest honey has been proposed by a father-and-son team from Australia that might very well revolutionize how we extract honey from our hives.  To understand how incredible their invention is, here’s a quick rundown of how honey is typically harvested:

First, put on your bee suit.  Next, prep your smoker, a small metal can with a spout and bellows that contains smoldering material (I like to use egg cartons or cardboard) to produce smoke that you can blow into the hive before you open it to begin robbing the bees of their honey (this is an actual term beekeepers use, as in, “I robbed the hive yesterday,” or “I’ll raid the hive tomorrow.”).  The smoke calms the bees; why that is has been a subject of debate.*

This comb is upside down (see the wooden bar below the comb).  This comb contains honey (closest to the bar), then brood (baby bees), then empty comb.

This comb is upside down (see the wooden bar below the comb). This comb contains honey (closest to the bar), then brood (baby bees), then empty comb.

Once you’ve smoked them for about ten or 15 minutes, you can open the hive and start pulling up the strips of wood across the top of the hive, called frames (if they’re attached to a square frame in which the bees build comb), or bars (if each of them is just one strip of wood from which the bees build their comb downward).  Remove the bars or frames that contain honeycomb only (no brood comb where the baby bees are adorably growing), and set them aside.  Beekeepers use various methods to get the bees to leave the honeycomb: a gentle brush, a leaf blower, an air compressor, or a small trap hive that allows bees to leave, but not enter (this is the method my dad and I employ, as it seems the most humane).

Once you’ve extracted the bar or frame with honeycomb attached, you can either mash it up and pass it through a series of cheesecloth filters, or, if you have a frame around the comb, cut off the caps the bees have placed on each cell, put it in a centrifuge, and whip the honey out.  Then you can put the empty comb back in the hive for the bees to reuse.  This way they don’t have to rebuild the comb the way they do with the mashing method.

Stuart and Cedar Anderson of Australia have created a system they call a Flow Hive that allows you to simply turn a lever to harvest honey from your hive safely and humanely.  You can watch the video to see exactly how it works, but basically, the comb is made of plastic, and all the cells can be opened by shifting the alignment of the cell walls to create a continuous opening from the top of the frame to the bottom, allowing the contents (honey) to flow into a trough at the bottom, and out a tube at the end of the hive into conveniently placed jars.

This would obviously revolutionize the way we harvest honey.  You might think this sounds intuative, but there are a few obvious challenges to overcome, and some conditions that must be met for this innovation to work:

1-The bees must use these cells EXCLUSIVELY for honey, and not brood.
I couldn’t figure out how they would manage this until my dad lent his wisdom: “You could put these frames in a hive box that is separate from the main hive with a queen excluder mesh between the main hive and this separate box.  In that way the queen will not have access to these frames and no eggs would be laid in these separated frames.”  Problem solved!  And in fact, such a mesh can be seen very briefly in the video they have up on their Indiegogo campaign page. Naturally, if you were to break open the comb like it shows in the video while it contained both brood AND honey, you’d end up killing hundreds of brood and wiping out an entire generation of bees, potentially crippling the hive.  However, as dad explained, this can be avoided simply by adding a queen excluder mesh.

2-Bees are more disturbed when a bar is removed than during a regular inspection, thereby making this product attractive by removing a high-stress event for the bees.
A responsible beekeeper inspects her hive now and then, which entails the same practices as honey extraction, minus the extraction (suit, smoke, opening the hive, pulling up bars). If this was really so stressful, the bees would just leave! Still, I like the idea of not disturbing and crushing bees when replacing bars and the hive lid, so I actually like this part, especially if the bees are producing a lot of honey.  More honey equals more robbing the hive, and the fewer disturbances while doing so, the better.

3-The honey-extraction process is laborious and tiresome for beekeepers, who would rather avoid it.
Once the honeycomb is extracted from the hive, the labor involved in the actual harvest can be time-consuming.  It can also be expensive if you use a centrifuge like the video shows. Commercial beekeepers would appreciate this part of the process most, it seems, and if it works, go for it! Non-commercial beekeepers with just a hive or two (or even six or seven) tend to agree that the honey tastes sweeter after all the work we put into cutting and mashing the comb, filtering and pouring it into jars, and so on.  It also makes the little jars of honey my dad and I collect into more personal gifts.  Regardless of how many hives you might have, and whether you’re selling your honey commercially or giving it away to friends, this invention has appeal: it saves a TON of time, it’s much less labor intensive, more humane to your precious bees, and for commercial beekeepers, it would pay for itself many times over.

I’m left to conclude that if it makes honey extraction easy, and doesn’t disturb bees, I’m all for it.  It’s simply an incredible idea.  It sounds like these Aussies did their homework, so I’m very optimistic, and I’m itching to see one in action.  If I end up with one, I’ll update with results.  Until then, keep your beesuit handy, and go start a hive of your own, you thieving, lumbering beast, you.

*Regarding the use of smoke to calm bees:
It’s generally accepted that smoke acts in one of two ways: it blocks the bees’ pheromones from reaching the other bees, thus disabling them from starting a panic when the hive is opened, invaded, and eventually robbed (by you, you hairless bear-thief).  If the bees don’t sense the others panicking, they won’t panic themselves, and remain calm instead of attacking.  The other function the smoke serves is to trick the bees into thinking the hive is on fire.  They’ll think their home is about to be destroyed, and gorge themselves on honey to make the most of their hard work before disaster wipes out their home, and with it all their food.  Then a food coma sets in, and they get groggy, and won’t attack (which is adorable).


Practical Japan: Navigating the Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

Moving to the other side of the planet was traumatic at first, but has been increasingly wonderful since.  Still, I’m not so far away from the day I left Los Angeles for Morioka that I’ve forgotten the stress of arriving in a country in which I don’t speak the language (vividly).
Tori at Hachiman Shrine in Morioka, Japan

Tori at Hachiman Shrine in Morioka, Japan

The only thing that really freaked me out before I left was the logistics: I knew I could take a bus from Narita airport (NAR) to Tokyo, but where could I buy a ticket for that?  I knew I had to spend one night in a hotel Tokyo as soon as I arrived, but how should I go about finding one, then finding the station in the morning without internet access?  My phone didn’t work in Japan, and cafes (including Starbucks) don’t just let anyone log onto their wifi.  I couldn’t book one beforehand because I wasn’t sure which station I’d be leaving from to get to Morioka the next day (spoiler alert: You can catch a train from NAR to the main Tokyo station).
These issues were solved with a mixture of keeping my eyes open, generous locals, and dumb luck.  Still, it would’ve been nice to have a more complete picture of what I was setting myself up for, so here’s a play-by-play of how to navigate the Shinkansen (bullet train) once you arrive in Japan.

Narita airport:
-You’ll be given a customs form to fill out on the plane, and you might have to fill out another form when you arrive at the customs area.  Any form you need to fill out can be found there in English.  Customs moves more quickly in Japan than in any other of the 15 countries whose airport customs I’ve experienced.
Baggage claim is impossible to miss and idiot-proof.
-Keep your passport and any forms from customs at the ready after you pick up your bags.  They’ll be checked just once more before you leave the baggage claim area, and then you’re free to roam Japan!

Transportation from NAR:
-Follow signs to the train station connected to NAR (downstairs), and find a JR ticket booth (bright green!).  Buy a Narita Express (NEX) ticket, and while you’re at it, buy a Shinkansen ticket (more about that below).  Cost is around $40.
-If you’re not a fan of trains, you can buy a bus ticket right across from the currency exchange booth in the lobby for about $9 (a thousand yen).  It takes about twice as long, but I slept through half of it when I arrived.
If you take the bus, just step outside from the lobby and go right along the building until you hit the bus stop (which is all the way at the end).  Feel free to ask random locals for help!  Just show them your ticket and say “Toko?” (“Where?”).
If you take the NEX, go downstairs to the train station and follow the signs for NEX.  Electronic boards with lists of trains are organized by departure time all over the station, and you can find out which platform to go to there.

Shinkansen ticket purchase:
-You’ll have to buy a Shinkansen ticket at a travel agency if you want to book before you leave for Japan.  You can also buy it when you arrive at any JR ticket booth.  Buying them online is not an option.
-Buy a Shinkansen reserved, non-smoking ticket.  That way you’re guaranteed not to stand for the ride, and won’t smell like a chimney when you arrive.
-There are usually two seats on either side of the aisle, but sometimes there are three, so make sure you get a window.  You can catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji if you sit on the left side of the train while travelling north, and the view of Japanese small towns, farmland, forests and mountains is impossibly beautiful outside the cities.  Stay awake and enjoy the view!
First class is not that much better.  The normal, non-first class seats have loads of leg room and are perfectly comfortable, so I would strongly recommend against upgrading.  I got kicked out of first class.  Take it from someone who knows.
-Also buy a NEX ticket (the train from the station to Tokyo).  It’s about a one hour ride from Narita airport to the Tokyo main train station, which is huge and very confusing, but most ticket sellers can speak a little English, so if you get lost, just line up and hope you find an English-speaker.  Good luck!

-If you have a flight that arrives at NAR (Narita airport) later than 5pm (aka. leaves LAX later than 11am), you will probably not be able to catch a Shinkansen out of Tokyo, and will have to spend the night in a hotel in Tokyo, like I did when I first arrived.  This might be a good choice, allowing you to eat and crash after you arrive, and explore the city the next day.  Or it could mean you waste time travelling the next day instead of getting it out of the way when you arrive.  Bear that in mind when you look for flights.  (I preferred getting all the travel out of the way, but I would not have been able to experience the hilariously tiny hotels in Tokyo that way.)
If you stay in Tokyo for the night, any hotel you stay at should provide wifi, and the most hilariously tiny living space you may ever pay that much for.  I paid about $100 for one night in the smallest room I’ve ever folded myself into.  It would’ve made a disappointing walk-in closet.  Still the toilet was fancy, and the shower was a comfortable size for a 5’8″ person.

At the station:
Do not pass through any automatic gates that require a ticket unless you know for sure that’s the correct place to go.  There’s a chance the machine will just eat your ticket, and not open anyway.  This has never happened to me because I am perfect.
-Each Shinkansen car is very long, and each has its own spot where people line up to board, indicated with markings on the ground.  When confused, follow the herd.
-There are signs showing the number of each train car above where they will stop at the station.  You can see all the info you need on your Shinkansen ticket.
Pack light so you can navigate the inevitable crowds more easily.  Lugging my bags around Tokyo station was inconvenient, and felt impolite.
-There are restaurants at every station, and often they are quite good, so don’t shy away from having a meal there, as many 9-5ers do here in Japan.

On the train:
-Each row of seats has two outlets for charging phones, etc., on the floor next to the window seat.  There are no three-prong outlets in Japan, only two-prong.
-Each seat has its own fold-town tray table, and fold-down cup holder.  So convenient!
-Someone will come down the aisle with a cart of food and drink for purchase.  Prices are very reasonable, and the food is good quality bento and random snacks.  They can move pretty fast sometimes, so keep an eye out, and just call out a polite “Sumimasen!” as they pass you buy.
-There is a space between each car to store large luggage.  There is a combination lock provided, attached to a metal rope, so you can loop it through a handle on your bags and lock it up for the duration of the trip.
-There is also an overhead storage area that is simply a shelf.
-Bathrooms are located between cars.  You can stand up and walk around anytime, and in fact, many people take the chance during the smooth ride to go to the empty space between cars to their daily stretches.  I slept.
Stops are announced in Japanese, then in English, well before arrival.  Be sure to leave enough time to forget the combination you used to lock up you luggage a couple of times before the panic sets in.

Keep your ticket.  You’ll need it to pass through one last gate to exit your destination station, regardless of where you’re going.
-Every station has a series of lockers you can rent for a few hundred yen and stash your luggage while you check out the city.  Make sure you exit the Shinkansen area before you lock up your stuff so you don’t have to pass through a gate that requires a ticket to access your stuff midway through the day.  I have never made this mistake because I am perfect.
-Be ready to line up to get a taxi.  The Japanese make lines for everything from giving offerings at a shrine, to getting on the bus, which is fantastic.  It eliminates any sense of competition, and gives people a sense of fair treatment.

If you think you’ll have trouble remembering where you stored your luggage at the station, or what your hotel looks like, take a photo!  I sort reminder photos in a separate album on my phone so they’re easy to find.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me: tigerlilytoph@gmail.com

Sleepy students, calling crows, and no opinions whatsoever

I teach three classes at a hair and makeup academy once a week, and I can easily say it is my least favorite set of classes.  It’s filled with post-high school students whose ability to pick out adorable pencil cases is only matched by their total indifference toward learning English.  I entered a classroom of about 35 students this week and counted the number of them who were asleep: nine.  That’s a quarter of the class.  This is normal.

Today, at the hair and makeup school, I assigned a dialog for the students to practice. I modeled the dialog with a student in front of the class first. The student I chose is a clown, but totally harmless with a quick, easy sense of humor that I’ve come to enjoy. He was being a bit rambunctious, so I asked him to help me with the dialog, and gave him the woman’s part to mix things up. He did not disappoint: he cleared his throat, and without even a glance at the rest of the class, jumped into his best imitation of a high-pitched female attempting to make an appointment at a salon. The class cracked up, but he didn’t break character once, and everyone was suddenly paying attention. I wish we could communicate well enough to share our ideas instead of being trapped within the parameters of the lesson.
My father used to play these stories on tape for us in the car when we were kids. They were Western children’s stories told in Hawai’ian pidgeon. My sister and I would laugh and attempt to imitate my father as he imitated the storyteller’s rough, animated rendition of Goldy an’ da Tree Pua’as, or Rupledekineskin, or our favorite, Little Le Pua’hi. I can recite snippets of it to this day, and my father can reply with bits of the stories himself.  My student sounded exactly like one of the women in one of the Hawai’ian pigeon recordings which was voiced, in fact, by a man. He brought a childhood memory sailing across the sea into a classroom I usually dread entering. I wish I could thank him.

When Treehouse Friend went to Japan a couple years ago, everyone else was pretty jealous. We love anime, Japanese food, traditional dress, architecture and pretty much every part of Japanese culture that the world at large finds valuable and interesting.
In Japanese anime, whenever someone does something stupid, a crow can usually be heard (and seen) flying overhead, calling its distinctive cry, which, in anime sounds like “ohao,” which means “idiot” in Japanese. We all thought this was creative license until Treehouse Friend and blurted out “That’s what they freaking sound like!” over ramen dinner at his place a few days after he got back from his trip. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking forward to hearing that sound when I came to Japan, and indeed, the crows here are different. They look more sinister (actually, they look a lot like Maleficent’s bird, from Disney’s classic cartoon interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty fable), and their call is jarring and loud, but it doesn’t sound anything like how it does in anime. Imagine my disappointment.
I mentioned today, in a coffee house class, that I was shocked by how loud the crows are in Japan. One student said they live up to 70 years and are considered very wise. They also said it is a common occurance for them to attack people. When I said I thought they were beautiful, several students looked surprised. Crows, they made clear, are considered a menace. They steal food, go after children, and tear open trash bags and make a mess. One of the two men in the group put it bluntly: “I’m afraid of crows.”
I brought up Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” and inadequately expressed its echoed premonition: “Nevermore.”

On the topic of poetry, they recommended going to Iwayama Park, where ten stone monuments contain the poetry of Takumoku Ishiwaka, a poet from Morioka who also has a stone monument in Iwate Park.
They asked if I wrote poetry, so I shared my haiku with them:
Morioka bell,
calling high and sweet, even
dogs stop to listen.
They said it sounded American: “Fresh… young idea!” They didn’t think dogs think this way, and instead told me about a haiku about a sparrow moving off the path to make way for a horse.
They also pointed out that, in Japanese conversation, no opinions are typically given, just yes or no, which tickled me after hearing them be so vocal about my haiku.

One of my students teaches small business management as a profession, and went to a fashion show in Sendai. She said today, “One of my students… nice boy… nice face, good body, long leg. Model, kakkoi! Beautiful!” She used the term “kiroi koe” to describe a shrill voice (it also means “yellowish”).
The name of sounds then followed when one of the student’s stomachs growled. Their name for that sound is “harano mushi,” literally “stomach bug.” We came to the consensus that Japanese descriptive names tend to be gentler than English ones.