International festival!

We had an international festival at work that Ryann and I poured a ton of work into. She made loads of jewlery and coasters to sell, and I constructed a replica of the Hollywood sign, and a 1:7 scale replica of the Chinese theater, which no one (including Ryann) had ever heard of nor seen before. *sigh*
I also wrote a Los Angeles quiz for the students, and offered a prize if they got all the questions right (which Ryann couldn’t even do, so we didn’t bother figuring out a prize, lol). Ryann painted a stand-up woman in a fancy black dress for people to put their faces into and take silly photos, complete with a red “carpet” made of construction paper. Overall a success.

The Korean booth featured one of my Japanese students and a couple other women wearing beautiful hanbok that made me feel homesick.

For the presentation portion, our British coworker and friend, Annie, did some ridiculous dancing that involved clapping her hands and skipping in place with bells and ribbons and some handkerchiefs. She claimed it was the closest thing to a native dance she could come up with, but I think she was just making it up on the spot. Ryann then sang a song on guitar, and I read a few poems: one by Robert Frost, another by Jack Gilbert, and one of my own, which almost made me cry. It was very nerve-wracking and I don’t ever want to do it again please, thank you.


Haiku and Nagasaki castella

I wrote a haiku recently, the first inspiration I’ve had to write since I arrived. It was about the furin, or wind bells that Morioka is well-known for crafting in Nambu-style iron (though they were originally made of copper, in China, and now in Japan, more commonly, glass). The idea is that the gentle sound of the bells tricks the mind into thinking it can feel the breeze that’s making the bell ring, so it serves as a psychosomatic cooling technique.

I shared the haiku with a couple of female students who are very friendly and enthusiastic. They said that all Japanese think in 5-7-5. One then attempted to demonstrate by creating a haiku on the spot, which roughly translated to “[tigerlilytoph]-san, with long black hair, like a horse tail.” The ladies then took turns creating haiku about each other and laughing.

This is the haiku she wrote about me (to be added later once I ask one of my coworkers to help me with a translation):

One of the ladies poured coffee while the other pulled out a bag and handed out some little cakes. “Nagasaki castella,” she said. “Let’s eat!” The woman pouring coffee took a moment to tell me about a small wooden Japanese fork used to delicately eat this type of cake, then unceremoniously took a huge, satisfying bite.


Organic Japanese

Here I will lay down a simple record of the words I learned from my students, and occasionally my coworkers, through their generosity and patience, roughly in the order in which I learned them.

“itekimas”- I’m leaving.
“matane”- See you later.
jinja- shrine
“otsukare sama deshita”- all done with work, leaving, good job [this actually means something closer to “Thank you for all the hard work.”]
“kaikeo”- asking for the bill (rough speech, men usually)
jidai- era (Edo jidai)
boin/shiim- vowel/consonant
asagao- morning glory [literally “morning face”]
shizuka- quiet
bijutsu reikishi- art history
shinrigaku- philosophy

[While I was in Tokyo with Ryann]
“gochisousama deshita”- thank you for the food (at the end of a meal)
karai- spicy
hitari/futari- one/two people
koko/soko- here/there
soto- outside
“omochi kaeridesu”- It’s to go.
“kore wa ikura desu ka?”- How much is this?
fukuro- owl
“watashi wa tskaremashita”- I’m tired.
“…ni suwaremasu ka?”- Could we sit…? (koko = here)
madogiwa- by the window
“…wa arimasu ka?”- do you have…?
kore/sore/are- this/that/that over there
tamago- egg
“issho ni onegaishimasu” – (pay together)
“betsubetsu ni”- (pay separately)
hachimitsu- honey
kaki- oyster [and persimmon]
samui- cold weather
tsumetai- cold food
kabocha- pumpkin
sakana- fish
chikai- close, near
omikuji- fortune

kyo- now/today
kumo- cloud/spider
funeko- boat
ohaka- grave
kirisame- drizzle
hanabi- fireworks (small)
uchiage- fireworks (big) [this actually means “launch”]
kingyo- goldfish
mainichi- everyday
nagareru- flow
“wakaranai”- I don’t know.
hachi- bee sting/8/planter
ago- chin
onaka- stomach
saihoso- rerun (sai = second/again)
kaminari- lightning bolt
shi shon- sewing/decomposing smell
kakoi- cool [and handsome]
gouka- beautiful and complex (like a meal)
maiko-san- pre-emptive rank to geisha
obenkyo- studying
kanazuchi- can’t swim (literally “like a hammer”)  “Watashi wa kanazuchi desu.”
buka- glub (sound effect)
daku- hug/hold (a baby)
tskamon- hold
nigiru- grip
mugicha- barley tea
Inari shrine- for harvest gods’ worship, to get money
itsutsubashi wine- apple wine, local and sweetest
yabiotsumeru- shorten a finger (yakuza style)
youhouka- beekeeper
mitsubashi- bee
tskareta- tired
donburi- ramen-sized bowl [and a dish of food on rice in a bowl]
tororo- yam
suribachi- like a mortar
surikogi- like a pestle
oroshigane- tool for grating daikon and wasabi
kanemono- metal tools
Nakanohashi- bridge over Nakatsu river
subarashi- wonderful, marvellous
homekotoba- compliment
wakuwakusuru- excited
keiyoushi- adjective
meishi- noun
doushi- verb
fukushi- adverb
isogashi- busy
kako/kyo/mirai- past/present/future
sabokasu- freckles
chikam- grope
yakikuri- chestnut
inori- prayer
kenzen- strong (soundly made)
otto- sound
reintadashii- polite
douguishiki- small items (paraphernalia)
mda- yes (Morioka dialect) [It’s actually the Northern Iwate dialect]
“totsugeki!”- Charge!
zutsuu- headache
byounin- sick
shika- basement
shikashi- however
mukashi- long ago
daiku- carpenter
kyudo- archery
jitomiru- watch
uttori- gaze
suama- chichi dongo (always pink)
kami- god
megami- goddess
“desione?”- Right?
ondoage- song from Autumn festival, asking for funds and giving thanks ($ for the shrine)
-ondo = kanji means “sound” and “head”
-age = fundraising
omedetai- “happy symbol” [omedetou- congratulations]
maane- almost?
tokidoki- sound of heart pounding, nervous
karasu- crow
koukai- regret
omoshiroi- fun and interesting
memai- dizzy


Swimming with sharks, and ringing stomachs


Today, I had another private lesson with Doctor-san, who is elderly, active, and interested in random, occasionally dangerous activities (but we’ll get to that later). Given that he has such a varied set of interests, I asked what he thought of the upcoming vote regarding Scottish independence. His response: “I’m not interested in the vote of independence of Scotland.” Well then. Nevermind.

He wore a plastic green cartoon watch, and placed a copy of his will on the table. “When I die,” he said, “take my… should I say… eyeball?”
“Take my eyeballs immediately and send to eye-bank.”
“…You have an eye-bank?! Here, in Japan?”
“…Of course.” Right. An eye-bank. Of course.

Iwate University was the first to succeed at eye transplantation, which is now considered a very simple, easy procedure. Kidneys are considered the most difficult to transplant from a recently deceased donor because you need to inject heparin, an anti-coagulant, before death.

Doctor-san then informed me that a “middle-aged, beautiful woman” is in charge of deciding where donated organs go.

“I am an old man, so I will die soon. Where should I die? Because I need the herapin. So I ask the woman. She say, ‘Please die at Iwate Medical University.'” I like this woman.

Doctor-san is certainly not without his ego: “Patient who transplant my brain will have… noble mind.”

If there’s one thing Doctor-san and I agree upon, it’s the uselessness of religion. “Most of the dead man will have name after death. It is called kaimyo. The master of the Buddhist temple give a name after death. There are good name after death and bad name after death. It depend on the price!” [smile] He says you could pay up to 100,000,000 yen for a good name ($100,000)!

“People come together after death and talk about the dead, it is called hoji” (eulogy, perhaps). Doctor-san has selected his brother, sister, kids, and a couple of friends to give his hoji. “That’s all.” Sounds like a lot of people to me, haha.

Regarding final words, he has chosen a few, including a few haiku, depending upon the season in which he dies. For an Autumn death: a haiku that says something like, “My bad luck has run out.”

Doctor-san was once shot by an American aircraft machine gun after WWII, and was curious about the diameter (20.7mm, or about 0.5in). The distinction between metric and non-metric measuring systems is how he knew it was an American plane.

Doctor-san swims in Miyako Bay, where sharks are frequently seen. A fisherman once caught a 7-meter shark, by chance. He still swims there, but admits it might not help him reach his ultimate goal of becoming an organ donor: “If you are bite… bitten by shark, the body becomes useless. So, I must die on tatami.”

In a class where we typically chat in a relaxed environment, the topic of the sound that stomachs make when people are hungry came up. In Japanese, it’s likened to a bell rather than an angry animal in English (growl).

Onakaganaru is the name of the sound:
onaka- stomach
ga- is
naru- sound/ring (bell)

One of the students giggled and pointed out the underlying truth about our cultures: “English is… strong sound. Japanese is small, pretty word.”


Random encounters, and full regalia


I met Ryann at my place this morning so we could check out Hachimangu shrine and see the horseback archery (which is tomorrow while we’re working, dammit!). I pointed out the huge bell that I had attempted unsuccessfully to ring weeks ago during my first visit to the shrine, and told her I wanted to give it another shot. She filmed me, fully expecting another spectacular failure, and instead it produced a huge sound that even the noise of the festival couldn’t cover up. So that same bell got to embarrass me twice.

We wandered down the road, bought bras, and were headed to Odori when suddenly, on the bridge over the Nakatsu, we ran into one of the men who befriended me yesterday. We shook hands and smiled, and he beckoned us to come with him, stating beer as the main activity of choice. We drank and ate grilled squid (popoyaki) which is my new favorite thing. So good! Ryann and I then separated and decided to regroup at 6pm to see the parade’s main procession just west of the Nakatsu River.

On my way home I was snapping photos of the local fire station (their logo is an interlocking circle and square, which looks really odd and not at all Japanese, in my mind). All the fire stations nearby have little towers, which harkens back to being able to see where the fire was. As I was taking photos, a man came out and indicated me to follow him toward the station. He recognized me, and after a few moments, I recognized him, too: it was the father who took a photo with his son and that monk at Daijiji Temple (and then insisted that I, too, take a photo with the monk) ages ago! He brought his daughter out, who was totally decked out in one of the flashiest outfits I’ve ever seen: she was one of the priestesses (?) at the front of the procession for the parade! She mugged for me as I took a few photos. What a cutie, and her father was so kind to recognize me and call me over.

People are different during a festival, everyone is friendlier, more outgoing. During the day everyone is so reserved, then they drink after work and get loud and full of laughter, then a festival happens, and everyone seems happy and weightless, and ready to make a new friend at the drop of a hat. I’ve encountered such kindness during the festival.


Autumn festival, and an unexpected invitation


Today was the second day of Autumn festival celebrations, which includes lots of yelling, dragging floats around town, and something that could probably be considered singing.

It’s been really fun to see the floats in various states of construction.  I pass three different spots where they’ve been built on my way to and from work.  I was on my way to work the first day the workers gathered down the block from Hachimangu to start work on one of the floats. I passed them on my bike, and half the men stared, tired and bored.  Then one of them, dressed all in brown with very short hair and a generous gut, raised his arm and called, “Ohaiyoooo!” (good morning!).  I felt my face relax as I broke into an easy smile, and twisted around to shout “Ohaiyo!” back and wave to him.  Several of the workers laughed and waved.  It was such a nice way to break the tension of being observed as an anomaly in a small city in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

I resolved to ride the very short distance to Hachimangu shrine, where the festivities were centered, and partake in whatever overpriced food they had, take some photos (my camera died in record time, and I forgot my phone, lol, fail), then wander down the street to see what I could see before heading to the electronics store to find a mic I could use with my laptop so I could finally Skype with my family back home now that I FINALLY had internet.

I tried takoyaki (delicious, but the tako part [octopus chunks] was overcooked and really tough), enjoyed watching people mill around with their families, occasionally in festival garb or yukata.  It’s nice to know that kids are weird and hilarious no matter where you go.

I Facetimed my dad to show him the festival, but realized it was close to 11pm in LA, and hung up before it rang twice.  He called right back, and I flipped the camera around to show him what I was seeing: two young women in yukata among dozens of stands selling food and games.  He really enjoyed it.  He said he and mom got my letter: a real tear-jerker that starts innocuously, then moves abruptly into thanking my parents for my education, for encouraging me to study something as frivolous as art history and philosophy, my dad for watching Star Trek with me, and my mom for being an amazing female role model.  Naturally, he said mom cried, and thanked me a few times.  I was in the middle of a noisy festival, so it wasn’t really the place to talk about it, but I’m glad they got it and that mom cried, haha.  I sound like a terrible daughter, but I love them, and I think that letter made them feel loved.  So.  Mission accomplished.

I went back to my apartment to grab my phone, took a few photos at Hachimangu, then wandered down the street.  I stopped when I heard singing.  I saw a group of people who clearly worked on the festival (bright green robes) drinking heavily and taking turns singing.  I pulled over and took a few photos from across the narrow street.  A man standing at the open doorway waved me and a few other onlookers over.  I crossed the street, parked my bike, and ventured a bit closer.  Next thing I knew, there were a dozen people smiling at me and seemingly yelling at me to come in and join them.  I felt a gentle hand on my elbow steer me briskly inside.  I bowed deeply and accepted a seat at a table covered in sushi, edamame and beer.  “Bee-ya, ok?  Japanese bee-ya, ok?”  “Hai!” I replied, and someone handed me a cold can of Asahi.  They all shouted kampai and slammed glasses into my can before laughing and taking turns encouraging me to drink.

Everyone wanted to know where I was from and how long I would stay.  Did I like Morioka?  “Hai!  Morioka-wa dai tsuki!”  A roar of approval went up and everyone demanded that I take a drink.  At some point someone stood, and the (clearly drunk) gentleman who had ushered me into the room indicated that I should film what was about to happen.  The man who had been sitting next to me stood, lifted a mostly closed fan into the air, and began to sing.  The others chatted softly, joined in or replied as they were expected to, with strong, easy voices, and cheered loudly when he finished.  This happened a few times, and each time it was made clear to me in the friendliest way possible that I was expected to film it.

They asked what I thought of the festival: very nice!  More drinking.  One of them stood up, ran to the back room, and came back with one of the green jackets some of them wore.  He dropped it on my shoulders, pushed me out of my chair and handed his phone to another man so he could take photos.  I put the robe on, he fixed the collar, and we posed together, fan in hand.  I was then shoved out of the room to observe a parade of men on horseback, one of which was an archer.  I took photos and received strange looks from each rider, probably because I was still wearing the green robe, but was clearly a foreigner.  “Sugoi!” I smiled at my hosts.  They invited me to stay, but I still needed to get a mic, and had to get going.  I returned the robe and fan, and said thank you to everyone whose eye I could catch.  A few of them left before me, and were very kind in their goodbyes.  My drunk friend handed me three stickers with kanji on them: seals for attracting money.  I thanked him seriously and bowed low.  We shared a laugh and shook hands.  On my way out, I was stopped gently by a woman who had also chatted with me, and introduced to a very elderly man who had been sitting next to a woman about the same age by the door, quietly observing the festivities and singing along when the occasion called.  “Boss of festival,” she said.  “You should meet.”  I bowed and said, “Hajimemashite” while he smiled and shook my hand.

This is kind of exactly the kind of experience I hoped to have here, similar to the one I had the soba noodle shop just down the street weeks prior.  Who were these people?  Why did they invite me to join them?  What were they talking about?  Why were they so comfortable bringing a foreigner into their private celebration, and communicating in a language none of them had mastered?  Meanwhile, my bike stood unlocked outside, my bottle of jasmine tea nestled next to the front wheel, awaiting my return to a slightly less bizarre environment.

My day already thoroughly made, I walked on until I hit a sandal store that usually looked closed.  I chatted with the owner while she showed me sandals my size for a few minutes, then mounted up and rode to Odori street, where I was chastised for not going on foot.  The street was shut down for the impending parade, and sure enough, as I exited Dotour with a small mocha, I could hear it approaching.  I wandered a few blocks until I was next to it and got some photos.  I was invited to step in front of the parade to get a shot of the ornately dressed women at the front by one of the dozens of men in charge of crowd control.  I thanked him, snapped a few shots, and jumped out of the way so he woudn’t get in trouble.  I stood and enjoyed the drums and clothing for a while before he approached me and abruptly started explaining the meaning of the float.

Each season was represented, and four aspects as well: the pine branches on the top held blinking lights, and represented the “celestial.”  Humans were represented by the man posed next to an ox on the front of the float.  Next was stone, then the ocean.  Different flowers also represented different seasons (sakura for spring, of course, but the rest I didn’t catch).  Silver balls stuck out the sides to represent water splashing away from the float.  He paused, then said, “These clothes are old fireman clothes.”  “Eeeh!  Honto-niiiii?!” I gave my best shocked Japanese reply.  I couldn’t believe all these men were dressed up as Edo-era firemen to direct the parade route.  So cool!  He was nice enough to pose with one of his friends for a photo.

I fuzzy-logicked my way to the electronics store and picked up a mic (which doesn’t work without an additional power supply piece, wtf), then headed home, but got caught up in the parade on the way.  So loud!  All that singing and drumming!  “Aya-re-are-are-are!”  Endlessly, for the whole route with frequent stops to sing.  I saw some of the drummers swapping out, but even so, how do they all maintain their energy?  Such stamina.  And a bunch of them can’t be older than 13.

I slowly made my way home, and was shocked to feel how cold it had become.  I went home to change into something warmer and catch the end of the festivities in case something else happened, but I deflated in the warm comfort of my apartment.  I took out the trash, did some dishes, and made tsukemen for dinner.  Tomorrow promises archery on horseback at Hachimangu shrine!


Agatha Christie, a shy violet, and the Autumn Festival: Akimatsuri


When I asked about favorite books today, one of the students said she likes Edo-era historical fiction, and Agatha Christie (Murder on the Orient Express tops her list: “You should read!” she said).

I’ve seen ads for a movie, Hot Road, and it looks like a romantic tradgedy of sorts. I’m interested in hearing more about it, but of course the only person I know who has seen it is a crushinly shy young girl who goes minutes in total silence rather than speaking, but she’s improving. She draws oden (winter food), then says it’s konyaku, and struggles to explain what that is. I wonder if I put too much pressure on her. I turn the conversation to sports:
Do you play sports in school?
In PE?
What do you play?
Soft tennis.
Soft tennis?
Why soft?
Ball is… soft.
Really? Why is the ball soft?
Soft tennis ball is… [looks up a word in the dictionary: injury]

Akimatsuri– the autumn festival, the reason the locals are building these fantastic floats I ride by on my way to and from work.


Kintsukuroi, a better diet, and false advertising


One of my students mentioned something amazing today: one of her friends practices kintsukuroi, the repair of ceramics with precious materials, usually gold.

This is a perfect example of a difference between Japanese and western culture. Kintsukuroi serves to highlight the history (and flaws) of a piece rather than attempting to cover them up. Moreover, it allows a damaged cup or bowl to continue to be used instead of pointlessly throwing away an otherwise valuable piece. The results are, of course, incredibly beautiful, and leave the piece more valuable than it was before the damage was done.  The concept of use and reuse is a philosophy that’s still deeply ingrained in the culture here in Japan. Their obsessive organization of how they throw their trash away is a less attractive, but equally impressive example.

The two women in this class also mentioned Ohasama Winery, and they also offer to take me there with them some time. It’s an hour away by car.
They randomly ask me what I’m having for dinner, and they both chastize me when I say tsukemen.
“Vegetables!” they both yell at me.
Somehow this word comes up: tsukidewanai- a gentle version of dislike.

I got another coffee house class, where we all just sit around and chat with just a couple of women today. Their English is very high-level, and they’re fascinating people. One had recently come from a ballet lesson. The other does gymnastics. I said, “Sugoi!” (amazing), and they asked if I speak Japanese. As usual, I replied in the negative: “Nihongo-ga dekimasen.”
Their eyes pop out a little. “That’s Japanese!” They blurted out, and we all laughed. The class was good, both women are very clever.


Old names, horses, and Doctor-san


During one of today’s classes, the upcoming holiday came up: Tuesday, the 23rd will be Respect for the Elderly Day. “I’m senile,” declared a male student, suddenly.

This weekend’s festival is to celebrate Morioka Castle taking leadership over the neighboring 23 towns (including my neighborhood, Chabatake, and my school’s, Osawakawara) about 300 years ago, with the Nambu han (clan) at the top.

Old names for Morioka:
Hanayacho (many flowershop town)
Kajicho (swordsmith town)
One student mentioned that her hometown’s old name is “ginger selling place.”

They discussed horseback archery, and chattered in Japanese until someone said “hospital,” and everyone laughed. There was a “ritual” that involves horseback archery at Hachimangu shrine on Tuesday, but I doubt I’ll be able to attend.

Doctor-san’s lesson began at 6pm, and this is what I learned:
-Alexis Carrel, a 1894 Nobel Prize winner for inventing how to cut a vein and rejoin it using a 3-point method (assistant holds 2 points while the doctor sews the seams between the two points, which is then repeated twice more).
Types of transplants, in order of success:
-Autotransplantation- self to self
-Homotransplantation- human to human
-Heterotransplantation- animal to human
A Russian doctor transplanted a dog’s head to another dog’s chest, and the head survived for “several days.” Yikes.

Doctor-san said, “Rabbit is more conventional experiment. More gentle, not violent.” Double yikes.


A little song and dance


One of my female students went to a choir recital for a young family member, and apparently had an unexpectedly awesome time:
“My niece… 2 years old. At her school, everybody singing, but just her… dancing! So funny. I watch DVD over and over.

Another female student in the same class went to a high school reunion (maybe her 50th), and then mumbled something in Japanese, making the other students laugh. I look around with a bemused expression, and they conference and flip through dictionaries to translate whatever it was she said into English for my benefit. One of them finally blurts out, “First love!” I was shocked, and apparently it showed, and set the students laughing again.

My student said, “First love… ah… didn’t come.” everyone let out an exasperated noise. We all commiserated. The student to my left then turned to me, paused, thought for a moment, and said, “Can I ask a personal question?” Naturally I said yes, and she asked when had my first love.

I surprised myself by saying Eugene Kang, a Korean boy who was in my grade in elementary school. I guess he was the first guy I had a crush on. I remember thinking of him as a talented artist; by age 12, he could draw better than anyone else in our grade. When I asked him how he drew so well, and he replied tartly: “You think of the line, and then you put it there.” Pretty useless advice, but its simplicity was beautiful. Initiate childhood crush, which developed into a kind of love, I suppose. I wonder about him now and then. Facebook says he married a Korean woman, and she made a couple little people with him.