Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mount Fuji

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Riding back on the express Nozomi Shinkensen yesterday from Osaka to Tokyo I had been keeping a sharp eye out the left hand side of the train. I remember listening to The Hive's "I Hate to Say I Told You So," and we were going near top speed, I was thinking, when is this extremely long tunnel going to end? and then suddently boom; Fuji-san in full sunlight looming right in front of me. We grabbed the camera and got the shot seen above. Fuji-san has been revered throughout Japanese history, though in contemporary times (by all accounts) it's become a very touristy hike. The reason I think it brings together both far extremes of Japanese culture - the traditional and uber-modern - is because as we sat on the engineering marvel that is the Bullet Train, we passed a picture perfect view of a real object right out of Japanese history. For the record, I think Shinkensens are the best way to travel and the ticket is worth every penny considering the experience and convenience.


We are back in Shikaoi now and just home from a wonderful - if brief - dinner with the Usui's. We are pacing ourselves for New Years Day! It didn't snow at all while we were away, well, maybe a bit. But nothing like what they got on the West side of Hokkaido. I didn't have to dig out my car at the airport nor shovel a meter of snow when I got home. I really wanted to post a great picture from today - my perfect idea of Japan - but that will have to wait until I have a moment tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 30, 2006


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It's a bit late and we have a long day of travel tomorrow but it is worth updating the blog to say that we survived eating fugu. It deserves a long detailed post but for now I will say it was a quint essential Japanese experience and it was very expensive. I'm glad I asked a good friend for his recommendation; there are many restaurants serving fugu to unsuspecting but brave and curious tourists, but he didn't lead us astray. I don't know how a tourist would even ever find this place. Below is a composite of Sean taking a bullet for the team and eating the treasured cheak of the fugu.

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I also think Osaka had great shopping. And this comes from someone who doesn't particularly like shopping. The area in which we were staying in Osaka (around Namba station) is not so overwhelming as Shibuya. I bought some Paul Smith jeans and now owe some bank my liver. Too much fun.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Nara's Architecture

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Osaka turns out to be quite fun and one of it's many specialties, Okonomiyaki, turns out to be quite delicious. Before we head out for the day I wanted to post these pictures from Nara. I have been happy during the winter season to trounce around and see architecture knowing that Kyoto's gardens are not at their peak now. In the morning, we toured some of the oldest wooden structures in the world at Horyu-ji. Dating back to the 9th century they are architectural masterpieces that have survived many earthquakes and hostilies. In the afternoon we entered Todai-ji and saw the Great Buddha, I think it was an experience on par with seeing Kyoto's Sanjusangen-do with it's 1001 life-size wood-and-gold Kannon. The tame dear at Nara Park where Todai-ji is located were also fun to watch. The dear are very tame... unless you have food, as the last picture attests too.

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Maybe some Pictures

We just got into Osaka and I wanted to update before we headed out again to sample some fine Osaka cusine. The picture above is from Koyumiza temple, which we went to yesterday though we saw lots of Nara's UNESCO sites today. The Great Buddha was amazing! The picture below was taken in Dotonbori in front of what will be our hotel for the next two nights. I will try to put up a couple more temple pictures tonite. Dotonbori looks like a fine place to spend the last couple of days before new years.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Osaka via Nara

Just a quick morning post. We are getting ready to leave Kyoto after seeing many many temples and shines and eating lots of great food. Especially last night when we had "Nouveau" Japanese on Ponto Cho. It's also snowing at the moment although it doesn't seem to be sticking around. We'll try to get some pictures because it seems interesting to me. Today we will be taking a short train ride to Nara where Japan's capital was first established around 800 A.D. and then on to Osaka.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Time out

Got back to the Hotel a bit early to get ready for dinner. I was surprised how empty the sites were this morning. You can do lots things quicker with no crowds. Sean and I didn't talk too much to each other this morning because in the space of one morning we saw two UNESCO World Heritage sites that left us speechless. Both of which we were able to walk back to our hotel from. Kyoto is a place that is knee deep in world class history and I will need to come back many times before I ever get my fill. I have enjoyed peering down Kyoto's long narrow streets and imagining what could lie at the end of them: a quiet temple? a reverent shrine? the perfect Japanese meal? For dinner we've planned to head back to Gion and Poncho, two of Kyoto's oldest neigbourhoods and perfect examples of this enviroment. Poncho street espeically is exicting because I bet the street can only fit four people abreast and must look much like it did hundreds of years ago. And yesterday we saw Nishiki market! We've done so much.

Kyoto and Himeji Castle Pictures.

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So yes. The day before yesterday is was drizzling or raining most of the day when we were looking at temples. We got very wet toward the end of the day.

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Between the rain and the New Years holiday, this gave Sean and I some of the temples we went to pretty much to ourselves. It was a rare experience because normally the temples are packed. This was the type of quiet, conteplative enviroment the temples we designed for but are rarely expereienced because of their popularity.

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Yesterday we went to Japanese architectural gem Himeji Castle. Nearly unchanged for 400 years but in amazingly good condition. Again, we had the place mostly to ourselves execpt the main tower. With no crowds it felt like time had stopped allowing one to get very close to history. It was kind of overcast for part of the trip (but cleared up later) hence the black and white images.

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The main tower is amazing so we just had to climb up to the very top. Again, lots of history. The tower was built with one thing in mind: defense. Well worth the effort to see the grounds and tower.

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Snapped this shot on the way back by train to Kyoto of the afternoon sun finally breaking through. It was a very nice ride through Kansai. I stared out the window most of the way.

BlogSpot tech troubles

I am having trouble with the Blogspot interface. I don't have time to do things the long way with time so sparse. I will try to update tomorrow before we leave for another day of temple hoping and good eats.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tokyo Pictures

Though we have just spent our first full day in Kyoto looking at temples, a delay in getting internet access allow us only now to offer images from the lightening quick Tokyo leg of our journey. I will write more about the sights in detail at a later date.

Walking through Omotesando and Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon, all the crowds converge on this one bridge to see and be seen.

The weather we had in Tokyo has us looking at our calendars thinking Spring had come early. We continued passed Harajuku into Yoyoji Park for a walk to enjoy the weather.

For the second year in a row I ate sushi for Christmas, only this year it was for breakfast. We visited Tsukiji fish market and it was worth every once of effort to get their early. Nothing prepared me for the shear size and chaos of the market. Never has a location blown so far past its descriptions and expections. This is the market that feeds Tokyo. For an extra special treat, sushi, at a place that specializes in fish that has never been frozen. For those readers the like sushi, my sushi pinnacle has been reached.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Quick update before bed.

We walked into an Italian restaurant in Tokyo with our good friend Miki and found, to our surprise, a Christmas miracle! Completely unexpectedly her brother and parents were there to meet us! After eating we went to a Christmas Eve Mass; in French, no less. Tomorrow morning - very early - we are off to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas just got Merrier.

Last Post

I think I should have timed this better. I'm sitting here now in a house with the water turned off. I could of slept for another 20 minutes! But I couldn't sleep.

Night posting

I just read an email from my brother from three hours ago and he should just about be on a plane by now. Me? I'm going to bed. In the morning I will just have to throw the last couple of things into my suitcase, shut off the water and eat something. After rushing around all week I managed to sneak off to badminton tonight. Best stress relief ever and free. Plus now I am very tired and will sleep for sure.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Meanwhile here in Shikaoi...

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Just thought I'd quickly post this picture that represents what's been going on in my neck of the woods. It's such a nice day here today. Slushy snow everywhere. A warm Sun. The forcast for Tokyo is even better.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


As a special treat for the students before the winter break to reward their hard work, I reached back into my hazy memories of elementary school and organized a game of Murder-ball. One of my favorite things from elementary school. All the students are anxious about the approaching holidays so not much was going to get done anyway. There is not too much to explain because the games basically work the same way. One of the biggest differences is that if the ball is caught, the other person is out. That elicited a big "eh?" from the students. I think it went over really well, the kids were thrilled and soon the gym was filled with calls of "Pass! Pass!" and "Safe!" So I guess the short description is that I played dodge-ball all morning. My afternoon is filled with chasing loose ends, making sure everything runs smoothly while I'm away.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Rolling along

Why does the world work this way? For a change, I have lots to do in the office, but some like law of nature, people keep coming by to say hi. My students. Other town workers. I mean, I like to visit, but everyone could see my desk was covered with papers. I take it as a sign my Japanese is now good enough to chat casually with people waiting. With some sadness I am faced today with my last badminton game until the new year. Great group of guys and gals but I keep getting waxed by people born with rackets in their hands. Still, everyone tries to keep the teams fair and the focus is on friendly, but intense, game-play. I have yet to take any bad feelings off the court with me. The closest I have come was getting nailed in the middle of my forehead last week. That hurt.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Sometimes I really love this country. Take for instance the book I bought off last week. I got an email that it shipped Friday morning and it arrived with a knock at my door Sunday afternoon. Where else is the world is there still delivery to your door Sunday afternoon? Everything here is still progressing at break neck speed toward my brother's arrival. Even though at the moment the office is very quiet.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

One Week. An Important post.

A fairly significant point was reached today; it’s one week from today that I will be meeting my younger brother in the heart of Tokyo to start a two-week trip that will cover Kyoto, Osaka, Shikaoi and Sapporo. I will spare the readers any sappy details I have about finally being able to wrap my arms around a family member after such a long period and instead focus on the amazing and special meeting we have planned.

In Tokyo there is a very famous meeting point outside Shibuya Station at the statue of loyal dog Hachiko and this is where we plan to meet. A spot where famous actresses date major league baseball players, news reports broadcast from, rock music videos are shot at, politicians campaign from and charities fight over. Despite this however, Shibuya barely raises its collective head and keeps bustling along like a bloody force of nature. This is rooted in the square’s surroundings. Tip you head up for a change and giant towers covered with neon signs obscure the sky. People coming. People going. Frantic people. Foreign people. Everywhere everything moving. It’s is own type of drug in a dream-like scene of modern Japan. It’s bound to spark thoughts such as, “So this is where everyone is.” Certainly not for the faint of heart. Take for instance “Shibuya Scramble” adjacent to the square. Here, every three minutes like clock work—or like a tide—thousands at a time cross the street. Taking it over for a moment and then retreating. After exploring Shibuya, going home to places like Calgary and Edmonton seem rural and pedestrian. Supposed international cities like New York and London look like Amish colonies. And remember to add a dash of outlandish Japanese behaviour. One doesn’t quite know what to expect. Shibuya is probably not a place I would like to live, but it sure is fun to visit.

I am honestly worried that my brother’s head is going to explode when he arrives. Seeing it on Google maps is not the same as standing there. Locating someone in the square is also probably easier said than done as well. I think this is going to be one of the most memorable meetings we could ever imagine.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Chicago Deep Dish Pringles

Beautiful day here. Nice and sunny. Piles of slush everywhere. It's like we've gone straight to Spring.

For the record, normally I am very hesitant to try new and wierd sounding foods. But this week, curiosity got the better of me and I bought some Chicago Dish Deep flavored Pringles. (It maybe hard to see this from the image.) I don't know if they have this flavor in North America. I doubt it, but then again I'm out of the loop as to what's on Canadian store shelves at the moment. My conclusion; it's taste doesn't really resemble Chicago deep dish. Well, maybe to those who have never tried Chicago deep dish it does. I ended up not even finishing the can.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006



I love fresh fruit in the summer and it's a treat to receive some in the winter. Lately I have been sticking to a rotating diet of potato, Japanese pumpkin (kabocha), and sweet potato (satsumo). I received a big box of apples from my old host family in Koriyama. It's sort of hard to wrap my Albertan mind around, but December is prime season for Fukushima's famous apples. I sometimes buy fuji apples here, but to get my own personal box full was so kind. Now I can have an apple a day for a while. And being Japanese fruit, each one is perfect and tasty; never sour. Luckily, I have enough to share some of this beautiful bounty. I am very happy!


Monday, December 11, 2006


Things are quite busy at the office. I can't really identify what is making it so busy. It doesn't seem like it is any one thing. One element could be getting everything in order for my big trip south over the winter holiday but it also seems like there is a constant stream of people through the office that need my attention. I know some teachers will be coming in for a meeting pretty soon so this will be my only update. Home for a quick dinner and then off to badminton tonight until 10 PM. I have my doubts this pace will slow until after the New Year.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

News News News

Nothing too earth shattering passed into my existence today. Got lots done yesterday, so today was open to read and write and nap—my favorite. Also, it finally snowed enough overnight that I believe we will not see it gone until Spring. Still it turned out to be a very nice day. Very sunny. And I took my time shoveling my driveway. Some of my students walked by who were in high spirits after making snowmen in a small nearby park.

Two recent articles in the Japanese press caught my interest. The stories revolve around the now disgraced governors of Miyazaki-ken and Wakayama-ken, prefectures located in Kyushu and Kansai respectively. The pattern of both stories is strikingly similar and illustrates a problem I have with modern politics. Both stores have unfolded in parallel since September with various mid-level bureaucrats, attached to the governors’ office, being arrested for big-rigging. I don’t have the time to detail Japan’s long established history of bid-rigging, which was once considered a normal business practice, and was only challenged with the arrival of overseas competition that wanted a fair free market. (The irony is not lost on me that if people want a fair free market they are labeled as socialists, but governments see large corporations asking for fair free markets and regulation as something needing response quickly.)

Not all bid-rigging has been completely stamped out and it has continued in isolated, but blatant, cases. However, it’s not the big-rigging that concerns me, nor are the backdoor deals the element I think have international implications. Since September, the National Police Academy has been weekly charging people in both administrations. For months, the governors have steadfast denied any involvement; mustering all matter of perceived prejudices, conspiracies theories and claims of stupidity to their defense. Of course, since this all started, nothing in those prefectures really got done because the governors were in full damage control mode. Last week, both stepped down and were quickly charged for taking bribes. Up to this point, the stories were only background noise to my normal news viewing habits. However, it was quickly revealed by the police that both ex-governors admitted to the charges. This is what makes my blood boil. They lied for months to the public with a straight face. (And not some noble lie in the name of national security.) They stated daily their innocence, all the while being guilty as sin, and as soon as they were out of power, admitted fully to the crimes. This is the point I perceived applying to most politicians: How is it modern politicians lie so easily to the public that employs them? When did this become acceptable?

Also, I had a very good run this morning. A solid 40 minutes at a good pace. The track was more crowded than I expected. Instead of just me, as is usual, three other people were walking laps. I was aiming for 45 minutes. Normally I do 40 minutes of jogging and then 5 minutes of sprints, making 45, but with that much traffic on the track I was libel to bowl someone over. So I decided I would try a quick pace today. Everything felt good and was working smoothly. My body has felt punished all the way since September so I am hoping that is now behind me and I can stay healthy for my brother’s visit and badminton tournament in February.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday's post

I had a short day at school today. One activity was worth mentioning. The grade one and twos were told to think of want they wanted to become, job wise, in the future (though the Japanese is a bit more vague, asking, "what do you want to be?", the topic was clear from what we had been discussing earlier). Though the activity was very simple, just inserting the selection into the line of a song and gesturing, it was wild to watch what gestures kids associated with what job. The classic example was the nurse, whom a grade two girl believed only did data collection, typing away on a computer. There was also a carpenter that dramatially lost a finger. All the kids' jobs and gestures had the teachers in stitches. And then there was one grade two that was set on becoming a cheetah. When his first turn came, he ran around the classroom on all fours, and with his second, attacked and devoured an imaginary prey with great fervor.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Inconsistent in his Inconsistency

For the second day in a row I faced a day that ended up being not what I had expected. I arrived at school only to be told there were no English teachers and class was cancelled. I have dealt with any personal misgivings about not being told what’s going on because it would drive me crazy. But this time there was even a little bit of a fake out because the teachers and I had previously discussed today’s class.

Left with spare time, I participated in the grade four Japanese language class where kanji characters and grammar are studied. I hoped to pick up some teaching tips and understand the Japanese education system better and maybe some kanji would rub off on me as well. Lately I have been surprised at the level of my reading comprehension and with the help of a kind group of grade fours, I quickly had my kanji assignment finished. I knew my work was sub-par—foreigners brains aren’t trained to write in square boxes—but after a short deliberation the group decided the work itself warranted “Very Good” to be scrawled across the top (though I had to spell it for them). I know this is one piece of paper that is going directly on to my fridge when I get home.

After returning to the office far earlier than normal and explaining—without seeming resentful or angry—how I was forgotten, it was pointed out if I left right now I could join the Mochi making presentation at the kindergarten. So off I went to that. I had done it all before but it was interesting company none-the-less. I’m just happy now that my Japanese is good enough and the kids know me better that I can actually offer to help. We all ate lunch in the main room so all the wee-preschool sized tables and wee-preschool sized chairs had to be brought in. There students only had to do two things, carry over their chair and table. It was funny to watch because you might as well have tried to use trained monkeys to do the job. Sure the kids can are smart and can use logic but they have the attention span of a meth-addict. Eventually the room was set up and we could enjoy the lunch of the mochi we made earlier. And as in all things in life, it was far easier to clean up and put away than set-up (unless you are talking about a university kegger party).

Monday, December 04, 2006

Soba Surprise

I really should get a job writing for a newspaper where the editor creates the headlines because I can only seem to come up with strange, uninspired titles. Anyways, the title of today's post says it all. Got to schools today only to be told I didn't have class. At first I thought that I had mistakenly come to the wrong school. My Japanese lacking all nuance, what was actually meant was that while I was expected at school today, all my classes were cancelled and no one told me. There was some discussion between students as to whether we should call the event a "Soba festival" or a "grand Soba meeting." I settled in this post on "making soba".

The Soba we used for the noodles was previously grown and harvested by the students themselves in a plot at the back of the school. I have made soba before so it wasn't earth shattering. It was fun to participate with children that are so alive. They react to everything like it's new and exciting. I got to re-live how I might have reacted to making soba in grade three.

Many community member helped. Generally it was obasans (grandmothers) who arrived. They take soba making - not quite as an art - but very seriously. You can easily tell they are not teachers. For one, they were leaving kids out and they will get bored; you have to keep them engaged by constantly given them new tasks. Secondly, when the did give them tasks, they just left them to it - a recipe for disaster - they will need guidance. Leave a grade two to mix something and you don't know what you will come back to. Lastly, safety, this was left to the teachers in the room to tell the kids not to hold the knife that way, tie up those laces, etc. You have to think of everything or else someone will lose an eye.

The Obasan's - I can't really think of them as grandmas and "obasan" is an honourific - were really great. They generally fall into three groups: those that want nothing to do with foreigners; those that have seen everything and could careless who I am, thus treating me like I am two, in an enduring way though; and lastly, those who are keenly interested in learning about where I am from and what I am doing. They are very funny ladies who are very nice if you take an interest in what they are doing. I had an interesting conversation about what makes a good soba broth with two of my students' grandmas. I'm not sure if half of what I wanted to got across did, but I learned many good tips on making a soba broth (special soy sauce, o-sake, dashi, etc).

There would have been pictures but again, I woke up thinking this would be a normal day; I didn't think to check if my camera had it' battery. And yes, the soba was delicious.

Turkey Dinner.

This update is late in coming but details an interesting dinner I had with friends, Hosono-sensei and Kuguchi-sensei. Hosono-sensei was under the impression I was underfed and craving turkey; neither of which is exactly true nor deniable on my part so I happily went out for dinner Friday night. We had to travel all the way too Shihoro (one town over from Shikaoi) to a restaurant that specialized in turkey dishes. Shihoro’s claim to fame, by the way, is that it is home to a giant Calabee potato chip factory. This is not so surprising in light of the number of potatoes they pull out of the ground here every year.

The meal was impressive and memorable because it focused on Japanese style cooking; there was no opportunity for mash potatoes, dressing or seconds at the meal. The meal was served in several small healthily courses all centered on the theme ingredient. Turkey sukiyaki, turkey karage, turkey yakitori, turkey soup, turkey sausage. Of course, one can never really go wrong with fried turkey but there was one course gave me pause; raw turkey sashimi. Even though I was assured by the proprietor it was of the highest quality, there are many more taboos I will break before eating raw turkey (or chicken). A strange reaction I know—as was an ethereal conversation that followed about what type of fish sashimi it resembled—but the thought of eating it makes me turn green.

Hokkaido is renown for its bountiful agricultural produce and I was surprised to learn the turkey used was from Honshu and China. In a common story from Hokkaido, all of the highest quality goods are sent to Tokyo to be used in restaurants there leaving the rest of the country to use imports—abet high quality imports. It is as if Tokyo is some sort of luxury high-end black hole.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Small update.

I've decided later to add what the teacher and the grade two were negotiating about in the previous post because it really is quite funny when I think about it. The grade two was demanding to be taught English while seated under a large table in the back of the classroom. I was somewhat okay with the idea because nothing else was really going to get done after she was already seated there. I would have also been the person voted to go under and drag her out in a display I wasn't quite comfortable with (at least until having a good lunch first). So two teachers met there match in the art of negotiating instead.

December Friday

Just sitting at the office after a harrowing day at school. Had a troublesome grade two to deal with and because the class only has two students it causes quite an uproar as one can imagine. I gave up and considered the last half of the class a wash but a new young teacher decided negotiation with a seven year old was the better option. Which it is not, in my opinion. In my 3/4 split, five kids had colds, which one can imagine in a class with only eight students becomes like pushing a big heavy rock uphill. Sometimes the super energy all children have overcame the flu, but then the next moment they were walking in a race. Yikes. Hopefully everything will be back to normal next week. Also found a Christmas orange on my desk when I got back to the office. That made me happy. But, being around sick kids all day, I will have to be sure to completely disinfect myself up to my elbows before I eat it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First Snow

This morning as I was opening the curtains and listening to the Calgary CBC Radio live internet feed, still in the the process of waking up and I thought I was hearing the weather report for Shikaoi because it could have applied to both places. Alberta sounds like a deep freeze this week; making us question the wisdom of Alberta's first settlers and thankful for the miracles modern materials provide. Shikaoi doesn't really get that cold and soon there was a warm sun melting all the snow. By now everything is dry. When walking outside it actually reminded me of a Chinook in Calgary. I suggest those in Calgary hope for one soon, and those in other parts of Alberta to hope for Spring. I had known it was going to snow because I checked the weather the night before. For once it was right - partly - as it got the time it snowed late by half a day and it was far warmer today than predicted.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Pictured above in song and dance are rows of fish eggs. More specifically tarako, the egg sacks of the common tara, otherwise known as the codfish. Any answer is a long shot. My first guess was human tongues, but that left unexplained all the odd angles. I'm glad I asked the Japanese person sitting next to me because it is a mystery no more. For those that are wondering, tarako tastes kind of pasty and lists low on my list of things I like to eat and very high on the list of those foods that could be used to torture me. However, that said, I feel I should take a stand for once and speak for those that can not speak, and state that it's about time lowly, forgotten sacks of edible fish eggs got a song just for themselves.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A contest!

After a quick phone call from my parents this morning I was out the door to Urimaku. I had been invited by the teachers on behalf of the students to watch their kindergarden concert. In this concert, far less was lost in translation. My students at Urimaku were the first group of kindergartners whom I really got to know well and it was a lot of fun to watch all their hard work come to together. We have something called "one shots" with other English teachers which means you only get to see a class maybe once or twice a year (and this affects the lesson plan details). My job with the BOE doesn't work like that, I get to see all my students often and over a long period they become familiar with my presence. Furthermore, on my part, I slowly get to learn the kids names and more importantly, their temperaments, which is invaluable to teaching effectively. The songs by the one year olds were especially interesting because beforehand everything in practice had gone smoothly but today in front of the bright lights they all froze. You would think they had only practiced a cute, abet blank, stare. A friend noted he didn't think the grandparents cared. In one of the above images a bear can be seen on the right hand side. It was a cool, well-done costume and the kid knew it and really hammed it up. Very funny.

I also wanted to introduce a contest. The degree of difficulty is high and with a correct answer one will win the internet's collective amazement. Have a go at identifying the foreign object the parents below represent:

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The new beta blogger

I decided I'm not going to use tags on my posts because, really, I'm not drawing in the readers by the thousands (except over the very long term). Nothing earth shattering today; did the normal weekend chores that house ownership calls upon. I did the dishes listening at 10 AM to the World at Six on CBC to try to get more information on that crazy case of radiation poisoning in London of a Russian. I decided not to go for a run and cancelled badminton on the account of my ankle. It feels much better but stills feel tender, especially when I bend it at odd, unnatural angles. I guess I should stop. Got some writing done this afternoon in the low autumn sun on my couch. Very nice. And I just finished watching sumo, which had a more predicable ending than even a Desperate Housewives episode (Zing!). The current yokozuna is just too strong. He's a real force of nature. Now I'm am just heading out the door to met a friend. I am glad this isn't Tokyo and there is nowhere to squander all my money on Saturday nights.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Upgraded Blog really wanted me to update my blog so I finally took the plunge. This post is a bit thin because of it. The system still seems a bit buggy; such as no spellcheck at the moment, and man, I'm the type of person that needs spellcheck. The wind yesterday was hellacious. I have never seen wind that was able to bend a metal rod. Normally wind moves in gusts, but at some point, when the gusts are so long, it becomes more like a windtunnel. Really biblical stuff. Sprained my ankle yesterday (running backwards) which means no badminton for me tomorrow. :( I need some chicken soup!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A little busy

I had a special open class on top of my normal classes today, add on top of that a meeting afterward and my day is packed. Luckily, of all things, tomorrow is a holiday. Just stuck in the middle of the week; we get Thursday off. This calls for a special dinner. Also, going our to Urimaku for the special class today, I swear on a stretch of road no longer than 300 meters I saw sunshine, rain, sleet, snow, and wind. It looks very stormy out, except when it's sunny. I am less homesick because this weather reminds me strongly of Alberta and the spastic weather changes.

Monday, November 20, 2006

How to start a Monday

On Monday, my regular routine began again because up until this week various things kept the schedule in flux. I was feeling a bit rusty, and there is always the worry the kids have forgotten all English. The first class was a perfect way to ease back into school though "ease" may not be the optimal word. I met first period with the always energetic second graders and things progressed from there. Next the grade three's, also happy to see me. Then both first grade classes all before lunch. I am very glad I decided to go to bed very early on Sunday. It made my first day back in a while very pleasant.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The ladder pictures

One part of the four year olds' presentation yesterday included a traditional ladder demonstration. This type of activity dates back over four hundred years to the fire departments of the Edo period. This period is, of course, well known for the fact that about every house was made of wood and fire was always a deadly threat. There is quite a lot of history one can uncover on this topic. Firemen were the local communities' heroes and considered very brave. One of the things fire departments did to entertain their towns was do feats of strength atop ladders. This continues to this day with most fire departments having a group dedicated to keeping this tradition alive (I saw on TV). I know several of Shikaoi's firefighters and they are a great group of guys. Also, I thought I would add a short description of my entrance yesterday into Chomin hall. Mornings are tight and I was aiming to get into my seat just as the program started. One enters the hall right at the front infront of everyone. As I looked for my seat in the front row, I heard my name being announced over the PA as the English teacher and felt everyone's eyes lock on me. It was perfect timing, it looked like I had planned the whole thing! I turned and gave a big wave to the audience whom responded with welcoming laughter.

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Could be Funny?

Please don't interpret a lack of posts to mean that I am not busy. After a quiet couple of days comes a flood of content. Saturday was Kamihoronai elementary school's concert and today I attended Shikaoi Kindergarten's. (The translation of the event from Japanese is "School presentation.") All the pictures included in this post are from yesterday. There are only 14 students at Kamihoronai Sho and so to put together a full day program takes a lot of effort. Kamihoronai's presentation also included the nearby kindergarten, so all my students were present. Big changes are occurring in rural Japan as the farmer-parents looked on as their kids struggled to introduce me in English. Uniquely, in Kamihoronai every child learns to ride a unicycle (and also, for the record, Tsumei-sho). Like fish in water, the students become mind-boggling good by grade six and they have some exceptionally gifted riders at both schools (Backwards riding? That's not natural!). I've been talked into trying them before by my students and I am convinced the things are death traps. Props must go to whoever thought of the idea to showcase the student's skills as part of the program. Also, as part of the parent-teacher association's presentation, I got my first glimpse of Christmas which, until that point, had completely skipped my mind (expand the picture below). It was shocking the way a group of Japanese parents can take the scared 2000 year old symbol of Western civilization and effortlessly turn it into a culturally enlightening experience. To describe was happened next; Jesus got down from the ladder, and - I kid you not - in a (to me) politically charged directorial decision - beat a crossdresser with his cross in front of the stage. I love living here and not knowing what I will experience by the end of the day. I knew immediately it was pure blogging gold.

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Today's program at the kindergarten was no less spirited. Dear Lord the kids are cute, especially when you put them in either animal costumes or full traditional Japanese dress. I'm sure this can only come back to haunt us as they become adults as evidenced by the number of video cameras there. I was amazed at the memorizational skills on display by three year olds. It made me doubt my own mettle to toughen it out through the Japanese educational system. My favorite moments last year were the mistakes. In the ninth piece, a four year old student was rebuffed after trying to kindly return a dropped prop, causing, with both standing next to each other, an escalation of hostilities. What was obvious to anyone in the audience was that they were trying to be subtle about it (they knew it was wrong). There was also one instance of an escaped student in the 13th piece with a mischievous pirate suddenly appearing among a group of surprised singing snowflakes which was soon followed by a none-to-impressed teacher. With pieces entitled (translated from Japanese) "Tambourine Fantasia" and "Burmen: The German City" I couldn't help but lose myself in the program. One in particular caught my attention, "Going to Rat Race City." Again illustrating the Japanese genius for balance, the play, labeled in the program as an "operetta", was part cautionary existential tale about post-modern urban alienation, part chic nod to pop culture and an opportunity to put kids in the cutest mouse costumes imaginable. I will put up some additional photos from today tomorrow when I get the chance.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hokkaido Tsunami

I have been a bit under the weather again. I had a fever that had me tossing and turning all night. The fever broke sometime early this morning and now I am fully on the road to recovery but still feeling a little bit stiff. While all this was going on - may you heard - just before 9 PM, a 7.1[revised] magnitude earthquake hit far north of Hokkaido. It was a big quake but we didn't feel anything here. The real panic across the eastern coast of Japan was the threat of tsunami's which dominated the TV for an hour of interrupted coverage until the danger had passed. I didn't pay much attention on the account of being sick but all the channels were showing live clips of this one quiet, peaceful dock on the north side of Hokkaido where the tsunami was expected to hit first. They're focus centered on one poor government worker whose job is was whose job it was to stand out on the dock in a white raincoat and life jacket and closely watch the ocean level. The rushing destruction of the oncoming tsunami coupled with frantic news coverage made for an odd contrast to the lone loyal worker on the idyllic moonlit dock. As of this morning everyone is high and dry and the drama of most of the nation sitting around their TVs last night was slightly unwarranted.

I think what led to my most recent bout with the cold was cooking with some grade 1,2, and 3 students on Monday. What did me in was accepting food from their grubby hands to eat. I think I am set for the winter now though. Honestly, I wash up to my elbows several times a day. It can't be helped. Ah the joys of working with kids.

Monday, November 13, 2006

To Pose a Question

To give a reprieve from yesterday's somber topic I offer something sunny today. I have been sitting on this picture for a while. Along with the picture is a question for the readers: Do you think his look is good for me? That sort of pouty, cute, but slightly confused look. For the record, he always has that confused look when I go to the kindergarten, it's rarely broken unless he is trying to say the English alphabet. He loves his alphabet. Would it work for me? Could I pull it off? This young man always dances to his own tune; for instance, like trying to keep seated in my lap while I teach.

A New Topic

I wanted to address a delicate but timely topic today. In recent weeks there has been a spike in suicides reported in the media. What stands out in my mind is in their tragic nature because many are students. It leads me to wonder if this is a snowballing effect. In this post I will not detail the causes because so long as we are human such actions will always be mysterious. However, it becomes hard to ignore after a point and there are certain elements that can apply only to Japan that make it of interest.

One important fact to keep in mind is that despite its image Japan doesn't have the highest suicide rate in the world. This is a surprisingly wide misconception on the news forums I frequent. It's actually tenth. The countries ahead of Japan on the list are all dark former eastern block countries. None of them have the extensive wealth and high quality of life Japan has. What seems to mark the deaths in Japan is that all victims had their life opening before them. This is in contrast to those higher on the list than Japan whose victims, have, in many cases, hit absolute rock bottom because of alcoholism or some other such socio-economic effect.

While in modern Japan there is total condemnation of suicide, and decades of building institutions to prevent it, this has not always been the case. As recently as WWII suicide was seen as an courageous path. It would not be proper to ignore the power of looking back through one's own history and reading about the so-called honourable actions of others and people's praise of it. (It takes a long time for a complete re-interpretation of Japanese history to take place.)

The most disturbing modern trend is that of group suicides, something not unheard of in other parts of the world but more prevalent here in recent memory than is reasonable. It seems far too often the news reports another car found in the mountains with three or four young people inside with a burning charcoal stove. This trend is explicitly tied to the rise on the internet where people meet to plan to commit suicide together. This type of news gives me pause and moves me to try to understand this crazy world.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I had the opportunity to attend Shikaoi Elementary School's school festival on Sunday. It is a mystery why I am so tired after just sitting there all day. Most grades did two songs and a short play. The grade one's play, a cautionary tale about wasting food, was very funny. The grade two's play, Peter Pan, was acted with extra genki vigor. The grade six play, shown below, was really good and epic in length. It included three intertwined2 stories all created by the students themselves. The play was helped by having a special drama teacher assigned to the class and the students did all the little things right. It was very polished. I think most of the plays had references to the traditional forms of Japanese theater in how they were presented. They are not as naturally performed as similar plays in Canada. I am very happy that the November Sumo Basho has began.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Icky School Lunch

Today's school lunch was alright, except for the rice. Tiny little fish with eyes and also umeboshi (sour plum) made it in. Normally I find school lunch portions - I eat the same amount of as my kids - perfect. But it's the rice that fills me up. I much prefer just plain white rice. Thus, with much harassment from my students, I set aside my rice today and became very hungry afterwards. I had to sneak back to the office later and find a snack. I also found at 7-11 a new freshly released tea product. Normally I stick with either two brands of green tea or oolong and between the three they can be found anywhere across Japan. For fall a special Mugicha product was released and I took the chance and tried it and it was pretty good. The store didn't have any today, they are probably onto the next round of new tea products, and I noticed the tea proclaiming "body health" to me. It was in Japanese and that is all I could read but I was intrigued. It must be good for you because it tastes pretty bad. But I think I will stick with it until the end of the bottle and count it as a vegtable for the day.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Salad for Lunch

I have some other pressing priorities today that are less interesting but I really feel like relaying to the whole world about how good the spinach salad I bought at 7-11 was for lunch. My schedule was changed at the last minute - or maybe is was changed before and no one told me - but it meant I would have to fend for myself. Like any good bachelor, there is scarcely any food in my house, and very untypically of any bachelor, I have lots of peanut butter. In Japan 7-11 is a savior for everyone, except previously me. There is only one 7-11 in Shikaoi. I stay away from instant ramen because I would much rather pay 800 yen and eat the real stuff. But there are many different foods offered at 7-11. I always hear people raving about it but I rarely have the opportunity to try. But now I am a believer. It will be an excellent place to take visitors out to when they come to Shikaoi. The food, the cash/fax/photo machine/photo copier by the front door, the robot behind the counter, etc.

A thing to say

I just wanted to say that I really love writing. I just rewrote a page of babbling, meandering text into one sentence. When you can do this it's a beautiful thing. I just really love the challenge of writing.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tornados in Japan

Searching for subject matter it seems nature has provided me today's content. Connected to my post yesterday about the storm, north of Shikaoi a rare tornado touched down killing 9, injuring 21 and leaving several still missing. This makes it the worst tornado disaster in Japanese history. A lot of it was bad luck, all conditions were perfect to ensure maximal damage but there is no country I would rather be in for a mass disaster than Japan. There is a very high level of emergency preparedness because of the always present threat of the next big earthquake. The emergency reaction was swift and massive.

I had no idea that a tornado hit until later that afternoon and seeing the damage on TV made me wonder about the differences of tornados in Japan. Houses flattened, cars flipped over, cars twisted into scrap, a big mess. The biggest factor that contributes to complete carnage is that even rural areas - when compared to Alberta - have amazingly high population density. Many farms and small towns blanket the country side. The chances of a tornado hitting a populated center is very high. In a tragic turn, 6 of the deaths have been contributed to the same construction site where a meeting was being held in the second-story of a prefabricated building when the tornado hit and the structure collapsed.

The storms that create these conditions are not the same as Alberta. It had been raining since Monday and it is very late in the year for large swings in temperature to create instability. This storm system, also part of the one that came over Shikaoi, was caused by the moving of a low pressure system and occurred right along its front section. Tornados are so rare here because the natural geography (rugged mountainous terrain) is not condusive to high wind-speeds at ground level (the same goes for metropolitan areas). Still, this place lies nearer the coast which is flatter in some respects.

The results of the storm in Shikaoi were beautiful in a random, mathematical type way. With everything being wet, all the leaves became perfectly spread across my neighborhood. All the maple leaves were evenly spaced across roads, sidewalks, and yards. It created a mesmerizing unreal overlay on everything. I tried to get a picture but it was to dark. This morning, the sun came out and things had dried out and the leaves again continued to be blown around, now back on their way to some poor guy’s yard on the east side of town.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Just a quick post because I feel like working on some other writng today. At the moment it's very dark outside and raining hard, yet it is only 1 o'clock PM. The wind accompanying the storm, however, is a small blessing because hopefully it will blow all leaves out of my yard, saving me the hassle of raking. (My downwind neighbour loves me!) My classes were cancelled for today and so I spent my morning at a kindergarten.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

New News

In this post I wanted to bring to the reader’s attention a variety of recent Japanese news stories.

My first comment actually relates to two completely separate stories from Honshu that taken together are as insightful as they are mystifying. Both stories, only one day apart, center on crazy men trying to stab random people. Disturbing, yes, but nothing like that happens in Shikaoi. The details are revealing. First, knife-wielding mad man #1 was disarmed and tackled by passerbyers with minimal casualties and held until the authorities arrived. Knife-wielding mad man #2, when confronted only by police, managed to seriously injure three officers before being taken into custody. Even taking into account differences between attackers and assuming knife-wielding mad man #1 happened unto a street populated with trained judo experts, it still points to a surprisingly deficient police response, especially considering the police had guns - real guns.

I also wanted to comment on the results of a Japanese psychologist that researched the reactions of Japanese travelers to Paris. He looked through several years of data and tracked down reports of people who suffered complete mental break downs in Paris (or soon after their return). His research concluded that the tragic breakdowns occurred because the traveler’s expectation of a magical enchanting Paris did not match the strife-ridden, seedy modern Paris. This research opens an interesting window into Japanese culture.

Lastly, the big news this weekend - other than how beautiful it was - is about national high school curriculum scandal. Not very dramatic news, I know, but I thought I would mention it because I am in daily contact with the Japanese education system. Everyday the number of high schools that have neglected graduation requirements, in favor of focusing on university entrance exams, has climbed higher and higher (internet rumor has it it will be in the thousands). This topic deserves some background: Elementary and junior high is run at the town level (where as they are run provincially in Alberta) but high schools are run federally. University entrance exams are notoriously hard but Japanese universities themselves (besides the faculty of medicine) are often characterized as much easier then equivalent North American universities. At the individual high school level there is an extreme amount of pressure to teach to the exam. With little oversight, this has resulted curriculum deficiencies, varying in severity from school to school. As the books were opened and individual high schools’ curriculums audited, in worst case scenarios, some students found themselves missing half of their needed classroom time for specific subjects. This left many grade twelve students scrambling, wondering if they were going to graduate. As one might expect things are a bit chaotic and damage control has started; I think in the end most students in this situation will graduate.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Prime Minster Stephen Harper: Class Warrior?

I wanted to post my thoughts about the government’s income trust decision before the story moved on. What is an Income Trust? An Income Trust acts like a huge tax loophole by restructuring a firm’s assets.

The present storm over new Income Trust regulations implemented by the government reinforced several things for me. Cynically - and somewhat bashfully - I admit to viewing the government as nothing but the shadow of big business, believing nothing would get passed if it was not in some way positive for big business or at the very least neutral. After seeing the panicked markets I knew right away, without a doubt, this policy had an element of social justice. The evidence was the very sudden and dramatic crash of Canadian financial markets itself. It is an example of what happens when policy that promotes populism and equality is passed in a developed nation – especially when said policy focuses on financial fairness. Is it not strange that we have adopted (to choose a word that grossly oversimplifies an extensive historic background) an economic system that views the promotion of equality with such distain and exacts such harsh penalties? And that with the slightest attempt at fairness money rushes out of Canadian markets?

Let me outline how the business-friendly Conservative government came to this odd, counter-intuitive, Marxist-style decision. In contrast to comments made in Calgary’s oil patch – not known for their dramatic flare - that the sky is, indeed, falling, the development of the policy is exceedingly insightful because both groups have essentially the same background. Take for instance the people charged in corporations with searching for ways "to limit tax exposure," they are inevitably graduates in management and economics. Oddly enough, the same type of person, graduates in management and economics, are also voted into government as our representatives and appointed as government bureaucrats. Consequently, both groups are armed with same tools and I guarantee they would react similarly if roles were reversed. The government, no doubt, rationally wanted to limit the revenue hemorrhaging - as would any good business - that was occurring as Canada’s economy transformed into one wholly based on income trusts. It is the height of absurdity to suggest that firms were coming to Alberta because of Income Trusts. They come because of oil. We could made everything in Alberta left-handed and hobbit-sized and still they would come.

Say an accident happens on a job site and said individual needs to go to the hospital. It’s big businesses’ position that all costs should be paid by someone else. They believe it’s a “bad business environment” if they are in any small way responsible to pay a share of the hospital, the road the ambulance traveled on, the use of the 911 telephone system, etc. I'll leave it to the reader to total the amount of tax subsided resources corporate income trusts use on a daily basis. (I'm guessing it’s not small number.) It is morally reprehensible to use services without considering that perhaps one should share – share – the burden. While personally I would like to see stronger central government on some issues I am generally content to find common ground with my fellow citizens. And crushing, burdensome, medieval tax regimes do stagnate economic growth, and yet somehow everyone wants someone on the other end of the line when there's a fire to report. On this issue I really have no compassion for corporations trying to undermine tax equality and greatly look forward to seeing how Prime Minster Stephen Harper explains the complete contraction between his new measures and his earlier election promises.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


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This week I received a Japanese Pear from a friend. I just had to take a picture because it was so big. As big as a cantaloupe! Japanese Nashi are in season now and this one made it all the way up to Tokachi from Honshu. It's partner was even bigger and was destined for another Shikaoi home, hopefully one where a whole family could eat it. Living in Japan has made me appreciate eating seasonal fruit and vegetables. I am not sure I will want to touch the stuff in the future after seeing all the care and expertise that goes into the produce here. It's even evident in the packing, like it's a fabriche egg. The things are just flawless when you receive them. And they are so flavorful and sweet. Eating in season is another great joy. And it's not a mystery to figure what is in season; the stores become full of them and the price drops. Now we are heading into mikan (Christmas orange) season. You can buy them all year (at over 100 Yen each) but they're really only good for five months a year (where the price drops to about 60 Yen each). The only necessary fruit in which Japan is deficient is bananas. They really don't appreciate a good banana here.

Monday, October 30, 2006


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It's Halloween today and so we carved pumpkins at Sasagawa Sho. Nothing more heart-stopping than watching a grade one awkwardly plunge a knife into a pumpkin. But everyone had all their digits accounted for at the end of the day. It was an odd experience because I became the default jack-o-lantern expert; something I really have no claim to. I sometimes forget how foreign these activities are for both teachers and students. I was called upon to inspect every pumpkin and peppered with questions along the way. Students respond well to creative and tactile (and dangerous) experiences.