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

Blogspot.com 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.