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.