Thursday, February 28, 2008

Kids with Basketballs

One of the highlights this week was watching my grades one and two's recess basketball game. Their small bodies of out scale with the ball, they were emulating the older grades who are passing through a basketball-loving phase now. The school's connection to basketball is fuzzy but I presume it might have something to do with the fact there are two teachers taller than me there, something of a rarity in Japan. I would have loved to get a picture but I was called into ref; why will become clear in a second. Their antics can't be captured in split second frames anyway, it's much more of a moving evolving comedy whose drama needs time to expand into a plot. Their serious faces signaled trouble for the start. Besides the awkwardness seen in their movements as they raced up and down the court, routinely the ball missed its mark making me wince at the prospect of it knocking down a kid like a bowling pin. There was one student, an instigator of sorts, whose style of play slowed the game some what. He would not be talked out of his strategy of simply launching himself at the ball and holding it for dear life. I call him an instigator but he was not wholly to blame. The best defense seemed to be was everyone else piling on and grabbing the basketball as well. This is where I came in, swiftly and with some authority behind my voice, I called for a round of rock-paper-scissors to decide whose ball it was. Rock-paper-scissors: the great peace maker! Another part of the job was picking kids off the floor, quickly giving them a once over and telling them they were all right, then sending them forward again toward the action with a few words of encouragement. I remember the quizzical glances they shot me when they thought they had been wronged. There's not much I could do but say it was alright and I would handle it later Despite some hurt feelings, all players maturely left any drama on the court and when the bell rang walked as friends back to the classroom. In one class today, in this leap year, the students got no end of amusement from a poor kid who's birthday it is today, saying again and again he was two years old.

Monday, February 25, 2008

My Funny Knees

Running, which continues to consume so much of my time and energy, feels an appropriate thing to comment on today. I had a bit of a scare this week with my knees. They were unusually achy. Not the joint itself but the stablizing muscles on either side and front. The possiblity of knee injury is a constant concern to runners because it could be a career ending injury. I have weathered creaky knees in the past but I know at some point my luck will run out. I ran anyways and my knees feel good today, if not quite 100%. I ran twice on Saturday, in the morning a very high paced 40 min run (10min/mile) with a 10 min warm up/cool down. (To make it an even hour, I did 15 min on the rowing machine too. I despise that thing because I'm a clutz and I feel like its going to eat my pitiful frame and someone will find me dead, tangled up in exercise equipment.) Then before dinner my normal 1h 10min run. On Sunday I ran what's called a long slow run; that was around 1h 35min give or take. That pace has improved a lot in the last two years but it still plodding compared to olymipic athletes. After the hour mark it always becomes a challage. I slept very well Sunday night. I would run today but the sport center and trim center is closed and I am not equiped to run outside, in the dark, on icy roads. Tomorrow is also no running, instead I will play badminton.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Every year the Parent-Teacher Association at Kamihoronai elementary school holds a small snow festival with guests. The weather was foggy and snowy but in some ways couldn't have been better considering the wind that howls across the fields on sunny days. I'll take 1C and overcast anyday. Sadly the particularly moody weather doesn't show up well but I'm sure southern readers will appricate the fact they don't have to brave the cold themselves. This years highlight was the the competition of a brick pizza oven the preceeding fall. The Japanese surprise me with their interests and hobbies and this project was finished by the principal himself. I could nit pick about the oven-baked pizza but at the end of the day it tasted great on that snowy afternoon; I'm spoiled to be from a country with lots of Italian immigrants. If it wasn't for the exposure to world-class pizza in Canada, I would think the Japanese pizza pretty good, expect for the inclusion of corn on top which I will never understand. The crust was par excellence, which is not surprising considering it was sourced from my favorite bakery, Hana-Neko Panya-san.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lunar Eclipse Unseen

If some readers may wonder why I haven't posted any impressions of the Feburary 21st lunar eclipse; that would be because it couldn't be seen from Japan. During the peak period in North America, if it wasn't for the fact it was still light out - being late afternoon - the moon was still below the horizon at that point. It's a shame really because during the 2007 lunar eclipse, it was a cool feeling that people in Alberta could be looking at the moon the exact same moment I was.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Deadly Chinese dumplings - Japanese Ninja Style

This topic threatens to get away from me. First some background: Gyoza are wonderfully delicious dumplings, sometimes referred to as potstickers, originally brought over from China. They differ from both dumplings and potstickers enough to make them distinctly Japanese in my opinion. The best gyoza are the ones either hand-made by my friend in Shikaoi, which my mother has learned to make from her, that are filled with pork and lots of garlic and will be nice to come home to. Or the hand-made ones made at a local restaurant. They're crab filled and served with a secret sauce I think is sesame oil and miso that makes an out-of-this-world combination. I had a whole meal of them themselves a little while ago. Not healthy, I know, but I can now die happy.

Following the general trend of news from China lately, it should surprise exactly no one that pesticides have been found in packages of gyoza - organic phosphates to be exact - some quite toxic to humans, as in coma inducing. As Japanese news reporters stumble over complex chemical names, nationalists in Japan have been going crazy, citing all manner of conspiracy theories. Not to be left out, the Chinese government has also said it's being set up. As one can see, between the veracious Japanese media, where exactly the chemicals where found, who knew what when, and conspiracy theories, this story, as they say, has legs. Needless to say I subscribe to the conservative notion to never blame on maliciousness what can be blamed on incompetence.

The whole issue points to some interesting vulnerabilities in the Japanese food system: Japan is singular in the world for the amount of food it imports. I've read as high at 75%. Japan simply couldn't feed itself if we wanted anything other than rice. This ties Japan's food to the price of gas and makes imported food concerns especially troublesome. The price of domestically produced food versus imported food is also shocking. Looking at a grocery store flyer recently, about the only thing I can read fluently, peanuts were on sale. Hokkaido produced peanuts were four times as expensive as an equivalent Chinese produced brand. Even if Japan could produce all the food it needed, the economy would never support a four fold increase in the price of food. Everything would just collapse as the public turned their total income to buying food. No one I talked to ever buys chinese produced food (which is always clearly marked in Japan), so who is buying all this cheap imported food? I think restaurants and institutional facilities but I have never seen any exact data on this question.

The lurer of cheap Chinese labour is hard to ignore. In this case, the pre-packaged, flash-frozen gyoza was hand-folded. Previously, I had incorrectly assumed the Japanese company had invented some kind of robot to automatically fold millions of gyoza. I was surprised to see on TV images of the factory where 250 employees fold the gyoza by hand. Reinforcing this, the package even stated "hand-made" on the front of the package. This preys on our natural reflex to trust anything marked hand-made. Where this story goes from here I don't know? I'm sure we haven't heard the end of it. Will market forces work as predicated by academics as producers realize they are losing business because of the lack of safety standards or will the Chinese and World continue to follow the free market philosophy that got us here in the first place which states, profit before everything?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Wednesday is Half Way Day

I think I've peaked a little early this week. Lots of good news to report:

1. Curry and rice was on the menu for school lunch today. There was even enough for seconds!

2. It was a beautiful warm Spring day.

3. The letter I received doesn't make for a good picture but basically it said that after using an ATM on Saturday I forgot $10 in the withdraw slot. The bank took the time to track me down and returned the funds to my account! Somedays living Japan has its advantages; I doubt this story would have the same result in Canada.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's blog about gyoza that can kill you... [que ominous music]

Monday, February 18, 2008


It's probably not the funniest thing to write about but I'm desperate for topics. Lately, Japan has been uncooperative in feeding me interesting news stories. I mean, who wants to read about daily develpments in the contaminated Chinese gyoza case or the Japanese speed skater who came in second? It happened last week, and not for the first time, that again my schools changed my schedule without telling me. They go through all the trouble of contacting my boss and the other school, and then no one tells the person whom the decision most effects - I laugh, or else I would cry. In some respects, a person can live happily knowing their exact place in the world; so I take solaice from that. I'm the last to know. And there is a slightly absurd charm to it that I find appealing about Japan. I suppose if the stakes were higher I would fine offense, but then I would also be on some type medication for stress or depression or anxiety. To take it lightly is definately the most rewarding course of action. I guess I could, in an act of insanity, try to change Japanese culture - but I might as well empty the ocean with pail - plus, I kind of like here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Eyes, ears, ankles, toes.

Since the start of winter I have been very disciplined about runing twice on Saturdays. The goal being not to lose too much conditioning for when summer roles around - as I have been assured it will - and I can run outside again. Today, after many weeks of doing just that, I feel a slight tug on my body to skip the second run and for once I will listen. A slight head cold and (more than usual) achy legs made my morning run miserable - the boost of adrenaline the only thing that made it tolerable - and if I plan to run extra long tomorrow I will be thankful the extra rest. Also keeping me inside my toasty house is a couple of new CDs that will be giving the honour of being played back on my yammy. Some people with nice stereos find little time to enjoy their investment and while my investment is smaller in scale I don't miss an opportunity to listen. The headphone amplifier and CD player have sat on since morning and are now nicely warmed up, taking the glare off the highs and making the sound liquid and smooth and golden. The head cold makes everything sound slightly dull - pianos' top end are sounding a bit thin and the violins are missing texture - and I find needing to remind myself not to turn it up to compensate. I could listen to this unit for hours so relaxing and unfatiguing is the sound, but breaks are crucial as listening period length is as important as sound pressure levels in protecting hearing, if I plan to listen to music for the rest of my life.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


There wasn't much fun to be had with the storm we had yesterday. All day with the wind. The only good thing was that it meant the low pressure system was leaving. At times it was hard to tell if the snow was falling from the sky or simply being blown around. Then there were the huge gusts of wind that shook the house like a tremor and the accompanying snowdrifts today. The sun would dim to sunset levels in the middle of the day and everyone felt our of character with the weather changing so violently. It was an impressive sight to watch from behind the windows of a warm classroom. Today Tokachi is back to it's normal sunny self. It's still windy, as per usual in Shikaoi during the winter, but now I have something to compare it to. The sun is high in the sky and it's around zero now and would feel warm if the breeze ever stopped long enough. Should be nice all through the weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Badminton tourney

What a fun weekend! I wranged enough teachers into joining the Shikaoi team badminton tournament with me. This tournament was easier than the Shikaoi open badminton tournament last year which I lost horribly to much better players but was also bigger with around 45 people in five teams. We ended up winning but I feel bad for my doubles partner who bared the brunt of the work as the opposing team consistently hit to them to avoid having me get a shot. This left only difficult defensive shots for me and I was tired at the end of the day. I was all over the court in odd positions to save a rally-point. Good training for me and in the end, even with the pressure on my partner, she still got the winning shot, and it was beautiful. Where I played the majority of my games was next to the playroom. This meant my young students who came with there parents intently watched the games through the window. A teacher humorously suggested it was like Shikaoi Zoo. Also, to add an interesting cultural note, our gift pack for winning included [pictured]; cup-a-noodle (haven't eaten them since high school), iced coffee (way too much sugar for me) and some kind of synthetic peach drink I wasn't going near. I took the offered shuttles because I was the only person who would use them.

Sure, let's get a bit more busy.

February is not a good month in a northern climate for your furnace to break. As if to underline the fact I'm still learning about life in Japan, it turns out that if one uses their kerosine heater on too low a level for years in a row, it will break. No one ever told me this! Nor was the logic clear that if by using a lower level one tries to save fuel they will in fact be breaking something. My heater several levels; low, medium and high. The heater never need much prompting to release the fires of Hell into my living room. The lowest level was always more than enough. I feared at medium level the heater just would melt into a solid block of metal and plastic and wires. It turns out using higher levels is well within the design and will in fact keep the heater cleaner. In Canada there is no need for such esoteric knowledge. I hope the next ALT from Stony Plain is reading this! I'm blessed to have such a great office that somehow they got the repairman here on the Sunday afternoon of a long weekend. Why does stuff always break on Sundays!?!? I searched long for the right word to describe the high workmanship of the Japanese repair man - detailed? efficient? - meticulous is the right word and he left my house cleaner then when he arrived. For the record, the house is toasty as I write this. Stay tuned for a post and pictures about my weekend badminton tournament.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Once again we have arrived at Friday. As I look back to find the funniest moment I discovered that not everything will traslate into writting. Sometimes you just had to be there. However, one moment with my grade ones does stick out in my mind that had all us teachers wondering, where do they get this stuff? To set the scene, I was introducing the Canadian Nickel. Engaging the students, the homeroom teacher asked what was written on the Japanese 5-yen coin. About five students answered in unison, with the confidence on the young can muster, hen na ojisan. Which translates roughly as strange old man. Even myself, use to their hijinks, had to try to hide my smile as the homeroom teacher explained, after a pause, only the year and denomination is printed on the coin.

Monday, February 04, 2008

What were they thinking moment

This actually happened last week but I thought it was worth bringing up again to illustrate the extreme lengths the Shikaoi Board of Education goes through to provide innovative ground breaking school lunches. Last week's curry udon caps a long trend in Japan of curry soup. First becoming popular in Hokkaido more than five years ago, curry soup is basically watered downed curry without the rice. It's better than it sounds and the couple of times I've tried it it has always been good. School lunches are more institutionalized and we as teachers and students have become weary when something new appears on the menu. Our patience grows thin at being human guinea pigs. (What on Earth was the "white-sauce stew" about?) Curry Udon shows many of the same miscalculations: Udon noodles are thicker than both soba and ramen noodles given them surprising heft, they are not normaly included in curry soup, compound this with the fact the broth was of the most perfect consistency to maximize splatter meant this was by far the most messy lunch I have ever eaten. Every time one of the heavy noodles slipped from the smooth chopsticks it fell into the thick stain-producing broth with a satisfying "plop!" I happen to be sitting with a group of four grade ones and thus not only was the front of my shirt splattered but my arms were at risk of sauce bombs from neighbors as well. Putting our dishes away at the end of lunch we laughed noticing how messy the desks were. Left without a change of clothes, curry udon and dirty laundry continued to be the talk of the staffroom later. I wonder if we'll ever see the return of curry udon.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Do I Go Near it?

After a weekend of spring-like weather this nearly 1-story icicle has formed. It needs to come down less it collapse my bedroom wall but there is no obvious way to do it as it's surrounded by deep snow. Not that I'd want to get too near the thing as it could skewer me in half. I tried throwing snowballs at the thing to keep my distance but that was futile. That sucker is strong and me as a home-owner will need to take this to the next level now. If you don't here back from me you will know the icicle has won.