Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Season for Fresh Winds

Spring had been so sunny. Everyday waking up to blue skies. We were spoiled in Shikaoi for the months of March and April. Now Nature has taken back some of our good fortune. It rained all Sunday and though the rain has stopped by this point it has stayed overcast all week, keeping it rather cool. It makes runs during the day okay, but runs at sunset out of the question because there is no warmth in the air. A holiday in the middle of the week Tuesday has thrown me completely off. I basically had the nightmare scenario of two Monday's this week, one on Monday and another Wednesday. Friday came quickly enough though, with a full day of classes tomorrow. I have one goal to get a new avatar up soon to represent the season change. Me in my snow jacket no longer seems appropriate. I have also be doing other writing which means less time for blogging. Please be patience. I'm still living here, eating, running, etc., as normal, even if you don't hear from me. I promise a big update soon because I am coming up on a 4 - count 'em four - day weekend. Gonna have some Barbecue under the cherry blossoms!

Sakura Watch 2008

This year I'm especially lucky as I'll be able to see the cherry blossoms twice because they bloom at different rates across the country. In Sapporo an email from a friend informed me they were already out earlier this week which means it is only a matter of time before they reach us here in Shikaoi. I noticed a tree just starting to bloom in front of the elementery school on Monday but no other signs. The buds I've seen are just about ready to reveal their glory so reader's will have to tided themselves over with the images provided until then.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

At the Core of Every Child....

...Is a Nuclear Reactor! Or so I have come to believe after witnessing another example of my student's unlimited energy. I don't understand how I can run for over an hour no problem but just watching my grade 3/4 split is tiring. For this to happen on a Friday is no great tragedy because I can be home from badminton by 10:05PM and in bed soon after. Class started easily enough, easing into a listening activity whereby I explained the days of the week and what I did on each. Grasping ficton to make my real life more intestering, things became slightly absurd, such as, I go dinosaurs hunting on Sundays. Beforehand I stressed that it was a listening excerise and moved topic to topic quickly so as to leave them no chance to comment on tangential points (which, to their curious minds, can always be found). After class the homeroom teacher and I agreed the exercise was well executed to their exact English level (or rather just slightly above it) and thus was challenging enough and engaging enough to be called a success. From there things revved up. I'm not sure why, but their after the action du jer became to jump up on certain words. A pattern to the trigger could not be discovered. They were doing their work so we let it slide thinking they would eventually tire themselves out. Just take a look around where you are reading this right now and imagine if, for whatever reason, on every 7th word or so you and your co-workers or co-habitants, jumped up. Wouldn't that make you tired? After all the jumping up, we moved to the next activity on the lesson plan: an activity about the days of the month in the gym. In a cloud of excited noise and bubbling voices we made our way to the gym where the months of the year had been carefully posted on the walls. We preceeded to ask them questions where the point was to charge as a group the the answer. But they would just keep running, and running, and running. By lunch, my only saving grace - and much in keeping with my students' sense of homour - was pinned on Super-Curry-and-Rice-Power.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Land of the Surreal

I was thinking of misspelling surreal in the title just to make the post more surreal. I was coming in the door today when a normally quiet coworker from the other side of the office came over and asked me, is there a deer in Shikaoi elementary school? This was totally out of left field and took me by surprise. After I apprised myself of the situation I was able to answer with no great certainty that I remember a stuffed dear in the foyer of the school but hadn't explicitly noticed it recently. With no context it seemed like an absurb question. I must have seemed very uncertain because they phoned right over to find out for sure: where was the stuffed deer? Just get right on that, I thought. What could be going on that they need to know right this instant about the stuffed deer? I love living here; it keeps my mind supple.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Doubts of Spring

Okay, I lied. No interesting stories today. A very normal straight-forward day. All my students were very impressed that I was able to go inside the Great Buddha at Kamakura. It sparked many interesting questions; the most pressing being did I touch the inside. I guess they expected the sculpture to ring like a bell. Being 121 tonnes of brozen, the walls are far too thick to make any noise other than a claustrophobic "thud".

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Monday Just got Different

I laughed all the way to school today and back out again. Class was cancelled - in fact the school was closed - and no one told me! Thus, having found myself with previously unknown free time, I set about working on another pressing project which does not include making a long Monday update here. Sorry. Stay tuned as I no doubt will commit several cultural faux pas this week and manage to smile my way out of them.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Introducing Grade 1s to English

This week I've been in many of the first English classes ever for the new grade 1s. I'm not daunted at all as I've been through the process in years previous but they all come to the class with a mixture of fright, cuteness, energy and curiosity that's very heart-warming. They're still very new to the school environment and the overwhelming number of things expected of them. They come to class shrinking under the weight of all the new experiences. In an effort to combat this, especially in the smaller schools filled with older bigger students with no smaller kids in which to commiserate and play with, we had a bit of a welcoming ceremony today that included interviews and games. The rest of the school was in the gym doing last minute preparations while the guests of honour were waiting on the other side of the door. At the time of the big unveil - no kids! Evidently we took too long and they went into the music room next door out of boredom and curiosity. Shame on us. The multiple choice quiz about the new grade ones carefully crafted by the grade sixes, to show they aren't all that bad, had some unexpected answers. One of the new grade ones is a perfect picture of exhaustion this week. He's overwhelmed by all the attention but sits patiently, feet not touching the floor, shoulders sagging, and, to his credit, eyes still bright. His eyes are so big it's like a window into the innocence of his soul but I don't know what to say about the three front teeth he's missing creating a black gap when he smiles or laughs. Previously interviewed by the grade sixes to make sure everything went smoothly, on the first question, given three choices of which he like best - oranges, bananas or strawberries - he changed his answer and picked the fourth - grapes! - to a great roar of laugher from the audience. We declared the first question a practice round and reminded him of the rules. On next three questions he exposed a habit of shaking his head to the answers he didn't like and staying as still as a tombstone for his preference, trying to act nonchalant. I don't know if it was an unconscious act or if he still didn't understand the rules but it sure was refreshing humour in an all to mad world.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Busy in the Office for a Thursday

Got into the office a bit later than I had wanted to. Returned to a desk full of messages and an office full of people for no discernible reason. This update will have to be quick because other stuff on the list need to get done before work ends. There is always the option of staying late, but that would cut into a run, which this week has turn into a stationary bike workout because of a continuing foot injury. (I wish I could just cut the thing off.) I've been surprised how hard a bike workout can be if you push yourself and I am counting my blessing that it doesn't hurt my foot at all. The sunsets in Shikaoi have been spectacular lately as a result of a rather dirty atmosphere. It has stayed dusty and dry for a week and though it's hazy enough to dull the mountains during the day, the west around 5-6 PMish is fiery orange. Tomorrow is Friday and I will be sure to include a story.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tokyo is Busy

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We decided to make Kamakura, about 50 minutes from Shibuya by train, a day-trip. It has an interesting blend of history and style that I had not been aware of previously. Historically, it was a mountainous, sea-side retreat outside Edo for temples. Today it's still a retreat, but as the area was swallowed up by greater metropolitain Tokyo, it now severs as a sea-side weekend destination for Tokyo-ites. Kamakura positivily glows with a laid back surfer mentality and high-class style. The crown jewel of Kamakura is the Great Buddha. Again bronze. The makers also felt motivated to equipped the Buddha with gaint slippers should He feel the need to move around. Lead inside the Great Buddha, Uncle Terry and I were in awe of the structural prowess of ancient Japanese. Footnote: In 1252 a tsunami came quite far up the valley and wiped out the temple covering the statue, leaving only the rock supports Aunt Judy and I rest on, but, attesting to the strength and weight of 121 tonnes of bronze, it didn't budge the statue, leaving the statue open to the elements as we see it today.

Calling Kamakura, "little Kyoto" with its shrines and narrow streets would not seem out of place. We entered Hase shrine almost by chance as we wondered past and its manicured bursting gardens drew us in. It turned out to be quite a find. The garden up the side of the mountain behind the main temple complex was peacefully shaded and offered a great veiw of Kamakura beach and the ocean. The oppurtiunity to enter a real cave shrine on the grounds was also memorable (but didn't offer any good pictures because it was so dark). It was a beautiful spring day, sunny, and neither too hot nor too cold, with all sorts of flowers starting to appear. I couldn't ask for more; but there was!

This tree-lined avenue sits between two roads with traditional shopping on each. With the cherry blossoms just starting, it was crowded with people heading to Kamakura's main shrine. Simple but amazing as the crowd's good mood was infectious. It's worth noting that the streets to my right (out of frame) are narrow and old, dating back to the very beginning of Kamakura itself, and lined with traditional stores offering sweets and ceramics. It offers a very good glimpse into what traditional Kamakura might have been like.

A sampling of pictures from Harajuku on Sunday: A Tokyo institution that's influential nation-wide and offers some of the best people watching in the world. The picture directly about shows the critical JR Yamanoto Line train at Harakuji station. Past the station in the picture is Yayogi Park where we took a break from the dense crowds of Harajuku in the shade of massive cyrpus trees.

These people probably have very normal day jobs but cut loose on Sundays to re-create a 50s motocycle gang - that dances (this is Japanese we're talking about). Sadly, this kind of activity has been in decline by government ordinance since it's peak period around 96 when the whole block would fill with combative sub-culture groups dancing. Harajuku might be the one place Japanese show their rebelliousness with acts like these. I'm also aware the bagpipers also use the park for a practice area. I haven't seen these guys out before and felt lucky to see a true counter-culture experience in Tokyo.

While walking back from Harajuku we decided to follow the JR line to our hotel. It offered a quieter residential look at Tokyo in contrast to the high-energy streets. Though pedestrain and car traffic is down, the high-density architecture does not stop.

There is too much movement at the Tsukiji Fish Market to be caught by my camera. This time we were able to catch the very tail end of the Tuna auction, an event, I was told, whose adminance was highly limited. We followed the other tourists with cameras and walked right in. The rest of the market is open to the public, if one is willing to risk life and limb walking through a huge working fish market.

Best. Sushi. In. The. World. Okay, some readers may want more infomation than this; but perhaps others will think details on raw fish are already too much. If you walk through Tsukiji and like seafood, without doubt at the end you will be hungry. Tucked away in this market the size of a city are many restaurants. The quality is normally very good because the locals eat there. I was looking to revisit a traditional sushi shop that Sean and I had found the year before. Chefs no longer look down on frozen tuna, making un-frozen tuna something of a lost speciality. I had the Meguro (tuna) course for breakfast and $32 got me 8 peices of Heaven. From left to right; two pieces each of meguro, normal tuna; chu-toro, slightly fatty; O-toro, the good stuff from the tuna belly which is very fatty, bordering on creamy and buttery when actually in the mouth. The texture, of course, is beyond reproach, making some Japanese sushi and most foreign sushi seem rubbery and inconsistent in comparison. Lastly there is Aburi-o-toro, where the prime O-toro tuna belly cut is lightly chared with a blow torch. This melts and releases some of the fat, thereafter convincing anyone of tuna's fatty richness supremacy. In addition to this feast, and in an ode to gluttony that normally does not hold me, I ordered their daily recommendation which happened to be O-toro from the Pacific near Spain. That ran me another $5 each for two. It might seem unothodox to eat sushi for breakfast or even under any curcumstances order such expensive sushi, but the same quality and quanity bought in Ginza would bring a considerably higher tab.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday Delays

Tomorrow I will post the final installment of pictures from my trip down South in March. It's sitting about half done at the moment. In class today we were discussing adjectives and one of the grade three girls I already consider bright stated firmly that an afro-donned character was "funky". How cool is that?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Two Highlights

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I really do love each Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto but as it happens both highlights are from Wakayama Prefecture. Some explanation should be given on how I got to know this wonderful area. Some good friends of mine are originally from Wakayama. Suggesting that they have a slightly different character than Hokkaido-ians would not be out of place (like the different between Albertan's and Newfoundlander). The way they talked about Wakayama drew me to it. It possessed qualities that everyone should witness before they die and offered many quintessential Japanese experiences. And it should not be forgotten they were also the first to introduced me to the fine produce of Wakayama. Wakayama-ken is located just south of Osaka on the coast. It is the southern most prefecture in Honshu, not Yamaguchi-ken as is often believe (even by some Japanese).

The train ride through the mountains to ancient Mount Koya proved the interior of Japan is exactly like I imagined. Knife-edge sharp ridges so rugged only the flatness areas could be settled, and even those are scarce. Most of Japan's interior areas are like this, its harsh geography at odds with its beauty. Though the distances by map are not great, it still takes forever to get from one point to another because of the winding paths trains must take. (And there was a cable car after that!)

Mount Koya has a long and complex history, being both a town and a temple. Established in the 9th century as a buddhist retreat by Kobodashi (774–835), it is now the center of the sect he founded, Shingon Buddhism. I found Koya-san more religious than other places I've visited in Japan with the possible exception of Kyoto. It's one of the only places I've visited where seeing Monks and Buddhist pilgrims in exotic garb is a common sight on the streets. Chanting emanating from dark sacred spaces is carried on the wind.

About half of the 100 temples around Koya-san offer temple lodging, so this was a natural place to stay. Sharing the Shojoshin temple with practicing monks, its old wood infused and darken with incense, was like stepping back in time.

Our temple lodging was ideally situated (as in sitting right beside) one of the main attractions - in both terms of beautiful and history - of Mount Koya; Okunoin. It's a bit hard to explain all that the area contains but needless to say it's a UNESCO world heritage site: Part historic temple, part mausoleum for founder Kobadashi, part pilgrimage site, part graveyard, there was enough to keep busy for days. Okunoin is situated in a valley created by five mountains in a very scenic and ancient cyprus forest. 500,000 Japanese graves are located there, a number that is hard to fathom. The most historical graves, comprising a significant number of famous people from Japanese history, are buried up the main path to the temple.

Reenforcing my belief that earlier risers are not crazy but indeed blessed; getting up early basically gave us an entire world heritage site to ourselves (compounded by the fact we were visiting in the low season). The sunlight was golden, cut into slivers by the tall trees, the atmosphere crisp and fresh, and the zillions of paths wandering through the hills where ancient graves lay void not only of crowds, but also people. The tragedy of Okunoin is that everywhere one looks there is an amazing view to photograph. Eventually, I did the smart thing and put my camera away, for fear of missing the experience I came for. It was better to let my senses soak in the mountain. My pictures represent only a fraction of what we saw that cool spring morning. A different world awaited us as we retreated back to the center of town around 10 AM. Under a different sun, the character of Okunoin changed, drained of its magic. (Lost in no small part due to the arriving tour buses.)

For years I've held steadfast the goal of seeing a real example of the quintessential Japanese coastlines portrayed in wood-block prints and tour brochures. I was not let down upon arrival as the real thing looked practically from a story book. Postcard perfect coast stretching for kilometers. The dots of tiny islands, trees gripping for dear life on top, looked like they dripped from an artist's brush. Speaking as a prairie boy, Sea Kayaking is one way I can enjoy the ocean (and even then I will only admit to liking it a bit) and in Wakayama it really does offers one of the best ways to appreciate the sharp cliffs and dark volcanic rock that makes up the Japanese coastline. Because the shore is so steep, it's incredibly easy to get close to the tiny islands. It's magical approaching them in the silent and smooth kayaks, dodging around them, admiring the scant green vegetation that clings on top. There is the unmistakable feeling at being at one with the waves. The water was a warm turquoise and clear right to the rocky reef bottom. With our guide Taishi, we ducked under a towering tidal bridge, explored shallows caves and in general enjoyed how close self-powered transport can get to nature.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Osaka is Delicious

Click to enlarge. My comments follow.

Something akin to what seasoned travelers do when Tokyo Disney is off the table; We take the Shinkansen! Here we are catching the train from Shinagawa station in Tokyo to Shin-Osaka station.

Authentic veiws of the Namba district of Osaka. The top is Dotomburi Canal, most likely cursed. And second, Dotomburi Street, named for the after mentioned canal. I have nothing witty to add.

Enjoying the good weather we walked around the old fortifications of Osaka Castle one morning. We saw lots of locals taking advanage of the great early spring weather like us and bus loads more tourists on the way to the castle. We decided to passed on the castle since it's a fairly modern reconstruction that pales in comparison to Himeji Castle, which can only be described as the "very real thing".

My sharp eyed Uncle and Aunt spotted a mexican restaurant high above the Shinbashi shopping arcade that has been in continuous operation since the early 80s. A sure sign of quality in my books. We had happy hour (at prices for Carona we couldn't say no too). Tastes eaten denied for years nearly brought tears to my eyes.

This picture bears repeating. Sure it's funny I'm distracted by this thing on the ceiling, but the location is insane. Namba station is one of Japan's largest. (And it doesn't even have a Shinkansen line!) It's an indoor labyrinth of shops, department stores and exits that no one in their right mind would build. But, wait, its size does have purpose. Utilizing all usable space, it also protects travellers and shopper alike from the deluge accompanying the rainy season and offers a controlled climate for the humid Osaka summers. You'll be partway there if you imagine a bigger verison of the Vancouver international airport with less windows that's older and more confusing; all filled with a hundred times as many people. That should give the reader a rough idea. What really blows my mind is that it isn't even the biggest station per square foot in Osaka. That title is held by the imposing Umeda/Osaka station north of Namba. People have actually been lost inside. I've gone through it by train but never stepped off.

On our day trip to Nara, about 40 minutes from Osaka, on the grounds of Nara's historical park, we visited Kasuga Shrine, which is famous for its lanterns. My pictures don't do the temple justice with it's thousands and thousands of lanterns of every description. It was an awesome sight that has to be experienced.

Also located on the same park grounds is Todai Temple. Probably Japanese for "very big". This temple nearly turned me into a Buddhist. It's an awesome sight. The top image is the Buddha's house, so-to-speak. Still the largest wooden structure in the world. Inside is a brozen Buddha statue of mind boggling proportions surrounded by a fiery goldern mandala that recalls heaven. Here the majestic entrance gate is seen from the temple. One has to imagine entry from the proper direction to get the full impression of what it must of have been like for anicent worshippers to approach the temple.

To help the restoration of the temple roof there was an option to buy and donate a ceramic roofing tile under a sign stating that purchase guaranteed eternal tranquility. Under the supremely peaceful face - but fierce eyes - of the Great Buddha, Uncle Terry empty his pockets. Why am I writting the one writing then? From the "drop-in-the-ocean" dept.: they only need another 199,999 tiles to finish the project.

As yes, the Nara deer. It bears repeating to never ever even give said dear the slightest impression one might be carrying food. And who would be foolish enough to actualy try to feed them? Don't say you haven't been warned.

The day after we had fugu we all noticed colours seem brighter and Japanese food more tasty. Everyone liked the fish but not all the vegtables were recognizable to Albertans. And I got to pet a puffer fish. How cool is that? I was really hoping it would puff up. Some gourmets look down on fugu, saying it's just for the experience, but what an experience! Besides, in reality, fugu does sometimes make it to the plates of fine restaurants. The place we visited took the preperation and presentation of fugu to the a high degree of seriousness. Only accepting the highest quality fish between 1.2 and 1.3 kg. Noticing later in other tanks fugu distinctly fell below and above that magical 100 gram range.