Wednesday, July 2, 2003
Woo hoo! By a great coincidence, I took a kayaking trip today - my first ever - through the inexplicably bug-free Georgia swampland. I learned the rudimentary skills (and there are skills that need to be learned: like the proper way to paddle and navigation using the foot-pedal rudders) I didn't do any of that flipping over stuff, not yet anyway. but learned the basics and that's the important thing. Woo hoo! It was a blast, to boot, so even better!
I love mail. Not one, but two, big envelopes were waiting from me from Sakugi when I got home. The one from the school included a nice letter in Japanese from the pregnant woman I emailed (in Japanese). She apologized for the late reply and the lack of Englishness. It also included extensive pamphlets and other full-color advertisements about Sakugi and its activities. It had some of the same stuff as the web site but was more detailed (age demographics and everything). The school - at least the elementary school - looks brand new! I can't believe a school in a small town of mostly elderly would be that nice (auditoriums and fancy hardwood floor everywhere). I was expecting an old run-down school like the one Amparo was at. Is the new school the reason they got an ALT? Is this for real?
The other envelope was from my predecessor and had more Sakugi stuff. It was all very, very cool but, to be honest, pictures of the actual house I'm going to be living in (and the car I just spent a month's wages on) would have been preferable, but it's possible she doesn't have a scanner or extra photos left. I'll just have to wait, cross my fingers, and see what I get.
I spent the ENTIRE day packing: mid-morning to dinner. I filled two bags (the big one weighed in at 60 lbs, which I read on the Northwest Airlines website was too heavy, but people called the airline and confirmed it was okay) a backpack, a laptop case, and two boxes to send to myself. Whew. Since I'm writing this entry several days after I packed, I can tell you that this is the day my brain filled up. After today, I had a hard time making decisions about anything.
Had my last fajitas for a long time tonight. Yum, yum!
Before I went to the scheduled Post-Departure Orientation in Denver, all I could think was that this was a waste of time. After all, it was scheduled for at LEAST three hours in the afternoon (not counting travel) when I could have been otherwise preparing, packing, in this case painting. I just wanted to get my ticket and passport and leave. However, despite my whining, the orientation was extremely well done. Everything from my visa to luggage tags to a step-by-step schedule of the morning departure tomorrow was ready for me and the presenters spent a minimum of time explaining each item. It was followed by an informative presentation on what exactly a visa is and the importance of a Multiple Re-entry permit. Granted, I already knew this, but it is really good information to have for first-time overseas residents. Two previous JETs were also there, answering questions at the end. They spoke extremely well and gave a variety of viewpoints. I was impressed by both of them and it was comforting to have experienced peers there.
The reception afterward was also quite nice. The snack buffet was decent and the speeches amazingly short. They told us straight out that they were preparing us for the multitude of speeches ahead and that was the only reason for the deliberate 'Kampai' and speeches in the first place. The best part, of course, had nothing to do with the orientation and the nicely down-to-earth humor of Our Leader, but had to do with the fact that on the way to the orientation, I ran into someone I had not seen since... wow, 9th grade? Maybe even 8th. Amazingly, I recognized Beth almost immediately. She had the advantage in that she already knew I was part of the program because her significant other also is (boyfriends, girlfriends, children, etc could come to the reception, but not the orientation), and she had seen the email list and recognized my name. She thought I was the other Melissa, though, and thought I was married and wondered why I did not return her email. Needless to say, I spent most of the reception catching up with her (and learning about what other people from our Jr. High were up to).
I got home in time for pizza and managed to leave the mural at a somewhat decent point at around 2am before cleaning. I'm leaving tomorrow morning but barely thinking about it yet since I am so utterly exhausted.
Two hours of sleep was my total, and I did not sleep on the way to DIA due to Jack's amusing, belligerent, the-way-only-an-11-year-old-could-do-it back-seat driving. :) Three helpers, one in pink, were at the check-in counter, exactly as they said they would be as Dad dropped me off with the other Denver JETs. Lots of parents waited with their JETs, which was a nice idea, but we were standing there almost two hours before actual check-in. I kind of slept on the flight to Minneapolis while sitting in the back, corner seat with JETs commandeering the rear of the plane. No expense spared here, eh? Minneapolis was kind of confusing since we had a three-hour layover and everyone went in different directions. A woman was there, however, checking our names, making sure we were set to meet. I tagged along with people randomly but ended up by myself with my Pizza Hut personal pizza and a Harry Potter fanfic about Uric the Oddball.
We sat in the plane for an hour before takeoff to Narita; the temperature outside was 114 degrees and though there was somewhat cool air blowing from the air thing, I was sweating. That probably made staying in the half-asleep state easier, but ickier. Boy scouts were in front of us (ironic given the story a JET told the previous night about a boy scout luggage mix-up).
Because of the delay and my sleepiness, I thought it was four hours into the flight when I got up to stretch my legs but, in fact, it was only two. Since I randomly ordered vegetarian meals, I got them before everyone else, though usually waited a little while before eating them to be polite. What I did not realize was that vegetarian also meant no egg, so my breakfast (served far too early in the flight) was very boring. I could not sleep to save my life. Listening to "National Security" in Japanese was somewhat interesting practice but the movie was so painfully bad (worse in English), I eventually switched to music.
Having the sample de-embarkation card was SO helpful. Although I've filled out those things at least half a dozen times, I really did not want to think at that point, so the sample was a lifesaver. Go Denver Consulate Staff!
This was beautiful. After the immigration line (full of JETs from different places with slightly different name tags) and the quick-o customs, there was a line of people in red shirts, guiding us all the way from the exit to our bus. The weather was cloudy and cool (I was expecting painfully hot and humid, so it was a nice relief). I felt like I was in Oz or something with polite munchkins pointing the way to Emerald City. I was so entranced that I completely forgot to change money at the airport.
The bus ride wasn't bad at all, though our speaker was sick and quite exhausted, which was a strange comment for him to make given that all of us had been traveling for about 24 hours at this point. I was reminiscing as we entered Tokyo. ("Oh, Tokyo Dome Hotel, Oh, Toyko Tower, Wow...") The bus deposited us into another stream of red shirts which guided us to our luggage upstairs. As well as my luggage, I was now given two Big packets. I kind of wish we got these the next morning since I was on the verge of dropping it all several times (I was already carrying my laptop and backpack and wheeling my bag behind me all while trying not to lose the $200-if-lost key).
I arrived at the three-bed hotel room first (it was quite narrow - very typical of Japan) so I took the opportunity to take the edge bed and take a shower (Ahh.... hand-held) When I got out, Glynis was there and we chatted for awhile. I met Andrea (from Australia) just before going to bed, but both went out to dinner and did not come back until after I was asleep.
The best thing about today was that it did not start early. We didn't need to be at the opening ceremony until 10:30 and they gave us ample time for breakfast. I woke up at 5am and couldn't fall asleep again so I quietly dressed (after some self debate) into my nice suit. I noticed later that about half the people were dressed nice for the day and the others were in T-shirts and shorts since it was still so long before everything started. The money exchange was not open yet so I bought a calling card and called home. Mom and Dad seemed happy to hear from me - kind of an unexpected treat since I told them it might be difficult to call for the first week. Breakfast was eggs, bacon, toast and other very western things served in buffet style. Not impressive, but not bad, either - no chopsticks, yet. I met a great girl in line to change money (I changed all $1500, except for one $100 travelers check that I'll save just in case, though I'm not sure how it would really be useful) named Kate. She was a friendly and we hit it off and exchanged emails.
The Opening Ceremony was not that exciting, but not too long, either. Being seated by prefecture was about the only useful thing. I met a lot of other Hiroshima people very quickly which was great. Lunch was clever: instead of a buffet, they had a rotating table on top of which was filled with foods like bread, soup, potato thingys, veggies, and even chocolates. Waiters and waitresses were EVERYWHERE, constantly refilling empty food plates and so forth.
The optional afternoon AJET presentations were decent, at least the two that I went to. Unfortunately, they were really full so both times I was sitting along the sides. Pop Culture was a success because the speaker was hilarious. He talked about "Getz!", the proper chant when doing Janken (rock, paper, scissors), "Nande darou", the surprisingly touchy-feely behavior of male Japanese students, Utada Hikaru, and Print Club. (I'm glad he gave us a handout). Traveling Abroad was not that helpful but sort of interesting. I more wanted to know how safe it was for women travelers so I finally just asked since they were more talking about the good side of southeast asia destinations. I spent the time allotted for the third one venturing out in Shinjuku to get to Kinokuniya. Ah, fun. I did get to Kino, but due to slight misdirection (and tall buildings inhibiting my view of familiar landmarks), the entire round trip took almost an hour (instead of, say, a half hour). They gave us at least three different maps of Shinjuku but I decided to try to trust my memory and instincts. I ended up (with the help of a Japanese stranger) buying a copy of Nihongo Journal (the great magazine for people learning Japanese) at Kino. I have to admit, it was a bit strange to be The Foreigner again, being among all Japanese and knowing nearly everyone I pass notices me. The hotel, of course, has not been like that at all. One of our Japanese presenters said that the 5th floor of the hotel felt like another country.
Our Prefecture Leader Guy (Chris) took all 30 of us out to Karaoke. This made me extremely, extremely happy. I think most people were nervous about it so me and Chris kind of started it off (with Beach Boys and Beatles). Later, when most everyone had sung, people said they thought I was brave. Nope, just experienced and slightly obsessed. The group did both Eminem and the Village People. Gotta love these folks!
Cool thing I discovered: My hotel room window (on the 16th floor) looks RIGHT OUT onto the main government building!
Today was the day of Much Useful Information. The schedule started a bit earlier this time and breakfast (identical to yesterday) was a bit more hurried. For the second day in a row, I was up first which, if you know me, is pretty impressive, and I was able to get an excellent seat for the seminar on team-teaching. I thought the information was extremely useful since we were able to role-play the part of the student and watch as a Japanese teacher, a current ALT, and even two Japanese students (who were nervous) demonstrated a lesson. I liked the ALT a lot. He was Australian and just seemed very calm, but firm, and content. He had a great idea: he put all the students' names on cards, had one student pick one, then had dialogue practice with that person. The idea was to not make students feel picked on.
Because so many people stayed out till the wee hours of the morning last night, a lot of people slept through the morning. This surprises me since by definition, the people who made it here really have to be serious about being a JET. The afternoon presentations were quite phenomenal, all except for the recommended one. The CLAIR Essential Information meeting basically regurgitated the Handbook (All Bow To The Handbook). The Driving one was great (mostly due to experienced presenters), though I knew a great deal of it already. My favorite was the Elementary School one. Even though I was completely exhausted by this point, it was so refreshing to be a child again and play easy, silly games with really good teachers. I loved everything they did and my brain was bursting with ideas (mostly theirs) afterward.
So far, everyone I've met has been fantastic. People seem to be friendly and have a good attitude. Nearly every time we meet, the conversation begins with "Where are you from?" followed or sometimes preceded by "Where are you going?" One girl cut through the long talk and said "So, where ya from, where ya goin'?" in one quick sentence. The smokers are all getting to know each other well during the breaks since they all congregate near the ashtrays. I try not to breathe too deep when I walk by, but it's still a happy environment.
The Impossible Packing Task: Somehow, between the end of seminars, which was 5pm, and 8pm (only 6:30pm for Non-Americans who had Embassy parties to attend) I had to fit approximately TEN books, a couple of them quite thick, into my fairly full suitcase. Some books were optional (like the AJET books, Team Taught Pizza, and a crapload of pamphlets from the lobby), but most of them were thrust on me (like the books on American History and Government(??)). Because I gave myself time, filled the last corners of my laptop case and backpack, and unknowingly channeled the packing Gods, I managed to do it!
Tonight, I was going to meet Kate, but she never called and I was hungry so I wandered into the lobby and kind of attached myself to a group where one or two people were familiar. The group turned out to be all people going to Nagano prefecture and they went to a restaurant/bar deep in Shinjuku with a very unusual theme. At first I thought it was like Alcatraz (the jail-themed restaurant/bar in Roppongi) but it was slightly different. We walked through a tunnel and people were seated behind curved bars. Every hour or so, the lights blinked on and off and there was a sound of an oncoming train. Huh? The waiters were very professional despite the racket of drinking foreigners and ghostly trains. I talked to lots of people (including one colorful woman who had been in Japan for two years, barely spoke a word of Japanese and, in her own words, did JET for the money) and ate yummy Tofu.
I was way worried about getting space for breakfast and time to check-out before we had to meet, but my worries were unfounded. Breakfast was no problem (though they were running out of things faster than they could replenish), check-out was extremely fast (the three of us gave them our keys and went) and I spent almost an hour hanging out in the Concord Ballroom with the other prefecture groups while Chris madly checked his list to make sure we were all present and accounted for.
Finally, we were on the bus to the airport. For once, there was only a little time to spare. Check-in took some time, but was SIGNIFICANTLY shorter due to the fact that we all had the same boarding pass and did not have to get individual ones. I had enough time to chat with a nifty Jamaican woman and grab a sandwich and Pocky from the nearby shop before we boarded (Chris still madly checking off names). The plane was much bigger than expected and we were towards the back with a Japanese school group in front of us from Hokkaido (all in uniform). On the plane, I finally sat next to someone I could relate to: a geek! We chatted about Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and even anime. We exchanged email addresses.
The nerves hit everyone around landing time. We were all going to separate and that was it. Yikes. After I received my luggage (I was one of the last, having wished several others 'Good Luck') and airport staff checked my luggage tag (yikes! glad I kept it!) I walked out and found my welcome sign. It was the first time my name had ever been on an airport sign.
Two people were waiting for me, a man and a woman. I was expecting all women since only women signed the letters. We had a nice greeting in Japanese and they took me outside. Jicho-san (he coincidentally had the same last name as one of my supervisors, making me wonder whether I had accidentally wished a man good luck with his baby) was going to drive me back and I was very glad I did not have to lug three heavy bags on trains and buses! The woman gave me a gift immediately (a little Momoshi (autumn leaf and Hiroshima symbol) keitai ornament that I carried around most of the rest of the night, so was jingling like a cat) and I sat in the back seat with her and we talked for about an hour and half while Jicho-san got lost on our way back.
* * STUPID THING OF THE DAY * * I forgot the woman's name after she told it to me not once, not twice, but three times. I know it begins with an N, so I'll call her N-san.
The first place we went was the Sakugi Bunka (Culture) Center. I was introduced to Takata-san (the head of the cultural center and one of the two women who had signed my letters in English) and everyone else in the office. I was repeatedly complimented on my Japanese. I was served some tea and we chatted. My Express Mail and luggage had arrived and Jicho-san took it all to my house (and it was all FREAKIN' heavy, too. Remind me to give this guy a gift). I was taken somewhere else I think - I forgot where - then I was taken to my house for a brief look before moving onto further introductions (including the Mayor of Sakugi!). I could not BELIEVE when they pulled up to the house. It's HUGE. They gave me the keys to the bike, storage shed, car (a nice-looking Honda in the driveway), and house. I tried my key out and walked inside. Way big. Lots of bedrooms. High-ceilinged hallway. Lots and lots of food - even instant ramen for my first night - was left out for me. I turned out not to need the ramen because I was invited out to dinner by a really great woman. Her name begins with an M I believe but I can't remember. I'm concentrating so hard on speaking and listening to Japanese, I don't have time to also listen and memorize the names. That's my lamo excuse, so deal. [Editor's note from a week later: Maruyama-san]
The dinner was great -- so very traditional Japanese. The whole family (a very extended family including grandparents and several small children) sat around the low table surrounded by cushions on the tatami. The women directed me to the 'guest' seat or seat of honor, but I was later directed to the seat to the left by her husband. No one sat in the guest seat. I had some beer which, surprisingly, tasted decent (I normally dislike beer, though I've been trying to develop a taste so I can participate in Japanese social exchanges). Plates full of the local fish, sashimi, cut octopus, and crustacean fish were alongside salad, spaghetti, and something sort of like a small pizza. It was hot, so I was offered a towel to wipe my face off. I readily accepted. The women were always getting up and getting more food so I hardly spoke to any at all. One was a music teacher though (and she is the first of a several women who said "Jr. High" in the beginning of her introduction and I thought it plausible that they were students, instead of a teacher/parent as they actually were). I mostly chatted with the husband of the woman who invited me and her son (who works at the Canoe Park). The older ojii-san one was a riot - he laughed and joked a lot. All of them together were really good listeners and seemed to understand what I was saying. I even learned a bit of the Sakugi dialect ("Ooooooooooi!") I got a laugh when I said the greeting (like "Hiiii!!" I think) later after dinner and mimed waving.
Odd thing about the house #36: my WC has a toilet, small sink, and... a URINAL (which I did not bother showing in the below picture). Now, I've been to a couple Japanese houses before and I've never seen this before. What's the deal?
When I woke up this morning, it felt like home. I was comfortable, happy, and everything looked familiar. I take this as a clue that I will be living here awhile. Or it could just be me remembering what it was like last time I lived in Japan. (Or maybe it's pre-culture-shock euphoria?) Takata-san took me around this morning and introduced me to all my neighbors. They are mostly old couples. This is not surprising since I live right near something I think is a retirement center. I also met the post office workers, the ladies working at the restaurant "Kawa no Eki" (literally: The River Station), the policeman (I think there's just the one), the bank workers and firemen/rescue workers (both acted kind of like I was interrupting except for the guy making sure I knew the emergency number: ichi ichi kyuu!), the middle school principal, and some random middle school students in an athletic club. Takata-san liked to point out the things I had said or done earlier, like thinking Kawa no Eki was actually a train station and asking if the train went to Miyoshi, to the next person we met. I did not mind it a bit - it made the conversation more interesting. I saw the woman who picked me up from the airport there briefly, but I still couldn't remember her name. The middle school students were great. They were compelled by their teachers and peers to introduce themselves to me in English - which they did - and the one I complimented on his accent turned out to be Jicho-san's son. Do I remember any of their names? Hahaha. Not a clue.
I was then brought back to the Bunka center and suddenly left on my own for an hour and a half. Err... Okay, I was sort of warned about this, but I expected some direction or something, especially since it was so quick (I had thought my first few days would be filled already). Since I had brought NOTHING to do or read, Takata-san gave me a binder full of the year's Sakugi News magazines. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In the back of each magazine was a page that my predecessor had done. I saw her face for the first time. I'd been wondering for months what she looked like, so I was quite fascinated. I read several months of her articles and hoped I could continue doing the page.
Obviously, I was supposed to have brought a lunch? (No one told me anything yesterday except when I would be picked up the next morning. I assumed they had plans for me.) The nice lady whose house I had dinner at [Maruyama-san!] took me out to lunch (Takata-san inexplicably paying) at the Kawa no Eki. It was fast, delicious and relatively inexpensive (around 600 yen?). It was the typical Japanese meal with miso, rice, pickled vegetables, and a main dish of choice, in our cases, fish ("Sakana, daijoubu?").
Takata-san gave me a tour of the attached elementary school. I met one teacher who confirmed that classes were only about twenty-five to thirty minutes. I saw the lunch room where everyone ate together and went into the kitchen and met three elementary school students doing a cooking class with a teacher. They were adorable and it was neat to be introduced to them and have them smile. (Not that I remember any of their names, but...) Anyway, I could not believe how much wood there was in the structure - everything was wood, walls, floor, and ceiling. Takata-san continued the tour at the bunka center, including auditorium and exercise center (where I suddenly had a desire to exercise). It was all brand new, very shiny, clean and fancy (and wooden!). Kato-san took me to open a bank account that afternoon and I found out that they had made a hanko for me! It was katakana out of my last name. (This was sort of a problem due to the fact that they had turned the spelling, not the pronunciation, into katakana and I was writing my name differently. It's probably close enough though - only off by one little tiny kana.) Then Kato-san took me to Funo Village en route to Miyoshi and I met the ALT of the next town over. We chatted for a little while. The previous ALT was there, too, and had known my predecessor. The ALT, Carina from London, had a very similar experience to mine for the last couple days. After we made it to Miyoshi, we tried to get a keitai, but I needed my gaikokujin torokushomeisho (alien registration card - memorizing that in Japanese on the bus was one of the more useful things I decided to do.) Then we tried to get car registration, but we needed the shaken (due to expire soon). We also went to the hundred-yen store (I got some yellow slippers!) and to the supermarket. She explained on the way home that for the first month, I would be working from 8:30 to 5 at the Culture center before starting the teaching. Finally, some order to the chaos! It was nearly six-thirty when we got back. She gave me a ride home and I decided to take a bike ride.
* * STUPID THING OF THE DAY * * For some reason, it occurred to me during our car ride to ask Kato-san (who is pregnant) if this is her first child. Hello, duh! I had met her two other kids the previous night at dinner!!
I thought it would be very easy to get on the bike and ride. But, no. First, it took me quite awhile to figure out the lock. I knew where to put the key, but no matter what I did, I could not remove the key after I unlocked it. I realized that I wasn't SUPPOSED to remove the key and so detached it from the rest of my keychain. I figured out a little faster how to adjust the seat (my predecessor clearly has much longer legs than me) downward. Then there was the kickstand. Nothing like the kickstands of American bikes, I rode around for awhile without realizing it was still down. When it kept scraping, I investigated. It did not seem to be intuitive, but after much difficulty, I managed to put it up and back. Later, I realized, it is extremely easy to do if you put the pressure in the right spot. So I rode back toward the bunka center and said goodbye to Kato-san who was leaving then I randomly rode around, finally getting a chance to look at the green (so green) tree-covered hills everywhere. I had the impression that Hiroshima-ken was all one big land of hills and the towns kind of built themselves on the sides and on the occasional flat spots. It was a beautiful ride and so I continued it, despite the late hour. I was waved at several times, which was really neat. I rode uphill to Josei falls (the local attraction) and said Konban-wa to a fellow. I was sweaty and gross by this point, but oh well. The hike was further than I thought, but it was very pretty. The waterfall was fantastic -- I was the only one there except for Mr. Frog.
Everyone Say Hello to Mr. Frog!
On the way back, I saw the mayor. He asked me if I was bicycling and talked to me a bit. He sympathized with how much better things would be once I get my car. Actually, though, my bike is serving me very well. No one seems to believe me.
House Mystery: I have a slanted roof. I have flat ceilings. Due to the hallway having and extended ceiling for a clerestory, there is an even greater tilt on the backside. What is in the mysterious attic space? I've looked but so far I cannot find a single access panel.
For dinner, I ate the bento leftover from last night's dinner. It was surprisingly satisfying. I watched some Japanese TV (no cable yet, though I do see a satellite dish attached to my house) then took my futon out of the closet for bed. Two nights down.