Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Taking it off

Taking it off
Originally uploaded by anyram.

Apparently, a lot of people like to look at photos labelled "Taking it off". I can't say I'm not surprised.

A day of rest.

Yesterday was the best day ever.
I was so wiped from the past month of musicalling, publishing, nomikai-ing, etc. I had to call in sick. I needed a day off. So I spent the whole day sleeping. Almost. Brief intervals of awakeness were called for in order to alert my office that I was taking a sick day, and at lunch when one of my office ladies came over to make sure I was okay and didn't need to go to the hospital. In Japan, people go to the hospital for everything, even a cold. Why, I don't know. Cultural difference I guess.

I felt a little bad about skipping a school day, but I haven't had a day of rest in months. Besides, everyone I know has been telling me how tired and crappy I look, so I guess it was time. Especially since I'll be entertaining starting tomorrow. Yikes! I also managed to squeeze in some house-cleaning so my parents won't be afraid to sleep at my house.

Today I'm at the Junior High, and have finished my one class for the day. I guess the term has settled down a bit, so I'm back to my regular schedule of one or two classes a day. Currently, I'm trying to plan an Eikaiwa (English Conversation) class that I won't be here for. I wonder if my JTEs will actually use my suggestions, or if this will end up being a waste of time? I hope not.

And now for your entertainment, some pictures of the short lived sakura (cherry blossoms) in my town!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

And then we were done...

The musical is at last finished, and I will now longer have to run around all of Hokkaido to sing, dance and take off my clothes. Our final performance was a great success, even if the theatre was about half the size of the other two theatres we performed in and twice as expensive. It went off really well, and once again I had people drive all the way from my town to see the show. Thirteen Rotarians from my town chartered a bus and drove to Obihiro to see me perform in the musical. Obihiro is also home to a really good "park golf" course (somewhere in between real golf and mini-golf lies "park golf", a game incredibly popular with the people of Hokkaido. I still haven't played -- I want to go for my birthday), so they went to play, drink and then watch me perform. Unfortunately, they ended up leaving at intermission so they could get home at a decent hour, but it was really nice to have them come to show their support. And they brought me a huge bouquet of flowers.

It was an interesting weekend.

We were staying at the house of a local CIR (Coordinator for International Relations -- another job designation within the JET programme). Before we got there, we were warned there would be a number of, erm, inconveniences. First of all, she was moving out of the house and a new CIR would be moving on Sunday. Second, we wouldn't be able to throw out any garbage. Third, nobody was allowed to take a shit at the house. Apparently the delicate plumbing system wouldn't be able to handle 40 gaijin in one weekend... There was also no nearby parking, and lots of neighbors with small children, so no running around outside yelling. It was also possible that there might not be enough space for all of us, so would people mind maybe bringing tents and sleeping outside?

The best part of all was the news that the house was also haunted. I'm generally skeptical of these things, but it was still creepy. The house was built not only on Ainu burial grounds, but also on Jomon burial grounds. All of the houses around it were new, and during building they had excavated all sorts of bones and artifacts. Anything under the house were were staying in, however, is still there. And if there is one thing popular culture has taught me, it's never to build your house on an Indian Burial Ground...

Our host's friends told us about all of the creepy things that would happen -- lights being turned on, the tv changing channel and playing with the volume, and even creepier things like knives being thrown at people's feet and empty clothes-drying-bars spontaneously being bent in the middle of the night.

I think the ghosts must have been weirded out by the presence of so many crazy foreigners, an there was no strange activity that I heard about. Nevertheless, it was creepy when there weren't a lot of people around.

Aside from the interesting sleeping arrangements, it was a really great weekend. We (as usual) got lost the night we got into town, but serendipidously found an excellent Thai restaurant for dinner. The day of the musical we had beautiful weather, and I was able to spend some time just vegging out in the sun. The show was great, the after-party was a lot of fun (even if the beer was a little slow in getting from the bar to the tables), and we wrapped the night up with karaoke. Because we hadn't sung enough at the performance.

Today we were up relatively early so we could clean up before the new tennant arrived. We ended up convoying with a bunch of other people to a nearby onsen, so we could take one last communal musical bath. We even convinced one of the group, a girl who has lived in Japan almost three years without getting into an onsen, that this was something she had to try. Sure, she was still intoxicated from the night before, and we had to make her take some more liquid courage before she would get naked with us, but she took the plunge.

Afterwards, we had an excellent lunch together at a little sushi-ya before parting ways. I'll see most of the musical people again at our summer meeting in a month's time, but it was a little sad to say goodbye to the musicallers. It's been a lot of time and a lot of work, but I've really enjoyed being a part of 北海道プレヤズ (Hokkaido Players) this year. I'm sure I'll be back again next year too. Hopefully not as the director.


After driving through the mountains with "Little Jule" (aka my hetero JET-life mate), we popped into one of the local ramen shops in town to set up my birthday enkai. I'm hoping we can have it there -- the master is a really cool guy with excellent English and really great ramen. But the night I want to have my party is the same night as Harada-san's big reception. Harada-san is the olympic ski-jumper who grew up in my town. Unfortunately, the master at the ramen shop will be at the reception, so maybe I will have to have my birthday enkai at home. That's fine. I have a ni-jikai in place already and that's the important part.

The ni-jikai is going to be at my local bar, ロマンス (Romance). Which was our next stop. The ane-san has just gotten married, and was having a party to introduce her friends to her new husband. I was really glad I was able to make it. The people there are incredibly sweet - not to mention a lot of fun.

So now I'm about ready to pass out. There is a big storm going on outside, and I hope a tree doesn't fall on my car. That would be bad. Maybe we brought back some ghosts from Obihiro?

OOoooooOOOooo.... scary stuff kiddies, scary stuff!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Elementary School Update

I'm just about to start teaching at the town Elementary school, but I thought I'd update the old blog in the couple of minutes I have before class starts. Today it's 1st and 2nd Grade -- I wish I wasn't so tired still!

I've been trying to put myself to be early, but it hasn't happened for the most part. Two weekends of musicalling (one more to go!) is very energy depleting. Don't worry mom and dad! I'll be genki when you get here! Although I have no idea what we'll be doing in Hokkaido... shhh! Don't tell!

In one week from today, my parents will be making the trek up to Hokkaido to visit me. I'm excited and a little nervous. I hope they have a really good trip. I want to show off the place I've been living for the past 10 months (has it been so long?) and will be for at least another 14.

I'm really busy with HAJET at the moment. The author of a previous book has made a distribution deal with someone else, who is telling people that we are no longer printing said book. Which is incorrect. I just printed (hopefully) the last run of that title. We are trying to translate this book in time for sale at the big Newcomers Orientation in Tokyo at the end of July. And none of us really knows what Japanese law says about all of it. So tonight I get to curl up with a translation of Japanese copyright law, so we can figure out who has rights to what. Woo! What a party!


I was surprised this morning when I talked to Takahata-san, my contact at the Elementary school. He tells me my schedule for the day and lets me know which class I'll be eating lunch with.

I'll be on Honshu the week after next for JET "training" and some sightseeing with the parents, so I'll be missing my regular class here. We arranged for a make-up time, and then looked at the rest of the schedule.

"Maryna-san, summer after wa?"
"I don't know, summer vacation?"
"Maryna wa stay here?"
"Oh! Of course! Didn't anyone tell you? I'll be here at least mo ichi nen!"

Cue much happiness on the part of the Elementary School support staff. I can't believe there are still people who don't know I'm staying! They knew all of the people in the area who were leaving, but not about what their own ALT was doing. Maybe they didn't want to jinx it?

Friday, May 19, 2006

White hot grease fires of pure entertainment!

Yes, musical performances are upon us. Last weekend we had our first show in Iwamizawa (nearish to Sapporo), and this weekend we head south, way south to Niikappu. Then one more show in Otofuke and we're finished. For this year... I can't wait to have a free weekend again. I think I have to wait until July for that though. Le sigh!

Yesterday was a fun day. I was teaching at Sounkyo, but instead of taking the bus in like I usually do, I got a ride with the guys in my office. They were headed up to build a "bi ni - ru hau su". Or in actual English (as opposed to katakana english), a "vinyl house" aka a greenhouse. Only problem? They were headed up an hour before I usually leave. So I got to sit in on some classes with the Grade 1/2 class.

Second period was writing practice with the principal. It was an interesting peek into the Japanese school system. These kids have just started school, so the principal spent the first 20 minutes or so lecturing the students on behaviour, polite speech and correct posture. And of course, the correct way to yell "hai!". No wonder kids think English class is so fun at Elementary school -- I encourage them to get a little crazy, run around and play games. No worries about sitting at attention. I do like my students to be polite though, but we learn that usually by playing games. I had so much time I went to third period as well and gave an impromptu lesson on colours.

I was there for morning recess, where the students took the opportunity to teach me to ride a unicycle. For some reason, small schools in Japan are given school sets of unicycles. And at recess, they all practice. I'm terrible at it, but it was my first try. I guess it's really good for developing balance in Elementary school children? It's certainly odd to see a horde of elementary schoolers coming after you on unicycles.

My lesson went well -- we practiced numbers, played some bingo, learned to give the time and played "What time is it Mr. Wolf?".

Junko-sensei gave me copies of the pictures they took of my lesson, so I'll post them when
I get a chance. Someday... sorry, things have been hectic around here.

Yesterday I shipped five giant boxes of books (yay HAJET Publications!) to Kobe for JET Recontracting conference. There are so many JETs they hold two conferences. I'll be going to Tokyo on the office dime at the beginning of June.

It was an exciting adventure, and I'm glad I have good post office people. It's not every day that the town gaijin wants to send five giant packages of books to Kobe. Ususally they just send things home... It ended up costing about 8000yen -- not bad considering they could arrive as early as Saturday. I actually had to ask them to hold off on delivery. I don't want them to get lost at the Hotel before the conference starts.

Its nice to have one more thing off my list of crap to do. Now I just have to deal with the issues concerning the author of one of our books making a distribution deal with someone else without telling us. We would never have known if we hadn't decided to update the book... but that's a whole other post and I have to get a move on.

I'm going to investigate water quality of the Ishikari river with the san-nensei class before I head to Niikappu for musicalling this weekend.

Have a fabulous weekend everybody, and I promise I'll update my photos soon!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

It's about bloody time!

Finally, spring has come to my little corner of Japan. It took so long to get here, I thought it would never come. Once it did it came seemingly out of nowhere. I can't tell if it feels like that because I've been so busy lately or if spring really does start fast around here.

I went for a bike ride tonight to try and take some pictures of the start of cherry blossom (sa ku ra) season here in town. I got waylaid by my Grade 4, 5 and 6 students who were having a running practice -- sports day is coming up. I won't be able to go to the Junior High sports day, but I have a feeling I won't make it to the Elementary sports day either. It's the day after I'm having my birthday party, and I have a feeling that if you throw a "Dress as your Town Mascot" party, a lot of people will show up. Especially when your town mascot is naked ramen boy...

Sorry. I got sidetracked.

I wasn't going to stop to watch the running practice, but my students were so excited to see me -- even the impossible Grade 6's. So I stayed a while and watched. Some of the moms were watching as well, along with some younger sisters who covered me with cherry blosoms and dandelions.

After practice, I got an ice cream along with everyone else. The magic of being "maryna-sensei".

When everyone had gone, I tooled around town a bit more. I passed more of my students (younger ones this time) and their parents who were taking advantage of the nice weather with an outdoor barbeque. I left quickly so nobody would feel compelled to invite me -- not today anyways.

A a lovely spring evening.


In other news, Happy 21st Birthday to my little sister! Omedetou gozaimasu imoto-chan!

Monday, May 15, 2006

My friends are so cool...

Check out THIS wesite! Some very cool science investigating cold seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. And my friend Jeremy is one of the expedition members!

The animal communities here are similar to those found at deep sea hydrothermal vents. The area is of particular interest because of the large reserves of hydrocarbons under these amazing biological communities. This expedition is to figure out how these communities work to help policy makers decide what kind of oil exploration can be done in the area. Very interesting stuff!

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Big Show!

One down, two to go!
This weekend in Iwamizawa was the first performance of the Hokkaido Players musical extravaganza. Things went pretty well I think, and I was really happy to see so many of my friends (especially my Japanese friends who drove almost three hours to see me) in the audience. Even my 8 months pregnant JTE drove herself down to see the show!

We've come a long way since we auditioned in October, especially considering most of us have no theater experience and we could only get together to practice once a month. I took pictures from the wings during one of our dress rehearsals, so I'll post some as soon as I go through the pictures.

In other news, I finished printing and binding a run of 50 copies of one of eight HAJET Publications in time for shipping it to JET Recontracting conferences next year. Now I just need to start printing the rest of our books. Yay! Thank goodness I have such a great office -- while I was away they finished all of my printing for me, and today half the office helped me sort through and bind books.

Here's hoping everything else goes smoothly with publications... it's giving me too much stress being in charge of HAJET's biggest money-maker.

Right. Back to getting books ready to ship out on Wednesday.

Happy Mothers Day!

Friday, May 12, 2006

More famous than previously thought

Aside from my outrageous popularity in the small-town Japanese press (see here and here for my musicalling exploits), it seems I also have international fans. Last week I got a message from my flickr photo site, notifying me that a writer in New York is interested in using one of my photos for a book. How cool is that?
Specifically, they are putting together a book of crazy wedding photos, and thought that the one of Jessie working her tamborine in the Pippu-cho train station was just crazy enough.
Wedding Singer #1

Monday, May 08, 2006

Golden Week Holiday ゴールデンウイークの旅行

Before I left for Golden Week I wasn’t really sure what I would be doing. I made a deal with my friend Francis – you do the planning and we can take my car.

Originally, the plan had been to fly to Shikoku, see what there was to see there, and come back. However, the most golden thing about Golden Week seems to be an increase in prices. Also, seemingly everyone in Japan *has* to travel somewhere for Golden Week, so hotels are all full. So the plan changed and we decided to drive from the middle of Hokkaido to the middle of Aomori. Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. It is famous for apples and its unintelligible dialect. For example; youkoso (welcome) becomes yogukitanashi in Aomori dialect.

(Map from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Japan_Aomori_large.png)

After the all clear on my car from the mechanic, we made our way from my home to Hakodate. Only seven hours by expressway! We spent a night in Hakodate sampling the fine microbrew produced by the Hakodate brewery, and the excellent fresh seafood. My favorite of the evening was イカそめん (ika somen) which is very thinly sliced squid, served like noodles. Amazingly good seafood. My friends weren’t kidding when they said Hakodate has the best seafood in Japan.

The next day we caught the ferry from Hakodate for the four hour crossing to Aomori. I was surprised to find that ferries (at least the one we took) are not the pinnacle of organization and efficiency that one would expect from a Japanese ferry system. Not to mention expensive. The next time you BC types start bitching about the cost of taking a car on the ferry, think about taking a 14,000 yen (around $140CDN) Japanese ferry. But perhaps the expense isn’t surprising. Despite being Golden Week, there were very few other passengers on the ferry. The majority were truckers moving produce between Hokkaido and Honshu, and we were two of about a dozen passengers. Basically, transport ferries have been adapted in this area for carrying passengers. Above decks, there were a few vending machines, a couple of tatami rooms, and a shower room. It was a rough crossing, and I learned that I will never be able to become a pirate. Yar, twas a long crossing for me…

Once in Aomori, we had to get to the ryokan my friend had booked, because dinner was served at 6pm. We stayed at a place called Aoni Onsen 「青荷温泉」, an incredible onsen in the middle of nowhere. They have tried to maintain the rustic feeling of an old ryokan, and the lighting is all gas lamps. We arrived at the onsen, were given our onsen uniforms (a yukata and a short, surprisingly warm overcoat), shown to our room and informed that dinner would be in the main room. We had time to drop our gear and change.

Dinner was a group affair, and since neither of us had stayed at a ryokan (especially not an isolated rustic one that didn’t necessarily see a lot of foreign traffic), I was glad that we were seated next to some kind people who helped us to figure out what to do with the huge amount of food set before us. They lit our nabe pots, and showed us where the dashi for the soba was, where to fill our rice bowl, and where to find our grilled fish. The food was very good, and after a day of traveling, I gorged on the nabe, soba noodles, whole grilled trout served on a skewer, and various salads and pickles that accompanied the meal. I love eating fancy Japanese meals because there are always so many different things to sample. This particular ryokan showcased local delicacies and produce of the season.

After dinner, we enjoyed the onsen, and the clear sky illuminated with stars. I must admit, I was a bit nervous when I heard about where we would be staying. According to the information provided by the onsen, the baths available were only mixed sex baths. I have no problems with bathing at the onsen with other women, or bathing in isolated natural springs with mixed sexes (although Japanese women will usually cover up in such situations, I usually go with other foreigners and feign ignorance). But bathing with a mixed sex Japanese crowd was something that had me worried. Turns out it wasn’t anything to worry about. The only bath that was mixed was the outdoor rotenburo, and that had designated ladies bathing times. That, and because the ryokan was so small, the baths were empty whenever I went to them.

What a great way to travel. Get to the ryokan after a day on the move, get into your jammies, eat and drink until you’re full, then go soak in a big tub outside and watch the stars. For Japanese tourists, the next day involves getting up very early to bathe before breakfast, eating, and then getting on the road again. We were very un-Japanese, and skipped breakfast in favour of sleeping in until we were awoken by the man who came in to change the lamp. We decided it must be time to get out and see what Aomori had to offer.

Travelling with a Japanese culture and history-buff has some distinct advantages. First of all, they know where the interesting sites are. And they can even tell you what makes them culturally interesting. We drove from Aoni onsen, up the coast of Aomori to Osore-zan 「恐山」. The name literally translates to “fear mountain” and it is said to be one of the most sacred places in Japan. Osore-zan is the Japanese Buddhist entrance to hell.

It was the most interesting thing I have seen in Japan so far. The temple there is beautiful, but it’s the setting that makes it impressive. Bare rocks, statues of various buddhas, piles of rocks, and the overwhelming smell of sulphur. It smelled just like hell should. Like hell! We spent a few hours there, wandering around, trying to decipher the markers dedicated to various people, and drinking in the atmosphere of hell. After a stop at the omiyage shop (of course hell has a souvenir stand!) we returned late to the onsen for more dinner and onsen and stargazing from the bath.

The next day it was back to Hakodate on the ferry. The ocean was calmer, but now Golden Week holidays had officially begun there were many more people on the ferry this time, but much less space. There was only one medium sized tatami room and maybe 40 people.

Once back in Hakodate, we stopped at a local (Hakodate only!) fast food chain called Lucky Pierrot. It's the Japanese version of an American hamburger stand. Maybe I've been in Japan too long, but I thought it was great. Complete with rockabilly on the stereo, ridiculously large orders and milkshakes. The guy at the table next to us ordered the special of the house -- a humburger with everything on it. No -- EVERYTHING. Each hamburger/sandwich on the menu was put on a bun. It was about a foot tall. I desprately wanted to take a picture, but the poor guy already looked like he wanted to melt into the floor when the staff brought it over, presented it too him with much shouting, and ringing of handbells no less. Maybe next time I'm in Hakodate I'll try it...

In the evening, we went to a little yaki-niku/sushi place around the corner from the hotel. It was obviously a tourist joint, but the crowd was boisterous and friendly (read: drunk) and the staff was chatty. We ate and drank like pigs, and I played with my camera. It was a very entertaining evening and a nice last night in Hakodate.

I paid for it the next day, and my planned early morning expedition was (not unexpectedly) scrapped. We still went to the market in search of いくら丼(ikura don) -- a bowl of rice topped with salmon roe. Delicious! Especially when the eggs burst in your mouth. There is a word/sound for it in Japanese -- ぷちぷち(puchi puchi). Not to be confused with ぴちぴち (pichi pichi) which is the word/sound for youth and beauty. I'll be too old to be considered pichi pichi this year...

We did the rest of the touristy things to do in Hakodate for the rest of the morning, visiting the statue of Commodore Matthew Perry, the former British Embassy, the purported oldest shrine in Hokkaido and the multitude of churches (Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Episcopalian). Hakodate is a very interesting looking city, and quite beautiful by Japanese standards. I highly recommend going, even if it is a little out of the way.

We drove back to my home that day with a stop in Asahikawa for McDonalds. Yes, all that glorious food all week and what was I craving? A good old grease burger. I've decided my cravings for such garbage as McDonalds and Starbucks are because I simply can't have it on a regular basis. And we all want what we can't have...


We got back to my house late Friday night, leaving a whole weekend still to use. So we hopped into my friend's car and drove to Kitami, a small city to the east. That's where the HAJET Fall Meeting was last year if you're keeping track of these things. We ate at a very busy kaitenzushi (rotating sushi bar) where all of the staff knew my friend -- he's in there that often.

The next day we drove to Abashiri to see the ocean. In winter, it gets so cold here that the ocean freezes and they offer ice floe tours. Last weekend it was pretty cold too, but not cold enough to dissuade me from ditching my shoes and running into the Sea of Ohotsku. And looking for sea critters to poke. I wish the ocean wasn't so far from where I live!

It was a nice vacation, albeit not very relaxing. Well, the onsen was very relaxing, but all of the driving kind of cancelled it out. As did coming home to teaching, being the HAJET publisher, the start of the musical this weekend, and getting used to waking up for work in the mornings again. My teachers at the Junior High all thought I was crazy for driving so much over Golden Week, but I enjoyed it a lot. It reminded me of family vacations when I was younger, when we'd drive and drive and drive forever. とても懐かしVery natsukashii (another great Japanese word that basically translates to "nostalgic feelings").