Friday, November 18, 2011

Land of 1000 Aftershocks* - April 2011

The new school year has begun, meaning that many of our old students have graduated, and many new ones have arrived.  It has also meant the loss of many of our teachers.  In Japan (or at least in Sendai) teachers, especially newer ones, only stay at a school for a year or two before being rotated to somewhere different.  We’ve gotten around eight new teachers at my school, including one new English teacher.  He’s replacing the younger two English teachers, who have both left us.

Although I’m sorry to lose the older students, I’m also excited about the new ones.  Many of them come from the elementary schools I visit, so I already know them by sight.  From the classes I had with them last year, I have reason to believe that they have a better English base and much more enthusiasm than last year’s first years did.  I’m hoping that will stand them in good stead as they begin their formal English education, although a part of me is also afraid that as soon their classes start, they will suck all the energy out of them and turn them into mindless, parroting robots.  I’m going to have to work hard to keep that from happening.  I hope the first-year English teacher takes me to his classes a lot.

One Saturday the school had a demonstration day, where parents got to come in and observe their children in class.  It was my first time teaching in a month and a half, and it felt really good to be back.  I’m also starting to make elementary school visits again.  I’ve taken down my colour board, but I haven’t felt motivated enough to replace it with anything.  I’ve also started up my dance club again, although attendance is still really poor.  Towards the end of the month the teachers finally started bringing me to class again.  It’s nice to be back, although I’d forgotten how much I hate dictating.  Clearly none of my teachers had any pedagogical epiphanies over he holiday.

Near the end of the month I went to my first ALT meeting since January.  With only a couple of exceptions it was my first time to see any of the other ALTs since the earthquake.  It was really nice to be able to see people again and reconnect.  Almost all the Sendai ALTs were there; many had stayed in the city, and of those who had left, all but two had returned.  We commiserated with each other a lot, made jokes, and gave feedback about earthquake preparedness.  After the meeting I went out to dinner with the ALT from Singapore and one from Australia.  We spent hours exchanging stories, hashing and re-hashing the earthquake and its aftermath.  It was like group therapy; it gave me a chance to vent a lot of the emotions that had been bottled up inside for weeks.  And I think it was also a bit of a bonding experience.

Now that things are finally a bit more normal, I’ve been looking into opportunities for volunteering in the areas that were hit by the tsunami.  A lot of the ALTs who stayed went to help out in the weeks after the earthquake.  As I was isolated from the rest of the city, I didn’t join in these excursions, but now that it’s easier to get around, I’m thinking I should go and help out some.  After all, when natural disasters strike it usually happens in foreign countries, and the most one can do to help out is to donate money.  It’s not every day one finds oneself right there in the disaster area, able to provide hands-on assistance.

So one morning I dragged myself out to the government office of one of the neighbouring wards.  I missed the morning volunteer call, but in the late morning I was able to join a group that was going to help at a retirement home.  It was my first time venturing into the tsunami hit area.  It was strange: at first glance it didn’t look that bad.  It was only gazing at the landscape for an extended period that I started to notice things: piles of trash lying by the side of the road; a boat sitting forlornly in a field; rusty cars piled awkwardly on top of one another.

Our job at the retirement home was to clear away the rubbish that had washed up against the side of the building.  Most of it seemed to have come from the home itself.  It included clothing, furniture, electronic devices, food, photo albums, and everything else you would expect to find.  Everything got indiscriminatingly thrown into garbage bags and hauled out to the kerb, where it got piled up like an improvised barricade.  Occasionally we did find things that looked like they might have been salvageable: an unopened package of diapers, somebody’s glasses still in their case.  But as far as I could tell none of it got saved; the focus was on getting rid of as much stuff as possible quickly.

I only worked for a couple of hours.  I didn’t arrive until around noon, and the volunteer services have fairly strict rules about volunteers finishing up by about 3:00.  There were a lot of us, though, so we did actually manage to get most of the rubbish cleared away.  Now that I know how to get to the volunteer centre, I guess I should go back there more.

The weather has turned a bit more spring-like, which has done a lot to make me feel more cheerful.  Things still look pretty grey over-all, but the flowers are starting to bloom, and the colour is beginning to come back to the hills around my apartment.  The cherry blossoms around here haven’t been as ubiquitous or impressive as they were in Vancouver, but I did try to get out and enjoy them a little, including going to a park for a “hanami” (flower-viewing) picnic.

I didn’t get a holiday for Easter, but I did have a pretty good Easter Sunday nonetheless.  The nice weather helped.  Even better, it was one of the first days in a long time that I managed to get through without feeling a single aftershock, a sign that the seismic situation is finally improving!  After church I went out to tea with the Australian ALT and then we took a walk down by the river and looked at the cherry blossoms.

My Easter was also brightened by the receiving of several care packages.  In the weeks immediately after the earthquake my mom bought a lot of food and mailed it to me, in case the food situation here failed to improve.  Of course, logically, if Sendai was functional enough to receive post it should have been functional enough to keep its grocery stores stocked, but I appreciated the sentiment, anyway.  Some of the things I was genuinely glad of, like the powdered milk.  I already had some, and the grocery stores are stocking milk again anyway, but radiation tainted milk is one of the bigger health concerns right now, and as long as I have powdered stuff it seems safer to drink that.  She also sent thyroid pills to protect against radioactive iodine.  Again, I’m not overly worried about radiation poisoning, but as long as I have the pills I’ll stay on the safe side and take them.

The best thing about the packages was the chocolate!  I got some from my mom, of course, but in a much nicer surprise I also got two boxes of chocolates from my aunt in England!  I shared one with my church and kept the other to eat myself.  It’s nice to know so many people care.

In the news this month, Prince William of England has gotten married.  Perhaps it’s because of recent events here, but I find it hard to get excited.  I mean, I guess he and his wife will be king and queen in about forty years or so, but in the mean time I can’t say I care much.

Books I’ve read this month:

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham – A young lawyer leaves a promising career at a big firm to begin working with street people.  I liked the parts of the book that dealt with the character’s new job.  I would have preferred it if there had been more of that and less of the main plot.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I thought it would be good to read this book again, since I hadn’t actually done so since high school.  It was nice to refresh my memory of it and recall the (very few) ways in which it differs from other incarnations of the story.

* “Land of 1000 Aftershocks”: That’s not an exaggeration, by the way.  According to the Japan Quake Map, Japan actually experienced a thousand aftershocks between March 11 and mid-April, 2011.  That’s roughly thirty a day, or one every forty-eight minutes.  In fairness, most of those aftershocks were pretty small.  As a general rule, an earthquake has to be at least 5.0 or centred really close to you to be noticeable.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Osaka - March-April 2011

My Japanese neighbours helped me plan my travel route from Sendai to Osaka. The airport had been shut down after the tsunami, so flying from Sendai was out of the question. The standard land route would have been to go south along the east coast of Honshu by bus and train. But that would have taken me through Fukushima and Tokyo, two places I felt better avoiding. Instead, we worked out the following route: a bus west from Sendai to Yamagata; another bus from Yamagata to Niigata, on the west coast; and then a train down the western side of Japan to Osaka. It would have been cheaper to fly from Yamagata straight to Osaka, but I preferred to save money, and was in no particular hurry.

Although I had this broad plan set in my head, I hadn’t worked out any of the details. I had reserved my hostel room for Monday night, but I hadn’t reserved any transportation or layovers along the way. I wasn’t even sure how long the trip would take; I gave myself two days to get there, and hoped that I’d be able to find hotels along the way.

On Saturday I took a bus to downtown Sendai and got the coach to Yamagata. It was only a one-hour journey, and I got there in the early afternoon. I’d intended to press on, but when I got there I was told that I couldn’t get a bus to Niigata until 8:00 the following morning. I bought a ticket, then went searching for somewhere I could spend the night. Fortunately there was a hotel right across from the bus station advertising cheap rooms, so I went in, asked about vacancies, and reserved a room for the night. So that was easy.

In fact, now might be as good a time as any to say that the whole trip went a lot better than I had hoped for. Considering I had no knowledge of that part of the country, and almost no language skills, I found it surprisingly easy to get around. Everywhere I went I muddled through as best I could with my limited Japanese. When people spoke a little English they would use as much as they could to communicate, but when they didn’t, they were usually patient with me until I could make myself understood.

I spent the afternoon walking around downtown Yamagata City, which was pleasant enough, but not very exciting. The next morning I got up early and got my bus to Niigata, then a train to Toyama. I got to Toyama in the middle of the afternoon. I could have pressed on all the way to Osaka, but as it was still Sunday, and my room was reserved for Monday, I thought I’d be better off spending the night. I went to the information centre at the station and they pointed me towards a reasonable hotel within walking distance. The hotel was supposed to cost around $45 per night, but when I was registering I filled in my address as Sendai. In response to that (or, at least, I think it was in response to that) the clerk pointed to a sign that I couldn’t read, said something about “jishin” (earthquake), and told me my room would only be $30. Although I can’t be sure, it seemed that the hotel had implemented a reduced rate for people from the earthquake-affected area, which I thought was really nice.

It might have been nice to explore Toyama, but by the time I got checked in it was getting dark and had also started to rain. So I went out to dinner, walked around the block a couple of times, and then turned in.

It had been about four hours from Niigata to Toyama, and was roughly another four to get from Toyama to Osaka. As soon as I got there, I could see the difference being in a big city made. Signs everywhere were not only in English, but also in Korean and Chinese. I approached the information centre expecting one again to have to ask for what I wanted in Japanese, but they answered me in tolerable English and gave me an English map of the city. I took the subway down to the south end of the city, found my hostel, and checked in. It was only early afternoon, so I went for a walk to see what was in the area. I was quite close to Shitennoji Temple, an (apparently) famous temple in the southern part of the city, so I walked around there for a while. Then I went to a stall and bought some takoyaki (fried octopus balls), an Osaka specialty, for dinner.

I didn’t have any particular plans for my stay in Osaka. I figured if I needed to I could get a flight out of the city, but I preferred to stay in Japan and save my money. I tried to get in contact with the other ALTs who had come to the city, but they didn’t get back to me, so I spent the entire week exploring on my own. Every day I went through my guide book, chose a different set of tourist attractions to aim for, and then tried to hit as many as I could.

On Tuesday I visited Osaka Castle Park. Osaka Castle is quite pretty, and the museum inside is relatively interesting. The park looked like it would have been nice at a better time of year, but at the end of March the trees were only just starting to blossom, and things still looked dull and grey. I also went to the Peace Center while I was there, a museum that deals with the effects of World War II on Osaka, and with international conflict in general.

I tried to visit some other museums, but they were all closed. In the end I wound up at Shin-Umeda City’s Floating Garden Observatory, which was not at all worth seeing. You pay $7.00 for a great view of the city, but the city is nothing to look at, and there was too much smog to see very far anyway. When I was done on the top floor, I went down to the food court in the basement. The food court is actually pretty interesting. It’s designed to look like an old-fashioned Japanese street where you can choose from various public houses to eat in. I went to an Okonomiyaki place, since that is the specialty of Osaka. I was able to choose my own ingredients, so I got to have a vegetarian meal.

On Wednesday I went to the Osaka Aquarium, or “Kaiyukan”. Like all aquaria, it was swarming with elementary-school aged children, but apart from that it was relatively enjoyable, and almost worth the $20 admission. This one had capybaras, a whale shark, and a finless porpoise (a kind of dolphin with no dorsal fin). My favourite was the manta ray. At least, I think it was a manta ray. Whatever it was, it was breathtaking!

After the aquarium I went to the Maritime Museum for a lesson on shipping and Japanese history. The museum building itself is actually kind of interesting. It’s a geodesic dome sitting in Osaka bay. The entrance is on the mainland, and you reach the museum by going downstairs and walking down an under-water tunnel to get to the main building. Inside is a collection of boats, models, and diagrams on the subject of Japanese seafaring. There’s even a life-size ship you can go and walk around. I thought it was pretty cool.

On Thursday I went back to the museums I couldn’t get into on Tuesday. The Museum of History was pretty cool, with lots of interesting displays, dioramas, and even a reconstruction of an early twentieth-century street. It was rather discouragingly lacking in English signage, though. After that I went to the Museum of Housing and Living, which was awesome. It contains a reproduction of an Edo-era neighbourhood, where you can investigate different shops and dwellings, and even try on a kimono. My final stop of the day was at the Human Rights Museum, where I was able to amuse myself for half an hour or so learning about Japan’s attempts to integrate minorities into its society. There were no English signs there, but the people working there were almost painfully eager to help and explain things to me.

On Friday I took my one excursion out of the city, to Himeji Castle. This castle looks quite beautiful in the pictures. Unfortunately, they are doing renovations on the main keep until 2015, so the whole building was shrouded in a great tent. We were still allowed to see the inside though, and as it was my first time seeing the genuine insides of a Japanese castle, I quite enjoyed it. We were also free to walk around the other buildings in the complex. At only $4.00 admission, it was a very worth-while visit – though I suppose I should factor in $30.00 for the return train ticket as well.

On Saturday I visited the last two museums on my sight-seeing list: the Art Museum and the Science Museum. The Art Museum barely held my attention for half an hour, but the Science Museum was – well, come on, are science museums ever not interesting?! Admittedly it would have been more so if I could read more of the signs inside, but fortunately science is fairly universal, so I was able to understand most of it fairly easily.

Having exhausted my list of potential tourist destinations, I spent Sunday taking it easy and enjoying the lack of aftershocks. As I hadn’t heard any word about Sendai being less safe than when I left it, I prepared to head home.

My return trip was a bit better planned than my trip there. On my way from Toyama to Osaka, I’d passed through Kanazawa, one of the cities I’d bookmarked in my travel guide months ago. As it was on my way home, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to visit, so I got an early train there, then started looking around for a place I could spend the night. Once again, I found the people at the information counter very helpful. They suggested a cheap guest house just down the street, so I went there and checked in.

As it was still late morning, I left my bag at the guest house and went out to explore the city. Kanazawa was lovely! The weather was great, for a start: a clear, sunny day. There was also a distinct absence of the smog that had hung over Osaka. As I walked down the street towards the sight-seeing district, I was struck by how many old-fashioned buildings there were. They gave the city a sense of character I hadn’t found in either Sendai or Osaka. Apparently the reason is that Kanazawa was spared most of the bombings that razed the other big cities during the war.

I spent the first part of the afternoon wandering around Kanazawa Castle Park. The castle itself was only mildly interesting, given that I’d already been inside a couple of castles recently, but I wasn’t too concerned about doing anything exciting. Having been on power-tourist mode for the last week, it was nice just to be able to walk around enjoying the sunshine and clean air. When I was done there I went across the street to Kenrokuen Garden, and then to Oyama Jinja Shrine.

For dinner I went to the Omi-cho Market area. Someone at the guest house had recommended sushi, so I went to a sushi place. Then I popped into a foreign food store, intending only to have a look around, but ending up loading up on stuff: powdered milk, cornmeal, vegetable stock, cookies. I wasn’t sure if the trains would be running again by the time I got back to Sendai, meaning that getting down town to the foreign food stores might be difficult, so I figured I should stock up.

I took a long, sunset walk along the canal that finally took me back to the guest house, where I stayed the rest of the evening. The guest house was an old wooden kimono shop that had been renovated quite comfortably. The place reeked of atmosphere, rather like the city itself, and the owner, who spoke relatively good English, was friendly. I spent a long time talking to him about this and that. It was nice to have someone to talk to for a change, although it wasn’t until afterwards that it occurred to me that it was my first conversation with anyone in a week and a half.

My stay in Kanazawa was the best part of my trip, and over much too soon. I left early on Tuesday morning and took the train back to Niigata. If I’d wanted to retrace my steps exactly, I would have gone from there to Yamagata and thence back to Sendai, but once I got there I realised I could much more easily get a coach directly home. The trip was just over four hours, and got me back to Sendai Station in the early evening. And I had a nice surprise waiting for me: the trains were running again!

Things definitely look better in Sendai. The restaurants in my neighbourhood are open again, and the grocery stores are running more or less normally. After I arrived back, I unpacked my bag and put it away, and prepared to return to something like a normal routine. But we had at least one big aftershock still to come.

On Thursday night, the last night of my holiday, I was lying in bed at 11:30, just drifting off into dreamland, when my apartment started rattling, and then rocking. It was the worst earthquake I’d experienced in almost four weeks, and while it didn’t last as long as the Big One, it felt every bit as strong. I didn’t move: of all the options available at that moment, I honestly thought the best one was to stay put, so I did. When the earthquake was over, I found that I’d lost electricity again, and also that my apartment was once again in a mess.

As soon as it was over I jumped out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and assessed the situation. I tried using my phone, but it didn’t seem to be working. With no power I had no internet access, and no way of getting information on the quake. I prepared for the worst. I refilled my bathtub with water. I pulled out my knapsack again, and started re-packing.

That was the worst. Seriously. Of all the seismic events I’d had to endure in my stay in Japan, that one was the most traumatising. When the Big One struck, I hadn’t really known what was going on, and only came to understand over time the scale of the damage caused. But now, with the benefit of experience to feed it, my imagination immediately started conjuring up worst-case scenarios. In the middle of packing, I suddenly stopped and thought:

“I bet there’s been another tsunami. More people are probably dead.”

I told myself not to think about it, and went on with my work.

Evidently the phone network wasn’t that badly damaged, because I eventually got through to one of the other ALTs. She was the one who had gone home to Singapore, and she had only returned that day to the city. “Welcome home,” I thought. We both agreed that this recent shake had done nothing to improve our morale, or make us feel better about being in Sendai. At least we were able to console each other a bit.

I went to bed around 2:00 and was up three hours later to finish my packing. If the situation was as bad as I feared, then I was going back to school and I was jolly well going to stay there! I packed everything I thought I might possibly want, and lugged my bag up to the bus stop with me. If the bus came, I supposed it would be a sign that things really weren’t that bad, but I cared more about being safe than anything.

The bus did come, and when I got to the school I found that it still had electricity and that everything was running normally. Apparently some places had lost electricity, but there hadn’t been much serious damage. There had been no second tsunami, and only a couple of people had died. It was business as usual. I felt a bit silly showing up there with a 70 L bag on my back. But not that silly.

I spent a perfectly miserable day sitting at my desk, reading the news, and otherwise killing time. I was bored and sleep-deprived and fed up to my teeth with seismic events. At no point in the last month had I more ardently wished to be home. Not to go home; the idea of going home filled me with dread. Bus to Tokyo, wait in a foreign airport, thirteen-hour flight, transfer in Toronto, another hour to Ottawa, and then customs? And then to do it all again when I wanted to come back? It would have been excruciating! But if there was a way I could have been home, instantaneously, hugged my friends, enjoyed some home-cooking, and gone to bed knowing there would be no aftershocks to interrupt my sleep, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.

As it was, I toughed it out and went home early. When I got there I found that my apartment had electricity again, so things were back to normal there too. I didn’t unpack my bag though, or drain my bathtub, and I left my shoes by my bed that night. We may have seen the last of the big earthquakes, but just in case we haven’t I’m going to stay prepared. I sure hope we have seen the last of them, though; I don’t know how many more I can handle.

Books I've read this week:

Shiokari Pass by Miura Ayako – English translation of a Japanese novel. It was odd, for a change, to see Christians portrayed as the despised minority, but then Christianity has had a much different history in Japan than in North America. This book felt like it was really two stories put together. I liked the first part, but I found it difficult to reconcile the awkward young man we’re originally introduced to with the deeply spiritual character he turns into in the later chapters.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Big One - March 2011

Is it just me, or does the news this year suck more than usual?  In just the first two months alone we’ve had flooding in Australia, a shooting in the United States, and an earthquake in New Zealand.  Plus riots are breaking out all over the middle east and things don’t seem to be getting any better in Haiti.  I know the news is rarely good, but somehow the number of bad stories this year seems disproportionately high.  Maybe it’s just that, for a change, I actually know people in many of the affected areas.

And so we come to March.

Near the beginning of the month one of my Japanese neighbours took me to the nearby town of Akiu for Hina Matsuri.  “Hina Matsuri” means “doll festival”, and I’m still not clear on exactly how it works, but evidently it involves a lot of dolls, usually dressed up in formal wedding clothes.  Most of the dolls we saw came in pairs, a boy and a girl, and they were all in different shapes and media: glass dolls, clay dolls, embroidered dolls, egg dolls, rabbit dolls, and rice-ball-shaped candle dolls.  After taking in these attractions we went to an onsen (hot spring) which is what Akiu is famous for.

I debated for some time what to give up for Lent this year.  There was no way I was repeating last year’s experiment of fasting during daylight, and it would be difficult to give up meat or any of my traditional items while still eating school lunch.  Indeed, there hardly seemed to be anything I could give up that would allow me to continue eating school lunch.  Which led, almost inevitably, to my eventual resolution: give up school lunch!  And every other lunch too, of course.  The difficult part was explaining the decision to my school without causing offence.  After running the idea by my supervisors, I printed off the Japanese version of the Wikipedia article on Lent, highlighted the relevant passages, and showed it to one of my junior English teachers.  She explained the situation to my head teacher (who is really nice, but whom it is a pain to try an explain anything in English to), who in turn explained to my vice principal and my tea lady.  None of them had ever heard of Lent before, but once they understood what I was asking for, they were quite accepting.  So from the beginning of March I stopped eating lunch.  In retrospect, it proved to be a remarkably good choice.

During the first part of the month I volunteered some time to help promote Sendai’s St. Baldrick’s Day event.  St. Baldrick’s Day is an international event to raise money for childhood cancer research.  Many people shave their heads bald, and it takes place the day after St. Patrick’s Day, hence the name.  Many of the Sendai ALTs are usually involved, and I agreed to help out too.  I’d already helped a little by participating in the December carolling group.  In March I started doing volunteer shifts handing out fliers in the Ichi-ban Chou.  It wasn’t much fun, standing around for long periods in the cold, holding out fliers and saying “onegaishimasu”* to people, only about ten percent of whom actually took them.  I was looking forward to the event, though.

Of course, since it was scheduled for March 18, the event never happened.

On Friday, March 11, at 2:46 p.m. I was sitting at my desk finishing up an especially dull day.  The school year was winding down and the students into exam preparation, so I’d had very little to do all week, and each day of boredom had been progressively more excruciating.  At 10:30 a.m. I was so restless I actually went and asked my tea lady if I could help her, and she put me to work cleaning the glass in the principal’s office.  That occupied me for an hour at most, and then I was back to being bored.  Around noon I made the shocking discovery that there is no such phoneme in the English language as “rh”, and there never has been.  (It might not seem like much, but what a thing to spend twenty-eight years of your life not knowing!)  And if that had been the most traumatic event of my day, the world would be a much happier place.  I actually thought of posting something on Facebook about it when I got home.  But as it turned out, I never went home that night.

So, as I say, I was sitting at my desk, just thinking that in less than an hour I could leave, when the school started shaking.  Now, there’s nothing very unusual about that.  Japan does sit at the convergence of three tectonic plates, and earthquakes are a common occurrence.  Since arriving here I’d experienced dozens of tremors, but all of them had been small, and none had caused any damage.  Just that Wednesday we’d had one slightly bigger than usual, but it still meant nothing more than some rattling windows and cups.  I mentioned the earthquake bus we got to ride in during our Sendai orientation back in August, but we hadn’t experienced anything remotely like the shaking we got there.  Still, we’d been warned that Sendai was overdue for a large earthquake, and that the Big One might happen any day.  So we all knew it was just a matter of time.

It started out like any other tremor: a little trembling, a little rattling.  But instead of settling down after a few seconds, it got stronger, and the room started to shake violently!  Here at last was something along the lines of what we’d experienced in August.  This was no minor tremor; this was an earthquake.  My vice principal ran to the communications panel with a worried look on her face.  I couldn’t understand what she was saying, and there were few other teachers in the staff room, so I didn’t have much of a lead to follow.  I’d never been told exactly what to do if caught by an earthquake at school, but I understood that the recommended course of action was to hide under something, so I got down on the floor and wedged myself as best I could under my desk.

Once under there, I felt pretty safe.  Short of the roof caving in, it was hard to see how anything could hurt me under there.  Outside my tiny hideout I could hear rattling and then smashing noises as cups slid off tables and out of cabinets and broke.  Papers and books slid off desks and carpeted the floor.  From where I was I could see my V.P. still standing at the com’ unit.  “Nagai, desu ne!” she kept saying.  “It’s lasting so long!”  And it was.  I always thought earthquakes were only supposed to last a few seconds, but this one went on for minutes!  It felt like I was under my desk for at least a good two minutes, all the time wondering how much longer it could possibly last, and whether the school was built to withstand this kind of shaking.

Finally the shaking died down.  My V.P. beckoned me out from under the desk and indicated that we had to get out of the school.  I made a perfunctory attempt to clean up some of the papers around my desk, but she yelled at me, “Ato de!”  “Later!”  So I grabbed my keys, retrieved my coat from my locker, and ran out onto the muddy field, still wearing my indoor shoes.

All the students and teachers filed out of the school and assembled in the field.  The students got into their class groups and waited, standing or squatting in the mud, most of them without coats despite the chilly March weather.  Teachers were trying their cell phones and finding many useless; the networks seemed to be down, although some people could still access the internet.  One of the English teachers had internet, and I asked her what she had heard.  It seemed that this wasn’t just a local earthquake, but had been felt over a wide area.  I asked her where it was centred, and she said that we were quite close to the epicentre.  Well that’s good, I thought.  At least if it was strongest here, it can’t have been much worse anywhere else.  But she told me that the quake had spawned a tsunami, which had hit the eastern coast of Japan.  And then I asked the obvious question, the one we ask when we want to distinguish the minor occurrences from the major disasters.

“Is anyone dead?”

“Um, yeah.” she said.  “Yeah, I think maybe a lot of people are dead.”


I was surprised by how shaken I felt.  The earthquake itself hadn’t felt so bad, but the growing uncertainty was beginning to make me nervous.  Moreover, the shaking had not completely stopped.  We kept feeling aftershocks of the original earthquake.  Every time it seemed that things had calmed down and we could go back inside, another one would set the ground trembling and the windows rattling again.  My tea lady came up to me and asked me whether I kept shoes by my bed at home.  I gave her a funny look and told her, no, I didn’t keep shoes in my bedroom.  She made a gesture of entreaty, and I suddenly got it: if there was another big earthquake during the night, I would want to have my shoes at hand.

After about an hour, we finally went back inside.  We’d lost electricity.  I got my purse, which I’d stupidly left behind, and tried to use my cell phone, but I couldn’t reach anyone.  The English teacher with the smart phone offered to let me use it to check my e-mail.  I debated whether to send a letter home or not.  I didn’t know if the quake had been big enough to make the international news, and if it wasn’t, I didn’t want to worry my mom unnecessarily.  But if it did make the news, I didn’t want her to think something had happened to me.  So I sent her a short message letting her know I was alright.  In the days that followed I was extremely glad I’d done that.

The students were sent home.  The teachers held a meeting.  The school was a designated refuge area, which meant that people who felt unsafe in their houses would be coming there.  Therefore some of the teachers would have to stay to help out.  About a third stayed; the rest started to leave.  My head teacher asked me what I wanted to do.  In the first couple of hours after the quake, I had thought there was nothing I wanted so much as to get home to my apartment.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised what a bad plan that would be.  The blackout had affected most of the city, meaning that my place had almost certainly lost power.  I wouldn’t have light or heat; I might not even have gas or running water.  And it was still winter.  The thought of being alone in my dark, freezing apartment filled me with dread.  And what would happen after that?  With no phone service or internet I wouldn’t be able to contact anyone, and with no buses or trains it would be difficult to get anywhere.  Here at least I would be with people, people I knew.  I’d have access to food and heat and information.  And if anyone was looking for me, this was the logical place for them to do it.  So I told my head teacher I was staying.

I have to hand it to Japan: the response to the emergency was wonderfully efficient.  Not long after it got dark, a truck arrived with supplies: blankets, portable toilets, bottles of water, packets of crackers, and “Alpha Mai”.  Alpha Mai is a kind of instant rice (just add hot water and leave to sit for an hour) with wakame (a kind of seaweed), which became the staple of my diet for the next week.   Kerosene heaters were brought out for warmth, flashlights for light, and battery-powered radios for information.  When families started to arrive, we made a place for them in the budōkan, the gym the students use to practise kendo.  We cooked the Alpha Mai and portioned it out to the refugees along with improvised miso soup.  Then we sat in the staff room, huddled around the heater, trying to keep warm.  We talked, or rather they talked, and I listened to people conversing in a language I didn’t understand.  Eventually, I went to sleep at my desk, stretched uncomfortably across three swivel chairs, and shivering despite my puffy coat and blankets.  The aftershocks continued through the night.

In the morning someone arrived with a newspaper.  For the first time we were able to see images from the coast, images of houses and cars being swept away by the ocean.  The quake had measured 8.9 on the Richter scale (later upgraded to 9.0).  It had been the fifth largest earthquake in the last century.  The tsunami had also hit a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, and there were worries about an explosion.  Using the school phone I called one of my supervisors to let her know my status.  She thanked me, and gave me the names of the other ALTs who had reported in.  It was good to know which people were safe, but the list was far from complete.  Later that day the phone lost batteries.  So did my cell phone.

I did what I could to amuse myself during the day.  I helped out as much as I could with cleaning and distributing supplies, but there wasn’t a lot of work to do, and always a glut of helping hands whenever something did need doing.  It didn’t help that I didn’t speak the language, and that there was only one English teacher on hand who could translate for me.  I offered to help a lot, and followed the crowd every time there was a burst of activity, desperately trying to act like a member of the staff, and not like a glorified refugee, which was how I felt.  In the quieter moments, I took advantage of the daylight to write some long-hand letters home.  Not that I expected to be able to mail them any time soon, but at least they allowed me to feel like I was keeping in touch.

I had assumed that the aftershocks would die down after a while, but they didn’t so much cease as become chronic.  Throughout the weekend few hours went by without us feeling at least one, and often more.  Some of them were big enough to be frightening, especially when they woke me up in the middle of the night.  But none of them were truly serious or caused any more damage.  I quickly grew very good at detecting even small ones, although in my paranoia I may actually have been imagining them.  Several times I thought I felt the beginning of a tremor; then my pulse would quicken and I would sit very still, wondering if the vibrations I was feeling were truly the earth moving, or merely the pounding of my own heart.  For the first few hours, I was terrified at the idea of another big earthquake hitting us, but by Saturday afternoon my attitude towards the aftershocks had mostly turned into annoyance.  “Just shut up, already!” I would think, rolling my eyes and wondering how much more of this we would have to endure.

If you want to know what earthquakes are like, it depends on the magnitude involved.  The mildest ones give you the kind of shaking you would expect from a train or large truck going past.  I learned to ignore those really quickly.  If you’re indoors, you primarily notice the rattling, but outside there are fewer cues, and what you mostly notice is the sensation of rising and falling, as though one were on the back of a giant turtle that had decided to go for a walk.  If you ignore the danger, those ones can be almost fun.  The very worst ones feel as though someone had actually grabbed the building and started shaking it like a box of dice.  At that point all you can do is to find a safe corner and pray that the roof holds.

There were many moments when I felt I was on the verge of tears.  I didn’t panic when the earthquake first happened, because I didn’t understand what was going on.  As time went on and the uncertainty mounted, so did the stress.  I could feel it building up inside, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before it broke forth in a flood of weeping.  But it never did.  Maybe in the end it wasn’t all that bad.  Or maybe I just never had the opportunity.  If anyone had offered me a hug during the whole time I was at the school, I could easily have collapsed sobbing against their shoulder.  But whether it was my own personal relationship with my co-workers, or a product of the famous Japanese reserve, no one ever did.  In fairness, I didn’t see them hugging each other either, so I don’t think it was anything personal against me.  But it’s hard to collapse against someone’s shoulder when there’s no shoulder to collapse against.

I spent Saturday night much like Friday, except that this time I slept a bit more comfortably on the budōkan floor.  I awoke the next morning to discover that we’d lost water.  Fortunately the school had a cistern, so we would still be able to drink, but it was not an encouraging development.  My mind started flashing to the post-apocalyptic novels I’d read recently and wondering how long it would be until we all started eating each other.

That day a co-worker offered me a ride to my apartment.  I’d resisted going home up to that point because I didn’t want to be stranded there on my own, but she promised me a ride back in the evening, so I accepted.  My flat looked like… well, it looked like it had been hit by an earthquake!  I don’t know what I was expecting.  To put it in slightly more accessible terms, it looked like the Tasmanian Devil had been through.  My desk, fridge, and table had moved from their usual positions; food had fallen off the shelves; dishes had fallen off the counter; papers that I’d carelessly left lying around were all over the floor; and my T.V. was sitting flat on its face.  For all the mess, though, things were actually not that bad.  I didn’t have electricity, but I did have gas and running water.  Very few things had actually broken.  I had lost a bowl, and soy sauce had spilled onto the floor, but most of my dishes were still intact, and the television screen had not been damaged in its fall.

I had eight hours, and I made the most of them.  I started by cleaning – no! packing – no! scavenging, and by jumping repeatedly between several different tasks managed to turn the visit into a respectable salvage operation.  I reached into my closet and pulled out my 70 L back-pack – if I hadn’t bought it for just such a situation, I don’t know what I’d bought it for!  I filled it with everything I thought I could use: my pillow, blankets, candles, flashlights, toiletries, and feminine hygiene products (you really don’t want to be caught without those!).  I boiled enough water to give myself a sponge bath and wash my hair, a luxury I knew I might not be able to enjoy again for several days, and changed into some cleaner, more practical clothes.

I went to the local grocery store and stood in line for an hour.  The queue was long, but organised; everyone seemed to be making the best of a bad situation.  The store had brought their goods outside and was rationing them out; everyone was allowed to buy only one or two of any given product.  Everything was priced with nice round numbers, generally below what they would normally have been.  The products available were mostly limited to dry staples: drinks, instant noodles, tissues.  I bought a couple of bottles of water and some toilet paper.

Back home I gathered up all the extra food I thought I could reasonably carry: cookies, peanut butter, salted nuts, cornmeal, brown sugar, an unopened carton of milk.  Other teachers had been bringing food to the school to supplement our wakame rice and miso soup diet, and I thought I should do my part.  Knowing that the stuff in the fridge couldn’t keep forever, I even cooked up some macaroni and cheese and brought it back with me!

Sunday night was the worst.  We still didn’t have electricity, and we’d lost water.  The aftershocks were still going strong.  But it wasn’t my own situation that worried me.  On the contrary, given the opportunity, I would have reassured my friends and family that I was fine, that I was safe and well-fed, and convinced that things would only get better.  But I had no way to reassure my family or friends.  I was glad I’d at least sent that e-mail to my mom, but I couldn’t be sure she’d received it.  And even if she had, what sorts of images must she be seeing on the international news?  What scenes of devastation and death must people be associating with the place I lived?  “I’m okay,” I wanted to say.  “It’s fine, really.  Don’t worry about me!”  But I couldn’t.  Sunday night.  That meant Sunday morning in Canada.  My mom would be in church.  They’d be talking about me, and probably saying prayers for the country.  And here I was, miles away, sitting in the dark with people I couldn’t talk to.  I thought about how worried everyone must be, and I felt terrible.

Monday morning the situation had not changed.  Someone started running a petrol generator, and teachers were using it to charge their phones.  My charger had been one of the things I’d picked up at my apartment, so I plugged it in, hoping that the networks might be working again.  It occurred to me that my church wasn’t so very far away from the school; I could probably walk there in under an hour.  It would give me a chance to get news on people, and goodness knew I had nothing better to do with my time.  I ran the idea past my head teacher, and she told me that because of the situation with the reactor, there were warnings about black rain that day.  Forget that!, I thought.  Radioactive precipitation really didn’t feel like the thing to brighten my day.  Feeling restless and frustrated, I spent my morning sweeping out one of the school entrances, into which a huge amount of mud had been tracked.

Around noon, I was sitting at my desk starting work on another letter, when suddenly the lights went on and we started hearing the hum of idling machines.  We had electricity back!!!  We jumped up and down, laughing for joy.  Then I remembered my cell phone, which by that time was charged.  I turned it on, then stood looking at it for a moment, wondering whom I should call first.  My supervisor?  One of the other ALTs?  My church?  Or… hang on a minute…

I called home.

I don’t think I'd ever been happier to hear my mom’s voice, and I’m sure she was never happier to hear mine.  I reassured her that I was fine, and gave her a rundown of my situation.  I’d expected to start crying, but instead questions poured out of me.  She told me that she had indeed gotten my e-mail, as well as fourth-hand confirmation that I was alright, so at least she hadn’t worried too much.  She’d also been in touch with most of my friends and family, so they also knew I was okay.  We talked for over an hour.

When I finally hung up, I started calling everyone else I could think of.  One ALT I got in touch with told me that all the ALTs in the city had been confirmed safe, so that was a relief.  I also called my church and got confirmation that all the members I knew were also fine.  Once we got the internet working again, I sent e-mails to everyone I could think of who might be wondering about me.  I went on Facebook, and though a firewall prevented me from posting anything, I was at least able to check up on people I knew.  I’d never been a fan of Facebook before, but I have to admit it was a wonderful tool for getting and disseminating information during the crisis.  It turns out that no one I knew was seriously hurt by the disaster; even my acquaintance from Fukushima was alright, though she had been forced to evacuate.

I stayed at school for a total of six days, eating rice twice a day, supplemented with whatever food got donated to us, sleeping in the budōkan, and helping out whenever possible.  I checked up on the other ALTs as much as I could.  Many of them were feeling scared and uncertain, and most people had concerns about the situation at the reactor, which still wasn’t under control.  Our supervisors explained repeatedly that there was no danger, no chance of the reactor China-syndroming on us.  This was reassuring to an extent, but I couldn’t help feeling that our supervisors had a vested interest in encouraging us to stay.  Besides, their explanations all depended on the reactors behaving in a predictable fashion, but it was the unpredictable situation that scared me.  ALTs with more access to transportation started talking about evacuating.  Over the next week a lot of them would get out of the city and either go home or take refuge in other parts of Japan.  I didn’t really consider that an option, though.  On the one hand, my apartment and school are both way out in the north-west corner of the city, which had suffered much less damage than places nearer the coast.  On the other hand, getting around was quite difficult.  Petrol was in short supply, which meant the buses were only running on a very limited basis.  Damage to Sendai Station had stopped both the local and the bullet trains.  And the tsunami had taken out Sendai Airport, so there was no getting a flight out of the city.  In other words, I didn’t feel much need to leave, and even if I’d wanted to, doing so would have been complicated.  I felt it would be better to wait out the situation and make the best of it.  I did start considering my getaway options, though, just in case.  And on my dad’s suggestion I quickly registered with the Canadian Consulate, something I’d neglected to do theretofore.

I talked to some of the other teachers, and they agreed to unlock the library so we could get inside and have a look at it.  I’d expected a war zone, and was shocked to see everything in comparatively good condition.  A few books had fallen over or tumbled onto the floor, but most of them were still sitting neatly on their shelves.  It seemed impossible that they could have stayed that way through the big earthquake, but I couldn’t imagine who would have gone into the library and put all the books back exactly where they belonged in the past few days.  It was a mystery or a miracle, I guess.  We cleaned up what mess there was.  I liberated the Japanese translation of Book VI of The Lord of the Rings (oddly the only one of the six books the library had), and a colleague handed me a stack of Sazae-san comics which were in Japanese and English, so I had reading material.

A day or two after I talked to my mom, I got a call from a reporter in Ottawa who was doing a story on the disaster.  I answered his questions as best I could, though I didn’t really feel qualified to talk about the situation.  I was pretty isolated from what was going on, and reading the same information on the internet as everyone else.  Soon after, my mom sent me the link to the story he had written.  It was weird seeing myself in print; I’d never been the subject of a news story before, and I didn’t think I liked it.  Although I couldn’t find anything in it that was inaccurate per se, I felt there was a disconnect between the intent behind my words, and how they got interpreted in the text.  I kept thinking, “Did I say that?  Really?!”

As you may imagine, the situation got me interacting with my co-workers in new ways.  Even when you don’t speak the same language as someone, there’s a certain camaraderie that comes out of eating together, cleaning together, or standing around making rice balls together.  I stretched my limited Japanese skills as much as I could in order to communicate.  I wouldn’t say my Japanese got better while I was there, but I definitely got good speaking practice.  And I did add a couple of new expressions to my vocabulary.  One of these was “jishin”.  It means “earthquake”.  I picked that one up quickly.  The other was “Ki o tsukete,” which means “Take care.”  That became my standard parting salutation during the crisis.  Some of my co-workers also made an effort to talk to me.  I was surprised to discover that people I’d barely spoken to before the earthquake did in fact speak a little English, and were willing to use what they had to communicate.

On Thursday morning, another co-worker offered me a ride home for the weekend.  I called my neighbours, and ascertained that gas and water were still functioning in my area, and that electricity seemed to be back too.  Now that the phones were working again, I didn’t feel so isolated, and I wanted to begin putting my life back together, so I accepted.  I packed up all my things and left with the promise of a ride back the following week.

My flat did indeed have electricity back, and as I’d never lost water or gas, it was actually a pretty pleasant place to be.  At any rate, it was nice to sleep in my bed again.  As it was a long weekend, I stayed there for five days, cleaning up the mess and enjoying having internet without firewalls.  I re-packed my bag with everything I thought I might need in an emergency, filled my bathtub with water, and put my shoes and a flashlight next to my bed so I’d be ready for anything.  The trains were still down, so it was hard to get into downtown Sendai.  Fortunately I still had some food at home, and I was able to go shopping and buy a little more.  Most of the restaurants and convenience stores in my area were closed, but the grocery stores were still opening on a limited basis.  They no longer had long line-ups outside, but were allowing people inside to choose from the limited selection of items they were selling.  It was hard to tell whether their goods were being replenished or they were still rationing off what they’d had when the earthquake hit.  The tsunami having taken out the ports, a lot of shipments had probably been stopped, but they may have been getting stuff in by truck.  They had some produce, but perishables in general were short, and there was no milk.  It felt a bit like living through one of the World Wars – or at least as I imagine living through a World War must have been like.  There was the same sense of privation and of worry about a situation we knew could still get worse.  But there was also the sense of making the best of things, and learning to do without.  I spent the week living on white rice, miso soup, and cereal with water.  Yuck!

I spent some time with my neighbours, glad to be able to reconnect with people.  I went over for dinner one night at my ALT neighbour’s place, and another night at my Japanese neighbour’s.  She was super earthquake-prepared, and told me to go to her any time I felt unsafe or in need of company, an offer I really appreciated.  On Sunday I went to my church, which had also become a refuge area.  The American English teacher who worked there had been sent home, but most of the others I knew were there.  The Japanese seminary student had even brought her family from Fukushima to stay there.

I started getting calls from the Canadian Consulate about evacuation plans.  Few countries were doing organised evacuations in the days immediately following the earthquake, but as the week wore on, various embassies began to arrange buses and flights for their citizens, and eventually Canada jumped on the bandwagon.  As I’ve already said, I didn’t feel particularly unsafe, but at least now evacuating was an option for me, and one I had to seriously consider.  My mom urged me to get out of the city.  One of my closest ALT acquaintances took her embassy’s bus and went home to Singapore.  Some of the Canadians were sticking around, but others had fled to places like Osaka or Taiwan.  Although the danger seemed minimal, it did seem like it would be only prudent to avoid it as much as possible.  And although my cardboard box of an apartment had held up so far, I couldn’t help wondering at times how many little earthquakes it would take to do it the damage of one big one.

That weekend was the worst.  Every time I got a call about a bus, I politely told them I wouldn’t be on it, but I was constantly second-guessing myself.  On Friday I was told that the last bus would leave the following morning.  I again declined the offer, knowing intellectually that it might be my last chance, but not really wanting to believe it.  I debated with myself all the rest of the day about it.  I was angry with the Canadian Consulate for not making the situation clearer.  When I asked naïvely if this was an “official” evacuation order, they told me it was as “official” as it was going to get.  In other words, they couldn’t tell us whether to leave or not, only give us the option to do so.  Having that option was all very well, but it begged the question, was there any actual danger?  Were they sending buses because they thought we needed buses, or because the Americans had sent them first?  And what if the situation really did get bad?  What if radiation actually made its way from Fukushima all the way to Sendai?  Were they going to send more buses then?  Were they going to be there when I actually was in fear for my life, and wanted to escape?

On the one hand, the risk of staying seemed minimal.  I was nowhere near the ocean, so I wasn’t going to get hit by a tsunami, which was what had caused most of the damage in the first place.  We were unlikely to get hit by another big earthquake, and given how well my area had withstood the first one, I thought it would probably survive a second one too.  We were a hundred kilometres away from Fukushima, with no indication of increased radiation levels here.  And if things did get bad, there were always other options for getting out.

On the other hand, even if the risk was minimal, why take it at all?  Why make my family worry unnecessarily, or stick it out in a disaster area when I could be safe and sound at home?  This was a time for caution and prudence, not for stoicism or machismo.

In the end, the thing that tipped the balance was remembering why I’d come to Japan.  I came here because I wanted to break out of my routine, to broaden my experience, to challenge myself.  In short, I came to have an adventure.  And adventures aren’t always fun.  Tolkien described them as “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things”, and living through the aftermath of an earthquake had been nothing if not disturbing and uncomfortable.  I’m not saying one should seek out discomfort, and if I’d seriously believed that my life was in danger, then of course I would have left.  But given that I was relatively safe – as I believed I was – then it was stupid to run away as soon as life got interesting.  And anyway, one doesn’t go home in the middle of an adventure.

All the same, I began to think that it might be a nice time to plan a vacation.  Spring break was coming up.  I had intended to work through the holiday but natural disasters have a way of disrupting one’s plans.  Tokyo had been hit by the earthquake; instead, I settled on Osaka.  It would be an interesting vacation spot.  I knew some of the Canadian ALTs were there.  And if I had to, I could get a flight out of the country.  I used the internet to find a cheap hostel and book a room for a week.  One of the things I love about Japan is that few things require credit cards, so making the reservation was quite easy.

On Tuesday, the last week of the school year began.  The petrol situation was starting to get better, but there still weren’t buses to my school, so a co-worker gave me a ride to work.  I actually packed my back pack full of stuff, intending to stay at the school for the rest of the week, but she was able to give me a ride home in the evening and every other day of the week.  The school had water again, so things had kind of returned to normal.

On Wednesday we finally held the graduation ceremony that had originally been scheduled for March 12.  As I still had nothing to do, I spent an extremely dull rest of the week sitting at my desk reading the news.  Every so often there’d be another aftershock, often accompanied by someone’s phone alarm going off.  Or a phone alarm that would go off without the company of an aftershock.  Over the course of two weeks I grew to know and loathe those phone alarms.  I could never see the point of them.  If you’re in an earthquake, the last thing you need is an alarm to tell you you’re in an earthquake.  And if you’re not in an earthquake, then an electronic voice “fweep-fweep”-ing at you is just going to cause unnecessary stress, and we’d all had enough of that, thank you.

I requested nine days of paid leave, almost half my yearly allowance.  I informed everyone of my travel plans.  Then on Friday afternoon I said goodbye to those co-workers that were still hanging around, and went home to prepare for my trip.

In the news this month, Japan got hit by an earthquake.  Now, whom do I know in Japan …?

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Kick-Ass – Seriously messed-up movie about a whiny teenager who decides to become a superhero and a little girl whose father raises her to be a professional killer.  Nicholas Cage is delightfully hammy in places, but otherwise I thought this movie was a bad combination of annoyingly goofy and really disturbing.  (Two stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien – A few months ago I was feeling depressed and homesick, and decided it would be a good idea to read a book about a guy who goes on a journey, gets stabbed, stung, maimed, and soul-raped, comes back home traumatised to find that everything’s changed and no one appreciates him, and ends up saying goodbye to all his friends and travelling to a distant land beyond the Western ocean from which he will never return.  What was I thinking?

All the same, I’m glad I took this opportunity to re-read The Lord of the Rings.  I thought for sure it would take me the better part of half a year, but I’m actually quite pleased with myself: I read the whole thing, appendices and all, in just over six weeks.  Having not read it in ten years, I was due.  This was also my first time to read the book since the release of the movies, and having gotten the film-version of events fairly deeply ingrained in my head, I was glad finally to go back and re-discover the source material.

Book 1: I always liked the little side adventures in this book, and while it’s understandable that they were cut from the movies, it was nice to re-read them.  I realised I’d forgotten a lot about this book, including most of Chapter 3, and how creepy the Ring Wraiths are.  My favourite part is the scene on the Barrow-downs.  One complaint, though, is that all the characters seem flat.  I got to the end of the book and I still didn’t have a strong sense of who Frodo was or care much about him – not a situation one wants for a protagonist.

Book 2: There are some great sequences in this book that didn’t translate well onto film, including the Council of Elrond, the stay in Lothlórien, and the wonderfully creepy way in which Tolkien re-introduces Gollum.  There were even some moments I’d completely forgotten about, like the vision at Amon Hen.  Frodo gets some character development, so that by the end of the book I liked him a lot better.  And this may seem like a strange thing to say, but I’d forgotten how utterly loveable Sam is!

Book 3: This is without question my least favourite of the six books.  Although I question some of the choices made in the film version, I think it does a much better job of handling the characters and plot.  The one element that is much better in the book, though, is Treebeard and the Ents, who actually come off as wise and thoughtful, rather than just comical and stupid.

Book 4: At the end of Book 3 I was beginning to have my doubts about whether the novel was really better than the movies, but this book turned me around.  I’d forgotten how much Sam got to do, and how much depth and character development Tolkien gives him.  Re-reading some of his scenes I felt that the films missed out on some of the greatest moments of the story.  Sure, the fight with the giant spider works better on film, but “The Choices of Master Samwise” is a beautiful sequence, and I’m really sad it got cut.  Also, although Gollum of the movie is a remarkable creation, I quite like the literary version too.

Book 5: I liked this book better than Book 3, though, sadly, I will never be able to love book-Pippin the way I love movie-Pippin.  Most of the action sequences also, obviously, work better on film.  The one exception is Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch King, which is much better in the book, but that’s because the scene is mostly dialogue-driven.

Book 6: There are a lot more great scenes involving Sam that got cut out of the films and that I’d consequently forgotten about.  Does it seem like I’m harping on Sam?  Well, it’s because he’s always been my favourite character in the novel – and now I finally remember why!  I love the failings that Tolkien gives him, and the cheerful pessimism with which he and Frodo pursue the last leg of their quest.  I also quite enjoyed “The Scouring of the Shire”, and, of course, I wanted to cry at the end.

Standing the book and the movies side by side my feelings are mixed.  In some cases, I was actually surprised by the similarities, such as the number of famous lines from the films that were actually taken from the book.  And there were many instances where I liked the film version better.  As a broad generalisation, I’d say that the book has a better story, while the movie has better characters.  But there are some notable exceptions to that: the story of Theoden and his family is better developed in the movies, while some major characters come of better in the book, notably Treebeard and Sam.  A safer generalisation would be that the movies have better action sequences, while the book has better writing.  Tolkien writes a very good story, and takes great pains to set it up well and make it internally consistent.  I like the way he uses humour to engage his reader.  I also enjoyed the creepier moments of the story.  Most of all, I think the book contains some profound moments that never made it into the movies.  Coming back to them again after so many years it felt like I was discovering them for the first time, and they made me realise why the book will always be superior to the film version.

And I’ll always have a soft spot for Sam Gamgee now, because he kept me company after the earthquake.

* “onegaishimasu.”: Japanese for “please”.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Winter Wonderland - February 2011

Since arriving in Sendai, I’d been looking forward to the famed ALT Yuki Matsuri trip. Yuki Matsuri (literally “snow festival”) is an event kind of like Winterlude that is held every February in Sapporo. Every year a group of ALTs go to Sapporo together to see the festival, and this year I was part of that group. We had a holiday and also took a few vacation days for an extra-long weekend. On Wednesday evening we took the ferry from Sendai to Hokkaido. I wasn’t a fan of the trip, which saved us money but also made me boat sick. We landed on Thursday morning and were checked into our hostel by early afternoon.

The hostel was relatively nice for a cheap place. I shared a large tatami room with seven other people, where we slept on futons on the floor. The only downside was the showers; they didn’t have individual shower stalls, just one large public bath each for the men and the women. Excuse me if showering in front of total strangers isn’t my preferred way to start the day! I locked myself into the room on the second day so I could have it all to myself, but as that didn’t seem like a good long-term policy, I washed my hair in the sink and otherwise did without for the rest of my stay.

Before the trip, it had occurred to me that I’d probably want to take pictures, and to that end I went out and bought myself a new camera. Up to now I’ve been taking pictures with my video camera, which isn’t very good, but now I should be able to take proper, nice-looking ones. The camera I found is a bit bigger than I’d like, but it has really good zoom and resolution, plus all the manual features I like, so I think it was a good purchase.

It’s a good thing I got it, too, because Sapporo was gorgeous! We had great weather almost the whole time I was there. In Sendai I’d gotten to experience the wussy pathetic snow that falls, blankets everything for a day or two, and then melts again. In Sapporo I was reminded what a real winter is like. The streets were lined with four-foot snow banks – the neatest ones I’ve ever seen in my life! The weather hovered around the –10 °C mark, but it wasn’t the wet, miserable kind of cold that sinks into your bones and won’t let you stop shivering. It was the crisp, dry cold that makes you feel invigorated. We had bright, sunny days with clear blue skies, punctuated with just enough snowy patches to keep everything looking fresh and white.

It felt like home.

On our first night, we went for dinner at the Sapporo Beer Factory. Dinner was yaki-niku (“grilled meat”) tabehodai (“all you can eat”). We grilled lamb with vegetables on Hokkaido-shaped skillets. We were all warned before going that the stink of lamb would get into our clothes and stay there for a week, which is true, but it was worth it for the dinner. Besides, as I realised when I once again found myself taken aback at seeing people light up in a restaurant, the stink of lamb is nothing compared to the stink of cigarettes. I left early. During the meal it had started to snow, meaning that everything outside was looking particularly lovely. I laughed when I arrived at the restaurant to see a Christmas tree standing out front, but the effect it created with the new-fallen snow was truly magical. As I walked back to the hostel alone, I was overcome with the beauty around me, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from skipping down the street. Okay, I admit it: there were a couple of moments where I didn’t restrain myself!

I got up early the next morning and went to see the festival. It was a lovely clear day, and as we were relatively close to the festival site, I decided to walk. On my way there I stopped in at the former Hokkaido Government Office Building. Built in a western style and nicknamed “Red Brick”, this building has a garden outside and an exhibit inside, both free to the public. Eventually I made it down to Odori Park, where the festival was. Odori Park consists of a string of city blocks running east-west through downtown Sapporo. Think of a smaller version of the Mall in Washington D.C., and you’ll have the basic idea. The whole of this park was taken up with the festival.

First I met up with an ALT from Fukushima who had been part of the group that left Ottawa with me. We hadn’t seen each other since Tokyo orientation, and it was nice to reconnect. We spent the afternoon walking around the park. There were lots of snow sculptures, some of them really impressive. There was also ski-jumping, and of course the usual selection of fast food and souvenirs for sale. In the evening we went down to the Nakajima area to see the ice carvings. They were nice too, but not nearly as impressive as the snow sculptures. Although it pains me to say it, I had to admit that Yuki Matsuri is about five times cooler than Winterlude! The only things missing were Canal skating and beavertails, but everything else was awesome!

On Saturday I visited the Historical Village of Hokkaido. This is a large outdoor park where a selection of old buildings have been gathered together. Many of these are comparatively modern buildings in a western style, or combining western and Japanese elements. Hokkaido was only recently colonised by the Japanese, and when it was, a lot of North American experts were brought in with building and farming techniques suited to its boreal climate. That’s part of the reason downtown Sapporo looks so much more North American than other Japanese cities. I spent several hours wandering around, gravitating towards the more traditional and rural buildings. Highlights for me were an old school house, a fishing house, and various family residences.

My ticket to the village also got me admission to the neighbouring Historical Museum of Hokkaido, so when I was done I spent an hour or so there, learning about Hokkaido history. In the evening I went back to Odori Park to see the snow sculptures by night. Many of them looked even better than they had by daylight, and I took lots of pictures of sculptures I’d photographed the day before. For dinner I ate festival food, including a crab and some of Hokkaido’s famous potatoes (which weren’t as good as Yukon gold, unfortunately).

Having accomplished my main sight-seeing goals, I filled up my Sunday with sights of secondary interest. First I went to Shiroi Koibito Park. Shiroi Koibito (literally, “white lovers”) is a white chocolate cookie for which Sapporo is famous, and the park contains a factory-cum-museum where they are made. The place is wonderfully kitschy, from its mock-Tudor façade, to the “passports” they hand out at the door, to the fountain in the entrance. The chocolate factory aspect is not in itself particularly interesting. Shiroi Koibito are basically second-rate cookies glued together with second-rate white chocolate, nothing to get excited about. But the museum was worth it for its collections of antique hot chocolate cups, gramophones, and even vintage toys! If you’re ever travelling in Sapporo with children, this would definitely be the place to take them!

After the chocolate factory, I paid short visit to the Chitosetsuru Sake Museum (really just a sake shop with a collection of cups and decanters) and the Sapporo Clock Tower. For dinner I went to a convenience store for yakitori, a Sapporo specialty my tea lady told me I had to try while I was there. “Yakitori” literally means “grilled bird”, and is usually chicken, but Sapporo yakitori is pork. It was pretty good.

On Monday morning I got up early again and went out for a last look at Sapporo. We didn’t leave the city till the afternoon, so I had a few hours to kill. Yet more fresh snow had fallen, and everything was looking particularly dazzling. First I walked around Hokkaido University, which was right next to our hostel. Then I went down to the Botanical Garden. I’d heard that it contained a museum to Hokkaido’s Ainu people, an indigenous group that lived there before colonisation, and I’d made it one of my top tourist destinations. Unfortunately, that part of the garden was closed, so the only part I ended up seeing was the greenhouse. For lunch I walked down to Sapporo’s famous Ramen Alley, a narrow side street lined with ramen shops, and then found a place selling sakura ice-cream and bought one. That’s ice-cream flavoured like cherry blossoms. It wasn’t bad, although I think I would have preferred cherry.

In the end I wound up at Nakajima park, in the south end of downtown. I’d passed by it many times before, but never had a chance to explore it. I spent my last hour tramping through the snow, marvelling at the beauty around me and enjoying the stillness. Then I rejoined my companions for the bus ride back to the ferry terminal. Having been sick on the trip over, I decided to go straight to bed and sleep right through the return journey. We arrived home on Tuesday morning.

Back at school, I held my second swing dancing class. More students came than to the first one, but they had to leave early. I’ve put up a new English board about colour. At my elementary school, there’s been a kind of sequel to my “Canadian cooking” venture. All the grade two students, the ones I ate lunch with, wrote me thank-you letters, which were then bound together into two booklets and presented to me. I thought it was a really sweet gesture, despite the fact that I can’t actually read any of them. On the bright side, as they’re all written by seven-year-olds, the language in them is actually pretty simple, and they may prove useful down the road when my Japanese improves and I want some reading practice.

In the news this month, there are uprisings in Egypt and Libya. Closer to home, an earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, toppling buildings and killing dozens of people. I don’t know anyone in Christchurch, but there are ALTs here from the city. Fortunately none of their relatives were hurt.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Have Books! - January 2011

Having been deprived of reading material for so long, I’ve been borrowing books and consuming them like a thirsty man who’s found water.  I got my library card at the downtown branch, which has a couple of bookcases of English books, but there’s also a smaller branch a forty-minute walk from my house, and I decided to see what their English collection was like.  It consists of only three shelves, which can basically be described as Children’s/Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller, and Japan and Japanese.  Though a small collection, it contains plenty to interest me.  The top shelf includes the complete Narnia series, the Alice books, Pooh, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.  It looks like my bookshelf back home!  I actually ran into one of my co-workers while I was there, and I think she was rather perplexed by how excited I got over that meagre selection, but it should keep me in reading material for at least the next year.

I didn’t do anything for New Year’s Eve, but one of my Japanese neighbours invited me over to her house on New Year’s Day.  We ate soba noodles, a New Year’s tradition that’s supposed to bring good luck.  I also went to her house for a New Year’s dinner the following day.

My first week back at school was short, and contained no classes.  I only worked for three days, during which I pulled down my Christmas English board and put up a new one, the subject of which is books.  Once regular classes resumed, I was able to enact an idea I’d had in the works for a while.  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been quite frustrated with the teaching style here, particularly the lack of authentic speaking and listening practice the students get.  Back in the fall, I came up with a zany scheme to combat this: start a swing dancing club!  It had occurred to me before coming here that I’d attended enough swing lessons that I could probably teach one.  And except for the party in December I hadn’t had any opportunity to dance since I got here.  But my biggest reason was that I wanted to do something with the students that was fun and in English.  The level of English wasn’t important, but I desperately wanted to put the students into some kind of immersion environment, a situation where they would have to listen to what I was saying and try to understand, without getting everything translated into Japanese.  And it had to be enjoyable, because I wanted the students to associate English with fun, unlike in most of their classes where it seems to be associated with frustration, boredom, and pain.

Those were my optimistic and noble goals at the outset.  I spent several of my idle hours creating a proposal, a lesson plan, promotional material, and all the teaching aids I thought I would need.  At the beginning of January I put up posters and went around the school handing out little cards and inviting the students to come.  I asked all the teachers to mention it in their homeroom classes.  Finally, the day of my first swing dancing class arrived.  It was a mitigated disaster.  No one came.  For the first forty-five minutes.  And then, quite unexpectedly, four students showed up!  We had a short, informal lesson, and when it was done they promised to come back next week with their friends.  A shaky start, to be sure, but I’m going to stay optimistic.  The students seemed to enjoy the class, and what’s more, I enjoyed it!

At the end of the month my elementary school held that Canadian food lunch I mentioned before.  I usually eat lunch at my junior high school, but I got invited to attend this lunch and eat with the grade twos.  They served everyone small amounts of pea soup and macaroni and cheese, along with some maple syrup, Japanese salad and the required bread and milk.  It was funny watching everyone trying to shovel pea soup into their mouths with chopsticks, and I was a little confused about how the maple syrup was meant to be eaten, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.  Many of them had nice things to say about both the pea soup and the macaroni.

In January we also had our annual mid-year conference for Sendai and Miyagi ALTs.  This two-day event consisted mostly of a series of workshops, and was mandatory for both ALTs and at least one teacher from each school.  I attended seminars on team teaching, extra-curricular English, phonics, pronunciation, and creative writing.  There was a lot of stuff I’d already heard, or didn’t think I’d be able to use, but I did come away with at least a few new ideas.

My social life has taken an interesting new turn.  I’ve already mentioned my school’s tea lady, and how friendly and helpful she’s been.  A wile back, she came to me and asked how I would feel about coming over for dinner sometimes and tutoring her nieces in English.  Her nieces are in elementary school, and frankly the idea of spending an hour trying to teach them petrified me.  But I agreed to give it a try, and for the last few weeks I’ve been spending every Saturday evening at her house.  So far it hasn’t been so bad.  Her nieces speak almost no English, and have fairly short attention spans, but as long as I don’t expect too much of them I can usually make the hour reasonably fun and instructive.  There are also a lot of benefits.  One is the home-cooked Japanese meal I get every time; the family seems keen on exposing me to a range of different dishes.  Better by far has been the speaking practice it’s afforded me.  Since the tea lady’s English is quite low, and the rest of her family’s almost non-existent, I’ve been forced to stretch my Japanese skills a lot with them.  Hopefully practising on them will help me consolidate the Japanese I learn and improve my fluency.  I may not be getting paid (paid work outside of my regular job would be a violation of my contract), but I think I’m being adequately compensated.

The end of January marked the end of my first six months in Japan, and also brought about a crucial decision: whether to leave at the end of July, or to renew my contract and stay another year.  Right from my arrival in Sendai, before I’d even done so much as a day’s work, I had people pressuring me to re-contract.  Having joined the JET Programme with the firm intention of spending only a year, I was initially resistant to stay longer, but since then various factors have acted to change my mind.  The biggest factor, to be honest, is money.  I came to Japan with a relatively high savings goal, and though the pay here is good, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to meet that goal by the end of the year.  At the same time, I’m feeling more and more strongly the desire to go back to school, and knowing how expensive that will be, I find myself increasingly concerned about money.  Staying an extra year may delay my other pursuits, but it will be worth it if it makes those pursuits easier.

Another factor is travel.  Hong Kong is only one city with a relatively small area, and nine months were plenty to get around and see it.  Japan is much bigger, and so far the only place I’ve visited is Nikko.  Getting to all the other cities I want to see will take time, not to mention more money.  Another year would also give me more time to improve my Japanese language skills, which so far are still pretty pathetic.  Given that even maintaining (let alone improving) my Japanese after I leave Japan is going to be difficult, I think it’s best I learn as much as I can while I have the opportunity.  Besides all that there’s the fact that I quite like it here.  My students and co-workers are nice; I’ve made connections with people in the community; and given how long it took me to get settled in, I’m not relishing the idea of having to pack up and move again within another few months.

The upshot is that I’ve decided to renew.  So far, I don’t anticipate staying for more than two years.  Although there would be lots of benefits to staying even longer, the rule in Sendai is that everyone has to change schools after two years, and I’m not too keen on moving.  I know I’m going to get homesick, especially since I have no plans to come to go back to Canada during that time, but hopefully the life, language, and travel experience I gain while I’m here will be worth it.

In the news, there was a shooting at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, in which a senator was shot and several bystanders killed or injured.  Meanwhile parts of Australia have been hit with major flooding, forcing people out of their homes.  Both of these stories hit me a bit harder than usual, because I happen to know people in the affected areas: my Japanese acquaintance is currently living in Tucson, and one of my church buddies from Hong Kong now lives in Brisbane.  Fortunately both of them are alright.  I don’t know if I should see it as serendipitous that disaster seems to be striking near people I know, or just as a reflection of how international my social circle has become.

Books I’ve read this month:

Eragon by Christopher Paolini – Surprisingly bad for an international best-seller.  The story is interesting enough, if highly derivative: think the plot of Star Wars set in Middle-earth.  But the writing style is so poor that I was never able to engage with the action or care about the characters.  Given that I probably couldn’t do any better, I honestly don’t know if I find that depressing or encouraging.

Botchan by Natsume Sōseki – My first Japanese novel, though read in English, of course.  I actually had a choice of two translations, and chose the one that seemed more modern and less awkward.  In consequence, I found it quite readable, but I have no idea if my impression of the writing style really reflects that of the original.  Botchan is supposed to be a Japanese classic.  I don’t see myself what is so wonderful about it, but perhaps that’s because I know nothing of the socio-historical context in which it was written.  From my perspective it’s a mildly entertaining story with a dim-witted but endearing protagonist who would have felt at home in a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Spreading the Christmas Spirit - December 2010

December was a fairly busy month, thanks to all the Christmas stuff going on.  Christmas isn’t nearly as big an event here as it is in the west, but people do still know about it, and of course the stores all try to capitalise off it.

I have a new English board this month that’s all about Christmas.  It has Christmas-related pictures (both religious and secular), images from famous Christmas movies and books, and even the lyrics to a few Christmas songs.  The teachers have all been really great about letting me run Christmas activities in class; all of them let me take an entire period for my Christmas lesson.  With the first-year students, I talked about Santa Claus, and had them all fill out a template letter to him.  I played the third-year students the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and had them do various listening activities with it.  The song is actually a good one for E.S.L.: it’s repetitive, makes good use of some common grammatical structures, and has a much easier vocabulary than a lot of traditional Christmas carols.  The second-years wrote Christmas cards to each other.  I printed out a bunch of card templates, and let the students colour or decorate them as they liked.  I also gave them a template of Christmas greetings they could write inside.  At the end of the class, I collected the cards.  I didn’t mark them, but if they contained any Japanese they got returned for correction.  On the last day of school I went in early and put the cards in the students’ foot-lockers (where they keep their shoes).  I don’t know if they were pleased to receive surprise Christmas cards, but I hope they were.

Outside of work, some of the other ALTs decided to put together a carolling group.  Despite my poor singing skills, I’ve always loved singing, and Christmas carols are fairly easy, so I decided to join.  We performed for several nights in the Ichi-ban Chou, the popular shopping arcade in downtown Sendai.  The purpose was partly to spread the Christmas spirit, but also to raise awareness and money for a charity event in March.  Apparently, we ended up raising over $1000.  And I got my picture in the paper again.

There was an ALT Christmas party held at a popular Indian restaurant.  My school’s Christmas party was held at a hotel.  There was dinner and games and prizes afterwards.  As often happens at these events, I felt a little excluded by the language barrier, but over-all I had a good time.  I also discovered that the music teacher is a fantastic singer!

There was one other Christmas event that was especially cool for me.  A couple of ALTs told me about a Christmas swing dancing party!  I hadn’t been swing dancing once since I’d arrived here, so of course I jumped at the chance to go.  I was a bit rusty, and not everyone there did the same kind of swing dancing as I did, but it was still fun and it made me realise how much I miss dancing.  There were a couple of groups playing live music, including a singer doing Elvis numbers.  He actually did a pretty good impersonation, and most of the lyrics he sang were actually correct – though not necessarily in the correct order: “You’ll be doing arranged on the green Christmas tree; but I’m have a blue, blue Christmas.”

There’s no Christmas holiday per se here, but we did get a few days leave for New Year, so I took three days of paid leave to turn it into a proper Christmas break.  My Japanese acquaintance was back in Japan, and he came up from Tokyo to visit me.  He was only here for a few days, but since he arrived on Christmas Eve and left on Boxing Day, it meant I didn’t have to be alone on Christmas, so that was really nice of him.  We didn’t get up to much.  Right before Christmas, it started snowing, and by the time he arrived the ground was thick with fresh white snow that looked beautiful, but made it difficult to get around.  On Christmas Eve he came with me to my Church’s service.  Then on Christmas Day we took the Loople bus around downtown Sendai, and I showed him what I could of the city.  We eventually wound up at the central library, where he helped me to get a library card, which means I can finally take books out to read!  Given that I’ve been kind of starved for reading material since coming here, I considered that a really nice Christmas present.

The rest of the time we stayed inside, trying to keep warm as best we could.  One of the first things he commented on when he arrived was how cold my flat was, and it was really nice to hear a Japanese person say that, and to know I’m not the only one who thinks my walls are ridiculously thin.  He made good use of my kotatsu while he was here.

Keeping warm has continued to be a challenge.  The snow gave me an excuse to break out my winter coat and winter boots, so walking around outside isn’t much of a problem.  But when I’m inside, it’s hard to keep even one room heated.  I have three space heaters, plus my kotatsu, plus my air conditioner, which in theory should be plenty.  Unfortunately, I’ve discovered there’s a problem with running too many heaters at once: it trips my circuit breaker.  So unless I want to be stuck fumbling for a flashlight in the dark, I’m stuck using only two of those at a time.  I miss central heating.

I did actually have one work day just after Christmas, which came out of a misunderstanding at my elementary school.  One of the teachers there asked me when I was free to come into the school.  By “free”, I assumed she meant not working, so I suggested coming in during one of my holidays.  My vice principal laughed at me later as she explained that of course going to my elementary school counted as work, and of course I didn’t need to take leave for it.

The reason I had to go to my elementary school was this: several weeks earlier, the teacher had come to me and explained that the school was having an international day in January.  She said that she wanted to serve the students Canadian food for lunch and asked if I could suggest any recipes.  My reaction was the same as it always is when people ask me about “Canadian food”: blind panic.  Doesn’t everyone know there’s no such thing as Canadian food?  That we all subsist on air, sunlight, and maple syrup, like… cannibalistic trees?

Eventually, I hit on macaroni and cheese and pea soup, the former being a North American staple, the latter being one of the few dishes that can actually be considered Canadian.  The teacher was familiar with the idea of mac’ and cheese; surprisingly, it was the pea soup that gave created the problems.  The first problem was explaining “peas”.  Then, specifically, “yellow split peas”.  My standard translation strategy – finding the relevant Wikipedia article and then going to the Japanese translation – failed me in this instance; there is no Japanese entry for “pea soup” or “yellow split peas”.  Eventually I managed to convince her that the things existed; the next problem was where to find them.  I actually managed to locate them at the foreign food store downtown; they’re called “ieroo supuritto”.  She ended up ordering them online.

My visit to the school was for a practice cooking demonstration.  I was a bit nervous about it as it had been a while since I’d made pea soup, and I’d never made it with ham before, but both dishes came out quite well.  The one unexpected problem was that Japanese measurements are apparently different from North American measurements; a “cup” in Japan is actually only 200 mL.  Fortunately the only upshot of this miscommunication was extra-cheesy macaroni!

We made enough food for the school staff, and at lunch time the other teachers came in to try the food.  Many of them said nice things about it, and it was the first time for any of them to try pea soup.  It was nice to be able to genuinely share some of my culture.  I hope the students enjoy it!

Books I’ve read this month:

Easy Avenue by Brian Doyle – Well, I said I would re-read it when I got homesick, and now I have.  It’s a good thing I’ve got a library card now, otherwise I’d be fresh out of English reading material.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Special Extended Edition) – Okay, so I’d seen all three of these movies before, but never in their longer, re-edited state, and I felt that it would be worth it to write new reviews of them.  When I saw the theatrical versions, I disliked the first two movies but loved the last one.  In the intervening seven years I forgot a lot of details about them, but I still recognised many brand-new scenes in the extended editions.  In the case of The Fellowship of the Ring the result is vastly superior.  My biggest complaint with the theatrical cut was the pacing: the story felt too rushed and the action too hectic.  Putting a lot of the slower, more character-focused scenes back in gives the plot some much-needed breathing room.  A couple of charming sequences in Hobbiton help to introduce the setting and develop dramatic tension.  The Lothlórien interlude, which I found very rushed in the earlier version, has also been extended, including the gift-giving sequence and leaving a more favourable impression of the forest.  I always liked the characterisation of Boromir in this film, and a couple of extra scenes add to that.  And although this was also true in the original version, I just want to say that Ian McKellen is perfectly cast as Gandalf, and I can’t imagine anyone better for the role.  In summary, while I came down against the theatrical version of this movie, I’m coming down in favour of the extended edition.  (Four stars)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Special Extended Edition) – Whereas my big complaint with the first movie was that it was too fast, my problem with this one has always been that it’s too slow.  Unfortunately, adding a whole bunch of extra footage does nothing to alleviate that problem, meaning that this movie remains the dullest of the trilogy.  (In fairness, it’s also based on the dullest volume of the book.)  Nonetheless, I do like many of the new scenes, and am glad they’ve been put back in.  I’m especially fond of a flash-back sequence that lets us see the ruling family of Gondor all together.  I’m also glad they put so many Ent sequences back in, since the Ents felt under-used in the original version.  This cut gives them their due in screen-time, although they still come off as a bit hasty.  In spite of this, I still feel that a disproportionate amount of time is spent with the human characters, and not enough with the hobbits, and I would love to see a re-edit that trims down the scenes with the Rohirrim while preserving the footage from Fangorn and Ithilien.  In terms of the performances, I think I’ve decided that I actually like movie-Aragorn better than his literary counterpart, and I know I’m not the first to say this, but Gollum is very well done.  (Three stars)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Special Extended Edition) – If the first movie was too fast and the second too slow, I thought the pacing on the final one was quite good – in the theatrical cut.  Although the extended edition is still pretty good, the addition of new sequences slows it down a bit, to its detriment.  Not that I regret all of them: I’m very glad that Saruman’s death sequence has been put back in, closing a huge plot-hole from the theatrical version.  I was also surprised and pleased by how closely the scene mirrors events in the book, despite the obvious changes.  However, other sequences slow down the story and drag an already long movie out to the positively freakish length of four hours and ten minutes – quite possibly the longest single film I have ever seen in my life!  And while many of the added scenes are interesting, I actually rather dislike some of them and wish they had been left out.  Over-all, I still come down in favour of this film, which does a great job of dramatising the most important and emotionally intense chapters of the story.  Special credit goes to Billy Boyd, who is fiendishly loveable as Pippin, and also to Sean Astin’s pitch-perfect performance as Sam.  (Three and a half stars)

In summary, although I’m still fiercely devoted to the book, I’ve grown to like the movies too.  Having not read the novel in ten years, I think I’m better able to enjoy the films in their own right, and to appreciate their many strengths and forgive their few weaknesses.  I’ve even decided that the elevation of Arwen, which I was always sceptical about, more or less works.  Most importantly, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the movies will probably supplant the book, and that generations will grow up with the films as their first – and perhaps only – contact with Middle Earth.  I’m not saying I’m happy about that.  There are many ways in which I like the book better, not least because of the ending, which is actually sadder in the film than in the book.  As novel-to-screen adaptations go, I've seen a lot worse, though.  I mean, seriously, a lot worse.