Friday, February 24, 2012

…And the Living’s Easy - August 2011

My second year in Japan begins, as did my first, with a month of summer holiday, except that this time there is no orientation, just a holiday.  The heat is oppressive and there’s a steady drone from the cicadas.  Every so often a lone insect will start up a solo nearby.  Though you might not think it, a hundred cicadas going at once are fairly innocuous, but a single one just outside your window will kick up the most ungodly racket – especially if it’s doing it at five in the morning.  The spiders are also busy.  I see way more spiders here in Japan than I do back home.  Not indoors, fortunately, but outside they’re ubiquitous.  They’re much bigger than what I’m used to, and they’re constantly spinning their webs: in trees, against lamp posts, across sidewalks, and over my front door.  I’m always cautious when entering or exiting my flat, in case some spider decides to drop on my head.

I’m really glad I decided to stay.  Now that I’m settled and not suffering culture shock any more, I feel I’m much better able to appreciate summer in Japan.  The trees are green; the rice paddies are yellow; my students wave at me when they see me on the street.  It’s things like that that could make you think life is worth living, and other such delusional notions.

Since it’s the summer holiday now, work is slow and boring, but I’ve been able to break up my weeks with a few excursions.  In the first week of the month, a group from Taiwan came to visit my church.  They consisted of an American missionary who’s been living in Taiwan and a half-dozen American-born Chinese teenagers.  They came to volunteer in Ishinomaki, one of the coastal towns that had been hard-hit by the tsunami.  The group stayed at the church and drove up to the town every day, along with anyone else who wanted to volunteer.  Since I had plenty of free time and hadn’t been volunteering for a while, I figured it was a perfect opportunity for me.  Even better, my school let me take “volunteer leave”, meaning that I didn’t have to use up any of my annual vacation days on the trip.

I actually only went on two days, Wednesday and Thursday.  It made a nice change to get away from my desk and do some physical labour.  It also made a really nice change to be hanging out with other Anglophones, even if they were teenagers.  On both days I helped work in a field that various people had apparently been working on for some weeks!  The field had been right next to a cell phone factory, and the tsunami had washed all sorts of cell phone parts and other débris into it.  Our task was to sift through it and remove all the parts and other garbage we could find.

It was reasonably mindless and straightforward work, though unexpectedly taxing.  On the first day I neglected to warm up before hand, and in the evening discovered that my arm muscles ached quite painfully.  The next day I was much more conscientious about stretching.  Most of the junk we recovered was fairly uninteresting, but we did find a teapot and a couple of cups that may or may not have been salvageable.  On the second day I also hit on a mother-load of sludge (earth mixed with petrol), which all had to be dug up and carted away.  Clearly the person who owned the field needed a lot of help if he was to get it in shape for planting again.

In the afternoon of the first day the person who’d brought me took me for a drive around the neighbourhood.  Although lots of people had been working on it for months, there was still a stunning amount of visible damage.  Some houses clearly hadn’t been touched since the tsunami.  There were still cars and the occasional boat piled up in strange places.  It was a sobering reminder of how many people have been affected by the disaster.

In the middle of the month I took my three days of summer vacation and used them to make a second trip to Tokyo.   This time I decided to save money by taking the bus.  The shinkansen may only take a couple of hours, but it costs a hundred dollars each way, whereas you can get a return bus ticket for about seventy.  I got the bus on Wednesday evening after work.  The trip took five hours, about the same as a bus ride between Ottawa and Toronto, and got me into Tokyo around 11:00 p.m.  I checked into the same hostel I’d stayed at in June, having liked it and seeing no reason to search for a different one.

The next morning I met up with my acquaintance from Tokyo, the one who had come to visit me at Christmas.  He took me to O-Daiba, an island in Tokyo Bay.  First we went to the Museum of Maritime Science.  It was bigger than Osaka’s Maritime Museum, and rather entertainingly shaped like a giant ship, but I wasn’t quite as impressed with it somehow.  My favourite exhibit was the ships in the bay next to the museum, which one could walk around and have a look at.

Next we went to the “Miraikan”, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.  This was evidently the place to see the latest in Japan’s famed advanced technology.  We arrived just at the end of the robot show, where Honda’s ASIMO was on display.  The rest of the museum dealt largely with science and technology in general, but there was an area specifically devoted to the latest technological advancements, and it was pretty interesting, even if I didn’t fully understand everything in it.

We ended up at Decks Tokyo Beach, where we had dinner and window shopped a bit.  We bought ramune, a classic Japanese soft drink that I’d never tried before, and sat outside drinking it and looking out at Tokyo bay.  From where we were we could see the Rainbow Bridge leading back to the mainland and a replica Statue of Liberty adorning the shoreline.  That’s the second replica Statue of Liberty I’ve seen here in Japan; the other was the one in Ishinomaki.  I wonder what the fascination is.

On Friday we went to the Science Museum, where I annoyed my companion by looking at everything and being fascinated by it.  The first section we visited was about the history of Japan and Japanese science, and from there we moved on to prehistoric mammals and hominids.  I could probably have stayed there all day, but we decided to take a break for lunch, after which we went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  This museum deals with Tokyo history.  Unlike the Tokyo National Museum, which consists mostly of artefacts in glass cases, this museum included reconstructed houses and neighbourhoods, allowing one to walk through historical Tokyo and see its evolution up to the present day.

My Tokyo buddy left me on my own the next day, but I had unexpected company.  The ALT I know from Fukushima happened to be in the city, along with her uncle, who was visiting her from Canada.  She invited me to come along, so I spent the day hanging out with the two of them.  We walked around the Imperial Palace grounds, then went to Ikebukuro for dinner and some shopping.  We went up to the top of the Sunshine 60 building, and I saw Tokyo by night for only the second time since coming to Japan.  It’s quite a sight.  Admittedly, I don’t have many other night time city views to compare it to, but I found it breathtaking on both occasions.  It felt like looking down on a galaxy, the lights spread out in all directions like a sea of stars.  If you ever go to Tokyo, make a point of seeing it like that at least once.

We got together again the next day for some browsing in the Senso-ji market, then lunch at the okonomiyaki place my sister and I had gone to.  I left them in the afternoon to meet my Japanese acquaintance.  He took me to see a temple and a church, then we wandered around west Shinjuku, where I took pictures of all the buildings that had fascinated me on my arrival in Japan.  Then he helped me fulfil one of my chief shopping goals: to purchase a Japanese copy of The Hobbit.  I collect the book in different languages, my sister and I buying copies when we visit foreign countries.  The Japanese edition brings the number of translations I own to five, the others being French, German, Italian, and traditional Chinese.  The book is far to difficult for me to read and understand, but being so familiar with it I can still pick out passages I like and see how they appear in translation.

Though the heat was brutal, I enjoyed my second trip to Tokyo.  There’s a lot to see there, and much of it I still haven’t gotten to yet.  The subway system continued to frustrate me, but I’m beginning to understand it at least a bit better.  One complicating factor, I’ve realised, and the thing that gave me such a headache early on, is that there are very few hub stations.  Tokyo Metro alone has over a dozen lines, but even at the bigger stations no more than three of four will converge.  The one exception is Shinjuku, where everything converges, making it so huge it’s really best avoided if possible.  The city makes up for this by being quite thoroughly – even redundantly – interconnected.  No matter where you’re starting from, you can get to pretty much any place in downtown in just two train rides – though remarkably few in just one.  And in place of one big station, the busier areas are often serviced by multiple small station.  Case in point: if you want to go to Ginza, there are about five subway lines that will take you straight there.  These lines go to three different stations that, at their most proximate exits, are barely two blocks from each other.  As I mentioned in my last Tokyo post, I’ve had to do more walking than that within a station!  The prices are reasonable, as long as you stay within the Tokyo Metro system.  Unfortunately the most convenient line in the city, the Yamanote Line, is part of the JR system, which one pays separately for.

Back at school, I’ve kept myself from going crazy by making a lot of work for myself.  One thing I’ve been working on is a project I started last summer but never completed.  I went around and interviewed each of the teachers with the intention of posting mini-profiles of them on my English board.  Unfortunately once the school year started most of the teachers were busy, and I never got around to finishing the interviews.  Since everyone has a lot of free time these days, I’ve started them up again.  The interviews are really simple, partly because my Japanese is so limited, and partly because I want the results to be easy enough for the students to understand.  I’ll try to start posting them next month.

I got some sad news about one of my students.  Apparently a fifth-year girl at one of my elementary schools was killed in a car accident.  I know the class she was in; I’ve visited it many times.  I even saw a picture of her, but I still couldn’t place her or recall any memory attached to her.  It’s sad though, for her family and her classmates.  Oddly, I didn’t get the news from my school, but from the pastor’s wife at my church.  I don’t know why the school wouldn’t tell me something like that.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t know how to react – to be fair, they’d be right.  I feel as though I should say something to the class when I see them next.  But then, what would I say?  It would be awkward enough trying to express condolences in English; in Japanese I think I’d just fumble the whole thing hopelessly.  So maybe it’s better that I not say anything.

There seem to be a lot of festivals in Sendai during the summer, all of them involving fireworks.  I actually went out with my tea lady on three separate occasions to see them, which gave me an excuse to get some more use out of my new yukata.  There was also a big fireworks show in downtown Sendai that I’d missed last year but that I got to see this time around.  I’ve seen a lot of fireworks shows: in Hong Kong, in Vancouver, and in Ottawa.  But Japan can definitely hold its own in the fireworks department.

One of the other ALTs is trying to start up a prayer/fellowship group for some of the Christians here.  She held the first meeting at the end of the month.  It was nice to hang out with some of the ALTs in a different kind of context and to share fellowship with English-speaking Christians for a change.  I don’t know when the next meeting will be, but I hope it becomes a regular thing.

In the news this month, London has exploded in riots.  The United States is in a state of financial crisis and President Obama’s not having an easy time dealing with it.  Japan has a new prime minister.  His name is… hang on a second… Noda Yoshihiko.  I know I should take more of an interest, but given that Japan changes prime ministers as often as it changes calendars, it’s kind of a pain to keep up with them all.  The last P.M., Kan Naoto, was actually in office for over a year – since before I came to Japan.  I wonder if this one will still be in power when I leave, or if I’ll have to learn another name before I’m done here.

Finally, Jack Layton, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, is dead.  It’s official: I hate 2011.  I was never exactly a fan of Jack Layton.  I’ve always found him a bit smug and obnoxious.  And I wouldn’t consider myself an N.D.P. supporter, any more than I’d align myself with any of Canada’s major parties.  But it’s still a sad loss.  The timing seems especially cruel.  He died less than four months after leading his party to its biggest victory ever, never getting a chance to assume his role as leader of the opposition, and leaving the party leaderless as it faces a whole set of new challenges.  Interestingly the other two major opposition parties are also going through leadership crises.  I guess the silver lining is that since our current government will probably be around for a while, they all have plenty of time to sort themselves out before the next election.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Up – This movie has a fun premise (a grumpy old man uses helium balloons to turn his house into his own private zeppelin) and a heart-warming story (the relationship between said old man and a lonely young boy).  I liked the main characters and most of the supporting cast too.  But man alive does Disney need better villains!  (Three stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson – My second Bill Bryson book, this one is set in his native U.S.A. and is about hiking the Appalachian trail.   It was nice to read a hiking book by someone who wasn’t an expert hiker – in other words, someone whose hiking experience would probably be similar to my own.  And I enjoyed the anecdotes with which Bryson supplements his story and the combination of awe, wonder, and horror with which he approaches the natural world.  As Dana Scully once said: “Respect Nature, ‘cause it has no respect for you.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling – It’s hard to say where the story is going for most of this book.  Most of it deals with a competition called the Triwizard Tournament – a frankly goofy-sounding event that Harry gets sucked into.  It all feels pretty inconsequential – until near the end when the plot suddenly takes a dramatic left-hand turn into Darker and Edgier territory.  Over all, I think Rowling handles this very well, even if it is necessary to follow it up with about a hundred pages of dénouement.   I do, however, wonder if the bad guys couldn’t have come up with simpler plan to achieve their evil ends.

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