A short drive around the farm area of my neighborhood. Hopefully this will give you a good idea of what kind of place I live in exactly. Bear in mind though, this is the farm area of the neighborhood. The other half of my neighborhood has a few shops, a small supermarket, a 7-Eleven, etc. I got a phone call at the end of the video, so it stopped recording. This is in the evening so it’s a little dark in some places, but you can see a nice view of Fuji and Yatsugatake, the more local mountain range.
Artifact of the day: Japanese kerosene heater.
The Japanese don’t use central heating. When a room needs to be heated they use some form of space heater. By far my favorite is the kerosene heater. Kerosene heaters have all kinds of great benefits such as cost efficiency, cool pyrotechnics, a nice smell, and near-instant warmth. Older ones, usually made entirely of metal, have the benefit of doubling as a humidifier when you put a kettle of water on top of them - not to mention coffee or tea whenever you want it - and don’t require electricity. The one I have is a pretty typical modern heater which is also nice because it has all kinds of bells and whistles like temperature control, auto-shutoff, timed shutoff and, well, some actual bells and whistles which are entertaining to hear. Naturally, when it runs out of kerosene you have to refill it though, which isn’t too much of a hassle. If kerosene was as readily available in the states, I would probably want one of these guys around.
Back in Japan y’all.
Japan is the place to go for free stuff. Everything I signed up for when I came here - bank account, cell phone, apartment - came with a small gift. At the conveyer belt sushi place, if you eat enough plates and get slightly lucky, a little plastic egg toy drops out of the machine at the table. The gas station gave me a free car towel for filling up, oh, I dunno, ten times. And this one here is a free Wacom case I got for just ordering a new pen.
Also, check out the logo for the delivery service around here. The company is called Yamato, but everyone just calls it black cat. D’you get it? It’s like a mama cat, delivering a baby cat. Brilliant.
This is the Risonare, where Maruyama is. See all the Christmas lights? Japan doesn’t really do Christmas. It’s mostly a holiday for couples to get busy and to eat the ubiquitous “Christmas Cake,” yet there are loads of Christmas lights. This is a good example of how Japan doesn’t half-ass much. If they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it full-force, in fact they often go a little over the top.
Little after work coffee at Maruyama Coffee. This little place tucked in a fancy hotel/market in the woods just happens to be the home of Japan’s number one barista, and the world’s number five barista. Right here in Hokuto, who’da thunk?
Found this crazy crazy mural displayed at a temple in Hida-Takayama. I don’t know which temple it was, but I stared at this mural for so long. It’s like if Hieronymus Bosch was born Japanese. Click through for the full full view which I have haphazardly pieced together from a few different iPhone photos. The parts that seem like abrupt breaks are just that way in real life.
The YETI Winter Party was last weekend. During the party, a series of superlatives were awarded. One category was “Most likely to puke/Least likely to hold their liquor.” I didn’t win that award, thankfully. Since coming to Japan, it’s become apparent that I have a habit of spilling drinks when I’m drunk, so instead, I won the next award - “Least likely to hold any drink at all.” I was awarded with this lovely sippy cup.
I have seriously neglected this blog. I think having decided I would only write good and long entries, I inadvertently made blogging harder than it should be. That being said, I hate blogs that are nothing but one amusing reblog after another. I just need to find a happy medium. So maybe I shold treat this blog a little more casually. I don’t need to write an essay.
Today I’m working on Christmas lessons. Or at least, I will be later today. The trouble is that all my second graders (high school is three years long here) are out on what they call “school excursion” - basically just a long class trip. They’ve gone to Okinawa for a few days to soak up the warm rays of Kyushu - Japan’s southernmost island - hang out on the beach, and for better or worse, probably meet some American GIs. The second graders make up most of my students, so all I have this week are first graders. I don’t want them to get ahead of the second graders so I wanted to have a filler lesson today. I told myself last night that I would get started early on making the lesson plan for today, but naturally I succumbed to the allure of the internet and all it has to offer and by the time 2am rolled around, I conceded to showing a subtitled version of A Charlie Brown Christmas and having them write about it. That movie is important to Christmas in America though, so I didn’t feel so bad.
When I did my Halloween lesson, I gave them the whole history and made sure they knew that, as well as Christian celebration, a good deal of Halloween custom came from a bunch of druids dancing around fires in animal costumes. I want to do the same for Christmas, because honestly, its easy to not consider what a holiday is all about until you have to tell someone who’s never celebrated it before in their life. Western holidays are crazy. I guess I could just say something like, “On December 25th, we celebrate the birth of the son of God to a human virgin. We celebrate by decorating evergreens that we move inside, giving each other presents, and waiting for a fat bearded man to land his flying reindeer on our rooves, slide down the chimney, and reward our good behavior by stuffing oversized socks with treats and leaving us presents we requested” but I’d hate to make it too easy for them. Christmas needs some serious explanation for it to make any kind of sense. I don’t know exactly what I’ll say yet, but it will involve both Saint Nicholas and Odin.
(The view walking to the train station from school)
It’s hard to imagine what my coworkers are like outside of school. I’m pretty sure that’s the case with a lot of people’s coworkers. We see these people every day, in the same context, doing the same things, and we know what to expect from them. In most workplaces this probably means that they are, for the most part, behaving like good employees. Japan seems to take that to a different level though. America is a country all about independence, the success of the individual, and his ability and right to lead a private and comfortable lifestyle. Japan is not that. This country practically inhales and exhales synchronously. Every morning at school, the teachers gather in the bullpen known as the staffroom; a huge room with rows and rows of desks side by side and facing each other - you know, like cubicles, but there are no walls on these cubicles, so they can’t really be called cubicles. Every few minutes, a teacher will arrive. He or she will walk in the door with a quick but loud “Ohayogozaimasu” (good morning) which they have apparently done said so many times that it has either turned into just “Gz’massssssss” with an “s” that trails all the way to their desk, or a long moaning “Gz’maaaaaaaaaaaaas”. Some particularly energetic teachers will give a sharp “Uhs!” as they swiftly stride to their desk. Whatever the preferred greeting, as soon as it’s spoken, everyone in the staffroom returns the greeting. Like popcorn, here and there can be heard “masss, maaaaas, uhs, masss, uhs, uhs, maaaaas…” Then at 8:20am on the dot, the teachers all gather in small circles around the staffroom to discuss current goings-on. This is the morning meeting. Thursdays are particularly formal. On Thursdays, just before 8:20am the principal, a hulking, stern faced man who has been described as looking like a Yakuza boss, marches into the staffroom followed by the two vice principals. They all stand at the front of the room and all the employees of the school stand at attention for them to begin the meeting. The female vice principal (I don’t know any of the higher-ups’ names, because I’m just supposed to call them principal and vice principal) sort of runs the show, which she ought to; she has a kind of tempo, body language, and way of speaking that makes everything she’s saying seem very important - and I would know, because I don’t know what she’s saying. So then she says some words, everyone bows, she says some more words, hands it off to someone else who gives some kind of report, it comes back to her, she hands it off to someone else, they give another report punctuated every now and then by clapping (I think this is teachers reporting on club activities, various sports team successes and that kind of thing), and it goes this way for about 15 minutes until it ends with everyone bowing again, the principal marches out, the vices sit down at their desks, and the staffroom is once again humming with the silence of what appears to be, but may not always be, hard work. What is important is that it appears to be.
That’s where Japan get’s tricky. There’s a thing in Japan, a thing that is understood by everyone, that there are two different parts to life: what is real and what is perceived. In reality, these teachers might not have any work to do. Some teachers don’t have any classes at all yet they sit at their desks all day. Some teachers show up at eight and leave at ten. Image is important. Whether or not the eight to ten crowd is working hard for the duration, there’s no way to know, but anyone who works those hours must be working hard. It’s actually kind of shocking how pervasive this concept is. On first arrival in Japan, we were told all the time about how students clean their school every day. It sounded incredible; Surely the schools must be spotless and the students must be so well disciplined! Well it’s just as incredible as it sounds, as in, it is not credible. Yes, the students do have cleaning time every day, but by the time they get to high school at least, it’s more… symbolic cleaning than actual cleaning. The students all file into the room, open up a closet, pull out some little swivel head brush-broom things, and walk aimlessly around the room with it like a child taking a stuffed dog for a walk. They do this for about 5 minutes. When they are decidedly done, one student will pick up a dust bin, and another will sort of pantomime sweeping dust into it. Sometimes there’s dust on the other end of the broom, or maybe a rubber band, but most of the time - not much (I am told that elementary schoolers, however, do the full-on, hands on the floor, wet-rag-run though.)
The teacher-student relationship is another manifestation of the megalith that is Japanese social hierarchy. Japanese high school students are (mostly) like any high school students you’ve ever seen. Some are great students, some are horrible students, some are quiet, some are loud, some wear their uniforms neatly, some try to make them look as close to cool as they can get away with. The difference is that no matter how loud or obnoxious the student, they will always do what the teacher tells them. If the teacher tells them to shut up, they shut up. No fuss. I think this is ingrained in them. When a student needs a teacher outside of class, they come to the staffroom, but first they must stand at the door, announce their presence by first apologizing for the gross intrusion, then stating their name, their grade and what they need, whether it’s a key to a room, or to talk to a teacher. Some teacher will almost always respond with a simple, “Hai” (okay) allowing the student to enter the room. The baseball team is even more intense. The coach has trained them not only in baseball, but in manners. Every day while walking from the train station to school, as soon as I am in the proximity of the baseball field, every player, as I pass them, stops what they’re doing, turns to face me, and shouts “KONNICHIWA!” combined with a deep bow. It was shocking at first and I still don’t really know how I’m supposed to respond, but I usually just return a slightly shallower bow; I am the sensei after all.
At any rate, the point is, it’s hard to tell what people are actually like, but I imagine I’ll get to know everyone a little better as time goes on. I’ve already run into several students outside of class, and my god do they get excited. Lots of them have part-time jobs at convenience stores or department stores, but since high schools in Japan are kind of like pre-college - you have to apply to your choice school and get accepted - the kids are kind of from all over the place, so when I do see one, it may not be anywhere near school, which kind of amplifies the excitement. I’ve also got enkai to look forward to. Enkai is a school event in which lots of the teachers book out a restaurant and go eat and get drunk together. I think most of the time they’re held at izakayas, or Japanese-style restaurants with an emphasis on drinking. Lots of these places have something called “nomihodai” - basically all-you-can-drink - which usually ranges from about 10 to 20 bucks; not bad considering drinking out is pretty expensive in Japan. My school hasn’t had an enkai yet, but I’m looking forward to drinking everyone under the table.
I apologize for the long posts. I need to update more frequently to avoid that.