here is a clever title name, just for you

Hello, long time no see (figuratively of course, but then again depending on who you are, perhaps literally as well).

Here is an assorted collection of updates and stories.

I have started teaching at a third school this year. 東桜島中学校。Read as: Higashisakurajima chugako. Read as: East Sakurajima Junior High School. Read as: I now teach on the very same volcano near to which I live.

The school has a staggering 26 students. Total. That is smaller than my smaller classes at my other schools.

Before I even knew I would be teaching there, I had met three of the students. Two of them are the children of Naka-san, the bartender of Bon. We had met at some music events in the past though, I was initially unaware that Naka-san had children at all. Another student is Naka-san’s son’s best friend. His father owns a hotel on the volcano which has an onsen (hot-spring) which I have been to many times.

The vice-principal and math teacher also knew me when I walked in on the first day. It turns out I met them months ago at, where else but, Bon. They were both in what appeared to be a shochu-fueled night of silliness. One of the two English teachers used to teach at one of my other schools last year. I had worked with her from September to March.

Everyone at the school is very kind and it feels nice to have these previous connections which are now able to allow me to settle into the school more easily.  Also, the school groundskeeper invites me to his tiny office to play guitar during my free periods.

One day, while in the middle of class, a bird flew down the hallway. Me being me, I found this very exciting. The students just shrugged and explained that this happens a lot and they don’t mind. I love this school.

Occasionally, the volcano will erupt while I am on it. Usually, from the city, this is just seen as a slow plume of ash rising in the distance and being carried away by the wind. While on the volcano, it is often a much different experience. The windows shake violently for a moment but no one bats an eye. Except, of course, for me.

Every September across Japan schools have their sports festivals. I may have mentioned this at this point last year, but imagine a military parade designed for children and with a lot more silly relay races thrown in. This year I deiced to go to the volcano school and to engage in whatever strange cultural assimilation I may find myself within the midst of.

Because the school is so small, the event is combined with the elementary school thus bringing the student count to a staggering 60 children. The entire community seemed to come out to enjoy the festivities as well. This includes the local kindergarten and everyone grandparents. Everyone seemed to know each other and the elementary school students and junior high students seemed like a big group of cousins. It was an incredibly pure sense of community. Naka-san was there so he sort of paraded me around and showed me the ropes. He had me enter loads of PTA events including, but not limited to, a relay race involving a wheelbarrow, a race involving pushing a big hoop with a stick, and bowling using a dodgeball. Naturally, I stuck out like a sore thumb, but it was also so nice to be welcomed into the community. A few parents came up to me and told me their kids had told them about me and they thanked me for being a nice teacher. (I had started the day by calling a child trash-boy, but I guess that story had yet to be reiterated).

After the festivities, Naka-san and I decided to go to the onsen. Being owned by the students family, we decided to drive him and Naka-san’s son to the hotel so they could hang out. After relaxing in the hot water overlooking the bay and the distant mountains, I went back to the lobby. There I was greeted by Itsuki (the student) who gave me a thing of ice-cream. His dad began asking me about music and I got him to put on some John Fahey over the lobby speakers. To describe this as a surrealist and relaxing experience doesn’t do it justice.

At Taniyama, I have been asked to help out with their school cultural festival. Last year, I joined the 3rd graders in their performance of “Stand By Me.” This year, I will be playing the role of a famous movie star in the 1st graders school play. I was able to choose my characters name and naturally settled on Danny Sandstorm. Though, the kids pronounce it “Denny.” We have had a few practices and they are incredibly fun. A few very outgoing students and I reading through our lines and working on our blocking. It is one of those moments that makes me take a step back and think, “how did I get here?”

(Authors note; this was written a few weeks ago and the school play has since transpired) The play was great. While backstage surrounded by tweens who don’t understand most of what I saw was another moment of “how is this my life?” I spent the rest of the culture festival in the rafters of the gymnasium with the student council president and vice-president just chatting and enjoying the show.

Other short stories:

One of my favorite 3rd grade classes was practicing writing a letter/email to one another. The textbook prompted them to write a letter of congratulations or good luck to a classmate about whatever contrived or boring idea the book provided. However, this one class is unique and the teacher is always willing to make English lessons more fun and interesting. It was revealed by a very out-going student who isn’t shy about anything going in his life, Yanagi-kun (who I call “yogi” which means goat), that his girlfriend had broken up with him a week before. There is was. The prompt for everyone’s emails. I spent the class walking around explaining the difference between “to have a broken heart” and “having your heart broken” and giving different ways of talking about love and redemption.  The later half of class consisted of students one-by-one standing up and reading their letters to the heartbroken teen.

An example: “Dear Yanagi-kun, I am sorry you had your heart broken. I know it is not easy. But maybe you will love again some day. I hope so. From, your friend.”

It was then time for Yanagi-kun to read his letter.

“Dear Yanagi, Congrats on winning the baseball game! I am sure you will play very hard in the Kyushu tournament! Keep going! From, Yanagi”

He had written a letter to himself.

A day prior, he and I arm wrestled to start the class. He got me with his right arm as he is the baseball teams pitcher. But luckily, I am a lefty so I wasn’t too ashamed in-front of these teens.

Lee, from my middle school days, came to visit for a week at the end of October. After missing a flight due to a delay and having her luggage lost somewhere in China, she made it safe and sound. Together, we took a high-speed ferry south of the mainland to Yakushima. This island has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. After an hour or so in the open ocean, passing by small islands which come into view just as quickly as they fade from it, a massive, cloud-shrouded, mountainous behemoth fills the horizon. We spent two nights in a small hostel in a tiny village by the shore. The hostel was run by this older hippie who composted everything possible, if you catch my drift. The house was over 100 years old and made from the, now world-famous, cedar trees found on the island. Incidentally, I had met the owner’s husband months prior. He is a “movement poet” (dancer, to the laymen out there) who travels the world. He performed at (where else but) Bon, my favorite bar. A tall, almost emaciatedly skinny old man with a long white wispy beard. Photos of him contorting himself into all sorts of poses in very moody lighting were littered throughout the seemingly ancient house.

While on the island, we spent our days just walking around the many forests. The Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke was based on these forests. A quick google search will help you understand why. The only store in the village we stayed in was once a gas station but is now a… gift shop? I guess you could call it that. It’s a storefront with just…things in it. Ellipses aside, this “shop” was owned by one of Japan’s many crazy old men. We walk in just hoping to get a small snack but suddenly he is inviting us to sit down so he can give us a “present.” We were obviously nervous, Lee having no Japanese at all me and having the Japanese of an advanced toddler, but we obliged. He proceeded to heat up some sweet potatoes he had previously baked and then set us down with some sea-salt he had also made. Beside the salt he spooned out a few small scoops of ice-cream. Admittedly, it was incredibly delicious. He just sat back in pride. No random sweet-potato feast with a stranger is complete without hearing about their backstory, of course. He began to explain how his life had brought him to this once-upon-a-time gas station giving reheated tubers to foreigners. However, he did his best to supplement as much English as he could for our sake. One major detail of this mans legacy is in regards to his previous employment.

“I make babies,” he said.

Just like that. No gestures, nothing else to clarify, just that his old job was to make babies.

After a bit of prying, we came to realize that he had simply forgotten the word “fashion,” after babies. He used to design and create infant clothing. Regardless, he told us about his son and daughter who live in Osaka which allowed us to infer that making babies was just one of his bygone hobbies.

An annual music festival is held in early October on the volcano (near to which I live). It is named the Hestival, a play on words with “festival” and the local dialect for “ash” which is “he” (pronounced like hay”). It spans three nights and has big name artists from all over the country performing. Booths with local food and crafts set up around the campgrounds and around 30,000 people pass through over the three days. This means that taking the ferry is somehow worse than crossing the river Styx. Bon set up a “campsite bar” alongside the tents and I was added as a staff member. This meant I had not only a free weekend pass, but a staff pass which allowed me to take the shortcuts behind the stages and such. My job, you may ask? As Naka-san put it, to “play guitar and talk to people.” And being the ever diligent worker I am, I did. Naka-san’s son, Minami, was also in attendance. He became my concert buddy and we walked from stage to stage and ate curry. He started telling the vendors that I was his dad just to see how they would react.  My Sunday morning was spent playing with a 3-year-old who had wandered over to our “bar.” Her name was Akari and we became fast friends. She would pretend to order cakes and water from the bar and then eat it all at once after not paying. A very cute child but questionable morals regarding basic business transactions.

One day at Taniyama as I was walking down the hall I heard an excited “HEY KO-NA!” I turn to see Richard (a 3rd grade boy with pretty decent English who has requested I call him Richard for some reason unbeknownst to both of us). He is a student in one of my favorite class where the students all get along very well. So, when I walked in all the students gathered in a semi-circle around Richard. In a very well-practiced sounding introduction, Richard asks, “which is beautiful?” while proceeding to lift up his pant legs. Already confused by this situation, this great revealing did nothing to help clarify things. I told him both are and nice and whatever he is into is good enough. When asked why he decided to shave is leg he simply replied, “just because.” He then ran off to show his homeroom teacher.

At Wada during cleaning time I have taken it upon myself to join a group of about six or so first-graders who clean one portion of the entrance way. There are two reasons for this decision: if there is no teacher present, these kids would run absolutely wild, and it is also an excuse to get outside a bit and chat with the kids. This particular group is just incredibly unique. To be more specific, there are two girls who are very strange and outgoing, or rather, just normal 12 year olds. One eventual day, as I walked down to the schools entrance, I see one of these girls jostling the brooms around in the tiny closet.  She then proceeds to get in the closet and close the door.

Huh.

I go and give a little knock and say “hello.” I can hear her start laughing so I open it and she explains to me how she is waiting for her friend Kohana, the only other student wilder than her, to come and grab a broom so she can spook her. Now, of course, as a responsible adult and well respected teacher of sorts, I am going to go along with this. It is a hilarious idea. Let the kids be kids. So I grab a broom and close the door and go about my ways chatting with two boys about dogs or something. However, the vice-principal often makes his rounds during cleaning time just to keep kids on track or say hello. If he is in the mood, he will often grab a broom and help out. Uh oh. Were he to, this one fine Autumnal day, have the unquenchable urge to sweep ash from the steps and decide he needs a broom to best do so, only to open the unassuming closet to find a 12 year old….well, that just isn’t fun for anyone, I think.

I quietly slide over to the closet, give a quick knock and just say “vice-principal.” Through the metal walls I can hear a sound that resembles both fear and giddy excitement. I asked the two boys if they could go to the main step to sweep, closer to where the VP is. Hopefully he will start talking to them or get out of their way to let them work. I then have to open the door and let the kids sneak out behind me unseen. This sounds more dramatic than it was, but I can assure you, and I am sure you can assure yourself if you know me, it was excessively dramatic, otherwise, it wouldn’t have been as fun. Upon successfully making her escape we gave her a broom and had her act like nothing was amiss right as the VP made his way back past us with a small “hello.”

No sweat. We no longer try to spook our friends during cleaning time.

During one English club with some 3rd graders, we decided to was best to be seasonal, given Halloween and all, and we discussed superstitions. I gave the example of a black cat or breaking mirror as well as the Japanese superstition that if you cut your finger nails at night your parents will die without you being present. Yes, that is a superstition that exists here. We went around and asked students if they knew any that we hadn’t yet mentioned. One boy, who had previously just spent the first half of English club only saying “Pennywise” (the monster from IT) and giggling to himself, decided to speak up. He said that if you go to the zoo or aquarium on a date, your relationship will end. Intriguing. Even the other students looked at him with a sense of incredulity. Perhaps he misspoke. Nope.

Apparently, this happened to him and he has since developed a superstition around it. His reasoning about the aquarium is that because the lighting is strange and interesting there, his date would see him in weird lighting and fall out of love with him. I am not sure how it applies to an open-air zoo, but I guess fool me once….

Anecdotes aside, I am well. I’ve started occasionally going to an indoor bouldering gym once a week or so. It is about an hour bike ride from my house, so if the weather isn’t up for it, neither am I. I have been fortunate enough to perform a few more gigs. I have been invited to perform at an art show by the owner of a music school whom I met after watching her perform in Kagoshima’s only traditional Irish folk band. (No, you did not misread that. Yes, they are all Japanese people). I have continued to play guitar with the students at Taniyama and have formed a little guitar club that meets from time to time. At Wada, I still play percussion with some kids after lunch and goof around with the marimba. At my volcano school, I mostly spend the free time wandering the school grounds with students and looking at all the wildlife there. I am alive, I am well, and my apartment is sort of clean.

anecdotes

Here is a collection of various stories.

Japan is known for earthquakes and earthquakes are known for being scary. However, it seems that a room full of 12-year-olds does not necessarily agree with the later half of that statement. One Friday morning I was standing in the back of a classroom as the teacher explained some new vocabulary to the students. Through the relatively peaceful hum of collective English mispronunciations,  the windows began to rattle. It was an old building and a rather windy day so we thought nothing of it. However, they kept rattling. Suddenly, a booming voice from an outdoor loudspeaker informs us (well, really it informed  everyone but me given my lack of Japanese) that an earthquake was taking place. The students all go under their desks. I am thinking, “oh sh*t.”

I, however, was alone in this sentiment. Not even 20 seconds before the initial window-shake the students had learned the phrase “this is exciting!” As such, being the ever studious children that they are with their willingness to utilize new vocabulary (this is all heavily sarcastic) they began whispering to one another “this is exciting!” as the building shook. Luckily, two weeks prior we had had an earthquake evacuation drill at this school so I knew what was happening next. We lined up in single-file and jogged out of the building. It was in this moment, a slightly panicked and tense atmosphere, that this one boy decided it would be a good time to show me the rash on his torso and ask me about it.

Perhaps he knows of my infamous history with epidermal distress and wanted some experienced eyes to assess his situation. Regardless, we were evacuating a building during an earthquake and it wasn’t necessarily the best time for a consultation.

The earthquake ended up being a minor one and very far away and the students rash cleared up within a week or so. All is well.

Every day after school lunch there is an hour of free time. Sometimes I will go outside and jump in on various soccer or volleyball games, other times I just wander the halls while periodically getting involved in students conversation. Always good for.a quick laugh and rapport building. I have mentioned previously (I think?) how at one school I will often hang out with the percussion students and play marimba and drums during this time. I still do that, it is still delightful. But now there is a new addition to my resume; guitar teacher. At one of my schools there are two students who told me how they also play the guitar. A few months ago I had fixed up a few of the school’s guitars so I can play them when I am free. During free time we now have guitar lessons together, me and these two students. It was incredibly fun as I have never really taught guitar before and it is a bit of a challenge using language to describe certain things. They are of comparable skill level so it is nice be teaching the concurrently. Occasionally, their friends or other students will stop by to ogle at how cool they think their guitar-wielding classmates are. They seem to really want to learn so it makes teaching them that much more fun.

Occasionally I am asked to teacher a special needs class. I really enjoy these classes as they allow me to have more freedom with what type of activities we do. The classes are also much smaller, usually 4-7 students. The teacher asked me to bring a guitar one day. We then spent the class making up songs in English such as Anpanman (a famous mascot here in Japan who is a superhero made of bread) and Pikachu (come on, you know who that is) being best friends. It is the cutest thing having a group of students singing silly songs in chorus which we had just created together.

I went to Tokyo for a few days. It was fun. Too busy, though. I won a Pokemon doll from a claw machine.

That’s about that.

We have passed through cherry blossom season and the rainy season is looming in the distance just before us. Seeing the river near my house lined with beautiful cherry blossoms and being able to ride my bike through their shade was an incredibly special thing. Now, things are fully green and it is getting umconforpably warm. I went to Kirishima, a town about an hour north of Kagoshima City. It’s name translates literally to Fog Island. It was a nice escape from the city and I was able to do some casual hiking in a bamboo forest. The whole time I was there…it rained. But that gave the mountains and the forest a really unique quality. I visited a few shrines that we set into the forest. I felt as though I were surrounded by ghosts. I also visited an onsen (hot spring) and had it to myself for a while. I hope to have more peaceful and quiet escapes similar to  this in the future.

Sakurajima, the Volcano near to which I live, has many lovely beaches. One of these beaches has black sand which is composed of mostly ash. If you dig you feet down a few inches you will create a natural hot-spring foot-bath. It is incredible. I recently participated in an event to help collect litter that has gathered there over time. It was like a treasure hunt of sorts but the prize is garbage. We got to spend sometime afterwards wading through the water and relaxing in natural foot-baths all while looking out over the bay. We then gathered to a BBQ at an old hotel on the island. The hotel itself is located next to a burned-out and since abandoned hotel. The skeletal structure has been reclaimed by nature in the most beautiful and haunting way. The hotel at which we had our BBQ was a functioning establishment but still maintained an air that time had forgotten it. We grilled throughout the evening and there was even a small pizza oven made from magma. There were many kids running around and me and another ALT made up songs for them on guitar and with our best attempt at Japanese. One of my friends who was helping organize the event ran into her friend from elementary school who she has not seen in 20 years. Everyone was full of life, just like the volcano looming above us.

The weather has become very nice, albeit a bit humid during the day. The evenings have been warm with soft breezes here and there. It is perfect nighttime biking weather. I have been exploring parts of the city never knew existed, turning down roads with no real reason, trying to get lost and then finding my way back using landmarks (if I can). In one very eventful bike ride, far away from both my apartment and my school, I saw not only a badger but one of my teachers, too. I was holding the door open at a Lawson (one of the “big three” convenient stores) when one of my teachers walked out. It was such a surprising occurrence for both of us. “Do you live around here?”

“No, I actually live very far from here. I am just riding my bike aimlessly.”

“oh…see you on Friday!”

The badger, however, was not so keen to chat.

I had another day at an elementary school recently. Exhausting as it is to spend  a full day essentially performing for a bunch of children who can barely understand you, those days are always the cutest. One specific highlight was during recess as I was getting a bit too sweaty and winded while playing tag with some 5th graders, a little 2nd grade girl walks by. In her hands holding a plastic habitat, the kind you keep bugs in or a hamster in when you want to bring them to school, which was about the same size as her torso. Trailing behind this seemingly impossibly small human was another human of comparable size. They looked up at me with an expression of both fear, confusion, and sheer curiosity. I spoke and walked with them for a bit and realized that they had a plastic bag with a very large grass hopper in it. The girl began setting up the inside of the terrarium with dirt and some grass. I asked her if she liked bugs and she vehemently expressed that she does not like them. I asked her why she was helping the bug then. She said it is just fun. I told her she was very kind and she jumped up and giggled. They later found me again before recess was over to show me their bugs new home. The look of pride on their faces won’t fade from my memory any time soon.

I left school that day with many hand-drawn notes from students and my hand slightly red from high fives.

Give Me to Nora

(note – this was written and took place in early April. it is now late May. For that, I am sorry…)

 

There exists a place… well rather, there exist several places, many of them you have been to, many of them I have been to but for the most part, most of them we both have not. But there does exists this one place called Nora.

One humid and sunny day back in August a friend and I got lost while taking an afternoon stroll. We ended up in what I

A drunk man once gave me a recommendation through broken English and wavering slurs. We were sat at the bar in Forét (see previous post) and, upon finding out I was from Boston, began to tell me about the neighboring restaurant which is owned by a woman who once also lived in Boston. He went on and on about the piano she has and many other details that were not necessary and even less so now. Koyuki-san reiterated the sentiment of his recommendation and so it was decided; I wanted to go. A hefty conclusion to come to.

A few weeks later, my friend Mi-chan and I were killing time in Forét waiting for a friend when suddenly the door opens. Koyuki-san lights up and says “my friend!” A 6 year old boy saunters in and sits down adjacent to us and says his hello. He was the owner of Nora’s son. We told him how we wanted to go and he asked us, in Japanese of course, if he had a reservation. Again, he is 6. We decided it would be a good idea to go and speak to his mother, the owner, about coming in the following night.

The boy opened the door and called for his mom. She came and greeted us in English and Japanese. Mi-chan did most of the talking and as it came about she invited us to come by the following night for some drinks.

It would soon be revealed that she has not opened the place for several weeks and won’t for several more as she is helping to take care of one of her parents. However, Koyuki-san had talked about us to her and she said we seem nice so we got a personal invite. Taro (the boy) kept telling me to bring my guitar.

Mi-chan, Taku, and I showed up the follow evening, guitar in hand, ready to experience Nora. The brick walls held in the warmth which seemed to emanate from the children’s drawings tiling the wooden walls opposite. We drank wine while Taro tried to ask me questions regarding my favorite animals and colors. A stream of questions then flowed from his 6-year-old mind and I naturally complied and did what I do best – make things up.

In his world, I am 206 years old, I am married to a ghost, ghosts are normally scary but that is just because they are shy, my wife is a friendly ghost, kissing is difficult because she drifts through me but we can still hold hands.

Occasionally he would grab my face and stroke my beard saying “it fits you,” in Japanese.

Taku and I switched between piano and guitar improvising some songs while Mi-chan helped Taro learn how to do cat’s cradle with some string he had found. The owner and I chatted about Boston and our favorite streets to walk down. We had to leave by 9 as Taro was an early sleeper.

 

Since then, Taro has become a good pal. I will visit Forét once a week usually and he will pop his head in to look for me. What then proceeds involves a lot of him climbing on me and chasing rubber balls around the tiny alleys surrounded in wooden walls overgrown with moss. I have attempted to teach his some basic English such as “my name is Taro.” However, he prefers saying “mayonnaise Taro.”

A few weeks ago his mother held a small piano performance at Nora. Being the tiny place that it is, special accommodations had to be made in order to allow an audience of more than a few. The windows were opened and chairs were placed outside. Sun tea (tea made by leaving it in the sunshine to steep) was served for all. The music was lovely; various renditions of classical pieces. I was unable to fully listen however.  I was on Taro duty. Taro had climbed onto my shoulders and we sauntered around. From his new vantage point he was able to spot a small ball that he had gotten stuck on a neighbors flower pot. The rest of the day involved us playing catch with occasional  breaks to swat down the ball from a nearby awning by means of Taro climbing onto my shoulders and using a stick to blindly swing until the ball fell down. All the while this was taking place to a lovely backdrop of classical piano in the distance.

a list of sorts

A quick post in the meantime while I finish a longer one ~

I have had a few days off from work during Spring vacation.

Here are a few highlights:

-2 hour bike ride to a beautiful moss covered park

-a student made their mom pull over the car when they saw me biking so they could say hello

-went to view the cherry blossoms with my friend Mi-chan which is an essential Japanese experience in Spring time

-bought a lavender plant

-hung out with Koyuki-san at her restaurant during the day – i made us coffee and played guitar while she prepared the gyoza and potato salad for that evening

-had some very nice curry

There will be more stories in due time. Until then, be well, my friends.

久しぶり long time no see

Hello there. After another long hiatus from updating the internet (and you) about things here near the volcano, here are some short non-sequiturs to fill you in.

February saw a bit of reunion both in Kagoshima and the north. A few friends who live in Tokyo came down south for a weekend. It was their collective first time to this part of the country and as such it was incredibly amusing to watch them react to the difference in accent that exists here. They said that it almost sounded like a different language at times. To me, it is all Japanese. We were able to go to Sakurajima (the volcano near to which I live) and my friend Naka-san (owner of Bon [see older posts]) drove us around and took us to his favorite spots. That Sunday was a holiday. It’s name is usually just translated as “the bean throwing holiday.” Now, you might be thinking, “what on EARTH could that be? What does one do on such a day?” Well, it may shock you, but you throw beans. But you don’t just throw beans all willy-nilly. No, you throw them at a person standing in a doorway and wearing a demon/ogre mask while you shout “Bad spirits out! Good spirits in!” Naturally. It was a great weekend seeing some familiar faces and getting to show off this place I have gotten to know rather well over the past few months.

The following weekend I went to Maebashi city in Gunma prefecture. It is about a 3 hour bus ride north of Tokyo. Whenever I told people I was headed there, I would be met with an incredulous, albeit enthusiastic, “why?” The city is about half the size of Kagoshima, a city already not known for it’s size. Gunma is cold. It was February. On paper, not a top tourist destination. However, my friend Rieko lives there. I met her and her husband in Boston while they were studying English and the three of us became good friends. I was able to meet her father who was non-stop-gift-giving kind of man. We were able to meet up with Maddy, a former coworker from Boston who is also an ALT and lives in Gunma. Despite the cold, Rieko showed me this beautiful outdoor staircase in the mountains. With old, wooden framed buildings lining it’s side, the stairs wound their way up towards a temple and a hot spring. The view was incredible as it looked out onto the peaks and valleys surrounding it. It was a nice experience to see a place that one would normally not see while traveling the country. It was also nice to see so many friends.

 

On my walk to the bus from Wada JHS, I am often met by many elementary schoolers who hurriedly and excitedly come to say hello as we cross paths. Usually it is a quick hello and a few high-fives, maybe a quick demonstration of a paper-airplane they made that day, often brief and delightful. However, there is this one boy…..He runs by chanting the word “penis” over and over again. However his accent and clear lack of discipline for education only allow him to pronounce it like “pen is” which makes it even funnier than my 13 year-old mind already finds it. I just say “hello” and keep walking.

 

I participated in Folklore Forest, which despite it’s cool name, is not necessarily as Tolkeian as it may sound. It is an NPO run by Naka-san’s cousin which aims to help empower students who live on Sakurajima to stay motivated with their life goals and to learn about the nature around them. One early Saturday morning I caught a ferry with my friend Nonoka, a local painter here in the city, and we made our way to an elementary school on the volcano. We spent the day with this one student (I believe she was 11-years-old) creating a giant board-game to help introduce people to the attractions on the island. We got to draw little pictures representing all the different sights and landmarks. They even gave me a free lunch because I played some guitar as background music. (Really finding my niche there).  I hope to continue volunteering with this group in the future and to do more outdoorsy things with them. Time will tell.

 

In Japan, the school year ends in March. As such, the 3rd graders (think 9th graders in the U.S.) were graduating from Junior High School. While I was happy to see them excited for high school and their spring vacation, it was also incredibly sad to see them go. I have gotten very close with a handful of students who I see every day so having to say goodbye was more difficult than I expected. This one student. Chisaki, was Taniyama Junior High School’s representative in the speech contest last fall. I had spent a lot of time working 1-on-1 with her in preparation and as such we developed a great rapport. Every day in the hallway she would walk up to me, beaming, and give such a friendly hello. Right before the graduation ceremony began, she found me and gave me a thank you card. On the envelope she had written “cheering really is powerful!” Her speech was about cheering people on and we had worked on emphasizing that line a lot, getting progressively sillier each time. Once I saw this I began tearing up, right there in front of some 15 year olds.

After the ceremony, the students and their parents were all walking around the school grounds, taking pictures, and saying their goodbyes. I had to pose in many a selfie with a face-filter to make me look like a cat or a bunny. Oh well, it made the students happy. One of my favorite interactions, however, was with Momoka and her mother. Momoka is (or sadly now, I suppose, was…) this student who I can only describe as unbelievably charming and goofy. Whenever I would see her in the hall she always seemed to be recovering from having just fallen over or bumping into a person or a doorframe. One day while having lunch in her class, I asked her what her hobby was. Through a mouth full of food she responded quite quickly and simply; “juggling.” She then proceeded, food still in mouth, to pull out three big erasers from her desk and prove that she was not just blowing smoke. From then on, she would periodically flex her skills in the hallway, a small and astonished crowed often forming. I digress. After graduation, she and her mother were taking a picture when they saw me. Her mom was essentially a slightly shorter carbon-copy; the same delightful and goofy smile, spinning around just a bit too quickly and almost losing balance. I said in English and Japanese, “I really enjoyed being your teacher! Momoka’s juggling is very good!” They laughed and looked at each other and then her mother looked at me and said, “ME TOO!” They then proceeded to mime juggling together. I will never forget that.

Another student (whose name I unfortunately can never remember) always really enjoyed talking to me after class. He gave a speech during the ceremony and afterwards gave me a bear hug. This is incredibly atypical but he seemed so grateful (for what, I don’t really know) but it was really nice to see him so happy.

My son graduated, too. I am not sure if I have told this story yet, but I do in fact have a son. In one class the students were practicing interviews. They were to ask me questions and the follow up questions to whatever I answered. One boy, whose nose one could describe as Conor-sized, asked me if I was his father and then pointed to his nose. I walked over, put my hand on his shoulder, and told him it was so nice to see him again. Since then, he just called me “my father” and I he “my son.” Somehow this evolved to me calling him my “go-mi son” which means “garbage son.” He kept introducing himself to his friends parents as my go-mi son which then created a lot of awkward looks to which I was unable to fully explain myself. Such is life.

 

At school, I have been much more active in the music classes as of late. I have joined a few second grade classes to accompany them on guitar while they sing an pop-song from the 90s. It is even more fun when it is a class of students I do not normally teach, so they do not know who I am other than seeing me in the hall. It is a perfect ice-breaker. I have also joined a first-grade class in which the students were learning to play the koto; a very large and traditional Japanese stringed-instrument. Thank goodness it is an instrument that is tuned to be a chord, other wise the resulting rainfall of notes would have been far more cacophonous. Koto notes were flying from every direction with no really purpose other than a student’s sonic exploration. It was, however, very cool to try out such a famous and distinctively Japanese instrument. It was also very sweet to have the students excitedly try and show me what they had learned. Very precious.

Everyday after lunch and after break time, there is cleaning time. Usually I help the students clean whatever classroom I had lunch in that day, but at Taniyama, I joined a small crew of three girls who weed the garden. Every day I wander outside and find them waiting, buckets and trowels in hand and we begin. They are very sweet and and good trio of students; one is very outgoing and talkative but low level, one is a little shy but very bright and good at English, the other is very shy but incredibly enthusiastic and the seemingly strangest things. The outgoing student always tries to fill me in on the school gossip while the other two correct her grammar. It is a great little dynamic we have formed and I think we all genuinely enjoy those ten minutes every day.

 

There is this area in Kagoshima called Maezan-cho which is solely and historically a place for people to eat and drink after work. It is comprised of very old wooden buildings with floors stacked on one another with seemingly no real forethought. The alleys between them are dark and filled with the hushed sounds and faint smells leaking out through the woodgrain of the tiny restaurants and bars. It feels like stepping back into an old photograph one would see of Japan in the early 1900’s. Cats will appear on roofs or from behind corners and sometimes lead one down the alleys, past the overgrown window plants and under the swaying lanterns only to arrive nowhere in particular.

In this tiny crooked neighborhood there is a little place called Forét. Koyuki-san owns and runs Forét. Inside, there is an L-shaped counter which can fit four people on either side of it’s right-angle. Koyuki-san stands on the other side (as most bartenders do) and there is where she works her magic. Everything there is organic – the beer, the schochu, the homemade soy sauce – every cut of meat comes from less than 30 minutes away – and just about every vegetable was grown by Koyuki’s father just a bit north of the city. Forét has become my second most frequented place next to Bon.

Koyuki does not speak much English aside from a few basic phrases anyone who studied English in high school likely remembers. However, she has a great sense of humor and we have found ways to communicate effectively. Despite her lack of English ability (and my lack of Japanese), often one or two of the other customers try and see what English they can muster up.  It is incredibly welcoming and I have now developed many inside jokes with  Koyuki and a few of the other regulars I run into there.

On my most recent visit, in the tiny upstairs (so tiny, infact, that I had no idea it even existed) there was a small birthday party. Koyuki said she had been up since 7 am preparing all sorts of special non-menu foods for it. Every time she would prepare a new dish for the upstairs, she would sneak me and my friends a small dish for us to try, too. Later, she pulls out a cake and says “Conor, sing, come on.” I was to follow her up a staircase which I felt could barely support my weight, let alone that of another person PLUS a cake. There we found the birthday boy (man) drunk and asleep as everyone else talked merrily. They were surprised to see my sunburnt and pink face appear in the doorway singing in English. The man of the hour, with eyes-still closed and recumbent, began clapping along only to wake up, look at me and say “what?! Hello!”  It was very funny and they gave us some cake for my service.

 

Tamiko-san will soon travel to Boston for two months to help Azumi and her husband as they just had a baby. We had one last lunch together before she left and we were joined by Azumi’s friend Liz (from MA), her husband (from Kagoshima), and her sistser-in-law. It was a really nice day spent jumping between English and Japanese. Tamiko-san’s cooking was, as always, incredible. The caravan of guests left but Tamiko-san told me I could stick around for a bit and help her in the garden. To say that the woman was a lot of cilantro growing would be far from the truth. There is a miniature field of cilantro lining the edge of the garden. She just pointed at it and laughed saying, “suki” meaning, “I like it.” She showed me all the vegetables she planted that should be ready for when she gets back in June. I left with a big bag of potatoes and a few heads of broccoli.

Before I went to Tamiko-san’s, however, I was on the opposite side of Yoshino (the northern, more countryside area of the city where Tamiko-san lives) attending a reunion for the Summer camp I assisted with in August. It was nice to see many of the students I met way back then. One girl even told me she started learning the guitar because she had so much fun when I was making up songs about everyone. That was a nice feeling. We spent much of the morning outside doing small team activities in the shade of the forest. It was a crisp morning and a great way to wake up. I had to leave a bit early so that I could get to Tamiko-san’s in time for lunch. On the bus ride to the camp I took mental notes of which turns we took so that I could retrace the route while walking. I thought the journey should take me no more than 30 minutes. I was likely correct in that assumption. However, what I was incorrect about and now have definitive proof of was which turns to take. At one small intersection I impulsively took a left and began my dissent into what I call “the wrong direction.” Luckily I had my phone and could find an alternative route, but I was alone in the sparsely populated countryside for a bit which felt rather nice and refreshing. The trip took me an hour. Tamiko-san just laughed.

pigeons and the youths

A pigeon wandered into the school’s greenhouse just mere moments before I. We made brief eye-contact but went about our separate ways; mine to look at the flowers, theirs to find something to eat, perhaps. They would soon realize that their way was an ill advised one. After a few moments of business, mind you minding our own of course, I got a bit too close for their comfort. Spooked as it was, it began to do that which pigeons do much better than you or I and it took off flying.

There is a plain and present problem with flying in a greenhouse that it is quiet obvious to us but not to a pigeon. Soon enough, the pigeon became trapped behind a bit of shading tarp draped from the ceiling. In a panicked state it continuously slammed itself against the roof, unable to find the exit from the tarp. I tried lifting the tarp to create a slope which, in theory, would guide the bird to an opening. However, every time I did so it just hopped over the exit. I found a wooden post and attempted to guide the bird with that, but again, the exit was not as obvious to the pigeon as it was to me.

I began to hear some singing and laughter from outside the greenhouse. A few second year students were cleaning paintbrushes as their art class was winding down. I walked out to say hello and attempted to explain the situation. Their English wasn’t as good as their singing and they looked at me confused. Luckily, I realized I have all the vocabulary I needed to express the problem in Japanese; “hato wa koko no naka desu” “there’s a pigeon in here.” Without a moment of hesitation, this one student rolled up his sleeves, proverbially and quite literally, and followed me into the soil-scented structure.

He looked around and asked “where where where is bird?”I lead him to the corner where the bird remained trapped behind the tarp. I began to try and explain my previous attempts to the student, but he was far too focused to listen or care. His actions were clear, concise, and deliberate. He reached up and grabbed the bird through the tarp and moved it to the opening. The bird fell and hit the ground confusedly only to then stand up, look at us, and then walk out of the greenhouse. The student brushed his hands off, sighed contentedly, and said “okay.”

I now call him “the pigeon man”.

There was a special “English Day” event at a local elementary school so three other ALTs and I visited. We were asked to provide a short introduction about ourselves and our country. Afterwards, the 6th graders gave us short introductions on various places around Kagoshima and the different foods and animals you can find there. They had prepared posters and slideshows decorated with many hearts and flowers. My favorite by far was the final slide of one powerpoint that ended with an attempt at writing “nice” but arriving at the Japanese-phonetical: “It is very naisu.” We were gifted a few of the posters and they now hang on my wall.

One ALT, Steve, and I shared a 3rd grade class for lunch during which we met one of the world’s next great leaders. This one girl, not much taller than our elbows, organized the entire class into a gesture game during recess. She did her best to speak only English, which, for her age, was remarkably impressive. She helped reel-in the students who were getting distracted or rowdy as well as making sure everyone was included. It was so heartwarming to see. After lunch is cleaning time everyday. The teacher disappeared and left me with no idea where to go or what I should be doing as this was my first time at this school. Suddenly, two students with whom I had eaten lunch appeared from around the corner and said “corner, come on.” They then proceeded to run through the halls (I had to quick walk as to not accidentally destroy any 1st graders who strayed too far into the hall), and lead me up and down stairwells, over a bridge, traversing this maze of a building, through a large set of gates, and out to the sports field. I was then handed a broom but was unable to sweep as high-fives (“high-touch!”) were requested by every student in my local proximity.

To end the day, we had two 4th grade classes who were tasked with taking us around the school to show us their favorite places. We were placed into groups consisting of 1 ALT and 6-8 students. As we walked (marched) through the halls, the students chanted “Go straight! Go straight! Turn left! Turn left!” as they had clearly just learned how to give directions. When we got to a designated location,  one student would step forward and explain why they took us there; “This is music room. I like music room. It has many friends. I like trumpet very much.”

The standout was a little boy with a very round stature who brought me to the art room. He was shaking with nervousness but his friends patted his back and whispered in his ear to get him started. He then told me how he loves the art room and began to mimic the different things he does there. I said, “I like art, too!” This was all he needed to hear. For the rest of the day, every time he saw me he would waddle up to me, interlock his fingers with mine, and like an old-woman thanking you for taking the time of day to spend it with her, he would shake my hands and say “art-o friend-o! Art-o friend-o!” Pure gratitude. I wanted to cry with happiness it was so cute.

There was also Mae-chan, an adorable little girl with autism who held my hand in the hall way but also made me wait a moment at the stairs so she could do a dramatic hop down each one. She and her friends loved to sing English rather than speak it.

The day was long and non-stop, but it was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a while. We had difficulty walking to the bus stop as students appeared from seemingly every possible direction to get one last high-five and to say goodbye. My “art-o friend-o” even found me while I was waiting for the bus for one last handshake.

Other notable moments as of late include cleaning my apartment thoroughly and then waking up unexpectedly early only to become incredibly confused as to where I was because I did not recognize such a tidy apartment.

Many of my musician friends gathered at Bon after a concert one night and we fell into one of the coolest collective music-making sessions I have had recently. We only had a guitar and a bass available, but several wooden chopsticks. We gathered all the glasses and bottles on the table and formed a big percussion set. At one point, everyone in the bar was contributing in one way or another. It was delightful.

a new post for the new year, ya know?

My dear friends, hello.
happy new year, I suppose, for the sake of being cordial.

It has been a while since my last post, and as one could assume, many events have transpired. A small few of them have involved me, actually.

Let’s get into it.

My nuclear family, consisting of  my mother, father, and two (older) sisters, came to visit over Christmas break. Perhaps some of you reading know of them, perhaps you may even know them personally. We spent a few days in Kagoshima where they were able to meet Tamiko-san and the kids as well as Onohara-sensei. Tamiko-san greeted everyone with a hug and a very warm chorus of “fam-i-ri.” It was a nice meeting of worlds; my family and my Japanese-foster family. Everyone’s chopstick skills also improved greatly over their first few days here.  However, some of the food was not necessarily to their liking. An example of this is konnyaku; a jelly-ish…thing that is usually a part of soup. It is made by boiling the roots of (Some flower, I forget) and then taking the sediment which floats on the top and turning it into a jelly. As to how this processes was invented…I do not know.

We then traveled to Hiroshima where we toured the peace museum and the A-Bomb dome. It was an incredibly powerful and humbling experience. A woman who was 4-months old at the time of the bombing told her story and that of another survivor. To hear their stories, see the pictures, and be taken into the moment was a truly moving experience.

After Hiroshima, we traveled to Kyoto where we waited outside the wrong accommodation building for 10ish minutes before realizing that our actual destination was a mere 15 feet across the street. A great start. Kyoto was breathtakingly beautiful. Wooden buildings lining narrow and curvy roads; temples and shrines in every direction; kimono-adorned pedestrians painting the sidewalks with their patterns and the percussive stepping of their wooden shoes. I was able to meet up with a former student, Tatsuro, who I had taught in Boston. He and I became good friends while he was in Boston and it was nice that our paths were able to cross again. Maggie was excited by the octopi on skewers that are sold at food stands, Kristen was not so enthused. After we awoke in our traditional style rooms to our second day there, we met our tour guide. She took us around various historical sights and gave us some slight insight to those sights, much to our delight.

After Kyoto, my family and I parted ways as they traveled to Tokyo and I returned to Kagoshima.

It was not until returning to the quiet and peaceful Kagoshima streets that I fully realized how much I appreciate it as a city.

As the year of the dog began to wag it’s tail goodbye and the forthcoming wild boar began to beckon us with it’s snout, people began to plan their New Year’s celebrations. My friend Arisa invited me to join her and some friends in a traditional dinner at her friend’s family’s restaurant (a long string of connections, I suppose). I had met most of these friends once when I went to their wine party (see previous entries). It was nice to see some familiar faces who had welcomed me so wholeheartedly before as well as to meet some new people. The food was fresh and delicious. We drank wine and laughed as we tried to sing in English. We ate toshikoshi-soba, a traditional noodle dish eaten on New Year’s eve that is believed to ensure one’s longevity. There was nabe, traditional hotpot, as well as some of the freshest sashimi I have had since I emptied my wallet at that one restaurant a few months back. The owner’s 14 year old son was present, showing off his rubix-cube skills. His mother wanted to see who knew more English, her or her son, and asked me to conduct a short spoken English quiz for them. It was a very funny competition but victory was nabbed by a third contender who entered simply with the phrase, “go to hell,” which he said in the proper tone but paired with an all too friendly grin. A delightful dinner. However, around 11 we had to part ways.

My friend Takku, a musician I have befriended from Born (see previous posts) invited me to go to the local temples around midnight to experience a Japanese New Year’s tradition. Takku, his girlfriend, and I walked through the chilly air towards the sounds of people laughing, street vendors beckoning customers, and children singing. The temple had a long line, almost a procession if you will, that extended far beyond the temple grounds themselves. The tradition is to approach the alter, ring the bell to call forth the spirits, throw a coin into a basket, bow twice, clap twice, say a prayer/make a wish, and then bow once more. I had my friends review this process with my multiple times while we waited in line, just to be sure. After we performed this ritual, we blindly picked out New Year’s fortunes, the less-lucky of those are then tied to trellises around the temple grounds. We bought some snacks from the vendors and let the soft realization of the now present future wash over us.

Takku and one of his bandmates, Yusaku (pronounced “you suck,” so I just call him Yu as I cannot in good conscious actively say “you suck” repeatedly and directly to someone), came over to try and write some music together. This was the first time I really sat down to make music with others while here, junior high school students aside, of course. It felt very nice and natural; our styles coalesced effortlessly. Once we felt like we had had a successful afternoon paired with a few schochus, we headed to Born (which I realize now is actually called “Bon” and means mediocre).

That particular night there was a beer brewer who wanted some feedback on three beer recipes he was experimenting with. He found out I was from New England and gave me a class of his New England style IPA. Now, all the regular beer here in Japan tastes the same. If you were to blindfold me and ask me to taste Sapporo, Ashai, and Kirin (the big three), I would likely fail at discerning the differences and assume you had just given me the same glass three times in a row. So, this different style was very welcomed. The taste reminded me so much of home. It was delightful. A local artist who hangs around Bon was also there and was doing a live painting performance. Me, Takku, and Yu were asked to improvise some music alongside her performance. It was very liberating and exciting as we reacted to her choices in color and strokes and she reacted our our changes in tempo and feeling. It felt so natural for me and we really fell into a nice flow while working off one another. We were compensated with more free beer and food.  I have since been offered free scallops, fish cakes, and hot pot. I love Bon.

Tamiko-san’s son, Ryuki, was visiting from Osaka with his family over the holidays. They invited me up their way for lunch and I happily accepted. However, the bus was not running so I got a taxi. However, the only bill I had was too large and the driver could not make change. So the taxi driver and I drove around looking for a 711 where I could get change. It was a long journey to get lunch.

However, lunch was such a happy and cozy event. Tamiko-san’s son has two sons of his own, 6 years-old and 2 years-old. Their family friend, Liz, who is also from Massachusetts and lives in Kagoshima was present, too, with her two year old daughter, Juna and 1-month old daughter. Her two-year-old was adorable because she was able to switch between English and Japanese effortlessly.  Ryuki and I drank schochu as Juna offered me every single chip in the bowl asking “do you want this?” only to then eat it herself if I politely declined. The 2 year-old son, Eito, meanwhile was climbing all over me as I had to avoid the snot bubbling out of his nose. His older brother, however, was living in a world of his own and would occasionally run up to me, stand on my lap and shout “cheese party!”

Once again, another delightful day at Tamiko-san’s house.

Here is a post. It is new, should this be the first time you read it.

It is surprisingly easy to forget to do something. I write that as if it is a new found personal revelation, but as my academic history so humbly proves, this is not a novel concept for me. I have written a few blog entries but not posted them and the only reason being is that I have forgotten to. The stories are perhaps not the most gripping or entertaining, so maybe it was a subconscious way of saying “eh…the hell with it.”
However, I have returned from my unnoticed and likely rather welcomed absence now with some short anecdotes.

I have signed up for Ikebana classes and will attend twice a month starting in January. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. I had tried once before in August during an orientation event, though, the class was large and it was rather a free-for-all. I was fortunate enough to be invited by Onohara-sensei to join a lesson she was attending. The Ikebana instructor was as old as she was short but as cheerful as the two combined. She spoke in thick Kagoshima-ben and possessed no English other than “flower, good, okay.” The other students were middle-aged women and two women about my age. Every time someone walked in they would say their “konichiwa’s” and then pause for a second as they noticed me, likely thinking, “what is this pink-faced man doing here?”

Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing process and I learned a great deal about the theory and technique of Ikebana. There is (un)surprisingly a great deal of depth to the practice. I sincerely look forward to attending future lessons with Onohara-sensei. She says I have “the vision.”I think she just doesn’t know how to say “you made a fool of yourself.”

To continue my education in Japanese traditions and to further develop my love of activities usually allocated for older women, Onohara-sensei took me to a traditional tea ceremony a few weeks later. We drove an hour and half through the mountains to a town called Izumi. There the leaves were in full foliage and everything felt quiet and serene. The tea ceremony involved two other “students” and the master who donned a kimono and seemed to have stories hidden behind every wrinkle in her well worn skin. The ceremony is very intricate with many small rituals to be performed. I watched and indulged in the tea but I did not attempt to be the leader/host.

After the ceremony and saying our goodbyes, we wandered around the neighborhood. There were several houses which once belong to Samurai’s and were at least 300 years old. We took a small tour from a very energetic old man who liked to physically grab me and place me in new locations. The houses contained secret escape routes, secret meeting rooms, secret archery rooms, etc. Lots of secrets. Though, I suppose now that one can pay $5 to know of their exact location and purpose, their title of “secret” is moot. However, their gardens were filled with flowers and Japanese maple’s whose leaves seemed to dance through the color spectrum as you walked around them. An ancient looking ginkgo tree stood in the center of the neighborhood and it’s golden, fan-shaped leaves paved the walkways.

Those long-term fans of the blog may remember a story about a bar with an eccentric old man, tiny French-horns, and a bar tender with seemingly no regard for charging you the proper amount (to your benefit). Well, the story has found it’s sequels, and now include such great touchstones as 80s music, honor-system green-beans, the same old man (who turns out to be a surgeon) and glasses with a picture of Jesus in the lenses.

The bar is called Born. I have been a few times now and it has always been a very different experience. The second time included dancing with some locals to XTC (shout out to Big-Joe) which played from the computer sitting in the corner of the room and talking about radishes. Cheap drinks paired with this experience which reminded me of my college days (he said, wistfully) solidified my belief that this is the bar for me. When I returned the next weekend, the place soon became filled with musicians. Wicked nice people. I ended up diving into some incredibly interesting conversations with a few artists after we discovered a mutual love for the band Tenniscoats (long-term fans or my friends will understand their significance for me). They were incredibly surprised that I not only knew of the band but could list of albums and talk about specific songs. This sounds like I am bragging, but rather it is my rejoicing in the fact that my niche interest has found it’s home. The bar tender now calls me “Tenniscoats.”

I exchanged contacts with a few of the musicians and hopefully we will be able to play together soon.

I also learned a bit more of the old-man’s backstory. He has become an enigma to me. I see him around  I have often caught a glimpse of him, look away, register what I just saw, look back, and he is fading into the middle distance. His hair is cut all over except for the back in a strange cousin-of-the-mullet type fashion. We speculate that he cuts his own hair and stops when he can no longer see it in the mirror. The bar tender told me how the old-man is famous for being a very poor driver and having a car filled with trash which provides little sound insulation for the blaring jazz music he listens to as he winds down the road. I presumed him to have just one day come across some money and has since been sustaining himself in his obscurity. However, I was informed that he is a highly-respected surgeon.

None of this makes any sense and yet I feel no need to question it because part of me understands it entirely.

I have become friends with a trio of sorts. Arisa, Eiji, and Chikako. Eiji and Chikako are married and have a three-month old daughter, Yuri-chan. We bonded over the fact that I, too, have only existed in Japan for three months. Arisa and Chikako have been best friends for 12 years. Eiji works at an agricultural park which hosts events to teach about Kagoshima’s nature and Chikako was an English teacher. The parallels are divine. We met at an international event and seemed to get along well enough. We all went out for drinks at the semi-outdoor food village. The night air here is getting very cold (though I know it has snowed in much of the North East of the U.S. now) and we drank warm schochu and sat at a kotatsu. A kotatsu is a table with blankets that drape down from the side and with a heater in the middle. Please say “cozy” aloud, but with an emphasis on the trailing “y” sound as you drift off into relaxation.

The three (four if you count Yuri-chan) invited me to a wine party. My understanding was that their friends office was hosting a small event and I was welcome to come. Arisa met me outside the location and we walked in together. It was essentially a glorified home office for an internet company. There were six people there drinking, eating, and chatting. It was very intimate and friendly. They welcomed me as if I was just another old friend. The owners 14-year-old son was there and we were able to speak some English. He showed me a few of his manga (comic books) for stories that I knew. We drank bottle after bottle and ate dish after dish. I walked home listening to “Temptation” by New Order.

Eiji, Chikako, and Yuri-chan also met me at Born a few days later. As it turns out, it was the bar where they met! Small world. As I introduced them to my ALT friends who joined us, Chikako and I laughed at how often we had hung out this past week. She then said that we aren’t friends, but I am now family. My heart was warm.

Taniyama Junior High School had three days of tests and as such there were no classes for me to teach. So, rather than sitting idly in the office, I spent three days teaching elementary schools. I have never had more fun nor have I been more exhausted in my recent adult life. I do not know how elementary school teachers do that every day.  Many tiny hands touched my beard while I simultaneously had to shake others and say “nice to meet you.” At one point, a group of students were escorting me to their classroom and 4 boys surrounded me and kept repeating “bodyguard” over and over again. I played many a game of tag, and to communicate their desire for such a game, the students all scrambled for their English textbooks and pointed out the illustration with the caption “PLAY TAG,” only to then proceeded to pantomime a demonstration for me. Adorable.

Finding the  first elementary school on the first day was a bit difficult as I had never been there before. However, as I wandered around, I ran into some of my Junior High School students. They proceeded to escort me to school. You could see the sense of pride wafting off of them as the younger students watched. One elementary school is down the road from Wada JHS and now when I pass by the students on my way to the bus, I feel like a mini-celebrity.

Tamiko-san and I had a very pleasant walk around Yoshino Park. Her grandmotherly instincts were in full form as she had packed snacks and took many pictures of me next to things to send to Azumi back in Boston. We ate an incredible homemade lunch while she tried to explain the premise of a Japanese TV show we were watching. She had found an old guitar in her house and asked me to play for her. So there I was, me and my grandma-friend, sitting and drinking coffee, having a small concert.

She had also made some of the most incredible ginger cookies I have ever eaten. Ginger, black-tea, and nutmeg were the only ingredients she could communicate to me, but there was something unimaginably good about them.

I went to my first concert here in Japan. It was for a singer-songwriter named Ichiko Aoba. Her music is very gentle and dreamy. The show was held at a small gallery near the water. When I walked in, I could sense many people thinking, “how does he even know about this?” I drank a glass of red wine which was included with the ticket price, sat down in the dimly lit room, and feel into the soft and beautiful sounds of the music. It was an incredibly blissful end to a long week.

Continuing with my “firsts,’ I finally traveled to Sakurajima, the volcano (near which I live) To get there is about a 15 minute ferry ride from the city. I met up with Eiji and we brought our bikes along. We spent the day exploring around and even happened to run into the bar tender from the previously mentioned bar. Eiji happens to be friends with the manager of the lava processing factory (yes, that is a real thing that exists) and we got to see some lamps he was making. Literal lava lamps, though these were only lava in so far as their material, not their groovy internal motions. As we rode on, ash began to fall like snow. It was calm and beautiful, but absolute hell on the eyes. We stopped at a beach and dug a small hole. The moment you hit water, you remember you are on an active volcano. The water was hot, not warm, but hot. Many people make natural foot-baths and take a soak. However, the ash prevented us from wanting to sit and relax. We toured around many of the terraced farms on the island and eventually returned to the port. The ferry ride home consisted of udon noodles and watching sumo wrestling on the TV.

Things continue to be delightful as I continue to settle in. In fact, it feels a bit strange to think that I arrived here in August. I still have these profound moments of “whoa, I am in Japan,” which serve as a nice counterpoint to the comfort I now feel. To update with every pleasant little detail from my days would wear my fingers to the bone. Working with the students is an endless supply of hilarity and heartfelt moments of human connection. Having now deepened some close connections as well as finding warm and open outlets for my interests in nature and music, I feel welcomed and myself. Life remains new.

 

a spooky, childlike, overpriced, countryside sense of wonder

Those of you who are skilled with the Gregorian calendar will know that Halloween is hiding it’s spooky self just around the corner waiting to jump out and rattle your bones. Japan has adopted this holiday as most college-aged adults do in that it is just an excuse to dress foolishly and have a party. Several of the ALTs and I went to a Halloween party held in a small department store-type place. Equipped with my binoculars and a sun hat, I was a birdwatcher. However lazy it may have been, it was resourceful and well received costume. I ended up meeting some very fun people, one of whom I bonded with over the fact that my name is Ko-na and her name is Ka-na and we are both left-handed. It was a delight.

Saturday’s morning light came and I begrudgingly awoke much earlier than I would have preferred. However, my reason for doing so was well worth it. I caught the 7:50 bus from in front of the bookstore, managed to stay awake for the 30 minute ride, and was greeted at my destination my Yamasaki-sensei, he husband, and their 5 year-old daughter. Yamasaki-sensei is one of the teachers I work alongside at Taniyama Junior High School. Several weeks back, upon hearing of my interest in nature and farming, she invited me to harvest rice with her daughters school. The four of us drove to the school and upon entering, every little kid in my immediate vicinity came to check out the pasty-ginger-beard man. A few who were bold tried out a “hello.” When I would respond with a “hello,” they would giggle with delight and say in Japanese, “I did it!”

The class, several parents, and myself walked ~40 minutes through the countryside until we reached the rice field. The walk itself was almost overwhelmingly peaceful. We meandered down winding streets, past bamboo forests, alongside large vegetable farms, and by countless tiny streams. Our group walked through a short tunnel and the moment a child enter the confines of it’s walls, they were immediately compelled  to begin shouting and hollering. The noise formed  a dissonant though somewhat musical cacophony or childhood joy. Once we arrived to the field and the old women who owned it taught us how to properly use the small lathes to cut the stalks, we began.

The term precious is the closest I can come to describe the morning and I am well aware of how far short I fall in trying. Some highlights include Yamasaki-sensei’s daughter, Nico, cutting her first stalk and bouncing up and down singing, “I did it by myself!” She would then hand off the lathe to her friend and begin to continuously jump over the previously cut rice stalks until her turn came again. This one little boy kept walking up to me and showing me the small frogs he caught. I tried to teach him and his friends the word frog, but they could only say “fwag.” The effort was there so I commended them. Watching the knee-high children walk through the field carrying bushels of rice over their shoulders was a sight to behold. Before we left, every student made it their goal to beat me in rock-paper-scissors.

The Yamasaki’s and I then said our goodbyes and headed towards the bay. They wanted to show me a somewhat hidden gem of a seafood restaurant. It is very renown but very difficult to find. It resides next to the fish market and thus has the freshest fish available in the city. We had sashimi, fried oysters, and fried mackerel. After our meal, Yamasaki-sensei’s husband (who is also Yamasaki-sensei, he is a High School vice principal so referring to them was rather difficult), invited me to drink schochu and eat shabu-shabu at their house sometime soon. (Shabu-shabu is Japanese hotpot and literally just onomatopoeia for the sound of swishing things in water).

I got home, and fell asleep for 2 hours.

I woke up. I was hungry.

I texted my friend Sam and asked if he wanted to get some ramen. Ramen costs about 700-900 yen (~6-8 USD). This detail is crucial. Sam says he just ate ramen and would maybe want sushi. I offered the conveyor-belt sushi spot which is about equidistant between our apartments. A normal meal there would be about 12-16 USD. But no, we’ve eaten there before and Sam wanted to try someplace new. He found a blog which recommend to spots. One of which was the place I had just been to post-rice harvest. Processes of elimination brought us to the second spot. It was very traditional looking. We sat at the counter and two chefs stood before us. They said there was no menu and they served whatever fish they had received that day. Sure, why not? Each piece was given to us one at a time. We were to eat it on the spot with just a quick dab of soy sauce. This was easily the best tasting sushi I had ever had. Perhaps some of the best tasting food I have ever had. All the while, the chef was practicing his English on us and trying to translate the name of each fish. It was a great experience and it was really nice chatting with Sam after each piece about its flavor. We were sharing this decadence together and it was a good moment of companionship. After our final piece of sushi, a bowl of miso, and some lemon dessert thing, we asked for the bill. We were speculating how much it would be, thinking around $60 or so, but willing to pay more as it was such a nice experience. We could not have been more wrong, gravely wrong, in our estimation, and Sam studied math.
It amounted to be about $180…each…. Dumbstruck, we realized we did not have enough cash on us. Sam had to run down the street to the bank while I stayed back and waited. A businessman who was a seat or two down from us and had previously enjoyed our enjoying of the sushi prior to price revelation, spoke to the chef and ordered us some sake. He could tell we needed it.
We paid, and just laughed at how stupid it was. Sam apologized profusely citing that it was his idea and he feels terrible. I couldn’t be mad. The food was too good, we get paid well enough, I hardly every indulge, it was okay. I will not be a return customer, but I cannot be upset. It was a very Japanese experience usually allotted for those on expensive business trips but I felt like we were getting away with something the moment we walked in their in our oversized-thrift store sweaters and unshaven faces. I see a week or so of instant noodles in my future. I still tell Sam how I just wanted ramen… but I digress.

Now, I was finally able to sleep in on Sunday and am incredibly grateful for it. However, I could not waste my whole morning. My new friend Ka-na invited me to a festival in her hometown just west of Kagoshima city. She picked me up and we drove through the mountains until we reached the small countryside town of Ijuin. The festival was held at a temple situated in a small grove on the side of the city. The air was filled with the smell of food, laughter, singing, and shouting, The shouting was coming from the nearby sumo ring in which elementary schoolers were competing. It was both admirable and adorable. Women in Kimono performed traditional music on a stage. People in character costumes hosted a historical trivia event for children. In the streets, samurai reenactments took place and marching bands marched. Ka-na introduced me to hashi-maki, or, rolled chopsticks. It consists of a savory pancake-type thing with veggies and sauce wrapped around a pair of chopsticks. Being a non-major city, I was the only discernible foreigner there and people began to take notice. Kids stared at me. A few bold ones said hello.

After making a wish at the temple, Ka-na and I walked back towards where we had parked. Along the side of the road was the entrance to a much more secluded temple. It felt, as they always seem to do, magical. It was quiet. The wood was begging to splinter. Birds danced between the trees. Spiders perched on massive webs woven between fallen bamboo. We then walked to a park atop a mountain and climbed a massive jungle gym. Atop the quivering structure, you could see the whole of the city. In the distance stood the ever massive Sakurajima. In the other direction was the Sea of Japan. I admittedly became giddy upon seeing this as it was my first glimpse of the sea. Kana said it was only about a 15 minute drive. So, after making use of the sledding hill, we were at the beach. The water was relatively warm and felt nice on my feet after having walked so much. There was another famous fish market there and Kana bought different styles of famous Kagoshima-style fish cake to see if I could taste discern what what special about each one. Some had shrimp in them, some had leeks, others, I am still not sure of.

Upon returning home and saying goodbye, I was able to reflect on how much happened in such a short weekend. To cap it off, I went to 711 to buy a snack and my favorite cashier was working. She knows me well enough now to not even bother offering me a plastic bag or deposable chopsticks. The store is having a promotion in which you reach into a box and win a ticket for either a free coffee, juice, or beer.
I won a beer. I am enjoying it now as I write this.
Regardless of thirst quenching methods you may be indulging in as you read this, I hope you are enjoying yourself as well.

rice kids
children learning how to harvest rice
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Sakurajima seen from far away
mushroom vest
my next purchase: homemade mushroom vest
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a nightmare come to life hosting a trivia show
temple
second temple photo taken from phone
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gate to the second temple ft. Kana in the corner
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sledding hill in park
sea of japan
Cliffs alongside the Sea of Japan