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.