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.
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.