Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And another quick-n'-dirty photo chuckler. In all of the oft-repeated “Now We Are Living Outside of America” seminars I've had to sit through so far (at least 10 and counting), excessive “amusement by and interest in” in your new host culture is taken to be a sign of “honeymoon-period culture shock” that will eventually collapse into terrible depression and reactionary xenophobia. Either I've got that1, or I'm easily amused, but the fact that my leftover container is not only dishwasher safe and antimicrobial, but apparently runs UNIX made me smirk...

1Almost definitely not.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Japanese taste for incredibly goofy wordplay has been already been well-established by this blog, but here's one that amused me.

Here's the brand of shio-kombu (salted, soy-boiled kelp) that I have recently begun to favor as a filling in my riceballs1. Note the tough looking fellow2, his coat slung over his shoulder, his tie loosened, and his hair smeared back in a post-war detective-movie kind of way. He's a weathered-looking dude, isn't he? He must be the cynical one who chain-smokes Peace brand cigs at his desk in the precinct, and leans over the interrogation-room table, sleeves rolled, to breathe the smoke into perps' faces. When it's time to hit the bricks, he acts as the father figure to his callow young partner. He's the one who makes the speech about how he learned the hard way not to get Too Involved. Probably his woman in Asakusa ended up on the wrong side of a gun. And now this considerable person is speaking personally to assure us of this product's fine quality. His appropriately hard-boiled (soy-boiled?) name is Shiokombuchō, (塩こん部長)... which is, of course, an extremely silly portmanteau of “shiokombu”, the product, and “buchō”-- “department chief”, or, says my dictionary, “police sergeant”. Could they get away with marketing “Sgt. Kelp”, (or worse “ShioKomBoss”, brand seaweed in the US?

1Not least because the other, white label is a friendly notice that this package of kombu (which naturally bioaccumulates iodine and hence collects the nasty iodic isotopes that are released by malfunctioning nuclear power plants) has been carefully tested for radiation and its safety assured. A creepy reminder of the times. It's gladdening to recall that, since a year has passed since the Fukushima incident, the short-lived I-131 the plant released has already harmlessly decayed, testing or no. But it's Sgt. Kelp's words that really reassure!
2Who would win in a fight, Shiokombuchō or Boss Coffee Guy? Discuss.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Had a longer, but slightly-less eventful walk this Sunday.

Taking advantage of my convenient placement close to the rural Oga Line, I hopped a short train to Wakimoto, the next village over, and hopped out to see what I could see.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, this didn't turn out to be a huge lot-- although not far from the station, I did find this automated rice-hulling kiosk (¥100/10kg) – which should tell you the kind of bustling metropolis I'd found myself in.


Not a soul around on a Sunday afternoon-- and why should they have been, as the temperature had to be 30/86 at least, with Akita's trademark humidity in full force. Someone had crocheted all of the Buddha images outside a small local temple some fantastic, vaguely Rastafarian hats in anticipation of winter, though.1

By the time I'd worked through my packed lunch and all of my water, I'd made a 3km circle without seeing much of anything particularly photogenic or meeting a single other soul. The next train wouldn't be arriving for another hour and a half. Nothing for it-- I spent ¥120 of my train fare on a bottle of Pocari Sweat and set out along the road parallel to the tracks.

Even in the heat, I still saved both time and money by walking, as it turned out. I made the 4 klicks back to Funakoshi in a little over half an hour, and had enough time to get 5 days of groceries from the AMANO by the time I heard the inbound train passing me on its way home.2

Feeling much less sticky after a cool shower, I was just in time to meet Ms. Furuyama at my door, come by to drop off another of life's essentials-- a fax machine, as it turned out.3

Pleasingly the multi-chapter owner's manual turned out to be much more comprehensible than I had feared. Sure is nice being (minimally) literate.

Plus the box was a chortle.

By the time the noodles for my homemade Chinese-style cold ramen (冷やし中華, hiyashi chūka) had chilled to perfection, I had the fax in one piece and ready to exchange Important Documents. Time once again for blogging. 


1There being a possibly-related folktale about a man who is visited by the bodhisattva Jizō, (ordinarily the guy in charge of aborted fetuses, travelers, and the damned) and rewarded with great riches after giving his images hats to tide them through a snowstorm.
2Paid in sweat though. I'd soaked through both my shirts by the time I reached the supercenter. Looks like I got a nice tan through my sunscreen too. Heck, I'll fit in better-- all the kids around here are tonkatsu-sauce brown by the end of summer break.
3One of Japan's most charming eccentricities, (though one strangely ignored by Lafcadio Hearn), being their continued use of this obsolete technology at a greater rate than any other country on earth. Most all of what we do with email in Christendom, I will be asked to do with fax from here on. Ours is not to question why...

As I prepare to teach my first lesson (appropriately, given the activities of the last few days, a self-introduction in English buttressed by a sheaf of glossy-photo visual aids) Kenny has told me that of all the lines in my speech, the one that'll get the largest reaction (his words: “Plenty of <'EEEEEEEEEEHHH?!'> s) will be when, among the other hobbies and experiences I've got good photos of (sailplane flight, martial arts, photography, and work as an emergency medical technician1), I let slip the gobsmackingly unmanly art of cooking as a favorite pastime. I suppose, even once having heard of my liberal Westerner's disdain for rigid gender roles, that the EEEEEEEHHHH's would be all the louder if I were to cop in class to finding doing housework in my 1LDK patch of earth somewhat soothing?

This is the long way around to saying that after two days of keeping up the bench-warming-and-introductions routine at the Board of Education, I woke up early on Saturday, fried myself up an egg, frybread, and tomato “not-full English” breakfast (I hadn't the presence of mind to look for baked beans at AMANO), and set about getting things shipshape with a surprising degree of vigor. By the time I looked up at the clock, it was 2:30 PM, and I'd laid up a week's supply of pack-for-lunch onigiri2 (salt-kombu stuffed, my favorite) in the freezer, done and hung a whole load of white laundry, wiped up the sinks, shower, and toilet, vacuumed and dusted, rearranged the kitchen, sharpened every knife in the house (including the dull-as-a-brick santoku that came with the apartment) into a cold-fire sheen of dwarf-smithen vorpal sharpness3, and done all the prepwork for dinner.
And with nothing else to do, and solar gain making the house just as warm inside as out, I decided I might as well seek out some cheap afternoon adventure. I settled on a walk in a direction I hadn't gone yet-- northward across the ricefields to the shores of the Hachirōgata Regulating Pond, the remains of a natural lake that had, until it had been dammed and infilled sometime in Japan's familiar mid-century period of enthusiasm for spendy infrastructure projects, been one of Japan's largest. My handy tax-survey map showed a walk of just over 4 km out to a pumping station on the south shore of Ōgata-mura, the island swath of reclaimed land that resulted.

And so, girded with water and a 80 apple, This Blogger set forth.

I jumped a drainage ditch that separated Green House from the paddies beyond and made my way up a service road, aiming for the water. Wind rustled through the rice, its heads growing yellow and heavy as the grain ripened, and summer grasshoppers bounced away from my feet and into the paddies, “splashing” into the stalks as they landed.

It only took a minute or two of walking to reach the shore. Climbing up a tall berm (helpfully paved when the lake was dammed), I stood on the rocky verge of the Regulating Pond, a flat expanse of suspiciously greenish water. In the distance, to the south, I could see the sea-gates that separated Hachirōgata from the Sea of Japan.

Here, too, unfortunately, Japan's somewhat uneasy (dare I say schizophrenic?) relationship with environmental protection was visible. Despite signs posted by the town forbidding littering every few hundred yards, I passed by the remains of dozens of discarded sushi containers, hundreds of coffee cans of varied vintage, a wrecked 1980s television, and (unless the mountain bears, apart from tasting different in these declining latter days, have also learned to use toilet paper) a mummified human turd. Judging by the tire tracks and garbage on this side of the dike, it looked like locals had been using the 3-meter berm as a privacy screen for all kinds of nightly beer-and-makeout-related activities.

I walked northward along the overgrown verge of the lakeside road. Here and there, people had rigged slips along the side of the lake and pulled in small boats – all dubbed with auspicious names that sounded entirely too “big” for them (a dinghy named “Great Dragon”). Though my kanji knowledge starts to fall apart when it comes to parsing the names of vessels4, I was at least reasonably sure that none of them were bad jokes about beer or skinny-dipping. It seemed like an opportunity wasted. Someone had taken the opportunity to smash a CRT TV into bite-sized pieces and leave them in one of the Great Dragons, however.

2 kilometers later, I found myself at the South Pumping Station, a large and ugly structure the size of a high school perched on piers above the Pond-- and equipped, as I knew it would be, with an informational plaque supplying me with unusually granular data about its precise water-moving capacity and date of construction.

A motorcycle pulled up behind me as I was working my way through the plaque, and its rider, a fiftyish, deeply tanned fellow, hailed me and introduced himself as Akira. Was I here for the Harley ride-in? The Harley ride-in? I explained that I'd just walked all the way from Funakoshi, looking at the scenery along the way. All the way from Funakoshi? Was I then a fan of nature? Akira handed me his card, emblazoned with a color photo of a taiga goose. It seemed he ran an environmental-protection and bird-watching volunteer group in the mountains nearby-- but this weekend he was in Ogata for the 10th annual Harley meetup in the flats nearby. It reminded him of the months he'd spent in California in the 80's, investigating local conservation programs, he said.

I was working on getting out <A Harley meetup in Japan seems a far cry from California in the 80's> when, at that very moment, what but a lifted Dodge dual-wheel pickup truck roared by us and over the pumphouse breakwater in a cloud of diesel smoke. Flying from its bumper were two immense American flags. As I was processing this sight, the massive vehicle pulled suddenly to a stop 20 meters away from us. The imposing Dodge's driver's door-- just like a real American car, on the left side-- opened, and its driver, a short Japanese man wearing a full Western getup-- jeans, a cowboy shirt, silver bolo tie, and 10-gallon hat-- stepped out onto the chrome running boards of his vast machine to peer disapprovingly at the larboard flagpole. Stepping down to ground level, he circled the truck, reaching up to preen the flags back into what must have been a more satisfactory flight condition. And abruptly, the monstrous roadyacht roared back to life and was gone. <There's plenty of people who'd love to try their English on you down there>, said Akira. <It's all Greek to me, of course... but if you're walking all the way to Funakoshi, I suppose you'd better hurry back before it gets dark. Why not get a bike? Maybe even a Harley?> <Maybe sometime, I guess.> It feels too American-- and somehow, maybe even too Japanese, I thought, as I jogged home among the ricefields.
1My brother took most of the volunteer fire department snaps, and was even kind enough to supply a degree of Leni Riefenstahl heroic upward angle to several of them. I hope the kids can recognize me, what with the uniform and all of the in-camera hero-of-industry bearing.
2You may know these as rice balls, or if you hail from Hawaii, as “musubi”, originally a southern Japanese term that reflects the Kyūshu and Shikoku origin of many of the Japanese who settled there. Why not PBJ, you ask? Japanese bread is ungodly expensive (costs more than 2 pineapples up here), comes only in “white” or “pay more for very light rye”, and is known to occasionally be, not bread at all, but suicidal bread robots. PBJ is a weekend treat around here at Green House A.
3In the process requiring me to tidy up the kitchen again, since, with room to swing and no one to see me, I decided to check my work using Saladin's old party trick of slashing in twain silk scarves thrown in the air. Except it was a discarded grocery bag. And obviously not Saladin but me in shorts and sockfeet. Try it at home sometime, single people! It's almost as much fun as drinking cold beer in the shower. And given the right technique and a good sharp edge, the bag won't even move when you hit it. Saladin was lucky though; he didn't have to pick all those pieces of veil out from under the fridge.
4The Marine Self-Defense Forces, gratifyingly, write their ships' names in easy-to-parse (although somewhat girly) hiragana, which is fun-- JMSDF ship names are all piss-and-vinegar leftovers from the period when it was an Imperial Navy, you could call a carrier a carrier, and not even the Coast Guard would have dreamed of wearing drag and dancing to bubblegum pop over the tannoy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Facilities

The tour video of my apartment at AIU seems to have been an object of considerable interest, so in a free moment this weekend, I made one for my apartment here in Oga. In two parts due to length restrictions.

"Green House A Funakoshi" is, from what I can tell, a fairly typical apartment for this area (although detached houses predominate, this being the country.)  The layout is what is referred to as a 1 LDK, expressing the fact that 1 room supplements a Living Dining Kitchen space. It's cozy, but quite liveable, being about 20% larger than the room I shared with Kazuma at AIU. Heck, from what I can tell from looking at the other tenants, I could get a partner and a small kid in here easy! Let me know if I missed anything else you'd like me to video...
A cozy evening meal in front of NHK.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The week that ensued was extraordinarily eventful in all but two critical categories: blogging and actual work. The lights, gas, and water were on in my new apartment, thanks to Stephanie (and with them, a 42” TV with yet-unlicensed HD access to NHK1) but, although I was able to watch the final days of the Olympics over my morning cornflakes, coffee and Creap 2, I didn't yet have access to the Internet at home-- or at the Oga Board of Education, where personal laptops were not permitted to access the local government network, and our temporary status as ALTs was not sufficient to rate us issued PCs. The Internet DTs come on hard when you'd like to be calling home-- fortunately, Kenny made known to us that he, like all our predecessors, had been stealing Wi-Fi from the next-door Municipal Geology Museum for ages with no apparent repercussions. True, the office where we'd been placed was, like many Japanese offices, an open-plan (unobscured desks in rows with supervisors along the back wall), but, truth be told, school was out and not much was expected of us-- indeed, some helpful soul had left a paper model kit, complete with scissors and glue, in my top desk drawer. Nonetheless, it was clear that, as I had expected, at the very least appearances were important. And of primary importance to keeping up appearances, as I learned, was making the rounds of my colleagues, coworkers, and superiors in order to properly introduce myself.

Between being taken on excursions to the municipal office's household registration department to verify my existence and acquire a national ID3, appropriately register my new official stamp4, set up a directly-payable bank account, write a brief comment (in Japanese5) for a school board press release, and buy groceries and housewares, I was taken, wearing my darkest suit, to ceremoniously visit and briefly chat with dozens of bosses both direct (the School Board section chief in whose department I served, his boss) and distant (the boss's boss's boss, and his boss, the Mayor of Oga, with whom I drank iced green tea and shook hands for the papers) over the next several days.

The festivities reached their ceremonious peak on Friday when, along with Kenny and Stephanie, I was ushered into the presence of the school board chairman and, flanked (as if by my godparents) by my supervisor, Mr. Yoneyama, Ms. Furuyama, and Kato-sensei, (the official in charge of maintaining our schedules), was read a formal description of my duties, and exhorted to valiant effort in the service of English education by the Chairman of the Board of Ed before being passed a sealed document that bore a description of my official charge as an ALT.

The weekend was equally hectic-- tagging along with Kenny and Stephanie, I witnessed a farewell beach party for one of Akita City's veteran ALTs, was shown around Oga and Akita City, and made it up to one of the mountain onsen for a quick, relaxing public bath.

And that was just the start of it-- Given Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as paid “home study” time for Obon, we managed to fit in a quick drive round the peninsula coast road (it's scenic, all right, even amidst a pounding sea gale that drenched us all to the bone, prevented me from taking pictures, and brought out from among the slippery rocks a horde of gigantic, Mesozoic isopods)

and a trip out to the annual Oga Japan Sea Fireworks Festival, at which we enjoyed shaved ice, a fine selection of food on sticks, and more and better fireworks than I've ever seen anywhere else, including quadruple-color-changers, shaped-charge character-faces, giant Roman candles, immense cluster-bombs, sparkling teal-blue waterfalls, and huge green multiple-launch parachute flares, all accompanied by music and amusing color commentary.6

As I write this, I'm just back from a bus trip up the peninsula, which took Stephanie and me up to a fantastic Buddhist temple, Dairyūji (the caretaker was so charmed by my Japanese that she waived the entry fee; when she wasn't looking, I put it all back in a collection box in front of an image of Kannon)

before, on the basis of mistaken advice from the Oga TI, we found ourselves 30 kilometers from home and having missed the last bus of the day (when I asked, an off-duty driver was kind enough to take us, and a Japanese couple in the same pinch, back to Oga Station). Too much to summarize, and the job hasn't even really started yet... I can't wait to get into it in earnest.
1As is alluded to in this week's video entry (to be uploaded as soon as Youtube begins cooperating with me), weaseling out of the TV license fee that the government-supported Nihon Housou Kyoukai (Japan Broadcasting Association) is permitted to levy is, I am informed, somewhat of a proud tradition in Japan. Never let anyone tell you that all Japanese are compulsive Toers of The Line. For a literary mention of this phenomenon cf Murakami Haruki's short story Town of Cats.

3As of July, the foreigner registration system has, at long last, been replaced with a more logical, unified regime-- one, that, for example, no longer requires certain gaijin-headed permanent-resident families to sign up for bank loans in the names of their own (Japanese) children. No word yet on how much holographic folderol is on the unified card, unfortunately.

4Of which there are now two copies, one maintained in a lockbox at the Board of Education in order to sign papers on my behalf. Regrettably, no one asked me if I already had one, and as a result, I will be no longer known as 蘭仁弐 for the purposes of banks and parcel services and instead be known only as DA VID (sic), inscribed in artless ALLCAPS.

5This I had extensively proofread by Kato-sensei, who functions during the school year as a Japanese language arts teacher. In the end, around 1/3 of my initial wording required rearrangement or replacement, but she was kind enough to describe the final result as <charming>. Whoa, I have a romantic foreign accent? If I can't sound natural, I guess I'll take what I can get!
6The effect was heightened immeasurably by the fact that, not only were all of the mortars on display car-alarm-wailingly huge, they were set off from a launch point only 50 meters from the audience, and fuzed to detonate at an altitude that, anywhere else, would have been considered irresponsibly low. In one earsplitting segment titled, literally, “Man Fireworks: The Spirit of the Namahage”, dozens of siege-mortar-sized projectiles were set off so close to the ground that sparks from individual shells could be seen bouncing off the berm from behind which the mortars were being set off. It sounded like World War III; for half a minute afterwards, the echoes could be heard rumbling off of the sea cliffs from miles away. Even in the “regular” segments, when the really big ones went off, you could feel it bouncing off the inside of your rib cage, and we were warned to promptly report to the first aid tent if we got hot ash in our eyes. Japanese cars are reliable, the trains run on time, and at a provincial fireworks festival, they put on an awesome, dangerous show that beats the Fourth of July like a rented mule. It rather puts one in mind of the 80s "OH NO THE JAPANESE WILL BEAT US ALL" mindset...

Lost in the Supermarket

Kenny and Stephanie introduced themselves as we drove away from the airport. London born, Kenny had become interested in Japanese while studying abroad in America, where, somewhere in the flyover country near Indianapolis, he found himself in a strange town, weeks before the start of the American school term, with no one to talk to save for the other international students, all of them Japanese. The experience stuck; building on the pidgin command of the language he'd gained the hard way by the time classes started with a semester of classroom study and several years working in a Japanese-owned ramen shop back home, JET had seemed like a logical next step. Now, with a car, a solid working relationship with the Oga Board of Education, and a steady local girlfriend, he'd already decided to stay for life. Once his JET contract expired, Kenny told me, he planned to study at Akita International University in order to get a license as a Japanese university-level English instructor, a well-paid plum of a teaching position. In the meantime, he'd be working in the elementary schools in Oga. It looked to me like he'd get along just fine with the kids— his bluff and cheery demeanor, combined with his beard and rugby player's bulk, made him look just like a friendly papa bear. My fellow new ALT, Stephanie, hailed from Melbourne, and had gotten into JET after a more conventional term in university Japanese classes. This was her first time in Japan, but she looked already to have gotten her feet on the ground, despite having to move her belongings twice-- she'd been put up in my apartment temporarily while the Board of Ed closed on hers. After a few compliments on my Japanese (<So fluent!>) and some of the usual self-introduction questions on my university, hobbies, and age, Ms. Furuyama seemed content to eavesdrop on the rapid-fire conversation Kenny and Stephanie had struck up with me in English, despite my efforts to pull her back into the talk.

Outside the car, the scenery felt, at first, oddly familiar-- we passed the AEON mall in Goshono where I'd spent so much time and money while at AIU. We stopped for a traffic light outside the hair salon where I'd gotten a trim. Through the window, I glimpsed a flash of the stylist's Space Western silver. And then, abruptly, as we passed over a hill, I was again in terra incognita.

Since AIU was on the extreme verge of the service area of Akita City's buses, it had been hard to explore in certain directions-- but living on the insular campus, it was somehow hard to grasp just how small the maximum area I'd been able to explore really was. The rocky coast we were now speeding along was probably less than a kilometer from a sushi restaurant where I'd had dinner with the Aikido Club-- but I'd somehow never managed to make it out here. I could feel my whole sense of location reform abruptly as we swept past berms of concrete tetrapods, a docked Lifesaving Service cutter and an empty berth for the Japanese Coast Guard.

The sun sank low over the Japan Sea. And there, ahead of us, in the distance, the coast turned sharply outward to meet the horizon. The Oga Peninsula. “Your new home”, said Ms. Furuyama, in English.

A few minutes on, and we found ourselves in the village of Funakoshi, one of the larger towns that made up “subtowns” of the incorporated peninsula. From the car, it seemed to be dominated by a strip of development along the coast road that reminded me somehow of beach towns in the US. Kenny helpfully pointed out a video rental store, delivery pizza parlor (“the only one for miles”), a vast pachinko parlor, and one of many ramen places catering to the (Japanese) tourist trade. All the ramen and love hotels couldn't shake the distinct “rural” flavor of the place, though. People here drove huge cars, by Japanese standards (among them the massive Mitsubishi SUV in which I was riding), and the most popular store in town was a single AMANO, a big-box establishment whose Akita branch had looked and smelled to me like a Tractor Supply.This one was even larger than Akita's, and seemed to be filling more of the role of a Wal-Mart, judging by the signs in the windows: groceries, housewares, and, of all things, drive-thru liquor! What a pity Jeff Foxworthy wasn't here to see it-- if not for the fact that the cheap booze of choice seemed, from the contents of people's carts, to be 5-liter handles of the distilled potato spirit shōchū, rather than Bud, the unfunny redneck jokes would write themselves. We pulled in to let me buy an initial supply of groceries.

From inside, AMANO looked even more like Wal-Mart than I'd expected-- a weird familiarity that made the fact that I was being stared at by every other customer as I made my way down the “Soy Sauce, Broth, Curry, Chinese and Korean Foods” aisle seem even more uncomfortable. <Look, a foreigner!> shouted a little boy as I rounded “Rice, Noodles, and Seaweed”. <Amazing,> said an older woman, looking at the stuff I'd put in my cart (an astonishingly ordinary bunch of bananas, garlic, onions, 3 kilos of rice, cornflakes, soy sauce, cooking sake, vinegar, mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, tofu, broccoli, potatoes, and a box of concentrated broth) <He knows what he's doing!> Thanks for the compliment, I thought. I guess you're half right. Since I could now read far better than I could while I'd been at AIU, I certainly did move like I knew what I was looking for. But somehow, even as I pushed a cart confidently through the “Fish, Dairy, and Frozen Desserts” aisle, the sense of being between two worlds was stronger than ever before.

As I looked up the unit price on two brands of premixed noodle soup, the feeling hit with an enormous sense of profundity. I froze, bottles akimbo. “Having a moment, David?” asked Kenny.

“Yeah, I just got lost between A and 'Oh my God, I'm actually here.' I'll be all right”. And, after a moment, I was.

We picked up the keys for my apartment from the landlord, an ebullient fellow in jogging pants who stood with me against the wall of his office for a photo and made much, in accented English, of the few words that I exchanged with him in Japanese. We drove away from the coast, into a residential neighborhood, and pulled up to a long, low apartment building-- my building-- that sat abutting an expanse of rice paddies. Kenny and Stephanie helped me carry in my suitcases and laughed about the notes, in charmingly eccentric English “To avoid the coming in of little animals, even little Snakes, please keep the door closed in a night” that someone had left, especially for me, around the three-room suite. And then the door closed behind me and I was Here and There and Nowhere all at once, and definitely Very Tired.

L-R Kenny, Ms. Furuyama, me, Stephanie.

 Orientation wound down with my jet lag and up with my tension-- as much as I knew that these sorts of events inevitably involved the recital of the worst possible calamities that could befall me, it was hard not to worry at least a little about the extravagant scenarios that were spun out over the next few days. Apparently it was possible to be ignored by students, maltreated by teachers, fall critically ill, and then be arrested and deported for drunk driving on the way to committing suicide out of shame and depression-- as, we were told, had actually happened. Surely they didn't mean “to the same person”?

We were briefed once again on our assigned locations and in-country flight plans, and warned to carefully take note of our departure times the following morning. Not that it was particularly necessary-- my internal clock, still badly confused by the jet lag (and the fact that Japan Standard Time has no daylight savings and hence the summer sun rises over Tokyo at 4 in the morning) woke me well before my alarm.

Taken, at what should, by rights, have been dawn, from my room, I was led, along with the other Akita ALTs, in a procession (preceded by a hotel employee with a huge placard reading “AKITA”), to a line of waiting buses outside the hotel. We pulled away, waved onward by a line of two dozen bowing hotel staff, (including bellhops, chambermaids, and a gaggle of salaryman manager-types), and pulled on to the expressway, bound for Haneda Airport.

The flight north to Akita was less than half full, so despite my middle-row seat (on, of all things, a cavernous 777) I was easily able to see out the windows and watch the Japan Alps slide by underneath. Last time I flew north, the plane was filled with Red Cross earthquake relief volunteers and the peaks were snowy and ensconced in cloud-- this time, the slopes were a lush green and the seats on the plane not occupied by JETs seemed to be exclusively occupied by dozens of unusually pretty young mothers with unreasonably well-behaved toddlers in tow. One of these looked up from her designer diaper bag to bow slightly in recognition as she saw me mugging a bit for her grave-eyed 3-year-old son. Was it all a good omen? Some kind of coupon deal for Obon? This many young families headed to Akita didn't seem to gibe well with the fact of a population decline problem so bad that I picked up a weighty pamphlet last year, titled “Think About It! Akita's Low Birthrate”, which advertised local-government-sponsored group dating events!

A little light reading. That tree's got itself a saucy wink, doesn't it?

So this is how you get married. At least, with the assistance of the prefectural government.

The snow piles were gone from the taxiways at Akita's bus-station sized airport, but the formidable snowplows I remembered from my first trip north, mounted on 8-wheel-drive vehicles that looked like Scud launchers, were still parked on the tarmac in anticipation of a winter that could drop snowfalls measured in the meters. Driving in winter, as I'd have to do once the school year got into swing, seemed like an increasingly bleak proposition.

Ours was the only plane scheduled for arrival that afternoon, it seemed, but the vast number of expensive, gate-checked strollers to retrieve from the plane's hold seemed to have snarled the baggage claim process. I had a chance to roam around the claim area, reading the tourism posters that papered the walls. (A new campaign in progress seemed to revolve around punning their slogan, Akita Vision”, 秋田ビジョン on the famous Akita-bijin秋田ビジン、the legendary beauties of the North). And then, carrying my bag, I stepped forward into the Arrivals lobby to find my pickup. They found me-- a short, motherly Japanese woman, presumably the Oga Board of Education's JET coordinator, Ms. Furuyama, and my new co-ALTs: a, beaming Englishman, Kenny, and my counterpart in the middle-schools, Stephanie, a freckled Australian, gathered around a hand-lettered sign reading “WELCOME TO OGA, DAVID!”
I really had arrived.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


If I wasn't old Japan hand enough to remember that the cole for my slaw is sold separately at 7-11, at least I had known (albeit learned through secondhand advice through my parents, who got it from a Yokosuka-bound Marine) enough not to sleep on the airplane. When I woke up the next morning at 6:30, it was after a mostly full night of sleep generated by a vigil in the upright-and-locked position, rather than the hallucinatory haze of semi-consciousness (made worse by bad, bad, late-night TV) in which I'd spent my first night in Tokyo last year after sleeping more than halfway across the Pacific. 

So I was awake enough at breakfast (new ALTs rate summer-camp steam-table fare, but are served on Noritake china) to make a stab at introducing myself to a passel of zombie foreigners over our coffee and powdered eggs. Of the travel-worn young people in suitcase-rumpled suits, the most awake, (thanks to their mere 3-hour time gap), and, after Americans, the most numerous, were New Zealanders, with lesser representation from Great Britain, Canada, Singapore, and points elsewhere on the English-speaking map. While I sipped a second cup of coffee, I hunted up as many of  my fellow new transplant Akitans as I could. There were a scant 13, a number that, against, for example,  Hokkaido's 42, seemed surprisingly low. Were they having trouble filling their ALT slots up in the northern land of "rice and snow"? Perhaps the old ones never wanted to leave... 

Our table's worth of Akitans filled up a scant corner of the massive ballroom we were herded into after breakfast, where, in, what I recognized as a strange permutation of a typical Japanese school entrance ceremony, we were blessed by a series of hortatory speeches by a quorum of special deputy-under-subalterns for international exchange, bedecked in white rose "Honored Guest" corsages, before being dispatched for a series of informative seminars, covering drink-driving (Limit: 0.0, including bikes, Penalty: the strappado over Yamagata Correctional Center's 50m lavacuda tank, Number of times so far warned: 5 and counting), how to build a good working relationship with the teachers you'll be assisting  (appropriately: alcohol. No,  seriously.), and advice on lesson planning, classroom control, and a hundred other things that I struggled to get down in my notebook. Unfortunate, then, that, as the afternoon wore on, the seminars became increasingly harder and harder to follow, my dutiful notes began to degrade into schizophrenic writing behavior, and the weight of handout papers increased to an astonishing poundage. You just can't lick these jet lag demons.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chakuriku: Shinjuku

In the event, my flight over was dreadful (but aren't they all, really?), but at any rate, we landed where we needed to, and feeling the surreal, shambolic upswing of a Pacific's worth of jet lag, I was happy when, practically before I knew it, I was out of Narita Airport, being herded onto a charter bus, and deposited into a shared hotel room in Shinjuku without much in the way of thought. It wouldn't have been my choice of locations --a sterile, pricy business core,  Shinjuku hasn't got a lot in the way that counts as "local color". What it does have is most of Tokyo's overabundance of expensive high-rise hotels, a massive train station, government offices, and not a whole much more of interest,  excepting Kabukicho district, a notorious nest of salaryman-fleecing handjob parlors run by the Yakuza. 

Feeling none too interested in venturing far from the hotel (an impulse, I indulgently allowed myself to think, that in some sense made me a bit of a jaded, experienced "old Japan hand"),  in the gathering darkness, I threaded myself through a shopping arcade closed for the night in order to buy myself a salad and a beer for dinner at a 24-hour convenience store. I discovered only when I got back to my room that that I'd forgotten to buy a packet of dressing to accompany it. So experienced that shopping is routine, eh? There's a moment's illusion shattered for you. 

The ultra-modern ghost town that is Shinjuku on a Sunday night.
I rolled into bed and slept like the dead.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On the Road Again

And then, "in the time it takes to say あ" as Japanese say, This Blogger found himself saying a tearful goodbye to parents, liquids, and gels, and, while paging past the "Instructor" visa in his passport, wondering, (in a blatantly rhetorical sense), how it was he had come, a year after his return to the US, to be waiting for another flight back to Akita.

Regular readers of this blog (hi, again, Mom!) undoubtedly recall my brush last year with the JET Program, a Japanese government-sponsored exchange initiative that yearly coordinates the hiring and placement of around 4,000 people from across the English-speaking world by a maze of local and prefectural authorities across Japan. "JETs" are assigned to serve in small numbers as office-based 'international relations coordinators ("CIRs") or, in the overwhelming majority of cases, as assistant language teachers, (the in-the-know call them "ALTs") working alongside local professional teachers  in the English as a Foreign Language classroom. 

Fruit of a vogue for all things "internationalization" during the 1980's "Japan as No. 1" boom,  JET's star has fallen somewhat within Japan since the inward turn of the recession 1990s' "Lost Decade",  even as it has become, for the community of young American 'Japan fans' of gap year age, the de facto gold standard in "pre-career jobs", offering a decent wage and, for the motivated and skillful, a chance to actually fill an important niche in Japanese society, and (hopefully) pass on to one's students a sense of enlightened cosmopolitanism (as well, more mundanely, as a touch of one's regional accent, and a smattering of information on the holidays and characteristic foods of the English-speaking world). Hard to argue with that-- and hence it's not surprising that, in order for me to find myself here, I had to pass a multi-stage, multi-month application/interview screen with around a 1% pass rate.

Lucky as I was to make it through the screen and be selected as an ALT, I was still more surprised at my luck in my placement. Influenced perhaps by my mention of namahage, Akita's famed tradition of traditional (now touristic) folk Shintō-based child trauma in my application essay, JET elected to send me to Oga, in more modern times, the tradition's growling, bucket-carrying heart. Seated on a rugged peninsula (all of it part of my service area) that juts into the Sea of Japan, the location also promised a full share of scenic beauty, tens of feet of snow in the winter, and, I hoped, the same friendly curiosity and openness of character I'd seen again and again in the people I'd met in Akita last year. 

So it was that, after a day of stateside orientation, (whose highest point, a series of one-on-one discussion sessions with a passel of eager Japanese English teachers on professional exchange, redoubled my eagerness to get into the classroom and left me with a stack of business cards from new acquaintances impressed with my Japanese ability), I found myself once again steeling myself for the long haul to Tokyo.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

And the Adventures Continue...

... And then, an awful lot happened, and I stopped posting, while in the interim I finished a wonderful trip with my family while managing to live largely up to expectations as Amateur Translator, graduated from William and Mary, and secured a post as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET program, unbelievably in Oga, the same posting I visited back in July.

And now with the last strains of the hortatory speechifying of the official JET Orientation ringing in my ears, I set out (now in less than 4 hours) for my return to Akita, and (I hope) to regular blogging. Watch this space.