Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Another small taster of events ongoing: Last week and this, I've been circulating around the 9-odd elementary schools in the Oga area-- which means I've been finding myself over and over wandering the halls of unfamiliar buildings (largely empty thanks to Oga's declining population ) between classes,and occasionally, as I did on Monday, getting quite lost. So it was that I found myself down a wrong corridor on my way to the staff restroom at Funaichi Elementary, and found myself in the students' instead. You'd hardly know the difference-- except, of course, that this was posted over the toilets:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A New Addition

It's been a quiet weekend here at Green House A, but I've still been doing my best to keep busy. Winter is coming, as the already stale Internet meme has it, and with fall (NHK official as of Friday!) already starting to bring in some chilly mornings, I'm becoming quite uncomfortably conscious of the fact that my house has no insulation to speak of, like many Japanese domiciles. A quick trip out to the "recycle shop" (=used goods store, this one dubiously named "HARD-OFF") netted me one of the key ingredients in my winter plan: a good-as-new kotatsu. It only looks like a dorm room coffee table-- descended from earlier styles of cover/enclosure designed to fit over the open, in-floor charcoal hearths of old Japanese homes, the modern kotatsu is designed to hold a specialized quilt, or kotatsu-futon (available separately in decorator colors) under the upper table surface, creating an insulated space underneath the table that a hidden electric heater and fan brings to toasty heat, creating a central location for cats to snooze and families and friends to huddle together-- a reified cultural vision of Togetherness that the Armchair Cultural Critic in me wants very badly to blame for the otherwise inexplicable lack of central heat in many Japanese homes. What kind of family are you if you don't spend the whole day sitting around the same small table, eating New Years' mandarin oranges and bumping each other under the blankets with your ice-cold toes, after all?

Friday, September 21, 2012

A daily reminder that things are different around these parts: Did you know an apple Fanta ever existed?(the package tactfully notes "contains no fruit juice"). Just when I thought I'd tried all the vending machine fare to be had in Japan in my time at AIU...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Weekend Drive

My permanent car has finally arrived! Here's a brief video update on it (with bonus drive around town):

Friday, September 14, 2012

A brief note on a brief trip-- on the spur of the moment on our Wednesday half day, Kenny invited me on a road trip to Oyasukyo in the south. Without much knowing what to expect, I tagged along-and found myself (after rhetorically omitting the ensuing 1 hour drive) climbing down a steep set of stairs angled into a deep river gorge, which appeared, in the rainy late afternoon, to be steaming. It wasn't my imagination-- from the rock on either side of the ravine, geothermal steam and hot water sprayed into the river. Not surprisingly, the area around is known for its hot spring baths-- a reminder of the seismic forces that continue to shape the islands, and, now that I have the location in my phone, the possible destination for a road trip of my own!

It seemed fitting to top the evening's "hot rock" theme off with a bowl of ishiyaki ("stone cooked") ramen at a nearby specialist restaurant -- noodles and cold broth cooked instantly in a superheated granite bowl. Here I am dutifully following instructions by shielding myself from spatter with the provided informational placemats.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's been a tough week, but I'm starting to feel like my feet are under me at last. No gain on the play with NTT and the robot cats, so I'm still posting from my iPhone, but I received word that my new car has been inspected and licensed yesterday, and today, I signed paperwork and handed over a large sum in cash (1) to a woman who must've been the world's most nervous insurance agent(2)-- in an industry that makes its bones on worry.

In the classroom, I feel, finally, like I'm starting to get into the swing of things. Certainly, the students who are leaving me happy notes on their "after lesson review sheets" seem to think so.(3) Beginning next week, after a three-day weekend, we finally begin our "official" duties, going around individually, rather than as a team, to each of the area schools.

I'm sad to see the team teaching phase of our experience end. There's no way I've learned as much as I need to from Kenny just yet, and the whole "group training" experience of the past weeks took on a kind of Three Amigos vibe that would certainly not have obtained in the more "typical JET" sink-or-swim experience I was warned to expect when I entered the program. Here goes the real deal then.

(1) Japan being a famously cash-based society, all of the large transactions I have so far concluded, ranging from starting a new phone contract to, in this case, purchasing car insurance, have included the careful handing over, counting, and double-counting of large quantities of cash, drug-deal-with-the-Russian-mob style. It does add a certain frisson of illicit excitement to the whole affair, no matter how routine.

(2) Our agent, as she admitted to the BoE functionary who escorted us to the deal, couldn't speak a word of English and seemed to be positively, actually, terrified of me. Never before in my life have I actually seen someone cringe when I look them in the eye.

A teachable moment of cultural exchange occurred when I provoked giggles from Stephanie and Kenny by telling them later that our rep "looked like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs".

(3) Several classes at my schools ask their pupils to rate their own performance and write a brief reflection on the lesson after every English class. Astonishingly, all except for a few actually fill in the sheets, and often they're kind enough to compliment our performance as ALTs. Except for the girl at Higashi who writes only kaomoji. But she gave my first appearance a
.。.:*・゜゚・* *・゜゚・*:.。..。.:*・'(*゚▽゚*)'・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*so I get the impression things are going well.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Another in the "small moments of amusing weirdness" category. This hand dryer is in the teacher's bathroom at Oga Minami...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lazy Saturday Road Trip or; 80 km in a Tiny Pink Car

** Note: Well I'll be darned, the stupid phone put all my photos out of order. As soon as my summit with the robot cats is done, I'll have to go back and reorder 'em. In the meantime: Guess what paragraph each of these was supposed to follow!** The car people finally came through with a replacement vehicle to tide me over until my actual Corolla arrives. It's a free rental, sure, but it's got some high and some low points, to say the least. Chief among this is the vehicle's type-- it is a Toyota-branded kei-jidousha, (軽自動車, "light car") a class of micro-cars designed with Japanese road tax restrictions (rather, necessarily, than safety and comfort) foremost in mind. "K-cars", as the ex-pat community is fond of calling them, are limited by statute to a 660cc engine displacement (American motorcycle fans note this may be a smaller engine than your bike!) and to very petite maximum wheelbase, width, and weight limits-- most, hence, are consequently cubes of approximately the statutory size. These are the "tiny funny-shaped Japanese cars" people are thinking of when they think of "tiny funny-shaped Japanese cars." They are efficient (I got 21 km/L [50 mpg] today on mountain roads) and easy to park and maneuver in narrow village streets (as a bonus feature, mine can automatically fold and deploy its mirrors at the touch of a button) , but how anyone gets these things up hills in the Akita winter is beyond me. Although the light weight helps with mitigating the effect of the tiny engine displacement, the lack of power was distinctly noticeable in my example. Many K cars are extensively turbo- and super-charged to make up most of the rest of the deficit-- these look like refrigerators with hi-tech ram-air hood scoops, and sound, even at stop lights, like insane turbine-powered vacuum cleaners. The observant pedestrian might in time even learn to identify make and model by their distinctive flavors of compressor wail. Unfortunately, mine is naturally-aspirated-- and as a consequence I've been able to discover, while going balls-to-the-wall to keep up with traffic, that it redlines at around 9000 RPM, producing an engine note that sounds like a time machine with a leak in one of its singularity gromulators.

My k-car is also typical in having a harrowing lack of crumple zones, a fact that weighed heavily on my mind as I was driving through a surprise fall rain squall on Friday which left the road in flash-flood conditions. The Toyota saleswoman who handed me the keys on Wednesday was most worried, of course, about what, as a MANLY MAN, I'd think of the color-- a pretty, if rather fey, shade of rose pink.

And so, with a full tank of gas (all mine, as weirdly, I received my pink cube with the fuel light on), and good weather predicted on NHK, I set forth to drive the Oga Peninsula coast road in search of adventure.

Leaving Funakoshi, I first passed the harbor at Funakawa and the oil terminal in central Oga, before turning onto the coast road proper. The steep, rocky shore was dotted with jaggedly eroded islets among wide bays.
As I worked my way further westward, the road steepened and the steep, rugged shoreline was replaced with sheer, jagged cliffs. 23 km in, I stopped at Monzen, a coast village known for a 14th century shrine complex called Goshado ("Five Shrines"). As famous as the buildings themselves are the 999 rocky steps that lead to them-- asserted in some of my Japanese tour brochures to have been built in one night by namahage. I found the wooded trail entrance and paused for lunch midway up the first flight. As I climbed, passing a largish, newer Buddhist temple on the way, I wondered how on earth the demons had been allowed to get away with such shoddy work. The 999 steps were less stairs than a steep pile of irregular rocks. At last I passed the shrine's inner torii, after a tricky 10-minute clamber. To the side of the path, just inside the inner torii, was a well labeled "Mirror Well". A helpful placard (in an unhelpfully cursive Japanese font) explained that individuals who could not see their reflection in the water at the bottom of the shallow well were "fated not to live long." I wondered how they had gotten sick people up the mountain in the first place to try the "well test". Hundred yards ahead, the complex itself, a handsome row of five individual shrines, became visible through the trees. With the place to myself, I had plenty of time to donate pocket change to the resident deities and buy a protective amulet from an honor box at the main shrine.

After picking my way back down the 999 step rock pile, I got back on the road, headed for the extreme tip of the peninsula, Nyudozaki. The little pink car handled the mountain switchbacks surprisingly well, taking even the sharpest corners like a go-cart. A few more stops for photos later, I found myself at Nyudozaki. Here was a picturesque lighthouse that guarded the end of the Cape, a marker demonstrating our latitude at 40 degrees N, and, to landward, a profusion of slightly seedy souvenir shops and seafood ramen stands. One in particular caught my eye; from the signs out front and the looping, taped announcement it played constantly, the proprietor had seen a UFO at the spot years before, which had apparently left him with the secret for a tasty "UFO Ramen". I doubted it was worth 1500 yen a bowl, even if it had been inspired by extraterrestrials.

I wound my way home in the lengthening shadows, a burned mix CD spinning in the stereo, and plans (non-alien inspired) for dinner on my mind.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

An Important Discovery

The weekend that followed turned out to be an unexpectedly eventful one--on Saturday a Welcome to Akita dance party in Honjo, to our south, gave me the opportunity to talk to chat again with other JETs--and a surprising number of ex-JET lifers still working in Japan. One of these characters, Patrick, was so enthusiastic as to have made audible  progress towards mastering Akita dialect  (his study tip: buying beers for the oldest and crustiest looking characters in the local watering holes and drinking till his new friends started to make sense!) All the same, I wasn't really feeling the party atmosphere- but the fact that I was county-seat judge sober all night gave me an unexpected opportunity to begin my driving experience in Japan the next morning, as Kenny, never the type to miss a party, designated me to drive us home early the next day ("just to be on the safe side") As a consequence, the first time I drove internationally ended up being  with an unfamiliar, borrowed car with a manual transmission, on unfamiliar, left-side drive roads, after a bad night's sleep, with two hung over friends in the passenger seats. Talk about jumping in the deep end-but, a bit uncertain or no (though, actually worse than the  driving itself was the fact that I kept putting on the misplaced  windshield wipers to signal lane changes)  I managed to get us home without incident,  and with plenty of time for our big stage debut with the Higashi Middle PTA choir. Our performance was to be the finale of the annual school festival , held this year in the Oga City municipal performance hall.

  We were preceded onstage by Higashi middle school brass band, and choirs assembled from members of every individual class (1 – 1, 2–1, etc.) and conducted– a bit shakily-- by selected student representatives. I was more impressed by the accompanists, likewise classmates of the choir members.

As for the singing itself-- well, it went better than I expected. The ALT section stood out from the rest of the choir not only for our impeccable pronunciation, but unfortunately also for our only shaky command of words and tune.  Kenny managed to upstage all of us with a spontaneous outburst of operatic gesturing that drew a second round of applause when we reentered the auditorium-- and the priest had me nearly in stitches onstage when his soulful solo part was compromised slightly by his unfortunate tendency to substitute W for R Elmer Fudd style. ("We are the childwen!") The video, which we watched at least twice at the after-performance enkai that naturally followed, is amazing. I hope it will end up on YouTube, despite the 50ish cameraman's suspicion of the Internet... This time, the enkai test of foreigner resilience to delicacies was sazae, a turban snail (and namesake of the famed long-running manga franchise Sazae-san). They won't kill you to eat them, these turban snails, but I won't be reaching for them in the grocery any time soon-- they taste like crunchy rubber, with an unnervingly strong  iodine aftertaste that doesn't really go away until you brush your teeth for bed.  But I got brownie points for ingesting 'em, and it all gave me a chance to work a room for fun and networking  once again... More later!

Monday, September 3, 2012

** This post blogged via new smartphone. Rejoice! And understand that I accept no responsibility for hilarious spelling errors.**

Four days since I finished my last update, and I've started to get my sea legs-(Kenny sat in the back of class today while I taught an entire lesson by myself days ahead of schedule),while in the interim, we've spent days at Oga Kita ("North ") JHS and Katanishi ("West of the Lagoon") JHS, two of the other area middle schools. I haven't had quite enough time to take their full measure, but each seems to have a slightly different character student wise--boisterous baseball club boys and studious, shy girls at Katanishi, and a weirdly "un-Japanese" class arrangement at Kita (1) where under population has shrunk the enrollment of a school that could have accommodated 500 students to 35 (2)--and hence, with room to spread out, the students have been allowed the unusual privilege of moving between specialized classrooms (rather than waiting all day in a homeroom for succession of teachers). The first impressions I'm making on students and teachers seems, so far, to be good-a true relief, as I thought I'd be forever in my predecessors' shadow.

As I start to get used to Japan, Japan has, at least officially, gotten used to me- at long-lasting certified letter arrived this evening, bringing me my new residence card (3), which means that I'll soon be able to purchase a cell phone-and in turn, start sending emails and not international faxes home. Internet is the kind that allows for blogging will have to wait, as the Planet of Robot Cats seems to have produced a bureaucratic tie up with such unbelievable inscrutability that BOE personnel trying to untie the knots on my behalf came away defeated and confused.(4) where money is concerned, at least the utilities here are easy to navigate-I just stopped by the nearest Lawson convenience store to pay off my gas and sewer bill this evening, scaring the trainee clerk with my foreign face to such an extent that she mistook the next customer's request for an extra sauce packet as <Could I have another wet towel please?> .

And in my first act of adoption into the wider Oga community, my participation in Oga Higashi's School Festival has been officially requested (5) by the by the PTA. My task-to join a choir of local moms, dads, and to lower ranking teaching staff in a performance of Michael Jackson and friends' utterly forgettable 1984 for-charity single "We Are The World" on Sunday. It seems I've been given a solo-but while the first (and final) 3 1/2 hour practice I attended on Wednesday told me more than I ever wanted to know about how the Parent Teacher Association would like me to make my entrance and hold my score folder, I have neither been given sheet music or much more than three complete run-throughs of the song. It's going to be a cultural experience for sure!

1 Also the most inaccessible and the prettiest of all the schools, set on a high bluff overlooking the Sea of Japan. The constant seabreeze comes in awful handy.

2 This low figure actually represents the combined former enrollments of at least two other area schools that have since been closed-I pass their empty buildings on the way into work. The trend holds true across all of North Japan, where, "fortune in misfortune", as they say, all the empty gyms and cafeterias made excellent shelters for earthquake victims. Once the authorities inevitably close Kita, I suspect that Katanishi, whose total enrollment is just over 100, will be next on the block.

3 Looks almost the same as a Japanese citizen's ID, which means that there are way fewer anti-forgery holograms than the former gaikokujin toroku meisho. Darn. 

4 But apparently voice dictation on iPhones works-- if not exactly well-- then at least well enough to slooowly blog. 

5 This is understood to be a command performance. The PTA has ways of making you do what they say.

6 I've been hearing a lot about the song lately, as for some reason, it is also the subject of one of this short speeches chosen for the local middle schools' public speaking contest. So I can tell you not only that the project benefited from the combined talents of Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Harry Belafonte, and that it was recorded (with a cast of thousands) in an all night recording session, but that "Harry Belafonte" has got to be one of the most difficult phrases you can ask a Japanese middle schooler to pronounce in front of an audience. Indeed, the speech seems suspiciously to revolve around Mr. Belafonte, almost as if its entire raison d'être was to force fledgling English speakers to pronounce his name in as many contexts as possible. Likewise, I strongly suspect that a first-year skit about London exists solely to require students to repeatedly pronounce "Sherlock Holmes". The Ministry of Education is cleverer than I initially gave them credit for…

Despite my early bedtime on Sunday, I almost missed my 6:30 alarm for my first real day of school, so I was still scoffing my Brown Rice Flakes and tossing a nigiri into my Doraemon lunchpail when Kenny pulled into my driveway to take me to my first day of actual classes at Oga Higashi JHS. And 10 hours later, I'm finally home, and ready to give some of my first impressions of the day:

The students' English level was lower than I'd hoped for, but much better than I'd feared-- their pronunciation is as dodgy as you'd expect1, and the fact that all students (including special ed and those who would classify as gifted in America) are streamlined into the same classes2 means that the overall pace of progress is unexpectedly slow, but in the main, the kids themselves are enthusiastic, diligent, and extraordinarily endearing. You can't help but want to bust your butt on their behalf.

I'd expected (and been trained for) a lot more lesson planning than took place-- we largely hashed out the day's plans with the teachers we'd be working with upon arrival-- 15 minutes before classes kicked off. Kenny maintained this was the exception rather than the rule, and that Itō- and Suzuki-sensei, our partners at Higashi Middle, were in fact more focused on pre-lesson prep than most!

Especially in the Oga area, where 2 middle school ALTs are spread unevenly between 4 middle schools, and students' time with us is brief, the ALT's role is seemingly less to introduce or review new material than to reinforce in a more Skinnerian sense-- to provide a visible reward for English study in an environment where the material is boring and difficult, progress is slow, and only a handful of other people within hundreds of miles speak anything other than Japanese. In practice, this means we're called upon to look friendly and interesting, clown around a bit, and play a lot of learning games, rather than “teach” per se-- although when the semester heats up I'm told that we'll be teaching a lot more “serious” lessons.3
Kenny took the lead for half of the morning's classes, then hung back a bit and allowed me and Stephanie to hash our way through ALTing in the last two of the day. From my TA ing experience at William and Mary (not to mention the TESOL class I took there and the various performances and public speeches I was made to do in my formative years) I'm not as uncomfortable in front of the blackboard as I could be in a worst-case scenario, but I'm certainly not as comfy as Kenny, whose blithe and quick-thinking personality (and seemingly bottomless reservoir of memorized learning-game activities) made him perfect for the improvisational settings we were thrown into. The guy is a natural clown, and he's got his classroom “persona” as a teacher all figured out. I was able to take a page from his book by spicing up an ultra-boring singalong to the Beatles' “Hello Goodbye” we were required to do by vigorously soloing the “WHY WHY WHY WHYWHY WHYYYYY DO YOU SAAAAY GOODBYE, GOODBYEEEEEEE?” bridge, eyes closed, back arched, knees bent, and sweat towel4 rolled into a microphone. It worked (three sleepy classes in a row about died of laughter, and perked up for the rest of the lesson) but I still feel a bit inconsistent and dorky rather than comfortable in my new persona as “David-sensei”5.

Last: Unsurprisingly, teaching is hard work. I had some forewarning of this and thought I'd adequately prepared myself for this factor, but after trying, with Kenny's help, to inspire some of the decidedly less-enthusiastic classes at Higashi, I felt like a wrung sponge by lunchtime. It only gets harder when you have to stay after school until 5:45 for not-mandatory-but-actually-understood-to-be-very-mandatory6 “volunteer” coaching for the municipal Speech Contest, in which we minutely picked through the pronunciation, gestures, and intonation of several of Higashi's better English students as they delivered various reading passages from their English textbooks, and self-written (though teacher-edited) 'personal essays' as oral addresses.

All in all, it looks like I'm off to a running start already.
1For students taught hitherto by second-language speakers of English, and living in a situation that isolates them from authentic speech in that language, I'd actually say they're doing pretty well. That being said, the sounds made by the letters L and R in all their positions, especially word-internal and terminal, consonant clusters without vowels intruding as they do in Japanese, the ð and Ɵ sounds, B, P, S, terminal T, W, and English's stupidly profligate number of vowels are giving all of 'em a load of trouble.
2Does wonders for the esprit de corps, of course.
3In both senses of that word. A well-known second- year reading is an ultra-depressing passage about a series of hideously botched wartime attempts at euthanizing the elephants in the Ueno Zoo, which leaves a nasty aftertaste of higaisha-ishiki in my mouth.
4Actually called a tenugui, “hand-wiper”. A necessary accoutrement of Japanese summer, carried by all, from construction workers to office ladies. I own three already and am already feeling the need for more. Wear it rolled up round your neck and tucked into the collar of your unbuttoned shirt. Wipe your brow and your bare arms from time to time. Use it to dry your hands when you hit the restroom. Quietly wonder to yourself whether the public service announcement poster on the wall across from the clock that says “Children learn best when the classroom temperature is 20 Celsius (68°For below” is supposed to be taken as a cruel joke when you're working in a school that has no AC on a humid day in the mid- 30s (90's °F).
5Ranzini-sensei is felt by all who surround me to be too difficult to pronounce. And anyway, ALTs are supposed to be less “formal” in their roles as teachers than are the local Japanese teachers of English. Stephanie and Kenny, whose last names are rife with nasty Anglo-Saxon consonant clumps, likewise go by first names. That office personnel at the BoE have also decided to call me “David-sensei” bothers me slightly, however, as it suggests that I'm not being 'properly' fit into the normal social hierarchy and instead am being categorized as a Droll Outsider. Ah well, I suppose it can't be helped. Kenny tells me that students in one class at Katanishi JHS prefer instead to call him “Mr. Kenny”, which seems somehow even weirder (if, weirdly, cuter).
6A common feature of all Japanese workplaces but especially so in the teaching field. I've lately been told by our bosses at the BoE that we've also got to work unpaid on Sunday this week, as “paperwork hasn't been filed properly by the school” to give us the compensatory time off we're contractually entitled to for attending an all-day school festival at Higashi. Since the “time off” in question would mean a taking day at home away from the Internet instead of getting my fix of delicious tubes at the Board Offices on the following Monday, this is, for now, not the end of the world. Indeed, it is probably the means by which this post was eventually uploaded, many days late.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

** Note: As astute readers may have noted this post and those that follow are from last week. Internet access remains nonexistent at Green House A, and I'm still stealing wifi when I'm at the Board of Education, which is now rarely. Bear with me as I struggle to upload my posts according to some semblance of a schedule!**

Another gap of several days off the Internet, and I return with tales to tell. Events transpire slowly in Japanese organizations1 but momentum is building for sure. Beginning Monday, I've been assigned to spend a week of live training observing Kenny in action, one of the final steps before being let into the classroom myself. Marking the end of my period of introductions at the Board of Education, meanwhile, I was dispatched on Thursday to the Prefectural Public Employee Training Complex2 for yet another bout of overnight orientation.3

Friday, too, proved to be a critical milestone for my induction into the local school system as Stephanie and I were feted at a school board enkai, or drinking party, where, after being made to give an impromptu speech of thanks for my appointment and hope for the year ahead4 we were plied with experts-only seafood5 and heroic quantities of alcohol.6

Saturday took me out in search of more summer fireworks-- this time 2 hours down local lines to the Ōmagari Fireworks Festival, pitched as Japan's largest fireworks show, and a forum for the nation's finest makers of fireworks to show off their newest creations in front of a live audience of 100,000. That Ōmagari's non-festival population is less than 25,000 should give you some idea of the scale of the undertaking, which began7 late in the sweltering afternoon8 with “daylight fireworks” (huge mortars that deployed sparklers and multi-colored smoke bombs floating on parachutes) and carried on late into the night with the usual earth-shaking, color-shifting pyrotechnics and eccentric musical accompaniment9

A fantastic show-- even considering that a mixup in the return plans I'd made with Kenny combined with the snarled shuttle trains out of Ōmagari that night to get me back into Akita Station at midnight, alone and much too late to make the night's final train back to Oga. As it transpired, I was forced instead to spend 20 bucks on a sleepless night in Comic Buster, Akita Station's combined manga reading room and internet cafe.

Internet, Internet everywhere, and not a wink to sleep...
And if you get bored of the Internet there's plenty of rules to read, I guess, and... what's this?

Permit me another self-indulgent “fun with translation” moment, if you please. Translated naively from the Japanese, the slogan for this cell-phone game advert reads “Why not experience some online games?” but expresses that meaning using an expression [体験、 taiken, “[bodily] experience”] that implies sexual experience of the type that, (forgive me), cellphone game enthusiasts are, shall we say, unlikely to have accrued. A translation that more adequately expresses this connotation would read something more like “Online Games: Are you experienced?”, though I venture to say that the knowing expression of the Level 69 Dark Elf Hierodule they drew on the left already makes that point just fine...

It took many an Oronamin C Sunday morning before I had genki hatsuratsu'ed my brain into a fit state to complete the final planned event for the weekend-- an excursion to finalize the purchase of a car, the last of the Necessities of Oga Life. The Board of Education seems to have exerted itself in providing car-hunting assistance on my behalf-- rather than merely telling me to go shopping on my own, the BoE called around before my arrival to used car lots in the area and found a vehicle and a dealer that struck them as good.

Prices (even on cars-- I was warned not to insult the dealership by shamelessly haggling) are fixed in Japan, and I can't find any actual Edmunds-style used car valuation websites, but the research I was able to do using stolen Geology Museum wi-fi suggests that the BoE and the dealership both did quite right by me.

In the end, the car I was shown, (and provided a slim dossier on) was a reasonably priced and nearly rust-free silver 2005 Toyota Corolla with low mileage, fake burlwood accents, a built-in toll-fare paying credit-card reader, and a unique feature that, (like excess locks on an apartment's front door), was surely meant to reassure but somehow made me more anxious-- four-wheel drive.10 Having already seen the narrow, steep roads that I'd be taking (rain or shine or snow11) to reach several of my schools, the fact that a market exists in this region for small passenger sedans with 4wd12 only reinforced my building Winter Driving Dread.

Ostensibly because the vehicle had no number plate, I was not actually permitted to test drive the car beyond a quick trip around the parking lot-- but I was allowed to have the car put on a lift, and personally inspect its underbody for rust and damage. There being no apparent problems with either my quick parking lot jaunt, or the car's underside, I decided to buy the Corolla-- only to be reminded, yet again, of how far I was from home when the actual contract-signing process was delayed for 3 ½ hours by much hemming and hawing about the appropriate rendition and ordering of my middle name!13 On the one hand, the wait was made less interminable by the continuous attention of what seemed to be a dealership employee whose sole job it was to serve potential car buyers an endless supply of mocha-flavored chocolate milk, tea and cookies.14 On the other hand, my word as a foreigner being considered inadequate to purchase used vehicles, the process was further lengthened by more forms that Ms. Furuyama was also required to countersign for me as a guarantor (two cheers for xenophobia!) Cash and carry this was not-- in the end, in fact, I was told that I'd next see my new vehicle in 3 weeks15, when the car's new number plate (and my official certificate from the police that I possessed a parking spot) was complete.

But in the end, all went well, and I went to bed early on Sunday, exhausted and newly in hock to Toyota Financing of Akita but, at long last, just about to get my first chance to stand at the head of a Japanese classroom.
1The general Japanese tendency towards recondite bureaucracy is, of course legendary, and my JET assignment is poised to push me further into the nebulous Sargasso of official paperwork than ever before. In particular, I've over the past week become deeply becalmed on the route to a home Internet connection by a foul-up between the national phone company, NTT, and my ISP here in Oga-- or so I am informed by the agent of Yahoo Broadband who summoned me, fresh from the bathtub, late on Thursday to ask me to confirm my personal information with NTT before my application could proceed. (The catch: It is impossible to complete this process outside of restricted banking hours, or from any phone other than my home!). There is a plus side: This being Japan, the bad news was delivered using only the finest-pitched respect language, and in a sugary, ingenuous tone of voice that is otherwise the preserve of robot cats. If it will take 4 weeks of irritating paperwork to get Internet, at least I'll get to imagine my customer service representatives' fluffy ears twitching obsequiously all the while. Hang in there with me, readers.
2A sprawling complex of late International Style cement, incorporating a 4-story dormitory (nearly unoccupied except for our group of JETs) with its own public bath, cafeteria and conference center, a satellite campus of Akita Prefectural University, a high school for the disabled, and an outpost of the prefectural education department.
3At which Kenny made an excellent presentation on teaching techniques for middle-schoolers, and we were warned again about Japan's harsh drink-driving regime (bringing the minimum number of times we've been warned to at least 20. as well as a multi-drug resistant strain of chlamydia recently detected in circulation. Oh, great.
4It was taken for granted that I would perform in Japanese, which I took to be an honor. I took my audience's frowns of concentration as a reminder that my own command of keigo remains stumbling at best.
5For your reference, with select examples from the meal:

Green Circle: Kappa-zushi, maguro, saba, and engawa sashimi, half a roasted fillet of a crumbly, rich-tasting fish (mackerel?), pickled ginger and burdock root.
Blue Square: Raw octopus tentacles in creamy spring onion/wild ginger dressing
Black Diamond: Raw whole shrimp
Double Black Diamond: Crab innards with miso.

I've also been told to look forward to being fed whole gravid
hatahata, one of Oga's famed local fish (my dictionary gives only the generic “a type of sandfish” and the scientific name Arctoscopus japonicus) when another drinking party welcomes the end of the fall term at Christmas. If I heard right, though, hatahata (and their eggsacs) are considered way better fermented. For (not) the first time I'm hoping I made a mistake in translation...
6A proud tradition of the enkai, designed to permit the kind of barrier-free chat and reciprocal glass-filling between superiors and subordinates encapsulated in the charming Japanese-English word nomiyuunikeishon (“Drinking-communication”)-- as well as, in this instance, to facilitate a less-than-covert test of my manhood on the part of my supervisors. I seem fortunately to have been judged worthy without being forced to the extreme lengths of drunkenness reported by some former JETs (numerous stories circulate about unspecified friends of friends who woke up in the office tea-lady's bed after their welcome enkai), though nearby objects did begin to leap out most inconveniently at me when I moved around the room. Always remember to drink responsibly, folks!
7But not before what sounded like a small crowd of Buddhist and Shinto clerics was brought in to bless the fireworks while the volunteer fire brigade was busy wetting down the grass around the launch point. I say “sounded” because for some unknowable reason the actual ceremony was carried out well out of sight of the audience, behind the protective berm, and so far out of earshot that I was only just able to recognize two well-known Shinto invocations and a mid-length version of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra being chanted.
8The temperature was helpfully announced over the PA every fifteen minutes or so-- which is how I can tell you that it peaked shortly after 2:30 PM at 33 degrees with 76.1% humidity.
9Mid-50s swing music freely intermixed with Japanese festival fife-and-drummery and dubstep remixes of well-known Disney theme songs, the latter almost certainly unlicensed.
10They threw in snow tires in the deal as well. I appreciate the gesture.
11Snow days being almost unknown in Japan as most students live quite near their schools and hence only the teachers (who are expected to sacrifice for everyone's behalf) must risk their lives while driving in to work.
12And not just Corollas either. When I looked in the Board of Education's parking lot, not a single car in the place was 2wd, all the way down to the compacts. One of the office staff, a wee slip of a thing, actually drives a lifted Toyota Land Cruiser that could comfortably seat 8, and would probably make it across the wind-sculpted carbon-dioxide snowdrifts of polar Mars. How bad is the winter in Oga, really?
13Japanese names do not have this “exotic” feature and consequently their bills of sale, loan papers, and other triplicate-filed forms do not either. Along the way to actually getting the papers signed and filed (and not just spindled and destroyed as “mistaken” like the first 4 copies), I was also made to explain the concept of the British double-barreled name, and “Junior”. So this is what they were talking about when we were exhorted to be cultural ambassadors at that Embassy party...
14I exaggerate slightly. The same woman was later on hand to offer me my signing bonus for the financing: a Corolla-branded file folder, a matchbox model of my new car, and, of all things, an insulated Doraemon lunchbox.
15In the meantime, I'm working on names for her. Kanji puns, of course, are foremost in my mind.