Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent in Akita

The things I do for my students... Oh, my aching scissor-fingers! 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lakes and Snakes

I love it when a plan doesn't quite come together, sometimes. Kenny and Stephanie and I had planned on joining in on a waterskiing trip nearby ALT Derek had put together for Saturday, when...

Yeah, no. 
... the weather intervened. Fortunately, it didn't take long to put a backup plan together:

And so, rain or no, up the coast we sped, in search of interest-- Kenny, his girlfriend Fumie, Stephanie, and me.

 We spun past Noshiro and Happō-cho on the western coast, another pocket of familiar territory from my time at AIU. I easily picked out the training center where I stayed with the Aikido Club, a roadside stand where I had sweet-potato flavored soft-serve, and the turnoff to the shrine where we trained, kung-fu movie training montage style, under an ice-cold waterfall (and, amazingly, forgot completely to blog!):

The coastline from afar on a much nicer day (July 2011)

And closer in...

The mountain shrine, where we were blessed in preparation for our training...

And the sacred waterfall-- spring-fed and very, very cold.
No shortage of sharp rocks, either-- most character building!



Good times with weapons, we might say.

Just over the border into Aomori, Fumie nudged Kenny. <Oh, that's the turnoff for Juniko! Have you been there, Kenny? I went there with my school once-- it's really pretty!>  "A what, love? Lakes? (1) OK!" Good enough for us all. We turned off the main highway and up a windy mountain road, huge beeches and cryptomeria whipping past as Kenny, for whom the best part of a "road trip" was clearly the speedy driving, did his best to fling his mild-mannered Camry through the curves.

<Stop here! It's not too much further to Aoike! It's the prettiest one.> said Fumie. We pulled over, hopped out and started up the road.

<Hmm, I'm not sure this is where we stopped when I came with the school-- we parked up further over here, I think...> Fumie said as we walked uphill from the car. <Well, the sign says it's not too much further to the trail>, I said, looking back-- and paused just in time as I caught something out of the corner of my eye. "WHOA, IS THAT A--?" 

It was, indeed a snake, less than a meter away, lying still enough to be dead. It looked awful familiar from an outdoor safety poster at one of my schools...

<Yikes, look at its head-- that looks like a viper. Fumie, is that one of the poisonous ones?> --<I can't remember! Is it alive?> "I don't want to find out... I'm sure that guy's poisonous." "Stephanie, does that look poisonous to you?", asked Kenny. "Doesn't look like any of the ones we've got"... (2)

We skirted the snake and moved on, turning into the forest proper... and a short hike later: 

Despite the name, I was still expecting Aoike ("Blue Pond") to be a little larger-- but it sure was as blue as advertised-- a shockingly bright azure. <No one knows why it's that color> said Fumie. <Has to be how clear the water is, I guess. There's fish in it, so probably it's not dissolved metal...> 

We paused to take a photo on Fumie's iPhone. 

No stranger to iPhone filters is Fumie, clearly.
We walked back to the car without further herpetological incident. 

"Let's head up the coast a little further-- there's a really cool spot in a town up here somewhere", said Kenny. 

We drove further northwards as the sun sank slowly, passing rocky harbors filled with moored squid longliners.

"Which town was it...Ah, here it is-- the big rock out there", said Kenny, after an interval. "Let's go, guys!" 

We'd stopped next to a bus stop labeled "Ōiwa-mae" (In front of the Big Rock)-- and wouldn't you know it, there was indeed a big rock-- a craggy islet in a rock-bottomed bay with a conveniently paved path leading to it. 

Like so. Click to ludicrously embiggen.
It wasn't just a path up to the rock, as it turned out-- the town had helpfully dynamited a set of loose, slippery stairs through the middle of the rock.

We reached the top of the rock with the beginnings of a lovely sunset developing over the sea-- and mother seagulls we'd accidentally flushed from their nests wheeling around our heads. We took our pictures...
Pardon the interruption, ma'am. 
 ... and headed homewards once again.

(1) Juniko=十二湖="12 Lakes". I later read that there are closer to 39 but, after all, "Sanjukyuuko" doesn't have the same ring...

(2) It was what I thought it was-- the Japanese mamushi, one of two poisonous snakes in the archipelago. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Japanese-Style Driving

They'll have my blogger's license if I have the temerity to describe events that happened a month ago as "recent", but you'll have to excuse me-- the Board of Education's been getting more than its money's worth now that school has restarted in a real sense.

Since we spoke last there's been a lot to cover-- for one thing, the continuing saga of Drivers' License Conversion.

We left off after the first stage of this process, in which the officials of the Akita Drivers' License Center   eagerly sought the answers to important questions, like whether or not I'd ever driven a Toyota, before letting my license conversion application proceed to the practical test stage.

Reservation in hand, I took time off on a weekday to return to the Akita Drivers' Center for a run at the practical driving test, making sure to arrive well within the 30-minute window from 8:30 to 9 during which all applications for the day must be submitted. Forewarned is forearmed: the process went about as well as I'd been led to expect by the usual JET-run expat advice sites...

(Center employee vigorously attempts to pantomime the act of reading): THIS... FOREIGNER... INSTRUCTIONS...! YOU... READ?

One of the daily-varying permutations of the driving course, which you're required to memorize turn-by-turn before taking the test. Surprising fact: the course for license-converting foreigners is longer and more complex than all of the others, including the ones for tractor-trailers and construction vehicles.  

...which is to say that after an exciting half-day of having a mountain of expensive paperwork rubber-stamped by the same gang of bored jobsworths that processed my initial application, the authorities called forth from the lower circles a thick man with a thinning crewcut and a Kim-Jong-il jumpsuit to watch me drive a retired taxi carefully round an enclosed track and find fault with my mirror adjustment.

The final result?

 Examiner: <... And pull up to the line there, uh, I mean....> "RA'IN... SUTOPPU, NEH?"

Me: <All right, to line 6, right?>

Examiner: "...YESSU...OK.... ENJIN... SUTOPPU?"

Me: <All right.>

The examiner leans across the seat towards me, clipboard in hand. He's uncomfortably close in the car. It smells like he had a XXL shrimp Cup Noodle and a half-pack of Mild Sevens for lunch.

Examiner: "YESSU...."

Me: --


Me: <Well, yes-->

Examiner: <All right. Well, let's see. As for your performance on the test, a few words. First. Here in Japan, we always make sure other cars can see us when we're making turns. So maybe 100 meters away from the corner, we always put on our turn signals [Japanese/German:winker] and make sure other cars can see us. You're putting yours on maybe 50 meters away. Very American to just turn without asking! So first, make sure to ask [Japanese-English appeal] to turn corners.> "APIIRU! APIIRU! WINKA APIIRU! PURIIZU?"

Me: [Recalling the Japanese folks I saw making unsignalled turns that very morning] <I'm terribly sorry. I must have forgotten where I was turning while trying to remember the course!>

Examiner: <Oh, and another thing. When we turn right on two-lane roads, we change lanes to the right lane. It's called a "turning lane." You missed the turning lane here... (pointing to a one-lane intersection on the map) ... and here (a section of the course where the road narrows to less than a single lane). Two times!>

Me: <There was a turning lane there? I'm so sorry!>

Examiner: <Yes. And make sure not just to look in all three mirrors but over both shoulders before and while making a turn.>

Me: <Both shoulders? While turning the corner?>

Examiner: <Yes.>

Me: <I see...>

Examiner: <So, I'm sorry to say, but I can't pass you this afternoon. You'll need to reschedule for a later date and pay the testing fee again. That's Window 50 inside the main building. Window 50. 50. Do you understand? 50!>

Me: <Yes-- Window 50 is the one labeled "Foreign License Conversion" in big characters, yes?>

Examiner: <Window 50... "FIFUCHII!">

Me: <I suppose I'll be back soon. Thanks very much!>

Examiner: <...>

The examiner pauses as if about to say something, but catches himself short, his face frozen between expressions. What on earth is he doing? He's not waiting for me to say something, but the conversation clearly isn't over. The moment begins to stretch uncomfortably. What can he possibly be trying so intently to say? You can almost feel him searching around for the appropriate gear inside his head. A ten-to-twelve second slice of eternity crawls by.

Examiner: "SOU...


His expression glows with self-satisfaction.

Me: <I see. You know, that's great English!>

Back to square one it was-- and so it came to pass that I found myself taking the road test some weeks later. I'd been alone on the road on my first outing, but this time the course rumbled under the wheels of  immense strip-mining front-loaders driven by nervous-looking testees being watched by still-more nervous examiners. This time the result was different:

Examiner: "OK".

Me: <Does that mean I passed?>

Examiner: "OK".

 Did the immense machines distract my ride-along from my "American" signalling? I didn't stick around long enough to find out!

Victory! And well under the JET average of 3+ tries! 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cooking With David*

Got back to school after Spring Break to find that I wasn't "officially" scheduled to actually teach for another couple of days. Good thing I had pictures of the tarte Tatin I had cooked a few days back...

Here I replicate the slightly weird method of the original recipe I used. At least it's easier to explain than the usual "saute' the apples in melted butter mixed with sugar" approach. 

The final result in place. At time of writing, I saw at least one kid diligently copying down the instructions for later reference. English Teacherman's  work here is done, ladies and gentlemen! 
*But of course, the title of this post is a reference to the offbeat Cooking With Dog series of Youtube videos! Here, have a link:

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Here's the control panel of the treadmill at my "local" (45 min away) gym-- which, apart from demonstrating that I don't exercise enough, also shows off its charming "game" feature: displaying your calories burned as various Japanese foods and drinks-- many of them, not surprisingly, drinking party fare ("1 glass of beer", "1 shochu highball", "one plate of sashimi", etc) Can't but help thinking that their estimate here for tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) is a little lean-- or should I say, the machine is telling porkies?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Here in the land of Vending Machines, one need never go thirsty. Even if your run has left you in need of a HYBRID ENERGY DRINK that has been heavily SCIENCED!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Before the deluge (of tears): The scene during part of Minami's week of in-school graduation rehearsals. 

 As unmistakeable signs of spring began to make themselves felt after the long Akita winter, the school year wound down towards the end of the Japanese school term in mid-March, and I found myself marching my students through final reviews for their high school entrance exams even while marching myself through a parade of mandatory end-of-year office parties. By the time it was all over, and I was sitting through the lachrymose middle school graduation ceremony at my favorite school, (1) I'd been at it wall-to-wall for weeks.(2) But when at last the songs were all sung, all the pictures posed for, and Spring Break arrived at last, it brought no rest for the weary.

Well no real rest anyhow.

Where most other developed countries send their teachers home or to continuing ed courses during the school breaks, here in Akita, teachers are sent to do desk work at their home schools when students aren't in (3).  Hence, since my "home" desk lies at the Board of Education, just as I was in the long weeks before the school term in August, I was sent to the city office to "work" for two and a half weeks.

And there's only so much time to be killed with making new classroom materials, alas... 


And only so far you can go with kanji studying in a day.

But with oceans of time at my disposal, at least I had plenty to spare on one of the last bureaucratic rites of passage for my time in Japan-- converting to a full Japanese driver's license.

Technically, it was a bit early to start this process-- under various international conventions on road traffic,  the International Drivers' Permit (a paper folder with a pasted-in photo that looks right out of a spy movie) I was driving with remained valid until August-- but hey, I figured when Ms. Furuyama suggested it, there's no time like the present. Especially when the driver's license process is, I recalled hearing,  a headache even for locals-- a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of bureaucracy.

Ms. Furuyama made a few calls and put a brave face on matters:

Having paid 3,000 yen to have the data on my license officially "translated" by the Japan Auto Federation, and armed with a further half again that sum, my IDP, my US driver's license, passport, my Japanese residents' ID, a notarized certificate of residence from the city office nearest me, and "passport" photos of a precise and different size than ordinary passport photos,  I "merely" was to present myself precisely between the hours of 2 and 4 PM at the Akita Drivers' Testing Center and there take an interview and schedule an appointment for a written exam, eye check, and practical driving test (to be taken at the office's convenience from a week to months later).

Not too pleasant, at first glance. I hit the English-language Internet-- to find the licensure proceedings being described in earnest on the usual foreigner-assistance sites as "arbitrary", "nonsensical", "prejudiced", and "evil". Ouch.  

Although blessed with a much simpler application process, (4) Stephanie decided to come along, and, always up for a road trip, Kenny offered to drive us all into town.

We got underway at 9-- first stop, the JAF office (5), where we drank tea and read each other facts about Colorado, Oregon, and New England from outdated AAA Tourbooks in the waiting area while we waited for the (entirely monolingual) staff to "translate" our English cards into Japanese.

A quick ramen-and-springroll lunch by the time they'd managed to get their papers in Ordnung, and we made it to the testing center --an isolated, disreputable-looking 70's complex that looked unnervingly like an abattoir-- with almost half an hour until they opened the license-exchange desk at 2. So far so good. We were even able to prevail upon the woman behind Window 50, <FOREIGNER LICENSE EXCHANGE> to let us drop off our bundles of paper a little early and usher us to our waiting seats-- set a little distance apart from the "main waiting area", of course.

"So, why is everyone sitting and waiting over there for so long?" asked Stephanie, motioning towards the ranked crowd of Japanese DMV visitors as we took our numbers for the interview test.

"I expect waiting until their number gets called so they can do the paperwork they came to do. So it's different in Australia?"

"You either do everything on the Internet, or you make a reservation to come in to VicRoads and do everything right there without waiting. Isn't how that works in America?"

"Oh man, God save the Queen, seriously".

Across the lobby, we read signs and watched the wheels turn slowly. A bank of automated kiosks lined one wall, apparently for the use of holders of new IC-chipped drivers' licenses-- but it was guarded by a rope-barrier and a female subaltern who intercepted any attempt to take advantage of self-service.

Time passed. A platform-shoed college student picked her way towards "Eye Testing" like a newborn giraffe. Kenny's phone ran out of batteries, and  he and Stephanie switched to playing at making eye contact with unsuspecting starers.(6) In the main hall, someone had equipped his preschool-aged daughter with perfect shoes for a day at the drivers' license office-- yellow car-shaped sneakers with vinyl "tires".

A door next to Window 50 opened and a pair of examiners in stretched sweatervests and name-badge necklaces emerged. <Ah, excuse me? Ah, er, could you all come with us?> they asked Kenny. <Yes, well, Stephanie and I are applying to exchange our licenses for Japanese ones...>, I answered, hopefully.

The functionary nearest me almost glanced nervously in my direction before recovering himself.  <Oh, then would you follow us?>, he asked Kenny again, indicating a small beige cubicle with a printed sign reading <CONFERENCE ROOM> taped to the door. Looking through the open door, I could that the folding table inside almost touched all four of the walls.

 We found our seats and waited politely for the officials to finish stepping back and forth over each other's chairs, unloading two bulging file folders filled with triplicate Xeroxes of our documents, and clicking their pharmacy-giveaway five-in-one pens. While the scrivener opposite me searched the pockets of his elastic-waist chinos for the blue highlighter in his shirtfront, I had plenty of time to read the whole-page blowup of Stephanie's driver's license on the top of the pile in front of me.

<Ah, well, uh er, then, let's start with the gentleman from, uh, Australia>, the near guy said to Kenny, pointing across the table at me.

<Actually, I'm the American....>, I started, tentatively. Across the table, the official sucked air through his teeth as if he'd just broken a nail.

 <Ah, I, uh, see. Uh.... JAPANIIIZU? OK? OK?>

<Yes, that's fine. Go ahead.>

<Ah, well, then, let's uh...> Switching piles with the second examiner, my interviewer rummaged through the stack, emerging with a two-page print-out headed <INTERVIEW QUESTIONS>, a copy of my drivers' license, and two more wood pencils.

<Err, so is this date correct?> the examiner asked, circling the renewal date on a copy of my driver's license with the duller of the two pencils.


<Ah, I uh, see. And did you own a car in America?>


<What kinds of car did you drive?>

<As in make and model?>

<Ahh, err, yes!>

<Mostly a 4-door sedan; a Toyota Camry..>

<A wh...>

<A Toyota Camry.>

<Ah, a Camry? Oh, you know Toyota!>

<Yes, that's right. Also a Toyota Previa-- that's a large van. They sell it here as the "Estima.".>

<Anything else?>

<A few of my friends' cars. And a manual-transmission pickup truck. A Ford Ranger, I think.>

[Writing busily in a middle-schooler's ground-in hand] <A... Ford.>

<And did you drive these cars?>

<As I say, yes...>

<And can you tell me the dates you left America between getting your license and now?>

<Well, I took a couple of vacations in Europe. They were all just for a week or so. I like traveling, you see.>

The examiner quailed visibly.

<Ah, err, then>, he started uncertainly, leafing through a complete Xerox of the back pages of my passport. <Well, we'll need to uh, establish, that you were driving for at least three months before you came to Japan, so, uh...> He pointed to a stamp marked "2008". <Starting from here...> <What country is this from?>

<Looks like Ireland.>

<Ireland... And this says... 2000?>

<Should say "2008". .>

<And... MEEEEIIII ...? >

<Means "May" in Japanese, yes, that's right.>

<And then you came back in....?>

I leafed through my passport for a likely looking reentry stamp. <Looks like this is it. Only a few weeks later.>

<And this one?>

<This says "Frankfurt", so Germany. 2009.>

<But there's this mark here...>

<D in the circle means "Germany".>

<Oh, I see. And then after that...?>


After a quarter of an hour, the back of one of the passport-copies was covered with a complex matrix of circles, arrows, and dates that looked like a mandala drawn by a kindergartner.

<Ah, well so, it looks like you were indeed driving for three months between here and here, then.>, he said, circling two dates a week apart with a highlighter. <So, when you got your license in 2009, what kind of lessons did you take?>

<I took an online course and private lessons in 2005, yes.>

<In 2009?>

<In 2005.>

<But this says...?>

<The letters "1st REN" stand for "renewal". Just like the foreign word renyuuaru>. 

<So, this... is your date of birth?>

<I believe that's when this card expires in 2018.>, I said, allowing slightly too much respect language and just the beginnings of an icy edge to creep into my voice.

<Then... in... 2005, errr, how did you learn to drive? [Crudely pantomiming holding a steering wheel] Was there a, uh, road test?>

<You start with classroom lessons and a provisional permit...>, I began...

By the time I'd explained the American driver's licensing system and been called on to explain the number of questions and passing score of the drivers' ed exam, the exact number of hours I'd spent learning to drive, the day I received my full permit, and give an estimate of how much a drivers' ed course cost, and the tax-horsepower engine displacement of an American-spec Camry (7) it was nearly 4:00.  Down the table, Kenny and Stephanie were attempting to make plain that the "smudge" on the Xerox of her driver's license was a hologram of the Victoria State Coat of Arms and therefore different from the Australian Great Seal on her passport. At last both examiners put their papers in order, and turned again-- to Kenny.

<Well, ummm, that's all we need, then. In about a week we'll call you both to schedule the written exam and the road test for... Mr...>

< It's Ranzini. >

<For the lady from Australia, we'll, uh,  do the same, but she'll only need to take the uh, eye, uh, test. Thank you, uh, all... Do you understand? OK?>

<Perfectly. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.>

"Well, good work all round, eh, guys?" said Kenny as we walked back to the parking lot. "Took a while but looks like we told them what they needed to hear!"

"Yep. But if that was the interview, I wonder how the practical will go...?"


(1) This was Higashi-- and there was truly not a dry eye among the entire graduating class. Even a few of the underclassmen and teachers shed tears. One mountainous rugby boy was actually paralyzed by sobbing while onstage. I understand their perspective-- after all, after half a year of excruciating test prep, the class is all going their separate ways. Some of them, I'm sure, wept to lose their friends, and some out of sheer relief. Stephanie and I got a lot of mileage out of telling inquisitive teachers and students we'd cheered at our graduations.

(2) Hence my absence from this scene.

 (3) Those who coach the sports and culture clubs spend the days leading their students, who likewise give up their breaks. The rest of the faculty all report to work, where there's nothing much to do and, from what they tell me, more or less do absolutely nothing while earnestly attempting all the while to give the appearance of intense activity.

(4) Australians and citizens of most other nations ordinarily get approved without having to take the full course of testing-- but for a few, notably China (bet you saw that one coming), the hurdle is much higher. In the case of the United States, some ignoramus apparently decided that it would be necessary to separately negotiate differing approval procedures with all 50 US states. (Apparently nobody took the time to explain the relevant parts of the  US Constitution to the poor devil, not to mention the appropriate state and federal laws..!)  Canadians are subject to the fast-track approval process-- rumor has it that the negotiations took decades, and really did involve knocking out a deal piecewise with all 13 provinces and territories!

(5) Hilariously the parking lot of the automobile association was perilously narrow and its poorly sited driveway was graded in such a way as to scrape Kenny's undercarriage a good one on the way in!

(6) The effort to avoid Stephanie's gaze, especially, looked to be causing a few unfortunate peekers actual physical pain.

(7) I have a taste for hyperbole, it's true, but I promise I am not making any of this up.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A little something Kenny and I ginned up while excessively free one afternoon... How infinitely fitting to do a board on winter adventures in the beginning weeks of spring!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Today was apparently "take home office supplies day" at the Board of Ed... No sweat when there are so many of these lovely Showa Era ones forgotten in the closet...!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My Kind of Weekend, Part III

Our Wednesday festival took us a little further afield to Kakunodate, known best in fair weather for its 武家屋敷/buke-yashiki "Samurai-house" district, a street or two of the preserved stately homes of 19th century provincial samurai, as well as a lovely municipal walking path along the Hinokinai River that features hundreds of century-old cherry trees and draws crowds in the thousands when the blossoms are at their late peak.

It's all this sort of thing when the weather warms up.  

Kakunodate in winter is much less the tourist hub-- but its empty municipal parking lot makes a perfect venue (wide and fireproof) to preserve its traditional midwinter festival, the Hiburi Kamakura.

Why a parking lot? The festival's Japanese name (火振りカマクラ, "Hiburi Kamakura" should tell you all you need to know. Many villages in Akita feature midwinter festivals based on the making of kamakura, or snow houses, and the Hiburi is no exception (though Kakunodate's kamakura are really more like snow lanterns than igloos)...

... but at Kakunodate the main event is unmistakably the hiburi, "fire-swinging". After lighting bundles of rice straw (I've heard them called tenpitsu, 天筆、"heavenly brush") from a bonfire in which the previous year's New Years' decorations have previously been burnt (closing out the old year and removing its misfortunes),  the flaming mass is whirled around in a slow circle, warding off sickness, guaranteeing "the flourishing of the five grains (1)", and flinging chunks of burning straw to the four winds.

We arrived as the fire-swinging was already in full swing, judging by the low-burning bonfire, the festival ground's thick coating of smoking debris, and the phalanx of amateur photographers all trying to get the perfect shot from the same vantage points.

One of the older guys on the verge grabbed my arm as I was just pulling out my camera.

<Oh, a foreigner!>

<Ah, yes, I suppose so...-->

It was easy to smell the beer on his breath, even through the smell of burning rice straw.


<Oh, thanks, I guess. I was wondering-->

"YOU WANT" [switching into Japanese again] <Swing. Fire. Yes?>

<Well, I suppose so-- is it OK if I give it a shot?>

<Here. Come. Yes.>

Maintaining his firm grip on my arm, the guy marched me over to a pile of pre-roped strawbales.

<Ah, this guy wants to try. Seems he's a foreigner.>

<Ah, well, I guess you can tell just by looking, can't you! >, I said, as graciously as possible.

Apparently convinced by this token that if foreign, I was at least able to speak normally, the straw monitor handed me a bale and began herding me into the middle of the arena. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the photographers nearest me busily adjusting their settings. Now THIS was the shot they had been waiting for, it seemed. <OK, hold the end of the rope, light the end of the bale, and swing slowly!> Feeling slightly rueful that I wouldn't have the chance to get any photos of the moment off of the hundreds of be-vested retiree hobbyists with midlife crises' worth of fast telephotos now trained on me, I began swinging the burning straw round myself. <Perfect, perfect, just like that... no, too fast!>, the monitor instructed me, standing just outside of my swinging arc. Even on a two-meter rope, the heat and light from the bale was impressive. It was a bummer when after only about ten or eleven swings, my tenpitsu disintegrated, flinging smoking ash in the direction of some of the more intrepid photogs. <HERE TAKE ROPE> yelled the tipsy farmer. "NO... SICK... YEAR".

<They took a ton of pictures of you>, said Fumie doubtfully as I walked back towards the edge of the swinging area. <I wish I could do it again so I could get someone to take some pictures of me-->


<Oh well, I guess I can get pictures of Kenny at least>.

And indeed I did:

"HEY, KENNY!" someone called in English. A passel of Akita City ALTs were crossing the Swinging Area, dressed in blue happis and headscarves marked KAKUNODATE CITY TOURISM ASSOCIATION. "Where did you get those outfits?" asked Kenny. --"Where did you get the straw? You have to pay 500 yen and borrow the clothes before they let you do it!" "Looks like we just got the gaijin discount over here!" I said. Behind us, an older fellow lit up a bale while holding his young grandson.


"I'm gonna get another bale!" said Kenny, striking off towards the other side of the arena. And wouldn't you know it, he pulled it off.

I had enough time while the last bales burned to eat a food-stand okonomiyaki and have a good go at talking with strangers, including a garrulous local ex-teacher, who was practically only kept from talking to me all night about the local homestay program he'd organized by the start of the finale fireworks.

And then we headed for home with fried food in our bellies and burnt straw in our hair.

(1) Those are wheat, rice, beans, and millet [there are two kinds of millet, awa and kibi] for those of you playing along. Though their practical significance to Asian (Chinese and later Japanese/Korean) society is obvious, their ritual significance was also such that abstaining from eating them, and so metaphorically partaking not of the "common world", played an important role in various premodern ascetic practices