Monday, September 24, 2007

Gaijin Traps. Doh!

I am a good driver in Japan.

I have learned how to drive on the left. I've gotten used to turning on the wipers where the blinkers are supposed to be, and the blinkers where the wipers are supposed to be. I even like the beeping sound my little car makes when I put it in reverse.

I am a good driver. I am a good driver. I am a good driver.

So how did my car end up in a ditch this evening?

My little piece of the Japanese inaka has a lot of rice paddies. And those rice paddies need a lot of water. So, the Japanese have built deep cement irrigation ditches that run along side most roads. On major streets, these ditches are covered with nifty metal plates. But on residential roads, like the ones near my apartment, they're wide open. Because Japanese tend to hug the center line when they drive, these ditches aren't a problem. But for Westerners, who have been taught to stay away from the middle of the road, they're trickier. That's why we JETs have lovingly dubbed them "Gaijin Traps" (Foreigner Traps).

And tonight, I met a Gaijin Trap first-hand.

I was on my way to "play tennis with Mr. Nagata" (read: get my a$$ handed to me by a 75-year-old man) and his tennis club when I realized I'd forgotten my wallet. The club charges 200 yen (2 bucks) to help offset the cost of the court rental, so I'd need to pay up. I was just a few blocks from my apartment, so I thought I'd turn around, but there was a car right behind me. So I drove ahead, pulled into a neighbor's driveway, and attempted to back up.

That's where it all went wrong.

Yup, I backed right into the Gaijin Trap. Both of my back wheels got stuck in the ditch. I put the car into drive and attempted to pull out, but no luck. I got out of the car and attempted to straddle the ditch and push, but no luck. I turned off the radio (that's what you're supposed to do in these kinds of situations, right?) and sat in the driver seat, trying to figure out what to do.

I was trapped. I was embarrassed. And my car was completely blocking the narrow street.

So I called The Best Neighbors on the Planet, two fellow JETs who have lived in Fukui for a year, and told them that I was stuck in a ditch. Before I could even continue, the neighbor I was speaking to put the phone down to yell to the other, "Sara's Gaijin Trapped!" I heard some muffled laughter. Then he picked the phone back up and told me they'd be over, with a third friend, to help me out.

I'm sure there was more laughter after we hung up. And I probably deserved it. But in my defense, the inaka is really, really dark, and those ditches are really, really sneaky.

So The Best Neighbors on the Planet helped me lift my car out of the ditch. It only took three of us (it's a really small car), plus one to give it some gas. They didn't even laugh at me to my face.

The Suzuki escaped the Trap with only mild scratches. And I was only a few minutes late to lose my tennis match with Mr. Nagata. All in all, not a bad evening.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

For the Love of Español

I bruised my butt on the way to the bar last night.

It's not what you think - there was no alcohol-induced falling involved. Rather, I was sitting on a rack on the back of a bicycle, holding on for dear life as my friend and fellow JET (we'll call him "Steve") peddled down the streets of Fukui-shi. The rack dug in with each bump in the road, leaving my 尻 a bit on the sore side today.

But these are the sacrifices a girl has to make to be able to speak a bit of Spanish in Japan.

Steve and I share a love of all things Latin. We both speak decent Spanish (Steve's able to rock the Portuguese, too). But we're still Japanese newbies, so communication with the locals has been a humbling experience for us both. We miss being able to, well, talk to people.

But all hope for communication is not lost - Fukui is blessed with a lot of Brazilians. They've been coming here for generations to work, and have created a great community in a town called Takefu, just south of Fukui City. So, we decided that spending Friday night at Fukui's finest Brazilian bars would be fun. Portuguese is closer to Spanish than Japanese is. Plus, Brazilian beer is tasty.

We took the train to Takefu. But upon arriving at the station at about 9 p.m., we discovered that there would be a few glitches in our well-laid plans. The last return train left at 11 p.m, so we'd need to work fast. Unfortunately, neither of us knew our way around Takefu. And neither of us knew enough Japanese to be able to ask for proper directions.

Working in charades and broken Japanese, we drew on the kindness of a a railway employee, a taxi driver, a hotel concierge, and a woman working at a video store to help us navigate the streets of Takefu. By the time we made it to the bar, it was 9:45 p.m. We'd only have 30 minutes before we needed to turn around and head back to catch the train.

So what if that left us time for only one beer? It was a sweet, sweet beer.

The bar was tiny. Five patrons sat around one of the bar's six or so tables, playing cards as Portuguese television blared in the background. When Steve and I walked in, all conversation ceased as five sets of eyes looked us over.

It could have gone very, very badly from here. But it didn't.

One of these "patrons" actually turned out to be our server, who politely greeted us in Japanese. But it was when Steve mustered a Portuguese "hello" that the bar warmed up to us. And when I told them I spoke Spanish, they erupted with a hearty "¡está bien!" We passed a delightful 30 minutes chatting in lively mix of Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese, or "Jap-ish-guese," a language we all seemed to speak and understand perfectly, though I suspect that this sudden fluency was aided by the beer.

Our server had lived in Takefu for 14 years. Her cohorts - the guys playing cards at the next table - had all been in Japan for at least a decade. They joked with me in Jap-ish-guese as I observed their game. A few minutes later, a woman and her daughter sat down - the girl was 10 years old and had been born in Japan. She spoke better Japanese than she did Portuguese, though you'd never guess by looking at her blue eyes and blonde hair. Is it weird to be jealous of a 10-year-old's language skills?

As bizarre as this scene was, I loved every minute. Who knew that it would take Brazilian bar in the middle of the Fukui inaka to make me feel at home in Japan?

The beer(s) finished, we made our way back to the train and to Fukui City. As it was still early (11 p.m. trains have a way of keeping the night young!), we decided to meet some other JETs at a nearby pub. Steve had left his bike at the station, so this is the part where I found myself half-sitting on a rack, dodging cars and pedestrians as my bum got sorer by the minute.

So was it all worth it for 30 minutes of español?

¡Claro que sí!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bring it on, Hakusan!

After having (barely) survived my 12-hour trek on Mt. Fuji, I'd promised myself a break from mountain climbing for a while. But some fellow JETs invited me to climb Hakusan ("White Mountain") in neighboring Ishikawa prefecture over our long holiday weekend. One of the three holy mountains in Japan (Fuji is also one), Hakusan was not to be missed, they told me. It's smaller and more scenic that Fuji, they told me. We'd take a break from climbing to sleep in a lodge, they told me. Sounded like a great plan.

But there are some things you can't plan for. Typhoons, for example.

The climb started out wonderfully. We couldn't have asked for better weather as we zipped up the "difficult" trail toward the summit. We passed through fields of wild flowers, groves of pine trees and scenic bluffs. We stopped for lunch on a ridge that overlooked the entire Hakusan range. Beautiful, puffy clouds dotted the bright blue sky.

But the higher we climbed, the darker the sky got. By about 2200 meters - too late to turn around and seek shelter - the sky opened up and the rains began. And they didn't stop. The typhoon was upon us. I'd never seen anything as beautiful as the lodge peeking through the sheets of rain at the end of our 5-1/2 hour ascent.

Though we arrived soggy and chilled to the bone, we passed a lovely evening at the lodge. With the typhoon howling around us, we introduced "beer pong" to Japanese guests in the lodge cafeteria and were rewarded with gifts of homemade plum wine and salmon jerky from a guest named Saito-san. We snuggled under layers of fuzzy blankets, lured to sleep by Saito-san's wine and weary muscles from our 2500 meter ascent.

The next morning dawned overcast but warm. We worked our way to the summit shrine, only to find that the typhoon wasn't quite over. About halfway to the top, we were greeted by more rain and more torrential winds. At the top, we dug celebratory sake and potato chips out of our soggy backpacks as the wind howled around us.

We managed to smile for a few pictures, but the celebration was short-lived. We were hit with hail - yes, hail - wind and more rain on the way down. The experience made me long for Fuji, which by comparison, was an easy, hail-free climb. Nearly three hours later, we arrived at our car at the bottom of the mountain. As the clothes on our backs and the clothes in our backpacks were soaked, we hunkered down for a chilly ride back to Fukui-ken.

Needless to say, it may be a while before I complete the Japanese holy mountain trifecta!

Rice is Nice

Rice harvesting time is upon us here in Fukui-ken. And the paddies near my apartment have been dotted signs of the season. Expensive farm equipment plows through some plots in a matter of minutes, but I've also seen 90-year old women stooped over, harvesting by hand. So the harvest is representative of the many dichotomies that exist here Japan: technology or tradition, East or West, modesty or public nudity...

Yes, public nudity. Well, almost.

On Saturday night, my host family kindly invited me to the rice harvesting festival in Maruoka. The evening started off at their home, with a delicious dinner of roll-it-yourself sushi, complete with fresh cuts of sashimi prepared by Grandma Youko. We sat on cushions around a table in the family's tatami room and enjoyed conversation in broken English and Japanese. Dinner - including the rice harvested from the family's plot - was amazing.

We then headed down the street to the festival. First stop was the community center, where we met with a swarm of people crowding around a sunken stage. This was part of a 200-year old festival tradition. This was also where the public nudity came into play.

Dozens of grown men donned sumo-style underwear (e.g. a white strip of cloth covered their 'parts,' with a thinner strip covering not-so-much of their backsides), along with short white robes on top. They were competing to lift a hollowed-out log above their heads. This fierce competition, of course, involved them bending over to pick up the log, exposing their underwear - and everything it didn't cover - to the audience. In attempting to photograph the competition, I inevitably got a lensful of 尻.

During breaks in the competition, the log became a bowl into which unrefined rice was poured, and the men took mallets and danced around the bowl, pounding the rice into flour. They chanted. The scene was fascinating.

The log competition won and the rice pounded, we headed to the neighborhood shrine and waited for the men to follow. They walked barefoot to the shrine, armed with a basket of freshly-prepared rice balls. Festival-goers were instructed to stand in a circle, and the men walked in the middle, dropping the rice balls intermittently. The crowd dove for the balls like they were money - for 200 years, they've believed that these rice balls bring luck for the year.

And I got one, but not by my own merits. It came complements of my host brother, who apparently is much more adept at rice ball-diving that I. We'll see how much luck it brings in the coming year....

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rock Star Moments

When I was preparing to leave for Japan, the folks at the JET Program warned me that I might encounter a few "Rock Star Moments" in Fukui. The locals would be curious about me and I might get more attention than I was used to at home. Like earthquakes in Japan, one never knows when these moments might occur. The trick is to always be prepared and to remain calm.

So my first Rock Star Moment occurred on Saturday in the gym of Sakai Junior High School. Of course, I was looking sassy in my pink cheerleading outfit (see the "So Cute, It's Scary" entry). But backstage, I was a little apprehensive. I hadn't rehearsed the dance routine, so I had a small knot in my stomach in anticipation of the humiliation that lay ahead. The skirt on the outfit was too tight for my giant gaijin waist (though it seemed to fit the guys in our group just fine!), so I was having some trouble moving (read: breathing). And the backstage area of the stage was without A/C or circulation, so I had beads of sweat dripping down my face.

Very attractive.

But as the "Pecori Nights" soundtrack started, our group of five teachers ran on stage and 500 middle school students left their assigned seats to run toward us. They were screaming, "Sara-san!!" "Sara-san!!" They cheered and waved even as I completely botched the routine. They gave us high-fives as we left the stage. I laughed the entire way through. It was the best 2:58 of my life.

If only I could get them to be that excited about English.

My second Rock Star Moment occurred just a few hours later, on the streets of Maruoka-cho. I'd lost the attention-grabbing pink outfit, but three girls junior high-age girls spotted me anyway. They ran toward me and asked if I was an American. I smiled and nodded.

What ensured was a full five minutes these girls screaming, jumping up and down, and asking to touch my "blonde" hair. Passerby stopped to stare at the source of the noise. I learned that I was the first American girl they'd ever met. What an honor. They broke out their camera phones and asked for a picture. Of course, I had to reciprocate with a picture of my own.

So, I'm a Rock Star here in Fukui. So what if my biggest fans are 13-year-olds? I'm trying not to let it all go to my head.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

So Cute, It's Scary

There's a reason that the Japanese words for "cute" (kawaii -- かわいい) and "scary" (kowai -- 怖い) are so similar.

His name is Gorie.

Gorie is a cross-dressing Japanese cheerleader with a penchant for pink and pigtails. His hit music video "Pecori Night" will be the inspiration for a dance routine at my school's cultural festival on Saturday. The dancers in this performance include four Japanese middle school teachers ... and, yes, me.

And we'll all be dressed in pink cheerleading outfits. My fellow teachers have assured me that this is all very "kawaii." I think otherwise.

A week ago, one of these teachers/Gorie wannabes innocently asked me if I'd be interested in dancing with them at the cultural festival. I instantly (read: stupidly) agreed, thinking that the "dancing" might involve traditional Japanese music and choreography. And, hey, maybe it'd give me an opportunity to bond with some of my fellow teachers outside of the staff room.

Little did I know that the "dance" would involve dozens of super genky cheerleading-inspired moves and a flamingo-pink mini skirt and cheerleading top that don't fit, despite the fact that they're labeled "men's" size (kind of kowai in itself).

The worst part is that I'm the weakest link. After three hours of after-school practice, I still don't know the routine. And I'm the only one. Apparently, the Japanese are pre-programmed for this sort of thing, as my fellow dancers mastered the entire thing in approximately 7 minutes. So, tonight, one of them lent me the Gorie CD, complete with a step-by-step illustrated guide to the routine. She suggested I practice.

I'm blogging instead.

So, tomorrow morning, I'm bustin' out "Pecori Nights" for the 500 students at my school, their parents, and the teachers who are smart enough to be sitting in the audience instead of dancing on stage. Here's what we're supposed to look like:

Of course, I find this all hilarious. Sort of.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Kindness & Lucky Poop

People are very kind here in Japan.

But their kindness comes in subtle ways.

It's in the way that the girls on the Sakai track team were helping me learn Japanese during a break in our workout on Thursday - by drawing hiragana and katakana characters in the sand and quizzing me. I received thunderous applause when I got one right (which wasn't that often!). They were genuinely excited for me.

It's the way that the secretary at school shared her secret chocolate stash with me after lunch on Friday. I'd commented that I liked chocolate (the words are similar in English and Japanese - or maybe it's just a universal sentiment among women!), and a sweet treat magically appeared on my desk.

It's the way that my host mother made time in her busy schedule to take Jess and me to an origami museum in Ishikawa on Saturday. And the way her girls, though they weren't quite sure what to make of the two foreigners hanging out with their mom, darted around the museum gift shop to help me find lucky poop stickers.

Ah, yes - lucky poop. Add this to the list of random things that I love about Japan. The Japanese word for luck, "un," shows up in the word for poop, "un-ko," so the Japanese have this fantastic appreciation for lucky poop. I first became aware of this at the museum gift shop, where Jess and I questioned our host mom about a golden poop souvenir that was available for a mere 500 yen. The shop was also stocked with metallic stickers, featuring unko with smiling faces. Awesome.

I've since noticed a lucky poop icon available on my cell phone for text messaging, and plush lucky poops available for the winning in crane games at the arcade. Poop is lucky, and it's everywhere!

But back to the kindness of my host sisters - the fact that I knew how to say "unko" crossed the large cultural, language and age divides that existed between us (the girls are 9 and 11 years old) and made them giggle. After our tour of the origami museum, we headed back in to the museum gift shop, only to find that it was closing. I had made an earlier off-handed comment that I'd like to buy the unko stickers as a gag gift for a friend, and the girls remembered that. They ran ahead of me, grabbed the stickers, and ran back, determined to help me make the purchase before the shop closed.

Now that's kindness. I'm 150 yen poorer, but infinitely happier for having purchased my very own うんこ stickers.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Kids Got Game

Today was Sports Day at Sakai Junior High School.

This morning, I rolled in to work with a green t-shirt (I'd been asked to support team MIDORI - yes, it means "green" in Japanese) and no expectations. Given the language barrier that exists between me and, er, everyone else at the school, I wasn't really sure what was in store. Sure, teachers have been busy prepping for the past few days, and students have been running around with paint brushes and bits of fabric, but in my mind, Sports Day would amount to some cute 6th graders playing tug-of-war.

Turns out it was a pretty big deal.

The day kicked off with the local media arriving, students performing an opening ceremony complete with a torch lighting, and four teams competing for three jam-packed hours of relays, sprints, and, yes, tug-of-war. The senseis (teachers) got to participate in a couple of relays, so the tradition of making an a$$ out of myself continued...

After lunch, the track meet turned into a pep rally, with each team of students performing an original, four-minute cheer they'd written themselves. The cheers were impressive enough (at least I think so - I couldn't understand them!), but the student-made costumes were amazing. Whereas any costume I'd worn as a middle schooler most likely involved a sheet worn toga-style, these kids' threads involved actual tailoring. Turns out those that weren't at English Camp with me had spent their summer vacations creating dresses and capes and pom-poms. As my students say, sugoi (awesome!).

So, for being in the middle of a rice paddy, Sakai puts on a darn good show. I got a bit photo-happy and took more than 300 pictures (these kids are soooo photogenic!), but I'm sharing only a few with you here. Watch out for these kids in high school!

Monday, September 3, 2007

わたしのかぞく (My Family)

Meet the Ohsakis, the lovely Japanese family that has agreed to take not one, but two, clueless gaijin under their wings. The Ohsakis are my new host family here - we met on Sunday for a get-to-know-you lunch. Pictured here are only three of the family of seven (Mr. and Mrs. Ohsaki have two other children, plus grandma and grandpa live with them) and a fellow JET who's "sharing" them with me (hi, Jess!).

How cute is my imoto (little sister)? Her siblings are 11 and 13 - roughly the ages of the students I'm teaching - so this will be a great way for me to learn what makes a Japanese 'tween tick outside of school (I need all the help I can get, as I don't think I've hung out with Jr. High students since I was one). They're an incredibly sweet family, so I'll look forward to spending time with them!

In the DJ Booth

Being gaijin (foreign) in rural Fukui isn't easy (if you need this point illustrated, go back and read any of my past blog postings), but it does carry with it a certain amount of perks. For example, if you get lost, everybody in town knows where you live, so you never have to worry about directions. Or, if you're shopping for clothes, the whole process is incredibly streamlined because you already know that you're a size XXXL.

But perhaps the biggest perk is that you're a bit of a local celebrity. Case in point: a group of us JETs got invited to do an hour-long show on a local station called Tannan FM. No pitch, no script, no strings attached - incredibly liberating from my days in PR!

The show was good in theory, but a bit tricky to execute, given the language barrier. We got lost on the way to the station, so we arrived just 30 minutes before we were supposed to go live on air. Word of my past radio experience got a bit lost in translation, so I had to explain that no, I didn't know how to run a "mixah" or actually produce a show. But we finally found our way into the DJ booth.

So, what's a gaijin to do when she has an hour of dead air to fill? Bust out the I-Pod! We Lady JETs talked about our home countries, impressions of Japan and culture shock while we spun music from our favorite artists. Our tastes in music - the Beatles, Lily Allen and Mana (que viva Mexico) - proved to be as diverse as our backgrounds - the UK, South Africa and the USA.

The experience actually turned out to be a blast. We're looking at being regulars on Tannan FM - we'll be rotating with a group of guys for the "coveted" slot of Saturday at 3 p.m. So, next time you're in Fukui, please tune in!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Taiko + Suika = Fun Times

Taiko is traditional Japanese drumming, which is fun all by itself. But tonight, we got to do taiko and eat suika (watermelon). What else could a gal ask for?

A JET neighbor introduced me to taiko - I'll be drumming every other week as part of a class offered in the community. But today was special: it was the annual watermelon festival, held in a neighborhood just south of my apartment, complete with drumming, dancing and - yes - watermelon.

I arrived a bit late, but festival coordinators handed me a festival robe and invited me to jump right in. They'd set up a pair of drums near the neighborhood shrine, and I channeled my days in high school drumline and pounded away. A second festival area featured yukatta-clad locals dancing in a big circle - sort of the Japanese equivalent to line dancing, but much cooler. There were a handful of JETs who decided to participate - the neighborhood kids thought we were quite the spectacle (they were right!).

Taiko was a blast, but perhaps the highlight of the evening was the dinner - no, the feast - we got to enjoy at the taiko sensei's (teacher's) home. Drumming works up quite an appetite, and we got to gorge ourselves at a table full of delicious Japanese goodies waiting for us at their home - sashimi, noodles, shrimp, bamboo and rice. Sensei is over 70, but looks like he's in his 50s, so maybe there's something to all of this healthy Japanese food...

...or maybe it's the Japanese beer.

...or maybe it's all that drumming. I'll let you know!

School Daze

Friday was my first day of actual work in more than six weeks - my first day on the job at Sakai Junior High School. These idle hands were getting a bit restless, so it was nice to actually earn my paycheck here in Japan. (Yes, I've been getting paid since I landed in Tokyo in July - what a sweet gig!!)

At 8 a.m., I was in the staff room, delivering my introductory speech to all of the Sakai JHS teachers (in Japanese - I was NERVOUS) , and at 9 a.m., I was doing the same dog n' pony to the school's 600 students (only this time, in English, thank god). A student council representative reciprocated with a greeting for me, in English, which was the cutest, kindest thing I've experienced all week, and hundreds of uniform-clad Japanese middle schoolers welcomed me with thunderous applause. I think I'll like it here.

In the afternoon, students prepared for the all-school Sports Festival, which will be held next week. Today's task was to clean the grounds all around the school, but I missed the memo about bringing a change of clothes to do the cleaning. So, I was outside in my business suit, sweating through the jacket as I hauled grass clippings and weeds to a burn pile with a group of 7th graders. Classy as usual.

In other news, I'm going to be helping out with the school's track team. I joined the team practice on Thursday - the school doesn't have a track, per se, so we run through the rice paddies. I went for a 30-minute jog with the girls' long distance crew and learned some useful Japanese in the process (ikimasho, or "let's go" and gambatte for "try your best").

I also learned that apparently I have a small face.

When they weren't staring at my long, pasty-white, mosquito-bitten (see: Ono Camping Trip) legs or commenting on the sweat pouring through my shirt, the students kept telling me I had a small face. They'd giggle, stare, and then tell me again. I'm not quite sure how to take it, but for now, I'll consider it a complement!