Checking in

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Directional sign in downtown Portland

It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived. I am having fun, eating too much, meeting with old friends and family. I also have taken care of paperwork related to living outside the country and have run lots of errands.

The weather has been great, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow and Tuesday (it’s still Sunday here). Most public schools start on Tuesday so families are enjoying the last weekend of summer.

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On a hike with my sisters

I landed in Seattle and stayed for a couple of days with my parents. Then I came down to Portland, Oregon to take care of “business” and to meet up with old friends. I’m leaving on Tuesday to go to Southern California to visit my brother and his family and next Saturday I’ll finally see our kids in San Francisco. I can’t wait. 

I’ve wanted to write, but I haven’t had much free time. I will write again in the next few days. 

I hope everyone is doing well. Have you been meeting with your classes? What have you done? How has the weather been?

Will write soon. I do miss Saiki and all of you.

5 Years Today

view from the top of Karakunidake

View from the top of Karakunidake

It’s been exactly five years since I came back to join Jiro in Japan. We weren’t sure how long we’d be here and we still don’t know. I am not ready to reinvent myself once more so we will stay for the time being. It still feels like we are treading water, but this has become a second home for us. Sounds trite, but it’s so true: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

one of several caldera lakes

one of several caldera lakes

I just finished the first half of the first semester at the university and it is so much easier this time around. I love having another colleague to share ideas and observations with. I didn’t think I wanted to do this job long term because of the commute and a desire to garden and cook more, but it so satisfying to be engaged and busy.

Jiro has been offered a two-week workshop at Haystack in Maine in August 2014, so we are talking about using that as our starting point for a 6-month trip to Southeast Asia. We have talked about travelling for several years now….it finally feels like a real possibility.

Looking towards Shinmoedake which erupted a couple years ago

Looking towards Shinmoedake which erupted a couple years ago

We haven’t really settled since Ba-chan’s death. We are stil trying to get rid of stuff and reorganize our living spaces. It’s hard when we are both so busy with work. We’re hesitant to spend much money if we aren’t going to be here long, but to really set things up, we need to invest a bit into updating some furniture and appliances. Right now we’re making do, but I think that just adds to the sensation of being in limbo.

I just booked my flights to go back to the US for about a month at the end of August. There will be a one year memorial service for his mom in mid-August and we will celebrate her first Obon around the same time. This year we also have the 7-year memorial service for his father and the 33-year ceremony for his grandfather. These are all significant ceremonies after someone dies….we have decided to do them all together to save money and time.

Hike through the forest

Hike through the forest

In April I took a short trip to Ebino Kogen in southern Miyazaki. Went on beautiful hikes in this volcanic region and stayed at a hot spring resort. The meals were prepared with local vegetables and included about 4 courses. It was a nice getaway before I started back at the university.I haven’t been taking many pictures recently….the novelty of the landscape has faded….it is all so familiar now.

The rainy season started more than a week earlier than usual this year. I am already on mukade (centipede) alert and the cockroaches and spiders are skittering around keeping me jumpy. The air quality is awful, the PM 2.5 measurements have been about 45 μg/m3..the “safe” limit is 35 μg/m3. When it rains the levels drop to about 25, but it is concerning. I am glad we don’t have small kids to keep indoors, I worry about the longterm health effects on children. Lots of people here criticize China for being the source of this pollution, but it is a result of the global industrialization.. Japan and other developed nations have many factories there because of the lax laws and low wages…. and yet Fukushima is still leaking radiation and there is no long term solution for the 300,000 tons of contaminated water.

Bento wrapped in Bamboo shoot sheaf prepared by the hotel

Bento wrapped in Bamboo shoot sheaf prepared by the hotel

Life goes on.

We went to watch a performance of TAO Taiko last weekend. Look at their website to see the costumes! So dynamic and the choreography is amazing. They were pumped to be kicking off this year’s 20th anniversary tour in their base here in Oita.

If you ever have a chance, GO!

Really windy at the top

Really windy at the top

Hard to know where to start

DSC_0003Since I last wrote in August, things have changed. Ba-chan passed away on August 18th….both Jiro and I were with her and she was calm until she was gone. The three days after someone dies in Japan are all culturally choreographed- there were no big decisions to make about what kind of service or what should  be done or who to invite. Of course, there were many choices about what kind of food to serve, what kind of gifts to give to the guests,  how many monks to hire to chant, and how many characters for her Buddhist name, but from the moment she died to the funeral three days later, it was a smooth process that honored her and gave family and friends time to say goodbye. I hope to write more in detail about those days, but I need to get this blog restarted and I think I’ll just start with what is going on now.

view from Shiroyama

view from Shiroyama

We are slowly moving our residence from our old kura to Ba-chan’s house. We’ve always done all our meals there, but I am going through all her things and trying to make room for us to live there. It’s hard to shed her personality from the space- I think that’s why it’s taking us so long.  The house is pretty small, but we’ll make it work. Hopefully by summer, we’ll complete the transition. We’d like to rent out the kura for a little extra cash.

Jiro has just finished building a huge storage space and workshop. It’s 8 x 12 meters and we had solar panels installed on the roof. We’ll sell all the energy to the electric company- there is a push for alternative energy sources these days and we got a nice subsidy. He won’t be using much electricity there, and it works out to be a better deal if he sets up a separate line for his own power use. Seems counterintuitive to me.

山桜 Wild cherry trees

山桜 Wild cherry trees

He has been running a small forestry business for the past four years, but has decided to gradually stop doing that work. His last crew member just quit, so he is working alone. He has one big tree-planting contract to finish and then he’ll just pick up small jobs to keep a cash flow. He hasn’t had any time to do his art the past couple years and he is really eager to get back to it.

I decided to keep teaching at the university for at least another year. I expect this year will be easier, now that I know how the system works and what I can expect from the students. Last year we implemented placement testing, and it has made a big difference. The university also decided to hire another instructor, so I have a new colleague. She is from England and has lived here about 25 years. We’ve already gotten together a couple times to do some planning-  I am so excited to be have someone to collaborate with.

DSC_0025It’s cherry blossom time- about 10 days earlier than usual. Most years the wild cherry trees bloom first and after those blossoms fall, the cultivars bloom- this year everything is in bloom at once. Today I took a walk up Shiroyama to see the view from the top of the hill- hazy, but beautiful. There were so many people out and about- I really love this time of year.

So the plan is to write regularly- we’ll see. I guess I should have mentioned that we have decided to stay put. We have a comfortable place to live, jobs, and health insurance, but mainly we’re not ready for another big transition yet. Ideally we’d like to work it out to live here part of the year and  in the US the other part of the year. Right now we both are feeling like it may be a good time to start thinking about some extended travel.

 

 

Time to start writing again

Spring is in the air. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of particulate matter from China that has cast a whitish yellow haze over western Japan. I seem to be coughing more than usual and wonder if it would be a good idea to wear a mask while running.

No plans to write more tonight. Decided to change themes and upgrade the header image…not settled yet, but I have been ready for a change.

Will write more in the next couple of days.

Keeping Vigil

I finished teaching a week ago and my grading is all done. I expected to be in the Pacific Northwest by now, enjoying the long days of summer. But Jiro’s mom is clinging to life here and we are keeping her company and comfortable.
We take turns staying the night but Jiro ends up staying more often than I do. I am here most of the day since I don’t have any other obligations right now. I spend the days reading, practicing kanji, i-padding, and have even started prep for my classes next term. I wish there was wireless here so I could use my laptop more easily to get online materials. There is a ton of stuff that needs to be done at home- in particular weeding, but it can wait.
We are continually amazed at Ba-chan’s strength. She has had nothing but an IV for close to three months now and she is so frail and tiny. She has periods of alertness and responds with her eyes and nods of her head. There have been a few times when her blood pressure has fallen dangerously low, but her heart is strong and she has been able to stabilize each time.We are waiting with her, accompanying her on this side of her final journey.
So many times over the past few years she said she was tired of living and wanted to be with ji-chan…but clearly she isn’t quite ready. She always hated asking others for help, yet now she is completely dependent. All we can do is be with her. I have read hospice sites to find out what to expect during this time. She could be hours away or maybe weeks. It’s her journey and we are just witnesses.
We had her moved to a private room a little over a week ago, she gets a visitor or two a day, she sleeps more and more very day. Sometimes she is restless, but most of the time she is still. She says she has no pain, but the nurses sometimes suction her lungs which I know is very invasive and painful.
The trees outside her room are home to a zillion cicadas that are humming so loudly, reminding us that it is summer and it is hot. I am sure that sound will be forever linked to this time.

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Has it really been over 2 months since I last wrote?????

I don’t have much time tonight, but want to get something out there. Middle of the rainy season. and already two typhoons have come and gone. It’s been a long spring and although there is a lot going on, the mood has been pretty somber around here and writing about it never seems to help.

The biggest change has been work. I am now teaching English 4 mornings a week at a small university. Each class only meets 90 minutes a week, so progress is slow for the students. Like undergraduates anywhere, most just want to do what is required and have no motivation to spend extra time or effort. I am adjusting my expectations and trying to have fun. It’s a 45 minute drive so I’m enjoying podcasts on my commute and trying to figure out ways to engage the students more. One frustration is that many students are not used to working on computers, so some students can’t access the online practice and resources I set up. Of course, this job is taking a lot more time than I anticipated, but it’s working out. It’s good to have a focused diversion from the day-to-day.

Because I am working I have less time for exercise and kanji study. I am still running three days a week, but I am less active than I would like to be. I need to figure out a way to fit kanji study into my daily routine. I guess that’s the problem.. life is less routine than before. Jiro’s mom has been on a steady decline since the end of April. She hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in over a month. She is alert and desperately wants to come home. She is on an IV and we have brought her home a few times for a couple hours. Her throat muscles are weak and she cannot swallow well, she has also lost her voice. We visit her every day for an hour or so and try to keep her spirits up. Kai came back earlier this month to see her- she was really happy to see him. She hasn’t smiled in so long, but she was beaming when he visited her. She made us all laugh when she whispered loudly with a lot of effort: “Kai, when are you going to get married?” We are not sure how things will progress or whether she will gain enough strength to start eating again. The last time she ate, she developed pneumonia. Right now. all we can do is visit and spend time with her.

I guess the uncertainty of Ba-chan’s condition is what keeps me a bit down, but also we have been to two funerals this month and it’s raining and…so the reason I haven’t written is that I don’t want this space to be negative. Maybe writing a bit about it will move us past this rough patch.

Here’s the good news: Kai came to visit for 4 days! I am getting ready for a 6-week visit to the US at the end of July! We caught the snake that was living in the kitchen (it never appeared when Jiro was around and I was too afraid to catch it on my own)! Nina moved to SF! Jiro will be in a show at the Portland Japanese Garden in November!

April is the start of everything

Long post warning!

Nanohana

I’ve always felt that September is the time of year when things begin- no doubt the result of growing up in the US as a daughter of teachers and then a teacher myself…I still feel the cycle of the US school year and about now my brain is telling me it’s the final stretch before summer.

Matsuri cherry blossoms

But all around me things are just gearing up. Graduations took place a couple weeks ago and the stores are featuring school backpacks(randoseru), calendars, student desks, and  bicycles. The sun wakes me up earlier every day, the uguisu (jpn bush warbler) are singing, and the cherry blossoms are blooming. Winter was long and cold this year and all of a sudden it’s spring. It does feel like a beginning.

I’m finally getting over a cold that lasted over a week. Lots of early nights and low energy days. This week I started my new job at Nippon Bunri University teaching English to freshmen and sophomores. I only had one class this week and will meet the rest of the classes next week. I am really looking forward to meeting my students and starting a regular job again. It’s only four mornings two preps a week, so I should still have plenty of flexible time. I’ll keep my conversation classes here in Saiki. The best part of the job are the two long breaks (not paid, of course)- 2 months in the late summer and 2 months in late winter. This will allow me to get to the US every year and maybe Jiro and I can actually travel next winter.

Parade Dance (taken by rl)

In the class I met last week there are about 20 students, about half the students are Japanese, the rest are Chinese and Korean- everyone speaks Japanese and some English. Because the classes are organized by year in school rather than by ability or previous experience, the range of proficiency is significant. My goal is to provide enough practice for everyone to develop their communication skills- would be easier if the classes met more than once a week. I set up a website and blog, so hopefully they’ll explore and practice outside of class.

Last weekend I participated in the Spring Festival parade- it’s the third year I’ve joined a local merchants’ group and danced. The only downside to participating in the parade is that I never get to see all the other groups. Our group is pretty eclectic- musicians include shamisen, djembe drums, bass guitar, and electric guitar; dancers include African -style dancers, Japanese folk dancers, and the rest of us-including several elementary school kids and a group of adults with disabilities. The musicians perform on the back of a flatbed truck and we follow behind and dance every couple of blocks. Pretty crazy fun. The sun was out, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and crowds of families enjoying the festival food and music.

Local sushi special "yukinko" shiitake and daikon sushi

Last year I set two goals for myself:  to get fit and to improve my Japanese literacy. I had three things to accomplish, pass the JLPT Level 2, participate in a 5K and pass the 3rd level in Tai Chi. At the end of  February I finally finished all 3!

I took the JLPT in December and in February I received the surprising news that I passed- it was really tough and I felt pretty discouraged after I took the test, but I must be pretty good at guessing on multiple choice. I think I’ll wait until 2013 to take the next level. The test was a good way for me to focus on learning more kanji which has boosted my literacy. Eventually I want to do freelance translating (perfect portable job).

In early February I ran my first ever 5K- it was held in Ume, the mountain town we lived in 25 years ago. Luckily the course was pretty flat so it wasn’t too strenuous. I do my regular runs along the riverbank with no elevation change, so I was worried I might not be able to run uphill for an extended stretch.  I finished in 32 minutes + and received a 2Kg bag of rice for participating and a bento lunch. I’m now signed up for another run here in Saiki on the 22nd. I think I’ll try to participate in all the local runs- there are 4 or 5 a year.

Ba-chan and Mio

I’ve been practicing tai chi for about 3 years now. Physical coordination is not something that comes easy to me so it’s taken me a long time to learn the basics. The three basic forms taught at our class are nyuumon (introductory form), shokyuu (first level) and the 24-step form. After three years I decided to attempt the test to pass the first three levels (5, 4 & 3). One of the other students worked one-on-one with me for about 4 lessons and on the last Sunday in February I went up to Oita and took the tests. Another first-ever experience, performing a routine in front of a panel of judges- I passed and succeeded at the third goal of 2011- a little late, but satisfying nonetheless.

This year I started a drawing class- it’s actually just a drawing studio with time and space available. I’ve never spent any time drawing, and I’ve always felt a little embarrassed by my inability to render anything recognizable on paper. I’m attending a colored pencil drawing class and have been sketching tools and fruit. Last year I took a lot of photos(Flickr photo a day project) and by the end of the year I started feeling bored with photos and realized that my photographs don’t convey any sense of me. I am not into post-processing and although I enjoy looking at beautiful photographs and want to have photos to document some experiences, I really am not interested as I thought I was in using a camera to interpret my personal experience. I feel inspired when I look at illustrated handwritten travel journals and want to create my own. A friend in Corvallis who passed away a year ago talked a lot about “taking visual notes” and  her work and words continue to be an inspiration to me. Again my lack of physical coordination and underdeveloped fine motor skills will ensure that progress is slow.

Marathon Prizes- bags of rice!

Ba-chan is doing better. She recovered from pneumonia but since then she has only been allowed to eat pureed foods.  She finally received the okay from her doctor to start eating finely chopped food starting next Monday- I think she’ll be much happier eating recognizable food rather than small bowls of colored goop. A couple weeks ago I picked her up and took her to Jiro’s niece’s 6th grade graduation. It was a beautiful day and Ba-chan was really happy- she couldn’t stop smiling. Mio (Jiro’s niece) has been a leader of her class and we are really proud of her. She starts junior high next week- school gets serious in junior high- most teaching is to tests and there are lots of rules, regulations and inflexibility.

Last week we met a couple of Jiro’s friends from Hawaii, Hiroki and Setsuko Morinoue of the Donkey Mill Art Center in Kona. They came with a landscape architect from Kumamoto and another friend from Hawaii and we all stayed at an inn in Beppu.

tokonoma at Shono-sensei's house

We visited the home of Shono Tokuzo- sensei, the son of Shono Shounsai who was the first bamboo artist to receive the Japanese Living National Treasure designation. The home was built on a terraced hillside after World War II and it may be one of the most beautiful homes I’ve seen in Japan. The buildings are set on the periphery of a large pond and the magnolia, cherry, and digwood were all blooming. Shono-sensei and his wife maintain the grounds themselves. Shono-sensei harvests all the bamboo he uses in his work and doesn’t use any dyes or lacquer- exquisite work!

Shono-sensei's home

 

 

My work with Kojiya continues to keep me busy and I am learning a lot. I started an English blog for the shop and we are hoping to increase their international presence. We’ll be in the US in August to do some workshops- in New York and on the West Coast.

Jiro leaves for a weeklong trip to Oregon tomorrow. This is the first time he is going away and I don’t have ba-chan duty. I’ll be busy with work- he’ll see  both Kai and Nina. Nina just finished three months at the Kushi Institute- we are eager to see what direction she is headed now.