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.

 

 

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Breaking loose from the doldrums

 

Winter sky- taken at the top of Shiroyama

Warning: this blog post contains a bit of navel-gazing…. The doldrums hit hard this winter, lots of contributing factors-but with the start of the new year, life is feeling less intense.  I am getting out more even though we have had record-breaking low temperatures.  The surrounding area is so incredibly beautiful- the perfect remedy  for spirit-lifting. I am waiting for warmer weather to get out in the kayak, but in the meantime I’m taking short hikes and riding my bike.

In an attempt to realize some goals, I decided to set up a schedule for myself. I found that I was spending too much time every day taking care of anything that presented itself and I wasn’t making much progress on any projects. Too many loads of laundry, dishes washed 5 times a day, checking fb way too much, lots of organizing shelves and drawers….I am so easily distracted and without a schedule- I was wasting a lot of time.

Daikon drying- whole daikon for pickles, slices for dried daikon

I already feel a difference with some structure to my week. I have to teach on Fridays and Saturdays, so I set up something for each of the other days. I also have started studying kanji more intensively and I think I will take the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam in December. I also signed up for a Flickr 365 project (access from the photos on the right side of the blog), and hope that will help me work on improving my photography skills. I am still going to Tai Chi and have now started a stretching class. I started baking again and I will try to write more letters and blog posts.

Today’s adventure was a macrobiotic lunch buffet out at the coast- I went with a young friend from Singapore and feasted on huge meal of all sorts of vegetarian dishes. One food that I hadn’t tried before was okara konnyaku which is used as a meat substitute– it was really good prepared with ginger and soy sauce. I am definitely going to try to make this. We decided to take the long, scenic route back to town, it’s a narrow, windy road that follows the coast. Because I used to work at all the outlying schools, I am familiar with a lot of the less-traveled roads. We stopped by a coastal shrine that I    hadn’t seen before and were back in town before 5:00.

Macrobiotic lunch-first of three servings

Next weekend I am headed to Mt. Kuju for a drive with friends- although I kinda want to go down to Miyazaki to see the volcano eruption. Maybe in a few weeks.

This week I am teaching several elementary school classes. I finished Suite Francaise yesterday and just started M.C. Higgins the Great. We watched all the Star Wars movies this month and are scheming about what to watch next. Any suggestions?

Plodding along

Band practice on the banks of the Banjyo
Band practice on the banks of the Banjyo

Fall and the smell of recently harvested fields permeates the air all over this end of town. The deer are crying at night and persimmons are in season.  On a recent bike ride I passed a group of hgh school students practicing a band routine on the riverside. Wearing straw hats, they were playing the theme song from Totoro. I stopped to watch for about 30 minutes.

Waiting to perform at the Food Festival in Oita
Waiting to perform at the Food Festival in Oita

So many times in the past couple of weeks, I’ve sat down with the intent to write a blog entry, but life seems so much more mundane these days and I get sidetracked reading news and feeds, organizing photos, or picking up a book to read (now reading Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore -in translation). The novelty of our life here in Saiki is now just life. Perhaps I need to transition to writing more frequent, short posts. Not to say that nothing is going on, it just doesn’t seem blog-worthy. So now a post about what’s been going on.

I finally gave notice at my job. It took me a long time to get up the nerve to let them know, but I’ve given them almost 6 months advance notice. The school year ends in March, so I will continue to be an itinerant Assistant Language Teacher at all 32 Saiki elementary schools until then. I really enjoy the teaching part of my job, especially without the responsibilities of grading, parent conferences or evaluations. However, there is no opportunity to restructure or advance, nor any hope of a pay increase. Noone checks in with us and there is no acknowledgement of extra effort or achievement.  I’ve never felt so detached from a job that I show up for every day.

Kids are responssible for recording attendance in the teacher's office-here an older student watches a first grader
Kids are responssible for recording attendance in the teacher's office-here an older student watches a first grader

If we were not so tied to the clock and I could leave when I had finished all work for the day, it would be okay, but sitting at a desk for up to 7 hours a day with nothing to do and limited internet access (many English language sites are now blocked) is soul-sucking. So I now have six months to plan what I will do next.

I will teach some English and my goal is to limit that type of work to 3 days a week. The job of supporting Jiro’s mom takes increasingly more time as time passes and to have a an extra hour or two each day to keep up with the small messes may alleviate the pressure I feel on the weekends to put her home back in order. I want to do more gardening and cooking. I am also planning on working on building my translation skills and hope to finally have some sustained time to work on longterm projects. I am starting to think about workshops that I could organize and teach.

Since my last post I have been concentrating on kanji and working back  up to where I left off in July. I reviewed every single flashcard, reviewed all the “primitives” and am now at about 90% accuracy for the 990 kanji I’ve covered. It really gets hard to review as the overall number increases. I have separated them into the “know for sure”, “mostly know”, “I think I know”, and “tenuous” categories. I only had to move a few from the “mostly know” to the “I think I know” pile and it does seem to be getting easier overall.

Untitled 2009 -piece on exhibit at the 竹の世界 show
Untitled 2009 - Jiro's piece on exhibit at the 竹の世界 show

I have also been working on reading in Japanese. Last Saturday I went up to Oita with Jiro to attend a reception at the bamboo art exhibition (竹の世界)and had several hours on my own while he went to meetings. My original plan to meet up with a friend fell through and I wandered around downtown. I ended up going to three bookstores, bought a few manga and a novel and then spent a long time in a coffee shop reading. Reading is now enjoyable!

I haven’t ever enjoyed reading manga, but I found several about eating and food and chose 玄米先生の弁当箱(Genmai “brownrice”-sensei’s lunchbox) about an eccentric professor at an agricultural university who teaches about traditional foods and farming practices. The first chapter includes a recipe for ぬか床 (rice bran pickles), but I was hoping for a few more recipes. I don’t plan on reading the next volume, but I plan on looking for some more manga that include recipes.

ブッタとシッタブッタ book cover
ブッタとシッタブッタ book cover

I also bought ブッタとシッタカブッタ こたえはぼくにある(Butta and Sittaka Butta-Kotae wa Boku ni Aru Buddha and the Enlightened Pig-the answer lies within). The title and name of the main character of this manga is a word play of the word for pig in Japanese “buta” and the “Buddha”. I first saw this manga when I was in library school. One of my classmates had a copy that he picked up at a used bookstore in Oregon and asked me to help him translate it. The illustrations are really amusing and the manga follows the 4-koma (four panel) style, so it is pretty easy reading. The comical adventures of Butta in love and life exemplify some of the teachings of Buddha.

I recently purchased a used nintendo DS lite and a Japanese dictionary software, 漢字そのままDS楽引き辞典(Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten) that has really helped me be able to read much more efficiently. Using a touchscreen writing surface, I can quickly look any character or word I don’t recognize and get the reading, meaning and example sentences.

Shangri-La  recieved award at the Prefectural Show
Shangri-La recieved award at the Prefectural Show

Even though the menu is all in Japanese, I think that people (i.e. librarians) that need to look up single words or descriptions could use this tool if they were provided with some good instructions or some training. I’ve used the online Handwritten kanji recognition site that is connected to the WWWDIC: Online Japanese Dictionary Service (btw- this site is one of the blocked sites at work), but it is not as easy to use and I frequently can’t enter the character correctly. Besides, now that I own a DS lite, I have an excuse to check out some of the cooking software and …..

The bamboo exhibition in Oita was very successful and a piece that Jiro received an award for his piece, Shangri-La, that was entered in the Oita Prefectural Art Exhibition. Tomorrow we will go to a reception and then the piece will be on a traveling exhibit around the prefecture for the next couple of months. Things are going well for him.

On a sad note, our dear friend Junko Kawada Brackin was killed in a tragic car accident in Colorado last week. We really will miss her.

Junko (photo: M. Kudo)
Junko (photo: M. Kudo)

She was a talented artist and one of the warmest people I have ever met. She stayed with us for a week last April and we were so looking forward to seeing her again next fall.

Well, I’ve got a lot to get done today and this weekend -hopefully a bike ride tomorrow morning, too.

Kai turns 26 today- wish we were there to celebrate with him.

Transitions at work

Japanese carnival food-rolled okonomiyaki
Japanese carnival food-rolled okonomiyaki

The most surprising thing at work has been all the transfers. I had heard that teachers are usually transferred after 3 or 4 years, but the administrators at the Board of Education also are reappointed to  new positions. They usually don’t know if they will be transferred until a week or so before the new positions are announced and they may end up in a job that they really don’t want to do. All public employees are regularly transferred and often they are appointed to a job that is unrelated to their previous position.

Woman dressed as Kikuhime
Woman dressed as Kikuhime

Our former office chief is now a principal of one of the junior high schools and the new office chief was most recently a vice-principal at an elementary school.  Another person that had worked in our office for 3  years is now working in a prefectural office an hour away. It is hard for everyone, but they all accept it as part of the system.

Teachers are also moved to new schools and though elementary teachers will only move to another elementary school, they could be asked to teach 6th grade after three years of teaching 1st grade. In our district they could be moved from a school of 28 children to a school of 720. The transfers are involuntary and they find out after the school years ends (March 26th) and will start at their new schools this week.

I don’t think I could survive long working in an environment that has that much uncertainty and upheaval. My position here is in a special category, so I won’t be asked to move to another district– I will still be covering all 32 elementary schools with the other ALT in our office.

Parade performance- dancing and 4 hours of parading-long day
Parade performance- dancing and 4 hours of parading-long day

So the kids around here will be heading back to start the school year this week and school visits should start in a couple of weeks. The days in the office are long, but I continue to work on kanji and have made some new teaching materials for the next few months.

Last weekend was Saiki’s Spring Festival. Lots of food, booths, parades, cherry blossoms, people, music. I’ll post a couple of photos now and write more about it later.

Yes we caramels
Yes we caramels

The school year is almost over

ALL elementary schools plant pansies in winter to bloom in March for graduation ceremonies
ALL elementary schools plant pansies in winter to bloom in March for graduation ceremonies

School ends in late March here, so for me that means I had my last school visit of the year last Monday and I will be sitting in the office until at least April 20th. I have a few tasks to take care of, writing year-end reports (that no one looks at) and pulling together some materials for the next school term. It is so disheartening to work for an organization that has no interest in the work I do, as long as I show up and don’t cause trouble. I show up every day and they rarely say anything  beyond the morning greetings, never ask what I am working on,  show no interest when I show them what I am working on,  and have conversations about elementary school English without including me.

Now it's clear which way I should do
Now it's clear which way I should go

From their point of view, I am an English language teaching assistant only to be used when someone asks for assistance teaching English. I understand that, but I also think I have something to offer them, but they don’t recognize me beyond my job title (there is no job description). I see several areas where work could be streamlined and resources centralized, but because the system “works”, they are not interested in making any changes. One example is the use of the fax machine for teaching requests. When a school requests an assistant visit, they send a fax that has been filled out on their computer with information about the date, time and teaching content.  My supervisor makes a copy for his file and gives me one copy. I read it, prepare appropriate lessons and then recycle the copy (of the fax). Seeing as we are all on the same email system, it would seem easier, more efficient and less wasteful to send all the requests via email. Apparently not. I am going to try to suggest it again as a trial system….

However, they did ask me to do two translations last week which was challenging, but interesting. It was satisfying to realize that I can do this type of work now. One was a flyer and emergency checklist for a potential global pandemic outbreak and the other was a notice to foreign residents informing them about the government income supplemental payment. All residents of Japan are about to recive 12000 yen (about US$120) as part of a stimulus package. Those under 18 or over 65 will receive 20000 yen. It seems to that translations of this nature should be handled centrally by the national government or the prefectural government. However, each city seems to be doing this type of publication on its own. It was a fun project that kept me busy for a couple hours though.

As much as Japan is perceived as a global leader in technology, the use of technology in my workplace is very limited. Everything is on paper and email is

Koi
Koi

hardly used at all. I was gone for 2 weeks in January and came back to an empty inbox. I realize they don’t communicate with me much anyway, but rarely do emails go out to to the Board of Education list. We have about 10 phones in our office that ring constantly and it seems so much of that communication could be handled online.

So I have about 3 weeks sitting at the desk with time to work on my own projects. I will spend 2-3 hours a day working on kanji and I am collecting resources to put online for the teachers in the district. I don’t think the BOE is interested, but I think some teachers will find it useful and it will be fun to work on.

I am glad I didn’t spend much time fretting about the job I applied for, they never contacted me for an interview. I’m a little disappointed, but it would have made my life more complicated.

For Jiro’s birthday we went out to a small restaurant right on the water. We had a huge seafood feast that included sashimi, grilled fish and also a plate of shellfish to grill at our table. I wasn’t able to eat the abalone that arrived live at our table which then was grilled right there. too squirmy…

Jiro's birthday dinner
Jiro's birthday dinner
Monkeys being monkeys
Monkeys being monkeys

Last weekend I met up with a group of middle school students traveling from the school I worked at in Portland. They came to Kyushu and I met them at Takasaki-yama, a national park with wild monkeys. There are  about 1200 wild monkeys that live in two separate colonies, and they come to the park center daily to get food. A park ranger gives a looping non-stop talk about the monkeys and some of the monkey behavior research that they do there. 15 people in green uniforms carrying pooper scoopers wandered about unobtrusively while tourists gathered round to listen to the ranger and take photos of the monkeys being monkeys.

The wild cherries are blooming. The mountains surrounding Saiki are dotted with light pink splashes and the city cherry trees are about to start blooming. This is a 3-day weekend-yesterday was the vernal equinox, a national holiday. I am going to try to make tofu-spinach-eggplant lasagna and then head out for some hiking.

Wild cherries on the pond behind our house
Wild cherries on the pond behind our house

Adjusting to new circumstances

So this is day 5 of Jiro’s 43-day trip to the States and my solo stay with his mother. I am not sure how it will all end up but so far so good. I have a meal preparation plan that should keep us both well nourished and keep her out of the kitchen. Now that our kitchen is done in the kura, I can prepare meals here and then take them over at mealtimes. Last night we had stewed eggplant, rice and broiled fish. I’ve already prepared hijiki for her lunch tomorrow and there are some leftovers that she can grab, too. Tomorrow I am teaching at a school that is next to one of my favorite tofu shops, Torakichi とら吉 Besides regular tofu, they have tofu made from green soybeans, soymilk pudding and fresh soymilk ice cream. I can’t wait!

9 separate pieces
Bond: 9 separate pieces

We were pretty busy up until the day Jiro left. The house is pretty much done and so is his studio. He finished nine pieces before he left. They are similar to the BOND series he did several years ago, but they are larger. He took a few snapshots before he left, but will get better photos when he is in Portland. His show at the Japanese Garden opens on November 15th.

Looking east from the peak of Mt. Motogoe
Looking east from the peak of Mt. Motogoe

We also got in a nice day hike to Mt. Motogoe on the outskirts of town. It is 580 m high. and the views are incredible. The trail is really eroded and the walk out nearly killed my knees, but the view was worth it. The view is ranked at as the 4th best (?!?) in Japan. Kunikida Doppo (国木田独歩)a naturalist writer of the Meiji Period spent one year (1893) in Saiki teaching and he wrote an essay about climbing Mt. Motogoe. He wrote that the beautiful view moved him to tears. I found a copy of his original manuscript online, courtesy of Waseda University Library. If interested, there is an English translation of five of his short stories, one of which is set in Saiki.

Things at work continue to be a little chaotic. A new ALT was hired, a young man from Kenya who just graduated from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), and I have been helping him learn about the job. I realized how crazy the job is when I started explaining to him what I do everyday. He is a nice guy and wants to do a good job, but the circumstances are tough. The BOE is still looking for two more people and I suggested that they should advertise in English because they are looking for English teachers. That meant I had to translate their job announcement..In addition to the obvious requirements, they also ask that all applicants be born outside of Japan… I asked why and they said that they don’t want Japanese people applying. I said that if a person has native English speaking ability (a  requirement), why does it matter where they were born? They discussed it amongst themselves for awhile and said I could leave it out of the English job posting.

just before the rice harvest
just before the rice harvest

The house is really comfortable and now that I have privacy again I am more relaxed. It is also nice to have our own refrigerator….the little things all make a big difference.

Yes we have no バナナ

Empty banana display at our supermarket
Empty banana display at our supermarket (click on the photo to see the crazy ad)

A few weeks ago I was disappointed to see that our local supermarket was out of bananas and then surprised to see that they continued to be sold out almost every time I stopped in to check. Finally last week the mystery of scarce bananas was revealed to me by some friends who pay closer attention to the local news than I do. Apparently all over Japan, supermarkets are selling out of bananas because of a new diet craze… the morning banana diet. In mid-September, NHK (the Japanese equivalent of PBS) aired a program touting the benefits of this diet. I’ve asked several people about the banana diet and almost everyone I’ve asked has said that either they or someone in their family is on this diet now… At 100 yen ($1…now 99 cents) a banana, I’m not about to start.

east wall of our house...addition includes kitchen, bath and toilet
east wall of our house...addition includes kitchen, bath and toilet

The yen keeps gaining against the dollar…one silver lining to my job. If I think in dollars, my salary has increased by about $15 a day without receiving a raise. The cost of living here is pretty high, but we’re not paying rent and we are living pretty frugally. Gasoline and utility bills eat up a lot of our income.

The house is pretty much done…..Pictures. I wish I could figure out how to make these display horizontally on the page. We used salvaged siding for the exterior of the addition. The floors are bamboo. The toilet is a composting one from envirolet and I sure hope it works as well as it is supposed to. Although we don’t have much furniture now, it is comfy and is beginning to feel like home.

We did some major pruning of the citrus trees and cleared out space for a garden. The tiller is broken and because it is the rice harvesting season now, we can’t get anyone to repair it for us yet.

I am not sure how I feel about my job these days… The physical challenge is considerable – teaching 6 periods, eating lunch with kids, playing at recess (yesterday I even played jump rope) with no break is exhausting. The pay is not very good, I have only a few vacation days, the intellectual challenge is minimal……But I can ride my bike to the office every day, never

downstairs--we don't have much
downstairs--we don't have much

take work home, don’t feel any stress from work, working with really great kids invigorates me, and I know that I am doing a good job. The better jobs are a 45-minute drive from here…I am planning to check out the possibilities, but because of the stress of living and caring for my mother-in-law, the local job may be the healthiest option.

Because I teach in every elementary school in Saiki (the city is quite large-903.44 km2) , everywhere I go I run into kids who know my name and usually run over to talk to me. I always have to ask what school they are from and feel slightly bad that I can’t remember their names or even worse, I can’t remember them when I see them a few weeks later at their school… just too many kids. Tonight we went to rent DVDs and a 5th grade girl ran over to me and was so excited to see that I was checking out Heroes (I am about to watch the last episode of the first season) and pulled her mother over to talk to me. I told Jiro I feel like I need to smile all the time…low level celebrity I’m not sure if this is a perk of the job or not.

Upstairs bedroom
Upstairs bedroom

Jiro leaves in two weeks for a six week visit to the States. He hasn’t been back since he left last December. He’s the featured artist at the Portland Japanese Garden in November and will teach a class in Chicago. He’s also got to deal with house repairs and bamboo pruning. I really wish I could go with him. His mom really can’t stay on her own…I will be working on patience…I hope the time passes quickly. ….I’ll post more pictures of the house later.

tiny kitchen
tiny kitchen
loking from the entry, bath and toliet on right- kitchen and living space to the left
looking from the entry, bath and toilet on right- kitchen and living space to the left