This is Life

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Introducing an Introduction to Sumo

You know, every time I make a post to my blog I tell myself, "Dean, you need to make posts more often". I even say it out loud, sometimes with an accent for effect. Anyway, the real reason that I don`t post often these days is that well, there just isn`t much to report. No longer am I living the cozy life of a JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme) in rural Japan. Noooope, I gots me a real job with real hours. Not that I don`t think being a JET was a real job ... OK, I don`t think it was a real job. I often tell people it was a working holiday in the most sincere sense of the word. I mean, come on, 35 hours a week, which includes finishing at 11:30 every Friday, a default long weekend, EVERY weekend! Wait, does that make me a French expat?

So, what I am trying to say is that I miss it terribly and strongly encourage any recent university grads to apply. Experience of a lifetime. Did I mention the 20 days paid vacation every year, on top of national holidays and school holidays?

Ok, so there are some good things about my new job. For one, it is challenging and I have learned a lot. I have also been on national TV in Japan, albeit unintentionally. I work in financial PR in Tokyo and some of our clients are doing pretty big things so it is exciting. It is pretty neat to be behind the scenes, helping shape the news. Living in Tokyo can be pretty interesting too so let`s just leave it at that and not talk about having to pay $60+ for a decent brunch. Nope, let`s not talk about it.

Recently, I haven't done too much traveling, but I will post a few pictures. There is one thing in Japan, however, that I have become obsessed with. I often tell people that every foreigner in Japan has at least one aspect of Japanese culture that they latch onto. For some it is history, or traditional arts (Kabuki, Noh, Taiko, Bunraku, Tea Ceremony, Ikebana, etc.). Pop culture is probably the most common (manga, anime, pop art, music, etc.). Surely no one is interested in Japanese TV dramas (words can never explain just how awful they are). And of course there are the martial arts (karate, judo, aikido, ninjutsu, kendo, etc.). In my case, it is watching fat men in loincloths dance, clap, throw salt and finally, wrestle. Methinks Deano has some 'splaining to do.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I am talking about sumo, one of the oldest Japanese martial arts, dating back some 1500 years. Just fat dudes wrestling in their underwear was my first impression of sumo and admittedly, on the surface that is pretty much what it looks like. However, as with most things in Japan, the joy of sumo hides beneath the surface. Japan is a country where its greatest treasures, figuratively and literally, are draped in layers of history, ritual, and even misdirection and one needs to put in some effort to fully appreciate everything it has to offer.

First, let`s look at some facts about sumo that you probably didn`t know:
  • The average sumo wrestler has a lower body fat percentage than the average Japanese businessman (probably than you too, no offense). In fact, former Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Chiyonofuji had the same body fat ratio as Olympic marathon runners
  • There are six sumo tournaments held each year, every two months, with each lasting for 15 days (three in Tokyo, one each in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka)
  • 82 officially recognized kimarite (winning techniques)
  • The first officially recorded sumo match was performed for visiting Korean dignitaries in the 7th century
Personally, I became a fan of sumo about six months after arriving in Japan, upon seeing my first tournament live in Tokyo. After that first experience, I have returned to Tokyo for every major tournament save one, having now been over ten times. In truth, ten times is not that impressive a number, but bear in mind that the first seven times I was not living in Tokyo and had to travel 200-300 kilometers for the pleasure.

My obsession with sumo has gotten to the point that I now tell people that my dream job is being a color commentator for the english broadcasts of sumo on the NHK (Japan`s national public broadcaster). They always laugh and I laugh too. Then I say, "No, seriously". People in Japan are always surprised, if not shocked, at my interest in the sport. Unfortunately, the truth is that the sport is dying in Japan. Despite its global fame and deep association with Japan, sumo has an increasingly limited following and has yielded its place in Japanese hearts to baseball, which itself is giving way to football (a.k.a. soccer). My estimate is that less than 5% of the population actually follow it these days, most of which are retired or, oddly enough, other foreigners. To see Japanese teeneagers at a sumo event is more rare than licorice-flavored carrots (I`ve never had any, have you?).

Anyway, I have a semi-rehearsed diatribe that I "offer" to pretty much any Japanese person that supporting sumo is as much about preserving the culture as it is about the sport. I try to explain what outsiders' (what foreigners are referred to in Japan) impressions are of Japan and Japanese culture. To illustrate my point, let's play a word association gave. I will say a word and you need to write down the first five words that come into your head. For example, if I said "genius" the first five things you might have thought of could be Einstein, Newton, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Mario Cart. Understand? Ok, here we go. What are the first three things you think of when I say "Japan"?


I imagine you said at least two, if not three, of the following - Sushi, Sumo, Samurai, Geisha, or Manga/Anime. Sushi has never been more popular, but give it time. There are only so many fish out there. Manga/Anime also on the up and up. Sumo, as you are learning is not doing so well. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 Geisha in Japan. Now there are between 1000-2000. And unless you count the millions of Japanese businessmen, the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s.

What Japanese people don`t realize is how important these things are as cultural treasures. These are the things that make Japan so unique and they are being disrespectfully neglected and pushed into a side column on page 6 of the sports section. I worry that soon it will be too late, if it isn't already, to save sumo. As a Canadian, I only wish I had something about my culture that is globally famous (for those Canadians that don`t already know, truth is, people only know us for our maple syrup).

So, I hope that my passion for the sport, and for the culture, somehow makes the Japanese I meet think about issues that they might otherwise not and reconsider their position on not only sumo, but on a neglected culture. I also hope to initiate people outside of Japan, yanking them beyond their pre/mis-conceptions, and helping them understand a little about the great sport of "Grand Sumo".

Let`s get started (was all of the above an introduction?). Forget it. I will talk about sumo next time. Hopefully it won't take so long.

To be continued...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Big Trouble in Little Tokyo

It has been so long since my last update that I actually had to go and read it so I could remember where I was. WOW that was a long time ago – 4 months, in fact! Anyway, a LOT has happened since then so guess I should catch you up.

After recovering from the devastation resulting from a nearly 7.0 earthquake in my town, I decided I needed a change. With that, I embarked on a journey, with nothing but my cargo pants (complete with those zippers near the knee that lets you remove the bottom, thereby converting pants into shorts – brilliant!), my England soccer jersey, and a backpack (ok, so there was some stuff in the backpack too).

My first stop took me to the far north of Japan. It was stunning and one of the true frontiers of this remarkably naturally beautiful country. When I got there, I found that I could actually see the Sakhalin islands, which are themselves just a stone’s throw from Russia. So, what did I do? I did what any noble sojourner would do – stowed away in the cargo hold of a Russian crabbing ship for 3 days. Luckily, we arrived back on Russian soil and I set out on the second leg of my adventure (truth is, they found me, but the only thing I could thing of saying in Russian was, “Excuse me, could you tell me where Red Square is?” so instead I just kept saying “I love Tretiak. I love Tretiak.” They thought I was crazy so they let me go).

Next, I caught a ride on the Trans-Siberian railway and was excited by my 8-day journey to Moscow. My excitement soon faded as we were ambushed by some Mongolian raiders. They took me prisoner, but I don`t know what for. Thankfully, I speak perfect Mongolian and they treated me as one of their own. The best part was they were not only nomadic herders, but also explorers. In fact, they had an expedition to the North Pole planned for the next Tuesday and invited me along. Keeping in mind that my ultimate goal was to return to Calgary for my scheduled knee surgery on August 21, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by going over the top. Boy, was I right! So, long story short, I arrived back in Calgary and with one or two stories to boot.
the above may or may not be completely fictional

So, yeah, I did end up back in Calgary and had surgery to reconstruct my ACL and remove half of the cartilage in my knee. Both had been torn up pretty badly when I was planning in the quarterfinals of the Bayern Eunuchs triumphant march to Calgary Christian Soccer League glory in 2004. The surgery was mostly a success, but I am a little confused what is considered a success and what isn’t. It still hurts. Um, it also got infected 3 days after surgery and I have never been in more pain (see: agony) in my life, despite the fact I was using some extremely strong drugs. Because of the infection, I was also on IV antibiotics for 12 days, which required me to get some 30-40 needles (maybe up to 100) in that time. I hate needles. Anyway, currently I am rehabbing and should be ready to resume my meteoric rise to the top of the sumo world by March of 2008.

Seriously though, being at home was nice. My little brother got engaged. I got fat. What more could you ask for? I also realized that my dad would have made a terrific nurse. He really took care of me well and I am just glad I could bath myself because that would have been weird … going without a bath for 6 weeks, that is.

You might have guessed by now that I am not at home anymore. Nooope, I am now in Tokyo. For one reason or another, the Good Lord decided he was going to provide a real job for me in Tokyo. I am now working for Japan’s largest public relations firm and am one of only three foreigners out of 230+ employees, and of those three foreigners, I am the only one who hasn’t lived here at least 18 years. Needless to say, my Japanese is not quite up to snuff. Anyway, it’s a good job with a good company and I have a great boss (an Aussie) who for some strange reason sees “something” in me. I still haven’t decided if this is where I want to be and I gotta tell you, right now, the idea of living among lush, green mountains and having an easy (see: extremely easy) job as an assistant language teacher in the Japanese public education system is pretty appealing. Working until 8 or 9 or later is getting to me a bit. But hey, who knows what will happen. Great experience, in any case.

As for my living situation, well, the way I look at it I am still living 300 kilometers away in Niigata City, with my girlfriend’s family. Sure, I sleep and eat in Tokyo during the weekdays, but don’t do much else. Almost every Friday night it is off to Niigata by bullet train and back on Sunday night. It’s nice to relax, but at $200 per round trip it is adding up. Oh well, worth it if you ask me.

Now, here is where I get to lay some numbers out for you. My new digs are a 10 square meter room in a guesthouse. I share the second floor with 6 other people. The shower, toilet, and kitchen are communal. This costs me $800 a month. Last year, I had a house with no rent, no one to share it with, and it was probably 15-20 times larger than my room now. Guess the good thing about sharing is that it is a great opportunity to meet other people. Currently, my roommates include 2 Italians, a Swiss, a Korean, and Irish, and a Taiwanese. It seems like the language of choice is Italian so I pretend I can speak it by using lots of hand gestures and facial expressions. They seem to understand.

One of the perks about this new job is that I have virtually no holidays. Wait, that is not a perk - that sucks. This is the best time to be in Japan, when the country is on fire with autumn colors. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Hopefully I will get a chance to take some pictures on the weekend so I can have something to post on FLICKR or Facebook. Send me a message if you are up for it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

An Earthquake I Didn't Sleep Through

As you may already be aware, on the morning of July 16, 2007, Japan was hit with a massive earthquake that measured 6.8 on the Richter Scale (for reference, it was about the same as the '94 Northridge (LA) earthquake and the '89 San Francisco earthquake). So yeah, it was big. You may remember that I live near the world's largest nuclear powerplant, which is located in the town of Kariwa/Kashiwazaki in Niigata prefecture. Now, if you have been reading the news you may have noticed them referring to a certain "world's largest nuclear powerplant" having some public safety issues, namely spilling radioactive cooling water into the ocean, having 400 barrels of low-grade nuclear waste tip over (the contents of 40 spilled out), or having an oil tank catch on fire. Actually, none of these problems pose much threat to the public's safety, but since the company that owns the reactors have been less than forthcoming with "true" information it makes it a bit difficult to trust them. OK, so, if you were able to put two and two together, you should have figured out that my house lies pretty darn close to the epicenter of this earthquake. To be exact, I think my house is about 18 kilometers from the epicenter. By the way, this is not a good thing.

So, now that you have some scope of the situation, I should point out that I am not complaining. In fact, I thank God that I was not home when the earthquake struck. I was in a town about 70 kilometers away and the temblor was reduced to about a 5+ strength there, which was more than enough for me to call it "spooky". I returned home the next morning and had been briefed on what I would see from the vast news coverage, but it was much more devastating when I saw it in person. Let me tell you, 3-d is the technology of the future because if you could see the things I have seen you would all be moved to tears and catch the nearest flight here to help. What makes it all the more difficult is the fact that many of the families that have lost everything (their homes, cars, valuables) have children that are my students. Just imagine that for a second, losing your home. I wouldn't wish it on anyone so when it happens to not one, but dozens of people that you care about, well, to call it heartbreaking just doesn't do it justice. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that somehow these kids still are able to smile and have fun playing with each other to pass the time. The spirit of the Japanese people continues to amaze me and their resilience is astonishing.

Anyway, as for the details, I believe there have been 10 deaths reported (mostly from people being crushed by collapsed buildings), 1 person still missing, over 1000 people injured and about 10,000 people homeless. To give you an idea, the population of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa area is about 100,000. As for me, as expected, most of the stuff in my house that could break broke (dishes, glasses, etc.). My power was restored within 3 days, although water is still a week away and gas may be even longer.

There is one thing I am a little conflicted about, but I haven't really been talking about it because it seems so insignificant at this point. My contract ends on July 24th. This was to be my week to say goodbye to a town that has taken me in as their own and treated me better than I could ever have expected. I love this town and I am loved by this town. It is a small, close-knit community and everyone pretty much knows everyone (the population is just 5000). Now, because of the earthquake, I will not be able to say goodbye to this town the way I would like. I want to tell them how much they mean to me, but I know my message will be lost under the weight of the earthquake, and understandably so. I know it is somewhat selfish, but I want these people to know what they mean to me. It is so strange to leave them at this time as I feel like I should stay and help.

Guess that brings me to my latest piece of news, which is that I am leaving the best job I have ever had. I am currently looking for a new job here in Japan, but not as an English teacher. I am looking for something in the business world and I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I embarked on my newest journey. Who would have thunk it - that I need to actually speak Japanese to work in Japanese business. Anyway, we will see what happens.

I guess that is all for now. Your comments are always appreciated, but maybe now moreso than ever, considering the circumstances.

God bless.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Never Too Late

So, now that I have my decision behind me I have had no trouble putting the weight back on. Actually, I am not sure if I ever did slim down at all from that very stressful February, but my diet is really struggling now. Besides that, the hockey season is now over so my one legitimate excuse for being on a diet is gone. I may actually have to go back to eating the junior high school lunch, whale soup and all. Speaking of which, a buddy of mine was invited to a sushi bar by a friend of his. His Japanese friend challenged him to eat some raw horse (tastes like beef, by the way) and after he downed it he was informed that it was, in fact, whale heart. Apparently, it tasted like any other strange, chewy, red meat. No thanks.

No, as for what I have been up to, well, it seems like every single weekend there is something on the go. I think I have been averaging at least 300 kms on my car every weekend and that is no small feat when you consider how long it takes to get 300 kms in Japan. You are looking at twice the time that it would take in Canada.

I went to a doll festival. Moving on.

I went to a Japanese prostitute festival. Moving on.

Now that I think about it, perhaps some information is in order. The doll festival was held in a town famous for them (naturally) and the dolls themselves are quite unique. Many of them are over 100 years old and can cost considerable amounts of money due to the elaborate costumes they wear and the details the craftsmen gives them. The town is also famous for its salmon so many of the buildings displaying the dolls also house rafters full of salmon that are hung up to dry. It is really creepy. Oddly enough, it smells like fish. All said, the festival was very interesting ... if you like that sort of thing. I found it pretty boring, but had a good time because we went to a nice hot spring and I met one of my girlfriend`s best friends, which was nice.

As for the Japanese prostitute parade, well, it is just that, except the women are basically re-enacting something you may have seen over 100 years ago. You have heard of geisha, no doubt, well these women are called "Oiran". On the surface, Oiran and Geisha may appear to be the same, but geisha are distinguished in that their role was not sexual, while the Oiran were most definitely prostitutes, albeit it very, very high-class prostitutes. There are also some visual hints as to which is which, but you can check out this article if you are interested. Anyway, what makes this an interesting event is that these women are the peacocks of Japanese culture. Their costumes are so elaborate and their unique style of walking (on 6-inch platforms) make this a very unique event. It should be pointed out that the women are not actual Oiran, but rather they are women from the town chosen to reinact the event and trained in the artforms. If you are interested in learning more about geisha then have a look at this site. It is really interesting. I`ve decided to try to do my part in educating the public that Geisha were NOT prostitutes.

Ok, really moving on this time. On March 31st I went to Tokyo to meet my dad and little brother Ethan at the airport. They came to visit me for 9 days and we had a blast. Let me give you a rundown of what we did. First, we went straight to the closet we rented and slept through the night. Actually, it wasn`t so bad, but it was a tight fit with 2.5 beds. The next morning we decided to get up nice and early and go see the chaos and wonder of the world`s largest fish market, Tsukiji market (click here for photo essay). I think it would have been really interesting had there been a single soul there. I guess Japan doesn`t need fresh fish on Sunday or someone was playing a great practical joke on us, but we were pretty disappointed no one was there. We thought about going to see the sumo district, but I was pretty sure nothing would be happening there on a Sunday morning either. Our back up plan was Starbucks, but who would have guessed, it too was closed. It was 9:00 in the morning and Starbucks wasn`t open yet!? Doesn`t that break some sort of franchising rule? Anyway, thankfully it was a beautiful day so we went to Shinjuku Gyoen (royal garden) to view the cherry blossoms. We were very blessed throughout our vacation to see much of Japan during the notoriously difficult to predict cherry blossom season. While the blossoms were not quite full everywhere we went, they were pretty close so we consider ourselves very fortunate. As far as I am concerned, aside from the Aurora, cherry blossoms are the most beautiful (and contemplative) occurrence in God`s creation. Finally, we were able to go to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo before catching our bullet train to Hiroshima at 2 pm. Quite a full, yet relaxing morning, if I remember right.

On our way to Hiroshima we passed by Mt. Fuji and despite it being overcast were were afforded quite a nice view. As famous as Fuji-san is, few people actually see it because it is always shrouded in cloud, haze, or a giant tutu. After an 850km bullet train trip (only took 5 hours and that wasn`t the fastest train either), we arrived in Hiroshima around 7, managed to find our hotel, and before I knew it my jet-lagged companions were fast asleep. I watched an Angela Aki (the Japanese Sarah Mclachlin) concert on tv to pass some time. I also checked out the tide schedule and am happy to use this brilliant segue to talk about our next day. Next to Hiroshima is a island called Miyajima. The image of Miyajima`s famous floating shinto gates is famous in Japan, as well as abroad, and this island turned out to be one of the most pleasant places we visited. After spending the morning there we headed back to Hiroshima to visit one place that everyone should have to visit. It was not a pleasant experience to go to the Peace Memorial Park and the museum, but it was the most important place we saw. The museum is very informative and graphic and it is a vital reminder of the cruelty that humans can put each other true. I am not going to weigh in on whether it was justified or not, but the sheer power of the atomic bomb is horrifying. The fact that those bombs are mere firecrackers compared to what the superpowers currently possess is not a comforting thought. I hate to sound cynical, but it is not a matter of if, but when.

Now that I you are thoroughly depressed, let`s talk about castles. The morning after Hiroshima - which I would like to add, is one of the most beautiful and spacious cities in Japan - we hopped on a bullet train to Himeji, home to Japan`s most famous castle. Now, I had been to Japan`s second most famous castle last year when I visited Matsumoto (see the archives) and I was thoroughly impressed, but Himeji makes Matsumoto look like a doll house. This castle is just massive and it would take days to explore all of its hidden treasures. Combine this with the fact that the cherry blossoms were looking fine and you have one cool place. It turned out to be Ethan`s favorite spot in Japan (I will qualify that statement later). From there we went to Osaka and visited what is widely considered the best aquarium in Japan, a land that loves aquariums. The Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium is impressive, but the people who think it is the best have clearly not been to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which houses not one, but three whale sharks behind the world`s largest acrylic panel. That, was an impressive aquarium. It is also the second largest in the world. Osaka is in the top 5, I think. Anyway, Osaka`s jellyfish area was cool. Since we didn`t take nearly as long as expected to view the aquarium, we decided to go to an imax 3d film at the neighboring theatre. Guess we couldn`t get enough sea creatures because the film was also set underwater. By the way, if you have never been to an Imax 3d you really should - awesome technology! In the evening we tried to find a nice restaurant to take my pops for his 80th - I mean, 60th - birthday (couldn`t resist). We found a nice Indian restaurant and I think my dad was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. And here I would also like to announce perhaps the biggest success of out trip, my little brother actually discovered a new food that he will eat. Thank you Curry Man for tingling his taste buds just the right way. You are part of a very, very ... very exclusive club (love ya, bro). Happy Birthday, dad. One interesting thing we noticed is that both my mom and dad have been in Japan to celebrate their birthdays this past year. My mom in November and my dad in April. Kind of cool, if you ask me.

The next day (Wednesday, April 4th for those who are counting) was another early-riser. We wanted to beat the crowds at Universal Studios Japan and once we got there we realized that was never going to happen. It being spring break in Japan and all, I suppose that crowds were inevitable. Thankfully, we never had to wait too long (only once did we wait more than an hour - for Back to the Future) so it wasn`t so bad. Unfortunately, much like my experience at Tokyo DisneySea, it was bleedin` windy, which was enough to convince the three of us to pack it in sometime around 3PM. Considering it cost $60 per person I suppose we could have toughed it out, but we had hit most of the rides by then and were ready to go anyway. By the way, the Spiderman ride was pretty cool and so was the Shrek 4d experience. Nothing like getting sneezed on by donkey and actually feeling it. It was nice to finish this day with a fine steak dinner. Thing is, we were staying in the young, trendy, bizarre area of Osaka and the local cuisine is a must-try, but my dad and bro weren`t up for okonomiyaki (a sort of egg, cabbage, everything else you can imagine omelet) or takoyaki (grilled octopus balls ... no, David Yang, not octopus testicles). They are both quite good.

Thursday we (I) decided to go to Kyoto (my favorite city in Japan) to see some of Japan`s most famous sites and in particular, the cherry blossoms. We were lucky enough to be in Kyoto during one of the only times of the year that the Imperial Palace is open to the public. This is where the Imperial Family lived for 700 years or so before the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Next we went to the Golden Pavillion (Kinkakuji) to see what is probably Japan`s most famous site, a temple covered in gold. It is much nicer than my Toyota Corolla, but maybe that is a completely irrelevant comparison ... or is it? Around noon we went to the Philosopher`s Path, which would be one of the most romantic places in Japan, were it not for the utter and complete lack of privacy. Yeah, there are throngs of people. It is a wonder more don`t fall into the stream. Nevertheless, it is truly breathtaking and I am so glad that I have been able to visit it twice during the fall colors season and now once during the cherry blossoms. It is impossible to pick which is best. After that, it was back to Osaka for one last night in the hotel that smelled like smoke in the lobby, something bizarre in the hallway, fine in the room, but reeked of kerosene in the bathroom. Oh well, great location and decent price. Can`t complain.

Our next destination was Muikamachi, which is the town I lived in last year and is in Niigata, on the opposite coast of Japan as Osaka and a good bit north. I think it is about 550kms or so, but the bullet trains don`t run on that side of Japan yet so we had to use an express train instead. They are almost as comfortable, but much cheaper (a little slower). We had a ten-minute stopover/transfer about halfway and that is usually plenty of time because the trains in Japan are always on time. Except this time. I assume that someone attempted suicide (probably successfully) somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto because that is where we were delayed. This caused us to miss our connection and we ended up being 2 hours late. Oh well. Made for a long day though.

On Saturday I had a hockey tournament in a town about 2 hours away. I scored the winner in a shutout in the first game and then my increasingly fragile body (is it because I don`t eat enough vegetables?) sustained a back injury in the second game. I finished that game, but could barely walk the next day so I elected not to play. They were able to pull it out without me and finished third, which I think everyone would admit was beyond our expectations. Seriously though, I gotta get this body back into shape. First things first, surgery on the knee in the summer. Then rebuild the body. I am just talking to myself right now.

Anyway, it turned out to be a nice final weekend with minimal stress. We were able to go to a really good Italian restaurant (a rarity in Japan) twice and even got some more cherry blossom viewing in. The best part was that Aya was able to spend more time with my family and she even took Ethan to the arcade and they had a great time. Back to my previous statement about Ethan`s favorite place being Himeji Castle, well, the truth is that his favorite place was Universal Studios. Since that isn`t really Japanese I am not counting it. I am pretty sure that his favorite place was actually the arcade and since he was with Aya I will count it.

The next day was Monday, departure day, and I had to be at work by 8 so we had a taxi come and pick them up and take them directly to the airport ... on the other side of the country. I am not sure how many kms it was, but apparently it wasn`t too bad. It only cost $110 per person, which is a great deal in Japan and the fact that it was stress free easily offsets the extra cost. So, for all of you that are coming to visit me before August, that is my recommendation.

By the way, I realize that this is a really long and at times tedious post with very little originality, but I wanted to get things up to date and it was important that I recounted the trip purely for journal purposes. Congrats on getting this far. Now, go see the pics.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I am the Jenga King

I don't know what I should address first - the Jenga issue or the real meat and potatoes of this post. I suppose, in order to keep the subject matter light, at least for a little while, let's talk about Jenga. Since I returned to Japan after Christmas it seems like everywhere I go someone starts up a good ol round o Jenga. Previously, I have never heralded this game as anything more than ordinary, but the truth is, this game could change the world. I mean, its just plain fun. The way I see it, if you had good old George W. in a room with the insane Iranian, the more insane Kim Jong Il, and heck, why not invite Chavez for good measure, you might have a pretty intense situation. You have two options to break the tension. One would be to get Russell Peters to come in and do a short routine. If, per chance, Russell isn't available, then you bring out the Jenga. These boys would be having some good times in no time and before you know it ... world peace. Anyway, just a thought. I have been enjoying it and have crowned myself Jenga King. My buddy Andy was the self-proclaimed Kashiwazaki (my town) Jenga King, but then he had one too many drinks and promptly lost the game pathetically early. I, on the other hand, have gone on not losing. Generally speaking, the object of Jenga is to not lose. So, that's what I have done ... not lose ... consistently. One such non-loss convinced me that I am the Jenga King. The tower was over double original height, wobbling like a new born wildebeest (nice metaphor, huh?), yet somehow I managed to pull out (pun fully intended) the miraculous non-loss. It almost feels as good as being the 2002 World Champion Adidas Internet Soccer Game guy. Actually, that was pretty cool.

On a more serious note, in the past 4 weeks I have probably experienced some of the worst times of my life. I have never felt so down and so helpless. The reason for this is that I have had to decide whether or not to leave Japan and return to Canada in the summer. Initially, I tried to have my contracting organization decide for me. I told them that I needed to go back to Canada for all of August to have knee surgery. I was thinking that they would find this unreasonable, but they said it would be no problem. Then I went to family and friends for advice, which I received, but I still had no answer. Ultimately, this was a decision I was going to have to make on my own. In the end, I decided that I will be returning to Canada in the summer.

You may not understand why this decision was so hard so I will try and explain it. First of all, the job is very cushy. I get paid for 35 hours per week of work, maybe a third of which is actually in class teaching. I live alone in a big house in the richest town in Japan and I don't have to pay rent. I have lots of holiday time I can use for traveling. My job is usually quite fun and seeing the kids with smiling faces is very rewarding. I am enjoying learning the language. I enjoy living here and the people I have met here. I have relationships that I do not want to see end. On the down side, my job is not challenging and often boring because of all the down time. Also, another year here would not really help me prepare for my future. Ultimately, I chose to leave because I know that if God wants me here in the future then He will make it happen. Somehow I see myself connected to Japan for the rest of my life so it will be interesting to see what happens.

Anyway, I am not one to get stressed out, but I was literally nauseous and could not eat. I had been given four extensions from when I was originally supposed to decide what I would do. Finally, I had to put this situation in God's hands, something I thought I had already done. To be honest, I don't really want to leave. I could probably live in Japan the rest of my life if I had to (don't get me wrong, I like Canada better), but I need to find a career.
So, if you have any suggestions feel free to let me know. For the praying folk out there reading this, I could really use your prayers. God bless.

Now, back to the purpose of this blog ... travel. As I said in the last entry, I would be visiting some cool, old-fashioned Japanese farmhouses. First, we went to a town called Takayama, which literally means High Mountain. This town was full of really interesting sights, including a very well preserved old town. The houses and buildings in this area look the same as they did before electricity was commonplace and it is a very charming area. Takayama is also famous for its unique culture, which developed due to its isolation and climate. The region is well known for immense amounts of snow and the traditional architecture reflects that. In Takayama there is a fantastic open air museum that recreates a village as it would have existed in the not too distant past. All of the buildings are originals that have been transported from other areas within the region. It was really interesting to see all the different styles of farmhouses and how the people adapted to these harsh conditions.

All around the town I kept noticing these strange red dolls. They looked liked little devils to me, but who knew, they were really supposed to be monkeys. I was way off. In fact, it seemed to me that these were a provincial mascot. One of the interesting characteristics about Japan is every region has something uniquely marketable. Due to the Japanese custom of always bringing souvenirs back to your coworkers, friends and family there are countless souvenir shops around the country. So, with every region having something unique to market they are pretty much guaranteed to sell, no matter how ugly or bizarre the trinket is. Ah, Japan.

Anyway, this post is long enough. To summarize, I will say that Takayama and Shirakawa of Gifu prefecture are two of the most charming and interesting places I have been to in Japan. If you get a chance, I highly recommend it. Check out the pictures.

Next up ... Tokyo DisneySea and Yokohama.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

At Least My Toilet Didn`t Freeze

Well, first update since returning from Canada and I suppose there is not too much to tell. Went out for my first session of snowboarding last weekend and had some good times. Probably going out every weekend for at least the next couple of months. Please refer to last year`s pictures if you really need to know why I need to be boarding so often.

Anyway, Canada was a great time and I have to admit that I really wasn`t looking forward to going to Hawaii. The way I saw it was that I was losing a couple days with friends and family in Canada or having less time to spend with friends in Japan before heading back to work. It was looking like I made a mistake in asking for a stoppover there. I would be arriving at the hostel at 10 pm on Tuesday night and leaving for the airport at 7 am on Friday morning. That gave me only two days and that was if everything went according to plan. Naturally, it didn`t go down like that. My flight was delayed leaving Seattle and I arrived after 1 am in Honolulu. I was anticipating having to sleep at the airport because it was too late to check into my hostel at that time. Then the oddest thing happened. I saw my friend`s mom waiting at the baggage carousel. I thought, this is the strangest coincidence that she was on the same flight as me. Then I remembered that she lived there and it was more likely that my dad and/or buddy had contacted her to come to my rescue. That was indeed the case.

So, this is an example of expect the worst and hope for the best. Also, it is good to know that the Big Guy upstairs has my back. Anyway, I spent most of the next day just wandering around Waikiki. In case you haven`t been there, you may have never seen and ABC store. Well, they are more numerous that fire hydrants. Literally, in Waikiki there are probably 4 on every square block - maybe more! Good store, though. Its got lots of good stuff, although I was pretty surprised at the price of fruit. So, didn`t do much that day, aside from browsing the shops. I bought a few souvenirs and then I came upon what could be the greatest kitchen appliance in the entire world. This is number one on my wedding gift list (if that ever happens), but maybe a few (or a few dozen) of you will have to split the cost. This particular item was found at Williams Sonoma and I also learned that it is a limited edition item - 4 per store over the entire chain. This particular item is a Kithenaid Professional Stand Mixer in brushed copper. I can`t remember what they were asking, but it could be around the $899.99 US dollar range. Me wants.

Ok, so didn`t do too much that first day, but it was still enjoyable. The next day was great too. My friend`s mom let me use her car for the day and I toured up the east-north side of the island. It was great having the freedom to stop wherever I wanted. Problem was that it was one of those Saturns that have the automatic seatbelts that drive me crazy. Having said that, I was extremely grateful to have a car to use and I can forgive Saturn for trying, unsuccessfully, to make our lives easier. Anyway, my main goal was to make it up to the famed north shore to see some of the world`s best surfers at play. Two weeks earlier we were looking at waves so high they were nearly unrideable. Well, they were definitely rideable when I was there and really didn`t pose a challenge to any famous surfers. They were only about 2 meters so it was basically just me and the other disappointed tourists. Still, I had a great time boogie boarding the two meter waves, which is plenty of wave to seriously hurt me. Oh, and while I wasn`t actually riding a wave I was busy thinking about how badly the Hawaiian sun loves to punish me (no sunscreen on this day, but also no sun-intensifier ;) and watching my bag. Living in Japan, which is generally and extremely safe and honest country, has left me with a decided paranoia towards Americans. I think they want to steal everything so if I stay in hostels or am in public places I am always watching them. Not fair, I know, but what can you do?

Towards the end of the day I went to a copy of a famous Japanese temple. I wanted to see it because I had it on one of my screensavers and it looked spectacular. It was. My one disappointment was that it did rain quite a lot in the two days I was there. Who cares? It bleedin` Hawaii I tell you. Did you know that I am moving there? Not Oahu, but Maui. It won`t be for a while - at least until I make my fortune, but it is going to happen.

Ok, next adventure is in February. More super-cool traditional Japanese experiences. Rookingu ... forwardo ... to ... itto (please excuse my accent).

Monday, December 04, 2006

My third continent with U2

Well, I guess I am not as accomplished as some of the truly well-traveled peers I met when I saw U2 in Tokyo On November 30th, but to be able to say I have now seen U2 on 3 different continents is kind of neat - at least for me. I talked to one guy from California that had already been to 12 shows on this tour alone. I mean, he literally uses all of his holiday time and a good bit of his income to travel the world following U2. Now, in all likelihood I am a bigger U2 fan than you are, but I gotta say that that is a little sad to me. But who am I to judge?

Anyway, one thing I discovered in the only other previous concert I had been to in Japan was that Japanese fans are much less aggressive than anywhere else I have been. Politeness generally wins the day. So, when I saw Coldplay during my first weekend in Japan in the summer of `05 I learned that I could get pretty much as close to the stage as I pleased. That saw me standing about 2 or 3 meters from the front of the stage and within one meter of the barrier that divides the stage and the crowd.

It was pretty darn close and pretty darn cool. With the U2 concert my expectations were a little lower, mainly because I anticipated there to be a lot more foreigners there who wouldn`t be so accommodating. True, there were a lot of foreigners, including what seemed to be ever single Brazilian that currently resides in Japan, but I was still able to secure some prime real estate. In fact, I was standing about 1 meter behind the barrier again and this time right at the tip of the runway that juts out into the audience. This runway soon became the domain of The Edge and we had some real bonding moments, the two of us. In fact, the band asked me to come out for drinks with them afterwards, but I already had plans. I was pretty tired so that last part may or may not have happened.

Anyway, after the concert I had to hop in my car and drive half way back from Tokyo to Niigata (by the way, I DO NOT recommend driving around Tokyo). At which point I thought it would be a good idea to stop and sleep in my car. See, it was 1am at this point and I had an early golf appointment so I figured I couldn`t bother with getting a hotel. Bring a couple blankets, slap on half a dozen warmers (you know, the ones with sand or something in them and when you shake them they get warm) and I would be good to good. That had to be high on the growing list of the dumbest things I have ever done. I am really hoping I never top my brilliant "sun-intensifier in Hawaii" incident. Anyway, needless to say, I didn`t get much sleep and spent most of the time contemplating what life without my nose and my toes would be like. Poor balance to say the least.

Long story short, turned the car on around 6am to thaw my appendages and then going completely on muscle memory, rather than actually feeling, I drove myself to the golf course that I was meeting my former high school's PE teachers for a round to celebrate the end of the year. They actually all had a party the night before, but, as you have read, I was a little preoccupied. On the other hand, they also had a better nights sleep than I did so if nothing else I was equipped with yet another excuse.

And boy did I need all of my excuses when the scores were tallied. My only other round of the year I shot an 84 at Greywolf Panorama. Not an easy course so I was mighty surprised. Well, first I'll tell you that my yearly average worked out to be 98. The really quick ones will have figured out that I shot a 112 this time around. On the bright side, that is my best ever score on a par 72, full length course in Japan. So, the excuses are that I was using a borrowed set of clubs, no 3 or 4 iron and no 3 wood. Also, I believe they were made of melted paper clips, or at least they felt that cheap. Second, no sleep. Third, no practice. Fourth, just had a bad day. I realize that if I really were a good golfer that I wouldn't need excuses. Like I said, I really need my excuses.

Other than that, it was a very pleasant day. This was a very pretty course and was actually quite a bargain ($70 CDN, including cart and all you can eat lunch buffet, plus use of the hot tub and facilities). The cart was a bit of a pain, though, because it was actually auto-driven. This means that the cart will follow the path no matter what. You press a button and it will just drive itself. Unfortunately, the person that programmed it was clearly Miss Daisy because you can practically walk faster than it. It is kind of neat, however, and it will automatically stop itself if it gets too far from you or there is something, such as a small child, lying in the middle of the path. You can also control it remotely, which needless to say, can make for a lot of fun. Oh, the other neat thing the course had was conveyor belts. After you finish on the 9th green, you press the button and watch your car drive off the the club house to be cleaned, while you hop on the uphill conveyor belt to whisk you off to the clubhouse. If it seems completely unnecessary, well, it is, but that's not the point. Its Cool! Anyway, then you have a half hour or so break to have lunch and then you resume your round afterwards. Odd, isn't it? It was a good time though, despite my playing partners not knowing English. Good lads though, them PE teachers.

After the golf I had to drive a few hundred kilometers to get back to my neck of the woods for the International Committee's year-end dinner party. And that was my weekend. I was also scheduled to drive another couple hundred kms on the Sunday morning to write a test at 8:30 am, but figured it was just too much and I deserved a break. Besides, I hadn't really studied so there was pretty much no point in taking the test anyway, other than seeing the scenery along the drive.

10 more days and I am on a plane (December 20th).