Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Sunday, March 22, 2009
On Saturday morning, we biked over to the university to use the Internet to Skype (Voice Over Internet Protocol program) with Atens. With our laptop in hand, we were able to have a video call with Tim, Diana, Amaya, Ali, Murat, Connie, and Ron, who were staying at our grandparents' house while they were visiting the Kents. Grandpa's health is not doing well, so Ali and Murat had flown in from Minneapolis. Joan and I, as well as many other family members, are worried about Grandpa. We are so far from home if something happens...
By late midmorning, we were starving, so we rode to a nearby grocery store and bought some yummy baked goods and a drink. Joan got a type of pastry that was filled with a sweet, spicy curry-like mixture, and I got something like a hot dog, but instead of a sausage, it was a piece of breaded chicken with a tangy mayonnaise sauce – oh my goodness, were they tasty! We washed it down with a bottle multifruit/vegetable juice, a kind of V-8?
Joan went back to the university to visit up some email and blogging, and I headed home. I decided to stop by the fire station, which is just down the street from our apartment, and check it out. The morning before, the siren had gone off, and we heard the trucks pull away with their sirens blaring. Soon, we heard more and more sirens, enough that it made us look out the window and say to ourselves, “Ummm... I wonder what kind of signal they use for an earthquake or tsunami?”
When I opened the door and walked in, the five or so men around the table looked up at me, and the looked at each other. After a long pause, they looked at one of the younger guys, who then got up and nervously. In my broken Japanese, I told them that I was an American and that I lived just down the street from the station. When I told them that I had been a firefighter in the states, as well as an EMT for an ambulance company, they visibly relaxed. I had a nice conversation with two of the younger firefighters, and with the help of a dictionary, I was able to learn a few details.
The station is a branch facility of the main station over near Kochijoji, about 20 minutes away by bike. They have two smaller fire engines, and a staff of nine firefighters. They work 24-hour shifts, one day on, two days off. They respond to fires, car accidents, and medical emergencies. The ambulances come out of the hospitals and meet the fire engines. I also learned that all the sirens the morning before had been for a small fire that broke out in a house nearby, between us and the station. It was a nice visit, but the language barrier definitely was a problem. I hope to stop by some other time and perhaps get a tour of the station and the trucks.
That afternoon, we went on a bike ride with Russell, our neighbor, to Inokashira Park, a popular place for cherry blossom viewing. The Japanese have “park culture,” where, when the weather is good, people flock to the parks to walk about, view nature, and be outside in general. The weather was quite good, and the park was packed. The cherry blossoms aren't quite out yet, and Russell said that when they were, the park would be elbow to elbow with people and picnickers.
The park is right next to Kichijoji, which is the social/cultural hub of Musashino City, with lots of restaurants and stores. It had that high-energy feel and crowded sidewalks that we expected of Tokyo. Our area of Musashino is called Sakai and is quite quiet and peaceful in comparison. We walked around and dodged crowds, as Russell took us on a tour of the most popular stores and sights, at least for the VFMs. It was all quite overwhelming, and we were glad to get back to our quiet neighborhood...
That night we didn't want to fall asleep, so we decided to watch a movie to keep us awake. We borrowed some DVDs from Steve and decided to watch the first few episodes of Rome, a historical drama based on Caesar and the Roman empire, created by HBO. I t was quite good and kept us up, but in the morning, after some discussion, we realized that we really didn't want to have a TV in the apartment after 13 years of not having one. So, out it went and into the storage room downstairs. Also, we got a really nice, but quite large, futon from our neighbor, and it really filled up our living room. However, it is super comfy and really makes the living room a nice place to be. In fact, Joan is curled up on it right now with a blanket and a book. WE NEED A CAT!
It was a small restaurant with the cooks standing in the middle of an island surrounded by a chest high conveyor belt on top of a counter with stools. We had to wait a few minutes to get seats, but the moment we sat down, it was time to dig in. Any plate that came slowly by at head height was up for grabs. We didn't know if the prices were normal or some sort of special for the Vernal Equinox holiday, but everything was 136 yen (approximately $1.36). You just stack the empty plates in front of you, and when you are done, the waiter just counts up your plates and does the math. Joan and I ate about twelve of the small plates of food between us, so it cost just about $16 for the two of us.
Also on the counter in front of us were tubs of pickled ginger, spicy and strong. There were cannisters of powdered green tea, but since I did not know how much to put in a cup, I asked the guy next to me how many tiny little scoops to put in. He told me two and showed me have to depress the plunger on the tiny hot water spigot set in the counter top.
Also rolling by was a small round wooden lacquered tub. In it was one our favorite things, especially with sushi: WASABI! We love the green spicy hot paste/mustard made from Japanese horseradish. On a small side dish, we loaded up the pink ginger and green wasabi, ready for our first choice!
Steve had been talking up this sushi that was a seaweed wrapped roll of rice topped with fermented red beans that he claimed the Japanese loved but he couldn't stand and that we wouldn't like it. To prove him wrong, I grabbed what he thought was one of those. Just about to grab it with chopsticks and chow down, Steve said, “Whoa, I think that one is the fermented bean sushi,” pointing at a different sushi roll. I took a closer look at the pale, white and kind of creamy topping on my roll. I am still not sure what it was exactly, but our best bet was some type of marine animal intestines. Needless to say, that one stayed on the plate, thank you very much!
We were soon tucking into BBQ eel, salmon, tuna, and other random fishy things. Luckily, there was a small menu with pictures and English translations. Oh, it was heavenly good! There were usually two or three servings on the plate, so Joan and I were able to share different types.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Click on this link to see all the photos.
The days are starting to blur together and become full of what is beginning to feel hum drum. I had to ask Joan, “What did we do yesterday?” as I sat down to write.
The morning was the usual coffee and then to the university for Internet access. On the way back, we ran into Kris, who asked us if we wanted to join a bike trip to J-Mart, a hardware/garden center/department store with a little bit of everything. Six gringos (or ‘gaijin’ in Japanese) on bicycles flying down the street. It was liberating!
J-Mart was huge! It feels strange to walk around in a store that doesn’t feel that different from one in America, yet it still feels very foreign. The photos show the puppies that were for sale. Well over a thousand dollars for most of them. The Japanese seem to be really into small dogs. Many of the shoppers had little dogs riding around in their shopping cars; we see many people walking down the street with a small dog in their arms. Joan bought some beet seeds for her balcony garden which is already filling up with parsley and swiss chard.
For dinner, we went out to a sushi restaurant with Steve. It deserves a blog entry all of its own, so look for it in a little bit.
After we finished eating, we took a look in a pachinko parlor (see earlier post) and then stopped by a Family Mart convenience store, where Steve bought a cardboard, milk-carton shaped container of sake. Back at the apartment, Joan had to suffer through Fiji reminiscing as Steve and I explored the his old Peace Corps photos. He also has computer files of the audio cassette recordings he made on a little Dict-a-phone tape recorder he used to carry around in his shirt pockets. To hear us talking about stuff from 18 years ago was weird. Joan said, “You still same the same stupid stuff!” I was offended, I tell you.
We almost made it to 10 pm! Up by 6:30 the next morning – we’re getting better…
Friday, March 20, 2009
Kids, this is not your father's pachinko parlor anymore! I remember one of my childhood friend's family had a pachinko machine that we would play with for hours. There was a mechanical lever arm that I would pull down and release, sending the shiny ball bearing racing up the curved track. There it would fall down through the forest of little metal wires, plinking and bouncing until it landed in either a scoring slot or would fall through into the hopper below. It was very mysterious and weird.
We had walked past a number of pachinko parlors in the last couple of days. They looked like casinos with flashing neon lights and lots of colors. When the automatic sliding glass doors would open, we were assaulted by a roaring wall of sound, and we could see long lines of seats full of people. And then the door would close...
Well, last night after the sushi conveyor belt restaurant, I said, “Hey, let's stick our heads in here.”
It was deafening! The video clip I have included doesn't really do it justice.
Similarly to hard core gamblers in casinos in the states, the people were just sitting there stone faced, watching the balls fall. These machines had less of the metal wire barriers of the machine I remember and video screens right in the middle of it, flashing anime (Japanese cartoon) characters and other seemingly random figures.
In the photos, you can see red plastic tubs of the pachinko balls. I guess you buy a tub from the cashier and then feed them into a hopper at the base of the machine. If you are lucky and win a bunch, you can fill other tubs. That's what I assume about the people that have many tubs on the floor next to their chairs.
Steve said that you cannot cash out your winnings in the parlor due to some legal restriction, so you have to take your tubs full of ball bearings outside and down some small alley to a kiosk where the attendant will dump them into a counting machine and give you your cash. However, we didn't see that part, and since there are many stories that we have been told about Tokyo that turned out to be not true, I'll take it with a grain of salt.
Somebody said, “Oh, they don't garden in Tokyo.” There are gardens and small farms everywhere. Somebody said, “No, you can't buy bathrobes here.” 2,000 yen will get you a terry cloth robe. Who knows what else we will find out next?
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Click on this link to see more photos!
Joan is out for a run right now, on a slightly chilly, cloudy, and windy morning, a little different from the wonderfully warm last few days. We are going to bike over to campus to use the Internet and then run some errands.
Today is a national holiday – Spring Equinox Day? – so the kids are out of school, but the banks and stores are open. We don’t have any plans for the weekend, but as most of the current teachers are returning, there will probably be something going on.
We had a little party at our place last night. Steve Kostecke, my old Peace Corps Fiji buddy, who helped me get this job, got back the night before, so he came down the hall for a visit. Kristina, another current teacher, came down and loaded a Japanese language program on to our laptop. Then Josie and Dan, the other new teachers who live in the Arms, came up to chat. And finally, Kris, our new vice director, who also lives in the Arms, came over with some cans of “fruit alcohol pops” – a carbonated, sweet, slightly alcoholic drinks. I hopped on my bike around rode down to Lawson 100, the 100 yen grocery store and grabbed a couple cans of Asahi, Kirin, and Yebisu beer. So we actually managed to stay up past 9 pm! We were still in bed by 10 but slept in till 6:30 today…
Yesterday morning, the new teachers met with Steve and Kris to go over our schedules, grading, attendance, etc.. It seems like a pretty good system with a lot of flexibility built to accommodate different teaching styles and philosophies. I think this will be different than most of my stateside teaching in that the majority of students are required to be in class. In America, most of my students really wanted to be in class and desperately wanted to learn English; I had no problems with discipline and attendance.
With our freshman students fresh from the regimented high school system, it apparently can be a rough transition to the freedom and subsequent responsibility of university – should be interesting…
Poor Joan – the weather just took a turn for the worst and has started raining. I’d better turn on the automatic hot water kettle for tea.
After lunch of soba (thick, ropy noodles) and tempura in a tasty broth with seaweed, we met with the president of the university. He seems like a very nice man, but I think we will probably not see much of him in our time here. Our CELE faculty seems pretty insular and independent. He talked for awhile about the goals of the university and the English program, and then asked us some questions about us.
Then the new teachers who are new to Japan (Josie, Dan, and me [and Joan]), went with Terao-san, the KKB staffer who was our e-mail liaison during the application and stateside process, took us to the Musashino city hall. His English is quite good from working with all the CELE teachers and from studying in America. He also has a cool little cell phone upon which he was watching Japan play Cuba live in the World Baseball Championship. You’ll be pleased to hear that Japan beat Cuba something like six to nothing!
We took our first train ride two stations away and then hopped on a bus to city hall. With Terao-san translating, we filled out the forms and waited for our paperwork that proves we have applied for our alien registration cards, in case we are asked by the police for ID. I don’t have a real feel for how likely that is to happen, though… However, we need those cards to get bank accounts, cell phones, etc.. We will have to return sometime in early April to pick them up. We aren’t too worried about cell phones and such.
Since the apartment is already furnished and we can use the Internet at the school, we are holding off on buying any larger furniture, like a couch, or getting a phone/Internet at home. We are not sure what our expenses will be, and since I don’t start receiving my salary for a month or more, the $1000 or so in yen we brought is all we have for now.
Yesterday, after our 5 am start, we finished up our coffee and breakfast by seven, looked at each other, and said, “Well, now what do we do?” So we went grocery shopping. We went crazy and bought about $30 worth of groceries, including a tube of wasabi, that very hot, green radish/mustard that goes with sushi. We had it this morning with our fried eggs, onions, and rice – oh, the burn was good! The highlight of the grocery trip was when trying to figure out if Japan actually has pints of coffee creamer. I tried to ask the dairy person about it in my broken Japanese, but we were getting no where. He raised his hand in a ‘just a minute’ way and took off behind the scenes. A few moments later, he led an apprehensive young man back to us. It turns out that he spoke more than enough English and was able to help us figure out there was no creamer of the type we were looking for. We talked a little longer with him and found out that he was not Japanese, but, in fact, Mongolian, and was studying Japanese language and culture at another nearby university. It was a really cool international incident. The first man kept scurrying away to find other store employees and bring them to see our little drama play out. I think the young man’s name is “Bhurr-khet,” and we hope to use his translation skills in the future…
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Ugh. It's 5:10 in the morning on Thursday. I woke up at three or so and had been tossing and turning fitfully for the last couple of hours. I guess we have not quite gotten away from jet lag, yet... I decided to write because it is a quite activity, and we are trying to be considerate of our two downstairs neighbors who are graduate students from China.
Yesterday was the first day of orientation for VFM's (Visiting Faculty Member). Those of us who live here (three new VFMs) met with Kris, the new vice director, who also lives here, at the mail boxes in front of the Arms to walk over to the university. We also met with Dan, the other new VFM at the Arms who had just flown in the night before from Chicago. It is a very pleasant 20 minute walk along shady sidewalks; we also passed the school playground which is to be the evacuation site for our neighborhood if there is an earthquake.
At the university, we met with the six other VFMs. They are already living in Japan and have come from other jobs, so they already have apartments, and most of them have spouses and children. It is a quite diverse group, although seven of us are American with one British and one Irish teacher. The experiences range from a lifetime of teaching in Asia and other countries to fresh of the boat. Overall, everyone seems nice. Throughout the day, we also met some of the current VFMs as they came in and out of the office to catch up on paperwork and other details.
First off, we met with the office staff of KKB, the international affairs of Asia University (AU). AU has about 500 international students, mostly from China, and also sends many students to study in America through exchange programs at sister schools, mostly in Washington state. Some of the staff speak excellent English and often serve as interpreters for VFMs who need help with paperwork, both for school and for living in Japan. Everyone is very friendly and seems very approachable.
The rest of the morning was spent meeting with two people from the administration office, filling out paperwork for ID badges, bank accounts, health insurance, and other bureaucratic things. Between their difficulties with English and our not being able to read the forms, it was quite an entertaining experience.
For lunch, we went to the school cafeteria and ate some uninspired food. You may have noticed in some of the random photos linked to the blog some shots of prepared bowls and plates of food behind glass. At most restaurants, there are displays of the dishes in these cases, all made in exact detail but from plastic. At the cafeteria, I picked one that looked pretty good; however, like most institutional food around the world, it left me wanting. Joan had been using the AU wireless Internet on campus and joined us for lunch. She went with some of the teachers to a local grocery store to bring back some bento boxes: prepared meals in plastic containers ranging from sushi to sandwiches.
The afternoon was a tour of the CELE offices. It is a really nice office with cubicles and computers for each teacher. There are a lot of teaching materials and supplies available. We have many more days of orientation that will focus on the nuts and bolts of teaching at AU. At first glance, though, it seems like a very professional set up and quite a step up from other ESL teaching situations. I also understand that because there is a total of 22 ESL teachers at CELE, it has created its on little faculty with a great deal of independence and flexibility. At most schools, there are not many ESL teachers, and they can feel isolated and under-supported.
We finished up around 4 pm, and some of walked over to Don Quijote, a bright, garish, tacky discount store – sort of a mix of Big Lots, Wal-Mart, and a video arcade. I guess it is the best place to get a majority of things. We have not been to enough stores yet to have a real feel of the different qualities of stores and prices. We have been really lucky to move into a almost completely furnished aparment; we have not had to go out and buy all the bric-a-brac of life. Also, we don't actually receive any of our salary for a month and a half, so cash in hand is at a premium.
After dinner (a wonderful meal of savory tofu, brown rice cooked in our cool automatic rice cooker, and a salad – Joan found red cabbage!), we took a bike ride to a local park I found the other day while out running. We inherited a detailed map, and when looking at it, I found what looked like a bike/walking path from near our apartment that led to a large open park. The path cuts through neighborhoods and stays off busy roads, giving an interesting look into people's backyards and gardens.
Still no work on the community garden plot we applied for with my vice director. We are still hopeful. Joan has already bought her first plant: a young Swiss chard and is babying it on the balcony. There is talk of expanding the operation to the front hallway/balcony where there is some public space that is not used by anyone and gets a lot of sun. Already the word has gotten out about Joan's crazy gardening skills, and some of the VFMs have come up to Joan and asked her to help them improve their container gardening on their own balconies. Kris, the vice director, is going to ask our landlord, who owns a lot of property in our area, if he might have a patch of dirt that we might use, as well...
After the bike ride, I tried to study Japanese but soon got drowsy. So I laid down for a little while on the futon bed around 7:30 pm and that was it. Hence, you understand why I am up before the sun.
Today we go back to AU to meet the president and then to city hall to apply for and receive our Alien Registration cards (we make little alien beeping noises every time we say that phrase). Without these cards, we can't do anything like open a bank account, register our bicycles, get a cell phone and Internet, etc.. Also, I guess the police could stop us at any moment and want to see our paperwork; however, I don't know how often that happens or what the penalty would be for not having the card.
Friday is free, so we have a three-day weekend. There are no plans as of yet, but everyone is getting excited about cherry blossom season which is soon to happen. People are talking about some serious cherry blossom viewing parties! In fact, on the news last night (I did wake up long enough to watch it...), they had the cherry blossom forecast for Japan, which looked like a pink tide advancing up a map of the islands!
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
We tried to stay awake last night, at least until 10 pm. The hope is to get over the jet lag as soon as possible. Joe left a note that mentioned there was an English language broadcast of the news at 9 pm, so we figured out how the TV worked and settled down with cups of tea and channel surfed until then. Wow, what a bunch of weird TV shows. QVC is the same, of course, as well as the historical soap opera show. However, I could not figure out why what appeared to be celebrities were watching a documentary about locust swarms.
The news finally came on, and it was nothing but coverage of how Japan beat Cuba in a round of the World Baseball Championship, translated/read in English by some man with the most sleep-inducing voice ever. Soon, we were slumped over, drool running down our chins. 9:30 pm –bed time!
We woke at 5 am, bright eyed and bushy tailed. A couple of cups of coffee and a bowl of yogurt and granola later, and we were off to the university to take advantage of their wi-fi Internet access on campus. After catching up on email, skyping with my mother, and posting photos on our blog, we were starving by 10 am, so we decided to go grocery shopping. We really wanted to get some rice to try out our rice cooker and some vegetables. Our last couple of meals have been at restaurants, and we were craving some home cookin’. Although, last night, we got really tasty sushi to go, brought it back to our apartment, and had a little dinner party with Josie and Katrina, a current teacher who lives down the hall.
While our street is very quiet with little traffic, there is a larger street about 150 yards away that has many restaurants and a convenient 24-hour grocery store. Almost everything is wrapped in plastic and printed in Japanese. It took us over 15 minutes to find rice! Just in front of the store is a little sushi stand that is popular with the CELE teachers. For 450 yen (about $4.50), we got six sushi rolls with egg, some kind of fish, and sliced cucumbers, as well as three sweet tofu-skin rice balls. We also bought some type of bok-choi greens, onions, and garlic; we whipped up a quick stir fry to go with the sushi back at the apartment.
Today, on the way to the one store where we saw brown rice, we found a farmer who was selling some produce from the back of his truck on the sidewalk in front of a bank. Our area has many large gardens (almost small farms) where people seem to grow a great deal of vegetables. The veggie selection in the supermarkets is not varied, expensive, and wrapped in plastic. This farmer had a great selection, cheaper prices, and no plastic! We happily bought a bunch of stuff and tried to learn the Japanese names.
We also stopped in what appeared to be a specialty rice store that sold rice from different areas of Japan. With our dictionary and lots of pantomime, we communicated with the shop owner and learned about the different types of rice. Surprisingly, rice is expensive in general in Japan… Not sure why yet.
We also stopped at the 100 yen store (The Dollar Store in the States), where they sell a little bit of everything. We bought an apron, a bamboo spatula, and a garlic press for 315 yen…
Out of time! Off for a quick run…
Monday, March 16, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
It is about noon on our first full day in Tokyo. The bags are unpacked; items are stored in various clothes and containers; and we’ve been puttering around the Arms (what the apartment building is called), learning where storage is located and how all the systems work. This afternoon we are biking over to the university to see the office and use the Internet. We are doing a lot of new stuff with Josie, another new teacher who we got to know by email and on the phone. Luckily our flights arrived at the same time, and we were able to meet in the passport control line.
The flight yesterday was long and uneventful. Thirteen plus hours is a long time, and in-flight movies and books can only occupy so much time. Looking out the window at snow covered Alaskan mountains and the frozen Bering Strait was pretty cool, though…
So, how’s Japan? Perhaps the best one-word answer is efficient. Stereotypes aside, Japan is also tidy, organized, polite, and compact. With less than 24 hours under our belts, we are thoroughly enchanted and pleased. Our apartment is far better than we expected: spacious and well lit with two south-facing windows and two large sliding glass doors on the west side. Other teachers who have the small one-room studio apartments make us feel guilty. I have included a couple quick photos.
An example of efficient… We landed at just before 4 pm, and it took us less than 30 minutes to clear passport control, get our luggage, go through customs, purchase bus tickets, and on the way in a comfortable Greyhound-style bus. We excitedly peered out the windows, looking at the people, cars, and buildings. It is not very exotic, but there are just enough differences to keep it interesting.
The bus took up to the Kichijoji train station and took about two hours, eventually arriving in the dark. After some confusion with taxis, we loaded up two with our four footlockers and Josie’s two suitcases and were on our way. After discovering that our taxi driver had family in Los Angeles and that he had heard of Detroit, we ran out of common vocabulary, and we rode in silence for awhile.
After a few minutes, my stomach grumbled loudly. There was a long pause, then the driver leaned over, patted my stomach, and asked, “Hungry?” We all laughed as I answered, “Hai.”
Upon arrival at the Arms, no one was expecting us, and it took us some time to find one of the current teachers in her apartment. I think there was a little bit of a communication break down somewhere in the system. Apparently everyone was at different graduation parties, so after some phone calls to inebriated staff people, keys were on the way.
We met Kris, the new vice director of CELE (Center for English Language Education), and she, along with the teacher, Kristina, volunteered to take us to the nearest grocery store so we could stock up on coffee, creamer, yogurt, and other items for breakfast. What the heck? How can you tell if it is milk or creamer if it is all written in Japanese? Very inconsiderate…
Then we stopped at local restaurant/take out to order “guidon,” a rice dish with a beef/chim chi topping. Back at Kristina’s apartment, we wolfed down the tasty food, surprised at how hungry we were.
At that point, Shugi, the director of the international department, arrived with the keys and a hastily gathered bag of groceries as a welcoming present. He apologized profusely for situation, which of course we made us feel bad because it was just as much fault.
Finally, with everything squared away, we retreated into our apartment and closed the door, exhausted. Then, we could not figure out how the futon mattress, sheets, and blankets combination worked, so we just threw them down on the tatami floor of the bedroom, brushed our teeth, and went to bed around 10:30.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up and started our day. To our horror, the gas was not turned on, so we could not boil water for coffee! Luckily, we figured out how to boil water with the automatic tea water boiler and soon had a French press of coffee ready to go. A little breakfast of yogurt and granola, and then on to unpacking, sorting, and storing. The apartment has lots of storage closets, and the former occupants basically left us all their non-personal belongings: cleaning supplies, dishes, guide books, office supplies, and everything else. It feels very strange to move into a completely furnished place. We felt like we were snooping when we opened all the drawers and cupboards and cooed over all the things we found. Joe and Takako have excellent taste!