Tuesday, November 27, 2007


This is a picture of me and Joe with Musashimaru Koyo, a retired sumo wrestler. To quote Joe, "It's not often I meet someone who makes me feel small."

Musashimaru is one of 68 rikishi (wrestlers) who have achieved the top rank of yokozuna in the past 300 years. So at 36 years old, he's like a retired champion. If Wikipedia is to be believed, he is 6-foot-4 (the same height as Joe) and weighed 517 pounds when he was wrestling in the early 2000s.

Our paths crossed during our trip to Fukuoka to watch sumo wrestling two weekends ago. In between matches, I went to the lobby to buy some souvenirs and on my return I saw Joe talking to this humongous guy in the hall. It turns out he speaks English because he grew up in Hawaii! I made it my business to get his autograph.

I still grin like a little kid just thinking about the whole thing! The whole time I was there I kept thinking that I could hardly believe I was watching a real live sumo match with my own eyes. Sometimes living in Japan is so surreal.

We took the trip with the local JET association. It was a four-hour bus ride to Fukuoka, a big city on the southern-most island of Japan, on the west coast. There's actually a ferry that goes from Fukuoka to South Korea. The match took place at the Fukuoka Kokusai Senta (Fukuoka International Center) just a couple minute's walk from our tiny room at the Smile Hotel (isn't that cute? The sign had a big yellow smiley face in the middle). Palm trees lined the boulevard nearby.

The grand tournament we attended was one of six held around the country every year. Each tournament lasts 15 days, with the sumo wrestlers competing in one fight each day. There were 34 matches the day we were there.

Never having watched sumo wrestling before, I had no idea what to expect beyond a bunch of chubby beefcakes showing off the goods in what amounts to a big diaper.

Well, it's a little more than that (surprise!).

The sport actually dates back 1,500 years, so there's a lot of symbolic ritual and ceremony involved in the event.

This is the Fukuoka Kokusai Senta (Fukuoka International Center), the arena where we saw the tournament.

The sumo ring in the middle is called the dohyo. It's made of a special kind of clay covered with a thin layer of sand. The circle itself is a little over 15 feet in diameter. Suspended over the dohyo is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine.

The fun begins when all the sumo wrestlers walk out for the opening ceremony. They wear beautiful, vibrant aprons made of silk. These aprons are worth in the neighborhood of $4,000 to $5,000 each.

They go through a ritual that involves a short little dance. Check out those sumo butts!

Once the opening ceremony is over, it's on to the real show.

To win a match, a wrestler must push his foe out of the ring or throw him to the ground. According to the booklet on sumo wrestling I got at the tournament:

"Striking with fists, hair pulling, eye gouging, choking and kicking in the stomach or chest are prohibited. It is also against the rules to seize the part of the band covering the vital organs. As there are no weight limits as in boxing or western wrestling it is possible for a rikishi to find himself pitted against an opponent twice his own weight. "

You have to be very patient watching a sumo tournament because there's a lot of waiting. The wrestlers do a whole series of symbolic movements before they finally get around to fighting each match. To cleanse his mind and body, each wrestler rinses his mouth with water and wipes his body with a paper towel. Following this, they raise their arms to their sides and do these big leg lifts and stamp their feet.

Then they scatter salt to purify the ring and finally squat to face each other like they're about to attack. But wait! After glaring at each other for a few seconds, one stands up and walks to the corner of the ring to wipe himself off some more and slap his body in various places. They repeat this several times until they've properly psyched themselves up and worked up the crowd into a good froth. This can go on as long as four minutes before the ref (that guy in the red kimono) forces them to just get on with it.

Often, the fight is over in a matter of 30 seconds. But it's a thrilling 30 seconds!

I caught a couple matches on video, and I think they represent the different fighting styles I saw pretty well.

In the first, which I've dubbed the Sumo Cat Fight, they battled it out like a coupla hefty girls.

The other fight was a bit longer and involved more muscle power. Warning: you'll get an eye-full of sumo booty!

I love it when one of them practically carries the other guy out of the ring.

All an all, it was one helluva memorable night, followed by a day of galavanting around a nearby amusement park called Space World (think Six Flags).

Bus ride, hotel, sumo and roller coasters — 190 bucks a piece.

Souvenir of Hello Kitty charm wearing a sumo apron — $5

Seeing enormous dudes parade around in loin cloths — Priceless!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ten reasons I love Japan

I've been M.I.A. on this blog for a couple weeks because we've been busy traveling around a bit and enjoying some of the sights. A week ago we took a four-hour bus trip to Fukuoka (a big city in Kyushu, the big island to the southwest) and this past holiday weekend we traveled to Miyajima and then Takamatsu (on Shikoku, the big island to the southeast).

So I have plenty to write about. But first, Thanksgiving!

Amazingly, I forgot it was even Thanksgiving on Thursday until late in the day. I guess that's what happens when you're not inundated with advertising at every turn. Joe and I both went to school like usual, and I even stayed late to lead the English Club meeting. By the time I got home, I was starving, so we walked to the nearby Sunday's Sun. Sunday's Sun is a popular chain restaurant that serves Japanese food and American food (Japanese style, of course!).

It wasn't until we were halfway through with dinner that I realized this was our Thanksgiving dinner. It was a rather odd thought that we were both chowing down on double cheeseburgers instead of turkey with double helpings of stuffing on Thanksgiving. When I say "cheeseburger", I mean two hamburger patties on a plate (no bun, tomato, lettuce, etc.) The burgers were filled with cheese in the middle, covered with melted cheese on top, and accompanied by a tasty cup of salsa. We even splurged on the drink bar (a.k.a. fountain pop machine) to buy the privilege of refills on our Pepsi. This is an extravagence. Dessert was hot cocoa.

So, dinner was definitely a far cry from the gluttounous feast we're used to this time of year, but I was still happy to get a nice fatty burger because I don't get that very often.

Now, every other day is fair game for me to complain about this or that thing that annoys me about living here, but today I'd like to list 10 things I'm thankful for in Japan. This is aside from all the basic stuff like having a family, being alive, healthy, sane, continent, etc., etc., etc., that I'm always thankful for. It is important to mention that one of this year's greatest blessings was being able to spend the holiday weekend with my cousin and his family. Even though I'm more than 6,500 miles from home, I still got to spend Thanksgiving weekend with some family! (More on this trip soon.)

But for now, here's my list (in no particular order).

10) Excellent service — I cannot think of a single time when I've received poor service in Japan. It doesn't matter if you're at a nice restaurant or the corner convenience store, they will always smile, thank you, and get your order right. They never forget to give you a napkin, straw, spoon or whatever. Compare this to the states, where I was generally guaranteed to have something wrong with my order 75 percent of the time. I have no doubt that this will be one of the things I'll miss most about Japan someday.

9) Freaky lack of bugs — In the dog days of summer when it was so hot I was convinced I was melting, there's one thing that could have made it infinitely more miserable: mosquitos, flies, gnats, all those annoying little buggers that thrive in the heat. But there were practically none. We would leave the front door of our apartment wide open to get a little cross breeze going. There's no screen, but we still never got any bugs in the apartment. Maybe the city sprays a super-duper pesticide...maybe it's pollution. Either way, you won't hear me complaining.

8) Four distinct seasons — Case-in-point: It's almost December, and half the trees are still green. Fall seems to last all of three weeks back home. Here, autumn is making a slow, pleasant descent into winter. It's beautiful.

7) The efficient transportation system — Sure, I was sad to bid farewell to my blue Toyota Corolla when we left Ohio, but the mourning period is long gone. I now walk, bike or take the trains everywhere I need to go. It's better for my health and easier on my pocket book. I always felt like such a slug driving everywhere in the states. Now I don't feel that way.

6) The stunning history and culture — I'm still awed by all the ancient Japanese temples and shrines I see. It's just really, really incredible to see in person.

5) Picture menus — You can't always get an English menu in the restaurants, but lucky for me there are usually plenty of pictures. And a lot of places even have plastic replicas of their menu items sitting in a glass case in front of the restaurant, so I know exactly what I can get. If it wasn't for this God send, I'd be ordering a lot more surprises.

4) Respectful students — I'm amazed everyday by how well my students are behaved, on the whole. Yeah, there are a couple of class clowns but by and large they all follow directions and do what they're supposed to do. Maybe they're too sleepy to think of ways to misbehave. I also still haven't gotten tired of seeing the students stop dead in their tracks to bow to me when I walk by. ;)

3) Free Japanese lessons — For a year before I came to Japan, I was a volunteer ESL tutor twice a week. Now I benefit from free Japanese lessons offered twice a week at the Hiroshima International Center. Who ever said life isn't fair?

2) English skills of the Japanese — They often know just enough to make life a little easier. Not always, but a good bit of the time.

1) English skills of the Japanese, part deux — They may know just enough English to help out... but not enough to avoid constantly misusing the language. Go here to see what I mean. Combined with the Japanese culture of cuteness, this is a constant source of amusement for me. Take a look at this darling little notebook I just bought, for instance.

Really, how could you resist stuff like this?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Japanese man goes ape

When I first graduated from college, I lived a five-minute drive from work. Never once did I consider walking to work. What? Walk two miles? Alongside heavy traffic? What are you, crazy?

But since we have no car in Japan, it was just a given that I would be either walking, biking or taking the bus to school. I decided that a nice morning stroll would do me good.

It's about a 35-minute walk to my school. The first 20 minutes take me by the bus station (which I pass about the same time the bus leaves for my school) and along a very busy four-lane road. The last 15 minutes are spent hoofing it up the side of a mountain. It seems a lot of the schools around here are built up on the side of mountains. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the only place with cheap, available land?

At first, walking to school in the sweltering heat, I arrived at school completely drenched in sweat every day. Literally. There were days when I soaked my shirt completely through, front and back. I had to wear a T-shirt to school and change into my work shirt after I arrived — and went to the bathroom to dry off with a towel and cool off with a Japanese fan. Maybe I smelled... but then again, so did all the kids.

Nearly all the students ride bikes to school. Under Japanese law, they can't get driver's licenses until age 18.

Dozens of students whiz past me on their bicycles each morning on my way to school. Thankfully, the sidewalks are wide, so there's plenty of room for us to share.

I am not required to be at work until 8:45, whereas the kids have to be in school by the time the bell rings for homeroom at 8:40. So I'm usually trudging up the hill with the kids who are busting butt to make it to the top before the bell.

This is perhaps one of the more amusing parts of my day. That's because one particular gym teacher has made it his business to come out to the top of the hill and scream bloody murder at the kids to be on time.

I've always been that person who gets a little chuckle out of the situations where someone gets kinda hurt or suffers a little bit. I was the kid who really busted a gut watching the cartoons where a piano falls on somebody. I'm rather tickled by that sort of thing.

Somehow this screaming business strikes me the same way. It's just a little absurd. These poor kids have it bad enough dragging themselves up the hill early in the morning without some guy yelling at them to hurry it up, already!

See it for yourself!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Contemporary "art"

Seduced by the free admission, Joe and I made our way to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday to check out an exhibit by famous Japanese artist Ohtake Shinro.

It appears I have no more appreciation for Japanese contemporary "art" than the contemporary artwork I've seen on display back home. It pretty much all looks like something the cat yacked up.

The advertisement I read for the "New Universe On The Road" exhibit explained that Ohtake Shinro "gathers garbage, junk and assorted printed matter, returns home and rearranges it into assemblages with the semblance of works of art."

That's a very accurate description, though "works of art" is perhaps arguable. I must be missing the art appreciation gene, because none of his work spoke to me. Well, I guess it did speak, it just said "Look at me! I'm a heap of trash masquerading as fine art! Sucka!"

A lot of it looked like stuff he set on fire and left sitting in a compost heap for a year or two before deciding to glue it together.

Check it out:

Oops, sorry. That's actually my kitchen garbage. Well, close enough.

I can't show you real pictures of the exhibit because we weren't allowed to photograph it, lest we violate copyright law by running out and enlarging photographs of heaps of garbage and selling them for obscene amounts of money.

Oh well, at least it was free. I'm still glad we went because a few pieces in the permanent exhibits by other artists captured my imagination a little more.

One of my favorite pieces was painted on the shards of broken dishes.

Monday, November 5, 2007


I'm thrilled to report that I read — and understood! — my first Japanese sign a few days ago. Hurray! I see this sign everyday on my walk to school. And finally, after weeks of drilling hiragana, I looked at this sign on my walk home and started sounding it out under my breath: "Ya-ki-ni-ku Ee." Excited, I blurted out the definition: "Broiled meat! Yes!" (Literally — ee means yes.) No doubt people on the street thought I was a wacky gaijin (foreigner), but I didn't care. Joe and I have been attending free Japanese classes twice a week at the Hiroshima International Center for a while now. And everyday for the past several weeks, I've been copying down Japanese words in romaji (the roman alphabet) from my dictionary and re-writing them in hiragana. Finally, all that work is starting to pay off! It's actually sticking!

The Japanese language is written using a combination of three sets of symbols. The first two, hiragana and katakana, are phonetic, meaning the symbols represent sounds, like the Roman alphabet. Hiragana is used to spell words of native Japanese origin. Katakana is used to spell foreign words.

Besides these two phonetic alphabets, the Japanese also use kanji, those really intricate symbols that might as well be hieroglyphics. They represent whole words or concepts. You need to know about 2,000 to read the newspaper. It'll be years before I know that many.

But in the meantime, I consider it a significant accomplishment that I've pretty much mastered hiragana. Any time I'm out for a walk now, I always look at signs and see what I can read. Most of the time I can only read portions of a sign since the hiragana are mixed together with the katakana and kanji. And often, even when I can sound out the parts printed in hiragana, I still don't know what the words actually mean. But sometimes I do, and it brings me joy. I am now starting to feel like I really will know some functional Japanese by the time we leave Japan.

It makes me really excited to keep learning. Today I looked up a website belonging to Bob Miller, my Japanese instructor from Sinclair Community College back home. All his lessons and worksheets from his introductory conversational Japanese 1 and 2 courses are online. I looked back at the lessons from the first course and realized I had all that material down pat. And now I can refer back to the lessons from the second course I took and start mastering all the different verb forms and tenses. Once I'm comfortable with verbs, I should be able to combine that knowledge with the vocabulary I've picked up so far to truly start communicating.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Speeches from hell

The beginning of November marks my third month in Japan and my second month actually teaching. Well, sort of. Pretty much all of September was dedicated to giving my self introduction and evaluating a speech assignment that my first-year (10th grade) students were given by my predecessor. Of the 19 classes I teach, 16 are first-years. At 20 students per class, that means 320 students had to give a speech.

They were assigned to write a 300-500 word speech in English on their dream for the future. If they didn't have a dream, then they could write about something they couldn't live without. Then they had to deliver the speech to me.

I think the real purpose behind the assignment was to identify a few students with exceptional English skill who could participate in an English essay contest that several high schools around here participate in. Unfortunately, this assignment was way over the head of 99.9 percent of the students.

It was unquestionably the work assignment from hell. August and September were miserably hot in Hiroshima. I overheard one local say it was the hottest summer in 80 years. With the extreme humidity taken into account, the heat actually felt over 100 degrees on many days. And remember, outside of the teachers' main office, the school doesn't have air conditioning.

So there I was, suffocating in a hot classroom with near zero air circulation, sweat dripping down my back, trying to judge these poor kids' speeches. I had to fight falling asleep in every class. I started making random lists in class just to keep myself awake.

The sweltering heat was bad enough, but it was worse than just that. The kids were never given any instruction on how to prepare a real speech. So one by one, they dragged themselves to the head of the class and read straight from their paper without ever looking up, without ever gesturing or moving. They all talked in a monotone, and at least half of them were so shy that they refused to speak loudly enough to be heard, even when I was sitting in the front row.

Many have pronunciation so bad that it was pretty much impossible to tell what they're saying. But even if they HAD all pronounced the words perfectly, most of the speeches still would have been incomprehensible simply because they were written so poorly.

Grading them made my head hurt. How was I supposed to grade a kid's speech in six different categories when I had no idea what he said?

I was lamenting to my cousin yesterday about the absurdity of this assignment. I said it was hard for me to understand how students in their fourth year of English training (keeping in mind that they already know the alphabet when they start, so it's not like they're starting totally from scratch) can't use pronouns or tenses properly. Many of the students, for example, never used the pronoun "I" to refer to themselves. Instead, they'd made statements like, "It wants to be a dentist." I just assumed they must have been taught incorrectly.

Not exactly, my cousin informed me. What many of the kids do for an assignment like this is write the speech in Japanese and then type it into an online translator. Because pronouns often aren't used in Japanese (they're inferred through context), the translator totally mangles the translation.

Thus, I ended up listening to hundreds of speeches like this one:

My dream in the future is a civil servant. The civil servant can be useful for the person though what you want to become has not been decided yet. It is therefore because of the desire as it is possible to repay the kindness to the people, family, and the friend in the vicinity that is indebted up to now. It tries out for after it finishes high school to join the civil service or there is a method of going to each special school. I think that I should hold out study and club activities in this High school to join the civil service before that. In study, it reviews, it is prepared to seem to do by the following class, and I think that have doing by the class remembered all by it because it returns to the house in the content studied at the school so as not to get a red point in the future very day. When summer vacation opens because the society is not the good at five subjects and the school starts, I have it to work or study around the society. I belong to the soccer club the club. The soccer club in the high school holds out the exchange and garbage with the person in the study region though it is wide. It is possible to become man that the boast is popular among me besides the technology of soccer and the improvement of physical strength when entering this soccer club though soccer holds out of course. We will have it for the offering enjoying the original cancer denunciation of the guidance of the teacher of adviser's valley it is possible to do teacher and the class and the school life in the future for the future though it becomes impossible to do becoming busy because of the examination when becoming the third grader and enjoying the school life so much.

Does your head hurt yet? If not, here's another:

The time is thing what I can not live without. The time can not stopping. No matter what anybody says, we can not change it. The time can not stop. I often think. "I am happy if the time is stop." And, "The time is stop? That is impossible!" I felt fast in the morning. "I am sleepy. I do not want to act." But the time is fast gaining. the time is not forgive. I felt slowly in class. One minute but I felt ten minute. the time is slowly gaining. The time is not forgive. When I am happy, the time is fast gaining. When I am not happy, the time is slow gaining. The time is unfair. So I do not like time. But, the time is nothing if I will very difficulty. Because I am listless, there is the time. So I hurry to school. "Hurry up! I will be late!" So I am upset. "It is already ten o'clock. I must study English my homework!" So I am relief. "It is only nine o'clok. I play a little more game." If there is not the time, I can not nothing. Not only me, people need the time. It is Japanese, American, Chinese, French and British so. But there are people that do not mind the time in the world. It is only a few country. Other countrys have run down by the time. We need the time, when go to the work, when go to school, when wait for a parson, when get up early and so on. The time is one of the most important thing of the present day. If keep to the time, dismissed from the company. If keep to the time, lose a parson's trust. I do not like the time but it need me.

Needless to say, I was about ready to hammer my brains out by the time I'd listened to the students recite 300 monotone speeches like this. I wouldn't wish this assignment on my worst enemy.

It really frustrated me that we wasted class time on this. The kids clearly hated delivering the speeches, and in every class they just went straight to sleep until it was their turn. The (very messy) written transcripts were so horribly mangled that it was impossible for me to correct them in a really meaningful way. I tried anyway.

The experience made me realize the value of the detailed curriculum standards that the U.S. and the state of Ohio have created. I don't think American teachers have the flexibility to assign meaningless work like this because they're too busy aligning all their lessons to cover concepts on the standardized tests. Maybe the government's heavy hand in the education system isn't as bad as I thought. Yes, it means every kid gets a cookie cutter education, but it also means teachers are forced to design lessons and assignments with a clear purpose.