Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Views from my school

This is the high school where I teach. It's five stories and holds about 1,000 students in grades 10-12. The camera doesn't do it justice. Up close it really looks better than this.

Still, this place is bare bones inside. No special bells and whistles, just small, simple classrooms with ancient wooden desks and chairs. No cafeteria. No auditorium. No central air conditioning or heat. No overhead projectors in the classrooms. Most of them still use a plain old blackboard, complete with piles of chalk dust that have accumulated for approximately 10 years.

The main section of the school wraps around a pleasant little courtyard.

Hallways are all open-air, like most buildings here, including my apartment building. Given the lack of A/C, open air hallways keep things slightly more comfortable during the stifling summer here. But it also means that cold air will be pouring directly into the classrooms every time the doors are opened in the winter. Classrooms are heated with kerosene heaters. This is definitely NOT the kind of advanced technology I originally anticipated from Japan.

Unfortunately, this is what the athletic field looks like right now:

There was some kind of problem with sewage lines running beneath the field, so now they're digging everything up to fix the problem. Now it really does look like a range of sand dunes and rubble. I'm told it will be six months before everything's good as new and regular athletic practices can resume. In the meantime, the girls' soccer team and all the rest of the teams are doing conditioning training running up and down the side of the mountain. Needless to say, I quit practicing with the soccer team because I'm not exactly motivated to run up and down the hill repeatedly after a day of work, especially now that there's a definite nip in the air. So I am bummed that I can't shoot goals with the girls til next spring.

The view from school is nothing short of spectacular. The school is a 15 minute walk up the side of a mountain and the altitude gives sweeping views of the city. Again, the camera can't do this justice.

Though it's hidden behind a building, my apartment is on the left side of this shot, near the elevated train line.

Another shot of my area of the city. I think it's interesting the way the city creeps into the hillside.

This shot is toward downtown.

I wish my little camera could capture these sights at night because Hiroshima just glitters. One of these days I'll find a way to con Joe into trudging up the mountain in the evening so he can shoot it with his fancy camera.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Christmas in... October?

I almost forgot I was in Japan on Saturday. This was the sight that greeted me when I walked through the front door of the department store on a trip to find a Halloween costume. A few more steps and I was in the middle of a wonderland of Christmas trees, plastic flying Santa decorations, wreaths, the whole bit. I guess the commercialism is so viral it's spread half-way across the globe — to a land where most people don't even celebrate Christmas!

Well, maybe that's not quite accurate. Less than 1 percent of the population here is Christian, so no, Christmas Day isn't a holiday. But even though Christmas doesn't have the same meaning here, many Japanese have picked up some of the Christmas traditions of decorating with trees and lights. Also, technically speaking, the Japanese don't exchange Christmas presents. But they give oseibo (year end gifts) to family and friends. Food items like coffee, seafood and fruit (fruit, of course, the fancy fruit!) are pretty common gifts. Christmas Day isn't a holiday here, but the emperor's birthday is. And he was born Dec. 23. Lucky coincidence!

Halloween isn't really celebrated here either. You can find some Halloween decorations around but I'm not really sure why since the Japanese don't plan Halloween parties and there's no trick-or-treat.

I asked my school if I could wear a simple costume to school (cat ears with whiskers drawn on my face) and give the kids candy on Halloween but they said no. Apparently that would make school itself too fun. Grrr! Luckily, at least the English Club (which I lead) is having its own little Halloween party after school on Wednesday. So that is when I will don the cute black cat accessories that I bought on our shopping trip Saturday.

The store had an small selection of the basic Halloween costume supplies you'd expect. The Picachu (Peeeeeeka-chuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!) mask in particular kept calling to me. Alas, it was child sized and too small for my big mug. Darn it!

I tried unsuccessfully to get Joe to buy the Billy Blank mask. I guess he didn't want to be a big buff black guy for Halloween. Too bad, because the Japanese sure do love that Billy Blank and his Boot Camp fitness videos.

He also said no to this costume:

I looked up "jaguchi" in my dictionary. It means "water faucet." Not sure why Joe wouldn't want to wear flesh-colored Water Faucet Pants for Halloween. Looks pretty rad to me.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kagura dancing the night away

Where all the action is: the Shinto shrine next door to our apartment building.

I was lying down reading a book Saturday night when a lively flute melody and rhythmic drumming began drifting through our open back door. Walking to the end of the hall and peering down onto the street, I saw crowds of people streaming toward the Shinto shrine next door. The streets teemed with small children laughing and playing. Suddenly I understood why huge flags had been placed at the shrine's entrance over the past week and why lanterns had been strung up earlier that evening. Not wanting to miss the fun of the matsuri (festival), Joe and I grabbed our cameras and headed downstairs.

It was a short walk down a side street and through the red torii gate into the center of the action. To my delight, dancers wearing elaborate costumes and masks were twirling and jumping all over a stage that had been set up.

Pounding drums sent an energy pulsing through the crowd. I buried my hands in the pockets of my toasty hoody, inhaled the scent of incense floating through the crisp night air and stared, mesmerized.

This is a dance known as kagura (dance of the gods), a sacred purification ritual that has been performed since ancient times to thank the gods for a bountiful harvest. Often the dance tells a story or illustrates an old fable. Folks around the city enjoyed these performances at the half dozen matsuri celebrations held at local shrines on Saturday night.

The shrine's main hall was next to the stage. Inside, children rang a golden bell and offered prayers.

After drinking up the festivities and snacking on a warm meat bun being sold at a food tent, I headed back across the street to my apartment and went to bed.

At 9 a.m. the next morning I woke to the thunderous booms of fireworks. Soon the drums resumed. Bleary eyed, I peered outside and saw crowds of children in blue happi coats parading around our apartment carrying these omikoshi (portable shrines) on poles.

Trying not to feel like a gawking tourist, I pulled myself away from my futon mat and made my way back downstairs. The kids greeted me with cheery calls of "herro!" as I watched in fascination. Every so often they'd pause and heave the omikoshi up and down while yelling something together in Japanese.

This violent shaking apparently is supposed to be entertaining to the kami (gods) that live within the shrine. I don't know if the gods were very entertained with that kind of treatment at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but I have to say I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

And on a side note, I did witness that guy in the scary red mask terrify a little girl being cradled in her father's arms. She started screaming. Her dad just laughed.

Friday, October 19, 2007

School lunch

This was my school lunch today.

Most days I buy a "bento" (lunch box) like this with a container of white rice about half this size for 400 yen ($3.45). My school doesn't have a cafeteria, but it has these lunch boxes delivered each day through some service. This is the large bento, or you can order the small bento for 370 yen. The small is in the same size tray but it's half rice, half other food, instead of the rice being in its own separate container.

This is a pretty typical bento. I ate about half of it. You don't get to choose what's in your bento — it's a surprise every day. Yea! Recognize anything on the plate? Don't worry, most of it was a mystery to me, too. I've gotten quite used to eating unrecognizable food since I've been in Japan.

I'm not a picky eater in the states but I've encountered plenty of things here that I don't like. I've also eaten lots of stuff I never imagined I'd put in my mouth. Those snail-like things in a green shell come to mind. One thing's for sure, picky eaters would not survive in Japan (Andy!).

So here's what it is. Starting at the top left corner and working clockwise:

Section 1: That black stuff is kelp. It is disgusting.

Section 2: Pickled daikon, dyed pink. Daikon is a popular vegetable around here that looks like an enormous white carrot and tastes like not much of anything. It's alright, but not when it's pickled. Pretty much all the vegetables served here are pickled and they're too strong for my taste.

Section 3: The squarish gray thing is a rather tasteless firm gelatin-like food made from starch. It's low in calorie and is supposed to be good for digestion. Going clockwise you see a round little potato. But it doesn't taste like a regular potato. It's really dense and sticky and icky. Next is a cabbage roll. Gross. And last, that straw-like looking thing is fish sausage. Sounds bad, but it's ok.

Section 4: A chunk of pork and more daikon, this time in a mushy chunk. Edible.

Section 5: Shredded daikon with radish and seaweed.

Section 6: Egg roll and fried shrimp. Good.

So I ate about half this, passing on the kelp, the pink pickled daikon, the little round potato and the cabbage roll.

Yesterday was a better bento day:

I ate almost all of this. Again, starting from the top left corner and working clockwise...

Section 1: Scrambled eggs with clam bits.
Section 2: Tempura (deep fried stuff). On this day it was bits of lotus root, pumpkin and squid. Squid is really common here but I avoid it at all costs because I almost barfed last time I tried it. It's too chewy. The lotus root was ok and the pumpkin was really tasty.
Section 3: Chicken in tomato sauce (yum!).
Section 4: Pinto beans cooked in sugar water. Delicious.
Section 5: Pickled radish. Blech.
Section 6: Soba (buck wheat noodles) with cabbage and bean sprouts. This is edible.

Usually I eat what I can of the bento and fill up the rest of the way on white rice. I'm paranoid that the rice is going to cause me to blow up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but I figure it's still a better alternative than buying the one other thing on sale at lunch: donuts.

Interestingly, the school won't sell any pop in it's pop machines and won't allow kids to have candy in school. But the students can pick from a fairly wide selection of donuts or other breads on sale during lunch.

I guess I could bring my own lunch but I've been too lazy to pack so far. Plus, the bento is just as cheap as bringing my own, and probably better for me anyway.

And hey, it adds a little adventure to my day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sake Festival

Last Sunday Joe and I hit an October fest — Japanese style. Rather than imbibing copious amounts of beer we decided to sample the spirits at the Sake Festival in Saijo, about an hour train ride east of Hiroshima. Saijo is known for its sake (rice wine) production and is the main producer of sake in the area.

With about 900 varieties of sake on tap, it's easy to see why this place was so packed. About 200,000 people, nearly double Saijo's population, flocked to the city's streets over the weekend.

The event had all the makings of a typical street festival in America but with a lot more fish food and far fewer vendors hawking garden gnomes and other gaudy lawn ornaments. Perhaps one of the neatest food tents I saw was the one selling battered baby octopi.

I passed on these, but Joe summoned the courage to consume them once they were smothered with barbecue sauce. He claims they were pretty tasty, but his expession says otherwise.

This guy gave a whole new meaning to "fish sticks."

Yes, your eyes don't deceive you, those are whole fish on a stick.

We also watched the cool kids cook some oysters.

Plenty of shrimp was on the grill, too.

And Gorby, this one's for you:

I took a cue from this little guy and enjoyed one of those mini candied apples. My mouth still waters just thinking about it!

Once we'd gotten our fill of festival food on the street, we each paid 1500 yen (a bit under $15) to enter the sake garden. The organizers give you a cute little cup about the size of a half of a shot and you can take it up to the tents for samples of sake from throughout Japan. So I tried four or five different kinds, amusing all the Japanese in my vicinity with wildly contorted facial expressions as I choked it down. Sake's always been a bit too strong for my taste, but I figured I'd try a few kinds anyway in hopes that I'd hit on something palatable. No such luck.

That being the case, there was no drunken train ride back to Hiroshima, which was probably a good thing given how packed the car was.

I have to say, I sure do miss the festivals back home with the hot apple cider and apple butter and pumpkins and corn mazes and whatnot right now. But ... at least now I can say I've seen Joe eat octopus balls.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Melons, berries and peaches, oh my!

One of the first foods I plan on devouring upon my return to the U.S., besides a grilled stuffed burrito from Taco Bell, is fruit salad.

Fruit is a luxury here. My eyes almost popped out of my head the first time I saw fruit in the supermarket. $30 for grapes? I later convinced myself I must have been looking at the wrong price tag, until I went back to the fruit section in the Sogo department store for a double take.

Sure enough, this is what I saw...

That's 8400 yen for a canteloupe. With 117 yen equating to 1 dollar right now, that makes this canteloupe a whopping $71.35. Well, you DO get a pretty orange bow on it after all!

I was so fascinated by the outrageous price tags that I ran around the fruit section photographing everything like a big goofball.

There was watermelon...

for $33.

A bunch of green grapes...

for $31.22.


for $7.13.

And that's for a container half the size of the one back home.


for $8.48 per half pint.

Gigantic peaches...

for $5.35... EACH!

Mandarin oranges...

for $53.52 per crate.

Regular oranges...

for $3.56 for two.


for $2.67 each.


for $2.67 per bunch.


for $3.56 for two.

And then on the low end we've got...


and lemons...

for 89 cents each.

Needless to say, we don't eat a lot of fruit here. I've been picking up grapefruit and bananas at the discount supermarket around the corner from our apartment, but that's pretty much the only fruit I ever eat. And boy do I miss it. Once in a while I do also get a chunk of pineapple at the sushi restaurant nearby for the equivalent of $1.50. Let me tell you, it is hands down the best pineapple I have ever tasted. It's good enough that at some point I'm sure I'll gladly part with the six bucks and change for a pineapple from the market.

So why is the fruit so expensive here? From what I gather from my scientific research (i.e. googling fruit and Japan), it appears that Japanese politicians are firmly in the back pocket of rural fruit farmers. In return for their support, the politicians promise protection from foreign competition.

Fruit is also given as a gift in Japan. And gift fruit isn't just any fruit — it's been painstakingly and lovingly coddled in every way imaginable. It sounds like they approach growing fruit the way winemakers approach growing their grapes. It's like a complex art.

According to an article published a couple years ago in the International Herald Tribune:

"In Shizuoka, west of Tokyo, melons are farmed in sophisticated green houses, complete with air-conditioners that fine-tune the temperate to optimal levels day and night. Melon vines are planted and cultivated in a soil bedding that is separated from the ground, said Tsuneo Anma, general secretary of a growers' group based in Fukuroi city that produces the "Crown" brand of melons. Producing 3.5 million melons annually, the agricultural cooperative is the biggest specialty-melon grower in Japan.

The soil separation is necessary to regulate moisture levels. "The moisture uptake by the tree roots must be optimized to promote proper amount of photosynthesis," Anma said. "If trees are planted in the ground, the roots will grow unregulated," making moisture absorption difficult to control.

Growers trim the vines so that only three melons will grow on each tree. When the baby melons grow to the size of a human fist, two are chopped off to allow the most promising one to monopolize all the nourishment from the vine. That one melon is expected to mature into the juicy, beautiful and revered $100 dollar fruit."

Supposedly it tastes a lot better than all that boring ordinary fruit. If the pineapple I've had is any indication, perhaps it really is better.

But I'll have to take their word for it. I can't imagine any canteloupe being sweeter than $71 in my pocket.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mystery solved!

Today I used my journalist super powers to uncover the myserious meaning behind the blue-haired peeing boy.

You know, this kid, from the truck that parked outside my apartment:

According to my expert on peculiar Japanese trucks (a.k.a. my supervisor), this truck is in fact from an emergency plumbing service. The red print you see below the boy says "water emergency." 110 is an emergency number, sort of like 911 in the states, that people call to report crimes or traffic accidents here. So it represents an emergency.

The print to the right of the boy says "Patent applying JCW631 jet stream washing."

Now, the boy himself is known as "shoben kozo" in Japanese, which literally means "peeing boy." My supervisor informs me that Japanese people easily associate images such as this with the famous statue water fountains of peeing boys that we have all seen at some point in time. She pointed out that the boy in this cartoon was peeing white (not yellow) fluid, indicating it is like water, not urine. This particular cartoon didn't seem odd to her at all. In fact, this is a widely recognized cartoon around Hiroshima due to popular TV commercials broadcast by this particular plumbing outfit.

It gets even better. She directed me to a website with pictures of these peeing boy statues that are apparently scattered throughout Japan. They are modeled off a famous peeing boy fountain in Brussels, Belgium. People here dress them up in different outfits throughout the year. There's the fireman peeing boy, Santa peeing boy, Mexican peeing boy... Check it out!

AAAAWESOME! I can't wait to see these! Leave it to the Japanese to come up with something so twisted and cute at the same time.

While I researched this on the web today, I even came across this cell phone charm of a shoben kozo.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Best billboard ever

Another pic from the "WHAT the...??!" file...

So apparently they have pretty girls with laser beams shooting out of their arm pits at this "Beauty theme park" on Hondori Street, the popular shopping strip downtown. Hot!

For those of you still wondering what the peeing blue-haired boy is all about, my mission is to discover the true meaning this week.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Sports Day

My school recently celebrated its annual Sports Day event, featuring plenty of dangerous little stunts like this. Every September, high schools around Japan plan a track and field day on a Saturday so parents can come watch their young'uns perform multiple feats with the potential to crack a skull or two. Picture young boys doing five-story pyramids. Our Sports Day fell on a long holiday weekend when school would be closed Monday. So school also closed Tuesday to make up for everyone coming out to the all-day event on Saturday.

One thing you might notice about the picture above is that the kids are running this race on a sand/gravel lot. This is in fact the playing field used for all sports in my school, whether it's baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball, you name it. Kids at all the schools around here play on gravel lots like this. I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I saw it. Could you imagine American kids playing on gravel? Parents would have an aneurism! Well, I've discovered that the Japanese parents are a lot less wuss-ified than American parents. Everyone accepts that their little darlings will get a few skinned knees, and that's just the way it is.

I'm not sure why they play on gravel, but I imagine it's a combination of factors involving the expense of maintaining grass fields and the sheer difficulty of keeping grass alive in the summer heat. A lack of land means the practice field and official playing field are one in the same, and with all the kids practicing in the same area everyday (sometimes twice a day) any grass that managed to sprout would just get trampled to death.

But back to Sports Day. It is a HUGE deal here. The kids started practicing three months ahead of time. It features some of the typical track and field type activities you're used to seeing in the states — tug o' war, three-legged races, baton races — but it gets a lot more interesting than that. Hundreds of girls performed a complex flag performance that reminded me of the kind of thing you'd see at an Ohio State University half time show. At one point, they all donned yukatas (a traditional Japanese summer garment, sort of like a casual kimono) and did a dance performance in those, too.

Unfortunately, I, with my wondrous techno-wizard skills, no longer have the recordings of this or of the most dangerous gymnastic stunts the kids performed. After sprinting back to the school and up four flights of stairs to capture overall shots of these impressive activities from up high, I was pretty bummed when I later discovered I'd taped over them.

One of the videos I really wanted to show you was a stunt that involved two rows of a dozen or so boys each. They stood facing each other in parallel lines and joined hands. Then another boy laid down the middle of their arms and joined hands with someone in the middle. The boys on the end then launched the boy's feet up so that he swung 180 degrees like a giant clock hand. This was performed multiple times with everyone yelling "OOOOH!!" each time he was launched swinging through the air.

Then there was a competition during which, for a while, I was convinced the boys were trying to punch each other in the face. It worked like this: two large teams of boys divided themselves up into groups of three.Two boys lifted up the third and held him, standing, at waist-level. All the boys being lifted wore hats and gloves. The object of the game is for all the little groups to chase each other around and try to grab the hat off an opponent's head. The first team to score all the other team's hats won. Parents all went ape over this!

I also enjoyed this contest with huge wooden flag poles. Two teams of boys divided in half. While one half held up the pole, the other half rushed the other team and tried to capture the flag on top. The result is a bunch of boys clawing and fighting to hold up the pole while the other half strains to rip it down and/or climb it to reach the flag.

I just love how enthusiastic all the kids are about these events. All of them, including all the girls, are super competitive! And they don't worry about getting hurt. This is probably the most fun I've ever had at school.