Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Just another day in English class

Click the picture to see a larger version.

At the beginning of the school year, I have all my kids make name cards to help me remember their names. Today, one girl passed hers back at the end of the lesson with these drawings all over her name. They caught my eye as I was putting the cards back in my file drawer, and um... yeah. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or worry. So I did a little of both.

I asked another teacher what the kanji at the bottom said. She said it refers to a warring period in Japanese history, specifically to the losers of these battles, who traditionally committed ritual seppuku (suicide through disembowelment). Oh! How pleasant!

I expressed concern about the girl but the teacher kind of laughed it off. "Oh, are you worried she might... hurt herself?" she asked. "Oh, no. She's just a bit weird. But she would never kill herself."

Right... Just checking. Mental note, random drawings of people hanging — no big deal. I asked her to check with the girl and see if everything was OK. Just in case.

It does remind me what a weird and tumultuous time high school is. Makes me think of another fellow JET who did a travel lesson with his students. They had to fill out a worksheet inventing their own country and give it a name, national symbol, that kind of thing. One girl named her country "Murder-land" and made its national symbol a large butcher knife. Repressed rage, much? (Or maybe just an intense dislike of English class?)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ninja turtles?

Whenever I walk between Hiroshima Station and the Hondori shopping street downtown, I pass by a building with a pond out front full of turtles sunbathing themselves on rocks.

They are usually stacked up on one another keeping an eye on pedestrians passing by on the sidewalk. I enjoy staring back for a while.

I really like the one standing tall on edge of the rock in front, pushing himself up as if he's trying to see us all clearly. Wonder what we all look like to him?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Images from Hiroshima's Food Festival

Joe double fisting the meat sticks

Hiroshima's annual Food Festival was a couple weeks ago, so I headed downtown armed with a camera and an empty stomach.

The festival was much bigger than I anticipated, filling not only Chuo Park but also the entire walkway surrounding Hiroshima Castle, and the crowds were so thick that it was difficult to walk a lot of the time.

Although the festival was billed as having dishes from around the world, most of the fare was Japanese. Even so, there were some culinary delights not so commonly found in Japan — mainly, thick hunks of meat.

Giant hunks of meat

Meat on a stick

Hotdog lollypops... I wonder why Americans haven't thought of this already.

For some reason I wasn't much in the mood for red meat, though it did look delicious. Instead I ate some chicken wings, an apple pastry and some dango, which is basically little balls of pounded rice (mochi) on a stick, roasted and slathered with some sweet barbecue-like sauce. I topped it all off with some vanilla soft serve blended with berries. Good stuff! And apparently I was so eager to eat all of it that I never photographed any of it. Oh well.

Here's a big strapping Japanese dude pounding rice to make mochi, though.

After each swing of the mallet into the bucket, that guy in the black and white shirt would quickly reach in and move the glob of pounded rice around.

I was hoping to try some fugu (poisonous pufferfish), which one of my friends had eaten at the festival last year, but unfortunately I didn't see it anywhere. Some other time, if I'm feeling bold, perhaps.

There was all sorts of Japanese food but just about everything I photographed was seafood. The Japanese always have interesting looking seafood at their festivals.

Hanging octopus (tako)

Octopus bowls with some green onion. It's pretty chewy.

Grilled squid on a stick, covered in sauce. Also very chewy.

They look like they'd rather be eating ice cream.

Fish on a stick.

You may have noticed everything's on a stick. It's actually considered rude in Japan to eat while walking in public. (Students get chided for this if teachers catch them doing it!) The exception to this rule is if you are eating something on a stick. Then it's OK. That's why a lot of the festival food is on a stick.

Some kind of shellfish.

Barbecued eel (delicious!) and some kind of snail, I think?

Oysters — one of Hiroshima's specialties.

Okonomiyaki, also a Hiroshima specialty.

Okonomiyaki is hard to describe, but it's basically a thin pancake topped with noodles, shredded cabbage, meat and a layer of cooked egg, with some other stuff like onions or seafood tossed in if you like.

Rice. The LAST thing I wanted to eat at the Food Festival.

Starbucks. Go away, Starbucks.

For the scores of kiddies around, there was even stage entertainment by the darling Pikachu and company. I really adore Japan's obsession with cuteness. How can you not be happy watching a big yellow Pikachu waddle around stage? Really.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rub rub?

Each day as I leave school, I pass by the kids playing outside on the field and lots of them wave goodbye. It's so endearing to hear them call out their sharply enunciated textbook English: "See YOU Gail-sensei!" "GOOD-bye!"

This is all innocuous enough, until inevitably one of the boys shouts, "I LOVE YOU!"

The first time this happened, I wasn't sure how to react. So I didn't. I think I just smiled and said "Bye-bye!" again and continued on my way. Now and then this would happen and I would just ignore it and say goodbye or laugh uncomfortably and respond, "Uh, thanks!" while praying no mothers happened to be within earshot.

Then one day one of the other English teachers told me that a boy in her class was constantly asking when I would return to her classroom to teach another lesson. This boy really liked my visits, she said, but recently he'd been bummed out. When I asked why, she said, "He says he tells you he loves you, but you say nothing back." I laughed. Well, I told her, it's weird isn't it? What should I say? Certainly I can't tell the boy I love him back because....I don't. And teachers shouldn't say that. Definitely not OK in America! No, she advised, just go ahead and say you love him back and don't worry about it.

So from then on, I have. The boys shout out, "I love you!" I yell back, "I love you, too!" Let me tell you, this feels seriously weird. But it makes them happy, and I guess they must know it's not serious. Somehow this expression of affection doesn't seem to carry the same weight when they're saying it in a foreign language, and it's just a simple — and quite adorable, I might add — way of telling me they like me. I guess.

Joe gets the same affection from the girls at his school, too, only on a much wider scale. The girls are a lot less restrained about showing their feelings, so they are always professing their love. He's like a rock star. Just a big, cuddly teddy bear.

The funny thing about this is that Japanese people don't even tell each other "I love you" very often. Our Japanese friends tell us that Japanese boys never say "I love you." Too embarrassing! Want to know the old-fashioned way Japanese men propose marriage? No confessionals of love. They ask their beloved, "Will you... make miso soup for me?" This is the man's way of asking the woman to take care of him forever. Romance at it's highest!

A friend of Joe's gets super excited when she hears Joe call me pet names over the telephone, because Japanese guys just don't do stuff like that. They're a little romantically challenged in that way. One day Joe called me during school and, being the smartass that he is, when I picked up the phone he greeted me with "How ya doin', Sugar Tits?" While I rolled my eyes on the other end, she was swooning, assuming that any pet name that includes the word "sugar" must be endearing.

My relationship with my husband seems to be a real subject of curiosity to my girl students. Whenever I first tell them I'm married, or whenever they spot me out in public with Joe, the girls always look at me with big eyes and ask eagerly "Rub rub?" The first time I heard this I nearly choked. Turns out this is not an inquiry about our bedroom activities but rather the Japanized version of "Love love?", which means something along the lines of "Are you affectionate? Are you lovey-dovey?" Very cute. They're like little kids, so giddy to live vicariously through my fairytale American romance. Now when they ask "Rub rub?" I just stifle a laugh, nod and reply enthusiastically, "Hai! Rub rub!"

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Scuba diving in Kashiwajima

Eye to eye with a lion fish.

A couple of years ago, my friend (and fellow Wide Island webmaster) Joshua Zimmerman showed me and other fellow JETs his videos of SCUBA diving around Japan and Southeast Asia. I was in awe. It looked so adventurous and exciting, and I remember feeling a bit envious of him.

And so last Christmas on our trip to Thailand, I followed in Josh's footsteps and planned a jaunt to Koh Tao, where I learned how to SCUBA dive (dirt cheap, too, I might add) at Ban's Diving Resort. Since taking the classes and doing a few dives to get certified, though, I hadn't gone diving anywhere else.

So when my supervisor offered to take me along with her and her husband on a diving trip a couple weeks after we returned from Seoul, I jumped at the chance.

On Oct. 11, they picked me up at my apartment at 5 a.m., and we proceeded to drive about seven hours to Kashiwajima, a small island on the Pacific Ocean in Kochi prefecture.

View Kashiwajima, Japan in a larger map

Kashiwajima is a popular dive spot, so there are lots of little dive shops on the island. Our dive shop, Hello Marine, was connected to a small inn, so we stayed the night there and they provided all meals and rental equipment.

We did a total of four dives while we were there, two each day. I'll admit, I was very anxious about doing these dives. It had been more than nine months since I'd gotten certified and I was worried I'd screw something up putting my equipment together, or that I'd have a problem underwater, say, with my mask flooding and not clearing, a big problem I'd had in Thailand. As it turned out, however, the dive shop owner was a very kind, mellow old man and he was very patient helping me get the equipment together. And the mask was a nice fit.

Being October, we needed to wear full wet suits and gloves, though at around 75 degrees I think the water was a bit warmer than the outside air. Every part of our body was covered from the neck down. With all that protection, I never felt a bit cold in the water.

It took a while to relax underwater. I spent most of the first dive in survival mode, worrying that my mask might leak, that I might suck in some sea water and choke underwater or that I might inadvertently run into something painful and/or poisonous, like the spiky black sea urchins that were everywhere.

Wakanoura moray eel and those pesky black sea urchins. (Look closely and you can see the urchin's little red eye!)

Striped catfish — poisonous enough to occasionally be fatal to humans.

After a while I chilled out a bit and really started to pay attention and enjoy the experience. It really was like a whole new world, with so many entirely new and novel fish I'd never seen before.

Shortspined cowfish

Diagonal-banded sweetlips (?)

Scarbreast tuskfish

Painted flutemouth

Rockmover wrasse

White spot-tailed morwong

No idea what these are, but they're very sparkly, aren't they.

I was simply excited to see the clownfish (Nemo!) and puffer fish (of which there were many), though I imagine to more experienced divers these are probably pretty common sights that don't warrant much excitement. At first I played very nice and kept my hands to myself, not wanting to touch anything for fear of getting hurt. But after that first dive my supervisor reassured me that if I could manage to agitate one of the puffer fish a bit, he'd puff up real big for me, but he wouldn't hurt me. After that I spent a little time on each dive chasing them around like a toddler after the family cat. But it was futile. They always managed to glide about just a few inches ahead of me.

Emperor angel fish and some other pretty orange fish.

Moorish idol

Just as good as all the brightly colored fish was all the amazingly well camouflaged sea life. Some fish blended into their surroundings so well that even when the dive master pointed at them three feet away from my face, I couldn't see them right away. After staring for a while wondering what on earth he was pointing at, I'd finally realize there was a big fat fish resting right there on the rock in front of me and I hadn't actually seen it. Now that was cool.

Hairy stingfish

Frogfish. He'd blend in quite well on a black rock, I suppose.

The dive master took us to one spot in particular just so we could see this one very tiny, rare crab. Well, actually it was a lobster. A "pink squat lobster" to be exact. But it's actually more like a crab. A hairy crab.

Pink Squat Lobster. See him staring at you, down there at the bottom, with his beady red eyes? Boogida!

Our deepest dive was around 15 meters (about 50 feet) and the conditions were much calmer than they were in Thailand. Then, it had been windy and stormy, so the waters weren't very clear and there was a strong current. The visibility in Kashiwajima was only slightly better than Thailand, though — around 5 to 10 meters (approximately 15 to 30 feet), due to a typhoon that had passed through a few days before our arrival. Normally the visibility in that area runs 30 meters (close to 100 feet), but the storm stirred up the waters. This disappointed my supervisor, but since I'm a beginner I was totally oblivious to the sub-par "vis" (as they call it) and was just thrilled I was seeing so many cool fish.

Lion fish — one of my favorites. Its stings are very painful but luckily it's not aggressive.

Here's a picture of me under the sea.

Me! I'm staring at something on a rock.

All the pictures in this post were taken by my supervisor or her husband. They've got nifty underwater cases for their cameras so they can take pictures underwater. When I become more comfortable SCUBA diving, I'd like to get one of those so I can take my own pictures.

My friend Josh went SCUBA diving at Kashiwajima a couple years ago and he even shot some video underwater. How cool is that? If you want to get a better idea what it's like to be down there, check it out (Coincidentally, the water was a little murky on his trip, too, due to a typhoon):

The above video is from Josh's first visit to Kashiwajima. At his request, I'm also adding his video from his second trip there last year. Enjoy!