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A Month-and-a-Half in an Hour-and-a-Half

December 18, 2009

This is a long one. Be prepared. Take it in pieces if you have to.

Today I went to a preschool and did a santa gig. This was a special preschool where they are set up to meet the special needs of children with physical and mental handicaps. It was a really good experience for me. First, I got to meet three kids who are confined to beds or wheelchairs all day. I say kids, but they may have even been as old as I am. For two of them, anything they eat has to be first mashed into a thin, runny gruel before they can drink it through a straw. The third one has food injected directly into his stomach through a tube. This must be a rather difficult way to live, but I was really impressed with the genuine kindness the caretakers working there showed towards everyone. They are very attentive and really make sure that everyone is getting what they need. They really listened to the kids and they didn’t look down on them at all. There’s no reason they should, as these kids really seemed to know what was going on around them even though they couldn’t respond quickly. I showed up in my santa outfit (having arrived in one of the city’s patrol cars) and talked with them for awhile. It was kind of hard to understand a lot of what was said to me, because they don’t have perfect control over their mouths, but we managed to have a conversation. One boy kept asking me again and again where I was from, but other than forgetting that time and again everyone seemed to really be actively involved in the conversation. Later, I went into another classroom, where there were forty young ones (preschool age) and their parents. This is the only preschool in the area where kids can come with a parent. People choose this preschool when their kids have special needs that can’t be met in a traditional preschool environment and the extra supervision of the parents is needed as well. For most of the kids, there didn’t really seem to be much different from a “normal” child. I passed out presents to everyone, did my “ho ho ho”-ing, and shook a bunch of tiny hands. I was warned that some of the kids might cry when they saw me (I’m a pretty big guy, and the big white beard was kind of wild-looking), but although there were a whole bunch of shy kids who very reluctantly came up to get their presents, I didn’t really see anyone crying. Actually, there were a bunch of really happy kids. One thing about the kids here was that they seemed completely unreserved in feeling emotions to the utmost extreme, whether it be happiness or fear or what have you. The best part of the whole visit was my conversation afterwards with the head teacher of the school. I really liked what she had to say. She said that human beings, all of us, are fragile creatures. Some of us lose some of our abilities when we get old and we need various help to keep functioning. Others of us lose some of our abilities through accidents. Others of us are born without some of these abilities from the very start. But, just because there are some things that some of us cannot do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the lives of these people are painful or troublesome. We all need help from someone in some way or another. Some of us are able to offer assistance to others, and sometimes we’re on the receiving end. A handicapped person is not really handicapped in the traditional way of meaning they lead a less-than-full life, but rather they are unable to do some things without assistance. That’s all it really means. The most important thing is to protect the quality of life of those around us by offering what assistance we can. I really liked that explanation.

I’ve been watching The Last Samurai over the last couple of days. This is not the first time I’ve seen it, I saw it long ago before I’d first come to Japan, but it was really interesting to watch it this time around with all the new experiences I’ve had since then. This is a very Hollywood movie, glorifying the mythic lore of bushido, and while the story is not Japanese, it does accurately portray some aspects of Japan. Tom Cruise’s Japanese is terrible, and it’s hilarious to see the poetic ways his utterances are transcribed in the English subtitles. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I liked the semi-realistic way his Japanese progressed, although there were indeed some discrepancies, and the almost haiku-like aura of some of the conversations between Cruise and Ken Watanabe was quite pleasing. The emperor looks weak, a puppet of his advisors, and this is indeed somewhat realistic as the emperor has often been no more than a sacred figurehead while the warriors or advisors made the actual decisions for running the country, but in the end of the movie he gains strength by seeing the glorious example of the ultimate warrior who follows the bushido code to the very end. Bushido itself seems to me to be a questionable concept, and I’ve read in some scholarly sources that it didn’t really come into vogue as a word until some foreign scholars started studying it in the 1930s. Hey, I’m writing a blog here, I don’t have to find sources to back up what I say. But, I’m telling it to you as I remember. I’m a little perturbed by the ending, no matter how beautiful I think it is, because it really kind of twists me up that Tom Cruise was the only warrior from the village who survives, while all the other (Japanese) men are dead. And he comes strolling back into town to the woman that he loves. Hmm, I don’t know. I guess I’m still just suffering that the actual last samurai was Tom Cruise, and not Ken Watanabe. At least, that’s the image I got from it. I may have missed something, and the director could have been implying that the death of Watanabe (well, Katsumoto in the movie, but I still think of him as Watanabe) was the end of the samurai, and yet… Cruise’s character (Algren) finally feels at home (in Japan) and it looks as though he is going to live there and carry on the traditions he learned from the warriors who died in battle with him. He is respected by Katsumoto and that is indeed why he was brought into the village in the first place – because he was such a fierce warrior. Is he not then a samurai? And actually, all those warriors from the imperial army who bow and offer their respects to the warriors they’ve just mowed down with gatling guns, are they not samurai too, at least at heart? Sure, they were shown as being kind of weak, resorting to guns against an army who refuses to give up the sword, but historically, if I’m not wrong, most of the people who joined the imperial army were once samurai, before the Meiji Restoration made carrying swords on your person illegal. Anyway, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a good movie. It’s a good Hollywood movie. But, it’s not history. Well, not that it needs to be, really.

So, anyway, there’s this crazy old lady who lives on the second floor of my building. I’ve run into her a few times now and she’s so positive and energetic that it’s just a joy to talk with her as we pass. The first time I ran into her, I was heading out with a sleeping bag to my car, and she asked me what I was doing. I said I was going camping.

“What?” she says.

“Camping! I’m going camping.”

“What?!”

“Camping!”

“Oh! Camping! Hehehe, your pronunciation is terrible,” she said giggling as she walked away.

Later, I ran into her in the elevator.

“What floor?”

“The ninth floor, please.”

“The ninth floor?”

“Yes, the ninth floor.”

“Okay, the ninth floor, right?” And then she burst into mad guffaws and slapped me on the back.

The next time, I was heading out to the mall.

“Where are you going?”

“The mall.”

“The mall?”

“Yes, the mall.”

“The mall?”

“That’s right, the mall.”

“Oh! The mall!” And that was that.

One time, she was waiting down by the elevator with another lady, and they were surrounded by pots and rice cookers. The lobby smelled strongly of curry.

“Oh, can I help you?” I said, as the elevator arrived.

“Yes, oh yes! We’ve just made curry for hordes of people and now I’ve got to clean it all up.”

“Ooh, curry. Well, that sounds like fun.”

“No! It was terrible.”

“Oh, I see,” I reply, and she bursts out laughing.

“You want some curry?”

“No thanks, I’m just about to head out.”

She comes up close. “Are you sure? It’s curry.”

“No, I’m alright, thanks.” And she bursts into laughter again. We’ve got it all loaded into the elevator now and some kids show up.

“Whoops!” she hollers. “Sorry, kids. It’ll be back down in a minute. Just hold tight.” And off she goes, laughing as the doors shut on her in an elevator full of curry pots.

There are a bunch of pink lights across the top of my building. Maybe it’s for the Christmas holiday, but a friend of mine says it makes the building look like a love hotel. It kinda does, I guess.

I’ve started taking classical guitar lessons again. It feels great. My teacher’s name is Aikawa (Love River). I think that’s a beautiful name.

A lot has happened since I last wrote (A MONTH-AND-A-HALF AGO!!!). We had the sister cities event between Miyakonojo, Ulan Bataar (Mongolia), and our sister city in China (yeah, can’t remember the name, my bad). As the official (sort of) photographer of the event, I ran around taking almost 2000 pictures in two days. It took awhile to get that sorted out and cleaned up. The event was really fun and I got to see some great musical and dance performances.

Let’s see here, near the end of October, we had the dragon boat races down in southern Kagoshima. The best part was that we spent the night before the races in a cabin on top of a bluff looking out over Kagoshima bay. I forgot to mention that this cabin was in a half-abandoned theme park. Ooh, there were all sorts of creepy things. Music and strange old-lady laughter piping out of old speakers hidden away in the bamboo groves. Places that had been grown over with ten-years of weeds right next to perfectly trimmed lawns. An abandoned go-kart track with a kart stopped on the track that still started up on the first pull. A giant wild boar watching us from the top of a grown-over outdoor amphitheatre. Strange noises from the back of a series of tunnels cut into the cliff walls beside the road. Wind-power turbines whistling on the not-so-distant hills. A rattling chain and throaty growl coming from behind a thick grove of bamboo. Cerberus be damned, watch out for that giant spider a foot above your head! Not to mention that there was ABSOLUTELY NOBODY UP THERE BESIDES US. The caretaker of the place waited around until 9:00, came down to collect the money from everyone in our group, and then went somewhere FAR AWAY. The entire town around this place is deserted – the hospital, the school, houses, the factory, everything. We watched a fireworks show in the dark from across the bay and the cold wind howled as we sat on top of this seaside cliff in a cabin in an old theme park with no-one else around. Oh yeah, the next day we raced the dragon boats.

There really isn’t too much to say about that. We were woefully unprepared, having never practiced in our lives, and we hardly got to the race on time. Furthermore, there were some other foreign teams there, and they were short people, so we volunteered up some of our manpower to help in their races as well. This tired out our best paddlers. But anyway, we never finished last in any of our heats and it was fun to see some of the costumes the other teams had. There was a team of doctors and nurses in scrubs, a team whose drummer had a Scream mask, other teams had matching headbands or t-shirts, etc… Anyway, it was a fun little trip.

I went to see a live performance of Kodo, the taiko group from Sado island. They were pretty much the most amazing thing I’ve ever been to see.

One thing I did for work near the end of October was that I attended a meeting of CollegePIA, a group for local young unmarried people who want a chance to get together with other local young unmarried people and possibly create relationships or even marriages, if things work out. It’s a nice way for people to get together in a relaxed atmosphere and practice a bunch of different things while getting to know each other and possibly forming friendships or relationships. This time around was their English conversation class, and I had a good time talking with people my age who aren’t from my work. One girl was a pig farmer and another one is taking hula lessons in our prefecture to the north, Kumamoto. I didn’t speak Japanese to anyone until after the class was over, and they seemed really surprised when I started responding to some of their conversations as they were leaving the building. Anyway, it was a fun experience for me too, and they’ve invited me to their New Years party next month.

Oh yeah, I had CIR training in Chiba during the beginning of November. Not really too much to say about that. Parts of it were pretty interesting, and I think I maybe learned some useful stuff. At least I realized that I seem to have one of the best situations of all the CIRs I met at the conference, and I’m really glad that I’m able to do this kind of work down here with these excellent people. Of course, I think a lot of it really has to do with attitude, too. We had an opinion exchange event near the end where we broke into small groups to talk about our situations, what we’ve done so far, and what we plan to do from now on, and most of the people in my group just couldn’t stop complaining about everything. There was one girl who was so anti-Japanese, I was really surprised she was a CIR. How can you study a language and culture and then apply for a job over here and then hate the people here that much? The one guy in my group that I knew (a fellow CIR from Miyazaki) just shook his head at me and we shared a moment of quiet wonder as we listened to this girl rage.

I tried to climb Kirishima mountain for the first time with my friend Yuko near the beginning of November. The only day we could take off was a rainy day, and we didn’t make it to the top of the peak because the winds were so strong we thought we were going to get blown off the edge of the crater into the volcano. Yeah, volcano. (I want to twitch my eyebrows here or something.) But, I did get some good pictures of the fall colors around Kirishima that day (see the post from long ago with all the pretty pictures). By the way, I saw the first dusting of snow on top of the Kirishima peaks the other day. It was beautiful.

I got to help out judging an English speech contest for middle and high school students. I also got to attend a lunch with a bunch of students from a local English conversation school. The Tokyo Philharmonic came to one of the local elementary schools and I got to go watch their performance. I helped out move abandoned bicycles with my pals in the community and traffic safety division, and we took a bunch of abandoned bikes out to the recycle center to be fixed up and sold again at amazingly cheap prices. I’ve been one of the central organizers of a Christmas card exchange between a sixth grade class at one of the elementary schools here and the sixth grade class at the school where my mom teaches in Baker City. It’s been really fun to translate all the letters, and the kids over here got really into decorating their cards. I got a video from the school in Oregon showing the kids receiving their cards and it also had a picture of them rolling a GIANT snowball (bigger than the five kids who were rolling it around) in the playground. I think the kids here will get a kick out of that (it hardly ever snows here). I got to give a lecture about human rights for a bunch of the workers at city hall. I think it was a pretty interesting talk actually, and I hope I was able to dispel some myths about America while at the same time opening up new conversations around here to talk about why some things happen and whether it should be that way or if we can do something to make the situation better. Yeah, if that sort of thing were to happen as a result of my talk, I’d be very pleased. I also got to go to an opinion exchange event at the local police station. The three of us CIRs answered a bunch of questions from some of the young policemen and then we were able to ask some questions of them as well.

I got to help move out an old busted bed from my Chinese coworker’s apartment and take it to the dump and then move an extra bed from one of the English teachers downstairs up to her place. One of my supervisors from work came over one day and helped me cut my wardrobe down to size so we could slide it into the alcove next to my tatami room. We cut it apart in my kitchen – with a circular saw. I was sure he was going to cut his hand off or something. But, all I had to clean up was a bunch of sawdust all over my house, no blood.

We had our bounenkai (year-end party) near the beginning of this month. It literally means “forget the year party” or something like that. Well, I don’t know about that, but I have forgotten parts of that party. I drank way too much and spent the next day feeling pretty miserable.

But, the next evening was Taco Night! I got to teach a bunch of Japanese women and one dude from Hawaii how to make tacos. We started by making the tortillas and salsa from scratch. It was really fun for me (although I still wasn’t feeling quite up to par) and I had to learn a lot before the event to make sure I could actually make tortillas from scratch (because I’d always just used store-bought tortillas). Homemade tortillas are SO MUCH BETTER!!! I love watching them puff up like pillows in the pan. We also made my trademark avocado milkshakes. Mm-mmm! So delicious.

We had a big pizza party with the taiko group near the beginning of December. The leader of our group has a house near the shrine where we practice, and he has built everything on that property himself. He has an outdoor pizza oven and we cooked Italian-style wood-fired pizzas with special Japanese toppings. It was a fabulous event and the pizzas were amazing. I’d love to live in a place like his someday and slowly build my castle around me.

Speaking of castles, have I ever told you about my pyramid scheme? No, it’s not one of those pyramid schemes. I’m talking about actually building a pyramid. Hmm, this post is already long enough, I’ll save that for another time.

Are you still reading this? Man, you’re devoted. Thanks for sticking with me. I really should post more frequently rather than trying to cram a month-and-a-half of happenings into a single post. You miss out on a lot of really cool details. Sorry about that.

My friend Rae came to visit near the middle of November and stayed for about two weeks until the beginning of December. We went all over the place (as you may have seen in the pictures in the earlier posts), climbed a bunch of mountains, ran along the beach, drove half of Kyushu (well, no, but we drove a lot and went a long way), ate a bunch of great food (although most of it from convenience stores), went to a concert, went to a Thanksgiving party and a fashion show that my friend from Mongolia was in, biked along the abandoned railroad grade out to the giant statue, and got into all sorts of other fun and exciting mischief. She even came to work with me one day and went to watch my lecture on human rights. Anyway, we got really close while she was here and some interesting things may develop from all of this. I’m excited!

If you’ve read this far, I salute you. You must be a true friend. I value this more highly than I can express.

Cheers, everyone! It’s almost Christmas. I’m sticking around here and probably working on Christmas day. I’m on the tail-end of working through a cold. There’s a glowing snowman on my desk from my work’s secret santa exchange today. We may not have real snow here, but my snowman glows.

~Quill

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