Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ashes to Ashes

Seiko was back at school today after her grandmother's funeral. On our way to class, she asked whether most Americans use burial or cremation for their loved ones. I told her that it seems that most people prefer to bury the dead, but that cremation is also an option. Then we had a bit of a communication problem outside of the classroom before walking in as she kept asking me something about "bones" and although I tried to explain embalming, I wasn't answering her question. Finally, as we prepared for our class, she explained that her grandmother was very tiny and her ashes were placed in a small urn. She said they picked out the bones from the ashes and put them in the urn. The most important person at the funeral was given the honor of picking up the top of the skull from the remains. To be honest, I found this all to be sort of strange and looked it up at wikipedia. Apparently during the funeral rites, bones can be picked up and shared by two people with chopsticks. This explains why passing food from chopstick to chopstick is a big no-no as it reminds people of death. (You should also never (emphasize never) put your chopsticks straight into the rice sticking up as this is also a death thing.)

In Okinawa, we have gravesites that are absolutely massive and can be found in the most random places. During festivals, like Obon, families will clean the sites and leave offerings, while having a family picnic. When walking through some of the neighborhoods around my apartment, I sometimes see cans of tea and flowers left at the graves.

The shape of some of these graves are supposed to resemble wombs... returning to the beginning through death. It's interesting and walking among these giant structures is not nearly as creepy as a graveyard in the States.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Geriatric Madness in Okinawa

Here's a story for you---

This morning Seiko told me that she needs to cancel our class for tomorrow because her grandmother passed away. I, of course, gave her the obligatory "Oh, I'm so sorry!" She said not to be sorry at all ... that it is a good thing and will be a celebration of her life. She was 103 years old.

Okinawa is famous for having the largest number of centenarians in the world. Supposedly there are over 800 people on the island who have survived past the 100 year mark. Most of this goes back to diet, friendship, island lifestyles, etc. You can read about it and the Okinawa Diet here. Apparently there are significantly less cases of demetia, cancer, and heart disease compared to the rest of the world. This might explain why there are 80-year-olds at the gym doing one-arm push-ups. (Exaggeration, but still) My fellow teachers taught my the "eat until you are 80% full" rule when I first arrived. (hara hachi bu) But then they told me that they save their other 20% to fill with dessert. My kind of eaters!

So, later, I ask Seiko if she has anyone else in her family who has lived a long time. I was thinking that she would tell me that she had a grandfather who lived to 85 or something. Instead, she says, "Oh, yeah. My gradfather, who is dead now, he lived until maybe 104 or 105." And that's not all. "And my other grandmother she is over 100 too." I was completely amazed. I told her that she is going to live forever and she showed me her lifeline on her palm. She said that it was a deep and strong lifeline, but that she doesn't want to live until 100 because "that's just too long." My poor little American lifeline was nothing compared to hers. :(

Pretty fascinating stuff.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

It's not a Memorial Day BBQ, but I'll take it

I headed to Naha on Saturday to do some wandering since it wasn't beach weather. There were a few interesting moments, including being wrangled into an artistic boutique by a funny man wearing a sarong, some bobby sock dancing in front of the kencho, and an interesting exchange with a crazy old man. Basically it went like this:

Old Man (about 1/2 a block away and sitting on a bike): Teacher!
Me: (wondering how he knows that I'm a teacher...)
Old Man: Where are you going?!
Me: Ummm...Kokusaidori
OM: Straight! Up there!
Me: Yep. Through Heiwadori, I know...
OM: Good Luck! (pause) I LOVE YOU!!!! (pause) DO YOU LOVE ME?!

Naha isn't a beautiful city by any stretch of the imagination and is covered with souvenir shops. In one of them, there was a group of mainland fifteen-year-old boys looking over the omiyage selections offered (gifts particular to an area...Okinawa's is beni imo tarts). They had shopping baskets and were consulting lists, visibly counting out how many taco rice packets they need. They were really cute little shoppers. I spent hours wandering shops and reading at a coffeeshop. It was a nice relaxing day

Here are some photos from the bustling capital of Okinawa:

Heiwadori, a maze of vendors of all sorts of items... You can see some very strange food items deep in the interior of the market.

The ubiquitous shiisas that are sold everywhere in Okinawa and line every gift shop.

I don't like goya either, Strange Sculpture Man.

A typical gift shop lining Kokusaidori... notice all the goya baby.

The random dancers that were drawing quite the crowd and should spend a bit of time working on their dances. (They were really bad.)

It was supposed to rain today so imagine my surprise when I woke up to a beautiful day. After cramming in a workout, Bridgit and I headed to Araha Beach, which was packed with tons of locals and military families. It was a beautiful day, although we are definitely in the "hot season." Although some sunscreen was applied, I decided to forego it on my legs and back. I'll be paying for that in about five hours.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The problem with ferris wheels

Besides the fact that they make me vomit...

They are impossible for poor Japanese youngsters (and senseis) to pronounce. "Feddis Wihru." Impossible. Way too many "l"s and "r"s raining on the word parade. Why does it matter that ferris wheel will never be used in common conversations throughout Japan? It doesn't.

But today was the big day for Oral Communication II 3-2 as they tackled their presentations about all that Chatan has to offer. In English. Seiko and I cued up a videocamera and headed to class in high spirits. We were greeted by students running around asking me "How? (As in "how do I say this?!") And everyone was feeling very genki. As they settled down, I realized that there were teachers in the hall watching the spectacle and the principal (Kim Jong Il with his trusty video camera) and the vice-principals were standing in the back of the room. The professional photographers even made an appearance. And then it hit me what a big deal our little 50 word presentation was for these kids. I also became very thankful for practically writing one group's sentences to avoid humiliation. (They had it in Japanese, but had NOTHING in English with 10 minutes left last class. I had to help.) Anyways, as two groups struggled with "ferris wheel" in the last minutes of cramming, we settled in for the show.

As the groups went up one by one, I have to say that I was proud of their English. Yes, a couple of them were impossible to understand (and I even knew what they were saying) and one girl trying to say "ridden on it" got her tongue twisted and said an expletive. (Hilarious!) But overall, they showed some nice presentation skills, but I might just be partial to them since they're my favorites.

One thing that cracked me up from the very beginning of this process was what they actually picked to do their presentations on. Now, Chatan doesn't have tons of heritage sites or anything, but students could have been a bit more creative. They picked a park, the ocean, the bento place next to school, the ferris wheel (ack!), a restaurant in Jusco, a soba shop in Sunabe, and an American restaurant. For the next project we're branching out our vocabularies. "It is very beautiful." "It is delicious." One group did write (by themselves), "Your wallet will be safe because prices are low." Good on them!

Update: This morning I gave a CD of pictures to Seiko because she requested copies. In return, she gives me a professionally printed CD that says "Welcome to Chatan" that the kocho-sensei (principal...Kim Jong Il) made from his pictures. I thought, "Wow. That's nice and puts my permanent marker label to shame." Then he comes up after the morning meeting with DVD cases with Seiko's picture on one side and my picture on the other. So thoughtful!

Monday, May 21, 2007

It took me a second---

My favorite class (Oral Communication II 3-2) is currently working on little presentations about Chatan. Today their team names were revealed, including an "Adidas" team and a "Yankees" team. And then this little gem --- "Low-temperature Anesthesia." It took me a second (and the little clipart of a yawning lion helped).... Hibernation! I think. I laughed really hard.

In that class, I also have some boys who continually throw Spiderman webs at me and are only happy if I give them the wrist flick as well and some girls who connected their textbook stories about San Francisco with "Full House." I really do enjoy that class. There's always something---

Saturday, May 19, 2007

3...2...1... CHIZU!

One of the most addictive parts of Japanese culture is called Purikura (Print Club). Teenagers regularly climb into these photo booths with their friends to make stickers for their collection books. And these books of crazy photos with weird English sayings, extra little accessories, and special effects are impressive (and always being passed around when they're supposed to be listening to the teacher). While I can't possibly compete with seasoned Japanese teenagers, I have given in to the fun to be had by popping 400 yen into a machine... many many times.

The booths are spacious and I have seen pictures with an improbably high number of people crammed in (of course, those Japanese kids are really tiny and bendy). The problem is that everything is in Japanese so essentially you just have to hit buttons quickly and see what happens. There's always a countdown of some sort and when it hits 4...3...2... you just start throwing out the index finger to make selections. One time Bridgit and I somehow selected a camera on the floor and had to crouch down to take pictures and jump up to make selections. Those happened on a day full of unfortunate purikura experiments in Miyako that resulted with one sheet printed out with the same bad photo for the whole thing (and nothing fun done to it yet), some crazy weird hair that we somehow put on ourselves, and a terrifying experience in a Disney Princess booth in which no useable photos resulted because there were about a 100 cameras to look at while movie scenes (freaky Snow White witch) played...

After your photos are shot (usually about 8-10), you are sent around the corner to make them kawaiiiiiiii. This is where the random button pushing can be troublesome and the countdown can cause ill-fated decisions out of panic. Usually it's quite fun, though, as words, pictures, tiaras, dates, sparkles are added to the photos. After you finally figure out which button means "finished" and 2 minutes of printing, you have your very own sticker sheet. (I don't have a book and hence have all my little stickers are currently stored in a classy white envelope... What are you supposed to do with these things? I have put a few on my phone... maybe I should just start sticking them on everything in my apartment for fun.)

Anyways, it's an addictive habit and Bridgit and I can't resist print club. It draws us in every time with its bright colors, cheesy posters, and the promise of an award-winning Top Model print club printout. I also introduced Josh, Laura, and Ken to the fun to be had in these wondrous booths. Good times! Here's one of our photos from yesterday's trip to Mihama.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Looks like you could use some sunscreen!"

So anyone who lives on Okinawa and has access to AFN military television (sorry, Amy!) has seen the same "commercials" over and over again. Bridgit and I regularly quote these mindless, yet sometimes amusing, commercials. Baaaam! I'm a styrofoam cup, yo! The question is: how much of my brain capacity is going to end up storing AFN spots and will it ever be freed up again?

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Okinawa is like the dingleberry of Japan"

Last Friday evening I found myself sitting in the Naha airport with Bridgit while sucking down some delicious Banana Java Chip Frappuccinos (get thee one of these fraps!) and waiting for our fellow travelmates - Amy, Juhi, Christina, and Paul - to arrive from their lengthy journey down the island from Nago. Our calm was destroyed by panic-ridden text messages from Amy about how they were going to "be cutting it close. Real close." We were encouraged to fake death or bombs in order to stall the plane. Thankfully, we saw Paul running towards us with a few minutes to spare and everyone else following in tow. Of course, our plane was delayed.

It was an ominous beginning to our weekend on Miyakojima, an island famed for its beaches and according to Seiko, "no adventure or excitement." Nevertheless, we were in high spirits as we boarded our 40 minute flight to our destination. Upon arrival, we were handed the keys to our very own flash minivan which would serve us well as we drove around the island... and as we shocked the locals with greetings and waves in a completely non-Japanese manner.

The first night was spent checking into our hotel, complete with a game of janken to draw rooms, and eating at a small Japanese restaurant where we almost drove the waitress straight into the arms of madness. The food was good, especially our first version of beni imo in tempura form, and we were off to karaoke. There were some stellar performances and Amy and I were more than willing to clap politely for each performer, while keeping our own musical genius to ourselves. (We wouldn't want to outdo the others...) We also met up with some of the Miyako ALTs and headed to another bar to get a glimpse at Miyako nightlife.

The following day started out slightly overcast, but by the time we had finished a lunch at a Greek restaurant on the ocean (with absolutely no gyros in sight), it had become a gorgeous day on the island. We did some off-roading in the van and thanks to a local's suggestion, tried some beni imo/sesame mochi which was really excellent. It was all a great build-up to going to the beach. Although it took us a few wrong turns (and a surprise cockroach attack in the car --- Juhi's first bloodcurdling scream), we found the white sand shore. Miyako is home to the longest white sand beach in Japan and it provided fun in the sun and sand for a few hours. The water was clear and warm (after you got used to it, of course) and was a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Our evening was spent chowing down on pizza, including Christina inadvertently trying a habanero pepper, which later led to hysterics as Amy and Juhi attempted to remove her contact lenses. We decided that as exciting as visiting Miyako snack bars would be, it would be just as much fun to head back to the hotel for some storytelling and cockroach trapping (Juhi's second scream). Paul proved quite heroic as he caught the cockroach in a cup and the next morning suffocated the still-alive insect with a hearty spray of cologne.

On Sunday, we were disappointed with cloudy skies, although they had been predicted. We decided to head to the famous cape where the view is usually astounding and makes for great calendar pictures. Unfortunately, it was sort of dreary and dull for us, so after snapping some photos, we headed to the German Village of Miyako. For some reason, supposedly from a sistercity in Germany or some sort of cultural link, they have built a German castle and some buildings that look German. And although Paul's German accent had us rolling, the whole things was bizarre and disappointing. And uberJapanese. It just didn't make sense.

We had an afternoon to waste before our flight that night and we spent it eating and playing cards. Most of the time was spent discussing A) bodily functions and B) how the Miyako ALTs (and those ALTs on even smaller islands) still have any shred of sanity. After 48 hours on the island, we were all ready to board our flight to our slightly bigger island.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Very enjoyed!

I don't have any insights into the Japanese mind today, but I would like to quote an entry from a student journal. "I'm bery happy day." Maybe it's the gorgeous weather that has been around all week and will continue for a couple more days. Perhaps it is from the promise of a short vacation to Miyako starting tomorrow. Or the fact that my two classes this afternoon were just suddenly cancelled (making 8 classes to teach total this week) and that I have a three day weekend thanks to some school schedule juggling...and then another three days off thanks to exams. It might be from the students that I just entertained by butchering Japanese words and memorizing their names. Or the fact that I am finally into the epilogue of "War and Peace." Whatever the reason, "I'm bery happy day." I love that motto. And to amp it up another cheese notch (from War and Peace), "What comes next then? What am I going to do? Nothing. I'm just going to live. Oh, it's marvellous!"

What am I going to do when I return to the States? At this point, I'm not fretting. Something will come up. For now, I'm going to soak in some subtropical sunshine.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Green Day

Today is another holiday --- Green Day. Whatever in the world that is. I don't think it's a celebration of the genius of Billy Joe, but you never know. The original game plan was to go to Naha to see some dragon boat racing, but after finding some info on the net, it got postponed until tomorrow. Thus shopping was in order. Bridgit tipped me off on these shirts. I had to buy one. Just had to.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hitching a ride south...

Currently the Japanese are enjoying a four day weekend because of three conveniently located national holidays, the most important being on Saturday. All these free time lends itself to some island exploration and I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along with Bridgit and her adult conversation course. We drove all over the southern island in search of hidden gems and unusual experiences, although as with everything in Okinawa, the most bizarre bits involve just observing the Japanese themselves.

We finally got some beautiful weather and six of us piled into a minivan to begin the trek south. When Bridgit and I tried to get some drinks at the conbini and were stopped and told that we were not paying for *anything,* I knew that it was going to be an interesting day. Her class first took us to Okinawa World primarily to see the famous caves, that according to one of the women, is the largest in Asia. It was about a kilometer long and there were some interesting parts of the limestone formations. Thankfully neither epilepsy, anemia, or clausterphobia prevented us from properly enjoying the journey.

After our trek, we definitely needed some nourishment and thankfully there was a hut of fruit to welcome us. There were some interesting tropical fruits, including the smelly durian that I watched Michael Palin bravely test on one my travel shows. If I showed interest in any type of fruit, it was immediately, "We'll buy it!" I refused all the offers but eventually gave into sampling some sugar cane and a fruit plate, including the dreaded durian (which actually was not that bad...maybe it was a different variety). I had to laugh at how expensive the pineapple was compared to my pineapple subsistence diet in Thailand.

Once we had our needed calorie intake and pleased our guides with plenty of "YUMMY!!"s, we walked through the Old Ryukyuu Village, which had plenty of arts and crafts to sample and was actually very festive and fun. There were also a couple of tourists who were posing like absolute freaks and I made sure to mimic them at every turn. Hence, this photo.

We taste-tested sugar, watched some glass blowing, avoided beer sampling, and were soon on our way to lunch, which was supposed to be this amazing Thai restaurant on top of a hill. I had been there before and had gotten Bridgit all excited about it... Of course, our hopes for a Thai meal were dashed with the two hour wait. We grabbed some photo ops and headed to a Denny's-type restaurant instead. Sort of sad.

After this, we headed to a pink lily garden that was really just someone's personal yard. There are so many beautiful pink flowers, though, that they opened it up to the public. There was a tour bus of the elderly who had made a pit stop to see the lily extravaganza and Bridgit and I were filmed by some dude with a video camera and accosted by a lady with a cane who wanted to know all about us and try out her English skills as she was being shepherded back to the company of the other feeble Okinawans. (Knowing Okinawa, she was probably 115 years old.)

You'd think our day would be done by about now... but, nope, there was plenty more in store. We then headed to the "most sacred site" in Okinawa, which consisted of a walk through a pretty woods with loads of tourists, and some photos of more limestone formations with altars built into them. It was a nice walk, but by this point, Bridgit and I were tiring quickly. We thought we were going to be home soon, but then found ourselves driving along the coast and onto an island. After zooming around the island without stopping we continued in a direction that didn't seem to be the way back to the center of the island.

Once we stopped for directions. Bridgit finally asked where in the world we were actually trying to go. Well, lo and behold, we were on our way to an old Okinawan house for a coffee break. Luckily it was close by and the house was very Zen (and from 1891 and somehow survived the Battle of Okinawa intact). We enjoyed a treat before hitting the road for our final destination --- home.

It was a typical Japanese touring experience. Hit everything you can in one day. And the whole day cost me $0. I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Life's a zoo

In celebration of the day before a four day weekend (Golden Week time in Japan), almost every school in Okinawa headed to various locations around the island for "Picnic Days." Our first and third year students "had" to go to the zoo because all of the beaches were already booked. It was a long day since the zoo doesn't really consist of many animals (only hundreds of kawaii elementary students to watch) and boredom was unavoidable. The only real highlight was the tug of war game with five ropes. Everyone rushed to the middle and whoever ended up with the most ropes on their side won the round. The only other interesting tidbit of the day was that they didn't have to wear uniforms. So what did quite a few groups of girls do? They all dressed the same as their friends (scandalous clothes, of course), but they couldn't even be individuals for one day.