Monday, April 30, 2007

Naoko's First Hug

You know that warm feeling of being loved when locked in an embrace? It's called a hug, and it is one of the nicest but simplest things we can do for each other. In different hugs we may speak of security, confidence, trust and sharing in a manner that can't really be explained. We all need to feel needed in one way or another. Hugging is only a gesture of love, of warmth, of caring. The very feel of the warmth flowing from the other person melts many illnesses in the body and it melts the ice-like, cold ego. It makes us again children. As you can probably tell, I'm a big advocate of hugging. So imagine being placed in a country that doesn't hug.
Back in America, upon meeting someone, the traditional firm handshake is always given. A handshake is highly practiced Western ritual, by which two people grasp their right or left hands, often accompanied by a brief shake of the grasped hands. It is commonly done upon meeting, parting, offering congratulations, or completing an agreement. I've spent my whole life trying to figure out why we do the handshake. Just as I wondered why South Americans peck each other on the cheek and the Japanese bow upon introduction. But an even bigger question came to me in early April of this year. On April 1st, at Kyoto Station in Kyoto, Japan, my first host family, the Masaki's, were taking me to meet up with my Mother and Nana, who had just recently taking the Bullet Train in from Tokyo. My family had known all about the Masaki family. They were my first and best host family at that point. I loved them so much and they were so good to me. Best of all, I got, for the first time in my life, a 22 year old big sister, Naoko, who treated me just like I was her little sister. When it was time for Mom, Nana, and Me to head to the hotel, departing the Masaki's for a week, a goodbye was needed. I thanked them, and smiled, and I waved a goodbye for all they had done. Mom and Nana, on the other hand, wrapped their arms around Mr. and Mrs. Masaki thanking them for taking such good care of me and for being all around wonderful people. It happened much too quick for me to warn them that hugging isn't part of the Japanese culture. I would have told them to stop it immediately if I saw that the Masaki's were uncomfortable. But it appeared that they were not. They looked flustered, but enjoying this strange embrace from people they had only just met. And that's when I wondered why hugging is not part of the Japanese culture.
Casual physical contact is traditionally frowned upon in Japan. When people meet for the first time, or after a while, bowing is the respectable thing to do. Even Handshakes have become common, seen as a foreign custom adopted for international business. Hugging and shaking hands are two different things, however, as hugging can send the wrong messages. A good way to understand the view on hugging is seen even in the language. The word for hugging, “hoyo,” is considered awkward in Japanese, with young people preferring to use the English term.
I've only asked a Japanese person once why hugging is so uncommon. It was at my Sweet Sixteen birthday party in November, when all I wanted was a friendly hug from my new friends. Most of them looked at me, with my arms stretched out gesturing for them to do the same, as if I had 6 heads. I asked my closest friend at the time, Aimi, why she would not even give me a hug on my birthday. She explained that friends rarely hug, and it's usually only between boyfriend and girlfriend. By the end of the night, I ended up breaking her down. She gave me something of a half hug, and seemed to hold her breath the whole time.
Things change, even in Japan, a country that isn't quite fond of change. In fact, I consider one of my greatest successes to be the spread of the hug, even if only to one person. That person, Naoko Masaki, a 22 year-old college student, whom I consider to be my big sister, had her life changed in a matter of a few seconds. It occurred only 3 days after my arrival on August 17th. In the middle of the scorchingly humid morning, I lay in my new bed in boredom. In those days, I spent the mornings wondering how I was going to survive an entire year in this country. Nobody seemed to care much about me, so I didn't care about all of these new people in Kochi. Suddenly, a loud knocking on my door, forced me to spring up in awareness. I discovered my new host sister, smiling and asking if she could come in to the room. I motioned for her to come in with no enthusiasm. I must have been such a disappointment for Naoko. She had told me on the first day, "having you here is special for me. I never have had a younger sister." Thus far, I had not played the part very well at all.
"Jurie, are you okay? Awake, yes?" she asked in near perfect English. I responded that I was, and then asked her what she needed.
"Jurie, I go to Kobe for 1 week. I have class and fun concert with friends. I going to see you in 1 week. Bye Bye," she said while quietly shutting my door.
"Wait!" I called while climbing out of the bed and darting to the door, all the while absorbing her words. My Dad is a traveling salesman, who has always been going on business trips for as long as I can remember. From the time I was a baby, I always gave me a big hug before a business trip. It just came natural after a long time. Naoko's return trip to Kobe was no exception to this. I scampered over to where was standing, with my arms outstretched and ready to embrace my new host sister. I noticed with pleasant expression turn into a twisted and horrified look, with her eyes enlarging to the sizes of grape fruits. My large arms quickly found their way around her tiny body and into a gentle squeeze. It was like hugging a frozen totem pole. She stood as stiff as a piece of wood, while trying to figure out how to get this 15 year-old American kid off her. As I broke away, I witnessed her sign in a relieved manner. Still looking somewhat bewildered, she scurried away without saying another word.
I returned to my state of restlessness, not with a new problem. I had to figure out a way to stop hugging people. If it made them even a fraction of how uncomfortable Naoko had appeared to be, then hugging was going to be a problem. I spent an entire week trying to figure it out. Finally I decided that when she returned, I would smile, say, "Welcome home," and then be on with it.
But it was not my decision what happened next. Because a week later, when the knock came again, Naoko surprised me. She flung open the door and ran towards where I was standing, all the while screaming, "Juuurriiieee!" She gave me a powerful loving hug, one that nearly knocked me off my feet, and left me shocked. She doesn't know this, but that hug meant so much to me. And 8 months later, every time I see my big sister, I'm given a delightful and usually much-needed hug. I had succeeded in spreading the hug, even though it usually only occurs between the 2 of us.
Naoko isn't the only one that I have affected. Just last week, at my school picnic, I ran into a couple of my friends from the Sweet Sixteen party in November. They were the same girls, led by Aimi, who at first refused to give me a hug, but ended up doing it anyway. Only because it was my birthday, though. Anyway, it had been a long time since I had seen them, since we had all changed homerooms and clubs. But when they saw me, Aimi and the girls sprinted towards me, arms outstretched and jumped. I consider what happened to be a hug, although the American NFL might have called it a tackle. There are alot of people, who have become close to me, that know about my hugging. The members of my Koto club and some school mates are very familiar with Julie's hugs. I've even seen these girls hug each other with out me forcing them. But smiling and laughing with all of my friends, catching up on new details, and hugging, I knew I had succeeded in spreading the hug.
Japan has taken a slight toll on me, though. I don't need a hug everyday, but once in while is crucial. Occasionally, I need to be reminded that someone cares for me, and there is no such gesture like a hug in the Japanese culture. Maybe one day, hugging will become more wide spread in Japan, though that's a big stretch. But I think I'm doing a good job.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

My First Ensoku

I often find myself wondering if the people who create Japanese school schedules have any concept of vacation, or at least down time. I'm not complaining, because I am about used to rarely being able to sleep in. That being said, Sunday was the Tosajoshi school Ensoku. Ensoku literally means 'far feet', and often ensoku are actually 'field trips', involving hiking. These trips are part of a school's official activities, and to some students, the most memorable event of the school year. It's a chance to visit places with lots of greenery and to have fun playing with one's school friends.
The places and activities on Ensoku are all supposed to have some sort of educational value. In the lower grades this can be just a hike in the woods to gather seeds, and you study them in science when you get back. Usually after an ensoku you have to write an essay about what you did in Kokugo class, or Japanese.
My host school, Tosajoshi Girls Middle and High School, in Kochi, Japan, is no exception to having an ensoku. But because it is such a large school, due to the fact it contains both a High and Middle school, the classes all went to different places. The Middle School 1st Years went to Kochi Castle. The Middle School 2nd and 3rd years, as well as the High School 2nd Years, traveled to Godaisan, home to a famous temple and Botanical Garden. Finally the High School 1st and 3rd years enjoyed Katsuruhama, Kochi's famous beach. My class, the High School Second Years, would be the oldest class at Godaisan, which meant we would get the best treatment due to the Sempie system. This didn't matter to me though, because I was just excited to be able to spent an entire afternoon with my school mates.
The night prior to the Ensoku, I performed in the Koto concert. When it was all over with, my best friend, Chiake Yamanaka, asked me how I was getting to Godaisan. From where I live, it would probably be able an hour bike ride, which I explained was no problem. She choked thinking about the long ride, and invited to give me a ride the following morning. We both live in the same town, so it would be no trouble for her father ot just pick me up in front of the house. I felt bad, but accepted. Then she explained that I had better pick up some good food for the activities. I didn't understand what she meant by this. Before I could ask, she skipped away.
I quickly learned that the first, and a probably biggest part of Ensoku is the preparation. On Ensoku, you are supposed to bring your own lunch in a Bento box, which is a cute plastic box full of various rice, vegetables, and meat. On this day, everyone gets their mother to make a lunch they especially like. There is also a thermos full of something to drink, usually cold tea or fruit juice. Then there is perhaps the important thing, 'Okashi', or treats. Picking the okasi is the major part of preparing for Ensoku. During the Ensoku, friends always trade candy and treats and compare who has the best of what. If you don't trade candy, you are seen as being stingy. Everyone gets something cheap and large and liked by everyone. Usually this ends up being some sort of chip or Pocky stick. They also buy their favorite candy just for themselves. Then with the leftover money they buy lots of cheap candy for trading.
On Sunday morning, my cell phone alarm rang at 7. I quickly got dressed in my summer uniform, the white sailor suit. Yesterday, at the Koto concert, I began wore the Summer uniform again. Since the weather has gotten much nicer, it it time to pack away the Navy Winter uniform. Downstairs, I got my morning coffee, and began questioning my host Mom about the activities at an Ensoku. That's when I learned all about the candy prospect of the Ensoku. Realizing I had no candy for trading, I jumped on my bike and pedaled to the nearest Convenience Store to pick up some sweet treats. Inside I bought lunch, a Strawberry Yogurt, and a big bag of Milk Candy. I was sure that it would be enough, and that I had succeeded to doing something right by Japanese school activities.
So when 8:30 rolled in and Chiake and her father picked me up, I turned bright red when she told me I got it all wrong. I showed her my lunch and the big bag of candy proudly and asked how well I did. She just rolled her eyes and said something like, "You are just really lucky you are cute." She then pulled out her own bag of candy. Her cute little Hello Kitty Bento box was 3 layered and filled with delicious rice balls, vegetables, and fried chicken, compared to my dinky little yogurt. For treats, she needed a fork lift to help her haul out the bag from her bookbag. It was filled with 5 full boxes of Pocky and Toppo, long stick like crackers covered in chocolate. Then she had 3 full bags of bulky Milk Candy, 2 Fruit Gummies packages, 2 Ume and Sakura flavored candy boxes, and a bag with over 100 pieces of milk Chocolate. Underneath these decent sized bags were well over 300 packs of little Japanese traditional sweets. Just looking at all that sugar made me gain 10 pounds, have a sugar high, and a clogged arterie. I stammmered something like, "Holy CRAP! You have ALOT of candy." She looked at me like I was crazy and replied, "Actually this year I didn't have any money. I only brought about half of what I had last year. I hope nobody says anything." Meanwhile, I sat their trying to imagine how she managed to carry twice as many sweets to Ensoku. If I thought about how she managed to eat it all, I would have probably thrown up.
When we arrived on the outskirts of Kochi City, at the foot of Godaisan Mountain in front of a tiny shrine, Mr. Yamanaka parked his car. I wondered out loud why Chiake and I didn't just enter and wait with our class, which had started to form by one of the gravestones in front of the shrine. Chiake explained that one of the important things to do at Tosajoshi's Ensoku is to make an entrance with you friends. We were waiting for Taco, Casami, Yuki, Yukimi, Airi, and Yokoyama, the members of the Koto club. When everyone arrived, we all walked arm in arm through the Torii gates and into the meeting area. As we walked, I felt so happy to belong to such an amazing group. Upon entering, many of our classmates looked up and clapped for us. I was embarrassed by this, but Casami explained it was because of the success of how concert. Word had gotten around about how well we did. That was a good feeling.
Soon enough, the group dispersed among homerooms, meaning Chiake and I went to check in with our teacher, Fukumoto-sensei. We were put in a line of all the girls in our homeroom. Nearly everyone congratulated us on our amazing concert, including a Paula Fabian, my friend and English teacher at the middle school. This was her last school event, because she had been fired from the school. While the homerooms all took the gruelling hike up the steep and dangerously rocky mountain, Godaisan, she and I walked together remembering all the fun times we have had teaching together. It was really difficult saying goodbye to her, but she promised that she would keep in touch. She knew I needed someone to complain to, since it's nearly impossible to white in Japanese. It was hard for me to leave her, but Chiake and my classmates were calling for me to return. And so I did.
When the class finally reached the top of Godaisan, we were all out of breath from the Mountain hike and in pain from the rocks. Since we were required to wear the Tosajoshi mandatory shoes, our feet were throbbing. The shoes are these black and leather things that resemble what the Pilgrims wore at Plymouth Rock. They are by no means the proper shoes to wear on a hiking excursion, and 2,000 blistered feet could confirm that.
My classmates, and the girls I spent the day with, have rather difficult names to remember. I'll just refer to them by their nicknames. First there is Jack Bauer. Jack Bauer and I became friends at a Rotary meeting in December, as her father is a Rotarian. She tries very hard to speak English, because she wants to learn it very badly. Her dream is to be able to understand 24 in English, because of her mad crush on Kiefer Sutherland's character, Jack Bauer. Jack Bauer's best friend is Chika. Chika's real name is Chika, and there is no way I can change this. The girl is not the brightest crayon in the box, but trys very hard. She gets kind of annoying, but I like her. Bucky is a Badmintton player with the worst case of Buck teeth I have ever seen. She is very nice, although a bit loud. White Eyes and I ate lunch together everyday last year. She's pretty quiet except during class, when she falls asleep and snores. Her eyes also roll back in slumber giving the eerie appearence of White Eyes. Vacuum is this little tiny girl who rarely talks. I'd even wondered if she opened her mouth, until I started eating lunch with her. She pours her Bento box into her mouth, and vacuums out the food. It usually takes her a whole 20 seconds to eat her whole lunch. And then there is Di-chan. It took me 6 months to get her name right, but in the meantime I always called her Di-chan. Her name is Ritsukaue, by the way. Bullet Train is the name another girl I spent alot of time with, although she isn't in the same homeroom. Her name is Nozomi, which is the name of the Bullet Train. There are other too, but I only gave the nicknames of the girls I really spent alot of time with on the Ensoku.
As High School 2nd graders, we were given preference of where we wanted to sit. The group chose a spot under the shade of a tree. Though the stinging sun burn on my face will confirm it didn't stay shady for very long. Some girls were smart enough to bring mats, while the rest of us just mooched for space on the mats. When everyone had a seat, shoes were taken off and bags were opened. At 10:30 the feast began. The Ensoku feast rivals that of an American Thanksgiving. I watched at all the girls cracked open their Thermo's. Each was painted with Manga characters, Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and other famous Japanese characters. Inside was galleons of cold Tea, Calpis Sweat, something like a gatorade, Cola, Orange, Apple, Tomato, and Mixed fruit juice. All had little portable cups, which were used for sharing and sampling each others likings. And then there were the Bento boxes. Each was filled with a glorious portion of delicious Japanese food. The air was soon fragrant with the smells of the Bento boxes of about 10 Fukumoto homeroom students. I peered into each box, not suprised to see that each was different. Each contained a healthy balance of the food groups, while still holding the favorite lunch of the student. All filled with rice covered in seaweed or Ume boshi, pickled plum, or large dark green Nori Seaweed wrapped rice balls. Inside the Onigiri, or rice balls, were mouthfuls of Tuna, Sour Ume sauce, Dried Fish, and Mayonaise. The rice part took up one layer of the Bento box. The next tier had the main filler, which was various typed of meat and vegetable. There was Karage, fried chicken, Hamburger, Mayonaise Meat, mini Okonomiacki, Tempura galore, Shrimp, Tuna, Salmon, many variations of fish, and Katsu, or fried pork. Chinese noodles, Udon, and pasta overflowed the box, perfectly situated with Yaki Tamago, or fried egg, and pumpkin bits. Broccoli, carrots, spinach, and corn, neighbored apple slices, pineapple, mango, banana, and kiwi. There were potatos, salads, puddings, yogurts, sandwiches, and much much more. A small African nation could live for a month on everything that I was seeing 10 Japanese studemts consume at a pace that would annoy even the Tortoise. And the worst part was that the Bento made up only about 10% of what was going to be consumed today. The Okashi, or sweets, still lay nestled in everyone's school bags.
While the girls practiced for the World Title of the most food eaten by a single school, and I enjoyed my low fat Strawberry yogurt. At first I felt like a total idiot, but then it turned into a feeling of being repulsed by the amount of food one girl could consume. Meanwhile, the girls talked and joked about the upcoming school year, as well as the stuff that has happened in the past. Most of the girls have been going to Tosajoshi since Middle School, and have known each other for about that long. It was difficult for me because I have to really focus on listening to understand even the simplest things they they talk about. And since they were talking about thing I wouldn't even be able to understand anyway, I found myself sitting lost from time to time. But I wasn't along, Di-chan and a few others had not gone to Tosajoshi for Middle School. So we formed our own talking crew. Jack Bauer came over, and she and I talked about alot of stuff. We fought over Avril Lavigne's new hair style, why Jack Bauer was not cute, and how Spider Man 3 is going to be amazing. For the first time since I was back at home with my friends, I remembered what it was like to be a teenager complaining about silly things and pop culture.
Soon enough, other girls at the Ensoku were opening their candy boxes. The smell of sugar wafted over to where we were sitting. Not one girl could resist the temptation. Chiake led a couple girls to go and buy some Ice Cream, while the rest of us stayed on the mat. I opened my Milk Candy, and passed it around to everyone, making them all believe right away that I actually had Sweets for the Ensoku. Everyone was shocked as I chucked the little wrapped candy around the Mat. I got a bunch of thank yous. Mostly they were all surprised and asked me how I knew about the customs of an Ensoku. I just smiled and told them I was always trying really hard. Since I initiated the sharing festivities, everyone began swapping candy. I got Green Tea Caramel, Nato chips, Strawberry Parfait Toppo, Sweet Corn Chocoball, Fried Potato covered in Chocolate, Red Bean Kit Kat, Dew Bew Fruit Candies, Sesame, Sakura, Ume, and Green Tea flavored chocolate, Dried Squid, Seasoned Cuttlefish Crackers, Onion sticks, Raw Fish flavored chews, some suspicious chewy that was actually furry, and many many other odd little delights.
While I was sampling probably the strangest flavored candy in the world, one at a time, pacing myself, I watched the others. Eventually I was so grossed out by their eating, I couldn't finish the rest of the food. That might have actually be the repulsive feeling I got from the Nato Chips, though. Anyway, watching these girls eat was probably one of those experiences you have to have once in your life. It's like you have to see New York City, the Eiffel Tower, and a 10 Japanese girls gorge on enough food feed the Chinese army. Earlier I mentioned Chiake's candy bag. Imagine that very same bag times two. Next picture all 10 girls gorging on every piece of that candy. I didn't have to imagine it, I watched it. I watched as Vacuum dumped an entire bag of Dried Squid into her mouth, stopping only to pull her cheek wider to make more room for the food. I watched as Chika and Bucky traded their won creations. Chika's creation was a miz of Sweet Corn Chocoballs pickled plums and Green Tea Caramel. Bucky's food was too faul for me to describe without you feeling sick. Within one hour, Chiake had finished every last piece of chocolate, Milk, Ume, and every other piece of candy she had earlier showed me. And she was not alone. Each and every girl ate the same amount of food the average American eats at Thanksgiving, over the entire course of his or her life. The proof was in the colorful wrappers, now strewn all across the mats. It was sickening for me to watch, and yet I couldn't keep my eyes of the most amazing eating festival I have ever been to in my life.
During the eating festival, we all continued talking and enjoying ourselves. Besides having to watch White Eyes shovel 4 huge Kit Kat bars in her mouth in under 30 seconds, I was having an absolute blast. Chiake made sure that I was always included in the conversations and games. I can't imagine what I would do without her though. At some point, she introduced me to a new face, a girl who's name was, 'very difficurto.' I asked her to just tell me, and promised to do my best in remembering it. She nodded and said, "Nozomi." I laughed, shocking everyone, and exclaimed that that was an easy name to remember. It is after all, the name of the fastest bullet train. The girls burst into laughter and screamed how cute I was. Chiake laughed so hard that she choked on the Milk Candy was chomping on. And when she was finished devouring her weight in candy, she pulled me up and together we walked to a famous ancient Temple. Godaisan, a hill overlooking the south-east of Kochi City is host to the Chikurinji Temple. The temple is one of the 88 Shikoku pilgrimage temples, and has an interesting collection of old Buddhist statues. Overlooking Chikurinji is a five storeyed pagoda. Di-chan and Bullet Train accompanied us, as we climbed the old stair case and onto the shrine. There were many Pilgrims making the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, some even stopped to talk to us. They were mostly interested in why a Gaijin would be wearing a Japanese school outfit on an Ensoku. Chiake patiently explained that I am Tosajoshi's exchange student from America, as well as Chiake's really good friend. That even though I may look weird, as a foreigner in Japanese clothing, I am more Japanese than gaijin. She told them this as she held her arm over my shoulder, in a half hug sort of way. There is nothing like the feeling of having good friends.
When we reached the temple, Chiake, Bullet Train, and Di-chan all bought fortunes, buy placing 200 Yen in a little box, and taking out a piece of paper. The fortunes use very difficult Kanji, and CHiake warned me that I wouldn't be able to understand. But monkey-see-monkey-do and I, too, bought a fortune. It's a Japanese custom, that when you get a bad fortune, you are supposed to tie the paper around a lanyard outside the shrine. This is too ward off any bad luck surrounding you in the presence of the ancestors. I must have really bad luck, because every time I have been to a Shrine or Temple, I've always been forced to hang my fortune on the lanyard. None of my host families would explain why, I needed to do this for fear of offending me. I had to do the research to understand this fact.
Today though, Chiake read my fortune and assured me I wouldn't have to do any lanyard hanging. She couldn't explain to me what it meant, but that it was very good and I was very lucky to have gotten such a pleasant piece of paper. I later found out what it said, and was suprised by it's optimism. Basically I would be surrounded by friends and family that would be their for me whenever I needed them, find love in a faraway land, and be happy with everything life hands me. I had a funny feeling that this fortune was too good to be true.
After some pictures with Chiake, Bullet Train, and Di-chan, we took another hike up to the Makino Botanical Gardens museum. There wasn't anything fun to do up there. But I saw some of the younger Koto players, who bowed to Chiake and I. I yelled at them for bowing to me, and threw up my hands in a high 5 over our successful concert. After we were finished walking, blisters on our feet throbbing, and cameras a little bit fuller, we headed back to the group. Along the way, I ran into Aimi and some friends from my old homeroom. I got many hugs from them, and was told how much I was missed. I was shocked that Aimi would give me a hug. She was the very girl who shyed away from my embrace at my Sweet Sixteen party back in November because of being uncomfortable with hugging. 5 months with me, has really taken a toll on her though.
Back at the main mats, the group had all returned from the hikes and garden explorations. The clock was about to reach the 2, meaning that Ensoku would be officially over with. Everyone packed away their mats and garbage. That was another fascinating thing. Since Japan has almost no garbage cans, the girls had to carry all of their empty bags and thousands of wrappers. After everything was cleaned up and cleared away, the Fukumoto homeroom girls traipsed to the meeting spot. Their out class leader took attendance, and then dismissed us. Our class was the last to be dismissed because we were the slowest in getting ready. CHiake and I took the caboose of the long line of school girls. Back down the steep rocky trail, we hiked. On more than one account I found myself trip and fall. I couldn't but think that we would never be allowed to do this is America for safety issues. I'm glad that Japan hasn't been run down whining parents and lawyers.
When we reached the bottom, back at the main Shrine from earlier in the morning, our thighs and knees were oozing with pain. Everyone was so tired and full from lunch. I found myself thanking god that I was getting a ride back home, rather than biking. When the offical ending of the Ensoku came, Chiake's father came and picked us up. Before we could return home, we had to drop off some presents at the Koto room at school. In our school, we ran into the Middle School 1st years who told us that their Ensoku had gone wonderful. I later met up with Yurie and some other High School 3rd years who said that the Katsuruhama Ensoku had been alot of fun, but very hot. Yurie also made a comment that mentioned Godaisan Ensoku being very hot as well. I asked her how she could tell, and she said my face was Fire Engine red from sun burn. Sure enough, upon looking the mirror, I resembled a bright red Tomato. I was assured that getting a little sun burned was part of the fun of Ensoku. All in all, my first Ensoku was alot of fun. Not many people can say that they saw world records being broken for eating as well as spending a wonderful afternoon picnic with a group of Japanese school girls.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Concert

Outsukaresamadeshita! The full meaning behind this word can't be translated into English. I've come to find that many Japanese words are like that, and many English words have the same issue. But the best way to describe the meaning is something like, "It's over." And by it, I'm referring to the thing that for the past few weeks has been the most important thing in my life; my Koto concert.
To start, I really love playing the Koto. It's like when the Tsume are on my fingers, plucking the strings, and making a gorgeous melody, things just make sense. That's not to say I'm very good at it. But I like playing the instrument, and that's what really counts. One thing I like just as much, if not better than playing the Koto, is my club members. The girls that are also in my grade are the most amazing girls I have ever met. They have all been friends from the club for many years, and have only known me since November. Yet it doesn't seem to matter, because everyday, they make me feel like I am just one of the girls. And there is no better than feeling than that.
Since the moment by cell phone alarm rang that morning, I had a horrible nervous feeling eating away at my insides. The previous night I had a nightmare about the concert. The nightmare included me messing up and then walking off stage in the middle of the concert, humiliating my club members and myself. I trudged to complete my morning routine, knowing that the concert was approaching at an alarming rate. At 8:10, Chiake and her father picked me up from in front the house on the way to school. Since later that night I would be driving home with the Osaki's, it would be an inconvenience to have my bicycle. Chiake lives only 5 minutes away from the Osaki's and volunteered to give me a ride. She burst into laughter upon seeing my face, which much have resembled a dog about to throw up. Together, we got dropped off an a Convenience Store and bought lunch, not that we would have much time to eat it. Soon we made out way to school, Chiake squeezing my arm and telling me not to be nervous. Easier said than done. For the High School and Middle School members of the Tosajoshi Koto club, the concert started as soon the final school bell rang on April 28, 2007. My classmates, the Ko Ninensee girls must have flew over to Green Hall. I was teaching English in the Middle School, and by the time I got back, Chiake and everyone had already left. I wasn't worried though, because I soon found the High School 1st Grade, Ko Ichinensee, members of the club. Together we took the 20 minute walk through the middle of the city to Kochi Prefecture Green Hall, where the concert would be held later that day. A few of the Middle School girls, who were having their very first Koto concert, looked and felt about as nervous as I did. And it was quite a relief to see.
As soon as we arrived, even before we could put down our bags, we were needed to carry in the Koto's. There were more Koto's than there were members, and they aren't exactly the lightest things to carry over long distance, so it was quite a hassle. The Koto with 17 strings is supposed to be carried by 2 girls because it is twice as heavy and a lot longer than the usual 13 stringed instrument. And as I waited for help, nobody came. So I carried this incredibly enormous and heavy wooden instrument through the entire Green Hall, while many of the little Middle School girls watched in awe. It was probably something like Goliath carrying a coffin for a giraffe. As I placed it down on the ground, hoping for a gold medal or at least a 10 minute break, I was whisked a bag full of the little bridges you place under the strings for tuning. So before I could catch my breath, I was onto the next task.
The Ko Ichinensee saved me at some point. Together we ate lunch, which took about 3 whopping minutes. I pretty much tipped the salad bowl in the my mouth and swallowed whole. Back in the main hall, we were putting on bridges under the strings, tuning, and working hard. I don't know how to tune the Koto yet, so I ended up becoming a Taxi cab for the instrument, up and down the stairs with the long wooden instrument I traveled. I hope you understand what I mean when I say that it was tiring. But there was one good aspect about the whole thing. I had no time to let the nervousness catch up with me. That was until we were finished.
At around 4 the Koto Taxi, was finished with her duties. I had an hour and half to kill before the beginning of the concert. During the free time, select groups attached to a song, practiced getting on and off the stage. The more difficult pieces got one last opportunity at practice playing the full thing. The Ko Sanensee (High School 3rd graders) went first. Since this would be their last concert as students of the school, they were going to get dressed in a Kimono, and with a Flute player accompanist. Not surprising any of the younger students, they did incredible. And the beautiful sound of flutist made it that much more magical. Yokoyama, Ko Ninensee and friend, burst into tears upon the end of the song. It was really beginning to sink in that this is the last big concert for the 3 Ko Sanensee girls. Next, the Ko Ninensee led by Chiake, practiced their astoundingly difficult piece of music. Seeing their smiles and excitement, and the big thumbs up I got from Yukimi, and then the horrible nervousness returned. A feeling that I just couldn't let them down. So I found my Sakura 21 sheet music, and studied the notes very diligently. It didn't help with the nervousness, but at least in my heart I knew I was doing all that I could.
At 5, the girls were told to wait downstairs and keep the noise to a minimum. The doors to the 500-seat Green Hall, were being opened. Guests were being seated, programs were being handed out, the Gaijin club member was trying not to be sick. Some parents ordered in dinner for everyone, though I couldn't bring myself to eat it. I think, honestly, I would have been sick with food in my stomach. But I wasn't alone in this feeling. By 5:15, the food beginning to digest, my club members were all looking a little green. The young girls, that would be experiencing their first concert, looked as if they were about to put into an electric chair. Even the Ko Sanensee, who were at their 5th and final performance, were looking a bit queasy. At 5:30, Chiake Yamanaka, Koto club leader, did the opening speech. First, doing the obligatory opening welcomes and bows to the audience. She talked about how hard she and her classmates have worked for this concert. She remembered starting the club all those years ago, along side scared little girls who would become her closest friends. Those same little girls had grown up and become incredible musicians and people, who all wanted this concert to be the very best. She reasoned that there is never a dull moment concerning the club. People seem to thing that what we do is boring, because we practice a few songs for an entire year to be performed only once or twice. Yet in the process, we learn little things about the instrument, our club members, and most importantly ourselves. She laughed about how lately the club has been getting a little cultured. The newest member of the club, and one of Chiake's best friends, is an exchange student from America to Japan. The speech ended with a resounding applause, and a teary-eyed Club leader. The curtains opened almost immediately. And the concert began.
The first 2 songs went a swiftly and alluring as expected. When the first piece was finished with, the Koto teacher, Kubamoto-sensei, had me help the younger students clear away stands and selves. I was relieved to have a job, to help get my mind off the inevitably approaching performance, even if it was only supposed to be for Kohi, or younger students. The second song, which I believe is called in English, 31, is
a superlatively difficult piece reserved only for the best students of the high school girls. This summer, every Koto club in Japan, will compete in Kyoto for a chance at the title. My school always ranks in the 30th percentile, which is considered average. I can't understand why they rank so averagely though. They are really brilliant musicians. This song, 31, is the song that Tosajoshi is using to compete with. Listening to them play, and I can't imagine anyone beating them. I guess, maybe I'm just biased because my best friends are the musicians. But the music involves memorization, rapid movement, constant change, and doesn't allow one mistake. Not that these girls needed it. But as the song approached an ending, I gulped knowing that it was time.
The Kohi, seeing my bedazzled expression, did their best and got me ready. They watched as I slid on my Tsume, one by one, and pushed them down hard. I couldn't have them falling off during the music. So at the expense of my finger circulation, I made them as tight as possible. They next brought me over my Koto, an ancient wooden block that has seen more concerts than I have seen sunsets, with an orange tattered cloth coated with withered paper fans. This Koto and I have been through alot together. It had seen my beginning days of my newly found talent, when I covered it in Cheat Tape about the placement of the strings, through my first unsuccessful concert. It went on to finally get the tape removed, and it's user finally accept that she could actually play the Koto. Last week, it was discovered that it was in fact broken, though I had been saying that for months. The strings were probably stretched too far back when Koto first made it's way into Japan from China in the 8th Century. But I don't speak Japanese well enough to suggest that. Anyway, Kubamoto-sensei wanted to pull it from the concert. But I couldn't allow that to happen. So the poor distorted thing now had 2 extra bridges under the strings to fill out the sound. I carried my Koto to the stage edge, so that when the curtain closed, I made a quick sprint to my spot, behind Chiake and in the middle of the stage.
It was finally time. This concert, which I had been training for since January, was about to begin for me. I placed down my Koto, which got a couple loud snickers. Chiake rolled her eyes as she whispered that nearly everyday I manage to pick up the Koto the wrong way. And everyday she patiently explains to me that it is the wrong way, though she can't seem to explain just why. I smiled and retorted, some things won't ever change. She didn't reply, but looked away. I realized then that Chiake, who I had taken for being one tough cookie when it comes to performing in stage, was nervous. I wondered if it was because she was worried about how I would perform. But Chiake has been one of my biggest supporters, always assuring me that I am doing well. She is also one of those people that I just trust. I finally comprehended that it was the more difficult pieces she would be playing later on. But seeing her nervous made it okay for me, though I suddenly found myself feeling calmer. There I was sitting in front of my weathered Koto, center stage, between by new best friends, when time seemed slow up, if only for me to absorb the whole moment. The teachers ran around behind the stage barking orders to the Kohi. The other Kohi were scurrying in between the instruments placing down stands, shelves, and sheet music. And for how nervous I had been prior to the event, I suddenly found myself calm, relaxed, and happy. Many of the Kohi went out of their way to pat me on the back and wish me good luck, before trampling out of visibility. Yuki, Yokoyama, Yuki, Taco, Casami, Chiake, and Airi sat stiffly in Saza leg position, configuring their music books to the right page, or pushing down their finger Tsume so they wouldn't fall off during the performance. The frontal line went from Chiake, Me, Yokoyama, and Airi, while to the right sat Yukimi and Taco. Flanking us on the left was Casami and Yuki. Each section had their own part to the song. Only together, would the song, Sakura, come together beautifully. Takemura-sensei, school teacher and club leader, stood before us once more with a big warm smile. She told us all to go our best, and added an extra thumbs up for me. I looked around at the smiling faces of my friends, and came to the conclusion that even if I did poorly, I wouldn't let them down. I've been so worried about not letting them down, that I had forgotten about one of the best moments of playing the Koto at Tosajoshi. That moment just before the starting of the song, when I look around and see Yukimi give me a peace sign, Casami stick out her tongue, Yokoyama, Airi, and Taco say, "Everybody do your best!" And best all, Chiake give me a thumbs up before placing her hands of the strings. Outside the curtain covered stage, the announcements blared on. In translated form the speaker said, "The next song is a rendition of the famous Sakura. This year we had a special guest join the Koto club. Julianne Garner, and American exchange student, came to Japan to study Japanese. She says that Koto is difficult but very excited. We are all very happy to have her." And then the curtains rose.
Chiake shouted the mandatory, "Rei!" And the group of high school musicians dropped into a 4 second bow. I watched as Chiake nodded her head, the signal for begin, and then we were off. My middle finger playing the first note, floowed by the thumb. And it was then that I knew, I was going to do great. I played with heart and soul, giving it all I had. All the remnants of that earlier nervousness had dispersed, and were replaced by an exciting feeling. It was just me and my Koto, playing with a couple with a couple friends for the fun of it.
One of the rules is that you are supposed to look as serious as possible. This is so if you make a little mistake, your facial expression doesn't show it. Actually I don't really know why you are supposed to look so serious, but my facial expression always gives away my mistakes. It's one of the biggest things that the teacher's are always reminding me to work on. I had practiced it and thought that I had had down packed. Tonight, though, I couldn't help it. This time instead of a look of fear in messing up, I wore a dignified smirk. My lips couldn't help but curl up as I played near perfectly.
Up and down my fingers traveled over the strings, never faltering. My eyes traveled from my fingers on the strings to the mark in the book. I lost myself in the sound of Sakura 2l, the song that was first composed during the Edo period for children learning to play the koto. And here I was, 400 years later playing the very song that had inspired so many Kotoists before me. In this day and age, Sakura is often sung in international settings as a musical representative of Japan. Tonight, though, it was the song that represented an American exchange student to Japan, me, Julie Garner. This song that I had been so worried about performing, had become so simple for me in a matter of a few seconds. It did not matter that there were hundreds of people watching, many just to see if I was capable of playing such a difficult instrument. What mattered was that I proved I was capable of it, to myself.
The final part of the song involves a very difficult form, where one's fingers must virtually attach and slide back and forth over the string as rapidly as possible. I have a real hard time with this part, and the teachers were very worried about having me perform it. I nailed it perfectly with no problems. And the smirk grew into a full blown smile. The song ended, as I placed my arms on the vibrating strings to cease the sound, copying the motions of Chiake. We did one final bow, as the curtains began to fall. The clapping went from a quiet indoor type, to a full blown roaring train. When I curtains reached the floor, I sprung out of Saza position and nearly shouted, "I did it!"
Yokoyama was the first one to reach me, followed by Taco and Yukimi. Soon all the members of Ko Ninensee Koto club were in a whole-hearted tender group hug and bouncing around as quietly as possible. The teachers knocked the Kohi out of the way to get to us. They joined our gracious hug, bouncing with us and silently cheering for our success. My heart was bursting with joy, as everyone said just how proud of me they were. It was me who was the proud though. Not proud of how well I performed, but proud that I was a true memeber of this wonderful club. Proud to say that my best friends in Japan are in the Tosajoshi Koto club. A club that calls me one of it's own members.
We returned to the stage, picked up our Koto's and returned to the place of no visibilty. I watched as the Kohi scurried out to replace stands and sheet music for the next performance. I placed my dear Koto in the spot where it was supposed to be for the next girl to use. The Kohi all cheered for me as I exited the stage. What made it better was that I really believe it was all genuine, rather than just them being nice to a senior student. The Kubamoto-sensei team pulled me aside and with delightful grins, told me that they were impressed beyond words at how well I did. I thanked them for their kind words and for all the help that they gave to me in teaching me how to play. As they walked off, heckling a new set of Kohi, Chiake came up to me. Her chubby cheeks, usually the color of peaches were slightly green, and her easy smile was looking really forced. She gave me a huge hug and told me she always knew I could do it. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me in secret that she felt like she was going to throw up, from being nervous. Inside, I laughed, because I knew the exact feeling.
The rest of the concert went on according to plan. 10 songs were played, beautifully, I'd like to add. After Sakura, the former Tosajoshi Koto members who were now all grown up, played a reunion song. Then Yukimi led a group Chugakkou Sannensee (Middle School 3rd graders) into a lovely song that ended with a 10 minute break. I followed by fellow Ko Ninensee downstairs into the dressing room during the break. While they ate dinner, I watched as the Ko Sanensee got dressed in Kimono for their final Goodbye song. Only halfway through the dressing up process, and they looked astounding. Upstairs on the stage, the Kohi got ready for the next few songs. These songs, which ended up being world classics like, the Nutcracker and Walking Down the Aisle music, went smoothly. Mostly they were played by the Kohi, so I was happy to return the wonderful support they had given me. As I helped put out stands, and patted them on the back and told them to keep their chins up. Then the Ko Ichinensee (High School 1st Years) played their song with relative ease, and almost no nervousness.
Behind stage, I sat with Chaike, who had then taken to resting her head in a wire bin, and trying not to throw up her last few meals. In between each song, she managed to stand up, step back into drill sargent club leader mode, which involved bossing around the Kohi. Then as the they began playing the song, she found another wire bin to rest in. When the Ko Ichinensee were finished, I found a Kohi and together we lifted Chiake's 17 string Koto onto the main stage. We placed it right in the middle, as it was surrounded by 7 other Koto's on the left and right. This song, was probably the most difficult of the whole concert, and Chiake, as club leader got the main part. I guess seeing that her Koto was smack dap in the middle of everyone, made me understand her situation a little. And I knew she too, was worried about messing up because she couldn't let down her friends. As the curtain rose, Chiake looked over to the no visibility area where I was standing. Her face wore an expression that showed she was scared beyond words, even more than I had been. The language barrier is too thick for me to tell her what I was really thinking. That she was made the leader of the club because she was the best Koto player in the school. And that even if she made a simple little mistake, everyone would still be really proud of her. No matter what she thought. Instead I did the only thing I could do without being seen by the audience. I flashed her a simple thumbs up. And I think it helped, even if just a little bit, because as she bent into her bow, a saw a faint smile.
Needless to say, the Ko Ninensee did amazing. Chiake did not make one single mistake in her brilliant performance on the 17 string Koto. Yukimi lead one part, while Casami led the other part of the song. A combination of the 3 made for an absolute breath taking performance. When it was over, I was the first one on the stage, tears falling out of my eyes, hugging the girls. It was hug to remember. As we all cried in each others arms, the Ko Sanensee, dressed in an absolute gorgeous Kimono attire, trekked on to the stage. Everyone held their breath as the final memorable performance of the Sanensee took place. It was a magical performance. Not only were the Koto notes mystical, but they were played with the sound of a flute. The lights flashed making the effect of falling Sakura. By the end of the heart-wrenching song, Passion, everyone was in tears. As the Kimono-clad girls walked off the stage, everyone went into the deepest most respectful bow we could find in our hearts. The curtain closed, but the the Sanensee went back onto the stage for speeches. Meanwhile, the rest of us made our way into the visible zone, surrounding a select group of girls on Koto's. I was put almost in the front of the stage, next to Yukimi's Koto. The final song of the night, Hanamizuki, was sung by the remaining girls with the Tosajoshi chorus. Arm in arm, we all smiled and cheered while the music flooded the hearts of everyone. I looked out into the crowd and saw everyone who I wanted to see. The Masakis, The Osakis, and Sae and Yurie Hirosue, along with a couple of other school friends all smiling and waving to us. It ended on the best note possible, with smiles and laughter, mixed with sadness and relief.
When the curtain closed a final time, the rush of cleaning up set in. Kotos were taken apart by the bridges, then placed in carrying bags. I was back on Koto Taxi duty, carrying them into a rented van. After 20 minutes of pure craziness, we were all finished with Green Hall. I volunteered to help the remaining girls head back to the school and clean up, but Chiake put her foot down. So arm in arm with Yukimi and Taco, I walked out into a lobby. Yukimi and Taco jumped into the arms of there parents. For the first time in my life, I didn't have a family member to come and watch me. It didn't bother me too much, though. Soon I spotted Hikari, my host sister, and she pulled me to wear my host mother was waiting. The other club members were scouring long tables filled with gloriously wrapped presents. I didn't even bother to look in my pile, until Hikari discovered a HUGE unclaimed pile marked with my name. The first thing I spotted was a cute little potted plant, from Chiake's Grandmother. Later in the night I opened a white Rose bouquet from Sae and Yurie Hirosue, Kobe Cookies from an anonymous source, a smiley stuffed animal from Taco, a pink towel from Aimi and the Track team, and best of all a big stuffed pillow in the form of a Japanese monster from Chiake and her mother. It's amazing but this place never ceases to suprise me. Sometime that night I thought to myself, that I am the luckiest person in the entire world. I belong to an amazing club at an exciting school, friends that love me for who I am, langauge barrier or not, but most importantly 2 places to call home, Verona, America, and Kochi, Japan. I wonder how I got so lucky.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

All Shook Up

I'm writing this, later to be typed, with the worst case of shaking hands and a feeling that I can only accurately describe as, 'freaked out.' I am Julie Garner, tough as nails, and virtually not afraid of anything. Yet something happened just a few hours ago, that really jolted me. I lived through my first somewhat major earthquake. If you live in the country of Japan for a year, you better expect the occasional ground movement. But I was placed on Shikoku, with not quite as many active fault lines as the Tokyo and Osaka regions. While Hokkaido was hit in November, Ishigawa in March, I was nice and safe in the isolation of Shikoku. Or so I thought.
It happened during my 1st period class of Thursday, April 27, 2007. I was teaching English with fellow gaijin, Paula Fabian, to a small group of Middle School 1st grade students. It was such a great day, the weather was beautiful, and the girls were really interested in the lesson. The lesson, however, was actually fairly difficult. Paula and I were working on pronunciations of sounds that aren't found in the Japanese alphabet. Nonetheless, the girls were really determined to try their hardest. We started the day with practicing pronouncing by as in rugby, py as in happy, and other y-type sounds. I walked around the room, while small groups of girls took their turns practicing. I corrected them when it was necessary, and praised them when they deserved it. Things were going wonderfully. The next part of the lesson, found me and Paula in the front of the room speaking. I waited on the side of the Teacher's podium, as Paula taught. Standing their, Idid the most unlady-like thing and placed my left foot in the chair. I probably looked like a lumber jack, but I didn't care. And then a heavy shaking started. My first thought was not exactly alarmingly. I have this nasty leg shaking habit, so I immediately assumed it was that. Shaking your leg in the Japanese culture is seen as having no money. I think it's just one of those weird cultural baggage things that nobody can rightfully explain. My brain told me leg to stop shaking, while also getting weird signals that the other leg was shaking. I looked down to see that it wasn't me. I couldn't stop the shaking, which was suddenly giving my brain air drill type alarms. I turned to Paula, first seeing her rather alarmed expression, and could only stammer, "It's not me that's shaking..." Before I could finish the word shaking, screaming broke out from the students. These 12 year-old girls are brand new to the school, and rarely know what's going on. Not that any of knew what was going on at that point.
Paula suddenly took control of the situation, in English, I might add. She loudly urged everyone to hurry up and get under their desks. The girls kept on screaming as they leaped under the wooden desks. Fear raged through the room, as the sound of rattling desks and book bags overtook the screams. I found myself bursting into tears as I shouted to Paula, "What is it?" She turned to me, eyes widen to the point of probable pain, confusion and fear swirling in her mind, as she said in a voice filled with a sudden power, "Get under a desk. Now. Earthquake."
I couldn't move. I was frozen, while everything around me was shifting from side to side. My legs had become suddenly glued to the floor, and my thoughts ran wild without purpose. I was scared to death and watching the 1st year girls take control of everything. The screaming ceased all at once, and everyone but Paula and I were secured under a desk, prepared for the worst. And then just as soon as the shaking began, it stopped with a halt. The desks remained motionless, and the girls stayed quiet. Paula looked at me, she must have seen a the most terrified looking human being in the world. "Are you okay?" she questioned. I suddenly was brought back out of my horror imagination. "I- I-," I could barely finish the sentence, for a new sensation was stabbing at me, "I gotta use the bathroom." She quickly smiled, trying to suppress a laughter, "Go!" And like that I scurried out of the room and sprinted to the nearest bathroom. Along the way I passed another classroom being quieted by my school counselor, who seemed very alarmed. When he saw me, his face turned from calm to an enraged expression. I knew then that Paula was going to catch trouble for letting me out. But she didn't have any other choice. I'm sure upon letting me go, she remembered her first earthquake. Not that it prompted her to wet herself, but it probably scared the crap out of her. I hate to admit this, but my bathroom sprint didn't really matter much. I wet my pants for the first time since I got out of diapers. In the toilet stall, I went to the bathroom, knowing that at any second the after shock would probably strike. I was not emotionally ready for that occurrence, but I hurried back to the room nonetheless. I passed the same rooms again, noticing that everyone was still tucked in safe under the desks. The after shock would be coming. Finally I reached my room, to see that the girls were already back in their seats listening to Paula talk about the pronunciation of RY. I interrupted that they were still supposed to be under the desk, but Paula wanted to move on as quickly as possible. The announcements came on soon enough, and announced that it was indeed, over with. I'd like to say that was a feeling of relief, but it wasn't. I was still too shaken to think straight.
For the rest of the class, Paula bounced around class with enthusiasm and cheeriness correcting and applauding students with their English. I envied her, because I wasn't able to move. My body felt so heavy, and every time I got up, my legs would start shaking uncontrollably. I found a nice cool desk that I parked down on for the rest of the period. I got a nice view of the window, where I watched the staff hard at work. Teacher's who did not have to teach on that period, where hobbling around the school looking for damage or students in trouble. It didn't exactly give me a warm feeling.
When the class ended, I realized that I had to move, get up, and leave. The girls said goodbye in their cheery, happy-go-lucky, young school girl voices. I found myself amazed that they had so quickly forgot about what had just happened. But I guess, if you have had to live with these things since birth, you have a different attitude. Paula knew it had really freaked me out. Together, we met up with Craig, a fellow gaijin teacher and Kochi resident. He and Paula both got a good laugh about my little bathroom problem, and talked about their first earthquakes. Paula recalled in 1995, during the Kobe earthquake, Shikoku got hit pretty bad as well. She lives on the 7th floor of an apartment building with steel door hinges. The hinges don't allow the doors to open during movement. So that when the quake struck, she panicked and believed that for sure, the building was going to collapse. They admitted that although today's tremor wasn't quite as serious as it could have been, we were in the worst spot for it to happen. We were teaching on the first floor of a 5 storey building. The 5th floor is home to a full pool. The conversation ended with, "There comes to a certain point when you just know. And then, you gotta just get the hell out of the building."
The rest of the day sort of drifted by with me going in and out of reality. In 2nd period, I found out that I had lived through a 4 size quake on the Japanese scale. The Japanese "shindo" scale for measuring earthquakes is more commonly used in Japan than the Richter scale. Shindo refers to the intensity of an earthquake at a given location, or what people actually feel at a given location, while the Richter scale measures the magnitude of an earthquake, which is the the energy an earthquake releases at the epicenter. The shindo scale ranges from shindo one, a slight earthquake felt only by people who are not moving, to shindo seven, a severe earthquake. Shindo two to four are still minor earthquakes that do not cause damage, while objects start to fall at shindo five, and heavier damage occurs at shindo six and seven. The quake was magnitude 5.4 earthquake that was centered on the island of Shikoku, across the Seto Inland sea from Hiroshima at 9:03 a.m. local time. Quakes of magnitude 5 and more can cause considerable damage.
For 3rd period I returned to teach with Paula in the middle school. Nothing had changed, and I was still pretty shaky. By the end of the class, I realized I couldn't go on much more like this. I turned to Paula and said, "Please don't think I'm really dramatic or something. But that thing really gave me a scare. I can't do much more today as a functioning person." She smiled and admitted that she understood better than I thought, gave me a good hiding spot in the school, and advice to keep it easy.
When I eventually returned to my class at 6th period, my friends found themselves choking with laughter over my first experience. Chiake went on about her story, of being 5 years old when the great 1995 Kobe earthquake happened. She was lying in bed, when the tremors woke her up. Her Mom ran into the room and picked her up, and together they ran outside. What was I doing at 5 years old? Playing Hiding Seek in the Yard and not worrying about sudden deadly tremors.
I think back on the incidents, and I can't believe just how freaked out I really was. I was in tears, and for the whole day my heart was racing. I try to figure out why it happened to me like that. I mean, I know most exchange students get used to them so quickly, that it doesn't even bother them after awhile. Maybe because this was my first experience with a decent sized quake that I was so shaken up. There is other reasons too. When I was frozen, unable to jump to safety, it's not as though my life flashed before my eyes or anything silly like that. But it did wake me up to another thing. I'm not a big fan of the quote, "live everyday like it's your last." Yet something as quick and sudden as an earthquake puts life into perspective. I mean one minute you maybe laughing and joking sharing the joys and horrors of the English language, while the next you are hidden under a desk fearing for your life by something you can't control. Life is so unpredictable, and often just down right scary.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Concert~ Prologue

I am a Koto player. And that's saying something because I have almost no musical ability whatsoever. And in case, you didn't know, the Koto is a Japanese Harp. The Koto is made of Paulownia wood, is about six feet long and ten inches wide, and has thirteen strings of equal size and tension. A bridge is placed under each string. Moving the bridge up or down results in an infinite range of tunings. The strings are plucked with deer anter finger pieces worn on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the right hand. It's really a beautiful instrument, though I may be a little biased in that opinion. I've been playing it since November, and have loved it ever since I started. Of course back in the beginning I couldn't remember what the strings were located, and had to use a cheat tape. But now I can remember and play all 13 strings.
Since I last wrote about the Koto and my exchange, alot has happened. Starting the Koto by joining was difficult enough, but I soon realized that I had made the right decision. (see Jurie Ganaa the Musician for more information) After the disappointing Jingle Bells concert, in which I did horribly but realized that I had made some of great friends, a bunch of new things happened. I bought my very own pair of Tsume, or the deer antler hand finger pieces for the thumb, middle, and index finger. These pieces are crucial for the success of playing. I showed everyone just how much I wanted to be in the club. And thus, the teachers gave me my very own music to play, Sakura 21. The only problem was that the teacher's didn't seem to want to show me how to play, and left it up to the club leader, Chiake Yamanaka. Chiake would later become my very best Japanese friend, but she was really busy with her own song. I gradually learned to play the music all by myself.
So twice a week, on either Monday or Tuesday and Friday, I headed straight from class or cleaning to the Tatemi floored Koto room for practice. For January and February, I still used the cheat tape to inform me what string was the one I was supposed to be playing. But one day, Chiake watched me play the whole version of the song, smiled and then pulled off on the cheat tape. I was horrified and really freaked out on her. Her smile never faltered, but when I was finished she asked me to play the song without the tape. I found that I could remember where the strings were located with almost no problem. She laughed as I begged for forgiveness, and glorified at my new skill. It was the last step out of the very beginner stages of learning to play the Koto.
At practice, I arrive, usually in the company of Yukimi or Chiake. Since we are all the 2nd years on High School or, Ko Ninensei, we are all essentially the leaders of the club. Because we are also almost the oldest members, known as Sempie, every one of the juniors, or Kohi, treats us with utmost respect. They address us in the respectful language, bow, and always make sure that we are comfortable and don't have to do the harder work. I understand that it's very respectful and it's been happening since the beginning of time, but it really kind of bothers me. It's like saying age is more important than skill. Often I am refusing to accept the help of a junior if I know I can do it myself. And I usually ignore them if they call me, "Julie-SAN," (putting that into English it would be sort of like calling me, "Ms. Garner.")
As leaders, we are all in charge of getting set up. Chiake is the club captain, and it is she who decides what songs are rehearsed and who gets parts in the music. While she walks around like a drill sargent, I usually dance around and sing with Yukimi and Yokoyama and Taco. Sometimes if Chiake gets in mean mode, I run around and lighten the mood by putting papers on her uniform secretly, or imitating her behind her back. The Kohi love when someone is embarrassing Chiake, and I do a pretty job. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls are putting out big mats on the Tatemi floor, so to protect the straw from the Koto stands. Then they set up their Koto's in either the Tatemi rooms or the Art practice room, where I am usually placed.
It's weird for me to admit this, but I owe these girls a great deal of gratitude. They don't know it, and I don't think I will ever tell them this. They don't need to know, but it is the truth. Chiake, Yukimi, Yokoyama, Taco, Airi, Casami, and Yuki are the best school friends I have made on this year to Japan. These girls are only names to you, but they are the Tosajoshi Ko Ninensei Koto members that have put up with me since I started playing in November. And if that isn't suprising enough, they even call me one of their own, a real member of the club, rather than just a mascot, like most exchange students in Japanese clubs. Though they don't know this part. In January and half of February, I was going through a very difficult time in my exchange. The weather was bitterly cold and making me physically sick, home room friends were getting annoyed with me, and worst of all my host family life was miserable. Instead of letting it all ruin my wonderful year, I turned to the 2 things that had always been consistantly amazing to me; the first host family, and the Koto club. With the Koto club, I found the greatest most kind people who made me believe that things were definitely going to get better. Even if only in the world of music. I think it's because of this reason that this concert means so very much to me.
Anyway, after fooling around, getting respect, we don't really deserve, the teachers enter the scene. The Kubamoto's are a mother and daughter Koto teaching team. I have a so-so feeling on those two. They were nice enough to give me a part in the concert, but wouldn't help me until I started paying the montly fee. After that, I even got private lessons from the daughter. She taught me a specific way to strum the strings that is much more easy for someone with long fingers. In mid-February, CHiake even took me to their studio for a private lesson, which turned into a complete disaster. The Mother actually held my hand throughout the song without me even able to show that I could do it. It was also around this time that they wanted to change my song into something easier. But I worked really hard and ended up proving myself to everyone. Including myself. And that brings me to the concert.
On April 28, 2007, at Kochi City's Green Hall, the Tosajoshi Koto Club will be performing a large concert. There are 500 tickets available, while 600 people were invited. The reason that they give out so many is because most people end up not being able to come. This year, it is predicted, to be a huge exception, Cniake informed me with a suspicious smile upon her face. She went on to tell that they tickets were sold out, many weeks before the event was really advertised, because they had tried a different approach to publicity. I was curious about this approach, though I secretly knew it involved yours truly. And sure enough, I was right. The girls advertised that an American exchange student would be playing the beloved Sakura 21, this song is like the epotomie of Yankee Doodle Dandy in America, in that everyone knows it from childhood. The tickets sold out as quick as they began advertising that aspect, and I believe there is even a waiting list.
There is just one slight problem: I have a gift and a curse. My gift is the ability to do a public speech in front of 2,000 school girls in a language I could barely understand, let alone speak. My curse is that because I have the musical ability of roadkill, I can't act, sing, dance, or play an instrument in the presence of more than a few people. If this makes any sense at all, then please explain it to me.
Recently, with the rapidly approaching oncert, we've been doing alot of practice. During Spring Break, I came for many of the morning practices, until I left for the Grand Japan Tour. Before I left, I had a completely disgraceful performance, and one near perfect one. And when Mom, Nana, and I arrived in Kochi in mid-April, my club treated us to a mini concert. They played many world pieces for Mom and Nana, in addition to the song most often played in Japanese festivals. When it was my turn to play Sakura 21 for my family, I did pretty poorly. I had a couple freeze ups, one in which my music would turn the right way and I was stuck playing from my memory. Chiake, sitting behind me, saw my dilemma, and threw me her music, enabling me to perform a strong finish. It was a great experience for Mom and Nana, who had visualized the Koto as a small quieter instrument, and were suprised beyond words that I could actually play something. Mom pointed out, referring to Chiake's saving move, that I had some wonderful new friends. She had know idea.
The fact is, I'm so nervous for this concert that words don't acurately describe it. I took a sick day yesterday, but was so scared that I didn't get in extra practice, that I biked to school to play the instrument, with a headache of the world kind. It's like for all that these girls have done for me, I mean by this, that they have been there whenever I needed friends, I don't want to let them down. I can't let them down. They believe in me. I'm the only one is a little unsure of myself. I want this night to be the one that everyone remembers for the exchange student and her friends playing a great version of Sakura 21. I want Chiake and Yukimi and the rest of the girls to tell me that I did fabulous and know that it really is the truth. Because for how much support and love these girls have shown me, it's the least I could do for them. Here I go...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pushing Myself To The Limit

I'm getting really tired of being bad at everything. This post is not intended to be something all about complaining. Because I don't really have alot of things to complain about. Except that everything I have gotten involved in, whether I like it or not, is something that I have a hard time doing. Just a few things to start with for example, Japanese. I feel like my language skills aren't very good, even though a million people tell me otherwise. I arrived her knowing nothing, and have had to teach myself everything I know. I'm not annoyed, because I love the language. I once studied French and Spanish, and even though I did seemingly better with these languages, I hated them. Japanese is utterly different, and even though I struggle with it daily, I like it. Nihon Buyou. I was forced into joining the art of traditional Japanese dance, though I strongly dislike it. I'm not good at it, and so I don't really but much effort into it. Calligraphy, or Shoudo. I try my hardest, I really do. But Japanese Kanji is so incredible intense. The teacher tells me I do my best, and my characters are beautiful, but I know he is just being nice. Koto. I am in love with my school club, Koto, or Japanese Harp. But since the moment I started, my lack of musical talent has been a bot of a road block in all of my endeavors. Math. Okay so I haven't had to do any such Math this year, but I felt the need to throw it in with the mix. I hate Math, and I'm horrific at it. I don't reckon that will ever change. Synchronized Swimming. I know most of you are probably laughing about this one now. Why should being bad at Synchronized swimming both anyone, you are probably wondering. It doesn't bother me, but it's the activity that I have been heavily exposed to in the past few months, while living with my current host family, the Osaki's. I tried the sport, and got my butt whooped by a group 9 and 10 year old elementary school kids. What's the point of listing all these things? Proof. I'm trying to make a point of something. Imagine going through your entire life, being bad at almost everything you do. Now, since I arrived here, I have developed an enormous self-esteem, and little things like being bad at Koto don't even effect it at all. But when I look at everything going on in my life, and see that it's not just Koto, but EVERYTHING, that I have trouble with. Well, it's not exactly comforting. But there is something I'm good at it. Except that being good at it, is a bit on the questionable side. It's more or less something I do for fun, that I like doing, and don't have any competition, and thus people telling me I'm not good at it. I run. I once did track, but I don't like competition. What I Du like is the feeling of coming home after a long run, and feeling accomplished.
My host sisters Hikari and Maako's Synchronized swimming takes place at Kuroshio Arena in the far outskirts of Kochi and possibly Nangoku City. I have, an 3 occasions, participated in the practices. I wrote about the first experience in 'Week in the Life of Ko Ichinensee: Wednesday.' But all 3 practices were utterly torturous. I thought I was a fairly good swimmer, till a 5 year old whooped my butt in a Freestyle stroke race. Eventually, I couldn;t take anymore. I got out of the pool and began exploring the arena. The arena was built for rural Kochi to host an All Japan swim tournament in 2002. Afterwards it became a place for local teams to practice sports and swim events. Since it is so far from the middle of the city, there is a lot of flat land around the arena. Recently it was coverted into a half a dozen tennis courts, 3 large baseball fields, a soccer field, and another empty land. Inside the building, it houses a small pool, and an enormous pool that is actually converted into a gym during the winter months. I stumbled into the area of the gym, which is normally packed with people. It is a huge gym and so there are 4 areas in which 4 teams are usually inhabiting. I had been in here before, to watch my host sister practice dry synchronized dancing. Usually a Volleyball team, Dodge ball team, Ballet team, and an open free space are using the resources of the gym. However, at the time of my exploring, no one was there. It was just me alone in a giant gym, the the size of a small football field. On top of the area of the gym is a small running course, or walking course. Walking along it and you can get to one side, where is is about 3 stories worth of stairs and seating for big events at the arena. I counted out 20 flights of stairs, that day as I looked around scouting the area for a place to do my thing. The lights were dim, and the heating was off making the area quite chilly. I was wearing a bathing suit cover and a thick pair of socks. I had no shoes, but my body felt compelled to do what it loves to do. I dropped my bag and I began to run. It wasn't just a simple run around the jogging course, I found myself facing the stairs. 20 flights of stairs makes it easy for me to climb one and then down one, thus making 10 sets of stairs to climb in one go. The stairs, as I mentioned before are 3 stories tall, so essentially I would be running 30 stories each time I finished. I would go up and down and when I was done, make a flat surface run around the course until I reached the other side, where I had the choice to climb up again. On the first day of running, I was able to complete 5 magnificent times around the arena, without stopping running once. I was so proud of myself, but at the same time the runner inside of me was already scheming. Once a runner reaches his goal, celebration last a few seconds until a new goal is made. In my mind, knowing I had 5 more weeks of practices before I changed host families, I made the goal to be able to do 10 times around the stairs and course. Usually, I make the goal of 8, because this is my lucky number. But I was feelimg ambitious. And so it was decided that each week, I would increase the laps by one.
I was successful in increasing each lap by 1 each week. It wasn't easy, not because my body was not ready to complete these tasks but because people began to notice me. The second week, there were a few teams practicing, and people looked up to see an insane running Gaijn frantically zipping up and down the stairs in a fast pace. Sweat pouring out of her head, and a loud out-of-breath type sound wheezing from her mouth. I had no reason for pushing myself as hard as I did, other than a goal with myself. But these intense running episodes coincided with another thing. My mom had just left Japan, and I was in a new class. Though I loved the new class, I was stuck in the corner alone, by myself very very often. I was thinking about home alot, never in a homesick type way, but always wondering what I was missing. When I ran, even though my knees throbbed with intense pain upon climbing the stairs, my own toe had been stubbed so bad that it was back from a bruise, and my body screaming at my mind to stop, it took away the thought of home. I was in my own world, running and doing everything possible to reach my goal.
I was all set to leave the Osaki's on May 20th, making my final attempt at 10 laps, May the 16th. The rumor that a Gaijin crazy enough to attempt the running course up and down the steps every Wednesday had reached the ears of many of the Arena goers. Many parents of the team members had come to watch their daughter swim, all the while peeking in their heads to see if it was true. Even Osaki Okasan came, though it was for a 'meeting.' I told her about my goal the night before, and like the rest of the world, she thought I was crazy. She asked me I was pushing myself so hard, for no reason. I told there was no reason other than wanting to be able to do it for myself. I started the run, climbing up and down the cement stairs, my heart pounding in my chest, while fierce adrenaline kept me going. The Lion in me was roaring, and I finished each lap and the started again. On the 8th lap, I tripped, and landed heavily on my already throbbing knee, But I kept going. When I reached 10, I stopped. I finished.
Asking myself again, why I did it, what possessed me to do something so insane, and I really can't give anyone an answer. Part of it, was of course, proving to myself, that I'm not terrible at everything I do. Though that's silly, because I already knew that. In all, I think the real reason, is because I've been pushing myself to the limit since November of 2005, when I went for my Rotary interview. It's just the kind of stuff that I do.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Madness in Miyajima

The morning started when we all awoke from our sleep, to the sound of quiet. I later found out that the elections had stopped. We followed our morning routines and then headed down in the elevator to the 3rd floor breakfast place. Handing in our free breakfast coupons, we got plates and started taking what we wanted. I got a huge salad that I smothered in Sesame sauce, while Mom and Nana enjoyed bread, no surprise there. I went over the days schedule with them, and soon enough we were heading back to the room. The plan was to get our stuff and then buy a locker for it all in Hiroshima Station, like we did at Himeji. After we were finished, all packed, and ready to start the day, we checked out of the hotel. Then with our huge luggage bags, we planned on walking to the station. Instead on the workers at the hotel volunteered to give us a ride. Nana and Mom were s relieved as we filed into his mini van. At the station, we wished us luck, gave me a map of the city, and then returned to his post. We were in luck with 2 unused large luggage lockers near the Shinkhansen station. And after everything was squared away, I took my family to the JR local lines and waited for an early train to Miyajimaguchi. Since it was pretty early in the morning, the train hadn't yet become a sardine can. I still stood up, making sure that we didn't accidentally pass through the wrong station. I was on a roll for perfect train hopping, and I didn't want to lose the title. When we arrived at the said destination, the whole group of travelers also got off. We were on a bright colorful lovely little street in the Hiroshima coast line. At the end of the street was the dock for ferry to Miyajima Island, so the shops and vendors on the sides were hard at work trying to sell Omiyage. The most famous of which is the Momiji, or maple leaf shaped cake with filling. Most of the filling is flavored Green Tea or Bean paste, but Nana and I discovered Chocolate and Cream Custard that left us pretty happy. Soon we made our way to the ferry, where Mom and Nana used the Rail Pass and I paid the small round trip fee. The ride was freezing! It was still early in the morning yet, but I had to steal my Nana's extra jacket or I would have frozen. The wind whipped around us, as we slowly approached the main site of the day; O-Torii. Located several miles off the coast of Hiroshima city, the holy island of Miyajima is a sacred site of both Shintoism and Buddhism and one of the most enchantingly beautiful places on Earth. To come by early morning boat across the mist-enshrouded sea, slowly approaching the island and its holy mountain of Misen San, is to enter a fairy tale realm. Long before Buddhism came to Japan in the 5th century AD, Shinto sages lived as hermits in the mountain’s forested hills. After we arrived, unloaded the boat, and walked through the dock center, our first big shock of the day hit. Right in the middle of this beautiful island where hundreds of little deer walking right up to tourists and getting fed. Most of their antlers had been chopped off to protect tourists from aggression. And it seemed like they would eat anything. I watched them eat their food as well as a whole paper plate. Mom was overjoyed by this set up, while I couldn't help but crack a little laugh. Next we passed the deer and walked down a own-style cobblestone road toward signs poinging to the island's main red shrine. Stopping along the way for some store browsing, I even found something I liked; a little Red Torii like the Miyajima one. Because I have a fetish with Torii's. How weird is that? One of the 3 'Best Sights in Japan,' the floating Torii gate is astounding. The beautiful Otorri gate, standing in the sea and leading to the Itsukushima shrine, is the symbol of Miyajima Island. The present Otorii, the eighth that was constructed since the Heian period (794-1192), was built in 1875. It is 16 meters tall, and stands on its own support, having no part buried in the ground. Entering a Tori gates is said to be like entering the Holy area of the Gods. Thus since Commoners were historically not allowed to set foot on the island, and had to approach by boat, they had to enter through the gate. Whether it is floating, or merely stuck in the mud, depends on the tide. We were fortunate enough to see it floating. Since we had arrived early, we were very fortunate enough to see it without the huge crowds of annoying tourists. Instead we took our time and explored every little part of the surrounding area, taking us on a little beach stroll, to nearly every bathroom on the island, and seeing more of just the Shrine than the average tourist does. We paid the $3 fee to get onto the shrine, and we're soon fortunate enough to be exploring that as well. Itsukushima Shrine was first established in 593. Built to worship the island as a goddess, the temple quickly became known through out Japan. Its first known written record from 881 includes it among other famous Japanese shrines. The precursor to the current Itsukushima Shrine and its gate were built in 1168 with funds from the Taira clan. Changes to the shrine's layout occurred after fires in 1207, 1223 and a typhoon in 1325. After this time, the shrine is thought to have retained the same basic layout. We took lots of Torii pictures, while we stood on the shrine watching the water slowly rise. When we got off it, Nana found a nice comfortable bench, while Mom and I made the climb up to a Buddhist Temple overlooking the main town. We were in awe at the gorgeousness of the Sakura. Even though we had seen them in every place we had visited, there was something really special about these particular ones. They were fuller or something. Miyajima is said to be a magical island, full of powers that made it mysterious while at the same time open to Holiness. Perhaps it was that. Back down, picking up Nana, we had a few options. We could return back to Hiroshima and take an early train to Kochi. Or we could do a long hike up to the Ropeway, where we would then get to see more of the Island. Nana's hip was taken into consideration, but so was that fact that both woman were loving Miyajima more than place we had visited yet. We decided to go for it, and were then trekking up a steep hill to get to Miyajima Ropeway. The climb was not easy for Nana, and when we arrived, she needed a long rest. So while I purchased the tickets, she sat down and enjoyed the surroundings of the island. In line for the Ropeway, we were put on with a weird Japanese couple. The ropeway took us high above the spiritual green mountains of Miyajima with the crystal clear Seto Inland Sea blanketing until the horizon. When we reached what we believed to the top, we were ushered up more stairs and onto another ropeway. This one was far more high up, and much more scenic. It was larger, and more people were crammed on. Everyone peered out the glass windows at the surrounding islands and blue waters surrounding the greenness of Miyajima. It was truly a spectacular view. Upon reaching the top, we discovered our second great shock of the day. There on the top of Miyajima's Mt. Misen, were wild Monkeys. Mom and Nana were ecstatic, but not me, because I do not like these animals. In fact as we climbed the highest point of the mountain, one of the animals walked across the path in front of meMom must have taken dozens of pictures, her favorite of which was a monkey with a deer. Nana was getting hungry, so back into the station, we ate the fruit that the women had brought along. Ironically enough, Nana ate a banana. When we were finsihed, we decided to try setting out for a hike of the mountain, but didn't make it very far. Nana and Mom were both really tired. SO we took the ropeway back down the mountain. And then trekked back to the main town, where we were surprised at how crowded it had become. There were hundreds of people fighting for a picture of the Torii and spots to get into the Shrine. We considered ourselves lucky that we had arrived so early. Soon we were back on the Ferry, later at the Miyajimagushi Station heading back to Hiroshima. When we arrived, the station was full of rush and confusion. Mom and I sat Nana on a bench in the Bullet Train Station, while she and I went and got the heavy luggage. When we got everything I brought them to the wrong platform. I forgot that we were going West and not East, like usual, so we missed our first train. But I wasn't worried, because we just got onto another train and things were fine again. Though it was pretty packed. I had to sit with an old Japanese man who pretty much talked my ear off, even though I really couldn't understand him. When the Bullet Train arrived in Okayama, we moved through the Bullet Train station and into the local trains, where we boarded the feared and hated Nanpu train to Kochi. I won't go into to it, but by the end of the ride, Mom was as sick as a dog. She made a funny comment, "Riding through mountains and little nothing towns, and I can't imagine a city being at the end of this ride." But we made it to Kochi, where Matsumoto-san, my counselor, and my current host family, the Osaki's, were happily waiting for us. I introduced everyone, and gave Mom and Nana their first insight into my second home. Matsumoto-san drove us first to say hello to the Masaki's then to our hotel, the Oriental Hotel. He bought us all a nice steak dinner, gave us our schedules, and then wished us well. The problem was that each of us had our own room, which meant no more late nights and wet pants from Nana. But I was so happy to be back at home in Kochi.

Hiroshima

We were up at a fairly decent hour. The only problem was that we would have slept much later had it not been for the elections. In Japan, candidates drive around and blast "Vote for ME!!!" throughout the day and night. Mr. Sakamoto and his crew were right outside our hotel screaming for the win. I later found out that he lost the election. And I couldn't help but think, what comes around goes around.
With the price of the room, we received a breakfast, so our first destination was the restaurant. Even I ate a small salad, which is weird because I hate eating breakfast. Nana and Mom seemed pretty pleased with their meals, even though throughout the breakfast the voices of candidates kept us constantly annoyed. After we were all fed, we took the brief walk to Hiroshima Station. There I planned on boarding a tram for the Peace Memorial. Although I got on the wrong car, I quickly figured it out, and we ended up in the right spot. Our walk to Genbaku Dome took us underneath the main streets through a huge underground shopping mall, similiar to that in Nagoya. I couldn't help but wonder why a country with so many earthquakes would keep building these underground shopping centers. Nothing was open yet, though. So we moved along the signs pointing us toward Genbaku Dome. Climbing out of the shopping mall, and I was immediately enthralled with the Dome. Hiroshima was a city of over 300,000 people when it was instantly leveled on August 6, 1945. All districts within a radius of two kilometers of the hypocenter were completely destroyed. The only evidence that remain to show that these areas were indeed active parts of the city were the shells of some of the reinforced concrete structures. The Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion hall was one of these. Now known as Genbaku Dome, or the A-Bomb Dome, it has become a symbol of Hiroshima and of "No More Hiroshimas". It stands today as a witness to the destructive power of nuclear weapons. While Nana, used the bathroom, Mom ran into some Jehavah Witness. She was amazed that they are all the way in Japan. They gave us some pamplets on why everyone should work toward world peace, but then did the signature Japanese look away when we brought up 9/11. It's true, no Japanese person really wants to talk about Pearl Harbor, and other City Bombing, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and current terrorism, like 9/11. After our encounter with the Witnesses, we toured the Peace park. Our first monument after Genbaku Dome, was the Children's memorial. This memorial was inspired by leukaemia victim Sadako. When she developed leukaemia from exposure to radiation after the A-bomb's explosion. At the age of 10 she decided to fold 1000 paper cranes, the symbol of longevity and happiness in Japan, and was convinced that if she could achieve that target she would recover. She died before reaching her goal, but her classmates folded the rest. The paper crane is now the symbol of peace. Her story inspired the world to create a monument to remember the children of the tragedy. Next was the Korean monument. This is a monument dedicated to the Korean vistims of the A-Bomb. Many Koreans were forced into labour in Hiroshima, and essentially pushed to the side after the bomb went off. They were treated as though they did not exist, and received no help. Nearby was a huge mound of dirt vovered with flowers and wreaths. Mom told me to take a pictures, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. The mound was dust from burned bodies of the victims that were unidentifiable for families. It was laid to rest in the park as a remainder of the horrors of Nuclear warfare. I couldn't stand my it for very long. Finally we approached the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Along the way, we passed the fire that will remain lit until all Nuclear bombs have been destroyed. I don't think that will happen for a very very long time though. I wrote about my experiences inside the museum in "Hope in Hiroshima," so if you are interested please read that. Walking out of the museum, Mom, Nana, and I talked about what we had just seen. Then we relaxed in the beautiful Peace Park, under a shining sun and a Sakura covered riverside. There were rumours after the bombing that grasses and plantlife would not grow again for seventy-five years, but that spring, there were blooms. The people found hope in this, and drew strength to rebuild their city. Now in the very place where the bomb was detonated, 62 years later, Sakura grow peacefully along the riverside. It shows that, Hope is everywhere. Soon we decided to trek back through the main walking mall, now crowded with shoppers, and go to Hiroshima Castle. The walk was actually pretty long, but it was well worth it. Nana, decided to wait on the outside, while Mom and I went inside. Hiroshima-jo, also called Carp Castle, was originally constructed in 1589. Because of it's success, the surrounding area grew into a successful city. Much of it was dismantled following the Meiji Restoration, leaving only the donjon, main gates, and turrets. What remained was totally destroyed by the bomb and rebuilt in ferro-concrete in 1958. Though it is not the original building, it is very impressive and beautiful, during cherry blossom season. It contains an interesting museum, as well. AFterwards, we collected Nana, and went to a shopping center looking for some food. With almost no luck, we ate at a bread store, where Nana was very content with her cherry filled roll. Heading back to the hotel, for some much needed resting time, we hopped on the tram car, then stopped off back at the station. On our way, Nana decided to pick some fruit in case she got unlucky with food again. At the hotel, we took a nice long rest and at 5, we set off for Okonomimura. I have not asked these two to eat and food, except for Okonomiacki, my very favorite food. Usually I only like the Osaka version of the food, but I was defnitely glad we went in Hiroshima. In the middle of the shopping districts of Hiroshima, this fabulous restuarant, translated into "Okonomiacki Village," exists. Hiroshima is the second best city in Japan to get a delicious Okonimacki, which happens to be my favorite Japanese food. And in this wicked place, there are 28 different places to sit down for a Japanese pizza. We tempted fate at the 'Carp Okonomiacki.' And were lucky to all enjoy the meal. Even Mom and Nana, who despise Japanese cooking, thought it was alright. Nana left a little early to hit up the local Mister Donut, which she found to be disgusting. That night, back at the hotel, I had another stop at the Haggan Daaz Ice Cream machine for Nana. haha

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gaijin Takes On Beast-sensei

Last week I had a school uniform test. Now there really isn't anything special about this. Excpet that for the first time since I started school, I actually passed. Now for those of you who know me, you're probably thinking, "Wait! Whoa.. I must have read that wrong." How could Julie Garner, a girl who's never in her life worn a mini skirt, originally though eye liner was a variation of face paint, and have never, even in dreams, broken a school dress code rule, fail a uniform test?
Once upon a time there was a Japanese teacher, who I will nickname Beast-sensei. She was a Japanese Obachan, full of secret strength and power, but was also the spawn of Michael Myers, despotic Shogun's, and for the full right-faul Japanese effect, Nato. Standing at about 5 foot, 2 inches, with balding grey hair and a scowl that causes babies to sporadically burst into tears, Beast-sensei teaches middle school first year students manners. It is in that first year that she distills to each and every girl who is boss, and drives a fear through them, that they all carry with them until graduation. Her theory is very simple. Tosajoshi, my host school, was originally founded to teach girls how to become proper well-respectable housewives. Though things changed at Tosajoshi, as woman gained more power in society. But as I mentioned earlier, Beast-sensei is an Obachan, who remembers the rigid strictness of the school of it's early days. Like most Obachan, she is a firm believer in not letting old habits die.
Early in the year, she started a war with the exchange student, whom she saw as untamed in her wicked ways. It was in mid-November as the summer weather turned brisk and cold, when the first attack happened. I had been suspicious of her for some months, when she tried to ambush me for a rolled skirt. I was saved by the English language, and my lack of Japanese. But I couldn't use that excuse forever, as my Japanese was beginning to come together. Though lately it had looked as though things might be at peace. I had stood by and watched her ridicule and threaten my friends and classmates for crinkled socks and rolled skirts. Her hawking brown eyes turned to me, and then look away, as if I was the most repulsive thing she'd ever seen. But still she remained quiet.
Since school had started, I had been following the strict rules regarding hair at Tosajoshi. They state that you are not allowed to have the hair go past your shoulders, unless it is in a pony tail or pigtails. 3 months had left me annoyed with Pigtails, and I was ready for a change. The best way to follow the rules, while still looking somewhat decent, was to wear a side Ponytail. I looked something like Sailor Moon from the 80's, but it appeared to be following every rule set at my strict school. And when the ringing bells marked the beginning of school, my friends did nothing but compliment my change of hairstyle. If I was breaking a rule, they would have surely tipped me off.
By the end of third period, I got up from my seat and got together my belongings. My next class was Caliigraphy, in the other building. In the corridors, I scurried along with all of my other classmates, who were heading to the bathroom or to their next classes. The atmosphere was that of a typical school day, hectic, and full of new infortmation, but still filled with the joys of friendships. As I walked along, a sudden chill filled the hall. My breath turned visible, and the few blond hairs that were left on my arms climbed up stiffly (this was happened only days after the Great Plucking Incident.) Suddenly out of nowhere the shrill raspy voice, I had learned to fear, came pounding down the corridor. Think about that voice that comes from the little girl in the Exorcist. "Jurie! JUURRIIEE!" Yes- the devil had spoken.
I tried to make a run for it, by getting lost in a crowd. But I noticed that the halls were empty. It would have taken a real miracle to clear the halls that quickly. But it wasn't so much as a miracle as it was an unnatural fear of the Beast-sensei. All of my classmates felt the chill, which they had learned to handle by jumping under a desk, hidden from Beast's iron fist.
But I was not so lucky, and I soon found myself cornered. Literally cornered in a staircase, by an insane Japanese woman 5 times my ages, and a full head shorter than me. She waved her wrinkly old sagged hand, with 5 long talons old death, that soon began yanking of my Side Ponytail. In the fastest Japanese I had ever heard, she spat out something I could not understand, other that that it concerned my Side Ponytail. When I responded, I used the wrong form. In Japanese there are two ways to speak, causal, and formal. Mind you I had only been in Japan for barely 3 months, and could barely say, "I'm hungry," let along something like, "Yes I now understand you teacher." I seemed to have struck a nerve, because she suddenly went ballistic, raving, psychotic, the whole 9 yards. Her beady little Asian eyes bulged to an alarmingly piercing glaze, and that world-renowned forehead vein looked like it might be impersonating a hot air balloon. She ruptured into an explosion that I couldn't understand. She was puncturing me with all of the anger she had worked up in her life of being Japanese. All that anger bottled up from her husbands late nights at 'the office,' son failing out of high school, and daughter having a shotgun wedding to someone from the lower class. Not that these events happenened, but it sure seemed like she was angry about something other than me. Still erupting on me, bringing tears to my eyes, a friend from the Track team witnessed some of the action. Quickly, she found my main school counselor, or ran to the scene. He was lucky enough to witness a mad old lady ferociously yanking an innocent little Gaijin's side ponytail. Then there were two insane Japanese teachers I had to be apart off. My counselor freaked out on the Beast-sensei for what she was doing to me. While the two of them remained in the stairway, loudly bickering for most of the school to hear, I scampered off to class.
My counselor came to meet with me later that day. He explained that the Beast-sensei had been warned to have nothing to do with me again. I breathed a sigh of relief, and the wondered out loud what the reason for the sudden outburst had been. He explained that a school rule is that hair must be held in pony tail in the back of the head, or pigtails. There is no other way that is allowed, and no exceptions to the rules. The reason the Beast went looney on me is because previous exchange students had never followed these rules. She wanted to make sure I got it through me head, that I was no exception. I apoligized, and assured him that I wasn't told of these rules. Adding that an American high school couldn't even dream of imposing hair rules on students. He laughed and not me not to worry, because he knew I'm too much of a goody-two-shoes to go out of my way breaking rules. The good news was that the Beast was going to stay away from me. Well, at least that's what was supposed to happen.
Uniform checks are a very stressful time for students. Once every few months, teachers go around and inspect every aspect of the school uniform. If one thing is out-of-order parents will be called, and possibly be forced to purchase a new and extremely expensive uniform. The prospect of a uniform check has always amused me, especially since I missed all the checks in the first term of school. It seemed almost too eerie and coincidental that Rotary meetings, excursions, or illnesses would fall on the day when my home class was set to be inspected. And it wasn't as though, I really wanted to miss the check. Quite the contray, in fact. One December morning, my school mate, Aimi came in bestowing the longest and stiffest skirt I had ever seen. Aimi was always know for having a short skirt, because she got it hemmed since she never grew very much. She explained to me the one of the teachers called her mother and forced her to buy a new skirt. Something so strict that could force parents to purchase a new set of uniforms, was something I did not want to miss an opportunity to witness. Though only a week after Aimi got a new skirt, it was hemmed to the same size. No one seemed to notice, at least until the February uniform test.
In February, I was finally going to be able to partake in my first uniform test. My homeroom, Yano-home, had been reportedly breaking uniform codes. It was a suprise test, so none of the girls had time to unroll their skirts, put up their hair, and button everything to perfection. We all lined up in a straight, somewhat chillingly perfect line according to number order, which meant I was last. My homeroom teacher, Yano-sensei, saw me standing uncomfortably, awaiting my turn, and led me back inside the classroom saying that it wouldn't be necessary for me to be in the check. Back in the classroom, I waited for news on the results, when my breath turned to ice. The sliding doors opened to reveal the Beast, with a frown that looked as if she was sucking on a pickle. "What do you think you're special? Get out for the check!" she demanded. I looked into her cold dull eyes and responded, "But Yano-sensei said..."
"I don't care what he said! Get out!" I've been here long enough that arguing with her was like trying to melt butter in a freezer, and would result in questionable consequences. Though it is againt the law in Japan for teachers to hit students. I once saw a teacher smack the back of his student's head. The Beast's vendetta against me, might have ended in death. It doesn't matter that she's a head shorter than me, half of my weight, becasue she contains the strength of the Japanese Obachan. (See the Obachan Factor)
I followed the stocky little fiend out of doors and into the back of the line. Yano-sensei, who I noticed was quivering slightly, came over immediately wondering why I had made my way back in the check. I shot a look in the direction of the Beast, who was now heckling a classmate about a Red Ponytail holder. Yano-sensei, at 6 foot, 200 pounds, muscular and fit, suddenly wore an expression of a little boy seeing the Boogie Man combined with a French Poodle with it's tail between it's legs. "Well perhaps... I guess... erm. Beast-sensei is in chanrge so..um. Good luck!" he said while skipping off to hide in the Teachers room, currently a safe zone from the Beast. I noticed that as he passed her, their eyes met, and he bended into a respectful bow. While he got passed her, I observed straighten his tie and brish back is hair into an orderly combination. After the amazement that she could control even the teachers, I accepted the worst. I was alone.
Time sped up, unfortunately. And within a few moments of cowering in fear, the Beast approached my positions, clipboard in hand. The clipboard was for jotting down the exact problems with the uniforms. I earlier noted that when she spotted something, she would make a nasty comment, like, "Congratulations. You've failed." First her ghostly eyes skimmed me over, then she walked up to where I stood. She lifted my top slightly, pulled my hair off my ears, yanked the necktie, and many other throurough inspection points. I figure, if she goes and works for the airport, there will never be another terrorsit attack again. Yet through the entire thing, she made no comment or any rude noise. And when she moved to her next victim, I felt as if I had been spared by the heavens.
The uniform check ended right then and there. Soon I was following the girls standing in front of me back into the classroom and into our seats. Each and every girl wore the same glum expression. 34 out of 44 failed the test, which is about 80%. From failing, parents would have to be called, which would surely result in a punishment. But if the uniform couldn't be fixed, families would have to spend their hard earned money on a new pricey set of wear. Suspension was another punishment held over the neads of the students who had consistantly failed. I noticed Aimi frantically pulling her skirt as far down as possible, for reasoning that the Beast had been wrong.
Yano-sensei entered the room quietly, hoping not to attract attention. But none of us could help but notice that his hair looked tidier and he was wearing a less flamboyant tie. This man, who could probably chew up the Beast for breakfast with his size and strength had been beaten away. I smiled, knowing the Beast had made her way to the Teacher's room and captured those who were using it as a hideaway.
As he reached his podium, he announced that as a class, everyone had failed. All of the girls who had failed, had done so for the rolled skirt, and possibly other reasons. Then told them to get it all fixed for the next uniform check, but that no parents would be called until next check.
The atmosphere become reasonably lighter after this announcement. The girls began cheering up and laughing as they swapped horror stories of what had happened with the Beast. Some portrayed the Beast as a fire-breathing dragon, while other admitted she was just like their Obachan. Soon the girls were asking Yano-sensei about other offenses and who had committed. He tried to ignore them or use the excuse that he coudln't announce them to the whole class. But the nagging continued. He was forced to read off the other offenses, and who committed them. Some girls turned bright red, as he read off things like, "Sayaka, for plucking her arm hair." When he was finsihed, someone asked if he had ever had a student get them all. He replied no, but one student certainly came close. I had one of those moments where I knew exactl what he was going to say. Sure enough, he informed the girls that I had failed on 6 counts. The Beast had actually failed me. Though failing is a bit of an understatement. She pretty much torpedoed my record of perfection in a glorious battle. 6 counts!
How does that happen? I wondered while listening to my classmates choke themselves with laughter. Curiosity poked at me, while I asked Yano-sensei to tell me the reasons why I had failed the test. He shifted uncomfortable, and tried to say that it wasn't a big deal. That all the teachers knew that I always follow the rules, but the Beast is just a little old-fashioned. The whole class began pleading with him to read off the list, and he realized there was no way he was going to get out of it. He cleared his throat, gave me a nodd, and began reading the list.
The first, and entirely expected, was that of the rolled skirt. Everyone in the course of being a student at Tosajoshi fails this test. I think it's actually one of those things that had to happen, for you to become and 'unofficial' student at this school. You see, our uniform skirt is absolutely too long, falling far past our knees. Only Middle School 1st years wear their skirt like this because they are too naive and scared to break the rules. What is acceptable is having the same skirt all 6 years at the school. People think that naturally as you get older, you grow, and the skirt becomes shorter. But Japanese girls are not like Western girls. Most never grow past the height they were when they entered the school. The only logical thing to do is roll the skirt. So yes, my first crime, was a short skirt.
The second offense was that my socks were crinkled. Perfection is a must at Tosajoshi. The only thing I have to say is that I am glad she didn't make me take off the shoes. This is because I have more holes in these school socks than a moth-ridden Sweater.
The third reason begins the offenses that I received for the dumbest reasons. When I was in 2nd grade, as a present from my Mother for making my first Holy Communion, I got my ears pierced. Now the tiny holes never get occupied and become more of a nuisance. Especially living in Japan where getting your ears pierced is something like getting a Tatoo is America. Like, it's not unacceptable, but it's seen as dirty. I broke this school rule at the ripe age of 7 years-old, never knowing it would come back to haunt me.
The fourth reason, I actually didn't even committ this offense willingly. The students are not allowed to dye their hair. Since all Japanese girls are born with black hair, the rule had been made stating, black hair is the only option for students. I can really blame my parents for this one. Mom and Dad are 2 brunnettes, so I ended up getting the genes for the brown hair. To think, even my birth foreshadowed failing this test.
The fifth reason is actually pretty comical. I have horrific circulation in my hands, causing a lack of blood flow. In the winter time, my hands turn to ice cold, while the skin under my finger nails changes to purple. I do not know why this happens, but it's something I can't help. The Beast believed that I had obviously painted my nails purple.
The sixth and final reason is somewhat embarrassing and silly at the same time. I got this offense for plucking my eyebrows, which I just started recently. In Japan, girls like to secretly dye their hair lighter. But eyebrow color always gives away the girls natural color, causing many to fail uniform tests. So what they do is pluck off their entire eyebrow and then color in the lighter new dyed color. Tosajoshi doesn't allow dyed hair, and doesn't take the chance at giving the girls an opportunity to get away with it. But this offense is so weird to me. It's hard to accept that a school can have this much control over it's students. If you aren't even allowed to do soemthing as minimal as pluck eyebrow hair, imagine what other rules they could impose on students.
There was another short list of things below my offenses. The Beast had written her own version of 'additional comments.' She listed other things that teachers needed to be calling me on. Things like that mu Tosajoshi school pin was not directly over the pocket and my heart, that my hair was not as orderly as the other girls, and a few other strange little directions. I sat in my desk, awaiting the girls to roar with laughter over these comical offenses. Instead, the hall seemed to get quiet, and try to change to subject. I figured out that I hadn;t been the only one who had been ripped to shreds by the Beast's intake of rules.
It seemed though, after the Uniform Check, the Beast kept her distance. Yano-sensei probably tipped off my host counselor about her little report concerning my rule breakings. I assumed that she had been warned for the very last time to stay away from me.
Just recently, a new school year has begun. I have moved into a new grade, while a new set of Middle School 1st Graders are being broken by the Beast. On my very first day, I made a vow that things were going to get better, and that I was going to make things even more wonderful than last year. That very day, while the last bell had rung, signalling dismissal, I met up with my friends from the club. Together, arm in arm, we bounced around and made our way to theclub room in the other building. Somewhere along the way, the chill overtook the group of bubbly High School Second Graders. While my friends cowered in fear, trying to find an empty room to hide in, I stood tall ready to face the Beast. Just for the record, my skirt was rolled as far as it could go, socks folded and crinkled, sleeve clips unbuttoned, and hair as disorderly as usual. As she stormed into my direction, trying her best to ignore me, I stopped her with a simple, "Good Afternoon Beast-sensei!" She turned to me and I watched her pickled puss change into a horrified expression upon how many rules I was breaking at one time. The shock could have gievn her a heart attack, but she dosn't have a heart so she was stayed healthy. Before the shock could wear off, causing her to go into ballistic angry Spanish bull mode, I grabbed my friends, who were standing with their mouths open at my daring feat. We scampered off the the club room. As I ran off, I turned around to see the Beast, smoke pouring out her ear and her fists being thrown up and down like an angry toddler. In my mind, a thunder cloub burst, and I knew that a battle was coming...