Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Leaving on a jet plane...........

Here I am in the wedding gazebo in the New Otani hotel, waiting for our bus to take us to the airport. I'm smiling here but I'll be honest, I didn't want to leave. Sure, I wanted to see Scooter and E and be with my family/friends again but it's hard to give up the rock-star lifestyle I had become accustomed to!!!

I think they took us on the scenic route to the airport. I saw the harbor, Tokyo Disney, and a gigantic incinerating plant. The flight from Tokyo was 9 hours and then I had a 4 hour lay over in Los Angeles. Of course, the rudeness I has loved missing in Japan reared its ugly head when we were in customs. 3 international flights deplaned at the same time and people were so rude in lines, cutting and cussing out airport personnel. The flight from LA to Dallas was on a 66-seat airplane and took 3 hours. So in total, I'd been travelling 20 hours when I laid eyes on Scooter at the airport. I threw myself into a big hug. It was good to be home! Another hour in the car and I hit the door.

I am so grateful that this came my way. I am honored to have been chosen. I will forever be grateful that the Japanese government foot the bill; I was their guest and I was treated royally! I am grateful that Scooter totally supported this trip and took care of things while I was gone and thanks to those who kept an eye on him and E. (TK--you know who you are)
To all of you who have read this blog and left comments, thank you. I hope you enjoyed reading about Japan. I often find it difficult to use the right words to describe what I got to see and do. It was a life-changing/affirming experience and I will never be the same--and I think that's pretty cool. I took deep breaths and reminded myself to "be" in the moment and soak it all up and I did!! I may post little things here now and then, but the trip is over. Now, it's on to living in the present here.......

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008--Goodbyes

We all gave our group presentations to each other today, summarizing our experiences in our cities. We went first and I like that. I was surprised at how varied our city experiences were yet our school ones were very similar. I guess it it due to the fact that curriculum, instruction, etc., are all set by the national government. The kids everywhere learn basically the same things at around the same time through the same methods and materials.

We had our Sayonara Buffet tonight and it was bittersweet. I have come to like so many people I've met and I can't believe how much has happened in the days I spent in Japan. We were led by one of the staff members in a closing ceremony. You clap a certain way to end something. It was a sweet, solemn moment.

So of course, we went out after the party!!! I wasn't about to spend most of the night in the hotel!! We played virtual golf, I tried a "Tsunami" beer (a reddish lager), and ended the night by singing at a karoke bar. I like how it's done here--you rent your own room for karaoke so you sing in front of a friendly crowd. I didn't sing out loud but the guys did a great job with Barry White, Snoop Dogg, and Guns and Roses.

My heart ached all through the night when I thought about leaving. I was treated so well everywhere I went and had such an incredible experience. I wanted very much to see Scooter and E and be with all my family/friends again, but I have to be honest; I didn't want this to end. Thursday morning came way too quickly.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008--The Dome and the Rollercoaster

The seminar this morning were informative but I have to admit, it was difficult to listen 100% because I was still trying to process everything that had happened during the last week. We had a seminar on environmental education and it was interesting to hear Dr. Srinivas' perspective as he is from India living in Japan with a Japanese wife. He said if you want recycling compliance, marry a Japanese woman--it was a very funny joke at the time. He explained that one of the advantages to having such a homogeneous society was the pressure that could be exerted to go along with things. People begin their recycling by separating their trash into as many as 15 categories--different colored glass and/or plastic bottles, food waste, etc. He explained that it means that since trash is separated so well they can incinerate most of it. The ash is used to build roads. He said that at first business balked and that they faced fines if they didn't comply but now business are finding ways to make money from their "green" efforts. I felt like such a bad citizen because I don't even have the ability to recycle in my town. Our school is trying but so far we only separating out newspapers, magazines, office and school paper, catalogs, and mail.

Lunch was at an Italian place on my own. People watching in Tokyo is a perfect pastime for me.

The afternoon seminar was a wrap up of the educational system from Dr. Kato. There are some similar conversations/debates in Japan over testing, class size, bullying, teacher preparation, and academic achievement. It is interesting to realize that some of the long held assumptions I have about Japan simply aren't true--there aren't computers in every room, teachers don't have it easier just because the kids behave better, etc. In fact, I'm going to remind myself of their schedule every time I think I've got it rough. For all of the differences there are, it was transformational for me to really get that we are all humans.

We spent the afternoon practicing our presentation over our host city experience we give Wednesday.

Speaking of humanity, look at all the people in the subway!! I actually got to see a subway worker politely but firmly push people into the subway car. It happened on the other platform so a picture wasn't possible. I had heard about that and I'm so glad I got to see it!! But then I got to thinking about how it must feel day in and day out to ride touching like that but not connecting. On the flip side, I see now how MP3 players and headphones are almost necessary to establish your own personal space. What an interesting paradox.

During rush hours there are cars that are for women only. I can only imagine the problems that prompted the designation!

The Tokyo group now consisted of Lynne, Lisa, Randy, Paul, Joe, Kim, Tanya, and me. I followed them out this night and I'm so glad I did!! We went to the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants. I love baseball and would have been thrilled to go and I was "this close" but I missed out on a game because I was in Minamisoma. Anyway, I rode the "Thunder Dolphin," the roller coaster by the dome. It goes up to 80 mph, threads through the Ferris wheel, and goes on top of one of the buildings. I screamed my head off!! The first hill was terrifying--but in a great way! I think it also enhanced the ride that I didn't have a harness pinning my shoulders. It made me feel freer and that made it even scarier. I loved it!!! It was a great surprise and I can now say I've ridden a roller coaster on two continents. After the ride we had beer and burgers at this small place near the dome. Then we ended up at a pub called The Mermaid near the hotel. It's pretty cool to be able to sit out on the sidewalk, drink a pint, and watch the people as they pass.

Monday, October 27, 2008-Tokyo

One of the COOLEST THINGS EVER!!! happened to us while we were waiting on the platform for our train in Koriyama station. A bullet train blasted through at full speed. There was literally a 2 second pause before anyone reacted--I think it sucked our breath out! "Cool!" "Wow!" "Awesome!" was intermingled with a few expletives. Really. Really. Cool.
I got back to Tokyo around 2 p.m. and had the rest of the day to myself. I needed to get some shopping done so I headed to the Oriental Bazaar near Shibuya and then to Asakusa, back to the temple area we visisted our first week. I was feeling like a subway expert at this point! I wasn't really paying attention so the thunder and lightning caught me off guard. The storm was rolling in over the temple in the bottom picture. A "smart" person would have gotten out of the storm but not me--I wanted picutres!! :) I watched the storm come and caught the subway back to the New Otani Hotel when it started to rain. Rob, Dave from Oklahoma, and I headed out to dinner later that evening. We were in the mood for something else so they took me to an English pub that serves fish and chips. Fish, chips, and two pints-perfection!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sunday October 26-Monday October 27, 2008--The Ryokan

Sunday night we checked in a ryokan. It's the Japanese version of a spa and resort. You wear special robes around the place, sleep on the floor, and bathe in the onsens. (more about that in a bit) Here is a view out of one of the windows on my floor. It had turned cold and the mountain air was fresh and cold. It was lovely!!

We had a 14 course banquet in the room above. The waiter just kept serving and bringing and serving and bringing!!

Here is my plate at one point during the banquet. The little pot in the top left was filled with meat and vegetables and the waiter lit it when we began and it cooked through the meal and we ate it towards the end. I ate the pretty yellow chrysanthemum too. I could get used to that!

Our group photo after the meal. I am so blessed to have traveled with my group. We laughed a lot and there were some really smart people and I enjoyed their company while we were in Minamisoma.

So now for an explanation and description of the onsen. It's a hot spring and it can include a sulphur bath. I stayed in the hot spring. There was some hesitation on my part because you have to be completely naked when you bathe. No swimwear allowed. I decided to participate because it is a very popular Japanese activity and I wanted to soak up all of the culture that I could. (yes, pun intended!!) I entered what looked like the dressing room of a nice gym, went to the large area of baskets, stripped, got a small towel and headed for the shower stalls. Here's where is was a little weird for me. (yes, I know--for some of you it's gone way past weird already!) My experience with shower stalls is you stand and shower. Not here--they were half as tall so you sat on a stool and used a hand-held shower head and cleaned yourself well. All products and cloths were provided.

Side note: I liked that about all of my Japanese hotels. Your products like shampoo, soap, razor, toothbrush, comb/brush, etc. were provided. The toothbrushes were the perfect size!!

Back to the bath. After a good scrubbing, I headed to the water. It gets real easy real quick--you just don't look. There were probably 40 or 50 ladies in the whole area, but it was big. I headed straight for the outdoor part and I cannot describe to you how FABULOUS it was to soak in hot water with the mist coming off of it, breathing in cold air. All of the tension from the week, the anxiety of the homestay, the exhaustion from concentrating so hard to understand, the travel fatigue, etc., it melted away in that water. It was wonderful to be outdoors and see the trees and the stars. It was very spiritual. We don't have mountains around here and so to be in that setting made it extra special for me. I am very wistful at this moment thinking about it. I'm so glad I did it.
We checked out the next morning and I posted this picture of our waiter from the night before because I want to share something. He came out to the bus to tell us goodbye and bring us candy and he stood and waved the whole time while we took off until we were gone. He did all that just because he wanted to but we didn't tip him--we couldn't tip him. He was one of the best waiters I've ever had and I couldn't give him a dime! It just impressed the heck out of me that he would do all that without the expectation of extra money. I mean, maybe it was in the fee but I don't know. It's just not practiced in Japan. But I ran into people all the time who were friendly and tried to help any way they could with no expectation. I kind of like it. The ryokan was the perfect way to wrap up our time outside of Tokyo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

October 25-26, 2008--The Homestay

I am not sure that I'm going to be able to explain my experience adequately. It was wonderful and confusing and fun and and nerve-wracking (beforehand) all at the same time and I will never be the same for having met the Endo family. I am grateful for their hospitality and their willingness to let a stranger from the other side of the planet into their home for a brief 23 hours that passed all to quickly.

This is their driveway and the garden. After I arrived, Mrs. Endo served me English tea. As soon as she offered that, I knew everything was going to be just fine! I hadn't been as nervous as some people in my group--what I had worried about was what we would do if they didn't speak any English because I have zero ability to speak Japanese. Even after the week of school visits all I could do was introduce myself. Luckily, they knew quite a bit. Dr. Endo and his family have lived in Brazil and Morocco but he said his English was rusty. I said it wasn't that rusty if he remembered that idiom! His wife and son understood alot but didn't speak as much. Dinner was wonderful--we had pork and cabbage stew, tomatoes, radish, chrysanthemums, noodles, sushi, tangerines and of course, rice. It was a ton of food!! The area around Minamisoma is known for their tomatoes and they did not disappoint--they were super red and very, very good.

They seemed to like the gifts I brought, especially the Snickers. I gave them postcards of Dallas and Texas and Mrs. Endo recognized the armadillos. She said there were a lot of them in Brazil.

The Endo's had a traditional Japanese room complete with a tatami floor, their Buddhist shrine, a silk screen divider, paper doors, and a ceremonial fire pit. They asked if I wanted to stay in there and of course I said yes! Mrs. Endo and I made the pallet on the floor for me. Dr. Endo and his son even brought in the chair--I said I didn't need it (I didn't want to damage the floor) but they were so nice and insisted.

I thoroughly enjoyed the bath I took. I must admit though, that I didn't soak as long as I would have liked because the water was so very hot. Meg told us that it would be but still--wow!! I even ran cold water. I turned so red for awhile that it looked like I had a sunburn. I slept very, very well that night. Breakfast was delicious--eggs, ham, toast, seaweed salad, persimmons, and the greenest broccoli I have ever seen. Really--I don't know why, but it was super green.

After breakfast we went to the club where Dr. Endo's son practices Kyudo--Japanese archery. The setting was gorgeous--you can tell from the picture that even though I was seated indoors, it felt like being outdoors because of the building's open side. The weather was cool and the air was crisp and the neighborhood was quiet. Kyudo is not about shooting or hitting the target. Kyudo literally means "the way of the bow." He said that he is still in the "beginner's" class after six years. I tried it---needless to say, archery is not my thing! I felt honored that he wanted to share his hobby with me.

We went to a conveyor belt sushi place for lunch. If you ordered something special it came to your table on a separate belt that was made to look like the bullet train. It was hilarious! Before I left, they presented me with gifts--a handkerchief, a robe, and a pottery candlewarmer made by their daughter.

Again, I'm not sure I can express all of the feelings--it's unnerving to go into a stranger's home and even more so when you know you don't speak the language. And yet I felt welcome instantly. They were kind and generous and tried very hard to make me feel comfortable. Their home was lived-in and I am so glad I didn't let my apprehension ruin the experience.

It was definitely a highlight of this trip.

Friday, November 7, 2008

10/25/2008--The Tea Ceremony

These ladies were our hostesses. The tea house was is over 150 years old and it used to be a sake factory. Now the city owns it and uses it for civic events such as ours. The picture doesn't do justice to the beauty of their kimonos. I was also impressed by their ability to sit on their knees. I lasted only a couple of minutes!!

They started out by giving up these beautiful sweets. The tea often takes the theme of the season and so ours had an autumn theme. I use the term sweets lightly--the leaf was actually filled with bean paste and that isn't very sweet. The pink wafer wasn't either, but I liked them both. The stick was used to cut the leaf as it was too big to put in your mouth all at once.

Each part of the tea ceremony is a mediatation. I was told that you can spend your whole life mastering the ceremony. It was serene and beautiful to watch as she made tea.

These are the cups I drank from. They are themed according to the season or the celebration. I don't have a picture of it, but we were taught that there is a certain way to examine your cup after you drink--bent over on your hands and knees. Meg said it was because the cups can be very, very expensive and since you're on your knees anyway, you just bend over and keep the cup close to ground so you don't drop it. Needless to say, there was a lot of giggling, but it totally made sense.

They let us try whisking the tea. I had such a nice time and the ladies were so funny. Several people in my group wanted to take pictures of the backs of the obis because they had great needlework on them. The ladies were laughing and covering up their bottoms--they didn't want their "backsides" to be the focus of the pictures. It was so cute and funny--ladies are the same everywhere!!

Again, my pictures couldn't capture just how wonderful the setting was. There was a traditional Japanese garden outside and the air was crisp and cool and it was perfect. The tea was a good flavor--a lot of the green tea I'd been served had a fishy smell to it and so I didn't care for it but this was great tasting.

It was a nice way to end the afternoon and it did kind of relax me which I needed since I was getting a little anxious about the homestay. Dr. and Mrs. Endo picked me up around 4.

Saturday, October 25, 2008--Before the Tea Ceremony

I had a very frustrating learning experience this morning. The post office was closed but I needed stamps for my postcards. There is a 7-11 near the hotel so I took my postcards and tried to gesture that I needed stamps. The clerks were so sweet and kept apologizing but they didn't understand. One man even walked me to the post office only to realize that it was closed. (I tried to tell him that but I didn't get that across either.) I felt so bad that I didn't know the Japanese word for stamp--I kept apologizing too. The postcard had a little square in it and I pointed to it and finally after what seemed like an eternity, he pulled out a book of stamps. Sweet relief!!

I thought that I was sensitive to my non-English speakers in the past--I speak a good deal of Spanish and understand that newcomers don't speak out loud very much etc., but this trip made me very aware of just how hard it is to go through the day not understanding what is being said and not be able to get your message through. A couple of us talked about how tired we were at the end of most days and we think it's because we concentrated so hard all day to understand our translator and to try to pick up on visual cues of what was being said. After my experiences, I know will be even more sensitive to any non-English speakers from now on.

We went to the city museum for a "local craft experience." I wasn't excited about it at first because I don't consider myself "crafty" in any sense of the word. I was pleasantly surprised. We had a local artist who helped us use watercolor paints on woodblock postcards. I had fun doing that. We also sanded stones beads or magatamas. Mine didn't look anything like it should have. The top picture is outside the museum. Like the one in Fukushima, this museum was in a gorgeous setting that included a stream. I stole about 10 minutes outside to enjoy it.

After that it was off to the tea house for our tea ceremony that I'd been looking forward to. Most of you who know me know that I thoroughly enjoy English high tea and I was thrilled to get the chance to experience the Japanese tea ceremony. I'm pictured here with the lady who is considered a tea master. She leads classes for the others in the ceremony. The whole thing was so great that it deserves its own post.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

We met with parents this morning. They talked the most of any group we met with and had the most questions for us. They said their children were very excited to see us which was kind of strange to hear since at times I felt that we were disturbing the schools' routines. We questioned what they felt their roles were in their children's educations and I got the impression that they are adverse to "interfering" with school. They don't volunteer much in school--they might read aloud to students every now and then--it seems they let school handle school things and they feel responsible for handling club and community activities. There is a new term in Japan that refers to parents who "interfere" with school--monster parents. The ladies told us that they do not wish to be thought of that way. There is a growing problem in communities of child safety. There have been incidents where students walking to school have been kidnapped and murdered. Communities are organizing groups who watch children walk to school and make sure they get there safely.
I asked what their concerns are. They pointed out that sometimes there is inconsistency within the grade levels. They are also concerned about the requirement that English be taught in the elementary schools because they think the children who don't already go to cram school for English will be farther behind. Then they talked about how their children don't go above and beyond the homework that is sent home. That surprised me--I wish some of our parents had that concern. Parents want the very best for their children and at least among this group, they believe a good education is the key to a good life.

After lunch we went to the tatami mat factory. The gentleman who owns and runs the place is also a highly respected rider in the Soma Nomaoi horse festival. The mats cost about $100 a piece and can last up to 10 years depending on how much they are used. His son works in the factory too. There were pictures on the wall showing him making the mats by hand. Now they have machines to help with the stitching.

Next on our agenda was a stop at the Pacific Ocean. You can't tell from the picture but it was raining and very windy. I had wanted to walk to it and at least get my feet wet but that wasn't possible. So I had to settle for it blowing on me! ;) I have now seen the Pacific from two continents. That's pretty cool.

Then we went to the thermal power plant. I found it interesting that 1/3 of the plant sits on reclaimed land. It still is a coal burning plant but the company claims it's getting "greener" all the time and I believe them. As a whole, the Japanese society is very committed to ecological preservation and "green" living. I know I could learn a lot from their lifestyles.

When we got back into town we had just enough time to see the last of the choral competition that we saw our junior high students reahearsing for. They all did an outstanding job.

The entire group went out to dinner tonight at an Italian restaurant in Minamisoma. Our group coordinator Meg told me that many Japanese people like Italian food. This is a picture of how they served the sake. It's poured into the glass until it overflows into the box. You drink it from the glass first and then the box. But I never did find out for sure if you were supposed to pour the box's contents into the glass or drink it straight from the box. I just tipped the box's corner.

After dinner a smaller group of us went to sing karaoke at this place. It was inexpensive fun!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We visited the high school today. This is their "parking lot." Students who are university bound attend this school and they are very focused on the entrance exams. There is very little interaction between students and teachers during most classes. The teachers feel they have to impart as much knowledge as they can to the students in order to prepare them for the test and so they write lots and lots of notes and formulas on the board and the students copy.

The most amazing thing I saw was the home economics class. The students were cutting and chopping and used huge knives. They cooked with gas flames and while it was noisy I didn't witness any accidents. When we questioned the teachers about that they said that if a student hurts himself then they will learn not to do that next time!

We ate lunch with several members of the student council. High school students bring their own lunches in bento boxes--that's a student lunch on top and my bento box on the bottom. When I asked the student I ate with what he knew of America, he said that our economy was bad. He also knew the election was coming up and asked who I thought would win. He was a serious young man who wants to study economics at the university. He plays piano and attends a "cram" school after regular school to prepare for the entrance exams.

After school most of the students participate in club activities. I watched students practice kendo and kyudo. I am impressed by the discipline shown by most students I met. They have demanding schedules, homework, and they balance it with their family and personal lives.

Teachers were generally reserved but I did manage to find out some interesting things. First, they work very long hours--6:30 or 7 in the morning until around 7 or 8 at night. The mandatory retirement age is 60. There is also a policy in place that transfers teachers around every 4 to 5 years. I found that one to be the harshest as it must place a burden on families.

My school visits have come to an end. It is interesting to me that educators we spoke with brought up some of the same issues we have--lower test scores, the inability of students to apply their knowledge, classroom discipline, parental issues, and a general feeling that education just isn't as important to some people anymore. It seems that we have a lot in common--more than I had originally thought.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We arrived at the elementary school early enough to see the children walking in their bright yellow hats. Almost all of them walk to school every day. I didn't see any school buses at all while I was in Japan.

Again, they were lined up in rows to greet us. The school's award-winning brass band played for us and they were fantastic! They can join beginning in 3rd grade and would definitely be good enough to play with most adults.

My first classroom observation was a 3rd grade math lesson. The children were calling out to their teacher and for a moment I thought it was chaos. But I could tell by their body language that they were on task and very eager for the teacher to approve their work. I observed a lesson in the computer lab. The students were writing letters to their parents--I'm pretty sure it was an invitation to the cultural festival for the upcoming Saturday. I took a picture of the keyboard because in order to make the characters the students have to hit two keys. I am amazed at the learning ability--Japanese students learn both Japanese and Chinese characters. The teacher invited me to play a game on the computer but it was in Japanese and I never quite figured it out.
At the end of the day we watched the brass band practice and Phil got to conduct the group. He is an orchestra teacher in Iowa. He said he wished his high school kids could play like this!!

I was struck by the independence of the children. I watched a group of first graders outside whose assignment was to "observe autumn." They each had little sketch pads and drew some of the best pictures I've seen of the changing leaves and other foliage. I didn't see anyone off task and the most surprising thing was the lack of adult supervision. When the chimes rang to signal the end of class the children quickly lined up near the entrance. Again, the children and adults clean the school in the afternoon. Older students are in charge of groups of younger students. They use products like Ajax and clean the bathrooms and mop.

Before dinner a group of us took a long walk around town and stopped at the visitor's center. Minamisoma is very proud of the horse festival that occurs every July.

This is a picture of my dinner. The English name of the restaurant means "May." It was a delicious sushi and sashimi--and yes, I that is squid and I did eat it.