Welcome to Nagaoka

The past two and a half weeks have whizzed by. We spent the first week wandering around aimlessly, trying to find somewhere within our two apartments to shove all of our junk (Thus far, we've been unsuccessful.), attending a regional training seminar where we met all of our coworkers (whom we haven't seen since that first weekend), and catching up on sleep we were denied in training.

Since then, I've spent one week at my school in Niigata and one week at my school in Nishitsubame. I love my Niigata school. My classes were enthusiastic and attentive and actually learned a smidgen of English. My school at Nishitsubame is a different story. The 45 minute walk to the school on the edge of a busy road with no sidewalk (which has been in the rain each time) dampens my mood from the beginning, but all of my classes so far at this school has contained at least one child that is arguably difficult. In my class of two year-olds, I have three that love to climb on the tables and jump off. So far, I've already had one injury at this school and it's only my first week there! I take comfort in knowing that I only have to see these crazy kids once a month for an hour.

We just recently got ONE bike between the two of us, so we haven't been able to do as much exploring as we'd like to, but our goal for this weekend is to find a second. I must say that I'm impressed with the standard Japanese bicycle. Most of them come with a nice front basket, a back rack, a guard over the back wheel (so your pant leg doesn't get stuck inside of it), the most ingenious lock that is permanently installed surreptitiously around the back wheel, a front headlight that's powered by your pedalling, and a very lightweight frame. Plus, it's a beauty. I love this bike!

Nagaoka is okay. As I said, we haven't seen a lot. We've been to what I call Kappa Sushi, because I don't know how to read its true name and it has a picture of a Kappa (cucumber loving swamp creature) on the sign outside its building. It's a kaiten sushi restaurant, which means the sushi comes to you via a conveyor belt. Or you can order a specific dish from a little computer and it comes to you on a little Shinkansen. I love it. 

We also visited a very local izekaiya. The outside of this establishment is a crowded mess of tree stumps and furs and Japanese lanterns. The inside is filled with even more junk. There were Noh masks on the walls, bottles of sake shaped like animals, taxidermied blowfish covered in spiderwebs hanging from the ceiling, and a huge bear skin right above my head. We weren't sure it was an izekaiya at first, because we walked in to find an old man laying on tatami mats watching the news and an old woman in a dark room bent over a writing table. Dustin timidly said, "Izekaiya?" The old woman emerged from the darkness and said, "Hai," so we came in to the crowded room devoid of people and took a seat. She served us glasses of sake we assumed were water, because they were served in drinking glasses filled to the brim. Then she preceded to served us various dishes she cooked up in the little kitchen area 6 feet away. We had a surprisingly fabulous meal of daikon with spicy mustard, salted popcorn, edible flowers with soy sauce, and savory mochi (Mochi is like a huge bowl of rice packed down into a deck of cards). We spent the time during our meal trying to communicate with them and occassionally succeeding. They called each other Otosan and Okaasan, Father and Mother, and implored us to do the same. It's the cooleset place in Nagaoka and I don't think it even has a name.


It's been a while

Hi guys, sorry its been so long since I've talked to any of you. When we landed in Japan I found out that Helio was completely wrong about my phone working in Japan. It's not even the right technology. So now I have to pay for a brick until January. We've had internet access in our hotel, but its the same room as the lobby/cafeteria/front desk, so not the best place to use Skype.

Before I forget to mention it, we don't know how long it will be until we can get online again. We should be online by November, but it could take until December. I'm fairly confident we can find somewhere with free wi-fi or if nothing else an internet café, but either way it will be a temporary or emergency solution.

I suppose I'll tell you about our trip so far. First we stayed in a smallish neighbourhood on the outskirts of Nagoya, called Hongō. In Japan what could be called a neighbourhood is named after the closest train station. This custom makes the trains both easy to find and convenient to use.

The toilet was perhaps the first surprise I discovered. I had heared about Japanese toilets before, but it is truely something that has to be experienced to be understood. Without going into too much detail I will try to convey the event.

First the positive side. The seat was prewarmed. They also save a lot of water. One way is that the flush handle can be turned one direction for #1 and another direction for #2. The other smart feature, and I really like this one, is that the tank has a sink atop it. So, when you flush, clean water comes out a faucet which runs straight into the tank. This is especially smart because the toilet is a separate room from the washroom/laundry room.

And the dreaded negative. There's really only one, and I knew what it was, but I had to try it anyway. Japanese toilets include a bidet. While startling, it was pretty much what I expected. The true problem came when trying to turn it off. Our toilet in particular had 12 buttons. Several seemed to be for adjusting some sort of settings, so they were obviously not "Off." In my haste, I didn't realize the button I thought might have been "Off" actually said "Move." I'll let your imagination work that one out. Luckily my next attempt proved successful. Before leaving the subject once and for all I also want to point out the drastic difference between a personal and public toilet. Please note the pictures below.

Saturday morning we found out how expensive internet cafés are. Dana emailed her parents and I emailed the guy whose place I'm taking. That cost about $7. On the plus side we're getting a sofa, lounge chair, two tables, two lamps, clothes racks, a Japanese PS2, 17" computer monitor, computer speakers, and various kitchen supplies from the guy for about $140.

After that we both tried our first Japanese curry. I really recommend that you try it if you ever have the opportunity. There are tens of thousands of possible combinations. My okra, tofu, and spinach combo was quite good. Later we discovered the ¥99 store. You'd be surprised what you can find in Japan for about a dollar.

On Sunday, we packed as much of Nagoya into one day as we could. We started at Jingu Nishi where we spent a number of hours in a traditional Japanese garden. The Shirotori Garden has a vast sinuating pond fed by a stream which includes several, perhaps five, waist-high waterfalls. I saw at least a hundred koi in the pond and there were undoubtedly more than that elsewhere. They were also the largest and most vibrantly coloured carp I have ever seen. Some really look like they were painted.

Obviously the landscapes were great to look at, but it was also unexpectedly great to listen to. The garden was a quiet break inside a busy city. I think that having a large park and some museams surrounding the garden created a buffer from the urban noise. The coolest thing I experienced all day was called a suikinkutsu. It's basically a spring overflowing into a bell buried underground which you listen to with a long bamboo stick pointed at a hole in the ground. This suikinkutsu had three chambers each flowing into the next. Each chamber had a different sized bell and pit, and so made different sounds. Follow this link to wikipedia to hear a recording of a suikinkutsu.

After the garden we went to the Osu Kannon Temple. Kannon is the bodhisattva of compassion in Buddhism. Two days every month there is a bazaar in the main open areas of the temple complex and we happened to go on one of those days. So, while the place was really big, it was pretty packed. We then went to the nearby shinto shrine called Wakamiya-Hachiman. It was interesting to see the vast difference between a touristy religious site and a neighbourhood one. Here are some photos from the temple.

At the temple a Buddhist would toss a coin into a slotted box, swing a rope to hit a gong, close his eyes, and clap his hands in prayer. He can also purchase and burn incense or buy a random blessing, read it, then tie it to a tree branch in the temple. Besides washing his hands and mouth before entering and tossing a coin into one of the many slotted offering boxes I'm not sure what a Shintoist actually does at a shrine. The few people we saw there were just strolling through it as if it were a park. Here are some shots of the shrine.

As Dana said we went to Parco next. There's not a lot to say about it though. It's expesive to be trendy in Japan. Luckily depaato always have a cheap shop on the basement floor which we didn't take too long to find. Since then it's just been training, training, training. We've had two weekends of freetime. Last weekend consisted of izakaya, karaoke, and sleeping. This one of karaoke, sleeping, and moving. Aparently the hardest part is over now. For the most part the kids are sweet and I think Nagaoka is going to be fun.

I'll have plenty more to talk about later.



We've been in Japan for a little over a week now, and we've already seen so much! We spent the first few days in Nagoya, the third largest city in Japan. We had a few days to unwind and de-jet lag. There's quite a bit to see in Nagoya, but we only had a short time to do it, so we picked a few sights to see. My favorite was the Shirotori Gardens, a Japanese stroll garden with a lovely pond full of carp. The best part of the day was spent sitting at the steps leading to the pond watching the carp glide over each other to get to the food pellets we'd throw into the water.
There are a plethora of shrines and temples in Japan and Nagoya itself, so we picked one of each to see. The craziest part of the day was spent in PARCO, a depaato ("department store"). This is a three building mega-mall. Needless to say, it was overwhelming. One unexpected sight we saw was a massive protest. There was a horde of people taking up an entire lane of traffic, holding signs and chanting, "We want pure love." A Japanese news reporter and her cameraman approached us as we were gazing at the crowd. Apparently, they asked us what we thought of pure love. Since we didn't know what pure love is, and she couldn't tell us in English, we couldn't answer. We've asked around, but no one seems to know what this movement is all about.
We've been in Takasaki since last Tuesday night. It's not as big as Nagoya, but we've managed to have a bit of fun. We went to our first izakaya, the traditional Japanese bar and tapas-like restaurant. We also tried karaoke with a few of the other trainees. Last night, we found a genuine noodle shop full of locals. Though there wasn't a word of English or a picture of the food (which I normally rely on) in the building, we managed to convey our orders and had a wonderful meal. I've been struggling to find vegetarian food since just about everything in Japan has beef extract if not meat itself in it. It was nice to have some authentic Japanese food that was truly vegetarian.

We also had the chance to go to Isesaki, Springfield's Sister City. We spent Saturday in training there since our trainer, Yukiko, has lived there for eight years and Peppy Kids Club has a classroom there. It's a nice little city. We tried to find similarities between it and Springfield, but the closest we came was comparing the industrial side of the town to JQH Tower and the surrounding buildings near downtown. The best parts of Isesaki in my opinion were the Indian restaurant Yukiko took us to and the construction barriers in the shape of frogs.
Training has been intense. They're throwing a vast amount of information at us in a series of long days. Before our days off on Sunday and Monday, we'd had pretty much zero free time. Our first day of teaching was Friday. We each taught one class. Dustin had a rough class, but my group was pretty good. My hope that Japanese children would be better behaved was dashed. They're pretty genki (wild, rambunctious, ect.). We have three more teaching days and two more training days until training is over. I've been told that life gets easier once you're through with training. I can't wait!