2009-01-16

Back to the Grind

We've been back to work for about two weeks now. Peppy gave us nearly three weeks off before making our jobs slightly more stressful for the next two months. We have parent observations at our schools at the moment. That means that students and their parents are squeezed into our tiny classrooms. The parents usually sit as close as possible to the door and stare blankly at you as you interact with their child in a language they don't understand for an hour. In one respect, it's a bit better, because most of the students are better behaved when their parents are looking on. Some, however, decide to show off their ability to annoy the teacher and act a little worse than normal. I'm told that the parents often report that they enjoyed the lesson even if their facial expressions lead you to believe otherwise. If that's the case, I'll take those bored looks as a compliment.

The worst part of the return to work is the commute. I normally enjoy my train rides immensely. Because it's the peak of winter, however, getting from my apartment to my classrooms is very difficult indeed. Every day, I sadly pass my bike wishing I could use her to get around like I used to. Dustin bravely rides through the snow covered streets. The one time I tried, I nearly wrecked my bike on the icy streets so many times that I've scared myself from even attempting to hop on again until the snowy weather has passed. I haven't decided which I like less: trudging through the side streets left uncleared of their foot high piles of snow or the bigger streets with spouts of water shooting out of the ground creating an icy sheet by nightfall. Sometimes, you run into an over-enthusiastic spout of water that hits you right in the thigh, leaving your upper leg wet and cold. The snow and wind have made the trains unreliable. I've had to wait on the platform hoping and hoping my train will eventually come like it is supposed to only to catch the next train an hour later. I understand that snow is a part of winter all over the world. I've experienced my fair share of snow and ice storms in my lifetime. I've just never had to endure such extreme weather for an entire month. And it doesn't look like it's going to stop any time soon.

The snow has forced us to take taxis more frequently. For our schools that are a 45 minute walk from the station, we have to take a taxi both to get there and back to the train station. Since Dustin and I work at these schools (which are in the same Academy Plaza) during the same week, we get to take the taxi at the end of the night together. This taxi comes at the same time each night, so our boss reserves it for the whole week and it just shows up and takes us away. To get to the classroom from the station is much more of a hassle. Our classes start at different times each day, so we arrive at the station separately and take different taxis to the classrooms. We choose when we get to school, so we have to reserve the taxis on our own. Dustin has a good enough command of the language to get his taxis easily enough. I, however, have had a long "conversation" with the taxi company each day I try to convince them to pick me up. The first time I called, I relayed the train station where I needed to be picked up and the location I needed to be taken. The time at which I needed the taxi was hard to convey.  The word for 3 is san and the word for thousand is sen, easily confused. I needed to be picked up at 3:20. I assumed they were asking what time to come, so I kept repeating sen ni ju, or thousand twenty. The taxi employee kept repeating the same question, that I continued to assume was "What time should the taxi come?" and I kept repeating thousand twenty. This went on for a few minutes before the woman put me on hold and handed me over to someone who asked "What time?" I said, in English, "3:20." I think this new woman repeated my entire taxi request back to me, so I just kept saying "hai hai hai", or yes yes yes. Once the taxi arrived, the taxi driver spoke to me in Japanese during the entire ten minute ride to my classroom. I occasionally said, "hai" when I heard a word I knew like English, English school, or teacher. I don't know what he was saying or asking about these things, but I agreed.

It hasn't been all work in the past few weeks. Last Sunday, we went to a New Year's celebration at the Civic Center. We pounded mochi (rice cakes) with a giant mallet that was too heavy for me to lift on my own. Luckily, a strong man was nearby and helped me lift it up and down. Pounding the mochi gave us good luck for the New Year and we got a delicious treat. It was very yummy, but we couldn't eat too much, because we'd had a larger than expected lunch. For the second time, I ordered ramen as my meal and somehow ended up with two bowls of it. We've decided that anytime I want ramen, Dustin's going to have to eat it, too. He's eaten the second bowl and whatever he ordered these first two times, but from now on, we'll just be ordering the one bowl of ramen we think we've been ordering all along and see if we get the two we usually receive. 

I have officially experienced my first earthquake. I almost missed it, too. Dustin and I were sitting on our futons, doing something or another on our computers when the floor started rumbling. I leapt up and stood in the doorframe while Dustin ran to the sliding glass door and opened it! I yelled at him to get away from the window and he laughed at me. It was such a small earthquake and lasted for less than 10 seconds, but I erred on the side of caution and Dustin found that ridiculous. 

There's a conbini near the Nagaoka train station called Save On (its name makes me think of a frugal hippy) that Dustin and I frequent quite often. Sometimes you need to grab a warm drink, a little lunch, or an onigiri (rice ball) to hold you over on your way to school. We go in at least twice a week. When we first arrived in Nagaoka, a little old woman who works at Save On slipped some free juice in our bag with a wink. A few nights ago, Dustin needed a chicken snack, so we stopped in at Save On. The same little old woman came up behind us and shoved a bag stuffed with baked goods that expired the next day into Dustin's hands. We tried to say "Arigato," but she put her finger to her lips and shushed us. We walked out of Save On giggling while we surveyed our loot. Sometimes it's good to be a foreigner in Japan.

2009-01-03

Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu

or Happy New Year! Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, "Happy New Year week," because it still feels like January 1 here in Japan. The New Year celebration has been going on and on and on. After having stayed in the warm apartment to avoid having to brave the hail and/or snow for the few days before New Year's Eve, we got a bit too excited about having a reason to leave the apartment and started celebrating at 6:00 p.m. We went back to visit the little okaachan and ojichan izakaiya we'd enjoyed so much before for some tasty traditional Japanese food and Niigata sake. The cute little old couple were closing up shop a little early, since New Years is a family holiday in Japan. We moved on to a much less interesting izakaiya, but by 9:00 we were bored by Nagaoka's "nightlife." We decided to ring in the New Year with some strawberry champagne, which proved more difficult to pop open than one would expect (see the And so This is Christmas... photo album).

On January 2, the New Year celebration continued with some great Japanese music. We saw some Shinto music performed. The most interesting instrument was a mouth organ unlike our simple harmonica. It literally looked like a miniature organ held up to his mouth. Here's a video of that music (Please forgive my terrible videography.):


video

After that group performed, a very different music and dance group went on stage. They played the type of music you would hear at a festival. One of the men danced around stage formally before dressing himself in a dragon costume. After the dance was finished, he walked around the audience snapping at the children while the kids' parents took pictures of their sometimes scared young ones. Here's a video of the second musical group (Please forgive the shoulder of the man sitting in front of me.):

video

When the music stopped, we stepped outside only to hear... more music. We walked down Ote Street, a normally quiet street (depsite being Nagaoka's "main street"), and found it filled with the sounds of taiko drums. There was a troupe of taiko drummers playing ginormous drums in front of the old lady department store in tiny little shorts while the snow fell around us. Most of them were getting a workout banging their sticks against the sides of the drums, but I felt pretty bad for the cymbal player. We spent the rest of the day doing some belated shopping and successfully avoiding the temptation to buy one of the many surprise bags the stores were offering. They were so tempting, sitting there just being huge and mysterious. Of course, they were in fact filled with all of the crap the stores haven't been able to sell in the past year, but there was that slim chance that something worth more than the $50 they were charging could be inside that giant bag. Alas, we walked home with lots and lots of presents for others, but no surprise bag. Whew. 

Today was my favorite day of New Year's celebrating. My Japanese friend and coworker invited Dustin and me to join her and her daughter in some New Year activities. First, we went to the shrine to get our yearly blessing. It was about an hour drive to get to the shrine's parking lot and another five minutes driving around the parking lot looking for a spot, but we spent about three minutes total in the shrine, including the line we waited in for Dustin to ring the bell to call for our blessings from the priest. From there, we stopped for a lovely little meal at a nice Italian restaurant before making it to snow country. Once we got closer to the mountains, the sides of the roads were piled high with snow the bulldozer had pushed off the road. At one point, I looked out my window and saw nothing but snow right in front of my face. Winding around the mountains was a bit scary at first, but I put it out of my mind and trusted Yumi's years of experience on these icy roads. We made it there and back alive, so my trust was justified.

Eventually, we reached the onsen (hot springs)! Japanese hot springs are usually by the mountains. This one was right across the street from a ski resort, so lots of people using the onsen came right off the slopes. When you go to onsen, you enter the locker room, take off your clothes, and go into the onsen in your birthday suit. Before today, I was a bit nervous about the nakedness of an onsen experience, but I talked myself into it and was ready to go right into that locker room, strip down, and spend an hour taking a bath with dozens of people I don't know, a teenager I'd known for a few hours, and a coworker I'd know for a few months who I wouldn't see naked in most circumstances.  Much to my surprise, my Japanese friend informed me I'd be onsening solo, because she was too nervous to go in with me.  I was shocked to find out that a Japanese woman, used to many naked trips to the onsen was more scared than an American woman, conditioned from childhood to think of nakedness as private. I went in alone, spent some time in the hot water, endured stares from Japanese children who may never have seen a foreigner (much less a naked one), and left refreshed and with a bit more audacity. Our night ended at Yumi's house with some customary Japanese New Year food. In Japan, the woman of the house spends all day on December 31st cooking food for the first week of the year, so she can start the year off with a rest. We had our second huge meal of the day, this time full of osechi-ryori. We had sweetened black beans for our health, sweet potatoes with chestnuts for making money, and ozoni soup with mochi, a food once eaten by the samurai to give them energy for battle.  It was a lovely end to a lovely day and a wonderful beginning to what will certainly be a wonderful year.