Monday, March 29, 2004

Another week has gone by and again I haven’t been updating this weblog regularly in order to use my internet time at the office to search for a job. (Sigh, at least in theory. See previous couple posts).
Anyway, since I haven’t been posting regularly this past week, it’s time for another (dum dum da dummm)
Week in Review
And again, I know some of you don’t like reading my longer posts, so I’ll try and break this into subsections, and you can just skim and read the parts you are interested in.
End of the year stuff
The end of March is the end of the scholastic year in Japan. Regular readers of this site will recall that the 9th grade students graduated a couple weeks ago, but classes didn't finish for the 7th and 8th graders until this week. And graduation for the Elementary schools didn't happen until this week either. Which brings me to...
Elementary school Graduation
Graduation is a lot different in Japan. It is held on a regularly school day instead of in the evening. Many parents (especially fathers) are working and can’t attend, so the primary audience is just the fellow students and the local VIPs from the community.
Although I've been in Japan almost 3 year now, this was my first year to attend an elementary school graduation. Since I only go to the elementary school 2 days a week, the previous years graduation just happened to fall on a day I wasn't present. But this year I got to see it. It was very similar to the Junior High School graduation, only not as much crying.
And as for the Junior High Schools, this week we had...
Cleaning and closing Ceremony
Of course, Japan, with its love of ceremonies, has to have a special ceremony to mark the end of the school year. This was a little boring to sit through, but thankfully short this year.
Another interesting thing about the Japanese schools is that no janitor is employed. The students clean the schools themselves everyday after lunch. And at the end of the year, there is a big cleaning. The kind of big cleaning where all the desks are pulled out of the room and every nook and cranny is cleaned. (Um, at least in theory. The kids here in Japan are like kids all over the world, they've been known to cut a few corners when the teacher's back is turned).
I tried to explain to my schools that the JET is not supposed to clean, but simply to sit in his desk and drink coffee.
No, just kidding. I participate in cleaning time every day, and it is a nice opportunity to interact with the students. It lets them practice their English on me, and I occasionally practice my Japanese on them.
So the big cleaning on Thursday and Friday allowed me a nice opportunity for more of the same interaction. Although I must admit, I was as bad as any of the kids when it came to cheating on the cleaning and acting like I was working when I was really just talking (a skill I perfected during my summers cleaning dorms at Calvin). But good interaction time.
Transfers
Another oddity about the Japanese system, at the end of the school year the teachers get transferred to different schools. About 3 years is the average time for a teacher to stay at one school before getting transferred to another one. So, after 3 years, I’m beginning to find myself one of the most senior faculty members at the schools I teach at.
It is a different system, and it has its ups and downs. It has allowed me to meet and get to know a large variety of different teachers, but it is always a bit sad this time of the year saying good-bye to people who are transferred.
And what is true in the schools is also true in the town office and even private businesses in Japan. Everyone gets transferred around this time of year. In the Board of Education my friend Issei is getting transferred.
Issei is only a few years older than me, and has been my best friend at the Board of Education. Although since he got married he hasn't been available for socializing after work, at the Board of Education he has always bent over backwards to help me out with everything I needed. I was a bit sad to hear he was leaving, but given the Japanese system I knew it would happen eventually.
With his transfer, it also means that no English speakers are left at the Board of Education. I’m actually feeling confident enough in my Japanese recently that I think I’ll be able to get by, but when the new JET arrives in August, he or she is going to have a hell of a time. The Board of Education is not only responsible for the JET’s work duties, but also for helping him or her get settled into Japan, sorting out banking accounts and telephone bills and apartment arrangements, etc, etc, etc. The new JET who arrives in August is going to be in for a rough start.
Charity Cycling Ride
This week Friday, Saturday and Sunday was the annual charity cycling ride through Oita Prefecture. It is organized by JETs, but is a mixed group of JETs and Japanese people. It is a 3 day cycling ride through the countryside, somewhat reminiscent of the bike trips I went on in High School with the Church youth group. Although the topography of Japan is a lot different than Michigan. The mountainous landscape makes the Japanese countryside very beautiful, but a challenging cycle. Cyclists collect pledge money and it is donated to charity (this year to the earthquake victims in Iran).
My Past Experience
The first year I was here I did this bike trip, and although the up hills were frustrating at the time, I have fond memories of the trip. The Japanese country side is beautiful, and the cherry blossom trees were blooming early that year so I remember riding down from the mountain into valleys filled with the red cherry blossom flowers. Perhaps one of my best memories of my time in Japan.
Unfortunately in Japan finding a bicycle my size was a challenge. After driving all the way to Fukuoka, I was able to find a bicycle that was almost big enough for me. Almost. My legs were never able to fully extend on the down stroke, even with the seat raised well past the safety levels. And the handle bars couldn't be raised on this bike, so after raising the seat all the say up, I was bent over at a slightly awkward angle to grab the handle bars.
Not a big deal for the short term, but when biking on a trip like this and putting in 100 kilometer days, these little things start to matter. I almost didn't do the trip my first year because I was worried about the short comings of my bike. But I did it anyway, and ended up having a great time. In the months that followed I even rode that bike frequently around my town, and on my way to work.
And then rainy season came. As a Michigan native, I was unprepared for rainy season. I had my bike under a shelter, but not inside. When it started to rust, I just let it go. It was never really a great fit for me anyway.
Unwilling to put forth the money for another bike that wasn't going to fit me anyway, I just sat out the bike trip last year. And had a rather boring weekend because all my friends ended up doing it. So this year I decided to join as a...
Volunteer
As a veteran of 5 cycling trips with my High School youth group, and 1 in Japan, I was always curious as to what things would be like as a volunteer. Driving along in a car and making sure everyone was doing okay always seemed like an easier job than cycling all day. I thought it would be kind of fun to be a volunteer. Drive alongside the cyclists, make sure their water bottles were full, and just watch everyone else struggle up those hills.
And although volunteering in a car is no doubt a cushy job compared to cycling 100 km, it was not without its challenges. There was a lot of confusion, and I was zooming all over in my car trying to make sure everyone was going the right way, and trying to chase down those who had made wrong turns. At one point I was given the job of chasing down some cyclists, and informing them that they had gone several kilometers in the wrong direction. There was some concern that I wouldn't have the tact to do this, so Eoin cautioned me, “try to be diplomatic when you tell them.”
At confusing intersections, I just parked my car and yelled directions at the cyclists who drove by. As the route for this years bicycling trip went through Ajimu, I ended up making a fool of myself in my own town by positioning myself at an Ajimu intersection and yelling at cyclists.
Since being in the car alone all day can be a bit boring, we volunteers were paired up with each other. On Saturday, much to the envy of everyone else, I had a beautiful Japanese girl the same age as me assigned to my car through the luck of the draw. It was a very nice day. But I am a bit of a sucker for a pretty face, and when she asked if I could teach her how to drive on my car, I gave in immediately.
Actually for a new driver, she learned very quickly. But the mountain roads of the Japanese country side are steep, windy, narrow, and not an ideal learning environment. Like many new drivers, she had a tendency to drive too close to the edge of the road. Since there was no shoulder or guard rail on these old windy mountain roads, I was a bit worried at points. It was amazing how quickly I turned into my mother, constantly giving advice and always telling her to slow down or saying that she was too close to the edge again.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

William H. Rehnquist and Me
Wish I would have known about this article a few years ago when I wrote this piece in the Calvin Chimes. If you read my article you'll note I touched on these issues, but this adds a bit more description to it, and makes it a bit more pointed.
And while I'm rehashing this, I want to note that my article underwent a little editing by the Chimes staff, and the last paragraph was inserted by Mr. Buma. I personally think the bastard is a racist.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

My Week in Review
As some of you know, I got rid of my TV this fall. I felt like I was spending too much time watching it, and not enough time studying or cleaning my apartment. Especially not enough time cleaning my apartment. Boy my place is a pit. So I thought if I took all those hours I spent watching TV, and used them to clean instead, my place would look a lot better.
Well, it is amazing how things have NOT improved since I got rid of the TV. The amount of time I spend cleaning has increased very little. Instead, the amount of time that I spend reading, sleeping or just staring at the walls has increased.
Unfortunately I’m beginning to follow the same pattern in my job search. Lately I’ve been very strict with myself about not spending time e-mailing, and keeping blog posts to a minimum. The theory being that I should spend that time looking for jobs. And yet in spite of this, I’ve accomplished very little on the job front.
For those of you who missed my last post though, I did get a rough draft of my resume typed up. Check it out, and send me any editing suggestions you have. And a big thanks to everyone who already did (both of you know who you are).
Anyway…since I’m not doing too much regular posting these days, I thought I’d at least give a brief summary of my week.
1.I was on TV this week.
Well, apparently anyway. I don’t have a TV anymore to see for myself, but my office assures me that I was. We had a regional meeting this Wednesday for all the JETs in my area, and the local television crew was there to film us. And apparently a brief clip of that meeting was shown on the evening news that night. My office has been telling me that the clip was of me looking like I wasn’t paying attention. I suspect they’re just teasing, but to be honest it is certainly a possibility such a clip did exist.
2. And about the meeting…Every two years regional meetings are held. This is different than the prefectural meetings (which are twice a year). Regional meetings are, well, regional. In my case just the JETs who happen to live around or close to Nakatsu city. It is basically just a time to talk about any problems that we might have at work. It is an interesting exchange, but since no one present has any power to change anything, it just turns into a bitch session. Somewhat therapeutic, and it is always interesting to hear other people’s horror stories (my favorite story was that one female JET’s Japanese supervisor had started spreading rumors around her town that he and she were a couple) but ultimately it all seems like a waste of energy.
The meeting was facilitated by the head of the JET program in Oita prefecture, and the local Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), who brought in for discussion a couple articles from the Japanese newspaper about the JET program. One article was about how recently the quality of JETs coming to Japan has been declining. In an attempt to clarify, I asked if Chris, who was sitting next to me at the time, would be an example of a lower level JET. Unfortunately the CIR said she was unable to answer that.
Odds and Ends
A friend of mine directed me to a store in Nakatsu that carried some western food items. I was surprised to learn this place had been in close proximity to me this whole time, and I hadn’t even known about it. I went there with Mike and Chris, and we had a look to see what the place had to offer. I was very excited to find Blackberries there. Blackberries are pretty much impossible to get in Japan. Most Japanese people don’t even know they exist.
Alright, they weren’t fresh blackberries. They were canned, and imported from America. But still, it was a find. I thought of all the ways I could use these blackberries. On my cereal in the morning, on ice cream, mid afternoon snack, with tea, etc. So, I decided to buy 6 cans so I wouldn’t have to make return trips.
Well, the punch line is that it turns out these blackberries were 600 yen ($6, roughly) a can. I never even thought to check the price. I mean everyone knows canned food is supposed to be dirt cheap. But in Japan I guess you can never assume anything.
Rather than go through the embarrassment of re-shelving the things. I just opted to pay the money. The boys had a good laugh about it. In fact a week later they’re still bringing up how much money I wasted on those damn blackberries.
And, to top it off, it turns out canned blackberries taste pretty awful.
Also, this Saturday I went to the 3rd year anniversary of “Tropicoco” my favorite Mexican bar in Japan. Good time was had by all.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Help me
This week I've been working on putting a resume together using some of the information I learned at the Yokohama conference. One of the things I learned at the conference was that it is important to get feed back from other people when putting together a resume. So, at the risk of abusing the patience and attention spans of the readers of this site, I thought I'd use this weblog to post my first draft of my resume.
Any and all feedback and constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated. (joelswagman@yahoo.com). Please e-mail me if you think I should leave something out, or add something in. If you can think of a better, more assertive way to phrase something, please let me know. Hopefully the spell checker should have gotten all the spelling mistakes, but if you see anything....
And if any kind soul is willing to take on the grammar, that would really be a help.
The formatting (type size, bold print, spatial arrangement, etc) got lost when I was copying and pasting this from word, so just ignore that for now. Everything else is fair game.
Anyway, here it is. If anyone can help me fine tune this thing, I'd appreciate it.

JOEL M. SWAGMAN
102 Go, Choei Daibutsu-jutaku, 214 Daibutsu, Ajimu-Machi, Usa-Gun, Oita-Ken, Japan 872-0523
0978-34-4806 joelswagman@hotmail.com

Education
Calvin College Grand Rapids, Mi
Bachelor of Arts December, 2000
l Majored in Secondary History Education, Minored in English Education
l Teacher Aiding at Pathfinders High School (Grand Rapids, Mi)
l Student Teaching at Tri-Unity High School (Grand Rapids, Mi)
l Volunteered teaching English to immigrants

Professional Experience
Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) Oita Prefecture, Japan
English Teacher, Ajimu Board of Education August, 2001-Present
Taught English in Japan for 3 years at the Elementary and Junior High school level.
l Created curriculum and presented original lessons at the Elementary school, and experience team teaching at the Junior High School
l taught the English Speaking Society (ESS) club at Ajimu High School
l designed curriculum and taught an adult English conversation class
l Initiated an English section in the Ajimu town library and collected materials for this section
l Served as the only chaperon for 8 Japanese students on a 10-day trip to America; initiated and organized this trip.
l Delivered presentation on “Presenting Global Issues in the Classroom” for JET prefectural mid-year seminar
l Passed 4th level (2002) and 3rd level (2003) of Japanese Proficiency Test
l Assisted the Ajimu-Usa Rotary club in hosting the Morialta Rotary club of Australia; helped to guide and translate for this exchange

Additional
l Hitch hiked from Kyushu to Hokkaido during summer vacation
l Published articles in college newspaper and Oita Prefectural magazine

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

More politics
You may have noticed my list of links has been growing lately. Both Phil Christman and Brian Bork, friends from Calvin College, have started wonderful blog pages. The political commentary is pretty sharp and dead on, and contains a lot of sentiments that I share but lack the ability to express so succiently. Also, while I'm plugging political weblogs, I really like This Modern World as well. I haven't established a permanent link to it, because I'm trying to reserve those for people I actually know, but this is my favorite political website, and the source of much of my news here in Japan.
As for me: It's been a while since my last political entry, and as usual I've lost timeliness. But I want to say a few words about John Kerry, now that he has won the nomination.
After Kerry won the nomination, the media, which had previously been very kind to him, has now started to focus on his faults. And there is a lot of disturbing things about John Kerry now in print. I just want to say for the record that I had reservations about Kerry before it was cool to have reservations about Kerry.
Of course it is easy to say that now. But those of you who were in e-mail contact with me last year might remember that I said I would not forgive Kerry for his vote in favor of the Iraq war, and I that I would vote Green again if Kerry got the nomination.
Now I have to decide whether I was just shooting off my mouth, or whether I really mean it. Certainly anybody would be an improvement over Bush, but it is hard to be enthusiastic about Kerry. The thing I hate most about the Bush administration is the Iraq War, and Kerry supported it. And what's worse, Kerry then voted against reconstruction funds. I mean I didn't support the war, but I'm a firm believer in the "you break it you buy it" policy. It was irresponsible of Kerry to support the war, and then vote against funds for the reconstruction.
So, we'll see. I have a little more time to think about it yet before November. But I'm not happy with Kerry.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Thursday, March 11, 2004

More on Love Hotels, the conference, and a $250 bowl of Ramen
Ended up staying in a Love Hotel again Tuesday night. Tuesday afternoon I talked to friends and compared hotel prices, and no doubt the Love Hotel was the cheapest option. Excluding of course Internet cafes, but I wanted a bed and shower. Oh, and also excluding getting a package deal with plane tickets and hotel included. That is by far the cheapest option, and that is what most of my friends did, but since I bought my plane tickets at the last minute, I messed that one up (see previous couple posts).
So back to the Love Hotel. The lady at the front desk was somewhat disturbed to see me coming in for a second night, and tried to explain to me that it was not a business hotel. But I went through my speech about being willing to pay the same money as the other customers, and she gave me the room.
Wednesday afternoon the conference finished up. At the end of the last speaker, a friend of mine summed up the whole conference by saying, “these past few days have certainly given me a lot to think about, but no answers.” That’s how I feel about the whole thing to. Still just as confused about life as when I entered, but I do have a lot more to think about now. There was actually a lot of information presented at the conference, but I won’t bore you by going in to it.
Between when the conference finished on Wednesday afternoon, and when my plane left on Wednesday night, I did have a few hours to kill. As I mentioned in a previous post, this conference was the second time I had been in Tokyo area. The first time was for JET orientation, during which I didn’t get an opportunity to sight see. Now this time was shaping up much the same way, with only a few hours to go “see Tokyo”.
Left to myself, I would have probably just wasted these few hours. So when a friend of mine approached me to see if I wanted to go into Tokyo to get some “famous ramen”, I agreed. I’m not a huge ramen fan, but his idea was certainly better than my idea of doing nothing.
Ramen, although originally a Chinese food, is very popular in Japan. In fact, within Japan there exists a sub-culture of “ramen pilgrims” or people in search of the perfect bowl of ramen.
Apparently there is a certain ramen restaurant in the downtown area that is widely agreed upon to have the best ramen in Tokyo. My friend was very keen on checking it out. I had nothing better to do, and at least this way I would get to see a little of downtown Tokyo.
By the time we had navigated our way through the mess that is the Tokyo train station, and had found the ramen shop in question, we were already a little pressed for time. My friend more so than I. His flight was scheduled to leave and hour and a half before mine. But we did the math, and decided we still had time to enjoy a bowl of ramen.
There was a line outside the door, and roughly a 45-minute wait to even get inside the place. After waiting in the line, we got inside and were served a bowl of ramen. And, to be fair, it was a decent tasting bowl of ramen. Probably not the best I’ve ever tasted, but then I’m no conessiuor.
Afterwards we made our way back to the train station. It was now 4:30, getting close to rush hour in Tokyo, and the train station was already beginning to get pretty crowded. As we boarded the train, my friend began to realize he was probably going to miss his plane. As we took the train through the middle of Tokyo, stopping at every station along the way, it became apparent he was definitely going to miss his plane.
I have to confess I sometimes take pleasure in other people’s misfortunes. It makes me feel better about myself. I think to myself, “I may be a disorganized idiot, but at least I’m going to make my plane flight.” It should be noted that my friend had gotten a package deal on his plane tickets. He got plane tickets and a nice hotel for in total about $100 less than I paid for just my plane tickets alone. And then I had to wander the streets of Yokohama sleeping in shady Love Hotels.
So, I began to make smart aleck comments like, “Well, at least that was one tasty bowl of ramen, huh?” or “If you had to do it again, would you still wait in line for that ramen?”
In the end, my friend missed the flight. Since it was a packaged deal, he couldn’t use the same ticket on a later flight. Last I saw him, he had to buy a new ticket, costing the equivalent of $250. Which, I believe, makes this a record for the most expensive bowl of ramen ever. If anyone has a story about a more expensive bowl of ramen, let me know, but I think this is going to be hard to beat.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Love Hotel
Well, I ended up staying in one of those Love Hotels last night after all.
Again, I am getting subsidized for my lodging by the Board of Education, but they had directed me to try and find a cheap hotel. They had also advised me that there were several hotels around Yokohama train station.
And there are. As you would expect, the ones closest to the station were big expensive fancy hotels that I walked right by. Staying in the internet cafe would have been an option had it come to it, but I was really hoping for a place with a bed and a shower.
I walked into a couple Japanese style inns, only to discover they didn't have vacancies. But there were no lack of Love Hotels in the area, and when I discovered they were about 1000 Yen cheaper than the regular hotels, the choice seemed obvious.
As the name implies, the Love Hotels are usually used by couples for somewhat immoral purposes. But since they were the cheaper option, I was more than willing to overlook this. Plus being a foreigner, you can always play ignorant to a certain extent. Some of these places just look like normal hotels on the outside, you can go in pretending you don't know any better.
"What? What is this hotel for? Well, I am shocked! Shocked and appalled!"
(Also I'm hoping that the sheets are given a good washing after each customer. Actually this was something I tried not to think about at the time).
The first Love Hotel I went into refused to give me a room because I was by myself. You would think that if I was going to pay the money, they wouldn't care whether I had sex inside the room or not. I tried to argue this point. The lady at the desk was polite, but firm. She couldn't rent me a room unless I planned to fornicate inside it.
I'm not sure what the reasoning behind this rule is. Perhaps it is to prevent lonely guys like myself from just pretending they have girlfriends.
At any rate, the second love hotel I went into had no problems renting a room to me for the night. And, despite having a few kinky things in the room, it did have all the necessities of a normal hotel room as well. (Bed, toothbrush and toothpaste, tea bags (this being Japan) shower, etc). The only real negative was that, perhaps because it was a cheaper love hotel, the rooms weren't quite as sound proof as the couple next door appearently assumed.
But in the end a decent night's sleep. I'm slightly worried about coming back to the Board of Education and asking to be reimbursed for a reciept from a love hotel, but I'm hoping they will understand I was just trying to save them money.
And one more thing:
caught the train from Yokohama station back to the conference this morning. Tokyo and Yokohama is a lot different than my little town of 8,000 in the country side. In my town we don't even have a train station. In Yokohama the train station during rush hour this morning was nuts. Everything you've ever read about crowded train stations and overpacked trains is true.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Blue Light Yokohama
Subtitle: I'm a disorganized idiot
Actually writing this from an internet cafe in Yokohama. I'm supposed to be looking for a hotel right now to stay the night, but I saw this internet cafe and I thought I'd pop in for a minute or two.
I'm in Yokohama for a conference for "Returning JETs".
Perhaps a bit of a misnomer, because I think a lot of us aren't planning on returning, but it is a conference for people who are finishing up their last few months on JET. The goal is to provide us information on things like putting together a resume, dealing with reverse culture shock, employment opportunities post JET, etc.
Unlike the other various conferences I've attended during my JET tenure, this conference is optional. Because it is for our own benefit, it is not required we attend. Furthermore, because this conference is for our own benefit, lodging and transportation costs are our own responsibility.
For that reason, many of my other 3rd year JET friends have opted not to attend. And word out on the street, from people who have attended this conference in the past, was that it is not all that useful.
But I'm confused enough about the future where I figure I could use all the help I could get. Also, I'm in a very fortunate position, because my Board of Education has offered to reimburse me for travel and hotel expenses. Very few other JETs have BOEs that are so generous. I'm lucky indeed.
However, because I'm....well because I'm the way I am, I have sort of muddled a lot of things up. Although I was supposed to make reservations at the hotel the conference is being held at, I neglected to do this until the deadline had passed. Also I waited until the last minute to arrange transportation. I was going to travel by bullet train, but doing the math on Friday afternoon, I discovered a plane ticket was almost just as cheap, and I could leave a day later if I took the plane, thus saving one night's hotel fee. (Not that it matters terribly because I'm getting reimbursed by the Board of Education, but you know, no point in wasting money). But because I waited till the last minute to buy plane tickets, I had to pay full price.
In fact, truth be told, I never properly filled out my application form for this conference. The application was due before Christmas vacation, so on the day before I left to go back to Michigan, I pulled it out of my bag, only to discover that from weeks of just lying in the bottom of my back pack, it had become wrinkled, and torn in half. As this was the day before I was supposed to leave for Christmas vacation, I just thought , "screw it, I guess I'm not going to the conference." While I was in America, the Board of Education (without me even asking) used their copy of the application to send it in and apply for me.
It gets worse. I overslept this morning. I accidentally set my alarm for 6 PM instead of 6 AM, so I woke up at 7:20, twenty minutes after I was supposed to have left my apartment, without having even packed my bags yet. I quickly threw a suit and a tie and my toothbrush in my bag, jumped in my car, and arrived at the airport 10 minutes before my plane took off.
And now I'm at a 3 day conference on how to be professional and get a job.
The conference is in Yokohama, which for anyone unfamiliar with Japan, is essentially just part of Tokyo. Over the 3 years I've been in Japan, this is the first time since JET orientation that I've been back in Tokyo. (Greg and I did get a ride through Tokyo on our hitch hiking trip this summer, but I don't think that counts because we never got off the expressway).
On of my favorite Japanese songs is called "Blue Light Yokohama". It is a woman singer talking about walking through the streets of Yokohama and looking at all the flashing signs at night.
It's an old song from 1968. (I've developed a bit of an interest in Japanese oldies. I like to rent old music from the video shops). So it's obviously a bit dated now, but I was excited to come to Yokohama just because I like that song.
Not that I have much time to sight see or walk around. The 3 days I'm here I'm busy attending the conference. But right now I'm wandering around Yokohama looking for a cheap hotel. I don't mind doing that, except I've got this bulky suitcase with me. And the wheels broke off two years ago at the conference in Kobe, because of a girl named Heather. So with every step I take with this suitcase, I think of Heather.
Anyway, I saw this internet cafe, and I thought I'd take a short break from Hotel hunting. Which pretty much brings us up to date.
Don't worry about me, I should find a place somewhere. Already passed two "Love Hotels" which I could go back to and spend the night if it comes to it. (Although they aren't really intended for parties of one, if you know what I mean (and I think you do)). Otherwise I can sleep in this internet cafe (people do it in Japan instead of hotels sometimes. The internet cafes even have "night rates").

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Graduation
Today is graduation at the Junior High Schools in Ajimu. The Japanese school year is on a bit of a different time table. Students graduate in March, and the new school year starts in April.
This year's 3rd year (9th grade) students were 1st year students when came to Ajimu in August 2 1/2 years ago. Which means now that they are graduated, the schools student body has completely changed over from when I arrived. Which perhaps means I've been here too long :)
Granted when I arrived in August it was already in the middle of the school year, so I still can't say I've seen one grade completely through from start to finish, but pretty close. And wow, where did that time go?
I guess what they say is true: time does go faster as you get older. From the time I entered middle school to the time I graduated seemed to me like a lifetime in itself. But the time it took these kids to do the same thing has just flown by for me.
And it is amazing how much they developed physically during that time as well. When I first came here, they all looked like little kids. Now many of them look like young adults.
And I suppose I've gotten older over the time I've been here as well. When I first arrived in Japan at the age of 23, I was the youngest teacher at all seven of the schools I taught in. Now in all but 3 of these schools, there are new teachers that are younger than me.
Time is interesting. If I look at it from the standpoint of where I am now, then I think, "Wow, how did time go so fast? How could I have been here almost 3 years already?"
But if I think back, many of the events that took place in the past 3 years seem so far away now. I think back to friends who have come and gone here in Japan, and some of them seem so far in the past I can barely even remember their faces. And even Spring Break last year seems so far in the past now. I don't know, how have the past 3 years been for you?

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

What I’m Doing Next Year
The JET program has a 3 year cap on it, which I will reach this August. Many of you have been asking me over e-mail what I am planning on doing next year. So, I thought I’d take a moment to answer it on my blog.
Short answer: I don’t know.
Long answer: Perhaps some day I’ll return to America and use my degree in history education, or enter graduate school, or something. For the moment though I am enjoying living abroad.
It took me a long time to get up the courage to leave Grand Rapids. Going to Japan was the first time I had left Grand Rapids for a period of more than two weeks since I moved there at the age of 5. But having finally flown the nest, and tasted the excitement of exploring new areas of the world, I am at present in no hurry to return.
Jared English has been encouraging me to come out and join him and his friends in Beijing. I’ve also been looking into English teaching jobs in Korea.
But recently I’ve been feeling more and more like I want to stay in Japan. I feel like I’m making progress on the language. Finding out I had passed the Japanese proficiency Exam was also an encouragement. Perhaps if I study hard I can pass the next level up next year.
Although JET is coming to an end, there are lots of other English teaching jobs in Japan. So many, in fact, that it is a bit overwhelming to sort through them all on the internet and decide which ones I want to apply for. Which is one of the reasons I’ve been procrastinating on this. But it has begun to occur to me that a new job is not going to just land in my lap, and I’m going to have to start searching for a job, and filling out applications, and getting letters of recommendation written, and all the stuff that goes with it.
Which Means…
For the next month or two I’m going to be using my internet time for job searching and applying instead of e-mail. Although I was never famous for my prompt replies, the next couple months my e-mailing is going to be virtually non-existent. I’m not saying don’t e-mail me (e-mail me, please, I love to hear from everyone), but I am saying that I probably won’t have time to reply for a while.
With apologies to those who prefer personal correspondence, during this time I’m going to prioritize keeping this web log updated. My thinking being that the web log will allow me to communicate with several people at once, and keep everyone somewhat updated even if I don’t have time to write personal e-mails.
Locked the Damn Keys in the Car
I locked my keys in the car yesterday. It’s a frustrating experience, but it is something that if you put me in one place long enough, I’ll do it eventually. Just like oversleeping and arriving late at work (which I’ve done several times), or loosing important things (like losing my seal this summer).
So since I’ve been in Japan almost 3 years, it is to be expected I’ll lock the keys in the car a couple times. And this is the second time I’ve done it. Always a pain in the neck, but the first time I did it at least I did it at the Board of Education. This time I did it at one of the schools. So, I needed to get one of the teachers to drive me to the Board of Education, went with someone from the Board of Education to the Town Hall to get a spare key to my apartment (my apartment key was also locked in the car), opened the apartment and got the spare key to my car, went back to the school and unlocked the car, then back to the town hall to return the spare key, and back to the board of Education.
Quoting Michael Moore
I was in Oita city last week, and bought “Downsize This” by Michael Moore. It’s one of his older books, published in 1996. I knew it would be a bit dated, but the English book selection is rather limited, so I bought it anyway.
Interesting, even though the book is 8 years old, some of it is very relevant today. For instance his chapter on the hatred directed towards President Clinton.
Quoting from the book:

“I’m amazed that Clinton hasn’t been shot. U.S. News & World Report recently felt a need to conduct a poll to find out how many people actually hate the President: not disagree with him or dislike him or want to throw him out in the next election. I’m talking about hard core hatred…”

“The Secret Service says that Clinton the subject of at least 1,500 ‘very serious’ threats on his life each year, and that number has been rising by 30 percent a year since 1994. Clinton seems destined to set the record as the biggest presidential target ever. On an average of every five hours, Clinton is the recipient of what the Secret Service believes is a ‘very serious’ threat.

“Senator Jesse Helms, Representative Bob Dornan, and talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, and Oliver North have each offered some sort of veiled or obvious threat that , in essence, has said that Clinton had better watch it or harm will come to him.”

“Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina issued the following threat to the President: “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]”

“What has Clinton done to deserve this? Massacred millions in a war? Caused the stock market to crash? Brought back the bubonic plague? To listen to the Right, you’d think he has brought about the end of Western Civilization—because he smoked a joint? Because he dodged the draft? Because he has an eye for the ladies? C’mon, people! Get a grip!”

I suppose you know where I’m going with this. The next time your favorite Republican complains about how uncivil the political discourse has been recently, or talks about how important it is to respect the office of the President, remind him or her about the dialogue during the Clinton years.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

My Name in Print
The new issue of Tombo Times (the magazine for foreign residents of Oita Prefecture) is out now, containing this book review by yours truly.
I reviewed Al Franken's new book, "Lies and the Lying Liars who tell Them" for the Tombo Times.
Admittedly the book and my review has absolutely nothing to do with Japan, or Oita Prefecture. But I really enjoyed reading that book, and I wanted to write a review of it. Tombo Times frequently features book and movie reviews that are unconnected to Japan. And, fortunately for me, the editor of Tombo Times has similar political views to mine, and was very enthusiastic when I broached the topic of writing this review.

Monday, March 01, 2004

My Weekend
I thought I would throw my weekend up on the weblog. Some of you have commented that you don't read my longer posts, so I thought I'd break this up day by day. You can pretend you're reading a bunch of smaller posts.

Friday
Went out for a night on the town with Mike (the other JET in Ajimu) and his friends.
Social life on the JET program tends to be divided by year. For instance us 3rd year JETs tend to hang out mostly with other 3rd year JETs, and first year JETs (Mike and his friends) tend to hang out mostly with themselves.
It's not intentional on anyone's part, it just sort of happens every year. The first years meet each other and form tight bonds at orientation before us 3rd years even have a chance to meet them. And us 3rd years, as you can imagine, tend to feel more comfortable with the other 3rd year JETs, whom we have many shared memories and experiences with. I suppose it's somewhat like University.
Thus Mike, the first year JET in Ajimu, and Me, the old man on the block, have different social circles we hang out in. This Friday night, Mike had four of his friends come into Ajimu to visit him. I was invited along, and the six of us went out in Ajimu.
The night life in Ajimu is virtually non-existant, except for a couple mom and pop type little bars hidden away. Mike and I have gone exploring these places in the past and enjoyed the small town charm. (see previous post here). But previously, it had just been the two of us acting as observers of the small town bar scene. This time, with six of us, we really took the place over. And we just talked among ourselves. We could have been anywhere really, we just happened to be sitting in a bar in Ajimu at the time.

Saturday
Got a good afternoon of hiking in with two other JET friends, Greg and Aaron. Both of these guys enjoy hiking and outdoor activities just like I do, but for some reason or other we seldom get our act together enough to coordinate a hiking trip. Somebody (usually me) always sleeps too late, and then the day is over before we can even get a proper start.
But this weekend was different. Greg phoned to wake me up at 9, and we were out the door and headed to the trail by around 11.
Great hike. We went up a mountain in Innai, only one town over. Aaron and I had down it before, but it had been so foggy on that day we couldn't see anything. This time it was a clear day, and the view was amazing. We could see all the way to the ocean, and all the towns in between.
Greg, who is a bit more hard core than I am, had actually cycled all the way over to my house before the hike even started. As the hike was a bit harder than he was expecting, he began to hint that he would like a lift home. I was somewhat reluctant to do this as he lives about an hour away, but I agreed in the end. I drove him back to his town, and then we caught dinner at a restaurant close to his place.
It was a Japanese restaurant, and so everyone was seated on the floor and in close proximity to each other. I noticed that the couple behind me was continually talking about us from the moment we sat down. A bit odd, since we were well within earshot (the guy's back was almost touching mine) and had already demonstrated our ability to at least understand some Japanese by ordering our food. But these kind of things happen occasionally in Japan. Not seeming to care if we could overhear or not, the guy was explaining to his girlfriend that we were American English teachers (Greg was actually British) and commented on just about everything we did. ("Oh, they ordered the pizza. Americans always order the pizza, don't they?")
Eventually I just turned around and attempted to engage conversation. Since this couple was so interested in us, I assumed they would want to talk, but I got a cold reception. This may be in part because I had started things out by winking and smiling at the girlfriend.
Yeah, I suppose that sounds pretty bad when it's written down like this, but I was just trying to be deliberately cheeky in kind of a playful way. I was hoping they would just have a sense of humor about it and laugh, but the guy was not amused.
We did have a brief conversation though. He was a member of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. Since Japan's constitution forbids having an army, they have a Self-Defense Force instead. However it is increasingly becoming a misnomer, as this year, because of pressure from Washington, Japanese troops have been sent to Iraq in a mission that is obviously not self-defense. Those of you following the news know that it has been a very big contraversy in Japan.
Anyway, this fellow said he had no desire to go to Iraq, and he hoped he wouldn't have to. I felt like I should apologize because my president was causing Japanese troops to be sent to Iraq to serve in an occupation force they have nothing to do with.
Following dinner, Greg and I headed in Oita city for an 80s party.
The night life in Japan is somewhat segregated into foreigner bars and, well, everything else. I say "somewhat" segregated, because even the foreigner bars are usually at least half Japanese. But in a country with very little ethnic diversity, and especially out in the boon docks of Oita prefecture, even a club that is half foreign is an unproportional concentration of the foreign population.
I wish the night life wasn't segregated like it is, but the truth is a typical Japanese night out doesn't appeal to us westerners. Dance clubs and places where you can mingle with and meet people you don't know are usually absent from the Japanese social scene. Therefore these places usually attract a high percentage of foreigners.
As for me and the dancing scene, I can take it or leave it myself. I don't mind it, but I'm just as happy having a quiet night with a few friends. Also if there is something going on locally, I usually opt to do that instead. Oita city is an hour away for me.
In fact when we entered the club, someone commented to me that the last time I had been to this particular place was when I brought my friend from home. That was almost a year ago now. Had it really been that long? I can't remember.
My friend will remain nameless, but he knows damn well who he is. Although he was only at this club for one night, he made such an impression on the folks here, he and his drunken antics have become a bit of a miny legend.
I usually don't drink at these events myself. Although there are stories of excess and indiscretion connected to my name, more often than not I'm happy to just go the whole night without having a drink. I don't like the feeling of loosing control over what I'm doing, and I like to wake up with a clear memory of what happened the night before. Also I like to think I'm a fun enough guy that I can be entertaining without alcohol. All this, plus the fact that I don't drink often means I don't know my limits very well, and a little alcohol can sometimes be a dangerous thing for me.
The party was an "all you can drink" party, which are common in Japan. Discounted entry fees were given to anyone who dressed in 1980s fashion. I shamelessly tried to get the discount fee by just putting on a pair of sunglasses, which I borrowed from Greg as we were walking to the door. After getting the discount, I promptly took the sunglasses off again.
Since the party was all you can drink, most people around me got pretty trashed. I took a bit of flack for not drinking, like I always do. A fair amount of my conversation that night was spent explaining to other people I wasn't drinking. I usually use driving as my excuse, but most people that night were planning on crashing in Oita. My friend Ryan, formerly of Ajimu, now lives in Oita city and had a lot of people staying at his house. But as I was planning on going to Church the next morning, I opted to drive back.
I left Oita city at about 4 in the morning. Totally sober, but somewhat fighting sleep.
I'm usually pretty good about staying awake driving. I like to drive, and even on sleep deficits if I can sing along to the radio I'm pretty happy and wide awake. But perhaps because of the hiking that afternoon, I was really tired driving home. On the express way I briefly nodded off, and was awakened by the jolt of my car scrapping the guard rail. That shock kept me wide awake for the rest of the drive.

Sunday
The last couple weeks I've been pretty good about going to church, but I ended up just sleeping through it this Sunday. I woke up at noon, and went to play Volleyball at Ajimu Junior High School.
Since graduation is this week, tradition at Ajimu is to have a yearly pre-graduation volleyball game in which the students, teachers, and parents all play together.
Although it is an annual event, this is the first time I was invited. And in fact I wasn't invited by the other teachers, but by the parents.
Afterwards, I had dinner with the families of two of the students whom I had taken to America this Christmas. It was partly to thank me for the trip to America, but also party a graduation celebration which I was just invited to. In this latter respect it was very nice because since I wasn't the guest of honor, there was no pressure to be entertaining, and I just relaxed and enjoyed myself with the families.
Rules of hospitality in Japan indicate it would have been rude for me not to drink, so I had a few beers at the occasion. This isn't the first time I've been in this situation, but it always strikes me as a bit ironic that I can avoid drinking when I'm at big parties, but at the home of my students I'm obligated to have a couple beers. Perhaps it is just my conservative up bringing, but as a student I could never imagine my teachers drinking alcohol, so it feels weird to me to drink at my students' house.