Ohayo Gozaimasu!

Trip Start Mar 15, 2004
Trip End Apr 16, 2005

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Saturday, December 4, 2004

Hello dear family and friends. It's been ages since my last update - hopefully you've been missing them, because this one's going to make up for missing time (meaning, it's big).

First things first. The weather here has been fantastic. It's December 3rd (Kyle's birthday) and I'm sitting outside without a jacket waiting for the Shinkansen (I'm being sent to a school 180 km away so I get to ride the bullet train). Apparently this fall has been unusually warm - what a treat for us! Well deserved I might say, given the excruciating summer we endured. Though I can't say I'm surprised, I didn't realize how much Japanese appreciate deciduous trees in the fall season. To quote a student, Japanese "celebrate autumn colours quietly and cherry blossoms cheerfully". Well put. Every weekend people flock to temples and shrines to admire the colours, reflect on the beauty of things, and consider the year gone by. On the flip side, government workers have been busy sawing branches off trees in a pre-emptive measure to avoid fallen-leaf pollution on the streets. It's disappointing to see all the stumpy trees lining the streets, and frankly I just don't understand why this look is more desirable. Oh well - it gives some guys a job, and that is really the unspoken main point.

So I'm starting to recover from the shock of Bush's re-election. I was in denial every time we logged on to check the polls, and completely disgusted when it was official. Japanese news made it seem like a really great outcome - they kept showing segments that were nothing more than 20 sound bites spliced together, of Bush professing how friendly he and PM Koizumi are. It was appalling. From my experience most Japanese think Bush is a dumb-ass.

School has been pretty good. I have many adult students who I see every week and now feel like I know quite well. Kids are always a riot - the other day one little boy became very confused as we sang Old Macdonald had a Farm. When we reached the cow-part and sang "here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo moo" poor little Hiromu looked very distraught ...

Enough shop talk. Since the last post we've been to Osaka, Okinawa, and Nara. I posted a bunch of pictures, so if you have the time, they might be more interesting than this text. I'll try to keep things brief.

In mid-October we headed to Osaka to visit with Drew, his mother, his girlfriend Yuri, and her family. It was a fantastic little trip - so nice to see friendly faces from home and meet new people. Drew led us to the outskirts of Osaka to a funky little shrine located in the middle of a maze of boulders. Along the way to the shrine we needed to ask a couple of harvesting farmers for directions. Kyle and I took the opportunity to lung into their rice paddy to take some pictures of the mature rice plants - we're such dorks. Once we reached the site we had to slip around and between boulders, walk across rotting planks, and descend through little cracks and crevices to reach the one foot tall shrine. Needless to say, it was loads of fun. After that we were picked up by Yuri's dad and whisked to her house to meet her family, eat some takoyaki (octopus balls - the special food of Osaka) and relax. The octopus balls are not nearly as scary as they sound - there is a little piece of octopus inside each battered ball, along with assorted picked things and veggies. Since we made it, we were able to make some meat-free pour moi. Spinning the balls around in the cooker (which looks similar to a waffle iron, with about 20 holes in it) is actually quite challenging - without question Drew was the best takoyaki ball spinner. It kept us entertained for hours! After that we participated in the before-bed bathing ritual (involving a shower, follow up bath and massage chair finale [I substituted the bath with an extra program on the massage chair, of course]) and went to sleep. It was an amazing day.

The next weekend Kyle's mom and her friend Cindy came for a visit! Witnessing their first encounter with this crazy culture was pretty refreshing for Kyle and I, who have become almost totally desensitized to it (for example, the chocolate label "The deep, rich flavor of milky cacao comes on strong ... then melts away to a hint of deliciousness" barely gets a chuckle from us now). We spent two weeks together - Patti and Cindy in our room, Kyle and I in the kitchen - and it was surprisingly comfortable (other than a late-night snoring session or two coming from the bedroom - sorry Patti, it had to be mentioned!). We enjoyed touring around to some places we've already seen, like Komaga-take, Tsumago, Matsumoto, and Takayama. The leaves had started changing colour in the Alps (or "arupus" as Japanese say) which made the scenery absolutely gorgeous - I've never seen patchwork colour like that before. Add to that the sulfuric mist floating up from the hot springs and it felt like a very surreal drive through the mountains.

On work days Patti and Cindy headed out on their own, around Nagoya, to Kyoto (where they stalked some Geisha), and Nara. At night we received mullet, she-man, he-woman, and funny English updates. It was great. After dinner, exhausted, Patti and Cindy would hit the sack to continue their work sawing logs for the cottage they were building in the room. During this time, Kyle discovered that paper towel bits are not effective ear plugs. (Sorry again Patti!)

On Halloween the four of us headed down to Okinawa for a few days. Since we went off-peak we were able to get cheap air + hotel package deals at a super nice hotel, and ended up with top floor, ocean-view rooms. I don't want to go on about the hotel, but it was the nicest place I've ever stayed at. Every day, without shame, I tucked our unused complimentary toiletries (for example, hairbrush, comb, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hair elastics, shampoo and so on) into our suitcase so they would replenish our supply. Thanks to the contribution from Patti and Cindy, we won't need to purchase toiletries for quite some time!

Kyle and I spent day one in Okinawa touring around with Jill (our GPS navigator). We went to see Zajimi Castle ruins, up a light house, and to a cultural amusement park where we enjoyed traditional Okinawa music, dance, art, and clothes. This is where we met Okinawa's character - Goya Man (goya is a bitter melon that looks like a spiky cucumber). Like Kitty, Doraemon, and Anpanman, he appears on all kinds of souvenir items, And, of course, the merchandising comes full circle, with Goya Man dressing up like other characters and vice versa.

Each night Patti and Cindy took turns treating us to a wonderful buffet dinner - we would descend on the cheese tray like vultures (good cheese is really hard to find here). The late night hotel entertainment was soothing - violinists, small jazzy bands and stuff. But, we could be found glued to our English language TV. The US army has (I think) four bases in Okinawa, which apparently warrants its own TV station (American Forces Network). The military news is laughable, but the public education announcements/commercials are unbelievable. Talk about dumbed-down programming. Messages like "if you drink alcohol you might get drunk", "if there isn't a sidewalk, walk on the right side of the road", "wash your hands before you eat", "if you learn the local language you will make a good impression", and "if you want to surf and there is a sign that says 'don't surf here', change your plans" were played frequently on the AFN TV and radio stations. So, soldiers are trusted with machines guns but they aren't capable of making judgment calls about things like dirty hands? Doesn't really instill a whole lot of confidence in soldiers, does it?

The next day we visited Shuri Castle, the Japanese Underground Navy Headquarters (where 4,000 Japanese committed suicide when all was lost during WWII), a glass blowing place, and then headed home. Okinawa is a beautiful, relaxing, peaceful, wonderful place to visit, and I would definitely go back. In fact, we need to go back, because we never did find Mr. Miyagi to ask him to show us the correct way to perform the crane maneuver.

A few days after we returned from Okinawa we parted ways with Patti and Cindy. They came, they saw, they packed their bags and left (once the leaves were raked on their lawns back home). Kyle and I really enjoyed having them around. They might just be the only foreigners to have visited Japan and not tried the sushi. How is that possible?!

A few weeks ago we headed to Nara (Japan's first capital city) with a bunch of friends to see Todaiji temple (home of the world's biggest Buddha). He is quite impressive. Being the special character of Nara, about 1,200 deer roam the property around the temple. Rather than satisfy my desire to get to know these beautiful, graceful animals, that kind of domesticated abundance destroyed the mystery for me. Vendors sell packs of deer cookies, and the deer just lounge around and wait to be fed. Every now and then one would get ticked off and charge a little kid, ultimately ending with a head butt, a stunned little kid and giggling Joanne (not to worry, all the males have their antlers sawed off). We walked around the temple, trying to give the fall colours the respect they deserve, then had some dinner and headed home.

Well, that's it! If you made it this far - thanks! I appreciate your interest. As a token of my gratitude, you may read the latest round of Tanka poems that a student and I wrote:

See at gloomy night
See over a long distance
See in a deep hat
These are three true means with which
You can observe a beauty

Beautiful changing seasons
Time for fresh ideas
Leaves are dying with beauty
Reflect on a year gone by

Other than coming dangerously close to receiving a mullet haircut at my first visit to the hairdresser, everything else is just fine on our end. We have been madly Christmas shopping to try and get things sent home in time, but it's tough. Since I won't send another update before Christmas and New Years, I want to wish everyone a Happy Merry Christmas and a Cheerful New Year. Cock-a-doodle-do - 2005 will be the year of the chicken!

Love you guys ...

Joanne and Kyle
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