Thursday, December 18, 2008

Food: first bite

Obviously one of the greatest changes in moving to Japan, is diet. We have land, they have sea. My appreciation of fish has grown ten fold in the last couple years, so that was one thing I could look forward to. One hang up that I had planned to hang at the door, was my preferences regarding meat. For just over a year now, I have narrowed my carnivorous scope to animals raised humanely. This worked beautifully back home, with the farmer’s market I knew exactly where my meal was coming from.

With my personal restriction designed as a critique of America’s food system, I had never planned to bring my concerns abroad. Yet being here, I find it quite difficult to shift on the matter. I walk a line of desire to try new things, wanting to be a good guest, and concern for the animal’s well being. This is a tough spot to be in, especially here.

In Japan, meat is not on the side. It is inside, on top, underneath, fused to the rest of the meal. You can order something without meat, but it will have meat. You can point out the bacon atop your salad, and they will tell you it is not meat. It is just a flavoring agent.

This is a hefty change for a formerly Buddhist/vegetarian nation. The word, vegetarian, has dropped from their vocabulary. Most people do not understand it, and not because it is English. The concept is just far too foreign. It is like the Inuit tribes with no word for murder. The practice does not exist, so why speak of it? The advice typically given to foreigners in my situation, is to say that I am “allergic” to meat. Allergies have greater universal understanding. While this tactic may work for some, it completely falls short of my purposes. Keeping the undesirable meat off the plate is half the battle, while the process of rejection is the other half.

There is the possibility that the Japanese treat their animals with the utmost care. I do not know of this one way or the other, but in this realm I pair my ignorance with cynicism. It is here that the language barrier is most trying. My greatest desire in learning the language, is to learn a little more about the food. Even then, the story may not change much. It seems to be the case that while the Japanese love food, they have no love for knowledge of food. At least not when it pertains to sourcing.

For all its flaws, America has a growing awareness of food issues, and desire to know where food comes from. Though I think there is much more to accomplish, I see that we are on the right track.

For the first two months, I went with the flow. I did not intentionally purchase meat for my meals, but I did eat what was given me. To be particular, would have been especially difficult for my 1.5 months at the Ikawa mountain school. While there, I ate school lunches with the staff and students, and dormitory dinners with the teachers. Breakfast was usually just fruit. I was also more apt to sample things out and about downtown.

Upon concluding my time at Ikawa, and returning to the heart of the city, I decided to be more proactive with my dietary concerns. Since October I have been a vegetarian in respect to land animals. If by chance, I stumble upon a small farm with some lovely chickens, or a nice slab of bacon, I may be inclined to get some. But until such an instance happens, I do not know where my meal comes from, and thus I shall avoid it all together.

Sourcing from the sea, is another can of worms that I do not wish to open today. I eat the variety of critters that come from the ocean, but even that, only to a limited extent. And less and less so.

It is unfortunate to be limiting my eating experience this year abroad. Though I will have it no other way. I do like to try new things where I can. My job is to share both the English language and western culture. Being an outspoken vegetarian seems to fit under the cultural understanding bit. While I do not preach to the students, I am eager to field their questions as to why I am eating something different. Accept it or not, it is good to know that it exists.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


We picked the season to go to Kyoto. We picked this season to go to Kyoto. This season is the season that everybody goes to Kyoto. If you like pictures of people, I have those. In between the clutter of blue skies, red temples, and yellow leaves, I was able to gather some photographs of people. I had hoped to capture these individuals in a natural state, and to this end I succeed.

It has been my observation, that people are nervous around cameras. And yet, I was able to wade through huge clusters of people, while raising no alarm with my picture taking. With disregard to the mildly overbearing presence of the historically significant temples and shrines, my people watching weekend was a fantastic success!

An out of focus person in the background, paper prayers in the foreground.

What a herd!

The Geisha look is very big in Kyoto. There are actually salons where tourists (such as these two) can pay to be all geished-up.

I came across a baseball game in the trees. If you are not within spitting distance of a baseball game, then you are not spitting hard enough.

I led my team to victory in the sand castle competition at summer camp once, but these monks are out of my league.


Aqueduct from above.

From the roof of my hostel.

A narrow street with many people, and a restaurant for each one of them.

Jackson loves the taiko arcade game, and will play at every opportunity.

I had my portrait professionally done by this machine.

The final day was a wet one. And I am a weirdo for not traveling with an umbrella.

Last moments walking around before catching my bullet train out of town.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Do the Shuffle!

I am not entirely missing out this year. Many things, seemingly unique to western culture, are still present here. A couple of the holidays that I have grown up with, have been adopted for one reason or another by my new culture. A couple of weeks ago was Halloween. Many stores set aside departments stocked in costumes, plasticy items, and candy excess. Window displays let you know who was Halloween headquarters, and everyone wanted to be. The inventory was there, but for who? The locals know Halloween, but they know it like I know Ramadan. I do nothing for Ramadan. Halloween comes to the stores, and it leaves. The merchandise actually begins to shift towards Christmas the week leading up to Halloween.

Being that our jobs involve, in part, the sharing of our culture, and we are such workhorses, many of us ALTs observed Halloween this year. We each came out in flair. Ranging from “Hey didn’t you wear that yesterday?” to “Geez, I am glad you are on my side!” The night happened at a bar on one side of town, a dance club at the other, and a packed train in between.

Among the witches and the cats, the pirates and the superheroes, there were a sad sort of souls. If you could be so kind to describe them as having souls. What they were is something that none should want to claim. An evening so full of life, and they had none. A night where the dead are walking. But dead? No, something more, maybe less.

Not living. Not dead. More shuffle than walk. And perhaps, more dance than shuffle…


But not just any zombies. These three dancing zombies were straight out of the epic music video for the 1982 Michael Jackson hit Thriller. Equipped with synchronized dance routine and all! The idea popped up over dinner less than two weeks prior to the big night. We found video dance lessons on the internet and donated a solid six nights to learning the Thriller choreography. Knowing full well it was Michael Jackson, and he is an incredible dancer, it still was more difficult than expected. The week was a pain. I was sick and getting sicker. But we stuck to the task.

Friday night, the performance. After dawning our costumes, applying makeup, and a final rehearsal, we shuffled our limbs across town to Shimizu. If zombies are to be found anywhere in Shizuoka, it is in Shimizu, the shipping port neighborhood that is dead during the day, and deader at night. A friend dressed as a witch organized a small get-together that served to start off the night. She was a good witch, in that she looked bad, and not like a super-sexed-up witch of the neo-Halloween persuasion. (I have a mild distain for costumes that favor sex appeal over scare appeal, its Halloween) The pub was a pleasant beginning, where we could show and tell costumes and do some chatting. The floor was small, and mostly occupied by stools and tables. It was requested, but Thriller would not happen there.

We smartly exited in just enough time to catch the night’s final train. At 11:30, the train was surprisingly loaded with suits. Suits, and the men inside them are not uncommon on the train. But most of the benches being occupied by such this near to midnight, was peculiar. More fun for us. For the 25 minute ride I managed to make very little eye contact and still engage my audience. Mouth agape, staring unfocused into space, I sat next to various passengers. I had my photo with some, some had their photo with me. I moaned on occasion. Some of the guys got quite excited by the influx of strange foreigners in costume, others did as they always do on the train, just stare at their lap.

We found our club, and for 1000Yen were in the door. As good a price as can be had in this town. And apparently this place has better music. Still bad hip-hop music, but better than the worse hip-hop music we could find for more money elsewhere. We danced. I wish that I could always dance like a zombie. Staying in character is so easy, as it requires complete avoidance of fluid movement. My body has a natural aptitude for ignoring fluid movement while dancing!

After establishing our zombie presence, I crept over to the DJ. Being Halloween, and Japan, Thriller should have automatically been on the playlist, but just in case, I requested it. He seemed uncertain of having it, and I was worried that he would settle for some other Michael Jackson ballad, or worse, just a sample. One does not invest a week to the study of a unique dance routine, and arrive unprepared. I reached into the pocket of my tattered jacket, and emerged with a compact disc of the very track I wanted. Mr. DJ seemed quite pleased at my undead foresight and took the disc.

It may have been another hour to pass, but our song did get played. A stage presented itself as the room’s occupants cleared to the walls. It was obvious to everyone what the song was, what we were, and what we were here for. A small dance floor that was little better than the practices on my small apartment tatami floor. We did our thing, and were pleased with it. The DJ graciously observed the entirety of the song and did not attempt to improve upon it as DJs so often do.

The club was dark, and bore no videos of our number, but we did manage to capture an alleyway encore. As originally recorded, the rough alley take, had only the music in our heads. But friends have managed to add sound after the fact.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Look over here --->

I have added my address to the sidebar on the right. The formatting is funky so acknowledge my "[line 1/2/3]" notes. Otherwise here it is:

Davin Haukebo-Bol
Shizuoka-Ken, Shizuoka-Shi
Aoi-Ku, Otowa-Cho 26-27
Haitsu 26#301
420-0834 Japan

Where we like to go large to small, they do just the opposite. Prefecture, city, ward, neighborhood, street. Please feel no obligation to send me stuff, unless of course, you do feel an obligation to send me stuff. Then, by all means, send me stuff.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Okay, so we are well overdue for an update here. I have been a busy fellow. October 10th marked my last day at the mountain school, Ikawa. The day was also an end of term for the students. And as there were only ten of them, each one had to stand up and give a speech. I could not tell you what they spoke about, for it was all Japanese. The seventh graders read their words directly off sheets of paper, the eighth graders had note cards, and the ninth graders had theirs memorized.

As their ceremony ended, the focus shifted toward me, the departing ALT. I stood on stage and the oldest student addressed me of behalf of the students and teachers. I then gave a small speech, and they gave me a couple lovely gifts. I received a photo album of my time there and an Ikawa Mempa, a handmade wooden lunchbox special to the area. At one point before receiving one, I inquired about purchasing such a lunch box. There would have been a three month wait. After their gifts, I gave them mine. I grabbed my guitar and played a song. The night before, the science teacher (whose apartment shares a wall with mine) asked me to play guitar for the teachers and students. I agreed, and shifted through the songs I know, trying to find the appropriate one. I did not find such a song, so I wrote it. At the time of its performance, the song was not yet 12 hours old. Perhaps I will post it here some time, but it is not quite ready yet. Just imagine it to be really fantastic.

With a three day weekend for a buffer, I began my time at my next school, Ozato Junior High. I live on one edge of the downtown area, and Ozato is on the other end of downtown. So it is a perfect 25 minute bike ride away. Lately I have been shopping the raingear aisles as I do intend to bike every single day. On that first day, same as Ikawa, I was asked to stand up and address the student body. Except this time it was 727 students. With 21 separate homerooms, I spent two weeks giving my self introduction lesson.

There is no questioning the differences between the city and country kids. While my last batch was quiet and shy, the current crew is what I would expect of junior high students, but with a splash of elementary maturity. On average I can dedicate at least half my day to staring at my desk, so I try to break it up by strolls through the hall. Without fail, I am confronted by students in the hall, and every conversation goes like this:

Student - “Davin, hello!”
Me - “Hello/hi/howdy”
Student – (giggles)

Sometimes there is a student that will try for a better exchange, and they do alright. But mostly it is the above conversation, and that takes place maybe three dozen times on a slow day. I am the recipient of many giggles and much attention these days. To say that I am irritated or above such attentions, would be false. I do enjoy my current celebrity and do not look forward to its eventual waning. Every teacher should meet such enthusiasm when entering the classroom.

So much more active! While Ikawa’s extracurriculars were limited to badminton, Ozato offers the works. In my free time I wander around and have watched judo, table tennis, art club, basketball, brass band, chorus, kendo, and more. In my self introduction I talk about ultimate Frisbee, and have subsequently been invited to play it with the P.E. class and an enthusiastic group of boys after lunch. One boy in particular is responsible for coming to retrieve me for game play. With them I have also played “police & thieves,” but had to turn down dodgeball, as I was sick. And in doing so, the students were quite concerned.

It goes well. I am digging this placement. The downtime is monotonous, but the rest puts me on my toes. Working alongside four different teachers for 21 classes should keep things shifting.

More to come
And plenty to say
But we’ll pickle that plum
Another day.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sports Day!

Growing up in Minnesota, my elementary school had field day. It was a once a year opportunity to skip classes for an extended period of gym. It seems the youthful jocks could not make me feel inadequate enough during our regularly scheduled gym class, so they got a special holiday for just that purpose. That was my adolescent outlook on physical education, anyway. I have since improved my ability a bit, and my attitude more so.

From what I can see, every Japanese school has a special day that translates as Sports Day. It is like American Field Day, plus a truckload of steroids. The format is as follows: Sports Day is on a Saturday. The entire school (staff & student) attends. Everyone gets the following Monday off. Everyone is divided between two teams, red and white. The day is an excuse for teachers to wear their new tracksuits. They all do. There is a great deal of pride involved, and the losing team cries. But to be fair, the victors may also cry.

I have heard accounts of these Sports Days from other ALTs. Being at a mountain school, my day was slightly different. Ikawa Junior High is the smallest junior high in the district, so they combined with the elementary school and kindergarten for a total of 22 students. This was still not enough, so the teachers and townspeople joined in. With a local population of 700, we had a turnout of roughly 200 people at the Ikawa Sports Day.

To prepare, students and staff left school after lunch on Friday and met at the elementary school, where the bigger field was located. There, a healthy handful of locals came to assist with setup. Tents were hoisted, a track was chalked, international flags flown high, and various items carried around. The tents were substantial, but probably did not require the two-dozen people that helped to put each one up. If I stood still, I was asked to help, and when I helped, I was in the way. Every age group assisted, but the retired old men ran the show. Readily available, and eager to make something, the majority of the two-dozen tent-raisers were in the retired old man faction. You have never seen such incompetence as a collection of competence with the same goal. Two-dozen master chefs destroying a simple broth. I stood aside, and the tents eventually found their way up.

The next morning, I walked with the teacher group to the elementary field (all the teachers live in the same dorm). Townsfolk trickled in, and we saw to the final touches of setup. A group of women working over numerous cutting boards and two cauldrons, oversaw the miso soup that would be for lunch. They faired much better in the group effort than their male counterparts.

There was an opening ceremony, where a guy who must be important talked, the kindergarteners took turns speaking to announce something, and the three sixth graders played some huge mountain horns that the elementary school saves for special occasions (they let me blow one once). Then everyone participated in a group stretch routine. (you saw the photos in the Thriller post) They played some goofy and really perky song over the loudspeakers that barked commands in Japanese. I started out mimicking other’s movements, but was soon very lost. I later heard that everyone learns that stretch at a young age. I missed out

The games began. The first was a goofy relay for the elementary and kindergarten. Little kids rode on shoulders as the bigger kids ran fifty paces to a pole. On the pole were loosely clipped packages of individual rice crackers. The kids grabbed them in their teeth and rode their partners back to the starting line. Then roles reversed, and the little ones led their bigger, and now blindfolded, partners to the rice cracker distribution pole. Too much fun to quit, the organizers summoned the principals and me to participate. Once blindfolded, I was given the hand of my partner. It was tiny. I was teamed with a three-year-old boy. Adorable, but not the greatest competitor.

Throughout the day the events varied greatly and had multiple categories. Men’s, women’s, youth, adult, and elderly. And not just athletic competition, but there were also exhibition events. A group of women performed as a dance troupe in special colorful outfits. Japan loves these dance routines, and makes use of them at many festivals. The same dance number was repeated a few times, and more groups joined in. There was a tug-of-war that I joined in on, losing once and winning once. The final athletic event was the adult relay, a 4X150m (approx) foot race. This was the one event I new I would be participating in with advance notice. For everything else I was dragged out. We got fourth of five.

After all the events, the fire department (who had competed, as well as the police), made use of the assembly to give a fire safety seminar and demonstrate their equipment. People took turns spraying the extinguishers in the dirt and hoses in the trees. The day was a fantastic time, and an all-around positive sporting experience. Being off in the mountains, Ikawa is free to do things a little different than the city folk. They dropped the competitive edge, and boosted the community engagement. I cannot remember if I was on the red or white team, but I do recall we lost by a small margin. I did not see any tears.