Monday, November 9, 2009

February 28th, 2010

It has long been a life goal for me to run a marathon. Yet I always pictured myself doing the race a bit further down the road. My friend Jackson did the Tokyo Marathon last year, and this year he put a little pressure on me to join him.

I applied back In August. I was notified of my placement in October. And today I started training.

I am fortunate for the race placement. I have heard about 300,000 apply, and 30,000 get in. To date, 10 miles is the furthest that I have ever run. I accomplished that feat ten years ago on a Saturday morning high school cross-country running practice. I now have 26.2 miles of Tokyo street to look forward to.

Since the start of October I have run most days. Now, under my 16 week training program, I am looking to run 5-6 days a week. It feels good. At present, my only concern is with my knees. I think I may have to do some additional strength training for them. I am not so excited about that part.

I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hello Again!

I have always relied on the kindness of strangers. This was certainly the case for my internet connection the last 15 months. Odds are, that my neighbors are not so kind as they are just slightly ignorant about modern technology. Specifically, insufficiently securing their wireless router, and thus providing free internet for the neighborhood. This worked out quite well for a while. Recently the connection has been growing more weak and less frequent. It made tasks, such as updating a blog, not worth doing. I finally just sucked it up and decided to pay for internet. It took a month and a half for them to hook me up, but here I am. It feels nice.

I am a fan of karma. One good turn deserves another. I am appreciative for the year of free internet, but I am not a fool. My router is secure, and there will be no squatters on my bandwidth.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cambodia part 1

So long, June and July. Summer vacation in Japan is just August. I suffered half of my month to sit in the Board of Education office. There, we can work without actually having to work. And that is the worst part. Summer in an office is unfortunate. Summer in a workless office is hideous. August is time for travel, and so for the second half I did.

For previous travel I have had to start with at least two train rides to Narita airport in Tokyo. This time I rode the bus to the newly opened Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Airport. From there I hopped to the much larger Incheon Airport in Seoul, South Korea. I hung out for a few hours, got excited about finding the Minnesota based coffee chain, Caribou, then I caught a plane to my ultimate destination, Cambodia.

I arrived on August 16th, at about 10pm. In my online booking I had arranged for the hotel to send a taxi. After waiting 40 minutes, I found my own ride. The driver took me to the hotel, but they were full, and seemed confused by my reservation. The driver then took me to the hotel’s “other location.” They were also confused by my reservation, but at least they had room. I went to bed in my windowless room. Rough start.

My travel companion, Jackson was not set to arrive until the 18th. I had a full day to myself, so I walked through some markets and neighborhoods of the capital Phnom Penh. Cambodia has laws, but limited enforcement. All of the street signs and traffic signals were little more than soft suggestions. The only law I saw steadily observed, was an unspoken rule similar to the food chain. Pedestrians made way for bikes, bikes moved for motorcycles, motorcycles for tuk-tuks, tuk-tuks for cars, and cars for trucks. I came closer than is comfortable in testing this hierarchy. It is engineered into my brain that cars will stop, or at least slow for pedestrians. It took a local yanking me out of harm’s way to shake this instinct.

Before Jackson’s arrival, I confirmed his reservation and taxi with the hotel. The taxi still failed. Despite the hotel’s failings, the area was quite accommodating for travelers. Many the buildings hold a strong French influence. A lasting mark of the country’s colonized past. The easiest thing, is finding a decent meal in a country that strives for the international spread of its neighbor, Thailand. Eating was always an agreeable event, and quite vegetarian friendly.

The day after Jackson arrived we took a bus to our next destination Siem Reap. The bus was no common vehicle. It came equipped with a karaoke system and wireless microphones. Upon setting out, the two guys in front of us sang Hero by Enrique Iglesias. That was the only song sung on the six hour ride, and I am ever so thankful for that. Whether it is a polite warning or a threat, it is common for the bigger vehicles to honk as they approach others on the rural roads. I will stake money on the fact that our driver beat a random pattern into the bus’s hideously screechy horn at least once every 30 seconds. The countryside was lovely.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

3 dishes

I woke up at 5:07 this morning. I never really thought about what it would be like for an entire city to wake up at the exact same time. And I was not thinking about it this morning as I jumped from mattress and positioned myself in the door frame. Things shook and made noise. I really wish that I had had the clarity to take good mental notes of this morning's earthquake. When I find myself in a new and exciting experience, my internal voice kicks in and narrates the scene until I can find some paper. There was no voice at 5:07 am. I heard noise, I saw and felt things shake.

It must have been over within a minute, but I didn't have my watch on. And it is doubtful that I would have checked it. In my apartment, things that were almost a mess, were now a mess. A mirror fell, but did not break. Less lucky was the houseplant that it fell on. The recycling was less orderly than it had been.

Casualties are limited to a glass, a cup, and a plate. The glass had come from Okinawa back in March. There are two left in the set. The mug often sported coffee and the occasional tea. It is survived by its twin. The plate, split down the middle, leaves two other plates behind. The losses of all are felt.

I picked up and dealt with the remains. Curious of the earthquake details, but more anxious for sleep, I crawled back into bed. I laid there for an hour feeling the aftershocks and hearing the alarms outside. When I did get up, I saw that the quake measured 6.4 on the Richter Scale. It struck off the coast, 20 miles S/SW of my city. None of the locals I have spoken to can remember a stronger quake in their lifetime. One lady said this was even the strongest for her 75 year old mother.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Happy 233rd!

The Fourth of July, brought with it a strong taste of home. At noon, about 15 ALTs and friends of ALTs, converged at a park a couple blocks behind my house. This was convenient for me, as I biked there with a grill in hand. The grill always takes about an hour to get going. The available charcoal is simple burnt wood. A nice burn, but a pain to set fire to. In the meantime, there were plenty of other potluck options.

I then set up the lawn game. Earlier that morning I went to the big hardware store, Jumbo Encho. Its like Menards, but not owned by a jerk (I have no idea who owns Jumbo Encho). In addition to a box of charcoal, I was hoping to find some form of driveway marking stick. There are few driveways in Japan, so I was not sure how to communicate this. Finding some wooden dowels was easy. Tracking down an employee was difficult. Once I had someone, I showed him the dowel, and asked for a plastic version. He understood instantly and took me to some corner. The clear plastic tubes he showed me were expensive, questionably flexible, and a meter at best. These would not do.

I was making to leave when another possibility caught my attention. Long, brown, organic, I eyed up some bamboo sticks. I am not sure what their purpose was, perhaps fishing rods. All I cared, was that they were cheap and absolutely perfect for the best yard game since the advent of gaming in yards.

I widdled a couple feet off each of the four sticks. I then placed them in pairs a frisbee and a fist apart, and approximately 25 feet from the other pair. The game is Cups, and I learned it at an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in college. I have played very little Ultimate Frisbee in recent years, but Cups has become a staple. Until I came to Japan, I was always in possession of one, maybe two, sets. Upside-down plastic cups are placed on the sticks. Players throw a frisbee and knock off/catch cups for points. Simple, and great for people of any frisbee ability.

I teamed up with a Canadian, Rob, and we went 3-0. We probably could have kept the court all afternoon, but we opted to let more folks try. Playing Cups for the first time in eleven months, was seriously an exciting event. Lawn space is sparse, but I hope to get many more games in.

Once the grill was finally ready, I threw on my black bean burgers. Something about the Fourth of July demands grilling, and I abide. Folks were curious about my meatless burgers, but anxious to try. I was so busy running around, that I let the patties go a bit dry. Fortunately I was able to wash it down with a fine selection of American brew. I stood outside that morning, waiting for the import store to open so that I could buy up their entire selection of American beer. I came away with Anchor Steam, Brooklyn Lager, and Samuel Adams. Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi... Take a hike!

The day ended by doing something very un-American. We went to a soccer match. My friend Mark had some free tickets, and I had wanted to see a game for a while. Even though I had threatened Mark all week long with tar & feathering if he came to the Fourth of July (he's British), he still shared his tickets. What a chap!

I did purchase a package of fireworks, we launched a few bottle rockets and blasted a couple of roman candles. Most of my explosives remain, and so I will have to find other events to commemorate with combustion. There was no big fireworks display for the Fourth, but the big boom season is just around the bend here in Japan. Late July through August has plenty of fireworks shows in nearby cities. I am certain to be satiated of any sulfurous lust.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

...the news

Way back in the beginning of February I was presented with a rather tough decision. Upon making up my mind, I began telling friends and family, but I neglected to make any large announcement. Then I just started assuming everyone knew. Some friends have recently asked about my upcoming plans, and I realized the lapse in my communication.

My English teaching position works on a yearly contract, and I can extend it up to five years. While some folks come here with five years in mind, I was quite resolute about staying for only one year. I was only six months into my contract when the paperwork for the following year came due. It was a simple sheet of paper that required date, signature, and a circle of yes or no. I signed and dated it, and then I stared. I stared at it up until the last moment of submission.

YES. I am staying in Shizuoka, Japan, teaching English until August 2010.

Coming here was easy. Deciding whether or not to stay, tore me apart. I am exceedingly grateful for my time abroad, but I do long for home. I have a great job, a good living situation, and the whole eastern hemisphere to explore. Economic security is generally not a significant factor in my decision making process, but now seems a proper time for exception. …Times is tough.

Alas, my triumphant return to the States is postponed to the tune of one year. I will be back. In the meantime, for those of you hankerin’ to see Japan, the window for visitation has now been extended.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Nakawarashina Elementary

Right now, during the peak of the school term, I am going on elementary school visits about once a week. I show up at a school, have a brief meeting with a teacher, and we go over the lesson plan that they have, hopefully, prepared. In a typical lesson I give a shortened version of my self introduction, they ask a ton of questions, we practice simple vocabulary/alphabet/numbers, and then we play a couple games where I stand back and let them scream.

Last Friday I went to Nakawarashina Elementary School. Getting there required a 30 minute bus ride, and a 15 minute car ride from the vice-principal. The school is out in the mountains. It is small. There are two students. The 5th and the 6th grader are taught together. At their disposal are a principal, vice-principal, and I think two teachers.

We had a lesson where we worked on numbers 1-30, then we went on a hike to a nearby overlook. I watched as the two boys gave a serious beating to a tree stump with some sticks. We got back and it was not yet lunch time, so they opened up a shed and brought out a set of wooden clubs for some form of golf game. The students, the teachers, and I all played the four-hole course. I took second place to one of the students.

Lunch was delivered and ready to eat. It was a sunny day so we sat outside at a table beneath an awning. They pretty much eat out there everyday. As per usual, my peanut butter & jelly sandwich and carrot were quite amusing to everyone. After a break I gave another lesson. This time their mothers came to watch and participate. We all worked on pronouncing numbers together. A lot of time spent on 13 and 30, a lot. After class the students went off to play and I gave my self introduction again. This time for the vice-principal, the teacher, and the mothers.

I then had a little time to hang out before it was time to go. I was reading a book when the vice-principal came to give me a tour of the school. He showed me the science room with a kiln, so it also doubled as a clay-firing art room. There was a home ec. room, and a technology room with some pricey items. The mountain schools always get the nicest stuff.

The last stop was the history room. Along the four walls were pictures detailing the history of the school. The school has been there since 1890. The buildings have changed, but there was always a school. The older pictures showed much more traditional architecture. Moving across the timeline, one could see all the typical transitions of time. Uniforms disappeared, bodies became less posed and more active, and even some smiles began to show up in the seventies.

Another thing that the images captured was the shrinking numbers. The vice-principal showed me a long vertical chart printed off a computer. It had a line for each year of the school from 1890-2010. When the school began its numbers were around 60 students. That climbed a little bit into the next century, but has since dropped. Especially in the last couple decades have the numbers been decreasing.

Next year one of the students will be graduating and moving on to junior high. It is likely that Nakawarashina Elementary School, for the first time in 120 years of operation, will be closing its doors. When asked, the vice-principal was not sure of what would happen. He seemed mostly concerned that his student would have a playing companion. It has been the opinion of everyone I have spoken to, including my own, that a school for two students seems a bit ridiculous and probably should not exist. The vice-principal did not seem to take any issue with his 40 minute commute to a rural mountain placement overseeing two students. That math did not disturb him. It is the thought of one kid and no friend to play with that seems to justify closing the book on over a century of history.

I can not argue with that.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

That's a Wrap.

On Friday night, my buddy Jackson celebrated his 30th birthday by throwing a YouTube party. After going out to dinner, about ten folks gathered at my apartment to watch a selection of YouTube videos projected on the wall. Everyone in attendance had previously submitted their choice for screening.

Once we were half way through the video list, I added another selection:

I have been absent from video editing for too long, and so about a month ago I started a project. These days I do not have a video camera, so I must settle for what I do have. And that is a pretty good digital still camera. Digging through my archive of Japan photos, I settled on an album from Halloween. I previously blogged about dressing up and doing the Thriller Dance for Halloween, but a week earlier we had gone to a costume party on the other side of Mt. Fuji.

I took a ton of pictures that night, but my favorite series was Jackson covered in bubble wrap. I chose to ignore almost every other person at the party, and make Jackson the focus. In doing so, I removed the suggestions of Halloween and created a bizarre bubble-wrapped character. Making the video has owned the last month of my life. I took about two dozen images and made a three minute video. It was a good learning (and re-learning) experience, as well as a pain in the ass.

The video was well received by the birthday boy and everyone else. I am hoping that I can retain this momentum, and kick out a few more productions soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Greening Up.

It is with a poor sense of timing that I now grow some roots, literally...

I have had a yard, big or small, pretty much all my life. But not once did I care to garden. When I was little, I resisted every overture of my parents to help with the weeding. That was their project, not mine. And until you could show me a flower that grew Doritos, I was not about to care. Just before coming here, I had begun to help occasionally with a campus/community garden. But even then, I was just backup to be called upon in a pinch.

I have spent most of my time having the resources, but not the ambition to plant some seeds. Now that I am on the other side of the world, these factors have flipped. I have been increasingly motivated to grow some things as of late. It started as a couple indoor potted projects in the winter, and they have now moved outside. I have no lawn to speak of, and the same goes for the rest of the neighborhood. I am working from my third floor balcony, to the right of the washing machine, and the left of the air conditioner.

Currently there are four troughs: the first has two tomato pants, the second has lettuce/basil/mint, the third has green pepper/mystery Thai pepper 1#, and the fourth has spinach. In pots: there are six chive sets, a parsley plant, aloe, mystery Thai pepper 2#, and a bipolar strawberry plant.

We hoped for cilantro, but ended up with parsley. It works well in falafel at least. I think I am compensating for something, a lack of interaction with nature. Maybe I just like having the project. My predecessor left me a mini hammer that I just put to use making a shelf for the troughs to sit atop the AC unit. It is always a fun trip to bike back from the gardening shop, bikes loaded down with organic soil, plants, and cut boards.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Break Okinawa!

After a little airport excitement (lots of running) in Tokyo, we had a spacious relaxing flight. Okinawa welcomed us with soggy arms. The city Naha has a nice monorail that gave us a dry view of the wet city, while bringing us to the hotel.

The hotel was near the main drag, and so we hit it up the first night. The street has the restaurants of local fare as well as American inspired. Gift shops pouring onto the sidewalk, mostly selling the same wears as the next shop. Okinawa does have some colorful items to shop through. They are quite proud of the regional sake, awamori. It is a stronger batch, and if you pay enough, it comes with a snake inside. I tried it, tastes like sake to me, not impressed.

The next morning we strolled down to the docks with all our gear on our backs. We did not stroll fast enough, as all the ferries were gone for the day. Our hopes of going out to another island were momentarily dashed. Plans were altered, and we bussed up to the northern end of the main island. There are some closer islands up there.

In our new area we found the docks just as they were closing. No ferries this day. We did however make it to a small island connected by a bridge. Once on the island, a fellow working a roadside food stand told us which beach permitted camping. The beach right under the overpass, okay. The night was the first trial of a new tent bought specially for Okinawan beach camping. The rain came out heavy, but did not come in. We thought we parked it safe, but morning light showed that the tide had come up to lick the tent.

The next day we headed back south. We stopped in Nago for awhile and got a tour of the Orion Beer Brewery. There was also plans for seeing a pineapple themed amusement park/winery, but doing so would require missing the last highway bus. I really wanted to ride the pineapple carts.

Back in Naha, we played it safe, and stayed in a hostel near the docks. The next morning we were then able to catch a ferry out to Kume-Jima. A four hour boat ride to the furthest of Okinawa's first island set. There are three sets. We both managed to keep our food where it belongs on the ocean ride. Not all passengers displayed such fortitude.

Once arrived, there was confusion as to which bus was ours, or whether we even had a bus. The lady behind the counter grabbed her keys and gave us a lift to our beach destination a few miles away. Lovely. Our literature spoke well of this beach that was off the beaten path. Tide was out, and we could have walked a ways out. Everywhere were mounds of rocks and seaweed. If your passion is collecting shells and coral pieces, this is your beach.

The kind dock lady was s quick to give us a ride, we did not even have time to evaluate our resources. Once we decided to find dinner, it became evident how removed our location was. Taking a good sized walk, we were able to find some snacky basics between a small store and an airport giftshop. The walk did showcase some nice farmland.

After filling up on our snack meal, we wandered into the building 20 feet to the right of our tent. It was a small shop/bathroom/hangout to oversee the beach. This night it had an older lady on duty and two guys hanging out, one old, one younger. She was watching a documentary on TV about Okinawa, and they were playing a local stringed instrument and singing traditional songs. If they sang too loud, she turned up the volume on her show. The trio welcomed the presence of Lindsay and I. The lady gave us bizarre little snacks long after we were filled, and the guys bought us some beers.

I came across this cryptic message on the beach.

The morning's goal was to catch a bus to the other side of the island for the primary beach and a higher traffic area. Walking back to the little store, we found the bus stop. It listed a bus once an hour, most hours. The bus time came and went. We saw nothing. A guy across the street came out of his house and asked what we were doing. He gave us a ride to the other beach in his car decorated with Lilo & Stitch items. It seems that here, spring break does not correspond with tourist season. Except for wandering locals, the sand was empty. A non-camping beach, we had to walk a couple miles to a health spa/campground that rented us some grass in their backyard. Down on the shore, some ladies were harvesting the green stuff off of the rocks. We saw this a few times.

Sadly, we never swam. But we did get our feet wet. We walked the couple miles back into town and were able to get a warm meal, Mexican. A welcome change to the convenience store camp food. With plenty of doubt, we were actually able to catch a bus back to the docks the next day. The ferry seemed a little quicker the way back, and we got a semi-Japanese style hotel in our original neighborhood close to the monorail.

The trip was three nights camping on/near beaches, two hotels, and one hostel. We never stayed in the same place twice, and much of the time we spent walking with all our gear on our backs. Much time was lost moving from one area to another, as it seemed we were always in transit. Camping was our goal, but hotels were needed when we were trying to get from one place to the next. The trip was great, but far from a relaxing day at the beach.

There and back we rode in a Pokemon plane. Japan!

I am growing familiar with the train rides back from the Tokyo airport.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Thai'd up

We woke and packed ourselves out of the Chinatown guesthouse, walked to the nearest dock, and caught the river taxi north to our next neighborhood. After settling in on Khao San, we went up to the roof to relax by the pool.

We spent a fair amount of time walking up and down Khao San, the parallel streets, and winding passages that connect them. It was your one stop tourist shop. Everything you could want as Thailand memorabilia was sold there. And while the vendors probably saw a healthy mark-up, the prices were still reasonable. Certainly the best collection of tshirts I have seen anywhere. For all of its commercial activity, the street was still great. All the food was cheap and delicious. The merchants were locals. The community was quite international.

The next morning was our last. We checked out and headed for some more sights. First stop was the Golden Mount, a giant artificial hill with a golden bell-like object on top. It was too giant for my small camera to handle, so please enjoy this photo of some small bells, also found atop the Golden Mount.

The next stop was Wat Suthat, a meticulously neat and ornate temple. The hot Bangkok sun was bouncing off of everything including the shiny tiles on the ground. On occasion a monk would pop out, going about his business. Us tourist folk were free to wander the lovely grounds and snap our photos.

Inside a large central building sat a substantial bronze Buddha. To his front a monk was leading a small service for a group of worshipers and/or tourists. To take a close look at the tall dark walls, I could see an unending spread of story telling pictures.

The sun had peaked and was starting its descent. We started our lengthy walk back toward the hostel, where our bags were kept. This stretch offered a better look of some everyday Bangkok life. Construction workers, laundry hangers, and a fresh market buried along the riverbank.

Slowly walking through the market to eat all the curries, fish, and vegetables with my eyes. Here and there the setting sun would find a hole in the tarps and junk piles, illuminating an otherwise hidden pocket of color. The whole tent was ready to burst with radiance, but the locals managed to keep some order by hiding their market in tarps, and repressing the dangerous colors.

We quickened our walk by cutting over to the river and taxiing up a few stops. The move was further improved upon by catching the sunset from the riverbank. The sun did its thing, and went away. We ate a last meal on the tourist drag, and used up the remainder of our baht on a few end of trip purchases. Bags on back, we wandered the street until shuttling to the airport for a 2am flight home.

Thailand is the best place yet.