Lots of stuff has been going on since I last posted, but I've been lazy and haven't gotten around to updating.

On the 15th, I attended the MINNA no Salon Christmas party, where we decorated cookies. I was asked to talk about Christmas in America, which I did...in English, because that was what they requested. Of course, most people there couldn't understand English, so I threw in lots of acting to go along with my speech. Then they had me stand at the front of the room and sing Christmas carols along with a CD. The party concluded with a bingo game in which I won a cute Christmas coffee mug.

Classes ended on the 21st, and that evening I attended the year-end faculty party. It was at the same hotel as last year. Sadly, out of the entire lavish buffet, the only things I could eat were the garlic bread, the scalloped potatoes, and the dessert. (I counted myself lucky that they didn't put bacon in the potatoes.) I had this amusing interaction with the teacher next to me:

Teacher: Can I pour you some beer for the toast?

Me: No thank you. [I dislike the taste of beer.]

Teacher: You're vegetarian, right?

Me: ...Yes... <wonders what this has to do with beer>

Later, the principal comes to the table and offers to pour me some beer.

Me: No thank you.

Teacher: She's vegetarian.

...I do not think that word means what he thinks it means...

Anyway, after that, I set about cleaning my apartment for the guests who will be coming to visit. My endeavors, however, kept getting interrupted. Yesterday I was puncturing old aerosol cans (as required) before throwing them away. One of them turned out to be mostly full, and it sprayed fumes everywhere, setting off my carbon monoxide detector (which I didn't even know I had) and forcing me to open the door and air the apartment out (despite the cold). Today, I was just in the middle of vacuuming one of the guest rooms when a pile of light bulbs that I had set aside to be recycled fell on the floor and shattered into a bijillion pieces. Oh joy.

I also took a trip to Kyoto today to go shopping. While I was there, I used the opportunity to attempt to cash a check that had been sent to me earlier. (Banks aren't open on weekends, so it was the only chance I had in months to go to the bank where the check was supposedly payable.) I learned that Japanese banks really don't understand checks.

Me: Here's the check, please give me my money.

Teller: We can't give you cash.

Me: ...Why not?

Teller: The money is at the bank where the check was written. It will take several business days for that money to be transferred here. Therefore, we cannot give you cash now, because we don't have the money here.

Me: You mean I have the check RIGHT HERE IN MY HAND, but you're refusing to give me my money?

Teller: Well, we could deposit the money into your bank account when it arrives here.

Me: Okay.

Teller: But the fee for doing that will be <names a sum four times the amount that the check is worth>.

Me: That's absurd.

Teller: If you wanted cash, you should have had the person give you cash in the first place instead of making a check.

Me: ...

Oh Japan. There are just no words for your insanity. No words at all.

On the bright side, I'm leaving early in the morning to meet [livejournal.com profile] wednesday_10_00, [livejournal.com profile] mangaroo, and [livejournal.com profile] sara_tanaquil in Tokyo. I'll be spending the week there with them, and then we're all coming back to my place for a few days. I hope they forgive my apartment's remaining clutteredness, but after the incidents above, I just don't have the spirit to clean any more.
I ordered a couple things at Amazon Japan yesterday. However, as my credit card expires this month, they didn't want to take that as payment. So, I switched the payment method to "pay at a convenience store," which is a popular method here. There happens to be a 7-11 two blocks from my school, so I thought I'd saunter down there during my free time, pay, and be all set.

The way this is supposed to work is that they type in a little number on the cash register, you pay, and they print you out a receipt. I opened up the email, wrote down the big number at the top, and walked down to the 7-11...in the rain. (Yes, it would choose today to rain.)

The cashier tried to type the number in, but it wouldn't take. The register just kept beeping at her. There was nothing for me to do but walk back to work.

I checked the email again, and this time I scrolled down to the very bottom to find a much smaller "payment number." It seems the number I had written down was Amazon's order number. Oh, well. I printed out the entire page (just so I could show it to the cashier, so she could read it and know I'm not crazy, just dense) and took it back to the store.

It still didn't work.

I walk back to school again. Still in the rain.

I open up the email again and input the web address they listed for questions about payment. After clicking through several links, I discovered that the "payment number" only works at certain convenience store chains, not including 7-11. For 7-11, I had to open a special page and print out an order form with a barcode that they can scan into the register. Joy.

I get that printed out and hike back to the store. This time it works, thank goodness.

At least I know my order is paid for, now. Oh, and one bright spot is that I was able to buy some packs of Korean-style Nori Tempura Chips, the taste sensation to which I am quickly becoming addicted, while I was there.
I pitched a little fit at work yesterday when I found that not only had someone wanting to use the microwave unplugged the refrigerator (instead of the pot of hot water--because we simply MUST have tea available at all times), the person left it unplugged when finished.

Unseemly of me, perhaps. But when comparing a pot of hot water with the perishables of the entire faculty, use a little common sense, people.

Today the microwave was moved to a new location with its own outlet. Much better.

My "American Culture" workshop using Supernatural went pretty well yesterday. I started by spending about 30 minutes going over the vocabulary in the first ~7 minutes of the episode. (Imagine explaining the Bradys and the Huxtables to Japanese high school girls.) Then we watched those few minutes (another teacher got the key for me, yay!).

The thing that surprised them the most was that Baby!Sam had his own bedroom. That is completely unheard of here. Japanese babies always sleep with their parents. The students were amazed when I pointed out the little microphone device the parents used to hear the baby in the baby room during the night. An American watching the show would probably know right away what it was, but my students had never heard of such a thing; they thought it was a radio.

It really is interesting how much more is involved in watching a TV show than being able to understand the vocabulary (and even that is hard enough).

I think next time I should give the students copies of a US map so they have a better idea of where these things are taking place. Setting the location in Kansas (like the opening scene) has certain associations that are hard to pick up on if the only places in America you know are New York, California, and Hawaii.
Before I start the tour, I thought I would comment on something from yesterday. My family had sent me a package of chocolate, so I decided to share some with the school. I filled a bunny-decorated basket with chocolate and left it on the front desk of the faculty office with a note saying "Happy Easter."

I'm pretty far away from the front desk, so I didn't hear many comments about it, but one was loud enough to reach me.

Student: What's "Happy Eater"?

Teacher: That's EASTer.

Student: ...What's Easter?

Easter as a holiday is almost completely unknown here. I doubt this is because it is a religious holiday--Christmas and St. Valentine's Day are practically Japanese traditions now (and are both considered approximately equivalent to each other). Halloween is gaining ground as well, probably due to the wild popularity of Nightmare Before Christmas on top of a decade of JET ALTs teaching their classes about it.

I'm pretty sure that Easter's obscurity is related to its timing. When it comes early, it's in the middle of spring break, so ALTs have no way to teach classes about it. (This year, for example, classes don't start until Thursday, by which time Easter has been over for days.) When it comes late in April, it's right before the week-long string of national holidays making up Golden Week, so not only does it pale in comparison, teachers are scrambling to get some kind of actual teaching done before the students lose concentration entirely and don't have time to spend on a just-for-fun topic.

Whatever the cause, 99% of students have never heard of it. (The remaining 1% would be those from the appropriate religious backgrounds.) I think it's a shame, because Easter can be a really fun holiday, but oh well.

Anyway, on with the tour. Today I will concentrate on the gymnasium.

The big concern about the gym is keeping the floor clean. The main entrance on the ground floor has an area for visitors to remove their outdoor shoes, plus shoe lockers for students to change into gym shoes. However, the second floor entrance does not have such an area. Therefore, the second floor entrance will be considered off-limits for most purposes.

The ground floor of the gym has practice rooms for various clubs. The first is the kendo room. This school has a very strong kendo club. The next is the judo room. The rubber mats on the floor have been molded to look like tatami (closeup). Finally, there is an all-purpose fitness room with stationary bikes, treadmills, weights, and other exercise equipment.

The restrooms in the gym are supplied with several sets of bathroom slippers. This is to keep "bathroom germs" out of the rest of the gym.

The second floor of the gym has the basketball court area. The far end of the court is the stage. This is where all school assemblies are held. Note that there are no bleachers. All students and faculty either stand or sit on the floor. (Folding chairs are supplied on occasions where parents/guardians are present, such as for graduation.) I have never seen bleachers at any Japanese school.

The third floor of the gym is just a balcony that circles around the edge of the court. I believe it can be used as a track for running practice.

Outside the gym is the ground for more sports practice. In the foreground of the photo is the tennis area, with a soccer area in the background. There is a further sports area beyond the range of the photo, where groups such as the baton-twirling club can practice. Note again that there are still no bleachers for spectators.
Monday I went to the new Ritsumeikan campus for my first day of work. The term hasn't officially started, yet, however, so things were still being organized. The first item on the agenda was a faculty meeting to discuss such serious topics as the order in which the students should line up during the opening ceremony and making sure to explain in great detail where and how students must change shoes upon entering the gym.

After the meeting, teachers were assigned desks in the faculty room. High school faculty have their office in the Media Center, which is in the middle of campus. I was told that the English teachers could choose to have their desks in another building (where most of the English classes will be taught), but I wanted to stay in the same building as the school library.

In the afternoon, the various departments got together to discuss class assignments. My classes were already designated, so I just received a copy of what my responsibilities will be. In addition to me, there are four other English teachers in charge of the former Moriyama Girls' School students (now seniors). The class duty list goes like this...

Teacher 1: 10 hours per week
Teacher 2: 10 hours
Teacher 3: 10 hours
Teacher 4: 11 hours
ALT: 18 hours

So I'll be attending nearly twice as many classes as any of the other teachers. This is about the same course load as I had last year; the difference is that this time I will be teaching some of the non-English majors to make up for not having to teach any underclassmen.

And now, on to the start of the new campus tour. You will have to excuse the poor quality of some of the pictures. I hadn't realized that my camera battery was running low, so I rushed to snap shots before it died on me. I was also unable to take as many pictures as I wanted. I will continue to post more in upcoming entries when I get the chance to return with a recharged battery.

For today, I decided to concentrate on an area of much interest to me: the faculty restroom (in this case, for women). Up until now, I have avoided using the school bathroom...because frankly, my experiences with school bathrooms have been very poor. All the ones I've been in had Japanese-style toilets only, cold water (even in winter), and no soap. For the past couple years, I would just walk across the street and use the bathroom in my apartment instead. However, the new campus is a ten minute bike ride from my apartment, so that option was out.

Luckily, the faculty restroom is very well appointed. On the left side of the room are two Japanese-style toilets, but on the right side there are an additional three Western-style toilets. Each stall has an emergency buzzer on the wall (the orange button).

The Western-style toilets have all the modern conveniences, starting with heated seats. In the winter, this makes life SO much more tolerable. Here you can see the control panel of the toilet with all of its functions, including a bidet setting and a "flushing sound." As some of you probably already know, Japanese women are extremely embarrassed for other people to hear them using the bathroom. At one time, they would repeatedly flush the toilet to cover the sound. This was clearly a waste of water. The solution that was developed was to have small devices installed on the stall walls that would make a flushing noise (or sometimes other noises, even songs) at the press of a button. Here such a device has been incorporated into the toilet itself.

And finally, to top it all off--soap! "Stay healthy and Smile!"
A while back, I reported about the hospital that instituded a non-smoking taxi stand. Last night on the news, there was a story about the hospital patients complaining that the non-smoking taxis still smelled of smoke. The news program researched this, and they found that the problem is the drivers.

When a patient comes out the door of the hospital, the first stand is the non-smoking taxi stand, and the regular taxi stand is behind it. The taxi drivers, knowing that human nature is to take the first taxi one sees, all want to be at the first stand in line. Therefore, they buy magnetic non-smoking signs and slap them on their taxis so they can line up at the first stand.

However, they don't particularly care about being non-smoking. The drivers themselves smoke (when passengers aren't in the car), and they allow passengers to smoke when asked. When they are working other areas of the city in the evenings, they take off the non-smoking signs and run as regular smoking taxis.

The news crew went to ask the people in charge of regulating taxis what is being done about this, since there have been so many complaints. They were told, "We're leaving it up to the morals of the drivers." The news crew was particularly concerned about this because Nagoya (and here I'm not sure whether they meant the whole city or just the train station) is requiring all of its taxis to be non-smoking starting in May. There needs to be some kind of penalty for smoking in a non-smoking taxi.

Edit: Oh, also, I saw the funniest commercial during the news. It was a commercial to prevent people from doing something terrible that causes the commercial's creators to worry about the future of society. (Yes, they actually say that.) Go ahead, guess. Doing drugs? No. Dropping out of school? No. Gay marriage? Of course not.

It was a commercial to prevent people from eating fast food on trains. Yes, that is on the verge of causing the downfall of society right there, folks.

At school, the closing ceremony is tomorrow. Next week is spring break. The first week of April is mostly break, but there are a couple of days that teachers are required to show up for departmental meetings and such. The official opening ceremony will be on April 9.

I neglected to mention this past weekend that I finally scraped together enough to purchase my epic flying mount. (It costs 5000 gold to get the necessary training to ride it, plus 200 gold for the mount itself.) It flies SO FAST. I love zipping around on it, dropping out of the sky to pick random flowers, then zooming away again.

White Day

Mar. 15th, 2007 10:18 am
March 14th (exactly one month after Valentine's Day) is known as White Day in Japan. On Valentine's Day, women give chocolate to men. On White Day, men give some kind of present back in return, also often chocolate. This year, I brought in a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies on Valentine's Day and handed them out. For White Day, I received one package of chocolates all wrapped up from a chocolate specialty store, plus a KitKat that someone left on my desk secretly while my back was turned.

Aside from that, I haven't been doing much. Final exams are done and handed back, so the students are just watching movies and such, waiting for the closing ceremony next week.

Trivia of the day: Japanese hot dog buns come with a vertical split down the center of the top of the bun, making it open like a V, rather than a horizontal split along the side. They are used not only to hold hot dogs, but also yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), which I imagine would spill out if the split were horizontal.

In Warcraft, my main character has acquired a Talbuk mount. This mount is only sold by a particular faction. In order to purchase the mount, you have to get the members of this faction to like you by killing their enemies, thereby raising your reputation. The requirement is to become "exalted" (the highest level of reputation), which takes killing literally thousands of ogres. I don't really want to see any more ogres for a while... My next project is gaining enough gold to purchase an epic flying mount, which goes much faster than my current gryphon. I'm 80% of the way to the purchase price. (It's VERY expensive.)

I'm also still leveling alts. Tip: Never try taming a new pet the same level as you are when you have resurrection sickness. >_<
Japanese Oreos come in bags of 18 cookies. (This information is displayed right on the package. If you look at the image in the link, the text reads: "Contains 2 packs of 9 cookies.")

US Oreos come in packages of what I estimate to be 45 cookies. (The web site doesn't tell you this. It only says it contains 18 ounces, however many cookies that may be. I looked up on a nutrition site that one serving = three cookies, and Nabisco's nutrition info says there are "about 15" servings per container. 3 × 15 = 45)

Make of this trivia what you will.

Personally, I prefer the bag that tells me how many cookies are inside, rather than how much the cookies weigh. But maybe that's just me.

This message brought to you thanks to my sudden craving for Oreos (after spotting them at the supermarket), which I hadn't eaten in well over two (three?) years.
Friday was a national holiday (Culture Day). I went with the MINNA no Salon crew to Hikone for a festival.

We started out by taking a tour of Hikone Castle. I went there before while I was studying Japanese at JCMU, so that wasn't anything new. Afterward, however, we went out to eat at a Japanese restaurant in a part of town I had never visited. The restaurant made a special vegetarian meal for me that was superb.

When lunch was over, I wandered back to the castle area to watch the parade that was the main event of the day. There were lots of people lined up along the road, but I was lucky enough to find a spot behind some people sitting down, so I managed to get some decent pictures.
  1. Parade pic 1
  2. Parade pic 2
  3. Parade pic 3
  4. Parade pic 4
  5. Parade pic 5

Most of the people in the parade were demonstrating the clothing from long ago. However, the last picture was instead to display the skill of doing various acrobatic feats at the top of a ladder. The men with hooks would gather around the bottom of the ladder, using the hooks on a lower rung to hold it pointed straight up, while one man would climb to the top and hang at various angles.

Ladder acrobatics

I took a short movie of the ladder guys with my digital camera, which would have been really nifty to share. However, I automatically tilted the camera on end to get the whole ladder in the view...totally not realizing that this would make the movie come out sideways. Erg.

EDIT: For those who don't mind turning their heads (or monitors!) sideways, here is the movie file of the ladder acrobatics. (43MB .mpg)

I was wrangled into running the December MINNA no Salon meeting/Christmas Party. The suggestion was to make gingerbread cookies. I can probably handle that.

Saturday I took advantage of the nice weather and tried to catch up on my laundry. (I have a dryer, but if I put too much in it--say, more than three pairs of pants--it tends to overheat before the clothes are totally dry.)

Sunday I started the day by clearing off my kitchen table and making a fresh batch of tortillas. (Mmm...so goooood...)

After that, the rest of my time was spent in a Warcraft raid on Blackwing Lair. It was supposed to last around four hours, but we kept going and beating more bosses and it eventually stretched to over eight hours. We defeated the first six bosses and only quit when Chromaggus (the second-to-last boss) wiped the floor with us.
I've been slacking on updating my journal lately. Sorry about that. (But I've gotten Snowbunny up to level 55...)

Last week was my school's annual three-day culture/sports festival. The theme was Cultural Fusion to show that the cultures of the previous girls' school students and the new Ritsumeikan students are blending together. (Their first suggestion was "Cultural Assimilation," but I vetoed that because it sounded like the girls were being assimilated by the Borg Ritsumeikan.) The new school nickname, by the way, has apparently been fixed as "Ritsumori," although it is often shortened just to "Ritsu."

Wednesday and Thursday were the "cultural" days of the festival, during which the students put on performances and clubs showed off their products. For example, a couple classes performed Cinderella, like this version in which all the supporting characters were wearing traditional Japanese clothes. My senior class did a retrospective of their three years--this is the one where I was recruited to play myself (except even more melodramatic). They had one scene where three girls had a conversation in front of a "mirror," with three other girls acting as their reflections as they fixed their hair and did such things as accidentally drop something. That got cries of amazement from the audience. Friday was the sports competition portion of the festival.

This week we were back to classes as usual...though getting the students back on task after all the festival excitement was a bit of a challenge. It will be interrupted yet again next week, as the second-year students are going on a class trip to Hokkaido. Friday afternoon I gave an after-school lesson to the group of students who will be going on a two week homestay in Australia over winter break. That was rather interesting, because about a third of them are freshmen, so I've never taught them before.

They also handed out the information about this year's faculty year-end party. The plan is for it to be held at a fancy hotel, and the meal is a Western food buffet. The price is about $80, about a quarter of which is for all-you-can-drink privileges. I looked at the sample list of items on the brochure for the buffet...out of about a dozen items, the only vegetarian offerings were a tomato/mozzarella dish, garlic bread, and an apple dessert. At least it's a buffet, so I can theoretically take as much as I want of the things I can eat. Tomato + mozzarella + bread is practically pizza, right? ...$60 pizza, to be sure.

The weather has turned cooler now that fall is here. The one thing I enjoy about the Japanese obsession with the seasons is that the food available during the fall is absolutely delicious. Sweet potatoes and pumpkins in particular abound.

...And speaking of pumpkins, I saw something interesting on the news the other day. Universal Studios Japan has recently opened a new Wizard of Oz attraction. As background, I must mention that there is a traditional summer beach game here called "split the watermelon." It's similar to the tradition of breaking a piñata in that participants are blindfolded, given a stick, and sent out to whack something. The main difference is that they whack a watermelon that is lying on the ground. (It doesn't even move! Where's the challenge in that?!) What I saw on the news was that USJ was having a special "split the pumpkin" event at the Wizard of Oz attraction in honor of Halloween. They gave out wicked witch costumes and brooms to children and had them whack on a giant pumpkin. It was certainly amusing.

Warcraft Update: Several weeks ago, my guild managed to reach the final boss of Molten Core, Ragnaros. We didn't take him down that time, but we got him to about 14% life. Today we ventured into another instance, the Temple of Ahn'Qiraj. It's a 40-person instance, but we only had 24 people show up. Still, we managed to fight our way to the first boss.
Since Monday this week was a national holiday (Respect for the Aged Day), I got to enjoy a three-day weekend. I was invited to go to a culture festival in Otsu on Sunday. Since there was a typhoon moving in, they were afraid the weather would be bad, but it turned out to be nice and sunny in the morning.

The theme of the festival was Ee yan ka olé. The phrase ee yan ka is Kansai-ben (the local dialect). It literally translates as "It's okay, isn't it!" but the meaning is closer to "What the hell, why not!" or "No problem!" The olé was added to make it more culturally diverse, I imagine.

My group took a bus to Otsu. The main attraction was a cluster of booths serving food of all different kinds. The very first booth I encountered was serving tortillas. The tortillas contain a single leaf of lettuce, an entire meat patty drenched in sauce, and Japanese shredded cheese. Obviously, I wasn't going to be able to eat that, so I wandered around in search of something not containing meat. One of the booths down the line was serving what they called Peruvian doughnuts, so I decided to try those. Note that they're served with chopsticks.

After that, I mainly walked around and looked at all the different booths. Some of the people running the booths, like at this one hosted by a German restaurant, wore ethnic clothing. Some had props, like the blankets at this Latin American booth. Almost everything contained meat, though, so the only other things I bought were some fries and a cup of "hibiscus juice," which was dark purple and tasted rather like fruity molasses.

In the nearby hall, there were activities set up for children, as well as a section devoted to letting people dress up in the traditional clothing of various countries. The Korean area was wildly popular among women and children, and the kimono area was also kept very busy.

After I had been there for about two hours, I suddenly remembered that there was a Kinokuniya down the block, so I dashed over to do some book shopping. I wound up buying some more books on how to draw manga, particularly how to draw historical Japanese clothing. One of the books I couldn't resist, because it had a chapter devoted to the artist for Yasashii Ryuu no Koroshikata.

There was a parade in the afternoon, but my group decided to leave early because the sky had become rather overcast. It was a good thing we did so, because it started raining by the time we got back to Moriyama, and I still had to bike home from where the bus let us off at City Hall. I made it back to my apartment before the rain got heavy.

For the remainder of this week, the students all have half-days as they spend the afternoons preparing for the school festival.
I got a first look at the planned script for the skit my class is doing for the festival. They want me to play myself...except speaking really bad Japanese. Literally, the stage directions read "speaks haltingly with a strong accent."

They had me practice a little to make sure I could do it. It's kinda hard, but somehow I managed. (I felt like a character on Conan.)

To follow up on my previous discussion of Japanese taste preferences, one of my classes talked about likes and dislikes. The teacher announced to me that most Japanese people dislike pumpkin pie.

Me: Really? O_O (I've served pumpkin pie before, and the students who ate it always gobbled it up quickly.)

Teacher: Yes. Most people love pumpkins (that is, Japanese pumpkins, which resemble acorn squash). But pumpkin pie has cinnamon and other spices in it.

Me: Um...yeah. That's what makes it GOOD.

Teacher: Many people don't like it.

To prove her point, she asked the students to raise their hands if they liked/disliked pumpkin pie. Only one student responded in each category, though, so the results are inconclusive.
August 15th was our day to relax. We took our time in the morning, our main concern being whether we could fit all our purchases into our luggage. We checked out of the hotel and wandered the Sunshine City mall, looking for lunch. We agreed that we wanted to eat at the Mexican restaurant there so that [livejournal.com profile] megory could see what it was like.

In general, Japanese people don't like Mexican food. There are several proposed theories as to why this should be.

1. Mexican food is too spicy.
This reason is somewhat believable. Although they enjoy a dab of wasabi on their sushi, most Japanese people don't like food with strong flavor, particularly if it's spicy. They absolutely adore curry, but it's mainly Japanified curry that has had a spice-ectomy. Whenever I eat at an Indian restaurant run by people from India, the curry is properly spicy...and the restaurant is quite vacant. However, this does not explain why even non-spicy Mexican food is hard to come by.

2. Mexican rice has "stuff" in it.
This explanation was given to me by someone in Niigata, which is famous for its rice. It supposedly grows the best rice in Japan. Japanese people can be rather obsessive about the whiteness of their rice. The person who gave me this explanation also told me about the time she took a trip to Australia. Her host family there served curry and rice--a Japanese staple--but they put the curry ON the rice. She was absolutely horrified. Japanese curry-rice is served with the curry on one half of the plate and the rice on the other half, so that the rice can remain properly white. Now, this is also a somewhat reasonable explanation, since Mexican rice certainly has tomato and other "stuff" in it...but there are plenty of Japanese dishes (such as chirashi-zushi and sekihan) that also have things mixed in with the rice. Obviously, this can't be the whole story.

3. Beans are supposed to be sweet.
One of the most common "sweets" in Japan is sweet bean paste. It's used with mochi as a common dessert, or as a festival snack, and it's a popular flavor of ice cream. When a Japanese person sees a pile of dark beans, the expectation is that they will be sweet. However, Mexican beans are not sweet, but rather salty and even (gasp!) spicy. I can certainly understand this reason, because I feel exactly the opposite: I was raised to expect Mexican-style beans, so sweet beans always seem wrong to me. I can't properly appreciate them.

Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, Mexican food simply isn't popular. I occasionally run into an individual Japanese person who likes it, but considering that I am working almost exclusively with English teachers who chose their profession due to an interest in foreign culture, I think it's safe to say that the people I meet are a skewed sample. When we walked through the restaurant floor of the mall, every single place was packed, with lines starting to form outside the doors. Then we got to the Mexican restaurant...which was virtually empty.

We carefully chose items from the menu (which was a little tricky, because [livejournal.com profile] wednesday_10_00 and I had discovered on a previous visit that they use meat to flavor their beans) and had an enjoyable meal. By the time we finished, the place had started to fill up. There were even a couple people waiting for tables to open up. As soon as we left, we could easily see why--every other restaurant in the vicinity had lines stretching far out the door and, in some cases, all the way around the corner. People were escaping to the Mexican restaurant simply because it had the shortest wait time, not necessarily because they actually wanted to eat there.

Anyway, we picked up our luggage from the hotel lobby and caught a shinkansen back to Moriyama.

August 16th was [livejournal.com profile] megory's last full day in Japan. She spent the morning packing as much as possible. We had plans to meet up with some friends ([livejournal.com profile] gnine and her sister) that evening for a festival event in Kyoto. We set off in the early afternoon, did a bit of quick shopping, and then met our friends. They took us to a gathering at a building where we could climb to the top of the roof to watch the proceedings.

For this event, huge fires are lit on the sides of several mountains that surround the city. The fires are in the forms of various characters and simple shapes, such as a boat. The fires are lit at specified times, one by one. The picture at the right shows the character that we were able to see the best from our vantage point. It was the first one to be lit. As the evening went on, we could see a couple more being lit off in the distance. It was really spectacular.

The next morning we got up bright and early to take [livejournal.com profile] megory to the airport. This was only a couple days after the liquid explosive terrorist scare, which was highly inconvenient because she had planned to take a load of souvenirs containing liquid in her carryon due to weight considerations. So much for THAT plan. It forced her to do a bit of strategic packing.

The line at the airline counter for checking luggage was long, and though we arrived three hours early (as recommended), at least an hour and a half was spent just at that counter. That's before even reaching the security check area. Fortunately, they let [livejournal.com profile] megory check her carryon for free to cut down on the wait at the security line. We said our goodbyes, and then [livejournal.com profile] wednesday_10_00 and I took our leave.

On our way back from the airport, we met up with [livejournal.com profile] gnine again in Kyoto for some manga-shopping.

At long last, our grand travel adventure had drawn to an end.
Last Friday was Tanabata, a ceremonial (not national) holiday here. It is based on the myth that the lover stars Vega and Altair are separated by the Milky Way and can only meet once a year. The seventh day of the seventh month is their lucky day.

The day is celebrated by writing wishes on strips of paper and hanging them from bamboo branches. This year, the students at my school were all given colorful paper rectangles to write on, and at lunchtime they hung them from two large bamboo stalks in front of the main entrance.

Today the seniors began their final exams. I had two bright and early, so I spent most of the morning grading papers. After that, I'm pretty much done until the last exam on Friday. I do have a couple lessons with the second year students, but fewer than usual because the schedule was rearranged for another teacher who will be gone at some point. Next week we will only meet to give back the seniors' test results, and then I'm through with school for the summer.

In addition to my usual free time activities, this weekend I decided to try a little cooking adventure. I had previously bought Thai mango ketchup at the import store in Kyoto, but they stopped carrying it, and I eventually used up my supply. This was quite sad, because it tasted very good.

I read the ingredients on the label, and it said simply "mango, vinegar, sugar, spices," so it didn't seem like it would be complicated to replicate. I didn't have any mangoes on hand, but I did have some old plums that I bought on a whim and never finished. I decided to experiment with those.

Here's what I came up with... )

In other random food news, I found a new item on the fried-goods table at my local supermarket: breaded quail eggs on a stick. I bought some to try. They're really good with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise.
I've been seeing the Japanese Food Balance Guide (the equivalent of the Food Pyramid) on posters and such all around recently, so I thought I'd post a link for others to check out.

At the very top of the image with the exercising figure is a glass labeled "water/tea."

Then there's the carbohydrate group, or, as you may see from the picture, "bread, rice, noodles...more rice." Note that there is no cereal in the picture. This is because the Japanese don't eat cereal. Well...unless you count the Corn Flakes in the ice cream sundaes...

The next category down is the vegetable group. Note how much larger this is compared to the US version.

Next, the protein group, with fish and tofu in the middle.

Finally, the dairy and fruit groups get to share the very tip of the pyramid. Why is the fruit group so tiny? I don't know, but it may have something to do with how doggone expensive fruit is here. When one apple costs $3.50, you don't eat very many of them.

In contrast with the recommendations of the food balance guide, however, I've been checking out the KitKat group. The wild and wacky flavors this season include Fruit Parfait, French Bretagne Milk, and 宇治金時 (green tea with sweet red beans). I even saw an official Universal Studios Japan flavor for Tanabata, which is a swirl of brown and white chocolate designed to look like the Milky Way (the key feature of the Tanabata festival).

Too bad chocolate melts so fast here in the summer...
...Officially, that is. The equinox is a national holiday here, so I got to spend the whole day at home playing on the computer.

I really can't wait until we get internet at work. They came and put new outlets in over the weekend...without saying anything about it. So when I brought my laptop in on Monday and plugged it into my extension cord as usual, I was shocked to get the message after a while that my battery was low. I thought my cord had stopped working. I jiggled all the connections with no luck. Finally I followed the extension cord and discovered that someone had unplugged it from the outlet. The new outlets are a type where you have to twist the plug after putting it in.

The students have no more classes for the year. Instead, they have two sports days (Monday and Wednesday, sandwiching the holiday), and then a cleaning day before spring break. The kerosene stoves will be packed away on Thursday.

They announced on the news yesterday that the sakura are officially open in Tokyo. It was the funniest thing to watch. They had this guy carefully examining a tree. "There are seven flowers open!" he exclaims excitedly. "Seven?" someone confirms. "Yes, seven!" (Close-up shot on several flowers.) "Okay, then. We can announce that the sakura are officially open!" They then go on to interview random people on the street, asking them if they like sakura. There is a comparison with last year's official flower-opening date. (They're a week early this year.) They discuss how the stormy weather will affect the flowers. They REALLY take their cherry blossoms seriously.
I've been avoiding going shopping for a long time, due to cold and rain. However, I finally ran completely out of milk yesterday, so I had no choice but to venture out into the cold shower to restock on groceries. While shopping, I made a number of discoveries.

1) The one store where I could buy nonfat milk was out, and they had a sticker up saying they were replacing it with a different product. ;_; I had to buy lowfat instead. I hope that means they're simply replacing it with a different brand of nonfat milk, as they did last time I had this crisis. Why do the Japanese people insist on this preference for chock-full-of-fat milk? They ADVERTISE the high fat content on the cartons as a selling point.

2) I browsed the cereal section, which usually contains A) Corn Flakes, B) All Bran, C) Mueslix, and little else. The Japanese don't eat cereal much. (The Japanese idea of a Western-style breakfast is toast and salad.) Lo and behold, however, they had Chex. Not just any Chex--chocolate Chex. (When did THAT happen?)

3) I moved on to the potato chip section. Japanese potato chip flavors constantly amuse me, as I've mentioned before. I passed by the pickled plum flavor. >_< I tried the basil/cheese flavor, yet though it didn't taste bad, it made me wish it were pizza instead of chips. I bought a bag of Caesar salad flavor, thinking, Salad-flavored potato chips. What could be safer? After I bought it, however, I checked the ingredients, only to find that it contained anchovy powder. O_O The Japanese will put fish in anything. I tried one called "five blacks plus salt"--containing five different ground-up black items, such as black sesame, black beans, black rice, and so on. It was actually pretty good...but then I couldn't find it again, so it might have been a seasonal flavor. (Darn those seasonal flavors!) Finally, I tried one that was cheese/soy milk flavor. That was surprisingly tasty.
...But since when has the weather ever listened to me?

Today is what is known as White Day. In Japan, Valentine's Day is a holiday specifically for girls to give chocolate to boys. White day, exactly one month later, is the day for boys to give back some kind of present in return for the chocolate.

Theoretically, all this gift-giving is taking place to express Love. In reality, however, a lot of the chocolate-giving is what is known as giri, or "duty." That is, on Valentine's Day, women will take in boxes of chocolate and pass it out to the men at work because it's expected, and then on White Day the men will reciprocate. At my school in Niigata, I recall discovering a sack full of chocolate on my desk and not having a clue why it was there. I kept expecting someone to show up and claim it.

At this school, it seems chocolate-giving isn't a custom among the faculty. On the other hand, we did get...snow.

All right, now. Whoever's in charge of the weather...you have one more week to have your fun. After that, it's officially spring. And everyone knows that Japan has four seasons that all start on schedule.

I saw on the news that there's a guy in Osaka campaigning to make pie the official gift food of White Day. (...Because it's 3.14, and people in Kansai just love puns.) The fact that pi goes on forever makes it a symbol of eternal love, he says.
Only a handful of teachers showed up yesterday, so I managed to finish a whole book and still have time to spare. A group of seven of us went out for lunch together to a place called Boulanger that sells sandwiches, pastries, doughnuts, and other bread products for about a dollar apiece. (The sandwiches are each a dollar. The drinks are three dollars and up. That's Japan for you.)

I amused myself by reading the handouts on my desk. These are lists of rules given to the students before winter break. I thought I'd repeat a couple of them here, so you can see how much influence the schools have (or try to have) over students' lives.

About Part-time Jobs During Long Breaks )

About the 'Student Resolve' During Winter Break 2005 )
Thursday evening I made a batch of gingerbread cookies to take to school the next day. I like baking...I just wish it didn't use up so many dishes. ;_; I spent what time remained packing my suitcases.

Friday morning I took the cookies to school. I wound up giving out about four dozen to students, who appreciated the unexpected treat. I set the rest of the cookies out for the teachers to snack on. I used my free period to make a set of Christmas-themed Apples to Apples cards to use in my last class of the day. That went over all right, though I had to do a quick run through of various terms (holly, mistletoe, stable, shepherd, wise man, etc.) before playing.

Friday evening, the teachers got on a bus and headed for the bounenkai ("forget the year party"). Several students waved as we left. I really wonder what it must be like as a student to watch your teachers leave for their year end party, knowing that they're all going to get drunk and bathe together.

The location of the party was an inn on the opposite side of Lake Biwa, so I rode across the bridge to the other side for the first time. I also watched the moon out the window of the bus. It was full and beautiful. It was even tinted faintly yellow, like a pale harvest moon...but I couldn't see a bunny in it, no matter how hard I tried.

The bounenkai is a Japanese tradition. People in all lines of work have them. I've talked about them before, but it's hard to convey the full impact. This year I took my camera and snapped shots of as much as possible. I posted the pictures, in chronological order, with descriptions.

Pictorial Guide to a Bounenkai

One of the other teachers thoughtfully gave me a ride back home. Her car had a navigation system that displayed the route as an animated map. It showed the position of the car, surrounding roads, and important buildings such as police boxes, schools, and shopping centers. I practically drooled. I get lost so easily, I really could use something like that.

When I got home, I sent a request to a delivery service to pick up my suitcases to take to the airport. That should be all taken care of in a couple hours. Now I just have to finish last minute chores such as laundry and dishes, and I'll be ready to leave on Monday.
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