Friday, August 19, 2011

Farewell to Tsushima


Dear Tsushima,

Thank you for helping to restore my faith in friendship and love. I've opened myself up to loving my students here and have been filled to overflowing with love in response.

Thank you also for helping me to be more adaptable and self-reliant. You've had me face many challenges in the past 3 years, including making friends with myself to survive the loneliness of living alone (well, with 'Saki.. I've learned more the limits of what I can't live without, and those include a cat) and learning to let go of things bitchy people do ("Feck 'em," as O would say.)

I've learned that making friends with people can take years-- life's not always like college, with a new influx of people coming into your life and searching for compatible souls. I've learned that cooking can be fun, especially if you start early (so you're not starving mid-way through the preparations) and have company. And/or wine.

I've learned that I have a touch of stage-fright, which includes pre-race jitters when lining up at a start line. And I've learned that I can be as stubborn as the best of them... there's no way I would've finished the half-marathon without that.

I've learned that mold can be a vicious and sneaky enemy, and sometimes you just have to surrender.

I've learned that 2x/week is the absolute minimum times/week that a cat's litter should be cleaned.

I've learned that finding a good/compatible travel partner can be very difficult. Also, making any sort of plans with a Japanese group will require 2x the amount of pre-trip planning and 3x the amount of pre-trip communication that you think it will.... and, despite all of that, there will be at least one change of date. (As O would say, "If you really want to do it, do it alone.")

I've learned that the love of a 1-2nd grade elementary student knows no boundaries, including personal space.

I've learned that you can have as much (if not more) fun at 45 as at 25. It all depends on your attitude.

I've learned that most people will return a smile.

I've learned that volunteering where it's most needed can be the greatest feeling in the world. Getting to the right place and time can be challenging, though.

Thank you, Tsushima, for your breath-taking nature, including the onigiri-mountains, the sunlight reflecting off dust motes through the cedars, and the three nudibranches I spotted while snorkeling last Sunday.

And thank you for always having someone nice run into me just when I needed it, for there always to be a bit of sweetness even during the dark winter days.

I'll miss you.

Much love,
A Great Admirer

P.S. While my Tsushima adventures may be at an end (or at least a very long postponement), check out my new Vancouver escapades at:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The end is near...

...and I'm so not ready.

If only the apocolypse people had been right and the world ended with the Mayan calendar (although, really, who can blame a society for not projecting a calendar with prophesized epochs past the next few thousand years? ...even soothsayers must go on vacation sometime. I would've after the first 1,000 years of predictions).

But no, I wasn't saved from moving internationally by the end of the world, although the devastation wrought by saying goodbye to all 300 of my students (spread out at 4 elementary schools and 2 junior high schools) feels like pretty much the same thing.

They are so damn adorable. O asked me last week if it was illegal to take one home. I'm sewing seatbelts on the inside of my suitcases, and there's a waitlist. Although the 5-6th grade girls at the elementary school I said goodbye to yesterday (Toyo) had a better idea-- "We want to be with you forever." "You don't have to leave-- you can come live with me!" idea I'd gladly take her up on if I didn't think her parents would be greatly surprised by a gaijin moving in.

There have been many touching moments in my last 2 weeks of farewells. At my next-to-last day at Hitakatsu elementary school, when I got a bit teary over my school lunch while sitting with 3rd graders but was trying to hold it in to not alarm them, one of them said, "You know, if you feel like crying, you should cry."

I've seen junior high school kids and 6th grade boys cry during our last class together. I've seen kids fall apart over their prepared farewell speeches (one class wrote theirs entirely in romanji, the western-alphabetized version of the Japanese language, and many kids had trouble reading what they wrote... but other kids just got too choked up). Yesterday the girl who told me to come live with her completely broke down in front of the whole school during my farewell ceremony and sputtered through her speech. I broke the unofficial no-touch rule with a big bear hug after she got through it. (She's at the top of the waitlist for room in my suitcases.)

I've never felt so much love as I have in the past 2 weeks.

I love my family, I love my friends... but my students here have completely stolen my heart. Teachers who have taught on the mainland say that Tsushima students, especially mine (the ones in the far reaches of the north), are special. They're naive. They act like kids, unlike their American counterparts who are forced into grown-up responsibilities when they should still be playing with toys. They believe me when I say my house in America is haunted.

And so every day for the past 2 weeks has been like junior high school graduation in late March, but worse, because I'm the one leaving all of them. Looking into their faces when I say goodbye, I can't remember why I'm leaving. Surely nothing could be more important than staying there and teaching them until they graduate or until I'm kicked out of Japan for overstaying my visa/length of time with the JET Program.

There are reasons, of course. I'm getting older, and going to grad school sooner rather than later would be good. While the kids are great, the other teachers can be difficult to work with. Many of my close teacher-friends left this March (transferred to the mainland or other schools), so it would probably be lonely staying on another year without them or at the very least difficult to make new friends. O is leaving this year, too, and there can be no replacing him.

So I'm soaking in all of the kids' farewell tears and handshakes and high-fives and impromptu 1-2nd grade hugs/let's-cling-to-Kimberly-sensei's-limbs sessions. I'm going to grad school to eventually teach at the college level, but I'll never get this kind of farewell from my students again.

In the past 2 weeks, I've been showered with bags of origami and handwritten notes from the elementary kids, some with precious stickers folded inside. The schools have given me quite a number of presents, too. I've gotten an apron styled with kimono fabric patterns, a Tsushima ink-stone, a rather large artistic representation of jizo statues with inspirational phrases, a mug, a teddy bear fashioned from kimono scraps, a couple of bags, a calendar with more jizo statues (I really like jizo statues ^^), a desk-weight with a picture of the Korean coastline at night behind Tsushima, two bouquets of flowers, and a shiny medallion fashioned from origami which was fastened around my neck (bestowed Olympic-medal-style) by one of my special-ed kids (who not only came out to cheer for me during the Kokkyo Marathon but got driven by a relative so he could cheer from outside of his home AND close to the finish line). Oh, and countless small posterboards of group class messages/thank-yous. And just today, a cute amulet/decorative pouch hand-stitched by a student who hasn't been to one of my English classes in over a year because she's depressed and doesn't attend any classes (she comes to school occasionally and has private lessons in the nurse's office, which I have not been asked to attend). Her gift came with a hand-made, pop-up thank-you card, which featured leprechauns and also said, "Happy St. Patrick's Day." I ambushed her with a hug and hoped she wouldn't regret making me a present because of it.

And so, going into my last day at school tomorrow, I'm a bit of a wreck. I haven't packed for my Kyoto/Cambodia trip yet, although that shouldn't take more more than an hour. But given the unexpectedly large influx of presents, with most of them having a certain level of fragility or weight issues, I'm also behind on packing to go back to America.

Luckily I've also been having a bit of insomnia lately, so packing-wise I should be able to be ready in time to go on vacation.

I think my heart needs another couple of months, though, and it's not going to get it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fit-by-25 Fitness Plan and Finally Being Adopted

Many moons ago, former roomie and good friend Kate and I made a pact: we would get "fit" (by our own definitions) by the time we turned 25. Since her birthday is in January, I said our joint deadline could be my later July birthday. Which, by the way, is now less than 2 months away.

I made a whole scheme of how I was going to get fit, planning on active things I would be able to do in Tsushima, and creating detailed strength-training workout plans. Of course then I actually got to Tsushima, got slammed by the level of heat that makes you sweat even when lying prone and unmoving on the floor, and shelved all exercise intentions until a more accomodating climate came along. When fall came along, I got out a lot more to explore, and that has pretty much kept me moving and busy for 3 years. It's shocking how many hidden-away paths and parks and little scenic resting spots there are around here, and I love finding new ones.

I've flirted with running-- a 5K at the tail end of my first year and a 10K that fall-- and have hiked alot, too. I've fallen off, jumped back on, and again fallen off the strength-training bandwagon. But today I made a bigger commitment to the larger goal of Fit By 25.

I signed up for a half-marathon.

...which, to the unaware, is 13.1 miles, or something like 21 kilometers and change. It's a hellofa distance by any measuring system.

I've actually been training for the half-marathon since February-- quite tentatively at first, but still running. I hadn't completely made up my mind to do it until today, however, mostly because the race (part of the Kokkyo Marathon, probably Kamitsushima's biggest event all year) has a time limit: if you don't complete the half-marathon in 3 hours, then you get picked up by the Bus of Shame. The loser-bus. I so did not want to be on that bus.

...eventually I decided, though, that even if I end up getting picked up by the Bus of Shame, I will still have run for 3 hours, which is a major accomplishment. And given my current running times, if all goes well I should be able to finish on time. The longest I've run so far is 10 miles, which I completed this past Sunday in 2 hours and 3 minutes... not setting any records, certainly, but given the hilly/mountainous terrain around here, I think that's doing pretty good.

Running has helped me to de-stress a bit about my upcoming move (many sad farewells to come) and start of a graduate program this fall. It's also had some other effects.

I'd been wondering lately, during some of those morning fuzzy moments between sleep and full awareness in front of the bathroom mirror, if running was taking some of the weight off my butt. ~I~ think it's gotten a bit smaller. And I wouldn't mention this, really I wouldn't, if someone else hadn't mentioned the same thing earlier today.

By "someone else," I mean a naked obaachan (old woman) at the public bath. She knows that I've been running because everyone knows that I've been running (small town... it only takes a couple of days out running before everyone knows about it), and said that while it seems to have firmed up my bum, other areas of my body could use similar work. Of course she would have had a full opportunity for perusal of my body during my time in the bath, but this conversation happened in the changing room. I was covered in snuggly pjs, trying to fix my hair sans comb which got left at home, when this obaachan came out of the bath. She pinched my back and hip to ensure full understanding of what body parts she meant, then proceeded to walk-- slowly, one foot in front of the other, arms raised to engage shoulders, in a naked old woman runway-show parody-- down a line in the floor, commenting on how walking in that manner would firm up those troublesome areas in no time.

It was kind of funny, kind of cute, kind of.. well, distinctly bossy, I-know-what's-right-for-you-because-I-have-decades-of-experience, Japanese obaachan. (see my "Obaachan Manifesto" blog from way back when for more explanations of obaachan behavior). But perhaps more than all of that, it was endearing. She was so unabashedly unashamed and absolutely adorable. And she really did want to help.

I can only imagine what my mom is thinking reading this; from an America perspective, if a naked old woman who you don't know came up to you, pinched parts of your body, and asked you to walk behind her.. well, you'd think they were mentally deranged.

But within the Japanese small-town onsen context, I think it's kind of acceptable. And her efforts really touched me because it felt like I was finally a part of this crazy community-- here, she seemed to say, I'll help you get in shape because you're already trying so hard. Because you're one of us. Because you should be out there, swinging those hips as you walk and being horribly girlishly cute, not wrapped up in flannel plaid pajamas at 7 PM like us obaachans.

I've been adopted by these insane onsen obaachans, and I love it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Search for Fuji

Last week was "Golden Week," during which there are a bunch of national holidays. Typically I`d take days off from work to get the full week off and travel to different countries during this time-- India last year, a trip home the year before-- but this year, I wanted to stay in Tsushima. The weather usually gets gorgeous in early May, and I also wanted to attend the Hitotsubatago Festival, named after a local flowering shree (shrub/tree) which blossom white all over Waniura`s mountain-hills (the northernmost village in Tsushima). There`s a lot of comparison in Japanese poetry with cherry blossoms and snow-- the falling petals looking like snow, etc-- but the hitotsubatago flowers really blanket the hills like snow.

Unfortunately, the day before the festival was very windy. Preparations for the festival, including setting up tents and the main stage area, couldn`t be completed, so the festival was cancelled.

Still, many of the days off were nice weather, so I went out exploring the now-flower-laden island. The main goal of my flower-searching expeditions was to find some fuji, or wisteria. Although it`s apparently common and even considered an invasive plant in the mid-to-southern eastern seaboard states, I`d never seen wisteria before. And, unlike many spring flowers-- cherry blossoms, hitotsubatago, azaleas, and hydragneas-- there is no one spot on Tsushima where you can find fuji in abundance. So I followed a lead from one of my tea ladies that there was some being cultivated in the southern river-park and looked for wild wisteria along the way.

I was wildly more successful than anticipated. Here`s some wild wisteria from around Nita; the vine climbed other plants and bloomed on top of them.

Looking south from a look-out tower; my fuji expedition led me beyond the new flooded rice-fields, looking like a small pond in this picture.

Here are some azaleas seen en-route, or tsutsuji in Japanese. Tsushima has its own variety of azealea called genzai tsutsuji, which bloom earlier in the spring. This is just a regular variety.

Looking down at the river part of the park; check out the Japanese people walking down below to get a sense of scale.

Here`s the promised stand of fuji!!

Up close, the flowers didn`t look like what I had imagined.

I loved how they hung over the framework.

The best find of the day, though, happened on the way back north. Just before the long Izuhara tunnel, on the left there was a mini-valley just festooned with fuji. It was breath-taking and wonderful, but I was in the middle of traffic and couldn`t stop to take a picture.

Also on the way back north, I --finally-- got a decent pictures of a `tombie,` or the particular type of kite-bird found around the island like seagulls in New England. They look regal but are really the stupidest bird I`ve ever seen.

On a different day, I went on a fuji-walk closer to home. I extended my favorite loop-walk to include a semi-abandoned (but occasionally mowed) monument-park tucked away in Nishidomari, the next village over. I hadn`t been there in over a year but remembered seeing a latticework trellis like the one at the southern river-park. Here`s a photo-montage from the whole walk--

"Koi-nobori," the giant fish flag/kites hung out on strings in late April and early May. They`re for kodomo-no-hi ("Children`s Day" but in practice "Boys` Day") on May 5th, or 5/5. Families hang them out if they have a son who is turning 5 years old. (Girls get their own day on March 3, or 3/3).

A close-up of the koi-nobori:

Someone`s potted fuji climbing up a nearby electric pole.

Hitotsubatago flowers! ...there are many planted around Kamitsushima.

This is such a typical Kamitsushima scene. Well, a typical Tsushima scene: fishing boat. ocean. mountains.

Here`s the semi-abandoned/mowed-twice-a-year momument-park sign.

...and the monument with the ode/poetry to the Showa Emperor. Hitotsubatago flowers behind.

I was correct in thinking that the trellis-ed plant was fuji, and it was in full bloom! ...definetely a different variety than the plant in the southern river-park, though; the blossoms were multi-layered, almost rose-like.

Gorgeous, gorgeous. Amazing scent, too, much stronger than the other variety.

(note the picnic table in the background ^^)

Underneath the `canopy` of flowers and foliage, the fuji had a serious system of branches. The main vine up to the trellis was pretty tough-looking, too.

Some more hitotsubatago on the way out--

Continuing up the big hill to Kami-so, a large ryokan-type hotel place (sans onsen, sadly), there`s a cute little hidden-away path around the coast to the Nishidomari beach. One of my favorite coastal walkways in Tsushima.

...and continuing up the road from Nishidomari to the Muida Beach area, there`s a lot of tropical-style plant life.

...with red soil which the residents say produces the best local produce. There are strata-ed vegetable gardens along this strip of coast. this...

Interesting bird life in spring, too. This bird has a white body and an orange head!

I love the color of red earth, but this patchy, dried grass along the side of the road always reminds me of Cousin It.

Cousin It and family.

...and, finally, passing the Russian monuments and getting to the Muida Beach over-look area. Just gorgeous.

I tried to take a picture from behind my sunglasses to reduce the glare and get a better blue-green water tone... didn`t quite work, but it kind of made this picture look like a faded old photograph.

I love the architecture of these houses-for-rent near the beach. The white walls with dark beams make me think of pictures I`ve seen of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Oh, and I`m loving the new green leaves, too. Not all deciduous trees in Tsushima drop their leaves in winter, so it`s fun to look out at the mountainsides in spring, which now have patterns of new green, old green, evergreen, and some plants that can`t make up their minds.

One of the local neighborhood shrines with some fresh green leaves.

This petal-dropped flower on the turn onto my road made me think of a court jester`s hat.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Epic Trip, July 2010: Dinner with Maiko

Aside from trekking up and down Mt. Fuji, the most memorable part of the Epic Japan July 2010 trip was probably the dinner with maikos. (Very, very sadly, due to timing U.B. was unable to come... I went a little wild with picture-taking, however, so hopefully this will show what it was like).

I know not all my family members know about maikos/geishas, so in brief: it`s not your "Memoirs of a Geisha" image. Maiko and geisha (more often called `geiko` in Kyoto) are basically artists. They intensively study traditional Japanese dance and instruments like the koto and shamisen. They`re also trained to converse fluently in all manner of topics, from art to politics, and do so in a manner that will put their guests at ease. They can be flirtatious and coy and play drinking games. And they do all of this while wearing about 30 lbs of kimono and accroutements on their slim bodies, without sweating off the white make-up latered on their faces, and being graceful the whole time. Oh, yes, and they represent the epitome of Japanese beauty.

Up until the night of our dinner, the most alluring thing about maikos, for me, was their elusiveness. I`d lived in Kyoto for months and seen many `fake` maikos, tourists who pay a couple hundred dollars to dress up like a maiko for a day and wander around famous temples looking chitzy. I`d even seen, on rare occasions at just the right twilight-time in the backstreets of Pontocho and Gion, maikos flitting from their taxis into high-class establishments. But I`d never been able to leisurely spend time watching a maiko perform with their carefully-cultivated grace. Those high-class tea-house establishments where maikos get paid thousands of dollars for a half-hour of their time? ...way beyond my price range, of course, and also mostly only open to well-trusted clients... there`s a saying about them that goes something like, "You can never come here for the first time." Basically, you need to be invited to a party there by someone else (who has, in the distant past, been invited by someone else) and then, maybe, you`ll be able to book a room yourself in the future.

So, touristy as it was, I jumped at the opportunity to go to a "group maiko dinner"-- a bunch of strangers in a room, each party at their own little table, with a couple of maikos working the room.

I hadn`t planned on going to a maiko dinner in Kyoto, though-- we just saw a pamphlet at the hotel and decided to go then-- so while I had plenty of now-grungy Mt. Fuji-climbing gear, I didn`t have fancy clothes for a dinner with maiko. It would`ve been beyond mortifying to show up in jeans, so the group decided to help me out by spending half of a day shopping. In Kyoto. For someone of generous, American proportions.

I am so glad that P, shopper-extraordinaire, was there, or I may have ended up wearing goodness-knows-what... something tentlike, no doubt, and probably in leopard print. P and C basically scavenged Shijo and Teramachi and found me a complete outfit, accessories and boots included, only cost a small fortune. Here it is laid out and ready to be put on--

...and here are us ladies, dressed and ready for our night out!

I shall begin, as always, with the food. We were at a high-class restaurant/ryokan in Gion, so of course it served kaiseki-ryori, the fancily-arranged, daintily-flavored sets that Kyoto is famous for. Ours came bound in a pretty red laquered box with a flower petal on top (and oh, yes, that`s white wine in the background-- it was nomihodai, or all-you-can-drink).

The first layer included a mini-chawan-mushi (steamed egg custard) and shrimp, among other tidbits.

While the next layer had bits of sushi.

After we`d had a chance to sample our meals, the maikos came in. Actually, there were two maikos and one geisha. There are many differences between them, some of which you can see in the pictures; basically maikos are younger and sort of like geishas-in-training, generally 16-20 years old. Their hairdo is all really their hair (geishas generally use a wig), and the kimono, hair, and makeup styling are a bit different from a geisha`s. It`s louder with more color and bits of glamor.

Here are the two maikos from our evening. The one on the left in green was younger (~16) while the one on the right, in blue, was on the verge of becoming a geisha (~20). There were subtle differences in their outfits, too, because of the different stages in their maiko career: one just starting, the other getting ready to finish.

The maikos started with a synchronized fan dance to show off their beauty and grace.

My camera couldn`t quite keep up.

Then someone associated with the hotel brought out a microphone and explained some of the features of the maikos` and geisha`s outfits. The whiter a maiko`s inner robe, for instance, the older she is (and the sooner she will become a geisha). The older maiko in blue had a fully-white inner robe with pale embroidery, while the younger maiko`s inner robe was red with white embroidery. And oh, my, they were gorgeous.

Another point was made about make-up; the younger maiko`s lips are only half-painted red, while the older maiko`s lips are fully painted.

The older and younger maiko`s hairstyles also differed fairly dramatically.

...I loved how the obi looked layered, too.

Here was our geisha that evening, who played shamisen and sang while the maiko danced. Her hairstyle and kimono are incredibly subdued compared with the maikos.

I mean, just check out all the things stuffed into this young maiko`s hair--

Then my favorite part of the evening came--the maiko came around to pour us drinks (beer, as is traditional at Japanese drinking parties) and chat. Here is P with the younger maiko:

...and the younger maiko pouring me a drink :)

Seriously, a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

C and P were curious about the maiko`s life, so I played translator and fielded questions. I was brimming with questions and excitement, too, but was a little overwhelmed to be sitting beside a maiko. I kept thinking that people who usually do this are super-rich; I was basically sitting next to an artistic courtesan, a living cultural icon. She had more grace in her pinkie finger than I had in my whole body.

So C and P asked about the maiko`s life. She skillfully dodged certain questions ("Are you allowed to have a boyfriend?"), but we found out quite a bit about other things. I thought that most maikos and geishas were from the Kyoto area, having grown up around the culture, but she was actually from a prefecture near Tokyo. Her family had come on a trip to Kyoto when she was younger, and she fell in love with the culture. Also, she had to apply to a geisha house through a process more rigorous than most high school entrance exams; while the numbers of maiko/geisha are dwindling, it`s still an incredibly competitive process to be accepted as a maiko-in-training. And then, of course, once you`re accepted, it`s even more work to learn traditional dance and music. She spends hours a day practicing.

It was a little difficult speaking with the maiko because maikos and geishas have their own dialect. You know, like different parts of America speak in different ways? Well, Kyoto has its own dialect, and --separate and distinct from that-- is a maiko/geisha dialect, including using completely different words for some things. Our little maiko was used to speaking a very different way near Tokyo, and she said one of her biggest challenges was learning to speak the dialect properly. It`s a softened, quirkily cute manner of speaking.

The maikos are also very busy in the evening. She said that our appointment was her first of the evening; she had two other parties to go to afterwards. I read another geisha`s memoir afterwards which said 30-40 years ago, the really popular maikos might have 6-7 engagements in one night.

After coming around to chat, it was time for drinking games. The two maikos demonstrated; there was a round disc which is manipulated in certain ways, and if you mess up then you have to drink a small glass of beer.

After demonstrating, the maikos came around to get audience members to participate. P went from our group to try.

....and she lost. Here`s the maiko pouring her beer.

I really loved it when the maiko in blue laughed-- so beautiful!

The next game was a full-body version of rock-paper-scissors, made into tiger-samurai-grandmother. The samurai beats the tiger. The tiger beats the grandmother. Oh, yes, and the grandmother beats the samurai. You lose against another guest, you drink! I tried playing this game.

First we were both samurai....

..then we were both tigers...

...then I figured the other person would go for grandmother next, so I went for tiger and won ^^

(the winner got a small package of `geisha-brand` oil/sweat-blotting paper for your face)

When the games were done, we had group pictures by table.

...and then the maikos and geisha posed beautifully...


...and left for their next appointment.

I`m still a bit in awe to have gotten the chance to go to a dinner with maikos. It was an amazing experience :)