September 30, 2005

Saying Goodbye to September

On the verge of October and Autumn, there has been a unbelievably beautiful stretch of clear, warm, and in every sense perfect weather here in Wakayama. This past month some really great things have happened to me, or rather, I did some great things. There were also some incredibly painful absences which grew greater as the distance between myself and the present seemed to grow. I think it was Hermann Hesse's Emil Sinclair who had the same kinds of struggles with accord within the self.

Well, goodye to September. What a strange thing to say, but a fitting end no matter what is thought of it by you or me.

September 27, 2005


Never in my life have I ever encountered the expected upon going somewhere I have never travelled before, my most recent journey through Korea being no exception to the rule. In fact I perceive similarities among the narratives of each brief trip into the unknown: initial befuddlement, followed by gradually inurement, then the final beatific denoumet which leaves me a bit wistful and unprepared for reentry into the sharply defined world that I had left. And though I expect to go back to Korea while I still am a temporary resident in East Asia, I feel the need to look back, if only at a glimpse.

Wednesday 9/21/2005

I land in Incheon International Airport at about 8:30pm, the first things to catch my eyes are the bright neon signs in Hangul, a written script whose indecipherability I recall from my first meeting with Japanese hiragana. In the airport lobby, I head to the convenience store for some bottled water. My first social exchange with the Korean teenager at the counter went something like this:

Clerk: (In Hangul) "Hello, how are you? 800 won please."
Jeff: -- [hands 10,000 won note over to clerk]
Clerk: "Thanks, have nice day."

I feel like a teenager who is face to face with first love, dumbfounded by the mystery of utterance. Next, we ride into Seoul on the bus, which smells of kimchee, old synthetic leather, and an odor I cannot identify. Off the bus stop, we are instantly lost, greeted by smells of garlic, chili pepper, roasting meat, and various dishes being prepared by the street vendors. A Korean man pretends that he wants to help, but really he wants to practice English. He doesn't help, but he talks with us for a bit, crosses the street with us, and leaves just as lost as before. Finally we get to Traveler's A, our youth hostel, where we meet an old lady who is reading the newspaper on the floor. She has no chair to sit in. Our exchange is propelled by improvised sign language and an assumed foreknowledge of why we are here and who we are.
Before sleeping, Kathy, Lalindra, and I head to a Korean eatery, not very traditional, but still open at 2:00 am. There I try a dish of unbearably spicy rice cake, seafood, and onions. They have napkins in Korea, and I indulge myself to the fullest. This is my first taste of Korea, and grogginess aside, it is unmistakably wonderful.

Thursday 9/22/2005

Wake up call is early. Out of the hostel we make it to the subway, where our assignation with the fourth member of our group is set. We have agreed to meet on the green line, at Euljiro 3-ga Station. Apparently there is a mistake. Waiting for almost three hours in morning rush hour in downtown Seoul is not what I had envisioned as my first morning in Korea, but it is an eye opening experience nonetheless. The smell of frying bacon intermittently changing to rancid meat and sewage stench is more than I can take. I am a little unnerved:

Next there is the beatiful train ride across the Korean peninsula to Pusan, the second biggest city on the southeastern end of the country. This city reminds of San Francisco, fog, steep hills, quaint, old buildings, shops that are run down, cozy little neighborhoods, but there are a lot more high rise apartment complexes in this city.

Certainly the theme of this trip was "good food," and with good reason. My first lunch was a tasty bowl of Bi Bim Bap, a bowl of rice, veggies, egg, meat, and all you can handle spicy miso paste that adds color. Getting adjusted to our travels, we spent the day slowly, roaming around town and getting our bearings set. At night, it was barbequed beef, the first feast of the trip. Not much is needed to say about this except this:
Cutting the meat up with scissors was interesting, but I got the hang of it. It's just like seventh grade art class, with really thick construction paper. Then it was drinking--Korean Soju, and lots of Hite, a very light Korean beer that goes well with all the heavy meat I am stuffing myself with. At night we roam the streets, which are very similar to Osaka, but less obnoxious guys with Rod Stewart hairdos.
Friday 9/23/2005

Off to Gyeongju, the Kyoto of Korea, but a lot more inaka. Before we make it there, we had a good day at the Pusan Fish Market and then Beomeosa Temple, a restored temple (everything has been destroyed at some point in time by the Japanese) that sits atop a hill in north Pusan. Here we hike up into dense fog, and at the top we meet a gate, beyond which I may never know what lies...

At night, we arrive in Gyeongju, where Mr. Kwon greets us cordially and with great humor. What a great man Mr. Kwon is, and I will only find out this as I stay overnight, reading Korean poetry on the couch in the hostel lounge.

Saturday 9/24/2005

Morning: Conversation with Mr. Kwon and his son Clint. Mr. Kwon is adept at many arts, be they Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, or whatever. He is a remarkable calligrapher, and I have some of his works to attest for that. Here is his hand in action:

The day goes along beautifully--my favorite day of the trip. We head out to the temple in Gyeongju whose name I forget. I meet some adorable kids on the bus--Justin, Jillian, and Esther--whose English is impeccable. I want to hang out with them for hours, learn their secrets, play tag or hide and seek, but we are soon off the bus and out to roam the glorious, but restored, temple precincts. After we finish taking pictures, walking around, breathing the air, we head across the street to a restaurant for the best meal in Korea. I trysome bulgolgi, or marinated beef with veggies. We go a little overboard on the homemade rice wine, though, and soon I am passed out under the shade of a tree. There is grass in Korea, and yes, you could say it is greener. bugolgi drinking too much

where I woke up

Then it was fun on tandem bicycles, a nice end to a beautiful day:

Sunday 9/25/2005

After some trouble with our intended Youth Hostel (i.e. very shady Korean guys proposing to take Kathy out for a night at the club--for 10$), we make it to a very classy hotel (ok, not so classy, but definitely worth the wait--bedtime was around 3:30-4:00). In the morning, we head out to central Seoul, where I meet a new friend, waiting for me at the gate (the beard is definitely a fake): Finally, we have a fun night out at the nicest Pizza Hut that I have ever seen (a bit weary of all the beef eating, we decided to switch gears). Sleeping soundly after a few drinks of Confucian Family Liquor (horribly strong).

Sunday 9/26/2005

It is morning and time to go back. Sigh...

This entry was very long, I know. It took me a while to get all the pictures set in place, but I am still regretful that I couldn't include more. My favorite picture will have to wrap up my reflections on a recurrent theme of the trip--the toilet. Unlike Japan, Korea seems to be comfortable with letting us "outsiders" feel welcome, even at the public restroom. I saw this and had to take a picture. Luckily I didn't take a picture of what occured within my stall:

Nowhere, Now Here

if I am nowhere now
than here is like a goodbye
that two children gave me
I saw them running down the street
brother and sister holding hands
looking back at me bashfully to wave
they skipped away and I was back in this world
old friends apologetically offer reason to greet
measure their distance from each other
in vain prostration justify touch or absence of
their hearts somwhere else
or here undecided.

September 18, 2005

Shishimai Matsuri 獅子舞祭

I survived, folks.

Two days (one full day, one half day) of drinking incessantly and uninhibitedly--from cold cans of Asahi beer to Okinawan awamori to the communal sake that is passed around the crowd while fellow matsuri participants take turns hoisting the 100+ kg. portable shrine through the drizzly streets of Takashiba neighborhood in Nachi-Katsuura Town (I had a few carries with the shrine, though not as many as an NFL running back, and I managed to thoroughly bruise my shoulder in the most intoxicated hours).

After a mind-numbing train ride down the coast of the Kii Peninsula (1. I forgot my discman, 2. Dostoyevsky was just not my cup of tea on this Friday afternoon), I arrived at Taiji station late Friday night and ended up drinking in impressive quantities (had to catch up to the others) until about 12:00 or 1:00 or so. The next morning we got up at 5:50. Nick and I stumbled half-awake out into the cool morning and into the procession just as it started on this foggy and drizzly Saturday morning.

Picture this:

Nick joins the flute ensemble without missing a beat. I am struggling to take clear photos with my outdated camera, struggling to see clearly after last night's drinking. Nonetheless it is a peaceful morning: the Ota River washes out into the currents of the Pacific, I can hear a few gulls, their calls mingling with the droning songs of the taiko and flutes, the damp streets and dew filled cedars by the shrine all cool the blood, which is hot from last night's drinking. The scene is much different from anything that I have experienced in Wakayama City, and I am grateful to be there. I am glad that we got up this early.

As the day moves along, it becomes more and more drizzly. We parade through the streets of the town, receiving the appropriate libations with the appropriate ceremonials--the Shishimai dances looking good at every spot and the music bringing the many generations of this town together. Sekiya san was my favorite taiko drummer, getting into all the matsuri chants and grunts when the music is smoking. Here he is in action on the street:

He is on your right, rocking out on the low drum, while in the foreground sits Katsu--taking a break on the sidewalk with me (photo taker).

Throughout the whole festival, I had a bit of trouble with my Japanese sandals. Sekiya lent me his pair since they were broken in (the new ones I had on originally were so painful it felt like my toes were going through a meat grinder). Here's me trying to walk in the first pair of sandals:

After lunch break, which involved heavy drinking of just about every kind of Japanese alcoholic beverage, we headed out for what was in my opinion the best part of the matsuri: the hour when all of the matsuri goers, or men at least, carried the extremely heavy portable shrine through the streets at the peak of our drunken stupor. I didn't bring my camera out for this for obvious reasons, but you can take my word for it. After that, we went back to the community center, where NHK filmed the performances and I passed out for about 15 minutes in the middle of the crowd (I was seated, such a position allowing me to discreetly doze off while everyone's attention was drawn to the dances and music). Then it was more parading and drinking and ending up passed out again, this time in someone's Mini Cooper just a few blocks from the dances. When I was woken up by Nick and friends, I had a terrible headache, so I drank some tea this time and caught the last few acts of the nightime festivities. After that, it was onsen time and oyasumi.

Today the weather was beautiful. I sweated off a few of the thousands of calories I have consumed from beer and snacks, then put more on with, you guessed it, beer and snacks. I watched four more performances, some involving some strange special guests. Would you trust you children with this man?

I am not so sure if he was part of the Shishimai Matsuri of yesteryore, but it sure was a strange and funny way to wrap up the matsuri.

Anyways, the weekend was a spectacular event, a very auspicious way to kick off these next few weeks--my school festival, trip to Korea, etc. I made some new friends, saw some old ones, and just had fun getting my feet wet in the life of a small town tucked away on the beautiful southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. There was even an old house from the Meiji era that I got to take some photos of. The photos however do very little justice to the weekend, so you will have to imagine the rest...

Junji and me.

Shishimai in action.

Rina and Maiko

Early morning beer...

Meiji era House

September 12, 2005

Leaving Early

I must have left the game earlier than I thought, for the final score actually ended up to be 21-2. Even though I missed seven runs on my half-awake train ride back down the coast of Osaka Bay, I still think I got my money's worth. Next time, I will have to watch the premature inebriation a little more closely. Maybe a day game would be nice.

Back to the grind at school on Monday. I file like a big pile of shit with flies swarming on it. Why I am so lethargic today, I am not quite sure. Instead of lesson planning (which has been done for some time, just no lessons for which to enact the plan), studying Japanese, or anything else which falls under the category of "productiveness," I ate bannana bread with my miruku kohhii and read some Kierkegaard in between mamouth emailing sessions and dozing sessions. Only one class today, which involved my "best" class acting up and speaking in Japanese the whole time. The new exchange student from Sri Lanka won the romance game, which made me a bit happy and a bit defiant, like "Pooh to all you materialistic kids who only want to look at pictures of you and yourself and go shopping for yourself with every chance you get!" I don't actually think this way most of the time, for my kids are adorable. I am just going through a period where I have been seeing things a little more clearly and thus undergoing the aftershock of conscience that follows such a consciousness.

This week: Sports Festival, the Shi-shi Mae Festival in Nachi Katsuura (Lion Dance Festival brought to Japan from China long, long ago).

Week after this: School Festival & Korea (well, the South).

September 11, 2005

One Hundred Types of Prosperity

Not to be confused with William Empson's Meisterwerk--"Seven Types of Ambiguity"--this exhibition, called "百寿", consists of 100 different renditions of the character for prosperity, 寿 (kotobuki) and now hangs in a glass case in the lobby of my school's main entrance. I decided one day to take pictures of it, for I thought it was quite a wonderful thing to look at:

I am not so sure about this one:

It is certainly creative, though I cannot tell if the artist was aiming at birds, fish, trees with eyeballs, nerve endings, or what. In any case, pondering such imponderables (or at least ambiguities) such as what an artist's intention was is unfruitful and takes up a lot of uneccessary space. I guess the same could be said about this blog, especially the most recent posts, which have been encumbered by the author's abuse of the photograph posting option. Anyways, enough apologetics for my lack of things to say. More pictures.

Yesterday I went to a Hanshin Tigers game at the oldest professional baseball stadium in Japan, the legendary Koshien Stadium (in between Osaka and Kobe, hence the name Hanshin--the railway which runs between Osaka and Kobe ("Han" 阪 is also the "saka" isn Osaka, and "Shin" 神 is the "Ko" in Kobe). In my unchecked enthusiasm for this experience, I got off at Koshien Station at about 3:00, though the game was scheduled to start at 6:00. There are no tailgate parties at Japanese baseball stadiums, but plenty of small 食堂 shokudou (dining spots serving beer, noodles, donburi and oden) along the way between the station and the stadium. I popped into one to do some pre-game mingling with the die-hard Hanshin fans, but in the process I ended up flirting with the cute staff at the shokudo and getting way too drunk. By the time I was in the stadium, my bladder was in sheer agony, but I didn't miss most of the action. My favorite Hanshin player, catcher Akihiro Yano (#39), hit a two run blast in the bottom of the third inning. By the end of the fourth, Hanshin was up 13-2 on the last place Hiroshima Carp. This meant another bathroom break and more beer. When I came back, Yano was up again. This time he was beamed in the head by a very high fastball, and the benches cleared. In America, most likely punches and kicks would have been abundant, but in the Japanese big leagues, there is a strangely reserved group huddle and discussion about the proper way to handle the situation. I left Koshien sometime in the later innings (I forgot exactly when) with the score 14-2, way too drunk for my own good and with just enough money to get back to Wakayama. It is a good thing that the Tigers have started eating "Hanshin Tigers Natto" (photo courtesy of my kitchen). Maybe this will help them into the playoffs:

Now then, there isn't a whole lot of excitement like that during the week: homeruns galore, drunken revelry, legendary baseball stadiums, players being carted off the field left and right, etc. Mostly during the week I read books (recently the work of Walker Percy and Soren Kierkegaard), study Japanese, and if I am lucky, catch a remarkable sunset over the not so picturesque cityscape of Wakayama City:

September 09, 2005

Kaisou for Breakfast

Yesterday I embarked on what is called "shutchou" in Japanese, i.e. a "business trip." I got off at Shirahama Station to be greeted by the amicable Misumi-sensei, the most friendly, dedicated, and competent Japanese teacher of English that I have come across in Japan. We worked together at Shimizu Bunko (Branch) High School during the Fall/Winter of my first year. I will always remember his classes because he would just let me speak about anything for the first five minutes of class. Those classes were probably my favorite classes, during which I often was found gazing out the isolated school building's third floor window down at the cedar forests, the limpid Arida river, the few houses and one road in this inexpressibly quaint, wonderful town. Some mornings I thought I could live in a place like Shimizu until my greying, wizened years of convalescence.

Anyways, I got side-tracked. After the "top secret" work was finished by about 1:00, I met up with Mr. Katz, and we headed to Shirahama Beach. What a perfect day to be at the beach--the sun very warm, not hot, a slight breeze, the beach not packed with people like the weekend crowds; of course, even with the small turnout on a Thursday afternoon, there were too many beautiful girls to count or think about or even talk about here. The water was not cold at all, in fact, it was perfect. In the water, I didn't think about much, enjoyed the current's pull on my body, swam a little against the current, floated along in the afternoon.

Then, at night, after many beers and Chu-his, I passed out in my bedroom at about 10:00, the air conditioning on a very low temperature, my light and stereo still on, my clothes still on. After getting up to brush my teeth, disrobe, and make the appropriate adjustments on all electrical appliances, I had some vivid dreams. The image with which I woke up with was driving down the road that leads into Shimizu, a very windy, narrow road lined on both sides by symmetrically planted cedar forests. The driver was my Kocho sensei (principal), the car was an old MGB convertible, like the one my dad used to drive, which still sits on my front lawn, unable to move. Kocho sensei said to me, "You should eat kaisou for breakfast." This morning I looked up かいそう, or kaisou, in my dictionary:

会葬: to mourn or attend a funeral
回送: to send on; to forward; off-duty
回想: reminiscence, retrospect, memory
快走: a race
改装: to renovate, remodel, or convert
海草: seaweed, kelp
階層: rank, class
壊走: flight, rout; to take flight

Now granted that dreams may be full of random associations, and granted that most of the entries in this list of possible things I can have for breakfast are not edible (plus I vehemently dislike kelp), I cannot make much sense of the last line of the dream. But it has been a while since I have dreamed in Japanese, and especially in such a vigorously lucid sequence of images. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was the chu-hi. Maybe it was from studying Kanji more ardently in the past few weeks. Maybe it is some deep, impenetrable mystery that I am always working on as I live my life.

In any case, I am going to the Hanshin Tigers game this weekend. They are playing the Hiroshima Carp. I promise an update and some pictures, along with the promised photos of my calligraphy club's exhibition (there might even be a guest work of yours truly included in this magnificent sight).

To be continued...

September 04, 2005

Where am I going?

So a child asks father or mother, one question that can and does mean many things. What are the answers that mom or dad offer? Is it one that can be reconciled with the child's need to find the answer for his or herself? Or does it work as a propellant, an impetus from whose impact one finds oneself running full speed down a hillside in the dark, not caring where the feet fall. Then, after many close-calls, a voice comes from afar. It was one that was so close so long ago. It is barely audible. There is only a murmur, like the faint running of a brook miles away, like the flow of traffic from the street outside. This voice says the same thing that was once extremely clear, vital, but now it is barely noticeable. It is not a senseless voice, but ambiguous to the highest degree.

Everytime I want to write something, I try to listen to this voice and gradually, though sometimes in a flash, my words echo its indistinct sounds. It all sounds pretentious, doesn't it? But even the light left in the sky will not go away for some time.

September 02, 2005

Form Without Content

One has lost count of how many times the Japanese's punctilious obsession with detail, when it comes to formal matters, has disturbed me to the point of an ambiguous, enraged laughter. Take the 自己紹介, jikoshoukai, or self-introduction. This morning, some alumni of my high school arrived fresh from their highly rigorous university study (more subdued and disturbed laughter, if not tears, here on this issue as well) to shadow teachers around for a day. They MUST, as mandated by a Japanese code of business etiquette, give a self-introduction. What makes the scene farcical, if not just sad, is listening to four different teachers check with these two COLLEGE students about whether or not they can say their name, place of study, and stand here, no here, no there. "Can you say your name? Stand here, ok?" x 4 = something a bit ridiculous. One would be led to believe that these two young adults were not competent enough to be able to state their name and current place of residence in formal Japanese. One would also be right. After much fear and trembling, the young woman holding the microphone stumbled over her name and the word "Shizuoka Daigaku," which is the name of her college. After all that attention to detail, it goes to waste. But no one really cares about the quality of the jikoshoukai anyways, or about the signfied content. There is only the form. As long as it's there, who cares about what really happens.

Then, in my prolonged, agonizing ramble concerning this matter, there is the most recent issue (brought up in the last 15 minutes) of taking nenkyu during the school year. I have read the same contract 3 years in a row, and in no place does it state something to the effect of: "ALT may not request nenkyu for travel abroad during the school term." Of course, I can take all the nenkyu I want if I am in Japan. Heck, I could spend a month in Okinawa for all they're concerned, as long as I don't go "outside." It beats me that they leave out a very important detail like this, one which is in my interest but perhaps means nothing to them (as I do).

Anyway, my rant is over. I really hope that you haven't made it this far, but if you want to know the denoumet to this conflict, my supervisor, Kaino sensei, the coolest Japanese teacher of English on the planet, has worked the system so that I can go to Korea. So perhaps I will be off eating kimchee (and hopefully not dog) somewhere in the mountains near Pusan.

I am beginning to think I am not wanted here by the teachers. Still, I feel close to the students. Am I right to feel this, or just have problems with being subjected to unreasonably and comically exaggerated excercises of authority? I sometimes think of Yosemite Sam and my Kocho Sensei in the same oversized shoes. I am, of course, no Bugs Bunny.