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Squared Sevens Blogging Corp.
Monday, 4 May 2009
All that glitters is not...
It's Golden Week Time again. Golden Week, if you're not familiar, is a set of consecutive holidays in Japan around the beginning of May. It's one of the few times all year that Japanese people actually take off of work. Everyone uses the opportunity to do some traveling and get out and about, but a few things are causing complications this year. First, of course, is the new (swine) flu scare- as far as Japan is concerned, the timing couldn't have been worse, as Golden Week is probably the busiest international travel season of the year. Anyone who's been abroad is going to get extra scrutiny on their way back into the country. Next, as an economic stimulus move, the notoriously expensive highway tolls have been lowered to 1000 yen (10 bucks) for holidays and weekends. So even more than usual, folks are hitting the road and causing massive traffic jams. Personally, I think anything that has people driving more these days isn't the best of ideas, but some people that I've talked to seem much more interested in traveling due to the cheaper highways, so maybe it will have the desired effect.

So where does that leave me? Of course, the school is off for all of the national holidays. So I've got free time. But with the roads, airports, and hotels packed, it's not the best time to be traveling either. That leaves chilling out around home, which is normally just fine with me. But this year, I was invited to go on a trip with some other ALTs to Malaysia. Sounds pretty cool, it would be nice to see a new country and maybe some beautiful scenery. I was invited to go on a Sunday, and the rates all seemed pretty reasonable. But by the time that I actually decided to go through with the trip, on Tuesday, the airfare had gone up 2 man ($200)... not cool. A bummer, but for a shorter trip, I just couldn't do it. Other places I looked at like Taiwan and Korea were just going to be too expensive during the holiday rush. So that leaves me back at home. I've been catching up on sleep, and cleaning up too, doing all of the scrubbing and stuff that I don't care to do during a regular workweek. I'm starting to get things organized for packing too, because moving is just around the corner. Not going to Malaysia has me pretty bummed, but I'm trying to get other stuff accomplished at least.

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 10:23 AM EDT
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Work
Everybody's got an opinion about the JET Programme. Some say that it's great, some say that it's a waste. But compared to American jobs, how does it work out? I recently read the book "Nickel and Dimed" about a lady who gave up her cushy upper-middle class life to try to get by as a lower-class individual working low-paying, menial jobs. I can't talk too much, but I did have some unattractive jobs during my high school days and summer breaks, in addition to time spent working full-time in retail. Obviously, those jobs are going to have many differences from teaching English overseas.

So looking at things through that prism, how does JET work out? Well, excepting the occasional outdoor activity or festival, it is white collar work, more or less. You won't be at risk for too many work hazards or repetitive stress injuries. The pay is more than enough for a single individual to get by on. There are disadvantages as well. Almost certainly you'll have living conditions much lower that can be expected in the States- cramped, unheated living quarters, minimal privacy, all of that good stuff. Still, it beats having to live in a motel because you can't scrape together enough cash for a deposit on an apartment, like the author saw with some of her coworkers.

Anyways, if you're poor and stuck working crap jobs, you probably don't have health insurance. Myself, I'd been having ear problems for about, oh a little over a week or so. It was a dull pain in my ear, a little sore throat, tough to hear at times. Obviously something was wrong, but it wasn't debilitating, so at first the attitude was just to work through it. Finally, after realizing that the problem just wasn't going to go away, and that I was covered by the national health insurance, I finally made an appointment to go see a specialist. Turns out, I had octitis media, aka a middle ear infection, and I had to have a quick procedure to remove some gunk from behind my eardrum. After about a week, I'm feeling much better and my hearing has been restored to normal. What's the point? Well, if I was stuck working some crap job, without health insurance, I wouldn't have gone to the doctor. I would have just dealt with the pain for who knows how long, at cost to my standard of living. Additionally, I probably wouldn't have had the time either. But now I'm feeling better and can do my job to full effectiveness, instead of just slumming it out. Having that insurance makes a big, big difference.

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 10:22 AM EDT
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Sunday, 5 April 2009
Crazy Month!
March was a really crazy month. Lots and lots of stuff was going on, with barely enough time for a breather in between. Let's start at the beginning of the month. At school, it was graduation time. All of the 3rd year Junior High kids were getting ready to move on to high school. It's a big deal for them, because it marks the last time that all of them will be together as a group- everyone splits up to go to different high schools.

So the ceremony is always a big deal and quite emotional as well. There's lots of preparation and the kids even get a special lunch and farewell party. For me, these kids had been my students ever since I arrived in Oita two and a half years ago. They would be the last of my original students to graduate. That's a long time to spend around the same people and you can get pretty attached to them. But when it's time to go, it's time to go. Turns out this year the ceremony was also the same day as my birthday, but of course it was all about the kids that day.

Not much later I was off to Tokyo and Yokohama to attend a JET-sponsored jobs conference. Obviously it's not the best time to be job-searching and that theme was repeated several times by the various speakers. But I thought that I could get some good tips and advice there, and meet people from a variety of industries. If anything else, it was in the picturesque Minato Mirai area of Yokohama, one of my favorites.

After the conference, I took a few days of vacation and hung around Kanto for a couple of days. I went back to Obirin, where I did study abroad, and met some of my old professors and advisors. The place has certainly changed a lot, new buildings were up everywhere. It was good to go back there though. I also went back around my old stomping grounds of Machida and Tamagawagakuen.

Saturday night, several of the former Obirin students had a mini-reunion at a bar in Yokohama. It was great to see everybody, most of whom I hadn't seen in years. Everyone had a good time, and I even got a surprise Happy Birthday ice cream dessert. It was a lot of fun.

I was pretty spent, money-wise and energy-wise, after that, but the month's activities continued the next week with the annual Oita Charity Cycling trip around the prefecture. This year, I was roped into participating as a rider on the 300 km trip- even though I didn't have bike or hardly and experience in long-distance riding. I borrowed a bike from a teacher, tried to train for a couple of days, and then grim-faced went off to try my best.

The bad news was, the first day was almost all uphill. Oita is a very mountainous area to begin with, but on top of that, we were heading to Kuju, literally one of the highest points on the island of Kyushu. Not fun at all. And then, about an hour in, I get a flat. Or I should say, an explosion, as my back tire disintegrated in an instant. We attempt a fix, without too much luck. However, this day I'm able to borrow another rider's bike and struggle for hours on a seemingly endless uphill course.

When I limp into the first day's camp, it's almost evening and I'm exhausted. Doing this for two more days doesn't seem like a good idea at all. But after a night's rest and more encouragement I'm ready to go the next morning. Unfortunately, the course continues uphill- I can't catch a break. After about 30 minutes, mercy comes in the form of a long, long downhill section. Things are relatively easier after that, even some brush fires (!) near the road don't slow me down too much. The rest of the second day is much more pleasant, the scenery was nice and the course much more forgiving. Another big hill right before the end reminds me of who's boss, though.

Our stay that night is at an onsen hot spring and very refreshing. But the next morning we are greeted by an unwelcome sight- clouds and rain. We ahd been lucky to have good weather so far, but this adds yet another challenge to the ride. Turns out, that wouldn't matter too much. About 3 km in, I get another flat, and there's no easy fix or bike to borrow this time. So I spend the rest of the day in car, trying to track down and help other riders. A bit anticlimactic for sure.

So that was the bike ride. The rest of the month was spent finishing up the school academic year and having several farewell parties for the teachers who were retiring or moving on to other schools. It doesn't seem to end.

In the world of entertainment, things were happening too. Biohazard (Resident Evil) 5, the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, came out. While lacking the atmostphere and creativity of 4, it's still a solid big-budget action game. In movies, The Watchmen movie came out as well. I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but I'm up for any good comic book movie. And in sports, the World Baseball Classic had the whole country's attention- they take it pretty seriously over here.

Sometimes it's good to be busy, sometimes it's good to have a break. I hope that April isn't as insanely busy, knock on wood.

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 9:29 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Panku
I normally don't care much for weddings, but I thought that this time it would be different.

Two of the folks from our local pickup basketball league were getting married, and we were invited as part of a group that would sing a surprise song for them. The people in the basketball group have never been anything but kind and welcoming towards us foreigners, so in return it was an easy decision to participate.

After the main ceremony and dinner, we'd surprise them in the chapel and sing a song complete with guitar and piano parts. Sure the lyrics were a little syrupy, but that's what you get at weddings after all. After that, we would all go out for karaoke, bingo, food and drinks.

It was a warm, spring-like day in the middle of winter. You couldn't have asked for better weather. I met up with Ryan and we got on our way to the wedding in Usuki. About halfway there, we're jamming out listening to Sublime, got the windows down, and then... "Do you hear that?"

There could be no doubt, when the sound is repeating at a regular interval like that. Something was wrong with one of the tires. We pulled over to check, and sure enough there was about an inch-long screw that had been embedded in the right rear tire. It was hissing air and not looking good, and we had a wedding party to attend to. Oh, crap.

Then I look up, and immediately across the street, there's a car garage. In the middle of nowhere, that's no gimme. It was just crazy that where we parked was literally across the street from a possible solution. There's still some air in the tire, so we drive over there to check it out, and... nobody's home. We walk around, and finally I belt out an "excuse me" in my least threatening Japanese.

This really old guy shuffles out of the back. Maybe he'd been fixing cars since after the war even. We explain our situation, and he says, "You got 10 minutes?" We're like, OK, he'll call a truck or something, and then they'll be here. But no, he jacks up the car, sits down, and gets right to work on the tire. A couple of neighbors show up to see why there are these foreigners standing around in suits. He puts some gunk in the tire, messes around with it here and there, and then it's good to go. How much? Oh, fifteen bucks (1500 yen). It was less than 10 minutes.

Thanks to his Yoda-like tire skills, we're back on the road in no time. We show up, the song goes as planned, and everyone has a great time singing karaoke and playing bingo for silly prizes.

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 8:39 AM EST
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Monday, 9 February 2009
Random Notes and I Don't Like Cats
Been holed up in the apartment for a couple of days, I've got another cold. Fortunately it's nothing too severe, throat's a little scratchy, but probably a good idea to take it easy for awhile.

I try to stay busy but sometimes it gets me in trouble, and social obligations here have a way of piling up on you. For example, my teachers at Ono had a drinking party on Wednesday. Normally this will only happen on weekend nights, but we were throwing the party in honor of a special guest teacher that was only in town for that evening. I had barely even talked to the guy on his previous visits, and hardly said a word to him this time as well, but you've got to be there to be respectful for the older guy. All of the other teachers were being really polite and deferring to him, so it's one of those cases where you've just got to follow their lead and go along.

I'm still trying to go to basketball more often; it's a lot of fun and the people are friendly. But instead of being a local, I'm facing around a 50 minute-1 hour drive to Usuki from Ono. Trying to fit that round trip in with dinner on a weekend evening is a pretty tight fit. Still, I think the exercise and socializing is worth it.

By now everyone's seen that A-Rod got busted for steroids. At this point, we shouldn't be surprised at all by that, but hey A-Rod was supposed to be different- he didn't have a freakishly large head like Bonds or the ripped biceps of a McGwire- but in the end it didn't matter. That takes out a lot of the big names in the game, and the thing is, it's not over yet. Expect a few more to go down in the coming moths and years. (Two ones I've always felt suspicous about- Luis Gonzalez and Bret Boone, both had big years that look mighty suspicous in hindsight. At this point, no one gets the benefit of the doubt).

You know, cats aren't good for much. Last night, trying to work off this cold and about to fall asleep, two of the friendly neighborhood cats start yowling at each other at the top of their lungs. If they would at least fight each other, it would be over with at least, but no, just screeching at each other for what felt like hours on end. Finally, armed with a single flip-flop, I went outside to dispense some quiet, Nolan-Ryan style. They scattered once I got down the stairs, but hey they were quiet for the rest of the night.

Cats really aren't good for anything though. You ever see a cat sniffing for drugs, leading a blind person on a crosswalk, or searching for lost climbers? No, you haven't, because they're absolutely useless. Do you like cats? Well, you're probably a librarian with ugly glasses. So there.

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 9:02 AM EST
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Thursday, 22 January 2009
Long Day plus Panthers Rant
oday was a long, long, day. I was sent to three different schools. I participated in a total of at least six classes. I took a yearbook picture with the other teachers. Many people watched me flub a passive tense demonstration lesson. I asked kids if they liked grapefruit. It was a busy day.

First, I woke up and went to Ono JHS. There, we had the yearbook picture- almost everywhere wore a suit, but I was going to the elementary school to tach six year olds right after, so I didn't think it would be a good idea to wear one. Then, on to Chitose JHS to help out in two classes there. Then, a walk up the street to the elementary school, where I asked first and second graders, "Do you like --" answered by, of course, "Yes I do" or "No I don't". Everyone liked French Fries. Then, we played a card game called Karuta, and everyone was very happy. After that, back to Chitose JHS again to grab lunch- some kid of green bread, a hard-boiled egg thing egg, some good western-ish soup, and an apple.

Then, it was time to rush over to Ono JHS again, because there was a demonstration class, where a bunch of other teachers and principals from the area come around and observe the class, critique it, leave comments, etc. So, it can be a little nerve-racking having all of these unknowns in an otherwise familiar environment. Well, things went fairly well. Passive voice was introduced to the students, however I missed one part during the presentation and had to re-check the script in front of everybody- a little embarassing, but we managed to make it through the rest of class. After that I thought that I was home free, just sit in some meetings for an hour or two, but no- actually there was one more class left. So, another 50 minutes with the kids, doing worksheets this time.

After all of that, I was pretty tired. But this whole week has been like that. Of course, with all of the guests coming in to watch the class, we had to do a lot of extra preparation- making cards, displays, getting props, etc. Also after two and a half years I finally taught a class at Ono Elementary- we played Simon Says and a silly face drawing game, good fun actually, but again all of the running around can wear down on you over time. Oh, and the driver's side door handle snapped off of my car- seriously, it just came right in my hand. So now I get to go through the passenger door to open the driver's door from the inside. What a piece of junk.

Warning- unrelated sports content. It's not a happy time to be a Panthers fan. They got beat down at home in the playoffs, the QB had possibly one of the worse games ever, and the star defensive player wants out. You would have never known that the team just went 12-4 and won its division. Look folks, now is not the time to panic. Overall, the team is solid. The team has one of the top running back duos in the league, the offensive line is strong, they've got one of the top WRs in the league, there's a really good young linebacking core in place, and contrary to popular opinion, I think that Fox mostly knows what he's doing. So if Peppers wants to leave, that's too bad, but face it, he has a tendency to disappear for long stretches of time. Delhomme? Yeah, he laid a massive turd in the biggest game of the year, but as always, who are you going to replace him with? Cassel? Favre? Please. If you haven't noticed, half the teams in this league can hardly find a decent starting quarterback- the best bet might just be to hope that we see more of good Jake and less of stinkbomb Jake. But if you want to return to the QB chaos of 07, go right ahead. Get another WR/TE, upgrade the secondary, and find another pass rusher, and things should be in good shape.

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 10:02 AM EST
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Monday, 12 January 2009
And That's That
Another Holiday season has come and passed. I'm back in Japan now, and trying to get re-adjusted to the routine of everyday life. But that's the easiest part. After another grueling trans-global journey, I feel like giving up on the Jet Age entirely. To anyone who has had the misfortune of making such a trip, the list of complaints will be familiar- cramped quarters, bad food, long layovers, ridiculous screening procedures, various surchases, etc. This time around, the guy in front of me had his seat titled all the way back for almost the entire trip (for meals too), the two lovebirds across the aisle were all over each other like high school sophomores, and behind me was a sweet kid riding in his mother's lap, which would be fine, except that he kept kicking the back of my seat.

Like I said, familiar stuff for many. But when you live in an isolated part of the Japanese islands, it's only half the battle. My domestic connection to Fukuoka didn't land until 930- leaving only one train to Oita, which arrived at 130 in the morning. So now I'm in Oita's run-down, Soviet-era train station, after a long series of flights, and no more trains to ride. So where to go to next? The answer is easy- an internet cafe. For a reasonable sum, you get your own reclinable chair, refillable drinks, a computer with internet access, an old Playstation 2, plenty of manga comics, and some privacy- first class fare on any international flight. So I slept there until the trains started up again, took a taxi to my car, and drove directly to school- it was that time already. Fortunately, being a test day, I didn't have to do much, other than wait til I could finally go home. Man, I was glad to take a shower after all of that.

So I've been adjusting back to living up here. Went to the grocery store today, and with food, I'm trying to keep things as varied and interesting as possible, but yet simple at the same time- I'm not the best cook, and I don't have a lot of the tools that I would need anyway. One thing that bugs me though, is why don't Japanese stores carry more of the microwavable meals that are so prevalent in America- TV dinners if you want to call them that. Sure, there are plenty of individual or smaller frozen items, but none of the all-in-one entrees that you'd see in the States. Now that proably shouldn't be the everyday dining option, but it does the job in a pinch. And don't give me any mess about the Japanese having refined culinary tastes- there is ten times the amount and variety of instant ramen noodles here as compared to the USA. Recent food safety scares involving frozen food don't help, but the absence of these meals predates the scandals of the past year. So what's the deal, food companies of Japan?

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 7:04 AM EST
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Friday, 2 January 2009
Winter Vacation Update

My winter break in America is mostly through. So far, the goal was to be lazy and enjoy the luxurious American way of life, and I think that I have been able to do that so far.

Christmas in Ohio with the family was nice this year, but really short. For the first time in a while it seemed like everyone was able to get back together, which was definitely a good thing. We ate a lot of food of course, not even an ice storm could deter us from Olive Garden. I also got in most of my "fixes" such as Taco Bell (yes), Bojangles, and my favorite cereals. Of course, nothing can replace Mom's home cooking though.

A few more days to enjoy, and then another long, long series of flights and trains back. Great!


Posted by nc/frodaddy at 10:13 PM EST
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Thursday, 18 December 2008
Finishing Up
Getting ready to head on out again for another trans-Pacific journey. Got all my stuff packed and ready to go. Just a few more odds and ends to take care of then bright and early tomorrow morning.

Been looking forward to this. I hadn't noticed, I guess because I've gotten used to living here, but this past year has been the longest stretch of time that I've been away from the ol' homestead. So after not seeing everyone for a year, it will be very nice.

With all the bad news recently, it might not be the most merry of Christmases, but we'll sure try our best. This time of year only comes around once a year, so enjoy it while you can.

Finally, one more thing I want to mention. You know all of those company logo animations you see before movies, after TV shows, etc? Well, the internet's so deep, that sure enough there is a site totally dedicated to compiling all of them. The address is closinglogos.com. If you've got the time, check it out. It's a pretty good time waster. (My personal favorite? Probably Carolco's Neon light C logo. T2 baby!)

That's all. Have a happy and safe Holiday season!

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 9:05 AM EST
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Sunday, 14 December 2008
This and That
Getting ready to leave for America soon, but a couple of things that I wanted to mention.

First, let's talk about Japanese banks. A few things that you should know:

1.Business Hours. Japanese banks close for business at 3 pm. Don't be late? Obviously can be a pain if you have something to do during the day, a job for example.

2.Inkan. Your personal stamp that everyone uses in Japan. It's not good enough to have ID and a signature, you've got to have this stamp to prove that you are you. A leftover from the days when the shogun and daimyo would stamp everything, I imagine.  How do they know someone else doesn't have the same stamp? You register it at the town office, but that still doesn't seem to give me a lot of confidence. The counter argument is that signatures can be faked too, but...

3.Old ladies everywhere. The same as anywhere else in the country, but just so you know, cause there will probably be a little late.

So Friday, I had a bunch of classes and notebooks to check, and then a fire drill too, but I thought that I would be able to sneak in before 3 and take care of some business. Well, think again. Talking to the guy took enough time that we passed the deadline, plus I forgot my inkan stamp anyway, so it would have been a moot point regardless. So, back to the bank tomorrow! Might have to go before lunch to be sure that I can make it in time.

Next, the JLPT- how did it go? Good question. I went with a friend to the Kurume, the city where the test was being held. We left plenty early on Satuday, which was good because it was snowing and I forgot my test voucher as well. Along the way, we stopped at a pretty cool used goods shop, and I checked out some vintage used Nikes for $100 and more. Didn't buy any of those, but I did pick up a PS1 game that I had been searching for.

Then, on to the hotel in Kurume, which was pretty nice actually. We got some ramen for dinner, but it was so cold that walking around wasn't much fun at all. I got a nice nosebleed in the restaurant, which was fun too.

Got back to the hotel, cranked up the heat, and got to studying. Good thing too because one of the terms that we studied was actually on the test the very next day. Compared to my normal life, the hotel was luxurious- giant bed, fresh sheets, not having to walk outside to go take a shower- sweet.

Still, nervous about the test, so it was tough to get sleep. We got up and went to get a breakfast of champions at McDonald's. We went to the University by taxi, and settled in for the test. Turns out I was the only white guy in the class room, by far most of the people taking the test appeared to Chinese. Can't lie, it made me feel a little bit self-concious but I knew that I had to focus on the test.

So, how was the test? Kanji readings, my strong point, was mostly a breeze. Then, some vocabulary, which was pretty diffucult at parts, hopefully I got enough to squeeze by in that section. Next, listening. The first part was rather difficult, but it eased up in the second half. After a lunch break, a long reading comprehension section followed by grammar-related questions. The reading in the practice tests was a toss-up, sometimes it could be easier, or more difficult. This time, I'd say that was more on the difficult side, with a couple of tricky passages and questions. As for the grammar, that's far and away my weakness (in English as well), so I can only hope that I didn't screw it up too bad.

In the end, though, I'm staying cautiously optimistic that I did enough to pass. It's all multiple choice, and even if I didn't completely get the answer, I could make the old educated guess by eliminating a few of the options. As for the result, still gotta wait two months. Guess we'll see then!

Posted by nc/frodaddy at 9:04 AM EST
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