Sunday, July 10, 2011

Into the hills, through the woods and over the river, to Tashiro Elementary we go

If your car can make it up the steep hill into the mountains of Tashiro, you will be awarded with some of the richest scenery Akune has to offer. After cresting the nearly two kilometer-climb into the far eastern part of the city, steep, stout mountains sandwich the two-lane road. When you’ve passed a handful of roadside gardens that produce everything from taro root to tomatoes, you will enter the dense heart of Tashiro, which is all but dense. Before going to school I always stop at the local produce stand. Fruits, vegetables, mushrooms ad flowers all cultivated within the limits of Tashiro fill this small wooden shack. The produce from Takenko-yama (Bamboo shoot mountain) is harvested mostly from the fields of the two old ladies who hang out at the store. They are usually found decked out in huge sun hats, dirty white gloves, rain boots and cute wrinkly smiles. Our relationship is rudimentary: I buy their magnificent produce and they, in return, gawk at my height, praise me about bringing my own shopping bag and compliment me on my Japanese; we get along.

Roadside garden


Tashiro Elementary

With a bag full of local goodies I complete the long drive to Tashiro Elementary. My car barely makes the hairpin turn into school, squeaking down the narrow driveway with not a centimeter to spare. The voices of Tashiro’s thirteen students echo clearly through the mostly empty school. I would hardly call this a disproportion, though, for a school with such a big personality.


Aobazuku, the Brown Hawk-Owl, a loyal, annual visitor of Tashiro’s school grounds

A photo of a photo

When I first came to teach at Tashiro two years ago the students in my class, fifth and sixth grade combined, numbered three. Thanks to a few exchange students who came in last year from outside the prefecture I now have the pleasure of working with five. Everyone eats lunch together in the science room. Everyone plays at lunch recess together; there are just enough people to have a rowdy game of tag, a paper airplane flying contest and a slightly off-sided soccer match; all of this is under the watch and shade of a centuries-old tree. It is a truly mystical land out in Tashiro, where everyone’s true colors shine through.

Great-grandfather Tree

Bye bye

Tashiro Elementary's catch-phrase

A school filled with flowers, smiles and dreams.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ozaki Elementary

Past Yamashita Elementary the housing becomes sparse. The number of rice fields increase, their shapes dictated by the lay of the land rather than the convenient square preferable to most rice farmers. Citrus trees of all kinds border the road that leads into a mountainous region of Akune known as Ozaki. Just before the main road narrows before winding into the far east of Akune, you will pass Ozaki Elementary (Ozaki), or, like me, you will carefully navigate up the narrow driveway every week to teach at a truly wonderful school.

Ozaki’s Bontan trees

The line up (the bontan is the second largest)

Flowers in the driveway

Having fun at the pool opening two weeks ago

This year Ozaki welcomed one new first grader, making its student body number a grand total of sixteen. One could imagine with such few students that students receive ample attention from the teachers. This is, in all respects, an admirable reality of the Ozaki atmosphere. However, I am truly impressed at how well, how naturally and with such dignity the upper classmen-two darling young ladies-take on a leadership consciousness. They make announcements during lunch about what the activities will be for afternoon recess. When someone falls and skins their knee or thinks the rules aren’t fair, the wise sixth grade girls, only occasionally seeking the help of their teachers, moderate until an agreeable end is met.

Tea time

When it is time for lunch at Ozaki, all of the students and teachers pack into one room, squeeze together at four long, (extremely) short tables and rub shoulders with classmates, some of whom are most likely cousins, brothers, sisters and neighbors. Everyone smiles at lunch.

Ozaki Elementary
Full of smiles, full of excitement, where everyone is a hero.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yamashita Elementary

The narrow side street that leads to Yamashita Elementary (Yamashita) is exactly 2.1 kilometers from my doorstep. I can say for sure that there is no other school whose relative location to my house I know better. I owe this peculiar knowledge to the fact that Yamashita 山下, which means below or at the bottom of the mountain, was the half way point on my training route for the Bontan race last year. This is strange considering the large hill leading up to the one hundred and thirty-four year old school and its surrounding neighborhood that goes by the same name.

Of the many aspects that form the character of this school of sixty-three students, I would have to say that the involvement of the community is the most influential. The elders of the darling hamlet attend all of the entrance and graduation ceremonies and, among other things, provide delicious, homemade pickles for teatime at local festivals. The newly graduated students of the elementary school also play their role when they return to their alma mater every year to teach their successors a stick dance, which is deeply rooted in the eclectic tradition of Yamashita.

The Sanjaku Stick Dance

The annual school-wide English lesson held in the newly renovated gynasium

Yamashita’s catchphrase is as deep as its student body is the epitome of youth:

Cultivating strength in our children and growing together.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who knows thirteen?

Who knows thirteen? I know thirteen. Thirteen are the schools of Akune.

When I walk into school in the morning I hear kids sing. I take off my black dress shoes, stuff them in my personal shoe box and slip into my indoors-only sneakers. My hands are full: with picture cards; oversized posters; and my bento box packed in its own insulated bento bag. Before taking a step into the faculty room I bow. If I failed to do this I would surely hit my head, but there is, of course, still the intention of showing respect. I exchange salutations with the vice principal and other faculty members.

“Good morning, おはようございます (ohayogazaimasu)”, I say as I walk across the old wood-floored room; I can hear the vice principals mouse click between my every creaking footstep.

When the bell sounds its chime, the once sporadic leak of chatter bursts open into a flood of youthful voices, surging through the hallways enveloping everything in the start of a school day; I am nothing here without all of this.

For nearly two years and over countless kilometers I have commuted into the mountains and over bridges, along the ocean’s shore and amidst a vast diversity of agriculture to the institutions that allow me to fulfill my role as a member of the Akune Board of Education. There are nine elementary and four junior high schools in Akune’s school district and for me it all started at one: the first school I visited as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), Nishime Elementary (Nishime).

The flowery entrance to Nishime

Nishime is the second most southern school I visit. Although the building itself is very close to the sea, there is no ocean view. You can smell it, though. Every forty-odd minutes a train on the Hisatsu Orange Railway chugs past the schools front gates that were erected one hundred and thirty years ago. According to my colleagues, Nishime, as well as every other school in Akune, used to be filled to the brim with students. Although Nishime’s number are quite different from what they apparently once were, the forty-two bright young students welcome me every week with contagious their smiles at the school’s entrance and praiseworthy diligence in the classroom.

Koi pond


I would like to conclude these introductory entries with the various mottos of each school.

Nishime Elementary
On the handrails of the second floor veranda is the school’s motto: Friendly, Bright, Strong.

Nishime has another maxim, which is more like a catchphrase that is displayed on a hand-painted billboard upon entering school grounds. It is if the style of an acrostic poem, which does not really translate well into English, but for the sake of this fine school here it is:

Peppy Nishime kids

Greet you with a smile
Enjoy reading
Goal-oriented physical fitness

See you at my next school.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Getting dirty: ceramics in Nagashima

Greetings from Akune.

I have laundered my blankets, scrubbed my bathroom floors and windows and stocked up on dehumidifiers. It has rained for thirty-two of the past forty-eight hours in Akune. This could be a direct effect of typhoon number 2-rather than naming each storm that occurs, the Japanese have adopted a numbering system for the annual typhoon season-, the tropical storm that originated somewhere near the Philippines and is now dissipating somewhere of the east coast of Japan, or it could be the fact that the rainy season, at least in the south, has arrived roughly three weeks earlier than usual. Whatever the case may be, 梅雨, tsuyu, the three to four week-long rainstorm that is Japan’s aperitif to its boiling summers, is nothing new to this Seattle boy; I laugh in the face of rain; and yet I fear the extent of damage it can do to my helpless tatami mats.

A few weeks ago, before the rains set in, I attended the bi-monthly pottery class at Warabe ceramics studio (Warabe). Until this month, I had only been creating pieces using the power of my own two hands, a manual wheel and, of course, the guidance of my fabulous instructors, the sisters, Miki and Miwa. The first of this month’s classes was my big training day on the automatic pottery wheel with the Father of the family (henceforth referred to as Oto-san) and the Mother (Oka-san) at the main studio in Nagashima, the island just to the north of Akune. It had been a handful of years since I last sat at the wheel in Karen’s ceramics class. Rehashing the fond memories of my first days at the wheel, I took off to become a very wise master’s apprentice.

I would say coming back to throwing pottery was much like riding a bike, but I would rather not. Not for the reason that is a cliché. Rather the simple fact that one never gets too dirty when riding a bike and likewise one rarely sees a potter with more than a bandana on their head, let alone an aerodynamic helmet. The one thing that penetrated deep into the back of my conscience was the drone of the electric wheel, a monotone noise that, while white in nature, undeniably reassures one of the immediate task at the tips of one’s hands.

The first time I saw Oto-san at the Nagashima studio sometime last year I noticed immediately that his style of throwing pottery was different. It was, in fact, the same style that I witnessed upon my visit to the abandoned elementary school-turned residence of the potter Mr. Matsumoto in the first weeks of my stay in Akune. The style that I speak of is one that utilizes a relatively large portion of clay, for example two to three kilograms (volume-wise, about the size of a newborn baby), which is placed on the wheel all at once in order to make multiple pieces, possibly identical in shape and size. When I first started throwing pots at Summit K-12 (for life), the amount of clay we used was directly related to the size of our desired product. I found two huge benefits to Oto-san and many of his contemporaries’ approach: done in this way, an entire mornings work required only one round of kneading clay (the utmost important and taxing step of creating a piece of pottery should be done methodically and meticulously as it dictates the quality of the end product); and the fact that since all of one’s materials is at one’s fingertips, concentration could go unbroken, which makes the ever-sought-after groove much more easily achieved.

Oto-san’s piece is on the far right, needless-to-say.

After a refreshing lunch of Oto-san’s garden-fresh salad and lamb curry (the first lamb I have ever had in Japan). Much like his oldest daughter Miki, Oto-san cannot get through a day without a brief post-lunch nap. I left the Oto-san and his airline-grade blindfold in the studio and headed down to the lower lawn. It was just me, a sturdy bench in the shade and the vast ocean view. There, I took the better part of an hour to soak up the warmth of late spring and devour the book I was currently reading, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell (thanks Aunt Barbara, the book was awesome).

Kneading clay at the Akune studio, one week after my training in Nagashima

Trimming in Akune the next day

Throwing in Nagashima’s studio

Pieces from Nagashima

When I came back into the studio, Oto-san was crouched behind a counter carrying a huge ceramic vase while Oka-san feverishly worked on shaping and thinning its thick walls. With barely a word between them, the epitome of being in a groove, I recalled a Japanese expression I heard recently:

阿吽の呼吸, a-un no kokyu.

The expression is based on the names of the two guardian statues that are commonly seen at the entrance of Buddhist temples. Usually depicted as having an exquisitely muscular physique or as mystic dog-like figures, one stands with its mouth open pronouncing the first letter of the Sankrit alphabet “a” and the other closed, pronouncing the last letter, “um”. The two statues together create the word “aum”, or the more recognizable transliteration “om”. This single utterance is said to symbolize the full spectrum of all things in the universe. The last two characters in the idiom above, 呼吸 kokyu, mean breath. In laymen’s English it might suffice to say that this saying is equivalent to being on the same wavelength. The breath of 阿 (a) and 吽 (um) is thus an apt expression to convey the essence of harmony I found in Oto-san and Oka-san’s ongoing collaborative effort, both as skilled and experienced artist, teachers as well as guardians of their family.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ephemerality: visitors, flowers and the first weeks of spring

Greetings from Akune.

I hope everyone who celebrated had a wonderful Pesach this past week. The wait is finally over. Yes. You can at last make your peanut butter and jelly on matzah sandwiches. I would like to first of all give a huge thanks to my sister and brother in Jerusalem for the amazing effort they afforded to making this the best Pesach I have ever had in Japan. Only seven short days after a call to the Chabad organization in Tokyo, a box full of matzah and a bottle of kosher wine had been sent to my doorstep in Akune. In the three years I have spent Pesach in Japan, including one year in Kyoto, this year was the first in which I was able to, with the help and kind invitation of a fellow Jewish friend, have a real seder in Japan.

Thanks Chloe, Yehudah and Chabad in Tokyo

As six of my friends and I sat around a low table on tatami mats, reclining comfortably, we group read an abridged version of the Haggadah and even had a chance to share and discuss a few supplementary readings; I closed my eyes and I was seated at all the seder tables I had attended in years past. The only thing that was missing was Grama at the head of the table, her matzah ball soup and the harmonies of my mother and her sisters, the one and only Mackoff girls.

The Seder plate

I read a little bit into Pesach this year, more so than I have in other years. I found out that Pesach is, in fact, treated as a kind of New Year, yes, like Rosh Hashana. The reasons for this are many. For the sake of conciseness and not revealing the lack of depth in my understanding of this profound holiday I will state two of these reasons: Pesach is considered a New Year in that we start counting the months (again) from the day we were taken out of Egypt, a truly new beginning; and also because the season of Pesach is one filled with new life, whether it be a new harvest or vibrantly blooming flowers. This latter explanation is one I think those living in Japan could comprehend very well. As I have described before, spring is truly what brings new life into our world, and sometimes from all over the world.

There are few world travelers I know better in Akune than Captain Matsunaga. At the age of nineteen, just out of high school, he set off to the Dominican Republic (DR) to visit his eldest brother and get a taste of a world beyond Japan. Having come back from a similar trip last year, I was able to hear from the source about the extended Matsunaga family in the DR. I was hardly expecting to have a first-hand experience with a thread of that story, but then came spring.

I got a call from the Captain at an insignificant hour in the afternoon; maybe I am saying it was so because I was at the office. Either way, the Captain was in the company of guests from afar and as a result in high spirits. Before I knew it I was online researching the closest and cheapest hotel rooms in Akune for our guests (our?), apparently they were from or had some connection with the DR.

I was sitting in the parking lot of Rocks Inn when the Captain pulled up in his car accompanied by two young exchanged students from Tokyo on their spring break. Gian, from the Dominican Republic-who I would later learn was the friend and employee of a landscaping company run by one of the Captain’s brother’s sons-and Vinny, from Brazil had a traveler’s air about them. They also had the same look on their faces as I do when I came home from an outing with the Captain; it’s the look of exhilaration, disbelief, joy and exhaustion. Over the next few days, which included dining at yakitori, stopping at a handful of bars, a bon fire and taking a dip in my favorite onsen (hot spring) I became instant friends with Gian and VInny. No sooner, however, did they shoulder their packs and head north to Tokyo.

The first 竹の子, take-no-ko, bamboo shoots of the seasons, pulled from the Captain’s neighbors’ yard, by the neighbors of course. Gian and Vinny watched in awe.

Posing after a bath at 湯川内温泉, Yugawauchi Onsen, my absolute favourite spot

The emerald green bath

At the 焚き火バー, Takibi (bonfire) Bar at the Captain’s

There are a few places that stand out in memories of watching sakura (cherry blossoms) bloom. Having learned to ride my bike at the old Roosevelt High School, the University of Washington’s Red Square and the near by Quad, I grew up with superb sakura. This came dangerously close to being over shadowed during my experience at the University of British Columbia, whose sakura are as countless as they are breathtaking. Then I moved to Kyoto. My world of understanding what a beautiful flower could possibly be began to crumbled. What Kyoto and the handful of places I have visited during spring in Japan have that Seattle and Vancouver do not is a clear sense of unfamiliarity, a kind of next-level rarity.

Sakura right outside my apartment door

Sakura lining the 365 step staircase up to Banshogaoka Park in Akune

A few weekends ago, when the sakura in the north of Kagoshima were in full bloom, Zak and I went to his stomping ground, Nagashima’s Hana (flower) Festival. Upon our arrival to Taiyo-no-Sato Park, we were greeted with a piping hot potato. This was very Nagashima, according to Zak. I figured it as a kind of door prize. The flowers were fantastic and lived up to our annual expectations. Walking under the light pink blossoms and chomping on my door prize was the closest I got to Hanami (flower viewing, which entails a tarp, enough friends to fill that tarp seated and enough booze and finger food to last a long afternoon) this year.

Flower Festival opening performance

There is a well-known saying about Hanami that I would like to share:

花より団子, hana yori dango

The grammatical nature of this proverb proves finding its English equivalent a challenge for any caliber of translator. That is, until they have experienced it they do not realize what Hanami is all about. The saying is a comparative sentence, where the two objects are flowers (the first character) and dango (the last two characters, which is a kind of glutinous rice cake filled with sweet red bean paste). Using mathematical symbols, the saying could be viewed simply as the following: flowers < dango. In other words, it is an unmasking of a collective opinion that most Hanami goers share: we’re here for the food (and booze and friends) rather than the flowers.

Until next time.

Strawberries are in season

Friday, April 1, 2011

Southern Hospitality: a trip to the island of Amami

I chose the plane over the boat. I had my reasons: I would be traveling alone; I was not too pressed on cash; and I did not want to spend twelve hours at sea where conditions are notoriously poor. After making the flight reservations, though, there was still one unanswered question that made me a little anxious. How small was this plane going to be? This question was finally answered when I stepped out onto the tarmac of Kagoshima airport. The plane that was to take me to the island of Amami was a twin-propeller plane with a capacity of about fifty-five people, crew included. This was the smallest plane I had flown on since the six-seater in Mexico about eighteen years ago. Luckily, the weather last Friday afternoon was fare, perfect for a flight down south.

Stepping off of the plane at Amami airport less than an hour later, I welcomed the seven-degree rise in temperature with a deep sigh. Winter has been long since been gone, I thought to myself. This observation became even clearer on the hour bus ride into Naze city. The lush mountains overflowed with the green of newly sprouting leaves and were dotted with a tropical palette of wild flowers.

The impetus for my trip to Amami was, as many trips before, an invitation from friends as well as a genuine interest in the southern part of Kagoshima. I had heard so much about the islands, as they are called so often. The people are relaxed. The dialect is unlike no other. The culture is rich with local music, dance and food. And of course there was the color of the ocean, beyond blue. I had four and a half days to soak up as much Amami as possible, every intention to do so and the perfect friends to show me the way.

Yes, that is a Hello Kitty design in the toast

Route 58 is the only highway that runs through Amami. Throughout my trip I got to know this route very well. I was delivered to the city of Naze on a bus via the 58 and the very next day, on another slightly outdated bus, I was on the 58 again headed down to the city of Koniya. With a population of a little over two thousand, Koniya gives off a very at home vibe. The ocean is visible from practically everywhere, the streets are small enough to only allow passage to the narrowest of cars or drivers who have the confidence to squeeze between the parapets that interlace most of the residential streets and all of this is wrapped in green.

魚南蛮, sakana nanban, fried fish in a sweet sugar cane vinegar sauce, the best I ever had

Most of the species of fish in the islands have red flesh

That is perhaps why I thought it was so bizarre that I found myself in one of Koniya’s loud, smoky live houses the evening I arrived. A number of bands, DJ’s and even a comedy troop performed at Juice live house for a benefit event in support of the earthquake tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan. After sitting through a few bands and a very interesting satire of Iron Chef, my ears and eyes, irritated by the heavy smoke in the air, began to tire and my body was easing slowly into sleep. At that very moment, two people, a man and a woman, entered from right stage. Each was carrying a 三線 sanshin (often referred to interchangeably with the 三味線 shamisen), a small instrument resembling a banjo. The distinctive sound of the sanshin does not come form the neck and frame, which are made of wood, but the drum, which is lined with stretched snake skin and sometimes dog or cat skin; technique, of course, plays a large factor as well. When the spotlights hit the faces of the two artists, now seated on stools, heads began to turn and a surge of whispers ripped through the crowd. The music started. While the steady plucking rhythm and fine finger work of the two sanshin, perfectly synchronized, formed a foundation for the song, vocals as high and soft as clouds completed a sound that injected a strange energy back into me. The layed back rhythm and the soft, round sound was to me the aural embodiment of island culture. By the third and last song of the set, dozens of people had found their way to the foot of the stage, hands raised and wrists twisting in a alternating pattern, dancing the classic island dance. This was the beating heart of the island.

Unbeknownst to be, I had just watched a collaborative set of two of the most famous island musicians of the day, Hajime Chitose (female) and Atari Kosuke (male). After the show, my friends, huge fans of the two musicians, raced backstage to get a chance to mingle with the stars. When the backstage door swung open I was face-to-face with Atari Kosuke, who immediately shot me a smile. I took this as an invitation and joined my friends and the two stars for a quick photo opportunity and a friendly chat. Then, unlike anything I have ever seen, the two artists, natives of the area, went out in the venue and mingled for the next hour with friends and guests. The night had come alive.

Having tasted the nightlife, I thought I would use my last full day in Amami to get in touch with the nature that had captivated me so upon my arrival. As one would expect from an island well within the tropics, Amami is blessed with a vast network of mangroves, not to mention the various companies who offer tours through them. Although the tour was short, the tide was out and the majority of the people in my group couldn’t operate a kayak to save their lives, I adored the mangrove experience. Nowhere else have I seen trees like the ones I saw that day. The guide explained how though some of the trees that appear smaller and less developed are in fact much older than the trees that tower over them. And since there are times when the entire tree is covered in water, some of the roots grow to pierce the muddy surface of the mangrove to gather as much oxygen as possible during the brief windows when the tide is out. I was in awe at this mysterious yet logical tactic of survival.

The plane ride back to mainland Kagoshima was one of the smoothest I have ever had. And as the rumble of the propeller just outside of my window vibrated the seat under me, I played back my first trip to the island of Amami.

People are buzzing around the Board of Education office like bees, bees in freshly pressed suits and new nametags. It is the first of April, my parents’ anniversary. Congratulations and Happy Anniversary. It is also the start of the new fiscal and work year in Japan. This is the day when new employees all over the country receive certificates of appointment and bow their heads low to their superior colleagues. This is the day where desks, left pristinely clean by their predecessors, are refilled with files and agendas, pens and bobble heads (actually no bobble heads), fresh memo pads and rolodexes. This is the day where teachers, who can potentially be transferred to another part of their prefecture every year, wake up in their new houses for the first time, boxes strewn everywhere from having moved in the day before. The last week of March and April the first is a time of emotional goodbyes and anxious introductions to new environments. Every year, whether it is with extreme reluctance or euphoric relief, people, especially teachers, are shuffled around their prefectures, sometimes changing the whole makeup of the workplace and or school district. It is a strange system that I find myself in. I am so grateful that I am not subject to the possibility of being torn away from the schools and the city I have become so fond of.

I would like to leave you with a Japanese proverb regarding goodbyes:

立つ鳥跡を濁さず, tatsutoriato wo nigosazu.

Literally translated, this means, the departing bird leaves no trace.

Sightseeing in Amami

Honohoshi beach has uniquely large, round rocks

The crew

The sound of the waves on the rocks was really amazing, just trust me.

Baby goat

Curry, not goat curry

This is a shipping container converted to a karaoke box.

Until next time.