The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Back in Beppu

I'm back in Beppu now. I moved into my apartment, (which is another building from Michelle and Helen, the other teachers) and was quite pleased by the size and nice, high ceiling. Then I discovered that it has no internet! This was a crushing blow, to say the least. Fortunately, Helen dropped by a few minutes later and said that she'd be willing to trade apartments with me, because she doesn't use the internet at home very much. How nice is that?!

So we moved our stuff to our respective new places, which was easy because we hadn't started unpacking yet. My new place is the exact same floorplan as my old place, only mirror-imaged. This is fine, except that there are a couple places where it doesn't work. The table, for example, has a strut that I bang my knee on every time; last time, it was going the other way and wasn't a problem. And the fridge door opens the wrong way, so you have to reach into the corner and open it as you step back. Minor complaints, but irritating enough as daily occurrences.

We went to school yesterday and had a brief meeting with our university contact guy. The enrollment for our course is always low in the fall, but this term exceptionally so. It seems like we will have really small classes, like some classes under 10 students. Yay!

One of the big downsides that I'm a bit worried about is the national health insurance. There's some kind of new law that requires membership in the NHI plan (before, we were on a private plan from the company) and I might have to pay a lot of back taxes because I've been in Japan for so long. Hmmm. We'll see how it goes.

So anyway, I'm mostly unpacked and settled in. I still have to get a few boxes of stuff back from people who have been storing them for me, and I still have a big pile of unsorted stuff on my floor, but that will gradually get put away.

I went to practice last night, and delivered some of my gifts from Canada (maple syrup, icewine, dreamcatchers, cookies, etc.) and they went over really well, which was good. Now I'm glad I went to the trouble lugging them over here.

Right! Stay in touch, everybody!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Finished Training...

The pre-service training orientation in Tokyo just finished up, and I think it went pretty well. The first day, I just stood around helping pass out papers, and herding people back into the room when breaks were over. Today, I had to lead a training session in front of 60 teachers! It was a bit scary but I think it went off without any major hitches. For one thing, the teachers were pretty interested in what I had to say, which is always nice. I didn't have to make any real efforts to keep their attention. Plus, I made a few jokes that lightened the mood and seemed to go over well ... I'm just glad they didn't bomb. Anyway, this will probably mean that they will ask me to conduct the same training session again next semester ... I don't know if that's a good thing, or a bad thing! A good thing, I guess.

Tomorrow, we fly out to Oita and move into our apartments. I barely got to do anything here in Tokyo. So much for big city lights! Soon it will be, uh, small town lights or something.

Oh yeah ... more good news ... all that standing at the training for the last couple days seems to have straightened out my back problems, at least for now.

Right now, I'm off for a drink with some of the staff, to celebrate a successful orientation. Cheers!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dazed, Jetlagged, and Confused

I'm back in Japan. My flight was okay, I guess, so I shouldn't complain, but I will anyway. The first problem was the time: it left at 8 a.m. Being an international flight, you are supposed to check in 2 hours prior to departure, so that meant being at the airport at 6 a.m. That meant leaving Linday at about 4 a.m., which in turn meant getting out of bed at about 3:30 a.m. You can imagine how much fun that is. I went to bed at 8:30 the night before, but didn't sleep very well. I kept having strange dreams where I was packing or trying to find things in my room, trying to fit things into my suitcase, or discovering I had gotten to the airport without some vital thing like my tickets. Occasionally I would think, "I'm going to Japan for a year!" and I would jolt myself awake.

I was sleeping so fitfully that I didn't need an alarm to wake up, which was good, I guess. But when I woke up, I discovered that my back was really hurting me. This was probably a combination of factors. The biggest factor was an almost complete lack of exercise for 6 weeks, combined with way too much lying in bed. The second factor was probably tension because I was nervous about moving. I tried to stretch my back out a little bit and ended up putting it into a mild spasm, which made things worse. (This is where the muscles in your back freeze up in an attempt to "splint" your back bones if there is pressure on a nerve somewhere. Like a giant, persistent back cramp.)

So anyway, the ride down to the airport was okay except for the back pain. Unbelievably, traffic on the 401 is actually fairly heavy at 5 a.m. but we got there in good time. The airport was fairly busy too, even at that hour. I was traveling on United Airlines, going through Chicago and on to Tokyo. So I had the pleasure of lining up with a bunch of Americans, and dealing with American check-in staff. I have to tell you, there is a noticeable difference in courtesy between Canadians and Americans! The first thing that happened was a guy lined up in the empty First Class line instead of the equally-empty Economy class line, and was promptly asked to move to Economy class. "Why the f%&k do I have to move when there's nobody in the f%&cking line?!" he roared. Then the woman tried to give him a customs declaration form. Rather than take one second to put down his suitcase handle, he just yelled at her, "Can't you see my hands are full, you dipshit?!" The check-in people, no doubt because they have to deal with people like him all day, were less than sunny.

The flight to Chicago was almost 2 hours late due to engine problems that were noticed and fixed before take-off. Some people missed their connections but I had a long enough stop-over that it made no difference to me. I had no problem finding my gate at O'Hare airport, which was good. It is a huge airport, as you would expect. There are also tons of shops and restaurants, so I had lunch. With the time difference, it was only 10 a.m. there, but I was starving. I noticed that the staff of the fast food kiosks were almost all black and hispanic. This is something I'm aware of rationally, I guess, but I have so little experience traveling in the US that it kind of surprised me to see it firsthand.

The flight to Tokyo was full. I had asked for a seat behind a bulkhead, or in an emergency exit row, but I was told that it would cost me an extra hundred dollars, so I declined. I wonder what's next. "Uh, miss? My seat has no seatbelt." "Oh, would you like one? They're twenty dollars." I was on the aisle, at least, which was okay. The guy in the seat next to me was someone I had noticed lining up for the flight in Toronto, a young hippy-looking guy in his mid-twenties. I tried to make some conversation as we were getting ready for take-off, but he was having none of it, and we didn't talk for the rest of the 12 hour flight. It's funny: you want to sit beside somebody that you can talk to a little bit, but not somebody who's going to talk more than you want to. I guess his "bar" was just set way lower than mine. Misanthropic weirdo! He slept most of the flight anyway, and at least he didn't get up to go to the bathroom a whole lot.

Surprisingly, I was able to sleep a fair bit, and in between sleeping, meals, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and the in-flight movies, 12 hours actually went by pretty quickly. I thought my back would bother me, but I took some pain-killers and was fine, actually. (Thank God for small mercies.) Just as the plane was coming in to land, the guy beside me pulled out a scrap of paper on which he had written some contact information - for my company! I didn't say anything because I was still insulted that he wouldn't talk to me, but he was surprised to see me show up at the Westgate meeting place.

Tokyo was really hot, about 30 degrees, but I guess it had cooled down a little bit. Even so, it was a shock to the system. When I left Canada, it was downright chilly and it had actually snowed in Toronto when I was there on Sunday two days before. (This story amused my Japanese friends to no end.)

I'm now staying in a hotel in downtown Tokyo. It's not the Ritz, by any means, but it's clean, comfortable, and centrally-located. My one complaint is that they have the world's worst complimentary breakfast. It's all-you-can-eat, but here's what it consists of: cold, hard-boiled eggs; shredded lettuce; cold buns. So just about the least appealing stuff you can think of, basically. Miso soup and rice are dead cheap, so I don't understand why they don't serve them, but anyway... beggars can't be choosers. Or never look a gift horse in the mouth. Or something.

Last night I went out with coworkers for tonkotsu ramen (Chinese-style noodles in a pork broth). This place has some of the best ramen I've ever had! Absolutely awesome. Ramen is something that people here get really excited about, and the difference between "good" ramen and "great" ramen can mean the difference between a restaurant that does so-so business, and a place that people line up to get into. (Imagine a place that has the "Best Apple pie in the state" or something.) After that I met up with some friends (3 cute girls!) and we went out to an Okonomiyaki and Monja restaurant. These are 2 related foods that are variations on the same theme. Okonomiyaki is a wet mixture of cabbage, and other ingredients in a batter, that's fried on a hot plate and covered in tangy sauce and mayonnaise. Usually, it has pork and/or seafood in it, and is somewhere between a pizza and a pancake. Monja is a more watery version that you fry up until it gets semi-solid and then you eat it with a tiny little spatula. It's fun because you cook up this stuff at your table and eat it together. It was good fun but I was feeling quite jetlagged, and so I probably wasn't up to my usual, scintillating self.

Ramen and dumplings from Ippudo, one of the best ramen shops in Tokyo. Yum!

Akiko makes Okonomiyaki while Satoko looks on; a fun time was had by all.

Yuko, your humble author, and Akiko in Ueno, Tokyo. Why is everybody so short?

I am involved with the training this time, so I don't have any time for sight-seeing or anything, which is fine, since it's too hot for me anyway, and if I did have free time, I'd just feel guilty for staying holed up in my air-conditioned hotel room instead of going exploring. This way, I have no choice, which is usually preferable. I'm blogging now, having gotten my fill of hard-boiled eggs, and in a minute I'll go get a shower, and go off to the office for a training session after lunch. Then it's more training tomorrow and Sunday (I'm giving a presentation on Sunday to 60 people, a bit nervous about that) and then we fly to Oita on Monday. I'll post something again when I get to Beppu.

As I expected, it's weird to be back in Japan but at the same time, it feels like I never left. (Going home was the same way.) It's hard to explain, but it's like I'm living two different lives on two completely separate timelines, like when I come back here, I just pick up where I left off. The only thing is that 6 weeks have mysteriously elapsed on the calendar, like I have been in a coma or something. Does that make any sense? Anyway, I'm already missing everybody in Canada, so I'll try to update this thing often and stay in touch.