Thursday, December 27, 2007

I'm a Winner

The image above was just chosen as an Honorable Mention in the Landscape Category of Cowboys and Indians' [magazine] 2008 photo contest. Unfortunately Honorable Mention doesn't get the $500 that first place in each category wins, or the paid photo assignment that the grand prize winner receives. But it's recognition in a beautiful magazine and I'll take that over the "We had many wonderful entries and it was hard to choose..." letter. The contest will be published in the March, 2008 issue. I don't know if it will be shown online, but it would be unfortunate if not because the magazine costs something like $8/issue.

On another photography note, this is the time of year that I love to visit msnbc's website to view their Year in Pictures segment that takes many of the Week in Pictures winners from the last year, puts them in a slideshow, and allows you to vote for your favorite at the end. It's a difficult, wrenching process because there are some spectacular photographs, but you have to vote in the next couple days to count.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Incinerator

One of the cool things about living on a small island is having a self-contained water and sewer system (yes, my hometown of Anacortes, Washington defies this by pumping their water through a 36" pipeline that travels beneath two bodies of water to reach the island). Our waste system on Zamami is also mostly self-contained.

The incinerator is the center of much public controversy. It was apparently modeled after (and built by the same company) an incinerator half its size on nearby Tonaki Island. The controversy is three-fold, as far as I can tell: First, the incinerator was built on the most beautiful and famous beach in the Kerama Islands chain (see picture below). Second, the incinerator is huge and is designed to burn far more trash than our tiny community can produce. And third, the incinerator was (is) really expensive to build and is a big reason our village is the poorest in Okinawa and one of the five poorest in the entire nation of Japan.

We separate our trash into plastics, paper, metals, glass, non-combustible, and maybe some more categories I don't know about. I'm still not sure I'm separating my trash correctly, but as long as I have metals and non-combustibles separated out I'm fine. That's because everything else gets burned. There is no plastic or paper recycling, even though the rest of Okinawa recycles. Even two tiny little islands a few hundred kilometers east of the mainland send their recyclables in by boat. Our boat travels back to Naha empty, but we can't send our recyclables because they are needed as fuel for the incinerator.

I am told by reliable sources that the cost of operating the incinerator is in excess of $10,000/day. Since our community doesn't produce much trash, we accumulate it for an entire year at the incinerator and then spend one week burning it. Heating up the incinerator is an energy-intensive process fueled by coal and maintaining that heat is key to 'efficiency' so that is why our plastics are burned.

Since our incinerator gets so little use, it's apparently deteriorating much quicker than it should. During our week of burning in September, I was told the incinerator broke down, which means a costly maintenance trip has to be booked through the company that built it.

Japan is known to be one of the leading countries when it comes to incinerating trash and this is mostly attributed to limited space for landfills. Zamami is a big enough island, but thankfully(?) there isn't a landfill as any runoff would flow straight to the ocean and our coral reefs. Unfortunately, incinerators are a huge polluter of particulate matter, heavy metals, and dioxins (BAD) into the air. Fortunately our winds blow all of that stuff toward Naha.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Winter Solstice

I am interrupting my three environmental posts to wish you a happy winter solstice. My penpal friend, Gordon, lobbies to me that today is the best day of the year and should be a recognized holiday because for the next six months, things are only going to get better.

Yesterday at school (Zamami this week) I made brownies with the junior high third-graders (9th grade) in the morning and then spent two hours with the elementary first-graders making paper Christmas trees and candy canes. It was a day to love my job.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


[This Aka kindergartner is selling purses made out of reused bubble wrap.]

Mottainai is a word unique to the Japanese language that sums up the American saying "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" with the addition of "Repair." The rough translation of mottainai is "it is so wasteful that things are not made full use of their value." From my experience so far, it can be used more as 'make use of things and don't waste their value' rather than 'don't be wasteful.' The difference I mean is that you can tell someone mottainai when they haven't finished their meal and intend to throw out food, but it's not the right word when telling someone to turn off the lights. I use this word liberally, though, because they know I don't quite understand.

Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan environmentalist who is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She has done a lot of research on 'mottainai' and found no comparable single word in any other language. So she has undertaken an effort to put the word into international lexicon by using it in her speeches and having the audience repeat it.

In early October, as I was just learning this word, I heard a timely story on NPR's Morning Edition about a new children's book in Japan called "Mottainai Grandma." It's a story about a mother explaining to her son why he has to finish his rice and why his grandma says "mottainai" to him. The story can be found and listened to here.

There is never a case to use mottainai in the lunchroom. Every student finishes every bit of food on their plate. I am usually the only one who pours any edible food into the food waste can (and that's only mayo scraped off my bread or salty broth from my soup). It's an amazing phenomena that seems an impossibility in America.

So next time you catch someone (or yourself) starting the washer when it's not full, or throwing away food, or wasting paper, say "mottainai!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Waste

My next three posts will be consumption/environmentally-themed.

Today I am disposing of my second bag of combustible trash since arriving in Japan in early August. Living alone has presented me with the unique opportunity to track all of my consumption through utility bills and the number of bags of trash and recyclables I fill. It's easy to compare month-to-month progress (or lack of) in reduction. I took out my first bag of trash on 10/13, which was about two months after arriving here. This bag is going out 12/18, just more than two months later. I am hyper-aware of everything that goes in the combustible bag, which is almost solely plastic bags from loaves of bread and vegetables and the foil packaging of single-serve spaghetti sauce. In an attempt to reduce those disposals, I am working towards relying almost solely on bread I bake, which has already reduced my weekly bread order from five/six loaves (the "loaves" only have six slices - yes, i eat a lot of bread) to just one. Replacing store-bought bread doesn't eliminate the waste, but shifts it to friendlier paper flour bags. I am also trying [successfully] to eat less spaghetti and to add a lot of tomatoes and onions to the sauce to get two dinners out of the single-serve packet.

Our garbage is disposed of in bags that we purchase from our store. Though they are cheap (15 cents apiece), this method provides incentives to reduce trash. My experience in the U.S. is that a weekly trash can service is paid with a flat fee, whether the can is filled or not. Our bags come in two or three sizes. I accidentally bought the medium bags my first time, not realizing how long trash would build up while waiting for the bag to fill. So I purchased the small bags as well and use the larger ones only for plastic. The small bags are a couple inches taller than an American paper grocery bag with about the same girth.

I have a fair amount of plastic waste. I've separated my plastics into two bags: one with my yogurt and egg containers and one with everything else. Both are about half-full. I hope to get a yogurt maker from a secondhand store and work something out with the owners of a flock of chickens I know about.

I have disposed of three shoe boxes of paper waste, which I am happy about (for four months). I mostly bring home my paper waste from work, too, so I don't cheat myself of actual consumption.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on why my separation of recyclables and combustibles is meaningless.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Job Security?

This is from, my Okinawan English-language news source:

Two Okinawa villages warned they are facing critical financial futures

Date Posted: 2007-12-14

The future of Zamami Village and Iheya Village is bleak, at least in the short term.

The Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication Public Management Office has warned both their finances are in terrible shape, bordering on bankruptcy. The ministry told both they could face bankruptcy if they don’t change how they do business. Both are listed in the ‘yellow zone’ signaling the ratio of outstanding bonds compared to income is critical when the ratio is 25% or more.

Zamami’s ratio is currently 30.7% and Iheya Village 29.3%. Okinawa Prefecture is tasked with providing advice to the two villages on how to fix their problems. Without changes, the villages will not receive further permission to issue bonds necessary to get business from the government. The prefecture says the two villages have been doing their best, while getting good advice.

Okinawa Prefecture officials predict the two villages could repair their fiscal circumstances by 2013 at the earlierst. The Prefecture says Izena Village is closing in on the same threshold, with its ratio now 24.1%. The village financial situation is being studied now by the Prefecture to determine what the 2007 budget deficit will be, and how dire their money problems are.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pilates in Japanese

Who am I to turn down a ratio of 17 women to 2 men? That was my dilemma when I showed up to learn eisa drumming, but instead found the first of six pilates courses scheduled over the next couple months.

The misunderstanding on my part was first explained by a Japanese woman whom I didn't recognize but who spoke English fairly well. Being a veteran resident of Zamami, I boldly asked, "who are you?" She's a visitor from Gunma [prefecture, left of Tokyo] here for five days. Attractive, too, which gave me two excuses to take the mat next to her.

Two hours and forty minutes later when pilates ended I felt similar to how I feel after yoga classes: unchanged. I always suspect that I am not doing things correctly and I have never felt so sure of that as I did tonight. I think the explanation and process of getting to a position is important, but hard to grasp in a foreign language.

But I needed to get out. There are so many evening activities in Zamami and it's time to start partaking.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Friday, December 7, 2007

Irashaimasen (Welcome, Please Shop Here!)

["Irashaimasen" is a word used by hired young ladies to tempt you into their store or restaurant or just to say welcome anywhere you shop. The frequency of its use in a popular shopping area is enough to drive a foreigner mad.]

[If you are reading this post because you linked to it through a Google search on 'irashaimasen' (and there are a lot of you), let me take this moment to teach you that the word is actually 'irashaimase'. I wrote this post back in the early days of my Japanese study and have since learned the correct spelling/pronunciation.]

I was happy to accept an offer this morning to attend the Aka yo-chien (pre-school/kindergarten) store and do a little shopping. The students have been spending the last few weeks making jewelry, paper flowers, candy, and desserts. The store had tables, a game, and even a 'cooler' for the paper desserts. It was professionally executed.

I bought myself a murse made of reused bubble wrap and jute twine. I scored a couple balloons by throwing rope rings over wooden pegs. I bought a bracelet and a ring so pretty I kinda wish I had a girl to propose to with it. I purchased a piece of orange chocolate that could be mistaken for an orange paper heart. And I also managed to buy a potted paper flower twice. I set it down after the first purchase and the three-year-old shopkeeper came by, picked it up, and sold it back to me again!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Follow-up to the Naha Marathon

Tonight I walked into the Zamami teachers' room to grab two flyswatters for a game I'm doing on Aka this week and the feeling was reminiscent of walking into a staff room when you've been fired but not told yet. Except everybody was smiling.

Finally somebody blurted out "Naha Marathon!" It was like they were expecting a speech, so I just said what I knew how to in Japanese: my time and that my muscles were really sore on Monday but now they are fine. And I imitated my 'sore' walk. I was humble about it and tried to escape quickly because getting marathon fame wasn't what I came to the school for - I'll have plenty of time for that when I am teaching on Zamami two weeks from now.

But it's hard to elude this notoriety on small islands. People who have never spoken to me before have the courage to approach and tell me I did a good job at the marathon (I think that's what they're saying). Many teachers and even more students saw me on television the morning of the race. It helped that the cameras were concentrated around the start line, where I was only 20 feet deep into the racers and six inches taller than everyone. My name also made the newspaper the next morning as they published the top 800 finishers (I was 562).

For me, this is the sort of small society gossip that is acceptable to be spread like wildfire. It feels like if any Zamami residents didn't know who I was before (and most saw me do well in the 5k at the island's sports day), they do now. I know that's not true, but it feels like it. And it's a sign to me that I am part of a community. They are proud and they give me congratulations. I represented Zamami last weekend.

Before leaving the Zamami teachers' room, I was called back by one of the male teachers. He pointed to a calendar and asked, "Are you busy on January 19?" I don't have a planner because I never have plans, so I said no. He said "Good, you can be on our basketball team." Then he explained that we have practice every Monday night from 8-10pm (my bedtime is 9pm!). And before I left, he reminded me, "If those Aka teachers ask you, you tell them you're on the Zamami team!"

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Naha Marathon

In a race that boasted over 25,000 entrants, I was inexplicably given number 296 (I entered a not especially fast goal time of 3:45, which is why my seeding is inexplicable), which placed me in the first group. Some people probably took over ten minutes to reach the starting line after the gun had fired. I took six seconds. Helped by the super-fast pace of those in the front-running groups, I easily met my goal of five minute kilometers and in fact dropped about 1.5 minutes under a five minute pace. I held that gain until the halfway point, where I dropped back to 46 seconds ahead of pace (five minute kilometers would produce a 3:31 time, I hit the halfway point at 1:44.44).

The course was rather boring, which didn't help keep my attention away from the heat that filtered through the zero clouds in the sky. I would have taken any day we've experienced in last the last six weeks in Okinawa over today, where temperatures surpassed 70 degrees at the 9am race start and held steady at 75 through the middle of the day.

I set my sights on the 30km mark, which is slightly short of 3/4 through the marathon. I reached it at 2:19, an average of 49:40 10k's to that point. But then I got tired. I sensed early on in the marathon - around the 15k point - that today was going to include a 'tired' section. At Kume five weeks ago, I was only strong and stronger (with a slower pace). I tried to break down the remaining 12k into five 2k's (the last 2k is so close to the finish it doesn't count), which worked until 34k when I realized I was falling off my pace and I'd lost the extra 1:20 I'd been keeping in reserve. I kept losing at 36k and gave up trying to gain it back at 38k. Then I just concentrated on finishing. I did finish in 3:34.07.

One of my life goals is to break 3:30 in a marathon, so at first this was a disappointingly close finish. But as the day went on and I thought about everything working against a fast run(heat, warm water at water stations, no sports drinks, dirt-flavored tea) I became pleased with my result. It's over 15 minutes faster than Kume and a half-hour faster than my previous two marathons: Palau and Pittsburgh.

At the finish I was in real tough shape. I could hardly walk and had to concentrate hard to understand directions. I allowed myself 15 minutes to sit down before heading to the monorail to get back to my friend Laura's apartment. I did two inconceivable things at the monorail: I used an elevator and an escalator. I am 'stairs' man, but today I was a 'get to the monorail' man.

At Laura's I took a shower and discovered through the pain of the water that I had a raw waistline from my shorts. Before the race I'd liberally applied Bodyglide to numerous potential chafing areas, but hadn't considered the waistline. Later I also discovered blood on my shirt and rear number that I am yet to trace to my body.

I had to get back to Zamami today for work tomorrow, but I found out I didn't have enough money for the cab ride from Laura's to the boat. So I slung my backpack full of groceries on and stumbled the 40 minutes to the port. One of the teachers on the boat said she was watching the marathon on television this morning and saw me starting!

Here are the numbers:

Time: 3:34.07
Average heart rate: 172
Heart rate range: 119-183
Time spent above 150: 3:31
Total ascent/descent: 790 feet
High point: 364 feet
Low point: 36 feet

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Leadup to the Naha Marathon

A few nights ago I followed up on my earlier promise to run my heart rate monitor all night while sleeping. Looking at the graph the next morning was very fun (I had some good dreams, apparently), but I was most excited to see that my nightly range dipped down to 32bpm three times. It's impossible to know how long I spent at that rate (though it was less than two minutes because the watch registers every 60 seconds and the surrounding readings were 33), but it's good to have a goal now.

Another morning this week I noticed my monitor was calmly settled on 34bpm. So I took a picture.

The Naha Marathon is this Sunday. I am nervous on many levels: (1) All of the boats were canceled yesterday and today between Zamami and Naha due to high winds. (2) Tonight it's really windy. (3) The winds aren't supposed to die down until Sunday. (3) My muscles don't feel very loose yet. (4) I'm well into my tapering and it isn't making me feel like Superman yet, like it did leading up to the Kume Marathon. (5) I just started running in a brand new pair of shoes two weeks ago and I'm not completely sold on them yet. This is a terrible time to not be confident in my shoes. (6) While the taper is great, the premise is to gradually dwindle my running down so I have lots of energy. But I also get lots of doubts about my abilities when I go so long without a long run. (7) I can't figure out the bathroom situation on the marathon course (are there places where I can just hop into bushes? is the first bathroom stop at 7km loaded with porta-potties or will there be a line?).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Military Brats

Last night was the finale of Zamami's November weekend concert series. The last show included new acts and costumes by the taiko drummers, hula, eisa, a firedance, a traditional mainland Japanese dance, some comedic skits, and a concert by our local band, The Mammy's. (I know the grammar is incorrect, but it's not my band.)

The show lasted five hours and there were probably 3-400 people in attendance, which is a significant percentage of our island's population.

It was a great time but unfortunately I left terribly embarrassed. For the second time in three weeks a delegation of six military folks from mainland Okinawa have ventured out to Zamami for the weekend. The previous group started a[n illegal] bonfire on one of our famous beaches and camped there without paying. The American whom I had befriended that week reported to me that a local had referred to this group of miscreants as 'friends of the English teacher.' So there is possibly an assumed association between us English speakers.

This group included black, hispanic, and white skin colors which wouldn't be relevant except that Japan has so little immigration that anybody not of Japanese descent is noticed. So without their excessive beer and loud voices, they already stood out. I am unsure if the two girls were gay, but they acted it. Public displays of affection are frowned upon by male/female couples, so you can imagine how a gay couple is viewed in this conservative society. The group often bellowed out marching commands (followed by everybody counting off) at inappropriate times (when is an appropriate time?). They actually sat on the stage when The Mammy's started to play, which prompted a difficult gesture-based request for them to move back (two remained on the stage, apparently protesting their rights). The highlight of disgraceful behavior was when the entire hula group formed for their final performance and the military people jumped up and broke into a swing dance to the hula music, just left of the stage. They were so drunk, loud, and animated that they distracted all of the hula girls on the near side of the group.

This event reminded me of an interaction I had with a Taiwanese tour guide in Palau. The tour guide was about the same age as me and he worked for a group similar to Club Med. He told me that when the Taiwanese tourists came they felt entitled to do whatever they wanted since they had paid for their trip (it was rumored that only 17 cents on the dollar stayed in Palau for tour group trips). That, along with a cultural element, prevented the tour guide from asking his guests not to walk on the coral and pick up creatures off the sea floor.

So, entitlement. The military people had probably hatched this 'drunken vacation weekend' while back on base. They'd paid their boat fare, were renting a room, bought their beer, and were going to have a good time. Unfortunately, when they left the base they were in another country. Further, they were representatives of America whether they wanted to be or not.

I think I did a good job of disassociating myself. Though I debated heavily over asking them to calm down, I decided that would probably have the opposite effect I intended. So what can I do? Only improve myself. Be aware of my actions and remember that I am both a member of this society and an ambassador of another.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Buy Nothing Day

Here is a quote from the Buy Nothing Day Japan website:

Once upon a time, we used to buy what we needed, period.

Now that we have all we need, we buy for other reasons: to impress each other, to fill a void, to kill time. Buy Nothing Day is a simple idea: try not to shop for a day, and see how your view of our world changes.

Where does all this stuff come from?

Where will it go?

Why do we buy it?

Aren't there better ways of spending our time?

In 1992, Buy Nothing Day started in Canada, and quickly grew into a "festival of sustainable living" celebrated in at least 35 countries.

This Friday is the single biggest shopping day in the United States. The premise behind Buy Nothing Day is to eliminate all non-necessary shopping for one day. The goal is not to send a message, but rather to increase personal awareness of what and why we are buying.

Think about celebrating the aptly named Black Friday (the black is supposed to mean that retailers will go 'into the black' but we all think a different thought when we hear 'black' in front of a day of the week) as both a day off from work and a day off from spending. BND is honored internationally on Saturday, November 24.

Here's the link to the United States' Buy Nothing Day website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Numbers

A fun tool I used while blogging my Pacific Crest Trail hike was to keep track of things in terms of numbers. I guess it says something about my brain and that is supported by my habits of keeping lists, tracking all of my expenses, and disliking dancing, but I think it also makes an interesting post.

The number of...

palm trees in my yard: 2
banana trees in my yard: 3 (and one's producing bananas!)
cats I've seen at my neighbor's door at one time: 19
books I've finished: 2 (Collapse and Mountains Beyond Mountains)

bags of burnable trash I've taken out since August 10: 1
shoe boxes of cardboard/paper I've taken out: 3
bags of cans: 1
bags of plastic or glass: 0

fish I've caught: 3
fish I've kept: 1
t-shirts I've acquired: 3
t-shirts I've worn out: 1
cockroaches I've killed since arriving: 39
cockroaches that have escaped: 6

letters from my Peace Corps South Africa friend, Erin: about 9
countries I've received mail from: 4
kilometers I run, on average, per week: about 78
hours I listen to NPR every day: about 3
uninhabited islands in the Kerama chain that I've seen goats roaming on: 3

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Brown Sugar [does not equal] Nuka

Last Thursday and Friday I attended the Okinawa JET Mid-Year Conference in Okinawa City. Yes, I've only been here three months and that is not the midway point of any year.

I've been working on a solar oven for two months (look forward to that post), but have been anxious to get baking. So when I found an oven for sale on the English language Okinawan classifieds site, I made an offer.

My friend Shu was kind enough to fit the oven pick-up into the schedule at 6:30am on Friday morning. That afternoon another friend, Jaimee, was nice enough to haul me and the oven back to Naha. Then a taxi driver was nice enough to accept my money to get me to the port.

Today I made my inaugural cinnamon rolls and cookies. You can see in the picture that the cinnamon rolls got a little dark, but the cookies are the real story. The brown sugar had a strange consistency when I packed 3/4 cup and mixed it in. The color was right, but the sugar was almost spongy. Certainly not sticky. Lacking curiosity, I didn't taste it. But I did taste the finished dough, which was pretty tangy. I wrote it off as the result of using all foreign ingredients (me thinking globalization of food hasn't hit Japan yet...). When I was preparing the cinnamon and brown sugar for spreading on the cinnamon rolls, I licked my finger and realized that my brown sugar was in fact something opposite of sweet. I instinctively looked at the package, which initially brought no help. But on the back were pictures showing this substance being poured into a pot of water, then adding vegetables and cooking.

My friend Amy looked it up and here's what Wikipedia says:
"Rice bran finds particularly many uses in Japan,
where it is known as nuka (糠; ぬか). Besides using it for pickling,
Japanese people also add it to the water when boiling bamboo shoots,
and use it for dish washing."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Twice in the last week I have been tactfully corrected on the gender of my students. There was never a question in my mind that two my Zamami fifth-graders were girls. One has long hair and a feminine voice, the other only hangs out with the girls and has a hermaphroditic name and haircut.

I have been living on Zamami for over three months! I was so blown away to find out about the first mistake (from a teacher) that I started analyzing other students. I came up with a fourth grader that looks boyish but dresses with a lot of pink (I still don't know..). But I wrote an email to my predecessor a few days ago detailing my problems with one of the fifth graders and I consistently referred to that student as 'she.' He wrote back with the correction and right now I am sitting here in shock.

It would be like learning all the numbers as a child and then at age 8 somebody telling you that you're one off. How do you look at the numbers again without feeling betrayed - and how long does it take to relearn? At the end of last week I was still unable to see the masculine traits in my first mistake.

How many other students am I wrong about?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cleaning Time

One of the unique differences between American and Japanese schools is the participation the kids take in keeping their schools clean. Every day when I arrive to school, the teachers and kids are all busy cleaning various parts of the school, or watering plants or weeding. There is also a Japanese soundtrack (though yesterday I heard Avril) playing over the sound system. The music played at Aka school, combined with the dutiful cleaning and perky attitudes, is reminiscent of something out of The Sound of Music.

After lunch we clean again! The students here in Japan stay in their same classrooms all day while the teachers rotate. This instills a sense of ownership for the students, who take pride in their rooms. The kids sweep and then actually wipe the entire floor with wet rags. So far I have not been suckered into the rag job.

I wrote to my predecessor last week about cleaning time because it's very uncomfortable for me. Three months into my job, I'm still unsure what I should be doing. The jobs and assignees seem to change every day and I'm yet to find the sign up sheet or figure out how everybody knows where to go. I feel guilty hanging out in the teachers' room so I end up just walking around like a supervisor, checking in on all the different groups of students and usually ending by playing with the first or second graders. Today I made a concerted effort to help the Aka second-graders but ended up taking pictures and distracting them by miming a mock English lesson. The teacher came in and caught us in a moment of raucous mayhem so maybe tomorrow I'll be more disciplined.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Maybe I Am a Playboy?

[picture one: School concert and play at Geruma]
[picture two: Taken from Ama looking towards Zamami. There are two small, beachy islands in the foreground, Gahi and Agenashiku. Amuro is in the foreground on the right with Tokashiki in the background.]

I had hoped to make my inaugural kayak voyage to Geruma today for their school play that began at 10am, but wisely opted out after doing the high route run and encountering significant winds. On Thursday I met an American girl visiting Zamami because the Japanese girl whom I have a crush on waved me over to her restaurant that's near my house. It was a cruel bait-and-switch, but it enabled me to talk fluently in a language.

In a purposeful attempt at increasing my karma, I invited Jane (American) to Geruma with me yesterday to see the school play which I really knew nothing about. Jane has been staying on Zamami for a week and I realized how difficult it is for a visitor to get word of the cool local happenings without a cool local insider to tell you. So I told her.

It turns out the 'school play' was a instrumental concert, singing, taiko drumming, then speech-contest entrants (competition is in Naha) delivering their speeches, then an actual play set during the war (when the bombs hit I turned to Jane and said 'perhaps now we should leave?').

It was a great community event attended by few people, but only because the island has a population of just 70. The superintendent was there and asked me why I came. I said "because I wanted to!" He reminded me it wasn't in my contract and I reiterated my reasoning. I think this impressed him enough to forget my Halloween costume.

The inevitable assumptions and questions arose after I showed up with an unknown American girl. One teacher asked if she was my girlfriend and I tried with great difficulty to explain that I had only met her two days prior. During a moment of my floundering, the teacher pointed into my eyes and said "maybe you are a playboy?" and then he walked away smiling slyly.

The play ended at 12:30, 15 minutes after the boat had left for Zamami. The next boat wasn't until 3:30 so the Geruma English teacher, Ayano-sensei, lent me her car to explore Aka and Geruma with Jane! I only ever get off the boat and go to the schools so this was a wonderful opportunity. An interesting note on Ayano's car: she uses it only to drive the 1.5 miles from Geruma to Aka port so she can take the boat into Naha on weekends. She has been living on Geruma since April and I think she said she has filled the gas tank only once.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Dave Who?

One of the primary reasons I moved to Japan was to try and replicate the effects that Peace Corps had on my personality. Palau broke me down by removing all my comforts and replacing them with simple pleasures, minimalism, and an atmosphere of bleak English.

This next island still has warm temperatures, fishing, and tourism. But my ability to get by with English is weakened. And I have internet at home. And I'm getting paid real money for my work, and real expectations follow real money.

Japan is challenging in different ways, but it's still stripped me of confidence. I vacillate between feeling sorry for myself for knowing so little Japanese to fulfillment after hearing what I'm studying in actual conversation. I compare my learning to fictional JETs who all know more than me - a very unproductive practice. I let a couple of 'trouble' students bring me down. I beat myself up when games fail in elementary class. I allow paranoia to creep in when I don't get affirmations.

But I love it (not when I'm sad for myself, but the rest of the time it's great). I am broken down right now. This is when there isn't any fluidity in my blog posts or letters (and I write egocentricly for my own affirmation). I don't know who my friends in Japan are, or if I have any. I can't communicate. I felt 'challenged out' in the States, but here I can't even turn to the neighboring teacher to ask how I'm doing.

I don't know who I will be when I come away from this experience, but it's fun to be in the middle of the transformation.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sonmin Undokai (Adult Sports Day)

[picture #1: Zamami students finish their eisa performance]
[picture #2: Geruma (foreground) en route to a surprise tug-of-war win over Aka, an island five times their size]

As part of my continued marathon training I had to wake up and do a 15k at race pace this morning, which meant either (a) my legs were tired or (b) my legs were stretched out for the 5k I was favored to win at sports day. My legs didn't care because their pace lost everybody by 2k in the race. I maintained a solid pace the rest of the way to win by over a minute amidst a raucous crowd. I get a lot more crowd support than most because I know the student and teacher population of all five teams. (Zamami is broken into its three villages: Ama, Zamami proper, and Asa, and then there's Geruma and Aka islands.) Though I felt fast I was disappointed with my time of 19:43.

I also competed on the men's 800m relay team. Our first runner had a slim lead over Aka island, but tripped and fell 150m into his 200m leg and lost significant ground. I was our third runner and only had the distance to the Aka leader to close, which I easily halved, but our anchor (4th runner) was a bit slow (and he had already thrown up after the 5k). It would've been a tight race without the fall.

My 5k win brought some fame I was hoping to attain, especially with the old people and the single ladies. I had a number of 'congratulations' handshakes all afternoon and, after the results were announced (Zamami won over Aka by a slim margin), 'arigato goizamasu's.' I didn't understand why people were thanking me until it was explained that the points gained in my win are what put Zamami in the lead - and since I was Zamami's only individual event winner (and the 5k garnered the most points), it was natural to credit me. I didn't complain, until I had to give two speeches. I gave them both in English (one was translated), since that was really the only option. I talked about how cool Sonmin Undokai was and that we don't have anything like it in the States that brings out such complete participation.

In the evening we had a concert at the port that was the first of a November weekend series. It was the same taiko, eisa, hula, and music performances that I've seen many times, but I don't tire of it and neither do the hundred community members (plus tourists) who turn out.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Taiko Drumming

I'm sure there are many different kinds of drumming in Japan, but to us Okinawans there are two: eisa and taiko. Eisa is Okinawan drumming that differs primarily from mainland Japanese taiko because of the movement involved. The eisa drums are strapped around the neck and the troupe of drummers dances as part of the performance. These differences are not wikipediaed; they are purely my observations.

In my three months here I've seen tons of eisa and fortunately have not tired of it yet. The energy is inspiring. Taiko performances are rarer, but I've seen a couple. Currently Geruma is practicing taiko for a 'school play' next weekend. School play is in quotes because I'm unsure if that was the correct translation.

Enjoy the pictures but know the sound is amazing. I am contemplating the idea of learning how to take and upload video as a blog supplement. Maybe I'll do that after I learn Japanese...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints Day.. err... Halloween again.

American holiday media bombardment doesn't exist in Japan, so November 1st is just as good a day to celebrate Halloween as was yesterday. And it turned out I had two elementary classes to lesson-plan for today, so we continued the Halloween theme.

I did the requisite 11-20 review, emotions, and days of the week, then went into Halloween Bingo and, since I didn't bring any prizes, a paper cutout pumpkin prize! The students enjoyed coloring for a bit and I enjoyed watching and doing something other than worry about how much English they're learning. It was a nice moment to step back and recall a message during the August elementary training: don't worry about how much they learn, just make English fun.

When I got home to Zamami I had to take care of my downed internet. Not an easy task to try and translate "Authentication failed" to my supervisor, Kiyoko. She tries her hardest to make our conversations work without electronic help, but she went quickly to Yahoo's translation page for this one. I can usually read through the choppy translation to get the point, but I was lost on this one:

"The internet is in a condition that I was sharp so documents do not arrive."

No matter, the internet was back up a half-hour later.

Halloween in Japan

I didn't know the Japanese necessary to explain my outfit to those who saw me en route to Geruma school in the morning. When I exited the speedboat at Aka I passed by the school superintendent and he did not look amused. Indeed, he was not. Later in the afternoon I had to visit the Board of Education and the gesturing used to describe the superintendent when he arrived at work was either steam coming out of his ears or devil horns growing out of his head. I hoped for the latter to be in keeping with the holiday.

We had a Halloween party at Geruma that involved a history of Halloween read by me and translated by the junior high students, a janken (rock, paper, scissors) game, and then trick-or-treating to the 3 elementary classrooms and me in two bathrooms (each gender, respectively). My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), Ayano, and I provided masks to all the students except kindergarten because they had made their own.

When I arrived back in Zamami it didn't take long for the 1st/2nd grade elementary students to discover me. I used their herding formation to help offset the surprise that adults found at my appearance. The little kids quickly perfected saying 'trick-or-treat' and I soon had to limit their candy intake to make sure I saved some for the junior high party at 5:30pm.

The Zamami Halloween party was organized by the JTE (Shizuko) and some of the junior high students. The lack of costume participation was compensated by the fantastic female costumes that two of the boys wore. I made sure to give them extra candy and prizes. We played Bingo and did a mini trick-or-treat, as well as voting on the best jack-o-lantern drawing (real pumpkins are hard to come by) and the best costume.

Holidays tend to have a theme of being a lot more work than they're worth to me (and a lot more materialism than is healthy). I am yet to determine if the fallout from the superintendent's disgust in my costume was offset by the elation of all the kids and teachers. I hope so because I don't need any more reasons to turn my lip up at holidays.

Today a remnant of my costume remains in the pink nail polish. Time to find a real woman for some remover.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Kume Marathon

Since arriving on Zamami in August I have been religiously following a running training plan to complete my goal of a marathon finish this year. I timed the regimen around the Naha Marathon on December 2nd but also signed up for this weekend's Kume-jima Marathon just for kicks.

I had to take the Friday afternoon boat from Zamami to Naha, then join three other JETs to go to Kume on Saturday morning via a four-hour boat ride. The marathon started at 7:30am on Sunday and I was delivered to the start line about 15 minutes early. Of the 400-500 marathoners, I only saw four other non-Japanese and they appeared to be military, if haircuts are telling.

I started well and concentrated on going slow, but my heart rate worried me immensely, which probably didn't help the cause. I started at 117 and immediately jumped to the 150's, which is a level usually reserved for the hardest pushes on the steepest hills of Zamami. My HR never settled below the 140's and I can only attribute it to nerves and the bowl of granola and two plain pancakes I'd eaten 1.5 hours earlier.

My first 2k was completed in 12 minutes. I didn't do my math right and immediately thought I was 2 minutes off a pace of one hour 10k's, so I sped up slightly and reeled off two consecutive 10-minute 2k's. This was fine because my body was like that world record giant rubber band ball waiting to be attacked with a razor blade. My muscles wanted to go badly so I had to compromise.

I ran the first half of the marathon (21.1km) in 1:58, which was two minutes ahead of pace for my negotiable goal of a four-hour finish. I still felt extremely strong and argued with myself over when to "go." I took my second salt capsule (heavy sweating and plenty of fluids = loss of electrolytes) at 2:15 and about five minutes later felt like I could just sprint the remaining 16km to the finish. I said okay and went hard - perhaps a 10km pace. I knew it wouldn't last but I also knew not to push it, only to listen to my body. So I gradually slowed a kilometer later, at 27km, but still maintained a really strong pace. I was carrying a handheld water bottle which turned out to be key. There were water stops every 3km and at each I completely refilled the bottle, trying to mix the sports drink and water in a 1:1 ratio. I much preferred to drink at my own pace between stops rather than try to cram.

The last hill was at about 35km and I couldn't wait for it. The hills on Zamami have conditioned me to run almost faster up than down. When I hit the incline I realized another sudden burst of energy and blew by dozens of people, including many who were only competing in the half-marathon. I started to feel cramping in my quads on the downhill but shortened my stride and seemed to fix it. I just kept picking the pace up as the kilometers ticked down to the finish and the small crowds cheered. Many spectators beat on okinawan drums and everybody yelled 'gambate!' (good luck) or, for those learned in English, 'fight, fight, fight!' (and I acknowledged all of them).

I finished in 3:49.33. This is 16 minutes faster than my Pittsburgh and Palau Marathons, but, more importantly, I wasn't fearing death. I was still standing, conscious, and somewhat amiable.

Now, the numbers:
HR average: 159
HR range: 117-183
time spent above 150 beats per minute: 2:52
time spent below 120 beats per minute: 10 seconds
total ascent/descent: 380 feet (it's worth noting that I do 380' of ascent in the first 8 minutes of my Zamami runs)
high point: 82 feet

The picture is from the return boat ride. Our goal was to arrive early enough to get an inside seat. 30 minutes early didn't cut it, so we just sat in the aisles inside and eventually seats opened up (I don't know why?). But the boat was full of 'dead' marathoners and the picture is of uncomfortable people sleeping across rows of four seats outside.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Engrish Shirts

One of the first things I noticed upon immersion into Japanese culture were the awesome English t-shirts. A visitor doesn't often see a shirt with kana or kanji characters, but romajii (roman) is very popular. And about the only time an English shirt is sensible is when it's originally from the States. I would love to meet the editors and see if their English level is higher than my 1st grade elementary students. Look forward to more posts highlighting the best of Japanese Engrish.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Barely Alive

Ever since learning to take my pulse in 4th grade P.E, I've been fascinated with that measurable piece of equipment that keeps me alive. Acquiring a heart rate monitor for proper recording has been an unjustifiable dream for many years. Until. At an REI Garage Sale a couple years back I found what I think was a mismarked Suunto HR watch ($70). I snagged it and have been swaying between keeping it (I already have a Suunto altimeter watch that grew into my wrist during the PCT hike) and Ebaying it.

This weekend I'm running the first of two confirmed (registration fees paid) marathons this winter. I've been keeping track of the statistics of every run, including my heart rate average and range and altitude range and high point. Since my choice in runs varies between two-three choices, the elevations are consistent. But my pace determines the HR average, which is fun to follow.

For example, on August 24th, I ran a route that I have since approximated to be 13km to the east end of the island and back. It took me 1:13.18 with a 149 heart rate average and a range of 73-179. I ran the same route this morning and it took me 1:14.58 with a 123 heart rate average and a range of 65-158.

The other notable comparison is my resting heart rate. When I began training the lowest I could get it to rest consistently was 38 beats/minute, which is not unusually low for me. I think the lowest I measured with a finger on a pulse during my crew years was 37 - and we all know that the finger and the mind increase the pulse slightly. This morning, for the first time ever, I caught a glimpse of my pulse at 34 beats per minute. Tonight I tried to replicate relaxation to get a photograph, but I could only get it to 36 and by the time I'd get the camera up it would jump to 37.

My next two goals are (1) to get a picture of the watch recording my heart rate at 34 and see if it is actually resting that low and (2) to record my heart rate during a night's sleep to see what the low end of the range dips to. I am sketchy on my battery power right now so I'm going to wait until after the race to do this.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lessons in Mud

My JTE (Japanese English Teacher) went to Naha Thursday afternoon for her sister's wedding, so I had no classes Friday. I don't think the other teachers realized this until late afternoon, but I had already scored a day of helping the kindergartners play in the mud, playing dodgeball, and making 12 laminated clocks with movable hands for next week's time lessons.

Dodgeball here has an interesting twist on what I know from America. The game is played on the same gym court, but the players that are 'in' are contained within the lines of the basketball court. When you are hit you go to the outside of the basketball court lines that surround your opponents, but you continue playing for your team. So essentially as a player that is 'in' you are surrounded on all sides by people trying to peg you. The only way you can get the ball is to catch it in the air or on a bounce, but once you have it, you also have access to your own 'out' teammates who are surrounding the opposing players. Like most Japanese games, the super fun part is when I enter the game and am forced to learn really quickly - and without the help of verbal instruction - what's going on. Like when I caught the ball early and hucked it 80mph at the opponents. The game was stopped to explain to me that I had to throw with my left hand for fairness.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Convenient Environmentalism

My Naha friends came out this weekend and reminded me that I haven't been around Americans in awhile.
We went on a long walk/swim/beach exploration Sunday before their departure. We returned midday when it was quite hot. When in the final alley approach to my house, Laura announced she was going to the store to get something to drink and asked if we wanted anything. I declined because (1) water is free and (2) one-time use plastic bottles are wasteful. But Shu said, "yea, get me some water, please." In situations like this, I don't know what to do. I was already being a bit argumentative this weekend, so I tried a less aggressive approach and sparked conversation with Laura about whether she refilled the plastic bottle at my house and returned it to the refrigerator. She had, so there would be over a liter of cold water waiting in my fridge. The conversation changed direction but as we separated Shu reminded Laura to buy her some water. At my house I drank my free cold water while they sipped half their bottle and let the rest warm.

So what's the answer? This little skit angered me some, but frustrated me more. Tactful suggestion of less wasteful behavior didn't work. How do I effect change? I have always thought leading by example to be most effective, but I never feel like my example is reason for anybody to be inspired.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Zamami Matsuri (on Aka Island)

I had two friends come to Zamami this weekend and we went to this festival on Aka last night. There isn't much to say, but this is an excuse to show a couple pictures.

Mottainai (don't waste)

Yesterday I took out my trash for the first time since arriving on this island exactly two months ago. Reducing waste in all facets of my life is something I've been conscious of since my Peace Corps experience. There are still a few areas in which I'm guilty without an excuse, like flying, but I consider this Japan living experience a great opportunity for me to keep track of all my wastes. I receive monthly statements on water, gas, and electricity consumption, so it will be easy to track my usages. I also get a sewer bill, but I didn't think that fell into the 'consumption' sentence.

Garbage is separated into six different bags, as far as I can tell: burnable, paper, plastics, cans, glass, and non-burnables. My predecessor left me a can bag that was 2/3 full and a glass bag, also 2/3 full. I started my own garbage bag on the first day and have been surprised both at how little garbage I am producing and also at how well I can compress my trash into the 30" bags. Really, TWO MONTHS without putting any trash out for the trash man? I would lobby for an award, except when I had a Russian translator of Japanese (yes, she also knows English) tell my supervisor that I had yet to dispose of trash, he first said I was a liar and then accused me of ditching my trash at the school. A rather brilliant idea, but not mine.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mr. July

Just days before saltwater leaked into my dry bag and ruined my previous digital camera, I had walked the western loop of observatories on a Saturday afternoon to take pictures for entry into the 2008 JET calendar photo competition. It was an average day on Zamami, so the pictures were nothing spectacular, but they were nice.

I wrote and asked the photo contest director for permission to submit my entries electronically since my remote locale makes submission of actual prints prohibitive. He obliged and so it was done. And yesterday I received an email back from him informing me that one of my photographs (above) was selected for the calendar. It's a pretty average photo, but now I have a year to take better pictures for next year's contest.

My photo was selected for July.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Case of the Tuesdays

I took the boat from Zamami to Aka this morning, where I was picked up by a woman from Geruma whose name I don't know and who speaks to me only in Japanese. I pass the 5 minute drive by pretending to look up words she says.

My arrival at Geruma was a surprise to Ayano, my English teacher counterpart. She forgot I was coming. She hurriedly put my schedule together. When I saw it, I was pleased to see she had scheduled me for no classes today, but instead had drawn a line through the day. I assumed she must have just given up on troubling herself with asking teachers to reschedule.

In fairness, I was working on lesson planning when the 3rd graders came to get me. It was strange since I had no classes, but I went into the hall with them, thinking they wanted to play. It must have seemed like I was stalling, which, had I known what was going on, I would've been doing. It turns out I had class with them right then. The line through Monday on my schedule was because yesterday was Monday and it was a national holiday. So I quickly grabbed what I could and spent the 1 minute walking to class with them trying to figure out what we'd do for 45 minutes. I decided my main event would be a Battleship-type game I'd just made on the computer, called Bombs Away. The irony of the name of the game didn't hit me until now, but it was a bit of a bomb. The three students understood the 'B-7' concept, but didn't get the 'hit/miss' idea or why they had drawn ships on their paper. Maybe incorporating elements of war into my English lessons is a bad idea here.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

This Is My Life

I live on Zamami-jima, a small island of 1000 people 30 miles west of Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Zamami is located in the Kerama Islands, a chain of about 25 islands (I say 'about' because I think that number varies with the tides). Four of the islands are inhabited and I teach on three of those. The other, Tokashiki, has a JET but is a large island, faces Naha, and has its own boat system so we have no contact with them. Okinawa is the name of our prefecture, which is similar to a US state. The Okinawan prefecture includes the mainland (Naha, the numerous US military bases, and the majority of Okinawa JETs), a couple northerly islands, the Keramas (that's me), three more islands NW of me, two islands waaay SE of the mainland, and two larger islands with 40-50,000 cities way SW of the mainland.

I teach on a three-week rotation, one week each on Zamami, Aka, and Geruma. I take a boat to Aka and Geruma. Zamami's school has about 85 students, excluding kindergarten (four-six-year-olds). Aka has 40ish students and eight in kindergarten. Geruma has 14 students and maybe six in kindergarten? Since the class sizes are so small, elementary is combined into first/second, third/fourth, and fifth/sixth. I am completely responsible for the lesson planning and teaching of those 45 minutes classes. I also accompany the [Japanese] English teacher to the junior high classes, where I range from standing idly to reading aloud or having students read to me. Even if I sleep 8.5 hours the night before, junior high classes always threaten to put me to sleep. Which will be troublesome if it ever happens because I have to stand.

I will use other posts to detail what I do on Zamami aside from teaching, but in short, I love this place. I originally didn't preference a location in Japan on my JET application, but decided during my interview (after looking at the map of Japan in the waiting room and realizing there were southerly islands) that I wanted to preference. They told me I couldn't, just as the application clearly stated in many places that I couldn't change anything after submission. But I tried anyway and my preference was accepted. I think it said something like "I want to be on a small island and I want to teach elementary." After learning of my placement, it was only gradually that I found out how lucky I was (like my predecessor writing, "you have the best JET placement in Japan"). This place is perfect for me: it has diving, Giant Trevally fishing, it's small, beautiful, I'm teaching elementary, and it has a relatively young population. And it certainly helped that so many people at the Tokyo Orientation were jealous because they had specifically requested and been denied an Okinawan placement.