Monday, March 31, 2008

February Photo Competition

We have an Okinawa JET photo club that a mainland JET started in January. She posts how-to articles and organizes our monthly competitions. The competitions are really good for forcing me to think about the details of what I'm photographing. All five of the photos I've entered so far are shots that otherwise wouldn't have been taken, so the inspiration is appreciated.

The January theme was 'winter' and unfortunately we only drew four entries (two were mine, neither were winners!). But February's theme was all the different composition 'rules'. There were twelve entries which made the voting really fun. We're allowed up to three entries and have to pay 200 yen (about $2) per entry, so the pot was $25. Here were my three entries:

My 'diagonal lines' entry, also the contest winner.
(This is an old man making a broom.)

Depth of field and 'white' space.

Framing. Of my entries, this was my favorite,
but it didn't get any votes so that shows what I know!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Let's Die!

This morning I woke up at 1am to the sound of crashing rain. 'Crashing' is the only word I can think of that isn't a cliched way to describe a monstrous downpour. Maybe 'monstrous downpour' would have worked.

Seven hours later, at 8am, it came to an end. This is easily the most waterlogged I have seen Zamami. Our dam was overflowing via the spillway and so were all the foot-deep gutters built for heavy rain.

I wandered around the village assessing damage before making the best discovery in my own yard. I went to check on the kittens and they were all dead! It might have happened from exposure, but I choose to think that they drowned.

THEN, I found out my neighbor died yesterday! Unfortunately it wasn't the right one. It was the male (I'm not sure if he was her husband or companion or..?). He was a pretty cool guy who would give me a wink and a nod when he caught me throwing things at the cats. I think he was equally against them.

So there was a funeral today. I checked if I should go and I'm glad I got the no-go-ahead. I would've had to wear a suit and probably give money and maybe confront my nemesis.

Now, with five less beings between us, we march on: me, the cats, and her.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Cats signify a remarkably important part of my Zamami life. They are so important, in fact, that I could see their effect on my morale as being a swing vote in a future year's 'stay or leave Zamami' recontracting decision. I've mentioned previously the 100+ cats that I encounter on my pre-dawn runs at the east end of the island, but I haven't given proper blog attention to the cats that reside around my house.

My neighbor feeds and doesn't control them. There is no spaying or neutering (proof of that showed up this morning). There is no regard given to the effects on the neighbors of supporting a 30+ member colony.

[A small sampling of the morning feeding]

I hate the cats. I throw rocks and full water bottles at them, often hitting my target. Any given week finds me waking up at least once or twice to screeching cats. The most has been three times in one night. The dilemma I find in cutting my grass is either maintaining a white trash residence or opening up the yard for use as a litter box. I cut my yard last week and each of the last three mornings I have cleaned up six piles of cat crap from the immediate area surrounding the path to my door - not even the majority of the yard! Keeping to a give-and-take relationship, I throw the piles back over the wall into my neighbor's yard.

The warnings my predecessor (Nick) has been giving me finally came to fruition this morning: kittens arrived. In my yard. Nick says that Zamami is overrun with cute little kittens for a month or so until they become too old to be fed by their mothers and they get infected eyes and suffer from malnutrition and disease. I wonder how my new kittens will fare with the "stick to the head" disease?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Teacher Switchover

Japan has an interesting school system for many reasons, but the most obvious difference (aside from not having a Real summer break) is that teachers switch schools every few years. In Okinawa every teacher has to teach at an island school at least once during his/her career. For many, this is not ideal. They have family or a house or a life on mainland Okinawa. They don't dig fishing, diving, photography, and small beautiful islands like I do. This is especially true for young, single teachers whose expectations of marriage in the next few years mostly become dashed with their island placements (except the female teachers who have a ray of hope in me).

Today was the day that five Zamami teachers left after their two-five years. Tomorrow their replacements come. There have been a couple goodbye parties in the last week and lots of present-giving (I got four presents: a tie and three hand towels... I don't get it either). I slipped a loaf of homemade cinnamon bread and some enlarged Zamami photographs to my departing English teacher today.

[This is the happiest I have ever seen the Zamami secretary.]

One neat tradition that is only possible on an island is the 'streamer holding.' No, that's not the official name. But those who are saying their final goodbyes hold one end of a streamer while somebody on Zamami holds the other. As the boat pulls away the streamers tighten and eventually break. I am falling in love with Zamami so much that I could see myself crying at a moment like this (except I don't cry).

[Hopefully they recycled those streamers.]

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How Are You? I'm Sleepy.

For the past two mornings I have been waking up at 4am to take advantage of a brief break in our usual windy weather. The forecast had Tuesday and Wednesday showing winds as either light or 5-6mph, something I have only seen once since last summer. Perfect for kayaking and fishing. Unfortunately I still have to go to work, though now that school isn't in session the start time of work is somewhere between 8am and 9am. So, 9am.

I wake up at 4am, walk really fast to my kayak, paddle really fast across a bay, and begin fishing at 5:20am or so. I fish until 7am, then paddle and walk even faster to get home by 7:50am. After a shower and hurried breakfast I take a brief nap before struggling through the rest of the day.

But it's worth it. The 6:30am sunrise on perfectly flat, quiet water is serene. I've enjoyed the companionship of countless turtles. Today I had a fish make a halfhearted attempt at my lure and later I saw a mahi-mahi jump three different times. And today I forced a break in the fishing to take pictures just for the blog:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

So, How About the Weather?

A couple times in recent weeks I've wanted to write about how our weather has 'turned the corner' and we are [un]officially on our way to summer. But then it starts pouring. This weekend I had three friends out from Naha for whale watching/seeing Zamami. Today I took them on the western high road loop. At the halfway point - the furthest from my house - the rain came. It took us about an hour to walk back. Fortunately we didn't have any whiners.

(The whale watching trip was awesome in a surprising sort of way. The weather was dreary, but the whales have recently given birth so they spend a lot of time near the surface since the calves can't hold their breath long. We were also blessed with a full-on close up breach of an adult whale as well as a baby breach. We had numerous tail-slaps, too, which are hard to describe, but they're kind of like a whale's version of a horse kicking its rear legs up. I wasn't in the photographic spirit and I didn't want to expose my camera to the salt spray, so no good whale pictures.)

Here is an attempt I made at photographing rain last week:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

If You Eat, You'll Get Fat

Japanese school posters are unmatched:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I heard a story on NPR's This American Life yesterday about a mid-thirties guy who looked back on the diary he kept as a teenager. He read some passages and expanded on what he was thinking when writing them, like that he would be the next Prime Minister of Israel and those writings would someday be needed by biographers and historians. One of his teenage themes was how sorry he felt for his parents, who were leading such trite, purposeless lives. The show's host pointed out the oxymoronic nature of this journal reading: the subject looking back and laughing at what he'd written as a teenager about how unfortunate it would be to grow into an adult such as who he is today.

I can't say that I ever looked at my parents and said 'I want or don't want that.' And while my dad has always done a great job of leaving work at work, I know he's had struggles and that he gets through them by looking forward to what he loves, hunting and fishing. So I taught myself to just try and pursue the things I love and skip over that 'being unhappy and needing something to look forward to' business. I've had some pretty interesting jobs, but I've also left out American Dream ideas like starting a family or planning for retirement.

The most stability I've had since college was Peace Corps, which was arguably a pretty exotic form of it. A word I have chosen to differentiate my life against the more traditional path is 'routine'. With the exception of where I am right now - knowing I'll be here for another 1.5 years - I often haven't known where I'd be just three months into the future (in fact the longest job I've had since 2004 has been just 3.5 months long). That's a sexy 'life resume' point to throw out in selling yourself as an adventurer, but there are also limits to it.

Now, I have routine. I know what time I want to be showering when teaching on Aka. Volleyball is on Sunday and Thursday nights. I need to have my yeast growing no later than 5pm if I want my bread out before 9pm.

Some of this is depressing. I've spent a lot of time reveling in the excitement of my short-term lifestyle, promising never to work at one job more than a year or two. I also even went so far as to expect never to have a high-paying job, because Real Jobs with Real Pay bring expectations and responsibility which will extract my soul.

But here I am, with a job that brings Real Pay. I won't go so far as to classify this in the Real Job category since I'm in a foreign country and don't have to write progress reports or get job ratings or deal with any managerial red tape. But I have routine. And for years I have promised myself certain things if I ended up with routine. One would to be to combat monotony. That's still easy here. Another would be to excel athleticly, since having a daily schedule with time to myself lends well to training. I spent all winter running and it culminated three weeks ago in a result I am really proud of.

Now, as SW Japan turns to spring and my morning routine is all confused, I think about the turn Japan has thrown into life as I know it. I ponder, 'Could I live in one place for a long time?' I think maybe. If I have a fulfilling job, natural beauty, sporting activities (fishing), the schedule to stay in good shape, and a personal or intellectual challenge (like learning a foreign language), I don't see any reason to give it up.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Yo-Chien Graduation

It's actually spelled (when spelled with roman characters) You, but pronounced more like "Yo" with a hint of a long 'u' at the end. You-chien is pre-school and kindergarten. Three-year-olds to six-year-olds. Graduation is only for the students moving on to first grade.

On Aka, this means just one girl, Natsumi. She will join the three current first-graders (all boys) into a combined first/second-grade class next year. I am praying she will add some 'chill' chemistry to the group.

Natsumi received a diploma, two big wrapped gifts, and tulips from each of the seven other yo-chien students. At the end we got to throw tons of homemade confetti at her. Inspired by the immaturity of four-year-olds, I kept picking up more confetti off the ground and throwing it on fellow teachers and students.

Zamami had about twelve graduates and Geruma had one.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Shall Receive

Some of it is due to my giving, but mostly it's just nice people with excess sharing their fruits (or, vegetables). Winter is crop season in Okinawa and February and March are harvesting times. I haven't ordered potatoes from my food catalog in over a month. I've cut back on my lettuce and skipped a couple carrot orders. The rate at which I receive gift vegetables nearly exceeds the rate at which I can eat them, even if potatoes are included in both my home-cooked daily meals. It makes me really happy that so much of my food is now really local.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The Japanese school year begins in April and ends in March, so graduations are happening nationwide right now. Being a teacher on three different islands means a lot of graduation day obligations and careful promising. Nick (my predecessor) and I went to Zamami until just before the ceremony started. Then we hurried to the boat and went to Geruma for the first hour of their graduation before leaving for the last hour of Aka's. The actual graduations were boring, but the significance of the event to the community was overpowering.

The classes on these islands are unusually tight and many of the members won't see much of each other come April. By now most have been accepted into different high schools in Naha (in much the same way as American colleges - with entrance testing and schools that offer different specialties) and will be on their way in the next week.

In the evening Nick and I were invited to a san-nensei (graduating class) student/parent/teacher party at the community center. There were zillions of speeches, lots of good food, a little crying, and a happy atmosphere. One of the most emotional hours I have had in years came when Nick and I went home at 11pm and watched the slideshow (shown during Zamami's graduation, which we missed). The music was sad and the birth-to-graduate following of all 13 students almost made me cry. Nick and I stayed up a few hours longer doing something that only he and I could: talk in English about current Zamami life. We discussed the futures of the students (5 of them are living alone in Naha to attend high school, so their futures are worthy of discussion), the next teacher class and the ensuing climate of each school, and what an amazing placement Zamami is for a JET. As Nick said, how many JETs were getting the email addresses of their junior high students after graduation?

Nick told me an interesting story about the girl in the above photo. She was having peeer trouble in her school in Osaka when she vacationed to Zamami in fifth grade. She declared to her mother that she wanted to move to Zamami to go to school. Her mom couldn't leave Osaka, so Emiri and her grandmother moved to Zamami and they have been here for the last five years. Zamami has turned out to be a godsend for Emiri, who is one of the top students in her class. She left today for high school in Osaka, taking her grandmother back home.

[high school freshmen (sniff, sniff) ]

Friday, March 7, 2008

I Have a Visitor!

My predecessor, Nick, is staying with me for a week visit. The Japanese school year starts in April and ends in March, so he is here for graduation (junior high and sixth grade, which are celebrated here much more than in the U.S.). It's been really wonderful to talk extensively in English to somebody who understands my life. Last night we stayed up until well past midnight just laughing and telling stories.

Our time has been filled to the brim with activities, including a visit to Zamami's black pearl farm (who knew THAT existed?), an eisa (drumming) practice, and a whale watching trip under dream conditions. In about two hours I took 575 pictures, which is the fastest rate I've ever photographed. Here are some shots from the sunset voyage:

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sunday Church

There isn't really church in Japan, but I often find myself in happy places on Sundays. Today I woke up at 5am and launched my kayak onto the rocks of low tide in the river in front of my house. I had to wade and drag the kayak for 50 meters before I could start paddling. At 6:30 I caught my first fish of 2008, but I'm not sure what it is. It will provide two hefty dinners.

It was a clear and calm day, perfect for everything. Except sailing, maybe. I fished for a few hours before going aboard land for my requisite beach-combing. I scored three plastic 'crates' to use as garden planters and a brand new "Staff" hat of a large cruise ship that anchored in the Keramas this week.

In the afternoon three Naha friends came out for a whale watching trip. I went along because I need to. I live in a whale watching mecca and I need to capitalize.

When I really get clicking with my camera I'll take 150+ pictures of an event. My usual hope is for one good shot in 100, which is already optimistic. But today I shot 288 pictures and wasn't happy any. That's a rarity, but I make up for it elsewhere. Here is one of the best and another that I thought was kinda cool: