Thousands of Miles from Home


Uchio-san with Shun, Shoko, Andee, and me 

Some sculpture, made of styrofoam 

One of Uchio-san's drawings projected on a wall 

The Sea of Japan on a cloudy day 

A treasure cove 

During the russo-japanese war, two russian soldier's bodies were found by fishermen on the coast of Tottori. Each was buried by the fishermen, and 28 years later, the families of the russians came to Japan to take the remains back to Russia. This sign was placed in memory of the soldiers, and is written in japanese and russian 

Part of the crab feast 

At the crab market, these are the cheaper $70 crabs Posted by Hello

The People That You Meet

I've never considered myself a Final Fantasy nerd, although I have known many people who deserve the title. I played the games (perhaps 3 of the...11), and faithfully watched the movie. And I have to say that I like the series. So I was especially excitied when I heard that one of the concept artists for the Final Fantasy Movie: The Spirits Within was going to have an exhibit of his artwork in Tamano. I was even more excited when I found out that the artist is Shun's friend's father.

This weekend, Shoko took Andee, Shun, and I to Kazumasa Uchio's exhibit in Tamano. Many of the artist's works were being displayed, as well as some sculpture from a fellow artist. Shoko had called Uchio-san, so he came to give us a special tour of the exhibit. Uchio-san does all of his artwork using a computer (a mac with photoshop), and spends about 1 month on each piece of art. He gave a short tutorial on making a cloud, as well as a small tree. You can see some of his older work here.

He says that each of his art pieces uses thousands of layers. To make the door on one of his castles, over 100 layers were used. His art is "fantastic," to say the least, and you can really see the Final Fantasy influence in his work (or the influence in Final Fantasy's from him).

Also this weekend, Masatoshi, two and his friends, and I took a trip all the way to Tottori, about three hours away on the Sea of Japan. In Japan it is currently crab season, and Masatoshi likes to travel to where the crab is fresh. After three hours of driving we arrived in Tottori, where I was shown some unconventional sights. Apparently there is a large sand dune in Tottori, strikingly similar the the desert. When we stopped the car, I even saw a camel! That was perhaps the last thing I expected to see in Japan. We went to the coast and stood on a cliff for a while, overlooking the sea.

Around 11:30, we headed to a local restaurant for a crab feast. The restaurant was inside of a house, so we ate inside of a tea room with with tatami mats. This feast of crab perhaps rivaled the Marine Hotel's layout. I didn't eat any breakfast, so I was sufficiently hungry to eat sashimi, miso soup, shrimp, salt-grilled seafood, shabu shabu, and a whole crab. On top of that I had a sort of rice, egg, and broth mixture (for dessert) in a pot which tasted delicious. The whole meal was great, and outside the restaurant, in the Sea of Japan, locals were surfing the powerful waves. During the meal I talked with Masatoshi's friends, and found out that one of them really liked Final Fantasy. He was jealous that I got to meet the artist, and even thought about going to Tamano to catch the last day of the exhibit. The whole day's atmosphere made me smile.

Before we went home, Masatoshi and his friends wanted to stop at a fish market to buy some crabs to take home. Crabs are usually expensive, but I saw one "king" sized variety that cost 10,000 Yen a piece ($100 US)! After the ride home, I didn't eat any dinner and fell asleep feeling very stuffed. However, as of yet, no weight has been gained or lost during my time in Japan.


Nice view with...the fonz? 

Shoko, keeping her distance from the edge 

Tamano city by night 

Into the Hills

Happy Thanksgiving, a little late. Its passing in japan was not widely celebrated, and even I always thought of it as the kid-brother holiday to Christmas/Hanukkah/New Years (which I consider one large holiday, given the extended break from school). I did not feast upon turkey, but instead korean-style okonomiyaki (same name as the japanese-style pizza, but this is more like a large flour pancake with meat and leeks), a delicious fish (red snapper, actually) given as a present to my host dad by one of his patients, and dumplings. I stuffed myself just as much as I do on Thanksgiving every year, so my conscience is clear. (Masatoshi, being a doctor and also surgeon, cleaned and gutted the fish with expert technique)

Before this psuedo-feast, I came home earlier than usual from school and asked Shoko to show me where the nearby hiking trial to the mountains could be found. She said she wasn't doing anything special so we ended up hiking the mountain together. I say hiking with a semi straight face because the path was paved for most of the way, then slightly narrowed into more of a footpath. Shoko said that she had not been up this particular mountain (there are two that are very close to my house, this was the easier climb of the two) in many years, but she used to come often as a child.

When we reached the summit, Shoko did not recognize many of the surroundings, but the view was amazing. The sun had slowly set as we climbed, and a full moon shone brightly in the evening sky. From the top of the mountain, which was also home to three DoCoMo telephone towers, was a great view. Looking behind, the shipyard and city of Tamano (as well as our house) could bee seen in the distance. On the opposite side of the mountain, the town of Hibi and its harbor were visible. Shoko and I took each other's picture near a dangerous looking cliff, then retreated down the mountain before it got too dark to see.


Miyu and I in autumn 

The master of disguise 

Shoko and Miyu 

Shoko is hiding from Masatoshi, who is peeking over the other side of the wall 

My host dad and I under a colorful tree 

Can anyone say Sephiroth? (geek points for this one) 

I didn't expect the massive shower of sparks, but couldn't cover my eyes because both hands were on the camera 

Hattori Hanzo Steel

Following the evening at the Marine Hotel, Shoko, Miyu, Masatoshi, and I took a road trip to northern Okayama. Along the way, Miyu pointed out that we had a good traveling group, with all blood types represented (Masatoshi B, Shoko A, Miyu AB, and me O). It stuck me as the first time I had ever judged company by their molecular proteins. Our first stop of the day was しずたにがっこう (Shizutani School), the oldest free public school in the world. It was built in 1666 by Ikeda Mitsumasa, the feudal lord of the Bizen area. "Shizu-tani" means "a quiet and peaceful valley," and particularly in autumn the school grounds are beautiful. One of the unique features of the Shizitani School is the roof made of Bizen tiles. There is also a top-rounded stonewall which surrounds the school. I am told that this wall was built in the "Chinese style," but as to what that means I remain clueless.

Another main feature of the school is the Lecture Hall. When Shoko was a student in high school she attended a camping trip at Shizutani, and was required to wash the wood floor of the lecture hall by hand. Miyu, Mai, and Shun also performed this same task, making it a family affair. We walked about the grounds, looked at various exhibits, and enjoyed the wonderful, albeit photogenic, autumn weather.

After Shizutani, everyone was feeling hungry. Masatoshi's car's GPS system showed a restaurant nearby, so we decided to take a chance and explore. The restaurant ended up being "Mister Burger," the tiny japanese equal to the Ponderosa Steakhouse. The food was decent, and we had a good laugh, so lunch was humorous if nothing else.

Next we stopped at perhaps the best looking, if not the most interesting musuem I have visited in Japan. The Bizen Osafune Sword Museum contained a wide variety of japanese edged weapons, including Tachi, Katana, Wakizashi, and Tanto. In the newly renovated main building, large high definition displays illustrated the process of japanese sword (or Nipponto) making. Outside, just as we arrived, three men were giving a demonstration of the forging of a sword. After heating the metal red-hot with a billows, two of the men struck the steel with large hammers while the third kept the metal moving. The first strike of the wet hammers on the hot steel exhibited a vociferous crack, making the whole room jump. Sparks flew and the crowd was amazed.

The museum also provided me with a very in-depth english "Manual for Appreciating the Japanese Sword." I had known the making of a sword involved the folding of metal, but could not imagine how this was accomplished. There are many stepes, but after visiting the museum the process is not so difficult to understand (but just as difficult to perform). In the upstairs section of the musuem was a large display of swords, some as old as the 1200's. In other buildings each step of the sword making process was explained, and some workmen were making actual swords that clients had ordered. This museum, to borrow Kostya's analogy, gets 5 out of 5 museum points.


My friend at the aquarium 

One last look 

Sunsets on Shibukawa 

Kid, it looks like you're all washed up 

Looking sharp in the hotel's outfit 

Andee's dessert, a ton for such a small guy (note the 6 pieces of cake) 

Living It Up At The Hotel (Marina)

Yesterday was a day for many japanese firsts. When I went to Andee's host family's house a few weeks ago (seems like forever now) they asked me if I wanted to stay with them at the Marine Hotel (a hotel and spa in Tamano) with a few of their family members who were coming to town for a reunion. They would love to have me because Andee was staying in his own room and having me along wouldn't be any problem.

Andee and his host dad picked me up Saturday around 3:00. Andee's host dad races cars so his Toyota has no back seats, a racing gear shift, and a giant wing. Not to mention a ton a racing stickers. It was cramped but we drove to the hotel in record time (for some reason it seems like Japanese host dads like to drive really fast; Masatoshi is no exception). At the hotel Andee's dad told us that we has a few hours before dinner, so we could visit the nextdoor aquarium or walk along the beach. We took our stuff to the hotel room and struck out for the aquarium.

The marine aquarium of Tamano is well supplied for a small town (being next to the sea probably helps). Among it's many inhabitants were numerous species of fish, octoupus, sea anemone, 5 giant sea turtles (my favorite), a giant otter, pengiuns, and for some reason, two monkeys (why not, really?). The collection also included a large assortment of sea shells, fossils, and a stuffed bird that reminded me of the Tsuyama Wonder Museum. Above the entrance to the aquarium was a full whale skeleton. Andee and I browsed the aquarium, took some photos, then walked to the beach to catch the sunset.

This particular evening the sun set behind a layer of coulds, which make for a very picturesque moment. Shibukawa beach, alongside the Marine Hotel, is not the largest of beaches in Japan. It's actually quite small, but the view was not to be missed. Mountains envelop the shore like a cove, with the Seto-Ohashi bridge visible in the distance.

Back at the hotel Andee and I changed into the hotel's outfit, a very japanese yukata (robe) and hanten (half-jacket). Japanese hotels, unlike American hotels, provide their own outfit that many guests prefer to wear. The hotel is built over a natural hot spring, so there is both an indoor pool and onsen (public bath) where guests can relax. Before dinner Andee and I swam in the pool and enjoyed the outdoor hot tub. In the hot tub the crash of the waves could be heard in the distance, (insert reflective poem here).

I may have injured myself while eating. The hotel provided a massive buffet, called Viking. Viking is the japanese word for buffet; it's very similar to a Viking feast following the sack and pillage of a town (minus battles to the death during dessert). Andee's whole family gathered at a giant table and after I was introduced to everyone the feast began. Of the dishes I remeber, there was sushi, sashimi, chicken, potatoes, steak, spaghetti, shrimp, rice, bread, soups, salads, pork, and vegetables. That's just the main course. For dessert, there were cakes, puddings, ice cream, fruit, sorbet, and anko (a sweet bean paste that I increasingly crave). I was very glad to be wearing the hotel's loose fitting clothing because I stuffed myself. During dinner, two women played the piano and oboe (it probably wasn't an oboe but I am clueless when it comes to wind instruments). Regardless it was great.

After dinner, and a considerable rest, Andee and I went to relax in the onsen. Onsen, for those who have not been to japan, is a public bath. However, before entering the bath you wash your body, so it's more like a public hot-water soaking area. In my opinion, it feels wonderful. You are naked, and there a bunch of other naked people there, but I didn't feel insecure. Next to the extremely hot water is a pool with (that's right) extremely cold water. Moving between these two pools and the outside hot spring was quite soothing. There was also a large supply of body washes and soaps to choose from before and after using the onsen. I washed my hair with something black, and my body with something silver, the color of liquid metal.

After returning to our hotel room, Andee and I watched the evening movie, Terminator 2 (the voice dubbing in Japanese was really amusing, but we ended up watching in english). The next morning I ate an equally huge breakfast at the buffet. Andee and I took another trip to the onsen, which was considerably less crowded in the morning. After thanking Andee's host family for the wonderful opportunity to spend the evening at the spa and hotel, Shoko picked me up for Sunday's festivities (which will be the topic of another entry). Hint: Katanas.

As of today I have been in Japan 3 months.


Hard at work (maybe) 

Winner for best apron goes to... 

Andee (not smiling as usual), and Mike in the background 

Pretty awesome, eh? 

Thank you, thank you very much 

Hans, with a very determined look on his face 

No kidding, I made this 

The evening's layout 

Hail to the Chef

A few weeks ago I saw a flyer at the Okayama International Center advertising a japanese cooking class, foreigners only. Being an innately suspicious individual, at first I thought it was a trap! Then I realized the delightful possibilities of a good lesson in japanese cookery, not to mention a deal of a meal at the low price of 300 yen. So on the first day for registration I called the international center and reserved Andee and I a spot (I suppose the cooking class is rather popular because Janna and Cori called later but all spots were filled).

So this Sunday Andee and I met in Okayama on the way to the cooking class. In the lobby of the international center Andee wanted to eat a quick lunch before the class began, but I saw a sign that read "do not eat meals, hold business meetings, or perform any other activity that will use the lobby for an extended period of time." Directly next to this sign were four men sleeping on couches. Andee ate his meal in the lobby.

When we got to the 6th floor, some students were already chatting, waiting for the class to begin. A woman asked us to put on namecards and we mingled about the room for a few minutes. Everyone in the class was supposed to take an apron with them, but because Shoko was in Kobe I had Andee supply one for me. The first apron he pulled out of his bag looked more like a french maid outfit, so I opted for the "Peko-chan" apron instead. When class started, all the students were divided into various tables, each with enough cooking supplies and food to make all three dishes. At my table was an english teacher from Michigan, a man(who I think studied engineering) from Germany, Andee, and myself. Each table also had a cooking instructor.

The menu broke down like this: Salt-grilled pacific saury (that's a fish, for all you kids out there), an assortment of boiled foods such as shiitake mushrooms and tofu, and miso soup. After everyone in our group introduced themselves, the teacher explained the cooking directions in japanese, with a little english on the side. Cooking the fish was rather straightforward, but the boiled foods required some finesse. Kamaboko, which is steamed fish paste, can be cut into various shapes to make the presentation more attractive. I spent my time grating daikon raddish and making a (fabulous) apple and persimmon centerpiece. I also took the job of arringing the fish on plates, as well as boiling the tofu.

Talking to Mike (the guy from America), I found out that he had been in japan for three weeks, two of those in Osaka. He majored in engineering but wanted to see the world, and thought that teaching english would be the best way to do so. The german (I think his name was Hans), was very good at japanese, and also quite a good cook. After cooking all the dishes and arranging the food, each table sat down to a mini-feast. Somehow our table prepared 6 plates of food for only 5 people, so there was plenty to go around. We chatted a good deal more over dinner, then Andee and I made our way back to Tamano.

So I don't know if I would consider myself a great chef, but the food was delicious. De-boning fish with chopsticks requires a little practice, but I'm getting better (my aim is catching a fly in mid-air).


Junior high school speech contest 

My host mom, Shoko 

I feel really really small 

A beautiful day in the shipyard 

The Super Techno Liner Ogasawara 

Black and white for you nostalgic folks 

Some serious streamer activity 

Yeah it's big 

Ahoy Matey!

My host mom doesn't like to brag about her english, but last thursday she was asked to be a judge for a junior high school english speech competition. That's saying something, if you ask me. I also attended the contest to lead group discussions with students following the speeches, and got to observe the speech contest as well. The students presented speeches either alone or in groups of two, and had to recite memorized pasages about certain topics such as "The Titanic," "Anime," or "Why do Mosquitoes Bite People?" (this was perhaps my favorite, involving dialogue between a human and mosquito) After all the speeches were given, I led discussions along with 17 other foreigners with kids in groups of 5 or 6, talking about myself, my country, and japan (however, when I asked for questions, both groups seemed much more interested in my personal life than my impression of japan). I also got to meet some of the other volunteers including a guy from Nigeria and a girl from Bosnia. As a thanks for coming, I got a free lunch and a personalized Tamano City toolbox, complete with ruler, scissors, bottle opener, and various allen wrenches (did I mention japan is awesome?)

This weekend Shoko went to Kobe because Miyu's college had a meeting about students traveling to America, so I was home alone with Masatoshi and Shun. In a seemingly unrelated topic, my house is next to a very large ship yard. On Saturday, Shoko's mother took me to the ship yard to see the launching ceremony for テクノスーパーライナ (Techno Super Liner) Ogasawara. This was great because the shipping yard is huge, with massive cranes and other machinery, so from the time I came to Tamano I have wanted to tour the place.

Tons of people had gathered for the event, including tv and newspaper crews. At the gate, everyone was handed a japanese flag to wave patriotically. Apparently, the Super Liner Ogasawara is either the fastest boat in Japan, or the fastest boat in the world, or something important like that. All I can tell you is that the thing is gargantuan. You could easily fit a few football fields inside of it. Shoko's mom and I arrived early to the event, so we got a good place next to the band and chatted while waiting for the ceremony to start. Around noon, a bunch of business executives from Tokyo were busses onto the site, and after some rousing dixieland tunes from the band, the celebration was underway. The president of the company which owned the boat said a few words, and a giant ball full of streamers that was attached to the side of the boat exploded with a huge bang. The band started playing and the crowd went crazy. Then, seemingly as quickly as they had come, the execs got back on the bus for Tokyo. I stayed around to take a few more pictures, then went back to my house for a lunch of curry-rice. At the gate on the way out I received a very informational packet about the ship, except completely in japanese. I did get a neat pen, though.

Shoko just came home from Kobe, so that's all for tonite.


I give the kendo outfit a 10 on the coolness scale 

Putting on my 'do' 

The final touches 

In full dress, looking quite anonymous 

Speak softly and carry a... 

In my room, ready for battle 

The two girls are wearing dresses made from kimono, reminds me of the "sock hop" 

One of the kimono dresses 

The garden near the fashion show 

A pretty rose in the English Garden 

It's tough to see in this picture, but Okayama Castle is visible in the center of this photo (to the left of the green square sign on the center building). I took the picture on the 12th floor of a parking garage. Just another example of traditional Japan within a sprawling urban center. The big dome looking building is the symphony hall 

At the calligraphy exhibit. The one of the left looks like a guy kneeling in front of a coathanger, the guy on the right is flashing a big "west-side." maybe... 

This kanji means "late," as in "late again Mr. Gleitzman?" 

My host grandmother, Shoko's mom 

Kendo Machismo -OR- Ben Gleitzman is a Wimp

As was mentioned earlier, I bought myself a kendo gee in Okayama at a small backstreet store that specialized in all things kendo related. Both pieces of the gee are royal blue, dyed in such a way as to make everything that happens to come in contact with the outfit (hands, clothing, babies) blueberry in hue. My first day using the outfit at school was tuesday, and only Asama and I showed up for practice. He showed me how to put on my gee (which is more complicated than I expected) as well as the kendo armor. The kendo jo is outfitted with lots of old pieces of armor, but Asama let me borrow the old kendo captain's do (body piece), te (gloves), and helmet. I am assuming that the old captain won't mind.

In full kendo gear, one looks rather scary. Especially with a shinai (bamboo sword), I wouldn't want to meet one of these guys in a dark alley. The armor also obscures most bodily features, so besides height most people look indistinuishable. As I explained before, the goal of kendo is to strike your opponent with a sword on either the head, hands, or body. You must also simultaneously call where you are striking and lunge forward or backward (depending on situation), striking your foot against the ground. If all three of these actions are completed with a clean hit then a point is scored. For the past month or so I have been practicing these movements wearing only a gym outfit (and swinging at nothing but air), so it was quite a different feeling wearing bulky body armor hitting someone equally as bulky.

First of all, swinging becomes more difficult. It's tough to get your sword very high above your head, but quick strokes are preferable to hard slashes. It doesn't matter how hard you hit your opponent, only that you hit them. Also, being hit is a brand new experience. On the stomach or hands it's not too bad because the chest protector and gloves neutralize the strikes. I wish I could say the same thing for the head. I don't know about the general population, but I have very rarely, if ever, been struck directly on the top of the head (barring comical anvil-in-a-construction-zone incidents). The helmet has a metal face guard but if a strike lands properly (directly on the top of the head) the semi-thin woven cloth material doesn't provide much resistance. It's an acute type of pain with an incentive of "move faster next time." I actually rarely get hit on the head during games, but in practice one of the exercises is letting your oppenent strike your head unguarded.

But overall kendo is great. It's a really vigorous workout (I'm sore all over) and the practice matches at the end of each day are my favorite part. Being strong and quick won't always win you the match, you also have to anticipate what your opponent is going to do next. In addition to striking moves, there are various defensive and parying moves as well.

So I hope there is no permanent damage from the occasional bop on the head. If nothing else I've picked up some new phrases like "Where should I hit you?" and "How many times?" which I am sure will prove useful in everyday situations.


Star Wars

At Kendo I usually practice with two other guys; Asama and Ueno. Asama is the captain so he tells us what to do, but the setting is real laid back so we sort of direct our own training. Recently I have been trying to figure out the foot-shuffle maneuver that follows a hit. But anyway, we are on the second floor practicing kendo, and below the kendo jo is the judo jo where five guys throw each other around for a while after school. Next door to the kendo/judo building is where the band practices. For about two weeks they have been working on the same Disney medley, without a whole lot of progress. So while I practice my swinging style various bits of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid drift through the windows. I'll tell you "A Whole New World" on the clarinet is only good for so long, so needless to say it was starting to get a little old. But today, out of nowhere, just as we're getting ready to start swinging practice, two trumpets start belting out the beginning of the Star Wars theme. The rest of the band joins in, and they're really good. I had to laugh. They had been practicing Disney forever, and from thin air comes this. Hopefully the Cantina band is next.

But what have I been doing recently? I sort of took a break from the internet and starting hitting the japanese really hard (language, not people). There was no japanese school last wednesday, so I finished a ton of homework. Shoko likes to help me with my studies (or does a really good job pretending to) so in the evenings I explore particles while she corrects my work. Then I help her with english, but she really doesn't need it. On saturday I went to a kimono fashion show at Miyama ko-en (a large park/garden near our house). The fashion show itself was held in the "english garden" which was quite impressive including many gazebos, exotic flowers, and statues. The show was geared toward what I will call "reborn kimonos," old kimonos which have been transformed into jackets, dresses, handbags, and who knows what else. The kimono fabric is wonderful so everything made from it looks great, with an old texture from the aging process. After the fashion show Shoko and I walked around the trails in Miyama park, which are about as numerous as those at Cooper's Rock. We walked 5Km, talked a lot, then got tired and went home for ice cream.

On Sunday, Shoko, Masatoshi, and I went to Okayama to shop. Shoko bought some jeans, and by chance we found a calligraphy art display. It cost 200 yen to enter but just as we were about to pay some woman gave us three tickets for free. I couldn't read any of the writing on the calligraphy, but there were so many displays. At least 150 pieces. After that Masatoshi and I went to a kendo shop where I bought myself a Kendo gee (hakama, the skirt-like pants, and dogee, the judo-like top). All royal japanese blue, really cool looking. Much better than a gym outfit, which is what I had been previously wearing to kendo class. But more about kendo in a later entry because there have been big developments. On the way home from Okayama we stopped in an expensive cake shop where Masatoshi by chance met a guy he went to college with. I had rasberry juice (delicious) and the most extravagant, artistic piece of chocolate cake I had seen in a long time. mmm.

That night, we ate okonomi-yaki (japanese pizza, with crazy ingredients). Reading the "specials" menu, I couldn't help but order "white christmas." This was, hands down, the jewish guy's worst nightmare. Start with cabbage, green onion, wheat, and egg. To this add pork, oysters, and milk. Mix together and fry with mayonaise and a sweet sauce. However, I have to admit that it was delicious, and I wasn't just hungry. I might even order it again if I got the chance, but would probably opt for another dish just for the excitement of something new.

More to come later, but I have to mention that Tanaka-san is an awesome guy. I help him teach english every so often, and so far he has bought me chocolate, a box of sugar cookies, and offered to take me to lunch. And it's a blast to teach, so I can't lose.


Watch Out!

If you haven't notived, I've added some extra buttons at the top of the page. You can now browse a glossary, videos, and music at the click of a button. Expect many updates to these pages in the future, as well as a secret under your pillow...


The fire is lit with long bamboo poles 

Gyoja, shrine attendants 

A respectible amount of smoke 

The outfit for the festival, I believe that is a fox skin on her back 


All the sticks around the fire are people's wishes 

My feet feel sore already... 

Toppling the blaze to spread the coals 

Feelin' hot hot hot 

Salt was thrown on the coals to purify, and make the burned flesh tastier 

Me, walking through the blur of smoke and pain 

Andee trying his luck 

People throwing candy after the fire walking 

Rain through the sun, also called Kitsune no yomeiri 

Steps from the shrine, Andee's host parents are at the bottom 

What's this?!? Could it be? French onion soup! 


Hot Feet

Yesterday was a national holiday "Bunka No Hi," a type of cultural day. Shoko had tickets to see "Disney on Ice," which sounded really exciting, but I decided to go to a firewalking festival instead because it was a little more cultural. It was held on Yuga-san, a nearby mountain in Kurashiki. You may remember Yuga-san because it is one of the rare places in Japan where bouth a shrine and temple are located on the same spot.

When Andee and I arrived (Andee's host parents drove us), the fires were just starting to be lit. Various people dressed in traditional outfits were tending to the fire while a large taiko drum was played nearby. Over a loudspeaker a shrine attendent was chanting something that I later learned was sanskrit. The fires were wood with green branches laid overtop, which quickly started to smolder before burning. The smoke blew into the crowd but I stayed where I was to get a good look at the proceedings. As the stack of wood burned down, the chanting and drumming became more rapid. People started to throw pieces of wood with wishes written on them into the blaze. The heat was really amazing, and at times I had to cover my face when it got too hot.

After the fires burned down the ashes were raked into a narrow line, and beaten with bamboo sticks until they were cool enough for people to walk upon. I had bough a ticket to walk, so I took my shoes off and shuffled to the front of the waiting mass of people. The ashes were hot, but no so much that it was unbearable. I walked at sort of a marching pace with the others in line. After the ceremony a huge group of people gathered before the shrine. Shrine attendents threw candy to the crowd which rabidly jumped and ran for the treats. They were really hard rice balls, supposedly to give good luck. Andee and I grabbed a few.

Looking forward to this weekend, maybe I will get some downtime. Also, I finished some really good books so manybe I'll post some reviews.


That's New to Me

My absentee ballot finally came yesterday so I rushed to the post office to get it out quick. It's probably too late but I'll only be kicking myself if WV goes to Bush by only one vote. Watching the news yesterday I was informed that a new cellphone law went into effect in Japan. It is now illegal to use cellphones in cars, and police officers had been pulling over drivers all day for the $60 fine. I didn't catch all the details but from what I could tell phones must cause quite a few accidents every year.

Also in the news was the announcement for new money. For the first time in 20 years Japan is issuing new 1000, 5000, and 10000 yen bills ($10, $50, and $100). Unlike American money, japanese bills display famous artists and inventors, as well as polital leaders. The 1000 bill, which used to feature Natsume Soseki (a writer) now features a woman (of whose profession I am uncertain). The 5000 bill now has a guy with crazy hair (who to my delight I discovered was a scientist). The new bills also feature various safety features and color changing ink, like the $20 bills in America.

The Okayama International Center's festival 

Not quite sure what this sign is suggesting 

Katrin and her paper boat 

I found this cat walking around Okayama 

At the sumo tournament in Okayama 

These guys are big 

The famous Yokozuna from Mongolia 

This move is really famous (Dohiyo Iri) 

One of the matches 

That's a lot of noodles! 

The first band of the nite 

Wataru from my school 

Band from Osaka with a female drummer 

This guy forgot the lyrics and had to use his phone 

Something about this struck me as funny 

The guy on the left is my favorite teacher. Great sense of humor 

Andee and I at Kyudo 

Deadeye Gleitzman 

At Kyudo, Andee in the background being an idiot ^_^ 

Lookin' sharp 

Andee's host family 

Picture from the beach at midnight. It was pitch black but long exposure shows smoke rising off this mountain 

Fun with long exposure and telephones 


The Karate Kid 

Andee, ready to give a 1 AM beatdown 


Sumo and Staying Up Late

On Friday night I got back to my house around 1 in the morning from the beach (which was a totally aweome experience; the sky was pitch black but you could see the Seto-Ohashi bridge and Kurashiki lit up in the distance). I practically crawled into my futon and feel alseep in a weird position which should have left my neck hurting the next morning (but thankfully did not). On Saturday morning I chatted with Shoko before she left for her Chinese lesson, then caught the 10:39 bus to Okayama to meet Katrin and Cori at noon. When I arrived in Okayama Cori was there but said Katrin would be a little late because of her orchestra practice. The sky was cloudy but it was warm so we walked down Momotaro (peachboy) Boulevard for some window shopping. Katrin met us a little later and we went to the Okayama Kokusai (International) Center because we heard that there was some sort of international festival taking place.

I had been to the center last month when the school took a field trip. The International Festival featured 6 levels of food, displays, and sundry items from around the world. I ate some Korean noodles for lunch which were very spicy but delicious. Most of the displays were in japanese but I did my best to read about different parts of the world. On one level a bunch of japanese teens dressed in brightly colored clothing were giving a talk about their trip to Cambodia. Cori bought a panflute which I find annoying unless also accompanied with goat pants and wine (sic. Fantasia) On another level one room was devoted to oragami so I made some so-so looking boats (when Jittan stayed with us I made a sweet-looking basket that I promptly forgot how to make) On the second floor was a large conference room showing a powerpoint on "Islam: The World's Most Misunderstood Religion." For me it was the world's most misunderstood powerpoint complete with not only gratuitous Kanji but arabic as well. I did appreciate the exhibit, however and was happy the see a large turnout festival as a whole. After spending the day at the International Center Katrin, Cori, and I walked to a nearby open air mall. For some reason there were a ton of high school kids dressed in Halloween costumes (a holiday that is not generally celebrated in Japan) selling food. We stopped in a small cafe for some refreshments, then I bid farewell to Cori and Katrin for the bus ride back home.

I arrived home around 6:00, and Shoko and I left for Kyudo at 6:40. We picked up Yamashita-san but Andee was eating dinner out so we went to Kyudo without him. We soon discovered that Andee was the smart one because Kyudo practice is postponed till next week. Not wanting to waste a good evening we all went back to Yamashita-san's house for tea and cake. Yamashita-san's son and daughter-in-law were also there so while they asked me about Japan Mi-chan read me some of her japanese books (my reading skills were ablout on par with hers). She also showed me her collection of ウオーリ (Wo-ri, Where's Waldo)

After tea and a whole bunch of laughter Shoko and I went home. About 10 PM Sam, the english teacher from Canada, came over and we watched "The Long Kiss Goodnight," with Samuel L. Jackson and plenty of guns. Sam likes to teach Shoko slang, such as "peeps," and "chill out." He had gone to Hiroshima to look for a car earlier in the day but came back unsuccessful. After the movie the three of us watched Figure Skating and American Football talking about nothing in particular. I have decided that Shoko is much more a host sister than host mom. Around 1:30 AM I was spent and retired to my futon.

Yesterday, Sunday (Halloween no less), was the day to top off the weekend. I took the 10:39 bus to Okayama, this time to meet Cori and Janna for sumo. Some of the rotary members heard that we wanted to see a sumo tournament and bought us tickets for the match at the Okayama Dome (let me take this time again to say that Rotary members do everything they can to show us a good time and I greatly appreciate it). The Okayama Dome was about 10 minutes by bus from Okayama Station so we arrived at the match around 12:30. The sumo had started at 8 in the morning but the main matches were scheduled around 1:30. I was shocked by the number of people in the arena. Out seats were in the back on bleachers but I was relieved because in closer sections people had to sit on the floor japanese style (this becomes very painful after more than 10 minutes). Our section probably had the best view of the arena as well because of it's elevated position.

The sumo wrestlers were massive. I had watched them on TV but it was nothing compared to real life. I walked over to their changing area where huge men with very little clothing were waiting, signing autographs, and posing for pictures. Everyone was crowded around a massive wrestler from Mongolia who seemed to be the audience's favorite (later he was led to the arena where someone ceremoniously shaped his hair in the traditional sumo wrestler style). Before the sumo matches began all of the wrestlers were led to the Dohyo (main ring) where they did a sort of dance (one clap, arms up, another clap, then pulling up their mawashi in unison).

The Dohyo was much smaller than I had thought it would be. When the two wrestlers take their places inside of it there isn't much room left for running around. Before the match starts a judge in a fancy outfit announces each of the wrestlers, then they each throw fistfuls of rice into the arena. The sumo wrestlers then raise their legs high into the air, and smash them back to the ground (the higher the leg raise the better. on one particular occasion a wrestler started pounding his chest which really excited the crowd). The wrestlers each take their places, then retreat out of the ring to throw another fistful of rice. They then take their pisitions again and commence trying and fling the other out of the ring (or throw them to the ground). This was done in many different ways including brute force pushing, rapid fire punching, grappling, and physically picking the opponent up by the Mawashi (the piece of cloth worn around the waist) and carrying them out of the ring (the crowd really goes wild over this one).

So we watched about 30 matches until the final championship bouts. The contestants were led into the arena with what I will call their posse. The crowd (while sitting on their knees) is visibly eager to see the winner of the matches. The 1st and 2nd runner-up battles were fierce, and the winners were presented with arrows and what looked like a rock (but probably wasn't). The chaptionship match was also vicious. After the referee gave the signal they were at each other. The match lasted longer than usual, with each wrester in a position of posible victory at times. The ring of the Dohyo is slightly raised so often one wrestler will push the other to the egde only to lose momemtum and be driven back to the middle. In an impressive pushing maneuver, one wrestler threw the other off balance and pushed him out of the ring. He was presented with a bow which he twirled around his head with striking agility for such a large man. There was then a huge rush to the door as everyone tried to get back to their cars and the bus station.

We took our time, however, because later that evening was a rock show at a club called Desperado. Wataru and Kiyoto (my friends from school) asked me to come and besides Cori and Katrin we were the only foreigners there. But I certainly didn't feel out of place. I talked with a bunch of people about my favorite bands and they told me about theirs (I have heard from many people that Asian Kung-Fu Generation is really good). Desperado looked quite a bit like 123, but with more mirrors. The sound system was also LOUD (my right ear still doesn't work). I noticed that before each band played they would come and tune their instruments, then walk offstage. Some song would then start to play and they would re-enter the stage while everyone clapped. Most of the bands sang in english, but I couldn't understand most of the lyrics (except HOOP because I already had their cd). I think when Wataru played was my favorite because he is a really good guitarist and I knew the lyrics. Another band named Blackout was from Osaka and played some pretty awesome music. The last band to play had a lead singer who went to my high school a few years ago. I suppose the best description of his singing was "emotional," but I was into it and everyone in the club jumped around (no moshing however which was great, just some dancing and a lot of fist-in-the-air movements).

After the show I bought a bunch of cds and got some free stuff too. There is going to be a SKA show sometime in the future so I definately want to catch that. I stumbled back to the bus station with Katrin (Cori had to go home early) and took the 10:00 bus home.