Thousands of Miles from Home


Nao-chan, the cutest little girl in Tai. AND she can throw a baseball just about as hard as me. She has also beaten me at tennis, making her the coolest little girl in Tai Posted by Hello

Okaasan, Saeki-san, and Takuro gazing in awe and wonder at the slackline 

Nao, Saeki-san, and Takuro 

Why did I cut my hair? Ignorance! The slackline was crazy fun, though 

Takuro attempting the slackline 

This girl kills me. The world needs to stop and keep her at age 10 forever 

My host mom and I rode bikes to the concert, she looked hilarious on this tiny tricycle looking contraption 

Tomoya's music class 

The accordion is a fine instrument 

The horn section, the trombone player (Tomoya's friend) blew me away 

Tomoya playing a mean bass on the right 

The Slack is Back

It is such a terrible title I couldn't resist!

Today was finally warm and dry enough to set up a slackline in the park near my house. For the inquisitive, a slackline is a length of webbing strung between two trees on which you wan walk (think: circus). Usually it draws a crowd of onlookers back home, so you can imagine some weird foreign guy slacklining in the park would be a pretty big event in the sleepy neighborhood of Tai. I invited Amanda, the exchange student from Canada who recently moved to a nearby house as well as some of my neighbors. Everyone gave it a try and luckily no one fell right on their face! (Takuro came close, however)

But before this afternoon's slacking, my family took me to a famous Ramen and Soba restaurant in Okayama called Ichigen. It was not our original destination, which was another famous Ramen shop about halfway between Tamano and Okayama. But when we arrived, we found the Ramen shop reduced to rubble. No kidding, you could actually see the bricks and iron rebar from the demolished building. After recovering from the laughter we decided on the alternate restaurant.

After lunch I taught English at a juku to some junior high students who are taking the high school entrance exam next week. The high school entrace exam is big business because getting into a good high school usually means getting into a good college. Just one more way to add pressure on kids. Regardless, we had fun and teaching was awesome.

Yesterday was Tomoya's "Farewell Concert" at Uno Junior High School. He played the contrabass in a piece entitled "Romanian Folk Song" and the electric bass for a "Disney Super Mix." Surprisingly, school bands sound the same all over the world. I don't know what I was expecting. There was an accordion selection of "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" which rocked (as hard as an accordion can rock).

Tomorrow I am going to city hall for an interview. They specifically told me to "come alone." I hope this isn't another one of the Mayor's crazy traps!

Silly Tamano Mayor, Trix are for Kids!


Walking back to school after Neil's house to retrieve my bicycle 

The slushy bike road toward Tama 

Snowy mountain with a streak of truck headlights 

The moon and whispy clouds; powerline paint by numbers 

Shoko, Jittan, and I at the train station (before the crying started) 

Picking a song at karaoke. That little computer holds every karaoke song known to man 

This is funny for a few reasons, mostly due to the large word "CLOAK" next to a pair of shoes 

Neil, displaying some awesome neon-green bowlin' shoes 

Bowling alleys look the same all over the world 

The names would read, in Katakana, "The Baller-yo" (me), "Da Pin Pounder" (Neil), and "The Chinese Nemo" (Jittan) 

That would be Buzz Lightyear and Ultraman 

Those Were Some Big Flakes

Yesterday brought snow to Tamano like a madman. A true squall of a storm complete with the largest, Ritz cracker sized snowflakes I have ever seen. One flake on the tongue was enough to quench thirst for a whole afternoon! And just as fluffy as a cloud! Paul's Bunyan's ox was as big as a house!

But tall tales aside, these flakes were large. The storm began in the afternoon as a cold rain and ended with streets the consistency of a lemon slush puppy. I was scheduled to teach some high school kids English at the nearby juku but the snow scared everyone off the streets. Neil came to the evening's rescue by hosting a last minute game-night at his place featuring my favorite, Casino, and his, Yahtzee (which was played inside a frisbee, another passion of Neil's). John Davey came over for the evening and ended up letting me borrow some classic comedy videos (that means on a tape, for all you young whippersnappers) in payment for copying his dance hall reggae cd's.

All the snow melted by morning, which was surprising yet excellent because no unsightly-cinders-and-dirty-snow residue was left to catch the eye.

This week also saw the return of Jittan to China. Jittan, who studied Business Japanese at a college in Okayama, had been in Japan for about 10 months and was one of my first friends in Japan. Shoko and I took the early morning train to Okayama, where I treated her to breakfast at Starbucks (of course it's everywhere), then we met Jittan at the train station. Tears were shed on the Shinkansen platform as she waved from the window of her bullet train. And so departs another great person I've met in Japan.

In the category of future plans, I will be traveling to Tokyo with Rahul March 10-13th (!!). If anyone has any requests (I have received a few for certain cd's) for any sort of Tokyo merchandise, you can contact me at or by sending me an e-mail to a real account.

Today was technically my last day of High School as a first year student at Tamano. My class will be taking finals over the weekend and part of next week which I have opted not to attend, but I am on the edge of my seat about Graduation and "Meet the New Teachers" Day which will be held sometime in March. First day of class as a second year student will be April 7th. I remain unaware of how the students will be divded between the two classes of 40 in the "International Course." Perhaps everyone will stick with their own class, or there might be a mix and match (hopefully the former, because I just started to feel confident with everyone's name, yet meeting new people is always fun). Either way, it's a little strange being a good bit older than most everyone in my class, but now that I can think of a decent comeback to "you have very long nosehair" school has become a much better place.

Included are some pictures of Jittan's last day in Tamano (bowling and karaoke, with dinner at Jacasse) as well as some shots from around town.


General Information...

For the curious or forgetful, my address is currently:

Benjamin Gleitzman
3-18-39 Tai
Tamano, Okayama 7060001


Colorful balloons stuck to the side of the exhibit wall 

The balloon man, providing an "Andy Warhol" like atmosphere to the balloon room 

Projecting fluffy clouds 

Human anatomy and bananas 

A string of thoughts 

Balloon Rooms of the World

Today, because of next week's school tests, I got a chance to sleep in and enjoy Bernie's morning radio show. It airs at 10-midnight back home which makes it the perfect morning radio program on Japanese time. However, I usually don't get a chance to tune in because of Wednesday's Japanese school in the city.

A little after noon I exited my house in Tai with a big smile on my face, mostly because the sun was shining and I couldn't see my breath on the air. I noted two children playing on a see-saw in the park, one clearly out-weighing the other.

The bus ride to Okayama city was pleasant, and I opened the window a crack for some fresh air (the bus heaters are always going full blast). The man occupying the seat across from me fell asleep in a funny position, awaking with a start when the bus came to a halt at a railway crossing.

Japanese school went smoothly, and Kimura-san resisted the urge to put anything over her head. Following class, Cori, Janna, and I went to a local bookshop which was sponsoring an English book drive; cardboard crates full of all sorts of treasures. I found a hardcover copy of "Tattoos of the 1950s" wedged next to a copy of Kurt Cobain's diary placed next to Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." I resisted the urge to buy all three and settled for a book by a Japanese author and James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist at a Young Age."

Cori and Janna had to catch the train home so I wandered the evening streets of Okayama in search of excitement. I found an art gallery featuring collaborations between children and adults, which struck me as an obvious yet rarely employed artistic technique (so says I, the artistic village idiot). I struck up a conversation with the curator who had constructed a sort of human skeletal and muscular sculpture in the center of the room, plastered with entries from children's diaries written on everything from paper to plastic bananas. In the back room of the gallery I found the most unexpected display, a room full of multicolored balloons with digital projectors beaming clouds onto the white brick walls. About 6 or 7 people were rubbing the balloons all over their bodies and sticking them to the wall. Occasionally a balloon would pop, making the whole room jump.

After the art exhibit I thanked the curator (he gave me some cookies, also unexpected yet appreciated) and set off down the street to the station. I was stopped by loud hip-hop music drifting from a second story window of what I discovered to be the "Hip-Hop Dance School of Okayama." I walked up a corner flight of stairs with the full intention of finding a window to grab a peek of japanese guys spinning on their heads or crip-walking. I instead opened the door to about 15 girls performing a crazy hip-hop "fist pump" in unison if front of a massive wall-sized mirror. Some stopped their fist pumping and turned to see who had invaded the amateur hip-hop dance class. Others continued the pumping. I just stared with what was probably on open mouth, amazed at what I had found. I watched for a minute then politely excused myself, making a mental note to return some time in the future when I didn't feel quite so outnumbered.

After the dance class I crossed to street into a store called, "Bimbo." It was full of crazy chairs, pillows, and other amazing apartment accessories. I bought my host mother a small bobble-head daschund (her passion) and some japanese looking accessories for myself.

I ate dinner on the second floor of a bread shop looking out on the street, silhouetted by the brightly lit Symphony Hall. While waxing poetic over a potato and ham sandwich I scribbled this on a paper bag from the book store before striking up a conversation with two women and a man sitting in the corner of the shop discussing the man's purchase of a new digital camera:

"Some would say that an enjoyable life is an expedition into the unseen; the winking glint of sun from the corner of a glass; the striking resemblance between the man on the stairs and the late composer Chopin; the way cardboard never bends exactly where you want it to, silently expressing it's resistance to change..."

After dinner I caught the bus back home, drifting in and out of sleep. I gave my host mother her gift (she couldn't stop laughing, a good sign) and crossed the park to Saeki-san's house for a guitar lesson. Jirou-sensei dumbfounded me with his guitar skill, which I attempted (and failed) to duplicate. I was offered some dinner and had an English conversation with the family in exchange for the lesson and the food. At one point, Saeki-san said "I am grandmother," instead of "I am glamorous" which resulted in uncontrolled laughing. I said goodbye, quite full, then ran into the night. To my house.

By any standard, a great day.


We Don't Need No Education

English class would be one of the better blocks of time during my day, usually because I have a decent understanding of what is going on. Today, in the middle of a particularly boring dissertation on the difference between which, whom, and who, Izawa (who sits in the back corner) said, "There are so many English words, I bet I could just write down some letters and Ben could understand it." He proceeded to write down these words on a large sheet of paper, occasionally holding it up for me to see on the other side of the room:

"Tachy" -which is a prefex, two points for effort
"Sative" - which I later discovered is actually a word

and my personal favorite,
"Bacxaro," who could very well be the next batman villain.

I was surprised how close he came to actual English words. I bet I could easily get away with slipping "weracy" into some english conversation. "The crowd was struck with a deep feeling of morgast."

So congratulations Izawa, you are a fake-English master

The young man with fishing pole 

This whole dance was fantastic 

Using two fans as props 

As the Old Man 

With the Nihon Buyou sensei 

Tightening my buns and thighs 

Michiko's house 

Party at the Yellow Hat! 

A little boy yelling? A short man with a moustache? Who knows? Posted by Hello

This is the scariest chef I have ever seen 

Yes, it's Madonna 

At the Okonomiyaki restaurant 

Michiko and Janna with the thighmaster-type machine Posted by Hello

Janna with "Jamaica" hat Posted by Hello

With the awesome "lumberjack-et" Posted by Hello

Cori, on the board 

Janna, reminding me of a dinosaur for some reason 

Not the Alps, but a great view nonetheless 

My mother would describe this hair as "terrible" Posted by Hello

Out Of Town

Last weekend, I received an invite from Janna's friend Michiko to stay in the town of Tsuyama. The Tsuyama rotary members also offered to take Cori, Janna, and I skiing at Ombara. How could I refuse?

But before the trip, I experienced the Japanese traditional dance form of 日本舞踊 (Nihon Buyou). A teacher of the dance lives near Kawai-san's house, so I spent the morning with the teacher (Nakahara-sensei) and her student who was on vacation from her college in Osaka. Nihon Buyou is classified as any form of Japanese dance, but can most often be seen in both Kabuki and Noh plays. The dance is accompanied by the shamisen (a three stringed japanese guitar), and can usually be discerned from western dance by its small, shuffling movements (in contrast with ballet's leaps, yet strangely similar to hip-hop's two step).

The girl who performed the dance had studied since the age of 3, but she said that not many Japanese enjoy studying the dance form because of its slow pace and slightly antiquated style. I thought it was amazing. She performed one dance which lasted about 15 minutes and was broken into three discernable sections. First, she depicted a young man with very powerful movements using a fishing pole and fan as props. The next stage involved the aging of the man, personified by looking inside of a box (during the real play, a mask would be applied from the box). In the final stage the man was blind, yet still carried his fishing pole. By the end of the show I was completely floored by the skill and precision of the dance. I attempted some of the intricate fan movements but could barely keep myself from tossing the would-be weapon across the room.

After some tea I said goodbye to Nakahara-sensei and her student, and set off on a 3 hour bus and train ride from Tamano to Tsuyama. Janna and her host mother picked me up at the station and drove us to Michiko's house on the edge of the city.

Michiko, who studied English in London, was once a model. She now works with her husband selling avant-guard style houses in Japan. As expected, her house was much different than the traditional Japanese dwelling. And just to make my father jealous, they also live right next to a golf course.

Michiko took Janna and I (Cori couldn't come until the following day) to Karaoke with two of her friends. One was very quiet, and didn't say much when he first introduced himself. However, he ended up only singing loud, screaming songs with crazy half-japanese half-janglish lyrics (I can only remember a song with the chorus "Come on...SHAKE HIP SHAKE HIP!"). Michiko, on the other hand, sang Madonna. As first I thought it was going to be funny, but Michiko had a really great Madonna voice. She even got up and made Janna and I dance with her. After karaoke, we went to a small late night okonomiyaki (japanese pizza) restaurant bustling with japanese. Tsuyama's okonomiyaki is more of the Hiroshima style (thin like a pancake and folded like an omelet), while in Tamano the okonomiyaki is Kansai style (thick and "meaty"). You might ask yourself "What difference does that make?" Truthfully, both styles are delicious, and perhaps I was especially hungry after the strain of Karaoke, but the Tsuyama okonomiyaki was first rate.

That night Janna, Michiko, and I watched two movies, a rare occurrence for me. The first, Casshern, was shot entirely with a "digital backlot" (green screen) with all backgrounds added in post production (another example would be Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). Anime fans, rejoice, because lens flares and matrix style moves abound. This movie started to give me a seizure around the middle when I not only couldn't understand what was going on (even with english subtitles) but the camera was cut every 5 seconds to highten the neverending tension. The ending of this movie would be described at "crazy," "nonsensical," or "stupid." It gets points for looking beautiful, however. The second movie, "Sekai no Chushin de, Ai wo Sakebu," or Sekai Chu (pronounced to rhyme with Pokemon's Pikachu) for short, is a love story that was inspired from a book and made into a movie as well as a TV drama. It's english title is "Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World," and most everyone in japan has either seen or has heard of Sekai Chu. I thought it was good, especially because of the cameo appearance of the Aboriginal guy from Crocodile Dundee (totally unexpected).

The next day, I thanked Mickiko profusely for letting me stay at her house and left with Hikasa-san, Janna, and Cori to Ombara Ski Resort. Cori and I snowboarded with Janna on skis. Although there was a large crowd of people, the weather was perfect and the lift lines moved quickly. That evening we ate my favorite, Kaiten Zushi (a type of serve-yourself sushi that moves along on a massive conveyor belt) before I caught a train and a bus back to Tamano.



Waiting for the evening train at the sleepy Tai eki 

They came in waves, sporting fundoshi and chanting "Washoi!" 

Lighting incense at the temple which is soon to be filled with naked men 

Neil and Jez before the festival began Posted by Hello

Milling around before the festival begins 

"Washoi!" resounds through the narrow streets of Saidaiji 

And here come the police (everyone in the funny hats) 

Some men gather at the front of the temple 

Everyone tries to fight their way toward the center 

A crowd at the temple 

Neil, obviously pumped after the naked experience 

A large crowd of people attempting to reach the temple 

There it is! What hundreds of men stripped down and fought over. The shingi! (Why does that remind me of the "the golden snitch?") 

Great view of Osafune in the morning 

With some excellent statues in front of the station 

Journey to Saidaiji

Numerous towns, districts, or cities occasionally have interesting or exciting celebrations. Perhaps they will throw a parade everyone once in a while, or show an open-air movie in the park. Free popcorn, bring the kids! In the case of Saidaiji, Okayama, thralls of men (of various intoxication levels) gather and strip down for the annual Hadaka Matsuri, or "Naked Festival," held at the local temple. With the ultimate goal of being able to touch one of the two sacred sticks (shingi) thrown into the teeming crowd by the temple priest (who also douses the crowd in cold water), the men gather in groups of 10-30 to run around a preset course shouting "Washoi, washoi, washoi!" From what I could tell, "washoi" would be the japanese equivalent of "heave, ho!" oft spoken by pirates and other naval folk. For over 400 years, men have gathered to celebrate this momentous occasion.

I left home around 7 in the evening and met Tamano high school's english teacher (eigo no sensei) on the train to Okayama. His friend gave us a ride the short distance from Okayama city to Saidaiji, where thousands of people had gathered to witness the spectacle. Neil and Jez, the other english teachers from Tamano, had decided to join the other gaijin and participate in this historic festival. I met them at the changing booth. For about 10 seconds I gave serious thought to participating in the festival as well, but the story of the exchange student from Tamano who was seriously injured came rushing back to me. You could say I was a wimp, but who wants to spend the rest of their Japanese exchange in a full body cast?

To be honest, the festival isn't performed completely naked. Instead, the participants don a "fundoshi," or modest loincloth made from either 10 or 20 foot rolls of cloth (I hear purchasing the 20 foot roll is totally worth the expense). In a large tent, certified japanese fundoshi vendors give the appropriate "atomic wedgie" to keep the cloth from falling off once the festival begins. Then it is off to the temple where between the hours of 10 and midnight hundreds of men run laps in the freezing mid-winter weather, all the while chanting "washoi, washoi, WASHOI!"

Towards midnight, the men begin to gather on the steps and "porch" of the temple. Priests dump freezing water on the crowd, which is quickly warmed to a misty steam which lingers above the chanting men. Men try to push their way up the stairs; often causing whole bunches of fundoshi clad guys tumbling down the stairs. I witnessed quite a few punches to the face, pulling of fundoshi, and a ton of shoving.

When talking to Japanese people about Hadaka Matsuri, they often describe it as what they believe hell would be like. Indeed, after reviewing the newspaper the following day, the picture outside the temple depicting hundreds of men with the groping arms reached toward the sky certainly reminded me of something hellish (and awesome). At the stroke of midnight, yells reaching a feverish pace, the lights were cut and the two "shingi" were thrown to the waiting mass. Just like the bottom of the 9th, two outs with the bases loaded, the crowd went wild. Neil later told me that you had to breathe out and then in again quickly or your chest would get compressed with the force of everyone around you. Once someone had finally claimed the sticks police tried to escort the men from the temple. Some fights erupted (which I hear is completely normal) as hundreds of men were led back to their changing room.

Following the festival, I had planned to stay at a friend's house in Osafune, a close distance from Saidaiji. Neil and I walked to Saidaiji station to find a taxi, striking up plenty of conversations with Japanese people along the way. We almost convinced a group of people to drive us all the way to Osafune but they said they were going in the other direction.

At three in the morning, the taxi driver dropped us off at Osafune eki, in the proverbial "middle of nowhere." The taxi driver must have though we were crazy but accepted his fare and drove away. Surprisingly, it was a wonderful night and an easy walk to Neil's friend's house. Her name is Leis (from England), and has taught english in japan for 2 years. At her house were 5 other english teachers from England and the U.S. A party ensued.

The next morning, Neil and I snuck out early to catch a train back to Tamano. Osafune is a beautiful part of Japan, which had just seemed sort of spooky the evening before. Mountains rise from the rice fields in the distance, and we stopped at a small grocery store to purchase some drinks for the road. Walking in the early morning along the country road, drinking my tea with Neil gave me a great feeling and a promised myself I'd do more exploring on my own in the future.

We came to the Osafune station just in time, and ran to catch the train. Unfortunately, at a junction after Okayama station we had a wait of 50 minutes before the next trail. Neil and I walked around Chyamachi station, subsequently finding a small pizza shop that happened to be open. Perhaps it was because we were starving, or it could have been the massive chunks of ham, but it was the best pizza I've eaten in Japan.

I stumbled home around 12, eager to tell me family all about the excellent night. They were happy I hadn't killed myself, so everyone came away a winner.

Check out the craziness on the video page


Valentine's Day, yet notice that not one person in the store is male 

Katrin throwing up a crazy peace sign in Loft 

Katrin's friends from Joto 

Brightly colored Mario Brothers 

The expected "Devil and Angel" design 

Some friendly islanders 

He he he, ho ho ho, and a couple of ha ha ha's, that how we laugh the day away in the merry old land of Oz 

The grand finale 

Okayama Castle in the evening 

Katrin with her friend on the back 

In the underground passageway connecting Okayama Station with the shopping district 

Wait a minute, Doc. Ah... Are you telling me you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean? 

Fashion Show #2

I am constantly and repeatedly impressed with the Japanese sense of fashion. It appears to me that Japanese fashion isn't so much a separate entity from world fashion, but rather the concentrated culmination of every style one could imagine. Japanese people take Italian, French, and American designers, wear it all at once, and make the clothing look real good.

Also, the proportion of fashionable people is much higher than I ever experienced in America. Most of my classmates are carrying Louis Vitton wallets and purses on a regular basis, and in the city you can't go anywhere without seeing someone that seems to know a little something about good (or at least outrageous) fashion. Girls are wearing short skirts with high (swashbuckling) boots, large frilly parkas, and t-shirts with the "America's Most Wanted list" plastered on the front (and that was just someone I happened to spy the last time I went to the city).

So of course I jumped at the opportunity to go to the Chugoko Design College's fashion show in Okayama with Katrin (exchange student from Germany), Michelle (from Canada), and some of their friends from Joto high school (I was further allured by the fact that I would be getting in for free).

We all met outside Okayama Station around noon, and then did some shopping and a little eating before the show began. We hit Loft, a six story department store filled with postcards, food, tableware, furniture, office supplies, costumes, cellphone accessories, and crazy pop art curiosities. It happened to be the day before Valentine's Day, so the 4th floor was crammed with girls buying last minute gifts (in Japan, girls give guys gifts on Valentine's Day, while guys get a whole extra month until March 14, White Day, to return the favor).

We then walked past Symphony Hall to where the design college was located. We arrived just in time, as two huge projectors and strobelights flashed while some Bjork pump-up music played in the background. As far as I can tell most Japanese fashion shows (and this could be true all over the world) have the same format:

A very high BPM song plays while searchlights and colored strobes blind the audience (with the ultimate goal of distracting the onlookers from the clothing they came to view). Tall, stone-faced models then powerfully stride onto the stage, walking in rhythm to the music alongside their equally stone-faced cohorts. Usually one model will be the center of attention (the queen model...quodel?) and will carry an accessory such as a devil's pitchfork or princess's wand to augment the clothing on display.

All of the clothing I saw was themed, with about 10 or 12 small performances ranging from Jamaican dancers sporting red, yellow, and green to a spooky "Men in Black" type outfit with fake smoke and sleeves that reached all the way to the floor.

I don't ever aspire to be a fashion designer, but I did get a kick out of the stunning display.


Janna appalled (or coughing) at something in Kimura-sensei's general direction Posted by Hello

I don't know where this picture came from. But I do have a glint in my eye 

Cori, Janna, Kimura-sensei, and I 

Havin' snacks with the head of the Japanese School 

Janna brought in this bag she found in the ladies department of a clothing store. Kimura-san instantly puts it on her head. We all laugh hysterically while she explains that is what you are supposed to do when trying on clothing to keep the makeup from rubbing off on the merchandise 

Parks like this are all over the place in Japan. These trees run along a canal 

Walking toward Okayama Station through the shopping district 

Evening shot of Okayama's Momotaro Boulevard 

Get to Class

Every Wednesday I take an hour bus ride to the city, my ultimate destination being the Okayama Institute of Languages. I am joined by the other Rotary exchange students in Okayama prefecture, Janna and Cori. Class runs from 1:30 to 4:30, and we usually go out to lunch (and often dinner) together before and after school. Our teacher, Kimura-sensei, is consistently outgoing and happy about teaching us japanese. She knows enough english to make the class hilarious every week, as we all try to explain ourselves in a mix of japanese, english, janglish, and latin (latin is often omitted).

The best part about Japanese school is that it is completely payed for by the Tamano, Tsuyama, and Okayama rotary clubs. Also, it gives me a chance to get out of Tamano and into a (pretty big) city. The pictures are from our party held in honor of finishing the first japanese book in record time.


My host mother preparing a tasty bowl of tea 

Wisking the tea with the right hand was difficult but I eventually brought the mixture to a bright green froth 

Gazing deeply into the tea 

This is the door through which you enter the tea room. It made me feel a little silly but you could exit by gracefully swinging out like Spiderman (Samuraiman) 

My host mother explains something to Mio while she opens her "oil-free" salad dressing she brought from home 

Tea Please

I received another invite to my host mother's tea ceremony teacher's house over the weekend. I had experienced the tea ceremony before at school and in Tama, but was informed that I would be practicing the "Okayama" style of tea ceremony, which differs from my previous teacher's "Kansai" style of tea. As of now, I am currently developing my own "Old Skool" style of tea preparation.

First, my host mother served me a cup of tea, then I tried my hand at the process, throughly confusing the left-hand/right-hand maneuvers but ultimately producing a nice cup of tea.

Lunch with Mio followed the tea ceremony at the delicious Jacasse.


Andee with the Tai girl I met the day she left Japan 

Another fine picture of the illusive Shinkansen 

The Shikoku Rotary folk 

Urte, Micah, Shaun, and Tom 

Some exchange students introducing themselves 

Like yawning or burping, piling as many people as possible into a tiny car is an involuntary muscular response 

Keiko, who went to Texas last year 

Tom attempts to translate Shaun's speech into Japanese 

This is me pretending to know what I'm doing 

Micah, looking mildly surprised 

This crazy funhouse mirror was at Konpira-san shrine, for some odd reason 

Tom was crazy, but I give him thumbs up on the dragon shirt 

Shaun, Me, Carter, in hotel attire 

Carter, so very surprised, holding a boot 

Group photo with Seto-Ohashi in the background 

Bridges at Konpira-san 

Rotary District Orientation

The neverending quest to catch up with the present continues:

Last Saturday was Andee's final day in Japan. He was leaving on the Shinkansen in the evening, but I had to attend a rotary meeting that night in Kurashiki. So we both went to Okayama City in the morning to see another person in Andee's exchange program who was also leaving that day. I had never met the girl before, and sadly I cannot remember her name, but she was from Tailand and seemed very friendly for the hour or so I spent with her at the train station. Many people came to see her leave, and she was crying rather hard by the time she left the station.

After seeing her go, Andee and I spent our final morning at Mister Donut with some honey glaze and a coffee. We talked about things that made us laugh, and it didn't quite feel like he was leaving for good. When I said goodbye to him at the station I felt sad, but smiled because I was happy to have met someone like him (cliche, yet true). I gave him a hug right there at the turnstile, then got on a train for Tamano.

Back at my house, my host counselor was waiting with a Japanese girl from my school who went to Texas on exchange last year. I had already packed my bag for the weekend, so we struck out on our journey; Keiko(girl from my school), Aketa-san (host counselor who I have recently realized looks exactly like Ho Chi Min), and me (wearing a sweatshirt that said "beautiful rainbow to the sky"). The rotary meeting was being held at the Kurashiki Seaside Hotel, and aside from seeing a brief schedule I didn't know what to expect. My previous rotary meetings have involved only the students from Okayama Prefecture (about 5, counting outbounds from last year) so I expected something along those lines.

We were the first people to arrive at the hotel, so after a delicious lunch (during which Aketa-san smoked about a pack of cigarettes) we left to put our baggage in the main meeting room. I met Janna from Tsuyama, and she said that lots of kids were there from all over the surrounding prefectures. Exiting the elevator, I instantly spot Micah Ginnis, who happened to be my room mate at the Outbound Orientation in America. We had e-mailed a few times back and forth in Japan, but I didn't expect to see him at all. He said all the exchange students from his prefecture were there, and introduced me to Shaun, Carter, and Tom (from America) and Urte (from Lithuania) In total, about 30 students were at the meeting. (mostly from American and Canada, but also two girls from France and one from Finland) There were also about 15 japanese girls that had either been on exchange last year or waiting to leave this year.

Shaun's main reason for coming to Japan is to learn how to be an entrepreneur from japanese businessmen, then start a string of arcades back in the States. It struck me as an odd reason, but at least it's better than "I came for the culture," which is everyone's usual reply. Before the meeting started, the Rotary district president told me to tell the other students to prepare a skit for that evening about strange or funny things that we had experienced in Japan. I am not sure why he asked me in particular, and in fact I think he called me "Jason" the first time he saw me, but I did as I was told. Everyone introduced themselves by district, we had a small meeting, then dinner. After dinner all the exchange students went to a room to make the skits. I found a very large loudspeaker, and under the auspices of using the music for skit preparation played various tunes from the iPod. Someone asked me if I had any "Disturbed" and I gave them a sad, sad smile.

We presented the skits, some of which were hilarious in their use of Japanese and English, then all the kids went to a large party in the hotel while the Rotary members went out to drink. Micah, Shaun, Carter, and I hit the hotel's onsen, then hung out in various rooms for a while. I got a chance to talk with many of the japanese kids about their exchanges, which was exciting because I rarely get to talk with kids in a relaxed atmosphere.

For the rest of the night, using the large loudspeaker, we contintued the party from room to room. I don't think anyone else was staying in the hotel besides rotary members so we had the whole place to ourselves. There was dancing, laughing, and sitting on the roof looking at the nearby Kurashiki chemical plants, bright on the horizon.

In the morning, we took a tour of Konpira-san, crossing the massive Seto-Ohashi bridge. I had been to Konpira-san once before, but it was a lot more fun traveling with the other rotary kids. A lot of students live on Shikoku, the island south of Tamano, which I can easily reach by ferry. Hopefully I will get to take some trips there on the coming weekends. At Konpira-san, we ate Udon for lunch, after which Micah and I bought ice cream. While walking away from the ice cream stand, we spotted another ice cream stand on the corner. The following conversation insued:

Micah: "Hey, why don't we eat this ice cream cone real fast and buy another?"
Me: "That's a little gluttonous, don't you think? Two ice creams right after each other."
Micah: "Especially when you're lactose intolerant!"
Me: "What?! Why are you even eating that ice cream cone?"
Micah: "I only get dizzy, don't worry."
(Micah then moonwalks through a glass window)

After a closing ceremony back at the hotel, everyone said goodbye for the evening. Aketa-san gave me a ride back to Tamano, where I promptly fell asleep after a large sushi dinner.


Not a Real Entry

I would like to give a large thank you to blogger for fixing the stats on the profile page. For a while I though no one had visited the site since November.

And to make you feel REAL special, you can now use HTML when posting comments.

But the moral of the story is: this movie will be deleted shortly and replaced with a slightly truncated version, so get it while it's hot:

Guitar Zamurai


A good look at the Oni repellent 

Beans, my culinary magnum opus 

Eating our sushi in silence, facing west southwest... 

I dare you not to laugh at this picture 

Tomoya Oni, gotta' catch em all! 

Andee Oni...perhaps Andoni? 

Upsidedown Jirou Oni 

The crazy knife wielding Saeki Oni 

The host mother Oni 

This would be the only acceptable Oni hand gesture 

Me, Mio, and little Mio 

Mmm...them's good beans 

Totally Bean-inated! 

The Andee Oni, presenting the Oni cake, being attacked by Jirou-sensei 

The obligatory group photo 

Setsubun Showdown!

Yesterday afternoon was spent riding around on my bicycle after school, slicing at people with a green plastic samurai sword and screaming what probably ended up being unintelligable japanese until I felt my work was done. This morning I made my host family strawberry and banana pancakes. With that in mind, the Japanese festival of Setsubun:

Setsubun, or "seasonal division" is held on February 2 or 3, one day before the start of spring. Various rituals are performed with the purpose of chasing away evil spirits. Most of these rituals are family based, differing from household to household. On the day of the celebration, my host mother tried to explain what we would be doing that evening. She said, and I quote (in translation) "We will throw beans at Oni."

Andee came over for the celebration, which was held at the Saeki's house. We performed some exciting ritual (sacrafice). First, we ate a special uncut sushi roll that is extra long to welcome the spring (maki-zushi). You are supposed to eat said sushi roll in complete silence, facing a certain direction, which changes every year. I belive this year's direction was "west, southwest." I asked how the direction is chosen, but couldn't understand the process. (I later learned it is based on the Zodiac) I would have liked to belive that it is similar to groundhog day, with perhaps a special bird selecting various directions. Following the sushi was the Throwing of the Beans. To quote the process, "When throwing the beans, you are supposed to shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Devils out, happiness in"). Afterwards you should pick up and eat the number of beans which corresponds to your age." We all gathered at the front door while Jirou sensei put on an Oni mask. He rang the doorbell, opened the door, and we all threw beans in his face. "Oni wa soto!" I screamed, banishing the plastic Oni mask from my presence. "Fuku wa uchi!" soon followed, with a handfull of beans tossed into the house. We all took turns being Oni, and getting pelted with beans.

After that crazy display, we ate a tasty Oni cake topped with fruit deliciousness. A trip to the Saeki's house is always a great expericene, and we welcomed the Spring in true fashion.


Getting ready for a partay! Posted by Hello

Jittan's Chinese chicken Posted by Hello

A massive amount of food, this was just one of the tables 

A rare smile from Shun 

A common face from Yuudai 

Yuudai and Nakkan, watching TV on their phones 

Shoko's Chinese teacher and a bunch of women 

Neil holding a priest's outfit, apparently Sam now marries people as a side job and wanted Neil to fill in for him 

Bringing out the funny 

After my performance, Jittan's favorite 

The party crowd 

Neil staring at a fistfull of cards 

Shoko's got quite a handfull as well 

Card craziness 

Jittan's a rock star 

Yamashita-san and Shoko 

Andee and Neil 

Playing everyone "Oasis" dressed in a Kimono 

So much Japanese food! 

Group picture with Andee's family, Jittan, and I 

Andee's Malaysian gifts 

Jittan and Shoko in the early morning fashion show 

My Malaysian head scarf 

100% Natural Cheese Powder by ROLF 

Jittan, and her best seal impression 

Andee testing the bean bag for quality and softness 

Andee using a children's coloring book at the mall 

Jittan enjoying a lovely piece of cake, larger than her head 

Kurashiki by night 

Get Out of Here!

Today was an amazing day. Nothing particularly special happened, and in fact it rained, but I still felt the residual effect of this weekend's Rotary outbound orientation in Kurashiki. The downside of the awesome weekend is that it came at the worst time blog-wise, with about three blogs that need to be published before I can properly expound the craziness which insued. So I will first take you back to last weekend, at Jittan and Andee's going away party.

The location was Shoko's house, the usual party location. I invited Yuudai and Nakkan from school, along with Neil and Sam (the local english teachers). Shoko called all her older japanese friends and Chinese teacher who came with his wife (who flew in from China, not specifically for the party). About everyone who had known Andee or Jittan from Tamano attended. That may appear to be a calm, reclined crowd but if you had been present you would know otherwise. A large assortment of foods were prepared by Jittan, Shoko, the Chinese teacher and his wife, and other members in the house for consumption at the party. Miyu was also in town from Kobe so I got a change to speak with her in Japanese she could understand. She leaves on a few days for Washington state as an exchange student for a few months. So if you're going to be in the Washington state area, let me know.

The party was a free for all, with Lost in Translation and equally exciting music playing in the background. After a few hours, I decided to give Jittan and Andee their big surprise, a live rendition of Guitar Zamurai. Guitar Zamurai, for those who don't know, is a very famous comedian in Japan who plays a guitar, wearing a kimono, and makes fun of people. Like a musical Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (some people will not know who this is, either) When I first came to Japan, Jittan told me Guitar Zamurai was her favorite comic, and while I couldn't understand a thing he said she died laughing. Instead of trying to explain what sort of comedy he does, I'll upload the video.

Caution!! very large and temporary video file (33MB) Guitar Zamurai download for this short time only!

I wrote the lyrics myself, with some help from my host brother to make it more understandable and funny. Also thanks to Jirou sensei for showing me the guitar zamurai guitar chords. All the Japanese people at the party thought it was great.

After the party began to wind down, Neil struck up a large game of cards. He is a massive card fan, and is in fact starting a weekly potluck dinner and card night for anyone interested. Music was played, cards were dealt, and people danced until the wee hours, when only Andee, Jittan, Neil, Shoko, and myself were left awake. Someone put on Cold Mountain (Shoko is a big Jude Law fan. But hey, who isn't?) and Neil left after the movie was over. Andee then gave us parting gifts of Malaysian clothing which seemed like an excellent thing to try on at 5 in the morning.

Everyone went to sleep for a few hours, then woke up for a traditional japanese lunch of party leftovers (so much better than cold pizza). We played cards and Nintendo Mario Party until that evening. Andee's host family took Jittan, Andee and I to a very fancy japanese restaurant in Uno. Andee's host sister and father argued about colleges (she wants business, he wants language) which was humorous to watch and soon involved everyone at the party. The food and drink were delicious and I felt plenty stuffed after 40 hours of continual eating. Everyone then went back to their respective houses, but the party was not over yet.

Andee, Jittan, and I met in Okayama the next day to go to Aeon (pronounced Ion), a large shopping mall in Kurashiki. We laughed, shopped, purikura-ed, and ate large pieces of cake for dinner. We also watched a movie, Howl's Moving Castle, which is the next movie in the Ghibli line of films including Spirited Away, Lapita, and Totoro. Expensive at $15 but well worth the movey with candy and drinks snuck in from a department store. To top off the three days of craziness, my mind was blown by finding a very inexpensive MIT sweatshirt at the mall. Other choices included Boston University, Texas A&M, and the seemingly out of place University of Southern Georgia.

Back at Okayama, Andee and Jittan said goodbye to each other for the last time at the train station, a very sad and strikingly movie-like display. Walking backwards and waving, time moving slowly. We may have only been together for a short while, but we had some great times (cliche trademark, ding!) And thus the going away party drew to a close. Andee and I returned to Tamano to get some rest.


From left to right, large ship, Aketa-san, me, English translator 

I might look goofy, but I'm backed up by the largest aluminum ship in the world. So beat thatPosted by Hello

Mitsui Zosen Extravaganza

If anyone in Japan knows how to have a good time, it's Tamano's Mitsui Zosen shipbuilding company. Back when I met the mayor of Tamano (not to be confused with this other famous mayor), I mentioned wanting a tour of the massive, and frankly ominous shipyard located essentially in the Watanabe's back yard.

I suppose asking the mayor for a favor really gets you the whole nine yards, because he talked to some Rotary members and arranged a private tour of the grounds. I was not allowed many pictures on the premises, so I will do my best to explain the somewhat secret and decidedly awesome going-ons at the Mitsui company.

First a little background, discerned from a powerpoint presentation given with tea before the tour. Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding Company was founded in 1917 (Taisho 8 on the japanese calendar), supplying Japan with both ships and diesel motors. Among other projects, the company has placed pillars for the Seto-Ohashi bridge and holds world records for deep-sea ocean drilling. Today's projects include rescue ships, tankers, automonous drilling vessles, hovercraft, and my favorite, "high speed chase boats" (my translator mentioned something about North Korea). After the diesel bust in the 80's (before which the Tamano Mitsui Company employed over 10,000 workers), the company also focuses on constructing solar panels, LCD monitors, and X-ray machines that check for stress and cracks in tunnels. But they are still best known for their work on engines and tankers, including "Ogasawara," the world's largest aluminum ship.

After the powerpoint, I donned a hard hat and steel tipped boots for the real tour of the factory. Accompaning me was an offical from Mitsui, my Rotary host counselor, and Mitsui's on-site english teacher as a translator. We took a car around the massive complex (988,000 square meters) where I saw various processing plants, huge cranes, and partially constructed ships. In one "off-limits" area, we could barely see three enormous military hovercrafts waiting deployment. After the drive we set off on foot to tour an engine factory. Mitsui does not only make ship engines, but is also well known for power-plant diesel engines. The size of the factory was staggering, with engines that looked much like that of a car, except you could easily fit incide one of the pistons.

We toured other facilities which I have a hard time recalling because of the restricted picture taking. After the tour, which lasted about an hour and a half, I came back to the powerpoint room for tea and cookies, and could ask any questions I wanted about the factory. Mostly I spoke with my translator, about whether he enjoyed his job and how he came to work in Tamano. It turns out that he is married, expecting a second child soon, and his brother (who got him the job) also works as an English teacher at Mitsui.

There is also another branch of Mitsui near Chiba, which manufactures many of the same ships as Tamano but in larger quantities. I belive the Tamano branch builds 40 ships a year, and also has a hand in research, development, and plant engineering around the world. Next month, my host father, who works for the Mitsui Chemical branch, is traveling to Iran to plan and coordinate the building of a chemical refinery plant near the Iran/Iraq border. I asked if I could go too and he said I would need to buy a gun first.

So I left the Mitsui Shipyard feeling enlightened as to the large clanging noises I would hear from the Watanabe's house throughout the day. I have never been a ship buff, but something about seeing a massive tanker in construction would give anyone a sense of wonder and awe.