Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Hawaii of Japan

I’ve never been to Hawaii but this is kind of what I imagine it would be like. Dense vegetation, warm water, sandy beaches.

Except this isn’t Hawaii. This is Japan. This is where I live. I discovered this beach on the weekend. It’s an hour and 15-minute train ride up, down and through the mountains from my town. The beach was almost deserted except for a few hip, young Japanese surfers.

I was surprised to see so few people here. This place is about as close to paradise as it gets. But I suppose the southern part of Shikoku Island is pretty remote and hard to get to from the big cities. Which is fine by me. Ohki Beach is one of the biggest perks of rural living so far.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I hate volleyball

My first night playing volleyball with a local Japanese team was more horrible than I thought it would be.

It was like being in Grade 9 all over again. I basically stood in the middle of the court alternately praying for the ball to not come near me or ducking and screaming when it did.

Joining a volleyball team wasn’t my idea. I was riding my bike down the street my first week in town when I was flagged down by a guy driving a delivery truck. He brought the truck to a screeching halt in the middle of the street, jumped out and demanded “You play volleyball with me!” How do you say no to that?

Things got off to a bad start before I even set foot in the gym. I showed up without a pair of “indoor” running shoes to wear inside the gym. I haven’t mastered the art of Japanese shoe etiquette. There are outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, toilet shoes and, apparently, even gym shoes.

I tried to explain in Japanese that I only own one pair of running shoes (this involved a lot of gesturing and pointing at my feet while holding up one finger). I then pulled a towel out of my bag and started wiping the bottom of my shoes, thinking they would let me in the gym if I cleaned off my shoes. This was greeted with expressions of horror until one guy took pity on me and volunteered to drive back to his house in order to lend me a pair of shoes.

It went downhill from there. While we were waiting for the guy to come back with a pair of shoes, I started chatting with one of the girls who spoke a little bit of English. She asked me how often I played volleyball and I said “never.” I told her I was horrible but she reassured me that she was really bad too. And then she told me that everyone else was really bad. I started to relax a bit. I began to think that maybe volleyball would be okay. That we would all just have fun and laugh about how bad we all were.

When the guy finally returned with a pair of shoes for me, we started warming up by tossing the ball at each other in pairs. And then we had to hit it back and forth with our forearms. After about five minutes of this my forearms were hurting so badly I had to stop. Seriously. Who invented this game? What sick person decided hitting a ball against your forearms was fun?

After about 15 minutes of this painful forearm torture, the game finally began. Of course, everyone turned out to be Olympic caliber athletes. (I am learning that when people in this town say they are really bad at something what they really mean is that they are actually really, really ridiculously good.)

I was told to stand in the middle of the court where I prayed for the ball to not to come my way. Every time it did, my heart sank. Instinctively, I ducked whenever it came near me. Or I stood frozen in one spot hoping that someone else would go for it.

This went on for about five minutes until one of the guys started yelling at me in Japanese. I assumed he was trying to tell me hit the ball if it came my way. And so I did. But every time my burning forearms made contact with the ball, it went wildly out of bounds or hit the net.

At this point, I could tell they were getting exasperated with me and I was not having fun. I was almost hoping the ball would hit me in the head and knock me out so I wouldn’t have to play anymore.

And then all of a sudden the game stopped. There was an emergency huddle in the middle of the court. The girl who could sort of speak English came running over and told me to get off the court. She made me spend the next two hours in a corner of the gym by myself in order to practice hitting the ball against the wall. (It was like the scene from the Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel-san clean his car for hours on end).

Did I mention that this went on for two hours? Have I painted a clear enough mental picture? Can you see me standing alone in the corner, hitting the ball against the wall while everyone else is playing volleyball?

So while I’m alone in the corner, I start desperately thinking of ways to get out of playing volleyball for the next year.

After the game ended, I tried to say things like “I am not good enough to play with you” hoping that they wouldn't invite me back. But they did invite me back. And they want me to play for the rest of the year.

Maybe they were just being polite but I felt it would have been rude to decline. Plus, I’m desperate for friends. Any friends. Even friends who make me stand in a corner by myself for two hours.

So since I’m stuck playing volleyball every Monday night for the next year, I may as well figure out how to learn to like it. It can't possibily get any worse than it did the first night, right?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hello from Japan!

Sorry for the long break between posts. It took three weeks of begging and pleading in broken Japanese to get an internet hookup in my apartment. I finally got connected a few hours ago after much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. I still can’t believe it took almost month to get an internet connection in Japan!

Anyway, enough griping. On with the first post about my adventures so far. Where to begin? Perhaps I should back up to where I left off. Let’s see . . . Vancouver. Four weeks ago. On my way to Tokyo. Right. Only now Tokyo is a bit of a blur. It seems like such a long time ago.

I spent four days in Tokyo wandering amid the neon lights before flying out to my new home on the backside of Shikoku Island in southern Japan. This is where I will be spending the next year.

I live in a little town nestled in the mountains, near the ocean. It has one main street filled with lots of little shops and old buildings. There are miles of empty country roads that are perfect for cycling, running and walking. I live in an apartment on top of the town library. This is the view from my bedroom window.

It’s all very beautiful. But, holy crap, the heat! It’s killing me! It’s been 35 degrees every day with 100 per cent humidity, making it feel like 45 degrees.

What makes it even worse is that the women in this town don’t wear shorts or sleeveless tops. It’s a pretty conservative place. Apparently, showing a little shoulder or leg above the knee is extremely scandalous. So I’ve been wearing jeans with long sleeved shirts. Sometimes, if I’m feeling daring, I will wear a t-shirt and capris.

Of course, everyone is sweating buckets in their ridiculously heavy clothing. Instead of dressing comfortably for the weather, the locals all wear towels around their necks to mop up the sweat. Or they just tie the towels around their heads. I don’t care how ridiculous it looks, I am seriously considering investing in my own towel.

Luckily, there is a great little swimming hole down the street from my apartment. I am the only adult who swims in the river but I have become quite popular with the neighbourhood kids.

The weather is unbearable but at least the people are friendly. I am being treated like a celebrity. My supervisor at the board of education took me to meet the mayor on my second day here. Through a translator, we chatted a bit about Canada while a photographer took pictures of me for the local newspaper.

At one point, the mayor asked me if I had ever eaten eel. I confessed that I hadn’t. He suddenly declared that he was going to make it his mission to get me to eat eel and invited me to a party at the town hall that night.

Later that night, after several glasses of beer and sake, the quiet, mild-mannered 70-year-old mayor turned out to be quite the wild man. The more he drank, the louder he got. I have no idea what he was saying because he was yelling in Japanese but it must have been quite funny because he had everyone in hysterics.

At one point, the deputy mayor walked in wearing shorts and the mayor yelled out the only English expression he knows: “Hot pants!”

The deputy mayor (aka Hot Pants) was an even bigger character than the mayor. He would randomly yell out “heavy drinker!” and “I am Quebecois!” By the end of the night, both the mayor and the deputy mayor had invited me back to their place. Perhaps they thought I was easy because I was wearing short sleeves. Here’s a picture of me with my new friend, the mayor.

I already have an undeserved reputation in this town as some sort of star athlete back in Canada because I listed “triathlon” as one of my hobbies on my resume.

For example, I was riding my bike down the street my first week in town when I was flagged down by a guy driving a delivery truck. He brought the truck to a screeching halt in the middle of the street, jumped out and demanded “You play volleyball with me!”

Through his broken English and my basic Japanese, he told me he belonged to a volleyball team that played every Monday night and he had heard the new English teacher in town was a star athlete.

Now, I hate volleyball. I mean, I really, really hate volleyball. I suck at it and it hurts my forearms. When I see a ball heading towards my head, my gut instinct is to scream and duck for cover. But I agreed to join his team because I’m desperate for friends. I just hope they don’t kick me off the team once they find out how useless I am.

And then at (yet another) drinking party on Friday night, one of the more quiet teachers got up the courage to talk to me after a few drinks and said, “You play tennis with me tomorrow morning!” (We played for an hour the next morning and I now belong to his Thursday night tennis club.)

He also asked me to run a marathon with him in February. I think. He kept pointing at himself and me while saying “marathon” and “February” over and over.

That’s not to say that these first few weeks have been easy. It’s frustrating at times being a very illiterate and very visible minority. Grocery shopping has been the biggest challenge so far. I have no idea what I’m going to eat for the next year. I can’t read Japanese and I’m not adventurous enough to try the things that have English labels (ie. canned whale).

It’s also hard not to feel lonely and isolated at times. This is a pretty small town in a predominantly rural area where almost no one speaks English. A lot of people refuse to make eye contact with me and some have blatantly turned the other way when they see me coming. I hope it’s just because they’re shy and not because of anything more sinister.

But I'm starting to feel a little less lonely each day. I’ll probably get into a groove once school starts. Right now, I’m just filling my time at the board of education trying to learn Japanese. The first day of class is this Friday and I have to give a three-minute speech (in Japanese!!) to 350 junior high school students at the opening ceremony.

Anyway, my quick update has suddenly morphed into a long, rambling post. I guess the floodgates have opened now that I have an internet connection. I’ll be posting more frequently from now on so I'll try to keep it shorter next time. Until then!

Friday, August 04, 2006

On my way to Japan

Farewell Vancouver! I'm off to spend a year in the Land of the Rising Sun. First stop, Tokyo. Second stop, my new hometown on the rural island of Shikoku.

I have no idea what to expect. I feel like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down into a big, black hole. I know it's a cliche but it really is the best way to describe how I'm feeling right now. Equal parts fear and excitement.

I figure as long as I leap into the great unknown with an open mind and a positive attitude, it will be an amazing adventure. Unless North Korea accidentally bombs Japan while firing a test missile. That would suck.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Argh! I hate moving!

The movers are coming on Thursday to put the contents of my apartment into storage for a year. This gives me one whole day to magically have everything neatly packed into boxes by the time they arrive. I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off.

I spent eight hours yesterday and nine hours today sorting, tossing and recycling. I haven’t even started packing yet. Argh! How is it possible for one person to collect so much crap?

For example, my crap collection includes:
a) My TTC bus passes from high school.
b) Not one, not two but three broken hair dryers.
c) My Ontario Place nametag from the summer I worked as a bumper boat attendant.
d) Boxes of tapes that haven’t been listened to in at least a decade.
e) Mugs, mugs and more mugs. Why does one person need 50 mugs?
f) Really ugly clothes that I hate but am inexplicably attached to and so have been unable to part with them.
g) A medicine cabinet full of pills that expired four years ago.
h) Phone bill statements from when I lived in New Brunswick.

I could go on and on. I swear 90 per cent of the stuff in my apartment is crap. Don’t even get me started on the science experiments growing in the fridge. And, no, I haven’t defrosted the freezer yet.

I feel like I’m turning into my grandmother. The woman could not throw anything away. From now on, I’m going to own as little stuff as possible so that I never have to go through this hell again. I hate moving!