Sunday, April 29, 2007

The New Cold War

I don’t normally recommend books before I’ve had a chance to read them but I thought I’d make an exception for The New Cold War.

It’s written by Mark MacKinnon, who is a great storyteller, an ace reporter and a good friend. Also, Mark promised to send me a signed copy of his book if I pimped it on my blog (hi, Mark. Pony up!). Anyway, I’m sure it’s a fantastic book and I can’t wait to read it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


A strong earthquake hit my island this morning. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged. But, for 15 terrifying seconds, my heart stopped beating.

It happened at exactly 9:03 a.m. I was sitting at my desk in the staff room, sipping a cup of tea, when the ground started vibrating. It was a low, steady tremor at first. I looked up from my book to see if anyone else was feeling it when, suddenly, the whole building started shaking violently. It felt like we were sitting in an airplane that had hit a pocket of rough turbulence.

Everyone dropped to the floor and dove under their desks. I jumped out of my chair but I didn’t know whether to get down on the floor or run out of the building. So I stood frozen beside my desk and held on tight.

The most frightening part was the noise. The sound of the bookshelves banging against the wall, the sound of the windows rattling in their frames, the sound of panic in the teachers’ screams. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the earth stopped moving.

The teachers popped up from beneath their desks. They all started speaking in rapid-fire Japanese and I swear I understood every single word (“Oh my god!” “Is everyone okay?” “An earthquake!” “That was scary!” “So scary!”).

It took about 15 minutes for my hands to stop shaking and my heart to stop pounding. Later, one of the teachers told me we were lucky it wasn’t a major earthquake.

“This school is dangerous,” she said.

She explained the school was built on a rice field and that the ground was very soft. She said the building was old and falling apart. And then she pointed at the thin cracks that criss-crossed the floor and snaked up and down the walls (I can’t believe I didn’t notice the cracks before!).

During class, I couldn’t stop staring at all of the cracks on the floor beneath the students’ desks. I realized that if this morning’s earthquake had been more serious, the school would have collapsed like a house of cards and we’d all be buried under a pile of rubble right now. (How many other unsafe schools are there in Japan? How can one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries allow older public schools that aren’t up to code to remain standing? Shouldn’t these schools be rebuilt?)

Of course, the first thing I did when I got home this afternoon was google “Shikoku” and “earthquake.” And there it was. This morning’s earthquake was international news. It turns out it was a magnitude 5.4 earthquake and I wasn’t far from the epicenter. Scary!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Chasing rabbits on company time

At every workplace, there are some people who work harder than others and there are some people who hardly work at all. And then there is that one guy who diligently shows up for work but no one really knows what he does. At my office here in Japan, that person is the vice-principal.

The man is a master at doing nothing all day and looking busy while doing it. I have watched him practice magic tricks, catch grasshoppers and chase rabbits, all on company time.

I’m not sure what his official job description is and, apparently, neither does he. Or maybe he just doesn’t care since retirement is right around the corner. But he’s definitely not apathetic about it.

He attacks his pseudo work with energy and enthusiasm. He always has a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He’s fun and playful and never takes himself seriously. He’s so naturally (and unintentionally) funny that he has the teachers constantly on the verge of hysterics.

He’s the most happily unproductive person I’ve ever worked with. His procrastination techniques are beyond compare. I have no idea what it is he’s supposed to be doing but the work he’s invented for himself is way more entertaining than anything on his official job description.


A few months ago, we went on a school field trip to see a magic show. The magician’s signature trick involved tying a silk scarf around her neck and pulling the ends tight. Instead of choking her, the scarf “magically” pulled apart.

The vice-principal watched in rapt fascination as she performed the trick a few more times before revealing, step by step, how it was done.

The next day at school, while all of the teachers were busy working at their desks or rushing to class, the vice-principal stood in front of the mirror in the staff room with six feet of rope around his neck trying to duplicate the magic trick.

I watched him nearly choke himself for a good 15 minutes before offering to help (I am the second least busy person in the office). We spent a good part of the morning perfecting the magic trick.

Rabbit Whisperer

One of the vice-principal’s most fun make-work projects involved taking me to the local elementary school to meet the pet rabbits.

The vice-principal and I were both sitting at our desks one painfully slow morning. He turned to me and starting talking about the elementary school’s rabbits. He asked me if I had ever seen them. I told him I hadn’t. A light bulb went on above his head.

“It’s very important to meet the rabbits,” he said. “Let’s go!”

So we walked over to the elementary school where we spent a very enjoyable hour playing with the rabbits.

A few weeks later, we were sitting in the staff room when the phone rang. A teacher from the elementary school was calling to say one of the rabbits had escaped. The vice-principal leapt into action. He grabbed his jacket and raced out of the building faster than a firefighter on his way to an eight-alarm blaze.

I watched him walk back and forth along the riverbank behind the school. Amazingly, he found the rabbit safe and unharmed in a small ditch. This must have been one of the highlights of his career because he spent the next two weeks talking about the great rabbit rescue.

Maintenance Man

The vice-principal has taken it upon himself to be the go-to guy when there are maintenance problems at school. He fixes broken umbrellas, he scrapes dried glue off the floor, he fills the portable heaters with kerosene, he sorts the mail, and he reads every flyer that comes into the office (he is especially fond of the flyers for home electronics and has been known to linger over them for hours).

He is also the resident computer “expert.” Although, as far as I can tell, the only thing that qualifies him as an expert is the fact that he sits at his desk surfing the internet all day.

Japanese Teacher/English Student

There are days when I have no classes and I’m as desperate for something to do as the vice-principal. On these days, the vice-principal teaches me Japanese and I teach him English.

He has taught me some of the most useful Japanese phrases I know: “Dokushin desu ka?” (“Are you single?”) and “Kakkoi!” (“You’re so good looking!”) and “Issho ni nomimasen ka?” (“Would you like to go for a drink sometime?”).

In return, I help him with his English. Although, he prefers to stick to the English he already knows rather than learn anything new. He likes to impress me with the phrases he’s picked up by watching Hollywood movies. Like the time he pointed a rusty garden tool at my head and said, “Please give me money.”

He was so polite and non-threatening that my only response was to laugh and say, “Omoshiroi!” (“You’re funny!”).

“Yes, that’s right,” he said in perfect English. “I am funky!”

Working (and I use that term lightly) with the vice-principal is one of the highlights of my day. Even when the days are long and boring, I am never bored.

There are mornings when I wake up and the first thing I think is, “I wonder what the vice-principal will get up to today?” I have no idea what he is really supposed to be doing at work and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ten years gone

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of my graduation from university. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this mind-blowing fact. Did I really graduate from university 10 whole years ago? And how the hell did the last 10 years go by so fast?

I wasn’t this freaked out when my 10-year high school reunion came and went. But there’s something monumental about the first decade of your post-university life. That’s when you’re supposed to go out into the world and make something of yourself.

Some of my Carleton University classmates are doing amazing things. My friend Mark just published a book. My friend Steve is a foreign correspondent with CTV. One of my former roommates is an award-winning journalist in Calgary and the other is finishing her PhD in London. Almost everyone in my graduating class has had their accomplishments listed in the pages of the alumni magazine.

As for me? I’ve done nothing in the past 10 years worthy of a write-up in the alumni magazine. Not that I’m bitter (stupid alumni magazine).

Okay, so maybe I’m not the most successful person to have ever graduated from the unesteemed halls of Carleton University. But that doesn’t give the alumni magazine the right not to publish profiles of debt-ridden losers. We’re graduates too.

I may be a slacker compared to the rest of my graduating class but I’m generally pretty happy with the choices I’ve made.

So to mark the 10th anniversary of my graduation from university, I’ve created a list of the top 10 highlights of the past 10 years (Carleton University alumni magazine, eat your heart out!):

1. Working at the Toronto Star: Barely two weeks out of university and greener than a Prius, I was thrown head first into the deep end of the daily news pool. I covered everything from murder trials to missing cats. My stint as a Toronto Star journalist was only a four-month internship but it was the best job I ever had.

2. Moving to New Brunswick: In September 1997, I packed my bags and moved to Saint John to work as a journalist for the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. My plan was to stay for 12 months but I fell in love with Atlantic Canada (and a farm boy from Nova Scotia) and ended up staying three years.

3. Going to Bosnia: My dream of becoming a foreign correspondent came true for a brief shining moment when I was sent to Bosnia to report on the war-recovery efforts. I traveled around the country dodging landmines in armoured tanks. I slept in sea containers. I interviewed dozens of people every day and filed stories every night. It was an incredible experience.

4. Traveling in Russia: In 1999, one of my good friends was living in St. Petersburg while studying for her master’s degree in Russian history. She was staying with a Russian family and had a big group of Russian friends. So when I went to visit her for three weeks, I got a real insider’s view of the country. It was bleak, depressing and utterly fascinating.

5. Moving to Vancouver: After three years as a newspaper journalist, I was itching to try something new. So when the David Suzuki Foundation offered me a job in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I jumped at the chance. I quickly learned that PR isn’t as glamorous or as exciting or as interesting as journalism. But I also learned that PR could be a lot more challenging and creative than journalism.

6. Joining the English Bay Swim Club: You wouldn’t think that joining a swim club would be a life-changing experience. But, for me, it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’ve met some of my closest friends through the swim club. I also got back into competitive swimming for the first time since being kicked off my high school swim team for showing up at one too many practices with a hangover (hi, mom. Don’t tell me you actually believed all that vomiting in high school was due to “food poisoning”).

7. Discovering the joys of backcountry camping: I went on my first backcountry camping trip when I was 18. I hated it. I was cold, wet, tired and hungry the entire time. I decided to give it another try after moving to Vancouver because this is the sort of thing people do for fun in B.C. I found out that heading into the wilderness with everything you need for a week or two strapped to your back really is fun. I’ve hiked from Alaska to B.C., across a chunk of southwestern Utah, over the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California and along the West Coast Trail in British Columbia. I’ve been cold, wet, tired and hungry but my B.C. friends have successfully brainwashed me into believing it’s a pleasurable misery.

8. Crossing the Ironman Canada finish line: I wanted to do something really big to celebrate my 30th birthday in 2004. So I decided to sign up for an Ironman. I figured swimming 4 kilometres, cycling 180 kilometres and running 42 kilometres all in one day would be a great way to kick off my thirties. I wanted to prove that I was fitter, stronger and more determined than ever. Well, now that I’ve done an Ironman, I’m not sure if I’m fitter, stronger and more determined but I’m definitely a lot smarter. Good lord. What was I thinking? I’m never doing that again.

9. Starting a blog: I’ve really enjoyed this little hobby of mine. It’s helped me feel more connected to people (um . . . yes, I am aware of how ironic that sounds while writing this sitting alone in front of a computer). But it’s been rewarding in ways I never expected. I’ve met all sorts of quirky characters, from Hot Rob to Keith to George. The National Post has even started quoting me in stories as “blogger Sarah Marchildon.” I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

10. Moving to Japan: Living in a small rural town and working as an English teacher in the Japanese public school system has been an amazing adventure. Just scroll down the page. You’ll see what I mean.

So that’s it. The highlights of the last 10 years compressed into 10 paragraphs. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Laminator

Today marked the end of spring break and the start of the new academic year in Japan. As a result, there were a lot of new faces at school this morning. Not just new students but new teachers too.

Most of the new teachers seem pretty nice but I’ve taken a real shine to one in particular. I call him the Laminator. The Laminator is awesome. He’s like a Japanese version of Gareth from The Office.

Like his television counterpart, the Laminator has raised anal retentiveness to an art form. His desk is a thing of beauty. The surface is divided into a perfect grid of four squares with everything in its right place. His laptop sits squarely in the upper left quadrant. His day planner and his Mickey Mouse mug fill the bottom right quadrant.

His office supplies are neatly arranged in a shoebox-sized plastic container, which contains three of everything: three pairs of pink scissors; three green staplers; three Winnie the Pooh pencils; three silver rulers; three yellow highlighters.

But the piece de resistance is the personal laminating machine that sits squarely in the middle of his desk. I spent a good part of the day watching my new neighbour laminate every piece of paper that came across his desk. Notes, schedules, flyers. Everything was laminated and filed away.

At some point during the day, he taped a freshly laminated “no smoking” sign to his desk. I can’t wait to see what happens when he finds out the teachers smoke in the staff room. I hope he goes all Gareth on their asses.

Yes, the new school year is definitely off to a promising start.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Cherry blossoms and fleeting beauty

The cherry trees in my town have suddenly exploded with fluffy, pale pink flowers. There is a dreamlike quality to these trees. From a distance, the clusters of blossoms look like cotton-candy clouds floating above the branches.

Although Vancouver has lots of beautiful cherry blossoms, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about them. We might look at a tree and say, “Wow, that’s pretty” and move on. But not here. Cherry blossoms are a national obsession in Japan.

The entire country is taking the arrival of the cherry blossoms very seriously. The nightly weather report includes a segment tracking the movement of the “cherry blossom front.” Pictures of cherry trees are splashed all over the front pages of newspapers.

Across Japan, crowds of people are flocking to parks and gardens for flower viewing parties (known as hanami). Wherever there’s a tree in full bloom, there’s a party happening underneath it. You just spread a plastic tarp on the ground below a cherry tree and binge on food and alcohol while celebrating the fleeting beauty of the fluttering blossoms above your head.

My first hanami party was filled with sweet melancholy. One of my Japanese co-workers tried to explain the significance of the delicate flowers using broken English. His words were all wrong but his meaning was clear -- the brief lives of the cherry blossoms are a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life.

When a shower of pastel petals floats down with every breeze, there is a gentle sadness in knowing the lives of the flowers will soon be over. But there is a beauty in the short-lived nature of the cherry blossoms too. It reminds us to appreciate life’s transitory moments.

The cherry blossoms are a perfect metaphor for my time in Japan. There are days when I am overcome by sadness knowing that I will have to leave this place in four short months. But it’s an enjoyable sadness. There is a beauty in being aware of the transience of my time here. Knowing that I will never be in this place experiencing the same things again has made me appreciate every single moment, just as the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms makes them that much more lovely.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Let's play bowling

YOU CAN DO IT!! Winning or losing is not a problem. Enjoying is the most important matter. Do you like bowling? Let's play bowling. Breaking down the pins and get hot communication.

This is a massive billboard on the side of a bowling alley in Osaka. I took this photo last week while travelling around Japan with my family.

We were intrigued by the sign's cryptic message so we returned to the bowling alley later that night to "break down the pins." Unfortunately, there was a three-hour wait to get a lane so we left without answering the question that had been plaguing us all afternoon (what is "hot communication" and how can we get some?).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Marchildons do Japan

My family flew back home to Canada this afternoon. I was sad to see them go but happy to have the apartment to myself again.

It was a fun trip. It was also an exhausting trip thanks to a jam-packed schedule that kept us busy every minute of every day. I wanted my family to experience all of the things that have made my time here so wonderful. So I tried to compress the highlights of the past seven months into two weeks.

I took my brother to volleyball practice (but he bowed out after five minutes due to insufferable forearm pain). I took my brother to tennis practice (but he beat the club president so badly that I spent a week apologizing to ease his shame and embarrassment). I took my family to visit my school (but one of the teachers invited us to his house for lunch where we drank so much sake we ended up staying five hours).

When people found out my mom, my aunt and my brother were coming to town, everyone wanted to meet them. They were treated like celebrities. My volleyball team hosted a welcome party. So did the Board of Education. My tea ceremony teacher invited us over to her house for (what else?) tea. My friends took us to the local cherry blossom festival. Another friend drove us to Kochi City to see the market, the castle and the beach.

We crammed as much as we could into two weeks. We ate several pounds of sushi and sashimi. We drank gallons of sake and beer. We sang karaoke. We went for long walks on narrow mountain roads. We slept side-by-side on futons on the floor. We took pictures of quirky English signs (my personal favourite was the massive billboard on the side of a bowling alley in Osaka that read, “Do you like bowling? Let’s play bowling. Breaking down the pins and get hot communication.”).

The highlight of the trip wasn’t the temples of Kyoto or the bright lights of Osaka but the kindness and generosity showered on us by the people of my town. Which probably explains why this photo of my Canadian family with my Japanese family is my favourite picture of the whole trip.