Dec 31, 2008

End of the year 2008

The year is going our with a roar! We are having the heaviest snow storm of the year. This picture shows the view from our balcony at about 9 a.m. The forecast is for the storm to continue until some time tomorrow morning with a few breaks for the sun to come out.

Considering the temperature, we will be plowing through ankle deep snow tonight when we walk over to the shrines and temple. We have guests coming at about 6 p.m. After eating and drinking and chatting, we will wrap ourselves up in our heaviest winter coats and walk the kilometer to Futakashira Jinja (TwoColumns Shrine) where we will stand in line for a long time in, order to ring the bell to make the gods aware of us. We will also drink some Japanese sake, get our fortunes for the coming year, and buy some goodluck charms. Also we will put last years goodluck charms, with all the badness that they absorbed, into a bonfire in order to purify them.

Traditionally, we are supposed to send the day cleaning the house (like Spring cleaning) and then bathe, eat and drink, and go to the shrine or temple around midnight. In the morning, there is a meal with special New Years food and a first drink of sake. The big event in the morning is the arrival of the mail. People send each other New Years cards and the post office saves them and delivers them all on the morning of Jan 1st - making a lot of part time jobs for students.

We are not going to do much. The cleaning will only be in preparation for the party and, since it is just Masayo and I, we are not going to have any special food tomorrow. I expect that we will just relax, recovering from tonight's party.

Dec 29, 2008

Henro planning

Ian and I were at a party the other night and had a chance to do some more planning for our trip. It is still tentative but firmer than just a few days ago.

Our current plans have us leaving Sendai on the shinkansen (usually called the bullet train in English) on February 16 and traveling to Osaka. We have not decided whether to stay in Osaka (cheaper) or go on to Koyasan (Mt. Koya) and stay there (expensive but probably more interesting). In any case we will spend the 17th exploring the temples on Koyasan and reporting to Kukai (known posthumously as Kobo Daishi) that we are going to do the Henro Pilgrimage. I have a pamphlet from Koyasan that suggests that the standard tour of the temples will take at least seven hours. On the 18th we will travel from Osaka to Shikoku by highway bus, buy our Henro outfit, and visit a few of the temples. How many depends on the timing. We will stay overnight in a minshuku (traditional Japanese hotel) and begin the trip in earnest (remember the Importance of Being Earnest) the following day.

As I said before, this year we plan to spend 25 days on the road, and maybe an extra day at the end to reach the train line that we can take to Okayama and the shinkansen.

Dec 26, 2008

Various things

This is typical of what Sendai city does to the trees along the roads. In the fall they cut off most of the new branches so that the trees do not expand their root systems, ruining the roads and sidewalks. It also keeps the branches away from the power lines. I find the short knobby branches to be strange but artistically interesting. The road, by the way, is the main street near my apartment.
This time of year the air is quite clear and we can often see the mountains that remain hidden in the mist during the rest of the year. This picture was taken from the teacher's lounge at Miyagi Gakuen University.
This is typical of Japan. The river, its banks and the right side of this picture are in a natural state and quite pretty. The left side is an outdoor industrial storage area, very much resembling a dump. The contrast is striking.
This final picture was taken in the park, Shinrin Koen, where Ian and I, and now Jay, walk every Wednesday morning. It was a overcast with some light rain, making it dark enough that the park lighting stayed on even though it was light enough to see.

Dec 25, 2008


It is early Christmas morning here in Japan. A clear, cold day that indicates Santa had no trouble getting around to all the houses last night. Santa may have been busy but I got the first good night's sleep in a week.

Christmas here in Japan is a non-religious, festive occasion that is quite popular. Although I have no data to back up the statement, my students lead me to believe that the most popular Christmas activity is a date at a good restaurant, at least with the singles crowd. Many people have a Christmas cake, basically a sponge cake covered with whipped cream and strawberries and supplemented with Christmas decorations. Most Japanese think that this is an American tradition and are amazed when I tell them that I had never seen a cake like this until I came to Japan.

There are decorations around town, especially in the stores, and some people put lights on their houses. A house only a hundred meters from here is all lit up and quite pretty. I will try to get out and take a picture of it tonight.

Some people exchange presents or give them to children and students frequently have parties, although it is hard to distinguish such parties from the traditional year-end parties that almost all groups are having during December.

The shopping arcades have been playing Christmas music for more than a month and the radio has a high percentage of carols.

Merry Christmas

Dec 24, 2008

Sunday morning (This is from Dec 14)

While waiting for Ian, this cloud was lit up by the rising sun.

Henro Pilgrimage

Continuous change is the only constant in this world. Nothing remains the same for very long. Everything is process, not objects. These represent one of the basic ideas of Buddhism, and it is very appropriate in relation to our Henro pilgrimage.

A week ago, Ian and I had a long talk and for various reasons changed our plans. Instead of the do-it-all-at-once version of the Henro, we have decided to do it in two legs - half in 2009 and the other half in 2010. Traditionally the only requirement is to visit all 88 temples and to complete the recitation of the Heart Sutra at each. Such things as the order you visit them, the mode of transportation, the total time required, and so forth are irrelevant. The only thing is to get to all of them.

Ian was having trouble arranging to be away from his university for the seven weeks that would be required for the continuous trip. Also we would have to hurry, even I could not be away much longer than that. And we both have only limited funds available for the trip.

On our revised trip we will cover the first half in about 25 days, being away for about a month. This means that we will have shorter walks each day and will be able to spend more time at the temples and to stop at interesting places along the way. With the budget reduced in proportion to the length, it will also mean that we will be able to stop overnight at temples and pilgrims' inns (ryokan) every night rather than sleeping out most nights. Both Ian and I were a bit concerned about sleeping out in the dead of winter. We both thought that we might wake up one morning frozen to death.

Financially, the total cost of the trip will be more but the amount for this year will be about 2/3 of what we had expected, even sleeping indoors every night. The second half of the trip in 2010 will cost about the same, so even sleeping indoors every night, our budgeted funds will be enough for this year and half of next years trip.

One additional advantage that us old guys especially appreciate is that our packs can be closer to four kilograms, rather than the six or seven that we had expected.

Once we started thinking about a two leg trip, all we could find were benefits and no negatives. Once Christmas and New Years are over, we will get into serious detailed planning and I will keep you informed all the way.

Dec 22, 2008

Been sick

Sorry for the lack of entries - I have been sick. I hope that I can post something interesting tomorrow.

Dec 17, 2008

More Fibbing

In a Japanese classroom the clock is always on the wall behind the teacher. I have asked many people about this but have not yet been able to determine why, other than that it has always been done that way. The clock position does not help the teacher time the class and its activities - the only valid use of time in the classroom - but it does allow the students to watch the clock as it slows to a crawl. I wrote the following fib about this.

front wall
hands moving
over the teacher's head
time slows for those who can see it

Dec 15, 2008

Two New Fibs

I wrote the following fib after a long unsuccessful battle with my cell telephone. I just could not get it to do what I wanted. In the end, I went to the shop where I bought it and ask them. After a number of long phone calls to a service center, we figured it out and I now can use that function. However, there are still many things that I do not understand.

cell phone
doesn't like me;
won't do what I want
and speaks only in Japanese

The second fib was written in class today. Masayo is sick and Naomi has a muscle problem, leaving only me and Tomone feeling well.

these are from the past -
the aware mind is always well

Dec 13, 2008

A Visit from Tomone

Tomone and Naomi have come to visit for a week or so. Tomo-chan is growing up fast. She can now crawl and can stand if she has something to hold onto. Just like her mother, she will probably start talking early. She seems to be well ahead of what the linguistics books say is average. Also she is growing physically. When she was living here, she was small for her age, but now she is average according to Japanese standards.
She has stuffed toys - characters from Winnie-the-Pooh - that she plays with for long periods of time. She concentrates for surprisingly long periods, so she can now amuse herself if no one wants to play with her.
I could not get her to smile for the pictures - she was interested in what I was doing. However, she seldom cries; hunger, dirty diapers, and pain being about the only cause. Most of the time she smiles.

Dec 12, 2008

Catch up

The mayhem is subsiding. I think I have all the syllabuses written and all the paperwork up to date, so that pressure is gone. I know I have corrected all the exams and the only classes I have left this year are on the next two Mondays and Christmas Eve, which brings me to my first picture.

The committee that runs our condo started putting up a Christmas tree, even though there are no Christians here, at least none that I know of. The kids love it. The think that it is very pretty and I have heard them telling their mothers how fantastic it is.

Christmas decorations are also up downtown. The next picture is Clis Road (I have no idea where the name came from, but it is a good research project for the future), part of a large T-shaped, covered shopping mall in the center of Sendai.

Changing the subject, the following two pictures show the main gates into two different Buddhist temples. Next year after I get back from my Henro pilgrimage, I am thinking of visiting, photographing, and sketching every temple and shrine in the area. There are hundreds of them so it will give me a reason to keep walking.

Dec 9, 2008

MIyagi Gakuin University

This is the campus of Miyagi Gakuin University as seen from the no-smoking room for part-time teachers. This is a Christian Women's university, which would seem to disqualify me from all directions. I teach in the English Department - Business English, Listening, and Conversation - and in the English Graduate program (Academic Writing one year and English Communication the next).

The university is quite old as can be seen from the classrooms.
I teach Business English in the above classroom. It is hot in the summer and cold in the winter, although they finally started the heat on the first of December. Last year they did a lot of construction, reinforcing the buildings so that they will withstand the big earthquake that is coming within the next 30 years or so. One interesting thing to notice is the floor. It is made of wood tiles, quite different from the floor at Tohoku University.
This final picture shows my Conversation classroom. I teach second year students and they are quite good. They spend most of the class time talking in small groups, activating the English that they have learned in other classes. Classes here are probably the most enjoyable that I have.

Dec 7, 2008

Visit from David

David is in Sendai for two weeks, visiting from Waga Waga, Australia. David is a poet and university professor who was here a year ago as a one-year guest faculty member at Miyagi Gakuin University. During that time, we frequently met after my Thursday morning class and talked about poetry over coffee. David was very incouraging about my efforts to write fibs.

Last night David and five others of the usual gang went to an Izakaya to eat, drink, and talk. During that very enjoyable evening, I tried out the camera in my cell phone, the one I will take on the Henro pilgrimage, under the difficult lighting in the little room that we occupied. The following two poitraits of David resulted.

The final picture shows Ian on the left and Gerry on the right. Gerry, who I do not think has shown up on this blog before, is a Scotish fly fisherman who plays the bagpipes but makes his living teaching English. As with the rest of us, his wife is Japanese.

In many Izakaya, the floor consists of tatami mats and the customers sit at low tables. This one has a feature that we all particularly like - there is a whole in the floor under the table so you actually sit as you would in a chair, not cross legged as on tatami. Also because the room was very small, the walls were immediately behind your back and you could used them as back rests.

I did not take a picture but a fairly disturbing feature of this particularly Izakaya was that the floors in the halls were made from some sort of transparent material, below which there was sand and objects that made it look like the bottom of the ocean. Thus, you felt like you were walking on water, or maybe air, a very eerie and uncomfortable feeling but interesting.

Dec 6, 2008

The joy of giving

A month or so ago a little girl, Anjyu, who lives on the first floor of our building was visiting with her mother. She was very interested in some of my pictures that we have hanging in the living room. Because of this, Masayo got out some of my pictures that are put away in boxes - hopefully, I will start selling them next year. Anyway, Anjyu saw a picture of a tree that I had drawn and very quietly said that she would like to have it. I said that I would think about making her a special one.

The original picture was a single round tree with flowers and individually drawn leaves, based on a photo from Europe. I had placed a birdhouse on the trunk and put my name and the date over the door.

When I thought about a picture for Anjyu, I realized that her younger brother had been there, too, so I decided to make a picture with two trees and a clothes line between them. On the clothes line there would be shirts with the names of the two children, Anjyu and Shui. I added a sign post with my name and the date to complete the picture.

Last night Anjyu and her mother came to our apartment to get the picture. After I gave the picture to her, she just stood and stared at it. Her mother put it away in the box that came with the frame, and Anjyu calmly opened it again so she could continue staring.

However, I think that I got more out of the act of creating the picture and giving it to her than she did from receiving it. It felt incredibly good!

This is a photo of the picture.

Dec 5, 2008

Tohoku Gakuin University

On Tuesdays I teach at Tohoku Gakuin University. This is the school that Naomi graduated from a couple of years ago, but she was in the Cultural and Linguistics Dept and I teach in the English Dept. I wanted to buy some art supplies so Masayo and I went to Musashi, the largest art supply store north of the Tokyo area. After that we, drove the short distance to our favorite pizza shop and had lunch. The shop is very small but the young master is an excellent cook and the meals are great. We had a salad, a pizza and desert for just over US$10. The master built the inside of the shop himself, including the over and a counter made from 55-gallon drums. The outside was apparently his work, too. This picture shows how little it looks like a pizza parlor.
After lunch, I went to Tohoku Gakuin University where I taught two classes. This picture shows the campus, all concrete. There are trees and grass around the outside but the main part of the campus is all concrete. I teach on the top floor of the second building on the right, just past the elevated walkway.

The following two pictures show the room in which I teach. Compared to Tohoku University, this is heaven - clean with lots of space to move around and observe the students. As you can see, there are individual seats for the student. Each one has a console with earphones, but I do not use this. I play a tape over the room's loudspeakers.

Dec 2, 2008

This week is one of only two weeks in which I have all of my scheduled classes. In all of the other weeks remaining in this school year (April to March), I have at least one day when the classes have been canceled or changed. In light of this I thought that I would show you the differences between the schools and the classrooms I use.

On Mondays I teach at Tohoku University, which is the national university and the most prestigious in the area. The students are academically the best. However, the school spends less on upkeep than any of the others. This is because of the way that the Ministry of Education budgets money, but that is another story.

This first picture shows the classroom to which I am assigned. I have two 90-minute classes during the first and second periods with a 10-minute break (8:50 to noon). For language teaching, or anything other than a straight lecture, the rooms are essentially useless. Because the desks are so close together, it is impossible to walk around the classroom observing the students and interacting with them. The teacher is forced to stay at the front of the room.

This picture shows the floor at the front of the room. The plastic tiles are falling apart and, although you can not see them, there are broken-off pieces scattered around. Also the wall needs painting. The really interesting thing is that they have just finished fixing up the buildings. I also should point out that there are almost no janitorial services. Oh, yes, the rooms are used for meetings by the student organizations in the evenings and the desks are covered with handouts every morning. If you look back at the first picture, you can see some of them, still on the desks after two classes.

This is the way the building looks from the outside. I teach in the right hand wing on the top floor. Most of the recent repairs went into the outsides of the buildings and on increasing the anti-earthquake protections, so the outside does not looks so bad. There are two other similar building and one new computer and LL building. The students have all of their first year classes in these buildings for the first two years, and then they move on to other campuses where they take up their majors.

This is a very bad system that pervades Japanese higher education - two years of basic studies and then two years of study of the major. For language teaching, it means that the students have English for two years and they they have two years in which to forget everything. Most studies show that the typical students leaves university at just about the same language level as they had when they entered. I must add there that Tohoku U. is changing, at least the language part, and beginning next year the students will have language in each year. Hopefully, it will improve things, but we will have to wait and see.