Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cars, Planes and Trains

The earthquake that struck Japan on the 11th of March has prompted many questions.  The biggest question…should we stay or should we go? 

A friend of ours left Japan the day after the disaster hit.  Since then, a not so small number of our friends have been leaving Japan in a steady trickle.  Many of them don’t know if or when they will return.  Some will not return. 

Last week, we made our choice to go home.  We will be returning to Japan though.  I am glad that we stayed.  The panic is subsiding.  I can find rice in the grocery stores again.  The trains are (mostly) running again.  Life is getting back on its feet.  I am no longer an anxious wreck. 

The choice to come home was a difficult one.  We knew that we wanted to make the trip…but we didn’t want to act irrationally from fear.  It was extremely challenging to maintain focus amidst the constant flow of bad news and uncertainty.  We did our best to focus on our jobs, our students- the reasons why we came to Japan.  We respectfully requested the leave to go home for a break and our co-workers and supervisors graciously agreed. 

The people at my Board of Education were, understandably, nervous when they learned we wanted to go back to our home.  They were seriously afraid we wouldn’t come back to Japan.  My supervisors assured them we would return.  We lessened the blow by canceling our vacation to Hong Kong next month.  Two major trips within a month…not so much. 

Fortunately, it is the end of the school year in Japan.  Graduations are underway.  The two-week long break starts this Friday.  Amazingly convenient.  Classes have already finished for Karl and me.  I spent today and yesterday writing lesson plans for the coming year.  But my mind isn’t here right now.  I am longing for the next twelve hours to pass  quickly.

Tomorrow, we leave for the United States.  Wake up at yikes o’clock in the morning. Walk to the train station.  Take a train. Catch an “Airport Limousine” (it’s just a coach bus) to Narita Airport.  Fly out of Tokyo in the afternoon.  A one-way flight to Minneapolis. 

(Side note: Our plane tickets are actually from Tokyo to Chicago. The layover is in Minneapolis.  We checked into getting direct tickets to Minneapolis.  They were one thousand dollars more expensive than continuing on to Chicago.  $1000! (!?) So we bought the tickets to Chicago and will just take carry on luggage.  Sigh. )

Karl might have to restrain me from kissing the earthquake-free ground of Minnesota when we step of the plane.

I am looking forward to many things on this trip.  Family, friends, relaxing, the Brewhouse, Charlie Parr, Lake Superior, shopping for clothes and shoes that will actually fit me, and definitely-definitely-eating lots of cheese. 

I love me some Wisconsin cheese.
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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fun Moments #2

Yesterday I spent fifteen minutes of lunch time arm and thumb wrestling second graders.  One of them beat me at arm wrestling. 


I guess I know what that means.  It's time to put together a serious exercise schedule.  And then do it...

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Fun Moments #1

I just have to let you haven't lived until you have spent cleaning time at a school in Japan with a two foot high broom-while perfectly dreadful band arrangements of Abba songs blare over the loud speakers. 

I love my job.
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Friday, March 18, 2011

A Week Gone By

Anxiety.  Terror.  Confusion.

A few words that come to mind as I reflect on the past week of my life. 

After the earthquake hit last week, my life-along with countless others-was thrown into turmoil.  We all have experienced different degrees of disarray.  I categorize my experience largely in the confused group.  I know that I am in a far better situation then a huge number of people here in Japan.  I am eternally grateful that my husband and I are safe.

That being said, it has not been picnic over here.  Articles are being thrown around explaining the toxicity of stress and fear.  We are 200 km or more from the major disasters wrought by the 9.0 earthquake and following tsunami and 125 miles from the Fukishima nuclear power plant.  Despite this, fear and panic have spread like a plague.

Fear and panic are exceptionally contagious.  As I have mentioned before, the Japanese people are typically calm and collected people.  Even in the face of total chaos, things continue to remain organized.  But organization cannot stop the powerful current of fear that is sweeping the country. 

It is difficult when put in a situation as traumatizing as this one to focus on anything else.  Television sets are constantly being watched.  Internet news pages are refreshed every few minutes.  People are desperate for news…more specifically: people are desperate for positive news. 

As if the devastation resulting from the earthquake, aftershocks and tsunami are not difficult enough to warp ones mind around...  At least these things are tangible.  Seeing and feeling things, although not always good, is much better than uncertainty.  Uncertainty breeds fear.  Especially regarding something that you can’t even see: radiation.

Since the troubles with the Fukishima nuclear power plant began last week, there have been an unprecedented number of articles written by journalists, nuclear physicists from MIT, bloggers (hi!), government officials… The problem is that these articles cover the entire spectrum of viewpoints.  The facts of the situation are continuously lost in the rhetoric of opinion. 

While this might be fine to deal with for someone far removed from the situation at hand, for those of us reading these articles to not only remain informed, but also to know how safe we are-the effects are taxing. 

Reading countless articles of widely varying opinions has been immensely exhausting and stressful.  Add to that the constant flow of emails and messages from loved ones pleading us to return to the safety of home, and you can just about have yourself a nervous breakdown.  I am certain I have lost five or more pounds in a week due to massive stress.  The closest feeling I can equate this to would be nerves I experienced before performing on the piano or before getting married.  Just make it negative stress and quadruple it. 

The emotional and physical responses to the events of the past week have been akin to a hellish roller coaster:  Tremendous headaches.  Spontaneous crying.  Muscles tied in knots.  Loss of appetite.  Acute hunger.  Rapid blood pressure.  Lack of sleep. 

That being said, we are (currently) relatively unaffected by the disasters themselves.  The biggest thing is the lack of train service.  The scheduled black outs.  The closed gas stations.  The Bare shelves at the grocery stores.  However, none of these are permanent.  Gas is delivered-but consumed in a matter of hours.  The same is true regarding food at grocery stores. The blackouts could continue for months. But they are only for three hours at a time. 

Even so, my mental health needs a vacation. My heart rate needs to slow down.  I have felt like a wreck all week.  Karl is a bit better than me, but he also severely needs a break. Not to mention how badly our families need to see us after this immense stress.

Perhaps going home is selfish.  Perhaps we are perfectly safe where we are-even from the winds that carry and disperse radiation.  Perhaps the fear and panic will subside. Perhaps the nuclear reactors will cool soon.  Perhaps the desire to leave is not rational.


But…who knows? 

It is for these reasons that Karl and I have purchased plane tickets home.  Our bodies demand it; our minds demand; our family and friends demand it. 

We leave Thursday, the 24th of March and will return to Japan after sixteen days.  Even as we are enjoying the company and love of our family and friends in safety; Japan and it’s people will not be far from our thoughts.  Our life in Japan has become a significant part of who we are. 

But are we looking forward to a break?

You bet’cha.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

...and there wasn't any rice.

I went to the grocery store yesterday, and there wasn’t any rice.

The afternoon of March 11, 2011 found me walking up to the second floor of Sakurazawa Elementary School in Yorii-Machi, Saitama, Japan.  The time was 2:44 PM.  As I walked with two of my fourth grade students into class, I glanced outside.  It had been a very nice, spring-like day in Japan.  The trees were beginning to bloom and it was warm.  The sun was shining.  But over the mountains in the distance, there were dark, ominous clouds hovering.  I was suddenly struck by an uneasy feeling…but I shrugged it of as I walked into class. 

I waved hello to my students as Takada Sensei set out their nametags.  It was 2:45 PM.  Class had just begun.  At 2:46 PM, I was faced with complete terror. 

We heard a rumbling that started out very small but grew exponentially within seconds.  Takada Sensei immediately shoved me under a desk and yelled to the students to get under their desks and cover their heads. I was experiencing my very first earthquake.  The noise was deafening.  The entire building was moving.  The trees outside were flailing about as if they were twigs.  Things fell to the floor.  

It lasted for five minutes.  Time seemed to stand still.

When the rumbling and quaking finally subsided, we attempted to carry on with class.  Announcements were made over the loud speaker, but I could only understand bits and pieces.  I stood there, in shock over what had just happened.  The students were frozen with fear.  Takada Sensei and I taught them some new words: scared and earthquake.  I explained that where I am from, we do not have earthquakes.  This was my first time. 

Then, the first aftershock came.  We flew under our desks for cover and waited.  My heart rate shot to the sky.  I had not yet begun to recover from the initial quake.  The first aftershock was just as awful as the initial quake.

Sirens began to blare outside.  The load speaker came on announcing that an 大きい地震 (ookii jishin-big earthquake) had just struck of the coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan. 

I walked downstairs to the teachers’ room.  Every teacher has a large metal desk.  The tremor had been so strong, the desks had all been jolted several inches apart.  Karl called to make sure I was alright.  All power had gone out where he was.

We sent the students home.  The teachers escorted them as they walked.  The wind was blowing hard, creating an uneasy feeling.  I was stranded at school as the trains had all stopped.  One of the teachers was kind enough to give me a ride to my company’s headquarters and I eventually made it home from there.  I was lucky.

At home, candles and plants had fallen to the floor.  We eventually fell asleep around 1:30 AM, only to be jolted awake several times through the night by more aftershocks and our cell phone earthquake alarms sounding.  I am still amazed I was able to sleep at all.

At 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011, Japan experienced an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude.  It was the largest earthquake in the recorded history of Japan.  We live approximately 250 km from the epicenter of the earthquake.  I have been told that what we felt was around a 5.5 or 6.0 level magnitude. Aftershocks continue even now, after several days have passed.  Several of these aftershocks have been 6.0 or higher.

The earthquake trigged massive tsunami that traveled throughout the entire Pacific basin.  Japan was, of course, hit the hardest.  They began immediately after the earthquake and continued all through the weekend.  The visuals Karl and I watched on the Internet and TV were and continue to be unspeakably devastating.  Living far enough inland offered us protection from the tsunami.  We counted our blessings, but our hearts were broken for the people we knew were suffering. 

And then a new emergency reared it's ugly head.  Japan relies heavily on nuclear power.   Many of the nuclear power plants were badly damaged in the earthquake. Circumstances deteriorated rapidly leading to multiple explosions.  Fear penetrated deeply throughout Japan.  Hundreds of thousands of people living near the power plants evacuated and continue to do so. 

There have been numerous remarks made regarding the calm composure of the Japanese as they face this horrendous tragedy.  While this is true, there are still traces of panic that reach hundreds of miles from the center of the disaster.  Gas stations are closed.  Entire sections of grocery stores are bare. Candles, flashlights and sleeping bags have all been purchased.  People are filling bathtubs with water. 

I was instructed to attempt getting to work throughout the week.  Both Monday and Tuesday I went to the train station only to find nothing.  No trains.  No taxis. Only a couple buses. I was stranded at home. 

The trains run on electricity in Japan.  Because of the severe reduction of power happening due to the damaged power plants, there have been scheduled black outs throughout the entire Kanto Region (this means Tokyo and surrounding prefectures-including ours.)  Many of these blackouts have been cancelled due to people simply using power more frugally.

I have been given a company car now to get to work until the trains are running again.  I am not able to park at our apartment because of a construction project. Therefore, I park by the train station in a paid lot.  This lot has a ticket gate that opens up to let you in and out. 

Well, the power went out this morning.  I got to the car and realized that I wouldn’t be able to get out of the lot as the ticket machine and gate were operated by electricity.  Fortunately, there was a phone number posted on the ticket machine. I called it right away and attempted, very badly, to explain my situation in Japanese.  The person who picked up knew English.  Relief flooded over me as I explained that I needed to get out so I could go to work.  He took down my information and called someone to come over and manually open the gate.  It’s a good thing that driving on the opposite side of the road doesn’t appear to faze me in the least.  I made it to work a bit late, but I made it! Being around people helps a tremendous amount when dealing with such a stressful situation. 

Almost five full days have passed since the earthquake hit.  Unfortunately, circumstances are still as confusing now as they were a few days ago.  Should we stay?  Should we go home?  Should we leave Japan?  Should we go to another area of Japan?  Should we stock up on food?  How do we help?  Where do we go to volunteer?  Are there other English speaking volunteers?  When should we volunteer?  Is volunteering even safe because of the radiation?  What should we do???

Breath.  Pray.  Hope.

Stay calm.
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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Spring Time Blossoms

Karl and I bought a sweet little bonsai tree the other week ago.  I think it is a cherry tree of some type.  Anyway, it is blossoming and it's so pretty!

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Saitama Train Museum

Last weekend Karl and I met up with some friends and visited the Railway museum in Saitama City.  I must admit, I wasn’t terribly excited or interested in seeing a bunch of trains, but it turned out to be well worth the trip and entrance fee. 

Imagine a gigantic room full of train cars. They had trains from as far back as the 1870’s.  The Emperor’s imperial coach train cars were on display.  There were train cars dating from WWII in which you were able to walk around inside and sit down.  There was the first generation of the Shinkansen-Japanese bullet train. 

 This was the cutest part of the whole museum. A baby Shinkansen in which you could take rides! Super cute.  

Plus, they had simulators.  You could “drive” a train yourself!  There were five different simulators from regular trains, to Shinkansen, to (the coolest one-I think) a steam locomotive. (You had to shovel the coal and everything!)  We watched some little boys in the steam locomotive.  They were just about hyperventilating from excitement.  

After our train museum adventures, we met another group of friends in Kumagaya to enjoy some nightlife.  The first place we went to was one of restaurants where you have to cook your own food.  It got a bit smoky from all the cooking meat, but it was still fun and definitely delicious.  The second place we went was an American themed bar that was inside an old train car.  We were apparently having a train themed day.  

The bar was called The Bourbon Club.  The train car had been separated into three different pieces and then reattached in a U shape.  We were all very excited because this place actually served Mexican food.  (It was the first place I have seen with Mexican food in Japan!)  It wasn’t the greatest, but it wasn’t too bad either.  

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Ota Horumon

A few months ago Karl taught his junior high school students what a dive bar is.  This happened because every Monday at the JHS, Karl gives a mini speech called,"My Fantastic Weekend," during which he teaches the students new English vocabulary and sentences while telling them what he did over the weekend.

Wikipedia gives an explanation for dive bars which you can read here. Well, in our quaint little town of Ogawa Machi, we have our very own dive bar called Ota Horumon.  And it's amazing. If you are from my area, think the Anchor. But, hmmm, how can I say this...the Anchor is a bit less gritty than Ota Horumon.  You'll see why.

Here it all it's dive-ish glory.
In Japanese "horumon" means intestines.  Yum.  You can definitely get all sorts of interesting things on the menu, but there is regular meat too.  The owner, fondly referred to as Papa-San, loves it when our group comes in.  He has been known to clear the reserved room for us. (Even if it was previously booked!)  Also, ever single time we go, he brings us a present.  A delicious, deep-fried present.

I mentioned the menu it is:

Yup. The menu is simply pieces of paper stuck to the wall with thumb tacks.  Classy.  But hey, it's gets the job done, right?

This is an eggplant dish that we order every time we dine at Ota Horumon.  After eating this, you don't need anymore more salt.  For the rest of your life.

So the food is great and the people are great.  That is why we go to Ota Horumon.  We do not go for the decor.  The ambiance definitely has...character, we'll say.  If you are easily grossed out, keep two things in mind: 1) Do not look up. This is why:

This is an air conditioner. And it actually does work. 2) Do not go to the restroom.  Hold it. I do not have photographic evidence of the raunchy restrooms, but I think that you can take my word for this one.  They are "squatters" and the smell is....well...I prefer not to think about it. 

Despite that, we do love going to Ota Horumon.  As I said, the food is great and the people are very fun. 

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