By which I mean, he showed up! At 9:30 when I said 9! He was so on time, it was exciting!

Then, he fixed the disposal in about thirty seconds. Apparently, I should have asked my dad about stuff that might need fixing, because it turns out there is a reset button on disposals! I DID NOT KNOW THIS. And there is a wrench thing, and you make sure the blades are turning and then you press the red reset button and then your disposal is fixed!

Miraculous.

Now, my landlord did ask me about a reset button, but it was in the context of my saying “and the test/reset button on the outlet didn’t fix anything, and neither did the circuit breaker!” and I told him that there was no reset button dedicated to the disposal. It turns out that there is, and it’s located on the bottom of the disposal itself, and I just didn’t know it was there.

Hopefully I won’t be charged for this visit.

I popped into a ‘net cafe in Sendai first thing, mostly just to kill some time before my hostel opened and I could stash my luggage there. Sendai had surprisingly few options on the websites, and the place I ended up staying was clearly run by an older Japanese couple and while it was a business, they hadn’t really modernized much. I couldn’t even book online – I called them and managed to reserve a room in mangled Japanese. It was lovely though, particularly because they were virtually empty: I’d paid for a multi-person room, but I was the only person in it. It was spacious, and the heater was very effective. (A bit confusing though. They like kerosene heaters here, and I’m always a bit twitchy about my Press Random Buttons method of turning them on – I worry that they’ll SPONTANEOUSLY EXPLODE! even though that is of course extremely improbable.)

I hit the hostel at about 9am, before dashing off to hit the sites of Sendai. I made a mistake here, however. Toyama has been quite warm – almost 70 degrees. Kyoto and Nara were warm too, and so was Tokyo. Nikko was a bit chilly, but only when it was windy. I assumed, foolishly, that Sendai would also be nice.

Sendai was not nice. Sendai was freezing. Far from the 70 of Toyama, Sendai couldn’t have been above 40, and the lighter jacket I was wearing was definitely not warm enough. If I stayed in the sun, it was just about okay. Still, I kept on – I hit a museum full of bronze statues of naked ladies and heads, which was interesting but I did eventually want to find the artist and take him aside and say “Okay, yes, the nude form is lovely but it is mildly creepy that you have made so many naked lady statues. Have you considered clothed models? Surely the folds of fabric would make a new and exciting challenge!” I went to the site of the old Sendai castle, but it’s not actually there anymore. There’s also a museum dedicated to the history of the city. They’re very fond of their noble family, the Dates, and in particular the head of the family, Masamune. (The unofficial symbol of Sendai appears to be an onigiri wearing Masamune’s samurai hat, which had a distinctive crescent moon emblem on the front. It’s very cute.)

The city museum had free English audio guides, which was splendid. I learned about some guy who went off to Europe to bring back missionaries from Rome, though his efforts were thwarted when the Japanese government decided – in the middle of his trip – that they weren’t interested in missionaries visiting, Thank You Very Much, and were instead interested in executing Christians. So that failed, though they had interesting artifacts from his trip including a portrait of the Pope, various prints of the Japanese nobleman who went from European sources, and a beautiful certificate from the Vatican granting the nobleman and Date Masamune Roman citizenship. There were wooden cannons that apparently fired clay cannonballs, the armor of various of the Date clan, some beautiful old obi worn by one of the ladies, possibly Masamune’s wife.

My feet were kind of killing me though. I’ve mostly been wearing my Fuji Boots, for the extremely practical reason of “they don’t fit in my bags” but I did bring along a pair of cheap ballet flats and I’d taken my stop at the hostel as an opportunity to change shoes. This was dumb though, as the ballet flats have virtually no support, and were therefore uncomfortable after about 3 hours of walking.

To be fair, most shoes are uncomfortable after three hours of walking. But the boots are of course built for hiking, so even when my feet are sore in them it is a different type of sore that is easier to keep walking through.

I’d walked back into town because I was starving and also because I wanted to rest my feet for a while, only to find that the restaurant I wanted was closed – it was that awkward, 3pm-ish time between lunch and dinner. But the restaurant came recommended, so I grabbed a sandwich and a coffee and sat for a while reading a book I bought in England about the spice trade. It’s not something I read straight through, obviously – I tend to pick it up and put it down haphazardly, though of course it’s full of interesting information. Japan is essentially unrepresented however, due to their general policy of isolationism.

Awesome Spice Fact: the Aztecs believed that chocolate was improved virility and stamina, and not just in the bedroom. Soldiers going off to battle would be given little packets of ground cocoa to carry with them, so that they could make ‘instant chocolate’ when they made camp.

After I finished my coffee and my sandwich, I went off to find the Zuihoden Mausoleum, which houses Masamune and his son and grandson and also some later, unimportant Date lords. I got a bit twisted around here – my map, which was generally quite good, made it look as though I could take one road and it would be shorter, but after walking that way for some time and noticing that the sidewalk sort of petered out and so did the shoulder, I stopped a Japanese lady who was going the opposite direction to check. She essentially told me no, you can’t get there from here, and led me to the right path. (I think she thought I was lost, but I didn’t have the Japanese to tell her that no, I wasn’t lost so much as confused about which road was a viable path. But she was very helpful.) As it turned out, there wasn’t much to see at the mausoleum at all. The building which housed Masamune was closed off from the public for no reason I could see, but I looked at the outside of the buildings that held his son and grandson. Still, for a goal that included a long hill with a nearly 40 degree incline, it was disappointing. I assume it would have been more awesome if I’d been able to see the star attraction.

By this time, the Indian restaurant was bound to be open again – walking everywhere is a grand way to kill time without spending money, though it’s a bit hard on the feet and problematic when the weather is cold. The Indian restaurant was delicious, though not nearly as spicy as I’d hoped – I ordered a dish listed as “very spicy,” but clearly they were working with Japanese standards rather than Indian standards. I was hoping for something a bit hotter, though they came by to check it wasn’t too hot.

I always expect things to be hotter than they are. Ever since I went to My Thai in Chicago and was taken seriously when I asked for my meal to be “very hot” – and wow, it was painfully delicious but I loved it, it was like a hot pad sitting in my belly when I went out into the cold Chicago weather – I have been consistently disappointed by the lack of fire in other dishes.

Anyhow, after a very tasty curry, I walked back to the hostel – and by now it was dark and damn cold and honestly, I could have used that spicy hot pad – and turned up the kerosene and took a much needed shower. After the last two nights in busses, I decided to call it an early night, and to get up the next morning for a trip to Matsushima.

Matsushima is supposed to be beautiful, and I suppose it probably is when it’s not cold and rainy. But there isn’t really that much to see – there’s a temple, which was, you know, fine, but I’ve seen kind of a lot of temples recently and between Nara and Nikko they were far more impressive than Matsushima had to offer. There was a tea house, that was cold. And there were some little islands that were indeed lovely, but rainy and wet.

Also, it turns out I’m allergic to aspirin! Who knew?

This is kind of a convoluted story – it starts a month ago, when I took some aspirin early in the morning and went back to sleep, only to wake up an hour later itching like crazy and worried that my futon had somehow been infested with bedbugs. I was flushed with little white blotches and when I couldn’t find any bugs I thought maybe I was having some sort of reaction to detergent – aspirin never even crossed my mind. It was actually kind of nervewracking – not only was I itchy, but when I got in the shower to see if that would help, the steam made me so dizzy I actually fell over. But that passed and I had work to go to and so I ate an English muffin and went to school and had no more symptoms. And then I was in Nagoya and I had a headache and I took some more aspririn, and about 40 minutes later I was itching again, and my wrists were flushed and covered in little white blotches. I was of course worried that I’d get dizzy and fall over again, but I just told my companion about it and was like “I might need to sit down, clearly I am allergic to something.”

I still wasn’t connecting it to the aspirin, because I was so sure I’d had aspirin before as a child, and surely somebody would have noticed.

But I didn’t get dizzy that time, I think because no sooner did we get to the temple with the festival than I immediately bought a delicious Beef On A Stick and then a baked potato and both were delicious.

But then I had more aspirin at Matsushima, and bam what do you know, I was itching again, and I thought Oh, fuck, three times is clearly not coincidence. Three times is proof. But I remembered that in Nagoya the effects were much less severe what with the fair food, and that the first time the symptoms didn’t come back after my English muffin, so I ate some rice crackers and did not get dizzy.

I can live with the itching, if I have to. I really am not interested in the “falling over” aspect, which fortunately has not been repeated. Having something to eat seems to be the key.

Still, it made my trip to Matsushima a lot less pleasant, and then it started to snow, and I decided that it was time to head back to Sendai and do something inside. I ended up wandering around Sendai Station, which has a lot of shops inside, and then walking around the covered shopping roads. I looked down the uncovered roads lined with trees that are in some way special, but frankly, the trees didn’t have any leaves and that made them a lot less special than they might otherwise have been. I decided that I have, in fact, seen quite a few trees and I probably didn’t need to see these ones from any closer.

I called it a bit of an early night again – I didn’t feel like going out to a club, and I’d actually covered most of Sendai on the day before. I stopped off at the ‘net cafe again, this time without my own laptop, and was reminded of exactly how painful the internet used to be back when it was hideous and slow and so were computers.

Interesting fact actually related to Japan: miso has been found to be very beneficial to victims of radiation poisoning, which the Japanese have of course extensive experience treating. As a result, in an extremely kind but also helpful gesture, the Japanese shipped approximately a bahillion tons of miso to the victims of the Chernobyl meltdown. But miso is sort of a weird substance, made of fermented soy beans (as is natto, but unlike natto, miso is not hideously vile) and no doubt the recipients of the generous gift had a reaction more in line with “what the hell? than genuine thanks. Hopefully the Japanese included some sort of instruction, or recipe suggestion at the very least.

In Tokyo, I stashed my luggage again before proceeding to turn myself around crazily on the subway system and waste, oh, nearly an hour and a half. Eventually, however, I managed to make my way to Nikko, which is a little city on the outskirts, full of temples and shrines and monkeys.

I didn’t actually see any monkeys. I think they’re a bit outside the city itself, in the rural onsen. I’m quite sad about that, though everybody tells me that monkeys are often quite aggressive and tend to leap at people and steal their things.

There’s a brilliant deal in Nikko that involves a combination ticket and that saves quite a lot of money. I was tremendously pleased by this. Almost everything is included. I saw the three gold-lacquered buddha figures – one of the 1,000 armed Kannon, one of a lesser known buddha named Amida Nyorai, and one of Kannon with a horse’s head. They were very shiny. And large, though not on the same scale as the Nara Daibutsu, of course.

The Tosho-gu, a famous shinto shrine, was particularly beautiful. All of the buildings were extensively carved, in high relief, with beings both real and mystical. There were some dodgily rendered elephants which looked nothing whatsoever like an elephant, as well as birds and fish and dragons galore. One building is carved with many monkeys, including one small panel with the three monkeys warning against evil. (Bizarre truth: somehow I associated those monkeys with Christianity, but apparently I was entirely off base there. I’m very puzzled about that.) There is also a famous carving of a sleeping cat, beloved for it’s realism. It’s nice, but ultimately it’s awfully small.

Sadly, my camera battery conked out quite early on this day. That’s the peril of night buses – not staying at a hostel means there’s no place to plug in and recharge.

Awesome Nikko Fact: the Japanese have a tendency to do bizarre and masochistic things in the name of good fortune, and Nikko has it’s own crazy tradition. Every year, on the 2nd of April, the wealthiest men are invited by the local priests to participate in a festival called the Nikko Torment. During this ceremony, the wealthy dress like samurai and the priests dress like mountain ascetics. The priests present the wealthy men with enormous bowls of rice – larger than my head by a substantial margin – and then force the wealthy men to eat every bite.

I headed back to Tokyo, and thought I’d have time to visit and onsen (I needed a shower so badly) and hit up a net cafe and then make it to Shinjuku to make my night bus. But transport in Tokyo always takes longer than I think it will – often double, sometimes triple – and I decided as I was on the subway that I didn’t have time for an onsen, and then I realized if I tried to tote all my bags to the ‘net cafe I wouldn’t have that much time to actually be there before I had to start walking back. So I found a plug in the station, and parked myself in front of it.

It was actually the only plug I saw anywhere, and I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to be using it. A station person dashing by shouted something at me – not angrily or rudely, just informatively, but he didn’t stop for clarification. I thought I heard something about “security” – but I decided that rather than unplugging or even moving I’d just put my computer away and read my book instead while my phone charged discreetly, and that I’d do something more if they cam back and actually spoke to me. I managed to improve the charges on almost everything before getting on another night bus for a long, uncomfortably cramped nap. But Sendai was the last stop on that train, so I didn’t have any similar problems with missing my stop.

Japan, like most of the world, has a thing about threes – three tallest mountains, three most famous hot springs – and at Nara, Kamakura, and Takaoka are Japan’s three largest Daibutsu. Daibutsu are enormous buddha figures, usually cast from multiple pieces of bronze. The daibutsu at Kamakura and Takaoka are exposed to the air, while the daibutsu at Nara is enclosed in a large building. But more on that later.

As might have been expected, everything took a little longer on the 21st than anticipated. I woke up late – precisely at 10, actually, when my Friendly Japanese Housewife rang my doorbell so that the gas man could shut off my gas and return my deposit. This was unfortunate mostly because it meant that I didn’t get a shower – I did wash my hair, but the water was almost painfully cold. Still, I got everything done with time to spare before she came back at three with the landlord company’s representative, who made sure everything was in order and cleaned and very generously didn’t mind when my friend spilled my flower arrangement sending water and petals all over my freshly cleaned floor.

Okay, the story behind that is that my schools both gave me flowers, but my only vase was about 5 inches tall, so I ended up taking them apart and making a new arrangement and the vase, which I made, was actually quite unsteady so I’d balanced it in a bowl. There were two, actually – one was just the Gabarra (??) daisies which didn’t fit into the other arrangement well. Anyway, I’d set aside a bunch of things to give my various friends here – one got her things the day before, and the other I’d asked to come over on Saturday before I left. She must have tried to carry too many things at once – and she definitely tried to carry the arrangement by the bowl, rather than the vase – and it tipped over and spilled everywhere.

Key point I missed mentioning – instead of just chucking the flowers out, which weren’t anywhere near dead because of course I’d only just gotten them about 2 days before, I’d decided to give them to my Friendly Japanese Housewife because she was extremely helpful and generous. After falling over, however, they weren’t anywhere near as nice looking. But I’m sure she made a successful arrangement herself once she got home.

Between everything, I didn’t get on the train for Kyoto until about 5 – I missed the 4 o’clock train, unfortunately – which meant I didn’t get to Kyoto until about 8:15. I foolishly misjudged the distance between Kyoto Station and Marutamachi-dori (I was thinking maybe a ten minute walk, but in reality it’s more like a 40 minute walk and longer with luggage) and then I got a bit twisted around trying to find the actual hostel, so I didn’t get there until about 10. (Maybe 9:45. I wasn’t walking the whole way, there was some Waiting For the Subway in there too.) Anyway, I had to call the hostel and ask them to please let me in, because the website said they stopped taking people at 9pm. Fortunately, that seemed to be a very loose rule – the man who answer the phone assured me he’d wait for me, and didn’t seem at all put out when I got there. He probably just gives such an early time on so that he doesn’t get people rolling in at 2am.

On the 22nd I got up and took my stuff to the station and skipped off to Nara. It’s about an hour away from Kyoto, and the ancient capital of Japan. There are scads of temples there, but the most important of course is Todai-ji, the Great Eastern Temple. Todai-ji has plenty of attractions – a beautiful gate with particularly fine carved guardians from the 13th century makes a splendid entrance way – but the main attraction is the Daibutsu and the hall that shelters it.

Nara’s Daibutsu is the largest in all Japan, cast in bronze, and gilded. Some of the gilding has come off – and it may not have been gilded in entirety – but there’s still quite a bit on there. The hall housing the buddha is the largest wooden structure in the world, and is still only about 2/3s the size of the original hall. There are a couple of other statues inside, though none so impressive as the Daibutsu.

Interesting fact of the 23rd: there is an enormous pillar behind the daibutsu with a hole in it, which I watched a young man squirm through fairly easily. Legend says that those who can pass through the hold are ensured enlightenment. I didn’t try. But the real interesting fact is as follows: the hole in the pillar is precisely the same size as one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils. Now you know!

Nara is full of deer. They were once considered sacred, but now they’re mostly considered hilarious and cute. (I have some pictures.) They pester people for food constantly, butting their heads gently at people’s behinds or poking their heads through people’s arms to blink up at them with wide, liquid eyes. In many places, there are vendors selling deer treats – and enough people buying the treats to keep the deer satisfied. However, I imagine that if this were not the case – or on colder days when fewer tourists are present – that people unfortunate enough to be carrying their own food have the dubious pleasure of being mugged by deer. Having been mugged personally by a swan, I know that this makes a hilarious story later but is rather unsettling in the moment. And I was only accosted by one swan – when I bought the deer treats like the gullible sucker I am, I was quickly surrounded by at least five deer.

That night, I hopped on the night bus for Tokyo.

Night busses in Japan are wretched. Or at least the ones operated by 123Bus are. It’s a bit like flying coach, except that conditions are even more cramped. I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but apparently it is. Japanese people are quite thin, and the seats are narrowed accordingly. I am not, really, that large, but I filled my seat precisely to the edges. There aren’t tray tables, so the seats are even closer together. There is approximately no foot room whatsoever. Fortunately for my sanity, I managed to curl up with my coat and sleep the entire time, and actually almost miss my stop at Shinjuku because I didn’t hear the driver announce it.

It’s hard, in Japan, because people never seem to announce just the information I need. They insist upon burying it in a full sentence, most of which I don’t understand, and which therefore gets a bit tuned out. I tune out a lot of things here, though I’m sure I used to do nearly as much of that in the States. It’s going to be absolutely crazy to be back though – here, everything in English is something that Requires Attention. Relearning which things I can ignore is going to be disorienting and strange.

the flowers my school gave me are unbelievably strong smelling. it’s nice, it’s just a little … intense

My third years have graduated. It’s a much bigger deal than in the States.

My memories of junior high graduation are … well. There was some sort of ceremony, we stood on risers, we walked across the stage to get our diploma when they called our name. I think we practiced lining up all of once. I dressed like a tart on a dare. Mom worried that by disrespecting the ceremony I might alienate people, but I assumed – rightly – that I would essentially never speak to anybody from junior high ever again.

Here, it’s very formal. They take time off classes to practice the process – bowing precisely together, singing a few different school songs. They don’t shake hands when they get their diploma, they lift it above their heads and then bow much lower than usual. There was a speech by the principal, and a speech by … somebody, I think from the board of education. There was some kind of short speech from a student. It was surprisingly long (and I was at the smaller school) and the gym was freezing cold. All the teachers were in black suits, the ladies all had corsage-esque pins. I was slightly underdressed, because I don’t actually have a suit here – but I was in a black dress and jacket with a white collared shirt, and I put up my hair with my shell hairpin. One third year teacher was in a formal kimono. The men all wore cream or white long ties, except for the principal, who was in pinstripe gray pants and tails and I swear I am not shitting you, white gloves.

After the ceremony, they all stood around outside in the freezing cold, though teachers got to go warm up in the staff room. Until we were called back down, so that the third years could thank the principal for their education, and the band could play, and everybody could shout “BANZAI! BANZAI! BANZAI!”

It can’t be that big a deal, though. If it was, they’d have held it on a weekend – there were about three fathers present. I assume the others were working.

Today, the 17th, the 3rd years get their results for the public high school test. There are two types of high school in Japan: public and private. Depending on the region, there are different reputations – in many places, it is the private schools which have excellent reps and the public schools which are less desirable. The opposite is true in Toyama, though it’s not unique. Here, the school to enter is Takaoka Public High, and those are the results that came out today.

It’s important to get into the right high school here. If your school has a bad reputation, that makes it harder to get into the good universities – and even at the easiest, that’s pretty damn hard. People study like mad to get into university, sometimes taking several years before they pass the tests. But once you get in, it’s nearly impossible not to graduate – essentially, the opposite of the American system.

I don’t know what the kids have been doing all day, but those who passed the Takaoka test have been trickling back to school, to thank the teachers for their education and to be congratulated.

I’m a little sad about today, actually. It’s my last day at this school, and I was supposed to have four classes. But my teacher cancelled three of them, so I just had the one. Still, it went well. We played a game, and they seemed to enjoy it. They had a going away ceremony for me after lunch, and the principal said some things which I assume were nice before I got up to give a slightly altered version of the speech I gave the elementary school kids. I stumbled a little over the Japanese – I should have practiced again. After that, I proceeded to look like a giant moron, mostly because nobody gave me a rundown of the ceremony so I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. What they wanted: for me to stay on the stage while kids gave me a speech and a bouquet, and then look at the kids while they sang me the school long. What I did: try to leave the stage, on 2 separate occasions. And then I was looking at the girl playing the piano instead of out at the other kids.

It was very nice, and they all clapped, and nobody laughed at my Japanese – though I have the feeling that the kids here are too well behaved to laugh during a ceremony. Still, I certainly won’t miss not having things explained to me because the only people who can are otherwise busy, and just having to work things out on the fly.

It wasn’t remotely as cute as the elementary school ceremony, which was essentially the same except they didn’t sing a song. Also, instead of giving me flowers they gave me handmade mementos with comments from the kids and pictures and origami. It was all painfully adorable.

One of the teachers here is wearing leather pants. I would not actually have pegged that as appropriate school attire.

You know what’s not an effective use of that time?

Making the kids write lines

JUST A THOUGHT.

it smells amazing.

So I just had a tremendously successful lesson that I thought would be a TOTAL FLOP. I can’t take credit, it was all my teacher’s idea.

She asked me to find two comics – Snoopy, maybe, or anything I liked – so that the kids could rewrite the dialogue and make their own skit out of the images. I figured this would go over like a lead balloon, sort of like the poetry lesson did for all but one class.

BUT NO. Apparently, the humor of Get Fuzzy (I was using comics I could find easily, and I happen to have a lot of Get Fuzzy easily available) transcends the boundaries of language. I think it helped that I picked ones that had a lot of physical action rather than dialogue – it meant that their skits were generally very similar but on the other hand, they could basically understand the comic without the original words available.

Whatever the cause, they actually seemed to have a good time – and for the first one they actually almost made the same comic as the original!

I had to explain it a little to the teacher though – not the meat of it, but at the end there’s a “man behind the curtain” reference, which she totally didn’t get.

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