Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't miso it!

Just in case anyone still looks at this, or has stumbled upon it randomly and can't get enough of my witty prose and fabulous photos, head over to for more Japan adventures of a primarily culinary nature. Mata ne!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Extended Absence Greeting

As you may have guessed, there was a lot going on during my last 3 months in Japan, and not a whole lot of time to work on the blog. I don't know if I have the patience to get entirely caught up again, but I will try to highlight some of the major events.

For pictures of some of my latest traveling adventures both in Japan and back here in the US, please take a peek at my Facebook albums. More to come, I promise!

As far as being back in the States, overall the adjustment is going pretty well. My first week back, I struggled with jet lag and a bit of an identity crisis. But now I am back on AZ time and the US dollar, so both of those issues have been resolved. I really miss my friends and some of the freedom I had in Japan (own apartment, regular paycheck, no car!) but being able to explore a wider variety of career options, eat non-Japanese food at regular prices, wear a size M and reconnect with old friends makes me think that I made the right decision to come home. At least for now--Japan probably hasn't seen the last of me yet!

I am currently applying for some part time positions in tutoring, working as a volunteer in the Planning/Development Department to learn more about the field before applying to graduate school where I would like to earn a Master's in Urban and Regional Planning. Progress in this area has been slow, but it now feels like it is starting to come together.
I may no longer be in Japan, but this blog is far from over! Please check back for more updates.


We're not in Japan anymore, Toto!

"Welcome back to civilization"

That is a direct quote from the lady printing my boarding pass in Las Vegas for the last stint of my journey home from Japan. Um, thanks? I haven't really been living in a jungle or anything for the past two years...and if Vegas is what civilization is all about, I might have to rethink things a bit.

I had no idea you could see the Strip from the airport...but hey! why not?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Down with the 英語ノート!!

Teaching English in Japanese elementary schools has always been challenging. Most homeroom teachers don't speak much English, and would rather stand back and let the ALT teach the whole lesson. The least helpful ones grade papers during the lesson, use the time to leave the classroom or catch up on sleep in the back of the room (true story). This of course is not the picture the Ministry of Education wants to paint for the new ALTs who arrive every August. Instead, they give us all an outdated copy of "Team-Teaching Activites for Elementary School" which leads you to believe that you will always be the assistant, demonstrating the activities and modeling your flawless "native speaker" pronunciation.

This semester, my 6th in the Japanese school system, is the first time I have ever taught at a school where this sort of "team teaching" actually occurs in all of the classes. And, let's just say it's not as fun as it sounds. Sure, planning the whole lesson by myself and often providing most of the materials took some time, and yes, most days I would have appreciated more support from the classroom (appologies to the several enthusiastic and helpful teachers I have had the honor of working with. But I am afraid you are in the minority.) I blame a good part of blandness of this semester's classes on the evil 英語ノート:

This is not a textbook, at least not according to the Ministry of Education. Rather it's a "guide" for the 35 hours of English time 5th and 6th graders are required to have this school year. Well, it's a pretty crappy "guide." It's hard to see in this picture, but the open page is one of the first lessons, "Greetings from Around the World." Hmmm, OK, that sounds like a good warm up, what's next? WHAT?!? This theme is supposed to last for 45 minutes? For three full lessons? Spare me. Also, I was hired to teach English, I am afraid I can't help you with the pronounciations of "Hello" in Russian, Korean, Chinese, Mongol or Swahili.

Repetition is definitely essential to learning a new language, but having 5th and 6th graders repeat only the four answers to "How are you?" included in the book during two or three 45-minute English lessons is a really good way to have them hating English forever. I'm sure one 20 minute section on "How are you?" would set them up for life. When I taught this same lesson to 2nd graders, we did 8 different answers and they knew them all the next time I went back to teach. English is difficult, but these kids are much smarter than the Ministry of Education gives them credit for (just one frustrating aspect of Japanese education, catering lessons to the slowest students, so no one falls behind. The result: everyone is bored and doesn't want to participate, making them seem dumb when really they need more of a challenge.)

Today though, I had a really good time at elementary school. It was somewhat of an unusual day, instead of just me and the homeroom teacher in class, an English volunteer was also in the classroom. This particular English volunteer also teaches classes when I am not scheduled at the school. She is a master of lesson planning, and shares my dislike of the 英語ノート ("I don't know how to speak Russian!") Loosely following the lesson after "Greetings from Around the World" we practiced "How are you?" with a variety of skits, gesture games and chants. Don't tell the Ministry of Education, but we gave them seven answers to choose from! And guess what? They got it and appeared to have fun at the same time. I really think this particular English volunteer needs a promotion straight into the upper divisions of the Ministry of Education, or at the very least get paid for all the work she does for the elementary schools in her area. Exciting English lessons take a bit of time and effort, but are not impossible!

Since I am on the subject of school, it seems like a good time to share some recent amusing anecdotes.
Following my self introduction in 3rd grade two weeks ago, children asked many questions about the pictures of Arizona animals I had put on the board. Sadly, since most of them were along the lines of "How many scorpions are in Arizona?" I wasn't able to give them very good answers.
Today was the first time I've had a budding geologist in the audience. He asked two questions, the first pertaining to some rock called the "desert rose" and the second being whether you could take rocks from the Grand Canyon. No, you can't. It's a National Park. He seemed very disappointed.
The rest of the week was at junior high. The new batch of 7th graders are pretty annoying. I know they are only 12 and were in elementary school just two months ago, but they should know better than to talk while the teacher is talking and forget their notebooks everyday. It's time to grow up a bit...the collared shirts and neck-ties of their uniforms seem to have had no effect.
In 8th grade, we played "Scattergories" or at least a simplified version of it. I would announce the topic, and each group would write their answer on a small white board. The same answer was worth zero points. They did fairly well in categories like "breakfast food" or "something you can see at school," but had a harder time with "famous places" (I didn't know a "bookstore" was a famous destination.) By far the most challenging was "boy's name." The teacher told them it had to be a foreign name, not a Japanese one. The following answers were good tries, but sadly got their creators no points: "black peat," "Iverson," and "Brown." Thanks to Tiger Woods, we had to allow "Tiger" and the teacher thought we should be generous with the spelling, so "Bil"s and "Danieru" got points. I hate to say this, but I think they need to watch more TV!
After school, I spent some time chatting with part of the basketball team. I think only 3 of the dozen or so boys are my height or taller. One of the 9th graders is shorter than most of the new 7th graders on the team. But what he lacks in height, he makes up for in awkward, enthusiastic attempts at English communication. When I arrived in class recently, he greeted me with a "Hello honey!" and yesterday he was calling all of is friends "crazy faces" until one said he was a "playboy face." I am not really sure what that means, but it was enough to make the original taunter be quiet for a bit. Oh boys...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Food of the Philippines

Since the main Philippines post was rather technical, and it wouldn't be one of my travel reviews without talking about what I ate, here's a brief recap.

Dinner from the first night involved walking across the street to the fish market full of fishy smells and buzzing flies to pick out the catch of the day to hand to the cooks at the restaurant. About 15 minutes later, the following spread was put in front of us. Lots of garlic. Yum.

My preconceived image of the Philippines involved lots of fresh fruits. I was rather shocked to not eat any. The only fruit I saw for sale were whole watermelons on the side of the road. I did enjoy a fruit shake from the AIDFI coffee shop. Melon, banana, sweet potato and avocado mixed with milk and ice. Interesting, yet refreshing.

Possibly the most refreshing thing I ate the whole trip was the homemade peanut flavored ice cream bar purchased off the back of a motorbike near Mt. Kanlaon. Amazing. How these people live without ice and frozen confections in such a hot climate is a mystery to me. Bad picture, great popsicle.

At other meal times, a general rule of the more disgusting it looks, the better it tastes seemed to hold true. One example was a raw fish coated in vinegar entree I ate for one lunch, and the grey matter-esque banana flower salad I had at lunch the following day (see annoyingly sideways photo below).

Due to the hot, humid weather I was not as hungry as I usually am in milder conditions. But by my last night there, I think I had adjusted because when my dinner arrived, I was too ravenous to take a picture first. So what you see is the what was left of my chicken inasal (local specialty) and garlic rice. For someone who doesn't particulary enjoy eating meat off the bone, I think I did a pretty good job!

To further enhance the flavor of the chicken, we made a dipping sauce of soy sauce, juice from a small citrus and sawsawan. Sawsawan is a vinegar based, garlic, chili, ginger tonic. Everyone has their own recipe, often served in old liquor bottles. If I had any time to souvenir shop, I would have liked to have found a bottle to bring back. Delicious!!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Golden Week '09--Philippines

[Author's note: The following is a piece I wrote up for Green Empowerment, the group that was originally sponsoring the group trip. As you may or may not know, when the time came to book a ticket and actually put down some money, everyone in the group but me disappeared. Rather than pay $500 to cancel my ticket and sit in my apartment for Golden Week, I decided to go on my own. A gutsy move, which thankfully turned out really well. I feel so lucky. If you are inspired by the following, please visit Green Empowerment's website and make a donation!]

Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Incorporated (AIDFI) was a wonderful host for my five days in the Negros Occidental region of the Philippines. From the moment they met me at the airport to the very comprehensive schedule they prepared for me, I could not have asked for a better experience. During my time with them, I got to see first hand the many components of their organization in action.

DAY 1. Visiting ram pump sites
After Liloy and Roy picked me up from my hotel, we headed east out of Bacolod City to check on two existing ram pump projects. After driving for almost 2 hours on muddy dirt roads, swerving around overloaded tricycles, we reached our first stop. We were greeted by half a dozen members of the water association standing under the corrugated metal awning that served as the association hall. Roy explained to me that out of the dozens of projects AIDFI has implemented in Negros, this is the only community to build an association hall. Not surprisingly, the ram pump project in this community is well maintained; the result of a strong community leader and real sense of ownership among its members. After a brief conversation, we went to look at the pump. From the center of the community where we parked the car, it was about a 15 minute walk. The last 200 meters were a bit of challenge, weaving through trees on a steep, forested slope. We found the pump clanging away, providing the 45 members of the association with clean water for drinking and washing, 24 hours a day. After almost slipping twice en route to the pump site, it was easy to see what a difference having access to water close to home makes for the association members.

[Near the first stop. Many people in this area support themselves by raising roosters for cock fights. Apparently, buyers from Manila will come all the way out here to buy the best! I had never seen a cock farm before.]

We got back in the car and headed to stop two, a slightly bigger installation that serves 150 people who live along a four kilometer span of road. When we arrived at the leader’s house, there was no one standing out front to greet us. Closer inspection revealed there was no one home; my guides explained that everyone had gone into town to shop at the Sunday market. The walk down to the pump here was less treacherous than the first stop’s, but we did have to walk daintily around some large cattle that were also using the path. Since there was still one more stop on the agenda, we couldn’t wait for the association leader to return. As we drove back towards the main road, we passed several families walking back home from the market with huge sacks of rice and sugar across their backs.

[Stop 2--Wendy and a waterfall. And the top of a ram pump. That small blue cylinder makes a big difference!]
After a lunch break, we made our way to the last community of the day. We took the car as far as it would go on another narrow, uneven dirt road, then got out and walked almost a kilometer to reach the house that would host that afternoon’s organizational meeting. Since it was raining, everyone tried to fit into the small, dim living room, but once the rain stopped, the group, which was mostly women, went outside to better accommodate everyone. I couldn’t understand much of the content, but their excitement and enthusiasm was easy to recognize. After electing the officers for the new association, everyone signed their names onto a list, agreeing to help with the installation and maintenance of the ram pump, and verifying their understanding of the monthly dues. Dues would be around 20 pesos a month, or less than US$0.50.

DAY 2-3. Staying overnight in Mambugsay
The next morning, I met Toto, an expert in organic farming and composting, who accompanied me on the three hour journey to Mambugsay, south of Bacolod City. The community we visited is not only home to a ram pump project, but also has an organic lemon grass oil industry. Each member of the association has a small plot of land (usually under one acre) which they use to grow lemon grass. At harvest time, lemon grass from different growers is combined in the communal distiller to produce oil, which is then packaged and sold at the AIDFI office. On the afternoon I arrived, preparations were underway for processing a batch of lemon grass the next morning. These included removing the remains of the last batch from the distiller and chopping a few hundred kilograms of grass into short pieces so that it would fit into the distiller without being too bulky.

[Chopping. A few of the locals were afraid I would lose a finger, as was I until I got the hang of it.]

Next on the afternoon agenda was checking up on the composting program Toto had started the last time he was in Mambugsay. The existing piles were home to some disgusting looking white grubs, which meant they were progressing well and full of nutrients. The next step was to start a pile for another member of the association. Half a dozen people worked together to gather materials from nearby. We used dead lemon grass, green and brown banana leaves, chicken manure, and sticks and leaves from a cacao plant to form a cone. The outside layer was protected by fresh banana leaves. Toto said the pile should sit for 45 days, then be turned and left for another 15. At the end of two months, the compost would be ready to use. Using compost made of local materials is more economical and much healthier than spraying pesticides, and insures that the oil produced in the community can be sold with an organic label.

The next morning was spent back at the oil distiller. There was still a sizable mountain of lemon grass to be chopped, and the chopped pieces needed to be scooped into bags and weighed before they could be put into the distiller. All together, this batch of oil used about 200 kilograms of grass. The grass was poured into the top of the distiller. A fire was built underneath. As the grass heated up, it produced steam that was diverted into a separator. Once the steam cooled, it would condense and separate into water and the desired oil. Since water is denser than oil, it left the separator out of a spigot at the bottom, while the oil dripped out from one at the top. The whole process took about 3 hours, and at the end there was 1.2 liters of oil to take back with us to the AIDFI office.


DAY 4. AIDFI Office and TechnoPark
After seeing a few projects in person, I was looking forward to seeing the place where they started from, the AIDFI office. The office is located on a main road leading out of Bacolod City. Downstairs is a coffee shop and a garage where the technicians work hard manufacturing different components for the ram pumps and other technologies. Upstairs there are desks and computers where the director, community organizers and human resources department work. Out back is the TechnoPark, where several AIDFI technologies have been installed.

[Nifty map in the office of all the ram pump projects in Negros. On an adjoining wall, there was a map of the Philippines proper as well as a world map with similar pin points. Pretty amazing!]

[The TechoPark with AIDFI office in the back.]

On the day I visited, AIDFI staff led two groups of local college students through the park, explaining how each project worked and could be used to benefit communities in sustainable ways. After the tour groups left, I spent the afternoon working with Toto; feeding the pigs that produced the methane used for cooking in the coffee shop, sifting the substrate from the worm culture pen, and tidying up the grass and small vegetable garden. In addition to serving as an outdoor classroom for interested members of the general community, the TechnoPark allows the technicians to test their products right on site! Overall, I was really amazed by the efficiency of the whole operation. The TechnoPark wasn’t much bigger than a football field, but contained about a dozen different, yet complimentary technologies.

[I admit, this picture doesn't look like much, but it shows how much vertical lift one ram pump can provide with water falling from a height of only 1 meter.]

DAY 5. Mt. Kanlaon Area Projects

[Sugar cane fields and Mt. Kanlaon.]

Each day of my itinerary with AIDFI involved something different from the previous day, and the last day was no exception. Today’s agenda took us to three communities in the scenic area near the base of Mt. Kanlaon Volcano. From our approach on a rocky, narrow dirt road, the first community looked just like any of the other ones I had visited. But a short walk from where we left the car revealed something entirely unique—a community managed swimming pool! I was so surprised to climb up the stairs and almost fall into its clear blue waters. Clearly, quantity of water was not an issue here, although like so many other small villages, accessing the water involves a climb over steep, wooded slopes. This community already has a few ramp pumps which provide water for irrigation, so the purpose of today’s visit was to talk with the leaders about the installation of a small hydropower generator. While Liloy, Roy and Carl talked about the specifics of the project with community members, I jealously watched the younger residents enjoy the pool. The pool is a wonderful asset in the hot climate, and has the capacity to be enjoyed by members of neighboring communities, but the bad conditions of the roads in the area leave the pool under utilized.

[Young bathers, very curious about the random white person standing in the shade.]

Our next stop was at the home of a farmer, who like almost all of farmers in the Negros region grows sugar for giant corporations. This farmer though, has been specially recognized for his high yield crops. The secret to his success---growing organic! While we were there, we also got to sample some of his organically grown coffee. This farmer’s commitment to not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers has paid off with contracts with foreign companies. From what I understood, he was currently seeking organic certification with a distributor based in Germany. These contracts help diversify his income, helping to protect his livelihood if one crop fails.

[Coffee and chit-chat with the award winning sugar farmer.]

[A rare section of pavement. Where they were paved, roads were much too useful to be used solely for drying. Here you can see rice drying; in other places they served as basketball courts.]

The last stop of the day was to visit members of the AIDFI team who are currently living in a community and preparing the parts of a ram pump to be installed there. The community had loaned the technicians the use of an empty house to sleep and work in. Since there is no electricity, they were using a generator made out of an old motorbike engine to power the tools needed to manufacture the pipe connections. This is the kind of thing I would never think about, since I have always lived in place where electricity is available at the flick of a switch. This stop exemplified the commitment of the AIDFI staff to their work. The technicians had been working away from their families for a few weeks, and when AIDFI does projects in other parts of the Philippines, the technicians are sometimes away from home for more than month.

With AIDFI’s busy schedule, I feel very honored to have been able to spend a week with them. Reading about the projects before I went to the Philippines, it was easy to come to the conclusion that the work they are doing is important. But to actually visit the projects they have completed and see the enthusiasm in the communities were the work is just starting gave me a much deeper appreciation for what they are able to accomplish. The ram pump technology may be simple, and consist of door hinges and old tires, but it so much more than just the sum of its parts, freeing up precious time that used to be spent collecting water for other economic pursuits, family time and leisure.

[And to finish, a cliche sunset picture.]

Thursday, April 30, 2009

National Living Treasure

Yesterday Jamie and I met one of the "National Living Treasures" of Japan! His name is Manji Inoue, and he is a porcelain master. His larger pieces sell for just under $20,000!

You can look at some of his masterpieces here.

We met him at his studio/showroom in Arita, Saga-ken while we were out with Naoko sensei and Nakano san for a long over due "Girls Day." He was standing out front when we approached and asked me where I was from. When I said "Arizona," he commented on the hot weather and the large size of the airport in Phoenix. He then told us he has made some 18 trips to New Mexico to give special lectures, and often has to change planes in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Just as he was about to disappear into the backroom, we snagged him for a photo.
As Naoko sensei would say, it was "amazing" that we got a chance to meet him!