Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
I’ve dropped reference to it a few times on Facebook and Twitter, but I’ve got to expound on my running routine and what it means to me. It’s become pretty important and has definitely yielded results, which has proven both good for my health and good for my attitude.
From an early age through most of high school, I hated running. Hated it. I liked playing sports but I hated the effort needed to run; I barely did more than was necessary because pushing my fat-kid physique past where it hurts was…well, painful. It took a real “ah-ha!” moment in high school to get past that first mental hurdle. Playing rugby senior year I got in the best shape of my life — not just from running but all-around physical conditioning. I felt fantastic.
That shape came and went during college, but my senior year I was again doing well since I was playing soccer pretty often. I still hated running for the sake of running, but I could go out and play soccer for at least two hours and not keel over dead. I weighed about 250 pounds, felt great…and within a few months had let that slip.
Over the following years I tried to go running and stay in shape at various points but with little success. I hit my nadir in the spring term of 2010 during MIM. After losing weight walking around Asia in March, I shot back up – and got as heavy as I’ve ever known. I would be kind and say 290 pounds, but that was through one eye on the scale. I can safely say it got higher than that and I probably cracked 300 pounds. I’m a big guy, but that’s far from healthy.
Big me soaring for a catch in the 2010 Portland Footy season. Image from Portlandfooty.com
It was around that time I got involved with the Australian Football club in Portland, now known as the Portland Steelheads. Aussie rules is a very different sport from any I’d played before but I took to it quickly, enjoyed playing the game, and made friends with others on the team. I have to thank Will and James for getting me into the club, and also all the others on the team for inspiring me to keep with it and get better. I even helped put together an off-season exercise and running game to encourage club members to go running (or to go play other sports), and to do it with others on the club. Despite not being in incredible shape there was never anything but encouragement from the club, and I really miss getting the chance to play having left for Japan.
It was from that running game I started to get the bug to go running in general. I started with really short intervals around the track at the Portland State gym, but after graduating, continued on the trails in the park near my parent’s house. To say I’ve changed my opinion on running is an understatement. I’m now running on a fairly regular schedule, and I’m also running farther and faster than ever. This time last year I never thought I could run 5K without stopping; now, that’s a short run.
This past weekend was my first ever road race. I have to thank my friend, Kim, who’s a veteran JET teacher and works in the next town over. She has been a great help in many regards since I moved to Japan, but she also pushed me to set a goal with my running. As soon as she found out I ran to stay in shape, her next words were, “you should do a race with us.” Kim and other teachers in the area have done running races in Kyushu before, and I was getting drafted into the group with (what was to me) a daunting challenge looming.
But reaching for the challenge proved to be well worth the effort. In August I would never have said I could do a 10K; now, I’m crazy enough to consider doing a half marathon in April. I’ll probably just do a 10K again but the thought exists and doesn’t seem unreasonable. I have the confidence to try and reach that goal, too.
I’m now under 250 pounds and continuing to lose weight and gain fitness as a runner. I’ve found something I really enjoy, an activity that's really easy to do all around the world and that is great for my health. I finished the 10K this past weekend under my goal time, and averaged 10-minute miles. Not exactly Olympic level of running, but for me, it’s an achievement. Sometimes you just need to get the ball rolling.
Japan has plenty of crazy things to drink. Not as crazy as China (snake wine!) but plenty of different flavors and tastes when compared to America. Some are just a little twist on something we know and love back in the States – beyond having the best name ever, Pocari Sweat isn’t really that different from Gatorade.
However, this nonsense is something else entirely. One of my friends in a nearby town spotted it at the grocery store, posted a picture on Facebook, and I knew I had to take the fall. So when I spotted it at my nearby convenience store this weekend, it was fated.
So it’s Pepsi Pink, “Strawberry Milk” flavored, and disgusting. It’s like a diet version of a strawberry Italian soda, but awful. And the milk aftertaste ranges between undetectable and undesirable. As if you couldn’t tell just from looking at it, it should be avoided at all costs. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, whatever. Just know that if you decide to take the plunge and buy one yourself, I warned you.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Sunday, October 9, 2011
It’s been a month since my last update, which was focused on my trip one month ago to volunteer in Ishinomaki. I really can’t believe how long that time feels, and that I’ve been in Japan for now two full months; it feels like six months have passed since I stepped on the plane in Portland. But I must keep my duties up and report on how life is here in Japan!
Hanami Walk, October 1, 2011.
While the volunteering experience was one gigantic chunk of travel and time away from (what’s now) home, since then I’ve tried to stay busy in much smaller ways. I try to get out of the house to meet friends a couple times every week, even during the working week; fortunately the train makes it pretty easy to get out of Dodge. Examples of this include meeting other teachers in Omura (the major suburb south of here) to go bowling on the cheap, going up to Sasebo to see another teacher perform her music live, meeting up to watch movies or just make dinner, and (yes) hanging out playing video games. It’s the little things sometimes that keep you from going crazy; for me in the small town it’s especially true.
Hasami Walk was a pretty fun and simple festival. Since it's a fall festival, scarecrows and rice paddies ready for harvest were all over the place.
Little things are nice but there have also been some bigger festivals and things the past few weeks, too. The weekend of my birthday was a walking festival through one of the nearby towns — little shops, stalls and things are set up as a path through a neighboring countryside town, and it simply provides a good reason to walk around and enjoy the countryside. Other ALTs who live in the cities or suburbs were definitely impressed.
Three weeks ago, we had a three-day weekend and it coincided with one of the big festivals in Nagasaki city, called Kunchi. I honestly can’t say I saw much of the festival — I went down to the big city on Saturday but I got out of the house far later than I’d anticipated, partially because I ran into a different event in my town…when they had the elementary and middle-school boys sumo wrestling. Yeah, you read that correctly. That same weekend was Oktoberfest up in Sasebo…where I finally had good beer in Japan. Bliss.
"Wait...what?!?" Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch theme park in Japan, because that makes sense.
Another funny thing about this area is the local huge amusement park. It’s not just any kind of park, either — I don’t think it has much in terms of rides and roller coasters, trading instead on culture. How? Because it’s Dutch themed. It’s called Huis Ten Bosch and is…interesting. It’s like somebody watched a bunch of Steves in Europe episodes from Holland and mashed them into an amusement park. I’ve been a couple times – once to see fireworks on a weekend when admission was super cheap, and once for the yearly wine festival. Huis Ten Bosch is also where I’m going to be running a 10K next month that I’ve been training for pretty regularly…I can now run 3 miles, and I’m trying for 4 this week. Still a little ways to go to make 10K, unfortunately. Another reason why HTB stands out for the local foreign community: Imported foods, especially beer, wine and cheeses. It’s the little things sometimes.
Sasebo Yosakoi Matsuri, October 22, 2011
I’ve been somewhat regularly to both large cities in the area, Nagasaki city and Sasebo. I go to Sasebo much more often because it’s a lot closer to where I live – 30 minutes or so instead of 45 minutes to an hour – and because it’s a lot smaller and compact. I can get to the main shopping district in Sasebo within a 10-minute walk from the train station, so it’s much more accessible. I need to explore Nagasaki some more – especially the major sites related to the atomic bombing – but it definitely feels more urban than Sasebo. After living in the countryside for a few months, the cities are starting to feel a bit overwhelming, which is a thought I never imagined I’d have. I love cities and I love Portland, but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve adapted to city life.
It’s hard to think of much more to write because everything seems to still be such a simple, natural transition for me. I’m learning more and more with every day in the classroom, and adjusting to other aspects of life — food, transport, etc. — as well. I guess it’s good in a way that things are so boring.
The one part where I’m both extremely happy and surprised, though, is how quickly I’ve fallen in with the other teachers in the area. I guess the best example was for my birthday — which I hate to publicize too much, it makes me feel far more important than my station in life deserves. I had “Happy Birthday!” songs in every class that day (thanks to my wonderful teachers), a wonderful dinner with close friends that night (yet more “Happy Birthday” and a cake!), and a party with two others who have close birthdays on Saturday night (drinking, “Happy Birthday,” AND a cake!). It was all a bit overwhelming in such a positive way; I can’t ask for that sort of appreciation, but I’ll sheepishly accept it.
Overall I just continually feel lucky to have this experience and this opportunity. Between applying in 2007, applying last year and going through the process twice, I had many chances to think, “Is this what I really want?” I will still probably hold off being definitive with my answer but it’s pushing towards “Yes.”
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Two things before we start. First, this is long — 1400+ words. I make no apologies for that. Second, let me paraphrase myself from the end: We do a good job in the first world of responding to crises, but the news spotlight moves on quickly. Six months may seem like a long time, but the healing in northern Japan is far from done. Support disaster relief efforts, wherever your heart may take you.
“I’m going up to Ishinomaki city in Tohoku to volunteer for a week.” I kept saying that the last few weeks leading up to my volunteer trip but, like with many things, I had no clue what it actually meant at the time. Not only was this my first time doing disaster relief volunteering, it was my first time doing so for an entire week, never mind being in Japan. Fortunately, despite some minor speed bumps along the way, the result has been fantastic: a true life-changing experience in many ways.
How did I get here? Six other JETs in Nagasaki prefecture organized the trip in accord with AJET, the national organization. We volunteered with Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO that spreads the message of international cooperation by traveling throughout the world on their cruise ship. They also have specialized in disaster relief, and have been helping coordinate efforts in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture since shortly after the March 11 disaster struck. Our group needed one more person, I pulled everything together last minute, and got prepared for the trip.
I took off from Nagasaki prefecture bright early on September 16th. Peace Boat trips meet in Tokyo, so the group of us caught various flights to the capital city and eventually met up at orientation in the late afternoon. After orientation and dinner, we met again in Shinjuku, near the Center Park, to embark on the night buses that would then take us up to Ishinomaki. Three bus loads of volunteers journeyed into the night - more than 90 volunteers going up for a week together.
I would apologize for the bizarre coloration of the picture, but it's my camera's fault, not mine!
It was about this time that I, frankly, got crabby. Tokyo was still hot, luggage is heavy, and buses are not ideal sleeping quarters. Rest was hard to come by. However, we eventually arrived at Ishinomaki Senshu University, where Peace Boat had a small tent village set up to house week-long volunteers. This was a little frustrating - we’re staying in tents?! That didn’t improve things much. After arriving and changing, we organized in groups and headed out for the first day of volunteer work.
My team was one of those slated to do beach cleanup. Since we got a late start to proceedings it was a short day, but good work - the beach we were cleaning was a major tourist spot and, importantly, we could tell conditions were improving at the end of the day. We collected trash on the beach, including larger logs, driftwood, etc. that had been sent everywhere during the tsunami. The mountain of garbage near the beach was a reminder of just how much work had been done already; the driftwood floating in showed how much was left. Other groups at our camp were involved in other ways - some helped move a boat that was still inland from the tsunami, others untangled nets and worked with salvaged fishing equipment. Peace Boat is there to help, but they coordinate every day with groups in the city to see what work is needed. It can be a bit exciting and “giri-giri” - last minute. After returning to camp I walked with other Nagasaki JETs out to the nearest convenience store; this would be a recurring theme. I don’t remember when I went to bed that night, but it was well-deserved rest.
On that first day, I didn’t bring a long-sleeve shirt or a hat to the beach; of course, I got sunburned. I packed accordingly for day two, Sunday, but halfway through the day I was out of gas. Since we work outdoors in the summer sun, Peace Boat leaders and our group leaders are worried about heat stroke and hydration. I think that was a part of it, but I was also drained emotionally - I’d been on the move since 5 am Friday, I was doing hard work in one of the cities hit hardest by the tsunami, and it was all a bit much. It was definitely a “what have I gotten myself into” moment. After taking time to rest and drink a ton of water, I worked more in the afternoon, and things got a bit better from there.
Our camp ground was out in the sports fields at the university, and as such we didn’t exactly have normal bathrooms. We had restrooms (which were like posh port-a-potties) but no showers. However! Volunteers there had the chance to go to a large local hot springs facility three times during the week. Success! Cleanliness! Nothing like a hot shower and hot springs bath to raise morale. The complex had the baths plus a restaurant, gift shop, open rooms, and a small market and convenience store attached - all the trappings of civilization. Perfect. After the trying afternoon, this was a welcome change.
Monday was fantastic, another day of working on the beach but with cooler temperatures and overcast skies. For this Portland boy, the weather felt just like home. It was also on the third day that communication and relationships started smoothing out a bit. My group had another JET from Nagasaki, two others from different prefectures in Japan, and a bi-lingual Japanese team leader - I was the only guy. We got along well quickly but communication and building relationships with other groups took time. Card games and chats during break time broke the ice; by the end of the week, we were one much larger group instead of disparate teams.
The plan began to shift on Tuesday. The weather began to worsen as a typhoon approached. Some groups only worked a partial day Monday thanks to wind or rain, while mine was held back Tuesday morning and given a break. Work shifted inside for the afternoon, as we made jewelry out of slate tiles normally used for roofs that were recovered after the tsunami. And then the decision was made to abandon the camp site and move to another facility used by Peace Boat - a former clothing factory cleaned up by Peace Boat after the tsunami whose owners let the group use it as housing. Having a roof overhead and more communal space helped bring everyone together; riding out a typhoon together didn’t hurt things, either.
Wednesday we worked for a short time indoors, helping a fishery to clean cans recovered after the tsunami; the other group continued with jewelry. That only lasted half the day before we returned to our base thanks to worsening weather. The weather only got worse throughout the evening as the storm grew stronger; we never lost power, but there was cleaning done in the evening for water leaks and preparations to clean in shifts during the night. Fortunately that was canceled, as it would’ve meant waking at midnight and 3 am to help with the efforts.
After the storm, on Thursday we set out to downtown Ishinomaki to help clean up after the typhoon. We broke up into our teams and tackled different areas of the city, cleaning up trash and other stuff that had floated loose during the typhoon. This part of town was still in a really bad way from the March 11 tsunami, and the heavier-than-expected typhoon weather was not helping anything at all. The river was still swollen badly from the tsunami and now rose even higher; streets flooded a good bit as well. We had to stop and pull back in the afternoon, as rains made some areas impassable or dangerous for volunteer clean-up.
The JET Groups - the Nagasaki seven, two girls from JETs of African Descent, and our two Japanese team leaders.
On Friday, we packed up from the clothing factory, spent one last day cleaning at the beach, and made a final return back to the university for our last night. Only half (or even one third?) of the group had worked at the beach, so it was great to introduce the others to “our” working spot. It’s a beautiful stretch of coast, kind of reminiscent of the southern Oregon coast to me; our Japanese advisers kept saying that we could help raise spirits in town by cleaning the beach for use, and it’s hard to disagree.
By that last night I was glad to be done with work, but not terribly ready to leave. It was nice to not have to do more work, but I had finally started to break down barriers with the volunteers and get to know them. Many were Japanese college students, and others were also quite young; it was great to meet many peers and make connections. For many of the Japanese students, it was probably the most time they’d spent with Americans or other westerners at all; some had studied abroad, but all were receptive to talking and suffering through my Japanese. Importantly, I’m of course now closer with the group who came from Nagasaki, which is important.
By the time we returned back to Tokyo, the goodbyes were tearful. We’d bonded as a group doing necessary work to lend a hand to people who still desperately need assistance. Ishinomaki still needs help, and Tohoku as a whole still needs help, too. I’m glad to have gone and helped out; I might have to go again next year. To my JET friends: if you’re thinking about it, go. It will be amazing and rewarding in ways you can’t imagine. To my friends back home in the U.S.: it doesn’t matter whether it’s Japan, Haiti, New Orleans or anywhere else, disaster relief and aid is important, and though we’re good at reacting, we tend to forget things quickly. Try not to forget after the initial news has slid out of the spotlight, because recovery takes time.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
First, a little about my town. It’s located in Nagasaki prefecture and is right on Omura Bay. Nagasaki is in the north-west of the island of Kyushu, which is one of four main islands of the country - Hokkaido is the farthest north, Honshu is the long main island that stretches a ways, and Shikoku is the little island just saddled under Honshu. Honshu is also where the mega-cities of Tokyo and Osaka are located.
Kyushu is an interesting microcosm of Japan. While it’s almost subtropical, there are also really big mountains - like the rest of Japan, it’s very hilly. Roughly 10 percent of the population is here, and roughly 10 percent of the GDP comes from here too. To make comparisons even starker, there’s one big metropolitan area (Fukuoka), a couple smaller ones (Kitakyushu, Kumamoto and Kagoshima), then a lot of countryside...just like much of the rest of Japan.
Sorry for the geography lesson but it’s important to understand how that’s shaped where I am now. I’m not in the big, bright lights of Tokyo or Osaka; I’m out in the countryside, with rice paddies and tea fields galore. Nagasaki city feels like a really large town when in actuality it’s “only” 400,000+ people, which Portland trumps pretty handily. The city of Portland alone is a little bit larger but the metro area is over 2 million people, which is more than Nagasaki prefecture in total. Moreover, though the name Nagasaki has immediate impact to American ears, it’s not a major city within Japan; however, living a bit on the outskirts is pretty normal to me as an Oregonian. It’s home but hardly New York City or L.A.
And let me say it again: My town is small. Tiny. Roughly 9,000 or so people live here. I joke with other Nagasaki prefecture JETs that it’s the low ebb of civilization on the train line between Nagasaki and Sasebo, and I’m not far off - the next town either direction is bigger, and they get bigger as one continues into either city. I haven’t lived in Sonogi long enough to really pass judgment, but it’s an interesting trade-off.
While Japanese geography has its charm I’m sure more people are interested in what every day life is like. First: it’s hot. Summertime is really hot (after a brief respite of days in the upper 70s it’s rocketed right back up over 90 degrees) and its pretty humid, too. Walking anywhere you feel okay but as soon as you stop moving you get what one British JET described as the catch-up sweats. You stop and it’s like somebody turned on the tap. Hell, I get them just walking to and from work; no wonder I’ve got the A/C on so much.
My apartment was super furnished when I arrived but it’s still taken time to adapt to living in it and making some improvements. Step 1: putting up the posters, pictures and stuff I brought with me. Step 2: getting my wireless adapter working after receiving my Internet modem last week. Let me know if there are aspects of daily life you’d like to hear about; I’ve adapted to so much so quickly already that things seem pretty normal already.
Importantly, most all of the Japanese people I’ve met have also been incredibly nice and accommodating so far. I still feel like I’m struggling a little with the language sometimes, but people help either to translate or simplify something so I understand. I’m coming out of my shell in terms of feeling afraid to make mistakes in Japanese or speak perfectly every time, which is good, because I botch what I’m saying all the time in English and it’s rarely such a problem. Importantly, people go the extra mile and help out even if I’ve just met them - already I’ve been driven home a few times after events. Maybe it’s just me cashing in all the times I drove people home over the years, who knows, but it’s a reminder of the nature of humanity and generosity.
Same goes for my fellow JETs, too, who have been welcoming straight away - both the other newcomers like me or the returning veterans. Apologies if I’ve said it before but it’s fantastic to already feel like a member of a community. I’ve been able to go out and be active every weekend, and even get together with others on weeknights from time to time too. It really helps that summertime is festival time, allowing ample opportunity to get together and share the whole "holy crap we're in Japan now" experience.
And that’s life in Japan at the moment. Beautiful spot of the world (weather aside), fantastic people, the opportunity to do something wonderful and to have ample time to explore and grow as a person...I’m incredibly fortunate.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
This was originally started as a blog for a journalism class at the University of Oregon a long time ago, and older posts reflect my usual interests (cars, video games, music), but from here on out I'm invisioning this as a "hey guys Doug is living in Japan and here's what he's up to!" site. Which is fine; there are many like this, but this one is mine. My friend Julia from the Portland State MIM program has been running her own site in the same vein on living in Shanghai. It kind of is The Thing To Do in this situation, but screw it, I need some place to write.
Plus many friends said I should do this, so here we go.
On July 30, I took off from Portland and through the magic of the international date line, touched down the following day at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, Japan. Let the JET Programme begin in earnest! After collecting baggage, we piled onto buses - I say "we" because groups from Toronto, San Francisco, and a couple other cities landed around the same time as the Portland group - and headed into the city. I was a little taken aback at how dark Tokyo looked this year; last March it was lit up like a Christmas tree, but with "sendetsu" (electric savings) being a necessity in the wake of the earthquake and nuclear issues in March, so goes the neon. I roomed in Tokyo with two others from Portland, Jim and Ken, who are now in Tottori and Niigata prefectures respectively. Dinner and early to bed was the result of the first night.
The JET Orientation began in earnest on the first full day, Monday. Keynote speakers! Presentations! Lots of jet-lagged people stuck in suits or formal wear! Rooms without windows! The orientation itself was alright, but god, after flying over the last thing I wanted to do was sit in a suit in rooms without windows. We could have been in Japan; we could have been in Spokane for all I was concerned. On the first night we also had a huge reception where we got the chance to talk with more people from our prefecture. We'd all met earlier in the day but that was so formal and official. Even better, after the reception, word spread around - "8:30, lobby, karaoke." That was all I needed to hear.
The second day, Tuesday, included even more presentations and lectures about teaching and adjusting to life in Japan. In the afternoon, we were instructed how our travel down to Nagasaki prefecture would go on Wednesday; we also had to drop bags off Tuesday evening so the buses could be packed and ready to go. Tuesday night I wandered around Shinjuku (the district of Tokyo we stayed in) with my roommate Jim, finding dinner and wandering through the huge electronics shops. We also went to Uniqlo, a huge Japanese clothing chain; I think their largest size of shirts might just fit me, which is great news.
Wednesday was when things really got going. Up and out to the airport in the morning, a nice quick flight from Tokyo Haneda down to Nagasaki, and...here you are. This is where you live now. I was picked up from the airport by my supervisor, Okaki-san, and my predecessor, Sho. From there it was a whirlwind tour of my new little town - the Board of Education building, the town hall, photos taken for my Alien Registration Card (aka "gaijin card"), even more. It was a touch overwhelming, to be honest; getting to rest in what was now my apartment was a welcome respite. That night I also had my first "enkai," or party, which was hosted by the Board of Education and had other top figures in the town there.
Thursday and Friday featured tours of the schools where I'll be working in a couple weeks. One of the best moments was at Sonogi Middle School, where I'll be spending the most time. Though it's the summer break, school clubs and groups still meet; the baseball club and a brass band were both practicing when we visited. After meeting the teachers (including the English teacher), we (Okaki-san, Sho and I) came back outside and the kids gave Sho an impromptu performance and show of their appreciation. I think he almost cried; I wouldn't have blamed him.
Since then I've been working at the BoE on weekdays and hanging out with other JETs in the area on the weekends. The first weekend included a trip up to Sasebo to see the Seaside Festival and fireworks; last weekend included an all-you-can-eat and drink party in Omura, followed by traveling south to Nagasaki city proper for the Obon festivities on Monday. Tomorrow I'm going up to a beach party north of Sasebo. Gotta keep busy! All the other JETs I've met, whether in my group arriving this year or returning ones, have been great, interesting, wonderful people.
Apologies that this is so long and there aren't any pictures; once I get an Internet connection at home, that will definitely stop being a problem.