Monday, January 31, 2005

Dazaifu, Kyushu

This weekend we stopped at Dazaifu on our way up to Costco in Fukuoka. Yes, even in Japan there is Costco. Somewhat strangely, there are only five locations in the entire country and the first one was built in Fukuoka. There is also one in Hyogo, and the other three are in Greater Tokyo. Being addicted to bagels with cream cheese, every four months or so I get the itch to drive up to Fukuoka to get some. We're also able to pick up other favourites like cinnamon rolls, cheddar cheese, frozen strawberries and Prego or Classico pasta sauces.

So, on the way up we stopped at Dazaifu, which was the administrative capital of Kyushu a long time ago. The main reason to visit the city is to stop at Tenmangu temple, which is dedicated to the god of learning. As the school entrance exams are approaching, it is an important place for junior and senior high school students to visit and pray before the tests which will decide their future. Almost everyone of my grade nine students has a good-luck charm (omamori) on their school bag from this temple. The above picture is from a sandal shop on the way to the main temple.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Stereotypes and the Sunshine English Textbook

Kumamoto City uses the Sunshine English textbook. While it isn't the worst of the five Ministry of Education approved textbooks, it is rather bad. One thing that I never really noticed, but was brought to my attention by a student drawing a picture about Mario, the exchange student from Brazil, was his huge nose. My students were each required to write about someone: a friend, a pro baseball player, a family member or whoever. This student chose Mario. When he was writing his sentences about Mario they were along the lines of, "He is from Brazil. His friend is Li. He likes ramen. He has a big nose." This kind of surprised me, because some foreigners do have bigger noses than the Japanese, but should a government approved textbook really be propagating this stereotype?

The above picture illustrates this well. The main character, Yuki, arrives in Seattle to visit her aunt Mari and uncle Gorge. Both Yuki and Mari have small bumps for noses, whereas all the Americans (or other foreign travels) have huge noses! The only exception is the boy in the purple t-shirt, Andy. In the top corner Yuki is thinking, "Wow, there is nothing but foreigners! I wonder where my aunt Mari is." Well Yuki, you're not in Japan any more, you're going to have to get used to being surrounded by nothing but foreigners. In the lower right picture Yuki is thinking, "Ooh, I have a good feeling about Andy." Do you think they gave Andy a smaller nose than the other foreigners to make him more attractive to Yuki?

The following picture is from when Yuki visits Tacoma, not too far from Seattle. Here she meets Andy's uncle, a cowboy. What I can't believe is the size of his nose! What a beak! He then gives Yuki an improbably large sandwich. All my students think that this is a standard size sandwich in America. This is why ALL Americans are fat, and why ALL Japanese are thin. One of my teachers (who is overweight himself) brought in some pictures of his trip to Texas two years ago. He showed the kids pictures of his host family and of the steaks they ate one night. The steaks were as big as dinner plates! While Texans may eat big steaks sometimes, and his host family was all overweight, it is too bad because it really does add to the stereotype of fat Americans. Being Canadian, Eden's been asked a few times if Canadians are as fat as Americans. Often late night variety shows in Japan feature fat Americans stuffing their faces and spilling food all over themselves. Be glad that you're Japanese.

The last page from the first grade textbook I'll introduce is Yuki's conclusion of America. Having visited Seattle and Tacoma for a week or so, she concludes, "EVERYTHING is big here. Big houses, big yards, big hats... and big sandwiches!" What this basically boils down to is that Americans (and Canadians through association) are wasteful. We use more natural resources and are fat. Japanese people are efficient and thin. However, Yuki did enjoy her trip and her souvenir (omiyage) will be her many pleasant memories.

Monday, January 24, 2005

We'll be making our decent into JR Omuta Dust Port, please faster your seatbelts.

On our way to Hiroshima we had to change trains in Omuta, Fukuoka prefecture. In the waiting room we sat across from this lovely dust port. I'm never quite sure which dictionary someone consulted for some of these translations at bus and train stations, there seem to be an infinate number of different English names for rubbish or trash bins/cans without ever using the words rubish/trash or garbage.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Long weekend visit to Hiroshima

It's the new year and we've started our first week back at school. Eden's birthday was January 5th, and we celebrated it somewhat quitely in Kumamoto. The way Eden's birthday is read in Japanese is, "Ichi-gatsu, itsuka 一月五日" which is the first month, fifth day. However, a way to shorten this is to use the two numbers which make up your birthday, in Eden's case a one and a five. One in Japanese is "ichi" and five is "go", so Eden's birthday becomes "ichi-go" which just so happens to be the Japanese word for strawberry.

This past weekend we took advantage of the Seishun Juu-hachi kippu 青春十八切符 which is a hugely discounted train ticket for use on JR rail. The ticket cost 11,500 yen, about $130 CND and was valid for five days of travel using the local and rapid trains. Perhaps the best thing about these tickets is that they do not have to be used for consecutive days of travel and can be shared between people. The drawbacks are that they can only be used three times a year when university students have breaks and you have to ride the slow trains. While these trains are much slower than the bullet trains or express trains, they are also a fairly good way to see the country side, and for 2,300 yen a day it can't be beat. To plan your trip using a Seishun Juu-hachi kippu I recommend visiting This is the best site for working out train schedules in Japan and is especially useful because it allows you to select only local trains in your search.

So on Saturday morning at about 5:45 am we left the cold confines of our apartment and bicycled along the dark, empty streets to Kumamoto station. We were lucky enough to arrive early and boarded the 6:29 train for Omuta. Our fellow riders on the train consisted mainly of Tamana high school students who had to be at school at about 7am on a Saturday morning!

So we rode the train for about six and a half hours up to Miyajima in Yamaguchi prefecture. Miyajima is famed in Japan for the floating torii gate, and we used our time there to stretch, see the temple and eat some wonderful okonomiyaki. Perhaps the best I've had.

After that we boarded the train for Hiroshima and arrived in the early evening. The city had some interesting streets and the Peace park and A-bomb museum are well worth the visit. But it is pretty much like every other Japanese city: Same drab concrete structures, covered shopping arcades, and such.

The following morning we caught a 9:30am train for Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture because we wanted to check out the lovely five-arch bridge. It was definately worth the stop, and the castle on the hill above was fairly interesting too. After that it was a further seven hours to our cold apartment in Kumamoto.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Safe and sound

Sorry for not writing to everyone sooner. Eden and I are safe. We were never anywhere near the tsunami affected zones and where too far away to feel the initial earthquake. We're sorry to have left some of you wondering of our whereabouts and condition.

We do have several friends from Japan traveling in the region this winter so we have been quite worried ourselves, but it appears all of them are safe. Our hearts do go out to the families and survivors of the ordeal. As it turns out, we were on Patong beach in Phuket at that same time exactly a year prior. Then we were on the Phi Phi islands for the following few days. It's quite eerie thinking about it as we also spent some time diving, and I don't think there were any survivors amongst the divers.

Making popped rice at a town in the Mekong Delta.