One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Futon

Right there, on the wall of my bedroom, was a cockroach.

I stared, frozen in disgust as it sat calmly on my wall – slightly camoflauged by the wooden perimeter that ran around the small room. Its spindly antennae moved back and forth inquisitively and I knew that it sensed my terror.

 

 

 

ゴキブリが大嫌い!!!

 

“Oh god oh god oh god oh god,” I repeated manically as if I had just found a dead body.

I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself down. My revulsion at this intruder had rendered me nearly useless. I was revolted and hysterical but for some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off the six-legged offender.

Composing myself slightly, I slowly made my way to the door of my bedroom. My bare feet pressed into the slippery surface of my tatami as I made my way out of my room. I hurriedly clomped down the stairs, causing a symphony of creaks and groans to fill the downstairs of my apartment.

I yanked the thin string of my ceiling light and it blinked slowly to life. A terrifying image came to my mind of a dozen cockroaches scattering across my floor, trying to escape the light. My friend Hermán’s words echoed in my head – “You know, I hear that if you see one cockroach in your house, it means there are about fifty more living there as well.”  How innocently he had relayed his little factoid – as if it were a piece of trivia we would hear and then file away for years.

Now, however, that was all I could think about. As I quickly made my way to the kitchen, I pictured an enormous family of cockroaches living in my walls. Zigzagging erratically across my floor when I wasn’t home. Having little cockroach pool parties in my mountain of unwashed dishes. Enjoying the cold air as they explored the inside of my wall-mounted air conditioning unit.

I held back a gag as I yanked open the cabinet under the sink. I kept a various array of cleaning supplies in here, along with my poison spray. I stared into the dark space with more than a bit of trepidation. If any place in my apartment was perfect for a huge family of cockroaches, I thought, it was most definitely this dark, cool space underneath my sink.

I snatched the can of poison spray and shut the door as quickly as I could. The design on the can was formidable looking and showed a red upside-down cockroach with a large X through it. The nozzle was apparently designed for heavy spraying which meant I would not have to be close to the offending insect.

When I got back to my room, I saw with a mixture of relief and dread that the bastard was still chilling on my wall, antennae swiveling back and forth on its gross, crispy head. I crept to the other end of the room and tugged my futon out of the way. I didn’t want to sleep in poison spray residue, after all.

Gripping the can in my shaking hand, I took a few more deep breaths. Your fear of bugs should not be this crippling, I chastised myself. It’s like four hundred times smaller than you are. And plus, you have poison. POISON.

As I psyched myself up, I began to feel an odd sort of remorse for killing the little guy. He’s only being himself, my emotional side chimed in. He’s probably cold. Maybe hungry or thirsty. And he just wandered in because he was trying to survive. Is that so wrong?

I stared at the cockroach again for a brief moment. Its black teardrop of a body was fairly large by cockroach standards. Its legs were jagged and almost hairy-looking. All the while, its incredibly long antennae wouldn’t stop moving.

I took a deep breath. It had to die. I wasn’t about to scoop it up nicely in a cup or with a piece of paper and kindly escort it out of my apartment. And I surely wasn’t going to let it roam free in the crevices of my place with the rest of its disgusting family. No, I decided firmly, this son of a bitch was going to have to be dealt with.

Readying myself, I tightened my grip on the can. My finger grazed the trigger and I steadied my aim. The cockroach’s antennae waved back and forth, paused for a bit and then continued to move alternately. I’m sure it sensed something was about to happen.

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Actual handrawn depiction of the events that transpired that evening

“Sorry, little dude,” I said, trying to sound simultaneously brave and apologetic. “You came into my house. I don’t wanna do this but you gave me no choice…”

I squeezed the trigger and a forceful spray shot out of the can. In the exact same instant, the cockroach leapt off the wall and flew toward my face. FLEW TOWARD MY FACE. Its wings made a sickening thump thump thump sound as they beat frantically against the air.

I let out a horrific shriek as I dove out of the way – something that must have sounded akin to a baby goat being attacked by a pterodactyl.

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Yes, my mouth really is that enormous

The newly-revealed flying cockroach made a sharp turn and crashed into the far wall of my bedroom. It fell on the wood perimeter of the room, safely off the tatami. Its spiky legs twitched, its body spasmed and, its (now obvious) wings flapped uselessly.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” I was now yelling. My finger was tight on the trigger, emptying far more of it onto the poor thing than was likely necessary.

It didn’t matter that it was now past midnight on a Tuesday. Or that the walls of my apartment allowed for every footstep, sneeze and snore of my elderly neighbors to be heard. Nor did it matter that said elderly neighbors and I had a fairly good relationship.

The only thing that mattered now was exacting revenge on this evolutionary freak of an insect that had taken me by surprise not once, but twice in the span of an hour.

After a few more seconds of adrenaline-fueled spraying and hysterical curse words, I released the trigger. The cockroach now lay glistening in a small lake of poison. Noxious fumes filled the area and I moved to crack open my window before I passed out.

Dramatically, I collapsed onto my tatami and covered my mouth and nose with my blanket. Nobody had told me cockroaches in Japan flew. I thought flying cockroaches were only a weird Floridian thing. What in the ever-loving christ was going on?

Before too long, I had a wad of far too many paper towels in my hand and I was standing over the insect again. Its angular legs kicked slowly against the air and my stomach turned in response.

Eventually, my heart rate slowed and my bedroom no longer reeked of insecticide. I had taken the cockroach in its massive tomb of paper towels and thrown it in the bag of perishable trash I kept in my freezer. I warily gave my apartment a final once-over before climbing the stairs to my bedroom again.

I don’t know what I would have done had I found another cockroach. Probably spend the night at a friend’s.

I verified that the walls, tatami and wooden perimeter of my bedroom were all bug-free before repositioning my futon. Shaking out the blankets diligently, I settled cautiously in to my futon, turned off the lights and tried not to think about where the cockroach had been before I found it.

 

*This is part of a larger story on my encounters with bugs in Japan. I hope to post more here sometime. Feedback is appreciated, as always! 😀 Do you hate bugs like I do? What’s your least favorite insect? Ugh.*

Tackling the JET Program (Part 7): Placements!

 

Hey new JETs, it’s that time of year again! After what feels like months of agonizing silence, you’ve finally gotten your placement!

I love this time because the internet explodes with curiosity, excitement and uncertainty. New friendships are formed as leaving JETs get in contact with their successors and vice-versa. The staying JET community is flooded with excited gossip about who’s coming next, where they’re from and what they look like (Yes, I’m serious. I dare anyone to argue with me about this).

This is a super exciting time as it means that you’re one step closer to moving to Japan! Having an assigned prefecture/city/town/island makes it all the more real. Ahhh!

Here are some tips that I found helped me when I first got my placement in the wonderful Kumamoto prefecture.

 

 

  •  Reserve your judgmenet about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ your placement is

When I googled Yatsushiro City, the only thing that came up was the depressingly barren Wikipedia page. I actually don’t think it’s changed at all since I last checked it three years ago. I learned about a giant pommelo fruit (banpeiyu) that is grown there, a festival in November…and the main shopping area that is ‘in decline’.

To be honest, I was a bit bummed. Where was this strange place that I was going to? All my other friends who had been accepted to JET were rejoicing in their placements that were only a couple of hours from Tokyo or Osaka. I felt as if I had kind of been exiled to Kyushu – far away from my friends and the big cities that I associated with being ‘REAL JAPAN’.

When I actually arrived in my city, however, I found it to be so much more than I ever expected. There were two giant malls, a gorgeous mountain range to the east and a port to the west. There were ample hiking opportunities, I was super close to a train station and they were actually building a shinkansen (bullet train) stop that was to be completed within the next year.

My point is: don’t put full faith in whatever you happen to scrape together about your placement on the internet. There’s really no way to know how much you’re going to like or hate it until you are actually there. Don’t be discouraged! It’s far too early!! 

 

  • Don’t compare yourself to other JETs and their placements.

I touched on this briefly in the last bullet point, but it’s important. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Especially those who think they know all about their placement. I had people at Tokyo Orientation practically bragging to me about being placed in X Y Z prefecture and how they were going to be so close to A B C and how they were going to do D E F every weekend.

Coming to Japan is exciting, it really is. I think that some people get so caught up in the excitement of it, though, that they start to fantasize they’re already living the life they’re dreaming about. It might sound great to be located only three hours from Tokyo. The reality, though, might be having to drive/take a bus 50 minutes through the mountains to get to the nearest train station in order to hop one of two daily trains that head that direction. Not quite as glamorous as it sounds.

If you compare yourself to other new JETs who are bragging about their placements before even getting there, you might start to feel unnecessarily bad about your own awesome placement. Pay them no mind. Just nod politely, maybe give them the ‘wow, cool!’ that they so desire…and then forget about it.

 

  • Start connecting with people ASAP!

I am a very social person. As such, I immediately began to scour Facebook and other social media when I received my placement. I discovered the AJET page for Kumamoto, joined it and announced myself. I was met with an incredibly warm welcome and instantly found myself put in contact with other JETs in my city or nearby. I then got to ask them all of my noob questions and, in the process, became even more excited about going.

I found in my time in Japan that, as a whole, the JET community is amazingly supportive and welcoming. Take advantage of this social network. In my experience, JETs in your prefecture are just as excited to meet you as you are them. Trust me 🙂

 

  • Reevaluate your expectations.

Surely, if you’re moving to Japan, you’re prepared for things to be different. But knowing your placement can solidify things you had been wondering about. Maybe you’re going to have to get a car and you didn’t think you would need one. Maybe you’re going to be a high school ALT and you really really wanted junior high/elementary. Maybe you’re going to be the only person in a village of 3,000.

I think that, applying to JET, many of us have expectations about what it could be like. When you get your placement, however, these expectations could shift slightly or be totally obliterated. If you were planning on being super close to Hiroshima because you studied there once…only to be found out that you were placed in Northern Hokkaido, you might have to reevaluate your expectations.

Like I said before, don’t get discouraged because things turned out different than you had expected/wanted. It’s important to keep an open mind and roll with the punches. Not only is it required almost every day as a JET, it’s quite possible that you will grow to love your placement more than you ever thought you could.

 

And that’s about all the advice I can think of at the moment! As I said, this is an exciting time and it’s a step closer to the reality of moving to Japan! Enjoy the time you have left while you prepare for your adventure!

If you’re a JET, where are you headed? If there’s anything else that I could maybe help with, feel free to leave a comment! And, if you’re headed to Kumamoto, congratulations!! 😀 

Ian Sensei’s Great Easter Egg Hunt

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It was the beginning of spring and I was going insane. 

The weather had given way from a miserably cold winter to brisk mornings and gorgeous sun-filled afternoons.  Outside, cherry blossom trees everywhere were in full bloom – their gorgeous pink displays lifting my spirits immeasurably.

As I zipped down the bike path that led to my school I was greeted with more smiles and ‘ohayou gozaimasu’s from obaachans than I had been in months. The hordes of biking students on their way to school also seemed much happier. They laughed  and even greeted me in English as they passed; a stark contrast to the winter in which we would both pass each other in frigid silence – cursing the weather and how difficult it made riding a bike. 

 It seemed that everyone in my city had collectively awoken from a grumpy winter hibernation. Like a caterpillar breaking out of its cocoon to reveal a smiling, colorful butterfly, spring had arrived and the ice from everyone’s psyche had melted.

 In Japan, the start of the school year happens in April. Students are mixed into new homeroom classes, able to choose what extracurricular activities they want to partake in, and former 6th graders don their spiffy new uniforms and prepare to venture forth into the intimidating world of Japanese junior high school. Because of this, the atmosphere at most schools is always abuzz with nervous, excited energy.

 During this time, students are not the only ones who experience change. Every year, a good portion of the faculty and staff are moved around as well. This can be as minimal as moving a fifth grade teacher to sixth grade or as drastic as removing them from the school altogether. Nobody is exempt from this shuffle – principals and vice-principals included.

 In my schools, about twenty teachers (give or take) were sent to different schools every new year. Sometimes they are sent to different schools in the city and sometimes they are sent to other parts of the prefecture (often with minimal time to prepare).

The reasoning behind this is baffling to me as an American; I can remember going back to see my second grade teacher when I was graduating sixth grade. She was still there, and hadn’t changed a bit. This rarely happens in Japan, however.

 I’m unclear as to exactly what the motive is for scrambling everything but I’ve heard it has something to do with keeping teachers and staff from stagnating in their current positions. Whatever the reason, it’s always a stressful time of year for everyone involved. 

For ALTs, it can be extremely stressful and a bit like playing Russian Roulette…but that’s a discussion for another time.

 With all of this excitement and change in the air, however, ALTs are usually forgotten amongst the hustle and bustle. At least I was at my school.

 During Spring Break, I came to work in the morning, sat at my desk and would literally do nothing all day. This torture was further compounded by the fact that I asked my supervisors, other teachers, and even the office staff if I could help with anything. I was politely told that no, they did not need any help but they appreciated my asking. 

 As such, I often tried to plan lessons but ultimately always ended up staring out the window of the staffroom and lamenting my boredom. 

 After the first few days of this cruel and unusual punishment, I could no longer take it. I would get up and walk around the school without any purpose or notice to anyone. The students, who were sometimes there for their club activities (yes, even during Spring Break!) were reluctant to talk to me. I realized how strange I must have looked, wandering the halls like some kind of foreign curly-haired specter. 

 Before long, I decided to do something. I had an English Board that I would meticulously decorate and update all the time. I would discuss American culture, holidays and the top songs on iTunes for the month. I would print out eye-catching pictures and write easy-to-understand descriptions for my students to read. It was largely ignored by both faculty and students alike.   

 Undeterred by the general lack of interest, I came up with a great idea. Since Easter was around the corner, I decided to get creative. I was going to do an Easter Egg Hunt. 

 Having wandered my school for a few days, I began to think of places I could hide my Easter Eggs. I began to come up with easy-to-understand English clues and, I soon had quite a list. The clues ranged in difficulty so that first years who may not have had great English ability had a chance to compete as well. 

 I procured several sheets of colorful construction paper from the office ladies (‘No we still don’t need help with anything but thanks for asking again…’) and cut out several ovals of varying sizes and colors. I numbered each from one to twenty four and labelled them simply ‘EASTER EGG!’. 

 My clues were transferred to a sheet of paper and included things like: “This is what you use if there is a fire.”, “This is where you learn to sing and play music.”, and “You go here when you feel sick.”. 

 Soon I was traversing the hallways excitedly, no longer plodding about like a zombie. Colorful eggs in one hand a tape dispenser in the other, I gleefully flitted from place to place hiding my eggs like a strange Easter bunny.

 Soon, the semester started and I, with my eggs all cleverly hidden could not wait.

 During the end of the opening assembly the next day, the vice principal asked if any of the teachers had any announcements. Everyone was a bit shocked when my hand shot up from where the teachers were sitting.

 “Er…yes, Ian Sensei, douzo…” he said as I padded across the slick wood floors of the gym in my socks.

 “Hello!” I said grabbing the mic and walking in front of eight hundred confused junior high schoolers. “In the United States, Easter is a big celebration in April.” 

 As I was explaining, my supervisor translated what I was saying. 

 “We do something called an Easter Egg Hunt!” I continued. “People hide colorful, hard-boiled eggs and children have to find them.” 

 “I thought that we could have our very own Easter Egg Hunt here!” I went on. The audience murmured excitedly as I told them how I had hidden 24 ‘eggs’ around the school. 

 “Read the clues on my English board and when you find an egg,” I said. “Bring it to me in the staffroom and I will give you a special prize!” 

 At the mention of ‘special prize’, the students broke into an excited clamor. What was this? Something fun being done at school? Was I going to give them money? 

 I thanked them, ended my speech and then sat back down as the crowd continued to buzz. The other teachers gave me confused stares and but I saw some grins among them. 

 An hour or two after the assembly had ended, a student opened the staffroom door and announced that he was there to see me. This hardly ever happened. Several teachers cocked their heads in confusion and watched as the boy approached me with an egg. 

 “Awesome!” I exclaimed as he handed me the red oval of construction paper. “Great job! Where was it?” 

 “Umm, under the bench,” he told me. It was the first clue that I had listed on my sheet: ‘Look under the bench in front of this English Board’ 

 “Ah,” I said. “Super easy, right?” He nodded in response. He was a fairly high level student.

 I had him write his name on the egg and then exchanged it for a pack of candy (Skittles) and a pencil. It may not seem like much, but in Japan, giving candy to students is sort of a no-no. I had neglected to tell any of the teachers this, because I knew I would be met with opposition. 

 Word got out that Ian Sensei was handing out candy and within a day, many of my students had turned in to mini-Sherlocks. I would see them roaming the school during lunch or looking behind pictures in the hallway on their way to their next class. 

 “IAN SENSEI HINT PLEASE!” they would shout to me if they saw me. I would just give them a grin and a shrug, thereby stressing them out more. 

Easter Egg Board

 During lunch, I would hang out at my English Board. I stapled the eggs that had been found to the board and crossed the number off of the hint list. If any students came by, I would help them with any hints that they were struggling with. It was great to see the spark of understanding in their eye before they dashed off down the stairs. 

 Some of the more challenging eggs were found quicker than I had expected. I had hidden them in clever places: under keyboards, behind paintings, in an English book in the library, taped to a fire extinguisher, folded into a metronome in the music room etc. I had also hidden one in each homeroom – taped behind the blackboard, tucked into a mounted fan, posted on a class bulletin board.

 Within three days, over half of the eggs had been found. I felt a bit like WIlly Wonka with his golden tickets. 

 Eventually the furor over Easter died down and the students returned to walking mindlessly through the hallways. I think that the grand total for ‘found’ eggs was about seventeen or eighteen – not too shabby. 

 As the school year continued to pick up, the excitement and energy faded away and everyone fell in to a routine. April came and went and I eventually had to pull off the Easter Eggs and make way for the next English board topic.
 
For many ALTs, this time of year is mind-numbingly tedious and unbearably slow. I was proud of myself for finding a fun way to beat the boredom, involve my students and introduce a (heavily edited) aspect of American culture all in one fun activity. I felt accomplished and it was a great way to start my final school year on JET.

 For any current or future ALTs reading this, sometimes the hardest part about teaching English in Japan is not doing anything at all. I definitely know the feeling of being ignored, overlooked and left to basically sit at a desk all day. It’s challenging to not give up and fall in to the ‘well FINE, I won’t do anything then!’ mentality. I myself am guilty of doing it many a day. 

 I think that during times like this, though, it can be invaluable to try and channel creativity in to something that can benefit your school and your students. Plus, it shows your colleagues that you really aren’t just an expensive office ornament.

In my experience from being an ALT, one has to be proactive and brave enough to just do something. If you ask if you can do something, most times you will be met with a teeth sucking noise (‘tsssss, chotto….’) and reluctance to try something new. But I’ve found if you just do something, you will often bypass all the beaurocratic fluff and bullshit. 

 The reason I wrote this was just because I was feeling nostalgic and Easter is coming up. I hope I’ve been able to entertain and inspire with this story. If you have any questions or comments, feedback is greatly appreciated! Let me know in the comments! 

Throwback Thursday: Jumping off a Perfectly Good Bridge

 

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Nestled in the mountains of Eastern Kumamoto lies a small village that is undoubtedly ‘inaka’. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains and not a conbini for miles around, Itsuki Village is effectively cut off from much of Kumamoto.

“Oh my god guys, it’s hitting me now,” one of my friends, Kay, says as we zoom up the mountain roads, higher and higher into the depths of nature. We all murmur our agreement and continue to chatter excitedly as the winding uphill road leads us closer and closer to our destination.

We’re jumping off a bridge today.

Outside the car window, the scene is beautiful. The early afternoon sun washes over the huge, stoic mountains that surround us. The rays of light illuminate the light pink patches of ‘yamazakura’ – mountain cherry blossoms that dot the landscape. The yamazakura turn the normally green mountains into a multicolored spectacle; as if someone has draped a patchwork quilt over them.

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“Is that it?” I ask excitedly. “I see a bridge!” I point down through a ravine where a large red steel bridge extends across two peaks.

“No, that doesn’t look high enough,” our friend Ren answers matter-of-factly.

I nod in agreement and my heart beats a bit faster. In less than two hours, we’re going to be jumping off of Japan’s highest bungy jump site. The little red bridge I have just seen is nothing compared to the one we are preparing to dive from.

Aside from a halted governmental dam project, Itsuki Village is not known for much, it seems. However when Bungy Japan, a New Zealand based company, set up camp at the top of its tallest bridge (77 meters/252 feet!), it quickly became a destination for thrill-seekers from all over Japan. Add in a promotional video of Kumamoto’s beloved vacant-eyed bear mascot Kumamon swan diving off the bridge and it’s no wonder Itsuki Village has experienced a recent boom in tourism.

Yeah, this really happened!

 

We see the jump site before we see the sign for Bungy Japan. It’s a massive, sleek stone bridge stretching high over a calm, babbling river. Surrounded by pine trees and beautiful scenery whichever way you look, it’s obvious why this site was chosen out of more than two hundred potential jump sites across Japan.

As we get out of the car and take in the scenery around us, excitement and terror hit me all at once. I gaze down into the gorge below and my heart jumps into double time. We hurry excitedly to the site and check in.

As we’re going through the motions – signing our lives away, being weighed, paying the 10,000 yen that it costs – the crew starts sending people over the edge.

The two employees start a countdown before the person jumps and the crowd of excited spectators eagerly joins in. I rush over and squeeze myself between two ojiichans and watch as the first person of the day (a woman who looks to be in her early twenties) prepares to jump. I see her do a kind of clumsy hop off of the ledge and it looks more like she is ‘falling’ rather than ‘diving’.

Nervously, I follow her figure down and soon the bungy rope snaps taut and her body is jerked like a rag doll. As she rebounds through the air, her arms extend outward by her sides and she is waving happily as she falls back down again. It’s hard to make out, but she is smiling. I think.

Breathing a sigh of relief that she was okay, I push myself back from the railing of the bridge. I wonder if it hurts when the bungy rope snaps you back up? From the angle I was watching from, it looked like a pretty violent jerk. People wouldn’t do it if it hurt, right?

We watch others take the dive and I note that some are braver than others. One man in particular keeps balking. We count down three times for him before he finally falls off of the platform unconfidently. Others are more gung-ho and leap off the platform willingly. I watch a fellow foreigner that I had just met from Boston jump off expertly. As he’s falling, his arms begin flapping like a bird in flight. I begin to notice how interesting it is to see the different styles of falling that people do.

Soon, I’m watching my friend Kay get strapped in on the platform and my heart is beating fast for her. She has decided to jump off backwards which seems insane to me. I watch her inch out on the platform in her trademark purple silk pants and bedecked with a flashy masquerade ball mask covering her eyes and nose. She is ready.

The countdown starts and right on cue she springs gracefully into an elegant backwards dive. Her back arches spectacularly and within seconds she disappears from my vision. My remaining friends and I applaud.

Not long after, I’m being told how to put on the harness that I’ll wear on my jump. I end up putting it on wrong and look rather foolish as it hangs loosely around my buttocks and crotch. After embarrassingly fixing it and tightening it more than I probably had to, I find myself being led onto the jump platform.

I’m sat in a small chair in the corner of the platform while the two workers get me ready. To be honest, I’m not really paying much attention to what they are doing as I am busy looking out into the ravine. Peeking over the edge, I see a tiny dot below that I’m fairly certain is Kay. I wave to her and after a few moments, I see her wave back. It’s…pretty far down. I exhale heavily.

The Bungy Japan guys are super cool about keeping my mind occupied – asking me questions about where I was from, what I did in Japan, what my plans were after etc. As they fasten the bungy apparatus around my ankles, they pull it tight and I find that I feel oddly secure and reassured.

Until I step up on the ledge.

Much higher than I expected.

Much higher than I expected.

Part of the bungy cord slides over the narrow ledge in front of me and feels like it is going to pull me down with it. My hands instantly clamp down onto the metal side railings just in case something were to go wrong and drag me screaming from my position of safety. At this point, my mind is obviously not in the most rational of states. I step onto the ledge and try my best not to look down. It is not as easy as I had imagined. I find myself struggling against my brain, which has activated Survival Mode and is not having any of that psychological bullshit.

“Alright, move forward a bit more”. One of the cool guys tells me. I inch forward a scant millimeter or so.

“Little more, mate. Put your toes riiiiight over the edge.” his coaxing, nonchalant voice instructs me as if I were putting the finishing touches on a bowl in a pottery class/easing me into a pose in a yoga class.

My instincts scream in protest but I do so, suddenly feeling my heart leap into my throat. Looking down to make sure my toes are okay, I catch a glimpse of the rocky bank of the river directly below me. Far far below me.

In this moment it hits me. I am really going to jump off this ledge.

“Fuu-hu-huuuck” I blurt out as I force myself to look away. “That’s pretty high”. I focus instead at the group of people on the bridge to my left who are watching me in anticipation. As instructed, I flash a nervous peace sign and a terrified smile at the camera man who is also waiting off to the side.

The guy who was helping me lightly touches my elbows and move my arms up into a horizontal position. I had not realized how hard I had been clenching the rails of the platform. Wrenching my hands off, I take a deep breath and hold my shaking arms out at my sides, feeling like the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Suddenly, the countdown behind me starts. It’s fast and I quickly realize there’s nothing else to do. I bend my knees, pull my elbows backwards and leap forward off the platform.

And my mind goes blank.

I close my eyes briefly – due to instinct more than anything else. When I open them, the scenery around me unfolds beautifully in my vision – the pine trees, the mountains, the yamazakura, the glistening river off in the distance. I feel weightless and for a brief brief moment, it’s like I’m flying. Then the sensation of free-falling quickly takes over and everything I see begins rushing by at incredible speed. It’s then that I let out an adrenaline-fueled scream of delight.

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To be honest, I don’t clearly remember the feeling of being snapped back up. By the time I realize that it’s all over, I’m clapping my hands and laughing hysterically; the sound of my dumb adrenaline-fueled cackle echoing through the mountains.

I pull myself upright to try and see the bridge but I am swinging underneath it and am only able to see the underside. I let myself fall back down and enjoy the lazy swing of the rope. I’m spinning slowly and it’s almost relaxing. Once again, I extend my arms out horizontally and let out another whoop of excitement. I can feel my heart pumping in my temples as the blood rushes from other parts of my inverted body straight to my head.

As I get closer to the bottom, I begin to see the upside-down figures and colors of the people who had jumped before me. I wave and speak to them, but realize that they can’t hear me. By this point, the blood that has rushed to my head has made me a bit delirious.

I continue laughing uncontrollably as the BungyJapan guy pulls me into the raft and unhooks me. With adrenaline still pumping through my veins, I stagger to my feet and feel the blood drain from my head again. On the banks of the river, I high five everyone who is there (maybe twice) and then eagerly wait for the next people to come down.

One of the reasons why I wanted to do bungy jumping was that I have also been skydiving. I wanted to experience the difference between the two. Skydiving, while exhilarating felt very protected. Of course jumping out of a plane isn’t the safest thing to do, but I mean that I was strapped to an instructor who did everything for me. He threw us out of the plane together, pulled the chute, guided the parachute to where it needed to be (he even let me steer!) etc.

But with Bungy jumping? You’re on your own. You don’t have a fancy dive suit. You don’t have goggles. You don’t have anyone strapped to you to help out. It’s just you and that heavy elastic cord tied around your ankles.

To watch people jump is totally different than the feeling of standing at the edge of the precipice getting ready to do it yourself. You are the only one who can throw your body off the ledge. The guys running it will not push you. You have to be the one to take the plunge. And I think that willing yourself to leap off a tall place with nothing but a bouncy rope for safety is the scariest, most thrilling thing about bungy jumping.

Once you do take the plunge, however, it is an incredible adrenaline rush. All of the fears and worries that you may have about it are completely erased as you’re falling through the air. I would say that there’s probably nothing like it.

It’s not clear yet whether Bungy Japan will be back again. However with the success that the past two years have brought, it might be safe to assume that they will. If and when they invade the Moto again, I recommend everyone to challenge their fears and jump off a bridge! You will definitely NOT regret it.

*I originally wrote this in the Spring of 2013. Feedback and comments appreciated! Have you ever bungy jumped? Did you have a similar experience? Different? Would you ever bungy jump? Let me know!*

Fall/Autumn/Otoño/秋

*This is an entry from my other blog http://curlyqshoo.blogspot.com and was written way back in 2011. With fall having come to Texas, I’m finding myself very 懐かしい (nostalgic) about Kumamoto and Japan as of late.*

As summer comes to a close and the bitingly cold winter prepares to descend on the Moto, I’m left to enjoy the brief autumn that happens here in Kyushu.

 On my bike rides to school, I’ve noticed that people have started wearing jackets. The school kids have begun to wear their fall and winter uniforms – jackets that remind me of Star Trek uniforms for boys and long-sleeved shirts and skirts for the girls.
 Whereas summer in Kyushu is full of vibrant colors that assault your eyes throughout the day, fall has somewhat of a different attitude.
 During the summer, the rice fields wave dramatically in the wind – a shade of vibrant green that I had never seen before coming here. The two blue rivers that I crossed on my way to school every day would sparkle brilliantly in the blazing sun. The mountains stood tall and stoic, glowing in their majestic earthy colors as the sun bounced off them, illuminating them so that they could be marveled at.
From this...

From this…

...to this :(

…to this 😦

However in fall, it seems that the HD!nature switch is suddenly turned off. The colors begin to fade as the rice is harvested, transforming the area into dull brown empty fields. The sun seems to get lazier and lazier as it reluctantly rises into the sky every morning, only parting through the clouds when it really has to.

There are still splashes of color, though. The persimmon trees are dotted with vibrant orange fruits that look very dramatic against their stickly backgrounds. Various flowers bloom dramatically, but they’re too late to the party. Summer is gone and the cold winter will soon settle in.

Along with the fading colors, I’ve noticed the decrease in the amount of insects. The mosquitoes die off pretty quickly and I don’t see many dragonflies. The flying insects in my apartment haven’t seemed to die yet, but I’m hopeful they will soon. However the spiders are another story.

The spiders seem to increase dramatically in size around this time of year.  What were once small, hungry-looking spiders on lampposts are now horrifically big and gnarly. Like…jaw-droppingly awful. As I ride by them, I have to contain the shudders that they elicit from me for fear that I’ll fall off my bike.

 Their webs are gigantic elaborate webs that hang about the lamppost in such a way that any unlucky flying insect will eventually be snared if it comes within a foot or two of the pole. Some even resemble spider web globes that envelope the empty space between the post and the actual light. Others still stretch from the light pole to a nearby bush or shrub some five feet away. This boggles my mind because the spiders would have to either work in tandem from either side or have some incredible acrobatic moves.

 I find myself unconsciously ducking whenever I see these incredibly feats of arachnid engineering for fear of being clotheslined. In reality, they’re pretty high up and I’m most likely  not in any danger, but I don’t want to take the chance of being snared by a low-hanging trap!

 I’m sure that the high school students that I pass on the morning think that I’m the most polite foreigner ever – bowing to them all the time. In reality, I’m trying not to get a face full of spider butt-floss and insect carcasses.

  Lately, the mornings have been cold but the afternoons have been nice and warm. I know that this is just nature playing a dirty trick on everyone. Last year, it was a lot colder around this time. I think it’s waiting for the right moment to spring winter on us (no pun intended).

 I’m enjoying the nice weather in the afternoon, but I’m constantly paranoid about the sudden drop in temperature. I know it’s coming soon. Out of nowhere, it’ll hit and the temperature will dip ten degrees! It’ll most likely happen at the most inconvenient time for me – like on a run to the conbini without my jacket.

 At least for now, it’s mikan season. And that always makes me happy!

Mikan!

Mikan!

 

**Also, I can’t fix the format of the first few paragraphs! It’s so frustrating! Can anyone give me any tips on coding/how to make separate paragraphs?! WP isn’t doing what I ask it to X__x **

Dr. Fish

 In Kami-Amakusa, Kumamoto, there is a place named Spa Thalasso. It sits among the gorgeous and rural landscape atop a large hill. A gigantic observation deck shaped like a sail stands next to the building. From the top, you can see across the sparkling Shimabara Bay and the view is breathtaking.

We pulled up to Spa Thalasso and the three of us (myself and my friends Chris and Melissa) got out to walk around and take in the view. After, we entered the spa to fulfill the task we had come for.

“There it is,” my friend Melissa pointed to a long tank at the end of the spacious lobby. We hurriedly removed our flip-flops and threw them into the cubbies that were provided at the entrance; I didn’t bother taking the slippers that were provided.

The three of us eagerly walked over to the low tank, my feet slapping happily against the shiny linoleum. Looking down into the water, I saw what had to be dozens of tiny silver fish darting through the water. “I didn’t expect there to be so many!” I exclaimed to Melissa. She nodded sagely and giggled. “Just wait.”

Of all the treatments that Spa Thelasso had to offer, Dr. Fish has to be by far the strangest. The first time I heard about it, I knew that it was something that I needed to experience.

The procedure is simple: you pay about ten dollars, place your feet into the tanks and the fish inside swim over you to clean (read: eat) off dead skin cells and whatever else they might be able to glean from your podiatric crevices. It’s very unconventional, possibly a bit unsanitary and, to me, very intriguing.

With a quick tutorial that I didn’t understand (how hard could it be?!),  the staff member sat me in the chair. I was ready to experience this odd pedicure – my first one ever. A bit hesitantly, I lowered my feet into the water. The fish scattered away immediately but then, seeming to realize that my feet were food, swarmed them. As soon as they latched on to my feet, toes and ankles though, I  immediately burst out in a fit of laughter.

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I overlooked just how incredibly ticklish I am. Ticklish to the point that it’s more ‘anxiety-inducing’ to me than ‘fun’.  So much so that I have no qualms about punching whatever unlucky fool thinks they’re being cute by trying to tickle me.

So what would possess me to do something like this? In the back of my mind, I’m sure my brain was trying to send signals about how bad of an idea Dr. Fish was. I, unfortunately, never got the memo.

I continued to erupt in laughter and before long, people in the lobby of the spa began to stare. Next to me, Chris was grinning and chuckling slightly “this is WEIRD!” he exclaimed. And it was. It was very weird.

Unfortunately, I could not stop laughing and squirming. A few times, I kicked my feet frantically, driving the fish from their dead skin buffet. At one point, I even had to take my feet out of the water because it was tickling so bad.

The feeling of them swimming all over your feet and grazing on them doesn’t hurt, but it definitely feels…strange. For me, it was almost torturous to feel the tiny fish nibbling between my toes and on my ankles.

The whole thing only lasted about five minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I have to say that afterwards, I didn’t notice any noticeable difference in my feet. Maybe they were softer? I couldn’t really say.

All in all, Dr. Fish was a very…interesting experience. I’m glad I did it and I recommend it to anyone who’s not afraid to try something new and strange! However, be warned: if you’re ticklish, it’s going to be tough.

Flying Fish

Image

Mud and Fish abound at the Kagami Mud Festival in Kumamoto, Japan!

Whether parading ‘drunk’ horses through downtown Kumamoto City or parading gigantic wooden phallises through the street, there is no denying that Japan has some interesting festivals.

In rural Kumamoto, the small town of Kagami has its own small festival every year in April. While the official name is ‘鏡が池鮒取り神事’, it’s known colloquially to the ALTs in the area as the Kagami Mud Festival.

As with other festivals and celebrations I’ve been to in Japan, I’m sure the mud festival has an ancient meaning or significance, but I am not completely privvy to it. All I knew was that there is mud. And it is thrown.

We gathered in Kagami on a colder-than-usual April afternoon. Walking past a shrine with an enormous tree, we made our way to the area where the festivities were taking place. The road beyond the shrine opens up into a small plaza of sorts that leads to a park across the river. Across a large hill is a bridge that overlooks a medium-sized manmade pond that rests in the middle of the plaza.

Children and some adults were loitering around the perimeter of the pond, excitedly talking with their friends or playing tag. Photographers dressed in heavy-duty rain ponchos were prowling around looking for the perfect spot to set up. On the hill we could see dozens of families waiting expectantly – lining the bridge like birds on a telephone line. They were at a safe distance from the madness that would soon ensue.

After watching a formal parade where children (and a horse!) carried a mikoshi (portable shrine) to pay their respects, the fun part began.

Suddenly, we heard the sound of several people chanting. Faint at first, the sound slowly grew louder and louder until the air around us was abuzz with excitement. The source of the noise soon revealed itself – a huge crowd of men dressed in fundoshi (Japanese loincloths) were marching up the street toward us. It was clearly obvious that they were drunk; aside from the fact they were actually half-marching and half-stumbling, the stench of cheap sake and beer radiated from them in a two kilometer radius.

As we watched the group of men inch closer and closer to the area like a drunken amoeba, people began to cheer and clap. The men came to a halt – as if they were stopped behind an invisible line – and continued to chant excitedly. I saw that one incredibly drunken man was being carried by two others.

Stamping their feet wildly, the group of semi-naked, drunk men chanted wildly for another minute or so before the loud bakuchiku (the firework that starts events) was shot into the air. As the deafening boom and subsequent crack-ak-ak! of the firework echoed through theair, the chanting turned into wild screaming and the men all rushed forward into the pond.

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The spectators cheered excitedly as the men screamed and splashed through the shallow water. Immediately, they plunged their hands below the surface as if they were searching for something. Suddenly, one man took something in his hands and flung it through the air. It landed with a wet smack on the ground close to us and immediately began flopping about wildly. It was a fish.

Apparently, the pond had been stocked beforehand with several carp of varying sizes. The object of this particular celebration was for the men to catch the carp barehanded and throw them out of the pond. While I’m not a member of PETA by any means, this was still a bit hard to watch.

No sooner had the fish crash-landed in front of us then a giggling child swooped in and grabbed it expertly. She brought it (still thrashing helplessly) over to a boy and deposited it into a plastic grocery bag that he was holding. Together, I watched them run off to collect the other fishes that were now littering the perimeter.

By this point, the shivering men in the lake had begun taking clumps of mud and hurling them into the onlooking crowds. They would take aim at people (especially children) and sling it at them full force. A few launched handfuls through the air, causing the mud to spread out in a filthy arc – effectively splattering a range of people, (and cars…and houses…) who were in its path.

The children waiting around the pond squealed in delight as they were hit by the mud and even began throwing it back at the men. Other children rushed around with more plastic shopping bags to collect the growing number of fish that had been ripped from their temporary home in the pond.

Eventually, the drunken, naked Japanese men began climbing out of the water with massive handfuls of gunky mud. It was like watching a scene from Night of the Living Dead as they began chasing children and adults alike. Commotion erupted as unlucky bystanders were pelted with thick, runny mud. One poor child in particular got it slathered all over his head.

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…and I mean ALL OVER his head.

The scene was, in a word, chaos. Fish were still flying through the air. Mud was being hurled in all directions and even the bystanders who had been a safe distance away were now being hit by it. Laughter and shrieks and drunken shouts of excitement filled the air as more and more men stumbled out of the pond. My friends and I scattered and regrouped multiple times, but it seemed nowhere was safe.

Within minutes, nearly everyone who was standing remotely close to the lake had some kind of mud on them. The men were becoming more bold in their exodus from the pond and were actively chasing people. A mud-smeared, wet man stumbled over to my friend Javier, his fundoshi soaked and droopy, and grabbed a hold of his cheeks playfully.

“IYEEEEEEIIIIIII” he screamed joyously as if he were talking to a child who had just taken their first steps. “IYEIIII IYEIII IYEIIII” he sang as he smeared mud rhythmically from Javier’s cheeks to his chin and then back again.

He then caught sight of me laughing at my friend. “Eyyyyyyy” he slurred and stumble-ran toward me.

The man stopped suddenly and looked me square in the eyes – his dark, glazed-over eyes trying their best to focus on mine. It was almost as if he were peering into my soul.

‘You want to get dirtyyyy’ his inner voice seemed to speak to me. I felt like I was underneath the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. ‘You don’t mind getting dirty…but you don’t want to get too dirtyyyy hmmm’.

Then, as soon as it started, the surreal moment ended and he snapped back to reality. His hands shot out quickly and he pressed his fingers to my cheekbones. With a cute “Ey!” he smudged mud on them so I sort of resembled a cat. Obviously pleased with his work, the man then grabbed my hand in a vigorous, muddy double-handed shake.

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With that, he skipped away to rejoin the other men who were still falling all over one another trying to catch fish.

Before too long, the bakuchiku sounded again – signaling an end to the mayhem. The men all climbed out of the water and the bags of fish were collected and taken to be blessed, grilled and then eaten (in that order).

As it wound down, a woman walked up to me and thrust a large greenish-yellow fish into my hands. “Check this out!” she said to me with an excited smile plastered on her face. “Isn’t this great?”

Have you ever held a clammy, writhing fish in your hands? Let me tell you it is not the best feeling in the world. She wanted me to keep it but I declined as politely as I could. She shrugged and chucked the fish back into her grocery bag.

The exact reason for this festival still eludes me, but I believe it has something to do with pleasing a god of some sort with fish? It is said that if you get hit with mud, you are to have a year of good health.

Whether you get muddy or not, this festival is just one of the many strange and fun events that seem to happen in rural Kyushu. For those who can read Japanese, here is a link to the event with a much better explanation than mine!

http://www.city.yatsushiro.kumamoto.jp/ar/article_view.phtml?id=18486

And for the record, I haven’t been sick yet this year!

Fellow readers, what is the craziest festival or event that you’ve been to? It doesn’t matter if it’s in a foreign country or not!