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.*

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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!! 😀 

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

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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!