Sunday, September 27, 2009

Miracles (and universal health care)

As much as I talk about some of the more minute details of my every day life here in Japan, I rarely choose to share about truly personal things here. So I debated for quite a while about whether or not to actually publish this post.

But for me this has all been such an incredible display of God's miraculous workings that I feel compelled to write about it, even though I'm not 100% comfortable making this public knowledge.

To start at the beginning...

Around the end of February I got a call from my mom informing me that my dad was seeing a doctor about heart problems. At the beginning of March I got an email from my dad with the results from an angiogram: 3 arteries blocked 95%. Shortly after that he was scheduled for a triple coronary artery bypass surgery on March 20th at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

The timing of the surgery coincided with spring break in Japan, but I had long since made arrangements to meet a friend from Vancouver in Anaheim to watch a Colorado Avalanche-Anaheim Ducks hockey game. Our accommodations and flights were already arranged. My parents insisted that I not cancel the trip, but after getting advice from several friends, I decided to extend my vacation to fly to Toronto from Anaheim (Los Angeles, actually) and to spend a few days at home before returning to Japan.

My father's surgery ended up getting canceled on the day of and re-scheduled to March 26th. As a result, he had only just been released the day before I arrived back in Mississauga (March 31st). (Just getting back to Toronto ended up being an adventure in itself since my flight to Denver was canceled due to snow--yes, snow at the end of March!--and I ended up having to spend a day at LAX waiting for another (but at least it was direct) flight to Toronto. Luckily Cecilia was able to pick me up even though I came in early in the morning on the 31st instead of on the night of the 30th as originally scheduled. And thank goodness when I bought my phone in Japan I made sure it would be able to work in North America as well!)

But it ended up being a really good thing that I did come home because the night of the day I got back, my dad was coughing a lot and couldn't sleep all night. So the next day (April 1st) I went with him to the doctor to get something to help him sleep.

But after taking the medicine, he still couldn't sleep. I had gone out to run various errands at this point, but my mother called the doctor who said it'd be OK for him to take a couple more of the pills. He did, but he still couldn't sleep. Then he started getting hyper-active and was coughing/wheezing a lot. My mom made an appointment with his doctor for later in the afternoon, but after I got home and observed his behaviour for about an hour or so, we (my mom and I) decided to take him to the doctor right away.

When his doctor examined him, it turned out that he was having difficulty getting oxygen (so oxygen deprivation was the cause of his giddy behaviour) and the doctor called an ambulance. At Mississauga Credit Valley Hospital, my father was put on oxygen and had his vitals monitored, but other than that we were just waiting for hours for a doctor to see him and assess his condition. During this time my dad's behaviour was still very erratic, his breathing continued to be laboured, and his chest (around his stitches) started bleeding a lot. It was a really scary time. I mean, we were in a hospital so if something went wrong there were people nearby to deal with it, but the waiting and not knowing what exactly was going on was nerve wracking. Plus there was the added stress of having to stay strong and calm/collected to reassure my father and to be a support for my mother.

It was fairly late in the evening by the time a doctor came to see him. After all that waiting, the diagnosis was that they were going to send him immediately (by helicopter) back to St. Mike's (i.e. where he'd had the surgery). So my mom and I, plus my aunt went home to quickly pack up our stuff and then my brother Nathan (who had come down after work) drove us all to his place downtown. We went to St. Mike's to see my father briefly before going back to my brother's place to sleep. (I also sent a frantic email to my supervisor in Towada, Mukainakano-sensei inquiring about the possibility of extending my stay in Toronto to deal with this latest emergency.)

The next day (April 2nd) my aunt went to see my dad in the hospital in the morning, allowing my mom and I to sleep in a bit longer. She reported that he'd been able to sleep and seemed to be in stable condition. When I went in around noon (?) he was being seen by doctors. They were drawing a heck load of fluid from his lungs--which is what had been causing all the problems.

When I was finally able to see him, he was lucid and in pretty good spirits. Still, I was worried enough to call Mukainakano-sensei to discuss the possibility of staying longer in Canada. It seemed like a lot of hassle and the doctor anticipated that my dad would be released again on Saturday anyway, so my parents convinced me to stick with my original itinerary. The rest of that day was spent at the hospital with a dinner break at a restaurant with my mom and brother.

The following day was back at the hospital (although my mom did go to work for a bit). Just before I was scheduled to go back to Mississauga (I was flying out the next morning), I managed to find time to research Netbooks (I'd been wanting a new, more portable laptop for some time), and I ended up going to Best Buy with my mom to pick one up. I went home with Cecilia and was able to spend time with some of the BSGE ("Best Small Group Evar") crew on my final night in Mississauga. (And bless her, Cecilia was also there to take me to the airport early on Saturday morning.)

When I got back to Towada I got the news from my mom that my dad had been released without any additional difficulties on Saturday. After that, in phone conversations with my mom and dad and reading my dad's blog, it seemed like everything was going well.

And when I went back in the summer for WAY camp, even though he had lost a lot of weight, my dad looked pretty healthy and was working hard to eat healthily and to exercise regularly without over-straining himself. It was a good summer back home and I left very much relieved at the state of my father's health. (Although I did get a bit worried when I saw that he was doing camp, photography at a local city councilor's BBQ and H&A's wedding photography all back-to-back.)

Reading my dad's blog at the beginning of September, I saw that he was planning on going back to work full-time and that he seemed to be getting busy with various church/community events again. I commented on his post about going back to work not to overdo things, but I didn't really think too much of it (trusting in his own common sense and his doctor's supervision)...

Fast forward to the most recent events:

This past Friday night (September 25), I got a call from my mother telling me that my dad had had a heart attack (and had gone into cardiac arrest) and was currently in the hospital. My brother had emailed me earlier, but I was just turning on the computer for the first time that day right when my mom called.

She told me that he had told her he was "going out with friends" and asked her to find a ride home. But he was actually at a wedding rehearsal. From what I've heard, he was talking to some friends one minute, then they turned around and he just collapsed. Luckily there was a nurse there who knew he'd had heart surgery and so started performing CPR right away. (I wish I could thank that nurse in person because her fast action might just have saved his life.) The ambulance arrived 6-7 minutes later; they used an AED (or something) on him to get his heart started again; and he was taken to Sunnybrook Hospital. (I'm a bit fuzzy on these details since I've only heard them through my mom on the phone.)

So that was as much as I knew on Friday night. It was a really tough night for me, to say the least. I emailed the BSGE crew plus a few other "like family" friends, and spent the rest of the night unsuccessfully trying not to think about the situation, sobbing my heart out and praying like I've never prayed before. It wasn't a pat "God, let your will be done" kind of praying, but an honest cry from the heart of "God, I'm scared" and "I don't want him to die. God, please don't let my dad die."

Around 1am I got an email from my brother (I'd asked him to email my cellphone so I'd know right away) saying that my dad was in stable condition and that they'd try to rouse him after about 10 hours (meaning about 11am Saturday morning, Japan time).

Since I ended up getting roped in to help with the children's make-up for the dance performance on Sunday, I had to go to the Bunka Center on Saturday morning around 10am to learn how to do the make-up properly. The entire time I was there I was just waiting for my phone to vibrate. When I finished (around 12pm) there was still no message from my bro, so I emailed to ask for an update.

The following is his reply (with a few minor modifications):

He was still under anesthetics and wouldn't be waking up for a while, but they'd started "warming him up." Since there was a period of time where oxygen was not getting to his brain, to minimize damage to his brain, they kept his body very cold to keep swelling to a minimum. They did this for about 24 hours. Next they were starting to remove the anesthesia and narcotics to see if he could regain consciousness maybe by the morning.

I got this message while grocery shopping in Jusco and had to fight to keep from going into tears again. My brother did a great job of keeping the email positive and making it sound like there was lots of hope and little reason to doubt that he'd wake up, but I didn't feel nearly as positive as his email sounded.

Thankfully I was able to go out for dinner that evening with my co-worker friend, Muranaka-san, because if I'd stayed home alone again all night, I definitely would have gone on another crying jag.

Despite crying some more and generally feeling worried and anxious before going to bed (I'd even emailed my brother to ask if he thought I should come home), I actually ended up dreaming that night that I was at home with my mom, brother, and dad, and having conversations with my dad about his recovery.

I was expecting an email to come to my phone during the night, but there weren't any messages when I woke up. When I checked my Gmail (Sunday morning), however, I saw a message from my brother saying that my dad had regained consciousness and was generally very responsive. He was able to move his appendages and was able to breathe on his own, so they were looking to move him out of intensive care into a private room within a couple of hours.

To me it was definitely a miracle born of the power of prayer.

Although I don't have much medical knowledge, I feel like such a quick "recovery" (obviously there's still a recovery period ahead, but regaining consciousness and being coherent seems to me to be the biggest hurdle in such a situation) is pretty unusual. And from what my mom told me last night (Sunday night), it seems like the doctors were also rather surprised/impressed at the speed of his progress.

Apparently the doctors had warned my mother that even if he opened his eyes, he might not actually be aware/coherent for quite a while--again, the problem of his brain going without oxygen for a period of time. Plus the fact that he hadn't once regained consciousness since his initial collapse made them think it might be a slow recovery.

But my mom told me that when she talked to him and said "Hazel McCallion sends her best wishes. Do you know who Hazel McCallion is?" my dad was able to answer "Mayor." He wasn't sure about what year it was, but at least he knew it was "two thousand something." And more recently my brother told me that my dad has been conscious and pretty chatty and seems to have pretty good long term memory. (Although he can't seem to focus so well and tends to ramble about the same thing repeatedly.)

They won't hear from the neurologist until tomorrow, but I'm cautiously hopeful that the prognosis will be good. And if nothing else, his physical prognosis seems to be pretty good so far. Although they
are giving him an internal defibrillator to reduce the risk of fatal heart arrhythmia (irregular heart beats) in the future.

Even though the time from when my mom called (Friday night) until my brother emailed about my dad regaining consciousness (Sunday morning) felt like the longest 36 hours of my life, when I look at things objectively, I think the time we were just waiting and worrying was relatively short. I mean, people can remain comatose for days, weeks, months, or even permanently after going into cardiac arrest.

I must admit though, the time during which I didn't know whether or not my dad would be able to wake up was the only time I've truly regretted being in Japan. Not that I could have done anything to change the situation had I been in Canada, but I couldn't help but worry that he might pass away before I could get a chance to see him again. (Yes, I knew in my head that his physical condition was stable and the chances were probably low, but still...)

But anyway, I feel like in the past half a year or so, my dad has really been lucky/blessed, because:

1) He was incredibly lucky that they discovered the blockage in his arteries when they did. His cholesterol levels were fine and he was in good health, so the problem could have gone undetected for a long time. My uncle (my dad's
younger brother) had passed away very suddenly from a heart attack about a year or so ago, so it's not hard to imagine that a similar fate could have befallen my dad.

2) I was home to take my dad to the doctor when he started acting erratically after the surgery. My mom would've been home anyway, but if I hadn't been there, it might have taken longer to have gotten him to the doctor/hospital and the consequences from the oxygen deprivation might have been more severe/long-lasting.

3) He was lucky that he was with friends--and friends who knew about his medical history--when he had the heart attack. If he had been on the subway or something, help might not have come until too late.

4) From what my mom has told me, it was also lucky that his camera bag cushioned his head when he collapsed, because otherwise he would've hit his head hard on the concrete.

5) As I've said before, the nurse who was there and performed CPR shortly after his collapse may well have saved his life.

6) And again, the fact that he's awake and seemingly fairly lucid/coherent only 48 hours after going into cardiac arrest is an amazing blessing.

I don't know who is/will read this, but I really want to thank every one who has been praying for my father and our family throughout this ordeal. (In particular during this recent situation, but also when we first learned that he would need the bypass surgery.)

And I'm so thankful to the friends and co-workers (in Canada, Japan, and various other places around the world) who have encouraged and supported my family and me through everything that has happened.

Moreover, I'm thankful for the all friends who--even without knowing anything about the situation--have helped me simply by being friends and being around to hang out with so I could carry on with a semblance of normalcy even through all the emotional turmoil.

And it goes without saying that I thank God that my father is alive now.

I'm also extremely grateful to be a Canadian with access to free, universal health care right now. I think it's simply inhumane to put the additional burden of worrying about finances onto a family suffering through a loved one's medical emergency. Whatever else we had/have to worry about in regards to my father's heart problems, at least we never have to worry about paying hospital bills. Yes, there are flaws in the system, but I think it comes through when it really counts.

Auto complete woes...


Once again I sent out an email to the wrong person by careless use of Gmail's contact auto complete function. It's not something I do often, and thankfully it's only been with fairly innocuous messages (making plans for hanging out, an invitation to dinner, etc.) so far, but it's still super embarrassing when it happens!!

Today in particular I felt like an idiot because I meant to send a dinner invitation to one friend's regular email as well as his cellphone email, but accidentally sent it to a different friend's cellphone email instead! It was embarrassing because I'd just asked that friend (whom I mistakenly sent the email to) last night if he was free, so I *knew* he couldn't come.

*sigh* He must have thought I was a complete ditz, inviting him again less than 24hrs after he'd already told me he had plans.

And the worst part is, I didn't even realize my mistake until he replied! Then I immediately replied to explain that I knew he had plans and had made a mistake when typing in the email address, but...


I'm sure it's really not that big a deal, but I really hate making careless mistakes like that!! (Especially when it's not the first time I've done it--you're supposed to learn from past errors!!)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

So much for not using the credit cards...

I just remembered, on top of all the cash spending I did during "Silver Week," I also ordered two Canadian history textbooks (used) through Origins: Canadian History to Confederation and Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation. I could've gotten them for much cheaper through Better World Books, but only much older editions. And I figure that with history texts, the more up-to-date, the better; the versions I got were the newest--6th editions.

The Origins text was relatively cheap at ~$46.50 including shipping/handling, but the Destinies one was only slightly discounted from the MSRP at ~$71.50 (incl. s/h). Do the math and you can see that I spent a whopping $118 on Canadian textbooks! And this is all for self-study, not an actual course. @_@

When the spending mania hits, it hits hard.

Oh, and I also just remembered that I also stopped by WonderGoo (yes, again!) on Tuesday night on the way back from Vi and Sanae's surprise b-day party and I picked up the entire set of Love Catalog manga (34 volumes plus a fan book!) for just under 2500 yen. It was a steal--less than 100 yen per book--but it was still money spent... ^^;;

Anyway, I'm entering my crazy busy time soon, so I don't expect to have much time for shopping again until right around Christmas (at which point at least I'll be shopping for others instead of myself).

I kind of wish the weather would hurry up and become "fall-like," though! After buying all those autumn clothes, the weather's been unseasonably warm--like highs up to 23-24 and lows of 16. So I can't really wear any of my new stuff yet! Doesn't it just figure?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An ill-timed shopping spree

Not that there's ever a well-timed one when you're supposed to be saving money, but this one was particularly poorly-timed considering 1) I also had to pay my Japanese dance performance fees--50,000 yen!!--this week; 2) my brother is coming next month & we'll be taking a trip to Tokyo during the October long weekend, so I'll need to pay for travel/accomodations, etc. for that trip, too; 3) after paying for #1 & #2 on top of my spending spree, I'll have to wait almost a full month for the next pay day!! ^^;; Really, I'm usually a bit better at budgeting, but I guess since I so rarely go shopping, when the fever strikes, I don't have much in the way of defense against it...

So yeah, it all started on Sunday afternoon when I decided to stop by Uniqlo after the Kirida Hachimantai Jinja Matsuri (shrine festival). I ended up buying a gray zip-up hoody (it was on sale for cheap, though, 690 yen!) and a brown "neoleather" (it's actually made of polyurethane--like plastic bags!) jacket (again, on sale but not so cheap at 4990 yen).

Being less than bright, I didn't stop there. Having recently realized that I don't have any nicer/cuter going out clothes (pretty much it's just jeans & T-shirts for me), I decided to drop by a couple of reasonably priced clothing shops favoured by younger female co-workers as well as some of my (JHS) students--Shimamura, and Chambre/Avail (attached shops--Chambre has slightly "older" stuff, while Avail is quite casual). I only bought one thing at Chambre, but since it was a fairly "Japanese-type" top, I realized when I got home that I didn't have anything suitable in my closet to wear with it. (Although I think it will go well with the Kimi ni Todoke poncho I pre-ordered...)

So on Tuesday (Monday I stayed home and did laundry and cleaned!) I headed back to Uniqlo in the hopes of finding the right pieces to get that uniquely Japanese "layered" look. (Sorry, if you don't know what I mean, I can't really explain it!) I don't know if I actually succeeded or not, but I ended up leaving Uniqlo almpst 150,000 yen poorer. o_O;; Not only did I buy leggings and a beige turtleneck to go with the previously purchased top, I also ended up buying a gray wool hooded tunic (on sale for 3990 yen) and brown "Neoleather" furry-hooded parka (also on sale for 4990 yen).

Then I needed to go grocery shopping, so I headed off to the Towada Jusco. Not only did I get the necessary groceries, I also ended up buying a pair of high brown boots. ^^;; Considering how many pairs of boots I already have, I really didn't need to buy them, but I couldn't resist because the inside lining is so soft and warm, plus it's not often that I can find high boots that fit because my calves are so huge (thanks for the genes, Dad =P)! While I was in Jusco, I got a message from Courtney about a surprise b-day party for Vi and Sanae, so I also did card/present shopping while I was there. ^^;; (Sadly I'm not good at shopping last minute...)

So yeah, my wallet and bank account are slightly hurting right now... It's not like I'll have to live off of rice and soy sauce or anything, but I may end up dipping a bit into my reserve fund (what else is new?) before the month is out... *sigh* Really need to be more disciplined with my money.

But I guess it was part of my usual pattern of shopping after a particularly busy/stressful time. I always ending going a bit crazy right after exams in university, too...

Anyway, apart from a bit of regret over messing up my budget (I'm really quite happy with the clothes, though, so it's really just "
a bit of regret"), I had a really good weekend. Even doing laundry and cleaning all day on Monday felt really good since I haven't done a serious cleaning in at least a month. Plus I cooked dinner for the first time in a while.

Then Tuesday was the shopping plus surprise birthday party in Shichinohe. I'm glad Court figured out I was in Towada and invited me. Though I haven't regretted regressing back to my hermit-like ways, I must say it was nice to hang out with everyone again. I should probably make it a point to invite people to hang out or to accept invitations at least once or twice a month so I don't become a total recluse... (Well, I've been hanging out more with Japanese friends lately, but I should probably make more of an effort to keep in touch with the ALT community...)

Today was the first big rehearsal for the Japanese dance performance on October 4th. We were on the actual stage for the first time, so it was a bit awkward at first figuring out our positions. Plus it was our first time practicing with live music--which was pretty difficult! (Thankfully I'm right behind the person who we're all supposed to follow for timing, etc.) But apart from a few problem areas, I feel like I should probably do OK for the real thing.

After the rehearsal I came home and baked cookies!! I'm planning on giving them out to my co-workers at the office tomorrow since I'll eat them all if I keep them at home! =P

Oh, and I'm not sure if I've ever posted my recipe for soft chocolate chip cookies, but if you're interested, here it is:

This is a sugar-reduced version of the recipe I found on - Chocolate Chip Cookies a la Anna Olson."

Since I found this recipe five or six years ago, I've probably made thousands of these cookies to give out as holiday (Christmas, Valentine's Day, etc.) gifts! (If I didn't give them away, I'd eat them all by myself--they're so addictive!)

~45-60 cookies

- 1+1/2 cup (~340g) unsalted butter, softened
- 1+1/3 cup (~285g) brown sugar, lightly packed
- 1/3 cup (~70g) granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 4 tsp (~17g) vanilla extract
- 4 cups (~500g) all-purpose flour
- 4 tsp (~11g) corn starch*
- 2 tsp (~9g) baking soda*
- 1 tsp (~6g) salt
- ~3.5-12 oz (100-350g) chocolate,** cut into chunks

* To make crispy cookies instead of chewy cookies, omit the corn starch and replace the baking soda with baking powder
** Personally I like to overload my cookies with chocolate. Also, since the recipe is already sugar-reduced, you don't have to use bittersweet/semi-sweet chocolate--you can use anything without making the cookies overly sweet! For Christmas I like to use 1/3 regular milk chocolate (chopped up chocolate bars, usually) and 2/3 Christmas (red and green) M&Ms. For Valentine's Day, I use 1/3 milk chocolate and 2/3 strawberry chocolate. The possibilities are endless!

1. Preheat oven to 350F (175C)
2. Cream together butter and sugars
3. Add eggs and vanilla and blend in
4. Stir in flour, corn starch, baking soda, salt

5. When mixture has reached a good dough consistency, stir in chopped chocolate
6. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto baking sheet lined with parchment or baking paper***
7. Bake for 8-12 minutes until golden brown around edges
8. Cool on pan for 2 minutes before removing to wire rack to cool completely
9. Enjoy immediately or store in airtight container

*** You don't have to use parchment/baking paper--a normal greased baking sheet will work fine--but I feel that I get better results with the parchment paper than without

Oh, and if you're wondering why I have gram measurements for everything, it's because Japanese measuring cups are smaller than (North) American ones! Also, most Japanese recipes tend to give measurements in grams, so I figured if you wanted to share the recipe with Japanese friends, etc., having the grams would make it easier.

In fact, if you ever wanted to know exactly how much a specific quantity (oz, lb, cups, etc.) is in grams, you can use the Gourment Sleuth Gram Conversion Calculator! There's also a more accurate Cooking Conversions Calculator which will allow you to specify the ingredient as well as the quantity to convert to/from grams!! It's pretty impressive and very useful for life in Japan for those who rely on recipes...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Off to an awesome start!

(Be warned! This is an even longer post than my usual rambling ones! =P)

For a while I've been wondering if I made the right decision to stay in Towada instead of traveling somewhere (overseas or within Japan) for this five-day weekend (a.k.a. "Silver Week"). But things have gotten off to such an awesome start that I'm really happy that I made the choice to stay put!

Friday night was bowling followed by all-you-can-drink and all-you-can-eat-yakiniku with everyone from the Board of Education (our section plus the general affairs, sports & recreation, lifelong learning and culture sections). It wasn't my best game by any stretch of imagination, but considering that I think it's a great thing if I make it past 70, my scores of 99 and 88 were more than satisfactory. The yakiniku afterwards was nice, too, since it's been a while since I've had meat for dinner. =P (Yes, I've been back on my "too-lazy-to-cook diet" of raw veggies for dinner recently.)

Then today I went to Aomori City with a coworker-friend (Muranaka-san whom I mentioned in my Aki Matsuri post). We went to the Michinoku Traditional Wooden Boat Museum in the morning, had lunch in the 14th floor restaurant at Aspam (great view of the sea!), checked out the Youkai (Japanese demons/spirits/monsters) at the Aomori Kyodokan (Culture Museum), and coffee/tea & desserts at Patisserie & Cafe Chandola.

The Boat Museum was right by the water, so before going in we stopped to take a look and to breathe in the sea air. Living in the middle of Aomori Prefecture, I always forget that Japan is an island and that it's not that far for me to go to the sea/ocean. It was also interested to see lots of old men out fishing; I didn't think they would be able to catch anything that late in the morning (10am-ish?) but apparently fish are still out at that time.

I didn't know what to expect of the Boat Museum (other than seeing different boats), but it was pretty cool to see fishing gear--like three-pronged spear-like things for getting uni (sea urchin) and wakame (seaweed) collecting things. (I didn't take any pictures inside the museum, but I'm sure you can find some online! =P) It was also neat walking through a wooden boat that they made (and sailed to Hokkaido, I think) using old time methods, as well as a Chinese junk used in a drama.

Lunch at Aspam was good. We actually had "dessert" before lunch, in the form of hotate (scallop) soft serve ice cream!! It was pretty salty and the more you ate the stronger the scallop taste got, but it wasn't weird-tasting enough to prevent me from finishing it. =P Then we went up to the 14th floor restaurant for a proper lunch. Even though Friday's kyushoku (school lunch) was curry, I ended up going for the seafood curry set. ^__^ It was tasty, but really filling. The nice thing about the restaurant was that we could choose to sit at a counter looking out to the sea. With my natural habit of eating quickly combined with all my practice gobbling down kyushoku, I usually finish my meals in about 10-15 minutes, but the atmosphere was so relaxing it even slowed down my eating pace! For once I managed to enjoy a leisurely meal. (I'm sure the interesting conversation(s) I was having with Muranaka-san also helped to slow me down.)

After lunch it was onto the "main event." When I talked with Muranaka-san at the enkai (party) after taiko for Aki Matsuri, he mentioned the youkai exhibit going on at the Kyodokan. Thanks to manga like xxxHolic, Hyakki Yakou Shou, Natsume Yuujinchou and Mononoke I've gotten to know a little bit about Japanese demons/spirits, so I was really interested in checking out the exhibit.

And I'm really glad I went because I was able to see lots of interesting pictures/displays. For example, there was a series of images hyaku monogatari (100 stories), an Edo period game where people got together at night, lit 100 candles and told 100 "ghost" (I use the term loosely, here) stories--blowing out one candle with each store. When they finished telling the stories, apparently some sort of creature/ghost would appear. The one thing I didn't understand was why people would want to summon a supernatural creature, but various online sources suggest it was used as a test of courage. I'd actually read about it in xxxHolic before, but I didn't really get what it was all about until today.

There was also a set of scrolls depicting people who had died undergoing judgment and receiving punishment according to their sins in life. Apparently the scrolls were linked to Buddhist belief and were shown to children as cautionary tales, i.e. "if you do bad things like this, this is how you'll be punished". I thought it was interesting because it reminded me of Dante's Inferno and the various circles of Hell.

They also had some extremely creepy tengu (bird-like creatures with long beaks/noses) "mummies"--they were far too real-looking for my comfort!

Apart from the exhibit, there was also the permanent collection which had ancient stuff (pottery, axeheads, etc.), wildlife and "olden time" clothes/housewares, etc. from all over Aomori Prefecture. It was especially interesting to see a Japanese person's depiction of foreigners who came to Japan. Oh, and there was a chart of Tsugaru and Nanbu ben words for body parts which I thought was pretty awesome!

When we finished at the Kyodokan, we went to the main street to look for a place to have coffee. We found a shop (Chandola) right away, but when I looked at the menu and all the desserts offered I realized that I was still pretty full and suggested that we keep walking. I wasn't hungry, but I did want to find a coffee shop or someplace where we could drink tea/coffee and chat. (I guess I felt like I wanted a slightly more casual atmosphere than Chandola seemed to have.) The next shop that we saw was already closed, though, so we ended up going back to Chandola.

I (re-)learned then that I have very little self-control when it comes to sweets. Despite all my protests of not being hungry, I ended up ordering a chocolate parfait along with my Darjeeling tea (the picture was just too tempting!) And it
was delicious. The vanilla ice cream had what I presumed were real flecks of vanilla bean, and the chocolate ice cream was also good. Plus there was mango and raspberry sauce--yum! I was also quite impressed that they had a glass-covered tea light to keep the tea warm, and that they brought a timer to the table with the tea so you'd know when it was done steeping!

In a rare instance of my "separate stomach for desserts" failing me, however, I only actually managed to eat about 1/2 to 2/3 of the parfait and had to rely on Muranaka-san to finish it off for me. ^^;;

After that it was back to Towada!

It was a really fun trip, but I felt a bit bad because I was the one who asked him if he wanted to hang out over the long weekend but he was the one who ending doing all the driving and planning for the trip. ^^;; He also paid for everything--except for the hotate soft serve. @_@ We actually had a minor tussle over the Chandola bill (which I had managed to grab slightly before him but didn't move out of his reach fast enough), but I ended up giving up because I felt like it was better to gracefully accept his kindness than to insist on having my way. (But I'm definitely doing the treating the next time we hang out!!)

That aside, though, it really was a great day. I really appreciated getting to see things I wouldn't have ventured out to see on my own. Plus I learned a lot--not just from the places, but also from our conversations. For example, somehow we got to talking about the Governor General of Canada (hereafter GG), and I realized that I really didn't know much about the position: only that the GG was the ambassador for the Queen and that the function was mostly ceremonial. I remembered Adrienne Clarkson, but I blanked on the current GG's name--well, I thought it was "Michelle", but it's actually Michaëlle Jean. I also told Muranaka-san that the Prime Minister picked the GG, but actually, the PM only recommends a choice, and the Queen actually does the appointing.

But really, I had no idea that the role of GG included such a lofty responsibilities as being the "guarantor of responsible government" and "Commander-in-Chief" of Canada (although, again, "Commander-in-Chief is pretty much a title that only requires "honour[ing], recogniz[ing] and encourag[ing] Canadian troops." But at least I was right about the GG welcoming foreign dignitaries and promoting Canadian culture.

Other than that, I also learned from Muranaka-san that the origin of "unlucky 13" is from the Last Supper. Since Jesus plus the 12 disciples made 13 at the dinner table, it became a superstition that 13 people at a table would result in one person's death within the year. There are other opinions, but Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, author of "13: The Story of the World's Most Notorious Superstition" suggests that most of the other origin stories are the result of people going back and imposing the superstition on older stories; the Last Supper story is the one that was generally known/accepted when the superstition was first recorded.

I think Muranaka-san is a good influence on me because he likes history and enjoys studying. I like history, too, but I've been too lazy to study. After talking with him, though, I feel like I want to start doing some studying of my own again--Canadian or Japanese history, or just something! Got to keep my brain active!

Anyway, after coming back from Aomori I had a bit of time to relax at home before going to Hide-san's house for conversational Japanese practice. I got lots of advice for good places to go eat while Nathan's in Japan. ^__^ So it was pretty much a full day of speaking Japanese for me (which is good because I don't really study on my own). Well, admittedly when I was really stuck for an explanation in Japanese with Muranaka-san, I ended up saying things in English (and usually he could understand) or using my dictionary, but it was mostly Japanese. =P

When I came back from that (and grocery shopping) I noticed a white envelope sticking out from my mailbox. I didn't think I was expecting anything, but when I got to it I found the xxxHolic/Tsubasa Chronicles drama CD I'd sent away for in the summer! (I could get it by sending in stamps I collected from the special manga/DVD editions of xxxHolic 14-15 and Tsubasa Chronicles 26-27!) And the great thing is that the booklet has the script, so I can actually figure out what exactly they're saying!

Then when I woke up this morning, instead of just checking the weather on TV (like I usually do), I ended up surfing randomly for a bit. And I found a show called Top Runner (or something like that) interviewing Oguri Shun!!! <3 They showed clips of his early work, like his debut in the 1995 NHK drama Hachidai Shogun Yoshimune. When talking about the drama, Oguri Shun said that he thought that if Shogun Yoshimune had ruled longer, Japan might be a country more like Canada!

He explained that although he didn't know much about Canada, when he visited, he saw that Canada had both English and French (languages and culture) and he thought that made Canada a country more open to different peoples/cultures. So he thought that if Yoshimune had ruled longer, Japan might've had a greater influx of foreign culture/learning and would be a more international country now. (Shogun Yoshimune relaxed the rules restricing the importation of foreign books into Japan and started rangaku, Western studies.) Go Canada!

So yes, my long weekend is off to an awesome start so far! And I still have the Kirita Jinja Matsuri (shrine festival) this afternoon, plus all of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to look forward to!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good timing

Or possibly bad timing from my wallet's (not to mention my budget's) point of view!

I randomly decided to head to WonderGoo today to check out manga and DVDs. Turns out two of my favourite series had tankoubon (i.e. graphic novel/trade paperback editions, as opposed to anthology magazine installments) released recently: 君に届け Kimi ni Todoke (hereafter referred to as KnT) #9 and 幸せ喫茶三丁目 Shiawase Kissa San Choume #14.

In front of the stack of KnT #9 books was a small sign advertising the start of the KnT anime!!! Unfortunately the scheduling is terrible: it airs on Nippon Television on Tuesdays from 24:59-25:29 (i.e. Wednesdays from 00:59-01:29), starting on Oct. 6th! @_@ And of course it has to be that Wednesdays are usually the days I visit an elementary school in the morning before going to Kirita in the afternoon. *sigh* I'm torn between not wanting to miss the chance to actually watch an anime series as it's airing (rather than waiting for the English DVD releases) and not wanting to be a zombie at work.

Knowing my lack and discipline, though (not to mention taking into consideration the fact that I often sleep between 1am and 2am anyway), I expect that I'll be watching the show for the first couple of weeks at least.

I also saw that the recently published (came out 9/12!) Margaret Betsuma anthology had KnT furoku (extra, promotional items): a comic cover and a promotional DVD for the KnT anime! Naturally, I had to buy that as well. (Yes, advertising promotions pretty much always work on me--and I'm also a sucker for "special/limited editions.")

And from looking through that, as well as the small promotional insert inside KnT #9, I learned that there's an online clothing store selling a poncho/sweater thing that the main character, Sawako, wore in volume #7! The store is also selling a "Sawako-image" one-piece dress & parka (hoody) set!

Because, as I said, I'm a sucker for advertising, I've already pre-ordered the "poncho" and I'm just waiting a couple more days (for the start of the next billing period for my credit card) before I order the one-piece set. And I fully recognize that I'm being a little crazy considering that I recently commented (in a forum) on how I think Japanese women's clothes are really cute on Japanese girls/women, but I don't think they really suit me. o_O;;

But yeah, chalk it all up to my desire to make the most of the fact that I'm living in Japan--while I still can. After all, I'm not going to be able to get all these "limited edition" things (or even the regular releases of manga tankoubon/manga anthologies) once I move back to Canada.

Apart from the KnT stuff, I also learned while I was browsing manga in WonderGoo that a Kobato (one of the newer CLAMP series) anime will also start from 8pm on Tuesday, Oct. 6 (on NHK-BS2).

And a drama series for My Girl by Sahara Mizu (a touching story about a man left with a daughter he never knew he had when an old girlfriend passes away) is also starting in October! It will air every Friday night at 11:15pm on TV Asahi starting from Oct. 9!

I'm really excited about all these shows! It's really too bad that they're all starting in October (while I'm still crazy busy), but I'm sure I'll manage to find the time to watch even with work and all the various other obligations. ^___^

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Low key night

I think that when I look back on my time in Japan, it's nights like tonight that I will treasure the most.

Instead of going to the AJET Aomori Welcome Party, I opted to stay in Towada to check out the Aki Matsuri (Fall Festival) with a teacher friend who used to be at Kirita JHS (she now teaches at a different junior high school in Towada) and her friend.

Even though it was raining a bit, we walked down together to see the various dashi (floats) in the parade. All the taiko players, dancers, people pulling the dashi, etc. were pretty energetic in spite of the rain. We had takoyaki (octopus balls), jaga butter (potato with an unbelievably massive hunk of butter), and shaapin (fried dough pancake with minced meat & veggies inside).

After the parade, we went to a small restaurant for dinner and drinks (just iced Oolong tea for me, of course, since I'm such a weak drinker). The saba (mackeral) and hotate (scallop) sashimi were good, as expected, but the cow liver sashimi was also surprisingly tasty! I've never really liked liver, but when they asked if I was OK with it before they ordered, I figured I'd give it a try and so I said yes. Turns out that liver sashimi tastes quite different from regular cooked liver... I wouldn't mind eating it again!

But yeah, we talked about a bunch of different things: students nowadays, the differences between Japan and Canada, Japanese superstitions (apparently it's OK to kill spiders in the morning, but not good to kill them in the evening!), etc. etc. Even though I didn't speak a lot, I still felt comfortable and included in the conversation, and didn't feel at all awkward or uneasy about my long stretches of silence (which is generally NOT the case when I'm at a large social gathering).

Although I had kind of wanted to go to the Welcome Party to meet the new JETs (in particular to see the Group A newbies again), I really prefer hanging out with people in small groups (3-4 is perfect), so I feel like I definitely made the right choice in staying in Towada for my final Aki Matsuri. I feel a bit guilty about it, but I suspect that I will be making the same choice (to stay at home or to do something with a few friends instead of attending large JET events) a lot this year.

Friday, September 11, 2009

All good things come to an end

For the past who-knows-how-many years the Towada ALTs have played the taiko for the Chuo Community Center Chibiko Koma Odori (children's horse dance) during Aki Matsuri (fall festival). Since my first year it's been the event I look forward to the most during the year.

Apparently next year, though, they won't be doing it anymore. The number of children participating has been declining and starting this year they changed the rules as to what types of floats can be used in the parades, making it difficult for the group. (Up to this year, it was OK to drive floats that use engines, but from this year they stopped allowing that--something to do with float engines not undergoing regular service inspections like regular cars, or so I gather.)

It's really too bad. True, playing taiko for the festival does require a time commitment (there were practices every Mon-Fri from 7:00-8:30pm for about three weeks leading up to the festival), but it's really an awesome experience. In terms of things in Towada I've participated in, taiko for Aki Matsuri for the past three years is definitely my #1 memory.

Apart from playing the taiko, the party afterward is always a lot of fun. The taiko group people are all great people and fun to talk with. It's also a good chance to talk with some other city hall staff from different sections. Since the taiko group didn't have a performance at the party and had to leave early this year, I was able to spend quite a lot of time talking with the Kyoikucho (Superintendent of the Board of Education) and Muranaka-san. Thankfully my Japanese has improved enough that I can carry a basic conversation--although there were a number of times where I had to use English/couldn't answer properly.

(The taiko group had to leave early because there were performing in the main street during the festival. In previous years they performed on the Saturday evening on a float, but thanks to the rule change--no more engines, remember!--they couldn't do that and ended up performing Friday night instead. It was too bad because I always looked forward to their performance at the after party, but it worked out because I left the party in time to catch their last performance in the street.)

Any new ALTs who come into Towada next year really can't know what they're missing. But yeah, I'm glad that I at least got to do taiko for three years. (I heard there was even talk about canceling the Chibiko Koma Odori
this year!)

Well, here's to three years of Aki Matsuri taiko! Hopefully they'll find something else for ALTs to join in Aki Matsuri.

First year we all wore the hanten (half coat) (This photo was taken on Allie's camera).

Second year the girls wore the same yukata as the other city hall staff.

This year the girls had the option of wearing hanten or our own yukata. You can probably tell this isn't an ALT photo. (I didn't take one, so I'll have to wait for Kristina to post it on Facebook for me to steal. =P ) The lady on the left is a member of the taiko group as well as a teacher at one of the elementary schools I visit occasionally. The man in the middle is the head of the taiko group. (Also, I'm not wearing it in the picture, but I wore the same "headband" all three years!)

Finally, this has nothing to do with Aki Matsuri, but I forgot to post before about my trip to Goshogowara with the Kirita PTA on August 31st. It was a lot of fun! You can see my photos in my Facebook album here (this year's trip starts from page 2 of the album):

Friday, September 4, 2009

Wake me up when September ends

My month so far:

9/1 (Tue)
- Kirita JHS 9:00-17:15
- banking 17:25-17:30
- Global Drums Perfomance @ Bunka Center 17:30-20:30 *unexpectedly awesome
- Japanese dance practice 20:30-21:00
- grocery shopping 21:15-22:00

9/2 (Wed)
- Shimokirida ES 8:45-13:15
- Kirita JHS 13:25-17:55
- pick up E. 16:10
- Global Drums Reception @ Board of Trade & Commerce 16:30-21:00 *made new friends!! <3
- proofreading Hotaru no Hikari v5 ch28 21:30-22:30

9/3 (Thu)
- Kirita JHS 9:00-17:45
- proofreading Hotaru no Hikari v5 ch28 18:00-18:45
- taiko practice @ Chuo Community Center 19:00-20:30
- proofreading Hotaru no Hikari v5 ch28 21:00-23:30 *finally finished!!

9/5 (Fri)
- Ofukanai JHS 9:00-14:45
- office 15:15-16:00
- Daiichi JHS 16:15-17:00
- office/banking 17:00-17:15
- Baskin Robbins & checking for car fair @ Jusco (it's on this weekend, so perfect timing!) 17:45-18:00
- Japanese dance practice @ Bunka Center 18:30-20:00
- taiko practice 20:00-20:30

My upcoming plans:

9/6 (Sat)
- car shopping w/ K @ Jusco 10:00 ~ ?
- driving to Lake Towada 12:00-13:30
- Lake Towada Border Festival (Kirita JHS students performing!) 13:30-15:30
- Horanai ES Festival 17:00-18:30 *I want to go since the students invited me today, but I'm not killing myself to get back from Lake Towada in time for it...
- E's Japanese dance practice @ Bunka Center 19:00-20:00

9/7 (Sun)
- taiko rehearsal @ Chuo Community Center 9:30-11:00
- lesson/material preparations 12:00-15:00
- driving to Lake Towada 15:30-17:00
- Lake Towada Border Festival (D from Akita performing!) 17:00-21:30

9/8-9/10 (Mon-Thu)
- taiko practice @ Chuo Community Center 19:00-20:30

9/11 (Fri)
- Towada Aki Matsuri!! 11:00~

9/12 (Sat)
- Aomori Welcome Party 17:00~
- Towada Aki Matsuri 17:30-20:30 *leaning towards this simply because I'm too tired right now to socialize with lots of people...

9/18 (Fri)
- Towada Board of Education Bowling 18:00~

9/19 (Sat)
- Kamikita Fall JHS Sports Meet 7:00 (?) ~ *This one's a big question mark...
9/20 (Sun)
- Kirita Shrine Festival 15:00 (?) ~

9/23 (Wed)
- Japanese dance rehearsal @ Bunka Center

And of course on top of all this I still have regular eikaiwa classes and Japanese dance practices--probably more than usual since it's the last month before the big performance. @_@

Then I've got the big performance at the beginning of October, followed by my brother's visit to Japan (assuming he ever gets his plane tickets purchased!), and the Kirita Culture Festival.

So pretty much I'm not going to have a chance to come up for air until November--at which point I expect to promptly catch bronchitis for the 8th (9th?) time. =_=