To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Fall

Hello, friends,

      Well, fall has finally fallen on my little part of western Japan. Sunday afternoon, I drove down to a mountain on a peninsula south of me (it's over the city of Tsuruga, if you happen to have a map of Japan handy). I got out too late to make a real attempt to get to the top, especially since when I looked at the map I realized it was about 300 meters higher than I'd thought. I did linger around a really nice shrine at its base and watched what I finally figured out was a Shinto version of a baptism (at the very least it involved a baby of very recent vintage). I followed a path to the left of the shrine, and although it quickly degenerated into the most minimal sort of path, very rough and steep as it ascended, I kept on. As it was a bit warmer by the sea, the spider problem had not let up as it has on the mountains closer to home, especially on the very narrow untraveled path. Just I was starting to think, gee, this is a mountain with ocean on three sides and great views up and down the coast, why does it look like no one ever hikes up it, my path crossed a much wider, obviously better kept trail, which I followed until about 4 pm, at which point it seemed wiser to turn back so I'd reach the bottom before it got too dark. I took the easier path all the way down so I'd be able to find its base, which was of course to the right of the temple. It had been quite pretty on the mountain, the view spoiled only by the omnipresent electrical towers, although just before I turned back I'd crossed a ridgeline and put the towers behind me and out of sight, so the rest of the climb would have been unspoiled. The trees are finally turning, though for the most part to pale yellow and rust--very few of the flamboyant colors of a New England autumn. I have been relieved to see, as the changing colors highlight areas where the forest is relatively undisturbed, that there is still a lot of natural forest around. Most hillsides have swaths of pure green where the natural forest has been removed in favor of neat rows of farmed pines, but quite a bit of the real thing remains.
      At the bottom, the temple itself was memorable in the twilight. In front of it runs a paved path, with a traditional pavilion on the bay side and a row of stone lanterns, just lit as I arrived, on the temple side. Hanging over the lanterns was the one flamboyantly yellow tree in the area, and behind it all stood another mountainside and the evening sky. I took quite a few photos with wildly varying exposures (I had brought my tripod), hoping in at least one or two to capture the light somewhat as I saw it. I stopped when the darkness triggered a horrid white street light at the end of the path and the headlights of cars on the road beyond that became visible through the trees (the temperature had quickly dropped past 45° F, also an incentive to get back into the car, especially combined with the promise I'd made myself of a hot hearty dinner of linquica and nice thick fries).
      The temple and base of the baths is about halfway up the peninsula on the bay side; on my way home, I hoped to drive out to its tip and back on the Sea of Japan side, but near the tip, the road very abruptly ended in a parking lot and boat ramp at a fishing village. I checked my map, and indeed on it the road did end where I was; a path continued to and around the tip and then about half the length of the peninsula on the ocean side before again meeting a road. I was thrilled--kilometers of path along the wild coast, with no road, no towns, and no lights, absolutely unspoiled. I would be back. Of course, when I got home and looked at another map, it confirmed that there was no road for all those kilometers, at least no public one, but of course ten or fifteen kilometers of unspoiled anything anywhere in Japan simply defies reasonable expectation. Those ten or fifteen kilometers of coast boast not one, not two, not even three, but four nuclear power plants--and not your quaint old fashioned nukes, but high-tech high-pressure reactors, one of them even a breeder. Now, I picture high fences, blaring klaxons, floodlights, and constant activity, almost a flashback to a camping trip with Miguel when we found that the campsight that looked so isolated on the map was hard by a thirty-foot chain-link and barbed wire fence marking the edge of a very busy uranium mine the size of a city with constant deafening claxons and house-sized trucks rumbling by.
      Yesterday, after classes, I spent my day wandering around bothering the band students dispersed around the school (when it's warmer and when, I gather, the principal is particularly angry at the neighbors, we send the brass players outside to practice). Usually, I bother the sports clubs. I should explain that this is part of my job--basically, interacting with kids outside of class to reinforce the idea of English as a means of communication as well as an academic subject, and to get them used to foreigners and foreign ideas. It's also something I generally enjoy a lot, because the kids are a lot of fun, and outside of class the kids who talk to me are generally doing it because they want to (aside from the kids I run into and have to torture into speaking English). For the most part, I get in the way and distract them from whatever they're supposed to be doing, but if they're not enjoying it I try to move on before I become an actual nuisance. Anyway, I walked into a classroom where three girls were playing flutes (extraordinarily badly, I have to say--since I've been here I've realized that to be a junior high music teacher, you have to be not a lover of music but someone who actively detests it, who delights in hearing the very idea of music murdered each and every day). I asked a few questions, in English and then Japanese (they were first-years, so they don't speak much English--third year students no longer participate in extracurricular activities, as they are supposed to spend all of their time studying for high school entrance exams). I was amused to see that, after I came in, the more dominant girl, who enjoys speaking with me, got the others to abandon scales and basic practice in order to attempt an actual piece of music to impress me. After surviving it sans grimace (a challenge), I decided to get to the root of that age old question, "What the hell is that god-awful racket down the hall?" Gee, Peter-sensei, it's the percussion section. They do not practice in unison (I don't know how it's possible not to fall into sync with someone pounding out the same rhythm one foot to your left, and I am not known for my rhythm). Adding to the horror of the sound, the girls (all the boys [and most of the girls] prefer sports, and for the scrawny geeky kids there's always table tennis) are not allowed to wear out actual drums this early in their training, so they pound away on desks, little bits of rubber electrical-taped to desks, and, interestingly, four-foot lengths of really thick bamboo (intelligent comment from yours truly: "In America, students do not play bamboo"). Bamboo, at least this construction-grade stuff, is an amazingly unsonorous material. (To give an idea of how this sounded, one day months later I heard the same sound in a different part of the school and followed it, wondering why the percussion section was practicing there. It turned out to be the shop class.) One girl offered me her drumsticks and bamboo, amused to discover that an adult could be so untalented. Later, when Moe urged the other girls to play together for me, I was amazed at how good they sounded. I was really impressed. The unsynchronized practice, though, was punishing. When I couldn't take it any more, I found my way to a room in which two girls were standing around a bunch of stringed instruments; I asked if either of them played the bass which dominated the small room, and which, judging from its condition, is obviously dropped from an airplane at regular intervals. Neither was the bassist, and after making small talk for a minute I was about to leave when another girl came in briefly--she saw me and turned on her heels, but it was too late: one of the other girls told me she was the bassist and called her back. She was extremely shy, but she seemed like one of the ones who can be brought out (as opposed to the ones who will stand there silently until their heads explode, which we also have), so I asked her to show me how it is played. She played for a minute or so--and well--but then stopped; I asked her if I could try. "Am I holding this right?"--very concerned look, as if I've picked up a baby by its left nostril. "How about now?"--less concerned look, but still no advice. "OK?"--and finally a quick nod. I gently touch bow to string, producing a small sound--and another worried look. At long last, not daring to speak, she shows me by gesture where to place the bow and how to move it, and I begin to make noises more frequently. Clearly, she didn't have much hope for me as a student; she seemed happiest when I asked her how to put it down. I hope in retrospect she'll see that interacting with me wasn't as terrifying as she'd thought.
      Manyo JHS after hours is a bizarre place, full of the aforementioned odd noises in odd places, but also resounding with the unexpected sounds of sports practice in the halls: the pounding of feet, as squads of students jog several kilometers indoors on rainy days; the sounds of tennis drills, the bounce of soft tennis balls and the repeated polite formulas students shout before every move in practice (everything is like the marines here); and the thump of badminton rackets and shuttlecocks on school windows (badminton in the halls seems like something teachers back home might discourage). My favorite discovery after hours yesterday was the gym textbook. They study this and take written tests on the material. You'd simply have to see this to believe it. It not only has instructions for all the sports, but instructions for practicing them: how to line up for your one practice service return in soft tennis, what to shout when you get to the line, how to move out of the way for the next student--all the things you'd think marginally intelligent kids and coaches could have worked out for themselves instinctively. Students study this, pass the test, and then move on after school to actually doing the exercise, for example returning serves for two hours a day, every day, for months before moving onto the next exercise. I think students in, for example, the soft tennis club get into their second years before they're actually allowed to play soft tennis. My favorite page illustrated how to slide into base in softball, rounding out the fine pictures with a staggering amount of prose. It's telling that the gym textbook contains easily three times as much text and only a third as much illustration as the English textbook.
      Today was another especially full day, starting with elementary school (as exhausting and fun as always), then my first two-hour class with my new English student, and ending with my own Japanese lesson--but after talking with my new student, I can't really complain about my 35 hour weeks and abundant free time at work. He's one of Japan's imported slave laborers--he works 12 hour shifts 6 days a week, with Tuesdays off. He's been here for 7 years, and after two more he's leaving. His computer chip factory has 1000 people working 72 hour weeks, alternating weeks of day shifts with weeks of nights, all of them Brazilian. That's about half the Brazilian population of Takefu. No wonder I see so few Brazilians about: they're all either at work or asleep. He lives in a one-room apartment that makes mine look spacious--his room is the same size as mine (7.5'X11'), but it is also his kitchen (has a small fridge and hot plate), and he has no utilities area or large closet. I didn't look to see if he has his own bathroom (next time saw that he doesn't). He's a very nice guy who wants to travel when he's done here (hence the desire to learn English)--and has been traveling around Asia quite a bit for the last few years. I get the impression he's paid reasonably well, from both where he's travelled and the style in which he's done it, but while he's here he's living like a monk and sending money back to family in Brazil. He's my age, balding with a shaved head that makes him look disconcertingly like Uncle Fester's Japanese cousin (he's ethnically Japanese, or mostly so). He seems reasonably smart and genuinely nice; this class will be a lot of work for me, but I think it will be rewarding.
      So, such is my life at the moment. When I was a kid, I never for a moment thought, "When I grow up, I want to teach English on Mars," but here I am--and here I am enjoying it immensely. It never hurts to follow a few of those strange paths that open in front of one every so often.

O Genki De,

Peter

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