Saturday, January 26, 2013

Worlds Collide Under Purple Skies

It's amazing to me how often my Japanese world collides with my American world.  Two years ago, I happened to be on vacation in New Orleans.  I was sitting by a rooftop pool at my hotel and wanted to order a drink.  I walked up to the bar, waiting for the bartender to notice me.  An African American waitress came up with her order for him and while she was waiting they somehow got on the topic of manga.  She said there was one she loved and read all the time.   I think it was One Piece.  He was shocked that she knew it.  She was shocked that he knew it.  Then I chimed in that I was studying  Japanese.  It turns out that they both were also studying Japanese.  The three of us broke out laughing at the bizarre coincidence.

Last night, at a different bar in Santa Monica California, I sat eating a Poblano Chili Steak with a glass of California cabernet before heading to a movie.   I don't usually like to sit at bars, but when I walked into the restaurant, there was a  woman seated on the side of the bar, hunched over a journal.  She had a trappers' fur hat on with a dress and boots.  She seemed like a rebel and that made me feel comfortable.

The bar now felt like a safety zone and I wouldn't feel foolish writing there myself.  I had just purchased a new journal at the Barnes and Noble bookstore down the street.  I sat, ordered, wrote, ate.  On my other side, another young woman sat down and hurriedly texted on her iphone while eating her happy hour dinner.  I thought we looked a bit formidable, the three of us.  There wouldn't be a man coming to interrupt our busyness, that was clear.

Finally I leaned over to the woman in the hat and asked her if she was a writer.  She looked up and smiled with giant topaz eyes lined in kohl and said, "Oh. Yes.  I'm a song writer."  She said she liked my red, burnished leather journal, it was pretty.  "Thanks, I just got it. Brand new."  "Oh me too!" and she flashed the cover of hers to me, the iconic Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany's photo.  "I love my journals.  When I'm done, I line them up facing out like this," she demonstrated in the air with Audrey's lovely face floating high in front of us. We talked about The Artist's Way (a famous book that teaches the reader how to overcome writers' block and how to connect with one's artistic gifts) and how much it meant to her, how she started the process of Morning Pages (the suggested practice of writing three pages every morning) and how she just keeps writing, and writing and writing, morning noon and night! Although it's been years since I worked the Artists Way program, I still remember that feeling of surging optimism and confidence those exercises gave me.

She asked me what kind of writing I did and I told her I'm a travel writer.  "Do you have a Blog?" she asked.  ( Funny how my generation still doesn't ask that right up front.   It might come up later in conversation, but not one of the first things.)  She wanted to check it out.  I told her I'm also currently working on a book about my travels in Japan.  She nodded quickly and a huge smile lit up her face.  "My album, Purple Skies, is now #7 on iTunes Japan!"

Worlds collide indeed.  

Her name is Michelle Shaprow.  We exchanged email addresses and I had to run off to see my movie, but we promised to check out each other's work.  Today I spent the morning listening to a few of the songs off the album.  Jazzy and soulful, but with the brightness of youth in her voice,  it appears Michelle Shaprow's  Morning Pages have been more than somewhat successful.

Sometimes you just know you're on the right track in your life because the Universe makes arrangements behind your back, then hides little gifts for you to find that make you smile, look up at the sky and say, "Thanks.  I get it!"  Who knew that I would be writing in a bar in Santa Monica with one of Japan's favorite new American vocalists?

Have a listen to one of my favorites off the album titled Back Down to Earth:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Little Efforts Like These...

January in Los Angeles.
The Japan Foundation Building on Wilshire Boulevard.
Saturday was a big "Re-live Japan" day for me.   There is a wonderful group here in Los Angeles called "The Japan Foundation."  Their purpose is to share the Japanese culture with people of other cultures and they have many events during each month.  Last Saturday they had a "Tea Time and Conversation" class.

I arrived a little late.  The Japan Foundation is off of Wilshire Boulevard, in an area of LA called 'The Miracle Mile," on Wilshire Boulevard.  The office was brand new and a little hard to find in the tall glass corporate tower.  The new office has a beautiful lending library, two large classrooms and a gift shop. Two women wearing short yukkata style jackets greeted me with a bow as I entered and then rushed me into the classroom, each woman holding one of my elbows and guiding me in a hurry with quick little steps.

I took the last seat available at a rectangular table where two gentlemen were already drinking cold iced tea and enjoying senbai (Japanese crackers).  The young woman at the front of the room was saying
あけましておめでとうございますvery slowly (Happy New Year) and the whole class was repeating after her.  It was cute and I felt moved by the effort of such a large group of people learning "my" beloved second language.  I looked around and the tables were full of all types of people.  White, Black, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Hispanic.  There were people in there 60s and people in their 20s.  I was amazed at how many people from all backgrounds were interested in learning Japanese. The melting pot of America, all here in one room repeating "あけましておめでとうございます."

The women and men who ran the program were very attentive to the guests. Every few minutes someone would come by with either hot or cold tea offered, more Japanese crackers, cookies and sweets.  We had a work sheet that had lots of Japanese greetings and "get-to-know-you" questions, lined up in boxes on a page, which we then played as Bingo.  We each shuffled all around the room asking questions and finding out who ate udon noodles on New Years? Who had climbed Mt. Fuji?  Who likes Natto (a stinky fermented soybean delicacy)? Who has ridden a Shinkansen? Who drinks green tea every day?  One young student finally yelled Bingo, just as I had finally found someone who climbed Mt. Fuji.  He won a cup with the Japan Foundation Logo on it, and I could tell that made him very, very happy.

Bill-san and Thomas-san write down their New Year's resolutions 新年の誓い (Shin'nen no chikai)

Montai-san and Emi-san

Karuta.  Not just for children anymore!
I didn't speak Japanese as well as I hoped I would, but I got by.  The class was mostly for beginners, so the three of us (Bill-san, Thomas-san and me) were  there for the fun of it.  Montai-san ended up practicing his English with us and that was fine too.

In the end, each table played a card game  called Karuta.  It's a simple game: cards with colorful pictures are scattered on a table.  Each card has a hirigana kana on it.  One person calls out a description of a picture from a separate  list, and the others are supposed to find that card, based on the first sound of the word.  It's a "hunt the alphabet" and listening game.  It was fun to be seven years old again!

The three of us (and one more man from a different table) played the game for about 25 minutes.  It was quite fun and competitive - the man from the other table was hell bent on winning and so the rest of us got competitive as well.  (I came in second, in case you wondered).

At the end of the day, many of us gathered to ask if there was a possibility of a conversation class for intermediate speakers.  The Japan Foundation staff assured us that it was in the planning stages.  They had so many people show interest lately.  Is Japanese "on trend?"  I wonder...

The nice ladies invited me to stay for a lecture later that afternoon about a therapy robot named Paro, but I couldn't stay.   More about Paro in my next post, but here's a kawaii (cute) picture for now...

Paro, the therapy robot

It felt good to be in an environment of Japanese speakers again, even if most of them were Melting-Pot-Americans, just like me.

My Shin'nen no chikai is: 日本語を上手に話せるようになります。I want to become more skilled at Japanese! Of course!

Me, performing Mochitsuki in Little Tokyo.
Mochitsuki is the Japanese New Year Tradition
of pounding rice to make delicious Mochi.  
With little efforts like these, and a little mochitsuki (餅つき), perhaps my New Years Resolution will come true this time.

あけましておめでとうございます to all!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Miss America

I returned from Japan on Friday, October 26 at 9 am, nine hours before I left. (Time travel.  It's amazing!)  My kids were in school and I had a few hours to acclimate.  I didn't realize how fast Japan would recede once my children arrived home and once I stood balanced on two feet, planted in America again.

I took them out to dinner that evening - the idea of cooking anything was beyond what I could handle - and we went to a local bistro.  I chose a shaved artichoke heart and arugula salad with grilled shrimp and a glass of pinot noir, the same meal I always order at this restaurant.  When it arrived in front of me, I laughed out loud.  "Toto, we're not in Japan anymore!"  My knee jerk reflex to eat like a Californian startled me.  The food so fresh and lush on the plate, the large bowled glass too full of red wine...the glass of ice water with lemon.  These things that seem so everyday, felt new.  And cliche.

The next morning I was craving a Japanese breakfast.  I made dashi, the broth that is the key ingredient of Miso soup, ( I had some kombu and bonito flakes in my pantry from before my trip) and later the soup itself.   Hatcho Miso, of course. We ate it for lunch and my son had two bowls.  My daughter, the shall we say, more discriminate eater, ate half a bowl out of politeness, but didn't want any more.  She prefers the white miso soup, the kind one finds in most restaurants here. But my son ate with gusto and said he could eat it every day.  I told him that many Japanese people have it for breakfast and he was thrilled with the idea of that.

Now, think, for a moment what date I arrived in America.  October 26.  What was coming up in the next 10 days?  Halloween.  The Election.  My son's Flag Football playoffs.  If there was ever an exact moment to land back in America and to be forced to accept and even embrace all that it means to BE an American, this was the moment.

The next day, after the Miso soup lunch, the kids wanted to head to Ahhhs, a local store in LA that at this time of year has two floors of Halloween costumes and decorations.  The Saturday before Halloween, this place rivaled any Tokyo subway station.  Oceans and oceans of people, and in Los Angeles that means every type of person, every color, every height, every shape, every eye color, every attitude, every level of education, every level of manners.  To be surrounded by children and adults like this, one day after arriving from a month of living in a homogenous society, is culture shock indeed.

I almost couldn't breathe, and it wasn't claustrophobia, though it was crowded enough that if I tended towards that, that would be a factor.  It was more that the Great American Melting Pot was too much.  We are too varied.  We are unattractive.  We do things all hibbeldy-jibbeldy. We wear too many colors. We are loud.  We don't care about others' airspace.  We show no manners.  We stand sloppily.  We talk on cell phones and yell across aisles to our friends who need to come over here RIGHT NOW.  There is no uniformity. We are like squawking chickens and multi-color plumed roosters running around a tiny pen, not thinking at all, just making the loudest noise possible and rustling feathers and trying to fly but failing, over and over and over again.

I missed, deeply, the quiet of Japan.

I wanted out of here.  Fast.  I'm not sure now if it was the store I wanted out of, or America itself.

The next week was back to routine.  School lunches, carpool, catching up on bills and the like.  Monday was the first Flag Football game I had ever been to, though my son had been playing it for six weeks.  They were in playoff season and though I have never, ever liked football, I was glad to see my non-sporty son try this, pushing his own comfort zone.

 The first game, I had someone sitting next to me, explaining the game.  I had never had this happen before, only occasionally being at a friends' house during Superbowl.  I guess maybe there were a few times that men would try to tell me what was going on, but whatever was on TV was always happening so fast and I could never see the ball and it just seemed ridiculous to me. The whole thing.  Ridiculous.

But to watch it on the sidelines of a grassy field in Culver City and have my son playing offensive left lineman (is that the right term?) and see his big framed body, something he's always been a bit shy about, suddenly come into all its glory and to see his team of scrawny 8th graders go game after game from being the dark horse to winning in the most glorious last 3 seconds with beautiful arcing throws caught gracefully in the end zone  (this happened three playoff games in a row!)...well, that is enough to turn any cynical, liberal-minded, anti-team sport egghead like myself into a bleacher pounding, double fist-clenched cheering, coach hugging All American Football Fan.

Japan seemed further away now than ever.

And then there was the election.  In case you are reading this in the far future, this is the Presidential election of 2012.  The election between Barack Obama and Darth Vadar.  We really weren't sure, none of us, how this election would go.  And those of us who felt a certain way knew, that if Obama didn't win, life as we knew it would cease to exist.  It was THAT important.  So the days leading up to it were tense and exciting, and yes, one could not help being an American in the most important of ways; caring deeply about ones' country and its future.  And when we won, and Vadar lost, the feeling of loving ones country, one's roots, and the hope that we had for our future was so tremendous and so satisfying that all other loves faded.  All aspirations to be something else, something other than American in every way felt like a whisper instead of a calling and once it turned into a whisper, it was hard to hold onto, hard to listen to it saying ones name, as it did before so loudly.

And so I start the New Year as Miss America, but I am trying to listen to the whisper again,  Japan calling out and capturing me once again.

OK, let me be honest.  It's been two months since my return and I have barely touched a Japanese language book.  Why?  What happens to the drive, the heady desire to push forward to get better and better, to take everything one has learned while away in an immersion program and apply it to one's real life?  And what I learned in Okazaki was that above all things, one must study and practice every day.  Every day.  In whatever form that takes, even if it just means listening to some J-Pop while you're driving carpool.

I'm faced with this as the New Year begins.  Lucky 13.  My Japanese studies are much like my yoga practice.  It comes in waves; I am a zealot about it knowing in my heart, mind and soul that this is something that I MUST do.  For my physical health, but also for my mental health as well. And also, more subtly, because it brings great joy to me.  I yearn to do both every day when I awaken.  But somehow, both yoga and Japanese stand patiently on the sidelines - (picture that! - a lovely kimono clad figure representing Japanese, silently watching, hands folded in front, with that charming "Mona Lisa" smile that Japanese women have mastered, and a resting Yogini in full lotus, peacefully watching without judgement) while I fill my time with handling my grad program, managing all aspects of shelter, food and transportation for my family including all schedules and travel and other silly things like email and Facebook.

How to make it all work?  How to find the balance?  I think that is what I am supposed to learn this year.  Lucky 13.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hatcho Miso and Beyond

My last afternoon and evening,  Ko-san, Peter-san, Dave-san, Chen-san and Lina-san joined me at Hatcho Miso.  What?  You've never heard of Hatcho Miso?  Here's an excellent description from the Yamasa Website:

"Miso" is a slow-fermented soybean paste with a strong salty flavor, and forms one of the bases of Japanese cooking. Very versatile, it is used in sauces, with meats, fish, vegetables, tofu, but above all in Miso Soup, a part of the staple diet of Japanese and as common as rice. Breakfast is not breakfast without miso-shiro (miso soup), and it has entered into many sayings...for example, "ore no miso shiro wo tsukutte kureru?" or "will you make my miso soup?" meaning "Will you marry me?" Several types exist - white and red being the main varieties - and every region of the country has its peculiar method of producing miso. Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with water, and while some types include other ingredients such as rice, Hatcho Miso is renowned for its traditional method of production (unchanged for at least 500 years) and distinctive taste and color.

Hatcho Miso Home Delivery Service
Hatcho Miso Home Delivery Service

Hatcho Miso is made by the Hatcho Miso Company in Hatcho, or Eighth Street, of Okazaki. Hatcho Miso is famous for the same reason that Okazaki is famous: Tokugawa Ieyasu. Apparently having a liking for miso soup made with hatcho miso (or so the company says), Tokugawa Ieyasu made sure that his armies were supplied with the local bean paste. Being very long lasting, very high in protein, energy and other nutrients, Hatcho Miso is an ideal trail food. Having Conquered Japan, Tokugawa moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo (no Tokyo), and continued to have Hatcho Miso shipped to his castle there. The Hatcho Miso Company became famous as purveyors to the Shogun and later gained even more prestige as purveyors to the Emperor.

Hatcho Miso is darker red and earthier flavored (almost like a rich beef broth) than any other Miso soup I've tried.  It is world renowned for it's flavor but also because the process has remanined unchanged and there are no additives.  The beans are shipped from Hokkaido, washed, scored so that the bean opens up, then salted and sprayed with the local bacteria, that is unique to the region.  The beans are then put in huge 8 foot tall vats, pressed down with hundreds of river rocks, then allowed to sit for two and a half years to ferment.  

We were all dying to go on a tour of the place and go through the tasting room.  By the time we arrived there was only one tour left and although the tour guide didn't speak English, it was easy to understand the gist of the story. How the soybeans were transported in the old days, how the laborers crushed the beans by hand, and hauled them up to rafters for first fermentation, then later packed them so tightly in the cedar vats so no air could get in or out.

Each Giant Cedar Vat stores enough Hatcho Miso to feed 300,000 people

In the tasting room

I don't have a picture but there is also Miso Ice Cream, which was delicious and Miso beer...(they weren't tasting that at the time however...Snap.

The cool thing about Hatcho Miso is that it is so super probiotic that people swear by it as a medicinal food, as well as being high in protein, fiber and vitamins.  It is also famed for its ability to prevent or alleviate (??) radiation poisoning.  After Chernobyl, 40,000 tons of Hatcho Miso was ordered by Russians and Europeans. 

The day ended at a local Okinomiyaki restaurant.  A few beers, a shrimp Okinomiyaki for me, and some laughs at the end of the day were a good send off.    

Peter-san asks, "now what do I do?"

The master chefs show him how.

Dave-san is an expert!

I am making a little heart with my hands.  Typical Japanese picture taking custom for girls.  
(One odd fact:  When Japanese people take a picture they say very loudly:  "Cheese! 3,2,1!"  and then at the appointed moment, nobody, except Americans, yells out "Cheese"...

At the end of the evening, it was just me and the boys.  Lina and Chen left earlier.  We stood outside of the Okinomiyaki place and chatted for awhile about class, teachers, Yamasa in general.  I felt the continents diving again.  The goodbyes were short, a quick hug, a "please write, let's Skype, let's stay in touch! Please!"  and was the end.  

My apartment was 15 minutes away.  I was used to the walks, day and night, and I headed back.  The men were on their bikes all going different directions.  

I took everything in as I walked.  The Volvo dealership.  The little mom and pop shops that lined the street.  The giant funeral parlor with a big purple neon sign reading in both English and Japanese "Tear."  Everything looked like Anime; over-bright.

My apartment seemed empty when I returned.  I cried a little, packed a little, cried a little more.  I ended up going over to Chen and Ro-sans apartment, needing company and to say goodbye just one more time.  We sat for awhile and chatted- gossiped about a love affair we believed to be happening in class...  And then it really was time for me to say goodbye for good.  

I went home, drank my final Suntory Malt beer (how I wish they sold those in America!) and watched a Japanese game show, now not so bizarre to me.  Well, this one was a little more normal than some -- or was it beginning to seem normal to have the wild music, crayola subtitles and loud gasps "heeeeeeeyyyyy????????" emit from the audience every 10 seconds.  I didn't know, I just sat back and enjoyed my last two hours of "showering" my brain with Japanese.  

Then I climbed the loft up to my futon and stared at the ceiling conjugating verbs until I fell asleep.


The next morning was a pleasant goodbye at the Yamasa Office. I brought Sees Candy Lollypops and orange foil pumpkin wrapped chocolate balls - what I thought would be novel to Japan --little did I know Halloween has taken Japan by storm.  But Sees Candy is Sees Candy after all, and famous in it's own right.  The front desk woman took the candy from me and announced that I had brought yumena California no okashi (famous California candy).  The staff was a little surprised, and I don't know if it was because I am the customer bringing something for them.  But I was truly thankful for all that they had done and how amazing their service was.  Of course I didn't have the right vocabulary to explain that, but I think the candy showed how I felt.

My favorite office worker ran to get my wi-fi deposit and then walked me out of the building saying goodbye and he hoped he would see me again.. I plan on returning next year and I told him so.  A nice way to end my stay at Yamasa with him watching over me as I made my way to the train station.

As I headed up to the Okazaki station, which I knew so well by now (even knowing which platforms headed where, and how much money I would need for each stop without having to read the map), I watched older women in kimono buying coffee and young artist types with odd hair cuts reading the unfathomable newspaper.  I didn't belong there, but I didn't not belong.  I was not an outsider in the way I was three weeks ago.  I shopped at the same grocery store, made dinner and breakfast every night in my kitchen, hung my laundry out to dry, just like they did.  I put up with the local election megaphone trucks that roamed the streets each afternoon yelling out political slogans, sat mindlessly drinking a beer in my living room letting Japanese television dramas wash over me, just like they did. I was greeted by charming business suited crossing guards every morning on the way to school - one stationed at each corner of the least busy streets imaginable, and I dodged battalions of after school bike riding children in their school uniforms every afternoon, just like they did.  

I was outside of the culture but had been able to somehow enter it, one layer deep.  Like the language itself, every layer revealed more complexity, more flavor, more joy and yet more frustration for me because I had a deeper understanding now that I had not "arrived."  How did I ever think that three weeks immersion would get me closer to my beloved adopted language and culture?  In fact it took me further away from it because now I could see just how far there was yet to go, how many layers there were to peel back.  And the layers seem infinite.  And yet even knowing this makes the pursuit seem sweeter somehow.

I waited alone, truly alone for the first time in one month, on the train platform waiting for the train that would take me to Nagoya and then another Shinkansen on to Tokyo.  I know I'll be back.  Girl leaves Okazaki.  But not for long. So I won't say sayonara.  I will just say Mata rainen, ne? (Next year again, right?)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Last School Day at Yamasa

Of course, Chen-san and Ro-san and I had to have a final dinner and study evening together just before the test.  It was always very hard for us to try to stay too serious for more than 30 minutes at a time.  I made dinner this time (they had treated me to dinner the night before at their apartment).

My last day in class,  there was a feeling in the air, for me at least, that this was going to be somewhat anti-climatic.  We had all felt so close to each other these three weeks.  Not only was I leaving the next day, 5 of the other students were moving up to the next level.  The land mass was breaking up, soon to become continents, adrift in separate seas.

Peter plays Chopin in the Student Lounge
An uneasiness existed that I hadn't really felt before.  Lunch was odd - some stayed for lunch, others left.  I had to do some paperwork in the office, so missed much of the normal gathering.  When I returned to the lounge, most of the folks were finishing their lunch, deep in conversation already.  I sat amongst them, finishing my food and listening, but not really participating.  Peter finally got up and played the piano, which I  looked forward to every day.  It was Chopin again, and I went up to listen and try to sing the part that sounded like "I'm always Chasing Rainbows," a song I learned very young from a Tammy Grimes Record.  A few days before when I had recognized the little part within his music he was amazed and said he didn't know there were words to Chopin!  We laughed, and from then on, I would sometimes try to "sing along" to the passage he played.

The Yukult lady arrived, a little late, and made her sweet way through the lounge, as she did every day.  I felt bad to not buy a little carton of tangy yoghurt probiotic drink from her, but for some reason didn't. Food wasn't soothing my nerves.

Our darling "Yukult" lady...

I think some of the uneasiness, for me at least, was the fact that I was required to give a speech to the school at the end of the day.  I had tried to get out of this but Declan (the head of school) would not allow it, saying that no matter how long one is at Yamasa, one must address the faculty, student body and staff at the end of their stay.

I had worked on my speech two nights before, and gave it to Sugita Sensei to take a look.  He explained a few particle changes (of course!) and seemed to think well of the rest of the speech.

Time ticked on towards the end of the day.  The final teacher on Thursdays was a sensei that none of us liked.  She only had a two hour gig in our class every Thursday afternoon, but it was always very boring and she did not have good teaching, or listening skills.  She expected us to keep up with her, no matter how fast she spoke and without explanation.  It had annoyed me the week before when I asked to have a clearer explanation and she just rattled something off at full speed to me, and didn't try to break it down in any way.  I got mad enough that I actually excused myself and left the room.  Dave-san told me later that neither he nor a few others understood the task either.

As class came to a close and people looked like they were about to fall asleep, I brought out my large box of Sees gold wrapped lollypops (chocolate, vanilla, cafe latte and butterscotch) that I had brought from California and said Happy Thursday everyone!  Everyone, including the teacher, was ecstatic about this turn of events...and then it was time for me to give my speech.

I would like to say that I delivered it brilliantly.  I would like to say that I had developed such great language skills in my three weeks there that I was able to pull off a masterful reading that gained everyone's wrapt attention and earned everyone's deep admiration.  I would like to say that, but I can't.  It was a mediocre speech, given with as much flare as I could muster.  I tried to include almost every grammatical form I had learned.  This didn't make it clunky, but the lack of precise vocabulary did.  Oh well, I was fine, I got through it, people clapped and hugged me.

My friends at Yamasa on my Graduation Day.  We are doing the Yamasa Ninja!

Afterwards, I handed out Obama bumper stickers and pins to my close friends and they honored me by posing for this picture.

Although my uneasiness subsided for a bit, I still felt that things had changed.  People had already moved on a little in their minds from those three weeks together in which we lived in each other's back pockets.

More on the final evening and departure day in my next post.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Everyone's Japanese (Minna No Nihongo)

Title of the Text:  Everyone's Japanese
So much (too much) happened in the past 10 days, I couldn't keep up with the blog.  I hoped to add more, but studies became more important and I was wiped out most evenings.  The final days of class were intense for me. I felt I needed to do really well  on the final test and prove that all the effort was worth it.  I ended up getting exactly the same on my written and oral tests as I had the first two tests - well, a bit better on written this time...(84%) and 90% oral.  I crossed every t and dotted every i, as it were, on the written exam, but still fell down on particles, getting only half correct - and then I forgot to answer one whole question.  Although particles in simple sentences are easy as pie, as the situation (and sentence structure) gets more complicated, so do the particles.  When I listen to an ESL adult whose native language is Spanish, even if their grammar and vocabulary are excellent, it's the english particles that often trips them up and gives them away.   I mean think about the use of "at" or "in."  Very subtle differences in their use ("I am at the hospital.  I am in the hospital." Both correct but slightly, subtly different and situational).  Anyway, I think when one masters articles in Japanese, one has mastered quite a hurdle indeed.

N..Desu Anyone?
So there was lots of detail in my studies last week.  We also spent time learning how to give and receive - which, as you can imagine is an intricate round of verbs in Japanese.  Those verbs that have to do with who gave what to whom, how close in relationship that person is, if the subject of the sentence is the receiver or the person who gave the present, if the gift giver or receiver is a family member or a boss...all have different verbs.

In my private lessons with Sugita sensei,  I was able to go over in more detail the things that were tripping me up in other lessons.  The use of "n desu," not particularly hard grammatically, but remembering when to use it... (used as a means of explaining why something did or did not happen, it is often used as an apology attached to a verb or adjective...the use of it in a question shows surprise or sometimes disapproval towards the listener.  If the questioner uses "n desu" then you better damn well use "n desu" right back in your explanation.   Or it might not show disapproval but just exceeding interest.  But as it happens, it is such a quiet little addition to a sentence that one may not always hear it, so one has to listen for it in body language and eyebrow expression as well.
Ko-San passes out after finishing final test

But it wasn't all hellishly hard.  I spent a wonderful Saturday in Nagoya at the amazing Nagoya Fall Matsuri with my friends.  We all ended up splitting up because the crowds were too impossible, but it was fun to hang out while we could.  The parade ends in a big battle at the main intersection, showing the fight between three prominent daimiyo to govern and rule all of Japan as Shogun after over 400 years of bloody civil wars.  Of course the final victor is Tokugawa Ieayasu.  But the street battles are wonderfully costumed and even had a dose of comic flair.  The following pics are a mixture of pictures from my camera and Ko-s camera, neither of us had a great picture of the battle scene.  Too busy watching it I guess.

The parade begins with nine huge festival floats pulled by 14 strong men!

The Unicycle club of Nagoya!

Nana-Chan, the beloved mascot of Nagoya!  They dress her up in all different ways through out the year....

Ninjas on Parade!

The Battle Begins!
Tokugawa Ieyasu wins the battle!

After the Matsuri, I walked along the food stands eating fresh grilled whole fish and tasting malt beer.  As I got to the stage at the end of the park, an all men's choir dressed in dark jeans, deep red blazers and blue ties were singing a Japanese song.  The conductor for these 37 men of various ages was a young, very beautiful Japanese woman.   I moved closer to hear them.  After that song they moved into their final song, Bridge Over Troubled Water.  I don't know what came over me, but I was moved to tears.  These earnest men, with their beautiful voices singing "Rike a Bridge Ovah Troubred Watah, I Wir Ray Me Down" at the top of their lungs and in such perfect harmony, (so beautifully that you could almost hear the strings that Paul Simon orchestrated for the piece)...the beauty of their effort and their struggle with the wording and final mastery of the feeling of the song, had me crying all the way through.  Luckily it was dark and the ever polite Japanese are very conscious of not ever looking directly at me, the lone caucasian woman in the park.   So my tears could flow, pretty much unnoticed.

Nagoya Matsuri Food Festival, Nagoya Radio Tower in Background

What I love about the Japanese is this earnestness, it's a great word to describe them.  At school we learned it as まじめ majime (though it might not mean the earnestness I am describing here...) In my experience, there is nothing that is not done here without earnest effort.  At all times, in shops, in restaurants, on the street, in the school office, at the airport, whatever action is happening, the people have every good intention of making sure the task is complete and that all are satisfied.

 I was reminded of this on my first trip to the grocery store this time, which was more like a Wallmart.  I couldn't find a section that had paper supplies, but knew there must be one and so asked a young mother who just happened to be shopping near me if she knew where that section was.  Despite the fact that at that very moment her toddler daughter began to scream her head off the women dragged the child and her grocery basket half way across the store; things kept dropping out of the cart, the child was screaming, the mother and I were picking up the assorted products off the floor as we walked -- all to make sure I got to the paper isle.  No matter what my protestations were, telling her I was sorry and it's O.K., I will find it, please don't worry, it's all right, etc., she continued, ever smiling at me, to complete the request.

I am outside of the culture and I don't know what might go through a person's mind who feels that they have to drop everything to help someone else; are they annoyed? Do they wish they hadn't been asked? Do they feel good about it?  Does it not bother them at all, it simply just is something one does?  I don't know.  I just know that in America someone would have said, "It's about six isles over," and left it at that.  There is something  so beautiful to me about how far people here are willing to go to help others.

And beautiful too is how 37 gentlemen could put their hearts and souls into a song whose lyrics betrayed them, but whose sentimental feeling still rang as true as a lovely bell in the autumn evening.