Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Bit of Edusmufflecation (Sorry folks, inside joke)

So Saturday morning, we are leaving for our ridiculous month-or-so long road trip, in our Daihatsu Mira, a car which makes our old Toyota Tercel feel roomy. As I told my co-workers in Japan, by the end of the trip, Jeff and I will either have tremendous patience and love for each other, or we will (at this point, I make the gesture for strangulation... body language communicates this idea far more clearly than my broken Japanese ever could!)

So, where are we going? What are we doing? Who are we seeing? How can you reach us?

Here we go... Japan is divided into 4 main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Please click on the map below. Once you click on it, if you still can't read it, enlarge it.

We presently live pretty much smack in the middle of Honshu island. See "Maebashi"? That is the capital of the prefecture we live in. For our trip, we are heading west and south. The farthest we have ever gone is Hiroshima. We plan on taking our time and seeing as much as we can. We plan to spend most of our time and energy on Shikoku and Kyushu islands, since we have never been to either of them. And we plan on dragging out our yen as much as possible by camping, sleeping in the car (yes, it's possible) driving non-toll roads, and eating at 7-11s and ramen shops. Haha. Wanna place bets how long we'll last?

I've been reading and underlining pages in the Lonely Planet guide for the past month. This could be a very exciting trip. Volcanoes, myriads of hot springs, including "sand baths," sand dunes, amazing coastlines, waterfalls... ETC!

We will meet up with Mikiko and her sister Emiko in Fukuoka towards the beginning of the trip. They have family there that we will stay with for a few days. On the way back up, we will stop in Kobe and visit our friend Natsuko (I met her at Brock). And we're hoping to visit another friend, Rieko, in Yokohama.

We don't know when we will be back. After the trip, we will come back to Ota for about 4 days to rest and say good-bye to the crew here. Then, we will go to Tokyo to visit Joanne for 2 or 3 days. And then, finally, we will come home. We are estimating mid-May. We'll see how everything goes... And we'll let you all know when we do finally book that ticket home.

We will be stopping at internet cafes regularly, so please keep emailing us! We've been feeling a bit lonely lately... (hint, hint, hint!!!) And we also hope to update the blog about once a week, or more, depending how things go. So keep checking us out! So in terms of keeping in touch, the only thing changing is that the Epp household will now be a completely mobile household... what I've always wanted... the wandering gypsy caravan! Oh, but Jeff will no longer have his cell phone. I'll still have mine. You can text us there too, but you gotta keep the messages to only a few sentences. Otherwise they'll get cut off.

Well, bon voyage, everyone!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Well, time is a-flying. I am sitting amidst piles of boxes. Tonight we will sleep in our wonderful little apartment for the last time. We will stay with Mikiko and her sis on Friday night, and then leave for our exciting across-Japan travels early(ish) Saturday morning!

So much has been happening... so much to blog about, so little time.
But I gotta tell you about last week Tuesday, cause it was really memorable.

Jeff and I went by train to Kanamachi, a section of Tokyo right on the borders of two other prefectures, Saitama, and Chiba. Our purpose for the visit was to FINALLY hook up with Toshie Hamanaka, a teacher I worked with 8 years ago when I lived in Matsudo, Chiba. It was a perfect day... she even greeted us with tears in her eyes!
This is Hamanaka sensei and I walking along the Edo River. Her apartment is right next to the river, so they have a perfect view of all the summer fireworks! I'm so jealous!

This is a surprise that this sentimental freak never expected to happen... it turns out that Hamanaka sensei lives very close to Nichu, the junior high we worked together at. It also happened to be my favorite junior high. Lots of great memories from there. Well, we paid a visit. We even got to go inside and see the teacher's room, because of course, this being Japan, there were teachers there working on a holiday...

And this is us on a short boat ride we took across the Edo River. One side, busy, suburban Tokyo, the other side, the rice fields of Chiba.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

off into the sunset

right place at the right time
Originally uploaded by Bob Jones.

that's where our money is...

Kathy, Mikiko, and her sister Emiko went for a drive into the mountains on Sunday. It was to be our last weekend road trip before our month long road trip. We headed down to the Chichibu area, and on our way we noticed a really interesting temple and buddhist statues up on a mountain (they were about 40 feet tall). So we drove up a tiny little road to the top, parked the car, and walked around for about a half hour. When we came back, all three of the ladies had been robbed. They had all left their wallets in the car because we are in Japan and nothing ever gets stolen in Japan except umbrellas and bras. Credit cards and Japanese money - even the change! The few dollars Canadian and the American dollar was left, as well as the ipod and the bank cards. All told, we lost about 100,000 yen - $1000 Canadian.

Puts a bit of a damper on the drive. Only thing that made it worse was the fact that it took 2 hours for the police officer to prove to us that he was being thorough (all the time we know that there is no chance we will see this money again). By the time he had finished, most of the day was gone and we didn't get to go where we wanted to.

So much for Japan being the safest place in the world. Even in Japan you can't leave your wallet sitting in the back seat of a car with the doors unlocked!

The big question is, what would Dave do? "It's just money, we'll make more".

Thanks for the pre-emptive advice Dave.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

a couple more things

i told you it was coming.


when i first found out that i would be teaching elementary school in japan i had a fit. i was not impressed because i had been told that i was going to teach highschool. i was determined to hate it. i swore i would never do the hokey pokey.

i have thoroughly enjoyed elementary school. so much so that i am struggling through an online additional qualifications course to 'down'-grade my qualifications to include grades 4-6 elementary.

but i should have never attempted the hokey pokey.

for three months, on the third friday of the month, the parent association from my friday school convinced myself and another english teacher to lead a "english club for everyone". it was held in the gym because about 60 kids plus about 25-30 parents attended these free-for-all english carnivals. 45 minutes of chaos.

for the final session we decided on a body parts/clothing topic. we planned a great relay game where kids would put on oversized clothing and run around (what could be better?)

and then it came.

the suggestion.

if we are doing body parts, why not sing the hokey pokey?

i had been in elementary schools for about 16 months and hadn't yet sang the hokey pokey. i had taught kids the alphabet, drawn pictures, played dodgeball, ran around, told the kids the english for butt, crazy, stupid, and other simple elementary level profainities. but i hadn't yet sung the hokey pokey.

sure, i said, i'd love to.

i had been lulled by the unending months of "head and shoulders" and the abc song. i had even found selective success with "5 little monkeys jumping on the bed".

as the kids (and parents) formed the largest circle in the history of english club, i realized i was at the center, and the center of attention. the song started, the kids couldn't keep up with the cd, and i was left belting out the words, "put your wholeself in and shake it all the hokey pokey...that's what it's all about..." and thinking to myself that the end was near.

i don't mean the end of the song.

have you ever had that kind of moment? time slows down and you are almost surprised to find yourself where you are, for better or worse, like you are looking in on your own life. like one of those stupid freedom 55 commercials a couple years ago when some poor fool comes back and visits himself to convince himself to use freedom 55 and retire early. if i had come back at that moment, i would have suggested never doing the hokey pokey.

three and a half hours later, the song was finally over, and we started the relay. that was the longest song ever. long enough for the other english teacher to take a couple pictures to prove it.



you think all we do when we snowboard is stand around?

i got something for you. i brought the camera last weekend. my first time in a snowboard park. here's me catching a bit'o air half way through the day. and the other shot is some random japanese dude doing the trick i learned and was doing at the end of the day (after the camera was put away).


you've heard that toilets in japan are rather advanced. you've heard about heated seats, built-in bideas and the like.

our company just built a new office. nothing but the best for the toilet. a built in radio, auto seat (lifts up the cover, both the cover and the seat, and then puts the seat back down after you're done), lullabies as you do your thing, and of course the standard heated seat etc. the control panel for the toilet is more complex than most airplane cockpits. check it out - and yes this is the control panel for the toilet ONLY.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

And After the Ceremony...!

Most definitely, the best part of graduation was (and always is) the afterwards. I walked from homeroom to homeroom, got shouts of, "Kyashi sensei!", spontaneous hugs (rare in this country) and lots of photo opps.

All of the third year teachers in the teachers' room after the ceremony. Doesn't everyone look so nice? The woman on the left side is the vice-principal of the school.

After I got home, Jeff saw a great photo opp. What's better than a beautiful woman, a bouquet of flowers, and, man oh man, absolute perfect lighting outside. "C'mon, Kath, we gotta go right now! Another half an hour, and it'll be too late!" Yes, dear. It was a coldish, windy day. He managed to take about 25 pictures in two minutes. Heck, who am I to complain? It's nice to feel like a supermodel every now and then.

Friday, March 17, 2006

So How Was Monday?

It's funny how I get so worked up about something before it happens... envisioning worst-case scenarios, getting my clenched-chest syndrome, etc. etc. And then, when the actual event happens, I'm ... fine. Everything is ... fine.

Such was the case with graduation day. I realize now, looking back, that I had been worked up about this for much longer than I first realized. It had taken on great meaning for me. Even though I would continue for two weeks at Minami Chu after the big event, it came to signify "good-bye" for me in many ways. And rightly so, I guess. The school is definitely a lot more lonely without the 200 3rd years around. At the same time, it's a hell of a lot more peaceful too.

Here's some highlights. It was a wonderful wonderful day. This is the gym right before the "dignitaries" and graduates came in. The graduates sat at the one end, facing the 1st and 2nd years. The "dignitaries" sat on the right side, and the teachers on the left. I was in the second row. You can see my light blue lap blanket on the chair. The heaters were on, but the gym was still a little chilly.

This is Abe, Takuya accepting his diploma, the first of the 200 or so students. Junior high grad is a very big deal in Japan because it's the last stage of compulsory education. Working in a "troubled" school, quite a few of my kids are not going on to high school. Instead, at 15, they're starting work. Not necessarily promising work, but work.

The ceremony is very detailed, very ordered. I am not kidding when I tell you that the students spent two days practicing accepting their diplomas and bowing. They bow every step of the way. To the dignitaries, to the principal, and here, to the teachers. And we lightly bow our heads back. Oh, and accepting the diploma... walk onto stage; turn to face principal; right foot steps forward; left foot steps to align with right; right arm raises straight and right hand grips diploma; left hand follows to do the same; right and left feet step back again; arms still straight, holding the diploma out in front of the body; deep bow to the principal, from the waist; lightly fold diploma into the right hand; turn and walk off stage.

Crazy ceremony. Funny thing is, I love it. I love the steps; I love the details. I find it beautiful.

This is Ichikawa, Sumire leading the graduates in their song to the 1st and 2nd years. At the end of the ceremony, the school sang a beautiful song. The 1st and 2nd years sang the first verse, graduates sang the second, and then they sang the third verse together.

I got a very nice surprise at the end of the ceremony. Each homeroom class was led out of the gym at the end by their homeroom teacher and one other teacher. Takagi sensei suddenly scooched over to me at the end of the ceremony and asked me if I would walk out with Kakinuma sensei and the 3-5 class. This was a very nice honour. I got to do my own bow! haha. We walked to the class, were met by two of the students who presented us each with a bouquet, bowed to them, and then led the class out. Very nice end to the ceremony.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bring on the Soba!

A few weeks ago a teacher Jeff works with invited us to go with him to a soba party. Japanese people are crazy about soba. It's a thin, buckwheat noodle, served either hot or cold. The "soba party" was in nearby Ashikaga in a small restaurant that is opened only for special occasions such as these. It was fantastic! We got to watch a "soba master" make the actual noodles... very fascinating. He rolled the dough into a very thin round shape. Then, using a variety of wooden poles, he gradually worked the dough into a long rectangular shape of many thin layers. And finally he chopped the dough into perfect soba noodles.

We chose to eat the most common (and inexpensive) dish... the cold soba. The noodles are served on a tray. Sauce is served in a separate bowl. You add chopped up green onion and wasabi to the sauce, dip your noodles in, and sluuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrp! After, they bring you a hot teapot of the water the noodles were cooked in. You add it to your remaining sauce, and drink back your "soba soup."

It was a real treat. While we ate our soba, we got stared at by many small, wrinkly, curious, elderly Japanese people. And in turn, we got to watch three women clad in kimono playing the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument. Good fun!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Why March is Hard

Some of my 3年生 students. I love 'em. They're graduating on Monday. I'm gonna cry. And then they'll leave. And Minami Chu will be a much quieter and more lonesome place for a few weeks. And then I'll leave too.

Random Thoughts from Monday

In North America, when we refer to a sneeze, we say, "ACHOOO!" The Japanese, on the other hand, say, "HAHKKUSHUN!" similar to the word action with an h placed in front of it.

The funny thing is, when I sneeze, I usually really do say a version of ACHOOOOOO! And when the Japanese sneeze (especially men), I am often startled by the loud HAHKKUSHUN! thrown across the room.

However, when dogs bark, whether in North America or Japan, I swear they are saying "WOOF" or "ARF." They are certainly NOT saying "WON WON"... hmmmm... or are they? And I have to keep reminding myself that like the rest of the country, Japanese dogs do NOT speak English. I'll never forget how surprised I was when I told the racist neighbourhood Chihuahua to "suwatte" and he DID!

I feel like there's a conclusion I should draw here, but I ain't got one. Anyone wanna help?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Going Home/Leaving Home

Today was another day full of lasts for me (jeff). It was tough actually. I've had a really good time here. I've been thinking of how to express the feelings I've been having so that those that are waiting for us back in Canada are able to understand.

Today I thought about leaving Japan. There are a lot of stupid things that people do here. There are a lot of things that bother me. But there are a lot of things that I will miss, and once I'm home there will be a whole lot more that I will miss - things that I don't realize now.

I thought about it while I was riding bike to and from work today. Perhaps leaving Japan was harder than leaving Canada because we planned to come back to Canada, and it would take a lot to keep us from returning to Canada. But leaving Japan, we say we want to return here some day. Kathy and I keep talking about next time. Nothing is certain of course, but we are constantly refering to 'next time', how we would do things different 'next time' and where we would live 'next time'.

Maybe that's what's so difficult.

Next time is not certain. Japan feels like home right now. But it isn't. Canada is home. And so if we left Canada for a time to move somewhere, it is certain that we will return. But as we are leaving Japan for a time, it is not certain that we will return, and even less certain that we will return to the same town we live in now. On top of that, we work in an industry of 'movers'. Many of our friends and people we are familiar with are foreigners. If we were return to the same city in Japan in a few years, 99% of our foreign friends would be gone. Everything would be different.

I remember after one year of bible school in B.C. when I was 19 how I felt. It's not just the place that you leave, but the snapshot of time. You can't ever have it back. It's gone.

Sure things back in Canada have changed - my little bro has a baby, our church is moved and changed, our jobs are taken by others, our friends have gotten older (and maybe wiser), among other things. We have a new government, there are new buildings and lots of things. But mostly, it's still the same. For those of us with a childhood home, or a hometown, it's the place that holds the memories. For these fantastic times that we spend in other places (B.C. or Japan), it's the time that holds the memories - and time only comes around once.

Our time here is almost done. It will not wait for us, it will not come back. It will not be here if and when we return. That makes leaving really difficult. But when the time comes to go, you have to go. Because staying just prolongs the goodbye - and nobody likes long goodbyes.

We will be coming "home" soon. Please be patient with us as we struggle to feel at home in Canada. And please keep us company even if you can't really understand how we feel about a place that no longer exists - as we try desparately to describe a time that was...

We are really looking forward to seeing you again, it's just that a place that has been home to us for almost two years now is suddenly going to be gone - alive only in our memories. Good and bad, it was our time here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Miscellaneous Overdue Strange and Awe-Inspiring/ful Bits of Nothingness

1. Some chips I bought the other day. Creamy Pizza....Huh? more importantly, "BEER PLUS". What's in here anyways?

2. Thanks to everyone who sent us gifts for Christmas, Valentines, and other various holidays found sometime between October and last Thursday. To voice our appreciation, here is a picture of us laying in bed opening a gift box from D&D and the fam. Those are "I AM CANADIAN" slippers, underwear (a gift normally reserved to be given from my own mother), various photo magazines (which I finished cover to cover in about 5 hours - thank you so much), and a box of chocolates (which were finished much more quickly than the various photo magazines. To Nathan and Rose and Sue - thanks for the strange game. Kathy has been losing against herself for days now!

3. Skiing. I mean snowboarding. (For more pictures of snowboarding, check out our photosite at I've picked up boarding here in Japan (along with about three and a half million Japanese). A couple of pictures from those adventures. The first picture is me and some guy named Taka. That's all I know. Christian and I have gone boarding a few times together on weekends. This particular weekend he emailed me Friday night and we agreed to go Saturday early morning. I guess he was out drinking at K-chan's Ramen shop and invited some Japanese dude. The guy showed up in the morning and drove us up to Minakami in his roomy van. We didn't talk to him at all because neither Christian or I speak much Japanese and the guy clearly spoke no English. After boarding for about two hours he told me he was going to the car for a short bit. Long story short, he was so hungover that he slept in the van all day - we found him there at 4:30. Thanks Taka for being our taxi for the day! I'm sure I'll never see him again. (I expect he'll be a little more hesitant to agree to go anywhere with two gaijin next time). Nice view eh!

(more boarding)
At the top of a run in Hakuba (Nagano). I didn't use it, but I was tempted.

4. Food. And Mikiko. Together. A bad combination. She has some strange taste buds in that mouth of hers I think. She brought us some Japanese 'dessert' the other day. How about chomping into that...(click on the picture for a close up!)

5. My finger. You've been waiting for quite some time now. Especially Josh. So here it is: Click on the following picture to see a larger version, and click here to see it the day I cut it.

more to come (toilets and the hokey pokey)

thanks for enjoying the journey with me.