木曜日, 6月 23, 2011

Good Idea: Volunteer Interpreter

As promised, the other side of my week in Ishigaki, Okinawa:
Mayor's thoughts: "I see you takin' my picture"
So, I mentioned previously that day one I met some triathletes from the same flight to Ishigaki. What I didn't mention however was that the nice woman from Chile I met went on to win 1st place in her division (the highest womens' division, that is)! How did day two start? After the Spatan-style madness that was breakfast with my host family (see prior post), the other interpreters and I headed to the City hall and met the mayor! At the meeting, Stephanie, the local CIR who was in charge of organizing us (along with a million other aspects of the triathlon), explained what we were doing there to the governor.

After that we had several hours of orientation, including a tour of the facilities on the island that would be used by the international competitors, as well as the hotels they would stay at. These became the places we were posted throughout the week to help them in shifts.  We also received our schedule for the week, and everyone had several free days and half days to spend with our host families and sight see.
Once orientation was over, we volunteers decided to grab lunch together and we followed Clayton, the only volunteer doing it for the second time, to Indian, but since it was packed, the four of us who had to work later split off to find local food and see the shopping arcade. 
Orion, brewed in Okinawa released a special can commemorating the Triathlon
 After getting to know each other over lunch, we shopped around and discussed our host families while enjoying the local color. Everyone in Ishigaki seemed to be not just friendly and approachable, but more tolerant (read: less gawky) of us foreigners and rarely made a big deal about us speaking Japanese (a point I really appreciate since I'd rather use Japanese to communicate the same things I would in English, not just discuss how, where, and how long I've studied Japanese). Basically, I was loving everything about this island!
This fishing shop sells the most ridiculously big and beautiful, old shells you've ever seen!
Tom's host father was actually the owner of a minshuku, a family-operated Japanese lodge, so not only did he have a hotel room for his room, his host, who had nothing better to do (thanks to the international panic after the March earthquake and tsunami, closer to MONGOLIA than Ishigaki), took us out for a tour of the island the next morning and snorkeling after lunch! We visited a recently discovered, ancient cave, and stopped all over the island to take photos of breathtaking panoramas and picturesque beaches with absolutely no one taking advantage of them!
See what I mean?
After sightseeing and lunch, I went snorkeling for the second time in my life, and let me tell you, it could not have been MORE different than my first time. The biggest difference was Ishigaki is covered in reefs, which might as well be the underwater nations' capitals they are so busy and crowded with every kind of fish and coral going  their way and not caring one bit that you're there! I even saw 4 sea-snakes, which look like 6 foot long air-conditioning ducts painted with snake patters and a face like mollusk from outer space! Apparently they are one of the most poisonous things on the planet as well, but because they have tiny mouths, and are happy to creep along the ocean floor, we didn't have to call in the national guard.
Up to this point though, it had really only been the 4 of us hanging out, even though I already knew 3 of the other volunteers from conferences in Tokyo and online forums, and I was worried that everyone would be happy to go to bed at 9 every night and hardly hang out with each other. Luckily, that was not the case AT ALL!

That evening I was invited by a local English teacher, Sean, to a house party of mostly older Japanese people who volunteer every year to help the triathlon as well. He had stopped by my evening shift Day 2 at the hotel, to say hello and see this year's batch of volunteers. That whole week, he and Alex, a cool dude from England, also teaching English on the island, extended these warm welcomes, and this, the first of many such nights, turned out to be some volunteers who had also used their network to invite pretty much all of the other volunteer interpreters. What started as a quiet get together and drinks with a half-dozen older, but very pleasant folks, turned into an all ages party with 30 people spread throughout the kitchen, living room and front porch, with children and and dogs running around between everyone's legs, good food on the bbq, more coming from the kitchen, and the older men urging the volunteers to drink more Orion and shima, the local term for their long-grain rice alcohol, Awamori, that is famous all over Okinawa. 

The next evening as well, we were invited to yet another host's minshuku and Jeff, the Taiwanese-American volunteer made ginger-chicken soup along a pot-luck of other food brought and/or made there in the kitchen by other guests. We stuffed ourselves on hamburgers, taco-salad and snacks, and talked with owner, who also ran a dive shop, and a couple other Japanese families who showed up late.

 When I say "showed up late" it's because I didn't realize until about the 6th of 7 days there, that even though Ishigaki is very much a part of Japan, it was the first place in Japan I'd ever been where the entire island really didn't care about being punctual. Japan is right to pride themselves on how punctual their trains, planes, and subways are, but this town where everyone drove themselves, and liked to relax, had really embraced the island lifestyle and given up on worrying about being a couple minutes late. It was almost like culture shock when it finally dawned on me.

Finally, after a few more shifts sitting at help desks, and a couple trips to pizza and karaoke with my fellow volunteers and local English teachers, the big day had arrived:
The mass of white water is about 100 professional triathletes paddling the water like viciously fine-tuned machines
 After the morning of local and amateur participants, the pro women and men had their go at tearing all over the island! The swam two big laps in the bay before exiting, grabbing their bikes and tearing up laps, including both ways across that huge bridge in the photo above, before finally running a MARATHON. INSANE!!!
Some more of the local color, out cheering for his Kiwi countrymen.
Jeff, Tom and I were chosen to be on the anti-doping committee. So our job was to watch the athletes we were told to after the race and make sure the didn't drink, eat, or take anything shading between finishing the race and being taken for the doping test. We got to wear cool head sets and communicate with the people back at the test facility, and my guy, who placed 3rd was extremely cooperative and just happy as hell to have placed so well since coming back from an injury.
We're officially DOPE
 That night, at least half the island met out in park for a celebration with live music, and food stalls from various local organizations and school clubs. My host family took me there and After looking around, I joined the other interpreters. Not only was everyone and there brother there that night (including the athletes from that day), the mayor stopped by our little group sitting in the grass and started pulling beer after beer out from his jacket pockets, thank us each personally. What a great guy!
I took this on my cell phone, but that's the mayor giving the thumbs up!
 Meanwhile on stage, Stephanie was busy helping with the English and Japanese emceeing, so when she finally finished and the concert ended, we all marched back downtown, past the main area of the triathlon, for more drinks and karaoke, celebrating late into the evening.

Most of our merry gang, with Jeff brandishing the case of cola he got from Olga at the park!
Ben, Sean, and me (holding some shima) at karaoke
 The next day we took some of the different triathlete teams form their hotels to elementary schools to talk to the children about what they do and their impression of Ishigaki. Ben and I got the Austrian team and I got to dust off my veeery rusty 'ol German language skills!

The next, and final full day on the island was the first time all the volunteers had the day off at the same time so we all grabbed a ferry that morning to Hateruma, the southernmost island in all of Japan; it's so far south that they boast being able to see the Southern Cross constellation!
seriously, they're proud
 We rented bikes, and rode all the way to the southern tip of this southernmost island, and after many photos on the wave-battered, volcanic cliffs, we returned to our bikes, pedaling back around to a place for lunch, and then the beach for more snorkeling!
Oh and did I mention we looked incredibly intimidating? That's cuz we didn't.
 Then we barely returned our bikes in time to catch a bus back to the port and the last ferry of the day to Ishigaki. We all snoozed for those 2 hours, which was perfect because we had our own thank you/farewell ceremony and dinner to attend at a hotel conference room, and the City Hall
 (Stephanie included) did a cute, silly, magic show for us, but mostly for the children of all the host families who attended that night as well. Knowing this was our last night together, guess what? That's right! We went out for more drinks and karaoke. I think I got to go to karaoke four times that week, and since it's one of my favorite things to do, yet sometimes so difficult to find people in the mood to go with you, it was one more thing about my time there that I absolutely loved!
This was a wild bar where all the staff, surprised by a sudden audience, got up and started playing us rock covers!
The final day we had to say good bye to our host families and each other. After going through security, I sat with a few of the other volunteers, in an odd limbo where nobody spoke, lost in our thoughts of all the memories this week on Ishigaki provided. Then my cell phone rang, and it was Stephanie. with less than 10 minutes before our plane started boarding she called me back out to receive a thank you gift from the city hall staff, a few of whom also came to wave goodbye. Thus making this trip excellent, right down to the final moments before takeoff. But I don't say "flying home", because I didn't fly back to Hiroshima. I flew to Fukuoka for my flight the next day...to AUSTRALIA....

土曜日, 6月 11, 2011

石垣と書く。愛と読もう。 Ishigaki, Okinawa

Okay, so I am ripping off some Radwimps lyrics in my title there, but basically it's just a cool way to say I LOVED ISHIGAKI!

This has been a long time coming so let's jump right in:
I stepped off the plane in Ishigaki, and island of Okinawa so far south that it is closer to THE PHILIPPINES than it is to the southern tip of Kyushu!
I went there as one of about 10 volunteers for a week-long home-stay while interpreting for their world-class triathlon. 
A smartly dressed, young Englishman, named Alex, was standing outside checking in Triathletes who were on the same plane as me. One of the other volunteers, a friend of mine named Erica who was also on the same plane, was quickly greeted by her host mother and two children, and she introduced herself to me as well and offered me a ride to my host-family's house!
Half-an-hour later I am being shown to my own room and sitting down to dinner with my host-family of 6!
Breakfast the next morning with the Masuda Family :D

  Over the week, I got to know my host family really well and they were SUCH amazing people! The mother, Nodoka, spoke English really well, and it turns out she had spent two years in Tonga with JICA (the Japanese Peace Corp.) Her Husband, Yoshi, had quit his job and moved to Ishigaki quite simply "to be happy." And he worked very hard at two jobs, one being his own juku, a Japanese night-time cram school where he taught English, science and math.
Their house was big and beautiful and infested by the noisiest, craziest, best 4 kids in the world!
At 7, 5, 2, and 1 years-old, there was almost never a quiet moment, but at the same time the dynamic between them was fascinating. Sometimes it was all-out every-man-for-himself war, although Ryuki, the eldest, was pretty good keeping out of it. Still, other times, though rare, the four of them would work and play together so sweetly you'd think you were watching The Japanese Brady Bunch.
The second oldest, Takeru, was the star of the show and demanded constant attention. Every morning I would laugh as he piled have of the bread on the table onto his plate, even though he only ate maybe 2 pieces. But even though he liked to talk and act like a bully, he was really very sensitive and sweet; quick to laugh, quick to cry; this kid wore a heart of gold on his sleeve.
Himari, their only daughter, was a darling example and sharp contrast to the boys. That first night she walked right up to me (I was sitting on the floor), handed me a hair clip, turned around and sat on my lap like "Ok, now you're going to play with my hair". She would sneak attack her mom with a hair brush. Without saying a word, she'd pull out Nodoka's hair band and start combing! My favorite thing about her though was that she would sneak off by herself and run little experiments. I found her in the bathroom one morning washing off rocks in the bathroom hand sink and getting water all over the floor, but I just laughed and gave her a towel and left her to it and when I came back later everything was clean.
Maybe it was actually Nodoka who cleaned it, but I couldn't even fathom the amount of energy those children must take. She and Yoshi both were excellent parents, and they always seemed to say exactly what I hope I'd say to my kids. They were infinitely patient, they'd speak English to their kids, have other families and children over, take Ryuki to baseball practice, catch bugs with Takeru, and all the while, keep an ever-vigilant eye on Kazu, The Vacuuming Fascist.
Maybe it was because he is always at home watching him mom clean, but at 1 year old, Kazu seemed to love sweeping and vacuuming more than walking. Seriously, his favorite toys were a small broom and the vacuum cleaner. Even turned off, he would pull it out of the closet by himself and push it around the floor contentedly. I liked to call him "Kazu the Fascist" because he always sat back and purveyed - not "look" or "gaze" - he would purvey the house and everyone and everything in it with a confidence that said "All of this is mine".

I spent the week traveling, sight-seeing, partying, and interpreting with the other volunteers and we had such a great time together, but my host family made the time there so unique and I loved coming home and seeing them, waking up and having the boys peeking in my bedroom, whispering to each other, and eating meals and playing with them. I'll talk more about the other stuff next time, but when I think of Ishigaki, the fondest memories and warmest emotions are of the generous and beautiful Masuda Family.

水曜日, 6月 08, 2011

Oh the times♪ They are a'changin'!

Okay, I swear, last non sequitur post before I write about my April/May Travels. There's just so much to do in life that pulls me away from blogging, but I guess that's a good thing and keeps these interesting!

FIRST! I've been reading the Japanese newspapers a bit more and here's some of the buzz:
Miyajima, home of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site ITSUKUSHIMA SHRINE was voted the best tourist location in Japan according to tripadvisor.com (which is according to the newspaper article I wrote :P)
YAY! I already knew that though. It is awesome. My friend Mike is here visiting Japan for the first time right now, and I took him there for the hiking, nature, temples, shrines, and food last Monday and we had a great time!

NEXT! Wifi is finally coming to Japan!
What a minute, wtf? Japan is technology central right? What do I mean "coming to"? Well, lots of people have wifi in their homes here, and even in the 90s Japanese people were the first to use their cell phone to connect to the internet on their laptops. But the concept of a WiFi hot spot never really caught on here like in the U.S.
...until now.
The reason is smart phones. After the success of the iPhone, iPhone3/3G/and 4, a growing minority of Japanese people are using smart phones and learning about apps, twitter, and facebook (yeah, now, finally!). Even though every mom in America is clambering to post their baby photos on facebook, the majority of Japanese people are shyly creating, and quickly deleting their scary facebook accounts.
Japan, as you can imagine, likes its privacy and being reserved, but the internet culture of voyeuristic friend-stalking is just too appealing to our monkey-brains, and nature is slowly winning out over nurture (i.e. Japanese Culture). I am basing this on my own suppositions btw, there's probably 5 different Master's thesis topics in there just waiting to happen.
But since Japanese people are buying unlimited internet packages on their shiny, new smart phones, and using them, they are clogging the cellphone networks and leading to the complaints Americans are all too familiar with. Japan's solution: make more WiFi spots so they can get their phone content faster without burdening the phone lines. Simplicity is beautiful eh?
So what are they actually doing? Well, NTT the phone tower company is planning to install 50,000 new Wifi spots in popular businesses such as cafes by March 2013, and competitor KDDI says they will be installing 100,000 of their own! This will probably destroy the 3G and 4G internet dongle (what a disgusting word btw) USB business targeting the previous netbook (cheap, light, and little laptops) boom, but it all spells PROGRESS to me!

Last: You may have read this in western media, but Mazda is axing their cooperative efforts with Ford in the US by 2013. You might see see this as weakness or desperate restructuring on Mazda's part, and even now, their main plant in Hiroshima is only operating at 70% due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but they plan to be back at 100% by October and have plenty of other plans in the pipeline for Thailand, India, and China, so I think it says more (or less) about Ford and the American economy.

Interesting? Bullshit? Whaddya think? Notice any stories I haven't? Or, if you've read something about Japan and thought "Wtf?", lemme know under "Comments" and I'll get back to ya!