Monday, 29 October 2012

Hot Springs for Breast Cancer Survivors

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 I wrote a while ago about hot springs as very safe places for women of all ages and with all sorts of bodies, including women with mastectomy and other scaring. I was a little surprised to get quite a few referrals to this blog after posting that from people who were googling the terms "mastectomy" plus "onsen" or "hot springs". I didn't really know what to make of that until I read this article on Japan Times the other day in August: Hot springs resorts band together in support of breast cancer survivors. I hope no one read my post trying to find information and was misinformed. The JT article reads in part:
The group's aim is to create an environment more friendly to breast cancer survivors at hot springs facilities and inform them of such facilities.
Noriyuki Ikeyama, 54, who led work to establish the group, said, "I don't want women with breast cancer to give up enjoying the pleasures of travel."
...
According to the National Cancer Center, more than 50,000 women in Japan are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. But only 10 percent of those who undergo mastectomies have mammary prostheses or reconstructive surgery because of the cost, which can be as high as ¥3 million, according to Ikeyama.
Survivors tend to give up going to hot springs because they are reluctant to be seen without clothes, Ikeyama said, adding many feel guilty as their families are forced to stop going as well.

I guess my experiences are more with local onsen that are community meeting places rather than tourism resorts, which may make a difference. But more than that~ I'm not a breast cancer survivor, and I don't know how that would feel.

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A Few of My Favourite (Early) Autumn Things

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A crow enjoying the sunshine
Autumn is and always has been my favourite season, and living in a country that has deciduous forests makes it even better. We've had an odd season so far though. Summer went on hotter and wetter than usual later than usual, then the temperature dropped ten degrees in two days. We went from sleeping naked with no bed covers and the air conditioner pumping (sorry environment, but I was born and raised in a cold dry climate and there's no other way for me to survive here) to the following night breaking out our down quilts and flannelette PJs. October is ending and the leaves here in my neighbourhood remain stubbornly green (so much so that last week the neighbourhood association tied plastic autumn foliage to all the trees~ for real). Nevertheless, we have been able to enjoy the most rich golden sunlight I think I have ever seen and days on end of blue sky and fluffy clouds. So here in no particular order are a few of my favourite things from these early days of fall 2012.
Harvest time in southern Japan
This is my evening walk
by lantern light, a peek into old Japan
As it gets dark earlier, I have more chances to enjoy the castle at dusk when the "lanterns" are "lit"
Everyone wants to soak up the last of the sun and the parks are full of bubble-blowing kids and joy

Kuri enjoys picnic

Shiba picnic
Hayate thinks that he is a good boy who should get some fish too

Japan Harvest Moon
September's full moon is supposed to be the most beautiful of the year, but I think this one (today's) is pretty damn lovely
Rural harvest festival in Kyushu
At harvest time all sorts of interesting festivals happen
This is the "eat beef and shout festival", where people.. eat beef and enter a shouting competition
Japanese elementary school kids harvesting rice by hand
Harvesting rice with my kids
Green frog in white gloved hand
Saving little frogs from the rice paddy
Not as impressive as a rice harvest, but my peas are growing well
A spider lily suddenly popped up in the garden one day
This little cutie is helping protect my tomatoes
HOW INSANELY CHEAP IS THIS GINGER?!
Shitake mushrooms as big as my hand
HOW HUGE ARE THESE SHIITAKE?!


Japanese fall rice meals
From left to right: Mixed mushroom, matsutake mushroom and chestnut rice kits

Carrots roast with garlic and coriander seeds, glazed in star anise, red wine and orange juice and tossed with mint and feta
Pumpkin, paprika and walnut salad
Happy dog, golden fall sunlight
Technically not an autumn only thing, but I love the way he pokes the tip of his tongue out when he is happy
Kuri may be part lizard~ she is always sunning herself on this rock

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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Squats, Squirts and Penguins

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Yup, this is a post entirely about toilets. There is a some crass and tasteless picture, so don't proceed if squeamish.
Instructions in an Australian hotel room on how to use a western toilet, presumably aimed at Asian tourists
These instructions were in truck stop toilets on a stretch of highway between Nagoya and Tokyo

Japan’s high-tech toilets are world famous. Madonna has one. Steven Colbert has one. The pristine “washlet” senses when you enter the room and raises its lid invitingly. Its seat is warmed and a deodoriser engages. The sound of running water emerges, or, in some upscale department stores, piano concertos play. When you have finished you are washed with warm water (pressure, temperature and angle adjustable) and dried with warm air. A sensor tells the toilet to flush when you stand up. The whole process is hands-free, hygienic and soothing. Toilets are incorporated into cutting edge designs.
That’s the dream, the self-squirting toilet.
Then there are the squats. These vastly outnumber the squirts and are not internationally renowned. I can’t imagine a celebrity owning one. Squats are the most common public toilet. Train stations and parks are equipped with them. Perhaps because these are places where drunks congregate, or perhaps because daintier people avoid using public toilets in the first place, they tend to be filthy. Like this.


Why I don't use public toilets in Japan
The idea is that they are more hygienic, because no part of your body comes into contact with them. They aren’t. They require a degree of skill and aim. They are very challenging if you are wearing skinny jeans or multiple long layers. Or a coat. New houses are built with western-style toilets, and have been for many years. Only the oldest farmhouses still have squatters. However, public schools and kindergartens stubbornly cling to Japanese-style toilets. This has exacerbated the stress children experience when first attending school, as many of them have never used a squatter and have to tackle it for the first time solo. According to Maria, the ancient Japanese used sticks to clean themselves. I am very glad that practice fell by the wayside at least.

Unless you have a fairly fancy or recently renovated home, your toilet will probably look like this:





Home style Japanese toilet
Toilet in our current house
No fancy features except that when you flush, water flows into a basin above the cistern. Then, when you wash your hands the soapy water flows through and helps clean the bowl. Water conservation and hygiene all in one! There are any number of products available to increase the appeal of your cistern –sink. We’ve gone with the toilet penguin, seen here in action in our first apartment.
Coupled with Hello Kitty toilet paper and a Totoro hand towel, every trip to the bog becomes a kawaii adventure.
Is it wrong to do this to Hello Kitty?

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Taking Care of Students

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I’ve said before that I love Japanese schools. It’s easier to identify the bad things and write about them, because the good things are often to do with atmosphere and the little jokes between teachers and students that are hard to explain. Consequently I think I’ve made more negative posts than good, despite liking more than I dislike of what I experience at school. I’m going to try to redress that.

Teachers spend a lot of their time doing non-academic support for students, including helping them with emotional and social skills. Where ever possible teachers try to have students help other students. I was reminded of this today when I overheard the teachers discussing a boy who has recently stopped coming to school. They were browsing the student records, trying to figure out who they should send over to the boy’s house to try and persuade him to come tomorrow. They know that a teacher calling and trying to get him to come wouldn’t help, especially as he is feeling left out by his classmates and this is a factor in his school refusal. A much better technique is to find a kind, friendly student who could make a persona entreaty: “We miss you, please come back!”… All the better is the student happened to be a cute girl, of course. Whoever they entrust this job to will take it seriously, understanding that she has been trusted by the teachers to help them help him. She will be proud to have been asked, and she won’t just say empty platitudes: she will talk to her classmates about being more welcoming of the boy, and include him in her social circle until he is comfortable enough to make his own friends. Even after several years it still amazes me how well the students take care of one another when entrusted with the role (especially when asked to assist students with disabilities).

A more extreme example happened at the start of the school year last year. One first grade boy had a lot of trouble adjusting to junior high. His home room teacher called the elementary school the boy had graduation from to talk to the teacher who had been his HRT the previous year. He asked who the student’s best friend had been in elementary school. It turned out that the boy’s friend had gone to a different JHS. Our school called the friend’s school and explained the situation to the friend’s HRT. Both schools organised a schedule for the boys to meet regularly, so that our student’ friend could help him through the transition period. Our student cheered up enormously after being reunited with his friend, and he soon came out of his shell and began participating more fully in his new school life.

Another teacher, who had a boy from a troubled background in his home room, regularly takes the student out for dinner both to make sure he is fed and to give him the chance to talk through his problems.
This level of intimate, almost pastoral care, is one of the reasons teaches work so much overtime.
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Outsized Clothes

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When I first moved to Kyushu I could fit into most Japanese clothes labelled “large”. I had subsequently gained a large amount of weight, and it is now very difficult to find clothes that fit me. While I thought that this was something of a “gaijin” problem, I’ve actually talked to a lot of Japanese women who also find it difficult to find clothes they like. There are “big size” speciality stores, which sell clothing that in Australia would be a “medium”, but they tend to carry floral monstrosities with unflattering frills and cheap lace. And diamantes. On everything. Fashionable clothing in larger sizes just doesn’t exist (at least not in my rural backwater). I’m not talking about seriously big sizes either; you need to go to a speciality store for an Australian 12 (US 8). Many regular stores don’t even stock a Japanese “L”, only XS, S and M. It isn’t just about size, either. Everything seems to be made for slender limbs and no curves. A teacher I work with told me a really sad story about taking her high school aged daughter shopping as a birthday treat. Her daughter is by no means overweight, but she has the proportions of her farming heritage: a stocky frame and sturdy, muscular limbs. She wanted a pair of jeans, but after trying half a dozen shops she couldn’t find a single pair that would fit over her thighs. The birthday treat turned sour and the deflated teenager told her mother that she didn’t want anything after all, and could they just go home please.
I’m pretty sure there is a fortune to be made in flattering, fashionable clothing in larger sizes in Japan. Someone should get on it.
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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

They Are Just Like Us, Except When They Aren’t

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At the start of September my city holds an English speech and recitation contest. For the speech section third grade junior high students (grade nines) deliver an original speech in English on any topic they like. Usually the speech is composed in Japanese then translated into English by a teacher, but we all act like the kids have actually written them themselves. They usually follow tried-and-true Japanese speech formula:
“I was bad at sport/subject/musical instrument. I wanted to quit. My team mates/teachers/band members encouraged me. They never gave up. I got better at the activity because of them. We had a big competition/tournament/exam. We won/ lost/ succeeded/ failed. I did my best and learned an important lesson. I’ll do my best in the future.”
That covers 90% of the speeches. The remaining 10% tackle actually interesting topics including human trafficking, growing up with parents who are deaf, or war. At this year’s contest a number of students spoke about experiences with international exchanges. Some had hosted home stay students for a short visit from our sister city in China. These speeches also followed a predictable formula:
“I was worried about how to communicate with the Chinese and if we could be friends. It turned out they were just like us. I learned a lot. I want to study English more and communicate with foreigners again.”
Despite the formula, there are some interesting things to deduce from these speeches.
 First, the cultural indoctrination that it’s hard for Japanese to communicate with foreigners doesn’t stand up against personal experience. Sadly, I don’t have confidence that this memory lasts. In three years I think it is likely that these kids will be back to thinking “it’s difficult for me to communicate with foreigners.”  One girl said “Can a shy Japanese like me get along with an outgoing Chinese?” I am sure she knows that there are many Japanese people who are not shy, and many Chinese people who are shy. But the stereotyping messages are so pervasive that it will take more than a short home-stay visit to change them for good.
Second, the belief that foreigners are profoundly alien is so strong that something as simple as a Chinese girl enjoying (the ancient and inscrutable Japanese art of) playing basket ball was surprising. Her hither-to unquestioned belief was shaken by direct personal experience. A huge part of what ALTs do in Japan is just… being normal. We blow people’s minds by eating rice. The totalising stereotypes are strong, but they can be broken down.
For me the more interesting anecdotes were the ones that revealed genuine differences. The trope of “she seemed so totally different from me, but then we discovered that we both loved ice-cream, so I guess really we’re the same!” is incredibly frustrating in its trivialisation of difference. An American kid eating a sandwich while a Japanese kid eats an onigiri isn’t emblematic of cultural difference, it’s window dressing. The differences that cause conflicts, misunderstandings and international tensions are differences in world view, different priorities and different ways of assigning responsibility. Bread versus rice is not why the world is more suspicious of post-war Japan than it is of post-war Germany. When I was a university student in Nagoya I was participating in some intercultural-communication-something-or-other event and the Japanese girls I was paired with explained that Japanese children use red crayons to draw the sun, while European children use yellow crayons. They were convinced that this was a significant and profound example of cultural difference. Being in a somewhat cantankerous mood by that point (I know, ME? Cantankerous? Who would have though! XD) I mentioned that actually when I had spent time in the UK I had noticed that the sun seemed much paler and weaker… possibly more yellow… than it did in Japan.
Anyway, back to the interesting anecdotes. One girl had done a short home stay in New Zealand. She related her surprise when her host mother told her to turn the lights out and go to sleep at eleven pm. Thinking that this was a peculiarity of her host family, she checked around the town and discovered that in fact, going to sleep by eleven was normal for thirteen-year-olds. She pointed out in her speech that it would be impossible to complete the daily schedule normal in Japan without staying up until one or two am at least. If one were to unpack this, some really deep-seated and interesting differences in educational systems, the role children play in society and beliefs about health, wellbeing and parenting would emerge. Much more interesting than whether the sun is yellow or red, surely?!
Another girl had visited a cousin in America and spent some time with his friends. Whenever they asked her opinion or what she wanted to do/eat she answered “I’m fine with whatever”. Eventually they got frustrated with her and told her that not having an opinion about anything was like saying that she didn’t care or didn’t have any thoughts of her own. She was shocked by the confrontation and their accusations, and spoke regretfully about not having been able to explain to them that, in her words, ‘agreeing with everyone-else to avoid being disliked is Japanese culture’. I think that has a lot to do with being a teen-aged girl rather than being an exclusively Japanese characteristic, but that is what she said.
Where am I going with all this? I suppose I am being contrary but I would really love to have the chance to do a class on international communication that could say: “Get over the surface things. It doesn’t matter if you use chopsticks or a fork. But don’t pretend that the deep differences don’t matter. Unless we recognise the chasms our differences sink between us, we can’t work constructively to bridge them.”
I want to teach this class in Australia, too. We have a multi-cultural society of which I am very proud. But tensions have been simmering for a decade now, and it isn’t helpful or constructive to respond with trite lines like “no matter where we come from, all parents love their kids”.
Having children move between boarders and communities is so vital for this task of understanding. It’s also why hate groups like the American Family Association are telling parents to keep their kids home from school on "Mix it Up at Lunch" days with considerable success; imagine the harm to good Christian children if they ate lunch with a classmate who was gay or Jewish or Hispanic? Not only do I think that international exchanges are important but also co-education of Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, rich and poor children, is something I wish we saw more of. It is why I am committed to exclusively public and secular education. There's a short but good description of the importance of secular education in Bosnia at Friendly Atheist (again?! what can I say, I am a fan girl). You can only begin to explore the meaningful differences when you cease to be distracted by the surface ones. When you realise that “they’re just like us” you can put yourself in the position to try and understand why and how someone just like you has come to be not very like you at all.
I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone other than me…


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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Tatami Mold

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mold on Japanese straw mat
Tatami naturally regulate humidity, but in a disused room this quickly invites mold
When the new batch of JET Programme participants arrived this summer I helped out with their orientation, giving a talk about daily life including dealing with humidity. Then I came home to discover that the tatami in my spare room were covered in mould. What a fraud I am!
My house has a gorgeous Japanese style room that we aren’t using.
Japanese Room With Carvings of Cranes
和室
None of our furniture in Japanese style and it seems like a waste of the décor to use the room as a study or TV room. We joked about keeping it for the sole purpose of composing haiku on rainy days (it looks out into the Japanese part of the garden) or playing mah-jong. So far we haven’t done either, and we keep the doors shut to stop Kuri from eating the tatami. As I should have been aware, these are the ideal conditions for mould to flourish. At first I thought that the blotches were shadows, but when the underside of my feet turned green I realised that we had a serious mould problem.
I sprayed it with barely diluted white vinegar and carefully wiped it down with an old towel.

Vinegar is like magic! Cleans anything and tastes good too!
Will not be using this as a towel any more.
It worked well, but ideally I would have lifted the tatami up and set it outside to sun. The weather has been too unstable lately with typhoons hitting every other weekend to risk it though, so I settled for leaving the garden doors open as often as possible to let the sun in and the air circulate.

Much better.
Sadly the vinegar dressing hasn’t dampened Kuri’s enthusiasm for the tatami…
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