Virginia McClain: Writer & Designer

Author of Blade's Edge and Traitor's Hope

Virginia's Pre-2011 Blog

Virginia's Blog from before she returned to North America (in other words Japan and the before times)

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Words from Japan

Posted on March 17, 2011 at 12:24 AM Comments comments (6)

Well, I won't lie, I'm slightly embarassed that I haven't posted since October. SOOOOO much has happened since then. I finished my most recent novel, I did the first round of edits, I sent it off to my first readers, I got it back from some of them, I'll soon be doing the second round of edits and sending it off to the editor who's interested in reading it. I also have driven to Kyushu and back, learned how to snowboard, signed up for a triathlon in June, started training for said triathlon, I've fallen even more madly in love with my boyfriend (didn't think that was possible), I've started teaching new classes at work and oh, yeah, I'm one of millions of people dealing with the after effects of the worst earthquake and tsunami Japan has ever experienced.

But, I imagine, unfortunately, due to the morbidity and curiosity of human nature, the thing you're all most interested in hearing about is that last bit. Which is fine, really, because that's what I'm here to talk about.

I've been inundated with loving e-mails from family and friends these days, including people I haven't heard from in ages who are checking in for the first time in months or years just to make sure I'm ok. It's nice. But, I've also been getting e-mails from the same concerned and loving people telling me to get the hell out of Japan. While I appreciate and understand where those sentiments come from, it's not at all helpful.

As the best way to allay fears is to provide information I'm restarting this blog to keep people informed and hopefully keep the fear down. Not to say that things aren't scary, but  panic is never helpful and we'd like to keep it at a minimum.

Because it's a story that many people haven't heard, I'll start at the beginning.

Friday March 11th:  On Fridays I teach kids for 3 hours straight and then head off to teach adults immediately afterwards so they're usually rather hectic. I was racing to finish planning for my adult and kids classes and print off worksheets before I left for class (because of course I put it off til the last second) and then hurrying out the door. As I bent down to pick up my bag, my phone went off and I picked it up to see what it was. Earthquake early warning. Shit. Right. Ok.

We'd had a 7.2 earthquake a few days before hand a few prefectures away and had gotten a solid sway from that, so earthquakes were on the brain, and I had recently reviewed the list of safety procedures just in case. So, keeping my cool I put down my bags and moved to the bathroom to turn off the gas for our hot water heater. Even as I put down my bag the apartment began to sway. I then moved to the kitchen and turned off the gas there. Then I headed to the sliding door and opened it wide. (If you don't know, we turn the gas off to help reduce the possibility of fires in a big quake and open doors in order to prevent being trapped should the quake twist the frames.)


With that done I noted that the apartment was not only still swaying but was swaying more vigorously. Not knowing how big this would get I decided to sit under my desk. I hate to admit it but part of me was thinking "crap this is going to make me late for class" I must be turning Japanese.

The swaying continued for minutes. The reports from Miyagi said that it lasted over 5 minutes (that's at the location closest to the epicenter) it seemed to go that long here as well. But to be perfectly frank, it wasn't that scary. The building swayed, we're on the 3rd floor of a very well made 4 story apartment building, so it swayed and clacked feeling like something between a boat on a rolling ocean and a train that's rocking on it's rails and that's about it. It was a lot of motion, but in our apartment nothing even fell over. As the swaying began to slow considerably I got up to poke my head out the door and see what the rest of the neighborhood was up to. Some old men who were clearing snow down on the street were looking suspiciously at the power lines in front of them and one of them was gesturing to the other. Though I couldn't hear him, he was clearly saying something along the lines of "Didja feel that one, Harry? That was a biggee eh?" The other man nodded, still staring at the power lines. I followed his gaze and noticed that they'd started swaying again. Our first aftershock. I waited out the aftershock inside. (Again, for those who don't know, while there is actual shaking going on, you're not supposed to run out of a building -unless it's already coming down- because you're more likely to get killed by a falling piece of facade than anything that might hit you inside.) Once that was over I was late for work but headed off anyway (after clearing the foot of fresh fallen snow off of my car). This is Japan after all and unless there's damage from an earthquake people expect you to keep on keeping on.  No damage at our place, ergo I figured I was expected at work.


I was right. One of my students and his mom (these are my 6 year olds) arrived at the same time that I did. We exchanged our views of the quake and I learned a new word through context. Yureru: to shake. I went in and the staff at the place I work asked me if I was ok and if *immediate confirmation of my new vocab* things shook a lot at my place. I replied that they had indeed, as I am on the 3rd floor, but that there was no damage. They nodded. I picked up my materials and went into my classroom. All my students (remember they're six year olds) were hiding under the desks. When I came in they all shouted in unison "Sensei, Sensei! Jishindayo!"  (Teacher, Teacher, There's an earthquake.) Yeah, I noticed.

So then I kept three 6 year olds entertained with English games while occasionally letting them dive under the desks when an aftershock hit. And plenty of aftershocks hit. I pretty much felt like we didn't stop swaying from 2:46pm when the quake hit until... well I still feel like I'm swaying now. But now it's mostly in my head. Up until Sunday afternoon or so, it really wasn't. The way to check this is to look at something that's hanging but is hefty enough not to be moved by a breeze. There's a large hanging calendar in the classroom I was teaching in, I kept on eye on it. About 9 times out of 10 it wasn't in my imagination and I checked that calendar about 50 times while I was in that room.

After my first kids class I walked out to the lobby where they had the news running on the big screen. I started to make some coppies for my next class and as I did so a bunch of the staff started exclaiming loudly in front of the TV. I rushed over to see what was going on and was horrified to see live coverage of one the Tsunami wiping out a town on the coast. None of us could talk, we just stood there covering our mouths and staring at the devastation as a wall of water picked up cars, houses, boats and everything else in its path and dragged them along. There aren't words... I'm sure you've all seen the footage at this point. But... imagine, if you can, that you're not seeing footage of a place that's thousands of miles away from you filled with people you've never met. Imagine instead that you're watching it, as it's happening, and looking at a place that you've been to before, a place that is almost identical to the place you live and a place that is filled with people who you might know, might have seen, might have talked to and who regardless of any of that are people just like you and only a hundred miles away.

We stood and watched helplessly as a part of our world was destroyed, and then I realized I was late for class, again. I had a hard time believing that parents were still letting their students come to my class, but they were. So I had to go teach. Thankfully I had prepared worksheets as I was in no condition to actually teach. I am quite convinced that my class on Friday was one of the worst classes I've ever taught. Thankfully, the kids were happy to be distracted with spelling sheets and word searches and didn't mind that I was constantly looking at the calendar on the wall.

For my third class I only had one student. He was 20 minutes late, so that gave me more time to watch the news. More shots of devastation from the tsunami, and as the situation progressed it really started to hit home that lots of people were going to be dead, possibly people I knew. I kept trying to send Corey a text message from my phone to tell him I was ok and ask him how he was but cell phones were down as the networks were overwhelmed. My lone 10 year old and I had an interesting conversation about the disaster and then, because I have a sick sense of humor, we played alphabet Jenga (made all the more interesting by the fact that the aftershocks kept shaking the table) in my defense the kid thought this was hilarious. Then we played 20 questions. He beat me with "ghost".

After that I had to run off to my adult class (over 7km away and only 20 minutes after my kids classes finish) only to find out that they had canceled. I was relieved. I didn't think I could handle pretending things were ok in front of adults for an hour and a half.

I headed home and found Corey and Johnny waiting for me watching the news. We exchanged hugs and tales of where we were when the quake hit, then we settled down to watch the records of the devastation. We talked about our friends in Miyagi and pondered whether or not they were ok. We had no idea, and we had no way of finding out until the internet and phones came back online. Eventually, we headed off to find Mide (our other good friend who lives close by) as we couldn't get in touch via phone. We walked to her place but she was out, so we left a note at her place and headed to our local pizza place for dinner. My buddy who runs the restaurant was fine and it was good to confirm that people were ok, he didn't have friends or family in Miyagi. Daijobu. (Japanese for "fine.") Mide showed finally managed to get a call through to Johnny and we told her to meet us at the restaurant. She'd been out driving around looking for us since her calls hadn't been going through. More hugs, more story telling and we made dark jokes and tried to laugh it off.

Then we headed to the supermarket to stock up on snacks and breakfast foods. From there we went to Mide's to try her phone line to see if we could succeed in calling home to let people know that we were ok. No dice. After a few more attempts we gave up and went our separate ways to try to find some sleep.

Just before I went to bed it occurred to me that I might be able to get an internet connection on my kindle. I had noticed that people with iPhones seemed to be getting through to people, and I knew that my kindle had the same connection that an iPhone does so I thought it might work. It did. I was able to post on facebook and send a quick e-mail to my family letting them know we were ok. Heart attacks, averted. For the time being anyway.




Saturday March 12th: We were awoken at 4am by a large aftershock. For most of us this was a rude awakening from dreams already laden with earthquakes. We then returned to an uneasy sleep constantly concerned that we'd have to get up for a full sized quake and make tracks. Thankfully, it never happened. We got up at 8am on Saturday to try to get online and get in touch with folks back home. Of course we also turned on the news. The power plants in Fukushima had been on the news the day before also, but we were so concerned with the quake and the tsunami and the thought of losing our friends and a city we loved that we didn't think too much of it.

On Saturday our perspective on that changed. The tragedy was still in the devastation faced by the residents all over the east coast of Tohoku, but the nuclear plant was becoming a growing concern.

Corey is the Block Leader for the JET program in Shonai. That means it's his responsibility to talk to people when they have problems and be a contact person for trouble at schools and in life in general. On Saturday it meant that he had to keep people calm. It was a big job and I did my best to help as I could. Foreigners who were unable to understand the Japanese news were only getting info from friends and family back home who were reading western news, or they were reading the western news themselves and were panicking unnecessarily. We did our best to keep that down. We invited people over, we drank, we played boggle, we made jokes, we talked about what super powers we wanted to have. It was a good time.



Sunday March 13th: We woke up to another 4am aftershock only this time our phones went off, but there was no noticable shaking. Then at 8am there was a shake that woke us up, but as it wasn't that big we just stayed in bed and went back to sleep. Around 10am we got up and made a big old western breakfast with potatoes and eggs. We fed our guests and tried to relax a bit. Then we got to business.


Sunday was stock up on food and gas day. We had heard that there would be shortages over the next week because supply chains would be slow to reestablish (most of our shipping used to come through Sendai, now that's not an option so a lot of rerouting needs to be done). So we went off to get in line for gas and then we hit up a supermarket outside of town that still had supplies. We only had to wait about 30 minutes for gas. (Considering that line ups lately have been over 2 hours long this was a nice break.) They were rationing so we only got 10 liters each (except Corey, he has a diesel van so he was allowed to fill up). But I had over half a tank anyway so 10 liters got me close to full. At the store we bought some more bread and some milk and eggs, some seaweed and some things we were out of and then we headed home.

From there we watched the news and then tried to take our minds off things. We had started stock piling clean drinking water just as a precaution the day before and we did some more of that. We mainly focused on keeping our guests calm and reassuring them.

Then a musician friend of ours showed up and he and Corey prepared for a small gig they had planned that night. A few hours later we went to watch them. Just before that I baked some bread. Life seemed almost normal. It was really nice to go listen to music and have a few drinks with friends for a while.


Some time during the day we heard news of possible rolling power outages scheduled for the coming week, so after the gig everyone decided to go their separate ways in order to do laundry and get prepared to possibly not have power. We had fewer aftershocks on Sunday than previous days so that was reassuring. Sunday night was a solid night of sleep.



Monday March 14th: We had just gotten up and were rejoicing at a our tremorless rest when another aftershock shook the house a bit. This no longer phases us as long as it stops within a minute or so.

On Monday I was getting a lot of worried email from home and we had just spent our weekend keeping others calm, and then Corey sent me a message from school asking me if I could prepare our evacuation bags just in case. Apparently this was where my stress level burst and I told the world to fuck off and I went to the gym. It was nice. I swam and ran and it was great stress relief. Yay, training! Then Johnny and I had bentos and made bad disaster jokes, then we headed back to the apartment and watched a silly TV show that made us laugh and relax a bit. Corey came home bearing alcohol and we made a party of it. My Monday class was canceled so I didn't have to go in to work. Good times.

We spent the evening hanging out and playing guitar and making each other laugh. It was relaxing and almost normal. Those of us still new to our instruments (ie. Johnny and I) were even calm enough to get frustrated with ourselves for not learning our part as fast as we wanted to. It was a good night.



Tuesday March 15th: Tuesday marked the arrival of our friend Jeremy who is a frenchman living in Sendai. He was fortunate enough to be in downtown Sendai at the time of the quake and he was fine. Likewise his house was not damaged. However, conditions are such in Sendai that he thought it would be best to leave. Waiting in line for two hours or more for food and water is only fun for so long. So we have taken him in.

Tuesday was also the day of taping up the windows and scrubbing out the tub so that we could fill it with water. As the threat from the Fukushima plant increased we had to keep all of our options open, including the eventuality of being stuck inside for a long time. Ergo we needed lots of water and wanted to keep out as much outside air as possible. This was all just precautionary, and even now people in our area are not being instructed to do this officially, but we've decided it's a reasonable precaution.

I still had to teach so I went off to hang with my adults and we mostly talked about the disaster for both classes. Still, my students were lively and seemed generally chipper though many of them are worried and pretty  much everyone knows someone who is now homeless in Sendai or has been affected directly by the disaster. There was a lot of story swapping.


Tuesday night we celebrated Jeremy's arrival and safety by a drinking a bottle of champagne that he had given us back in January but which we had not yet consumed. We then celebrated further by watchin Zoolander. A completely ridiculous movie that was excellent for keeping our minds off things. All the while Jeremy had to keep running off to his computer because he is apparently France's primary correspondent on the ground here in Japan. Hilarious. Some of us have even been "interviewed" on French TV regardless of whether or not we speak French. Too funny.



Wednesday March 16th: Wednesday was a day of more preparations. We finished taping the windows and we had a meeting with some other local foreigners who are trying to organize relief efforts for Miyagi and other affected areas. Then I had to go teach in Sakata (a 40 minute drive to the north). I have 5 students in a business class there and they weren't so keen on talking about the disaster. Everyone is pretty worried about the Fukushima plants so after talking about it for a bit and making sure everyone was ok and so were their families and friends, I went for a change of subject. Prepared for the eventuality I had brought boggle. I had only meant to use it to start class, but after three rounds one of them asked me "can we do this for the rest of class?" I said, "sure." They had a blast.

Then I came home and made pizza with Jeremy as sou-chef  while Corey went to collect some of our friends from Tendo who are flying out of our local airport on Friday. They had some road troubles on the way home (highway closed due to avalanche warning) so they took some extra time getting back, but all was well. Last night we sat around and played multilingual boggle, including rounds in French and Japanese. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of made up vocabulary. "What do you mean daol isn't a word in French? It sounded like one in my head!"



Thursday March 17th: Brings us to today. I have actually spent most of today writing this post so I will leave you here now. Things are ok today, we're keeping a close eye on the news and getting ready to accept more evacuees from Miyagi.

So there you go! I'm off to hit the gym and then go to work. Things here are fine for the moment. I will keep you posted as things progress. But that's the story up til now. I hope you are all doing well.

PS. If you are interested in helping out here in Japan please donate to the Japanese branch of the redcross!


Guilt, Busy-ness (not to be confused with business) and other matters...

Posted on October 12, 2010 at 3:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Am I feeling a bit ashamed that I haven't yet posted the blogs about the Hokkaido trip? Yes. So guilty, that I'm going to force myself to sit still for 6 hours and write them? Not quite. But, they will come eventually. I'm sorry for the delay.

I honestly haven't had time to sit down and write them since my last post. I have had new classes starting at work (and all through September I had to teach Saturdays) and I have spent any free time I have working on my TEFL course, writing my latest novel, and studying Japanese. So, there hasn't been much time for blogs. There still isn't really, but I thought I'd squeeze one in before I go radio silent for the next week. Why will I be going on radio silence? Because my mom is coming to visit. Yay! Happiness. So, yeah, I'm writing while I still have the chance.

First off check out this picture!

Pretty sweet huh? Yeah, that's me playing bass. Hashi Jouzu (the beginner band I'm in) played at the monthly log cabin party this weekend. It was a ton of fun. We are constantly improving and because we actually practice together pretty frequently we were the best group that played (even if we are individually not the best musicians -aside from Corey) or so we were told by quite a few audience members. Yay! 

So that's why bass has been taking up so much of my time lately. We prepped for this gig pretty hard. We still made a bunch of mistakes (or at least I know I did) but overall we sounded pretty good and particularly on the songs we've been playing for a while we rocked hard.

Otherwise life is all reading, writing, studying and preparing for my mom to arrive. But she gets in TONIGHT! So preparation is almost at an end. That reminds me I need to go tidy up a bit more. So that's the end of this post. Sorry it's so short. In other news I got a haircut. It's rather short. Not sure if I like it yet, something about the shape... I'll let you know and if I decide I like it I'll post pictures.

Alright. I'm off. Must make apartment seem clean... Yipes.

Web-redesign, Hokkaido, and the General Awesomeness that is Living in Japan

Posted on September 20, 2010 at 3:23 AM Comments comments (1)

So, first things first, you've probably noticed by now that the site looks a little (or a lot) different. I recently upgraded the template I've been using and I rearranged somethings in an attempt to make things more user friendly. If you're wondering where everything went, make sure that you scroll over the headers on the home page and wait for the drop down menus (namely the one under 'writing') and then if you're looking for photos and videos be sure to scroll over the heading for blog (the one that's under writing) and they'll pop up. For the technologically capable, I'm sure this explanation is hardly necessary, but for my tech challenged readers it might be necessary. If you have any questions just send me an e-mail at [email protected]

Also, if you have any comments about the new site set up please let me know. I'm curious to know if it's actually the improvement I think it is, or if I've gone and made things irreparably worse.

Now then, it's time to get down to business. That being the business of my latest disappearance. This one was actually not my fault.

It started with a trip to Hokkaido. Which was epic and amazing and will require another 3 blog posts at least to fully relate. We hitch-hiked, we spoke Japanese the whole time, we saw ALL of Hokkaido. It was truly epic. But upon our return we found our internet not working. We did all manner of things to try to fix this but ultimately discovered that without substantially higher skills in Japanese we would be unable to fix the problem ourselves. Which meant that we had to rely on the help of other. Which meant that it took FOREVER. 6 weeks later, we now have internet again. Sigh...

So, I'm back! And I'm excited to relate my latest adventures. But, the thing is, Hokkaido is going to take a series of posts to relate. The first of which will immediately follow this post. The other two will follow in the next few days. In the meantime, here's what I've been up to since I got back.

  • I decided to take the JLPT N4 which means I will need to study a ton between now and December in order to pass. (This is a test that measures your Japanese proficiency in the categories of grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening.)
  • Before I lost internet I was in the process of completing a TEFL course for my job here in Japan. It was put on hold (as it was an online course) for the last 6 weeks but will be restarted immediately.
  • I had a birthday! I am now uncomfortably close to the age of 30.
  • I have been writing a LOT! I am now very close to finishing last years NaNoWriMo novel, which will be a great accomplishment (remember I wrote 100,000 words last November? Well, finishing off what I estimate to be the last 30,000 is taking a REALLY long time).
  • I have been reading a lot. Thanks to my kindle and some in the flesh books. Which is giving me lots of motivation to stay writing. Yay!
  • I have been hiking a fair bit! Now that it's finally cooling off in our area the weather is getting good for attacking all the local mountains. I will post some pictures from one of our most recent hikes when I post this.
  • I MISSED International Talk Like a Pirate Day! DOH!! I had a post all written out in word to put up a week in advance to do the Piratey Essay writing contest this year, but we didn't get internet back until it was TOO LATE! (Next year!!) Don't worry, I still spent the day talking like a pirate.
  • I've been working and I will be starting 2 new business classes in October. This is exciting for many reasons, not least of which is that it will keep me from having to work Saturdays in a city 2 hours away from me.
  • We are in the process of figuring out what the heck we're going to do when we leave Japan. We've decided that we'll be leaving at the end of our 2nd year contracts, but we have yet to decide to where we shall return or what we'll be doing when we get there. We'll let you know as soon as we do.
  • I've also been enjoying the general awesomeness that is Japan. At the end of July/beginning of August a whole new group of foreigners showed up coming to teach English here. Showing them around and explaining why Japan is so great has renewed the excitement of being here and encouraged all of us old timers to spend more time exploring. It also made me realize how freaking fast time is going while we're here. I still feel like I showed up here a couple of weeks ago, maybe a couple of months ago, max. But, I have in fact been here over a year and indeed have lots to show for it. But that's why we're thinking about next years plans already. We know how fast the first year went and we don't want the second one to slip by without us noticing.
  • I got a Japanese driver's license! It was a SERIOUS pain in the ass. It probably warrants it's own post, and I may someday write it up, but for now just let me say that the Japanese bureaucracy knows no bounds.
  • My mom is coming to visit!!!! I am EXTREMELY excited to say that my mother is coming to visit for 9 days in October. It will be the first time I've seen her since I left and I am seriously looking forward to showing her around our home here. 

Ok. That's it for the list. I'm off to add photos and write the first Hokkaido post. Catch you over there.

Of Cameras and Kindles and Running Shoes...

Posted on June 27, 2010 at 10:14 PM Comments comments (0)

Well, of course, lots has happened since my last entry. Life in Japan being the never ending adventure that it is, there's always something happening, and many of those things have been interesting. Let us see, then, if I can actually recall any of them at the moment.

  • I bought about 10 books and read them all in just over a week.
  • I came up with a new novel plot that is going to have to wait until I finish the two other novels I've already started.
  • I'm still playing with my band "Hashi Jouzu" (Full name is Hashi Jouzu and the Deathcult Panty Flame Experience - and no, of course we're not serious) (Hashi Jouzu means "talented with chopsticks" it's something we hear A LOT) By the way, the photograph at the top of this entry is indeed a picture of the band. That's me on bass in the back right corner. :-)
  • I bought a sweet pentax waterproof, dirtproof, dropproof camera.
  • We did an extremely pretty albeit rather dangerous hike around some sea cliffs (I took pictures with my awesome new camera)
  •  I went and picked sansai (mountain vegetables) with little old lady friend of mine and then she taught me how to cook them
  • We watched a good friend of ours complete her first ever olympic triathalon and I have been inspired to try the same one next year.
  • I bought new running shoes as part of my effort to get in shape for said endeavor
  • Completely unrelatedly I bought a Kindle (the ereader made by in order to be able to read all the tons of books that I would normally read for less money and in order to be able to bring them all home with me in the form of 8 ounces of metal and plastic rather than the form of ten largish book boxes and hundreds of dollars worth of shipping costs. It is one of the greatest purchases I have ever made. The e-ink screen reads just like paper and the completely free 3G wireless internet EVERYWHERE is amazing. I love it.
  • Sadly, because of a great deal of trouble I am having with my bank back home I have been unable to buy any books for my kindle. However, I have downloaded over 80 free books that are available for the kindle, most of which are classics. So, until I can get my accounts sorted out, I will be reading quite a lot of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and many other fine but deceased authors. This does not really strike me as a negative, to be honest. 
  • It's now the rainy season here, so I will be out and about, but getting rather damp as the days roll by. Benefit: still nice and cool compared to the summers here. Negative: ridiculously humid and getting buggy.
Ok. I think that's it for the list.  Sorry for resorting to a list but sometimes it makes what would be an otherwise insanely long post more manageable. Check out the new pictures going up in the photo albums. Hope you're all doing well. More soon-ish.

Steps and Stones May Break my Bones but Plastic Katana Will Never Hurt Me.

Posted on May 5, 2010 at 8:43 AM Comments comments (0)

I have a cold, a nasty one. AND, I have tooth pain from hell that I've had since Saturday but can't get fixed until tomorrow, because Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week were all national holidays. I mention this because I think that those are two factors that are likely to detract from the coherence of this post. Sadly, both things are seriously messing with my head and I'm finding basic motor functions to be far more difficult than they should be. But, this post really shouldn't be put off. So here goes.

Monday of this week, was an event called the Uesugi Matsuri. This is a festival held in the town of Yonezawa a city a few hours drive away from Tsuruoka but still in the same prefecture (which for those who have forgotten is Yamagata). This festival sports a few events (I think) but the best event (in my opinion) is the Kawanakajima battle reenactment. If you've heard of the civil war reenactments back home then you kind of know what I'm talking about, only this has way more samurai, way more katana, and way fewer confederate flags. Or to put it another way, it's a thousand times cooler. 

This year Corey and I (and a fair number of our Gaijin compatriots) formed part of the reenactment. We were the Foreigners' brigade. I'm not entirely sure if there really was a foreigners' brigade in the actual battle or if some kind Japanese folk just decided to let some of the nerdier gaijin participate. Either way, for the last few years (at least) a number of foreigners have been taking part in the battle reenactment.

So, anyway, Corey and I participated. This happened because Corey got an e-mail saying "hey there are only 10 spots left in this cool chance to dress up like samurai and wail on people with plastic swords" to which he immediately responded with "sign me up, and sign my girlfriend up too!" He told me about it after he had done it, he didn't consult me at all. I consider this a sure sign that we are meant to be together. He knew, without asking, that the immediate answer to the question "Virginia, do you want to dress up as a samurai and wail on people with plastic swords?" would be "Does the pope wear a ridiculous hat?" In other words: scheduling conflicts be damned, other plans be forgotten, we ARE going to dress up like samurai and wail on people with plastic swords.

And Monday of this week, the day was finally upon us. At 9:00am we reported to a local middle school to don our armor and started getting ready for the big day. An awesome band of local volunteers helped us get dressed. Turns out, even putting on fake armor is tricky enough to need help.

The Armor: For those who are actually interested in the details of this kind of thing read on, for those that only want to know what happened when the action went down feel free to skip to the next paragraph: we were wearing a cotton gi like top that went underneath a very baggy pleated set of pants (similar to hakama - for those that do martial arts- or koulats - for those that don't) that was the basic underwear. Then we wore tabi socks with tabi shoes that had softish rubber soles and managed to look like socks still, on top of those we wore traditional straw sandals the name of which I am completely ignorant. Then we donned very light armor. It was essentially thick canvas with small metal plates sewn at intervals across the fabric. We donned these on our arms (from shoulder to back of hand), chests, backs and shins. Then we had a tiny piece of metal sewn into a headband to protect our foreheads. I sincerely hope that samurai wore more armor than we did. Though I will grant you that our range of motion and lack of heat stroke was far superior to our leading officers who were donning the more elaborate gear.

The action: There was a lot of standing around. Perhaps not dissimilar to real war, there was a whole lot of nothing that went on between fights. And really, there was only one main battle, but we did some practice marching first. That part was certainly boring, but messing around with our swords while waiting for things to happen was a lot of fun. Anyway, we were officially "involved" in this activity from 9am until 5pm. Yet we were only doing the actual reenactment from 2pm until 3pm. But we got a free lunch out of the deal so I felt that made up for a lot of the waiting. Anyway, when it got down to the real battle we did the following: We stood around while our commander drank sake and decided what he was going to do. We cried out some EH-EH-OHs to raise moral before the fight. We ran off to the other side of the river to prepare for our sneak attack. We waited for a long time while the rest of the battle happened until we were signaled. We lit torches that blew a bunch of smoke into our faces and made running and breathing rather difficult but which seemingly did nothing to our enemies. We ran across the river (and by across, I mean through it, we were up to our thighs in water at some points) and "surprised" the enemy forces. We fought them for a bit. I took on a few guys with cavalry spears and made them spin a lot. I fought some other people who were really surprised that the white foreign chick seemed to know which end of the sword was the pointy one. We retreated to our main force. We charged the enemy with our main force for the final battle. The foreign brigade formed a flying V and penetrated deep into enemy lines. Then we turned around to fight them all from their own ranks. We "killed" many an unsuspecting Japanese high school student. We battled heroicly, we died gloriously. I took out quite a few opponents (including a general or two) but was finally encircled by six enemy troops, some of whom were wielding spears. I took a few of them down, but was eventually stabbed in the leg and decided that it was time to begin my death sequence, I limped to charge a second foe and while striking him was yet again stabbed, this time in the ribs. I decided the next blow would be the one to fell me so I engaged a final confused teenager and tempted him in to stabbing me again as I cried out and ran him through as my final act. It turned out I had conveniently died next to a good friend of mine and we were able to chat while we waited for the battle to end. I coughed a lot. (Did I mention all the smoke from the torches?) After a few more minutes the announcer chick (did I mention the announcer and the freakin' film soundtrack that were rolling the whole time? probably not, but I should have, they were epic) said something about what an epic draw the battle was and  how said all the death was. Then people started applauding and that meant we got to stand up. All of our dead resuscitated we reformed ranks and stood up to be applauded and to let out a few more EH-EH-OHs.  Then the masses (and I really mean that, there were 4 or 5 thousand people watching the whole thing) breached the barriers and swarmed us for photo ops. A few small children and there parents wanted pictures with me, as well as a few high school boys and the occasional random 40 year old man.

From there it degraded into a whole lot of picture taking with friends etc. and then eventually we were herded back to the middle school in order to hand back our armor etc. And that was it. It was an epic awesome, wonderful Monday. I will of course be posting pictures. There are lots. Many of them will be stolen from other people's facebook pages. I will do my best to credit them, but keep in mind that I didn't have my camera on me so ALL of these pictures were taken by someone other than me. In other words, I'm not taking credit for ANY of them. :-)

In other news: Corey's mom is in town. We are having a great time, and we have been taking her to a number of Japanese temples and shrines almost all of which are at the tops of mountains in these parts. So, there's been a lot of step climbing lately, mostly stone steps. Hence the beginning part to title of this post. I hope to write again in the not too distant future to cover all of the super interesting things we've been up to that haven't involved wailing on people with plastic swords, but I fear this post is already long enough. So there you have it. More later, I'm off to blow my nose a few thousand more times. *le sigh*

Update: In which I explain where the hell I've been lately.

Posted on February 28, 2010 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (2)
Wow, it's been a ridiculously long time since I have written anything here. Sadly, that seems to be my latest MO. Ah well, I'm not going to waste your time apologizing for my absence but suffice it to say I've been busy.

Busy doing what you ask? Well, therein lies the purpose of this post. Here's the basic run down:

Skiing: I may have mentioned a while back (but I may not) that the boyfriend and I purchased Skis and boots and poles for the season here in Japan. It turns out that was a really good call. Our neck of the woods gets a fair bit of snow and the mountains nearby provide perfectly adequate skiing all winter long. Also, brimming with enthusiasm from our purchases we even drove down to Nagano (home of the 1998 winter olympics) and enjoyed a fun filled weekend of skiing there as well. Ski season is still going, though it's now the beginning of the end, as the weather has finally begun to turn spring like in the last week and a half.

Working: Yep, I'm still actually teaching English to Japanese people. Despite all the skiing and other recreational activities I've been getting up to, I do in fact have a job. I love my job, aside from the days I have to teach kids (and even that's not that bad, just bad by comparison). My adult students are extremely motivated and lively and just generally awesome.

Partying: Shonai is party central here in Yamagata prefecture. It turns out our local scene is where all the happeningest happenings happen to happen. (Just nod and pretend it made sense, ok?) We're the hub of all things social and there have been lots of social things occurring just about every weekend. There has been much drinking, singing, dancing, carousing, and even the occasional wearing of costumes and putting on of funny accents here in the land of dadachamame (our local, famous soybean). 

Missing the boyfriend while he went to Thailand without me: In case the header didn't make it perfectly clear, the boyfriend went to Thailand. I couldn't go (because of work). I missed him while he was gone.

Cooking: Some of you know my propensity for cooking... that is to say, I don't have one. But, I have been cooking more than usual here in Japan. I haven't yet started bread making here (can't find whole wheat flour ANYWHERE) but I have been making pizza from scratch, tortillas from scratch, AND I've been making some of my favorite Spanish tapas. Something that I haven't made in a LONG time. Strangely, I found myself being asked to teach a cooking class on Spanish Tapas about a month ago. I'm not sure how it happened exactly, but it did happen and it went well. There was much garlic. The food was delicious and trying to flip back and forth between Japanese, Spanish and English was quite entertaining.

Learning to play the bass: So, the boyfriend purchased me an electric bass for Christmas. This was secretly just what I had wanted, but of course I hadn't told him that. He simply used his powers of awesomeness to ascertain what I wanted and buy it for me. I have been practicing every day since I got it. I'm getting better, but I'm still a complete and total novice. It's a ton of fun though, and we've even put together a band of total noobs. Noob bassist, noob guitar player, noob drummer, noob singer. Good times. We have rehearsals and everything. Teehee.

Reading: I have recently read two amazing books by the author Kristin Cashore. If you have not yet read Graceling or Fire I suggest you do so immediately. Warning: the main characters are badass and female, so if women kicking ass isn't your thing then you may not wish to read them.

And, most importantly, WRITING: The progress on my novel from November has been quite slow, but there has been some progress. As soon as I finish here I plan to get to writing some more of that novel as I have had some good ideas in the last few days. Also, I have recently received some interest from an editor in turning one of my short stories into a novel for possible publication. Everything is still in the extremely early stages (I still have to write the novel and then he has to like it enough to want to publish it, etc.) but the mere prospect (even if it's such a long way off) is really exciting and highly motivating. So, needless to say that's a project that has been getting a lot of my attention lately. I will keep everyone updated if things start to  move forward with that (that is to say, I'll write it quietly, but as soon as I hear anything along the lines of  "yes we'd like to publish this" I will let you guys know). And of course, if I get bogged down in the plot there's always a chance I'll blog to bemoan my lack of talent as an author.

So, that pretty much wraps up my latest news.  I'll try to get better about blogging more frequently in the near future, but I make no promises.

I leave you with the following link because it makes me laugh, and I like to think it will make you laugh too. Old Spice

Snow, Orphans and Car Theft...

Posted on December 15, 2009 at 1:43 AM Comments comments (0)

No, I haven't had my car stolen by orphans. Good guess though. In fact, the three themes of the title are almost entirely unrelated outside of making it into this blog post.

To start with, SNOW!! After an overly warm beginning to winter (enough to delay ski resort openings and generally mystify the locals) it is finally snowing here in Tsuruoka. It started yesterday afternoon and has been more or less continuous since then. Yay! There is a nice solid blanket of a few inches coating the world around me and while it slows traffic considerably and that is somewhat annoying, it generally just makes me happy. It's supposed to snow straight through until Monday, and I'm hopeful that we'll have a nice white Christmas. So that is all good.

Which leads me to car theft. Why car theft you ask? Because I'm amazed that cars aren't stolen here on an hourly basis. With the arrival of the snow, I have witnessed a phenomenon that could only happen in Japan (please correct me if you know of some place else where this happens with EXTREME frequency)... the Japanese leave their cars running and unlocked outside of convenience stores, grocery stores, and just about any other kind of store, when it's cold and snowy. And not just for one minute while they run in really fast to buy a pack of smokes, either. They leave them on for 15-30 minutes while they SHOP and take their time. Try this in most places in the United States and you will come back to... an empty spot where your car used to be. Granted, I know some small towns where one could get away with this, but I still don't know many people who would do it. And, here, EVERYONE does it. Last night alone, when I went grocery shopping and stopped at a convenience store on the way, I saw a total of maybe 20 cars or more between both parking lots that were clearly on and had the keys in them. That was in ONE NIGHT, actually that was in a 2 hour period. Yeegads! So I am reassured, yet again, that Japan is the safest country in the world, and that it's people don't really care about CO2 emissions. (Win some, lose some.)

So, where do Orphans come into all this? You may wonder. They don't have much to do with the snow or the (lack of) car theft (at least, not that I know of) but they have everything to do with me having a wonderful weekend. On Saturday a big group of Gaijin (foreigners) and some Japanese friends of ours, all went to the local orphanage to play with some of the kids. I usually enjoy playing with kids (as long as I don't have to teach them too) but these kids were extra fun. Saturday was basically one of my all time best days ever. I was dragged around all day by a little girl who alternated between having me help her make Christmas cards and decorate cookies and being her own private horse that she got to run around the gym and chase other kids with. We communicated with hand signals and my horrible attempts at Japanese, but managed to get by. By the time we were supposed to leave I didn't want to go. Especially when she put on my jacket (she was about 5 so it was HUGE on her and made her look abnormally cute) and asked me if I was coming back next year. I promised her I was, and after she showered me in many hugs, and gave me my jacket back, I let her go and ran away before the overwhelming urge to adopt her took hold of me and I wound up with a five year old Japanese kid that I am by no means prepared to take care of. (If you realized how little I like the idea of having children, you would understand how adorable this girl must be in order to make me even remotely consider taking one on.) But, I managed to pull myself away in time, and thus am still child free. Though, I will certainly be going back next year and, hopefully, I will have improved my Japanese enough so as to be able to communicate more effectively with my new buddy.

So, that's all that's been going on with me lately. I love the snow, I hope it continues well into the night, and I won't even mind walking to work if I have to. Hope everyone is doing well and preparing for the holiday season.

Warm Toilet Seats

Posted on December 9, 2009 at 10:38 AM Comments comments (0)
Japan is often described as being a country where tradition and technology meet. This is certainly true, and is probably a subject worthy of a full dissertation's worth of study and writing. Yet I find that the whole thing can really be summed up by Japan's toilets.

Japan is a country wherein one can find toilets that are little more than holes in the ground that flush, and toilets that have so many bells and whistles that it would take a manual (or a good two hours of free time) to figure out exactly how they operate. And, the amazing thing is that often both of these toilets can be found in the same bathroom.

I shit you not. (Pardon the pun.)

I have been in more than one public restroom in Japan wherein the majority of the toilets are what are known as 'Japanese' toilets, which are smallish indentations in the ground that are lined with porcelain and have flushing mechanisms but which require squatting and don't encourage the cleanest bathroom floors. Yet in the same bathroom there is one stall that contains a 'Western' toilet which is so advanced technologically that I have yet to push all the buttons on it because I'm afraid they might result in an unwelcomed bikini wax. The buttons that I have tried will do the following: 1. warm the seat (and adjust the temperature of said seat), 2. wash your butt with a 'refreshing' spray (I put refreshing in quotes because I have yet to decide if this spray is actually refreshing or merely creepy), 3. wash your 'butt' from an entirely different angle (here I put butt in quotes because methinks the different angle might well be aimed at a different target entirely), 4. make a flushing sound so that people can't hear you take a crap, 5. spray a deodorizer into the air, and 6. flush the toilet. And those are just the buttons I can vaguely understand the labels on either because I happen to know the kanji, or (more likely) because they are accompanied by a fairly descriptive drawing. There are still other buttons, and I fear them.

Yet, when such toilets as these exist, I have a difficult time fathoming why anyone would choose to straddle a hole in the ground instead. Of course, in the summer time, when the bathroom is crowded and you REALLY have to pee, I agree, any hole will do. And, certainly, such holes are far more economic and probably more environmentally friendly. But, why create the technologically superior toilets at all then? Why taunt people with the warmed seat and built in bidet when there's a solid chance that they'll actually have to piss in a hole instead; ass exposed to the chill winter air, precariously balanced so as to avoid dragging their pant legs through a puddle of urine, and strangely teetering back and forth so as to ensure that they don't add to the puddle of piss they are so desperately trying to dodge? Why, Japan? Why?

Because, my friends, Japan is a country firmly rooted in tradition while still taking all of the advantages of technology. So, to remind you of that, we will taunt you with toilets that may or may not have buttons that trigger orgasms whilst all the while forcing you to (most likely) piss in a hole.

Of Writing and Word Counts and Jellyfish...

Posted on December 1, 2009 at 12:07 AM Comments comments (0)
Yep, jellyfish. Have a look at the photo to your right here and you'll see the interesting"wildlife" (can you call them wildlife when they're dead?) that I ran into yesterday.

Perhaps you're wondering what I was doing on the beach on a Monday afternoon (that is, if you took time zones into account and were able to ascertain by the angle of the sunlight casting shadows on the jellyfish that it was indeed afternoon). That's a fair thing to wonder about. As it happens, I am not currently working on Mondays (though chances are I will be soon) and I decided to bike out to the local bit of beach to stretch my legs in celebration.

In celebration of what you ask? In celebration of having successfully written 100,000 words of fiction (and all of them more or less connected) during the month of November. Woot! I accomplished one of my two goals. You may recall from my earlier posts that I also was attempting to finish the plot. Sadly, this didn't happen, but the reason for that is simply because there are at least another 50,000 words left to write before the plot is taken care of. So, I'm still feeling pretty good about myself. And, as I reached my goal on Sunday the 29th, yesterday was the first day in a long time that I didn't have to spend my free time holed up inside writing. Now, don't get me wrong, I love holing up and writing. But after a month of churning out 100,000 words I felt I deserved a break, and my body was dying for some fresh air and exercise.

So, I pedaled my way out to the beach (and up and down an extraneous hill just to see what lay at the top -the answer being a driving range) and took a few pictures with... my cell phone. I failed to bring my real digital camera with me, so cell phone pictures are all I've got. But, I'll be posting a few anyway as there are some fun ones of jelly fish that you might enjoy.

After spending about an hour or so inspecting dead jellyfish and enjoying the sight and sound of the Japan Sea, I pedaled my way back to town and went on with my day. For celebratory purposes, I did not write a single word of my novel. But, I'll probably try to write something every day from now until it's finished.

So, for those of you who might be interested, I have compiled some statistics from my NaNoWriMo experience for your perusal. If you are not interested feel free to skip this bit. Oh and by the way, before you start to question my sanity for keeping tabs on these kinds of things you should know that I have a handy dandy little excel spreadsheet that another NaNoWriMo participant created long ago, that compiles all of this data for me. All I have to do is enter my daily word count and the hours I spent writing.

Total words written: 100,204
Total hours spent writing: 70.28
Days in which I wrote 10,000 words: 3
Days in which I wrote 0 words: 4
Days that I averaged over 2,000 words per hour: 3
Days that I averaged under 1,000 words per hour: 3
Average words written per day: 3455
Average hours spent writing per day: 2.42
Average words per hour (for the month): 1426
Most words written in one day: 10,143
Fewest words written in one day: 0 (runner up 249)
Longest day of writing: 6.5 hours of writing
Cups of coffee consumed: 0
Cups of hot tea or miso consumed: 100 or so
Number of times that my amazing boyfriend helped pull me through by either cooking, cleaning, or just generally being wonderful to me: too many to count!

Ok. So that's about all for today. Check out the photo gallery for more pictures of jellyfish. Oh and swing by the videos to see a short clip of a mechanical reindeer that we found in a store in our town.

Where the hell has Virginia been?

Posted on November 8, 2009 at 12:11 PM Comments comments (0)
That is an excellent question, one which has a very long and interesting answer. But, I'm afraid that here you'll only get the extremely short disappointing answer. Why? Because I'm in the middle of writing a novel and can't spare the time to write the epic blog that would cover all that I've been up to for the last... 6 weeks? Has it been that long? Yikes. Here's the quick summary; since you last heard from me I have:

1. Traveled to Kyoto and the surrounding area (Kobe, Osaka, Nara) if you are curious about this trip I highly recommend checking out the photo gallery there should be loads of pics up there and even some new videos!

2. Climbed a few mountains. Mayasan and Chokaisan in particular. Again, check out the pictures section.

3. Gone to Korea to get my visa all sorted out. Sorry, no pictures as it wasn't all that exciting and it was an extremely short trip.

4. Started work! I love my new job and in some later post I may tell you all about it. For now suffice it to say I'm a huge fan.

5. Dressed as a pagoda for Halloween. Yep, you read that right, a pagoda. Want to see pictures? Check the photo album.

6. Gone on a ride down the Mogami river with a bunch of other gaijin in order to look a the beautiful fall colors and the general loveliness of the river valley. (Again, you'll want to look at the photo albums and check the new videos.)

7. Started my 3rd novel. Well, it's November once again, and to me that really only means one thing, it's time to buckle down and write at least 50,000 words of novel between the 1st and the 30th. But, to make things extra exciting this year, I'm shooting for 100k. Right now my word count is at 27,075 which is exactly on track to finish at 100,000 on the 30th.

That's the super short and disappointing version of what's going on. Hopefully the pictures will make up for a lot (if each one is worth 1000 words then you'll be getting at least a short novel out of them).

In the meantime, if you are wondering where I am this month, there's a simple answer: writing a novel.

Hope that all of you are well. Enjoy the pictures!