Monday, June 20, 2005

Debate Six: Takayama

In a welcome break, we had a full travel day for our journey to Takayama. We flew into Ngoya and then took a 2-hour train to Takayama. In the Ngoya train station, Carly and I successfully used the only complete sentence we can say in Japanese (watashi wa bejitarian desu) to purchase vegetarian bento boxes. We were particularly proud of ourselves. This was the first time we successfully ordered Japanese food for lunch without the aid of a native speaker. Go us!

The train ride to Takayama was particularly beautiful. Takayama is in the midst of the Japanese Alps, so the train steadily gained elevation as we followed a river up a mountain canyon. We enjoyed the view of the passing countryside and lush vegetation. Upon arrival in Takayama, Mr. Miagawa, a local high school teacher, met us at the train station and walked us across the street to the hotel. After getting settled (ok, Carly and I relaxed, shopped, and took showers while Kevin schlepped his stuff across town, did laundry, got everything back to the hotel, and prepared for dinner), we met several teachers for dinner.

We were taken to a historic inn (over 150 years old) where we were treated to a shojin-ryori or priest’s feast (Buddhist temple fare chosen since Buddhist priests are vegetarian). The chef, a childhood friend of Mr. Miagawa, had not cooked this type of meal since John Denver visited his restaurant years ago. An incredible meal followed. We can distinctly remember 16 courses but could be neglecting some. Everything was balanced, both within and between courses. Incredible. The meal ended in an authentic green tea ceremony, prefaced by the chef urging us to rotate the cups twice before drinking. Japanese glasses have a small spout for drinking, but rotating the classes demonstrates humility, leaving drinking from the spout for royalty. Over dinner, the conversation followed the excitement of the meal. We discussed debate, the US, the role of traditions in our respective cultures, the introduction of juries into Japanese society (and how teachers might prepare their students for heightened expectations for public participation), and various political tangents. The evening left us satisfied and ready to retire.

The next morning we went to the high school where we observed two classes before the lecture and debate. Kevin did an excellent job of adapting to his audience, using familiar examples to explain his lecture material in basic English. With the aid of short translations from Miyabi, an English teacher who lived in the states for 10 years, the lecture was a success. (Interestingly, Miyabi commented that some of the lecture was difficult for her to translate because she only knew some of the concepts in English not Japanese, as she had learned them as an undergrad in the states.)

After a lunch of sandwiches, cookies, and coffee, we returned to a full gymnasium for a debate about the internet. We did our best to be clear and slow. Overall, it was great fun. The students flowed the debate (aided by translations of the speeches during prep time) and seemed to be following along. After the debate, students came up to us just wanting to say hi or introduce themselves. Carly and I felt like celebrities. For the remainder of the day, students shouted hello at us as we passed in the hallway. During club activity time, we meet with the English Speaking Society to help them brainstorm arguments for an upcoming debate and then listened to speeches for a speech contest in a couple of days.

We had the night to ourselves. Carly and I wondered around town a bit shopping and talking. We accidentally happened upon a temple. As curious tourists do, we wandered around taking pictures of everything. A particularly large tree caught our attention, and I took pictures of Carly under the tree. Later we were informed that this tree is revered as a blessing for pregnancy. Couples who want to conceive go to this tree for good luck. Ha! (Thankfully a few days later we think we managed to counteract this charm by taking Carly’s picture in front of a condom store in Tokyo). That night we had another excellent meal and a pleasant walk around town.

The next morning we set off on a site seeing extravaganza. Carly and I left the hotel at 6:45 to check out the local morning market. Now I should mention that I’ve been known to swoon at markets in any country. Farmers markets. Tourist markets. Dirty, smelly, I don’t care. Set along side a river, this market drew Japanese tourists and locals buying vegetables. Carly looked at stands and nearby shops as I explored through the lens of my camera. My favorite moment is when an older Japanese gentleman approached me to compare cameras. He had a Canon D1; I have a Canon D60. He tried to get me to take pictures of a man selling vegetables. I proceeded to take picture of him shooting instead (shooting a man effectively hiding behind a bamboo hat, I might add).

We walked back to the hotel and grabbed breakfast before meeting Mr. Miagawa for sight seeing. We started at Takayama Jinya, a historic building (1600s) that served as a meeting place. After an English tour (lead by Miagawa’s former student), we explored the grounds. Then we were taken on a rickshaw ride of a historic street. It doesn’t take too active of imagination to envision three Americans in a tiny rickshaw pulled by a strong yet lean Japanese man (another former student). I’m sure we were a sight to behold. And behold they did. In the course of our 15-minute ride, at least 20 Japanese tourists took pictures of us. Including the Japanese gentleman I conversed with earlier. This made Carly and I uncomfortable. We felt silly. We worried people would think we felt entitled to be carted around, etc. All of this worry amused Miagawa, but was probably for not. In Japan, being included in a picture is generally an honor not a sign of shame.

After our ride, we piled into Miagawa’s car and headed for Hida Folk Village, a collection of authentic historic buildings arranged on a mountain. It was beautiful and interesting to see these traditional houses. Finally, we set off to make sembei, or rice crackers. We took forms and then heated them over a fire. Lots of fun, even when we burned them or made slightly deformed shapes.

Our last stop in Takayama was an organic (!) restaurant for lunch, where we “read” a newspaper article about the previous day’s debate.


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