On traveling home, Jam Camp, and newcomers

Yet again, I lose another half-written entry in a browser crash. ARGH.

I received some news yesterday, that I’d been waiting anxiously on for several weeks…I’m not really at liberty to discuss it publicly, but let’s just say it was about as bad as it could be, and leave it at that. It concerns stuff that’s been happening at home. So combine that with an increasing feeling of strange disorientation in terms of “home”–(is home Atlanta? Am I losing my sense of attachment to Atlanta? But is home Ikeda? Where do I really feel like I hail from, and where am I attached to?)–and a severe craving for familiarity and sympathy from people in a culture that is better about handling public displays of grief and unhappiness than Japanese culture can be…anyway, all that culminated this afternoon into a strong wave of homesickness. I’m about 90% sure I’ll be making a trip back to Atlanta this summer–I’m eyeing the first couple of weeks of July, so I won’t miss class and can be back in time to say goodbye to my friends who are leaving (it hit me that I’ll have to delete half the phone numbers currently in my cellphone after this summer), as well as to greet the new incoming ALTs who’ll be arriving in early August and attend the orientation sessions and whatnot.

That being said, if you’re thinking of traveling this summer, please do try your best to be in Atlanta for the first 2 weeks in July, if at all possible! I want to see as many of you as I can. I’m eyeing July 1-10, but this is just tentative still. Since this is an international booking, I have to book fairly far in advance–I can’t just buy an AirTran ticket a couple of weeks ahead of time, the way those of you flying domestically have the luxury of doing.

The thing is, I only have 6.5 days of vacation left, and I’d feel guilty wasting them all on going home instead of doing more traveling. One of my Japanese professors from Georgia Tech, Kanno-sensei, is hopefully visiting Sendai this summer, and I wanted to go up and visit her for a couple of days. I also wanted to spend a few days touring volcanoes in southwestern Honshu and Kyushu, which I was going to do before my Golden Week plans with Louise finally solidified (she’s coming down here on the Wednesday of GW and heading back up to Fukushima the following Monday). I need to decide how best I want to spend these, especially since I may be dishing out quite a bit of my paid vacation next year on traveling back to the US, if I do indeed come home for the holidays and for Celebration 4 (which already seems excessive, especially if I do make this trip in July). I definitely have some decisions to make.

Next on the list of things to talk about: Jam Camp. There’s so much I could say, but I can never seem to find the time to sit down and say it all. I’ve decided I want to take the main goal of the camp and try to incorporate it into my elementary school classes as either a semester-long or year-long project. Maybe we won’t set it to music, but I think it would be really cool to take my classes outside, split them up, go around, listen to nature, and come back with our own words describing the sounds we’ve heard. It’s a way to facilitate discussion about Japanese versus foreign-language onomatopoeia, and considering how gung-ho schools here are about coming up with team/group/class/school-moralizing activities and songs and whatnot, maybe they could invent group chants based on these sounds. But anyway, we’ll see–it involves a ton of planning.

But what is Jam Camp? It’s a 3-day camp devoted to immersing kids in lots of music-related activities, and the end goal of the camp is to have helped the kids to compose their own really basic English-language song based on sounds they pulled from nature. The camp usually takes place in Canada, but one of the people really heavily involved in it is a former Tokushima ALT, and she used Jam Camp as a way to return to Tokushima, and it’s been widely successful. The camp’s been held in Kamiyama, which I’m pretty sure is one of my favorite towns in the prefecture; it actually hit me out of the blue this weekend, after everything had finished and only we leaders were left at the Kamiyama Chuugakkou dorms and I had time to relax and wander around a bit and take in the immense beauty of the town, that I think this is where I’d like to get married, if I do somehow get into a relationship and that relationship goes long-term. There’s just something truly amazing about it, and I’m really glad Jam Camp gave me a chance to return there.

But anyway. So the camp itself consisted of workshops and activities related to music. This camp’s theme was traditional bluegrass and country music, as performed on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. We taught the kids dances and vocal songs, and we even taught several of them how to play instruments. We had daily morning drum circles, involving real drums as well as buckets, and nightly campfires. We also spent some time outside, listening to the sounds of nature, and performing a vocal acapella of the onomatopoeia we came back with (while being watched by barely concealed naked men at the onsen across the way). Two of the organizers came up with a general melody based on the sound of the onomatopoeia. After establishing that and introducing the kids to it, we broke the 25 kids up into two groups and consulted them for ideas on themes and subjects to include in the songs, and we helped them compose really easy English lyrics, as well as helping with composing a song involving a variety of different instruments and onomatopoeia sounds. At the very end, we drove up to a mountaintop clearing and performed our songs, recording them in nature’s own recording studio, so to speak. We’d been recording a lot of the music performances throughout the course of the weekend as well. And after a couple of months, after the music has been properly edited and formatted, every Jam Camp participant and leader will receive a CD of the music from that weekend.

(The food was all organic and nearly all vegetarian, prepared by Hisa and Mariko and their family, the same hippie family who was heavily involved in the Kamiyama homestay orientation. (They even made Indian curry on Monday, and consulted with me to make sure it tasted authentic, and it did!) They are by far the COOLEST Japanese people I’ve ever met–very hippie-like, but with the work ethic of a typical Japanese person, so they got stuff done, but in a very cool and fun kind of way.)

This weekend was truly exhausting and draining–I’ve never done a real camp like this before (I’ve camped out with my Girl Scout troop and I did a summer science camp at Clemson University in middle school), so I had no idea what to really expect that I needed to do as a volunteer leader. It turns out that my role ended up being more prominent than the other volunteers…oh, I guess I should explain. The five main leaders–Angie (the former Tokushima ALT), Chris, Tyler, Geordie, and Magda–flew in from Canada to run this camp. Four of us in Tokushima–Evan, Diane, Maryse (a private ALT), and myself–volunteered to help them out. There’s another camp this weekend down in Hiwasa right on the Pacific coast, which I totally would have done if I weren’t doing ultimate frisbee in Kochi Prefecture. Anyway, generally we volunteers are meant to work in a more assistant-like fashion, helping more with the kids and jumping in with music wherever we can. However, my role was more elevated because I was the only experienced violinist there–their usual violinist couldn’t make it this year (he and an experienced tabla player, two of whom were really key figures in getting Jam Camp off the ground in Canada, both had to back out at the last minute), so they really were heavily dependent on me to jump in and help out. I learned several fiddling pieces on Saturday morning and really did jump in headfirst with performing them about 15 minutes after that initial lesson, and did a lot of on-the-spot improvisation as the weekend went on as well. The campfires in particular involved a ton of heavy improvisation, but seeing that everybody was dancing along to the music that we were playing was such a huge and excellent thrill, one that’s a bit difficult for me to quite put into words. But as time went on, it got easier, and the whole atmosphere helped to totally open me up musically. (I also played the flute portion of Awa Odori on my violin on Sunday night completely by ear [there’s a .mp3 sample on this page of standard Awa Odori music], which was A BLAST. I got a bit overambitious and tried jumping into the circle dancing around the fire while fiddling, but I kept having to duck out if embers got too close, and I can’t dance and play at the same time.) As a result of this weekend, I now have a completely different view of how to play my violin/fiddle.

I should also mention that I was really in the company of some extremely gifted people this weekend. Everybody was amazing, so genuinely warm and unpretentious and friendly and humble and so ready to have fun and be silly and share their love of music with the kids–even if they weren’t musicians, their personality types were absolutely perfect for this sort of camp, and they got along extremely well with the kids. In terms of music, I was especially blown away by Chris and Tyler, both extremely talented multi-instrumentalists (they each play at least a half-dozen instruments, and both just started playing the violin a few months ago, but their skill level is such that it’s as if they’ve been playing for several years). I ended up collaborating most with them, since we three were the primary musicians for many of the workshops (with the emphasis more heavily on them, since they had time to prepare for this and work together on this music before the camp and I didn’t, and their area of musical expertise matched the aim of this camp perfectly, and they’re immensely talented), and they mainly played some combination of guitar, banjo, and mandolin. They kept apologizing for throwing me into the performance aspect headfirst and gave me a lot of praise and made me feel as if I were their equal, which I really didn’t deserve because they have far more experience than I do and I was making mistakes left and right, and they expressed real regret that I couldn’t make it to Hiwasa, and I just knew that it wasn’t because it would’ve been convenient for them if I could make it to both camps. But they made me feel so warm and welcome, and I really feel as if I’ve known all of them for far longer than just a week. I will absolutely be back next year.

And speaking of next year…it’s funny, because last year, I never expected to still be in Japan for a second year, and yet here I am, wrapping up the first year of my contract and having renewed for one more year. It was indeed almost exactly a year ago that I received my e-mail from the Atlanta Consulate–March 31st, to be exact. I was at the Monstrous Bodies symposium that my department, the school of Literature, Communication and Culture, put on. I was in the Paul DiFilippo reading when I saw that Louise called, and I just had A Feeling that this was A Very Important Call, so I ducked out to take it, only to find that she was an alternate. Immediately after the reading, I went with my friend Dave over to the library, grabbed a computer at the Library West Commons, and checked my e-mail…and nearly started screaming right there. I saved it for the car, though, until I could make really exuberant and frantic phone calls to my family and a few friends. In going back and reading those e-mails and everything else, that feeling of giddy anticipation is still there, as is the mystery lurking behind and beyond these strange-sounding and very portentious e-mails. The mystery has since been completely unveiled, but those e-mails serve to remind me that this is indeed a big deal, despite having settled into a routine here, and yes, I am living in Japan now. Even thinking back to the morning I had to say goodbye to my family at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, and to the frantic/panic-stricken/tear-filled packing frenzy the night before (at least I didn’t forget my underwear, like an ALT who came to Tokushima at least a year before I did)…those emotions are still so potent and fresh.

And now a year has passed, and the new batch of acceptance e-mails is making the rounds. Atlanta’s so totally on the ball–our consulate is the fastest consulate in the nation in terms of getting this info out, and we beat some other consulates by a solid week. Among the new recruits is one of my old roommates, Michelle! Tech is totally keeping up their tradition of having at least one student be accepted every year, and I knew from the very beginning that she was a total shoe-in to be an ALT (International Affairs/Japanese major, totally into traditional and popular Asian culture, great personality), but it’s still exciting that it’s finally official. I’m silently hoping that she doesn’t get placed on Kyushu, like she requested, and that she ends up here in Tokushima or somewhere on Shikoku.

I’m starting to get more hits from people searching for info on JET…maybe now is the time I should start collating more pertinent “now that I’m here, I can look back and tell you stuff I didn’t know before I came” lists and whatnot. I can already think of one thing: bring a nice black suit (ladies can bring a long skirt, too), because you’ll need it for your school ceremonies and graduation and stuff. And it works best to not bring thong sandals as your indoor shoes (or get an alternate non-thong-sandal pair for winter), or you run the risk of ripping holes in a lot of your socks when you try to wear them while wearing said thong sandals.

Okay…I doubt I’ll get to write much before the Shikoku ALT ultimate frisbee tourney down in Kochi this weekend–tomorrow after work is Lindsay’s self-thrown farewell hanami and karaoke party, and then I leave bright and early Saturday for the weekend. I’ll leave you all with this amazing video of Darth Vader having a run-in with Japanese cops. (Linguistic note: nobody’s really saying anything except for the last guy, who says, “Ganbare to omou yo ne!” which I’ve taken to mean, “I think we’re doing our best/working hard/kicking butt!”)

And that’s all for now…good night!

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