Watching the river run: While I was in Fukuoka on Friday to lecture at a couple of universities, the rain didn’t stop. In fact, it was continuation of record rainfall so overwhelming that more than 20 people have died in floods and mudslides.

My wife and son’s hometown, Kurume, was not damaged much because it sits on a wide plain, and the major river that surged through it, the Chikugo, has been designed to bulge, with wide pedestrian spaces inside its banks.

By Saturday, the play areas and walkways were under water, but the banks were fine.  These shots catch the scene at the riverside Suitengu Shrine, where leaders were reining in their ceremonial boat and handling other weather-related chores. Normally, the distance from that wall to the water is more like 35-40 meters.  Now the water splashes against the slope.

On the other side of the river, a nine-hole golf course was missing from view, along with most of a van.

Apologies to those who have seen this already on Facebook, but the conditions were serious enough to merit inclusion here, too. 

As the sign notes in the bottom photo, the river banks are the site of a fabulous, two-hour fireworks show in the first week of August each year. Right now, the seating areas are mostly submerged.  But I imagine the water level will decline and the aptly titled Water Festival fireworks will sparkle and crack as usual for as many as 200,000 people. 

As long as it doesn’t rain.

Greasing the tunes:  It takes long days to teach classmates to sing show tunes in a second language. Miki Taira, left, and Asami Minema, at the grand piano at top, are the music directors in charge of leading classmates in learning the many songs of the musical Grease.  

They estimate they’re investing 12 hours a week in preparation and practice time with the 35 or so second-year English majors at the University of the Ryukyus who are staging the musical in December. The rehearsal hours will rise during the summer break and again in the fall as the production date approaches.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’m following the students’ progress as they build their production, with a little help on pronunciation from volunteer ESL teachers. They are doing all this to present a single performance in late December. Their rewards: No money, no grades, but new experiences with English and a tighter bond for lifetime friendships.

Yuki Kaneko, in the cool Captain America shirt beside Ayami Maekawa, is one of a few first-year students who asked to join the group. Yuki spent her senior year in high school in Denton, Texas, so her pronunciation is advanced.  She has a few motives for joining.  One is to get to know her sempai — students who rank above her in seniority.  Another is to learn the basics so her class next year will be ready to continue in a 25-year-old tradition to do the  so-called English Play.

"Also," adds Yuki, "I really enjoy practicing singing and dancing."

One of the advantages for this group is that many students like Miki, Asami and Yuki are well-drilled in musical skills.  More than half of the entire class of English majors are involved in this play, and so far everyone I’ve heard can sing accurately.  I’m sure many can sit confidently at a piano.  Asami, who has been playing for seven years, can knock out the melodies, chords and warm-up scales with easy confidence.

Makes me wonder if a Ryudai English major is a special breed of entertainer, as if those willing to acquire the language skills aren’t also known as the type who enjoy attention. When I posed that to several of the classmates, though, they found no connection.

This is just something that English majors do. 

More on that later as I keep studying the weekly mechanics in producing the English Play.

Rewards on Independence Day:  The brave 36 students in my course in American Culture & Society competed in a July Fourth test of recall dubbed the Americana Quiz, and these are among the best at trivia recall. 

The winning question:  How many Americans would be joining in outdoor barbecues during the Fourth? 

Answer:  75,000.

Here are the two teams that tied for first, holding the individual wrapped chunks of chocolate cake that went to winners.  Not sure if you see the designs, but the boxes came with dual flags: one with an outline of Okinawa, the other with the Stars & Stripes.

We divided up by state names.  Just a coincidence that two West Coasters won.

Washington:  Arata Shimabukuro, Yuka Yamashiro and Shun Endo.

California: Tsubasa Aragaki, Saya Nakama, Yasuyuki Tokuda, and Maiko Yogi.

Not everything we study qualifies as trivia, of course.  The deeper questions are reserved for the exams.

These winners, by the way, approved of this blog fame.

Are We There Yet? Mining the Minutes to London

For those ready for your next big heaping spoonful of media spectacle, the countdown has reached 16 days, 10 hours, and 43 minutes to the start of the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games in London.

Shoot.  Now it’s 42 minutes.  I need to write fast.

To see a countdown clock, try the London 2012 site.  It keeps the clock ticking at the top of the page.  Furiously ticking. 

10 hours, 41 minutes.  And I haven’t even edited this thing yet.  It can take a long time to embed a link when you’re in a hurry …

Just to add, briskly:  You know, the games don’t actually begin with the Opening Ceremony.  Sure, it’s the ritualistic start, but the first competition comes two days sooner — so subtract another 2 days, 05 hours and no minutes if you want to count down to the start of the games.

The two teams squaring off in that first match will be — uh oh.  I need to look this up.  More time.  Gonna kill me.  Wait.  Right back. 

And the answer is Women’s Soccer, First Round, Group E, 4 p.m. start at Millennium Stadium, wherever that is.  Well, it’s in Cardiff.  Another quick click, and we learn it’s along the banks of the River Taff in Wales. This website tells us everything, as long as we have time to click.

Millennium.  Had to double-check that one. 34 minutes.

Match will be Great Britain vs. New Zealand.  Good, the host team leads off the games.  As it should be.  Probably favored over those nimble Kiwis. Well, I looked them up. Another word might be improving. Watch out for those Football Ferns, as the team is called in New Zealand. Captain Rebecca Smith, who is quite excellent, says this about the lead-off match against the Brits:

“To play Great Britain in the opening game of the entire Olympics, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

16 days, 10 hours, 31 minutes.

Let me just hedge her bet a bit here and remark that, if Captain Smith scores a couple of flashy goals (which is always possible) to lead her Football Ferns to an upset win, it actually will get a lot better.  This is the danger of using cliches.  But she is being humble and sporting, so we’ll cheer her for that. No telling how many sound-alike questions she’s had to field about this in the past 2 months, 20 days and too many minutes.  Plus, she must be nervous about now.  The whole world will be watching.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Did you know that at the Beijing games in 2008, during any average one minute of the broadcasts going around the world, 160 million people were watching Olympic events on TV.  (I found this in an IOC report compiling audience statistics on television and online use during Beijing Olympic broadcasts. Took awhile, though.)

When the Football Ferns play, theirs will be the only event. Gulp. 

Let me admit the truth now.  We’re down to 10 hours, 06 minutes. This is embarrassing, but the facts are right. The story is done. Kind of. I can always add more later.

I’m not setting any Olympic speed records today.  Maybe later.  I’m in training, like the Ferns. Anything can happen.  Cue the anthem.

Learning by Staging:  Among the many methods for learning English, here is a dramatic one: Perform an American musical.

The second-year English majors here already are committing long days to rehearsing for a single presentation of Grease in late December.

Saturday afternoon, I sat in the back of a classroom in the music education building admiring the students as they worked on lyrics and complex choreography for the show’s finale,  “We Go Together.”  (See following video.)

We’re for each other
Like wop baba lumop a wap bam boom.  

That’s Wakana, a fluid dancer, in the top photo. She plays the female lead, Sandy.  Middle left:  Producer Keeshond seemed happy with choreography progress, along with Ayami, who is on the dance team. Middle right: Ken is focusing on becoming Danny Zuko. Botton left: A busy student’s English tools. Bottom right: A moment of fun during stretching. 

No doubt this group is working hard — and working together.

Don’t think we’ll see the actual performance, since we’re returning to North Carolina in another month.  But I’ll follow the preparations eagerly because this is perhaps the most energetic activity I’ve discovered at Ryudai in my year as a visiting lecturer.

I’m lucky to have taught and met some of these students, and they’re generous to welcome me to observe, shoot video and take notes.  Hoping I can develop this into a decent study of language learning.  Of course, it’s more than that, and I’ll try to explore related themes.

The English play is a longtime tradition here.  The second-year majors do almost all of the work themselves, including set design.  One of my former students will be in the tune “Greased Lightning,” and he is perplexed about how to construct a hot rod that can roll across the stage and yet be stable (and flat) enough for the guys to leap on during the song and dance. 

It can’t be a real car, obviously, but it needs to look like one.  The guys have to pay for it themselves.  There is no school budget for this. Here is one version of the car from a professionally staged play in Orange County, California.  Our students will need to settle for a bit less.

I’ll be posting more on this later and introducing you to some of the student-performers.

See if you can learn this in your spare time:  Students work on sit-down choreography for the song “We Go Together.” See post above for more on these students from the University of the Ryukyus as they prepare to stage the musical Grease.

We’re one of a kind
Like dip di-dip di-dip
Doo-bop a doo-bee doo
Our names are signed
Boog-e-dy boog-e-dy boog-e-dy boog-e-dy
Shoo-by doo-wop she-bop
Chang chang chang-it-ty chang shoo-bop

(Songwriters:  Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey)

Send out the clouds:  Leading meteorologists are declaring now that the rainy season has ended in Okinawa. That’s nice.  In the past few weeks, if not forever, we’ve had buckets of warm, splashy, mold-inducing rain. The bottom photo offers a glimpse.

I shot the blue-sky overlook of the University of the Ryukyus campus from the fourth floor of my academic building, one of a cluster of general education halls. The light-colored building on the far right is part of our group. 

The structures at left are used by other departments in the School of Law & Letters. The white building with red roof in back is a nice conference center. Next to it, center-right, is the administration building where I have yet to stroll.  The darker building on the right is the library.

This week, our air has been brilliantly clear and, of course, sharply hotter.  We see blue again above us.  Last night, we saw stars.  Been awhile for them.  They’ve been ditching class.  See more weather photos in the next blog post.

Each year, a set of boat races occurs in the southern port city of Itoman to mark the expected end of the rainy season and to offer prayers for safety and big harvests for the local fishermen.  Click here for more on this. This year, bingo.  The races fell on the first sunny day. Remarkable.

This is still typhoon season, of course, and it is the sub-tropics.  But for the past three days, at least, the windshield wipers have taken a rest and the apartment balconies are blooming with clothes, blankets and floor mattresses hanging out to absorb sunlight. 

I’m being followed by a sun-shadow:  The rain is gone but not the umbrellas. They serve a new purpose now, shaping shadows to help holders to dodge the heat rays. Staw hats work too.

Shot these about 10 minutes before noon today, when the light cut sharp geometric designs on the ground.  Interesting to see how well the umbrella-holders stayed in the shade.

Apologies to singer Cat Stevens (‘Moonshadow’) for my sub-head. 

World of perspective:  Sunday was Kevin’s final aikido event before we depart.  Timing was excellent because on this date the sensei from dojos around the island assembled in the Budokan in Okinawa City for a regional session with wise advice and chances for students to qualify for higher levels of accomplishment.

The top sensei in the region (lower right, beside photo of founder Ueshiba Morihei) in the region reminded everyone of the higher principles that connect the physical and spiritual dimensions.  For instance, artful practitioners develop the skills to pivot and turn so their movements open a 360-degree view of their surroundings, their world.

This should be both a physical and metaphysical perspective, he counseled.  Along with surveying the environment, a skillful person also can try to comprehend a full, circular view of events, attitudes and responses that perhaps have shaped the immediate situation.  Once that is achieved — once everyone’s concerns are absorbed — threats may subside.

Aikido, he explained, thus seeks a balance and harmony in that space where the urge to act violently is removed.

The discipline, physical practice and knowledge have been healthy for Kevin, who incidentally passed his test. He also savored a last day sharing the mats and practicing moves with his two fine sensei and two other similarly-aged mates from the dojo.  (Most other students are adults.)  In the group photo, the two adults are his teachers, wife and husband, who patiently guided him the past several months.

The two boys have become trusted pals. They’ve promised to stay in touch to sustain the harmony and a little more balance.

Just a little wheel longer:  Kevin will be sitting on this bus for a short two more days before Okinawa Christian School International finishes for its school year.

We live quite a distance from the school, so he has been riding an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon most of the time.  I’m not sure he’ll miss the bus so much, but he has declared several times that he’s sorry to see the school year end.

He has made good friends, enjoyed his teachers (as well as the small class sizes) and done very well academically.  I could brag more, but that’s enough.

OCSI operates on an American-type school schedule because, I suppose, so many of the parents are affiliated or retired from the U.S. military activities here on the island. The schedule fits those who must connect with American schools, including other Department of Defense sponsored schools around the world. 

Lots of fathers of Kevin’s classmates are retired, but they’ve stayed here either with civilian jobs or because of family connections.  The one point almost all OCSI students share is this:  Their moms are Japanese. 

Thus, OCSI is an international school with an interesting (and logical) thread of homogeneity. 

Meanwhile, my university chugs along on the normal, Japanese schedule.  We’re moving into Week No. 10 of a total of 17 weeks.  Final exams end in the second week of August.

Evidence about Okinawa:  This rear-view photo may not astonish, but it tells a lot about what we are experiencing in our part of the island. To wit:

— In this typhoon-famous location, concrete is the answer. Most every structure is built to endure lashing winds. Here we see a new home going up, with another interesting concrete design behind it.  And a ubiquitous concrete-block fence and power poles, too.

— As residential roads go, this is relatively wide.  It’s also new, hence new construction.  Not so long ago, the hilltop that used to be here was, well, lopped off in favor of new housing.  We’re in a developing neighborhood.

— Where no buildings rise, grass and weeds do.  I think that says it all.

— For those monitoring our 13-year-old’s progress, you can note that he is now much taller than his mom.  They were the same height when we arrived 10 months ago. 

— The ocean is never far. That light blue on the horizon is Nakagusuku Bay.

All on display:  Rows and rows to appeal to the crowds. 

At the Castle cake shop not far from our place, the choices for a slice of leisure can be overwhelming. 

Baseball players have many tones and colors to pick through at a sporting goods store. The leather gloves are enviably well-made, with thick and lasting cowhide.  But they come at a price.  Most of these gloves go for around $300.

Also lined up in rows were the members of the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the recent champions of the professional basketball league in Japan.  They made a victory appearance to sign autographs at our favorite Aeon shopping mall (where Kevin takes his Sunday aikido classes).

The Kings were good.  We watched a few games on TV, including the playoff rounds. They played the best team ball in the Basketball Japan League.  See this story.  When you mix tall imported talent with quick local guard play, the result can be sublime or it can be an ugly mess, with five guys trying to score on their own, with too many American guys yapping immaturely at the refs. 

The Kings figured out how to pass and play defense.  And how to keep their heads. They earned this crowded moment to be on display.

Click on photos for larger, sharper images.