Sunday, July 29, 2012

6 Awesome Olympic/Paralympic Events You’ve Never Bothered Watching

I love the Olympics, and what with these summer games in London being the last Olympics ever (tick-tock tick-tock Mayan calendar and December 21st 2012), I thought I’d share some of my favorite under-appreciated events.  Most viewers focus on the big ticket summer events-gymnastics, 100 meter dash, beach volleyball, Michael Phelps, etc.  But there are some real gems of sports hidden away that you've probably never seen and maybe never even heard of.  There are seriously exciting, and inspiring events that you'll be shocked don't get more coverage.  Well, I’m here to let you in on the best-kept Olympic secret: here are 6 Awesome Olympic Events you’ve Never Bothered Watching.

1 Modern Pentathlon

The idea for this event came from the story of a soldier during wartime, behind enemy lines, who is attempting to deliver a crucial message.  His horse is shot at some point; he fights off the enemy with his sword and pistol, races towards his destination (btw, he swims a river) and delivers the message safely.  So, the five events are, fencing, swimming, jumping (equestrian style), running and shooting.  
Running is my personal strong suit.

 The sport has changed a lot over the years, changing from a five day, men-only event, to a one day, men and women event that uses laser pistols.  Again, why don’t people watch this?  

Fun Fact: In the very first Modern Pentathlon, a little known guy, George S. Patton competed.   

In the pentathlon, the athletes have to be highly trained in these five VERY different skills, most of which are very popular with viewers, especially running and swimming.  Somehow, when you add them all together, suddenly no one cares anymore!

The first event is fencing.   The athletes get in a formation that allows them to all fight one other opponent at a time and then rotate to the next opponent quickly.  They fight each other for one minute, and then rotate.  They get points for stabbing the other person without getting stabbed in return.  (Finally, a sport I can understand!  Suck it, cricket.)

Next, they swim.  They swim 200 meters.  They try to swim very quickly.  Moving on. 

They ride!  You usually can’t bring your favorite pony to war, nor would you want to, right?  It’s the same here.  The Olympic organizers will provide unfamiliar horses and athletes draw lots to pick their horse.   They then have only 20 minutes to get to know their horse.

Yes. Exactly like that.

Then they ride and jump over at least 12 obstacles, losing points for being too slow, knocking down fence rails, falling off, or the horse refusing to jump.

Finally, the climax of the competition! It’s the combined event of Running and Shooting.  Competitors have to run 3000 meters (Almost 15 that not a helpful conversion?) and shoot 15 targets. They have unlimited ammo during this event and can shoot as many times as they want…it helps that they're shooting lasers now.   They shoot right away and then stop again at 1000 meters and 2000 meters to shoot 5 targets.  They can continue running once they’ve hit all the targets or 70 seconds passes.  The person with the most points from fencing, swimming, and riding gets to start first, and the person with the fewest points starts last.  This means that the winner of the entire competition is the person who crosses the finish line first!  

Is THAT how a race works?

2-Wheelchair Rugby

This is played during the less popular, but equally exciting Paralympics (August 29-Sept 9--watch them!).  It's played on a basketball court and the players must have a disability which affects both their legs and arms.  Wheelchair "contact" is allowed (meaning they ram each other's wheelchairs so hard that tipping over is common), and it's one of the very few Olympic/Paralympic sports where men and women compete together.  

"What?  What?"

3 – Handball

Handball is a mix of the best of soccer and basketball.  There are often 50 goals scored per 60 minute game, (didn’t get THAT from soccer) and handballplayers are allowed an unlimited number of "faults", which are considered good defense and disruptive to the attacking team's rhythm.  Another way to score a fault?  “Playing too passively.”  

Also, it seems to be one of the oldest sports, even making an appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, so you can feel smart as you watch it and point that out to the people you call your friends.

4-Athletic Steeplechase.  

This is a 3000 meter race with all sorts of barriers that you have run over or through.   Over the course of a full race, you'll jump over 28 "normal" barriers and 7 water jumps.  A water jump means that you have to jump into and run through water, not simply hop over a puddle.  A "normal" barrier is a 30-36 inch tall solid hurdle.  The barriers don't fall over like a hurdle would, in fact, you can step or jump on them if you want.  Because of the seven water jumps, everyone is soaking wet once the race finishes!  

This sport started with people racing from town to town, so of course they had to jump over things like stone fences, creeks, slow-moving sheep, and so forth.  

I feel like it's less like an Olympic event and more like an obstacle course you'd set up for your 12 year old sister's birthday party and then secretly want to play on yourself.  Is that just me?

5 – Paralympic Judo 

Judo is a sport for those viewers with short attention spans.  Each bout starts and ends within five minutes or less (except when they go into a 3 minute overtime).   These paralympic athletes have some level of visual impairment (there are three levels, one of which means completely blind) or are deaf.   The competitors begin the match with a grip on each other, so there's no time wasted as they circle and try to grab their opponents shirt.

The mats have different textures to help contestants keep track of where they are.  It’s fast, exciting, and powerful.  Also, I feel like I’m learning things I can use as I walk home at midnight.....when there's no moon and all the street lights are burned out.  

6 – Paralympic football 5-a-side  

5-a-side is one of the events in the upcoming Paralympic Games and it's based on soccer.  But wait!  It’s WAY more exciting than that, although, god  knows, it’s not hard to be more exciting than soccer.   This is soccer played on a smaller field with all athletes being visually impaired.   That’s right, no one can see each other, the ball, the goal or the boundaries.   How can it possibly be more exciting than soccer?

Although   and I cannot stress this enough—anything is more exciting than soccer.  

Are...are they playing now?

First of all, there aren’t any pauses when the ball goes out of bounds, because there are walls around the pitch, ergo, the ball doesn't go out of bounds. That means the action never stops!  
The ball makes noise as it moves, so the players can hear where it is and there is a sighted person behind the goal who can shout directions to the players.   Although, I suppose they COULD shout anything they wanted...  Oops, I lied earlier, not everyone playing is blind, the goalies can see, which means that making a goal is slightly harder than it would be otherwise. 

All the players wear blackout masks to ensure that no one gets an advantage by being slightly less visually impaired than their opponents.  This makes the game fair.  Although no one is doing anything about making the REST of life fair....

Once you get over the irony of watching people with visual impairments play a game they can’t see themselves, it’s a super exciting game. (Is that technically irony?)

No one knows anymore.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Hiraodai Cave

 The other day, Jon and I decided to visit Hiraodai Park.  Actually, I decided that we'd visit the park and I should probably say "demanded if I'm being totally honest.  I wanted to get out of the city and do something different.  Most weekends, we just relax around the house, which is fine, and something I normally encourage, especially since I've been pregnant, but something was pulling me towards this park.  It was probably the fact that it would be the one day this month that was sunny. (Rainy season and all that.)  I had seen on their website that they had caves you could explore and I was sold.  Once I had put my foot down and insisted we go there, I started getting a little nervous.  The only way to get there was to take 30 minute train ride and then a fairly expensive taxi ride.  I read the website a little more clearly and found out that you can't explore all of the caves, some sections were blocked off, and the cave pictures on the website actually looked pretty lame.  Jon initially wanted to sleep in on Sunday, but he gamely prepared coffee Saturday night so he'd be able to wake up and go on this trip with me.  So after all that I was a little nervous that it would turn out to be an expensive dud of a trip.    

However, we went on our way and took the train to the middle of nowhere.  Luckily there was one taxi waiting at the station with the driver sleeping inside.  The station attendant asked us if we were heading to Hiraodai and once we said we were, he asked another question that we didn't catch.  ("Are you going to ________, too?") We smiled and got in the taxi as the attendant shouted something at the taxi driver and we were on our way!  
The taxi driver wasn't inclined to chatting and took us directly to Senbutsu Cave.  (Thousand Buddhas Cave)   Later we realized that this was the question the station attendant had asked us that we hadn't understood.  Luckily we smiled and nodded because this was the best place he could have taken us as it was seriously awesome.  Here we are standing outside the cave.  It was a really warm day, but we could feel a cool breeze coming out from the cave. 

Here are some tiny moss and plants that grow in the cave.  They only grow where there are lamps are lighting our way, otherwise there aren't any noticeable plants or animals in the cave. 

The whole cave was cold and damp and there was water dripping on us the whole time.  Besides the fact that the flash on my camera is broken, the dripping water also dissuaded me from taking many photos.  I wish we would have brought our rain jackets.

Jon kept telling me to slow down and admire the rock formations.  I wanted to charge ahead and just fly through, but I'm glad he made us stop and smell the stalactites.

About halfway through the cave we started wading through water.  I'm glad we brought sandals. The water was freezing and occasionally we tried to climb up the walls to let our feet warm up a little bit. I felt like a real explorer.  I've been in caves before, but never caves this extensive.  Also, in other caves I've explored in, there are strict walkways and they ask you not to touch the walls or the stalactites.  In this cave, nothing was off-limits. 

After the cave, we walked around and admired the karst landscape.  It was a really beautiful and relaxing hike.  Between the cave and the karst, it was the most exercise I've gotten in about 3 months, and I felt great.  We decided to skip the taxi ride back to the train station and just walk down the mountain, but about halfway there a gruff old man stopped and offered us a ride in his van.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Pregnant in Japan--Baby day care and Hospital tours

Pregnant in Japan - weeks 23 - 25

There is an adorable day care just down the block from our house that I've always assumed we'd send out little baby to.  I get two months off work after the baby is born and then we have winter vacation before I need to go back to work, so we need someone to take care of little 10 week old T-Rex from Mid January till the end of February, when Jon and I complete our contracts.  Depending on what we do for jobs next year, we could either move and have to start work in April, giving us a month off of work, or stay in Kitakyushu and find other work that starts in April, or keep our current contracts which would have us start working again in June.  So we’ll have between one and three months off to spend with our little dinosaur before I decide I can’t go back to work because leaving him/her with someone else was too traumatizing for me or before we, you know, go back to work.   

However, when we stopped in the day care to talk about their services, they told us that they won't accept babies till they are six months old.  Hmmm... The next day we went down to the city office to figure this day care thing out.

I figured they would give us a list of day cares that accepted young babies and we'd call and visit them to find out about availability and then get on the waiting lists. 

Day cares are both public and private, but both (I believe) are subsidized by the government.  Going to the city office should have been our first step anyhow, as we need to get on the official waiting list of the day cares we want to join and then wait till one accepts us.  Apparently there is a high demand and limited supply, so, going 7 months before we would even need one is actually not jumping the gun at all.    

We arrived at the city office and started talking with the lady who signs people up for the day cares, called Hoikuens for babies and Kindergartens for ages 2 through 5.  (Can I say one more time that I am so glad my husband can speak Japanese like nobody's business?  He did all the speaking and I wrote my name down and tried to follow.  Usually just when I thought I understood, "Ahh!  She's saying that they won't take kids over 4 or 5 years old!"  Jon would ask me, "Do you understand?  They won't take more than 4 or 5 kids total.")

We told the lady we wanted someone to take our baby and she pulled out a list of Hoikuens in our area and started outlining the rules for signing up.  So, if baby is born around Oct. 25th, then the baby can be accepted on Feb 1st...wait, wait, wait.  Jon explained that we both needed to be back to work by Jan. 15th.  She explained that they won't accept babies under three months old.  Jon explained that I only got 8 weeks of maternity leave and then we would use up all our vacations days to get two more weeks of winter break, but after that I had to go back to work (Jan. 15th). 

The three of us sat in silence and stared at each other for a while.  

Jon started explaining again about the maternity leave and how I had to go back and complete my contract till Feb 28th....and then we didn't need the hoikuen any more.  Ahh!  The lady’s face lit up! Success!  She pulled out a secret list of "Hoikuen Mammas," ladies who accept babies as young as 48 days old.  I don't know why she was holding out on us, but as she only pulled it out when Jon mentioned that we only needed one for 6 weeks, it must have been related.   There is only one in our nearby area, though there were about 18 listed on the sheet, some as close as a 30 minute bus ride away, others hours away.  We started looking through the complicated map system and trying to find out if these Hoikuens were near our home or at least our jobs, which would make drop-off and pick-up easier.  I won't go into detail about how complicated and different the Japanese address system is, suffice to say for now that it is nearly impossible to figure out without just typing the address in Google maps and following the arrow to the  location.  Then the lady stepped away to make some phone calls.  She came back a while later with a big smile!  Success!  The Hoikuen closest to our house was full, but the one that was close to Jon's school had one opening! I saw that she had crossed out about 10 other Hoikuens on the list.  Had she called them all and they were full?  Were they too far away and that's why she crossed them off?  I don't know.  I didn’t care, we were in!

So, she helped us fill out a few forms to officially get on the waiting list at this Hoikuen, and she even wrote the time we applied on the form.  These things fill up so fast that us filling out the form at 4:00 rather than 6:30 might mean the difference between getting in or not.  Then she gave us a list of forms and things to do after T-Rex arrives, but before we can be accepted to the Hoikuen.

This is what we've got to do after T-Rex is born, but before we leave on Dec 20th to visit America till Jan 13th. 

Get the baby a Japanese ID card.
Register the baby on National Insurance.
Register the birth and birth certificate at the City Office. 
Have a one month check-up 
Visit the day care with the baby to introduce ourselves to the Hoikuen Mamma.
Get a copy of our taxes and salary from our company to bring to the City Office (This will determine how much we pay for the Hoikuen.  It can range from $250 to $350 US per month.  That sounds like a steal to me, but I don't know how much day care is in the states.)

During this busy time we've also got to...

Get the baby a passport.
Get the baby a social security number.
Get an English version of the Birth Certificate (must be notarized by a registered bilingual notary).
Register the birth with the American Embassy 

It appears that every single one of these documents will be a nightmare of filling out dozens of forms, paying bills for forms or notarization, and/or traveling 2 hours on the bus to the nearby city, where the American Embassy is located.  I'm already stressing out about it!  But, I need to remember that I will have 7 weeks of no work to get all these things done, so between Jon and me, I'm sure it's possible.  It has to be.

We also went in for another check-up at the hospital this past Saturday.  (T-Rex is doing great, and weighs ~650 grams.)  After we finished, I asked about where I’ll actually have the baby and so we took a tour of the maternity ward.   I can see now why people would spring for the Lady's Clinics.  The hospital rooms where you stay with your baby are pretty standard hospital fare—white, empty, clinical.   I thought they might spruce the rooms up a little bit on the maternity floor, but they are as depressing and empty as in any other section.  

I don't regret our plan to go the hospital route so that I can have the option of an epidural and for us to save about $1,000 or more, but I'm glad that we took a tour so I can prepare myself.  For example, I've always heard that you don't want to go to the hospital as soon as contractions start, because your own home is more comfortable for the first several hours.  I can see that's true now and I'll be staying home much more comfortably than I might otherwise have. After the baby arrives, Jon can't stay the night, he has to go home at 9:00 PM.  That's fine, I'm sure I'll want to go to sleep early since I'll be waking up every few hours to feed T-Rex.  The rooms are empty and bleak, so I'll add framed photos, knickknacks, and other decorations to the hospital bag to make it homier.  The nursery is the only place with baby beds, so mother and baby can’t sleep in the same room.  I was disappointed about that, but I'll keep the baby with me while I'm awake and let him/her sleep in the nursery and enjoy that the nurses will change those first few days of dirty diapers.  They say most women stay for 5 days, sometimes 4, so I hope that everything goes well and I can leave ASAP.