Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Okay, Where Did August Go?

Hello Week 4 (Aug 23-29)!

This week started with the Kani City English Speech Contest. About 36 Junior High students gave their speeches in front of 5 Assistant Language Teachers (including me). There were three semifinal speeches, and from each group, the top 4 made it onto the finals that afternoon. From those final 12, 6 were picked to advance to the Gifu Prefecture English Speech Contest Final in about 4 weeks. It was definitely tough to pick the top six, but I am very excited because a future student of mine (who I helped prepare a little bit for the Kani event) made the top 6 and will compete in a few weeks!

I am finally starting my school visits and meeting with the teachers I will be working with all year long (well at least until the end of this school year, which is in March). On Tuesday, I went to Kyowa Junior HS. It has about 200 students and there are 2 teachers and 1 assistant I will work with. Both of the teachers are fairly new to teaching, and one is even my age! The meeting was very beneficial and they even taught me how to send a text message, Japanese style. (It is different from the US. We just send a text to the phone number. Well, here they have to send it as an email message. So you have your phone number, your phone text/email address, and your normal email address. Then, if you are lucky and both people have the same provider, so like ATT or Verizon, but here it’s Softbank, then you can just send the text/email to the phone number! What a confusing system….)

I finally got my first taste of an okonomiyaki restaurant this week! What is “okonomiyaki” you ask? Well, that is what Google is for! But seriously, that might help you get a better idea. Okonomiyaki is like a big pancake/latke, it is made with a batter, vegetables, and assorted meats. I opted for just a plain okonomiyaki, and I know the women were disappointed in my lack of adventurous eating. But oh well, we also had one with cheese (my favorite since cheese is incredibly expensive here, so I don’t buy it very often) and finally we had yakisoba. The food was sooooo amazing and I cannot wait to go back! I had to dine and dash before my lunch break ended, but I am going back there soon! The only thing about going back is that you either need to be really hungry or go with a friend since the portions are HUGE! I was thinking the prices were reasonable for one person, then I saw the portions and it was a nice surprise.

This week I finally had the pleasure of meeting my predecessor Eric, as he is making one final stop in Japan before officially saying sayonara and returning to the states. I also met another ALT and it was so nice talking with people in English! Speaking in Japanese is quite demanding, since I still don’t have my JMP skills back yet (anytime now…) We ate dinner at a yakiniku restaurant, which is just chicken, or meat in general, or veggies, on skewers and grilled. I also had my first introduction to “friendly” conversation…I got asked plenty of awkward questions by the two men I met, but thankfully I could use the “I don't understand” excuse! I had to leave the gathering rather early by American standards because the last train to my area leaves at 11:15, so after a 7 minute ride, I was back home.

On Thursday (the 26th), I got to go with about 20 other teachers new to the Mitake area (as of April) and tour 3 famous sites. First, we went to the Gankoji temple, where I listened to the temple lady speak for 35 minutes, and I was only able to comprehend a few things. But luckily, two JHS teachers I met earlier helped translate some of the more important information for me to understand. I learned that when you look at your hands, your right hand comes from your father, your left comes from your mother, and when you put them together in the praying motion, it symbolizes yourself.

Next, we went to a dam in the Kaminogo area (just a little NE of our town). I was surprised as to how tall the dam was, and it was surrounded by great scenery, I was kind of sad we didn't get to walk around and take pictures, but then again it probably was in the mid to high 90’s. Finally, we drove back through town and went to the west side and up in the mountains where the old coalmines are. They started digging for coal in the 1860’s, but when they started, they neglected to make a map of the locations of the mines. Well, lets just say they haven’t found them all yet. The rumor I heard was that they think one could be below Mitake Elementary School’s playground! That’s kind of scary.

And speaking of scary, I had my first (and hopefully last, but probably not) taste of an earthquake in Japan. At 5am (on the dot!) I woke up thinking my neighbor above me was making a lot of noise and jumping up and down. Well, once I realized that the entire ground was shaking, I figured out what was going on. It lasted maybe 10 seconds and then I went back to bed (thankfully). I bring this up because when we were entering the coalmines, I heard a few ladies ahead of me say something about “jishin” which is earthquake in Japanese. Of course, that is exactly what you want to talk about when you are going underground in a coal mine, and 6 hours earlier there was an earthquake! Overall, it was a great tour that showed me some pretty awesome and surprisingly historic locations all in my town!

Soon enough the work week was over and it was time for some sightseeing! I finally made it into Nagoya, Japan's 4th largest city. I've heard that it's sort of disregarded as a big city, like Tokyo or Yokohama, and referred to as Japan's Detroit because it is relatively new and a large manufacturing port (I've never been to Detroit, so no harm intended...it's just what I've heard). Nagoya was pretty much destroyed by the US during World War II, so that's why I say it has a relatively new infrastructure. I loved my short stay in Nagoya (just Saturday the 28th) and I can't wait to see more of it.

Being a new ALT, some of the Gifu Prefecture returners were gracious enough to give us (myself and another ALT) a tour through the main spots in Nagoya. Most of the shopping is done in the Sakae neighborhood (this is also the area Noelle told me to go, thanks Noelle!). There are way too many awesome stores to name but let's just say, when I go back, that's my first stop. On our way to the Sakae area, we stopped at Osu Kannon Temple. It was built in 1333 and it's quite a site to see in person, the colors are incredibly vivid!

On our way to the Sakae area, we went through these outdoor shopping areas. We didn't have enough time to visit the shops, so that is definitely on my list next time I'm in the area. Randomly, we ran into a festival, yet again. I don't know what they were celebrating but it was all over Nagoya, from the train station to the Sakae area. It was like a parade and teams (in awesome costumes) would sing, chant, dance, and walk their way down the street.

For evening entertainment, about 20 people met up at a rooftop beer garden. It was all you could eat and drink for a little over two hours for about $40. The scenery was amazing, especially as the sun was setting behind all of the tall buildings. After dinner we went to Club ID. Ok, it might have been the coolest layout I've ever seen. It had 5 floors, all with separate DJs and dance floors. The music was awesome, even better, it was in English! Yes!

We left at 11:30pm to make sure we caught the last subway and train. We ran the ENTIRE way to the train station(s). It was unbelievable, but somehow we all made it home. I was lucky enough to stay with another ALT in a closer town, since the trains were done running to my lonely town. On Sunday, we drove across the street (walking is a little unsafe on that road) to Malera Mall, the 3rd largest mall in Japan. And to those who have been to Mall of America, it this mall isn't even close! Thanks to some retail therapy, I was well accompanied on my trip back to Mitake in the afternoon!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Finally Adapting to the Mitake Lifestyle: Middle of August

I cannot believe how fast my third week in Japan went. It honestly feels like yesterday was Tuesday, maybe Wednesday. On the 26th, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in Wadaiko (or Japanese Drumming, we know it as Taiko). For about 2 hours, I, along with 9 other teachers and other educators took a lesson from 2 great drummers. At the end of the class, we went up in pairs and played through the entire song. It was about 3 minutes long, and I was lucky enough to get paired with the junior high music teacher, so when I got off a little bit, he was definitely right on the music. It was lot of fun, and I would love to do it again! I will say it was quite hot in the gym, which brings me to the next interesting tidbit about Japan. Everyone (I mean EVERYONE) carries a little towel with him or her wherever they go. It’s essentially sweat towel, and lets just say that I’ve gotten into the swing of things and now I bring my towel everywhere I go! Now, I never fear going somewhere without napkins, since most restaurants in Japan do not give you napkins! Odd huh? Yeah, now try to eat with chopsticks and not spill on your clothes! It’s tough!
The weekend flew by and now I face another week! On Saturday, Sachiko (Mrs. Watanabe, my new friend, who speaks English!) and her friend took me to Mitake no Mori (or Mitake’s Forest). They picked me up bright and early at 7am, and we ventured to the forest. We took the hiking course, and let me tell you, it was a hiking course. I think I might need real hiking shoes if I ever do it again! My poor Nike’s. It took us about 90 minutes, and I have no idea how far we walked, but it must have been a good distance since it was definitely a workout. Remember how everyone carries a towel? Well, let’s just say it got a nice workout too.

On Saturday night (the 21st), I drove to the bigger train station (about 15 min by car or 8 min by train) called Kani Station, and took the JR line to Minoota, or Minokamo City (2 stops away). Another ALT from the Philippines invited me to watch the fireworks with her husband and family/friends. This was the same kind of festival I went to in my town 2 weeks ago, but A LOT bigger. The fireworks lasted over an hour! It was awesome. We were on the river, so there was a nice breeze that made the 30 degree (roughly 86) weather bearable. They had so many food vendors, and I can’t even imagine how many people where there, but there had to be a hundred thousand +. It was unbelievable how many people showed up. This is the Obon Season, where they celebrate those who have passed away, and they show their respect with fireworks.

Here are some pictures from the festival:

On Sunday, the Watanabe’s picked me up and took me to their house for some cards and lunch. Sachiko said she woke up at 4:30am to make curry for lunch! I was shocked when I heard that! Next time, we are going to make it together, since now I know it takes so long. After a lot of cards and lunch, we went to Mitake-jo (castle).

Ok, so it’s not really a castle, but just pillars. The Watanabe’s gave me some good information about the castle, it is wonderful having people who know the history of the town and can translate it into English! The original castle was built during the Edo period and it eventually burned down. When they went to rebuild it, they couldn't since the mountain top on which the original castle was built on is very difficult to build on. The area upon which the original castle was built is very small they decided to build a monument in its honor. After Mitake-jo, we went to the Temple behind Mitake Elementary School. It was built in 1433, and is one of the most historic temples built. The really important temples have 3 stripes on the front wall, and this temple is in the exclusive club. It is currently undergoing a renovation and you can tell since it is very clean and new inside, but it doesn’t take away from the history of the temple.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Short Story: My Second Week in Mitake Aug 16th-20th

Well, it’s been another week. I’ve bought snow tires for roughly $70 and found out it will cost me $18 to change them out at the beginning and ending of the winter season. Talk about a deal! I believe my snow tires in America were somewhere in the $400-500 ballpark and $50 to change every season! I could definitely get used to this! They say it doesn’t snow much or ever in Mitake, but I’d rather be prepared. I’ve done the chains once before (thanks to the epic snowstorm in Portland back in 2008) and I don’t see the need to do it again. I’m finally starting to map out some travel ideas within Japan. You’d be surprised to hear that Japan has several convenient National Holidays! Thanks to the book on Japan from Nana and Jim, I’ve been marking down several pages, from the mountains to rivers to oceans to plenty of Temples! I can say that my cooking adventures are slim to none. I’ve stuck to things I really know (or at least think I know). Let’s see I’ve made curry, PB&J, cereal, fruit parfaits, and PB and crackers. Talk about adventurous! In my apartment I don’t have an oven, but my predecessor was kind enough to buy a microwave-oven during his tenure in Mitake. The only problem is that I don’t know how to read the kanjis! Once I have my handy kanji guide (thanks mom) I should be able to figure some of the oven out. I’m quite excited to start baking things, and then the kitchen will smell like a home!

I have no idea what this is, sorry. But it is right across the train tracks from Godo Station.

This is Mitake Station. It is the last stop and located "downtown"

On Wednesday (the 18th) I met other ALTs in the area. There are about 15 ALTs in the Kani region, but only 2 of us are JETs! Most people are employed through private organizations now, apparently five years ago there were 130+ JETS in the Gifu Prefecture, two years ago there were 60+ JETs, and now there are about 40 JETs. Individual schools and the Board of Educations are deciding against the JET Program and are hiring ALTs through another route (private companies). I’ve heard that the JET Program isn’t as highly regarded as it used to be, and that it could be on its decline. If the last few sentences are any indication of what’s happening throughout the country, then maybe the rumors are true!

This week we had the preparation meeting for the Kani City English Speech C0ntest. On Monday (the 23rd), I, along with 4 other ALTs, will judge 40 Junior High students on speeches that they have prepared. I’m quite excited to hear the speeches and get my first indication of English skills in this area.
Thursday (the 19th) was such a change of pace from what I’m been experiencing. Thursday morning and lunchtime were spent at Kaminogo JHS with the English teacher. We helped prepare one of her students (soon to be mine too) for the Speech Contest. I also got my first taste of team teaching as we went through a sample lesson plan. Four of us from the JHS went to a neighboring town, more of a resort area, and had tea and bread at a nice little restaurant. After returning to my work office (for 3.5 hours of just “desk work”) I was adopted by a nice couple that I met at one of my introductions to town individuals earlier in the week. They took me out for coffee and then dinner at a sushi restaurant where you order and the sushi comes on a “super-express bullet train/car” to your table (see picture). Most of you know that I’m not a big coffee or tea drinker and let me tell you today I set a new record, 2 iced coffees and 3 green teas. Talk about a lot of caffeine! The Watanabe’s are very nice and have agreed to take me “sightseeing” in Mitake and the surrounding areas and towns once a week. It is incredible how nice and welcoming the people here have been. Mrs. Watanabe also likes to cook, and guess what, she likes cooking curry, I cannot wait to cook curry with her. I have this funny feeling it won’t be out of a box!

Here is the sushi express!

Monday, August 16, 2010

My First Week In Mitake

Okay, I actually wasn’t in Mitake for the full week as we had another Gifu Orientation in Gifu City, Tuesday and Wednesday. Getting there was an adventure! I took the train by myself to Gifu City. There is a little train station near my house called Godo Station and it is the 3rd to last stop on the line. After riding it for 8 minutes, I got off at Shin-Kani station (the other end of the line) and transferred to Inuyama and transferred one more time to Gifu City. At the orientation I met the other 3 ALTs who came a week before I did, 2 are from Australia and 1 is from the US. On Tuesday night we went out to an “all you can eat and drink restaurant” for dinner. The food was good and there were many dishes being passed around that I had never seen before! I had my first official Japanese beer in Japan and those around me also indulged in their alcoholic beverage of choice (some more than others). On Wednesday I got my re-entry permit after paying 6,000 yen (roughly $70) which allows me to leave Japan and return as many times as I want with my instructors visa (3 years!). I hopped on the train back to my town and if you want an indication of how small it is, you have to sit in the front carriage or else the doors won’t open because there is no platform to walk onto.

Here is the train map. Yeah, it is a little hard to understand.

Here is my train station. Godo Station.

New and Old JETs at dinner

On Thursday, I got the best set of wheels I have ever seen in a foreign country! Ok, I joke, but seriously, the car isn’t really in great shape, but it runs (fingers crossed for the winter) and it will get me where I need to go! It’s very interesting how you can take the freedom that a car brings as just a normal day thing, but going without a car in a foreign country for 10 days (not on vacation) and you will be dying for a “cooler” (literally, like A/C) way to travel. Finally, Friday came and went without too much trouble. In the office I worked on my self-introduction lesson, which I will be giving roughly 56 times this summer/fall. I have all sorts of grades to teach from 1st to 9th grade, along with some special education classes, and preschool (ages 0-3) playtime classes. I know that one of my biggest challenges will be speaking slowly and using easy/simple words! Friday night I took my little car to get gas. That was an experience! In Japan there are 2 kinds of gas stations, the first is a self-serve which usually has lower prices, the second is where they come and serve you (like in Oregon) except they wash your windshield, sometimes check your oil, give you a moist towel to clean the inside of your car, and finally, they will STOP traffic both ways so you can get back out to your needs. That was a sight to see, this lady, just stopping traffic so I could go on my way! After cruising through town, I decided to call it a night and return to the apartment where I tested my cooking skills (and the power use limits of the apartment) by making my favorite meal, curry! One hour later everything was ready and delicious of course. The sink however looked like a disaster zone since there is not much room to put used or dirty dishes, pots, and pans. I managed, and the kitchen seems to be in tiptop shape! Well, that about sums up my first week in Mitake! During the weekend, I went on my first trek to the golf driving range. It is called Y’s Golf Range and it has about 60 stalls devoted to the greatest sport ever :). They do driving ranges a little different in Japan. In America, you would pay like $8 for a large bucket of balls. In Japan, you pay by the hour. So for one hour it is 1500 yen (or $16) and for two hours 1700 yen ($17), there really isn’t a great advantage hitting for only one hour, at least from what I can tell. It also depends on what day it is and what time you are going to hit balls, the prices range from 1300 yen to 2000 yen. So many different numbers to remember! I also took a trip to Arcadia Golf Course, which is about 15 minutes from my apartment. It looks like a real nice golf course, but is semi expensive. On the weekends, it’s about 135,00 yen or $150 but during the week it’s 8,000 yen or $85. Now that I have a real job, I can’t just escape to the golf course during the week. It looks like I will have to plan my golfing ventures, just so it doesn’t break the bank.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Welcome to Japan! My First Week!

Well, it has actually been one month since I arrived in Japan, but since I guess it's better late than never! I hope you enjoy!

Goodbye Portland! Hello Tokyo! July 31st-August 1st

Well, I finally left the United States of America for the wonders of Japan. At 2:15pm on July 31st, my new life officially began. Since Japan is so far ahead of Oregon, after a 10 hour flight, we landed at 4pm, Sunday, August 1st. After passing through immigration and customs, we were whisked away to our swank Tokyo hotel, the Keio Plaza Hotel. Once we were settled in our rooms, we went off to explore the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. It only took us 5 minutes to decide where to eat (CC Curry).

August 2nd, 2010 (Monday)

This is when my official job began. I started the Tokyo Post-Arrival Orientation with about 900 other JETs from around the world; I counted 19 different country flags on the stage, so there were quite a few languages spoken at the breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables. The orientation covered a lot of relevant information, but after about 11 continuous hours of orientation, I called it a night at 9:30pm, which was way too early considering I was in one of the most exciting cities in the world!

August 3rd-4th-5th, 2010 (Tuesday/ Wednesday/Thursday)

Well the orientation continued, and so did the continuous stream of information! On Wednesday, we finally left for our prefectures (similar to states in America). I headed to Gifu Prefecture (which is literally right in the middle of Japan) with 7 other new JETs (1 from Israel, 1 from US, 5 from Canada). We took the bullet train to Gifu City and had another overnight orientation.

Welcome To Mitake!

On Thursday, we all went our separate ways. Two gentlemen from my Contracting Organization came and picked me up. One of the men (let’s call him Mr. T) is my direct supervisor who helps me setup everything. The hour-long ride went by surprisingly fast after the three of us found out that I couldn’t speak great Japanese and they couldn’t speak any English. So after making small (more like small-choppy talk), we arrived in Mitake and let me tell you: it was NOT how I expected it to be and that is a GREAT thing! Here’s why, when I heard that I was going to be in the “inaka” or rural/country, I thought of Moscow, Idaho, where I spent 4 great years of college. Now don’t get me wrong, I lived Moscow, and I enjoyed my time there, but I enjoy bigger cities (like Portland). Mitake is more of a suburb to a suburb, etc. Its neighboring city is called Kani-Mitake IC and next to it is Kani. There really is no noticeable separation between the towns, which was a really nice thing to see! Now, don’t mistake me, I’m not saying I’m in a large city because I’m definitely not. Things close up pretty early and there aren’t a lot of things to do, but since it is near a larger city with big city amenities it makes the 10 minute drive or 7 minute train ride worth it.

Summer Festival: Mitake Style

My first weekend definitely had its highs and lows! About 8 straight hours on Saturday were spent cleaning and organizing my new apartment. This apartment is huge in Japanese and American standards for 1 person! I have a total of 6 rooms/areas: entrance, bathroom and washing machine, kitchen, a hardwood floor central area (with a desk and bookshelves), and finally two identical 6-tatami mat rooms, one of which is the living room and the other, my bedroom. The best part about the living room: it has air conditioning. Now, don’t get me wrong, air conditioning is nice in the Pacific NW for those days when it gets a little hot. But here in Mitake, it DOESN’T cool off at night, literally. I think the lows must be in the high 70’s (probably more like low 80’s). When you factor in the humidity, whoa, it is hot. So yes, the living room is my “everything” room, but most importantly, it is my bedroom until the weather cools down. And by the looks of the tatami mats in the living room, the previous ALTs (12 years+) spent quite a bit of time in this room and not the “bedroom”.

Here is an idea of the apartment layout (pictures will come later)

After the cleaning task, my supervisor’s supervisor picked me up and he took me to the “Natsu Yasumi” or Summer Festival. It has been a tradition in Mitake for a while, but it has been celebrated in Japan for much longer. The highlight was definitely the fireworks! They lasted 15 minutes in Mitake, but in Gifu City, the capital of Gifu Prefecture (about 1 hour by car, 75 minutes by train) I hear they lasted 2 hours! And I thought 15 minutes was good. There were lots of people partaking in the activities, from dressing up in “yukatas” (Japanese Summer Kimonos), to dancing with 50-75 other people in a circle around a stage, to eating really yummy food. The night was wonderful, I found my new favorite way of making (more like eating) rice. First you put the cooked, sticky rice into 3 separate balls, and put those on a shish-kabob stick. Next, dunk them in soy sauce (“shoyu”) and then BBQ them. These are the directions I got from my supervisor’s supervisor, but since this was all in Japanese, I could be totally wrong. But let me tell you, I plan on mastering this before I see everyone next, it was SO delicious! This lovely food is called Gohemochi.

{Here is a quick history on “Obon”. Thanks to Wikipedia! Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed (deceased) spirits of one's ancestors. This Buddhist custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori. }