Monday, November 29, 2010

Golf With The Mayor + Black Friday...Japanese Style

Last Tuesday, Japan observed its National Labour Thanksgiving Day. A wonderful day that is intended to thank all of the hard workers (myself included). It became a legal holiday right after WWII, but the tradition started back in the 500's when the rice farmers would give thanks to their god for giving them a good crop during the year. So to spend my holiday, I was asked to played golf with 23 people from the town hall. Little did I know, I was considered a guest of honor and would play with the mayor! It was honestly a very uneventful round. As I wrote before, golf takes FOREVER here. It took 6 hours to just play 18 holes (that's excluding breakfast before, practice before, lunch at the turn, a shower after the round, and the final after the round party/awards ceremony). For those of you unfamiliar with golf, a normal round is between 4-5 hours, closer to 4.5, but hardly ever over 5 (unless you had the “opportunity” to play in a few collegiate tournaments). Yes, so it was a long day. I do miss American golf, mainly because it doesn't take an entire day.

This weekend I met up with some fellow ALTs in my prefecture and we explored the Mino Town area. It is a historic town, well known throughout the prefecture for its papermaking and paper lanterns. Each fall it hosts a festival, which I didn't make it to this year, but heard it was impressive. On Saturday the four of us, did some quality retail shopping. The shops were quaint but full of color and had very impressive paper goodies.

The Wonderful Colors of Autumn Trees


Shop, Shop, Temple, Shop...You Know, Completely Normal

When we first got there, we were a bit hungry, so we stopped into a soba shop for a cup of noodles. I ordered the soba with tempura vegetables. And it was yummy (I was about 5 bites in before I realized I should take a picture, sorry). After lunch and surprisingly quite a few compliments about our Japanese skills, we headed on to spend some well-earned money. I can't tell you about what I bought, because that would ruin the surprise for some lucky individuals. However, I am happy to say I supported their community and I really want to go back.


A Lady Making Paper Lanterns

The Coolest Lantern Shop. Think IKEA x 1000

Sunday was a rather lazy Sunday. After several loads of laundry and an extravagant blueberry pancakes breakfast, I finally encouraged myself to do some more shopping. I went to the newest mall about 10 minutes away by car. I noticed that there was a little more traffic than normal on the roads but I didn't concern myself over it too much. But then! I turned onto the road that the mall is on, and holy smokes, I can't tell you how many cars I saw. It was like Black Friday (but instead, Black Sunday). This mall was PACKED! It was unreal. Before I went, I thought I'd only be there for 30 minutes, get my stuff and move on, but when I realized this adventure would take forever, I stopped into the Doutor coffee shop for an afternoon treat. In Japan, they have a lot of morning or afternoon sets, meaning you get a drink and a snack for a set price. So at this national coffee chain, I paid the set price of 500 yen or $6 and got to pick from 5 different cakes and 8 different drinks. I noticed that they had a pumpkin pie-ish concoction, and that's what sealed the deal. Since I missed out on Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, I figured this was as close as I was going to get. So a slice of pie and cup of coffee later, I was back in the shopping mood. My ultimate goal of going to the mall was to buy peanut butter, since the grocery store in the mall is the only store in my area where I can buy real peanut butter, granted its $6 for about 8 ounces, but it's totally worth it. When I saw that all 13 cash registers were open and this is the complete truth, 4 or 5 people in each line, I knew I wouldn't be buying my peanut butter.

Pumpkin Pie-ish and Coffee :)

The "Bigger" Train Station in Kani City. 2 Tracks. 3 Stops From My Apt

So, my Sunday ended up being more eventful than I realized, but everyone here is getting in the Christmas spirit. Everywhere I go, stores are playing English Christmas music and I love to sing along. Only 24 days until I board my US bound airplane(s) and train(s) and the days just can't go by any slower.

Friday, November 26, 2010

School Pictures: Defining Deception

Yesterday, I spent the day with the students at the smallest Elementary School. Those students are simply awesome. However, yesterday was school picture day for the teachers. I received a piece of paper from my supervisor telling me when the picture was going to be and what it was for (the 6th graders book). When I confirmed with him that the clothes I was wearing would be fine, I didn't think much about the school picture after that. The actual picture ordeal was with the teachers and not with the 6th grade class, like I was told. When I left for my 2nd period class (cute 2nd graders and fruits) the teachers had on warm-ups and crocs, but 45 minutes later, they were wearing full professional wear and dress shoes. Oh dear. I had on khaki pants and a blue sweater, so towards the more casual side, but oh well. I took my spot in the back row and did a small grin (without showing my teeth of course). I’ve seen what these pictures look like, as I've spent a lot of free time roaming the hallways of different schools, looking at previous pictures. No one smiled, so I thought it was best to keep my pearly whites hidden. Now, I will live forever in the hallway at that school, since the pictures start from when the school first opened. I’ve never seen another ALT in those pictures, so that will be a surprise to anyone looking at the picture. I guess it is kind of an honor to be allowed to take part in school pictures because I only visit that school about 20 times per school year.

By the time 3rd period was over, everyone was back in their normal, everyday wear like nothing had ever happened. And that is how school pictures can be the ultimate deception.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Final Exams, Heaters, and Interesting Neighbors

Thursday marked 5 weeks until I board 2 trains and 3 airplanes towards my final destination of seeing my family. It seems as though the days are going by a little slower now that the weather is colder, but I have enough things planned to get through the next 5 weeks, hopefully rather quickly.

I thought I’d give you all a highlight of my week. I forgot to mention that last weekend, I had the chance to chat with some family friends from Portland. I was able to give them a tour of my apartment, town, and unexpectedly, they meet 4 of my neighbors. It was quite comical on my end and probably complete confusion and laughter on the American side of my skype chat. The story is pretty funny, so I thought I would share with everyone how my neighbors met my parents and friends from 5000 miles away. It all started when I wanted to show my parents, Suzi, and Kevin a view of my town from outside of my front door. You would be surprised how much of the town I can see from my apartment. I walked outside, still talking to my family when I turn to my right and spotted one neighbor. Now, I understand that I probably looked crazy, carrying a computer outside and talking to it, but it was just a simple tour…Until, my neighbor headed towards me and started a conversation with me. Since she was curious about the computer, I showed her my parents through skype. She then invited the other ladies who were outside to come see my parents and family friends. In the end, there were 4 older women, huddled around my computer, asking me questions about where I’m from and how it is possible that I’m talking to my family right now. While this all is happening, the four Americans were sitting there, taking in every moment of this conversation. In the end, I had to politely bow (literally) out of my conversation with the ladies because I don't think they understood that my family was patiently waiting on the other end.

Another side note about these ladies that I get a kick out of: one day last week I was walking back from the grocery store. They asked me if I went shopping, and of course that started a simple conversation with them. One question they asked, I gave them an answer that they are convinced I’m lying about. The question was: who are you living with? We always see a man in your apartment, therefore, you can’t live alone…I politely said I live by myself and cook for myself, but they wouldn’t believe it. I get a kick out of this because I’m not quite sure why they have this idea. My predecessor was a male, so unless they think we live there together, there is no other foreigners in my town.

This week marked my final week at JHS, and then I start my ES rotation all over again. This week was quite easy because Thursday and Friday were final exams. Yikes! Monday through Wednesday was spent just finishing up details that the students would need to learn and it was quite relaxed. However, during the actual final exams, I was terribly bored. It only took me one morning to get caught up on my work, leaving another 10 hours to kill. Since some of the teachers know that I have nothing to do, I was lucky enough to be asked by the special education teacher to accompany her and her student while they looked for pinecones to make Christmas decorations. Like I said, Christmas is a big deal here.

Here is another amusing fact. I finally turned on my heater Wednesday night and it was totally worth it. I have a split AC unit, meaning it cools in the summer and heats in the winter. The lowest it will heat my room to is 16 degrees Celsius, which is 61 degrees Fahrenheit. That being said, when I opened my bedroom door to see how cold it really was in my house, the heater said the house was below 61 degrees. So, my calculation is that the interior of my apartment is about 13 degrees warmer than outside, meaning it was 55 degrees inside and 42 degrees outside! Burrr… The good news is that I have more clothes I can wear and I have 3 other heaters that I can use. This should make for an interesting winter.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bring Your Own Lunch to School Day!

On Monday, at the largest JHS, every student, teacher, and faculty member had to bring their own lunches to school. This is a rare feat because school lunch is meticulously planned out months in advance (very systematic here, if you haven’t noticed). I had grand plans to make an American school lunch, but in the end, it wasn’t that grand. I thought it would be easy remembering what I ate in JHS, but I couldn’t. I did remember my usual high school lunch, but just the thought of bringing a pop to class would’ve gotten me fired (just a little exaggeration). What I did try to recreate was the image that Americans DON’T eat hot dogs and hamburgers for lunch everyday. By now I hope you are wondering what I made…here it is: a carton of apple juice, 100 calorie packs of Ritz crackers and Oreos (the Oreos got passed around), a PB&J sandwich on Japanese bread (the bread is sliced very thick, so I used a knife to cut it in half. Making the 1 slice of bread almost equivalent to 2 slices of American bread), a tangerine, and finally some carrots (the fact that I ate them raw and without a sauce, completely mind blowing! I had 25 students staring at me when I took my first bite. Talk about suspense). I wouldn’t say that I made an exciting lunch, but it was so much lighter and easier on my stomach, I hope there is another bring your own lunch day again soon.

Here is a thought for the day. For school lunch, we get milk cartons that are about 200 mL, or about 6-7 ounces. In America, I usually drank 1% milk. But school lunch milk: has 7.6 grams of fat (1% has 1 gram). That means I’m drinking heavy, heavy milk, and it sure does taste like it.

Today (Tuesday) was my last day at the largest JHS and after four days, I finally put up some Thanksgiving poster boards with interesting facts about Thanksgiving in America and Japan. To my family members who were at Thanksgiving in 2009, you will be admired by 400 eyes over the next 4 weeks before I take the Thanksgiving pictures down and exchange them with Christmas photos and stories.

And as the leaves are changing, the weather is slowly getting colder and colder. In the classroom today, it was between 55-59 degrees, burrr. It might be time to figure out the heater situation at home...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Roses, Stingray, and School

So I’ve been neglecting the day in the life portion of the blog. I decided that 6 daily updates would be semi (if not really) boring, so I’ll just condense the rest of the schools. This week I’m in the middle of my JHS rotation. I’ll spend 9 days at the 3 junior high schools. Today, I’m at the largest school with over 300 students. There are 15 different English classes, so there is a lot going on. At this school I’m basically used as a tape player or someone with a native tongue, to give the students a change of pace. However, right now, I don’t mind this. I get to walk around the classroom and help edit papers or encourage the kids to get on track and not talk with their friends. And to me, I enjoy helping them one on one rather than speaking in front of the class for the whole period. Thursday was supposed to be quite hectic, teaching during all 6 periods; however, I found myself in the teachers’ room after lunch without any classes to teach. One class was having a test and the last period of the day was canceled. I will say this, I can’t believe how often school days are cut short here! It seems like every time I’m at a different school something new is going on. Thursday and Friday were 45 min periods instead of 50 mins and they only had 5 classes instead of 6. I’m starting to question whether Japanese students really have that much more school than American students. It’s one thing to schedule school for 300 minutes a day, but somehow it seems like they only meet that about half the time.

Side note of the day: this is my third rotation through jhs and I must say, I like it more and more every time. The jhs girls are very funny and incredibly outgoing...maybe they are warming up to me!

This weekend the Watanabe’s took me to the Rose Garden in our town. My understanding is that this Flower Garden is the largest in Japan (it’s HUGE). For the middle of November, most of the roses looked pretty good, but I can’t wait to go back in May or June when there is a lot more. I must say that I don’t have anything cool to blog about for this week, just a normal week. I did rack up the skype hours with my family and friends. On Sunday I spent almost 5 hours watching college football. It was AMAZING! I forgot how much I love college football. My one adventurous thing for the week: I tried stingray! I can honestly say that it was better than I expected. It was surprisingly sweet and the texture reminded me of dried pineapple (actually it looked just like it).

This brings a new meaning to the term "tree hugger" :)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The 23rd Birthday

There are a few things in life that occur every year and birthdays are a perfect example. Last week I got the opportunity to celebrate my birthday in Japan. I still remember the birthday parties I had growing up, but now that I’m on my own, my 23rd birthday just wasn’t the same. That being said, I wasn’t going to let being on my own be a reason to disregard my birthday. Instead, I went to Elementary school, as normal. Except they had a game day for the first four periods, so I got to try out student-invented games (it was awesome). I had lunch with some 6th graders. graders, who surprisingly I think might be warming up to me. (I was at the tough/difficult ES, so that’s saying a lot). Then, I went to teach my only two classes for the day, to the 6th graders. Sounds pretty easy, well it was. I did have plenty of meetings after school however. I met with 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teachers at the same school and then I made my way to a JHS I taught at this week to go over the lesson plans.

After all of those meetings, it was time to make it as normal as a birthday as possible. So what did I do? I went shopping of course, I went to a bakery and bought 2 different pieces of cake (I had the luxury of celebrating my birthday in Japan and American time, so it lasted even longer). Then I went to Baskin Robbins and some ice cream to go along with my cake (and I got the birthday discount)! Then of course, I rounded the birthday meal out with some “2-3” candles and flowers.

Needless to day, my actual birthday in Japan was pretty low key and extremely uneventful. While, if I were in America, I know my birthday would’ve been different, I’m actually glad I had the time to make my own birthday. Japan really is about trying different things, and celebrating my birthday on my own terms definitely fits the criteria. One of my birthday goals was to make a bucket list of 23 things that I want to do before I turn 24. However, some of the goals might take a while, so it might be a three year bucket list. The list is still in the works, so give me until this weekend and the bucket list shall be complete.

I extended my birthday onto Sunday with a day trip into Nagoya to do some retail therapy and visit an Indian restaurant that my cousin suggested. Now I know exactly where to eat the next time I’m in Nagoya, the curry was delicious! And while the shopping was semi-extravagant: I did treat myself to a birthday gift, a blank recipe book to write down my favorite recipes. I’m quite excited to get the pen to the paper; because I’m hoping my cooking skills improve (that’s the goal and it’s on the bucket list).

My 23rd birthday went just like every other day here in Japan, I was able to celebrate it on my own terms. And I must mention, that the reason I was so upbeat about celebrating my birthday alone (because who really wants to do that?) was because of my wonderful family members who took the time to send me a birthday care package. So thank you Mom, Dad, Dana, Noelle, Liz, and Carly. Those packages where incredibly kind of you and you all made being 5000 miles away from home, so much closer.

What blog post would be complete without some school lunch? This was on my birthday. It was chicken rice (not terrible), the blue cup is yogurt, then milk, green tea, potato salad with mayo, and fish (I've turned into a kid again, I stab around at the fishy things, taste it, and debate if I want another bite).

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Culture Day

My midweek holiday brought true meaning to the Culture Day Holiday. Back in October, a teacher at the largest ES asked me if I wanted to attend a tea ceremony. Well, of course I said yes, so at 9:30am (Wed. 11/3), this wonderful lady, her husband, and I set off to a neighboring town about 30 minutes west of Mitake. I can’t tell you how busy it was, there was quite a crowd on this small road. The reason was that once a year, the area opens up homes along the Nakasendo Road (I’ve blogged about this before) to the public. Wednesday was a 3-part event, part meal, part museum, and part tea ceremony.

First, we sat down on some benches in a newly built tea hall and we were served green tea and a small pastry. This wasn’t the normal green tea, this was usucha, which uses the best kind of green tea leaves and it is much more frothy than normal green tea. The pastry resembled a small slice of brownie, think rectangle, with brown (sweet beans), red, and yellow cake(all autumn colors, obviously). After we ate, we went and saw this temple outside. I really don’t know much about it, but I’m still amazed at the detail that each temple has. This is something we aren’t privileged to in the US, and I’m definitely going to miss the architecture and designs of temples, shrines, and houses for that matter, when I leave here.

After the outside temple, we made our way to the meal portion of the event. There was a little wait, so we walked around this old house converted into a museum. It was quite interesting, how houses were built some time ago and how they closely resemble what newer houses look like. The best part was the wiring of the house (I can tell you that if you are interested in electrical wiring, check out an older Japanese house…I can think of a few people who would’ve looked at it with amazement, hint: Dad). Lunch was very traditional, and I’m regretting the fact that I didn’t take a picture. It consisted of, tea, soup, rice, and small pieces of the following: salmon, egg, duck, chicken, chestnut, daikon, mushroom, carrots, tofu (deep fried…yum), a potato/almond concoction (delicious, my favorite), mint mixed with mashed tofu (weird), and finally more fish and shrimp mixtures I didn’t recognize. It was displayed beautifully, especially with how the vegetables were cut. For example, my slice of carrot looked like a flower, impressive. So after lunch, we went on the house tour. There were three houses, all lined up that had been built in different eras, by Japanese standards.

History note: In Japan, they say the year in terms of how long the current emperor has been in power. So, 2010 is Heisei 22. Or the 22nd year of Emperor Akihito’s rein. Heisei was picked because it meant “peace everywhere”. Before the Heisei period, it was Showa (1926-1989), Taisho (1912-1926), Meiji (1868-1912), and Edo (1603-1868). The Edo period was not based on Emperors, but rather on the Tokugawa Clan.

Back to the houses; each house was built in a different period, so Showa, Meiji, and Edo. Meaning they were fairly old (especially the Edo one). The lady that lived in the Meiji period house said that during the last large earthquake her house didn’t get very much damage, but the other houses suffered significant damage. I thought that was odd, until she pointed to the ceiling, and there was a huge piece of wood (actually, it was basically an entire length of a tree, support). And that’s when I understood why her house was okay; she had a massive wood beam supporting her house.

Finally, we went to an official tea ceremony. All the ladies were wearing kimonos and they looked so, professional. Luckily, the lady I went with used to practice the art of the tea ceremony, so she knew the ins-and-outs. That being said, she placed us in the perfect seating position. I was third from the right, meaning I was still one of the guests of honor (go me). That meant I got served third (out of 30) and I got my tea served in a special tea bowl. It was beautifully decorated and it really was a treat. About 25 minutes later the tea ceremony was over and I couldn’t feel my legs…yes, I had been sitting on my knees for 25 minutes, not an easy feat.

When we got back to the car, I thought we were going home because it had surprisingly been a long day already. Instead, she asked me if I’d like to see Inuyama Castle (in Japanese “inu”=dog and “yama”=mountain, so yes, Dog Mountain Castle, ha). It was a great day to see the castle because Culture Day also means it’s “Shichi-Go-San Day” or 7-5-3 Day. On this day, kids of the age 3, 5, or 7 dress up in full kid kimonos and basically get blessed for good luck growing up and everyone does it, so it was quite busy. We walked through the castle and the surrounding area and it was great because I got a better idea of the history of the castle because the lady could decipher the difficult kanji’s and then explain it to me in mostly Japanese, some English. After the visit to Inuyama Castle, we returned to Mitake about 7 hours later, so it was quite the day.

Inuyama Castle

The View From the Top of the Castle

Another View

Looking back on it, I would sat that culture day really lived up to its name on Wednesday. I learned a lot and I’m truly grateful for the people who’ve taken time out of their lives to show me Japan.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November Means....Evaluations!?!

Oh November 1st. Well, I’m finally getting used to showing up at schools and seeing teachers dressed in anything from workout-type clothes (most days) to full professional wear (suit and tie). I never know why they are dressed up, but I never feel left out, since I error on the side of business casual everyday, at the very least. That way I’m ready for anything, maybe except a wedding or graduation. Thankfully, I was ready because on Monday, when I was at an ES, the vice principal came up to me and announced that 6 people from the Board of Education would watch about 10 minutes of my 5th grade English class.

Now, if you remember, I did this once before but it wasn’t an evaluation of me, instead it was of the JTE. So, there I was, exactly 3 months in the country and I’m being evaluated. Obviously, I’m aware of the fact that I’m evaluated everyday, by every person regardless of what: I’m doing, I’m buying at the grocery store, how I’m driving, clothes I wear, etc. Honestly, how could I not be evaluated? Just think about your daily life, when we walk down the street we make internal judgments and evlautions of people we don’t even know. Now, just multiply that a bit, and you get the microscope that a foreigner faces in a small town.

Ok, back to the school evaluation…The good news is that I had already done that same lesson at the “rowdiest ES” in town and it worked, so I knew I was going to be fine. I had 2nd period with the 6th graders, 4th period teaching colors to 3rd graders, lunch with the 3rd graders, and then it was time. The HRT was dressed in a full suit/tie and tennis shoes of course, and he seemed very nervous! This beings me to a cultural difference that I’ve noticed. Isn’t important for you to look your best and do your best every class period? I say this because of the drastically different level of professional attire worn by the teachers. As a student, what are you learning when your teacher dresses in casual wear 90% of the time, and suddenly dresses up when they know they are being evaluated? Personally, I would interpret this as, “I just need to do my best when people are watching me, who cares about the rest of the days”…just a thought.

So, we started class (all 17 of us, 15 students+2 teachers) and everything was fine. Then 9 people in formal wear walked in, I just continued my routine (we were practicing “short, shirt, skirt” which is difficult for them because they have trouble differentiating the sounds made by each word). Then we did a lovely chant (the textbook loves chants, this one went “green cap, green cap, do you have a green cap…”). The last thing we did while being observed was a conversation between the HRT and myself. We had a conversation about an image in their textbook. Pretty straightforward, but when it came time to see if the students understood our conversation, no hands went up, which caught me off guard because these are the elite students of ES. Finally, a girl raised her hand and thankfully, off we went, explaining the conversation.

Overall, I would say that the evaluation was successful, but what struck me as odd, is that the HRT refused to speak Japanese to the students. I was the one that finally said it was okay to interpret the conversation in Japanese. Every other class period, the HRT would have said something in Japanese to clarify, but not on Monday in front of our visitors. While I didn't understand why it mattered so much, (just 5th grade here and are still in the early stages of learning English, they don’t even know the alphabet).

So that was my lesson of the day, and this is what I took from it: I believe that you should give anything your all, every time you step in the classroom, on the field, or on the course, because as the saying goes, “you are only as good as you practice” or “practice how you want to play”. And that’s the lesson I took from today, that no matter what I do, I practice how I play and for me, it paid off when I wasn’t as nervous because I knew I could do it. So there you have it, Amanda’s update on some culture differences.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the teachers give it their best everyday here in Japan and America, and I do understand that there are the days when we are all less than stellar, but it just strikes me as odd when there are different standards based on who will see you that day.