Monday, March 14, 2011

Just A Normal Friday Until 2:46pm. The Earthquake.

First Graders. They are adorable.

I don’t even know where to begin. Just 72 hours ago, Japan was in relative bliss, sure we have low unemployment, high debt and a slow economy, but it was just normal life. At 2:46pm, the Tohoku/Sendai Earthquake started the worst natural disaster in Japan’s history.

If any of you are concerned, fear not, as of now I am safe from the tsunamis (earthquakes and potential radiation, not so much). I definitely felt the earthquakes and its larger aftershocks, but my area got off scratch free.

On Friday, I headed into Gifu City (the capital of my Prefecture) to have a meeting with 15 or so ALTs in my prefecture. Starting on Friday, I got added “responsibilities” of being the Regional Prefectural Advisor for my area of my prefecture. In terms you will understand, in my “state”, I’m basically the advisor of my “county”.

During the meeting, we were talking about the presentation given to new ALTs in August when they first arrive. We were in the middle of the meeting and funny enough, we just finished the “When an earthquake strikes” slide. This is no joke and looking back on it, it was really funny. All of a sudden, I felt my chair shaking, I didn’t think I was moving, so I looked around and other people had the same look on their face, you know the “huh, do you feel that too?”. We all decided that once everyone felt the shaking, there really was an earthquake. It started mild and then the ground started to shake more, the only scary situation was a TV located by other ALTs that was toddling back and forth. We thought it would pass, so we just sat in our chairs. However, 30 seconds later we decided that maybe we should get under the tables or leave the building. Since we were in the Prefectural Board of Education office, there were many other workers inside and most of them were walking outside, so we did too. From what we felt, the 9.0 earthquake was about 2 minutes long and caused no harm to us. We went back inside, unaware of the ensuing damage in Northern Japan. Around 3pm, we felt the ground shake again, this time we were faster to get under the tables. Once again, just some shaking and that was it. We continued our meeting, but after a brief break, most of us were aware of what had happened. It’s hard to say what will happen since so much is still unknown. In my prefecture, all of the JET Program participants are accounted for, but that was expected. Since tens of thousands of people are still missing, the death toll will continue to rise exponentially. I’ve read reports of an entire town of 10,000 that are missing and most likely won’t be found.

Watching the news at the bar on Friday night

For now, we just sit and wait. Life in my area continues as usual. However, yesterday I bought a $60 earthquake kit and 6 liters of water, just in case. I also sleep with my bike helmet next to my bed. We’ve been warned that in the next 3 days there is a very high chance that a 7.0 earthquake will occur, but I’ve heard that it shouldn’t be centered near my area because we are on different earthquake plates. My largest fear is for the nuclear reactors and radiation. It sounds like they have it under control. The greatest fear is of the 7.0 earthquake hitting near the reactors and causing a meltdown.

It truly is amazing how fast natural disaster can spread from country to country.

UPDATE: as I was writing this blog (3:54pm) the earthquake siren went off. We were told that in 55 seconds an earthquake would hit us. Thank god other teachers knew what was going on. So the longest 55-second countdown ensued. I got under my desk and just sat there waiting for the shaking to happen. Luckily enough, it never did. It is funny how I seem to be either talking about earthquakes or writing about them and they happen.

I didn’t want this post to be so sad, but I guess you can’t change the truth. I’m very thankful that I have water, food, electricity, and shelter. Just to say it again, I’m safe and far away from the damage. I live in Gifu Prefecture, which is just above the city of Nagoya.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Junior High School Graduation in Japan: Lots of Bows, Tears, and Formalities

Wednesday was the graduation ceremony for the JHS 3rd Graders. I was lucky enough to get invited to a ceremony (albeit the day before, but still). I was scheduled to work at the Board of Education on Wednesday, which I did. But I had the extra pleasure of attending the graduation ceremony at the “tougher” JHS (definitely one of my favorites though). It was quite a sight, all the students dressed in their formal uniforms. It will be difficult to explain all of the cultural differences that I realized (it was a really good “ah, ha” moment), but I’ll do my best.

Where to start? Attendees. This ceremony was attended by all of the first and second graders (of course), all of the teachers/staff members, certain important town individuals (PTA people, Board of Education people, a fill-in for the Mayor, police, etc), and finally, the parents of the graduates. When I say parents, I really only mean the mothers. Here is where cultural difference #1 struck me. In America, graduation ceremonies are a big deal, attended by all family members. In Japan, I only saw 4 fathers, and the rest (65 or so) mothers. Since graduation was held at 9am, most men were working.

Attire: Let’s just say everybody looked their best! I was instructed to wear a black suit (black jacket and either black pants or a skirt). I wore a white button up shirt underneath and next time, I will wear a black shirt (since everyone else was wearing a black shirt). I snuck my coral sweater under my jacket because it was about 55 degrees in the gym. As for shoes, this was the best part, I wore my black Nikes (ha). Other female teachers wore about the same, most had on all black. The male teachers had on black suits but all had white (or some color of white) ties on. There was not one black tie. Which leads me to cultural difference #2. In Japan, black ties are only for funerals. So, most men had on white or cream ties. I only saw 3 or 4 color ties. The mothers were dressed the same. Most in all black, and since it was cold outside and inside, many people brought blankets to put on their lap. Also, when you go into a school or gym, you must change shoes. Most people brought their own slippers to the ceremony (they honestly reminded me of those pink, fuzzy slippers you would only ever wear in your house and you’d never be caught dead in them outside of your house…).

The Ceremony: Everyone except the third graders were seated. Some music plays and they SLOWLY march in. When I say slowly, I mean painfully slowly. The kids looked miserable. Once all students were in front of their seats, the Homeroom Teacher bowed to them and they sat down. The ceremony was opened by the Vice Principal. Immediately afterwards, the principal and another teacher started handing out diplomas. No opening welcome speech, just straight into the diplomas. It was a very strict process. Bow, take the diploma with your left hand, then your right hand, raise it to eye level, wait for the other student, they both bow, the diploma-in-hand student puts the diploma under their left arm, they make a 90 degree turn, walk two steps, pause for one second while facing the audience, they do not smile, walk somberly down the stairs, put their diploma in a box, and making 90 degree turns, they return to their seats. There you have it. Which brings me to cultural difference #3. In America, at graduation ceremonies, the graduates smile, or the parents clap for their kids. In Japan, nothing. No clapping, no smiling, nothing. It was kind of depressing. I think I was the only one smiling.

Back to the ceremony. Once they get their diplomas, then the speeches started: a message from the Mayor, some other individual (I didn’t know his position), the PTA President (he made remarks about America and England, and they didn’t sound like good remarks). Then, one student from the second grade (one of my favorite students) came up and delivered a 10 minute speech to the third graders. Then the class presidents from the third grade got up on stage and delivered a speech. They thanked their classmates and teachers. This is when the majority of the tears started for the teachers (not me, I didn’t quite follow everything they were saying). After their speech, the second and first graders sang two songs for the third graders. Then finally, the third graders sang for the entire audience. This was the only point where heavy clapping ensued. After the song, the third graders proceeded out of the gym, again very slowly. And that was that. Which brings me to cultural difference #4. In America, you have an opening and closing address. In Japan, they literally say, “the graduation ceremony has begun” and “the graduation ceremony has concluded”.

The First Student Receiving His Diploma

That was my experience at JHS graduation. Next week is the ES graduation, and I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t been invited to a school yet, but there are 2 schools I’d really like to go to (the largest ES or the smallest).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Monkeys + Snowboarding = Nagano Road Trip

This weekend was quite an adventure. Since the ski season is quite short in Japan, we decided to go one more time before it was completely over. Three other ALTs spent the night at my apartment on Friday night, as it is the closest apartment to Nagano. Saturday morning we left and made the 5-hour drive to the Monkey Park. This is a famous park that wild monkeys roam around in, you can’t touch them, but they can get awfully close to you. We took our time looking at the hundreds of monkeys, commenting on how cute it would be to take one home. We took a bus to and from the park (otherwise a 50 minute hike and we had one injured ALT). On the way down from the Monkey Park, our bus driver decided to taunt the monkeys by feeding them pieces of apples. It was really cute to watch until the monkeys started walking/crawling towards us with their mouths open, making some weird noise, begging for food. It was pretty scary, but we survived.

Lunch Stop

Udon Noodles

After the Monkey Park, we headed to Hakuba Village, where all of the awesome ski resorts are. But before we got there, we stopped at a liquor store and bought some local microbrews. At $4.50 a bottle, it was a little on the high end, but having a blonde, IPA, Pale Ale, and Porter beer was totally worth it. When people ask what I miss the most about home I usually say: family, friends, food, and beer. I like to think of myself as a beer connoisseur and the standard beers in Japan are very bland. Just think of every kind of beer being exactly the same Bud Light taste, no other kinds. Yes, it gets very boring.

Welcome to the Monkey Onsen Park

Dinner: vegetable tempura (so good!), miso soup, tofu, green tea

We made it to our hostel, which was pretty nice as it just opened last August, the four of us got a 6 person dorm with our own bathroom, which was pretty sweet. We went to a local sushi restaurant for dinner and I had some amazing vegetable tempura and tofu. Sunday morning we woke up bright and early to catch the opening of the ski hill. We went to Hakuba Goryu / Hakuba 47 ski resorts (with one ticket you can go to both places). This is the same resort I went to before. Although four of us made the trip, one was sidelined with a bum knee and took a lighter approach of onsen-ing it. The three of us spent the morning at Hakuba 47, had some Subway for lunch (turkey sandwich, oh how I love you). Then we went to spend some time on the Goryu side and that is when every lift and run closed except for one. Talk about a bummer. The wind had picked up and I don’t know why, but they closed everything except the gondola. In Oregon, with that kind of wind, no one would really be concerned. The other reason we think they closed the rest of the resort was because it was a Sunday and a majority of the people had gotten off the mountain.

After a good day of snowboarding, we headed home. First, we had to stop of kaitenzushi or conveyor belt sushi. As usual, it was delicious. The way home was uneventful, but we made it to my apartment at 9:30, and everyone else was home at 11:30. On this trip I got my first experience on driving on the Japanese toll roads (express highways). It was pretty awesome, you can drive as fast as you want and there are hardly ever police on the roads (yes, it is awesome).

So there you have it, our road trip to see monkeys and the last snowboarding weekend of the year. It was great fun and I can’t wait to do it again next winter. However, now I’m nursing a lovely cold/allergies and I probably sound and look like a monkey…Hopefully it clears up before Wednesday, which is JHS graduation (I need to look my best)!

Try to count how many monkeys are in the picture!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Monkey Bars + JHS A Capella = Final Goodbyes

Hinamatsuri Display (Girls Day Festival March 3rd)

I’ve made the final transition from ES to JHS, as JHS graduation is next Wednesday. I can tell which students are happy to leave JHS or to move up to JHS or just to the next grade. I’m quite excited to go through an entire school year as I only caught the final 2/3 of this school year.

Today was my final day at the smallest JHS in Mitake. There are 14 students graduation and from what I was told, they all will be going on to high school (some just don’t know where yet). Since today was my last class with these students…forever…at the end of class I was treated to final thank you and goodbye. Three students gave quick, simple speeches thanking me for teaching them English and for making it fun. After their speeches, they all sang a song. It was amazing how good 14 students can sound without a piano, just a capella. I’ve never had the urge to cry in class, but this was a close call. Just think of 14 students singing just for you, pretty cool huh? I thanked them for their efforts and I spoke on behalf of the 9 years of ALTs they have had growing up, I hoped that all of us ALTs made English fun and interesting. And I know that some of us will have truly left a mark in these students’ lives. Pretty cool. The rest of the day was entertaining, at lunch I hung out with some first grade girls who wanted to test their vision in the “nurse’s” room. Since it is such a small school, the teachers and students are very close. We did some height tests (I was the tallest, go me) and then the eye test. It was funny because I was acing it, while most of them had some issues. I finally had to admit that I was wearing contacts, they weren’t. After lunch is cleaning time. Today, since I ate lunch with the first graders, I helped them clean their classroom. I don’t know how I got involved in this conversation but some of the first grade boys had some obsession with “poison cooking”. I’m not sure if the culture barrier translated it correctly, but when they said poison, I wanted to make sure we were talking about the same thing, so my hands went to my throat and I acted like I was dying (good news: we were talking about the same thing). They kept saying “poison cooking” and I still have no idea what they were talking about.

Yesterday was my second to last time at the tough (sometimes miserable) ES. The best news is that the 6th graders move onto JHS, where I will no longer need to be the leading teacher in that class. I had lunch with the special education kids and I have come to love them. They are 3 boys, two 2nd graders and a 4th grader. They are always a kick and usually talking with them for a few minutes can make a difficult day even better. After lunch I was playing “onigokko” or tag on the play structure. The rules were simple, you can’t get off the play structure or you become it. Well, we were playing and having a great time, until my brain decided to forget about the monkey bars that were attached to the same play structure. I attempted to climb away from the “oni” (the “it” person) and inside of climbing into the air, I climbed into the monkey bars and pounding my head against the monkey bars. Yes, I know what you are thinking, either: that must have hurt or I bet those kids got a good laugh. Well, if you were thinking both, then you were correct. I took a good 3 minutes to sort out my painful head and then resumed the game at a slower speed. This morning I woke up with a lovely knot on my forehead, I’m thankful I have my bangs to help cover it up.

Hinamatsuri Lunch (The Girls Day Festival Lunch). Mixed rice with interesting/disgusting little fish things, ice cream-ish dessert, green tea, milk, seaweed wrap for the rice, BBQ fish, sweet potato/regular potato and veggies mix.

Learning to make mushroom tempura (left) and some egg soup (right) at the Watanabe's

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Just Another Dinner Party

The night before I left for Taiwan, I was invited to a dinner party-like gathering with five 1st grade teachers at the largest JHS. I was extremely happy to be invited as I don’t get to forge many relationships with teachers due to the ever constant rotating schedule of mine. So this invitation was a treat and even though I had to get up at 5am the next day, I wouldn’t say no to this invitation. I was picked up by the science teacher and we made our way to her home, where her father (yes, unmarried people live with their parents. Actually married people still live with their parents too) took us to the restaurant. For those of you who don’t know, Japan has a VERY strict drinking and driving law. The legal limit for driving is 0.00. Meaning not even a SIP of alcohol or you could be arrested for a DUI. That being said, it is common to have a designated driver, usually a female or have a taxi waiting for you at the end of the night. People take this very seriously and I’m guessing it leads to a lower alcohol related car accidents.

After arriving at the restaurant we met up with the other teachers. What followed was a true feast and nothing short of “interesting” on the eyes and stomach. Here are some of the food highlights.

This is a nabe (pronounced na-bay) dish. It is just a soup with fish, chicken, and veggies in it. It was delicious and definitely my favorite.

This is some kind of fish (I have no idea what it was). I’ve learned that the Japanese eat just about everything. We opened up the face and inside was surprisingly good fish meat. Inside the cheek was excellent! I wasn’t brave enough to eat the eye, but another teacher was!

This is another fish (I have no idea what it was). This little guy brought us more fish cheek and other goodies. Let’s just say if I ever go fishing, I’ll make the most out of the fish.

Last but not least is the dessert portion. In prearranged meals there is always dessert. This was no different and a lovely scoop of vanilla ice cream was well deserved after all of that fish.