2013 Here I Come

Well, it’s official: I’m here for another year. Earlier this month the six of us had a meeting with our direct supervisor at the board of education where he finally asked us whether we were staying or leaving. It was a painful meeting. Our supervisor was obviously hoping that more than two of us would be choosing to stay, and he was so obviously disappointed that even the two of us staying felt bad. He was pretty good at laying on the guilt too.

It was a decision that I had see-sawed on quite often over the last six months, but the final decision ended up coming quite naturally. Despite the feeling that being here is in some sense putting my life on hold, I enjoy it here. I’m happy with my job, and I might as well stay as long as I’m enjoying being here, since it won’t be so easy to get a job as comfortable as this one again if I decide to leave and come back. So now I’m contracted until July 31st, 2013.

Winter continues to be cruel on a level never before experienced, but I’m almost getting used to not feeling my toes. Setsubun was last Friday, and supposedly marked the start of spring. This week however has been the coldest yet. Hopefully things start to warm up once we get into March.

I’m getting used to working with both of the 2nd year teachers now, and the classes go smoothly for the most part. However, my role in lesson planning and instruction has been steadily decreasing as we get closer to the end of the school year. The teachers are realizing that they’re behind in the curriculum and are cutting out ‘foreigner-fun-time’ in favour of cramming more of that textbook. That means I’m mostly modeling vocabulary pronunciation and reading dialogues. I’m using some of the extra down-time to put serious work into studying more Japanese.

At the end of January I participated in my first ever organized foot race! In Bisei I finished 10k in an incredibly mediocre 55min 57sec, of which I am incredibly proud. In a moment of foolish ambition I also registered for a half-marathon coming up in March, and despite putting in serious effort at training, I’m concerned about being able to finish it. It’ll be a major challenge at any rate.

I think I’ve been inspired to become a teacher. A real teacher. I’ve begun looking at after-degree programs in Canada for 2013. I’ve found that I really enjoy being in the classroom, and can actually see myself doing it for the long term. So now I have to put thought into where in Canada I want to live. The west coast was feeling good to me, but the constant cloud cover here recently has me wondering…


Illness and the Holidays

Happy New Year! At least, I hope you did. My New Years wasn’t especially happy, due to a nasty illness that I’m only now reaching the end of. So today I think I’ll write about being sick in Japan, as well as cover the multiple holidays I had while sick.

About three weeks ago I caught something, and developed a fever. Then, before I noticed that I had anything more than a mild cold, we took an overnight office trip to Kagoshima where I probably over-exerted myself. The next Monday I went to work, and although I lost my voice in the middle of one lesson, was able to function well enough with the help of my JTEs.

The next day people in the office decided I didn’t look good, and insisted on taking me to a doctor where they discovered that I did indeed have a fever. The doctor loaded me up with a three day course of antibiotics and various cold medicines. Three days later though, my fever hadn’t yet broken, and I was out of meds. So back to the doctor. This time he gave me five days worth of three different antibiotics. That weekend I had a trip booked to the island of Iriomote in Okinawa, so I packed my meds and headed south.

The five nights I spent on Iriomote were relaxing enough, but I didn’t quite have the energy to do quite as much as I had hoped to do. Despite the beautiful weather and restful vacation, I still wasn’t feeling great by the time I returned. My fever had broken though, so I didn’t feel the need to return to the doctor and instead just took decongestants to deal with the lingering chest congestion. That’s where I am now, although it’s mostly cleared up.

Especially helpful during the whole ordeal were two members of the office staff who alternately took me to the doctor, and stopped by my apartment to check up on me. Things would have been even more miserable without their assistance.

Today is my first day back at the office, and I don’t have much to do until classes start next week. I’m ok with that though, since it gives me a few more days to fully recover before I get thrown in front of a classroom again. I am looking forward to classes though, since I’ll get to work with the second year students and teachers for the first time. The third year students are now too busy preparing for various exams to spend time playing with the foreigner, so they’re moving me to the second years.

The trips themselves: first, Kagoshima. Seventeen of us from the BoE caught a bus from Ibara to Fukuyama to take the newly operational Sakura shinkansen (bullet train) all the way to Kagoshima. As had been predicted by the senior ALTs, everyone started drinking the moment we got on the bus at 6:50 in the morning, and didn’t stop until we were back at 7:00 the next evening. I held off on the alcohol since I wasn’t feeling well. In Kagoshima we stayed at an amazing hotel, easily the nicest I’ve ever been in. The room I shared with the two other guys was easily twice as large as my apartment in Ibara. The adjoined hot-spring was a huge bonus as well. In the evening we all did group karaoke, with the highlight of the evening being a foreigner group rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” as our coworkers reenacted the Jack/Kate ‘front of boat leaning forward flying’ Titanic scene. Much good times.

Then after a week of sick leave (I still don’t know exactly how it was reported; sick leave or paid holiday) I flew south to Okinawa. I took a plane from Okayama to Naha, then from Naha to Ishigaki. From Ishigaki I took a ferry over to Iriomote on Christmas Eve. The place I stayed at is called a Minshuku in Japanese, and is somewhere between a Bed and Breakfast, and a hotel. For a very reasonable price I had a small room with TV and futon, and two good meals a day.

On the second day there I was feeling fairly good, and walked for about an hour to get to the Urauchi river. I took a river boat up a fairly large river lined with mangrove trees, to the head of a trail that lead to a beautiful view of a waterfall. On the way I met a nice German couple and talked with them in Japanese for a while.

On another good day, I went out to a very nearby island called Yubu. The water between the two islands is shallow enough that I was able to cross on a cart pulled by water buffalo. The island itself is a bit of a park, consisting of nice trails leading past a few zoo-like enclosures, and various gardens. The butter-fly garden was quite nice. I spent most of the day relaxing on Yubu island and the various restaurants there, where I met a couple from Ibaraki that were interested in talking to me.

All in all, the winter break wasn’t a total loss. I’m definitely glad I was sick when I was, and didn’t need to take even more time off work. Now I need to find a way to keep busy for the next few days until classes resume.


Winter is Coming

Sorry! I really do hate myself for the title, but truly felt compelled to use it. Anyways, it’s getting cold here. As of last week they finally decided to put kerosene heaters in the teacher’s room. I think the slight headache from the fumes is worth the respite from the cold.

When people hear that I’m from Canada, they assume that I’m used to the cold, and have dealt with much colder temperatures (it’s not even freezing yet in Ibara). That’s true, up to a point. The trouble is that in Japan people actually have to experience winter temperatures. In Canada, central heating will usually keep your home comfortable, and schools would certainly be climate controlled. Neither of those are the case here. I said that the teacher’s room has heaters, but the students aren’t so lucky yet. I’m told that at the start of the new year the classrooms will get heaters, but for the moment we all shiver in 8-10 degree (Celsius) rooms. I put far more thought into what I wear every morning from a comfort perspective than I ever did in Canada. Today I’m wearing long underwear, two pairs of socks, pants, undershirt, shirt, sweater-vest, and jacket to classes.

Classes are great, and I’m feeling particularly proud as I write this: last period my teacher informed me right before class that she couldn’t speak today, and that I would be running the whole class. This worried me a little, but I handled it super well. Class went perfectly and I think me teacher was both grateful and impressed. I have a special needs class next period that I’ve prepared what I hope will be an entertaining game for us all, and am feeling pretty good about my job performance this week. (Update: Special needs class was awesome, I love this job sometimes).

I’ve managed to wait an entire month between posts, so of course a lot has happened in the interim. The hike in Yakage that I mentioned back in November was great, and it turned out that 2 other ALTs came with us. It was a good 3-4 hours up and down, with a view so expansive we could see the Seto Inland Sea. That was with my people from my English conversation class, which is now finished. The class starts again in January, but with a different ALT as the instructor, so my job there is done. I’m really grateful for having one less weekly obligation, but I do kind of miss the students.

On the first weekend in December I took a day trip over to Himeji to meet a friend that’s staying in Japan for a few months. I was expecting to just meet up and wander around town together for a while, but it turned out his host family wanted to have me over for dinner. So after checking out the castle (which is under renovation for the next few years at least) and the nearby garden, we headed to his family’s place. The host dad took us hiking up a nearby mountain to see the (super-cool-amazing!) temple at the top. It was a great hike, probably lasting about 2.5hrs(?), and was quite dark by the time we got back. They treated me to a wonderful hotpot dinner, and then dropped me off at the station in time to catch my last train back. If you end up reading this blog for whatever reason: thanks again!

December 7th, 8th, 9th was the mid-year seminar in Okayama city. All the ALTs in the prefecture took the days off work to head into the city with one of our JTEs for the conference. Some of the workshops were actually good, and we good a bit better of an idea of how our Japanese counter-parts view us.

Last weekend I participated in a city wide relay race, and while I certainly underperformed, I didn’t completely disgrace myself and country (yay). One other ALT participated as well, and we ran for 2 of the city hall’s three teams, doing 2.6km each. Afterward we had a lunch party with hotpot and sushi, and far too much alcohol for 2:00 in the afternoon. Although we haven’t received our recontracting papers yet, I think several people around the Board of Education office were trying to guess my intentions, asking whether or not I wanted to run with them again next year. I was vague in my answers, but I think I probably do.

This weekend we have a BoE overnight trip to Kagoshima. I don’t really have a very good idea of what we’ll be doing, other than that it looks like it will involve quite a few buses. Two of the six ALTs will be missing out due to other travel plans, but it should still be a good time. The following weekend I’m off to Okinawa on my own for winter vacation, and am getting pretty excited about the trip. It looks like there should be some good hiking on the island, and I’m certainly looking forward to the warmer weather.

I’m already starting to think about what I want to do travel-wise in the new year. Pilgrimage routes in the Kumano mountain range are looking pretty intriguing…

Of Culture-Shock and Firearms

Last time I wrote about the uniqueness of foreigners in Japan, especially in rural areas, and the level of celebrity that this inevitably brings to those of us that work here. Today I’m going to write about some other, less entertaining aspects of expat life in Japan that you’ve all probably heard can be a problem: culture-shock, isolation, and home-sickness.

I have a few advantages over many other people that come to Japan to work; I’d studied the language sufficiently at university that I can understand and be understood in most situations, I’d been to Japan twice before (albeit in study abroad contexts), and I like Japanese food. Why on Earth someone would want to come to Japan if they hated Japanese food, I don’t understand at all, but it happens more often than you’d think.

Another advantage that those of us in Ibara have over many other ALTs in rural areas, is that there are six of us. Many small towns will only have a single ALT, and for those individuals the threat of culture-shock and isolation (I would imagine) is quite a bit more real. In Ibara, after a long week of struggling to communicate in Japanese, we can all meet and vent in English. This is undoubtedly a major benefit.

In my case, I didn’t have much culture-shock aside from daily exhaustion caused by language challenges. For the first month and a half I had occasional days where I would seriously consider leaving after the end of my first year, but those moods usually only lasted a day or two at most and stemmed more from homesickness, and missing my family and friends. In this regard, the wonder of VOIP is a godsend. The time difference doesn’t allow for much communication during the weekdays unless I get up early, but on weekends I can talk with my family back in Canada for hours using Skype or other applications.

I can only imagine that ALT life before VOIP became common-place was quite different in this regard; only talking to people back home for infrequent, short periods, on expensive long-distance phone calls would have probably really added to the loneliness.

So I’ve had things rather easy. There’s another ALT in Ibara though, that although he seems to be coping remarkably well, must have a bit more challenging of a time. Unlike many of us, he studied no Japanese prior to arriving. This isn’t that uncommon, and the JET Programme which hired us has no language ability requirement. Unfortunately, of the six of us in Ibara, the board of education decided to place this individual in the schools up in the town of Bisei as well as several here in Ibara proper. Ibara today is a city that was expanded to include several nearby townships, including the town of Bisei which is located ~45minutes up the mountain by bus. Because of the awkwardness of bus times, this means that from Sunday evening until Wednesday evening, the one ALT in Ibara that speaks next to no Japanese, is alone on the mountain. If the board of education is seriously trying to encourage us to stay more than a year, this doesn’t seem like the smartest of moves. Then again, as I said, he seems to be doing very well, so maybe this isn’t so large an issue after all.

As the orientation presenters in Tokyo told us, three of the most stressful life events are moving to a new home, starting a new job, and ending relationships. We all experience the first two, and the third to some extent. Add to this the fact that the new job is one that most of us (all non-education majors) have had no training for, and it’s bound to be a rocky start for many. But that’s enough doom and gloom, what can you look forward to once you make it through the turbulent beginnings?

Life! I made a poppy out of red and green paper, and a paper clip to wear on November 11th, and when people commented on the cute flower I was wearing (doubtless thinking ‘what the hell is the foreigner doing now?) I got to teach them about Remembrance Day: CULTURAL AMBASSADOR’D! All throughout orientation and pre-departure we’re told that that is what we are, but this was the first time I truly felt that I was fulfilling that role. I know that just every day I manage to interact with people without disgracing myself is part of that same role, but this felt especially good.

This weekend was the Daimyo parade in Yakage, which seems to actually be a big deal in the region. Our local, over-priced train line probably saw more business on Sunday than it will for the next few months combined. Nine of us went up to party in Bisei the night before, and although we had a great time, we unfortunately didn’t make it down to Yakage early enough to see my taiko group perform. T_T The parade was a bit of fun though, and the area was packed with a huge number of vendor stalls. Some cool guys in old-timey armour demonstrated some old-timey firearms, which was rather spectacular; some of them were much closer to cannons than they were to rifles, and I’m quite certain everyone in that crowd should have been wearing ear protection.

Turns out that I do have something planned this coming weekend after all, but it’s just Sunday and it was voluntary on my part. One of the ladies from my English conversation class invited us ALTs to go hiking with her group in Yakage. Although there was some initial interest amongst the others, it looks like I’ll be the only foreigner going. It should be fun though, and I’m looking forward to it.

Three Months: Feels Good Man

I’ve been in Japan for more than three months now. That’s a little exciting. I feel like I’m almost fully settled in now. Almost. I’m not going to talk about work this time, although everything is fine on that end. Later I’ll mention the various events that I’ve participated in during the past couple weeks, but first I want to talk about being huge in Japan. Sure 5’11” is a fair deal taller than most Japanese people, but I don’t mean physically large.

Westerners are cool. I’m sure the effect is magnified in rural areas such as Ibara, where there is less of an international population, so I can’t speak for city life. But in Ibara, I’m kinda a big deal. Because my foreignness is so uncommon, that I have: appeared on TV with the other new ALTs when we arrived, had a camera crew come to our favourite bar and interview us and the owner to discover why foreigners love the place, and have appeared in an PR video for locally grown grapes. When I bike past people, they comment to each other in Japanese about how cool I am. Another ALT told me that he spent an elementary school lunch hour with kids who wanted to know why exactly he was so cool, and then spent the hour chatting amongst themselves about his coolness. The people who know my name outnumber people whose names I know by at least 100 to 1, and countless people I don’t immediately recognize will wave and call my name when I’m out around town. The celebrity treatment is a nice ego bump, and I could actually imagine it being a bit of a downer going back to being another anonymous face in Canada after living like this for a few years. One of the other ALTs tells me that foreign men might be treated a bit differently than foreign women in this regard, so your results may vary.

Events: Two weekends ago we had our Halloween party in Okayama, and despite my previous mentioned reluctance I had a lot of fun. Ended up spending the night in a capsule hotel, so that was also a new experience, and not a terrible one either. Yesterday (Sunday) was the Ibara International Food Festival which, of course, we all participated in. Us four new Canadians manned the Canada booth with the help of one nice Japanese woman, and served poutine, maple cookies, and apple cider for five hours. It was a pretty good time. Some of the guys in the Indonesian booth next to us brought guitars, and we had rather nice music all morning. The weirdest moment was when we ended up teaching the Macarena to around 20 other people, and then slow danced it to the accompaniment of soft Indonesian guitars.

Next weekend’s the Samurai Parade in Yakage (10 minutes by train), and we’ll all be heading over to see that. My taiko group is also performing there. Just now writing this, I realized that I may not have anything scheduled for the following weekend. If that’s so, and I’m not mistaken, it’s wonderful. I could really use a weekend to just sit around and do nothing.

I’ve somehow managed to work in a few good runs, and am happy to brag that I’m back over 10 km. The problem is I’m always running in the dark. If I get home from work at 4:30 (the earliest possible), I would have to leave for my run immediately to avoid having the sun set on me while I’m out. That actually sounds doable though, so I might try that a few days this week. I need to ask someone in the sports section at the board of education about any upcoming organized runs; even if I don’t run fast, I’d still love to participate. Hopefully I can manage to keep running through the winter. There’s only three English conversation classes left, and after that I can start working in another run on Wednesday evenings.  I also found a nice looking hiking trail last week. This was a surprise since everyone I talked to assured me that no such thing existed in Ibara. I didn’t get to explore it very far, because it was already getting dark when I found it, and then it went and rained all weekend. I might head back today after work.

Real Men Wear Undershirts

Friday! Yay~! This week, although seeming to go fast, also somehow managed to be a killer. I didn’t have many classes this week: Monday was prep for the culture festival which took all of Tuesday, and my class load for the rest of the week was cut in half for whatever reason. Usually I teach the 3rd year classes in halves ie> class 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, but this week they were combined.

The culture festival was great fun though. It opened with our wonderful band playing a number of upbeat songs including the opening theme from the anime Evangelion, which was fun. The 2nd year classes each performed the same song (not the same as the band) in chorus, followed by a song of their choosing. Not sure what the mandatory song was, but there was good variety in the other. The 3rdyear classes all put on plays, which were mostly quite difficult for me to follow. One of the classes basically managed to turn their play into a talent show, and a bunch of the girls, and guys in drag, pulled off the dance to the Girls’ Generation (Shoujo Jidai) song ‘Gee’ spectacularly. I wish you could have seen it. 😀 I also appeared in a rather silly video that the student council played near the beginning. It was somewhat embarassing.

Taken from the doorway of the teacher's room at school

I just learned that the Men’s rhythmic gymnastics team from my school is currently at a competition in Tokyo. They’re really good, and have won national competitions in the past. They’re also easy to find on YouTube! Check the link for their 1st place performance at the 2010 All Japan competition.

Last Saturday a couple of the other Ibara ALTs and I stumbled upon a Kagura festival (I can’t adequately explain Kagura, check the Wiki link if you’re interested) up at the top of the big shrine featured in the banner of this blog. It was a lot of fun, and we got to watch the dances up close. I also consumed a bit too much sacred sake and spent most of Sunday recovering. Totally worth it though. There’s a similarly themed festival in a different part of town in the morning this Sunday, so I’ll probably check that out too.

Tomorrow I’m taking the bus into Kasaoka city to cheer on the student I’ve been tutoring for his English recitation contest. I’ll take the opportunity to do some much needed clothes shopping. I also haven’t been into Kasaoka yet, so it should be a fun day. In the evening I’m meeting a bunch of other JETs for a party in Fukuyama.

I’m starting to plan my Christmas vacation. I get the 23-25th off, as well as the 29-3rd. I can also easily take those intervening 3 days as paid vacation, so I have a good stretch of holiday. I’m thinking south. Okinawa south. Not the main island though, everyone goes to Okinawa Island and I’m too cool for that. At the moment I have my eye on the even more southern island of Iriomote. It looks lovely, and has some good looking hiking trails for which the temperature will likely be accommodating in December. Once I book the time off (sometime next week) I’ll see about making a reservation at one of the reasonable B&B’s on the island. Phone conversations are hard though. :/ Some of the other ALTs are heading back to North America for Christmas, and although tempting, I think it would be too hard on me; I think if I spent a week with my family it would be pretty painful getting back on the plane. Plus which, staying in Japan is considerably cheaper even if it is Okinawa.

Today in class I had to describe a Moose to my teachers and students. One of the activities I prepared included the sentence “Moose are large animals found in Canada.” and no one had heard of Moose before. Both my teachers were still skeptical of how large I claimed they were until I showed them the Japanese Wikipedia article back in the teachers’ room. I think they’re afraid of Canada now. One of my JTEs doesn’t reach my shoulders, and a large Moose would probably stand twice as tall as her. 😀

The Halloween party in Okayama city next weekend is a bit of a bother. The last train leaves Okayama for Ibara at slightly before 11:00PM, so we’re probably finding a hostel or something to stay at overnight. Can’t really not show up though, since I agreed to coordinate costumes with a fellow ALT. The weekend following that we are participating in Ibara’s international festival, which means running a booth selling Canadian ethnic food (poutine and apple cider). Shouldn’t be much trouble for me, since I’m only in charge of the cider. Even so, it means I have something taking up precious weekend time for quite a few weeks ahead yet. Boo.

Hmm, won’t do to end on a negative note like that. Let’s see… Oh! Yesterday something incredibly cute happened. Word has apparently gotten around that I’m a bit of a nerd after one of my students asked me if I knew who Hatsune Miko was and I foolishly answered in the affirmative. Anyways, a couple of my 3rd year girls handed me a printed letter after class, which was awesome. It had obviously been fed through a translation program, and was barely comprehensible, but that only added to how great it was. They described a favourite song from a series of visual novels, and gave me the link to it on YouTube, along with their favourite Miku song.

There we go, much better. Maybe I should find something productive to do at work now…

A fairly typical day

Today I am going to make note of everything I do at work, and report it here in order to show what a typical work day looks like for me. Warning: tediously mundane tasks may be reported.

8:10 – Arrive in the teachers room on time, despite having to walk due to flat bike tire.

8:15 – Try to listen to morning meeting, but don’t manage to understand much. As usual. One of my 3rd year JTEs tells me that 2 of my 4 classes are cancelled today. My first class now isn’t until third period (10:55) so I have some time to kill. Spend some time browsing news on the internet.

8:45 – Decide to make this blog post, spend a couple minutes writing this far.

8:48 – Reevaluate what I’ve prepared for tonight’s English conversation class.

9:50 – Spent the last hour preparing another print out for the conversation class. Tonight’s theme: buses and trains. Have a map of my hometown’s bus route, and some Japanese train schedules. Practicing things like “Take the 7 o’clock train and transfer at Kanabe” and things like that.

9:53 – Found out from the same 3rd year JTE which classes I’ll be teaching tomorrow and Friday: not many. Just 1 tomorrow and 2 Friday. Maybe the special needs teacher will steal me for a class, but it looks like it’s going to be a pretty slow week.

10:00 – Chat with one of the 1st year JTEs for a few minutes about my lesson for the 3rd year classes today.

10:07 – Not a lot productive to do until class now. Back to browsing the net.

10:50 – Go to 3rd year class. They’re currently preparing for their mid-term exams, so the activities are review. First I read sentences to the class such as “This is the thing we use on rainy days,” then in groups they would have 30 seconds to come up with an answer.  Afterwards the students unscrambled sentences in the form of word cards that I spent all Monday preparing (cutting them out is a lot of work). The class went very well.

11:45 – Changed to another 3rd year class. Same activities, but this group of students didn’t seem to have quite the aptitude of the previous class. That or they were all starving, and waiting for lunch. This is my last class of the day.

12:45 – Return to the teacher’s room for lunch. The fruit cup contains frozen peaches over frozen yogurt, pretty yummy. (Pictured)

1:15 – Spend some time reorganizing the word cards that the students returned. They’re in mostly good shape, but I have one extra “we” card whose origin I can’t figure out.

1:40 – A 2nd year JTE gives me one class worth or vocabulary tests to mark with the promise of more to come tomorrow. This has happened twice before, both times taking up quite a few hours of time. Probably beats doing nothing though.

1:50 – Make copies of the various print outs I will be needing for the English conversation class.

2:02 – Mark those vocabulary tests.

2:22 – 3rd year JTE stops by my desk to ask whether the correct sentence would be “We wear it on festivals” or “We wear it at festivals”. I take a couple minutes to explain the difference. Continue marking tests.

2:55 – Almost fall asleep marking tests. Get a glass of water and step outside for a minute. Back to tests.

3:31 – Finish marking tests just in time for the end of classes.

3:35 – Cleaning time. The happy music tells us that it’s time to sweep! I help to sweep the floor in the teacher’s room, as usual.

3:45 – Cleaning time ends. The student I’m helping prepare for a speech contest this weekend could now show up at any time. Don’t have much to do; browsing the net.

4:00 – Student shows up and we practice his recitation in the broadcast club’s room. He’s doing very well, and I’m looking forward to the competition on Saturday.

(4:15 is the official end of my work day)

4:27 – Finish practicing with the student and pack up to go home. I’ll try to relax a little before my English conversation class at 7:00.