Archive for the ‘events’ Category

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…


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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.

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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.

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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…

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The real work begins.

It’s been a tiring month so far, but not a bad one. I’ve been teaching at my junior high school for several weeks now, and maybe after another week or two I’ll start settling into the routine of things. Actually on second thought, maybe ‘teaching’ is too grand a term for what I do; thus far I seem to be the fun and games guy.

My first couple weeks of classes were taken up by my self introduction. I brought pictures of my hobbies and family to show the class, and described Canada in English. It averaged to about a 15 minute presentation, followed by questions to see how much the students understood (ex. Which do I like better, cats or dogs?). So I did that 10 times: once for each of the 5 first year classes, and the 5 third year classes. Last week we played a simple board game with the 3rd year students, that I prepared the previous week. It was just a simple board with questions in English written on the spaces. Students asked the questions they landed on to their group members. The only thing that saved the activity from being dangerously tedious were the “Talk to Brian!” tiles, which had me running all over the room. Landing on the “Talk to Brian!” tiles appeared to be the most horrifying thing that could possibly happen to a third year student. This week I’m making… those little origami mouthy things? with the 1st years, and some grammar review exercises I pulled from the net with the 3rd years.

The English conversation class has gone well so far, but it is also the most stressful part of my week. Last week I prepared a simple hand drawn map, and a more difficult Google printout of downtown Vancouver, and got the class to practice giving directions from one place to another. I think it went fairly well, but I was super nervous (this was my first real class, the previous one had been just an introduction and I didn’t need to prepare anything). This week I’ll have the class practice using question words, and have prepared a worksheet to that effect. First I’ll have some ‘answers’ that the class needs to come up with questions for. Then I have a paragraph about myself that has some blanks in it. There are two versions, and each has different omitted information. In pairs I hope I can get them to ask appropriate questions to fill in their blanks.

This last weekend was a three day, and a very welcome one. I had just finished working 12 days in a row and needed a break. The unusually long work week was due to the school’s athletics day which was held on the Sunday. For some reason, which I assume is related, regular classes were held on Saturday.

The athletics day was neat to see though. It ran from around 9:00 until 3:00, and consisted of a good variety of games and events. The classes from each grade competed against each other (within their grade) in short 100 – 400m races, as well as relays. They also played an awesome looking, way-too-dangerous-for-North-American-school game that involved 3 people holding a 4th on their shoulders. Their were usually 2 groups working together for each of the 5 classes. The goal of the game was for the person on top to steal the bandanas of the other classes teams. This resulted in awesomely vicious looking battles that sent more than one student tumbling to the ground. The most rehearsed portions of the day were dance and gymnastics that I previously mentioned seeing the students practice, and they were quite impressive to see. They even had me participate in an event with the rest of the teachers; a straight forward event where we competed with the students and the PTA to see which team could throw the most balls into a basket within a time limit.

Enough about work, and on to things tangentially related to work! The aforementioned party with the folks at the board of education was a blast. First we spent two hours at an all you can eat / all you can drink place, before heading off to karaoke for another couple hours. More recently, I went out with the staff at the school for an after-athletics-day party which was also great fun, but shorter and more subdued than the BoE had been.

On a similar topic I have found a favourite bar in Ibara: Champloo. It’s a great little place (seats maybe 15) that’s been in business for 17 years, owned by an awesome middle aged musician. He doesn’t speak much English, but he makes delicious okonomiyaki. The best night I’ve had since arriving here was probably heading there alone and successfully holding a conversation with him and another patron for well over an hour. They occasionally also have live music, so I want to show up there for that at some point.

I went to a taiko practice last Thursday and plan on going twice a week from here on out. The group seems like a great bunch of people, with quite a few elementary and junior high school students thrown in as well. I went to see the perform on Sunday and can’t wait to become a part of that. They practice just a train station over, so it’s pretty convenient to get to.

On the religious side of things, this coming weekend is Higan (another long weekend, yay!). Higan is celebrated at both equinoxes, and is a Buddhist holiday aimed at giving families time to attend to the graves of their ancestors, and supposedly to make a renewed commitment to Buddhism. That later part probably isn’t quite so important to most Japanese people. I’m hoping to take advantage of this long weekend to head over to Hiroshima and Itsukushima. I’m starting to feel like a bit of a shut-away, since some people headed into Okayama city for a JET barbeque while I was at my athletics day, and then into Osaka last weekend while I was recovering from my work marathon, so getting out of Ibara will be good.

Life continues to be good, and I’m looking forward to the coming cool weather. There’s a saying in Japanese that goes ‘atsusa samusa mo higan made’ (暑さ寒さも彼岸まで) that means hot weather doesn’t last past Higan in the fall, and cool weather changes to warm after Higan in the spring. Until next time.

(Pictures to come)

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First Month. Hello!

Hello and welcome. If you’re family, you know who I am. If you’re not, hi! I am currently living in Japan on the Japanese government sponsored JET (Japanese Exchange Teacher) Programme. I intend to make fairly infrequent posts (monthly, or so… we’ll see) about life as a participant on the JET Programme, as well as relevant personal interests.

One of those personal interests is Japanese religion. I graduated with a degree in Religious Studies focused heavily on Japanese religion, and love snooping around shrines and temples. I will likely make use of a WordPress page to organize pictures and information of the various religious sites I stumble across during my time here.

I’ve been in Japan for a month now, and things are good. I’m settling into my apartment, and gradually growing accustomed to the accursed humidity (which really hasn’t been improved by the current typhoon). During my first week I was unsure about my future here, but at this point I am looking forward to an extended stay.

During the first month I had not much to do work-wise. The other new ALTs and I spent the day in the Board of Education office, mostly killing time studying Japanese or randomly browsing Wikipedia. We were told to prepare a 50 minute self introduction lesson for our first classes, but now that I’m at school it’s looking like that won’t be used; I’ll probably have about 15 minutes instead. Some of the things I prepared, such as laminated pictures of my family will still be useful.

We didn’t lack for things to do outside of work though. August was full of festivals, and we attended several. For the Ibara Summer Festival all the employees at the city hall had diner as a group, and then formed one of many dancing teams on the main street.

Work Party Before the Ibara Natsu Matsuri

We performed the same three simple dances up and down the road for about an hour and a half. I saw a similar dance activity last year in Kanazawa as part of the Hyakumangoku matsuri, so it seems like this might be fairly common when it comes to summer festivals.

A couple of weeks later, in Bisei, we attended the Amanogawa (Milky Way) matsuri. The idea behind the festival is that the Milky Way is where some of the gods reside, and by placing your wishes for the following year on a paper lantern, and then burning all the lanterns, you can send your wishes to those gods. I didn’t figure out all the religious aspects, but it definitely involved Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair), the female and male star/divinities that pop up in folk stories fairly often. The massive lantern bonfire at the end was quite spectacular.

In mid August all the new JETs in Okayama attended 2 days of orientation in Okayama city, where we were bombarded with even more teaching tips and activity ideas. They also included a decent section on ‘Life in Okayama’, but that seemed to be more targeted towards the JETs actually living in Okayama city, or at least nearer to it than Ibara. The 3rd day of orientation was the best though; we all got on a chartered boat and headed off to lovely island of Shiraishi for the day. Some of us went hiking through the mountains and almost died of heat exhaustion, and then we all hung out at the beach for the rest of the day.

Last weekend my neighbour (another JET) and I went with one of her teachers to the Ibara Sound Wood music festival. It was a great time, and we caught about 7 hours of live music from all genres before we retreated due to rain. Despite repeatedly applying sunscreen all day, my legs were quite badly burned and are still sore to the touch in places. Japanese sun is mean.

Venue for Sound Wood on top of the mountain. Early in the day, so not many people yet.

Yesterday was my first day at Ibara Junior High School, although I did not do much. The English teachers were handing back tests today, and had no need of (or time for) me. On top of that, the entire school is involved in preparation for the athletics day just over a week from now. I watched the 1st year boys and 2nd year girls practice for it, and was quite impressed. The boys are doing a fancy choreographed gymnastic performance and the girls are performing a large scale traditional dance (which I’ve learned is related to fishing in Hokkaido). Both are quite complex, and I have trouble imagining Canadian middle school students managing something quite so grand. Apparently this sort of this is happening at schools all throughout Japan right now, and happens every year.

Starting next Wednesday I will also be teaching an English conversation class once a week for an hour. It is a beginner’s class, and from what I understand they don’t truly have enough English to converse. So I don’t know how that will go yet, but it should be interesting to have some older students.

The Board of Education is throwing a welcome party for us 4 new JETs tonight, and I gather we will all be quite drunk by the end. It sounds like a great way to cap off my first month in Japan.

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