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Japan just keeps going

And just like that, autumn is here. We experienced roughly a week of 20-25 Celsius temperatures, then moved quickly into 15-20 bracket. Today is 17 degrees and raining. I was warned plenty that cold feels colder in Japan than in North America, and I’m getting a feel for what that will be like come winter. A cool day here doesn’t just mean that you will be chilly from your car to your workplace; you’ll feel the temperature all day. None of the schools have central heating, and they will only start turning their heaters on once it drops below 10 degrees. So if it’s 11 degrees, overcast, and raining, you suffer through it. The students are all now in their winter uniforms, and I’ve moved on to more seasonally appropriate clothing as well. I’m staying quite comfortable for the moment.

Things are busy. A little busier than I’d like, but a couple of the contributors will be gone in a month or two. Tuesdays and Thursdays I do Taiko for two hours, and Wednesdays I have English conversation class. It leaves me with rather little spare time during the middle of the week. Until October 22nd I will also be staying an extra half hour after my regular work hours to help a student prepare for his English recitation contest. I’m mostly helping him get the word stresses and sentence rhythms sounding natural, but those damn ‘L’s and ‘V’s are a pain. At any rate, I’ll be relieved when November’s over and I can hand the English conversation class off to someone else.

School is becoming fully routine now, and I’ve prepared and delivered several activities without incident. While still slightly more troublesome, even the English conversation lessons are taking less time for me to prepare, and I worry about them less. At this rate, I might make an adequate teacher after all!

Taiko is awesome. It leaves my arms hurting all week, but its a small price to pay for the overwhelming amazingness that is Taiko. We practice in a small room, and even with all the drums muffled by blankets, the sound is powerful; it’s like standing next to the sub-woofer at a rock concert, for 2 hours. You can probably hear us from a couple blocks away. We practice right in front of the station, and I don’t think there are residential areas too close to us… so that’s good. They’re performing again in Kurashiki on the weekend of the 15th, so I’ll probably go cheer them on again. Plus it’ll give me a good reason to go to Kurashiki finally.

Speaking of trips: Itsukushima (Myajima) was awwwwwesome~! Most fun I’ve had since coming to Japan. Jeff came with me and we spent the entire day on the island. There’s a rope-way going up to the top, but I had read ahead of time that there was a lesser used hiking trail that lead to the same spot. So, we tried that. It was definitely the hardest hike I’ve done: about 2 hours of constant stairs, sometimes rather steep in areas where every second step had vanished. The trail wasn’t completely abandoned, and although we didn’t see any sign of people climbing up with us, we met 4 or 5 people headed down. Once we lounged on the top for a while, we opted to take the rope-way back. The town was full of ridiculously tame, tiny deer, that were content to let the crowds of tourists (including us!) stop and pet them.

The world heritage site of a shrine was as great as it has been made out to be. We made it back down from the mountain too late to enter the treasure hall, but the view out over the bay from the shrine corridors was beautiful. We also managed to be there for both high and low-tide, so we were able to see the famous grand-torii both exposed on the tidal flat, and standing in water. Sunset at high-tide was amazing, and I am now one of the millions who probably own a picture of that sight. The only disappointment was the utter lack of the monkeys I had been promised. Even other JETs that have been to Miyajima seemed surprised that we hadn’t seen any. I plan on going back in the spring to camp on the island.

Last weekend the second year JETs in Ibara took us into Fukuyama to visit a favourite pub, and it was a fairly good time. The fact that we had to catch the last train back at 10:30something was a bit of a bother, but we still enjoyed ourselves. That said, I don’t think it was so wonderful to warrant the trip. There are still plenty of nearby places I haven’t been to yet, and I don’t suffer from the urge to get to a larger city at every opportunity.

With this rapidly cooling weather, I will need to pick up some warmer clothes soon. I have what I thought were warm cloths, but I’m going to need at least another layer before too much longer.

As I was writing that, the 3 special needs students came through the teachers room selling sweet potatoes. It was fun times. Somehow without spending any money I ended up with six of the small things. After consulting the other teachers, it seems I can get away with just slicing and cooking them in a frying pan. Guess I have some potatoes to eat.

(Pictures actually to follow this time)

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)

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.