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Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Spring. The school year begins in April around here, so with the cherry blossoms always come farewells and new acquaintances.

My lovely third graders are all gone. I would like to think they’ll at least remember me fondly, but in all honesty I fully expect them to forget most of what they learned in Junior High. It would only be right, as they move on and live their lives. But then again, the Japanese seem to place an inordinate amount of importance on their school years. Seriously, they LOVE it. It would seem, if their pop culture is any reflection, that they spend a good deal of their lives after graduation waxing nostalgic about their uniform-sporting days and their pre-teen best friends. So maybe I’ll be more a part of their memoirs than I think.

Well, anyway, with those goodbyes also come new hellos. My JTE, the one I’ve worked with since the very beginning, the one who has been at my school for eight years, is now gone. The one other teacher who lived in my apartment building is gone as well. So now I have the whole building all to myself. I’m mostly happy about this, but surprisingly it does seem a bit “sabishii (lonely)”. I never thought I would say that, but I do sorta miss hearing her coming and going, even though I essentially never had anything to do with her, aside from the occasional “ohayo gozaimasu” and some awkward lines exchanged in the office kitchen about the weather or the deliciousness of the latest office snacks. Oh, human nature, how strange you are.

My new JTE seems like a sweetheart, though. She smiles easily, and she’s married to a JET. When I found this out, I immediately liked her and trusted her a whole lot more. I already feel more open with her than my other JTE. Not that I didn’t like my other JTE, but she was always kind of …distant. Professional, I guess, and I’m not sure she ever really “got” me, teenage as that sounds. When I discovered that this lady’s husband was foreign and a JET, I immediately rejoiced. I figured, she must hear all about the job from her husband, so she’ll surely not judge me if she glimpses my computer screen and sees me browsing Facebook! It also means her English is excellent, which is a nice bonus.

The rest of the new teachers all seem pretty good, too. All of the lovely blossoms and new beginnings make me wonder why I’m giving up this job with its sweet, sweet pay and its rewarding nature. Oh well, it’s too late now. And it still feels like the right thing to do. I think. Probably. Yes.

Speaking of cherry blossoms, my pals and I did some impromptu “hanami” today, minus alcohol, and ate pizza and read tarot cards under the trees. It was a good day. Not many left now…

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New Year’s in Japan

Kyoto was beautiful, that’s all I have to say. It was bloody expensive, but it was beautiful. I felt like I was truly getting a glimpse into old Japan. Or, at least, that I’d stepped onto the set of “Memoirs of  Geisha”. We joined the crowds in the cold in Gion periodically, hoping to spot one of the elusive dancing girls with their long sleeved kimono, but not a single maiko or geisha was to be seen. There were a lot of disappointed tourists. However, we didn’t let it get us down, and decided to don some kimono ourselves and become the talk of the town. There are far more foreigners in Kyoto than I’ve yet seen elsewhere in Japan, so perhaps to the Japanese it was less novel than it could have been, but nonetheless we did hear lots of comments and whispers and compliments as we wandered around the city. By night, although the geisha stayed hidden behind their bamboo curtains and paper screens, we spotted plenty of the more modern and flashy sort of entertainers, likely employees of Kyoto’s numerous “snack bars,” floating about in elegant gowns with outrageously styled hair and thick layers of make-up.

(Of course, as soon as I got back, I had to re-watch Memoirs of a Geisha, and I felt pretty special to notice at least one shot that I recognized of the canal in Gion!)

And then we made our way up to Nagano to see the world famous snow monkies!

No, but seriously….

Nowhere else in the world have monkies learned to enjoy a nice hot bath in the winter. We stayed at this lovely Ryokan (Japanese style inn) near the monkey park.

When I made the reservation, the owner informed me that the place was a thirty minute walk from the parking area. Lach poo-pooed this, sure that it couldn’t possibly be that far. Well, as it turns out, it was. A friendly father with his boy warned us of the length and slippery state of the trail just as we began to head up it. I only had about five minutes to curse and swear and haul my luggage behind me when someone from the ryokan showed up to take our bags on an ATV with chains on the front tires. From then on, at least I was able to enjoy the lovely walk through the snow.

The ryokan, at first sight, looked like nothing more than a confused collection of shabby wooden buildings and I had some reservations about the place. Could this place really get away with charging 12, 500 yen a night? Despite my doubts, it turned out to be quite nice on the inside, with sturdy wooden steps and a collection of indoor and outdoor hotspring baths.

The food was delicious Japanese style cooking, with soba noodles on New Year’s Eve for all the tenants (apparantly Japanese people always have soba on New Year’s Eve – I had no idea!) and a special New Year’s morning Japanese breakfast with black beans, bamboo, and other special foods I don’t know the name of. Nagano’s specialty is honey-glazed grasshoppers, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. Shame on me, I know. Lachlan informed me they were quite tasty, with a bit of a nutty flavor.

I wound up trying the mixed bath on the first night, braving the cold, exposure and potential strange naked man for the sake of snow and hot water – a combination I’d always wanted to try since I’d learned such things existed. Fortunately, it was just my boyfriend and I and one man completely covered in tattoos (this didn’t surprise me at first, until I remembered that tatoos have a very bad image in Japan because they are associated with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and in fact many hot springs will not allow you in if you have tattoos), but he didn’t stay long. Then we had the bath all to ourselves with a beautiful full moon, a man-made geyser just nearby, and snow drifting down softly from the few clouds in the night sky. It’s a wonderful memory. The water, though, was extremely hot and smelled strongly of sulfur, so we didn’t last long.

In the end, I wound up catching cold from going in and out of those baths, from boiling hot to below zero temperatures, and spent the rest of my time snuffling and sneezing and worrying about how we’d make it out alive. As soon as we arrived, it started snowing, and didn’t let up at all the entire two days we were there, and me with my little car and no snow tires! I was convinced we’d either get stuck somewhere horrible or slide ourselves into a ditch.

Fortunately, my worry was for nothing, and with the help of some snow chains (that broke the second we hit the highway, but at least got us out of the mountains), I’m back in Kochi, safe and snowless. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my JTE had written my reference letter for me already, so I sent off the application for my BEd programme today. For all the fuss and worry that went into assembling it, it seemed like such a meagre collection of papers! I checked it about 8 times but I still feel paranoid that I’ve left something out. Say a little prayer for me, guys! It’s out of my hands now.

P.S. All these beautiful photos were taken by Lachlan, because silly me forgot my camera’s memory card!

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Il neige

I woke up this morning and saw this out  my window…

So I grabbed my camera to take some snaps on my way to work. It was chilly and it almost made me late, but it was fun!

I was all ready to be cranky this morning, but the snow and then the cute “good mornings” from the little Japanese kids dragged me out of my cranky state, as they almost always do, whether I like it or not. Damn them! They’re just so cute!

Today, I found a link to this site on my friend’s blog. It made me remember my deep, dark secret; I desperately want to be an artist. I have had this dream for a long time, but it seems to be one of those things that gets constantly pushed aside.  I’ve never had formal training, which shouldn’t matter, but I can’t help feeling that plenty of artists are privy to tricks and techniques that I’ve no idea about!

So my new-found goal of attending University to get a Bachelor of Education is now three-fold. Not only do I plan to be back near friends and family, but I’ll finally have a chance to take some art courses.

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Fall has always been my favorite time of year. It’s the time of year when I feel like I wake up. It’s like you catch a wiff of that chill air on the breeze, and everything changes. The lazy dog-days of summer are officially over, and your mind switches modes. I know most would consider me a weirdo, but I like winter. There is just something about it, something about snuggling in under warm blankets, or a kotatsu, sipping a cup of hot something. The only thing I’m missing here is the snow….but it will be waiting for me in Canada.

Which brings us to another point, something betsubara brought up in his last post. Fall also means, for JET Programme participants, the distribution of our re-contracting documents and the time to start deciding on whether or not we’re going to resign it in February. It is a difficult decision to make and one that, either way, is going to be emotional. For me, I believe this year will be my last.

During my time here, I’ve done a lot of growing as a person, I think. And with the fall came some changes I’ve been needing to make in my life, both in my head and in the physical space around me. Don’t they say that the one is reflected in the other, anyway? Well, the main form this has taken is a rearrangement of my apartment. This may not sound like a big deal, but I am NOT a person for whom neatness comes easily. I have always struggled with “domesticity”, and this year, living in such a tiny apartment, the issue has become one of preserving my sanity. I have, gradually, organized the place and finally – FINALLY – I feel like both the room and myself are in a state I can be content with for the rest of my time here.

Too bad I now have to focus all my energy on going back….but I digress.

Without any further blathering, I present you, at last, with some photos of my apartment. It’s not perfect, but I can accept that I will never be flawlessly tidy. I’m too much of a clutter-bug, and to be honest I want to keep it that way!

uchi

I apologize that Photostitch made the join a little bit wonky, but you get the idea.

And, as an add-on, you get some Halloween-related pictures, because I was too lazy to post about it at the time. You’ll note that I don’t show my kids faces. That’s to protect their privacy and to protect myself legally. I wish I could show their cute smiles, but I DARE NOT! So just enjoy their cute…hands?

pumkin people

Pumpkins come in many shapes and sizes...just like people!

(more…)

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First, I would just like to apologize for not writing in a while. Summer/Fall seems to be the busiest time of the year in Japan for socializing.

Today, I would like to bring up a topic that’s been on my mind lately. As an ESL teacher you are forever aware that, regardless of how much you enjoy your work, inevitably you will one day find yourself seeking employment elsewhere.

Let’s be realistic: there are very, very, few permanent ESL teachers (living in a foreign country).

With that in mind, there comes a point during your journey when you’re forced to start planning (or at least pondering) what you will do after your ESL experience.

There seems to be two general groups when it comes to this decision: Group A are those that actively want to leave and Group B are those that do not actively want to leave. Within each group are different subsections.

Group A consists of those people that have had a good experience but realize they need to move on (whether it is to another country, or just a different experience), and those people that have had a bad experience and are just trying to get this period of their life behind them.

Group B consists of those people that either cannot decide if they want to stay or leave (both options have benefits and drawbacks) and those people that wish they could stay on forever.

It should be fairly obvious that Group B would have a much harder time than Group A. So, I have been asking myself lately, into which category do I fit? It’s tough.

While this has been one of the most significant opportunities in my life, I know that sooner rather than later, I’d like to move on (at least to a different country). I also know that I will always have reasons to stay in Japan, and that pursuing them all is impossible (mainly because the more I do or see, the more I learn and then there is more that I want to do).

Whichever your situation the fact is eventually you will have to think about an “exit strategy” and whether you want to leave or not it can be a stressful and time consuming process. The best you can hope for is that your experience has taught you something and that you can use these new abilities to help you make the most out of your every situation.

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Cheers

enkaiI wasn’t sure what to write about this week, so I decided to take the advice of “writing what you know” and touch on a recent experience once again. Well, by recent it’s really more like the most recent, since the rest of the time it’s periodic and ongoing. I’m talking about nomikai (drinking party).

Also known as enkai (I’m not sure the exact meaning of that one, other than just “party”), anyone who has been anywhere near Japan will have had some experience of this, even if they didn’t realize it. Case in point, I once got some stickers from a friend depicting drunken cartoon men in business suits. Well before I set foot in the country, those middle-aged drunkards were already creeping me out.

They are most often associated with the work-place, but also social clubs and organizations. The Japanese see them as a chance to “bond” outside of work, since friendship and work harmony are important principals. For the most part, though, they seem to serve as an excuse for the Japanese to get hammered and act like fools, forgetting for a while all their usual social constraints. Some men, especially in the cities, seem to go out to mini “nomikai” almost every night. In Tokyo, for example, I often saw small groups of young men dressed for business, passed out in squares, stations, parks, and on benches. I was just recently in Osaka and a man was passed out, still about 90% pissed, in the hallway of the building my business hotel was in. The man helping me with the luggage merely shooed him out of the middle of the hallway, propping him against the side wall, and told him not to bother customers. He lay there snoring and hacking while I waited for my friends, and he was there still when they picked me up.

For me, these parties normally take place at the beginning of term, the end of term, graduation and entrance ceremonies, and sometimes after long, all-day meetings or when some important professor comes to pick apart our classes. However I frequently also get roped into parties held by the Board of Education, and very occasionally there is one for my taiko group. I don’t always want to go, and they can be fairly expensive (especially if you end up dragged along to second or third parties, usually resulting in horrible karaoke at some point), but it’s all just sort of part and parcel to the Japanese working life.

The latest one took place just this past Sunday, at a little Japanese restaurant a five-minute walk from the teacher’s housing. I think it was the most awkward drinking party I’ve yet attended. I find the Junior High ones the highest on the awkward scale to begin with, but in this case people seemed tired or something. They weren’t very talkative, and hardly anyone was drinking. We sat around having jilted conversations over glasses of Oolong tea. You can imagine a setting that is already awkward, and then add my lacking Japanese ability to the mix, increasing the awkward two-fold. That is a lot of awkward. After the party, they invited me back to T-sensei’s place. T-sensei wasn’t there, K-sensei was “apartment-sitting,” which was already kind of strange to me. I didn’t really want to go, but I didn’t want to leave the only other female teacher to go by herself with the two dudes, and seeing as I live literally ten feet away from the place I didn’t really have a valid excuse to back out. I don’t think I had much to worry about with that female teacher. Most of the conversation took place between her and K-sensei, while Kyoto-sensei spaced out and laughed occasionally. From the little bits I could catch of their conversation, it went from subjects like teaching methods, to dating, to what happens to your boobs when you get old. There was also definitely some gossip going on; I caught the whispering, the exaggerated facial expressions, and a few familiar names, but I couldn’t understand enough to really get much out of it. I sat there for nearly two hours, alternating between fiddling with a rubber band, tracing the pattern on the blanket we sat on, and pretending to be interested. When 11:00 finally rolled around and Kyoto-sensei excused himself, I was thrilled to jump up and escape with him.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Lots of times these parties are plenty fun. I personally prefer the BOE parties. They always seem more laid back, and everyone is always drinking as much as possible. My personal favorite was a party in the city. It started out at a fancy Japanese restaurant where I obligingly ate whale. I’ll tell you, the bland taste was hardly worth the guilt. I really don’t know what’s so great about it. Following that was a second party and a third party at karaoke. I bellowed out a couple of badly pronounced Japanese songs and the Titanic theme song, much to the thrill of my inebriated spectators, and at last around 1:00 am we all stumbled out, our party diminished to four, to get ramen and gyoza at a late-night food stand in the street.

Another time we ate small birds, pheasant, and wild bore that one of the men had shot himself. It wasn’t so bad except for having to spit out little round pellets periodically. Oh, and at one point they whipped out a bowl of raw chicken and expected me to eat some. Sorry guys, I’ve eaten raw fish, nearly-raw beef and even horse, but completely raw chicken is just pushing it too far.

Ultimately, I’ll probably never be able to drink again without resisting the urge to clap and raise my glass in an enthusiastic “kampai!”

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Summer Vacation

I’m back in Japan after a 3-week sojourn in my home country. I was, quite honestly, a little bit nervous about going back after having been gone for a year, considering I’d never been away that long, but I realized almost immediately upon stepping off the plane in Toronto that I really had nothing to worry about. It was like putting on an old, familiar shoe – just as one of my friends had already told me. She also mentioned that the shoe didn’t quite fit as well as you remembered, another point on which she was correct. I think the feeling has more to do with growing up than being in a foreign country, but I also admit that I saw things back home in a new light because of my time in Japan. I’m not going to rule it out completely as a factor in the vague out-of-place feelings I experienced.

A big part of it, of course, is that I’m seeing my home in a more objective light than I ever have. I noticed this in not only my family and friends (having been away from them for a while), but my own culture, language, and the daily life of Canadians. I now have another standard with which to compare them to. They were still amazing and I love them, but until you’ve experienced living in another culture I guess it’s just simply not something you think about.

Coming back, I packed two heavy suitcases full of new clothes and souvenirs, and I still had to leave some stuff behind for the mail. I was greeted instantly by the oppressive heat. It’s almost too easy to forget about it in the cooler, fresher air of Canada, but stepping out the doors of Osaka Itami Airport was like stepping into a sauna.  Everyone was walking about with fans and faces shiny with sweat. Although it was hard to have just said goodbye to Canada and come back to this, the kindness of the people here quickly warmed me up again. I was charmed anew by the clouds of fireworks seen from the train, and the clusters of girls in Yukata, colorful and femenine, with little delicate accessories jingling and swaying with each movement. And when I caught my first glimpses of Shikoku’s lush green mountains and misty valleys, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d returned home. What a strange feeling, to go from home to home, both familiar and foreign in different ways.

It’s not raining now, but this is the first time it’s let up since I arrived yesterday. Last night, the thunder woke me up several times, one deafening crash in particular scared me into sitting straight up in bed. I think the mountains magnify the sound. It stormed away all night long. My JTE informed me that it’s the tail end of typhoons passing nearby.

There hasn’t been much fanfare since I got back. A lot of people are simply not here, I guess on paid leave or summer vacation. Some were excited to see me, others appeared to have barely noticed that I’d even been gone. I can’t help but wonder if some of the teachers notice my boyfriend coming and going and look down on me for it. I don’t care about that so much anymore, because quite frankly he means more to me than they do, but that doesn’t mean I want them thinking poorly of me, either. No one has yet noticed that I cut my hair short while I was home. They did evidently enjoy the Coffee Crisp that I brought back for them, but haven’t yet broken into the Tim Horton’s coffee or Smarties. I have also only seen a handful of students since I arrived, which seems strange. They are around, doing their club activities, but the school seems extra quiet and empty compared to the usual hustle and bustle that goes on during the year.

Already I’m scrabbling for things to do. I’ll be glad when there is a routine and something for me to occupy myself with again.

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