Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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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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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And it’s really expensive to get there.

 I’m in the process of booking a flight home for summer vacation…and I’m stressing big time. First, I have to get permission for the days off from my supervisor at the school, N-sensei. Then, I have to make sure there isn’t anything going on at the Board of Education, and get permission from my supervisor, K-san, there. The BOE supervisor is really busy, so he’s hard to get hold of. In the few days since I last checked my ticket, the price has already increased by 3 man (¥30, 000 or about $300). That’s a bloody lot. I panicked a bit when I read that, so I urged my JTE to contact him. Permission was granted but there is one more little glitch…the trip requires 14 days of paid leave and I currently only have 11. However, my new contract will come into effect at the end of July, at which time I should receive 10 more days of paid leave for next year. I’m not sure that either supervisor is aware of this. I had attempted to explain initially, but I’m not sure I got my point across.

 SO I’m just going to hope it works out. I don’t see why it should be a problem, since the new contract will come into effect just days after I leave, but you never know. Japanese bureaucracy can be funny sometimes, and I can’t always predict what Japanese people will think. Basically, I’m feeling very jittery and stressed at the moment. I’m having a hard time focusing on work just now. If you can call it work. I have had only one class today and I don’t even have Elective English next week, so I have virtually nothing to do.

 In the future, I’m going to make sure I book EVEN MORE in advance. Let this be a lesson to anyone else traveling overseas as well…BOOK EARLY!!

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It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

I haven’t been very regular with posting since arriving! For that I am sorry. Things have been hectic, and it’s taken me a couple of months to get into a routine and get back to something like myself.

It’s been a crazy ride so far, but I think I’m finally settling in.

Bikes in Shinjuku.

Bikes in Shinjuku.

What can I say? When I first arrived in Japan, I have to credit JET for helping me make a smooth transition. Everything was well organized, and I rarely had to worry or wonder where to go or what to do. Spending four days in Tokyo was wonderful – I have never seen so many skyscrapers! We were staying in Shinjuku, so it was particularly fantastic. However, I want to go back and do all the exploring I missed out on due to having training seminars all day. To put it nicely, the seminars were not exactly as useful as I had hoped. There were one or two that were interesting and applicable but for the most part, I would have much preferred to be out exploring and soaking it all in!

My first day in Kochi, I was greeted by my Supervisor, my predecessor, and one of my JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English), who shall henceforth be referred to as “I-sensei.” They were holding an adorable hand-made welcome sign for me! I was so touched to see all the people there waiting for the ALTs when we arrived, holding their colourful signs and wearing big smiles. It really made us feel welcome and instantly took away a lot of my fears.

Tosacho's Sameura dam and the beautiful rice fields.

A view from my town.

My Supervisor works at the BOE (Board of Education). I shall refer to him as K-san. He is chubby and jolly and speaks almost no English. Instead, he eagerly gets by with gestures and hilariously mispronounced words. It’s quite comical. I am stationed at a Junior High School. I work with two JTEs. The one who greeted me at the airport that day is kind of a lower-level teacher. From what I can gather, there are two types of teachers. Those who have passed the first of the teacher exams, such as I-sensei, who can only gain short-term contracts with their schools. They spend a lot of time moving around from school to school as the prefecture requires. And then there are those who have passed the second-level teacher’s exam and seem to have more authority and longer term contracts. I’m not sure if this only applies to English teachers or not. My other JTE, N-sensei, has been here for 7 years! She is an excellent teacher, in my opinion.  Before coming on JET, I read a lot about how ALTs shouldn’t expect much from the classrooms. Basically, I was picturing antidiluvian teaching methods, where kids listen to boring recitation, sit neatly in rows, and boys and girls are totally seperated. Boy, did I have the wrong impression of my school!

The school courtyard.

The school courtyard.

I was told they are trying new educational methods. On my very first day teaching (after a long, hot, boring summer), I was pleased to see that the kids already sat in pairs, one boy and one girl. Furthermore, they already had groups they would get into when instructed! The teachers try to focus on student-oriented instruction rather than teacher-centered boringness. They try to challenge the students. I think I am really lucky in this sense! In fact, I think this JHS is pretty excellent (especially when I compare it to my own JHS experience.  Not that I’m bitter or anything…) Unfortunately these “new teaching methods” result in SOME less enjoyable things, such as demonstration classes where a whole bunch of strangers invade your classroom during the lesson. But that’s a story for another day. For the most part, though, I’m glad the kids are getting this kind of quality in their classrooms.

As for the kids themselves, they are adorable and so far I love them (most of the time!) Honestly though, kids are kids. I’m fairly sure no matter where you go in the world, 14 year olds are going to be 14 year olds. I would go out a limb and say that they have more discipline in their lives than Canadian kids, and I have been very impressed with their work-ethic and their general attitude so far. These kids work hard. They stay at school until around 6:00 pm for their club activities when they have them. What is more remarkable is that they come to school for long periods of time even on weekends, holidays, and during their vacation time! Despite it all, they stay positive and perservering (for the most part…again…kids are kids!)

As far as my schedule goes, they keep me pretty busy. I help with all three grades of JHS, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. I also have a 2-hour elective English lesson on Tuesdays with the 3rd years. More often than not I only have 2 or 3 classes per day, but it can get pretty hectic some days as I also visit 5 different Elementary schools. For now, at least. The population has decreased so much that as of this

spring, all of these schools will be allocated into one school, right here at my JHS. As I type this, the construction vehicles are hard at work making the new building (loudly and distractingly, I might add).

Despite the busy schedule, I have managed to do lots of bopping about Japan and fun stuff :D. There are several ALTs in the area and we hang out regularly. There is a girl at the local bookstore named Meg. Her family owns the place, and I frequently spend way too much money there. I made friends with her almost right away. She lived in Canada for 8 years, and even had a boyfriend during all that time. She decided to return to Japan 5 years ago and left all that behind. She’s 30 years old, but we get along just fine. She really reminds me more of a Canadian than a Japanese girl! The CIR in the next town over is also Canadian, so I guess I lucked out. Represent!

MASSIES reunite!

MASSIES reunite!

I have also visited Hiroshima, met a live MUKADE (*shudder*), visited Nara, Osaka, and Kobe and re-united with 11 of my darling MASSIE friends! (MASSIE stands for “Mount Allison Sophomore Semester in English” – it’s an English study abroad programme for students from KGU University in Kobe). I have also gone surfing, hiking, and Amazing Racing since I’ve been here! It’s been a roller-coaster ride, and I’m sure there will be more to come!

Well, that is the setting and the plot so far. I must now move on to planning a Halloween lesson for my elective class. Tune in next time for more~!

Click here to see more photos

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