Tuesday, December 30, 2008

She comes from the West

Happy wonderful joy, Gabby just arrived on Tuesday! My commute to the airport was easy enough, but definitely long. After she walked through the doors to where I could meet her it was almost surreal. The time has absolutely flown since I have been here, but now that someone from home has shown up in my East Asian life I can see how much time really has passed and how much time really is left. It's not sad, just a bit of a reality check I think.

I have a jam-packed couple weeks planned for us. She is going to be in shock and have a heavy dose of sensory overload, but I want to show her what my life is here. I am proud of what I am doing and proud of the life I have built here, and it is fun to show someone first hand. Not to mention I tend to have a lot of fun with Gabby, so we could probably be anywhere in the world and enjoy each others company. I am truly thankful she is here, for many reasons.

I will be posting pictures of her visit, so check it out!!!!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wait, did you see what just whizzed by?

Yeah, it was Christmas. It ended up being a lovely day. There was very little evidence of the holiday around me, but the only thing I needed, I got. I was allowed to leave work early, so I went home, got a nap in and cleaned up my apartment a bit. I went to dinner with a couple friends from Koga and had some nice conversation. We are all from different countries, so we all celebrate the holidays differently. I always love hearing about cultural differences and comparing lifestyles of different people.

After dinner I came home, and did some really nice Skyping with my family. I got to be with them while they were opening Christmas gifts. It looked like a normal family Christmas and it made me really happy to be with them. I liked to see and hear their reactions as they were opening the gifts I got them and the gifts they got for one another. My parents are really great at the whole Christmas thing and I know I have always felt so lucky and really spoiled since I was a kid. And the highlight about being away from home this Christmas is that next Christmas is going to be completely wonderful sharing it with my family in person again.

There are a lot of things that I could have been depressed about, but I hold true that life brings only happiness and positive opportunities. Even when the situation looks bleakest, there is always happiness to be had. And the biggest mistake someone can make is to miss the happiness that abound in life because they are too busy complaining and dwelling on the silly things. I cannot, will not, let life pass me by while I am dwelling in a silly depression of my own making.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Over the past week I have reread this classic book. I found a fun little website run by the University of Pennsylvania and they put transcripts of classic books online for some easy reading. As with watching movies over and over again, every time I read this book it speaks to me in a different way. That is the joy of reading; because our lives are constantly changing, the stories we read change with us because we need them to.

If you have never read this book, please, please, pick it up. It is an easy read and I think you will find some surprises along the way as well - especially if you have only ever seen the movie. The premise is the same and Dorothy is simply trying to find her way back home to Kansas and in order to do so, she must venture through the land of Oz, meeting new friends and facing new obstacles along the way.

The friends she makes are sincere and loyal companions. She encounters people who do not like her, she encounters people who expect great things of her and she must find within herself the will to complete her journey. The story tells that great goals have great paths to follow and actions have consequences. It speaks of perseverance and dedication to a goal. Failure is part of life, but in the end success is the finish line. It also assures us that while we are away people will miss us, but life must always go on because we all have responsibilities. It is a beautiful marriage of a story of an individual struggle, but the effort of many in order to achieve big goals. And in the end we all must realize that not only can we always go back home, but there is no place like home in all the world (both real and imaginary).

End of the year = Partaaaay!

This week marks the beginning of the winter break for students here in Japan. That means that the teachers can let loose!! Every school has a party near the end of the calendar year called a Bon enkai; this just means end of the year party. Sanwa just had theirs on Monday night and there was great fun had by all.

As I have come to expect with these parties, there is always fantastic food of many varieties. I had some sashimi, sushi, cooked fish, beef, pork, pickled vegetables, onabe, and oranges for dessert. There was a nice array of non-alcoholic drinks there as well, so I spent the night sipping on some fizzy orange juice.

The most fun part was that every teacher at the school was there. It was great to see everyone out of the teacher's room, talking, laughing, having a good time. We played bingo with fun little Disney cards and I got some cool towels out of the grab bag. Everyone ended up winning something, so it was nice and communal and fair - very Japanese. After the bingo, people started breaking out the karaoke, and I was prompted to sing. I sang my go-to Japanese song (Ue o muite, aruko) and then at the end of the evening I sang The Christmas Song. I am a social person, and I enjoy being at a party with friends. I also like people watching, and this party provided for some prime entertainment!

Getting International in Koga

Last Sunday, I was invited to a Winter Festival in Koga. This is a rather low key event just honoring all the international residents of our little city. There were booths there from the most represented foreigners such as China, Korea, Brazil, Peru, and the Philippines. Each booth had fun foods and juices or coffees from their respective countries. Many people were dressed in traditional garb. In addition to the booths there were people there from many different places; I saw Kenya (my friend James), Australia (my friend Thomas), Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand, and Russia.

Through the course of the afternoon, there was a Japanese speech contest in which foreigners can participate. Each person must prepare a three minute speech on their home country and experience in moving to Japan. It is so interesting to me to listen to these speeches because I can understand a lot of what is said and I can also tell how different the accent is! After this there were some cultural performances such as songs and dances from each of the different countries. I was especially excited about the performance from the Philippines because they did Tinikling!! I was sad because I was missing the annual Filipino-American holiday party at home, and being able to watch some Tinikling helped a lot!!

I was able to talk to so many nice people and I even got some information about a new Japanese language course I can start taking after the new year! I am glad James told me about this festival, because it would have been quite a shame to miss it!

What Christmas means to me

In my life, Christmas is not about the presents, but the thought that goes into them. I always feel so loved that the people in my life take the time to write me letters and send me presents. I will say though that when it comes to buying me anything, my Mom has got the game all figured out. She puts so much thought into her purchases, not only around the holidays, but anytime she is buying something for someone else. She loves the feeling and joy of gift giving and it shows in her purchases.

Christmas has become so commercialized (especially here in Japan), but the act of buying presents for someone else is not about the brand name or the price tag. It is about making the gift of love tangible. Love is a beautiful gift all its own, but sometimes seeing the physical embodiment of that love makes us see how special we all are and how much the people around us really care. I didn't get anything from Tiffany's or Burberry, but what has been sent to me is so much more tender to my heart. I have taken pictures, so you can check it out if you want. I got a lacquered box that was beautifully painted with West Virginia and our motto. She sent me something to hang on the wall, "Family is Forever"; my favorite flavors of tea and scents of candles.

Being away from home during this time of year is strange for me. I am not depressed or crying myself to sleep, but that is in large part because of the thoughtfulness and love of not only my wonderful family, but my dear, dear friends as well. I cannot send out enough warm wishes and thanks to everyone who has brightened my holiday season. I hope that you all are able to be surrounded by old friends, new friends, family or someone that can just say, "I'm glad you're here with me."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Teaching in a foreign, foreign land

I was invited to participate in a team-teaching seminar at Yachiyo Senior High School. If you have never heard me mention this school before, that is because it is not one of my schools, but that of a fellow ALT. However this ALT currently has visitors from The States, and I was invited to fill his position for this day.

I had to teach at my normal Thursday school in the morning (Koga 2nd) and then I got to leave early for my business trip. Because of my paranoia about getting lost while I am driving here, I gave myself plenty of time to get to Yachiyo. Turns out the drive is only about 40 minutes from Koga, but I gave myself and hour and a half...haha. I always rather be early than apologizing for being late.

When I arrived I was greeted warmly by the Principal (an ex-English teacher) and we had a delightful conversation. We discussed his past travels around the world and his love of golf. He told me about his nephew who works for Bearing Point here in Japan, but studied for his MBA in Ireland. As has become the norm when I meet new Japanese people, he asked about my politics and thoughts about the recent election. The secretary served us green tea and a small cookie.

When my teaching partner, Bob, arrived we launched into the lesson plan and some preparation. Bob is an American and has been living in Japan for about 20 years now. He is a professor at a prestigious teacher's college here in Ibaraki. He created the plan for the class and was just filling me in on the details of my role. Since neither Bob nor myself were familiar with the students at Yachiyo, we had no clue what their level or even their interest in English would be. The Japanese teachers who actually knew the students only said that their level was very low.

The first activity Bob planned was for us to play a board game in which the students would have to roll a die, move their pieces and when they landed on a space, they had to ask a question of someone to seek information. We split the 31 students class into 11 groups to make for faster game play. On the board there were questions they could ask each other, questions for the principal, Bob and myself. It was a lot of fun for me, because as they were playing, a student would shout my name from across the room to get my attention to ask me a question. They were all so eager to play and ask the questions; I was very impressed by them. After this game was over, we asked the students to write sentences about the facts they learned about one another during the game. They had to write these sentences from memory and had to write as many as they could to get a prize (homemade chocolate chip cookies!). Again, even with the more difficult task, the students excelled and jumped at the chance to try!

It was a really fun class and I would consider it to have been an extremely successful exhibition. After the class was finished the 7 English teachers in the school, Bob and myself had a debriefing session. Bob discussed his different techniques for teaching and practicing grammar with the students. I even got to discuss a newspaper activity I did at Koga 1st. It was neat that my opinions and lesson ideas were being considered by seasoned teachers. I was also happy to relay my successful experience with a lesson that I was trepidacious about doing with the students in the first place.

I am learning more and more that teaching is not the profession for me. But along the way I am having a lot of fun and really trying to connect with some of the students. I will figure out some way to work with kids in the future; probably through volunteer work. :)

Rockin' around the Christmas tree - and politics to boot

My dear friend Lauren had a lovely little Christmas party last week at her humble, yet beautifully decorated abode in Itako. She carries every domestic and female gene there is; she loves decorating and wrapping presents and cooking and playing hostess and dressing up and wearing make-up - the whole girlie game! It is fun to be part of her world a bit because I can help her out with her preparation and pretend I am uber domestic too!

I got to Itako about 4pm and one of our other friends, Erin, was already there cooking and decorating away. So I jumped right in the mix and started helping with food preparation. I helped to make some failed guacamole, but I refuse to take credit for the failure because the avocados were too green and not soft enough to mash up. Next I helped out with some cheese and crackers with a slice of pear on each. Let me tell you, all the little food creations Lauren thought up were delicious! Aside from the pears and cheese, we had prosciutto wrapped around asparagus and cheese, prosciutto wrapped around pears and cheese, pasta salad, bruschetta, salsa and chips, chicken and steak and then the guests helped out a bunch by bringing some awesome desserts too!

There was some lovely Christmas music, and we even got a little dressed up for the event. It was fun to put on a nice dress and do my hair a bit. Since I have been here, I haven't had a reason to really get dressed up, so when I was looking at the pictures of APOs Pinning I was a bit jealous. (Probably just because I miss APO and the people in Boston.)

It was so wonderful for me to be around friends and western traditions for a bit of the Christmas season. As we were all sitting around, eating food, drinking good wine, the intelligent people we are begin to discuss politics. Specifically because we were an international crowd, the Americans were trying to explain how the State system at home is not only a good idea, but necessary for America to function properly. I can understand that it is difficult for foreigners to understand that laws and regulations can vary wildly from state to state. Again because we are all intelligent people there are about 10 different opinions flying about, but we were able to discuss this (even a little passionately) and still remain in good spirits. We ended up learning a lot about one another and accepting each other's point of view.

We ended the night happy and friendly and the party was a great way to kick off the holidays!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lures by Sue Goyette

This book hit hard and fast and before I knew it, the story was over. The only problem is that I felt like it ended horribly with about a thousand questions and with none of the problems being resolved. She spends a ton of time at the beginning of the book giving insignificant details and concentrating on events that disappear later. For example, she gives the main character a part time job in the beginning and she has to start learning French, after the introduction of that job, it disappears and she never mentions the job or learning French again.

There were some exciting parts of the story, but right at the peak of the event, she leaves you hanging and then doesn't resolve the conflict later. Some parts are disturbing and some characters are infuriating and disgusting. There is a slight love story underlying the whole thing, but again you don't know what happens to the characters.

I did some research on the author, and found out she is a Canadian poet. I think this is where some of the continuity problems come in. Poems have subtext and vague meanings and never quite get to the point. This book began as a series of poems and my guess is she never figured out how to effectively change mediums. Interesting book, but if you read it be prepared to make up your own ending. Mine was happy - because I like happy in my life.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stalkerbook? I beg to differ!

Maybe it makes me a stalker, maybe it just makes me an interested and invested friend, but I think Facebook is brilliant. I must tell you that I have not always been a fan, but I am one of the converted. This social networking tool, as they call it, brings every person I have ever met, and their incredibly interesting lives right to my computer screen! Of course many of my "friends" on Facebook are people I have met only once, or people whose names I vaguely knew in high school or college. On the flip side of that, there are many people who were close to me at different stages in my life, but for one reason or another we have grown apart and now lead very different lives.

I often receive requests from people who are not altogether familiar to me. Somethings that might help to cause this to happen are the many tools Facebook provides for its users to uncover all the people from their lives. Facebook will personally sift through your email address book and AIM buddies to help connect you to long lost friends. One tool I find particularly interesting is the "People You Might Know" application. Every time I sign onto my Facebook page, there is a box on the side suggesting three new people I may or may not know. I can even click a link to see another 20 or so suggestions for new friends.

That is where I think things start to get interesting. As of this moment, I have 724 friends on Facebook. I can sift through all of my friends and recognize every name; and given my nature and curiosity I sincerely want to know what path their individual lives have taken. I want to know about college and jobs and relationships and kids if they apply. As a society, we have a difficult time reviving friendships that have fallen by the wayside. There is an immense amount of discomfort in the reconnecting conversation that comes with seeing an old friend; however with a catalyst such as Facebook, those in-person meetings need never take place. You can catch up with one another consensually online and never speak a word.

Now to combat the creepiness that accompanies internet stalking, Facebook has gone to great lengths to protect its members and set up securities that can be turned on and off at each person's discretion. I enjoy Facebook more than most other social networking tools because of the structure, the intuitiveness of the site and the ease with which to find people by name.

Essentially what I am trying to say, is that I love to hear from random friends and people in my life. I wish you well in your life's endeavors and I thank you for letting me into your little world.

Playing with fire

This weekend I attended a lantern festival in Koga. It was great because this is the first festival Koga has had since I have lived here and it was so much fun. First, let me explain the main event of this festival and why it is so exciting. The fine citizens of Koga create their own six-man community teams and prepare for this festival for a few months prior. Each team makes their own paper lantern and practices maneuvering it back and forth in a straight line, while it is hoisted 35 meters above the ground on a large bamboo tripod of sorts. If it sounds complicated, that is because it is. I tried to get some good pictures, so check those out for a visual.

They create a huge corridor outside made of bamboo to serve as a track of sorts for the teams to travel up and down. There must have been about 30 teams or more participating, so they split all the teams into 3 rounds and then the top 3 winners from each round competed in the finals. So there are ten teams competing at once and the object is to walk from one end of the corridor to the other without letting your lantern be destroyed by another team. All of these are traditional lanterns mind you, so they are lighted by candles - with fire. If you saw the way those tripods worked, they are extremely wide, so that corridor starts off very crowded and it is insane watching those teams try and shuffle their way forward with a mass of people and bamboo in front of them. The most enjoyable part for the spectators however is watching the lanterns way up in the air. As the teams crash their poles into one another, lanterns are knocked from their stable positions, and it is common to see a lantern spontaneously burst into flames because the candle has been knocked off kilter. The whole crowd gets really excited and everyone is cheering for victory of their respective teams and hoping to see some fire!

While all the lantern excitement is happening, there are booths set up all along the street selling copious amounts of food. Everything is made right there before your eyes and you have your choice of okonomiyaki to freshly cooked whole squid on a stick! They have candied apples, and strawberries, plums and apricots. Also there are many street performers playing traditional Japanese drums and dancing in kimonos.

While walking through the festival I ran into many of my students from all my different schools. They all recognized me, and stopped to talk to me and see how I was enjoying my first festival. It was pretty cool, because they clearly didn't expect me to show up at their festival, but seemed pretty happy that I was there enjoying their culture so much. I also rand into Mr. and Mrs. Ishiki and Mio. They were also having a great time as a family and Mio was happy to see me.

The weather was freezing cold compounded about 100 times because the wind was so strong to boot. At one point I thought my hands were going to fall off, but I am happy to report that all is well and all my phalanges are intact. I am really happy to have gone to my first festival in my little Koga town and I am excited for the next one - but I have no clue when that will be.

Friday, December 5, 2008


What do you think of the existence of parallel universes? I think the cool thing about them is that they hold all the alternative outcomes to the events in our lives. For example, in a parallel universe, I did not move to Japan and I have a completely different life. Every choice and decision in our lives rips space and creates other parallel universes to take on every possible choice and live out the subsequent outcomes. Of course this is all science fiction and completely improbable, but to think about it is really cool - and sometimes it gives me piece of mind.

It is comforting to know that when things are disappointing in this string of time, that parallel to me it is all turned around, completely opposite, and not so disappointing. It is the same as the concept of, "there is always someone less fortunate than you." But the key difference is that is wipes out the envy and pity pieces, because in parallel universes the person that is better or worse off than you, is you! It makes decision making easier and takes the seriousness out of life sometimes which makes everything more bearable.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A hodge-podge

When I write in school I tend to leave some things out of my blog. I think it is the fact that my mind is going in 10 different directions and that there is so much to see around the teacher's room. But anyway, this is going to be a bit of a hodge-podge blog summing up some of the details I have left out of previous entries.

Firstly, I just received the good news today that Yuka passed her examination and can move ahead in her English study. If you don't remember, Yuka was the student with whom I was studying for the Eiken exam. She had tried to take the test three times before and failed and this was her final chance to pass in order to advance in her English studies. During lunch today, she came to see me and tell me the good news. She was so excited to tell me and thank me for her help. Really it was a joy to work with Yuka and help her prepare. I have said many times, but working with the students in small groups or one on one is the joy of my job.

Now, some more details about the wedding. It is customary that the bride and groom receive money from the guests attending the reception. Usually there are no toasters or blenders given at Japanese weddings. Seeing as I was invited to the third round of wedding festivities, I don't know first hand how the actual ceremony and first reception work. But, from what I have heard those two ceremonies are incredibly formal and a bit dry. The reception I went to was pretty enjoyable, but still there was no dancing, only some light background music (mostly Christmas). The majority of the time was filled with friends taking pictures with the bride and groom and listening to speeches. There was a light buffet and drinks. It was worlds different than any wedding reception in The States.

I was invited to go to the next outing of the first grade teachers at Sanwa. Whenever teachers invite me to their after hours social gatherings it always makes me feel special. I love talking to them and knowing what their thoughts are on America or English or anything at all. And earlier today I was invited to be in the photo shoot for the female English teachers at Koga Ni-ko. For Their Christmas party, they are taking pictures of all the teachers for a slide show to be played. The four English teachers posed like Sex and the City, and they thought to include me in this picture.

I have been gifted so much fruit lately, that I had to finally cut it all up yesterday and stick it in freezer bags in order to keep it so it wouldn't go bad. Now I have a freezer full of persimmons, kiwis and apples. I am pretty excited about this; maybe I'll bust out the blender and there will be smoothies in my future!

Hope you like the hodge-podge of my latent thoughts realized.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The art of the 3-part wedding

As with every new day here in Japan, (and should be the case with every new day anywhere) I get to experience something new. These things help me to examine the world in which I have created for myself and how the person I have become fits into the world in which I inhabit. On Sunday, I was invited to a Japanese wedding reception for one of my English teachers at Koga Ichi-ko. I have learned a lot about Japanese weddings since then, but there is still so much I will never fully understand because of the way they are structured.

First, there is the wedding ceremony. From what I have been told, the bride and groom usually wear traditional Japanese kimonos and the ceremony is performed in a shrine. I would imagine that a monk performs the ceremony, but I am not certain. At the wedding ceremony, only immediate family of the bride and groom are invited; there are no bridesmaids or groomsmen. Following the wedding ceremony is the first reception. This portion is for very close friends and extended family only. There is a meal and speeches are given; the whole event is very carefully planned and the schedule of events is followed to a T. Then comes the second reception for all of the bride and grooms extended friend network; I was invited to the second reception. Generally, there is no family invited to this last portion and it is just about friends and good times. There are some speeches and a bit of formality, but then what is a Japanese anything without formality and and speeches?

When I got there, all the guests were lined up at the door of the restaurant the couple had rented for the occasion. At a Japanese reception, all the guests pay for themselves, so there is always an admission fee. Shortly after 6:30pm, the bride and groom arrived and everyone cheered them in. Once they got there, things really got started and the two emcees kept everyone happy and laughing the whole night. I don't know what relation, if any, these emcees had to the couple, but it felt like I was watching some kind of performance or game show. There were door prizes complete with a raffle drawing and everything, there were formal speeches given by the bride and groom and a lot of bowing. The wedding planner even made a video to show all the guests about the planning of the wedding. After two hours of a show in which every detail was pre-planned, the whole thing ended as quickly as it had begun. There was no lingering, the place just cleared and everyone went their separate ways.

During the reception I did meet some very nice people (I always love meeting new people) and had some nice conversation. They asked about me, where I was from, why I was at the reception. They let me in on little jokes and secrets about the newlyweds (they had all gone to college together). As with most scenarios here, I felt immediately welcomed and thankful I wasn't standing awkwardly in a corner all by myself because. One of the guys I met had wonderful English, and the other girls let me practice my broken Japanese with them. One of the women is moving to New York later this month for her husbands' job and she is pretty nervous. When the reception ended, they bid me adieu and maybe I won't see them again, but I was so happy to have them that night!

In Japan, everything has its allotted time. Everything is planned to the point of exhaustion, and the Japanese can compartmentalize like champs! I like being a spectator in this world and using it to examine against my own.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Finally welcomed to Japan

Just last night I had my welcome party from Sanwa High School. They are my base school, my favorite place to be. I had high hopes for this party, and they did not disappoint. We first had dinner at a seafood restaurant with an incredible spread. I have come to anticipate the huge amount of food these welcome parties have, but it is always a surprise to see it all in front of me!

We began with some sashimi, tofu, and tempura. Then we moved on to onabe, which is a kind of Japanese comfort food. They serve it mainly during the colder fall and winter months and it is a "family dish." Essentially it is a big pot of soup cooking in the middle of the table. The restaurant gives you all the ingredients - vegetables, tofu, oysters, crab, shrimp, chicken - and you put all the fixins' in the pot and watch it cook. It is delicious and just nice and warm and oh so easy to make at home too. After the onabe we had crab legs and a huge fish that had been cut open and cooked. We had kamameshi, and this was a nomihodai as well. Nomihodai means "all you can drink."

Now I know my Mother is cringing a bit, but don't worry, the six drinks I had last night were spread over six hours. These parties tend to last well into the night. So as we are eating, they periodically stop and give speeches. They thank me for being there and ask me if I like it. I thank them for helping me so much with my transition to Japanese life and for always thinking of me and looking out for me. After our feast, we go for some impromptu karaoke! Always a fan of karaoke, I thought this was a great idea.

We sang our little hearts out for a couple hours. I was able to pull out the two Japanese songs I know and sing them! I wish I knew more Japanese music because it is fun for me to sing in their language. But we sang a lot of Beatles and they sang a lot of Japanese. I had explained to them earlier in the night, when they were talking about American television shows they like (Lost, 24, Heroes, The O.C.) that I tend to not like anything popular. This presents a problem only when I am trying to relate to the Japanese on a point of entertainment. I don't like the popular singers, or TV shows, or movies. So instead of singing the Macy Grey and Cake that I usually enjoy, I took requests. They asked me to sing the Titanic song (My Heart Will Go On), All I Want for Christmas by Mariah Carey, Beatles, Backstreet Boys. And I had a blast!

I think when I get back and strike it rich, I am going to have my own Japanese style Izekaiya restaurant and a Karaoke box. How can they not be popular!??!!

Give thanks, life is beautiful

In my family, the holidays are important. Growing up, my parents encouraged my siblings and I to be very involved. They never told us we couldn't join a new team or be in a new club. Transportation was always a puzzle and a series of carefully planned drop-offs and pick-ups, but they were champs! Essentially this meant that our family time was at a premium; we'd see each other in passing, but when the holidays came it was the perfect excuse to tell everything else, "No, this is family time."

So now, we find ourselves with the weather getting cooler and the beginning of this holiday season approaching. This will be the first time in my 22 years that I will, in fact, not be home for Christmas; or Thanksgiving, or New Year's or any of these beautiful and significant holidays. As I have said before, I have been struggling a bit with how to cope and handle my emotions during these times. I love my life here in Japan, so that helps more than anything else could. Initially I thought ignoring the days would be my best solution. Thanksgiving and Christmas are both working days for me, so I figured as long as I wasn't too conscious of the date, the holidays would pass right by and I would be okay. I should have known, that is just a silly idea. There is no way I can ignore such holidays with having to teach culture lessons about them and talking to family and friends often about vacations and plans.

So I decided to embrace Thanksgiving - and while I don't cook - I invited some friends and we celebrated by going to dinner and just enjoying one another's company. So Emily, Anna, Jason, Chika and I piled into my awesome van, and ventured out to my favorite restaurant here for some laughs and story telling. It was a lot of fun to hear about the traditions of everyone else's family. That is truly the coolest thing about America; not that we all have the right to be different, but that we actually are. We represented so many different parts of the country (Kansas, California, South Dakota, West Virginia), but we are all different ages and have different life experiences and histories we bring to our friendships. I am always a sucker for storytelling. Sit me down, tell me a story, and I will listen for hours.

So we sat at Tori Den, eating sashimi salad, kamameshi, drinking banana milk and mango juice for about three hours. In my inherent corniness, I asked everyone to name something for which they were thankful. It was very reassuring to hear how happy everyone was to be in Japan. In the absence of family, I couldn't have asked for a happier or more enjoyable Thanksgiving.

Since Thanksgiving is my favorite meal, and has been since I was a kid, that is probably the first meal I will ask for when I get home. I am so excited to share with my wonderful family my stories and experiences and hear theirs in return.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A tightrope walk I intend to perfect

In this time of crisp weather and holidays beating down the door, it lays the perfect groundwork for nostalgia to walk right in and make himself comfortable in the warmest parts of our hearts. My family lives in the warmest part of my heart, and nostalgia is always a welcomed and often an entertaining visitor. The cool thing about having nice memories, they have this strange way of transforming reflections of the past into goals for the future.

This all came about because I was thinking about my grandfather and the fact that it has been over two years since I last held his hand. Just after he passed, I was so sad I couldn't see through the hurricane of my tears to a time when thoughts of him would bring warmth and smiles rather than emptiness and cold. Now I think of him and his laugh at the dinner table, or the way damn was his favorite expletive. I never wanted to interfere when I was younger, but thinking of how my Mom and Grandpa would sit in the kitchen for hours after dinner while Mom did the dishes and Grandpa talked about family stories always made me happy. That time was theirs to talk and bond, share some laughs and frustrations.

But I digress. This is really about how people live their lives. I think it takes the reality of someone close to us passing in order for some of us to really assess the manner in which we live our lives. I think there is a fine line between taking life for granted and not living for fear of dying. Living recklessly is not the definition of taking advantage of the life you've been given. And on the flip side, living like a hermit so as to stay safe and healthy is not the definition of respecting the life you're been given.

Life is fragile, but spontaneity won't break it. Physical activity won't hurt it either. Working hard, having a family, traveling the world, being powerful in business - each of those scenarios has the potential to create a fantastic life full of happiness and love. The only requirement is that you do not squander the life you've been given by making poor decisions (that means no drugs, no walking on train tracks, no driving while intoxicated - common sense, you'd think).

I hope to walk the tightrope of life in such a way that I embrace spontaneity, but have the wisdom to know when a particular adventure should come to an end. I think the key is to surround yourself with supportive people who encourage your creativity and thirst for learning and exploring new adventures.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blue Christmas

I generally have very strong opinions about Christmas decorations and music before Thanksgiving. Back home I would never condone such unsympathetic gestures toward Thanksgiving. But alas I have crossed over to the dark side of commercialized Christmas in a non-Christian nation and have been listening to Christmas music for a couple weeks now. I even went and enjoyed the public decorations and atmosphere in a department store; I went only for the decorations and music. As I am writing this post, I am shamelessly listening to Christmas music on accuradio.com and really loving every minute of it. (All but the Elvis really, his voice is so annoying!)

Missing the holidays at home is proving to be much more difficult that I anticipated. I guess I should have known, because the past few years when I have had to miss Easter at home it really got to me. I don't know what I was thinking assuming that Thanksgiving and Christmas away were going to be fine. The plan as it stands? Work. I want to completely work through each of the holidays I am missing and focus more on my friends and social life here, rather than the family life I am missing at home. Of course I cannot ignore the fact that Christmas is coming, but I don't have to fixate on it. I am doing some major Christmas shopping and sending boxes home soon. I am listening to the music because it makes me smile and feel extra warm in my chilly apartment.

When it comes right down to it, I miss my family an incredible amount. But I have been truly blessed with the caring and happy friends I have made here. In a case where a substitute for family is due, they are so much better than I could have ever prayed for. I am looking forward to walking around Tokyo, decorated with lights and excitement and just reminding myself how freaking cool it is that I am in one of the biggest cities in the whole world - and it's just a normal day!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Thank you Serendipity for opening my eyes to this incredible book. It took me a while to finish, but I was sincerely hooked the whole time; it wasn't a struggle. It is a pure love story with a wonderful dose of reality built right in. Simply put, love is strained, love is unpredictable, and even when they are in love people seek affection and intimacy elsewhere.

It is the infuriating and invigorating story of a childhood love pulled apart and destroyed by preconceptions and the pursuit of social standing. The main characters merely exchange letters and admire one another from afar during their youth. As the girl is pushed to advance her social status by her father, she is forced to forgo her heart's true love. For over 50 years the main characters continue to live in the same city, and live completely separate lives. The woman goes on to marry into a higher social class and the man climbs the social ladder by way of hard work and business acumen.

The man is hopelessly in love with the main female character, but her rejection sends him into a tailspin of illicit sexual relationships in which he refuses to feel emotional love. He attempts throughout his whole life to seek solace through the warmth of a body next to him. Of course this cannot cure his love sick heart and his soul continues to belong to the female lead. Every accomplishment he has in his life is gained consciously in honor of his heart's true love. He plans his whole life for and around her in the hope and anticipation of the day she will become a widow.

This day finally happens, and they are true to their love from the days of ol'. They acknowledge the passage of time and the changes they have each endured and in spite of everything, their love and affection for one another is steadfast. I highly recommend this book to anyone. Yes, it is a love story, but not so sappy actually. There are some incredibly smart and perceptive commentaries on human nature and society. Wonderful book!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It's cool to be appreciated

So eight of my kids from Sanwa High School went to Australia for a week at the beginning of this month. I haven't heard too many stories yet, but some of the kids got me souvenirs! I was in no way expecting that kind of thoughtfulness from those kids. They are really nice kids and really motivated, but I was not expecting presents!

One of the kids gave me a box of Australian chocolates, and I got a key chain that says Platypus crossing!!! One of the kids gave me a nice towel and a little koala clip that is magnetic. They were little useful things and just showed such thoughtfulness that I felt really special. Over the next two weeks I will be helping them to write a newsletter about their experience to be given to all the students at Sanwa. And then, once the newsletter has gone out, we will be resuming our after school English lessons again. These kids are just motivated and a lot of fun to talk to!

Historic Nikko

Nikko is an old city in Tochigi Prefecture, about two hours driving from Koga. This past Thursday (November 13th) was a holiday, Ibaraki Day, so I had the day off. I was invited by one of my teachers at Sakai Nishi, Mrs. Ishiki, to spend the day in Nikko. She is a very intelligent and opinionated woman, and I really enjoy spending time with her and her family. Nikko is a very popular place to visit, especially in the beauty of autumn. Usually it is a very crowded place with tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the fall leaves before they abandon the trees for the cold winter. But, lucky for us, Ibaraki Day was in the middle of the week, so the surge of tourists was much less than normal.

On the drive to Nikko, we made our way up the mountain to finally arrive at this sleepy little town. The route is absolutely beautiful and lined with incredibly old, incredibly tall trees. It was as though we were driving through a natural tunnel. There were three long stretches of road with this kind of canopy, as we made our way up the mountain.

Because of its rich history, the temples in Nikko are considered a World Heritage Site. The temples are from the Edo period and were built for the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. They are incredibly ornate and beautifully adorned in wooden carvings and gold plating. At the entrance to the temples, there is a horse stable, and upon it are some carvings of monkeys. The most famous carving is of three monkeys vowing to Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, and See no Evil. The other carvings are of the human condition - contemplating life, contemplating goals and dreams, feeling disappointment and failure.

Beyond that is a kind of grave site for all the shogun that lived within the temple walls. This grave site is located at the top of 200 stone stairs. There were many school age children at Nikko for field trips, and as we were climbing the stairs, we could hear them counting all the steps as they made their way down from the top.

Throughout the day in Nikko, the colors of the leaves and the light through the trees was gorgeous. I'm not usually one for "the beauty of nature," but even I can recognize how incredible it is that such vibrant colors exist naturally in this world. And the light was such that Thomas Kinkade would have had a field day! I kind of wish I could have had him in my pocket and commissioned a painting of Nikko right then and there!

After the temples, we made our way to the next town over to go to an onsen. This onsen was wonderfully relaxing and had an outdoor hot spring as well as two indoor. It was great to sit outside with the crisp air creating a mist on the hot water. After the onsen, we grabbed some soba for lunch and then made our way home. It was a nice low key touring day.

On the way home Mrs. Ishiki and I talked about all kinds of things. She is a very intelligent woman and a very talented and curious linguist and culturalist. Our discussions usually center around word pronunciation and meaning and cultural connections to linguistics. We talk about poverty, and insurance, and different ideas on health and well being. She teaches me about Japanese history and is always helping me learn more Japanese and more vocabulary and kanji. For that I am very grateful. I hope be able to continue spending time with Mrs. Ishiki when I stop teaching at Sakai Nishi in January.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Grass People

I got to go to my first Japanese play. Hiromi, the woman in Heartful, is such a fun lady. Just a few weeks ago she was in a dance festival, and then two weekends ago, she was in a play. This play, when translated, was called "The Grass People." To be honest, I could understand general idea of what was happening, but most of the words escaped me. The cast sang a very powerful song at the beginning and then did a reprise at the end, but it was not a musical at all.

It was a story of servitude and the rifts of love between social classes. The Grass People were in service to the Shogun, and the Shogun fell in lust with his servant girl, who was already in love with another peasant like herself. So the Shogun went on a jealous rampage and the servant girl tried running away. But of course in the end, the Shogun lost and the family was reunited and it was very happy.

I will say that I was deeply impressed by the acting abilities of the actors on stage. This was just a community theatre production, but the emotion the characters were able to show and elicit from the audience were very powerful. During the most emotionally trying parts, the characters in distress would cry, real tears. Not only did one person cry, but 5 people were able to make real tears happen on stage - I was kind of amazed.

There was a Japanese gentleman who sat next to me during the performance. He is an optometrist in Koga and he began the conversation by asking if he could practice his English with me. It was really cool to meet such an eager and confident Japanese person. I really enjoyed speaking with him and found out that he loves to travel and do Karaoke in his free time, of which he has little. He loves to go to the theatre, but it is hard for him to make the time. He asked about my university and where I was from in the states and we had a nice conversation to pass the time before the play started and then again at intermission. I am happy that people are willing to talk to me and that I seem approachable, it helps me to make new friends!

After the performance, I stayed to say hello to Hiromi. She was so emotional still, the play moved her and she was also very proud of the cast and the performance they all gave. And she introduced me to a famous Japanese television actor that had come to see the play as well. After that, she introduced me to the director of their play and of the community theatre troupe. It was really cool because they decided that I should be involved with the next production they do!!! I was floored, just because I enjoy theatre Hiromi convinced the director that I should join them. I don't know at this point when that will be or what my role in the production will actually be, but the prospect is really exciting for me! How cool would it be to be in a Japanese play? The practice is going to be hard and I will have to work uber lots, but we will see how everything pans out!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The bright spots in teaching

So this job is tough for me. I have too much free time and I often feel a little useless even in the classroom. But as with everything that is difficult there are always bright spots that give me all the motivation and energy I need to keep going and things to which I can look forward. There is a girl named Yuka at Koga Second. She has come to say hello to me every week since I began teaching in September. She doesn't usually say more than that, because she isn't terribly confident in her English.

I sit next to her favorite teacher, Mori-sensei. One day he started telling me that Yuka has to take a test to reach a certain level of English proficiency. He told me that she has taken this test three times before and her written scores are always almost perfect, but that she has failed the oral section every time. She has one more chance to take and pass the test, but if she doesn't she cannot study on a certain college prep track in school.

Last week, when Yuka came to talk to me after school, I asked her to sit down and practice speaking more with me. Mori-sensei saw and he came over and gave me some of the practice materials so I could study with her a bit more constructively. We had 9 practice tests to choose from and we ended up doing about 5 of them. When we began she was so nervous. When I would ask her a question, she would search, frenzied for Mori-sensei to translate everything I was saying. I was so thankful that he left the room because I could work with Yuka more productively without her relying upon everything being translated.

At one point, I just had to get her attention and repeat my question again word by word and have her translate what I was saying all by herself. In the end she got it and she was able to concentrate on what I was saying instead of splitting her thoughts between her nerves and then the English. She can speak very well, and her vocabulary is actually quite strong. I look forward to working with her in the future. That day, after we practiced some, I had to run to another English club meeting. When I returned to my desk around 5pm, I found a post-it note on my desk that said,

"Annelyse Teacher, Thank you very much. I'm very excited about my lesson. I try to do my best! Sincerely, Yuka"

I left so happy, and now I keep that post-it in my planner and read it when my classes are discouraging. I am here for students like Yuka. I am so happy to have met her.

I have overcome the password giant (with a little help from my friends)

Thank you to everyone who has been so helpful in giving advice and ideas regarding my little "computer problem." As you know, I (like a goof) reset the password on my computer and then proceeded to completely forget what word I typed in, thus locking myself out of my computer.

I know many of you have been frustrated that I have been absent from blogging and just regular chatting for nearly a month now. But huzzah! I am back! I could not have done this without the help and support of other people researching and giving suggestions. This whole experience has made me feel a little inept at using computers though, so I am just trying to recover from that currently. I am just so lucky that Mikey was able to send me a working copy of a log in recovery program. I had already tried this program, but I was unsuccessful in properly burning the CD to boot my computer in an alternate fashion. Luckily his copy was perfect and worked like a charm.

After all this time I can still laugh at my faux paux. Even more so now that I have learned what my password was. Turns out in my feverish packing and readying for Osaka and Kyoto I typed in the words, forget it. And it seems I did just that; I forgot it and was without my personal documents or a DVD player for a month. I will tell you, never again will I forget a password; I will take every precaution to be sure of that! Thank you again, and I am so happy to be back.

So check out all my blogs and pictures that are recently updated, but are experiences that have been acquired over the past month!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Adorable children with a side of pottery

I was invited on a day trip to Mashiko with Akemi, a woman from the Heartful English Club. Mashiko is a town in the next prefecture (Tochigi) famous for handmade pottery. Every year they have a craft fair, and for four days a bunch of local artisans come and sell their handmade pottery. So Akemi picked me up around 9am and we started our journey to Mashiko. Akemi likes to go to this fair every year and she always brings her girls. She has two daughters, Natsumi (6) and Haruna (3). They are absolutely amazing little girls and I completely fell in love during our day together.

When Akemi picked me up, I sat in the back with her girls. The first thing they did was put in a movie. I haven't seen many anime movies, so they decided that it would be a Ghibli day and we watched Totoro first. Akemi really believes in teaching her girls English early, so she only lets them watch their movies in English. This was nice for me because every time I have seen a Ghibli movie, it has always been in Japanese as part of a class or something. It is amazing how much more clear it is when you actually understand what everyone is saying!

Akemi gave each of us, the girls and me included, a little goody bag with an orange, rice crackers and some pretzels. At one point Haruna was sitting in her car seat playing with her orange like it was a ball. Every now and then she would look at it and contemplate a bit and then start tossing it from hand to hand again. Finally she mustered up the word and looked at me, then back at the orange and then extended her hand and simply said, "please." I smiled, giggled a bit and gladly helped her peal her orange. I knew from that point that I was really going to have fun with these girls. A little while later Natsumi followed suit and asked me for help to peal the orange. I was tickled at how much English the girls used with me of their own accord!

The ride to Mashiko was kind of long and then once we arrived we had to drive around for quite a while looking for parking. This pottery fair is very popular and a ton of people were attending. We finally got there and started to roam the streets sifting through the different booths of pottery and other handmade crafts. The first road we took wound its way up a big hill with many booths. It was a lot of fun to watch Natsumi walking around with Akemi and so delicately touching and examining each piece of pottery. Every so often she would find a piece she really liked and let out a cry of, "kawaii yo!" (so cute, you know!). Such interest in pottery was surprising for me to see from a 6 year old. As we walked along Haruna liked to ride in the stroller and eat candy. That girl was always eating candy; it became almost comical for me.

We reached the top of the hill and there was a very old style Japanese house with a thatched roof. This was a traditional place for making pottery, and along side the house were rows of kilns for firing the pottery. This little house had its own gated entry way that had been propped open for people wanting to see the process first hand. Just in front of the entry were three little tents with pottery. I went to one of the tents that was selling a lot of bright green pottery with words printed on the pieces. I was able to buy a vase for $5 that is a tall and slender cylinder. On it, it has the words printed, "Song for You." Given how much I really love to sing and the cheap price, I totally grabbed it up!

After I made my purchase, Natsumi looked me right in the eye and then ran through the entry way to the grounds of the house and kiln area. It was as though she didn't know how to say, "follow me," but she wanted me to understand. So I followed her through the entry and then she ran back and grabbed my hand and in Japanese said, "mi te, mi te!" (look, look!). She explored the grounds surrounding the houses and the dormant kilns all the while holding my hand and pulling me from place to place. Once she was content, we walked back out and met up with her mother again.

Soon after, we decided it was lunch time and went to grab some yaki soba and mochi from a street vendor. The girls can eat sooo much! I guess that is what happens when you have growing babies, they eat everything in sight. After lunch we took a new path to the main drag of the craft show. All the pottery was so cool to see. Much of it was incredibly expensive, but to think that it had all been made by hand was cool. I always like handmade things for their beauty and originality in every piece. As we were walking down the street Haruna would often come up and grab my pointer finger and swing our arms back and forth as we walked along. It really reminded me of when I would hold my Dad's hand when I was small. My hands were so small that he would always offer his finger and I would hold onto that while we walked along.

When she started to get tired, she rode in the stroller again. Sometimes I would wait with her while Natsumi and Akemi would search through all the pottery in a particular booth. My fingernails were still painted red from Halloween and Haruna thought it was the coolest thing. She would just sit there and play with my fingers looking at the color and rubbing the shiny red paint. And then she got an idea - she spread my fingers out flat on her lap and she counted my fingers. She would count from right to left in Japanese, and then she would go back the other way and count them in English. I was so tickled! I think children are so smart and have the potential to learn anything you want to teach them - learning for them is not the chore it is for us when we get older in school and college. They still love to discover and explore everything around them.

Later that afternoon we decided to head home. The girls wanted to watch the Pixar movie, Cars on the way home. They asked Akemi if they could watch in Japanese, but Akemi said, "We watch movies in English girls." On the way home they both fell asleep in the back seat. I really had a great day with Akemi and the girls. The pottery was really cool, but I think my favorite part was getting to know Natsumi and Haruna. I hope to see them again soon!

BOO! Did I scare you?

Halloween in Japan is merely stolen from the West and the Japanese aren't quite sure what to make of it all. I was doing the same Halloween lesson for about three weeks at all my schools and I discovered that the kids all knew the stereotypes of Halloween, but didn't know why. For example, they know that kids say Trick-or-Treat, but they don't know what it means, because they sell all the candy and costumes here, but they don't go trick-or-treating and use all the stuff they buy! So to illustrate the practice of trick-or-treating, I brought candy to every class and made each student come and trick-or-treat with me and the Japanese teacher. They would have to pretend to knock on the door, and then they had to say the "magic word" and if they couldn't remember, then no candy! Eventually they all remembered, I wasn't actually so cruel as to only give them one chance.

Usually I am not so big on Halloween. I mean when you're an adult it is all about looking like a goof in a costume and usually a drinking party. Now I mean, where did all the candy go and the trick-or-treating?! Halloween used to be a time to compete for the best candy and the best costume. But this year I was convinced to take part in the adult Halloween fun - I bought a costume and everything. I went to Ageha with some of my other JET friends from Ibaraki, so of course Lauren was there!

Ageha is a very, very large night club just outside of Tokyo. It is in Chiba prefecture, but only about a 10 minute train from Tokyo Station. So to prepare for this wild and crazy night out, I went to my friend Chika's house and we got ready. She was a Pirate Queen, and I was the Devil. After we were all dressed, we hopped on the train to make our way into Tokyo. Now, as I said, the Japanese aren't quite sure what to make of Halloween, so Chika and I were the only two dressed up on the train. Naturally that garnered quite a few stares from our companions on the train. It was kind of fun being "the weirdo" all dressed up! When we met up with everyone in Tokyo, we looked like quite the odd bunch; it's helpful to travel in groups of freaks! haha

We stopped in a little place for some ramen and then jumped back on the train to head to the club. Oooh, I have left out a timeline. The club didn't open until 11pm, so we didn't even get on the train until 11pm. By the time we arrived, the line was forever long, so we waited. The cool thing about Ageha is that on Halloween, if you are wearing a costume and they think it is good enough, you don't have to pay the $40 cover charge. So I felt okay about spending $25 on my costume because it was cheaper than if I had just worn regular clothes and had to pay at the club. The club dresses up two of its employees and has them judge each costume as it comes through. If they say you can get in for free, yipee! If they veto - you must pay. I swear, all these people out there thinking they can just play G-d and toy with our emotions that way!

So after I got the clear to get in for free, we had to continue waiting in line. We waited in line for a grand total of two and a half hours! Now this is the first club I have ever been to, and the waiting in line silliness was not my favorite part. So around about 2:30am, we finally got into the club - and the place really was huge. The first place we enter is a large room with a huge bar. At each of the corners of the bar, there are wicked tall poles and every hour, four pole dancers come out for about 20 minutes or so. Now, the whole idea of pole dancers just sounds dirty, but if you actually watch them, they are incredibly strong!! I mean they shimmy up those poles like monkeys and then hold on with just their legs or just one arm. That is some crazy strength, and I mean, they can't wear too many clothes and do that, because it would be too slippery with all those clothes on!

But moving right along, after I had been there for a while, I ventured with some friends into the next room which is where all the loud techno music and dancing was happening. It was soooo crowed ed that we formed a little human train so we wouldn't lose each other twisting our way through all the people. We made our way out to the pool and it was completely insane! We wound our way back into the room with the bar and then found a little lounge just off the room with the bar. It was playing some nice music that you could dance to and had places to sit and chat too. We hung out in the lounge area dancing and being chill for the rest of the night.

Around 5:30am, we left the club and made our way back to the train. After waiting for the train to arrive and riding the train and transferring trains, I made it back to the door of my apartment about 8am. By this time, I had to shower and get ready to leave my house for the school festival at Sakai West. I got myself all ready and then spent the day at Sakai. Around 3:30pm I got home and just completely crashed. I don't know if I have been awake straight for so many hours for a very long time!

Halloween was a lot of fun though. But next time I want to try going to a smaller club with a smaller line in normal clothes. :)

Traaditioooon, Tradition

I was invited to see one of the women in the Heartful English Club perform in a festival of traditional Japanese dances and songs. The festival lasted all day long; from 9:30am until about 3:30pm. In the span of about six hours they had 66 performances! I was floored at how many dances they were able to pack in there.

Of course the costumes were beautiful kimonos using some gorgeous fabrics. I hope to be able to save up some money and buy myself a kimono while I am here - but that is just a dream at this point. It is amazing to me how graceful they can be in their kimonos - it just seems that they are floating across the stage as they walk. It is so fluid and their movements with fans are so graceful.

There were four solo dances in a row, each depicting one season. The kimonos for each were made of incredible fabrics with intricate scenes woven into each. They began with autumn and the woman came out in rich oranges and golds with a touch of yellow and red. She had autumn leaves tucked into her hair that she later removed and used as part of her dance.

Next was winter and her kimono was bright white with silver shiny thread used to make bare tree branches near the bottom and snow flakes near the top. She used a silver fan with a design in black. Her dance looked as though she were skating on ice. Her geta (the wooden sandals they wear) were platformed; I have no clue how she was able to walk on them!

Then came spring. The kimono was a tender pink and had small white blossoms and flowers on it as though they were falling from a cherry tree. There was nothing shiny, just subtle and beautifully soft and delicate. The music for this dance was exciting and sounded a little like the music from Bambi! haha Clearly it was Japanese music, but it elicited the same feelings of excitement and giddiness that the spring music in Bambi does.

Lastly came summer and the kimono was very green and her fan was decorated like a butterfly. Her dance was the fastest, but in some incredible way she still looked like she was gliding or floating like the others. The music was upbeat and a little jazzy as far as traditional Japanese music goes.

Hiromi, the woman in my class, was in two of the dances during the day, but I was only able to see the first one, which she told me was better anyway! She was one of three dancers in her performance and she played the male role in the dance...haha. Her wig was really cool and was tall on her head and then had a really long ponytail coming out of the top. She was dressed in an old male-style kimono. Hiromi used to be a competitive ballroom dancer with her husband, so of course she was really great at moving on stage. As the male character, she had to do many deep lunges and hold her position for long stretches of time. It was powerful and strong.

The auditorium where the dances were taking place was completely packed. It was fun to see so many people supporting their friends and family in the performance. The whole thing reminded me of the amazingly fun times I have had joining some of the Filipino celebrations at home. Watching the traditional dances in traditional garb is really cool. I am very happy to be American through and through - but we just do line dancing and wear cowboy boots....haha. I guess the performer in me can just really appreciate the beautiful costumes and elaborate dances and songs!

A weekend in the mountains

So the weekend following the conference, a group of us JETs decided to take some time and run away into the mountains of Ibaraki. There is a little village in the mountains called Daigo and we were able to see some beautiful signs of autumn and relax a bit. Our time spent at that conference was a bit tiring, so this was a much needed weekend.

It began with everyone meeting at Gaijinbucks (this is what we called the Starbucks in Mito - gaijin means foreigner) on Saturday morning. After a long train ride from Mito, we arrived at the teeniest tiniest train station in Daigo. There is definitely something to be said for the public transportation in Japan. As I ride through country towns zipping through rice fields and past open nothingness, I just think, "wouldn't it be funny if there were a train in my back yard?" You can take a train from absolutely anywhere in the country to anywhere else. Sometimes the route is not quite direct and a bit convoluted, but it is completely possible! So anyway, we arrive in Daigo and the first thing we do is start our trek from the station to the acclaimed waterfall.

We walk on little country roads for about half an hour before reaching the base of the waterfall. Once here, we meet up with some JETs that actually live this far north in Ibaraki and have a quick snack of onigiri (rice ball with seaweed). As a group we start through the touristy streets lining the path up to the waterfall observation point. Along the way we pass all the common trinkety, tourist trap items - but there was quite the surprising little toy for sale in one of the shops. I think this says something about Japan and what they find acceptable for public display. While looking through a very normal omiyage shop, we come across this bouncy ball of sorts. The difference with this ball is that it is shaped and colored like a woman's breast, complete with nipple and all. And better yet, when you bounce the ball, there is a sound box inside and the ball starts moaning. Talk about appropriate for the kiddies, right?! It boggles the mind the way things that like are common and not considered shocking or inappropriate for this setting!

After our moment of horror and amusement, we continue up the path and arrive at the entrance of a tunnel. The path that tourists are supposed to take goes directly through the mountain so as to get the best head on view of the waterfall. Again Japan, taking the natural and beautiful and old and turning it into something accessible and modern. The tunnel was cut into the middle of this beautiful mountain and was complete with electric lighting and smoothed concrete with hand rails on either side.

The observation deck had a really nice view and we were able to get some great pictures. The poor waterfall though looked a little dryer than a waterfall should. I was a bit surprised given all the rain we had been getting, but the scene was still nice to look at and be a part of. After this we took the path over a swinging footbridge to a set of stairs. Everyone had the option of climbing the stairs if they wanted to get to the very top of the mountain and look down on the waterfall. At the base of the stairs it said it took about 40 minutes to climb halfway. I decided to opt out, and instead Lauren, Amber, Sam and I went to this little outdoor cafe of sorts and had some lunch.

We got some udon noodles in soup with some hot green tea. Being up in the mountains was a bit chilly, so it was nice to be eating all the hot food. The portions were huge, and I just couldn't finish my whole meal. I have been running into that problem quite a lot lately actually - I just can't seem to finish all my food at any given meal. I guess that is a good sign.

Anyway, after our hike up to check out the waterfall, we ventured back down to hurry and travel to the apple onsen. An onsen is a Japanese public bath house. The bath is created from a natural hot spring and the whole experience is incredibly relaxing. Essentially there are two rooms, one for men and one for women - naturally. The procedure is such that everyone is expected to bathe at the showers provided and just get completely clean and then afterward, there is the large pool filled with extremely hot water and you just soak until you're content. At first thought, I guess it seems a little awkward to be bathing with strangers, naked and whatnot - but it just seems normal and you just don't think about it any more. Or maybe all my modesty has just flown out the window - but it's not like their co-ed!!! The special thing about this particular onsen was that they put apples in the water. I kind of felt like we should be bobbing for apples, or like I was in some kind of soup!

After the onsen, we made the trip back to our hotel in shifts. We all had to drop off our belongings and then run to dinner. But the problem was, there was only one car and about 12 people at the onsen. So we called a taxi, but there was only one taxi for the whole town, so it had to make trips back and forth in order to pick up everyone. The only problem with mountain towns is that nothing seems to be open past 8pm. So by the time we got back to the hotel and dropped our things, it was quite a task to find an open restaurant for dinner. Finally we found one that seemed to be closing, but we bombarded and looked like sad, hungry foreigners that didn't know any better. The nice people took us in and feed us a wonderful hot meal and it was really cheap too! Score!

After dinner we hung out some more at the hotel and just chatted for about 3 hours down in the lobby of the hotel. It was such a great time to just sit around talking to people and making new friends. We talked about all those things you aren't supposed to, but always seem to come up anyway - politics and religion....haha.

The next morning, we got up, checked out of the hotel and made our way to the apple orchard. The only place I have ever picked apples was at my grandparents' house when I was kid. And even then it was mostly picking up the yucky apples from the ground just to bring home and feed to the neighbors pigs. So this was quite the fun time. I only picked about 6 apples though because apples are heavy and they were $5 a kilo. After this we ventured onto the place where we could make our own sweets.

They ushered us into a little room, and gave us all the supplies for each of us to make 5 dumplings. The little lady showed us how to make them. First we had to cover our hands with flour so that the dough wouldn't stick to our hands. We had to take each ball of dough and flatten it out a bit like a pizza crust of sorts. Then we take the filling - either apple or pumpkin - and we put it in the center of our circle of dough. After that we wrap the dough around our filling and smash it a little into a dumpling shape. Then the lady brought out some food coloring paint and we each got to paint our dumplings however we wanted. I am severely lacking in this kind of artistic skill, so I mainly stayed with geometric shapes and patterns! haha Some of the people were just so creative and made some awesome dumplings.

After we were finished painting them, the little lady came back and took them into the next room to be baked. In about 15 minutes, they brought out our hot dumplings. We each tried one and they were delicious! It was so much fun to be able to make something, but to not have to do all the prep work and then clean up!! After our time at the bakery, we went back to the station and headed off in our separate directions for home. My commute back home took me about 4 hours, but it was okay, because I could sleep and read on the train. Once I finally got home though, I completely crashed. My relaxing mountain weekend was fun, but I needed to recoup.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Idealism disguised as realism

Every year each prefecture is required to do a seminar with all the JETs in that prefecture along with a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) with whom they work. Ibaraki always decides to do their seminar very early (mid-October). I honestly think it is a little silly to do the seminar so early because the new JETs, still don’t know a lot about what is going on, and in many cases, such as mine, are still doing their self-introduction. We don’t know anything about teaching lessons or how best to use the textbook. But alas, this kind of thing is required, so we must suffer through and come out on the other side having “learned something” and having engaged in “meaningful discussion.”

If you can’t already tell, I think the seminar is a load and should be wildly revamped. The whole thing is a big idealistic, let’s all feel happy and appreciated conference and frankly, that just isn’t the reality of our jobs. For example – each base school is supposed to send one JTE to this conference. It should be understood that the teacher you send should be someone who team teaches with the JET, yes? No. My base school decided to send a man whose name I still don’t really know, who I had no clue was an English teacher, and with whom I have never done a team teaching lesson.

The beginning of the conference was fine. They had a visiting lecturer from a University in Tokyo. He is an American who has been living here for about 8 years and has been doing research on the “best practices” for teaching English in Japan while utilizing the native speakers who are hired to teach here. His presentation was informative and gave good ideas and suggestions as to how best to conduct an English class in Japan. As I have said before, they speak Japanese in English class. I think English classes are arranged poorly and there is too much emphasis put on the textbook. Japanese teachers rely solely upon the textbook to guide their lessons. Often I find that the vocabulary seems irrelevant and random, and the grammar is often not correct. But as I have also said before, I am not going to change the system here, so I just roll with it. But in the conference, they split us into groups and want us to spend two days discussing better ways to use the JETs and more effective ways of teaching English to our students. They mix people who have high level schools with people who have low level schools. Using the same techniques just isn’t realistic, but that is kind of how the whole two day conference was, a tad unrealistic.

I got some good ideas for games, and I spoke out and asked questions of more experienced JETs. I gave my opinion sometimes too (big surprise, huh?). But all in all, the conference was completely ineffective and was only successful in pulling me out of the classroom for two days. But, I did meet another JTE in my group who knows some of the English teachers who work at Sanwa (my base school). He liked the way I spoke out and thought that I had nice ideas, but that I also relayed them in clear easy English so the Japanese teachers could understand. He appreciated my speaking so much that he wants me to come and participate in a conference he is doing just at his school. He wants me to observe the presentations and then comment on them afterward. It is kind of cool that someone thinks my opinions matter, even though I am new to this whole teaching thing.

Can you eat raw fish and sing The Beatles too?!

I find myself in the perpetual welcome party. I am being welcomed by schools, and welcomed by clubs and welcomed by friends. Everyone wants me to feel welcome in Japan, but haven’t I already been living here for over three months??? Haven’t I learned to drive here, and eat here and go shopping? No matter, the longer I can drag out this welcome party thing, the longer the free food lasts! ;)

This particular entry however, is about my welcome party for Koga First Senior High School. The English teachers wanted to take me out to dinner. So, as I have come to expect, one of the teachers, Kaneko-san, picked me up from my apartment in the evening and took me to the traditional Japanese restaurant they had chosen. When we arrived, they had a little room reserved just for us, and the teachers began, in a bit of a frenzy, to peruse the menu and decided to order the same meal for everyone. This meal had a little bit of everything; as with most of the teachers I meet, they want to see how far they can stretch my stomach and what weird things they can watch me eat/drink.

So, the food came in about 5 courses and to begin, they started me off with a beer. The I was one of three woman at this little get together, and I was the only one drinking with the 3 other men! The conversation surrounded my life in Japan thus far and how I liked my apartment. They asked if I cooked dinner for myself every night and I sheepishly said not every night, but I try sometimes. Then the first course came, it was pickled vegetables of all sorts – the Japanese really like to pickle everything. I don’t mind the pickled veggies at all, so I ate them down. Next came a plate of sashimi and wasabi. Surprisingly one of the Japanese teacher’s just can’t bring herself to eat raw fish, so they slide her plate over to me, and I gladly partook of the raw tuna!

Next we jumped into some fish-like something that was a bit coagulated and cold. It tasted like the ocean and my eating it, got a reaction. After that came fresh tofu with a bit of a ginger sauce to go with it, and then the main course of kameshi came. Kameshi is rice, with vegetables, or meat, or really anything on top. It is brought to the table in an iron pot and you let it sit for about 3 minutes. After that you can open the lid and you stir the whole thing. They even bring hot water, so you can turn it into a soup if you want to. They opted for the seafood kameshi and it was so good! Oh how I love Japanese food!! During the course of the meal, they are asking me about my family and tangenting off to different topics like, “Have you ever had Japanese sake?” or “Do you think Japanese boys are cute?” or “How long will you stay in Japan?” I have had Japanese sake, but I let them buy some for me anyway. They decided on a kind of cold sake call kobota. It was a little sweet and not as strong with the rubbing alcohol flavor as previous cold sakes I had tasted.

One of the Japanese teachers, turns to me once he is about three beers and a sake deep and says, “Do you like karaoke?” I smile and say, “Yes, I love karaoke!” He says, “Then we will do tonight, okay?!” And so it was that the group of us would next head to karaoke after dinner. We had decided during the end of dinner that The Beatles were a nice common ground of music that everyone knew, so that is what we should sing all night long.

We rented a booth at the karaoke place for two hours and then proceeded to order more drinks and food. I had two grapefruit sours in the two hours we were there, and I think everyone else had three – except for Kaneko, who was the driver that night. They have over 200 Beatles songs in the computer for the karaoke machine. We just started going through them, we’d each take a turn singing a song with the microphone, while everyone else would just sing the words in the background. After about an hour and 20 minutes we got tired of The Beatles and started venturing out to other things, like Carole King, and other old songs that the teachers knew, and were surprised when I also knew them! I even sang my standard Japanese song, Sukiyaki.

All in all, they thought I was great and I thought the same about them. We had a good time and I hope they invite me out for karaoke again soon!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Traffic kills all the fun

As I said before, Lauren and I decided to get up very early so we could spend the whole day in Kyoto. We had temples to see and culture to embrace! We hopped on a local train nice and early and got to a station where we could transfer to an express train straight for Kyoto. The ride was only 30 minutes from Osaka to Kyoto station. Once at the station, we bought all day bus passes for $5 and started on our way. It should have been a big fat clue that it was going to be a slow moving day when we saw the line for the bus to kinkaku ji (The Golden Pavilion).

When we arrived at Kinkaku ji, the sun was shining brightly and we had a beautiful view of the temple. This temple is in the traditional pagoda style and sits in the middle of a small lake with a single bridge connecting land to the temple. The reason it is called the Golden Pavilion is because it is actually plated in real gold! It was build during a very economically prosperous time in Japanese ancient history; during the time of the Shoguns.

It was amazing the way the sun glinted off the gold of the temple and reflected beautifully on the water below. The path for visitors around the pavilion is a nice light gravel walkway around the perimeter of the lake. Tourists cannot walk inside the temple because it is still used by the Buddhist priests that maintain the temple and the grounds. As we were walking along the path, I happened to look down into the water, and there were a ton of coy swimming in the lake. They were bright orange and white and clamoring along the bank of lake. The path goes up a small hill and through some nice trees. Lauren and I were there just as the leaves were beginning to change color, so it was quite pretty to see. Kinkaku ji is one of those places that even the most challenged photographer can get a postcard shot every time. I feel like such a professional taking pictures of this place because it is impossible to get a lousy shot!

Next, we walked back down to the bus stop and hopped a bus to Ginkaku ji (The Silver Pavilion). Yes, this is the opposite side of the spectrum from Kinkaku ji. In all my travels to Japan, I have never seen this temple before and it comes very highly recommended from all my Japanese friends. The story with this temple is that it was built to be in competition with Kinkaku ji. Originally the architect wanted to make a beautiful silver structure that could be revered even more than the Golden one. However, it was coming to the end of Japan’s economic high, so the architect did not have enough money to carry out his original idea. He kept the name however, but made the structure an incredible architectural beauty. It showed his talent and skill rather than the amount of money in his purse, and for this reason, Japanese people love and respect this temple more than the one of gold. I was really excited to see Ginkaku ji because of how highly recommended it had come, but when Lauren and I arrived, we discovered that the roof was being repaired and it had been closed to the public since February! Needless to say, we were very disappointed. We were still able to walk around the grounds and take in the natural beauty of autumn, but all in all, it was a bit of a bust.

After taking the path through the woods, we ventured back down to the main road to see where we could grab some lunch. After all the traffic of that morning it was already about 2pm and we were hungry. We weren’t able to find any lunch places, so we settled for a little coffee shop on a side street and each had a cafĂ© latte and split a banana cake. After this, we shopped around a little on the side streets to look for souvenirs for family and our schools. It is customary in Japan, that if you tell co-workers you are going away on a short trip or vacation, that you should bring something back to share with everyone. I bought a watch for myself because I really love watches. But also, the watch I wear everyday was starting to show some wear in the wristband; I really love that watch, and I want it to stay nice, so I decided that I needed a new everyday watch that I could wear and save the other watch for nicer occasions.

After our shopping excursion, we hopped on a bus for Kiyomizu; it means “pure water.” This was the worst bus ride of the whole day. The others had been long, but this one was ridiculous. Lauren and I waited for about 30 minutes for the bus to arrive in the first place. The traffic had gone from bad to horrendous because street dancers with portable shrines were dancing through the street. I would have expected that if there was a festival or parade of some sort, that roads would have been purposely closed and the people would have been given a proper path to perform, but no, of course that is not the way it went. The dancers would traipse through the street and then the cars would continue to pass by, and then more dancers, and more cars. Once the bus finally got to the stop, it was very crowed, but Lauren and I piled on anyway, along with about 7 other people. At every stop it seemed as though no one was getting off, but 5 to 7 people were getting on. There was need to hold onto anything, because we were crammed in there so tightly that no one could breathe, let alone move or fall down. This bus ride took us just over an hour. Once we finally got off the bus, we were tired, a bit cranky and really hungry because we had only eaten that banana cake.

The first thing we did was search for a place to have a late lunch. We were at the point that we didn’t really care about eating traditional food from Kyoto, so we just stopped in the first place and it happened to be Italian. So we had pasta in Kyoto; traditional, Japanese/Italian pasta with some salad and bread and fish flakes. It was good and helped us to pull it together to make the loooong trek up the hill to Kiyomizu. This temple sits at the top of a big hill and has fresh spring water, which tourists cleanse themselves with by washing their hands and/or drinking it. The hill up to Kiyomizu has been lined with omiyage (souvenir) shops and little places to buy the traditional Kyoto sweet; it is a rice cake wrapped around red bean paste.

Lauren and I hit the shops on the way down, because we wanted to make it to the top by sunset, for the view of Kyoto in the pink and orange hues. We kind of buzzed right through the “temple” part of Kiyomizu, but Lauren really wanted the pictures, and I had been there twice before, so I wasn’t bothered. We were able to get some nice pictures and despite all the people it was kind of peaceful up there. After the pictures, we jaunted back down the hill and did a bit of shopping. We each bought omiyage for our schools, and then went to catch a bus back to the station to head back to the Mansion.

We waited for a long time at the bust stop, and as we were waiting, a bus – nearly full – stopped and a few people got on, but Lauren and I recognized some JETs on the bus! They noticed us too and we got a phone call inviting us to dinner back at the station. Lauren and I grabbed the next bus and met them for a drink and then caught the train back to Osaka to eat some dinner and crash. The next morning our Osaka/Kyoto adventure was over and we took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) back to Tokyo and then went our separate ways. It was a really great weekend and I am so happy to have seen some of the more real sides of Osaka rather than the touristy stuff I have always done. I feel very lucky to have gotten to do both in my lifetime though.