Tuesday, September 23, 2008

hot topics

Saturday classes proceeded well. Since it was a very unusual schedule, I only went to one class, and did very little for that one. Pretty much handed out worksheets, talked to a few visiting students, and smiled at all the guests. Look, a friendly foreigner! Let's go to this school! :P After classes, we were supposed to have a visiting student to ESS, but they never showed up, so we just sat around chatting and drawing inexpert self-portraits. Well, inexpert except for Nao, who has mad drawing skills.

Sunday, for once the beginning of my weekend, I met my co-worker Kristin at Kyoto station, and we walked to the nearby home of one of our school's English teachers, Waki-sensei. She had kindly invited us over for lunch! To get there, we had to walk through Toji temple, which was holding its monthly crafts market. When we arrived at Waki-sensei's house, we were surprised to find the door opened by Shiroshita-sensei, another English teacher who was apparently joining us! They had both cooked, so there was a selection of sandwiches, pasta salad, and some weird (but good!) little chicken vegetable wrap things, as well as fruit, coffee, and some really nice wine.

Pretty much, the four of us just sat around snacking and chatting for several hours. We had meant to go look around the Toji market, but it started raining like the dickens, so we just stayed where we were.

On the way home, I ran into Joanna Mirsky (who is my new favorite person, because she made me an absolutely awesome mix cd) and Alex Rogals, who are both JETs in the area. We went to a Starbucks and hung out for awhile, which mostly entailed me watching the two of them get into heated and hilarious arguments. Then I went home and watched the movie "Shoot 'Em Up," which I strongly discourage you from doing. Even though it is starring Clive Owen, who I generally like, the film was absolutely unsalvageable. For those of you who can make the comparison, think "Crank."

Monday passed with little of the noteworthy, but on Tuesday I met the aforementioned Joanna and Alex, as well as our friend Neil, for a trip to the city of Nara. (Tuesday was a national holiday for the autumnal equinox, so we didn't have to go to school.) Nara is home to a large temple called Todai-ji, which is in turn home to the Daibutsu. "Daibutsu" means something along the lines of "big buddha," which is exactly what it is -- a humongous buddha statue, so large that a trim person could theoretically fit through its nostril. (I do wonder how they figured that out.) It is surrounded by a bevy of other largish and interesting statues, buddhas and otherwise.

Plus, the whole of the surrounding Nara Park is full of interesting little shrines and shops and, most of all, deer. There are thousands of deer that wander the park unchecked, because they're sacred and can't be harmed. They can, however, be fed, and most vendors around sell crackers specifically for the deer. The deer are now so used to humans and being fed by us that they practically chase people around the park looking for snacks, and don't mind at all if you want to pet them, or take some pictures (which is, of course, exactly what we did).

After some hours of aimless but fruitful wandering, we made our way back to the station and thus back to Kyoto (though we got charged extra for accidentally getting on the super-fast train), where we grabbed dinner before going our separate ways. Already we're trying to decide on our next outing -- I really like the group dynamic we've got going! Huzzah, friends!

Since then, it's class as usual. Next week is the almost school-wide English speech contest, so we are busy checking the kids' memorization and pronunciation. They were more or less allowed to choose their own topic, but many gravitated towards the same sort of themes. All I can say is that hopefully, after this, it'll be a good while before I have to hear anything else about global warming, metabolic syndrome, or smoking.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It is Saturday.

Therefore, I shouldn't even be awake yet. But today we have classes for a thing called "Open School," basically like an open house enticing people to enroll here next year, so I must be here. All day. XP

On the upside, there was a whole mob of my students walking along across the street from me on the way to school today, and when I turned to wish them good morning (in English, of course), they shrieked in excitement like I was a rock star. Thank you, girls. Maybe I'll be okay, after all. :)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

into the swing of things

So, last week's school report! In senior high ESS (English Speaking Society), we were in the cooking room, attempting to make home-made ice cream sandwiches. Through a bit of guess-and-test we managed okay, except that the cookies had no time to cool, and started melting the ice cream on contact. The end result was messy, but delicious. In junior high ESS, we played board games. I had the exciting job of trying to explain the ins and outs of Monopoly in very simple English. Thank goodness the kids were natural game players!

On Thursday I finally encountered what is likely to be my most troublesome class. They aren't bad kids, per se, but they are exceedingly noisy. It's very difficult to teach when no one can hear you, and only half of the students are paying attention. By the end of the period, I understood how teachers must sometimes feel the need to throttle a few teenagers.

I relaxed in my apartment Friday night, and did some cleaning and grocery shopping and such on Saturday. I met the Interac boys at Good Bar for a bit Saturday evening, but nothing too exciting.

At last, on Sunday, I took the train into Kyoto and met my cool friend Joanna at Sanjo (a popular shopping district). We went to a kaitenzushi restaurant, which was extra fun because Joanna had never been before. She's not so into raw fish, so we had a somewhat impromptu round of I-Spy identifying the sushi she could and would eat. Meanwhile, an older Japanese man sitting next to Joanna (we were at the counter) took it upon himself to serve us tea and ginger, not to mention correct my sushi-eating etiquette. For some reason Joanna received no tips; we decided she was either accidentally perfect, or beyond all hope.

After lunch we took the train to Fushimi Inari! Fushimi Inari is an amazing temple that I had visited on my last trip to Japan. It was, in fact, among my favorite places last time. Essentially, Fushimi Inari encompasses an entire mountain with multiple paths winding between small shrines and clustered grave memorials. To top it off, the paths are all lined with hundreds upon hundreds of torii, making everything extra scenic. We had a great time hiking around, though after climbing hundreds of stairs up the mountainside, we were getting a little shaky.

Along the way, Joanna and I chatted about everything from Jane Austen to Errol Flynn to Stargate. It is bordering on eerie, the number of common interests we have. I wish she lived closer to me, so we could hang out more often!

Anyway, after we were thoroughly hot and exhausted from all the hiking around, we went back to Sanjo and took a breather, sitting on the banks of the Kamo River while we waited for Neil to join us. Then the three of us wandered the shopping area searching for something to eat, finally settling on okonomiyaki! The first and only one I've had since returning to Japan. Ah, my Osaka roots...

We shopped around a bit to kill time, took some purikura, and then met my friend Fig from college for karaoke. As always, there were some silly (and nigh shameful) songs involved -- I won't get too specific, but there may or may not have been both some Ace of Base and some Cyndi Lauper. At least I can honestly say that it wasn't my idea.

That night I stayed at Fig's place in Kyotanabe, a suburb southeast of the city. (Though, in the end, I'm not so sure it saved me all that much time.) We had fun, though, and it was nice to hang out with a friend I've known for longer than a month.

Monday was a holiday (no school!), so we returned once more to Sanjo (which, if you haven't already guessed, is pretty much the place to be in Kyoto). There we met a young Japanese woman who works at one of Fig's high schools. Her name is Naoko, she teaches English, and is generally a lovely person. We shopped, Naoko took us to a really nice cake shop, we shopped yet more, and we had a long dinner together. The three of us have tentative plans for a movie night somewhere in the nearish future.

Otherwise, this week has been fairly normal. Class class class ESS class class sleep class class tea ceremony class class class. I have to teach one of my classes alone today, because Hirose-sensei is off in Osaka doing god knows what. It'll be my first solo flight -- wish me luck!

Torii: Traditional orange gateways, often inscribed with some kanji. The ones at Fushimi Inari are mostly paid for by local businesses, who sponsor them for good luck.

Okonomiyaki: Sometimes called Japanese pizza, but that really only makes sense because it's round and flattish. The comparison pretty much ends there. Okonomiyaki is an Osaka specialty made from a base of batter and shredded cabbage, probably with some other minutely chopped vegetables involved in there somewhere. It is fried up with any number of toppings ranging from cheese and corn to beef, shrimp, or squid, and then covered in a sweet sauce reminiscent of barbeque.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

from the mouth of babes

A 16-year-old Japanese girl sums up "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy:

"Nine people get over many trials to throw a ring into a pond."

Well put, miss. Well put.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I love the nightlife, I love to boogie!

Classes on Monday and Tuesday proceeded well, nothing really notable. Over the course of those two days, however, I managed to rack up five hours of overtime staying after school to work on our video project with ESS. (Too bad I don't get paid for overtime!) I, being the local expert on Windows Movie Maker, was charged with the task of putting the final product together, among various other things leading up to that point. Kristin and I put together a very nice and very time consuming display at the back of the Language Lab, where our presentation was held, and shuttled the ESS kids in groups to the A/V room to record their narration.

On Tuesday, in fact, I was at school until after seven, and feeling pretty worn out. Then, as I walked home, this little guy comes roaring up to an intersection on his unnecessarily loud motor scooter, and I am feeling pretty grumpy about it...until he hits the horn, which beeped out the opening strains of the Godfather theme song. Cracked me up!

There were no classes on Wednesday and Thursday -- it was time for the school festival! There was a lot going on. The first-year classes had all done art displays themed around movies. I think the winner was a model recreation of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, and second place was a big mosaic of a scene from Jaws. The second years all did prolonged dance displays, most of which involved pom-poms and boys in skirts. I now have more video of dancing Japanese teenagers than I will probably ever want or need. And the third-year classes all put on plays. The first place winner was an adaptation of the courtroom drama "Twelve Angry Men" (now "Twelve Angry Japanese," as there was only one actual boy in the cast), and second place was a somewhat hurried and edited for time production of the musical Annie. I liked the girl playing Rooster the best -- she did sleazy well. Besides those two, I also quite enjoyed the funny adaptation of the traditional Japanese folk tale Momotaro ("Peach Boy"), and perhaps most of all, their version of Snow White. It was greatly altered -- Snow White, besides being played by a boy in drag, pulled a gun on both the hunter and the seven dwarves when threatened, continually refused to go on a date with the prince, and eventually made up with the evil queen (so that they no doubt continued a joint-reign of terror). One of the funniest parts, though, was when Snow White kept refusing the narrator's attempts to make him go out with the prince, until the narrator finally conceded that Snow White instead "lived happily ever after with the seven dwarfs, the end." The prince, of course, took exception to this, and through some argument, the play continued. Over all, much fun!

Wednesday night, Kristin and I met at seven-thirty to go to the house of a very kind middle-aged woman named Sumiko, who has apparently been teaching Kristin and my predecessor about Japanese tea ceremony and calligraphy. Tea ceremony actually looks more interesting than I had suspected, but as for calligraphy, well. Let's just say that I'm pretty awful at it. Painting never was my medium! Anyways, Sumiko is a very nice lady, and we've arranged to all go on a nature hike together in about two weeks. I look forward to it!

There were no classes on Friday either, due to it being sports day. We got to watch all the students performing various feats, several of which were probably dangerous. It was a lot of fun. What Kristin and I didn't realize ahead of time, though, was that we would be invited to join in the teacher race against the track team! I was in running shorts and a t-shirt, but had worn sandals to school. So, I traded shoes with Hosoi-sensei, who wore my sandals while I ran. What you must keep in mind is that Hosoi-sensei, besides being the section chief of the English department, is a middle aged man. :P He really is a hilarious guy, though. He was announcing during the race, and during my leg of the relay evidently announced that I had come from Atlanta specifically to run. He and I were joking about my skills as a professional athlete -- he made a crack about a triathlon, and I told him I'd run to California, swum to Japan, and then biked to Sonobe.

Anyway, for the rest of the day teachers kept coming up to me and saying enthusiastically in English, "Nice running!" :D

At the end of the day, Kristin and I went to our respective homes for a shower and a change of clothes, and then returned to school at about 6:40. We were having an enkai! Sort of a start-of-the-new-term, hooray-we-successfully-finished-the-school-festival double hitter. It was held at a pretty good restaurant called "Rainbow," where we had a private tatami room for the forty or so teachers who came. Seating was held by lottery; I picked number eight, and sat at the end of one table, across from and next to two teachers I didn't know, and who didn't speak much English. They were friendly, though, and we had a good time talking about Atlanta and baseball and fishing. Eventually we also pulled in the teacher sitting diagonal to me. I hadn't met him either, but recognized him from a picture shown to me by predecessor Stephanie as "Richard Gere-sensei." (As you might guess, he resembles a young, Japanese Richard Gere.)

"Richard Gere-sensei," which she of course never called him to his face, is apparently an English teacher! But me and Kristin don't teach with him, which is why we hadn't met yet. In any event, he's pretty young and rather good looking, and comes to sit by me for awhile after the principal steals his seat. We had a nice chat about language, and time spent abroad, and books.

A few teachers even did some karaoke, including the principal and vice principal! I got promising video footage. After about two, two and a half hours, though, it was time to go. Our friend Eriko (another third year English teacher, with whom we don't actually teach) was kind enough to give Kristin and I rides home. Since I had to get up early on Saturday, I went to bed semi-early (for a weekend night, anyway), at about 11:30. However, I received a rude awakening around 1:30 in the morning, when there was a big crash in my apartment. I came awake with an exclamation and a faux heart attack, thinking I was being somehow attacked or murdered. I fumbled for my glasses, and turned on the light, only to discover that a wall shelf had collapsed. I took a few minutes to rehang it and halfway clean up the mess, before going back to sleep.

Seven o'clock I'm up and moving to get to the train station. An hour into Kyoto, where I meet Sean, Alex, and Alex to hop a train to Osaka. From there, we took a taxi (which was really cheap with the four of us) to Costco for a shopping adventure! The cabby was a hilarious guy who spent most of the drive talking about boxing, and got really excited every time Sean named a fighter. "Osukaa de la Hoya! Ohhhh!"

At Costco, we mostly bought bulk foreign food, which was expensive or difficult to find in your average Japanese grocery. However, we couldn't get anything perishable, because we had to leave the stuff in a locker at the train station for several hours. Sean was funny while we walked around though, because he got excited about everything he saw.

"Oh my god, guys, look at this corn soup!"

"Check out these water bottles, who wants to split them?"

"Oh, yes! They have bay leaves!"

All actual examples. Needless to say, we've all developed a pretty good Sean-impression with which to tease him.

We grabbed lunch at a McDonald's, and then spent a while trying to puzzle out where to catch a taxi back to the station. Miraculously, Sean overheard two people at the bus stop speaking Phillipino, and starts talking to them in the same! (Sean is a Philippino-Chinese-American.) Well, call it instant friends, because by the time we get a taxi, we know it's the girl's birthday and Sean has both of their business cards.

After stowing our shopping at the station and some mild shenanigans finding the correct train, we make it to the Osaka Dome for our next stop: baseball game! We were a few innings late, but quickly joined up with a bunch of other Kyoto JETs, a bit behind third base. It was the Seibu Lions versus the Orix Buffaloes. We were rooting for the home team, the Buffaloes, who lost miserably, 7-1. We had a good time, though.

Next, our now larger group headed to Shinsaibashi, the shopping and nightlife district. We grabbed dinner at a Chinese restaurant and wandered for a bit until 8:30, when we met a crowd of JETs from Hyogo, a nearby prefecture. They were hosting a pub-crawl to introduce the area (called "Osaka Nightlife 101"), and about six of us joined in -- myself, Neil, Mike, Liz, Joanna, and Pat. Over the course of the evening we stopped in at six bars and one so-called "club," though it was so small that I would call it a bar with a dance floor. From about the third or fourth bar onwards we were constantly dancing, so my legs are pretty sore today! But it was probably the best exercise I've had in a while. My favorite new people of the night were Lester, a nice guy from Guam, Yuko, an adorable Japanese girl who'd help put the crawl together, and Gina, a random non-JET New Zealander who'd come along by merit of being friends with the organizer. She was probably in her thirties, and either drunk or a crazy person. She sort of freaked Mike out, but I thought she was hilarious.

In any event, there was much dancing and socializing. At the last club/bar place, I even got pulled out onto the floor by some Japanese guys, but they weren't great dancers, so mostly it was just us making a spectacle at which Mike and Neil laughed a lot. Finally we all dispersed. Me, Mike, and Neil ran into Lester at a convenience store, and then proceeded to get lost on our way to a train station. We found another, though, decided it would work, and sat down on the curb until it opened up for the early morning trains. By now we were all sleepy zombies, but we found our way back to a recognizable train stop and went our various ways. Since I was had to kill a few hours before meeting Alex Ma at Kyoto Station, and was already in the Osaka area, I stopped in at Hirakata, an area I frequented when I studied abroad here two years ago.

I killed some time at Starbucks, and got a maccha frappacino. So delicious! Then, since the book store opened first, I bought a book and sat reading in the park for awhile. While I was there (minding my own business!), this guy wandered over and started talking to me in Japanese. We had a decent conversation, until it became obvious that he was looking for a date rather than a friend, and the conversation ended a trifle awkwardly. Sorry, guy!

I did, however, achieve several of my shopping goals, collecting a pencil case, a water bottle, and a little lunchbox. (So I can stop buying lunch at the convenience store every day, and hopefully save some money!) I also bought a work shirt on sale, and some little cakes for the office, which I intend to bring in tomorrow. Me and Alex Ma met at Kyoto station, he kindly bringing along the bag of Costco stuff that he and Sean had babysat the night before, and caught a train back home together. (Alex lives past me in a town called Fukuchiyama, I think.)

And that's pretty much the end of my story. I got home and fell asleep almost immediately around five, and didn't wake up until it was time to go to work! Finally, a good night's rest!

Enkai: a Japanese office party held at a bar or restaurant, which generally involves a lot of food and a lot of drinking. Karaoke optional.

Maccha: Japanese green tea.

Monday, September 1, 2008

countdown to the school festival

Taught several more classes last week, with variations on the self-intro lesson I already described, or time spent checking students' English speeches. There's a speech contest near the end of September, and everybody is getting ready! I think it's even more fun when I edit a stack of them at my desk in the teachers' room, because I can spend time really sussing out what they're trying to say. I look at it like a puzzle (and sometimes, it really, really is).

Have also been pushing through with the ESS (English club) kids. Some of their drawings look really good (particularly because they seem to have foisted off most of the actual drawing on this one artistic girl Nao, while everybody else just colors). We're getting down to the wire, though, and there's still several things to get done! If they haven't finished the pictures when we meet this afternoon, there might be trouble.

Some friends and I were going to make a little pilgrimage to the beach on Saturday, but it was raining pretty much everywhere within several hours' drive. So we convened at Good Bar on Friday night to rework our plans, and settled on going into Kameoka for bowling et cetera.

The mini-trip was much fun. The group was myself, Nelis, Tim, Brad, Yuki, and Yuki's nice friend Tan. We even ran into Kristin at the train station, so that the entire foreign population of Sonobe (read: five people) just so happened to be standing on the same platform at the same time. Tim dodged out to do some shopping while we bowled, with I and Yuki on one lane, versus the remaining three on another. Though my first game was miserable, I earned the title of 'Most Improved,' while Yuki was the all around MVP. (Followed closely by Brad and Tan, who are also pretty good.)

Then we got purikura and played around in a nearby arcade, where Tim rejoined the gang. Games were played, and we stopped in at the bookstore for a mo, and then we had to get back to Sonobe, because Yuki had an appointment to keep. We did go get dinner, though, at a good little restaurant by the station that I hadn't previously known about. Half of the menu is Korean food! I am excited to go eat chichimi sometime...

Even though it was medium early, we all went home after dinner. I can only attest for myself, but I was feeling pretty tired, for whatever reason.

Yesterday (Sunday), I was productive around the house. I did some laundry (including bed linens), the dishes, unclogged my shower, sorted through (and trashed some of) the precariously large stacks of paper I've acquired since my arrival, vacuumed the living room and my bedroom, took out the trash, and just generally straightened up. I felt like such a good kid by the end of the day, and my bedroom looks soooo much cleaner now! It's nice to sleep in.

Today is back to school, and back to work! One more intro lesson, and some work with the ESS kids this afternoon. In between, I'm also trying to keep tabs on Hurricane Gustav - hope everything turns out okay!