Friday, October 31, 2008

time flies

Has it really been two weeks? Really? Looks like I need to play catch up, and they've certainly been a busy two weeks!

Saturday the 18th, my coworker (and fellow JET) Kristin hosted Canadian Thanksgiving at her apartment. It was a potluck type affair, comprised of her, myself, Miho (the cooking teacher), and Nakatani-sensei (one of our English teachers). We spent several hours just chatting and eating a really nice meal, with everything from tomato basil pizza to salad to parmesan curry chicken (SO GOOD) and even some nice homemade crackers and dip. It was nice to have a home-cooked meal, in some fashion. And Nakatani-sensei was kind enough to give me a ride home afterwards.

Friday the 24th was something of an accidental adventure. Fig had previously introduced me to one of her fellow teachers, a young woman named Naoko, and Friday was Naoko's boyfriend's birthday. I met them briefly in Sanjo, though it took so long to get there that I missed most of dinner. When Fig and I finally left, we split up in Sanjo station to board our respective train lines. When I reached mine, however, I discovered that I had missed my last train by about a minute! Hurriedly, I ran back to Fig's line and jumped on a train, sending her a desperate text message to let her know I was following her, so please wait somewhere!

I knew that I'd have to get off at Tambabashi station to change trains, and hoped that I wasn't about to get stranded their for the rest of the night. Fortunately, Fig was there, and there were still trains running to her stop (Shin-Tanabe). So we ended up having an impromptu slumber party, Fig being kind enough to let me stay at her place.

The next day we got up on the early side, because I had to be back in Sonobe by about noon to get to a school function at 1:00, and it takes a really long time to get from Fig's house to mine. (On the upside, this was the only Saturday I had off during the run of our elementary school Saturday classes, so it was my good luck not to have to be back in Sonobe by 8:00!) Including walking time and train changes, around two and a half hours, I'd say. I stopped only to pick up some cat ears for a halloween costume that night, otherwise breezing through Sanjo and getting back to Sonobe just in time to inhale lunch and change into work clothes for my school's 120th Anniversary Celebration thing.

Which turned out not to be such a big deal. Most of the teachers weren't even there, which rankled a little with Kristin and I, because when we asked whether we needed to be there, we had been told to show up. What we got was literally two hours of speeches in Japanese, which we could barely understand, much less care about or benefit from.

On the upside, the speeches were followed by an hour-long performance by Takigawa Maiko, a locally famous enka singer. I'd encountered enka before -- when I was living in Japan two years ago, my host grandmother and I sometimes watched it on TV together -- but I hadn't had the opportunity to catch a live show. It's a very theatrical and entertaining genre, if not generally my style of music. (And by theatrical, let me just say this: Kristin and I came to the common conclusion that enka singers shared certain mannerisms with lounge singers. Vegas meets Japan?)

When it was over, I had another hurried flight back to my apartment, where I threw things in a bag and changed into my Halloween costume (more of a Halloween outfit, really), before racing my butt to the station. (If you hadn't noticed, I spent this particular weekend running pretty much everywhere I went, because my schedule was so tight. I wish that were more of an exaggeration.)

I rode the trains all the way back out towards Fig's place, getting off two stops early at Terada station, where I met Fig and her coworker Ashley. We joined some other local JETs at a costume-mandatory party at Guys Bar, a local hangout. Fig was a pirate (though lackluster in comparison to her usual getup), Ashley a gypsy, and I a black cat. Other notables include Steve, whose gorilla monster mask suited him far too well, two Japanese boys dressed in drag who we mistook for actual girls for several hours, and the DJ, who made a very convincing Michael Jackson. Basically we just met people and chatted, and watched a pretty rad dance competition towards the end of the night. I think that the two girls doing karate-inspired dance was the best (plus, they were dancing to my favorite song from the soundtrack of the 2003 Zatoichi movie), but the post-danceoff freestyle break dancers were also pretty sweet. Especially the one who kept putting his hat on me.

There were lots of nice people there, from one Japanese girl who spoke such perfect English that I mistook her for a JET (she grew up in the states), to Yoshi, a twenty-something guy who wrote down some book recommendations for me on a torn bit of cardboard. It was, overall, a good evening -- even the part where we got lost on the way back to the station. We got back to Fig's somehow! :)

Once again on Sunday morning, I had to get up and get back to Sonobe for previous engagements. You see, earlier that week, I had been walking home from work, minding my own business, when someone called in English, "Excuse me!" Now, I live at the end of the street inhabited by young families, where there are approximately eight hundred small children between the ages of 3 and 10. Everyday I walk by and see the happy children, along with their mothers, and wish I had some opening gambit with which to meet some of my neighbors. But almost three months in, and I still didn't know anybody. So imagine my surprise and delight to see a (really cute) young woman with two small children, waving me over. As soon as she established that I spoke Japanese, she explained that she wanted to learn English, and did I have time to visit sometime? So we exchanged contact information, and via email, arranged for me to visit her house for tea at three o'clock that Sunday.

I took some cookies with me as a gift (as Japanese protocol demands), and showed up to tea that day, only to discover I was not just spending time with Juri-san (the wife), but also with her husband (who may or may not be named Mitsuru) and her two small children (Yuu, a girl aged 3, and Haru, a boy aged 1). Essentially, we introduced ourselves and chatted in a combination of English and Japanese, and they invited me to stay for dinner, and I played with the kids. One of the best parts was when, after deciding that I was not a scary monster, Yuu sat me down and systematically explained every picture book she could shove into my willing hands. This worked out well, as I apparently have just the right amount of Japanese to converse easily with a three-year-old.

I was definitely on cloud nine when I walked home that evening, filled with glee and success at having finally made friends in my neighborhood -- and they are definitely wonderful people! When I admitted that I'm a pretty poor cook, Juri-san even gave me two packs of Japanese noodles to make at home, explaining how to cook them.

So now we are at last Monday, the 27th. It was a busy start to an equally chaotic week. Our school was playing host to a visiting teacher from England, named Oliver Wells. His school (Westminster Academy) and ours had a tentative letter exchange in the works, and he came to set up some more specific project goals for the relationship. He was a nice enough fellow, though he did have something of a tendency to bulldoze over other people during meetings, and it was obvious that his concerns were firmly seated with his own students and their benefits. Which is as it should be, really, but it was sometimes difficult for us to form a compromise. On the upside, though, he was a youngish guy (28, the same age as Kristin, actually), so he seemed to feel a certain camaraderie with Kristin and I.

Plus, his coming gave us an excuse to have a little dinner outing on Monday, with him, myself, Kristin, Hosoi-sensei (who I adore), and the principal and vice principal (who are both named Mori). It was then that I discovered that the principal has a love for making terrible puns in Japanese, and is generally a hilarious guy. I don't know if I've made this entirely clear, but I love my coworkers. They are all great and distinctive people, and I want to bring them all home with me when the time comes. But anyway, as for Oliver wells, he was hanging about all week while we were busy getting ready for SELHi.

Oh, SELHi. That was an adventure. We've been running top speed in our E classes to prepare our projects on "James and the Giant Peach" for the dreaded SELHi open house. I had extra classes with E-3 almost every day last week, getting ready for the big event. And Thursday night, we were all at school later than usual making print outs and packets and generally getting everything perfectly prepared. I feel for the full-time teachers, who were probably here a lot longer than we were. It was all pretty stressful. There was also fun throughout the week, though, as we did several Halloween-themed classes with the junior high kids, and in junior high ESS we made some really tasty mini pumpkin cheesecakes. I don't usually dig cheesecake, but these were decidedly good! I have, in fact, ferreted out the recipe for future attempts.

The SELHi presentation itself also went decently well, I think. There were around 70 guest teachers wandering the halls, moving from class to class to observe. The E-3 students were quieter than usual, probably hyper-aware of being observed, but it was quieter in a good way. (They do tend to be a little rowdy and distracted usually.) They were, in fact, very cooperative, so much that I think I might take them a treat on Thursday.

Friday night, there was also the post-SELHi, hooray-we-made-it-through-somehow staff party. We went to a really nice restaurant in Yagi, and just sat around eating and socializing for several hours. It was a really nice time. I ended up sitting between Ueda-sensei (one of my team teachers, who is a young woman the same age as me) and the cute young music teacher that sits near us in the staff room. I forget his name. And across from me was Takemura-sensei, also a young female teacher, and coincidentally the teacher with whom I manage E-3, so we could really share our relief that the presentation had gone well.

The next morning were Saturday classes as usual, and then meeting Joanna and Neil in Uji to go visit Byodoin, the famous temple featured on one side of the ten yen coin. It was smaller than some sites I have visited, but for some reason I found it particularly beautiful. It probably helps that it was a stunning day, bright and sunny and surprisingly warm. There was even a nice little museum, with a very interesting collection of Buddhist statuary. We took a whole lot of pictures.

Saturday night was our normal routine -- friends and karaoke at Sanjo. Alex's girlfriend, Louise, was visiting from the States; she seemed decent. Neil and I spent the night with Joanna, then went out for lunch and a little bit of shopping on Sunday afternoon. I picked up a cuddly scarf and some more cookies to take with me that evening, when I returned for a second time to Juri-san's house. She enlisted my help in making okonomiyaki (which is nice, because now I know how to make okonomiyaki), which was delicious. She even gave me three extra to take home, all of which I happily ate yesterday.

And that, hopefully, is the extent of it. There are plans on the horizon, but this week is shaping up to be quiet compared to those that have just gone by, and that's fine by me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

yoi yoi yoi yoi

So, this weekend was fun, the first half being nonstop action and the second half being largely chill.

Saturday morning, Kristin and I had our first elementary school class. Those kids were so cute and enthusiastic! It almost makes me wish I had been assigned to junior/elementary instead of junior/senior. Even better, the parents participated even in our silliest of activities. They were all really good sports about it, especially this one father named Seiji, who was really funny and really good with his daughter.

After classes I ran a few errands to the post office, bank, and grocery store, returning to my apartment only to eat lunch and pack a bag before heading into Kyoto. I met Joanna way on the other side of the city, in a town called Momoyama. It was time for their autumn festival, and we'd been kindly invited to participate! The invitation was levied by Ono-sensei, a nice teacher from Joanna's school who resembles my friend Will, if Will were fifty or sixty years old and Japanese.

We were also joined by Amy, Chris, Rob, and a handful of people I didn't know (who I believe were named Simon, Thomas, and Matt.) Ono-sensei led us to an apartment complex, where a bunch of people were gathering, and we changed into festival clothes. (Luckily for the girls, all we had to do was put on jackets and headbands. The boys had to go all out!) After a few speeches and a sake toast, the group from our complex gathered in the street and set off for a covered shopping arcade that led up to the shrine.

It's difficult to describe what exactly was going on in our pseudo-parade. There were children with brightly decorated umbrellas, men dancing precariously with umbrellas literally the size of a car, and one traveling shrine topped with three of said car-sized umbrellas, which a whole group of men had to carry on their shoulders and dance around with. This last is the group our boys were impressed into, and it looked like no easy business. Meanwhile, we girls just got to trail along in our blue jackets, shouting along with rousing but ultimately meaningless chants of "YOI YOI YOI YOI." There was much bobbing and bouncing and even some destruction of the three-tiered umbrella float, though that wasn't exactly intentional.

Made several more acquaintances along the way, including another teacher from Joanna's school named Mitsuoka-sensei. Remarkably, it turns out that she's good friends with one of my English teachers, Nakatani-sensei. (Who is actually one of my favorite teachers to work with!)

When the dances and displays were over, we went back to the apartment complex for a sort of night-time picnic. Our group ended up sitting around the edges of a sandbox, watching adorable kids come down the slide and eating the best curry ever. EVER. I was pleased to have the opportunity to use my Japanese some, which has been unexpectedly rare thus far. Also talked a bit with Thomas, who was from Switzerland, and amused him with my very poor German. Very, very poor. (I did, however, almost manage to make him snarf his drink with surprise at one point, and felt very accomplished indeed.)

Joanna and I have decided to start a band called Swiss Army Thomas, except that neither of us play instruments.

I stayed at Joanna's apartment Saturday night, and on Sunday we wandered over to Sanjo, where we met my friend John for lunch. I have actually known John since kindergarten; he's lived on my street in Atlanta for some twenty years or so. We couldn't really decide what to do with ourselves, so we actually just spent most of the afternoon wandering around Sanjo, shopping or sitting by the river. There was a little orchestra playing some amazing jazz at the riverside. It amazes me that there is always some performance group doing something wacky down there! What a perfect hangout!

Eventually Alex joined us, and we went and had Indian food for dinner. I had really only had Indian food maybe once before, at age nine, when I really didn't like it that much. I have seen the light now, though; turns out that Indian food is absolutely delicious. I want to go there every day!

As usual, this was followed by karaoke, some purikura, et cetera before John and I followed Joanna home to once again crash at her place. Monday morning (yet another national holiday) was something of a bust; we slept too long to go see this parade thing we'd been planning on, and the flea market we went to was really crowded and full of old clothes that we didn't want to buy. Needless to say, we didn't stay long.

Instead, I went back to my apartment, straightened up a little (though actually, it was already really clean), did some laundry. An older gentleman came by to install my internet, which he theoretically did as there are now routers and business beside my phone jack, but I haven't been able to effectively set it up on the computer end yet. The instructions are all in Japanese, and worse, full of kanji. (CANNOT READ.) Sometime soon, when I get the patience and inclination worked up, I'll sit down with my kanji dictionary and see if I can't suss it out. Boy, this is a labor-intensive process!

The only thing notable from yesterday was that we had the finals and picked the two winners of the school-wide speech contest. Second place was a girl I didn't really know, but one was this guy Yosuke, who is really sweet! I couldn't get over how proud I was of him for coming in first place. He looked so surprised. :)

Sometimes I love my students.

Friday, October 10, 2008

drifting along, singing a song...

So last Saturday was my buddy Alex's birthday. He got reservations at a yakiniku restaurant in Sanjo, where about twelve or so of us met in the evening. We had a good time chatting and eating -- I ended up between Sean and Neil, which is a recipe for fun.

Afterwards we went and chilled by the banks of the Kamo River, which is really pleasant in the evenings. Also there was a group of hilarious Japanese hippies having a drum circle with big African drums, which we watched for awhile. As they really got into it, some of the hippies pulled out some batons and other implements which they set on fire and twirled around. It was entertaining, in a dangerous amateur sort of way. The first guy had these sort of flaming nunchaku, which briefly set his dreadlocks on fire, and the second guy (who was for some reason only wearing a very flowy, obviously-meant-for-females skirt) managed to set his skirt on fire. Neither of them was hurt, and the performance just kept on going, but it was pretty funny in retrospect.

I spent a good portion of our time by the river running around to different friends and taking what we all identify as "MySpace photos" -- pictures where you hold the camera away from yourself and try to squeeze into the shot, while aiming the camera by guesswork. First we would do a smiley one, immediately followed by the classic MySpace emo shot.

Sunday...well, I don't actually remember doing much of anything on Sunday. Washing dishes, maybe. I don't know.

Normal classes on Monday and Tuesday, followed by these three long days of mid-term exams for the students. We had very little do help with during exams -- mostly just showing up in certain classes and reading things aloud for listening comprehension -- so much of these three days has been spent trying not to fall asleep or pass away from boredom. On the upside, we've gotten some good work in on various projects and worksheets, as well as readied the lesson plan and materials for our Saturday classes, which begin tomorrow. (Though this is a junior and senior high school, Saturday English classes are offered for five weeks in autumn for elementary schoolers and their parents. I think we have a grand total of 12 people, apparently up from three or so last year.)

Last night Phil, a JET in Kameoka, just happened to be in Sonobe for an office party, so I agreed to meet him afterwards for a quick drink and mini-tour around town. However, he didn't finish his party until after nine, which meant we had to hurry. I managed to meet him at the train station at 9:30, get him to Good Bar around 9:50, swing him by to have a look at my apartment at quarter to eleven, and get him back to the station by 11:15 for the last train to Kameoka. I think that over the course of the "tour," if you include the solitary trips to and from the station to meet Phil and see him off again, probably amounted to three or four miles. By the time I got home at 11:30, I was a tired puppy.

We did have fun, though, especially when we were greeted at Good Bar by a humorously drunk stranger that took pains to introduce us around.

I'm working on getting photos and stuff uploaded, so hopefully in the next post I can give you guys some links to actually see what I've been hopelessly rambling about all this time. I get (legit) internet at my apartment on Monday! Huzzah!

Yakiniku: Essentially, you are brought various plates of meat (beef, pork, chicken, etc.) which you cook yourself on a little grill in the surface of your table. You eat them with different dipping sauces, salad, and rice. The meals are generally large and somewhat pricey, but delicious!

Nunchaku: Or "nunchucks," as were common in bad karate films from the late 80s and early 90s. See: Three Ninjas.

Emo: For the record, this is slang, not Japanese. Emo is a recent and oft-mocked social movement embodied by pop-punk bands like My Chemical Romance. It is (over?)generalized as moody tweens, teens, and twenties who feel persecuted, wear a lot of eyeliner, and always look sullen in photographs.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

let it all out

It's official: there is only one class I teach that has the ability to make me truly dispirited, and that is class E-3.

Today we were making acrostic poetry in simple English, using words about autumn. The assignment seemed pretty popular with the students in E-1, which I found encouraging, as they are sometimes distractible. They wrote some really nice poems, as well as some really clever ones! It made me really, really happy. So I was (foolishly?) optimistic for E-3, even though I know they are my most challenging class.

Let's just say it went over like a lead balloon. A handful of students accomplished something like a poem, but some students just didn't understand (though I had Hosoi-sensei explain it in Japanese, so they really have no excuse but inattention), and some students ignored the assignment altogether. At one point, I think five people were sleeping.

This is extra frustrating because I can't really do anything to them. I have seen no evidence of disciplinary measures beyond chiding, and I have even less authority because I'm really just an assistant teacher. So I just continually harass them to do their work, which is tiring to me, annoying to them, and largely ineffective in E-3.

They aren't bad kids (necessarily), but they mostly don't care about English and lack any motivation. I'm a bit stumped as to what to do with them.

To add insult to injury, this was a test run for possible SELHi activities. (See the prior post for details.) This is the class I have to teach in front of guests and peers, and the class where nothing I've done has worked so far. I am suddenly less than optimistic.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

too many speeches

Last weekend was a blur, spent mostly (as always) at Sanjo. Friday night we met for karaoke. Saturday, Fig and I did some shopping (wherein I spent too much money, but buying things I mostly needed, like cardigans) and then met my buddies for yet more karaoke. We like to sing and all, but we're beginning to run out of songs! We did manage to discover that we have almost the perfect range of voices to perform songs by the B-52's, though I'm not sure if that's awesome or scary. (Probably awesome. The way he sings, Alex Rogals pretty much IS the male B-52. It's hilarious.)

On Sunday, instead of sleeping in (as is always tempting), I got up even earlier than usual and hauled my sleepy self to the park next to my school by 8 a.m., where a crowd was congregating! The crowd was actually a tour group taking buses up to the town of Miyama for an 8km (roughly 5 mile) hike. Parenthetically, Miyama is famed for its abundance of thatched-roof houses, preserving a more traditionally rustic Japanese aesthetic. We managed a few photos during rest stops before and after the hike.

Anyway, I and my coworker, Kristin, had been invited along by Sumiko, the lovely Japanese woman who teaches us tea ceremony and calligraphy on Wednesdays. (For FREE.) There were about 130 people all together, most of them middle aged women. We divided into groups and tackled the mountain trail -- which contained a few feats of questionable safety -- with gusto! It was by far the coldest day since I've arrived in Japan, not to mention damp, but we had a good time. It felt nice to really get out and do something, and by that I mean something that didn't involve eating or shopping or neon lights. I was really tired by the time we got back to Sonobe just after five o'clock, but it was a good kind of tired. The weariness of productivity.

On the downside, since I was too busy this weekend to clean, my apartment is a mess. A really big mess. All I've managed so far is half of the dishes. Bad Anna!

This week at school has been speech contest, speech contest, and more speech contest. We judged speeches for six and a half periods on Monday and four yesterday, managing around 150 speeches altogether, I think. I am SO SO TIRED of speeches. Twelve more to go on Friday, but otherwise we can put this stage behind us! (Alas, the specter of the contest will live on, because next is the school contest, then the area contest, then prefectural contest...assuming our students get that far, of course.) Once we've picked out two kids to represent our whole school in the area contest, apparently Kristin and I will be spending a LOT of time at lunch and after school prepping them. And I mean a LOT. Ah, well. C'est la vie!

In other news, I just noticed that the decently young music teacher that sits across from Kristin is wearing a pastel pink sweater vest today. Tee hee!

The next big thing on our plates is an event called SELHi (Super English Learning Highschool) Open Class. Since we are one of the aforementioned SELHis, we have to have an open-house school on a Saturday for teachers from other schools and representatives from the Kyoto Prefectural Board of Education to come and observe our classes. It's a little nerve-wracking, especially since in I and Kristin's cases they'll be observing our most difficult and recalcitrant students. (Figures.)