Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

So. Once upon a time, way way back on the 15th of November, I had the last of my Saturday classes with the elementary school kids. I took a picture, but unfortunately only three out of five families could come that day, so I missed a few of our attendees. I'm really glad to have full weekends again (for the first time in almost two months), but I'll also miss those kids a lot. They were always cheerful and enthusiastic -- a nice change from occasionally catatonic high schoolers!

After class, Kristin and I had to sprint to catch a train to Kameoka, because that afternoon was the regional English speech contest, to which both students from our school had gotten through to. They both did a wonderful job, with not a single mistake or sign of nervousness, but somehow, neither made the cut for the next step. Though I don't want to harp on a matter that really upset me at the time, I must say that I in many ways don't agree with the judging. Several of the students chosen for the top five spoke unnaturally, with ridiculous, overlarge gestures, or worse, had noticeable grammar errors in their speeches. (Neither of which were problems our students suffered from.) And just for the record, this isn't entirely my bias as their teacher, because JETs from other high schools also relayed their surprise that neither of our students had made it, so perhaps my surprise is a little justified.

At the time, it just upset me more that Satomi, one of our students who is characteristically reserved, was crying uncontrollably afterwards. We spent ten minutes trying to cheer her up, but she was still teary as she left. Suffice it to say, I was indignant for awhile on her behalf.

But I'd best move on before I get worked up again. That night, Joanna and I met some local JETs in Kameoka for dinner. We went over to Liz's apartment, and she cooked some yummy Japanese curry for the whole group, who besides Joanna and I included Kameoka JETs Phil, Laurel, and Margaret. It was really nice to spend time with them, since besides Nelis and Kristin they are perhaps the closest thing that I have to JET neighbors.

On Sunday the 16th, I woke up early for my first installment of bimonthly trash duty at my apartment complex. Essentially, there are three buildings of three floors each, and every week a different floor is responsible for cleaning up our little garbage hutch. Each apartment on the floor must send at least one representative. Overall, it's a nine week rotation. In the end, I wasn't much help, because I didn't really know what we were doing, and none of the neighbors gave me much guidance. Mostly I just held bags or passed things to people, but it's good that I went, because they took attendance at the end and there's a five thousand yen fine if you have an unexcused absence. (That's about fifty bucks!)

Afterwards, I met Kristin and Sumiko at TASK, a local arts college. They were having an open school day, with food booths, art exhibitions, and even some hands-on activities. We ate lunch, explored the student works, took part in tea ceremony, and even tried our hands at wheel pottery! The pottery was so much fun, and my student helper was really great. (In the time it took Kristin to make three pieces, I made six!) We even got to choose one which they would fire in the kiln and deliver to us for free, though it will probably be a few months before they arrive. Though I ended up really loving all six of the pieces I made, I chose a very round bowl to keep. I can't wait until it's finished!

On Monday, I was visited at work by Amy Lichty, the JET Prefectural Advisor. She observed four of my classes, gave me some advice, and asked questions to see how I was settling in and enjoying life in Japan. I was nervous beforehand, but Amy is a pretty laid back individual, so I think it all turned out alright.

Not too much else to report from school. One interesting tidbit from the past few weeks: we have two exchange students here from Colorado, until December and January, respectively. And somehow, in a building full of native speakers, the staff decided to put ME in charge of teaching them Japanese. So not only am I an English teacher, but I'm now a Japanese teacher, as well! It's fun, but also a little frustrating, because sometimes the preparation for the two Japanese classes we have a week takes as much time as every other class I teach combined. My Tuesdays, in particular, are endlessly hectic trying to be ready for Japanese in 5th period, and I inevitably stay late making worksheets for 1st period Wednesday. Plus, one of the girls is having issues with her homestay family, so we're all scrambling to figure out where to put her for the last two and a half weeks of her time here. If worst comes to worst, it looks like the principal may take her in.

But that's neither here nor there. Both of my E-classes have finally finished their presentations on "James and the Giant Peach," and I'll never be able to look at that story the same way again. At least it's over! What an exhausting project that turned out to be.

This past weekend, though my first full weekend in ages, was remarkably busy. Friday night I straightened up my apartment a little and dragged out my kotatsu, a table covered with a blanket that houses a heater on the underbelly, so that your legs and middle are warmed when you sit at it. It is a wonderful invention, and I think I may just live under that blanket for the rest of the winter! Alas, for central heating!

On Saturday, I got up early to meet Nelis, Liz, Phil, and Laurel in Kameoka for a boat ride down the Hozu River. The scenery was really nice, as the river winds its way through the mountains between Kameoka and Arashiyama. Many of the leaves had begun to turn, and the weather was unusually sunny and temperate relative to the chill we've had recently! We all took about two hundred (extraneous) pictures of trees.

We didn't end up spending much time in Arashiyama, as it is absolutely choked with tourists right now, and the crowds were maddening. Instead, we hopped the train back up to Kameoka, grabbed lunch, and did a little shopping. The group broke up to various engagements, but I was joined in Kameoka by Joanna. We set up camp in a cute little cafe for about an hour and a half, chatting about various things. Mostly, we've taken to talking about various writing projects we're working on in our respective spare time, as it turns out we have similar taste and a similar penchant for fiction writing. It's nice, because even waiting in the cold for a train, we can turn the wait into an impromptu writers' workshop, and the story I'm playing with at present is already growing by leaps and bounds thanks to Joanna's seemingly endless supply of insightful questions.

On Sunday, I met Fig and her mother, who was just wrapping up a visit to Japan, in Osaka for lunch. We wandered around Shinsaibashi, did a little bit of Christmas shopping, and had some great okonomiyaki. (Nobody does it like Osaka!) Then I met Joanna and Alex Rogals to go see some bunraku, Japan's traditional puppet theater. I had seen it once before during my study abroad, but it's a pretty interesting art form, and I was glad to have the chance to see it again! It's a very detailed and beautiful type of theater, I think.

Monday was a national holiday -- Japan's equivalent of Labor Day, I believe -- so I got the day off. I didn't accomplish much, though, apart from getting breakfast with the neighbor family I have befriended and then falling asleep under my heated table for much of the afternoon. If I'm not careful, I'll come to spend all my time at home hibernating, just to fight off the cold!

Otherwise, not too much is going on. I've finally started studying Japanese with some focus in the past week or two, because our first test for the JET correspondence course is coming up. It's sometimes difficult to make myself study at home, but I occasionally have enough free time at work that I can work on it during off periods.

Some of the kids in town are going out for an expensive turkey dinner tonight, but I have no special plans for Thanksgiving... unless you count washing the dishes and going to the convenience store to pay my gas bill. (In Japan, instead of paying via mail, almost every bill is payable at your local 7-11 or Lawson's.) I'm not too broken up about it, though. Christmas will be a little sad, but fortunately I have travel plans to keep me afloat...

Because over Christmas, Joanna and I are going to SOUTH KOREA! Specifically, we are going to stay with my college roomie Juli Jones for about a week, so it'll be a holiday of adventures and familiar faces. (Juli is teaching English near Seoul, like the Korean equivalent of JET!) Something to look forward to over the next three or so weeks of school until the break.

Anyway, though, I hope all you folk at home have a lovely holiday weekend, and eat some extra turkey for me! Tryptophan is my drug of choice. :)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

smelling the roses

So, it occurs to me (usually when I'm walking around town, seeing things first-hand, or otherwise away from the convenience of a computer) that with all the time I spend relating my (often banal) adventures here, I've done very little of detailed or expressive description. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a true shame, because this is not a vacation - it is everyday life, and I think that in many ways it is the quiet beauties that really breathe life into the everyday.

So let me try to break it down a little.

Sonobe. Sonobe in some ways defies explanation. It is the border between city and countryside, a patchwork layout of cheesy apartment aesthetic and stunning traditional architecture. There are a few main thoroughfares, and a myriad of quiet lanes, my favorite of which is a back street between my apartment and my school, which lined by trees, gardens, and even a little rice field or two.

Autumn has finally come, and with it, a change in the weather. When I wake up in the morning, blearily rolling off a flat futon and padding across tatami covered floors, there is a nine out of ten chance that the world behind my windows will be covered with fog. Sonobe is almost completely surrounded by mountains, one of which looms beyond my balcony, but often the mist is so thick that the mountain, though nearby, disappears in its entirety.

It is often cool when I set out for school just after eight o'clock, though it's generally even cooler in the evenings. Early in my walk I pass a simple railing, on which several spiders have made their webs. The webs always glisten with dew, so clearly visible and crystalline that it's almost surreal. They look like decorations for Halloween or even Christmas, but for the abrupt shock of finding an actual, and often uncomfortably large spider presiding in the center.

On Wednesday nights, I make the solitary trek from my tea ceremony instructor's home back to my apartment, usually between 10 and 10:30. I take my favorite lane back, and in its quiet I become so engrossed staring upwards that one of these days I'll probably walk into one of the ditches lining the road. In Sonobe, set back from larger cities, you can see more stars on that shady lane than I ever see in Decatur. My favorite nights are the just slightly cloudy ones, the misty dark of the clouds making the visible stars twinkle all the brighter. There is a feeling of closeness to the heavens, like if I took off running I could outrace gravity and leap into the sky.

The relative darkness of Sonobe also lends itself to the full moon. Walking along that same path beneath a full moon, everything is clearly illuminated in its pale light, so bright you could read your watch by it. Every shadow is strictly defined by the light's silver edge, every detail visible but wan. The moon shines so brightly that it always seems as if I've wandered onto a quiet, empty movie set, where they are imitating the moon and overdoing it.

Sonobe is really amazing in the little ways.

Friday, November 7, 2008

unexpected windfall!

As I mentioned before, this year is my high school's 120th anniversary, so there have been various little goings-on. Today, fifth and sixth period were preempted by a ceremony with an alumni guest speaker.

So, there we are, in the gym, and this guy is on stage talking about who-knows-what in Japanese. I'm only catching every third word, until he plays a video on the projector. The video is a timeline of his work, and suddenly I know EXACTLY who he is.

SHIGERU MIYAMOTO. Oh my god, he is an alumni of my school. Shigeru Miyamoto, inventor of Super Mario, Nintendo guru, and granddaddy of all video games existing today. SHIGERU MIYAMOTO CAME TO MY SCHOOL AND I MET HIM FACE TO FACE. Shook his hand, had a conversation! Thanked him for being awesome and enriching my childhood!

And I thought today would be a normal Friday! :D