Sunday, September 29, 2002
Fun with trains
This weekend, my last long one for a while, was rather more eventful than intended. What I thought was going to happen was I would wander the more touristy sights of Sendai with Danola for a few hours Friday afternoon, come home, eat dinner, and then cross-stitch while watching a nicely un-dubbed James Bond movie on TV; do nothing on Saturday; go to a picnic outing thing in Shiogama on Sunday; and then do nothing again on Monday. That’s not quite what happened.
On Friday at noon, I met Danola at the “banana man,” more conventionally known as the statue of Date Matsumune in Sendai Station. From there, we went to the other side of the station from normal, to give Danola a change of scene and check out the larger, multi-storied Starbucks I had discovered. We had “lunch” of chocolate scones and coffee while sitting at the upper floor window. Then we were distracted by Laox for a bit before we could go back through the station and out the other side again. Danola has broken both her main light fixtures, and wanted to look at new ones. What she actually ended up getting was a Winnie the Pooh mug. And we discovered the cutest bento boxes for transporting lunch to school in, which I would have been tempted by, if I ever actually made myself lunch.
Eventually, though, we truly got started on our trek to see the site of Sendai Castle, on the far western edge of downtown Sendai, very close to the International Center. Halfway there, we discovered the other foreign food store in Sendai, where the prices on normal things aren’t as good, but they have a larger baking section, including Betty Crocker mixes, and a far wider selection than ever seen before in Japan of Haagen Dazs ice cream. We vowed to stop again on our way back. Then we really did go to the castle site.
The castle site was not very impressive. Pretty much all that’s left are the fortification walls, and we couldn’t even see them, because they were all under construction. Where the castle itself used to be, there is now a nice, but obviously modern, temple, and a big tourist shop, full of a tour group of Japanese-Americans from California. We did find Hello, Kitty keitai bangles with Kitty dressed as Date Matsumune, which was amusing. Other than that, it wasn’t very exciting, so we didn’t stay long. On our way back down the hill, we went through the gardens at the Sendai City Museum, out past the very cute ducks in the pond, and ended up right across the street from the International Center. Danola wanted to email her brother, so in we went, and I can now say that I have been to the International Center. Oh, I did find out that they will supply free, English speaking, all-day guides for showing people around Sendai, which is very cool.
After that, Danola convinced me that I should come to her house to watch James Bond, because she would fix me dinner and we could eat ice cream and make it a party. I was easily swayed. I will do nearly anything for someone who will cook for me. So we stopped back by Meidi-ya, got the ice cream (as well as some other things like instant oatmeal and, brace yourself for the joy, granola bars!), and then went back to, you guessed it, Sendai Station.
On our way to the ticket machines, a very strange thing happened. We were stopped by an overly pierced, non-Japanese guy about an inch shorter than me, who nonetheless spoke fluent Japanese, and was very intently trying to tell/ask me something. At first I thought he thought I was someone he knew. Instead, it turns out that he was 1) convinced I was from S. America, 2) convinced I was about 18 years old, 3) from Brazil, and 4) just wanted to hit on me. Danola now says she can’t take me anywhere. I am starting to wonder if I have a sign over me that encourages truly strange gaijin men in Japan. I also discovered that I am not used to having anyone look me in the face for that long anymore. He was staring at me very intently. It was rather weird. I was just as happy to be buying a train ticket for a town I don’t actually live in, in case he wanted to follow us.
We got to Shiogama without incident, though, and Danola did indeed make me a lovely dinner of vegetarian curry, since she eats no meat on Fridays. It turns out that she didn’t get the channel with the James Bond movie on it, so instead we just amused ourselves by talking, and Sharon came over after work, too. Oh, and we experimented with making Betty Crocker mix-brownies in a microwave that insists that it’s also an oven. We did eventually get the oven function to work, but it turns out that it really is important for the turn table to actually be able to properly rotate the pan. They turned out kind of burned on one half and pleasantly sticky on the other, but it was all edible, even if not up to my high standards of baked goods. Around 11 pm, though, I decided I should go home.
This would have been fine, except I turned the wrong way at the bridge to get back to the train station and walked a ways down the wrong street before I realized my mistake and doubled back. This meant that I missed the train I’d been aiming for, but I figured another one would be along in about half an hour or so. Unfortunately, I was wrong. 3 other trains went by going in the opposite direction, but none back into Sendai. I waited for an hour, and then at 12:30, went back to Danola’s, where I was given hot tea and sympathy, and a very willing bed for the night. Hence, fun with trains.
On Saturday, we woke up to very persistent, heavy rain. It wasn’t a day that inspired much activity. Around lunch time, Danola decided we should go to McDonald’s, as she had received a vision of a cheeseburger in the shower that morning, but on our way out, Alex, who lives next door to her, saw us and was, in typical vegetarian fashion, horrified by the idea of McDonald’s. He then insisted on making us pancakes and hash browns instead. I am now seriously considering moving to Shiogama and commuting to school. After lunch, Danola and I really did go into town, where we found the un-dubbed section of the video store and rented “Chocolat.” From there, Danola went to check on her electronic money transfer started earlier in the week, and I went to the train station to come back to Sendai long enough to shower, change clothes, get new clothes for the next day, and go back to Shiogama. Oh, and take an antihistamine, because I had been sneezing all day. Riding the train is fun when half-drugged, though I did discover that it is 90 yen more expensive to connect to the train directly from the subway than it is to exit the subway, enter the station, and buy your ticket there, which I might have realized had I been a bit more with it. All part of my trian-filled weekend, though. I was back at Danola’s for dinner, and then we watched Johnny Depp pretend to be Irish, snug inside, while it continued to be drizzly out in the wider world.
Sunday dawned bright, sunny, and freakishly warm, which was good, as it was the day of the picnic outing. Tanya, the CIR (Coordinator of International Relations) in Shiogama, had contacted the other JETs about this things being done by the international association, and I ended up going, too. We and all the other gaijin in Shiogama, and some from Sendai, too, were taken for a ferry ride to an island in the bay, where we had “lunch and friendship time,” lunch being excellent bento boxes, and then taken on a little hike around the island before returning to the mainland. I met a family from Michigan and a nice Japanese lady who said she would have her American friend call me about karate classes. (Still working on it.) Upon returning to Shiogama, the group of JETs (me, Danola, Sharon, Graham, Tanya, and Jonas), along with one of Danola’s teachers from school, went to Mister Donut, for, ever so originally, coffee and doughnuts. There, a long and complicated discussion of Japanese dating practices and public displays of affection took place. It turns out that many JETs just don’t know much about Japanese culture before getting here, so the total lack of physical contact is startling, as well as the idea that the Japanese never say “I love you” or anything of the like, especially not in public. The poor Japanese teacher was trying her best to explain, and I helped, much to her relief, but Graham mostly just sat there being English and turning red. It was all very amusing. And then, late in the afternoon, I finally returned home for real, where I made myself a very piddly dinner, compared to what Danola had been feeding me, and discovered that they were replaying the James Bond movie, so I could sit and cross-stitch to that after all. And now it is Monday, which is going as planned, meaning I am doing absolutely nothing.
Dana Watson 9:22 PM
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
Weirdness from Japan
Yesterday, I saw advertised on TV mascara for one’s eyebrows. Let’s hear it for the Japanese attention to detail that they want their eyebrows to at least match their blatantly dyed hair.
Speaking of dyed hair, this afternoon I saw a woman in her 50s or 60s with the front part of her otherwise normal conservative short haircut dyed bright purple.
There are no less than 9 vending machines on the first block of my street as I come back from work. 6 are drink machines, 3 are cigarettes.
I have now tried white peach flavored Fanta, and it is very sweet. I’m not sure it’s my favorite one, especially after having had real peach nectar in Chile. Everything else peach-flavored pales mightily in comparison.
Dachshunds on their own may look funny, but they look even funnier in clothes.
For such a technology-focused society, the Japanese have a written language remarkably ill-suited to typing. I have impressed any number of people at work with my ability to touch type. (Imagine what they would think if they could see Mark, who actually does it properly.) They have to type in a word, watch it change from letters to kana to kanji, and then pick the proper kanji out of the offered list if there's more than one choice. Also, the younger generation is forgetting how to write kanji, because they can just pick it from the computer screen.
TV shows here, especially news ones and ones with pop stars singing, are all subtitled, even though the people are speaking and singing in Japanese. Someone speculated that this was to encourage more people to recognize kanji for words that they may otherwise never see, but hear frequently.
Dana Watson 4:07 AM
Dissent amongst the ranks
I now have proof that the teachers at Mukaiyama are not as accepting of their situation as previously thought. There have been complaints! *gasp*
I mentioned that I had gotten to leave work early last Friday because Minami was having exams. Well, Mukaiyama is having exams all of this week, and all of the teachers have to stay, including me, until 4 pm, just like every day. Apparently, this was not always the case, and the teachers used to be able to leave in the afternoon like the students. Rightly, they mostly felt that this was their due, since they usually stay until 7 pm or later. But now they have a new kocho-sensei (principal) and he worked in the kensho (Board of Ed) before being placed in their school, so he tends to be much more strict about stuff like this. Now if they want the afternoon off, they have to take ninkyu (paid vacation leave). Kamiyama-sensei seemed rather jealous of the Minami teachers. This afternoon, a bunch of teachers took me out to lunch at a restaurant and when we came back, there were maybe 8 teachers left in the staff room, and none of them were really working. It was extremely quiet. And boring.
Another complaint at Mukaiyama is that they have to share me. Mukaiyama, about 5 years ago, used to have its very own ALT, who reported to only that school, presumably 6 days a week, on the old schedule. Now, though, I am there only Tuesday – Thursday, which is at least better than Chaney, who only did Monday and Friday, and this is resented. As Kamiyama-sensei put it, “It’s not good for the school and it’s not good for the ALT, because the ALT cannot get to know all the other teachers at both schools, or remember all the students’ names. ALTs can make better lessons when they know the students better.” I agree with him, but I didn’t get a choice in the matter, so what can I do? Just try as best I can, anyway. Personally, I’d love to have a permanent school where I could actually leave my stuff, rather than carting it back and forth every week. *shrug*
Dana Watson 3:59 AM
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
There is much made of the importance of drinking in Japanese socialization. This past Friday, Mukaiyama had another enkai, this time with much more evident drinking than at the one following the school festival. So here are some observations about drinking in Japan:
Never fill your own glass. If you want more, fill the glass of the person next to you and they will return the favor. If you want to speak to someone at the enkai but don’t know a good opening, fill their glass. When your glass is being filled, raise it slightly off the table while the other person is pouring.
The Japanese really do turn red when they get drunk. When I got to the enkai, Yokota-sensei’s eyes already looked red-rimmed and I wondered if he was sick, until I remembered hearing that they often turn red when drinking. Since he’s so tan from riding his bike everywhere, it was sort of hard to tell.
Being drunk when returning home is expected. Kamiyama-sensei said he was going to take a cab the 2.5 miles to his house once he got off the subway, because otherwise, he would be completely sober before he got home.
There are certain foods meant to be eaten with alcohol in bars. (We went to a bar that many teachers frequent after they have been doing karaoke across the hall. Unfortunately, oh darn, the karaoke bar was all full of people who had reservations.) Such foods include fried squid, grilled long onion pieces, and miso-covered grilled rice balls.
Dana Watson 1:15 AM
Another edition of What I did this weekend
This weekend, which was another holiday weekend (yay, Autumnal Equinox!), I went to Shiogama for a slumber party. Well, sort of. Danola’s predecessor left her an absolute ton of stuff, including extra futons fit to sleep an army, or at least 3 extra people, so she’s always willing to host people. Thus, she invited me to spend the night at her apartment and see some more of Shiogama. She had been very enthusiastic about the Shiogama shrine, so we had plans to see that on Saturday afternoon after I got there, then visit with Sharon when she got back from some work thing, and then go to bed, with the promise of bacon in the morning.
That wasn’t quite the way it worked, as the sad fact is that ALTs will talk forever when put in the company of fellow native English speakers. When I got to Danola’s apartment, she was on the phone with Laura, a second-year ALT based at some of the small island schools in Matsushima Bay. Laura was bored and lonely, as she lives on the other side of Shiogama, so Danola suggested the ever present stand-by get-together, coffee. So off we went to Mr. Donut (Mi-su-taa Do-na-tzu) to partake of the bottomless cup of “American coffee” and some passable doughnuts. (It’s not Krispy Kreme, but pretty good for Japan.) And we stayed there for three hours. Talking about life as an ALT, about the other ALT Laura has to work with who goes around insulting everyone he meets by being so obnoxious and self-absorbed and tainting her by association, about choosing traveling companions, about places to go inside and out of Japan, about homesickness and friends from home and living as an independent adult. These are not conversations one can have with English teachers at school. There are too many nuances and things that will be understood only by other people living through it.
But eventually, Laura had to go meet Tanya and Jonas (Australian/Swedish couple, one ALT and her husband, who’s basically bumming around Japan for 2 years) in Sendai. Danola and I went to an Italian restaurant she has discovered and had some very good spaghetti. (Danola is obsessed by all things Italian; Sharon, who lived there for a year, thinks it’s because she’s never really been there.) Then we walked back to Danola’s apartment, being briefly accosted along the way by a group of drunk salarymen who wanted to know if we were American, to which Danola responded that she was S. African, and if we were sisters. We sped up when they got distracted trying to think of English words amongst themselves and took the long way back. Shiogama is much smaller than Sendai, though it would probably still be considered a very large town or small city in the US, and everyone notices the gaijin.
After that, we waited for Sharon to tell us when to come over, and sat around talking. Sharon finally called and told us to come around 9, which we did. The plan was for them to enjoy the S. African wine that Danola had so laboriously searched for all over Japan ever since she got here, and check out Sharon’s free trial period of Sky TV. There are an amazing number of bad music video channels to be found on satellite TV, no matter what country you’re in. We settled on Batman, in the end, but proceeded to ignore it in favor of conversation. Sharon has a very large apartment, four rooms in all, with a kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and extra tatami room. It’s also rather bare, as she had no predecessor to leave her tons of stuff, which is always her reason for shopping as much as she does. Eventually, though, we went back to Danola’s and went to bed. Her extra futons are quite comfortable.
On Sunday we woke up, and Danola did indeed make bacon, accompanied by croissants we had picked up from the bakery the day before. (They do have bakeries here in Japan, but they’ve got nothing on Chilean bread products by a long shot.) And then we headed for Sendai. Danola hasn’t seen much of Sendai, so I tantalized her with promises of the gigantic Muji in The Mall. First, though, we walked to my apartment from the station, so she could see some of Sendai other than the center, and she checked her email on my computer, marveling all the while at my marvelous cell phone connection. She said if she had that, she’d never leave the house. I neglected to point out that during the week, I rarely do. She also said that my apartment is not really that small, although I think she just thinks that because it is so uncluttered compared to hers. Although, hers looks much better and more spacious since she threw so much stuff out and moved all the furniture. But I have gotten used to my apartment now, and I think it’s a good size for me.
Then we really did go to The Mall, and Danola declared it to be like a S. African mall, in that you could do all of your shopping in one place, including groceries. The Mall is gigantic, 4-5 stories in each of the two parts, with a movie theater in the second part on the top floor. I wanted to show her LL Bean and Eddie Bauer, since I was curious to see what they would offer in Japan, and she might find some things she liked, but we never did find them in the confusing layout. We did, however, find Muji, and they were having a sale! I bought a lot of clothes, since I really did come to Japan with fewer pants and casual clothes than I should have, and too many dress shirts and pairs of dress shoes. Oh, well. I bought two pairs of corduroys, a corduroy jacket, and a hoody sweatshirt. I love the fact that I’m small enough to wear Japanese sizes. And then! Then I discovered that they had all these bags sitting on the tables in front with all sorts of random things inside them, each bag being Y3,000. So I bought two grab bags as well, one female clothes and one male, and ended up with two nice sweaters, a jean jacket, a dressier jacket, a men’s button down shirt, a striped shirt, two plain shirts, and two pairs of fishnet stockings. I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with those, but I have them. Oh, and I got a cute tiny colored pencil set, a small sketchbook, and two more draw sets to organize all my orientation stuff from way back in August. Danola bought a mailing envelope and three shirts from a 50% off rack at another store on the way out.
Then we hopped back on the subway and went back to the station to meet Sharon and Kristel for the ritual Starbucks coffee. Then we went back upstairs to meet Laura, Tanya, and Jonas for dinner. Danola, Kristel, and I joined those three and went to an Indian restaurant nearby, which was very good, and apparently serves the largest serving of nan bread every known to existence. They also play Indo-pop videos constantly on the TV, which is a highly amusing experience in itself. We spent some time discussing with Danola whether the rather scantily clad women were truly acting in a scandalous manner or not, since they never actually kissed any of the men, only gave the impression. And to me, all the men look like Ricky Martin doing Indian.
And then I went home and put away all my new clothes and went to bed, only to get up on my rainy holiday Monday and spend the whole day cleaning house and organizing the tons and tons of stuff they gave us at orientation. I threw away a surprising amount. I really didn’t think I needed the map of laundromats in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo anymore.
Dana Watson 1:13 AM
Why I’m glad I’m not a Japanese teacher
Actual Japanese teachers lead thankless lives. They work extremely long hours, often staying at work until 7pm or later. They take the theory of “in loco parentis” much further than anyone would dream of in the US. Teachers here are expected to discipline children more than their parents are. If a child gets in trouble outside of school, many times it is reported to the child’s homeroom teacher before it is reported to the parents. Students here are not allowed to smoke, drink, get a driver’s license without permission, or hold hands while wearing their school uniform, and it is up to teachers, even when outside of school in their free time, to take students to task for breaking the rules if they catch them. Homeroom teachers often make home visits to work with the parents of particularly troubled or unruly children. If a student does something particularly bad, homeroom teachers have been known to resign after apologizing with the student, because they have failed in their job of raising the student properly. There is a definite attitude that the teachers are there to serve the students, to benefit them and society at large, and if that means spending three nights at school with the drama club so they can do rehearsals in the gym until midnight, then that’s what the teacher will do.
There is also a lack of permanence. In addition to not having their own rooms, but instead having to go to the kids’ rooms, teachers are not allowed to stay at the same school for more than 10 years. Every March, at the end of the Japanese school year, teachers are transferred. If they’re lucky, they are transferred to another school within commuting distance, even if it’s an hour commute necessitating shinkansen, biking, and walking. (I really know one teacher who does that.) If they’re not that lucky, or don’t have a pressing need to stay in the same place, such as an established family, they can be transferred from as far away as Hiroshima all the way to Sendai, like the chemistry teacher at Mukaiyama.
Schools used to run six days a week. This is the first school year to run on the five day a week schedule. Thus, most teachers and students end up at school on Saturdays anyway, for books they forgot, or club activities, or work they didn’t quite finish. This weekend, that was not possible, and I felt rather pleased that the Japanese teachers were forced to take a proper break for once. The reason was rather bizarre, though; the police department was holding its exams for entering cadets at Mukaiyama, and some group objected and phone in a bomb threat. I really don’t understand the reasons why, nor does anyone else (or maybe it was that they were all trying to explain it to me while slightly drunk after the enkai), but in any case, I was forbidden to come to school during the weekend, as were all the students and teachers.
Suffice it to say, I feel like I’m getting it really easy as an ALT. They don’t want me to stay late; they don’t make me come every Saturday; I don’t have nearly the teaching load that the rest of them do. It really is a privileged life, and I hope all ALTs realize this.
Dana Watson 1:11 AM
Thursday, September 19, 2002
Okay, this is really, really long, and three days late to boot, but here it is:
My Weekend in Tokyo
I spent my long holiday weekend in Tokyo. In case you were wondering, Monday was Respect for the Aged Day, but as far as I could tell, all that means is that we all had the day off of work. On Saturday morning, I got up at 5:15 am so I could meet everyone else at Sendai Station to catch the 6:45 am shinkansen to Tokyo. I think I am starting to become a morning person, frightening as that thought is. I thought it was really nice to be up that early, on a cool, cloudy morning, with the gong at the temple across the river from my house being rung at 6:00, which is not something that I usually get to hear. Of course, I suspect that my enjoying being a morning person only applies to mornings when I have the prospect of something fun to do ahead of me, and not to days when I have to get up and go to work. I am very tired right now, as I sit at work writing this, so I suspect this is an accurate assessment. Of course, I could also just be recovering. It was a tiring weekend.
The shinkansen ride from Sendai to Tokyo was really neat. Even though our seats were on the lower level and we couldn’t always see over the barriers on either side of the tracks, what I could see was gorgeous. There were lots of hills and mountains, most with morning mist still clinging to them. The ride from Sendai to Tokyo is only two hours by this method; our original bus ride to Sendai from the Tokyo orientation took six. Also, the shinkansen itself is really nice. There’s tons of leg room, the seats recline quite far, everything is clean and nicer than an airplane, and it seems to make it worth the price. It surely isn’t cheap, even on the “women’s shopping weekend” deal that we were all taking advantage of. We, in this case, is me, Danola, Sharon, Kristel, and Katy. Kristel and Katy are both British ALTs working in Tagajo, a town really close to Sharon and Danola’s Shiogama. Sharon overslept and missed our original train, but she woke up when Danola called her right as the train was getting ready to leave, and she scrambled for the next train. She had to pay extra, but she was only 2 hours later than the rest of us.
We got to Tokyo Station at around 8:15 am, and then waited for Sharon at the international center. The center wasn’t open when we got there, and some members of the party wanted unhealthy food, so as the only American in the group, my amazing skills at identifying any fast food restaurant within a mile were put to use, and I introduced them all to Wendy’s. Then we really did go to the international center and pick up tourist brochures in English from the information lobby. We went back to Tokyo Station, found Sharon, who told us where our ryokan was, and then sorted out which subway line we wanted. It turned out that we didn’t have to use the extremely complicated Tokyo subway system that much, because everything we wanted to see was conveniently located on the JR Yamanote train line, which basically makes a big loop around the city.
Our ryokan (Japanese style inn) was about three blocks from the Gotanda train station, a convenient landmark. It really didn’t feel like we were staying in Tokyo, but then, the whole trip didn’t really feel like “Tokyo” to me, because the city is so divided up into smaller wards, or what my Santiago-influenced brain insists on calling “comunas.” For orientation at the beginning, we were staying in Shinjuku, which seems much more like what people think of when they say “Tokyo,” meaning tons of skyscrapers and bright lights everywhere. Thankfully, the entirety of the city is not like that, otherwise it would be completely overwhelming and totally incomprehensible.
After dropping off our stuff and taking a short break in our rooms (futons on tatami), we headed back to Tokyo Station as a good middle point. We started walking from there and eventually made our way to the Meiji shrine. This place is amazing. Right there, in the middle of Tokyo, one of the busiest and most populated cities in the world, there is a forest, with a giant wooden torii standing over the entrance to a wide gravel path that leads over a bridge spanning a babbling brook, through twilit trees, to a very large and peaceful temple complex, in which all of the architecture flows seamlessly from one building to the next and harmonizes with all the nature around it. This is the conversation that happened inside my brain: “Wow. Japan is so beautiful. I wish I could live here… Oh, wait, I do.” It still doesn’t seem totally real. This remains in my mind as one of the main highlights of our trip, and it happened on the first day.
From there, we continued walking around. We were supposed to meet up with another ALT who was in Tokyo picking up her boyfriend from the airport, so we needed to be in Shibuya for that. Shibuya is basically a giant shopping area. Department stores abound, and it’s geared more toward our generation than the older Ginza, which I’ll get to later. Shibuya is like Shinjuku in the lights and crowds that appear in the evening, but with fewer hotels and government office buildings. We even found a 5-story Gap, which of course Katy needed to go into, so we ended up doing a little shopping. My strategy for not overspending in Tokyo, that of only having a very small amount of money with me, was quite successful, for all that it was unintentional (I forgot to go to the ATM in Sendai), and I didn’t buy anything. We did meet up with Sarah and her boyfriend, and the 7 of us went out to dinner. After dinner, though, we all decided to call it a night, as we had been up for many, many hours with our early start, and Sarah had had a big day at Hello Kitty Land (I’m not kidding), so we split up to make our ways to ryokan and hotel. Dodging the milling crowds that had appeared in the neon-lit streets while we were eating, I once again confirmed that I really do not like being in a crowd of people. I kept wanting to jab out with my elbows. Fortunately, the train was not crowded and we made it successfully back to our ryokan and finally got to sleep.
On Sunday, we got up, got ready, and headed out to find our nearest coffee shop for breakfast. Our group had something of an obsession with finding good coffee, and in a Japanese city, you are guaranteed to find a Starbucks, Excelsior, or Doutour somewhere close, especially if you are near a train station. As luck would have it, Gotanda station is just across from an Excelsior (surprise!), so we were conveniently situated to have a leisurely breakfast and then go meet Jamin at the station at 10:00. (For those that don’t know and are trying to keep track, Jamin is my friend from the program at Beloit this summer. He is interning with an architecture firm in Tokyo for the year as a Something Scholar.) Jamin has been in Tokyo for about three weeks now, but they’ve had him working really hard, 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week, so he hasn’t seen much of the city yet. He was happy to come along with us and do the tourist thing.
We went back, again, to Tokyo Station in order to begin our walk to the Imperial Palace. It’s very close to the station, so it was an easy walk. However, the grounds are huge! Tourists are only allowed into the outer areas and one quarter of the gardens, but that’s still a lot to walk around. There’s lots and lots of trees, though these have all been grown in rows, rather than as a forest, so you can still see that you’re in Tokyo in the areas outside the moat. We found the one place where you can actually see a bit of the palace and took lots of pictures, but you can’t get very close at all. As several people in the predominantly British group noted, it’s not much like Buckingham Palace.
Then we found the entrance to the part of the gardens we were allowed in, and walked around there. We were very Japanese in that we stopped at the tourist rest spot about 5 minutes into it, despite the fact that we didn’t need a rest yet. (The Japanese stop at rest stops, always, because that is just what one does at rest stops. Obviously.) Then we wandered around the gardens, which were nice, but not spectacular, and then out into greater Tokyo again.
From there we made our way to the ward of Asakusa, where we had lunch at a restaurant featuring a truly bizarre mix of curry, Italian, and traditional Japanese food, with a matching mis-matched ambience. We had also noticed a gelato place the next block over, when we had walked down the main shopping gallery in search of food everyone wanted, so we had to go back there afterward. They had some very interesting flavors. I had cherry blossom, but there was also green tea and sweet potato, among others.
The real reason we were in Asakusa was to see the Sensoji, or Asakusa Kannon Temple. This was quite a contrast to the Meiji shrine. Sensoji starts with a big lantern in a temple-house thing at one end of a very crowded street-let full of absolutely touristy ticky-tacky booths, and at the other end is the main temple structure, which reminded me way more of Taiwan than of anything else I’ve seen in Japan. There were throngs of people there, too, not just in the street, and billowing clouds of incense from the big cauldron in the middle of the open area in front. Everything is painted red or gold, and the main attraction is the statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy (I think). And there’s a really tall pagoda building with a flame-shaped spire over to the side, kind of like a spiritual weather vane.
From Asakusa, we wandered over to the river, where it was decided that we should not walk back to Tokyo Station, but instead should take a sightseeing boat down to Hinode Pier and walk from there. This turned out to be a neat thing to do, as the announcer voice told us what we were passing in both Japanese and English. We passed the stadium where the sumo tournament is currently taking place. It’s a very nice looking building, a blend of modern and traditional Japanese architecture, but I didn’t get a picture because I was on the wrong side of the boat. We also passed “the future of Tokyo” in the form of a collection of modern skyscraper apartment buildings on an island, which are all shops and parks at ground level, so it gives the impression of spaciousness. Very Le Corbusier, for the other architecture people out there.
Then there was some more walking, and then the short train ride home, for which I was grateful, as my knee had started to hurt. I figured out later that it was from walking so slowly all day. It’s not my normal manner of walking, and my knee objected. I opted to get a sandwich from the convenience store and rest in the room, while everyone else went out to dinner. Eventually, they all came back with cream puffs (we can find them anywhere, addicts that we are) and hot chocolate, and then it was off to bed.
On Monday, our last day in Tokyo, we all got up, got our stuff together, and checked out of the ryokan. We took everything with us to the coffee shop for breakfast, and then it was back, predictably, to Tokyo Station. Here we put our stuff in the coin lockers and split up. Danola and I had no interest in going back to Shibuya, but Kristel needed to get the pants she was having tailored at the Gap, and Katy and Sharon both really like to shop, so off they went. Danola and I went to the Ginza district. Ginza is an older part of Tokyo, very near the center, and is where all the upscale shops are located. We set our only real destination as the Kabuki-za Theater. I’m not sure if this is the main kabuki theater in Tokyo, but it’s certainly impressive all on its own. We found information on how to watch a kabuki performance with English headphones, but you can’t do that for just one act, and you are supposed to get tickets ahead of time, so we headed off deeper into Ginza. If you want to try and picture this area, think 5th Avenue or Bond Street in London. Lots of big, fancy, expensive stores (we even saw a Tiffany’s), not as many people. That could have been because it was raining, though.
For lunch, we went to, surprise, surprise, a coffee shop, but this was a 4 story Doutour, so we sat at the window counter on the second floor and enjoyed the view. It was a very good spot for people watching. Danola insisted that it was worth the price of the coffee.
From the Ginza, we went to Akihabara, Tokyo’s famed discount electronics district. This was about as far from the atmosphere of Ginza as we could get. Akihabara is loud, neon, crowded, and trashy. Kind of like every electronics bazaar you’ve ever seen or imagined all crammed into one place. Really, you should only go there if you have a really good idea of what you’re looking for, the price range it should be in, and what’s good quality. Otherwise, you just wander around to no purpose, which is what we ended up doing. I was sort of interested in looking at minidisk players, but I didn’t really know what to look for, and besides, we have a Laox pretty much just like the one there in Sendai. So, after staying around long enough to see Darin (another Beloit person, doing his study abroad year in Tokyo) for about 5 minutes, Danola and I left to go back to the international center near the station to wait for everyone else.
We spent an hour checking our email at the international forum. Then we went back to the station to see if we could actually find our coin lockers again amongst all the banks of them in the basement of the station and to buy omiyage. The Japanese, I am convinced, invented the idea of “Bring enough gum for everyone.” Every time you go on a big trip, you’re supposed to bring back food items for everyone in your office. This can get kind of tiresome, but there are many enterprising businesses in the shinkansen area of the station that are dedicated solely to providing large quantities of food with “Tokyo” stamped on it. I decided that I should make the most of it, and got shinkansen shaped cookies that came in a decorative tin. Everyone else gets the cookies; I get to keep the tins. That was my only souvenir, so I figured I should like it.
And then everyone else turned up as we were getting our stuff from the lockers, and we went to the platform, got back on the shinkansen, and sped back to Sendai. We were even on the upper level of seats this time, but it wasn’t nearly as cool, since it was dark. A very busy and exhausting weekend, but I can definitely say that I have seen Tokyo now.
Dana Watson 3:40 AM
Friday, September 13, 2002
I have now cleaned out both of my desks at my schools. My predecessor seems very nice, from the email that I have exchanged with him, but I must say, he wasn’t much of a neat freak. The top drawers of both desks were filled with very impressive collections of every dead pen, broken pencil, half-used eraser, dried up rubber band, and loose staples I think ever passed through Chaney’s hands in two years. Each desk had three staplers! Also, the desk at Minami, which I cleaned today, has teaching materials dating back to at least three ALTs ago. I threw out anything with a date on it of 2000 or before. I really couldn’t think of any reason to keep the ALT directory from two years ago. Nor do I really understand why there was a US poultry buyer’s guide in Japanese. The desk is much neater and less cluttered now, even with every single English textbook the school has ever used since they first got an ALT and a remaining box of stuff underneath.
The cafeteria women at Minami are great. I went in for lunch today before the students got there. There were only two other women eating in there, so it was rather quiet, but as soon as I came in, there was a flurry of excited comment among the cafeteria women, who all started beaming at me. They were so happy I had decided to come get my lunch there. They’re so cute. It’s hardly a hardship, since it’s so good. One of them gave me a compliment on my earrings, and later I got praised for my skill with hashi. It really is true that every gaijin in Japan gets constantly questioned about where they learned to use chopsticks.
On the subject of my lunch, though, I think that I can make a good case for curry being the most international food I’ve seen. Well, except for maybe pizza and McDonald’s, but those only sort of count as food. I’d heard about curry basically being the national food of Britain, but I’m starting to think that’s the case in Japan, too. I had curry soba today.
Dachshunds are by far the most popular breed of dog here. It’s really funny to see all the Japanese people out assiduously walking their tiny little hot dogs.
I am starting to think there are more Minis here than there are in Europe. Makes sense, since they are rather Japanese-sized vehicles, but it’s still strange to see such a European car in the land of the Toyota. I’ve even seen some Peugeots. They were really popular in Chile, but I never thought to see them here.
It’s funny to see people on motorcycles and scooters on rainy days. They all wear matching full body rain suits, so they look like mobile multi-colored trash bags on wheels. The people on regular bicycles always amaze me, riding along with one hand holding an umbrella, never having the least trouble steering or balancing. I think I’ll just stick with walking.
And then, of course, there are the herds of small elementary school children walking to school. They’re so cute! And they walk so slow, dawdling along, weaving back and forth, usually with some bit of vegetation in their hands that they’ve picked up somewhere along the way. Some of them have notes, presumably their addresses, pinned to their shirts, and they all have matching red or black backpacks. I wonder how early their mothers have to make them start walking to school for them to get there on time.
Dana Watson 4:15 AM
Thursday, September 12, 2002
I take back every uncharitable thought I ever had about Kasahara-sensei. Part of that was influenced by my predecessor’s evaluation of him as “deadly” in team teaching, and I can see how he would have thought that since he wasn’t based at Mukaiyama, but instead had the opposite schedule from me. But I think I’ve figured it out. Kasahara-sensei sounds really, really fluent because his accent is quite good, but he never quite got the intonation to go with it. As a result, he often ends up sounding like he’s being rude because everything he says sounds really flat and declarative. It’s very disconcerting.
Tonight, though, he and Yokota-sensei (my technical supervisor) organized a dinner for me with some of the other teachers who wanted to get to know me better. There were six of us in all, me, Kasahara, Yokota, the young guy social sciences teacher who sits across from me in the staff room, the chemistry woman, and the biology woman. (I’m so bad with names, and it’s seriously going to become a problem if I don’t figure out who’s who soon. Luckily, I have a picture directory of all the teachers on my desk. I really need to study it.) They took me to a sushi and udon restaurant after work. I’m not sure what I ended up ordering, but there was rice and some sort of thinly sliced meat and some spicy pickled cabbage, and they also insisted on finding sushi that I would like, so I got my kappa maki and tekka maki as well. The biology woman also insisted on giving me the little interesting things she thought I might like from her meal. There was no way I could eat it all, but I got to try a lot of stuff. Oh, and my rice thing was accompanied by udon soup, which I commented on before.
The food wasn’t really what made everything so fun, though. It was that all these teachers really wanted to talk to me that much. Not all of them spoke English, but that was okay because it actually made me feel like there were people around that I could practice my pitiful Japanese with and they wouldn’t be put out by it. Kasahara-sensei wanted to know about my interest in karate and asked me if I was interested in any other martial arts, since Mukaiyama has both a kendo and kyudo club. I said I was interested in kyudo, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved with any of the clubs at school, and he said, in an actually surprised tone, “Just ask the coach to teach you!” Also, the social sciences teacher actually recognized what I meant when I said that my style of karate is Shotokan. It’s not a very popular style here in Miyagi, it seems.
Both of the science room women invited me to come to their rooms and have tea in my free time. Since both of them work in the lab rooms, they don’t have desks in the staff room, as they have actual permanent bases of their own. The chemistry woman was the one who was driving the females of the outing to and from the restaurant, and on the way home, she and I managed to combine our respective limited language skills, and I managed to convey that I want to learn how to cook Japanese food. She volunteered the teaching skills of the biology teacher, who apparently has quite the vegetable garden. The biology teacher offered to give me a plant.
Kasahara-sensei told me to come to the air-conditioned study room, where he apparently spends most of his time. He says he has English newspapers and magazines there. He told me that there are many teachers who have wanted to talk to me, but didn’t want to disturb me while I was working on my computer. I was working on my computer because I didn’t want to disturb any of the teachers. I’m not very good at this being outgoing thing. Yokota-sensei and the young teacher wanted to know about baseball and sports in the US, since they are the two teachers in charge of the baseball club. I think they were disappointed that baseball is not more popular in the US, despite it being our national sport.
Before the meal could end, of course, there had to be pictures taken. The Japanese take pictures pretty much whenever there’s more than one of them in one place, I’m convinced. Kasahara-sensei had brought a digital camera, but I think it was new, because there was a long period of trying to get it to work and passing it from person to person. Eventually the directions were consulted, the proper side of the table for picture taking agreed upon, and several pictures taken. I was declared to be a fun person to talk to and a “window to the world,” to which I replied that that was one of my duties as an ALT, after all. But I felt much happier about my prospects for the rest of the year at work. I hadn’t thought I felt very bad about them to begin with, but the contrast is striking. Hopefully soon I will have people to practice Japanese with and a club activity to make me more involved.
I’m definitely going to feel good about participating in the Japanese custom of getting food omiyage for all the teachers when I go to Tokyo this weekend. I’m starting to think the Japanese invented the idea of “bring enough gum for everyone.”
Dana Watson 6:23 AM
So you’ve all seen “Tampopo,” right? No? What’s wrong with you? Go see it. It’s a good movie. Pretty much anything directed by Itami is good, really. But anyway, “Tampopo” is all about noodles. Food in general, but ramen noodles in particular. It’ll give you some idea of noodle culture.
That said, I would like to point out that even though I’ve been in Japan for more than a month now (44 days, to be exact; thank you, Mark) I have not been to a proper ramen shop. It’s intimidating. There are so many kinds! Since I can’t read the menu, even for an approximation of pronunciation, I’ve yet to work up my courage to experience something so incredibly Japanese all on my own.
What I have had, though, much to my great delight, is soba. Soba noodles are translated as “buckwheat” noodles, whereas ramen are inevitably translated as simply “Chinese noodles,” which isn’t very descriptive. In general, and based on the limited (and I admit, probably inferior) experience I’ve had with ramen, I must say that I like soba better. Maybe it’s my usual reaction to liking the less popular thing out of spite, or legitimately liking these noodles better. They seem firmer, and tastier. And of course, there is always the fact that I was introduced to them in their fried form, yakisoba. Mmmm, yakisoba…
I’ve now had soba several ways. I’ve had it in broth, with tempura vegetables on top. Very good, a popular thing in cafeterias it seems, and which I have no objection to whatsoever. I’ve had it in its plain, traditional style, with the sauce that you’re supposed to pour over the top and the wasabi root you grate yourself, in an actual soba restaurant that Kamiyama-sensei took me to. Also very good. I’ve had it fried in yakisoba form from vendors at festivals. This is the best of all. Probably not that healthy, but oh, so delicious. Usually comes with pickled ginger on the side. And I’ve had at least two other incarnations of yakisoba from the restaurant the teachers are always ordering lunch from, even though I thought I was ordering the same thing both times. Both good, if not what I was expecting. Also very large, as that restaurant is near the university and serves “hungry college student” sized portions.
The thing I swear I will never master, though, is how to properly eat it. I’m sure my stomach and taste buds properly appreciate soba now, but I have yet to figure out how to slurp. It really is true that you’re supposed to slurp your noodles here. Kamiyama-sensei even told me that for some kinds of ramen, it’s required, otherwise the noodles absorb too much of the broth and it ruins the intended taste. But I can’t do it. I can pick the noodles up with chopsticks (hashi) without dropping them all back in the bowl, I can neatly get them to my mouth, but I cannot slurp them all in without having the ends try to slap me in the face or spray broth everywhere. I just have to bite them off. There must be a trick to it, but so far I haven’t been able to see it. Is it the way they hold their tongues? Some amazing muscle contractions in the esophagus? Do I need to see an x-ray video of someone slurping noodles to figure out how to do it? This is probably another reason I like soba more than ramen; there seem to be fewer rules about how to eat it. Fortunately, people in Japan appear to be quite fond of soba as well, so I’ll probably never have trouble finding it. In fact, there are two soba restaurants on my street. Equidistant on either side of my apartment, even. Now I just need to actually go to one of them. It would save me from having to cook, after all.
Addendum: Tonight I had udon noodles, after I had already written this, and I can definitely say I like soba better than udon. Udon noodles are really fat and, well, kind of like big pale worms. They taste good, but the texture is very weird. And Kasahara-sensei made fun of me for not being able to slurp properly.
Dana Watson 5:17 AM
Monday, September 09, 2002
So the answer to the big question of what Dana does with her "compensatory day off," to make up for the fact that she had to work all day on Saturday, even though she had nothing to do and it was totally pointless, is... absolutely nothing! And it was great. Well, that's not quite true. I walked across the street to the post office (yuubinkyoku) and mailed a ton of postcards. If you think you might be getting one, ask yourself this simple question: Does Dana have my address? If so, the answer is probably yes, you will be getting a postcard. It's my best way to fill free time at work. Also, I discovered that the post office does have boxes for mailing stuff after all. Mwah, hah, hah. I have plans for those boxes...
Yesterday was the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival. "Jazz," in this context, is a extremely loose term. But there were lots and lots of bands set up all over downtown, playing all manner of music. Most importantly, the band that Graham plays keyboard for was playing at 1:00. Danola had been to her school festival the day before, and unfortunately for Graham was let near the painting supplies, so she had made name placards for him. We horribly embarrassed him, but he took it well. Also, we saw every single gaijin in all of Sendai and the greater surrounding area yesterday, I am convinced. As Sharon pointed out, we even saw gaijin children. That is rare indeed; you forget that Westerners come in child size. Like the central plaza fountain in Cuzco, the park with the really nice fountains in Sendai is what my brain insists on calling "gringo central." (I've been having a lot of linguistic confusion today. I was talking online with a friend in Spanish for hours. This is not good for my poor brain. It feels overly exercised.)
And one completely unrelated observation: In Japanese cartoons, the less intelligent the male character, the smaller his irises are. Female characters all have huge eyes, no matter what, but stupid guys have tiny little dots in the middle of large white expanses of eyeball. Very weird.
Dana Watson 6:13 AM
Saturday, September 07, 2002
Iron Chef I am not
So much for the idea that I would be inspired to cook for myself when I was living on my own with my very own kitchen. The sad fact is, I am very uninspired cook. Oh, I can follow a recipe, with gusto and flair even, but I lack motivation, and my improvisational skill is sadly limited. When left to my own devices, I will happily survive on peanut butter and jelly for at least one meal a day for the rest of my life.
Give me the time and ingredients, and access to an oven, and I will happily bake just about anything. Cakes, cookies by the dozens, cupcakes, bread… In general, if it’s unhealthy and/or bread-like, I’ll make it, and have fun doing it. But cooking, that’s a different matter. For that, I need an audience. I need to make it into a performance. I need encouragement beforehand and effusive praise afterward. I need a reason. Even one other person depending on me to feed them is enough, but when it’s just me, I’m hardly impressed with the skills I already know I have, and I rarely have the energy to make myself anything complicated. Sigh. I have a feeling that those Japanese cookbooks I so cleverly bought before coming over are going to get much less use than anticipated.
This is not to give anyone the idea that I’m starving. The school cafeterias do marvelous lunches, and the convenience stores here have an offering that is quite beyond anything in the US’s equivalent 7-Elevens. But in the evenings I eat a lot of rice with Spicy Peanut Garlic sauce (thanks, Ellie), the occasional stir fry of vegetables, and peanut butter and jelly, which has sadly become a luxury. Right now, I’m going to blame my lack of motivation on sub-standard kitchen facilities, but I have a feeling that’s not really the whole truth. I have also been exploring the wonderful world of Japanese snack foods. (Discovery of the day: banana KitKats.)
If anyone comes to visit me, I promise I’ll feed them better than I feed myself! And on the bright side, maybe my lack of motivation will eventually inspire me to venture into the soba restaurants just two buildings away from my apartment on either side. Oh, the possibilities.
Dana Watson 3:03 AM
Friday, September 06, 2002
One good thing about my decision to actually wear dress shoes for the walk to work today was that the blisters on my heels on the way home made me walk slower. (I was not meant to wear dress shoes on a regular basis, I just wasn’t.) It had started raining, finally, this afternoon, about an hour before I left, and the light rain was very pleasant to walk in. The walk to Minami is very nice, for other reasons than just being flat. It follows along the river, where there is a recreation path down on the lower bank, below the sidewalk I walk on. There were ducks swimming in the rain, and spider webs with raindrops on them, strung between the railings lining the bank side of the sidewalk. I’m glad I took time to enjoy it.
I have bright and shiny new pens. I spent the last hour of my afternoon at work writing postcards to all sorts of people I haven’t talked to in a while, simply for the joy of writing. And the fact that I got about 8 gazillion and four postcards from the 100 Yen shop.
My new bag is just the right size for all the stuff I find that I need frequently, but not big enough for me to start adding all the stuff I don’t need, but inevitably throw in because there’s space. I can get my wallet, cell phone, etc. in there, plus an umbrella, numerous pens, date book, and book I’m reading for fun, even if it is a Robert Jordan monstrosity. And that’s it. I am forcing organizational sanity on myself.
I woke up this morning for the first time since hanging my new curtains last night, and the quality of light in my apartment is totally changed. The natural cream colored curtains let in far more light, and turn it a pleasant, warm tone, even when it is dim and cloudy outside. It is a strange thing to wake up with a smile already on my face, before my brain is really registering reasons why. The nice light held true when I came home this afternoon, too, even with the rain. I now sit here with my new curtains, listening to rain, with a candle lit on the table next to me. Definitely a good afternoon.
Dana Watson 1:48 AM
School Festival (Part 2)
Today was the first day of Minami SHS’s school festival. In Japanese, this is called “bunkasai.” Once again, I was a horrible person and forgot to take my camera, which I regretted as soon as I got there and saw the banners the students had hung on the front of the building. The artistic talent of these kids really is amazing. I would go back tomorrow and take pictures, but alas, I am commanded once again to spend my Saturday at Mukaiyama. At least this time I get Monday off. I will remember, at some point in the year that I am here, to take pictures of the paintings in the hallway.
I’m not sure if it’s because today was the first day of the festival, and I was at Mukaiyama’s on the second day, or because the kids at Minami really are just more genki (Japanese word for happy, lively, fun, healthy), but this festival was more fun from my point of view. It started off with the opening ceremony, in which every class that had stuff set up did what was basically an advertisement for people to come and visit their room or booth. Then the chorus gave a performance. Apparently, they just won the Miyagi-ken contest and are on their way to the Tohoku region finals. Their first piece was the Sesame Street theme song, which I found very amusing, but they sang Japanese stuff after that, and it was all very good. Then the Minami brass band played. Though they are not quite as perfect as Mukaiyama’s amazing ensemble, they are still very talented, and played some sophisticated, as well as entertaining, pieces. I’m sure I should know the names of some of them, but the program was all in Japanese. It’s very irritating not being able to read.
Then there was what my supervisor, Aoike-sensei, had translated as “fancy dress contest” but was really a variety show. It seemed very entertaining to the students, since they had gotten some semi-professional comedians to emcee, but I must admit that I started to nod off after an hour. Stand up comedy and impersonations are only funny when you can understand what’s being said, unfortunately. That’s okay. I enjoyed watching all the students dressed in various costumes, uniforms, and kimonos. I also ended up making it my unofficial job to keep straightening the plastic strips of sheeting they had laid down to protect the gym floor. Japanese kids must drag their feet a lot more than I think they do, because I’ve never seen so many people manage to trip over the edges of things that are pretty much laying flat. Eventually, some of the other teachers got tired of almost having kids fall on them, and went and got some tape so we could tape the edges down. Reminded me of my stint in tech theater in high school. We always taped cords and carpets down there. We went through an insane amount of gaffer’s tape doing it, too.
Anyhow, once the variety show was finally done, it was time to find some food. Last week I had bought a ticket for caramel corn from the 1-2 class. (Class numbers indicate the year and the room number, so this was the first year, room 2 class.) However, there were many, many other classes selling food, too, so on my way to find the 1-2 room, I ended up getting pizza from the extremely enthusiastic (and pushy) girls of 3-5, Korean gouza (dumplings) from the class where all the girls were wearing pretty Chinese/Korean dresses, and then finally, I made it down to 1-2, where I got my caramel corn and sat down to eat my dumplings as well. The 1-2 room was set up as a French café, or at least a café in which they had posted a lot of photocopied Amelie posters, and they had apparently decided that just serving popcorn and coffee wouldn’t do, so I was very surprised when one of the girls offered me a massage. For just 10 yen! So I ended up getting a 3 minute neck massage for less than $0.10. I think that everyone should take up this practice of giving away neck massages for incredibly cheap….
Sorry, got momentarily distracted there by thinking about it. My neck has been stiff for a while, so I was a very appreciative client. :-)
After I finished my caramel corn and dumplings, I wandered back down the hall to see what the rest of the first year classes were doing. I got “chocomint” ice cream from one class that was doing brisk business, and then toured the courtyard, which led around to the parking lot and student entrance to the school, where I ended up getting one of the chocolate covered bananas with sprinkles that seem to turn up at all festival events in all of Japan. I’ve been eating a lot of bananas lately.
I got back to the staff room just as the first few sprinkling drops of rain were beginning to fall, and the parade of “fancy dressed” students, led by the brass band, was returning. I could hear the band ending its final piece for the parade, and then just playing snatches of whatever the students felt like as they began to put their instruments away. The costumes were also interesting. One class had dressed up as the cast of “Peter Pan,” with their homeroom teacher as the star and one poor, shivering boy as Tinkerbell. (It was actually slightly cool today.) Another class was dressed as characters from the latest big anime movie that came out this summer. I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s by the same studio that did “Princess Mononoke,” for those of you who know what I’m talking about.
The rain held off until all of the festivities were mostly over, and I spent my remaining bit of the afternoon writing postcards at my desk, until there was a teachers’ meeting, presumably about what’s happening for the festival tomorrow, and then we were all dismissed. I got to come home a whole half an hour early!
Dana Watson 1:45 AM
Wednesday, September 04, 2002
It has been brought to my attention by a certain anthropology major that I have been using the terms "Western" and "Eastern" rather liberally. Allow me to clarify.
I will use the term "Western" more often than "American" because it is usually more accurate, especially if I am speaking of an activity done with other people. I hang out with very, very few Americans here. When I say "Western," I mean American, Canadian, Western European, South African, Australian, and New Zealander. I have tried not to use the term "Eastern" here because I'm really only comparing to Japan, so if it does show up, I apologize.
So here's the dichotomy: everywhere in the world JETs come from vs. Japan. Not the Orientalist East vs. West stuff that I had to read so much about in my final Spanish class ever at Grinnell, or what the anthro people apparently had to read as well. And really, this blog is just me entertaining y'all at home, not an anthropological study. :-)
Dana Watson 3:13 AM
Feed Me, I'm Foreign
Today was apparently "Be nice to Dana" day at work. I have no objections. I think Kamiyama-sensei feels guilty that they haven't been giving me anything to do, since I told him that they had me teach 3 classes on my second real day at Minami. So today, he had me come to his class during first period and ask them questions about the reading that they had been doing about "Colorful Expressions." You know, stuff like "to be caught red-handed," "white elephant," "green with envy," etc. It doesn't really matter what I say to them, so long as it's in English and requires them to respond in kind. The reason we're here, as JETs, is to improve Japanese school kids' listening and speaking skills. First year students here are all in their fourth year of Japanese study, since it's required in junior high, but they still don't comprehend much actually said to them, for the most part. That's okay; I understand. I was always much better at reading than at speaking when I was starting to learn foreign languages. However, my end goal was to eventually be able to speak it to other people and be understood, not just pass the exam at the end of term. Hopefully, my being here and actually demonstrating that speaking English can be a useful skill.
Anyhow, after that, I got to be teacherly and make...worksheets! Oooh, aaah... Why this is so fun, I do not know, but I found the part in the handbook that directs us to the site for creating crossword puzzles, and they've got all sorts of stuff there. Kamiyama-sensei was very impressed. I'm not very good at writing clues for the puzzles, though, because I have a great big, native-speaker, I-read-voraciously-as-a-child English vocabulary, and the students all have tiny, I-am-forced-to-take-this-class vocabularies, so he has to edit most of the clues after I'm done. Oh, well. Tomorrow I teach my first real classes at Mukaiyama, so I also got to make listening comprehension worksheets for that. "Hello. My name is ___. I am from ___." I made a part at the bottom for them to fill in their own information for me, so maybe I'll remember 40 names per each English class at two high schools. Or not. Whatever. All the classes have seating charts anyway. I'm set, as long as I never have to say a student's name outside of class.
Then, this afternoon, I was invited to one of the third year classes' homeroom barbecue. The teacher just spontaneously invited me, and it turns out to be the homeroom of my kid who's doing the speech contest, so that was cool. It was neat to actually interact with students and teachers outside of the staff room. I need to find out when the English club meets, since they haven't sought me out to do anything. I know they exist; I met at least some of them once. The barbecue was good. They had set up 4 grills and all the students were jointly tending them. The teachers had a humongous amount of meat, as well as peppers and those random little squiggly vegetables are that end up in everything here. Miyagi is famous for tongue, so there was a lot of that. To my knowledge, I have never had tongue before, but it basically tastes like any other part of a cow, as far as I can tell, and it seems to grill well. It does look really strange though, since it looks pretty much the same being put on the grill as it did attached to the cow, which is something I chose not to think about for too long. :-) I couldn't eat as much as they wanted me to, though, because I had already had lunch in the school cafeteria, which I would rave about again, except I've already done that on this blog, so instead I'll just quietly enjoy the prospect of being well-fed this year after all, without having to rely on my own cooking skills too often.
I stayed after school to help the student who is going to be in the speech contest. I had already corrected his written version, and gone over it with him. He was confused when I wanted him to read it out loud to me as we went over it, but I've been to the language lab at Grinnell; I know how language tutors are supposed to act. Sort of. Anyway, today he wanted me to read the speech in the recording room, so he could have a minidisc of a native speaker saying it to listen to when he practices at home. After several tries to get all the A/V equipment working, I did that, and then received one of the more unusual compliments I've ever gotten. "Wow! Just like a newscaster on TV. You are so fluent. I am very envious." Maybe that career survey they made us all take in 7th grade was on to something when it told me I should go into radio. Then he read the speech out loud for me to correct his pronunciation while I was actually there. I had to fight down the urge to go into long linguistic explanations of labiodental fricatives, liquids, and voiced and unvoiced sounds, and settled instead for telling him to put his top teeth on his bottom lip to make [f] and [v] sounds, and make sure his tongue is touching the back of his top teeth to make an [l]. Grad school, here I come. Eventually...
Then I finally packed up to go home, and just as I was leaving, a mother came by the school to drop off a huge box of bananas. I don't know why, and neither did the teacher she had caught in the hallway to give them to, other than them being a general gift to all the teachers, but in the end, I got to walk home with a bunch of 8 bananas. Now I just need to remember to eat them before they get too old. I wonder if I can find all the makings for banana pudding here. Hmmm...
Dana Watson 3:07 AM
Tuesday, September 03, 2002
I have discovered a wonderful, marvelous, incredible store. It is commonly called Muji, but that is an abbreviation of the longer full name, which is something like “Mujibushi” (it’s all in kanji, so I’m relying on memory), and means literally “without trademark.” This is rather amusing, as the name now is a trademark. Anyhow, this is a Japanese chain of stores that is slowly expanding into the wider world. According to Sharon, they now have them in London, which is how she knew it was such a great place. First we found the little hole-in-the-wall store actually in Sendai Station, then we found the much bigger store in the AMS building, which is attached to the Station, and now I have discovered the biggest store of them all, in The Mall (Part 2). I’m not kidding, that’s what the mega-mall in Sendai is called. It has the regular original part, The Mall, and then the newer addition called (Part 2). The Mall branch is probably half again as large as the AMS store.
They sell everything there! I went originally to get drawers, since my clothes had all just been sitting in great big stacks in my closets and Muji has thick cardboard drawers sets that you can put together yourself, are cheap, and look nicer than clear plastic containers. Find these drawers I did, and bought 4 of the largest size, and two of the next size down, so I basically just built myself a dresser, but there is so much more! They sell home appliances, beds, desks, curtains, rugs, pillows, sheets, batteries, candles, soaps, incense, clothes, shoulder bags of every size, snacks, every conceivable kind of organizer box, pens, pencils, tiny houseplants, bicycle baskets… And it none of it has any trade markings once taken out of the package. My plan is to get new window curtains, as the ones I have are mismatched and random; some organizer boxes for the shelf I already have in the living room, as the big piles of crap they gave us at various orientations are starting to get on my nerves; an area rug for the hardwood floor in the “living” room; some real Japanese-style floor cushions, as opposed to the little pillows I have right now; and a bamboo shoot to grow in a vase. Bamboo shoots are very trendy right now, and I figure if I’m going to try growing something again under the direct influence of my black thumb, it should be tenacious. So soon my apartment will look much more like my own home, as opposed to the rooms I inherited for a year. I am quite pleased with myself. My color scheme currently going appears to be mostly neutrals (cream, beige, browns) with green accents. Not very exciting, but restful, and I think it helps make my tiny apartment look a little bigger. Too much color would just make it look crowded, and I certainly don’t need that.
Dana Watson 1:09 AM
I have come to a conclusion about English seen on t-shirts and slogans here in Japan. It’s not actually due to a poor grasp of grammar or meaning; no, it is a public service. How, you ask, can these strange and random phrases possibly constitute a public service? Let me tell you.
They are trying to lead us to enlightenment. Buddhism has long employed the exercise of question and answer sets that seem to have no relation as a means of making the student look at the world in a different manner; these t-shirts are merely an extension of that practice. It is a grand Buddhist plan to bring enlightenment to the masses.
For example, take the t-shirt I saw the other day on the way to school. It was white with black lettering and said across the back, in all lower-case letters, “the color of the emotion.” There’s a lot of deep meaning a person could read into that…
Dana Watson 1:08 AM
I am a teacher
Yesterday I taught my first real classes here in Japan. Since the new semester doesn’t start until October, during this month I will just be visiting each of my classes once to give my self-introductory lesson. And since I’m only actually teaching two days this entire month at Minami SHS, due to my only being there Mondays and Fridays and there being a ton of national holidays on Monday, I taught 3 classes yesterday, back to back. Throw her in and see if she can swim.
It really wasn’t that hard. Since my predecessor had been assigned to Minami as his base school, they’re quite used to having an ALT and Aoike-sensei, my supervisor, was very prepared. Last Friday, he sat down with me for about 15 minutes and said, basically, “Here is what you’re going to do.” It was kind of a relief to have someone telling me so precisely what to do, but now, having done the lessons, I think I want to try something different at Mukaiyama, where I’ll have more of a choice.
Anyhow, here’s how the lesson went: I entered the room with my co-teacher. S/he greeted the class. I greeted the class. I gave my 5 minute speech about myself, where I’m from, what NC is famous for, where I went to college, my major, etc, all in nice, loud, clear English, using maps and visual aids. Then I usually repeated it again, so they could actually try to understand it. This was followed by an opportunity for them to ask questions. Then they got the 20 y/n questions on “How much do you know about America?” This was something the ALT two people before me started, and the teachers seemed to like it. They asked me to come up with 20 statements along the lines of “In America, our flag is red, white, and green. Y/N” The students worked on that for about 10-15 minutes, and then we went over the answers. Then it was time for a rather complicated Bingo game that was supposed to make them ask each other questions in English, but it never really worked that way and we ran out of time in every class, so I won’t go into it.
The first two classes I taught were with Ms. Shiokai (“My name is not common Japanese name. You think it is hard to pronounce?”) She seems nice, but I think she is overly dependent upon the lesson plan, and not very at ease with her own English ability. In the first class, she handed out the Bingo card, which had a different “Getting to know you” question in each square, and when the shy students didn’t want to ask me questions after my self-intro was done, she made them read off of that sheet. I thought this was good, as it made them actually speak in English, and eventually 2 or 3 of the students asked me original questions. However, it meant that we ran out of time at the end, which distressed Ms. Shiokai no end. I think she thought I was really attached to getting them to play Bingo. Personally, I know Bingo for the time-wasting exercise that it is, and couldn’t have cared less. In any case, it meant that in the next class, I did not repeat my speech, because she translated most of it to make things go faster, she didn’t make them work to ask questions, and we darn well played that Bingo game. That was not my favorite class. I will have to work on that with her.
After lunch, though, I was teaching with Mr. Aoike. Like I said, he’s my supervisor, and despite a tendency towards nervous laughter when having to speak English to me, seems very on the ball. The class we were teaching that afternoon is his homeroom class, so he knows them very well. It is also a class of all girls. The atmosphere in that class was more relaxed and happy than in the other two, and I thought it went the best of all the classes that day. The girls seemed to be understanding more of what I said in my speech, based on the points at which they reacted. Of course, my last sentence of “My boyfriend is still there [in Grinnell], too,” got lots of giggles. It also solicited the most spontaneous questions, so I guess giggles are okay. When they walked around the room asking the Bingo questions, Aoike-sensei made each of them come and ask me one question in English, too, so they were at least practicing some English.
We will see how this compares to teaching the Mukaiyama students later in the week. They’re supposed to be the really studious ones, after all.
Dana Watson 1:06 AM
Sunday, September 01, 2002
School Festival (Part I)
Yesterday was the school festival at Mukaiyama. This is the first installation of telling about school festivals, since Minami has theirs next weekend. Anyway, the first thing I noticed about the day was that it was Saturday and I was still having to get up at 6:45 am and hike up the hill to the school. What a start to the weekend. I didn’t have any duties at the festival; I was just supposed to be there.
The festival is also the reason I didn’t really have anything to do in the first week of school being back in session. All the classes and clubs were preparing for Friday, the first day of the festival, which I wasn’t there for, as it was a Minami day for me. On Saturday, the school was opened for the public to visit. I’m not sure if this is meant more for parents of current students, or people in the neighborhood, or prospective students, but in any case, all the clubs had decorated classrooms and some were running carnival games. The tea ceremony club was performing and serving tea. The biology and chemistry club had set up lots of demonstrations, and the members tried very hard to explain to me in English how to make nylon and why the liquid in the beakers changed colors when you shook them, but eventually they settled on “A miracle!” and “Magic!” which are hardly very scientific answers. They also showed me how to make some lovely purple slime, (I got to choose the color,) and thoughtfully put it in a film canister for me to take home.
But to tell the day in order, I should go back to the beginning. At 9:00, the school opened to the public. At 10:00, the real activities got started, when the band began its performance in the gym. Allow me to rave about the band at Mukaiyama. They are fantastic! They had three bands worth of students, and I think maybe they were divided by class year. (There are only 3 years of high school in Japan.) All three bands were playing quite sophisticated pieces, based on my previous experience with high school music selections, and not one single student made a mistake. I’m not kidding. I was sitting on the side with a good view of the tympani section, and they were all precisely on beat, even the girl playing the plastic ear of corn in the last piece. (Rhythm sections are always so inventive.) After each band had played its own piece, the last band stayed out with their instruments, and the other band members came out in the front to sing, all swaying in unison, everyone’s favorite musical piece, “It’s a Small World.” First they “la-la”ed it, then sang it in English, and then in Japanese. The Japanese rendition was understandably louder. Then there was a more lively Latin medley, for which the band members playing did what I interpret as Japanese marching band stuff, in that they were all turning around in a choreographed manner, but it was all in a small space around their chairs. I found out later that the band director, whose nickname is “The Panda” due to his uncanny resemblance, does this at every school where he teaches. Students come to Mukaiyama just to be taught by him. He works miracles, and he’s only been here a year. The trombonists who did a four-person solo in the first piece were all first year students (ichinensei) who had never played instruments before entering high school. It was very impressive.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get to last long enough, in my opinion. Next up was the drama club, for which Kamiyama-sensei is the advisor, and they gave an hour-long play written or arranged by one of the students. I have no idea what it was about, and it appeared to actually be 3 plays interspersed amongst one another, so my ability to follow the plot was somewhat limited. All the furniture that Kamiyama-sensei has been obsessing about getting built for the past several weeks looked good, though, and the acting all seemed good.
Then there was a pause in the day for me. I think there was something going on in the courtyard, but I don’t know what, since I went to get lunch after visiting the tea ceremony club’s room. After that, the 2 hours of karaoke competition started. This was between all the sports teams, originally, but other clubs participate now, and it seems to be the main event for the students. They get really into it, with costumes and choreography, and the audience all votes on who they thought was the best. I think the guy from the judo club, who sang like he had inhaled a bunch of helium, won.
Then the school was closed and the students took down all the decorations and returned the school to normal. Japanese students are the fastest I’ve ever seen at moving furniture and cleaning up a space. Very organized. Then there was the closing ceremony, which apparently went over schedule, as it was still going on when I left.
The Welcome Party
Not that I got to sit around recovering from my long working Saturday for very long. I got home around 5:15, and then had to leave again at 6:30 to be downtown at 7:00 for my welcome party, which was being held in conjunction with the end-of-festival party. Apparently, holding a double party like that is considered somewhat rude towards me, but they’ve got so many other things happening in September that there was no other way. I certainly don’t mind, but they were concerned anyway.
The party was held at a traditional Japanese-style restaurant. This means taking shoes off at the door to the raised tatami room, low tables, and sitting on the floor. The restaurant’s specialties were chicken and crab. We were served 6 dishes, starting with sashimi (raw fish), and moving on to chicken and potatoes, grilled chicken, salad, young tofu beans in the pod, and a miso soup with shellfish. I thought it was all good, except I didn’t try the soup at the end, as I was full by that time, and I’m not particularly fond of shellfish.
And then, of course, there were the toasts. Throughout the entire serving and eating process, there were numerous toasts and speeches made. They kyoto-sensei (vice-principal in charge of the staff room) made a welcoming speech for me, and then I had to say how happy I was to be in Japan, and then some other teachers spoke, and then the teacher who had organized the festival came, and there were more speeches and toasts. My main achievement of the evening was establishing that I do not drink, which was okay, as there was at least one other teacher there who couldn’t drink either, so there was oolong tea. I did have to explain why, which was first just that I think pretty much all alcohol tastes horrible, and then explaining that I think the burning sensation in my chest feels like an asthma attack. The teacher who had really wanted the explanation looked rather drunkenly serious at this, and said gravely, “You are missing out on half the pleasures of life.” Who knew?
Amongst all the speeches, I discovered that I have committed one major faux pas here in Japan. I have apparently been discomfiting any number of teachers, and the kyoto-sensei, by looking directly into their eyes when they are talking to me. Ack! I knew that wasn’t a Japanese thing to do, but it’s hard enough for me to understand them as it is; it’s just harder if I’m not looking at them when they’re talking. And besides that, it has been indelibly ingrained into me that it’s just plain rude to not look at someone when they’re speaking. It shows you’re paying attention. I don’t think that’s something I’m ever going to be able to stop doing. Oh, well. I’m gaijin, I’m supposed to get it wrong.
All in all, it was a pleasant evening, and I was able to escape before the “second party” got started by pleading an expected phone call in the morning. Japanese parties don’t really end, you see, they just change venues. I believe the “second party” was moving on to a karaoke bar, which I, in terribly unadventurous and un-Japanese fashion, have been endeavoring to avoid. And so ended my very long Saturday.
Dana Watson 6:48 AM