Dana Goes to Japan


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Monday, November 25, 2002

How to…
I am now teaching my Thanksgiving lesson. I’m rather proud of it. I wrote the entire lesson plan myself, and it even makes the students practice grammar stuff. Here’s how it goes. First we play Hangman, a warm-up activity that for once only takes the 5 minutes it’s supposed to. Then I read them a really simple rendition of the story of Thanksgiving. Then we cover any confusing vocabulary, then they repeat the broken down sentences after me, and then they translate the paragraph sentence by sentence one student at a time. And then we have the “how to” activity. I give them an example of “How to make a pumpkin pie,” and then they must, in groups, tell me how to do something. Here are some of the examples I’ve gotten.

How to make a cupnoodle. First, open the cover. Next, pour hot water in the cup. Then, wait for 3 minutes. When past three minutes, open the cover. Last, mix well. Help your self!

(How to make a sandwich) First, put the lettuce on the bread. Next, put the ham on the lettuce. Then put the cheese on the ham. Then put the tomato on the cheese. Last put the bread on the tomato. (Sounds like “Farmer in the Dell” to me.)

How to across the road. First, look right. Next, look left. Then look right again. Last across the road with rising the hand. (Don’t ask.)

How to make boiled eggs. First, boiled water in pot. Next, put eggs and vinegar. Then, eggs boiled for fifteen minutes. Last turn off a gas cooker.

How to read the book. First choose the book. Next open the book. Last read the book.

How to read book. First choice book which you want to read. Next open the first page. Then open the next page. Last close book.

How to read the book. First the book buy the store. Next open the book. Then read the book. Last close the book.

How to use a kotatsu. First, turn on a switch. Next oneself leg into a kotatsu. Last, eat orange. (I love this one.)

How to make hot milk. First, boil milk. Next, turn off fire before boil. Last, pour the milk to nice cup.

How to cut the hair. First, wet the hair. Next, cut the hair. Last, wash the hair.

How to become a jockey. First, take exams and pass. Next, study very hard at schoor for three years. Last, take exams for become a jockey and pass. (I have no earthly idea.)

Friday, November 22, 2002

It’s time once again for…
Random cultural observations!

The Japanese really, really like to introduce people. This morning, the man who was there to turn on the boiler got introduced to the entire staff at the morning meeting, including receiving a round of applause.

What I would normally consider a rear-mounted parcel rack on a bicycle actually is not. In Japan, it is a passenger seat, especially amongst the high school population. It’s terribly common to see uniformed kids zipping along talking to their friend over their shoulder, who is holding onto the actually biking person’s waist or the back of the rack, with his/her feet propped on the turned up kickstand.

On Japanese TV, when a person is arrested, they don’t fuzz out their face, they fuzz out their hands, so no one can see the handcuffs. Also, on one of the many police-based sitcoms here, when arresting a sympathetic character in front of his girlfriend, the compassionate police officers made a point of not cuffing him. So apparently, it’s the handcuffs here that are the real sign of shame.

Twice now, on my way home from karate, there has been a college-aged guy sitting under the overpass that goes over the river walk, playing his guitar. He sits on the ground under the light set into the concrete wall, while the cars pass overhead, and no one can hear him more than a few feet away. The first time I saw him, he had his bike parked behind him and his music spread out on the ground in front of him. This last time, he had not only his bike, but a small portable music stand. The Japanese would all make great Boy Scouts. They are always prepared.

Speaking of his bike, it was one of those really silly-looking ones that are made to be space efficient. I think maybe they fold up, too. Anyway, they have these tiny little wheels that are about a third of the normal size, but with really tall handlebar and seat posts, which makes the person look like they’re riding a normal bike at the top, but it got shrunk somehow before it got to the ground, which makes them peddle really fast to compensate.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Talk like an American
Today’s classes were the funniest I’ve ever taught. First of all, they had the famous scene all about making invitations to another person, in which I get to turn down my JTE for a date, telling him he’s “not my kind of guy.” Since today I was teaching with Kamiyama-sensei, and he has the best rapport with his classes of all of my JTEs, this was really funny.

Then I gave the kids my activity. I’m proud of this one. They are each given a strip of paper with an activity, a day, and a time on it, as well as a weekly schedule. They then walk around the room inviting people to do their activity and getting invited in return, gradually filling in their schedule. Though I have taught this class maybe 3 or 4 times now, I forget how many, today was the first time I heard the kids actually making variations on my example conversation of their own free will. One kid was very amusing, though, in his determination to fill in every day on his schedule. He was standing in the middle of the room calling out “Tuesday, Tuesday, do you have something to do on Tuesday?” Then he came up to Kamiyama-sensei and asked, “Do you have something to do on Wednesday?” I relearned the meaning of the phrase “totally taken aback” at the look on his face when Kamiyama-sensei replied, “No, I don’t.” This was also the class with the infamous loud kid, whom I love because he is so utterly willing to say anything in English, whether he knows the meaning or not, which in turn encourages the rest of the class to open their mouths at all. He’s a total clown. And then there’s the boy who is a total nerd. He always wears slacks and tucked-in button-down shirts, has glasses, and neatly combed hair (a rarity in the land of the stylishly tousled spiked bed-head look). He invited me to go shopping with him for a coat and muffler, which was totally from his own imagination. He’s the only boy I saw willingly talk to more than one girl. Which takes me to the poor boy who was standing around not asking anyone, so I pointed him in the direction of a girl who had just finished up with one of her friends. He looked totally horrified at the idea of asking a girl and shook his head vigorously while turning red.

But the absolute hilarious highlight of both classes was when Kamiyama-sensei was explaining the importance of using the right sounds in speech, especially “l” and “r,” and avoiding “katakana English.” He was trying to make the point that when speaking a foreign language, you should try to sound as much like an native speaker as possible, and as a real life example, demonstrated by speaking Japanese like an American. It’s just so funny! You have no idea. I laughed louder than some of the kids. I think I’m going to try to teach them “l”s and “r”s by making them sing “Deck the Halls.” If only I had a video copy of “A Christmas Story” for the scene in the Chinese restaurant.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Lunchtime Entertainment
Well, that was unexpected. Apparently, it is a tradition at Mukaiyama at some point during the fall to have musical groups perform at lunchtime. Today’s performers included the what I suspect was the entire saxophone section of the band, plus a clarinet and drum player, and then a typical high school rock band, featuring a lead singer whose main talent was looking good while screaming, a second guitarist who lived for jumping off the stage, and a bassist who was actually good (and one of my students). I wonder if they’ll still be doing it next week. I know they are tomorrow, because I could hear them announcing the next scheduled performance, but, alas, I’m at my other school tomorrow.

Weird Weather
Okay, I know I talked some earlier about how this year’s weather in Japan is all weird. They’ve been going on and on about all the record highs and lows we’ve been hitting, what with summer hanging on for an extra month and then winter coming a month early. But the other night was the weirdest weather report I’ve ever seen. It was all about sand. Yellow sand from deserts in China, to be precise. And why was this on the weather report in Japan? Because it’s blowing all over Japan right now, especially in the north. It reduced visibility in one city to less than 3 km. As if that isn’t strange enough, they then went on to report that this is considered strange, not because it is sand from China blowing around in the air of Japan, but because it’s usually only seen in the spring. Never before has it been seen in the fall like this, at least, not since they started keeping records a century ago or so. The weather report at the end of the half hour bilingual news is often the most entertaining part of the whole broadcast.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Tea Kettles
The longer I’m here, the more strange things start to make sense. For example, on the little 15 minute morning drama I used to watch when I first got here (it has since ended), there were always tea kettles sitting on stoves in the middle of the room. It seemed strange to me that there was such an obsession with tea that it would be sitting on a burner in the middle of the room like that. But now I understand. Those stoves were the kind for heating the house in winter, they were sitting in the middle of the room because they were trying to heat as much as possible, and the tea kettle was sitting on top to humidify the room. How smart is that? I think that’s really cool. And it means you always have hot water if you do decide you want tea. I know this now because both of my schools just got out the industrial sized space heaters to heat the staff rooms. They must have gotten permission to get them out early, as the prefectural BOE has a rule that they’re not allowed to turn them on until the end of the month. Since winter arrived a month early this year, we were sitting around freezing last week.

New Toys for Dana
or Christmas in November

Yes, I admit it. I was bad. I bought myself new toys. I can’t really insist it was consumer therapy, since I wasn’t particularly depressed, but it still made me really happy. Laox is a dangerous store. I begin to think that the main reason that I was never very interested in electronic gadgets before is that I never had the money to warrant the interest before. Oh, dear. I’m really going to have to start avoiding that store now.

So what did I buy, you ask? Oh, let me tell you! Ever since I got to Japan, I’ve wanted an MD player. For those of you not up on your electronics acronyms, that’s mini-disc player. They’re really cool, extremely tiny, and everyone in Japan has one. Or at least, all the high school students that I end up walking to school behind and all the young business people on the subway do. I’m not sure why mini-discs aren’t really a big thing in the US yet. Cars in Japan now come with MD players installed in the dash, along with the CD player. And MDs take up such incredibly tiny amounts of room. For instance, I could probably fit 8 of them in my purse, along with the player and whatever book I’m reading at the time. (That’s how you can tell it’s my purse. It has a book in it. Duh.)

But I couldn’t get a “cheap” MD player that didn’t record MDs on its own, because I didn’t have any way to record them otherwise. So I convinced myself not to get one and just lust after them on infrequent trips to Laox, usually with Kamiyama-sensei, electronics junkie that he is. Until this past Sunday, that is. This past Sunday, I went to Laox with Sharon so she could pay for her washing machine to be delivered, and then, we passed through the stereo section of the store “on the way out.” Sharon’s throwing a party next weekend, and was looking for viable options to her laptop to play music, so she had a legitimate reason, sort of. I was just looking. I shouldn’t have. I should have turned my head away in stalwart refusal to be tempted. But instead, I saw it. That siren of the stereo world, the combination CD, tape, and MD player/recorder. With a color-morphing display panel, no less. Oh, it was pretty. Oh, it would record both tapes and MDs. Oh, I wanted it. But I was strong. I resisted. For the whole rest of the afternoon and most of the next day.

Yes, I broke. Yesterday I went back to Laox after work and bought the lovely thing. Laox is like drugs. They have this sneaky way to addict you. It’s a points card. I had over Y1000 on mine from when I bought my phone, so I used that to get the price reduced on the stereo, but that in turn put another Y2000 on the card, and that enabled me to casually wander over to the MD player display, point to the pretty purple one, and buy it and a set of 5 blank MDs. It’s a never ending cycle.

Then I got to take everything home and play with it. This is what I’ve discovered about Japanese electronics. (1) They include batteries. The stereo came with a remote, and it had a set of batteries taped to it. How considerate. (2) They all talk to you. Whenever I turn on the power button for either device, the display screen says “Hello!” These are very friendly pieces of electronics. My stereo tells me good-bye as well. (3) MD players are just neato-nifty-cool. It has this bit that connects the player to the headphones if you want to, which makes the cord really long, so the player can stay in your bag without yanking the earphones out of your ears, and at the end of this attachment, where you actually connect the headphones, there is a control stick that can clip to your bag or coat or whatever. It has a scrolling view screen and more controls than are found on the actual player, all on a little round thing about the size of a person’s finger. Oh, and mine’s purple.

I’m sure I will discover many other wonderful things as I have more time to play with them and decipher the Japanese instruction manual. All I really need to do now is find a way to ship it home when it’s time for me go…

Critical Thinking
So mostly on this blog, I have been concentrating on neat things I notice in Japan, fun stuff I do on the weekends, etc, and not saying too much about the supposed reason I’m here, which is to teach English. Allow me now to take a critical look at the English language education system in Japan. I shall attempt to summarize it briefly.

It isn’t working.

There, that was brief, wasn’t it? Seriously, I have respect for the JET program and the Japanese education ministry for trying to implement native speaker team-taught instruction on such a broad scale, but it’s just not working. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the kids I’m teaching in first year classes, all in their 4th mandatory year of English study, are learning things that I learned in the one month I spent at Beloit. Granted that was an accelerated course, but it still corresponds the first semester of language study in the US.

When I took Japanese in high school, I found it to be one of the most effective foreign language courses I had ever taken. It was a team-taught class with an American teacher and a native speaker. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But the thing is, the native speaker was always there, every day, for every Japanese class taught at Enloe. She was definitely part of the class because she was just as involved in the teaching as the American teacher in charge of the curriculum. She could make lesson contributions that extended from one lesson to another, she knew the students, she knew the teacher.

I, on the other hand, am supposed to teach with at least 10 different teachers in 20 different classes, but only with 2-3 classes per day. This means that I only see each class once every two weeks. Each class has 40 students in it, meaning there are 800 total students, at two different schools, that I am supposed to get to know while only seeing them on a bi-weekly basis. For me, this just can’t be done. I know that Miyagi used to never have its high school ALTs split between schools and is forced to do so now due to budget constraints, but I don’t think it’s doing anyone any favors.

I’m not quite sure what my goal should be here. I know to effectively teach these students English. Even without being able to speak Japanese in class, I believe I could teach them far more English than they’ve learned up to this point. But I would need to be in the classes every day. The teachers here, when I’m not in the class, rarely use any spoken English beyond reading aloud the example in the textbook, usually in “katakana” English. (ex: “He letto the daagu auto avu the house.” – He let the dog out of the house.) They then dissect the sentence in detailed Japanese, delving into the minutiae of grammar, but without giving the students any real sense of how to spontaneously construct a sentence. So many people in Japan are under the distinct impression that all phrases in English must be learned as idioms, and there must be only one right way to say something, whereas I think the most important thing I learned while studying abroad is that you should use the vocabulary and grammar you do have to approximate what you don’t, in order to reach the end goal of language use, that being communication. Japanese students will basically never open their mouths to give voice to English utterances that are not written down in front of them because the pressure of not knowing all the words or not getting the grammar right terrifies them into silence.

Another big problem, in my opinion, is the fact that English is mandatory. Many of my students are not interested in English as anything more than one more subject for them to pass tests on. They don’t have any motivation. English isn’t fun, and it won’t be useful to them outside of the classroom. Though the Japanese have an obvious obsession with all things American (think orientalism in reverse), they don’t have a great desire to understand Western cultures, or really even travel to them. When I asked my students to tell me places they wanted to visit, the overwhelming majority gave back answers of other places in Japan, rather than the European and American answers I was expecting. One must remember that the Japanese are a very insular society. Their country may be small in comparison to the US, but they are just as capable of the same egocentrism that the rest of the world sees Americans as displaying. To most Japanese people, as Dave Barry noted, English words just look good; they don’t care what they mean. Kind of like Western people who want to put Chinese and Japanese characters on everything, no? Think about that the next time you want to buy that pillow/t-shirt/picture frame.

At Minami, my Monday/Friday school, one of the teachers flat out said that he thinks the US system of high school education, with its choices in electives, especially foreign languages, is better. From what I’ve seen of Japanese high schools, I agree. I would not have wanted to be a high school student in Japan. The US educational system, despite what Bush may want, is moving away from the “teaching to the test” method. Educational theory classes are now rife with buzzwords such as “student-centered learning.” I greatly begin to suspect that the only reason Japanese students tend to do better on standardized tests than American ones is because they all have test-taking down to a science. Japanese students learn their material, they just don’t learn to apply it to anything. The only reason most Japanese high schoolers see to learn anything is to get the right answers on the all-important test. I see very little motivation other than that. This makes my job all the harder. How am I supposed to make these apathetic students enjoy English learning when I only see them once every two weeks?

The more I think about what I could be doing in comparison with what I am doing, the more frustrated I get. But then I remember Dayle, with her spread out schools, teachers who won’t speak English to her, who barely use her in class, and the totally rural setting in which English skills seem even less useful than in Sendai, and I think I haven’t got it so bad. If anything, it’s making me more certain that my intended field of study in graduate school has a lot of room for work.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Kotatsu Update
As of about 20 minutes ago, I have a working kotatsu! Of course, the only table quilt thing they had the right size was a rather busy floral print, but I don't care. I'm warm! Hooray!

A neat thing about the table was that it came with its own screwdriver attachment, so we were able to set it up, with the legs securely screwed on, in about 15 minutes. The undercovering that insulates the floor underneath the table nearly takes up my whole living room. No need to buy a carpet now.
Last night at karate was the night I had been waiting for since I started taking the class. Of course, such a night was made possible by the fact that the main teacher didn’t turn up until nearly the end of class, so it was basically the other students running everything, but that’s okay. What did we do that was so exciting, you ask?

Why, we compared kata, style to style! Hooray! I think this was possible because the other students are like me, enthusiasts of martial arts, still happy with and enjoying their style, but not so caught up in the precision of teaching all the time that things from other styles are necessarily “wrong.” The main instructor, for instance, is absolutely determined to reteach me how to throw a roundhouse kick by turning on the ball of my foot rather than the heel and starting with my leg in front kick position. While I can get myself to do it his way on occasion, it is rarely when kicking the bag, and I know I’ll never do it when sparring or if I ever have to defend myself, so it seems kind of pointless. And he never, ever wants to see and Shotokan kata.

But last night, the woman who’s a grand champion and loves kata as much as me was there, and basically in charge, and she actually asked me to show my versions of various high level kata. So I showed Hengetsu, Bassa-dai, Kanku-dai, and Sanjente. (I really don’t think I spelled some of those right. Oh, well.) It felt so good to get to do my upper level kata, and all full out, with enough space, to an appreciative audience! Then each of the three students did their version of one of mine.

I have also learned the first three basic Shorin-Ryu kata now, so I’m starting to get a better grasp of how, exactly, the two styles’ forms differ. Shotokan uses far fewer stances in its forms, especially the low level ones. It basically only uses zenkutsudachi and backstance. Shorin-Ryu uses zenkutsudachi, but not for all punches. Many punches are done from a straight-legged stance that makes me feel like someone’s going to yell “Bend you knees!” at me at any minute. Also, my punch is extended straight out to the side from my shoulder in that move, which is never done in Shotokan. They throw shuto in front stance, but also sometimes in cat-stance, and don’t seem to have a regular rooted backstance. Their kicks tend to be thrust rather than snap, and they use the uraken (backfist) as a block instead of the inward block I learned. Their stances tend to have the toes turned out, instead of always straight forward, and at slight angles, instead of always either facing straight front, or precisely sideways.

It’s kind of like having to learn Portuguese after becoming fluent in Spanish; I keep wanting to use the wrong pronunciation for things that are far too similar for me to keep them straight. And of course, I think it’s all neat. I just wish the other students got to teach me more often.

Marumori, Part II
The next day we all got up, had a leisurely morning, starring my and Dayle’s oatmeal and banana bread, as well as enough coffee and tea to satisfy the caffeine addicts in the group. After cleaning everything up, it was time for a hike.

On the map at the entrance to the campground, we had seen that there was supposed to be a large waterfall at the end of one of the hiking trails, and we set off to find it. It was a perfect day for a hike. The weather was properly fall-like, necessitating a sweater, scarf, and gloves, but not a coat; the sun was shining, the leaves changing, the water in the river clear. The trail was rather Goldilocks-like, neither too flat nor too steep, too developed nor too undertended. I kept getting flashbacks to the hiking our family did on our cross-country trip in which we hit as many national parks as we could. I really love the mountains.

Eventually we reached the top of a woody sloped part of the trail which had wound through lots of nice, straight trees, and found a small shrine. Not as small as the tiny little one Alex and I found the day before, but like a very small one room cabin, complete with the standard Shinto bell and rope, with an offering box beneath. Beyond that, the path led…

To the waterfall. It really was very pretty. It was two levels, completely surrounded by trees and boulders, with the water feeding the river and making the water gush over the rocks a bit more vigorously than further downstream. I tried to drink in as much of the sights and sounds as I could.

Eventually, though, we had to go back, because it was lunchtime, Kristel, Kayoko, and Noriko were going to be arriving soon, and Sharon had to catch the train back. When we got back to the cabin, Kristel, et al. were there already, and informed us that there had been an earthquake while we were out. None of us on the hike had noticed it, presumably because we were already moving on uneven ground, but it made the cabin sway, and apparently is the quake that made the news in all of the Tohoku region.

That night, after the rest of the people broke out the alcohol that had come on the trip with us (what would a trip with Danola be without S. African wine?) and I had taken an anti-histamine, which made me about as spacey, although technically more sober, we had a marvelous dinner, which, since it was made by Alex and Noriko, was nearly gourmet, involving miso soup, roasted rice balls, those rice dumpling things that no one can remember the names of, and a fried potato concoction, followed by roasted marshmallows. A large group of college and grad students had moved into the cabins next to ours, so we invited them over as well and introduced them to the wonder that is a ball of sugar on the end of a stick, heated over a campfire. They, being proper Japanese travelers, prepared for any occasion, broke out the omiyage food, and gave us all cookies and Pocky. Between their English and our Japanese, we managed to carry on for quite some time, until it started raining.

I’m not really sure about all of what happened after that, because I went to bed, and eventually everyone else did, too. In the morning, we all got up, had breakfast, and cleaned the cabin to be checked out by 10 am. We successfully journeyed back to Sendai, where I, of course, introduced Dayle to Muji, Beard Papa’s Pipin’ Hot Cream Puffs, and let her go back through Jupiter to get real hot chocolate. All in all, a very good weekend.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Marumori, Part I
This weekend was amazing. If this is what experiencing fall is like when one isn’t in school, unencumbered by homework on the weekends and all that comes with it, then I’m tempted to never go back. (Just kidding.) But seriously, this weekend was great. It was yet another three day weekend, yesterday being Culture Day. You gotta love Japan. This time, Danola had been planning ahead for weeks and weeks, and gotten us all organized to go to Marumori, a mountain town about an hour away from Sendai. She had met Jane, a woman who’s an independent ALT there, and who provided us with scads of information about where to go and what to do.

First of all, let me define “we.” In this case, “we” is a rather large group of people, that being just about every ALT Danola could find to fill an 8 person cabin for two nights. For the first night, there was me, Danola, Alex, Sharon, Richard, John, and Dayle, who has now met nearly all of the whole crazy Sendai group. On the second day, Sharon left, and Kristel arrived with Kayoko and Noriko, the Japanese women of last weekend’s fame. So there you go, a whole list of names that you will now promptly forget. But I’ve fulfilled my obligation to list the cast.

Let’s get to the chronology. On Thursday, Kamiyama-sensei once again gave me the use of his patience, Japanese skills, and car, and I went and purchased, quite literally, a bed in a bag. Those bedding catalogues in the US use that term to refer to a full set of bedding, but here in Japan, it’s the whole bed: mattress, comforter, and pillow all in one plastic zippered bag. So now I have a guest futon. Come visit me!

This was just in time for Dayle to arrive from Iwate on Friday afternoon. She was smarter than me and took the bus, which is only an hour longer and about half the price. Eventually we found each other at Sendai Station, after about half an hour of wandering around looking at all the buses, and then the fun began. Morioka is, let me remind you, rather small, and Iwate as a whole is extremely rural. Dayle had never seen such luxury as can be found in Jupiter, the import food store in the basement of the station. She was in heaven at finally finding baking soda. The wealth of options in other random food items was rather overwhelming. She wants to come back just for Jupiter. We had been assigned breakfast duty for the first morning of this outing, so we bought oatmeal and dried fruit, as well as the baking soda and some hot chocolate, tea, and chai. Then we walked back to my apartment, dumped our stuff, and went to the little grocery store down the street to get stuff for dinner and regular ingredients for banana bread. Dayle had brought her baking pans for this half of our breakfast preparation.

After our dinner of tofu, fruit, and silly snack foods, we tackled the bread. Or rather, we tackled the microwave, since the bread itself was pretty simple. (At least, I assume it was, as Dayle whipped it together right quick, while I was doing dishes.) My mysterious microwave does indeed function as an oven. Only one pan of bread could fit at a time, but it did indeed produce bread in the end, and it received rave reviews when we served it. Then we got out both of my futons (!) and went to bed.

At 7:30 am the next morning, we got up gathered all our stuff, and walked to the station. We were there in time to have breakfast at Starbucks (can’t escape it), much to the envy of Danola and Sharon, who we met at 9 at the train platform, along with all the others. Eventually, after some confusion about what train line to take, and sending Alex off to question various station personnel, we got on our way. When we got to Marumori, after changing trains successfully in the middle and everything, we were too late for the rock-skipping contest, so instead we just got taxis to the campground.

It was beautiful! The Japanese know how to camp. There were cabins for 4 or 8 people, nice level tent spaces, even a small playground, arranged on either side of a river, which was also lined with hiking paths that continued on into the mountains. The river was gorgeous, incredibly clear water flowing over large boulders and stones. The mountains were full of changing fall leaves and green pines. The cabin we were staying in had lots of nice wooden beams, a loft, 4 bunks lined with tatami, a kitchen, a bath, and a heater. I do believe it was the most comfortable large group camping accommodations I’ve ever experienced.

While everyone else was at the grocery store, Alex, Dayle, and I took a short hike up the nearest path to a bridge, and admired all the fall colors. There was one place along the trail where a tree had fallen over a small ravine to the side of the path. Everything on the hill was shaded and green, all the trunks rising up straight behind the one tree that had fallen. At various points the river slowed over the rocks below, making small waterfalls and gurgling noises. On the way back, we found a vine as thick as the tree it was wrapped around, rising up into the branches of the trees around it, wandering all over the place. But then we went back to the cabin to let everyone else back in and get everything put in order before dinner.

Eventually, they all came back and we got all settled. Before dinner, and before the sun went down, Alex and I took another hike. This time we took a different path that went much higher up on the mountain, with lots of steps. We had just gotten to the top of the steps when we found an overlook point. It was at the bottom of a large pile of boulders, with a craggy pine growing out of the top. When we walked around to the other side of the rock, back on the path, we found that that side was covered with the roots of the trees growing on and around the rocks, making a little hill out to the top of the boulders we had been standing at the base of before. Amongst the vines, a tiny shrine had been placed. I sent a thought of pleasure to the tiny godlet that the Shinto had decided lived there, and went out to sit on the top of the boulder, level with the branches of the pine growing on the outlook level, and watched the daylight fade over the tops of the mountains.

Let’s talk about the weather
Just a general update, but in case you didn’t know, winter has reportedly arrived about a month early all over Japan. A cold front has swooped in and decided to make itself comfortable. There is snow on many a mountain here in the Tohoku region, not to mention Hokkaido. The favorite phrase on everyone’s lips is “Samui desu ne?” (Cold, isn’t it?) I can see my breath when I wake up in the mornings, and all my students are wearing coats inside. We need a central heating revolution over here, y’all!

Monday, November 04, 2002

A Field Guide to Japanese Schoolchildren
For the avid schoolchild-watcher, here is a handy way to recognize your favorite variety from afar. All Japanese schoolchildren wear backpacks on their way to school. You don’t need to remember your field glasses to identify them, nor are they wary of larger human observers, so get out there and enjoy, keeping the following easy identifiers in mind.

1)Elementary school students rarely wear uniforms, but they are the smallest of the breed, making them easy to spot. Male students carry shiny black hard sided backpacks, while girls carry red. Younger students have yellow caution signs affixed over the outer flap of their packs.

2)Junior high students are often easily confused with their senior high counterparts, but they must carry identical blue and white backpacks. Also, their uniforms tend to be more conservative, especially in the length of the girls’ skirts.

3)Senior high students often wear uniforms similar to junior high students, but can often be seen with untucked shirts, baggy trousers, sweatshirts over their uniform shirts, extremely short skirts, and “loose socks.” None carry matching backpacks, but rather tend toward highly individualized bags instead.