15 December 2008

Let Them Speak Slang!

AKA: It appears that, no matter where I go, I will come off as being "manly."

Recently, I said something to Saito-sensei with a slang pronunciation that, I fear to admit, I picked up from my students. Another teacher looked up at what I said and turned to Saito-sensei, saying, "And Leslie used to speak such nice Japanese."

It seems the unfortunate case that the sort of slang I always hear happens to be that which falls under the "male language" category. It may be that female slang passes by my ears without notice, or that male slang is mostly using a different pronunciation of regular words - I really don't know. In any case, whenever I feel like being a little more natural in my word choice, I come off as manly.

To a certain extent, I hang out with the wrong crowd - I don't have many Japanese friends, and really have none that are my age. It's perhaps not surprising that I have a hard time knowing what slang to use and where. On top of that, I speak Japanese mostly in situations that should be at least slightly formal - at work, while speaking with strangers, and so forth.

Oh well, it can't be helped.

Expect a post later on the JLPT experience - it's mostly written and just needs one more glance-over before I post it.

01 December 2008

We interrupt to bring you this important message.

Well, maybe not important.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is coming up this Sunday. While I'm trying to stop saying that I will assuredly fail, my confidence in my ability to pass is fairly low. Still, I'm studying my hardest and doing all I can to, as the Japanese say, 頑張る。* ("Ganbaru" means "to do to the best of one's abilities," but is used for a wide range of meanings, from "good luck" to "...deal with it!")

So, as I'm trying to commit myself to my studies, I'm not going to be taking the time to post until I'm all finished. Once that happens, mind, I have several things to write about (birthday parties for 14 year-old Japanese boys, for starters, and a long delayed account of Sports Day). In the meantime, entertain yourself as I have with this. I highly suggest downloading it. It makes me feel warm just listening to it as it runs in the background. And hey, who doesn't love Fahrenheit 451?

And, while I have you clicking links...
- I get the giggles every time I watch this.
- Silly Elvis Costello! We all know you can't play the piano.

(Clearly, I spend a lot of time on the Colbert Report website.)

Have a good week and I'll see you all again after Sunday!


*Sorry for the split infinitive, Mom!

25 November 2008

Here's to You.

In Japan, any individual's absence from work, when it is not work-related, requires some sort of apology to the group. If one travels, for example, one should (read: must) bring back "omiyage," loosely translated as souvenirs, for those at the work place. In other cases, an announcement of what one was doing and throwing in a short "I'm sorry I've been gone lately" at the morning meeting seems to suffice.

Earlier last week, the school nurse's father died. She disappeared from school in the middle of the day, and the whispered explanation of her absence spread through the staffroom like a plague. Only the students were immune to it, not being privileged enough to hear such personal information. She was gone for several days, only reappearing today.

With puffy eyes and a tired demeanor, Sato-sensei apologized for her absence. She spoke for a few minutes, explaining her father's prolonged illness and the reason for her sudden disappearance in the midst of a school week. During the 2 minutes that she spoke, I thought of how I, as a 6th grader, burst into tears when a fellow student made a generic jest about my grandmother - both of mine, unbeknownst to my classmate, had died within the 3 days prior. I would not have had the strength then to stand up in front of my peers and state, calmly and coolly, that my mother's mother had been in a coma for a week or two due to a sudden stroke, or that my father's mother had been on a slow decline from disease for 5 years, a subject so taboo that I was not even aware of it until her condition had her knocking on Death's door. I don't know that I would have the ability to do so even now. I greatly admire Sato-sensei's strength.

So, here's to you, Sato-sensei.
Here's to you, her father, who has now been released from a 3-year struggle.
And here's to you, Anne and Mary, who passed away 13 years ago this week.

21 November 2008

Ol' Man Winter

The first cold snap surprised everyone in Nitta. Teachers and students like rushed through the cold halls, repeating the mantra of the day: "It's cold! It's cold!" I, too, took to saying it, or agreeing vehemently with it when I heard it from others. Saito-sensei, one of my neighbors in the staffroom, found my dislike of the cold amusing. "Winter is coming," he responded in Japanese every time the word "cold" escaped my lips. I, too, had a stock response: "Don't say nasty things" in Japanese, paired with an icy glare.

For a while, the warm weather returned, and we could at least pretend that fall was going to last a while longer. Saito-sensei took to informing me of the season every day when I arrived, saying things like, "Today's winter, but tomorrow will be autumn." Friday, however, he informed me that we would be seeing nothing but winter from now on, laughing at my response of a groan.

It's not that I hate the cold; I hate the constant, inescapable nature of the cold here. Due to the lack of insulation in Japanese buildings and the expense of running the heaters, one never really feels warm. Those moments when one does get warm are soon followed by extreme cold - taking a bath is wonderful until one has to leave the bath water and stand, dripping wet, in the cold air of the apartment. It almost makes the moments of warmth not worth the shock of cold afterward.

At school, the individual classrooms are heated with kerosene - I find myself having a constant headache throughout the day from the fumes. Worse are the unheated hallways, though, whose cold is so intense that teachers often wear an extra jacket when leaving the staffroom.

Gunma also lays claim to a strong, fierce wind that makes traveling difficult for those of us without cars. I'm not the only one who has noticed that, often, it is quicker to walk than it is to attempt biking; walking is, at the very least, easier.

Of course, winter has its highlights. The onsen, or hot springs, are heated such that being half exposed to the cold is the perfect balance for those who are soaking. Winter fruits are delicious and sweet - manderine oranges, strawberries, and persimmons. The kotatsu, one of my favorite ways of staying warm, plays a prominent winter role. I've been told that the stereotypical image of winter is of huddling at the kotatsu, drinking green tea and eating mandarine oranges while a cat lies curled up at one's feet, a scene I can (and do) recreate on a regular basis.


Having survived one winter here, I feel better prepared to face the cold. In the end, though, I have to admit that this preparedness is also somewhat of a disservice; unlike last year, the hope of it not being able to get worse is instead replaced with the solid knowledge of just how bad it can (and will) get. In short, send me your warmest thoughts the next few months!

10 November 2008

Getting Dressed (and What It Does)

AKA: Leslie Can Walk and Think at the Same Time!

I like to walk to the places near my house - to school, to the grocery store, to the nearby mall. It takes longer, but there's something relaxing in the slowness of it. The benefits are numerous, but now isn't the time or place to go into my exercise-and-general-wellness plan, so I won't. I will say instead that spending an hour or so walking every day gives me a lot of time to think.

As of late, I've been thinking about clothes. It's recently become cold, so I've retired my summer wardrobe and have been rearranging my closet to best fit my winter wear and trying to figure out what is missing before it gets much colder. In doing so, I realized just how much I've changed since I arrived here over a year ago.

Fashion was my enemy. Anyone who has seen "Mean Girls" may understand my dislike for fashionistas. (Imagine the Plastics being, not a group of 3 girls, but 90% of the school population.) I ran from the idea of being fashionable, which to me amounted to spending insane amounts of money on clothing only to find it out of style in a month. After going to a school for 6 years which required a uniform, I found myself at college with little more than t-shirts and jeans to wear. By the time I left WashU, I had shed my dislike for skirts and anything even slightly feminine, and even had a few cute outfits I wore entirely too often.

As soon as I arrived in Japan, however, I realized that I was playing a whole new game and on a completely different field. In the year I've been here, I've become immune to femininity, and my idea of what colors match has drastically changed. I've experimented with clothing in a way with which I never felt comfortable before, as I stand out no matter what I wear. It's been an interesting learning experience.

The result is that I no longer think of clothing like a checklist of things I need in which to be appropriately attired, as though there were a sign on my door similar to those at gas stations, saying, "No shirt, no shoes, no pants, no leaving!" Instead, clothing is like music, or a composition, or spices for cooking - getting dressed involves combining various parts into a cohesive, attractive whole. I no longer find myself thinking, "How long do I need to wait before I wear this outfit again?" ("How long until I have lemon-pepper chicken again?"*) I don't have set outfits anymore; I have, instead, the pieces to a self-expression puzzle.

My mom once told me the story of her meeting my godmother, Del Rae. A group of doctors and their significant others were on a skiing trip in Colorado, and my mom felt out of place among the women who had spent large sums of money on lavish, Southwestern wardrobes. Del Rae, a true Southwestern woman, offered to help my mom with her outfits. "All she did," my mom said, "was take what I had and rearrange it, adding a Southwestern embellishment here and there, but that in and of itself was enough. I was the best dressed there."

The moral of the story - "it's not what you have, but how you use it" - is something I've understood in many aspects of my life. It's just taken me this long to realize what it means for clothing, as well as what it doesn't mean. Being fashionable doesn't mean being rich and vapid; it means expressing oneself in a way everyone can see and comprehend. I must say that I rather like the change in connotation.



*I feel obligated to note that my roommate, hannah, would say that it is never too soon to have lemon-pepper chicken. (And, for anyone who wonders why I still refer to hannah as "my roommate" though we live in different countries, I offer you this bastardized Holmes quote: "To Leslie, she is always 'the roommate.' I have seldom heard her mention her under any other name.")

05 November 2008

The Election as Seen from Japan

AKA: A few thoughts on a historic day.

I sat down for lunch in the staffroom and refreshed the BBC news page on the election - a map showing the results, both popular and electoral, of the voting as the news came in. As I ate, I stared at the map. So, I was watching as the results from California, Oregon, and Washington state pushed Obama over the 270 mark and fully into the Winner's Circle.

Being a Democrat and a supporter of Obama, I eagerly looked around for someone with whom I could share my joy. I squealed and bounced on the balls of my feet. I felt like screaming, running laps around the school and yelling "Obama won!" at the top of my lungs. When the art teacher came in to the staffroom, she took one look at me and said, "Did something happen?"
"Obama!!" I said. She gave me a strange look.
"He won! Obama won!" I was near squealing at this point.
"Oooh, so Obama won..." she said, almost more to herself than to me, continuing to walk to her desk.

Another teacher walked in - one of my English teachers. "Obama won, Obama won!!" I said, actually jumping up and down at this point. My excitement was beginning to draw attention. Murmurs of "what happened?" circulated the room. "Obama won," someone said in Japanese. "Oooh," the murmurers responded as they went back to their lunches, to work, to whatever was waiting them on their desks.

Don't you see, I wanted to say, that this is a historic day? That, no matter who you follow or want to be elected, it's amazing to be alive on the day when a minority figure not only wins the White House, but wins it by a landslide?

The Japanese don't have a say in the election of the Prime Minister. While the news programs note such events, the general populace cares little. On top of this, the Prime Minister rarely makes it through a full term - he does something that angers either his party or some other group of politicians and steps down as an apology. (I sometimes wonder if our system could maybe use a little of this apologizing.) In short, they don't understand how an election of one person over another can truly change a country like the United States, nor do they understand the personal involvement many Americans have with our elections, and especially this one.

I channeled my energy into teaching my last class of the day, which helped, but I find myself excited to end my day in this uncaring atmosphere and rejoice fully at home. Here, I see the shades of what America could be - politics being the barest of acknowledgment of a thing well beyond an individual's power or say. We're already fairly far down that road. Let's not only take these next four years to change our nation, but to change ourselves as well. I, for one, am scared by the blank face of apathy.


Edit: midnight, 6th November

The news has been constantly reporting on Obama's win, to the point that some of my acquaintances are "getting tired of seeing his face." (They say it with a smile, so I allow them the comment.) All of Japan may know about the election results, but I think only those in the city of Obama, Japan are celebrating quite as much as most Americans are. A friend proposed visiting Obama on Inauguration day, and, while her comment may have been tongue-in-cheek, I'm already looking into making reservations.

31 October 2008

Ye Aforementioned Video

Sorry to overload on posts yesterday, for those of you who get the digest version. I wouldn't have read all those entries had they arrived in my inbox, so thanks to those of you who did. :D

It took a couple of hours to upload the video, but here it is for your viewing pleasure: http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=m3IGKQaDDQk
This is the performance I mentioned in my Chorus Competition post. I'm actually pretty impressed with the video's sound quality, considering I took it with my Canon SD600 (aka - not a video camera). So...enjoy!

30 October 2008

How Japan is Green

And How We Can All Be Green, Too

I've recently fallen in love with a website: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ (more specifically, with its sub-site, http://www.re-nest.com/). Aside from having lots of tips for living in small spaces that you may or may not own, it has an entire section (aka: re-nest.com) devoted to do-it-yourself projects and to being as green as possible without crossing the line into insanity. It also features a lot of green/diy options that don't look as if they were done by 3rd graders in science class - it can be quite the accomplishment.

Living in Japan has opened my eyes to a lot of realistic green options I've been taking for granted. It's rare, for example, for a house to have a full-sized oven, a dryer, or a dishwasher. Having "made due" with a toaster oven, line drying, and hand-washing for a year now has made me realize just how well I can function without the larger, energy-wasting versions.

Recycling is huge here. This is largely due to training in schools and heavy fines for those who throw away things inappropriately. While no one I have spoken to fully knows the system for separating out burnable and non-burnable trash (the requirements are very strict), everyone knows to recycle cans, plastic bottles, and glass. On top of this, many drinks come in paper cartons - these, too, are recycled. Recycling can be picked up or can be taken to the grocery stores for those of us who, like myself, don't produce enough to make taking the recycling out for pick up worthwhile. Indeed, it is generally easier to find a place to recycle a can or bottle than it is to find a trash can.

There are rarely paper towels in bathrooms - while some have air-dryers, many do not. Instead, most people carry a handkerchief or a handkerchief-sized towel for drying their hands. This is a general-use towel, too; students use them as drop cloths for their school lunches, for example.

I work in a middle and elementary school, and I'm impressed with the efforts made in these two places as well. Paper that has been printed on one side (but is still good for further use) is collected and reused for inner-office memos and other prints that often build up in an office setting. After that use, they're recycled. Machines in the copy room are unplugged at the end of the day; many are left turned off when not being used. Teachers leave a coffee mug at the school for use with drinks, and most teachers take a policy of washing their mug at the end of the day and rinsing quickly between uses rather than between washing fully after each use. Lunch comes with a carton of milk every day, and these are rinsed in a single bucket of water in each classroom rather than with gallons of water from the tap. Even the design of the school is such that it will save power - the classrooms are built with south-facing windows so as to get as much light (and heat, for winter) as possible during the day - the lights are turned off regularly when a class isn't in session, and even during breaks.

Saving energy at home is an impressive feat as well. Water heaters are connected to a panel in the kitchen which can easily adjust the temperature of the water, as well as turn the heater off when hot water isn't needed. Few houses come with central air; in fact, many function with one or two A/C units in the entire house, and these are run at selective times, if not on a timer. In winter, space heaters and kerosene heaters come into play, also being used at selective times. I'll only mention the kotatsu by name, and encourage anyone who's reading to look it up on Google - it's an amazing invention for winter and quite a power conserver.

Of course, it's rare that one thinks of Japan without thinking of the public transportation options. Due to expense, I decided against getting a car while here, and have been traveling on bike and by train instead - I've found it to not be as limiting as I had originally feared. While it's a pain during excessively cold, excessively hot, or rainy weather, it's nevertheless amazing to me that the idea of biking to the nearest mall (45 minutes one way) doesn't overly phase me anymore.

Not to say the Japanese are perfect by any means - for example, they are obsessed with packaging in a way that is frightening, women flush the toilet multiple times rather than allowing others to hear them pee, and good insulation seems to be a fancy dream. Still, they accept so many green practices as daily life that I can't help but hope that America will soon follow suit after their examples. For my part, I hope to maintain my green training when I return to the States next year. After a year of "making due" with options that at times are less convenient but are always exponentially friendlier to the earth, I've clearly come to see just how do-able these options are.

Chorus Contest v2.0

AKA: Practice Makes Perfect

It's that time of the year again - the Chorus Contest! You may or may not remember it from last year, so here's the short version: each of the homerooms compete against the other homerooms in their grade in a singing contest. They sing two songs - one that the entire grade sings, one that each homeroom picks for itself. Each homeroom picks a student to conduct and a student to play the piano accompaniment; the competition completely relies on the students. The teachers judge each performance and the winners are announced at the end of the competition.

So ... this glorious event happened yesterday.

This year, as far as the official part of the contest is concerned, wasn't very different from last year. The conductors were a little more reserved in their conducting, which was sad - I rather enjoyed the flamboyant Maestros from last year. The performances were also a little disappointing as far as ability was concerned - many of the pieces seemed unbalanced, in that the boys were not informed that their voices would carry much more easily than the girls', making the bass-lines much too prominent.
Or maybe I'm just more critical this year than I was last year; who knows!

Outside of the official competition, however, there was much more unofficial activity. There was a handbell performance, a jazz band performance, a percussion band performance, an a cappella performance, a gymnastics routine, a rock band performance which featured the Vice Principal on rhythm guitar, a skit, a piano duet featuring a third year student (9th grader) and a teacher wearing a student uniform, a PTA chorus rendition of Angela Aki's "Letter," a dance done by the extracurricular music class, and a brass band performance of two popular songs which involved teachers dancing. Pretty chock full of stuff!

I was involved in the a cappella performance (3 people, including myself, singing "Amazing Grace" - I had the melody, which was fun) and the teacher's dance for the brass band (I was dancing to the Ponyo theme song). It was nice to be selected for things and to be included in this way.

However...

We never had a dress rehearsal. The a cappella group never practiced the whole song together. The Ponyo dance didn't ever practice, and only one person dancing knew what the order for the dance was. Other performances, too, reflected a general lack of practice; only the PTA seemed to be on top of their game.

The kids had fun, which was the important part; that being said, the whole thing, as a performance, was very sloppy. Were it just a performance for the students, I wouldn't mind, but here were many relatives and other visitors who had come to watch. I hated that what they saw reflected so poorly, in general, on our school. Still, lack of preparation (and my severe anal-retentive streak) aside, it was a fun occasion.

Of all of the songs, I took only one video, and it happened to be my favorite performance and what won first place for the 3rd year homeroom that performed it. I think I will try putting it up on YouTube so y'all can get a feel for what the students do; more on this in the near future. :)

Gunma Prefecture Day

Last Tuesday was "Gunma Prefecture Day" - all I really ever heard about this was that the students, as well as those with certain jobs, had the day off. Teachers, unfortunately, were not considered to be among "those with certain jobs," but most of the ones in my office took the day off. I decided to do the same, and celebrated Gunma in the way I feel most of her citizens do - by going somewhere else.

I finally made the trip to Odaiba that I've been wanting to make for ages. Odaiba is the bay district of Tokyo, as well as home to the Fuji TV building, the Museum for Maritime Sciences, the Museum for Future Innovations, a very large ferris wheel, and my personal favorite - a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

From right to left - the Statue of Liberty, the Rainbow Tower, and Tokyo Tower.


It was a gorgeous day, so I ended up not going anywhere in particular while in Odaiba and instead just taking pictures from outside. The whole area is gorgeous and is one of the few places in Tokyo where I could actually see myself living and not being miserable. The train ride was scenic, the water was beautiful (though not clean, as far as I've heard), and the sights were wonderful to see. It's not surprising that it is known as one of the more romantic places in Tokyo - the scenery is bound to put anyone in a good mood.

After spending some time wandering around Odaiba, I made my way to Harajuku. For those of you playing the home game, Harajuku is famous for two things - clothing stores and the most bizarre displays of fashion ever. This is where the gothic Lolitas come to roost. I went there for the former rather than the latter; I found a listing for a used clothing store with affordable prices and decided to check it out. I miss my thrift stores, I must say - the opportunity to make ones own clothing modifications is just too few and far between around here when you can't find cheap clothing. (Oh Lord, I'm turning into my brother.)
Long story short - I found the place and was rather pleased with what I found. It was a pretty large store, well-organized, and was understandable at a glance. I found several interesting things, but my best find was either a pair of tweed-esque pants that fit me as though they were made for me or a thigh-length coat with a removable, fuzzy lining that is fairly warm and flattering. All together, I bought a pair of pants, a skirt, two coats, a shrug, and a turtleneck for something around $70. Not bad at all!

I hopped on the local train again and made my way down a couple of stops to Shinjuku, home to the busiest train station in the world. This is where train conductors are known to, at peak hours, push and forcibly pack people into the trains. I was going for something a little gentler - the best view of Tokyo from above.

While many think of Tokyo Tower when it comes to seeing out over Japan, it is well known as being an expensive tourist trap. While I still want to make my way to see it at some point, the $15 or so it costs to go to the topmost observatory was a little more than I was willing to give after my Harajuku buying spree. Still, due to some bad directions / my own stupidity, it took me around an hour longer than it should have to get to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Being 45 stories tall and having two observatories (north and south) makes this an attractive place for tourists who want a view over Tokyo, and, to top it off, visiting the observatories is 100% free of charge. On the recommendation of the ladies at the information desk, I hopped on the elevator for the South tower and arrived with a half hour to spare before the sun set.

Everyone knows Tokyo is big, but it's fairly different knowing that Tokyo could swallow New York whole (and would probably not even notice, at that) and seeing it for yourself. Tokyo is truly immense. The sheer size of it, though, was nothing compared to the spectacle of the sun setting. Japan may be the Land of the Rising Sun, but the sight of the sun sinking down beside Mount Fuji and light reflecting off the buildings as if the whole capitol were a rippling pool of water ... I can't think of many things to rival it. As a mother near me was saying to her son, "Save this image in your head. It's too beautiful for a camera."

Can't see Mt. Fuji yet...


The bump in the cloud cover to the left of the sun (as you look at the image) is Mt. Fuji - the light and clouds obscured it for most of the sunset. You may have to click on the image and enlarge it to see it clearly.


"Seishin" - in Japanese, it is often used to describe an activity that eases the soul. Lately, various things in my life have made me trend towards an ill-temper. As I made my way back to the train station, though, beginning my trek back home, I was feeling at peace. I can't help but feel that this particular trip to Tokyo was one rather full of seishin for me. Despite the general hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and its way of making me constantly feel like a stranger, I can easily think of worse ways to have spent my Gunma Prefecture Day.

02 October 2008

"Shotgun Wedding"

AKA: Aaaaaaawkward...

I was sitting in the staff room recently, chatting with my neighboring teachers, when my birthday came up in conversation. I moaned and said, "24? I'm going to be Christmas Cake soon!"

In Japan, it is a tradition to eat "Christmas Cake" on or before Christmas - I like to call it " 'Happy Birthday, Jesus!' cake", as it's basically the same as a birthday cake, but with a variety of Christmas-themed decorations instead of birthday ones. In the Japanese mind, eating Christmas Cake is law; the idea of skipping out on this tradition is, simply put, an act against nature.

How does this relate to my age? In Japan, a single woman of or around the age of 25 can be granted this title. A woman explained it to me as thus: "Christmas Cake sells for full price until the 24th; it goes at half-price on the 25th, and then down from there." In other words: If you're not married by 25, you get put on the sale rack.
It's an awful saying that I've embraced as my own; it's so terrible that I have to laugh at it as often as possible.

So, back to the staff room and my conversation with my teachers. After my bemoaning an impending "Christmas Cake" label, one of my teachers revealed that she married at 23. I looked stunned, and she said, "It was an accident."

My mind reeled. The Southern woman in me screamed in horror at the sheer number of faux pas waiting to happen from this. Of course, in this panicked status, I did the smart thing (/sarcasm) and decided to reveal a great Southernism: "shotgun wedding."

Don't ask me why I thought it was a good idea at the time - maybe I was assuming that she meant "mistake" instead of "accident." In any case, I explain the principle behind a shotgun wedding - a man is forced, at the end of a shotgun, to marry a woman whom he has impregnated. As I explained, my teacher was nodding, and when I finished, she said, "So, so, so, so, so" in quick succession, the Japanese equivalent of "Yeah! Yeah, that!"

. . .

I still have only one response to this, and that response is: "AWKWARD!"

27 September 2008

Taiwan

AKA: Four days really isn't enough.

There was a national holiday this past Tuesday, so I decided to make the most of it - I took Monday off and had a 4 day weekend in Taiwan. It wasn't nearly enough time, but I did see a lot and, of course, buy a lot.

Why Taiwan? Well, my brother currently lives there, as well as a friend from WashU, Jocelyn. Now, Jocelyn and I met at WashU and were friends, but casual ones; we had rarely spent long periods of time together, but were well-disposed to one another. As I already had two incentives to visit Taiwan, outside of its own attractions, I thought it would be a shame to not see them and the country.

I got in late Friday night and was whisked off to Jocelyn's house. We walked around in the neighborhood a little, popping in to a local grocery store and buying some snacks for me, as I was peckish. This was interesting to me as Taiwan rather likes Japan a lot, so I found a lot of familiar products in the grocery store. "I could make it here if I had to," I actually thought to myself at one point.

The Chaing Kai-Shek Memorial


The next day, Jocelyn took me on a whirlwind tour of several sites. We saw Liberty Square (home of the Chaing Kai-Shek memorial), ate lunch with Ian and his lovely girlfriend, visited Danshui (a beautiful, boardwalk town on the coast), and went to the Shi Lin night market (which was bustling, a state it seems to continually aspire to).

Dan Shui


Sunday saw us to the Jade Market and the Flower Market, both of which were wonderfully fun. I bought a lot of jade, and, being selfish, most of it was for me. The flower market allowed me to try a lot of different kinds of tea, all of which were tasty; chrysanthemum and plum were my two favorites. We also visited Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taipei, though we didn't stay for long; we soon left with Ian and his girlfriend, having a meal together again and taking some time to visit a coffee shop he frequents. I don't like coffee, but I have to admit that he has found a place that serves quality stuff. Afterward, Jocelyn and I went to Ximending, a place often frequented by young people, and did some window shopping, some silly picture-taking, and a lot of talking.

My brother, his girlfriend, and me


Monday was a school day for Jocelyn, so I went to the college campus with her and rested for the two hours she was in her Chinese class. We then went to lunch afterward, but, due to upset tummy issues, I forced our sightseeing time to be cut back abruptly. We rested in the afternoon and then went out to dinner with her mother and two of the family's friends.

Tuesday morning started off bright and early as I said my goodbyes to Jocelyn's family at 6:00 am. Her dad drove me to the airport and I hopped on a plane, starting my long trip back home.

I had an amazing time, and I'm so glad I had Jocelyn around to show me around and speak Chinese on my behalf. It was also good to see my brother, and see that he is thriving in his environment. And, of course, it's good to have new experiences, new pictures, and new souvenirs. I'm more excited about my chances to travel internationally than ever before. Watch out, Asia - I'm comin' for ya!

Catching Up

I have a lot to discuss, as I've been lax in updating about my life here.

1. Clubbing in Tokyo
The weekend before I went home, I went clubbing in Rippongi (Foreigner Central of Tokyo, as well as the home of one of the best night spots in Japan). The problem with going to Tokyo for the nightlife is that you have to abandon hope of getting home that night. The trains stop at midnight, but for those of us who live out in the boonies, the last train out of Tokyo leaves around 8:30 - well before most of the clubs open. There are, in short, three options for those who want to go dancing and drinking:
A. Don't go clubbing.
B. Go clubbing and rent a hotel as close to your clubbing spots as possible. (Taxis here cost a small fortune.)
C. Stay out at the clubs until the trains start running again ... at 6 in the morning.

The last option is the most cost-effective and the least sane - in Leslie speak, it means "all sorts of fun."

I can't describe to you the feel of a Tokyo club at 3 in the morning; rather, I could try and fail. Nor could I tell you what Tokyo looks like under the early morning sun. In fact, a large portion of why I have hesitated so long in writing this entry is due to the fact that there are so many things about a clubbing all-nighter that can't be put into words. Trust me with this - should you ever have the chance to visit Rippongi and stay from sunset to sunrise, do it. If I'm still in Japan when you go, you can be assured that I'll keep you company!


2. Me, as I am.
When I went home, several people commented that I had changed a lot in my time in Japan. Fortunately, they described these changes as being good things - that I have grown more into myself, that I have realized the potential in personality, character, and confidence I showed before I left. At first, I thought these were the sorts of things one says to a person who has been gone for so long, but I recently was reminded strongly of who I was as a senior in college, and I was amazed to find just how much I had changed in the year since I'd left WashU. Again, this is something I can't describe all that easily, so I will have to abandon the idea there. I will say one more thing, though: I've faced a lot of my fears by coming out here, and have grown strong because of that. It's ... a really good thing.


3. My job
Now, to bring it down a notch, I'm afraid. Work has started again and, as of late, I've become really frustrated with my life at school. As it is the second trimester, the students have lost their "I'm going to be good this year" resolutions and are falling into their worst habits. It frustrates me greatly, which is stress on me that is close to breaking my back. I don't enjoy teaching - I'm not a great teacher, one that these kids will remember for the rest of their lives. I'm just a warm body that repeats at command and plays stupid, sometimes-entertaining games. My teachers value me for my work ethic, but the students ... well, they appreciate that my presence means they won't have to have yet another regular class. I can't inspire students the way good teachers do, and, while that doesn't mean I'm a bad teacher, I really hate doing a job that I know I can't do well.

That being said, developments in the States make me wary of returning. The economy is shot, and the trend of politics has me worried. The prospect of doing this job for another year may become more appealing as 2008 draws to a close.
I suppose there's not much of a point in worrying over it excessively now, but I have to admit that changes are in the works.

18 September 2008

An Alien by All Accounts

AKA: I've effectively been called a monster, and I can't even get mad about it.

Every foreigner in Japan has had it happen. You see a small child staring at you on the train or in a store; you smile and say "hello" in Japanese. The child's eyes go wide in shock. You begin to pray that it won't happen, not again, but it's too late - the child begins crying, scared witless, while his/her parent consoles him/her, occasionally giving you an apologetic look. Yet again, you've scared a child senseless with a wave and a greeting.

By the time they're first or second graders, Japanese children seem to be over this phenomenon. However, if a foreigner happens across a child who looks as though he/she may not yet be in school, said foreigner has to be rather careful in interacting with said child. Now, I have to tell you that this is insanely hard for me. In America, it's common to play* with a baby that's looking at you, even if you're a complete stranger; I'm somewhat trained to smile, wave, and baby-talk at children with whom I make eye contact. On top of this, Japanese children are easily 100 times cuter than American babies, thereby making the aforementioned interacting seem all the more appealing.
In Japan, this kind of interaction between children and strangers is much, much less common. Not only that, but you're a foreigner; it certainly adds to your strangeness and your scare factor.

Surely, being a foreigner isn't that scary to a small child, you may be thinking. It's a social phenomenon that makes foreigners "outsiders," not an innate system. Tabula rasa, Leslie!

Well...not quite.

Developmental psychology has studied the way that newborns and young children identify and differentiate people's faces (Babies have rather poor eyesight.) One study used sensors to trace where the children look while viewing a face - they tended to follow the outline of the face and then focus in on the eyes and mouth. This makes sense - these things are good, general indicators of the object being a human, as well as being good markers for identifying whose face it might be.

Now, people of different ethnicities have different facial structures, as well as different points of reference for differentiating between people. Anyone who says "I just can't tell Asians / African-Americans / Whites / etc. apart!" is suffering from an inability to identify these points of reference. I'll go on ahead and say that Japanese people look very similar to me; I can tell them apart, but not as easily as I can with people from my own ethnicity.

Now, take babies in Japan. They've been introduced almost exclusively to their own ethnicity due to the minimal number of other ethnicities in the country. They are also very aware of the facial markers for their own ethnicity.
Suddenly, they see a creature - the face is bizarre; its features, on the whole, are wrong. And then this monster speaks to you ... in your own language.
As someone in my town said, "It'd be a lot like an alien walking up to you and saying, 'Hey, how's it going?' instead of speaking in blips and clicks."


So, moral of the story, foreigners: adorable Japanese babies think you're scary as hell. (Get used to it!)




* By which I mean "interact in a platonic manner" - pedophiles and other seedy types aren't generally encouraged. Get your mind out of the gutter.

01 September 2008

There and Back Again

AKA: I don't belong anywhere anymore!

Today marks the start of a new school semester, and I find myself thinking of the least original prompt known to man for a post-summer essay: "What did you do during your summer vacation?" All things told, I spent my summer quietly. I went to school, worked on lesson plans, visited with friends and played with my cat. Still, there was a little excitement: Unbeknownst to many, I made a visit back to the States.


That's right, I kept it a secret (a fact that may be more shocking than the secret itself). So as to waylay any offense to those who weren't "in the know," this secrecy was because I was coming for my parents; they had maded it clear that a visit back home was overdue. I wanted to be in control of my schedule and couldn't afford to spend a lot of time running around and visiting everyone.

The trip itself was rather quiet, all things told. I spent 28 hours total traveling from my apartment to my parents' house, which was quite the experience; it would have been unbearable were it not for the involvement of an awesome plane (Air Canada is my new favorite airline) and many, many energy drinks. I stayed awake most of that time, adjusted quickly to my new time zone, and was all set to go the next day.

I had a couple of gatherings in various locations, all of which were fun - I missed my family and friends more than I had realized. This really came to light when the odd and awesome food I brought with me was brought out for everyone's *cough* enjoyment. That being said, I still don't think I can forgive my friends for their lack of appreciation for really, really good sake. (My family's praise of it made up for it, fortunately.)

I did a ridiculous amount of shopping. It's amazing how easily won-over one can be by clothes that fit, an excess of available books, et cetera when one is unused to those situations. My suitcases almost couldn't handle all of the clothing, books, and food I brought back. In fact, I think my carry-on was just as heavy as my much larger, checked bag; considering the difference in size, I find this to be a rather impressive feat. (I blame most of it on the 5 pound bag of grits and the 2 pound, trilogy-in-one book.)

I did and didn't sleep. 2 pm and 6 pm were my worst times, and I occassionally fell prey to a zombie state that could only be fixed by a long nap. There were some days where my sum total of sleep reached double digits, while there were other totals that reminded me strongly of college right around midterms.

There were lots of things that seemed weird to me. The first thought I had when I got off of the plane in Atlanta went along the lines of "Wow, there are a lot of overweight people! And a lot of black people!" The next (notable) thought was, "Huh, none of the guys are dressing fashionably." (Young men and women in Japan are almost always dressing to the nines, and Americans just looked sloppy.) I also felt like I was drowning in all of the green - my house is surrounded by trees, something that I normally love, but I am so unused to it now that I felt I couldn't breathe the first few days I was home.

On the other hand, I adjusted fairly quickly to life back home. The worst thing was hearing myself say, "In Japan..." every time I opened my mouth. It was reminiscent of my return from GHP, and I can't say that the memory of being an annoying, can-only-talk-about-one-thing teen is overly encouraging.

The return trip was long, made all the longer by my having to leave my home at 3 in the morning. I slept a lot on the way, but I still find myself exhausted today. Fortunately, today is the first day of school, so the schedule is very laid back - an assembly, lunch, and a staff meeting. Tomorrow are the post-vacation tests, so another day of relaxing in the staff room for me. Wednesday is when the real work will begin.

I'm glad I went home, but I'm also glad to be back in many ways. While Japan is weird and foreign, it's a weird and foreign I'm now accustomed to, and changing back will be hard. I'm glad I've another year to prepare for that eventuality.

14 August 2008

A Blog-Matters Moment

I've added an email subscription function to the blog. Can I just say that this excites me tremendously? I have a hard time checking blogs regularly, so the idea of having it mailed to me instead of having to check it every day always makes me happy. I'm glad I can now offer this to my (sporatic) readership. Just check to the right of the screen for the sign-up space.

04 August 2008

An Honest-to-Goodness Update

My last entry wasn't much of an update, something I'd feel worse about if I were under the opinion that anyone other than hannah read this blog on a regular basis. That being said, I should give a general update as to my life here ... for posterity's sake.

As of August 1st, I've lived in Ota for a year. Happy anniversary to me!

A little over a month ago, a friend of mine was hit by a small truck while riding her bike after school. She was in a coma for two weeks and will be in the hospital for another month at least, recovering from many broken bones and other injuries. With luck, none of this will be permanent damage. Here's wishing for the best.

Laurel, a friend and old suite-mate of mine from college, came to visit, traveling a bit and spending a long weekend with me. We went to the Ota matsuri (summer festival) together, went to karaoke with Amy, and visited Kamakura and Nikko (two of my favorite places in Japan). It was a lot of fun in general, and I was glad to have the company of someone who'd known me for more than a year.

Speaking of matsuri - I've been to several thus far this summer, and I have to say that there's something truly special about these festivals. I daresay they will be one of the things I miss the most when I leave. Last weekend was the Kiryuu matsuri, where I danced the Yagibushi dance with the locals, and the Ashikaga fireworks festival, where I ooohed and ahhhhed with the rest while looking stylish in my jinbei. Both were extremely fun, especially as I got to go with a pretty different crowd.


A few weeks ago, thanks to a week of many, many meetings, I got in contact with a few of the newer ALTs in my town. I can easily say that the best "discovery" within this crowd is Bob - he's become my new best friend in no time. (Between him and Clarissa, I'm a really happy girl...though, well, I guess I'm to the side of them in my above picture.) In addition, the new JET ALTs recently arrived; while this is sad, as it means I've had to say goodbye to good friends, it is allowing me to enjoy the company of new and different people.

I saw the latest creation of Hayao Miyazaki in theaters, which makes me extremely happy. Ponyo is an adorable movie - I even understood a good portion of it, even though it was all in Japanese (I'm still rather proud of that feat, though, as the main characters are only 5 years old, I probably shouldn't be bragging). I'm hoping that, like the last movie to come out of Studio Ghibli, the DVD will come with English subtitles and dub track even though it's only released in Japan. :D

All in all, I've been social and busy (though maybe not as busy as I should have been). Go, me!

And now I'll leave you with a quote I just heard while re-watching a Scrubs (season 1) episode. It rather sums up how I feel at the moment.

"At a certain point during your first year, things begin to feel a little different. You've arrived, you know? You just start to feel ... cooler. The point is, we found our stride. We know all the ins and outs. Let's face it - we've earned the right to be a little cocky."

25 July 2008

Constant Vigilance

If you've read the fourth book and beyond in the Harry Potter series, you're familiar with the catch phrase of Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody: "Constant vigilance, Potter! Constant vigilance!" While Mad-Eye intended his warning for Hogwarts students who were unaware of the perils of the wizarding world, I do find the phrase coming to mind every so often during my daily-life activities in Japan. For your reading pleasure, my top 5 dangers to a foreigner in Japan (in no particular order):

1. Bathrooms
It's something I've become used to - the idea that "bathroom" means "porcelain-lined hole in the ground that just so happens to flush."

Of course, that's not all - two surprises wait for you outside of the stall:
A. No soap. I'll never understand why, in a country where cookies come individually wrapped instead of in sleeves for the fear that someone might get their cooties on it, there is not a shred of soap to be found in most bathrooms.
B. No hand-drying apparatus. This is a 75% inevitability - I'm occasionally pleasantly surprised by an air dryer that, unlike its American cousin, does the job quickly and effectively. In most places, though, you'd best hope you remembered to bring your handkerchief/wash cloth.

2. Pizzas
If you bring home a frozen pizza, expect it to have three toppings: cheese, pepperoni, and corn. Corn makes its way onto more pizzas than I can say, and I'm still confused as to why. Also, anticipate an encounter with a pizza that is topped with seaweed, egg roe, or mayonnaise...if not all three. (Yes, I have seen/eaten such a thing.)

Point in fact, anticipate mayonnaise to make a sneak attack on any dish you order. And, of course, Japanese mayonnaise is very different from the American kind, in that it is thicker and stronger in taste. (Read: Ew. Ew ew.)

3. Man Purses
Men will wear purses that in no way scream "manly." These man purses will also come in forms of man fanny-packs. To top it off, they will be name brands - as in, men spending small fortunes on their DG-covered purse. Do your best to not laugh.
Don't believe me? A picture's worth a thousand words.

4. Fashion and the Concept of Matching
I'm no longer scared or startled when I see a young woman wearing shoes a size too small (or a size too large) and an outfit with the coordinating colors of purple, gold, black, and either a blue somewhere between periwinkle and electric or some bright shade of orange. Fashion is just a different monster here, and (outside of affording some amusing Engrish on t-shirts) is in general just ... a frightening phenomenon you accept over time.

5. Katakana English
A lot of foreign words have made it into Japanese, and a good number of those words are from English. Great! I'll have an easier time understanding and being understood, right?
Wrong. Ooooh so so wrong.
Say "McDonalds" (even with a Japanese accent) and you'll get nothing but confusion. Say "Maakku" and suddenly everyone around you is thinking of burgers. "Beeru" means "building," whereas "beeeru" means "beer." (Do you hear the difference? I'm just barely able to, and it's rather a bad thing to confuse the two.) "Pah-so-con" means "personal computer" or "PC," and "depah-to" means "department store." In short, prepare for the most foreign of all languages to be your own.

15 July 2008

Schoooooool's Out for Summer!

AKA: Goals and A Little Bit of Looking-Ahead

I've been rather quiet here as of late due to a number of things. That's mostly because I haven't been doing much that I find worth reporting. I had some trips planned, but the weather and circumstances haven't been helping me out on this score.

Life goes on, of course. I only have five [cue chorus of angels] classes left until summer vacation starts. Six glorious weeks of no classes - joy!

Of course, with so much time on my hands, I have a lot I'm hoping to accomplish. So, for your reading pleasure, I present my list of goals for the summer break (in roughly chronological order).


1. Travel a bit with Laurel (July 19th - 21st)
Laurel, a roommmate from college and a good friend, is coming to visit later this week. We're going to do some traveling and I'm really looking forward to spending some time with her. And, of course, being seen around Japan with a 5'10 blond hottie.

2. Say goodbye to the departing JETs (August 1st)
;_; Not really a goal, but something I have to keep in mind.

3. Celebrate my 1 year anniversary in Japan (August 1st)
Of course, this directly coincides with the departure of the non-recontracting JETs, so I may fudge the date a bit.

4. Participate in Kid's English camp (in the mornings of July 30th, 31st, and August 1st)
Elementary school students plus other ALTs plus games ... should be a fun time!

5. Welcome new JETs (July 30th, August 6th)
The new JETs will come in to town and I get to ride around with the supervisor and show them the "sights" (the bank, the cellphone store, Pink Street...)

6. Participate in the UNESCO English Camp (August 8th - 10th)
Woohoo, English! Woohoo, earning 2 days of vacation time! I've high hopes for this weekend being a fun one.

7. Go home!!
I'm going home for a week...it should be awesome. If you haven't heard about when I'm coming home, I'm sorry - since I'll only be home a very short time, I'm limiting who knows about the trip so as to be sure to spend enough time with my family. I still love you!

8. Study for the JLPT level 3
The test isn't until December, but I'm worried about my ability to pass this test. This level corresponds to some 300 hours of study, so I'm trying to think ahead and be sure to study enough for it. My JET Japanese lessons ended in June and I've been slacking off a lot the past month - I've been enjoying getting back into the groove of studying an hour or so every day.
...
I'm such a nerd.

9. Get ahead on the "teaching" thing
I have a lot of goals for preparing myself for the next semester - having at least one game for each chapter in each grade, for example, and scanning my worksheets to make an electronic database of my files. I also want to finish my lesson plans for the rest of the year in elementary school. (Fortunately, I've only 11 of an original 30 left to plan!) This should take up a lot of my "sitting at the office with nothing to do" time.

10. Prepare for applying to graduate schools
I have a lot of investigating I need to do on this front, and I want to start doing as much of it as I can now. I've already got a file going on most of the schools, but I want to get some correspondence going with the faculty members and figure out a little more of what I need to do before applying.


It's only 10 things, but, now that I look at it, it seems like I won't really have a lot of the aforemtnioned time on my hands.
Well, as the Japanese say, "FIGHT-O!" v ^_^ v

16 June 2008

Earthquakes

A few people seem to have heard about the earthquake, and the resulting casualties, in Miyagi-ken*, and I've gotten a some expressions of concern from friends and family as to my safety. I blame a lot of this on the media, who say things like, "There was an earthquake in Japan" and do not go any further to define the location of the tremor.

To begin, Gunma-ken is one of the safer places in Japan as far as earthquakes are concerned. We have earthquakes around once a month, but they are rarely anything stronger than a 3. In short, it feels like the earth gets a sudden chill and shivers, or like a really large truck is driving by and shaking the house. Nothing falls, nothing breaks, and I don't even really react to them anymore. I've slept through earthquakes like this.

In regards to this most recent earthquake, I was on the phone (well, Skype) with my parents at the time. "Hold on just a sec; there's an earthquake" was my reaction. It was rather slow by the time it got to my area of Japan and felt rather sluggish.
I didn't know that there were casualties until the next day, when I got a couple of "hey, are you OK?" reactions from people who'd heard the bad news. Things have been rather bad up north in Miyagi-ken. There have been tremors every ten or twenty minutes and the quake registered as a 7.2. Nine people are confirmed as dead and another twelve or so are missing. It's a bad situation, and (unfortunately) one that will continue to occur again and again in Japan.

The interesting thing about this incident was the use of some new technology that predicted the oncoming quake before it arrived. An announcement was made on the NHK channels in the area some 3 minutes before the quake hit. It wasn't enough to save all of the lives, but hopefully the time between the predictions and the event will grow and incidents like this can become old-hat.

So...I'm safe, and am likely to be safe in the future. Thank you for your concern, and be sure to keep the citizens of Miyagi-ken in your thoughts.


*Note: "-ken" means "prefecture."

08 June 2008

Canyoning, Centipedes, and Other Things of Interest

AKA: A Weekend of Unexpected Things

I learned quickly to just say "I'm going to Minakami" when people asked about my plans for the weekend rather than telling the whole, more specific truth: "I'm going to be sliding down rivers in a wetsuit."

Well, there's a little more to it than just that.

At around 8:30 Saturday morning, I and five others (Amy, our hostess, Scott, Abel, Lisa, and Monica) waited to be picked up by someone from Canyons, an outdoor activities group in Minakami. We set off and quickly found ourselves doing battle with wetsuits and preparing to go out and about on the river for the day.

We spent the morning white water rafting in a very, very cold river. Our group was lead by Sean, a well-traveled Irishman with a good sense of humor. For example, one of the first things he did while we were in his boat was go to the front, on the pretense of checking some things around Scott, only to suddenly grab Scott by the back of his life jacket and flip him over the side of the raft. The river was icy, as Scott learned first and we all soon learned ourselves ... again, thanks to the help of our trusty guide.

As we were riding down the river, Sean pointed out the number of cops on one side of the river and a circling helicopter. "See that bridge? People like to bungee-jump off of it, but last night we had someone who decided to jump without a cord." Apparently, the Canyons employees had gotten a call at 5:30 that morning from the police, asking if they would patrol the river in search of the body. (The cops, Sean explained, had no river training.) The search had not yet been concluded, hence the remaining presence of the officers.

We continued a little further down the river, being flipped out at one point by our tricky guide and being tumbled out by the river on several other occasions. At one point, however, we slowed to a crawl, and Sean was distracted by a boat off to the side, manned by a few guides and entirely empty of tourists. These guides were leaning out of the boat, pointing into the river and drawing the attention of another boat, similarly lacking in tourists. One guide looked up, made eye contact with Sean and nodded. At that, Sean turned in the boat, said "forward, everyone," and powered us away. The dead body was missing no longer.

We finished the river course with little else of note occurring, though I did manage to lose a boot at one point in the rafting and only managed to reacquire it at the very end of the trip (another boat had picked it up). We piled into the busses and headed back to the Canyons headquarters, where ate a delicious lunch and grabbed even more gear in preparation for our canyoning experience.

Canyoning involved hiking some 30 minutes along the river which would soon be our way back down the river. Our guides, Dean (I think...) and Takeshi, did a wonderful job of keeping us entertained during this hike, mostly with their upbeat banter ("Don't go down this way, or you'll probably break several bones, ok? [all said with upbeat tone and wide smile]"). In short, the method was to lay oneself out as flat as possible and then let the water carry you lightly over the rocks and whatnot until you reached a calm pool. It was basically like a waterslide, but with more opportunities to run up against painful obstacles. Despite this danger potential, it was fun, though not something I would want to do on a regular basis.

With the day done, we made our way back to Amy's apartment. Once everyone was clean and well-fed, we settled down to watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Monica hadn't seen it before. I was making a comment to Scott at one point when one of these scurried across the floor next to Scott. I can easily say that this thing was at least 6 inches long and DISGUSTING. On top of that, mukade (as they are called) are POISONOUS. Ew ew ew ew ew.
Ew ew ew.
Ew.
I'm not usually all that squeemish about bugs, but this thing just about had me running up the walls.
Scott grabbed the thing with a pair of chopsticks and disposed of it outside, but everyone was still a little too riled by it to stay downstairs. We relocated in the relative safety of the upstairs and shortly went to sleep.

The next day I made my way home, feet a little worse for the wear but otherwise intact. It was a fun experience overall, but I feel the only descriptor that truly fits the weekend is "unexpected."

25 May 2008

Japanese Music

CDs here are, in my mind, insanely expensive, costing anywhere from $25 to $40 a piece. I've had the fortune to come across a music blog for Asian music that is furthering my education in Japanese music exponentially.

So, without further adue, a review of a few of the new groups I've been exploring:

1. Shiina Ringo (椎名林檎)
This female singer has been around for a while, apparently, but I find this all the better as it means there's a wealth of her music to be found online. Her style varies quite a bit, sounding something like Alanis Morisette at one moment, like Bjork the next, then like Fiona Apple, and practically always having a strong jazz influence. Her music, on the whole, I could throw on at a blues or salsa dance without causing anyone to skip a beat. Even better for linguaphobes, she does quite a bit of stuff in English.

- YouTube: Yokushitsu and its English counterpart, La Salle de Bain
- YouTube: Ringo no Uta
- YouTube: Papaya Mango

Of the four groups I review in this entry, Shiina Ringo is the only one I would say has true musicality or would label as a true musician. (Not that it should keep you from enjoying the others, but ... it's something for the music snobs in each of us to keep in mind.)

2. EXILE
This is nothing but a boy band, but mentioning them on a worksheet rarely fails to get a good reaction out of my female students. This being said, I do enjoy a few of their songs (though never enough that I would buy the album myself). One of their more recent singles, "I Believe," sounds like it's straight off of a Christmas album, but it's upbeat and enjoyable. Just imagine the lyrics as whatever the Backstreet Boys would have been likely to put to such music and you're set.

- YouTube: a live version of I Believe...unfortunately, one of the singer's microphones is ... off.

3. UVERworld
Another boy band, but one a little more along the punk-rock persuasion, UVERworld is easily becoming one of my favorite bands. Do I know what they're saying? No. Considering the random mix of English and Japanese, I daresay few people outside of the band itself know what's really going on (and even then, I do have to wonder about the band's comprehension). I first fell in love with their single "D-technolife," but since have come to enjoy more of their songs. Upbeat, dance-inducing, and right up my alley.

- YouTube: D-technolife
- YouTube: Ukiyo Crossing
- YouTube: Shaka Beach (Laka Laka La)

4. Perfume (パフューム)
This female trio band is one of the top techno bands in Japan, apparently, and techo is certainly their schtick. I fell in love with them from a commercial promoting recycling that was running when I first arrived here but only recently found out their name. I haven't turned on my iPod the past few days without listening to their single "Polyrhythm" at least once, and, outside of the fact that I find the face of the long-and-straight-haired one to be somewhat creepy, I have little with which to fault them.

- YouTube: Recycling Commercial
- YouTube: Polyrhythm
- YouTube - Macaroni (Yes, it's ridiculous, but come on. Techno.)


And, with that, I will end my music review. :)

Casual Thursdays

AKA: I Just Can't Seem to Get Comfortable.

Walking into my elementary school feels completely different from walking into my middle school. In elementary, school is treated as a fun endeavor, an attitude reflected in the students and the teachers. Students are running and playing outside before class starts, and I usually am greeted with enthusiasm. Around half of the kids wear the uniform, while the other half wear regular clothes (I still haven't figured out the way this system of "who wears the uniform when" works). The teachers are all wearing some form of track suit. Most everyone, whether student or faculty, is decently willing to give English a shot in the classroom; the two exceptions I can think of are both students.

On the other hand, middle school is much more serious. All of the students always wear their uniform, and two-thirds of the teachers wear business casual clothing instead of track suits. A number students will avoid making eye contact with me so as to not have to say "hello" or "good morning," and they are always heading straight inside to their classrooms in the morning. Most of the faculty will tell me how they "just can't speak English in the slightest," and many students have given up on gaining English proficiency and are just hoping to get decent enough grades.

And yet, while my Thursdays at the elementary school are much more casual and laid back, I find that I cannot relax here.

I'd say a large portion of this is due to the difference in atmosphere of the staff rooms. There are 5 English teachers in my middle school, as well as several other teachers who are very proficient in English. Three of these teachers sit around me in the staff room. On the other hand, there are maybe three proficient English speakers all together in my elementary school, and they are much farther away from me. There is a lot of pressure on me to speak Japanese at the elementary school, therefore, and my improvements in the language still aren't enough for me to have an easy time bantering with or feeling close to my neighbors.

I'm also a weekly occurrence at the elementary school, a sort of regular interruption to their normal routine. As such, I don't know many of my 35 teachers' names, much less their general personalities. My middle school is my "base" school, meaning I stay there four days a week. I know my teachers' names, the subjects they teach, if they have homerooms and have, on the whole, had some sort of interaction with them such that I feel I know them to some extent.

I suppose elementary school is only casual on the outside. While I can wear a glorified sweat-suit to work and play nothing but games with the kids, I'll probably never be more than a stranger, an outsider.


[One thing I can recommend of my elementary school over my middle school is the office manager, Sasaki-sensei, who never fails to amuse me with his antics. Most of these fall under the category of "lunch," where he eats easily three times as much of our ample lunch portions as anyone else on staff, to the amazement of the teachers and students. It's a glorious sight to behold.]

20 May 2008

Confusion at the Office

"Leslie."
I looked up, confused. No one was speaking to me. Conclusion: someone was speaking about me.

It was Kimura-sensei, the female P.E. teacher. A little listening revealed that, apparently, I was supposed to teach the boy's P.E. class in 5th period to cover for Okada-sensei, the male P.E. teacher who wasn't in today.
Note: It was already 4th period.

Confusion. Why wasn't I told? Why would they have me teach a substitute class, especially considering the fact that I'm not legally allowed to be left with a class on my own? Why wasn't I told? Who came up with this plan? And, of course, why wasn't I told?

This is, unfortunately, a fairly common occurrence in the average ALT's life. Randomly you find you are to do something - no one told you, you're not supposed to according to your contract, and you have nothing prepared. For example, I've run around the school looking for a class that, because of a schedule change, wasn't meeting that period. Most of this comes from the fact that I don't understand (or pay attention to, for that matter) the meetings in the mornings, where I would learn about a lot of the bigger issues - schedule changes, upcoming class activities, and so on. But some of it is just because no one realized the ALT hasn't been told.

In this case, it was written on a schedule in the possession of the head of the 2nd year teachers (I am considered a 2nd year teacher) and he hadn't noticed it. More horrifying than this, however, was that this same schedule indicated that I should have taught a math class earlier that day, when I was scheduled to be in an English class, and was to teach one on Wednesday and Thursday.
Problem (outside of my intense hatred of math): I don't even COME to my middle school on Thursdays, as I'm scheduled to be at my elementary school on those days.

Lunch time rolled around and I was preparing myself for overseeing a game of soccer...my specialty, har har...with the 1st year boys. I found out that Kasahara-sensei was in charge of assigning teachers to oversee absentee-teacher classes, so I found him as the lunch period started and asked him about it.

"You're taking the P.E. class? That's great!"
"Yes, but...I can't teach this math class. I'm not here on Thursdays; I go to the elementary school."
"...waaaait, this is MY schedule! I just write it down where your name is because there's more space. But you should still join us for soccer!"
"...*cue throbbing headache*"

While I was reassured about not having to teach either P.E. or math, I must say that these occasional bouts of "Oh, you didn't know this vital and imminently pertinent piece of information?" in my office do seem a tad unnecessary.
Just a tad.

14 May 2008

Can I get a mask and a folding chair with that?

At school, the kids sometimes call me "wrestler."

Now, this may seem out of the blue, but stay with me. My name is Leslie. In Japan, the "L" sound and the "R" sound are combined, making my name sound more like "resurii." Wrestler is pronounced "resuraa." So it's really a small jump from "resurii" to "resuraa," and it's the first thing they think of when they hear my name.

I also sometimes get "refurii" ... referee.

This is all well and good - kids have their fun, and the fact that I have a few nicknames is a good thing... I think. On the whole, it probably means they like me to some degree. (I've recently gotten called "Leslie Jackson" by the track girls, as I have a "Jackson image." What that means I don't know, and all I can hope is that my Jackson image isn't a Michael or Tito one...or a Jessie one, for that matter, considering the "wrestler" bit.)

Yesterday, I was in one of my first-year classes at the middle school; things were going well. That is to say, things were going well until my teacher says, in front of a class of 36 12-year-olds, to repeat after "resuraa."

Moment of silence...class explodes.

I staggered to the closest wall, clutching my chest and acting to the best of my abilities as though I had been mortally wounded. The class was dying, and my teacher was trying to apologize but was doubled over, laughing just as hard as the kids (especially when I threw in a "kurushii..." ["it hurts..."] for her benefit). It took about some 3 or 4 minutes for us to get back on track, but it was a wonderful interlude.

Ahh, the life of a foreigner...

09 May 2008

Spring Evolution

I have a few symptoms as of late.

A sample:

  • I feel the need to replace my wardrobe.
  • I want to buy new pencils, erasers, and so on, not because I need them, but because my old ones are no longer novel or cute enough.
  • I feel like going out, having fun, running around ... all the while being very, very lethargic.
    Some would call this spring fever - I don't. "Fever" implies "feverish," the idea that someone is running around in an unnatural, somewhat manic state. That just isn't the case. I feel like I'm growing too old for my things, that I've somehow matured past the person who owned those clothes, those accessories, those habits. I'm stretching, flexing, and prodding my surroundings, calculating my way out of this old skin to a newer, polished version of myself.

    So, part of that escape is a change to this blog. The digitally-altered view of Tokyo at night was born of a girl dreaming of life in Japan from behind the desk of a college computer lab. Its replacement is a photo I took - that in and of itself is enough to make it a better representative of the things for which this blog stands.

    In short, forgive the abandoned skin, discarded on the floor, and just pay attention to the new, sleek me.

  • Kaburaya Festival

    AKA: You mean this area is KNOWN for something?

    I had been told about the Kaburaya Festival in brief before yesterday, but had forgotten about it completely. Fortune was with me, however, as the festival not only fell on the day I normally go to elementary school, but that the grade I was to be teaching was one of the two grades that would be attending the celebration.

    In short, if you don't care to read the above-linked article, the Kaburaya festival celebrates the time when Nitta Yoshisada, a retainer of the emperor, was called to gather an army and head to Kamakura to do battle with the shogunate there. This he did, calling his troups to gather at Ikushina Shrine.

    Now, the festival involves elementary school children, specifically the 6th grade boys, reinacting the part of the gathering army. After speeches and ritual blessings (both of which are frequently found in Japan), these children march in, dressed in traditional clothing, armed with bows and dummy-arrows - bamboo shoots with poster paper fletching. They gather at the center of the shrine and hear a stirring speech from their leader, an older man in the same traditional wear, and then march out to the shrine gate.

    Left, left, left-right-left...

    They fall into ranks and then fire their first volley into a crowd consisting mostly of over-excited mothers and grandparents. I was told afterwards that catching an arrow as it is falling ensures the catcher a year's worth of happiness, but I'm hoping that my snatching one from the ground will still afford me some good luck.

    FIRE!

    After firing a second volley (for which I took a video - I think this will let you see it), the boys are led in rousing cries of what I can only label "blokey bravado stuff," thanks to a clear memory of an episode of Creature Comforts, and go back into the center of the shrine to sing a song before being dismissed by their leader.

    All in all, it was a small but enjoyable affair, especially as two of my three classes were canceled on its behalf. The students were clearly having a fun time, and the boys looked great in their black and white hakama. Still, I can't help but feel that someone was watching out for me in lining up everything such that I would be able to go and enjoy it...

    28 April 2008

    What I'll Miss about Japan

    I've been thinking about home a lot recently, but it's become quite common for my thoughts of home to turn 180 degrees to what I'll miss about Japan once I leave. Thoughts of food usually arise at such times, and of public transportation, but today made me think of another thing I will truly miss:
    Back home, I won't be famous.

    It seems that, every time I leave my house, I run into at least one student. Sometimes, as I walk around the mall or grocery store, I hear a whispered "...Leslie-sensei!" from behind me. Sometimes I see them ahead and get an excited wave, or a "deer in the headlights" look, or sometimes even a "please don't see me, please don't see me" brush-off. Still, the fact that my presence elicits a response whenever I go out is very, very different for me.

    Being so noticeable has its downsides, to be sure - sometimes, I don't want to be so on display. Also, it gets worse the more of us there are. 4 foreigners walking around in the mall gets us a lot of stares, and, should one of our number be anything but white, well, the level of stares is exponentially higher. Overall, though, the reactions are positive and I enjoy my little kingdom of fame.

    A good example of this was two weekends ago, when we celebrated Odelia's birthday by picking fresh strawberries. The concept, which I find to be a hilarious one, runs along these lines: play a flat rate and have access to a grove of strawberries, all you can eat, for 30 minutes. (You quickly find that you can't eat all that many strawberries in one sitting.) The picking field was in my part of Ota, and along the way the group of some 10 of us saw quite a few of my students. One group of boys were playing basketball at someone's house, some passed us in cars or buses on the road, and every one of them we saw waved excitedly at us and spoke to us (when possible). Throughout the next week, I had those students come up to me at school and ask me about it. It was a lot of fun.

    My position as a not-real teacher helps with this - I don't discipline the kids, I don't give out homework, and I come with a game or worksheet that won't count against their grade. I'm also different, which is (this time) perceived as a fun thing. Once I move back state-side, though, I'll lose my notoriety, and I can already tell that I'll miss my short stint with fame.

    14 April 2008

    Kyoto

    AKA: Impressions of a City

    Were I to write up a comprehensive entry of my four days in Kyoto, I fear I would lose the interest of my (already minimal) readership. We went to at least 16 notable places, we ate the local specialties, and I endure through some million mental images when someone asks me about the trip. Instead, I'll write some of my impressions...which will be a long enough post as it is! (If you want more specifics, comment and let me know!)

    Kyoto ... felt like an old love; I loved it in a way that was not passionate or overwhelming, but instead had a very comfortable, broken-in kind of feel. It sounds odd for me to say that, as I've always felt myself to be more of a country or outer suburbs sort of girl. I love being surrounded by nature, quiet, and my own space; the idea of being comfortable in a city seems entirely out of my realm.



    There were several things that made Kyoto comfortable, in my mind. To start, the city sprawls. It's huge, and there is a lot there, but it doesn't have the cramped feel of Tokyo (or New York, or Chicago's downtown, or Atlanta's downtown, or...). It also has a very well-planned public transportation system. We were mostly using buses on our visit, which is my least favorite kind of public transportation, and yet it was always so clear where we were and how we were going that I rarely, if ever, had cause to complain. I find both of these qualities really attractive in a city, especially because they are things you can't find in the suburbs/country-side. Kyoto is also breathtakingly gorgeous. Now, we were visiting at the height (arguably) of Kyoto's beauty - the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the weather was that of sunny-spring instead of rainy-spring. Still, it is wonderful to be in a city with parks, trees, and occasionally even grass (a luxury I never fully appreciated before seeing the dirt field in front of my middle school in the midst of a heavy rain).

    In short, I never felt threatened by it's city-ness, nor did I ever feel that I was in an ugly place.

    One of the major life lessons I'm trying to take from my time here in Japan is how and where I like to live. I've never lived on my own before, and this is pretty dagum "on my own." Kyoto taught me that I like the idea of living such that owning a car was unnecessary, or, at the very least, not an everyday necessity.

    Of course, a large part of having a comfortable, long-term love is knowing your partner's faults. Kyoto was too touristy; I would always feel I was being viewed as a tourist. As Ota, especially my corner of it, is not exactly what you would call a "tourist trap," I feel like people understand that I'm here on a long-term agenda when they see me in the local store. I take a lot of comfort in that feeling. While I should probably try to adjust my neurosis in regards to how I'm viewed instead of complaining about how it limits me, I do find fault in Kyoto with this.
    (...not to mention the swell of tourists come the weekend. It was strangling.)

    I will tell two quick stories, as I think I'd do any post about my trip a disservice to not include them.

    1. Hanami
    In Japan, it's traditional to have "cherry-blossom viewing parties," or "hanami" in Japanese. While this sounds like a very spiritual thing, like a time of reflection, it is, in fact, an excuse to get wickedly drunk. We went to a pretty famous park on Thursday night in order to experience this phenomenon, and experience it we did. Maruyama Park is lit at night, so we arrived at 4 or 5 and stayed until well past dark, finally leaving at 9:30. During that time, we were "adopted" by a group of Japanese people and one foreigner, all cheifs for a local hotel. They gave us some of their extra food, which was delicious, and some of their extra alcohol. All of this was entertaining, especially because they were using their broken English and we were using our broken Japanese. They laughed at us when we said we lived in Gunma; they laughed even harder when they saw the alcohol we brought ("I guess it's ok for a foreigner..."). They labeled Aaron as a John Travolta doppelganger and, upon my asking, declared Clarissa to be Whitney Houston. Some moments were priceless, though I will say that my favorite moment was when the nicest of the bunch said, in apology for the sudden on-rush of his coworkers, "Many men...ONE gentleman." (I just about died laughing.) We were issued invitations to join them for post-hanami partying, but, as they were "likely to be sick any moment" drunk, we declined and went home instead. All in all, it was a wonderful experience and was easily one of the highlights of the trip.



    2. Fushimi Inari
    My favorite place in Kyoto, I can easily say, was Fushimi Inari. It's known as "the Shrine of 1,000 Tori" ("tori" are the red arches/gates often found at the entrance to a shinto shrine), though the name is somewhat of a misnomer. It should be "the Shrine of 1,000,000 Tori," and no one will convince me that there are fewer than that number there. The main shrine is at the base of a mountain, while the inner shrine resides at the top of said mountain. The path from the main shrine to the inner one is lined with tori of various sizes: the largest each standing as close to the one before it and behind it as possible, straddle the path between the shrines, while the two smaller sizes (between 1 foot and 3 feet in height) are stacked, hung, and otherwise arranged so as to enable them to be seen, but out of the way. The place is literally overflowing with these red and black arches.




    It was really beautiful. There is a real sense of peace in walking along those arches, feeling them sweep over you and knowing that each arch is another knotch of time flowing past you peacefully, bringing you a little further forward in your life.

    08 April 2008

    Tokyo Plus

    AKA: A Very Busy Time

    The month of March was one without rest. To start, my friends (Caitlin, mostly) began planning day trips to various places and inviting me on said day trips, filling my weekends. It was also the end of the school year (which runs from April to April here), which brought a lot of changes in my school life, as well as a lot of End of Year activities. As if this were not enough, I also had a few visitors from the US - a friend of mine from WashU, Jeff, and his two siblings.

    Most of the time I was hanging out with Jeff-tachi ("Jeff et. al") was spent in Tokyo, a place that had, during my summer orientation, earned my esteemed "Hell on Earth" ranking due to its sheer size and overcrowded feel. In short, I wasn't looking forward to spending some 7 days there.

    When all was said and done, though, I had a lot of fun; Tokyo no longer freaks me out quite so much. While I couldn't tell you of every place we visited or all the things I did, as I'm ever-so-forgetful, I can tell you that my highlights were found late one night in Rippongi.

    Now, Rippongi is known as the place where foreigners go to eat, drink, and party. OJ, Jeff's brother, was determined to dance and possibly find a "nice girl" that night, so we went clubbing. I wasn't sure about all of this until we got out on the floor. OJ was not to be ignored, and decided he would showcase his abilities to the eligible ladies through salsa.

    Three or four times that night, OJ would cut in on my dancing with Jeff and take me to a viewable location. Then, the salsa would begin, me doing my best to not screw up and OJ doing an admirable job of not giving me the chance. He would keep his eyes open, looking to see which of the girls were watching us, and, when he found one to his fancy, he would send me back to Jeff and make his move. Should the target ever ask about the girl with whom he was dancing so recently, well, she was clearly dancing with his brother, wasn't she? The fish was on the hook before she could realize the danger.

    When I wasn't dancing with OJ, I was dancing to exhaustion with Jeff. It's rare that I'm in a situation where there's not only dancing music, but a boy who's willing to dance with me all night and a complete anonymity in the crowd. I wasn't ever going to see any of these people again, nor was I likely to have the chance to dance anytime soon, so I truly let myself go. By the time Jeff and I left, which was around 3 in the morning, I had a happy exhaustion I usually associate with the end of a Cowboy Mouth concert. I was sweaty and footsore, but very content.

    (An amusing sidenote: OJ didn't make it back to the hotel until 6:30 the next morning; he was having too much fun staying out on the town.)

    Jeff came back to Ota with me for a week and joined me a few days at school. Unfortunately, there was only one day in which I was teaching classes - the rest of the time was filled with the elementary school graduation, the End of Year ceremony, and the start of spring break. For those two classes and his time visiting my school, though, Jeff was a total star. Everyone wanted to know who he was, why he was here, and whether he was my boyfriend (rather, most assumed and were shocked to find he isn't). Many of my male students were thrilled, greeting him three or four times in a row (and then, belatedly, greeting me). I think he won me a lot of student interest, which I hope will help refresh their interest in my classes a bit.

    So it seems that the thing I needed to get over Tokyo was nothing more than spending a couple of weekends there with good company. Who knew?

    18 March 2008

    St. Patrick's Day!

    AKA: I'm Just a Poor, Wayfarin' Irishwoman...

    St. Patrick's day is pretty much unheard of in Japan. While there seems to be (according to the Japanese wikipedia page) some small celebration of it in Tokyo, there is little to none of it out in the inaka ("country-side") where I live.

    Still, St. Patrick's Day is one of my favorite holidays, so I did what I could. I decorated my English board with a St. Patrick's Day theme, I taught a couple of St. Patrick's Day classes, and I wore green. After that, I went home, and did what is turning into my annual tradition - made an Irish dinner, drank beer, and watched an Irish(-themed) movie.

    Now, making a traditional Irish dinner here would be next to impossible, or at the very least required more effort than I was willing to give. I compromised with a dinner of green, white, and orange, all of which are the colors of Ireland.

    My mom pointed this out to me, and, while I already knew it, I will pass it on to my readers - the flag of Ireland represents the two factions of Christianity, Catholicism (green) and Protestantism (orange), and the hope for peace between the two (white). My mother, who comes from a Catholic line, said that orange was never allowed near her St. Patrick's Day meals when she was young, but that "a meal of all green is not very pretty."

    In any case, I was proud of the results of my cooking.

    The whole spread...
    ....and a view from above.
    The sides: salad with cucumbers, 2 kinds of lettuce, orange bell pepper, carrots, and homemade dressing; rice with sweet potato; and some random, heart-shaped, green and orange chips.
    The main dish: salmon sashimi on a bed of shredded radish, with a side of spicy-marinade cucumbers and some delicious vegetable for which I don't know the name.
    My beer; I couldn't find any Irish beers, so I just went for one in a green can and my normal Asahi Super "DRY" (scare quotes added by Asahi, not me).
    My dessert: green an-mochi, white an-mochi, and mandarin orange segments. See, it makes the flag! I'm so cute.



    Of course, I couldn't finish all of this; I never got around to the bottle of Asahi, and most of the rice in that bowl went to waste. Still, it was delicious and I was pretty pleased with how well it all turned out! :D

    Oh, and by the way, if you were curious about which movie I ended up watching, it was: