Sunday, December 9, 2007

New Old Friends

Ok. Wow. I didn't realize that it had been almost 2 months since my last blog. I sincerely apologize to all my faithful readers (who are not so faithful anymore)! I have been extremely busy, but now the school term is winding down so I will try to update more frequently.

I am very inspired at the moment and HAVE to tell someone this story!

Tonight I went to a Christmas dinner organized by the Hyogo JETs. We went to a really nice all-you-can eat restaurant in Kobe right on the harbor. I know that "all-you-can-eat" doesn't scream "Christmas" or "nice restaurant", but the food was really good and there were Christmas decorations.

Anyway, I was the only person from my area to go to this thing, so I expected to meet a lot of new people. At the table where I was sitting, there were 3 guys who were talking about where they were from. The conversation went like this:

Guy1: I'm from Illinois.
Guy2: I'm from Michigan.
Guy3: I'm from Indiana.
Me: I'm from Seattle, but I lived in Indiana for awhile.
G3: Oh yeah? Where did you live.
Me: Bloomington and some other places.
G3: No kidding! I lived in Bloomington my whole life!
Me: Oh yeah? What elementary school did you go to?
G3: Childs.
Me: Me too!
(Shocked looks across the table at each other.)
G3: How old are you?
Me: 25. How old are you?
G3: I'm 25 too.
(Jaws drop simultaneously.)
G3: Were you in Mrs. Sykes' class?
Me: No, I wasn't in her class, but I had her for math.
(Blank stares.)
G3: Who did you have for 3rd grade?
Me: Mrs. Watchicowski.
G3: I wanted to be in that class. She was fun...
Me: For 5th grade I had Mrs. Hefernan and Mrs. Acton.
G3: Me too!
Both: We were in the same class!!

I kid you not. I just met someone who I went to elementary school with in JAPAN!!! We spent the next half hour going through our classmates and he updated me on all their lives. He's still really good friends with quite a few of them because they all went to middle school and high school together. He told me that he saw my name on the list of people who were going to come to the party and sort of half recognized it somewhere in the back of his brain but couldn't place it... I can't tell you how strange this is! I think my brain exploded.

So, now I have a new old friend who lives about an hour away.

Japanese phrase of the day:
Watashi no shitte iru hito ni yoku nite imas. You look like someone I know...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Midterms and Matsuris

I realized the other day that I have neglected my blog again. Sumimasen! (すみません〕 I've been so busy with school, Japanese class, and traveling, I forgot to write it down :)

This week is midterms - from Tues through Fri the students only have 3 class periods and 1 or 2 tests each day. I am in charge of writing the midterm for my 1st graders. Fun fun fun. But this also means that I have a lot more time during the day to plan lessons (or update my blog!).

Let's see, this past weekend, my friend Scot visited from Sasayama (in the north countryside) and we went to Osaka for a Beer Festival under the Sky Building. The festival had beers from all over the world - really! We had beer from Palestine, the Netherlands, Greece, everywhere! Of course Guiness and Heiniken were there, but I skipped those for the more exotic ones. I think the entire gaijin (foreigner) population showed up - approximately half the people I saw were English-speakers. :) How do you get a large group of foreigners in one place? Offer them beer, of course!

After the beer, a group of us went to Nishinomiya for dinner. We went to this fantastic Italian restaurant that had *real* Italian food - not Japanese-Italian (they like to put squid and squid ink in their pasta, weird). It was wonderful and only about $25/person for appetizer, entre, desert, and 2 glasses of wine!
The weekend before, Erin (another ALT that lives in my building) and I went to Miki for their matsuri (festival). Miki is a very small town northwest of Kobe. We ran into a group of ALTs from Awaji Island, so we hung out with them for the day. During the festival, all the men in the town carry these huge wooden floats, called danjiri, through the streets starting at about 8:30AM. (To help them gain strength, they take beer breaks about every 30-60 minutes.) There were about 50 men per float and 8 danjiri! We got there around 1PM, and everywhere we went people were shocked to see "so many gaijin!" (there were 6 of us). But everyone was very nice and wanted to talk to us or offered us beer. Around 4PM, the men carried the danjiri towards the town's shrine. The shrine is located at the top of a very steep hill - you have to walk up a long flight of stairs to get there. And those drunk men carried the danjiri up the stairs and paraded them in front of the shrine! It was amazing! I wish I had pictures, but my camera ran out of juice and the batteries I thought were charged, weren't. Pooh.

Here's a picture I found online that is similar to what I saw:

It was pretty crazy! The town I was in was much smaller than this picture - all the residental streets that they carried the danjiri through are only one lane. There was only one two-lane road that went through the town to the next town. Again, I wish I had pictures!

Well, I should probably get back to work. Midterms and all. I'll try not to wait so long between postings next time!

Japanese phrase of the day:

Tomodachi to matsuri e ikimashita. 友達と まつりヘ 行きました。I went to the festival with my friend.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

An amendment

I need to amend that last observation. Apparently manga is only forbidden at Kita HS. Today (at Kabutoyama HS) one of my 1st grade students was blatantly reading his comic book instead of paying attention and the JTE didn't do anything. I was a little peeved that this kid was so disrespectful, so I took it from him - as he was reading. He was so engrossed in his comics that he didn't notice me until I had taken the manga out of his hands! He looked completely bewildered! Then, I turn my back for 10 seconds to walk back to the front of the classroom, and he pulls out another comic book from his desk! This time, however, he saw me coming, so he shoved it back in his desk before I got there. I said to him, "NO!" several times and I'm pretty sure he understood because he didn't try it again. Meanwhile, the JTE did nothing!! (Granted, this particular JTE is a bit difficult to work with because he's just coasting until retirement...but I digress) After class I told the kid, "Don't do this again!" and gave it back. When I told my supervising teacher about it later, he just laughed and said, "Oh yeah!" like it's no big deal.

My two schools are like night and day!
I guess it's to be expected because they are two different schools, but it's hard to know what goes!

Japanese phrase of the day:
Wakarimasen! I don't understand!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Don't bring your manga to school!

An interesting observation about Japanese schools:

I find it funny what teachers let slide in class and what they don't. For instance, students can have loud conversations, stand up, talk back, sleep, text on cell phones, and basically completely disregard the teacher with little to no reprimand. However, if you are caught reading manga (comic books for those of you not in the know) in class, this is a serious offense! First you will be yelled at in class. Then you will be taken to the teacher's room after school and be yelled at by your homeroom teacher in front of all the other teachers. Manga is where they draw the line!

Today, in a class of 35 I counted at least 8-12 students sleeping at any given time (you can wake them up, but they just go back to sleep - plus most of the monsters were sleeping, so I let them!) and there are always a couple students texting on their phones, but the student who was caught reading manga was yelled at, called "dishonest", and later reprimanded.

I don't get it!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Zombies and Monsters

I have a bit of time, so I figured I should write a bit :)

The past few weeks have been very crazy. My schedule doesn't allow for much free time during the day, so I spend every extra minute trying to plan lessons. I'm getting the hang of it, but I still feel pretty spastic.

One hurdle I find rather difficult is the group mentality of the quiet students. No one wants to stand out, so no one says anything. In each class there is maybe 1 or 2 genki students, but everyone else is a zombie. And it's so funny because after class, I think that the lesson was a complete disaster since no one responded to me at all, but usually one of the zombies will tell me later that they really enjoyed the lesson and thought it was very interesting! Why couldn't they act interested during class? Because then they would stand out and being different is bad. Sheesh!

Hurdle number two is dealing with the monsters - those students that won't shut up, sit down, or pay attention. I had a class the other day where 4 boys in the back were throwing things at each other. The JTE didn't do anything, so I yelled at them "hey!" This brought their naughty behavior to the attention of everyone, so they stopped...for approximately 30 seconds. Other students will make fun of me or the JTE right in our faces - and what do you say to a kid who is making fun of you in Japanese and barely understands English? I usually just tell them to sit down and ignore it. They're trying to get attention, but they won't get it from me.

So there you have it: my students are either zombies or monsters...or 3rd graders who are wonderful. The 3rd graders actually want to speak English so I try to plan the class around at least 20-30 minutes of just talking. It's great. :)

I started going to a Japanese tutor once a week. It's through the Takarazuka International Friendship Assoc. What a great name! Anyway, the tutors are volunteers and it's one-on-one, which is fantastic. My tutor, Suwa-sensei, is a very nice lady who is very patient with me, but also pushes me pretty hard. The first lesson was pretty tough because it is primarily in Japanese. I'm getting better, but still have a long way to go!

So, I have quite a lot to update. I'll go back to where I left off in the past...

8/11 (Remember way back then?) I decided that I needed to explore Kobe by myself because all the other times I had been there (or Osaka), I had been with other ALTs that I just followed around. So, to figure out where things are, I dedicated the day to wandering around.

I started at the main shopping strip called Center Gai. It spans many many blocks, has 3 levels of stores, plus a basement of just restaurants. Not much else to say - but if any of you come to visit and want to go shopping, it's a great place to start!

Then I wandered up Ikuta Street to the Ikuta Shrine. I basically just took pictures because I don't know or understand the traditional way to approach and pray at a shrine/temple. I know that you're supposed to get a fortune and if it's good you take it with you; if it's bad you tie it to a tree near the shrine and pray for the gods to prevent it from happening. There's also some sort of ritual I noticed where you approach the shrine, throw money at the shrine, ring a very large bell, bow, clap twice, and bow again. I think it's to let the spirits know that you're there...?

I went up to another shrine, the Kitano Tenman Shrine, that had a fantastic view of Kobe and the harbor. There were about a million stairs to walk up, but it was worth it for the view! Same rituals, etc.

After this I wandered up Kitanozaka Ave to the Kitano-cho Plaza. This is where the "heritage architecture," also called "historical foreigners' houses," is centered. There are maybe 10 houses up on the hillside that used to be consulate housing, but now are restored and for 300-500 yen you can tour the houses. Each house represents a different country: England, France, etc. I didn't go inside because I didn't feel like spending the money to walk the houses alone (and I can save it for when someone comes to visit).

I did, however, visit the American House. I had to. Why? Because it has been turned into a Teddy Bear Museum! The woman in charge of the house was a little bit crazy and very chatty just as I was about to leave. She wanted to take my picture many times, in several poses. She also kept telling me "this is famous" and that I should take a picture! Then she would wait for me to take the picture! She invited me back "anytime" so that I could catch up on the Kobe gossip. :) I have many many more crazy pictures of the American House and all of its teddy bears... If you are interested I can share some more!

I met some other very nice people and found some very cool little shops in this neighborhood. It's much quieter than Center Gai and I had fun wandering around. It's definitely worth checking out.

Japanese phrase of the day:
Anata no shashin o totte mo i desu ka? Can I take a picture of you?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Busy, busy, busy

Sorry I haven't blogged in a while - I am terribly behind. As my excuse, I offer all of the time I've been putting into work. School is taking up a lot more time than I thought it would. Mostly it's because I have so little time to plan lessons during the day (so I end up staying late). I promise to catch everything up soon. But not now - too busy! :)

Japanese phrase of the day (or past two weeks):
Watashi wa isogashi desu! I am busy!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Week 1...Oh what a week!

So, I have officially been a teacher for an entire school week! And what a week it has been. I hope you're all caught up on what happened the first day, because that was my last day of peace...

My first day at N.Kita HS (visiting school) began much like the previous day: kyoto-sensei introduced me to all the other teachers during the teachers' meeting and I gave the same speech. This time it went over really well and several teachers came to me afterwards and told me they appreciated my joke. :) I had met the English teachers there the week before and we had discussed our first lesson - I created a lesson to introduce myself to the students:
Anna's First Lesson!
1. Quick intro - go over some hard words that they will hear a lot from me (i.e. laboratory)
2. I read a speech and they listen
3. Pass out worksheet that has my speech with a few fill-in-the-blanks (stuff like Seattle, America, younger brother, etc.)
4. I read the speech 2 more times (btw, I've pretty much got the speech memorized now. I think I've read it to 7 classes and I still have 6 more classes next week)
5. Go over answers - hopefully students volunteer?
6. Pass out worksheet that has comprehension questions about the speech (What country does Anna come from?)
7. Go over answers
8. Students work in pairs and write down 2 questions to ask me - they can be anything (students at this level may want to ask some racy stuff, but don't know how so I wasn't worried - mostly it was "How old are you?" "What do you like Japanese food?" "How you like Japan?")
9. Students ask their questions

The JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) had warned me last week that their classes are a little rowdy. They kept telling me, "These classes are not so well behaved. But please do not get furious. Take it easy!" Way to bolster my confidence!

If I may digress: Japanese high schools are not like American high schools. In Japan, high school is not required. Once you finish jr. high, you have officially left the public school system. However, something like 98% of students continue on to high school. To get into a high school, you have to take an entrance exam for each school that you are interested in. There are different levels of high schools and also public or private high schools. Where you go to high school will most likely determine where you go to college (or "university" as they say here). High school is basically 3 years of prepping you for the university entrance exams. The 2 schools that I am in are very low level schools. I don't know what the passing rate is, but it doesn't really matter because everyone graduates. You can come to school 3 times in 3 years, fail every class and still graduate because your parents paid for it...(it won't help you with those university entrance exams, but most students who really want to go to university are also taking classes at a "cram school," which is why we don't give homework, but anyway...) So, like I said, my schools are pretty low level, which means maybe 10-30% will go to university - maybe. The other kids are there probably because their parents are making them. In other words, most students don't want to be there.

Because these students choose to come to school, they can pretty much do whatever they want. They have a right to be in the classroom while we are teaching -- but that doesn't mean they have to pay attention. We can't remove them from the classroom if they are being disruptive because we would be taking away their right to an education. (There are extreme cases where a student has been removed from class because they were so disruptive they were affecting the education of every other student in the room - only then can you send them to the vice-principal's office.)

So, back to my first day. I had 3 classes that day: two 1st grade classes and one 3rd grade class. (Note: high school is 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade = sophomore, junior, senior). The first class was the "best of the 1st grade classes". While I was trying to teach, the students were talking to their friends, texting on their cell phones, sleeping, staring out the window... I think I had the attention of about 2/3 of the class for most of the period. And this is pretty good because I'm new, so they're interested in me! There were a few boys who always wanted me to call on them so I would give them attention. The other 1st grade class was the "worst" of the classes. I probably had 1/2 of their attention. They would get up and walk around, write on the blackboard in the back of the class, whatever. As I was passing out worksheets, if I miscounted and forgot one, they wouldn't speak up, probably because they weren't going to do it in the first place. One boy kept saying my name so I would look at him, then he would put his hand over his heart and swoon. I've already got some crushes! Woo! We didn't get through the entire lesson with this class - we had to spend the first 10 minutes of the period actually getting the students into the classroom... The 3rd grade class has only 2 students! So we talked a little bit, I showed them some pictures, and they took me on a tour of the school. Our conversation consisted of, "This room music room." "This room staff room." "Do you have boyfriend?" Two very sweet adorable girls, but cannot put two sentences together in English.

So ends my first day. I was pretty wiped out and went to have dinner with a couple friends so we could complain about our days (we all have low level schools).

Second day, Wednesday: I'm back at my base school, N.Kabutoyama and I only have one class (3rd grade) because the 1st and 2nd graders have testing. This 3rd grade class has 17 students. I went through the same lesson as the first graders, but went a little faster because I figured they would understand more...I was wrong. Although they muddled through all the questions and directions, at least 10 students didn't understand what I was saying most of the time. Oy.

Oh, and at this school, 2 of my 3 JTEs have no interest in the class. I do everything. I plan the lesson, I give the lesson, I grade anything I give out, I create the exams...they don't care. They come to class to moderate or speak in Japanese - which I find frustrating. Especially the 3rd grade JTE. A little beef: First of all, I didn't even meet her until halfway through 1st period that day - our class is 4th period and she has classes 2nd and 3rd periods. She's a part-time teacher so she only shows up for her classes, not any of the teachers' meetings or after school meetings. When I asked her what should be covered the next day (because we teach the 3rd graders twice a week instead of just once), she looked at me like I was an alien (which I am, but you know what I mean). She said, "Didn't Jamie tell you?" Jamie was the ALT before me. I told her no, he didn't tell me what to do. So she said that I should just make worksheets like he did and make sure we get through all the lessons in the text book by the end of the school year (there are about 9 lessons left). And then she left! During class, she stood at the back of the classroom and after I would give some instructions, instead of trying to help me make myself more clear in English, she would just tell them what to do in Japanese. Which will really help their English. And I find completely irritating. Blah. The only "help" she gave is telling me that most students didn't understand me.

Anyway, despite the 3rd graders not being able to understand me, they were all really sweet and gave me recommendations on what to eat from the cafeteria. :) During the lunch period, I ate my lunch in the teachers' room, but a handful of 3rd and 2nd grade girls came to me and asked if I would talk with them. I said sure!! So we talked about Harry Potter and Disneyland :) Also, later that day, another student came and found me. She told me she is going to be doing a one-month home-stay in Spokane this October and wants to practice talking with me before she leaves. Also very cute. I've talked with her twice now and she's mostly worried about bathrooms, showers, and farting! :P My supervisor told me today that it's very good that students are coming to talk to me - especially the girls - because they didn't do that with the previous guy. Hooray! I'm approachable!

Thursday, I had 3 classes at N.Kabutoyama and 2 classes at N.Kita (I have to use my lunch period to take the bus between the two schools, which is not good). At Kabutoyama I finally had two of my 1st grade classes. I was expecting the worse - just like at Kita - but more so because the JTE isn't involved. At Kita, at least the JTEs are in control and I'm the assistant - I don't have to tell kids to sit down, shut up, turn around in their seats, etc. BUT..... The 1st graders at Kabutoyama are the exact OPPOSITE of Kita. They were silent! Not a peep! When I asked if anyone knew the answer - even when I saw it written on their papers - they would stare at their shoes. All I saw were the tops of heads. There was one boy in the back who volunteered for pretty much every question. That's it. I tried going around and picking people to answer, but their answers were barely audible. It was almost worse than the rowdy kids because I didn't know if they were alive! I'm going to work on these kids... They will have to speak to me eventually! The 3rd grade class this day went waaaaay better than the day before. I took a lesson from the textbook - about pets - talked very slowly, and tried to start a dialogue about pets for the first part of the lesson. For the second half, I reviewed easy past tense and got them to talk to their partners about what they did yesterday, what they did over the summer break, etc. Much more successful! The stinky JTE agreed that class was much better.

Friday, there was more testing, so I only had one 2nd grade class. Now, this is interesting: as motivation for speaking in class, Jamie created "passports" and every time a student volunteers, they get a stamp in their passport. The 2nd grade JTE (who is very nice and will actually talk to me about lesson plans) told me about this, so I decided to use it. It worked wonders! Kids were waving their arms around wanting to be called on - just to get a stamp! At the end of the term, the stamps count towards their final grade, so they want as many stamps as possible! It was awesome! I'm going to use this on the 1st graders.

The JTEs at Kita said that I handled the rowdy classes pretty well because through it all, I still kept smiling. I was smiling mainly for the students who were paying attention because I appreciated them listening to me! Plus, what the heck, I was told that my primary goal is not to teach English but to expose these kids to another culture. So, if they don't want to listen to my lesson, fine, but I will get through to them some way or another. Probably exploiting the schoolboy crushes! ;) Just kidding, but seriously...

Ah, this has been a long one. A lot of ranting, a few raves. I know my schedule will be even more hectic next week because the testing will be over. I tried using my downtime this week to get ahead in lessons - making worksheets from the textbooks - so that I can concentrate on the fun stuff. I want to spend half of the class on textbook stuff (required) and half of the class on fun stuff. More speaking, less staring out the window.

That's all for now. I think I will hit the hay! (BTW, I want to do a lesson on American slang, so if you feel that there are some words, phrases, or expressions that an American just can't do without, please tell me!)

Japanese phrase of the day:
Eigo ga wakarimasu-ka? Do you understand English?

Monday, September 3, 2007

First day of school

I'm going to jump into the future a bit and tell you about my day - TODAY!

Today was the first day of school! The first day is pretty much reserved for the Opening Ceremony and for students to catch up with the teachers after their vacation.

Japan's school year is a bit different than ours. School starts April 1st and ends March 31st. The year is split into 3 terms and after each term is a long break. Students have all of August off for summer vacation, so when I arrived most students weren't around. The next break is in winter (Dec 12-Jan 7) and spring break is in May (they call it "Golden Week" because everyone goes on vacation -- it is very expensive to travel at this time). Teachers, however, do not get this time off. We have to use our nenkyu, or paid-time-off. :(

Another bit about Japan's school culture: students and teachers take their club activities VERY seriously. A hobby is not just a hobby, it is a life-long pursuit! So even though school was out for summer, there were students at school every day for baseball, soccer, tennis, dance, ping-pong, volleyball, Junior Red Cross, orchestra, guitar, tea ceremony, home ec, etc, etc, etc... Clubs also go all year round - there are no seasonal sports. You have to pick one and stick to it! I've gotten pretty good at telling who is what club: the baseball players all have buzz-cuts, the dancers all wear leggings (circa 1984) all the time, guitar players are boys who don't want to have to run around a field all year long... It's fun to guess!

Anyway, back to my first day. Everyday before school starts is a teachers' meeting. At the meeting this morning kyoto-sensei, vice principal, introduced me to all the teachers. I had to make a short speech:
"Hajimemashite! Anna Amen to moshimasu. Amerika no Washington-shu, Seattle-shi kara kimashita. Watashi wa nihongo ga hanasemasen shikashi eigo ga totemo jozu desu! Dozo yuroshiku onegaishimasu." = Hello/Nice to meet you! I am Anna Amen. I come from Seattle, Washington, America. I do not speak Japanese, but I am very skilled in English! Please treat me nicely as I will treat you (sort of, this phrase doesn't really have an English translation). I got a few laughs, which is what I was going for.

After the introduction to the teachers and the rest of the teachers' meeting (all in Japanese so I don't know what was said) I was taken to the gym to the Opening Ceremony. All the students sit/stand in rows: boy/girl and by year. The kocho-sensei, principal, made a long speech and they played a song (school song? National Anthem? no idea!). Then kocho-sensei brought me on stage and introduced me to the students. I know he said something about how I'm from Seattle and something about Ichiro, but that's all I could catch. Then I had to make another little speech, this time in English (basically, I'm excited to be here and look forward to speaking English with all of you). After that there were more speeches by various teachers about bus schedules and who knows what. It was stinking hot and we all had to stand... And for the occasion I wore a suit, so I was dying!

After the assembly, students were dismissed to their homerooms. The first day of school is also "cleaning day" where all the students are assigned a classroom that they have to clean. I guess this happens every week, but today was special (?). I am in charge of the International Classroom (my classroom!) and so a handful of students came to clean it up. They didn't really talk to me, just called me kawaii, cute! (Side note: my school does it a little differently - usually the students stay in one classroom and the teachers come to them. At my school for English class, they come to the International Classroom instead of me going to them.)

Not much happened the rest of the day... I actually start teaching tomorrow! But not at this school -- Tuesday, Thursday afternoon, and Friday morning I go to my visiting school. So my first lesson will be there! Yikes!

In other news, last night I had my first encounter with a cockroach! AAAAACK!! It was hiding in my towel! As I was getting ready for bed, I grabbed my towel and out it came!! Yuck yuck yuck!! I screamed, dropped the towel, ran into the tatami room, and slammed the door! And I didn't go back in the kitchen/bathroom until morning. Mike tried telling me that it is more afraid of me than I am of it, but I don't think so. Regardless, I've decided that this cockroach needs to die! This apartment isn't big enough for both of us! After school today I went to the drug store and stocked up on gokiburi hoi hoi, roach motels, and gokiburi supurei, roach spray. I put 5 motels all around the kitchen, so we'll just see how long he lives...

That is all for today!

Japanese phrase of the day:
Kata no chikaro o nuite yaro yo. It helps to have a sense of humor.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Brought to you by the Letter C!

Celebrity endorsements!

I had to write a quick blurb about this because I just watched two commercials in a row with celebrities in them (Ichiro and Orlando Bloom). Here's what I've seen so far:

Ichiro takes his car to be detailed at a gas company called Eneos!

Orlando Bloom loves Shiseido's Uno hair gel!

Cameron Diaz only uses Softbank as her cell phone company!

Tommy Lee Jones drinks Boss Coffee everyday!

I've also seen Meg Ryan on a huge billboard in Kobe, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was for...

Anyway, I think celebrity endorsements are hysterical! Right up there with Engrish!
I have seen so many examples of very fine Engrish, that I can't take pictures of them all. Here are a few of my favorites:

There are a lot of sad looking puppies on gift bags around here. And also a lot of strange sayings... On Friday I found a bag that said," God chooses our families, thank God we can choose our friends" !!!! Who would you give that to?? What kind of gift would you put in these bags??

(It's hard to see, but on the bird's crest it says, "1994 Seattle Teenage. This is a shirt that I had to have!)


Aug 7th-9th: Banks and Fried Food

Aug 7th and 8th: Not much to report. A lot of signing papers, getting used to getting to school by myself, setting up the apt.

Oh Aug 9th, I had an interesting day at the bank. A word about Japanese banks:
Japanese businesses as a whole are very honest. They won't charge you hidden fees (except maybe cell phone companies), they won't accept tips (even cab drivers!), and will chase you down the street if you forget your change (even if it's just a few yen!). With utilities - gas, water, electricity - cell phone, and rent, you can have it set up so that the money is directly taken from your account to pay your bills. Kind of like what you can set up with online banking, except Japan has been doing this for years. For someone like me, it's rather convenient since I wouldn't be able to read the bill anyway! (If you don't have the direct payment set up, when you get a bill you don't send them a check -- checks don't exist in Japan -- you take the bill to the convenience store, they scan the barcode on the bill, and you pay cash.) Also, Japan is primarily still a cash society - they don't use checks, credit cards, debit cards, anything like that! So keeping track of your cash is very important. And pretty much everyone carries around a lot of cash all the time (this is still hard to get used to - being someone who rarely carried cash).

Also, the post office is also a bank. The post office was the first government run organization to act as a bank before banks existed in Japan. Most Japanese people still have accounts at the post office -- usually they have their paychecks deposited into the bank and they use the post office as a savings account.

When you open up a Japanese back account, you get a banking passbook -- kind of like a check book. This contains all your bank account information (I'm pretty sure it's coded). When you go to an ATM, you put in your ATM card and your passbook and it automatically updates the passbook for you! It's fantastic! No more writing in your checkbook trying to remember when you took out some cash or used your debit card -- the ATM does it for you! And if you don't have your passbook with you, that's okay - you can have it updated the next time you go. I love it :)

Anyway. Back to the story. I went to the bank to exchange and deposit the last of the money that I had brought with me. I knew this would be difficult, so I brought the point-and-speak phrasebook that Mike's mom gave me, bookmarked at the bank section. I mimed to the bank greeter lady that I wanted to exchange and deposit my American dollars. She helped me fill out the forms and get in the right line. The teller who was helping me was also very nice and tried to speak English... HOWEVER... While she was exchanging my money, she LOST my bank passbook!! My proof of my bank account!! I had given it to her with my money and she misplaced it while calculating the exchange rate or something. Oh you should have seen how they fussed over me! The teller, the greeter lady, and another teller who wasn't with a customer were frantically looking all over the desk and shelves. They kept talking to me in Japanese, trying to reassure me, and I tried desperately to get a hold of someone who spoke English and Japanese so they could talk to them for me (sadly, no one answered their phone). After what seemed like hours (but was probably only 20 minutes) they found my passbook and apologized over and over. As a parting gift, they gave me some dish soap and wet wipes to compensate me for my trouble :) I was escorted to the door by the greeter lady while she kept bowing all the way to her knees!

Now I can look back and laugh, but at the time, I was sooooo scared that my bank account was going to be frozen!

Later that night I met up with some other ALTs at an English Pub in Kobe called The Hub. (For all you Huskies, funny right?) Most Friday nights the ALTs in the Kansai area meet up a The Hub for happy hour and then go get some dinner. It was decided to take me someplace new (again!) for dinner...

We went to a kushi-ya, which basically means "a shop to deep fry food." Again, pay by the hour and built into the center of each table is a pot of hot oil. There's a buffet of various foods on sticks -- like shish-kebabs -- meat, vegetables, sea food, all sorts of things. You dip your selected food in batter, roll it in bread crumbs, and put it in the pot to fry! Not the healthiest meal, but it was very fun.

(This isn't my picture, but looks pretty close to what I experienced...I should've taken a picture!)

Okay folks, I should be going -- school starts tomorrow and I need to work on my opening speech! Wish me luck :)

Japanese phrase of the day:
Gambatte! Try your hardest!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Aug 5th & 6th: Dancing Queen

On Aug 5th I went to a town north of Amagasaki, called Sakasegawa, to check out the festival. Every town, city, neighborhood, etc. has their own festivals all summer long. You can go pretty much anywhere and find a festival going on. I met up with my pred, Chris, Emmy, Mukonoso-Dave, and Richard. This festival was mainly for the kiddos - games where you could win a giant blow-up Disney animal, goldfish, and other toys. The food was very interesting: giant hot dogs on sticks (didn't taste like our hot dogs), shaved ice, yakisoba, tako-yaki (deep-fried octopus dumplings, I haven't worked up the courage to try these yet). The kids are adorable all dressed up in their yukata.

For dinner we went to an okonomi-yaki restaurant. Okonomi-yaki is sort of the Japanese version of pizza; it's a savory pancake topped with cabbage, meat, mayo (of course), fish flakes, and some other things. At the restaurant, every table has a giant hot plate built into the center. You order whatever types of okonomi-yaki you want (mostly the sauces are different, but you can get garlic, kimchi, and a whole bunch of different flavors and innards), the cook puts them together in the back and then brings them to the table and puts them on the hot plate to cook. It's interesting to watch because the fish flakes are on top and while they cook they curl up and it looks like the food is moving...strange! It's very tasty (however, I don't recommend the take-home version from the grocery store - didn't turn out well).

On Aug 6th I ended up going back to the festival by chance. I had decided to sign up for Japanese tutoring at the International Center in Takarazuka (about 2 train stops from Sakesegawa) since a lot of the other ALTs recommended it. I met up with Richard, Chris, and Casey and they helped me sign up before their tutoring sessions. The tutors are little old ladies who volunteer their time (so they have someone to talk to, I think) and it costs only 500 yen (about $5)!! Afterwards, we walked back to Sakasegawa to check out some dancing - Casey's bf is a dance teacher and his students were performing. I guess I was expecting traditional Japanese dancing...what I saw instead was hard-core hip hop! It was like something out of a rap video! Apparently this type of dance is very popular and even really young kids like the "sexy dance."

After the "dance recital," we went to a ramen restaurant for dinner. You wouldn't believe all the types of ramen that are available - not just your regular Top Ramen!

We went back to the festival and I was so excited to see some taiko drummers setting up. I so was busy watching the taiko drums, I didn't notice the circle of grannies that had formed a circle around my friends and me. They started doing ban dancing, a traditional type of line dancing! I was thrilled! After the first dance, a couple of the ladies convinced me to join into the circle (but, really how hard is it to convince me to start dancing?) and I just followed along the best I could. I had a blast and the ladies were all so nice!

Well, it's time for dinner! I'm going to a spaghetti dinner at a friend's house (yeah, some ALTs actually get houses instead of tiny apartments! I'm a little jealous...).

Japanese phrase of the day:
Dansu ga suki desu-ka? Do you like to dance?
Hai, dai suki desu! Yes, I really like it! (~it's the best!)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Observations from Aug 2-4

I've been debating whether I should keep going in chronological order or write about more topical things...maybe I'll do both. I've also been wondering how I should deal with people's names. According to a friend, you should never use anyone's actual name in a blog (for various reasons), but considering my audience hasn't met the people I'm going to be talking about, nicknames might be a bit hard... I suppose I'll just stick to first names? Arg, the difficulties of writing a blog! :)

So, Aug 2nd, my pred, his friend Chris, and Chris's gf Emmy took me out to dinner. We went to a restaurant that serves Shabu Shabu. Like many all-you-can-eat restaurants, you pay by the hour. At every table is a giant pot of boiling water. The waitress brings you fresh vegetables and thinly sliced raw meat (we had beef and pork). Also at every table are several different types of sauces -- Japan has some of the BEST sauces I have ever tasted! First you put in all the vegetables, so the pot begins to look like a soup. Then you add the meat - and because the water is so hot and the meat so thin, it cooks almost instantly! Then you grab a bite, dip it in your sauce of choice, and enjoy! It's amazing and delicious!! Also at this restaurant was my first taste of ume-shou, a plum liqueur that is served on the rocks. Oh my goodness, it is wonderful. I will have to send some home for everyone to try!

After dinner we went to karaoke! Karaoke here is not like it is in the US. Again, you pay by the hour and depending on the level of karaoke plan (so-to-speak) that you choose, you get different drinks or food as all-you-can-drink/eat. (The 1st level is a-y-c-d chou-hi, a vodka-like fruity drink, the next level is beer, and from there the drinks get more fancy and food is in the picture...) You get a private room with booth seating, a huge tv, karaoke machine, a couple mics, song books (in English if you ask), and neat remote control thingys to chose your songs. There is also a phone so you can call the front desk and ask for more drinks/food, too. Basically, you pass the song book and remote control around and everyone plugs in their song(s) of choice -- as soon as the first song is put in, the singing begins! I have found that the most fun is had when you have a large group of people squished into the booth and everyone is singing along, regardless of who picked the song or who holds the mic. It was harder having only 4 people thinking of enough songs to sing to fill up our 2 hours... Anyway, karaoke is awesome and I am no longer shy about belting one out!!!

Some observations I had written down at this point:
1. Cicadas are the most irritating, ugly creatures I have ever come across. They begin chirping when the sun comes up and don't stop until they die, which is what 24-48hours later? So it pretty much doesn't stop!
2. Everyone carries around long umbrellas if there is even a hint of rain. You can't find the nice, small, compact umbrellas you can throw in your bag around here.
3. Women carry dark parasols all the time - it is fashionable for women to have very pale skin. So, they don't let their skin see the sun! It is very common for you to see women with a parasol, a visor that completely covers their face, gloves past their elbows, and long pants in 100+degree weather! I don't understand how they don't sweat themselves to fainting, but they don't!
4. Everyone also carries a handkerchief or small towel with them everywhere. This is for 2 reasons: a. because there are no paper towels in the restrooms, b. to mop your sweat whiles dealing with the heat and humidity. Women use designer towels/hankies - I've seen Vivienne Westwood, Anna Sui, Burberry, the list goes on... Quite expensive sweat rags!

Aug 3rd: Opened up my bank account, got my keitai (cell phone), and applied for my Alien Registration card. A nice thing about being a registered alien is that I get a driver's license-type card that I can carry instead of having to have my passport on me at all times.

Aug 4th: Fireworks festival!
The Japanese love fireworks and will come up with festivals just for the fireworks! Pretty much any weekend you can find some fireworks somewhere. This time we went to a place near Osaka, along the river (don't know the exact name). The fireworks were amazing! The show lasted nearly an hour and the fireworks were huuuuuuge!! The audience oohed, ahhed, clapped, and on the really big ones yelled sugoi! (fantastic!) It was strange being American and watching the fireworks because there is something inherently patriotic about fireworks for us. Someone else mentioned that they kept expecting a band to break out in the Star Spangled Banner because every round of fireworks felt like the big finale! It's true though -- we only see fireworks on the 4th of July and New Years. It was hard not to think about the 4th of July while watching the show, especially since it was just the month before. But I digress. Because it is a festival, everyone dresses up in their summer-style kimonos called yukata. They are much less complicated than kimonos... It's very cool to see huge crowds of people dressed up in yukata.
I just bought my own yukata this past weekend while I was in Kyoto visiting a friend of mine from high school. Her husband tied it up for me :)

For dinner that night (before the fireworks), pred, Chris, Emmy and I went to one of those conveyor belt sushi places. I think they wanted to take me "someplace new and exciting," but I've been to a conveyor sushi place before.

Something I've noticed about food: don't let people fool you into thinking that Japanese people eat sooooo healthy. Most foods are fried, covered in mayo, or both! I'm surprised more people don't keel over from heart attacks because their arteries are clogged with mayo! Yes, you can eat healthy if you eat at home, but most restaurants are not the place to go for health nuts.

I think this is where I will stop for today!

Japanese phrase of the day:
Oishi desu-yo! This is delicious!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

July 29-Aug 1st: Tokyo Orientation

I think I will start at the beginning; it's a very good place to start.

We left SeaTac around 4pm on Saturday July 28th and arrived in Tokyo around 6pm Sunday July 29th. The group from Seattle is one of the largest JET groups - we had about 60 people.

The fligh
t was very long, but had great in-flight entertainment. :) Every seat had it's own tv screen and you could choose what movies to watch - or you could play games, listen to music, all sorts of things. You could challenge someone sitting in another seat to a video game - crazy! I watched about 4 movies...I don't really remember which ones, but it doesn't really matter, does it?

When we got to the airport we were shuffled through security and customs and loaded onto a bus to take us to the hotel. We were the last group to arrive, so all the other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers, to be used from here on) were freshly showered and ready to take on the town. I however, went to bed. Exciting.

The next few days were spent in a training conference. We covered all kinds of topics concerning the state of English education in Japan - all very thrilling (I will spare you the details). There were a few useful sessions about money management, travel, etc., but generally the time was best used meeting people and making connections (who's living in the next town over? who's living in a huge house in Hokkaido so when you want to take a weekend trip you can crash on their floor?)

One evening, a group of older ALTs from Hyogo-ken (that's the prefecture, or state, that I'm living in) organized a night out so we could meet some new and some old ALTs. We went to a theme restaurant, very common in Japan: the theme was Haunted Chinese Railroad. No lie. Inside, the walkway was down the center of the restaurant and looked like you were walking through and iron skeleton - the iron "ribs" went down on either side. Through the ribs you could walk to your table. The cashier was behind a cage like at an old train station. I wish I had taken pictures! Ah well...

Leaving Tokyo, the Hyogo-ken ALTs took the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka. From Osaka we took a bus to an educational center in the middle of nowhere (nicknamed Yashiro Prison, this will come up again later). This is where the representatives from our base schools came to pick us up. There was a very quick introduction and very quick good-byes to our friends before we were shuffled off into separate cars an went our separate ways. (Side note: at this point it was very hard to keep contact with these new friends. We didn't have land lines or cell phones, we didn't have access to internet so email was useless, we didn't even know necessarily where we were going to be living. I think being so disconnected made me spazz out a bit...I felt like I had left my left arm at home!). From Yashiro I was taken directly my base school, Nishinomiya Kabutoyama High School. Here I met principal, was shown my desk, signed some papers, and was whisked off again, this time to my apartment.

I still have not taken any pictures of my apartment - mainly because when I moved in, it was rather scary. Now it's not quite so scary, but I'm still rearranging things and actually I just got a brand new kitchen cupboard this afternoon! So, I promise an apartment-dedicated blog in the future...

Back to the day that never seemed to end: my supervisor and my predecessor (the ALT that I am replacing) carried my bags to my place (I'm on the first floor, but the bags were extremely heavy) showed me around a bit (not that there's much to see) and took me out to dinner -- to an Italian restaurant. :) Later that evening, my pred took me out to an izakaya, a Japanese family-style restaurant, to meet some other ALTs that live nearby. Old ALTs, new ALTs, incoming and outgoing. It was nice to be around people. We weren't out too late, but I was dead tired, so I was escorted home, since I had no idea how to get back, and crashed.

There you have it: my first 4 days in Japan. A bit of a whirlwind, huh?

Japanese phrase of the day:
Tsukaremashita, uchi ni kaerimas. I'm tired, I'd better go home.

Monday, August 27, 2007

First blog post!

Finally! Internet!
I never thought I would be so happy to receive a package at 9:30pm - I had been waiting all afternoon for my modem! The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) that I asked for help told the courier to come to my apartment at 10pm instead of 2pm like I specified.
I've only been here 3 weeks and this type of mistake doesn't surprise me anymore...but more on that later. I have quite a lot of catching up to do and I hope to do so fairly quickly. I've been keeping notes about my life to help my memory since pretty much everything is a completely new experience. But I can't start now - it's almost 11pm and I have to get up at 6am to make it to school by 8:25am because of the long commute (very different from my previous job!). I hope this blog helps to keep us in touch (yes, you), so please leave comments and send me emails.

Japanese phrase for the day:
Oyasumi nasai! Good night! (used when going to bed)