Archive for September, 2006

Spreading the Gospel

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006 by Steph

I never thought I would utter these words: Today for lunch, I am eating a spaghetti sandwich.

Moving on, today was another one of those days when I just can’t believe I am getting paid. As part of the after-finals festivities, the whole school walked over to the community center for a two hour gospel-shamisen concert. Just trying to imagine that combination makes my head want to explode.

The gospel choir totally threw me for a loop. Okay, yes, they were singing about God. But the similarity to gospel music ended there for me. I would say that this 4 person ensemble sounded more like Manhattan Transfer or the Real Group. I never saw any real fire or spontaneity. At one point, I realized they were doing some kind of gospel-modified pop medley, and in the space of 10 seconds, they worked in Janet Jackson’s “What have you done for me lately”, and somehow added in “You down w/ OPP?” “Yeah, you know me”, except the lyrics had been changed to “You down w/ G-O-D?” “Oh yes I am!” I was caught in the netherworld between fascination and horror.

The shamisen was definitely the coolest part, which I didn’t expect. I thought the shamisen was going to be this stiff, dated, twangy instrument. And apparently for many traditional performances, it often is. But this guy played his shamisen like an electric guitar and rocked the house, busting out like Clapton, and finessing his melodies like McFerrin (I know he’s not a guitar player, stick with me.). I returned to my mortified state, however, as soon as the shamisen/gospel choir collaboration began. It almost defied description: the shamisen produced a sort of heavy-metal/Old-West-cowboy soundtrack, then the gospel members layered a drum kit on top, while back up singers added just a touch of new age flair. I looked around to my neighbors with that look that’s like “are these guys for real?” And then I realized I was the only one in the audience who found the performance strange and side-splittingly funny. This was definitely one of those Only In Japan moments.

Speaking of spreading the gospel, someone somewhere read that my hobby is African dance, and now all of a sudden I have been drafted to give a one hour lecture for the international house in Akita City. It’s going to be in November… anyone want to fly out from San Diego to help a girl out? I promise I will try to stay true to the SDSU Monday-night-captive-audience-world-music-lecture-vibe as much as possible. :) Luckily, I brought a few items along just in case such an occasion came up: a double bell, my up and down from Ghana, and a Bamaya belt and fan. We’ll see if I can get a room full of Japanese to do the Ewe basic. Imagine a whole roomful of people in kimonos doing this.икони

Oh Happy Day

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006 by Steph

The last day of the semester at the high school was Monday, which means… it’s sports week! Between terms, instead of taking a few days off like we do back in the States, the high school students participate in a 4 day long sports festival, in which the various classes and a teachers’ team all participate in bracketed sports competitions. It’s really pretty cool, in a way, because the focus seems to be more on participation than competition, so everyone plays, whether they’re personally sporty or not, and everyone gets lots of support from their teammates. How better to fuel the competitive athlete than with the pizza and donut I ate for lunch. You gotta take one for the team.
Unfortunately, the one sport in which I have any modicum of skill, volleyball, is scheduled for Thursday and Friday, when I am off at other schools. :( However, somehow I am on a basketball team. I’m sure all 5’1″ of my towering hulk will be a huge asset. :) I was also drafted for softball, even though I protested several times that I was unable to hit, out of deference to my long standing back injury. I had my doubts, but the game ended up being quite enjoyable, and I even caught a fly ball! Hot damn! After an hour of play, we ended up tied with the seniors. We settled the game with rock-paper-scissors (janken), if you can believe it. Where the Japanese school system would be without janken, I can’t imagine. It would be sheer chaos.

Yesterday everyone surprised me by coming to the office in suits; the equinox was on Saturday, and I guess it’s like Labor Day, in that it dictates an unofficial clothing calendar. Autumn to Spring equinox: suits and ties are required for the teachers. I get a little more slack, cause I’m a chick, and our wardrobe is a little more flexible. I think I recall the story of another JET who dared to wear short sleeves and a skirt before the Spring equinox. Even though it was humid and beastly hot, there was still a big scandal.

So, who wants to hear about our field trip to a mine on Sunday?

We went with the folks from our Japanese language class at the community center. Transportation, which is always the main stumbling block, was magically paid for. I guess this class does some activity together once a season. There is a real sense of camaraderie between students, because most of the class consists of family members who have recently moved to Japan. This also means that there are kids constantly running around like crazy, which adds some… “atmosphere”. We all piled in 3 minibuses for the 2 hour trip out to Kazuno, east of Noshiro by the Iwate border.

I had an awesome time climbing through tunnels, and just soaking up the weirdness that is Mineland Osarizawa. How often can you visit a mine which has been operational almost continuously for the last 1,200 years? Well, if you lived in Kazuno, Akita, everyday! The mine was closed in 1978, and now it has been abandoned and turned into… an amusement park! Wheeee! It was kind of like Disneyland, with animatronic miners, and a weird ride where you go through space and get to shoot aliens. Oh, and let’s not forget the traditional Japanese dancers by the entrance. I LOVE this type of crazy stuff. Ok, the price was a little steep considering the payoff. But sometimes you just have to bite the bullet in Tohoku and just suck up the B rate tourist attractions. It’s not ALL about pagodas and temples.

Mechanics and Dynamics

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006 by Steph

I just heard from a friend working abroad in Honduras. She’s had a difficult time adjusting, and has just started to feel acclimated, now that she is beginning her second year in the Peace corps. I am trying to heed her advice, “don’t sweat the first year and a half”.

My experience in Japan definetely reminds me of dating someone new. It is all smiley faces and rainbows to start out with, but now the realities are sinking in, and I am trying not to feel trapped in a job where I sit sometimes for days doing nothing when I could be out helping someone else, all due to inefficient planning.

This is such a weird job… I signed up for JET to do teaching and the ever ephemeral “internationalization”. After I’m hired, the JET office is out of the picture, and my fate is determined by a local Board of Education, which often has limited vision about what a JET is and can do. “Teach English in my city when and where I tell you to” is a pretty common interpretation. Understandably, they’re worried more about the scheduling of their school districts, and using my time well can be more of an after thought. I am constantly asked to be flexible, as schedules change at a moment’s notice, or teachers ask me to put in some extra time after school to help them out with whatever. Which I do gladly… it’s usually fun… I just wish I could ask for the same flexibility in return to allow me to expand my role as a JET. This is definitely an area in which the JET program has been struggling for years, and will continue to struggle.

For example, several JETs, including one from my town, are going to India for winter break, to participate in a volunteer English camp for orphans. I am unable to participate, because I would have to miss 3 days of school. When I suggested that I could make up these one-shot elementary school visits on one of the 10 Mondays between now and then, when I have no class and nothing to do, I was told that the schedule is not flexible. I know that this is not strictly true, because my school visits have already once been changed around to accomodate the BOE’s schedule.

Later in the year I will have large swaths of time when the kids aren’t in school, but I am required to show up to work anyway. I know that there will be opportunities to teach at English camps during this time, and I am worried that my two choices will be taking vacation time to teach (of which I have very little when you take travel time into account), or else getting paid to go to work and mindlessly surf the Internet. Some lucky JETs are allowed to teach at English camps as part of their jobs, in the name of internationalization, but many must use up their vacation time to participate. It all depends on the point of view of your employer.

Upon my arrival to Noshiro, I didn’t even realize my boss was my boss, because the employer-employee relationship in Japan is so different from what I’m used to. As a foreign resident who is not proficient in Japanese, I initially needed a slew of favors; my boss made sure my utilities were set up, two of his co-workers lent us bikes to use, and he picked me up for work every morning for the first week. Though not strictly necessary, he went with me to the train station to acquaint me with the transit system, checking fares, and giving me detailed route and transfer information. He drove me to Aomori to retrieve my stolen wallet during the workday at a moment’s notice. Last weekend, he took my car papers somewhere to get the ownership transferred so I can someday drive the beast. I am tremendously thankful for his efforts, as they have made my transition to Japan much easier. Now that I am settled in Noshiro, he pretty much only calls when he needs me to do something, or he’s turning down a request of mine. This is the extent of our interactions, because we don’t even work in the same city, let alone the same office.

So I need to ask myself… do I try and fight these ideological battles that I am probably going to lose, to try and create awareness here for a JET’s breadth of purpose and inch toward an environment which is better for my successors? Or do I suck it up and roll with the system, and be thankful that I have cushy job, that I’ve got my best friend here to back me up, and chalk the rest up to culture differences?

Even though issues like these can be frustrating, if I take a step back, I can see that this is not a huge problem in the Grand Scheme, and that I ‘ve already had so many great experiences here in the last two months, JET is worth it. Even if the program still needs a little fine tuning.


Wednesday, September 20th, 2006 by Steph

So they feed me lunch for free in the junior high schools, but I don’t have any choice as to the menu.  I eat with all the other teachers, so they can see exactly what I don’t like and how much of what I don’t choke down.  When we’re finished, the leftovers go into all these special compartments… used rice in one bag, other uneaten food/soup in another, flattened milk cartons in another, other miscellaneous trash somewhere else, wipe off the trays and clean our chopsticks.  I feel like I’m at summer camp again.

Usually the food is decent, and that’s about it.  But at least I get exposed to food I may not have discovered otherwise… like the strange pumpkin filled fried thingy they fed me the other day.  Today’s particularly tasty vittles included:

corn chowder
fried fish with mayonaise
sauteed broccoli and carrots
a croissant
half a kiwi
whole milk

Someone pinch me and remind me what country I’m in again?…

Japanese Salsa

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006 by Steph

I’ve finally gotten my butt out of my house and into the community a bit. I’ve begun to explore the offerings of the community center in noshiro, which is small to be sure, but has a stunning variety of (mostly) free classes, including traditional Japanese dance, taiko, and (of all things), yoga.

Last week I crashed a salsa class w/ my JET friend Claire. Who knew Noshiro had enough booty-shakin’ soul to offer a salsa class? Sure, there were only 4 students. Sure, the only guy there was the instructor (who also happens to work at hair club jail as a stylist). But it was SALSA, BABY! I would honestly go just for the music. And you haven’t lived until you’ve listened to your Japanese teacher explain salsa moves with basic English and the occasional Spanish term thrown in (everyone do “Para ti Para mi” , followed by “Enchufla”!) So watch out Wyatt… I’m going to be a salsa fiend when I return to visit San Diego.

Last night I mustered up some courage and went to the free Japanese class that my other JET friend Frank attends. I’m usually not in the mood to study for two hours after working all day… but it turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected, and the Japanese teacher I worked with was awesome, speaking slowly enough for me to understand, and working around my limited vocabulary. The class was really informal, so we just steered the conversation to whatever we wanted to learn. Apparently, this Japanese class is taking a field trip to a mine in a mountain this weekend… I’m not sure how all that ties together (a mine?), but it sounds like a unique opportunity for socializing, and, let’s face it, it’s free, so we’re going.

Day of Your Mom’s Mom

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006 by Steph

This last weekend was a long one, due to “Respect for your Elders” Day. Since we have no elders here to honor, Chris and I took advantage of the holiday and fleeting good weather, and made the drive to Sendai, on the east coast of Japan. Here are some pictures if you want to follow along.

Renting a car in Japan is way, way easier than it should be. We expected a mountain of forms and hassles, but really you just show someone your passport and licence, pay in cash, then off you go. Well, first they sit with you in the running car and explain the air conditioner, radio, gas tank, seat adjustments, and turn signals, then stop traffic for you as you pull out, and THEN off you go. :)

We made the trip in about 4 hours, burrowing through central japan’s mountain ranges via tunnel on the expressway. I had been expecting something dramatic, like crossing the rockies, but no. Just massive 4 kilometer-long tunnels.

We stayed in a cute little youth hostel, where you take off your shoes at the entrance, and you use public baths. Perhaps now is a good time to go over bathing protocol for those of you planning on visiting. Men and women go to separate bathing areas. In the first room, you’ll take off your shoes at the entrance, and strip NAKED, leaving all your belongings in an unlocked cubby. Towels most likely won’t be provided, so bring your own. Then you go through this door to the group showers… keep in mind that the door will slide, not swing open. This doesn’t sound very important until you are naked in a room full of Japanese people frantically pulling in vain on this door that refuses to open.

So you go through, and there are open showers next to each other, with a nozzle placed about chest high. There will be stools for you to sit on while you bathe yourself. Once you are totally clean, then and only then should you get into the public hot tub, perpendicular to the showers. This is for soaking, not cleaning. The group nakedness is supposed to help facilitate conversation, so don’t freak out if someone wants to talk to you (although i pretty much stick to the speak when spoken principal here).

The public baths sound scary, but they’re actually pretty nice, especially when you have the whole room to yourself. I hear that the Japanese onsens (hot springs) pretty much follow the same procedure, though I haven’t actually tried one yet.

So, what does Sendai, the largest city in our region, have to offer? Well, to a certain degree, one big city is just like other big cities. Mostly, Sendai offered Chris and myself food unavailable in Noshiro. This included mexican food, all you can eat cake, some beer variety, Balinese food, and some honest-to-god coffee. We also managed to find a lovely glass museum, which was easy to enjoy, because the art form kind of transcends language. I can see it’s glass, what else do I need to know? :)

There are some very “Japanese” sites that make a good day trip from Sendai. We went to Matsushima, one of the THREE most SCENIC spots in Japan! Wow! It was pretty scenic, I have to say: on the ocean, with tons of little islands dotting the bay, and red arched bridges connecting some of them. Some of the islands have temples, and you can tour the bay in a dragon or peacock boat. Noshiro doesn’t really have any geishas or pagodas or any of the flashy traditional Japanese stuff (other than a few temples), so mostly we just had a good time walking around Mastushima and feeling the whole Japan vibe.

On the way back home, we swung by our own local scenic spot, the Oga Peninsula. This area didn’t disappoint, and was full of drop dead gorgeous scenes of cliffs and ocean and all of these crazy demon creatures. We even found an aquarium nestled amongst the cliffs, which we’ll have to attend another time.

So now it’s Tuesday, and it’s good to be home, even though the clouds refuse to go away, and I hear that a typhoon’s a comin’ tomorrow. I hope I can still bike to work, as my car ownership papers are still in the works. A typhoon doesn’t sounds like the best time to take out your contraband car, but I may have to do it.

You Know You’re a JET when…

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006 by Steph
  • You find yourself trying to teach your supervisor how to use the phrase “Out like trout” or “shotgun”
  • You get paid to surf the internet, but you’re forced to take time off to actually teach English and promote internationalization
  • You get laughed at in the school cafeteria for ordering the *wrong* noodles (silly gaijin)
  • You do nothing all day, only to be asked to plan tomorrow’s lessons as soon as you head home

Or maybe I’m just grumpy. Is this the dreaded Culture Shock they keep telling me about?

On the plus side: my wallet was found… the NEXT state over, in Aomori. I got a call from my supervisor first thing on Monday morning. He had been contacted by the police and we had to drive to Aomori to pick up my wallet ASAP. You cannot imagine my surprise. All the money was, of course, gone, but at least I got my foreigner card and driver’s licence back.

Happy ending? You decide.


Sunday, September 10th, 2006 by Steph


elementary, my dear

Sunday, September 10th, 2006 by Steph

I was on pipsqueak patrol this week for the first time, and aren’t they just the cutest? We sang, we laughed. Thankfully, no one cried.

Elementary school visits are kind of a tough gig, because I only visit each one like 3 or 4 times a year. This means I never really get to know my students or teachers. Also, because English is not mandatory in elementary school, the teachers don’t necessarily know much English either, which can be a stumbling block when trying to co-plan your lessons in the 5 minutes you have between classes. However, the kids are pretty forgiving, and are just excited that this weird new person is there that they can pull on and yammer to.

The fifth and sixth graders are pretty with it (English wise) and no one’s told them yet it’s uncool to answer questions in class, so they’re pretty enthusiastic and responsive.

I had to figure out some prizes to give out at the 11th hour, so I brought all these small neon colored post it notes from home, with a stamp, and made up these little notes to give out, which say “great!” on them (complete with a thumbs up)… I had to come up with something cheap and pretty to give out, because I have like 120 new students every day. I thought it was pretty cheesy, but the kids loved ‘em, and even came by after school, asking me to stamp special papers they had brought with me. I am such a superstar!

After school, I was invited to the Japanese Tea Ceremony club, where we took turns kneeling on tatami and frothing up tasty green liquid for consumption. It was a pretty fun and interactive introduction to this elaborate ceremony.

That night, Chris and I checked out this new restaurant which had been recommended by another JET. The chef speaks decent English, and he has studied cooking in Canada, Scotland, America (where he hitchhiked for like 6 months!), South America, France, and India. India! I can’t believe we can get authentic tasting Indian food in tiny Noshiro! It was the first time I had tasted something actually spicy (besides wasabi) since my arrival in Japan. In addition, he special orders Newcastle beer from Tokyo, so it’s the only place in town with tasty beer. I’m afraid to ask the bottle price. Still, what a welcome treat!

We asked this guy to just cook some stuff up for us. Some of the treats we sampled included:

  • fish fries. these fish were a couple inches long (french fry size!), and fried up whole. I was a little displeased to see a plate of whole fried fish in front of me, but they ended up being pretty good. Couldn’t taste eyeballs or bones or anything. ;)
  • basashi. raw horsemeat, which is a speciality of this region. My students have been telling me for weeks how good basashi is, so I swore I would try it ONCE. And it tastes just like sushi or carpaccio… raw but tasty. It comes with loads of ginger and garlic, so how can you go wrong, really.
  • samosas. Fat fat fatty, but oh so delicious.

On the way home from our culinary feast, we spotted some familiar faces gathered in a little house, including our neighbor and local sashimi supplier. So we popped our heads in to say hello, and got roped into the gathering. Apparently, all the guys from the neighborhood get together once a month to eat and drink and just hang out. After giving Chris the largest bottle of alcohol we’ve ever seen (late birthday present?), they made us promise to come back and hang out next month.

So ends the best day ever.

the language of food

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006 by Steph

Yesterday we held our second English Club meeting at the high school… both the students and i have this unspoken understanding that it’s not really English Club, as no one really speaks much English or wants to (trust me, I tried). What we all agree on is that we want to eat tasty food… which basically means I get to make 15 high school girls cook me whatever I want, all paid for, as long as it takes less than an hour. Yes!

Yesterday we did a macaroon/s’mores double whammy. If I have my way, these girls will never be hungry again for dinner on Tuesdays. We were missing an electric mixer for the egg whites which go into macaroons… so the girls took 2 minute shifts and whipped those puppies up by hand for like 20 minutes. THAT is dedication, my friend. I wasn’t sure how the macaroon thing would work out, as we kinda had to wing it… but in the end, everyone agreed we had achieved tastiness. The language of food…. is universal.

The s’mores were a big hit too, although less so the song (in English) that I tried to teach them to get them to feel the summer camp vibe. ;) Extra bonus: many Japanese marshmellows (which are tiny and incredibly cute… they’re like the size of a nickel) have a delectable fruit center, which added an extra dimension to the smores extravaganza. I think we all learned something new from the experience. Me? I learned that roasting marshmellows on chopsticks over a burner is an excellent approximation of a stick in a campfire.

Later that night, Chris and I were wandering around Jusco, our grocery store, and were graced with a surprise visit by 3 of my girls… I don’t know their names or what school they were from (I have like 1,000 students all together!), but we jumped on the opportunity and asked them for help shopping. We were looking for ingredients to make shabu-shabu, so we asked them if we had all the necessities… we were trying to find chicken stock, but the best we could come up with in Japanese was “chicken water”. Needless to say, this resulted in mass confusion, and no chicken stock was found. Instead, we ended up with some dubious looking dried kelp (seaweed?), which we are supposed to soak in water to make a basic broth. We’ll let you know how that works out.

Talk about your win/win situation: the girls get to teach sensei something, and I end up with dinner. Thanks for the help, y’all!