Archive for February, 2007

Lessons from School

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007 by Steph

A few things have been keeping me busy since returning from the Sapporo Snow Festival a few weeks ago. I’ve been working with a senior student at the high school for a speech contest that was held on Feb. 16th. The theme was, amazingly enough, “internationalization”. For most of the 15 year olds participating, this meant talking about their experiences as or with exchange students. Two of the speakers had spent some time in America… the take home message about that country was two fold:

1. “Americans are very religious and will hang a flag on anything”

2. “Some rude American boy addressed me as ‘Hey, Chinese!’ instead of
‘Hey, Japanese!’, or even, God forbid, by my actual name”

I have to say, I’m not exactly thrilled that this is the extent of what our country has to offer Japanese exchange students. Maybe the nicer fuzzy stuff doesn’t make for as good a story…?

Anyway, I’ve been preparing with my student, Tomatsu, for like a month and a half. We discussed ideas for his speech, which he wrote and translated into English pretty proficiently all by himself. We edited, worked on pronunciation, speed, inflection, emotion, and general public speaking skills. Not only did he work on these points, he worked on them every day. We would go over particularly difficult words or vowel sounds that don’t exist in Japanese, and I would see obvious improvement the next day. He has a great ear, and I am so impressed with his work ethic and desire to speak English well.

That’s why is was particularly great when he came home with a trophy. Third place, baby! Not bad, considering he was up against experienced competitors, many of whom go to the advanced English school in Akita city. I am so proud. Give it up for Noshiro, WOOOOT!!!!

The week after the speech contest, I worked all week at Junior High #2, where I had two astonishing moments in class. You’d think that the word “sweater” is fairly innocuous, right? We were teaching this word to a room full of 8th graders, when my co-teacher stops to discuss sweat, and sweater, and were they related?… a natural enough tangent. Then we start discussing the Japanese drink, “Pocari Sweat”, and my thoughts on the appropriateness of the name (um… a sports drink? Yum?). Then, in Japanese, this conversation, unbeknownst to me, takes a screaming 90 degree turn, and I hear the word “animal” in Japanese, and I’m thinking “what the heck…” and then I get this:

“Stephanie-sensei, do you know the Japanese drink, Calipis?”
<hesitant nod>
“Do you think that drink sounds like “Cow piss?”

Fabulous. How exactly does one professionally answer that question? The worst part was, in the States, class would have been over at that point. Talking about cow piss with 13 year olds in class would have been a great way to ensure mayhem. In my school, they just sat there politely and discussed it. Maybe “piss” has a different ring to it in Japanese?…

Later that week at the same school, I ran a class by myself, as my co-teacher had to go hunt down a missing student. We began with a game where every student (9th graders) had to think up a question to ask me; it could be anything, and points were awarded by difficulty of question. Usually for this kind of activity, students will parrot questions from dialogues in the book, like “What do you want to be in the future?” and “Which do you like better, dog or cat?” Then I get this gem:

“Stephanie-sensei. You look like you are in shape. How many times a week do you exercise?”

For a split second there, I swear I thought I was being hit on. I have to say, this question was a side splitter for me, as a) it was coming from a 14 year old girl that I see maybe once every other month and b) there is no way that she got that from the book, and that just tickles me pink.

Paper, paper I say

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007 by Chris

Here’s a brief video of Steph teaching a class on Ghanaian music last weekend. The sound seems to be a second behind the video (a problem I seem to have with all the videos I upload to YouTube), but you get the idea.

[youtube 4cYuIucnWEc]

Long-lost cousins: they really do exist!

Sunday, February 25th, 2007 by Chris

In the true spirit of blogging, here is something completely from left field for you to enjoy. I received an email the other day from a cousin (technically, second cousin) with whom I have not communicated since childhood. He turned 40 last year, and in honor of that auspicious milestone decided to do something significant: he walked 40 miles across Los Angeles in one day and took pledges for charity. He kept a blog of his preparations for the event and I have enjoyed reading his wonderful descriptions of Los Angeles, a city that I love to hate, but for which, in the end, I have a definite soft spot.

This was his route. For those of you who know just how huge Los Angeles is, you will be immediately impressed by the scale of this endeavor!

40 at 40 route

Our first vivsitor!

Monday, February 19th, 2007 by Chris

We have long been looking forward to our first visitors from home: our college friends Nik and Vivien. Upon arriving in Japan, they spent a few days in Tokyo, where Vivien gave a talk on low-temperature physics at Tokyo University and Nik managed to finagle a business meeting with some Japanese companies. But disaster struck when a business emergency called Nik back to Los Angeles on zero notice, on the very day they were to get on the train to Noshiro.

Vivien made the best of a bad situation and hit the tracks by herself. We met her in Akita City and headed with guarded excitement to a new Mexican restaurant we had heard about mere days earlier. Imagine our surprise and somewhat resigned disappointment when we discovered that it was yet another standard (although nice) Japanese restaurant — called “Amigo Amiga” for no apparent reason. At least it had a great view!

Steph had work the next day, so I showed Vivien around town. After about three Shinto shrines it hit home that there really isn’t much to show a guest around here. We swung by Steph’s high school for an impromptu school tour: “This is our computer lab. This is our other computer lab. This is the staff room.” We met the principal and received some neat little cookies with the school’s emblem branded on them. Vivien kept hers as souvenirs, but I was foolish enough to try one. They tasted like sand, with maybe a few grains of sugar mixed in. I decided to keep my second one as a souvenir too.

Thursday was a more exciting day for Vivien. Steph was scheduled at an elementary school, which is fun because the kids are young enough not to have had the life beaten out of them by Japanese conformity, and since she only visits each elementary school a couple times a year, it’s a big event for them. Vivien got to serve as assistant-assitant language teacher for the day.

Since we were missing Second Friday this month due to our Sapporo trip, we gathered all our gaijin friends for a Thursday night outing instead. After all, Vivien’s visit wouldn’t be complete without a night of grub, grog, purikura and song. After some skepticism, Vivien succumbed to the allures of karaoke, and I must say our duet on Gangsta’s Paradise was an event to remember.

Friday morning it was train time again, as Vivien and I headed for Sapporo. Steph and the gang joined us Saturday morning after their overnight ferry right from Akita. Steph’s already covered that, so I will simply leave you with a few pictures from Viv’s visit. Thanks for being our first guest, Vivien! We hope you can come back sometime, perhaps when it’s warmer, with Nik.

Gangstas Slurpin Bank Shot Vivien sensei Ready

Photo Central

Sunday, February 18th, 2007 by Chris

Bonanza! I got photos from Claire‘s and Frank‘s cameras and have added them to the Sapporo set. If you’ve already looked at our Sapporo photos, look again! You’ll see more photos of Vivien, us, and the whole group.

Yuki yuki yukkuri

Sunday, February 18th, 2007 by Steph

I had elementary school visits for the last two weeks, which means the inevitable… I’m sick again. Although it’s doing wonders for my conversational Japanese. Here is what I’m getting really good at saying:

  • I became sick.
  • Yes, I have a cough. I’m sorry that I’m loud!
  • No, I don’t have a fever.
  • Yes, I’m taking medicine.
  • Slowly, slowly I am getting better.

Being sick for like the 4th time this winter, I have been disinclined to blog lately. But this didn’t stop me from going to the mother of all Japanese festivals… The Sapporo Snow Festival. Dun-dun!!!!!

Vivien the unflappable joined us in Noshiro for the few days preceding the festival. This must have been tiresome for her, but we tried to spice it up a little by dragging her to a few tasty restaurants and an elementary school, as well as introducing her to the boredom banishing joys of purikura and karaoke.

As for the festival… this year was kind of a great and kind of a terrible year to go. Great because the timing was such that the festival culminated on a 3 day weekend. This is essential for anyone traveling from Akita who wants to spend more than a day in Sapporo. The logistics of the trip are a little insane… 7-9 hours by train, and around $150 each way, but hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetimer, right? On the other hand, it’s a not such a good year to go because, well, it’s the warmest winter in Japan in like 100 years, which has turned visions of grand icy vistas to slush.

Viv and Chris took off early on Friday, since they’re not chained to the Japanese school system as I am. I left later with a flock of JETs… we drove an hour to Akita City, then took a 9 hour red-eye ferry, followed by a bus to the train to the subway, finally arriving in Sapporo at 8am on Saturday with 3 solid hours of sleep. I have to say, if you’re thinking about taking the ferry in Japan, go for it, cause it’s super cheap (comparatively… unless you have one of those super amazing gaijin train passes, in which case, never-mind) and SWANKY! This boat was totally decked out with an outdoor hot tub (sadly, not in service in the winter), a pub, cafe, restaurant, video-game room, and movie theatre. Also included were some of the most awesome food vending machines I have ever seen. One spit out ice cream, for those in need of immediate gratification. Another would produce your choice of karaage or onigiri, providing you had a few minutes to wait for the manufacture of hot food. Also awesomely present was a “sports” room, which consisted of two ping pong tables, only one of which had a net. Let me repeat that so it can sink in: a boat with ping pong. Seriously, how great is that?

We made up an elaborate set of rules that allowed all 4 of us to play at once with only 2 paddles. I believe the other two people made do with a cell phone and a hair brush. Rules included spontaneous verbal commands, including “llama” (switch tables), “eagle” (aim for the ceiling), and “tiger” (aim for your friend). It all smacked a little of Calvinball, and produced not a few sidelong glances from our fellow passengers.

So! Sapporo! Full of great restaurants, parks, and temples, all on an orderly and not-so-Japanese grid system, along with extensive underground tunnels, shops, and stores to duck the harsh winter. Fabulous city, just fabulous. Except, this year, for the lack of snow. Kind of a disappointment when you go to a snow festival, eh? I’m not a very hearty winter soul, so I was happy enough with the weather, which hovered around freezing, and got to -5 Celsius at its coldest. It snowed just enough to be atmospheric. Apparently, earlier in the week when folks were making the snow sculptures, it was too warm, and snowy appendages were falling off left and right (the horror!), but the cold returned just in time to rejuvenate the sculptures for the hoards of incoming tourists.

Pretty much what you do for a snow festival is walk around and look at stuff between snacks. We sampled the gamut of Sapporo’s festival food: corn, potatoes (these mysteriously were covered in powdered sugar), amazingly delicious frankfurters, condensed milk crepes, pork buns, and chocolate covered bananas. The snow sculptures were of course the main attraction. The sizes ranged from person-sized to larger-than-your-house. All sorts of snowy gimmicks were employed, including a sculpture with fish frozen in it, and all manner of blinking and colored lights. Performers took to the snow stage at night, ranging from hard core heavy metal to cuter than cute J-pop.

Though we were severely sleep deprived, we took a whirlwind tour of everything the wintery city had to offer. In rapid succession, we ate the famed Genghis Kahn at the Sapporo Brewery, followed by a tour of their museum. How fun is it to see old pics of Japanese brewing masters with vests and handlebar mustaches? We also liked the wall of advertising, showing geisha after geisha from multiple eras with a nice tall frosty pitcher of beer.

Then it was off to the Ishiya chocolate factory, which produces Sapporo’s famous white chocolate delights. We made it there just in time to see the slightly sinister and overly happy on the hour clock display, which lasted for a good 10 minutes, and involved singing dogs, gophers, pigs, and chocolate chefs. After a quick cake and coffee and sled down the kiddie snow hill, we hit the third museum of the day, tried to learn about sake. Really we just ended up taste-testing, as it was more of a one room store with pictures than a museum.

Phew. Exhausting. With that we had to go and eat a very speedy (but utterly delectable) ramen meal before sending Vivien on her way home by train. If you go to Sapporo, it is mandated that you try their ramen. I don’t care how hot the weather is. I don’t care if you think all ramen tastes the same. You’d be wrong, and you shall kick yourself a thousand times over if you don’t sample the liquidy noodle-tastic delight that is butter-corn ramen. If you can find it, patronize MOGURA (もぐら). It’s on the southeast corner of the big central intersection of the Susukino nightlife district, just a few doors down from the subway station entrance. It’s the ramen shop with filled to the gills with equal parts steam and local character, with the lady at the door telling anyone who will listen, “Doozo. Oishii, yo!!!”

Of course, with evening came the illumination of all the snow sculptures, so we had to go see them again, taking goofy thematic pictures with as many as possible. At night, the ice bars also open for business, which are pretty fun to try… bartenders pouring whatever you just ordered down an ice slide to chill your beverage of choice. Or there was the “carve your own shot glass out of ice” booth. Or you could be boring but happy like me and get some hot Bailey’s to warm you to the tips of your toes.


Tuesday, February 6th, 2007 by Chris

I scored a Wii! And just in time for Nik and Viv to visit.
Nintendo Wii