Archive for June, 2007

Where in the World

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007 by Steph

Let’s imagine that you teach a class of 7th graders. They have just started studying English, and you’re only a few weeks into the school year, so they can say “My name is” and “I am from such-and-such a country” but that’s pretty much it. You’re given one hour to come up with a game to fill class time. Go.I was given these instructions and left to my own devices. What to do with a two sentence repertoire… hmm…

One of my pet peeves as a former-world-music-major-teaching-English-in-Japan is that usually only western countries are given any air time. Even though nations like Ghana or India have lots of English speaking citizens, they are rarely mentioned, not to mention the rest of the non-English speaking world. You would think from some textbooks that the globe contained only Canada, England, Australia, and America. My mission for this lesson? To add a few more countries to the classroom repertoire.

The game would be to find others from your country by using the key phrase “Are you from (country)?”. Every student was assigned one of 6 different country cards with a flag on it. The countries had to be easily pronounceable in Japanese, yet under-represented in the Japanese classroom. The flag had to be colorful and unique, to stimulate students’ curiosity about the world. And of course, the cultures represented had to be as varied as possible.

Let’s meet our finalists:

I made country cards with flags, and put in the name in English with katakana subtitles. In class, we did a quick sketch of the country locations on a world map, and then jumped into the game. The activity wasn’t a complete success; it was over a little too quickly, and didn’t give the students as much talking time as I would have liked. But nothing can describe the happiness that swelled in my heart when I heard a roomful of Japanese 12 year olds ask each other “Are you from Nepal?” and reply earnestly “No, I am from Panama.”


Friday, June 22nd, 2007 by Steph


Volcanoes Rock

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007 by Steph

If you had told me that I was going to spend my summery June weekend trudging through snow, I definitely would have expressed some disbelief. I had settled into a relaxed Sunday morning do-nothing vibe, when my better half came to me looking for adventure. It’s sunny! It’s beautiful! We have to go, go, go! I took a moment to savor this role reversal, and then we joined forces, determined in our Quest for Fun.

My suggestion? The Hachimantai Plateau. It was a locale steeped in mystery: smack in the middle of Akita, but still inexplicably inaccessible, surrounded by mountains, with an alpine atmosphere juxtaposed with “evidence of volcanic activity”.

Tantalizing destination? Check.

We gathered together some intrepid friends and headed off by car into the heart of Akita. Once we reached the Hachimantai area, we had to ascend a punishing slope to get to the plateau. During the climb, my attention was equally split between the gorgeous mountain view and the temperature gauge of our car, which was stubbornly climbing upward as well. I’m not sure that name “Red Bullet” is appropriate any more; she certainly wasn’t faster than a speeding anything, and we had to give her a rest a few times on the way up.

Once at the top, you could truly get a sense of the mountainous spine which runs down the center of Japan. We found an alpine marsh, preparing to burst into bloom. Pockets of snow could still be seen on the mountain, and in the distance, we could see Japanese skiers who had flocked to a still-covered slope, and were enjoying the last bit of powder as they jumped off of snowy hillside ramps.

Several paths led to and around the summit, skirting past many of the partly frozen ponds that characterize the Hachimantai area. Elevated planks led us across still-barren meadows, soaking wet and dripping with the sound of snow melt. Stone paths led us through thickets of pine, and voluminous clouds added majesty to a scene still tinged with the breath of winter.

meadow collecting water

Ten minutes into the hike, the planks we had been happily traversing were completely covered in snow. Snow had been tiresome in March, but in mid-June, as heat and humidity begin to afflict the lower altitudes in Japan, discovering snow was like some uncanny summer hallucination. We all did our best to shuffle, slip and slide across to where the planks emerged again, including our friend Claire, who was dressed to the nines a very summery go-go dress and boots. We repeated this maneuver over and over again… plank-snow-plank-snow, working our way through the intermittently frozen landscape.

On our way out of the park mid-afternoon, we made a detour to visit a nature trail from which you could observe “volcanic phenomenon”. “Phenomenon” was a huge understatement. I’m not saying that there was red-hot lava flying through the air or anything; but if you stepped off the path, imminent death awaited you. There are not enough words in the English language to explain the smells which suffused the air. My nose couldn’t quite parse all the olfactory excitement. “Smelly” does not begin to cover the spectrum of the fumes which poured forth from this conduit to geothermal happiness.

We passed several bubbling mud pools, and steam periodically hissed from beneath the rocks at our feet. Holes in the soil beside the trail swore and spit, belching fumes from the belly of the earth. Here and there you could see where the path had been re-routed in deference to a newly-formed steaming pit. One of these bubbling cavities surfaced directly under a pole by the roadside, which had sunk several feet into the mire. We stumbled upon a mud volcano (the biggest one of it’s kind in Japan!), which looked downright quaint until we read that the pool was 25 feet deep and 85 degrees Celsius.

Mud Volcano Environs

Signs warned not to touch the deceptively benign water running by our feet, as the pH was somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5. We skirted a small volcanic rim, and soberly noted a sign on the far side that had been subsumed by all the bubble and toil.

A hot springs resort occupied the real estate adjacent to these hellish pools. Thick and incredibly ugly black tubes snaked around the nearest spring, piping hotter than hot water to the baths. Guests emerged from the resort in kicky little white and green yukatas (little more than thin bathrobes), to stroll nonchalantly amongst the scalding and bubbling mud, before returning to their hot spring retreat. On a distant rock was a Christian cross, surveying the scene from on high… I’m not sure what was going on there. Make the corresponding parallels to fire and brimstone if you wish. It was a surreal scene on a lot of levels.

I am thrilled to live in a place where, even after a year of relentless investigation, there is still more exploration to be done. Surprise still lurks in the cracks and crevices of this odd back-country, a niche half-forgotten, half-ignored by those living in the bigger city, on the faster track.

Out for a Stroll

Friday, June 15th, 2007 by Steph

The sky is clear and brilliant, littered with stars. In this cloudy, waterlogged country, that in and of itself is a miracle. Though the sky is clear for now, early summer’s rainy season is well underway. With it comes the humidity, and the insects (I had forgotten you), unobtrusively grotesque on my living room wall.

It’s refreshingly cool this evening, a June Aberration. A radio tune I can’t quite hear winds through the street from some far off window, delicately drifting in and out of reach. Water rushes quietly under the street, hurrying to some unknown secret place.

I pass the elementary school field, which is abuzz during the day with children, my students, shouting ohstephaniesenseihello! ohstephaniesenseihello! At night it seems empty by comparison, until a chorus of frogs hums up out of the night, krrr-chickchick-ga-ga-ga! krrr-chickchick-ga-ga-ga! They’re proudly broadcasting their froggy tune, the welcome song of summer.

Tonight, there’s no snow, no strong wind, no steely flat clouds. No screaming children, no staring adults, no witty repartee. Just me and Japan, out for a stroll, sharing this perfect evening together.