Sunday, July 24, 2011

Five Months to Spring - November 2010

Before I left for Japan, an acquaintance of mine who’d been here before told me that if there was one thing I did, I had to visit Nikko in the fall. I’m really glad she did, because it gave me some much-needed impetus to get out of Sendai and see more of Japan. My first major excursion on my own was actually pretty easy to plan: the person who told me about Nikko also gave me the name of a bed and breakfast to stay at, a guide book, and a brochure with travel information. I took one day of leave between a couple of holidays for an extra long weekend. And my tea lady was nice enough to help me book my train tickets, saving me some hassle and about ten dollars.

I started early on Sunday, taking the shinkansen from Sendai to Utsunomiya and then a local train from there to Nikko. The bed and breakfast was a half-hour up-hill walk from the station. With my back pack on my back, the climb was difficult, but I got there eventually. I arrived at around 1:30. By the time I’d checked in and dropped my stuff off it had started raining, but I decided to go for a walk anyway. I took the road going down towards the temple area, and stopped into the Kosugi Hoan Museum of Art. A small museum, it wasn’t really worth the $7.00 admission, but at least I got out of the rain for a while. Then I walked into the main town. The town itself is small and touristy; it reminded me a bit of Nanaimo, B.C. I headed back to the hotel and stayed in all evening.

Monday morning it was pouring rain, but I manned-up and made the best of it. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to bring my raincoat, rain boots, and umbrella, so the only part of me in serious danger of getting wet was my knees. Still, the rain did tend to mute the beauty of the city. I’d been told before I came that Nikko was famous for its fall colours, and looking around I could certainly see how the leaves would look very nice in the autumn sunshine, but the greyness of the day somewhat muted the effect. I spent the day walking around the temple area. This was a slightly costly endeavour, because although one could buy a pass that included several of the buildings, there were still many more that charged separate admission. First I visited the Rinnoji Temple and the Toshogu Shrine. The former contains the “Sanbutsudo” (“Hall of the Three Buddhas”). The latter features famous carvings of the “three wise monkeys”, “Mizaru”, “Kikazaru”, and “Iwazaru”, who “see no evil”, “hear no evil”, and “speak no evil”; and of the “nemuri-neko” (“sleeping cat”), which I had to pay extra to see. Then I spent some time in the Toshogu Art Museum, which contains a large collection of painted screens. At $8.00, the admission was a bit steep, but I enjoyed the museum. Then I went up to the Futarasan Shrine and the Taiyuin Temple. On the way out of the temple area, I stopped at the Toshogu Museum. This one was only $5.00, and well worth the cost, with its collection of artwork and both Japanese and western armour. My last visit was to the Rinnoji Museum, where the $3.00 admission let me see not only the art collection but also the garden, which was quite pretty even with the rain. I again headed back before dark.

My last day in Nikko defied my expectations by finally being sunny! After checking out of the hotel, I went up to Lake Chuzenji, a large lake up in the hills, about an hour’s bus ride from the town. First I saw the famous Kegon waterfall (more money), then I decided to make the most of the sunshine by taking a walk around the lake and enjoying the scenery. I stopped to visit a temple to Kannon, and eventually ended up at the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park. This slightly unlikely attraction is the former residence of the Italian ambassador, preserved with early twentieth-century décor. Though definitely more western than any of the other buildings I’d visited, it was relatively interesting, and at only $1.00 admission, easily the cheapest attraction I saw the whole time! I got back to town in the late afternoon, grabbed dinner, collected my knap sack, and got the train back to Sendai.

I went to Nikko partly for its fall colours, but I really needn’t have gone anywhere. I returned home to find that fall had also hit Sendai, and that the hills all around my apartment were ablaze in a glory of green, gold, and red. The weather has continued to cool, and the teachers who were complaining about the heat back in August are now making continual remarks about how cold it is. I’ve finally caved and pulled out my winter duvet. It’s remarkably warm, actually, but I don’t know what I’ll do if the temperature continues to drop. It’s still only November, after all. I keep thinking to myself, “Five months to spring. Five months to spring.”

This month market the beginning of the JET Programme’s correspondence Japanese course. I’m taking the beginner level. Since I’m already taking Japanese classes, I find I know a lot of the material already, but it’s good reinforcement to be studying it again. Anyway, classes only go till the end of the year, and I’m glad that I’ll still have a way to keep studying the language.

At work, we’ve started our fall series of training seminars. The board of education organises the seminars to teach ALTs various job skills. I attended ones about activities for elementary school students and making cool handouts. Besides being interesting and useful, the seminars are also an excuse to get out of school for an afternoon, which is nice on days when I’m feeling under-utilised!

I didn’t really have a chance to celebrate Hallowe’en this year. The only thing I did was to dress up in last year’s Hallowe’en costume for my elementary school students. Given that Star Trek isn’t that popular here, I suspect that the point was lost on them and that I just looked skanky. Some of the other ALTs organised a Bonfire Night celebration on the fifth. It was only my second bonfire night, my first having been in Hong Kong. The first time we had to make do with a barbecue. This time we made a proper fire and actually burned an almost life-sized Guy Fawkes effigy. There was no barbecue this time, unfortunately, but there were snacks, and more s’mores!

The youth at my church held an imonikai, which I guess is a kind of picnic. We lit a campfire and made stew in a big pot, played games while the stew was cooking, and then ate. I also went out for sushi with some other ALTs. That dinner was significant because I finally tried natto! Natto, if you don’t know, is fermented soy beans. It’s famous as a food that many foreigners – and not a few Japanese people – strongly dislike. A favourite question for newcomers here is “Can you eat natto?” I’d only tried it once, briefly, and hadn’t been able to form an opinion of it, so I ordered a piece of natto sushi so I could see how it tasted.

When I first put it in my mouth, I didn’t think it was so bad. It tasted kind of like strong cheese. Really strong cheese. Without the cheese part. That is to say, it tasted the way edam cheese smells: like mouldy sweat-socks. And the more I chewed it, the stronger the taste became. After a minute or so of chewing, I still had no desire to swallow it, but my gag reflex started to kick in, and I realised it was either that or spit it out. So I swallowed the whole thing in one go, and declared that I’d tried natto, and had no need to try any more.

I’ve been to several cooking classes this month. The first was a cooking with miso workshop put on by a miso company. The dishes we made were actually fairly conventional recipes that just happened to have miso added to them, but it was fun to read the recipes (which were all in Japanese) and try to figure out what they said. And when the lesson was over we each got a tub of miso to take home! There was a journalist there taking pictures, and sometime afterwards my co-workers all started telling me they’d seen my picture in the paper! My school’s tea lady invited me to go with her to a Korean cooking class. We made kimchi, which I’m not too fond of, and although I took some home I didn’t end up eating it. The most fun one was the mochi workshop. Mochi, sometimes referred to as “glutinous rice”, is a sticky substance made from mashing rice until it turns into a paste. At the workshop we actually got to take turns pounding the rice with a giant hammer until it turned into mochi before our very eyes! Then we got to eat it with various toppings. I only ate a few pieces, but they were very filling.

In the news this month, North Korea opened fire on a South Korean island, leading to increased tension in the area. Given my relative proximity to Korea, I find this somewhat worrying, but I’m not going to look into fleeing the country just yet. Haiti held its first election since the earthquake, and it was apparently a disaster. Sounds as though the recovery isn’t going too well, either.

Books I’ve read this month:

Japanese Folk Tales: Book 1 – A collection of Japanese fairy tales written in English and Japanese. Designed as a tool for studying English, it works equally well for studying Japanese. I read the Japanese version of each page first, and then read the English, and although I understood almost none of the Japanese, I still thought it was good practice. In terms of the stories themselves, it was fun to see a bit of what Japanese folk tales are like, and I’ve learned that all Japanese stories begin the same way: “Mukashi mukashi, ojii-san to obaa-san ga sunde-imashita.” (“Once upon a time, there lived an old man and an old woman.”)

Eyewitness Travel Guides: Japan – The Japanese guidebook I was lent before coming here. Over the past few months I’ve been going through it and inserting sticky notes in all the places that sound interesting. At this rate it’ll take a while if I want to get to them all, but top of my list are Tokyo and Kyoto. Interestingly, the guide has all of one third of a page devoted to Sendai!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I’m Fine, Thank You. And You? - October 2010

I haven’t talked much about school life in Japan, and now might be a good time to do so. I teach junior high school, which is to say grades seven through nine. Unlike in Hong Kong, the school year begins in April, which means that I arrived at the beginning of the second term. Like Hong Kong students, Japanese students all wear uniforms, but only from junior high on; my elementary school kids all dress like normal people. Unlike me when I was a teenager, the students generally stay in one classroom while the teachers move around. You may have heard that Japanese people always take their shoes off when going indoors. That is true; all the students and teachers wear one pair of shoes to school and change into a different pair when they enter the building. You may also have heard that Japanese students are responsible for cleaning their own classrooms; that is also true. Every day ends with the students sweeping and mopping the classrooms. They also take turns serving each other lunch. One thing I’ve heard that hasn’t proven true is that discipline at Japanese schools is rigid, and the students rigorously well-behaved. As a matter of fact, the atmosphere here feels as relaxed as in a Canadian school. Perhaps more so: I don’t remember when I was growing up students routinely poking their heads into the staff room to ask teachers questions. My students are fairly well-behaved, but they may be the exception; I’ve heard some quite scary stories from other ALTs about students at other schools.

As far as English goes, second language acquisition clearly isn’t stressed as much here as it was at my Hong Kong school, or even at my own high school growing up. Formal English instruction doesn’t begin until junior high school. Recently, elementary schools have started setting aside time for foreign language activities (for "foreign language”, read “English”), but it isn’t considered a proper course. English classes in elementary school are lead by the regular teacher, with the help of an ALT (i.e. me). Junior high schools have designated English teachers, but the classes are still conducted mainly in Japanese.

This month I had my introduction to regular high school English classes, and it was a nasty surprise. I work along side the local teachers, who usually do most of the planning and teaching. Sometimes one of them will ask me to do a warm-up or prepare an activity to practise the grammar point, but my biggest role in the classroom seems to be modelling pronunciation. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself; I am, of course, the expert on pronunciation of English words. But some of the things we do in class are truly appalling.

Here’s how the teachers teach “reading”: First the local teacher has me read the passage to the students. Then they have me model pronunciation of the difficult words. So far so good. Then I read the entire passage again, sentence by sentence, and the students repeat after me. Then we do it again! Then the students practise reading the passage in pairs. Finally the teacher has some of the students (usually the five or so brightest in the class) come up to the front and write the passage translated into Japanese, then explains the difficult grammar points to the class.

That’s it. No engagement with the subject matter. No attempt to work out for oneself what the passage means. No comprehension questions. No skimming, no scanning, no circling the difficult words and looking them up in the dictionary. Fifteen minutes of each class are devoted to speaking the text out loud. Which is a great way to kill time while making the students suffer enough to feel like they must be learning. But it teaches them nothing. I’ll admit I’m not a professional teacher, and it’s always possible (though unlikely) that the students do much more productive activities when I’m not present. But all the teacher’s training I’ve had, not to mention my own second-language learning experience, tells me that this is a waste of time, and that there are a dozen more useful things – and at least a half-dozen more fun ones – the students could be doing.

The most frustrating part is my own culpability in all this. I have, of course, heard lots of stories about foreign teachers in Asia feeling like “human tape recorders”, but I naïvely assumed that a well-established institution like the JET Programme would know how to make good use of its teachers. Unfortunately, I don’t work for the JET Programme, I work for a Japanese junior high school, and evidently there are junior high schools in Japan where backwards teaching practices still persist. It’s hard to see how the students can learn anything under this system, and except for a handful of studious ones they don’t seem to be learning much. Most of them can barely string a sentence together, and I’ve more than once asked a student, “How are you?”, only to get a reply of, “Huh?” To a friend: “’How are you?’ wa nan desu ka?”* This despite the fact that every single English class begins with the teacher asking, “How are you?”, and the students chorusing, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

I’m going to do what I can to alleviate this situation. Truth be told, it in some ways makes my job easier; the bar has been set so low that almost anything I try feels like it must be an improvement. Since I get asked to prepare warm-ups and activities, I’m doing that with an eye to filling in some of the gaps in what the students are learning. Speaking practice is the biggest one; most students are reluctant to speak in English, and when they do they use as few words as possible.

Me: “What does the magic box do?”
Student: “Three wishes!”
Me: “What do they wish for?”
Student: “Big dinner!”
Me: “What are they going to do now?”
Student: “King!”
Me: “Yes… it has something to do with the king… Could I possibly trouble you for a verb?”

It didn’t help that the first time I ever did a model reading, it was of a passage about the bombing of Hiroshima. Nothing ruins a poignant story like hearing thirty students parroting the words, “…but the girl never moved again.”

I suppose there are really two ways I can look at the situation. If I think of it in terms of my own work ethic, my duty as a teacher, and my responsibility to help the students learn, then clearly I’m a failure, and part of a failed system. Much as I might like to think that I can make a difference and inspire the students and teachers to change their attitudes, I know that my school had an ALT before me. And one before her. And one before that one. And none of them managed to change anything.

The other way is to think in terms of my own experience, and what I hope to get out of my time here. From that perspective, I’m doing really well. I’m getting paid good money to do a fairly easy job, while living and travelling in a foreign country. As long as I can focus on that, I know I’ll enjoy my time in Japan.

I am enjoying myself, too. At the beginning of the month I went to a work party for the “fourth year” teachers. That is to say, everyone on the staff who isn’t a first, second, or third year teacher: the principal, the vice principal, the school nurse, various support staff, and me. I was afraid it would be frightfully awkward, given that none of those people speaks much English, but it ended up being a good time anyway.

Later in the month we had a weekend given over to school sports competitions. Since nobody told me how to get to any of the events, I spent several hours sitting at my desk making work for myself before someone had pity on me and offered me a ride to a baseball game. It was nice to be able to cheer for my students, and the game was interesting enough, although I don’t know much about baseball.

I’ve put up a new English board, the subject of which is emotions. It’s designed to give the students some more options for answering the question “How are you?”. I’ve also been going around the school asking students that question and demanding an answer other than “Fine.” I’ve started making coffee in the morning with my coffee maker, and am now bringing my lunch milk home to have with it.

For Thanksgiving, I invited a bunch of the other Canadians over for a potluck dinner at my house. It was nice to be able to celebrate the holiday despite being so far from home, and since two of the Canadians are vegetarian (not including me) it ended up being an all-vegetarian Thanksgiving.

Shortly after that, one of the Singaporean ALTs invited me to go to a Domoto Koichi pop concert. It was my first ever Japanese pop concert, although I don’t exactly feel inspired to go to more. The songs were up-beat enough, but I didn’t go home humming any of them. I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics, except for the few lines in English, and those tended to be super cheesy. Still, it was a good experience to have at least once, and now I can tell my students I saw Domoto Koichi live.

Another day, we went on the “Loople” bus, which goes around the interesting sights in the city. The first stop was the mausoleum of Date Masamune, revered as the founder of Sendai. Then we went to the site of Sendai Castle, which is to say the hill where Sendai Castle used to be. It wasn’t much to look at, but there was a statue of Masamune and a small gallery. Then we spent an hour or so in the museum, looking at historical artefacts, including old suits of armour. The person I was with told me a story that Darth Vader’s look was supposedly modelled on that of Date’s armour, and the more I looked at it, the more plausible the theory sounded. We finished up the day with “gyu-tan” (beef tongue) at Sendai Station. It’s one of Sendai’s signature dishes.

I went to a Japanese tea ceremony workshop, where we were shown the art of making tea. Then we participated in a tea ceremony where we sat on tatami floors and were served green tea and Japanese sweets.

My Japanese neighbours took me on a day trip to Matsushima, a coastal town famed in song for the beauty of its island-studded bay. As with most over-hyped attractions, Matsushima suffers something of a backlash, and I’d been warned that it was a big disappointment. I went with an open mind though, and found it quite pleasant. Besides walking along the water-front and seeing the islands, we also took a stroll through the garden of a Buddhist temple, which was lovely. Then we went to visit Ishinomaki and other neighbouring towns. Ishinomaki’s attractions included an intriguingly random replica Statue of Liberty, and an old Japanese church with an absurdly steep staircase.

My school’s tea lady and another teacher invited me to go with them to Jogi-san temple, a Buddhist temple a short drive out of the city. The main building is a beautiful wooden structure with gilt decorations and stained glass. Compared to the stone work of a lot of traditional churches, it was a very warm-feeling place to worship in. We attended the service inside, which I didn’t understand, but which was still interesting. We had to kneel through the whole thing, but fortunately it didn’t last too long. Afterwards we walked around the complex. I tried sankaku aburage (a kind of fried Tofu) for the first time, and also dango (a kind of mochi) with miso sauce. Both were quite nice. We looked at the five-storey pagoda, and fed the koi.

When we were done at the temple we paid a visit to the Nikka Whiskey brewery. Alcohol doesn’t much appeal to me in general, but it was interesting to tour the facility and learn a bit about the whisky-making process. The tour was mostly in Japanese, but they had a pamphlet in English, Chinese, and Korean, so I could at least follow some of it. At the end of the tour we got to try free samples. Ironically, since I was the only one not driving, I was the only one who could drink anything. (The blood-alcohol limit for driving in Japan is zero.) I had some apple wine, which tasted quite nice, and tried some of the candy in the souvenir shop.

On the way home we stopped at a fruit and vegetable market, where I bought six normal-sized apples for $3.80. I was so happy I wanted to cry.

The hot weather left us at the end of August. September was a cool month, but now that we’ve gotten into October it’s turned downright cold. It’s not that the temperature is unusual for the time of year. But here’s another way in which Japan is reminiscent of Hong Kong: they don’t believe in insulation here. Despite the fact that this part of Japan gets four seasons, including occasional snowfall in the winter, I feel like I’m living in a cardboard box. Every evening I come home to a freezing apartment and sit here shivering. I’ve turned my summer blanket into a floor-rug and piled all three of my fleeces onto my bed. If it gets much colder I’m going to have to pull out my winter comforter. Fortunately, I have three heaters plus my air-conditioner, so hopefully even when it gets colder I’ll still be able to keep warm.

* “… wa nan desu ka?”: Japanese for “What is … ?”