Thursday, December 29, 2005

Pulau Pangkor

Today could be my most active day this week...

I've spent the last however many days here on Pangkor. Has it been a week? a month? I don't remember anymore. Tropical time, especially on the beach, is much slower. The days have been mostly eating, going to the beach, eating, reading, sleeping. An excellent vacation.

We spent Christmas Day on the beach even. We built a giant Christmas tree out of sand and decorated it with sea shells. We even opened presents to the sound of the waves.

The mosquitos here think I taste better than anyone else. I suppose that means I'm keeping our island free of mosquitos for everyone else. Even the owner of our hostel noticed it. He gave me some sea cucumber oil to put on my bites. I was dubious, but it actually worked. I no longer look like a giant bug bite.

I'm going to go kayaking around the bay with some friends this afternoon -- I think I'm meeting them now, but I haven't bothered with keeping track of time. I guess I'll wander over and find out...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Pulau Pinang

Caught a bus from Kuala Lumpur yesterday afternoon, and spent five hours driving up the west coast of Malaysia to the city of Georgetown, on the island of Pinang (Penang). It's an old colonial city, with a really strong Chinese influence, but so far, all I've seen of it is our hostel and the inside of this internet cafe. This evening, we're planning to go up to the big hill on the outskirts of the city, but so far, this vacation has been very much about taking it easy. After the bustle and heat and crowds of KL, a smaller city will be a nice change. What I'm really looking forward to is going to our next stop and meeting up with everyone else to laze about on a beach for a good solid week.

The food here has been incredible. I've eaten load of excellent Indian and Malay food, had some Thai TomYum soup the other night, and here on Pinang I think I'll be able to get my fix of Chinese. After five months of Japanese food, the variety of spices is a real treat. Not that I don't like Japanese food, but it isn't up there on the list of spicy foods. Much more austere and about the natural, raw flavours of the ingredients. Here, street stalls sell all varieties of delicious curries, fish, fruits and everything else for so cheap! Yesterday I had lunch at a busy street stall, and my plate of fried rice, fish, chicken and salad cost me a whopping 9 Ringit (about $3CDN). And it was incredibly good. Just typing about it is making my mouth water... not helped by sitting just up the road from a big conglomerate of food stalls.

Alright, off to find some food!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Almost there...

Found a free internet terminal on a twenty minute layover in Singapore -- happy to say we made it from the outskirts of Sapporo this morning at 5:15 to Chitose airport for our 8am flight. It was a close call, but we didn't get lost in the maze that is the Sapporo eki (train station).

A few more hours until we touch down in Kuala Lumpur...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!

I'm heading off for a holiday in Malaysia this evening, so this will likely be my last post this year. That's right -- three weeks on a beach in the tropics!

I'm meeting up with friends, so even though I won't be spending Christmas with my family I'll still be spending Christmas with people I love.

But, yeah, I will definitely miss having a family Christmas. So for all of my family (and my friends too!) that read this blog, I'm sending out big hugs and lots of love for Christmas. I sent out Christmas cards yesterday evening, so I hope they get to you. I hope everyone has a safe journey, drives carefully, and enjoys a warm and happy Christmas.

Until next year, lots of love,

He sees you when you're sleeping...

A good rule of thumb for teaching English lessons with songs: don't choose something with vaguely creepy lyrics. You will have to sing it a lot, and every time you do, the lyrics will get creepier. Especially if you have designed actions to go with the song.

I taught at the kindergarten yesterday. We played "Pass the Present". For those of you not familiar with this game, you wrap a box of treats in multiple layers of paper, and pass it around the room and everyone gets a chance to take off a layer. And for added English learning fun, we counted in English to decide who would get to unwrap the present. And as always, teaching at the kindergarten is a blast. What kid doesn't like opening presents?

After opening presents, we sang "Santa Claus is coming to town". Complete with actions. These kids are too little to learn a lengthy song in another language in under 10 minutes, so I made up actions to go with it. Have you ever realized how creepy that song is? Especially the "Big Brother is watching" aspect. The teacher at the kindergarten liked it because of it's "good message". Believe it or not, the lyrics sounds even scarier when translated into Japanese. But the kids had fun dancing and watching me make a fool of myself. And I always have fun making a fool of myself. But by the third class we did this lesson in, I was ready to never sing about Santa Claus knowing what you are doing at all times.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Do you like...? Kids say the darndest things!

Today was my last day of the year at the local elementary school, and because I'll be missing a day of classes next week to go to Malaysia, and I missed a day last week to go to the Mid-year conference, I went to an extra class today. I think they should always give me three classes a week -- it's a lot more fun! And, the students would benefit (I would like to think) from having me in class more than once a month.


I was reviewing the grammar patterns "I like _______", "Do you like ________?" with the Grade 1 class, and the students are asking me about what I like. All of the standards come up: Do you like apples? Do you like dinosaurs? Do you like volleyball? Do you like Ebisutani sensei (the Grade 1 teacher)? Do you like beetles? Do you like Hard Gay?

Ahhh yes, Hard Gay. My favorite Japanese television personality/comedian. Other blogs about teaching English in Japan have covered the Hard Gay phenomenon, but this is my blog, so I'll elaborate. Hard Gay is a character that runs around dressed in bondage gear -- he looks like one of the Village People -- yelling "1-2-3 Fooooo!" and humping things. Whenever I count to three, there are inevitably a couple of kids who yell "Foooo!" and shake it like a polaroid picture. His act is incredibly popular with the elementary and kindergarten students, and was also the feature of my office year-end party. I have video of the latter. Best keitai video EVER. I personally think Hard Gay is funny, probably because I don't have to understand Japanese to see the humour. And it's surreal to see him humping the grouchy old lady that judges IRON CHEF and making all of the other guests uncomfortable.

So how do you answer a question that you know will have every kid in the Grade 1 class on their feet, yelling "Foooooooo!" and humping their desks? Is there really a good way to answer a 6-year-old who asks "Do you like Hard Gay?" I went with "Well.... tokidoki. Sometimes." And moved immediately to another topic.

Full contact Alice the Camel. They really like singing Alice the Camel, but today we had to sing extra slow because there were too many casualties. And that's why I was always a fan of Alice the Camel.


Later in the day, some of the 3rd year students were going through my things and pulled out my Alice the Camel prop. She's pretty cool, if I do say so myself. Alice has gone over well at the classes I've taken her to. It's all about the multi-coloured humps. Anyways, myself, some students and one of the other teachers are chatting before I head back to the teachers room. As she is leaving the classroom, one of the students turns to us and says, "Canadian camels are a lot more colourful than other camels!"

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I think a little piece of me just died...

Today's lesson:
Using "that" as a conjunction. For example: you know that, you hear that, and so on. As if teaching extraneous words wasn't bad enough (I'm a fan of removing any excess "that" 's in writing), today's dialogue was as follows:

Guide: Of course, you know that dolphins aren't fish. They're animals like us. They live about 20 years.

Aki: What do dolphins eat?


and later:
A: Dolphins are animals like dogs.

B: ...

A: Do you understand? I said, "Dolphins are animals like us. They aren't fish."

Wait a minute -- don't you mean mammals?!? I mentioned it to my JTE, but because it's in the textbook (written by non-native English speakers), that's the way it is. Dolphins and dogs are animals. Fish are fish. Dolphins are not fish. Do you understand? Wakaru?

Does this mean fish are not animals?
Do I have to turn in all those Biology degrees now?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Weather Report

Just checked the weather forecast before I head to my many-blanketed bed: Hokkaido is expecting up to 70cm of snow in the next 24 hours, and because I've been extra good this year (and live in the central, mountainous region of the prefecture) I'm sure we'll see even more.

Does this mean I have to get up early to find my car?

In other news, I decided to have Christmas this evening, because some of those presents were books, and I was looking for something to read on the beach. Thanks to everyone who sent presents. I may be too old for them, but it doesn't mean I don't like them. I'll email you all special. Unfortunately, I'm not on the ball enough to be sending any presents back home before I go on holidays.

But think! That means you get something cool from Malaysia!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Snow:1 anyram:0

For once, I was actually in town on a Saturday evening. Usually I'm out doing something on a Saturday night, and as a result, don't usually attend Saturday evening kendo practices. But yesterday, I was home, and had every intention of going to practice.

Until I went outside.

My neighbors, who have lived here for a number of years, understand that we get a lot of snow. They had been out earlier in the day, dealing with the huge dump of snow that's come down in the last 24 hours. At least on their half of the parking lot. I hadn't really noticed, and was enjoying a Saturday afternoon of bad comedies (Tim Robbins: what were you thinking when you made "Nothing to Lose"?) and hot chocolate. So, when I went out to my car to go to practice I wasnot pleased to find it buried under two feet of snow, and that I would have to shovel out my car before I could go anywhere... So much for kendo this weekend.

It took me about an hour to move the snow from in front of my car to the other end of the parking lot, and to "clear" the driveway. Only there's so much snow, that you don't really clear the snow so much as take off the loose layer. I shudder to think how much snow there will be on my car after I go to Malaysia for three weeks.

It wasn't so bad, but I did manage to smack myself in the head really hard with the shovel handle. What can I say -- I've lived in Victoria for 4 years and forgotten how to operate a snow shovel.

Only five more months of snow to go!!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bright Lights, Big City: Sapporo Mid-Year Conference

I spent the beginning of this week in Sapporo.
I left the office Monday morning, even though the conference didn't start until Tuesday. It's nice having a contracting organization that loves me. I didn't have any classes on Monday, so my boss let me leave early to spend some extra time in Sapporo. And they paid me to go!

I had grand plans for my free day in Sapporo -- lunch, shopping, meeting up with other JETs... but I've gotten more accustomed to living in the country than I thought. Sapporo isn't that big of a city (only about 2 million), but I was everwhelmed by all the people, noise, music, and sheer amount of stuff. Just when you think you're settling in, the big city throws you for a loop. I was also just tired and cranky, so after a fruitless search for a pair of shoes to fit my "huge" feet, I gave up and crashed at the hotel.

The conference was a standard JET conference. Lots of people, boring speeches, not so helpful discussion sessions. I did go to a couple of entertaining seminars, but most of what was said was things I already knew. Really, the best part was going to a trivia contest/fundraiser, meeting new people, going out with people I don't get to see too often, and visiting a real bookstore.

The bookstore was the real highlight of Sapporo. Books are ridiculously expensive here. I can't believe I spent roughly $15 on a Harper's magazine -- worth every "yenny". Even so, getting to browse a bookstore with a real English language section, and even a small French and German section, was a real treat. As was spending the rest of the evening playing "Settlers of Catan" instead of going to an over-priced enkai. That's right. I'm a geek and I'm proud.

Friday, December 02, 2005

It's snowing again...

... and I have a bounenkai this evening.

忘年会 literally translates to "forget the year party". I think this is the first of many that I will be attending, not to mention all of the new year's parties that will take place in the new year. Christmas may technically be celebrated in Japan, but the true festive event is New Year's. Cards, good wishes, and parties all center around this time of year.

It's too bad I'll be in Malaysia for New Year's this year. I was looking forward to experiencing a Japanese New Year's.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

For teachers everywhere...

In standard Japanese, the names of the months are pretty basic: each month is numbered, so January is ichi-gatsu (one month), February is ni-gatsu (two-month), and so on. But there are other names. Yesterday I learned the old Japanese term for "December". December is also known as 師走 (shiwasu). This literally translates as "running teacher".

Fire Training

"Fiya trainingu", my supervisor says to me the other day.
"Nani sore?", I asked.
"Fiya trainingu", he says again, handing me a kanji-laden memo.

I look over the memo, and recognize the kanji for "fire" 火 and "disaster" 災.
"Must be a fire drill."

This morning, an otherwise slow day at the office was interrupted by "Fire Training", Japanese style. Truly an interesting experience. Three firemen in dress uniform come to our office at the appointed time, and start the process. I know a couple the firemen, and off duty they're nuts. Here, they're all business. After some preliminary greetings, they start the drill. Two different bells and about three very polite voices start to sound. Strobe lights start going off too. Everyone in the office has a specific duty to perform. This is, of course, after the head librarian has made an announcement, which we all listen to very politely. After the announcement, everyone gets up to man their stations. The younger guys grab the fire extinguishers, and some of the other guys get the hoses. My supervisor goes upstairs to clear all the other rooms. My job is to hang out with the superintendent and "supervise", or "stay out of the way".

It's too cold to go outside, so we stand around the unheated entrance waiting for the drill to wrap up. Once everyone is gathered in the lobby, the head fireman gives a lecture on the importance of fire safety. At least that's what I interpreted it as.

My supervisor says that at next year's fire drill I can run around yelling "Fire!"

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

忙しい週 (a busy week)

Sorry for the lag in posting. I haven't died, or gotten sick (homesick or otherwise). I just got busy!

So what have I been doing all week? Well, last Wednesday was a holiday for "Labour Thanksgiving Day". It was explained to me as a day to be thankful for doing work. Celebrating with a day off seems a bit counter-intuitive to me, but I'm not Japanese. I enjoyed a lazy morning, puctuated by a visit from the NHK man.

For those of you not living in Japan, a visit from the NHK man is not a happy event. NHK is the national television station, and the programming is terrible. I enjoy the children's shows, but even those are done on shoestring budgets, with sets that look like cast-off's from the BBC. Like Dr. Who, only less endearing. And the same two-dozen personalities are on every variety show. Everyone in Japan who recieves the NHK signal is required to pay an exorbitant sum of money for the priviledge. Many foreigners living in Japan try to get out of paying the fees, but many Japanese people do too. It was recently revealed how much of the money Japanese residents pay for NHK was going into the pockets of various officials instead of into quality programming. At any rate, I spent nearly an hour at the door with the NHK man, trying to convince him that it would be too difficult to get me to understand what he was saying, and that he should leave me alone. I ended up paying about $30 for two months of television service. It wouldn't have bothered me so much if I hadn't been on my way out to meet a friend for an afternoon of shopping and dinner in Asahikawa.

Thursday, I made my way to Sounkyo in a raging blizzard to teach (don't worry mom, I take the bus there -- I just have to walk up to the school). My office-mates were teasing me before I left about how terrible the weather in Sounkyo would be. I think they felt kind of bad when it was actually pretty bad.

Friday I taught in four classes at the Junior High School. This would usually be okay, if I had gotten enough sleep! Phone calls until three in the morning may seem like a good idea at the time, but...

Not much relaxing time over the weekend either. Musical rehearsal in Shimizu! Only about a three hour drive (which my JTE infoms me is a *very* long drive), and we only got lost once! It was a really good rehearsal. We got a lot of stuff done, and even made time for bathing and the new Harry Potter movie!

Monday was teaching at the high school, and trying to figure out what to teach about Canadian culture for 90 minutes. I did a conversation class too, with a new JTE and a new student. I haven't taught any classes with the new teacher yet, but she definitely isn't as genki as Morimoto sensei.

Tuesday was a whole two classes to teach myself (that's another post), and today I taught three grades at the Elementary school.

I just finished a really good shodou lesson. Mayumi-sensei showed me how to write Japanese New Year's Greetings (akemashite omedetou gozaimasu あけましておめでとうございます).
People send New Year's postcards, and if you post them before a certain day, they actually deliver them on New Year's Day. She showed me a really beautiful technique. It looks like the difference between printing and handwriting. The letters are in a continuous line, and really beautiful. However, I do think that if I didn't know what it was supposed to be I would only see a squiggly line. And if I didn't read hiragana, I'd feel that even more so. You can be the judge if you get a Christmas card from me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Rocky mountains, polar bears, maple, cold, red-suited police men and hockey...

I taught a Canadian culture class to the Grade 9 Elective English class this afternoon and this is what they brainstormed. Or more accurately, what I dragged out of them. They got into it more after that. It was actually really fun! I had a whole two classes to myself to do whatever I wanted, preferably something about Canadian culture. So I taught Canadian culture.

After brainstorming some ideas, I had the students (and my teachers) write down the provincial capitals. I figured I should have some language training in there somewhere, and it was an okay listening exercise.

The most fun part was talking about bilingualism. I brought some empty bottles and things from home with English and French wrinting on them, which the students thought was really cool. Even cooler was teaching a French lesson! Very basic, but I did it all in French. Not that anyone in the room would have been able to tell how bad my French has gotten... and how much Japanese has snuck into my brain.

They were able to pick up counting, and some basic phrases really quickly. In some twisted way, I hope that the ease with which they picked up some basic French phrases gives them more confidence with their English. It was kind of funny to me that everyone (my teachers especially) was really into learning some French, maybe more than they usually are into English. Maybe because they weren't being graded on it?

For fun, I tested their knowledge of Canadian stars. Did you know that both Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss (Neo and Trinity) of "The Matrix" fame are Canadian?

To a wrap up, I had the students design new Canadian flags, and talk about them. It was mostly an excuse to get these kids speaking in English, but there were some cute flags that came out of it. My favorite was the one with the hockey player in the middle, backed by the Rocky Mountains. I should have asked if I could keep it.

Map from here, the coolest page ever!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Proud Day

It is indeed a momentous occasion. After this evening's kendo practice, I was able to fold my pants (hakama), all by myself. This is not as easy a task as you might think. After all, this is a samurai sport we're talking about here! There are rules! And hakama have a lot of pleats! Each one with Confucian significance!

You would think that the sport itself would be the really hard part, but for me it's dealing with the equipment. Too bad I'm not an 一年生 (ichi nen-sei; first grader). Then I could get away with having my mom put away my hakama, kendogi, men, dou, take, kote, and shinai after class, while I played baseball with the other kids. Did I mention that you need a lot of equipment to play kendo? Which makes sense, seeing as the goal of a match is to hit your opponent's head, wrist or trunk with a bamboo sword.

So back to my pants. With the help of one of my Grade 3 students, I aligned all of the pleats of the hakama. I didn't quite get to the stage where I can tie the sashes into the pretty knots the picture shows. One step at a time! It's taken me weeks to be able to get the pleats figured out. Besides, my tutor didn't know how to do it either.

I'm very lucky to have such generous people in my kendo club. They have provided me with all the equipment and support to start learning kendo, without laughing at me too much.

I'm still terrible at it, but at least my seiza has improved.

Picture taken from here.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Demonstration Lesson

Let's compare Canada and Japan!
(aka Tim Hortons vs. Mr Donuts)

That was the theme of the demonstration lesson I taught with my JTE's (Japanese Teachers of English) this Friday. We have been working on this lesson for almost a month now, and it's nice to finally be done with it. I think it was a pretty good lesson, and for the amount of time we spent planning it, it had better have been!

The demonstration lesson was actually for teachers who are interested in "International Understanding", so the majority of the teachers who came weren't English teachers, but administrators and elementary school teachers. We had more than a dozen onlookers (including a video camera) packed into the already crowded Grade 8 classroom (currently 39 students), plus other teachers from our school watching from the hallway.

I was a little bit nervous, because part of my job here is to internationalize, and to act as an ambassador for my country and other non-Japanese people. So our lesson was communicative, student-centred, and promoted international understanding. All of the things that we are supposed to strive for as JET ALTs, but don't always get to do because we have to teach to university and high school entrance exams.

We had the students ask each other about different things in Canada and Japan, and practice using comparative adjectives. The students did really well, and weren't too nuts. The grade 8 class is probably my favorite class to teach, because they are super genki (energetic) and very vocal. They are the opposite of what I was told to expect from Japanese students. Both I and the JTE were relieved that they were well behaved -- questions about how many transvestites there are in Canada as compared with Japan were kept to their worksheets. And no, I'm not making that up.

After the lesson, I went to an extremely Japanese style meeting to discuss our lesson and how best to promote international understanding in the classroom. It was educational for me from a cultural perspective, but extremely boring, and being all in Japanese, I couldn't follow much of it. Luckily, I was able to escape after the first 45 minutes of the meeting or so.

After school, we celebrated by going out for dinner at a local restaurant. It was fun going out with my teachers -- we'll have to do it again.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Let's musical!

You know it's been a good weekend when you're exhausted and sore.

I drove down to Shizunai/Nikkappu this weekend for the first rehearsal of this year's Hokkaido Players' production of "Guys and Dolls". Me and my tractor (as I affectionately call my car -- her real name is Deirdre, after John Deere) took on another two passengers and made our way to the southwestern coast of Hokkaido -- the main part, not the tail. After about five hours we made it to our host's home. Not too bad of a drive by Canadian standards, but you should have seen the faces of the Japanese people I talked to when they heard I was driving there and back in one weekend. You would have thought I had suggested I was swimming back to Canada!

The area is known for horses and cherry blossoms, and we passed plenty of horse ranches on our way home. We passed them on the way in too, but we could actually see them on the way back home. The light posts actually have cherry blossoms and horses on top so you don't forget what the town is famous for. It's also right on the ocean, but sadly there was no time for intertidalling. And yes, I was very sad. I miss living close to the ocean.

Saturday morning we started rehearsals in a local Elementary school gym. After some getting to know you fun, we found out our parts. I will be playing numerous roles, including: Agatha, a missionary; Jimmy the Fish, a gambler; and my personal favorite, a dancer at the Hot Box club, as yet unnamed. I feel so conflicted.

We have a really big group of both dolls and guys. Enough guys that the numbers that call for guys only, can actually have only guys! It's a really fun group of people, and I think the production is going to come off really well. The rest of the weekend was a read-through, some blocking, learning some of the dances and songs, and of course a trip to the onsen. Nice rotenburo they have in Nikkappu.

The ride home was stressful, but uneventful. The long predicted snow has finally come. But Deirdre is a good little tractor (and I remember how to drive in snow), so we had no problems getting back other than having to drive much slower.

Can't wait until our next rehearsal...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

First Day of Snow

Okay -- I can really say it's winter now.

Sometime last night it started snowing, and it hasn't let up yet. If this is indicative of the rest of the winter, I'm in trouble!

I was talking about the snow with my supervisor in the office this afternoon, and he asked about snow in Canada. I told him that it was pretty rare to see snow in Victoria, but Calgary got quite a bit. Victoria usually has a green Christmas, but Calgary gets a white Christmas. He responded with "Here, we have shovelling Christmas!"

Happy shovelling,

Monday, November 07, 2005

First Day of Winter

On the Japanese calendar, today was the first day of winter. Lucky for me, this year has been unseasonably mild. It was more of a blustery fall day today, and would have been quite nice if not for the wind. I hear though, that the snow is coming and it will get good and cold later this week. Oh well. I have plenty of warm woolies now.

Today I was teaching at the high school, which can be a bit trying. The students are not very motivated (in any subject) and it's disheartening to go to the high school and see very little improvement in the level of English. On the suggestion of one of my JTE's, I have started an English club. It started as a conversation class with some students who were going to be doing a homestay in Canada, but we have continued to hold it. Today I only had three students, but these are the really motivated students, so we can cover more interesting topics. Today we had fun with tongue twisters -- next week the students will bring Japanese tongue twisters (hayakuchi kotoba -- literally "fast mouth word" in Japanese). The point is, it was a really nice class, and I left school feeling like I had accomplished something, instead of feeling frustrated.

Tomorrow, I'm going to Asahikawa with some of the Junior High students to watch them perform in the English contest. They've been practing really hard for months, so I hope they do well!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Ainu Embroidery 1

Ainu Embroidery 1
Originally uploaded by anyram.

This afternoon I was in Asahikawa for my Ainu sewing "class". I had my camera along, so I took some pictures of some of the samples that other people have done. I really like this one. I'm working on copying it, but my stitches aren't as delicate as the original. I'm sure they will get better with practice.

It was a really fun class -- a few hours of sewing, chatting and coffee. Today we finished off by learning a traditional Ainu song. It's like a working chant. One voice starts, and new voices come in repeatedly, like ripples. The melody is very simple, and now I know the Ainu words for a bundle of firewood (nishike).

Monday, October 31, 2005

Elementary School Concert (gakugeikai)

Sunday morning I went to the concert of one of my Elementary Schools. School concerts are a serious business here. This is one of my little schools (only 8 students from grades 1 to 6) and the concert was still about three hours long. There were performances by all of the elementary students, the children at the town kindergarten including the 1 and 2 year olds (I don't teach there, but I would like to), and the PTA members of both schools. That's right. The Parent Teacher Association performed songs and dances at the school concert. How's that for parent involvement?

The whole morning was a lot of fun. I got a ride up from the Superintendent, and watched the students and their parents perform. The kids were really surprised to see me there. Their parents were glad to see me too. I met a couple of them during the intermission. I really enjoyed seeing how close-knit the students and teachers at the school are. There are only four teachers at the school; but still, it's not often you see teachers dressed as daikon, demons and cheerleaders, all in one school concert. And getting beat up by their students.

I didn't get to go to the concerts at my two other elementary schools. They were the weekend I was in Kitami, and I didn't find out about them until the day before I was leaving. Which was too bad. I saw some rehearsals and they looked really good.

Sadly, I spent the afternoon recovering from a nasty cold I picked up. I was supposed to go fishing! This was my last chance until the spring! Oh well, I suppose my health is more important than fishing. Maybe. I don't know though, I really wanted to go fishing.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


I'm in the midst of deciding whether or not to recontract in this job. A major part of the job, of course, is living in this town. And despite the small size, I'm finding it to be a really nice place to live. Sure, I miss things like being able to get food from home, being able to rent movies without having to drive an hour into the city, going out for real coffee, speaking English... But these inconveniences are made up for by the incredible kindness of everyone in town.

Earlier this week my supervisor and one of the other guys in the office put my winter tires on for me (see previous post).

Last night I went out for some drinks and socializing at my favorite local bar. After a lengthy evening with plenty of drink, the owners not only would not take my money, but also called me a cab and drove me home. Okay, so the cab driver was the husband of the mama who runs the bar. But still, when was the last time you went to the bar and management not only paid for your drinks, but also picked up the tab for your cab home?

Today I was on my way out to the city to pay for my Christmas trip and stopped to pay my gas bill. I needed a new winter wiper blade for the car too. So I pay, and get my wiper blade (wa i pa in Japanese if you're interested) . The lady at the store puts all the bits together and installs the blade for me, free of charge. And then she wouldn't let me pay all the the money I owed either (not a lot of money, admittedly, but it's the principle of the thing).

I'm starting to wonder if there was a town meeting about getting the ALT to stay for more than a year... It's going to be a tough decision.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Guessing game

I was playing a game today in the Grade 9 class. One student stands at the front with an animal pinned to their back, and I ask the other students questions to figure out what animal it is. Neither I nor the student at the front can see the picture, and based on my questions, the student has to figure out what animal is pinned to their back.

I asked "Is this an animal that is very big?" (akward sentence, yes, but that was the grammar pattern we were practicing).
The students answered, "So-so."
"Is this an animal that lives in our town?"
"Is this an animal that you eat?"

Turns out it was a bear. I'm hoping this was a language barrier type thing -- bears are scavengers and probably taste pretty nasty. And there's that whole endangered thing. Here, if a bear walks into town looking for food, it gets shot. None of that namby-pamby "relocation" stuff. Shot on sight. Maybe now I understand why. It's like "research" on whales. That involves eating them. Very important research indeed.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Girly Girl

Today was a fun teaching day -- I was at one of the local Kindergartens. Too bad it was only for an hour, and the rest of the day was spent trying to come up with something more exciting to do than study Japanese. Trust me, that gets old.

I love teaching at kindergarten. Today I taught the kids "Alice the Camel". Numbers, animals, violence; all those good things. The best part was as I was leaving and I had kids jumping on me telling me how much they liked class. Always gratifying. And Japanese kids are so ridiculously cute! Not as cute as my nephew, but still really cute. Even the four-year-olds with mullets. Okay, ESPECIALLY the four-year-olds with mullets.

I did get a chance to get outside today though. What with the winter coming on, it was time to change over to winter tires. You would have thought that I could handle this myself -- I know I did. But this being my town, my supervisor and one of the other guys in the office took me over to my house this afternoon and changed my tires for me. I got to watch. And put the summer tires back into storage.

Ah.... living in small town Japan... and being a girl.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

First Snow of the Year

I'm sitting at my desk in the teacher's office (yes, very hard at work). And outside, the snow is falling. It started over second period -- I was warming up the Grade 7's and looked outside, and the snow was a coming down.

It isn't accumulating. At least for now.

It'll be back. And then it will snow until May. I'm not looking forward to it.




No, I'm not really *that* freaked out about the coming winter. I'm trying to scare myself about how much snow there will be here, so when it comes, I'll be expecting boatloads. But it doesn't help that everyone in town tells me about how much it snows here. And how cold it gets. Which wouldn't be so bad if I had more than a kerosene heater to keep my big apartment warm. I should have known there was a downside to the big apartment!

And yes, living in Victoria did turn me into a wuss.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Gaijin invade Kitami

Just got back from a very fun weekend in the eastern Hokkaido town of Kitami. Officially, it was for a meeting of the island's JET association, but really it was just an excuse to get out of town. No, really. There were a few meetings, all of which were optional, but creatively scheduled so that people could take off work on Friday to travel to the meeting and stay until Sunday. And I was given travel money from my office to attend. Even better.

So, in all, about 100 JETs descended on Kitami for the weekend. We drank all of the nearby bars out of beer, took over the "Tacos and Beers" restaurant, ate the Jamaican place out of everything they had. And that was just the first night.

The second night, we had a costume contest to raise money for the "English Challenge Cup". A group of seventy foreigners is a pretty rare sight in Kitami, but most of us were in costume (no, not me, I was too lazy). And really in costume. The winner of the best costume had dressed up as a Japanese demon/dragon character, complete with wings. Huge wings that doubled his height (Keitai/cell phone pictures to be posted soon). So we weren't just an unusual sight, we were a sight that caused office workers to come outside and watch us go by, passerby to gawk and point, and general mayem and confusion.

I rounded out the evening singing karaoke at a place called "Su ri ra" in katakana English. That's right, this karaoke place is themed after the Michael Jackson song "Thriller". The walls are covered in blood, skulls and crosses. And the music selection was pretty good.

It was excellent practice (no, not really) for the Hokkaido Player's annual musical auditions. Note to self: next time I audition for a musical and have to sing a capella I should probably have more than four hours of sleep and hydrate a bit better. We're doing "Guys and Dolls" and there are actually going to be guys playing the guys! Apparently last year (they did Annie) most of the girls playing orphans also had to double and triple as various guy parts. Musicals not being a very "manly" hobby and all. But Guys and Dolls has gambling, and there will be stripping too. Nothing too showy -- this is still Japan, where exposing your lower back is extremely risque. Aside: things I don't understand about Japan. Exposing your lower back is a big no-no, but you can buy graphic porn manga featuring young girls in any convenience store. They generally put those in a display near the window so you can puruse the porn without even having to go inside. Ahhh, the joys of cultural differences.

In all I would rate it a really good weekend. Never underestimate the sheer joy of being able to communicate in your own language without having to resort to interpretive dance. And use sarcasm and have it be understood. Ah, the little things that make life good.

I even remembered at the last minute to buy omiyage for the office. Anytime someone goes on a trip, they bring back a present for everyone in the office. Usually some kind of small, individually wrapped food item that is representative of the area. We only remembered that we should buy omiyage after we had already left Kitami (the town of mint, onions and squirrels). Conveniently, many omiyage shops usually have a selection of stuff from all over the region. We lucked out and found Okhotsk sea salt chocolate at one of the hotels in Sounkyo. No, salt and chocolate is not something I would generally think would go together, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"My Future Dream"

Today's lesson for the Grade 8 Class was using the grammar pattern "to + infinitive".
For example; I went to Osaka to eat takoyaki.

The sample text in the book to teach this pattern? A speech about the benefits of genetically modified foods! Reproduced here in all it's glory!

Aki: Look at this picture. The children are hungry. They need food. My dream is to be a scientist and produce enough food for hungry people. Years ago, scientists produced a new kind of wheat. Why did they produce the new wheat? To help hungry people. The new wheat can fight illness and insects, so you can get a lot of it. Some people are against this kind of food, but it can help hungry people. I want to produce safe new food someday.

Do you have any questions or comments?

Carlos: Yes, the picture was shocking to me. Are there many hungry people in the world?

Aki: Yes. About one billion people cannot get enough food to eat today.

Lin: We're producing new kinds of rice in China. Why are some people against new foods?

Aki: They say, "Some of the new foods may harm other plants and useful insects."

Mr. Brown: Thank you, Aki. You did a good job.

Japanese textbooks are so entertaining.


One of the classes I taught recently involved some English "slang". So I was asked to come up with some slang that people might actually say. So I put together a short list of stuff, which may not be popular slang, but things that I might say. My JTE had me add "gotcha" to the list. I told her that people don't usually say "gotcha", but she thought the students would get a kick out of the unusual sound. Which they did.

Cut to today...
I'm going over lesson plans with this teacher, and to let her know I understand what she wants me to do, what do I say? "Gotcha!" of course. She stops, looks at me and says, "See! You do say gotcha!". I guess I do here...

Does anyone actually say "gotcha" outside of the context of teaching Junior High English in Japan? I can't remember anymore.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Ainu Class

I spent most of the afternoon today being very lost.

I picked up my friend in the next town over, and we went into Asahikawa to attend an Ainu sewing and language class. Unfortunately, neither of us really knew where it was, so we spent at least an hour driving around trying to find the building it was in. I only tried to go the wrong way down a one way street once, but I really racked up some huge gaijin points in the process.

We did eventually find the class, and I'm glad we did. The class was really more like a sewing circle and chat session, and I learned some really beautiful Ainu patterns. They actually remind me of Inuit patterns, and the languages may also be related. The language class was quite interesting too. We listened to some tapes of an Ainu legend, and everyone tried to figure out what it meant. I mostly tried to figure out what the Japanese people were speaking (and the kanji they were writing) was about. So I got to be linguistically lost too (more so than usual).

The best part was all the food they brought. My friend and I had gone for Indian food between classes, so we were already quite full, but they had made some (maybe traditional Ainu?) food to munch on during class. It was like Indian fry bread, but made with pumpkin and rice. Really sweet and tasty -- I'll have to find out how to make it (it would be a great alternative to pumpkin pie with my lack of oven).

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Anne of Canadian World, 芦別 (Ashibetsu)

And I thought I had left Canada behind. It turns out I was wrong. A little piece of Canada lives right here in Hokkaido. At least once a year as a probable tax write-off. Complete with gaijin dressed as Anne Shirley and Diana Barry (Gilbert Blythe was nowhere to be found), several punk rock bands, a merry go round and a train (one of these things is not like the other!).

Ashibetsu is the sister city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. So naturally, an Anne of Green Gables theme park was required. The park itself is actually quite lovely, once you get past the haunted amusement park feeling. The whole town has kind of a haunted (or at least abandoned) amusement park feel to it. During the bubble, to attract tourism to this out of the way city, they built not only Anne of Canadian World, but also a giant buddha statue, a large suspension bridge, and even a monorail (it sure put them on the map!). No, the monorail isn't open for business either.

Yes, the biggest reason I went to Ashibetsu was to heckle my friends in their pinafores. I also went to participate in the pumpkin festival. That was a really great event -- a group of ALTs came in and assisted with pumpkin carving, pumpkin bowling, face painting and a costume contest. The town bought us lunch and dinner, and the local ALTs gave us a place to crash. All in all it was a good long weekend.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Health and Sports Day Long Weekend

That's right, another long weekend. I spent today hanging out at a small family run onsen with one of my Japanese friends. Maybe not as pretty as some of the onsen in Sonkyo, but really nice atmosphere and good food!

Tomorrow I'm going to test my Japanese skills and train my way to Ashibetsu for the opening of "Canada World". I can't wait to see the Japanese interpretation of Canadian culture. Some ALT friends of mine are going to be dressing up as Anne Shirley and Diana Barry. That's right, "Anne of Green Gables" at Canada World in Ashibetsu. I'll be staying on for the city's pumpkin festival on Monday too.

Don't worry, I'll post pictures when I get back.

Happy thanksgiving weekend! Eat lots of turkey for me!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Wow -- I've been here for all of ten weeks, and I got my first batch of information about recontracting for a second year already! The deadline to make a decision doesn't happen until February, but getting the information today was a bit of a wake up call!

Other than that, I had a great day at the Elementary school. I joined in an all school practice of a song for upcoming "Culture Day", and taught the Grade 4 class new animals. They drew pictures of animals they didn't know in English and asked "What is this?". So I got some really interesting things like hammerhead sharks, stingrays, Clione (I only knew the scientific name, which is the Japanese name too, only katakana-ized to be ku ri o ne), scorpions, anemones, snails and anglerfish.

I also had a Hallowe'en class with the Grade 3's. We learned some Hallowe'en vocabulary, and then had a mummy wrapping contest. It was great fun.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Japanese Civil Servant

Yes, I am really a government employee. Along with everyone else, today I went for a physical. Height (166cm -- I wish I'd known my height in centimeters earlier!), weight, blood, urine, sight, hearing, and a chest x-ray. Another chest x-ray. I had to have one before I was hired too.

This is an annual event for everyone employed by the government. It was an interesting experience for me with my minimal Japanese. "Where the hell are your veins?" is something I understand in every language. I also really know left (hidari 左) and right (migi 右) in Japanese now. That eye exam was good practice.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Lazy Weekend

After a long week (no holiday this weekend?! What do you mean?!) I had a nice lazy weekend. I volunteered to go to a picnic for kids that don't usually attend school on Sunday afternoon, so my friend from Pippu who had invited me came to stay at my place on Saturday so we could head out to the picnic together. She studied in Australia and she's younger, so her English is really good and we can talk about interesting things like politics and such. The idea was that we would head out to Sounkyo or thereabouts, but Saturday was once again cold and rainy. Isn't that always the way? It has been nice and warm and sunny all week, but on Saturdays it rains. Boo!

So we stayed in town, went out for ramen for lunch and went to a really interesting spa type place in town. I forget the name in Nihongo, but it was basically lying on a heated stone floor. The floor is about 50C, so you lie on a towel while wearing thick pajamas for an hour. You drink lots of water, and it's supposed to be very purifying. For maximum detoxifying effect, you're supposed to do it three days in a row. I can't wait to go in the winter -- between ramen, the onsen and this place I'll stay nice and warm.

I also found the public bath. It's actually really close to my house, but because I don't read Japanese, I don't know what any of the buildings are. I'll have to check that out next time I don't feel like waiting for my bathtub to fill up (it takes a really long time because it's so deep).

Sunday we went out to a farm where the picnic was held. There weren't many kids there, but there was lots of great food and good company. It was a really nice day. I'm just kicking myself that I didn't bring my camera. I also met a woman that invited me to a Ainu language class. The Ainu are the native people of Japan, but they haven't been treated very well. Only recently was their existence even recognized by the Japanese government. Most of the Ainu villages that remain are very touristy, but I'm interested to attend this class. Mostly because there may also be lessons in traditional Ainu sewing.

A really interesting account of Ainu life that I read is in a book called Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. It's the travel diary of a Victorian woman, Isabella Bird, who goes through northern Japan and Hokkaido by herself and stays with the Ainu for a few weeks. It's a really interesting read because it's from such an unusual perspective. At that time (only 10 years after Japan had opened up to the west) it was unusual for anyone, man or woman, to go to Hokkaido. Although, from the reaction of my Japanese friends, Hokkaido is still viewed as the hinterland.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Giant Squid caught on film!

My dream of being the first person to capture the giant squid, Architeuthis, on film has been shattered! Japanese scientists recently published the first live images ever captured of the largest known invertebrate. Scientists have been doing all sorts of crazy things (sitting around in ROVs, attaching cameras to sperm whales -- the primary predator of the giant squid) to try and see the giant squid in it's natural habitat. These guys did it by studying sperm whale diving patterns and using a relatively simple bait and hook (with camera). They estimate the length of the animal they saw as over 8m (I believe that includes the lengthy tentacles).

Check out the Smithsonian Architeuthis expedition here for more information about the hunt for the giant squid.

Friday Night Fun

I can't believe I'm spending my Friday night trying to figure out the Japanese census. They've helpfully provided me with English instructions and a translation of the form, but I should have brought it to work and gotten my supervisor to help me with those exciting questions like the total floor area of my apartment. And writing my address in Japanese. But I guess it's time I learned those kanji. I'm sure being able to write my address will be useful in the future.

In Japan, the census is taken every four years, so I must be a special JET, becuase not everybody gets this fun international experience!

Deciphering Japanese paperwork -- fun times!

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Today I taught my first day at the Central Daycare in town. I've taught at the two other kindergartens in town, but this one is completely different. I'm on my own with about thirty children under the age of six (okay, there are about three other adults around to assist, but none of them speak any English, and my Japanese is limited at best). The idea is to teach them some English and have some fun for a half hour. It is the largest and youngest group I have ever taught, and I didn't really have any idea how many students I would be teaching or for how long until I got there.

Okay, I did have a lot of fun. After a super abbreviated self introduction, I had the kids play some games. Duck Duck Goose may not be the most educational game ever played, but the kids had fun, once they figured out what the crazy new teacher was trying to get them to do. They must have had a good time, because some of the older kids were asking if I could stay and play some more games with them!

(Side note: my classroom Japanese is improving a lot faster than my conversational Japanese. If only more people would talk to me about playing tag at the office!)

The rest of the day I spent going through the mass of old teaching materials under my desk at the BOE. I found some really useful things like stickers and stamps and basic flashcards, and some seriously random stuff. Note to other ALTs: if you leave really unusual teaching materials for your predecessor, you should give some idea of what you used them for.

I also visited the Junior High School in the afternoon to record some listening tests. I played the role of Aki, who wants to be an English teacher. Let's enjoy studying English!

I also became a hero to my JTE and several of my students for finding a karaoke version of the Backstreet Boys classic: "I want it that way". Domo arigato gouzaimasu to Nick, my Bittorrent sensei. If you don't know the song, consider yourself lucky. It is one of the worst earworms (and a terrible song) and I'm sure by the time the English competition they are singing it for rolls around I will have it permanently lodged in my brain.

With that incredible feat out of the way, I was asked to prepare a report on Japanese students, Japanese English classes and how they compare to foreign language education in Canada. For tomorrow. Because having been teaching here for over a month I am now an expert on foreign language education in Japan and abroad. Especially with my extensive (aka nonexistent) foreign language instruction experience prior to this.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Women in Japan

This news item says it all. Want to update the McDonalds image for Japan? Replace Ronald with a woman in a bikini!

Back to Work

It's a shame, but long weekends don't last forever. Today was back to work at the high school, after a fun weekend in Asahikawa.

After a two and a half hour kendo practice on Saturday, I picked up my friend Jessie and we went into the city for some fun. She had spent a total of 36 hours in the last week practicing for her Junior High School's band concert, so we made our first stop The Den -- the local gaijin watering hole. They have Guiness on tap, and carry tonic water (unlike the bars in my town: gin, but no tonic). We ended up at a club that was supposed to play house music, but it turned out to be disco night, so we did the hustle.

After a good night blowing off steam, I decided that I should attempt to find some new clothes. It's now fall so when I wear short sleeves, even if it's warm out, everyone in the office comments that I must be cold. Isn't it cold? I guess I didn't get the memo about the change in dress code. It is really starting to cool down though. And it was darkl by the time I got home today! I may have to turn on my heater soon!

Clothes shopping was pretty fun -- there are some neat things here to wear, along with some very strange things that wouldn't go over well at the office (or in my small town for that matter). Clothing is more expensive, even for the basic things I was buying, but the quality is really good. Maybe I'm rationalizing; I was just excited that I was able to find tops and PANTS that fit me. Mostly. My arms are too long, but the same goes at home. I still haven't brought myself to buy a new track suit. Everyone wears them here, especially at the Elementary schools. I can handle running shoes, but the track suit is just too much for me.

I talked to mom and dad who sound fresh and relaxed after their trip. It was really nice to hear from them. They've been keeping in touch via email, but it's always nice to hear voices from home. Even if my phone line is terrible.

Today I worked at the High School, which was actually a lot of fun! I had thought I would have to do my introduction lesson yet again (My name is Maryna. I come from Canada. Here is a picture of my family.) but thankfully, I got to do real classes today! I'm glad, because I'm sick of introducing myself. I did some Madlibs with the Grade 10s and some Canadian culture with the Grade 12s. I ended off the work day with the last conversation class for the three students who will be touring Canada next week. I'm so jealous! They're going to be staying in Vancouver for a night (strangely, at the same hotel where I did my JET interview). I want a night in Vancouver! They are a good group of girls, and with a lot of prodding, will even attempt to speak some English. I can't wait to hear how their trip goes!

This evening I spent at a concert. I have no idea who the performers were, but it was a mix of traditional shamisen playing (my favorite part), Japanese folk songs, and comedy routines. The latter was mostly lost on me, but the shamisen made up for that. I feel kind of bad -- I managed to double book myself for the concert and had to bow out of my monthly appearance at the Rotary club meeting. But how often to concerts come to town? Not very often. I just hope I haven't made anyone lose face by choosing one over the other.

Okay, this is far too long, and I need to go to bed if I'm going to be functional, if not genki at school tomorrow.

Friday, September 23, 2005

今日は休みです!Kyou wa yasumi desu! Today is a holiday!

red leavesAnd being a holiday, I took it easy. I had planned on going to Hakodate this weekend for another HAJET sponsored welcome party, but after looking into how much it would cost to get there and back, I decided to stay closer to home.

I slept in, made a nice breakfast (including real coffee!) and went out to Sounkyo to see the fall colours. It wasn't very busy because everyone else had taken a look at the weather report. It was misty and rainy and chilly. I met my friend Mayumi who works in Sounkyo, and she took the rest of the aftertnoon off to go up the ropeway with me. The ropeway is a gondola that runs halfway up Mt. Kurodake every 20 minutes. You then take a chairlift to the seventh stage of the climb, and make your way to the summit from there. The rain and cold, not to mention the complete lack of view thanks to the rain (ame) and mist (kiri) forced us back early. But I took lots of pictures anyway. The leaves are in transition, and the area is really beautiful. With all the shades of green and red and orange and gold you can imagine, it really lives up to the Ainu name of "playground of the gods".

After freezing our way back dowm the ropeway, Mayumi and I stopped for a big hot bowl of ramen, and then I went to the onsen for a good soak. An excellent way to spend a day off.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

My House

My House
Originally uploaded by anyram.

Hey -- I don't think I've ever taken any pictures of where I live! This is my apartment building. I'm on the top left. It's a huge three bedroom place. One room of which is currently my office. The other two bedrooms have tatami mats on the floor. The kitchen is big, but the appliances are pretty small. I miss my full size fridge. Someday, when I get around to clearing up all of my clutter, I'll even post pictures of the inside.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Pasukon English

I know I've writting about having to translate pasukon english, but I don't think I've ever posted an example. Today is you lucky day. Try your luck with the following:

The goodwill friendship exchange for the junior high school students, between Japan and Canada in 2005 had expected results and no problems.
The exchange enterprise undertaken over 11 days from July 23 to August 2 was experience precious to a student. I am thankful to you that this exchange concerned from the bottom of my heart. Exchange greets the 10th time by the end of this year. This exchange is the limited opportunity which can actually experience a life in foreign culture for the children who bear a new time. Children have to make a living as earth family’s member. Furthermore, in future society, pulling together and living all together is called for strongly.
There are many things which children learned from living with the men of Canada in both short periods.
As for the students who did precious experience, a spread is looked at by relation of the heart. Developing from the spread is beyond imagination.
The problem arose the middle until it returns from a start.
However, it is a delightful limitation that the planned plan was able to be returned to the town, without causing big confusion by adequate judgment of a leader downward.
When every students have and realize their dream, how does it employ efficiently? It is sure that the student of the K. junior high school also cultivates a life of him focusing on the children who realized wonderfulness of the encounter with people and a man. Finally, on the occasion of this exchange, I am thankful to the exchange enterprise persons concerned by making K. Town into the start.
H. Town develop increasingly and friendship goodwill exchange being more substantial.
Thank you very much.

Edit: I should add, this is a computer generated translation. That explains why some of the vocabulary is pretty advanced, while the text makes no sense. Of course, the same could be said of some scientific papers I have read...
"Pasukon" is Japanese for personal computer.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Board of Education Friendship Club

Saturday morning I was up bright and early to meet the bus for an out-of-town adventure with my BOE. You wouldn't think that a two-day bus trip with your co-workers, who's language you don't speak would be a whole lot of fun, but that's because you've never been inside a Japanese tour bus. The first thing that happens is the coolers of alcohol get opened, and everyone starts drinking. This is mostly a cultural thing -- you have to at least have one beer in you so you can break down the office hierarchy and enjoy yourself. And in Japan, only the driver has to be sober. There is zero-tolerance for drinking and driving if you are the one doing the driving. Passengers can have as much as they want. Then, to go with the drinks, the snacks come out. Dried fish, dried squid, nuts, chocolate. They had piles of stuff to nibble on. I tried most of the strange things too. Sadly, dried scallops are not very tasty.

Our first stop was Yubari -- also the location of the Central Hokkaido Welcome party the same weekend. I didn't run into any other ALTs though. Yubari was once a coal-mining town, but like so many other small towns, it has run into problems in recent years. Yubari has opened their former coal mine up as a theme park called "Wonder Valley". It wasn't so wondrous, but I was hanging out with the office ladies at the location where the Japanese movie "北の零年" (Year zero in the North) was shot. I'll have to see if I can dig it up on DVD so I can see it with English subtitles. The other end of the park has some rollercoasters and things, but I didn't see any of that.

Our next stop was Sapporo. We stayed at a hotel right in Susukino -- the main entertainment district in Sapporo. After a short break, we were off to the enkai. As it turns out, this was also my welcome party! The Superintendent made a speech in English. It was very well done. I understood most of it. Either he had someone help him, or my pasukon English is getting better.
We ate a literal boatload of sashimi: everything from tuna, mackerel, squid and octopus to sea urchin, ascidians (aka sea squirts -- I didn't know those were edible) and whale. The whale was the only thing I didn't try. Yes, I was extremely curious to know how whale meat tastes, but I don't like the idea of eating whale. There was also plenty of crab, a Hokkaido specialty.

The ni-ji kai was at a club with a comedy/song and dance review. It was all in Japanese, but thankfully for me, physical comedy is one of the most popular forms of comedy in Japan. And with enough beer and sochou, everything is funny. I stayed out late with the younger members of the crowd. Yes, my office has actual people under the age of thirty. I hear this is a rarity, and even more unusual, some of them even live in my small town.

The next day, we were off bright and early again -- some of us nursing hangovers -- this time to visit the huge outlet mall in Chitose (also where the main airport in Hokkaido is located). It was just like visiting the States. Most of the same stores, and despite the name "outlet", everything was far too expensive. I didn't buy anything exciting, but I did enjoy the name of this store: VUMPS (Very Upwardly Mobile Papas). The rest of the day was spent on the bus, with one stop for omiyage. In Japan, if you go somewhere, you are expected to buy a small gift for everyone at home. There are stores that cater to this, especially in airports and at train stations, so that you can easily pick something up on your way back home. If you leave through the same departure gate I did in the Vancouver International Airport, there is one near the gate. All kinds of gifts, generally small individually wrapped foods, are available. And not just from the city you are in. If you take a vacation from work, this is a way of apologizing to your co-workers for letting them down and not being at work.

After this exciting weekend, I spent all day Monday doing very little. I enjoyed sleeping in, made a nice cup of coffee, and did some much needed housecleaning.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sounkyo Elementary

On Thursdays, I go to a variety of different schools. Some weeks it's one of the local kindergartens, other days I go to the daycare, and once a month I go to one of the two small Elementary schools in neighboring towns that are under my town's jurisdiction. This week was my first week at Sounkyo Elementary. There are only 8 students, from Grades 1 to 6.

I take the bus there and back -- for some strange insurance reason, I can't drive myself. So, yesterday I packed up my self-introduction goodies, and some other teaching stuff and went out to Sounkyo. I only teach for 45 minutes, and the major goal is for the kids to have fun and enjoy learning English. So after I introduced myself and showed some pictures, I had the kids introduce themselves to me. We reviewed the alphabet and played some fun alphabet games -- I had the kids make letters as a group. The fastest team got a point, and the winners got alphabet stickers. We played tag with all of the other teachers for the rest of class.

I had lunch with the kids, helped clean up the school, played some soccer, and then it was time for me to catch the bus back to the office.

Trip to the "Big City"

Wednesday night, instead of our usual shodo practice, Mayumi-san and I drove into Asahikawa for dinner and a movie. I don't think I've gone into Asahikawa since I first got here! I was really sorry I didn't bring my camera -- the clouds and the sunset over the hills and rice fields was beautiful -- even with Asahikawa's smokestacks.

The movie theatre is in a "big box" complex on the outskirts of town. In the basement is a huge supermarket. And there they have the holy grail for westerners living in Japan: whole wheat flour. So once I have a free day (maybe this Monday, it's a day off to "respect the aged") I will be trying my hand at baking bread in my mini-oven. I don't usually eat white bread, and that is all they sell in the stores here. One of the other ALTs was telling me there is a town somewhere in Hokkaido where the large Australian population petitioned for whole wheat bread, but that is the only place he knows of where you can get non-white bread in the store. I also bought some stewing beef -- 666 yen for 500 grams (it was on sale). That's about $7 CDN. And some parmesan and gorgonzola. Hokkaido cheese is pretty good, but very mild. I like my cheese stinky. They have free refrigerated lockers outside the movie theatre, so you can shop and then watch your movie.

We met up with one of Mayumi-san's former students, who is now a Junior High School teacher in Asahikawa, and had dinner in Asahikawa's ramen alley. There are 8 ramen shops, side by side, across from the movie theatre. I finally tried shio (salt) ramen. It was incredible. I may have found a new favorite. Maybe it was just so tasty because Wednesday really felt like a fall day. It was cold and miserable, and nothing warms you up like a big bowl of hot noodles!

Movies are generally pretty expensive, about 1800 yen ($18). But Wednesday is "Ladies Night" and seats are only 1000 yen. We saw "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". I quite enjoyed it -- much closer to the spirit of the book, and the oompa loompas were great. It made for a very nice break from my regular routine!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Me vs. The Vegetable Fairy

One of my biggest small town challenges: What to do with the anonymous bags of food that appear on my doorstep? I can barely finish one before the next batch is here. And leaving for the weekend only makes it worse. I came home on Sunday to not one, but two bags of vegetables! Potatoes, one bag. Daikon. Red pepper. Tomatoes. Eggplant. Japanese Pumpkin (Kabocha). That brings my pumpkin tally this week to four. And this after being given a bag on Thursday before I left! Tomatoes, a full shopping bag. Hot peppers! More eggplant.
I think I get so much food because people don't see me very much in the grocery store. And the reason they don't see me in the grocery store is because I have to think of what to do with all these vegetables they bring me! It's a vicious cycle. That, and it's harvest season, and most people keep large gardens.

So any suggestions for a good recipe that freezes well and can use up all those pumpkins would be appreciated!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Weekend at Lake Kusharo

This weekend I decided that it was time to get out of town. And what better way to do that than with a HAJET sponsored welcome party in Eastern Hokkaido. I drove out Friday night with one of my neighbors to a town called Teshikaga and enjoyed hanging out with the local ALT and some other people who were there early.

The next day was camping out at the lake -- a really gorgeous place with a lakeside onsen and everything. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring. This one was extremely natural. Some stone stairs had been built up, and there was a little wooden shack to leave your clothes at. It was also really hot! I would guess 43 celcius. So a jump in the nice cold lake was necessary. I guess that since this pool was outside, it would be called a rotenburo. Whatever the designation, it was the highlight of the weekened. Well, that and a late night "appearance" by the famed dolphin-creature that lives in the lake...

Sunday was spent lazing about in the sun and swimming in the lake before hopping into the hot hot hot non-airconditioned car and driving home in 32 degree heat. Plenty of ice cream (they sell soft serve cones in the freezer section at conbini's) and cold water kept me from overheating, but they didn't stop me from coming down with a cold. I came home Sunday, had dinner and a bath and was out by 8pm. This morning I was delightfully snotty and croaky. And I foolishly didn't pack my trusty Sudafed (it's illegal in Japan). And I had three classes at the high school today. Maybe it's a good thing I am still working my way through my self-introduction lesson. I may be tired of teaching it, but I've done it so much now I don't have to think about it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Bored but unharmed

So, beacause of the typhoon last night and today, my trip out to one of the small towns in the area to teach got cancelled. Which meant I spent the day at the office. Which was very boring. True, I did get to spend the whole day studying Japanese. But on the other hand, I had to spend the whole day studying Japanese. Thankfully, there was no serious damage caused by the typhoon in my area. So no worries everyone! I haven't seen the news yet, so I don't know how the rest of Hokkaido has fared.

I did get to go teach at a conversation lesson at the high school this afternoon. Those classes are a lot of fun, but trying to get the students to speak English is really hard! Almost as difficult as getting the teachers NOT to help them! I think the students know a lot more than they think they do, it's just a matter of being forced to use it.

Today we talked about life with your host family... so I got to play the host, and talk really fast to the students. Also known as standard conversational speed. I was trying to remember what spending time with a host family was like, and what hosting a foreign student was like. But I was really lucky the last time I was in Japan. One of the daughters in my host family had studied in the States, and had excellent English. Next week we'll be sticking to the same topic. The girls are only going to be with their host families for three nights -- but definitely long enough to have to speak to them!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Typhoon 14

Yes, there is a big typhoon headed straight for Hokkaido. In Japan it's simply named typhoon 14. Everywhere else is calling it typhoon Nabi (Korean for butterfly). I was supposed to teach at one of the small town Elementary schools tomorrow, but the school is going to be closed because of the storm. It's really windy right now, and has been raining all day.

The storm has been downgraded, but there are still some weather warnings for Hokkaido. People are really concerned because it's nearly harvest time, and a big storm like this could ruin this year's rice crop. Apparently, a big typhoon hit last year and wiped out the buckwheat crop (used for making soba noodles).

Off to put my bike in the shed before it blows away!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I have a big stick

That's right -- I went to kendo class today.

I was all ready for not being allowed to do anything fun because if was my first day. I've seen the Karate Kid. I know how these things work. But my friend (and teacher) Mayumi-san was there, and she brought me an old shinai (bamboo sword) to use, and showed me some basic moves. The class is at the local gym, and the students range in age from 6 and 7 year olds to parents.

I practiced very basic movements; how to hold the 竹刀 or shinai properly, what to do with my feet, how high to hold it over my head, how to bash someone over the head. I only did half a class (45mins) because Mayumi-san had to practice too. She doesn't actually teach the class, but has been doing kendo for a while (as had one of her sons) and is willing to teach me the basics, and even better, lend me some equipment. So maybe I'll get to hit people soon...

If I end up doing kendo, I am going to have some solid pipes -- the sticks are light, but swinging them over your head for 3 hours a week will build some serious arm musculature!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Pictures around town...

Just some pictures I took on my bike ride after work today... a good day teaching at the high school.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Mochi o tsuku

This morning I was excorted by my friend Watanabe-san to a mochi o tsuku party (I thought it was "mochi o tsuki" but my dictionary says tsuku). At any rate, I went to go and help make mochi! This is one of the specialties in the area, I think because the rice grown here is very good (but I hear that about places all over Japan). It was really interesting. Mochi is translated as "glutinous rice cakes" which make them sound extremely unappetizing. I wish people would stop translating food items. For example; nobody pours me sake, they pour me Japanese rice wine. O-sake wa sake! (The "o" is usually put in front for politeness I think). It gets really bad when you move into more interesting food items. Sushi sounds tasty, raw fish not so much. I don't mind, I like both ;)

So, I helped to pound some steamed rice into a glutinous paste -- which was a lot harder than the old guys doing it made it look. The paste was then rolled out, and formed into dumplings. These were topped with either sweetened soybean flour, shouyu (soy sauce), or natto (fermented soy beans). It was really neat to get involved in a small community gathering where people were getting together to make something. And, there was plenty of food. I was less excited about the beer that was thrust into my hand when I got there about 11am. Drinking is really an important social activity in Japan. I ended up hanging out with the old men at the party, and some of them were falling down drunk by the end of the afternoon. But they were really entertaining to talk to. All of them said I should stay here for many years. One of them even offered me his son to marry. Never admit that you don't have a boyfriend to an old Japanese guy. He will either offer you unmarried children, or to be your boyfriend himself. But I did learn some new Japanese hand gestures too. I think that a thumbs up indicates a boyfriend and a pinky up shows a girlfriend. I'll have to check with some of my younger Japanese friends to make sure.

I'm really glad I have a contact here like Watanabe-san, who makes sure I am invited to events around town (and brings me vegetables from his garden). It's really hard to find out what is going on in town because I don't speak the language. But there are a lot of people here who want me to stay a long time, and go out of their way to make sure I'm doing well.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

JHS Festival

Today I was at the Junior High School Festival. Even though everything was in Japanese, it was still really fun. The morning program was lots of speeches, mostly from the students. They ranged from funny slideshow presentations of recent class trips, to serious speech competitions. The school "brass band" played a few numbers, and there was also the class singing competition. Each class sang a proscribed song, followed by their own selection. They were pretty good for a bunch of Jr. High kids. And I guess singing in Japan isn't like at home -- here you do it whether you like it or not. But they seem to enjoy it. Even the boys. Even the grade nine boys. The boys here enjoy cross-dressing too. There were a handful of guys who ended up in drag at various points during the morning presentation (and at the Strawberry camp I helped with last month, the boys were much more into the wigs and dressing up than the girls were... interesting...).

The most fun was hanging out at the バーザー or bazzar (pronounced katakana style as baazaa). I got a chance to actually hang out with the students, instead of being a "teacher". They had all sorts of different games, and food and stuff. These are some of the really crazy ni-nen sei's (Grade 8s) manning the "bobbing for goodies" area. Goodies included plastic beetles, superballs, and balloon yo-yos. I'm almost as bad at these games as I am at catching fish. Same technique.

Another fun area was the candy store -- I was treated to all kinds of strange Japanese candy by many of my students. Stuff like dried squid, dried umeboshi (pickled plums), dry ramen noodles, and some really nasty sugar "yogurt". I don't know what that last one really was, but I hope never to encounter it again. I should have taken pictures.

After the bazzar wrapped up, there was a cool trivia game. All three classes and the teaches participated. Each team sends up a group of four to six players each round, and they have to answer a question together. And by together, I mean each person writes one letter. So not only does the whole team need to know the answer, they also need to figure out which part of the answer they are. Example: One of the questions was what is ringo in English? So to get it right, the first person writes "a", the next "p", and so on. I'll have to try and incorporate this game into some of my English classes. It made for some entertaining answers.

There were also some skits and entertainments from some of the students, and a perfomance by a student rock band. They weren't too bad, except for the really off-key vocals.

And of course, no school festival would be complete without having the student body dance in unison around a bonfire to the tune of "Turkey in the Straw". In pairs no less. Of course, I got in on the fun too, and was there was much laughter because I started out dancing with one of the cute, young male teachers. For some reason, this blog won't let me put any other pictures on, so please take a look at my flickr site if you want to see more.

Oh yeah, there was also the closing ceremony where prizes were awarded for the morning competitions. I think the san-nen sei (Grade 9) swept the awards.

It's definitely getting to be the end of summer (sigh!). I was freezing by the end of the afternoon, and it was only 20C in my apartment when I got home. In the last few weeks it's been closer to 28C. And, yes, living in Victoria has made me a total cold weather wimp. It's a good thing it doesn't get that cold here -- just boatloads of snow.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

First writings

First writings
Originally uploaded by anyram.

This evening I had my first lesson in Japanese calligraphy. The photo is my first try at this beautiful Japanese art form. My teacher started me off with the hirigana because I know the basic strokes, even though she says they are harder to do correctly than the basic form of kanji (chinese characters). It is a very precise art. Each stroke is made in a particular order, and the motions of the brush (particularly for a beginner) are very specific -- how to make curves, how to end a stroke, and so on. I found it very relaxing. There is a great deal of consideration of the energy and the motion of the brush (fude in Japanese).

Sadly, one of the hardest parts for me is maintaining seiza position. This is the traditional way of sitting -- kneeling on the floor, with your bum resting on your heels. My knees don't like it, and my legs go to sleep. However, my teacher says that I have some natural ability. It must be all that pysanky when I was younger and more recent electron microscopy work.

In other traditional Japanese arts news, I have found a kendo teacher (and I even know when and where class is), but I'm going to hold off on starting until next week, when hopefully I'm good and recuperated from last week's excesses.


I found a website about the GLOBE program that the high school here is involved with. What a neat program! It's international (the lastest country to join was the 110th country to get involved), and gives students a chance to do actual research -- take measurements, analyse data, and present their findings. And for students here in my small town, a chance to go to other cities and countries to take water quality measurements. For the last three years, high school students who participate in the annual homestay in Canada also take measurements at various sites around my town's sister city. This year they are also adding Niagara Falls to their sample sites. Here in Japan, the GLOBE program also encourages English communication. A few years ago, the science teacher took several students to Croatia to present their findings to the GLOBE international meeting.

I'm hoping to get involved with this program too! Definitely while I'm here, and maybe when I return to Canada.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Correcting the Mayor's English

Today at school, I was given a fax from the mayor. A number of junior high students just returned from a homestay in Canada, and the school (maybe the town?) is submitting a report. So, I was asked to correct the mayor's English. This text is apparently headed to my town's sister city, and so had to be made comprehensible to Canadians.

This english was even worse than the "pasukon english" that my supervisor sometimes gives me, which is hard to believe. That stuff is pretty bad.

There were sentences like "junior high school made tie-up agreement with pioneer school in 1996." I should have written some of them down -- they were pretty incomprehensible. Then again, my Japanese is pretty incomprehensible. My English gets that way too, especially when I'm tired... I re-wrote some and left some -- I didn't want to change the intended meaning, and I was worried I'd get carried away and just re-write the whole thing.

So, that was a fun thing I did today. Ah... small town life.

Busy busy busy = isogashii

I am so tired right now...

Sunday was more of the "hometown festival", which was again a lot of fun. There was yosokoi dancing -- a very fast Japanese dance, that kind of looks like Japanese cheerleading. Everyone wears very cool costumes, and props like clappers and fans. I hear there's a big yosokoi festival in Sapporo in June -- I'll have to try to make it to that. There was also a performance by the Junior High "brass band". They were actually really good -- and I have heard a lot of really bad Junior high school bands. Sunday, I competed in the team tug-o-war. We lost miserably, but it was definitely entertaining.

There was other stuff going on too. I bought a load of cheap vegetables, as it was Sunday and I still hadn't stocked my fridge after Sapporo. I've been living off of fair food. But it turns out buying vegetables was a bad idea. I got a big bag of corn and potatoes delivered to my door by my friend Watanabe-san. He's such a sweet old guy. So now I have to eat corn and potatoes until I explode. Harvest season in Hokkaido is really great.

What else?

Monday, I started at the high school. There are three English teachers there, and they all seem pretty cool. Especially Morimoto-sensei. She is from Sapporo, and is a really good teacher, and very keen to make use of my native speaking skills. It works well, because if I learned anything in grad school it's how to talk for way too long about anything. I ended up doing my self introduction three times -- doing most of the talking for the whole class. I really have to work on getting the students to talk more, and me to talk less! Especially since my voice is STILL croaky.

I had planned to take it easy and relax last night, but the ALT from the next town over invited me to dinner. I was beat, but too lazy to cook, so it worked out okay. But then of course, we had to stop in at Romance (the best bar ever!) and say hi to the mamma there, and the next thing I know I'm doing more karaoke.

Today I was at the junior high, and I also did a conversation "class" with some high school students who are heading to Canada next month. There is a really cool science program at the High School. They are monitoring water quality of the local river, and while they are in Canada they will be taking some samples too! This year, they are adding Niagara Falls to their sample. The program is called GLOBE, and gets high school students to do environmental research, and encourages English study. I'll hunt down some websites later.

Tommorow I start calligraphy lessons (my sensei dropped by with some non-white bread! I'm so excited! Now I can find out where to get whole wheat flour and make my own!). I've also tracked down the local kendo teacher, but this week I'm too busy to go -- there was class tonight, but I'm too exhausted!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sapporo steals my voice

I'm too lazy, and late for today's festival activities to write much about Sapporo orientation week. But I did post a bunch of pictures on my flickr site (there's a handy link just to the right of this text called "more pictures from me").

In short, I went to Sapporo for orientation and language classes, all expenses paid by my BOE. We orientated for two days where we learned very little, had Japanese classes for two and a half days and learned a boatload (way too much Japanese learning in way too short a time) and after our official meetings, met up with other JETs and did far too much drinking and karaoke. Even my "quiet" night out involved staying out too late -- but I did meet a Japanese fellow who spoke pretty good French -- the only one so far.

French is all over Japan. It's very cool to have a notebook or a T-shirt covered in French, and the grammar and such is actually pretty good, unlike most of the English. But NOBODY speaks French here. Except that one guy in Sapporo.

Our last day in Sapporo, I think they felt sorry for us. Language classes involved learning to ask Japanese people to read kanji (chinese characters) for us, and practicing the bon odori for the afternoon closing ceremony. Yes, we had a farewell ceremony from the language school -- complete with the kanpai or cheers, before which nobody eats or drinks; speeches from both the teachers and the students; certificates; lunch; and then we all danced the bon odori and sang a Japanese song -- I can't wait to try it out next time I go to karaoke.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Spitting Contest Participant

Today was Day 1 of the furusato matsuri (hometown festival). I would rather have stayed home and recuperated from Sapporo, but my job here is to internationalize, so I went. I'm glad I did too, because it was loads of fun. Plenty of good fair food, sports contests and of course a few beers. The best part had to be getting to play with heavy machinery though... They had a backhoe, a bulldozer, and a fire truck there for the kids to try out. I couldn't resist the firetruck. I went up in the cherry picker basket and saw the town from up on high. It was very sugoi. I got to wear a fire helmet and everything. I went up with a couple of very nice little girls who weren't afraid to go up with the new english teacher.

There was also a horseshoe competition, and the ball tossing game that I tried in Pippu a few weeks ago. I competed in the umeboshi pit spitting contest. Umeboshi are Japanese pickled plums. They are an interesting sweet-sour flavour and I quite like them. They are really good in onigiri and I'll even eat them by themselves. I only spit the pit 3.5 m though, so I didn't win. The spat some ridiculous distance like 8.54m. I can't compete with that. I'll have to practice up for next year. My prize for competing was a whole tray of umeboshi -- yum!

After that was the costume competition -- kids, followed by the adults. Imagine twenty preschoolers dressed up as penguins, another group as cowboys, and another as hula dancers. And a whole bunch more. All dancing the bon odori. It was really fun to watch.

More festival tomorrow, so I need to get some sleep.