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.