Tuesday, January 31, 2006

My favorite thing

The best part of living in Japan?
Having a heated toilet seat. Especially in Hokkaido, where I only heat my living room. I love my heated toilet seat, even if it isn't the kind that sings to me. I wrote a haiku about it:

heater off all night
peeing in heated comfort
staves off winter chill

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lost in Hobetsu

Another weekend, another musical rehearsal.

This time in Hobetsu, another small (under 5000 people) town. I drove, but I still don't really know where it is. This may have explained the two hour detour we took by accident on the way home...

It was a common theme to the weekend. We got horribly lost when we arrived in town and drove around a town with one main road for a half-hour, looking for our accommodation. Even the resident ALT giving us directions over the phone couldn't help us! We almost got lost on the way to the onsen. We called to get directions again and all we had to say was "I'm in a car with anyram...", and the laughter began. It turned out we were just being over-cautious. Sadly, the loss theme continued to personal items. I left my toothbrush and beloved minty fresh Crest (with fluoride!) at the onsen. And I think I forgot a brand-new bottle of lens solution somewhere too, but I haven't unpacked yet. Normally, these would not be terrible losses, but Japanese toothpaste is awful, and I just had that lens stuff sent to me!

And yes, somehow we managed to take a wrong turn on the way home and not notice for an hour. We did stop at a really good drive-in restaurant (hand-made soba noodles! yum!), which made us feel better about the excessive and unnecessary detour. But it did mean we had to drive an hour back the way we came to take the right turn. So it ended up being eight hours in the car. Not so much fun.

The rest of the weekend was great: plenty of singing and dancing and eating at the konbini (convenience store). Apparently, the staff there felt like they were in a foreign country all weekend. I guess that's what happens when 30 foreigners descend on small-town Hokkaido and stop at the only convenience store in town twice a day.

We also got our very cool "Hokkaido Players: Guys and Dolls" official T-shirts and fedoras. And I borrowed a copy of the Marlon Brando version of "Guys and Dolls". My plan for this evening: go shovel the last four days of snow accumulation {shudder} and curl up with Brando and Sinatra.

Friday, January 27, 2006

janken ga heta desu

It's true. I am bad at janken. More commonly know to those in non-Japanese speaking countries as "Rock, Paper, Scissors" (I like the "Kitten, Tin Foil, Microwave" variation myself). Today I played the gokiburi (cockroach) game with the first years. It's basically an evolution game, where the students have short conversations and play janken to decide who advances. After evolving to the stage of human, they come and play me. If they win, they become gods and write their names on the board. If I win, they have to start over as cockroaches.

In a class of 22 students, 16 were able to beat me and become gods. There were kids waiting for other people to become cockroaches, but I kept losing. The whole idea is that I win and the students have to keep practicing the English grammar point du jour. My JTE was a little disappointed. After class she was teasing me about my janken inabilities. She says I need to practice. Unfortunately, these students have about 13 years of practice on me.

In other news, I'm off to musical rehearsal in Hobestu this weekend. No, I have no idea where that is either. I'm sure it will be a fun weekend anyways.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

For potential winter visitors to Hokkaido...

"We Are on Alert Against a Fall at Slippery Locations. "

A friend of mine brought me the best brochure from Sapporo. It's geared towards foreign tourists in Sapporo for the Sapporo Snow Festival. I'm guessing that they are primarily from Australia, because it includes such helpful tips as:
* Residents of snowy regions own winter shoes. Unlike summer shoes, these are insulated and waterproof.
* You are more likely to fall when in a hurry, or drunk.
* Fall-prone areas are Odori and Susukino (the entertainment district, see above).
* How to Walk Safely in Winter!

In other Hokkaido tourism news, the dulcet tones of yours truly have been recruited for the Sounkyo Ice Festival (層雲峡氷瀑まつり). I'm sorry to say that it isn't as my JTE suspected, and I will not be making announcements live every night. This afternoon I recorded a message to be played nightly at the Ice festival; welcoming visitors and making a plea for a small donation to support the festival -- you get a free postcard and a discount on a traditional Japanese hot drink in return! After many years of English study, I'm happy to report my pronounciation was excellent. My supervisor and "recording engineer" (the guy with the MD recorder) were impressed. I used my best announcer voice and I didn't even start giggling -- I should really work for CBC radio when I go home.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What were you thinking??!

Oh, Canada...

You just gave me another reason to stay in Japan! I just hope that as prime minister, Stephen Harper can avoid such fashion tragedies as this one. Not to mention: avoid dropping out of the Kyoto accord, avoid cutting social programs, avoid turning the clock back on equality rights, avoid a budget deficit...

And that "giving child care money directly to families" business? Yeah, I'm sure $100 a month will cover child care services. No problem.

I'd dig up some cites for all of these things, but I'm lazy and I have class soon. Maybe later.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Election Day!

Here I sit in my office, with nothing to do until my class this afternoon, and I can't even see what direction my country has decided to go until 10pm ET (12 noon here). So much for the powers of technology! Thanks BC Court of appeals. I suppose I could look for a non-Canadian news outlet, but lets face it -- very few other countries are interested in providing live election coverage of Canadian elections. They aren't that exciting... I'm just cranky because my vote had to be mailed in weeks ago, and my morning is wide open for watching election coverage.

Or not...

I guess I do have class this morning after all. The schedule has been changed. My psychic powers must be on the fritz today.

In other news, it's snowing some more. There was a good foot on my car this morning. Nice fluffy powder stuff. Man I neeed to go skiing! Yesterday was an absolutely glorious day. It was all sunny and nice, and the sun was still out when I left work. Just barely, but it still counts!

What else have I been up to since my last post... not a whole lot. I was in "the city" this weekend. Bought some new shoes and clothes, spent some of my hard earned money. Thought about buying a new PS2 -- the new design is all slim and pretty and would play DVDs. But I wouldn't be able to play any games from home on my return. Stupid regional encoding! Maybe I'll hold off until the PS3 comes out (and I make a final decision about my contract here). I hear rumors that it will be region free. I don't think I'll hold my breath on it though.

I did have the interesting experience of being talked around the other day. Someone was visiting our office, dropping off advertising materials for everyone. I don't get spam in my physical mailbox, I get it at my desk at work. All of them. And I have a lot of desks, because I work at a lot of schools. Anyhow, this woman was dropping off junk mail, and strikes up a conversation with me. Or rather, with my co-worker. Who definitely does not speak English. She is very sweet, and I love her to pieces, but she does not speak English. She asks my co-worker how long I have been here. My co-worker asks me how long I have been here. I answer, in Japanese (true, it is my crap Japanese, but most people can figure out what I'm saying). My co-worker repeats what I have just said. More questions are asked, relayed, answered, relayed and considered. It was a bit surreal. They were all standard questions that I answered in Japanese, through a Japanese interpreter.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Fun in the snow

I had a wonderful Elementary lesson on Thursday. We spent 10 minutes doing some winter-related "total physical response". I yell out different things, and the students mimic my actions. Stuff like: Make a snowball! Throw a snowball! Ski! Snowboard! Speed skate! It's fun, and it's supposed to be good for listening skills. Then, we all went outside (teachers and vice-principal included) and played in the snow for the next hour. A massive snowball fight ensued, and much fun was had. After lunch, we all played hide and go seek in the school.

Yep, sometimes I have a really rough job.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Back to School and the Perfect Pen

Today was the first day back in classes for me and around one hundred Junior High School students. After the standard opening ceremonies, where we all stood around listening to unending speeches in the freezing cold gym, it was back to work as usual. This term is very short -- something like 10 weeks until the end of the school year.

It was a good day -- we did the standard "What I did on my fuyu yasumi (winter vacation)" exercise. I brought pictures of my trip to Malaysia, the students practiced using the past tense. Some more than others. It was interesting to see the difference a year makes. The ni-nen sei's (Grade 8) wrote about going shopping with their families, going skiing, playing baseball and so on, while half the san-nen sei (Grade 9) class wrote about going to juku (cram school) and studying for seven hours a day. Ninth-graders write high school entrance exams soon -- the exams that determine what these kids will and will not be able to do with the rest of their lives.

I also corrected some papers. Grade 8 homework assignment: Write an advertisement for an exciting new product that is guaranteed to improve your life!

"At last a perfect pen has come out. You can use it as a pen, but you can use it as a gun, too. You can assassinate the President.

Good Luck"

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Evening Encounter

I was walking along, minding my own business, running late for a meeting to tell the truth. An old woman stopped me and called me over to her. She was so excited to talk to me I couldn't refuse. She only spoke Japanese, but she told me about her life, her family, invited me into her home. She wants me to teach her English when I have free time. I don't know her name, and I only have a vague idea where she lives. I hope I can find her again. Talking with her, even if I barely understood what she was saying to me, and her invitation gave me an unexpected feeling of warmth.

Later that same evening, I was told that the Japanese are outwardly very friendly, but difficult to know on a deeper level.

This has me thinking about my options here in Japan. I have less than three weeks to make a decision about staying here in small-town Japan for another year, or returning to my home and native land. Not helping matters is fact that it is winter, and that I just got back from three weeks in a tropical paradise (one that is much less culturally restrictive to add to the difficulty).

So what do I get if I stay?

Better Japanese for one. I'd like to come back with at least passable spoken Japanese -- more to show for my time in Japan than excellent enkai Japanese and the ability to order drinks.

More opportunities to start useful language and cultural activities. I've had numerous requests to start an eikaiwa (English conversation class), and I'd like to do a pysanky (Ukranian Easter eggs) class as well, not to mention get my Junior High classes involved in Hokkaido's English Challenge Cup (an event that lets ALTs actually be useful and do more to teach English than parrot terrible dialogues).

More opportunities to travel within Japan and Asia, and of course, there's the fact that I'm getting paid pretty well to do this.

And if I don't stay?

I'll admit it, I've got more reasons at the moment for staying than for going home. If I go home, I have to start looking for a job and figuring out what to do next with my life. Not something I relish doing, even if I know I have to do it at some point. I miss my family too -- quite a bit. Especially after being with people from home, but not being home for Christmas. Maybe that's just the "joy" of Hokkaido winter speaking.

Maybe I'll just janken with my supervisor...

Friday, January 13, 2006

A night with the Rotarians

My first week back at work, if you can call it that. School hasn't started up again, but I still have to go into the office and look busy. There's only so much Japanese you can study before your head explodes and you end up drooling and babbling in japanese syllables.

So it was nice to go out to a Rotary Club Meeting Thursday evening. Every month the Rotarians have a meeting, which is really an excuse to get together, eat really good food and drink a lot. I'm sure they do other things, but during the speeches before dinner starts, I'm usually too busy eyeing the food and trying to refrain from digging in before the "kanpai" to pay attention to what they're talking about. This being the first meeting of the new year, it was much more festive than usual, and the speeches were shorter.

The food is always incredible. This time it was sashimi, tempura, beef tataki (thin slices of barely cooked beef with onions and sprouts), various salads and pickles, rice, and a giant nabe full of tofu, cabbage, fish, meat, noodles, mushrooms, and more. And no Japanese gathering would be complete without freely flowing beer and sake.

I chatted with the local buddhist priest about my trip to Malaysia, and with another member about his recent trip to Canada, who started calling me kanojo, which can be used as a female pronoun, but is more typically used to mean girlfriend. I guess all of that Japanese studying is starting to pay off, because I could understand about half of what people were saying to me. This may not be such a great thing...

Later in the evening, we played games. There were prizes to be had, so the group of us -- all thirty or so -- played janken to decide who would win them. If you teach English in Japan, you already know what janken is, but for the benefit of those at home, I'll elaborate.

Janken is the Japanese version of "Rock, Paper, Scissors", but it's so much more than that. First of all, there's the chant that goes with it, "Saishou wa gu, janken poi!" (at least in my area of Japan -- I'm sure there are regional variations) with concurrent throwing of hands. And it's so useful! Not to mention ubiquitous -- everyone from school children to seventy-year-old Rotarians plays. Need to decide who will go first? Need to choose team captains? Who gets the extra dessert at lunchtime? Resolve disputes? Make a decision? Use janken! I can even play it on my cellphone. I'm sure major decisions in Japanese government are resolved by janken. Should we privatize the postal system? I don't know, lets janken!

I won at least one initial round at the rotary meeting, but usually I'm pretty terrible. My students love playing with me because I usually lose. And yes, there is strategy and skill involved in janken. Don't laugh.

We played another Japanese game. You take a number of pieces of rope, tie a charm to the end of one rope, and hide that end of the ropes from view. Everyone chooses a piece of rope, and the winner is the one holding the rope with the charm on it. I'm terrible at this game too. But my consolation prize was, as the local gaijin, the gift of someone else's prize. So I came home with a giant bottle of sake. Should be fun at our next musical rehearsal.

This time out, I was dragged across the street by the kacho (head Rotarian) to the ni ji-kai for more drinking, a bit of karaoke, and some talk. After a while, one of my neighbors took pity on me and offered to share a cab home with me. I usually prefer walking, but it's dangerous* to walk home from the bar by yourself in the snow, so I took him up on his offer.

All in all, it was a fun night and I got a giant bottle of sake out of the deal.

*Every year, I'm sure lots of people drink too much and pass out in the snow on their way home. And in Hokkaido that's bad news. With all the snow here you'd either suffocate or freeze to death. Hence, everyone's concern with making sure I get a ride home from the bar.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Coming of Age Day

Today is Coming of Age day in Japan. This means that everyone who is 20 years old this year (born in 1985) is an adult now, and can legally drink. Personal birthdays aren't celebrated so much here -- it's the group celebration that counts.

In my town, the celebration was actually yesterday. All of this years twenty-year-olds get dressed up in kimono and celebrate their coming of age. I didn't hear about the ceremony, but I did end up at one of the stops the "new adults" made on their tour of the bars in my town.

I went to my regular bar last night to say hello after my vacation and chat with the ane and the mama who run the bar. It started out as a quiet night, but at some point, thirty newly minted adults filed in. Now, my regular bar is not a big place. So myself and the rest of the regular crowd that were already there were pressed into service, serving drinks and making room for the new grown-ups. I'm sure they were more than a little wierded out to be served drinks by a couple of gaijin, but most of them were a lot of fun. Nervous, and really young, but fun. I had no idea my town had so many 20 year olds!

Happy Coming of Age Day to my いもうと (little sister).

And then there was snow...

You go away to Malaysia for three weeks and a lot of snow falls in Hokkaido. In fact, Japan is experiencing record snowfall at the moment. It's not quite as bad here as it is in Niigata and Nagano prefectures -- we don't have 4 meters of snow. Yet. I keep being told that we don't have as much snow this year as we usually do. I don't know, the stuff on my driveway was knee to hip height on me. At any rate, having to dig out my car and clear out the driveway was no small task. I could have used some help from the Japanese Self Defence Forces.

Instead, I had help from my wonderful neighbor. Yesterday evening, I was taking a break from shovelling when my neighbor came home. He came over to say hello and we chatted for a bit. He seemed surprised to find that I was going to drive my car this winter at all -- everyone I talk to seems to be surprised at this. I don't think my predecessor drove this car at all last winter, so I suppose it isn't that unusual of an assumption. He asked if I needed any help, but I was done what I was going to do for the day. The rest would wait until the morning. I finished up what I was going to do for the day and went inside, thinking no more of our conversation.

Until a friend of mine came over later that evening... I went to the door to let her in and what did I see there? My neigbor, shovelling out the rest of the driveway! I could have kissed him. Instead, I'll just be giving him a nice thank you present from Malaysia. Thank goodness I decided to pick up some extra souveneirs for just such a possibility.

Back from Malaysia

The rest of the Malaysian holiday was fabulous.

After saying goodbye to my Canadian friends in Kuala Lumpur, I continued down the western coast to the city of Melacca (or Melaka). We took the unprecedented step of booking a hostel in advance via hostelworld.com and ended up at a small, family run home in an old Chinese style dwelling filled with antiques. The city itself was a real treat as well. It was founded in the early 1400s, and has a long history as a trading center. Over the years, Melacca has been colonized by just about everyone, and they have all left their mark. Lots of beautiful and colourful buildings, as well as friendly and colourful people.

Trishaws are popular here, and the drivers (some of whom look about as old as the city itself) decorate their cabs with flowers to entice customers.

Melacca felt much more relaxed than our previous city stop (Georgetown) -- although that's perhaps because we had a chance to unwind and relax after being in Japan for so long. And get used to things like jaywalking and haggling. I got pretty good at both by the end of the trip. Well, at least better than at the start of the trip.

We spent our last morning in Melacca shopping in Chinatown, where I picked up some neat stuff for a pretty good price. One last meal in Malaysia, and then it was time to start the trek back to the land of snow.

The original plan was to go back and spend another night in Kuala Lumpur so we could get to the airport. The owner of our hostel informed us that we could just as easily get to KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) from Melacca, considering the airport was about halfway between KL and Melacca. It wasn't quite as simple as he made it sound, but it was a lot cheaper. We bused from Melacca to Seremban, and then took the longest bus ever from Seremban to KLIA (even longer than the bus from my grandparents house to West Edmonton Mall). It took about 5 hours to get to the airport. For comparison, it was a 2 hour ride direct from KL to Melacca.

After the epic bus ride, it was a mere three planes, three trains, and a walk in the snow back to my door.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Return to Kuala Lumpur: Happy New Year Edition

Yesterday afternoon we left our tropical paradise, and re-entered the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur. And yesterday being New Year's Eve in Malaysia, we went to the biggest New Year's party I have ever attended. We and 2 million Malaysians (and I'm sure a few other tourists on holiday) welcomed the new year with fireworks and confetti. So if anyone is watching highlights of New Year's Eve around the world -- look closely: you might see me in Kuala Lumpur. It was a very low key evening, despite all the people. Our group went and sat outside at a hookah cafe and enjoyed watching the crowd go past before moving on to a better fireworks watching locale. It was a really different way to spend the evening -- I'm usually more of a watching the ball drop on television kind of gal.

Today I took it pretty easy. Did a little shopping preplanning for my next run through KL on the way to the airport, and decided to try some traditional Chinese medicine. And why stop at foot reflexology? My travel buddy wanted to get a foot massage, but I opted for something a little more adventurous. A nice back massage followed by cupping. For those of you who don't know, cupping involves putting small cups or jars on your body and using either heat or suction, you pull the toxins out of your body, enhance circulation, and get really nasty looking marks. It's like giving yourself (with the help of your massage artist) a giant set of hickies. And mine are particularily nasty. At least they look nasty. You'll have to check my flickr page to see photos -- blogger is taking too long at the moment. I can't feel them at all, and I actually have a lot more energy today than I thought I would have (yesterday being a late night and all). We'll see how they feel tomorrow when I get on the bus to Malaka -- one of the oldest ports in this area. It'll be fun to go see some cultural sites for a change of pace.

Happy New Year to everyone!

(By the way, for those of you who near and dear to me who keep track of what I do via this site, I've resolved to improve my telephone communications skills this year. I don't really believe in New Year's resolutions, but this seemed like a worthwhile one. So expect to hear from me in 2006!)