Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Here's Johnny!

Note to self -- The Shining is probably a very inappropriate movie to watch by yourself, in the middle of a snowstorm, in Hokkaido. Especially when you can't tell if the howling wind is on the movie or outside.

Fortunately, there's no blood spewing elevators or hedge mazes nearby, and the only twins I know (Shuhei and Youhei) are the exact opposite of the creepy twins from the film.

Thanks to Katie for giving me the heads-up on this re-thinking of the trailer.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Japanese advertising

I just saw a large talking beaver selling super-absorbent tampons.

That is all.

Rock on Hokkaido!

Saturday night I went to a concert here in town. Now, concerts don't come around very often in this town, and I knew at least one person in all of the bands that were performing so I went. Ostensibly a charity concert, for me it was an excuse to hang out with the people from ロマンス and see some live music. I was told that last year, it was an all heavy metal extravaganza. I was looking forward to seeing the Japanese take on 80s metal "hair" bands .

It was an interesting crowd. I sat with the mama-san from romansu, another patron and his family and their two pre-schoolers. He kept mama-san and I supplied with beer and "steak" snacks (like dog treats, only more.... no, just like dog treats). Also in attendance were a couple fo high school students trying really hard to look cool, a bunch of elementary school kids, and lots and lots of little old ladies. I wonder if they were all hoping for a metal extravaganza too?

There was only one metal band though, and they were the last of the local bands that performed. The others were J-pop cover groups, one surf instrumental group, and a jazzy jam-band. I never knew how many people I work with had hidden talents!

The last act of the evening was very lame by comparison. Sure, it was the woman who was actually putting together the concert and getting the money raised to Africa to sponsor a well and a new school somewhere, but she was terrible. Bad karaoke and lounge lizarding (no, really -- she sang Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind") do not make for a good finale. Feeling a little let down, I seized the opportunity to sneak out early with mama-san and open the bar. I probably would have had more fun hanging out with the bands after the show, but she was *that* bad.

The rest of the evening was plenty of fun -- I haven't been to romansu in ages, and it was really nice to see everybody. My friend "boss" hadn't heard I was staying another year, and he actually cried when I told him. I think it's really because he want me to be in his band (that's cool -- his was one of the best)...

All in all a good night.*

Bright an early Sunday morning I got a phone call from my friend Watanabe-san. He's the same gentleman who invites me to Rotary club meetings. Sunday's invite was to go cross-country skiing. I ignored the previous night's induced headache -- cross-country skiing it was! It was a beautiful day. Nice and warm, and it felt good to get some winter sporting in. Apparently I have a set of gear there I can use at my leisure. Hopefully I'll get another chance to use it before spring comes around!

With the weather being so warm, there was a lot of melt yesterday and it was even raining in Asahikawa. It made for a really crappy drive to and from the video store. Road conditions this morning were craptastic after the melt and rain had all frozen over again. 100% skating rink! Every road in town is a 1 inch sheet of ice. I nearly killed myself on my way downstairs this morning. The NHK weather lady says the weird weather is a sure sign that spring is on it's way. She had better not be toying with me...

*Although not as good as my friend's.... she went to the Yubari film festival where she ended up mistaking Amanda Plummer for a private ALT she didn't know, while standing in front of a giant poster/mural for "The Sound of Music". How's that for surreal?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Olympic Coverage

For the record; in Japanese, the olympics are called orinpiku.

Last week, I had the disadvantage of being airborne on my way to the USofA for the opening of the 2006 winter olympics in Torino. But I got to watch highlights of what looked like very cool opening ceremonies on the in-flight programming. Thanks NHK!

Once in the States, olympic coverage made a turn for the worse. Sorry NBC, you are terrible at broadcasting the olympics. I've gotten used to watching Canadian olympic coverage. You know, the kind where they show the events, let you know who the frontrunners are, and even show you the winning runs/performances/whatever even if they aren't Canadians!

Not like NBC, where they splice together the highlights of American atheletes and that's about all you see. Admittedly, I was only watching evening coverage. I had better things to do, like sit in the sun and go sea kayaking. Even if they were showing other athletes, NBC was constantly cutting to commercial. I understand that the olympics are a big ticket item for advertisers, but is it really too much to ask to watch two consecutive bobsled runs? I suppose so.

I was a little concerned about what Japanese coverage of the olympics would be like. Turns out, I didn't have a lot to worry about. Sadly, I haven't seen any hockey, but I guess I wasn't missing much of that either. There has been some though. On the way back from last weekend's musical rehearsal I almost caught the last few minutes of the Canada-Switzerland game.

Imagine, if you will, a car full of three ALTs and all the crap they need for a weekend of musical rehearsals. I'm talking futons, sleeping bags, overnight stuff, cowboy boots, gangster hats, etc. Now add another ALT and a new snowboard. The car was packed. It was a good thing I decided to hold off another week on buying a new snowboard. We were dropping off one ALT and her snowboard at a department store where her ride home was waiting for her. Being Canadians, they were upstairs in electronics watching the hockey game. I heard that, and much to the dismay of my car-mates (and to the sounds of taunting) I ran up to watch the last few minutes. Sadly, I was too late. No olympic hockey for me.

Anyways, back to coverage commentary.

Coverage here is very Japanese-centered, but that isn't suprising. All olympic coverage is nationalistic. But even though the Japanese athletes have been doing terribly so far, I been able to watch entire events, and see the performances of the winning athletes. For big events, I get to see the whole thing. And for events that Japan has a good chance in, I get to watch endless documentaries, discussions and replays. Speaking of which, the newscasters have just informed me that there are only six hours until the women's figure skating long program. And returned to live coverage of the women's figure skating practice. Okay, so maybe it's not the best coverage ever.

At least commercial breaks here feature Keifer Sutherland shilling scary looking energy bars (Warning: This site is very noisy and in Japanese).

I'm sure I could watch all kinds of live event coverage if I wanted to, but I won't be staying up -- I had my own challenging endurance event this morning. I call it hoikushou.


The kids are super-cute and super-genki. Or as my supervisor calls them, "crazy boys and girls". You have to keep them busy so they don't give you a kancho. Although my supervisor also showed me his method for getting little kids not to kancho you -- a dunt on the head. His technique features a fist with the middle knuckle extended for maximum kancho-stopping power. So far I haven't had to use it.

Today I kept the 30 of them busy with "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes", my new favorite little kid lesson. The picture is the kids practicing a song and dance before I started playing with them. It's too hard to teach and take pictures at the same time. And I'm usually too busy playing tag anyways.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


I'm gonna live foreva! Baby remember my name!

Our last musical rehearsal made it into Hokkaido's biggest newspaper -- The Hokkaido Shimbun.

See here!

I'm on the far left, sporting Mickey Mouse gloves and my fabulous, new "70's era Exploding Pizza logo" CBC t-shirt. Thanks Nikk-i! The majority of the cast is performing here in "Luck be a Lady".

The article says something along the lines of:
From Iwamizawa and elsewhere, a group of ALTs under the name of the "Hokkaido Players" held a rehearsal for their May performance. This Saturday, they held a preview in Iwamizawa's High School Gym. Every year, the "crazy foreigners" (no, it doesn't really say that, it says "gaikokujin") put on an English musical in Hokkaido. This year's musical is "Guys and Dolls", set in 1940s New York. The 30 member troupe was in Iwamizawa for a three day rehearsal. Reherasals were held at the same school. Ten people attended the preview.

The last bit talks about our performance dates.

I guess that studying is paying off -- I figured out what that article said (for the most part) all by myself. Except the headline. I read it as "English something enjoy something something something". Not quite the impact the author had in mind, I'm sure.

Today Hokkaido; tomorrow, the world!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mail Call!

Today was my first day back at the office, and I found a huge stack of mail there. A new package for the distance Japanese course I'm taking, my grades from the last test I sent them, various other office things, and a big package from the Ukrainian Bookstore. Their online ordering system is great, and the staff were very helpful.

I had ordered a bunch of pysanky making supplies, and cunningly had them all sent to my office. That way, I was able to open them at the office and create interest in teaching a pysanky writing class. Maybe I'll be able to turn it into an internationalizing event. I hope so -- both my boss and the lady that sits across from me were very intersted in learning how to write pysanky, and were even able to understand my crappy Japanese explanation. With the help of the pictures in the books I ordered.

It was a nice way to end the day. And to top it all off, there was a glorious sunset as I made my way home. This picture doesn't do it justice.

High School 英会話

After school on Monday, I had a short English conversation class with a couple of the second year students. I didn't really want to do it (still being exhausted from travelling and musicalling), but one of the students is very dedicated, and it's nice to have someone at that school who is interested in English. Besides, she is a very cool student. She's into cars -- specifically racing them -- which is an extremely unusual hobby for a Japanese high school girl. And she's confident enough to approach me outside of classes.

It was an interesting session. There were no real teachers on hand -- they were all in a meeting, no doubt preparing for graduation ceremonies next week. So it was just me, Taka and her friend (who isn't as keen on English, but comes anyways). We talked about differences between the Japanese and Canadian school year, schedules, and differences in classes. It was a challenge for the students to converse with me without the benefit of a teacher nearby to provide an instantaneous translation, but probably one of the better conversation classes we've had.

At the end of class, Taka gave me a letter. We've been corresponding a little, and one of her last letters was folded. I asked her to show me how, thinking it would be a good eikaiwa exercise. Instead I got this letter, which is much cooler! If you can't tell from the picture, she made tiny, step-by-step examples to show me how to fold a letter. Neat, huh? Or maybe I'm just entertained.

There and back again

Sigh, what a nice mini-vacation...

The only problem was that it was too short! I left town Friday night, where I attended a practice for my new band. My neighboring ALT, Jessie, is in a "rock band", and now I am too. "The guys" are really nice, and I get to make-believe I can sing well enough to front a band. And as a plus, it will be really good for my Japanese.

Jessie was also nice enough to drive me out to the airport so I could catch my flight. From snow to sun, in only 10 hours! The flights over were pretty good -- I had a whole row of seats to myself, which I took advantage of to get some sleep. Once in Honolulu, I had my island-hopper flight pushed back a few hours so I could spend the day noodling around in Waikiki.

I bought some sunscreen, a new bikini, and went to the beach. Me and the rest of Honolulu were there, but it sure beat snow!

I eventually made it to Kauai, where I met up with the family and the CUTEST BABY IN THE WORLD! (I have sought outside, more subjective opinions on this, and they agree). He's even better looking in person. It was great to finally meet my now six-month-old nephew.

The rest of my time in Hawaii was spent enjoying time with the people I love, and soaking up sunshine. And eating: American style. Mmmmm... steak and Mexican food... I even had a chance to get my fill of greasy spoon diner-style breakfast.

Getting back to Hokkaido was a long trek, but I was conveniently bumped into executive class for the 8-hour flight to Narita. JAL executive class includes personal televisions, so I was able to catch up on all the crappy movies I've missed while living in Japan. Looks like I didn't miss much.

I finally made it back to Hokkaido, where I was kindly picked up at the airport and chauffered to Iwamizawa for musical rehearsal! Our director kept us busy learning new dances, brushing up old ones, singing, and blocking our scenes. By the end of rehearsal weekend, between the jetlag, the busy schedule and the late nights I was wiped. I caught the last train home from Asahikawa, and treated myself to a cab-ride home. Not surprisingly, my neighbor hadn't shoveled my snow for me, so I had to dig out my front door before I could drop my bags and get some sleep...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cold and snowy outside, warm fuzzies inside

It's been a good couple of days here in the frozen inaka (middle of nowhere) of Hokkaido. Going in reverse chronological order; a delivery guy just came to my door with one ticket to Hawaii, there was a present from my friend in the mail slot when I got home, my boss said the office would pay for the upcoming HAJET winter meeting (Furano ski slopes, here I come!), I had a great day teaching in Sounkyo, got all of my teaching materials finished in time, and got about a billion offers of places to crash the night I get back (the best one included pick-up servcice at the airport!)

But really, nothing brightens your day like a ticket to Hawaii. Sorry for gloating, but book yourself a trip to the islands and see if you don't feel like sharing your excitement!

Teaching was really fun today -- I've probably said it before, but I think Sounkyo is my favorite school to teach at. They only see me once a month, so every time I come there it's exciting for the kids. And because I don't see them often, I want to make sure we have a fun time together. Besides that, the staff are wonderful and there is a really strong family feeling there. I'm grateful to have been welcomed like one of the gang. It will be even more fun when this small school with a current student body of nine gets six new Grade 1's! That means next year the school will be almost half ichi-nen sei's!

Olympic fever has set in here in Hokkaido, particularly in my town. It's the hometown of Harada -- the ski jumper. This will be his fifth olympics if you can believe it! Every store in town has posters to show their support (I have one up in my house that my shodo teacher brought over), and a few days ago, a delegation went to cheer him on in person. In that spirit, I have been teaching Olympic winter sports. Fun for the kids, and easy too as most of the names are similar in Japanese. We had a fun class playing "What sports do you like?" charades. I was sure to include the bobsled and luge events, because they are so funny to watch kids do charades with. uMaybe I'll try the same lesson with my impossible grade 5's...

After lunch, dodgeball and some tag, I went and watched the Grade 3/4 class (three students) practice calligraphy with the principal. It was really fun to see them going just as slowly as I do at my lessons. When the teacher made corrections, they were all in bright orange ink, which the students were not pleased with. I really just liked seeing that I wasn't the only one who struggles with writing Japanese calligraphy! I was thinking I should get some elementary school level workbooks to move my kanji studies along. I have a few already, and the most difficult part for me is not knowing the vocabulary that little kids know. I'm okay with animals now, and since teaching body parts at the kindergarten, I know all those too. Little by little...

Now, if only it would stop snowing! Today it was blowing and snowing all day long, which made the trek from the bus station to the school at the top of the mountain a lot of "fun". It's supposed to snow all day tomorrow as well. I don't want to have to dig my car out when I come home!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Let's enjoy pictures!

I was sent a link to a bunch of photos of our last rehearsal in Hobetsu.
Take a look. I thought I'd share it, since I don't take many pictures of myself, and there are some, shall we say, interesting ones of me here.

They were taken by the husband of one of our Hot Box Dancers/Gangsters. He isn't in the musical, but came to watch us rehearse and support his wife. And take fun pictures of us in action. It's hard to take pictures when you have to be on stage. I didn't realize until I saw these just how funny we look in our gangster hats and winter woolies. Too bad there's no picture of me in my "actress" ensemble; toque, mittens, down vest, leopard print scarf and a big pair of sunglasses. Very high class. That's what happens when you have rehearsals in large, poorly heated gyms. We may be dancing up a storm, but it's cold when you stop moving!

Our next rehearsal is the weekend I get back from my last minute vacation. I know I read somewhere that the best cure for jetlag is two days of singing, dancing and carousing...

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Warning: This is my second attempt at a post that originally included a lot of venting, some whining, and self-pity. This one will likely have more, seeing as my computer ate the first one. It will probably be boring, self-indulgent and poorly expressed. And that's what the internet was made for.

I am an ALT. An Assistant Language (English) Teacher. My job description includes providing the voice of a native English speaker in the classroom and the perspective of a non-Japanese person outside of the classroom. Anything and everything to do with English in my town will cross my path. I am here to internationalize within my small town, and make the dream for all the children of the world to join hands and sing a bit less of a joke. I may be idealistic and naive (don't worry, I'm still young, there's time for it to be beaten out of me), but I want the best for my students and for the people in this small town.

One of the small ways I have to improve English language education here is by putting students in the Hokkaido ALT-run English Challenge Cup. Better known in these parts as ECC. It stresses communicative English as opposed to the rote memorization method favoured by the Japanese educational system. It uses the same grammar used by the textbook. It isn't expensive to enter (roughly $30 dollars per student, but that drops as you enter more students), and last year a third of the students were invited to attend ECC Camp -- a free, five-day English camp. The winner gets a free homestay in the English speaking country of their choice. It's great -- your students get to practice English for the contest, and if they are chosen to go to camp, it's practically like going to stay in another country. What's not to love?

I have been trying to get my students to do ECC this year. I am really excited to do it, my JTEs are interested, we just need approval from the kocho-sensei (the principal).

Today was finally the day of the meeting between myself, the JTEs and the kocho-sensei. We have had to put it off for several weeks for various reasons. It was the most difficult meeting I have ever been to. For one, I don't speak Japanese. I was relying on my JTEs to translate my arguments and kocho-sensei's responses. I also do not have the cultural background to argue in the Japanese style. I may have understood all of the words, but I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the meanings behind the words. I don't know the best way to get something done in Japan. And I don't understand why you would say no to something as basic as an English competition.

That's right, I was shot down.

The last time I wrote this post, I went through all the reasons that I heard in the meeting as to why we can't do ECC. There were a lot of them. It was a really long post. It has since been suggested to me that I write it as a Monty Python absurdist comedy sketch -- that should give you an idea of how random the reasons against doing ECC were. I had a counter-argument to go with all of them except one:

We can't do ECC because it isn't an official school or Board of Education sponsored event.

In Japan, Elementary and Junior High School education is compulsory. Students at this stage are the responsibility of the teachers and the school. If a student cuts classes and gets into trouble, it is the school's problem to deal with. Not the parents. By that rationale, for a student to do ECC, there has to be full teacher support. Unluckily for me, both of my JTEs will be leaving this year.

The thing that upsets me the most about this decision is that I was probably turned down because I didn't go through the proper channels. Having only been working in Japan for six months, I don't know the "correct" way to do things. Should I have gone to my supervisor at the Board of Education first? Should I have approached my JTEs differently? Should I have started earlier? I don't know. I just hate to think that if I had done something that a Japanese person would have known to do instinctively, my kids would be allowed to participate in this program. I don't want to see them punished for my* lack of knowledge.

It also worries me, because it may foreshadow what I will have to deal with if I want to implement any other events in my town. Adult English class? Beginner and Advanced? A Ukrainian "Spring"/Easter (can't call it Easter, people might think I'm looking to convert them) festival with pysanky making? Even just a pysanky class? Setting up a camp for the kids in my town? I'm hoping that because my Board of Education loves me for recontracting, these things will be easier to set in motion. But I'm still worried.

To end on a positive note, it's not all bad. I made sure to emphasize that I want to do eikaiwa with any students that are interested. ECC is just a means to encourage students to attend. This is fine with kocho-sensei. So I will be doing the same eikaiwa that I would have done for ECC, asking my JTEs to try the same activities that I would have had them try for ECC, but I am not allowed to enter them in ECC. And if it goes well, next year I will probably be able to enter students into ECC.

As my friend put it, coming up against the complete and utter lack of logic that is the Japanese school system, I have truly become an ALT.

* Or anyone else's. It came up in our meeting that my predecessor's predecessor's predecessor (three years ago) got approval to do ECC. Students signed up, couldn't or didn't attend the practices, and nobody actually did the test. From my sparse Japanese and between the lines understanding, I gathered that she had gotten frustrated by not having students show up, the students were frustrated by not being able to communicate with the ALT and nobody was happy. She may have showed her frustration and gotten upset about it, which is the biggest no-no in Japan. You do not show your feelings. The first person to strike has already lost the fight. This may be an even more important reason why I am not allowed to do ECC. Because if it didn't work out the first time, it will never work.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

How 'bout that snow?

I know, I complain about the snow here all the time. I think it has something to do with the Japanese habit of talking solely about the weather. Kyo wa samui ne? Hai, samui desu! It's cold today, isn't it? Yes, it is!

Today I come armed with pictures! It was quite pleasant shovelling this weekend -- the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful day.

My car playing peek-a-boo behind the snowpile in front of the house. It's almost taller than my little tractor.

Where the shoveled snow from the rest of town goes...

My house in winter. Compare it with this one, taken in September. Look carefully... There are four cars in this picture. Way off to the left is my car, hidden behind the snowpile.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Groundhog Day, eat your heart out!

Originally uploaded by anyram.

Today was setsubun -- a day when Japanese children are encouraged to throw beans at people to banish evil winter spirits and welcome good spirits. I was invited to go to the local shrine with the kindergarten kids to help out. We lined up and waited in the cold until the temple attendants came out. At the sound of a drum, we were pelted with roasted soybeans, which we raced to pick up. If you want to be lucky for the year, you are supposed to eat as many beans as you have years. And since I didn't eat any kutya this year, I'll need all the help I can get!

Usually, teachers or parents dress up as oni (鬼 being one of my very favorite kanji), or demons and the students throw beans and yell at them to scare them away. Having borne the brunt of a 30 member strong kindergarten unit, I shudder to think how much damage they could cause when armed with beans. Oni are red or blue, with lots of hair, horns and big teeth. I think they're kind of cute. We didn't do any of that, but it was still a really neat event to take part in. After gathering up our beans so we could have good luck, we were all given big bags of candy and sent back inside before we froze solid.

Adventures in tako

Today has been a pretty standard slow day at school. I only had one class this morning, so the rest of my day has been spent watching the snow fall outside, drinking coffee, thinking about studying Japanese, and not a whole lot else.

Until a delivery came...

JTE: Wait a minute! anyram studied biology! She must know what to do with this!
So, anyram, do you know tako?
Me: You mean, octopus?
JTE: Octopus, yes. The Art Teacher sent us an octopus. She was in Hiroshima for training, and sent tako for omiyage.
Me: What, like to eat?
JTE: Of course! What else would you do with an octopus? Here -- take a look!

My JTE goes to the staff room fridge and pulls out a Styrofoam cooler containing a bag of ice and a recently deceased cephalopod. Biology geek heaven! The skin was still all dark and pretty. I've never dissected a fresh octopus! We have rules about these things where I come from!*

JTE: So, do you know how to cut it?
(Because obviously, knowledge of cleaning an octopus comes standard with every biology degree.)
Me: Well, I could probably dissect it! Can I? Lets go dissect it now! I don't know how to clean it though -- I've never cooked** octopus.
JTE: (Clearly disappointed) Oh. That's too bad. None of us knows how to do it either.
Me: I'm sure there are instructions online.
JTE: Yes, we found some, but nobody actually wants to do the cutting.
Me: But that's the best part! I'll do it if you give me the instructions!
JTE: (Shocked) Really? Okay -- later.

This was before lunch. School has just finished for the day. I only had one class this morning, so I've been sticking around here basically to see if I can play with a fresh octopus. And that's been my slightly surreal day teaching in Japan.

* It was always interesting to me that when I was in school, you could do just about anything you wanted to with invertebrates. As long as the organism in question had no spine, you could run almost any research protocol you wanted, and collect vast numbers. The exceptions? One was abalone, whose valuable stocks had been decimated and were protected. The other? Octopus. Anything with a brain that big and relatively complex was controlled and a pain in the ass because you had to deal with animal care and the ethics people. The same as with vertebrates.

At least on the west coast, this was the deal. In Alberta, we guillotined rats, did surgery on live rabbits, and administered electric shocks to frog legs. In undergraduate labs! I'm sure there were animal care hoops to deal with there too, but I can't imagine the same labs being done at my school on the west coast. Mostly because the students would protest. Stupid hippies. They don't know what they're missing.

** This came up with my JTE this afternoon. When is it appropriate to use "cook" vs. "make"? I came up with plenty of examples, but no firm rule. For example: "I made dinner for everyone" vs. "I cooked dinner for everyone". You would say "I made a cake", but not "I cooked a cake" or even "I cooked cake".

Thursday, February 02, 2006

It's (almost) official!

I've decided to stay another year here in northern, small-town Japan. It may be dark and snowy six months of the year, but what the hell - so is most of Canada (just not this year). I haven't signed another contract yet, but it's basically a done deal. My boss was so happy to hear I would stay he nearly cried. Well, maybe not, but I could have sworn I saw him do a the happy dance. And being the fourth ALT here in as many years, I can't blame him. It's like being dumped continuously, only more expensive. And the other small towns make fun of you.

The day after I accepted the town's offer of another contract, there was a box of chocolates on my desk and giant piles of snow were mysteriously removed from my driveway. My driveway that is separate from the driveway of the other three households in my building. On my isolated street (ours is the only building on the block). You know they're excited to have you stay on when... I should have asked them to throw in a snowblower!

To celebrate, I'm going to meet my parents and brother's family in Hawaii! Next week! Why? Uhhh... a week in Hawaii? Why not? What better way to beat winter? Besides, I've been back in the snow for at least four weeks -- time for some more sun!