Friday, April 28, 2006

Golden Week Holiday

This will be my last post this week, as next week I'm fleeing Hokkaido in search of cherry blossoms. It's golden week -- a series of public holidays when the price of accomodation and travel skyrockets and everyone in Japan is on the road.

I'll be driving down to Tohoku with a friend of mine to see what there is to see in Hakodate and Aomori. We'll be staying at an old-school onsen (no electricity, mixed sex baths, the works). I'm looking forward to a week of vacation. After the month of busy-busy I've had, I could use a break.

Tell you all about it when I get back, hopefully with pictures of cherry blossoms and springtime!

Love to everyone!

Passive Voice Lesson

The first thing the san-nensei's (Ninth Graders) learn in English is how to use the passive voice. So I came up with an activity so they could actually use it in coversation. In writing, I've always been taught to avoid it, but it does have it's uses. One of the other ALTs in Hokkaido suggested that one of the best uses of the passive voice in conversation is to complain about things. For example: My wallet was stolen! My seat on the bus was taken! My mom was abducted by aliens!

So, using his suggestion, I designed an activity based around the students' worst day ever. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The kind that makes them want to move to Australia.

I made up a worksheet and had the students write sentences (using passive voice) about their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Then, in groups they got to choose which sentence was the worst. Er, best. The best worst sentence. Those went up on the board and were given points. One point for each sentence, two points for correctness, one point for creativity, and the last point for horribleness. The last point was awarded by the students.

Here are some of the sentences I got, as written by the students in the Grade 9 Advanced English class:

My friend was eaten by Mr. Kousaka. (The English teacher.)

My father was smashed into pieces in the world.

My dog was eaten by the cat.

When I went to school, my school was destroyed. Because I came back to my house but my house was destroyed, too. I am shock!!

My mom was abducted by Donald (Donald Duck). Today diner is Donald Duck!!

Mr. Yokoyama (the gym teacher) was crushed by a stone.

And my personal favorite, even though she forgot to use passive voice... (she fixed it after it was on the board)

My friend made dinner for me. I was very happy. I ate it.
This tastes shit!!!
So, she put her shit in my dinner!! Our friendship is finished.

I would have liked it better if she had used the grammar I wanted her to focus on.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Well, I wanted to be busy...

Ask and you shall receive.

The weekend before last I was in Ashibetsu (home of Anne of Canadian World) meeting with the HAJET PC Board to figure out what we want to achieve this year. I have one of the most labour intensive jobs on the board -- publications. More on that later. That same weekend, I was also in Sapporo for a couple of nights where I lived it up on the town. I don't get there terribly often, so I have to make it worth my while.

I also met up with my good friend Mike, who was on the second week of a three week whirlwind tour of Japan. I took him out on the town in Sapporo, and then back to my little town where I showed him a few days in the life of an ALT, including a visit to my Junior High School, the local juku teacher's house, and a curry night with some of my nearby friends.

The following weekend was of course more musicalling. It was our last rehearsal before performances start up next month, and the show is really starting to look good. Hopefully we will be video taping at least one performance, because I want a copy.

And that brings us to today -- one of the few nights I have nothing planned. Actually, tonight I am treating myself to an early bedtime and some relaxation. Between enkais, meetings, rehearsals, school and HAJET, I feel like I haven't slept all month. My JTE says I look it.

I will be posting more soon, but not tonight. Tonight I'm crashing early.

Until my next update, here's a Japanese article about the workshop I helped out with in Shihoro a few weeks ago. That's me teaching the children of Shihoro (and a bunch of Hokkaido ALTs) how to do our "Big Finale". From here. I haven't read it yet, or I'd give you non-Japanese readers (I currently read at about a Grade 2 level -- woo hoo!) a summary. Enjoy the picture.

子供たち笑顔でダンス 「北海道プレヤーズ」研修会
道内の外国語指導助手(ALT)でつくる自主的なミュージカル集団「北海道プレヤーズ」のワークショップが、9日午後2時から町総合研修センターで開かれた。町内外の子供たちが参加し、メンバーと一緒にダンスを楽しんだ。 同集団は9年前から活動し、毎年ミュージカル公演などを道内各地で行っている。今年はニューヨークのギャングをユーモラスに描いた「ガイズ&ドールズ」を5月に音更町などで公演する。約40人のメンバーには町のALTスチュアート・グレゴリー・エドワードさんも参加している。 この日、小学生や保護者ら約20人が参加。初めにメンバーが「ガイズ-」の2幕の1場面を披露した。ワークショップでは、子供たちは緊張気味だったが、ゲームでリラックスしてメンバーと一緒にダンスを体験。 「ガイズ-」の最後の場面のバックダンスを教わって体を動かすと笑みがこぼれ、参加した宮部純香さん(上士幌小4年)は「楽しかった」と笑顔だった。 「ガイズ-」の公演日程は、岩見沢市民会館文化センター(5月13日午後5時、495円)、新冠レコード館(同20日午後5時、大人700円、中学生以下500円)、音更町文化センター(同27日午後5時、同)。ホームページアドレスは、 問い合わせは町教委(01564・5・4733)へ。(新目七恵)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Another busy weekend

Wow -- I can't believe I've had such a busy week! And the weekend promises to be even more intense. Tomorrow is the inagural HAJET PC Board retreat, so this evening (after a much-deserved power nap) I'll be driving to Ashibetsu.

The plans are a day of meetings, naked bonding at an onsen in the middle of nowhere, and of course an enkai. It should be good. I've got a very busy position, and it looks like I'll have to start the HAJET printing presses ASAP. I've done a very rough inventory, and it looks like I'm almost out of most of our popular titles, and in need of updating the rest of them. Whee! And I want to get these things done at the latest before new JETs arrive at the end of July. Ganbaro!

Sunday I won't be heading home, but to Sapporo to meet my friend Mike. He actually arrives in Hokkaido today, but I have this meeting to go to, so we'll be meeting up on Sunday before heading to my town. I hope he doesn't get lost... Once in my town, he will be treated to experiencing the life of an AET. Should be interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing what my life looks like to someone outside of it. And it will be good practice for when mom and dad come to visit in June!

Have an excellent weekend. Love to all!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Shihoro Musicalling Insanity Sauce

Our last rehearsal for the musical was this weekend in a little town called Shihoro. Although we technically have one more get-together before performances start, that is a dress rehearsal, and I think our director will have us running the show over and over and over...

So, needless to say it was a busy weekend. Compounded by the fact that I have just finished a week of enkais. Welcome parties for the new people at my office and school and farewells for people like my supervisor. My new supervisor is still a little shy, but I think he'll be okay.

Friday was the Farewell to the old and Hello to the new party for my office. Of course I went, seeing as I was having a change in supervisor. So I went, ate, and drank far too much. I was only being polite though. I wasn't able to go to the ni-ji kai though, I had to go home and pack up to get to rehearsal. My musical buddies Jeshie and Svending Machine came by to pick me up and we were on our way through the mountains to musical mayem.

I had my own ni-ji kai, san-ji kai and probably yo-ji kai upon getting to rehearsal. I was lucky the next days rehearsal and run through wasn't more painful for me personally than it could have been.

Saturday evening after rehearsal we had a late dinner reservation at a yakiniku joint, so we had plenty of time to hit the onsen. A whole group of us ended up as some tiny, tiny onsen in the middle of nowhere. It was seriously a ghetto onsen. There had only recently been a wall put up between the male and female sides of the bath, and the unisex rotenburo (outside bath) was closed. But the people were very friendly, and after you've been singing and dancing all day a nice hot onsen is the best thing ever. I did feel kind of bad for my friends' cousin who was visiting from the States -- the little ghetto inaka onsen was his first introduction to onsen culture, and I'm not sure how much he enjoyed it...

Sunday was a full run through, with props and costumes. We managed to get the whole thing down to two and a half hours, and I'm sure we can get it down more. Yay!

After an exhausting weekend, there was still more for us to do. Shihoro gave us use of their town theatre/BOE building (including a place to stay!) all for free. In exchange, we taught a workshop for the kids in town. I stayed to help out, seeing as it wasn't too far of a drive home for me, and I really enjoy teaching elementary school kids.

Turns out, I was volunteered to lead said workshop, and teach the kids present our "Big Finish". They were incredibly shy though! I must be spoiled in my town, because only the littlest kids are painfully shy with me. These kids didn't even want to come on stage with us! After some coaxing and an excellent warm up game led by Miss Jeshie, they warmed up to us a little. That must be what happens when the town AET is a tall bald man who plays a cop with somewhat frightening ease (Gregory, if you're reading this, I love you, but you scare me). It was extra exuasting because the kids needed a lot of AET monkeying to get them to participate. It all worked out in the end though, and we even won over the grouchy new boss-man who wasn't too pleased about us being there.

We were also interviewed for an article about these workshops for a Hokkaido-wide magazine. If I can get my hands on the article I'll be sure to post it.

Friday, April 07, 2006

After School Special

Today is the first official day back in class. It's good to be back. One, I have classes to teach, and two, I have an internet connection at my desk at the Junior High School. Life is good.

Yesterday was the opening ceremonies for the Elementary and Junior High Schools. It was much like the graduation ceremonies of last month, only with the younger students. The same marching in of the students, and never-ending speeches. Although at the elementary school, I was actually able to follow the speeches seeing as they were geared towards Grade 1 students. I was a bit miffed that I wasn't introduced at the Elementary school along with all of the other teachers. If I had realized what was happening I would have just gone up with everyone else. They had all of the teachers come on stage and introduce themselves to the students and parents at the ceremony. I think that my main contact at the elementary school forgets that I at least speak a little bit of Japanese -- at least enough to introduce myself. Oh well. The students there already know me.

In the afternoon I went to the Junior High school entrance ceremony. I barely recognized last years Grade 6's in their uniforms. I hope they have a great year.

And of course, no Japanese ceremony is complete without an enkai. After work yesterday I went to the welcoming enkai for the new teachers -- my new JTE among them. There was (as usual) much eating and drinking. Unfortunately, my new JTE isn't much of a drinker, but he does like karaoke. He did a superb rendition of Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" at the second party. I made it to the san-ji kai (the third party) with the hardcore among the staff. It was hilarious. The male teachers all ordered "nabe ramen" -- giant family sized portions of ramen. It was hilarious.

A good night all in all, but I'm spectacularly tired today. And I have another enkai tonight with the Board of Education. And then it's off to Shihoro this evening for a musical rehearsal. Yes, straight from enkai to musicalling. I think it's the start of a very long weekend...

Monday, April 03, 2006

The wedding reception; or, how I got roped into being a wedding singer.

Post-ceremony, the wedding guests were herded to the reception. It was held in the same wedding castle on a hill. Japanese wedding receptions are funded by the guests, and can be very expensive. The tab for the reception this weekend was 13,000 yen (over $130 CDN). For that price, you get plenty to drink and eat, and at this particular western-style wedding reception, genuine gaijin entertainment. The food was western-style as well, with a grand total of eight courses (plus wedding cake). The high price of admittance allows the bride and groom to buy thank you gifts for all of the guests. There were also prizes during the course of the reception – including and iPod shuffle. That was the prize for correctly guessing the colour of the bride’s cocktail dress. Yes, the bride does a costume change during the reception, just to keep things interesting.

I brought along a gift of my own. I’ve been making pysanky, so I brought one that I had just finished. I’m making a bunch for friends and co-workers who are moving on to new jobs, but I figured a pysanky would be a unique gift for a newly married Japanese couple.

It was a very nice reception, and we were seated at what we dubbed the “exotic women” table. It was Jeshie and myself, and a number of the bride’s girlfriends from school who were all from Tokyo and Sapporo. I was the oldest unmarried girl at the wedding.

Yes, the single men and women were seated separately. In a culture where nudity is acceptable, mixing of the sexes at a wedding reception is not done. There wasn’t a band or any dancing either.

However, just after the “meat” course was served, Jeshie and I were brought forward to provide the genuine gaijin entertainment. Jeshie had requested that we not perform until people had at least a few drinks in them, ourselves included. I fear it wasn’t enough. Our first selection, “Moon River” wasn’t too bad. The upbeat Beatles number was a mess though. It was one of the longest 5 minutes of karaoke in my entire life. I’m glad it was a relatively young wedding with lots of kids – there was a swarm of small adorable children who migrated up to the front with us, distracting the crowd from the horror of our singing.

Japanese culture being what it is, everyone was very polite and told us what good singers we were. The bride and groom seemed genuinely happy with our performance and I guess that’s what counts. I hope though, that this doesn’t lead to any future wedding singer gigs. Between the dressing, the singing and the cost of attending, I don’t think it’s something I’ll be looking into as a future career.

The post-reception ni-ji kai

We figured we might as well go to the ni-ji kai as well. Who knows when we’d get invited to another wedding ni-ji kai?

It was one of the worst enkais I have been to. I must be too used to going to enkais with old men who don’t care what other people think of them. And who are already married. Again, the seating was separated by sex. It took a surprisingly long time for people to relax and open up. Again, we sat at the “exotic women” table. It took until after the bingo (a favorite enkai game)for people to start mingling and talking more freely.

The san-ji kai was either non-existent, or Japanese wedding receptions are where you are supposed to find a future spouse. We asked one of the girls at our table about what people would do for the ni-ji kai, and were informed that the san-ji kai was for couples. Jeshie and I took each other out for a san-ji kai, where in the Japanese tradition, forgot our shame with excessive alcohol before catching a train home.

New Year Jikoshokai (Self-introduction)

The beginning of April is the start of the new fiscal year in Japan. Unbeknownst to me, the first day of April is also the day when all of the new people are introduced at their offices. Which explains why everyone else was in a suit this morning.

We just finished with the official welcoming and conferring of official contracts for all of the new teachers in town. Complete with speeches, pictures, and of course a self-introduction. The teachers and school staff lined up on one side of the room, and the BOE staff (myself included) lined up on the other. And then we went around the room introducing ourselves. I felt like a complete ass in my everyday clothes. At least I decided against the tracksuit this morning. Thank goodness for small blessings. And they hid me in the back for the group picture so hopefully, no one will see that the ALT didn’t know to dress up for the first day of April.

ちょっとちがう/A Little Different: A Western-style wedding in Japan

Much like any other wedding I have attended, there was the requisite getting up very early to prepare for the event. The major difference this morning, however, was the continuous loop of “Moon River” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” running on the stereo. The karaoke versions. Not my standard morning music, but later today, Jeshie and I would be singing at a Japanese wedding reception. And we hadn’t practiced. And did I mention that Jeshie is completely tone deaf? A wonderful person, but a terrible singer.

So, we got ourselves all prettied up.

Jeshie conveniently had a spare party dress on hand. A nice vintage number that fit me perfectly. The downside was that it had not been a very well treated vintage dress, and the taffeta overlay was well on its way towards disintegrating. We had patched up the visible damage, but it was only a temporary solution. Jeshie’s dress was even better. It no longer fit her, so we rigged her out with a scarf to hide the fact that her dress was undone. And sewed her in. There’s always someone who ends up being sewn into their dress at a wedding…

We were up at 6:30 to practice and prettify. Our train to the city left at 9:40. Plenty of time to do hair and makeup, get sewn into dresses, and practice our music… Dressed in our finery we caught the train with a bunch of Jeshie’s students on their way to the city. Jeshie pointed out that we were just as gawked at when we wore regular street clothes as we were today in party dresses and big hair.

We arrived at the castle on the hill shortly before eleven. That’s right, the ceremony was held at a wedding castle. On a hill. It was one of several in the area.

We were ushered into the wedding guest holding area. Unsurprisingly, we were the only non-Japanese people in attendance. And our hair, despite our best efforts and Jeshie’s “Level 10” hairspray was by no means the biggest. At the appointed time, we were brought to the chapel by a herd of ushers in white gloves. Actually, the wedding chapel was “St. Martin’s Cathedral”. It was jarring, being at a gothic, European-style “cathedral” where half the guests were in kimono. It was the church-iest church I have ever been inside, and at the same time the fakest. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the “cathedral”. It featured a huge, ornate stained glass widow which depicted various well known stories from the bible. The pews were made of heavy wood, but with no kneelers. In their place were under-pew heaters set to leg melting. My legs have never been so warm inside a church. I thought I would pass out. There was a pipe organ at the front, and a triptych (??) depicting the writers of the gospel.

The participants entered.
The groom was first, dressed the Japanese interpretation of a western formal suit. It's the same one worn by a Junior High School principal at a graduation ceremony. Grey-pinstripe pants and tails. He was led into the “cathedral” by a pair of ushers in long white robes carrying long golden tapers. At their entrance, they bowed to greet the guests, bowing so low that the flames they carried touched the ground.

And then the bride. Here comes the bride, in a white meringue dress. Her father gave her away to the groom with a bow.

The rest of the ceremony went very much as you would expect a wedding ceremony to go. Complete with the singing of hymns in Japanese (“I have a friend in Jesus”), and a reading from the bible (the standard wedding reading, “Love is patient, love is kind…”), vows (there was much snickering from the groom’s side of the aisle when he answered “Hai!” in an overly loud voice), and an exchange of rings.

I’ve had two friends now get married in Japan (not including the couple at the front of the church today). The technical “getting married” part is extremely bureaucratic. You go to the town office, get the correct paper-work stamped by the appropriate people and voila! You’re married! The ceremony, although important, is more of an afterthought. I guess that’s why there isn’t a problem with appropriating a western religious-style wedding.

The whole experience was as though someone had very carefully studied a western-style wedding and attempted to recreate it. The right elements were there: the church, the pews, the bride in a white meringue dress, the groom in tie and tails. But the ceremony felt empty. It was the distilled essence of the ceremony, without the feeling.

Even the end of the ceremony was exactly to “western wedding” standards. There was a special staircase for the bride and groom to walk down so that they could be showered with rose petals. And there was even a bouquet toss for all of the single women.

It turns out this was an actual church-approved wedding service. The “cathedral” is a United Methodist. I can’t help but wonder who is getting rich off of this business. The layout of the building is such that once you have finished one ceremony, you can shuffle the wedding party to their reception and send a new couple in to the cathedral to get married.

ちょっと二日ようい, What a way to start the new year

I wandered into work this morning, and was surprised to see everyone my usually very casual office in dark suits. “Uh-oh… what memo did I miss?”, I thought to myself. Shortly after I arrived, all of the guys in the office left, leaving me with the two ladies in the office to explain goings-on to me. Turns out today is the start of the new year, the new term. I’m sure there’s some ceremony with multiple long boring speeches going on. There’s also a stack of what look like certificates, but could well be contracts sitting on my supervisor’s desk.

I hope that there’s nothing expected of me today. I was up early this morning to drive home from Pippu-cho, where I crashed after my performance as a wedding singer. And of course, after the wedding reception, I tried to forget the whole thing by smacking myself in the head repeatedly with bottles of cheap whiskey. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but isn’t making for a pleasant morning. Not knowing what the hell is going on is not helping matters.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Week in review

Well, it's been a whole week of sitting in the BOE. On the positive side, I've done a lot of Japanese studying. On the negative side, I've been bored to tears. Good thing I have activities outside of work to keep me from going mental.

Another sobetsukai (farewell party). The sobetsukai follows the same format of all other enkais. Arrive, opening speeches, and kanpai before the eating and drinking begin. Wednesday's enkai was for Kuyiyama-sensei, one of the staff at the BOE who will be retiring. Not that he really did anything anyways. I think he "worked" as an advisor, which meant he was the Japanese equivalent of an ALT on spring break. He was heavily involved in the community though, and did a lot of work with a local choir.

At sobetsukais, the person or people who are leaving are honoured with speeches and gifts. At the sobetsukai I went to for the teachers leaving the Junior High School this year, they were all given small gifts (often gag gifts) and a photo album of everyone on staff this year. We were also all asked to write a farewell message to each of the departing teachers. I managed to impress everyone with my ability to write 先生 (sensei) in kanji. Go, go Grade 1 reading level! The albums were actually very funny. All of the other teachers took crazy photos in costume. Had I known, I would have too.

At Kuriyama-sensei's sobetsukai, it was a much less involved affair, but a good chance to go out and socialize with my co-workers at the BOE. And be given a new nickname -- "marin-chan". So as not to be confused with "maru-chan", one of the guys that works at the school lunch center. It's kind of strange to hear a guy referred to with -chan, which is generally reserved for girls, girlfriends and close female friends. They even call him this when he comes to visit our office.

I had to reschedule my usual shuji lesson, which as always was very fun. We've been practicing joined-up hiragana, which I think is beautiful. It's very difficult to get the characters to flow like they're supposed to. Check out this photo on my
flickr photo page to see some notes I added about what I was trying to improve.

Not a lot going on. Made some dinner, watched some videos, did some preparation for my debut as a wedding singer this weekend. My god, I can't believe I'm doing this. Thankfully, we will only be subjecting people to two songs. I'll be heading over to Jessie's place today so we can practice singing. I'll let you know how it goes...