Tuesday, November 28, 2006

日本語能力試験・Japanese Language Proficiency Test

This year, I decided to sign up for the foreigner living in Japan rite of passage -- the JLPT. Also known as the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. If you want a job outside of the JET program (where I've heard from a number of sources the preference is actually for people with little or no Japanese language skills), you need to take this test. I'm not planning to stay in Japan much longer, but I figured I would like to have some kind of certification to put on a future resume. And it would give me a "carrot" to encourage me to study Japanese. Which despite having ample time at my desk in which to study, never quite seems to happen.

Long story short, that hasn't really worked. So here I find myself with mere days before the test date, and I'm cramming away. I wanted to challenge myself, so I signed up for Level 3. Which covers basic Japanese grammar, and about 300 kanji. The kanji aren't really the problem. There's a whole lot of grammar out there.

I started out with lofty aspirations. After coming here with practically no Japanese, I had made big strides, and was able to understand people at work and generally make myself undestood. Let's be realistic here though -- I am nowhere near to actually speaking Japanese, but I've come a long way from stepping of the plane and not understanding anything around me. The wonders of immersion. I figured if I kept up what I was doing, I could write this exam, and feel really good about reaching this level after a year and a half of Japanese study.

I wasn't planning for it to be something that I ended up cramming for. That makes it feel like Japanese High School and University Entrance Exams. The reason that high school students at hundreds of schools in Japan weren't taught required subjects, and now face not being able to finish high school. The things that Japanese students commit suicide over if they aren't being bullied, and the generally accepted reason (at least in the ALT community) for the lack of communicative English in Japanese schools. Students are too busy studying for these exams to have time to practice speaking English. It would detract from studying English!

So, now I feel like I've stepped into that world. Instead of learning the language, I'm cramming away. I know that in the long run, this test doesn't really mean anything, but that doesn't mean I'm not disappointed in myself for treating it like an entrance exam.

Back to cramming.

Friday, November 24, 2006

rock is dead. long live rock.

rainbow amps

My future dream of becoming a rock star is a future dream no more. Yesterday I performed in a "live" here in town, as a member of the Blue Mountain Big Band. The joke being that the "big band" only has two members.

On vocals: yours truly.
On guitar: "Boss" Kagomi.

We started practicing about a month ago and got together maybe 5 times to rehearse. Boss is an incredible guitarist, and has been playing for 30 years. My skills? Well, I speak English.

At our first meeting, we chose a name and a batch of songs to sing. We whittled those down to five songs that we would perform in our 15 minute set.

Play List:
I Will/ I've Just Seen a Face -- The Beatles
Complicated -- Avril Levigne
Sunshine of your Love -- Cream
Born to Love You -- Queen

It was tough figuring out what to play. Not just because of language barriers, but becuase of the challenges of picking songs that we both liked and that the audience would enjoy. For the most part, mainstream Japanese audiences like terrible music. The number one request from people that I get at karaoke is to sing something by the Carpenters. A request that is generally vetoed. I think I gave in one time in the interests of team building with a new JTE. Sometimes you just have to make sacrifices. Which explains the Avril. Sorry 妹. Sometimes you just have to play to the crowd. However, both Boss and I are into the classic rock, so we got to play Cream. I was told that I could build my lounge singer act around that one.

The show itself?

Well, Thursday morning I hauled myself out of bed and went to sound check/ rehearsal. Conveniently, it was a day off work. I would have liked to sleep in, but I also got to listen to some of the other bands play. I was amazingly nervous. Singing at sound check was really not so much fun. All of my friends from town were there, making me even more nervous. I went home for some lunch, and to get all rock starred-up (aka put on makeup).

The concert started really early. By 3:00 people were starting to arrive, and the show started proptly at 3:30. I wasn't on until after the break, so I went out and watched the show with the ALT from a nearby town who came to see the show. I was much less nervous watching everybody else, but I also had some help from my good friend J. Daniels. Hey -- I was getting into the rockstar mood.

Boss and I had a quick run-through in the dressing room during intermission. All the other bands were standing around listening, tuning up, chilling out, doing whatever. It was the best relaxer ever. The other bands were really cool, and it was a good warm up too.

On stage, I was still nervous, but once I started going it was fine. I only forgot a few of the words... And how to speak Japanese. I was supposed to talk between songs for our band, but I completely forgot any Japanese I knew.

The rest of the show was really good. Lots of pop acts, a group of High School students, some heavy metal, a solo acoustic guitar, and a last minute replacement that consisted of three of the local kindergarten teachers. One of the other bands backed out at the last minute, so they stepped up and sang a few songs. There are a lot of very talented musicians around here. The worst act of the show was sadly the last act -- some woman from Sapporo who runs the charity that the concert was for. She played the longest, and probably the worst set of the evening. The highlight? Well, other than her butchering of Billy Joel, it was probably when the guy behind us started snoring. I was sitting with my friend Aiko, and we were both shaking with laughter, trying desprately not to embarrass ourselves further by actually laughing out loud.

After the show, there was of course an enkai. Somewhere in the vicinity of 50 people packed into one of the restaurants in town to celebrate a good concert. I was complimented on my skill with English pronounciation, and everyone had a good time. Unfortunately, maybe because I had brought another foreigner along with me, I was seated at the "important people" table, where I had to be nice to the woman who's set I had tried not to laugh through. Thankfully, she left early. I met up with my friends from the "fun table" later in the evening, where we continued singing late into the night. Too bad I had to be at work the next morning...

Next year? Boss promises that there will be more bands, and that maybe the concert will be held over the summer. If I'm still here, I'd love to do it over again.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

of snow and soba

Despite my attempts to banish winter forever, it seems to have hit full force here today. This morning it was raining, but the temperature has dropped 10 degrees and we're having lovely blizzard contitions. At least it's not raining -- sorry Vancouverites/Victorians.

And with the weather turning to winter, it seemed today that everyone wanted to feed me. One of the teachers (and my sweetheart of a neighbor) got a delivery of "bo ru shi chu" -- a big box of some kind of prepared food item. What can I say, he's a single guy. I don't think he does any of his own cooking. As I was trying to figure out what the hell it was, he gave me a package. Totally unecessary, but nice of him. As it turns out, "bo ru shi chu" is actually borscht. I was planning to have it for dinner.

At least until I got back to the office.

There was some kind of all-Hokkaido soba making meeting in session. Who knew there was such a thing? So, the building was full of old soba making dudes. They had extra soba, so they invited the office to come and try out some of the food. Man, was it good. Freshly handmade soba. I will cry when I go back to Canada and there are no soba shops to be had.

I stuck around to help clean up and was rewarded for my efforts with some of my own to take home. Yummy-yum-yum!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

びっくりしたんだ!What a surprise!

Yesterday, I had an eikaiwa class at the high school. I must admit, I was not looking forward to going -- I'm still tired from the weekend in Toka-ko, and I haven't been getting enough sleep. And I hadn't really planned anything apart from having the students tell me about their recent travels. The two students that I started eikaiwa with were in Canada last month, and also just got back from their class trip to Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima.

After their trip to Canada, they were keen to continue having eikaiwa classes. Our eikaiwa classes were fun for me, and beneficial for the students, so I agreed. Besides, I don't get to participate in communication and conversation based classes anywhere else (oops, bitterness towards current JTE showing through).

I asked them to see if they could find any more people who were interested in coming to class -- as much as I like a small class, the largest my high school eikaiwa classes have ever been was three or four students. In a school of 200. Not bad, but the JTEs at the school weren't terribly interested in promoting the class to students who might be interested.

I dragged myself out to the high school, reminding myself that this class could be the most rewarding teaching I do here. Aya and Misaki (the two students who went to Canada) met me at the door.

"Shall we go study English?"

"Sounds great! Let's go!"

"Today... class... lots of friends..."

"Oh, that's great! How many?"

"Eto... maybe...ah... let's go."

We entered the classroom, where I was absolutely blown away to find a whole dozen students! Okay, okay, so two of them were teachers. We'll see how many of them continue to come, but it really made my day to have so many people show up. And they are a fun group of kids. I had them start with self-introductions so that I can try to drum some names into my head. It's mostly a futile effort. I'm bad at names in general, but something about Japanese names makes them impossible for me to remember. And there are 9 different English classes at this small school that I go to once a week, so it's even harder for me to get a handle on student's names.

The time in class flew by, and I got to know a few students a little better. I hope they'll come back next week. Maybe I'll even have a lesson planned.

Friday, November 10, 2006

All-singing, all-dancing redux

This afternoon it's off to Toka-ko (another place I never thought I'd be headed to multiple times) for this year's inaugural musical rehearsal. Parts will be announced, songs will be sung, and fun times will occur.

This year, the Hokkaido Players will be performing "Peter Pan: The Musical". I've never heard it or seen it. And no, it isn't the same as the stage play or the Disney version. It's British. Which makes it talk funny and enjoy bland cuisine.

Sadly, there will be no flying above the stage, removing one of the most fun aspects of the show. But, it's understandable. Last year we had problems getting venues because of the dangers of letting foreigners take to the stage. Imagine the trouble there would be if we let foreigners use harnesses and rigging to take flight off the stage! Ah, insurance. She is a harsh mistress. She doesn't even let me drive during work hours.

So far, I haven't seen any further snowfall, so I'm hoping for a nice drive down south. I'm also hoping for a fun group of people. Last year's cast was incredibly fun so this year's group will have some big shoes to fill...

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Northernmost posting in Japan

And I'll bet you thought I was already in Northern Japan. Well, this weekend I went as far north as you can go without falling off. I found out a couple of friends from Muroran were going to be heading to Wakkanai, so I enticed them to stop here in Ramen town so I could join them on their way to *way* north.

Friday morning -- it was a holiday here --we set out north. We were lucky to have beautiful weather the whole way up. We stopped at a few interesting places along the way -- places I never would have stopped at if not for my lovely travelling companions. Note to self: travelling with someone who not only speaks, but reads Japanese is really frikking awesome. I miss literacy.

One of the places we stopped was where the name "Hokkaido" was first set down. Hokkaido was only recently settled by the Japanese. This guy -- Matsuura Takeshiro, came up to the island to chart it. Sadly, my grasp of Japanese history is pretty shaky. So read this paragraph from Wikipedia:

"Hokkaidō was known as Ezochi until the Meiji Restoration. Shortly after the Boshin War in 1868, a group of Tokugawa loyalists led by Enomoto Takeaki proclaimed the island's independence as the Republic of Ezo, but the rebellion was crushed in May 1869. Ezochi was subsequently put under control of the Colonization Office. When establishing the Colonization Office, the Meiji Government decided to change the name of Ezochi. Matsuura Takeshirō submitted 6 ideas, including names such as Kaihokudo (海北道) and Hokkaidō (北加伊道) to the government. The government eventually decided to use the name Hokkaidō, but decided to write it as 北海道, as a compromise between 海北道 and because of the similarity with names such as Tōkaidō (東海道). According to Matsuura, the name was thought up because the Ainu called the region "Kai." Historically, many peoples who had interactions with the ancestors of the Ainu called them and their islands Kuyi, Kuye, Qoy, or some similar name, which may have some connection to the early modern form Kai. The Kai element also strongly resembles the Sino-Japanese reading of the characters 蝦夷 (Sino-Japanese /ka-i/, Japanese kun /emisi/), which have been used for over a thousand years in China and Japan as the standard orthographic form to be used when referring to Ainu and related peoples; it is possible that Matsuura's Kai was actually an alteration, influenced by the Sino-Japanese reading of 蝦夷 Ka-i, of the Nivkh exonym for the Ainu, namely Qoy. In 1882, the Colonization Office was abolished, and Hokkaidō was separated into three prefectures, Hakodate, Sapporo, and Nemuro. In 1886, the three prefectures were abolished, and Hokkaidō was put under the Hokkaidō Agency. Hokkaidō became equal with other prefectures in 1947, when the revised Local Autonomy Law became effective."

Yup -- I'm too lazy to paraphrase all that. And it's about what the marker at the site said too.


Note: I'm working on this post at school, and it has aroused quite a bit of interest around the office. Just like everywhere else in the world, people don't usually know a lot about things "in their own backyard" and nobody had any idea this spot existed. However, this interest has also produced a stack of history books on my desk in Japanese that will take me days to figure out.

I still miss literacy. Grade 2 just isn't cutting it.


After somewhere in the vicinity of 5 hours in the car, we arrived in Wakkanai. The northernmost city in Japan. Our first stop was lunch/dinner. There's a little Italian diner near the station that serves massive cheeseburgers. Maybe because the last time I had a cheeseburger that wasn't McDonalds was a really long time ago, it was amazingly good. Mmmmm.... cheeseburgers...

Japan's northernmost train station

We also stopped at the northernmost train station in Japan. The guys at the gate were nice enough to let us go out on the platform to take some pictures.

We were all pretty wiped out from driving all day, so the evening was pretty quiet. We crashed with a friend living up there -- hooray for tatami surfing!

The next day it was out to Soya Misaki (Cape Soya), the northernmost point of Hokkaido. We had incredibly clear weather, and we could even see Russia! It was pretty cool. The weather isn't usually clear enough to be able to see it.
northern pose
With our goals accomplished (see Russia), we started making our way back. But not before stopping at the Northernmost Post office in Japan to send postcards.

That night I took my Muroran friends out to experience some Ramen town action. We hit up my favorite ramen shop, and of course my favorite bar. A nice way to end a trip up north, but I have to say I'm a little disappointed I didn't get to eat any of the seafood, particularly uni/sea urchin that the area is famous for.

Well, you never know. I may be back up in the way up north. There's still a couple of islands up there that are supposed to be amazing, and I'd really like to check them out.

Until then, from Wakkanai with love.