Thursday, June 28, 2007


It seems the end of the school term is the same the world over.

The last day of school before summer break may not be until the end of July, but that doesn't mean things haven't started to wind down here (and keep in mind there are still two more terms to go in the Japanese school year). Yesterday I was treated to movie day at the local elementary school along with all of the other children in town. And I mean ALL of them. Kindergartens and nursery schools included. It was amazing to see how well a group of about 250 children from ages 4 - 12 behaved.

The movie itself wasn't the greatest, but thanks to it's being a kiddie film and majestically overacted I could pretty much follow along. Much more fun than sitting in the teachers room (or the office for that matter -- the screening took place in the same building where the Board of Education is located).

The movie, 子ぎつねヘレ (ko gitsune Helen, aka Helen the baby fox), is about a solitary boy who lives in Hokkaido and finds a fox cub. Who happens to be deaf and blind. So he names it Helen (in honour of Helen Keller, a mainstay of English textbooks in Japan), and takes care of it. My favorite bits were the parts where they make middle-of-nowhere Hokkaido look vibrant and not like it's slowly being abandoned. Don't get me wrong -- there's lots of pretty bits here, most of them also happen to feature abandoned houses and crumbling infrastructure.

The ending is sad, and had all of the teachers around me crying. And most of the kids. Okay, and maybe me too. A little. It was the music I tell you!

It was my last class with the Grade 5's and 6's. The older kids all wrote me cards, played me a special song, and we played one last game of Bingo together. Awww.... The Grade 5 class gave me an elementary school send off, making an archway to crawl through like they do at elementary graduation. It's vaguely like being reborn, but that feeling probably had more to do with me being a big gaijin and they being small Japanese children.

Next week? Swimming lessons with Grades 3 and 4! Don't forget your swim cap and goggles!

Monday, June 25, 2007

さよならだけが人生だ * ・ the first of the last

The first in a long line of goodbyes came today. I'm still here another month and they've already started. Today's goodbye came at the high school. It doesn't really count though, seeing as I'll be back a few more times at least for conversation classes with the students who are heading off to Canada in the fall. And I haven't even given my official goodbye speech to the teachers. But it's started. I hate this part.
* sayonara dake ga jinsei da = life is only goodbye

Saturday, June 23, 2007

cooking with the obachans

Thursday night I was at a barbeque with some friends and got an invite from one of the local old ladies to come to a cooking class on Friday. Not being one to turn down free food, I went along.

Cooking with Japanese old ladies certainly is a different beast from cooking with other old ladies I know. I'm used to reading recipes from my grandmother's cookbooks where the instructions can literally be: Add flour until right. Bake.

These ladies are much more precise in their cooking. Especially when if comes to chopping vegetables. I got in trouble for cutting my carrots slightly longer than the prescribed 1.5 centimeters. They were a little too close to 2 centimeters. Seriously.

The other challenge came with the language. My cooking Japanese being pretty crap and little old ladies not being much for bilingualism. But we muddled along, mostly by them demonstrating and me following along. I felt better because there were some Junior High school students there as well who looked just as lost as I did.

Thankfully, my lack of skills didn't hurt the finished product. Delicious pork and beans, spinach and egg salad, and daikon rice. Yum, yum and yum.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

working from home

Thanks to my supremely cool office, I'm working from home today. Which means that I shouldn't really be updating my blog and adding pictures to my flickr, but that's way more fun than sorting through clothes/ papers/ books/ etc and packing. Besides, it's more work than I would be doing at the office anyways...

Since last weekend's birthday madness, things have slowed down a bit. I've been trying really hard to catch up on sleep, and there hasn't been much else. Last night I had a shodo class so I stayed up late (until 10!) clearing out my bedroom closet. Why is there so much crap in my apartment?

So that's what I'll be up to today. With a jaunt to the high school later for some English conversation and a barbecue this evening with some friends. I hope it doesn't rain -- I'm looking forward to eating outside.

ps --Thanks to everyone who called/ emailed/ sent presents. Especially the unexpected ones. Boo sucks to everyone that didn't. Yes, I'm very immature, and not old enough yet to start forgetting about my own birthday.

Monday, June 18, 2007

how old are you?

I heard that one a lot today at school, seeing as it's my birthday.
Happy Birthday to me!

Plans for the evening? Watching "The Wizard of Oz". Sleep. I used up all my exciting plans on the weekend. I had a party. Which was awesome by the way. If you weren't there, you're lame. Especially if you actually live in Hokkaido. You know who you are.

Delicious food was eaten, excessive alcohol was drunk, and costumes were worn. I sang isth my band, and everybody had cake. And then the next day I made delicious breakfast instead of going to the elementary school sports day.

And now I'm sleepy.

Friday, June 15, 2007

unscheduled fun

It's days like this that make me remember what I like about this job...

I only had one class scheduled for today seeing as there is only one grade in school today, so I was (not) looking forward to a slow day spent sitting at my desk. Class itself was fun -- this year's first grade class is a lot better now that they've had the shit scared out of them by the scary* Junior High teachers. They haven't once had a classroom brawl since they've been in Junior High.

The rest of the morning, the students had calligraphy class. I had my stuff (brushes, ink, etc.) with me so I sat in and learned me some calligraphy. It still cracks me up to hear people say that I'm just as good at writing as a Japanese person. One of the kids said he couldn't tell it wasn't done be a nihonjin. I decided to take it as a compliment, but it's kind of insulting. And I hear it more than I like to think about. A little sad... believe it or not, non-Japanese people can do Japanese things too!

Anyways. Class was fun, and way better than desk jockeying.

After lunch, I tagged along to go pick up one of the second grade students who was doing a job shadow with a group of young women from China who are here to learn agricultural techniques. I guess so he too can someday be a foreign agricultural student**.

What a genki group of girls! It was raining so they were stuck inside. When we got there, they were all playing cards. Then the teacher*** suggested I teach them some English. It was amazing. In a split-second, they had all run back to their rooms to get pens, pencils and notebooks so they could learn some English. If only all of my students were so keen to learn!

We practiced some easy stuff, which was kind of difficult. I didn't realize how much I rely on understanding Japanese to teach English here until I met these girls who only understood Chinese. We had a lot of fun (or at least I did) and I hope I can meet up with them again. They even taught me a little Chinese, which I am hopeless at. Wo jiao Maryna.

So yeah. Today, fun.

Tomorrow is my birthday party, which should also be fun. Sunday is the Elementary School Sports day, which will probably be fun too, if I'm not too tired and/or futsukayoi. Which I'm pretty sure I will be.

*They aren't really that scary. Except for their homeroom teacher. I'd hate to be yelled at by him... he's the baseball coach too. Even scarier.

** Which is only slightly less funny than my ALT friend who every year has a student who shadows him. The requirements of being a JET Programme ALT being that you are foreign and fluent in English, preferably as your first language. So basically, it would be impossible for any Japanese person to hold my friend's job. Seeing as they're Japanese.

*** This guy is awesome. He and his wife are my neighbors and they both rock. They travel, like new things and are just fun overall. This is the same teacher who invited me to eat lunch with his students who are going to Canada so they can practice their English. You'd think the English teacher would be doing things like that... and you'd be wrong.

Friday, June 08, 2007

pork sweat

The rest of the school spent the afternoon picking weeds from the garden at a local old folks' home. I spent it here in the office writing a welcome letter to my successor. And I only had to ineptly answer the phone once, to tell the caller that I couldn't understand what he was saying. To be fair, the receptionist later said that nobody can understand what that guy says.

Anyways, everyone else in the staff room was rewarded for their hard work in the hot sun with a tasty cold beverage. I was rewarded for my unwavering determination to sit at my desk with the same tasty cold beverage -- a Pocari Sweat.

Now, I've always thought that this was a pretty ridiclous name for a beverage - tasty, cold or otherwise. Keep in mind that this is an English name for a Japanese beverage. Which is supposed to make it sound cool and appealing. You would have thought that they'd look up the word sweat before naming a drink after it.

So one of the teachers is passing my desk, and noticing the drink next to my computer, blurts out "pork sweat". I'm glad I'm not the only one around here who thinks that naming your soft drink "sweat" is a poor choice. I'm extra glad that he pointed out that it could also be sweat of the porcine variety.

Happy weekend.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

reduce, reuse, recycle

Since it's my first weekend home in a long, long, long time I really have to do some spring cleaning. That, and it's recycling weekend. This will mark the very first time I have recycled anything in my town. When recycling day is only once a month on a Sunday morning, it doesn't make the priority list very often when I'm either out of town or just not functional enough to get it together to go to the recycling depot before 10am.

Two years of recycling isn't nearly as much as you think it would be. One of the super cool guys in my office drove over with his wife and baby daughter to take away all of my crap. There was too much for me to walk over, so he offered to drive it to the recycling station for me. So he showed up in his minicar, and we filled it with a two year accumulation of garbage. Plastic bottles, cans, magazines, cardboard... everything but glass bottles. Which inexplicably don't go to the recycling station, but into the empty bottle post. While I may have gotten rid of many bags of other recycling, I will still have to do something with three large garbage bags of glass bottles. Two years of wine consumption is a lot of wine bottles.
Today's other housekeeping goals include cleaning out my office room (formerly known as recycling and HAJET Publications purgatory) and the bathroom so I can reward myself at the end of the day with a nice hot bath, a glass of wine and only four more rooms to deal with tomorrow.

Friday, June 01, 2007

demonstration lesson

Instead of the standard boring textbook lesson we usually have, today we had a demonstration standard boring textbook lesson. It was a big change. If by big change you mean that other teachers were also watching.

This morning we had a little meeting about our planned lesson, which involved my team teaching partner explaining to me very slowly and carefully today's reading -- a beautiful monologue by Akiko Ono (better known as Aki), the hero of One World about the plight of Japanese cranes.

"These are Japanese cranes. Ainu people call them the gods of the wetlands.

Cranes used to live in many parts of Japan. However, people hunted them and little by little destroyed the wetlands. Because of that, the cranes almost disappeared.

Then in 1924, some Japanese cranes were found in the Kushiro wetlands. The discovery made people happy."

Her speech made me happy. As did my team teacher very slowly explaining to me what the reading was about, as though I were one of the students and not a native English speaker. With lots of pictures. I was asked to explain "almost" and "discovery".

Completely shockingly, the lesson was less than enthusiastically recieved. The students didn't care about Aki's moving speech, and weren't moved to start speaking English after reading her words in their textbooks. They refused to answer basic questions about the content and read in monotone voices when asked to recite Aki's powerful words for themselves. I think it was their form of protesting the destruction of the wetlands.

We racked our brains trying to understand why listening to Aki talks about cranes and wetlands for 25 minutes failed to spark enthusiasm in the students. Why they were not touched by such poetry. Why it seems that reciting textbooks for two years has not made them able to speak English. Whether we should focus more on pronounciation or intonation or stress. What techniques we can use to make recitation better for the students. It was a rousing discussion in Japanese, and so of course I was able to follow and contribute fully. All in all, I felt that our discussion will change the way we teach, and give the students more tools with which to speak, read, write and listen to English with confidence and skill.

Okay, so I had a crappy day at school, and needed a whinge. It seems to be happening more and more frequently, probably due to a combination of feeling underutilized at work, having a lot of time sitting around with nothing to do, and knowing that the next two months are something I just have to finish before I can go home.