Friday, December 31, 2010

The December Issue

Unfortunately, I didn't start any blogs in the middle of December and save it for later like I did the November ones. Except for this one, on December 31st, minutes before the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. So I'll use this space here to summarize my December activities.

December is a wonderful month; my favorite month of the year. In December are my favorite holiday, long breaks from school or work, a festive atmosphere, shopping sales at nearly every store, opportunities to spend time with friends and family, and my birthday. There are many reasons to love December. But also many reasons to dislike it: it's probably the most expensive month, it has the shortest day of the year (Winter Solstice), and it's when the cold really starts kicking in. But I like to think the good outweighs the bad, so I still like it. Maybe that's the optimist in me speaking.

Anyway, the month was really fun! For my birthday, some of my coworkers and I went out to Sendai to a really nice restaurant. We ate amazingly delicious food, and they surprised me with a cake! Everyone in the restaurant clapped for me; it was so nice. ^_^ I was surprised to see American-style sushi rolls there, as well. You know, the kind that has the rice outside the seaweed wrapper rather than inside. Because the rice is outside, the roll is usually larger, so you can fit more ingredients in it. Traditional Japanese sushi rolls usually only have one ingredient. The following week, another friend took me out to Sendai (near the nice restaurant) to a cozy American-style diner/deli. The specialty? Burgers. I happily feasted on a large burger and onion rings. And a milk shake. Rock on.

While in Sendai, I saw "光のページェント", or "Pageant of Light." A street in Sendai gets all of its trees completely lit up with white Christmas lights. Looks beautiful! I'll post a picture in an update.

The first snowfall occurred! Not too different from the US. But the scenery is different. Again, pictures later.

A friend and I stuffed ourselves at a kaitenzushi place. 13 plates each! That's 27 pieces (one tray had 3 rather than 2), and a bowl of soup! Insanity.

A co-worker invited me to his house to have lunch. I happily accepted of course! He is the youngest employee at the Junior High. The funny thing is that he had actually invited me over in November, but he never set a date, so I just let it slide until he brought it up again. Sometime earlier in December, he mentioned that his sister kept asking when I was going to come over; I had forgotten that one of my students was his sister. O.o Anyway, when I finally came over, his mother had prepared a wonderful lunch, with which I stuffed myself silly. We played some Mario on their Wii, then went outside to play catch. It had been years since I had last thrown a ball, but despite my lack of practice, it was still really fun. His sister had a wicked throw. (She's on the baseball team!) His other sister couldn't catch (or throw) very well, but it was still fun. Their family gave me quite a bit of food to take home; yummy, delicious, homemade Japanese food. I am drooling just thinking about it.

So in December, because it is the end of the year, there are many "End of the Year Parties," known as 忘年会 「ぼうねんかい」 "bounenkai." Literally, it means "forget year meeting." So I guess you're supposed to party all night and drink until you forget all the bad things that happened that year? Or maybe it's a party so you don't forget? Anyway, every school and every organization and every company seems to hold one. Being involved with so many groups here, I was of course invited to a bunch, but unfortunately due to lack of funds, I could only attend...four, or so.

The first was a very small, private party, with the same people who threw me a birthday party, plus one more person. It was mad fun, and we held it at a restaurant in Sendai that Shoe and I have grown to love (and frequent recently). The next one was held by an international organization in a neighboring town, where I met new friends and ate yummy home-made food. There was so much there that I took food home to last me a couple days!

The biggest 忘年会 that I went to was held by the junior high school. We went to Naruko Onsen, which is a city in the north famous for its hot springs! Naturally, we stayed overnight to eat, drink, and bath in the hot springs. And let me tell you, that water is damn hot. For some reason, even though I was born in the tropics, my body has a tendency to be able to handle colder temperatures much better than hotter temperatures. In any case, I still took a dip, in both the inside bath and the outside bath. The outside bath was amaaaaaaaaazing. Unfortunately, it was so windy, that the steam that rose from the hot bath was quickly blown away. But for the moments that it lingered, it had a wonderful atmosphere. Minus the sulfuric smell of the natural hot spring. And the naked old men.

After the 忘年会 were all over, my vacation started! Winter break was a BLAST. My girlfriend came up from Kyoto to visit me, and seeing her always makes me happy. We did some shopping in Sendai, where she got a vest, and where I had purchased a vest just a couple weeks earlier. We also checked out Sendai's 光のページェント, this time, walking down the entire street rather than driving through it.

Christmas was a good time. My girlfriend got me a much-needed soft, beautiful scarf, and I got her many socks and stockings. And an iPod case. And Utada Hikaru's new album. And a cute leather papillon keychain. And something else, I think, but I can't recall it at the moment. Oh, right, a Christmas Cake for us to share. This brings me to a side note.

For some reason, Christmas is really improperly/incorrectly represented in Japan; it's extremely misunderstood. I thought it was bad enough in the US, but I've grown to accept its commercialization, mainly because I enjoy the atmosphere, the "Santa side," and because I'm not religious. But Japan. Oh, Japan. According to my friend Ken, Christmas in Japan is about love. But not the way it is in the US, where it's about the love shared between families and friends; no, here in Japan, it's about the love between couples, not unlike Valentine's Day. And on Christmas in Japan, the dinner usually includes a big chicken dinner from KFC (lol) and a Christmas Cake. Now conveniently, this way of celebration worked out for my girlfriend and me, where none of our family members are in Japan, so it was best to spend it with one another. But rather than grab KFC, my girlfriend wanted to cook dinner for me.

And boy did she prepare a feast! It included home-made karaage chicken, her specialty home-made macaroni and cheese, and fresh broccoli and asparagus. My contribution was a tray of appetizers, the cake, and a bottle of chardonnay. I have to emphasize "home-made" with my girlfriend's dishes, because it was a much larger endeavor than the easy Kraft Mac 'n Cheese or preparing fried chicken.

Later that evening, we watched Elf. Good times. Later than week, we watched that wretched Tekken movie. And I thought Dragonball: Evolution was bad. Well, okay, both movies are just as bad as the other. Any of the Street Fighter movies can be thrown in with that pile of worthless crap. So, to get enjoyment from the movie? My girlfriend and I turned it into a drinking game: take a drink whenever something non-canonical or nonsensical comes up. I was actually starting to run out of drink, so we had to slow it down (haha).

My friend Nana-chan came to visit before the end of the year. So the three of us had lots of fun, spending time with my friend Shoe or Ken, going to various places to shop, watching tons of movies, going out to karaoke, and even taking a dip in the local onsen for the first time! On New Year's Eve, we went to Shiogama Shrine, which sits at the top of a 220-step staircase, and with hundreds (thousands?) of Japanese people, we participated in the annual bowing and prayers during this time. I was happy to do so. I also bought a couple charms; one for health, and one that was in the shape of a giant arrow. I didn't know charms could be so bad-ass.

December 31: I am at Shiogama Shrine to check out how the New Year celebration is done in Japan!

Phrase of the day: 良いお年を! 「よいおとしを!」 "Yoi otoshi wo!" It's a phrase said at the end of the year, which literally means, "(Have) a good year!"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving

Oh, Thanksgiving. So, poor planning resulted in a small two-person fun-fest what was supposed to be a 4-5 person pot luck. To be honest, it was probably better off as a two-person fun-fest; mainly because the two of us couldn't cook very well. Nor did we have anything prepared 'til late at night, so if there were any other guests present, they'd probably be pretty pissed off.

So, my buddy John invited me and a few other ALTs to his place the weekend after Thanksgiving for some festivities. He ordered a hefty amount of turkey meat that we would cook (bake?) and we had planned to hit up the supermarket for ingredients for other Thanksgiving dishes: mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, corn-on-the-cob. The image in our minds was a grand feast.

Instead, we got a grand laugh.

First off, the turkey meat we had, while very little compared to a normal turkey, was still pretty damn huge for the two of us. He ordered enough meat for 5 people; heavy helpings each (so more like 8-10 people). So with just the two of us, we decided to use a little less than half of the meat. Well, with a big hunk of meat and no oven, how were we supposed to cook it? Oh, right, with the microwave.

So, the fascinating thing about Japanese microwaves is that they are part microwave and part oven. I don't really know how the oven part works; maybe just like any other oven? I imagine the microwave parts would get destroyed with that sort of heat. But apparently not, 'cause that's what it was designed to do. So yeah, we used the microwave as an oven. Neither of us really knew what we were doing, so we used our best judgment and thought things out. The turkey turned out well cooked; not burned, but a bit dry. But at least it wasn't raw. Objective completed!

At the supermarket, it was surprisingly difficult to find certain ingredients. Like corn. Eventually we found it...frozen... and not on the cob. John was disappointed. He was looking forward to it quite a bit. We bought the frozen corn anyway, but didn't end up eating it 'cause we were stuffed from the other dishes.

John made the mashed potatoes and I made the stuffing. And DAMN was it good! We didn't have any stock for the stuffing, so John suggested using the soup from a can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. What a wonderful suggestion, 'cause it tasted damn awesome. I just wish I cut the bread cubes and celery bits a little smaller. The mashed potatoes turned out pretty well, too! But what didn't was the gravy.

We had never made gravy ourselves before, so we scoured the internet for some recipes. The main idea was to use the turkey runoff as the base for the gravy, add some salt and spices to flavor it, and add flour to thicken it up. Weeelllll, we added too much flour, so it basically tasted like uncooked pancake batter. So, after using some of the gravy for the turkey, we cooked the batter and made a "gravy pancake."

We also decided to make Yaki-Campbells. It's like Yakisoba, but instead of frying soba noodles, we fried the remaining contents of the can of chicken noodle soup. Nice. What a feast.

Word of the day: 感謝祭 「かんしゃさい」 "kanshasai," which means "Thanksgiving (Day)."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fall Leaves

The leaves in autumn
Fall ever so gracefully.
A beautiful sight.

秋の葉は
淑やか落ちて
美しい。

So, the leaves have been gradually changing over the past month. It starts in northern Japan, and sweeps the country towards the south, like a shock wave. This means that the leaves changed color up here before Kyoto. That also means that I had the opportunity to see beautiful mountainside views of the leaves up here, then to travel down to Kyoto and see them again! So I did. I took so many pictures! I will post some up here for you all to enjoy. Actually, I went to three different sites. The first was after the Fall Festival, a few weeks ago. Then after that, (a week or two later), I went to Naruko with Shoe to check out the leaves there. Gorgeous. Then this past weekend, I went to Kyoto again! My girlfriend and I visited Arashi Yama (literally, "Storm Mountain") and saw the beautiful leaves, next to the beautiful river, with beautiful geisha tending to their clients. It was quite a beautiful weekend.

My girlfriend and I were both recovering from a cough/cold, so we couldn't do too much, but we still explored and did everything we could. Some fun activities include:

1) Going to a ninja themed restaurant!
2) Participating in tea ceremony!
3) Eating awesome delicious huge fresh sushi with an old college buddy!
4) Winning Evangelion figurines from an impossibly difficult UFO catcher with said buddy! (Actually he did all the work, haha.)
5) Watching a master flower arranger arrange flowers!
6) Watching a kyougen play! (old-style comedy play)
7) Watching a dance performed by two beautiful geiko!
8) Watching a bunraku (puppet) performance!

It was definitely my most event-filled trip to Kyoto thus far. I will try to post pictures...somehow. Can't do it right now, 'cause this computer I'm using at work is just too old for that!

Word of the day: 美しい 「うつくしい」 "utsukushii," which means "beautiful."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ninja Post

I have lots of news! Well, not lots, actually. Just a little. And as per usual, I shall write things in reverse chronological order. And in a numbered outline format. 'Cause it's annoying. :-)

1) I got my reappointment contract today. It's due on February 4th, but my supervisor (Supes) asked that I decide by January 20th. Way to make a difficult decision even more difficult. >_<

2) I am in the Osaki City newspaper! Osaki is the large city north of me; it's not actually a "city" per se; more like a district or county. 'Cause there are many towns and an actual city in Osaki. But yeah, a photographer came one day after I was teaching the Kindergarten class, and the other teachers told me to join in the picture! So I did! I'll try to take a picture of it and post it up, if I can.

3) It is cold. Like, really cold. It was 3°C this morning. BRRRRR!!! It sucks. I miss insulation badly. My heaters heat really well, and I thought I got used to the smell, but I was wrong. Well, I should put it this way; when the heaters are running, it smells fine. But when the heaters are either starting or stopping, they ventilate themselves, so the fumes get all spread out. It's especially annoying when I turn off my bedroom heater before I go to sleep.

4) There are a bunch of games that have been released (or are coming out soon) that I really want to buy. But they're hard to get, 'cause I have to import them from the US. But that means I have to buy a PS3. And that also means I have to connect it to my SDTV. Which finally means I have to find the time to play it.

5) I have a hard enough time finding the motivation to study, let alone properly manage my schedule. Well, I've been keeping up with all of my normal responsibilities; just not studying Japanese. Maybe it's because of how the text book is set up? You know: really annoyingly.

6) So, my car broke down the other day. Well, not exactly. But over the past two or three weeks, it had been giving me a slight bit of trouble. It wouldn't start right away; I would turn the key, and the engine would chug a couple times before it started. It was a sign that I needed a new battery. So I asked my friends about it that weekend; how to go about getting a new battery, and possibly an oil change. I had a feeling the oil needed to be changed. Well, one day, I was driving towards a convenience store about 3 kilometers south. When I got to about 2.5, I noticed the car started acting funny; something felt weird. Well, when I pulled into the parking lot, the car was slowly choking, and finally it just DIED, two feet before I was completely in the spot. So, I put it in park, pulled the handbrake, and stepped outside. I had a feeling something was wrong with the oil. I don't know how I knew this, but I knew I had to check it. So I went inside, bought a towel to use as a rag, some work gloves, and some food (which was my original intent). I went back outside to my car, popped the hood, and began the procedures. When I checked the dipstick for the oil level, my heart dropped. There was barely enough oil to touch the dip stick, let alone the minimum level that should be in the car. So, I had to fill it up. Thankfully, my predecessor left a container of engine oil in the trunk, in case something like this should happen (Thank you!); I guess it was foreseen? Or it happened before? Anyway, I was trying to open the container. For about five minutes. No matter how I turned the cap, it wouldn't open. Finally, I mustered up the courage to ask a passersby. The guy was like, "Here, do this," and he touched the cap. With a *pop!* it magically opened. Feeling like an idiot, I thanked him and took it back. I emptied the container, and filled the oil up so that it was right in the middle of the appropriate level according to the dipstick. It really must have been foreseen. So, after letting the car run for a few minutes, the engine sounded normal again, and I drove safely home.

7) One day, I couldn't even start my car. "Dammit! Effin' battery!" I shouted. I stepped out of the car, bowed to a neighbor as he was throwing out the trash, and said, "My car won't..." I couldn't think of how to say it, so I went Filipino-style, "My car won't open." He asked, "Is it locked? Did you use your key?" And I was showing him that it wouldn't start. I demonstrated. We agreed that it was the battery. So, he waved to a guy in a truck that was driving by. They looked like old friends; the first guy told the truck guy what the problem was, so the truck guy drove off to find the jumper cables. Eventually, he came back, and my neighbor helped me get my car started. Having arrived at work a couple minutes late (I called as soon as I couldn't start my car), I explained the situation, and one of my JTE's called his mechanic to come in and change out the battery. That day. In the school parking lot. What nice guys! And what great service!

8) Kyoto soon. :-)

Word of the day: 面倒くさい 「めんどうくさい」 "mendou-kusai," which means "troublesome" or "annoying." I added the hyphen because it is actually a root word, mendou, which itself means "an annoyance" or "a troublesome (thing)," and "kusai," which means "reeks of". "Kusai" can be used to say, "smelly" or "stinky." Like, "Gross, man, that stinks! くさい!"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Remember, Remember

So, it's November. I won't be the guy who posts the Guy Fawkes Night rhyme here because he thinks it's cool just 'cause he saw it in V for Vendetta. No. Not me. Instead, I'll link it here. And for the sake of battling ignorance, I want to point out that it is a national holiday in Great Britain because Guy Fawkes (and his crew) FAILED. Just keep that in mind next time you're cosplaying as V. :-)

So, speaking of cosplaying, I wish I had some sort of costume for Halloween. I mean, I dressed up as this on Halloween night, but I couldn't go trick-or-treating with it, haha.


The night before, I was invited to a dinner/drinking party (nomihodai) with a friend I met through JET and her friends who live in Sendai. It was nice meeting and greeting a new crew, but I felt completely underdressed. She failed to tell me that it was a costume party until I was on the bus! Oh well. I had my new hat on me, so I just said I was Michael Jackson. If I had a vest, I could have gone as Daichi Miura! Oh well...


Speaking of which, I'm trying to learn this song and the corresponding dance for the next time I do karaoke. It's called "The Answer."



And speaking of dancing, a new gaming peripheral for the Xbox 360 was released called the Kinect. It's a pretty remarkable piece of hardware. It's basically a camera with three separate lenses (or rather, three separate cameras), with the technology to track your every movement and apply them to the game. So essentially, the Kinect takes the best parts of the Nintendo Wii controller and the Sony Playstation Eye and puts them together. No need to hold anything (like the Wiimote) because it uses a camera (like the Eye), but the player's movements and actions control the game like a normal hand-held controller. For example, if you're playing a tennis game, just swing your arm as if you were holding a tennis racket, and the game will register the swing. Badabing, no more need for a controller! Now clearly, this sort of setup only allows for very specific types of games, but the possibilities are nigh endless. Just no fighting games...or RPGs... But yeah, check out this sweet dance video, courtesy of Justin from The Rumble Pack!



So these past two weeks have been pretty standard fare. The usual schedule; nothing really crazy. A lady from the Community Center came to me today to discuss a little of the eikaiwa; but it hasn't been decided yet when it's actually going to start. She just mentioned some things like holiday activities.

Oh, another thing I wanted to mention was that today was the last day of Judo for my students. I was sad to hear that because I wanted to join my 3rd Year Homeroom 1 class for one of their classes. I had actually helped a couple times before by showing them how to roll properly. Well, the 3-1 class had their final Judo practice last Friday. So I was invited to the final Judo class for the whole school. It was today, with the 3rd Year Homeroom 2 class. Ohhh boy was that fun!

I had matches with three students, two of whom are taller than me, and the other is my height. One of the kids is actually the tallest person in the school; probably the entire town! So, I used his height to my advantage and did my favorite throw: morote seoinage, which is an over-the-shoulder throw. That technique won me the match. Against the first kid, I used an ogoshi, in which I throw the opponent over my hip by grabbing his neck with my arm and pulling him over. Against the third kid, the one who was my height (maybe shorter), I did a similar throw, but instead of having my arm around his neck, it was around his back (under his arm, rather than over it). Again, it won me the match. What was amusing was watching them struggle trying to throw me for the first 60 seconds. I let them waste energy. :-) The only problem with all of this is that afterward, my lower back was sore from all of the twisting and using muscles that haven't been used in so long!

Lastly, I'll mention that my next post will be about the Aki Matsuri this past Sunday and the subsequent scenery-viewing. I'll post some nice pictures. ^_^

Anyway, time to hit the sack.

Word of the day: 踊る 「おどる」 "odoru," which means "to dance." Well, it means "I/he/she/you/it/they dance(s)". 踊り 「おどり」 "odori" is "a dance."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

COLD

WHY IS IT SO COLD HERE!??!

So, two days ago, a massive cold overtook Japan from north to south. It snowed in Hokkaido! It even snowed on a mountain nearby! And it's even cold in Kyoto! :-(

Speaking of Kyoto...so, I was there last weekend! It was fun to visit my girlfriend. On Friday, we saw the Jidai Matsuri, which was surprisingly short. It was just a parade of people in various attire from the olden days to pre-modern days. Later that evening, my girlfriend and I went to Gion, where the Geisha roam the streets. We saw one, actually! She was a Maiko, an apprentice geisha.

Finally, that night, my girlfriend had a small pot luck dinner, where she invited three of her Japanese friends over, and the four of them each had some sort of dish to share. My girl made her awesomely cheesey mac-and-cheese. There was also chirashi-zushi, hot cakes, and Ritz crackers. *nice* We also watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame; fun times.

On Saturday, I got to eat ramen at what as become my favorite ramen shop. SOOOOO GOOOOOOD. Then later that evening, we hit up Fushimi Inari, which is the famous shrine with hundreds of torii gates along the trails that lead up the mountain. My girlfriend and I walked the ENTIRE LENGTH of the trail! It took THREE HOURS. And it was COLD. And DARK. It was really, really creepy and surprisingly scary at some points. Plus, there are families that live up there, who tend to the various shrines. So sometimes we could hear them make sounds, which, in the dead of night, is damn frightening. Anyway, the whole trip with breathtaking. It was amazing. And near the top, there was a beautiful view of western Kyoto.

So yeah, Kyoto was awesome. And the cold is not.

Yesterday, Shoe came over and taught me how to use the kerosene heater. We cleaned them up (I have two) and turned them on. It is surprisingly efficient. It heats up instantly, heats the room up quickly, and is relatively inexpensive compared to the electric heaters. But the problems are that the kerosene smell is awful and the room must be ventilated every hour to insure that the toxic fumes (carbon monoxide) don't kill me. But in ventilating the room, the heat escapes. To deal with this problem, I was told that if you just keep the window a little open, the room is both ventilated and keeps the heat from escaping too quickly. Nice. But man...the smell sucks. And so does the cold.

Word of the day: 灯油 「とうゆ」 "touyu," or "kerosene."

Monday, October 18, 2010

So busy!

Wow, I've been so busy these past couple weeks! My time at the Junior High has been spent helping my students prepare for the Culture Festival that happened this past weekend. It was basically a collection of performances by the students; mostly musical. Some danced, some played an instrument, all of them sang; it was a good time. I was the camera man. At one point, I was recording video using both the school's digital camcorder and my own iPhone. Hah! Hilarious. And kinda difficult.

And this week, both of my elementary schools are throwing a show with singing, dancing, and acting performances, too! I saw the dress rehearsal today; I was impressed by their ability to remember all of those lines! Especially the ones who were doing rapid-fire paragraph-long speeches as comic relief. They were also wearing various types of clothes, from school uniforms to kimono, to farmers' clothing. It was very interesting. Oh, and the fifth graders did a taiko drum performance followed by yosakoi dancing. Rock on!

Ah, Yosakoi. So, there was a yosakoi festival last week in Sendai. It was splendid. I will post a video here so you know what yosakoi is; or better yet, just do a search on google and youtube so you can read info and watch some dances. It's awesome.

This week, I just got my JET Programme Japanese Language Course Textbook and Workbook. Being placed into the advanced level, I have been given text books whose lessons are in Japanese. This will provide good reading practice and introductions to a wealth of new vocabulary. What sucks is that the first few lessons will be super tough, 'cause I'll have to stop every 30 seconds to look up a word I don't know that's in the lesson. >.< The workbook I was given has 504 kanji; most of which I've never learned before, or even seen. This is gonna be a challenge! I need to figure out how to pace myself for this. Let's break it down.

The course is split up into six textbooks, each distributed one month apart, from October 18 to March 17. We are given about a month and a half to complete each book, take a 50-question multiple choice test, and mail the test to the language center. The lessons in the book are designed to be completed on a daily basis over a span of four weeks; each lesson is four pages long, and there are five lessons per week, for a total of 20 lessons per book. So, it's already established that I'll be doing 4 pages of lessons per day. But what's unclear is the kanji workbook.

The kanji workbook was designed for self-study, and it is not included in the test. There are 504 kanji that the book gives. So if I split it up as evenly as possible, that means 84 kanji per month, or 21 kanji per week. Which means 4-5 kanji per lesson. That's not bad. I think.

The thing is, this is the breakdown for the kanji if I want to study them in the traditional fashion. But I've observed that it's much easier to forget kanji when it's learned in this way, and Heisig's method seems to actually work; it works in both remembering the meaning and how to write the kanji. So, I think I'll supplement my JET kanji studies with lessons from Heisig. This ends up doubling the amount of kanji I learn per day, and I'll go through 1000 by next April. But actually...I had this crazy idea in my head that I could get through all 1945 joyo kanji by this time, next year. Which, I guess is possible, if I maintain that pace of 42 kanji/week. Damn, that's 8-9 kanji a day. Back in college, we had 13 kanji a week, or so. Then again, I usually didn't study until the night before for an hour, and I managed to remember them. Alright, it's doable. I just have to bust my ass. :-)

Let me end this post by circling back to the topic I opened with: festivals. There is a massive Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto this weekend. Actually, it's this Friday. And I REALLY WANT TO SEE IT. So that means I'll be calling off work for the first time this week. Neat. I'm also excited to see my girlfriend. She's planning a little get-together/movie night with some friends, so I'll get to meet them and watch a good ol' Disney movie. We'll also check out another temple this weekend. It'll be great!

Side note: please read the comments of my previous post to find out what I learned about the milk here in Japan!

Word of the Day: 忙しい 「いそがしい」 "isogashii," which means "busy."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October already?

I can't believe I've already been living in Japan for over two months! It really doesn't feel like that. It feels more like...a couple weeks. I was expecting that my language ability would be spectacular by now. But really, it still feels like it's plateaued, though I know that I've gained a few things, like new vocabulary, a bit of new grammar, some local dialect, and new kanji. So I guess I have improved a bit. But I suppose I'm just frustrated about not being able to understand everything that people are saying around me, or even directly to me.


Today, one of the teachers was asking the other teachers what he should do or where he should go for this three-day weekend. After some discussion, he was excited to have decided to go to Tokyo Tower. But besides those main parts, I couldn't understand what they were talking about. And just a few minutes ago, I got back from the convenience store, having purchased some food. When I was buying the siopao (a Chinese pork bun; I forget what they call them here), the clerk was asking me something. I had no idea what she said. The only thing I caught was the "-masu ka" at the end of the sentence, indicating that it was a question. So I quickly explained that "I had just moved to Japan (so my language skills suck)...", so she said "ah" and pulled out a plastic bag. I didn't even hear the word for bag (fukuro)! Maybe she was asking something along the lines of, "For here or to go?"

Then there's my students...I don't understand half of what they say. Especially the little ones, 'cause they mumble or they're so quiet or they're asking me something using little-kid vocabulary. Don't talk about bugs, ask me something about the embassy or the library! Speaking of students, I keep forgetting that one of my junior high kids (3rd year, so, equivalent to a 9th grader in the US) lived in the US for five years! The reason I keep forgetting is because whenever I see her, she rarely ever speaks English to me. Even when I grade her homework, she is always one of the top students, but not significantly better or more creative than the others.


Change of topic; I've discovered something that's baffling, amazing, and after further thought, a little troubling: I can drink the milk here. For those who don't know, I suffer from adult-type hypolactasia, also known as lactase non-persistence. Or, in layman's terms, lactose intolerance. Because I am lactose intolerant, I cannot drink a normal glass of milk without having intestinal discomfort. I won't go into detail, but lactose intolerance SUCKS. Especially because I love milk and dairy products: ice cream, cream sauces, cheese, milk-based drinks (including my awesome White Filipino). It's not very severe, so I can actually enjoy the foods without too much of an issue, but it's when I drink a glass of milk that I really feel the effects of lactose intolerance. So, to get around this problem, I take lactase enzyme supplements when I eat or drink dairy products. They work fantastically well.


At school, in both the JHS and ES, milk is provided as the drink that accompanies the school lunch. I made sure to pack a two-month supply of lactase enzymes in my suitcase before I moved to Japan. Welllll, it's been two months, and my supply is incredibly low. So I searched online if it was possible to buy lactase enzymes (or Lactaid brand milk) in Japan; and I even looked at various stores, including a large pharmacy (like a big CVS or Rite Aid), but it was a no go. One of the things I found online, though, was that someone had mentioned that a friend of theirs who was lactose intolerant didn't have problems in Japan. I pondered this. And I needed a solution to my problem of running out of lactase enzymes. I wanted to test it. So, I did.


I drank a tall glass of milk, into which I added this coffee mix (turning it into "coffee milk," a delicious drink you can find at any convenience store or supermarket). After having finished it, I didn't feel a thing! Normally, I would feel the effects within 15 minutes of drinking it; sometimes even before I finished the drink. But no, nothing. So, I tested it again the next day, and drank another coffee milk drink from a carton. Again, no issues. Hmm... Okay, the best way to test it is to use the real, pure, genuine milk that we get at school. During my first week of eating school lunch, I actually had to run to the bathroom after having drank the milk, even though I took a lactase enzyme tablet. The stuff was so thick that I could swear it's cream. (Japan loves its whole milk.) So, the day of reckoning came.


Two days ago, I drank the carton of milk at the ES. I accidentally left my lactase in my bag downstairs, too, so I had to drink it straight. I was a little nervous, because I had to teach classes in the afternoon. I didn't want to feel discomfort or have to run to the bathroom during class. Well, thankfully, the test provided good results! Again, I didn't experience any problems! I was happily surprised (or rather, relieved for the lack of "surprise"). I tested it again today, at the JHS. Again, good news.

So what's the deal? Why am I lactose intolerant in the US, but seemingly, not in Japan? What's the difference between the milk in the US versus the milk in Japan? Is it 'cause it's so damn creamy? No, that can't be it... Oh, I know.

The milk in the US is pasteurized.

What does this have to do with anything? And how can stopping a drink from being made safer possibly improve its drinkability? Well, I heard from my Canadian and American friends this past weekend that the milk here in Japan is not pasteurized. Having heard this, I was a little troubled. I know of a man in Pittsburgh who was hospitalized because his family drank a batch of bad unpasteurized milk. Not that it had "gone bad," but rather, it still contained microbes which were responsible for making his entire family get sick. So, I am well aware of the dangers of unpasteurized milk. For those who don't know, the process involves heating the milk to a certain temperature to kill all of the bacteria and other microbes that might be inside. Well, if milk is left unpasteurized, placed into a milk carton, and is consumed by someone, then that person is also drinking whatever microbes may still be present in the milk.


Now, keep in mind that not all microbes are bad. We use bacteria to make many products, including yogurt. So I speculated that perhaps the milk here in Japan contains a certain microbe that metabolizes the lactase sugar in the milk and produces very little or no bad waste products that would make us experience discomfort. If it metabolizes the lactase, then the bacteria in our intestines can't use the lactase. Normally, if the bacteria in our intestines eats lactose, the process of metabolizing it produces waste products that lead to the symptoms of lactose intolerance. But lactic acid bacteria will turn the lactose into fatty acids and other useful things without creating any troublesome products. So yeah...I'm thinking that perhaps because the milk in Japan is not pasteurized (so I've been told), then maybe it contains the wonderful lactic acid bacteria that allows me to drink milk without any gastrointestinal problems! Yay!

Now, this is all just speculation, and the only proof I have to back this up are my own experiences. There is no true scientific evidence. And I still believe that the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk outweighs the satisfaction, and if I had a choice, I would rather drink pasteurized milk with a tablet of lactase enzymes.

Speaking of scientific evidence (and such), I want to wish Richard Heck, Eiichi Negishi, and Akira Suzuki a huge congratulations for winning the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry today! Dr. Heck lives in the Philippines (Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Delaware), and the two other winners are Japanese; one is from Purdue University and the other is from Hokkaido University.

Word of the day: 牛乳 「ぎゅうにゅう」 "gyuunyuu," or "milk." Literally, "cow milk."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lesson Planning and Teaching

Well, 'tis been a while since we last chatted! Or rather, since I wasn't too lazy to write a new post. Also, it's October! I've lived here for two months already! I can't believe it! A few things that have happened recently are that I bought a track suit, and I wore it for the first time two days ago when I went jogging. Well, I also wore it over the weekend to sleep in (just the pants). Today I am wearing them again because the kids at the nursery school are "training" for their field day this weekend. I will also teach in these clothes at the other elementary school today.

This may sound strange to you. You know, wearing a track suit at school. In the US, we would only see gym teachers and the like wearing track suits. Everyone else was usually in business casual or business formal. But in Japan...ho ho...no, that isn't the case. Nearly everyone at the elementary schools wear track suits (even one of the school advisers who sits next to the vice principal!) and even at the junior high, the teachers change into their track suits as soon as they get there in the morning, or some time around lunch. I found it interesting. And kind of strange. Strange, because the vice principal at the elementary school allows us to wear track suits, but he doesn't allow us to wear jeans. What's the deal with that? Some dressed up in dark-wash jeans with a polo shirt and a blazer looks far more "proper" than someone in a track suit. Blows my mind. And thinking about it kinda pisses me off, 'cause I really want to wear the above-mentioned outfit at school, haha.

Anyway, I got a request and dedication. The request was to make this blog post about teaching. So like, lesson planning, teaching methods, and what I actually DO at school. Aaaaaaand, this post is dedicated to all of the people teaching English, from American English teachers teaching English in the US, to English teachers teaching English as a foreign/second language in non-English-speaking nations.

So what do I do as an ALT? Well, one must first consider my title as an ALT: Assistant Language Teacher. I am an assistant. Therefore, the bulk of the work is (supposed to be) done by the JTE, or Japanese Teacher of English. A concept known as "Team Teaching" is emphasized at my schools. In Team Teaching, the JTE, ALT, and home room teacher all work together to teach the students the lesson. But depending on the school, the roles of everyone may differ drastically. The difference may occur at different school systems, or even within the same school district.

For example, a friend of mine who is also a fellow ALT is responsible for creating the lesson plan and presenting it at one of his many elementary schools. But at another one of his schools, the homeroom teacher barely uses him; the teacher even plays a CD (with recorded voices/readings) while the ALT is there! I have observed that there is a JTE at the junior high and high schools, but not necessarily at the elementary schools.

So, what's my case like? Well, I teach at four locations currently; soon to be five. My base school is a junior high (which I'll refer to as JHS), where I teach three days a week. On my other two days, I visit two elementary schools (which I'll call ES1 and ES2) and a nursery school (NS) every other week. I was told two months ago that I'll be holding weekly (or biweekly?) eikaiwa "English conversation classes" in October. Not sure when that starts, to be honest.

So, at the JHS, there are three grade levels, 1, 2, and 3. These grade levels are equivalent to 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in the US, respectively. At the ES's, it is K-6, like the US. There are two JTE's at my JHS; one for 1st and 3rd grade, and one for 2nd grade. Though sometimes, all three of us will Team Teach together; actually, this only happened once, so I'm not sure when it will happen again (it was on a Monday, and nearly all of the Monday schedules have been messed up over the past two months due to holidays or special weekend events that cause Monday classes to be canceled). Because Mondays are messed up, I have only had the opportunity to work with the 2nd grade JTE a few times. That said, I can't really describe how he uses me in class...besides this: he hasn't discussed with me any real lesson plans. Every time I was in class with him thus far, we had a simple activity were I wasn't really needed. Like...making name cards with an English introduction. Or...playing computer games/typing games with the special needs kids. Or...watching a DVD with them. Anyway, I digress.

I work pretty closely with the other JHS JTE. He has me produce the "Mr. Harold version" of text book conversations/paragraphs for both the 1st years and 3rd years. Then he passes them out in class and has them translate my English sentences into Japanese! It's great practice. Oftentimes, I'll use interesting or difficult vocabulary that forces them to look up the words. He believes that because I wrote the sentences, the students will be more motivated to translate it to see what I wrote. Oh, and he also makes them write their own versions in English for homework, which I review and grade. It's actually kind of fun to see what they write. The first years have a tendency towritelikethis,forgettingtoleaveaspace or sometimes putting s p a c e s i n t o o m a n y p l a c e s. It makes it really difficult to read. Then there are the misspellings and confusions of one letter for another. Like r and n. One of my kids wrote "hambungen." Anyway, so I make new stuff like that every week. And we follow the "New Horizon" series of English text books pretty closely, with two new pages a week. It sounds slow, but the books are only a few lessons each, so the timing is actually decent. Plus, more time allows them to grasp the new material better. Theoretically.

Now the ES's. My situation with the ES's is very, very different from most ALTs'. And I am very grateful, 'cause it saves me TONS of time, though the lessons themselves are kind of silly. So at ES1, there is a JTE (again, there is not always a JTE at a Japanese ES), an ATE (Assistant Teacher of English) and an ALT (me). The three of us work together with the home room teacher to teach the lesson plan which was prepared by the JTE. The lessons are based on a ridiculous/hilarious series called "Eigo Noto" 「英語ノート」. (Noto, or nooto, is actually short for notebook.) Please watch this awesome video to see how hilarious it is:



So anyway, back to what I do. Basically, the JTE, ATE, and I take turns at going over various parts of the lesson plan. A note about the ATE: this position is extremely uncommon in schools, I think. Especially for someone like him; he lived in the US for 10 years, so he is pretty fluent.

At the beginning of each ES lesson, we do the usual introduction of "Hello/Good morning/Good afternoon" and asking the day, date, weather, and year. Then the ATE and I start the lesson by having a short dialogue and asking the students what we were talking about. Then we proceed with the lesson using their text books, large picture cards, and the Eigo Noto interactive computer program on a touch-screen television. Usually, I say the new vocabulary words and have the students repeat what I say. Sometimes we play games, but most of the time, we're following whatever is up next in the Eigo Noto lesson plans.

One thing that I don't think is helpful about Eigo Noto are the "chants." For some reason, there are weird chants/mini songs from the lessons. If you watch the video above, you'll hear a chant with, "What's this? What's this? It's a pen, it's a pen, it's a pen," and the students have to repeat it or sing along.

At ES2, the ATE and I teach the lesson with the homeroom teacher (the JTE stays at ES1). At the Nursery school, I basically just sing songs and play games with the kids (who are adorable, by the way). And at the eikaiwa that starts this month, I will prepare everything; lessons and activities. I'm a little nervous about it, because working with adults is faaaaaaaaaaar different from working with kids. I was a "Talk Time" leader back at college, which is similar to an eikaiwa, but I believe my students back then were a bit more seasoned with English than whoever might show up this time around. I also heard that the eikaiwa isn't a very popular activity for the townspeople; it's offered at the town center, though, so hopefully more people will find out about it and be interested. I'm also the first male ALT this town has ever had. So maybe this little change will bring in more people? Here's hoping!

Word of the day: 授業 「じゅぎょう」 "jugyou," which means "lesson" or "class."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interviewee

Note: I want to point out that I updated my previous post with pictures from Kyoto! Check 'em out! And on with the show...

I was asked by a friend of mine who is also a fellow JET ALT to be "Mr. October," as she put it. This entails being the interviewee of a few fun questions and writing an article for a publication that will be read by junior high students and teachers across Miyagi Prefecture. At the end of this post, I will paste my article. I wrote it very quickly, and didn't even bother editing it, so I apologize for its first-draft-iness. Also, you've already read about the various things I discuss because I included them in a previous post. It's about the differences I've observed between Japan and the U.S. So I apologize for lack of originality, too. But I guess it's my own work, so technically, it's original; just a rehash. Anyway...

I'm contemplating putting my answers to the interview here or not. It's kind of silly, but I put a lot of time into some of my answers. Alright sure, I'll post the interview up as well after this post. Interview first, article second.

This past week since I got back from Kyoto has been interesting. First of all, my school schedule has been crazy because of national holidays and a school event. So I've had the past two Mondays off. And I had last Thursday off as well. On Wednesday night, some elementary school teachers and I went out to Sendai (or nearby) for some fun food and drinks. I must say, they can sure drink! We went to two locations; the first was a very nice restaurant with unique and delicious food. It was so good that Shoe and I decided to go back a few nights later! That, and so he could see the cute waitress again, haha. The other place we went to was a small bar; it had a "California" theme, so there was a lot of beach merchandise there hanging on the walls.

When Shoe and I went to that first location this past weekend, I discovered a new drink that I like. It's called カシス. I looked it up, and found out that it's a vermouth made from a fruit called cassis, or blackcurrant as it's called in English. Yum.

On Friday, I went out with some guys from the town hall. We went bowling! Ahh, good times. I still suck, though. On Saturday, there was a huge inter-school sports fest between my town's junior high school, and three neighboring town's junior high schools. I'm really proud of my students; we won quite a few major events! First, we won the tennis match (girls), then we won the soccer game (boys), and finally, we won the baseball game! I also got to watch kendo, judo, and ping pong, which my students did fairly well at an individual level. (One of the girls got second place in kendo! I'm not too sure how the girls did in judo, but the only girls who do judo around here are from my school anyway, and there are only three of them. Lastly, I saw one of the girls on the ping pong team get 2nd place in the finals. Great!)

Because the teachers had to attend the various events (cheering and some coaching), and almost all of the students were participating (all 1st and 2nd years, 3rd years came to watch), school was closed on Monday. So yeah! Busy week!

It has also gotten annoyingly colder lately. Ugh, I wish the weather would go back up to 75 and just STAY THERE. It hasn't been 75 for a few weeks now. And because it has gotten colder, I decided to buy something which will assist me in keeping warm while jogging outside: a track suit! Now I can join all the other teachers in Japan, hahaha. For some reason, everyone wears a track suit...

So yeah, those are the updates so far. Nothing too crazy. The next thing I have to figure out is how to get a credit card here. I keep getting denied because it was apparently common for foreigners to get a credit card, buy something big with it, then return to their home country without paying for it. Damn thieves! Because of them, I can't get a credit card! ::grumble grumble::

Word of the day: 質問 「しつもん」 "shitsumon," which means "question."

==========================================
How long have you lived there? I’ve lived here for just two months!
Something that’s famous in your town: Kappa
How many schools do you work with? Four

Is this your first time in Japan? Yes, unless you include the 2-hour layover at Narita a few years ago, but I don’t. :-)
In Japan, where have you traveled? So far, I have been to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Sendai.
Have you traveled outside of Japan? Yes! I love to travel. I was born in the Philippines, and I’ve been to a few countries in Europe, including France, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Great Britain.
Where would you like to travel (inside and outside Japan)? I want to explore Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido. I want to see famous sites and see all of the main islands. I want to visit many countries, including South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and many others.
Aside from Japanese, have you ever studied another language? Yes, I’ve studied Spanish for four years, in junior and senior high school.

What was your favorite subject in junior high school? In junior high, my favorite subject was probably algebra.
What was your favorite subject in high school? In high school, my favorite subject was chemistry.
What was your major in college? My major was chemistry, and my minor was Japanese.
What kind of jobs did you have before joining the JET Program? I’ve held various office positions, including administrative assistant and administrative support. I worked in the educational division of a large medical center. I have also worked at a fast-food sandwich restaurant and even a seasonal plant nursery (garden).
What do you want to be when you grow up? Eventually, I want to be a doctor.

What’s your favorite thing about yourself? (I left this blank; didn't want to seem narcissistic.)
What’s your least favorite thing about yourself? (I also left this blank; too many to pick from! Haha)
What qualities do you like in a significant other? As much beauty on the inside as on the outside.

Do you have a cell phone? Yes
If you do, what company and color is it? It is offered by SoftBank, and it is black.

Which do you prefer?
Bed / futon: Bed
Bath/ shower: Shower
Rice / bread: Rice
Pen / pencil: Pencil
City / Countryside: City
Train / Car: Car

Favorites:
Animal: Tiger
Color: Blue
Ice cream flavor: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
Drink: Milk Tea
Place: the video game arcade (or specific location? Hawaii)
Activity: playing video games
TV show:
Anime: Mononoke-hime
Manga: Hajime no Ippo and Naruto
Movie: The Matrix and The Truman Show
Type of music: Rock
Musician(s)/group: Linkin Park, Weezer

Song:
Book: The Da Vinci Code (I haven't read a novel in a while; this and Angels & Demons are the latest two that I read, and I liked this one better)
Magazine: EGM (Electronic Gaming Monthly)
Children’s story: The Dragonslayers by Bruce Coville
JHS textbook lesson: (I've only gone through two so far, haha.)
English word: (couldn't think of any; I do say "awesome" an awful lot...perhaps too much)

J-word: 風林火山 「ふうりんかざん」 “fuurinkazan." From Wikipedia: Fūrinkazan (風林火山), literally "Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain", was the battle standard used by the Sengoku period daimyo Takeda Shingen, quoting chapter 7 of Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "Move as swift as a wind, stay as silent as forest, attack as fierce as fire, undefeatable defense like a mountain."

Kana/Kanji:  時 「とき」 "toki" which means "time." (I chose this for a few reasons. I enjoy writing it; it's fun. It's very similar to samurai, which is 侍. The common radical is 寺 which means temple. And in the writing of temple, you can see earth in the top section [earth is my element, though I speculate that I might have some water as well]. Time is something that I enjoy having; I always take my time in doing things; and I feel like I'm always chasing after it. Perhaps time is my favorite word or concept.)
Flower/plant: Rosa andeli, also known as “Double Delight”
Snack: Pillows (a Filipino snack)
Sport: Boxing
Season: Spring
Holiday: Christmas
Fruit: Coconut
Piece of clothing: A nice, button-down shirt
Sushi: Toro (Fatty Tuna)

Common questions: (feel free to add and answer your own)
Can you use hashi? Yes! (Hashi is chopsticks)
Do you like sushi/sashimi? Absolutely!
Can you eat natto? Um...I tried...
Can you speak Japanese? Some.
Can you read kana/kanji? I can read hiragana, katakana, and about 450 kanji...theoretically.
Are you a strong drinker? Unfortunately, no! I get sleepy very quickly, haha!
Are your meals bigger in your home country? It depends on the meal. I’ve actually had many meals in Japan that I almost couldn’t finish!
You must love meat...? That is correct. I love beef and pork!
Did you eat rice before coming to Japan? Lots of it!
What do you have for breakfast? It depends on the day. Sometimes cereal and milk, sometimes toast with eggs and sausage or bacon, or sometimes a rice dish.

Name at least two things you dislike/hate about Japan. This summer was super humid, and the cold weather arrived too soon! I wish there were screens on all of my windows. I also miss central air heating and cooling.
Name at least two things you like/love about Japan. The food here is wonderful, and the people are very nice. I also love the combination of Japan’s rich history and culture with its leadership in modern technology. I also love the Shinkansen! It is wonderful to be able to travel from one side of the country to the other in just a
few hours without having to get on an airplane.
Name at least two things you dislike/hate about your home country. There are always political arguments on TV and other media (radio, internet, etc.). The vehicles there are too big; like SUVs. I hate SUVs. Also, people can be very mean or rude sometimes; clerks are not as polite as those in Japan.
Name at least two things you like/love about your home country. I enjoy the freedom in everything, from product choices to job choices. I also like how diverse the US is, including the people and the locations: California is very different from New York; they are so far away and quite different, but both places are very
fun.

Tell us about your family/family members. My mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, and grandparents all live in Pennsylvania. My mother is a biology professor at a university and my father is a nurse. My brother is older than me, so I learned many things from him while we were growing up, and we have very similar interests, like movies and video games.

Anything else? :-) I was born in the Philippines, and both of my parents are Filipino. But people have often mistaken me for being Japanese. This occurred in the US, in the Philippines, and even in Japan; I was surprised that Japanese people thought I was Japanese! It makes me wonder, how many Filipinos are in Japan? Also, I
studied many styles of martial arts in the US, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and American styles. I would like to study more martial arts here and compare the differences in styles, especially comparing how Japanese martial arts are taught in Japan versus in America.


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Differences Between Japan and the United States

Since arriving in Japan, I have noticed quite a few things that surprised me which are different than the United States. On my first night here, I went to dinner with other ALTs at a Japanese-style restaurant in Shinjuku. The five of us were taken to a table that had tatami seats and space beneath the table for our legs. My friend was about to step into the seating area, but he was quickly yelled at by the waiter and told to take off his shoes. We all took off our shoes and sat down at our seats. This surprised me a little, because in the U.S., we never take off our shoes at a restaurant, especially a nice one. In fact, we are not allowed to take off our shoes at some restaurants! There is a saying that is common in restaurants: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
I also noticed that smoking is very common in Japan, both outside and inside of buildings. I was surprised by this at the video game arcade. In the U.S., it is rare that a video game arcade allows smoking inside because there are so many kids there (and kids are not allowed to buy tobacco).
Another interesting difference is driving. In the U.S., we drive on the right side of the road, but in Japan, people drive on the left side of the road. This means that the steering wheel is also on the opposite side (left side in the U.S., right side in Japan). But that’s not all! When people park in Japan, they put their car in reverse, and they back-up into their parking spot. That way, in the parking lot, the cars face away from each other. But in the U.S., everyone always pulls into their parking spot head-first! That makes the cars in the parking lot face each other!
When you eat at a restaurant in Japan, you only have to pay for the price of the meal. But in the U.S., if you eat at a restaurant where you are served by a waiter/waitress, you are expected to also pay a tip to the waiter/waitress! This is because waiters/waitresses have a different payment system in the U.S.; most of their money comes from tips rather than salary/wage. This forces the servers in the U.S. to be more polite, because then they will make more money! But in Japan, servers are always polite no matter what, which is very nice.
When I first got to my apartment, I noticed many differences in the household. The first thing I noticed was that there was a faucet on the back of my toilet! Toilets in the U.S. don’t have a faucet. Instead, there is always a sink in the bathroom. I also noticed that the shower room is a separate room from the toilet, which is also separate from the sink. In an American-style bathroom, if there is a bathtub, there is also a toilet and a sink in the bathroom. Another difference I noticed right away was that the shower area was separate from the bath. Usually, people in the U.S. shower right in the bathtub, which is usually twice the length as Japanese bathtubs. This is because people in the U.S. like to lie down in the bathtub. They also clean themselves while taking a bath (or afterwards), rather than showering first, then entering the bath like in Japan.
Another thing I noticed was that I don’t have a dryer. In Japan, we hang our clothes to dry after washing. In the U.S., we throw our clothes into the dryer to dry them, and then we fold them after taking them out. People usually put fabric softener into the dryer to make the clothes soft. They also use the dryer to remove lint from clothing.
The trash system is similar to the U.S., but is a little more complicated. People in the U.S. usually just throw the entire PET bottle (just called a plastic bottle) into the recycling bin. Sometimes, they will remove the cap and throw it in the trash. There is no separate プラ container for wrappers and such. Most of that stuff usually gets thrown into the trash. People also don’t usually burn trash in the U.S.; it is taken to a garbage facility and is taken care of there (by being crushed, burned, or allowed to decay). The things that are recycled in the U.S. are still recycled the same way, like newspapers, glass bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard, paper, and things like that.
These are just a few interesting differences. I’m sure I’ll find more during my stay here in Japan!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kyoto and Video Games [Update]


I've discovered something on Japanese keyboards! There is a way to make it behave like an American keyboard! What I mean is that the keys change to the American counterparts, so even if a certain character/symbol is written on the Japanese key, it will type the American key. For example, the Japanese keyboard has a colon (:) where the apostrophe key is on the American keyboard. So normally, when I press this key with my right pinky finger, I type a colon. But when I do this trick, I get an apostrophe! The trick is pressing the following keystroke: Alt + Shift. This keystroke is normally used on American keyboards to change language inputs; it's what I use to switch between Japanese and English on my laptop and desktop computers in the US. Normally, there is a designated key to do that on Japanese keyboards, so pressing the key maintains the Japanese layout of characters and punctuation. But not with this keystroke trick! Bwahaha! I don't have to type Shift + 7 for apostrophes anymore!

/endcelebration

So! This past week has been SUPER DUPER busy, which is why I haven't been able to post an update. It's unfortunate, because I wish I could recall all of the things that have happened since my last post (which itself was quickly written). I am currently typing this at the Yakuba, so I will update this post later with pictures.

First off, I'll mention this quick gaming news that blew my mind. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was announced!!! Click that link for the article and an epic trailer! This announcement helps fighting game fans like myself to envision the next two or so years of fighting games from Namco and Capcom. There's Marvel Versus Capcom 3, Street Fighter X Tekken, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and Tekken X Street Fighter. MVC2 and TTT are two of my favorite fighting games of all time, so hearing that both of their sequels are being planned/developed makes me very happy. ^_^ Also, the TTT2 announcement was made at Tokyo Game Show (TGS), which was this past weekend. I would have LOVED to go, and it's so cheap, too (Just ¥1200 per day or ¥1000 in advance; that's about $14.14 and $11.78, respectively, at the current exchange rate)! But I wasn't able to go because of something else more important:


I was in Kyoto this past weekend with my girlfriend! :-D I wasn't able to see her for two months prior; it was so wonderful to spend time with her again. I took an overnight bus from Sendai to Kyoto; it was an 11.5 hour ride. Not very comfortable; or rather, the seats were comfy compared to American buses; it was roomy, and the seats reclined pretty far back. And there was decent leg room. But there was no bathroom on the bus! The nice thing about that is that there is no foul smell that sometimes plagues the rear of American buses. But the problem is that the driver has to pull over every 3 hours to give people a 15 minute potty/smoking/stretching break. This wouldn't be such a big deal if he didn't turn on the lights whenever he stopped. So yeah, suffice it to say, but I didn't have restful sleep that night, even though I attempted to sleep for the entire duration of the ride. Another plus is that I was able to be in Kyoto by 7 in the morning, and the price was way cheaper than the Shinkansen (approx $82 vs $236).

Kyoto is amazing. I can easily see why it would be the "most favorite city in the world" for many of my friends. I'll definitely be taking more trips there; and it may become the same thing for me. The areas I went to were mostly suburban in feeling, even though it was in the city. There were lots of famous temples there: I went to see Ryouanji Temple with the famous rock garden, and Kinkajuji Temple, the famous golden temple. Very beautiful places.


We had lots of adventures in Kyoto. On the first day, we went to Ryouanji. It's kinda funny; when my girlfriend and I got there, we ran into some other students living in the same dorm, and when we walked into the temple grounds, we were greeted by a group of Japanese college students who wanted to give foreigners tours of the temple. We obliged and had enjoyable conversations in English and Japanese. It was funny because the Japanese people were speaking English, and we Americans would respond in Japanese. After the tour, we left the grounds, and found a dessert shop where they served green tea/vanilla twist soft ice cream! It was sooooooooooo good. After that, we found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant (kaitenzushi). I'm guessing that the ice cream filled us up a bit, because we only managed to eat 11 (or so?) little plates of sushi, one soup, and two drinks. All for just ¥1700 (like $20)! After that, we checked out her campus. It's a really nice campus; very localized. No need to travel far between classes like on Pitt's campus. But the catch is that housing is a little far (only a little).


In the evening of the first night, we met up with an old friend of mine with whom I studied Japanese back at Pitt. It was nice to see him again and meet his girlfriend, who had surprisingly good English (she studied abroad in the US for a year). I was happy that I had the opportunity to check out downtown. Now, if you know me, you would know that I love going to cities and exploring stores, arcades, malls, and busy areas like that. When we got off the bus to downtown, the closest place was a 6-floor Namco arcade! Unfortunately, we didn't have any time to check it out, but I'll definitely hit it up next time. Instead, we walked around the izakaya area, with lots of bars and restaurants, looking for a place to dine. We ended up finding a place, that strangely enough, played Black Eyed Peas the whole time we were there. Maybe they thought we were BEP. We kinda looked it. Anyway, the place had tiny booths with cave-like aesthetics. But the food and drink was good, and the company was better, so I was happy. Later, we went to an area under a bridge and next to a river. The place was bustling with people: foreigners and Japanese people; lots and lots of couples. That's apparently where my friend and his girlfriend had met. It's cute 'cause along the riverbank, couples are sitting side-by-side, evenly spaced.


The next day, we grabbed some ramen for lunch. MMMMMMMMM SOOOOOOOOO GOOD! I can still remember how good it was. The place was called Ramen Kyoto Tengu. And for just ¥700, you can get a delicious bowl of ramen that looks like this:




Kinkakuji was gorgeous. Just look at the pictures! Unfortunately, it started to rain when we arrived, so I couldn't get any shots of the temple's reflection in the water, but it was beautiful nonetheless. After seeing the temple, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a tea ceremony with a sweet snack. I'm not sure what to call the building we had the ceremony at, but it was one room with tatami mats and something like a shrine at one end and a kitchen in the corner at the other end. Afterward, we did some bell ringing, candle-lighting, and other luck/fortune-cultivating activities. I bought various keychains and omiyage at the gift shop nearby. When we left, we were looking for green tea ice cream (actually matcha ice cream), but the temple's gift shops had already closed the ice cream section. :-( So we left and found some at a nearby touristy shop. :-)


It was a three-day-weekend, so I was able to stay for two nights. I left on Monday, so I had to take the Shinkansen back. The ride was interesting; in fact, the entire commute was interesting. We walked from the dorm to the nearest train station, which took us directly to Kyoto Station. There, I bought tickets from Kyoto to Sendai, which requires a transfer at Tokyo Station. But before I left, my girlfriend and I grabbed a quick lunch at a local cold-udon/cold-soba place. Not as good as the ramen the other day, but still pretty decent. What was neat was that we paid for it using a vending-machine-like thing. After lunch, we had a tearful goodbye. I reminded her (and had to remind myself) that I'll see her again in a few weeks. We also broke the unspoken rule of "no public affection in Japan." Well, if PDA is illegal here, then call me a criminal.


I then headed to the platform where I looked for the unreserved seats, in cars 1-3. Sweet, I found it; but dammit, it's full! So full that a whole bunch of people were standing for the entire duration of the trip to Tokyo. Including me. The ride itself was a little over two hours (two and a half maybe? Something like that). Actually, correction; I got to sit down for the last fifteen minutes or so, when some people left at the stop before Tokyo Station. I sat next to a lady who was kind enough to show me where I would go to make my transfer to the Tohoku-bound trains. The second leg of my trip was much nicer; I managed to get my own seat, and when the guy left at the first stop, I had an entire bench to myself! Good deal. A friend of mine was picking me up, and he asked me to continue past Sendai into the next town, which required another transfer. It wasn't a problem and only cost about $8.

One thing I noticed while I was in Kyoto and on the Shinkansen: girls in Japan sure love moccasins. I don't know what the deal is with that. But Japanese girls can seem to make even the ugliest outfits look cute.

Oh, and lastly, I finally bought a Nintendo DSi! My best friend has been telling me to get a DS for the past five years. Better late than never! Hahaha

Word of the day: 自由席 「じゆうせき」 "jiyuuseki," which means "unreserved seat."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quick updates

So, I really have to go to bed. Like now. But I wanted to post some quick updates:

1) My girlfriend is currently on an airplane, headed in my direction! Very nice. Can't wait to see her again. ^_^

2) I just bought a Nintendo DSi today! Not for the sake of gaming; on the contrary: to study! Which, I guess for some people (::cough::nerds::cough::) is fun. I got it to study and practice kanji. And I got this insane Shonen Jump video game that crams multiple Jump manga series into one fighting game. Just imagine people from Dragonball, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, and a dozen other series all fighting each other. Seemed like a fun $20.

3) The speech contest was today! We didn't win, but I'm still very proud of my students for mustering up the courage to speak in a foreign language in front of a crowd of strangers (and competitors). That takes guts. And now, to learn from my mistakes and prepare for the next one...

4) The iPhone has really crappy battery life. With my LG Secret, I only had to charge it within one day if I was using the video camera a lot. But the iPhone...I am honestly disappointed with its battery life. And I even close the apps after I exit them. (To do this, you have to double-click the home button to make a bottom menu show up that lists icons of the 4 most recent apps used. Then hold your finger over one of the icons until they shake. Then click the red circle with the minus sign to close the app. This method is paramount to proper usage of 3rd-generation iPods and iPhones; otherwise, it'll seem like they're slow and sluggish.)

5) One of my students somehow fell on the stairs and was knocked unconscious; he was immediately taken to the local hospital. I hear he is doing fine. Though, seeing him passed out on the stairs made me feel so...powerless. For one, I don't have an updated first-aid certification, and I also don't know any Japanese medical terminology (or how to say, "Move!" or "Make room for him!"). Based on how he was lying, my guess is that he slipped or tripped. I don't think it was a result of roughhousing, but it might be due to students' tendencies to haphazardly run around the school. Anyway, he'll be back tomorrow, which I was glad to hear.

6) This past weekend was pretty fun. I went to Shiogama, to an island, with other guys from the Town Hall for some overnight festivities. And by that, I mean drinking with middle-aged (and older) folks. It was pretty enjoyable, actually. I had sea pineapple for the first time. The seafood was fresh, and pretty damn good. The sea urchin was surprisingly tasty.

Word of the day: 早く 「はやく」 "hayaku," which means "quickly."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Japanese Studies

As I sit here and settle into my new surroundings, I begin to realize that I revert back to my 'usual' behaviors as I would have in the U.S. What does this entail? Well, basically coming home from work, and becoming a hermit; spending lots of time on my computer, surfing the internet or telling all of my friends what I've been up to; you know, via social networking or even this blog. But what frightens me the most is that when I do all of this, like e-mailing people, and chatting, or surfing the web, is that all of it is in English. Very little do I actually come across Japanese online, or when I communicate with my friends. Oftentimes because what I want to say is most easily said in English; oftentimes I do not even HAVE the words in Japanese to say what I want to say. Especially in a blog post or an e-mail or a message or chit-chat.

That said, if I spend so much time using English, and so much time inside my apartment not interacting with those around me, I am afraid that my level of Japanese will regress. So, it is up to me to make sure that that doesn't happen. It is my duty to insure that I continue my progress with Japanese and not fall into yet another Gaijin Trap.

So, my methods for continuing my studies of Japanese are multifold: 1) Speak in Japanese as much as possible, with friends, co-workers, and even students [as long as it isn't affecting their learning of English]; 2) Immersion, which includes Japanese television, Japanese music, and hearing Japanese conversations in school and around town; 3) Formal studying of the language, including reading, writing, looking up unknown kanji, and learning new kanji.

The third one in particular is something that I need to work on more, as it has been quite sporadic. The amount of time I spend studying kanji daily is irregular, and I don't do a good job reviewing kanji that I recently learned. This will change, with the upcoming JET Japanese Courses that I enrolled in. According to the multiple practice tests I took, I should be enrolled in the Advanced Level (which is above Beginner and Intermediate). There are only these three levels. I'm a little anxious about it, because I only know about 400-something kanji (they recommend 500, I think; or was it 600?), and and the entire textbook is supposedly in Japanese. There are also a few grammar points that I am expected to know already but have never formally studied; but thankfully, there aren't too many. Lastly, I haven't completely mastered other bits of grammar which I have formally learned. But I guess all that comes with time, anyway.

To study kanji, I will attempt a two-pronged attack: use the infamous and highly controversial Heisig method, which entails learning the characters by parts and creating a "story" for each character, and supplement the stories with the traditional method of learning new kanji (see new kanji, learn readings and meanings, read example sentences, and practice writing it). According to Heisig, though, this should not be done; learning the stories will apparently be counterproductive to learning the kanji the traditional way. I am not sure why this would be true, but since he was the developer of this method, I am assuming that he is correct. So, my plan is to first use Heisig's method and go through the entire Book 1. Then rather than go to Book 2 (which is where he teaches how to actually pronounce/read the character), I will go through the traditional method using either the Kotoba! iPhone app or the Essential Kanji book.

Or maybe I could try the traditional method using the app, then Heisig, then the book? Anyway, just throwing around some ideas. I will leave you with this sweet video that I saw on TV today:



Word of the day: 言葉 or 詞 or 辞 「ことば」 "kotoba," which means language, words, or speech.
Second word of the day: 国語 「こくご」 "kokugo," which is what the Japanese language course is called in Japan (like "English Class" in the US). "Kokugo" literally means "country language."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hilariously Beautiful

So I've been teaching for a full week, now. Well, that's not entirely true, since a good chunk of my lessons last week (actually, all of the ones in the junior high school) consisted simply of a self-introduction presentation, which itself is composed of over a hundred pictures that describe some aspect of my background: where I'm from, where I was born, where I went to school, what my college town looks like, what my hobbies are, what I like to eat; easy stuff. The difficult classes have been in the elementary schools; one class in particular is very unenthusiastic. I've been told that they're quite a smart class; I reckon it's their smarts that is creating this lack of motivation. Hopefully I'll come up with something to get them to be more 元気 "genki" (energetic).

I came across a HILARIOUS video today; actually, a friend of mine, who is also a JET ALT, posted it on her facebook wall. The video contains audio from a book series called 英語ノート "Eigo Noto," which is the text book series that is used to teach English to elementary school students. Anyway, this video takes the audio from various lessons and remixes it a bit with the theme of male-female relationships (Read: How to pick up women). Really hilarious. Here it is:



Ah, so, before I watched that video, I actually had quite a bit of stuff in my head that I wanted to post about! But I laughed so hard that those thoughts fell out of my head. So! That means I'll treat you to another video. But this one is not funny at all. No. Instead, it is beautiful. I'll post it here, but I recommend going to the actual website to view it in HD and full screen.

Hayaku: A Time Lapse Journey Through Japan from Brad Kremer on Vimeo.



I don't recall if I mentioned this in a previous post, but here is another important difference between Japan and the US: in the US, there is a janitor (or team of them) to clean up the entire school grounds. In Japan, there are none. At best, there is a mechanic or handyman, but he is not expected to clean up the classrooms or hallways. Nope. Who then? The students! Haha!

Is it wrong of me to laugh? Well, I suppose it's not technically funny; at least, not until you see the looks on their faces when you tell them that in the US, students don't have to clean the classrooms. It's fascinating, really. Oh, and there is no cafeteria. The students all eat in their classrooms; and again, they are responsible for bringing the crates and boxes of food into the classrooms to serve to their classmates. I can see that Japan makes sure to teach the kids how to be active members in society at an early age. I think it's great for them! If only the brats in the US were made to serve and clean, too, maybe we wouldn't have so many problems with laziness. Or obesity! Anyway, I digress...

I was shown how to fill up my gas tank today. And not just going to the Full Serve and saying "Regular Mantan Onegaishimasu" (which has them fill up your tank with "regular" octane gasoline). I'm talkin', goin' to the Self Serve gas station, hitting buttons with kanji on the screen, paying by cash, and pumping the gas myself. I'm happy to have been able to learn that. Now, the reason I learned to fill up my tank today wasn't just because my tank is only 1/4th full, but also because I was doing some Dimensional Analysis today (it must have been all the Breaking Bad that I've been watching that made me want to do it, haha).

What, may you ask, is Dimensional Analysis? Well, it is the branch (or merely, aspect) of science and math that is used for unit conversion. It's one of the simplest, and yet one of the most important, basic lessons of science. Failure to properly convert units can lead to disastrous results.

Anyway, the Dimensional Analysis I did today was about trying to figure out the cost of gasoline here in Japan (which is in Yen per Liter) and converting it into the units we use in the US (Dollars per Gallon). I knew the gas here was more expensive; I just wanted to know how much.

So, using my recently acquired iPhone, unit conversion apps, and exchange rates, I quickly wrote down this formula:

(Current price in the US in $/G) divided by (volume conversion factor in liters per gallon) times (exchange rate in Y/$)

The formula leads to a conversion of US prices into Yen per Liter. Substituting the current price (at the time) of $2.57/gallon in Pennslyvania, I got 57.16 Yen/L.

Hmm, 57.16...WOW. That's CHEAP. At least, compared to the price I saw at the pump today! The price at the pump was 125 Yen/L!!! That's more than double the cost!!! In fact, using the conversion factor I calculated (22.24203522 ¥gal/$L), it comes out to $5.62/gallon! DAMN THAT'S EXPENSIVE!!! Gas is 2.2 times more expensive in Japan than the US!!! Blows my mind.

Also, seeing that I filled up about 3/4th of my tank today, and seeing that the price was only about 2000 Yen, I can guesstimate that my tank is only about 21 liters, or five and a half gallons. Crazy small! My dinky little sedan back in the US was only 13 gallons, and it was a compact (or sub-compact) car. Well, I guess with an engine size of less than 600 cc's, I don't need to worry about using too much gasoline in the first place.

Lastly, I'd like to say that I've been keeping an eye on the US-Japan exchange rate pretty closely for the past few months. And just now, I saw it finally plummet to below 84 yen/dollar. It's currently 83.89262, according to the MSN Money desktop gadget. That's soooooooo baaaaaaaaaaad! Just three years ago it was around 123. That means Americans could go to Japan and feel slightly wealthier. Currently, the opposite is true. That's great news for me because I'm making money over here! But terrible news for people just arriving (girlfriend, other friends) or people who want to visit me (family, friends). Check out this 10-year chart on XE.com for more numbers. (In 2002 it was 134!!! I wish I went to Japan back then!!!)

Word of the day: 満タン [まんたん」 "mantan," or "full tank." Literally.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Activities

Japan is interesting. I don't know if it's just small towns like this one, if larger cities are included, or if it's just this town in particular; but damn, do people love events! I've been living in Japan for about a month now, and already, I've attended two town-wide events with hundreds of attendees! The first was the Kappa Festival, which I mentioned in a blog entry last month. Today's even was the Field Day.

Yeah, Field Day. Remember Field Day? Way back in elementary school, when the school district would all come together to old a massive athletics event with relay races and whatnot? Well, this one is TOWN WIDE, with participants not limited to just students! In fact, some events are designed specifically for adults, and many events (all, maybe?) are separated by age group. At one point, I saw 6 groups of a dozen senior citizens all throwing colored rubber balls into a reed basket 15 feet in the air. Not an easy task. And seeing this made me realize something: how physical activity is such an important aspect of Japanese culture. It's not just "important;" rather, it's "normal." It's just a regular, everyday thing. There are many farmers in town; they're always outside working, laboring, on their land. In offices, there are morning exercises; people warm up in sync to elevator music. It's amazing, really.


Anyway, it was neat to see the whole town participating in competitive activities. Everyone was split up into neighborhoods. When I first arrived, the Field Day event was already half-way through (I overslept; oops). And of course, I ran into my students on the way there (I walked) and was greeted by more upon my arrival. I didn't know where to go at first, so I hung out at the judges tent, where I saw two guys from the Board of Education (my superiors). [Side note: one of the guys is known simply as "Kachou," which basically means "section chief."] I grabbed a grape Fanta (remember, it's called "juice" here) and a "caramel milk crepe" and ate it at the judges tent. After a while, I met a friend of my JET predecessor who is learning English. She talked to me about some sort of "English club" that was established in a neighboring city by my pred; I'll attend this week's meeting. :-) After that brief conversation, she had to leave, and I went off to join my neighborhood. Again, I ran into some students; but they actually live in my neighborhood! It was fun cheering with them (or for them, in some cases) and cheering with their families. The Field Day ended with a big relay race.

Everyone was leaving, so I decided to grab some food before the stands were closed; I managed to get a box of tako yaki (octopus balls) and some okonomiyaki wrapped around some chop sticks. Okonomiyaki is like...well, like a crepe, but with a bunch of things thrown into it while it's cooked; kind of like an omelette would be made. Anyway, I just hung out at home afterward, watching some Breaking Bad (good series, by the way; I recommend it). As I went outside to the vending machine to grab some oolong tea, some elementary (or nursery?) school students said hello to me. Then the kuchou (president of the neighborhood...or something) showed up and told me that our neighborhood won! Yay!


So yeah, this weekend was both eventful (literally) and uneventful (figuratively) at the same time. Saturday was especially boring. Such that I learned the phrase to exclaim my boredom and text it to two friends. Unfortunately, both people I texted were busy. :-( Oh well, I spent the time watching Breaking Bad (actually started it yesterday) and cooking some awesome udon. I made the soup myself this time, too! Just some soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and seasoned salt that I brought from the U.S. Seasoned salt makes everything taste better. Even victory.


Oh! I almost forgot to mention! I finally got my iPhone! Yay! I was thinking about making a "Cell phones in Japan Part 3," but I'm not really sure it's necessary. There isn't much more I can say about Japanese cell phones. Except that the majority of them use infrared to transmit the owner's account info (name, number, e-mail, picture) to someone else. It's so much more convenient than having to type it in! Unfortunately, iPhones don't have infrared; I'd have to buy a special dongle for that. But they do have bluetooth! And WiFi! Which means that I can download an app called "Bump" that'll let me "bump" my phone with another iPhone user (who also has the app) and exchange info that way. Yay apps.

Oh, another cool thing about Japanese phones is that they have a QR Code reader that can read these black and white square codes. These codes usually have websites, but I found an app that allows one to create a QR Code that contains phone info. Here is an example of a QR Code that happens to contain a link for this blog:



Cool, huh? So yeah, cell phones read those. I got an app to read them, as well. Lastly, I'll say that I finally worked out a little (weight lifting, calisthenics) in a loooooooooong time. It must have been all that exercise I saw today. And this epic video.



Phrase of the day: 退屈だな。 「たいくつだな。」 "Taikutsu da na." "I'm bored."

A gift for those of you who got to the end of this post:

Harold's Japan Picture Gallery