Thursday, March 29, 2007

Spring Break 2007!!!

Alright, the countdown has begun.... 6 more hours until MY spring break starts! (well, spring break has "officially" started, but all of us teachers are at work because they HAVE to go to work during these holidays).

I'm heading down to Kyoto tonight, and tomorrow morning, I will be on a plane to Hong Kong to meet my sister and my mom. Since Paul doesn't arrive until Sunday night, the 3 of us girls will be able to do tons of shopping and bonding together. My sister and mom will stay in Hong Kong while Paul and I travel to Beijing to take in the sights and hike the Great Wall!

I can't believe my birthday is upon me already- what will I be doing? fancy dining at the top of a hotel restaurant? wandering the night street markets? sailing on a junk in Victoria Harbour?

Last year my "30 going on 13" birthday wish was to get over my fear of ice skating. (I had fallen and blacked out while skating in high school and had been terrified to get on skates ever again) but with the support of many friends in Central Park that day, I had a fantastic skating and pizza party!

Originally, my goal for my 31st birthday was to re-learn how to ride a bike again (I had a scooter accident when I was in Greece during my spring break 1998, and was terrified to get on any 2-wheeled vehicle ever again- is there a theme here??) but I already got over that fear my first week in Japan. So what is my goal or wish for 31 then?

I suppose turning 31 is a bit of a wake-up call for me. I have to get my life "together" after I leave this dreamworld of Japan, set my career path somehow, make some big decisions on goals and aspirations, my FUTURE- who and what it includes, and all that. I have been lucky to have a very carefree and comfortable life. I will always want to be a traveler, but can that be balanced with a practical, working life? At the rate I'm going, I'll be living paycheck to paycheck, a bohemian still living in a rented 6th floor walkup apartment, forced to be making decisions like whether to stay out and have another drink or save that money for laundry. Doesn't sound appealing....

However, I have to say I'm pretty happy, despite my premature arthritis and a few stray white hairs. I met the boy of my dreams, I have many wonderful friends, I have a happy supportive family, I'm living a very content life in Japan, I'm (fairly) healthy, I'm saving a lot of money, and I have been fortunate to be able to travel around the world and learn several languages.

I'm going to hit 31 hard and fast- so meet me behind the bleachers after school!!!! I'll be ready!!!

Wishful thinking??

I brought home most of my winter clothes, boots, hats, and scarves when I went to California, and when I came back, there was still snow on the ground. But, it's finally starting to get warmer!!!! Hooray!!!

It could be wishful thinking and slightly premature, but today, I dared to wear my cropped cargo pants with flats- no socks!!! And, I even put away my kotatsu blanket! I blame the poor insulation of Japanese homes and the kotatsu for all the weight I gained during the winter, crawling underneath that blanket trying to stay alive instead of being active and walking around like I normally would in New York. Now it's time to seriously burn some calories riding my bike, walking around, getting some sun on my pale skin (that would be a dead giveaway that I'm a foreigner since few women allow their skin to be touched by sunlight), and climbing the hills around my house.

A pretty hilarious manganimation (yes I made that word up) on how attached to the kotatsu you get in the winter!!!

Spring Blossoms

The Japanese are relentlessly obsessed with viewing cherry blossoms. The weather report now includes the stages and forecasts of the expected blossom date of the sakura. Benches and lights are set up for maximum flower viewing action (daytime and nighttime) and "hanami" (cherry blossom viewing parties) are a regular part of the springtime ritual, complete with picnic lunches & alcohol.

It's a pretty amazing spectacle that is at once breathtaking and innocent, something that people of all ages can admire and "ooh" & "ahh" over (well, in Japan, the sound is more like "hehhhhhhh?!?!")... it's a bonding time for families, friends, lovers, strangers, kind of like Mother Nature's version of fireworks.

I saw one of the first blossoming trees in Kyoto this weekend, and it was dramatically lit from below and all sides. Tourists and locals would at once gasp, grab hold of their friends and excitedly point and then run over with cameras and cell phones and start snapping away. It surprisingly doesn't get tiresome...

The sakura in Miyazu are JUST starting to bloom- I took these photos today during my lunch break- and I hope I don't miss the massive pink blossoming when I am gone next week!!!

The last picture is of an ancient magnolia tree growing in my landlady's front yard.

Pretty impressive!!!

End of the year messages

These are some of the highlights of my "Write an end of the year message to Laurie" assignment from my 1st year students.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Weekend with the relatives….

It’s been awhile since my last sightseeing visit to Kyoto- I’ve been down to Kyoto a lot for parties and stuff, but not so much for cultural exploration and all that. Turns out that my uncle and aunt from Australia were in town for a medical conference in Osaka earlier in the week, so it was a perfect opportunity to check out the sights with them.

We met up on Friday night after the English festival and saw a medley of Japanese performances at the Gion Center. It was like a sampler platter of different types of performing arts: Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku puppetry, shamisen (3-stringed Japanese instrument), a tea ceremony, and “ikebana” (flower arrangement) demonstrations, all packed into an hour. It was a good introduction to find out what you would want to see again and what you would rather not!

Unfortunately the weather was rainy and overcast most of Saturday, but at least it was warm! We explored Nijo Castle, although we were much more impressed with the grounds / gardens than the “castle” itself. (Typical of most Japanese castles, the building was stripped of all furniture or context- but we were amused with the “singing” floorboards which purposely “sang” / “squeaked” as people walked on them as a deterrent for sneaky visitors). It’s slightly early for the “sakura” (cherry blossoms) but the “ume” (plum blossoms) and a few of the early spring flowers have finally started to open their colorful petals…. I can’t wait for the “hanami” (flower viewing parties)!!!

Then we wandered over to “Ginkakuji” (The Silver Pavilion) in Higashiyama. We poked around the tourist shops on the little streets winding up to it but somehow the dreary weather and all the wandering throughout the day had exhausted us. Instead of spending that night in Kyoto as originally planned, we ended up just taking the train back up to Miyazu so that I could show them around my neck of the woods on Sunday.

After being awakened by the trembling of an earthquake on Sunday morning (see posting below), we had a lazy morning and made a few calls to my parents and my grandmother in Australia commenting on how cool it was that we were meeting up in all places, Japan! By Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining again, and we took in Amanohashidate in all of its early springtime glory, walking the whole length of it (2.3 km) and then wandering around the temples and shrines on each end and buying freshly caught squid and fish for that night’s dinner. Then we stopped at Miyazu’s shining star- Mipple. I guess Australia doesn’t have the equivalent of Japan’s 100¥ stores or something because my aunt must have spent 3 hours there!!!

And Japanese hospitality at its best... my landlady insisted on treating Uncle Peter and Auntie Angela to the private onsen at the Kitanoya Hotel (the same one that she had treated me and Paul to in January), paying for the transportation costs, and also inviting them into her guesthouse for tea and sweets. When the Yoshidas found out that my relatives were coming, they insisted, along with Jun, to have a dinner party at my house. Monday night found us sitting around the sliding-door-as-dining-table sharing platters of sashimi and o-bentos and stories from our native countries, comparing Chinese and Japanese kanji, and Kumi dressing my aunt up in one of her hundreds of kimonos. This led to me, Jun, and Jannie also dressing up in kimonos and an intensive photo session as Uncle Peter tried to capture every moment. The whole time, Masami had his dictionary ready and just beaming that his wife was making so many people so happy.

All in all, a nice weekend with the folks!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

English Festival 2007

I realized that talking about this English Club Festival is probably as exciting as listening to a coworker gushing about their recent vacation to Washington DC or something- yeah, you're happy they took a trip somewhere, and they learned a lot and want to share everything with you, blah blah, but you'd just rather look at a FEW pretty pictures and spare the mundane details.

So here's the brief summary: 50 high school students from their school's "International" / "English" Club participated in a day long "festival" of games, recitation contests, and drama plays. Most of the AET's from the 10 or so schools coached the students with their pronunciation, intonation, etc. of the 3 speeches (MLK's "I Have A Dream", a speech by Yoko Ono, and "Virginia's Letter"). They are great, motivated, well behaved students who "love English", so it was actually really fun to just hang out with them. Two of my students from Miyazu placed in the "Honorable Mention" category and my heart swelled with pride seeing their huge smiles as they accepted their awards. I guess that's the closest feeling I've had to being a proud parent. So, hooray for Maeda and Kanako!!! (and awesome efforts to Mayu and Choda!)

Saturday, March 24, 2007


I woke up to the sounds of my shaky trembling house this morning---- earthquake!!!

It didn't last too long and it wasn't too strong, so I just stayed in bed for another few minutes and then got up to get ready for the day. My aunt and uncle are visiting from Australia and they were sleeping in the other room. We all agreed that it was an earthquake and not just the settling of my rattling house and started off our morning with espressos and tea and toast and talking about what kind of natural disasters Australians face versus Americans versus the Japanese.

It wasn't until I received a frantic text message from Paul that I realized the magnitude of the quake! The first few news articles I have read have said that it was between a 6.7 to 7.3 earthquake in Ishikawa prefecture, not too far away from me. We are safe but it looks like there is at least one death and quite a few injuries in the immediate area of the quake.

To family and friends, we are safe and doing well, just a little uh, shaken up.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

End of the school year / the Japanese education system

In Japan, the school season starts in the springtime, not the fall, like it is in the US. So, the end of the school year is upon us- or in this weird limbo stage of March- already past. I taught my last classes in the last week of February and basically have nothing to do during the entire month of March except for preparing for this English Festival at the end of the month.

I am a bit sad that I won't be able to see some of my students anymore, especially my 2nd year English class that I spent a ton of time with. All but one of the boys in the 1st picture are in that class- they are strange kids, but have the sweetest hearts (and some spend more time doing their hair than I do!)

The 3rd year students put together a bound booklet with student and teacher comments/letters and stuff, and I got to write a few congratulatory letters to students (nice caricature of me by one of the students!). Otherwise, I wasn't really involved with any of the end of the year festivities.

Since this is kind of boring technical stuff, I'm just going to go down in list form and you can read it if you're really interested.

# OF YEARS: There are only 3 years of high school in Japan

TEACHERS: Teachers don't get tenure in Japanese schools. Every 6-10 years, they get transferred to other schools (with the maximum limit of a 1 1/2 hour commute). This week, all the teachers have been walking around on pins and needles, awaiting their conference in the principal's office to hear their verdict.

3RD YEAR STUDENTS: They finish classes by early February and spend the whole month preparing for the entrance exams for universities. They come to school about once a week until graduation.

GRADUATION: The graduation ceremony was on March 2nd. The overall sense was that of a funeral... All the students wore their somber black uniforms, all the teachers wore black suits with white ties (black ties for funerals), and both teachers and students were sobbing throughout the ceremony. This was particularly upsetting for me because I was going home in a few days for my grandmother's funeral and I felt like I was already at one. I guess in the US, graduation is a really happy ceremony, all smiles and colorful dresses under the colorful caps and gowns and tassels, bouquets of flowers and uplifting music. With such a small school, the teachers really build a strong relationship with the students over the years and it feels like it's their own children that are moving away/on.

EXAMS: Final exams for the school year come the week AFTER graduation. I don't understand this.

CLASSES: There are 2 additional weeks of classes AFTER Final Exams. I don't understand this either.

CLOSINGCEREMONY: The closing ceremony is the last ceremony of the school year for the students. (It's tomorrow, about 3 weeks AFTER the graduation ceremony). After that, spring break officially starts. **ps. Closing Ceremony photos added 3/21/07. It is a sea of black: uniforms, hair, curtains... the 4 students on the stage who look like they are waiting to be hanged are actually waiting to receive their various awards (sports, photography, etc.).

SPRING BREAK: Teachers and students come to school DURING spring break (also over winter break, summer holidays, etc.) and have classes. Again, I don't understand this.

TAKING TIME OFF: Even though Japanese teachers also get about the same number of days off as the AETs do (about 20 paid days off a year), very few of them actually take days off, insisting that they would cause trouble for their coworkers in their absence. I am going to Hong Kong & China during this time off. I am a lowly AET and have no responsibilities or any duties during this time as I have no idea what classes or teachers I will be teaching with until the first week of school. Some teachers have even been known to take days off and come to school on those days to finish their work- but because they took the day "off", no one can actually ask them to do additional work that day. The fact that I am taking every single one of my vacation days shows that I am a lazy, undedicated, undevoted American.

OPENING CEREMONY: The beginning of the new school year will be on April 9th.

STUDENT / TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS: Students enter the faculty office whenever they want, and call out the teacher's name that they need to see. The teacher drops everything they are doing and runs to the student (This disturbs me because the students grow up with the feeling that all they need to do is call someone and help will be provided immediately). Depending on whether it's exam period or not, the students are escorted back to the teacher's desk if they need help with homework or whatever and discuss the assignment in low voices (so as to not "disturb" others). Sometimes I get a sick sense of pedophiIia with the cute pigtailed short skirted girls sitting so close to the (mostly male) faculty- not to mention that most of the entire porn industry in Japan consists of young uniformed female students reluctantly being molested and worse, by older men. Of course, I don't have suspicions of any of my co-workers, it's just that I feel like the students are coddled a bit too much and the teachers thrive on their popularity with the students since they are not allowed to show emotion to their own spouses and family.

Wow, I wrote a lot more than I expected. I suppose it's my lack of intellectual challenges these days. However, I do refresh my NY times March Madness bracket every 10 minutes to find out how my teams are doing. Several JETs and friends have started a tournament / group since I was told that this was "gambling" and not something I should introduce as "American office culture" at my school. So far, I'm not doing so bad considering my lack of sports knowledge! Damn, I totally screwed up my Midwest picks.

more coastline near me

When I first arrived in hot, humid August, my first adventure with the Yoshidas was to hike up to the famous Kyogomi- saki Toudai lighthouse and have a picnic dinner at the viewing platform at the top. I was ill prepared for the hike in my high heel wedge sandals (I thought we were going to a nice restaurant).

Well, yesterday, I went on a nice Sunday drive with Bryn and Jannie to see the coastline in Taiza ("Tateiwa"- Standing Rock) and the lighthouse again in the harsh late winter conditions- this time in tennis shoes and bundled up against the cold wind... The sun broke through and we were rewarded with blue skies and spectacular views. OH, and we saw wild monkeys running across the road!!! Like, awesome.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

American students don't sleep?!?!

This is kind of an old story but it's still funny. A few weeks ago, I visited Bryn's junior high school on their "open day" (basically for parents to come to school and observe the students & teachers). I went because I wanted to see the level of the English being taught in the 3rd year classes since many of them would be my first year students during the new school year, and also because Bryn has raved about how fun and great his students are.

So, I went, and it was surprisingly one of the more fun days I had in Japan. We just walked around the school, observed a few of the English classes, ate lunch and hung out with the students, watched them during cleaning time (in Japan, the students do all the cleaning, not the janitors!) and warming up for their after school sports. By association, I was immediately "cool" for hanging out with Bryn, and some of his 1st year boys really took to me, which I found very flattering since high schoolers are "too cool" to latch on, much less talk to you (well, for me, that is- I think foreign guys seem to get more of the swooning attention of high school girls).

Anyway, to get to the point- I was talking to one of the English teachers after the lesson and he was extremely apologetic about how awful his English was and how boring I must have been in his class (oh so Japanese)... so I kept reassuring him how impressed I was with his fantastic English.

So he then asks me: "Is it true that in America, students don't sleep?"
Of course, I'm taken a little off guard, and I'm thinking that maybe he's finding similarities between American and Japanese students? So, I respond with something like, "Well, I suppose they don't sleep a lot, but yeah, they do sleep!"
Japanese teacher: "But I heard that you don't!"
Me: "Maybe some students don't, I suppose. I guess it just depends! If you have a lot of homework or a job and stuff, then you just sleep less."
JT: "So how often do they sleep then?"
Me: (What?!?) "Umm, like 8 hours?"
JT: "8 HOURS?!?!?"
Me: "OK, well, maybe 6 or 7? It depends!"
JT: "Wait, they do that (he points to a student sweeping the floor) for 7 hours?!?"
Me: "OHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!! SWEEP!!! I thought you said sleep!"

And then I think back on the conversation and how weird and hilarious it must have sounded from me to be saying that students in America SWEEP for 8 hours!!! ahhh well. This time it was an accent thing, I think, and not my failing hearing....
The embarrassing thing was that this was RIGHT after I had insisted on how great his English was! eek!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


After taking planes, trains, and automobiles for the past 24 hours, I am finally back from my trip to California. The weather was gorgeous- even in the typically foggy Sunset district, it was 75 degrees and sunny, which made the circumstances under which I had to come back slightly better. There was a large turnout of family, friends, and Buddhist monks for my grandmother's funeral and we are now all at peace with her passing.

It was a week of mom's Chinese food, Peet's coffee, fish tacos and enchiladas, big juicy bacon avocado burgers, driving with the sunroof down, huge SUVs and even bigger supermarkets and parking lots, t-shirts, flushing toilets, massages, fresh fruit, cable cars, seeing my tiny niece and family, hanging out with friends, and warm evenings on the patio....

However, I did experience some reverse culture shock:
#1: Everyone in America was so ANGRY!!!! People just seemed to have these impatient angry responses if they didn't get what they wanted immediately- from a glass of water at a restaurant to having a misunderstanding with someone on the phone to waiting in a long line. It was like everyone just thought the other person was out to get them- and they would harshly beat them to the punch. I suppose this is how America got to be so sue-happy. I was shocked at how people just didn't seem to care about their jobs, there was this feeling of "sure, whatever" wherever I went. My mom mentioned that, if anything, going to Japan has definitely mellowed me out- I was smiling and polite to everyone, and even bowing to people.

#2: Everything in America is HUGE!!!! People, cars, roads, homes, food portions, packaging... I forgot about the scale of everything, family-sized packs of cereal, raised counter top heights, overstuffed couches, and the huge shopping carts!

It was pretty hard to imagine my little cot in my little damp, cold apartment. But this morning, I woke up to a chilly sunrise, rode my bike to school with the fresh breeze on my face, saw the cheerful smiles on my students' faces, and remembered why I was here. Hopefully it will start to get a little warmer. I only have 4 1/2 months left to enjoy my time here!

Monday, March 05, 2007


I will be in California for about a week with limited email and phone access. I will return to work (at Miyazu) on March 14th after some hellacious traveling (from SF through Vancouver back to Kansai).

Growl will be holding down the fort!

...and more "only in Japan" stuff....

#1: Video game console / bus thingie (?) turned into a vending machine

#2: Popcorn Gun Man: gift bag found at the 100¥ store. "Some wonders lurk in this stuff. Eat popcorn! Everybody!!"

#3: The Movie Show: another gift bag: "You can't hold down a joyful heart. Let's go to a movie!!"

#4: And yet another gift bag: "Don't you open up your mind?" and my favorite- "My heart can't stop throbbing."

Ecologically responsible drinking?

So as I am shopping for "omiyage" to bring home for friends and family in California, I come across this dried squid sake pourer / pitcher and cup. It's difficult to understand from the photos, but it basically is a dried squid that is sealed at the bottom (and I suppose is self-standing). You pour sake into the top and the um, "essence" of the squid soaks into the sake and you pour it into the tiny squid skin cup for even more tasty squidy sake. I guess the squid skin is thick enough that the sake won't slosh out. After you finish the sake, I suppose you're too drunk to care- but you eat the cup and pourer thingie that has now been tenderized by the alcohol.

I still haven't decided who I'm going to present this shockingly cool invention to- either my dad or Jason (Tiff- hope that's ok!) I'm posting this just in case US Customs takes this away from me at the airport. ("What in tarnation? Them crazy Asians will eat anything!!!")