Sunday, December 9, 2007

Patrick, Sara- Trip to Sendai for Japanese Test

Last weekend Sara and I went to Sendai for me to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I may or may not have passed. The beginning (vocabulary) was great; the middle (listening) was ok; but the end (reading comprehension) was killer.

We didn't have a guide, but near as we can tell, Sendai is a city full of (expensive) shopping and bars. Still, we have a few interesting pictures.

A Comfort Inn in Japan (significantly more expensive than US counterpart):

Behold, the clean toilet:

Great place to buy clothes?

To get to this statue we walked a vertical mile:

The night view:

Sara about to get reaaalllll happy:

The horde of taxis outside the train station:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Wanko Soba Eating Competition

On Monday night Sara and I attended the wanko soba competition. Soba is a type of noodle that tastes pretty delicious (the first thousand, anyway), and wanko soba is sitting at a restaurant and eating bowl after bowl after bowl. If you eat more than 100 bowls, you get a little wooden plaque.

This was, technically speaking, the SICE farewell party. SICE is the program that Earlham College runs here that I attended three years ago. When I was on SICE, I ate 145 bowls, the top for the evening.

Well, I am happy to say this year I won again, setting a new personal best of 161 bowls. Carl's record from last year, however-- over 200 bowls-- remains utterly amazing.

The all time record, however, was just set this summer by a 24 year old woman (that's all I know)-- over 500 bowls.

Sara ate a quite respectable 100 bowls. Two days later, I think we're both still reaping the consequences.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Patrick- JLPT Practice Test Passed

Also, the other exciting news from this weekend is that I passed the practice test for the Japanese language exam I will be taking next Sunday, 15% over what I needed. This is good because a month ago I failed by 5%.

Since this particular test is only offered once per year, there are no second chances.

Patrick- My Birthday

I would like to thank all of you who sent birthday greetings. I am very glad to have the Internet, as it vastly simplifies the process of staying in touch.

My birthday was rather low key because we had the big thanksgiving party the next day, so Sara and I went to a buffet that features Chinese, Japanese, and Italian dishes. It was quite excellent, and the whole day would have been rather swell and without incident had I not broken Sara's bike in an attempt to put air in the tire.

When I unscrewed the air nozzle, it simply came apart in my hands. So I carried the bike to the repair shop about two kilometers away. Thankfully, he was still open, and put it back together in about five minutes. It's the same bicycle shop where I got my bike repaired several times on SICE, and indeed where I would go the next day when my own bike's shift got frozen.

Patrick- Christmas Shopping Complete

This year I vowed to do all of my Christmas shopping in a single day-- deciding, purchasing, and shipping. That day was November 23, and amazingly, I succeeded.

In large part, this is a result of Japan not having suburbs and all of the stores downtown being within a few blocks of each other.

So, you can expect your Christmas stuff in the mail sometime next week.

Thanksgiving (Written by Patrick)

The four of us had Thanksgiving together with the Earlham students on the SICE program, their host families, and many other people who have some tie to Earlham.

When I was on SICE, we only had four students, so the Thanksgiving was rather lacking. This year, however, with about a dozen students on SICE, we had a comprehensive selection of both Japanese and American cuisine, including cranberries (!!!) and mashed potatoes. Chicken took the place of turkey, but that's just because turkey is outrageously expensive here.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures of the feast because I think that in our hunger we all forget to bring our cameras.

And although Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, we had Friday off, as it was some variety of labor day.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Patrick- Lake Takamatsu

Inside Morioka, this is my favorite place, at least as far as fall is concerned. Iwate Park is a close second.

But as you can see, the ducks are a little too domesticated:

Patrick- First snow of the new season

Last night it was melting on contact, but when I woke up this morning (the view from my backyard, as it were):

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sara-Busy November

I must apologize for the very very late updates of my various travels. November has kept me busy. I am participating in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writer's Month) and I have been spending most of my time writing other than posting. I have also been writing up a Thanksgiving menu for my Junior High students and translating it into Japanese. They are having somewhat of a hard time understanding Pilgrims though. They're surprised to find out that Americans are not Americans but Native Americans are.

This makes me a little worried about Christmas though because I never had a traditional Christmas until I went to Patrick's home and had Christmas with his family. I keep having to explain that I'm not Christian so my Christmas is very different. This makes me wonder what would happen if someone who was Jewish became an ALT. I'm sure it must have happened before, but probably there weren't many to talk about Hanukkah.

I often feel like I'm in a Star Trek episode. I'm part of an away team and I'm supposed to teach the alien race about Starfleet and the idea that the Federation of Plants really means, all planets and that even among humans, there are differences.

Anyway, I will probably write about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan. So, unfortunately that means hearing even less from me and my school.

Happy Thanksgiving though!

Sara-Hakodate, Hokkaido(More catching up)

On October 27th, I went to Hakodate with a few of my teachers as a teachers only field trip. Hakodate is a port city in the south of Hokkaido. It is the port that Commander Perry arrived at and he wrote about it as being one of the safest ports for ships to enter. When we arrived it was a cloudy day and it reminded me of Boston. You can see a lot of cargo ships and fishing boats. Just down the street is an open fish market where you can get fresh crabs and other sea food. I bought some as a gift for my mom and some friends back in Kobe.
Hokkaido is famous for it’s seafood (like Boston) particularly their crabs and other shellfish. On Saturday night, we had a really good dinner that consisted of raw fish and clams. We also had grilled lamb which was a Korean dish that they call Genghis Khan, and a seafood Nabe. Nabe means pot in Japanese. Nabe is a pot dish that has a lot of vegetables and fish cooked together in boiling water. Soy sauce is added for flavor, but the soup stock comes mainly from the fish that gets cooked. As for the Genghis Khan, I couldn’t get an answer for the reasoning behind the name.

Hakodate is also famous for its various western European buildings, and for being the last stand for the Shinsengumi Army, and the place where the famous poet Ishikawa Takuboku wrote many of his poems and taught at a local elementary school . There are many catholic churches in Hakodate and a French nunnery (They make really good ice cream!). Since it was my first time to Hakodate, I explored the city a lot. One attraction I went to was the old warehouse. It used to be for storing cargo and fish, but now it is a shopping mall with an army of Santa Clauses. The other fun place that I went to was the rope way. It takes you up to a high mountain and you can see Hakodate at night. It was very beautiful and the picture that I have doesn't do it justice.
All in all, I had a lot of fun and it's a great place to go if you're already up north. The trip only cost me 30,000 yen (about $300) which was the round train trip and one night at the hotel. I heard that it was through a special deal through JR travel agents.

Sara-Hiraizumi (Catching up on things I did in October.)

I went with Patrick on October 20th to Hiraizumi, which is a small town in Iwate, just south of Morioka. Hiraizumi is now a National Historic site because of it’s many temples and other preserved historical ruins. We were able to get a day ticket for 2,200 yen (about 20 dollars), which allowed us to go anywhere in Iwate and get off at as many places as we wanted to within the day. We left around 10am and got on the local train. It took about an hour and a half to get to Hiraizumi, but the scenery was very beautiful.
Once we arrived, we first ate breakfast at a local soba noodle shop. I had learned earlier from one of the English teachers at my school that there are a lot of soba (buckwheat) noodle shops because long ago, people in the Tohoku region (which includes Iwate prefecture) couldn’t grow rice because the soil wasn’t rich enough. So instead, they grew buckwheat and millet. Thus, a lot of buckwheat dishes.
After breakfast, we went to a temple that was just a couple of miles from the train station. It was very beautiful. There was a brook that ended at a lake and many various small Buddhist shrines.

We then continued on to the main attraction for us, which was Chusonji (Chuson Temple). However, before getting to Chusoji, we took a detour and went to see the grave of Yoritomo’s wife and child (Yoritomo was a great Feudal Lord). Then, we decided that it was a good idea to continue up a long road that ended up to be a very very steep hill that was almost a vertical climb. Once we arrived at the top, we were rewarded by a shrine.
After our very tiring walk up the hill, we went down and continued to Chusonji. This temple is well known for it’s golden pavilion. It is like the one in Kyoto but unlike the one in Kyoto, Chusonji’s pavilion was preserved in its original state. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take a picture of the pavilion, but it was very beautiful. We also found a statue of Basho, the great haiku poet, and paintings of the other famous shrines and temples in Japan. After Chusoji, we went to the shrine and grave of Yoshitsune the great samurai warrior who was the younger brother of Yoritomo, the War Lord. However, no one knows for sure where Yoshitsune died. There is a legend that Yoshitsune escaped with the help of the Buddhist priest Benkei (who is buried in Chusonji). We also found a stone slab of one of Basho’s haikus. The view was also very beautiful. We were able to see the wide river, and the fields.

After the temple, we headed back to the train station and had lunch and then had a late dinner.

Patrick- A Strict Elementary School

Usually visits to the elementary school bring lots of chaos. The kids are generally very excited, either at getting to study English or not having to study (whatever), so it's quite disorderly and entertaining. But for my own part, I have mostly visited smaller elementary schools and taught only one class (20-30 students) at a time.

On Friday I visited an elementary school that was extremely strict. If students talked when they were entering the room, they were severely scolded. Previously I have not really noticed students being scolded just for talking here.

When it came time for questions, the students had already been selected who would ask-- and what they would ask.

I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the fourth grade, and after that they had a ten question quiz on whate he ate and when.

But even more surprising was lunch. Usually I eat lunch with a class of students and just talk to them. But this lunch was scheduled and choreographed to the last. Three students do greetings, three students ask questions, three students show special tricks (rolling eyes into the back of his head, backflip, stuffing his ear inside his ear?- hard to explain), etc.

Then, even more bizarrely, when I get back to my junior high school, one of the English teachers tells me that at that elementary school, they have actually been really teaching them English every year (usually elementary schools just get a visit or two a year from someone like me for "English instruction"). Well, I actually thought their English ability was lower than the other elementary schools.

I'm not really sure what more to say about this school. Sorry if you read to the end hoping for some resolution.

Patrick- Everyday Disasters

Since coming to Japan, living on my own for the first time has not been such a challenge, but the experience has also been not without its share of accidents. So far, I have:

  • spilled the entire container of laundry detergent- twice

  • broken three glasses

  • forgot about several food items which rotted quite nastily

  • lost my gloves somewhere

  • accidentally left hot water running for a full day which resulted in a $100 gas bill

  • lost my Japanese dictionary and kanji-studying game on a train

  • broken my chair

This list excludes minor problems, such as losing my keys or my wallet, which happens nearly every day.

Still, despite all these accidents, things are quite good. So far, my own stupidity has only cost me about $100/month, so it could certainly be a lot worse.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Patrick- In Case of Emergency...

Today, we had an earthquake drill. This is like a fire drill in the US; all the students calmly line up and exit the school and are timed to see how long it takes them.

But a few weeks ago we had something different-- a fire drill. This "fire" drill assumed that the students would not be able to evacuate the building via the stairs because of immense flames. Instead, students would slide down giant chutes from the fifth floor to the safe ground below.

Of course, the students enjoyed it tremendously. But I am not sure as to its practicality. First, the school is largely concrete, and would likely not quickly burst into flames. Second, although many schools have a balcony running the length of the school, where students could escape safely, mine does not. Instead, students would have to travel the entire length of the hall to the opposite side of the building-- past both sets of stairs-- in order to reach the chutes. Third, it took us forty-five minutes to evacuate 100 students. At that rate, if the flames were that strong...

But anyway, we had fun, and isn't that what matters during safety drills?

Patrick- Japanese Language Proficiency Test

So, for the past three months I have been studying for the Japanese language proficiency test, which I will take the first weekend of December.

There are basically two versions of the test; one for moderate proficiency and one for fluency. I am taking the easier of the two.

I decided to do this when I arrived here because I knew that if I didn't have something to motivate me I probably wouldn't make much progress. Instead, I've been studying between four and six hours a day and learned to read a few thousand words.

Unfortunately, despite studying Japanese for three years at Earlham (but not at all my senior year- very unfortunate considering my position now), I had crap reading ability when I got here, a result of two factors. First, Earlham's program focuses on conversational proficiency. Second, I didn't study Japanese all that hard.

Well, in the past few months I've made up for that, mostly, and am fairly well prepared for next month. SuperMemo has made most of this possible.

SuperMemo is a computer program that shows flash cards that you make. The only difference is after you see each card, you grade yourself 0-5 (0=terrible, 5=great), and then it shows you the card again based on how well you have done historically with that card. So, instead of you scheduling your own reviews, it schedules the reviews for you. So, in preparing for this exam I have accumulated almost 13000 flash cards, but I only see about 800 per day, which still takes a few hours, but isn't unbearable.

I start using SuperMemo this summer, and at first I was skeptical, but after three months I can read an enormous amount of material that I could not begin to process before, so I'm very impressed. I would caution anyone wanting to try it, though, with these two caveats: one, it has some horrendous bugs, and can sometimes behave erratically. Two, the interface is terrible. But for what it does, it's amazing. The real test, of course, will be to see if it helps me remember the language for years to come, as it promises.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Patrick- Afghanistan

Saturday at 6o'clock instead of the normal national news (similar to BBC) they have children's news, once per week. This is like the adult news but they use simpler language, spend more time on each story, and focus on positive things.

This week's main focus was Afghanistan-- how are the people, why does it keep appearing in the news, and would you want to travel there (assuming you are a Japanese child). I was surprised to see that in thirty minutes the children's news gave more information on the history, culture, and actual living conditions of the people of Afghanistan than I saw in six years of US mainstream news coverage.

Of course, it was very brief. For example, the history consisted of "after World War 2 the US and Russia turned the country into a battleground because they couldn't make peace with each other. Then the Taliban rose to power, which lasted until the US invaded after September 11. Now there is a new government, and a few people are much richer, but most people are still very poor and it's still a very dangerous place."

Despite being myopic about some of the country's own problems, at least the news takes the time to cover international affairs even as they do not immediately pertain to the economic interests of the country.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Patrick- Teacher Evaluation Days

On Thursday we had subject evaluation in English, which meant that I taught two classes with my three English teachers, and we were observed by the school principal, the English department head from the board of education, and two teachers from the school. After the classes, we met for two hours to discuss what they thought we could do better.

Although in general it has been my experience that teachers refrain from criticizing each other, the point of these meetings is apparently to take a hard look at what can be improved, and that they did. I won't go into specific details, but it was a long, productive discussion.

Of course, the main teachers glamoured up the classes a little, as we did more creative things than we would usually do, but this actually backfired, as it became apparent that the students could not (in the second years' case) compose a newspaper article from scratch in 50 minutes.

Anyway, I was surprised at the accountability and seriousness of the meeting. I thought that the accountability was generally handled through test scores, which in each subject area are administered and passed along to the board of education every few months.

Patrick- Hospital Part Two

So, on Friday I went to the hospital again and got new medicine for my eye, and also had my wart frozen off. This time I managed to see two doctors in four hours and receive treatment and medicine at a cost of $20, which I don't think is too bad.

Although they also used liquid nitrogen here to freeze the wart, rather than a spray can the doctor used a jug of liquid nitrogen with a Q-tip and painted it on. While it took a lot longer, and was a bit more painful, it was also more accurate, as my blister now surrounds the wart only rather than the wide area that the spray can usually inflamed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

This is a Kotatsu

Dear all,
I talked to my brother earlier and was unable to accurately describe a kotatsu so I took some pictures to use as visual aids.

This is a whole and complete kotatsu. It's made up of a table, a futon, and a zabuton which is a futon that goes under the table on the floor.
This is a picture of the zabuton with a cushion on top of it that you sit on and the large futon lifted up. You sit on the cushion and cover yourself with the big futon. It's very snug and warm.
This is a picture of underneath my kotatsu. The heater's is on the bottom of the table. The cord leads to a switch.
This is the switch. You can turn the heater on and off with it. The temperature control for the heater is on the side of the heater itself so you can control the temperature from just warm to really, really hot.
This is a better if slightly sideways picture of the heater. You can see the temperature knob.

The heater shoots out heat which is then trapped by the encasing futons and then you can put your feet and part of your legs under the table and get all toasty warm.

I hope that this has been a helpful description of a kotatsu.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What Morioka Castle Once Looked Like

Since Morioka still advertises it as a castle town, though the castle was destroyed, I was always curious what it looked like. Well, thankfully, I found these posters at my school during the cultural festival which give one some idea:

Patrick- Cultural Festival

This past weekend we had the cultural festival, where the students spend two days having an open house with many performances. They decorate the classrooms, rearranging everything:

In the classrooms, they displayed projects they had created in most of their classes.

For example, all of the students in the school painted different pictures of the Prefectural Park which is about a five minutes' walk from the school:

And here's one of the school itself:

Some of the students also made anti-drunk driving and anti-bullying posters:

Third year students had to paint self-portraits. Some of them gave themselves blue eyes:

Third year students also made enormous banners for their classes:

Second year students had to sew cargo pants together. When I took home ec, we only had to make a bag:

Students also showed off their calligraphy skills:

Second grade students wrote their dream in English. Third years wrote a poem. These are some of my favorites:

I'll add more about the performances and such when I am able to get some of the video and audio recordings up here.