Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sara-Asagishi Elementary

This past Friday I went to Asagish Elementary. This is my second elementary and while at my first school I taught over 100 students at one time, at Asagish there are only 10 students in the whole school. Asagish is very far and as some of my Shitakoji teachers have said 'In the middle of nowhere.' The elementary school is surrounded by beautiful mountains and it is a very quiet rural community. The first and second grade were together, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th. The children were all very friendly and the school reminded me of the rural Japanese school I went to when I was in the 4th grade. My school was much larger, but had a similar feel.

This picture was taken after recess. Unfortunately, it was also after a little accident. We were playing Freeze tag (Koori Oni-Ice Deamon)and the little girl in the pink tank top (a first grader) got hurt. Someone or some kids hit her too hard when they were tagging her. By the time I had to leave, we managed to get her to smile again. They all were saying "Goodbye" and "See you" from the windows as their principle drove me back to my Junior High School.

I gave the kids bookmarks and stickers, so the 3rd and 4th graders gave me an acorn and the 5th and 6th graders gave me a little paper doll they made. I was supposed to teach them directions in English using the doll and going to places on a map...but it was a little too difficult for them so I taught them, left, right, straight, behind.

Sara- Hachimangu Festival

Patrick and I went to the Hachimangu festival on September 15th. The festival is for three days, from the 14th to the 16th. The 16th was also a national holiday (The day would roughly translate to 'Respect the Elderly day'.) so it was a day off for everyone.

Hachimangu Festival is the festival of Hachimangu Shrine which is of the Shinto religion. (Shinto-shrines, Buddhism-temples)
Unfortunately I don't have any information about the festival but it was very fun to go to and beautiful to watch. They have an evening parade of floats down the main street, and on the 16th, they had an archery on horseback ritual performance. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out the time for it and missed that but hopefully I will see it next year and post about it. The archery is called Yabusame and it is a very traditional and time honored practice.

Here are some pictures that I took.

The floats are very elaborate and you can see the male kabuki like figures in the front and the women figures were on the back of the floats.

The large orange gate way is called a Torii and it is the gate way for all Shinto shrines.

Inside the grounds of the shrine, there are many food and game vendors. As you can see, you have the typical cotton candy vendors, but you also have game booths such as 'Kingyosukui' which translates to 'Goldfish scoop'. You get to scoop up live goldfish and you can keep the ones that you catch. If you have the bad luck of not getting any, you usually get to keep one. Unfortunately, I couldn't take a picture of such a booth, but there's also the 'kujibiki' booths where you pay to get a scrap of paper with a number. Then you get the prize according to the number.
There are also food booths so Patrick and I had dinner there by going around and trying out different foods. Here's a yakitori booth (shishkabobs-usually chicken).
As you can see, there were a lot of people there, but that's only half of the booths and people at the shrine.

At the shrine, there are many places to pray. This is a little shrine but I'm not sure to what god it is dedicated to. Then there were the Zodiac shrines which are the tiny round stones that are hollow inside. Inside you would see the figures of each zodiac animal. Patrick and I went to see the Rat shrine.
Then this is Hachimangu. It is very big and perhaps you can not see, but there are long thick ropes that hang down. These ropes have bells attached to the top and you throw in some money into a collection box, then ring the bell, clap your hands three times and pray or make a wish to the gods.
There were also dancers at the shrine.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Patrick- "Road Race"

So today I had written on my schedule for the afternoon "road race." Not being thoughtful, I decided to bring my video camera and tripod to school to tape this vehicle-based competition.

But of course, it's a junior high school, and there are no vehicles. Instead, "road race" means "run down the street and back" for 3 km if you're a girl and 4 km if you're a boy. So instead of taping I ended up running with the students.

It was actually a race, too. All students (of the same sex) started at the same time and then were all timed and ranked upon their return, from 1 to very last in the school. So on the recommendation of one of my English teachers, I ran with the girls, because he was concerned some of the boys who weren't such good runners would kill themselves trying to keep up with me, and also he didn't think I could make it with the boys anyway.

Well, having run around the track with fourth graders the week before, I forgot how much faster kids get when they're in junior high (also junior high goes up to the ninth grade, which adds to the pain if you're trying to keep up with them). So I ran down the not-quite-so-flooded river with the girls and finished after about a quarter of them. But, as it turns out many of the first year/seventh grade girls had the same "problem" as the boys and worked a bit harder than maybe they should have to beat me.

When I returned to the school, all was good, but there was no water anywhere for any of the students. I said, "Hey, where's the water?" and they said, "Oh, we don't have any. Maybe we should have some." But at least we had a good breeze.

Anyway, I was still feeling ok, and I have to admit it was a little awkward running with the girls but not the boys. So, when the boys were about to start I ran with them too (at the time, I thought they were going the same 3km, not 4km, so that last kilometer was a bad surprise and I had to walk part of that off). But, I finished with the last quarter of them, and I got in a good exercise on this very hot day.

So, instead of getting to sit around and tape something interesting I ran 7km in pants with a button-up shirt. I realize now I should've asked the day before, and then I could have had the wonderful relief of being able to use the appropriate clothes, but I'm glad I got to do it. Because we have a rule that I only use English with my students, it's hard to have a relationship with the ones that really hate English, which is maybe about 1/3 of each class. So every day like today I think is a great chance to meet them on more level ground.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Catherine- Flooding

So for the past two and a half days it has been raining pretty much constantly. The rivers no longer have banks. They are now wide and high. I stopped on the bridge by my school today to look at the river. The river has risen by 2 and 1/2 to 3 meters in the past two days. It's amazing. The water used to be very clear but now it is muddy and opaque. There are trees partially covered by the water from the rising river. There have been floods all along the Kitakami river and in one place the river overflowed and ate a bicyclist. They are still looking for him now. There are businesses with a foot of water on the floor and floating trashcans. I've never seen anything like it.
Catherine writes in addendum:
So I never heard back about the bicyclist one way or another but I just wanted to update you on the river. The banks have now fully returned and dried out. The pathways are once again seeable and the steps that led down into the river for summer waders and swimmers are back. The water is clear and slow moving again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Here is a basic rundown on our salary. Those who are considering working in Morioka will probably find this quite useful.

The figures are all in yen. To make it easy (and about 15% inaccurate in your favor) you can simply think $1= 100 yen.

Annual Salary: 3,600,000 yen

Monthly Salary (gross): 300,000
Health Insurance: 12,500
Pension(*): 21,000
Unemployment: 2,500

Apartment Rent: 42,000
Water: 3,000-4,000
Electricity: 3,500
Gas: 5,000-8,000 (**)

Cell Phone: 2,000-4,500 (at the low end, I use only two or three times a month; the high end assumes fairly frequent use but no excesses like TV, etc)
Internet: 3,200-4,500 (price just depends on where you live and the services that are available)

Transportation: 0
Bicycles are wonderful. However, you may be up to an hour or so by bike from your school. When it gets really cold, this can be bad, so thankfully there are some buses. One can apply for reimbursement for the bus expense to and from the school.

School fees: 0-5,500
Some schools have a snack fee that you can optionally pay to eat snacks at the school. Other schools-- well, mine only actually-- collect large fees each month for, well, it's not exactly clear, but you may not be able to avoid paying it.

Net after rent, utilities, and mandatory deductions: ~190,000-210,000 yen/month

Water, electricity, and gas usage assume conservative but frequent use. My apartment has slightly higher rent than some of the others.

(*): The government returns the pension money at the end of the program, assuming we complete our contract, which is a nice little bonus at the end of the two years.
(**): Gas price is confirmed after a few months of being more expensive than originally posted. Hot showers of even moderate length are expensive. The monthly fee (for any use) is about 2000 yen; after that, it's what you use.

Final note: nearly all bills are paid by direct deposit (it's set up as part of your orientation) so the only way you'll screw up payment is if you overdraw your account.

Patrick- Photo: $100 in coins

The stack of coins in this photo is valued at 10,000 yen, which is roughly $90 right now but has been between $80-100 in the past few years. Japan has the highest valued coin currently in circulation in the world, at 500 yen (about $4.50). That means there are no bills under 1000 yen (about $9). So you have to be extra careful not to let all the change spill out of your pocket.

I will use this stack of coins to pay for part of my rent tomorrow. It's a little bizarre to think I will be paying for ~25% of my rent in change.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Catherine- The all Iwate English Speech Competition

Catherine writes: I'm sure that my fellow AET's will have a lot to say about this but for my part I have to say this was pretty intense. The competition draws students from middle schools all over Iwate. There are two kinds of speeches; recitations and orations. A recitation is a student reading a story from one of the textbooks or the textbooks supplemental material. They are judged on pronunciation, clarity, and the use of gestures and facial expressions. An oration is a student reading a speech that he or she has written and prepared themselves. They are judged using the same criterion as the recitation. This part of the competition is the more prestigious of the two and the awards are literally larger.
The students are ranked against each other rather than some outside criterion the only marker they have to follow is for time. The speech cannot exceed five minutes or it is penalized. For the orations the choices of topic are limitless but the for the recitations the stories must come from the textbooks so there is a lot of repetition. The students went based on their year in school and which story they picked. This means that the judges could and did hear up to twenty recitations of the same story over and over again.

I was there to support two students that I have been helping for the past weeks. They both conducted themselves admirably but did not take top prizes. When the kids and I started working their pronunciation was so bad I had trouble understanding them, they made many mistakes many times over. By the time we were done they had both improved by leaps and bounds in terms of both clarity and pronunciation. I'd say they improved by at least %50. I was very proud of their efforts. I know that not taking a prize was disappointing for both of them but they went so far in a very short time that I can't help but feel good about them. When I started this job I was told that there would be students who just didn't want to learn or who really wanted to but just couldn't for some reason. That the biggest impact I was likely to make was in terms of international understanding. Today what I did in the classroom and my abilities to teach English made an impact. I know that they are both better English speakers because I was able to teach them and I'm glad. That's kind of a self-centered attitude but I hate feeling like I'm being paid to speak my native language rather than teach it. Today was the proof that I taught English rather than just spoke it.

Patrick writes: I actually did not attend the speech competition, but I'm glad it's over. I was drilling students for about two hours per day for the past three weeks, and you can only hear the same five minute speeches so many times before you start to lose it. I couldn't believe they wanted to practice so much (of my three students, one didn't want to practice, and two did very much; of those two, one hated going to track and field and the other actually enjoyed English). I am happy that one of my students won fourth place in the speech contest proper.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Catherine- My very first taihuu (typhoon)

So Friday was the very first typhoon I have ever experienced. I went to Kita Kuriyagawa elementary school to do my very first visit. When I got up that morning I just thought it was raining however I was mistaken. In Morioka it rains a lot. Almost everyday but in a typhoon it rains for 10 to 12 hours straight and it's a consistently heavy rain.
The kids got sent home early because of the rain. The kyoto sensei or vice-principal coordinated with all of the teachers and students over the PA system. First everyone got dressed in their rain gear and got out their umbrella and then the the students were organized and sent off with a teacher based on where they lived near to the school. The teacher walked the whole crowd of students to their home street and saw them safely off. During this whole time the vice-principal made announcements as to which street was going when and answering phone calls from parents. I waited while all of these machinations took place. Until every student had made it home safely and all of the teachers had returned I could not go home. I had been given a ride to the school by one of the teachers and none of them were able to even think about me until the kids were home safe. I really admire this attitude and the way the teachers and vice-principal handled this situation. They all knew what they were doing and they all worked together for the best interests of their students.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sara- Victoria, Canada Orientation and Shitakouji English classes

Morioka has a program where they send a few High School students to their sister city, Victoria, Canada. In the beginning of August I volunteered to help with the orientation meeting. That meeting was today. It was only about 3 hours and I and another ALT, Alicia (This is her 6th year as an ALT and 3rd year working under Earlham's program) taught them how to place an order at a restaurant, tipping, how to shop for souvenirs, and how to introduce yourself to the host family. The students seemed to understand a great deal and it was fun working with them. Showing the students how to use English in a practical setting however made me a little sad about my classes at Shitakouji.

This past week the 7th grade students were to memorize this skit:

Mike: Two hamburgers and two colas please. (In Japan, they say Cola instead of Coke or soda, or pop)

Waitress: Large or small?

Mike: Large please.

Waitress: For here or to go?

Mike: To go.

Waitress: Here you are. That's five hundred and fourty yen, please...Thank you.

The skit is fine, but when I mean memorize, I do mean memorize. Each student was to remember the entire script. The sad part was, only a few of them understood what was going on. To me, it seems that students are only learning the sounds at my school and only a few will realize that some of the phrases can and are used in real life dialog.

Sara- Morioka Sports Day

On September 4th, Morioka had a Track and Field competition for all the junior high schools. It took place in a very large stadium and 23 out of 26 schools participated. My school, Shitakouji came in 1st place for the boys and 2nd for the girls.

The track and field is what one might expect, except for the cheering. Each school groups together and not only do they have set cheers that all the students have to say, but they also change their uniforms to form various writing. These cheers are usually led by three boys who are the leaders of the cheer squad. Look for them near the end of the video.

Patrick writes: You may not believe it at first, but cheerleaders are not only male, they actually all wear clothes here. They don't do any slutty dances, either. Instead, they actually lead cheers. I was taken aback at first, too.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Patrick- Elementary School Lunch, Another Visit

Today I visited the elementary school of my fellow English teacher's daughter. It was a good trip, but we are receiving the rain from the typhoon and so I biked for half an hour straight uphill and got completely soaked despite my rain suit.

But, the school itself was quite fun. I spent two and a half hours with each of the two fourth grade classes. We did basic greetings, they introduced themselves, and played some games. Unfortunately, the pressure was a little too much for one girl and she burst into tears when it came for her turn to say "My name is ____/I am ___ years old."

The most chaotic moment of the day came at recess, which the students have for twenty minutes after lunch. Most students appear to be free to go mostly where they want, and I joined about 100 students in the gym for a game of dodgeball. There were no other teachers at first, and then other teachers stopped in to check only infrequently, which worried me a little, but we didn't have any injuries, despite all of the kids trying to bean each other in the head with the ball. They did nail several girls who weren't paying attention, but everyone was able to shake off the pain.

In their version of dodgeball, when you get hit, you have to go over to the other side, and your teammates have to throw you the ball so you can get someone out from their own side, at which point you are released. If you catch the ball when it's thrown at you, nothing happens. I remember it differently, but then it has been many years.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the school lunch:

students serving themselves lunch; no one can eat until they finish, so if one kid gets too excited serving as happened today, they can recall the first plates and redistribute the food

a close-up of the lunch; maybe I got a little bit more than your normal fourth grader... the lunch includes hayashi rice (peppers and onions and beef with rice), a fruit salad, and a cucumber-type salad, plus milk with some amount of fat

yours truly and one of the fourth grade classes

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Catherine- Adjusting to Life in Japan

I don't know about my fellow AET's (assistant English teachers) but some of the things I am having the most trouble adjusting to are not related to the fact I'm in Japan. I live alone for the first time in my life. I don't have a roommate, house mates, or family around to make noise and be there when I get home. I am saved all the hassles like dirty dishes in the sink that aren't my own or the washing machine being in use every time I want to wash clothes but I am left with a totally empty house. There is no one to say, "I'm home" to or to say "good morning" to; there's no one to fight with. My things are never moved from where I drop them but there is no one to help me clean up.
I have always been an independent person completely comfortable with my own company but now that I know it is not possible I really miss having someone around. I have great friends. My job is a lot work but has many compensations. I love being in Japan meeting new people and seeing new things. At the same time I really miss arguing with my mother in person.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Patrick- The Somewhat Crappy Banking System of Japan

Rather than giving a lengthy explication of the banking system, I will here simply list several points of interest:

* Japan does not have national bank chains; instead, if people need nationwide access to their money (and often even if they don't), they use a post office savings account. The Japanese post office is, or rather would be, if it were to be privatized, the largest bank in the world.

* If you are signing up for a bank account and make one mistake on the form, you can't white it out/cross it out/edit it at all. You have to start over.

* Ditto if the bank employee makes a mistake for you.

* It is difficult for foreigners to get credit cards in Japan, mainly because it's hard to prove residency.

* Further, credit cards are very different from the US versions anyway. There are two basic kinds: one that you charge to and then the full balance is debited from your account at the end of each month (glorified charge card) and another that you specify how many installments at the time of payment. In other words, I buy a PS3 (hypothetically) for $600 and when I charge it the clerk asks: "how many times do you want to pay?" I'm feeling masochistic so I say "twelve" and then for the next twelve cycles the installment plus interest is automatically deducted from my account. This is not easy to adjust.

* Debit cards are not really available, although the Japanese credit cards are similar to the US debit cards.

* Most people do not have a checking account. Nearly everything is (or can be) paid in cash.

* This absence of ways to pay for things (particularly online) is somewhat alleviated by the fact that you can take your utility bill or some online store bills and other notices to one of the many convenience stores and pay off your balance there. It's convenient, but perhaps not quite as convenient as automatically deducting it from your account.

* Thankfully, you can automatically deduct your bills from your account. But, it takes two months to set up. No joke. You write down all of your account information and then for the next two months you have to pay at the convenience store until they "set you up." Apparently there is nothing like the EFT system in the US.

* On the plus side, when you withdraw or deposit money, whether at the bank or through an ATM, if you haven't forgotten it you can insert your little bank book and automatically get all transactions since your last visit (including those processed automatically, like debits for utilities and rent and whatnot) printed on it. This is much nicer than a bank statement because it keeps your whole history right there in your pocket, and tells you exactly how much you have saved/left.

* If you screw up when you put in your pin number at the ATM (two or three strikes and you're out), it eats your card. Then you have to wait two more weeks for a new one.

* The bank is open only when we are at work. It opens at 10 and closes at 3, Monday through Friday only.

All in all, the banking system isn't terrible, but it's not nearly as convenient as the US system. On the other hand, Japan's health insurance system is much better (cheaper), which is probably more important.

Patrick's Thoughts on Food

Here I will touch briefly on some of the issues related to food; in the coming weeks, I will bring a camera to dinner and take some pictures of the various beautiful little dining items that can be found everywhere.

So, for my own part I have been eating out twice almost every day for lunch and dinner. For breakfast I have cereal (corn flakes) and milk, which is basically the same as in the US except that the milk isn't pasteurized and the cereal box is a little smaller (about five bowls per box) and a little cheaper (about $1.75).

For lunch, I stop at a convenience store. They are everywhere in Japan. They stock various lunches which are sort of made fresh every day, and you can usually choose from something like: hamburger with rice, fish with rice, spaghetti, Japanese noodles, etc. They aren't the tastiest in the world but they are reasonably healthy (though thoroughly washed in preservatives and completely fruit-celibate) and very cheap (between $3-5). If you are going to eat it right there, they will even heat it up for you in about twenty seconds.

You can also get little lunch boxes from the grocery, which are a little cheaper, have a little more, and are generally a bit healthier.

Thankfully, I was told today I would be spared having to make a run every day to pick up the lunch, and instead would be able to order with all of the other teachers who do not bring their lunch to school. Since the kids all bring their lunch, and eat in their homerooms, there is no school cafeteria, so restaurants cater for the teachers. Thankfully, this only costs me 450 yen (~115/$1) each day, so I am excited.

Finally, dinner. The question is: why am I not cooking dinner? Well, there are two equally great reasons. One, the food is reasonably cheap, and if I don't order a drink and imbibe only the provided tea and water, I can eat at many restaurants for between 600-1000 yen. It is very hard to cook for the low end of that price, and at the high end you have to factor in the trouble of preparing it, cleaning up, trying not to waste all the extra crap I bought, etc.

Also, I have been spending my evenings when I get home from school studying. I am trying to memorize about 6000 words in one month, and to do that seems to be taking a fair bit of effort. So, since I can't really memorize anything after dinner for about an hour or so, I delay dinner until I get it done, but by the time I get done, I am too hungry to cook.

My favorite restaurant that I have discovered in the last month is Kappa Sushi (Turtle Sushi), which is a conveyor-belt style sushi restaurant where two pieces of sushi costs 105 yen (about eighty cents). So, the little sushi plates circle around the restaurant, and every time you see one you like, you grab it and pay eighty cents. It is much more fun than it sounds. And it tastes delicious. I have been there about twelve times in thirty days. Unfortunately, although many restaurants like it have a point card (for discounts), it's too cheap to have one. But then that's one less thing to worry about.

Stay tuned for more detailed summaries (and pictures!) of the many wonderful dishes in Morioka.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Catherine-My School

So I just finished my first real week of teaching at my school and I will be starting week two tomorrow and I have to say, "Wow." Teaching is hard work. It's not the standing in front of a class imparting knowledge part but all the others that make this so a difficult job. Prep work, talking to students, extracurriculars, staff meetings, grade meetings, parent-teacher meetings, and the list goes on. Having spent a week in school from the teacher's perspective rather than the student's I can now fully appreciate what a pain in the butt I was for my teachers. I also say this with the qualifications that I was a decent student who was reasonably well behaved and who liked school for the most part. Despite this I really like teaching. I like being able to help kids become adults and realize their goals. I throughly admire all of my the teachers I work with and I think that I very lucky to be where I am.