Friday, September 21, 2007

Kokutai plans

Every year, some prefecture in Japan hosts the Kokutai, a national sports festival that lasts about two weeks and features matches between teams all over Japan in sports ranging from team sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey, to boating sports like sailing and rowing, to martial arts like judo, karate, and kendo.

This year, the Kokutai is being held in Akita, and everywhere you look, you can see Sugichi, the anthropomorphic christmas tree mascot of Akita, holding olympic-looking torches, swinging a baseball bat, wearing a sumo mawashi, or even (frighteningly enough) holding a gun and smiling gleefully.

Needless to say, it's pretty awesome that Akita's hosting the Kokutai while I'm here. Our students have no class during the main week of the festival's matches, and many teachers choose to take some days off too. The best part is, if we use this time to go see some sporting event, it doesn't count against our days of paid vacation. Because of this, and the fact that I would have practically nothing to do here at school, I'm trying to see as many things as possible. Planning is tough though, as there are so many events, and many occur at the same time.

My tentative plan at the moment is as follows:

9/30 - soccer
10/1 - karate
10/2 - sumo
10/3 - kendo
10/4 - soccer
10/5 - rugby
10/6 - baseball
10/7 - judo

It should be fun cheering for Akita, even though it sounds like our baseball team will get crushed in the first round.

And before I leave for the weekend, here's a few more pictures:

My apartment from the outside.

My school, as seen from the balcony of my apartment (I told you it was close!)

My living area in my apartment, all fixed up. Lots of Akita maps, and a nice recliner given to me by the principal.

The largest can of peas at my local supermarket.

"natsu kurimu" = not peanut butter

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mt. Chokai

I took the train south to Honjo last weekend and met up with the friendly local English teachers pictured above. Together we set off to climb Mt. Chokai, an active volcano on the southern border of Akita prefecture. Because of its size and shape, it's sometimes referred to as Akita-Fuji (Mt. Fuji of Akita) or Dewa-Fuji (Mt. Fuji of Yamagata), depending on which side of the peak your loyalties lie.

We had planned on making it to the top, but left too late. Getting to the top and coming back down takes about 8 hours of hiking without rests. We left at 11AM and took breaks along the way, so eventually we had to turn back for the sake of daylight. We went most of the way up, though, saw a lot of great views, and enjoyed the unusually warm, sunny weather in spite of the forecast for rain.

Approaching Chokai by car. You can't see the peak here, but you can see where the outer edges disappear into the clouds.

Shortly after we began to drive up the mountainside we stopped to admire the areal view of the Sea of Japan coastline.

Team Chokai, minus myself: Phil from Manchester, Sophie from New York, and Canadian-Jeff

This view was pretty amazing and caught us all off guard as we came around the corner.

The view.

Here is Canadian-Jeff demonstrating the dangers posed to pedestrians by the so-called Gaijin traps, the trough-like gutters that skirt several country roads in Japan, threatening to wreck the cars of any unsuspecting foreigners. Honestly, what other purpose can they possibly serve?

The beginning of our trek looked pretty easy.

The paved road quickly disappeared, however.

Halfway to the peak there's a little rest-house with bathrooms and a great view.

Looking down from the rest-house was like looking out of an airplane.

Looking the opposite direction from the same place.

There were several people coming and going along the way, including one other grizzled-looking foreigner who wished us luck.

Here you can see our laughably deficient hiking footwear. On the left, me and my Converse® sneakers, followed by Canadian Jeff's flip-flops (which elicited cries of "sugoi!" from Japanese passersby who were impressed, and what sounded like admonishments from others who thought he was just stupid), and finally Phil and his sad old boots which began to fall apart near the top of the mountains and had to be tied together impromptu with the string from one of our sweatshirts.

Next up is Lake Tazawa, and this time I got a decent pair of hiking shoes (though I had to have the store order a pair in my size).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Apartment

I knew nothing about my apartment before coming to Akita, for the simple reason that they did not have one for me yet. I'm very happy with the one they chose, however.

I've seen at least one other JET's apartment and heard descriptions of others, and it sounds like mine is a relatively good size. I have two tatami rooms: a 6-mat one where I sleep, and a 4.5-mat one where guests can stay, or where I can serve meals or tea. I have a living-area (upper right) where I can watch TV on my recliner or eat at my kitchen table. The kitchen and living-area are pretty much opened up to each other, though you can close the sliding doors. Then there's the entrance area (remember to take off your shoes!), the toilet (western style!), bath/shower room, sink, washing machine, and outdoor balcony for drying clothes.

6-tatami room. Plenty of closet space there on the left. I sleep on the blue thing to the right.
4.5-tatami room. I've got a low table there now, great for Japanese-style meals.

Living area. This looks really messy, but I've cleaned it up now. I took out those awkward square tatami and pushed the kitchen table against the wall. The junk in the corner is my heating system, which someone will come install before the weather starts getting too cold.

The kitchen, seen from the living area. My microwave has an "oven" function, but I've yet to try it out. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be able to do.

(Looking in from the entrance area.)

Sink and medicine cabinet. Japanese sinks are pretty low off the ground.

Here's where I take showers. It took a while to figure out how to use, even with the help of some teachers. I had five Japanese people over at my apartment before we got it working! First you have to turn on the gas, turn some knob, light the flame, hold for about 15 seconds, turn the knob to shower, and finally turn the shower on. I've been showering standing in the tub, although I guess that's not necessary, as the whole room is a shower that drains through a grate on the floor.

The washing machine. The left is for washing and rinsing, and the right is for wringing out clothes before you hang them up. The Hello Kitty stickers were there when I moved in.

The toilet- with a sink and faucet over the water tank, so you can wash your hands using the water that refills the tank.

Outdoor balcony. If I look to the right from here, I'm looking right at my high school, to which I literally live next door.

View from my bedroom window.

Also from my bedroom window.

And if you're interested you can see my apartment from above with the impressively clairvoyant Google Maps here. The buildings directly below my apartment and to the right are Akita Minami High School, where I work. (Also, if you're familiar with Google Maps already, you might be able to figure this out on your own, but since its in Japanese: if you want to go to satellite view, click on the middle of the three buttons on the upper-right corner of the map.)

So, my place is a pretty good size, very close to the supermarket and school, and (best of all) it's a jutaku apartment, which means its subsidized especially for people employed by the city, myself included. I end up paying 11,400 yen a month for rent (about $114), so I can go out for sushi several times a week if I want.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Teaching Shock

I came to Akita on a Friday and was asked to prepare a self introduction to give in front of the whole school on Monday. They said I could use either English or Japanese, so I went with Japanese, because A: it was more fun, and B: it was a good excuse to just say some really basic stuff.

Hundreds of students assembled in the gym, standing attentively in rows. They had me walk from the very back all the way to the stage, going straight down the middle as they all turned and stared, murmuring excitedly. Why they couldn't start the ceremony with me already at the front of this gym, much larger than that of my own high school, I have no idea. In any case, my speech went fine, although they seemed to laugh a lot. This was partly because they were surprised at my Japanese, and partly, as I was later informed by a student, because I used some old-fashioned words that sounded silly (Damn you, Nintendo DS dictionary!)

I must say, the shock of having to introduce myself to classes and begin teaching right away was much greater than any of those things people associate with culture shock. Speaking Japanese and trying weird new foods is positively fun, as is learning how to use all the unfamiliar-looking Japanese appliances at my apartment. To suddenly become a high school teacher having never been one before, however, is quite a challenge.

But speaking of foods, I must admit, I do miss American peanut butter. All they have at our local supermarket is this "natsu kurimu" (nuts cream), which no matter what anyone says, is NOT peanut butter.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Onagori Matsuri

Last weekend, I escaped the suburbs of Akita City for the first time since I arrived here and took the trains (on my own!) up to Noshiro for the Onagori festival. There, I met up with a friendly group of JETs, and together we enjoyed the festival and Noshiro night life. We were a colorful assortment of nationalities, being variously an American, an Englishman, an Irish girl, a Canadian, and an Australian.

The Onagori festival is a sort of end-of-summer amalgamation of traditions drawn from several different festivals in the area. So, it was perfect for me, having come too late to see most of them.

The introductory picture shows one of the brilliant Nebuta floats, carried by a team of young men, who run around the street, spinning the entire structure faster than you would imagine is possible from seeing a still photograph (it's probably lighter than it looks) and if the people watching from the sidewalks cheer enough, they'll rush toward you, stopping just short of a collision and leaning the whole float forward, effectively "bowing" the float for all the spectators to see.

Nebuta float greeting the opposite side of the street.

This is a little before the main events started. You can see men carrying lanterns from the Kanto festival (of my own Akita City). Each of these constructs, with about 30 to 40 lanterns in all, is hoisted up on a single pole and carried by one man, who balances the end of the pole expertly on his forehead, chin, or shoulders. (Unfortunately I don't have any photos of this, but see the background of my blog).

Everywhere, there are street vendors, grilling yakitori, takoyaki, yakiniku, and many other yaki's. Also, you can find ice cream, shaved ice, and other tasty desserts.

No, she's not Japanese. This is one of the visiting Brazilian dancers featured in the festival. Some were quite friendly, and it was amusing to watch them approach the more modest spectators. The girl in the photo started dancing with a little 4-year-old boy.

Here's a man preparing my takoyaki (octopus, tempura, and vegetables stuffed in a batter dumpling and topped with sauces). I waited a long time for these, but found, as the other JETs had warned me, that I could only finish about six before I'd had enough. Good stuff, though.

A float with many people and flowers and figures.

I saw a taiko group of young boys practicing near a bright paper float before the main events.

And these are a couple videos I took. At some point, you can see the paper float seen above with its wings and towers bent over to facilitate its movement under low hanging power lines.

Onagori Matsuri
Onagori Matsuri 2

Friday, September 7, 2007

Typhoon Fitow

Typhoons are a fact of life in Japan, with several occurring between May and October each year. The season peaks right about now (August to September) and sure enough, typhoon Fitow, the ninth of this season, will be passing over us soon, as you can see in my diagram:

This picture is from earlier, so it's actually much closer now! Fortunately, typhoons aren't nearly as devastating here as they are further south on the pacific coast. In the Tokyo area, there has been flooding, water damage, and several injuries.

In Akita, however, typhoons rarely cause serious damage to anything but crops, which suffer from the seawater-saturated winds. Occasionally, (every few years, say my coworkers) some structural damage also occurs, so it's still important to be careful and stay indoors when possible.

For me, the approaching typhoon meant deciding whether we wanted to open the windows and have the wind come whistling in, blowing all our papers around, or shut the windows and suffer a hot, stuffy room. It also meant that all three of my classes for today were canceled. Students are being sent home early today as a precaution. It's supposed to pass over us between 3 and 9PM, but it's still only a little breezy right now. Unfortunately, we have tests starting next Tuesday and I was going to use our class time today to finish up some last topics. I'm hoping I can arrange to see one of my classes on Monday.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The speech that didn't make sense

On my second day of teaching here, one of the English teachers asked if I would help coach some students who were practicing for an English recitation contest. I happily agreed, and she led me to a classroom where a couple students waited. OK, I thought, this should be easy. With my native knowledge of grammar, word choice, and intonation, I should be a great help to these kids.

We asked the first student to begin. With great enthusiasm and flawless memorization, she recited her speech, but as she went on, I came to the sad realization that I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about. Her pronounciation was pretty good, and I had the script right in front of me. It just didn't make sense! It certainly seemed very emotional, and parts of it were coherent. The grammar and word choice were OK, if somewhat unusual. But what the hell was she talking about? Why would she write this for a competition? What was I supposed to say when she finished?

I decided against asking her what her speech had been about, and instead pointed out some grammar and word choices that I would have phrased differently. As I went over these points, crossing out and adding in words on her script, the English teacher leaned over and whispered to me politely, "Um, Jeff sensei? She is reciting from a text by Hellen Keller. She did not write this, so... we can't change it." Something clicked and I immediately recognized the text. All I could do was laugh at my mistake say "hazukashii!!!"

So anyway, from then on I decided to focus mainly on pronounciation, intonation, and eye-contact. And I'm pleased to say that the student reciting the speech went on to win first prize in her age group. In my defense, it's a pretty bizarre essay when taken out of context.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Beginning

Well, I did it. I'm in Japan. It's been nearly a year since I began the altogether-too-long application process required for the JET program, from filling out the extensive application, to acquiring letters of recommendation, to the nerve racking interview, to desperately waiting for the results, to being rejected (alternate status), to not knowing what would happen next, to being accepted, to hasty preparations for one of the biggest changes in my life. It certainly feels like it's been a long time.

But now I'm in Japan. And it's still hard to imagine a world map with the "You are here" arrow pointing at those islands, so far from everything that's familiar to me, to imagine that I live there now, after having grown up thinking it a fact of reality that Southern California is where I lived, live, and always will live, to imagine that I'm going to be here for a year, maybe even longer. I cannot guess what such a tremendous change will mean for me as a person, but I am excited to find out.

I hope to use this blog, mainly, as a way of staying in touch with my family and friends, to let them know about life in Japan, and to keep them updated on my own life here. It will also serve as my own personal record of my experiences, something I can look back on later in life. And finally, it will serve as an outlet for any thoughts or feelings I may have while I'm here.

To my family and friends, I miss you already. And, don't worry. I'll be home before you know it. And in the meantime, get AIM, get Skype, or just email me. I want to hear from everyone and know how you're all doing, okay?

Ja~, kore kara, gambarimasu!