May 1, 2013

Tokyo April 2014 Part 1

My spring vacation! Last year I went to Kyoto with Aunt Jan and this year I decided to take a long, 8-day holiday in Tokyo! Needless to say, I had one of the best weeks ever. I’m going to divide the trip into two parts, but these posts will still be pretty long. :)

Friday, April 5th

I was leaving that very day and I hadn’t really packed yet. I had only set a few things aside and had dragged out my carryon-size suitcase from the closet, but that was it.

So… As you can imagine, I was pretty busy after work. I went to the gym, ate dinner, packed, and still had about 45-60 minutes to kill before it was time to head to the bus stop. Even with luggage, it takes me less than 10 minutes to walk to the Willer Express bus stop in front of the Hirosaki Best Western Hotel.

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I was not looking forward to the bus ride down to Tokyo, but it was the cheapest method of transportation. Round trip cost me around 10,000 yen (a little over $100). Compare that to a round trip shinkansen bullet train fare of about $330 or more. Can’t beat the price of the bus, really. And saving money on transportation meant that I could spend more on shopping in Tokyo (for my frugal conscience’s sake).

The more I thought about it, the more I was looking forward to getting a break from Aomori and seeing my Japanese host family and friends. And of course, warmer weather.

The bus ride was… Well… I’d rather not talk about it. I guess I‘ll call it a necessary evil. I bought a neck pillow, ear plugs, and an eye mask for the journey, but it didn’t seem to help much. I tried. I’m just not good with buses.

Saturday, April 6th

We arrived at least 30 minutes ahead of schedule at Shinjuku station. The weather was a little poor and spitting rain a bit. I had my trusty travel hoodie, so it was okay.

I took the Seibu-Shinjuku line from Shinjuku to Nogata, the closest station to my host family’s house. Koenji Station is also close, but Nogata is closer by about 5 minutes. Walking with my luggage, I got too hot along the way and had to peel off my layers. Two sweaters worth! Whew!

My host mom welcomed me with open arms and let me rest for a while. It was so nice to finally see her again after having been away for so long!

We (host mom, brother Shouta, and I) left by car to go to the Setagaya area of Tokyo, where they would be participating in an Awa-Odori event.

Awa-Odori is a traditional dance from Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. My friend Zandra actually lives there now. In the neighborhood of Koenji, Awa-odori dance was started in 1956 by migrants from Tokushima prefecture. My host family has been in this “ren” (dance group) for years and years, even when my host mom was a child. She didn’t dance, but played an instrument.

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It says “Awa-Odori” on the lanterns.

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April 15, 2013

Disney Sea with Maiko

A long time ago, in a land far away from Japan, two roommates traveled by plane from Oregon to California. It was my first year of college and my roommate Maiko’s study abroad year at Lewis & Clark.

Together we went to visit my aunt and grandmother in Los Angeles and San Diego! It was April 2006, Spring Break. Needless to say, we had a blast! We went to Universal Studios, San Diego Wild Animal Park, and Disney Land. An amazingly fun weekend with family and theme parks!

Looking at these pictures makes me feel all nostalgic! We were 18 and 19 years old back then!

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So in continuation of these adventures…

When I went to Tokyo last week, Maiko offered to take the day off of work on Thursday (4/11/2013) so we could go to…

 

Tokyo Disney Sea!

 

It turned out that she had to be in a meeting that morning, but was able to take the afternoon off! I was so excited to be going to a theme park with her again! Plus, she had two free tickets that she had won at a raffle at a wedding. We were set!

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April 1, 2013

The Snow Corridor: Round 2

After last year’s awesome adventure to the snow corridor, I was really excited to go again this year. This year, the snow walls reached 8.1 meters high!

I remembered that before the road officially opens to road traffic on April 1st, they hold an annual Hakkoda Snow Corridor Walk & Onsen event. On March 30 and 31st, the road opened only to pedestrians for an 8km (5 mi) walk. You book a course from your city that costs 3,900 yen, which covers the coach bus fare (round-trip), the walk entry fee, and hot springs entry fee. This year would be the 23rd annual walk!

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And I did it!

I got up early on Sunday morning and was on the bus by 8am. We bussed up to the mountain and waited for all the other buses to arrive. I asked a couple girls to take my picture against the massive wall of snow. Yeah, it was huge.

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At 9:50am they held the “opening ceremony” where a person on the loudspeaker led everyone in stretches. They all shouted while counting the stretches: “One…Two…Three…Four…Five…Six…Seven…Eight…Hakkoda!” Group stretches/exercises are totally an Asian thing.

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March 28, 2013

Thank You Always

March 8th was a special day for me because I was invited to my favorite junior high school’s graduation ceremony. I went last year, but at that time I had only known the graduating class for a little over 7 months. This year was a little more special because I have been with these kids for two years (since they were 2nd-year students). There were only 9 students in the graduating class (5 girls and 4 boys). One of them I was especially close with because I coached her for the English Speech contest in 2011 and 2012. But really, I have grown quite close to all of them. It was awesome to see them graduate. I almost cried.

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I arrived at the school at 12pm (my supervisor let me spend the morning at home, thank goodness). I ate lunch with the 1st and 2nd-year students and then waited for the 3rd-years to arrive. The ceremony began at 2pm. There were a lot of speeches, as usual, and I could understand a lot more of their speeches this year. I especially loved the 2nd-year kid’s speech and the graduating class representative’s speech. By the end of her speech, many were in tears. And then they had to sing their farewell song. Half the girls couldn’t sing because they were crying.

My favorite part is always at the end where all the teachers stand in a line at the front of the gym and the students all come up and say their thank-you’s with a bow. It was a loud, heartfelt, teary “Thank you.” Then they turned, wiping their tears, and marched out of the gym to end the ceremony.

 

「ありがとうございます」

 

The words “Thank you” are especially meaningful in Japan, I feel. For graduating 3rd-year students, that “Thank you” encapsulates the students’ feelings of gratitude toward their teachers for helping them through three years of junior high school. For helping them learn, have fun, and prepare for the dreaded high school entrance exams. Teachers hold a position of respect and honor in Japan, so graduation is a time to recognize the students’ accomplishments and also the teachers who helped them through it all.

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March 27, 2013

Concrete Plans

Many apologies for the lack of update lately! I can’t really blame it on work, because I haven’t taught any classes since February 28th. I guess it was mostly because of a lack of things to report on? Winter was winter-y. There was snow. Lots of snow.

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But I am happy to report that the weather is now heading towards spring-like! It is now in the 40s (F) and quite sunny today! I am now able to ride my bike to work safely. It is still cold, but I can combat that with my jacket and scarf. And the days are much longer now, so I am able to see the sun more. Lastly, with the return of warmer temperatures… my chilblains foot condition has gotten better. My poor toes are no longer swollen and itchy, but they still retain their odd red/purple color. It’s quite strange. I wonder how long they will stay that color.

And now… I have a bit of unfortunate news (having to do with this blog post’s title).

I was not accepted to my first-choice graduate school. I received the news on March 3rd and was quite devastated. I really was praying hard for that one. I had already been accepted to my second choice in December, but when my FAFSA report came back… It just did not look like a financially feasible or smart decision. And in addition to that, my heart longed for Texas and to be closer to friends and family.

So I did a lot of thinking. A LOT.

I decided that I am going to postpone graduate school, move back to Austin, find work, and reapply to more graduate schools in Texas next fall. When I left for JET, I told myself that “Austin will always be there when I get back.” And it is. So that’s where I’m going. It’s a little scary going into uncertainty and being without a job, but you know… I’ve done it before. I moved to Texas in 2009, found work, worked hard, had fun… Did all that. I can do it again.

I will be back in the US by July 4th so I can spend the holiday with my parents and brother who will be in Chicago. My contract states that my return airfare will be paid by Aomori Prefecture, so they are going to arrange my travel for me. Nice, huh?

I also have a few exciting travel plans coming up…

First, I am going to Tokyo for a week! From April 6th to April 13th! I am going to be staying with my host mom at her house in Koenji again. I haven’t seen her in a year and a half, so it will be good to visit. I am also going to meet my host sister and her 1 year old son that I haven’t met yet. I am also planning to meet up with several old friends so I can see them one last time before I leave Japan. Looks like it is going to be a fun week. I am also looking forward to having free time to just walk around Tokyo and explore again, like I used to back when I was 20 and living there. Most of my friends will be working during the day, so I suspect I will have free time to just relax and walk around. I’m not scheduled to teach again until April 17th, so it certainly beats sitting in the office! Plus, it is already pretty warm in Tokyo (compared to Aomori), so that is another great bonus.

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Second, my mom and I are going to New York City! 2013 is turning out to be a big year for me! Rome, Tokyo, New York City… I am going to spend the 4th of July weekend at home with my parents, and then we are leaving on Monday, July 8th to spend a week in NYC. A week! A whole week! Words cannot describe how excited I am to see this great city I have heard so much about. The crazy thing is that a mere two weeks ago I was contemplating going to NYC alone for a few days… And then my mom said she would love to join me… The rest is history. The plane tickets are bought. The tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway are bought. Sightseeing and restaurant plans are being made.

So that is what’s happening with me.

I plan to enjoy my last three months here in Japan and prepare for the next stage in my life. I will probably be moving to Texas at the end of July and we will see how things will go from there.

Until next time!

March 3, 2013

March is here

I’m done teaching for the school year. The next school year begins in April. I won’t see my junior high school 3rd-years anymore, but I will see the others again.

Next week I will be heading to my favorite junior high school to watch my students graduate. The entire graduating class is only 8 students. I’ll put on a suit and participate in pictures like a real teacher. I went last year and it really was a lot of fun. There were a lot of tears, but the kids are also really good at singing so there was good music as well. The whole school is only 29 students, but they always do a good job at putting on a ceremony.

The weather these past few weeks has been absolutely horrible. People right and left have been telling me how this is the worst winter they have seen in their entire life. Actually, my supervisor told me that we have received TWICE the amount of snowfall than usual. Last week I had two school visits where it was nearly impossible to get to school. One time I needed to ride the train into the next town, but the trains were stopped and the buses were late. I waited an hour outside in a blizzard for a bus that never came. I ended up taking the train-substitute-bus (sponsored by the railway company) and missed my first class. And then the second time I waited an hour outside… It wasn’t snowing, but the snow clearing crews just couldn’t keep up with the snowfall. The roads were too narrow for the buses. Finally my supervisor came to rescue me in his car.

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This definitely did not happen last winter… This winter is a doozy. Gee, how did I get to be so lucky? I am proud of myself, however, for getting through February without any major depressive episodes. Last year I would get home from work and glue myself to my couch most of the time, but this year I have been able to get myself to the gym regularly. Four or five times a week, actually. Plus, I have been doing yoga with my mom twice a week and that helps a great deal as well. Like the title says: March is here! Wednesday and Thursday were sunny and it did not snow. I hope we can have more weather like that.

Okay, so just to show you that I am not kidding with the whole winter and snow thing… Go to this page on BBC and watch this video about Aomori:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21625702

And a few random thoughts:

1. I’ve been wondering lately… Why do Japanese people talk to themselves so much? Or is it that Americans talk to themselves just as much and I’ve never noticed? Japanese people seem to have an entire repertoire of sounds and things that they mumble to themselves. Sometimes my co-workers mumble to themselves during work. Most of the time, it is in the gym that I hear the most self-talk. They walk into the locker room and make these “Shhhhhh”, “Oooshhhh” sounds… or mumble to themselves. It’s quite curious.

2. If you ever want to shock or surprise a Japanese person, pull out a raw carrot (peeled or unpeeled) and start eating it like Bugs Bunny. Carrot sticks, the ubiquitous American snack, also work too. Many Japanese people I’ve met (my students and co-workers) can’t fathom the idea of just eating a raw carrot. I get reactions and exclamations of, “I’ve never eaten a raw carrot before!” and “…Is it good?” My students will stare at me with googly eyes when they see me eating my carrot sticks with my lunch. It’s really amusing.

Biting into a whole, raw, unpeeled apple will also produce the same effect. When I first arrived, my co-workers were quite surprised by my apple-eating. Tori told me that her co-workers call her “wild” for eating apples like that. Here in Japan, they peel all of their fruit. I got a free calendar from the school lunch company last year featuring important Aomori food products. One of the months was the apple and there was a little blurb written about how apples are good for you. The blurb talked about how you should just rinse off apples well and eat the entire thing, peels too! What a novel idea!

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February 25, 2013

Greetings

This post started out as something else and turned into something completely different. But I guess that’s what happens sometimes when you just sit down to write! Sorry if this is kind of all over the place. My brain cannot think linearly today.

Yesterday I was visiting one of the inner-city elementary schools and had a strange feeling. At some schools, they don’t have a desk for me in the teacher’s room (where all of the teachers have their desks), so they either tell me to sit in the area for guests or put me in a different room entirely. Sometimes I sit in the principal’s office. At this school they had another little room next to the principal’s office with a table, chairs, and heater. I guess it was just a general tiny multipurpose room. I couldn’t see through to the principal’s office (the glass on those doors were frosted), but the doors to the hallway also had glass panels that you could see out of. And people could see in.

I sat next to the heater trying to thaw from this morning’s commute. During the breaks between classes and afternoon recess, the students would run and play in the hallways. It’s winter, so they tend to stay inside. These children would press their faces and hands up to the glass, stare at me, and yell, “HELLO!” over and over again because it’s the only English they know. Some of the older kids will say “NICE TO MEET YOU!” if they remember. I guess it was the combination of being in a small room and being yelled at from behind glass, but I kind of felt like an animal in a zoo. “Look at the foreigner! Look at the English teacher! Do you think she heard me?!” I could almost feel my ears ringing at one point.

After the bazillionth “HELLO!!” I decided to leave the room and see if that was any better. The kids still shouted HELLO at me, but they also stood back and stared at me with wide eyes. They made sure to let me know that I was very big and tall. “Yes, I know,” I say in Japanese. “But I’m pretty normal in America.” To that they just stare in disbelief and scamper away. Every school is different, for sure. The young kids are either extremely friendly or extremely shy. But I can’t blame them for trying to greet me in the only way they know how.

One thing I learned upon coming to Japan is that students are required to greet their teachers. And it’s not just a “Good morning” when you walk into class first thing in the morning. You are supposed to say the appropriate “good morning”, “hello”, or “good afternoon” every time you pass a teacher in the hallway as well.

I’ve even had junior high school teachers stop a student and ask them where their greeting was. Some students are shy towards me, so they will forget to say it to me or just get nervous. If I happen to be walking with a JTE (Japanese English Teacher), they will stop the students and make them say “Hello” or “Good morning/afternoon” to me.

At elementary school the kids are encouraged to greet me in English, but sometimes it comes out in Japanese. When a small child comes up to me or passes me in the hallway and says “Hello!” they are rewarded with a “Good job!” by their homeroom teacher. Sometimes applause, even.

I think Japanese teachers and students might be really shocked by the way American students don’t greet their teachers religiously. I think back to all the times I just entered a classroom, sat down at my desk, and quietly waited for class to start. Then the teacher would say hello to everyone and start the class. A response from all the students wasn’t really required. It’s pretty different from Japan, where students are assigned on rotation to be “on-duty” to lead the class in their greetings. The student group greeting vary from school to school, but they are usually a variation of “Good morning/Good afternoon” and “Now begins/concludes 4th period”. Sometimes it reminds me of a military call-and-response.

With all these greetings going on around me, I’ve gotten pretty used to using the ones that are required of me too. I’ve gotten pretty used to the myriad of greetings that I use in the office and at schools. For example, you are required to greet the entire office when you enter for the first time that day. It’s usually “Good Morning” for me, but sometimes I have a school visit in the morning and come back to the office in the afternoon. Then I say, “Good afternoon, I’ve returned from ________ School.”

And at one school I visit there is a vice principal who loves to practice his greetings in English with me, even though he says the same exact thing every time I come. It goes like this:

Me: Good morning, how are you?
Him: I’m fine, thank you. And you?
Me: I’m good, thanks.

Sometimes I try to switch it up with a “How’s it going?” but that seems to catch him off his guard.

But okay. What I’m really trying to say is…

Greetings are a really interesting part of their culture. An essential part of it, too. Without greetings… things don’t start. Communication is not smooth.

Many times in my life I have spoken with a Japanese person and have used a Japanese greeting like “こんにちは | Konnichiwa”. The Japanese person immediately said, “Oh, your Japanese is so good!” or “You speak Japanese very well!”

I only said one word. How is this in any way indicative of my ability of speak the language?

Well, thinking about it now… Greetings in Japanese are basically half the battle. If you know how to greet well, you will be praised by Japanese for knowing their language and culture. Pretty sweet!

February 10, 2013

Year-in-Review: 2012

I’m a little late with this post this year, many apologies!

On the whole, 2012 was not an easy year. I learned a lot and experienced a lot. There were highs and there were lows; and I am ever-so-grateful for the people who were there to share in the highs and catch me in the lows. I couldn’t have done it without you.

I am proud of what I have achieved last year and am very much looking forward to what 2013 has in store.

And now without further ado, I bring you… 2012:

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February 6, 2013

January Gone

– Where did January go? I’m actually not too sad to see it go, because I am still waiting on graduate school admission results. Those will come at the end of February or beginning of March, so I hope February is a short month. I mean, February is already short because of the number of days, but I hope it feels short as well.

– It was hard to get back in the "swing of things" after coming back from Italy. I do seem to have a hard time with transitions. It was cold, there was snow everywhere, my house was messy, and I had a weird lingering jet lag that caused me to not get sleepy until after midnight and then struggle to wake up in the morning. I usually *always* wake up before my alarm.

– I was back to normal after a couple weeks and started back up with yoga with my mom on Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6am. It’s been really good for me emotionally and physically. She has been teaching me via Skype and it has been wonderful. I finally feel like I am making some progress and getting pretty good at a few things. I hope I can make this a regular thing for me. I just have to remember to go to bed early the night before.

– I went skiing in Owani with my co-workers again this year for our annual “ski school” that my office puts on for district teachers.

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It is for teachers to learn how to ski, the techniques of skiing, and how to teach skiing to kids (I think). It wasn’t as fun as last year because I was miserably cold and skied alone for a bunch of the time.

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The “Holizon”

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January 31, 2013

Conclusion: Firenze to Rome to Milan to Tokyo to Hirosaki

Our trip destinations sound kind of like a Pitbull song, don’t they? (American pop culture reference!) We were just hopping everywhere to all these famous places… A whirlwind of international adventure. I felt like a real jet-setter.

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

We had a leisurely breakfast at our hostel in Firenze before we checked out. We had lucked out and found a super cheap train from Firenze to Rome at 19.45 euros apiece. It took 3 hours instead of 1.5, but was 25 euros cheaper. We decided to save the money and take the cheap train, which turned out to be an awesome idea.

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Excited to go back to Rome! And save money!

The slow train went through some amazing scenic places. I saw a glimpse of the beauty of Tuscany—rolling hills, lakes, wine grape fields, farms, a few castles on hills… It was so fun to watch how the scenery changed from northern to southern Italy. We were also very lucky to have gotten on the train at the first station, because as the train went on, there were no seats left. People were standing by the time we got to Rome Termini.

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