Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Spring & rust

Spring is springing, or at least trying to, and last week I took a wander around my school to capture the first signs of blossoms. Although I got a few, I found more interesting shots of man-made objects, so have posted a few here. None are especially interesting and several contain large amounts of rust, but this post is probably going to be more of a reminder to me what I was doing at the beginning of spring 2010 in Japan, although, after looking at the shots, these could have been taken anywhere in the world..

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Enkai dress code - lesson learned

This evening all the teachers at my school had an enkai for the departing teachers. Earlier I asked what kind of dress code it was, and I was told "not formal.. casual."

Some new Japanese then:
Formal = wear a suit.
Informal = wear a suit.

And here are some pics of the food:


The unhappiest fish (Tai) I ever saw. When it was brought in all cut up and ready to be eaten it was still moving. I watched horrified for a few seconds before I had to turn my head away.

Another unhappy sea creature.


My first graduation.. since mine!

1st and 2nd years await the arrival of the graduating 3rd years..

Today my school held joint ceremonies for the graduation of the third year students and for the teachers who are leaving for other schools. Yesterday all students and teachers prepared the gym for the event, with banners, flowers, flags and potted plants everywhere. The ceremonies were also drilled to make sure timings were correct.

Today the ceremony started at a prompt 8.40am, with everyone ready and waiting in silence for the third year students to make their entrance. When the first ones entered the audience (teachers, parents, and second and first year students) erupted in applause, and didn't stop until the last third year students had seated themselves. Speeches ensued, interspersed with songs – absolutely none of which I understood – before the graduating students filed out again through the exit, which itself was lined with potted flowers.

It's an odd thing being a teacher. When I was a student I'm certain every single teacher in my school was happy to be rid of another motley year of unruly kids. But being a teacher you quickly realise that isn't the case at all. Infact, it's very easy to become quite attached to your students, especially knowing that your efforts are helping to shape their futures. As the third years filed out of the ceremony I found myself wondering how many of those faces I will see again in passing.. and how many I won't. I've shared many a joke with my third years, and although shy to begin with, they really opened up when I got to know them. There was the girl who always smiled shyly at me, the guy who was perpetually hungry and always told me so, the girl who loved my joke about the thirteenth months we have in England (.. September, October, November, December, Cucumber..), the guy who always ate what no one else wanted.. all these memorable students helped me settle into my first year here, and just like that, they're now gone.

A 20 minute break gave everyone time to compose themselves, and we then reconvened to say fairwell to the teachers who are leaving. Although it was supposed to be a secret (in my village “secret” = “tell everyone”) I knew one of my JTE's were leaving for a district just to the north and I'll be sad to see her go; she is a very animated and friendly woman who has helped me greatly with settling into my job here, not to mention helping me with my Japanese studying.

I was also very saddened to find out the music teacher is leaving too. Through my burbling Japanese and his limited English we have had many conversations about music, (his) fishing, and technology. During my time here I've watched him conduct the school choir and orchestra, and have enjoyed it immensely every time. I also like him because he has a cheeky rebellious streak in him, which is somewhat unusual, especially out here in the inaka. I'll miss his loud laughter and flamboyant gestures. It was also immediately obvious that he will be sorely missed by the music students he taught - as he emerged onstage with the other departing teachers, dozens of students burst into tears. It was really sad to see.

The other two teachers who are leaving are a PE teacher who, although I've never really had a conversation with him, always says hello and good morning to me; and the school caretaker, a sweet little old lady with kind eyes who reminds me of my nan. Again, although she doesn't speak English, she always greeted me with a warm smile and hello or good morning. I understood very little of her goodbye speech, but I understood she's been working at the school for 16 years and is looking forward to retirement. I hope she enjoys it.

At the end of the ceremony all teachers and students helped pack away the chairs and banners, etc, and after that I headed back to the locker room to wriggle out of my suit and tie.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Myokokogen, last snowboarding of the season..?

On Saturday night us Iida-blockers headed north to Myokokogen ski resort in Niigata-ken. We stayed the night in the same dorm place last time. The evening consisted on onsen, karaoke, drink and food. My rendition of 'Take A Look Around' by Limp Bizkit left something to be desired, although I nailed 'Handle With Care' by the Traveling Wilberries.

After a good nights sleep we were ready to hit the slopes on Sunday morning.

The day was awesome. It always catches me unawares how high up you really are - we took the lift to the higher reaches of the resort, where the sky was blue and the sun bright and warm, and then snowboarded down into cloud below. You couldn't see more than 20 yards ahead of you, and fast-moving shadows quickly materialised as skiers, before flying past and simply disappeared into the gloomy abyss ahead (think Stephen King's "Fog", but with less terrifying and people-eating creatures). It was good fun, made better by the warmer weather and the fact I didn't manage to injure myself like I have done in recent snowboarding trips - ending up with your head stuck in the snow like a cartoon ostrich will put a dampener on your day.

Afterwards we headed back to Matsukawa to soak our bones in the onsen (stopping at Starbucks on the way, hell yes!*), and then on to Aruru for amazing food! Fantoobulous.

*In the Japanese inaka Starbucks are rarer than rare, much like decent, strong coffee. This more than warrants a "hell yes."

The snow has started to turn to slush, but the scenery is still lovely.

The fog awaits us...

My first tea ceremony

This weekend I attended a Japanese tea ceremony (tencha, 点茶). The process of the tea ceremony is a long and precise one in which the participants prepare and drink tea in a large group. In Japan there are two main types of tea ceremony, the process for each differ slightly, as does the thickness of the tea produced. When the matcha (powdered tea) is whisked quickly with hot water to produce a frothy drink, this is called usucha, the style we used on the day. The other is koicha, and produces a thicker beverage.

Traditionally the entire process is done in seiza, the kneeled position. For the average Japanese person this isn't too much of a struggle, but for a westerner this can be somewhat painful after just a few minutes. Thankfully we were granted to sit cross-legged, except when actually drinking the tea. The ceremony takes places is a tatami mat room, complete with tokonoma (hanging scroll) on the wall and a flower arrangement beneath it.

Afterwards it was explained to us that the ceremony was developed hundreds of years ago when tea was introduced to Japan from China. Originally powdered tea was taken by the upper classes, samurai's etc, but slowly filtered down through the class system. During this time the ceremony was developed into what is practiced today.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Gorilla in the mist

On Saturday it was overcast and rained for the entire morning. The good thing with rain here is the mist that comes afterwards, pouring off the mountain like smoke without a fire. Inspiration was biting, so I grabbed my camera and took a drive into the mountains...

All images can be clicked on for a slightly bigger version.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Action-packed weekender

This weekend just gone had an odd air of laziness attached to it, despite the fact I was really active.

On Friday night we (Iida block JETs) headed out for a wonderful Thai meal in Iida. We then congregated for a movie/sleepover combo, followed by a beautiful onsen in the mountains on Saturday morning. We drove up into the minami alps to a small village called Oshika. The sky was bright, the sun was warm, and although spring isn't quite here yet it certainly felt like it that day. We passed small (but pretty) waterfalls, a dam (which I had no idea was there) and through several mountain tunnels to reach a really small onsen that was aside from us, completely deserted. The attendant seemed genuinely happy to see us - although whether that was because a group of foreigners knew about the place, or because he hadn't seen another human face in weeks, is beyond my guess.

The onsen itself was on the side of a mountain, and so while we soaked in the hot water we were able to view the lovely mountains yonder. I should imagine it's insanely beautiful during spring and summer, at which times I fully intend on revisiting.

After soaking our troubles away we headed back to the village to take some pictures of a pretty shrine that seemed randomly placed next to the road, then on to my village to pick strawberries in one of the many huge greenhouses that pepper my village, which is known locally for it's divine strawberry production. I'm sure the photos here speak for themselves.

We then headed to a park for a play on the childrens climbing frames, slides, etc and a wander around the grounds. Then we headed out for food before congregating for another movie/sleepover.

On Sunday we had a lazy morning, watched the Fifth Element (awesome movie!) and had fresh waffles with maple syrup. We headed to a rather lovely ramen place for lunch, then spent the afternoon taking a lovely walk around the village just north of mine where Bryce lives. The day was finished with an amazing meal at Aruru in Matsukawa.

On rereading this entry it would appear I spend alot of time eating, so just to clear that up, here's a picture of my desk drawer at work... (!)