Thursday, April 21, 2011

Local Cusine

This past week during school lunches, I had the grand chance to try two very quintessentially Japanese foods, natto and niboshi.

For those of you who are not accustomed to Japanese food, natto is fermented soybeans that are commonly placed on top of rice, and it looks (and feels) like beans covered in spider webs, it also has a very strong odor, akin to a very potent cheese, like, and –to me- tasted like soggy peanuts doused in way too much salt. To make things more interesting, this meal was had in the teachers’ lounge, so all of them were very eager to see what I thought of natto, and when I made a disgusted face and said “it’s… interesting,” everyone giggled and mocked me for the rest of the meal. The experience was made much worse though, because the smell made me want to vomit and while opening the container, I had accidentally got some on my fingers, so every single time I took a bite of anything, I got a strong whiff of the smell again and had to fight back gags.
Directly after our meal, the principal explained that all Japanese people love natto because it is so healthy. Liar. I have already had multiple teachers at this school state natto is vile and Debu told me nearly all of the teachers at his old schools thought it was disgusting, that being said, Debu likes it! He has in fact been told by some Japanese people that that makes him “more Japanese then most Japanese people,” because most of them can barely stomach it, but eat it because it is considered ‘un-Japanese’ and ‘immature’ to not do so.


The next delicacy, niboshi, is essentially dried whole sardines, and when I say whole, I mean even their tiny shrunken eyes and teeny crunchy bones….
The first thing to hit me when the lunch lady brought in the bowls of food, were the fishies' eyes staring blankly at me, and their mouths gaping wide, as if trying to get just one more breath. The second thing to hit me occurred when the clear cellophane wrap was removed from the bowl and the smell was released into the room, thankfully it was paired with sweetened peanuts, so the smell was not too terrible, but it did still remind me of a market’s fish section near the end of the day, when everything isn’t quite smelling it's freshest anymore.
So came the first bite of this meal, with all the staff once again looking at me and giggling, as if we were playing the “what can we get this foreigner to eat?” game… the first one was not too bad, very crunchy, and rather spiky from all the teeny scales, but the peanuts covered the fishiness to a tolerable extent. But then, bite two, the peanuts did nothing! All of the teachers giggled and asked “you like?” to which I gestured a “so-so,” because I didn’t want to open my mouth and risk spitting out the tiny fishes that did not seem to want to be devoured. Somehow, I managed to eat all of them, even with their tiny eyes staring at me and their teeny mouths screaming “Why?!” but it was not an easy task, and one that is going to be even harder when I begin eating with the students, because I will then have to smile no matter what is on the plate and simply say “healthy” and eat it up.
Don't look into their eyes

The best part of these two experiences, were that both times I asked a few of the teachers “do you like?” and no one said yes, just “…it healthy,” as if that were a good enough reason to consume such items.

So, needless to say, these two dishes are not really for me, but don’t let that discourage any of you from trying them out.
Both of these can be purchased at most Asian super markets back in the USA and, who knows, you may actually like them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

First Hanami and First Class


The petals rain down as we celebrate

Last weekend I got to experience my first ever Hanami (the Japanese tradition of enjoying the beauty of the blossoms) at the lovely Kofu Castle, where there were dozens of cherry trees in bloom and many groups picnicking with their loved ones. We met with the other English teachers that work with our company in the area, and then met up with the YETI group (Yamanshi English Teachers International), where we got a chance to meet about twenty other teachers that had come from around the world to teach here in the Yamanashi Prefecture. It was a great deal of fun to get to meet other new people, as well as people who had been living here for years, including a few Japanese locals who had joined in the group and brought homemade wine. The blossoms were gorgeous, the company was grand, and the alcohol seemed to be never ending.
The bottom level of Kofu Castle

The following week was not filled with quite the same levels of enjoyment though, because I found that there was only going to be one class for me the entire week and the head teacher at my school informed me that he did not think that anyone who did not know the Japanese language would be able to be a successful English teach and that ALTs are "nothing special" anymore, and other fun things that were basically the polite way of saying "you are going to fail." It did not help very much that the day before he said these things I had gotten bored and pieced together from all of the old lesson plans lying around that most teachers at this school have not even lasted 6 months, in fact, the last two ALTs were only there for about 2 months each. On top of that, one of the previous teachers accidentally left behind some notes to herself that said encouraging things about how she was bored every day, felt useless and never really enjoyed it there, and that was from one of the two that had managed to actually stay their full year!

The class I taught went... so-so. Due to it being the first time I had ever taught a 50min class, being nervous, and not having a great grasp on how much time each thing would take, we ended up having to make something up on the spot to fill in the last 10mins of class (shiritori ftw!), but on the plus side, the kids seemed to like me, they think Debu is magical and due to a wonderful mis-translation, they think I know the President. So all in all, it seems that all that is needed is practice and some more courage to make the class a success.

So yes, it should be interesting to see how I manage at this school in the coming months, and I am really hoping that I do not follow the previous teachers examples of leaving before the year is up.

Friday, April 8, 2011

First Week Down

I know, I am a horrible person for not keeping up with this blog, but it's just so easy to get distracted by, well, an entire new country to explore. I will try to back track later on about how training went and our very interesting experience of moving into the countryside of Yamanashi, but first I wanted to make sure to write about the first week of school while it is still fresh and relevant.

On Monday, the 4th, I had the wonderfully awkward experience of getting to meet the principal, vice principal and 'head teacher' of the Junior High (JHS) that I will be working at for the year. When I say awkward, I do truly mean just that too, because the Borderlink reps came along and so everyone talked around me in Japanese for about 15mins, while every now and then someone would look at me and smile or ask a simple question like:  "are you sure you can ride a bike to here?"
Once all of that was over (only took maybe 20mins), I left without having a single clue as to how many kids there were, what I would be doing, how many classes there would be, or really anything else at all, except that they were all confused by my name.

So along comes Wednesday,  the coordinator has e-mailed me saying to go in at 8:10am for an introduction ceremony that is being held to welcome all the new teachers, and that we will be done and out by noon, but then when I arrive, everyone in the office is surprised to see me and explains to me that the ceremony actually begins at noon and will not be done until at least 3pm. So that means that I not only arrived 4hrs early, but will not be going home early anymore either, joy of joys, it turned out to not be all that bad though, because I need the next 3 whole work days to get rid of the immense piles of useless crap that the previous ALTs had left behind for "help."
Now, to give you an idea of just how much "helpful" material was left behind, the previous 4 ALTs (some of which were here for multiple years) all saved every single sheet of paper they used, and there are roughly 600 students in the school, so multiply 600 by every project they did throughout a school year, and then add all the stuff that has their information on it, so it is also useless... and you're starting to get a feel for what was handed to me. To make matters worse, during my searches, I even managed to find papers and books that were from the early 90's, and an amazing American textbook that had a section about this new epidemic called "the AIDS."
To make matters even worse, any piece of paper that had "secret information" aka even a students name, had to be shredded down in the office, so a decent percentage of the 3 work days were spent shredding piles of paper while an office of Japanese teachers looked confused and sad, because they had thought it would all be "helpful," and here I am destroying it upon arrival.

On the plus side, since my last name is nearly identical to the Japanese word for tea, it was quite easy for everyone to remember my name, and there were quite a few conversations consisting of "is that really your name?, Do you like tea?, etc", and since my name was so easy to remember, it only took the children hearing it once to start yelling "Hello! Koucha-sensi! Hello!" anytime that they even spotted me down the hall (which isn't hard since I'm taller then half of the men and, well, am blond). The only issue that has come up so far with asking everyone to call me "Tea" is when the tea-lady comes around and asks if anyone would like some more, because anytime she asks anyone I hear my name.

That is about it for the first week, there was not a single class to be taught, and supposedly next week might be quite similar because the fitness teacher wants to claim all the students to do tests to see what levels everyone is at, if that ends up being the case, I will either be immensely bored, or I will be learning Japanese quite a bit while getting paid.

Now please enjoy one of the many tranquil views that is along the route to the JHS

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Trek From Hell

Moments after leaving the Narita airport to begin our trek to our works office to get directions to the training site, it dawned on both of us that someone (me) had packed way too much and that this was going to be a very tiresome journey. Thankfully though, the start of our trip was a 90min bus ride to Omiya, followed by some very nice HS students helping us find the correct route to Borderlink, while giggling every time I told Debu to shut up about how I packed to much, so that was not too horrible. On top of that, Debu, being the amazing boyfriend that he is, carried my biggest bag for me.
Anyways, after a grueling trek to the office, we came to discover that that grid of Omiya was in the middle of a black out,* so I got to watch the luggage downstairs while Debu trekked up the pitch black stairwell in search of directions... it wasn't so bad waiting though, because during that time I got to see a bunch of Japanese office workers making ghost sounds and waving their flashlights around, which was quite adorable. Also during my time as luggage watcher, another man with a giant backpack came up and asked if I was there for Boderlink, and it turned out this random man was a fellow ALT who had actually been here when the quake happened and had decided to stay to continue his contract as a teacher, which I highly commend him for, since so many fled. He told me about how it was one of the scariest moments in his life, and how even though he was far away in Tokyo, it was still strong enough to give him horrible motion sickness, but the worst he said was the constant aftershocks that occurred.... the ground seemed to never stop shaking. Since he was also heading to the training facility, the three of us decided to travel together, and thank God for that too, because he helped carry my immense amount of luggage, and I am pretty sure that if it had just been the two of us, we would have never made it.

And so the trek from Hell truly began... for starters, we found out that to get to the training facility, we would have to travel back to the station that we had originally arrived at (oh joy), and then make two separate train transfers. This journey was made into an even larger issue due to the power conservations, which meant all elevators and escalators were turned off, and Japanese train stations have many, many, stairs in them, oh and by the way, two of our suitcases weighed about 70lbs each. Yea, this was going to be good. Thankfully, there were quite a few people who went far out of their way to help us get to our destination, including an engineer who was learning English to go to Europe and get women, and a 60yr old man who randomly grabbed my 70lb suitcase and just lugged it up a flight of stairs for me, but even with these advantages, it was still incredibly tough going, and it took multiple hours to make our way from Omiya to Kazo for training. By the time the three of reached our end destination, we were exhausted, sweaty and about ready to collapse. Needless to say, I bought the guys dinner as a thank you, and we celebrated the end of our long day at a local Okonomiyaki** place and a few cold beers.

*A lot of areas in Japan have been doing scheduled rolling black outs to try and conserve as much energy as possible after the disasters so that it can instead go to more necessary things then elevators and flashy billboards

**an Okonomiyaki is basically a Japanese pancake with anything you want mixed into it, for more info: