Welcome To Back

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Over the past couple weeks I have landed myself hospital a couple times with anaphylactic shock, seems my body decided the humble age of 26 was a good enough time as any to develop new shellfish allergies. Had a really scary couple weeks not knowing exactly what I was allergic to whilst waiting for the test results.
When I eventually returned to school after a couple days off in the hospital my favorite third year class decorated the black board with messages for Athough half the boys are terrors to teach they cute lil things at times, needless to say I was quite touched by the gesture.

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Nara 奈良市 Adventures!

This is going to be a post from the vaults, I in fact began writing this one about 6 months ago but never got around to posting it along with so many others. Anyhow without further a due….

Nara (奈良) is an ancient capital city in Nara Prefecture, Kansai region of Japan.

Along with the development of Heijōkyō 平城京, the capital of Japan between 710-784 AD, Nara flourished under the influence of Buddhism, leading to the creation of an enormous number of cultural assets, buildings and books, many of which are preserved today. Nara has the largest number of buildings designated National Treasures in Japan.

While the Heijōkyō Palace (平城宮) site turned into plain fields after the capital was moved to Kyoto, the shrines and temples were left on the east side of the palace (called Gekyo (外京)), and Buddhism remained influential throughout the following centuries. Another part of the area developed as a merchant town, notably in the Edo period, known as Naramachi (奈良町) today.

Now at the end of last year when my parents came up to Japan to visit me I took them to check out Nara, since its pretty much a staple when visiting the country and extremely tourist trappy.

I myself had visited Nara twice before on previous visits to Japan but it was nice to be able to share such am amazing place with my family.
I want to share some of the photos of the with you.

Arriving on a Sunday outside Nara station the was a large group of performers singing and dancing to Okinawan Taiko (Japanese drumming).

Most of Nara’s temples and shrines concentrated in Nara Kouen 奈良公園 (Nara Park) and are more of less entirely accessible by traveling on foot.

For anyone that’s been to Nara before, the truly special and stand out thing about it are definitely the deer, these guys just walk around the town as they please not bothering anyone. Long ago they were considered to be sacred however post WW2 were redesignated as national treasures, visitors can buy Shika-senbei 鹿煎餅 (deer cookies) to feed to them for about 150¥ from vendors in carts around the park.

We grabbed some Takoyaki たこ焼き for lunch.

This guy here is the Daibutsuden 大仏殿 (Great Buddha Hall) the most significant building in Naras Tōdai-ji 東大寺 complex. Inside it houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue which in Japanese is called the Daibutsu 大仏. Tōdai-ji has existed since the 7th century, yet has gone through several periods of decline, destruction rebuilding in the past 1300 years due to disease, war and politics.



For shits n giggles: In 855 the head of the Daibutsu actually fell off!

Taiikusai 体育祭 (Sports Festival) 2012

A couple weeks ago my base Junior high school and 2 Elementary schools had their annual sports festivals. At shougakko 小学校 (elementary school) it is referred to as an Undoukai 運動会 and at chuugakko 中学校 (Junior high school) it’s a Taiikusai 体育祭.

I was lucky enough to attend both….. well in truth at least at the JHS level I had no say in the matter as it is part of my job.

Unlike their western equivalents the sports festivals in Japan are taken nothing short of absolutely seriously.
The event is typically run on a Saturday, with the day off being passed over to the following Monday.
Leading up to the even students have many classes dedicated to training, creating banners and rehearsing intricate marches for the day.
In fact classes are typically set aside the day before the Taiikusai to run a full rehearsal of the schedule.

Like most things in Japan, everyone is equal and participation is mandatory.
Lets just say they really drive home the team spirit at these things.
In JHS students are divided up into teams based upon their grade level and class, each set upon their most artistic classmates the task of creating an elaborate banner.
The following are a couple of my favourites (^∇^)

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In ES the entire student body is broken into 2 large teams each student either being assigned Shirogumi 白組 (White Team) or Akagumi 紅組 (Red Team) accordingly who will face off against each other in comedic sports battles throughout the day.

Being the avid amateur photographer that I am an awful lot I photos were taken throughout the day, unfortunately I can’t freely post students faces to the interwebs without permissions so forgive my crude ‘editing’ to keep them anonymous.

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A couple photos from the opening ceremony

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Raising of the Japanese flag

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Morning warm-ups

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3-legged Race

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Weight lifting endurance

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Me running in the relay race against my students!

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Giant skipping rope

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Half time Ouendan 応援団 (Japanese Cheer Squad)

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Half time suisougakudan 吹奏楽団 (Brass Band)

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Track and Field Club 陸上部

In the afternoon the students paraded around the oval donned in their respective clubs uniforms.

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Kendo Club 剣道部

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Girls Tennis Club 女子テニス部

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Table Tennis Club 卓球部 (poor kids the only member)

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Basketball Club バスケットボール部

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Boys Tennis Club 男子テニス部

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Baseball Club 野球部

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The whole lot marching

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Club Uniform Baton Race (kendo club has a 100m head start to compensate the weight of running in full bogu, track and field starts 100m behind as they their club specializes in sprinting.)

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Students vs PTA (Parent Teachers Association) Tug-of-war

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Kumitaiso 組体操

Here are a couple photos from one of my shougakko’s 小学校 (elementary school) Undoukai 運動会, rather than being centered around individual competition, the focus is more on teamwork with the kids playing dozens of crazy games. Also instead of being segregated by year level and class the entire team is split into 2 huge teams Akagumi 紅組 (Red Team) and Shirogumi 白組 (White Team).

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Giant Ball Race

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In addition to the events the students also put on acrobatic type shows for the spectators that they practice for many weeks preceding the event.

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The 5-6grade students annually do a kumitaiso 組体操 (coordinated group gymnastics) performance in which teams form pyramids or other shapes.

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For the finale the kids form a 4 story pyramid, was freakin crazy and chotto dangerous…..

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WINNING!!

Christmas Pug Board

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I have a certain affinity for pugs, perhaps because I’m missing my one Fuki-san that I left back in Australia. I frequently sneak pugs into my lesson plans and all my students know the Fuji’s name.
This is the Christmas version of my English board featuring ‘Fuji-clause’ seems to be a hit with my kids!! ^_^

Taking Sick Leave As An ALT…….

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Just had one of those awkward 年休 (annual leave) vs 病休 (sick leave) discussions on the phone with my OTE (Japanese Teacher of English).

(All in Japanese – Which I am terrible at)
Daniel: Sorry Sensei, today I must go to the hospital, I might need an X-Ray.
Sensei: Oh I see that is too bad, you can take nenkyuu 年休 (annual leave).
Daniel: Is byoukyu 病休 (sick leave) OK?
Sensei: {Hestitantly} Hmmmmmm maybe…….. Please get better you must teach tomorrow morning.

Taking byoukyuu (sick leave) is something akin to taboo in the Japanese workplace, the Japanese only take it if they are on their death bed…… instead they take their nenkyuu 年休 (annual leave) or more often than not just come to school sick and ganbarre 頑張れ it out (A Japanese phrase meaning to persevere through hardships). The main reason for this is that the cultural understandings of sick leave differ here in Japan.

However in addition to this Japanese tend to be keen to burn through their annual leave as opposed to sick leave since they don’t use their annual leave anyway!!
I guess this is because the in the Japanese mindset people dont take things just because they are entitled to them, a good example of this is the concept of a nomihoudai 飲み放題 (all you can drink) place can charge 1500-2000円 (about 18-24$) for 2hours all you can drink. Japanese rarely go crazy (not that they can drink all that much anyway) at such places where as us gaijin loose our shit and get wasted!

Back on topic in addition to this Japanese teachers GET HUGE BONUSES twice a year, the amount of which is directly related how many days of sick leave they have used, ALTs get no such free wads of cash…….. so why should we use up our precious annual leave when were sick, caz yano thats what sick leave is for!!!!

Rant Over

Life In Japan 日本での生活: 6 Months Down The Road

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Foreword: I don’t mean this to be a long rant, but rather an insight into my experiences and the difficulties I have faced thus far on one of the most amazing adventures one can embark on in life, JET.

So I’ve been on this crazy roller-coaster know as the JET Program for 6 months to the day and needless to say its been a journey of epic proportions!
Honestly reflecting on my development from a personal perspective, I’ve grown more in the past 6 months than I have in the past 6 years, the person I was the day I stepped off that plane half a year ago is dead and buried. This however in no way is a bad thing, if moving to the other side of the world to a country where you scarcely speak the language on your lonesome will teach you anything it’s self-reliance. My cooking skills have sky-rocketed for feeding myself is a necessity, furthermore I’m in better shape than I have been in my entire life. Back home life was all but convenience, here if I want something I must do it myself which has made me more or less self-reliant, a perk of being a city JET is I need to ride a bike everywhere I go as opposed to relying on driving, a task I despise.

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Anyhow I’m now on the path I have been searching for all my life. I’ve discussed this in past posts but I had many issues when I arrived, being an early arrival JET I had more or less no support network as I came at a difficult period when many old ALTs were leaving, most had no time for me, nor the KEC (the Kobe board of education) the resources to properly orientate me.

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Don’t get me wrong the first 2 months in Japan I had the time of my life, it’s a period i can now nostalgically reflect upon as being a magical twilight, I was high on life, the JET handbooks tell us this is called the honeymoon phase….. It was all that and so much more, gazing out through the at window at the chilly landscape from my desk I wonder if it was even real.

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But the day came when it all came crashing down around me, as with any high, nothing lasts forever in the cold November rain.

Between my 3rd and 4th months here I fell into a deep state of depression, I took a good hard look at myself, the person I was becoming and decided a change was in order. Suddenly all I could think about was the life and people I had left behind, constantly overwhelmed by a sense of longing to return home. Almost overnight I started to notice things that I had previously found endearing about Japan to be little more than annoying and foolish.

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This sudden bout of depression hit me like a ton of bricks and couldn’t have come at a worse time….. the arrival of the new 2012 JETs! All around me were dozens of new faces still in their honeymoon phase loving life, meanwhile I was miserable for no reason I could discern. I loved my life, my job, my friends, YET I constantly found myself having to drag myself out of bed in the morning to face the day. Being around people was enough to bring me to tears, the worst part was I had no reason to be depressed yet I felt broken inside.
This was all compound by the fact that during natsuyasumi 夏休 (summer holidays) the Kobe board of education sends its 120 or so ALTs off for mandatory summer school, skill development conferences and language school! Because of this I couldn’t simply lay low for a couple weeks whilst I felt my world crumpling around me, but rather I had to put on a brave face day after day whilst I was forced to associate with the rest of the Kobe JET community. Now I won’t lie this place is pretty much highschool, with there being so few foreigners in Kobe it’s almost like living in a small town, everyone knows everyone and gossip is the commodity that’s most revered.

Regardless somehow I pulled through, I took a good hard look at myself, the person I was becoming and decided a detox was in order, overnight I stopped drinking, started exercising (even more than I already did) and radically changed my diet. I’d love to admit that this is the secret for conquering cultural shock but I would be lying….. As nice as the though may be there is no quick fix, there’s only one cure for this kind of affliction….. Time.

Anyhow on a more positive note there certainly was a light at the end of the tunnel, when did I emerge for this state….. Well I’m not entirely sure, it was around the beginning of my fifth month, but I thank god I had the support of my friends here. This certainly won’t be the case for the vast majority of JET participants but I have around 60 other ALT’s living within a 5 minute walk of my apartment, a good 10 in the building itself!!

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It wasn’t until the hecticness of the summer died down that I truly found my friendship circle and the people who would be there to help me pull through. This was when things started to shape up, after a long hibernation I emerged from my apartment a new man, keen to resume exploring all this country has to offer. I am now well on track to becoming a prominent outspoken member of the JET community here in Kobe, am enjoying my job more and more by the day and have not let the onset of winter keep me down.

At the end of the day I have landed on my feel and am really in a great place and am more or less content with life, when my recontracting forms arrived on my desk I sent them back signing up for another 20 months or so here in Kobe without a second thought, I really hope that the decision is that easy when they come around again next year.

Studying Japanese

Anyhow on to a question I am very frequently asked, ‘so how is your Japanese coming along?’ well although its certainly far from amazing every day is getting easier and easier. Now I never really bothered formally studying as I really lacked the motivation for a really long time, that said I know what am amazing opportunity it is to be living here and have the chance to learn Japanese with the plethora of resources available. Its not only that though, Japan is really a country that isn’t exactly very accommodating to those who don’t speak Japanese, seriously even in a relatively large city like Kobe you either learn or will find life very very VERY difficult! Now I naturally have a certain interest in Kanji so when i learn new words I typically look up how to write them and continue to revise until they stick in my head. And so through my natural curiosity my vocabulay has grown to the point where i know perhaps 1000 words, a couple hundred kanji…….BUT NO GRAMMAR!

受け入れ挑戦 (Challenge Accepted)

受け入れ挑戦 (Challenge Accepted)

Grammar was never my strong point in English so I have put of learning the Japanese equivalent like the plague, unfortunately with a less than basic knowledge of how to put together all the words I know I come off sounding retarded when I try to speak the language. In my mind I imagine that speaking Japanese is like building a house, although I have gathered many bricks I have no cement to bind them together and simply blurting out the (usually) appropriate words will only get you so far in conversation…….

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That all said I speak 10 times more Japanese than when I first arrived here, one thing I noticed about this years new Kobe JET’s is that I was one of 6 out of around 40 that didn’t have at least intermediary level Japanese. This often leaves me feeling very inadequate when compared to my peers, many who are Japanese majors, if anything though I have taken it as a source of motivation to step up my studying whilst I am here. In the least my goal by the end of my first year is to be able to have 80-90% fluent conversation with my shougakkou 小学校 (elementary) students, being children they can only put together more or less simple sentences so really make great conversation partners, more than that though, I have really formed a bond with many of my ES students and I hate myself when they ask me questions I cant quite grasp, since I really hate to surrender and tell them ごめんちょっとわからない ‘sorry I don’t understand’.

Work Life

Look I’m no teacher,I never was and I may very well never be. That said, I am expected to be one, as I have discussed in the past my predecessor was a woman who spoke fluent Japanese and in fact taught and developed the curriculum for the 2年生 (8th grade) JHS class without the Japanese teacher last year. What I’m getting at is I had ENORMOUS boots to fill, replacing this superstar ALT isn’t something I will be capable of any time in the near future……. but I’m getting there.

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In terms of preparing lessons they really threw me in the deep end with this one, for the first couple months I was all over the place and have no idea what I was doing, because of this my plans tended to be hit or miss. Unfortunately my chief OTE (Japanese teacher) is a first year sensei who speaks less than amazing English to the point where I’m often hesitant to speak to her without the other English teacher within earshot who can chip in to translate, as she misunderstands what I’m attempting to say most of the time which creates issues I would much rather avoid.

Generally though the English level of the teachers at the JHS level is not so bad, as I have been picking up Japanese here and there I can now even usually get my point across to the teachers who speak but a few words of it. One thing I try my best to do is help the English teachers improve on their English ability by actively trying my best to introduce new words to them on a daily basis, a favour I like them to return to me with my Japanese studies.

Now I teach at a JHS 3 days a week and 2 nearby ES on the remaining 2 days, luckily all 3 of them are within a half an hour bike ride from my house so if the weather is nice I often ride to school to get some bonus exercise in.

The only difficulties I have encountered at the elementary level would have to be in regard to the consumption of kyuushoku 給食 (school lunch) with I eat with the kids. See these meals are firstly usually disgusting (anyone who disagrees is admitting they enjoy consuming slops) but they also tend to contain 600-700 calories! That’s good and all for Japanese children with lightning fast metabolisms but 700 calories is almost as much as I eat in an entire day! Needless to say I quickly came up with techniques to subtly ‘avoid’ eating much of the food without the kids noticing but that’s a story for another post.

Otherwise I really love ES, the kids are usually still young enough to have an endless supply of energy and enthusiasm, they listen attentively, rarely refuse to participate. Basically when I’m there I feel like I am a kid again, its fun, the kids playing with me and I with them (as long as they keep their fingers out of me), shougakko will always be where my heart is at!

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My thoughts on teaching English to the Japanese, one that most ALTs tend to share is that the system really prohibits 99% of them from ever achieving real fluent conversational English, this is why the fluency level in Japan is by far the worst in all of Asia. The textbooks tackle teaching a language completely wrong, the focus is solely on exam results rather than on learning the language, often I find the textbook using unnatural clunky English that although grammatically correct hardly makes sense. However the opinion of the ALT hardly holds any swing, in fact in one brutal conversation I once had with an OTE I pointed out an error in the book, rather than accepting my correction he opened the book to the last page with the publishers details and told me to write them a letter…….. Despite the foolishness of the approach to teaching foreign language in this country, otherwise I really am quite happy at school now, its been a bumpy road much like the rest of my experiences here thus far.

If you got this far i’ll applaud you for your perseverance anyhow in the past 6 months I truly felt happy for the first time in longer than I can remember and content with the path I am taking in life, taking in to consideration the work and social aspects as well as my personal development, never forget all you need is Kobe.

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If you would like to read about my thoughts 28 days into the program you will find them here, I wrote another on experiences after 100 days located here.

A Mochitsuki Present

2010 03 Mar 240

Today was mochitsuki (mochi making day) at my chuugakkou 中学校 (Junior High School). In what was literally the most touching thing that has happened to me since I arrived in Japan, a couple of my 2年生 (8th grade) students gave me some handmade mochi they made especially for me.
Apparently they had noticed how much my Japanese has improved since I arrived and they wanted to express their gratitude towards me for studying hard everyday so I could speak with them!