21 December 2007

Lesson of the Day: Pigs Are Awesome

Today, much like Wednesday and Monday, and next week, I was correcting and reviewing scripts for student's show and tell presentations which they will do early in January. It's been incredibly frustrating, because I have reason to think the English level in the scripts is generally below the testable level of the students -- second year middle school. In worst case scenarios, I might describe the scripts as "impressionistic", as in, I can get only an impression of what they're trying to say. The problem is, major grammar mistakes. I don't know where they got these from, but they're pretty consistent. With maybe 25% of the scripts, it seems to be laziness rather than lack of understanding. Starting sentences with "And", "But", "Because" or "So" is just plain bad grammar that any native speaker's English teacher snapped at them about at some point or another. "Because, the reason is because..." came up a few times. I hope this pattern did not come from a text book, or I'll flip out and take out a whole village. Other big problem is, students trying to overshoot their previously stated "testable English level". This is commendable because they're trying, but, if they're making up sentence structure and grammar as they go long because they want to say in English what they'd like to say in Japanese, it's yabai. The top 25% of the scripts are, however, fantastic. Basic but succinct, charming English. There's one that's by far the best thing I've seen a student write, and I want to share it with the world.
Hello! Today I'm going to show you a pig doll. It's about 2000 yen [CDN $17.50]. It's name is "Boo-chan" [something like "Oinky"]. He is very pretty because his nose is big.

My grandmother gave me a pig doll in Safari Park four years ago, but there aren't any pigs in the park.

Do you like pigs? I love pigs. Pork is delicious and pigs are a lot of fun.

Thank you.
I actually cracked up laughing in the teacher's office when I read the last line. BRILLIANT!

6 December 2007

A Lil' Taste of Home

No, not maples products. Not beaver tales, not Nanaimo bars, nor Thousand Islands sauce, poutine or Digby scallops lightly buttered and rolled in crushed dulse and pan fried to perfection (oh... my... god...). But rather, good old fashion Thai red curry. Yes. Thai red curry is by far the most Canadian meal I could think of.

It turns out the most widely sold brand of Thai curry you can get in Japan is a variety I used to buy back in "the old country". Since produce from Japan is almost the same as Canada, I'm able to make pretty much anything I want and -- to seal a phrase from a of a long-dead Japanese emperor -- "manifestly so," I cracked open some coconut milk with the jackknife-like Japanese can opener and served up some red curry with satsuma imo (more or less, a sweet potato), broccoli, spinach, onions and chicken! For the record, this is not the first time I made curry in Japan. Last time I made a from-scratch recipe involving the appropriate spices, yogurt, peppers and octopus, and had some sort of bizarre allergic reaction that I at this point can only attribute to strong agricultural chemicals on the peppers. The last time I made curry, I thought I was gonna die, so this new curry is big news!

Anyway, my only reason for posting this atrocity of a blog entry is to brag about my lovely curry, which did satisfy my nostalgic for home since this was my old stable food, so I should just stop now.

27 November 2007

Nevermind the last post

So, I was in Kyoto. More on that later, maybe. But first...


If wearing a thousand dollar suit makes a man feel like "a million bucks", then how about a ten thousand dollar kimono?

12 November 2007

Remembrance Day in Japan

Today I spontaneously decided to be cultural and teach some second year middle school students from Ichikoko just what Remembrance Day is! For those Americans, etc., reading this, Remembrance Day is a solemn day of ceremonies and, for some, prayer, which -- at least in Canada -- is largely focused on honouring the dead and striving to understand the horror of war, as opposed to the celebration of soldiers and victory.


I was inspired by the fact that I forgot the moment of silence, which is ordinarily customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (or, in the other words, yesterday when I was sitting in front of the computer listening to loud music), and perhaps because I'm a little older now, or perhaps because I'm half a world a way and am struggling for any connection to Canada I can find, I thought the best thing I could do to redeem myself would be tell some Japanese kids about this. The problem being, the kids I was teaching today have learned English for less than two years and are 14. They listened to every word of my little speech, which was very kind, and my JTE asked some good questions.

I find it strange though, that I suddenly feel so sentimental about this holiday. I think any person -- or at least any decent person -- would agree that remembering the dead and spending just a couple of minutes on one day a year meditating on the brutal reality of war is a worthwhile thing to do, but I felt the need to try to get these kids to understand. The Japanese have a similar holiday, largely marking the nuclear holocaust that closed Second World War, so hopefully the kids know where I'm coming from here -- especially since Nagasaki is an hour away from here. But, this is really the first time that I've felt the urge to put myself into a teaching position-- to tell them something genuine about my culture, rather than Canadian dialect or pop culture references.

The language barrier is so frustrating sometimes.

On a higher note, I've been putting cartoons from explodingdog, Toothpaste for Dinner and Don Hertzfeldt on every worksheet I make! No one's even asked about them yet, but I think it's contributing to the kid's understanding of... uh... international understanding, and is definitely contributing heaps to my own amusement.

5 November 2007

Three Festivals

I haven't written in here for quite some time, and I suppose I should check in. I've been out and about quite a bit lately. Work has been a bit busier, and quite a bit more challenging as I've started carving out my niche in a country that is famous for denying foreigners niches. At first, I was too busy just figuring out how to teach, and after that wore out, I began to feel like a stray dog that no one knows that to do with, but instead, they just tolerate out of vague sympathy. My current method for breaking past this and gaining the acceptance and love that I so sorely deserve from staff and student alike is to just make myself visible, interested and active. It might be dancing in front of 500 high school students (check), it might be lugging a locker up a flight of stairs to a teacher's room (check), and it more often involves just talking to people and trying to communicate that I'm interested in what I'm doing and want to do as good a job as I can do.

Well, that sounds lame. Let's move on, shall we?

'Tis the season here in the Ken of Saga, and in the last two weeks I have witnessed three distinct festivals, or matsuri: the Yoshinogari Fire Festival (吉野ヶ里ふるさと炎祭り), Karatsu Kunchi (唐津くんち) and the Saga International Balloon Fiesta (佐賀国際熱気球祭り). And somehow I managed to miss anything remotely interesting... mostly just festival food. BUT, I had a hell of a time with some great company, so I thought I'd share some photographs.

Let's start with Yoshinogari.

I love the grass at the bottom of the shot.

Absolutely heavenly sky with those yayoi-period huts and the mountains in the background, without the usual haze.

A good illustration of why Kyushu, Japan is a nice place to live.

In case you can't see that properly, there's a guy riding a huge drum the size of a bull in the background.

Next was more recently: the mighty Karatsu Kunchi. Kind of rhymes with "crunchy". I missed the parade itself and we definitely did not get invited to any impromptu drinking parties in people's houses, which I was expecting, but we mostly just walked around acres of food stands near this one central shrine. It was pretty cool taking in the atmosphere, and I did really enjoy spending time with Lee-ann, Andy and ]Tiffany, who I had not met up to that point.

The tori'i in front of the barely-visible shrine. Pretty impressive crowds. A lot of punked out Japanese kids.

In case anyone's every wondered what it's like to see the world through the eyes of a 6"6' gaijin, here's a photographic simulation.

Tiffany and Lee-ann in front of the aforementioned tori'i.

A gang hit.

By the way, hip-hop fashion in Japan is my new favourite. I can go and buy a fairly conservative-looking hoodie in a Japanese shop that would be HUGE and atrociously baggy on your average 170 centimetre Japanese guy, and on me it's just right. Even fits in the sleeves!

Okay, last, and unfortunately least is the Balloon Fiesta, or Balloon Siesta, for those of us not willing to get up at 6:00 or beat the crowds at sunset to catch a glimpse. This, of course, is bitterness, since Charlene's pictures of the morning festivities are absolutely beautiful. But, I'll post what I've got and hope for the best.

That dot is a helicopter. The only thing airborne, since -- due to winds, I am told -- balloons took off an hour before scheduled.

Crowds and blue sky.

Concession tents.

Feel like yakitori, ice cream, or the mysterious French American dogs (フレンチ・アメリカン・ドック)? Otherwise known as FREEDOM American dogs. You can get it here.

This one's taken from the train to work a few days before.

But, because Misato asked for a shot of the balloon festival, I thought I'd try to create a virtual reality experience using my keitai, so you can feel what it's like to really be there.


13 October 2007

A Fine Day in Dazaifu

Last night about 60 of us crowded into two coach buses and began drinking beer and sake [super-illegal in Canada] on the way to a the luxurious Daikanso Hotel (大観荘), somewhere near Fukuoka-ken. Actually, from the outside, definitely not so luxurious, but it had washitsu (Japanese style rooms) and an onsen, which are public baths with ultra-hot sulphur-smelling spring water.

After this, some of us went to the Kyushu Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan (九州国立博物館; Kyushu National Museum), which -- please keep in mind -- we chose over a beer factory. But after the enkai, we were in absolutely no mood for more alcohol. Ughhh...



The museum was beautiful. One of the most incredible buildings I've ever been in. From the outside, somewhere between a space shuttle hanger and the Guggenheim. The ceiling was lined with what appeared to be logs in a grid pattern. And, greeting visitors was the display above.

The main theme of the exhibit seemed to be pottery, though, which -- I'm sure -- is appealing to some, but for partied-out gaijin, maybe a little dry... just a little.

We then continued on to a Shinto shrine called Dazaifu Tenman-gū in Dafaizu-shi, Fukuoka-ken.



We kept seeing these children everywhere in kimono. I assume there was some specific religious function for this. The Shinto equivalent to Christening, maybe? I spotted this one kid looking at koi just inside the main grounds of the shrine. Despite how immensely... creepy... it made me feel to take pictures of other people's children, I thought this scene was just perfect. And I think my gaijin status helps me "smash" through social taboos like this.



Group photo! Missing John here, but we have a nice group shot of the Canadian ALTs who turned down beer for high culture. That's right! Future astronauts, cancer cures and prime ministers.

7 October 2007

The Boy and His Koto

I've had -- let's say -- a healthy interest in the koto (琴), a thirteen stringed Japanese instrument for nearly three years now. Picture this if you may, a string instrument, not terribly different from your standard guitar, only the size and shape of a surf board. This thing, it wouldn't fit in my living room. I know that for sure, because I was at the Seikatsukan, a local junk store full of strange Japanese things. Katanas, tea ware, electronics, pornography, furniture, and other odds and ends. I bought a lot of my dishes there and my friend Daisuke asked if I could show him where the store was, so he, Andy and I perused the store and out of the corner of my eye I saw this giant thing leaning against the wall. Just an hour before I was looking at these third-sized mini kotos at a music store for about $400 Canadian. But this koto in the store was full sized and ¥8000, and I got a discount, so I paid exactly $58.75. INCREDIBLE.

But, I first heard from traditional Japanese music a few years ago working on a Multimedia project with my friend and former housemate Alana, and happened upon some traditional songs. A couple of tracks struck out, because as an amateur guitarist, my ears perk up when I hear something ridiculously good placed on a vaguely familiar sounding instrument. I learned a little about the koto in the year to come, and tracked down some songs here and there and found my guitar and piano playing to be somewhat influenced by Japanese styles.

Then, just last Spring I went to a Chinese-Japanese cultural night and (long, frustrating) discussion at McMaster University. At the end of the lengthy discussions, there was a performance of guzheng (古箏), a Chinese instrument with similar roots to the koto. This was my first time seeing this kind of instrument performed, and after I talked to the musician, Feihong. She agreed to play some guzheng parts for some musical pieces I was writing for my Multimedia thesis, and we quickly became friends. If you're interested in hearing what a master of this instrument sounds like, try downloading "Chun-xue", which is a collaboration we worked on.

Anyway, tuning the instrument was a bit of an experience. None of the pegs that guitars have. Playing it is rather interesting too, but not easy. I'll hopefully learn enough to record a little bit too.

3 October 2007

Just Another Day at The Office

Well I suppose I should write something. After all, I've been in Japan for three days shy of two months, and I haven't made so much of a peep other than a rather depressive rant about spontaneously developed allergies and newly worsened asthma. With this being said, things are generally really good. I've been a little sick for about 10 days now and have become a bit of a shut-in. Not so sick that I'm sick, but just enough so that I feel like I'm gonna get a cold sometime in the near future. Second week in a row. So, in other words, my immune system is not great, not bad. Just mediocre.

It's a pretty good excuse to sit at the computer listening to some old school NYC hip-hop and drink a glass of white.

Today, which here in the archipelago known to some as Japan is a Wednesday, is a day where I have one hour of teaching. One hour! Add a half-hour of tutoring, and another half hour of lesson planning, and you have a two hour work day, which is not exactly slave labour. Except of course I desperately had to pee all class, so it felt more like five hours, so that's a bit more respectable.

My base school, which shall be known as Ichikoko for the purposes of professional anonymity, is an incredible school to work at in a number of ways. The kids are fantastic and the other teachers really shattered my karoshi-inspired preconception of working in Japan. They work hard, no doubt, but are pretty relaxed otherwise. Lots of joking -- or so I'm guessing based on the combination of often incomprehensible Japanese followed by laughter. But I have no idea what to do with my time between classes. In today's case, a couple of three-hour blocks. I studied Japanese a bit, which I really need to get back into, being in freaking JAPAN. But I mostly just read... which perhaps I should not admit in public, but I got through a rather big chunk of Mr. Douglas Coupland's Generation X, which happens to have a chapter on the intricities of Japanese sociology in the workplace! So productive!