Thursday, October 05, 2006

Time flies when you're having fun...*

...and suddenly your 60-day assessment is being written and posted on Day 67. Oh well.

I've been asked a number of times recently how I like Japan, and I never have a good answer. So here are some random thoughts (and pictures).

The Job

My self-appointed "Japanese mother", Tanaka-sensei, one of the "tea ceremony club" girls, and yours truly...

My school is good. I haven't done a lot there yet. I did a number of self-introduction lessons (complete with Powerpoint presentation chock'a'full of pics of my family, maps of Canada, and lists of my favourite things) between Aug 28 (first day of classes) and September 15, but haven't taught an ACTUAL, regular class yet. We had a modified schedule the first two weeks because of the school's cultural/sports festival which took place Sept 5,6, and 8 - speaking of which, I will post some of my great pics from that event on my Flickr site soon. Two weeks ago, none of the teachers with whom I teach (there are six) wanted to start a new lesson, because the next week, last week, was exams. This week I have been at a junior high school, which has been fun, except it has entailed a new round of slightly modified self-introductions (which I'm sick of giving, and the new handout and lesson plans I made for the classes works well in some cases and fails dramatically in others).

The teachers I teach with, however, are pretty nice. A little hard to track down sometimes, and I am not known for running around trying to get noticed. But they all seem to have a fair bit of confidence in my ability to teach, which is nice. I only teach conversation classes, though of course I can work in some writing/reading components, and I only teach first- and second-years. I wish I was more involved in the other English classes (reading and writing) - Randal does a whole range of class types at his school, for example - but you can't change the system in a day.

The whole concept of teaching English here is a little strange, and could entail multiple blog entries in its own right. In a nutshell, English for many, many years was taught here in a fashion similar to how people learned Latin: as a language worth translating but not actually to be used. While the JET programme puts ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in a large proportion of schools across the country in an effort to get students actually using English in conversation and in an attempt to poise English as the natural second language of Japanese, the reality is far from this. Despite having the JET programme in place for 20 years now, the teaching methods are still often arcane (translation from Japanese to English, which never, never works, unless the students have a better idea of how English is actually used), and the ALT is seen as someone who comes to the class once a week (or so) to get the students running around saying "Iamfinethankyouandyou!" (It truly is amazing – I never realized that entire sentence was in fact just one word, not to mention one that must be stated quickly and even militantly.)

My high school does better than this, thank goodness, though it still has its fair share of moments. My instinct thus far tells me that they want the students to feel more comfortable using English as a spoken language, but they are hesitant to actually challenge the students to do so. I don’t want to bore the students with grammar and nitpicking, but at the same time, high school students should be expected to do more than ask directions in their second language. In my French class in high school, we were expected to debate and do presentations, etc. My French was higher level than their English is, but there’s no good reason for that; by my last year of high school, I had only studied French for maybe a year or two more than they have.

The Living Quarters

The beautiful night-time view from my futon.

I have already posted some pics of my little apartment, so not much to add. It’s small, it’s cute, the area is OK. Randal’s area is nicer – less urban and the people are friendlier, but I am more conveniently located to get downtown. But it is weird not living together and we wish we hadn’t decided to do that. Too late now to change our minds, unless we decide to stay a second year (which is looking doubtful at the mo’, but that’s another story for another day, and also subject to change at any moment).

The City

The streetscape of downtown Gifu (T) and inside the covered arcade mall, Yanagase (B).

Honestly, probably the best thing about living in Gifu City is that it is conveniently located in terms of getting elsewhere. The majority of places we are interested in visiting in Japan are within a four-hour train ride, so can be easily visited on a long weekend. Nagoya, the 4th largest city in Japan, is a 25-minute, 450-yen (about $4.50) train ride away, and from there it is easy to fan out to many other places. Similarly, Gifu itself is on the major local train lines (but not the shinkansen) and so well-positioned for local travel.

In all fairness, however, we have not really given Gifu a fair shake yet. We spent part of an afternoon a few weekends ago kind of lacklustrously (is that even a word?) shopping in Yanagase, the vast covered arcade mall downtown. There are some museums in town we haven’t visited yet. We have not even hiked up Mount Kinka yet (or been lazy and taken the ropeway, for that matter) and visited the castle perched on top. We haven’t even gone to see the ukai (cormorant fishing) yet, though I live right next to the river! Most of our Gifu excursions have been ones bogged down by logistics and practicality: Where can I buy groceries? How do I take the bus from X to Y? Where is the main Board of Education office? Where can I get a multiple re-entry visa stamp? etc.

Gifu is apparently a good place to buy paper items, especially umbrellas and lanterns. I plan on picking up a few before leaving. But as is so often the case, you get to know other places better than your own… I never visited the Parliament buildings in my two years in Ottawa, though I kept planning to (though in my defence, I did do a tour of the Centre Block about ten years ago).

The Country

Model of Princess Sen and maidservant in the "Cosmetic Tower" of the West Bailey at Himeji-jo, ca. 1618 or so.

Is Japan everything I’d hoped it would be, and then some? Well, yes and no. I think I initially came over here thinking that every day would be an adventure, and that there’d be enchantment for 365 days straight. At least, that’s how I felt for the 8 days I was here in Japan in 2004. But then I recall that, in fact, there was only enchantment for 7 of those 8 days. The last day was spent wandering the streets and shops of Osaka, feeling like a lost child, wondering where I could go to cool down, where I could sit and rest, where I could eat without breaking the bank. Until I got to my capsule hotel that night and the enchantment was renewed over the novelty of it all.

And that’s the main "problem", if you can call it that: Japan is not continuously novel. And really, it is unrealistic for me to think it should be. There are moments of novelty, wonder and amazement. But there are many days and evenings eaten up by much more mundane things, like sorting my garbage for recycling or wandering the grocery store in search of tasty-looking food whose cooking instructions I can actually understand. It is sometimes awfully like my life in Ottawa: I get up, I get ready for work, I have breakfast, I swear as I realize I am yet again running late for work, I get to school. Randal bicycles through rice paddies on his way to his school, but my surroundings are much more urban, though punctuated with the occasional garden or bonsai tree. At school, I prepare lessons, I chat with my co-workers, I run around and teach classes. Bento lunches at school are fun (I’ll take a picture of one in the near future) but again, the novelty quickly wears off. After lunch, if I don’t have classes, I sit at my desk and work, trying to stay awake through the afternoon doldrums. I leave usually between 4:30 and 5:00, and I either bicycle straight home or I go to the grocery store for aforementioned wandering or to the mall for shopping (I am addicted to 100-yen shops). Once home, I do laundry or clean (my floor is hardwood and constantly looks dusty) or read a book or waste time on the Internet chatting and surfing. I eat dinner. 85% of the time, I then stay up too late, going to bed after 11:30, and the next day it starts all over. There are no temples. There is no festival-dancing or sake-drinking with strangers who have decided to be your new best friend (for the evening). I have not yet learned even one of the 57 ways to wear a kimono, and no one sits outside their house in the evening playing traditional Japanese harp or practicing calligraphy.

So I could be anywhere. Though of course in Canada I would at least be able to communicate with the sales clerk that my bicycle light has burnt out, and I would be able to read the packaging which says to let noodles soak overnight before cooking. Heck, I would also be able to figure out how to use my washing machine!** However, I could be as functionally illiterate in any other country where they don’t speak English or French, right?

But then I wouldn’t be in Japan. And I guess that is the answer to whether Japan is all I’d hoped it would be.

If I wasn’t in Japan, I wouldn’t have spent last weekend train-hopping from Nagoya to Himeji and Hiroshima, where I visited one of the most beautiful castles in the world, discovered a small hall built into a hill that was filled with Buddha statues and hanging lanterns, and wandered through the rain past what I believe to be one of the most poignant monuments to remembrance and peace (the A-Bomb Dome). I also wouldn’t have been woken up, a few weeks ago while over at Randal’s place for the weekend, by neighbours asking if we wanted to accompany them and their children to a small picturesque town about an hour’s drive away for the day (I managed to climb up to and visit the castle there, oddly enough). Kyoto would not be a feasible weekend excursion, and Mount Fuji would not be constantly lurking at the edges of my mental horizon, taunting me to get into shape so that I may climb it (currently scheduled for sometime next spring).

Things can’t always be novel and exciting, and I realize that. So I look forward to the interesting moments when they happen. I still think it’s neat that at every day at 5:00 p.m., the Big Ben chimes ring out in electronic form from a nearby building.*** In Randal’s neighbourhood, apparently it is "Moon River" at 6:00 p.m. There is a guy who drives around my neighbourhood in a van with a loudspeaker playing flute music over and over – I found out a while ago that he is the tofu-vendor! If you want tofu, you come out to his van with a container, and he’ll sell you as much as you want. Little tiny hole-in-the-wall places turn out to serve tasty cheap meals, and small shrines pop up in the most unexpected places. There is a gecko that occasionally visits my balcony, and, well, when all else fails, there are the bats that swoop around every evening at dusk – surely they provide enough excitement for any girl.

So I guess for now I will settle for sitting in my little apartment, looking up at Gifu Castle looking down at me.

I’ve conquered the towering heights of Himeji-jo (T) (twice now, actually) and the much humbler Gujo-jo (B) … Will Gifu-jo be next? Stay tuned…

* AKA The Post That Caused So Much Grief And Anguish Yesterday

** Current standings: Julie = 0 ; Washing machine = 2. I think I will take a page from Erriotto’s book and check out the webpage he mentioned a while back, which allowed him to figure out his rice cooker (another piece of electronic equipment I own but have yet to tackle).

*** The Big Ben chimes are, of course, also used in what seems to be ALL the schools in the country for signalling the beginning and end of each period, rather than a regular bell or buzzer.


Waterlily said...

HELP! Is it just me, the text flickers on and off as I scroll down, making it very hard to read. I printed it instead. Your photos are very beautiful! is that the new digital?

julie said...

it's not my fault, i have the same problem when i view the page in internet explorer, but not if i view it in netscape. who knows?

yes, that's the new digital cam, of course. no WAY i could get such good pics with my old camera. though the cameraman helps too (randal keeps making excuses to use my new camera instead of his own (which is only just over a year old) because he likes mine better).

Kaki said...

i thought i was going to die when i found out i had been placed in tiny, rural, 2000 people, 20 000 monkeys and bears Neo-mura, in the north of the Gifu region. being a bonafide city girl and all, i didn't think i'd survive. BUT the sheer beauty of my village blows me away every day. and don't even get me started on the people. i feel pretty darn lucky. so before you leave japan, or at the least, Gifu, I invite you (and Randal) up to mine one weekend to get a taste of rural life. I don't know where Randal lives but this little spot is a paradise (the nearest konbini is 20 minutes away). so if you want to experience onsening in the winter, as large flakes flit around and fall on your naked body while you're sitting in a steaming pool of water OUTSIDE, send me a message. and if you want to swim in a bonafide swimming hole next summer, let me know too. we canucks gotta stick together!

btw, where does randal live? my village also plays Moon River in the evening and Edleweiss in the morning.

Also, EXPLORE GIFU. It's not much to look at in the city, but the smaller towns and villages are absolutely charming.

julie said...

Kaki, thanks! Don't worry; I truly enjoy the opportunities we have had to get out of town - for instance, in Mino at the Paper Lantern Festival this weekend (pictures to follow); it was fantastic! And such a lovely little town; so different from the concrete jungle that is Gifu City. Anyway, I'd love to take you up on the offer someday - perhaps a winter onsen chez toi is exactly what the doctor ordered :)

Randal lives in Kitagata-cho. Gifu suburb just south of Malera.

(The nearest konbini from my place is three buildings away - LOL)