Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Summer Festivals Dominate World-wide!

For those of you that didn’t know, I love Wisconsin summers. I was lucky enough to still be around during Summerfest, Bastille Days, and random church festivals; but was pretty bummed I was missing Wisconsin State Fair. Luckily, Gunma does up their festivals right and I’ve had a great time at them all. I was really surprised at how similar Japanese festivals are to US. The streets were lined with little kiosks that sold flavored shaved ice, fried food, food on a stick, and chilled overpriced beverages (sound familiar?). There were games and prizes for the kids and stanky port-o-johns for the big kids. Many men and women dressed up in the traditional outfit called a yukata (like a summer kimono, but more casual).The highlight for all the festivals that I’ve been to have been the amazing fireworks displays. They are so intense. The Takasaki festival had something like 30,000 fireworks shot off. Maebashi Festival was done over the Tone River and had fireworks that were shaped like hearts and smiley faces. Just this last weekend, the Isesaki Festival had an hour and a half straight of fireworks set to coincide with music… kind of like what I imagine Rhythm and Booms to be like. There were even a few English songs in there; What a Wonderful World almost brought a tear to my eye (for real). I also got the opportunity to try the acclaimed fair food. Check out the pics
A ton of stands had these massive beetles you could win for the games. I opted for the goldfish game.
This float was gearin’ up to make it down the street. We also saw a bunch of smaller floats that wouldn’t have people in it, but would have like 20 men carrying it. These ornately painted wooden boxes are portable Buddhist shrines called omikoshi. They’re typically public treasures that date back hundreds of years.
Maebashi Fireworks over the Tone River.
My first okonomiyaki experience! So, okonomiyaki is this sort of Japanese style potato pancake. Just like in the US – you’ve got your basic ‘pancake’ base, and then you throw any kind of toping in you please. Although they were far from my famous banana chocolate chip pancakes – it was just as delicious. Typically it’s got cabbage, spring onions, and some meat in it – but really all is fair game. I’m not really sure, but I think ours had onions, peppers, ham, carrots, and of course the mayo topping drizzled over it to boot. Then you just mix it all up and fry it on both sides. Mmmmm.
Takoyaki is another big festival and really, everyday food. It’s a type of potato dumpling. The process goes: pour the basic batter, mix in the octopus, cook ‘em up on one half, use intense chef skills to separate and flip over dumplings with two mini spear thingys, make sure other side is cooked, put on 3 to a stick and use what looks like a paint brush to baste with soy sauce. This was probably the most disappointing food so far. Really bland taste and totally creepy texture.

And we’re ready for our Japanese festival feast – complete with a side of fried chicken on a stick for good measure.

Isesaki Fireworks: kind of a big deal

A clip of the fireworks from the first festival we went to literally a week after arriving in Japan: Takasaki Festival!

School’s Out for the Summer… but I’m a workin

(Composed on August 10th after a week of having worked in the school during ‘summer vacation’)

Disclaimer: Please feel free to completely skip over this blog if you have no interest in the differences between the educational system in Japan vs. the U.S./Wisconsin (or, my perceptions of both). I will not be offended in the least, as I can sympathize with the likes of ya that went through school once and don’t ever want to talk or hear about it again. For those that do care, read on my friends:

I’ll be working with three schools during my time here in Japan. One junior high school and two elementary schools. The junior high school is my “base school” and where I’ll be spending most of my time. I have met few people who speak “fluent English”, but the two I have met are teachers here. One is an English teacher, the other the Vice Principal. There are two English teachers I’ll be working with, but only one is fluent. I have already designed and created one killer English board, if I do say so myself. It’s all about me, so you know it’s got to be good. Many teachers were oooohing and ahhhing, which I take to be a good sign, but they could also be ooohhss and ahhhhs of disgust for all I know.

I also had my first work with students as I edited their entries for a speech competition that’s in October. My cooperating teacher and I picked a day to give the edited versions back and a day when they will present them, after which we’ll pick one student to compete in the finals. The students both came to me with questions regarding the editing. I tried very hard to explain, but more so to question their intent of the sentences, as they were clearly translated word for word via internet, but it seemed to be fruitless and we ended up just cutting the misunderstood sections. It will be cool to practice with them individually as it gets closer to the competition – but that interaction got me a little nervous about working with students. Feedback - even if it's awkward or harsh - is better than blank stares in my book. I’m pretty sure students aren’t going to answer or interact with me for the first month, but I have to remember how shy most students will be and keep up that enthusiasm, encouraging them to talk it up!

During the summer, teachers all come in on a regular basis from 8:15- 5ish pm. I stayed until 6pm a few nights (teachers’ lounge is air-conditioned and has internet!!!), and there were still about half the teachers in the office. Dedicated? Workaholics? Unhealthy? Verdict: unclear. Many teachers, in addition to working on class materials, also coach a club (sports, music, or art).There always seems to be endless work to be done. In the morning, everyone joyfully proclaims “Ohayo Gozaimasu” (good morning), and there is much chatter and movement. Eventually it tones down, but the mornings are super happy and social. I really like the idea of a communal work atmosphere. It kind of holds you accountable for getting stuff done, but I also think it could be really distracting. The office is on the first floor which overlooks the tennis courts and gym. Students often come in to chat with teachers and meetings with the principal are held at a little table in the room too.

When I first came in, we all sat at the table together and “chatted” (aka, smiled and nodded) over tea (I haven’t gotten into tea, or coffee for that matter, yet). Meeting my principals and co-workers at my schools have been quite possibly the most awkward experience of my life – namely due to the lack of language capabilities on both parts. After asking one of the principals at the elementary school whether any of the teachers speak English, he laughed and said, “No no. Is big joke here!” Reallllllllllll funny joke guys.

Anyway, despite many past JETs saying "you’re going to be so bored and not know what to do during this time" – I’ve been keeping very busy. In addition to the English… scratch that – KILLER ENGLISH BOARD, I’ve been cleaning, organizing, and making a few scrapbooks and worksheets for the students. I also went and practiced with the basketball club. They did a cheer for me upon entering – again, super awkward, but playing with them felt so natural and great. Probably the first time there was no communication breakdown thus far. It ensures me of the importance in this type of activity – for us both!

Okay, one last thing, I swear! Notice that "hobbies" is a category I highlight here. Many people have asked me what my hobbies are. At first, I really wanted to see yo-yo ing and long walks on the beach... but then I realized hobbies just means interests. I still mention stamp collecting every now and then though, just for fun.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Arrival in Maebashi, time with Host Family, and everything in between

Haha – look at the Japanese people looking at me soooo confused. It’s probably because I scream, “geijin!” (Foreigner) what with the way I’m holding my chopsticks and all… seriously have no idea what I was thinking there… picture jitters or something…I didn’t eat with them like that or anything. Anyway – this was my first experience with udon and tofu in Japan – and man was it delicious! I could never understand the soup in summer thing – but udon and soba can be served cold, and it really hit the spot after walking outside for .2 seconds in the 182 degree heat (temperature approximate based on self-thermometer).
Also, you should know that I was actually really scared before coming to Japan that there wouldn’t be any ice cream and respectively ate 724 containers of Edy’s ice cream in the month before leaving. I don’t even know why I thought that, nobody had told me that… I guess just because I thought cow milk was really rare and I had heard about difficulty obtaining less than 3.7% milk, so I kind of just thought the same was true of ice cream. Anyway, I was clearly wrong as there seems to be a soft serve ice cream vendor on every other corner. It’s no Edy’s, but it was awesome! Kristine had vanilla and green tea twist, I made Chris get the cantaloupe, and I went with strawberry twist so we could all share. Green tea dominates. It’s interesting though, that even though there is soft serve ice cream everywhere (for about $3), there are no regular/large sized containers of ice cream at the grocery store. The ‘largest’ I could find was like those mini-cups you get on field day in elementary school! I was very disappointed:(

Haruku: What a character. Even though Nani (his mom) couldn`t speak much English, she did manage to tell me how spoiled he is.
Moe: adorable! She would count to ten, sing the alphabet for me, and yell "GOOD MORNING" to my sleepy face at 7am. Awwwww.

The whole fam, and even Grandma came for din-din!

For my last meal at the Fuji’s, we all ate together and Nani and her mom prepared a huge feast. Nani kept asking me while we were out to eat for lunches in food courts what I liked to eat or what I couldn’t eat. I told her I’d eat anything, but I don’t think she believed me because she kept giving me toast, cereal and fruit for breakfast and telling me I could eat at the burger and hot dog place in the mall. They prepared a wonderful meal with miso soup, udon, a salad with all the yummy fixin’s, rice and sashimi (raw fish). There was tuna, salmon, mussels, squid, and octopus (slices of the body and tentacles). They all watched me as I ate each and every thing on the table. I kept getting little oohs and ahhs from them, but the husband literally stopped eating to watch me eat things. He got really excited when I ate the octopus and started talking really fast to Nani – after which she asked me if I’d ever had “nato”. Of course I haven’t, so she went to the fridge and pantries to mix some up for me. Nato is a gooey soybean that she mixed with some soy sauce, dried seaweed, and some other dried flakey stuff. It seriously looks and smells so bad, and everyone just sat staring at me as I ate it – but then I gave the typical response of making the “mmmmmm” sound and rubbing my belly, response that which I had been doing at all meals to let them know I liked it. It actually wasn’t bad at all, other than the slime-like appearance of it. Nani kept telling me how “healthful” it was. Good stuff – and now I can say I’ve eaten Nato, raw octopus and raw squid. Tuna’s still my fave though.
Maebashi, baby!!!
So far, I’m thinking Maebashi is a pretty sweet city. I knew it was about the same size population wise as Madison (over 200,000), but it’s got much more of a city feel than Madison does. The slogan for the city is “Maebashi: The City of water, greenery, and poetry”. There are tons of little rivers running everywhere, and you can constantly hear water underneath you on the sidewalks. One of the bigger rivers, the Mononokai, runs right behind my apartment and has a running/biking path alongside it. I haven’t been running yet because it’s so freakin’ hot – but it should be nice in the fall. It’s really beautiful and when the sky clears up you can get a great view of Mt. Akagi, the biggest mountain in the prefecture. There are also a lot of trees and personal gardens and rice fields, as well as public parks that aren’t so green right now in the heat of the summer. I’m sure it’s much prettier in the spring, which is also when the cherry blossom trees bloom along the rivers.
Houses and apartments are pretty much wall to wall and the sidewalks that aren’t on the main routes have literally 2 feet to ride your bike on. I’ll have to get a picture up of what I really mean with the sidewalks, because I don’t think it’s possible to even imagine what I mean without seeing it. I do love riding my bike though, as it is my only form of transportation. I gotta say too, that I am particularly proud of my map reading abilities and have made out to some dinners with friends, the train station, and the City Hall all by myself! That’s right.
There’s one thing I’ve noticed about bikes and walking that’s really peculiar to me. So, when we were in Australia, it took me like a month to realize that you walk on the left side of the sidewalk – I just kept running into people and wondering why for that month. Here, I just assumed that since you drive on the left, the same rules apply for sides of the sidewalk – not true! It’s pretty much a free for all, and thus, there are a lot of fast jerks to the sides and me saying “sumimasen” (excuse me), even though I’m all like, I wouldn’t have to be excused if we’d just both ride on our respective sides! Interesting, I know.
One of the many "main drags" in the city.
A view outside one of the windows in my apartment. More apartment pics to come when I have all the proper Aerosmith posters properly hung. It’s not quite home without them!

Tone River and city greenery
Mononokai River
Me and my bike! As you can see – impossible to keep proper posture. What you can’t see: obnoxious squeaking noise, bum back brakes, and front light which causes mad drag when you have to turn it on at night. I have gotten a sweet bell for it and ‘fixed’ the light though… I think there’ll be another trip back to bike shop soon.

JET Orientation and Tokyo

After talking with Rachel and Mary about their experiences in Spain and France teaching English, it made me feel really grateful I was in the JET Programme. It’s ridiculously organized and they really walk you through the process from pre-departure, through departure, into arrival and post arrival in your Japan location with current and past JET participants with you the whole way through. Without that, I would’ve been much more of a basket case and super nervous about the whole experience, but I think I handled it all quite well (enter pat on the back). It goes without saying that the hardest part was leaving everyone I know (but I’ll say it anyway!).
The Chicago and Tokyo Orientations were both really nice and they fed us heaps, buffet style! I met a ton of interesting people throughout it all, but again, the program does a good job of grouping you together with people in your prefecture (those you live by) – so those I got closest to I’ll hopefully be able to see again! During the days, we had lectures and meetings from 9am-6pm. Some sessions were more informative and entertaining than others, but on jet leg – it was particularly difficult to stay focused. I was one of few who attended all the optional sessions (pat on the back no. 2). One of the nights our Gunma prefecture crew went out for an all-you-can eat/drink style dinner. See pics below.

This was at our JET Orientation in Illinois.

JET Orientation in Tokyo, with about 3,000 representatives from around the world there. There`s another wave (about 2,000 more people) coming in a week.

Our hotel was located in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. Although it definitely had the bright lights and heaps of buildings, it’s known more for its restaurants and shopping than the chaos that is “downtown” Tokyo. I wasn’t daring enough to hitch a train to another area of Tokyo just yet, so some friends and I went out in Shinjuku another night for some amazing food and a run through the arcades. My guitar hero skills payed off on the drum game (which probably has a way cooler name than that!), but I’m blaming my loss on my lack of ability to read Japanese. I was still too beat to rally and go out late night with the karaoke crew, but I only live a few hours away from Tokyo by train, so it shan’t be long ‘til I return and do it right!

View of Shinjuku area of Tokyo from the top of our amazing hotel. The "drum" game. I lost:(
Get ready for a big part of this blog being pictures of the delicious food. It’s a little, well a lot, reminiscent of Jane’s blog in this way, but seriously the food was one of the major draws and interests for me regarding Japan. I loved it at home, but this takes it to a whole new level. I’m totally intrigued and keep making people tell me exactly what it is I’m eating. I made my Vice Principal write down how to prepare udon and miso soup for me yesterday after having lunch out with her. Mmmm, I love it!Out for the “all you can eat and drink feast” which definitely has a name, which I definitely repeatedly forget! I do remember though that the grilled meat is called yakiniku, which you do at your own table and it smells deeeee-licous!

Sushi: no idea what kind of fish, but there were fish eggs, wasabi, and some mayo-esque kind of sauce on top. Awesome!
My sarudu (salad) unexpectedly had lil fishies with eyes intact! They`re usually dried, salty, and a nice compliment to the whole dish.

Before, Leaving on a JET plane

A month (the time it will take to set up internet) is clearly far too long for a blabbermouth like myself to be away from my blog, much less the internet... so I made my way to the nearest Yamada Denki to get ripped off and splurge on an hour session in this mega-store electronic, air conditioned, bliss! Far too much has happened to write about properly, but I’ll try to hit all the highlights from the time I last wrote until now.

SO - What did I do in my last days in the States?

Spent time with my family and new arrival, Maddison.

She has the CUTEST `lil fingers!
Brewers, brats, beer, b-ball and Butts as previously predicted, graced in the presence of my bestest bud, Kristin and Floridian deemed Wisconsinite at heart, Rick!

The rally cap wasn’t cutting it that night! Brewers lost:(
Always an amazing time with Eddie and my G-town Ladies!

One last stroll around the Madison Farmer’s market. AND it was Maxwell Street Days. AND there was a crazy canoe race around the capital I had no idea was going on. Man, I love that city!
Celebrated my Mom’s 50th... I mean 35th birthday; two weeks before it actually occurred. We done surprised her good! I make a killer tiramisu (thanks Mrs. B!), in case you were wondering.

Ate all the Edy’s and Dairy Queen ice cream known to mankind... just in case they didn’t have any in Japan.

Played/ROCKED Guitar Hero 80’s edition. I don’t care if singing along doesn’t get you more points... I’m still gonna do it.

Packed up two apparently overweight (45 lbs each) bags for the plane, along with my 25 lb carry-on, “personal item”/laptop, and one more 65 lb box to ship out... just for good measure.

Spent my last night in the States in Elmhurst, yes Elmhurst, with my Illinois ladies and P’s.

I think it was the perfect amount of time to have after student teaching and leaving the States to get everything in order and do everything I wanted to do and see (pretty much!) everyone I wanted to see. It always gets rushed at the end, and I wish I could have seen you all – but thanks to those that did make my last days wonderful by your presence or a ring-a-ling ding. I really appreciated it:) (And Yes, I`m using emoticons now)