Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This kerosene, it's a goddamn arms race

(Warning: contains a very minor The Wire spoiler.)

It's really getting cold now. When I yawned the other morning and saw my breath coming out, I decided it was time to investigate heating. You see, Japanese houses generally don't have central heating, and mine is no exception. Instead, portable kerosene burners are used. I dug mine out of the cupboard and found it still had a little fuel in it, so I gave it a whirl. It delivers a pleasingly intense blast of heat, although I am more than a little concerned about the twin threats of burning my house down and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. I don't think I'll leave it on when I'm asleep. It also makes my house smell like a petrochemical plant when it's running, but I don't mind that so much. The smell is heavily associated in my mind with good memories of my snowboarding trip to Nagano three years ago, because the hostel there was heated the same way. All I need to do now is figure out how one goes about buying kerosene and I'll be sorted. (I have read on the internet that using stale fuel is bad for your burner, but I'm not sure about how one responsibly disposes of smelly and highly flammable liquids.)

I should also work out how to operate my kotatsu, which is the low square table my laptop is on right now. It's no ordinary table, as its underside contains an electric heater. The top comes off allowing you to sandwich a blanket between the heater and the tabletop, creating an enclosure into which to slide your legs to keep them warm and toasty. I tried one out at someone's house last week and it was delightfully cozy.

Ok, I don't actually intend for this post to be entirely devoted to heating. This week has seen my debut at school four of six, which I definitely won't be identifying by name for reasons that will become apparent. Whenever I start at a new school I have to introduce myself to the whole school in Japanese. This never seems to go smoothly, so this time I was determined to nail it. Before I went in on monday morning, I practiced it, and I came armed with my notes in my pocket. But a quick self-intro in the staffroom was all that was requested from me. Oh well, I thought, this place must just roll in a less formal way. Today I stroll in at 8:18am, two minutes before the first bell, and the instant I make it to my desk I'm ushered to the gym hall for assembly, at which I am of course required to introduce myself. No notes, no preparation. I think I did pretty well, considering. A few short months ago, forming coherent English sentences at 8:20am would have been a struggle.

I'd heard tales that this school was a little rough, and they turned out to be not entirely unfounded. For the first time since I got to Japan, I've seen disobedience. There are a few kids at this school that could do with some new collars. And for the first time, I've heard teachers raise their voices to deliver reprimands that sound, to my ears, as terrifying as they are incomprehensible. I don't want to give the impression that I'm like Prez; I haven't had to deal with any classroom stabbings as yet. But today I gave three back-to-back self-intro lessons and in two of them I was competing with chatting students to make myself heard. It was fairly exhausting. As I was told in my training, the Japanese approach to classroom discipline is strangely non-interventionist to a Westerner - students very seldom get shouted at or sent out for misbehaving in class. Apparently discipline takes the form of stern talkings-to in private.

The regular schedule is all up in the air this week, because there is a 'chorus festival' this saturday. From what I can gather, this will be an inter-class competitive singing spectacular. It's being taken very seriously, with the time from lunch to well into what I would consider 'after school' being devoted to singing practice. It seems a little cruel to me to make 12-15 year old boys sing competitively; I mean, I still haven't really got the hang of my post-puberty vocal chords. This does perhaps explain why Japanese people are so good at karaoke though. I can only assume there is a tenpin bowling festival in the spring.

It's not all bad news though. The attitude problems seem mainly confined to third grade, and the younger students are very spirited (genki) when I see them outside of the classroom. The girls in particular have an interesting habit of telling me their names and testing me on them later. As you may know, my memory for faces is woeful at the best of times; I think I may actually have mild prosopagnosia. Matching Japanese faces with Japanese names is a total nightmare for me. ("Hmm, let me see, the girl with brown eyes and straight black hair... Yuka? Yuki? Yuko? Oh, Motoko. Sorry.") Still, they don't seem to mind too much when I get it wrong.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quake me up before you go-go

I'm having a very lazy day today. My house is in dire need of some cleaning, but it's now past five and I still haven't found the motivation to do so.

I'm going to get the negativity out of the way early on this one. I had a rubbish day on thursday. This was, in large part, my own fault. As is becoming customary for a wednesday evening, the previous night I had been invited for dinner by a friend of Marie's. It was a fun evening, but I ended up drinking a little too much and staying up rather too late. It is pretty unprofessional for me to be getting drunk on a weeknight and being hungover the next day, but in my defence I would say that it's very easy to get carried away when Japanese hospitality demands that your hostess keeps endlessly refilling your glass. You know the way that hangover intensity can be surprisingly loosely correlated with the quantity of alcohol consumed? Well, the next day I felt way worse than I thought I deserved to. Even my legs ached for some reason. I suspect I'm coming down with a cold, which is an occupational hazard for someone working in a school at this time of year.

Anyway, thursday was no ordinary day. It was a training day, meaning that all the English teachers (and teachers of other subjects) of Nanyo went to one school and observed demonstration lessons and discussed them afterwards. I hadn't had much briefing on this, so didn't really know what to expect. My heart sank as I showed up in my usual schoolday attire (black trousers, long-sleeved checked shirt, tank-top) to see everyone else in suits. It quickly became apparent that formality was the order of the day. All the headmasters and various other VIPs from city hall were in attendance.

Before things even got underway my glasses mysteriously fell apart, requiring a helpful colleague to hurriedly ask around for a screwdriver set. The demo classes themselves were alright; it was the rest of the day that was rather more painful. It consisted of various long meetings conducted in Japanese, which I had to sit through attempting to look professional rather than bored, hungover and inappropriately attired. I don't think I was very successful in this regard, as people kept asking me if I was alright, and commenting that I looked tired. At the end of an 80 minute discussion about the demo English lesson, of which I had understood perhaps 5%, I was asked in English for my opinion. Having entirely zoned out, I was caught on the back foot, and I fear gave a rather negative appraisal of the poor teacher's lesson. As if I, as a hungover non-teacher, was in any position to criticise anyone. All in all, I fear I made quite a poor impression.

After it finally finished I wanted nothing more than just to go to sleep, but I had to go to my Japanese class in the evening. I was all over the place, which was frustrating; I felt like explaining to everyone that I'm actually smarter than this when I'm not exhausted. Then another student and I got taken for coffee by one of the assistant teachers, which was a very nice gesture but was the last thing I needed by that stage. I will be more restrained with my midweek drinking from now on.

Thankfully, the next day back at my school was better. In the morning I gave a lesson where we played a game called 'grammar gamble', in which the students had to bet on whether sentences were grammatical or not, using poker chips I found in my house. It was really fun, and I liked that I was teaching 13-year-olds real gambling. They seemed to love it too. I really had to fight the urge to shout "Prace your bets now!" in a terrible Japanese accent.

Next period was free, so I was chilling in the staffroom with my kanji flashcards. Suddenly I felt the room start to shake. My first earthquake! Everyone stopped talking and looked at each other, then after a few seconds it stopped and everyone kind of shrugged and went back to whatever they had been doing, rather like people do when the hear a rumble of thunder. Everyone, that is, except me. Wide-eyed and breathless, I blurted out "Was that an earthquake?!". People nodded, as if to say, "What do you want, a medal?". For the detail fans out there, it had a magnitude of 5.0 and its epicentre was 186km away, just off the east coast of Honshu.

Instead of regular lunch on friday, we had an imonikai, or beef-and-potato stew party. This local custom is what people more traditionally do at the venue where I had my paella party a few weeks back. The kids were split into eight teams and ran the whole show themselves, from building the fires to cooking the stew to cleaning up afterwards. Without any prompting, the boys instinctively assumed fire-related duties, while the girls handled most of the cooking and cleaning, demonstrating that gender stereotypes are pleasingly universal.

I was impressed with how much trust the teachers had in their students. They allowed them to build the fires with minimal supervision, and didn't bat an eyelid when one group seemed more intent on building a bonfire with a pot of stew somewhere at its heart than actually cooking food. Even when the grass around the stove started to catch fire they appeared unconcerned. But I think I was more surprised that one of the ingredients the kids were given was a big bottle of sake. In my high school you could put money on that being furtively drunk dry within minutes. But I didn't seeing any students swigging from it, so they were either very responsible or very stealthy. Anyway, the stew was delicious and there wasn't a cloud in the sky; it was a very pleasant way to spend a friday afternoon.

Back in august a teacher at one of my schools invited me to a concert at which she would be playing the koto, a traditional Japanese musical instrument that blurs the boundary between harps and guitars. This event finally rolled around yesterday, so I took a trip to Yamagata City for some culture. Before the event I went for my first sober Mos Burger for lunch, despite there being a perfectly good McDonalds across the street, so keen was I to embrace Japanese culture. Their Japanese take on American fast food is certainly interesting, though I find their burgers are difficult to eat without getting sauce all over one's face and hands.

The concert itself was very enjoyable, although the audience was composed mostly of geriatrics. The first half was all traditional Japanese music: predominantly bamboo flutes and koto. It put me in mind of the scene in pretty much any kung fu movie where the white-haired old master sits by a lotus pond serenely sipping tea. The second half was Western style, the highlight being a piano/cello/singer trio. At 2.5 hours, the concert was maybe a little overlong (in particular a choir of middle-aged women towards the end dragged on a bit) but it was very agreeable in a mellow sort of way.

I returned to the city that night for more musical entertainment. Things were rather less genteel this time around, as the event in question was a hip-hop night at J's Bar, a slightly divey basement bar and popular gaijin hangout, run by an American guy. It turns out it was Halloween themed, which I hadn't appreciated, but I managed to appropriate a pair of sparkly black horns as my very token concession to the occasion. Other people had made more of an effort, including a female DJ who was dressed as Tinkerbell, and was therefore approximately the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed.

Surprisingly given that this is rural Japan, there were some very serious B-boys and B-girls in attendance, many of whom looked suspiciously young to be in a bar in the first place. For most of the night they just practiced their moves in front of mirrors that were on the walls. Then the dancefloor was cleared and they performed their meticulously choreographed routines in turn. It was undeniably impressive, but I'm not sure they really grasped the spirit of hip-hop. Being a middle-class white guy from Inverness, I appreciate I'm not particularly well qualified to talk about life in the ghetto, but they seemed to be treating it more like a martial art to be studied and perfected, rather than the the playful freewheeling form of expression that I take breakdancing to be.

Having so many accomplished dancers around does make people like me, whose moves extend about as far as the Running Man and a very poor Robot, rather less inclined to strut their stuff. But I drank enough that this ceased to bother me, and proceeded to flail around like a fool on the dancefloor. The music was fairly good, but if all the breakdancing teens didn't make me feel old, the strong bias towards recent autotune-heavy joints by the likes of Akon certainly did. As some of you will know, I have a long-standing problem with women dancing with me in a manner that I find inappropriately provocative. Specifically, I'm talking about the ass-grind here. This situation arose at one point, but by the time we left I was drunk enough that it seemed like a good idea to raise the issue with the poor girl on the drive home. Smooth. Thankfully, she didn't seem too offended.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Don't go chasing waterfalls

(Not the tortured pun you've come to expect, but it just seemed too apt to pass up on.)

I don't have a drinking problem! It's after midnight on saturday night, and my drinks total for the weekend is one beer, plus the whisky I'm drinking now. Admittedly I got a bit mashed on wednesday, but that's besides the point.

Last night I was sober because I was driving. I went to play some pool and darts in Yonezawa with other ALTs and associated gaijin. I imagined that this would take place in a bar, and I was a little rueful that driving was the only practical transport option. But I was wrong! It was in a place mysteriously called 'Space Create', which was a peculiarly Japanese facility for which there is no Western analogue that I'm aware of. It's partly an internet cafe - it had rows of private-ish booths with TVs, high-spec computers and PlayStations for people to get some electronic entertainment. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were also racks full of manga, so you could get your otaku on with the printed medium if you so fancied. I know what you're thinking, and yes, there was an 18+ section tucked away in the corner where presumably the booths were fully private. There were also larger 'family rooms', which I'm struggling to understand the rationale behind.

Having more sociable pursuits in mind, we availed ourselves of the pool, darts and table tennis facilities that were also on offer. Despite my school lunchtime training, I still received many a sound drubbing at the ping-pong table. The dartboards were plastic electronic affairs, which although offering a reasonable emulation of real thing, weren't quite the same as throwing real weapons into a bristle pad. On the plus side, the scoring is automatic. Anyway, what was good about this place was that the games were all free; you simply paid for the time you spent there, and at 1000yen for three hours, this works out very cheaply assuming you're in for the long haul. Being Japan, potential awkward and undignified quarreling over whose turn it is to play which game is avoided by having people explicitly choose their table/board, and logging these assignments on a computer.

Also included in this price is unlimited use of the drinks bar, which offered just about every kind of non-alcoholic drink you can think of, including soup. I alternated melon slush puppies and Earl Grays. It's no surprise that inventive vagrants have taken to living in these places.

Today's entertainment was a trip to an allegedly haunted waterfall, with a large group of ALTs. (What's the collective noun? A skive? An annoyance?) An impressive body of folklore surrounds this place. Some selected highlights, in descending order of sanity:
  • In feudal times, it was an execution site.
  • Many people have committed suicide there.
  • The statue at the shrine there has repeatedly been found to be beheaded.
  • It's unlucky go there in a white vehicle, or as a couple.
  • People report feeling their hair being pulled.
  • Pictures taken there often feature ghosts (the advent of digital cameras has really taken the fun out of that one, presumably).
Particularly detailed myths surround some swords which were to be found at this place, but were apparently removed some years ago. These swords were supposedly used to carry out the aforementioned executions. It is considered very unlucky to touch the swords, but apparently fate will conspire to make some member of any party who goes there accidentally touch one.

The waterfall itself was underwhelming, being essentially just a stream tumbling down a few metres of rocks, and the shrine was very modest. The place was noticeably cooler than the surrounding area, lending it a slightly eerie air, but I think that can be readily explained by the dual phenomena of trees and shadows. Indeed, as a representative of Science, I felt it was my duty to demonstrate the foolishness of such superstitious beliefs, so I went into full-on unbearable Richard Dawkins / James Randi / Penn and Teller mode. I dearly wanted to touch the cursed swords, but since they were not in evidence, I settled for touching the stone swords of the statues. Since some of these were located in the waterfall, it meant clambering around like a buffoon on slippery mossy rocks, offering Fate an open goal to give me my comeuppance. Nothing happened. Some of my more credulous companions insist that my bad karma is biding its time, and some unpleasantness is sure to befall me in the coming weeks. I'm unconcerned.

After the waterfall we went for some bowling. After an early spare/strike one-two, my performance reverted to its normal level. Fortunately, since I was playing with Westerners, my score of 85 didn't look quite so pitiful. The bowling alley had an amusement arcade, so I played a spot of Dance Dance Revolution, throughout which I was apparently being stared at by a schoolgirl, presumably awed by my moves. I didn't notice, being fully focused on the scrolling arrows.

Then, not for the first time, I did some purikura. This is another Japanese pop-cultural institution, the name being a very unlikely contraction of 'print club'. They are essentially photo booths, but have been carefully designed to maximise their appeal to their target demographic of pubescent girls. The are decked out in pastel pinks and flowery script, with pictures of models that explore the intriguing area between kawaii and straight-up hot. There are tables and mirrors next to them for you to do your hair and make-up. Once inside the booth, you stand in front of a green screen and select various background and foreground effects. But, taking the pictures is only the first step. You then get to customise the images by using a bewildering menu system to add various graphics and doodles with a stylus. I tend to just go crazy with sparkles. Finally, you print out your super-kawaii efforts, and cut them out to share with your friends and stick on your jotters or pencils cases or whatever. I must say that I've never actually seen any teenage girls using these machines, just twenty-something gaijin like me who should really know better.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Put your hands up, this is a 'tache up

Or: "Bowl lotta history"

I have yet another day off! It's Health and Sports Day. In another example of community spirit that I - coming from Britain's loneliest city - am quite unaccustomed to, Nanyo was holding an athletics day for all its citizens. I was only vaguely aware of this event until I was awoken by a phonecall from my quasi-supervisor at 8:26 this morning, saying he would pick me up in ten minutes. I politely informed him that there was no chance of that happening. So I didn't make it to the opening ceremony at 9am, but I made my own way there a bit later. Though I was wearing my running gear, I showed up too late for registration, so I couldn't take part in the race. I wasn't too upset about this. So I swanned around, greeting kids with "Hello!"s and high-fives, and chatting to any English teachers I spotted. I was then introduced to Olympic silver-medalist Yuko Arimori, for which I felt very unworthy. My supervisor insisted I get my photo taken with her.

Now I'm back at home, catching up with household chores (I'm airing my futon outside for the first time) and listening to Adam and Joe on iPlayer. It's nice to have some quiet time, as my weekend was spent alternately socialising and being hungover. Let me fill you in on that.

Friday night was a trip to Yonezawa to go bowling with people from city hall. I had imagined this would just be a laid-back evening with three or four guys, but how wrong I was. This was a well-organised event with about 20 participants. We went to a classy gyudon (beef and rice bowl) restaurant first. I had previously thought gyudon was just a fairly cheap-and-dirty fast food, so maybe this was a bit like a Japanese Harry Ramsdens. Then came the bowling. I was pleased to note that even in Japan bowling alleys have the same weird 80s neon artwork going on. The only real difference between this place and Rollerbowl was that it was quite acceptable here to bring in a crate of beer and drink it as you played.

Pre-game, there was some speculation that a big, broad-shouldered gaijin like myself must be a great bowler. I did not live up to expectations. Perhaps due to this pressure, my first two balls went into the gutter. I did get my eye in eventually and picked up a couple of strikes, but my performance was inconsistent at best, and I scored 95 and 81 in the two games. It was like the Special Olympics. My ineptitude was all the more conspicuous because everyone else was bizarrely good. Virtually everyone in the party was scoring over 100 - even women! I guess bowling must be a more popular pastime in Japan than the UK.

Prizes were awarded at the end, and I did surprisingly well for myself considering my woeful performance. I picked up the booby prize, which seemed a little unfair because I'm pretty sure at least one person got a worse score than me. This was a bottle of ice tea and some vouchers for the local onsen, the latter of which is actually quite a good prize. Despite carrying my dead weight my team came third, so I got some beer to take home too.

Back in Akayu, a few of us went for a nijikai (second party) at a bar. Thankfully, it wasn't a hostess bar. Like a hostess bar though, one didn't buy individual drinks but rather had a barmaid offering repeated refills of shochu. I still don't really understand the economics of this style of drinking - I think maybe you buy the bottle at the start? The snack on offer was dried squid, surely the chewiest food on the planet. When you first put it in your mouth you think that there has been some mistake: there is no way this leathery strap can possibly be edible. But after a good 30s of chewing it begins to soften up, and within a couple of minutes you've swallowed it. I quite like it; like pistachio nuts it's a snack and a project in one. We finally rounded off the night with a trip to the ramen shop, where a man more drunk than us was buying beers out of a vending machine for everyone in the place.

The following night was the Moustache Dash in Yamagata City. This was a pub crawl attended by ALTs from all over Yamagata, with the theme being that everyone had to have a moustache. I decided not to grow one, because I'm still trying to make a good impression here. Instead I adopted the slightly insane plan of shaving my head and sticking the hair to my face with double-sided tape. I ended up doing this in a bit of a hurry, and as a result I looked like a actual mentalist. It was a bit like Rivers Cuomo's terrible moustache circa the Red Album. I couldn't face being seen in public without the context of a load of other gaijin with dodgy facial hair, so for the trip to Yamagata I wore one of the facemasks Japanese people wear when they have a cold. As I was sitting on the train, my glasses steaming up with every breath, worrying about whether my moustache was poking out the sides of my mask, I questioned whether this had really been such a good idea.

Surprisingly, I wasn't the only person foolish enough to stick my own head hair to my face. A female ALT had had the same idea, and executed it much better than I had. The night itself was predictably disgraceful - we started with nomihodai (all you can drink) from 7pm, and didn't stop drinking until we staggered into a ramen shop at about 4am. Andrea will be pleased to hear that along the way I had my first Mos Burger, though to be honest I don't remember it all that clearly. I don't think I did anything to embarrass myself (though did I tell one guy that he had 'a challenging interpersonal style' - he really did though), but as with any heavy drinking session, it's difficult to shake of the feeling that you may have acted like a total jerk.

Wow, what a marathon post. One of these days I'll write a blog entry that doesn't make me sound like an alcoholic.

Edit: I forgot to debrief you on my Don't speak lesson. The class consisted of one student as it turned out. It didn't bomb, bit it wasn't a soaraway success either. I'd say 6 out of 10. Yet again, I overestimated the English ability of the average third-grade kid. Still, the student said it was kakkoii ('cool').

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stick 'em up punk, it's typhoon lovin' criminal

Or: 'Life got cold'.

Typhoon! People were taking this pretty seriously; I know a couple of ALTs around here got unexpected days off when school was cancelled today. Alas, not I. Nanyo's educators are apparently made of sterner stuff than that. Anyway, it didn't come to much. Although the typhoon did some damage when it made landfall, it quickly ran out of steam as it passed over Honshu and although it came pretty close to me, it was really no more than a heavy and prolonged shower by the time it reached Yamagata.

While I'm on the weather, I'll say this: I'm officially calling that it's cold now. Like a true Brit, at the start of the week I still rocking the 'Cool Biz' summer style (i.e. short sleeves), and people kept asking me if I was cold. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but I've caved in and busted out the long sleeves. I fear it won't be long until I have to have supplement that with the proper teacher-style tank-tops though. Yamagata has a 27°C swing between summer and winter average temperatures, compared to just 13°C in Edinburgh, so it really keeps you on your toes.

Initial impressions of school #3 are good. It's quite a bit smaller than the previous two, meaning I'll generally have more free periods. But as I was saying before, I'm becoming very good at filling quiet time. Yesterday my kanji flashcards arrived from amazon.jp, and that's a fun way to while away an hour. There's something deeply satisfying about building up an ever thicker stack of cards you know; it appeals to the autistic, trainspotting part of my brain that is sadly deprived now that I have no pub quiz to go to. So far: 65 down, 1880 to go.

Joining in with sports is something that JETs are encouraged to do, but due to my general lack of sporting aptitude it's something I've shied away from. But one my first day at this school, some kid very nicely asked me if I would like to play table tennis with him and his friends at lunchtime. I accepted his invitation, and I'm hoping it will become a regular fixture. Table tennis is my kind of sport; it's not that much more energetic than pool or darts, and you can play it wearing slippers, which is good because I don't have a pair of trainers that have never been worn outdoors.

The English teacher (there is only one) is super nice and super genki, in a good as opposed to irritating way. Furthermore, her conversational English is excellent, which I've found not to be universally true of English teachers. She does however have the interesting quirk of using the verb 'challenge' when a native speaker would simply say 'try' - she asked me if I had challenged natto, and I said yes, because that is a pretty accurate way to describe my relationship with the foul substance.

I find the idiosyncratic mistakes made by people with a strong command of the language interesting, as they highlight things that are particularly tricky. Someone else I know uses 'watch' where a native speaker would say 'look at' or 'see'; I explained to him that you wouldn't watch a mountain unless you suspected it was about to erupt. The fact that English has these three verbs that mean essentially the same thing but are used in slightly different contexts once again shows what a nightmare it must be to learn. However, I suspect the 'challenge' thing maybe says more about the Japanese bushido way of thinking than about the English language. They love a challenge; why just try something if you can challenge it?

Tomorrow I have an educational challenge to face. I've been given the task of devising a whole lesson, with no brief, for the 'selected class'. It took me a while to understand what this meant. It is neither students chosen for their high nor low levels of ability, as I initially and subsequently thought. Rather, the third-graders are given one period where they can choose what subject to specialise in. Therefore, it is a very small class. In an attempt to be a cool English teacher, I decided to base the class around song lyrics. It's difficult to think of a contemporary song that fulfills all of the following criteria:
  • Slow lyrics (no SOAD's Chop Suey)
  • Clear lyrics (no autotune, so basically no song released after 2007)
  • Simple vocabulary ('a mulato, an albino, a mosquito, my libido' - what?)
  • Lyrics that make some kind of sense (sadly, this rules out virtually all Girls Aloud)
  • No particularly flagrant abuses of grammar or spelling (Timbaland's The way I are and Nelly's Hot in herre can forget it)
  • Nothing at all offensive (so Smack my bitch up is out, but more seriously, I did consider Katy Perry's Hot and cold since it has some nice simple opposites vocab, but the line 'You PMS like a bitch, I should know' is just too risque for school)
So in the end I settled for No Doubt's Don't speak, probably because I downloaded it for Rock Band the day before. I figure I can try and use the Harajuku Girls as my hook to get them interested. Will it bomb? Stay tuned to find out.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Health check yo self before you wreck yo self

Just a quick one, as I'm about to have a couple of other ALTs round for a more laid-back, intimate Rock Band night than Friday's very successful 12-man raid.

Today and yesterday there was no school for reasons I'm not fully clear on, so I was killing time at city hall again. This isn't as painful as it used to be, as I now have some idea of things I can do to prepare for future lessons. I had been cursing the fact that I lacked entertaining talents like playing an instrument that I could use in the classroom, when it dawned on me that maybe my programming ability could be useful after all. I spent monday putting together a little JavaScript program to flash up flashcards, and then made it into a competitive game by having two sumo wrestlers attempt to push each other off the screen, so that your team's wrestler loses if you take too long. I added random Gaussian jitter and everything. It was just like the good bits of doing my PhD all over again. So I'm looking forward to trying that one out in the classroom.

Today I was subjected to a fairly thorough medical. It seemed everyone at city hall was getting check-ups - that doesn't happen in the UK, right? While I'm still eagerly awaiting the results of the urine and blood analyses and the X-ray (will they discover my Bent Spiner?), I can tell you that my weight has stayed pretty much constant: I've lost perhaps 1kg since I came here. So it seems the removal of king rib suppers and doner kebabs from my diet has been balanced by the copious amounts of drinking and the lack of exercise associated with owning a car. My efforts to acquire a bike are still ongoing. The good news is that my blood pressure, at 115/76, is down considerably from my pre-departure medical, an improvement I'm attributing directly to my lower stress levels.

I put an invisible stats widget on this blog a few days ago, to check whether anyone was actually reading it. Happily, people are. My hits are exclusively from the UK so far, which is good; while I'm careful not to put anything in here that could compromise me professionally, I'm still quite glad no-one here is reading it. I'd like to give a special shout-out to my visitor from Cambridge, who I assume is Toby.

Friday, October 2, 2009

You can stand under my um-paella-ella-ella-eh

(Yes, I know my titular pun doesn't work if you speak Spanish properly.)

I've cracked. It's the last hour of my last day at school two of six, and I'm writing this blog post offline on my laptop. I should be ok as long as no English teachers look over my shoulder; as far as anyone else knows this is a lesson plan. I can always amplify the already florid style of my prose to obfuscate its meaning in order to augment my stealthiness. Anyway, I feel I've earned a bit of slackness after some sterling teaching efforts today.

I've been pretty busy this last week. Let me catch up. On Saturday I went to an open-air concert in the woods, in the most remote part of this fairly sparsely populated area of Japan. The drive there was road, bridge and mountain tunnel in approximately equal measure. Beautiful though. The event itself was a bit of a hippy-fest. After several hours of reggae DJ sets, we were treated to a three-piece band with the unorthodox configuration of drums, bongos, and didgeridoo. (Didgeridon't, more like. Am I right?) Those jokers were followed by another three-piece with two percussionists, but they had the good sense to employ a vocalist/keyboardist. Said singer was very much like a Japanese Bjork, i.e. the coolest possible combination of attributes. She also had a sweet gimmick where she used some Chinese cymbals – which I hadn't seen since primary school – held up to the mic and distorted beyond all recognition to produce an otherworldly electronic shriek. They were pretty good, and really knew how to work the crowd.

It was the kind of event that if held anywhere other than Japan, the air would have been thick with marijuana. In fact, for me there were no mind altering substances whatsoever on the cards, since I was driving back that night. I'm not used to being sober at events of this kind, and while it did severely reduce my propensity to dance, I still managed to have a reasonably good time in the face of crusties and mosquitoes.

The next day was a paella party in Yamagata City with the genial Anglophile archaeologist I've mentioned previously. You see, there is a tradition of holding imonikai (potato stew parties) by the banks of the river. These parties are a little like barbeques, but since this is Japan, the whole thing is taken a little more seriously than your average disposable-BBQ-and-Magners-in-the-Meadows affair. This particular party departed from the standard program a little because it was held by the owner of a tapas bar in the city, so it was Spanish style. But, since paella is made of rice and seafood, it's not too much of a leap for the Japanese palate.

This was an al fresco eating experience that I suspect even the most die-hard critic of barbecues (i.e. Graham) would have enjoyed. We had a professional cook, who in addition to making a paella about three feet in diameter (which you could actually shelter under in the rain, making my title pun all the more apt), cooked up all manner of tasty morsels of meat and fish. He even valiantly (if a little foolishly) attempted to smoke meat in a cardboard box: two boxes caught fire and had to be doused with beer before he gave up on the enterprise. And of course, the booze was flowing freely. We had a keg of beer, and more wine, shochu and sake than you could shake a stick at.

The paella party had a really nice atmosphere, because it was composed of the tapas bar's twenty or so most regular customers. As such, it was a heterogeneous bunch of people among whom no heirarchy existed, so the usual intricate dance of politeness (which I am only very dimly aware of) was not required.

On monday I got the PS3 and Rock Band 2, and since then pretty much every spare minute of my time has been spent either playing it or trying to get some aspect of it to work. Setting up a wireless router in Japanese is not easy, especially when it appears I have recklessly thrown out the piece of paper with my ISP login on it. I had to hack my own computer with some very unsavoury software to figure out my password, with my antivirus resisting my efforts all the way. Then, while my Japanese machine was quite happy to play my US game, the downloadable content I bought with my UK credit card wouldn't work with it. I've had to jump through a few dubiously legal hoops to get a US account set up, but that too has been accomplished.

Ok, I feel I'm losing the non-nerd portions of my audience.

I'm really getting into the teaching groove now. I'm being given more and more responsibility, including being asked to come up with activities at very little notice. Again, this is the sort of thing I could complain about if I were of a mind to grumble, but I actually enjoy the seat-of-the-pants excitement of the whole thing. I've made some mistakes, mainly by overestimating the abilities of the kids, but I've not had anything truly crash and burn, and I've learned something from everything that has gone wrong. Despite being quite hungover today (izakaya and karaoke with some other teachers last night), I really smacked it out of the park this morning with an activity for third grade that I pulled directly out of my arse about twenty minutes before the class. Of course, next week I'll be in a new place with new working relationships to build, but I feel that the confidence I've gained from this school will help me considerably.

Alright, time to go home now. I'm hosting a Rock Band party for all the local gaijin tonight, and I have some serious tidying to do before that can happen.