Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Imoni sleeping

It's maybe a little un-Japanese of me to say so, but I think I'm really starting to get the hang of this teaching lark. It's about time.

If you work in junior high like I do, you are seldom required to plan whole lessons. However, the ability to pull a 10, 15, 20-minute activity out of your arse at short notice is extremely valuable. For a long time, this caused me considerable anxiety. Initially, I needed to spend at least half an hour meditating on the task at hand before I could even start crafting worksheets or whatever. And I lacked the confidence to just come up with something and run with it; I would always want to check with the teacher that what I was doing was alright. Given how little free time teachers have during a school day, this is not entirely straightforward.

The other day, just as a teacher was heading out to her second period class, she asked me to come up with an activity for the third period one we had together. In some ways, I think this kind of time pressure can be helpful, as it forces you to keep things simple. Some of my most debacular lessons have been the result of overthinking it and coming up with something rather too high-concept. Anyway, I managed to whip up a whip up a fairly routine worksheet, complete with instructions in Japanese (you have to cut the first-graders a bit of slack) in time for it to be dropped, hot off the photocopier, into the following lesson.

Today I had a similar request, but with literally 20 minutes' notice. Drawing heavily from an activity I cooked up this time last year, I delivered the goods. Rather like programming, I think one of the keys to successful teaching is to have an ever-expanding bag of tricks from which you can draw whatever the situation requires. What I'm particularly pleased with is how I introduced by hastily improvised activity. Often, in seat-of-the-pants moments like this, I'll panic and give way too little by way of instruction, meaning that the smartest 20% of the class have a rough idea of what is required of them, while the rest are baffled. But today I got it right: model what is expected, practice the pattern, check the meaning, practice again, and only then commence the activity.

Anyway, enough self-congratulation, I'll tell you about my weekend. I got up reasonably early on saturday, and though I felt a little jaded from the teacher's party the night before, I decided that if I just refused to acknowledge that I was hungover, then I would be cured by the power of suggestion. I jumped on my bike and rode the 1.5 hour trip to Yonezawa. I was attending an imonikai (potato stew party). As I've mentioned before, these events are an autumn institution in Yamagata. A couple of weeks back I went to the big one in Yamagata City. I didn't bother to blog about it because nothing all that remarkable happened. Executive summary: it was an uncomfortably hot day and they had a really big pot of stew.

This one was a more intimate affair, and was organised by the local international relations association. Events like this are a bit weird, but quite enjoyably so. They are always composed of a bunch of Westerners (mainly ALTs,) assorted Asians (mostly women), and Japanese people who are, for whatever reason, interested in engaging with gaijin. I find it quite touching that people are willing to go to the trouble of hosting stew parties to welcome foreigners. Do we have equivalent events at home? I'm guessing not; the British populace seems more intent on telling immigrants to stop taking our jobs and go back to where they came from.

Also present at these events are kids, many of them half-Japanese. I don't seem to engage with young children quite as effortlessly as some people, but I'm getting better. I banked some goodwill early on by having a kickabout with a very lively boy of about seven. Although I am terrible at football by the standards of a British male, I can hold my own among American/Antipodean twenty-somethings and Japanese children. I took a painful spill on some gravel (sandals aren't really ideal sports footwear) and as a result my grazed knee has been weeping plasma ever since. It's shaping up to be an excellent scab, almost as good as when I nutted a rock while snowboarding back in '01.

We ate the imoni (pronounced like the mid-leg joint of a member of My Chemical Romance - the title pun works better in writing than it does out loud) and then, as appears to be the done thing, we finished off the stew by adding curry powder and noodles to make karee udon. The party wound down about 2pm, but since we had plans for the evening, we had a couple of hours to kill. Along with a couple of Chinese students we'd befriended, we chilled out at Uesugi Shrine. If you're ever at a loose end in Yonezawa, that's the place to go. It's lovely there.

That evening there was a festival to celebrate the 450th anniversary of... something. (Yup, still not interested in history.) This meant a samurai parade, and our man in Yonezawa had managed to swing it so that we could take part. For the second time, I donned the armour of a lowly samurai foot soldier, though this time I was in the more understated blue-and-brown squadron - no bright red pantaloons for me on this occasion. Also, this time I got a long spear as well as my katana, giving me the opportunity to literally not touch things with a ten-foot pole.

We paraded through the streets to the shrine. I wasn't quite sure whether we were supposed to act like fearsome warriors, but I decided not to and instead grinned, waved, and gave peace signs to onlookers. There was then a period of hanging around, during which my morale crashed a bit. I was tired, dehydrated, wearing heavy armour and sadistically designed sandals, and finding it increasingly difficult to keep up my hangover denial. However, after a sneaky run to a vending machine to buy some Calpis with the money I'd stashed in my sheath (clattering the machine with my back-flag when I tried to retrieve the can), my spirits were buoyed.

For the return leg of the parade, we were to dance. Thankfully we were relieved of our huge spears. The dance was mercifully simple, and seemed well suited to samurai, both in terms of its macho air (lots of punching movements) and not requiring too much flexibility from our armoured bodies. By the time we were approaching the end-point of the parade, the gaijin squadron (including the Chinese girls we'd acquired at the imonikai) had it down, and were looking rather impressive (obviously, I couldn't see myself). I think we were dancing with more gusto than most of our fellow warriors, and we seemed to attract quite a few cameras.

The climax of the parade saw us circling around a plaza to the ever-quickening beat of a colossal taiko drum in the centre. There was something exhilaratingly primal about being part of a crowd all dancing in synchrony to that pounding rhythm. If I do another top ten next year, I think that moment will feature.

Once the festival was over, we hung around for a while posing for photos before retiring to take off our sweaty outfits. There then followed a surreal episode where we went to a convenience store that appeared to be the premier hangout for youths who, judging by their attire, appeared to be straight outta Compton, rather than a small city in rural Japan. We were none-too-subtle about laughing at them; gleaning particular amusement from the gender balance of the crew being similar to the average computer science tutorial. Having said that, the few shawties who were present deserve a special mention for just how ludicrous their get-up was. Anyway, for all the gangsta attitude they were trying to exude, they didn't give us any hassle. Which was good; this was one occasion when I didn't want any Yonezawa beef.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Talking 'bout my demonstration

What a week! Unusually, I really feel I've earned every last yen. Which makes it all the more galling that the Japanese government is overtly devaluing them.

Let's start with last saturday. There's an annual tradition among Yamagata JETs (and hangers-on, i.e. private ALTs and foreign university students) of having a big party in the woods to welcome the newcomers. I'll admit that I did drink rather heavily during this bucolic shindig, as did most other people. For reasons that are difficult to elucidate, by the end of the night virtually all of the men, and a surprising number of the women, were shirtless.

So, when I hit the futon in my rustic log cabin, I was expecting to wake up to a hangover. However, nothing prepared me for just how horrendous I felt. It turned out that I had simultaneously fallen victim to a nasty head cold as well as my own overindulgence. (No, honestly; the cold persisted through the week, and quite a few other teachers around the staffroom are sneezing and coughing into their facemasks.) On top of that, hanging out in a forest for hours gives the local insect population carte blanche to feast on one's exposed limbs (few limbs are as blanche as mine). So I also had a collection of fiendishly itchy bites to contend with on sunday. It was, to use an overused phrase, a perfect storm.

On monday I was still feeling distinctly under the weather, but unfortunately there was serious work to do. You see, Japanese schools regularly hold demonstrations lessons, where some poor teacher(s) is required to give a lesson with a room full of important people watching, who will later pick over their every move in excruciating detail. I had dodged this bullet for a while, but it was only a matter of time until an English demo lesson coincided with my stint at a school. It was my turn on Friday.

The teachers I was assisting had decided that the lesson should showcase our use of digital media. The point of the lesson was "how to X" and "what to X", so I spent a couple of free periods taking photos of myself looking like a dumb gaijin: "I don't know how to buy a train ticket", "I don't know what to do at tea ceremony", etc. My favourite was the very much based-on-a-true-story "I don't know how to eat edamame", where I'm stuffing whole pods of baby soybeans into my mouth.

After that, I had to face my fear and be videoed pretending to be a reporter interviewing someone so rich that she didn't know how to cook for herself. This was at the end of a ten-hour day, during which I'd been feeling like condensed shit. In the resulting awful video, I am visibly flushed and sweaty.

We iteratively trialled and refined our demo lesson on the other third-year classes through the week. On top of this, I had a reasonably full schedule of classes anyway, as this school embraces team teaching rather enthusiastically. Not that I'm complaining; I'm generally happy to be occupied and feel valued. On top of that, I was helping out with after school speech contest training at a different school. I'm a victim of my own success: two of my kids won their respective divisions so have gone through to the prefectural competition.

Friday came, and although I was a little nervous, I don't think I was bricking it nearly as much as my co-teachers (it was actually two classes; I was to do a crafty transfer halfway through). I think there were two reasons for my comparative calm:
  • As an ALT, I felt I was under less scrutiny than them. I consider my status to be somewhere between that of a legitimate teacher and an educational resource. A tool, if you like.
  • I was under the mistaken impression that the purpose of the exercise was training. Only after the event was I informed that it was in fact assessment. The people watching were not other teachers there to learn, but inspectors there to pass judgment.
I felt fairly pleased with how the lesson went; there were, at least, no glaring cock-ups. Afterwards I got to sit in on another lesson. I opted for 'morality', because this is an entry on the timetable that has always intrigued me. I was hoping to get a glimpse of some sinister social engineering that would explain the unsettling community-mindedness of the Japanese people. Alas, no such luck - it appeared to be just your standard overcoming adversity shtick. With some furious dictionary work, I figured out that the gist of the lesson was about a famous ice skater whose father died of cancer, and then she got diagnosed with it too.

In the afternoon we had a feedback and discussion session. Of course, I had only the most rudimentary grasp of what was going on. Nevertheless, my opinions were solicited. Only being able to output your views without inputting anyone else's puts one in quite a precarious position, so I tried to keep quiet and play it safe as far as possible. At one point, I was pleased to hear that we were being complemented on our 'pattern practice ju jitsu'. Turns out, ju jitsu literally means something like 'fulfillment' or 'perfection'. Anyway, I was later filled in on roughly what had been said, and our lesson was received largely positively, with only a few minor and constructive criticisms on specifics. Job's a good 'un.

After school we went out for a traditional party to celebrate. It's been a good few months since I did the whole sitting on the floor, eating sashimi, pouring drinks for each other thing, so I was well up for it.

There's an inter-school sports day coming up (there seem to be quite a few of these). Virtually every teacher coaches a club of some kind. Thus, the highlight of the night was going around the room, with everyone taking it turns to give a rousing speech about how they would lead their team to certain victory. The tone was very much tongue-in-cheek, and as far as I could gather the oratory was a mixture of Kanye West-style ludicrous grandstanding and playful trash-talking directed at the other coaches. When it comes to school sports, it seems that the scrupulously modest demeanour usually upheld by the Japanese can be suspended for a few minutes of good old-fashioned bragging.

I tagged along to the obligatory nijikai (second party), which was at an izakaya. By this point things were starting take a turn for the disgraceful - there was a lot of talk of 'Amazons' and 'Asian beauties' being directed at slightly unimpressed-looking women by boozy, rowdy men. This sort of behaviour isn't really becoming for a bunch of teachers, but fortunately we had taken some stealth measures. For one thing, we went out in the opposite end of town from the school. But just in case that wasn't enough, everyone was cunningly not addressing each other as sensei, but rather using the terms appropriate to business colleagues. It was an ingenious plan, only slightly undermined by the fact that they talked about school for a solid half hour.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ska tissue

It's official: in the 113 years since records began in Nippon, this has been the hottest ever summer. At least I can now feel smugly hardcore while sweating my gonads off in the 35°C September heat.

Thanks to a combination of school trips and work experience, there has been a distinct lack of pupils at school for the last three days. For once it is not just me who is underemployed; all the teachers who aren't off herding kids around museums are taking it pretty easy. We've been going out for lunch, where of course we are served by our students doing their work experience.

I feel I have put this slack time to quite good use, in that I reckon I am now ready to take on 3月 9日 (March 9th) by レミオロメン (Remioromen; doesn't mean anything as far as I can tell) in a public karaoke setting. The song was recommended to me by one of the speech contestants I was coaching - his English is outstanding, and he reckoned that if I liked Radiohead I would like these guys. In fact, this music chat happened when I was supposed to be making him practice his speech. Before anyone objects to my lackadaisical approach, he won the contest. It was a cunning educational stratagem on my part.

Let's carry on catching up with August's events. My grand-predecessor (who had my job from 2004-7) came to town, and I went out drinking with him twice, once with my civil servant hat on, and once with Marie et al. (Incidentally, both events were at the same ever-popular Italian bistro, where I also went for lunch today.) He seemed like a really nice guy, and my only regret was that we didn't have more opportunity to discuss the realities of the job without having to worry who was listening. (Though mumbling quickly in colloquial English is a useful stealth measure in a pinch.)

He was quite an inspiration to me on the Japanese front. From talking to Marie, I got the impression that he, like me, didn't take naturally to the language in the way that some do. But he persevered, and while far from fluent, was able to handle izakaya chats in a way I can currently only dream of. Listening to him, he wasn't producing that much grammar or vocab that I didn't understand; the crucial difference was that he was able to think fast enough to bust these linguistic moves at a pace approximating a normal conversation. My competitive streak came out, and I started to push the communicative envelope to keep up. At one point we realised we were rather redundantly talking to each other in Japanese. Anyway, I think getting up to his level is a worthwhile goal for me to aim for.

August is when JETs get turned over. Due to my friends' visit, I had missed most farewell parties, which was fine by me since I'm not great with goodbyes. But one somewhat close friend of mine had lingered to the very end of his visa's one month's grace period, and called me up out of the blue to invite me for one last Kappa Sushi before he got the shink out of here (my town may be small, but it is on the shink line). As the assembled party of well-wishers waved goodbye at the station, I was astonished to find that I was choked with emotion. I didn't actually cry, but I was unable to speak for a good ten minutes. I wasn't even that upset when I said goodbye to my family at Edinburgh airport. I can only attribute this to a) being a bit overtired b) some lingering effects of culture shock and c) having had no warning and thus not being able to mentally steel myself.

Last weekend I went to a small music festival, at none other than Zao. There are two main benefits and one problem with holding a festival at a ski resort.

  • The altitude takes the edge off the heat slightly.
  • While being suitably remote for an event of its kind, the amenities (toilets, car parking) to accommodate a large number of people are there.

  • Con:
  • Getting to the 'Moon Stage' means walking several hundred metres up a red run, criss-crossed by sneaky drainage ditches, in the dark.

  • The festival was free; I only had to pay 1000yen to park my car. There were of course no bands there that anyone had ever heard of, but that didn't bother me. The overall tone seemed to be quite reggae; in any other country the air would have been thick with deadly marijuana fumes. Fortunately, the music frequently bled over into ska territory. I think the Moon Stage had some banging techno, but no-one could be bothered to go there.

    I was in two minds about whether to drink. I had friends there offering me space in their tent, but I knew that even in the unlikely event that I drank a sensible amount, the next day would be written off due to the terrible night's sleep I would undoubtedly have. Predictably, I gave into temptation within minutes. There had been a lot of talk lately about playing (I use that verb loosely) Amy Winehands. In case you don't know, this is a drinking 'game' where you duct-tape wine bottles to each of your hands and are not permitted to remove them until they are empty. Thus, a fellow reprobate and I ended up with bottles taped to our hands. She was Amy; I took it in a slightly different direction and became Edward Sakehands. (They were only 300ml bottles, I'm not insane.)

    We chilled on the hillside, we skanked, we watched some skaters that had set up a small half-pipe. We met some new JETs from the other end of the prefecture, and although the sake was no longer bonded to my hands, it was firmly attached to my GABA receptors, so I doubt I made a very good impression. I got chatting to a French punk band. As we got into the small hours and the music ended, we ended up befriending some Japanese hipsters. Even through my drunken haze, it was painfully apparent that they were much, much cooler than us (and younger than me, naturally), and if it wasn't for our gaijin mystique our conversation would never be happening. I spent a long time talking to a man who - as far as I could make out - was unironically wearing a trilby, though to be fair he actually came across as a sincere and intelligent guy, if a little over-confident. Also present was a tiny, elfin-looking chick who was very cute in that slightly annoying way that seems to be popular among certain young Japanese women. She claimed to be a talent scout for a record label.

    Looking back on the whole experience, I realised that when I was around 20 and (more) impressionable, this would have seemed like just about the coolest conceivable way to spend an evening. A music festival! With ska! And skaters! Up a mountain in Japan! With hot Japanese chicks! Now that I'm well on my way to being a curmudgeonly old man, my enthusiasm was tempered by the feelings of derision and vicarious embarrassment that are inevitably roused in me when I see bongos or Che Guevara T-shirts. I'm not sure whether that's progress. Nevertheless, it was an excellent night.

    As forecast, I got a pretty bad night's sleep, and woke to find myself in a superheated tent with amateurish karaoke blasting from the PA system. I had a 'biggu baagaa' (big burger) for breakfast, which turned out to be a grotesque lardfest that made a doner kebab look like a chick-pea and tofu salad. I hung around only long enough to convince myself that I was safe to drive, then headed home. That (saturday) afternoon, I had to help set up for the following day's sports day, which was a task I needed like a hole in the head.

    In the evening it became clear that I had food poisoning. Though it could have been the curry I barely remember eating the night before, I'm pointing the finger of suspicion squarely at the biggu baagaa. However, as long as one has unfettered access to a toilet, I find there's something almost enjoyably cathartic about a serious bout of the Brad Pitts. Just think, some idiots pay good money to have their bowels so thoroughly evacuated.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Shiny happi people

    When will the summer end? My house seems have a bit of a fruit fly problem, although it is of course nothing compared to the fruit fly problem I had from 2005-9. Last night, after the third D. melanogaster drowned in my Laphroaig, I decided to take action. I caught the two huge spiders that live outside my front door, and in an unorthodox move, released them inside my house. (I'll let you know when I end up with a horse.) Hopefully this will have the fringe benefit that I won't be walking into spiderwebs (like Gwen Stefani) when I leave the house every morning. Only after doing this did I remember that Japan is home to some venomous arachnids. I was simultaneously disturbed and amused to learn from Wikipedia that my new pets have the same neurotoxin as black widows in their fangs, but thankfully at a much lower dosage that shouldn't cause any problems for a mammal of my size.

    You may have noticed that I've posted virtually nothing about what I've done in August. Well, it wasn't a particularly exciting month, but I've got a few blogworthy experiences to write about. I'll start with Hanagasa.

    Festivals are a big deal in Japan, and most of them take place in summer. In the Tohoku region (i.e. the sparsely populated northern leg of the J-shaped main island) there are four Great Festivals. (The Japanese seem to like enumerating things - three views, seven fillings in ehou-maki, 100 places to see sakura, 1000 paper cranes for good luck, and "[May you live for] 10,000 years!" - Banzai!) One of these is Yamagata City's very own Hanagasa, or the flower hat dance festival. Because I missed it last year, I went along to check it out at the start of the month.

    For three consecutive evenings in early August, approximately a kilometre of street in central Yamagata is closed to traffic and becomes the venue for a particularly linear dance. Locals I've talked to admit that there are really three Great Festivals plus Hanagasa; while the others have rich histories, apparently this one was contrived sometime in the last century, presumably in a desperate attempt to put Yamagata on the map. Though the festival may not have been that much of a spectacle to watch, I nevertheless found it an interesting insight into Japanese culture.

    The dance itself consisted of a repeated loop of movements maybe 45 seconds long. The dancers came in big teams representing various organisations. Some of these were dance clubs, which ranged from the traditional, favoured mostly by aged women; to the contemporary, in the form of krews of street dancing youngsters. My favourite troupe were dressed (inexplicably) as pirates, and had beefed up the sedate dance with krumping and handsprings. In fact, street / hip-hop dancing seems to be bizarrely popular; it was like Step up 2: The streets at times. But less racist.

    Another crowd-pleasing contemporary act was the belly dancing. My guide for the evening taught me the phrase hana shita nagakute naru (as memory serves), meaning "the upper lip [actually, they say under-nose] lengthens", describing the facial expression a man supposedly assumes when aroused. Thanks to watching anime I knew that a nosebleed signified the same, but this was a new one on me. Actually, this guy (the retired archeologist raconteur; I've mentioned him before) delights in telling me all the smuttier aspects of Japanese culture. Ever since he described wakamezake to me it's been something of an ambition of mine to try it.

    Besides the dance groups, there were various commercial organisations jigging for publicity. The high rollers (Toyota, Panasonic, etc.) had floats packed with some combination of: cute children, taiko drummers, demure geisha-looking young women, and local head honchos of the company waving and smiling like they were the Pope. But less racist.

    Smaller companies had to make do with teams of dancers. Cosmetics firms seemed to be out in force, and it was very noticeable that the all the young attractive employees were decked out in elaborate costumes and led the pack, while their ordinary-looking colleagues (that is, assuming the pretty ones weren't ringers) were left to bring up the rear in basic happi (loose coats worn to festivals). My companion was of the opinion that although dancing practice would probably have taken place outside of office hours, it would not have been a smart career move to skip it. Also noteworthy was a team of handsome men with very effeminate haircuts, who turned out to be representing a local host bar. That's right, paying to have awkward flirty conversations is apparently no longer the sole domain of men, at least if you live in the big city.

    At the end they threw the street open to all comers, so naturally I procured a flower hat and joined in. I had done the dance before at last year's Bon-odori, but you trying remembering a dance from a year previously, particularly when you were drunk then and are drunk now. Ok, so I had been watching the dance for a couple of hours immediately prior to that, but every group had their own variations, so I wasn't sure what the canonical version was. I wasn't helped by the fact that the people around me appeared to be similarly clueless. Once I found some people who knew what they were doing and shadowed them, I fared slightly better.

    The festival over, we retired to a Spanish-themed bar (excellent garlic mushrooms) and consequently I almost missed my train home. Thankfully I didn't, and on the train I befriended three happi-clad cosmetics ladies and one of their young sons. As happens whenever I talk to small children in Japanese, he took the piss out of my accent, the punk.