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Posts Tagged ‘events’

Unremarkable Return

August 29th, 2013 No comments

Compared to last year’s experience, returning to Japan after my summer holiday this year was as dull as it gets, just another routine return home from vacation. It’s been great to start seeing students again, but there’s none of that “oh my god you’re actually back!” wonderfulness I got thanks to my prolonged absence. I’m sure most of them didn’t even know I’d been gone.

The 30-hour journey from Ichenheim to Togane went as smoothly as possible, with just some slight anxiety at the beginning when my first train ran a half-hour behind. I didn’t get to the airport until one hour before departure, but this turned out to be plenty of time anyway. It might have even made it better, as I barely had to wait on line to check-in and pretty much flew by security. I got lucky on the 6-hour flight to Abu Dhabi when the woman sitting next to me got up and never returned to her seat, apparently having found a better one somewhere else. Maybe I smelled bad? If so, good. The layover in Abu Dhabi was only an hour and a half and most of that consisted of getting off the one plane and on to the other, as the airport doesn’t have enough terminals for the planes to connect to and everyone has to be shuttled to and from the planes. I was amused by how extremely lax the security line was—the United Arab Emirates is clearly not too worried about terrorist attacks. Finally, I got lucky again on the 10-hour flight to Narita as nobody was seated next to me at all. I actually managed to sleep for awhile too—maybe a whole 20 minutes of unconsciousness (a new flight record for me!)

It was only 4 p.m. when I got back to Togane, giving me plenty of time to unpack, go for a run, and head to the supermarket to re-stock my refrigerator before settling in for the night.

I stayed up as late as I could—9 p.m.—thinking I’d probably crash for at least 12 hours, but the jet-lag had other plans. I woke up at 2 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another five hours. It was early evening in Germany, the time my body got used to being the most awake. I only slept for one more hour after that, new construction projects going on outside my apartment making further sleep impossible. I went for another run, did some more shopping, had lunch, then went back to K-chu at 1 p.m. for two hours of Speech Contest practice.

The jet-lag kept me up for most of last night as well, and I was hurting this morning as I came in at 10:00 a.m.—3 a.m. by my body’s reckoning.

The Speech Contest students did improve while I was away, but I’ve been disappointed by how relatively not-far they’ve come in three weeks. One kid doesn’t even have his whole speech memorized yet. It’s a long speech, okay, but he’s had five weeks and there’s only three more to go. Others are still making the same mistakes they were when I left. I guess it just means I’ve still got plenty of work cut out for me. At least the best student is still performing wonderfully—she’s pretty much ready for the contest already and would probably win if it were held tomorrow.

Next week the semester begins, but it won’t be back to normal. K-chu’s Sports Week is next week, so I’ve got a whole lot of boredom to look forward to as the students prepare for it. At least I’ll have the elementary schools to keep me busy. I’ll use as time preparing those lessons as I can.

All in all, it feels as great to be back as I expected. Just no “second honeymoon” this time. I was gone three weeks but it already feels like I never left.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Back in Deutschland, week 3

August 25th, 2013 No comments

My last week in Germany was even less “eventful” than the first two, but that’s absolutely fine by me. It was nice to just be back in Ichenheim and spending time with all these people again.

Things here are the same as ever, except that Ralf and Myriam have a baby now. Savio is 21-months old and super cute. He was a bit shy at first but warmed up to me pretty quickly and I’ve had fun playing with him. He’s just starting to talk but it’s all pretty much incomprehensible to me with the baby-dialect on top of the Ichener-dialect which is already hard enough to understand. I was able to get him to say a few Japanese words, but I’m sure they won’t stick, and it’s very unlikely he’ll remember me at all the next time I see him. Such is the case with babies.

I spent the days hanging around, going jogging, bicycling around, and (of course) drinking lots of beer. Dieter and Frederick were working on a house they’re building where my grandmother’s old house used to be. Frederick will live in the downstairs part when it’s finished and rent the upstairs to someone. Ursula had to leave on Thursday to go to a rehabilitation clinic in Davos to treat her psoriasis, so I only got to see her for two days. Myriam and Ralf took holidays on Thursday and Friday so I got to spend a bit of extra time with them. And on Saturday night I went to the birthday party of Dietmar and got to see a whole bunch of people including my Aunt Fannie, Gabi, Marius, Melanie and her new husband Timo.

And there’s not much else to say. It may not have been the most interesting vacation of all time, but I certainly enjoyed it. Last year’s vacation was much more “interesting” due to the visa situation, and because of that I had a hard time just enjoying it. I definitely prefer this kind of holiday.

Tomorrow I fly back to Japan. It was nice to get away from that world for awhile, but I’m definitely looking forward to going back.

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Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Back in Deutschland, week 2

August 20th, 2013 No comments

I’m in Ichenheim again, for the first time in two years. It might as well have only been two weeks for all the noticeable change, except for the one giant difference of there being a 21-month old child here now. Now I’m writing another blog entry from this couch like so many times before, although this one feels like a chore as I’d rather just be relaxing.

There are no interesting stories from my second week of vacation. It’s mostly just been lots of relaxing, drinking delicious beer, eating delicious food, and having interesting or silly conversations. There are hardly even any photos worth posting—it’s mostly just pictures of me and Oliver goofing around while drunk. I’ll just briefly recount what each day consisted of for the sake of the historical archives.

On Saturday we had a little party starting in the late afternoon. Amanda came all the way from Berlin and I got to catch up with her. They also invited a colleague of Oliver named Ma Ren who was a really nice and interesting person I’m glad I got to meet, and a woman named Rune from capoeira who was really nice but didn’t speak much English and tended to steer all discussions in directions I had nothing to contribute to. But that turned out to be somewhat lucky, as I went to bed several hours earlier than most of the others.

The party continued well throughout Sunday, at least for Oliver and me. In spite of his hangover, I was surprised when he opened a beer first thing in the morning, and after breakfast began pouring shots of whiskey into our glasses of tea (though that might have been at my suggestion). We finished off the whole bottle and had one of the maddest Sundays I can remember.

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Oliver needed all of Monday and even a bit of Tuesday to recover, so we just took it easy those days and watched lots of episodes of Game of Thrones. On Wednesday we got everything ready to go for our bicycle tour of Hannover on Thursday, the one thing I most wanted to do while back in Germany. That involved fixing Oliver’s bicycle (we’d already fixed my old bike I’d sold to them when I moved away) and buying a little bike trailer for Buutsch, the dog.

I said we should get up at 9:30 to give ourselves plenty of time to get to Hannover relatively early, but the way Oliver operates made that rather unrealistic. It took forever just to prepare breakfast, clean up, have a shower, pack the car, and finally get going. In Hannover we also had to stop at the house of is friend Kolya who was letting us camp out in his garden house that night. We got the key and headed to the garden house, dropped off our stuff there, had the obligatory beer, and finally got under way at about 4:00 p.m.

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With Buutsch in the little trailer, we made our way to the start of the tour along the river where I used to go jogging. Buutsch hated the trailer and made whimpering noises the whole way. When we were finally at a section of river not too crowded, Oliver let him out and rode with him on the leash ahead. That dog is so full of energy that he ended up pulling Oliver at extreme speeds for the next several kilometers. Oliver had to stop him every now and then just to let me catch up.

The first part of the tour went perfectly. It was dark and cloudy while I would have preferred sunshine, but it was cool to be back in Hannover and to see all the nice parts of it I became so familiar with in my time there. When I’d left I’d hoped to come back and see them again, and now I was finally making that happened.

But after the Herrenhauser Garten and Georgengarten, things started to go wrong. We had to ride through the city a bit to get to the next part of the tour, the Eilenriede (city forest), and there was some construction blocking a part of the route. But Oliver said he knew this area of the city really well and could get us to the Eilenriede without a problem. It turned out he was mistaking it for where he used to live and was completely wrong about where we were, so we ended up going extremely far off course. When we finally checked his iPhone to pinpoint our location, we saw how far we’d gone and because it was starting to rain it seemed like we should just quit and maybe finish the tour the next day. We started to do that and head back to the garden house at Lindener Berg by the most direct route, but Oliver could tell I was upset and decided we should just go to the Eilenriede anyway.

So we got there, found a place to stop and have a beer, but when that was done it was already approaching 7:00 p.m. and I knew we wouldn’t be able to finish the tour before dark. So we started heading back to Lindener Berg by way of the Maschsee, and we were able to take a quick detour to the Hiroshima Gedenkhain very quickly so I could get a picture of the plaque explaining it that Lena had accidentally deleted two years ago and promised to get another one but never did.

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When we got to the Maschsee we discovered it was Maschseefest, so it was extremely crowded and we didn’t get too close. In the three years I lived there I never went to Maschseefest, and this made the 4th time I blew it off. Nothing about it looked fun other than the beer, and you could get that anywhere.

We headed back around the Rathaus—also really cool to see in person again—then by my old flat in Calenberger Neustadt so I could see that again. After that we stopped at my favorite Döner Kebab shop to pick up some dinner, then back up to Lindener Berg.

Kolya wanted to come hang out with us there for a bit, and he met us on our cycles on the way back. For the next few hours we hung out with him at his garden house, which turned out to be the most pleasant part of the day. He’s a really nice and interesting guy and he’s interested in Japan so it was great to talk with him. He suggested that he and Oliver come visit me in Japan next year, though I think the odds of that are still very doubtful.

He left us on our own for the night, and we slept in until 11:30 and didn’t get everything packed an underway until an hour later. Oliver didn’t want to ride anymore—his bike saddle hurt his ass too much—but I wanted to finish the tour. We decided to split up and meet somewhere around the Maschsee at 2:00. That gave me plenty of time to head back to the river and ride around the places we hadn’t gone the previous day. It was the nicest part of Hannover (the last territory I’d discovered after moving there) and the day was sunny and much nicer than the previous day. I didn’t have to worry about the dog, and I could put on some music and just get in the zone I used to get it when cycling around while I lived there. That was extremely pleasant, and made up for the previous day’s disappointments.

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We drove back to Delmenhorst at 2:00 and after getting stuck in traffic finally arrived back at almost 5:00 (normally it shouldn’t take more than 1:30), and had another easy night.

On Saturday we drove to Emsland in the afternoon to visit Oliver’s daughters and his 8-month old grandson Finn. I haven’t seen his daughter Nele in two years or Ronja in nearly four. Ronja was 16 the last time I saw her and is now a 20-year-old mother, so she looks twice as old as last time. Nele was 15 and is now 17 so doesn’t look too different. Finn is a cute little baby who seems pretty well-behaved. While the girls were getting ready for their evening plans, Oliver and I took Finn to a nearby lake and played with him for a little while, the first time I’ve played with a baby in as long as I can remember. After that we went back and gave the girls a ride to wherever they were going for the evening, then headed back to Delmenhorst.

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We stopped at the liquor store to pick up some beer, and I bought a bottle of whiskey on a whim, expecting to sip on it casually throughout the next day. Apparently, Oliver got another thing in mind after I bought it, and we ended up finishing off the whole bottle that night, with just a little help from Lena. We were up until 4:30 in the morning going mad, and were both glad to have one more night of that in what will probably be a very long while.

All we did on Sunday was relax and recuperate, and maybe walk Buutsch a few times. But we went to bed pretty early that night and got up at 8:00 the next morning to be able to have breakfast and get me to the train station to catch my 9:53 departure. I said a nice goodbye to both of them and the dog, and boarded the train to the next part of my vacation.

It’s only been a day and I miss them already, but I think two weeks was about enough time. My friendship with Oliver and Lena is one of the strongest I’ve ever made in my life, so it’s important to see them when I can. It may not have been the most interesting or eventful two weeks of vacation-time I’ve ever spent, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Back in Deutschland, week 1

August 10th, 2013 No comments

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It’s been a pleasantly uneventful week. Oliver and Lena were working every day, and I spent my days doing all the typical stuff I normally do that doesn’t depend on physical location. Jogging, studying Japanese, e-mailing, watching internet entertainment, and so on. The only difference is that I’ve got to walk the dog twice a day. Also, I’m taking full advantage of the food I can get here but not Japan—in addition to things like chocolate, I ate döner kebab for lunch four out of the last five days.

Oliver got home in the afternoon and we’d usually start drinking then, just hanging out and relaxing until evening when Lena would get home. Then we’d have dinner, go for one last walk with the dog, and go to sleep. Now that Oliver has a week of vacation there should start to be more worth writing about.

There are only a few things worth noting right now. First, it’s interesting to be back in a country where everyone mistakenly assumed you’re one of them. In Japan, everyone knows I’m a foreigner. In America, everyone correctly assumes I’m American. But in Germany, people incorrectly assume I’m German, a feeling I lived with for three years but which is more interesting now that I’ve got the Japan experience to compare it to.

The climate is also something special. It’s not as hot here as America, and not as humid as Japan. It’s about as pleasant as an August could be, and being outside brings back all kinds of intangible feelings I used to experience every day. It’s like there’s this aura of every place you go, and I’m very much feeling the whole northern German aura just as it was when I lived here.

Finally, as pleasant as it is to be back, I have no sadness or any kind of regretful feelings about leaving. It was great to live here when I did, but I’m much happier in my current life situation. Not just because of my job, but I really prefer the Japanese culture as well. I plan to write a detailed comparison of life in the two countries, but I’ll say right now that if I had to spend the rest of my life in one of the two, I’d pick Japan. I’m glad I’ve got another two weeks here, but I’ll still be glad to go back.

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Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Circumnavigation

August 4th, 2013 No comments

I’m back in the country where I spent three of the last five years of my life. It feels like it’s finally the start of my vacation, but it also feels a bit like coming home.

My last week in Japan before the flight was somewhat eventful. On Saturday I attempted to have a karaoke party with a bunch of friends but nobody could make it, so it ended up just being me, Kim, and Enam going out for drinks, with Ben joining us for a little while. I haven’t seen him since the rice planting, but he’s finished his work for JET and is on his way back to the states, so it was nice of him to come say goodbye. And on Thursday, the last night before my flight, Stephen came into town and a few of us went out for an early dinner of okonomiyaki and then took the train down to onjuku beach to join a bunch of other ALTs to watch the annual fireworks festival they have there. That was a lot of fun, and the perfect way to spend my last night in Japan before vacation.

Friday and Saturday were epic. It started like any other day. I got up, went jogging, had breakfast, went to work (speech contest stuff), but when that was over the focus shifted to the daunting objective of moving my physical body halfway around the globe to Germany. I finished packing, cleaned my apartment, emptied the refrigerator and unplugged everything, checked and re-checked and checked again to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, then headed off on the long long 9-leg journey.

Leg 1 was the standard walk from my apartment to the Togane train station. Leg 2 was Togane to Chiba. Leg 3 was Chiba to Narita Airport.

When I got there it was 3 out of 9 legs finished. It was like I was a third of the way there already!

Of course, Leg 4 was a considerable distance farther than Narita from Chiba. That was the 10-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, which took off at 10:30 p.m. in Japan and landed at 3:30 a.m. in the UAE. I flew all the way over China and India and landed for the first time on the soil of a Middle Eastern country, but it was dark the whole time so I couldn’t see anything other than the occasional lights from cities.

The layover in Abu Dhabi was six hours total, with the next plane not taking off until 9:30. My first experience in a Muslim country wasn’t exactly an awesome one. It was mostly just like any other airport, only with most of the amenities tucked into “lounges” you had to pay the equivalent of 45 euros to enter. They sounded nice—unlimited drinks, internet, showers, and whatnot—but I wasn’t going to drop 45 euros on that. Other than that, the only major difference between this airport and any other was that there were a lot more men in madrassas and women in burkas walking around.

Although I will say that the airline of Abu Dhabi—Etihad Airways—was definitely the best airline I’ve ever taken. Between all the on-demand entertainment, power outlets in every seat, meal menus even for coach passengers, and excellent service, it rose to number one in my ranks right away.

Leg 5 was not Etihad airways but Berlin Air. I felt like I was in Germany already from the moment I boarded the plane, as while the Narita-Abu Dhabi flight had been a wide mixture of cultures with just about half-Japanese, there were no Japanese on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Düsseldorf and I’d say I good 80% of the passengers were German. The flight attendants were German, and while their service was perfectly adequate it just couldn’t compare to the friendliness and enthusiasm of the previous flight’s mostly Japanese crew. Customer service is one cultural area in which Germany and Japan could not be farther apart.

Although that flight was only 7 hours, it felt longer than the previous flight because at that point I was already quite sick of travelling and just wanted the journey to be over. At least it was daytime and I could look out the window. We flew over Iraq, so that was cool, although there was nothing to see but sand and small cities.

But that flight was notable for one very significant landmark in my life. The farthest east I ever went in Europe was Prague. When this flight flew past Prague on its way to Germany, I’d officially crossed every line of longitude on the globe. It took about four years and there was all kinds of hopping back and forth in between, but now I have officially circumnavigated the planet! That was always one of my lifelong goals—to join the club that Magellan started.

It felt great when the plane touched the ground and I knew the flying was over, but unfortunately the travelling was far from over. I’d accidentally bought a train ticket from the Düsseldorf main station as opposed to the airport station, so once I’d gone through customs (which took all of ten seconds) and got my luggage, I had to wait on line at the airport train station to change my ticket. Some of the legs would be altered and I’d arrive an hour later than planned, but there were still 4 legs left to go.

Leg 6 was a short hop from the Düsseldorf airport to Duisberg. After the stress of the ticket situation, I calmed down quite significantly once I was on that regional train. The reality of being back in Germany finally sunk in, as it felt like just a few weeks ago that riding this exact kind of train was routine.

After a 30-minute wait in Duisberg, the longest rail-leg of the journey began. Leg 7 was a 2-hour ride from Duisberg to Bremen on an InterCity train, the kind I used to take every week from Hannover to Helmstedt. Although I was beyond sick and tired of travelling at that point and just couldn’t wait for it to be over, Leg 7 turned out to be the most pleasant leg of the trip. It was a beautiful day and as the train raced through the countryside all kinds of pleasant memories about all the great times I had in this country kept coming back to me. I’m about to acquire 3 more weeks of such memories.

Leg 8 was the final solo-leg of the journey, so the last one that felt like a leg at all. It was on a packed regional train full of crying kids and people with body odor, but luckily the trip from Bremen to the town of Delmenhorst where Oliver and Lena live was only about 15 minutes. As soon as the LED-screen read “Nächste: Delmenhorst” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. It had been a long way since Togane, but I was finally coming to my destination.

I got a bit worried when I didn’t see Oliver at the station. I’d turned on my iPhone’s data roaming momentarily when I knew I’d be late to send him a Facebook message informing him, but I had no way of knowing if he got it until I turned the data roaming back on and saw he confirmed the message. So where was he?

I waited out in front of the station for a few minutes, hoping he was just running behind and would drive up any minute, but soon enough he emerged from the station, I dropped my things, and we had a nice warm embrace, two great friends overjoyed to see each other after two years apart.

Leg 9 barely felt like part of the journey at all. I chatted with Oliver as he made the five-minute drive to the house where he and Lena now live. But when he pulled into the driveway and parked the car, it definitely felt fantastic that it was over. The entire journey from start to finish had taken a total of 32 hours.

I’d already been awake for 41 hours at that point, having only dozed off a few times here and there on the flight, but I was up for at least another 6 hanging out with Oliver and Lena and the dog Buutsch. It was wonderful to be back with them again, and although it had been two years and they’re living in a different place now, it might as well have only been two weeks.

They filled me in on what they’re doing now and I told them what I’m up to as well as all sorts of things about Japanese culture. Later we took the dog for a walk. After that I went to sleep, my epic 47-hour day finally over.

I slept really well and woke up today at 7:30 as though there were no jet-lag at all. Today is Sunday and we’re just going to relax, make a little tour of Delmenhorst, drink lots of delicious beer and eat lots of delicious food. It should be a pretty excellent day.

As for the week, Oliver and Lena have to work so it’ll just be me and the dog for most of the day, but that’s no problem at all for me. Next weekend Amanda will be coming over so I’m really looking forward to that. Things are likely to get a bit crazy. And the following week Oliver was able to take off from work so we’ll do a few fun things like camp out at the East See and drive to Hannover with a couple of bikes to spend the day doing my old bicycle tour there, which I’m also really looking forward to. After that it’s off to Ichenheim for a week of Ichenheim enjoyment, and then back to Japan.

When I passed through immigration at Narita airport this time, the woman checked my alien registration card and told me I have to be back before September or my visa will expire. Well, I’ll be back on August 27th, so that works for me. I’m not even thinking about the return trip now, but after what happened last year it’s quite nice to be completely secure in knowing that when the vacation is over, I can go back.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

Work-cation

July 25th, 2013 No comments

It felt like summer vacation for approximately two days, and now it just feels like a new species of work. I’m not complaining—I like work—it’s just that the feeling is even less “vacationey” than I expected. I’ve set up meetings with the Speech Contest students every weekday before my Germany trip, about an hour of practice per meeting. Since there are four of them—two individual third-graders, an individual second-grader, and a pair of first-graders who do a skit together—that makes up to 4 hours a day depending on whether they can all come. With an hour of lunch that makes 5 hours, which is not much less than the 8 I was spending before summer vacation started. I come in a little later, leave a little earlier, and don’t have to plan lessons, but other than that things feel the same. This is not quite a vacation—I should come up with a different word for it.

DSCF2929I did spend the first day of Summer Vacation doing something interesting though. I was planning to join Lily and Jack for her birthday dinner in Tokyo at night, but I went earlier in the day and went up the Tokyo Sky Tree to check out the view and take copious amounts of pictures, only a few of which I’ll post here. I’ve been to many “high points” of cities: the World Trade Center (when it existed), the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the one in Rome with the really long name, and a bunch in various German cities, so this was nothing new for me, and to put it bluntly Tokyo is not a particularly aesthetic city so it wasn’t the fantastically amazing experience that many of the others were. The two best views are the Eiffel Tower for the aesthetics of the city, and Rome because of all the awesome landmarks.

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Not to diminish the awesomeness, though. It’s still pretty incredible to be looking out over this giant city from half a kilometer in the sky, nothing but urban jungle stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. My most profound thought was just how many people were in my field of vision at any given time—albeit most concealed by buildings—and how strange it feels to think of specific people, to call to mind those who mean something to me at a vantage point from which all people appear insignificant.

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Once that thought occurred to me I entered something of a zen-like state and remained up there for hours. I would have left much sooner if not for the fact that when I’d felt I’d soaked it in enough the sun was on its way down and I figured if I just waited a bit longer I’d get to see the city at night, so I watched the sunset over the urban sea and got a few pictures of early evening Tokyo (almost not of which came out well) before heading down and all the way across town to Shibuya for dinner.

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Dinner was quite pleasant, with Jack, Lily, Stephen, Lily’s French friends, and a few various others including people I met at the picnic on Spring vacation. Unfortunately I had to rush out in order to catch the last bus back to Togane, but it was a good time and totally worth going.

Finally, the last event since my last entry was my first enkai with the faculty of K-chu, which was last night. It was noticeably smaller than all my other enkai experiences, but the basic format was the same: lots of people topping off your drink as you’re served course after course of odd-looking fish cuisine. There was a pause half-way through as the coach of each sports team (plus the band) gave a speech about their club, and that was different from Togane Chu. Because there are less students here there are less sports. If they asked every coach at Togane to speak it would take up the whole enkai.

More interestingly, it might have just been where I was sitting but there seemed to have been a lot more drinking at this affair than those at Togane Chu. Except for the administrators, everyone is seated according to a random number drawing, and I happened to be seated right along with the administrators, right next to the Vice Principal who until that night was the most intimidating guy at any school I’ve been to. In school he keeps busy constantly, and when I have to go up and get my stamps on my pay sheet for Interac he treats me like a nuisance so I’m always afraid to go up to him, constantly waiting for what appears to be a break in his activity. He also occasionally loses his temper and explodes at a student, shouting and ranting for minutes on end about god knows what grievance the poor kid committed. But last night he was pounding down the alcohol and behaving so jolly and merry it was like a different person altogether. He insisted on sharing a bottle of sake with everyone around him and he made a point of carrying out a conversation with me to the best of his English and my Japanese ability, telling me he’d never had an ALT even capable of conversation before. He actually told me I’m too serious in the teacher’s room and should be more friendly. Irony.

The main event was followed by karaoke, this time at the smallest karaoke place I’ve ever been to, a restaurant of just two small rooms, each with a karaoke machine that can’t be going on at the same time because there’s no sound separation and everyone outside our back room could hear the singing going on inside. Of the original [relatively] small group, only about half came to karaoke so this was indeed much smaller than that times at Togane, and while the karaoke queue was always full at those events, here there were rarely more than two songs cued up and occasionally there was nothing being sung at all. I was asked to sing near the very beginning, even had a specific song requested by the second-grade teacher: “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, a song I don’t even like but heard often enough when it was popular in America to sing it pretty well. That was received very well by the staff. For my next song I took a stab at “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga and only did an adequate job but still got good applause. Finally, I screwed up by trying to impress them by singing the German “99 Luftballoons” and while I’ve done that successfully before, I was terrible that night and none of them knew the song anyway so the applause at the end was clearly forced. Oh well, not like anyone’s gonna hold it against me.

It was weird to come in this morning and see just about everyone from last night back at their jobs, but that’s the Japanese way.

Someone asked me if I had a hangover this morning. No, it had only appeared that I’d been drinking excessively last night, when in reality I’d been pacing myself so steadily I even had one last beer after getting home, and woke up this morning feeling fine. That’s the American way.

Working the Fields

May 20th, 2013 No comments

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I’ve neglected to write about a couple of social events I’ve partaken in recently, only because there was nothing particularly remarkable to say about them. Two weekends ago I went to a picnic in a lovely park in Tokyo to visit Jack and Lily and a bunch of their friends. A couple of days later I went back to Tokyo to celebrate Stephen’s birthday at a restaurant in Harajuku. Both were pleasant experiences, but neither begged to for full blog documentation.

The social event of this past Saturday, by contrast, was of a culturally interesting enough nature to warrant a full post. Fred, whose company I greatly enjoy but rarely ever see, has gotten involved with a local organic farm company which—among many other things—gets groups of people together to teach them old-school methods of farming. As it’s rice-planting season, they’re currently having groups of people—Japanese and foreigners alike—come and plant rice by hand, the way the Japanese did it for thousands of years before they built machines to do the work. Groups plant rice for a couple of hours, then after a short interval of time to let everyone get a bath or a shower, they have a party in the evening.

I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. It was just one of those experiences I felt obliged to have simply by virtue of it being a rare opportunity. Though the experience probably wouldn’t be fun, it was an experience that very few people nowadays will ever have. Trudging through the mud and doing back-breaking labor in the fields for no pay doesn’t exactly strike me as the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but I figured I’d just push myself into it. At least the party afterwards was guaranteed to be a good time.

I met up with Fred, his girlfriend Chihiro, another rarely-seen Togane ALT named Kate, and a guy named Ryan I haven’t seen since last year’s hanami, at the Togane train station at 12:30 and we proceeded to walk the 5 km to the farm. We couldn’t have hoped for a more beautiful day, and the walk was quite pleasant as we all got caught up with what each of us has been up to. Fred will be here for one more year, then he’s going to go back to America to get his masters in forestry and start a career in that field. Ben, whom I haven’t seen since the Christmas party, would join us later, but I found out this is currently his last year living here and he’ll be going back to America in July (the JET program is now officially done in Togane, probably thanks to the fine job Interac ALTs like Kim and I have been doing for less cost to the schools).

We got to the farm’s “headquarters” (nothing more than an ordinary Japanese house) forty minutes early and just hung out until everyone else arrived and we were ready to begin. Fred and Kate had done this last year and said there had been about 60 people, whereas today there were only about 25. That would mean more rice-planting for everyone! Hooray!

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We walked down towards the rice fields, most of which had already been seeded, and stopped to pick up the rice plants themselves along the way. Apparently they let the plants grow a little before putting them into the flooded paddies. Hey, I learned something already!

When we reached our designated section of field, little squares of rice plants were distributed to each of us, and we lined up at the edge of the paddy. A grid had been imprinted into the mud earlier by a big wooden mesh cylinder, and our job was to tear off 3-5 stalks of the rice plants—roots and all—and press them about 2 centimeters deep into every intersection in the grid. We were each responsible for three rows, and once finished we would help finish whatever was left.

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I rolled up my jeans and stepped bravely into the mud. It was an interesting sensation to say the least, but nothing unpleasant and I got used to it very quickly. The hard part was the constant bending down to plant the rice. Once you got the hang of tearing off the stalks, you picked up the pace considerably and ended up hunched over at a 90-degree angle for pretty much the whole time.

The depth of the water varied throughout the field, with the mud above the surface at some points, and sometimes practically thigh deep. You had to be careful whenever you removed your feet from the mud to step forward, or you could easily fall over—which a few people did. Due to the lack-of-ease-of-mobility, whenever you ran out of grass you would shout “nai” (none left) to the farmers and they’d toss you a fresh batch, often missing and splashing you with muddy water.

When Fred had finished his lines I took my camera out from its dangerous location in my pocket and tossed it to him, which thankfully he caught and was able to get some good shots of me in the midst of my labor.

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It probably took me about forty minutes altogether to cross the paddy, but by the time I was done the last remaining sections were all well-covered, so I assumed my work for the day was done. That wasn’t so bad.

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Of course, unbeknownst to me there was a whole other section of field we had to do. Once the first part was done we headed up the hill to that one, a much longer and narrower field DSCF2917than before. This time we were planting black rice, which should only be planted 2 stalks at a time, making the tearing-off part of the job slightly more challenging. For some reason the water in this particular field was more bug-infested than the other, riddled with spiders darting to and fro across the surface. I braved my arachnophobia and made it through, this time tackling four rows at a time to make it go faster. I traversed the field three times before I was done, and while my back was pretty sore by that point I couldn’t deny the strong sense of accomplishment.

The whole ordeal hadn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared—only about an hour and a half of actual labor altogether. I’ve never been one to enjoy getting my hands dirty, but it didn’t come without a small sense of pride at having done it. I spend most of my time sitting in a faculty room at my computer. Doing actual manual labor was a nice change of pace, though it’s certainly not something I’d want to do every day.  There’s another event in the fall when we harvest the rice, and while Fred says that’s more difficult I’ll probably try that too.

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We headed back up the hill, stopping somewhere along the way to wash off the mud, and when we got back to the house the farmers were giving rides to a nearby bath-house. This was an authentic Japanese everybody-take-your-clothes-off-in-front-of-each-other bath-house, so I waited in the lobby while the others went in. I’d already done my Japanese-culture thing for the day—getting naked in front of a bunch of people I barely know is one of those cultural experiences I’m perfectly content to deprive myself of.

The party was as enjoyable as expected. Ben brought his iPod and some speakers and provided us with music. The farmers provided us with meat to grill, delicious fresh vegetables grown right on the farm, and beer. The whole thing cost us 2000 yen apiece, worth the price even though I couldn’t eat most of the meat.

As usually happens at these sorts of things, the foreigners mingled with the foreigners and Japanese with the Japanese until all of us had consumed enough alcohol to start mingling with each other, each doing our best to communicate using as much of the other language as possible, and managing to do so surprisingly well in spite of the difficulty.

When the food was gone and the hardcore partiers were migrating inside, most of us decided to head home so as to avoid getting completely wasted. I walked back to Togane with Fred, Ben, and Ryan, sipping our last beers along the way. It was nice to hang out with those guys again, and hopefully I’ll get to see Ben at least one more time before he heads back to the states.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Japan.

Momentum

May 1st, 2013 No comments

The momentous two-month duo of March and April is over, and everything is fast becoming routine. I’ve had at least two lessons with all of my classes, and as many as five with some. I know most of my students’ names now, with only the exception of H-sho because the administrators there have been too busy to put together a name-list for me. The Kyle-store has transformed from an after-school thing with only non-club-members participating to an after-lunch thing so club-members can come, and as I only eat lunch at K-chu three days a week that allows one day for first-graders, one for second, and one for third. I’ve also expressed an interest in visiting the students’ club activities after school on Fridays, and the first of those experiences might happen as early as tomorrow, before the four-day weekend.

The most interesting experiences now are still the elementary school lessons. After the self-introduction, it was time to get right into actual teaching. As I don’t work at those schools every day and only see the homeroom teachers when I’m in the classroom, all of the planning is entirely my responsibility. I have a textbook which outlines what needs to be taught and the order in which to teach it, but how I teach it is completely up to me. It’s an interesting feeling—in contrast to the junior high school situation where the JTE does most of the teaching and I only come in once or twice a week to reinforce, I’m responsible for all of the elementary school students’ English learning for the year. The feeling of responsibility is particularly strong with the fifth-graders, as I’m laying the foundation for all of their future English learning. Things I could always count on every Japanese person to know are things these students don’t know until I teach it.

Lesson 1 was “Hello, my name is ~. What’s your name? Nice to meet you.” As much as I dislike the textbook and the CD that comes with it, I knew it would be useful in getting these structures into the students’ minds, as there’s a musical chant which sticks in your head and was very effective for teaching them. Because they don’t know phonics yet, they can’t memorize by words, so I reached all the way back to Narita training and used a technique I saw Cedric teaching to the elementary-school teachers: to draw a shape for each phrase depending on how many words. “Hello, my name is suchandsuch” is a five-point star because there are five words. “What’s your name?” is a triangle, and “Nice to meet you” is a square. The students were drawn in with curiosity as I drew the shapes, and when I pointed to each corner of the shape as the CD chanted the words, they understood immediately. Next week I opened the lesson by drawing the same shapes on the board, and the students remembered every word. The foundations of English are successfully being laid. It doesn’t get much more gratifying than that.

With the sixth-graders so far it’s just been counting and letter-games, as this year they learn numbers from 30 to 100 and the lowercase roman letters (I found out they learn uppercase in Japanese class because ‘romaji’ is one of the four writing systems they use here). I’ve been combining new ideas with some old ideas I’ve used in both JHS first-grade lessons (playing games where students have to guess ‘how many’ of something there are) and even some games I used for beginners in Germany (counting to 100 without saying multiples of a certain number, which these kids are better at than the adults were). I’ve found myself short on time a few times, but the students always have fun, and things I know I can always save what I don’t get to for following week, as I’m working with the loosest of guidelines.

One thing that will still take some getting used to is eating lunch in the classroom. It still feels a little awkward, even when I’m in lunch-groups with students who are inclined to think of questions to ask me. They think of a question (usually along the lines of “what food do you like?” or “what color do you like?”), ask me, I figure out what they’re asking, give them an answer, and that’s the end of the conversation. Occasionally I’ll remember to ask them what their favorite suchandsuch is too, but that only prolongs the conversation by a few words.

Yesterday I ate lunch with junior high school students for the first time ever, as W-sensei came up to me at with no warning at the beginning of the lunch-period and told me to come to her homeroom and eat with the students. One student was absent so I could sit at his desk. When I got there with my full tray of food, the students were just starting to get things set up so I had to wait for about ten minutes before the formal beginning of the meal was made, though unlike in elementary schools it was just a ceremonial few words instead of a whole speech. Lunch itself was just like elementary only even less social, probably because I happened to be at a table of particularly quiet students. I asked each of them what clubs or sports they were in, but that was the extent of the conversation. When I was finished with my meal I went to empty my tray, and because they’d served a curry with beef in it I’d hardly finished half of it, and when I put my tray down on the edge of the table to empty something else, it fell over and spilled curry all over the floor. So that was delightfully embarrassing, but it’s not like it was a complete disaster. If I was their age I might get made fun of for it all year, but I’m their teacher and they still respect me. I taught their class today without W-sensei (she was mysteriously absent yet again) and it went really well. They were even more respectful than when she’s present.

Regarding W-sensei, I’m afraid Enam’s warnings about her are turning out to be accurate. While she has yet to impose on me too much, it’s clear she doesn’t know how to discipline the students, and when it comes to teaching itself she’s pretty much just winging it and figuring it out as she goes along. I can’t be too hard on her because that’s been more-or-less what I’ve been doing since I started this job, but last year I noticed a distinct improvement in the first-graders’ reading ability from week to week (thanks to K-sensei and O-sensei) whereas now they seem pretty stagnant. At least it motivates me to step up my own teaching, as I don’t want them to have the disadvantage of not learning phonics at the same rate as the rest of Japanese 11-year-olds.

Outside of school, things feel like they’re picking up in the socialization department, mostly because Enam has moved in with Kim and he’s more inclined to come over and see if his neighbor wants to hang out a bit. We hung out Saturday afternoon, and Sunday evening was his birthday which we celebrated with a large group of ALTs in Chiba, starting at a bar and then migrating to the bowling alley. I got to see Stephen, Stacy, and a bunch of other people I hardly ever see, though Jack and Lily didn’t come. I’m going to try and visit them in Tokyo during the four day weekend.

But the most significant piece of news comes through a conversation I had with Enam on Saturday, about what I want to do in the future. I’ve had it in my mind since I started this that one day I’d go back to America and become a full-time teacher there. But what I learned about the present-day American education system from my own brief experience with teacher education courses as well as articles like this are a major deterrent to taking that path. Enam brought up the possibility of teaching at an international school instead, and the more we discussed it the more it made sense. I could become certified through online courses as I do the ALT thing (which certainly provides me sufficient down-time to work on assignments), then get a job as a real teacher, teaching any subject I want, anywhere in the world I want. International schools are everywhere, they pay well, and they don’t tie their teachers’ arms and legs to standardized test-scores like they’re now doing across America. I could also continue to teach in different countries around the world, but do more travelling as I’ll be better able to afford it. And I don’t think it prohibits me from returning to America either—I’m sure there must be some international schools within the United States.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be looking into online teaching certification programs and see what options are out there. What I’m doing now is the perfect springboard to what I want to do next. My life may appear somewhat aimless at times, but underlying all the shifts and changes would appear to be a steadily forward momentum.

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A Change is (Probably) Gonna Come

February 7th, 2013 No comments

My 29th birthday was this past Saturday, and it was a good one. It was pretty much the same group of people and the same routine as my return-to-Japan party. Kim and Enam, their friends Will and Mai, Stacy, Jack, and Jack’s friend John, and Atsushi. I didn’t ask for any presents but Atsushi actually bought a cake with “Happy Birthday, Kyle” written on it. Great guy.

We hung out at my place for a couple of hours as we waited for everyone to get there, then went out to eat at a very small and very Japanese restaurant two buildings down from me. The food was delicious and the servers were happy to have our business, but there were some regulars there who seemed bothered by the presence of a large group of foreigners and quickly left after we got there.

After dinner we went to Sound Plaza, the nearest karaoke bar and the same one we went to for my other party and, coincidentally, the same one my school used for the last enkai. We actually ended up in the very same room as the enkai. And for two or three hours it was just good old-fashioned drinking and singing, an activity I never thought I’d enjoy but which I’m enjoying more and more each time. I think my singing voice might be improving too, but it’s hard to tell when you’re intoxicated. But this time I didn’t go too overboard and the hangover the next morning was mild.

I hadn’t seen most of those people in months, not since the Christmas party, and I have no idea when I’ll see them next. I like them all and enjoy their company but I can’t honestly call any of them friends (“friend” in the German “freund”-sense and not the American “I have 286 Facebook friends”-sense). If I really loved any of them like I came to love Oliver and Lena, it would be harder to consider relocating.

But that’s what I expect will happen for the next school-year. Every year Interac has all of its employees fill out an “intentions survey” and makes placement decisions based on our responses. Last year I wrote that I wanted to keep the same contract and stay at this school for another year, and I was extremely glad when that request was granted. And as recently as a few months ago I expected to want to stay here for another year as well.

But over the course of the last few months a feeling has been growing in me that I could really use a change of pace. I’ve been teaching at the same school for almost two school-years now and if I stay another year, by the end I’ll have lived in Japan for nearly three years having only set foot in a single school. Most ALTs have experience in many different schools, often at different levels. I want more experiences too.

So when I took the survey a couple of weeks ago I wrote that I wouldn’t mind changing schools but I wouldn’t mind staying here either. But in the weeks since, my urge to have a change has grown much stronger and now it’s something I really desire. As much as I love this school, I feel I’ve been here long enough and it’s time to move on. And as much as I love Togane as a location in terms of its proximity to the ocean and to Tokyo, I’d like to get to know another part of Japan as well.

There are a few other factors contributing to this desire. For one, pretty much all of my favorite students are third-graders and they’ll be graduating in a few weeks anyway. The current second-graders have long since stopped appreciating me and I feel like most of them take me for granted. I make the lessons as fun as possible and they enjoy them, but it’s just routine for them at this point. Let them have someone else for their third year and maybe they’ll realize how good they had it. The first-graders this year have been fantastic, but kids change quickly and there’s every reason to expect that if I stayed another year they’d become just as apathetic towards me as the current second-graders are.

There’s also the simple fact that I’ve got all these great lessons but I can’t do them again for the same students. If I go to different schools I’ll get to do the lessons again for different students who’ll find them fresh and exciting. It would be awesome to go into a school full of students who’ve only ever had mediocre ALTs who never put much thought into lesson-preparation, let alone awesome game-designing. (By the way, I’ve designed my most epic game yet for the end of the school-year. Once I’ve done it a few more times I’ll have to write all about it.)

Of course there’s a risk that I’ll end up in one of those “human tape-recording” situations like some ALTs whom the JTEs never let do anything creative. I’ve been lucky to be in a situation where I can plan and execute all of my lessons under what is almost my complete control, but that’s definitely not the case for everyone. I’m just hoping that if I show my lesson-plans to whomever I end up working with, they’ll see how much thought I put behind it and how valuable it could be to have the students learn English in a way that’s fun for them.

Finally, what really tipped things towards my wanting to move is that O-sensei told me last week that she and her husband will be moving to Korea when this school-year is over. She’s been as perfect of a teaching-partner as I could possibly imagine, so that alone would be enough to keep me hesitant about leaving, but since she’s leaving anyway it doesn’t matter.

Today I wrote to the placement department and told them that now I definitely want to change schools next school-year and that I am willing to relocate. I expressed a preference for Tokyo (that would mean I could still easily come back and visit) but said I’d be willing to move anywhere and the most important thing to me was to have a change of some kind.

So that’s where things stand right now. If last year was any indication, I won’t know what the final decision is until the very end of the school-year, but I think there’s a strong chance my request will be granted and this school-year will be my last at this school. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers who would love to trade places with me, to have one school that they live within walking distance of instead of a bunch of different schools spread out all over the place. I know what it is I’m giving up, but I’ve had it long enough and I’ve certainly appreciated it while I’ve had it. There’s just so much more out there to be appreciated.

In the Short and Long Term

January 7th, 2013 No comments

It’s the first school day of 2013 and the opening ceremony just concluded. It was almost exactly the same as the closing ceremony for 2012, only this time the speech lambasting the third-graders to take their entrance exams seriously only lasted for a few minutes as the other two grades filed out of the gym. It was nice to be back among the students again, and sad to think I’ve only got three months left before I never see at least a third of them again.

Today was just for the opening ceremony and most of the students will be leaving at lunch time, so I won’t be doing any lessons until tomorrow. I can hardly wait to get back to that again, particularly because I know what I’ve got planned for this week is going to be fun.

The winter vacation was a nice change of pace, but two weeks of it was more than enough considering I had absolutely nothing going on. It was just me alone with myself every day except New Years’ which didn’t exactly go as planned. Stephen came to Togane and we were going to join Stacy and a bunch of other Josai students for karaoke but she called us early on and explained that unfortunately the rooms needed to be booked in advance and theirs was already at maximum capacity. Stephen and I spent most of the night at my place engaged in intensely personal conversation, getting to know each other much more than we did previously.

Shortly before midnight I suggested we go outside to start the year somewhere slightly more interesting than my apartment. The only walkable place even remotely interesting is Togane Lake (the place where they have the hanami) so that’s where we went. There was nobody else just hanging out by the lake but there was a nearby temple where many people were going for the traditional New Years’ worship. It’s interesting how the Japanese are so secular most of the year but the one big religious holiday is New Years’, but they go by the Western calendar. So we didn’t get any fireworks but we got plenty of ringing bells.

The next morning we went out for breakfast at the nearest place that served it, which happened to be the infamous Denny’s where the Yakuza shooting occurred last year. That’s the first and probably the last time I’ll ever eat there—not because I’m afraid of another gang shooting but because the food doesn’t appeal to me. Although I must admit that the French Toast was pretty decent.

After Stephen left and I called my grandparents I biked to the beach for the first time of the year and was at my favorite spot—the river mouth on the beach—when 2:00 p.m. came around and East Coast USA officially entered 2013.

The rest of my vacation was as uneventful as the beginning, and while I had plenty of enjoyable ways of passing the time by the end of it I was starting to slip back into a mildly depressed state, weary of my relatively worthless existence. Teaching Japanese middle-school students might not be quite as fulfilling as other ways I could be spending my life, but at least I’m appreciated by people I also appreciate.

One thing I’ve been considering that I think I confirmed today is that I can only spend one more year at this school before moving on. I love this school so I won’t be disappointed if Interac keeps me here another year (something I won’t know for sure until the year is pretty much over), but there’s a much wider world out there and I’d like to expand my horizons a little, maybe get a taste of what it’s like to teach elementary or high school. If they do keep me here another year I’ll formally request to be moved next year, then depending on how that goes I’ll decide from there whether to stay or move on to a new country.

Before Stephen came to Japan he spent one year teaching in Saudi Arabia because the Middle East is apparently where you can make the most money teaching English. It makes perfect sense, as Japan is such a highly desirable location they can get away with paying peanuts, but not many Westerners are willing to live in Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia doesn’t appeal to me, but I know someone who taught in Egypt and that strikes me as perhaps the most interesting of the Muslim countries to live in as well as relatively safe and modern. Plus from there I could do some travelling to Israel or deeper Africa, places I’ve always wanted to see as well. This is far from something I’ve made up my mind about but now it’s floating out there as a possibility for my next and quite possibly last destination for overseas English teaching. I think after one more country I’ll be ready to settle down in America or some English-speaking country for a long-term career teaching something other than English as a foreign language to students I can actually communicate with. It would be worth it to spend a year or two in a well-paying country first to have a decent financial position with which to plant my feet somewhere.

So that’s where things stand at the beginning of 2013. I don’t expect it to be the most exciting or interesting year of my life, but I fully expect to enjoy it.