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Posts Tagged ‘togane’

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.

The Absence of Friends and Cherry-Blossoms

April 8th, 2013 No comments

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It’s the first official day of the new school year, and just like the last official days of last school year, I have nothing to do. All week is orientation up until Saturday when I have my first lessons. Since those are just self-introductions and I’ve done that before, most of the work is already done. I’m going to prepare a little something extra I haven’t tried yet, but that won’t take long at all.

It used to take me 5 minutes to get from my apartment to work. To K-chu it takes 25, which isn’t too bad except for the annoyance of trekking up hills. But I’ll be biking it until I somehow get a driver’s license (which apparently requires a miracle), so I might as well get used to it. Luckily it was cold enough this morning that the sweat was minimal. When I got to the teacher’s room, I was immediately asked to give my self-introduction to the faculty, so I went through that again and delivered it without a hitch to polite applause at the end.

The teacher in charge of the ALT here is an S-sensei (not to be confused with Principal S-sensei), and a few minutes after I sat down she asked me if Interac had told me to come in today, because there were no classes and she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. It would have been nice if I’d known I didn’t have to come, but so it goes. It was determined that I should stay until lunch time and then, since I didn’t bring any lunch with me, I could go home. I assumed there’d be an opening ceremony today but it turns out that was last week, though there will be a “welcome ceremony” tomorrow (not sure about the distinction) in which I and all of the new teachers will be introduced to the students, though I won’t have to give a speech.

It’s only about an hour into my first day here, so my first impressions aren’t worth much, but I’m glad S-sensei seems nice and the rest of the faculty was welcoming enough. I’m liking the somewhat cozier atmosphere of this smaller teacher’s room, and the view out the window from my desk is much more aesthetically pleasing than before—evergreen trees as opposed to other wings of the building. Since this is where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year, that’s no small thing.

I’ve yet to actually see any students, and it’s entirely possible this whole day will go by without encountering even one, but at least tomorrow I’ll get my first look at them and they at me. Hopefully they’ll be just as friendly as at Togane Chu, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be.

Now let me back-track and tell the sad story of this past weekend, which was supposed to be full of pleasant scenery and social interaction. It’s cherry-blossom season which means hanami festivals, and there were two this weekend. The first was in the nearby town of Toke, organized by Fred. I’d thought it was going to be an actual festival like the one in Togane, but it was just a get-together of a bunch of ALTs and their friends in a very big and beautiful park there.

The event was from 11:00 to 16:00, but I was just finishing up my routine Saturday chores and errands at noon. I texted Kim and Enam to find out if they were going and Kim said it was still pretty early for them but they might go later. So I hopped a train and was in Toke by 12:30, then proceeded to make the long walk from the station to the park.

The weather report said it wouldn’t rain until the evening, but when I was about half-way to the park some drops were already beginning to fall. Luckily they sell umbrellas at every convenience store, and there are convenience stores on just about every block, so I was able to pick one up and have it ready to go when the rain really started falling five minutes later. Now I was just worried everyone else would pack up and leave before I got there. Kim sent me a text asking me about the weather, and when I replied to inform her it was raining I knew that would probably mean she and Enam weren’t coming.

I found the park but couldn’t find an entrance. Everything was fenced off, and I ended up walking half the perimeter before getting in. Now all I had to do was find the group of foreigners somewhere in this giant park. The iPhone made this [theoretically] a much less impossible task, as I could not only check the Facebook event page for the exact location and use the GPS tracking to guide me to that spot, but I could also text-message the people I assumed would be going to the event.

Well, my number for Fred wasn’t working, and neither Ben nor Atsushi returned my text, so I simply posted “Is there anybody here???” on the Facebook event page and hoped someone would respond as I made my way all around the park looking for them. How hard could it be to find a group of Americans drinking in a park? You’d think you’d be able to hear them a kilometer in every direction.

But everywhere I looked, there was no sign of them, even at the exact spot the event page said they’d be. Ten minutes after posting my “where is everybody?” message on Facebook, Fred posted to inform us that because the rain came early, they were heading out. Hah!

Of course not five minutes later, the rain stopped and didn’t pick up again until the evening, but by then it was too late. I’d come all the way to Toke and walked for about an hour and a half, and I never even made it to the event.

Well, I came here to drink sake in a park with other people, dammit, and at least I can still fulfill half my goals. I found an empty pavilion, poured myself a cup, put on some music with my iPhone, and enjoyed my own private little hanami-of-one for awhile. I drank two cups of sake in the pavilion and ate some of the food I’d brought, then migrated over to a very nice lake for another half a cup before journeying back to the station and to Togane. Disappointments aside, it was actually a rather pleasant little outing.

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The next day was the big Togane hanami event, and as last year’s had been so awesome I’d really been looking forward to this year’s as well. When I finally heard back from Ben and Atsushi the previous night, I learned they wouldn’t be coming so I didn’t know who’d be there, but at least I figured Kim and Enam would accompany me.

I wanted to get there as early as possible because I didn’t want to miss anyone. With all of the ALTs and Josai students in the area, there were bound to be a group of them somewhere. On top of that, I knew a whole bunch of my old Togane Chu students would be coming and going all day and this would be my last chance to see them for a very long time.

Kim and I exchanged some texts around 11:30. I said I want to head up there at about 1:00 and she said this was too early. I asked her what time she had in mind, but got no response. Even by 1:30 she hadn’t written back yet so I just sent her a text to say I was heading there now and would hopefully meet her and Enam there later.

Unfortunately, the weather on Sunday was almost as unpleasant as Saturday, though for a different reason. The skies were clear and the sun was shining, but the wind was a total bitch. Gusts of wind were raging to the point where they could almost knock you off your feet, and serve as a significant deterrent to bicycling there.

I spotted Zach on my way up, walking alongside someone who appeared to be his new Japanese girlfriend (lucky him). We stopped and chatted for a moment, and he expressed some sympathy at their having left Toke the previous day just as I was arriving. I asked him if he’d be coming back to the Togane event but he said they were just leaving. He said it was “pretty crowded” so I could probably find someone I knew.

It didn’t look “pretty crowded” when I got there. Compared to last year, it was all but dead. The wind was definitely a major factor, but I think the main reason so few people had come was the near complete lack of actual cherry-blossoms. The weather this spring has been atrocious, with rain and wind pounding at the trees multiple times a week, stripping the cherry-blossoms from the trees weeks earlier than last year. They’re almost all gone now. Last year the lake had been surrounded by magnificent pink—this year it’s all light-green.

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I walked the perimeter of the lake and found no fellow foreigners. I did run into a couple of Togane Chu students who graduated this past year and had a nice chat with them about what they were up to now, but the length of any such conversation is always limited by the limits of my Japanese.

Eventually I just decided to sit on a bench and read my book for awhile, hopefully until Kim and Enam arrived. As I was reading an old Japanese guy came up to me and proceeded to attempt to engage me in friendly conversation. Usually they only approach you to practice their English, but this guy spoke only Japanese. I did my best, but it was the most awkward-pause-filled conversation of all time. After about ten minutes—most of which was in complete silence—he got up and shook my hand to leave.

I texted Stacy to see if she or any Josai students were planning on coming, but she was sick and didn’t even know the event was happening. Kim still hadn’t returned my text from hours earlier. Yet another hanami of one—only this time I wasn’t drinking because the next day was the first day of school and I didn’t want to make the same mistake as last year (going in hungover) especially when it’s a brand new school.

I finally decided to just go home and come back after dinner. There were supposed to be fireworks at 7:00, so hopefully that would draw in more of a crowd.

As I was cooking dinner, I got a text from Kim saying she and Enam were at the lake but nobody else was there. I replied to tell her I’d gone and come back but would be returning there later for the fireworks. A short time later I heard her and Enam returning to her flat, but she never replied to my text.

I got back to the lake around 6:15 and there were indeed more people there but still no fellow English-speakers. I walked around the lake a few times and bumped into about a dozen more students so that was nice, but still far from genuine social interaction.  When 7:00 came around it was clear the fireworks had been cancelled (probably due to the wind), so I just went home.

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The whole thing was a gentle reminder of something I already know: I have zero friends in this country.

It doesn’t really bother me though. I’m well-aware of how overly-introverted I am and that it prevents me from easily connecting with other people. I only made two real friends throughout my entire three years in Germany. I made zero friends in Santa Barbara. In four years of college I came away with only two lasting friendships, and again only two from high school.

I thought I’d made a friend in Trey last year, but that’s in some doubt. The schools I’m teaching at now are actually the schools he taught at when he was here, and I sent him a message last weekend to ask him about the schools but haven’t received any kind of reply yet. The only other person I came close to connecting with was Stephen, but I think I might have opened up to him too much on New Years’ Eve and spoiled that too.

But as I said, I don’t really care. I’ve got six good, true friends in the world and that seems like enough to me. I’m not sure most “normal” people even have that many real friends, it’s just that theirs usually aren’t scattered across the globe like mine are. All that matters is that I’m not lonely, and while I felt a little of that this weekend, it happens rarely. I get enough human warmth and interaction from students and colleagues to keep me going.

Half-way through writing this entry, I had more social interaction than I had over the entire spring break. One of the JTEs I’ll be working with, W-sensei, came to talk with me about our first lessons this Saturday, and afterwards she wanted to practice her English because it was rusty after a year and a half of maternity-leave, so we got into a very interesting discussion about early childhood education in Japan.

I actually knew nothing about it before, but found it quite fascinating. In Japan, parents have a choice between sending their children to nursery school or kindergarten. Nursery schools take kids as young as 1, but when a child turns 3 they can enter kindergarten until their first-year of elementary school. Parents want their children in kindergarten because those are actual schools where they actually learn things, whereas nursery schools are basically just day-care centers. The bizarre thing is that kindergartens finish at 2:00 p.m., far too early for any woman with a professional job to pick the child up. Mothers are forced to choose between becoming housewives or continuing their careers at the expense of their child’s early education.

I remembered how K-sensei at the enkai had said K-chu students were very good because it’s in a rich area, and that makes more sense now. First of all, parents with more money can afford babysitters to pick their children up from kindergarten so they don’t have to give up their careers. Kindergarten is also more expensive than nursery school, about 400 to 600 US dollars a month. There are less-expensive public kindergartens, but there’s usually a waiting-list and single-parents are given priority, so it’s very hard for a two-parent household to get into them.

W-sensei has put her 18-month-old daughter in a private nursery school (it goes from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. —unbelievable!), and will have to decide next year whether to continue teaching, or give it up so she can send her daughter to kindergarten.

I find this rather amazing, as Japanese society in general seems designed to look out for the general welfare of everybody. Why not have kindergartens that offer day-care until 6:00?

So that was an interesting conversation. W-sensei is struggling with her English but is really determined to improve. This is good luck for me, as I love to have control over lessons and it appears she’s going to rely heavily on my help this year. Not only will be I doing a self-introduction lesson on Saturday, but I’ll be returning to the same class again in the afternoon to teach the alphabet.

I now have a much clearer picture of how this year is going to go at K-chu. There are two classes in each grade, and only two JTEs. W-sensei teaches both 1st-grade classes and a 2nd-grade class, while S-sensei teaches the other 2nd-grade class and both 3rd-grade classes. S-sensei also teaches Japanese (she has two teaching degrees) so she’ll be very busy this year. I didn’t have much of a chance to speak with her today, but I assume she’ll also be happy to let me do as much of the lesson-planning as possible.

It also appears as though I might be meeting with some classes more than once a week, though that’s yet to be determined. It would be very cool if it’s the case, but we’ll see.

And that gets the journal not just up-to-date, but up-to-the-hour. The weekend was a bit of a let-down, but the start of the week has been quite promising. Interesting how my life-situation in Japan is now so Japanese-like: Outside of my job I have no life to speak of. My job is my life.

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Driver’s License Adventures, Part 3

April 4th, 2013 No comments

I went back to the Menkyo Center today, took the driving test a second time, got through the course almost perfectly, and failed anyway.

I went second again, this time riding in the back as a Brazilian woman failed the test almost as badly as the Middle Eastern guy from the last time. It would be nice to ride in the back during a passing run so I could know what the hell they’re looking for.

I did much better in the crank this time, only having to back up once at the very beginning when pulling in.

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The S-curve was still a bitch, but when I felt my back left tire hit the curb again, this time I backed up before running over it. You’re allowed to back up three times and I backed up three times, so I thought I’d made it through successfully.

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I completed the whole course and parked the car, then turned to the proctor and glanced at my page to see the big fat “fail” kanji (不) on the page. You’ve got to be kidding me. I drove like an expert, never forgot to turn signal, to check my mirrors, to completely stop at stop signs, and I even verbalized in Japanese everything I was doing. I did everything the book told me to do and then some, and I still failed.

I had a harder time understanding the proctor’s explanations this time because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. As best I can tell, I didn’t get close enough to the right lane when making right turns, and I hadn’t checked all of my mirrors before backing up in the crank and the S-curve.

So now I’m even less optimistic going forward than I was before. I hadn’t gone in today expecting failure—there’s a difference between knowing failure is likely and expecting it—but now that I know you can pretty much do everything exactly right and still fail, I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get this thing. Apparently it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into preparing for it—they just want to make it as inhumanly impossible as they can. As though you’re an unsafe driver if you can’t flawlessly navigate an “S-curve”.

Seriously, what kind of sadists designed this test? There are no “S-curves” or “crank”s on actual Japanese roads, but they won’t give you a driver’s license unless you can make it through them perfectly? Meanwhile, they don’t even test you at all on stuff you will almost certainly have to do, like backing up, making a K-turn, or parallel parking. It’s absurd.

Sorry, I had to get that rant out. I’m certainly not the first gaijin with a blog to do so, and I won’t be the last.

As for the actual consequences to my life, we’ll see. I will have to bike to work for the first week, then I take the test again on Monday the 15th (luckily school is cancelled that day).

When I arrived back in Togane, I didn’t go directly home but took my bike on a test-run to the two closer schools: H-sho and K-chu. Adding the 5 minutes it takes me to bike to the train station, it’ll only take about 25 minutes to bike to those schools, and only five minutes to bike from H-sho to K-chu after lunch on Fridays. That also takes into consideration getting off the bike and pushing it during the steepest parts of the hill. I definitely worked up a sweat getting up there, but it’s not overly strenuous. Definitely doable, just inconvenient—especially when it’s raining or in the summer when it gets super-humid.

M-sho, on the other hand, is about ten times the distance over many more hills. When I got home I e-mailed Interac to suggest the possibility of hiring a taxi to take me between schools on Wednesdays only. Since Interac covers 20,000 yen of a car-lease anyway, if the price of a cab for just 4 days a month is less than that (and it almost certainly is), why wouldn’t they cover that as well? I got no definite response today, but I feel pretty good about the chances. They need me to get from M-sho to K-chu between the end of lunch and the beginning of the afternoon periods, and if that’s not feasible by bike then it would make no sense whatsoever for them to refuse to pay for a taxi.

But to end on a positive note, when I stopped at a convenience store up in the hills before heading back down to central Togane, there was a group of four young boys there having a snack by the window. They greeted me as soon as they saw me and asked me if I was an American. I asked them if they were H-sho students. Two of them were, and the other two were about to enter their first-year at K-chu. I told them I was their new ALT and we had a very pleasant exchange. I told them my name and where I was from, and they told me their names which I unfortunately forgot but will learn soon enough. I gave them a friendly goodbye and a “see you next week” and went on my merry way. Extremely friendly kids, very excited to meet me. If that doesn’t brighten your spirits, nothing will.

I also found out today that ALTs don’t actually teach every grade in elementary schools. Apparently kids don’t start learning English until 5th grade, so I’ll only be teaching fifth and sixth graders, which means two classes of 20 for M-sho, and one class of 35 fifth-graders and two classes of 20 sixth-graders at H-sho. That’s slightly disappointing because I’d been curious about the experience of teaching really little kids, but it’s also a bit of a relief because the territory won’t be that unfamiliar—these kids won’t be all that much younger than first-year JHS students.

Tomorrow is the opening ceremony at H-sho, which means barring some catastrophic bombing of my self-introduction speech, tomorrow is going to be a million times better than today.

The Last Goodbyes

March 30th, 2013 No comments

The primary purpose of this journal has always been the preservation of memory for my future self, and some days just beg for detailed preservation from beginning to end. Last year’s final day of the school-year was one of those days, and this year was even more so. As such I’ll once again try to capture the entire day as I experienced it, though the entry that appears on the blog will be edited for names and things having to do with specific students.

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Wow, that was crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been able to rewind a dream before. If only I could do that in real life.

It’s 4:30 now but I know I don’t have the slightest chance of being able to get back to sleep. I couldn’t even fall asleep until 12:30, but I’m pleased that at least I got four hours. That should be more than enough to keep me going on a day like today, when the emotional energy will drown out any fatigue.

As I expected, thoughts of what’s to come today keep me awake until the sun rises and it’s time to get up. I’ll get out of bed a little early this morning to give myself extra time to run through my speeches one last time before going into the school.

I’ve got three speeches prepared. The first is to be delivered in front of the whole school at the closing ceremony. The first half is the speech I gave in Japanese to the third-grade classes in our last lesson, and the second half is extra stuff I added about how I feel about my time at the school. Because it’s for the largest audience it’s the one I’m most nervous about, but I’ve got the first half down solid and have had two weeks to get the second half almost equally solid.

The second speech isn’t so much of a speech as it is a series of nice things to tell individual students in Japanese as I say goodbye. Things like, “I was lucky to have known you” and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can always succeed.”

The third speech is one I’ve been planning to give at the farewell enkai, as it’s tradition that all departing teachers give speeches, and I wrote one about how my time at the school has made me realize I want to be a teacher for the rest of my life. I decided not to overburden myself by memorizing that one, but I still had to practice it over and over again to get my mouth used to verbalizing complicated Japanese expressions. Because it’s in Japanese characters, the paper would only prompt me as to what to say next—I’d still need the words firmly in my head, as I couldn’t very well expect it to sound even remotely sincere if read syllable by syllable.

For the past two weeks I’ve been practicing these speeches over and over again from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, before and after everything else I do during the day. I want them to be so firmly in my head that I can rattle them off without even thinking about it, my mouth so used to verbalizing these phrases that it can say them on autopilot. I can’t wait until they’re over and I can cease this tedious exercise.

So one more time I run through the student speech, the enkai speech, the student speech again, then the ceremony speech, and find myself getting a little choked up near the end of it. I’ve been practicing this for weeks and today is finally the day I’m going to be giving it. This is the last day I’ll ever stand in front of those students. I wonder if I’m going to break into tears when the moment actually comes.

When I’m satisfied that I’m ready as I’ll ever be, I get my things together and make that final walk to work. My school—Togane Chugakkou (‘chu’ (中) means middle and ‘gakkou’ (学校) means school.)—is literally across the street from my apartment, so I’m still going to see that building every day, but this is the last time I’ll ever go inside for work.

I enter the teacher’s room and greet everyone with the standard “ohayou gozaimasu” for the last time. T-sensei is there, and she immediately approaches me to explain how this is going to go down. Because I’m not technically one of the actual full-time teachers at the school, the school will be separating my farewell speech from the others. I and one of the teacher’s aides will give our farewells first, then leave the gym as the rest of the teachers take the stage.

She tells me I’ll be going first, followed by the teacher’s aide. I ask her if this is set in stone, or if it’s okay if I go second. I’m going to be extremely nervous and I’d like to have a moment to mentally prepare on the stage as she gives her speech, rather than just be thrust on stage and dive right into it. She says she can check with the Kyoto-sensei (vice principal), and I accompany her as she begs his pardon and explains my request. He and the other vice principal get a laugh out of it, and say that it’s fine—I can go second.

The ceremony doesn’t begin until 9:30 and it’s only 8:30 now. I’d thought it started at 9:00 so I haven’t brought my computer or anything to pass the time. I sit at my next and run through the speeches in my mind again, but after five minutes A-sensei approaches me and tells me something I don’t understand until another teacher helps clarify that I’ve been invited to the principal’s room to wait with the other departing teachers before the ceremony begins.

So rather than sit at my desk doing nothing for an hour, I’ll be sitting in the principal’s room on a comfortable couch with the other departing faculty members doing nothing for an hour. Plenty of time to run through the speeches in my mind yet again.

The time is approaching. My stomach is in knots. I take deep breaths and try to calm myself down. I remind myself that the worst that can happen is I get tripped up or lose my place for a moment, and that it doesn’t matter if I do. This isn’t a Speech Contest. The people listening to the speech already know me and like me. Reminding myself that the audience is on my side really helps.

I go out to use the bathroom at 9:15, and when I come back some of the teachers are in the hall looking out the window trying to identify some of the students who are arriving now—a group of boys and a group of girls who appear to be among the previous year’s graduates. That’s cool—not only will I get to see this year’s graduates again, but some of last year’s as well.

Before I know it the Kyoto-sensei tells me and the teacher’s aide it’s time to go. He escorts us to the balcony above the gym and tells us to wait a moment until the initial greeting is over. When it’s time, he walks us down the stairs and across the gym. The first and second graders are in the front in standard formation: girls on the left, boys on the right. Behind them, sitting in the back, are my dearly-missed third-graders who are seated somewhat informally arranged only by class, from 3-1 on the right to 3-6 on the left. Wow, it feels even better to see them again than I’d imagined. Some of the students from 3-1 smile and wave to me as I pass. I return the gesture, letting it help me ease my nerves.

There’s a line of students on the far right, there to present flowers to departing teachers, and a few of them smile at me when I pass by as well.

We’re escorted onto the stage and take our seats to the left of the podium—to the right from our perspective. I scan the faces in front of me and feel my anxiety decrease rather than increase. The crowd is nothing but familiar faces. I’ve stood in front of all of them hundreds of times already. The only difference now is that they’re all there at the same time.

I was hoping the teacher’s aide’s speech would last a nice long time, but it’s over in less than a minute. I guess having only been there a year and not having actually taught the students, I shouldn’t have expected her to have all that much to say.

So now it’s time. I walk up to the podium and adjust the mike. I begin with the three words I’ve started almost every class with since the beginning, knowing this would be the last time: “Good morning, everyone.” After a moment’s hesitation, the students echo the greeting. I say, “OK, now I will speak Japanese,” and launch into it.

(In Japanese) “Togane Chugakkou is the first school I ever taught at as an ALT. For that, I think I’m very lucky. You were wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. I will miss you very much.”

Now I look to the back of the room for a little joke-section I added: “Especially you graduates! What are you doing back here!? I already said goodbye to you, now I have to do it again! I think you just came here to see me cry.”

This doesn’t get as much of a reaction as I’d been hoping for, but there is some audible chuckling.

“Everyone, I’ve been to many different places and met many people from all over the world. My advice to you is to meet as many people from different countries as you can and talk to them. What you learn in school is important, but what you learn from other people can be priceless. I’ve learned so much from you. If you’ve learned even a little from me, I’d be happy.”

This is much different than giving the speech to an individual classroom. Then I’d been able to read each student’s reaction to my words. Now I’m just staring into a sea of faces that all look expressionless. It’s impossible to tell whether I’m reaching anyone, but I press on.

“Never forget this time. Junior high school is over before you know it, but the people around you now will always be a part of you. If I’m a part of that too, it’s a privilege.”

I haven’t messed up so far, even on the parts I’ve added or altered, so now I’m ready for the second half.

“From now on, all of you are a part of me. I remember my first day at this school. For my self-introduction, I stood in front of all of you. I’d never been more nervous in my life. At the end of my speech, I held up a picture of President Obama and said ‘Yes we can!’ Many students gave me a ‘Yes we can!’ back. Not many, but enough. Everyone, shall we try it one more time? Yes we can!”

This is the part I’m most curious about. On my first day only about 20% of the students had repeated “Yes we can” and I wanted to see how it would go now. About half of them repeat it this time. I say it again and it sounds closer to 70%. I say it one more time, now really enthusiastically. It sounds like 70% again, and not particularly enthusiastic. So that’s the result of that experiment.

I continue, now reaching the most emotional part of my speech. I try to make sure I’m not just saying the words but really feeling them too.

“At that time, I knew I would enjoy teaching here. And that has really been the case. These two years have been the happiest of my life. I will probably teach at many different schools, but Togane Chugakkou will always have a special place in my heart. Students and faculty, you have been an inspiration to me.”

I’m projecting emotion with my voice, but I know I’m not really feeling the weight of this moment to its full significance. The nerves, the indiscernibility of the students’ faces, and simple relief that I haven’t messed up at all are overshadowing the reality of the fact that this really is the end. I do my best to maintain full awareness of that reality as I deliver the closing lines.

“From now on, whatever challenges you face, gambatte kudasai. I wish you all success and happiness. Goodbye. Thank you very much.”

[“gambatte kudasai” is an expression with no good translation. It’s just an encouragement to try hard and give it your best.]

I take my bow as the students applaud. The applause doesn’t sound particularly louder or more enthusiastic than typical school-assembly applause. I wasn’t expecting a standing ovation or anything, but now I’m uncertain as to whether the speech had been received well at all. I breathe a heavy sigh as I take my seat, trying to scan the crowd again for some indication, but from this vantage point it still just looks like a sea of expressionless faces.

Now the two of us stand up and a couple of students emerge from back-stage with bouquets of flowers. A first-grade boy hands one bouquet to the teacher’s aide, and a first-grade girl hands one to me. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever been given flowers by anyone.

We take our flowers and walk off the stage. As I pass by that line of students again I finally get a closer look at some faces, and am comforted as some of them nod and smile at me even more warmly than before. Some of them had already heard the first half, but some had never heard me speak that much Japanese before ever. None of them had ever heard the second half, but now regardless what they thought of it, all of them know how I feel about their school. That was the whole point—if they knew how much I appreciated it, they might appreciate it more. Their school might just be one of a hundred thousand Japanese schools, but at least to one American it’s something very special.

I thought we had to leave the gym, but the teacher’s aide stops when we’re halfway to the back so I stop too. I guess we can watch the other teachers make their speeches after all.

The ten of them file in and take their seats on the stage. The Kyoto-sensei says a few short words, then one of the second-grade girls—the one from 2-6 who nearly cried at my final lesson—gives a speech on behalf of the students thanking each of them individually. This is the first point in the day (it would not be the last) that I feel like I’m being excluded.

I’m glad they let me give my speech, but it bothers me to have to be separated from the “real” teachers. I know that my job title is Assistant Language Teacher, but I’m every bit as much of a teacher as they are, at least insofar as planning and executing lessons. I’m not begrudging them—I understand they outrank me because they went to school for it and they have their certificate—I’m just saying it makes me feel like less than them. Trey expressed the same sort of feeling to me last year, describing an experience at a school ceremony where they introduced all the teachers and made him stand at the very end of the line. No matter what you do or how hard you work, he said, you’ll always be beneath them because you’re not Japanese.

As each teacher makes his or her speech I begin to feel more trepidation about my own. Had my speech not been appropriate for a Japanese closing ceremony? Did I talk about my feelings too much? Was it too long? Most of these teachers aren’t speaking for as long as I did. Also, they’re not leaning into the podium to talk into the mike like I did, and their voices are carrying just fine. Had my voice been too loud? Did I look silly?

I try to push these nagging thoughts out of my mind and tell myself it’s fine. With over 600 people in the audience, I’m sure at least some of them appreciated my message, took my words to heart. Even if I only reached one of them, it was still worth it.

When all of the speeches are over, they stand up and the students sing them what I assume is the standard bon voyage song for Japanese schools because they’ve sung it at every assembly since the send-off. I didn’t get a song, but whatever. So it goes. At least I’ll always have that moment with 1-5, and that was a million times more special than this. This is just standard closing ceremony procedure. 1-5 had given me a song of their own collective volition because they appreciated me.

Again, I push the negative thoughts aside and try to focus on the weight of the moment. It is, after all, the last assembly at Togane Chu I’ll ever be at, the last time I’ll ever stand in this gym, and most significantly the last time I’ll ever hear these particular voices sing together. I get slightly choked up at this last thought, but the reality just isn’t hitting me.

I’m more focused on what’s about to come next. There are some graduates I didn’t get to say a proper farewell to on the day of graduation, and since this will be my last chance I’m counting on being able to catch them on their way out.

The window of opportunity for this will be short. The graduates will leave the gym right after the ceremony and while most will certainly hang around for a short while, many will simply leave school property immediately and I can’t be sure whether the important ones will be among them.

When the final song is over, the students are told to stand up and make an aisle. Another song is played on the piano as the teachers exit the stage and walk down this aisle of students to cheers of thank yous and good lucks. Another experience I’ve been denied, but now I’m on a mission.

I walk out of the gym for the last time with only a trace of acknowledgement of that fact. I quickly head to the teacher’s room and deposit my flowers on my desk, make as fast a trip to the restroom as possible, head downstairs, change into my outside shoes, and walk on out towards the gym doors.

I get there before anybody has left. Luckily, everything happens as planned. I get to say the things I wanted to say to the students I’d wanted to say them too.

Now my plan is to head back to the teacher’s room until homeroom is over and the other two grades begin leaving, then head outside to say my goodbyes to the underclasses. As soon as I get into the teacher’s room, I’m escorted back to the principal’s room where I take my seat on the couch and resume doing nothing. Nobody says anything about my speech this morning, but they hadn’t been in the gym at the time so it’s possible they didn’t hear it.

After just a few minutes, the halls starts filling with noise and I see through the window that the students are leaving. I turn to To-sensei, one of the JTEs who’s leaving, and ask her if it would be okay to go outside and say goodbye. She translates my question to the vice principal (S-sensei, the one who’ll be the principal at my next school) and he just says, “ii yo” which means “that’s fine”. I thank him and head right back outside.

Some students are already on their way off school property by the time I get out there, but the vast majority are still in the process of leaving. There’s a large group of girls from the school band standing just outside the exits, and I approach them and say hello. They’re all holding DVDs, which I’m told when I ask about them is a DVD of the Spring Concert. I say “hoshi!” (I want one!) but they say it costs money. I ask the girl holding the bag of them how much and go in for my wallet. But she says she doesn’t know, and then there’s some discussion among them and I figure I’ll just have to be content without a DVD. Kind of a shame, because in addition to the enormous sentimental value it would have, it was also just a damn fine concert. I couldn’t believe how great the band had sounded this year.

Students start riding by on their bicycles and I’m able to get warm goodbye after warm goodbye in all kinds of various forms: ‘see you’, ‘goodbye’, ‘see you again’, ‘bye bye’, ‘sayounara’, ‘ja ne’. Some students appear to appreciate that this is really goodbye, though for most it’s just like any other goodbye we’ve exchanged. I’m not really feeling the weight of it either, as not only do I know I’ll continue to keep seeing a bunch of them out and about, but I fully intend to come back and visit for Sports Day if it doesn’t conflict with my other schools (and maybe even if it does).

At one point a girl from the band—a former Team C regular—calls my name and hands me a DVD. “Present for you.” I’m overjoyed! I thank them and say in Japanese, “I’ll treasure it forever” which they get a huge kick out of. Soon enough, they get on their bikes and cycle away too.

When I get back to the teacher’s room, everyone who’d been in the principal’s room is back so I just find T-sensei to confirm what’s happening later. She’s in the conference room with her baby—always very strange to see her in the mother-role—and I tell her I’m going home now and ask her what time I should come back to be given a ride to the enkai.

She says it starts at 5:00 so I should be here by 4:30—maybe earlier, like 4:15. I say 4:15 then, and then I ask her if I’ll be giving a speech at the enkai because I had one prepared. Before this morning I’d just assumed that of course I would, but after having been excluded from the main part of the ceremony I was no longer certain. T-sensei asks the Kyoto-sensei and he says no, I will not be giving a speech. Well okay then. I guess I can relax now—my speechifying is done for the day.

I pass by Y-sensei on the way out. He was in charge of the school band this year, and I thought they were extraordinary. I was going to compliment him in my speech, but since I won’t be giving it I just tell him now in Japanese: “The brass band this year was great. The spring concert was wonderful!” He gives me a sincere thank you and I move on.

I gather my things, pick up my flowers, and prepare to leave the teacher’s room for what is probably the last time ever. I might come back inside when I return at 4:15, but I might not. As I’m about to leave I turn and give the standard formal goodbye one last time: “otsukare sama deshita” and while it’s usually only a handful who say it back, today it’s just about everyone.

I’m through the doors and down the stairs, still unsure if this is my last time in this building but not really feeling like it is. I intend to come back inside later. But when I take my outside shoes from their locker I don’t put my school shoes back inside. For the first time in a year and a half, they’re coming home with me.

As I make the short journey home I think about the enkai speech. My immediate reaction had been simple relief—that’s one less speech to worry about. But now it’s starting to bother me. Every departing teacher at last year’s enkai gave a speech, even the part-timers. Half of the teachers leaving this year have been at the school for less time than I have, only one year. Being asked to speak at the enkai is an honor, so not being asked feels like dishonor. Not to mention all those hours wasted preparing for it, not just on my part but on O-sensei’s part for doing the translation.

I resolve to ask to speak anyway—they might let me give the speech if they know I’ve prepared one. But it’s entirely possible that they don’t want me to speak—that my speech this morning had not been well-received by them, they found it too long and sentimental, and the last thing anyone would want would be to give the gaijin more access to the microphone. I’ll ask T-sensei to be honest with me. If that speech had in fact been inappropriate for Japan, I’d best know about it so I can avoid whatever mistakes I made next time.

It’s 11:00 a.m. when I get home. I open up the bouquet of flowers and put them in the vase I bought yesterday—the first time I’ve ever purchased such an article. Now there are flowers in my apartment—another first.

I devote the next hour to jogging. It’s nice to have one part of this day that’s completely routine—this is not the last time I’ll be doing this by a long shot.

After the jog and a very small lunch, I feel like going for a bike ride, so I go the route that takes one hour, and I’m back at my place at 3:30, just enough time to practice my speech a couple of times and listen to a few sentimental songs.

At 4:15 I take the final final walk across the street to Togane Chu, and step onto school property for the last time as that school’s ALT. I’m heading towards the building when one of the teachers pulls up in her car and offers me a ride. Well, I guess I won’t be going in the building again after all. I have in fact seen the last of that teacher’s room.

The teacher who gives me a ride is really nice, and not shy at all about talking to me. Because of my speech that morning, she probably has the impression that my Japanese is better than it actually is, but I hold my own pretty well. Knowing what kinds of questions to expect goes a long way. I tell her where I’ll be going to school next year, about needing the driver’s license and failing the test the first time. When we get near the place she tells me that my speech at the closing ceremony had been wonderful. She says it made her cry. Wow, well that’s quite a vote of encouragement. If I’d reached her, there’s no doubt I must have reached some students.

When I get inside I quickly realize it’s the same place that last year’s farewell enkai had been, though the tables are arranged somewhat differently. There are two sets of smaller tables in the front for the ten departing teachers and one for a part-time teacher who’d made her farewell speech at last week’s closing ceremony. I of course will be sitting at one of the back tables, but at least in the seat closest to the seats of honor.

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K-sensei is there helping to set up the room, and he hands me a bag of presents from the first-grade teachers which I’ll open later. Well, at least this is a nice gesture. He also compliments me on my speech, saying he was impressed that I used such complicated Japanese phrases. I thanked him and told him I was afraid it was too long, but he said it didn’t matter. Speeches can be as long as you want. This further eases my concerns.

When T-sensei arrives, I tell her that because I’d been expecting to speak at this event I’d written a speech for it and O-sensei had translated it. I hand her the paper with the speech and ask if she thinks it would be OK to give this kind of speech at this event. Her eyes appear to moisten, but she doesn’t know what to say. The tradition is only for the school’s teachers to give a speech. I ask her to be honest with me about my speech from the morning, that I’m worried it was too long and not really appropriate for a closing ceremony. She doesn’t say otherwise, but she says that it was very unusual and some of the teachers who will be leaving didn’t think I should have been given a chance to speak at all. She explains that before me, this school only hired ALTs from the JET program, and their contracts are from September to July so they were never among the departing teachers at the end of the school-year. I tell her that if the tradition is only for the real teachers to give speeches, I understand. She can sense my disappointment, and very carefully suggests that after the speeches are over and the kampai is made, there’s a period where everyone just eats and talks and maybe they’d let me give my speech then. I thank her and take my seat, not at all hopeful about the prospects.

I sit there in silence for a good twenty minutes, feeling as much like an outsider as ever. I think about my speech from this morning and all that talk about my feelings of fondness for this school, which now seems rather ironic. I suppose it’s merely my time here, my love of teaching and the warmth of the students that I loved. When I come to think of it, the faculty in general—though there were exceptions—never really made me feel like a part of the team.

At 5:00, we all stand up and applaud as the honored guests arrive. I like most of these teachers a lot—I wonder which of them were saying I shouldn’t have been allowed to speak at the closing ceremony. I can’t imagine any of them saying that.

The principal, who is sitting directly across from me, makes a short speech, and then the ten departing teachers take the stage one by one to give their speeches. The teacher’s aide from the morning isn’t here, so I don’t know if she would have been included if she’d been here, but I’m guessing she would because the part-timer is.

I listen respectfully to each one of them, then it’s time for the kampai, which is good because I could really use a drink at this point.

K-sensei is the first to come pour me a drink and talk. He asks me what school I’ll be going to next and I tell him the one I expect even though I’m not 100% sure. He says that’s a very small school, just over a hundred students, but it’s in the rich part of town so it’s mostly very good students. I’m not sure why this is—do rich people have smarter children? Maybe they just expect more from them. In any case, I do like the sound of it. He also tells me the name of the new ALT for Togane Chu—Lola something. I was hoping it would be someone I know, but it’s not. He’s not sure if she’s brand new or transferring in from somewhere else.

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I’m already feeling a little better, and as various teachers come up to me to refill my drink and exchange a few words, it slowly chips away at my forlornness. Most of them compliment me on my speech from the morning, asking what I’d done to prepare. They all ask me what school I’ll be going to, and I tell them what I expect it will be. They tell me S-sensei will be the principal there and I say I know and I’m very happy about that.

In terms of making me feel welcome, S-sensei always did. He always greeted me with a smile and would compliment me on occasion for my hard work. He even mentioned me in his speech at the Christmas enkai, saying he’d missed me during my visa-related absence.

Conversely, the principal of the school never said two words to me. Even at this enkai, when we’re seated across from each other the entire time, he doesn’t say a thing. He might just be one of those educators who thinks ALTs in general are unnecessary and a waste of money. Perhaps it was actually he who said he didn’t think I should speak at the closing ceremony, and T-sensei had just told me it was a teacher out of deference to the principal.

But as teacher after teacher comes up to me and talks, the chip on my shoulder over being excluded breaks down and I remember that I actually do really like [most of] these people and I’m going to miss seeing them every day. The mood-warming effects of the alcohol aren’t hurting either.

At one point I head to the back-room for a cigarette and the Kyoto-sensei is there. I hadn’t planned on this, but when I hear them talking about the upcoming speeches I figure “what the hell?” and tell him in Japanese that I’d written a speech for this enkai and had been practicing it for a week. I ask him to take a look at it and tell me if he thinks it’s okay for me to give it if there’s time. He takes the paper and starts reading, his face breaking into a smile immediately at the opening joke. This appears to be going well. He scans the rest of the paper then hands it back to me, saying “OK, you will go last.”

Splendid. Sometimes you just have to have the will. I could have just sat sulking all night but I went for it and now it would appear I’ll get that moment I’d been hoping for. The downside though is that now I’ve got to go back to being nervous about messing up again. The alcohol helps with that, but it also might increase my chances of messing up.

Vice Principal S-sensei acknowledges me as he heads to the restroom. Word has gotten to him that I’ll probably be transferring to the same school as him. He says he’ll see me next week when I come to introduce myself to the faculty, and I tell him I’m looking forward to it.

The next teacher to come up and pour me a drink is O-sensei, the teacher who taught 3-4 and who I’d accidentally insulted at the Chorus Contest enkai and later corrected my mistake through T-sensei at the graduation enkai. He’s the same age as me, and I always thought he didn’t like me. But we proceed to have what is actually the most pleasant of all my conversations of the night. He’s among the departing teachers, one whom I thought might have had a problem with my speaking in the morning, but now I’m all but certain it couldn’t have been him. After asking me about what schools I’m going to he asks me if it’s difficult to say goodbye to Togane Chu. I tell him it is, and that I’d talked about it in my speech in the morning. He and the other departing teachers hadn’t heard it, but he says that some of his students had told him it was really good. That’s great to hear. I repeat the lines about this being the first school I ever taught at and that it will always have a special place in my heart. He says he feels the same way about his first school, but he loves this school too because he’s been here for five years and taught the same group of students for the last two: 2-4 which became 3-4. I tell him again how amazing their improvement had been from last year to this and he thanks me again. I say there were a lot of great students in that class, and proceed to rattle off some names starting with K-. He laughs and tells me yes, he was the number one student! S-. I hit the mark again, she was number two. M- (from the speech contest). Three in a row—Yes, yes, she’s a very smart, wonderful student. We pause for a moment, each remembering our time with that class, then he takes his leave with a gambatte kudasai.

That might have been the most real conversation I’ve ever had in Japanese.

The next thing I know it’s time for the second set of speeches. This time, each faculty member who’s leaving is given a speech by a faculty member who’s staying, sometimes very sincere and emotional but often filled with fun-poking humor. The departing teacher is then given a moment to respond, and the next two teachers take the stage.

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When the last of the ten are finished, everyone thinks they’re about to get back to eating, but no. They hand me the microphone, and it’s announced that Kyle-sensei has a short speech he’d like to give in Japanese.

My head’s a little swimming from the beer, but I manage to flawlessly deliver the opening line I memorized: “Everyone, I’m sorry. I used up all my Japanese at the closing ceremony.” Much to my delight, this is greeted with uproarious laughter. (Roberto Benigni, I owe you one.)

“However, there are still a few things I want to say.” I remove the speech from my coat pocket and say, “Please forgive me for reading this one.”

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The adrenaline is pumping and I stumble over a few phrases, but I manage to get through it all well enough.

“I became an English teacher because I wanted to experience life in many different countries. Teaching was just a means to an end. I came to Japan because I was interested in the culture, but this job has been the best part of my life here. Teaching kids is more wonderful than I ever imagined. One day I will return to America, and I don’t know what kind of teacher I want to be, but I now know that I always want to be a teacher.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. Togane Chugakkou is the best place I’ve ever worked. When I was stuck in America because of my expired visa…” I trip over the next words but it doesn’t matter because the mention of my visa has everyone laughing loudly again, “…I missed Japan, but I missed Togane Chugakkou more. Teachers and faculty, thank you for everything.”

I put down the paper and they applaud, perhaps thinking I’m finished but I’m not. This is just the part where I thank a few teachers individually. This I do in English, but in simple enough language that I know most of them will understand.

DSCF2821“O-sensei, M-sensei,” they each say “hai” as I call their names, “thank you for your work on the undokai [Sports Day], it was one of the best days of the year.” Applause.

“Y-sensei, the brass band this year was wonderful.” More applause. “And you taught 3-6 all year and didn’t go crazy! You have my respect.” As 3-6 is the most notoriously loud, wild, and unruly class in the school, this generates the most uproarious laughter.

“To-sensei, K-sensei,” (the other two JTEs), “we only worked together for a short time, but I really enjoyed our lessons together. You’re both great teachers.”

“Finally, T-sensei.” She looks tearful as she acknowledges me. “You were with me since the beginning. You helped me adjust to the school and to life in Japan. I’ll always be grateful to you.” Applause. “I probably asked you a million questions last year but you were always very patient and kind. Thank you. I’ll miss you.”

Back to Japanese now. “Everyone,” I unfold the speech and deliver the final words. “Your hard work and professionalism were an inspiration to me. I am very sad to leave, but I’m looking forward to experiencing life at other schools. I hope they are as wonderful as Togane Chugakko. For these two years, thank you very much.”

I bow, they applaud, I step down from the stage. Mission accomplished. I’d done what I came here to do. My worries had been unfounded—the speech could not have been more well-received.

As we approach the end of the formal party, many teachers come up to tell me it was a great speech. The principal across from me still doesn’t say anything, but I’m beyond caring. I’m just glad I was able to let them all know that even though I may not be a “real” teacher, I fully intend to be one.

Before I know it, we’re standing in a circle to sing the school song one last time. That was the first Japanese text I memorized, but this time no one is surprised to see me singing along with it perfectly.

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The ceremonial end-of-party clap is made, then the teachers stand in two lines and make an arch with their arms, which the departing teachers pass under one by one. After getting that picture I stand back and just clap for them as they go, but one of the teachers tells me I should be the last one through the “Japanese arch”. Well, I’ll be damned. I’m being included!

I grab my bag of presents and head through the arch with a full heart. K-sensei grabs me and kisses my cheek in an exaggerated, joking-fashion. Everyone laughs and I give him a friendly pat on the back before proceeding through the arch, out the door, down the stairs, and out of the building.

When T-sensei comes outside I ask her if she’s going to the after-party and she is. I say that in case I don’t get to talk to her there, I want to ask her to e-mail me when she knows when Togane Chu’s undokai this year will be. She says they put posters up in stores around town, but she’ll e-mail me because it would be great if I came to visit.

H-sensei is the first to offer me a ride to the karaoke after-party, so I ride in his passenger’s seat as M-sensei (one of the two in charge of the undokai) rides in the back. He compliments me on the notes I wrote to the students, which he says were “very clear”. I’m not sure if he means my penmanship or that the English was simple enough for the meaning to be clear, but I thank him for the compliment.

The karaoke place this time is a very conspicuous bright-orange building I pass by on my jogging route and always assumed was a cheap motel. Turns out it’s actually cheap karaoke instead. I’m seated between T-sensei and one of the young departing teachers. She asks me what song I want to sing and I decide to stick with something I already know plays well with a Japanese audience: “Hey Jude”. I thought there were a lot more songs cued up before that one, but it turns out there’d only been one. So I’m going second, and though my voice is a little rusty I get through it okay, making sure to replace the name “Jude” with “Togane Chu” half-way through the song, and get a bunch of people singing, “Na na na na Togane Chu” at the end.

Nothing particularly noteworthy happens during this phase. It’s just good old fashioned fun, the teachers at their utmost loose and wild, clapping to the music and woo-wooing and all that good stuff. The departing vice principal S-sensei always refuses to sing, but after a couple of hours they finally get him to give in and he’s of course tremendously well-received just for doing it.

When they hand me the song-selection device again I again go with one I’ve done before—the same song I did at last year’s farewell enkai karaoke: “Bohemian Rhapsody”. That middle section is tough but I pull it off better this time, and of course my head-banging generates plenty of laughter and woo-woos.

A bit later, I ask T-sensei what other English bands are popular in Japan, and she suggests Oasis. I find Oasis on the device and ask her what song she thinks would be the best to do, and she picks “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. Hmmm…somewhat of a theme for the day, isn’t it? I somehow manage to sing this one really well—perhaps more beer actually does improve the vocal chords—and everyone is really into it and applauding throughout.

After that I know the party is approaching its end. The weight of the reality that had been failing to hit me all day is now bearing down on me, and as I look around the room at all these people having this fun and awesome time together, my eyes start to well up with tears. I’m not drunk because I’ve been pacing myself very consciously, but at this point I’ve definitely had enough to soften me up emotionally to the point where the presence of others is no longer enough to prevent me from crying.

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This is really the end now. A year and a half—it felt more like two years but still went by in a flash—and it’s all over now. The last song will be sung any minute, then we’re all going to leave and this group of colleagues will never work together again. I’ll officially no longer be a part of my first and most special school.

The moment comes. The music stops, the lights come up. T-sensei offers to drive me home, and I gladly accept. My eyes must be completely red. I’m sniffling all over the place. At least everyone knows why this is difficult for me thanks to my speeches, so I’m not embarrassed—just profoundly sad.

A handful of teachers make another “Japanese arch” with their arms and all of the departing teachers including me go through again.

Goodbyes are exchanged in the parking lot and the next thing I know I’m in T-sensei’s passenger seat with O-sensei in the back. I’m glad it’s him because he’s in an emotional state as well.

We arrive at my building. T-sensei stops the car. It’s time to go. “Thank you so much for everything,” I tell her again. “You really helped me a lot.”

Her eyes are moist as she says, “Thank you. You really helped me.” She tells me she’ll e-mail me when she knows when Sports Day will be—and I say that would be great because I really want to come back and visit.

O-sensei extends his hand to me and we exchange goodbyes with mutual respect and empathy. I give T-sensei one last goodbye and step out of the car. She pulls away.

As I make my way to my door, there’s Togane Chugakko in full view. I’ve seen it every single day since I’ve lived here. Now for the first time ever, it’s not my school anymore. By the time I get inside, I’m practically bawling.

I unfold my bed and sit down on it. I might as well open this bag of presents. There are some nicely-wrapped gifts including memo-pads and some kind of special soap-product, but the best gift is just wrapped up in newspaper.

Oh my god, is this what I think it is? Yes, it is. Since my first day at the school, the super-friendly janitor H-san has always poured my green tea they serve with school-lunch in a special ceramic cup and handed it to me personally. This took on a great deal of sentimental value to the point where the last time I drank from it I was sad to let it go. They’d given me the cup.

Now I can’t stop crying.

I put on some more music and drink several glasses of water, just letting the emotions run their course before finally getting into bed and falling asleep.

I learned more today than almost any other day of my life.

Epic Return, part 2

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

I’m back at school for my first full day since before summer break, enjoying all this down-time I have in which to do things like write blog entries. I’ll just pick up right where I left off in the last entry.

I’d been a little worried about the weather when I landed in Thursday and the rain continued non-stop throughout the night, but by the time I went for my jog that morning it had already cleared up and has been sunny and beautiful ever since. I was very glad about that on Friday as it meant everyone would be in a slightly better mood than otherwise.

I knew that when I went in I should probably say something formally to the school administrators, so I composed a little speech in my head and practiced it a few dozen times before going in. I kept it simple enough to do in Japanese, and it basically went like this: “Hello, everyone. For my absence, I deeply apologize. I look forward to working here again.”

I was finished with my jogging and grocery shopping with about an hour to spare before going in, so I used the time to take a little cat-nap while practicing my speech every couple of minutes. Before I knew it 2:00 was upon me, so I put on a suit and tie for the first time in months and proceeded to make my way to the school.

I didn’t want to arrive during the hectic period between classes so I timed it so I’d arrive just as the final period of the day was starting. I didn’t expect to see any students on the way in, but there were some in the window of the second-floor music room looking out as I approached, and they were the first to spot me and wave hello. I could already feel my spirits lifting, and they were high enough already.

The hallways were empty as I entered the building, slipped into my school-shoes, and walked upstairs to the teacher’s room. When I entered there were a handful of teachers there who were quite unaware that I’d be coming, and they all greeted me with surprise and friendly hellos. Two of the three main administrators were missing, so the only one there was the guy who just started this year. I walked up to him and delivered my speech flawlessly, he thanked me and we gave each other the formal yoroshiku onegaishimasu and that was that.

I then awkwardly walked back to my desk, which was of course covered with Heath’s stuff. I’d been expecting O-sensei to be there, the one I’ll be working with from now on, but she was apparently in a lesson with the special needs students at the time. One of the other teachers offered to take me down to say hello to her, but on our way downstairs Heath was coming upstairs. We decided I could just talk to him until O-sensei was ready, so we went back to the teacher’s room and finally got to know each other a little bit.

He explained the kind of stuff he’s been doing while they were gone, which apparently consisted almost exclusively of textbook work with a few scattered game days here and there. I told him the whole story of how I ended up in the visa situation in the first place, and regarding Interac’s part in it he said he wasn’t surprised. He’s only been working for them for a few years out of the 17 he’s been here, but he’s known people who’ve worked for them since they first started and has heard plenty of stories. No further comment there.

I was definitely glad to get a chance to talk to him and get a sense of the guy. He’s definitely a good guy and I’m no longer thinking of him as some kind of threat. He told me all about the speech contest, how all the students did well but M- was the only one who won something. He said Y- gave a great speech (the one I wrote for her) but she leaned on the podium the whole time so that might have cost her some points. As for the first-graders, he said they were robbed, that they did fantastic but all the prizes went to others, some of whom clearly didn’t deserve them.

I asked him how he’d compare this school to other schools he’s worked at and he said his favorite was a much smaller school of just 150 students because there was more of an intimacy that could develop between the students and teachers than where there are 600, but he said he had a great time here as well and the students are very friendly.

He speaks fluent Japanese but he did his best to keep that secret from the students. I was kind of happy to hear that, as now the little bit of Japanese I know can still manage to impress them.

As we were talking, a few scattered students would come and go into the teacher’s room and they were all surprised and happy to see me, which of course felt wonderful. More started coming when student cleaning time began, and I told Heath I was tempted to go out and say hello to everyone, to which he said he understood completely and to go for it.

The next fifteen minutes were absolute bliss wrapped in joy and smothered in ecstasy, as I wandered the halls and watched all my student’s faces light up with surprise and happiness to see me. Naturally, some were more enthusiastic than others but the ones I like the most tended to be the ones most delighted by my sudden reappearance. I pretty much stuck to the third-grade hallway, but stuck my head in a few first-grade classrooms as well once cleaning time was coming to an end. The second-graders haven’t been especially warm to me so far this year, so I didn’t bother going through that hallways and used most of my time to chat with the third-grade students who wanted to come chat with me.

Suffice it to say, any worries I had about my absence causing my students to cool off towards me went right out the window. My absence actually seemed to have quite the opposite effect, as it would seem to have made their hearts grow fonder of me just as mine did of them. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with joy by the time I was finished that it almost seemed to me that the entire nearly two-month-long wait had been worth it. If I’d just come back to work on the first day of school as planned, I would certainly not have been treated to such an incredibly warm greeting.

On a bit of a funny note, many of the students told me I look like I lost weight. I wanted to say, “That can’t be true, do you have any idea what my diet was like in America? I must have consumed more cheese in those two and a half months than the whole year I spent in Japan.” I took the compliment anyway, but I suspect I only look thinner by comparison with my sumo-wrestling replacement.

He was packing his stuff up to go when I got back to the teacher’s room, explaining that they’d told him since I was now here he no longer needed to stay. Once O-sensei had seen him off, she came back to discuss next week’s lessons with me. It’s not a normal week because the students have their Chorus Contest on Friday, which is why I’m not teaching every class and I’m doing games instead of textbook lessons. Whatever the reason, it’s fine by me.

I sat at my desk with my computer out, planning the games for next week just like old times and appreciating every minute of it. I wasn’t getting paid for the day but I couldn’t care less about that. I was going to stay until after school time and then go walk around some more, which is exactly what I did and got more super-warm welcomes from some of the sports teams practicing, one of which even gave me a thunderous round of applause.

I left in some of the best spirits I’ve ever been in my life, and totally pumped for starting lessons again on Monday. Unfortunately it’s only going to be two classes and they’re both second-graders, so it won’t be as awesome as it could be, but I’m sure they’re going to like my games and it’s going to be awesome in any case.

On Saturday I spent most of the day getting my remaining affairs in order, and in the evening I had my reunion party. Kim and Enam showed up with three of their friends, two of whom I’d met before at the hanami and one of which was the Japanese girlfriend of one of the two. Stacy came a few moments later, and for awhile we just hung out at my place and chatted. The last person to come was Atsushi, a Japanese guy who speaks decent English and whom I’ve met on several occasions before, so I was glad he came as well.

Because there were eight of us and I’d only reserved a table for five at Dohtonbori, the okonomiyaki place I really like, we had to change dinner plans because on Saturday night there was not enough room to squeeze the extras in. We ended up going out for ramen at the place right next door that just recently opened.

Atsushi had to go after that, but the rest of us went back to my place for another drink before heading out to a relatively inexpensive karaoke bar which is right across the street but I’d never noticed before. Togane apparently has a ridiculous amount of karaoke bars, but still not a single normal bar.

With the exception of Stacy who doesn’t drink the rest of us proceeded to get quite drunk and sing all kinds of songs as loudly and belligerently as we could. I’d never do karaoke in America but in Japan you get your own private room so you’re only embarrassing yourself in front of your own friends, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun.

Once our time was up we stumbled into a convenience store to buy some snacks, which we proceeded to devour back at my place before everyone else went home and I crashed on my bed to wake up the following morning with the obligatory-yet-completely-expected hangover. At least the party served its purpose though, as I was up late enough and woke up late enough to feel like I’m pretty much over the jet-lag. I did have to struggle to stay awake until 10:00 last night though, but I made it and although I woke up at 5:30 this morning it wasn’t too inconvenient, as I wanted to go jogging at 6:30 since it’s now that time of year where it’s getting dark as soon as school ends so I’ve got to go in the mornings now.

But aside from the early sunset it still feels like summer here. In America the leaves were already brown, many trees already bare, and the weather cold enough to keep the windows closed and maybe even fire up the heat at night, but the climate here is noticeably warmer. All the leaves are still on the trees and you can still be comfortable in a T-shirt during the day, so that’s nice.

And now I’m back at school and about to start teaching again in a little less than an hour.

It’s several hours later, so I’ve already had my first lessons. The first one went better than I expected with more enthusiasm from the students than I usually expect from the second-graders, but the second was much quieter and less into it. Still, it felt great to be up in front of that classroom again, and the games went over quite nicely. It should be much better tomorrow when I’ve got some of my favorite classes in the school.

The teachers are having a meeting this afternoon so all of the students are leaving an hour early, which means no Team C today but hopefully tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that as much as anything else, though it’s been so long I can’t be sure anyone at all is going to show up.

In any case, I’m back, it feels great, and (knock on wood) it looks as though there’s nothing but good things on the horizon.

Epic Return, part 1

October 19th, 2012 No comments

Yesterday was what you might call a long day, beginning with me waking up at 4:00 a.m. in America and ending with me going to sleep at 9:30 p.m. the next calendar date on the other side of the planet. But I am BACK in my apartment in Togane, Japan and couldn’t be more thrilled to be here.

I had two flights yesterday, the first a 6-hour trip from Newark to Vancouver through Air Canada. That flight was mostly filled with white English-speakers like myself, but as soon as I got to the departure gate for my flight from Vancouver to Narita the entire atmosphere changed. There was a group of about fifty Japanese schoolgirls waiting to board the flight with me, and just about everyone else waiting was also Japanese. Just like that, I was back in the cultural minority. Listening to all those girls banter incomprehensibly all around me, I couldn’t stop myself from grinning at the sound, as they sounded exactly like my students. Of course they weren’t my students, otherwise half of them would be smiling and waving at me and a handful would be coming over to try and communicate, but it won’t be long before I get to experience that unique sort of pleasantness again.

While waiting in Vancouver I took out my iPhone to charge it through one of the USB-chargers they had at some of the airport seats, and discovered to my dismay that it was broken. I’d packed it in a stupid place and it was busted up and wouldn’t charge. That would make things more difficult upon my return, but I immediately sent an e-mail to my phone provider using the airport’s wireless service to hopefully get the ball rolling on a replacement a.s.a.p.

But I did have some good luck by getting a window seat for the second flight even though no window seats had been available to reserve, and I found myself sitting next to a very serious-looking Japanese guy in a suit. One of the flight attendants came by to ask me if I was travelling alone and if I’d be willing to switch with someone seated in the emergency exit row who didn’t want to be there, and I said sorry but I was perfectly happy here. The guy next to me chuckled, so apparently he spoke English. We chatted briefly, and he turned out to be one of the guys in charge of the student group. Apparently it was an all-girl class trip in which they’d spent the week all split up staying with different families in a nearby town. Why they’d pick some obscure Canadian town out of all the places in the world for a class trip I have no idea, but it was interesting because I never knew high school students did things like that before.

The flight was ten long hours, but I came prepared this time, all set and ready to go with an addictive strategy computer game to make the time fly by. But I was only a half-hour into it when a flight attendant came up to me and said I couldn’t use my wireless mouse because it was a transmitter and therefore prohibited, and the game is such that you can’t really play it without a mouse. All I could think was, “Are you kidding me? My little mouse is going to throw our entire flight off course?” But hey, even the slightest chance of it causing anything to go even slightly wrong is motivation enough for me to shut the thing off. Luckily I’d also packed a game controller that was not wireless, so I could play some Super Nintendo emulator instead whenever I needed a break from A Song of Ice and Fire on my Kindle.

The weather was crappy when we made our approach but it was a magnificent feeling when we broke out of the cloud cap and Japanese soil finally came into view. It was a slightly rough landing but there must have been a mile-wide grin on my face when we finally touched down. I still had a long way to go to my apartment, but at least I was back on my beloved “semi-solid ground”.

Then came the Moment of Truth. Immigration. This is what I waited two months for, for the sticker in my passport that would let me through the gates. I wait in line until I finally step up to the counter. The immigration officer looks at my visa and asks me if I understand Japanese. Uh oh. What’s this now? I tell him “sukoshi” (a little) and he says in broken English that because I’m staying for one year I need to go through the Priority Line at the end of the room.

So I line up there and when the time came I step up and nervously hand my documents to the lovely immigration officer there, fully expecting complications. Lo and behold, she takes the documents, inputs some info into her system, prints out a new alien registration card and gives me the green light to go through all without me having to say a single word. That happened so fast it felt absurd. I waited two months for the bureaucrats to process what I needed for immigration, and I was through in literally two minutes.

Not that I was complaining of course. It exhilarating to finally be back in Japan as legally as can be. No more bureaucratic bullshit for a whole year! And you can’t even imagine how on top of the visa renewal process I’m going to be when the times comes.

It took awhile for my baggage to appear at the baggage claim but not long enough to get me really worried. There was still major relief when they finally showed up, and as soon as the customs guy let me through and out into the public section of the airport, I knew I was home free.

I still had the money I’d put on my Suica card for the return train journey I was supposed to have taken back in August, so I just breezed through into the station and found my train. An hour later I was in Chiba, and from there it was routine—Chiba to Oami, Oami to Togane. I arrived at the home-base platform at 7:10 p.m.

It was raining as I dragged my luggage the fifteen-minute trip up the road to my apartment, but I was smiling the entire time. This was where I’d been longing to be for the last two months and now I was actually here! There’s the karaoke bar! There’s the supermarket! There’s the post-office! Holy crap, there’s my school! And there’s my beautiful beautiful apartment building!

Now for the next moment of truth. I take out my key, insert it into the lock, and twist. Ah, never has a clicking sound sounded more magnificent! I open the door, and there’s the power switch on the wall. Let’s see if Interac really handled the situation as they said they would. If the electric company cut me off, it was too late in the evening to get it fixed before the morning, so I’d have to be in the dark all night. I flick the switch. Nothing…crap…wait…there it is! Apparently it just needed a split second to wake up after all those weeks of hibernation.

In come the bags, off comes my sweat-drenched shirt. And into my brain strikes the reality that I’M HOME!!!!!! I find myself laughing almost hysterically with joy, even hugging the wall with appreciation. It’s still here! It’s still clean! And it’s not even stuffy and stinky!

All that remains is to check the water and make sure I still have internet service. I twist the hot water valve of my kitchen sink, and it too needs a moment to realize what’s happening before it comes gushing out of the faucet in a magnificent cascade of hydration-replenishing goodness. Now let’s just make sure it gets hot…waiting…waiting…still waiting. Hmm. Maybe the gas just needs more time to wake up than the electricity and water, so I leave the faucet running. A minute later and still…no hot water. The gas has been shut off. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

At least based on my experience, the Japanese are pretty good about taking care of these things in a very timely fashion, so I should at least have hot water for a shave and shower by the time I head into school tomorrow.

I unpack the computer and fire up the modem. I need to re-enter all the security information but luckily I’ve got that readily available, so I’m back online in a matter of minutes. I send Interac an e-mail to let them know I’m back but in need of hot water, and I get an e-mail from my phone provider about replacing the damaged iPhone.

I don’t know if you remember the story of my lost iPhone a year ago, but I’d been using an older model after I thought I’d lost the iPhone 4, but the iPhone 4 magically appeared weeks later so I’ve had that the whole time. That makes this much easier, as instead of waiting for a whole new phone I just need a new sim-card, as the one for the old model won’t fit in the model 4. Kind of funny that now I’ll actually be going back to use the iPhone I originally bought in the first place. Now it no longer feels ridiculous to have two of the damn things, and I’m glad no one took me up on my offer to buy one from me over the last year!

I’m starving, and I know there’s a KFC right up the road but I’m exhausted and I’ve still got some instant Ramen. It’s an electric stove so I’m capable of cooking that, and that’s what I do for dinner as I finish the rest of the unpacking.

It’s about 9:30 when I consider myself done for the day, and I unfold my bed, curl up under the covers, take a moment to squeeze one last ounce of appreciation from being back, and fall fast asleep.

I woke up a few times during the night and although my body might have been telling me it was the afternoon, I was still exhausted enough to get back to sleep and not wake up permanently until about 5:30, though I still laid there in a half-conscious state until 7:30 when the noises from the elementary school marching band began blaring. That’s going to get annoying again real quick, but today it was a welcome sound.

I was able to call Interac through Skype, and right now it looks like the gas man should be coming around 11:00 and I don’t even need to be here when he does, so that’s convenient. Everything is all set up for me to head into the school at 2:20 p.m., which is after the last period Heath and O-sensei are teaching and right before the last period of the day, so I figured that was the best time to go in. Interac is also going to send someone to the school at that time to meet me, so we can get all the remaining loose ends tied up including what bills I need to pay, as there was quite the substantial pile on my floor when I got back.

And now as soon as I’m done posting this blog entry I’m going to head out for a run. After two months of running an entirely uphill/downhill route it should feel like the easiest thing in the world to get back to my completely flat route, and I’ve missed this route as much as anything else here so it’s going to feel fantastic.

By the time I’m back the gas should be on so I can shave and shower, then I’ll head to the supermarket to stock up on everything I need in terms of groceries…which is pretty much everything there is. Hell, I even miss the supermarket so I’m going to thoroughly enjoy that too!

Of course what I’m most looking forward to is heading into school, and you should expect an entry on what that was like soon. I’ll have the weekend to recover from jet-lag, have a nice little reunion get-together with some friends Saturday night, and be as ready as I can be to teach again starting Monday.

With regards to that, I actually received my schedule for next week when I checked my e-mail in Vancouver. Usually the schedule has which class and which lesson from the textbook you’ll be teaching, but this schedule was different. I’m only teaching about 2/3 of the classes so that’s a little disappointing, but there’s just one word underneath each class I’m teaching and it’s the same word for each class: “games”. Jack-fucking-pot!

It means I get free reign to do absolutely anything I want in all these classes, who have presumably been longing for my games so much while I’m gone that the teachers decided my first lesson back should just be pure unfettered fun. And pure unfettered fun is exactly what they’re going to get! Of course no matter how much the students enjoy those classes I’m certain I’ll be enjoying them more.

Usually when you come back from a vacation the hardest part is going back to work, but as far as I’m concerned Monday can’t come fast enough!

Back in Business

April 26th, 2012 No comments

A couple of entries ago I mentioned that one day during the first week of school (in which I didn’t have to go in but went most days anyway) I rode my bicycle to the beach and took a great deal of pictures which I’d post to the blog whenever I had some time to kill at work. Somehow, I haven’t had much time to kill yet, and when I have I’ve been using it to study Japanese. But for the last three days of this week there are no classes in the afternoon, I just learned 20 new Kanji, and now seems like a good time to finally tackle that project. But first, let’s just get the journal up-to-date.

The reason there are no afternoon classes is somewhat interesting. In Japan, all of the homeroom teachers visit the homes of each of their students. The main reason is so that they know the locations of their students’ homes in case of an emergency, but it also gives them a chance to talk privately with the students’ parents, which can be valuable for any number of reasons. I’ve never heard of this happening in America but I suppose it probably does in some places, maybe with certain private schools. In any case I think it’s a good idea.

As for how things have been going for me with teaching so far, I’m happy to finally be back in the swing of things. I’ve met with every class at least once so far and most of the first-grade classes twice. The second-graders have been a little disappointing in their enthusiasm to see me, but there are logical reasons for this. For starters, when they were first-graders I barely met with them at all—it was only about 20 minutes every two weeks. They never really got comfortable with me. Second of all, the teacher for most of those classes, To-sensei, is apparently one of those teachers accustomed to using the ALT as a human tape-recording. She ran the first half of the class like a normal boring “repeat after me” and “please practice writing” English lesson, and only brought me in for the second half by which time the students were sufficiently zonked out. The lack of a warm-up at the beginning really makes a huge difference. My game managed to get them loosened up a little bit by the end, but unfortunately the game wasn’t as strong as I’d thought it would be so the whole first week was a bit of a let-down with them. However, I’ve got what I’m fairly certain is really strong stuff planned for next week, and I’m hoping To-sensei will let me have the entire lesson. She teaches one third-grade class, 3-1 (formerly 2-6, one of my favorites), and that’s tomorrow first-period, the only class I’ve yet to meet with. Because she’s not in charge of third-grade classes she has nothing planned so I’ll get to execute the entire lesson on my own, and hopefully demonstrate that I can do more than just make worksheets and games.

As for the third-grade lessons, I’ve been pretty happy with them. These kids were my favorites even last year, I saw them more often than any of the others, and they’ve been very warm and enthusiastic in welcoming me back. I start with a warm-up in which I teach the kids the English greeting “What’s up?” in a fun way that gets them loosened up. Then I do the presentation phase in which I introduce one of the most annoying aspects of English grammar for foreigners—the dreaded Present Perfect tense—and while I stumbled a bit with my explanations at first, now that I’ve done it five times I’ve gotten pretty good at getting the kids to understand with a bare minimum of help from the JTE, who in most cases is T-sensei. It’s nice to be teaching alongside her again, one of the only bits of continuity with the last school-year. But I also had one third-grade class with K-sensei, which went so well it made me wish I had all my third-grade classes with him. I play a couple of games they really get into and end on a high note, feeling like I actually managed to teach something they’ll remember. In any case, whereas students always used to greet me with just a “Hello” some of them are now saying, “What’s up?” which is pretty awesome.

Also of note, this morning I saw one of the third-grade girls crying to her friend in the hallways before another class. Two periods later when I was teaching her class, I could tell she was still very sad but by the end of my first game I actually had her smiling and clapping. There are few things on earth more gratifying than that.

As for the first-graders, the novelty of me hasn’t worn off on them yet and I continue to be greeted with absurd levels of enthusiasm whenever I walk into a first-grade classroom. This week’s lesson, in addition to teaching “What’s up?” has just been a phonics review, which I found a few fun ways to do and it keeps the kids active and excited throughout the whole class period—sometimes too excited. The lessons with K-sensei have been particularly lively, as the two of us seem to just naturally work really well together.

And so the school-year feels back in full-swing, but it’s going to be short-lived. Next week is “Golden Week”, a week in Japan in which a bunch of holidays just happen to fall and most offices are closed most of the days. We only have school on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, and the rest is free. I’ll be staying after for “Team C” both days, but I have no idea how many students will come. Judging by their reaction when I introduce the club at the end of class, I don’t think very many will come by at first, but hopefully it will build as word-of-mouth spreads.

As for non-academic activities, I might be going clubbing with Trey on Sunday night (I’ll know for sure tomorrow) and at some point during the next long weekend there’s a chance I might be going back into Tokyo to meet a girl that I actually met through Corey, as she met him when he worked at a music store in Santa Barbara and she was vacationing there. They’ve been in sporadic contact ever since and just this past week he recommended I connect with her through Facebook. I did and we’ve been exchanging messages with English and Japanese mixed together for the past few days. She seems like a delightful person and I’m looking forward to hanging out with her, so we’ll see how that goes. Whatever happens, it should be good Japanese practice.

So that’s all for the written portion of this entry. Now let’s journey back in time exactly two weeks and take a look at some pictures I took of my area while riding to the beach and back during prime cherry-blossom season. The cherry-blossoms are almost all gone already, so I’m glad I got these pictures when I could.

———-

This is the view from the parking lot behind my building. Beyond the fence is the elementary school sports field.

The journey begins.

The quaint little Japanese neighborhood I discovered a few weeks ago.

 Typical neighborhood street. One of those strange cats I keep hearing about. That cat stared at me for a solid five minutes while I took pictures. Quaint. Cherry trees along a "busy" road. The river far inland. Lovely yard. Cherry orchard?

The fields are absolutely gorgeous after it rains, as the water remains settled for days and leads to some spectacular scenery. Moist fields. Hard to believe it's still solid land. Japanese flavor all over the place. Sometimes I still can't believe I live here. As beautiful as a German cemetary. Another giant puddle.

Look-out at Kujukuri beach. Beach parking lot on a weekday afternoon!

When I got to the beach, there was almost nobody there but a couple of women and some kids they were watching.  These giant sand-hills were never there before and I haven’t seen them since, but the kids though they were the coolest thing in the world as they leapt about them shouting, “sugoi, ne?” (awesome, huh?)

Sugoi, ne?

Where did they come from?

While at the beach I decided to play amateur photographer for awhile.  Since I’m not quite at that level yet, I suppose you’d have to call me an “amateur amateur photographer”. Looks like Mars to me. Another strange landscape. Grass and sand. Ocean. I'm so brilliant. A dollar in sand currency. Kind of icky, but it looks cool. No idea.

These concrete slabs line the mouth of the river.  There’s a solid concrete platform not pictured where I like to go sit and absorb the atmosphere, which is markedly different between high-tide and this, which was super low-tide.Mossy triangles. Edge of the sea. If a stone doesn't roll...My happy place.

Some garbage washed up on shore made for some interesting picture possibilities, but almost none of them came out very well.

Well-traveled trash. Perspective of an orange. Someone had fun. They do this in Japan too. 

Crossing the river on the way back, it’s amazing how different it is at low-tide.

River craters?

More cherry-blossoms! Awesome shrine. Two kinds of cherry blossoms. Just a shot that came out nicely.

Back in Togane, this is another really nice neighborhood, the scenery spoiled only by the occasional campaign placard. Distinctly Japan. Vote for that guy. More lovely meadows.

Very close to home now, the remaining pictures are all from along my jogging route. For just two weeks, this tree is gorgeous. So pristine. So tranquil.

Back on my street, the cherry trees lining the elementary school playground were a nice welcome home while they lasted. The journey ends.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Chu-hai and Cherry Blossoms

April 11th, 2012 No comments

Togane Lake

A “hanami” is a cherry-blossom viewing festival, a very popular activity during the cherry-blossom season, which lasts for different durations in different parts of Japan but is usually about one month long. The cherries only started blossoming last week, but they were in full bloom by the time of the hanami on Sunday.

I never received my school schedule in the mail from Interac, so all I knew on Sunday was that I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony the next morning. I didn’t know if I’d then have to stay the rest of the day or even do any lessons, but I was pretty resolved not to drink. It wasn’t until text messages from other ALTs informed me to bring drinks that I realized this was going to be that kind of event, so I ended up bringing four tall cans of chu-hai (a sweet alcoholic fruit-flavored beverage which is less expensive and less fattening than beer, but often with a higher alcohol content).

Before leaving for Tokyo the day before, I rang the doorbell of the new Interac ALT for Togane, Kim, and asked her if she knew about the hanami and if she wanted to go. She said yes, so I rang her again on Sunday when I was ready to go. Kim is practically fresh-off-the-plane, having just come from the big Interac training session in Narita, and she’d invited another ALT from training who now lives in nearby Sanmu, so the three of us walked to Togane Lake together while I told them about the area, about teaching Japanese students, and about all the things they learned at training that aren’t exactly true. It felt very weird to suddenly be the experienced one. Up until now I’ve been the new guy in nearly every situation.

There were already a ton of people at Togane Lake when we arrived at 3:00. After taking my first pictures I immediately spotted some of my students and said hello, and felt some more apprehension about drinking at this event. I’ve never had to encounter students in that state before, and there were guaranteed to be many of them here.

Lake entrance.  Along the path.

Japanese loveliness.

We walked around to the back of the lake, taking in the gorgeous and quintessentially Japanese scenery, until we spotted the two giant tarps on the grass swarming with fellow gaijin. Ben was there and immediately gave us a warm greeting, launching straight into introductions with the two new ALTs I’d brought. There were a few other familiar faces, but a whole bunch of people I’d never met before. Pretty much all of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage in their hand, so I went ahead and opened one up myself. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about greeting their students with booze-in-hand when they walked by, so I figured I shouldn’t either.

The gaijin tarps.

I chatted with a few people I haven’t seen in awhile and met a few others. Atsushi, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, was one of the few Japanese people there to mingle with us, but it was nice to have a few Japanese faces among us. Most of us were American, and most of the Americans were from Wisconsin, as apparently Wisconsin and Chiba are “sister-states” and there’s a special program for Wisconsinites to come here and teach English. Kim is Canadian, and as far as I know the only one among us.

One of the first people I ended up in a conversation with is Dan, from the infamous night of Ben’s Christmas Party when he took Diana from me without realizing I’d been interested in her. I naturally hated him at the time but he clearly felt bad about it and even apologized in a Facebook message after-the-fact. We didn’t bring her up at all, but by astounding coincidence she just happened to walk by us right when we were talking, chatting some other foreigner’s ear off. She didn’t seem to notice us and he didn’t notice her, so I didn’t say anything.

What we did talk about was the teachers our schools would be exchanging. His school was getting S-Sensei in exchange for K-sensei, whom Dan told me is a really great guy who loves to chat in English and is really easy to get along with. Apparently they’ve even hung out outside of work. But he also said, “With him you’ll hardly have to do any work,” which made me nervous because having a teacher who does everything himself and leaving nothing to me is exactly what I’ve been fearing most about the replacements. But if he’s as nice a guy as Dan says, I can probably just ask him point-blank to give me more lesson-planning responsibilities.

After a little while, Kim and I decided to take a walk around the rest of the lake and check out the rest of the festival. As we walked I kept passing groups of students and saying hello, eventually no longer even thinking about the chu-hai in my hand. A few of the students’ eyes widened when they saw me with Kim and they asked me if she was my girlfriend, but I laughed and told them in Japanese that she isn’t—she’s just a new ALT. Kim thought it was funny how in Japan, if a guy and a girl are walking alone together it must mean they’re in a relationship. But she was also very excited to see how enthusiastic some of the students can get when spotting their teacher. She’s obviously looking forward to it, and indeed it is one of the best things about this job.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things about the festival. Back at the gaijin tarps as I continued to drink and chat with other ALTs about everything from where we’ve lived to places we’ve traveled to our impressions of Japan and so on, students would constantly be walking by and they all smiled and said hello. That doesn’t even happen at school, where the presence of their English teacher is nothing unusual and therefore calls for no acknowledgment. But seeing me outside of the school environment, in my street-clothes, drinking chu-hai, was quite a novelty for them. Some groups would call me over and challenge me to remember their names, which was really difficult having not seen them for a few weeks but I turned out to be a pretty good guesser and they all got a kick out of watching me struggle.

Of course the best part was seeing some of the recently graduated third-graders again. It’s been weeks since they graduated and I got all sad and melancholy about the idea that I’d never see them again, but since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. The Spring Concert, the farewell ceremony, out jogging or riding my bike, in the supermarket—they’re all over the place.

The one group of recent graduates who were the most amused to see me was the “bad kid” group, Japanese middle-school version of “hoodlums” I guess you could say. They weren’t really bad, just the kind who didn’t care about school and would frequently disrespect teachers (though never me). The fourth time I spotted that group, one of the boys came up and put a chu-hai in my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first but one of the other ALTs explained he was giving it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but I thanked him and took it. At that point I was on my third and pretty buzzed, so if there was anything unethical about that I wasn’t concerned. He’s not my student anymore anyway.

Jack's back! I also got to see Jack and Lily again. They’re now back from visiting Jack’s parents in Boston and Lily’s parents from France are now here visiting her. I walked around the festival with them once and got caught up. Jack actually has some sort of job with Interac now, not as a teacher but something else I’m not too clear on. He was actually at the Narita training session, so he’d already met Kim before I did.

As dusk was setting, everyone was told to leave the grassy area and move to one end of the lake from where we could view the fireworks. I spent so much time trying to get good fireworks pictures that I forgot to enjoy the fireworks. The pictures I’m posting here are just a few of the many dozens I took, a waste of camera memory space.

The crowd just starting to assemble. Boom.

Fizzle. Ooh! Aah!

During the fireworks I also somehow managed to finish the chu-hai my former students had given me, which pushed me past that fine line between buzzed and drunk. That made the next part a ridiculously bizarre experience, as with everyone all bunched together I was bumping into students left and right, and my super-enthusiastic hellos must have been highly amusing to all of them. I’m pretty sure a bunch of students had heard I was there and were deliberately coming up to say hello, perhaps just for the fun of seeing me drunk.

I probably shouldn’t have felt too apprehensive about that in the first place. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. All the other ALTs were drunk and greeting students too. I found out later that getting drunk is expected at a hanami, just like it is at an enkai. I’ve interacted with teachers while drunk, and now students as well. No harm, really. All I did was say hello and try to remember their names.

One of about 20 pictures I don't remember taking. Ben invited us all back to his place for an after-party, and at that point I was extremely merry and just wanted the fun to continue, so while I really should have just gone home, eaten something, and drank tons of water before going to bed at a decent hour, I went to Ben’s place, drank my last chu-hai, and got embarrassingly drunk to the point where it wasn’t until the following afternoon that I was able to remember some of the things I did. Thank god my students didn’t see me in that state. I’m embarrassed enough that other drunken ALTs saw me that way too, but after apologizing to Ben through Facebook the next day he assured me it was okay, everyone was pretty sloppy at that point and his memory is pretty hazy too, but that getting sloshed is perfectly appropriate for a hanami.

Eventually I did stumble home and go to sleep, though I have no idea when. All I know is that the sleep I got wasn’t nearly enough. The alcohol would not wear off completely until the following afternoon. And of course, the following morning just happened to be the first day of the school-year.

To be continued…

The Longest Day

March 30th, 2012 No comments

Some days seem to fly by in an instant, while others seem to stretch on forever with a feeling of great significance. Yesterday, the day the school-year officially ended (after unofficially ending multiple times) was one of those days. I’ve decided to document it in its entirety from my perspective as I experienced it, like I did a couple of years ago with an entry about the Planeo Christmas Party. That means it’s going to be painfully long, but hopefully worth it to my future selves, who have always been the primary audience of this journal.

———-

Man, that was a crazy dream. At least I think it was because I’ve already forgotten it. Crap, it’s getting light outside, what time is it? 6:15. Okay, that gives me another hour before I absolutely have to get up. Maybe I can catch just a little more sleep.

No, it’s too late, my mind is already full of thoughts about today. I’m going to the school’s farewell ceremony in the morning, then to the farewell enkai and karaoke party in the evening, with a whole lot of nothing in between. It will be the last day I see many of the teachers I’ve worked with this past year. I’m so sick of goodbyes, but just one more day full of them and then it will at last be over. Okay, it’s 7:13. Might as well get up.

In the shower I think about what song to put in my head for the day because the cheesy Disney song I have stuck in my head for no apparent reason simply will not do. There was a really great song on the Shapeshifter CD Trey recommended that I was listening to while cycling yesterday—I don’t remember the title but I’ll probably recognize it if I see it. Finished with the shower I go to my computer and find the Shapeshifter mp3s. Ah, here it is. It’s called “The Longest Day”. Yeah, that’ll do.

Damn, this is an excellent song. Now what should I wear? Which of these shirts that I haven’t washed in weeks is the least smelly? I’ll go with the grey one, and the suit that’s just a little too big because it’s more comfortable than the one that’s a little too small (and the one that fits just right has a missing button that I’m clueless as to how to sew back on).

Time to check my e-mail while eating breakfast. A few days ago my grandpa sent me some advice about how the right way to find a girlfriend in Japan is to be introduced through her family and that I might want to bring this up with my colleagues. I explained why this was unlikely to work but said I might have an opportunity to ask some colleagues about it at the enkai. [To spare you some suspense, I ended up forgetting about it completely. My mind just wasn’t on the subject at the time.]

A couple e-mails from Corey indicate that he’s bored and lonely as usual. We have this theory that the universe balances itself out between us, wherein I’m usually up when he’s down and I’m usually down whenever something good happens to him. Something that could be thought of as “good” happened to him recently and I was depressed, but that appears to have ended. I guess that means today could potentially be a good day for me.

The school’s closing ceremony starts at 9:00 but I was told by Kono at Interac when I wrote her to confirm the time that I should go into school at 8:30, the usual time. I find this instruction a bit strange, as I’m technically on spring vacation and I’m going to this ceremony completely voluntarily. But for some reason I’ve got to go in a half-hour early and sit in the teacher’s room even though I’m not getting paid at all.

Whatever, I was going to spend a half-hour studying Japanese anyway. It makes no difference whether I do that here or at school.

I take note of the excellent weather as I walk the short distance to my school. Graduation day was cold and rainy and grey, the perfect complement for my sadness that day. Today is clear and sunny with a not-too-warm but comfortable temperature. I’ll be sure to take advantage of that later.

Man, it’s weird going back in this building when I’m already on vacation. It feels like one of those dreams I always have where I’m back in high school for one last thing because the school-year never officially ended, then you wake up to remember it actually ended years ago. I’ll probably have those dreams about Japanese schools now too.

I enter the teacher’s room and greet the faculty, going about their business in their typically serious and professional manner. Nobody asks me what I’m doing there, and I just quietly set up my computer and proceed to study. The room looks a little different from when I was last here—so many of the desks are completely bare. I guess more teachers are switching schools than I realized.

I really don’t like how they don’t let teachers stay in the same school for long periods of time. Y-sensei is at work clearing out her desk now and it’s already making me sad. I was extremely lucky to have her to work with when I started as an ALT. Some teachers don’t help at all and just leave you out on your own, and some help too much to the point where they almost take over the lesson, but Y-sensei was the perfect classroom partner, always with a perfect sense of whether my explanations to the students were clear enough or if they needed some translation, and she always knew just how to be of help during games and such. It really sucks to see her go.

Okay, I finished studying and it’s 9:00 but the ceremony isn’t starting yet. Maybe it really is at 9:25 like I’d originally thought. Thank you, Interac, for confirming the wrong time. I guess I can kill the remaining time by reviewing old kanji lists.

All right, it’s 9:15. I’ll just go to the gym while the last of the students are filing in. They’ve been slowly trickling in all morning, as they too are on vacation and didn’t have to be in their homerooms in the morning. A bunch of them came in and went to their classrooms anyway though. Japanese students are cool like that.

The gym is a separate building connected to the main building by a hallway/overpass kind of thing which is partially outside. When I get there I notice a large crowd of students standing outside the gym waiting to go in.

Oh my god, are you for real? Is this what I think it is? Yes, I know those faces. It’s the third-graders, absent all this time in a state of post-graduation purgatory and now uniformed-up and ready for one last event of their Junior High School lives. It turns out watching them all walk out the gym doors at the end of the graduation ceremony was not the actual last time I would see them. Nor was the Spring Concert when I got to see a handful of them. Today is really the last day, but I already went through that whole sad-I’ll-never-see-them-again thing two weeks ago. Those emotions have already been purged.

The first- and second-graders are just finishing up filing into the gym and taking their proper places, all the boys on the right and the girls on the left. I stand off to the left, as I’ve noticed the teachers also tend to segregate themselves by gender for these ceremonies as well. The third-graders start to enter the gym and a few of the boys notice me and greet me. Ghosts, I think. You were supposed to be gone forever.

I scan the group of girls looking for A-, the girl from the Speech Contest and one of the only students I regretted not having said a proper goodbye to. Perhaps I’ll have one last chance to rectify that later.

But now, it’s time for the ceremony to begin. Let’s all stand up and sing the school song (unless you’re like me and don’t know it). Now it’s time to bring out the teachers and faculty members who will be departing. There are ten chairs on the stage. Wow, ten of them. And the six part-time teachers who said their goodbyes at the first closing ceremony makes that sixteen colleagues I’ll never see again. Apparently at the end of every school-year you not only lose a third of the students but a third of the staff as well. I’ll be teaching at the same school next school-year but 33% of the people will be brand new.

And just who exactly besides Y-sensei is leaving? What’s this? Oh, no! Y-, the cute secretary, is first in line! Noooo! What are you doing to me, fates? And what’s this? S-sensei, the other third-grade JTE, is also going? Now hold the phone a minute. H-sensei and A-sensei were both part-timers and they’re both leaving too. And now you’re telling me that two of the other three JTEs are also leaving? So of the five JTEs I’ve been working with this year, FOUR of them are going?!

At least T-sensei (‘Mrs. T-’ in previous entries) is staying, and that’s no small blessing. She’s been the most helpful out of all of them, though that’s partly because her desk in the teacher’s room is right next to mine so she’s naturally the first person to turn to when I have a question. But she’s as great of a partner in class as Y-sensei, and she took the lead when it came to the Speech Contest. If she were among the departing teachers I would really be upset, but it looks like I’ll have one more year with her (and only one, because this next year will almost certainly be her last).

Also leaving are a few really nice teachers including the one who sat across from me in the teacher’s room, and a couple of administrators including one of the vice principals, T-sensei (you don’t have to be a teacher to get the sensei title), with whom I had a glass of whiskey at the Christmas enkai. They each get up and give a speech, some longer and more emotional than others. Y-sensei is clearly on the verge of tears and it brings a bit of a lump to my throat. Even some of the male teachers have to pause while speaking to collect their emotions. I’m lucky I’ve only been here a short time, and I just keep thinking about how much more difficult this is going to be next year. But Y-sensei has been at this school for eight years, and she really doesn’t want to leave. I don’t know what you’re doing with this system, Japan, but I hope it’s working for you.

One of the students, I believe it’s the 2nd-grade class president, comes to the stage to give a farewell speech on behalf of the students, then ten more students come out with flowers to present them to the teachers. Then the entire schools sings one last song, the same song they sang while the third-graders left at the end of the graduation ceremony. Now Y-sensei and some of the other teachers are really fighting back tears, and I’m at my most emotional moment as well.

Finally, the girls and boys turn towards each other forming an aisle in the center of the gym for the departing teachers and faculty members to walk down on their final ceremonious exit. Some non-students are standing in the back, high-school kids who’ve returned to their Junior High School to say one last goodbye to their old teachers. That’s pretty touching, and it’s nice to see Y-sensei’s face light up in a smile as she recognizes an old student on her way out.

What follows is some confusion as to what happens next. The ceremony is over and the students are now just standing around and chatting with one another. I’m standing amongst the third-graders but nobody comes up to me. I still can’t get over that I’m seeing all these faces again. The fact that now I’ll really never see them again is drowned out by the fact that I already thought I’d never see them again.

I do finally spot A- but like the rest of the students she doesn’t appear to notice me or care about my presence. It would be nice if at least a few students would come up to say goodbye but I’m not too bothered. I was only their ALT for a short time.

When they’re finally instructed to exit the gym, I watch them go without much emotion. A few teachers follow them out to say some specific goodbyes to specific students, including T-sensei whom I notice for the first time is teary-eyed.

Look, A- is still here. She’s standing just inside the exit doors, looking back at the gym contemplatively. I raise my hand and wave at her. As intended, it catches her eye and she smiles and waves back at me, and gives me a little bow. So that’s that. It was a wordless farewell, but words weren’t needed. Just a moment of conscious contact to acknowledge that this is the end. It wasn’t exactly what I pictured, but I figure I’m going to have to get used to less-than-completely-satisfactory goodbyes. There will be many more of them in my life, including later today.

Can you believe this day is still just getting started? It’s only 10:15 right now!

Now I head back to the teacher’s room where I’ll attempt to figure out what the deal is with today. When I get there Y-sensei is standing by the heater looking forlorn. I give her a sympathetic glance, and she tells me, “I just want to go teach a class right now…” before her voice trails off. I hear that.

But I’ll have plenty of time to say my goodbyes to her later on. Right now I need to call Interac and find out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing. It certainly feels like I’m at work right now, and I was told to come in at 8:30. Is this really not a paid work-day? I call the Chiba office and get in touch with Kono to ask her. She seems just as confused as I am, and tells me she’ll call the school’s staff to find out if they need me to stay there.

Need me to stay? I thought I was here voluntarily and not getting paid. Does Interac realize if they require me to stay at my school any longer it’s technically slave-labor? I mean, I’m all about the Japanese work-ethic and everything, but being told to work for free is a little ridiculous.

As I wait for Kono to call back, T-sensei arrives back in the office and I explain my confusion to her. A vice principal comes to tell her that it’s OK for me to go home, and I thank him but I’m still very confused. Kono calls me back and tells me it’s OK for me to leave, and I try to ask her directly if this is a day I should record on my pay sheet. But the Japanese are not known for their directness. She says, “Starting tomorrow you are on spring vacation.” Okay, but I already was on spring vacation. “So today is not a paid work day?” She says “no” but I can’t shake the feeling she never quite understood what my question was.

Whatever. I came here voluntarily not expecting to get paid anyway, so I won’t record the day on my pay sheet. If that’s a few thousand extra yen I could have earned, it’s no big loss. The important thing is I have the official seal of approval from my employer and my school to go home (even though I didn’t need to be there in the first place).

Before I go I confirm the time and cost of the enkai with T-sensei, who tells me to come back at 4:30 and she’ll take me there.

As I walk out of the building there’s absolutely no sense of “this is it” at all. My school-shoes are still in my locker. I’ll be wearing them again in just a few weeks.

A whole lot of third-graders who’d come for the ceremony are still hanging around outside, having final conversations with fellow students and teachers. I’d already said goodbye to them in my mind (several times over) so I don’t bother going up to anyone. One group of boys approaches me though, led by a bit of a class-clown from 3-4 who calls me down by my last name as I’m leaving and strikes up a conversation to practice what appears to be the only English phrase he remembers: “Do you like Japanese food?” “Yes I do,” I say.

“Oh,” he says. I can tell he wants to go on but can’t think of anything.

“What’s your favorite Japanese food?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he answers. “I am Japanese food.”

His friends and I laugh and we explain what he said in Japanese.

“Are you delicious?” he asks, and we laugh and explain what he said again (though I do tell him that yes, I am in fact delicious.)

When it’s clear there’s no more English left, he says goodbye and “See you next time.”

I say, “No next time.”

“Yes next time!” he asserts defiantly to the laugher of his friends.

“Yes next time?” I ask.

“Yes. Today. Later,” he jokes.

“Ok then, I’ll see you later.”

If that does end up being the last conversation I ever have with one of this year’s third-graders, it was appropriate enough.

I could really go for a run right now. It’s almost 11:00, the sun is still shining and a cool breeze is blowing. When I get home I quickly make a playlist of songs from the Shapeshifter CD and gear up for jogging. With all these students out and about I figure today is more likely than ever that I’ll spot a bunch of them, but I make it through the whole 35-minute jog only spotting two students, which is the average amount. But right at the end, when I get to my street, there’s a group of four fully-uniformed girls walking together, apparently out for a walk after leaving the school premises. I get in front of them, turn around to see who they are, and wave. I always enjoy the second or two before the students realize who I am. I may stand out as a foreigner, but it’s such a radically different appearance between how I look in a suit and when I’m in jogging pants and a T-shirt, all red and sweaty from exercise. When the girls’ expressions change from confusion to surprise and then delight and amusement, I’m satisfied.

I get back in my apartment and cool down, then cook myself a very Japanese lunch of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder. While eating I finish up a recent Rachel Maddow Show podcast and learn some extremely unimportant facts about the new head of the World Bank. I’ve grown very tired of Rachel Maddow and only watch a few of her shows here and there, but it’s the perfect thing to put on during lunch whenever I eat at home so I’ll be watching more of her over the vacation.

It’s 12:30 when I’m finished eating which leaves four gaping hours between now and the party. I’ll start by taking a quick nap, a luxury I don’t get when I eat at school. Luckily the construction workers next door are on their lunch break so it’s nice and peaceful outside.

I get up at 1:00 and then get ready for the next thing, a good old fashioned bicycle-trip to the beach. That can kill anywhere between 2 and 3 hours depending on how long I linger there, so it fits the current bill perfectly. I make another playlist for the trip, now the entire Shapeshifter CD followed by Blue Man Group, the most similar-sounding music I can think of. The weather is getting warmer but I could still use a thin jacket, so I toss one on and head outside.

The bicycle ride down to the beach is just as pleasant as it always is, perhaps a little moreso due to the weather and the fact that the wind isn’t as strong as it tends to get during the winter here. For the first time in months I find myself sweating during the ride and I even have to unzip my jacket.

I’ve found three main ways of getting to the beach, the first being the most direct way down Route 75, the way I always used to take but which has the least pretty scenery so I never do anymore. I’ve long since found longer but more aesthetically pleasing and less car-infested routes to the east and the west of the 75, and I usually take one way down and the other way back. The way to the west is slightly longer (about 50 minutes as opposed to 40) but I’ve been exploring some new options and slowly tweaking my standard route, and today I think I’ve finally perfected it. The east way still needs some work though.

When I get to the beach, it’s as un-crowded as I’d hoped. I love going in the early afternoon on weekdays because there’s almost nobody there. It’s even sparser now because it’s super-duper low tide and there’s practically nothing for surfers to work with.

About a ten-minute walk from the beach parking lot is my new favorite spot I always go whenever it’s not occupied. It’s the mouth of a river lined with concrete walls you can sit on. River mouths are sacred in Shinto, so maybe that’s why this feels like such a peaceful place. Whenever I sit there and watch the waves from the sea come up against the current from the river, it puts me in a very zen-like state-of-mind. That feeling is greatly augmented whenever the sun is shining, as in the afternoon the sun is no longer over the ocean but the sunlight can still be reflected off the river water. And no matter how old I get, there’s just something about sunlight reflecting off water that is absolutely awesome.

So I sit in my favorite spot and soak up some awe for about thirty minutes, giving “The Longest Day” another listen at one point, but my immobility lowers my body-heat and before too long the sea breeze is too cold for my comfort. I guess spring hasn’t quite hit yet.

I take the east route back to Togane, not quite as nice as the west way but more direct and easier to navigate. I try something new at the end, as that first stretch of road coming off the 126 (the main giant road in Togane that everything is on) is not too ideal and I’ve long suspected that a little pathway a bit further south might lead to a better option. I finally try this path today, and as I expected the option is much better aesthetically but way more complex. It leads through an absolutely gorgeous little neighborhood that is so distinctly Japanese I absolutely have to go back and take pictures. But there’s no straight path through it, so you have to make a bunch of turns and just use the sun to maintain your sense of direction. It all seems pretty intuitive going up, but I have a feeling trying to do it in reverse on the way down will be tricky. Still, totally worth it.

It’s 3:45 and I’m back at my apartment. So I’ve got 45 minutes to kill before I have to be back at the school. Maybe I could have a beer and get a head-start? A cold beer would be good right now, no? No, I can wait. Besides, it’s bad form. These Japanese parties are formal affairs—there’s a designated time when everyone is allowed to start drinking, and it’s called the kampai. If I were to drink before the kampai it would feel sacrilegious somehow.

In any case, there’s an e-mail from Corey in my inbox that looks like it’ll take all the remaining time I have. Something of big significance happened in his current situation which has brought about its apparent end. More evidence for our universe-balance theory. We both have days of significance at the same time but his is negative while mine is positive. Yet ironically, the person he’s saying goodbye to is someone he’s much better off without, while the people I’m saying goodbye to will be dearly missed.

The time of the party is approaching and I have to make a decision on what to wear. The safest bet is to put my suit back on, but I’m inclined to just go in slacks and a button-down shirt like I did to the Spring Concert, though this time I’ll tuck the shirt in. The other teachers will probably end up removing their jackets and ties at some point anyway, so why bring the extra baggage? Especially when it’s kind of warm out.

So I head over to the school and arrive in the parking lot just as the 4:30 song begins to play. (A short but loud little song plays at the official end of the school day all over Japan, though the song and exact time of its playing does vary slightly). T-sensei is there along with some other teachers, and I discover that we’ll be taking a bus to the location. It’s the same kind of small bus with about twelve seats that they had for the enkai back in November (my first one), but this time more than three people would be riding it.

One of the other teachers, O-sensei, makes a comment to me and T-sensei translates. “He wants to know if you’re already drunk.” Apparently I look drunk because my face is red. I laugh and explain that I’ve been out in the sun all day. I didn’t get burned but there is a significant tan now. But I should have had that beer before if I’m going to be suspected of drunkenness anyway.

When we get on the bus I comment to T-sensei that she’s the only English teacher staying at the school. She apparently feels just as strange about it. It doesn’t usually work out like that. She knows they’ll be getting two more full-time teachers and two more part-timers, but doesn’t know who they are or which grades they’ll teach. She doesn’t even know which grades she’ll teach. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet, but the Japanese education system is weird.

On the bus ride to the place I think about the replacements. It’s ironic that I was so happy when I got the news that I’d be staying with my school, but most of the people I work with at the school will be different. I really lucked-out in a big way by getting this school, as so many conversations with so many other ALTs has repeatedly made clear to me. Almost everyone has a problem with at least one or more of their JTEs, but I can hardly complain about any of mine. The worst I can say about any of them is that they’re not as helpful as they could be, but all things considered they’ve been wonderful. The likelihood that out of four new teachers, all four of them will be just as good is low. I’m sure I’ll be able to work with anybody, but my biggest fear is that I’ll get someone who just wants to use me to recite textbook passages and prevents me from doing the kind of fun game-oriented lessons I like to do. I would hope in such a situation that the students (assuming it’s second- or third-grade) would rebel and demand the same kind of lessons Kyle-sensei used to teach last year, or at least that T-sensei or another faculty member would kindly explain that I can be far more useful than a human tape-recorder (which is what many ALTs are).

The bus ride is just a short ten-minute trip to another part of Togane, a traditional Japanese somethingorother (don’t know the word but it’s not ‘restaurant’) near the train tracks. As I go inside I can tell this is the most authentically traditional Japanese place I’ve ever been. Tatami mats, shouji doors and all that, as well as full-makeup-and-kimono-clad whathaveyous (don’t know the word but it’s not ‘waitress’) who provide both service and entertainment. The Japanese have been holding events just like this for thousands of years.

The set-up. The entry.

But it’s not too different from the other two enkais, just the most authentic. While those were hotels or restaurants that had party-rooms like this, the entire establishment was for the party-room. There’s a lobby downstairs where you remove your shoes and put on slippers to take upstairs to the foyer of the main party room where you remove the slippers. My feet are apparently too big because I have some trouble keeping the slippers on on my way upstairs, which amuses people.

I’m told where to sit when I get to the party room, luckily right next to T-sensei because I have an idea for next school-year I’m planning to run by her. Maybe now would be a good time while we’re waiting for everyone to file in. Nah, she’s busy reading the little booklet they have with pictures and biographies of all the departing teachers and staff. It’ll be more natural to discuss it during the socializing part of the party. Instead I ask her if it’s normal for so many teachers to be leaving at the end of the year and she said it was. I explain how it’s done in America, and can tell she’s a little jealous. I even talk about the special private school my cousins go to where the teacher sticks with one class of students throughout all twelve years of their education, an idea she thinks sounds wonderful. I ask her why they do it like this in Japan, but she doesn’t know how to explain it.

Seated on the other side of me is the young woman teacher who had that conversation about music with me at the Christmas enkai. She’s one of the second-grade teachers, as is everyone at my table. I realized a few months ago that the teachers’ room is organized by grade, and the desks of those teachers are arranged in a long table with all the other teachers for their grade. As I teach all the grades I’m seated in one of the four most central desks, in the table that happens to be for second-grade teachers so I winded up at the second-grade table for this party. The first-grade table is across the room, and the table for third-grade teachers and administrators is in the right-hand corner. The back table and whole left-hand corner section are apparently the seats of honor for the departing teachers and staff. Seeing this arrangement makes it clearer than ever just what a huge chunk of the school’s staff will be leaving.

My legs are already hurting from sitting Indian-style when the arrival of the guests of honor is announced. Everyone stands up and applauds as all the departing teachers and administrators enter the room and take their places. What follows is about 30 or 40 minutes of speeches, as each of them gets up and says their formal goodbyes to the school.

The secretary's goodbye speech.

I’m not the only one with a camera this time. Another teacher comes out from behind his table to kneel in a good location to take pictures of each of them as they give their speeches. I’m a bit too self-conscious to leave my place so I can’t really get good pictures of the teachers seated against the wall, but when Y-sensei speaks I can’t resist following the other teachers’ lead and coming out to kneel in a good spot for a farewell shot. I remain kneeling respectfully through her whole speech, which is incredibly painful, but as S-sensei is next I wanted a shot of her as well. Y-sensei’s voice is cracking a little during this speech like the one she gave at the school, but I think she’s feeling a little better at this point. She’s already said goodbye to the students and the building. All that remains are colleagues.

Y-sensei S-sensei

S-sensei’s tone is far less emotional, and as soon as I get a picture of her I quit kneeling and head back to my seat for the relatively less-painful Indian-style. When H-sensei speaks a little later, I do the best I can from where I’m at. But when A-sensei speaks I just don’t have a chance. I now get the idea to get a picture with me and all of the English teachers at some point during the party.

A-sensei is the last to speak, and the Japanese serving women have already been preparing the drinks. (I’ll just refer to them as geishas from now because that’s what they looked like. For all I know they were actual geishas.) When the speeches are over a bunch of the faculty gets up to help the geishas distribute beverages, of which there are two basic sorts. A pink non-alcoholic cocktail thing and beer—Ashahi Dry—which happens to be my favorite Japanese beer. Yay…I guess. I miss German beer.

Moment of kampai. The geishas take a bow.

Kampai time. I clink my glass with T-sensei and the teacher next to me and begin drinking. Then I sit back down and get started on the eating as well. Another smorgasbord of bizarre-looking fish-related food items is spread out before me. This weird fish thing is decent. This other weird fish thing isn’t, though it’s probably some kind of delicacy. Ah, here we go: sashimi—an animal I know. A little soy, a little wasabi…good stuff. The geishas come to top off my beer and light the soup-bowl thingy to get it cooking, and I attack this other soup-bowl thingy filled with god only knows what but it sure is weird. There’s what looks like purple slime wrapped in a leaf—I ask T-sensei if you’re supposed to eat the leaf. She laughs and says some people don’t but to give it a try. The other teacher next to me asks how it is. “Interesting,” I say in Japanese. That would be the word. None of this food is delicious, it’s just interesting. It would seem that interesting is much more expensive than delicious.

Speaking of which, do I have that 6,000 yen I’m supposed to be paying for this? The teacher next to T-sensei is collecting and would like it now. Here you go. Another 70 bucks spent on exactly the kind of thing I should be spending my money on. Still, maybe next year we could have our enkai at Mos Burger? Or maybe Denny’s—they could use the business.

So now is the perfect time to run my idea by T-sensei. It’s something I’ve been considering ever since I started this job, but I hadn’t resolved to actually try it until the end of the school-year. Whenever students approach me and try to communicate outside of class, they usually end up learning something that is far more likely to stick in their minds because it’s used in the context of an actual conversation. Conversation practice is the best way to learn things and to get good at speaking another language, but the students almost never get any actual chances to speak and when they do it’s a speaking test and they’re all nervous about it. A chance for informal, casual conversation would be invaluable to students and I’d like to offer that as an optional after-school activity.

My explanation to T-sensei is much more simplistic than all that, but she likes the idea right away. One thing that’s always prevented me from asking before is my doubt that any students would actually want to take advantage of something like that, but T-sensei tells me she hears from many students about how they wish they had more opportunities to practice speaking. My idea is to have a sign-up sheet so students can come on days of their convenience and with whomever they want, probably 1-5 students a day. If nobody signs up, the experiment will be over.

The other reason I haven’t been sure about this is that the students’ English is so bad that carrying on any kind of conversation could be like pulling teeth. But I taught beginners in Germany so I know it can be done, and those lessons were 90 minutes or more. I’m thinking 20 minutes is enough for this. Also, the practice can go both ways. I’ll help them with their English and they can help me with my Japanese. We’ll talk about basic things like hobbies and likes/dislikes, and we’ll do everything in both English and Japanese which will also go a long way to reducing the inherent nervousness anyone has in speaking a language you’re not good at to a native speaker. If I’m messing up so much, it’s okay for them to mess up too.

You get the idea, as does T-sensei. She agrees to help me figure out putting something like that together next year and so it’s resolved.

The party goes on. There’s more eating and drinking, more geishas refilling my tiny beer glass every five minutes, and more casual conversation with colleagues. The teacher to my right, the young woman who speaks a little English, strikes up another chat with me about music like she had at the Christmas party. She says she’s going to a music festival in Chiba the day after tomorrow. There are a couple of punk rock bands like The Offspring and Sum41 that are currently touring Japan. This amuses me and I explain to her how those bands were popular in the 1990s when I was a student and punk was relatively new. I can’t believe that was almost two decades ago and punk is practically classic rock now. Man, I’m getting old.

The chat with this woman—curse me for not knowing her name—goes on for awhile, and it’s good practice for the conversation-practice I hope to have to with students next school-year as we’re doing whatever we can with our small amounts of English and Japanese but still managing to communicate pretty effectively. I can even talk about Germany and explain their whole issues with national pride which she’s curious about, but she unfortunately doesn’t offer me any insight on how the Japanese feel about their role in the war. I just get the feeling it’s even less talked-about than in Germany.

N-sensei comes to sit next to me and chat for awhile like we did at the previous enkai. He brings me a flask of sake and offers to pour me a shot. I gladly accept and drink it down, enjoying its pleasant smoothness. N-sensei explains that it’s 20% alcohol. That’s good because I can tell some of the other teachers are already buzzed and I need to catch up.

I’m worrying that the party will end without my having had a chance to get that picture with all the English teachers, and I’m able to tell N-sensei easily enough what I have in mind. Shashin to zenbu eigo no sensei ga hoshii desu, which directly translated word-for-word is “picture with all English teacher want is”. That’s how they talk. It’s amazing they understand each other at all.

But N-sensei understands me perfectly and endeavors to help me assemble the English teachers for this photograph. T-sensei loves the idea as soon as she hears it. I think she wants to have that picture too. A-sensei agrees and we’re just about to approach the other three when the geishas get up on stage to begin a little performance. Bad timing. “Atto tabun,” A-sensei says: “After maybe”.

Geisha rock band. Feels like Japan.

I go back to my seat and eat a little more of this food that just keeps coming and coming, and watch the performance. I-sensei comes over to me at this point to keep me company because everyone else is off chatting. (You may recall I-sensei from the infamous Lot Key Incident). The redness of his face indicates that he’s clearly been drinking his fair share, and he pours a few more shots of sake for me to help me along.

Time to give the picture thing a second try. We’ve got T and A and H, but S and Y are both engaged in serious conversations with other teachers (isn’t it convenient their names all start with different roman letters?) One of the departing part-time male teachers was full-on crying his eyes out to Y-sensei, the most emotional display I think I’ve ever seen from a Japanese male. That’s the magic of alcohol for you—drink enough and the mask really does come off. I reflexively snap a picture while the other four of us wait and see if maybe we should come back later. One of the other male teachers walks by and looks at the crying teacher and jokes to me that I should take a picture, to which I reply that I already did.

Sensei sadness. Left-to-right: H, K, A

So the picture will have to wait yet again, but in the mean-time I’ll get one with H-sensei and A-sensei, the two first-grade JTEs. A-sensei was only there for the final stretch of the year because the original first-grade JTE mysteriously left the school-year shortly before December. No one offered me an explanation about that so I’ll never know why. In any case, she struck me as a somewhat joyless person, even moreso than most Japanese, so I wasn’t very sad to see her go. A-sensei by contrast is extremely warm and friendly so it sucks that she’s disappearing so quickly.

Now it’s time for the final official event of the enkai, as each of the departing teachers and faculty members stands up once again, not to give a speech this time but to have a speech given about them by a faculty member who knew them best. Some of these speeches are serious, like the one the vice principal gave about the other vice principal T-sensei (whom I’ll now call Ta-sensei to distinguish from JTE T-sensei), while some of the speeches are just poking fun. One of the teachers puts everyone in hysterics. It was clearly a joke-speech from start to finish. I wish I could have understood it.

Vice principals' speech. Speech for Y-sensei.

When that’s over I get up to use the bathroom as the geishas distribute one last food item: ice cream. I return to discover that I didn’t get any ice cream while everyone else did. WTF? Oh well, it’s nothing worth complaining about. I just won’t leave a tip…

Oh wait, it turns out those speeches were not the actual last event. That would be the singing of the school song, and now that half the teachers are half drunk, it’s the most rousing and enthusiastic rendition of the song I’ve ever heard (though that’s still not saying much). I sacrifice some of my camera’s rapidly draining battery life to get a video of it.

Okay, now can we get this picture taken? I also really want to say one last goodbye to Y-sensei, so hopefully I’ll be able to kill two birds. After some brief confusion we finally manage to get T, A, H, S, and Y all together behind the table. The only problem: there’s no one to take the picture. But we call someone over, a teacher I barely know at all, and he agrees to take the picture. T-sensei then hands him her camera to get one for herself, as I notice that the picture he took didn’t come out well at all so I adjust the camera and he does it again. The picture still isn’t great, but I’ll take it.

This year's English crew. 

After that I turn to Y-sensei and start my goodbye. “I will really miss you.”

“I will miss you too,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet another ALT as nice as you.”

“Oh thank you,” I say. “You were such a great help to me in the lessons.”

“I really enjoyed your lessons!”

“Thank you.”

“I hope that one day we will both work at the same school together.”

Chances of that are infinitesimal, but I say, “I hope so.”

A bow and an arigato goziamashita are exchanged, and that’s that. On the scale of goodbyes, that one wasn’t too bad. I’m just glad it’s over with.

Now it’s back outside after retrieving my shoes and bidding goodbye to the geishas. This party is only half-over. The formal half is finished, and now a bunch of people will go to a karaoke bar for just good old-fashioned karaoke fun. I have no idea how many, but this twelve-seat bus is actually full now. There are enough designated drivers (i.e. people who never drink anyway) to give rides to the rest of the people who want to come.

It’s a ten minute drive to the place, which is just a short distance down the road from the school. And look, there’s my apartment. Hello, apartment. I’ll be back soon. Then this endless day can actually end.

But first…karaoke time. This is a different place from where I went the first time, with that crowd of ALTs and Japanese girls after Ben’s Christmas Party. It looks a little bigger, and when I go inside I discover we’ve reserved the biggest room in the place. Ta-sensei leads me in and sits by me in the corner. Like most of the teachers he’s normally very serious, but now he’s buzzed and acting much more human. We talk in Japanese a little as the other teachers and staff file into the room. He compliments me on my Japanese and says he can’t believe I’ve only been here since August. I feel like I should be much better by now, but I appreciate him saying that.

Karaoke room. When half the seats are filled with still more coming, I realize this is not like the other after-parties at the other enkais where only the hardcore drinkers attended. Everyone was coming to this one, and I mean everyone. I don’t think there’s anyone from the formal party who hadn’t come to karaoke. Even all five JTEs are here including Y-sensei. Seeing people one last time whom I’d never thought I’d see again must have been the theme of the day.

What follows is madness on a grand-scale, as I finally discover what all those other ALTs were talking about when they went on about how wild and crazy their colleagues can get at an enkai. Drinks are ordered by show of hands and distributed haphazardly, occasionally with someone getting something they didn’t order but would drink anyway. Several of the song-selection devices are Croon it like you mean it.being passed around and a playlist of songs is growing. When a song begins the microphone is handed off to whomever and they sing to nearly constant clapping along and even woo-wooing when a line is sung particularly skillfully. Yes, actual woo-wooing. It boggles my mind that these are the same people I work with every day.

The vibe hits even those teachers who aren’t drinking, and from their behavior you’d never know they weren’t drunk.

As I look around I can’t help but appreciate that another one of my major goals for Japan has been met: to see them at their most relaxed and enjoyable state. This is every bit the distinctively Japanese cultural experience I’d hoped to have in this country, and it may have taken until the very end of the school-year but it’s finally happening.

Another T-sensei, one of the guys I went out to the bar with after the Christmas enkai, comes up to sit by me and strike up a chat. And what’s this? It’s actually about something I can’t share publicly! Wow, a conversation with a Japanese colleague that’s too risqué to write about—that doesn’t happen very often.

Karaoke fever. Another teacher asks me if I’d like to sing, and I’m not too reluctant about agreeing. I used to think I’d never do karaoke but the mood of the place makes it impossible to resist. The teacher who had been crying earlier is now significantly drunk and dancing like an idiot in the front of the room to everybody’s wild approval. Clearly there’s no chance of embarrassment in this environment.

All the songs so far have been Japanese but he helps me work the selection-device to pick an English song. I’ve actually been pondering what to pick the whole time but it’s hard to decide. It should be something fun and something everyone knows. I know that Japanese people like The Beatles and Queen, so I ultimately decided to go with Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s too bad my camera battery died while attempting to take a video that would adequately capture the atmosphere (the one I got doesn’t do it much justice), because I would have loved to have a video of my performance. The song begins and the clamor is to get Kyle-sensei to the microphone. I’m applauded as soon as I get up to the front, just for deciding to go for it. And it turns out that Bohemian Rhapsody was a perfect choice because they all seem to recognize it. I’m surprised by the sound of my own voice as I sing. It’s actually not that bad. I guess all those times I used to sing this song at the top of my lungs when I had the house to myself in those early high school years paid off. I’m even taking it all the way up to high-register and back down again, confident enough to put some extra flare into it, which always meets with great approval. Of course when it comes to the whole “Galileo Figaro” part I can’t help but lose my place a few times, but that’s incredibly tough to keep up with. Then of course there comes the loud climax, to which I drop to my knees and do the whole head-banging thing as it right and proper for the song, and of course everyone loves it. Huge applause when I’m done. Karaoke accomplished.

After that some other teachers come up to me because they want me to sing more. We get a couple other songs cued up including Hey Jude and We Are The Champions but those songs are not to be. At 11:00 the party promptly ends, with the volume cut and everyone told to file out. I look around at all the unfinished food and beer as my 2,500 yen contribution to this event is taken. I’d say money well spent if not for the fact that so much of it was for wasted food. We must have just ordered the works, because every few minutes waitresses would come and put an entirely new platter of food on our tables, everything from chips and chocolate to ginger-snaps to salad to onion rings and fried chicken. It’s not like we needed any of it after that huge dinner beforehand. Oh well.

Now I guess it’s finally time for the final final this-is-really-actually-the-end-for-real goodbyes so I head outside and mentally prepare. One of the teachers asks me how I’m getting home and I say I can walk—my apartment is just a few blocks away—but they won’t hear of it and the next thing I know I’m in the back of someone’s car driving away without ever saying any goodbyes at all. Oh well.

So it goes. Two minutes later I’m dropped off near my apartment and I head back inside. Holy crap, now it’s over. That had to have been the longest ending ever. Ironic that the end of the ending happened so abruptly.

But it’s only 11:10. The events may be over but the day isn’t. I’d been thinking of having one last beer and listening to music before going to sleep, but I realize I’m quite drunk enough as it is and will stick to water for the rest of the night, which I spend listening to music and contemplating the events of the day.

I could hardly believe this was the same day I got up for the school’s closing ceremony in the morning. Saying my silent goodbye to A- already feels like it happened years ago.

And now I’ve said goodbye to Y-sensei and a whole bunch of other people I like but will never see again. But somehow I’m not nearly as emotional as I was after the graduation-ceremony day. I think I just used up all of my sadness about the passing of time and of people and now there’s none left. Now I’m mostly thinking about what great experiences I had this school-year and how now that I know most of the students and I really know what I’m doing, next school-year promises to be even better (depending of course on the replacements).

Was this really the longest day? No—others have been longer and felt more significant—but this one earned the title. Here’s to many more.

Reprise

March 25th, 2012 No comments

Going to the Spring Concert yesterday was one of the most correct decisions I’ve ever made. Although I didn’t feel like going at all and I was nervous about once again being the only foreigner in a crowd full of Japanese students and parents, I figured it would at least be far more of a memorable activity than whatever I would have done otherwise. It actually turned out to be a really great experience.

Weirdly enough, I actually met one of my students’ parents hours before I even left. My doorbell rang around 10:00 in the morning and I opened it to find an older, not-fully-Japanese woman standing there holding Jesus pamphlets. She greeted me in Japanese but then immediately switched to shockingly great English and told me that her daughter A- goes to my school. She recognized the name on my door because apparently A- talks about me a lot. A- is (or was) a second-grader who really stands out because of her appearance. She may be partly Japanese but she looks more Indian or Middle-Eastern. In any case, she’s really friendly and apparently her mother is as well.

The mom was going around handing out invitations to some sort of Jesus-festival thingy the Jehovah’s witnesses are holding at the beach early next month. She said she’d understand if I couldn’t come if ALTs aren’t supposed to take part in religious events, and I told her honestly that I don’t know what the rules are. She asked me if I believed in God (not a question you hear very often in Japan) and I told her I believe there’s something more to the universe than what we can see, which was good enough for her. She didn’t want to keep me long so she wished me a nice day and moved on. Although I’d be seeing many dozens more students’ parents that day, she would be the only one I’d communicate with.

It was wet and grey when I got on my bike and made my way up to Togane Hall, remembering the way there from the Chorus Contest. I debated whether to bring my camera, as I was attending this event as a private individual and therefore not subject to Interac policies, but decided against it just to play it safe. I was already going to be drawing much attention by being the only foreigner there, and who knows what ideas some parents might get about the gaijin taking photos of their kids. Although as it turned out, this concern was rather silly.

I biked up the hill to get there and was sweating bullets by the time I arrived, just another thing to draw attention to myself. I didn’t wear my suit but I didn’t want to dress too casual so I wore some khaki slacks and an un-tucked button-down shirt. When I got in to the lobby there, naturally every eye turned towards me and I could almost hear them thinking, “Who’s the gaijin and what is he doing here?” but luckily there was a group of three male students there who gave me a wave when I walked in, thus legitimizing my presence. They were third-graders, recent graduates I’d assumed I’d never see again.

The students in the band were eating lunch together beyond some glass doors leading to the entrances to the main hall. Everyone else had to wait outside the doors until 1:00 when the seating would begin. Shortly before that the students finished their lunch and started filing in to the backstage area, peaking out past the glass to see who was there. A bunch of them spotted me and waved, further legitimizing my presence. It was at this point that I realized two unexpected things—the band is much bigger than I thought it would be, and it was almost all-female. While I’d expected little more than a dozen students, the number was closer to fifty, and all but two of them were girls. Also unexpected but a much welcome surprise was that many of them were third-graders I’d thought I’d never see again.

When it finally came time to go in, I took a seat in the front row of the section just behind the orchestra seats. When M- wrote out the invitation she’d said the time was 1:00 p.m. but that was actually just the seating time. The concert started at 1:30, so there was an entire half-hour of just sitting and waiting.

But while I was sitting and waiting another group of girls came in and spotted me, about ten of them and mostly third-graders including one (yet another “A-”) whom I’d been particularly fond of and had been sad to lose forever at graduation. She’d been one of the students assigned to clean up the teacher’s room during the afternoon cleaning-time for the first half of the school-year, so I saw her every day and she tried to communicate with me more frequently than most students. She was as glad to see me again as I was to see her, and she even came up and asked to take a picture of me.

She and the other students sat in the very front of the orchestra section, where almost nobody else was sitting. For the rest of the half-hour waiting time, occasionally a few of them would look back and wave to me and giggle, especially one second-grader whom I’m fairly certain has a crush on me. At one point A- came back up to me and handed me her camera, asking me to take a video of her during a particular number, as apparently this group of girls wasn’t in the brass band but would be performing in a special piece at the start of the second half. So she left her camera with me and I pondered the irony of not having brought my own.

The second-grade A- whose mother I’d met earlier also came and walked by me, though she was just there to watch and her mother wasn’t present. But I told her in Japanese that I’d met her mother earlier, which caused a few heads to turn my way. Still, none of the other parents attempted to speak to me.

At 1:30 the school principal came to say a few words and then the concert got started. The first half was pretty basic, exactly the kind of thing I expected from a junior high school brass band concert. With Ms. S- conducting, they went through a series of short classical music pieces, none of which I recognized. It wasn’t the London Symphony Orchestra or anything, but they were okay. One student or another would often mess up and you’d hear a spectacularly wrong note here and there, but for the most part they sounded pretty good. Probably better than most American middle-school bands sound, as I imagine these kids are a bit more dedicated.

There was a ten-minute break, and then the second-half started with something completely different. The students had changed out of their school uniforms and into jeans and matching T-shirts, such a radically different appearance than what I’m used to, and the group of ten girls who’d been seated during the first half were now joining the others on stage for a piece called “Joyful Joyful”. It started with a couple of those girls singing solos, and while I think it was an English song I couldn’t really be sure because their pronunciation was severely distorted. I was recording the whole number for A-, and when the first half of the song was finished it became a much faster dance number, with A- as one of the two lead dancers. One of the third-grade boys showed up on stage dressed in a ridiculous costume like a sorcerer and did a rap which also may or may not have been in English.

The rest of the second half was somewhat more traditional but still much faster and more fun than the first half. I couldn’t believe how much work and thought had been put into the show. Students were frequently going off to change into different costumes and do little performances in between and during songs. None of it was comprehensible to me but it was definitely entertaining. They even had a couple of kids in full-on character-suits like those guys at Disney Land, but with Japanese characters from cartoon kids’ shows. At one point the principal even came out in a cheesy samurai costume and sang a little solo. That in itself would have been worth the price of admission (by which I mean time, as the concert was free).

Then things took a turn for the very sad near the end, as Ms. S- took the microphone and while some of the students played some light music in the background, she called all of the departing third-graders to the front of the stage, and they were all given flowers and took a bow one by one. Just like at graduation, there were tears in some of their eyes. So once again I got to contemplate how I’d probably never see these people again, though it was different this time because now I was seeing a bunch of people again that I’d thought two weeks ago I never would. They may not be a part of my school and therefore a part of my active life anymore, they’re still around. I occasionally spot students out and about, and while the odds of my seeing any one particular student again are very slim, the odds are good that I’ll at least see some of them around.

After those goodbyes there was one more piece with instruments, and then all of the students stood in a line in the front of the stage to sing one last song. Moving my eyes from student to student I considered whether this was the last time I’d ever see them or if I’d have another year or two before the final end. At least now I know that next year, for these second-graders, the actual last goodbye won’t be graduation but the Spring Concert.

On my way out of the main hall I was greeted by Mrs. T-, who was there with her two little daughters, one girl of about 3 and another in her arms about 1. It was very strange to see her in the role of mother. I’ve spent the better part of a year working alongside her and I’ve never seen her in that context before.

Just like after concerts and plays in my school-days, all of the students who’d performed were lined up outside the main hall on the way out the door. I was quite happy about that, as this gave me the perfect opportunity to go right down the line and greet all of them personally, as well as say my actual last goodbyes to the third-graders I hadn’t had a chance to at graduation.

A- had come up to me right after the show to get her camera back, and both of us knew this was probably the actual end. She seemed to appreciate that fact as much as I did, as she put out her hand for me to shake before saying goodbye. I said, “It’s nice to see you” and that was that.

But with the exception of a few third-graders, going down the line after the show was a happy experience, as all of the students gave me a warm smile and thanked me for coming. I’ll see most of them again in just a few weeks.

And that was my first Spring Concert in Japan. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but once I got settled in it felt like just another school event. The show itself was surprisingly good, and I got once last chance to see some third-graders again. The chances of my going again next year are about 1000%.