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Archive for October, 2009

Strawberry and Cream "Collon" - YUM!

Strawberry and Cream "Collon" - YUM!

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Yoga!

In brainstorming ways that I could contribute to my community here, outside of teaching English to kids, sharing yoga came up high on the list.  While I can truthfully say that I’ve only “discovered” yoga recently, it’s been a big part of my own mental and physical health in the past several months, and I have really relied on it to keep me feeling good here in Japan.  I got the idea from Carly, one of the other ALTs in Shimokita, who has been offering a weekly yoga class to her town for the past couple years.  I introduced the idea to my Board of Education about a month ago, and two weeks ago had my first class. Forty people showed up!

So far, most of the participants are other teachers at my schools and students’ moms, but the ones I’m especially pleased to have had come are the people who obviously just saw the flyer in the paper and decided to check it out!  Ages have ranged from 5 year olds to 70 year olds, and while it’s not a class of people looking to stick with yoga for the rest of their lives, I am pleased to offer an opportunity for them to do something different a night a week.  Lots of people are curious.  Lots of people are embarrased by how stiff they are.  And it might be a good while before we get into backbends – if ever – but there is laughter and a good energy in the class, and that’s enough for me.

Hardcore yogis might balk at the fact that I don’t have a license (which I have readily admitted to my “students”), but to be able to bring something fun, and healthy, and just a little bit ‘exotic’ to this less cosmopolitan part of Japan, and to meet people in the community I wouldn’t otherwise get to know, was my initial goal, and it’s working.  While I’m sure that the number of people will probably decrease after awhile, from now on (excluding school holidays) there is free yoga in Kazamaura, Japan every Tuesday from 7pm till 8pm!  Anyone is welcome!

Opening Meditation

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Culture Day Festivals

At both my Elementary schools and my Junior High School, we have recently had our annual Culture Day Festival.  For the Junior High it is called a Bunka-sai.  For the Elementary schools, it is referred to as a Happyo-kai. Both are a chance for the students to prepare and perform songs, dances, and plays for their families and also to show some of the work they’ve done during the past semester.  Especially at the Bunka-sai, a lot of time and effort goes into the preparation.  Club activities were canceled several weeks prior to the event, and the students and teachers focused almost entirely on the different bits they’d perform.  The week before the event, teachers were still at school until 10pm some nights, and the preparation is known throughout Japan as being a busy time during the school year.

The happyo-kai at one of my elementary schools was last Sunday, from 9am to noon.  The gymnasium was decorated, folding seats laid out for guests, as well as portable tatami and zabuton seat pillows.  The students sang a couple songs, did a couple dances, both traditional and modern (one’s theme was a baseball game where the girls danced around as cheerleaders), and put on two plays. The 1st and 2nd graders put on a play where they all dressed up as animals trying to solve a crime.  The 5th and 6th graders did a heavy little number about a mother during WWII whose sons all join the Japan war effort and never come home.  Uplifting stuff. At the end of the day, the students sold some of the vegetables they grew and harvested in their school gardens.  I got two bags of potatoes for the equivalent of $1!

1st and 2nd graders dance

1st and 2nd graders dance

3rd and 4th graders Love Cheer for the moms

3rd and 4th graders Love Cheer for their moms

Marathon Daikon

Marathon Daikon

Yesterday, Sunday, was the Bunka-sai at Kaza Chu.  It began at 9am and ended at 3pm.  The morning set included an awesome intro by the 3rd year students doing a traditional stomping dance, followed by a perfectly synchronized taiko drumming set.  Some of the highlights that followed were a local kagura dance of good luck, with the main dancer donning a lion’s mask, an omochi making dance with the girls dressed up in traditonal kimono, the brass band renditions of YMCA and Abba songs, and a slapstick “Skeleton Dance” which was performed by a group of boys wearing outfits that a black light rendered into neon skeletons.  This bit culminated in Michael Jackon’s Thriller song being played, basic dance moves and all.  Lunch was obento style in the main hall, and afterwards, guests were encouraged to check out the home rooms, which the students had painstakingly designed to showcase their work from this semester.  Art projects dotted the rooms, calligraphy hung on the walls, haikus and essays were portrayed in plastic frames, and the rooms themselves embellished with streamers and tissue paper flowers and little hanging discoballs.  After lunch/intermission, an hour long play was performed, and the closing ceremony consisted of a very local traditional song, which the entire student body sang, in perfect harmony.

Kagura Dance

Kagura Dance

Omochi Making Dance

Omochi Making Dance

Skeleton Dance

Skeleton Dance

3rd Year Room Decorations

3rd Year Room Decorations

Apparently, this format is only possible in smaller schools.  In a larger school close by with two gymnasiums, one gym is set up with all the student work, with the other one set up with a stage for the actual performances of the day.  Also, I have gotten a lot of questions about if we do this sort of thing in America, and I believe the answer is yes, we do.  However, it seems different to me.  I remember Open Houses in the evening where parents would come to school to see what the students have done, projects set about the classroom in a similar fashion.  But I also remember there being more separate but consistent opportunities for parents to join the school community.  Watching sports games regularly, or being present at the plays and musicals each semester.  In the end, the idea is the same, if the execution a little different.

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Harvest Season

As the title of this post suggests, harvest season has come to Shimokita.

The bounty I received over the course of seven days

The bounty I received over the course of seven days. Clockwise from top center: Chinese cabbage, Daikon Radish, Sweet Potato, Cauliflower, Edamame, Red Daikon Radish

Not only have I been the recipient of more cabbage and daikon radish than I could possibly know what to do with, but I have also gotten to experience harvesting some of these grains and veggies with my students in the past couple weeks.  Each of my schools, both Elementary and JH, have their own gardens varying in diversity.  The students have all actively participated in prepping the land, sowing the seeds, and now reaping the harvest.  One sunny day last week, the entire school (all thirty-six students!) harvested daikon during 4th period.  Not being incredibly familiar with daikon radish, I was surprised at how large some of these daikon were once unearthed.  It amazes me that something that starts out as teeny-tiny as a seed can grow as big as my leg within the course of a a couple months!

Pulling out the daikon

Pulling out the daikon

Daikon waiting for the washing station

Daikon waiting for the washing station

At another school this past week, I got to harvest sweet potatoes with my 1st and 2nd grade students.  First we tore away all the vines growing on top of the mounds, then I got to watch and help as a bunch of six and seven year olds dug around in the dirt to see who could find the biggest sweet potato!  In the end, we dug up around 30 sweet potatoes and each student got to take home a couple.  They are delicious, and so easy to make!  Just wrap in tin foil, stick in the toaster oven a couple times and a perfect warm snack!

Probably my favorite and most interesting garden experience this week, however, was the rice harvest on Friday with another of my elementary schools.  They planted the rice in spring and let it mature all through the summer.  About a month ago, all the rice in Japan started changing color – from that fresh, vibrant green to varying shades of beige and yellow.  Not only do the leaves change color in Fall, here, but so too does the rice, and it makes for a pretty beautiful landscape.  As for harvest day, we arrived after lunch and each student selected a small scythe.  Then, everyone descended into the rice paddy after being shown the correct way of slicing: you grab the clump of rice with one hand, bend forward in a lunge with the opposite foot in front, and slice towards you with the corresponding hand to the foot.  The aim is to slice the stalks as close to the ground as possible.  Then, the decapitated stalks are left to the wayside and finally bunched together with twine, and hung out to dry in various methods.  The method preferred at this harvest is common, where the rice bunches are draped over a large-scale towel-rack looking thing, but I have also seen little fairy tee-pees propped around the perimeter of the paddy, or another method where the rice is splayed out in layers on a central pole, resembling stunted Dr. Seuss trees more than anything.

The work was not overly challenging, but it was rather uncomfortable being bent over at an awkward angle for so long, and without a team of youngsters helping, it would not only be uncomfortable but incredibly time consuming.  Makes sense that a life-time of such work, in conjunction with a serious lack of calcium, would bend the spines of so many of these old Japanese obaasans.  The work succeeded, though, in giving me a sense of appreciation for where my rice comes from, and the lesson was not lost on my students, either.  In Japan this is an incredibly valuable lesson to teach, as rice is typically part of every single meal, of every single day.  I would also argue that teaching children early on that the food they consume can be easily grown at home is a really important piece of information.  Especially when a child can experience and understand the efforts and rewards that go into the growing and eating of food.  In terms of immediate rewards for the Friday harvest…we get to eat the rice at the Omochi Making Party in November!  Now that’s some upcoming gratification!

Rice Paddy in Summer

Rice Paddy in Summer

School Paddy pre-Harvest

School Paddy pre-Harvest

Students hanging rice to dry

Students hanging rice to dry

What a finished paddy will look like, on a beautiful day

What a finished paddy will look like, on a beautiful day

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This morning on my way to school I heard a cry. My ears are innately tuned to kitty cries in a maternal fashion, and it cut through me like a knife.  I can hear Samson’s pathetic little mewl from opposite ends of the house.  I looked around and thought I was mistaken, since I couldn’t determine the source.  A few steps later, crouched near a car in the parking lot I saw this tiny little thing, no more than 8 or 9 weeks old, mostly white with black little cow spots, limping and meowing. As I got closer, it snuck under the car, but then tentatively crept out and towards my open hand.  It was purring!  I immediately scooped it up, since a parking lot is no place for a sweet little kitten.  I was on my way into the building to ask if anyone knew about the cat, when someone came out and told me I couldn’t bring it inside and that it was 捨てた猫 (literally, ‘thrown away cat’). Acting on the innate belief that you don’t leave starving and hurt kittens who obviously want human contact in a parking lot, I took it home, put it in my shed, and fed it some tuna.

Back at school, over the course of the next half hour, the kitten was a hot topic in the teacher’s room.  I was worried and torn, wanting to keep it, knowing that it needed to go to a vet, but also knowing that at the moment, I was physically ill-prepared to take care of a cat – no litterbox, no food.  I asked repeatedly if they thought the cat had a home.  Everyone said, no, probably not.  Also, nobody wanted to give me their opinion, though the one idea that they threw around was that it should be taken back to the bridge in town where it was found (it followed a student on her commute this morning) even though it had no home, and left there.

At this moment is where my cultural beliefs on animal treatment  and most Japanese people’s cultural beliefs on animal treatment clashed.  In as sweet and sincere a way as possible, I said that I could give the animal to a shelter where someone would take care of it, but that I could not and would not leave it outside to die. This is when they called in to my supervisor to make a decision.  Evidently, while I was in class, a decision was made and my supervisor came by to pick up the cat. Apparently, they are going to take care of it until they can take it to a humane society, where it will get vet treatment and hopefully find a home.  If this indeed happens or not, I’m not sure. I did, however, get the sense that I had created more work for them than they wanted, even though I would have happily adopted the kitty and carried out all necessary errands concerning its health.

So here’s my struggle and assessment.  If that kitten had scurried away and didn’t want to be helped, so be it.  There would have been nothing I could do. Yet, it’s sweet demeanor and how it obviously craved human contact broke my heart. Here I was holding a good, snuggly kitty with a hurt paw and an empty tummy. For all my Japanese coworkers, I might as well have been talking about a rabbit or a squirrell.  Atleast here in the inaka, they don’t consider cats as pets. Many stray cats run around town, probably being fed every so often, but ultimately shying away from people and living a feral lifestyle. I see dogs locked in 4×4 foot yards, or relegated to the genkan area by a leash, but never allowed to come inside the house. On my way to Mutsu, on the side of a highly trafficked road, there is a golden retriever locked in an approximately 5×8 foot pen, with a doghouse, surrounded by weeks worth of its own feces. I can only imagine it is never let out, nor taken care of in the least. It is animal cruelty and neglect for everyone and anyone to see, and no one does a thing. And how???

One reason, is the cultural framework.  Many people I’ve come across don’t understand the American notion that a pet is a member of the household.  In Japan, it is treated as an animal is meant to be treated, and that means, not at all human-like. (This confuses me, though, since name-brand ‘fashion’ cats and dogs are doted on like Paris Hilton’s stupid little chihuahua.  And just look at all the Japanese youtube videos people take of their cute Scottish Fold kittens!)  Going back to the cultural reasons though, another one is that the infrastructure we are accustomed to for unwanted animals doesn’t exist here.  People are more likely to “throw away” a litter of kittens outside than take them to a shelter where they might find a good home.  Needless to say, people then don’t go to a shelter to adopt like we do in America.  From my experience, nobody takes direct responsibility for stray animals, or maybe even their own.  In fact, if I hadn’t made a big deal out of it, that cat would have been left to fend for itself.

So, this upsets me because I love animals, and specifically, because I could give that cat a better future than it will likely get.  (Also, because I so dearly want a kitty and, while I have decided I won’t go out and buy one, would not object to the responsibility if it fell into my lap. Which, it more or less did.) And I believe that humans are and should be responsible for the ethical treatment of defenseless creatures. And it upsets me because I don’t think Japan can hide behind economic reasons that afflict many poor and developing countries, as far as their treatment of animals.  By far, the more heartwrenching aspects of traveling in Cuba and India were the countless stray and unwanted dogs and cats. However, how can you blame a country for not feeding or neutering their animals when they can’t even feed themselves?  As a wealthy and developed nation, Japan should not have stray animals running around and they should have a wider infrastructure set up to deal with this problem.  Maybe in the more urban areas this is the case, but given that the nearest veterinarian is 1 hour away from my town, the Japan inaka has a long way to go in terms of animal welfare.

Poor kitters…what will become of it?

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Playing Favorites

I will admit, it is a difficult task for me to be a truly neutral person, and I suspect it is much the same for most others.  It turns out that people have opinions, tastes, and preferences, one sphere of which is preferences for other people.  If humans had no preferences, there’d be no point in finding partners or even surrounding one’s self with friends and allies.  Is it chemical?  Shared interests? A mutually recognized spark of kindred spiritedness?  It’s difficult to say.  I do know, however, that remaining neutral when it comes to preferences in people becomes all the more difficult as a teacher, or really anyone in a mentoring position.

Personally, I find it easy to like the outgoing, bright, little girl who plays soccer with the boys when no other little girls do.  Personally, I find it difficult to like the clingy, cry-baby little boy who throws tantrums and hits people because he can’t use his words.  In the older grades, I find it easy to like the students who participate in class, make eye contact, initiate conversation with me, and are generally pleasant to be around.  Genki. Personally, I find it difficult to like the sullen, meek, or just plain rude kids who talk over the teacher, and don’t try to engage at all.  The glitch lies, though, in the fact that it is often the latter character of student who needs the most support.  And, given my natural human predilections (after all, I generally prefer quick witted and confident adults to dispassionate ones, too) how do I manage to remain open and accessible for the students who might need me most?

In hindsight, my most successful classes from elementary education through college were with teachers whom I liked, and whom probably liked me.  Some of that success also had something to do with what I was good at and I will not downplay the significance that has on both sides of the student-teacher relationship.  I loved 10th grade English with Jim Applebaum because it was interesting, challenging, because I liked him and respected him as a teacher, and because I was good at it.  I was probably treated in such a way because I tried, obviously enjoyed class, and produced solid work.  I can remember certain classes where I felt unliked by the teacher, the subject didn’t click so well, and I’m sure my interactions and input depicted such sentiments accordingly.  So what comes first? The chicken or the egg?

All that said, a teacher like Mr. Applebaum seems to be one of those natural teachers who probably makes every student feel special, regardless of if they are good in his class or not. Was he completely unbiased?  Probably not.  But to be able to look at every student with an eye towards something strong and promising in them is a great place to start, and probably not a bad exercise to take into the greater world of human interaction, either.

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Last night, I had the great fortune of spending the evening in the company of my friend Kana, and her family, who live in Kazamaura.  I met Kanako soon after I arrived here and through her, have met many of her long-time friends, all mid- to upper-20’s living and working in Shimokita.  We have all hung out several times – an awesome BBQ at Kana’s family’s cedar house with grilled-in-shell scallops and other tasty meats and veggies, Oma Matsuri in August, an impromptu Sunday evening potluck at my house, and most recently, a day baking bread with an ex-baker friend of hers.  Kana’s English is very good, as she studied in both Canada and New Zealand, and our communication moves smoothly, with both of us easily transitioning back and forth from Japanese to English, whenever there’s a mix-up.  Last week’s baking party was a huge success, getting to spend the day learning how to make delicious Japanese style bread and pastries: Melon Bread (with its’ soft inner dough, and it’s cookie-like crispy, sugared crust, which is criss-crossed to resemble a melon), An-Pan ( bread pastries filled with anko, a sweet black bean paste), and Cinnamon Raisin Rolls.

The Baking Party

The Baking Party

Our tasty pastries

Our tasty pastries

As enjoyable as getting to spend time with Kana and her friends is though, it was a pleasure for me to get to hang out with her parents, the Muraguchi’s.  Her father owns and runs a hiba (cedar) workshop in town and crafts large furniture items, as well as children’s toys, table lamps, cooking utensils, you name it.  Her mother is an awesome cook, as I can attest to from dinner last night, and it seems they both like to entertain guests from all over the world, let alone Japan.  Living so far away from my own home, it is comforting getting to spend time with other people’s welcoming families. Their easy-going banter and ribbing is a sure sign that they like to be around one another, and it’s a great environment when you’re feeling a bit lonely, or just plain hungry for delicious Japanese food and fun company. Kana’s relationship with her friend Megumi – they’ve known eachother since Pre-School – reminds me of my own Meg.  Even the big/little dichotomy and the good-natured taunting is the same.

Also notable about last night, Kana’s mother (an amateur in tea ceremony) showed me the basics in tea drinking.  It was casual, no kimonos, but I got the basic gist of it, and it has only piqued my interest more.  What I loved is the tradition involved in tea ceremony, and the set ways and movements for going about everything.  The right and wrong way to bow.  Where to place your hand on the cup.  Which direction to turn it in.  Which piece of sweets you help yourself to first, and the delicate manner in which you eat it.  How many sips in which you drink your tea.  The patience and mental strength it takes to sit on your knees for extended periods of time.  The way in which you get up wearing a kimono, the foot you place in front of you to turn gracefully.  All of this I find endlessly beautiful in a subtly sexy and ordered way.  Mostly, I am enchanted by the ceremony of it all, something I think is lacking in most cultural practices in America.

I wish I had photos to show for my lovely evening, but I am banking on there being many more good times to come.

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