Same Same But Different!

Trip Start Jun 27, 2009
Trip End Jun 25, 2011

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The past month since arriving back from Hokkaido has been good, just getting back into the swing of teaching as second semester starts (the school year here starts in April, so September is the beginning of "ni (2)-gakki" in Japan). I haven't done much traveling far from home this month, which honestly has been nice. I'm so used to packing up my backpack and going away most weekends, so lately I've really enjoyed sleeping in in my own bed, catching up on American TV shows, and doing things around the southern Wakayama area. I also just learned that Wakayama, means peaceful mountain!

This past weekend was a 3-day weekend, so some of us decided to go sea kayaking/snorkeling! The town about 30 minutes away by car, Kushimoto (where Tony lives) is famous for it's surfing, and reefs for snorkeling and scuba diving. We booked a day island tour with a local company and met them bright and early Monday morning. Everyday I do something involving the water, whether it be the river or ocean, I'm grateful to have been placed in such a beautiful area, I love living on the ocean! We were given a quick lesson in kayaking and then we set off into the choppy Pacific. We could see the island we were paddling to, but it seemed a lot farther away than it looked once we started paddling. We toured around the islands, and the 'Thai Fish Island', then got out of the boats and explored some big caves and snorkeled. Our guides set up a BBQ for us for lunch and we swam, layed out and relaxed until it was time to paddle back. The guides invited us back to the "resort" to use their onsen, and boy were we glad we drove back out there. It was GORGEOUS. All in all a great day!

At schools this month I've been mainly reviewing with my classes, since the last time I saw most of the kids was in June or early July. We are reviewing self-introductions (My name is...I'm ___ years old), weather, fruit, numbers, colors, animals and the question "Do you like ------?" with answers "Yes I do" and "No I don't." We've also been playing UNO in English, which the kids love.

All around Japan this month students from preschool to highschool age are practicing for the annual Sports Festival Day held at every school. This is a huge tradition in Japan involves a lot of practice. Unfortunately I will be in Korea this year during my schools sports days, but I am enjoying sitting outside baking in the sun (ha) watching them practice things like organized military-esque marching, singing, synchronized stretching, etc...

The Sports Days feature some pretty uniquely Japanese events that you sure would never seen in America: unicycling while bouncing a basketball (one of my friends yesterday said he felt like he worked at a circus school!), traditional Japanese odori dancing with fans and taiko drums, obstacle courses, family 3-legged races, relay races, and pyramid making. Each student is put into a 'block' and the blocks compete against each other in competitions throughout the day. It's a huge deal, grandparents and other family members come and stake out a spot to watch all day, only taking a break for lunch.

OH! Last week I had such a pleasant surprise when I walked into my favorite school to find there were 2 new students, 2nd and 3rd grade girls...who speak FLUENT ENGLISH! Turns out their mom is from England and their dad is from Japan, but they live in Australia - crazy right? Well anyways, they are here visiting their grandparents in my town for their winter vacation, and the parents decided to put them in school to help their Japanese.

After I found out about this I immediately went down to introduce myself, so happy at the thought of speaking English, and having never been so excited before in my life to hang out with a 7 and 8 year old! Amy and Mia were both so cute, and we immediately bonded over our similar situations..being different, and not understanding anyone (although I'll admit their Japanese was a little better than mine). We drew a huge crowd of onlookers in the hallway and classroom whispering things like "Wow.. listen!" "So cool, they're speaking only English!" "I don't understand anything!! Do you?"

I had the best day talking to them, teaching their classes, eating lunch with them and playing with them at recess. It felt, for a few shorts hours, like I was at home talking to some of my students at lunch, listening to their everlasting stories where they elaborate on every little detail that happened. It was great and obviously the students and teachers were all so amazed that we all could speak so much English. It amazes me, it's like the people I work with don't think I know ANY languages because I can't really speak Japanese. I'm not quiet by choice people! I just can't articulate myself in Japanese. I was happy Amy and Mia were there to show them that I actually CAN speak another language, just not theirs - haha. But unfortunately for me, they will only be here for a few weeks :( as they return to Australia at the end of the month.

Recently at Tea Ceremony, our teacher Shibasaki Sensei (whom we receive free lessons from in exchange for helping her practice her English), decided that she would only speak to us in Japanese. She feels it would be a waste if we lived here for 2 years and left not speaking any Japanese! She has a good point, but it came as a surprise when we walked in that day...

It was really hard at first, because she can be much more strict in her first language, but I think in the long run it will be good for Lily and I. I came away from our last class with a few new vocabulary words, and a few grammar questions answered. It's also nice because she's not afraid to correct us when we make grammar mistakes (she tutors kids in English so is used to correcting mistakes), something not many Japanese people do. But now we have to worry about the million things we need to remember in tea ceremony and now understanding her Japanese instructions as we go. Meccha muzukashi!! (very difficult)

We also discovered a new restaurant in the next town over! It's a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, but much better quality than the one we had been going to. You can really tell the fish is fresher at this place. Conveyor belt sushi is really popular in Japan because its cheap, quick and easy - everyone gets to choose what they want from the conveyor belt - and if you want something that not on the conveyor belt, just tell the sushi chef and they'll make it for you right in front of you. There's also a hot water tap at each table, so there is an unlimited supply of green tea during each meal. When you are finished you stack up your plates and the waitress comes by with a scanner, scans your plates, and gives you a plastic sensor that you then take to the cashier. You can eat a ton of great sushi for under $15! My favorite nigiri sushi (the raw fish over rice kind of sushi) are salmon onion, tuna and shrimp. I also like the ebi mayo (shrimp and mayonnaise, grilled slightly with a blow torch), and tamago (egg over rice). 

There are countless local festivals (matsuri) in Japan because almost every shrine celebrates its own one. Most festivals are held annually and some last for several days. A matsuri is basically a symbolic act whereby participants enter a state of active communication with the gods in the form of feast and festival. 

Festival floats or 'mikoshi' are an important element of Japanese festival processions. The local shrines kami (Shinto deity) is carried through the town. It is the only time of the year when the kami leaves the shrine. Many festivals also feature decorated floats (dashi), which are pulled through the town, accompanied by drum and flute music by the people sitting on the floats. Every festival has its own characteristics. While some festivals are calm and meditative, most tend to be energetic and noisy. I included some pictures from 2 recent festivals in my town. They are lots of fun to watch and I enjoy seeing my students perform in them.

News in Japan...
After only taking office barely one year ago, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned last week. He claims his reason for resigning were due to 'stress and stomach related issues.' But everyone knows it's because his reign was ridden with financial scandal, maybe it's the stress related to that, Abe? One of his top cabinet members commit suicide and shortly after a few more resigned. His party had also recently lost control of the house and Abe's ratings plummeted to a year low. In his resignation speech he said, "The people need a leader whom they can support and trust." I'll say!

Here are some highlights from Abe's one year in power:
21 Dec: Head of a government tax panel, resigns amid reports he was living with a mistress in an apartment subsidized by taxpayers' money.
27 Dec:
The minister for administrative reform resigns amid allegations of irregular funding.
27 Jan 2007: Health minister calls women "breeding machines", leading to calls for his resignation and seriously embarrassing the prime minister.
 5 March: Mr Abe says there is no proof that the Japanese army or government kidnapped women in World War II to act a sex slaves. He later tries to clarify the comments, but they still lead to outrage across Asia.
28 May: Agriculture Minister commits suicide over claims he had links to a political funding scandal.
3 July: Defence Minister resigns over controversial remarks about the US atomic bombings of Japan. He said the bombings "couldn't be helped".
1 Aug: Agriculture Minister steps down after being accused of financial irregularities.
3 Sept: Agriculture minister resigns only a week after being appointed. He admitted a farm group he heads was involved in illegal dealings.

In other news, Japan is said to have the largest population of centenarians in the world. They currently have some 30,000 citizens aged 100 and over. Today the worlds oldest man (yes he is Japanese!) celebrated his 112th birthday and said he wants to live indefinitely! He was born in 1895 and says his secret to longevity is to not drink alcohol. He also drinks milk, does not smoke, keeps a diary and reads the newspaper daily.

OK a few more random things...

Top 5 Restaurants I Dream About (in no particular order):
1. Panera- tuna salad sandwich
2.California Pizza Kitchen-tostada pizza
3. Rio Grande/Cactus Cantina-shrimp fajita's and extra guacamole
4. Austin Grill-mexican brunch
5. Bittersweet Cafe-egg salad sandwich
Things I miss from America:
air conditioning
happy hour
my friends
Drinks I Miss (that you can't find in Japan):
orange gatorade
apple cider
miller lite

OK that's all I swear.
Now it's time for some Entourage and bed. Lily is coming to school with me tomorrow to help me teach, so that will be fun. It's always nice to have her there. Then we have our adult english conversation class at night (oops I forgot to write about that, but it's going really well!)
Goodnight everyone :)

PS: If you have a computer, download SKYPE and we can talk for free!!
It's easy I swear. Right Ethel?

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