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Beginning of term
School started on September 1st, the same as it does at home - but the Japanese school year starts in April so this was the second term. There was a half-hour opening ceremony at Hikone Nishi, during which I had to introduce myself to the 800 or so students in Japanese - an extended version of the speech I made at the teachers' meeting.
That day I also found out how to use the scanner at school, so at last I was able to scan in the last six weeks' worth of photos and incorporate them into this website.
On September 3rd I got a call from Michael (my predecessor at Hikone Nishi) asking whether I'd be interested in doing some kimono modelling! The event is the All Japan Kimono Conference in Nagahama next month, and we'll be modelling for an up-and-coming Nagahama-based designer called Fumiko Nozaki. She's using a mixture of Japanese and foreign models. It sounded like an opportunity not to be missed, and we're even getting paid for it, which as far as I'm concerned is a bonus! On the 7th a few of us went to the designer's house to meet her and try on some of the kimono. They weren't really what I was expecting; she uses the traditional chirimen (crepe) fabric (which is manufactured in Nagahama) but the designs are modern, so there are none of the complications involved in putting on a traditional-style kimono. We were allowed to try on almost every garment she had, and we were more or less given a free rein in choosing which ones we wanted to wear for the show. On October 3rd we have a practice session where we'll be taught how to walk and so on, and the final details of our outfits will be decided. The big day is October 10th, and we're told that the show will be attended by around 250 people.
Trying on kimono at Nozaki-san's.
Both of my schools had festivals on September 7th and 8th. Hikone Nishi had a two-day culture festival (bunkasai), and Hachiman Technical had a sports festival (taiikusai) which was scheduled for the 7th but had to be abandoned until the next day due to bad weather. I'm told that these festivals are major events in the calendar of every Japanese school, and days, or even weeks, are spent preparing and rehearsing. Hikone Nishi's students - apart from the third years - had no lessons during the first week of term; it was preparation time for the culture festival.
On the morning of the 7th the whole school assembled in the gym, where the floor had been covered with tarpaulins and seating had been set out. (The tarpaulins were there so that you could go in wearing your normal indoor shoes; usually you have one pair of shoes for outdoor use, one pair of indoor shoes - the students all have to wear blue plastic slippers - and yet another set of footwear for use in the gym.) After the short opening ceremony there was a performance from the school wind band, followed by a play performed by one of the third year classes (I have no idea what it was about but the central character was a boy playing the part of a girl) and a slide show with taped accompaniment by another third year class. This was Fuji-sensei's homeroom class, so he filled me in on the background to the story: it was a continuation of the well-known (in Japan) fairy tale "Momotaro", about a boy who is adopted by a poor couple after they find him inside a giant peach, and who subsequently embarks on adventures with his friends a dog, a monkey and a bird. Together with his friends he goes to Ogre Island, defeats the evil red, blue and black ogres there and takes their treasure home with him, then everyone lives happily ever after. (Well, do Western fairy tales make any more sense?) The continuation of the story was that everyone had suddenly become too rich and didn't want the treasure any more, so Momotaro took it back to the ogres (who were good now) and everyone was happy. Or something like that.
After the whole-school session was over, people dispersed to various other activities. The were several food stalls, for which the students had come round selling tickets the previous week, so the company that does the staff lunchboxes probably didn't do much business that day. Most Japanese schools don't have canteens; the students bring their own "bento" (lunchboxes) and - at least at my two schools - a catering firm provides lunchboxes for those teachers who request them. At Hikone Nishi, if you want a bento, you put ¥400 in an envelope with your name on it and leave that in a box for the caterers to pick up when they deliver the food. At Hachiman Technical there's a choice of companies and of menus, and you put your money in the tin for the appropriate company with a note of your name and which menu option you require.
All the 1st years' homerooms had been completely transformed: one contained a display of photos and an imitation photographer's studio (with a wet floor for some reason); another contained a 3 foot tall house built out of biscuits and sweets; and another had been turned into a stage in the clouds, with no visible indication that it was actually a classroom.
House of sweets (class 1-5, I think).
Stage in the clouds.
After lunch it was time for the games in the ESS room. About 30 people came to the display, which wasn't bad when we were competing with a live band in the gym. A better turnout than last year, I was told. They made me announce the games over the PA system (in Japanese, of course), which may have helped! As well as the display that the students had put together, we had a couple of sideshow-type games: dropping coins into a bucket of water to try to cover a British 50p coin on the bottom, and guessing the name of a soft toy, which proved a big hit with almost every girl who entered the room - "Kawaii desu ne!" ("Isn't it cute?") We also played a couple of party games: Musical Chairs, and a game called All Change (good for introducing the players to the names of British cities - could alternatively be used for practising other new vocabulary).
Part of the ESS display.
Playing "All Change". The man in the picture is the principal, Matsuyama-sensei.
I missed the second day of Hikone Nishi's culture festival because it was a Wednesday, when I'm at Hachiman Technical. However, the bad weather on Tuesday meant that I got to see most of the sports festival there. The students had been put into seven teams, each team consisting of members of several classes and all three years. The first event of the day - after the communal warm-up session - was the cheerleading contest, in which the entire school participated. About 100 children from the local kindergarten came along to watch the competition too. I believe it was based - loosely - on the cheerleading entertainment at American NBAA matches. Each team had a routine set to music; I was on the judging panel and we had to give each team marks out of five for idea, co-operation, union, attitude and overall. In most cases everybody was involved in the dancing. Sometimes the routine was fronted by a few third-years in costume who performed a kind of mime; I think most of them were popular Japanese animé characters so they were a bit lost on me. It was all quite amusing though, especially when 90% of the cheerleaders were boys!
Spectators from the local kindergarten. Kawaii desu ne!
The cheerleading competition.
After the cheerleading was round one of the tug-of-war, with 24 people on a team (8 from each year). Round two took place after lunch, and I was persuaded to join the teachers' team, despite my wholly inappropriate footwear. We lost the first pull in about 3 seconds; we won the second but I think that was because we had far too many people pulling! The last event before lunch was skipping: each team had a long rope with 24 people jumping at once, and they had to complete as many jumps as possible in 3 minutes. The winners achieved 106.
Have you ever seen this many boys skipping? This was just one of seven teams!
The two final events were the team relay and the club relay. The team relay involved about 20 people per team, each covering half a lap of the track. The teachers took part and by the end of the race had been lapped by every team but one. Apparently they always come last. The club relay was back to the usual 4 people per team, but some of the bigger clubs had more than one team running, and several races were held. Some of the teams used novelty batons: one of the Craft & Art Club teams used a plaster bust, and another team (the Motor Club?) used a car steering wheel. The best ones, though, were the Kendo Club and the Craft and Art Club's other team. The Kendo Club's team members ran round in twos, fencing with their bamboo swords, with one person running backwards. They were wearing full kendo kit too. The Craft and Art Club team members each had a blank canvas and a handful of paint, and on the way round the track each person drew a kanji character on his canvas, then at the end they all lined up and the four kanji spelt out the name of their club.
The English teachers at Hachiman Technical (Takagi, Matsuzawa, Fukao and Konishi-sensei), with me and a few students.
Starting to teach
I taught my first lessons with Iwasaki-sensei at Hikone Nishi on Thursday 9th September. We used the audio-visual room, although we didn't make use of any of its special facilities. Most of my classes will be in that room. The first class was half of 2-6 (2nd year class 6, domestic studies (kateika) students), then we had two classes of 1st years. 1-2 were very quiet; 1-3 were a little livelier. We used the same lesson plan for all three classes, and got to about the same place in each case - not very far! Still, at least we were in no danger of running out of activities. Part of the reason was that Iwasaki-sensei spent a long time making sure that everyone understood the content of my self-introduction. I don't know whether the amount of translation and explaining she did was really necessary, but she knows the students' level far better than I do so I'm not really in a position to judge. It's hard to tell whether the students are understanding what you say, because when you ask them - even in Japanese - you usually get no response. Nobody wants to stand out by speaking up!
My second day's teaching included two lessons with Ito-sensei, with classes 1-4 and 1-5. In these lessons we got through more of the lesson plan, primarily because Ito-sensei spent less time explaining and elaborating on what I'd said in English. She took more of a supporting role in running the class, and seemed happy to let me take the lead.
On Monday 13th September I did my first teaching at Hachiman Technical. I'm teaching all the first year students there (7 classes), and am working with two teachers: Matsuzawa-sensei and Takagi-sensei. The academic level is generally slightly lower than at Hikone Nishi, and there's a wide range of levels of responsiveness among the different classes. My first lesson was with 1-5, one of the Information course classes. That was my only morning class, but I had three consecutive lessons after lunch. The first of these was 1-7, the Chemistry course. The students in this class seemed pretty disinterested in anything that either Takagi-sensei or I said to them, so the lesson was very hard work. The next class (1-6, Architecture) was quite a contrast: the students gave me a round of applause just for saying hello, and for some of the questions I even got people putting their hands up and shouting out answers! My final lesson of the day was with 1-1, who were still getting changed out of their PE kit when the lesson started (the school has no changing rooms so the students just use their homerooms; a separate room is set aside for the girls). This was a Machines class, all boys, and they were quite lively too, although they seemed more interested in the fact that they had a new female teacher - and a foreign one at that - than in learning English! Takagi-sensei is the only male teacher I'm working with, and when the students were required to make up questions to ask me, students in both of the classes I taught with him asked me whether I liked him. He's only been teaching since April and says he gets teased a lot about girlfriends and how young he looks.
My Tuesday classes at Hikone Nishi were 1-1 (very quiet), the second halves of 2-6 and 2-7 (kateika girls, a bit more responsive than the first years) and a class of about 15 third-year students who are taking English as an option subject. I'm only going to be teaching the 3rd years every second week.
That Wednesday was a holiday so I didn't teach my last three classes at Hachiman until the following week. 1-2 (another all-male Machines class) were similar to 1-1 in behaviour. 1-4 (Information, all boys), whom I taught with Matsuzawa-sensei, were also very lively but fortunately their energy was directed towards class activities. We didn't get very far through the lesson plan, but they showed more interest than any of the other classes and spent a long time asking me questions. The final lesson, with 1-3 (Electrical, almost all boys) was very difficult, since they were very rowdy and showed little interest in speaking English (apart from one or two of them repeatedly shouting "sexy!" and "oh yeah!" - or maybe that was 1-2). I'm told that their homeroom teacher finds them problematic too.
15th September was a public holiday (Respect for the Aged Day), and I had two parties to attend. The first one was a barbecue party with my Japanese class which was supposed to take place on Matsubara beach in Hikone, but when I went there there was nobody around. It had started raining quite heavily as I was leaving my apartment, so I got completely drenched too. (I was later given a refund because the event had been cancelled due to the rain.) The second party was in Nagahama, organised by the same group of people who'd organised the beach party in August. We had a meal followed by a Japanese culture session, where we had the opportunity to get dressed up in proper traditional kimono - one of my ambitions while in Japan - and to try calligraphy and tea ceremony (an abridged version compared to what I'd seen being practised at school). Once the party was over some of us went to Takao's office for a second party, and finally we went out for karaoke.
Posing in our kimono.
The whole group (just about).
Weekend in Kyoto
On Saturday 18th September seven Shiga ALTs spent the night at a women-only temple: the Rokuoin Temple on the edge of Arashiyama, in western Kyoto. It was getting dark when we arrived so it wasn't until the morning that we got to appreciate the beauty of the place. Our hosts spoke no English, and everyone else in the party spoke even less Japanese than me, but we coped surprisingly well. We spent the evening chatting and guzzling sweets and snacks.
The whole group at Rokuoin Temple: Andrea, Jo, me, Christie (wearing a mask that she'd just bought from a ¥100 shop), Belinda, Erika and Joanne.
Part of the temple.
A couple of recommendations for anyone contemplating a stay at a temple: douse yourself with insect repellent (I got eaten alive by mosquitoes!) and take your own towel with you. They like you to keep your arms and legs covered too.
We'd been expecting to get up at some ridiculous hour to participate in prayers and meditation, but there was none of that; we didn't even see anyone who looked remotely monkish. We did have to get up pretty early for a Sunday though, since breakfast was at 7.30am. After breakfast we explored the temple and relaxed in its tranquility for a while, before departing and going our separate ways.
I went back to Kyoto station, where I met up with a group of girls from the International Friendship Society. This is an organisation that runs children's weekend camps by the lake in Omihachiman several times a year; I'd contacted them to ask for details, and had been invited to join them for a sightseeing day and Mexican meal in Kyoto. I turned out to be the only gaijin; one other ALT had been planning to attend but for some reason had had to cancel. I'd expected a sightseeing itinerary but there was nothing planned, so we explored the upper reaches of the station (well worth doing; Kyoto station is an incredible structure) and then hit the shops. Had an excellent meal at Capricciosa Italian restaurant (which, being in Japan, has a variety of rice dishes on its menu), courtesy of IFS - they get funding from the prefecture, apparently. We walked the length of Nishiki food market; I'd stumbled across this market once before, but it was nice to have someone to explain what at least some of the weird and wonderful foods on display were. Most of them seemed to be varieties of tsukemono (pickled vegetables). The Mexican meal was to take place at the Kyoto home of one of the IFS staff members, but I departed before that, since I was pretty tired after not getting enough sleep the night before. I also wanted to spend longer in the Maruzen bookshop, where you can get English books. I managed at last to locate a Japanese cookery book with both photos of ingredients and listings in kanji as well as English. My main problem which has prevented me from doing much cooking so far (apart from laziness) is illiteracy, so hopefully this book will help me to identify the items I need to buy. Maybe some day I'll even get round to trying out one or two of the recipes in it!
Welcome enkai with Hikone Nishi
On September 22nd I attended my first school "enkai" (party) with the teachers of Hikone Nishi. It took place at a restaurant on Yume Kyobashi (Castle Road), just a few minutes' walk from my apartment, but it was far enough for me to get completely drenched on the way there! People keep telling me that this is the warmest and wettest September they can remember. The Japanese seem to talk about the weather even more than the Brits do! Anyway, it was a very enjoyable evening, held partly to welcome me and partly to congratulate Hayase-sensei, a PE teacher who's very good at handball (about which I know nothing) and will be participating in the All Japan Sports Festival next month (or something like that). The beer and sake flowed freely, and I spoke to several teachers whom I've had very little contact with up to now. I was surprised at how many of them can actually communicate quite well in English, given a little alcoholic lubrication! I was presented with a beautiful flower arrangement too, and wasn't allowed to pay for the meal.
Photos from the Hikone Nishi enkai.
Afterwards about 15 of us went on to karaoke, but there were only about five songs in English to choose from (plus a few Christmas ones which I refused to sing in September!) and they were all written for male voices. I had to sing Yesterday, but it was in the wrong key for me so I had to keep jumping up and down octaves. I think you can adjust the key on most karaoke machines nowadays, but it didn't seem to have any effect when someone tried to do it on this occasion. Next time I'll just have to insist that we go to a place with a few more English songs on the list! (To make matters worse, I was hit afterwards with a bill for ¥4000 (over £20), just for the karaoke - when I'd only been drinking water! Oh well, at least I got the meal for free...)
The next day was a public holiday (the autumnal equinox), which was just as well judging by the state of some of the teachers!
On Friday 24th September there was a typhoon warning - the 18th typhoon of 1999, but the first to come as far north as Shiga - so there were no lessons (and for once, no students) at school. The teachers were expected to attend, but most only stayed until around lunchtime. The were news updates all day on the typhoon's progress; Kyushu and the western end of Honshu were badly hit, with the typhoon moving northwards and eastwards as the day went on. Shiga was expected to be hit around 6pm, but not by the eye of the storm. The weather here gave no indication that a tropical storm was on its way; most of the day was fine, if a bit breezy, and there were only a couple of showers, quite heavy but insignificant compared to some of the rain we'd had recently.
As it turned out, the typhoon bypassed Shiga completely. I almost felt cheated! After that, the weather started to cool down to more tolerable temperatures, and the heavy showers became less frequent.
Found out that I've used up over 2/3 of the 15MB of webspace allotted to me by Freeserve (my ISP), so I'm going to have to either cut down on the number of photos, start removing the full-size ones after a couple of months, or find a new host. That's why this month's thumbnails have got smaller!