If you see a photo that looks interesting, click on the thumbnail for an enlarged picture, then use the "Back" button on your browser to return to this page.
To stay or not to stay?
We may only have been in Japan for four months, but on December 2nd they started asking us whether we want to renew our contracts for another year. I came over here with no intention of staying for more than one year, naively thinking that after that time I'd be feeling perfectly at home and able to converse fairly fluently in the local lingo. However, at my current rate of progress I think it's going to take a bit longer than that; I feel as if after one year I'll only just have scratched the surface. I'm enjoying my time here and having lots of great new experiences, but I feel as if I'll be getting more out of it once I can communicate more effectively. People have made me feel very welcome, but it does get frustrating at times when neither my Japanese nor their English is sufficient for us to hold a coherent conversation. At present I can express myself to some degree but I hardly understand a word anyone says to me.
Of course, there are other factors playing a part in my decision of whether or not to renew. Since I'm a Brit, my tax situation encourages me to stay out of my home country for a second year; on the other hand, my UK employer generously permitted me to take a year's career break to participate in the JET Programme, and that won't extend to two years. But do I want to return to the corporate world in any case? At this stage I really don't know.
As the weather steadily gets colder, there's also the possibility that by the final deadline in February I'll have come to the conclusion that I can't possibly tolerate living without my central heating for another winter in Japan!
Then there's the issue of keeping my house tenanted and undamaged. There doesn't seem to be a problem with the current tenants, but they've given notice for 9th February, which I don't suppose is the best time of year to look for new tenants. (Does anybody know of someone who's looking to rent a nice, well-located 3-bedroom semi in Birmingham for a few months?)
At the moment they're only asking for a preliminary decision so I've gone for the safe "I think I want to renew but I'm not sure yet" option. The final deadline for the decision is February 16th.
On December 4th I went to Kyoto for Yoon's leaving do; she was returning to Denmark a couple of days later. I left in time to get not-quite-the-last train home, and somehow managed to get on the wrong train at Yamashina. They both stop at the same platform, and just to confuse matters, the train going up the east side of the lake (my side) is bound for Nagahama, whereas the one going up the west side is bound for somewhere called Nagahara. I was busy writing a letter and it was almost 20 minutes before I realised I was going the wrong way. Fortunately I just made it back to Yamashina in time for the last train from there back to Hikone!
I did get stranded in Nagahama on December 10th, because I went through to join some other ALTs for the evening and made the mistake of believing someone who told me that my rail timetable was out of date and there was a later train back to Hikone. He was right about there being a new timetable, but it turned out that he was looking at the wrong side of it; the later train was from Osaka, not Nagahama! Fortunately another ALT took pity on me and put me up at his apartment for the night.
Exams and end of term
Week commencing 6th December was exam week at both my schools, so I had no teaching - but I did have 200 first year test papers to mark at my base school. For the remaining week and a half both schools are on a reduced timetable, and I have a few lessons to teach at Hachiman Technical but none at Hikone Nishi. I have a new colleague at Hikone Nishi: Nakamura-sensei, who is taking Iwasaki-sensei's place. She's just beginning her teaching career and started at our school on December 14th. (Iwasaki-sensei is seven months pregnant and taking a year out.)
After the exams I had no teaching for the rest of the term at Hikone Nishi, and only a few lessons at Hachiman. During the last part-week of term there was a timed Hachikoosoo at Hachiman (which I participated in, but I'm not sure what my time was) and a ball games festival at Hikone Nishi. The boys played football (soccer) and basketball, the girls dodgeball (a new one on me, but it looked like fun) and volleyball. I took the opportunity to go round and chat to the students. I was a bit surprised when one girl begged me to give her one of my "golden" hairs (personally I'd just describe my hair as lightish brown, but I'm not complaining) and then spent the next 20 minutes playing with the hairs I gave her!
The end-of-term closing ceremony was held on December 22nd, and consisted of the whole school assembling in the gym (which was freezing) for about an hour of speeches, presentations etc. Not terribly exciting, especially when you don't understand the proceedings. After that there was a big cleaning session (Japanese school students are responsible for cleaning their own classrooms) and a long homeroom session, after which the students dispersed.
IFS Christmas Camp
The IFS Christmas Camp took place on the weekend of 11th-12th December. This time there were 43 kids, and I was the only native English speaker. We were also joined for a few hours by a couple of guys from the Caribbean, one of whom I could only communicate with in French (and it's over 13 years since I studied French!), and Garg, the Indian guy who came on the Hallowe'en camp, came along a bit later.
After the introductions we decorated the kids' cabin, then the children made cheesecake (and stencils for decorating the cakes with cocoa powder), and then we had a rather strange meal which I sincerely hope that none of the kids thought was a traditional Western Christmas dinner! It consisted of soup, a kind of risotto, and roast beef (very rare) and potatoes. Next there was a performance of "Jingle Bells" on handbells by some of the staff and older kids. Then we had the cheesecake and a toast with a kiddy "champagne" called Champery. (Personally I preferred it to the real stuff!) After that there were supposed to be party games, but some of the children decided it was bedtime and nobody else seemed to object, so we just let them get on with it.
The next morning, after breakfast, there was a kind of scavenger hunt in English, followed by English bingo. By the time these were finished it was lunchtime. After lunch I did a "pronunciation world tour" exercise which has gone down well with most of my students at school - but I think we spent a bit too long on it this time, because some of the kids seemed to lose interest after a while. Next there were a couple of party games and a bit of free time, then the participants had to write their reflections on the camp, and finally we had a group photo before departing.
The next camp is "Snow Camp" in February.
Homestay partner and lots of food
On December 18th I went down to Otsu and met up with Naomi, my homestay partner, for the first time. We were allocated a homestay partner on request by one of Shiga's international friendship organisations. Homestays are very popular among the Japanese, and a really good opportunity to "get inside" the culture. Usually it involves spending a night or two at the home of a local family, although it can be much longer-term than that. Naomi is a bank clerk in Otsu whose family lives in a remote part of Shiga called Hino-cho. She herself lives in dormitory accommodation provided by her employer. Fortunately her English is considerably better than my Japanese. We had a tabehodai (all-you-can-eat buffet) lunch, did the obligatory "purikura" (Print Club stickers), visited the Biwako Hall (a big performing arts venue) and did a bit of shopping.
That evening I went out for a meal with a group of teachers from Hikone Nishi, plus a few others. This turned out to be another tabehodai - and nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) too! We did karaoke afterwards, which was fun; this karaoke place had a reasonable selection of English songs, and people also chose some recent J-pop songs that I was familiar with, so I was able to join in with the "Wow wow wow wow"s and suchlike.
Three days later was the "official" Hikone Nishi staff bonenkai (end-of-year party), at a restaurant near the station. Again I let myself be talked into karaoke afterwards, on the promise of a good choice of English songs. The selection turned out to be slightly better than after my welcome enkai in September, but still pretty disappointing.