MY TIME AS A JET

PART EIGHT: JANUARY 2000


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JANUARY

Beginning of term

We returned from Okinawa to very mild conditions for this time of year in Shiga. No snow, only rain.

Term started again on January 7th. This was the third term of the year, since the academic year in Japan starts in April. Mercifully, the opening ceremony at Hikone Nishi was a lot shorter than last term's closing ceremony! There were no lessons on the first day of term - just a long homeroom session - and then Monday January 10th was a public holiday (Coming of Age Day). Made me wonder why they'd bothered to start term on the Friday.

I'd been told that lessons were due to start on the 11th, which was correct - but nobody thought to tell me that the first and second years were having tests for the first three periods so regular lessons didn't start until fourth period! The first I knew about it was when my students didn't turn up for their lesson, and nor did Nakamura-sensei, whom I thought I was supposed to be teaching with!

That evening I went out for a meal with all the English teachers, including Iwasaki-sensei (whose baby is due on February 3rd). Matsuyama-sensei, the principal, and Michael, whom I replaced at Hikone Nishi, came along too. I lost count of the number of courses; there must have been about 8 or 10, and they waited until we were all pretty well full up before they served the rice!

A taste of ikebana

A day or two after getting back from Okinawa I bumped into Kondo-san, one of the volunteer teachers from the Japanese class at the city hall (which stopped at the end of November and unfortunately isn't due to start again until the spring). She invited me to an ikebana (flower-arranging) event at a hotel in Moriyama that Sunday. It was the local ikebana society's New Year exhibition, and a particularly special occasion because the guest of honour was the headmaster of the Ikenobo School, which apparently is generally acknowledged as the origin of ikebana. It was attended by about twenty foreigners, all of them American except me. Some were students at JCMU (the Japan Centre for Michigan Universities) in Hikone, others were Michiganers on a three-week study tour of Japan, and there were four more ALTs besides myself. (The majority of the Americans to be found in Shiga are from Michigan, because there's a twinning arrangement between the two regions.)

First they dressed us all up in kimono - most of us got married women's kimono, since that was what the ikebana ladies had had available. I know of two main differences between the types of kimono: the unmarried woman's kimono has a big, ostentatious bow at the back of the obi (belt) and "furi-sode", which means "raining sleeves" - the kind that hang down very low. The married woman's kimono has shorter sleeves (about half the length) and just a simple loop at the back of the obi. Also, in general it's less brightly-coloured.

Once we were dressed they gave us green tea and traditional Japanese cakes (which I can't remember the name of) and then we were each given a display bowl and a bundle of flowers to make our own flower arrangements. Most of us had no idea how we were supposed to go about it; several ikebana ladies circulated and instructed us but very few of us could understand much of what they were saying! Anyway, when we finished, our handiwork was put on display in the foyer area. Then we had a bit of time to look at the exhibition proper - the ikebana society members' arrangements, which were amazing - before we were herded into the function room next door.

The "party" started with a couple of welcome speeches and then an ikebana demonstration on stage. This involved eight people and resulted in two relatively simple arrangements. It was almost as elaborate as tea ceremony! First all eight of them went up onto the stage and sat down (seiza of course - that's the formal kneeling style). Then two got up, walked to the back of the stage, came forward to the little tables where the flower arranging was to be done, and laid down the equipment they were carrying. Then they returned to their places via the back of the stage. The next two then followed the same process, bringing the flowers and laying them beside the tables. Then the women who were actually doing the arrangements took their places and set to work, each with an older "sensei" (teacher) watching from a few feet behind. Once they were finished, the sensei took over and did a bit of tweaking, then turned the arrangements round to face the audience.

Next there were numerous speeches and presentations of certificates to society members who'd completed the course. The Japanese do like their speeches, but on this occasion they really seemed to be never-ending! Key parts of one or two of the early speeches were translated into English, but other than that everything was in Japanese. Finally the toast was announced and we were allowed to start eating the food that by then must have been sitting in front of us for almost an hour. While we were eating they drew names out of a hat (well, a box) and gave away pot plants to about half the 180 or so people in the room.

Getting dressed
Some of the gaijin girls getting dressed up in kimono.

The society exhibition
The ikebana society's exhibition.

Beginners' ikebana
A few of the beginners' attempts at ikebana. Mine is the third from the right.

Exploring the area

I had the last day of a juhachi-kippu to use up before it expired, but I only had a few hours to use it in so I couldn't go too far. So I went up to Kameoka for a little while. Kameoka is a small city on a plain west of Kyoto. Most of the ride from Arashiyama is through tunnels in the mountains, but on the occasions when you do emerge there's some very nice scenery. I believe there's a "romantic train" which takes the scenic route rather than going through all the tunnels, but I somehow managed to miss that. Not sure if my JR ticket would have been valid on it anyway. Didn't find much in Kameoka, but maybe I was looking in the wrong places.

On the way back I stopped off in Arashiyama for a while, where a boy whose name I can't remember attached himself to me. He was a first year junior high school student so he didn't know much English (not that my high school students know much more) so our conversation was more or less entirely in Japanese. He took me up to see a shrine, saw me back to the station in time for my train, and even waited by the ticket barrier, waving, until my train pulled out of the station. He must have been having a very boring weekend!

That evening I went out in Kusatsu for a leaving do: Mutsumi, of Shiga IFS (who organise the kids' camps that I help with), was about to depart to spend a year in Australia. She's going to be doing much the same thing there as I'm doing here (I believe Japanese is taught in quite a few schools in Australia and New Zealand).

Mutsumi's leaving do
Mutsumi's leaving do at an izakaya in Kusatsu.

Workshop at JCMU

On January 19th I attended a workshop session at JCMU. The centre runs a series of workshops, once a month, for JTLs (Japanese teachers of languages), and occasionally some ALTs are invited (or in our case, told) to participate. I don't know what criteria are used by the powers that be to decide which of us will attend; it seemed to be a pretty random selection. Actually it was an enjoyable day. In the morning there were two guest speakers - an American and an Irishwoman, former ALTs themselves. They explained their motivational methods, which basically revolved around awarding "hanko" points for effort and achievement, with certificates awarded when certain levels are reached, and using as many activities as possible with a competitive element. Their philosophy was to use the points sheet as the grading criterion for oral communication classes. Some people like the hanko points system, others dislike it because they see it as demotivating for the less able students. I myself have no experience of it in action, but the first viewpoint I heard was the negative one so I think I have something of a bias against the idea. Anyway, it's never been mentioned at either of my schools. I've actually set up a "prize shop" at my visit school: I hand out British pennies as prizes for good work or team competitions, and have a list of items as prizes with a price against each one. The idea is that students save up and buy whatever prize(s) they can afford at the end of the year. The prizes are mainly UK souvenirs that I brought to Japan with me on the advice of a former JET. They're too expensive to be handing out willy-nilly in class - especially when I have sixteen classes a week - but I'm hoping that this will work as a way to make sure that the most deserving students get the best prizes. Some classes are very enthusiastic about it - even the pennies themselves get them excited! - others less so.

The afternoon speaker was a university English teacher, an American called Tom Kenny, who advocated the use of "conversation strategies" and timed conversations between pairs of students, to develop fluency. The majority of classroom language teaching is based on situational dialogues (transactional language) as opposed to conversations (interactional language) - and yet in practice, interactional language accounts for the majority of language usage. Conversation strategies are basically phrases which aren't often taught in class but are very useful in spoken English, such as "You mean ....?" and "Uh-huh". Students are told that they must hold a conversation on a certain subject for a given length of time, and they must practise using a particular strategy in that conversation. Most of my students wouldn't be able to cope with the idea of holding a spontaneous conversation in English, but I mentioned the idea to Nakamura-sensei and she seemed quite keen, so we're going to try it with some of the second year girls towards the end of term, once the exams are over.

Snowy season

The snowy season started, quite suddenly, on the night of Thursday January 20th. Up to and including the Tuesday it was unusually mild for January, then on Wednesday it was frosty but warmed up a bit as the day went on. Thursday was cold, with just a very light snow shower at lunchtime. Around 5pm, when it got dark, there hadn't been any more snow - but later on, just before going to bed, I looked out of the window and everything was white! Hikone was even shown on the NHK weather report the following morning! It continued snowing, though mostly not very heavily, for most of Friday. Lovely powdery snow, not like the slushy/icy stuff we tend to get in the UK. In most places it was lying about 6-8" thick, though my bike basket (about 12" deep) was completely full when I went to set off for school. I should have just left it there; cycling to school in the snow turned out to have been a bad idea! Had a couple of snowball fights with the students, which was fun - although the boys seemed to like dodging into my line of fire rather than out of it!

Snowy bike
This is what my bike looked like on the first day of the snowy season!



A few Hikone Nishi students. Note the girls' bare legs - an indication of the importance of cuteness in Japan! (Actually one of the girls in this picture is wearing tights, but that's unusual. The general rule is short skirts and loose white socks glued to the leg half-way up the calf, as on the girl in the background, though some wear baggier socks than these.)

Hikone-jo in snow
A snow-covered Hikone Castle, as seen from the top floor of Hikone Nishi High School.

We had a few more snow showers before the end of the month, but nothing approaching that first snowfall. Apparently there's been far less snow than usual in Hikone this year.

Social engagements

On January 22nd I attended another NIFA (Nagahama International Friendship Association) event. First we went bowling, which was fun (I did miserably on the first game but far better on the second), then there was a new year party, which turned out to be a bit of a staid affair. I think this was partly because it was held in the middle of the afternoon. There were a series of performances of various kinds - including a koto (Japanese harp) ensemble, a Filipino pianist and a couple of Brazilian girls dancing - and some party games. There was also a flea market in the corner of the room where someone was disposing of unwanted wedding presents for ¥100 an item. Would have been very useful six months ago but there wasn't anything I needed now. We'd been promised a "real" DJ and dancing, but what we got was a CD of early 1960s rock'n'roll which was started up (from track 1) every time there was a break between performances, so of course it was a bit repetitive and nobody wanted to get up and dance.

Ibuki-san
Ibuki-san, Shiga's highest mountain. I took this photo from the train on the way to Nagahama.

Nagahama-jo
Nagahama Castle in the snow. It looks very pretty from the outside, but like many of Japan's castles, it's actually a modern reconstruction; I believe it's made of concrete.

Afterwards some of the younger folks (i.e. most of those under 45) went on to Roman Beer, which was somewhat livelier.

Hikone is in the relatively rare position of having its own ice rink, so I thought it would be a pity not to make use of it at least once. So I got a few friends together and we went there on Wednesday 26th January. It turned out that every Wednesday is ladies' day, with half-price admission for women, so it only cost us ¥500 a head, and skate hire was free too. The skates were a bit soft around the ankles though, making it very difficult to keep the blades vertical on the ice. When I've skated in the UK I've always had bruised ankles afterwards, but in this case it was more a matter of stiff legs from trying to stop your ankles from bending inwards too far!

On the 28th I went into Kyoto to meet up with some acquaintances: Andy the ex-Sendai ALT (I first met him when Darren visited in October/November), Machiko, a Kyoto student I met on my recent visit to Kameoka, where she's teaching at a cram school (English, history and maths, I think), and a guy called Shinya whom I'd never met before; he found my website by chance a few weeks ago and emailed me just to say hello. He turned out to be an English teacher too - and a very talkative one! We started off in the Pig & Whistle (because that's right by Keihan Sanjo station, where I get off, besides which it's about the only place I know in Kyoto for meeting up with people) then went on to an izakaya in a nearby nightlife area.

January's been pretty quiet really. I've spent most nights sitting under my kotatsu doing obscene amounts of emailing and studying kanji. On the way back from Okinawa I bought Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" and I made it to no. 400 by the end of the month. Of course, you're not learning everything about each character, not at that speed. The book assigns a keyword to each character, representing its principal meaning (or one of its principal meanings, since a lot have several meanings which in English are pretty diverse). You then learn how to draw each kanji by creating an imagiative "story" from the keyword combined with the primitive elements that make up the character. So you know how to write the characters and you know one principal meaning for each one, but you don't know the full range of meanings, nor the "on" (derived from Chinese) and "kun" (Japanese) readings, nor any of the compounds that the kanji can form. It's a good start though, and I'm sure it will be a great help in literacy and building vocabulary. Since the book approaches the kanji in the order that the author considers best suited to memory, rather than the order of frequency with which they are encountered, there's no point in starting it unless you're intending to cover the full set of 2000 or so "joyo" kanji. I don't think I'll maintain my current rate of progress, but I'll keep plugging at it!


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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002