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Developments on the home front
February started with several developments. One was that I received the form asking for my final renewal decision; I gave a positive response. My view on the renewal hasn't really changed since my musings in December, so I don't think I'm going to regret my decision to stay in Japan for another year. Actually the majority of the the first-year ALTs in Shiga seem to be renewing this year; maybe the mild winter has something to do with this?
Back in the UK, the first lot of tenants moved out of my house on February 9th as arranged. New tenants had been found (three sharers), but there was a rat problem that had to be sorted out before the house could be re-let. This meant dismantling the lean-to behind the garage (it really needed a complete rebuild, so it wasn't worth patching up) and moving the shed onto the patio so that the rats couldn't get underneath. This was all carried out without any problems (except for a delay caused when one of the faxes that the letting agent sent me accidentally got buried in someone else's in-tray for a week) and the new tenants moved in on February 26th.
Mid-year reporting meeting
The mid-year reporting meeting took place in Otsu on February 9th. Each of the 53 first-year ALTs had to give a speech in Japanese to the Superintendent of the prefectural board of education, and then the Vice-Superintendent responded with a speech in English. The whole thing was a bit of a farce really; nobody could say anything negative (that's not the Japanese way) and the Vice-Superintendent's response was obviously pre-written according to the the sort of things that he (or whoever wrote the speech) anticipated we were going to say, rather than what we actually said. What's more, the 40 or so second and third years had to go along just to listen! My speech - written with the help of Matsuzawa-sensei at my visit school - can be found on my speeches page. I was suffering from a cold at the time and was extremely hoarse, so I must have been pretty painful to listen to. I finished by thanking the audience for their endurance, which raised a laugh from those whose Japanese was good enough to understand. I'm told that even the stony-faced VIPs at the front smiled!
Iwasaki-sensei's baby was born shortly after midnight on February 7th. It was a boy, as had been known months in advance, but hadn't yet been named when Michael and I went to visit them in hospital on the 11th. He was born weighing 3695g, which is very big for a Japanese baby - about 8lb 1oz in British/American terms. Mum and baby were both in good health.
Iwasaki-sensei and baby.
Successful classroom activities
I've discovered recently that "battleships" is very popular as a classroom activity. Basically it's the same as battleships played by kids at home: each child draws their ships on one grid and uses another identical grid to locate their opponent's ships by naming one square at a time and receiving a positive or negative response according to whether the opponent has part of a ship on that square. The winner is the first person to locate all of the other's ships.
The way you adapt it for the English classroom is to have the students construct sentences to specify the squares - for example the X-axis, rather than A, B, C, D, shows four different ways of asking for something (Could I have ~?, May I have ~?, etc.), while the Y-axis, rather than 1, 2, 3, 4, shows four different things that you might ask for (a burger, a Coke, etc.), so instead of "A1" the student says "Could I have a burger?", and they're given appropriate positive and negative responses to use. The number of situations for which you can use it is fairly limited, and most of them are restricted to junior high school-level English, but I did a version for my high school ichinensei (1st years) which had them practising tenses and weather vocabulary simultaneously. Across the top I had different adjectives describing weather: fine, cloudy, snowy, windy, wet. Down the side I had times: yesterday, this morning, this afternoon, tonight, tomorrow. Above the grids I gave the sentence structures they were to use: Past: Was it [weather] [time]?
- Yes it was / No it wasn't. Present: Is it [weather] [time]?
- Yes it is / No it isn't. Future: Will it be [weather] [time]?
- Yes it will / No it won't.
I also did a second game using nouns (sun, rain, snow, fog, thunder and lightning) and appropriate constructions (Was there ~?/ Is there ~?/ Will there be~?).
It took a bit of explaining, but once the kids worked out what they were supposed to do, they really got into it. Some of them even continued playing after the end of the lesson - now that's a successful activity!
Another activity that's proving popular - a bit too popular! - is question and answer sheets, which I've started at my visit school. (Like most of my activities, it's not an original idea - I got it from one of the other ALTs.) I gave these sheets to all my students, staggered over a two-week period so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed with responses. On the first occasion it was homework; after that it was purely optional, a chance to ask the foreign teacher whatever you wanted without having to do it verbally. The basic idea is that I ask them a question, and they answer and use the next box down the page to ask me one back, and so on. There are eight boxes on each sheet, so that's four questions in each direction. I'm sick to death of answering the questions about what sports I like (gymnastics, though since that's not a team sport I'm not sure that it really qualifies as a sport in Japan) and what Japanese food I like (most things, but not tsukemono (pickles) or wasabi), but then I did tell them that any question was OK. Ayako, the girl who sent me a card at New Year, is filling an entire sheet with questions every time - after four weeks she was onto her fourth sheet! Most of her answers are only two or three words and the questions aren't much longer, but usually I can work out what she's trying to say. A lot of the other kids seem very keen too, though they quite often misunderstand my questions and most of them are making do with asking just one question at a time. Maybe we need to stress a bit more that it's optional! If I do it again next year then I'll give them all a FAQ covering food, sports and hobbies, and leave it up to them to ask the first question. I should get a more manageable number of responses that way.
One thing I've noticed is that when I ask them about their hobbies they usually say video games, watching TV or listening to music (or, more often, "lissning music" or something similar), even though most of them are in after-school sports clubs which they attend at least five days a week. Where I come from, a hobby is anything you do for enjoyment in your leisure time, but in Japan it seems that anything involving physical exertion cannot be classified as a hobby.
Community centre event
On 13th February I attended an "international cultural exchange" event at a local community centre, together with Amy (American ALT in Minami Hikone) and Sachiko from the International Lounge. It was originally planned as a New Year event but had been postponed for some reason. We'd been asked to be prepared to teach a game, or something similar, to the participants, so I took along a tape of Scottish music ready to teach them Strip the Willow (a dance). We were expecting mainly adults but it turned out to be mainly children of primary school age. We were introduced to everyone, then we joined everyone on the cushions on the floor and the proceedings were handed over to the MC, an elderly gent who did a lot of conjuring tricks and organised a few activities, but didn't seem interested in getting any input from us foreigners. He had a handout with words (translated into Japanese) and music for about a dozen songs of English origin, and his idea of cultural exchange seemed to be playing some of these songs at random on the accordion and piano, regardless of whether anyone knew them or not. The only one I knew was "London Bridge is falling down", which was about the only one he didn't play. (I'd heard of a couple of the others but didn't actually know them.) All the American songs seemed to be black slave songs, such as "Massa's in de cold cold ground" which featured lines like "De darkies dey am a-weeping" - I couldn't help wondering who had written his songbook and how these songs had been translated into Japanese!
We had lunch, which consisted of mochi (a traditional New Year food - rice which has been pounded to a pulp using a wooden mallet to form an extremely sticky mass, and then rolled into balls and coated with something, often ground roasted soybeans) and various delights prepared by a group of ladies who seemed to be nutritionists. After lunch there was half an hour or so of free time during which we played a couple of games and I had the opportunity to teach my dance to some of the kids. Actually the children picked it up pretty quickly - it was the one adult in the group who kept messing it up! They all seemed to enjoy it, and we were just starting to teach it to some of the other kids when we got summoned back to watch more conjuring tricks.
Amy pounding rice to make mochi.
Amy with some of the children.
When we left, Amy, Sachiko and I were each presented with assorted handicrafts, a box of mochi and - to our surprise - an extremely generous ¥5000 in book tokens!
Valentine's Day / White Day
Yes, they have St. Valentine's Day in Japan too - but they call it Barentain Dei, and only girls give gifts (usually chocolate) to boys on that day. The boys reciprocate, usually with chocolate again but sometimes with underwear, on White Day, March 14th. So all the shops have big pink Valentine Day promotional displays until February 14th, then on the 15th they instantly switch to blue displays promoting White Day. Sometimes the chocolate is given anonymously if the girl/boy is shy, but there doesn't seem to be a tradition of sending anonymous cards like there is in the UK.
So I didn't get any Valentine's cards, but I did get this really cute note from one of my ninensei (second year students) at Hikone Nishi.
I told her where I lived and gave her an open invitation to come round any time (I'm assuming that this isn't going to escalate to a situation where every student wants to come and see me at home!). She hasn't been yet...
It snowed more or less constantly in Hikone from the 15th to the 18th. It wasn't actually all that cold, so quite a lot of snow had to fall before any of it stuck, but by the time it stopped, snow was piled up to a metre high at the roadsides and the pavements and side roads were pretty perilous. It wasn't cold enough to freeze, but it was slippery nevertheless, especially if you were trying to cycle. On Wednesday 16th, when I set out in the morning to go to my visit school in Omi-Hachiman, there were several inches of snow on the ground in Hikone and it was still coming down heavily - but when I got to Omi-Hachiman, only about 15-20 minutes away on the local train, the weather was fine and there was virtually no snow on the ground. A little snow fell in the afternoon, but not enough to lie. Apparently this contrast is fairly normal; the line between northern and southern Shiga seems to be drawn just a little below Hikone, and there's a lot of snow north of the line but very little in the south. The areas north and west of the lake get even more snow - considerably more than Hikone.
On February 25th I decided I'd had enough of the static that's been bugging me all winter, and got all my hair cut off. Well, not quite all of it, but it's a pretty dramatic difference. A bit chilly at the moment, but it'll be getting warmer soon and in the meantime I can always wear my woolly hat!
My new look met with lots of surprised reactions, but fortunately no shocked-and-horrified ones - at least, not that I saw. Some of the students got very excited about it (particularly my 2nd year kateika girls at Hikone Nishi, who greeted me with deafening shrieks when I met them on the stairs), a few couldn't believe that it was me, and lots of people told me it was "very cute-o". One of the more eloquent boys at Hachiman wrote on his Q&A sheet: "Why do you cut hair? Is this disappointed in love?" Apparently Japanese girls often get their hair cut short after splitting up with a boyfriend, so a lot of the students were asking the JTL (my co-teacher) whether that was why I'd done it. Incidentally, the Japanese don't seem to understand understatement; I say "Chotto chigau, ne?" ("A little bit different, eh?") and they say "Iie, ZENZEN chigau!" ("No, it's TOTALLY different!").
My new haircut - before and after.
Skiing in Biwako Valley
A few Shiga ALTs went skiing in the Biwako Valley, on the west side of Lake Biwa, on February 26th. An expensive day out, but it was fun. Once a year is enough for me though; I'm not much of a skier! Afterwards we went to an excellent yakiniku place in Katata and stuffed ourselves stupid.
Looking down over Lake Biwa from the Biwako Valley ski resort.
On the ski slopes: Jo, Catherine, Firas and me.
Jo after going slightly off course.
On February 28th I had an open lesson with Takagi-sensei. The principal had originally requested that the lesson be with 1-3, our most difficult class, but fortunately it got changed to 1-1, one of the Machines course classes, whose behaviour makes them a bit more teachable. It was open to any teacher who was free and interested in attending; these turned out to be the vice-principal (who slept through a lot of the lesson - apparently he's renowned for going to sleep at every opportunity), the other English teachers, and Yamada-sensei, one of the teachers on the Machines course. It was a new lesson plan, and was fairly chaotic - mainly because we had a pairwork activity that entailed each student moving on to a new partner when the whistle blew, and that took a bit of co-ordinating - but it seemed to go OK. I don't know what the audience thought of it though!