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JET Renewers' Conference in Kobe (continued)
On Day Two of the conference we had a morning full of speeches, which on the whole were (in my opinion) more interesting than what we'd had the previous afternoon. We had only an hour to find the right dining rooms, eat our (vegetarian) lunch and then find the rooms for the afternoon's workshops. This proved not to be long enough, and as a result many, if not all, of the workshops were late in starting. I found the workshops to be the most useful aspect of the conference; it's a pity we only got three workshops compared to five or six hours of speeches. I would have liked to attend more workshops than there were available slots. As it was, the ones I attended were "Classroom management", "Enhancing student motivation", and "Making your classes learner-centred". The first of these was the best one, but I got some useful ideas from all three.
The Portopia Hotel, conference venue.
View from my room on the 18th floor of the Portopia Hotel.
In the evening I went into Sannomiya (Kobe's city centre) with a group of Shiga ALTs, and chaos ensued. Nobody seemed to have made firm arrangements with the people in the other hotels, so those who had keitais (mobile phones) were making full use of them. The composition of the group kept changing as people stayed behind to wait for someone they thought they were supposed to be meeting, and we bumped into other people we knew - or even the same people who supposedly were meeting us elsewhere. Anyway, I ended up in a group of seven, none of whom I had left the hotel with initially. The boys went for okonomiyaki (the rest of us had already eaten) and then we converged on an izakaya (bar). Amy and I got the last train back to the Portopia; the others were planning on getting a taxi back to the Sheraton.
On the Friday morning we had five CLAIR presentations to choose from, of which we each had to attend two. There was an attendance check at the first one; attendance reports are sent back to host institutions to weed out those who don't bother to attend the seminars. After the second presentation we had to stay put for the CLAIR questions and answers, and then the brief closing ceremony. Questions had been invited on Wednesday with a 9pm deadline, giving the CLAIR people over 24 hours to compose their responses. It was mostly just the same stuff we'd heard numerous times before. There was one question complaining about the lack of support provided to departing JETs, which struck me as thoroughly unreasonable. The questioner seemed to ignore all the literature we are provided with before we even come to Japan, and completely disregard the existence of JETAA, a support and social network for former JETs. So you've had an easy job for a couple of years, and now you want your former employer to find you a new job, and wait on you hand and foot as you settle in back home? How about asking for a company expense account while you're at it? Come on - it's your life, take some responsibility for it!
Portopia Hotel lobby, after the conference ended.
Since the conference ended at lunchtime, I had the afternoon free. I'd already seen enough of the city centre, so I took the shuttle bus to the Sheraton on Rokko Island and went to the Foreign Buyers' Club shop. (FBC actually laid on a bus, but the hotel shuttle was more frequent.) Most of the food in the shop was of American brands, so it was no more familiar to me than Japanese food - though admittedly there was the advantage of being able to read the packaging! The staff were very helpful, and they were offering free shipping for purchases over ¥3000, so I bought a couple of books and some sweets. Bumped into Olivia and Amy in the shop, and we went for lunch together before I departed. I took the Rokko Liner back to Sumiyoshi on the JR line, went to the neighbouring department store and stocked up on the obligatory omiyage (souvenir gifts), and headed back to Hikone.
Hachiman Technical's new ALT
The new ALT to be based at Hachiman Technical is a Canadian called Murray. He plays basketball for a professional team, so a sporty school should suit him very well. He's also a very big guy, and will tower over virtually everyone else in Shiga (other foreigners included). It will be interesting to see what the students make of him!
Kutsuki camping and hiking weekend
Over June 3rd/4th I joined a group of about twenty people for a weekend's camping and hiking in the area around Kutsuki-mura, a village in the mountains straight across the lake from Hikone. Saturday dawned grey and a bit misty, and the forecast wasn't too good, but it turned out to be no worse than an hour or two of drizzle. We met by the Biwako Bridge at the southern end of the lake, then drove in convoy up to the campsite at Kutsuki, where we pitched our tents (some of them took us a while to work out) and had lunch before heading up to the hiking trail.
Pitching one of the tents.
The trail started at a visitors' centre a couple of miles up the hill from the campsite. Only a few people went right to the top of the mountain (we were a bit short of time, and I reasoned that there wasn't going to be much of a view anyway), but it was an enjoyable hike nevertheless, with scenery far different from most of what I've seen in Japan so far. I got a few nasty bites though, despite being probably the only person in the group plastered with insect repellent!
On the hiking trail. (That's Erika at the back, joining in wholeheartedly with the Japanese umbrella culture!)
After the hike we went to the local onsen (hot spring bath) to clean up and soak away any aches and pains. An onsen is a communal bath, though males and females are segregated (occasionally there is a mixed bath, but you usually cover up with a towel in those cases). You wash yourself thoroughly at the taps/showers around one side of the room before soaking in one or more of the baths. Using soap in the bath is a major faux pas in Japan! At this particular onsen there was one very hot bath, a jacuzzi-like one that was almost as hot, a cool bath, a very wet steam sauna, and a couple of streams of water coming from overhead which you could stand under and use to massage your aching muscles. One member of the group, a Canadian who was visiting from Taiwan (yes, she's teaching English) had been adamant all week that she was not going to participate in a communal bath, but since it was the only way she was going to be able to get clean she eventually let herself be talked into it, and once she'd got over the initial embarrassment she seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Erika's husband Rambo, however, was not to be persuaded. I was glad I didn't have to share a tent with him...
Having emerged from the onsen, clean and refreshed, we went across to the neighbouring "barbecue pit" - really more of an open-air yakiniku restaurant - where we consumed vast quantities of food and not insignificant amounts of alcohol. Then we headed back to the campsite, lit a campfire (evidently permitted by the campsite authorities, since I think it was them who sold us the wood) and the revelry continued into the night. We had the campsite almost to ourselves, June not being a popular camping season in Japan, so we didn't need to worry too much about keeping quiet.
Barbecue at Kutsuki.
Sitting round the campfire.
The following morning, after a breakfast of bread, jam, peanut butter (a new experience for some of the Japanese present), and fruit, we dismantled the tents and went up to the onsen again, where there was a large, grassy playing field - a real rarity in Japan! (The grass was a bit prickly to sit on, but beggars can't be choosers...) We played frisbee for a while, or just sat in the sun - we were sunburned by the time we got home! A few people went back for another session in the onsen, then some of us headed home while others went off for lunch.
Our section of the campsite.
On the playing field at Kutsuki (Kaichi, Rambo and Erika).
The rainy season started on June 9th, and will continue until mid-July. In Japanese they call it "uki", which literally means "rain season" or "tsuyu", which means "plum rain", presumably because of the large raindrops that sometimes fall. So far it hasn't been too bad, only a couple of days of solid rain and quite a few showers. We've had a couple of hot sunny days too though. The temperature was in the high 20s most days by late June (it'd got over 30 in central and southern Kansai, but not yet in Hikone), and around 18-22°C at night.
We marked the beginning of the rainy season - and the forthcoming departure of the leaving JETs - with a beach party at Pasta Pasta in Omi-Hachiman. It was indoors and nowhere near the beach, but most people still entered into the spirit!
Beach party in Omi-Hachiman.
One day the following week it was raining as I walked back to the station from my visit school, but not heavily enough for me to bother putting my hood up or taking my umbrella out of my bag. A lady (whom I didn't know) came out of her house and crossed the road to her car, then stopped and offered me her umbrella!
We were lucky with the weather on the 18th, so the beach clean-up in Nagahama went ahead. There wasn't much of a beach, but what there was definitely needed cleaning! Matsubara beach in Hikone needs a major clean-up too, and it's about a mile long, but it's a long way from the station for people without their own transport, so it would be difficult to organise a group effort.
Beach clean-up in Nagahama.
On my return home I was greeted by Hiroki-kun, from the apartment block next to mine. He chatted away happily in Japanese, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I didn't understand most of what he was saying!
I have my Japanese lessons together with Steven, another ALT. Our teacher is Nagahama-san, a volunteer who comes to Hikone twice a week to teach us, and won't even let us pay her rail fare. We decided it was time we treated her to a meal, so we took her to a local izakaya (bar) after our lesson one Monday.
With Nagahama-san and Steven in the Murasaki izakaya.
Since about September I've had a CD stereo on loan from Kate in Nagahama. It belonged to her Board of Education and had to be returned in mid-June, so I decided to take the plunge and get a new one with mini-disc. The cheapest ones available are around
¥20,000, but I was lucky enough to find an end-of-line display model for only ¥14,200. Saw the same model soon afterwards in other shops, priced at between ¥26,000 and ¥35,000. It's a bit of an ugly beast, but I can't say I found any of them particularly attractive! Of course, the instructions were all in Japanese, but I was able to decipher most of them. (It helped that the buttons were in English.) The mains cable was missing from the box, so I had to call the shop and get them to send me one. I managed this entirely in Japanese, so I felt very pleased with myself! I'm now working on my MD collection; so far I've got Morning Musume and Kinki Kids, plus some 80s stuff in English. (There are CD hire places all over Japan, including one about 50 metres from my apartment.) I'm trying to learn one or two Japanese songs - the only one I know so far is the first verse of the Biwako song, which is a kind of prefectural anthem.
I caught an episode of Sesame Street the other Saturday - mostly dubbed into Japanese, of course - and found that it was very good listening practice! Also discovered that they have "Who wants to be a millionaire?" in Japan, complete with phrases such as "fifutii-fifutii" (50-50) and "faineru ansaa" (final answer). The only differences from the UK version are that the presenter isn't Chris Tarrant (though he has a lot of the same mannerisms), the maximum amount that can be won is ¥10 million, and it's sponsored by P&G instead of a tabloid newspaper. Oh, and of course the questions are in Japanese.
Early in June I taught my first two solo lessons, with the second year girls, because Nakamura-sensei had to take a day off sick. Officially, ALTs are only supposed to team-teach, but some teach solo quite regularly, usually because their JTLs either are too busy or don't like team teaching. It does help if you can speak reasonable Japanese though. (I believe there's a law stipulating that a native Japanese teacher always has to be present in the classroom. I've heard it said that this law was designed to prevent Koreans from teaching, for fear that the students would fail to learn their own language properly.) Fortunately I'd already team-taught this lesson once (we were talking about character and emotions), and had made a note of most of the necessary vocabulary on my copy of the handout, and there were no significant discipline problems with these classes. I even had a student teacher sitting in on the second lesson!
On June 20th I heard at Hachiman Technical that some first year students had been suspended for a week, after causing a virtual riot in the classroom. They were all in my most difficult class, and one of them was the most disruptive student in the class; he wanders around the room and chats to his friends, making it very difficult to teach. So that week, that class was minus six students and far easier to teach than it has been recently. There was still one student who showed no interest in participating in the activities, but he didn't cause any trouble and the others just bypassed him. The strange thing is, apparently this particular student wants to go abroad and study English after he has graduated from high school!
Hachiman Technical High School in early June, surrounded by crops of rice and wheat. The wheat was harvested a few days after I took this picture, and at the end of the month they were ploughing the fields again.
The next day I received news of my new visit school: Hikone Technical High School, known as Genko for short. (Hachiman Technical, or Hachiman Kogyo, is often abbreviated to Hachiko, and Hikone Kogyo is abbreviated in the same way, but the "hiko" kanji character also has the on (Chinese-originating) reading of "gen", hence Genko.) Nominally I'm going to be going there once a week, but the last time I spoke to the ALT who currently has it as his visit school, he hadn't even been there once. I think someone told me that his predecessor went once and was told not to bother coming again, because they didn't want an ALT. However, Pete (the husband of Tracy, the Taga ALT) has been doing some voluntary rugby coaching there and they've had him teaching a few English lessons as well this term, even though he's not actually an ALT, so maybe the staff changes in April brought in some more ALT-friendly English teachers.
On the afternoon of June 21st I went down to the Immigration Office in Kyoto to renew my visa. (The school allowed me special leave to do this, but I had to pay my own costs - i.e. rail fare and ¥4000 visa extension fee.) The office was quite busy. First the receptionist told me to put my papers (visa extension application, passport, alien registration card, certificate of employment and job contract) in box B, then about 20 minutes later my number was called. I was given a postcard to address to myself, my passport and alien card were returned, and I was instructed to come back to the office when I receive the postcard. The postcard arrived six days later, and gave me a month to go back to the office.
I came down with a cold on the 22nd, and sniffed my way through the day at school. The next day I managed to teach my first lesson (1st period) without any problems except a bit of hoarseness, but by the beginning of my second lesson (4th period) I was starting to shiver. In the middle of the lesson I had an attack of dizziness and had to sit down quickly before I collapsed. Then my hearing went muffled and I started to feel nauseous. It was quite scary! I would have gone to the health room if only I'd felt able to stand up. Somehow I made it to one of the sinks in the corridor before being sick, and Nishimura-sensei from the health room came and looked after me (one of the students had been sent to get her). Once I'd been sick I felt a lot better. As well as my own class, another class of my students, who were having a cookery lesson across the corridor, could see what was going on. One girl asked me a question I didn't understand and made a "large stomach" motion with her hands, so I suspect there's a rumour now circulating that I'm pregnant!
After lying down in the health room for half an hour I went home, and then went to the doctor when the surgery opened. Before going to the surgery, I wrote a description of my symptoms, in Japanese, and made a list of what medications I'd taken and when, and handed it over at reception. This time I got a doctor who spoke some English, and the same lady who did some interpreting for me last time sat in for part of the consultation as well. Of course, my Japanese has improved since February, and that helped too. I came out of the doctor's with four different medicines: Cefzon antibiotics, Transamine anti-inflammatory, Coldrin for my cough, and Metilon aspirin powder to reduce my temperature (which was over 38°C). The Japanese are very keen on checking their temperatures; mention to someone that you've got a cold and the response is invariably "Do you have a fever?". And by the way, if someone gives you a thermometer in Japan, you stick it in your armpit for a few minutes, not under your tongue.
The next day I was feeling much better, though it took over a week for my voice to get back to normal. Unfortunately it was the week during which the tapes had to be made for the end of term exams! My next-door neighbours found out that I had a cold - with my voice as it was, I couldn't really tell them I was fine - and promptly presented me with a carrier bag full of more fruit than I was able to eat on my own!
Departures and arrivals
I attended two parties that weekend: a leaving party hosted by Andrelle, one of the AEG teachers, and a more restrained open-house event hosted by Sachiko from the International Exchange Lounge; Jamie, Sachiko's sister-in-law, was returning to the US for a year with her two children. It was also supposed to be a surprise birthday party for the Brazilian CIR in Hikone, but she didn't turn up so we ended up having the cake without her.
Two couples I knew had babies the same weekend: Pamela and Hiro (a boy), and Neal and Machiko (a girl). Pamela and Neal both teach at AEG.