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Back to school
School started again on September 1st, just like it does at home. There was the usual half-hour opening ceremony which the students fidgeted and chatted their way through, then a homeroom session followed by a big clean-up. I only had a single lesson to teach the following week, because most of the time was taken up with preparations for the school's annual bunkasai (culture festival).
Mountains of northern Gifu
I still had some time left on my juhachi-kippu to use up before September 10th, so, as recommended by Yamanaka-sensei (Geography teacher at Hikone Nishi) I took off to Takayama and Furukawa, in the Hida region of northern Gifu, for the weekend. Unfortunately the rail connections to get to Takayama were less than ideal, and resulted in me not arriving there until nearly 3pm on the Saturday, but I still managed to see a fair amount. First I went and checked into the youth hostel at Tensho-ji, a temple about 15-20 minutes' walk from the station. (Actually the main YH building was tacked onto the back of the temple, and the dormitories were tatami rooms with plastic floor coverings and futons.) Then I hired a bike from the hostel (too small, but less than half the price of anywhere else in town) and went trundling off around the town for a couple of hours. Some people on the train had told me about a festival they were going to in Yattsuo, another hour and a half up the line; I could have gone there that evening for an hour or two, but it would have meant another three hours on the train and a missed bathtime at the YH, so I decided it wasn't worth it.
Tensho-ji, Takayama, where the youth hostel is located.
Takayama is a small city with a lot of preserved Edo period merchants' houses, many of them now operating as craft and souvenir shops. The streets with the highest concentrations of these buildings were full of tourists, of course. I visited the Takayama Jinya, which during the Edo period (up to 1868) was a goverment office; that was quite interesting, and a little different from the temples and shrines that you see everywhere. After returning to the hostel and having a bath, I hooked up with a group of British archaeologists who'd just finished a three-week dig in northern Aomori-ken (the northern tip of Honshu) and went out to eat with them and their Japanese friend.
One of the streets of merchant houses, and Takayama Jinya.
The guide book (Lonely Planet) had warned me of the strict rules observed by the hostel, including being lulled to sleep by music at 10pm prompt and woken again by the recorded twittering of birds at 7am. The 10pm music didn't materialise, as it turned out. As for the 7am wake-up call, I wasn't exactly looking forward to it, but in the event it proved not to be an issue, because all 13 of the dormitory's occupants were awake by six in the morning, thanks to the live twittering of two very inconsiderate middle-aged Japanese women who were up ridiculously early and making no effort whatsoever to be quiet. Oh well, I suppose it meant I got an early start to the day...
I'd left the hostel by 7am, and followed about two thirds of the temples and shrines walking trail which included the temple I was staying at, before dropping back down into the town and going to the Takayama Jinya-mae morning market. From there I walked to the station and took the bus to the Hida Folk Village, where a dozen family houses and several other buildings built in traditional styles have been brought from various parts of the region. It was very interesting and well worth the visit, though the eastern section of the complex (a short walk away) was a bit of an anticlimax.
Takayama Jinya-mae morning market, and a monk with his begging bowl.
The Hida Folk Village. The house in the right-hand picture is built in the "gasshou" (praying hands) style; the steep slope of the roof is to prevent too much snow from accumulating.
A craftworker in one of the Hida Folk Village houses. I think she's making straw skirts.
View across Takayama from the path between the two sections of the Hida village.
The Main World Shrine, from the Hida Folk Village. I didn't actually go there but thought it was worth a picture!
After spending a couple of hours at the Folk Village I walked back into town, went hunting for a shop that sold single postcards as opposed to only packs of ten or more (found one eventually, but it took me a while!), then took a train a few stops north to Furukawa. Furukawa is another pretty town with quite a lot of preserved buildings - mainly whitewashed storehouses - and a river (more of a stream really) stocked with huge koi carp, but it's smaller and less tourist-infested than Takayama. I had a couple of hours there before it was time to stock up on omiyage and start heading back towards Hikone.
This year's school bunkasai - a big annual event in the calendar of every Japanese school - took place on September 7th and 8th at Hikone Nishi. The first year students decorated their homerooms according to this year's theme, which was the 20th Century; the second years made a huge wall-hanging for the front of the school and ran festival-style yatai, or food stalls; and the third years put on performances - mainly song & dance acts, but there were a couple of plays - in the gym.
The "smiley" wall-hanging made by the second years, using 21,440 pieces of folded paper. The blue kanji characters say "nishi" and "ko", the abreviated name of the school. The head teacher told me that he'd been up on the roof at 6am, putting it up!
One of the classes' chorus singing performances, and a couple of pictures from 3-6's production of "Cinderella" (or "Shinderera" in Japanese).
Food stalls run by the second year students. They're making takoyaki (a kind of octopus dumpling) in the right-hand picture.
Most activities were done on a class basis - there are 7 classes of 40 in each year - but there were also club-based displays: photography club, flower arranging club, tea ceremony club, etc., and ESS (English speaking society). ESS showed "Armageddon" on video in two instalments, this film having been selected by the members as the "most impressive" film of the 20th Century. We also wrote fortunes in English and folded them into origami shapes, and I organised a treasure hunt where the idea was to follow clues around the school to work out where on the map the treasure was hidden. I thought we might have trouble getting anyone to bother trying it - too much like hard work, and in English too - but, seduced by the first prize of a "treasure chest" (actually a plastic storage box full of different imported sweets), there were actually a fair number of entrants.
The koto (Japanese harp) club performance, and some of the ESS members with the treasure hunt display and origami fortunes.
On the afternoon of the second day, the staff play was performed. Last year I wasn't even aware that there was a staff play, but this time one of the teachers told me and I went along to watch. Attendance was optional but it was a popular event; I'd say that the majority of the students turned up to see it. It was a short story about a high school baseball team, and I didn't understand much of what was going on, but it was funny nevertheless, particularly watching the students' reactions.
The staff play, and its audience.
Parties and get-togethers
Social events in September included an evening of food and Scrabble at Pam and Hiro's in Yokaichi (have rediscovered Scrabble in recent months - I just can't help being such party animal!); a couple of nights of karaoke with friends; the Hikone Nishi staff post-bunkasai enkai (meal/party) and subsequent nijikai (karaoke and more drinking). The enkai was fun, and I was a lot more able to join in with the karaoke than on previous enkais, partly because I knew bits of some of the Japanese songs and partly because for once we went to a place with a reasonable choice of English songs. Last year we went to the same place, but at that time they had nothing at all in English but a few Beatles songs and a handful of Christmas songs; they didn't even have the Carpenters, who are still amazingly popular in Japan, so this was extremely poor even by Japanese standards!
At karaoke with Freya and Michelle. We were in the process of murdering "Bohemian Rhapsody" (is it possible to pick a more difficult song?) when this picture was taken.
Another izakaya/karaoke session, this one with Freya, James (ALT for Kora-cho) and Japanese friends Mariko and Sahori.
In early September I posted off my application for the Nihongo Noryoku Shiken 3kyu, or Japanese Proficiency Test level 3. This is internationally the most widely-recognised indicator of Japanese ability; level 4 is the easiest and level 1 is considered a challenge even for native speakers. I'm told that most employers requiring Japanese ability will be looking for a pass at level 2, but my Japanese currently falls considerably short of that level, and since I currently have no Japanese qualifications whatsoever, I'd rather go for level 3 and have a fair chance of passing than try for level 2 and fail miserably. The test is offered only once a year, at the beginning of December, and the application window is quite tight - only about a month, ending in mid-September.
On 11th September, after hardly any rain all summer, it poured down all day. The next day was wet too, but not so bad. In Hikone we had it easy; in the Nagoya area, just over an hour away by train, they had the heaviest rain in over a century, resulting in severe flooding.
New visit school
I began teaching at my new visit school, Hikone Technical High School, on September 14th. The school is known as Genko for short, "gen" being the on-yomi, or reading of Chinese origin, for the "hiko" character of Hikone. With about 930 students, it's a little larger than Hachiko, my old visit school, but I'm only there one day a week. It has a similar range of courses and a similar male/female ratio - over 90% male students. The staff have made me feel very welcome, with quite a few people eager to practise their English. I'm teaching first and third year classes. So far, the third year classes have been the most fun to teach, with lively students who for the most part seem to enjoy the lessons and aren't afraid to volunteer answers. The first years have been fine too; quieter than the third years, but much genki-er than the reticent/disinterested first years at my base school. The two teachers I'm working with are rotating the lessons so that I teach all of the third year classes and half of the first years. (The other two English teachers teach the rest of the students; I may later team-teach some lessons with them too, so that all of the first years are covered.) This will mean a lot of repetition in the lessons I teach, but I don't mind that if the kids are interested and willing to participate. It also means that I should maintain my novelty value for longer - it's a great ego boost when the students actually request a lesson with the ALT - and that I need to spend less time planning new lessons. The only drawbacks are that I can't really do lessons that require continuity from one week to the next, and that I won't have much opportunity to get to know the individual students.
I think I've also finally found a way to prevent students from using keitais (mobile phones) in class: tell them in the first lesson, using dramatic mime, that if you see a keitai then you will take it! (You might find it worthwhile to include mirrors in the ban too, even if the class is all-male!) If you get a chance, carry out your threat during the lesson by cheerfully confiscating the first keitai you see. Give it back at the end of the lesson, but smile and tell the student, within earshot of as many other class members as possible, that next time (kondo) you will keep it for one week (isshuukan). You might even want to make that announcement when you first confiscate it, so that everyone gets the message. Of course, you have to be prepared to carry out your threat once the students have all been warned. [This can be easier said than done, as I found out a few weeks later - maybe just keeping them for one day would have been a big enough threat! See October entry for details.] I confiscated phones in all three of my lessons one day, and that evening I picked up an email from three members of the morning's first class, one of them the guy whose keitai I confiscated, telling me that they'd enjoyed the lesson!
For the first week of the Sydney Olympics, the coverage on Japanese terrestrial TV was truly dire, unless you liked swimming, softball, swimming, judo and swimming. And more swimming. I know nothing whatsoever about either softball or judo (except that softball is a bit like rounders; telling me that it's like baseball doesn't help) so I had no interest in those; swimming is fair enough but can become monotonous after a while, and it got a bit much when at one point I found it being covered on four of my eight channels simultaneously, while the women's gymnastics team final, taking place at the same time, was completely ignored for the entire evening. I know that every country wants to see its own athletes in action, but do they really have to show endless replays of the same half-dozen or so swimming races, on several channels at once, and ignore almost every other event?
Admittedly they did show a bit of the men's gymnastics, presumably because Japan had some good competitors there, but the coverage was slightly marred by the fact that it seemed to consist of a two-minute ad break after every 5-10 minutes of sport. If they're still attracting that many advertisers, why don't they cover more of that sport?
Once we got into the second week, though, the coverage improved dramatically, with a far wider range of sports being shown, including live coverage of the gymnastics apparatus finals. (Guess which sport is my favourite?) That was on NHK too, which meant no ad breaks! On the Sunday night I spent half an hour working out how to set the timer on my video so that I could record the second half of the event to watch when I got home from school, but unfortunately it was shown on a different channel so I ended up with three hours of parliamentary debates instead. Oh well, there were still the highlights...
Japanese credit card
On a visit to Dio House at Viva City, I found a stand promoting their new loyalty card, also available as a credit card with no annual fee for the first year. I thought a Japanese credit card might be a useful thing to have, bearing in mind the current strength of the yen (in early September there were only about ¥150 to the pound, down from about 190 when I came to Japan last year), so I asked to apply for one. At first the guy tried to fob me off; I asked if it was because I was a foreigner - you do occasionally encounter anti-foreigner attitudes in Japan - and he said no, it was because I wouldn't be able to write the kanji to fill the form in. Actually I think it was also partly because he was terrified of having to communicate with someone who couldn't speak much Japanese! I assured him that I could write kanji, and he helped me to complete the application. It was a struggle in places, since I didn't have my dictionary with me, but I could cope with most of it. It remains to be seen whether the card will materialise! [Update: My card arrived on December 11th, so I know now that it is possible for a foreigner to obtain a credit card in Japan!]