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Christmas at last!

February began with a belated Christmas! I got into school one morning early in the month to find a big box on my desk: a Christmas parcel sent by my friend Anne-Marie at home. It had come by surface mail, and the British postal system has been in a mess lately anyway, so that's probably why it arrived so late - but a bit of Christmas turning up right in the depths of winter, when there's nothing much else going on, is no bad thing. The package contained not just a single present, but almost everything except the tree (I have a small one here anyway) and the turkey! There was chocolate, a candle, more chocolate, shower gel, socks, a small Christmas pudding and rum sauce to go with it, a Christmas cracker, and even a few walnuts! I got one of my neighbouring teachers to pull the cracker with me (he was terrified to take hold of the thing, having never seen anything like it!) and the spinning top inside attracted the attention of several other teachers who of course wanted to know what the other contents of the package were. Japanese people are always surprised to learn that "pudding" is not necessarily a little carton of creme-caramel-type stuff, and that Christmas pudding is in fact more of a very heavy, moist fruit cake. I'll have to send a couple of big ones over after I get back to the UK, so that all the staff can have a taste.

Other school news

During the break between 1st and 2nd periods that same day, the school fire alarm went off, and the teachers all just sat at their desks looking perplexed - no, that couldn't possibly be the fire alarm we were hearing; no fire drill was scheduled! Eventually someone went out and ascertained that yes, it was the fire alarm, no, it wasn't students messing around, and yes, there was a real fire, in the caretaker's room downstairs! From the corridor we could see smoke coming out of the window, but it didn't take long to put the fire out, and we didn't have to evacuate.

On February 7th, Iwasaki-sensei returned to work after her extended maternity leave, and so Nakamura-sensei left Nishiko. A couple of weeks later, the Hikone Nishi English teachers went out for a "shinnenkansougeikai": a combined leaving do (kansou) for Nakamura-sensei, welcome-back do (kangei) for Iwasaki-sensei, and belated New Year party (shinnenkai). I wasn't too keen on the beef sashimi (raw beef - tasted OK but was very difficult to chew) but the nabe/shabu-shabu was good.

English teachers' meal
English teachers' meal. (Back: me, Mukai-sensei, Taguchi-sensei, Matsuyama-sensei, Fujimoto-sensei; front: Kawaguchi-sensei, Nakamura-sensei, Iwasaki-sensei, Ito-sensei, Fukunaga-sensei. Fuji-sensei is missing because he'd had to leave early.)

We had another staff meal towards the end of the month, this one a Hina-matsuri (Doll Festival or Girls' Day) lunch, at school, for all the female staff. The festival actually falls on March 3rd, but the lunch was arranged for during exam week since most of the teachers' teaching and extra-curricular commitments are at a minimum during the exams. Unfortunately for me, the main component of the meal was a sushi box lunch with wasabi in almost every item, and wasabi is the food that I hate most in the world. I just can't eat the stuff at all, and even if you try to scrape it off, you can usually still taste it, so all I could do was to nibble around the wasabi as best I could. Fortunately there were also sandwiches and various other snacks so I didn't go hungry.

Graduation approaches

March 1st is Graduation Day at all the public (state) high schools in Shiga. One of my third year former students came to me with some songwords in Japanese which for some reason he wanted translating into English. I had a go and succeeeded in making a reasonable stab at two of the four songs, but had to give up on the other two. They were all stuff like "My irreplaceable friends, we've gone through so much together during the last three years, and now we're going our separate ways". One of them in particular almost had me in tears, so I hate to think what I'm going to be like when the ceremony comes around!

As a result of a successful bargain hunt at a local flea market (for the grand sum of ¥300 I found a pair of second-hand zori, which not only were a good match for my kimono and obi while still being big enough for me to get my feet into, but also came with a matching bag), my kimono outfit is now complete. Since I have the outfit and know how to put it on, I now need an opportunity to wear it without looking too out of place! (Standing out for being the only foreigner is one thing, but being the only foreigner and the only person in traditional Japanese dress would be just plain embarrassing.) So I asked whether there was any possibility of one or two of the other teachers wearing traditional dress for the graduation ceremony, but I was told that it wouldn't happen; ten years ago it would have been fairly normal, but nowadays it's very rare. One of the teachers once wore hakama (wide pleated trousers, used as a kind of formal academic dress) at her previous school, but it wasn't going to happen at Nishiko. So my hopes were dashed, until a week or two later I overheard a couple of other teachers discussing kimono and hakama (didn't really understand what they were saying, but I picked up on the key words), and it turned out that Okagawa-sensei, one of the third year homeroom teachers, is planning to wear hakama after all. So if she wears hakama, I can wear my kimono without feeling too daft!

Mid-Year Reporting Meeting

On February 9th I had to go down to Otsu for the Mid-Year Reporting Meeting, that annual complete waste of time where the 40-odd first-year ALTs all have to make nice speeches in Japanese telling the Directors of the Board of Education what a wonderful time they're having in Japan, and the second and third years have to go along just to listen. I arrived late (this had been officially sanctioned because my school hadn't been given enough notice to reschedule my lessons so I'd had to teach third period), but only managed to avoid the first half-dozen or so speeches. Actually it wasn't that much of a waste of time; the meeting itself was, but it did give us an opportunity to speak to other JETs whom we didn't often see, and we also had a fairly productive meeting to discuss sub-prefectural Block activities. Afterwards about twenty of us ended up in a "German" pub with very entertaining bar staff!

In fact not quite all of the first year ALTs made speeches. One of the Nagahama ALTs has already broken her contract and left, I have no idea why, and one of the Hikone ones was also leaving at the end of February. She was here with her husband and two-year-old daughter, and they were given an apartment smaller and less well laid out than mine to live in (mine has two separate tatami rooms, but in theirs, you had to go through the first tatami room to get to the second). This, combined with the fact that one of her two schools treated her badly, ended up being too much for the three of them. The other Hikone city ALTs had warned the Board of Education before they arrived that the accommodation wouldn't be adequate for a family of three, but nothing was done about the situation - except that one of the single ALTs volunteered to exchange apartments and take the even smaller one that had originally been intended for them.

Yokaichi Yuurinkai

As usual, the second Saturday of the month was forest conservation day. Since I wasn't sure that I had fully recovered from the back injury I sustained in the classroom last month, I took things pretty easy and helped mainly with the meal preparation rather than the heavy work. One of things we had was kiri-something - leftover rice reheated and pounded into a sticky pulp (semi-mochified), then wrapped around 20cm lengths of bamboo and toasted over a fire.

Splitting bamboo Charcoal burner
Splitting bamboo, and using the split bamboo to stoke up the charcoal burner.

Making amazake
Making amazake - done by heating the mixture and pummelling the paste until it dissolves in the water. I haven't been able to ascertain whether this stuff contains alcohol or not.

Noboru & Shouta
Noboru-san and his two-year-old son Shouta. (The guy in the background is the chef, wearing flip-flops and no socks, as usual.)

That evening I'd been invited to the home of Hirata-san, one of the ladies in my aerobics class. I met her family (her husband, her son, his wife and their 14-month-old son, plus "younger brother"'s girlfriend Mika, though "younger brother" himself wasn't around) and we had a delicious meal including a big nabe. A typical traditional-style Japanese family, where the young family live with the husband's parents. I guess that Hirata-san's own home environment made it difficult for her to believe that I'm not constantly lonely living on my own! After the meal I offered to help clean up and was told no, it's OK, there are already three women to do it. A little later, the three women were sitting on the floor around the table having a chat, when the son, who was sitting on his own at the far end of the room, got out a cigarette and lighter and loudly said "Ashtray". Just that one word (in Japanese, of course) - not even "Could you get me an ashtray please?". His mother immediately broke off her conversation, jumped up, went to the kitchen and brought him one. I'm sure she didn't even realise how much she was spoiling him. She then sat down next to me on the sofa and I said to her quietly, "Jibun de tori ni ikemasen ka?" ("Couldn't he go and get it himself?") Unfortunately she misunderstood me and thought I was asking to go to the toilet (toire), so I had to repeat myself, this time with everyone listening in! There ensued a short discussion during which Hirata-san's husband backed up the son, on the grounds that it makes sense for the mother to get the item if she's already on her feet. But she wasn't! I probably came across as very rude, but you never know, maybe it will help the women of the family to realise that they don't have to be such slaves to their menfolk...

English Festival

On the afternoon of Saturday 17th February, Hikone Nishi hosted the Shiga High Schools' English Festival. You should be able to find find a full report of the event on the ESS website, but I'll include an abridged version here as well. It was attended by about forty people from all over Shiga.

Starting Kocho-sensei's speech
The beginning of the event.

After the opening ceremony, we played "Find someone who" bingo as an ice-breaking activity (find someone who has a pet, lives in Nagahama, has an email address, etc.), with prizes from the local 100 yen shop, where we'd had a big spending spree. Then everyone split into groups, each of 6-7 students and 2-3 staff. Each student drew a slip of paper with a city name on it, and had to form a group with other people whose cities were in the same country. There was a big world map on the wall to help anyone who didn't know where their city was. The countries were all English-speaking ones: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and USA.

Find someone who Forming groups
"Find someone who", and getting into groups.

Once the groups had been formed, the members played a getting-to-know-each-other memory game, then there was a short break for drinks and snacks. After the break each group was allocated a setting (e.g. hotel, school, boat), a scenario (e.g. a fight, someone loses something, a fire) and three props, and then had an hour to prepare a 5-minute sketch using what they had been given.

Australia New Zealand
Preparing sketches: Australia and New Zealand.

The sketches were all entertaining and imaginative, although not exactly realistic! We took a vote on the best one and awarded prizes (Australia won), and still had time for a round of Strip the Willow (Scottish ceilidh dance) and a game of number bingo. The dance wasn't easy to teach to a room full of people who didn't know the first thing about it, but it went down quite well with most of the groups; a couple of groups gave up before the music ended, presumably due to a combination of shyness and confusion, but nobody could complain that it was boring! Bingo, of course, is always popular. Finally we had a brief closing ceremony and everyone picked up their goody bags on the way out. It was a very successful event, and more fun than I'd expected.

New Zealand UK Canada
Scenes from the New Zealand, UK and Canada groups' sketches.

Nishiko team
The Nishiko team, after the event.

Sankyuu result

My result from the sankyuu (Japanese Proficiency Test, level 3) finally arrived on February 19th. I was relieved to find that it was a good pass, with a total of 347 marks out of 400; the pass mark was 240, or 60%. I was given 99/100 on the first paper (kanji & vocabulary), 73/100 on the second (listening), and 175/200 on the third (grammar & reading). Actually I think it should have been 100 for the first paper and 72 for the second, since - if I remember rightly - each paper consisted of 25 equally-weighted questions, but presumably the formatting of the result slip only allows for two digits in each of those fields. I guess that if someone got 100% on all three papers they'd have to be given 202/200 for the third one!

Homeward bound

The deadline for our re-contracting decisions fell, as usual, in the middle of February. Although I'm still enjoying life in Japan, I feel that I've taken long enough out of my life back home, and that by this summer it will be time to head back. Besides, I'm not sure that I want to be doing this job for another year; I've encountered too many jaded third year ALTs. Those who stay for a third year mostly seem to do so for one of two main reasons: either they want to stay in Japan long-term, perhaps permanently, or they're basically just procrastinating about going home and getting on with their "real" lives.

So I'm going to be returning to the UK this summer, and I've started thinking about what I'm going to do when I get back. The most obvious option is to return to my former employer (assuming that they'll have me) - a steady job which will pay the mortgage, but will probably offer little or no opportunity for me to use or develop my language skills. Realistically, that's what I'll probably end up doing. Another possibility would be to retrain as a teacher of languages, but I've heard a lot of horror stories about the stress and long hours involved in teaching in UK state schools; British teachers seem to be under a under a similar amount of stress to Japanese ones, though for different reasons. Japanese teachers are under pressure because they're expected to take responsibility for their students' entire lives; in Britain the burden seems to be more a heavy administrative workload with a high proportion of teaching hours, national standards to adhere to, and little time for preparation and marking. My youngest sister is about to embark on a secondary school teaching career - she's currently in her final year at university (doing PE and Maths) and will start her PGCE this autumn - so it'll be interesting to hear how she gets on.

Another idea that has captured my imagination is to set up a course-&-tour package for Japanese visitors to the UK. I could do this as a 5- or 7-night homestay, using my own house; I could fit four guests into my two big bedrooms if I moved into one of the downstairs rooms, and five people could fit into the car for outings. The package would offer two or three hours of English lessons each day, tailored to the students' needs, plus a daily excursion to a nearby place of interest (for example Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick Castle, Cadbury World (chocolate factory), local National Trust properties, and the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham city centre). As far as food is concerned, a pub lunch and a balti (local speciality) would have to be included on the itinerary, but apart from that I'd want to do the catering on a group basis, with everyone taking turns with the cooking and clearing up, like on a National Trust Working Holiday - all part of the cultural education, as well as keeping costs down and reducing my workload! Of course, I couldn't launch straight into doing this full-time - and I'm not sure that I'd want to be doing it week-in, week-out in any case - but I could start off doing it for just two or three weeks in the first year, taking annual leave from my day job. In fact I've set up a website to show what I'm planning to do (assuming that I can get the necessary approval from the relevant authorities); no harm in a little advance promotion! You can find it here. Not many visitors so far, but then I haven't really made an attempt to publicise it yet. For a start I don't know how much red tape I'm going to have to deal with in order to start the business, and also I'm not sure that I'm going to be able to keep the site at this address and still edit it once I get home, since it contains Japanese script. (I can't edit Japanese in Notepad in English Windows, so I have to do it in the space provider's online file manager, and at the moment the 50megs file manager doesn't give access to the menus so I can't select Japanese encoding. I'm trying to find a text editor, preferably a free one, which will let me edit the HTML/Japanese offline, but haven't succeeded yet...)

I've also been toying with the idea of opening a small hostel on the edge of Birmingham city centre, though that will obviously involve a lot of red tape and require a lot more capital investment. It could even be combined with the homestay/course/tour idea. I'd like to create a place with a Japanese flavour - Japanese-style baths and tatami rooms, as well as the Western-style equivalents. A little bit of home for Japanese visitors, and a taste of Japan for others. (I could even dress people up in kimono!) Although the city has plenty of suburban B&Bs, there's a shortage of centrally-located, self-catering budget accommodation. Birmingham is a great place to base yourself for exploring England and Wales - very central with good transport links - although admittedly the city itself does have something of an image problem. When I speak to Japanese people who've actually heard of the place, their comment is invariably, "That's an industrial city, isn't it?" Well, yes it is, but probably no more so than any other city of a million plus inhabitants in a developed country, and a lot has been done to improve the city centre in the last ten or fifteen years. Besides, it's a lot more British - not to mention cheaper - than London, where you'll probably encounter as many foreign tourists as locals. Since a new working holiday visa agreement is coming into force this year between the UK and Japan, I'm pretty sure we can expect an increase in the number of young Japanese coming to the UK on a budget with the intention of staying for up to a year. Probably not that many of them will head for Birmingham, but if word gets out that there's a good, cheap, Japanese-friendly place to stay there then maybe that will attract a few more, and at the same time help to even out seasonal peaks and troughs in business.

Entertaining guests

I hosted a couple of small events at my apartment in February: a Block meeting, with most of the local ALTs and a big nabe, and a Shrove Tuesday pancake party on the 27th. In case you're wondering, Shrove Tuesday is a Christian festival and is essentially the same thing as Mardi Gras, traditionally a time to use up all the rich, fatty foods in the house before the beginning of Lent, formerly a period of fasting. In Britain we make pancakes, and traditionally eat them with sugar and lemon juice. I used the good old Blue Peter Quick Pancakes recipe: sieve 4oz plain flour, add 2 eggs, a pinch of salt and 2 tbsp oil and beat well, then slowly add ½ pint milk, beating constantly. Heat a very small amount of oil in a non-stick frying pan, put in a ladleful of batter and quickly tilt the pan so that a thin layer of batter covers the bottom. (Several people asked for the recipe so I thought I might as well include it here!) We made octuple quantities, which meant about 48 pancakes, and between the thirteen of us we polished off the lot.

Block nabe Block nabe
Block meeting and nabe.

Amy's rescue operation Tomo-chan & Natsumi Mariko Group
Pancake party: Amy rescuing her pancake after a less-than-successful toss; Tomoko and Natsumi; Mariko; group photo.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002