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School excursion - or should that be exclusion?
On the morning of Wednesday May 2nd, the middle of Golden Week, I arrived at school expecting an ordinary day of lessons - in fact a couple of weeks beforehand I'd been positively told that there would be normal timetable on that day - and found seven 50-seater coaches lined up in front of the school, being loaded up with students and staff. It turned out that the entire school, with the exception of the office staff, about four other teachers and myself, was going on various day trips. Of course I was a bit put out that I hadn't even been warned about the timetable change, never mind invited along on one of the trips, but took some solace in the fact that it poured with rain all day. I still don't really know why I wasn't invited; the official excuses are usually very vague and include the word "insurance", but I suspect the real reason is that ALTs, being non-qualified teachers (I believe that this is considered to be the case even if they are qualified in their home countries), are not allowed to chaperone students and so I wouldn't have been able to serve a useful purpose. Oh well, it gave me a chance to catch up on my Web surfing.
Trip to Wakayama
On the evening of the 4th I went down to Minabe in southern Wakayama (south of Osaka), together with Pamela, Hiro and Tatsuro. We were visiting Neal, Machiko and their baby Minami, who was born two days after Tatsuro. Neal (like Pamela) used to work for AEG, an English school chain in Shiga, but now has his own school in Minabe. Machiko's older brother Toshiyuki and his girlfriend Asuka were also visiting. Fortunately Neal and Machiko have a big house, so there was room for all of us.
It took forever to get going in the morning, largely due to there being two ten-month-old babies to take care of (and keep under control!). Neal and Machiko have also just got a one-month-old puppy called Totoro (named after a character in a Japanese animation) but he was much less trouble. Eventually we headed out into the mountains, but somewhere along the way the leading car took a wrong turning so we never got to the intended destination. Instead we went straight to Shirahama, just stopping off at a waterfall on the way.
At the waterfall.
Shirahama is known for its wide, white sand beach - in fact the name of the town means "White Beach", and the beach itself was very nice, but what I saw of the rest of the town was pretty ugly. We spent a couple of hours on the beach, then headed back. Stopped to do some shopping in Tanabe, then had a barbecue back at the house.
On the beach at Shirahama.
On the Sunday morning, Neal and Hiro got up at 5am and went fishing. By about 8/8.30am I'd given up trying to sleep through the noise of crying babies and dogs, so I got up. Again it took the families forever to get themselves organised; Pamela and Hiro were going to call on some other friends, and it was lunchtime by the time everything was packed up and ready to go. (Toshiyuki and Asuka had already left after the barbecue the previous evening, in a bid to avoid the Golden Week congestion.) Drove up into the mountains with Neal, Machiko, Minami and Totoro. The mountain scenery in Wakayama is beautiful, and barely marred by the telegraph wires that you see just about everywhere else in Japan. We played on a suspension bridge and clambered down to the riverside for a while, before heading back to the coast and my train home.
In the mountains of Wakayama. In the second picture, Neal is on a suspension bridge and is holding a crab trap that he's pulled up out of the river (you can just about see the crab in it). The third picture shows a lady tending tea bushes, and the fourth is of Machiko and Totoro by the river.
With my kimono lessons, I've now reached the stage where I can do the basic taiko knot almost without thinking about it, so it was time to advance to something a little more adventurous. This meant buying a new (to me) obi and a strange-looking piece of equipment to allow me to tie it on my own rather than having to rely on a dresser. Mori-sensei sourced a magnificent gold obi decorated with cranes in gold, black and cerise, which cost me ¥6000; new, apparently it would probably have cost around ¥100,000 (around £600 at current rates). The knot I'm practising now is a kind of pleated taiko with butterfly wings.
Yokaichi & Taga
Went out with the Yokaichi forest conservation volunteers on May 12th. I'd missed the previous two months due to other commitments, and so some people had assumed that I'd returned to the UK and were surprised to see me back again. Spent the morning cutting trees for firewood, and the afternoon clearing up cut bamboo. The BBC (Biwako Broadcasting Company) came and filmed us; I think it's for some programme aimed at encouraging people to get involved with local community activities, to be shown (twice) on June 3rd. To my relief they didn't home in on the lone gaijin, so I may be in the background of one or two of the shots, but that'll be all.
Wild flowers in the forest; making tempura for lunch.
That evening I'd been invited to a meal at the house of Enjoji-sensei, the headmaster of Taga Junior High School and therefore one of Tracy's bosses. She and Pete normally have dinner at his house every Thursday. So as soon as I got back from Yokaichi I showered, shopped and made a bread and butter pudding to take along, all in the space of 90 minutes, then caught a train up to Taga. (The pudding didn't get baked until later, at the hosts' house, and I also made custard, which took forever to thicken.) The meal was huge, and Enjoji-sensei clearly likes his drink - there was a wide selection of alcohol which we were all encouraged to partake of. Also present were James, Rachel (a Kiwi ALT who's based in Kusatsu) and Hiraki-sensei, the Superintendent of Taga Board of Education.
Dinner at Enjoji-sensei's house.
All in all, Tuesday 15th May wasn't a good day for me. First I was up at 3am chasing a mosquito around my room, then the woman outside the station who seconds earlier had been literally running after people to give them promotional packets of tissues pretended not to see me as I walked right in front of her, even though there was nobody else within a 5-metre radius. These were only minor irritations though; the big trauma of the day took place during 4th period at Genko.
One student in the fairly rowdy third-year class I was teaching clearly had no interest in the lesson, and about ten minutes into the period, when I tried to get him to take his turn at representing his team in an activity, he just gave me a dirty look and went back to reading his manga. He also had a keitai (mobile phone) sitting on his desk - all the students know perfectly well that keitais should not be visible during lessons - so I picked it up and continued with the lesson. The student clearly wasn't happy about having his keitai confiscated, and after grumbling for a while he noisily overturned a desk next to him (it was unoccupied at the time) but the only reaction I gave him was a raised eyebrow. The next thing I knew, I'd been walloped in the eye by a flying book. There was a stunned silence, and after taking a moment to ascertain that I hadn't been blinded, I picked up my things and walked out of the room, leaving Ishiwaki-sensei in charge. She seemed to be handling the situation very calmly.
I didn't let the students see how upset I was, but by the time I got to the staff room it was pretty obvious. I had been due to teach the next two periods as well but was in no fit state to do so. The other teachers were very sympathetic and Ito-sensei seemed quite happy to teach 5th and 6th periods without me. When she returned to the staff room at the end of the period, Ishiwaki-sensei told me that the student was himself in tears and wanted to apologise, but at that moment I didn't feel up to facing any student, let alone that particular one. Physically I felt OK (the skin was broken and a bit of bruising had started to develop on the temple, but the eye itself seemed fine) but bearing in mind the area of impact, I thought I'd better go to hospital to make sure that I didn't have concussion or anything. As I'd expected, the doctor told me I seemed OK but should go back immediately if I started to feel bad at all. He even offered to give me a sick note for a week off school! (I declined.)
Ishiwaki-sensei called me later at home to make sure that I was all right. She said that a meeting to decide on the boy's punishment was in progress; a final conclusion hadn't yet been reached. As a temporary measure, he sat his mid-term exams (which started the next day) in isolation and had his marks docked. In the end it was decided that he would be suspended from school for 15 days, which apparently is one of the harshest punishments permitted. (Even if a school wanted to expel a student, it's not allowed, even though high school is non-compulsory education. Attempts can be made to persuade a student to consider alternatives, but expulsion is not an option. I'm sure, however, that there must be instances where a student is told, off the record, that (s)he is no longer welcome at the school.)
The following day Ishiwaki-sensei and the kyoto-sensei (deputy head) of Genko came to Nishiko to discuss arrangements (with Nishiko's kocho-sensei (headmaster), my direct supervisor and me) for a formal apology from the boy - and his parents too! Their visit entailed what seemed to me to be an embarrassing amount of bowing, especially on the part of the visitors, and a date was set for Friday. I spent the next two days deliberating over what I should say to the student, and still hadn't really reached any conclusions when the time came. The apology meeting was attended by the student, his mother, his homeroom teacher, Ishiwaki-sensei and me, and was an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. Ishiwaki-sensei had warned me that the apology might not be very impressive, and she was right: it was just a reluctant-sounding "Sorry I threw the book" mumbled in Japanese. To give him the benefit of the doubt, though, I think he may have been struggling to hold back tears. His mother apologised too. I said it was OK, there was no serious damage - though at the time I'd thought I might have been blinded (which was true). Then I burbled some stuff - about two-thirds in mangled Japanese, one-third in English - about trying to make English interesting, not just being here to give the students a hard time; I know that English is difficult, because Japanese is difficult for me too. I also said that the best lessons are the ones where everyone takes part; sometimes even the reluctant students join in and are surprised to find that they actually quite enjoy it. Ishiwaki-sensei translated and the student nodded in response, though I doubt whether I really got through to him; I'm sure his problems go a lot deeper than just not wanting to study. It was a relief when the meeting was over, and I didn't seem to have committed any major faux pas.
Cooking with ESS
On May 17th we had an ESS cooking session at my apartment, because we couldn't make the things we wanted to with the limited facilities we had access to at school. We made ginger biscuits (using my grandmother's recipe), bread and butter pudding and custard, and something called pan-cooked toffee bread. All went down very well, though the toffee sauce was a bit too much for a couple of people!
ESS cooking session.
I'm going to need a new car shortly after I get back to the UK, and have more or less decided on a Toyota Yaris, which is called a Vitz here in Japan, so I took a trip up to my local Toyota dealership and picked up the Vitz information to decide whether it was worthwhile buying one here and importing it back to the UK with me. (Really, I'd rather buy a nearly-new one, but my Internet research indicates that there don't seem to be many on the market.) Car prices in Britain have come down over the last year or so but are still relatively high. The prices seem to be lower in Japan than in the UK, but the specifications are different (although the salesman assured me that the engines are the same so maintenance wouldn't be a problem). For example, the most basic 5-door UK model has a radio-cassette and power steering as standard, whereas in Japan these are options but air-conditioning comes as standard. Once you've taken into account the fact that UK prices quoted by dealers are usually on-the-road prices, plus the fact that I'd need to get certain adjustments made to qualify the car for registration in the UK (such as foglamps and a miles-per-hour speedometer), plus the cost of shipping, I doubt whether there would be any significant saving - and grey imports tend to have a lower resale value too. I think that buying a second-hand car at auction here can still be worthwhile, but I'm not so sure about new ones, particularly at the low end of the market.
New return ticket system
In previous years, JETs returning to their home countries on completion of their contracts have in most cases been allowed to book their own tickets home (a full-fare Y2 economy-class ticket was stipulated) and then claim the cost from their host institution. However, some people were abusing this system by immediately cancelling their bookings and using the money for holidays, round-the-world trips and suchlike. Understandably, the powers that be at CLAIR decided that this was a waste of taxpayers' money, and in the middle of this contract year they suddenly announced new guidelines stipulating that tickets should be provided rather than funds. A lot of people were unhappy about the fact that this change was introduced in the middle of a contract year; although, strictly speaking, our contractual conditions were still going to be met, we were being given much less freedom than we had been led to believe when we entered into our side of the contract.
It wasn't until mid-May that Shiga-ken announced the approach that it was going to take. By this time we JETs were getting worried that the flights we wanted to take were already going to be booked up, and it was going to be at least another couple of weeks before the bookings were actually made. Effectively, we were being prevented from arranging aspects of our lives which had nothing to do with our current employers. In my case, for example, if like many people I'd been intending to fly home within a week or two after my contract ended, the short notice we were being given would have prevented me from being able to give the required two months' written notice to the tenants to vacate my house, resulting in either lost rental income or my house being unavailable when I got home.
As far as we could see, the new procedure was just going to result in an additional workload for some poor bureaucrat, embittered JETs and no significant financial savings - the money was just going to go to the travel agents / airlines instead of the JETs. On top of this, the guidelines initially stated that we were required to return to the city that we had flown out of at the beginning of our contracts. This was later softened to allow for the fact that people might have been studying somewhere other than their family's home town and may have no reason to go back to the city they came from, but even then it did not take into account the fact that we are all adults and may not actually want to be sent back to our mothers. In my case, for example, I haven't lived (permanently) at my parents' address since 1989; I have lived in Birmingham, which has its own international airport (albeit not one with direct flights to Japan), since 1993, and have never spent more than three days in London, the city I was required to fly out from. As a more extreme example, I know of someone originally from Hawaii who was studying in Colorado and was required to fly from San Francisco because that was the nearest JET gathering point. Other people wanted to go directly to other countries, without returning home first. However, going on to a country other than the JET's home country has never been officially permitted; it's just the enforcement of this rule that's new.
More than 50% of the JETs in Shiga-ken backed protests against the new procedure and the way it had been implemented. A letter was written to kencho (the prefectural head office) and a meeting was arranged for a couple of ALT representatives to discuss the reasons for our dissatisfaction with senior officials there. It was too late for much to be changed this year, but they did seem to realise how inflexible they were being, and make allowances such as letting us fly to our cities of choice provided that they were in our home countries.
As it turned out, I was offered a satisfactory flight booking at the end of May, flying on the day I wanted (August 12th) to Birmingham via Paris, so I accepted it. The ticket price? More than a month of my salary, and roughly twice what it would have cost if I'd been allowed to make my own booking in April as I'd wanted to. And that's not taking into account the additional workload for whichever unfortunate person got dumped with the job of making the bookings. Maybe next year they'll decide that it's easier, and just as cheap, to go back to letting the JETs make their own bookings.
Climbing Mount Ibuki
On Saturday May 26th a group of about eight Shiga JETs hiked up Ibuki-san, Shiga's highest mountain. We started at an altitude of 220m and climbed all the way up to the 1377m summit - probably the longest climb I've ever done in one go. The ascent took about four hours, but we did take it fairly easy with lots of rest stops. Contrary to our expectations, it was still T-shirt weather even at the top, with just a pleasant cool breeze (it must have been close to 30°C down by the lake). The mountain was pretty busy, especially at the top; there's a car park from which it only takes half an hour to hike to the summit. At the top there are also several souvenir and noodle shops. Ibuki-san is well-known for its wild flowers, and some people go up there every month to witness the changing flora.
Ibuki-san - before, during and after the ascent.
This house, at the base of the mountain, was being built using traditional methods - without nails, and not connected to the foundations in any way.
Views from the summit.
We stayed at the summit for more than an hour before heading back down the hill. My knees soon started to give me trouble on the descent, and I was in quite a lot of pain by the time we got to the bottom. By the next day, the knees were starting to recover but my calf muscles were seizing up qute severely - Monday and Tuesday were the worst days. I don't know quite how I'm going to cope with Mount Fuji!
On the 27th I took the JTOC exam in Kyoto. JTOC stands for Japanese Test of Communication; according to the website it's pronounced "Jay-Talk", but that only works if you have a North American accent. It's a two-hour listening test, worth 1000 points in total, and given twice a year. There's only a single test for all levels and you can take it as often as you like; only your highest score counts. There were only two of us sitting the exam at the Kyoto centre (the expected third candidate was a no-show); the other guy was a fellow Brit who'd been in Japan for 15 years and was taking the exam for the third time. The first section was dead simple; the 8th and last section would have been difficult even for native speakers because there was such a huge amount of information that you were expected to understand, memorise and answer questions on. Some of the other sections were a bit that way too, with no time to digest the illustrations that you were supposed to choose your answers from, or just no time to think about your answer. At least there was no penalty for incorrect answers. Should get the result in 4-6 weeks.
I'm now the proud owner of my own domain name: tanukihouse.com! That's what I intend to call my homestay business, assuming that I succeed in getting it off the ground. Every Japanese knows what a tanuki is (they feature heavily in Japanese folk tales) so it's a name that will be easy for my potential customers to remember. Typing the new domain name into the address field of your browser (with or without "www.") will now bring up the homestay website.
Had two enkais on consecutive days in late May: one with the female staff of Genko, and an informal "ganbarou-kai" - ostensibly to encourage our school's performance at the prefectural sports tournament taking place at the end of the week - at a yakiniku restaurant with mostly Nishiko staff. In the yakiniku restaurant, if I understood correctly, the lads at the table next to us were Nishiko alumni who are now in a successful band called Rocking Chair. (Couldn't find anything about them on the Internet when I looked though - the nearest I could find was an Osaka band called Fragile Rocking Chair.) After each enkai we went on to Alldays for a couple of hours of karaoke. I think the staff in there must be beginning to recognise me by now!
At the Nishiko ganbarou-kai. Apparently the guy next to me in the second picture (taken at Hayase-sensei's insistence) is a well-known pop star.
The Japanese Mountain Trek hikers, having completed the southern Alps, arrived back in Hikone on May 30th, to complete and pick up their alien registrations. This time they stayed at Tim's rather than at my apartment. No problems with the registrations, and on the Friday we went out for another binge at Cannery Row, then contemplated our stuffed bellies while writing surreal poetry back at Cat's apartment.