Memories of Summer, 2017

Summers in high school were family vacations and cross country practices; summers throughout college were long hours spent at part-time jobs with my best friend; but summers here in Japan have been some of the best I’ve ever had.

Summer, of course, is long past, but here are some of the highlights from my last full summer here in Japan:

* A road-trip across Ibaraki one beautiful day in June. J and I hit Ushiku Daibutsu (that huge, famous Buddha), the Itako Iris festival (so many wilting flowers), and the celebrated Kashima Jingu (a shaded shrine where we discovered ponds teeming with crawfish!) before catching up with 20 or so other Ibaraki JETs for the Kashima Antler’s soccer game! It was a great little road trip across the southern part of Ibaraki.

* My high school’s baseball game. I went to Mito with my commercial school to see the school’s baseball team kick off the prefecture’s high school baseball season! And my school’s team absolutely killed it. In the first inning alone, we racked up 11 points… which was exhausting for the poor students in the stands, because in Japanese baseball, every time a team scores a run, the band has to play a specific song and the supporters have to do a specific celebratory dance. Imagine all of that in 95 degree heat and humidity. The poor drummers, draped in ice towels and beating away at their huge drum, kept shooting me exasperated glances every time our team scored another point. “Yeah, we want to win,” their eyes seemed to say, “but calm down and give us a break here. We’re tired of cheering.”

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NZ Highlights: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Hailed as one of the best one-day hikes in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was at the top of our list for our New Zealand trip. And it certainly did not disappoint! Rugged volcanic terrain, breathtaking views, emerald lakes, a hike that made our feet feel like they were bleeding by the 18th kilometer… all 100% worth it.

Here are our basic logistics: we parked at the Ketetahi parking lot, took a shuttle bus (booked over the phone the day before) to the Mangatepopo starting point, and then proceeded to hike the 19.4 km back to our car.

The 19.4 hike between Mangatepopo and Ketetahi is almost other-worldly. In the first part of the hike, we strolled along a boardwalk rising up from marshland and vibrantly copper-colored streams, with Mt. Doom (in reality, Mt. Ngauruhoe) looming to our right.

After an hour or so, the actual climbing began. We left the boardwalks behind as the path became loose volcanic gravel—or scoria, as we learned it is called—zig-zagging sharply up a cliff. Quite a few times, we joined other hikers to stop, catch our breath, and evaluate our progress (“I’m so out of shape…”). Finally, the trail flattened out to reveal the South Crater before us, Mt. Doom closer than ever.

We crossed the South Crater leisurely before getting to the next challenge: the long, steep climb up to the Red Crater. I was stopping every 5 minutes to take pictures (and catch my breath) because the views were just stunning.

The hike up to the Red Crater took us quite a bit longer than the course pamphlet says it should, although I’m blaming both fitness and photography for that. By the time we actually reached the Red Crater—at 1886 m above sea level—it was well past lunch time. We marveled at the colors (the crater is quite aptly named) then bid goodbye to the once-again-distant Mt. Doom and started our descent down to the most photographed spot on the entire hike: the Emerald Lakes.

I was reaching for my camera every three seconds by this point. Slide down the scoria slope a few feet… pause and snap a photo. Scramble down a little further… oh, it’s a new angle, so let’s take another photo! Then, we had lunch on the banks of the Emerald Lakes. That’s a sentence almost out of a fairytale, and that’s exactly how lunch on the banks of the Emerald Lakes felt, too—a fairytale. Plus, it was magical indeed to finally sit down and rest our weary feet while we ate.

After lunching by those beautiful Emerald Lakes, there was another little climb up to the Blue Lake before beginning the three-and-a-half-hour, 1000m descent back to our car at Ketetahi. The first part of the descent wasn’t so bad—we were winding around Mt. Tongariro’s northern slope, and the views were still stunning. We could even see Lake Taupo far off in the distance. But after passing the Ketetahi mountain hut, with another 2 hours of trekking left to go, our car seemed unreachable, and our feet felt broken.

The end of the hike is a bit of a blur. We finally passed from sun-beaten tussock slopes into the cool forest, marking the last landscape change before the carpark. Every step was painful by this point, and every rumble of the nearby stream fooled us into thinking it was the rumble of a car engine. At long last, however, we really did hear engines, and we walked with renewed energy the final few hundred meters to our rental car. Peeling off muddy boots and sweaty socks, we then drove an hour north to Taupo, where hot showers, greasy food, and soft beds awaited us.

NZ Highlights: an Afternoon in Hobbiton

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – So begins J.R.R. Tolkien’s first masterpiece, The Hobbit, and so began my happy tumble into Middle Earth as a child. After years of relying on the books, the movies, and my own daydreams, visiting Hobbiton brought Tolkien’s world to life.

There are hundreds of blogs and reviews covering the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour, so I’ll just keep this brief and add a few pictures of my own. Simply put, I loved it. Even J, who is not such an avid fan of Tolkien, meandered around the Shire quite happily (her favorite part was the Party Tree—she desperately wanted to climb it). The attention to detail  is absolutely incredible. I loved all the autumn flowers, the hobbit-sized shirts hanging on the clotheslines, the signposts written in Tolkien’s handwriting… To sum up our afternoon in Hobbiton: we frolicked, we drank cider, we lost the tour guide, and I took entirely too many photographs. How could I not?

Distracted as I was with taking photos and looking around, I ended up missing most of the stories that our guide told. I do regret that a bit… but at the same time, I was just so happy to be there that the experience was perfect all the same.

So that covers our first highlight of the trip: Hobbiton (Day 4 of our New Zealand Itinerary). The next highlight is Day 5: Tongariro!

Snapshots: June and July in the Classroom

Life as an ALT on the JET Programme is part travel and festivals and new experiences (which makes up most of my blog content) and majority teaching classes and working with students and day-to-day chores (which has been slightly neglected here).

During my February blog challenge, I gave a little glimpse into what I do at work in the Monday: Office Life series. However, I want to go a little further and note some snapshots of recent classroom moments. (Maybe it’s because I’m missing all of my adorable students now that summer vacation has finally started).

So here are a few moments that stuck with me from June and July:

@ my Tuesday school:

There’s a ruckus in the staircase below as S-sensei and I wrap up our 4th period lesson and leave the classroom. As we descend, we see groups of students pointing at the ceiling and whispering.

It’s easy to see what is causing all the fuss: clinging to the white ceiling tile, fast asleep, there is a small brown bat.

One of the math teachers, who had peeked out of the staff office to find the source of the noise, pointed at the bat and explained it to me proudly in English, “New hallway accessory.”

@ my Monday school:

It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m giving a practice interview for EIKEN, a national English proficiency test. The student I’m interviewing is a serious, studious boy who we’ll nickname Y-kun.

I read out the fourth question of practice test 5: “Do you usually wear a wristwatch?”

Y-kun has been answering all of the previous questions easily, but he scrunches up his face in confusion. “One more time, please?”

I nod, “Do you usually wear a wristwatch?”

He pauses again, and then asks “What is a… wristwatch?”

It’s so tempting to answer and help him out, but in a real EIKEN interview test, the interviewer wouldn’t give such a hint. I tell Y-kun that has to try to break down the word, or answer with whatever he can, and we’ll go over the answer after the practice interview.

Y-kun does his best, “No, I usually wear t-shirts and pants. I’m not interested in wristwatches.”

I try my best to keep a straight face through his answer, because it would have been a perfect response if not for one small detail…

As soon as he’s answered the final question of practice test 5, he immediately asks me about the wristwatch question.

I say, “Um… please raise your hands.”

He does so, confused.

I continue, “You are wearing a wristwatch right now.”

His eyes snap to his watch, and I see understanding hit. “Oh….” he says slowly, “….embarrassing.” Then, for the first time in the hour I’ve been practice-interviewing him, Y-kun starts laughing.

@ my Thursday school

I-sensei and I were doing a Speed Dating activity for our lowest-level English class.

For the first part of class, students make up a basic profile – name, age, hometown, job, birthday, hobby. The only rule was that they couldn’t write their own information. They could write their dream job or a celebrity name or they could claim to be 100 years old—any of that was okay—but they couldn’t fill out their profile as a17-year-old high school student living in Ibaraki, Japan.

For the second part of class, students would pair up to practice asking each other basic questions (“What is your name?” / “Where do you live?”) and memorize their partner’s profile answers within two minutes. After the timer rang, they would switch and do it all again with a new partner.

I-sensei and I have two students with severe learning disabilities in this particular class; a girl, S-chan, and a boy, K-kun. For the first part of class, while the other students were writing down their profiles (My name is Anpanman! I live in Neptune!), I helped K-kun with his writing.

K-kun is a sweet, hard-working student; he knew exactly what he wanted his profile to be. The name he chose was faintly Russian; his new hometown was China. When we reached the “Job,” section of his profile, he didn’t even hesitate: “English teacher.” He looked up at me, smiling, “What’s the spell?” and I spelled out the letters for him slowly, one-by-one.

Later that afternoon, after class, I overheard a conversation between K-kun’s homeroom teacher and another teacher. The homeroom teacher was sighing heavily. She said that during her meeting with K-kun to talk about his future job plans, she had finally persuaded him to give up his dream of becoming an English teacher. It was simply unrealistic, she said. He was barely passing many of his classes, including English—getting into college would be difficult enough.

And some logical part of me knows that K-kun will never be an English teacher, even if he keeps dreaming and working hard. He struggles with understanding basic questions in English, and Japan isn’t the most sympathetic country to intellectual disabilities.

But all the same, it was heartbreaking to hear adults discourage a student from their dreams.

@ my Wednesday school:

Wednesday morning with my favorite class in this school: 3-4 conversation class with O-sensei.

Our current unit is giving directions in English, and O-sensei is inspired: he buys two colorful eye masks (featuring huge anime-eyes) from Daiso and announces to the students that they’ll be putting English to use today.

The first task for students is a trust exercise for me. O-sensei and I stand blindfolded in opposite corners of the room, and students have to navigate us around desks and chairs so we can meet and shake hands.

N-chan is the first student to guide me, and her directions are far from perfect.

“Go right, NO. No. Go left. Left.”

I turn left and promptly bump into a chair. The other students giggle.

“Oh. Right. Sorry, go right Karen-sensei.”

Eventually, we made it. But it cemented my decision to never try that particular directions activity with my tech school. I’d end up in the hallway, or going down the stairs…

The next task is students guiding their blindfolded classmates around the room. This time, though, O-sensei announces that the blind students would simultaneously be playing tag. The student wearing the pink eye mask had to tag the student wearing the blue eye mask.

As you can imagine, blindfolded 17-year olds chasing each other around the classroom, listening to imperfect but impassioned English directions is quite a sight.

The funniest blind tag game featured T-kun, who was giving instructions to a blind Y-kun (pink eye mask) to tag the blind N-chan (blue eye mask), who was being led by M-chan.

T-kun kept yelling “Straight straight straight fast! FAST! NO, TURN LEFT!! Fast fast! Yes! Straight straight FAST! TOUCH! No, turn around! Straight~” and M-chan was quietly foiling T-kun at every turn, teasing him by keeping N-chan close and then making her turn in a new direction at the last second, out of reach. Whenever Y-kun was close to N-chan, T-kun would scream “TOUCH! TOUCH!!” and Y-kun would flail blindly, groping the empty air.

As the race became more intense, personal safety was sacrificed. Eventually Y-kun was being led straight into desks and even T-kun—who could see—was banging into stray chairs, such was his focus on the chase. Everyone else was cheering and jumping out of the way as the four students chased each other around the room with erratic movements.

I’ve never laughed so hard during a class.

10 Days in New Zealand: Our North Island NZ Road Trip Itinerary

New Zealand is the PERFECT place for a road trip. As promised, here is our itinerary, finally!

Due to budget and time restrictions, J and I only hit the North Island, but it was enough to sate our thirst for mountains and adventure… at least for a little while! We spent hours researching our trip (we have a 30-page google doc of notes and itineraries to prove it), and due to all of our research, we managed to see everything on our list.

I know I looked at plenty of online itineraries while planning our own, so if you are New Zealand dreaming on a bit of a budget and love mountains and adventure like we do, here is an idea of a successful road trip! Although I’m no expert, I included  few tips for budgeting in NZ at the end.

Day One:  Auckland – Hamilton

The Plan: This was our arrival day. We landed in Auckland at 9:55 AM, and spent a few hours going through immigration / picking up our rental car. By 12:30 PM, we wanted to be on the road, heading to Hamilton. We didn’t plan to do anything else on this day (after 17 hours of flying, we assumed we’d need a break) aside from shower and sleep.

What Happened: Our AirBnB hosts actually invited us to their granddaughter’s birthday party that evening, just hours after meeting them. Our hosts kindly drove us an hour further south to their son’s home, and we spent the evening with their family, enjoying a lamb roast, drinking wine, and playing games with the four grandchildren. It was an unexpectedly lovely first day.

Driving Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes. Accommodation: our Hamilton AirBnB.

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JET Programme 20 Questions

Name: Karen

Prefecture Placement: Ibaraki Prefecture

Prefecture Requests: No Preference. I regretted this as soon as I had turned in the application, but by then, it was too late. If I had researched earlier, my requests would have been: Yamagata, Toyama, and Nagano.

Teaching Experience: 6 months teaching ESL to university students in Strasbourg, France; 6 months of volunteering in ESL classes for immigrants in Worcester, Massachusetts (while I was in university).

Number of Schools and Age Range: 4 senior high schools and 1 special education school. Students are 15-18 years old, although a few of the students who attend night classes are a little older.

School Level: all low-level (the majority of my students will not continue on to university)

Average Number of Classes per Day: overall, I average 3 classes a day, but having 2 classes or 4 classes per day are also common for me. It really depends on the school.

Closest JET to you distance wise: 30 minutes by train,  or 40 minutes by car.

Best part of the job: the people, by far. Students and coworkers both. I really enjoy the people I work with, and I wrote more about it in my post The Best Parts of Teaching ESL.

Worst part of the job: those one or two classes that are forever sleepy and unmotivated, no matter what fun lesson you throw at them. It’s pretty discouraging.  I wrote more about that in my post My Least Favorite Parts of Teaching ESL.

Best part of living in Japan: learning. I truly learn something new almost every day. Sometimes they are little things, like the kanji for sugar or a student’s dream job. Other days, I learn a little piece of a bigger puzzle, like the intricacies of the Japanese education system or a picture of life in Ibaraki in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve met hundreds of new people and I love listening to the stories they tell. I’m also learning about myself: how I react to new challenges and what values I hold no matter the country or society I’m living in.

Worst part of living in Japan: the distance from friends and family. I’m rarely homesick, and of course distance is part of the package when you sign up to live and work abroad, but every so often an event back home makes me think, “God, I wish teleportation was real.” I’ve missed things—like my Grandma’s 90th birthday party and my friend’s engagement party—that I would have been there for had the distance been less (and plane tickets cheaper).

Favorite memory so far: 1) In the middle of a mild typhoon last August, a friend and I ran barefoot through the streets and to the park by my house. We sat on the swings, singing and laughing, for an hour in the pouring rain; we returned home soaked to the bone, dried off, and watched a movie with some hot tea. That afternoon was one of the first times in Japan that I wasn’t worrying about what other people were thinking about me “the foreigner”—I felt free. 2) Watching and cheering as two of my students competed in the All-Japan English speech competition in Tokyo, and cheering even harder as they both advanced to the semi-finals.

Hardest time so far: The car I bought from my predecessor is now 20 years old, and it’s needed a bit of work (I’ve replaced the tires, replaced the battery, etc.). All of that was fine, because my coworkers helped with translations at the car shop. However, last June, my car’s oil needed to be changed and I thought I could do it by myself. I wrote out a list of phrases with help from my coworkers, then drove to the shop and asked for an oil change. Yes, so independent. All was fine until the mechanics came back with a list of other problems they had encountered. I could barely understand what the problems were, I was upset that maybe the car shop was trying to rip me off, and all the repairs cost 4x the amount I had expected to pay. The mechanics insisted that all the problems were important to fix though, and since my car is so old, I worried and acquiesced. Even so, it was a frustrating and upsetting experience, and it made me feel like I’ll never be independent in Japan, at least not in regards to the bigger things.

What do you miss most about home? Here are 5: friends and family; ease of communicating with other people; book stores that sell English language books; good cheese at reasonable prices; and MY CAT!

What would you miss the most about Japan, if you left tomorrow? Again, here are 5: students, colleagues, and friends; ease of public transportation (trains!!); the little daily challenges / adventures that make me learn and grow; onsen (hot springs) and sento (bathhouses); and the FOOD!

One thing you wish you brought to Japan: newer suitcases with 4 wheels. The two suitcases I brought are 20-something years old, have two wheels, weigh 4 or 5 pounds each empty, and are a pain to travel with.

Something you brought, but wish you hadn’t: I packed pretty light, just clothes and electronics. The only thing I can think of are a pair of black high-heels (the ones I wore with my suit). I wore them for Tokyo orientation and never again. Maybe if I dressed up more often, or if I went to bars in Tokyo, I’d have a reason to wear them, but right now they are collecting dust in my closet.

Tip for living in Japan: imiwa? and GoogleTranslate apps. Both are lifesavers when it comes to Japanese. Also, the Yurekuru app for earthquake notifications, and Hyperdia for trains.

Tip for being a JET: don’t leave work the minute your contract says you can leave. Yes, high school JETs—at least in our prefecture—can technically go home at 4:15, and yes, you might not have a lot of actual work to do (especially in the first few months of the job), but once in a while, linger around the office for a bit longer and make yourself available to talk. The effect of this is two-fold: first, your Japanese coworkers will notice (approvingly) if you make a habit of staying a bit later, just as they will notice (perhaps a little disapprovingly) if you watch the clock and bolt out the door the second you are technically allowed to leave. Second, coworkers tend to be more relaxed and willing to talk after 5 o’clock strikes, and for me, this has led to friendships and an overall more fulfilling working experience. On Tuesdays, for an extreme example, I regularly stay at work until 7 p.m., chatting in a mish-mash of English and Japanese over tea with the nurse and principal of that school. Yes, that’s three hours past my working hours, but it’s only once a week and I feel more a part of that school because of it. On the other hand, I always leave work at 4:30 on Fridays, and I usually peace out of the office by 4:45 in the summer. It’s all about balance.

 

Anecdotes 5: An Impromptu Tea Ceremony

I was wrapping up at work yesterday, preparing to go home, when the energetic cooking teacher zoomed past my desk. Seconds later, she flew by again in the opposite direction. Her eyes caught mine, and after a brief conversation about why she was so stressed, she suddenly asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure! How can I help?” I replied.

“Let’s have tea,” was her response, then she turned and was zipping back across the staff room. She returned with kinako-powdered walnuts.  “You like matcha, right?”

I followed here to the office kitchen, where she uncovered beautifully painted ceramic bowls, powdered matcha, and a set of tea whisks. She instructed me on how much powder to scoop into my bowl, and how to correctly whip up the hot tea so it froths. After a minute of preparation, we sat down to enjoy our own little office tea ceremony, complete with the kinako walnuts.

“I do this every day,” she confided in me. “It helps me relax.”

When the tea and sweets were gone, we cleaned up and she jumped into action once more. “Back to work, I have to prepare a morals lesson for tomorrow’s open house PTA day!” and she was racing off once more. The whole little tea ceremony had taken less than 10 minutes.

I love these little unexpected moments of happiness.

Thoughts from Places: On Stage for the 2017 World Kimono Competition

Written (mentally) on April 9, 2017;  written (actually) a week or so later. My parents finally sent me pictures, so now I can share! Enjoy a collection of my thoughts as I went on stage to dress myself in kimono in front of about 800 people.

Act I: In the Wings, Waiting to Compete

Okay, Karen, you got this.

Don’t trip in your zori, stop shaking, all you have to do is put on clothes.

…Put on clothes in front of an audience…while they judge you.

Let’s not think about this. Let’s look at the adorable kids who are competing right now.

Kawaii! Kawaii, ne? This is about as deep of an exchange as I can get in Japanese right now. Luckily, this is a totally appropriate thing to repeat endlessly to the foreign women around me.

Yep, those kids are pretty damn kawaii. Especially that serious little boy with the samurai sword!

How long has it been now? Four minutes? Five? These kids are fast…

That tiny little girl there made such a complicated obi! And she’s only maybe 7 years old… I was not that disciplined at 7 years old. I would have frozen on stage at 7 years old. Well, I never would have gotten on stage at 7 years old.

They’re almost done, only two kids left!

My palms are sweating.

Glancing right and left, the other foreign women are nervous too.

Let’s shoot another panicked smile at the girl from Bangladesh. Kinchou shimasu!  That’s probably not perfect but she understands. Yep, she’s just as nervous. We’re all in this together. Ganbatte!

The curtain is falling, we’re being ushered on stage!

It’s showtime!

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My April 2017: Kimono, Missiles, and a Potato Crisis

Logically, it would make sense to pick up where I last left off—at the airport, flying off to Middle Earth, ready to go hiking in the Misty Mountains… wait, no, no. I’ve got it all wrong. The last part about the Misty Mountains didn’t happen. And… this blog post isn’t about New Zealand. (Sorry! I’ll get around to it eventually!)

Life ever since returning home from NZ has been quite crazy and there is too much to write, too much to say. I’ve been overwhelmed whenever I’ve thought of this blog recently, hence I’ve said absolutely nothing. Where to start, where to start?

Well, let’s begin on a happy note with KIMONO. My competition is over! Here’s a rundown of the hectic week leading up to that big day:

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Away on an Adventure: Bound for Middle Earth

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I’ve loved the Lord of the Rings ever since I was a child. I remember sneaking a very worn copy of the Hobbit into middle school assemblies and re-reading it during the school orchestra concerts. By 8th grade, I had finished the trilogy, and I was caught up in the magic of the movies. Perhaps I will never win an LOTR trivia contest, nor do I speak Elvish, but something about Tolkien’s masterpiece has stayed with me, has grown up with me. And something about Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” will always bring me home.

So I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I am currently in Narita Airport, headed to Middle Earth (also known as New Zealand) with my fearless fellow adventurer, J.

Yes, yes, I know New Zealand isn’t actually Middle Earth. But a girl can dream.

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

So after two months of intense planning, J and I are going to be spending the next week and a half road-tripping around New Zealand’s North Island. We’ll be hiking, caving, eating, exploring, and of course, visiting the Shire.

This trip is honestly a dream come true for me. It’s a true bucket-list adventure. I haven’t even gone yet, and already I want to go back! But before I can start planning the next adventure, our airplane is calling. And the road is calling~ you know where I’m going with this  😉

“The Road goes ever on and on,                                                                                                                          Down from the door where it began.                                                                                                                    Now far ahead the Road has gone,                                                                                                                      And I must follow, if I can…. ”                                                                                                                                         ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings