Sunday, December 15, 2013

3-Month Update

Yesterday marked three months since I stepped off the plane in Nagoya and started a new adventure here. In some ways, time is going so quickly! In other ways, it feels like I’ve been here forever. Here is a breakdown of the most important moments of the last month, arranged chronologically:

1. I saw a giant Japanese hornet for the first time. They are aptly named. Google it if you never want to sleep again. Even though I’d seen pictures, I was unprepared for how huge it was when it landed on my friend. We were screeching and flipping out while a nearby security guard laughed at us. Kathleen and Aileen: making a good name for foreigners since 2013.

2. I climbed a mountain in flip flops! I went to Jokoji with a friend for fall leaf viewing, and it was lovely. The colors weren’t quite out there yet, but it was still very scenic and beautiful. The train station was at the bottom of a mountain, so we climbed the mountain to see the town’s temple. All the signs were only in Japanese (in Nagoya, they’re usually in English, too), so we struggled to know which way to go. At one junction, I saw a sign with the Kanji for ‘temple’ pointing one way and a sign with the Kanji for ‘walk’ pointing the other. We opted for the road with the temple sign, which ended up being a very long, winding driving road. We had to turn back without finding the temple because it was so cold and the sun was going down, but I hope to go back and see it when it’s snowy. Next time, I’ll take the walking path.

3. The rest of the results from the Eiken (the big English-language proficiency test) came back, and all my students passed! This probably has less to do with me and more to do with my predecessor, since I had only been teaching them for a couple months when they took the test. Nevertheless, I was so proud of all of them!

4. I went out with one of the other female teachers after work on a Saturday night, and we went to a gaijin bar that actually wasn’t scary and creepy! It was an Australia-themed bar, which apparently means you can get greasy American food as long as you include ‘on the barbie’ in the description. When my friend decided to stay out longer and I was ready to head home, I ended up taking my first ever taxi ride! The driver, who was very sweet, had a question partway down the road and tried his best to speak English with me. We eventually understood each other, but it made me realize how easy I’ve had it and how ill-equipped I am to survive here outside of my safe bubble. I REALLY need to work on my language skills.

5. Because most of the teachers at the school are American, we had our own Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago. Some of the older teachers are friends with the owners of a local bar, and they agreed to shut down for the night and host our Thanksgiving as long as we all bought drinks from them. It was incredibly nice of them and we had a great turnout. A lot of former teachers made appearances with significant others and friends, as well as a couple adult students, so we ended up having at least 40 people. Because there were so many old teachers there that I didn’t know, I introduced myself all night as “the new Gabby” to put myself in context. It was crowded, chaotic, stuffed with food, and altogether very much like an American Thanksgiving.

6. A group of us went to Outback (yes, THAT Outback) for a friend’s birthday. It was very much like the Outbacks in America, with one notable exception—the steaks came in 7- or 10-oz options, not the giant American sizes. Yeah, we’re fat.

7. A couple weeks ago, I made the 2-hour trip to Korankei with a group of friends. Korankei is a very famous spot in Japan for viewing fall colors, and an entire network of shops, food stalls, and little restaurants have popped up at the foot of the mountain. At night, the leaves are lit from below to extend viewing hours and give them a completely different look. As we got closer, signs popped up in people’s yards offering parking spots for a fee. It was the last day of the fall festival, so it was quite crowded and many people we were opting to take those spots. It reminded me of Syrup Festival weekend back home.

The mountain itself was beautiful. Korankei is particularly known for its maple trees, so it was very much like fall at home. We got there in time to climb the mountain in the daylight, then we rested at the summit until the sun started going down. The lights started coming on as we descended, and the mountain was aglow with an other-worldly beauty. I literally stopped about every ten steps to take a picture because everything was so perfect it begged to be photographed. 

Korankei in daylight

Korankei as night was falling

As we reached the bottom, an announcement came on over the loudspeaker. I assumed it was something official marking the end of the viewing season. When I asked another teacher, I learned it was asking someone to move their car.

8. Last weekend, I went to Shabu Shabu with some other teachers, which is essentially Japanese fondue. In its purest form, Shabu Shabu is thinly sliced beef cooked in boiling water. However, it has evolved to include vegetables, sauces, and different kinds of meat. In our experience, it included two fondue pots, one with boiling water and one with a sauce of our choice (my table went with soy and cheese). The price we paid for dinner included six trays of meat (two each of thinly sliced beef, bacon, and a different kind of pork), unlimited vegetables, and access to the soft serve ice cream machine. The table of vegetables housed mostly Asian-style vegetables—shredded cabbages, mushrooms, julienned carrots—but also offered pineapple, dumplings, and tubes of raw chicken salad that you could toss in the pot to make meatballs. It was a huge, delicious meal for under 2,000 yen a person (roughly $20).

9. Also last weekend, I met up with a girl I met on Craigslist. Though she is Japanese, she only recently moved to Nagoya and hasn’t had much of a chance to make friends yet. She posted looking for native English speakers so she could keep up her language ability, and I answered. We ended up really hitting it off! We have a lot of similar interests, and her English ability is off the charts. It was really exciting to just go out and make a friend that wasn’t someone I know from work or met through a work friend.

Though we mostly just talked, we also did a little language exchange. Though her English is so good I doubt I can teach her anything, my Japanese definitely leaves a lot to be desired, and she taught me a few phrases that I proudly shared with the Japanese staff at work the next day. I’ve also gone out a couple times with one of the Japanese girls from work, and she has been helping me with my Japanese, too. I find sitting and chatting in (admittedly broken) Japanese to be much more fun than studying out of a book, so hopefully this will motivate me to improve my language skills.

10. Though I try to put a positive spin on things—and, indeed, most of my experiences here have been positive—there will always be bad days, and I had one of those this past week. It was made of a mix of things from here and some things going on back home, combined with the fact that Christmas is coming and that always makes me sentimental (read: emotionally unstable). For some reason, it all hit me at once and it was like running into a wall of depression face-first. I struggled to make it through the day and went on a bit of a bender that night.

The next morning was irresistibly blue-skied and beautiful, which improved my outlook from the get-go. It was still hard, but a manageable kind of hard, and I made it through the day with less trouble. Thankfully, I’m feeling much better now. Here’s hoping that it’s another three months before I see another day like that.

11. On Saturday night, I went out to karaoke with a couple friends, and it completely revitalized me. It sounds cheesy, but music has always been a huge part of my life. Though I’ve recently become comfortable enough here to start singing in the shower, I didn’t realize how much I missed just singing at the top of my lungs until I was in that karaoke booth. It was incredibly cathartic :)

12. Yesterday, we had Christmas parties with our students all day long. We had five parties throughout the day—four at the school with progressively older kids, then a short shower-and-change break before the evening party with our adult students. The first party was with our 3 year-olds, and I think this one may have been my favorite. I had two little boys come to that party, and they were both just bouncing off the walls with excitement. Our craft this year was making a gingerbread house, which at this age meant making the house for them and then helping them decorate. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly for those who have seen me cook), I ended up with more frosting on me than they did!

After the craft, we sang We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I have to admit, I teared up a little bit during the song. There is something very special and contagious about a roomful of 3-year-olds filled to bursting with Christmas spirit. We read a Christmas story and then Santa made an appearance. When we heard the sleigh bells outside the door, one of my boys yelled, “Santa-san!”, covered his mouth with his hands, and squealed with excitement. Between the Christmas songs, the gingerbread houses, and wearing a Santa hat all day, it finally felt like Christmas here.

I had two students at the next party, too, which was for younger elementary kids, and it went very well. The third party was for mid-elementary students, and I had five kids come to that party. Luckily, three of those students were old enough to mostly build by themselves. Luckily (again), the younger two are friends and wanted to sit together, which made it much easier on me. One them had an allergy to the regular frosting, so I had to check my hands every time I switched between helping them. They had a good time, though, which made it worthwhile.

The last party was for upper elementary students, which meant the two students of mine who came could pretty much fend for themselves. I ended up playing the piano for We Wish You a Merry Christmas at this party, as our other pianist had to leave. It was a simple arrangement out of a kids’ book and, though I discovered I’m terribly out of practice, it was fine. The kids had fun despite a few wrong notes, which was the important thing. A few minutes later, the kids had even more fun pulling off Santa’s beard and hat when they recognized him as one of the teachers. Que sera, sera.

It was a busy day filled with multiple rounds of cleaning, setting up, tearing down, and partying. There were so many kids packed into the school that we started handing gingerbread houses out the windows to parents rather than let the kids try to navigate through the crowd with them. We joked about—and at some points may have seriously considered—handing kids out the window, too.

After putting the school back in order, we all had less than an hour to run home, de-frosting ourselves, get presentable, and get back to the school. We met some of our adult students there and took a bus to the fancy Chinese restaurant where we were having dinner. There was such a big turnout that we had to be divided between three tables. Three of my five adult students came, which I was quite pleased about. It was a fun, relaxing night compared with the chaos of the kids’ parties, and we all ate and drank quite a lot. My students—who were all from the same class and used to refer to themselves as Team Gabby—officially made the transition to Team Kathleen.

Team K (+2 honorary members)

When the bus got back to the school, a few of us—teachers and students both—went out to the bar where we’d had Thanksgiving. In addition to being a little more low-key than dinner, this was nice because I got to chat with other people’s students that I hadn’t had a chance to see yet. I learned from one of them that my table at dinner had been known as the loud, fun table, so I deemed Operation: Adult Party a success. It was also here, just a little before midnight, that I realized it was my 3-month anniversary in Japan. How fitting it was to spend an exhausting, fun-filled day with the people who help make Japan home.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

2-Month Update

Osaka/Kobe Vacation—Day 1
The morning after the shrine festival, my alarm went off at 5:40. Despite the ungodly nature of this hour, the sun was shining and I was pumped to be heading off on my first vacation in Japan! Three other teachers and I were supposed to be meeting to take a 6:38 train, and we got separated before we even started when two of us met down by the subway line and the other two waited outside the station. Eventually we all got to Nagoya Station, a transportation mecca of subway, buses, overland trains, and taxis where we were meeting up with two more friends.

We caught our bus from Nagoya Station, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there were literally only three other people on that 3-hour ride to Osaka. This was nice because we were able to turn around in our seats, talk across the aisle, and take pictures without disturbing anyone. It was on this bus ride that I saw my first rice fields since arriving in Japan! We also passed through some lovely mountain scenery, though it was strange not seeing any fall colors even though it was the end of October.

We disembarked in Osaka and immediately got turned around looking for Tennoji Shrine, which was beautiful when we found it. In contrast to the smaller shrines I’d visited before, the grounds of Tennoji Shrine were extensive, housing multiple shrines, gardens, and even a couple lakes. Everything inside those gates was pristine and impossibly beautiful. I bought an O-mikuji, a small paper with a fortune inside, and it turned out to be a pretty subpar fortune! I tied it to a tree alongside many other strips of paper in the hopes that the bad luck would wait there rather than follow me.

We got equally turned around looking for someone’s favorite Osaka restaurant and, like the shrine, it turned out to be well worth the trek. It was located in a tourist area, one small, brightly decorated building in a sea of brightly-decorated buildings. Here, we had more fried things on sticks (yay, Japan!) and I got my first taste of Osaka’s specialty, Takoyaki.

Now, when I asked my high school and adult students what I should make sure to do in Osaka, there were two things that every single one of them said—take a picture with Glico (more on that later) and eat Takoyaki. Given that Takoyaki is made of fried dough balls (yum!) around pieces of octopus (erm…), I wasn’t sure how excited to be. It turned out to be delicious! In all fairness, the bites of Octopus were very small in comparison to the golf ball-sized dough balls, but I was still quite proud of myself for liking it so much.

After lunch (and clowning around in a photo booth), we stopped to check in to our ridiculously cheap hotel. Our hotel was in a slummy area—though not as slummy as I was expecting for $20 a night—but the hotel itself was decent. This stop was a bit out of our way, but my shoulders were killing me after carrying a shrine around the day before, and the others took pity on me and stopped so I could dump my backpack. I have nice friends!

After the hotel, we headed over to Dotonbori, which is basically the Times Square of Osaka. Among other things, we made sure to track down Glico, one of the many giant advertisements lining the street of Dotonbori. For reasons unknown to me, Glico is a famous tourist destination for photo ops, so we dutifully posed alongside dozens of others.

After walking around for a bit and shopping, the sun was starting to go down over the river that runs under Dotonbori. When we cut down a side street between two main thoroughfares, we ended up on a wide, surprisingly quiet riverside sidewalk. There was barely anyone on the sidewalk even though it was a block-long path joining two roaring tourist streets.

When we stopped for dinner, it was in a small, fairly nice restaurant that seemed out of place with its touristy surroundings. Here, I got to try Osaka’s other speciality, Okonomiyaki. My friends and I were seated at the bar, which in this restaurant meant we were right in front of a giant grill and got to watch the chef make our food. Basic Okonomiyaki is a pancake-like batter topped with vegetables or meat (I think it’s Japan’s answer to pizza). Though it has spread throughout Japan and diversified according to each region’s preference, it originated in Osaka. To me, it pretty much tasted like a giant Takoyaki, which is to say it was good!

Topped with a sweet kind of barbecue sauce, mayo, and bonito (dried fish flakes)

After dinner we put one of our friends back on a train to Nagoya, bought drinks and snacks for the night, and headed back to our hotel. The boys immediately changed into their hotel-provided yukatas (a cheap cotton version of a kimono that is basically a bathrobe) while we girls waited for the women’s turn in the hotel’s public baths. Of the three girls left in our group at this point, one was Japanese, one was half-Japanese, and one was me. The other two had both been in public baths many times before and, though the prospect of being naked in a giant bathtub with a bunch of other women was daunting to me, I persevered.

There were two other women present when we arrived at the baths—one Japanese and one foreign. The first room was your basic powder room, with mirrors, sinks, and baskets for us to leave our clothes after undressing. The main room was a big tiled room with a sauna in the corner, one giant raised bath (read: hot tub) on one side, and a row of sinks, stools, and mirrors on the other. We each took a stool and set about washing, shampooing, and rinsing the day’s dirt away.

Before getting into a Japanese bath, you first do all your cleaning with a portable shower head and a small hand towel outside the bath. Only after rinsing all your dirt down drains in the floor do you get into the bath to soak and steam until your fingers get prune-y. The other two women left shortly after my friends and I came in, so we were able to soak in the bath just the three of us. Though I initially felt awkward when we were getting undressed, that was quickly replaced by pure relaxation. After a full day of exploring (in my case, immediately following a full day of carrying a shrine through the streets), soaking in that bath was heavenly.

After the bath, we girls changed into our yukatas and crashed in the boys’ room, where we played cards and ate snacks until just after midnight. It was another long, exhausting, fantastic day.

Osaka/Kobe Vacation—Day 2 AKA The Day of Eating
Though the others in our group were up earlier, my roommate and I slept until about twenty minutes before the 10 am checkout. As the five of us were apparently the only people on our small floor, we had the run of the place while getting ready. 

After checkout, we hopped a train for the 40-minute ride to Kobe. I sat next to an adorable little girl who stared at us in either wonder or terror, depending on the moment. By the end of the ride, we were playing a game where she would look away when I smiled at her, then peek back out from around a pole or under her mom’s arm. It was so cute and such a great start to the day!

The first thing we did in Kobe was seek out some Kobe beef. The place we found was a lovely, rather fancy restaurant for which we wrinkled travelers were horribly underdressed. Each table had its own grill and a chef who came to cook right in front of us. We bought $30 meals, for which we were given rice, miso soup, salad, pickled vegetables, and sirloin steaks. While the accompanying dishes were good (I was a particularly big fan of the garnish of garlic chips), the meat overshadowed everything else. The steaks were so tender that the chef sliced through them like butter. It was easily the best steak I’ve ever had.

After a quick stop at an arcade where we did taiko drumming and played air hockey, we walked around looking for a dessert café so we could have tea. The specific café we were looking for eluded us, but we found a different place and stopped for quick desserts. Though the food was delicious, it didn’t have quite the fancy tea-and-crumpets atmosphere I was hoping for.

After dessert, we headed over to Kobe’s Chinatown, where we did a little window shopping and a lot of walking-around-buying-street-food-from-different-vendors. 

Bruce Lee--the hero of Chinatown

Frozen peaches shaved/blended into bize-size pieces of goodness
Later in the day, we spent a couple hours exploring (read: buying sweets and hitting sales in) a really beautiful strip of tourist shops not far from the train station. I bought omiyage (souvenirs) for one of my adult classes in which everyone is kind enough to bring their classmates gifts from trips. We were also able to have the posh tea we had been looking for earlier.

Stained glass panel in the street of the tourist shopping area

Our posh tea place
As it turned out, heading back to the station to go home was when the real adventure started. Because we took so long at tea and then had to find the lockers where we had left our bags that morning, we missed our train back to Osaka. Taking the later train gave us only minutes to make our bus transfer, which was somewhere at the opposite end of Osaka’s huge main station. Despite this distance and not knowing exactly where we were heading, we ran through the terminals and down the streets, trying to find our way as we went. Though our departure time came and went, we kept running, knocking through the city crowds with our bags, no doubt making a good name for foreigners everywhere. To my eternal shame, I gave up first, but the other two girls soon followed while the boys ran on ahead. Eventually, they too admitted defeat.

I was feeling a bit too sweaty and frazzled to take pictures at this point, which is a shame, because the streets of Osaka are beautiful at night. While trying to find a toilet (I’ve taken to calling them that, since the bathroom really is a separate room here), we stumbled upon our long lost bus terminal and ducked inside on the off chance there was a later bus back to Nagoya. There wasn’t, but the company very graciously offered us half our ticket money back for showing up.

With the clock ticking down to last train, no buses to be found, and one of our number having an early flight out of Nagoya the next morning, we again found ourselves rushing. As Osaka Station houses the convergence of multiple local trains, regional trains, and bus lines we barely found what we needed in time. We were all a bit sweaty and stinky from our earlier sprint, and the train was so packed we could barely move. I was dreading an hour and a half of standing on my aching feet; luckily, it cleared out enough after a few stops for us to sit down.

Though taking the train theoretically should have shaved an hour off our trip back, taking it at the last minute meant a lot of transfers between lines; accordingly, the two of our number with iPhones spent the two hours to Mayabara doing time crunches, figuring out exactly what connections we had to make in order to catch the last train back to our neighborhood. I was more than happy to let them do the heavy lifting. Despite every seat being full, the train was so silent that I could hear the quiet creak of the wheels at every stop. Thankfully, we made all of our connections and got home around midnight.

Vacation Close to Home
On Thursday (I spent Wednesday recovering), a friend took me a fruit and veg market in our area which shall henceforth be referred to as Heaven on Earth (though it’s basically Horrocks, finding cheap produce here was exciting beyond measure). While I was browsing the vegetables, a smiling woman who was somewhere between 50 and 200 years old grabbed my arm and started talking to me in rapid-fire Japanese. Despite my patented deer-in-the-headlights look, I think she assumed I understood, which was rather flattering. My friend translated that, among other things, the women thought my nose was very long and was jealous because hers was so short.

On Friday, I went with a couple friends to Atsuta Shrine, one of the most revered shrines in Japan. Located in a large section of forest right smack-dab in the middle of the city, it was beautiful in a whole different way than the other shrines I’ve seen. Though it was simpler in design, it was surrounded by a natural beauty that quickly made it my favorite place in Japan to date. For the first time since leaving home, I was completely surrounded by the smell of trees and earth and the sound of rippling water. Walking the winding trails behind the shrine, I actually forgot we were in the middle of the city until I saw a building through the trees. 

After the shrine, we went to Sakae, a major shopping district and what I would call the true downtown area of Nagoya. They took me to see the (outside of the) Nagoya Science Museum and the Nagoya Art Museum, the former of which I will likely go explore when the weather gets colder. Wandering around after the sun went down was even better, as it was the day after Halloween and crazy costumes were everywhere. The city was also beautifully lit at night, especially the Nagoya TV Tower and Oasis 21, a big tourist/event area that is difficult to describe. We eventually laid in the grass under Oasis 21, watching its illumination change colors and practicing fake laughs, thereby likely ruining the romance of all the couples sharing the park with us.

The next day, we went to Inuyama, a city not far from Nagoya, to see Inuyama Castle. Though I saw Osaka Castle from a distance, Inuyama is the first I’ve seen up close, and it was beautiful. Japanese castles are very different in design and execution from European castles, so much so that if I hadn’t done my research, I would have thought I was looking at an old manor house.

Though there are many reconstructions in Japan, Inuyama Castle has the distinction of being one of only a handful of original Japanese castles still standing. This means that the history is almost palpable as you walk around the creaky floorboards in your sock-feet, knowing that these are the very walls from which feudal lords were ruling some 250 years before America even existed. However, this also means that, despite year-round maintenance, being inside is a little terrifying. The steps between floors are steep and slippery, and the floors of every level sag and emit alarming cracking noises with every step. The catwalk, which is a little aisle clinging to the outside of the highest level, is essentially a narrow, slippery ledge (bear in mind, you’re in your sock feet) on which the only safety measure is a single, rickety wooden railing.

The next day, I went back to Nittaiji in Kakuozan for their Autumn festival. This, like the Kobo-san Festival, turned out to be a big flea market in the street, but it was interesting nonetheless. At one point, I stopped to look at a rack of clothing and the saleswoman—who was rather excited to see a foreigner—came over to talk to me. She told me the price in Japanese and said “Mitte-ne yukkuri,” which I was able to translate meant, “Look slowly.” It was so exciting to be able to figure out even those two words! After I bought something, she thanked me in both Japanese and English. I like to think she was having some language excitement on her end, too :)

Random sidebar: last weekend, I had my first experience at a Japanese bowling alley. Important things to know:
1. There was a row of bowling shoes dispensers. You push the button on the one for your size and it dispenses your shoes. Clever.
2. Bowling alley here doesn’t mean smoky, smelly room! There was a small booth in the back (about the size of two phone booths) for smokers to go and get their fix without leaving the room.

Back at Work
The first week back from vacation was also the week before the Eiken, a big English proficiency test, which made for a busy week. I only had a few students taking the Eiken, but that was more than enough. In their last classes before the test, I felt like I was sending my kids off to college! My junior high and high school kids said they don’t think they did well, but they say that about every test and it’s rarely true, so I’m feeling optimistic.

Yesterday was an especially exciting Eiken-day because I found out one of my favorite students passed! He’s quite a bit younger than most kids who take that level, which makes it even more impressive that he passed. I didn’t even know he was even taking the test, but I was so excited and proud when I heard the news!

I am now a few hours into my weekend after finishing my second week back at work. Despite the Eiken craziness, I’m surprised by how easy these last couple weeks have been. I’m getting used to working full time, and I’ve been getting better at managing my planning time, which allows me to have more time at home. More importantly, though, I’m getting used to being a teacher. I’m really getting to know my students and how they learn individually and, as a result, I have more confidence in my ability to teach them. It’s also becoming easier to remember, even in the challenging classes, that my students really are good kids and that I’m very fortunate to be here teaching them.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

7-Week Recap

As of writing this, I have been in Japan for exactly seven weeks, which seems impossible; I feel like I’ve been here forever. Since my last post, I’ve started doing a number of things:

1.  Taking Japanese lessons. My teacher is one of the Japanese staff members from the school, and I’m in a class with one other person. So far, it has mostly been review of things I studied on my own, but I need the practice!

2. Walking around my neighborhood. My favorite time is late at night, around 11 or midnight. The first night I was out for almost an hour and I just wanted to keep going and going and going. I live right near the very busy main road, but it’s strange how quickly it turns into quiet suburbs the moment you walk away from it. Even one block away feels like a completely different place.

I’ve said this before, but I love that I can safely walk around by myself after dark here. Even though I’m a giant fraidy-cat, on the first walk, I ended up alone on a dark street with a construction zone on one side and a swatch of forest on the other. I had only the faintest idea where I was, and it was great. To be fair, I live near a couple of the tallest buildings in the area, so there isn’t much chance of me getting lost, but I like fearlessly losing sight of those landmarks from time to time.

3. Ordering for myself in Japanese. My first order was in a karaoke room, ordering over the phone (linked to the kitchen) for a friend, and it went something like this: “Nama beeru, hitotsu, onegai shimasu. Eeju desu.” (One Nama beer, please. That’s all). It was irrationally exciting! I’ve ordered for myself since then, either telling the server what I want or—when I can’t read the menu—pointing and saying please.

4. Treating typhoons with indifference. There have been at least four since I’ve been here. I don’t know if it’s because typhoons happen so often here or if they generally aren’t very destructive, but no one (including me) cares when a typhoon hits. There was one a few weeks ago that howled a deep, throaty howl all night, and it was bizarre to open my eyes in the morning to find that howling wind accompanied by blue skies and sunshine.

5. Becoming (slightly) more self-sufficient. Aside from being able to order my own food and navigate the subway alone, I’ve gotten better at working around not reading or speaking much Japanese. The day after I got my Japanese phone, I figured out what charger I needed without being able to read the packaging and bought one. The next day, I was able to guess my way through the Japanese-only voicemail system and check my messages. I’ve learned to treat these little things as big victories.

6. Adopting Japanese habits. I find myself automatically gravitating to the left side of staircases and sidewalks now instead of the right. By day two of being sick last week, wearing a medical mask around felt as natural as breathing. I sometimes use chopsticks even at home. Instead of a napkin, I reach for a moist towelette before and during meals.


A few weeks ago, I had a birthday. It was easier than I expected to be away from home for that, probably because it was an insanely busy day. My birthday was on a Saturday, which is my early day at work. When saying our birthdays during greetings, a couple of my elementary students recognized the date and wished me happy birthday, which was very sweet. My afternoon break was spent getting my Japanese phone, which ended up taking more than two hours. We had to leave before it was done because I had an evening class to teach, and I ran back into the school with less than five minutes to get things around for my five kindergarteners.

After work, my coworkers gave me a birthday card and a few of us went out to karaoke. We called it an early night because we were supposed to have a school event the next morning, but it was still a very good day and night. Bonus language skills: I told a woman in the bathroom, in Japanese, that her shoes were cute. In an elementary class the next week, one of the girls noticed I was a year older when we were saying our ages, asked in Japanese if I had had a birthday, and then wished me happy birthday in English. I was so proud of her for noticing and knowing how to say happy birthday in English, and I was equally proud of me for understanding her Japanese!

A few weeks ago, I attended the Kobo-san festival in Kakuozan and visited my first temple. This is a monthly festival held in honor of a famous monk named Kobo-Daishi, who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. (He is also credited with the invention of the Kana, one of the main components of written Japanese.) The entire road leading up to the shrine was closed to traffic and lined with booths selling everything from greasy street food to fresh produce to jewelry to knitting supplies. I’ve heard it described as a giant flea market, and that’s essentially what it felt like. Despite there being hundreds of people there, I was the only foreigner in sight.

The temple yard looked impressive to my virgin eyes (though I have since seen enough others to know it was fairly small), but inside the Hondo (the main temple) was what took my breath away. It had an atmosphere all its own—quiet and cool despite the heat of the day, filled with chanting and drum beats and history. Everything inside was incredibly ornate, rich, and beautiful; you could sense the care put into every minute detail. I stood and just absorbed for quite a while, watching people toss coins into the offering box and pray. Quite a few monks came out while I was waiting, and I lingered for a long time to see if something was going to happen, but it never did. Later, I found out I left just before the monks started chanting sutras.

Last Sunday, I participated in the Katayama-Hachiman Jinja Grand Festival. Riding the crowded subway there, I was near three young boys who were very awed by my foreignness. One of them said hello to me—in English—and was quite proud of himself. Another one kept talking to me in Japanese. I told him—in Japanese—that I didn’t understand, but he kept trying. They were very cute, and their excitement at seeing me set the tone for the day.

At the festival, I met up with some international students from Nagoya University, and the six of us were the only foreigners in the 200-some festival participants. This was a shrine festival (Jinja means shrine) in which we carried two VERY heavy shrines—one for men, one for women—through the streets all afternoon. For this, we wore special festival jackets, pants, shoes, belts, and bandanas. Even getting dressed for this was a challenge—the pants were a strange wrap-pant/diaper combination that—happily!—many of the other women struggled with, too. Some of the men dressed more traditionally and wore a festival jacket and no pants! Secretly, I think it was because they couldn’t get them on ;)

When everyone was dressed and fed, we lined up and the festival started with a Shinto ritual. I was near the back and couldn’t see much, but I followed everyone else’s lead in removing my bandana, bowing, and clapping.

When we foreigners lined up for a picture, you would have thought we were movie stars. Cameras just appeared out of thin air! It probably didn’t help that two of the guys were VERY foreign (one was about 6’5 with crazy hippie hair, the other from West Africa, so his skin was very dark), and we drew attention every time we moved. After the Shinto ritual, one of the head honchos who had just spoken spotted me in the crowd and came to talk to me. He asked where I was from and if I was interested in Japanese culture. It was very nice but strange insofar as he completely ignored the other foreign girl standing with me. Even more strangely, this became the trend for the day in which people would come up and ask me typical foreigner questions while my friend was ignored. The only thing we could figure was that because she is from El Salvador and her coloring is a bit darker, she wasn’t as noticeably different as I was with my pale skin and blue eyes. Saying, “Claudia isn’t foreign enough” amongst ourselves became the day’s running joke.

Shortly after the ritual finished, we picked up the shrines and headed out. Both shrines had about twice as many carriers as necessary (so we could trade on and off), and I carried a very light sawhorse for the first leg. I was fine when we stopped for our first break about 15 minutes later, but the women who had carried the shrine were ready to collapse. When I took my turn carrying on the second leg, I found out why.

The problem with carrying things on poles like this is that the weight is unequally borne mostly by the tallest laborers. The shrine started off heavy in a challenging but bearable way but, as shorter girls subbed in and the ground tilted one way or another, a huge amount of the weight fell on me and the other foreign girl, as we were the tallest ones on our side. I have no frame of reference for how much weight I was holding; at one point, even breathing was a challenge. I barely lasted the 10-15 minutes to the next stop, but I felt so accomplished when I did! Though I theoretically wasn’t supposed to carry on the next leg, a girl dropped out and I got drafted in. I can only guess that our chant of “Oisa” translates to “Spinal compression.”

About 5 seconds after lifting it for the first time--we're smiling because the weight hasn't hit us yet!
At the halfway point, we took a long break and ate udon (noodle soup) while a dance troupe performed. I was exhausted by this point, but some of the others had enough energy to join in with the dance troupe and jump around. While eating with the other foreigners, I was quite embarrassed to find out that they all spoke at least three languages fluently (except for one slacker who only spoke two). I felt so inadequate! It’s also worth noting that, after plying us with free drinks at every stop and no food until lunch, parts of the day were marked by drunk, half-naked men carrying an immensely heavy and (presumably) expensive shrine. Only in Japan.

In the second half of the day, exhausted girls started dropping like flies. By the time we hit our last leg, as we carried our shrine through the dark streets, our four lines were on a constant rotation—the front girl would tap out, the line would shift forward, the new front girl would tap out a minute later, and the line would shift forward again. I don’t know how many times I jumped in the back of the line, shifted up to the front, got sent out for a rest, and got drafted back in. The temple guides who had been with us all day, guiding and encouraging and keeping a beat with a whistle blows, became bonafide cheerleaders. Our constant chant of “Oisa” became a mantra that fueled us and pushed our exhausted bodies to carry us back to the temple where crowds of people waited for the end of the festival.

Standing in front of the temple, rocking back and forth with our shrine and yelling our chant as if our volume was holding us up—it was the best kind of exhaustion. The feeling of camaraderie in that dark yard, the only lights from the temple, all of us sweaty and aching and a couple inches shorter than before… we were a team who had climbed a mountain together. Even though I could barely raise my arms the next day, it was amazing and worth every exhausting, painful, sun-blinded moment.

Overall Reflections
It has been a crazy, busy, exhausting, fun few weeks. Outside of work, I’ve been attending and enjoying cultural events. At work, I’m still getting used to being a teacher, and with that comes normal teacher frustrations. Right now, I’m struggling with a couple classes in which one or two kids who don’t want to be there try to ruin it for everyone; it’s very unfair to the other kids to have to limit what we can do because of those few, and that frustrates me. For the most part, though, my students are great, and I keep reminding myself that I’m very lucky to have them.

Writing this, I’m coming off a week-long break from school, during which I had many more adventures. A breakdown of those will be coming soon!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Week 3 Recap

I set off by myself to explore the city and ended up just exploring stores within a four-block radius. I wandered around the neighborhood mall and bought something at The Gap (I think I’m doing Japan wrong), but I also bought a couple things that were made in China from a Japanese store with a French name—multiculturalism at its best. Because I had no idea about sizing, I ended up grabbing items at random off the clearance racks and, despite researching this very phenomenon before going, I forgot to take my shoes off before going into the dressing room. Baka gaijin.

After the mall, I headed over to browse a store the other teachers had told me about. It’s hard to find words to describe this place—it was like a party store (think kids’ birthday party, not liquor store), mini-Walmart, and paint factory explosion all rolled into one and condensed onto a single floor. It was quite crowded and a rather intense sensory overload. On my way back, I stopped at a couple parks near my apartment. By Michigan standards, they were a bit disappointing—rather sparse, unkempt greenery with a lot of sand—but it was nice to get a bit of the nature that I’m used to. Interestingly, they were both also raised a few feet above street level, affording a decent view of the area from the park benches.

Monday was also moving day for me—moving from the apartment I shared with another teacher during my training period into my own apartment. Though my trainer had originally planned to be moved out around 9 PM, that got pushed back to 11, 11:30, midnight, and then 12:30. This was fine with me, as I didn’t have to work early the next day and I know it’s no small task moving your life, and I eventually got moved in at 1 AM. Moving in was the first time I’d seen my new apartment, and I was relieved to find it beautiful and, surprisingly, just as big as my college apartment was. I’m no farther from the school than I was before, and it just so happens that my desk partner from work is my next-door neighbor.

Tuesday & Wednesday
My Tuesday classes were very low-key and eased me into my first day of full-teaching, which was quite uneventful. The students behaved, the lessons went well, and it was a very pleasant day of teaching.

Wednesday started off a little harder. My first class at the satellite school is a pre-kindergarten class of 3-year-olds. I was prepared for them to be rambunctious, and the parents watching through the window didn’t initially unnerve me like I thought it might, so the class started off pretty well. Near the end of class, though, two of the students got into a slap-fight. When I separated them, one stormed off and flopped down underneath the table and the other went to the window and started hitting it to get his mom’s attention. I kept the game going with the third student and eventually got the window-slapper back, too, but the girl wouldn’t come out from under the table until I changed activities. Even though I know the parents understand that these kids are very young and unpredictable, it was frustrating to have them watching the class when that happened.

Luckily, my next class went beautifully. This class is three upper elementary boys whose English skills are quite good. I asked them what their favorite video game was during the conversation portion, and they decided I was cool because I said mine was Mario Kart. Two of the moms came in to introduce themselves after class, and they were just the nicest women. Their English was decent but not so much so that we were able to carry on a regular conversation. More than once, one said something in half-Japanese, half-English and we worked it out between the three of us. It was very exciting—albeit in a dorky way—to be able to puzzle out those language barriers together, and talking with them was a really positive experience.

Thursday & Friday
Thursday morning, one of the Japanese staff members took me to open a bank account… sort of. In Japan, you can open a bank account at an actual bank and/or you can have a pseudo-bank account at the post office. With the latter, in an arrangement I still don’t quite understand, you have a bank book, an ATM card, a PIN, and all the other normal bank-type trappings with the added bonus of easier money transfers home. Since I couldn’t even tell when we first got there if we were in the bank or the post office, I just kind of went with it. I also used my stamp for the first time here! Whereas in America you sign documents to make them official, in Japan, you have a small, personalized stamp about the size of a dime. These stamps have four characters (usually your name in Kanji), but mine, as a foreigner, has my last name written in Kana (Kathleen was too long).

At work later on, a new student joined one of my classes. Though the Japanese staff had tested her ability and placed her where she needed to be, it was strange for me because she was the only student on whom I had no notes about classroom behavior or strengths and weaknesses. It turned out quite well. She was joining in by the end of class, and the Japanese staff at the desk said she was telling her mom that she had fun.

After my Saturday classes (which also went well!), I went out with one of the other teachers and a couple of his friends. Being the country bumpkin that I am, the subway is still an unparalleled adventure for me, and being introduced to the weekend pass did not diminish my awe (anywhere in Nagoya for 600 yen?! This is the best thing ever!). We met up with his friends after a 30-minute train ride into a city neighborhood called Imaike and walked to dinner. The restaurant was quite similar to others I’ve been to here where the food comes in small portions (e.g. two small skewers of 4 bites of chicken each), so we got a big variety. His friends—two Japanese women—were a lot of fun and quickly deemed my name far too difficult for Japanese to pronounce. Sidenote: We got unlimited refills on our table’s bowl of chopped cabbage with dressing, which is a far cry from, say, Olive Garden’s unlimited breadsticks. This is why Americans are fat. We also found a cockroach crawling up the wall by our table and, instead of demanding our meal be comped or calling the Health Department, we simply moved to another table.

Disclaimer: if you tend to worry, the next part may be hard for you. I debated back and forth about whether or not I should edit this story more, but I decided I want this to be an honest chronicle of all my experiences here—good, bad, and strange. Please know that I went in with my eyes open and, though parts of the night were very bizarre, at no point was I in any danger.

After dinner (and a random creeper hitting on our Japanese friends at the subway station), we went to a club (or, more specifically, got lost trying to find said club and eventually stumbled upon someone else headed there). It was okay—very small and easy to navigate—but it was very much a foreigner bar (translation: a place the slimiest foreign guys go to pick up Japanese girls who like their foreign-ness. Case in point: the creeper from the subway station was there, hitting on everything that moved). However, because we had missed the last train (which leaves before midnight), the station didn’t reopen for six hours, and not many places in the area stayed open past 2 or 3 AM while this one was open until 5, we decided to stick it out.

Because it was very hot and very crowded, I spent most of the night on the couches lining the perimeter of the room, talking to my friends and warding off the occasional guy who was striking out with the Japanese girls. At one point, the subway creeper tried to hit on me in the bathroom and another guy stepped in and stopped him, so apparently we weren’t the only decent people in the place. Later on, my friend and I sat in the corner and people-watched, waxing philosophic about human nature in a way you can only do at 4 in the morning while Austin Powers plays on the big screen in the background. All in all, it was a very surreal experience.

When it got close to closing time, we headed to Denny’s (yes, that Denny’s). Even though it wasn’t even 5 AM, the city was already getting light. After getting lost again—this time in a light rain—we discovered that Denny’s in Japan either (A) doesn’t focus on breakfast or (B) focuses only on Japanese-style breakfast. The menu was composed mainly of rice, noodle, and soup dishes, with one lonely French toast option, two egg dishes, and a single small pancake listing in the back with the desserts. Nevertheless, the food was good. When we were getting ready to leave, a man from the other side of the restaurant—who we later learned was deaf—gave my friend and me a handwritten letter welcoming us to Japan and the wonderful city of Nagoya. It was strange—in keeping with the theme of the night—but so nice and sincere that I didn’t know what to say.

My friend and I were back in the station shortly after 6 AM, on a train at 6:13 (thank you, Japanese punctuality), and split off to our separate apartments shortly before 7. I immediately collapsed and slept the day away (writing this post is literally all I’ve done today besides laundry). Weirdly enough, the doorbell rang while I was trying to sleep. After the third time, I dragged myself to the peephole in time to see someone in a work uniform of some kind leaving. I admit, I didn’t open the door and call after him. It could have been something for which I actually needed to open the door—I can’t exactly read the notices that come through my mail slot—but I didn’t feel too bad; the last time I answered the door, my friend took me to a foreigner bar and kept me out all night. The time before that, a man tried to sell me meat.

The view from my bedroom window--I couldn't resist watching the sun rise over the city before I went to sleep

Weekend Reflections
All in all, it was a tiring but encouraging week. I struggled with fatigue most of the week, but that was simply because I was stupid and kept staying up late. I still pulled some longer days this week, but I shouldn’t need to do that much longer now that I can actually plan during my planning periods. A couple discipline problems cropped up with my younger students this week, but they were the exception; for the most part, I haven’t seen much of the testing-of-the-new-teacher that I was dreading. I’ve also had some problems with time management in my classes, but I doubt that will be a problem once I get a better feel for what classes need the most time on what.

I admit, I was skeptical when my trainer said I’d feel totally prepared to take over after two weeks of training, but that has certainly turned out to be true. A lot of this can be attributed to the good system at the school—a detailed syllabus, coursework that makes sense, a clear organizational system for materials—and to my trainer, who worked so very hard to make sure I had everything I needed before she left. Whatever the reason, I am much more comfortable in my position than I thought I would be at this point, and I can honestly say I really like my job!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Week 2 Recap

Monday was a holiday in Japan, and my roommate went away for the long weekend. Though I remembered how to use the washing machine—success!—the air conditioner was another story. After pressing random buttons on the remote control for a while, I eventually admitted defeat and Googled air conditioner kanji. Judging by the number of results that popped up, I’m not the only one who has had that problem.

I’m embarrassed to say that solving the great air conditioner mystery was pretty much the only thing I did all day. After being out late for the welcome party Saturday and staying out late watching movies with two other teachers on Sunday, I was pretty exhausted. I had originally planned to do a little wandering and explore some stores in the area; once I remembered it was a holiday and things would be closed, I just stayed in.

After part teaching classes in my first week, I moved on to full teaching in week two. This meant that I was quite nervous going in to work on Tuesday, maybe moreso than I had been on my first day. Despite being scheduled to come in an hour early for training, I went in another hour before that to double check all my lesson plans for the day. I ended up staying late after work to do some more planning, so it ended up being a 12-hour day. Happily, it was also a good day. I only have four classes on Tuesdays, which were split evenly between full teaching and part teaching, and they all went very well! It was a great start to the week.

At lunch, I tried a small dessert called mochi. Mochi is a sweet rice cake made from glutinous rice, but it’s nothing like you’d get in America if you looked for a rice cake. The taste was similar to sugar cookie dough, it had the consistency of firm bread dough, and it came in small round cakes like sausage patties. The filling was Anko or Red Bean Paste, a paste made from mashing mineral-rich Azuki beans and mixing them with sugar. The Mochi was so rich I could barely handle the three bites it took to finish one cake, but it was very good!

Since Wednesday is my day at the satellite school, I again went early to make sure I’d be packed up and ready to leave on time. My first class was a kindergarten class, which was a little nerve-wracking because of the age itself and because sometimes the moms come into class with the kids at that age. Unlike at the main branch of the school, there is also a big window between the lobby and the classroom for parents to watch the class, so I was very nervous. Again, my nerves proved to be unnecessary and the class went very well! The most important thing my trainer told me here is that you never know what will happen with kids this age and it’s okay when unexpected things happen, because they’re babies. The moms seem very nice and very understanding of the fact that if a kid suddenly runs off during an activity, it’s because he’s three, not because I can’t control my class.

My next class was part teaching with a different teacher. I had observed the class in my first week, so I knew going in that they were a rather rambunctious group, and my co-teacher warned me of this again during our planning time. However, the class went well and my co-teacher gave me good feedback. Shortly after that, I had a lesson with the junior high comedians from last week, and that class also went well. One of the boys’ moms brought my trainer and me each a small bag of homemade sweets as a thank you and welcome gift, respectively. It was such a sweet, unexpected gesture that I was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

The last class of the day was an adult class—two men and one woman—for which I was quite nervous. They are a very nice group and rather high-level, but it seems strange for me—a 22-year old with little life experience—to be teaching three people who are older than me. Case in point: one of these students missed last week’s class because he was on a business trip… to Spain… to give a presentation in English. I think it will be a good class, but it’s a bit surreal at the moment. At the end of class, the woman brought out a homemade goodbye cake for my trainer, and we had a little party. It was very nice and just goes to show how lovely my students are.

I ended up staying very late Wednesday night. This will in no way be a normal routine for me; I was just feeling very behind. For the duration of my training period, what will ordinarily be my planning periods were mostly spent observing other teachers’ classes. Add this to the fact that I’m still quite slow at planning, and the result is staying late. My trainer, the other new teacher, and her trainer were also all there late, so I think we were probably feeding off each others’ energy. I ended up getting stuck on how to explain a tough grammar point for one of my advanced classes (present perfect tense, I’m looking at you!), which made planning that class take longer than the all the others combined. However, I also got some serious organizing done and went home feeling accomplished.

Side note: I love how safe Japan is. This night was probably the fourth or fifth night that I’ve walked home by myself after dark. I love that I can work until 3 AM and not have to bother somebody else with walking me home. Awesome.

Before work on Thursday, the other new teacher and I went with our boss to the ward office. Because we are foreigners who will be living in Japan, we had to take our passports and our foreign ID cards from the federal government to register with the local government. We had two weeks to do this from our date of entry, so we made it with a couple days to spare.

Back at work, I was supposed to full teach a class for a different teacher. By this point, I had logged a lot of hours working with my trainer and had a good handle on her teaching style, as well as copious notes on all of her classes. By comparison, I had spent half an hour working with this other teacher and had only seen him teach once. This made me very nervous, as did the fact that we didn’t have planning time until the day of the class. Because of this, I had sketched out a lesson during my planning marathon Wednesday night, but he still had to approve it before class.

The class ended up going fine for the most part and the teacher gave me good feedback, but I felt really unbalanced and stressed out about it because I ran out of time for some things. I ended up getting out of that class late, which meant I was rushing around for the next one. I’m ashamed to say that this mindset stayed with me and I carried some of it into the next class, which was totally unfair to that student. My trainer gave me good feedback on the class and apparently didn’t know I was feeling the pressure until I told her, but I didn’t come out of that class feeling good about it either.

My trainer was sympathetic but didn’t linger on the subject and told me to shake it off, which is probably what I needed to hear. The last classes of the day went well and helped put the bad ones in perspective. I was very tired from Wednesday’s 15 ½-hour day, so I knew logically that things were probably not as a bad as they seemed. I also felt a bit guilty when I remembered that the other teacher I worked with that day had been sick as a dog on Tuesday and Wednesday. I had been so focused on me and my nerves that I didn’t even remember to ask him how he felt. This made me realize that it is a small, close-knit office, and I need to work on being less selfish.

When I got out of work, it was only 20 degrees (yes, I speak some metric now)! The weather has actually been very nice since I got here—a bit warm for my tastes but with no humidity—but this week it has started to turn to fall. Very happy, I walked to Seiyu, where I promptly almost got locked upstairs. Though Seiyu is 24-hours, sections of it close off at 10 PM, including the entire upper floor. I was quietly browsing the housewares section when the lights went off. I scurried over to the escalator, where the gate was just hitting the ground. The man operating it was very surprised when he turned around and saw me, and he quickly opened another gate to let me downstairs.

It was at this point that I had my first real frustration over my limited Japanese abilities. It is my understanding that things from the upper level have to be paid for on that level, but I had no way of communicating that I hadn’t paid for my things yet, or even of confirming that I needed to. He was very nice and eventually led me to the registers downstairs, but it was still a moment of pure frustration at myself. Things didn’t improve when I got to the aisle of feminine products and found myself facing shelf upon shelf of brightly colored packages covered in gibberish. Despite having researched this particular item before coming, I still had to guess in the end. Hopefully, I’ll have time to study Kanji and start my Japanese lessons soon.

Friday morning I full taught a kindergarten class with another teacher before training, which made for another early day. That class went very well and I got good feedback. In retrospect, my other classes for the day went pretty well, too, but I was still feeling the effects of the day before. This wasn’t helped when I made one of the students in an elementary class cry. Looking through my notes afterwards, I saw that my trainer had specifically told me that this student tends to be sensitive and needs to be treated very carefully. He got over it quickly and was fine for the rest of class, but I was very frustrated with myself for not remembering this or bothering to look over the notes beforehand. I shook it off as best I could to be fair to my later classes.

All in all, this day was kind of rough for me. My feedback forms were still quite positive, but I felt that my presentation lacked polish. I was also struggling to balance my class time, mostly because I don’t know the students well enough to know how much time we need to spend on one activity versus another. However, I recognize that this will take some time, and I felt better about it after a night to calm down.

That night, my roommate and I tried to go out for drinks, but the bar was very crowded. We ended up going to the mini mart, and I found 102 proof alcohol that comes in juice box form. Oh, Japan.

Classes start earlier on Saturdays, meaning I was back at school Saturday morning about twelve hours after I left on Friday. The morning and early afternoon classes went quite well. I was still feeling a bit behind in my planning, so I was a little relieved when both students in one class were absent and I got extra planning time.

My second-to-last class on Saturdays is the second of my two adult classes. This one also has three students—two women and one man. Like the Wednesday group, this bunch is very nice, and I felt a little less awkward than I had with my class earlier in the week. One of the women in this class took a trip to Okinawa and brought back treats for our class—cookies and sweet potato jam. I was skeptical about the jam, but it was very good! She also invited my trainer, her classmates, and me over to her house for a goodbye/welcome party. Have I mentioned lately how nice my students are?

The last class of the week is an elementary class with five kids. Though the max class size at my school is six, most of my classes are three or four, so this class seemed extra crazy to me. Luckily for me, they are very good students despite being a little rowdy, and the class went well.

In any non-adult class, the parents have the option to come in for the last few minutes of class and then get a rundown of what we did that day. This doesn’t happen in most of my classes, but it does in this one. What’s more, in this class, both parents often come in, not just one; by the end of class last night, there were eight adults watching me teach. Scary! They were very nice, though, and most of them brought thank you gifts for my trainer, which I thought was very sweet.

When this class ended, my trainer was officially finished at the school. When we got back up to the office, all the other teachers were waiting for us, even the ones that don’t teach on Saturdays. If I hadn’t been told about it in advance, I probably would have cried. We gave my trainer and the other departing teacher their goodbye presents from us and took pictures with everyone. Then our boss’s wife came, bringing with her their three young children and a small cake for each of the trainers. It was sweet and sad, though not as much as it would have been had one of the little girls not insisted on lifting her dress up to show her underwear.

After a short shower-and-change break, we walked over to the mall to cram ourselves into a photo booth and take pictures. Then we walked to the bar to cram ourselves into a different kind of booth. I ended up sitting between my desk partner and one of the Japanese staff members, which proved to be a convenient setup; my desk partner taught me how to drink beer properly and the Japanese staff member translated the menu for me. It was also really nice sitting next to her because I hadn’t had the chance to really chat with her before.

We were at the bar for at least a couple hours, during which time a lot of eating, drinking, seat swapping, and random behavior went on. At one point, there was a competition going at our table to see who had the creepiest double-jointed abilities (I think my desk partner won with his Frankenstein hands). Later, we got a game of Uno going, played with Sesame Street cards that looked like they were printed in the 70s. After dinner, we went to karaoke and stayed until about 3 AM.

Earlier today, I went to Seiyu and had my first experience really feeling my foreignness. The school where I work has been around for a long time now, which means that people in my neighborhood are used to seeing foreigners. It’s a similar situation at the satellite school, where there is also an international school nearby. Because of this, prior to today, I haven’t really experienced the everyone-stares-at-you thing that people warned me about before coming. Tonight, however, Seiyu was packed with people doing their shopping for the week, and it felt like everyone was watching me. Literally every time I turned around, there was someone staring me. It was very surreal, and equally unexpected after being treated normally for two weeks.

It is almost 11 PM now, and my trainer and I just got back from the goodbye/welcome party with our adult students. After being invited, I had checked with the Japanese staff at the school to see what would be an appropriate hostess gift, as gift giving is very big in Japan and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed. I was very glad I didn’t, as the two other students and my trainer also showed up bearing bags of goodies.

The first thing you encounter when you walk into a Japanese home is the genkan, a small entry area where you remove your shoes before stepping up into the house. Our hostess had slippers waiting for us, which we wore to walk the ten steps into the dining room and promptly removed before stepping onto the thick rug underneath the table.

We had appetizers of edamame, which I love, and then built and rolled our own sushi, which was much easier than I thought it would be! The hostess had set out trays of nori (seaweed wrappers), lettuce leaves, spring onions, different kinds of sashimi (sliced raw fish), roe (fish eggs), and long, thin slices of crab meat, cucumbers, egg, and pork. I’ve been eating sushi every day for lunch since I got here, and I knew before I even came that I love crab meat, so I ate quite a lot of that. I also rolled some sushi with maguro (raw tuna), which was very tasty.

We also had tempura, which is a dish of battered, deep-fried chunks of vegetables or meat. The tempura had a very interesting texture, because the batter (water and flour) is only mixed very lightly, leaving chunks in the batter. Because it isn’t stirred vigorously, the gluten isn’t activated, which keeps it from getting crispy and chewy in the fryer. It’s difficult to describe the taste, but it was very good. I had sweet potato and mushroom tempuras, but the chicken tempura was my favorite.

This is literally what the table looked like. It was so beautifully presented that if I didn't know better, I would think this was an advertisement!
After our meal, we ate cupcakes, drank tea, took pictures, and played with the hostess’s pets. It was a really lovely evening, and I’m very glad I got the chance to spend time with some of my more mature students.

Weekend Reflections
All in all, it was a good week peppered with some rough spots. Looking back, a lot of these moments were normal new-job moments that seemed huge because I was so exhausted. My trainer is now officially finished, which means both that the classes are all mine and that I move into my new apartment tomorrow! While the coming week will undoubtedly bring new challenges, I’m excited to settle in to a less chaotic routine and get organized. Hopefully, I’ll also find some time to explore Nagoya!

People keep asking me if I’m homesick, and I’m honestly not yet. I’ve been too busy to be homesick! Perhaps more than that, it just doesn’t feel like I’m halfway around the world. Nagoya is a beautiful city, but I don’t know that it feels exotic—it has streets, cars, parks, restaurants, convenience stores, and departments stores just like any city does. I don’t speak the local language, but everyone I work with speaks English, so I don’t feel isolated. Most importantly, Skype, Facebook, and the ability to text over wifi (iPhone-to-iPhone texting, for the win!) has kept me from feeling disconnected from everyone back home.