Sunday, September 28, 2008

Something familiar also.

A group of folks can only play so many games of hearts before a deck of cards will just not cut it. On this note, I figured each of the ALTs should become responsible for one game. I found my game in a toy store a couple weeks ago. Actually, it was a toy/ninja weaponry/extremely realistic airsoft guns/gaming store. I did not find the game upon my first visit, as the Japanese packaging is radically different, and I was distracted by shiny throwing stars. I was also looking into purchasing a samurai sword to send home for my brother’s birthday. I was not sure of the legalities, so I dropped that quest. Sorry Gerbs.

I am now the proud owner of a Japanese edition Settlers of Catan board game. To break it in, we spent a low key Friday evening at a hip but humble bar named Photo. The place has a black and white decor accented by neon drink coasters showcasing some of my least favorite American presidents. The bartenders were likely pleased that we doubled their business, so they left us to a table in the back.

We had attempted the game a week earlier, but I was rusty on the rules, and far short of able to read the Japanese instructions. This time I came armed with an internet printout of English guidelines. The inaugural victory went to me, and not just because I shared rules when they were convenient. I rolled well, and proved my dominance in the settlement of a fictitious island nation.

As with any time I win something upon my first attempt, I considered retiring for good. That way I can maintain a 100% average. Though as early retirement would defeat the purpose of my purchase, I elected to take my chances within game play. I lost the second game, but I can no longer remember to whom. I think that shows a highly developed sense of acceptance.

Right now I excitedly await the arrival of Bang, an out of print game that Jess had a friend locate and ship from the States.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Something familiar.

I may have a substantial percentage of German blood, but I have yet to visit the fatherland. My familiarity with German culture comes second hand through family and friends. Though last weekend when Oktoberfest came to Shizuoka, I was all too ready to embrace my heritage.

It was not until last year that I first paid any notice to Oktoberfest, when I had my own backyard Munich, a neighborhood success. I was all set for it to pass right by this season. Then a couple days beforehand, I caught word on an events calendar.

Now I may be a native Minnesotan, but my appreciation for beer was born in Wisconsin. In addition to having a Wisconsin pallet, I also have a Wisconsin wallet. I find myself the frugal fellow on evenings out and about. That said, my inner-accountant did not attend Oktoberfest with me. He stayed home to see that the air conditioner remained off.

Not knowing what they would ask, I was certain the price would be right for a proper German lager. And at 1300Yen (approx. $12) a half liter, it was fine. Here, key ingredients to brewing are heavily taxed by the government. As a result beer is either expensive, or lacking essential components.

The three day event was very well attended. Tables of strangers were filled up cheek to cheek. When I sat down for a few minutes, the Japanese fellow next to me was anxious to practice a little English. A live band played American jazz standards (jazz is everywhere here), and then broke into YMCA by The Village People. You can be anywhere in the world, you need not know the ABC’s, but you will know YMCA. Folks kept their seats, but sure did let their hands go dancing.

Next up was a proper lederhosen laden band flown in from Europe. They had the instruments for squeezing, strumming, blowing, and a whip for cracking. I met up with them at a convenience store after the show. They gave me a card and told me to look them up when I make it to Bavaria. Sure thing.

In addition to sampling the local culture, it is always of great interest to see what bits of our culture are imported. Some things are good, while others should keep to where they are from. I took this particular western import to be a fine success and a positive exchange.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The steep path

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I am in a new place, away from home, exposed to new things. I consider myself to be sufficiently open-minded. In my time here I will try new things, maybe change a couple ideas. But there are some occasions where I need to put my foot down and hold fast to my convictions.

On Friday just before lunch, the 8th graders invited me to their class, for what I can only assume was a recruitment event targeting yours truly. They had picked some leaves that very morning from green tea plants on the school’s property. I appreciated their inclusion of me to the affair, but I was privy to their agenda.

I played along. The process from leaf to tea was already underway, but I had not missed much. For about an hour they rotate the leaves between a bowl and a skillet. In the bowl, the leaves are rolled lightly between the hands, making them more compact. Dumped on a paper towel on a low set skillet, the leaves are continuously shuffled with chopsticks. This is to dry the leaves.

I asked questions to learn more about the process, as our method did not seem the most efficient – a few people working for an hour to produce 100g of tea. Ikawa is after all, a big tea region. From what I could understand, there are big machines that both heat and shake the leaves. Seems elaborate for the local farmers, but I will have to look a little further.

After the work was done, the students heated some water and steeped our fresh tea. It was good. I think I enjoyed it more having just seen it made, and being a part of the process. And kudos to the students for the role reversal. It was fun having them give me the lesson.

Though for such a great attempt it was fruitless. No one has yet confessed, but I am well aware of the nation wide conspiracy to derail my coffee love. A personal message: “Japan, I know what you are up to, and you have your work cut out for you. Well you can not stop my love of coffee, you can do your best to build my like of tea.”

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ikawa/School begins!

…First off, I apologize for my posting absence. The reasons will be apparent soon enough…

Last Monday morning I found my way to the Shizutetsu Station, and hopped a bus for Yokisawa. The ride was about an hour long. Once there, I waited 40 minutes on a bench to transfer to my next bus. The next bus was a van. It had a driver, an old guy with a backpack, and me in a suit. That ride was a bit over an hour, and took me to Ikawa. Ms. Hanamura picked me at the bus stop and brought me to Ikawa Junior High School. There I met the 11 staff that instruct the 10 students.

Yes, 10 students - four kids in seventh grade, three in eighth, and three in ninth. Ikawa Junior High School is the smallest school in Shizuoka City. And at two hours drive into the mountains, it is also the furthest. This is my placement for the first month. Because of the distance, I am supplied with a local apartment about a mile from the school. Monday mornings I bus from the center of Shizuoka to Ikawa. I teach for the week, and then a teacher gives me a ride back to center Friday after work.

I have never lived on my own before, and now I have two apartments entirely to myself! It does make things a bit difficult when I barely have the goods to furnish one apartment, let alone two. The apartment in Ikawa is in a building with the rest of the teachers. They are all in the similar situation of commuting home for the weekends. Every night dinner is served on the main level, and people can come and go. This has provided for a nice casual way to chat with my colleagues. At this point of the evening, people have typically dropped their pants and dress shirts to dawn t-shirts and shorts. The food has been pretty tasty and mostly traditional. We had sashimi on Wednesday night.

Ikawa has a population of 700, and it boggles my mind that the city provides the resources that it does. The school is about ten years old, not even a toddler when converted to human years. It looks like it could support about 200 students, I guess it is good to be prepared for expansion. The rural students are thus far a quiet bunch. I hope to shake that up a bit. As for now, I am still an outsider. The teachers/staff are extremely friendly, helpful, and sharing. If I have not tried a certain kind of sweet, they will see to it that I do!

For my first week I gave nine lessons, three of which were self introductions. The self introduction is a big deal and oh so mandatory for an ALT such as myself. I must admit, I am a bit of an authority in the field, when it comes to lecturing about myself. I gave them the geography - America/Wisconsin/Eau Claire. I made certain that they knew the importance of cheese, and what a Cheesehead was. There would be a quiz on it later. Then I introduced my immediate family. They are Minnesotans, but it is forgivable. I then shared my interests. Saturday mornings are a must at the Farmers Market and Ultimate Frisbee is the greatest sport. They would ask me about some famous baseball player, but I would steer it back to Frisbee. I showed photos of Romar Greenhouse where I worked. The kids were rural, and some farmers, but they were still pretty impressed by “1,000 chickens!”

The triumphant photo was always saved for last. I always qualified it by saying it was very special. Once I had their full attention I would present them with an 8x10 glossy color photo of Lindsay and I all dressed up at the Viennese Ball. Every good story needs a romantic interest, and the kids loved it. Sometimes other teachers would be in the class, and they would tell other teachers who would then ask to see the photo in the office. I currently have an outstanding promise to share the photo with the principal’s wife.

Thus far I am quite pleased with my assignment. I am splat in the middle of the mountains, the area is beautiful. I have already seen a monkey climbing a power pole. It was big with shaggy grey hair and a pink face. We had a two second staring contest, which I won, and then he jumped into the trees. I hope there will be a rematch.

Now that it is the weekend, I have come back to the city and have had the opportunity to swap classroom tales with the other ALTs. All of us are having different experiences, though mine are emerging as the most unique. The more I hear, the more it seems that I have a great classroom situation as well. Ms. Hanamura, my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), whom I assist, has been ever so helpful, and enthusiastic to work together. Some ALTs are already collecting the horror stories.

More than anything it just feels great for school to be in session. It was quite difficult to travel halfway around the globe and spend a month in detention at the Board of Education Office. None of us were hired for our skills in sitting and waiting. My story could change, but for now I am feeling great. The classroom is comfortable, people are interested in me, and everything is new.

Oh yeah, internet. I have a wireless internet service that, though portable, is limited to the urban realms of the city. The school office has one computer with access to the web. I may be able to sneak online occasionally, but for now my blog posts will be mostly weekend happenings.