Friday, June 26, 2009

The exit interview

It's hard to believe that I've had my roommatey friends with me in Kuji for three weeks already!

We've seen and done (and eaten!) a lot together, and time flies when you're having fun. :) From my blog posts, it probably seems like all we've really done is eat and visit schools! But we also did the following...

  • Went bowling and shopping in Hachinohe
  • Attended Kuji Baptist Church
  • Went to the beach a couple of times
  • Hiked in the woods near my apartment

    Overlook of Kuji from our hike up the hill behind my place.
  • Tried Japanese calligraphy

Jennifer's kanji means "teacher," Lauren's is a poster of her name in katakana, and mine is the kanji for "love," which I have to admit my student made for me -- I couldn't do it this well!

  • Played traditional Japanese games

  • Jennifer was so good at this game -- knocking the blocks down to just the "head piece."

  • Went to two different parties with my ALT friends
  • Went to my dance practice each Tuesday night

    Ayaka and me goofing around at practice -- what's new? :)
  • Went to Round One, a sports center in Morioka
  • Saw a drum performance in Morioka

    Lauren trying her hand at playing the drums.

Before we say "sayonara" to Kuji tomorrow, I have an exit interview for the gals about their three-week stay at "Dana's Luxurious Retreat Center." :)

Question: What has been a highlight of your stay in Kuji...something we did that really stands out?

Lauren: Preparing for Dana's birthday! We managed to order a cake without knowing any Japanese! *Dana: And it was a gorgeous, delicious cake, too!*

Jennifer: I really enjoyed going to Hachinohe one evening to shop and bowl.

Q: Is there anything that really surprised you about life in Kuji?

L: The weather! It rained a lot more than we thought it would, and was cooler than we expected it to be. We brought a bunch of shorts and ended up wearing Dana's clothes the first week! Ha.

J: Yeah, several things did! I noticed that no one lays out on the beach, even on a very nice day. You would think they'd be out there enjoying the beautiful weather! Also, earthquakes are more commonplace than I expected. We were standing in a classroom one day when there was a small earthquake, and no one even seemed to notice! It wasn't a big deal to them. I was also surprised to learn that many people eat rice and miso soup for breakfast; I thought that was more of a lunch and dinner meal. The size of the loaf of bread was interesting to me -- there's only six slices in the biggest loaf. However, they have 10-20 pound bags of rice in the store!

Jennifer's picture of the massive pile of massive rice bags.

What is your impression of the people in Kuji?

L: They're very friendly. They try their best to understand us, even when we go into stores and don't know any Japanese whatsoever.

J. They're helpful and hard-working. Also, they'll go to a lot of trouble to look up an answer to a question you have. Or look up one word to try to explain themselves!

Q: What's your favorite place in Kuji, and why?

L: Crepe House Sweets! The lady who works there is very friendly, and the crepes are really good.

J: I loved Yamane Jr. High School. I could get to know the students well since there were only five of them. We had a good time with the students and teachers, and it felt like a family since everyone is so close.

Us with the "Yamane family." :)

Q: (For the benefit of the readers) What did you do when you couldn't go to the schools/office with me?

Both gals: For the majority of the time, we chilled out in the apartment doing various things -- surfing the Web, reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing games, napping, doing laundry, etc. Sometimes we walked around Kuji. One day the weather was nice enough for a picnic at a park and a visit to the beach.

Q: Do you have a favorite Japanese word and/or phrase?

L: Douzo! It means "go ahead," or "after you." My favorite phrase is "Iki ma shou," which means, "Let's go!"

J: My favorite word is "sumimassen," ("Excuse me") because it sounds fun. :) I like the phrase, "Ai shteru" -- "I love you."

Q: What will you miss most about Japan?

L: The food!!!

J: I'm going to miss the sense of wonder. You wonder what you'll see when you get somewhere. You wonder what the kids are going to say when you walk into the classroom. You wonder what the food is going to taste like here. Things are more exciting because you don't quite know what to expect.

We've had some good times. And the good news is that we have next week together, traveling around Japan (so I won't be able to write for a while) -- Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Should be fun!

* * *

Click here to read my most recent post in "Keep Shining."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Surrounded by a sea of smiling faces

Did you know: The word "smiles" is the longest word in the dictionary.

Yep. That's because there's a "mile" between the first and last "s!" Hahaha. :)

Ok, so maybe you didn't know that...but I'm sure you know that smiles are very contagious. Seriously. I get anywhere near a bunch of giggling, grinning students, and I have the "smile bug" for the rest of the day!

All smiles and peace signs in a 5th grade classroom at Kuji Elementary School.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been exposing my visitors to some breeding grounds of the "smile bug" -- elementary schools!
(We've also been to my junior high schools together, but those students are not usually as "dangerous" as the super duper smiley gradeschool kids.)

Check out these cutie pies from the second grade class at Ube E.S. last week...

You're smiling right now, aren't you? I'm telling ya...highly contagious! You don't even have to come into direct physical contact with them, and they've gotcha.
Photo credit: Jennifer (She gets the credit for about all of these, actually.)

They're so interested in English, and I love it! Why wouldn't they be when English class is all about games and songs!?

Third graders at Ube E.S. singing "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."

Do your BEST. (I wonder if BEST is a coincidence. I'm guessing that it is.) Notice that the third one down is "Smile." The students are trained to be the way they are! :)

Some genki girls ("genki" means "fine" or "outgoing") at Osanai E.S. during recess.

Yesterday, the gals and I went to Taiyama E.S., a school that is extremely infected by the "smile bug." I taught all six grades, so it was a long day -- but a happy one. :)

A cute shot of Jennifer and Precious. (I don't know what her name is, but Precious sounds good.) Jennifer is a first grade teacher in Franklin, so I'm really glad she's been able to sit in on/help during a few first grade classes while in Kuji. Sidenote: Notice some of the complicated kanji in the background that the second graders are learning. Yipes!

At Taiyama E.S., we taught the students some answers to the question, "How are you?" (I've become very familiar with this lesson since I taught it six times in a row at Kuji E.S.!) For each response, we do a gesture with it. For example: "I'm hungry." *rubbing tummy* "I'm sleepy." *yawn and stretch*

In this picture, we're all doing the gesture to the response, "I'm HAPPY!!" (Notice the illustration I'm holding up.)

Go figure, right? :)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Feedback from food critics

While the gals and I have been eating lots of cake and sweets in the past two weeks, we've also been enjoying--and critiquing--a variety of Japanese foods.

It's been fun for me to watch their reactions to the cuisine that I've come to love, and interesting to learn how they rate the different foods.

We started our "Japanese food adventure" together by eating sushi at a kaiten zushi restuarant, a place where you choose your sushi from a conveyor belt.

It was their first time ever to try sushi, and their first time to use chopsticks in Japan.

Jennifer wasn't so sure about the sushi. Or the chopsticks.

Kaiten zushi: 0 out of 5 stars from Jennifer-san, (shocking!) 3 stars from Lauren-san. By the way, I have gotten to the point where I crave sushi it gets 5 stars from me!

"I'm not so big on the taste, and I don't like that it's cold. The appearance doesn't do anything for me, either!" -- Jennifer

At the English conversation class last Sunday, they tried a different kind of sushi -- vegetable and egg sushi rolls.

Toshi-san rolling the sushi. Close-up shot:

Sushi rolls: 4 stars from Lauren and a whopping 1 star from Jennifer.

"I could eat this on a weekly basis!! Oh wait...I already do." -- me (5 stars!)

We also made homemade takoyaki at the class...

You probably know by now that these fried dough balls with octopus inside have kind of become my specialty.

Takoyaki: 3 stars from Jennifer and an astounding 5 stars from Lauren!

"Dana's* takoyaki is amazing, and is probably one of my new favorite foods!" -- Lauren

*sidenote: I did not bribe her to say this, and since this is a direct quote, Lauren (who is sitting beside me as I write this) won't let me change it.

At Okawame Jr. High last Tuesday we made rice balls called onigiri in one of the classes. There were many different options of what to put inside...

From left to right: salmon, pickles, tuna salad (the mayo hadn't been mixed in yet), fish flakes and soy sauce combined, and pictured front and center are nasty dried pickled plums called umeboshi.

Onigiri: the general consensus is 4 stars.

"Onigiri is better warm, and it's absolutely horrible with umeboshi inside!!"
-- yours truly

Last night, we went to Oliver's place and helped make his specialty, gyoza. They are fried dumplings and are technically considered Chinese food.

Gyoza: the general consensus is 5 stars!! We all love it!

"It's so fun to eat with chopsticks* and is really good dipped in soy sauce." -- Jennifer

*Jennifer's chopstick skill has improved tremendously, and she says she might even use them back at home!

Besides the food pictured, other foods that the gals have tried are: a noodle dish called yakisoba (5 stars from Jennifer!, 3 from Lauren); chicken-on-a-stick called yakitori (3 stars from everyone); and fermented soybeans called natto. (0 stars from everybody...yuck!)

Overall, we've had a lot of fun being taste testers of Japanese cuisine. As Lauren said recently, "I could live in Japan for the the food!!"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

One birthday, six kinds of cake!!

If I had to describe my birthday yesterday in one word, it would have to be...*cake*roll, please :)...sweet!!

I was in the company of sweet people all day long, we had sweet times together, and I consumed approximately 23,232,323 pounds of sweet treats.

Ok, so I'm exaggerating just a tiny bit on that last part, but I'm not even kidding when I say my birthday included six different kinds of cake!! In fact, I'm all hopped up on sugar again today since I just ate birthday cake leftovers!! (Note all of the !!'s in this post...I really can't help it!) Oh, how you've just gotta love birthdays... :)

The lovely day of June 17th started out by the gals and I making pancakes (which totally counts as a kind of cake) in my takoyaki maker. We filled our little cake balls with blueberries, bananas...and a few other not-as-good-for-you things. Chocolate!

I had a nice chat with my friend, Ariel, and then it was off to Yamane Jr. High School, where we celebrated...

I just love the super outgoing fine arts teacher! By the way, for my birthday outfit, I wore (for the very first time) my new favorite skirt, which I bought in South Korea.

My students Yoko and Yuya spread whipped cream icing (my fave!) on two peach (another fave!) cakes. The finished product:

The gals and I ate the school lunch and the cake (using chopsticks!) with all of the teachers and students at Yamane, which was definitely special.

During the afternoon, I spent a couple of hours in the office. When I came back to the apartment, the gals had decorated it and set up a scavenger hunt for me! The clues led me around the apartment to a few different gifts, and then eventually to a blender!! Helllllooo, fruit smoothies! This blender is going to change my life in Japan, I just know it. :)

They also had this precious cake sitting on the table, along with some fresh pineapple, peaches and strawberries...

After a Mexican dinner with Tomoki and some of my ALT friends, we all had the white cake as well as a chocolate cake that Jemma made...

A cake covered in candles will make you feel old! haha. Proud to say that I blew them all out in one breath. :)

Jennifer and Lauren chowin' down on some b-day cake and ice cream!

Cakes #5 (cheesecake) and #6 (a variety box) came from my Japanese friends, Kenji and Hideto.

Overall, it was a wonderful birthday! Having my family with me is the only thing that could have made it better.

Thank you, everyone, for all of the birthday messages, cards, packages and love! I'm so grateful for all the sweetness in my life!

Monday, June 15, 2009

All around the town

This past weekend sure was a busy one!

I had a good time doing some of my usual weekend activities with my friends who are visiting. Together we went to a preschool, Mayla's house, a volunteer English class, karaoke and a party. And that was just Saturday alone!

I just knew they'd looove volunteering at a preschool with me because the kids are just so darn cute. :)

After preschool, we walked around an outside market in the neighborhood. Sites like this next one have become common to me...

...but to the gals this is a bit odd. Octopus legs, anyone?

Every other weekend, I spend an hour teaching basic English to a group of elementary school students. This week, we had a couple of guest teachers!

Jennifer wrote all of the letters on the board for the students to copy.

On Sunday, the gals joined me for an eikawa -- English conversation class. Once a month, I meet with a group of adults in Kuji who want to practice their English. We talk about anything they want to discuss for an hour, and then we cook/eat together during the second hour.

This week, we made what has become my specialty -- takoyaki, the fried dough balls with octopus meat inside. So yes, I do actually buy octopus!

Jennifer and Sato using my spiffy takoyaki maker at the eikawa. Besides takoyaki, there were also sushi rolls for lunch.

Group eikawa picture

Sunday also included a hike in the woods near my apartment and a trip to an onsen. An onsen is a public, natural hot springs bath, which are very common in Japan.

So we had some good, cultural experiences during the weekend, and there are still three more weeks of good, cultural experiences to come for the gals!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kuji's classrooms from a different perspective

Today is a special, historical day for this blog.

For the first time ever, I'm going to have guest writers! My friends from home/roommates for the next couple of weeks have been living my Japanese life with me, and it's been so fun to share it with them. :) In just a second, they'll share what they've observed.

This past week, they went with me to Okawame and Yamane junior high schools, as well as Kuji Elementary School. They can't spent as much time with me in the classrooms as I'd initially hoped for because, according to Yamadate, "Swan flu has changed the world." But anyway, we at least have some time together in the schools.

I'm now handing over the computer to the gals so they can tell you for themselves about their school visits. Take it away...

In each of the classes we visited we were asked to give a self-introduction. For example, we told the students our names, ages, how many people are in our families, favorite colors, foods, and things we like to do. The students' assignment was to ask us in English about some of our favorite things.

Here we are with the third grade class (equivalent to 9th grade in America) at Okawame Jr. High.

Mr. Otsuki wrote some of our responses to their questions on the blackboard.

We got to eat the school lunch with the students. We had soup with balls of salmon in it, veggies, a fried potato cake and bread.

The lunch was very different from the way it is in American schools. The students who served the lunch put on hats and aprons. Lunch is always served in the classrooms and all of the students brought their own chopsticks. There is only one meal choice, and everyone eats the school lunch. Mr. Otsuki told us that rice is served three times a week with the meal, and bread is served twice a week.

There are many differences in the way Japanese classrooms are conducted. To begin the class, the students stand up so they are addressing the teachers. We noticed that there is not much discipline in the classroom; in one of the classes, a student spent the whole class period sleeping, and the teacher did little to stop it.

Visiting Kuji Elementary School was a lot different from our visits to the middle schools. As we were walking into one of the classrooms at the elementary school, the students were cheering and were so excited to see us! Students in America are not as enthused when people walk into the classroom.

New words or phrases are repeated several times so the students can learn and remember the English. Each class at the elementary school was taught the same lesson. They all sung "The Hello Song" about ten times. They also had to ask us and each other how we/they were doing. We had to respond by saying and gesturing "I'm hungry," "I'm sleepy," "I'm fine," and "I'm happy." They did this for about twenty minutes. Most of the students succeeded with these activities.

Other things we observed include:
  • Class sizes were as big as 30 students and as small as 5 students in the whole school!
  • Yamane Jr. High School had more teachers than it had students!
  • Each grade had a different color shoe.
  • Each school had a different color uniform.
  • Teachers move around from class to class instead of the students moving.
Next week, we'll go to Ube Elementary School on Monday and also go to the middle schools again. We're looking forward to it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Visiting the "Soul of Asia"

An nyoung ha seh yo! (안녕하세요!) That's "hello" in Korean. :)

Last Tuesday afternoon, after I ran into my friends in the airport bathroom (what a great place for a grand reunion, huh?) we flew from Tokyo to Seoul together. The nearly two-hour flight was one of the most comfortable airplane rides I've EVER had since we were bumped up to business class! Hello, big, reclining chairs, fancier food and more leg room!!

The gals--Lauren, Jennifer, Amanda--and I stayed in a high-rise apartment building with (our very gracious) friends for five nights and four days.

This is Hanam, just outside Seoul, where Wendy and David live. Tall apartment buildings such as these are a common sight.

We traveled within Seoul each day, which required a long, crowded bus ride and subway ride every time. David was such a trooper to hang out with us girls each day and act as tour guide!

At Seoul Tower with David along with guards dressed in traditional costume, who had just put on a presentation.

Outside of the tower, the fence was lined with locks -- each pair of locks representing a couple who had put it there in demonstration of their strong love. Aww.

After visiting the tower and doing some window shopping on the first day, we enjoyed experiencing the city's nightlife. We had fun taking pictures in a photo booth then adding our own embellishments...

On the morning of the second day, we just took it easy and explored Hanam. Jet lag for the gals was a bit rough, so afternoon naps were necessary. We went out that night to the multi-cultural district in Seoul, where we walked around then ate at a Mexican restaurant. I know, I know...eating Mexican food in Korea??...but it's somewhat hard to come by in Asia, so we had to take advantage!

The following evening was when we tried popular Korean cuisine called kimchi, which is spicy fermented cabbage. Much too spicy for my taste! Kimchi is served at almost every meal, and in our case, we ate it along with grilled pork.

Our super nice, but non-English speaking waiter/cook, who tried as hard as he could to communicate with us, put pig skin in the middle of the grill(!?) Waaay too chewy for me.

We spent day three in a more traditional district in Seoul, visiting The Palace Museum, a palace, and a shopping area of Korean souvenirs. On our last day, we enjoyed the lovely weather by going on a picnic in Olympic Park with a big group of English teachers. It was fun to hang out with other foreigners our age in a fresh air environment. :)

That night we tried something unusual called Dr. Fish. We put our feet into water crowded with little fish that eat off dead skin! Ever since my Grandma Reinbold told me about it, I've been wanting to try it out.

This picture was taken at the end of the 20 minutes, when everything was finally A-OK. I was laughing hysterically non-stop for the first 10 minutes! So. Very. Ticklish!!! But I got used to the fish nibbling away.

Our group picture of Franklin College grads (plus Lauren, in pink, who will be a graduate this time next year). This photo could very well end up in the alumni magazine!

Well, that's the summary of our brief stay in Korea. We're now enjoying life in Kuji together, which I'll update on next time...

Stay tuned!

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Summer's here and the time is right, for dancin' in the street..."

Yesterday's dance event in Morioka was not at all what I had expected!

On the two-hour drive to the city with my friends Ayaka and Kuzue, I was feeling slightly anxious about performing seven dances with my team, depsite the fact that I practiced an additional five hours last week in preparation.

Turns out, both the nerves and the five-hour practice were completely unnecessary.

I didn't peform the dances with my team. Instead, I joined hundreds of other people and basically partied in the street!! Crazy fun!

Before I joined the other dancers, though, I watched what was basically a parade made up of different dance teams from all over northern Japan. I watched the dancers from the sidelines, wondering when our turn would come...

Every group had different outfits and routines.

I was reminded of my high school marching band days because of all the different groups, routines, and the flags and props.

Just chillin' before dancin.' This group did about seven outfit changes in one dance!

I took a couple of shots of the ginormous flags...

From little girls dancing to High School Musical to middle-aged men dancing in business suits, there was quite a variety! Here is a three-minute sample of what I watched for about six hours...

Did you hear the hysterical laughter (that was Ayaka!) when the lady lost her wig? :)

Finally, our turn came to dance! We didn't have our fancy costumes on -- but in our dance t-shirts with the cool Japanese writing on the back -- the three of us joined approximately 900 other people to dance the same songs, with the same moves, in the street! As far as I looked in both directions, the street was packed with people dancing! I stopped long enough to take this video, to give you a better idea...

What fun!! The day didn't quite go as I'd thought it would, (I guess that's what happens when no one on your dance team speaks English well!), but I've learned to expect the unexpected in Japan.

Oh, by the way, don't expect another blog post from me for at least a week. I'm headed to Tokyo tomorrow to meet up with three friends from college, and we're going to South Korea together for a few days!! I'm really excited about visiting our friend, Wendy, who is teaching English in Korea. Should be a blast!