Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The tooth fairy, and the lack thereof

I've had lots of different, fascinating conversations about Japanese culture with my adult English class.

We've talked about Japanese legendary characters (such as kappas). We've talked about origins and meanings of Japanese names. We've talked about our blood types. (which I'm going to write more about next time.) On multiple occasions we've discussed Japanese food, which I'm sure comes as no surprise!

By the way, this is a kappa -- a mischievous water-dwelling creature that is kind of a cross between a turtle, frog and duck.

But one topic that really stands out is the tooth fairy, and the lack thereof.

I'm not exactly sure how it came up. I think maybe we started talking about kappas, which led to the Easter Bunny (even though there are very few similarities between the two -- the Easter Bunny is much cuter and nicer), which led to the tooth fairy?

But anyway, no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned the tooth fairy. So I explained that when a child in America loses a tooth, a little fairy comes and leaves money under the child's pillow.

"A little fairy comes and leaves money under the child's pillow!?!? Ehhhh???" I'm pretty sure jaws dropped.

"Yes," I told them. They were more than intrigued by this strange concept of a little fairy collecting teeth in exchange for money.

I went on to say that the tooth fairy always left me a quarter (which is about 25 yen). But she wasn't a very fair fairy because she gave one of my friends a whole dollar bill for every tooth! I was NOT very happy with the tooth fairy when I made this discovery. Ha.

"So." I had a question for them I couldn't help but ask. "If the tooth fairy doesn't come to Japan, what in the world happens to baby teeth?"

They explained to me...
If it is a lower baby tooth, they throw it up onto the roof of their house! If it is an upper tooth, they throw it underneath the house. It's done this way so that the new upper tooth grows healthy downwards, and the new lower tooth grows healthy upwards.

And this is "normal"?

Absolutely. In Japan.

Monday, March 29, 2010

It's the break between school years, which means I'm in the office all day instead of at schools.

Although I'm not teaching English right now, I still want to use my blog to regularly teach about Japan. So for the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try to post every other day -- either a post about an aspect of Japanese culture that I haven't mentioned before OR a short story, such as this one...

Bless you!

One day at Misaki Jr. High school, the social studies teacher sneezed.

Without thinking much about it, I immediately responded with, "Bless you."

"Blesshoe??" asked the teacher.

"Bless you," I explained. "It's what we say in America when someone sneezes."

The other teachers were also interested in this bless you business. They had several questions that they asked me through Nakano Sensei, the English teacher...

Why do you bless someone who sneezes? Are you asking for God's blessing? Is it something only Americans do? Do you always bless someone when they sneeze, even if you don't know the person? How did this get started?

"Ummm. Let me look it up so I can give you accurate answers..."

So I did. And then I did my best to explain the different ideas about the origin of blessing someone who sneezes.

But my point is that I'd never in my life thought that much about my habit of saying "bless you." I've always thought of it as just the normal way of responding to a sneeze.

I've learned that things that I perceive to be normal aren't necessarily normal in Japan, and vice versa. Living in Japan has made me look at America and my own culture/thinking from a different perspective -- from the outside looking in -- which has been interesting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not too chicken to eat this fish!

Call me crazy, (it wouldn't be the first time) but I was looking forward to eating a notorious, poisonous fish.

Fugu is the Japanese name for blowfish, a fish that is lethally poisonous if it isn't prepared correctly. Chefs have to have a special license in order to serve this Japanese delicacy.

The most popular dish is fugu sashimi (raw fish), which is sliced so thinly that you can see the plate through the meat. Here is the plate of sashimi that I dared to try on Monday night...

I learned that only fugu is presented this way; other fish aren't sliced so thinly.

It was my friend Kenji who invited us ALTs to a restaurant near my apartment to try this. He likes to take ALTs who are about to leave Japan to eat fugu as a "last supper." Ha.

According to Kenji's rules, the youngest person has to try the fugu first. Guess who was the youngest in the group? Yep. Coincidentally, (or not) Kenji was the oldest person in the room.

So. Here I am, being the brave youngest...

I don't know about this...
Here goes...

OK. :)

Harriet was next...

She agreed with me that it was actually quite tasty.

Julian also liked the fugu dipped in a special sauce. His reaction (and I quote) was, "Mmmmmm." :)

After eating the sashimi, we had fugu prepared two other ways: fried (called karage) and in a hot pot with vegetables (called nabe), which looked like this...

The leftover nabe was used to make a rice soup called zohsui.

At the end of dinner, Kenji had a special farewell gift for the four ALTs who are leaving within the next few days...

Boxes of chocolate of the "Julian variety," the "Ebun variety," the "Oliver variety," and the "Harriet variety." Very cool!

I'm happy to report that all of us who ate the fugu are alive and well, and there was no need for FINAL goodbyes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"He mixes it with love and makes the world taste good..."

With only a couple of days to spend in Sapporo, I got just a sampling of Japan's fifth largest city.

But l liked what I saw. (and ate!)

Before taking the six-hour train ride north to Sapporo, I knew that the city was well known internationally for hosting the Winter Olympics (in 1972 -- just looked it up), and for holding the annual Sapporo Snow Festival (which is in February). So it came as no surprise that the weather over the weekend was cold and snowy.

I also knew about Sapporo beer, one of the leading brands in Japan. I've never really written about how beer is a big part of Japanese culture, but it definitely is. It's especially popular for Japanese businessmen to drink beer and sake together after putting in long hours at the office.

Even though beer is not my cup of tea (haha), it was still interesting to tour the Sapporo Brewery and see how it's made.

But without a doubt, I preferred the chocolate factory tour the following day...

(Even though I gave up chocolate for Lent, and the amazing smell in and around the building about drove me crazy..aaah!)

This factory is famous for its white chocolate cookies, called shiroi koibito 白い恋人, that are available only in Hokkaido.

These cookies make the perfect omiyage -- which is another aspect of Japanese culture that I haven't mentioned before. Omiyage means "souvenir," and it's customary to bring back enough omiyage (usually food) for everyone you work with whenever you travel somewhere.

I passed out these cookies in the office earlier today, and everyone was pretty excited about them.

The movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory kept coming to mind during the factory tour. :)

Besides touring factories, I visited a shrine (pictured below), the Maruyama Zoo, and a shopping mall.

Experiencing the Sapporo night life was fun...

Kuji doesn't look quite like this, haha.

It was also good to try a local specialty called jingisukan -- roasted lamb meat with onions that you grill.

Back in Kuji on Monday night, I tried a different kind of Japanese cuisine, which I'll write about next time. :)

Stay tuned....

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"I don't want to miss a thing..."

Because March is the end of the school year, it's a month of saying goodbyes.

In addition to bidding my own students farewell and good luck, I also had to say goodbye to my good friend Saya, who moved to college last Friday.

A few days before she moved, I went out to eat with Saya, her sister Moi, and their mom...

We ran out of time to do karaoke, so the next day, I met Saya at the karaoke place so we could sing our hearts out, as we like to do when we're together. Saya is an amazing singer, and I always love listening to her beautiful voice.

After karaoke, we took Purikura pictures, as is tradition. By the way, I learned from Liz that the name Purikura comes from "print club." Interesting.

I love Purikura pictures, I really do. It's so much fun to strike different poses in the photo booth with your friends, and just be goofy. (Not that I need a photo booth to be goofy.) Then your photos come up on a screen, and you can embellish them with borders, writing, sparkles, or all of the above...

It was pretty sad saying goodbye to Saya shortly after we took this picture together.

When I look at my collection of Purikura pictures, I'm reminded of fun times with fun people. My photo collection has grown quite large in the last year and a half, and it continues to grow.

Here's another recent addition to my picture collection...

Dana the apple + Jarlath the orange = a good pear :)

Unfortunately, Jarlath is moving back home to Ireland in just two and a half weeks from now. :(

The other two ALTs from Ninohe--Peter and P.J.--are leaving even sooner than that. I went to Ninohe on Monday for their goodbye party, where we passed around Japanese cards to sign for the guys. When I passed on the cards to Miyuki--one of my Japanese friends from Ninohe--she laughed and said, "This is a special kind of card for funerals!!"


I told her she should write, "Well, it's been nice knowing you." (!)

Tonight, there's a goodbye party in Kuji for Oliver, Julian and Harriet. Oliver is transferring to a city near Tokyo, Julian is going back home to California, and Harriet is moving to Italy!

While it's no fun saying goodbye, there's going to be a lot of people at tonight's gathering, (including Liz's sisters who are visiting) and it should be fun.

I won't be at all surprised if the night ends at the karaoke place, with everyone taking a group Purikura photo together. :)

* * *
p.s. I'm taking advantage of the three-day weekend here and going on a little trip up north to Sapporo. So my next blog post won't be until Tuesday. But I'm sure it will be full of pictures and tales from Hokkaido, Japan.

p.p.s. I just wrote a new blog post in "Keep Shining." Click here to check it out.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"As we go on, we remember..."

With only four graduates, Yamane Jr. High School's graduation ceremony on Saturday was quite small.

Small, serious, and sentimental.

The four students who graduated are four of my favorite students in all of Kuji. Yuka, Yoko, Kana and Kodai were an absolute delight to teach, and really made me look forward to spending time at Yamane each Wednesday.

With the four graduates on our last day of class last week.

Because these four are so special to me, I wanted to do something special for them as a goodbye present. So I took four photo booth pictures (which are really popular among young people here) for them to remember me by. Then I wrote a message in English and Japanese to put under the pictures.

Here are the four photos I had fun with...

As you can tell, each photo is specific to each student, and matches the students' interests/personality.

And here are the students with their finished product/present...

I was really glad they seemed so happy with the gifts. :)

Here are some pictures I took during the formal ceremony...

All seven students sat in the middle, with the graduates in the very front. As you can see, they wore their school uniforms, not caps and gowns like graduates in America. Parents sat behind the students. Teachers sat at a table on the left side of the gym, and City Hall officials/local people sat at a table on the right side.

Not surprising in the least, there was a lot of bowing at the graduation. Everyone who went up on stage bowed to all areas of the gym before and afterwards.

Kana on stage, receiving a gift.

There was a photo session after the ceremony, and I captured the middle of a really happy moment (one of the other teachers had apparently said something funny) with this shot...

Bottom row (from left to right): Two of the six teachers, the four graduates, and the principal
Top row: Satomi, Haruka and Daichi, who are now san-nensei (9th grade) students

As I've written before, the teachers and students at Yamane Jr. High feel like family since the school is so small. I've become pretty close to everyone there, and I will definitely miss the four graduates.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Oh the weather outside is frightful..."

Just when I thought it might be safe to put away the winter gear, this happened...

SNOW. Lots of it.

It started Tuesday night and continued all day yesterday, coloring everything completely white. This includes the roads, which were in a terrible slushy condition. Schools back home would definitely have been closed, but not the schools here. Nope.

After digging my car out of the snow, it took me about 45 minutes to drive to Yamane Jr. High School (pictured above), which is normally a 25-minute drive.

Even though the roads were a pain, I'm glad that school wasn't cancelled because it was my final day to teach the san nensei (9th grade) students. I'll see them for the last time this Saturday at the graduation ceremony. It's hard to believe that spring vacation (the vacation between school years in Japan) starts in a couple of days; it feels more like winter vacation!

In my classes yesterday, we talked about the unbelievable snow that seemed to just hit out of nowhere. We also talked about the differences between a Japanese snowman (called a yukidaruma) and an American snowman.

One day a few weeks ago, (note the clear sky and clear road) I saw a giant yukidaruma. As a sidenote, a yukidaruma usually has a bucket hat, but I guess there isn't one big enough for this guy!

Back to pictures from yesterday...

At the end of the day, I helped Nate dig his car out of the parking lot at City Hall, which took us quite a while...

A crew from City Hall was also out shoveling.

This is the ramen shop beside my apartment building. Check out the crazy amount of accumulation; we got a foot of snow in one day!

Immediately after taking the above photo, I went inside my apartment, put on my fleece jammies, curled up under my electric blanket and stayed there. :)

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Come along and sing a song..."

As soon as I walked into the third grade class at Samuraihama Elementary School, I was greeted with a surprise performance. :)

I went back to the classroom after lunch for an encore, to record this video....

Did you recognize the move near the end where the guys line up behind each other and take turns moving in a circle?? The ALTs did that exact same move in our Michael Jackson medley dance!!


I have a couple more videos of musical performances. I was in a casual concert where I played the same two songs I did in the Valentine's concert. ("Can't Help Falling in Love" and "What a Wonderful World.") Most of the other performers did Japanese songs, but there were also a couple of familiar tunes...

My friend Kiyoshi challenged himself to sing some English lyrics. He doesn't speak English, so I was really proud of him!

And also proud that he chose to sing a Beatles song. :) Well done!

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Sweet dreams are made of these..."

Believe it or not, I haven't eaten a single bit--or chip--of chocolate in two weeks. I think that might be a personal record. ;)

When I decided to give up chocolate this year for Lent, (after nearly going into a sugar-induced coma on Valentine's Day -- kidding! kind of) I figured I'd probably end up eating fewer sweet things as a result.

Think again!

I've been doing quite well in the dessert department recently as usual, and had a wonderful week of sweet treats. On Tuesday at Okawame Jr. High, we had a little birthday party for Junichi, complete with a gorgeous cake made by one of the teachers...

For the first time in my life, I was glad that the inside wasn't chocolate. I gave the decoration chocolates from my piece of cake to the birthday boy. :)

On Wednesday, we had two awesome, (non-chocolate!) homemade (so impressive!) desserts at my conversation class...

They were as delicious as they were beautiful. :) Because they were so aesthetically pleasing, and mainly because I'm just obsessed, I had to take more pictures of them...

Picture perfect apple tart with a scrumptious cookie-like crust.

Triple layer fruit dessert: kiwi, milk, strawberry....ooh, la la.

This pretty, pastel-colored dessert was appropriate since Wednesday was "Hina Matsuri," or "Doll Festival" -- a day to honor girls. I wrote more about it in this blog post last year.

Last weekend at the grocery store, I noticed a Hina Matsuri display of mochi (a type of Japanese sweet made from rice).

Mochi isn't bad, but for the record, I'll take fruit desserts over rice "desserts" (note the ironic use of quotation marks) any day. :)

Monday, March 1, 2010

A few updates

Happy First Day of March! The end of winter is in sight, and I'm happy.

Here are some things that are going on/have been going on around here these days...
  • Tsunami warning!
    You might have heard on the news about tidal waves--caused by Chile's earthquake--hitting Japan's coast yesterday. I didn't see the waves since I was out of town, far away from the ocean, but apparently it was more like high tide than anything. I drove along the coast this morning to get to Kuki Elementary School (after making sure it was safe to do so), expecting to see some pretty big waves, but was really surprised to see the water so still. I read in an article that "hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from shorelines" in Japan since it was expected to be worse than what it turned out to be. I found out via text message from my friend Kenji yesterday morning that the local government was advising people living near the ocean to seek higher ground. I was already on higher ground when I got the message. Kenji recommended that I not go swimming, haha.

  • He's baa-aack!
    I haven't had English lessons with my buddy Tomoki for the last couple of months since his mom didn't want him riding his bike in the snow. So I was glad to see him this evening when he came over to chat in English. And I was happy to see the pineapple he brought with him, too!

  • I got a postcard from my host family!
    So I wrote them a postcard in return. In Japanese. Eeek.
    Special thanks to Shizuka Sensei at Yamane Jr. High School. :)
    Here's what my Japanese postcard looks like, front and back:

It basically says, "Thank you so very much for everything! You rock!" :)

  • I went ice skating over the weekend, hooray!
    That was pretty much the last winter sport I needed to check off my list. (Not that I actually had a list.) It was a lot of fun, and I didn't fall once. The rink was in Morioka, where I also went to a birthday party.

  • The Christmas trees in Kuji are not only still up, they're still being lit up!?!?!???
    That's all I really have to say about that.