It’s Yukata Season!

There were a lot of photos being taken at this party and I love this one because it’s so natural.

Summer in Japan, as far as I’m concerned, is… well, it’s hot and humid and filled with massive bugs, but aside from that it’s the one time of year when even foreigners can dress up in traditional Japanese clothes and not have it be totally weird. It’s still a little weird, because most Japanese people are shocked and amazed by foreigners doing Japanese things, but when half the people around you are dressed the same way you don’t stand out too much. The traditional clothes in question? Yukata.

A yukata is a light, casual kimono, traditionally made of a single layer of unlined cotton. Being inexpensive, both of mine are polyester. I’ve worn one twice in as many weeks and I just wish I had another excuse before I leave Japan since I’m unlikely to have many opportunities to wear them once I’m back in the States. Since I have two, though, I might try to find a chance and make someone wear one with me. Strength in numbers and all that.

A better shot of the above yukata, with Zung, my upstairs neighbor.

As you might be able to tell, I really like wearing yukata. I have two, after all (completely different from each other – I didn’t buy the same thing twice or anything like that). They’re really pretty and elegant and more comfortable than they look, especially in the heat. You’d expect something long and wrapped around you would be hotter than hell, but it’s no worse than anything else you could be wearing here in the summer. The obi does compress your diaphragm, so if you go for karaoke, like I did both times I went out, singing is a bit of a challenge. But your posture is pretty great!

The first night I went out in yukata, it was the official ALT farewell party, with most of Matsuyama’s English teachers, the Board of Education staff, and a few other peripherally related people. It was in a bar that’s frequently used for these sort of parties and the theme was yukata. Clearly. There were probably about 40 people there, maybe half of us dressed up in yukata (or jinbei, which is another traditional summer outfit, made up of a jacket-like shirt and matching shorts). And one woman came in a sari, just to be contrary. She looked fab, though.

And it was a lot of fun! I’m usually not super keen on those parties, because the food is mediocre and they’re always kind of expensive for what you get, but that one was nice. We took a lot of pictures, I got to see some people who I will probably never see again, and the food wasn’t terrible. There was a really nice basil pizza, at least, and lots of fries. After enough work parties in Japan, you learn to be grateful for the one or two genuinely tasty food offerings.

So that was yukata outing one! Then, on Saturday (7/16), I got together with my friends Lauren and Nicky and we busted our yukata to go to the Matsuyama summer night market. The market is every Saturday from mid-June through July and there are always lots of people in yukata and jinbei, so it was a good opportunity. Lauren had never worn a yukata before and I had never worn my other one, so we jumped on it.

Eating delicious, delicious ramen.

Like I said, my yukata are very different from each other. I like the black and red one a little more (it’s actually a black and dark purple checker pattern), but the gray and pink has a completely different feel. The gray and pink one is also more cute and unusual – the dark base with flowers is a much more typical design. The red obi is pretty young, though, too showy and ostentatious for older women, so I promise I’m not dressing like an old lady.

Anyway, our plan for Saturday night was simple: our favorite ramen shop (Ippudo, which serves Hakata ramen (pork broth) and apparently is also in NYC), then the market, then karaoke. And it was lovely. I had a really good time and we didn’t get too many odd looks (though I’m pretty sure one guy snapped our picture as we walked past him). If I don’t have another chance to dress up for a while? I have no complaints about Saturday’s outing. It was an excellent way to spend a Saturday night.

And of course we did yukata purikura. Obviously.

The End Times Are Upon Us

That sounds way more ominous than what’s actually going on. What I’m really referring to is the impending end of my JET contract: 32 days from tomorrow I’m off, which means I need to get my apartment cleaned and all my stuff sorted out and packed up… sometime before then. And, let me tell you, one accumulates a lot of stuff in a year. I don’t even know where it all came from, but I currently have a stupid amount of paper and cardboard chilling in my kitchen waiting to be removed from the premises.

Where did it all come from? And why didn’t I throw it away months ago?

You can also see the edge of one of the boxes I’m packing up to ship to my parents’ house.

On the plus side, when I’m not flailing around trying to clean and consolidate, this move is forcing me to seriously downsize my wardrobe. Since I do have limits on how much I can take back, I’m getting rid of a lot of stuff. I have two piles going in my bedroom: the stuff that’s in good enough shape to sell to Off-House, and the stuff that’s just going to the bin. Some of it is practically new, because I bought it right before coming to Japan, then dropped a ton of weight, and the rest is either worn out or things I never wear. I tend to get sentimental and keep clothes, but I can’t afford to deal with things I don’t use, so out with them.

I did discover the wonders of the M-Bag, though, for my books. If you’ve never done any major international shipping, the M-bag is a cheap rate for printed material (and nothing else). My bag of books is 6kg and my bag of dictionaries and Japanese study materials is 9kg because dictionaries are heavy. I’d like to send them together, though, because 15kg is ¥10,000 cheaper than one 6kg and one 9kg bag separately. Either way, it won’t be more than ¥14,000 ($173) and that’s really cheap for the weight. 15kg, by the way, is 33lbs.

When all is said and done, I’m probably going to be shipping four boxes of varying sizes (guess how many boxes I had in the closet), by SAL (cheaper than air, less worrisome than ground), plus the books. Which isn’t too bad. I’m pretty okay with that amount.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Busy busy busy, but looking forward to going home for a while.

(Note to self: buy packing tape tomorrow.)

Sunday Sundry

Today was sankanbi at my base school, so I had to go to work. Sankanbi is something Japanese schools do: a day when parents come to observe class and meet the teachers, basically. Despite the fact that English was not on the agenda, I had to go to work and waste my Sunday, anyway. I sat at my desk and studied kanji all morning, then briefly introduced myself to the PTA when all the other teachers did, then went back to kanji. I finally succumbed to the agony at about one, when all the families had gone home and there was just another two hours and 45 minutes of sitting there pretending to have something to do ahead of me, and asked if I could take two hours and 45 minutes of vacation and just go home. New principle, who isn’t crazy like the old principle, said yes, so I got the hell out of Dodge. I do not regret this use of my vacation hours because I’m not feeling that great and just couldn’t face the loss of my whole day like that.

I have to work all week like normal, but in 10 days my mum and sister will get here and I’ll have a long holiday with them. So the six-day work week won’t kill me. I have something happy to sustain me through the boring stretches.

In other news, I have a new camera! I’ve been using a four-year-old, 7.2 megapixel HP Photosmart, which was a good camera back when it was new, but not so much now. It’s also on its last legs and has been having issues. So now I’ve got a 14.1 megapixel Casio Exilim. It’s a dusky pink and a big upgrade. It’s just a point-and-shoot, nothing fancy or professional, but I’m not a photographer, I’m a chronicler. I take pictures to keep a visual record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done and who I’ve done it with; I don’t need a digital SLR. So, armed with my little pink camera and a 4gb SD card, I will go forth and chronicle. And then share the best bits on my blog.

That’s more or less all I’ve got right now. There isn’t much happening aside from work, but I’m trying to keep this thing from falling into disuse. Content will get interesting again in a couple of weeks, after my adventure with my family.

Bits and Bobs

It’s spring break for students here in Ehime, which means I have to go to work and sit at my desk for 8 hours a day trying to keep myself from expiring from boredom. Today I spent five hours reading a book about Heian Japan, which would have been more enjoyable had I not been so tired, before the principle told me to go home. Today was his last day at this school and he said it was a present. Technically, they aren’t supposed to do that (I think I’m supposed to insist that I stay at work or something), but he’s the principle and it’s his prerogative. And today was stupid. You know how many people, aside from the principle and including me, were at work today? Six. Out of about 60.

On the principle’s-last-day front, that’s a Japanese thing that I’m not sure I’ve talked about. At the end of every school year here, there’s a teacher changeover. It’s pretty much completely arbitrary, though some teachers are more likely to get moved than others. My base school lost 10, including the principle and one of the two head teachers. So starting tomorrow things will be really different because we’re getting a new principle. I’m not sure what to expect and I’m a bit nervous because my main teacher said she won’t be there, so I have to introduce myself to the new principle and then ask him to stamp the form for me to have a day off next week for hand surgery recovery. While I’m capable of doing this, I don’t like not having support and wish they wouldn’t spring this stuff on me with no notice.

Anyway, like I said above, I’m really tired and this post is kind of blah. Yesterday was the ceremony for the departing teachers, so there was an enkai (work party) in the evening. Since starting this job, I’ve developed a sense of 義理 (giri, or Japanese social obligation), so I always go to the enkai. Apparently the last two ALTs at this school only went to, like, one each, so I guess I’ve made a good impression actually attending. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because it means they always invite me. Then, even though it was Wednesday, I was cajoled into going along to karaoke for the nijikai (second party). So I was out till 12:30 partying and drinking with my coworkers. Which is so Japanese it hurts. I think it may have figured into the principle’s decision to let me leave early, though. Gestures like that win a lot of ground in this country.

In other news, I really want to go to Hong Kong. In fact, I fully intend for that to be my next international trip. I’ve always been interested in China, but you sort of have to pick one country (usually Japan or China) as a focus if you do East Asia and I went with Japan. But Hong Kong is next on the places I want to visit list. I actually found some absolute beginner Cantonese lessons online and I really like it. I only know, like, half a dozen words, but the tones are kind of like singing. It’s also much, much simpler than Japanese and has the same basic sentence pattern as English (subject-verb-object, as in: I ate the apple). And did you know that Chinese verbs don’t conjugate? There’s only one verb tense. Compared to English or Japanese, the grammar is so easy and straightforward.

In closing, because these long, text-only entries are kind of dull, check out this picture I borrowed from Wikipedia of the Hong Kong skyline at night. Isn’t that fab? I’m so doing China next.

Thanks, Wikipedia.

A model lesson happened

First off, because good music wants sharing, I’m putting this here. Mumford and Sons are an English folk rock band who I’m pretty passionately in love with. If you don’t like folk rock (their instruments include the banjo, mandolin, and accordion), you won’t like them, but I think they’re fab. So, yes, listen and enjoy.

Moving right along, as the title of the post strongly suggests, I had a model lesson this week. Yesterday, in fact. For those who haven’t heard about this, my base school (so the school I’m at 2.5 days a week) has been the model school for the past two years. What that means is that they hosted one open lesson a term, for lots of people to come watch and gauge the progress of English language education in elementary schools. I think. The part that mattered to me was that, since this is the last year, I got two of the things.

The first was in October and it sucked. I mean, the lesson itself was fine, but there was excessive preparation and stress and making me stay until 7:30 the night before (I work from 8:00 to 3:45) and I got sick (from stress and overwork) and… yeah, it was pretty much just a horrifying experience. Note that October is roughly where my blogging dropped off. There is a direct correlation. So I was not excited about this month being the second one.

But my worries were for naught because, dude, the experience could not have been more different. The homeroom teacher (I’ll call him N-sensei) is the most badass fifth grade Japanese teacher ever, he was super chill about the whole thing, and the lesson actually was great despite the fact that it was 100% conducted in English (the students could speak Japanese, but he and I could not, which is something that never happens). I got back to school after my trip home for Christmas and no one said anything about it, so I decided to ask. It basically went down like this:

Me: ‘sup, N-sensei. When are we going to get started on that scary lesson?
N-sensei: Oh, the lesson plan isn’t finished yet. Don’t worry about it, we’ll have a meeting sometime next week. We’ve got, like, three weeks. No rush yet.
Me: Okay, cool.

Next week came and I was given my schedule for the two weeks leading up to the lesson. I had one lesson with his class every day I was at the school, which meant two or three a week. Which is more than usual, but hardly excessive. And he told me that, get this, we weren’t going to rehearse the lesson. Now, you may be thinking, well, duh, why would you practice, it’s not a play. And that would be because you are sane. This whole model lesson thing, however, strips people of their sanity and makes them turn into hyper perfectionists who practice these things into the ground. N-sensei, being a badass, didn’t want to do that to himself, me, and the students. Because no one actually has a good time when the lesson is handled the way it was in October. We had another talk that went kind of like this:

Me: So… are we going to practice this shit?
N-sensei: Not really. I don’t want it to be boring We’ll work on classroom English, but the lesson should be new. Let’s just enjoy.
Me: That is the most beautiful thing anyone has said to me at this school ever.

Since the lesson was to be conducted entirely in English, we had to make sure the students understood new stuff, like “How was today’s class?” and “Do you understand?” So that’s a big chunk of what we worked on. But, because we were using this crazy all-English method, we didn’t actually translate anything into Japanese for them. They picked it up entirely through context and examples. It was kind of a fascinating experiment: how much can kids who are somewhat older than the optimum age for language acquisition learn when the lesson is conducted entirely in the target language? The answer: a lot.

We also practiced a version of the game we were going to play, but the lesson itself was new. And we rocked it. The kids had fun, N-sensei was hilarious, he and I worked well together, there was good energy, the lesson flowed perfectly, the kids learned the new vocabulary, it filled the 45 minutes almost exactly – everything went right. People were floored by how good it was, and that isn’t an exaggeration. So many people commented on what a good team N-sensei and I were, how good our communication was, how fun the lesson was, how enjoyable it was to observe, how impressive it was that the kids were able to keep up with the English. We got some questions about why we made certain decisions, but the comments were all positive. It was a massive success.

And then, continuing in the spirit of being a badass, there were three comments from other ALTs during the discussion period afterward. The woman transcribing it doesn’t really understand English and asked N-sensei what the ALTs said. He told her that all they said was that he was awesome. You know, just get the important bit.

I dreaded that damn thing, because the one in October nearly killed me, but it was actually one of the most satisfying lessons I’ve had the entire time I’ve been here. But I’m still really glad it’s over.