Monday, March 31, 2008

stuff i did.

Well a couple weeks ago I had my first Karaoke experience (ever in my life). In Japan Karaoke doesn’t involve standing on a stage in front of an entire room of people [thank goodness]. Japanese Karaoke is about sitting in booths around a table in a little room with a TV and a bunch of friends. The staff immediately brings more drinks the moment you hit a button. Accompanying the music on the TV are "music videos" of Japanese couples taking long walks on the beach. There are microphones. That’s about it. Karaoke bars are open 24 hours, so it's the perfect thing to do if you miss the last train home (which is easy to do cause the last trains are usually around midnight). You sing your heart out in a Karaoke room until 6am when the trains start running again. Hopefully you haven’t lost your voice at that point. I surely did. Of course, I was more into it than some people. We sang songs by David Bowie, the Spice Girls, Kate Bush, Weezer, Madonna and other random artists. Loads of fun. I guess the all-nighter is a common thing in Tokyo because of the train situation and the fact that a lot of people live far from central Tokyo. I have finally been initiated into the all-nighter club. Splendid.

About a week ago, I went to Yokohama with my boyfriend and his parents, to help him look for an apartment. Yokohama is a big city on the coast of Japan almost directly south of Tokyo. It’s been a famous port city ever since 1852 when Commodore Matthew Perry ended Japan’s isolation and opened up trade between Japan and the U.S.

Here's an excerpt of the Wikipedia entry on Yokohama:

“Yokohama was a small fishing village up to the end of the feudal Edo period, a time when Japan held a policy of national seclusion, having little contact with Western foreigners. A major turning point in Japanese history happened in 1853 and again in 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived just south of Yokohama with a fleet of American warships, demanding that Japan open several ports for commerce. The Tokugawa shogunate agreed in 1854 by signing the Treaty of Peace and Amity.[2] It was initially agreed that one of the ports to be opened to foreign ships would be the bustling town of Kanagawa-juku (in what is now Kanagawa Ward) on the Tōkaidō, a strategic highway which linked Edo to Kyoto and Osaka. However, the Tokugawa shogunate decided that the location of Kanagawa-juku was too close to the Tōkaidō for comfort, and port facilities were built across the inlet in the sleepy fishing village of Yokohama instead. The Port of Yokohama was opened on 2 June 1859. The Port of Yokohama quickly became the base of foreign trade in Japan.”

So, as a result, there remains evidence of many Western influences in Yokohama, including a few western style buildings. The majority have been replaced by more modern Japanese buildings, but there are still quite a few old Western buildings.

Looking for apartments was interesting. First, we had lunch in Chinatown, which is nothing like NYC’s Chinatown because it is SUPER clean. It had great food though. I had scallop dumplings. They were so damn tasty. Then we met up with the real estate agent who took us on a walking tour of the area. We looked at about seven apartments. It was extremely awkward and slightly humorous for me because I’m pretty sure the real estate agent had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. They didn’t explain, and she didn’t dare ask. She kept stealing furtive glances at me, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing following this Japanese family around as they looked at apartments. It was also funny, and slightly annoying, because each time we came to another apartment, we had to take our shoes off before entering. We took our shoes on and off over and over again. Many of the apartments were in the same apartment building, so as soon as you finally had your shoes on properly, you had to take them off again. Ridiculous. The real estate agent had to wait for me struggle to get my cowboy boots on and off, over and over and over again. Poor lady.

After a few hours of this, Yu’s parents went home and left us to explore Yokohama and have dinner. I found Yokohama very interesting. It reminds me a lot of Chicago, because it’s on the water and also quite windy. They, too, have a huge ferris wheel near the water, like Navy Pier in Chicago. Of course, it was absolutely required that we take a spontaneous turn on the wheel at 10pm on a Sunday night. It was very quiet, and eerily beautiful. Yokohama just has a similar feel to Chicago somehow. It’s not as huge or crazy as New York or Tokyo. I liked it. And that’s good, because Yu is moving there and I will probably be spending a lot of time out there over the next year or so.

In other exciting news, the cherry blossoms have bloomed this past week! It’s very important to get to as many parks as possible over the next week or so because the beauty of cherry blossoms is fleeting, you see. The wind blows the blossoms away after only a week or two and they are gone forever until the following year. How dramatic. The name for cherry blossom viewing is Ohanami. I went to one park with some people I met from my guesthouse on Thursday. The place was extremely crowded. The custom is to put tarps down on the ground and have huge picnics under the trees, no matter how cold it is. My favorite part was seeing how all the Japanese people took off their shoes and lined them up on the ground neatly along the edge of the tarp. Even on a picnic, they don’t wear shoes on the picnic tarp. Of course. Why didn’t I expect that? At this particular park the cherry trees lined the edge of a big lake. Everyone was paddling around in boats that were in the shape of huge swans. That's normal, right? Also, the weather was gorgeous. (and yes, there is a cat licking itself in that picture.)

Today was quite a bit colder, but I still went for a walk around Koganei park which is the huge park near where I live. There were a ton of cherry blossom trees there. When there is a huge mass of them all close and tangled together it’s really stunning. The trunks are so dark they almost look black and the blossoms are so white that the contrast is just fabulous. It looks like snow. The pictures I’ve taken don’t even begin to do them justice.

On Sunday, I went to the annual Anime fair in Tokyo. Lots of anime geeks wandering around ogling pretty Japanese women posing in ridiculous (and often revealing) outfits. There was also a good amount of people dressed in big fuzzy cartoon animal suits. Very cute. I liked those. I know nothing about anime and had no idea what was going on, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing lots of cute things. Also, a lot of Japanese female cartoon (ahem, excuse me, anime) characters have extremely large busts. It’s, well, odd. And… that’s all on that subject.

The new school year starts on April 1st. In Japan the school year is from April 1st to March 31st the following year. So this week I will be starting my own new classes that I will teach for the rest of the year, meaning until next April. I have NINE kids classes in my schedule every week. That’s a lot of kids classes. The maximum a teacher can have is 12 kids classes. Most teachers usually have around 3-5, but I have 9! (Geez) I guess they really did like my demo lesson during training. I hear it's good to have lots of kids classes though, cause if you are teaching too many adult Free Time Lessons (FTLs) it gets repetitive and boring very quickly. I am enjoying the FTLs so far, though. One student told me this week that she found my lessons really helpful and that the notes I wrote out for her were really clear and easy to understand. I couldn’t believe it! She even asked me what schools I’d be teaching at, starting in April, so she could go to those schools and sign up for my lessons! I was very flattered. [Someone actually enjoyed my lessons. wahoo]! Anyway, I’ll be teaching at a different school every day of the week. So five schools in total each week. Some schools are ten minutes from my guesthouse, while others are about an hour from my guesthouse. Here it goes... Wish me luck y’all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patricks' Day in Tokyo!

Yesterday was Sunday and I spent a lovely day with my boyfriend and two buddies of mine from my training group. For brunch we ate at this organic restaurant about an 8 minute walk from my guest house called Broom & Bloom. It was unbelievably cute. The table was an old door and all the furniture was tastefully mismatched. There was bossanova music playing in the background and everything tasted wonderful. They only serve four different things, today’s special meal, today’s vegetarian special meal, a really good Japanese chicken curry, and the quiche of the day. All fantastic.

Next, we went to Harajuku, the area famous for youths wearing ridiculous clothing, often in the syle of Victorian Goth (ever heard of Harajuku Dolls?). We watched the St. Patrick’s Day parade nearby. It was the best parade I’ve ever been to for many reasons: 1.) We had an incredibly good view. 2.) I was incredibly happy in general to be spending a lovely day outside with some good friends on a beautiful early Spring day 3.) There were Japanese men wearing kilts and playing bagpipes. This one was especially interesting looking:

Enough said (And yet, I will go on...). It was really strange to see an Irish parade in Tokyo. There were lots of adorable little female Japanese baton twirlers, Japanese marching bands, Japanese fiddle players, Japanese Riverdancers. There was a fair amount of foreigners (i'm assuing Irishmen) in the parade, too, but it was surely a very strange mix of cultures. There was even a troop of American girl scout brownies. They had their little brown vests on that said, “Girl Scouts USA.” One little blue-eyed-brownie caught my eye and she could tell by the excited glint in my eye that I had once been one of their kind and so she waved to me with a matching gleeful expression. ALSO, there was a plethora of CUTE dogs in the parade. One type of dog in particular makes me squeal every time, and they are ALL over Tokyo:

Dachshunds! Sooooo cute. This one's pretty cute, though a lot of them in Tokyo have longer hair and are a little fluffier which I enjoy even more. I just can’t get enough of these little dudes and they are everywhere.
Following the parade we went to Yoyogi park, which is right near Harajuku, where there are often lots of people dressed up, doing odd things on Sunday afternoons. For example, this time there was a large group of Japanese men and women dressed up in 50s clothing inspired by the clothing worn in the movie Grease. Poodle skirts, saddle shoes, leather jackets, leather pants, crazy greasy hair in a weird doo. And they were dancing to old 50s music. They weren’t particularly good at dancing, or staying synchronized for that matter, but no one seemed to care. They had a very large audience surrounding them, which I should add was made up largely of foreigners and tourists. It was a sight, I do say.

There was also a group of about 10-15 people playing African drums in a circle. There was one black guy with long dreads surrounded by a group of Japanese guys, all playing drums. They, too, had quite a large audience. Not too much earlier, something possessed my friend Chani and I to purchase animal costumes from a 100 yen store. She was a little monkey, with monkey ears, nose and tail. I was a little pig- with yes, ears and a nose. And so, as little animal friends, we danced to the drumbeats. All the Japanese girls that passed us squealed and cooed the word “kawaiiiii”at us, which basically means, “Cuuuuuuute!” A lot of them asked to take a picture with us. What could be better than two blond-type-blue-eyed pale foreign girls dressed as a little piggy and monkey? Then we played some frisbee in the park with frisbees that had also been recently purchased at the 100 yen store. 100 yen is equivalent--very roughly--to one American dollar. Then we went to an Izakaya and ate tons of meat. It was an extremely weird, and totally amazing day.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

If you're happy and you know it...

So, this morning as I was brushing my teeth, I heard another song tinkling by the window. Once again, it sounded a bit like an ice cream truck. It was the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…” I was tempted to clap my hands with a foamy toothbrush hanging out of my mouth, but I refrained seeing as it’s a shared bathroom space.

Another strange phenomenon I’ve encountered is that sometimes a truck will drive through town with a very serious male voice blaring from a loudspeaker. Of course, I have no idea what they’re saying, so to me it could be anything: a bomb threat alert telling us to take cover, or “we know you’re in there, come out with your hands up!” The first time I heard it I had no idea, but it sounded like this guy meant business. So my first instinct was, oh no hide under the table! This happened during the first week of training and everyone else was going along their merry way, prancing around pretending to teach non-existent Japanese kids English. There I was cowering in the corner, wondering what they wanted from us. I was sure we were in a police state or something. It was a very “Big Brother” moment. It was only until a few days later when another truck came by emitting a loud, but very cute Japanese female voice that I decided maybe these voices weren’t meant to be threatening.

Now on to the teaching. Oh teaching is fine. I am almost done with my second week as a bonafide English teacher. The Free Time Lessons (FTLs), where the students are high school age and up, are going pretty well. The students can be housewives, breadwinners, college students, you name it. The lessons can get kind of formulaic, but at least you have the slight thrill of not knowing what lesson you’re teaching until you look at the students’ “passports” and figure out what lessons they haven’t done. The lower levels are a little frustrating because the point of the class is to get them to have conversations in English, but these people are beginners and can’t say much more than “My name Mariko. I am office worker.” Before I came to Japan, whenever I asked someone what they did for a living, no one ever replied, “I am an office worker” and left it at that. As if that’s a satisfying, complete answer. Great, where does the conversation go now. I guess I better ask you what office you work at. But every time I ask a student “what do you do?” they reply “I am office worker.” Why not just say, I work at so and so company? I’m guessing this is something they’ve learned in English classes.

You also spend most of the lesson trying to work on their pronunciation. But it must work somehow, cause when I go into a higher level class, the pronunciation is so much better. It's amazing. Something just finally clicks I guess. Suddenly the r's are no longer l's, they can pronounce F, their V's don't sound like B's anymore, and their t's aren't unnecessarily over-pronounced. I'm not sure what makes them eventually get over that final hurdle, but I am duly impressed. In those lower level classes, it's a struggle.

The higher-level adult classes are pretty nice though. You do a quick vocab or grammar lesson from the book with them, and then you have a conversation with them for like 20 minutes. It can be extremely painful if they just don’t want to talk, cause they’re too shy or whatever, but often the students are eager to chat and it can get interesting.

Kids classes. Oh man. The first few kinda sucked. I didn’t know what I was doing, and the kids just sat there and stared at me. I thought they could tell that I had no idea what I was doing, but turns out they didn’t understand a word I was saying. They kept trying to talk to me in Japanese and I was like, um… you do realize I don’t know a word of Japanese? That’s the point, I know English, I teach you English. We’re not supposed to speak Japanese in this classroom. Turns out, the classes I was taking over for the month of March were all usually taught by this one guy who just speaks Japanese to his students all the time (which he isn't really supposed to do). So when I came in there, they were like…. Um, why doesn’t she know Japanese? What the heck is she saying? They were also unbelievably shy and wouldn’t say anything. So you can imagine that we didn’t get very much done in those first lessons.

The next few lessons I taught were much better. I still need some work figuring out how to discipline, cause when there are just one or two naughty kids they can really disrupt a lesson. In other classes, the kids are just angels and play all the games I tell them to and learn the vocab. I think they actually have fun (woah). There was the class where I taught the kids how to say “brush your teeth” while jumping up and down and pretending to brush their teeth like a crazy person would. Everything must be exaggerated. For “wash your face," I had them rub their hands all over their face with a blissful smile on their face like they were REALLY enjoying it. For "brush your hair," I, of course, pretended to brush my hair and look in a mirror and go “ooh la la." Man, the kids just ate all this up. They loved it. They couldn’t stop falling over with laughter. That was probably the most fun I’ve had in a kid’s class so far. Sometimes I think we aren’t really educators, we’re entertainers. I heard one teacher call us "edu-tainers." That’s about right. Basically we play lots of games with the kids and try to make them laugh and have fun. Maybe throw in a few vocabulary words in there, maybe numbers, the alphabet.

Let’s see, what songs have I taught the kids… London Bridge is falling down, and Here we go round the Mulberry bush. Of course there’s always the alphabet song. Which by the way, they’ve changed to make it easier for the kids. It’s “ABCDEFG, HIJKLMN, OPQRSTU, VW, XYZ, I can sing my abc’s, next time won’t you sing with me?”

If you recall, back when we learned the alphabet in the U.S., we learned it as “ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP, QRS, TUV, WX, Yand Z, now I know my abc’s, next time won’t you sing with me?” Apparently, we native English speakers say the “LMNOP” way too fast and it confuses the Japanese students. Maybe it confuses American kids, too (it probably does). But anyways, because of this problem, they've changed the spacing of the pauses in the ABC song! It totally throws me every time I have to sing it with the kids.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I just want some ice cream...

Every morning for the past month I have woken up to what sounds like an ice cream truck passing by. Every morning I've dreamed of running outside and joining the neighborhood kids as they get some delicious ice cream. And now every morning I have to remind myself that it's not an ice cream truck, it's a garbage truck.

I'm crushed.

Why does the garbage truck play a sweet little tune that sounds appropriate for an ice cream truck? I don't know. I do know that they seem to be very fond of playing little ditties whenever possible here. Each subway station has it's own cute little tune that plays-- sometimes multiple tunes depending on what's happening. Oh, the train is pulling in- play one tune. The train is leaving, another tune. A train should show up eventually but not sure when, who really knows?, play another. They often sound like video game versions of traditional Japanese songs.

There's also a song that plays every time the walk sign lights up at this intersection near where I live. So as I'm crossing the street every day, I rock out to a digitized version of an old traditional Japanese song. It's splendid.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

How many papayas are under the tree?

Apparently my school finds it of the utmost importance that children learning English at a young age learn the following vocabulary words:


um... i have no idea what the second half of that list even meant, but apparently Japanese children learning English need to know these words in case they just REALLY need to use them in conversation. At least three lessons, meaning a whole three weeks, are spent covering this extremely important and obviously relevant vocabulary. what the heck?

I mean, just look at this picture. Would you ever want to eat this?

yeah... I didn't think so. Me neither.