Another Year, Gone

Aa~h, the hustle and bustle of preparing for graduation. Another year, gone. Like every school in Japan, I sit here at my desk and watch the other teachers clean, organize, and sort out their remaining business before leaving for new beginnings. Some will retire, some will depart for a fresh school, and some will go home to start a family. While I appreciate Japan’s fight against stagnancy, I can’t help but feel a little sad. It would be a great opportunity to create a closely knitted school body. But I digress. While I have some time and am feeling particularly pensive, allow me to reflect on the closing school year.

Though my memory is foggy, I remember the start of my 2nd year at this school was rushed and intense. It was also the first time I would be entering the lion’s den that is elementary school. All too soon I was making lessons and freshening up my stash of games

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Japanese students studying, courtesy of Google.

and flash cards. Over time, all of the ideas I had to integrate English further into the lives of my students disintegrated. As much as I would like to believe I can still accomplish what I would like to do, I must be realistic.

The Japanese education system is changing. While a Japanese citizen might refute what I observe, I will tell you that the current system is meant to cram as much as possible into a small amount of time. Grades and scores before high school are not highly regarded and thus, students are allowed to skate by without a proper foundation. Japan lives and breathes exams. Chapter exams, semester exams, final exams, proficiency exams, entrance exams, driving tests (and yearly re-tests if you’re a foreigner), certifications, licenses…! I know some of these are necessary, but MY GOD. Can’t they just go off the good faith of a well-placed recommendation anymore?

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A student I helped after school with speaking telling me she had successfully passed her exam while wishing me good luck as well.

Students in Japan are experiencing the push to learn English sooner. It’s becoming a compulsory subject starting from 5th and 6th grades. Elementary school teachers are not equipped with the required knowledge to lecture on grammar and vocabulary. Textbooks are helping though, allowing the Japanese teachers to speak in Japanese while giving the English speaking job to the ALT (i.e. me!). Still, much of the English instruction is falling to many ALTs and it’s incredibly daunting. This article and this article from Japan Times provides a good commentary on the situation.

Despite my school year having been squished with preparation, my time was not ill-spent. I made connections with my elementary school children through playing and drawing. Whenever I walked into a classroom, I would hear a bunch of voices asking and demanding me to draw this and that. I was not left in the dust, however. Many of the younger kids would draw things for me on scrap pieces of paper. I wonder if my happy befuddlement was how my dad felt whenever I’d give him artwork out of the blue.

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This message from a student reads: Dear Ashley, Even though you aren’t Japanese and can’t speak Japanese, I respect you because you tried hard to speak anyway.

I should take a moment to reminisce on what I can remember. All of them start with One day…

  1. I was at the drug store vending machine buying bottles of Coca-Cola for some thirsty JHS kids when a young boy ran up to me to say hello. I recognized him as one of mine.
  2. When I was in the dollar store looking at yarn, a little girl called out to me. We had a small conversation in English and Japanese. It’s funny, though. If I’m seen outside of the classroom still in work clothes, my identity is still confusing to most folks.
  3. I was riding my bike home late one evening and a JHS girl noticed me and said, “Let’s ride home together!”
  4. Another female student, this one having already graduated and entered high school, saw me walking to the 7-11 and said, “Hey, Ashley! I have a part-time job here at this restaurant. Please come and see me sometime!” This was in Japanese and broken English, of course.

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The best memory I have from this year is when a 5th grader told her class during presentations I was her hero. How amazing is that?! I always told myself as a kind of mantra that if I could touch at least one person during my stint as a teacher (heck, during my life even), I could die happy. I truly believe that we take a little of something from the people we meet in our lives.

Osechi: Cooking for Good Luck

Good afternoon! I was just about to post these pictures on Instagram but thought I’d better talk about them here first. While there are plenty of websites that explain what osechi (お節料理) is, this entry will detail my firsthand experience cooking authentic Japanese foods. Here we go!

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This is what $80 at the supermarket looks like. It’s unusual for me to spend this much in one trip, but when it’s the holiday season, you’re just about obligated to. Do you recognize some of the foods you see? All of these ingredients went into making osechi, or “good luck” cooking.

Osechi is a traditional form of Japanese celebration for the new year. Each dish represents something related to prosperity, riches, good health, and longevity. What’s even better is that they are not meant to be refrigerated. Compare that to an American holiday feast where you are bombarded with casserole dishes, giant hunks of meat, and pies once that door opens.

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Here’s a list of what I made. Granted, they were the easiest of what my research coughed up. Disclaimer: you are not bound by osechi rules, therefore only making osechi items. You’re welcome to throw in the foods you like the best like fried chicken, rice cakes, desserts, vegetable salads, etc.

  • 海老の旨煮 (ebi no umani, simmered shrimp)
  • お雑煮 (ozoni, simmered medley soup)
  • きんぴらごぼう (kinpira gobo, burdock and carrot salad)
  • 酢蓮 (subasu, pickled lotus root)
  • 栗きんとん (kurikinton, mashed sweet potato with chestnuts)
  • 筑前煮 (chikuseni, simmered chicken with vegetables)
  • 伊達巻 (datemaki, rolled egg)
  • 茶碗蒸し (chawanmushi, steamed egg with vegetables)

Of course, I did make some mistakes. My Japanese ability is little to none most days and trying to read a full-on Japanese recipe is difficult without taking the time to sit down and translate. And no, while Google Translate is useful sometimes, it does not do a thorough enough job.

Mistake #1: The shrimp
They didn’t come out tasting like the sweet soy sauce I cooked them in. Why? I checked the recipe while eating and saw the words “Ziploc bag” and “refrigerator.” I concluded that these bad boys were supposed to be marinating after being cooked. Whoops!

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Mistake #2: Ozoni
So, I don’t know if this is a rule or something that goes by everyone’s’ tastes, but I needed to grill the rice cake before pouring the hot soup over it. Also, is rice cake supposed get grainy?

Mistake 3: Chikuseni
My girlfriend wanted to eat ramen along with everything else (or later in the night… I’m not sure which) and so, I didn’t have the chicken that was required. Ground chicken balls worked just as well. Wait… does that count as a mistake?

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Mistake #4: Datemaki
This… is why it’s useful to have some idea of what you’re making instead of depending on the sidelined photos to cook by. A normal egg roll is merely a thin layer of scrambled eggs, rolled within another layer. Datemaki is a single layer that has been whipped and bubbled up before pouring it into the frying pan. It was a lot trickier than I was led to believe.

Off camera, I attempted a castella cake. What is castella cake? Ask the Portuguese. That’s where Japan got it from. I ended up scraping one batch and trying again but still… made a disaster. The particular recipe I was following necessitated a frying pan and instead of making a very fluffy cake, I made this rather flat and sad-looking pancake. I thought I could hide it by burying it under a bunch of sliced strawberries and green tea flavored whipped cream.

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All in all, this experience taught me how crucial details are to the Japanese people; how painstakingly they put something together to appeal to all the senses. I’m glad osechi only happens once a year.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Long Time, No See

みなさん、こんにちは!元気ですか。長い間休んで、ごめんなさい。数ヵ月、色々なことがありました。旅行の後、学校に来て、忙しくなりました。私はALTをしていた学校の卒業式を準備しなければいけなし、英語の授業を練習しなければいけなかったです。

そして、最近、御殿場市から浜松市北区まで引っ越しました。御殿場市に比べて、このエリアは何もありません。御殿場はマクドナルドがありますが、ここに一番の近いのはバスで40分ぐらいかかります。マクドナルドがあまり好きじゃなくてよかったですね。

(Translation: Hello, everyone! How are you doing? I’m sorry I took such a long vacation. Many things came up after travelling and I became extremely busy. I had to prepare for graduation and review my English classes.

Recently, I moved from Gotemba to Hamamatsu’s northern ward. Compared to Gotemba, there isn’t really anything here. At least Gotemba had a McDonald’s. The closest one to here is about 40 minutes by bus (that I know of). It’s a good thing I don’t really like McDonald’s.)

I’m sure you were wondering whether something happened to me, but I promise you I’m very much alive.  During the last few months, I have been travelling. All places are listed below and will be addressed in their own posts (if I ever get around to doing them):

  • Yokohama
  • Odawara
  • Kamakura
  • Shizuoka
  • Mishima

Thinking now, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of writing I need to accomplish in the coming days. Thank goodness for the pictures I take or else I’d have trouble remembering the places I’ve seen and the food I’ve eaten.

Backtracking, my turmoil began back in November when I planned what I thought was a harmless visit back home. It was my little secret, cloistered away in the depths of my heart. It was days before I could wipe the smile off my face; days before I could stop daydreaming of my parents’ reactions to my popping in unexpectedly. In the meantime, I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that Fate has its own agenda and I was helpless to stop it. Cue the last ALT meeting.

Surrounded by that tacky, office building interior with chairs that were too high, my trainer ominously beckons me over in that subtle Japanese way. “How would you like to move to Hamamatsu?” he asks.

“…what?” I blinked once, twice. What did I do wrong? What aren’t my teachers telling me? So many what-ifs flew around in my head. I was suddenly nervous.

“Yeah, we can’t keep you in Gotemba anymore,” he explained.

I handled the news quite well and, like a seasoned businesswoman, I asked, “Will the company pay for my moving expenses and will I have to come up with another apartment deposit?” Naturally, all my fears were laid to rest. Plus, the moving date wasn’t until the end of the school year.

I had nothing to worry about (or so I thought).

Reality came crashing down over my head when my credit card bill showed up. That meant time wasn’t waiting for anyone; including me. My secret was abruptly brought to light and it was imperative I tell someone in order to avoid any possible late fees. Who could I call? Who in my family wouldn’t bat an eyelash to help me…? Ah! Grandma!

How terrible of a granddaughter am I to rely on an old lady for financial assistance? Cynicism aside, she agreed and I was on the fast track to giving myself a heart attack. Without the absolute knowledge of my moving date or even where the hell I would be going, I was uncertain of whether I should start packing earlier or later. Even then, shoving things into boxes was double-duty. Not only did I have to make sure I was ready for my trip (without forgetting anything), I had to make positive I had my other things set up for the move (without forgetting anything).

Fast forward to Oh Shit Day and I was on a plane back to the desert. I thought I would be more excited to see home, eat Mexican food, and sleep under my glow-in-the-dark-star-dotted ceiling, but I wasn’t. I easily slipped back into the routine I was once a part of. My father even got some breakfast!

After a week of hanging out and being a fatty, I revved up my engines and went back to Japan. With the time difference, it was March 29th by the time I landed on the soil I’m quickly coming to call “home.” The rest of the week went something like this:

  • 29th: sleep in apartment
  • 30th: load up the moving truck, change addresses with the appropriate authorities, stay in hotel in Mishima
  • 31st: be homeless, register with the proper companies, and bum it out with a friend
  • 1st: attempt to locate the new apartment via Google Maps, get lost, have a breakdown

The day I got lost was the day I had never felt more foreign. Stuck in the middle of an area I knew nothing about, while it rained, with no knowledge on how to say, “I’m lost” was the most depressive state I’ve ever been in. I kid you not when I tell you my phone almost ended up in the gutter. Fear. Worry. Hunger. Hopelessness. It was all there in this ugly, knotted up thing lodged between my ribs.

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The Miyakado River. It used to be totally fresh but is now contaminated by the ocean after a large earthquake destroyed the natural dam that held Lake Hamana in.

Aside from a few odds and ends, I’m pretty much moved in and comfortable. There are other ALT newbies in the same apartment complex and I’ve been about as rude as I can be. So far, my only conversation with the lot of them has consisted of, “Hello. My name’s Ashley. Nice to meet you.” This love-hate relationship I have with people is going to see me as an unmarried spinster with plants and dogs clogging up my house in the future, watch.

I’m only sorry that I’ll be moving again after this school year.

…wait. What?

My new home is situated in Hamamatsu’s northern ward, quietly nestled in a field of rice paddies, surrounded by trees. The Miyakado River separates my apartment from my school and already, I’m enjoying having water close by. As the sun sets, I can see and listen to the fish jumping from the water. What’s incredible is that the waterfront is lined with cherry trees. This spring, I’ll have my chance to witness the epitome of Japanese culture every day I leave my apartment.

While my particular spot is famous for its oranges, Hamamatsu itself is famous for its gyoza, eel (うなぎ, unagi), music industry, and manufacturing. It was highly recommended to me to visit the unagi pie factory. They’re these crispy wafer-like cookies that are absolutely delicious. They’re often purchased as souvenirs.

Established along the Tokaido highway, Hamamatsu flourished with the constant flow of people coming and going. If you want to know more about the things that came out of this area, please visit the city’s website.

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An old photo. This is an older photo showcasing some of downtown Hamamatsu.

Recently, a drama was filmed here about a woman called Naotora Ii. Her original name was never recorded or never found, but she’s famous nonetheless. Born during the Warring States era and promised to her cousin Kamenojo (later named Naochika) in her youth, she was the only child in her family and unsuspecting of what life would give her.

As the political atmosphere heated up, Naochika was spirited away to protect his status as a potential heir. Because Naotora was left out of the loop, she thought he was dead and proceeded to be a nun. Over the course of 10 years, Naochika grew into a man of means, married, and had a male child: Naomasa.

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Promotional poster for the drama filmed last year.

This child was much beloved by all until his father was accused of rebellion and his family executed. Before the government could take Naomasa as a hostage of war, Naotora came out of seclusion, was declared lord of her clan and raised the boy. She sees him succeed as heir to the Ii clan before dawning her robes of religion.

The temple in which Naotora spent the majority of her childhood is about 20 minutes from here by car. It’s called Ryotanji. Every weekend, I can see the tourists gather at the Cultural Museum to get a gander at the historical artifacts… and buy some oranges. I’m sure they make their way up the hill at some point.

Overall, this is a town built for the quiet life and I’ll relish it (and the mosquitoes) until it’s time for me to start the next chapter in my life.

A New Cuisine: My First Exposure to Japanese Food

The rain pitter-pattered down from the sky. A light mist hung over the town. A stranger walked along a cobbled street dampened by slick rain. Beckoned by peals of laughter and the gentle clinking of ceramic cups, he turned onto a garden lined walkway and towards a simple timbered structure. The lacquer of the wood twinkled warmly. The low-hanging cloth of navy blue blended in with the shadows while the stark whiteness of the smooth calligraphy stood out in contrast. It read wa-shoku. Japanese cuisine. Pulling his lips back and tucking them into a smile, the wet-speckled man ducked under the lintel and into a world all its own.

You would reckon my introduction to Japanese food, uninfluenced for the most part by outside sources, would be one of subtle tastes and delicate presentation. It wasn’t. I also think my first residence, however temporary, would have been more expensive if I was served something professional. Being from a landlocked country like America, I’m used to grease, beef, and cheese that’s been beaten, battered and fried in some manner. Eating so much natural bounty from the ocean is unusual to me and I confess to craving an In-and-Out burger.

Location: Hotel Yonekyu in Hamamatsu

For what it’s worth, the meals I had at Hotel Yonekyu were delicious and very filling.

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Rice is the main staple in Japan. Brought over via Korea thousands of years ago during the Yayoi Period, the Japanese stuck true to their character and made it their own. Hotel Yonekyu offered up four types of rice its patrons could choose from: plain white, unagi (鰻, eel), some kind of medley with bits of tiny prawns and chirimen-jako (縮緬雑魚, young sardines), and a brown sort.

Next, comes the cold noodles with tempura shrimp. After rice, noodles are another staple. They’re super versatile! All you need to know is that they taste delicious. The shrimp tempura I topped mine with was light and fresh.

For dessert, I ate watery yogurt with fruit cocktail. I’m damned sure that cocktail came from the can. Being used to having milk with breakfast, I had some in this instance, too. Did you know that Japanese milk is fattier than American milk? The going rate here is 3.6% whereas American whole milk is around 3.2%.

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Lastly, we have the pastry. Wherever it came from, it was delicious.

Since I’ve been living in Gotemba, I’m pleased to announce I’ve seen two bakeries. When I have funds, I will most definitely treat myself because, quite frankly, I never saw a bakery in Las Vegas. I’m sure they exist, though.

Here is a shameless video from the Japanese Propaganda Depart… I mean, the Tourism Industry… giving you a small glimpse of Japanese cuisine. I will also include an older educational video that’s around 40 minutes. Please watch it at your leisure.

Catching Up

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Downtown Hamamatsu.

What a whirlwind adventure thus far! The downside to all of the panic and sheer loneliness is that I want to go home. I have sunk into this funk that has made me rather depressed.

In the States, I wasn’t so uncomfortable being around people I didn’t know. Now, not only do I not know the people, but I feel like a true outsider. I felt this keenly when, yesterday, the children were practicing for Sports Day. I was interested to see how this all went down so I slapped on my shoes and ventured outside. What makes me frustrated is that I’m noticing Japan has double standards. The day before the conversation went a little like this:

Me: “What’s Sports Day?”
Teacher: “The school has sport activities. It’s a competition and it’s fun. You should wear a T-shirt.”
Me: “I think I have one. Is it really okay for me wear it?”

After the attempt to include me in school matters on that day, yesterday was the wake-up call alerting me to my foreign-ness.

As soon as the teachers saw me, I was promptly redirected back into the teacher’s lounge and advised to watch from there. I was very much left alone and it hurt. It takes a lot to discourage me and that about hit the nail on the head.

I’m sure it would help if there was someone I could hang out with on a regular basis; someone I could direct my love and attention towards so I wouldn’t feel so lonely. Even my frog buddy has left the sanctity of my air conditioning unit (more about this later).

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Here’s the frog. He used to hang out around my air conditioning unit but he’s since moved.

Backtracking, I left Hamamatsu on the 19th to visit my Board of Education (BOE) in Gotemba and make the required introductions. I was presented to the US equivalent of a superintendent and was promptly asked about how long I’ve been “studying” Japanese.

I say “studying” because there have been times I could’ve applied myself better (like right now instead of writing this). Soon afterward, it was requested I do a 自己紹介 (jikoshoukai). This took me by surprise because I wasn’t expecting it. My assumption was to only sit there, smile and nod. Apparently this went well according to my manager. He acted as the liaison between me and my Japanese superiors.

My last night in Hamamatsu was spent relatively in peace.

I walked around with a few more trainees from my incoming class visiting popular sites and eating good food. The portion sizes are another thing I’ve noticed that is one of those expectations vs. reality issues.

All this time, I thought Japanese food came in tiny portions that were easily manageable! If one was still hungry, they’d go get second helpings. Tiny portions my butt! There have been several times I’ve been served magnificent dishes that I just couldn’t finish. Soon, however, it was time for me to depart.

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Hamamatsu from the ACT Tower.

Hamamatsu was definitely more exciting in terms of things to do than Gotemba is.

On a bright and hot morning, I made my journey out into the spider-infested country. Already my attempts to impress everyone with my habit of showing up early failed miserably. Not only did I take the wrong train into Mishima Station, I boarded at the wrong time. I honestly thought all would be well because it was headed towards Tokyo. I ended up meeting my Independent Contractor (IC) over an hour later.

The next few days after that were a whirlwind of legal papers, shopping and apartment inspection. Let the spider hunting begin!

(Anecdote time! When I opened the window to my apartment, I heard something drop and hit the sill. Not finding anything immediately, I continued to push the window home. This time I was officially welcomed by a small green frog that dropped from… somewhere. I screamed and upset the gas man.)

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Top: Left view from my window. Bottom: Right view from my window. I look out onto a rice field. Birds often like to play there when it’s sunny.

Amongst the blur of activity, I was escorted to the two schools I would be taking over.

The self-introductions were repeated while the previous ALT flew off back to England and I was left with worksheets and flash cards only she understood.

Coming back to the present, the last two days have been a struggle. Working with children demands I have a magician’s bag of games and activities at the ready.

I questioned the ALT about the resources my company has available online and she said they were worthless. Maybe to her; I’m tempted to look to them for ideas. Never have I felt so lackluster and strange. At one of the schools in particular, I have 21 classes I need to present my self-introduction lesson to.

In my downtime, I’m expected to work on next week’s lesson planning. Lord, help me. Now I know how new hires faced with an impossible situation feel and I can’t quit.

In the meantime, I sit here listening to the soap operas on the TV and the rain-soaked crows cry on the power line.