Saturday, March 6, 2010

End of the School Year Celebrations

We're nearly to the end of our school year in Japan, and although the students are really busy with schoolwork, tests, etc, their schools still find the time to celebrate their accomplishments.

Like America, Japanese students have graduation ceremonies when they leave elementary school and junior high. Apparently the actual ceremonies are very formal - all teachers in suits, a speech from the Kochou Sensei (principal), a few speeches from students, and the awarding of certificates or diplomas. However, they also have assemblies or events a week or two before to give everyone a chance to celebrate the graduating students in a more fun and creative way.

A few days ago I was lucky enough to attend one of these special events. It took place Tamatsukuri-Nishi Elementary, the smallest one I teach at with only 47 students! As a result of the size, the school has a really strong community and everyone seems very bonded together. The program took place in the gym, which had been decorated with tons of orange and yellow tissue flowers as well as painted posters of each graduating 6th grader, and paper stars hung all over some large curtains. The 6th graders had a little processional, walking under arches of paper flowers held up by the younger students. Then each of the younger grades presented, in turn, presents they had made (art, crowns, etc) and little performances to honor the graduates.

The 1st graders played bell instruments, then held up big drawings they had done of each 6th grader, and the audience had to guess which kid it was supposed to be. Very cute. The 2nd and 3rd graders put on a little mini-play involving lobsters, tadpoles and turtles - they had made their own costumes as well, hilarious! I wish I could have understood what they were saying, although I did get a few things. The 4th and 5th graders did skits of the 6th graders, gently poking fun at them and getting some good laughs. Then the 6th graders did their own skit, apparently all about pairs of students vying to see who was going to be the tallest by the end of the year ;) Because there's a lot you can do to influence that? Who knows, it was just fun getting to see their creativity and humor.

After all the kids had celebrated each other, a local professional ocarina musician played for us all. He used at least 5 different ocarinas, ranging in size from fitting in the palm of his hand to the size of a flower pot! Impressive.

I felt honored to be invited to watch all of this, and I have to say it was a treat to see the students' humor and imagination really being allowed to flow. I have certainly learned that the Japanese aren't nearly as uptight, formal and reserved as Westerners usually assume they are, but there is definitely not as much room for children to pursue individuality and flex their imaginations.

I'm really proud of all of my students - I have bonded with many of them, and feel sad that I won't get to see how they turn out as they get older. But I will always remember them, and hope they will remember me at least a little bit.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A City Frozen in Time...and Temperature

Hello everyone! We're counting down the days until we come back. It looks like we will return on March 26th (to the USA) and to Seattle on April 2nd. Yay! But today's post is about something we did last Sunday. I'm going to try and make this with less words, and more pictures. We had an invitation to go to Oouchijuku with a Japanese family of one of Tessa's students that we have befriended. They once lived in Fiji, and speak English pretty well, so communication is easy. They have also been very kind to us, occasionally helping us out with issues of Japanese life that we have had. The Hanyu family is Shuichi (father) Kyoko (mother) Ken (son) and Risa-chan (daughter), and they currently have a Korean homestay Kei-chan. They drove us out there (4 hours each way!!!) and though the time in the car was a bit grueling, we had a great time. Oouchijuku is a small town made of old-style traditional housing. We thought is was an amazing cultural opportunity to see these old buildings, but also since it is so much further up North, it was also a chance for us to see some snow, which we don't really get down where we are. The city was beautiful and we had a great time. I do remember that before we left, cousin Ron asked me to try to get some pictures of buildings with an old-style grass roofs, so Ron, many of these pictures are for you. Check them out everyone:

From left to right, Kei-chan, Risa-Chan, Ken-kun.

This was a hot ramen noodle eating contest. the little kid in the foreground with a microphone kept yelling very loudly "Gambare!" over and over again (which is like saying "good luck!", but more directly translated as "do your best!"). It was really cute.

I really love this picture.

You use the spicy leek sort of like a fork to eat the ramen, and take bites of while you eat. Very tasty.

Tessa, Risa, and Ken in some sort of igloo-type structure.

I have no idea what is going on here.

Thanks for viewing!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tokyo Day 4: "The Futuristic District" and fighter drills?

Hello Friends Near and Far (well, mostly far),

Here's the rundown of our final day in Tokyo - I know at least one person has been clamoring for it, and the rest of you probably only look at this every once in awhile ;)

We woke up early to check out of our hotel, but they conveniently allowed us to leave our bags there as we weren't actually leaving the city till the late afternoon. In planning for our trip, I had read that there would be an annual New Year's event called "Shobo Dezome-shiki"or, "The New Year's Fire Review". This is something put on by the Tokyo Fire Department, and would feature acrobatic stunts on ladders - what's not to love? The event was taking place in Odaiba, a district of futuristic-looking architecture built on man-made islands in Tokyo Bay. The area has tons of other attractions, so we really wanted to see it.

Well, getting to Odaiba involved taking the monorail out and over the Bay, which made for great sights. The train takes a big loop around Odaiba, and with an all-day pass we could get on and off whenever we wanted. First stop - Tokyo Big Sight, a large convention/exhibition hall, for the event.

Here are two pics we took right after getting off the monorail:
I don't know about you but when I imagine how the future will look, gigantic saws are the first thing that come to me ;)

Anyway, there were lots of people heading to the same place, so we figured it was a really popular event. Firemen were stationed at various points of hallways and courtyards, passing out fire safety and emergency procedures pamphlets. Finally, we walk into a big exhibition room (expecting to see a hushed crowd waiting for the performance to start) - and see fire trucks, safety info booths, kids trying on fire fighting suits, and guys wearing big cartoony Fire Extinguisher costumes. Yeah....

Well, we eventually realized that there was going to be a show outside, and hurried to find seats (not real seats, just kneeling in front of the already full risers). Amazingly enough we found a English program, and saw that the acrobats didn't come on for an hour. So, we waited and tried to look interested as group after group went by - paramedics, firefighters, volunteers, junior leagues, etc. The crowd absolutely loved it, but we were kind of hiding our yawns. Finally, the acrobats appeared, and although the show was pretty short, it was definitely impressive.
After the acrobats finished we made a hasty exit, hopping back on the monorail and getting off at a more attraction-heavy area. We found ourselves at something called Mega Web, basically a big Toyota showroom housing the latest technologies. Chris got to do a virtual test drive (of some kind of future car system that brakes for you) while sitting in this drive simulator:
We also got a shot of this very, very large ferris wheel (unfortunately not in our budget):
We finished the outing by wandering around some interesting shopping areas and checking out views across the Bay.
This is a nice shot of the Rainbow Bridge.

From Odaiba we headed back to the hotel to pick up our things, and made our way to Tokyo Station to wait for our bus to Asou. We had a lovely time in Tokyo - I can't tell you how nice it was to get into a city again. Our town has its own charms, and it's definitely nice to see the stars in the nighttime sky, but city living means there is always something new to do or see. Seattle, we're talking about you, too.

Thanks for reading!


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tokyo Trip Part 3: Maid Cafes? Oh my!

Sorry about the lapse in updates about the Tokyo trip. Here comes part three! We didn't have much planned for this day, other than an evening performance of Kabuki. This gave us a chance to sleep-in (yay beds!) and explore around Akihabara. It's an interesting area, one of the busiest in Tokyo and known as a large shopping area for electronics, anime/manga (Japanese comics), and video/computer games.

It is also a fantastic place to people-watch, as all manner of people traverse its busy streets daily. There are also the Maid Cafes where you can go have a bite to eat while being doted on by a young Japanese girl wearing a maid outfit. These places generally cater to Japanese men who are obsessed with manga, video games, and especially the young girl caricatures which often feature prominently in both. We didn't go into one, but we saw plenty of "maids" walking up and down the streets handing out fliers for their establishment. Think of these places like a Japanese version of a "Hooters" restaurant for nerds. Pictures of some "maids" looking for potential customers, and one of their fliers:

If you're REALLY curious, you can check out the website for one of them: I think it's mostly work safe, but I can't read any of the Japanese on the page, so visit at your own discretion. Anyways, we didn't go into any of those places, instead settling on a nice normal Western-style (as in European/American, not "Old West") cafe. As we walked around and browsed the shops, we saw a few interesting things:

Yes, that is a mouse pad of an anime girl that has her breasts as the protruding soft jelly-like area where your wrist rests. Classy. They also had pornographic computer games that you'll have to leave to your imagination because we did not take pictures of them.

That last one really creeps me out. After more walking around, I heard a familiar tune cutting through the Tokyo noise. Me: "Is that...Yes...Yes! It's the original Super Mario Bros. theme music!" Like a siren's call, I was drawn to a building by which time the music had changed to the classic Legend of Zelda theme. We entered and followed the signs up to the fifth floor, where there was an arcade of old school video games. It was like a mecca video gamers who grew up in the 80s. Atari, Nintendo, Neo Geo, you name it, if it was old and Japanese, they had it. Tessa played some Tetris while I played some original Super Mario and then Mega Man. Ah, good times:

A throne fit for a king!

Or should I say, Queen?

I even met a celebrity!

It was reeeeally smoky in there, and reminded me what it was like to go to a club or bar before Washington state's smoking ban. Yuck.

We then headed to the Ginza area to get in line to buy tickets for Kabuki at the Kabuki-za theater. While waiting in line, we met some nice Austria who (impressively) spoke perfect English. We chatted with them for a while about life in Japan (she lives in Tokyo with her husband who was there doing research as a physicist) and other general things. The show itself was pretty awesome, though we were way back as far as you could go. We only paid to see one act (about an hour) but it was amazing and well worth it.

A countdown for how many days the historic Kabuki-za theater has left until it is torn down to build a new theater. We were pretty lucky to see it.

That evening, after the show, we went to a bar advertised in the back of our program. It had all drinks and food for 300 yen, not a bad deal, except that each order of food had incredibly small portions. It was still quite fun as it was the first time we had been in a real bar since we've been in Seattle. We got back in a bit late and tired from the long day, but satisfied. Stay tuned for Day Four: The Future is Here, Today! Coming soon, I promise!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Day 2 in Tokyo

Hi All,

Tessa here, Chris' often-absent blogging partner (he intimated that he wouldn't cook us dinner until I posted our Day 2 entry).

So where were we - ah yes, waking up in Tokyo feeling so refreshed (seriously loved sleeping on that mattress, we contemplated stealing it from the hotel, but it's hard to stuff things like that in a shoulder bag).

Ready to take on the city, we hopped on the subway - alas, it was already too late in the morning for me to try out the Ladies Only car, to my utter disappointment ;) - and headed to the world-class Edo-Tokyo Museum. This museum specifically highlights the birth of Edo (what became Tokyo) in the late 16th century through to the present day. It takes you through different ruling shogunates, the arrival of Western traders and goods, devastating fires and earthquakes, and the changing culture. We ended up going through some of the exhibits backwards, but it still made quite an impression. It was especially fascinating (and at times heartbreaking) looking at how the city fared during WWII. A little awkward to be reading the English description of the days surrounding the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, while standing next to an older Japanese couple. How different our perspectives must have been, although hopefully no true animosity remained on their side.

The museum had tons of models, both miniature and life-size.
These two are from the life-size model of a Kabuki theatre:
Here's Chris squeezing into a wooden carrying box, we never found out the name (or found anyone who wanted to lug Chris around).
We also happened to be lucky enough to catch a short museum presentation of Japanese Noh Theatre, an artistic tradition going back to the 14th century. This form of theatre often tells stories through song and dance, and the performers are always masked. Chris and I studied a little bit of Noh in college, as well as some Kabuki, so this was pretty cool. Here are the two performers:

After lunch we changed venues, making our way to the Asakusa district (pronounced A-sak-sa). This area is famous for its Buddhist temple, Senso-ji . Here's the gate to the temple:

However, we didn't get much time in the temple itself because of the crowds; we did squeeze in to toss some coins and say a prayer (being careful not to hit the guards who were standing with big screen box things over their heads to not get pinged in the face!). The real reason for the crowds, we learned, were the countless souvenir stalls. You could barely get around aisles to check anything out, but we did make a few purchases which some of you family members will see when we come home. We also ate freshly okaki, or fried rice crackers, and had a dinner of yakitori (like meat kebabs) and some kind of pancake/noodle dish that we see at festivals but don't know the name of.

We didn't actually get up the nerve to buy any of these octopus (you could choose the one you wanted and hand it to the cook to grill it)
We then went home to rest our feet a bit before hitting the last hotspot (excuse my pun) the Ice Bar! Yep, it sounds just like what you might picture. This is one of those places you will only ever find in a city like Tokyo. You walk into a tiny entryway, pay a fairly steep cover charge (which Chris assured me was worth it to experience a true Tokyo novelty attraction) and then the attendants hand you ridiculous-looking hooded cloak/ponchos with attached gloves. Then you open the door, and whoosh it's cold! You walk into a room literally made of ice - ice bar counter, ice walls, ice tables, ice benches, etc. We even got little glasses made of ice for all of our drinks!

We were there around 7pm, so it wasn't quite hopping yet - but still fun and bizarre. We kept saying to each other, "Are we really here? This is crazy." Anyway, we had a couple of drinks, took pictures, and then after 45 minutes or so, it actually got a little boring. Maybe if it had been busier, with energetic music and a lively atmosphere we would have stayed longer, but in a small room like that with hardly any people, the novelty wears off. However, we enjoyed ourselves and didn't regret it a bit, and we'll always remember doing something so strange.

The day was long and a bit overwhelming (Tokyo is just so huge) but we ended it in a style usually reserved for rich and very eccentric people ;)

Thanks for sticking with me through my ramblings - stay tuned for Day 3: Maid Cafes, old Nintendo collections, and Kabuki theatre!