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2010 March 4

The school year is wrapping up here. Graduation for all of Hamada’s 26 elementary schools is set for March 19th, and I’ve already had final lessons with several classes. Today was my last visit for the (school) year to one of my smaller schools, and it was bittersweet; the students were distracted by a troup of visitors from their junior high school, but the principal gave me a thank-you present – a collage of photos of me at the school over the past six months. I’m very glad I decided to stay another year. Things move way too fast when you visit a school only twice a month!

The other first-year ALTs in my city have all decided to stay as well, but I realized, in my discussions with them over why and how long we were thinking of staying, that I have a distinct disadvantage as the elementary-only ALT. Junior high schools and high schools have three grades each – within each school they’re called 1-2-3, but they’re equivalent to our 7-8-9 and 10-11-12. ALTs at these schools can therefore stay three years and see a particular group of students all the way through. Convenient, since renewing up to three years is fairly easy; after three years, you supposedly have to have stellar performance evaluations or change jobs to stay another two, although I hear that varies from place to place.

I, on the other hand, teach 11 schools with 6 grades each – first through sixth. Granted, I don’t teach all grades at most of those schools – but at most schools, I take turns eating lunch with all the different grades, and smaller schools sometimes invite me to school-wide activities. I’ve definitely bonded with the fourth graders at a couple of smaller schools, and saying goodbye to the sixth-graders is alleviated by welcoming my new class of already-friendly fifth graders. Anyway, I guess the point is, it’ll be difficult to know when to quit based on my students. There are other things that will make it much easier – Japan is not an easy place to live, especially as a young woman, especially when you live in the middle of nowhere. But that’s the balance. Life is tough, and the kids are what make my job great. 🙂

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Learning about Shrines

2010 February 16

I’m staying home from calligraphy to do some much-needed relaxation today, so in the meantime, I might as well update the blog. 🙂

I’ve spent most of my free time today looking through Ojisan Jake’s blog. I’m sure I’ve linked him before – he lives out in the wilds of Iwami and takes beautiful photographs of less-appreciated aspects of Japan. Today I noticed he has a listing of shrines he’s visited, many of which are in Iwami, if not Hamada itself, if not my neighborhood! Some of them are places I pass quite often on the way to and from work and have wondered about visiting, so it’s nice that someone else has pioneered the way. Shinto mythology is expansive, complex, and hard to study outside of Japan, and shrines are some of the most beautiful locations. I’ve now got a list of places I want to explore in Hamada once the weather gets a little warmer. 🙂

Incidentally, browsing Ojisan Jake’s descriptions of these shrines revealed one story of how the Iwami region got its name. I’ve been complaining to people that the western half of Shimane, Iwami (石見 “stone-looking”), has a much less cool name than the eastern half, Izumo (出雲 “rising/exiting (from the) clouds”). It’s somewhat comforting to see that Iwami might have more to it than the obvious.

And speaking of shrines, I finally paid a visit to the biggest shrine in the region, Izumo Taisha, during last Thursday’s national holiday! Izumo Taisha is dedicated to Ookuninushi-no-mikoto, creator of Japan, who ruled the islands from Izumo until he granted his country to the grandson of Amaterasu the sun goddess. Izumo Taisha is one of the most significant Shinto shrines; it was originally the largest wooden building in Japan, larger even than the Great Buddha’s Toudaiji, before revisions shrunk it to the current size. The main building that serves as Ookuninushi’s house is currently under reconstruction, as most major shrines are rebuilt on a 60-year cycle.

I received a fantastic fortune at the shrine, promising me success in anything I choose to undertake provided that I honor my ancestors. 🙂 It’s the best fortune I’ve gotten at a shrine so far. Considering Ookuninushi is also enshrined at Jishu-jinja in Kiyomizudera, which I visited earlier this year, I think I’m developing a positive relationship with a very important kami. I’ll make a point of visiting shrines of his in the future, as well as shrines to Susanoo-no-mikoto, hero of the Orochi story, who is apparently Ookuninushi’s father-in-law!

A Rittre Expranation

2010 February 5

The generic Asian stereotype accent in Western culture involves flipping l’s and r’s, often with hilarious consequences. It’s not exactly true that all Asians do this, but it has some grounding in reality: Japanese speakers often mispronounce l’s and r’s. In fact, it’s a mark of a high-level Japanese English learner that they “swap” them at all. Neither sound natively exists in the Japanese language, and both require lots of practice to pronounce distinctly from the Japanese sound transcribed as r.

I’m no linguist, but a couple semesters of phonetics and using the International Phonetic Alphabet have really helped me understand why my students can’t make certain sounds, and what I myself might be saying wrong in Japanese.
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節分 and other seasonal markers

2010 February 4

Yesterday was a minor holiday called Setsubun. This holiday’s name means “season division”, and apparently it’s supposed to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It’s sort of a spring-cleaning holiday; at home, lucky beans are thrown around to rid the house of demons. Plenty of people were going to shrines, and we were served a small packet of lucky beans with school lunch, but I’m still not sure what the celebration of Setsubun really entails.

All I know is, the day after the beginning of spring, it’s snowing in Ino. Granted, we’re up in the mountains, but it’s damn cold! Somebody up there’s got their wires crossed. How did Punxetawny Phil do?
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Family Vacation part 3: 中国

2010 January 24

Some people may be reading that title and thinking “They went to China?!” In both Chinese and Japanese, China is written in idiograms as 中国 (Japanese pronunciation “Chugoku”) – the “Middle Country”, since it’s the center of the world as far as Asia’s concerned. However, Japan has its own “middle country” – the region on the lower end of the main island Honshu is called 中国 as well.

Honshu’s 中国 consists of five prefectures. Okayama, Hiroshima, and the lower half of Yamaguchi are the 山陽 (“Sanyo”, “mountain sun”) region, since they fall on the sunny side of the Chugoku mountain range. Tottori, Shimane, and upper Yamaguchi are the 山陰 (“San-in”, “mountain shade”) region, since they get less sun and more bad weather. “In” and “yo” are also related to the Chinese concepts of “yin” and “yang”.

Kyoto To Yonago

The bullet train from Kyoto goes as far as Okayama city, on the coast of Okayama prefecture. From there, you have to switch to a local line to cross the mountains into Tottori and the San-in region. The train goes as far as Izumo, at which you have to change to stay on the San-in line, but we got off at one of Tottori’s major cities: Yonago.
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Family Vacation part 2: Kyoto part 2

2010 January 24

Day 4
Nara isn’t technically in Kyoto, but it is only 30 minutes away by train, so we made a day trip to see some of the many sights in the central park area.

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The first thing you notice entering this area of Nara is the deer. In Shinto tradition, deer are messengers of the gods, so around shrines deer are sacred animals and are protected from harm. Nara has a large complex of temples, which means there’s a lot of land for the deer to wander, and they’re not at all shy around people. In fact, a tourist industry was created to sell rice crackers for feeding the deer, but you have to be careful that the deer don’t get pushy or start eating other things off you!

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Perhaps you remember photos of me with the deer at Miyajima. Miyajima is a sacred island, so the deer there are totally isolated and protected, and they can get really pushy. At Nara, there is the potential for deer to wander off onto unprotected land, so they’re (supposedly) a little more respectful. I kept my purse closed just in case.
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Family Vacation part 2: Kyoto part 1

2010 January 24

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We arrived in Kyoto Sunday evening and had several adventures. First was figuring out how to get two cabs to an apparently mysterious street address. (Our rented house was located down an alley, but we were at least able to get taken to the correct street.) Next was getting our big bags into the house without scratching any floors or pulling up any tatami. Next was meeting a friend of mine from college and going out to dinner with her. She was carrying a Japanese guide magazine, and one of the recommended restaurants featured the kanji 洋 (“you” – say “yoh-ooh”). 洋 usually indicates something Western-style, as in 洋服 (“youfuku”), Western clothing, especially suits, or 洋食 (“youshoku”), a Western-style meal (eggs and bacon instead of fish and rice for breakfast). We figured something with 洋 in it was a safe bet. Man were we wrong.
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