Graduations, Spring, and New Life

Right now my life is going through a period of renewal. In March, my third years graduated from both Hinode Junior High School and Itako 2nd Junior High School, and next month a whole new set of first years entered the halls. Sakura flowers were blooming, announcing the arrival of spring. They came and went so fast that I feel like I didn’t get the chance to take enough pictures. On my Facebook newsfeed I saw that my old alma mater had its graduation this month, with the class of 2014 probably the last class I knew personally back in day. Lastly, I’m getting prepared in little ways here and there for the big move to Tokyo, arranging things so that when I’m gone my successor can take over with as minimal amount of trouble as possible.

The graduation ceremony I attended for Itako 2nd was on a Wednesday, much to my befuddlement. Usually graduations fall on Fridays or Saturdays so everyone can go out drinking afterwards to a nomikai (drinking party), but for some reason the Board of Education decided Wednesday sounded better. Since I was at Itako 2nd JHS that month, I went to their graduation and missed Hinode’s. However, I made sure that the third years at Hinode got my congratulations card in February. I made a cute little pink card with a message, a small picture of me, and stickers on it.

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Sorry, but due to legal reasons, I’m not allowed to show pictures of my students.

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Student work on display

In Japan, graduating from junior high school means a lot to students. Unlike in the United States, students in Japan have to take rigorous tests in order to enter high school. High schools also have different levels, and if a student gets into a top level school, then odds are good that student will go on to a great college. Getting into a top level college means being able to get basically your choice in career. Students really feel pressured in their third year of junior high school to study, study, study! After they pass a test, they can relax, but until then it’s very high pressured.

The 3rd Year sensei

The 3rd Year sensei

Also, after graduating from junior high, there is little to no guarantee they will see some of their best friends again. Some students might see each other again on break or maybe on the weekends, but that depends on if they can manage to make the time. I don’t have any students leaving town this year (that I know of), but last year a student moved in with relatives up in Mito to go to a high school there. If parents can afford it, they may even move so their child can go to a high level high school all the way on the other side of the country. Not many parents in my area can afford such a move, but it’s not unheard of in Japan.

On Wednesday, the ceremony was very formal. Students wore their freshly pressed school uniforms, entering into the gym with heads held high, no smiles on their faces (because serious business in Japan means no smiles). The strong masks crumbled when the students started crying when their names were called out to accept their diploma. Girls cried the most because it’s expected of them, but several boys did as well.

I will admit, I cried too. I knew these students back when they were first years. The school made a slide show for the parents to see with a first year picture on the left and a current picture on the right. I made it to the songs, and then I broke when the students started singing about never forgetting the memories they made here. I wept. Me! I didn’t even cry when I broke my wrist in sophomore year of college. Other teachers were teary eyed, so I wasn’t alone. I felt really proud of the students in that moment, and I couldn’t stop.

After that, I headed off to take pictures of my students. The first year and second year students made two lines outside the school’s front entrance, making a pathway for the third years to go through in the middle. Parents were at the end of the path with cameras ready. Everyone clapped and shouted, “Omedetou! (Congratulations)” as the third years walked down the line. I took pictures of them as they walked by and received a letter from a student who I talked with regularly after lunch. I even took a picture with her and many other students.

Going home that day, I noticed the sakura trees had little, tiny sakura blossoms. The beginning of the new year finally arrived. The sakura blossoms always make me think of dogwood trees. For a split second, I thought of Kentucky and the Dogwood Trail back in Paducah. I missed picks the flowers off the trees and tossing petals into the wind. Spring in both countries makes me feel nostalgic, strangely more so than any other time of the year.

Pretty blossoms!

Pretty blossoms!

I recalled my graduation from Transylvania University. My family, once a very rigidly divided structure of Dad’s family vs. Mom’s family, actually came together for it. I felt so proud walking up to get that diploma, elated at the prospect of moving all the way to Japan in just a few months time. It’s still hard to believe that graduation was three whole years ago today. My students think they’ll have all the time in the world to discover what they want to do, but I bet the time will fly just as fast for them as it did for me.

On that note, congratulations to the Transy class of 2014! I hope wherever life’s adventures take you, the memories you gained at university bring a smile to your face (and if all goes really well, a job or graduate school).

People back home are starting their new lives left and right. My good friend, Jessica Short, recently married the love of her life, Stacey Long. I am so happy for her and so sorry I couldn’t be there. Between the move and everything else tied to it, I just couldn’t afford to go. I hope that it was as beautiful as I imagined, if not more so. I hope her new start is every bit as amazing as she dreamed it would be. My other friend, Daniel Puthawala, recently got engaged to his long time girlfriend, too. Congratulations to the both of you!

I felt revitalized by all the changes going on around me. I’ve thrown my energy into preparing for the Tokyo move, rearranging the apartment, getting organized at my desk, writing up lesson plans with explanations for how to do this game or that worksheet. I want my successor here in Itako to come into my spot with basically all the materials ready for him or her, just like Lauren did for me.

And so, congratulations to my successor, whoever you are! You’re going to love it here. I just know it.

可愛い食べ物: All the Cute Foods!

Japan’s deep love affair with food presentation existed supposedly even before the Heian period (10th/11th Century ), making it one of the oldest art forms in Japan. Most people touring Japan will want to try out the common foods such as sushi and sashimi, but while those seafood cuisines are indeed as delicious as they are pretty, I actually prefer the presentation (and sometimes even performance) of the desserts.

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The caramel paw prints are just the best!

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Totoro and Pooh-san drawn by waiters at a Korean restaurant in Shin-Okubo.

At many restaurants in Japan, the desserts are given special treatment with toppings or syrups to create fantastically elaborate portraits or characters on the dessert or on the plate. They tend to fall away from the traditionally minimalist nature of Japanese cuisine, allowing for more explorations for how to use ingredients to create a more complex feast for the eyes.

Japanese cuisine in general uses seven methods of food arrangement, and how to use each method varies depends on the ingredients and chinaware.

  • Sugimori is a standing or slanting arrangement
  • Hiramori is a flat design with slices of sashimi placed vertically
  • Yamamori is mound-like
  • Tawaramori are blocks of food placed in a pyramid
  • Yosemori is gathered
  • Chirashimori is gathered but with space between the ingredients
  • Ayamori is woven (which is considered one of them more difficult forms to master)

Using these arrangements as a basis, chefs can develop their own styles of presentation. Red, yellow and green are integral colors for Japanese cooking, so balancing all three in a presentation makes the food look appealing and bright in Japanese culture. Lastly, a triangular (three-sided) shape on the plate looks quite pretty.

As you can tell in the picture below, the basics of Japanese cuisine are all there: Colors red, yellow, and green are laid out in a chirashimori style, but there’s also a space dedicated to an artistic rendering of a certain famous comic feline. What’s amazing to me is that this treatment is considered standard for most restaurants. Rarely, I find, does the presentation cost the customer extra money.

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Garfield approves my choice in waffles.

The exception to that rule is when the waiter/waitress is a part of a themed cafe such as the Pirate Cafe I went to with my friends Emily and Megan. There the girls let you watch them draw the designs and characters on your food. They also sing or do some kind of pirate shows if you pay more.

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We got to choose what kind of design we wanted on our food.

A small side note, at a theme cafe it’s generally alright to take a picture of the food and the restaurant itself. However, before to ask to take pictures of the the waiters/waitresses working there. Some places will allow it while others won’t. At the Pirate Cafe in Akihabara, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the pirate maidens.

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I chose a cat and freaked the girl out because she didn’t know how to draw one. Oops!

Also, while the food wasn’t terribly expensive, the table charges at themed restaurants can be pricy. Be sure to ask how much per hour it is to be at a table.

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The kanji is for ‘pirate.’

Even at convenience stores, sometimes they will have some cute special edition sweets that you can only get at one specific chain for a certain amount of time. Sometimes they will have special edition things that are movie or anime tie-ins. Not so long ago, there was “Attack on Titan” gear and foods being sold at the 7-11 combinis, and Pokemon does its rounds through the stores every other month or so.

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A delicious chocolate bear cake!

Most of the time the cute foods in Japan will not only look adorable but they will also be super delicious! I feel like in the U.S. I often had to choose between something that looked cute but probably tasted like preservatives and future cancer, and then the delicious foods that were just kind of slapped together with no real thought into how it looked. In Japan, I feel like I get the best of both worlds, both great taste and great art.

Only In Japan: Cute Construction Characters

 

Construction sites, while necessary, are some of the biggest annoyances on the road. They’re dirty, noisy, and cause a lot of trouble. Cars can get backed up for miles because of some city project or another, triggering road rage in even the most temperate driver. There’s nothing to be done about it, shoganai. We just have to resign ourselves to this irritating fate.

Unless you live in Japan, in which case there’s actually something to look forward to with construction. In many Japanese cities they have character road guides and blocks. In most cases the characters are animals or famous things associated with the city. For example, I often see the deer character in my city and in the city of Kashima. Kashima city’s character is the deer (shika). The city’s soccer team is even called the Kashima Antlers and they have a deer mascot.

The two characters seen in the picture below were taken at a construction site just outside my apartment. The deer is obviously from Kashima, but the giraffe was a new one. I asked a teacher why the giraffe and she told me that unusual or really famous cute characters, such as Doraemon or Stitch, are used to tell people that it’s a school zone or that there are children around in the area and to be careful.

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The giraffe on the right is to warn people “CHILDREN PLAY HERE.”

In Kamisu, there are dolphins and bunny characters. I only saw the dolphin character once in the three years I’ve been here, but I’ve seen the rabbits many times. The rabbits come in about three or four different colors. I’ve seen them in yellow, pink, and blue.

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Pink bunnies at a construction site near Kamisu City Hall

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Yellow bunnies seen in Tokyo near the Emperor’s Palace

The idea behind them is to kind of soften the look of the ugliness that we often associate with construction. Instead of getting as upset as we normally would, the characters are there to distract from the stress of the situation and to make people think of adorable things instead.

Also, the bright colors are meant to alert people in either the day or night time to use caution on the road. The big eyes are meant to sort of shock you, because when people see the eyes at night they might think it’s a child or some kind of animal for a split second, and so hopefully drivers slow down around the work in progress.

However, some people in Japan want them removed because they’re too distracting and may actually cause accidents. The argument they put forth is that these characters make it harder for drivers to just concentrate on the road and instead get their eyes fixed to the cute bunny or deer instead. And so then, the distracted drivers won’t be able to react to a situation going on in front of them.

Personally I love them. They do make the long stretches of stop and go traffic in the midst of construction more bearable in my mind, so I hope Japan decides to keep them. I hope to see more of them soon!

63rd Annual Itako Ayame (Iris) Festival

Check it out! IbaraKey, the CIR blog for my prefecture, reported about the festival. Neat!

IbaraKey

When: May 24 – June 29
Where: Ayame Park and various other locations around Itako
Official Website (Japanese)

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This festival’s history goes back to 1952, when it was conducted by iris-lovers placing the cut flowers in beer bottles as decorations. From late May till the end of June, you can enjoy the beauty of around one million purple, yellow, and white iris plants of 500 different varieties blooming around Itako.

During the festival there will be a number of events, including ayame-odori (iris dancing) and yome-iri fune (bridal boats). Boats will also be operating between 9am and 5pm every day (and additionally from 6-7:30pm on Saturdays). For 1000 yen (500 yen for elementary school children and infants) you can travel back to a time when boats were an essential form of transport for the citizens of Itako.

Yome-iri Fune

Up until the land reclamation operations conducted as part of local…

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Third Time’s the Charm: An Iris Princess Again

The Itako Iris Festival is on from today (May 25th) to June 29th. I’m only there on Sundays, but I have the honor and pleasure of serving with 15 other Iris Princesses this year who will be there more often than me. The Iris Princesses are at the park on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-5.

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I am waaaaaaay in the back

Today was the perfect start to the festival. The weather was nice with the sun hitting the iris flowers just right, making them really vibrant. There are over one million of about 500 different kinds of purple, yellow, and white iris flowers at the park.

This festival has been around since 1952, when iris-lovers placed cut iris flowers in beer bottles as decorations in for the festival. Until 1955, the Itako area was built upon a system of canals. For that reason, when a new bride and/or her goods were to be transported to her new home (the husband’s family home) it was done using a Sappa boat. These traditional boats are still used in Itako as tourist attractions. People can ride in the boats and enjoy the beautiful scenery as they travel up and down the rivers.

And to this day, the Bridal Boat (Yome-iri Fune) wedding send of ceremony is performed with a bride at the Iris Park. After arriving at the ‘Itako Bride’ memorial, the bride will walk along the pathway to the boat with her matchmaker and the boatman, then the boat will set off. Often the groom will be waiting at the Wai-Wai Fantasy dock.

The other Iris Ladies and I spent all day posing for pictures and helping people find their way around our little town. I even helped out a few foreigners that came to the park, which has never happened on the first day before.

The park this year is selling some cute straps and plush goods, which they didn’t do last last year. I want them all!

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The mini Ayame-chan character strap

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The big plush Ayame-chan

On the weekends is the Iris Bride send off event. That’s at 11:00, 14:00, and 19:00 (but times are subject to change). There are several events during the festival, such as traditional Japanese dancing and mochi making. We’ve also got boat rides up and down the river that are quite fun.

 

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By the way, the park is (semi) famous! It was featured on a recent Japanese suspense/ thriller drama on Fuji TV. They actually came to the city and filmed parts of it right here in Itako. Isn’t that cool?! I got to watch it tonight. It was kind of awesome to watch it and go, “Oh my God! I’ve been there!” I thought it was particularly cool because someone was even murdered in a river that I’ve been to (television murder, not real life, obviously).

It’s easy to get to Itako via the Kashima-Orai Line from Mito or the Suigo-Itako Bus from Tokyo station. If you’ve got the time, please come on down!

The Hectic Days

I’m getting to that point in the year when I want to just come home and pass out after work. For the next two weeks, I’m looking at no days off and a whole lot of overtime. Interactive Forum requires that I train students until 5 or 5:30 p.m. Also, I went ahead and agreed to be an Iris Princess (Ayame Musume あやめ娘) to make this the third year I represent my Japan hometown. And lastly, I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level N3 (a.k.a Conversational Level).

For Interactive Forum, I’m trying to increase the level of my students’ English abilities, but it can be difficult to do that and keep the training times fun. If the students aren’t having fun, the entire hour can become this awkward affair where no one wants to talk, and the whole point of it is to make students converse in English. As you can well imagine, it’s frustrating as all get out when they get into this strange funk.

Usually I can bring them out with what I like to call “Crazy English,” where I introduce myself as someone famous and pretend to be that person instead of myself. For example, “Hi! My name is Sailor Moon. I fight evil in my free time. I like sweets very much. Nice to meet you!” The students get a kick out of that. However, I’ve got to be careful to balance having fun and keeping them focused on the task at hand.

My third years, who are fourteen or fifteen years old, can really help me out with doing the harder parts. At both of my schools, I’ve designated a third year student as the sempai of the Interactive Forum group. If I’m not there for some reason then they’re in charge until I show up, and if I need a translation they will be the ones who do so to the other students. It’s actually very important, I think, for ALTs to utilize the sempai system set up in the Japanese classrooms. It can be a great tool to utilize when you want to get things done in class or clubs.

It is really rewarding to watch my students’ progress from simplistic sentences to having actual full conversations. To have a student go from answering “Do you like AKB48?” with just “Yes, I do.” to him/ her responding “Yes, I do! I like them very much. My favorite member is ______. Do you know her?” That’s just one of the most awesome experiences to have as an ALT, to know that you’ve been able to guide your students to that point where they can take what they’ve learned in class and actually use it.

Still, as rewarding as it is, I feel a little bit worn out from coaching sometimes. Last week turned out fine, but I can recall a few moments last year when I showed up and I knew from the get go the session was going to be a fight to speak. I’m anticipating that next week, when the Sports Day (undōkai 運動会) practices get rolling, the whole group will show up exhausted and not wanting to do anything. And it’s my job to make them, hooray!

That’s going to be a problem for me since I’ll probably be extremely tired as well. Last year, I worked for the Itako Iris Festival (Itako Ayame Matsuri 潮来市あやめ祭) on Saturdays and Sundays. I went with the wiser choice this year to work only on Sundays, since I know I’ll need one day devoted to planning on moving to Tokyo/ Chiba, depending upon where I’m placed for my new job. However, this weekend requires that I work both days since it’s the opening weekend. I’m glad to be doing it one last time, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not looking forward to not one single day that I can recharge my batteries.

This year the city wasn’t able to find another foreigner to be an Iris Princess, so I’m the only foreign woman working this year. As such, I’m probably going to be featured a little more for campaigns than in the previous two years. I feel torn about this possibility, because on the one hand I’ll be kind of given special treatment, but on the other hand the expectations for me are higher than previous years. I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out. I’m nervous about it.

I’m not so nervous about the JLPT, though. Honestly, I meant to take the test back in December, but I missed the deadline for registration. This time I was on the ball and got my application in on time. I’ve already been studying for it since before December, so I’m confident that I’ll at least pass. I’ve bought all the books and test materials for it.

But on top of everything else, I wonder if perhaps I jumped the gun a little bit.Two years ago I tried for the N4 (Upper Basic Level) but I didn’t pass. I did the same kind of schedule I’m going to do soon, wherein I work six or seven days a week along with studying for a test everyday. Back then I actually hurt myself from the stress. I couldn’t study kanji for a good month afterwards. My brain actually flat out refused to process any new Japanese, so I took a break. I feel like this time will be different, since I started studying way back months ago and because I know I will get Saturdays off, eventually.

With the 31st being Sports Day, it looks like the rest of the month of May is just one big block of WORK. And then in “free time” it’s actually “study time.” Next month looks like work unless it’s Saturday, but even then I’d imagine the Saturdays will be devoted to the very long list of “Things Jessica Must Do Before She Moves.” I’m praying that when all is said and done my students will have better English speaking abilities than before we started practice, I get through the Iris Festival in one piece, and I pass the JLPT with flying colors.