Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Summer in Japan

The final season in my review of the seasons of Japan! This what I have to say:

Summer in Japan is not fun. The End. 

..Ok ok, so maybe I’ll get into more detail..

Summer is from mid-June to mid-September and while I can only speak from personal experience about the Kansai Region, friends in other parts of Japan agree that summer is unbearably hot at times. I've also had conversations about how the sun just feels hotter in Japan (and wondering if this is our imagination), but whether it is or not is compounded by Japan’s energy conservation practices. Incidentally, it's also the easiest way to prove that they are a masochistic people (just kidding…sort of). The most common practice is although air conditioning is available in many places (even if in the form of wall units), they refrain from using it to conserve energy and keep energy costs low. If they do use it, it's to maintain the temperature at a "cool" 25 - 28 degrees Celsius (about 77 - 82 degrees Fahrenheit). Consider that, and now consider that I arrived in Japan during an energy crisis, 5 months after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Now if at this point you’re remembering that I’m from Miami, that warm beach paradise in South Florida, I’ll just stop you and say that this is NOT like living in Miami. Where I live in Japan is a constant sauna whereas Miami is like a warm hug when you’re walking from one frozen tundra of an establishment to another. Yes, in Miami, if you’re indoors for a period of time, you’re most likely going to get cold because like in most Developed Nations, A/C is not a burden but a gift to be used in excess.
-sob, sob- Oh, how I miss it.

I could on and on and on about why this aspect of Japanese culture baffles and frustrates me, but I’ll digress. The perks of summer in Japan include the return of kakigori (like snow cones but better), more seasonal flowers (fields of hydrangea and sunflowers this time), summer festivals (a good time to see Japanese people relaxing and having fun), and best of all, summer vacation for schools!

The longest of the school breaks, summer vacation is six weeks of no formal classes and although most JETs in Japan still have to report to school for “work” (staring out in space for 8 hours), some will have kind overlords who will let them leave mid-day or other special allowances. I say formal classes, because many students get stuck in their version of summer school and have to go everyday (sucks!) Others still go everyday for extracurricular club activities while others in my particular school have to come to attend to the livestock since mine is an agricultural school (double suck!) Because of this, some ALTs may be asked to help tutor students or various other things during the summer. Besides that, this is also the most acceptable time for JETs to travel! Something I encourage enthusiastically whether it is in Japan, the surrounding area, or even back to your home country.

Regardless of what your co-workers are doing or commenting as you take your time off, know this: Your time here is limited so part of your experience should be cultural exchange outside of the classroom. I take this to mean that you should learn more about the culture you’re living in or one nearby. But if you feel like you need to go home to recharge your batteries instead,  that’s fine too. You are not your school’s slave nor should you feel subject to any guilt just because you have a contract and take advantage of your nenkyuu days! That's what they are there for, not for possible emergencies! 


ah…ok… That last part was a bit of a rant but I’ll stop now, hehe.
So if it wasn’t obvious, I chose the last option and went home, because as I recalled from last year, August was the worst month of summer in terms of heat and humidity, so I did not a repeat of that. As a result I don’t have any new festival or sunflower pictures, but enjoy the rest! 

Did I mention I went paragliding?! It was such a rush to jump off a mountain and swing in the sky!!

Hikami High School's Sports Day

[Published date does not reflect any proximity to the event date as I was being uber lazy about finishing this post but was finally motivated since my fellow ALTs had their Sports Day recently. This happened back in early June.]
I finally had Sports Day! [henceforth SD] , aka Sports Festival to some Japanese schools and called undōkai (運動会) in Japanese. I attended my base school’s SD since, conveniently, it was during the school week which meant I could watch my students battle it out in the schoolyard instead watching them fall asleep in class. When and what events are in it vary, but elementary and junior high schools in town like to coordinate and make them all one weekend while high school just does their own thing. The students and teachers really take this day to heart and even go as far as to cancel classes the week prior in order to seriously practice the events beforehand. Kind of extreme when I think back to Field Day (same thing) at my high school which was merely a half-day with no practice beforehand, just fun competitions and silly ribbons for prizes.

I had high expectations for this day since I had attended a JHS SD and saw some really creative competitions, pep rally type stuff, and just lots of excitement from the students. I let myself down. I don’t know who comes up with the schedule for these things, but the events weren’t all that exciting or original. We had a five-legged race (five instead of three because it adds to the hilarity when they fall?), jump rope competitions, relay races, and lots of tug-of-wars. Yawn.
I did find some things interesting though. For example, before they started, they all spread out and did a series of stretches that everyone in Japan seems to know as a standard set. Even some of the parents that came to watch were doing them in sync with the students from the sidelines. Also, the opening ceremony had the students walk out and around the field Hunger Games style grouped in their homeroom classes with a leader carrying their homemade class flags. Some flags were pretty creative while others were like, um, sure good job.

ALTs have varying levels of involvement or even assigned duties associated with SD. My school doesn’t ask much of me even when I make myself available, so I just sat under the teacher tent or walked around taking pictures. As a side note, I was the only one wearing sunglasses despite it being a bright, sunny day. This led to some parents coming up to me to say I looked like a movie star, hehe. But, I’ve actually noticed this in other settings and wondered if there’s a cultural reason behind this. For now I’ll guess that it’s probably considered rude to not know where someone is looking when speaking to them. Let me know in the comments what you guys think it is or if you know the answer.

So at the end of the day, the class with the most points (from individuals, groups, or classes winning events) gets the big trophy that they then keep in their homeroom class for the rest of the year. This year, my all-girls 3-3 class snagged the prize and I was quite proud of them for showing some awesome girl power (especially as they owned the boys in the tug-of-war contests, haha!).

Let the Games begin!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When Worlds Collide: The Update!

So I left this post off with two WTF situations in full swing. I now have dramatic conclusions for both. DUN DUN DUN! If you don't know what I'm talking about then read the first post here.

Well wouldn't you know it, my VP said, "NO." The night of my first post, I got a call from my JTE saying that the VP had said no to my use of nenkyu because I cannot leave Japan until August 2nd which is when my new contract goes into effect. Wait, so now the issue is with my new contract and not the nenkyu? It's like they're just looking for reasons to keep me here! At this point my patience is running thin with this situation, so the next time I meet with my JTE, I remind him that I have already bought a plane ticket and explain again how I'm properly using the nenkyu. No go. He proceeds to ask me if my plane ticket is refundable to which I say, "I don't know" out loud and "Not a chance that's happening buddy" in my head, which is then followed by him "suggesting" for me to contact the Hyogo Board of Education for support which MIGHT sway the decision of the VP. Commence the emailing. Three days and ten emails later of catching the BoE up on the situation and explaining my reasoning, I am told that I am in the right. Thanks for confirming what I already knew, BoE. Back to my JTE. I print out the emails and although this particular JTE's English is pretty good, he sits there for a whole class period worth just burning holes through the paper trying to comprehend all the colloquialisms. Finally, he tells me that the VP is on a business trip so let's take it to the Principal. Now, this may sound like a worse situation, but my VP is new to the school whereas my Principal has known me since I got here and has always been pretty chill about my comings and goings. With emails in hand, my JTE explains the situation to the Principal. Pretty quickly it's met with a "those emails are in English, I can't understand them," (fair enough) "call the head of the BoE." In my head I'm screaming "DO IT! Resolve this non-issue already!" The call was made, the emails confirmed, case closed. My JTE turned and said to me, "Congratulations!" like I had won a court case. I smiled weakly because I wasn't looking for a fight in the first place and didn't feel like I had won anything. I was put through a lot of worry and stress about a situation I knew I had handled correctly.

The other situation with my neighbor escalated to involve two more JTEs and a big dose of American freedom fighting. Since the original post, I was approached again on two separate occasions. The first time was by a JTE who side-saddled up next to me as I was walking to the staff room and proceeded to ask about when I would give my neighbor the money. Although I knew it wasn't an official tax, I told him that my JET contract states that these kinds of extra taxes are covered for me or I'm exempt from them completely. He tries to tell me again that it's not a tax and that my neighbor ALREADY PAID FOR ME. -WTF?!- "Why did she do that??" I asked as calmly as I could. "Because it was due," he said. UGH. I told him I'm sorry she did that and voluntary tax or not, I don't have to pay. We parted ways once we got into the staff room.
Two days later (today) I am deliberately approached by just my neighbor. She has a receipt in hand and a pleading look in her eyes. Now, don't let the receipt fool you into thinking this is now an official tax. I even get a receipt for fruit I purchase on the street. So after three minutes of the most broken Japanese I've ever spoken because I am full of blind rage at being cornered like this, the JTE nearby finally comes over and tries to explain it to me again. Upset as I was, in a very calm, cool, and collected way, I cut him off and said, "I know this isn't a tax. I know she has already paid. Regardless, I am exempt from paying these kinds of fees and I don't appreciate these efforts to coerce me into paying them." My JTE looked taken aback and said "But don't you feel bad for her? Besides, this money goes into the community." I said, "I'm sorry, but I didn't ask her to pay for me." He and my neighbor have a brief discussion and she ends it with, "I should have asked her first. Daijoubu (It's ok)." She walks away and my JTE says to me with downcast eyes that he feels bad for her and I have a strong American mind. Yeesh. Well, as a woman with firm beliefs and strong sense of justice, I'm used to being called worse. So once again, I'm in the right and don't feel like a winner.

Next, I'm going for a trifecta of Japanese bureaucratic BS as I continue the process of getting my Japanese driver's license. Fun, fun, fun! Thanks to the BS, that story won't be complete for a while.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When worlds collide

Today is one of those days when the Japanese workplace is really frustrating me:

First! After a few months of lamenting about how I'm going to be able to go home for the summer. I gave in to the only option I had that I thought wouldn't ruffle too many feathhers - to use up my entire nenkyu for next year with a couple of ::ahem:: extra days, at the beginning and the end. Fortunately for me, the lamenting I did earlier spearheaded a movement within the Board of Education that gave all high school ALTs in my prefecture an extra 5 days of summer-time only nenkyu (you're welcome, lol). So safe right? The extra days I took wouldn't be a problem now! Doubly awesome was that I heard I would get another five days due to the logistics of having 5 new summer holidays for this year's contract AND 5 summer holidays starting next with our next contract period which starts August 1st. YAY! But wait..I already booked my flight home and am only using 2 days in the month of July, so maybe I can have them roll over into next year like my regular nenkyu does? I asked my JTE and he said no. Great. Well, either way, I'm safe for my impending vacation home. Then I gave me JTE my flight schedule and even broke down how my nenkyu will be used to show that I'm within boundaries (well, at least now I am thanks to the last minute addition of summer holidays). He tells me that he'll check if it's -ok- with the Vice Principal. What? I know that it's customary to get the approval from your higher ups, but the notion that it could -not- be ok would leave us at an impasse. The reason it might not be ok is because after all is said and done (and because I can't roll over my newly given 3 days of nenkyu from July), I will only have 2 days of nenkyu for the year which is about 18 short of what they're comfortable with (an exaggeration but not far from the truth..ugh).

Second! My fellow teacher and apartment complex neighbor wants me to give her 15,000en (more than $150) for a 'community fee.' I originally understood this to be something official I'd receive in the mail, but today I was asked for it directly. I simply stared at the poor JTE who was translating what she was saying in a mingled look of 'are you kidding me' and 'kill me now.' My American mindset understands something labeled as a 'community fee' to mean a tax. If it's not a tax then it's a voluntary donation. So this is basically how the conversation went on my end:

Oh ya that, I never received anything in the mail.
I should just give her the money? Ok, but where's the official notice/statement?
Oh it's not coming? I'm suppose to hand it over to you because you're a community official?
Oh you're not? You're going to take it to the next town hall meeting where it will be collected?
Oh.. ok, so what services are being provided?
...None that apply to me..
...OH, this fee is voluntarily??
No, not voluntarily..just expected.. so I'm -supposed- to give this.
Ya, my mind isn't wrapping around this concept.
Yes, I get that it is all for the good cause of maintaining our community.
Yes, I get that everyone chips in.
Yes, I understand this is a local thing.
But wait, then who decides on the amount of 15,000en then?
Oh, the town hall meetings (that I have zero input in)..
So, if this is for community maintenance, why doesn't anyone cut my grass, like, ever?
Oh, because that's my school's property..
So, what should you tell her you ask? Tell her I feel conflicted about this.
Yes, I understand this is the Japanese way.
Yes... Yes, Yes.
::stare at each other awkwardly::

Besides all that, I had four very long classes today, plus interview tests. Needless to say, it was a long day..

I think this has made me appreciate the Land of the Free a bit more on my first Independence Day away from the States. Speaking your mind and making sense of a situation are not so much of a hassle or frowned upon there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Spring in Japan!

Spring is officially my new favorite season. It used to be summer, but I realized that was an antiquated notion of mine from a time when summer meant freedom from school for three months to play video games all morning, swim all afternoon, and watch anime all night (oh, sweet sweet childhood). Now though, the events, weather, and foliage of spring have made it my new favorite time of year. And lucky for me, Japan in spring is absolutely gorgeous!

I knew this because I have already seen springtime in Japan during my stint as a study abroad student. But this time was so much sweeter after enduring a frigid winter in Tamba. First, finally being able to wear shorts and shirts again was enough to put a huge smile on my face, but then I remembered that place I was avoiding all winter - outside! Everywhere I looked were gorgeous flowers in bloom: tulips, irises, daffodils, petunias, lilies, etc. And then of course are the more popular ones that generate whole matsuris (festivals) and special viewing events just for them. The popular events I attended were for plum ()*, cherry (桜), and wisteria () blossoms. There are waaay too many places in Japan that have spectacular scenery surrounding seasonal flowers, so I just stuck to my area and was not disappointed.

In addition to the natural beauty, spring has, like other seasons, seen new seasonal products (probably the most famous being products flavored with plum or cherry, obviously) and also presented some opportunities for vacation! My previous entry covered my travels during spring, so check that out!

*Some people might consider plum blossom viewing to be a winter occasion since they start in February. However, I'm grouping seasons into three month periods with spring being March, April, and May. Plum blossoms blooming through the March thus I include it in my springtime adventures since that's when I saw them.

Plum Blossom Viewing (梅見): In the Osaka Castle park grounds is a massive plum grove that attracts visitors from all over. If you're unfamiliar, there are several types of plum blossoms with different colorings to accompany them. During my first spring in Japan, I hadn't realized that what I was seeing in March were plum blossoms and not cherry blossoms. They can be easily confused at first glance, but I think I've seen enough now to be able to pick them out from a line up - you know if it ever came to that, hehe. As you can tell from the pictures, it was still a bit nippy even in late March, but what you can't tell is that walking through grove had an intoxicating smell.

Cherry Blossom Viewing (花見): I visited several places this year and adhered to the fun tradition of having picnics under the trees with friends; first at Sakuranomiya in Osaka, and then at various parks in Tamba. Kyoto is one of the most famous places to see cherry blossoms since the flowers coupled with the ancient shrines and temples creates amazing scenery to behold that sends the Japanese into a frenzy and has them flocking from all over the country to see. Fortunately for me though, I did the Kyoto circuit back in my Gaidai days and avoided the crowds this time.

Wisteria Blossom Viewing (藤見): Wisteria season took me by surprise. I was so preoccupied with preparing for my Golden Week plans that when I got back, I was lucky to hear about an event and then was barely able to make time to go to it. I went to Byakugoji Temple in nearby Ichijima which apparently was not a secret spot considering half my town was there. Parking was a nightmare, and the temple was quite crowded, but it was breathtaking nonetheless. I've heard of several other impressive sites for wisteria viewing in Hyogo that I'll be sure to check out next time!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spring Break and Golden Week

I think it's pretty apparent by now that I love to travel. One of the best opportunities about the JET Program IS the opportunity to travel - and not only Japan, but all of Asia and the Pacific! (which is huge if you didn't know, hehe). However, because of school schedules and limited amounts of nenkyuu (PTO), you really have to do everything in your power to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. Spring Break (the time between the end of the Japanese school year and the beginning of the next school year) is two weeks long and it is usually an expected time for JETs to request time off to travel. Golden Week comes a month or so later and although the schools don't have the whole week off, again, JETs are usually allowed to take necessary days off to make it a whole week without a problem. I carefully considered my options of places to go factoring in budget and nenkyuu months in advanced, but I also heard of people who managed to whip up a trip last minute. I could go into great detail about every facet of these trips, but I'm going to give more of an overview that would jog my memory for future references and yet still give my readers an idea of the place, as well as my experiences there.


Who: My good Aussie friend and fellow JET in Tamba.
What: Travel-mode! 
Where: Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
When: March 25th, 2012 - April 2nd, 2012.
Price: Around $1,300 USD each.

Knowing that I wanted to explore several places in a short amount of time, I was lucky enough to rope my friend into joining me on a whirlwind tour through Southeast Asia. We both agreed on our itinerary while keeping in mind safety and a loose budget. Discussing this beforehand really helped ensure our trip go smoothly especially considering the madness surrounding three countries, four cities, four hostels, and six plane rides in eight days. We stuck to the strictly tried-and-true tourist attractions for safety reasons, and understanding that we didn't allot enough time in each city for losing ourselves among the locales. We spent $1,300 each (including everything!) which is great in my opinion since we never once had a moment where we couldn't do/buy something because of money. In fact, we went shopping, took taxis, and went on tours as often as we pleased. The trick to this is booking early with LCC (low cost carrier) airlines like AirAsia and booking hostels (with good ratings and reviews) on sites like Hostelworld. We got some great deals on flight prices and booked the most 'expensive' private rooms in hostels (which were still only $25/night total). Something else we had to do beforehand was look into tourist visas needed (which we did need for Vietnam) and currency exchange information. If done properly and with enough time, these are not a big headache. 

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We didn't originally plan to go to Malaysia, but it turned out this way when KL was the stop-over for all of our AirAsia flights anyway thus, we worked in a day to see what we could. After arriving at our hostel and showering, we headed out to lunch before seeing a popular nearby religious site, the Batu Caves. It was a straight shot from the main train line and less than a 5 minute walk from the station once we got there. The country is mostly Islamic but the caves are sacred to the Hindu faith. There is a great imposing, golden statue to greet you before you ascend over 150 steep steps to the cave. Along the way are wild monkeys who go from being cute one moment to screeching at you the next. I was nearly attacked for just glancing at one, but I screeched as loud as he did when he chased me so I maybe that stunned him long enough for me to escape. (Words of caution: don't look them in the eyes...) Once at the top, the wide open cavern is filled with Hindu artifacts in statue and painting forms. Ironically, in Japan I find all aspects of religious sites interesting to look at, but in this site I was less than impressed with the blue people in the paintings and instead was completely taken with the intricacies of the cave. It was a really cool place and fun time that set the tone for the rest of our trip. Later that night, we made our way to KL's famous Petronas Towers. There is a huge mall at the bottom of it that we wished we had more time to spend in, but at least we did see the main attraction: the twin towers. I'm a fan of popular city towers in general, but the twin towers of KL were the first to leave me in awe. In every sense of the word, they are spectacular and when those two are lit up at night, people stop and stare.  The people we met were incredibly nice, but some guys were a little too comfortable approaching strangers for chit chat. Whatever their intentions, some people need to realize how creeper it looks to approach two younger women when you're a 40-something-year-old man just wanting to 'practice your English.' Overall though, we really enjoyed our short stay in Malaysia and want to come back just to shop!

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is known as the old city in Vietnam, especially when compared to Ho Chi Minh City, the ultra modern capital. Right out of the airport we were approached by a slew of taxi drivers asking us to ride with them. We arranged a pickup but they were no where to be found so we just picked a cabby and hoped for the best. Our hostel here was the best out of the four. It was more a hotel than a hostel since it had a complimentary buffet breakfast, wood floors, and a flat screen television in the room. At breakfast and other places, I was surprised to find that Vietnamese food turned out to be my favorite food during the trip (when I thought for sure it would be Thai food). We were staying in Hanoi's Old Quarters, a well-known touristy part of the city. Venders would run up to you balancing their goods in baskets and unless you just walked away, telling them "No thank you" was not enough to deter them. Here, we also had to re-learn how to cross the street. Besides not really having any driving lanes, pedestrians embrace the notion of 'right-of-way' since they walk out into traffic and people just have to avoid them. There are no crosswalk signals and few traffic signals that you can actually go by, so this walking in traffic (vid with the link!) technique was our only option. It goes against all instinctual feelings but it really works. For the next two days, we booked a tour through our hostel to the World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay. Simply put, it was amazing. This place is made up of thousands of small islands that stick up out of the water like icebergs, all jagged and close together. They looked like green-carpeted icebergs to me, but the name actually means 'descending dragon bay' so I guess they're supposed to look like scales on a dragon's back. Anyways, we went out on a Junk Boat (a traditional Vietnamese boat) and stayed overnight with only a few other travelers. We ate all of our meals together, family dining style which allowed us to share our experiences and make friends. The tour included kayaking on the bay too. Stopping in the middle of the bay, just looking around and feeling the silence on your ears was one of those moments that made me step back and realize where I was and how awesome it was. The next day we went to one of the many caves found in the bay. This one was the biggest and most impressive hence it's name, 'The Amazing Cave.' The rock formations and size of it were most impressive and colored lights made the whole place very ethereal. The tour on Ha Long Bay was probably the best highlight of the trip for me.

Bangkok, Thailand

Before going to Bangkok, words that I heard used to describe it were crazy, hot, and dangerous. I can confirm all three are true, hehe. The security at the hostels were tightest in Thailand and we heard of a terrorist incident on the train lines after we left. Even being from Miami, the heat in Bangkok was no joke. There isn't a lingering sea breeze in the air for relief like in my hometown; instead hot air just blows in your face most of the time. On such a day, we set out to see the three most famous temples via water taxi on and both agree that The Grand Palace, The Temple of Dawn, and The Temple of the Reclining Buddha are just as beautiful and best remembered in our pictures. lol. Way more fun for two girls living in the countryside Japan were the amazing malls! They are the largest, most intricate, most diverse malls I have ever seen! One night, we went to the Siam Paragon mall who's slogan is accurately put as 'the shopping phenomenon.' It was nine floors of every store and brand you can imagine with the top floor being a movie theater that has an IMAX and 4-D theater. After deciding on a place to eat out of the hundred provided in the food court (not an exaggeration), we eagerly went to see The Hunger Games in 4D. Not only for the experience but also because Japan is incredibly slow at getting any movie I want to see. Yes, specifically whatever *I* want to see. (why, Japan, why?) The experience was like having the rumble pack for the N64 console combined with being the in the Stich's Great Escape ride at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. My friend found it distracting, and maybe I would have too if I didn't already know the plot of the movie. The next night, we went to another huge mall called Terminal 21. This one had the bargains Thailand is famous for as well as winning the best themed mall award in my book. The mall is styled like an airport with escalators being the arrival and departure gateways. Each floor is a different global destination with the whole floor being decked out in the theme of that country. They went above and beyond capturing the feeling of each of the destinations as I can confirm 3 out of the 6 cities. On the last night, I got a Thai massage mostly because I wanted to be able to confirm if they were all they are talked up to be - they're not. Maybe if you're a guy you'd enjoy it, but I was less than impressed with the quality of the massage and quite.. in shock by the experience in general. I guess you could say I got what I was looking for but we'll just leave it at that, lol.

Phuket, Thailand

Although we were all about traveling and seeing the sights, we did want to have some typical spring break activities. In Phuket, we made it a point to do two things: ride an elephant and go the beach. What we didn't specify was how good of an elephant ride or how long at the beach we wanted to go. The elephant ride was not what we were expecting. 'Jungle Trek' in the tour pamphlet meant walking around someone's plantation and the other 'features' of the tour were campy as my friend put it. However, for the time that I was actually riding on the elephant's head, rubbing his ears, and being totally vulnerable to his power so it was worth it, but I'd do it again for a better overall experience with the elephant. That evening, I went to Patong Beach at sunset and just people watched. There again, while in paradise, I had another moment of profound reflection of where I was and how awesome it was to be there. The next day we did a tour out to Phi Phi Island. After the intimate feel of the Junk Boat tour in Vietnam, I found this tour boat to be overcrowded and full of snobs. One guy even took our seats (ours because our stuff was on them) and shamelessly smirked the whole time while talking to his friends like we weren't even there. It's ok, I'm comforted with the knowledge that karma is always on my side and had a great day. The tour itself gave us a good mix. We stopped at a bay made famous by its appearance in the movie, The Beach, snorkeled in some of Thailand's world famous snorkeling/scuba waters, and then got to stretch out on a gorgeous beach in the middle of nowhere for some much needed tanning. Getting a tan on spring break was a high priority for me, so I was quite happy about that (the little things, lol). Phuket, as naturally beautiful as it was, could also lower itself at times to be like any other tropical destination that I've been to - Cozumel, Bahamas, Grand Cayman. I tire of the ultra-touristy feeling spots in favor of some authentic local surroundings like what we saw in the Old Quarters of Hanoi. I can't begrudge the availability of smoothies in this tropical location though..since returning I have been craving them non-stop!

Arriving back in Japan was bittersweet. It meant I was no longer seeing new and exotic places but it also meant I wasn't worried about safety, sanitation, or speaking the native tongue. However, I can't wait to see more of Southeast Asia one day! Only this time, I'm going remember to make time for sleep!

Who: Lover boy.
What: Vacay-mode! 
Where: Okinawa, Japan.
When: April 30th, 2012 - May 4th, 2012.
How much: About 80,000 YEN each.

Okinawa for Golden Week, along with Sapporo for the Snow Festival and Climbing Mt. Fuji are the top three on my 'to-do list' for Japan this time around. If you're keeping track, I now have 2 out of 3 completed - woohoo! After the whirlwind that was Spring Break, I knew I wanted some real R&R for Golden Week. With that in mind, I planned to see the local sites but also left whole days open to wandering. Since Golden Week is a specific week it leaves little flexibility in terms of planning, so I just had to hope for good weather and decent prices. I was a little bummed when I found out most of the week would be cloudy and rainy, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Remembering how hot Bangkok was, I couldn't imagine the humidity coupled with bright sunny days. If that had been the case, we would have just wanted to be inside in the A/C instead of wandering around. And it worked out perfectly, because we were fortunate enough to have one perfect beach day while at gorgeous Ama Beach on Zamami Island. Okinawa is a different world from the rest of Japan. Their dialect is unintelligible to standard Japanese, their cities feel, again, like Caribbean port towns, and the American military influence is apparent as well. Their train system for getting tourists around the island is lacking (as in non existent), but at least in the capital of Naha, they had a great train line. Because of that, the trip Churaumi, a world-renowned aquarium, set us back 3 hours each way. However, Churaumi was amazing and is a must see! It has one of the largest aquarium tanks in the world that houses 3 huge whale sharks! The aquarium is part of the Ocean Expo Park so we also went next door to the Tropical Dream Center. It had the most beautiful orchids I've ever seen and a was a beautiful romantic stroll through the gardens. To see some Okinawan culture, we also went to Shuri Castle which, unlike other castles in Japan, is unique for being styled after Chinese architecture and one of the few remaining relics of the RyuKyu Kingdom (the inhabitants of Okinawa before Japan took over).
For two days, we took a ferry to nearby Zamami Island as I read on all the sites that it was not to be missed - they were right. The island has only 500 inhabitants and is (of course) centered around the tourism it receives. As a side note, there's actually a JET placed on that island - crazy!! It's a famous location for whale watching, but unfortunately whale watching season had ended back in March. No matter, we greatly enjoyed lounging on their famous beaches, Furuzamami and Ama, seeing some incredible views from the cliff side, and, in my case, scuba diving for the first time! I was surprisingly nervous for this even though I love thrill seeking experiences, but passed with flying colors as the instructor said I did perfectly as a diver. I also had fun walking the beach by myself collecting some of the most incredible shells I've ever seen (in a store or on a beach). We were out there so long on the nice sunny day that we got sunburned but it was totally worth it. Zamami was also a perfect example of a tropical destination that doesn't feel like all the rest. Its local culture shines through without any of the touristy gimmicks. It was a perfect holiday.

I know that when I look back on this time, I will be happier about the things I did than the things I didn't do. You have to take the good with the bad and these experiences have made every time I've been homesick or frustrated with work so worth being here. Until the next adventure! (hint: it's last one on the list!!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Enkais: All in a Day's Work

An important feature of JET life that I haven't talked about yet is the enkai (宴会). Literally, meaning 'banquet' these are equivalent to a workplace office party. I don't really have a choice in the matter concerning payment for these big parties. Even if I expressed that I didn't want to go (perhaps in the interest of saving money), it would still be taken out of my paycheck. Even if I couldn't go for a legitimate reason like being sick or having another commitment, it would still be taken out of my paycheck. My attendance however is optional. Actually in most companies, attendance isn't required, but in Japan, a lot of things are "not required." However, as a foreigner, it isn't actually expected that I must go.

All enkais follow a general format of encouraging speeches, flowing alcohol, and lots of laughter. There's always a "kampai! (cheers!)" at the beginning which is led by the principal and a "banzai! banzai! banzai!" (hip hip hooray! or hurrah!) at the end. There's also the common practice of going around with bottles of beverages and filling each other's glasses. At an enkai, one should avoid pouring for themselves but instead pour for a coworker and wait for them to return the favor. In this case, seniority doesn't matter like it does in other aspects of Japanese culture. The only things that change are associated with the reason for having the enkai. i.e. holiday parties, beginning of the school year, farewell/welcome parties. Some special features I've seen at enkais so far include karaoke, speeches by honored individuals, giveaway games, special recognition given to individuals, and a game of London Bridge - with a twist. To elaborate on that last one, the teachers made a long chain of London Bridge with the teachers who were being recognized going under it. At the end, some of the stronger male teachers hoisted them up one at a time and tossed them up in the air. I was definitely surprised to my proper coworkers THAT loosened up, haha! But it really is great to see them relax and take a well-deserved break.

I don't know about other workplaces in Japan, but at my high school, a ¥3,000 (USD 37.00) enkai fee is taken out of my paycheck every month which goes towards paying my share of the party. This goes for everyone at my school, so considering we have two major enkais a year, I estimate about ¥12,000-21,000 per person. It's quite pricey if you think about it, but at least it holds its weight. With almost 80 staff members, my school has to rent out a large dining hall to accommodate us all. ($$$) Either this includes a bus service or they pay extra, but this bus takes us to and from school. ($$$) This is provided 1) for convenience and 2) so that people can drink to their heart's content (since Japan has a 0% tolerance policy on driving and alcohol). Also, so far it's been the case that the food is top notch even if I'm not a fan of everything. ($$$)

At my first enkai in December, right before the winter holidays, the organizers used part of the money to go towards gifts for everyone which they then made a game out of for entertainment. Everyone received something. ($$$) The game was to have our seat numbers chosen at random and then the person selected one of the wrapped gifts at the front of the room. The most expensive gift in the pile was an iPod and the cheapest couple of gifts at the end were boxes of fancy chocolates. To everyone's amusement, I picked out an electric shaver for men and acted like I was thrilled. Later, I traded it with a male teacher for a personal massager - win/win.

At my second enkai in April, after the start of the new school year, we had a 12 course sit down meal. In reality it was too much food, but I wanted to try everything. (I later paid for my gluttonous ways, but I regret nothing!) Unbeknownst to me, this was also the farewell party for some of my teachers who were being transferred to new schools (I'll explain this shortly). Usually if this were the case back home, some sort of goodbye card would have been passed around beforehand for everyone to sign or we would have pitched in for a surprise farewell gift; thus when I realized what was going on, I was lamenting the fact that I didn't get anything for some of my favorites. But then I was saved by the enkai fund! Each of the teachers who were leaving received a bouquet of flowers, a plaque of recognition, and a gift card that they knew came from everyone's pockets. ($$$)

So this farewell party came as a surprise to me because it is commonly known in Japanese schools that in the short time between the end of the school year in March and the beginning of the new term in April, several teachers will be transferred and new arrivals will come in. I was away for a week during the spring break and in that week, my teachers had been replaced with new ones. We also switched desks around in the staff room and I'm not particularly fond of my new place, but oh well. I was extremely uncomfortable for a about a week with all of the changes. After eight months of adapting to a new work environment and becoming confident with my place in this Japanese school, I suddenly I felt unsure about what was expected of me all over again. Once more, I gave my self-introduction, met the new teachers, and adapted to the classes. I also was sad to say goodbye to people I basically just met and really liked. They had helped me get settled in and were friendly, familiar faces that I may never see again. At least I got to say a proper goodbye thanks to the farewell enkai! 

I intend to find out, but at the moment I still don't understand why teachers are transferred - do they put in a request? Is it random? Can they say no? From the speeches at the enkai, I know that all of them had been at my school for different amounts of times. The shortest was two years and the longest was twenty-two years. So it's not a matter of "your time has come." Also, many of them seem to be really inconvenienced by where their new school(s) are (sometimes up to two hours away from their home). So better said, I don't know why certain teachers are transferred, but I do know what the thought process is behind this madness. It's considered a way of spreading the talent. Japan isn't an individually competitive society, but instead likes to make sure there's more of a mutual benefit going around. The theory is if there's a bad teacher you can hope that they'll be replaced by a good teacher soon thus sharing everyone's strengths and weaknesses in the education system and making sure no one becomes complacent. I see a lot of flaws in this but have been enlightened to the benefits as well. 

That last part was a bit of a rabbit trail from the original purpose of this post, but relevant all the same...Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! 

Here are some pictures that I snapped with my phone (Already being a gaijin in a sea of Japanese people, I didn't want to stand out more with my shiny red camera, hehe)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I'm talking about the end of the school year here in Japan. If you're not familiar, the school year in Japan is very different from what we have in the States (and elsewhere I'm sure). There are three semesters per school year with several smaller breaks in between (the shortest being 2 weeks and the longest being 6 weeks). Comparing this to the three month summer students back home are accustomed to, these smaller breaks are probably better for retaining subject matter since your brain doesn't have much time to stuff it in a back drawer. However, having cherished these three months of bliss every year during my primary education, I can't approve of this in good conscious. Plus I think it makes the end of the year more exciting instead of, "oh, I'll be back in two weeks. whatever."

However, as a teacher, it's been pretty great. Especially in this third semester which is broken up into two parts by the winter holidays. Before the holiday break, everything was normal. After the break though, everything has been a drawn-out process of winding the semester down. The kids have review classes, then a week of tests, more review, college entrance exams, rehearsals for graduation, special assemblies, and best of all, half days! I'm not needed fore most of this which has left me to my own devices at work and early afternoons back home. Others may have similar situations, but this has been mine and is not indicative to what the average JET experiences, even in my immediate area. Some reasons may be because:
1. I have high school (whatever unique set of circumstances that entails)
2. I can hit my apartment with a rock from the school (thus I go home for lunch and NEVER COME BACK)
3. Pure luck! (Some other JETs I know have great perks, so this must be mine).

My fellow teachers are of course running around doing things but even they've been more relaxed in general just hanging out, browsing websites, reading the newspaper, or chatting. In any case, this is definitely my new favorite time of year since I can't foresee class in the blistering heat of summer and lack of air conditioning trumping this cozy, undisturbed time in the staff room.

Just to add some color, here is a picture from the aforementioned graduation ceremony.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Winter in Japan

I did a Fall in Japan post and hadn't intended to follow it up with the other seasons but here we are. I rather enjoy expressing my reactions to the seasons in Japan, because I come from a place that only knows 'hot' and 'hotter' for seasons.
Just like in fall, Japan's select winter foods, products, festivals, and clothing are everywhere. Conversations turn to heaters, kotatsus (heated table), nabemono a.k.a nabe (stew) parties, snow festivals, holidays, snowboarding and skiing, crab season, and onsens (hot springs). I've found that when activities become available for a limited time (i.e. snowboarding), it makes the activity that much more fun. Like where I'm from in Miami, we can go to the beach anytime so ironically we hardly do (sorry, that's kind of a misconception for people who don't live in Miami). But in Japan (and other places with proper seasons I suppose), the activities associated with that season become something to look forward to and gives you something to do every weekend. I'm really enjoying that aspect of having real seasons.
These pictures capture most of what I talked about above as well as typical fun in the snow stuff that I never did growing up. All except for the last two snowboarding pictures were taken around my apartment. The Japanese landscape covered in snow, especially in the countryside is breathtaking. I've excluded pictures from my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival since I dedicated a whole post to that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sapporo Snow Festival

The was so excited to go to world famous Sapporo Snow Festival, known in Japan as the Yuki Matsuri. It was near the top of my things to do/places to go list during my time in Japan. I went with my bf and had plans to meet some other friends once we got up there. This is such a popular event that many JETs will most likely make their way there in early February, so it's a good time to coordinate some hang out time with friends from other prefectures.

Before arriving, I made all of my plans through Skymark airlines (a low cost domestic airline in Japan) and Rakuten Travel (great travel site in Japan since they don't require a Japanese credit card to reserve a booking). This is a huge festival so I made sure to do my research beforehand and asked others who have gone to give me some tips. This kind of preparation makes the most of trip and limits your expenses. Also, being from Miami, I was actually scared of how cold it would be on this northern most island of Japan. So I went out, bought the proper winter gear (thick socks, feather-jackets, hats, gloves, snow boots) and hoped it was enough. Thankfully, this was enough to keep me from freezing but at no point was I warm really. One day was so cold that I had to insert hot packets in my gloves and shoes which helped a lot..

This was the 63rd Yuki Matsuri and as usual, it was spread over 3 sites. The main Odori Site is where the largest snow sculptures are along with food and vendors. The Susukino Site had ice sculptures and is located in Sapporo's lively downtown district (very close to the Odori Site). And last, the Tsu Dome site is farther away and requires a shuttle bus (or a couple of train rides) to get to. This site is a family friendly place with lots of snow slides and other activities for the whole family. It took my friends and I a whole day just to cover the Odari Site for three reasons: 1.Sapporo T.V. Tower sits at one end so going up it provides a nice view of the park. 2. We wanted to see the sculptures both during the day as well as lit up at night and 3. It was so unbelievable cold that we just had to take breaks indoors every once in a while. The other two sites could both be covered done in a day.

Aside from the festival, I wanted to see more of Sapporo and Hokkaido while I was there. If you didn't think of it already, Sapporo is has a famous beer brand by the same name, so we ventured out to the Sapporo Beer Museum. I was surprised to find that it was more of a compound than just the museum. The museum portion was great. It was free to get into, not crowded, and short enough to keep your interest the whole time. In another part of the compound were the dining halls. I had read about Genghis Khan style dining being popular in Sapporo, so how much better can mounds of meat get than with some Sapporo beer? It can't. There were several halls but we happened to pick the best one - the Genghis Khan hall. The layout is that of a great medieval mead hall and the food was amazing! This dining style is all about the grill. It's a helmet-shaped, iron skillet where you drape the meat over the elevated middle portion and scatter the vegetables off to the side so they cook but not burn. Between three of us, we tried all kinds of meats, veggies, and side platters. Needless to say, we left there full and happy.

Another deviation from the snow festival was to a nearby town called Otaru. This small, coastal town is known for a beautiful snow light up they do at the same time as the Yuki Matsuri. We took a fairly inexpensive train ride (800en) that got us there in 45 minutes. Going back to what I said about preparation, my friend had talked to someone who had done some glass blowing in Otaru. Glass souvenirs are in all of the shops but without this knowledge, we never would have know that you could have this more unique experience of making your own glass souvenir. Although you need a reservation for this kind of workshop, our pretty faces got us in on the same day (It was either that or because we are gaijin (foreigners) who had that hopeful and confused puppy look). I expected to do more than what we actually did, but I guess it's understandable considering how much skill is necessary for this kind of thing. Our instructor did all of the work with the molten liquid magma stuff while we blew the air that stretched it out and eventually cut if off the pole it was attached to. They needed time to cool so they were shipped to us later that week. I was happy to find that it indeed did have that wabi-sabi, personal touch to it that makes it my beautifully unique, imperfect creation.


The light up itself was enchanting. At first it was snowing pretty heavily which was not ideal for pictures and walking without being pelted in the face, but it stopped after about 20 minutes. People were casually strolling through the scene, stopping to take pictures and being considerate of others by waiting in make-shift lines at popular spots. I especially liked how many of the scenes were set up with photos in mind. Otaru was probably the coldest I was the whole trip but definitely worth it.


The last place we ventured out to was another recommendation that I never would have know about otherwise. It was a Northern Safari that was about 1 hour and 30 minutes outside of the city via train, bus, and then shuttle bus. At first, my feelings were slightly conflicted about this place because many of the animals we saw there were completely out of their element and out in the cold just for our enjoyment. However, this kind of set up is nothing that I would ever get to experience in America and they all looked to be in good health. You were allowed to just approach the animals at your own risk without supervision. You could pet them and feed them with food that was left there (paid for on the honor system). We saw different types of owls, foxes, goats, rabbits, and monkeys. Also, other animals like a snake, piglets, ponies, meerkats, an alpaca, a giant raccoon, capybaras, a zebra, an ostrich, emus and an armadillo. Now, before you get all animal rights activist about this place, all of the animals had shelter and those that were completely out of their element were in heated enclosures. The safari wasn't crowded so we had as much time as we wanted with each of them. All in all, I had a great time going around petting and feeding animals that I never expected have such a close encounter with.

Hokkaido is known for it's great food, especially seafood and dairy products, but there weren't enough meals to try everything unfortunately.. One of the local delicacies we did get to try was butter ramen. It's much like the usual ramen except for the quarter stick of delicious Hokkaido-churned butter on top and a few added ingredients. I was very glad to try this as we were basically on our way out waiting at the train station.

I would recommend for anyone, anywhere to go to Sapporo and the Yuki Matsuri, but especially ALTs who are in the perfect position to do so. It's worth your precious nenkyuu (paid leave) and whatever amount you need to spend. I guarantee that it will be always be remembered as one of the  highlights of your time in Japan.