Monday, September 28, 2009

Adventures with Megumi

One of my favorite people- the ever crazy, fun loving, adventurous Megumi came to visit me in Shimane. Megumi is currently attending college in Tokyo but wanted to come visit Shimane-ken (for some reason she had never been out this way before. . .). Anyway she took a night bus from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and it was for her sake that, at four o'clock Saturday morning, I drove Japan Car to Hiroshima. Now, I am somewhat of a morning person but nothing in this world besides love for my friend would have dragged me out of my warm bed to drive for four hours into the crazy traffic inevitable of a big city in Japan.

And it was definitely worth it. In the morning, we visited Miyajima. I would like it to be made known at this point that my camera chose this time to die- just as I was visiting this lovely , historic place considered to be one of the three most scenic spots in all of Japan. Thanks, camera. Anyway the pictures from here on out are taken on my phone camera and are therefore considerably crappier than normal. Miyajima is a little island off the coast of Hiroshima. It's inhabited by very tame deer that have an appetite for maps and tourist's pockets. They are everywhere and will literally walk right up to you. That giant red torii or sacred gate you see behind us in this picture, is the thing people mostly come to see. While we were walking around the temple we got a got a glimpse of a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. These ceremonies are ridiculously expensive and intricate- I can't imagine what it must have cost to do one in Miyajima. After the main ceremony a god comes down and does a dance for the bride and groom- he is wearing a crazy mask that looks something like a fox or a dog. Not that you can see anything in this video anyway (thanks again phone camera).

After Miyajima we explored the city some more (i.e. ate and shopped- girls are pros at these activities).Hiroshima was brilliant, and we had a great time. But between Osaka and Hiroshima I've decided I'm THROUGH driving in big cities in Japan. The crowded, tiny roads are one of many reasons to take the train whenever possible
We hung around Okuizumo some today. I would like to point out that even Megumi, who is Japanese and from Toyama which is pretty rural, was astonished at how inaka (rural) Okuizumo is. I'm telling you guys- you have to see it to believe it.

This afternoon we went to Izumo city to see Izumo Taisha 出雲大社 one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan. Izumotaisha is famous for its 1.ancient architecture, 2.being the gathering place for the eight million Japanese gods and for 3.its huge Shimenawa.

1. It is built in the Taisha style, the oldest building style that involved a roof made of straw
. Every sixty years it undergoes construction, not the least important of which involves replacing the disgusting, moldy, straw from sixty years ago with new clean straw. This construction takes five years to complete. Unfortunately I happened to arrive in the Izumo area during this construction so I hadn't been able to visit it until now, but fortunately the main work is finished and we can see the front gate. 2. In October all the gods of Japan are said to gather in Izumo at this shrine. So while the rest of Japan is going to be sad and godless (called kannazuki or the "month without gods") we are going to be tripping over them (In the Izumo area we call October kamiarizuki or "the month with gods").
3. The shimenawa or big rope used in Shinto religion to mark a holy place is the biggest in all of Japan- it is thirteen meters long and weighs for tons. I'm pretty sure that is heavier than Japan Car. On the right you can see the underside of one of the fluffy ends of this rope- the diameter of this beast is probably about two meters in and of itself. People try and throw coins in it so they stick there. The fun part is often when you try to throw a coin in instead it will knock loose a shower of other coins down on you. This shrine was built for the god Ōkuninushi, who establishes marriages and good relationships He's the rabbit guy- remember him from my previous post! See, it all comes around.

Sadly, Megumi had to leave me tonight. But I am lucky to have such awesome people in my life.
I can't say anything more or I will start crying all over my keyboard.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

お米/ The Honorable Rice

The secret's out: Japanese people like rice. I mean, they REALLY like rice. Like the Inuits and their one hundred words for snow, the Japanese have numerous words for rice. Before its cooked its called o-kome,honorable rice, then when its cooked its called gohan (which, not coincidentally, is also the word for meal)- there is rice wine (sake), rice candy, special rice you eat for celebrations, rice you give to the gods- the list goes on.
Okuizumo is famous for its very delicious rice. Named 仁多米 or Nita Rice, I find it is rather tasty (although if you talk to any native of the area they will talk about it as the be all and end all of rice). In fact, Minari Elementary recently went on a school field trip to Hiroshima and when describing the trip to me, one boy felt the need to note that Hiroshima's rice was not nearly as tasty as Okuizumo's. Heheh. Everywhere around me there are rice fields. I thought there were a lot of corn fields in Lafayette- but there is no comparison to the amount of rice fields around here. People have recently begun harvesting rice. This rice harvest is something I've never seen before. They have machines that cut the rice and then different areas have their own way of drying the rice. In Ai they make crazy huge walls of rice. You can see three within two minutes of my apartment.
Another family makes use of the guard rail alongside the road for a drying rack. In Yokota it seems they make little rice teepees. I eat rice at least twice a day (I hope to change this in my future pilgrimage to Osaka where there is a Costco and industrial sized cartons of oatmeal. I love rice, but for breakfast oats are my carbohydrate of choice).
Ah, rice.

On an unrelated and much grosser note, I saw my first Mukade the other day. Mukade are pretty much giant mutant centipedes, whose sting can kill a small child. Read: the monsters of my worst nightmares. He was in the doorway of the teachers office at Nita Junior High. There are various gory ways of killing Mukade. You can cut them in half with scissors. You can pour boiling water on them. You can smash them with a hammer. But unfortunately, you cannot simply squish them in a handkercheif. Oh, and they always travel in husband/wife pairs. How romantic.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Making the Rounds

So last week I introduced my seven adorable schools to you. As I've made the rounds this week I've been taking pictures of the places. Have some visual!

Nita Middle School 仁多中学校

I wish you could see for yourselves the grandeur of this place. A road from the main thoroughway breaks off into two sweeping roads that go up a hill and encircle this huge bushy area. A gate and walkway seperate the main building from the outside world. I go here three times a week. My two Japanese Teachers of English, henceforth known as JTE's are Mr. Itohara and Mr. Fujimoto. They both speak fairly good English. I play volleyball after school with the girls on Monday and Wednesday and I plan to join Kendo on Friday (Although this Friday I was picking grapes with the Superintendent- eep!). Like most middleschoolers, the kids are pretty taciturn. Something happens to kids after middle school, and I think we can blame puberty. However, outside of class the girls especially like to come talk to me and ask every question they can think of -- in Japanese. Sigh. Yesterday I was so tired after lunch that I fell asleep for fifteen minutes with my head on my arms on my desk. When I woke up there was a note from the principal (Fukuda's husband- a great guy) that says "Please rest for 45 minutes each day firmly". I guess they were concerned I wasn't taking my lunch break properly. At least I didn't drool on the papers.
Kamedake Elementary School

This is one of my schools that is the farthest away. It certainly is the least pretty building. There is a lot of construction going on at the grounds. Most of the elementary schools don't really have JTE's, like I said before, they are homeroom teachers that also teach English. The staff at this school is almost all women which is fun for me but I'm sure terrible for the lone male (heh heh heh). When I first came to visit the principal, a cute tiny lady, said "If you have the chance, please take it!" and I was extremely confused until I remembered that the word for chance, kikai, also means opportunities. She was trying to say "Please take advantage of your opportunities". Isn't language fun?

Takao Elementary School 高尾小学校
This is another school that is quite far, and it's also one of two elementaries that only have sixteen students. I like it a lot though- feels like a family. As I was driving up the dangerous, narrow mountain path to this school, the students spotted me and started shouting Natalie Sensei! It's Natalie Sensei! Then literally the whole school walked me inside. I talked for a while with the Principal, who apparently had lived in Mexico city for three years (although he still doesn't speak a lick of Spanish as far as I can tell). My JTE here actually also majored in art. Kanetsuki (Bell Ringer) Sensei is a funny guy. He said he can never go home because his wife is terrible- she has two horns, he says. The kids here drew me a gian poster that is now hanging on my wall. Adorable.
AiElementary School 阿井小学校
Ai is my closest elementary school- it's literally a 10 minute bike ride away. The staff here include the infamous "cherry blossom girls" and two English supervisors who are very kind. The students at this school are the best. When I was doing my self-introduction they ooohed and aaaahed and gasped and laughed at all the right moments. They hold my hand in the hallway and ask me questions after class. The Bon-Odori was held at the grounds in this school.

Minari Elementary School 三成小学校

Minari is the closest district to Shimoai, it's only about ten minutes away by car. I got to play with the students at this school during recess and we played an epic game of 鬼ごっこonigokko where oni means demon and gokko means a game of make believe). Most of the game was spent hiding in the jungle gym where the kids asked "who is the demon? who is the demon?" They were a bit quiet at first but I think from now on they will open up a bit more that I have chased them screaming around a playground.

Fuse Elementary School 布勢小学校

Fuse elementary definitely has the most reserved children and staff. It is kind of a hard school to go to. I'm trying to reserve judgement un
til I visit again though.

Takata Elementary School 高田小学校

Takata is one of the farthest and smallest schools, also boasting only sixteen students. I like it except that one day Ian and I went for a conference and Ian totally stole the show. Ian is very tall, from Seattle (which has the Mariners and Ichiro- Japan's Hero), and knows a lot about movies- three things that really impress people around here. So he totally stole the show. Now they have a special place reserved for his shoes in the shoe cupboard even though IT'S MY SCHOOL! Curse you, Ian ;) Just kidding. I played dodgeball with the kids and it was fun- even though the seven year old boys wiped the floor with me. This week they were on a feild trip so English was canceled and I didn't get a picture. But it is probably also the prettiest school.

On a side note, I went to the post office on Thursday to buy some envelopes to mail a letter.letter. In the midst of the hubbub I forgot to take with me the two envelopes I didn't use. Today I arrived home to find out that the post office had mailed me home the forgotten envelopes. The value of these envelopes totalled about forty cents, and they spent ninety cents to ship them to me. Maybe I'm just pessimistic but I'm pretty sure in America the postal workers would either 1. throw away the unused envelopes or 2. put them back on the shelves with a slightly marked down price. Japan's communal society means that everyone is obliged to take care of each other, even to this kind of degree some would consider silly.
I thought it was ridiculous and awesome at the same time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Translation Party/ GIBAMASHAI!

Translation Party!

If you are ever bored and are a huge language nerd this is the website for you.

Also, for my faithful fourth year Japanese students, please enjoy some local dialect.

In Japan there are many different dialects- some differ so much it would be hard for a person in one prefecture to understand the speech of another. Like America, there is a standard dialect (go midwest!!) which is the Tokyo dialect or kyōtsūgo 共通語. Mostly everyone speaks to me in the kyōtsūgo but sometimes they let some Izumo-ben, or Izumo dialect, slip. Here are some of my favorite examples so far:

だんだん dan dan  = ありがとう arigatou = thank you
This is the most common izumo-ben, plus it sounds cute. We went to the Dan Dan Festival that first week!
ばんじまして banjimashite = おやすみ oyasumi = Good night!
I used this one once and got told I sounded like an old lady. Oops.
そげそげ soge soge = そうかそうかsouka souka = Hmm, is that so?
ぎばむ gibamu = がんばる ganbaru = Do your best/good luck.
I think when people use this verb in command form it sounds like gibamashai! Very odd.
ぐすい gusui = かるい karui = dark

For more check out this handy Izumo-Ben Dictionary (good luck though, I had trouble with all the kanji). I was told that after coming to Shimane I would sound in Japanese like a country girl, and with any luck this dream can come true ;)


Monday, September 7, 2009

Jan Ken Pon 

Last week was my first week of school, and what a week it was.
This is my complete list of schools:
Nita Middle School 仁多中学校
Kamedake Elementary School 亀嵩小学校
Takao Elementary School 高尾小学校
Takata Elementary School 高田小学校
Ai Elementary School 阿井小学校
Minari Elementary School 三成小学校
Fuse Elementary School 布勢小学校

Nita is my main school, I go there three times a week- all afternoon Monday and Friday and all day on Wednesday. I go half days to each elementary school, for example Takao in the morning then Takata in the afternoon. This is kind of tough because some of the schools are half an hour away from each other.
Last week and this week I am making the rounds of all my schools doing my self introduction or 自己紹介. I met all kinds of students and teachers. Some students are super genki even in class and ask me every question- I've heard everything from the obvious "What is your favorite food?" to the completely obscure "What is your favorite bird?" or "Do you support Obama?".
I think some kids would not speak to me if they had a gun pointed to their head.
The teachers are all different too. Some of them want me to speak only in English, and they will help students out in Japanese to understand what I'm saying. Some want me to say everything in both Japanese and English. But the worst is those who want me to say everything in English, and then they dont know enough English to translate. The students stare at me blankly while I jabber on about myself and Indiana. That is the most frusterating thing. You see, the Elementary school teachers are kind of like ours in America- the homeroom teacher teaches everything from Science to Math to, well, English. Did your second grade teacher speak fluent Japanese? I think not.
There are also all kinds of principals and staff. I got to sit down Takata's principal, who has basically traveled the whole world, and talk for a whole hour about the difficulties in Japanese as a Second Language vs. English as a Second Language. It was such a good conversation- really enlightening. The vice principal and two other staff members call themselves the "Cherry Blossom Girls" and are like happy, middle aged cheerleaders. They fed me sweets and told me I am cute. Today's school, Fuse, had very reserved staff. The principal was kind but reserved and the vice principal looked permanently like she had been sucking on a lemon. Needless to say today was a bit hard.
Another difference between America and Japan is that here elementary is considered to run from first through sixth grade. Middle school is seventh, eighth, and ninth, and high school is tenth, eleventh and twelfth. Everyone at the BOE was really surprised and appalled to hear we have four years of high school- until it was discovered that we just label the years differently.

In Japan everything is solved by the game "Jan Ken Pon" or "Rock Paper Scissors". I mean everything- no exaggeration. Who is going to be "it" at recess? Jan ken pon. Who will read this paragraph? Jan ken pon. Who will do anything? Jan Ken Pon. Their love of this game gets a bit irksome- especially when fifteen minutes goes by locked in an epic rock paper scissors battle. Because somehow you can play it with infinity people. Who wins in a fifteen person round of jan ken pon? I have no idea. But the kids somehow can tell. In fact when I told the teacher that we don't often use rock paper scissors for this purpose in the states she looked at me in bewilderment and asked "Well then how do you decide things?"
I have to admit it does have its useful times. Who will Natalie-sensei do the cleaning with? Jan ken pon. It saved me today from having my arms ripped off by two small girls vying for my attention. Unfortunately the winner was on toilet duty, so I got stuck mopping the johns. Here, every day students clean the school. Remember that scene in Spirited Away where the kids are pushing around towels on the floor? That really happens. It's cool because there are no janitors. But also they don't really use any cleaning supplies besides water so I'm not sure how clean anything actually gets. Ah well. It's the thought that counts.

One thing I have really missed in Japan is human contact. Back home I can expect a hug from my friends- even acquaintences. But mostly people don't touch each other here. How different especially from Hispanic culture where we GREET people with a kiss on both cheeks! I was really feeling lonesome about the lack of human contact at this quiet school today until one girl attached herself to me, wrapped her arms around my waist, and hugged me about ten times. She and her three friends hardly let go of my hand the entire day.
I was so thankful for this unassuming kindness.