Sunday, 29 September 2013

september days

The days here in Miyakonojo are finally turning cooler (I even put on a cardigan yesterday) and the nights are drawing in. It's pretty pleasant turning your face up to the sun instead of hiding in any shade you can find. 

This week I accompanied two of my students to their speech contest. We've been working together on pronunciation, gestures and facial expressions since I arrived, and I know both their speeches by heart, so I was pretty excited for them! One of the girls has the least animated face I've ever encountered and I've spent many a lunch time trying to get her to smile - from pretending to be her Granny, to gesturing wildly from the back of a concert hall, to practicing together in the bathroom mirror - but the day before the contest, she finally cracked it! She went on to win first prize in her category, and my other student won second in hers - I really was thrilled to see them have their efforts rewarded. That said, some of my classes have been a little tooo genki this week (see definition 1) and I think have quietly been testing me a little.  In some of the classes they'll just sleep or talk through whatever I or the English teacher is saying! 

This weekend I camped on a beach, visited an island shrine, won second prize in a world beer and trivia night, and ate my first brunch (waffles) in Japan. But I'm a little behind, so today I'm just going to share some random pictures from the past couple of weeks. 

After my school sports day a while back I had a Tuesday off, so I headed with some fellow JETs to Kirishima shrine. It was beautifully peaceful, high up in the wooded mountains. Here people wash their hands before approaching the shrine. 

I think that bad fortunes are hung up here - one of my goals this month is to actually read up on Shinto and what happens at a shrine rather than just admiring their exotic beauty. 

I finally finished self introduction lessons at school, so I won't be wearing this bad boy for a while. 

My pigeon problem got a little out of hand... I subtly rolled this along the balcony ledge to my neighbour's side, having no idea what to do with it. 

Apartment decoration is coming along nicely with the addition of more purikura! 

I started ordering lunch using a delivery service with the other teachers - this was about 3 quid. Definitely beats a Boots meal deal... 

The teachers in general have been incredibly kind and patient with me and the other ALT Christine, helping us read our mail and memos, keeping us abreast of Japanese news and talking in English with us. Saito-sensei presented me with a fan he made for me after the school festival,  and Carlos-sensei bought me a welcome gift! I feel so lucky to have such kind colleagues. 

Hana and Haruka came around for some midweek cooking and a glass of wine. 
Last weekend we went to a karaoke place for a 2 hour all-you-can-drink-and-or-sing session. 

I was surprised by the range of songs... the Blair girls will appreciate this one :)

It may or may not have been followed by a wine-fueled combini trip for midnight snacks.

The following evening we recovered with a trip to my favourite place so far in the 'jo, Tomato Ramen.  

The next morning (Sunday) I was woken up to the sounds of fireworks and an orchestra playing at 8am, prompting confusion, outrage and consultation with my ALT neighbour!

We decided to check it out and be neighbourly.

It turned out to be, naturally, an athletics meet for seniors. We watched ancient old men  with walking sticks dribble footballs around the park and old biddies being pushed in their wheelchairs through relay finish lines. It was really nice to see old people so integrated into the community, instead of just watching their grandchildren on the sidelines (although I did keep wondering if someone was about to have a heart-attack every 5 minutes). In Japan they like to play music while they compete too, so we were treated to the site of dozens of old people, children and their parents run round and round in circles to the sound of Orpheus in the Underworld (ie. the can-can song). 

Soon we got chatting to a group of kids, and then their parents, and before we knew it we were being dragged over to join a team and have white ribbons tied round our heads. We joined in a charming game of 'throw the can in the rubbish bin' with some octogenarians as an announcer chanted into a loudspeaker, "Welcome Simon and Sophie! Welcome Simon and Sophie!" For our efforts, we were awarded with a bottle of washing up liquid each. I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to sounds from the park of whistles, cheering and strangely sad and bittersweet songs (also a common feature at most events here).

 Puppy/ kitten shopping at the mall/ kawaii overload 

Planning and plotting... it's only a week till Gabby comes to visit and we see Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. Seeing only one of those 4 attractions would be enough to make my year, so I'm pretty excited to enjoy all 4 in ten days!  

Last week we put our Monday holiday to good use with a picnic in the park. 

 The weather was so pleasant, perfect for listening to Piaf and sipping beers.

Jessica, another ALT,  was kind enough to take Christine and me on an explanatory tour of the supermarket this week. Hopefully I'll now be branching into more adventurous ideas than udon with miso and pork stir-fry. We cooked okonomiyaki with cabbage, octopus and bacon. 

I leave you with a shining example of the infamous Japanese efficiency. Each day as I cycle to school I pass the same house, and this week was no different, except that when I cycled home it was... gone. No debris, no skips, nothing but fine white dust and a single tree planted in the middle. Demolition men of the world, take note. 

Good night from Miyakonojo!  

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

things my students want to know

I present some gems from the last of my self introduction classes. This has genuinely been one of my favourite parts of teaching so far... I can't wait to set them journal assignments! 

Only if he's not a true Scotsman. 

How do I tell you no?

So we've kind of covered this. 


I have no words

Can't you tell?!

Er... ok. 

I think so?

That old chestnut.

Joking aside, my students are awesome. Yesterday I spent the day at a recitation and speech contest to support two girls I've been coaching since August. One placed 2nd in her category, and the other placed 1st in hers! I was over the moon for them, given the hours and days they've spent going over the same five paragraphs. However it does mean we have to spend another month practicing the same speeches... but, gaman. Seeing the students improve and have their efforts recognised has been extremely rewarding. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

sightseeing in kagoshima

Our little camp woke early the next day to the sun slowly cooking us in our tents. But, after coffee and an amazing breakfast spread laid out by Mugi and Satoko, we squashed  into Mugi's massive mini van and set off for a day of sightseeing. First stop was Chiran Gardens, a "miniature version of Kyoto transplanted into the heart of Satsuma." The gardens are attached to the old houses of samurais who lived in the Edo Period (1600-1868. 

We thought it only right to test out the weaponry. 

The inside of a traditional house, the walls pushed back to catch the breeze. 

Our guide gave helpful descriptions of each garden. In this one, for instance, "you may even have a vision of a mountain hermit beckoning you from on top of a rock."
This house belonged to the old lady on the verandah, who had opened it up for visitors to see. The paintings on the sliding doors were beautiful. 

We stopped for some ice cold tea before heading to lunch. 

Hello, soba hot pot. 

Food babies in tow, we drove through some beautiful cedar-covered hills to Ibusuki, famed for its hot springs and thermal sand baths. Say what?! For about seven quid, you can take a hot sand bath, followed by a sauna and soak in the onsen, or natural hot spring.  Having no idea what to expect, we changed into yukata and slippers and made our leisurely way along the promenade, passing old men and children alike. It felt like an exotic 1950s sanatorium. 

Next, these young men motioned for us to lie down, making little towel pillows for our heads, covering us in hot, gravelly sand, and propping up little umbrellas to shade our heads!  

Unfortunately the zen eluded me and we spent most of the 10 minute session giggling. The heat was extreme and made your whole body feel like it was throbbing. But, on emerging (groaning like monsters or murmuring "Sookie", of course) you felt absolutely refreshed and tingly. 

Next, we split off into girls and boys for our first onsen experience. In other words, it was time to bond with my new friends with some casual nudity. The Japanese attitude to being neked is utterly different than in the Western world (barring Scandinavia). It's really no big deal - given that in Japan it's all about the group, and not the individual, there's a complete lack of self-consciousness: it's not about you, so get over yourself. 

In the first room you discarded the yukata and cleaned yourself of excess sand with wooden saucepan-shaped receptacles from a large, deep trough. Jo and I - the only 2 girls not to have been to an onsen before - also discarded our mini towels by mistake, making it something of a baptism of fire... but hey ho. Next you proceed to a room with many little stations partitioned off from each other. You sit on a stool in front of a mirror at one and use a shower head to wash, scrub and soap yourself. Only then can you go to chill in the onsen - think a giant, non-bubbling jacuzzi that is extremely hot. Afterwards you can sauna or take a cold shower and then go change in the extremely naked changing room. Hello, women of Japan. By this time, however, it felt completely normal and we just got on with it. In some ways I think it's really healthy for young girls to grow up seeing normal women's bodies of many shapes and sizes, and to be comfortable in their own skin. 

We settled back for the roadtrip home, only to be surprised when Mugi drove us on to a pleasure ferry over to this bad boy... Sakurajima, aka an active volcano.

By this point I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the weekend, so of course these dinosaurs were the final straw. I kind of lost my shit. 


One last snap of the sky as we made our way home, deciding on our spirit animals, who would play us in a movie, and obviously which Hogwarts house we'd be in. (Genuinely no Slytherins in the car, always nice.) It was an amazing weekend.