27 November 2010

Knowing each other

This is a phrase that seems to be used by JTEs and in lesson plans. Initially it really grated on me, but I've since come to like it. It's the goal afterall.

I was advised early on that really getting to know Japanese people can prove difficult on JET, especially (obviously) if you don't speak Japanese. On my second day in Fujieda I was lucky enough to visit my night school teacher's house for dinner with my predecessor. It was a sort of goodbye to her, hello to me thing. My etiquette wasn't (and still isn't) up to much! I didn't realise that we'd be going to his house and not a restaurant so I didn't bring omiyage! Having just skimmed though the 'useful phrases' we were given at Tokyo Orientation, I couldn't even remember what you're supposed to say when you enter someone's house. It means something like 'sorry for the intrusion', but the Japanese still escapes me!

It was a great experience...seeing the inside of an actual Japanese house, sitting on the floor (because I don't in my apartment), being given lots of random foods to try, being asked random questions about Ireland and asking them about Japan. Afterwards my pred told me that visiting a Japanese house is a rare experience. She said that people here tend to be too reserved and private to invite you over. This explains the reverence JETS seem to have for the humble homestay. A while back, there was a festival in a small Shizuokian town with homestays available. You had to apply way in advance and there was a huge rush. Unfortunately I didn't hear about it until the places were all gone.

Of course I was lucky enough to do a homestay at the Hanagasa Dancing parade festival in Ito...though we didn't actually stay with the family there but in a separate apartment. It was very western, with beds, a table and chairs, and continental breakfast. Recently, I also got the chance to stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn in Nagoya. I slept on a futon there, which is still a novelty for me because I have a bed in my apartment. It was really comfortable! There was also an sento..which I didn't actually use, and slippers to wear around the house, so to speak.

But at last I have found the perfectest opportunity to interact with Japanese people! I got chatting to a really cool JTE who I don't actually teach with. While other teachers are year heads or responsible for a club activity, she's in charge of delivering the school's PET bottles to the recycling factory in Shimada. I offered to help her one time and on the drive she told me about the Time Circle. A group of JTEs from various schools, plus one American ALT meet on Saturdays to read Time magazine. They take turns reading the article (summarize it in Japanese...which I have tended to zone out during) and then discuss it. It sounded pure class to me. Free readsies of Time! Meeting English-speaking Japanese people! Intellectual discussion!

I attended for the first time two weeks ago. I didn't realise that we'd be going to someone's house and not some sort of community centre so I didn't bring omiyage!(..sensing a pattern?) Yet again I failed to recall 'sorry for intruding' in Japanese so I just bowed a lot and said 'DOZO yoroshiku onegaishimasu' (the politest nice to meet you phrase). And there I was, seated in the quaintest little living room, being quizzed about my country again. The man whose house it was introduced himself as Masahiro and then told me to call him 'Masa', because he knew that Japanese names are difficult...after which I knew with certainty that I would remember his whole name. There were cushions and doilies everywhere, kawaii! There was even a huge doily/lace thing covering the piano. Every seat had one of those thin tie-on cushions, including those on the already-comfortable couch.

The Time Circle participants drifted in one by one and we began reading an article about youth movements in Burma. Masahiro has a slow, measured way of speaking. I could listen to him for a long time. Unlike your stereotypical older Irish person, he seems to be fairly liberal and open, as well as having a lot of interesting stories. Our conversation about religion concluded with the realisation that we were all non-practicing Catholics and religious tolerance is cool. Anyway, we read sections of the article in turns and I could only feel admiration for these Japanese teachers who were taking on the daunting task of untangling and interpreting the complicated grammar and vocabulary of Time writer in order to discuss world events in Eigo. It's difficult to appreciate how varied and illogical our sentence structures can be until you're trying to explain one to an obviously intelligent and yet lost Sempai. Thankfully, the American ALT was there too!

The circle quickly descended into general conversation about Ireland, America and Japan. Let's just say I heard enough ninja vs mukade stories to make me very fearful of living in Japan during the summer! In the end I was invited to the group's 'Potluck party', maybe a standard term in the States but I was like huh?...when they explained, we go to someone's house and everybody brings food, I was like, aha!
That happened tonight. Funtimes!

23 November 2010

My thing about Buddhas

I have long been wholly ignorant about Japanese religion. With a vague sense of the coexistence of Buddhism and Shinto I've visited shrines and struggled to identify them as one or the other. Yet I really love visiting shrines! There's a peace and acceptance there that lack of knowledge hasn't prevented me from experiencing.

Since I've been in Japan, some Japanese and non-Japanese friends have helped me to untangle the mass of rituals and symbols around me...


-Statues of Buddha (seems like it should be obvious, but it wasn't!)

-Incense and oranges...this is what gets offered instead of cash

-Omikuji...meaning 'sacred lottery', you pay for a random slip of paper with a fortune on it. If it's good you can keep it for luck or tie it to pine tree or a wall of metal wires in the shrine grounds. If it's bad, you always tie it up in the shrine. A possible reason for the custom is a pun on the Japanese word 'matsu' which means 'pine tree' and 'to wait'.


-Purification...washing your hands and mouth before entering temples. There's a specific procedure you're supposed to follow. At the basin you hold the ladle in your right hand, pouring water on your left, then vice verse. Finally you pour water into one hand and wash your mouth with it.

-red gates...translated 'bird perch',they mark the passage from the profane to the sacred at the entrance to the shrine. Some shrines have multiple ones, apparently designating increasing levels of holiness. I'm not so sure how this works at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with it's millions of gates ascending the hill, but it sure is beautiful:

-Paper streamers...called 'shide', they are zigzagged and often found hanging in the shrines.

-Clapping, bowing, throwing money...in the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo there were English instructions on how to donate money. Standing in the main shrine building, in front of a large wooden box which is covered on top by rectangular wooden bars, you clap to announce your presence to the kami, throw your money into the box (it often bounces before falling though), clap again and bow.

-Omikuji...again! It's a Japanese thing!

-Ema...these are small wooden plaques on which you write a prayer or wish. You buy them in the shrine and leave them hanging there for the kami (Shinto gods/spirits) to receive

Despite these clarifications, it's also become clear to me that religions in Japan are seriously intermingled and interrelated. Many Japanese people don't identify with any particular religion but participate in rituals associated with multiple ones. As one JTE of mine paraphrased, 'Many Japanese are brought to Shinto temples as children, have Christian white weddings, and then Buddhist funerals'.

My confusion about Japanese shrines was compounded when I noticed that some...in fact many, shrines exhibit a range of features from both lists. It seems that a Buddhist shrine was often built alongside a Shinto one and they later amalgamated! This is a serious culture shock...

I've been asked why there was so much fighting over difference of religion in Ireland...and failed to adequately explain the mess of religious-political alignment very well. I've wondered about the divisive motives of Christian leaders back home who criticise worshippers for attending a Protestant Church when the usually attend a Catholic one. Isn't religion supposed to be about love and acceptance? It looks to me like religious freedom can be about more than freely choosing one religion to be restricted by.

Considering that 84% of Japanese people claim to have no personal religion, while a similar percentage of Irish people call themselves Catholic, I find it surprising that people in Japan don't vilify one another on the basis of religion, shrines here aren't deserted and there's a much greater sense of spirituality there than you find at Sunday mass.

10 November 2010

Still the scariest thing in Japan

You'd think that after 3 months in Japan my arachnophobia would be improving. After all, I'm pretty sure that therapists treat arachnophobics by exposing them to spiders, after which their fear gradually subsides. Given that I've got the exposure part down (well, I have seen 3 massive spiders here so far), I figure I should give talking, the other aspect of spider-therapy, a try. That way maybe some day I'll be able to sleep soundly at night.

This morning as I was heading into the library building at school, I spotted massive spider number 3 making it's way in ahead of me. It was not a huntsman as far as I could tell. I mean to say that it didn't walk sideways but forwards. That said, it was bigger than any other breed of Japanese spider is supposed to be so maybe it was a huntsman...It crawled into the librarian's office where they key for the audio-visual room (where I teach) is kept, and hid behind a stack of newspapers. I pointed it out to my JTE, who didn't look too worried.

Later that day...I had to go back into the room 5 more times to take and return the key between classes! Each time I was frantically scanning the walls/floor/ceiling and preparing myself to be lept upon by the hideous beast. At one point I bumped into the innocent librarian, whom I probably shouldn't have told about the spider. (But I had to warn her!) In fact I didn't tell her, I mimed it and she understood fairly well. I even learnt the Japanese word for spider, kumo. So now I know what to yell when one accosts me suddenly.

In any case I spend the rest of the day in turmoil. If there's one there, there could be others around the school! Is there one under my desk? Hidden under the A4 paper in the photocopying room? Lurking in the microwave?..I swear I opened it so cautiously when I was heating up my lunch.

All this living in terror got me thinking..is arachnophobia irrational? After all, I've had people laugh at me for it in the past.

In fact the accusation of irrational fear begins with the assumption that I belive spiders to be dangerous and so I'm afraid of them. Spiders are mostly not dangerous and so I am irrational. Actually, I know that most spiders are pretty harmless. Particularly in Ireland, where no spider is even big enough to hurt a fly..kind of.
Even though I know that spiders can't hurt me, I still admitt to having the fight-or-flight response. I definately have one of these (hence the butchering..and the swearing never to shower again when I saw Japanese spider number 2 in my bathroom). According to Wikipedia, many sufferers are aware that they are not in danger, but their body thinks they are..hence the panic.

The second wiff of irrationality comes from one of my childhood experiences involving spiders. Apparently, phobias are often a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was 8...I used to freakin' love spiders. I collected them in jars as a pastime. Then one day, as I was releasing a particularly lovely one onto a picnic table, I dropped the jar on top of it! The beautiful roundy ball on it's back got all smushed and I felt SO bad, like SO, SO bad. It was such a tragic climax to my day of spider-hunting. After all, hadn't I been trying to set it free at the time?

The thing is...I wasn't traumatised. I wasn't afraid at any point. If anything I should be afraid of accidentally killing spiders...but man am I not. In fact, if they so much as come inside my apartment I happily butcher them.

Ok, so maybe I am arachnophobic, but maybe it's not my fault...

There are some evolutionary psycologists who claim that arachnophobia may be a natural reaction to the existence of poisonous spiders. Our ancestors who were afraid of them avoided them, and so less of them got spider bites, more of them survived...and here I am today. This theory is kind of discredited though, seeing as people tend to be less afraid of more dangerous insects like wasps. People are disproportionately afraid of spiders..and don't I know it.

...but maybe it's just embedded in popular culture. Look at Miss Muffet! And indeed it turns out that in some countries people eat spiders and they're not afraid of them there.

Most promisingly...studies with crickets have shown that arachnophobia may develop before birth! Makes sense...my birthday is in November, so I was fetal during summer, the most spidery season on the year. I also know that my mother travelled to Greece when she was pregnant with me...maybe she saw a really big spider there, and her terror travelled down the umbilical cord and embedded itself in my unconscious..that could explain it all.

05 November 2010

"Suntan" and the Japanese Healthcare System

Just over a month ago, I sustained some pretty bad sunburn while surfing (aka lying like a beached whale on my surfboard and plunging headfirst into the water each time I tried to stand up) at Shizunami beach. This is the story of the extremely unpleasant week following..

On the Saturday itself we didn't wear wetsuits because the weather was warm..and who would have known that that came with its own perils? I usually make a habit of lathering myself with sun cream if it's not cloudy out and that fateful day was no exception. My face, arms and neck were completely covered. Of course, I neglected to put any on my legs because I was thinking...sure my legs will be underwater right? Wrong...my legs were on the surfboard. I practically sunbathed on my stomach for 5 hours with no sun cream, and 3 more hours with it after some (wonderful, wonderful) person pointed out that the back of my legs looked sort of red..I guess it could have been even worse!

On the way home I knew that something was up..I had extreme shivers and started feeling sick. At home I covered my legs in after sun and went to bed early. I knew that it was bad sunburn, but I was hoping that it wasn't seriously bad. I'd seen third degree burns from the sun before, with blisters and bandages, so since I couldn't see any blisters I was hoping that it'd be alright.

I woke up, sometime between 12 and 1 and felt super warm and dehydrated. When I went to the kitchen to get a drink the nausea started, awful, head-swimming debilitation. With a lot of difficulty I walked back to my room to get my phone to call for help before I blacked out. I was so uncoordinated that I actually stumbled and smacked my head off my bedside locker. It was like being really, really drunk!

Unsure of who to call I started with my supervisor, whom I felt terrible for waking up! As I lay on my bed the darkness encroaching on the sides of my vision retreated a little so we decided that I didn't need to be taken to the hospital immediately. (Even if I did...how scary would that have been, in an ambulance unable to communicate with the paramedics?) After I hung up, the nausea got worse again so I called my JET neighbour who totally saved the day. Having reassured my parents on the phone, she googled sun stroke and made me an ice-bath. It was a fully blown battle of wills to get me into the bath, but my legs were burning and I was still really sick and confused so I did it.

The recovery was incredibly fast! I was shivering and shaking all over, but suddenly coherent again. That cold water stayed in my bath for the next 48 hours and I got back into it whenever my legs felt too hot. In the meantime, I began sleeping in my aircon room and drinking lots of water. Sunstroke crisis averted!

At school, most of the teachers were pretty amused by my 'suntan', which meant that I couldn't walk properly (the skin at the back of one of my knees had melted together). I've since come to the conclusion that Japanese people very rarely get sunburned, because few of them seemed to have the slightest idea what I meant by the word. They kept referring back to it as bad 'suntan'. At one point, a teacher confided in me that I should look after myself very well because suntan could in fact be like a real burn...at which point I had to stop myself from bursting in to song, someone understood!

Despite their difficulty in understanding my condition, the teachers were amazingly kind and helpful to me during that week and the next. Initially I thought I didn't need a doctor, but having spoken to a VHI nurse in Ireland on the phone, I decided that I did. At this point I'd developed a few blisters on the back of my legs, they were still burning all of the time and it was pretty much impossible to lie down, sit or walk normally. So that Thursday, 5 days after surfing, I applied for my nenkyu, recruited my translator, and prepared for my first encounter with the Japanese Health System.

Two hours later, we were still cuing at the dermatologist. I learnt that there are no G.P.s in Japan. People go straight to specialists. Luckily, it was pretty obvious which one I required, and my teachers were able to recommend a good, nearby one. Having filled out a form (surprise!), we joined the long cue in the waiting room. The receptionists wore surgical masks and each time the door to the doctor's room opened, I could see two nurses with masks, hospital style pull-around curtains and a doctor with (I'm pretty sure) surgical scrubs on. It was pretty damn intimidating!

When my turn finally came, I was probably relieved and terrified in equal measure. In the room I had to take off my trousers (funtimes, my JTE translator was male) and
lie on their table thing. The worst part was not being able to see what they were doing behind me. At first, there were 4 people crowding around, staring at my legs. Then, the nurses were running all over the place applying stuff with cotton buds, prodding and poking etc. At one point, I glanced behind me to see one advancing with a scissors...I was like WTF? No way...

Unfortunately, I had precious little say over what happened. The JTE seemed to translate only a small portion of what was said and the doctor didn't seem happy with my asking questions. Having treated the burn in various mysterious ways, he gave me stuff to put on it and told me to return the next day. He also refused to prescribe aspirin for me because, as he expertly derived from my medical form, aspirin gave me asthma. When I tried to protest we were ushered out of the room...NEXT!

I had to go back twice more, though it would have been more times had I not headed off to Tokyo that weekend and been more available. Instead they weighed me down with medical supplies and instructed me to change the bandages myself twice daily. This turned out to be not only complicated, but pretty painful since the nurses stuck the surgical tape on skin that ripped away when I removed it, ouch/itai!

Fortunately, whatever the dermatologist did worked, because the burn improved, I stopped developing blisters and the skin at the back of my knee magically unstuck itself so that I could walk again. Walking when you haven't been able to for even a short period of time is the most amazing feeling!

The 'suntan' episode was probably my worst JET experience so far, but I survived thanks to quick-thinking friends and wonderful Japanese teachers. Let's just say that I don't care to require the services of the Japanese Healthcare System again any time soon...and always. remember. to wear sun screen.

03 November 2010

Teaching Debating

As JET Programme participants, we're employed to teach oral English. For many JETs this seems to involve conducting lessons on a number of key topics: food, hobbies, careers etc. They teach vocabulary and get the students to practice using it in a real situation, like ordering food at a restaurant. As it happens though, I don't do that at all. I mostly teach debating.

This is only possible because of the really high level of my students..they are absolute ledges all of them! Thus it would be pretty pointless conducting lessons on key topics because they already know all the vocab and probably more about English grammar than I do! My JTEs never asked me to use a book for teaching or to follow any set curriculum. I was left with the opportunity to teach whatever I wanted..so I decided it was best to play to my strengths. Some super-insightful JTEs even said that they wanted to try debating, talk about being in the right school at the right time!

There are several reasons why teaching debating works..it involves speaking English of course, English which can be as complicated or as simple as the students want. Often they surprise me by coming out with vocabulary that I had no idea they knew. For example, there's a debating warm-up game that we play with first (15-16) and second (16-17) years. We clear away the desks and designate sides of the room as agree and disagree. Then I read out sentences and they move to express their opinion. Finally, we ask some students why they agree or disagree. One sentence I use is 'Students should not wear school uniforms'. Typically, Japanese students disagree with this. First years say things like: It is convenient or It costs less money. Second years use more complicated English: It teaches us group identity. The advantage is that the students we call on can use whatever English they have to answer.

The second reason why debating works, is that it gently encourages students to act as individuals. During the above game, the same class who had collectively chosen to disagree with the sentence about uniforms, were suddenly split down the middle when I read 'The U.S. military should leave Okinawa'. Friends had heated discussions before parting ways in the middle of the room...a deprival of group identity and participation in the culture of the English-speaking world, individuality! The first kind of debating we taught was Impromptu. We graded the speeches on a number of criteria, one of which was 'expression of opinion'. For every point they made in a speech they had to give a reason, no blindly agreeing with popular opinion because it's popular..what do YOU think?

The final advantage of debating as I see it, is that it guides students toward critical thinking. Ok, so maybe it's time I took off my college hat..but I honestly think that it's a pretty crucial life-skill and people should be introduced to it as early as possible. After Impromptu, the students graduate to British Parliamentary Debating. This is the point at which I struggle to explain terms like principle analysis and model definition to the JTE...and that's before the lesson even begins! In the end, the students incredible English has saved the day thus-far. They knew the word 'abstract', which helped me cut some dark, translation-filled corners. Then came the gasps of 'Eeeehhhhhh' when I revealed that we'd need to ask WHY? at least 3 times for each point in BP. Lights, camera, critical thinking.

Maybe it should worry me that only one out of three 'debating rocks' points mention English, but it doesn't! The students get their English practice in. Seeing as I'm under-qualified to improve their language skills, I might as well improve their communication. After all, what's the point of speaking English if you can't use it to engage in real discussion?

30 October 2010


On my second day in Fujieda there was what I later learnt, is called a typhoon in Japan. Essentially it rained pretty heavily. And don't get me wrong, I dislike rain as much as anyone, 'any cold, wet thing, I don't really...', but it was not the mythical, exciting storm I was expecting when I heard about Japanese typhoons. In fact, now that I google it:

a tropical cyclone or hurricane of the western Pacific area and the China seas.
a violent storm or tempest of India.

And google image it:

You see, I'd wrongly assumed that I had the wrong impression of typhoons before coming to Japan. Surely, all these Japanese people calling heavy rain typhoons must be right, living as they do on the continent where typhoons happen, but apparently not. Maybe there's a typhoon somewhere very far away sending us a little rain? I figure that's the only possible explanation, confirming as my googling does that a typhoon's a cyclone/hurricane...ala the first scene of the Wizard of Oz. I can only hope that the predicted magnitude of the Tokai earthquake is being similarly blown out of proportion..

Despite the uneventfulness of typhoons, they're pretty annoying. Anything other than dry, mild weather is annoying when you have to cycle in it. On waking up for the first time in Fujidea to the familiar sound of rainfall, I was a little worried that I'd be blamed for bringing the weather with me. Luckily, I had an old ama-gappa (Japanese rain gear) consisting of a jacket and trousers that my predecessor had left me to weather my first Japanese storm.

As she predicted, it soaked through after a while. The trousers were kinda short, reaching about halfway up my calves on the bike. The hood was far too small for my head so that rain was flying full on into my eyes..unideal since my lack of cycling coordination was close to landing my in a ditch anyway. (A lot of the residential roads in my area are flanked by deep ditches about 10cm wide, hazard!) The worst part though, was that the sleeves had no elastic around the cuffs, so the water ran down inside them, up my arms.

I avoiding buying a new ama-gappa for a good while. In September, the next 'typhoon' hit and I decided that arriving at school with soggy trouser-legs, face and sleeves wasn't ideal! I bought a dress-type thing at Apita, a department store near Fujieda train station. I though it would be convenient for wearing skirts with. It didn't soak through and the sleeves were elasticated, but unfortunately it only reached down to my knees on the bike, so the soaking trousers, shoes and socks problem continued..

Today, the third 'typhoon' has hit, as predicted..though it's been raining on and off recently as well. I had somehow managed to misplace my dress ama-gappa so last night I set out on a mission to make myself waterproof once and for all.

It started with opening packs of ama-gappa in Apita, trying on different sizes and styles. I'm not sure that they allow that, but I was hiding behind shelves of rain-gear so the staff couldn't see me..several other shoppers stared, but that could have been a gaijin thing. The hardest part was stuffing them back into their little plastic packets. I can tell you that I ripped more than one pack in the attempt. Partly due to guilt, and partly because it was decent, I bought my new ama-gappa there. It's black, with super long trousers, elasticated sleeves and best of all that oh-so-Japanese transparent part on the front of the hood, which allows you to pull it down over your eyes without impacting your peripheral vision.

The other typhoon measure I had resolved to take was purchasing wellies. Of course I change my shoes upon arrival at school, but that's not much good if my socks are already soaked through..I looked in Apita, the shoe shop in Bivi and finally ended up in Seiyu, an amazingly cheap chain of department stores. I'm informed that they're a classier version of Wall mart.

The problem I have with wellies, is that I've humongous calves which refuse to be shrouded in tight-fitting, non-stretchy, rubbery material. I explained this using gestures to a staff-member who approached me in one shop, and she recommended wellie-shoes. Unsure of how to gesture 'kill me already', I just shook my head. They were like wellies, but just shoe size, and each pair sported a brighter and zanier pattern than the last.

In the end, I went with a compromise, short wellies...possibly men's' short wellies at that, which meant at least that they were available in sober hues. In Seiyu there were ultra tight-fitting women's' ones and massive, loose-fitting men's' ones with no in between. I bought the smallest man-size which are just a little too big.

The cherry on my water-repellent cake is the gloves. I found them in Seiyu and they cost nearly as much as the ama-gappa, but with them I can guarantee scalp to sole dryness.

Now that I'm all kitted out, I was of course eagerly awaiting today's typhoon. Unfortunately, my plans for going out have been cancelled because of the typhoon so now I'm lacking a reason to venture outside..unnecessary trip to the combini anyone?

20 October 2010

Tokyo Disney

Last weekend my boyfriend ('Irish friend' in Japanese) came to visit. After the ridiculously long-haul, transfer-ridden flight you can imagine how knackered and broke he was..but I insisted that we go to Tokyo Disney!

The original plan was to wake up real early to take advantage of the 6,000 yen we'd be paying. I though getting there for 9 would be ideal, but a Japanese teacher later informed me that if you want to actually go on the rides, you need to arrive at 8 and make a mad dash around the park grabbing fast past tickets. Then you can leisurely stroll around skipping lines of sucker tourists who thought that arriving at 9 was ok. I asked if what this was what he usually did - of course.

In typical us-fashion, we actually got there at 11, none the less genki though the sun was beating down and the crowds were swarming through the big blue gates ahead of us. There's something magical about Disney - going there is so much more exciting than it should be. I felt like a kid again..possibly because the other time I went, in Florida, I was 12. Not even the lack of pink paint on the castle (which was white) could dampen my spirits.

Once we had our maps (I'm obsessed with them), and had scrutinised them intensely for some time, we devised an itinerary that would take us around the rides on the basis of location and priority ranking...of course we were yet to see the cues. We headed off through the castle (actually, there's nothing amazing inside it, just a shop..shattered fantasy there). First of all we reached the teacups, but what was this huge crowd of people huddled alongside it, not a cue surely? And when the attendant passed by shouting san-jippun (30 min) I was sure I'd misheard. But it's the freakin' teacups..the crappiest of rides..and it's 11 in the morning. Nevertheless we cued up. Towards the front of the line I realised that they looked like waltzers, which tend to make me sick, so we spend the ride desperately clinging to the wheel to prevent the cup spinning too much! Fun was had by all.

Next of all I dragged my bf to the Small World ride, which I spotted from the teacups (we were in the fantasy land section of the park). This is a slightly more popular ride, which was reflected in the cuing time - 2 whole hours! But there's a fast-pass system of course, it was all explained on the back of our maps...you just go up to the fast-pass ticket booths, print your ticket and come back at the time printed on it. Simple...but no matter how many rides we tried, or Japanese attendants I bugged, we couldn't find any machines. They all spoke English, and directed us or said that the fast-pass for their ride was finished...what they failed to mention however, was what I learnt from my Japanese teacher yesterday, ALL THE FAST-PASS MACHINES CLOSE AT LIKE 815. Finally, during a rest stop alongside a ride, I realised that the big plastic things we were leaning on were the fast-pass machines, successfully hidden from view under plastic covers, ready to re-emerge at the crack of dawn the next day, ridiculous!

In the end, we realised that we only had time for 3 rides if we skipped lunch..which wasn't an option. Having confirmed that the cues for all the good rides were crazy-long (over 2 hours for Pirates of the Caribbean and god-knows-how-long for the Michael Jackson ride), we settled for walking around taking photos and eating popcorn (of which they had about 10 flavors on stands all around the park - butter n soy sauce being the most outlandish). We did go on the Small World ride and I'm proud to say that there was a really overweight leprechaun and some Irish-dancing farmers representin'. Honestly, I don't know how my students knew nothing about Ireland before I came to Japan..

The final annoyance of Disney was the Halloween parade. It's on everyday throughout October, and though I'm sure it's not continuous..it seemed to be blocking our way everytime we tried to move from one section of the park to the next. Call me a buzz-kill, but I didn't wana sit on the ground clapping along with the Japanese tots and watching Mini Mouse ride by on her fiery chariot, drawn by skeletal horses. I did want a photo with her, but she was never available, the parade absorbed all her time apparently. In fact the only character I managed to get a photo with was one of the cards from Alice in Wonderland. It was actually a statue rather than a person, and it wasn't even a numbered card so I can only identify it as a red heart.

In any case, we left Tokyo Disney tired and only partially disillusioned, vowing that if we returned it would be on a weekday..

08 October 2010

It seems I spoke too soon...

Since the cockroach incident, I've been keeping windows and doors locked..with one exception. After I shower I usually leave the bathroom window with just the screen on overnight. This is because I've been warned about mould forming if you don't ventilate that room when it's wet. There's a slight risk of insects with just the screen closed. The edges are made of a black brush/fringe material, which technically things can push through, since it's not solid.

The other weakness of my shower-room is the big round drain in the floor. The holes are the shape of paracetamol tablets, but maybe 50% bigger. I keep a brick covering it to prevent stuff crawling up. Unfortunately it's slightly narrower than the diameter of the drain..not by much though. I try to pour bleach down there regularly too.

The safety net of the shower room is the sliding doors which completely seal, unlike any other doors in the apartment. I figure that if anything gets in there, at least it will stay in there and not go wandering round the house.

So about an hour ago, I got home and went to take a shower. I went into the shower room in the dark and shut the window (which I'd left open since yesterday). Then I slid back the brick covering the drain with my foot (if I don't do that the room floods when the shower's on). I went to grab towels and returned, turning on the light. That's when I noticed a small movement at on the floor, in my peripheral vision...uhoh...

I left, closing the door and spent the next half an hour trying to decide whether I'd imagined it! Eventually, I went back, slid the door open a crack and oh-mother-of-God, there's a not so tiny spider peeking out from under the bath. Having assembled a spider-extermination kit: flipflop to hit it with, hoover to suck it up, basin to cover it with..I eventually went with the cockroach spray. It retreated back under the bath with a worrying crab-like, side-to-side motion..which I reckon means that it's a baby-huntsman, a newborn presumably cos it's legspan is only about the size of my palm with no fingers.

Having sprayed a lot more cockroach spray under the bath after it I closed the door to fumigate it to death. Unfortunately, when I came back a few minutes later I realised that the hall outside smelt like cockroach spray..the bathroom's not as air-tight as I'd thought. In fact, there's a pretty wide crack where one door doesn't stay closed properly without pressure on it, problem! Fortunately, I though up a scheme for holding it closed. I've always said I had too many rooms in my apartment anyway..guess I won't be showering anymore.

05 October 2010

First times: Shinkansen and Japanese festival

This weekend I participated in my first ever Japanese festival, the Hanagasa Dancing Parade in Ito, on the Izu peninsula. I heard about this through an invitation I received at school about 2 weeks ago. It was a postcard simply addressed 'ALT, Fujieda Higashi Ko'.It was a fairly short festival by Japanese standards..as I later discovered.

I left my School Sports Day and cycled hell for leather to the station to make my 430 train to Shizuoka-shi. From there I caught the Shinkansen to Atami, and let me tell you...the Shinkansen is every bit as complicated as it's cracked up to be! Having bought what I was fairly certain was an unreserved seat from a ticket machine which said Shinkansen over it, I boarded the train. I sat in a random seat, since I couldn't find any difference between the cars to distinguish reserved from unreserved. I figured that if someone claimed I was in their seat I'd move...

Lo and behold, along came the conductor. He said that I had to pay more to sit in the reserved seat..suprise, suprise..and after trying and failing to explain that I'd rather move to the unreserved section, I gave up and paid 2100 yen..more than the original price of my return ticket...curiouser and curiouser

The festival was tons of fun. There were a lot of ALTs there and we got to wear kimonos and dance a repetitive, uncomplicated dance. Afterwards we had a 'friendship party', which turned out to be food in the upstairs room of the kimono shop. I couldn't really complain since the total cost of the whole event was only 1000 yen. After dinner we dispersed to our homestay places, though luckily I was with 4 other ALTs in this huge house on the side of a hill. We had an entire floor to ourselves, with a kitchen, a dining room, a really cool-looking shower and incredibly, 5 actual beds..and there was I thinking I'd be futon-ing it!

The next morning there was a deadly breakfast spread with rareties like normal hot tea with milk and sugar, reverse culture shock! The homestay couple had though of everything and I really felt like we should have paid them or something...especially when the guy took us on a guided tour of the area!

It transpired that he worked as a tourguide. He drove us to a lighthouse and suspension bridge on the Izu coast, where there were some amazing views. He would randomly pick leaves of trees or some interesting fruit for us to smell or taste. The culmination of this was when, during the drive to the next place, he stopped the car and climbed out, telling us that he'd be back in just a minute.

Captivated, we watched as he produced a long pole from on top of the car and approached some overhanging vegetation on the road ahead of us. He extended the pole and it turned out to be a device for cutting things off trees as he began poking in the bush snipping bits off. We were totally confused as to what was going on! Finally, actually about 5 minutes later, he returned with sprigs of 'Japanese kiwi', which looked nothing like kiwi, and which weren't ripe enough to eat yet. So random!

Unfortunately, I had to leave early that day to get home and prepare for festival my second ever Japanese festival, which was on Sunday. Armed with the knowledge that the Shinkansen cars said 'reserved' or 'unreserved' on the screens on the outside, I was feeling lucky this time. As I went to pass through the second set of turnstiles, the ones just for the Shinkansen, the conductor stopped me and said that my ticket wasn't for the Shinkansen, but just the regular train. Needless to say I was pretty suprised...I'd used an identical ticket to board it the other way. He wasn't changing his mind though so I had to get the reliable ole JR..

I suppose I'd just had JR tickets all along...that explains why it was just 2500 yen return!

30 September 2010

The first and last cockroach

So I think I got pretty lucky with my apartment. It's on the third floor of Jutaku, teachers' housing. I have the kitchen, a 4-tatami bedroom and 2 6-tatami living rooms, basically it's huge and really cheap cos it's subsidised.
Most importantly...it's pretty much insect free!

Before I came to Japan I'd been warned about so called hand-sized spiders, which I later learned were huntsmen:

Apparently, they've been in my apartment in the past so needless to say I was terrified about the possibility of that happening again. I saw my first one on the wall of a department store in Shimada, it was really far away but still looked massive! Scary stuff...apparently cleanliness was next to insect-less-ness, and once you get small ones, the bigger ones that eat them follow. I didn't take this super-seriously until I found the cockroach..

I first spotted it in my kitchen, crawling along the floor next to the presses, big, black and ugly. That said, I was on the other side of the room, from where it looked just like an over-sized beatle, not too horrible. I ran and returned with a shoe, during which time it disappeared. I remembered after that, that they spew their eggs everywhere if you squash them, and a whole nest springs up. That was a real lucky save!

Our next, and final encounter happened in the hallway. Paranoid, I'd covered the whole kitchen in roach-boxes, round black things have some mysterious negative effect on cockroaches...the photos on the box were less than obvious about it! Either they repelled it or it was going exploring because I found it making a beeline for my bedroom, oh no you don't! I hopped by it and it froze. Diving into the cubbard next to my front door I dug out a can of bug-spray and chased it around, spraying.
Unfortunately, it continued towards my bedroom. The bug-spray had a really limited effect on it..occasionally it fell over with its legs flailing all over the place, but it quickly righted itself and continued on. I had slid the screen door of the bedroom closed, but this was less than fool-proof as it slipped through the side of it. I uttered some profanities at that point..it was pretty late at night and I was planning to sleep in there soon!
Anyway, I reefed open the door to follow it and it sprang at me! Perched halfway up the door when I slid it, it had jumped and pelted me in the arm. I screamed, retreating! It had fallen onto the ground again and I began blasting it with bug-spray. It fell over and I managed to cover it with an upturned rubbish bin, trapping it. Emma 1, Cockroach 0.
Needless to say, I was fairly traumatised. I'd never seen a cockroach before and I had no idea they could climb walls! When I'd finished rocking back and forth and sobbing I realised that the bug-spray was just for killing flies. It wasn't the uber-strong cockroach-killer you can buy...which explained its uselessness!

I spent the next 2 days granting the upturned bin a wide berth whenever I passed it. The original plan was to wait long enough for it to starve to death, but I learned that they can actually live for ages without food. Eventually, armed with the proper spray, I decided to man-up and tackle it. I tilted the bin up slightly and emptied abou half the can under it, like throwing a gas bomb into a trench. No response. Tentatively, I picked up the bin, and there was the cockroach, no less terrifying in its death-huddle, but thankfully, dead all the same.

Since then I've become a complete hygiene freak. I keep all my bins on the balcony, bleach my drains, inject my tatami mats, cover all my plug-holes with wire-mesh and never open the windows.

It's amazing what Japan will do housekeeping skiltz!

29 September 2010

Finally online!

Wow, it's been a while!

Fortunately I didn't manage to beat my predecessor's record of 2 months waiting for internet, but I came pretty close! There were so many complications...what's the name on my phone line? Not mine, not my predecessor's, not Shizuoka Prefecture..it turned out to be my pre-predecessor, who very few Japanese teachers at my school remembered so we had to do some digging in files to find her surname.

Yahoo BB, my internet provider, is trey-ridiculous about the name on the phone line. They won't tell you if you call them so you have to guess and they say yes or no. You can ask for hints but it's at their discretion whether or not they give you them!

Firstly, I applied with the name of the Prefecture and heard nothing for about a month. After harrassing Yahoo BB they finally sent me a letter explaining that the name was wrong...yeah, worked that out thanks! So I applied again and the modem arrived last week, woohoo...2 days of internet before it randomly stopped working.

I then had to wait out the weekend, during which the English speaking helpline isn't available. I called the next Monday to find that the English speaking helpline doesn't deal with technical problems...boo. Had to ask my (amazing, amazing!) supervisor to call the Japanese one, felt so bad! After a long conversation, and I mean like 45 mins later, he explained that they'd exchange the modem...and here we are.

It's been working for an hour so far. Long may it continue..

19 July 2010

5 Days to Departure(!)

Ok so now I've packed, but I keep having to take clothes out to wear them! Also, I was pretty sure I wouldn't need to send anything after me to Japan, but I really, really do...I have a second case, of a similar size to the first one, full of 'send-on' stuff. One advantage to the packing is that I've thrown out so many clothes that I never wear, which I probably would have held onto for years more if I hadn't made that strict 'take or dump' rule.

My last week in Ireland has quickly filled up with things to do and people to see. Finally, and I knew that this would happen eventually...I had something that I was definatly going to do before I left that I've had to abandon because there just aren't enough nights in the week. (Why are there no midweek matinee shows of Death of a Salesman in the Gate?) In any case I'm looking forward to 5 days full of parties, people and last minute shopping!

Finally, lately I think I've been focusing on leaving Ireland rather than going to Japan. The slow realisation that I had to leave one country in order to enter the other only dawned fairly recently and since then I've been getting over the shock! I am looking forward to going to Japan though. I've gotten so much help from my predecessor (who is completely fantastic), from pictures of the apartment, to info on the local oversized insect-life, to answering all of my random, random questions. What have I forgotten to ask? It remains to be seen...in 5 days time

11 July 2010

13 Days to Departure

As the days roll by it's occurred to me that I NEED to start packing, but it's so complicated! Unlike any temporary trip away I can't just pack my favourite clothes - I have to pack everything! And I can't even just pack everything - because I need to buy a lot of new professional-looking clothes as well. The suitcases are needlessly complicated also...should I beg/borrow/steal a massive one, or just post most stuff after me?

Meanwhile I'm supposed to be studying Japanese...which hasn't happened so much yet...but I have read a lot about different food types in a phrasebook someone bought me! My Japanese is still at the Ohayo-Sayonara level, but hopefully the motivation to study it will increase when it becomes necessary for human communication!

Finally, possibly the most important part of preparing to leave...and the only one I've started really, is making time to see everyone before I go. There's something scary about trying to schedule coffee with a friend, when they suggest a date and you have to say, sorry but I'll be gone then. A kind of desperate urgency seizes me sometimes, and I have to be dissuaded from contacting people I haven't seen in years, just to say goodbye to them!
There's an odd feeling of finality about leaving in my mind, which is crazy really - I'm only leaving for a year! It's all relative though. In 2008 I went interrailing for a month, which felt like a LONG time. That makes Japan a LONG time times 12.

08 July 2010

16 Days til Departure

Hi, my name is Emma and I'm going to Japan with the JET Programme this year! As you can see from my title, departure's in 16 days and counting, on the 24th of July. I'm hoping to post regularly during my time away, but for now I have so much preparation to do!