Monday, December 22, 2014

Testing, testing...

               Hello everyone! I hope the year end is treating you well! (Or is it the new year? Not used to this auto posting feature yet!)

              As I’m writing this there are around 600 anxious students waiting to take their final exams here at Serenity. Finals are weird here. Okay. They aren’t weird. Just different than what I’m used to. In my high school back home, there was a finals week, to be sure. However, we took our exams during our last, or second to last, normally scheduled class time. Nothing out of the ordinary. 
              Here at Serenity at least the finals schedule feels more like a college set up to me. Students have only half days during testing week. So for four periods in the morning they take tests and teachers are supposed to grade tests in the afternoons. I like this week. Since the only test I am actually in charge of is English conversation and I only give the spoken portion and grade my 10 point part of the 1st year tests, it it means I can catch up on those tasks I’ve been behind on at work.
Things like finishing putting away Halloween/Thanksgiving decorations that have been sitting neglected in the corner. Or cleaning my second desk. Dear gods. The dust is so bad on that desk. I’m fairly sure it hasn’t been regularly used since 2004/2005. Why 2004/2005? Because most of the documents I’m finding in the desk are from that era. Why would I clean out the second desk and not neglect it if I have a perfectly good, CLEAN desk in the staff room? Well, there  are a couple of reasons.
One. The staff room can be crowded and noisy. With somewhere in the area of 45-50 teachers in here that can be enough to make for a noisy room. Top it off with hordes of students rushing in and amassing between classes so they can talk to their teachers and you have a nightmare recipe for chaos. It’s even work testing week because they block the entire walkway to the exit as they aren’t allowed to enter the teacher’s desk rows. Using my second desk in the preparation room is a nice reprieve from time to time.
Two. This school is FREEZING. It’s mid-December now and the hallways have been so cold at times I thought I might lose a few fingers running to the classroom just down the hall. Most days, I swear it’s warmer outside than in the building. Benefit of my second desk? It’s right next to the window. On the south facing side of the building. Hallelujah, there is a god!
For those of you who don’t know, south facing windows get the most sunlight and thus raise the temperature in any given room considerably. On a random note, homes and apartments with south facing windows/balconies are also extremely sought after and can at times be more expensive to rent because of this feature.
All right. Back to tests.
So. This week the students are taking their tests. Like I said, lots of anxiety for students. A little bit of a break for me (if you negate the dust and trying to come up with ideas for next term’s curriculum). I’ll admit. As a student, I thought teachers just didn’t care. I thought they made tests without thinking about their students ability, or if they would really, truly be able to understand and answer all the questions. On more than one occasion I resented teachers for making their tests difficult. Don’t get me wrong. I usually test really well, but that comes with loads of stress, countless hours of studying and very little sleep prior to the test itself. I thought, coming into teaching, that the other side of the test would be a breeze.
I just want to say, to every teacher I’ve ever had in the history of ever, I’m sorry if I ever thought your tests were too difficult or that you didn’t care about your student’s results.
Let me tell you now. They do worry and stress and care. Get that idea that they don’t out of your head right now. For midterms this term I spent at least a week prior to the test re-examining my test. Was it too difficult? Would the students understand my questions? Would they remember how to answer? At the same time, I didn’t want it to be too easy. For finals, it has been a little bit easier. I wasn’t quite so stressed making the tests because, well, I now had one go under my belt. So it was a little bit less stressful. I haven’t even lost a lot of sleep over it this time. It still took me half a week to make though. Even among the more experienced teachers I often see it take them three to four days of careful planning and work to design their tests.

All righty. Now I’m just rambling. Once again, Happy New Year! If it isn’t here now, it will be soon enough!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pantsless at Work

            Do you ever have things that just simply go horribly wrong? If your answer is no, there is something wrong with you.

For the most part, my job is a fantastic mix of figuring out what I’m supposed to do, things going right, talking to people, planning lessons and acting like a clown (at times) in front of the class. Things go right in class. Things go wrong. But, that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

Sometimes, things just go horribly, terribly wrong. Sometime around my first week of classes at Serenity High School, I ran to the restroom only to, horrifyingly, realize that my pants had blown out. Badly. Luckily, it was in no way that anyone would be able to quickly see, but the fact that I was at work with large holes in terrible places in my pants was no laughing matter. I quickly returned to the staff room and my head JTE managed to acquire some fabric from the home ec teacher and off women’s changing room I went. Where I sat, pants less, for well over an hour. As I thought about how it couldn’t get much worse, in walked one of the other teacher’s. I was mortified, but she laughed it off, barely seeming to bat an eye at my missing pants.

Pants fixed, I walked out of the changing room, confident that I wouldn’t find myself in this position again anytime soon.

Not a week later, I was back. Pants less. In the changing room. Well. Skirt less, really. On the way to grab my lunch at the nearby bento shop, I’d caught my skirt in my bike, ripping it wide open. So there I was. Needle in hand. Pants less. Yet again. At least this time I was able to use the skirt for a bit of modesty.

               There you have it. Probably one of the most embarrassing situations I’ve found myself in in Japan. Ever.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


            Maybe some of you remember this, but maybe there are some of you who are new to this blog. I am a fan of anime, cosplay and all nerdy Japanese things. (In fact, one of the most frequent hits is because of my Sailor Jupiter cosplay photo waaaayyy back when I started this thing.) When it comes to traditional culture, I also like many things, but I find it hard to participate in things like tea ceremony because I cannot sit in seiza (sitting on your knees on the floor) for very long . While I LOVE kimono, the traditional clothes, my size is pretty much impossible to find without custom ordering. Technically, I fit into the very largest kimono size they make, just barely. However, the fact that most Japanese people are not broad shouldered, decently endowed, don’t have stomachs and aren’t 170 cm tall, make my size a bit of an oddity. It was only by luck that I was able to take a class last year and made my own yukata (the summer version of a kimono).

My yukata. Remember this?
               So, while I want to participate in man things regarding Japanese traditional culture, excluding tea ceremonies, for some reason or another I either cannot or am for some reason entirely unable to join in. However, I am a HUGE fan of ikebana.

               Ikebana is the traditional art of flower arrangement in Japan. Now, ikebana began many, many hundreds of years ago. Today, there are many schools, each with its own style and focus. Some of you might remember that last year I was awarded the first rank in the school of Ikenobo. I wish I could tell you the differences between the schools, and maybe sometime I’ll have the chance to learn and tell you. 

               Three Fridays every month I go my Ikenobo class. My teacher is a really nice elderly lady and I usually study with two older women who have been studying it for around 20 years. Because I am still a low level, I practice Jiyuuka (or free style) flower arrangement. The ladies I study with often do oshoka (sp?), a style which rules I don’t know, but generally revolves around the stems being in a straight line and rika, or standing ikebana. Rika being the higher skill level of the two.

Here is an example of Oshoka. 

Here is an example of Rika.

And here is what I do.

About 3-4 weeks ago, all the people who study at my Ikenobo school made our arrangements and had them placed in the Shimada Citizen’s Cultural Festival during the ikebana weekend. Many of the students of the various schools of Ikebana also presented their creations during this festival. While not large, it was kind of my ikebana debut. So, without further ado, here is the arrangement that I debuted with as well as some other arrangements from the show.

My debut arrangement

Until next time!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

No apologies, temples and friends

Okay. So. I’m promising myself not to use the blasted “S” word I’m always using when I update for you guys. Yes I’ve been busy. Yes I could have posted sooner, but I’m going to stop apologizing when I post. : ) I’ll try to be better about updating (seeing other people posting has made me want to start again!), but it is hard sometimes. (Also, skip down a few paragraphs if you want to skip my rant about being tired because I’m being an adult.

I have lived “on my own” before. Or so I thought. For the majority of the last 6 years, I thought I was living on my own. Being a big girl and leading and adult life. But in reality, I always had roommates, or my family to fall back on. It wasn’t until I moved to my semi-rural (I’ve finally convinced myself it could have been worse on the “how rural is it?” scale…) apartment that I’ve found myself truly, honestly and really living on my own. There are no roommates. No one to help run errands, make dinner or clean up. No one to blame for my messes except myself. Though surprisingly, I keep everything, except the dishes and my laundry, cleaner than I thought I would. Okay. Well… except maybe my desk. That will never be clean.

Honestly though, between working my first ever full time job (which I absolutely love and wish didn’t have an expiration of between 3-5 years on it), I’m exhausted 95% of the time. Most days, I go home and I feel like I’m lucky if I have the energy to boot my computer up and play a game. Making dinner and cleaning are waking nightmares. And now, with the weather turned FREEZING, I feel even worse and have even less energy for things.

To make matters worse, all those WONDERFUL students loans are starting anytime between this month and April and my consolidation hasn’t been processed. So every extra yenny (what I call a Japanese penny equivalent) I have is being sent home so I can pay bills when they finally start. Which, naturally, leaves very little for a “fun” fund.

Yes. I know. I’m complaining about what EVERY person has to do on a daily basis. But you know what? My blog. : ) I’m allowed to complain from time to time. *sigh*

However, and here is where it turns around, I am starting to get out of my house. For the last 3 and a half months, outside of work I’ve had only my ikebana lessons three times a week to go to and a Wednesday night dinner about once a month. (I just don’t have money for it most weeks). 

I went to a Halloween party waaay back in October and met some pretty cool people there. One of them happens to live in my town. (Miracles DO happen!) I’ve made friends with him and a couple of his friends who are also English teachers. It’s been WONDERFUL having people to hang out with and I’m starting to feel like I HAVE a life outside of work.

Also, two weekends ago, I was stir crazy. On Saturday I went random bike and adventuring and found this really neat little old shrine. It was on a hill behind a REALLY well kept and new looking temple which, I’m pretty sure, was attached to the cemetery just down the hill.  Overall, it was awesome. 

Then, on Sunday, I went to a nearby temple called Chimanji (智満寺). Now. By nearby I mean about 9 km, or just around 5 and a half miles, from my house. Looked up Google maps time. Okay. 2 hours walking, so about an hour by bike. Hopped on my bike and I went. The weather was fantastic, the perfect kind of warm and I was in a GREAT mood. Well, halfway there (by my calculations) I started riding my bike uphill. On a narrow windy mountainy road that looks a lot like if you’re out Clay Creek area in Oregon. No big deal. The hill can’t go on for long….

Well. An hour and a half of pushing my bike up the “hill” which turned out to be a mountain, I finally reached the top. A very serious cyclist on those insane like, 30 speed bikes or what not, was astounded by the fact that I had come to Chimanji on “the same kind of bicycle that grandmothers ride” and then applauded my “powerfulness” for having done it. At the time, I felt pretty good about myself too.

Then I had to climb these stairs of doom to reach the temple. When I did, there was this really cute little old lady who was soooooooo shocked to see me. She asked me to take a picture with her. (I mean, we’re only at a 400 year old temple, but why not? Let’s take the picture with the foreigner. I honestly didn’t mind. Just thought it was funny.) Afterwards, as I was poking around the temple grounds I ran into a lady from my town. Turns out, we wait at the stop light together most mornings on the way to work and we just had never spoken until then.

Fast forwarding past the photo taking (see my other blog for more photos!) and I found this little trail behind the main temple. 

Thinking it led to another little offshoot temple, I followed it. I wasn’t disappointed on that count. I ran into a temple building under repair and MANY small shrines. This was (eventually) followed by a small sized temple in a clearing. Off to the right was a GIANT tree (by Japan standards) which was a shrine in its own right. Having come 30 minutes up the path, I decided to follow one of the forks to the overlook. (It can’t be far, right?) 

Well. Long story to short. I got lost on the paths. Had no idea how much farther forward it was. It was starting to get late (worrisome as I still had a looonnng bike ride down a steep, narrow winding mountain road to get home). Just as I was about to give up, I ran into this guy who was equally as lost coming from the other direction. We gave each other directions as best we were able (It’s that way… about so many minutes? There’s a turn… A right one maybe? Or was it left? There were a couple of them…) and parted ways. His direction seemed to be closer, so I kept going the way he’d come. 

Regretting my life decisions at that moment.
About 25 minutes later I finally made it off the path and to the viewpoint overlooking the mountains and the city. It would have been gorgeous, if not for the hazy fog? Pollution? That had decided to descend in the distance.   

As I turned to follow the road back to my bike, I ran into the guy who had been lost again. We wound up talking and exchanging info. So now, thanks to being lost in the woods on top of a mountain that, had I not been stir crazy, I would have never gone to, I have a new friend! You remember that hour and a half walk up the mountain? Well. The way down went a LOT faster. Took only about 15 minutes and, thankfully, there were no cars on my return trip. If there had been, it would have been terrifying instead of awesome (and slightly worrisome because my breaks decided to go on the fritz O.O ).

So yeah. Thanks to new friends and random adventures, I’ve started to enjoy living in my town a bit more. I’m not quite used to the solo gig or spending most of my life working. But things are starting to come together. I just had to remind myself that, even last year, it took me a few months before I was FULLY settled into my life and started to branch out.

Anyways. I hope to write to you all again soon. Maybe I’ll tell you a bit more about life here at a Serenity High School as I’m calling it. Can’t tell you the real name, privacy issues and all.

In the meantime, please, please, please. I would LOVE to hear from whoever is still reading these. Do you have questions about Japan? Those crazy snacks, etiquette, language, “that anime thing,” daily life or anything else? I would LOVE to answer questions and help teach people about the language, culture and, the “Japan-ness” of living here. Maybe you’re another foreigner and you have questions about living or working in Japan. Anything is okay and I’d love to help out and maybe answer the same question many people are asking.

Until next time!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tokyo and Back

This weekend has been bitter sweet. On one hand, I was able to visit the city I love most, Tokyo. On the other hand, I'm now sitting on the bullet train, bummed to be returning to the countryside. 

Don't get me wrong. I love my cheap rent, cheap groceries, my work place and students. I just have to face the facts. The countryside is not for me. Something about giant spiders and the city closing down by 8 pm that turns me off to it I think. 

Either that or I just got spoiled living in Tokyo for a year. 

Regardless. Tokyo is the place I love most in this country. Maybe even the world (except during summer). So I was extremely excited to go back for the weekend. 

         (I love finding houses like this in Tokyo.)

This trip was full of a lot of my old haunts. Gaming with my D&D group, the Shibuya Hub, Pepper Lunch, Takadanobaba (Crouching Tiger Hidden Eagle was undergoing renovations sadly) as well as a new stop. 

My friend and I visited the Okunitaima Shrine chestnut festival and feasted on the wonderful festival food and delightful performances. 

There were also a ton of adorable lanterns lighting the path. 

My friend Rika even joined us for the evening and we had a blast catching up and trying hookah for the first time. Who'd have known I'd end up trying that?

Tokyo, I miss you. I'll be back before long. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

I just wanted a TV...

I just wanted a TV.

Why then, do you ask, did I leave the store today with a TV, fridge AND a microwave oven? Well. First. I needed them. Second, I figured it would be easier to pay off a bill $200 at a time rather than $400 in one go, $200 in another and $500 in another. The TV, I'll admit, was purely for selfish (and hopefully hanging out) reasons. The fridge and microwave oven were necessities. When your toaster oven sets things on fire and your microwave looks like it's been around since the 80's, they need to go. My fridge has been leaking water for the past month and is only suitable for keeping food around if you're five years old. It's that small. So yeah. I unfortunately finally bought these things.

So. Big deal. I got my TV. Right?

Well yes. I did. And it looks FANTASTIC in my living room.

40" of spectacular. Now I'm afraid of the NHK guy.

However. Paying was an issue. I walked into this store with enough money to buy a TV. Just that. A TV. I JUST wanted a TV. I clearly walked out with more than I bargained for. So, after my JTE's husband haggled the price down by about $100 (Really, you can do that???) I went to the register to pay. I'm paying part cash, part card. Okay. No problems there. Using a Mastercard. Not a problem in Japan. Japan loves Visa and Mastercard. Okay. How many months will it take you want to pay off this purchase?

Um. Excuse me. Why do you need to know that? That's between me and my bank, isn't it? Isn't it?

Well. The Japanese system works like this. You use a credit card to pay at the store and the company gives them the money. So far, so good. However, in Japan, you "credit card" is more like a debit card with options to have the money automatically withdrawn every month. In doing so, you can break it down into payments (i.e. 12 monthly payments, 24 monthly payments, etc.). Then, every month, it's automatically taken from your bank account by the credit card company who you've agreed to pay. So. If you spend $100 and choose a 10 month repayment plan, $10 a month comes directly out of your bank and to your credit company. 1 payment, $100 the next month, you get the idea.

Well. This all makes sense. But I just want to put the whole remainder on my card. My credit card has the system where you pay X% of your total balance each month. Which I always assumed was normal.

"Put it all on my card." "Okay. How many months repayment would you like?" "Excuse me? No. You just, put it all on my card and my credit card company decides these things." "No. You don't understand how the Japanese system works." "No. I don't. But this is an American credit card." Proceed to an hours explanation of the Japanese system, I finally tell them, just try telling it twelve months, but the American company won't accept it, because they won't understand. "No. It'll work. Definitely." "........" "It was declined. Why was it declined? I did it right?" Proceed to wait another 20 minutes while they call to figure out that, because it's an American card, they just need to put the order through all at once.

Moral of the story. If you're paying for a purchase using your American credit card and they ask how many months? Tell them one. One month. "But that's a lot of money!!??!!" Don't care. One month. Tell them one month and avoid ALLLL the hassles. :)

There we go. Boring, but useful. So now you all know what to do. Tell them "one month" when they ask.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Spidey senses

Hello everyone! I'm sorry for the delay! I've been quite busy setting up house, going to work, figuring out where things are (and that it really wasn't my fault the bath isn't working properly) and fending off giant spiders (no, really. MASSIVE ones).

This picture is slightly misleading as I have a GIANT sink. This thing is the size of a dinner plate.

Oh. Also. I've been trying to figure out what exactly I AM and AM NOT allowed to put on here. You see. I signed this work contract and in it's very vague about not posting identifying stuff online. No big. No faces = okay. Wrong. even if faces are covered with smileys, student names omitted from work, etc. I'm not allowed to post ANY student work or students (again, even with identifying info omitted) due to this whole online privacy thing. As much as that sucks, I can't even put any pictures I take on Facebook for my family to see. Bummer. So. While I'm still figuring out a lot of what I can and can't write, generally, if it has to do with a student in any way shape or form, I can't post it. Sorry guys, I have to figure out what else to talk about.

For now, I'll keep you updated on daily life things (living in Japan, what my bills look like, etc.) and once I'm more comfortable with what I am and am not allowed to post online, I'll let you know. It may be for events that I can get permission to post photos, but in that case, I'll need student parent permission. So please. Sit back and enjoy what updates I can give you.

"Increase the soup."

The first thing I can give you though, is no matter how desperate (or depressed as you are at a low point in your homesickness cycle) you are. Please, don't try to wing making cookies in your ancient toaster oven. It just makes you depressed when the end result is this.

Watching your cookies burn is the most depressing thing ever.
Also, the internet has just been set up at my house, so hopefully I'll be able to update you all more frequently. I'm also planning on learning to make Japanese food, so maybe I can share some recipes.

In the meantime, I have a RECIPE for those of you living in Japan. Maybe some of you back home can use it as well. The recipe is for sour cream. I like sour cream, but can never find it anywhere. So here is a simple recipe. Two ingredients. 10 minutes. Really.

Sour Cream Recipe

Put 1 cup of cream (heavy cream works too) in a bowl. Add to it 1-2 tsp of lemon juice (fresh or otherwise). Mix with a whisk or blender until it thickens a bit. 

If you're using normal cream it probably won't thicken quite as much at first, but just put it in the fridge for a few minutes and voila! Sour cream! If you like it thicker I think you just add more lemon. If you like it thinner, add more cream! 

Simple. Easy peasy. Not as much flavor as the stuff back home, but it'll do in a pinch.

*Note: The "dessert" cream they sell at the store works just fine. It's generally half the price of heavy cream too. 

Also, another note, I've had a problem with my silver talisman tarnishing within a matter of a couple days since arriving. I hate scrubbing the tarnish off because it ruins the charm and takes away a little bit every time I do it. So. After researching, I've found a cheap, easy way for all of us living on a budget with no idea where the jewelery store is.

Take a piece of aluminum foil and make a little boat large enough to fit your tarnished item. Place it in a pot and add water to the the pan and boat. Bring water to a boil and remove the boat carefully from the pan. Place it in your sink and add baking soda. It will boil up (I was surprised). Make sure that your silver object remains touching the aluminum foil and that it is covered with baking soda. Once the boiling over is settled replace your boat (backing soda and all) back into the pan of water. Turn the heat up and let it boil for a few minutes. I boiled my St. Christopher talisman (which was completely black) for bout 5 minutes and 90% of the tarnish came off. A few more minutes removed the heavier tarnish on the back. 

Simple. Cheap. Easy. Just watch out. After boiling the baking soda water you'll start to notice white gunk getting all over the place. It's easy enough to clean up (I recommend use a dry rag to wipe it down, otherwise it just smears) and be prepared to wash your pan a few times if the baking soda water gets out of it's "boat". 

So. That's all I have to say today. Hopefully it's useful. I know it's not my normal style of posting, but as I live in the country side, which is far less interesting than living in Tokyo was, I'm going to make the best of it and tell you all I can about living in Japan.