Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Breakdown of Japan Elementary grades

Ooh well I could pretend that I'm already the seasoned expert but I've only been working a few do learn fast however. Anyway here's my breakdown of the different grades in my Japanese elementary school. Important to know as you don't want to kick off a 6th grade lesson singing the ABC song...

6th graders, 11 years old and going through that "I don't want to be embarassed in front of my friends" stage so can be tricky but they are a sweet bunch, just takes more time to get them going. Don't expect them to clap or jump up and copy your gestures. However incorporate it into a game and they will. Introduce a scoring system and you'll have them do anything! I created a face race track on the board last week giving each team a name according to their mode of transport (a rickshaw, a funny looking bus, a racing car etc) They got soo competitive with the game and got so into it I think they almost forgot they were practicing English language!

5th graders, 9-10 yrs, similar to the 6th graders but a teeny bit more genki (you might be able to get a 5th grader to clap for example but forget it with a 6th grader)

4th graders, 8-9 yrs, cuter, a bit more genki, will definately clap and sing.

3rd graders, 8 yrs, soo cute, play a song and they'll be up standing on the chairs going wild. The kids went crazy during my ball game (hot potato) with an inflatable ball (just make sure you use an inflatable)

I've just had a class of 2nd graders this week (7 yrs) Oh so genky. I wanted to smuggle some of them home they were that cute!

Chu-hi, you what?

I meant to write this post a while back to explain what Chu hi actually is! In fact I think it's written chu-hi Romaji or チューハイ. Anyway, I was introduced to Chu hi at an Hamani (cherry blossom viewing picnic type event) in Kanazawa a few weeks back. It's basically a Japanese equivalent of an alcopop, like Bacardi Breezer or Wicked Blue that underage chavs love to drink back in blighty. I don't think it quite has that chav-status quo here though (give me more time to work that one out), they're really popular. The traditional chuhai is lemon flavored with a shōchū base (shochu=Japanese distilled drink), although some now have vodka instead of shochu. Flavours include lime, grapefruit, apple, orange pineapple, grape, ume (plum), yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) and peach. My fave so far is grapefruit, woo hoo.

I found out quickly that if you're not a sake lover or beer drinker then there aren't that many other options (although give me a bottle of cab sav any day...!)
The above chu-hi (picture of innocent looking pastel green can) is Suntory's Horoyoi, a mild semi-sparkler with reduced alcohol content, thank the lord as the seven percenters ruin you. Personally I pick this one as it looks classier and more adult than the others, it must be the pastels!

Super chu-hi (see pic of brash & laddish silver can) is one of the 7% alcohol content varieties which I think I'll stay clear of until people know me a bit better, I might scare them off : )

Learning Japanese: The Japanese Writing System

I was advised by a teacher at the International Exchange Lounge (another story but the first Japanese lady I've met who I was actually scared of) to learn Katakana and Hiragana (two of the four types of Japanese scripts) To be honest, back in England I avoided even looking at the writing system and thought it was reserved for the highly intellectual (not me) Well, I can honestly say, with Kanji as the exception, it's not THAT hard! and this is someone who got a D in French..(more tips for learning below)

So to the basics, Japanese uses four types of scripts: hiragana, katakana, kanji and romanji.
Hiragana- expresses all the sounds of Japanese. Looks squiggly compared to the others. hirigana in hiragana ; ) ひらがな
Katakana- used for writing foreign/imported words such as "coffee", less squiggly and straighter edges, here you go カタカナ
Kanji- ancient Chinese origin characters that represent ideas & sounds. I'm still avoiding this one at the moment. Looks like this 漢字
Romaji- used for the thickos like me who can't read hiragana & katakana properly yet. So instead of putting コーヒ for coffee the language books will put kōhī.
There's a huge bookshop at ground level of the Rifare building in Kanazawa (about a 5 min walk from the train station) that stocks hundreds of "teach yourself Kanji/Hiragana/Katakana" books, the first romaji books I've seen since I've been here, PHEW.
So here are my recommendations so far:

1) For learning basic Japanese (and if you're English) the BBC Active "Talk Japanese" It will get
you through your intros, ordering food (ok only a cheese sandwich which isn't that helpful in Japan), finding out about trains & reserving hotels (I won't be using them anymore being the lowly ALT that I am). it also comes with an audio CD which REALLY helps with the pronounciation. Honestly if you don't pronounce a word the exact way they will NOT understand you!

2) For learning Katakana and Hiragana I would recommend the "Japanese Hiragana/Katakana for Beginners' books by Timothy Stout. OK a warning, they're not huge textbooks with grammatical explanations if that's what you're looking for however I think they are a refreshing and great way of getting your head around the characters. Well the books worked for me. Why?

Because they have these really childish "cheat" flashcards in the back of each book that turn each Japanese character into some kind of picture.

Check these out and you'll see what I mean. This was is "fu" and the picture is of Mount Fuji and it kind of looks like a mountain! The next one is "tsu" and he's used a tsunami. I mean how can you forget that!
Ok for us Brits some of these American choreographed flashcards are a bit difficult to get your head around. One is "hockey stick" Now they would say "ha-kee" which is great if you're describing the Japanese sound "ha" but we would say "ho". Anyway its nothing too drastic and is still the best way I think you can learn Hiragana and Katakana easily.
I've just ordered the next BBC audio/book programme so I'll keep you posted on that one.
I just need to learn some vocab now....

Learning Japanese at Rifare, Kanazawa

My 6 week intro course in Bristol didn't get me very far in conversing with locals unsurprisingly. In fact I bought the BBC book and CD with me, that has helped far more, just listening to it on my daily commute (admittedly it has sent me to sleep a few times...)
However holidaymaker Japanese "When does the next train to Tokyo leave?" I realised was not going to help me with the staff room gossip after the weekend. So today I signed up to Japanese classes, 2 per week at the Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange, aka Rifare (ree-far-ay). It cost 5000 Yen per month (about £35) so works out around £4 per lesson, bloody excellent!
There was a class on as I enquired so I joined it straight away. The teacher was pretty genki and the class small enough to create a nice, friendly atmosphere. I really enjoyed it. Now I can say "Sono wain, misete kudasai" (please show me this wine) Now that's more like it!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Japanese Supermarket Experience Part 1: Veggie Section

Hopefully one day I'll be able to write fluently about the weird and wonderful foods that you find in a Japanese supermarket, explain what they are, how they should be prepared and cooked and what they taste like. But as a newbie to Japan I know none of these things so am buying blind & testing things out at home. One thing you'll notice straight away is the cost of everything. Some things just astound me. They're growing rice right outside my front door but charge about £23 for a 10KG bag, is it just me or is that just expensive!

So I'll start with the first section of the supermarket, veggies (same as Morrisons at home, weird). Some veggies are obvious, or so I thought. Cucumber here is smaller and thinner than a courgette, in fact about the same size as a teaspoon so beware if you think you're stocking up on veggies.

Melons are also expensive here, about a tenner each. Now I was told this by our Japanese teacher during our intro course in Bristol. Yubari melons, those ones with the veins on the outside can fetch up to 15,000-100,000 Yen (up to £1000 each)

Anyway, here are the £10 variety., I'm sure they're about £2 in England? Maybe I've got that totally wrong.

And these bad boys, I'm going to have to check with Karen what these are. Turnips? They looked impressive anyway and were huge. I'll get back to you on that one.

Then there are the ominous looking pre-packaged vegetables, these ones below i have just found out are bamboo shoots or takenoko (see my post about takenoko picking), a real spring vegetable so in season. I added to a stir fry the other day and found it really crunchy, maybe it was only par cooked?!

Next comes this jellified liquid in packs. I'm still not sure what this is so will have to report back!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

My teeny LeoPalace apartment (Interior)

Since posting the exterior videos and piccies of my apartment, I haven't had chance before now to post a video of the interior of my Leo Palace apartment. It's 23m sq, on the ground floor with a sliding back door right onto the car park! Swish. It also has one of those cabin beds that you always wanted when you were about 10 yrs old, an elevated bed with steps up to it and a cupboard underneath (den space!)

It's actually really cosy. See my video!

Isurgui Elementary 1st Year Initation Ceremony

Yesterday I was called from the staff room to attend a welcome ceremony for the new first years (yes the really really cute 6 yr olds who have just joined) Basically this means the 2nd to 6th graders perform for the newcomers and welcome them to their new school, a really sweet idea since Isurugi is soooo massive even I'm scared of getting lost down a corridor.

The performance started with the 6th graders coming in hand in hand with the little 1st years. I can't upload the bloody video as it's too big. Damn! I've posted the little mites bowing instead and saying thank you.
I got quite emotional as I thought about Tegan on her first day. (I'm sure nothing like this)
The show kicked off with a song on recorders performed by the 3rd graders, a dance by the whole school, a quiz from the 4th graders and another performance I can't actually remember but it was all really WOW especially at there's about 500 kids at Isurugi and orchestrating something on this level must have taken such a huge amount of work.

One thing that I still can't get used to is the noise! Kids screaming, shouting, running everywhere. I'm used to my laptop and 4 walls! See kids in corridor below

My commute to work, Kanazawa to Oyabe

So the commute is already killing me! I don't know how anyone gets up that early. My alarm goes off at 6am but before that my own "crow" alarm goes off at 5am right outside my apartment. yes big black nastly looking crows like to sit on the electric pylon outside my door and carry otu their morning calls. Oh and then the bloody train to Nomachi comes past around 5.45 so by the time my alarm goes off Im fully awake & pissed off!

I then walk to NishiKanazawa station, about a 10 min walk away listening to my BBC Japanese beginners course on the iPOD (I've now been through it 3 times and STILL can't direct a cab driver left or right) My 7.10 train arrives BANG ON time, oh did I mention you can actually rely on trains here! I get on, its packed full of school kids who all want to practice their English with me, JOY! and when I say packed I mean my face is pressed against the automatic door, think London tube rush hour with sweaty, smelly junior high school kids.

Everyone gets off at Kanazawa thank god & I get a seat and try to learn Japanese although at that time in the morning concentration isn't at its best. So one thing you will notice on Japanese trains in the morning is that EVERYONE sleeps.

I have no idea how they know when they're at their stop, they just seem to know...! they seem to have mastered the art of power napping thats for sure and I've now started to join them.

I then get off at Oyabe City (it's not a city as we would call a city at home- I'll get to that in another blog post) Anyway, I get off the train and walk to the bike shed. There are so many people who leave Oyabe that the bike "shed" holds about 500 bloody bikes!

I then get on the bike, which has NO gears for my 10 min ride to Isurugi or 15 min ride to Toubu Elementary. Even though there aren't really hills the no gears thing is a killer and I turn up to work red faced, sweaty, with my trousers tucked into my socks not really looking the smart, suited and heeled ALT that Interac had outlined in their training!

My commute!

My apartment is surrounded by paddy fields!

I'm sure Ive mentioned this before but when I first arrived I was surprised to see despite being in an urban location my new pad was surrounded by these small fields. Luckily at the time I asked Etsuko (my co-ordinator who helped me move in) what they were and she told me they were paddy fields, otherwise I wouldn't have understood what the fark they were doing with them. Apparently they plant in May & harvest in Aug/Sept so I felt lucky to be able to watch it right from my front door! I must admit I wasn't sure how they actually grow rice...doh!
Ok so here they are when I moved in, kind of dried out grassy fields. Oh yes and thats my apartment block over there!

So within weeks the little farmer (yes everything is little here) with his little tractor comes and ploughs the fields. Ooh, I feel Im at home! Don't have a piccie of that one. Within a few days of plouging they started flooding the fields, water was pouring down these gulleys (you can see one on the right of the above photo)

Within a day or two the fields are submerged in water. When someone said "flooded" I wasn't expecting totally submerged so that was a bit of a shock. I was then told by Ugee (ok prob wrong spelling), Cari's boyfriend that flooding would mean the arrival of the frogs. I took what he said with a pinch of salt but then got home that night to a chorus of frogs. I recorded the noise (as its quite mental) below. I'm just praying I won't step on one on the way home!

A week later, which was Thursday this week, on my bleary eyed daily morning walk to the train station I was actually excited to see the first shoots in two of the fields! I had to get my camera out like a proper tourist!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kanazawa Karaoke!

I've been for 3 weeks now so it was about time I experienced the karaoke phenomenom! Last night I went out with Sarah (works at GEOS, met her through Kari) and some of her Japanese students in Katamatchi, the pub/restaurant district of Kanazawa. We kicked off the night at an izikaya, was really gorgeous food so clocked where it was and will definately go back. After eating 3000 yens worth of food (about £25) we went up to meet her mate Paul and another guy whose name I've forgotten now, oops, I'm so crap.

The bar was run by a beautiful filipino lady who was fun with a capital F. We sang karaoke with her and another guy Tony (the guy in above pic) who was working behind the bar until 4am. OK so to me thats bloody late & my bedtime radar was sounding but they then took me kind of dragged kicking & screaming....tempting me with a free Sturgis, another bar in Katamatchi. Wow, what can I say about this place. Firstly, its tiny like all the bars seem to be in Kanazawa but it's just sooo damned cool! Dark, retro and crammed with bric a brac, guitars on the walls, posters, postcards, a video camera with screen and just random stuff everywhere. Run by a local guy who looks like a proper Japanese hells angel but is a sweetie.

Anyway people, video from Sturgis bar below (owner is playing the guitar) beware crazy music and crazy people!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

First day at school- Isurugi Elementary, Oyabe

I've realised I've not really written much about school so far. Jeez, where do I start! my first day at Isurugi honestly took me back to my first day at school. The big gates, bigger kids, clueless to know where I was going.

I was ushered into the freezing cold office of Kancho Sensei (Headteacher). We had some green tea which warmed me up a bit and sat on his big leather sofas. I gave him the present (Abacus tea towel with some choccies wrapped in it) and he loved it, phew. Currently my Japanese is sooo bad that I had to gesture washing & drying up to him otherwise I think he would have left it pinned to his office wall.
Anyway, I was taken to the staff room and showed my teeny weeny desk, shit I thought I can't even get my legs under that! I managed with some effort.
So my schedule for the day was 2 x 6th grade classes. Two students came and collected me from the staff room. God my heart was in my mouth, I was sooo nervous! It was all fine though. In hindsight that very first class is actually the worst class of all my classes, 40 kids in one cramped room including some disabled and autistic kids. A proper challenge to get 100% attention! I'll try and write up some of my lessons in a separate blog (and when I gain some confidence ask the teachers to record parts of them)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hanami: Cherry Blossom Viewing

So today I was invited by Sam to a Hanami. It sounded like some ominous ritual that I wasn't sure I wanted to dive straight into, that was until he explained that this was traditional event held across Japan to enjoy the beauty of the flowers, mainly cherry blossoms. In other words, a picnic under the blossoms. How wonderful!

Admitedly I had walked around Kanazawa a few days before and wondered what the huge blue plastic sheets pinned down to the grass were for. Well now I knew. These were reserved picnic sheets. Someone compared it to the Germans laying down their towels early in the morning to bag the best spot at the hotel pool..damn I used to hate it when that happened. At least in Kanazawa you're not confined to the small hotel poolside.
So boys will be boys and the picnic turned into a few cans of Chu-hi (an alcopop type drink, see post) on a sheet nowhere near the cherry blossoms but was nice anyway! The very next day I was invited to another Hanami by Cari along the Saigo river. It was such a beautifully hot day. Cool river, snow capped mountains as a backdrop. Not many things can beat that...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Board of Education meetings...

Oh bloody hell, where do I start? So today was the day I was to meet with the board of education for my teaching area Oyabe. I was told to dress smart but not to worry about speaking in the meeting as my IC (international co-ordinator) would handle it all. OK fine, so I just need to look nice oh and smile a lot since smiles go a long way in Japan!

So my first formal meeting in Japan. Typical then that instead of meeting one of the usual lakkies in the department this time we have to meet the head of the BofE in Oyabe. First time for Etsuko, my IC (international co-ordinator- helps with settling in). She got so nervous which just makes me nervous. We both get out our speeches in the car. I'm trying to remember how to say "I'm learning Japanese but its not good yet" and am struggling. She's trying to recite where & what I did at uni. Poor love. Communication and cultural studies with media doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

So we were ushered into the big cheese' office where 6 or so men stood up to greet us; a flurry of bowing. Eeek, I didn't know who to bow at first and how low to bow so that all went a bit wrong but nevermind. I made sure I wasn't the first to drink my green tea (now I should say in Japanese; O-cha) so not to offend. The meeting lasted for approx 5 minutes and in that time the head cheese decided to target all the questions at me. My "wakarimasens" just didn't work, he carried on with his questions. I smiled a lot and ended up answering in English. I was cringing. My intro Japanese course got me nowhere!

The minute I landed back on Kanazawa soil, I signed up for 2 x Japanese lessons per week at the Rifare. Never again! I'm going to be fluent in no time....

Japanese loo experience

So I had my first blessful experience on a Japanese toilet at the airport on arrival, super clean (my expectations were low after India..), warmed seat, yes warmed seat to place your cold botty!

Warm seat great but that wasn't the best bit. I then noticed the remote control panel on the side. Brilliant! Inquisitively I pressed one and a toilet flush sound effect echoed the cubicle, I guess it could hide any embarassing noises..hehe.

Two more buttons indicated whether I fancied a front bottom wash and back bottom wash. Ooh choices choices! followed by lovely soft loo roll. Impressed was an understatement. I've never enjoyed being sat on the loo so much! Why the hell can't we have loos like that in the UK?

Well that's until I discovered that not EVERY loo experience is as blissful and high tech as I thought. My first day at the Edikyo centre (education centre where I spend every Monday preparing lessons) burst my bubble. I walked in with Etsuko. Lucky really as Im not sure I would have changed into the plstic toilet shoes otherwise. Yes, you have to swap your shoes (in this case my indoor shoes so already swapped once) with these teeny weeny narrow toilet shoes provided that make you feel like an utter chubby chubster.

The loo, as you can see, is set into the ground. Instead of sitting you squat. I guess it's more hygenic (no seat touching) but oh so unglam! You face the plumbing as you do the biz. The thing which I found, and still find awful is the unavoidable splashes of wee wee on your trousers/socks! Ok so not totally hygenic...

When the biz is done just remember NOT to walk out with your toilet shoes on. I nearly did and would have never lived it down with the kids at school.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Supermarket shopping: Washing Powder Experience

Well my first experience to my local supermarket has been tragic, my head left spinning with too many items to try and work out. So one of the first things I needed today was washing powder. Quite simple I thought. Dirty clothes, I'll just pick up some washing liquid. Oh boy. I had not a clue what was fabric conditioner and what was clothes washing powder. The last thing I wanted to buy was fabric softner. Watch the video and you'll see what I mean.

Anyway, I plumped for something that said "Fresh Camomile" in Englsih on the front (although it still didn't confirm what it was) and luckily was right.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kanazawa Kenrokuen

I had a few days to spare before my dreaded Board of Education meeting so decided I'd make the most of the gorgeous weather and be a proper tourist in my new city. So I walked into town (which takes about 20/25 mins depending on whether I sprint walk or just walk) and went to the famous Kenroku-en ("garden"). Briefly, the garden is an old private garden developed by the Maeda clan and is one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan so I felt rather privileged that I was there for cherry blossom season. No entry fee either so extra bonus there!

Oh and when I say garden, I'm talking 25 acres of garden so don't think small here (for a change) I won't post all the photos up but it really was beautiful (packed with Japanese but still beautiful). This is the famous "flower viewing bridge".

I got hungry (typical) as soon as I got inside the park grounds, actually I got grouchy hungry which is not pleasant as friends/family are aware! So as well as admiring the beautiful fountains, statues and pagodas I scoped out lunch. Now as a girl on her own in Japan I'm paranoid about committing major social faux pas and wasn't sure whether eating alone in a posh kenrokuen restaurant was the done thing. So as much as the restaurants looked sooo idyllic I carried on walking about trying to find something that wouldn't committ a social crime.
Ooooh until I saw another Japanese lady eating on her own so I took my shoes off, plumped myself at the next door table and looked at the menu which was all in hirigana with minimal food pictures, JOY! I picked something that looked like a ramen bowl which was edible but I've decided ramen isn't my fave japanese dish.

Having satisfyingly stuffed my face I took another walk around the park, took some more pics and again wished I had my SLR! Ladies below enjoying the view of the cherry blossoms from the park. Note: Moutains in background (some snowcapped but need zoom to shoot them!)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Leo Palace pad (exterior): Home for a year

OK so I had done my research before I left the UK and kind of knew I'd be spending the next year in an apartment I couldn't swing a cat in. It's how it is in Japan. So I had looked at a few studios in Kanazawa and plumped for one south of the city in a suburb called Nishi Izumi. It looked fairly easy to get to Katamatchi (main part of town) from there and also meant I could walk to Nishi Kanazawa station for my daily commute to Oyabe.

The first thing I noticed was that I was sourrounded by small fields, kind of like allotments. I'll get to those in another blog post as they turned out to be mini paddy fields, wicked! The apartment block was as I expected, a concrete block with minimal character. It didn't really faze me, I'm not in Japan to live in luxury residence! I did however immediately notice the beautiful, virbant pink cherry blossoms in a small park nearby.

Picture here shows the Leo Palace apartment block which looks so much prettier with the cherry blossoms in the forefront of the pic!

Despite looking like a prison block the inside was new, clean and very IKEA-esque. Small but not unbearably so. I was happy! (and to be no longer living out of a suitcase)

Video of outside of LeoPalace

For anyone who is looking at a Leo Palace then I've posted a video here.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Super cool Kanazawa station!

This is for people who have never been to Kanazawa but are wondering if its worth visiting. In short, yes yes yes! I feel so lucky that I'm living here. I'm sure there are some other fantastic cities in Japan but theres something really special about Kanazawa. It mixes all that is modern, massive department stores crammed with eye boggling trendy clothes stops, yes starbucks and tons of karaoke bars with the traditional (and in tact) geisha districts, temples and an old samurai area that I’ve yet to visit.
It's also cool. If arriving by train you walk through the really impressive station (金沢駅) glass interior. Damn, if only I had my SLR!!

Make sure you walk a bit further out of the station to see the huge tsuzumi gate (Tsuzimi means japanese dram so I'm guessing the design was based on the drum chords) then my favourite super cool water fountain clock. I felt like a big kid when I saw it. It's basically a water digital clock that displays the time using controlled fountains of water. The picture below just doesn't do it justice!

Check it out!