Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Goodbye Kanazawa,onto the next adventure!

Just a quick goodbye!

I'm flying to Fukuoka tomorrow, then down to Kumamoto for 10 days working at a wood workshop and finally Okinawa to do some serious de-thawing! Working on a bee farm down there. Yes BEES, bzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Lets hope I'm not allergic.... My friend translated the website and it reads "surrounded by deep forest, you can feel the nature breathing.... I can say our place "shasi kumar" is a "green uterus"...." Yep apparently he used the words "green uterus" Hmmm...should be interesting. Below is a video on their website, I think the girl is trying to find the source of the umeboshi (plum) When she's in the car she says "hito ga nai" meaning there's no people. Great, that's where I'm going. Eventually she finds the source of the umeboshi, it's honey umeboshi from the bee farm I'm going to (I think....!) Watch below

Will try and track progress on my brand spanking new blog Yep my alias will not be The Sow Tasty Gardener. Sow tasty will be all about growing your own veggies, gardening in general and of course experiences organic farming in Japan! Some places don't have internet I've been told BUT apparently I can use the neighbours PC. Oh wow, fun stories to come I'm sure.

Going to leave the blog up for anyone who wants to find things to do in and around Kanazawa. I'm off to wwoof for 6 weeks (and a trip to China and Mongolia in between!)

Thanks for reading, wish me luck!!


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The mighty sumo!

Staying in a temple with monks, check. Capsule hotel, check. Playing taiko drums, check. Sing karaoke badly, check. Sumo, oooh not yet!
Without further ado we bought tickets to the March leg of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai Grand Tournament in Osaka. Getting tickets is pretty easy in Japan if you speak Japanese but a bit of a challenge if you don't. The best way is to do what Maylee did to get ours. Turn up at a Circle C or other convenience store in Japan, point to thing that looks like a cash machine in the corner and say "Sumo, kippu hoshi onegai shimasu" and with any luck the lovely helpful people will come and press all the right buttons on the machine. We decided to spend a little extra on getting good tickets (arena S) at 8,500 yen, about £60 but worth it for the good view.

I had watched quite a few sumo matches on TV usually when I got home from work and loved them. They're crazy and only last a few seconds sometimes. To my surprise not all sumo wrestlers are actually Japanese, there's this white Estonian guy called Baruto who obviously stands out from the crowd and looks a bit odd wearing his mawashi (the silk padded g string looking thing that they all wear to hide their crown jewels)
Well what a FAB experience! We had really good seats considering its practically impossible to book them near the ringside (all reserved for VIPs) but we could see everything really well. The place had a great atmosphere, families and groups of friends who had booked the boxes (4 in a box) sat on floor cushions with bento boxes whilst waiters came along bringing them green tea.

We arrived around 3pm and watched a few juryo matches just to get us warmed up. Basically there's 2 professional ranks in sumo, the juryo (the lower) and the makuuchi (the top). We watched a few final juryo matches and then it was time for the Naka-iri which is basically the opening ceremony where all the wrestlers from the top league come on wearing these silk pieces that looked like aprons. (worth around £4k apparently) See photos above.
Next for the Yokozuna (横綱) ceremony, the yokozuna is the highest rank of sumo which I think is only held by one wrestler, currently its a fierce looking guy called Hakuhō Shō. The crowds went pretty wild when he came into the ring and he did this ritualistic dance accompanied with a sword bearer. See photo below.

Hakuho performing yokozuna ceremony

Next it was time for the makuuchi division matches. The rules are simple. The aim is to get your opponent either outside of the ring OR to touch any of the body parts (except for feet obviously) onto the floor inside the ring. The build up lasts longer than the actual battle but its just great!

They eye each other up, then split up and each throw salt into the ring (for purifying the area apparently) then re-position to stare each other out before they start. Then suddenly they charge, there's lots of skin slapping (or should I say fat slapping), shouts and clutching of the mawashis as they try and pull each other down.

Staring each other out

3,2,1 go!

....and the guy with the black mawashi wins!

Didn't have a clue where the scoring board was until we saw this tiny ancient looking hung up in the corner, yep this is the score board. The red dots are who won the match. Yep it took us a while especially nursing a hangover when everything takes just that little bit longer ; )

We did wonder how those mawashi stay on the wrestlers. The knot doesn't even look that tight at the back and sometimes they have so much front bottom fat hanging out that its amazing nothing else escapes...Oh and the non Japanese wrestlers were so hairy! Hairy backs, hair chests, hairy legs, yuk. Here is my fave wrestler, Baruto who is in the third highest rank, towering over the other wrestlers. He doesn't look like he belongs does he?

Once the matches were finished at 6pm they held a final bow ceremony took place but I felt pretty sorry for the rikishi wrestler who was perfoming it as everyone started to leave before he finished, how rude! The ceremony is centuries old, the bow represents the gratitude felt by the day's victors.

Time to go, thrilling afternoon, hangover cleared but not looking forward to the train ride back to Kanazawa! I filmed one below.

My first capsule hotel experience, Osaka

From one accommodation extreme to the next...Saturday night spent in a temple with monks in the mountains of the beautiful and serene Koyasan and Sunday night in a quirky capsule hotel smack bang in the middle of "America-town" in the bustling Osaka. You have to love Japan!

My bed, top floor

For anyone who has no idea what a capsule hotel is, its basically a type of hotel in Japan with extremely small rooms (aka capsules). They're usually men only but some have a ladies floor. They were initially designed for men too inebriated to travel home or to embarrassed to face their spouses. The best thing is that they're super cheap, like around £20 per night. Some people in Japan even rent them on a monthly basis as they're so cheap.

Once we entered our capsule ( we put our "outdoor" shoes into lockers and checked in no probs. I had initially expected some kind of unmanned reception with vending machines that spit out your keys (this is the case for some capsules) but there were actually humans there to check us in, wow! Locker keys in hand we went down to our ladies floor which we accessed via a key. Once inside, we went to find our capsules, all very exciting!

Home for the night, look like morgue chambers don't they?

They weren't half as small and claustrophobic as I thought they would be although it did look like we'd just walked into a scene from CSI, these morgue type chambers stacked up both sides, spooky!

Mine was at the top so I had a little ladder to help me get in.Once I crawled inside it really wasn't that small, I could sit up easily and mine had a built in TV inside, pretty darn cosy if you ask me! No doors of course, just a screen that you pull down for privacy.

I also thought it would be like a noisy hostel full of young drunken travellers running about everywhere but no. It was so quiet, everyone respects the need for peace and quiet. When we first saw our capsules though, we did get a bit over excited and started taking pictures of each other hanging out of our capsules remarking on "how lucky it was no-one was about". To our dismay, some girl shouted out in English "I am" Well that taught us! We didn't make a sound after that.

Kari and I squeezed into her capsule (silently of course!)

On the ladies floor there is was a locker area where you have to store all of your stuff. They even give you pyjamas, a yukata (summer kimono) and a towel! There was a relaxation room, a sauna and sento (small bath) room for freshening up and a huge vanity area. All you need really! We got ready for our night on the tiles in Osaka and went out wondering whether the ladder up to my capsule might turn into a challenge after a few drinks...

5am, 9 hours later...Crawled into our capsules amazingly managing not to fall up or down the ladder. Had a wonderfully peaceful sleep in my little capsule for the night!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Koyasan; the sacred mountain & staying with monks in a temple

Wow its amazing how much you can pack into a 3 day weekend! With 4 months left in Japan there's still so much I want to do here, eeek. So this weekend we decided to go for a "cram Japan" weekend starting at Koyasan (or Mount Koya), a sacred mountain and Shingon Buddhist temple complex and spending a night in temple lodging (known as shukubo), then hitting Osaka for a night in a capsule hotel and if that wasn't enough go see a sumo match! Soooo much to write about, I'll start with Koyasan.

So on Saturday morning at 6.50am we took the gruelling but cheap 5 hour bus bound for Osaka from Kanazawa (its the old age, I used to be able to handle long bus trips!) In fact it ended up being 7 hours as the traffic was so bad going into Osaka. From Osaka we caught the train and thought it was odd that the scenerey wasn't getting any more mountainous and pretty. It took us over an hour to realise that in fact we were en route to Kansai aiport, DOH! Mild panic setting in as the temple was serving dinner at 5.30pm and they wouldn't wait for anyone, it was now 4pm....

About 4 more train changes, a ropeway tram (see above) and a final bus we ended up in Koyasan, 11 1/2 hours later. Yep, we could have flown to London in that time!

The minute the bus entered the towering entrance gates and this huge stone Buddha appeared from nowhere in the trees we knew it was going to be worth the effort. Just some quick history for you about Koyasan, in 806 a monk named Kukai had travelled to China to study Buddhism. Some years later he returned and established a Shingon monastery on Koyasan, which then grew over the centuries. Kukai has become one of Japan's most famous religious figures and is revered as a Bodhisaattva, scholar and inventor of the Japanese kana.

Nowadays, the Shingon school of Buddhism has 10 million members and presides over nearly 4000 temples all over Japan. Today Koyasan enables tourists to stay alongside monks, eat their characteristic vegetarian cuisine (shojin-ryori), observe their prayer ceremonies and learn meditation techniques. We were to do all but the last.

Reception room at Shojosh-in temple, our home for a night

The temple we stayed at, called Shojoshin-in, blew our away. No reception desk, just a monk who comes and greets you and leads you to a beautiful tatami mat room (above) to check you in.

The main hall at Shojosh-in, where we stayed.

They gave Raquel our list of "rules", meal times, morning prayers time 6.30 and bath times (only between certain times in the evening and not available in the morning).

With no time to settle we went straight down for dinner (luckily they had agreed to still serve us despite being late) The food was so tasty. I honestly thought that we might go hungry what with the monks eating simple diet but no, we had 3 trays of food each! The monk who had been manning reception was now our waiter and was scurrying in and out with the food and hot green tea.

For the next hour we gorged on tempura veggies, pickles, fried tofu, daikon radish, rice, rolled omlette, ginger soup, miso, pickled chinese cabbage, fruit, it went on and on.... see above.
After dinner we drank a few glasses of wine in our room under the kotatsu (heated blanket surrounding a table) had a good ol chin wag and eventually passed out wondering what was in store for the next morning's service.

6.15am on the dot, a loud bell was rung a few times indicidating it was time to get up. We headed down to the prayer room a bit dreary eyed. Well, what an enchanting experience. Listening to the monks chant rythmically almost puts you into a trance like state and certainly took me back to my zazen experience in November.

After morning prayer which finished by 7am we had a huge breakfast and headed out to see Oku-No-In, a cemetary where Kukai rests in eternal meditation and the most sacred site at Koysan. Anyone who is anyone in Japan is buried here including former feudal lords, politicians and soldiers who served in WW2 are all buried in this huge cemetary (200,000 graves to be exact).

I'm no fan of graveyards here but there isn't a creepy tombstone in sight, just a quaint path that leads you through the cedar forest over quaint bridges, past monuments and towards Toro-Do (Lantern Hall) and Kukai's mausoleum.

En route we passed so many people cladded in white jackets and holding walking sticks. I initially thought they were tour guides (big faux pas jessie!) They were in fact "spiritual tourists" starting or ending their pilgrimages to the "88 sacred places of Shikoku", an impressive 1,100km trail.

I could go on about Koya and the wonderful places including Kongobu-ji and Garan (the temple complex), the golden pagodas but I'm running out of time and have a few more posts to write! Have a browse of the pics and you'll get a sense for the wonder of the place.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Making Japanese sweets (wagashi) in Kanazawa

Maylee and I, proudly showing off our masterpieces!

Running out of time and there's still so much I want to do whilst living in Kanazawa. The longer I'm here the less daunting it all seems to be (i.e I'm even calling people up and speaking in my broken Japanese, something I never thought possible when I arrived a year ago!)

So one thing I had read about in the list of things to do in Kanazawa is to make wagashi (和菓子), a traditional Japanese confectionary which is often served with tea and is almost considered an art form.

Of course all the information about doing this is in Japanese so it's a bit of a challenge to work out where, how much and what its all about. So having made a wobbly reservation on the phone, we went down to the Ishikawa Gifts and Souvenir centre on Saturday with the hope that they had actually understood me on the phone and to my amazement they did!*

We were ushered into a big hall with long tables, the last group were finishing off and then it was our turn. Each of us had our own set of wagashi mix, utensils, a sieve and some wet tissues.

The head chef, a big bloke who I think must teach the classes on rotation all day, put on his mic and began his presentation. We could see everything he was doing as he must have had a mini TV camera attached to a huge screen, unfortunately we didn't understand what he was saying but this is practical so it doesn't matter, just copy everyone else!

We started off by making the easiest wagashi that looked like a pink sugar mouse. There are tons of different types of Japanese wagashi depending on the ingrediants and style but as I'm sat here at school not even my teachers know the proper name for this pink one! You take the wagashi mixture (which feels like a soft play dough, it is in fact rice flour mixed with water), flatten it and then place the azuki bean paste (same consistency) inside.

You then carefully mould the edges of the outer layer around the inner and make a ball. Then you roll it in your hands until it forms an egg shape. To finish it you make two cross marks across the top with your wagashi utensils, see my video!

We then moved onto the next one, a green one with a marble type effect that bunched together at the top.

It looked near impossible to make but was actually not too hard. The secret was in getting a damp handkerchief, wrapping the wagashi inside, twisting it hard and then finaly pinching it with 2 fingertips....

Et voila!

The last looked like something I used to produce from my mop top hair shop when I was young (god remember those?) This time the wagashi mix goes through the sieve provided, watch us doing it in video below!

After, you must pick up the wagashi shreds using only chopsticks and cover the inner ball of azuki. OK this was a bit tough as I have zero patience and it just doesn't stick that well.

Once you've picked every shred of wagashi mix your'e done! The waitresses then give you a cute little box (recycled I hope) for your 3 pieces of art form (and they include an extra wrapped one in there) Here are my final masterpieces ; )

I might even try to make my own daifuku (a type of wagashi which I just LOVE!) if I have time this weekend (a nice leaving present for my teachers)

At the Ishikawa Gifts and Souvenir centre you can also decorate traditional Japanese dolls as well as paint on glass.

The sweet making cost ¥1200 and is available from 10am to 1pm on weekends and national holidays only.
*To be honest I'm not sure a reservation is really needed as there weren't that many people there. Turn up and I'm sure they can fit you in.

Map is at (third picture down, there's also a map in English of how to get there)

Warning, don't scoff all your wagashi sweets in one. I did....

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fun Easter lesson for elementary, an Easter egg hunt!

Nearing the end of my classes now and decided to do an Easter themed lesson as my last lesson for the kids.
So first I had the assistant here talk for 5 minutes (in Japanese) about Easter. Why we celebrate it, the significance of the egg and chick (I'm ashamed to say I didn't know until I googled it), lent and the tradition of Easter egg hunt.

I then taught the prepositions on, under and in using a chocolate Easter egg I found in my local convenience store and a box. Each time I'd ask them "where's the Easter egg?" and pupils would respond "It's in the box" or "It's under the box" etc

I'd then move over to an area of the gym that I have already set up with boxes, bags, balls and books on the floor (about 6 of each) I put the egg in certain places, for example, in the book and ask again "Where's the Easter egg?" Good practice. Once this is done I divide the class into 4 groups so we can start a real Easter Hunt! (only in the gym although with my English Club we played it throughout the school)

So each team has 4 eggs. They take it in turns (in pairs) to hide the egg (well I use paper cut out eggs) for the the other half of their team. Each pair of hiders must give the hunters a clue, i.e "Its in the book" and the hunters from each group must all go and hunt for it. Of course the more books there are on the floor to look in the harder it is. I also make the eggs smaller and smaller so hunting for an egg the size of my little fingernail becomes quite a challenge!

After this, I give out Easter certificates which you can make at or make them bookmarks (which I laminate) If the teachers allow it I'll give each team a chocolate easter egg.

Happy Easter everyone! I'm just thawing out last.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Livening up a very bored 6th grade elementary class

6th grade elementary kids- the bane of my year! It took me a while (well nearly a year) to figure them out. You see these kids have totally outgrown elementary/primary school They're aged 11 and 12, have lost their genkiness, have developed a bit of attittude, don't want to volunteer for anything in class or be shown up in front of their class buddies or even be seen to be trying hard. The boys have even got stubble (well some) and the girls hairy legs (sorry but its true!). Basically they're growing up...

So faced with a class of 40 x 11 and 12 year olds who are half falling asleep its a pretty difficult challenge trying to get them interested! One of the things I have recently started doing (thanks to my friend Kari for the suggestion) is playing a game called "crossfire" (also known as crisscross or rows & columns game) It's a simple review game and always guarantees they'll enjoy it whilst reviewing past subjects. It can take 5 mins (if you hurry them), no moving of tables or pupils, they just stand up. See below for rules*

It's such a fun game and I always try and spice it up a bit by showing them revolting food (from genki English website- i.e worm ice cream, snake salad) and asking them "Do you like snake salad?"

I have learnt that 6th graders don't really respond well to manic racing games (although sometimes I have played them and they work, ie the soldiers & ninjas game- look at Genki English site) They like to be creative and think for themselves. I try and apply real life to much of the target language they learn. For example, lesson 5 is directions so we had the pupils draw a map of Oyabe City (which is really small so like a town) and then direct me to their favourite places in town such as the video game shop or the park. If your town is too big you could make a map of the school and have pupils direct you to places.

Also for birthdays, we had the pupils interview each other and work out what their star sign is. If you have time you could even have the teacher give them their star sign forecasts for the year (make it positive of course!) Trust me they're interested in this sort of thing at this age.

I also had the 6th graders form a band to practice "Can you play....?" a few lucky pupils were the band managers and had to form a band. They loved naming their band and had a lot of fun.

So if you're a new ALT faced with a class of 6th graders at elementary, I hope this helps a bit!
* Crossfire can be played many ways. Either the whole class stands up or it can be played in rows.
Either use questions (how old are you?, when is your birthday? etc) or flashcards. Flashcards make the game go much quicker, increasing the level of energy.

I play with all students standing up. I either ask a question or flash a card. The first student to raise his hand and say the English word for the picture card or answer the question can choose to either have the pupils standing in his/her horizontal row or vertical column to sit down (technically "saving" their friends). Keep going until one student or a row/column is left standing. I sometimes feel bad having only one student left standing so usually ask the last few people standing a question they can answer together.

Japan: what next contd...

Hmmm. So after much deliberation I've decided to leave Japan, boo hoo. I'll be so sad to go as there just seems to be so much I haven't done yet that I still want to do! I mean I haven't climbed Mount Fuji, haven't eaten the famous poisonous puffa fish and played taiko drums in a festival.

There were no suitable jobs in Chiba so I gave up on that idea. As much as I want to go to Laos & Vietnam I can do that anytime in my life sooooo I decided to go volunteering in Japan for a while. I've organised it through a scheme called WWOOF (stands for willing workers on organic farms). It's a worldwide organisation where you can basically pay a small fee to register (¥4000) and you volunteer at places such as organic farms, art & craft studios, hotels/ryokans, environment centres and outdoor sports centres. In exchange for about 6 hours work a day you get full board and lodging. Since its quite expensive to travel around in Japan it offers a good solution to tourists who don't have a huge budget. Of course, it also offers a real insight into the Japanese way of life. I think its worth a try anyway! So I'm off to Kyushu, the southern most island of Japan, to work near Kumamoto City and then to Okinawa (an island even further south of Japan which is apparently tropical this time of year!) for a further 2 weeks. I'm fed up with the cold to be honest ; )

I won't have regular access to email/web from April 1st but I'll try and let you know how it all goes!
Heading off to China and Mongolia after a short spell of wwoofing, mainly to research a business idea but also for a little holiday too.
OK signing off!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

ALT Lesson Plans with Eigo Note, 5th grade. Lesson 7 What's this?

My 5th graders already know what "What's this?" means! Yikes 4 x 1 hour lessons to cover "What's this?" and "It's a ....." is a bit too much so I decided to shorten it to just 2 lessons instead.

We played a fun mystery box game suggested by Eigo Note for the first lesson. We also played a Silhouette Quiz which they enjoyed. I showed them some famous optical illusion pictures (like the vase or two faces, see on the projector and they had to tell me what they saw. I would say "What is it?" each time.

Anyway a short post for a short section! Feel free to download my two lesson plans below

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 7- (5.28) What's this? part 1

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 7- (5.29)- What's this? part 2

Have fun!

ALT Lesson Plans with Eigo Note, 5th grade. Lesson 6 What do you want?

Hmmm...this is a difficult one. The target language is "what do you want?" but I tried to explain that a waiter is more likely to ask "What would you like?" as its more polite than "what do you want?". I then thought that people do ask "what do you want" but its generally kept to friends and family members otherwise it comes across as a bit curt.

So for the first lesson we just practiced foreign words and I had the kids work in groups to think of foreign words in a few categories (i.e classroom, games, food/drink etc) Hilarious when I asked one group they came up with "Pocket monster next generation"! Well I guess they are foreign words..I also had Mr Donut..ok fair enough. Second lesson it was Christmas so I had them work in groups asking each other "What do you want for Christmas?" (although I still don't quite agree with them saying "I want an ipod"- not polite! but I let it pass)

Then I decided to do something totally different than Eigo Note since the rest of the lesson seemed to be based on ordering parfaits and I just didn't think it was an effective way of learning "I want...." (Also it seems that in Eigo Note they only really practice the question but not the answer- i.e "What do you want?" and then the response is just "peach, pineapple and melon please")

So I found a fantastic learning English website though a teacher run by NHK, a TV station in Japan. It's basically a robot called Gabby and a family. They produce short video clips that concentrate on a specific language per clip and my kids find them really funny (especially 5th and 6th graders- the 10/11/12 year olds who can be so difficult sometimes) See (wait for Gabby to load and then hit "watch" button at the bottom)

One of the scenes (episode 09-1 is "I want") features a character called Jack who eats loads (I want pizza! I want chicken! I want....I want.....) but he then gets a bit chubby and has to exercise. So I had the kids watch it and then they had to act it out as a drama in groups. They really loved it. I've posted a video above of one of the performances.

Download my lesson plans below for more detail (if you want):

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 6- (5.24) What do you want? part 1

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 6- (5.25)- What do you want? part 2

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 6- (5.26)- What do you want? part 3

Grade 5 Lesson Eigo Note Lesson 6- (5.27)- What do you want? part 4

Hope your 5th graders enjoy making the dramas as much as mine did. Thanks NHK and Gabby the robot!