Tuesday, November 24, 2009


So its been a while since my last blog, that's because all I've been doing really is working and adjusting to the change of seasons here in the mountains of Japan. Anyways I've been working a lot on changing the approach to teaching English. The current system that is in place here isn't as effective as I think it could be, so I took a proposal to the head of the education center Mr. Uemura a couple months ago and he liked what I had to say. I suggested that with phonemic languages such as English, as opposed to logographic languages like Japanese, there should be a much heavier emphasis on speaking and listening. This isn't to say that reading and writing aren't important, but the primary goal that the government has listed in teaching English is communication skills. This being the case I developed a few concepts of how to more effectively teach those communication skills rather than just teaching a language through the textbooks. So a month ago at our monthly meeting, I outlined some new concepts to him and he told me he'd like to come to the school for a demonstration class with the new approach. Today was the day he come to watch. So for the past couple weeks I had been preparing a lesson and demonstration to show him and other teachers. Today after my demonstration we all sat down for a meeting, my fellow teachers, Mr. Uemura, and myself to discuss whether we should begin implementing my ideas throughout the board of education and the school system. The Japanese teachers were hesitant, they have a very set way and are afraid of change it seems. However, Mr. Uemura, loved my ideas. He was quite excited telling the teachers that we need to start with new approaches and so all in all this project was a huge success for me. Aside from that things are just moving closer to winter, getting colder and grayer. So I'm learning how to keep warm with no-insulation and no central heating, a challenge, but I think I've got it figured out. That's all the news for now. Hope everyone back home is doing great!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


So we just had a five day break from work called Silver Week. A good time to get out and explore. So a few of us went to Kyoto. My good friend Eric made his way there from Kyushu and we met up for a good few days of sightseeing. It was really great, though in the moment it can be hard to appreciate what you are seeing due to the restrictions. See, I'm not really one for tourism, and Eric isn't either, so we found enclaves and such wherever we could, but for the most part we were stuck in 'cattle-tourism'. This kind of stuff really frustrates me because its hard to get a good experience and a calm one when its just a bunch of tourists around, and since it was silver week the city was packed with foreigners and Japanese tourists. Needless to say this isn't my preferred method of sightseeing, but its definitely a great opportunity and you see things however you can. The temples and shrines are the main attractions, but there are some other things you can find as well. The temples were very beautiful and we were lucky enough to catch some of a Jodo ceremony at Chouin-in. We saw the big tourist attractions such as Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavillion) and Gion (The Geisha district). Unfortunately, catching sight of a Geisha is not so easy, and we didn't catch a glimpse of a single maiko or geisha. Aside from seeing the famed structures where everyone goes we managed to have fun seeing a side of the town that not too many people seemed interested in. Pontocho is the other Geisha district and known to be a little less 'snobish' than Gion. This area was really enchanting, though incredibly exclusive and impossible within which to find a place to eat. I read of a favorite coffee/tea house of one of the most beloved Japanese authors, Tanizaki Junichiro. Naturally I searched it out. It was really one of the highlights for me to sit down and have a drink in the favorite haunt of a famous literary figure and see where he did some of his writing. There was also a fantastic monkey park that I got to see where I enjoyed feeding the macaca fuscata, while one of the youngsters took an interest in grooming my leg (hence the above photo). Overall Kyoto was littered with things and places to see, and impossible to get a real feel of in a short 4 day period. Nevertheless, it was a grand old time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How I Feel

I'm not sure why, but for the last two days I've been feeling rather depressed. I've hit a roadblock and feel like there is nothing of significance I have done thus far in my life. Regrouping and looking back on things I just don't feel that I've accomplished much of anything in 23 years and I certainly haven't lived up to the potential that other people have helped give me. In fewer words I just feel like a bit of a failure with most things at this point. This isn't an entry seeking pity or complaining, I just felt that writing out how I feel might help. Since I am not seeking any affirmation from other people that my life hasn't been a failure up till now, please do not comment on this entry. I just need to find something that gives me a sense of satisfaction, and up until now I haven't felt satisfied with the work I've put out into the world. And I think focusing on that has made me feel as though I can't do anything right or successfully at this point from cooking a meal to exercising to playing my guitar. I don't know what's causing me to feel like this right now, nothing adverse has happened, I just woke up a couple days ago and felt this way. Anyways sometimes getting things written out puts them in a clearer light, so hopefully that's the case here.

Monday, September 7, 2009


So, I'll skip going into detail about work and the school children and such. Since I've only been teaching for a week I have very few impressions so my thoughts on all of that will just have to wait. So, this entry will be all about my weekend. Saturday: Saturday was the sports festival day at both of my junior high schools. This is a big deal here and the schools take it pretty seriously. The students are split into anywhere from two to four teams depending on the size of the school; my school being relatively small had two teams, the blue team and the red team. Its a whole big event, nothing like a field day back home. The students line up and enter very formally. Opening ceremonies are carried out, which involves a lot of formalities and seemingly long winded speeches. Then activities begin and last all day, for about eight hours. All kinds of events take place from chicken fighting to tug of war to relay races, just a lot of games essentially. The day is long and hot, very hot, by the end I was sunburned and very tired. Afterwards the teachers traditionally have an enkai or teachers' party. Naturally I accepted to the party since I was told we'd be going out for drinks. Well, what they forgot to inform me was that we were all going to an onsen. So that was a rather intersting experience; the onsens are very relaxing, like hot springs that are fed from nearby volcanic vents. Japanese people though all jump into these public hot springs naked. So its common for all co-workers to share a naked hot spring after a long days work.  I think that was the first really big cultural difference I experienced here, something that you just don't hear about happening back home. Afterwards everyone dries off and enjoys dinner and drinks together in the restaurant area of the onsen facilities, this of course happens in clothing haha. The enkai was really a welcome party for me, which I had to regretfully leave early because I had prior commitments. Which takes me to my next point of address. After I left the enkai I headed to the local village festival which I had agreed to play music in. So I got up on stage (something that I love to do as you all know) and played for a while. Naturally at both the enkai and the local festival people don't let you stop drinking, so I ended up very tired and developed a system of pretending to drink and just taking small sips to avoid getting overly intoxicated, especially since the following morning I had agreed to be in the festival activities for that day. So next, Sunday's festival: The local 'matsuri' or festival, was lots of fun, even though by the end I was exhausted and sick of being given drinks. The drinking started at 9am and continued through the day. My neighbors goet me some traditional garb so I was looking the part. During the day each neighborhood had a local shrine that they carry around and chant 'wasui!' or any mantra that equates to 'let's go' or 'let's celebrate', 'here we go', something of the kind. Mind you these shrines are heeaavvy, and since I am the new foreigner they wouldn't allow me to not be carrying it...each time I'd rotate out someone would say, 'Kevin jump in over here!!'. So for a good 6 or 7 hours I helped carry a large shrine around and chanted the same word! Every so often the parade stops in front of a local establishment for refreshments, naturally, being in Japan water is not an option lol, only sake or beer. So you get more and more intoxicated while getting more and more tired. The parade also stopped by the local shrine to take in some shinto prayer and traditional dancing and festival stands. By the end of the day I was very very tired. I didn't realize how tired I was until Monday, which thankfully due to Saturday's sports festival I had off from work. Monday I had plans with another JET to travel to Nagano and get our 're-entry' permits from the immigration bureau. Foreigners need these so they can leave Japan and reenter multiple times. Upon waking up I realized I was incredibly, sore, haha still am while I write this. My back and shoulders were in a world of hurt from carrying the shrine all day Sunday and I spent the day moving like an 80 year old man. We made short work of the immigration bureau thing and got to spend a couple hours touring Zenkoji temple! This is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the 7th century and was said to house the first Buddhist image brought to Japan! The image has remained sealed away from eyes for three hundred years, and has only been seen by a single priest once within the last 1000 years. The priest only saw it upon an order from the shogun to inspect whether or not the image was real and not just legend. Naturally, as a history and Buddhism enthusiast this is the kind of stuff that thrills me. Another very neat aspect about the temple is that it is not claimed by any single Buddhist sect. Since the temple was founded prior to the split of Buddhism within Japan, the temple is run by monks of various different schools of Buddhism and thus the temple welcomes all practitioners, and of course all tourists, Japanese Buddhism is very commercial and aimed at attracting finance. This is the case for most sects such as the Jodo or Pureland sect. I think it holds far less true for sects such as Zen, but that is one thing I am very curious to study while here. But now I am rambling on as if I was giving a school report or a trivia lesson. So to hit the point the Temple visit was the highlight of my weekend amidst a full and fun weekend. I got some pics of the temple grounds, but inside photography is not allowed, which is a tragedy because the ornate decorations are incredibly beautiful, though I did manage to sneak a pic that I really wanted to get of people praying to the bodhisattva of healing, it was near the entry so it was easy to snap prior to going further into the temple. Anyways, I'll call it quits there and give your eyes a rest. 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Part I in Tokamachi

So I've been here for about three weeks now. And things are very interesting. I have had my fair share of both exciting new experiences and frustrating moments. The town is indeed very rural. Although the population is officially around 63,ooo, the town is sparse and spread out, providing a challenging time getting around without a car. So first, lets go through the challenging and disappointing moments of my arrival and save the good stuff for the end of the entry, that way you'll all read all the way through :).  When I first arrived off of the train from Tokyo spirits were high and excited to explore a new place. However things quickly got off to a rocky beginning from the first few minutes after arriving in the town. Some say first impressions are everything; personally I'm not one to subscribe to that belief. However, sometimes they turn out to be correct, and in the case of my regional advisor here in Tokamachi, it proved to be just that. I'm not big on slander, (or in this case libel), so suffice it to say I have yet to be impressed with him advising the new JETs.  Shortly after meeting my fellow ALTs, I was told that my position had been switched without notice to either myself or the person I got switched with. So, she ended up with a new place and a convenient location with her school right outside her window. I on the other hand was lucky enough to take the place of someone I had not been in any contact with and was unsure of what to expect. As it turned out, my predecessor was not one for responsibility or cleanliness, and he left my apt in shambles prior to my arrival. All kinds of junk lying around, his trash, socks, towels, etc. etc., the walls were dirty and stained, the couch was unusable in my opinion due to uncleanliness, the light lamps busted, the kitchen had some kind of 'science experiment' growing in the dirty dishes, and the list goes on... SO, I have been spending the first few weeks trying to fix my place up. However problems have been encountered along the way; for example my ceiling was leaking water all throughout my apt a week ago when I arrived home from work, this was unfortunate. I managed to get it wiped up and cleaned the best I could. Yet, soon afterwards, mold started growing on the ceiling where it had been leaking...This all managed to occur in the middle of frustrations at work. So with all this going on I reached a point of frustration where I had to sit down and pull away from it all. I took some time to meditate, and gathered my thoughts. Well all this junk and unclean surroundings in my apt took a while to get figured out since the trash day system here is quite complicated for an American. There are about 7 different categories of kinds of trash that must be separated, burnables, nonburnables, differently colored glass must be sorted, boxes of different kinds of cardboard, etc. there are no dumpsters to get rid of large objects, you have to call and pay to have them removed. So, this cost me a pretty penny to get the trash and nasty furniture removed, a lot of which I still haven't been able to get rid of. Anyways all of this added up to a large hassle and I found myself frustrated with the board of education's (which is my employer) assistance after multiple requests. So the inheritance I received from my predecessor spurred a set of frustrating circumstances. But never fear because you just gotta roll up your sleeves and fix it, which is what I've done for the most part. Each time I have become frustrated it seems I have my music on and the familiar voice of Dave Matthews enters my ears and all of a sudden things become calm, and I am able to keep a positive outlook. So thats a little bit of the downside of things so far, now for the good stuff! (and if you've made it this far you are quite the trooper.) The countryside is beautiful and has provided me with lovely scenery. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of great little restaurants and have spent some time talking with the owners and had some great conversations, even though most of the time its just through gestures that we understand each other. I have gone for a few runs and they've been hot, humid, rainy, wet, and muggy, but great! The scenery is great and I've come across large hawks and other wildlife while running. There is an abundance of little shrines and toris and temples which I am very excited to take pictures of and explore. There have been fireworks, and kimonos and very friendly locals who smile and help with whatever they can. I have plans to get involved in a lot of clubs and hobbies as soon as I get transportation, (which is only a week away). I managed to see a couple youngsters playing baseball in their small yard (yards don't really exist here) and joined them, they had a blast and that was a tremendously enjoyable experience. I have made a few Japanese friends who speak a little english and have been tremendously helpful translating for me. I was asked by one of them, her name is Sanae and she is an english teacher at a middle school in a nearby town, to help with a private lesson. The girls were high schoolers and they cooked us dinner and spoke english impressively well, we had a great conversation and they asked me to come back. Sanae also took me out to the coast of the sea of Japan and to Japanese Oktoberfest! This was a lot of fun as well. My proficiency with chopsticks is rapidly improving, and my language skills are getting a bit of practice, though I'd like more. I have made connections to Keio University in Tokyo and am hopeful to try and meet the professors and discuss anthropological research sometime in the next year, as well as hopeful to try and get a piece published eventually in a Japanese Journal of some kind. My prefecture puts on a charity musical every year and I am amped to audition and hopefully get the lead role, and have a chance to perform on stage again, something I miss tremendously. But even cooler is the fact that its a charity for building schools in Papua New Guinea, and in March the play participants go there and build schools! So it looks like in March I'll be going to a tribal valley on P. New Guinea, a place where you can't get clearance to visit on any kind of vacation, the tribes have the local authority and only allow the group of Niigata JETs because they've developed a good rapport. This fall there is chance to help with the rice harvest, something I would love to experience. There are all kinds of festivals in or near my town and they have been great! I'm very close to finding a karate teacher and am hopeful he will give me private lessons. As for work, well its summer break here and classes don't begin until the 31st, so each day I spend at the education center doing absolutely nothing, I haven't even been taken to my school yet, that happens for the first time on Tuesday this upcoming week, so until then I have no planning to do, no lessons to make, and nothing to do at work except read. My prefecture produces the best rice and sake in Japan, and as expected its very good. There's a lot of familiar Japanese texts at the library which I am excited to get and begin translating into English as language practice. I'm going to buy some traditional Japanese instruments and take lessons at the local community center, we'll see if I can follow the teacher with my broken Japanese comprehension lol. All in all there are a lot of amazing things to experience here and I am very excited to begin experiencing them which should really begin in a couple weeks once school is in session and I have my work schedule figured out. Well that's it for now. I love you all and hope this update reaches you in health and happiness. 

Monday, July 27, 2009

Arrival In Tokyo

Ok, here we go, first few days in Japan- The flight over was relatively painless, 11 hrs or so from LA to Tokyo, 16 or 17 hrs of travel altogether. The flight made slightly enjoyable by the electronic backgammon game available. The humidity and heat was all that it was cracked up to be- just that, hot and humid, sweaty and uncomfortable. Immigration and customs was far less invasive than I had anticipated. Upon arrival the guidance to our rooms and such was made idiot-proof by the sponsoring organizations and ministries. Helpful yes, a tad unnecessary. I took the elevator, or as some of my new British colleagues say 'lift' (haha, I do love good British idioms) up to my room to discover that my roommate was none other than Eric, haha, a good discovery. We hit the town the first night in search of adapters for our computers, 680 yen a piece, followed by dinner at a nice ラーメン shop, (ramen). Had a great bowl of ramen and a beer for 1200 yen.  A couple other Colorado JETs ran into us there and joined us. The next morning we went for a walk around the hotel just to get a feel for Tokyo business on a Monday morning at 8am. I walked outside to hear a very loud and bizarre sound all around, only to come to the realization that it was all the cicadas making tons of noise- we don't have those back in Colorado...so the sound was quite foreign to me. The day followed with workshop after workshop for orientation, much as today will, and they were incredibly boring and un-enlightening. I hope todays presentations will be more useful and insightful. After the long boring day of workshops we split up into our prefectural groups and went out. Our Niigata group went to an observatory overlooking the whole city, quite the sight. (pictures to come). After that we strolled around town looking for a bar, found a nice small place and enjoyed some drinks, I spent 1200 yen on two drinks, roughly equivalent to what I'd spend back in the states. We all went back to the hotel at different points, I walked back alone, cause I'm like that, and found myself approached by many an older Japanese women, each one with the same speech, 'ha-lo, masagee?' You'll be able to decipher what this meant as well as I was, haha; naturally I declined as politely as possible and continued on my way. And that is pretty much where its all at. No big impressions or surprises yet, though we've had very limited time to explore and are spending most the time around other foreigners, so none of us will get immersed into real Japanese culture until we reach our prefectural towns, which is tomorrow-Wed afternoon or evening. 

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Testing my new blog, first thoughts on Japan will soon follow!