Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Everyone!
I'm off to Thailand until January 6th. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year's!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Zao Quasi National Park

Zao Quasi National Park is about 3-4 hours South of where I live. It is a really famous place to go visit in the Fall because of how beautiful the area becomes from the changing leaves on the trees. The first time I went this Fall(back in October) was a bit of a flop. It had already snowed. It was still a cool experience because I have never been in wind that insane before. It felt like the earth was sneezing on me every now and then. When it sneezed; I was whipped with ice and rain and could barely move from the pressure going against me. It was intense. I imagine I will never attempt to summit Mt. Everest, but I feel if the winds are stronger than this(and I imagine they would be) - then I would probably just be blown right off the mountain. I really think a three year old would just be blown off. It was crazy!

You know you're getting close the Mount Zao when you pass through this red torii that cars just drive through. Pretty cool!

Even though we couldn't see the beautiful fall colors due to the crazy snow, wind and the base of the mountain, it was still fall. We got to play in fields of flowers nearly as tall as I am. It felt like a nature-lover's heaven. It was so gorgeous.

A few weeks later, one of my adult students from last year wanted to go, too. I accepted her invite and off I went again! Our first stop was to this awesome onsen in the picture below! It was outdoors and the water was so naturally clear and smelling of sulfur. This is by far one of my favorite onsen I've ever been to in Japan. It's called the Zao Onsen Dairotemburo....and Lonely planet calls is "staggeringly beautiful." Which to say, it an understatement.

A group shop at this famous onsen below. The girl I am standing next to, named Alex is who now lives where I was living last year.
The picture below is what we went to go see when it was filled with snow and fog. A stunning view!

And the picture below is the reason nearly all people go to the summit of Mt. Zao. This amazing lake is called Okama or a Volcanic Crater Lake. The water is just fantastically blue! A group shot below with the Sakurai -san's, Mrs. Sakurai being my old student from last year!

Both times I went, we stopped to see these pretty waterfalls!
This area is also famous for soba in the fall season. On both trips, we had famous soba from the prefecture next to mine...called Yamagata Ken. Soba is a thin noodle made from buckwheat flour. It is served chilled in the summer with a dipping sauce or hot in the fall and winter season. Of course, I had it hot since it is getting cold here! My favorite kind is served with mountain vegetables. Delicious!

To see pictures from the snowy trip, click here

For all the pictures from the second trip, click here

Saturday, December 01, 2007


One of my favorite people in the whole world sent me a birthday package. It came about two weeks ago. His box that he sent it in was decorated - he always had decorated boxes around dorm room holding items. One of the decorations is a suggestion of a way to live. It's famous, I believe. I love it and am going to post it here.


Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser person than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however, humble it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is, many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortunes. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the tress and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you now, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

-Max Ehrmann

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A bus ride to Sugimoto-Dera

This unforgettable bus ride happened over the past weekend trip I took down to Kamakura City. Ruth and I woke up really early to finish up our weekend trip. We caught a city bus to get to Sugimoto-dera, the first buddhist site in Kamakura City. We're not overly sure on which bus stop we want to get off at, nor can we read the kanji, so we're intently listening, hoping it'll work out.

After about 4 minutes into the bus ride, the bus driver through his microphone for the rest of the bus to hear asks us in Japanese, "foreigners, foreigners, where are you getting off at?" We're incredible embarrassed, I mean, he's not just asking us where we're getting off, he's asking us over the loud speaker of the entire bus. I tell him, "Sugimoto-dera" He clarifies the spot and asks us, again, over the loud speaker, "where are you from?" I respond that I'm an American and Ruth responds she's from Scotland. Poor Ruth. No one ever knows where Scotland is. The bus driver's next question is, "that's near England, right?" Right. Then, a woman to the front right of us turns around and tells us our Japanese is good. The bus driver doesn't stop there. Soon, we're explaining that we're English teachers, that we live in Miyagi, our basic "why are you in Japan" life stories. Again, in front of the entire bus. We had an audience. This went on for probably a total of 3 minutes, the conversation over the loud speaker and us shouting up to the front of the bus. Of course, we couldn't understand everything he was saying; some of his comments weren't understood by us, but the rest of the bus was laughing at what he was saying. We provided good entertainment for people at 10am. Well, atleast we got off at the right stop. It was a funny start to a great day.

A bit of history about the temple we went to see, complete with pictures.

In Spring 734, Sugimoto-dera was founded by Fusasaki Fujiwara, minister of the Imperial Court and priest, Bodhisattva Gyoki to meet the wish of Empress Komyo. This Bodhisattva enshrined the first Juichi-men Kannon - an image of Buddha that embodied 11 faces in which he carved himself.

In 851, priest Ennin stayed in the temple. He carved the second one of these and enshrined it.

In 985, Emperor Kazan ordered priest Genshin-Eshin Sozu to carve and enshrine the third one. Afterwards, he designated the temple as the first amulet distributing office of the Eastern part of Japan. The Emperor himself made him pilgrimage to see it. Since then, the temple has been visited by a great number of pilgrims.

On the night of November 23, 1189, a fire broke out. According to a legend, those 3 principle images of Buddha mentioned above hid themselves under a huge cedar tree. This legend derives from Azumakagami - the 1st official documents compiled by the Samurai federal government. They have since been called Sugimoto-no-Kannan or the Kannons under the cedar.

On September 18, 1191, a ceremony was helf for miracles in all ages when Shogun Minamoto no Yorimoto reconstructed the lost Kannon hall. The 3 Kannons were enshrined in the inner-back and the juichi-men-Kannon at the height of nearly 7 feet in the front.

The first Kannon used to be called "Geba-Kannon" - the geba meaning "dismounting a horse" - this is to caution people against their faithlessness of riding horseback into precincts because they were believed to fall off their horses. Zen Master Daigaku, founder of another shrine called Kenchoji, once stayed in this hall. He prayed that these horse accidents would cease. The Kannon has since been called "Fukumen-Kannon" or the masked Kannon.

the scary protector of Sugimoto-dera

Walking up to Sugimoto-Dera

The bell of Sugimoto-dera

This is Sugimoto-dera

A children's graveyard here.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A test

I have kind of failed at blogging. I had aspirations once, secretly - of course, some people knew, that I would like to become a travel writer. I even had a travel writing book given to me so I could learn more about it. I felt more and more that perhaps I could do it when people told me they used to read my blog every week. Some people even dedicated whole afternoons to catching up on it. I felt a bit of pressure between my secret aspirations, people that actually read it and then what I was reading in the book. So, I slowed down a bit. I think the biggest reason being I got too busy. But, I want to keep writing it, even daily. I want to write about things that are kind of funny that happen to me daily, or things that I think about, anything, really, I want to write about it from now on. So, I will and in between, hopefully, I can get some stories out about my weekend holiday trips to you as well. I apologize because it's not going to be chronological and that is why I never included my everyday life in my blog because it wouldn't have been chronological. So I guess expect the future posts to be something like this. sara's random funny story of the day. sara's long weekend to somewhere from 3 months ago. sara's book she just read. sara's future plans. Sara's short weekend to somewhere 2 weeks ago, sara's past thought combined with present occurrences. Don't expect any type of organization from here on out. It's just going to be....

....starting now...

I'm freaking out a bit. I've signed up to take the JLPT - the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I am taking it on Sunday, December 1st. That's less than one week away. I shouldn't be nervous because I study Japanese daily. I study while teaching English, I study at the grocery store, I study with friends, I study at the train station, on the train, reading the passing signs as they whiz by the train. When I'm not studying by simply living in Japan, I am studying out of a book, about 5-7 hours a week. And, I have a nice tutor who I meet for about two hours a week, where she helps me read Japanese more fluently and we practice speaking skills. We work on my pronunciation, she always corrects my casual form of Japanese into polite , "speak like a princess" Japanese. She is correcting all the mistakes I've grown into a habit saying when I teach myself. You can see that my life is constant studying. However, I'm still nervous for this test. Why? I haven't studied for "the test." I have "the test" studying materials here. I have old exams to practice off of, to get the ideas of what the test will be like. To do several examples of a possible question. These tests provide the basic set up of what all tests will be like. Yet, I haven't opened it once. Not once.

Now, if I were back in college; I would have been studying my ass off, for about a week in advance. Maybe a week before, 2 hours a day....all the way until the night before the exam, 8 hours a day plus pulling an overnighter before taking the exam. This is how prepared I was for taking exams back then. I knew the types of questions inside and out, I knew the test format inside and out....and it was all up to me to just take it and pass it. I haven't done that here. I used to do that with 5 tests being lined up to take. Each test receiving the same amount of proper studying time as the others. I only have one test here. I still haven't done it. What am I thinking?

I guess I am hoping that because I actually, fully understand it - minus the test set up and the types of questions that will be asked - I am hoping that just by knowing the language well, that the test set up and questions will not throw me for a loop by being unprepared for that. I am feeling pretty confident that I know the grammar. I am a little worried I don't know the kanji (Chinese characters). I'm taking level 4, which means it's the easiest level. I think I could do level 3 - vocabulary and grammar wise, however, I could never pass the kanji section, ever. Never, ever. For level 4 - you need only 100 kanji. For level 3 - you need 350 kanji. I can probably recognize 115 kanji. Here's a crash course in kanji - 木 this one to the left is tree  山 this one to the left is mountain  目 this one to the left is eye  肉 this one to the left is meat  私this one to the left is i or my  人 this one to the left is person or people 車 this one to the left is car. Crash Course 2 - they don't have the same pronunciation  水 this kanji to the left means water. it is pronounced mizu. But if you combine it like in the next example, it's pronunciation becomes sui. So, one has to know when to change it's sound when being combined with other kanji as well. By the way, this sui pronunciation goes together as suiyoubi which translates as Wednesday. 水曜日  - So, the more you learn, the easier it gets. But, I still pretty much suck at it. I only started studying them since February, so I haven't even bothered studying for a full year yet. And since I've moved, I barely study it at all. I used to study only kanji with my tutor prior to moving. But, we can't meet anymore because now we live too far apart from one another. With my new tutor, there isn't must structured kanji studying. So, I'm not nearly as good at it as I should be. After writing this, I decided I am going to buy myself a kanji studying book because I would get much better at it if I had the book she used to teach me with.

Alright, that's it for now. will probably write again soon. I also am not going to be so anal about my word usage, sentence structure or capitalizatoin. I will try to make this a bit casual and not so professional as how I was trying to make it before. Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I'm trying out a new hobby. I think I will have tried nearly everything Japanese by the time I actually come home. What I'm up to now is called Ikebana or what is translated loosely to flower arranging. The purpose of this tradition is to arrange different flowers in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. There are several "schools" of ikebana. All that means is that there are different headmasters to each school who determine what rules are acceptable for arranging your flowers. The type of ikebana I study falls under the ohara school. It is said that ikebana developed around the 6th century as an offering in Buddhist temples. However, my school, ohara is relatively recent being founded in the late 19th century.

I have been attending the school as an invite by one of the women, Yumiko, that works at the Board of Education. I attend with Ruth and Jane as well. We go with Yumiko to her teachers' house to learn. Traditionally, one uses flowers and is expected to arrange them in ways to represent sky, earth and mankind in a well-balanced manner. The founder of my school, ohara wanted to create a type of ikebana that balanced natural beauty, such as mountains and fields. It was also created to allow for the adoption of Western flowers that were being introduced to Japan during the late 19th century.

I have predominantly been studying how to do the Rising Form which allows for one flower or vine or plant piece to serve as the main subject. Then, another form must be cut to 1/3 of the size of the subject and that becomes the object. The rest of the flowers or pieces are to be arranged as to not take away from the object or subject but to serve as fillers to make these two pieces become even more beautiful.(this is the rising form that I made this past week, I chose these flowers for the first time, too!)

There are several rules you need to keep in mind while arranging your flowers. For example, sometimes the stems cannot cross; some flowers should not be facing directly forward, there are certain measurements that must be followed. The object must always be 1/3 of the length as the subject. The filler flowers, stems and leaves cannot go outside a particular measurement in comparison to how tall the subject is. I'm still a beginner and learning in Japanese so I learn from my mistakes. It would be impossible to be taught all the rules at once in Japanese, so each week that I make a new mistake, I am taught about that mistake and write it down as to not do the same mistake again the next time.

Ikebana is incredibly relaxing. We are just studying how to do the next form, called the Iclining form. In this form, the subject cannot stand straight up but must be curved off to the side. Perhaps, if I get confident enough and understand it enough, I will have an exhibition someday!

(above: this is the inclining form, notice how the longest flower is off to the side and doesn't stand straight up like in the example above)

(above: Yumiko, who is way more advanced than us. Her flower is a two -tiered - the top tier is the rising form and her bottom tier is the inclining form, she's so good!)

(above: I went to see my Japanese teacher's exhibition, who also does ikebana. The above example was one of the arrangements. I was shocked at how big it was. It was about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. )
(above: this is also the rising form. This is my Japanese teacher's exhibited ikebana!)
(above: furthest left is Ruth, the middle one is mine and the furthest right is Jane's. This past week we all got to choose our own flowers! They are all in the rising form)

Monday, October 22, 2007


I think if reincarnation exists, in my prior lives I was probably some of the following

  • An animal that gets eaten for meals by humans
  • A poor person or a sick person
  • A bird
  • A humanitarian
  • A tree

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Health Insurance

In the past month, the never-ending debate regarding providing National Health Insurance to American citizens by the government has been floating in and out of my thoughts. This subject hit home to me when I was back in America visiting and realized that if anything happened to me, I had no health insurance. That's a scary thought when I spent some of my trip in the mountains hiking, engaging in risky behavior. I realized I feel a bit trapped by the fact I don't have health insurance. Because of this - it seems whatever I want to do with my future has to provide me some sort of health benefits. When I want to do some non-profit work or volunteer work, it seems like that's not even feasible. I envy the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, etc that have National Health Insurance for their citizens. Like really, they can go galavant around wherever they please without having to wonder, "what if something happens to me, I need to take out travel insurance,etc" I've talked to some friends of mine whom are floating around from temp job to temp job. I've heard horror stories of people breaking their arms and owing thousands and thousands of dollars to the hospital because they have no insurance. I've talked to others who are pretty sure they needed to be on crutches but didn't bother going to the hospital because they have no insurance. How crazy is it that we live in a first world country and my friends can't even get the proper medical help they need? It certainly doesn't help when our president is spending as much as he pleases on a stupid war but vetoes health care for children on the grounds that it "costs too much". Maybe before killing our citizens off in a war that was started on false grounds, we should take measures to help lives in our own country first.

I rant this much because I have had bronchitis. I've gone to the doctor three times. Guess how much it costs me to go to the doctor in Japan? One doctor visit cost me the equivalent of $3.16 US Dollars. Let me spell that out for you. Three dollars and sixteen cents!!!!!!! And my prescription? $4.62 for THREE prescriptions! Imagine that health care. That's why I'm ranting because it just blew my mind how cheap health care is here and how amazing it is that everyone has it. Even me, a temporary citizen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Odyssey Years

So - here I live in Japan. I'm often reminded by friends and family back at home how lucky I am to have this opportunity. I don't dispute that fact ever because I know I am priveledged in not only this opportunity but the many things I take for granted just being a middle-class white person. However, no matter how good things seem to be, no matter how much I remind myself that I am lucky, no matter all these factors - there are times that I feel so lost and so confused. There are times that I feel completely lost in life. Moreover, the things that I feel at a loss for - I often feel I have nowhere to turn to find the answers. A self help book? My parents? the Internet? Who? I know all these sources could provide some answers, but still - not be able to relate very well. I've engaged in several conversations with my peers - not only in Japan, but back in America, others living lives in other countries temporarily, mainly those in their mid to late twenties. As humans, we tend to socialize with those who have similiar interests, hobbies, etc. Thus, most the people I am talking about this to, also think similarly to me and haven't started their permanent career, etc. Someone once mentioned to me that there used to be only be 4 steps in life but now there are more because life expectancy is longer and there are more opportunities. These additional stages are new to society, so there's not much to say about them yet. Today, another English teacher in the area showed me this article...I think it's neat because it kind of describes who I am, and this sometimes overly confusing period in my life for me. So, without further ado, here it's from the New York Times...

The Odyssey Years

There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there’s bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.

They see that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They’re delaying having children. They’re delaying permanent employment. People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

Yet with a little imagination it’s possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years. It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.

Two of the country’s best social scientists have been trying to understand this new life phase. William Galston of the Brookings Institution has recently completed a research project for the Hewlett Foundation. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton has just published a tremendously valuable book, “After the Baby Boomers” that looks at young adulthood through the prism of religious practice.

Through their work, you can see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage. Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging. (In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20s read a daily paper; now it’s at 21 percent.)

The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for.

Social life is fluid. There’s been a shift in the balance of power between the genders. Thirty-six percent of female workers in their 20s now have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of male workers. Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while female wages have risen.

This has fundamentally scrambled the courtship rituals and decreased the pressure to get married. Educated women can get many of the things they want (income, status, identity) without marriage, while they find it harder (or, if they’re working-class, next to impossible) to find a suitably accomplished mate.

The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities. Moreover, surveys show that people living through these years have highly traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives.

Rather, what we’re seeing is the creation of a new life phase, just as adolescence came into being a century ago. It’s a phase in which some social institutions flourish — knitting circles, Teach for America — while others — churches, political parties — have trouble establishing ties.

But there is every reason to think this phase will grow more pronounced in the coming years. European nations are traveling this route ahead of us, Galston notes. Europeans delay marriage even longer than we do and spend even more years shifting between the job market and higher education.

And as the new generational structure solidifies, social and economic entrepreneurs will create new rites and institutions. Someday people will look back and wonder at the vast social changes wrought by the emerging social group that saw their situations first captured by “Friends” and later by “Knocked Up.”


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sara's Crib, Season 2

Alright, here they finally are - videos of my living space

Watch this video first

Watch this video second

Watch this video third

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Kiwi Club!

Last year, I taught English to a group of adults in the community who were interested in learning or practicing their English. That group was amazing, helping me meet people in the community and doing my part. Unfortunately, as a result of the move, I had to stop going to that class because I need a car to get there. But, on a very positive note, I now belong to a new class called The Kiwi Club. This class also consists of adults in my community who want to study English. Last year, I was teaching once a week, but this year I only teach about once a month. However, I am starting up an advanced class for them, allowing me to teach them about 2-3 times a month. I'm excited for it - I really enjoy doing volunteer work and working with adults. This below picture is the majority of the class at our welcome party!
Like last year, the Kiwi Club organizes events to show us around Japan and help us get to know all the members. The first fun thing we did was a hike to a mountain called Haguro san. We went to the neighboring prefecture called Yamagata ken. In Yamagata Ken - there are three sacred peaks that are called Dewa Sanzan. Earlier in the year, I had hiked one of them called gas-san. Afterwards, we actually visited the base of Haguro, which is another one of the sacred peaks to visit the famous pagoda, but didn't do the hike up to the peak. The peak is only a mere 1,358 feet but clincher is - it's all stairs, not so much a hiking trail. You need to climb 2, 446 steps to reach the top.
Along the way, you can get beautiful views like this. I don't know if you can tell, but in the distance of this photo is the Japan Sea! There isn't any type of view from the actual top, just some shrines. We got to see people praying and chanting in the shrine when we reached the top. We also got to view two museums while here. There is one at the base of the mountain and one at the top as well! It displayed items from hundreds of years ago. You can view all the photos from this trip in this photo album, here.
More recently, we've held a moon-viewing party in a local shrine that is basically behind my house. According to my lovely student, Saito Sensei (Hi Saito Sensei!!!) - this is the reason behind a moon-viewing party. He told me that we have a moon-viewing party because long ago, Japanese people's ancestors wanted to thank God for their autumn harvest. So, they used to have a party in autumn to thank God. He said, recently Japanese people don't really thank God for their autumn harvest anymore, but it is still custom to have a moon-viewing party! We were able to enjoy lots of delicious food and spend time with eachother. Below is a silly photo of Ruth, my student, Kyoko and myself. We bought these masks and made a debut with them here!

They also had two people dress up as a dragon(in the below pictures) and dance around. Additionally, there was taiko drumming and flute playing. It was a really fun evening.

So, this is my new adult English conversation class! I think it's going to be a lot of fun with them this year!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Welcome to my the city

Ishinomaki City. Yes, the actual city this year. That what I call home now. As mentioned, I live in a tall white apartment block. In fact, it's the tallest around in comparison to all my neighboring buildings. I have a back balcony in which I seem to spend no time. My front doors opens out to a hallway. However, it's not really a hallway because it's just open air out there. I live on the second floor.

From my back balcony, I only get views of rusty, old homes(see photo to the left). From the front open area I can see the Kitakami River. This is the longest river in Tohoku, or Northern Japan. It is also said to be the cleanest river. And, it flows right in front of my apartment practically).

I have a pink bike. This bike has a handy basket. My bike is 3rd hand used. I bought it for about $40 USD. The breaks squeak uncontrollably and it sounds like the chain will fall off at any moment. However, the bike shop I had look at it told me it's fine, just noisy. I should survive the next year on it.

Across from the area that I park my bike is a soy sauce or miso soup factory, I forget which(see below picture). So, sometimes my apartment smells of that. When it's not smelling of that, it's gagging me of the smell of fish. And, I mean fish! Somedays, it's so gross, you can't leave the glass door open with out feeling nauseous. This nasty fish smell is a result of the fish factory in town. I think it smells a lot more like catfood than fish though.

As mentioned, I live with 4 other English teachers in the same apartment block. There are two guys whom I see occasionally. The first is Brock, who has been here for a year already. The second guy is Azrael who hails from Singapore. The other two girls and I have become good friends in our short two months of being neighbors. Allow me to introduce you with the below picture.

Ruth, the stunning young lady in red is my direct neighbor. She lives right next door to my apartment. She's from Scotland, her town is where the writer of Peter Pan grew up or something like that. Before Japan, she was finishing up her law degree. She lived here four years ago doing a gap year. I'm learning all sorts of British/Scottish slang from her. We like to fool around a lot. Like me, she has an older sister and a younger sister. Not only are we both the middle child of an all female family, but our birthdays are only a week apart.

In the middle in black, is Jane. She lives 3 doors down from me. Jane comes from Chicago and spent time doing business before coming here. I like to think Jane keeps Ruth and I grounded sometimes. I love both my neighbors. This year in Ishinomaki, we have a bunch of women. It's lovely. I'm sure with time, everyone will slowly be introduced to you through stories.

Last year, I taught at nine schools, this year it's eight. I've adjusted to being spread thin between my schools. So, it doesn't bother me anymore. The breakdown is nearly the same. I teach at two Junior High Schools, five Elementary Schools and one kindergarden.

So, welcome to my life in Ishinomaki City! Still so much more to write, but one day at a time!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A new life in a new city

As most of you are aware, I moved way back when- two months ago. I've been incredibly lazy and busy at the same time to ever find time to really blog about it. In retrospect, making the decision to move was the best idea and the best thing for me. I don't think I could have survived a second year in my rural town.

I now live in an apartment building where 4 other teachers live as well. I have daily social interaction in English again. I have an escape when I have bad days at work. I have people to eat dinner with, people to watch movies and TV with, people to laugh with daily. It's amazing and I love it.

It's still too soon to determine if the school switch will be better or not. So far, it seems my students are way better than my bad school last year. Granted, there is still the isolation at work that I don't feel like hurdling over this year. I have accepted the me as the foreigner and "them" as the Japanese teachers ideology that is seen working here. Certainly, if I put forth the effort, I could create small relationships, but to be honest, I don't have the energy or will power to do that this year. I'm content with doing my work and spending my free time reading or writing. I still am enjoying every minute of elementary schools.

I've given up a big house for a one room apartment with an attached kitchen, toilet and shower room. The picture below displays the building I live in. It's the big white one you can see in the distance. I'll show close ups later! I've given up a car for a bicycle. However, these two "pleasures" being removed from my life has made things easier for me. I'm happier without them.

I don't regret or wish my first year living situation could have been different. I've accepted it as one year of my life that I constantly stood up after being knocked down incessantly. I've come to grips with the fact that I am a social person. I tried to live the non-social life and I was unhappy. That's okay - that's me, this is who I am - I am person who loves to be around other people. If I hadn't lived in Monou for a year, my Japanese would never be where it is now. I wouldn't have challenged myself in the hardest way possible until my 23rd year of life. I think I am capable of trying to find happiness in any situation. As someone who has left said to me recently, "not only did I experience my all-time most depressive lows, I also experience my all time - euphoric highs." I think she put it best when she said that when speaking of living in the middle of nowhere Japan. I'm proud of my one year. It was tough, but I did it. I recognized I needed change in my life and I took a risk and went for it. It's working out for the best so far.

Pretty soon I'll blog more about what I have actually been doing since living in my new city. I haven't been traveling every weekend like I was last year, but I have still been remaining involved in the community and those around me. I'm pretty sure this will be my last year in Japan, as there is someone back home I want to be back with and the feeling is mutual between us. So, I'm going to live out my remaining 10 months with as much positive energy as my body can breathe. Then, hopefully get a job back in Plattsburgh for a year as an International Student Service Intern. A stepping stone to becoming a study abroad coordinator or something along those lines.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

An Article on English Textbooks

This article was taken from a Japanese Newspaper, called the Daily Yomiuri:

Prof probes 'grammar control'

Now a professor at Fukuyama Heisei University in Hiroshima Prefecture, Toshiaki Ozasa once served as the principal of Hiroshima University's affiliated high school. In that role, he says, he might have been questioned by the then Education Ministry if his school's entrance exam had included an English sentence like the following:

"The athlete has been studying English since 8 o'clock."

Why would it cause a problem? "The sentence is beyond the official curriculum guidelines for middle school as it uses a present perfect progressive form," Ozasa said. "We're 'supposed to teach' no more than present perfect by that point."

Ozasa was speaking during a convention of the Japan Association of College English Teachers (JACET), held Sept. 6-8 in Hiroshima under the theme "English Education at the Tertiary Level: in Search of a Consistent Curriculum from Elementary School through University."

In his lecture titled "English Language Teaching in Japan: A Diachronic and Synchronic Perspective," Ozasa described the nation's English education at the secondary level as something "totally tied up" in rules, and stressed that teachers simply went along with this situation.

However, "These 'absolute rules' taken for granted were not actually a matter of course when considered from either a historical or international perspective," he said. "I have no intention of criticizing or placing blame, but just stress that there has been a historical necessity behind it."

Serving as president of the Society for Historical Studies of English Teaching in Japan, Ozasa has collaborated with other experts in examining English textbooks used at the secondary school level since the Meiji era (1868-1912). He focused on the first five grades of secondary education under the previous system implemented until the end of World War II, and the corresponding levels under today's system, namely from the first year of middle school to the second year of high school.

In the beginning of the Meiji era, U.S. primary school textbooks were imported for use in foreign-language classes for Japanese secondary school students. English Readers: The High School Series, written by a British educator, was the first original series issued by the Education Ministry in 1887.

Ozasa did not find major attempts to control grammar in these early textbooks. For example, even the first volumes of these series weaved "be-verbs" and other verbs throughout the passages.

Ozasa believes Masakazu Toyama (1848-1900) was the first educator in Japan to implement grammar control. Writer of the Seisoku series published in 1889, he later became the president of Tokyo Imperial University, the predecessor of present-day Tokyo University, and an education minister.

Unlike its predecessors, Seisoku's first volume did not weave be- and general verbs together from the beginning. When looking into how frequently three grammar indexes--past tense, verbals and present perfect--were used in each lesson, Ozasa found that the book enforced control over use of past tense and present perfect.

Textbooks made since Seisoku also employed grammar control, which was gradually strengthened. Eventually, out of the first 11 volumes published from 1916 to 1951 surveyed by Ozasa, six took control over use of all the three grammar indexes.

"As you can see, the nation's grammar control was established bit by bit over a long period," Ozasa said. "It can be described as a kind of culture in our English education."

The speaker also touched on studies by his fellow researchers that compared a Japanese textbook series for middle and high school published from 1986-87 with textbooks published from 1999-2003 in four other Asian countries.

When it comes to control over the three grammar indexes, only Japan set regulations over all three, while Thailand and China did so regarding past tense and present perfect. However, a closer look revealed that their controls were not so strict and allowed some "exceptions"--although past tense and present perfect were basically not used over certain lengths of lessons, a few would still slip through.

"This is the biggest difference between Japan and other Asian countries," Ozasa said. "Japan has established strict grammar control, but other Asian countries are rather flexible, sometimes using the target grammar ahead of the time when they [officially] think it's necessary."

Ozasa also has looked into vocabulary control--counting how many words secondary school students have been exposed to since the Meiji era, and also enumerating how many words their Chinese and South Korean counterparts today are exposed to.

Textbooks were generally thick tomes in the Meiji era. The first volume of one imported series consisted of just 5,600 words, but that number skyrocketed to 106,000 by the fifth. The English Readers series had nearly 40,000 words in its first volume, growing to nearly 70,000 in the fifth.

As time went by, however, Japanese textbooks tended to contain fewer words. Seisoku started with about 14,000 in the first volume and ended with nearly 34,000 in its fifth, while the recent 1986-87 series offered only about 1,500 words to students in the first year of middle school and about 8,500 to those in the second year of high school.

When looking into neighboring countries' textbook series, the word counts were much higher than those of the Japanese series. Ozasa described the Chinese and South Korean figures as "roughly corresponding to our Meiji and Taisho (1912-26) era levels, respectively."

The studies also examined the number of new vocabulary in each volume as well as the ratio of new words to total words, through which Ozasa came across an irony of Japanese textbooks.

Because Japan has cut the number of new vocabulary items students must learn, the recent Japanese series had new vocabulary appearing more frequently, making it difficult for students to read passages because they could not guess the meaning of new words from the context, Ozasa said.

"We've taken control over grammar and word lists to make our textbooks easier for students to use," Ozasa said. "But such efforts have produced textbooks that are unnatural and difficult to read. It's quite ironic."


Education system review needed

Ozasa said his studies suggest that before the end of World War II, the textbook screening system did not check for control over grammar and vocabulary. "It didn't matter, probably, because only a limited number of students could attend secondary school in those days," he said.

After the war, secondary education became common--compulsory education has been extended to middle school, and almost every student goes to high school today. "In this sense, it's inevitable that the authorities would intensify their control over what is studied and make textbooks easier, so as to prevent students from dropping out," Ozasa said.

As a result, "Japanese textbooks today are the easiest, from both a historical and international perspective," he concluded. "Nonetheless, there's the harsh reality that many of our students find it difficult to catch up with even these textbooks."

Since World War II, Japan has had a "single-track" English education system in which students are supposed to learn the same content in the same class hours. "I believe the time has come to discuss this system," Ozasa stressed. "It wouldn't involve English education alone, but the basics of our education system as whole."

The expert also suggested that now is the time to examine introducing a "multiple-track" education system that would accommodate various learning styles--motivated students should enjoy high-level learning, both in quality and quantity, while slow learners should be guaranteed to receive fundamental learning.

"Anyone who mentions this has always been rapped as it's regarded as a taboo in our educational system," Ozasa said. "But someone has to talk about the elephant in the room."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The difference between Japanese Schools and American Schools

I was asked to present on American Culture for the oldest grades I teach to. This class was an elective course, so the student's abilities are a bit higher than a regular student in English. I thought I'd share my speech with you here, so you can get an idea. I left it as is, so you can see a 15 year old student's English abilities. Also, I do have Japanese followers of this blog, so they can understand it to! Of course, this is also reflective of MY Junior High School experience, which may not be accurate for ALL of America!

Japanese Junior High Schools and American Junior High Schools are a little different.

In Japan, everyday, there are 5 or 6 classes.
In America, everyday there are 8 or 9 classes.

In Japan, class is 45 or 50 minutes.
In America, class is 39 or 40 minutes.

In Japan, students must learn English.
In America, students can choose what language they want to study. Many students want to study Spanish. Secondly, many students study French. Other popular languages are German, Japanese, Chinese and Russian.

In Japan, students eat lunch in their classroom. Everyone must eat Kyushoku.
In America, students eat lunch in a cafeteria. I will tell you about this now. A cafeteria is a very big room. There are many, many tables. During lunch time, all the students go into the cafeteria. Some students bring lunch. Some students buy lunch. Teachers eat in another room. Teachers and students do not eat lunch together.

In Japan, students have cleaning time. Students clean the school.
In America, people have jobs to clean the school. These people get money.

In Japan, students must do club activities.
In America, not many students do club activities after school. Many students do club activities in High School, but not Junior High School.

In Japan, students come to school by bike.
In America, most students come to school by bus. But, some must walk or come by bike.

In Japan, students stay in the same classroom all day.
In America, students change classrooms. They have 3 minutes to go to their next class. Teachers stay in the same classroom all day.

In Japan, students keep their books, notebooks, bag, jacket, clothes in their classroom.
In America, in the school hallway, students have lockers. Students must leave their books, notebooks, jacket, and clothes in their locker. Between classes, students must go to their locker to get their next class's book.

In Japan, students must wear uniforms.
In America, students can wear what they want.

In Japan, students change grades in April.
In America, students change grades in August or September.

In Japan, Junior High School students are from 12 years old until 15 years old.
In America, Junior High School students are from 11 years old until 14 years old. If you lived in America, you would be in High School right now.

In Japan, summer vacation is for 5 weeks.
In America, summer vacation is for almost 3 months.
Winter vacation and Spring vacation are the same in Japan and America.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Happy Birthday Dad!

Just a quick Happy Birthday to Dad!

Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you dear poppy, Happy Birthday to you!

Love you lots!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Julie in Miyagi!

To conclude my trip with Julie, I will write this blog. After we had departed Nara, we made our way back up to my prefecture of Miyagi. Spending some time in the capital city, Sendai, we walked around and I showed Julie some of the sights. I think the most memorable part of this day is when Julie fell into the toilets, yes, I am serious...she fell into the toilet (hehehe). We caught a train back to Ishinomaki and Yumie picked us up from the train station We went out to eat with her and Julie was able to meet Yumie's amazing family afterwards.
Julie spent her last few days in Japan understanding where I live and what it is I do everyday. I feel it's a very important part of my life and to actually be able to see and do what I do, gives an entirely new meaning to me, "living in Japan." Julie is probably one of my avid, faithful readers of this blog and as best as I try to relay my life to those at home, she had pictured a lot of what I had described to be completely different from what she saw in rural Japan.
I received permission from one of my Junior High Schools for Julie to come in with me. She was able to observe my classes, eat lunch with the students, meet my co-workers and see how a typical school day in Japan is done. The teachers treated her like royalty and the students were extremely curious of her. My favorite questions from the students were "how is she American if she looks Japanese?". After school, she got to meet my Adult Conversation Class. Friday, she came to a class of Elementary school with me followed with about 30 minutes of Kindergarden. I had a meeting in Sendai, so while I was in the meeting, she went shopping in the city. That evening, we met up with my friends and had dinner and went to karaoke. The next morning, I took her to Kinkasan Island, a trip that I had originally done with Meghann last September or October.

This evening, we just took it easy and rented a movie as Julie said I had kept her on the go way too much. (Don't worry after she thanked me for jam packing our days of things to do) Sunday morning, I woke Julie at the crack of dawn, so we could go to Kurikoma mountain to do some hiking. I have hiked this mountain in the past with Brock, but it was so cloudy we couldn't see a thing. Julie and I lucked out and could not in any way, have asked for a better day. It was hot, but not deathly hot, the skies were extremely clear and the summit of the mountain wasn't too cold. From the top of the highest mountain in Miyagi, we were able to see as far as our eyes would let us. It was such a spectacular site, with views of not only Miyagi, but two connecting prefectures as well.

We went back down a different course, which gave us new scenery and terrain to cover. On the way down, we had to cross through natural waterfalls that had been created by the melting snow from the summit. There were a few parts of the trail down that I wasn't entirely positive that we were headed in the right way, but it all worked out. We drove the three hours back to Monou and went to Yasko's house for a BBQ dinner.

Julie's last day in my town was spent all day at an elementary school. Afterwards, I took her into Sendai and we had dinner one last time. I stayed with her as late as I possibly could and then made sure she would make it on the overnight bus alright. I said my goodbyes, thus concluding a wonderful trip with Julie for two weeks.
CLICK HERE for all the pictures from these events
Thanks for coming, Julie, I had a lot of fun. I can't wait to go to Egypt with you =)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nara - Japan's First Capital

We rose bright and early to catch an early train to get to Nara from Kyoto. Around the year 646, Japan decided that they needed a capital to govern the country. They tried out two previous areas before deciding that Nara was the best spot. Therefore, Nara became Japan's first real capital in the year 710. It was only the capital for 75 years before it was changed to Kyoto. It was during this brief stint of 75 years that Japan imported many Chinese customs and ways and began integrating these things into Japanese society, such as declaring Buddhism the National Religion. Since the capital was moved to Kyoto, many of the temples & shrines in Kyoto had been destroyed with attacks on Japan. However, with Nara on the back burner of these attacks, several of the shrines and temples were never destroyed and are in tact from the way they were originally developed. It is the number two tourist attraction in this part of Japan following Kyoto. In 1998, there were eight sights deemed worthy to be UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As we exited out of Nara Station, I stopped and asked for a map of the area from an Information center. We were asked if we would be interested in having a free tour guide for the day. After having the day before be a bit ruined by my lack of understanding of the area, we decided it would probably be for the best to have one. We only had one day in Nara and we wanted to be able to see the sights hassle free. It also relieved a lot of the stress on my shoulders by not having to try to read the maps and figuring out where we were. Our hotel wouldn't allow us to check in until 3 or some late hour so we stored our luggage in lockers at the station for the day. A friendly stranger helped us lift our bags and carry our bags for us. We thought he worked at the locker area, but so it turns out, he didn't and was just a friendly stranger trying to help us.

Our tour guides' name was Yoriko and we met her at another Tourist Information Center. She was this absolutely adorable woman, about 60 years old who just wants to practice her English so she gives free tours. Immediately, I really liked her, she was so helpful and just so absolutely cute! The majority of the temples and shrines were in an area called Nara koen area or Nara Park. One trademark of Nara that is well-known throughout Japan is the large number of tame deer that walk around trying to get food from the tourists. There are about 1200 deer in this area that were considered sacred before Buddhism was introduced into Japan. At that time, they were considered messengers from God and thus have been declared as National Treasures for Japan.

We didn't really see many of these deer until Yoriko led us towards the various temples and shrines. She stopped us at a pond along the way to tell us of a Japanese folklore story about the pond. I already forget it now, a month and a half later but it was a love story for sure. From there, she took us to Kofuku-ji temple. This temple is quite interesting as it was transferred to Nara from Kyoto in 710. It originally had 175 buildings, but destruction has left only a dozen standing. There are two pagodas in this area, and I think the more impressive one dates back to 1426. It is actually the second tallest in Japan. Yoriko taught us that each layer of a pagoda represents the earth's elements. For example, one represents water, another level earth, and so on.

We walked to the next shrine called Kasuga Taisha which was founded in the 8th century. Approaching the entrance of the shrine, you begin seeing hundreds of lanterns lining the pathway. It was set in the woods, so it made it really feel "sacred" to me. According to shinto practice, the main shrine needs to be completely rebuilt every twenty years and the keepers of the shrine keep this up.

The next few places we visited were all part of a place called "Todai-ji". We first stopped at sangatsu do hall. It is the oldest building in the Todai-ji temple complex. It houses a small collection of statues from the Nara capital period. There were 16 statues inside and 12 are designated as National Treasures and the remaining 4 are considered to be Important Culture Properties. 14 were made between the twenty years of 729-749. Most of them are deities to the Buddhist beliefs. They all had very fierce looking faces and generally made of Gold and painted over. They were so old, that you could barely distinguish what color they were supposed to be painted. Others that weren't looking fierce had their hands put together and were in prayer. They were very impressive.

Afterwards, we moved onto the nigatsu do building. We needed to make a small climb uphill to view it, but it was well worth it for the views that we got from up top. The outer part of the building had all sorts of paintings around it. There were two people that were sitting inside practicing mantras, it was really cool to listen to. We rested here for a bit intaking the views.

The last place we went to, which is considered to be the most impressive building in all of the Todai-ji complex is called the Daibutsu-den hall. The building is the largest wooden structure in the entire world. The current building was built in 1709, and it's actually only 2/3 the size of the original building. The old, wooden building is actually home to an gigantic bronze Buddha

And, I mean gigantic! Th name of budda is Daibutsu which literally translates to Big Buddha. It is one of the largest Bronze figures in the world. It was originally cast in 746, however, the current Buddha had been recast. It stands over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg of gold. It is believed by Historians, that this Buddha was cast to as a charm against smallpox within Japan. The reason it had been recast was because it had lost it's head a few times due to natural disasters such as earthquakes or fires. You can see a color difference between the head and it's body for sure.

I had seen another Daibutsu in Kamakura, that was impressive, but this guy in Nara, was definitely even more awe-inspiring. It is rumored that the Daibutsu in Nara can hold the Daibutsu in Kamakura in the palm of his hand! In addition, to this one large Bronze Buddha, there were other protectors that were just as impressively large that were alongside Daibutsu.

Towards the back of the Daibutsu den hall is a pole with a hole at the bottom of it. The hole is rumored to be exactly the same size as the Big Buddha's nostril. According to our tour guide Yoriko, there is a belief that if a person can fit through that hole, they will go to paradise. We first watched a group of Junior High School boys wiggling their way through the hole. Then, Julie went and was successful and then it was my turn. I was a bit nervous I wouldn't make it but, I did, with the help of some of those boys helping pull me through. It turns out, we are going to paradiese!! See you there?

The last part of this temple complex that Yoriko took us to see was to the gateway entrance to the temple. It turns out we must have gone through a back entrance or something. On the side of this gate, called nandai-mon, are two intimidating "nio guardians." These wooden figures were originally carved in the 13th century. It is claimed that they are some of the finest wooden structures in all Japan, if not the world. They have been recently restored. To me, the most impressive thing about these guardians were how tall they were.

At this point, we had seen all the temples and shrines in the Nara Koen park and it was nearly noon. The last spot that Yoriko took us to was a gorgeous Japanese style garden named yoshikien. There are three different styles of gardens here, a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremonial flower garden. There is a tea house in the moss garden that we were allowed to look at. Most of the gardens were carpeted with cedar moss, other parts had seasonal flowers and others had rock paths to follow. I am so in love with Japanese gardens.

Finally it was lunch time. Yoriko recognized my vegetarian eating habits and took me to one of my favorite food restaurants in Japan. Any restaurant that makes okonomiyaki is awesome in my eyes. Okonomiyaki is kind of like a pancake, with all sorts of things tossed inside such as vegetables, meat, mochi, anything really and then a sauce to put on top or mayonnaise, seaweed, all types of toppings as well. After lunch, we said goodbye to Yoriko and walked around the city a little more to do some shopping or whatnot. The city is rather small and we were really tired. We finally checked into our hotel, a hotel called the "Super Hotel" - sounds really ghetto but was actually a cute little room perfect for us. We had been staying in hostels up until this point so we were really happy to finally have a room to ourselves.

We took a short nap, watched some Full House in Japanese and then headed out to dinner at a cute little French cafe' to have a taste of Western style food again. We ended our night at a bar that was around the corner of our hotel. We definitely found some hole in the wall bar where we were the only foreigners and we had a blast that night. The bartender could speak some English, so Julie was able to talk with him a bit and then the rest of the night ended with us playing darts, Julie demanding which song be played next to the DJ, and then singing at the top of our lungs as the rest of the bar stared at us like we're nuts. We took some shots and then I woke up the next morning ... it felt like college again with Julie =) I love it.

Click here to see all the pics from this day...