Thursday, September 30, 2010

Taiko Toys and Happy Sets

I love the game Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Drum Master in its one release stateside). It’s pretty much my favorite rhythm game. I have three games for the DS, two for the PSP, two for the Wii (with two drum peripherals), and a whole bunch for the PS2. On top of that, I frequently play the arcade version with friends. So when I found out that there would be Taiko no Tatsujin toys at McDonald’s I was pretty excited. Not only are the toys musical and adorable, but they have codes to unlock new costumes in the latest DS game.

The only catch was that I had to buy Happy Meals, or rather Happy Sets as they are called in Japan, to get them. This was not too bad actually. For Japanese Happy Sets you have four options: hamburger, cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, and mini pancakes. All meals come with either a small French fries or corn and a small (actually tiny) drink. The kid’s meal is the only way you can get nuggets or pancakes at Japanese McDonald’s. I love chicken nuggets and was thrilled to find that the kid’s meal comes with 5 nuggets, while I seem to remember the American kid’s meal only coming with 4. Also, I don’t have the fondest memories of McDonald’s breakfast items. I seem to remember their pancakes being soggy and not too great. But these little gems are delicious! They made a great dessert to the meal.

To top it all off, you get to choose which toy you want! Toys 1-4 were available during the first week with the addition of 5-8 the following week. This made it pretty easy to get a full set. These little guys are so cute and I’m thrilled that I was able to get all of them. Each one plays a musical cue appropriate to their costume. The coolest thing is the password system on the DS game. The music cues ARE the passwords and you play them into the DS mic and that unlocks the new costumes! It’s not something I’ve seen before on the DS and its very inventive and fun.

The next post will be the epic 50th post for this blog!  It should be up some time next week, so look forward to it!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sports Festival

This past weekend (two weekends ago now, as I suck at posting in a timely manner…) I attended an event called undoukai, or Sports Festival, at one of my schools. This event is somewhat like a Field Day as I remember it from elementary school. My students were all divided into 2 teams, red and white. They competed in various events and earned points for their team. At the end of the day the scores were tabulated and one team was declared winner. They received a giant trophy to hold during closing ceremonies and have bragging rights for the next year.

The school looking spiffy for the event

My Sports Day is a little different from most others in Japan since my elementary school and junior high hold the event together. On my other island, where the schools are a little bigger, the elementary holds their Sports Day in the fall (and annoyingly always on the same day as the other school so I never get to go) and the junior high has theirs in the spring. But since these schools are right next to each other and are very small they have always held the event together.


Sports Day is a bit of a misnomer because probably 60-70% of the events are various types of races. Running day sounds WAY less exciting though. The kids aren’t the only ones involved either. There were various weird relay races where the teachers and parents got involved too. It’s a large community event. Adults don’t earn points for either team (they are normally divided into teams by neighborhood) in their events, but everyone who participates in them is awarded a practical prize like paper towels, tissues, soap, or garbage bags. The tiny kindergarteners also attend for their mini races and dances.

The popular roll the hoop race

Several of my old students who are now in high school were there and some teachers who had transferred away came back just to see the students again and enjoy the event. Living on the islands here is difficult, but the kids and the school are really great and so a lot of the old teachers come back. I’m not sure how common it is at other schools, but I’d say the majority of our old teachers who transferred this past year came back. It was cute seeing the kids run up to them to talk with them again. Also one of my favorite student who moved to Kumamoto City when her mother changed jobs in April came back to see all her friends! She even got to participate in one of the races. It was so good to see her again. I really miss having her in class.

Obviously not my kids, but this is an event the little ones do.

A big difference from the Field Days I remember as a kid is that the students run pretty much everything. The kids do the announcements of the events and the participants, they fire off the starting gun, they hold the finish line tape, they spend an entire day before the event at school to set up, and they tear everything down when the day is over. At my Field Day in America there were parents who volunteered and helped run the events and the kids just got to enjoy it. But the kids here have serious ownership of the event.

This kid had a broken arm, so he couldn't do much.  But he did the drums for one of the dances.
 Another big difference is the amount of practice my kids do for Sports Day. In the month of September one or two periods of school every day were devoted to preparing for the event. Yes, as in normal class time is used to practice and some of my kids end up with days with three out of six classes being P.E. They practiced how to march in for opening ceremonies and where to stand and sit during all of the speeches. They practiced the closing ceremony, including announcing one team the winner so they can practice cheering (I’m assuming they alternate each practice run). They practiced the various dances they would do for the crowd. And that all makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is that they also seem to run through all of the events. They did tug of war and ran races. If the kids are always pretty evenly matched then I suppose it’s okay, but I would think that it would take the fun out of it if your team has repeatedly lost in practice. You would be pretty sure the actual event will turn out the same way. They also practice things like the dances and Oendan before and after school and during lunch break. These kids pretty much breath Sport’s Day until it’s over.

My kids practicing Oendan for the big day
 Oendan is a type of cheering that is popular here in Japan. It’s pretty awesome to watch. It’s far more like our Yell Leaders at A&M than cheerleaders though. It’s all based on synchronized hand and arm movements and generally looking badass. It is probably the event my kids get the most serious about. It’s a very big deal to win the Oendan competition. I was a judge this year which was fun, although I wanted both teams to win!

Dancing!  This is the Soran Bushi, its a very popular Sports Day dance.

This year I participated in 4 events at Sports Day. The first was a race between a bunch of women from the island. Teams were divided based on the neighborhood you lived in. I was on the teachers’ team. Each team had a pair of rain boots that you had to put on, run down to this giant orange float thing, pick it up, run around a cone, put the float back down in its spot and run back to the line to pass the shoes off to the next person. The shoes were too small for me, and I didn’t get them on all the way before the other teachers told me to go. So I ran very strangely with the shoes only about half on. We didn’t win the race but we all won a box of tissues for our efforts. Next I was in the tug of war event for the entire PTA. Again I was on the teachers’ team. Again we were not victorious, although I think there were less of us than the other teams. My last race involved balancing a big rubber ball on a tennis racket while running to a cone and back. And lastly I joined in the Goshoura dance, which is a special traditional dance for the islands that we all do together in a circle. It’s pretty easy to learn and it’s fun to be out with all of the kids and parents.

Elementary kids dancing with flags!  So cute!
 One of my favorite events was “Never yield the stick” (actual name, written in English in the program). Teams lined up opposite each other with these big poles in the middle. At the sound of the whistle they all swarmed the center and grabbed the poles, trying to drag them, and any members of the other team, back to their side. Hilarity ensued. The elementary school kids had a similar event involving the tug of war rope, and my other junior high school does it with tires of various sizes. It’s really funny to watch and the kids get really into it.

The kids make mascots for their teams.  This is the red team's mascot.
These mascots are from the school I did not attend Sports Day for.

My best story from this year’s Sport’s Day came after it was over. We had been outside all day and it had really heated up after lunch. The kids were working hard and had taken all the tents down. About half of the kids, mostly girls, were sitting around waiting for the other half to finish up so we could have our closing comments and go home. One of my third grade (9th grade) girls named Tsugumi was absolutely hilarious. She sat down and said in English, “I don’t work anymore!” She continued on, “I’m very hot and thirsty and tired and hungry. I want to go home. I want to go to bed. I want to drink juice.” I was giggling to myself, very content that she was able to express herself so well in English. “I don’t work anymore,” she said again. “I will die soon!”

And this is the white team's mascot. 
The raindeer's hat was pink (its normal color) but pink is the red team's color so it had to be changed!

Sports Day is always a lot of fun and it’s really great to interact with all of the kids outside of a classroom setting. I walked away from this year’s event with three boxes of tissues, a box of plastic bags, a bottle of liquid soap, over 400 pictures, and a nasty sunburn on my arms and neck. I could honestly go on and on about everything we did at Sports Day, but hopefully I’ve given you a pretty good overview of the event. Feel free to ask me any questions if I left something out!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The sounds of summer are dying

I know that summer is here when I start to hear the sound of cicadas, semi in Japanese. These little buggers are loud! If you are anywhere near trees or something they can hang out on, you are treated to the screeching of these annoying bugs. There are several different types of these guys who sound different and are active at different times of day. I forgot to mention how massive these guys are. It’s really no wonder they are so loud, I mean look at that thing!

This one is obviously dead

Did I mention that my island is vastly made up of forest? There is simply no escaping them. Until fall. Then they start to die and things get a bit quieter. A few weeks ago I started to see a few dead cicadas about and knew that the oppressive heat of summer would soon end and the cool breezes of autumn would find us at last.
It’s not bad enough that we have to hear them in person though. These guys are so closely associated with summer that our grocery store was playing a CD of their screaming to make people feel more in the summer mood. Also, any TV drama or movie or anime or video game that is set in the summer will clue you in to this fact with this sound in the background. So even once they’ve all died off I’ll still be hearing them.  And honestly, when it is quiet and this is all you hear it can get a little creepy...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Teachers > Parents

So this morning when I got to school I saw one of my students in a car. That was rather strange as all of my junior high students ride their bikes or walk to school. Turns out that she twisted her ankle yesterday at volleyball practice. So this morning, her father drove her all the way to school to consult with the P.E. teacher as to if he should take her to a hospital or not. It was decided that she should go to the hospital to be checked out in case it was broken. Thankfully it is only a sprain, but she will still have to miss out on Sports Day this weekend which is a major bummer.

This whole scene was rather strange to me, because in America this would probably never happen. If a child was hurt at school and the parent went to pick them up they might ask the nurse’s opinion (or the sports couch’s opinion if hurt at practice) as to if they should go to the hospital. But I can’t really see someone driving the kid to school in the morning with the sole intent of asking if they should go to the hospital. Most parents I know would simply make that decision on their own.

This is really just another example of how much teachers are respected in Japan and how in many ways they are seen as the primary caretaker of the students. I’ve been told that if a student gets in trouble with the police the police will report to the school before they report to the parents. And like I’ve said before, many things that in America are the parent’s responsibility, fall on the teachers here such as good hygiene, morals and ethics, and citizenship. Of course this also leads to the phenomenon of Monster Parents, which will be discussed in detail at a later date.

This was just another reminder that I am in a different country with a different culture. Is it “wrong” to seek a teacher’s opinion instead of making the decision yourself? No, its simply different. Everyone had the student’s best interest at heart and she got what she needed.

By the way, this blog's 50th post is coming up.  There will be a very special post for that.  It's something I have had planned for a while and I promise it is amazing.  Look forward to it!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Picking up girls with elementary English

Okay….where to start with this one? First of all, I must put out a slight warning. The video that follows is inappropriate for younger children in at least one part. I’m not sure if anyone with younger children is even reading my blog (from the comments it seems to be mostly my college friends) but I figure I should put up the warning just in case. I really don’t mean to scandalize anyone. With that out of the way…

About a year and a half ago, Japan made elementary English lessons mandatory for fifth and sixth graders and introduced new textbooks for them called Eigo Noto. We have been mocking the CD that comes with these books ever since. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I actually like about Eigo Noto (although some will disagree with me), but the CD has some really weird intonations and accents at times. I like the idea of exposing the kids to different types of English and different accents, but this CD does less of that than exposing them to ridiculous sounding English.

Anyway, someone took the audio parts from the CDs, mixed them all around, and cut them together with visuals to make a video on how to pick up women. EVERYTHING that is said in this video (aside from the infomercial like opening and closing) is from the textbooks, although many are removed from context to allow for humorous reinterpretation. The video won first place at a Film Festival and is pretty well put together.  Again this is NOT what I am teaching my elementary school kids but an adult instruction video made from the same materials.  Enjoy.

I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get through some of these lessons now without bursting out laughing. And honestly, if there was a slightly edited version of this I would show it to my junior high boys and they might actually think English was worth studying!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Adventure of the Missing Bike

This all happened about two months ago and I’m honestly shocked I didn’t write an entry up about it before. But I was reminded of this incident the other day and feel it deserves to be shared.

I’ll start off by explaining that Japan is a very safe country. You can leave something somewhere and it won’t get stolen. There are only two exceptions to this, which I will get to in a moment. My friend even tried to get her laptop stolen (it was insured and she wanted a new one). She left it in the front seat of her car with the window open at least twice and yet it was always there when she returned. I’ve wandered over to get a soda, leaving my purse and backpack sitting out in the open and slightly out of my site. I leave my backpack with my computer outside on my bike when I stop to go grocery shopping. I do still always lock my apartment door, but we only sporadically lock the car doors. There just isn’t a lot to worry about.

One Tuesday I got off the ferry on Yokoura and was stunned to find that my bike was not there. I looked around thinking that someone might have moved it, but it was simply gone. So I had to walk around the island to school. It wasn’t so bad as I got to walk with some of my tiny elementary school students who were adorable and made me smile.

When I got to school I told my JTE that my bike was missing. At first he just thought I didn’t have my bike with me and it took a moment to make him understand that I had no idea where my bike was and that it was missing. Thus began the epic campaign of finding my bike.

He told the other teachers and I tried to give a description of my bike. I could only offer that it had a basket (like nearly all bikes in this country), a gray seat, and that my name was on the cover over the back wheel. I had last seen it the previous Thursday afternoon near the south port. They asked if it was locked. I told them it had a lock but I didn’t use it.

They assured me that it was probably still on the island somewhere and that someone had probably used it and forgotten to put it back. This is what I assumed had happened when I saw it was gone. Those two things I mentioned that do get stolen in Japan? Bikes and umbrellas. It’s less stolen than more or less seen as community property to some degree and people don’t feel bad using them.

Because this was interesting we used it in all of our classes that day. I told the kids the story with simple English and gestures for listening practice. They all understood, even my seventh graders who were still doing pretty basic stuff. We asked all the kids to keep an eye out for my bike, and they heartily agreed to help.

We had lunch in the hall that day (which is always my favorite since the whole school eats together instead of each grade eating in their own classroom). At lunch the principal again informed the students that my bike was missing, gave them the description, and asked for their help to find my bike. My JTE told me that the boys would run around the island that day after school for part of sports practice, so they could search the whole island as they went (there is one main road on this island and it makes a circle around the island). It really amused me that everyone was on a mission to find my bike. It made me feel good too because everyone wanted to help me. It was such a small thing and yet it was a big deal to my kids and my fellow teachers because they knew my bike was important to me.

In one of the last periods of the day one of the teachers needed to go to the post office, so she offered to take me with her to look for my bike. We took a truck that belongs to the school in case we found it, and drove the long way around the island so that we could check everywhere. We ducked down lots of alleys and went real slow. We were three fourths of the way around and I was losing hope when we came to the other port and low and behold, there was my bike. Then we went to the post office and returned triumphantly to the school.

That same teacher gave me a key chain for my bike key and now I do lock that bike when I leave the island (although I still don’t lock the other bike…). Since we found my bike at the end of the day I didn’t get a chance to tell my kids the good news. But two days later when I returned to the school at least 3 kids asked me if I had found my bike. They were really happy for me when I told them that it had returned and then ran off to tell all their friends the good news. It was so sweet that they remembered and cared. Those kids really mean a lot to me and its times like this that make me feel like I might mean a lot to them too.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It’s a sushi merry-go-round!

Today I shall explain the wonders of kaiten-zushi or conveyor belt sushi restaurants (often called, by me anyway, sushi-go-round restaurants). This type of sushi restaurant is very common in Japan. Upon arriving at the restaurant you are shown to a table. One side of the table faces a conveyor belt constantly in motion carrying various types of sushi and other small dishes around for the patrons. When you see something you want, you simply grab it off of the conveyor belt and eat. The plates are all color coded by price. At the end of your meal you summon the waiter with a push of the service button and they count up your plates and total your bill. Then you proceed to the front to pay.

There is a menu at each table, picturing everything that the restaurant serves (although some items may be covered up if they are currently out of season). If you don’t see something on the conveyor, or if you simply want to be sure that something is freshly made, you can call the waiter and order things specifically (sometimes they will tell you to check the conveyor as what you’ve asked for should be coming around). This is handy, especially if you are at the end of the conveyor belt on a busy night and the things you want seem to get scooped up before they get around to you. That being said, the best time to hit these places is when they are busy. It helps ensure that the food coming around is fresh and hasn’t been circulating for an unknown period of time. Tea is provided at each table, and water is often available from a pitcher somewhere in the restaurant. Soft drinks or alcohol must be ordered and come on plates of their own to be factored into the bill. Due to the nature of the restaurant a small wait staff can serve a rather large amount of customers.

This type of restaurant is great for groups, especially if you have people who eat drastically different amounts of food. Big eaters can take whatever they want and the small eaters can also get their fill without footing the bill for the big eaters. At the place we go to most plates are only ¥105, so it’s a good place to go if you are on a budget.

It’s a really fun experience, and it can encourage you to try strange things. Friends and I will often pick up something strange and each try one portion on the plate. If we like it we can grab more. If not, it’s not a big financial loss.

The most interesting sushi restaurant I’ve been to had a unique twist on this idea. It was a small restaurant so everything was made to order. When each dish was ready, the sushi was placed on a small boat like plate and set afloat on the small stream of water that circled the table. He called out what he was sending down the line to alert us to catch the little boats and retrieve our food. The same rules applied as the other restaurant; boats were color coded by price and at the end we called him over to tally up our bills. It was a really fun experience and the food was excellent.