30 November, 2010

Stuff from months ago

Ok, so I haven't posted in three months.
Sue me.

Hopefully looking back on a whole bunch of events will make it easier to boil them down to their most memorable highlights. That, and maybe I can't be bothered writing quite as much as when I first arrived in Japan.

Earlier this month, I thought that I should try to update the blog to the present by November the 30th. Well, it's now November the 30th and I'm throwing up one post, so at this rate I should be able to catch up by... 2014ish, I think.

So, what was going on around three months ago, you ask? Well, I'd settled into my apartment a little, and the annual Tomakomai Minato Matsuri (Port Festival) was on the 6th, 7th and 8th of August.

He looks festive

The main festival area had a whole bunch of food stalls, with game stalls set up for kids, arts and crafts stalls and a whole bunch of stalls selling a variety of goods including wood carvings and pot plants??? Anyway, another major attraction of the entire proceeding was the fireworks show down near the port area itself. Dan and I wandered back towards our apartment building after bumping into half the board of education at the matsuri itself to watch the fireworks, which were definitely quite nice to see.

No, the buildings in the foreground have not exploded.
On Saturday there was the massive street dancing parade, and no, street dancing doesn't mean a bunch of teenagers with too much of some sort of drug in their system gyrating to some 'music'. This was seriously awesome, traditional dancing by a whole bunch of people in great costumes down some of Tomakomai's main streets. I don't know how a lot of them did it either, because a lot of people looked like grandparents and they were going for around an hour or so, I reckon. Different people came down the street in slightly different costumes and danced a set little routine over and over again. It was pretty bloody amazing, to be honest, and really made me feel that I was definitely in Japan once more.

Dancing Dancing Dancing
We decided to come back to the matsuri another night, and it just so happened that Teresa and Curtis, other English assistants from Mukawa and Hobetsu respectively (two towns about 20 and 40 minutes by car down the road) had tried to find the festival the night before, to no avail. With fresh directions, they managed to make it back the next night, and the three of us along with Dan and Tom from Tomakomai managed to get a seat in the crowded beer garden area of the matsuri. It was at this moment that the 'hundred dollar drink' incident would occur. At some point during the night, I got up from the table to get another beer and Curtis got up to look for a soft drink (he had to drive home that night, and Japan has a zero tolerance regarding drink driving). After finding a cold bottle of tea he liked, Curtis inadvertently started a catastrophic chain of events. The drink was 110 yen, I believe. At that time, the exchange rate was almost close enough to say that it was around $1.10 US dollars, and a little more in Australian. So, Curtis pulls out his coins and proceeds to count through them to try and find the right amount of change.

This takes a long time.

Throughout this period, the lady selling the drink has been patiently waiting for the gaiijn (foreigner) to hurry the hell up! Finally, Curtis realises that he's about 10yen short and hands the lady a note instead. Standing next to him, I think that the ordeal is pretty much over. But it's not.
The lady then takes quite a long time getting the change, and that's when I innocently ask Curtis: 'uh, what note did you give her? 1000?'. In Japan, the smallest note is a 1000, followed by a 2000, then 5000 and 10000. With the exchange rate what it was, Americans (and almost, Australians) were often knocking off two zero's at the time, meaning they were $10, $20, $50 and $100ish.

'Uh, no. I only had a 10000 yen note.'
The woman returns with half the change her stall has likely accumulated in the past afternoon, while I shudder at what has just occurred. Curtis has just paid $100 for a $1 drink, and caused the lady to pull out $99.
Now, back home some people might think this no major deal, but you've gotta remember that this was a festival stall, and we already stood out as foreigners without needing to bring more attention to ourselves.

Oh well, at least it was memorable!

Curtis with his hundred dollar drink
Well, that catches me up a little bit from August. Next stop: the Hokkaido Jet Association welcome parties and Sapporo orientation, hopefully by this time next week!

24 August, 2010

My apartment

So, today I've decided to throw together a post which should act as a tour of my wonderful apartment. Seriously, for the amount of money I'm paying for it (roughly $175 Aussie dollars per MONTH), it's pretty bloody amazing. Starting off above is the view from my genkan (entranceway) as soon as you step into my apartment. Out of shot on the immediate right is a storage room, the right doorway in the shot is my spare bedroom and the left doorway leads through to my double living room. Immediately on the left through the wall is my toilet, which is also amazing and you'll see why in just a moment.

Moving through the doorway on the right brings you into the spare bedroom/storage/wardrobe room. There's another random spare desk in this room, along with the clothes rack pictured, the cupboard storage stage on the right and another wardrobe set with a set of plastic drawers next to it where I've been storing all my clothes. In the corner of this shot is my mini-vacuum and my mini-iron. I'd like to say that I've been ironing all my dress shirts regularly, but the truth is that I've been wearing slightly crinkled shirts everyday and definitely been able to get away with it. Sorry Mum!
Continuing onwards, here is the bedroom as seen from the living room doorway. The previous photo was taken from just around the right side of the bed, if your perspective has been thrown off. The bed itself is pretty special, as it wasn't left behind by my predecessor Kevin but rather his predecessor Sean (I believe). It's a great bed, especially because it must be almost 2 metres long and about a metre and a half wide. Poking out near the foot of the bed you should be able to see a ridiculous black and white leopard print blanket. Kevin's excuse? An ex-girlfriend made him buy it. Sure, Kevin. Sure.
Since this photo was taken I've added a pink pillowcase to the colour scheme, along with a matching pink bottom sheet. I needed the new bottom sheet because Kevin apparently bought a doona cover by accident instead of a sheet, and had been sleeping on top of that thing for far too long, with the furry leopard print blanket immediately above. Sorry Kevin, but I just couldn't pull that off.
Turning roughly 90 degrees to the left and taking another photo from where the last one was taken shows the main living room area. TV, coffee table and couch are a great combination in this room,
and I've already spent several afternoons or evenings lazing away on the couch in front of the tv. There are two bookshelves filled with a random assortment of books, magazines and comics in English or Japanese left behind by an assortment of predecessors which I was lucky enough to inherit, and the high speed internet connection point Kevin had installed is in the far corner of this room too. Hooray internet!
Turning left another 90 or so degrees gives a view through the spare living room towards the kitchen on centre-right and the doorway on the left was the same one seen on the left as you walked in the front door. I recently rearranged everything on the far right side of this photo to be more efficient, and that's where I'm sitting right now as I type.
Notice the ability to sit on the chair and be in reach of the coffee table and anything on it plus the cooling tower, while simultaneously also being able to watch tv and hop on my laptop at the same time. Amazing. For those of you who haven't seen or heard about my cooling tower, here's a quick rundown: you throw beers inside. They are kept cold. You pull a lever on the right of the tower which asks: 'Love Beer?' and a beer will pop out the front. While this happens, the other beers in the cooling tower will slide down so that the next can is immediately ready to be taken. Absolute genius, I reckon.
The kitchen's a kitchen and the laundry + bathroom are both pretty normal too. My final shot is of my amazing toilet, which may need some explaining once I put up this photo:
So first up are the slipppers. Apparently they were Kevin's, so nothing special there. However, it's probably the seat covers and the mat which first caught your attention. They're pink. Really really pink. According to Kevin some ladies from our board of education came over and cleaned up the apartment the day before I arrived. While there, they decided to ask Kevin what colour toilet covers they should buy for the new guy, and if pink was ok. I think Kevin's thought process was something along the lines of: I don't care, I'm leaving! -Which is why my toilet is so bright that it might actually be unsafe to look directly at it for extended periods of time.

So there you have it, a quick tour of my new apartment where I will be living for the next year minimum. Now all I have to do is figure out how to winterproof it slightly so that I don't freeze to death inside it later this year.
Back at the front door. I hope you enjoyed the tour, and if you're ever in the area then please come visit!

23 August, 2010

The Rest of Tokyo Orientation and Hokkaido Bound!

I really need to hurry up and catch up to the present as far as these blog posts go.
Apologies if the next few are picture heavy and low on text so that I can just get through them.
Look, it's me!

After waking up with a killer hangover after the previous night's nomihoudai with new Hokkaido friends, I woke up to hear from my roommate that he'd definitely had a stranger night than mine, and probably a more drunk one too. First he went to 3 karaoke sessions in a row with people from a whole bunch of prefectures, then he wandered off into a park and chatted to a homeless guy for half an hour. Following this, he then stumbled (literally, it would seem) upon a shrine and prayed for homeless people and rounded off the night with a conversation with either a small rabbit or squirrel. Definitely a stranger night than mine.
An elementary school session
We had more sessions during the day including stuff aimed towards senior, middle or primary school students, along with some other broader optionals from which I picked Japanese Etiquette for Beginners and Independent Japanese Study. Again, I found much of the information relatively useful though at the same time I could probably say that I would've been able to survive without it. Etiquette ran from stuff which was ridiculously common sense through to some seriously obscure things the presenters had come across, while independent study gave a pretty extensive list of things we could try/read/buy while in Japan to work on our language skills.
Aussies on a random train with random ads
After a dry Hokkaido session where we were told our travel plans for the following morning the Aussies headed off to their embassy night. Unfortunately we got there late, which turned into a massive blessing once we found out that the briefings would have to be shortened so that we would still have time to eat food there. Now, none of the presentations was by any means entirely useless but I have to say that things like the net export rates between the two countries and their respective GDPs throughout the recession were entire useless topics to be brought up for a group of people teaching English for a year or more. I had heard a rumour that we were getting a bbq or something similar which turned out to be false, though the assorted Asian food we were served was definitely very tasty.
People milling in the embassy
After the embassy I thought I should probably slowly make my way home to the hotel to take it easy before needing to head out the next day all the way to Hokkaido. After waking up I had a whirlwind of goodbyes before the Hokkaido bus was loaded up and we were on our way to the domestic Haneda airport. While there we were delayed for a while but finally made our way through the gate and onto our plane which would take us all to the northernmost island in Japan and our new lives as teachers.
Unfortunately, this was NOT our plane.

13 August, 2010

Tokyo Orientation: Day 1

The beginning of Tokyo Orientation
Up bright and eaarly the next day, I managed to squeeze into a lift heading down. All the hotel lifts had signs next to them apologising for how busy the JETs would make them at breakfast, lunch and dinner times, so I was actually pretty surprised that 3 of us stepped off on the 4th floor. Unfortunately, the closest dining hall was on the 5th floor which I tried to tell the two other girls but they said it was only for the TOAs. Wrong! Walking into the dining hall reminded me of the first day of the year at boarding school or college where some groups were obviously pretty good friends from the same home country, some people were making friends over breakfast and still others were eating pretty silently. I don't know if it was 6 Orientation Weeks' training or what, but I pulled out a tray, filled up a plate of food and wandered over to the shy yet friendly looking guy who was sitting in the corner on a 12 seater table all by himself.
I then had what was probably the most honest and friendly one to one conversation I had during my entire time in Tokyo. Jesus from Kansas city (we're not in Kansas anymore!) was a really nice guy, and we were both excited to be moving to Japan.
Concord from the Hokkaido section
From brekkie I squeezed back into a lift to go back to my room for a minute before heading back down to the Prefectural Assemblies in the massive Concord function room. This place was pretty massive, with easy seating for the 700 or so of us in the room. Our first hour was just spent chatting to those people heading to the same prefectures as us. For those who don't know Japan has 47 prefectures, from the gigantic yet sparsely populated Hokkaido up north to the sweltering Okinawa in the south, which is actually closer to Taiwan and China than mainland Japan. It was great to meet some people I'd been in contact with through the Hokkaido JET site, especially Simon who is the current president of the Hokkaido JET Association. I also met people like Tom, the only other person in Group A who was also placed in Tomakomai where I would be going. Apparently a couple of people recognised me from the HAJET forum where I'd stuck an actual headshot as my avatar. Whoops.
After that time to mingle we got underway with some opening ceremonies, introductions to bigwigs and people running the orientation, small speeches on quick tips for living in Japan and a keynote speech on culture shock which took us through to lunch. Mildly interesting/useful stuff.

After lunch we at least got to see Simon get up for his speech on life inside and outside the classroom, which was great fun and legitimately good to listen to. While chatting to him earlier we'd talked about going out for a beer as a group, which sounded like an amazing idea to me.

Quite a bit of the orientation was filled up with groups of workshops we could pick and choose between, which was pretty useful most of the time. For the rest of the afternoon I picked out 3 talks and walked off to my first one at 3 in the afternoon. I'm interested in maybe pursuing a career in education, which was a major part of the reason I decided to come over to Japan for this year on the JET Program in the first place. So, The JET Program as a springboard into a career in education seemed like it would be perfect for me.
It wasn't.
Now, I can't say that it was really the guy running the seminar's fault but that it was unlucky he happened to be someone who was working in education in Japan as a university professor and almost the entire room was filled with people who wanted to know what they had to do to become a teacher or professor in Japan after the JET Program. So the entire session was probably awesome for them, just entirely useless to me because I'd been thinking of trying to become a teacher of Japanese overseas. So, I put my hand up to ask the last question of the day, which was about which Japanese language proficiency tests would be the most widely recognised overseas to become a Japanese teacher. The entire room (of generally 25-35 year old post-masters/phd graduates) seemingly swivelled to look at the freak who asked such a ridiculous question and the guy up front looked surprised before answering. Apologies for turning up to the seminar I thought was geared specifically towards people like myself, haha.

Next was the elementary school session, where we basically pretended to be the students and played along to a few games designed for children aged roughly 6-12.
I totally kicked arse. Like, dominated some of the games.

My final session was about self introductions, and the room was so packed that a whole bunch of people had to sit on the ground or just stay standing. Here again I found myself trying to not get bored out of my mind while some people taught us how to say hello and good morning but then they finally went through a few examples of introductions they used in classrooms with students. I've got about 9 schools I will go to throughout the year, with each one being for about 2-10 weeks in a row then I'll never go back to the same one. I've since found out that I'm mainly at middle schools for 2-3 months in a row with some tiny stints at primary schools between January and March when the middle schoolers will be busy studying for exams.

Hokkaido JET nomihoudai
With most of the official stuff out of the way, I just had the prefectural reception with a dinner buffet to look forward to at night. Which I was definitely doing, because I was feeling pretty thirsty for a beer by this stage after the longest day I'd had since... I can't even remember. I'd knocked over a couple of beers with a few dinner plates while it seemed as though a lot of other people stood around not drinking. Oh well, more beer for me I thought, though we only have a single bottle left on the table...
Simon to the rescue! The Kiwi comes out of nowhere with 3 bottles tucked under each arm which he dumps on the table. Legend.
Unfortunately, I have too much of a good thing and we slowly get kicked out of Concord, but not before I skoll a few beers and find out that we're meeting in the lobby 30 minutes later as a Hokkaido group.

Nothing suss
Beer and Food. Simon on right.
Now, at this stage a little voice in the back of my head was saying: sure, you should go out and have fun, but only have one beer and then switch to water so that you can wake up easily tomorrow. I didn't listen to this voice. Mainly because we found a nomihoudai place (all you can drink-normally with a time limit) and I once again felt obligated to drink. 2 hours, a whole bunch of included food and about 8ish beers later, I was good to go back to the hotel. Before going straight to sleep, I hung out with some of the TOAs in the computer/ironing board room while I tried to sober up a little. The night before I hung around in the same room like a massive creep because I couldn't get to sleep and thought that the poor bastards stuck on 2 hour shifts behind the desk would be the only ones still awake. While there I witnessed the above/right, which looked suspiciously like a TOA pinning a newbie's arms behind her back for no good reason but we'll let it slide eh, Mystery Man?
Courtney and I, the only 2 Aussies with placements in Hokkaido Prefecture. (Tim doesn't count because he's in Sapporo)

I eventually stumbled into bed some time between 1 and 3 if memory serves, once more dreading how I would feel the next morning, though certainly having had enjoyed the night's drinking with my new neighbours within the prefecture of Hokkaido.

Drinks with new Hokkaido JETs!

12 August, 2010

Tokyo Orientation: Day 0

Good advice for the year ahead
...and we're off! Finally my blog posts don't have to be about stuff I did before I left Melbourne, and can instead be about adventures in Japan. As I wrote previously, we landed early on the 25th of July in Tokyo. Really early. Like, I think it was 6:00am local time when we landed. Finally we thought, we're in Japan after the process which began over 6 months earlier so let's get teachin'! Well, I don't think anybody thought about it in exactly those words or at least I hope not. But we were definitely relieved and also excited to be in Japan. First stop for everybody: Tokyo Orientation. The JET Program runs two main orientation sessions (Group A and Group B) a week apart from one another at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. There, the several-hundred-strong new JET contingents have a couple of days of seminars and workshops designed to help us settle into our new jobs in a new country. I thought it was all run pretty well, with a lot of our face time being with Tokyo Orientation Assistants (TOAs) who basically reminded me of O Week leaders back at college. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Aussies lining up to send their luggage off
The first time we saw the super genki (happy/excited) faces of the TOAs was at the airport as they ushered us from just outside the customs gates (where everybody wandered through without declaring, always a nice change from Australia) through to the luggage sendoff point. Speaking of customs, that reminds me of the trip through immigration too. Japan has followed the lead of some others including America in making fingerprinting and photographing at immigration mandatory. I guess the world's become a much scarier place where we need to keep track of everyone in the last few years, let alone decades. Anyway, of our 23kg limit of check in luggage, we had to send most of it through to our placement city/board of education (BoE) straight from the airport and only take what we needed for a 3 night stay in Tokyo for orientation. By the time all of us got through sending our luggage away and getting onto separate buses which took us to the hotel it was between 8 and 9am when all of the Aussies arrived at the hotel. Along the way I took a couple of photos on the bus:

Tokyo, here we come

Tokyo Tower

Rushing off the bus
We wandered into the Keio Plaza Hotel, which is pretty nice if I do say so myself, and were directed to the JET reception area where we thought we'd be able to check in then head up to our rooms for a shower.


Keio Plaza Hotel
Random turtles in park
We were too early to check in, and would have to wait another 4 or so hours. Some particulary energetic types wandered as far as Harajuku in the morning's free time, but because I'd been planning to catch up with some friends from school I thought I should stay near the hotel. Luckily, a few people were thinking of doing the same thing so we decided to trek across the street to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. After getting up to the free observation deck and taking it easy in the nicely air conditioned interior, we then wandered around a small park for a while before heading back over to the hotel at lunchtime where I had been planning to meet my friends Ryo, Daichi and Jerry from school. Ryo and Daichi met me in the lobby, but we then had to 'just meet Jerry' at Shinjuku station. For those of you who don't know, this is the busiest station in the world, with an average of 3.7million people passing through on the transport network alone, not to mention the fact that it's built up into a station bigger than most shopping centres, with over 200 exits. Thankfully Daichi knew where he was going, because Ryo and I honestly could've gotten lost inside the station for a good hour or two. We caught a great bite to eat of yakiniku (cooked meat, literally translated) which we cooked ourselves at the table, and then 3 of us wandered back to the hotel (Jerry had to duck off to work). We had a drink in the sky bar of the Keio Plaza (thanks, Ryo!) and then said our goodbyes. By this stage it was about 4ish in the afternoon so I finally got around to going up to my room which I would be sharing with another Aussie.
Ryo, Daichi and I in front of the hotel
Unfortunately, Kyle (who I would eventually find out was my roommate) was taking a nap inside and had the chainlock/latch thingy on, so I couldn't get into the room. That's no problem, I'll just ring the bell I thought...
I ended up chatting to some other Aussies near the lobby at 5pm because I was still locked out of my own room.

Train tracks? Check!
Eventually I got inside, had a shower and got ready to meet a handful of Aussies in the lobby at 6pm before we were going to find a place to eat for dinner. We played follow the leader for around 20 minutes before realising that the girls in front were either lost or didn't have a plan. However, we eventually found ourselves somewhere which looked promising.
Off to the right side of the photo is a big wall. Over the other side of the wall are train tracks, which brings me to my Dad's surefire rule to find great food in Tokyo. A restaurant needs to be built either next to train lines or even under them in order to definitely be delicious. A lady in one of the restaurants yelled out that they could fit 20-30 people upstairs (in Japanese) so I told the rest of the group and they decided to go there. However, I then ended up at the back of the pack with a group of 4 other people who were thinking that they might prefer trying to go to a less busy place as a smaller group.

Dinner group with the seafood boss man
So, we walked into the place 2 doors down and I tried to spak Japanese well enough to order some seafood for us from the extremely nice guy running the place. Considering the fact that we all ate as much seafood as we possibly could, most of it yakiniku-style self cooked on a grill, I thought it was very reasonably priced and quite delicious. After this we walked back around the corner to a massive 8 storey electronics store, where I once again stretched my limited, rusty Japanese as far as it would go to help someone buy an adapter and new camera.
After this I started walking back to the hotel for a good night's sleep before orientation would officially begin the next morning. But first, I bumped into a few more Aussies (the JETs pretty much took over the 5 blocks out the back of the hotel for the next few days) and decided to duck into the local conbini (convenience store) for a beer to take back to the rooms. The first room we tried to drink in had someone passed out on their back snoring, so we went to another and said kanpai (cheers) to our first night in Japan!