Hello from Japan! (a late update)

2013-08-30 11.08.06

Going along one of the roads I take on my long Friday bike ride to an Elementary school.

Hi everyone! お久しぶりですね。(long time no see) It’s been awhile since I put something on the blog as I’ve been quite busy getting set up over here in Japan. So far work has been very exciting and I couldn’t have asked for a better reception in my new home here in Fukushima Prefecture. Today I just want to share some pictures and observations from Koori Machi, my new home, for people who are interested. Sorry that I’m not much of a photographer, but these are basically pictures taken on my iPhone as I go around Fukushima. On the Vocaloid side of things, of course I’m still translating as much as I can on YT and I’ll be sure to put up a competed doriko album (“unformed”) I had forgotten to share by the end of this weekend. I also didn’t forget to translate the newest song by my favorite artist either. It’s wonderful to see Deco*27 make a return to the Vocaloid scene with his first independent contribution in awhile:

Life since I’ve arrived here in Koori Machi (pop. ~12000) has really been quite wonderful. As the new JET Program English Teacher in Koori I am responsible for supporting the English education of all kids in grades 5-9. (There are no high schools in our town, the kids commute to the next city). Every day I ride my bike to either the middle school or one of the 4 elementary schools to teach a total of 23 classes every week. Koori is a beautiful place in the middle of the gorgeous landscape of northern Japan in the Touhoku region. Just by biking around you encounter fruit orchards and rice fields everywhere you go (including right outside 3 of the 4 walls around our middle school). Our town is famous for its peaches and so far I’ve eaten nearly 20 of them since my arrival. (but sadly the season just ended…)

2013-08-30 07.26.22

A shot looking down on part of Koori Machi and the bullet train track as I bike to an elementary school. Those are persimmon trees right below me.

In terms of my location I’m really in the best of both worlds. While my town is in an absolutely beautiful rural area, it’s not actually that isolated. It’s right next to the slightly larger Date City and 2 train stops (~10 min) from Fukushima City where you can get almost anything you’d need. I can turn a shopping trip into a workout just by taking my bike. And I really shouldn’t sell my town short either. My apartment is a 5 minute walk from a train station that I can use to easily get to almost anywhere in Japan. The distance is just perfect because even though it’s close, I never hear the sound of the bullet trains zooming by. There also a small family restaurant a few hundred feet from my place and the supermarket and home supply stores are barely 8 minutes away on foot. While every kind of JET posting has it’s highs and lows, I am really happy about my spot where I’m not just another foreign face lost in the crowd of a big city or in an area so rural that I might only get to visit an actual supermarket and city once every month or so.

2013-09-06 10.48.59

A nice contrast on a small road I use bike to work. On one side you have the elevated bullet train track and on the other you have the start of some fruit orchards.

Thanks to the previous teachers (Koori has a 20 year JET program history) and the generosity the Koori Machi town hall (who also pays half my rent), I received a fully furnished apartment already stocked with supplies and cooking utensils. Below you can a variety of apartment and scenery shots I took when I first arrived:

Pictures from around town (flickr photo set)

Summers here are hot and humid, and one of the first things I’ve noticed is that it makes a place like Koori a bit of a creepy-crawly paradise. (But no Huntsman spiders thank goodness, feel free to look them up yourself) It’s a bit random, but here are pictures of some of my new neighbors right outside my apartment. The tiny frogs are actually all over the place I’ve found. Kids catch them during recess at the elementary schools (sadly they like to kill them sometimes…):

New Neighbors (flickr photo set)

I know this might be a bit of a long post, but while we’re at it, let’s just throw in a few more pictures from around the place interspersed with some random observations I’ve made since I’ve been in Japan for those who are interested in either of those things.

About to board the Yamabiko Shinkansen in Fukushima City. Seeing one of those trains fly through the station without stopping is always very cool to see.

About to board the Yamabiko Shinkansen in Fukushima City. Seeing one of those trains fly through the station without stopping is always very cool to see.

-As gross as it may seem, if you ask me for one word to define my day to day state of being, it would be “sweating”. A/C is rather rare here in Japan and almost never centralized. Even though my apartment has lots of space, I mostly stay in the room with the A/C to stay cool and save energy by keeping all the other doors shut. At school we have A/Cs in almost every room but they are usually turned off in favor of open windows (that may or may not cool things down). It’s funny how fondly I recall helping students practice for their speech contests last month because we had the A/C on during every session. While it felt glorious, it’s funny to think that it was no different than basically every normal moment I used to spend in my apartment or car back home in America.

2013-09-09 17.14.40

A picture of “Yae-tan” Fukushima’s adorable new gun-toting mascot based on the recently popular historical drama “Yae no Sakura” which has supposedly helped restore tourist and historical interest in Fukushima

-So sometimes you hear people talk about Japanese Enkai (staff drinking parties) and how serious people can get about consuming alcohol. Let me just say from my experiences up until now, I can report nothing different. At my welcome party there were people literally lining up to pour me a drink. I basically had to keep taking sips off the top of my beer so they could pour me some more. The people started bringing me other cups to pour me 2 kinds of sake and then a wine bottle suddenly appeared. So yeah…(and this was all at the “1st party”, the “2nd party” is its own fun story, but hey everyone here is responsible and drunk driving is only 10000% forbidden so it’s all safe fun)

So the second Hatsune Miku/Family Mart campaign is in full swing. I stopped to pick up some stuff while traveling through Iwaki City

So the second Hatsune Miku/Family Mart campaign is in full swing. I stopped to pick up some stuff while traveling through Iwaki City

-It’s a bit embarrassing, but every once in a while I have what I call “Japan moments”, where even though everything is basically the same over here, I just can’t get something to work and wind up looking like an idiot. Yesterday’s classic example was just trying to use the JP mailbox. For some reason my envelope wouldn’t go down the slot (probably because it was a older, beat-up box), so I started freaking out and reaching inside to make the envelop go in. I probably looked like a crazy person or a thief to everyone who was watching. Another one was thinking that the bath tub cover was a shower mat for about two weeks and using it as such…

Not exactly a "taste of home" but the fact that I can buy Kantan (easy) Nan at my super market for about 120 yen makes me quite happy.

Not exactly a “taste of home” but the fact that I can buy Kantan (easy) Nan at my super market for about 120 yen makes me quite happy.

-They always talk about how 第一印書 (first impressions) are very important in Japan. Well I am really glad that I spent the first hour and a half with my supervisor and co-worker impressing them with my (not yet spectacular but practical) Japanese as we drove from Koriyama to my town. Because the first thing I did after greeting the Board of Ed in my hometown is fall down the stairs (my dress shoes were a little too new and slick)….thankfully not in front of too many people. The ankle healed up in about a weeks time thankfully. I still haven’t told my mother about that story to spare her the miniature heart attack.

Daiyu8 is an amazing local home supply store where you can find tons of convenient things. It's like a mini Walmart back home that's just missing a few sections. This super intense grip builder sorta speaks for itself. The Japanese says "Boss Character"

Daiyu 8 is an amazing local home supply store where you can find tons of convenient things. It’s like a mini Walmart back home that’s just missing a few sections. This super intense grip builder sorta speaks for itself. The Japanese says “Boss Character”

-So here in Koori Machi I don’t encounter people frequently who speak English well outside of the 3 English teachers at the local middle school (The Middle School Principal (my boss)’s wife is actually very good at English but she works as a teacher in the next town). While I speak two languages (English/Farsi) fluently and came to Japan because I wanted to speak Japanese everyday, I never thought about how tiring it would be to communicate in a language you are not yet fluent in. Of course I appreciate all the compliments I get about my Japanese and it has helped me make lots of connections and friends here, but sometimes by the end of yet another all-Japanese day, when I’m trying to talk to an old grandmother or neighbor on a street corner at 7pm I can barely keep it together trying to comprehend what they are saying in that sometimes accented, colloquial Japanese. I’m sure it will pass with time and lots more studying, but the brain-strain is definitely taxing at times.

To add something that is more of an interesting observation and not really a complaint, many Japanese people who don’t meet foreigners often have 2 ways of talking with them. At first they assume the person knows zero Japanese and you get the whole “you, toilet, go, ok!” kind of thing. But it often seems that right after they realize you can speak a little Japanese, they often start talking to you like they would their best friend, and not holding back at all with the difficult words. Because of this you can notice a big difference when you meet someone who is trained in foreign language education or has interacted with foreigners often. Yesterday I called a teacher in Fukushima City to discuss a Japanese class I wanted to attend. The conversation flowed perfectly and there wasn’t a single “um, what does that word mean?” or “could you say that again”, and it was all thanks to the fact that she was easily able to sense my language abilities and meet me half-way.

Part of the festivities at the "Sumo Festival" I competed in. The event was set in a beautiful, isolated town called Furudono-machi

Part of the decorations at the “Sumo Festival” I competed in. The event was set in a beautiful, isolated town called Furudono-machi

-My trip to the Furudono-machi sumo tournament and festival is actually a bit of a heartwarming story. Though it’s been going on for generations, the tournament was slowly dying out due to population loss in this rural Japanese area. However a few years ago an Iwaki City English Teacher married a girl from Furudono and discovered the tournament. So he worked to get other Fukushima English Teachers involved in the tournament and also helped get the town to accept a bunch of foreigners showing up once a year in a place that has probably never seen that kind of thing before. Over the past couple of years a great relationship has developed and they are always excited to have us. Over the course of the day it was basically an all you can eat and drink affair with a big drinking party/feast to top it off at the end.

Another interesting experience occurred when us wrestlers all went off to shower after the tournament. I thought we were going to an public bath, but instead they loaded us into the back of a pickup truck and drove us to an old lady’s house where 12 muddy guys took turns showering and enjoying corn and tea in her living room.

Here's us after getting dressed in our Mawashi's for the tournament, but I'll leave it for you to guess who is "me"

Here’s us after getting dressed in our Mawashi’s for the tournament, but I’ll leave it for you to guess who is “me”

-Some people might consider it lame, but Japanese gift/prize-giving at festivals and celebrations is often very practical and thus quite useful. Some of the stuff I received so far includes: mechanical pencils, saran wrap, soy sauce, plastic bags, garbage bags, body soap,  tissues, and pens. It might seem horribly boring, but these are all things that I don’t have to buy myself and in the end I’d much rather have them then a bag or two of candy.

Kitsune Udon at the family restaurant just 200 feet from my house. I try be polite and patronize them from time to time, but every time I do they wind up giving me so much "extra service" on the side in the force of free dishes and drinks that I almost feel bad for going...

Kitsune Udon at the family restaurant just 200 feet from my house. I try be polite and patronize them from time to time, but every time I do they wind up giving me so much “extra service” on the side in the form of free dishes and drinks that I almost feel bad for going…

-So the school yards here in Koori Machi are basically made up entirely of sand and gravel. Not much to complain about there except that you probably shouldn’t play soccer with the soccer club in slick tennis shoes. My currently healing knees are a testament to this fact. Thankfully I’m working with the local sports shop to get some cleats. I say “working” because even little 5’8 American me has feet that are too big for the regularly stocked sizes here.

I tried out Japan Mexican food for the first time a few weeks ago. Sadly I must report that it's not exactly the same and rather expensive too...

I tried out Japan Mexican food for the first time a few weeks ago in Fukushima City. Sadly I must report that it’s not exactly the same and rather expensive too…

-Descent-sensei also managed to make a 5th grader cry the other day. After an hour of playing games to learn counting, we were wrapping up with a review in the last few minutes. Basically I asked the kids to take turns counting to 20. It was the little girl’s turn to say 12. She started adorably struggling to pronounce it (“chu, chu-eru, chu-eru-bu” ect), so I say “let’s say it together!” in Japanese and start to help her when she suddenly yells “hazukashii!” (it’s embarrassing!) and starts crying on her desk. It was sort of cute but I totally felt like monster then 😦

A beautiful view from the teacher's room of the baseball field with mountains in the background.

A beautiful view from the teacher’s room at the middle school of the baseball field with mountains in the background.

-So school days are definitely pretty intense here in Japan. I get to work about the same time as my students, which is around 7:30 in the morning. Homeroom is at 8 and classes start at 8:30. School finishes around 4pm which is just in time for club activities to start. I usually stay for meetings and hang out with the soccer and ping-pong clubs. When I do I never go home before 6:30.

A beautifully crafted gelato/sherbert desert at an Italian restaurant in Hobara called "La Wasabi"

A beautifully crafted gelato/sherbert desert at an Italian restaurant in Hobara called “La Wasabi”

-For those of you considering this kind of job in Japan, let me just point at that everything you hear about punctuality being valued is very true here. But beyond that there is also the very real expectation that everyone go above and beyond. Sure we have our contracts that say 8-4 on them. But my day really starts at 7:30 and ends somewhere around 6-6:30. To be honest I don’t have too many complaints about it and people here don’t take things like that for granted. They appreciate it and will let you know about it. So while I could get two more hours at home alone not doing much of anything, showing up early and staying a bit later for teacher meetings and club activities is the kind of thing that makes you “a hard worker” and smooths over relationships at work. Let’s also not forget that as long as my day is, I have no place to complain. While I beat a good fraction of the teachers to work in the morning, there is hardly a teacher gone when I say my evening goodbyes. So those long hours you put in are simply making you another part of the crew.

The view out the 3rd floor of the middle school. Our principal always stands at the front front entrance to greet all the students and teachers in the morning.

The view out the 3rd floor of the middle school. Our principal always stands at the front entrance to greet all the students and teachers in the morning.

-In Japan you will often hear the phrase 挨拶(Aisatsu), which is usually translated as “greeting” or “saying”. It really is amazing how fundamental they are to life here in Japan. It’s not as simple as saying “hi” to someone you know on the street. You say Aisatsu when you meet someone in the morning and when you leave in the evening. There are Aisatsu before and after every class, event, and meeting at school and at businesses. When you leave home, come back, receive things, when some does you a favor, when you make a request, when you see someone after a long time, for every kind of special occasion there is something that should be said. Some people comment that “well if you always say these things doesn’t it cheapen the words/meaning?”. I honestly don’t think so. What you need to consider is that the very fact that people stop and take their time to make sure that these greetings and phrases get said properly is their own sign of respect. You are essentially communicating that “Yes you are worth my time and appreciation and I am acknowledging that with this saying”.

Of course don’t forget bowing, the key to social relations in Japan. I knew about it before coming to Japan of course but I didn’t realize that I’d spend what feels like half of every conversation, greeting, and event doing it. Those back and neck muscles are getting real toned. People say “you know you’ve become Japanese when you start bowing on the phone”. To be honest from my own and my fellow English teacher’s experiences, this happens a lot faster than you might expect. Once you get used to it, while having a conversation, your head and body just naturally start to bend down when you hear or say certain words.

All the elementary schools in town have little gardens that the students help tend to.

All the elementary schools in town have little gardens that the students help tend to.

-While it would never fly in US, if there is one thing from the Japanese education system that I would bring home, it would be “cleaning time” (souji/掃除). Several times a week you get to see every kid and all the teachers (including me) line up in our assigned spots to the theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean, arm ourselves with brooms, brushes, and dustrags, and then proceed to clean, sweep, dust, and wash every classroom, hallway, and bathroom in the entire school for about 20 minutes. Not only do the frequent cleanings help make everything a lot less disgusting, they also help foster an “everyone is in this together” attitude. I know I sure as heck wouldn’t want to leave a disaster in a restroom if I am going to have to clean it in the future.

A new Miku album and some Miku Negi Fried Rice I picked up at the Family Mart in Iwaki

A new Miku album and some Miku Negi Fried Rice I picked up at the Family Mart in Iwaki

-So I felt my first earthquake (a not completely insignificant magnitude 4.0) in the teacher’s room last week. It lasted a good 10-15 seconds but here in earthquake-prepared Japan there weren’t any issues. Coming from a place that never experiences these things, I have to say that they aren’t scary as much as they are sort of mind-bending. Throughout my life, my instincts have been programmed to trust that the ground will always be solid and stable. So when you are sitting at your desk on a random morning and begin to feel the earth swaying underneath you, your body just sort of freaks out. Talking to the teachers afterwards, one of them compared it to the 2011 quake and said that when that one occurred he was walking around in the school yard and couldn’t stand up because of the vibrations for almost 2-3 minutes. I pray that is something I will never have to experience here.

A rather creepy picture that hangs above the entrance to one of my elementary schools

A rather creepy picture that hangs above the entrance to one of my elementary schools

-Another nice, cooperative thing that you will see at elementary schools is the way that the older 5th and 6th graders are charged with taking care of the younger children during the walks to and from school. Most 5th and 6th graders are assigned to pick up and drop off nearby, younger students who walk to school at their houses everyday. They walk carrying yellow flags that makes it easier for drivers to see them. The little 1st and 2nd graders also wear bright yellow hats to make it easy for the cars to see them as well. This creates a wonderful effect over at Danzaki Elementary which is in a flatter area surrounded by rice fields on 2 sides off into the distance. As the kids leave school in the afternoon you get to see these cute and tiny yellow hats bobbing up and down amongst the rice paddies.

A lone sunflower stands boldly in front of Mutsuai Elementary School

A lone sunflower stands boldly in front of Mutsuai Elementary School

To be honest Japanese students are pretty shy about using their English even with the exciting new American teacher who they would prefer to speak to in Japanese when possible. However given how important greetings (those Aisatsu from before) are in Japan they have them down pretty well at least. So no matter where I go, if there are people you know around, you are greeted with a chorus of “Hello!” “Goodbye!” “Good Morning!” “See you!” “Good night!” ect, ect. It’s not much but it’s a start, right?

One of my students brought in Utata-P's novel, which I provided the English title for, to show me. It's awesome to meet so many Vocaloid fans here in Japan.

One of my students brought in Utata-P’s novel, which I provided the English title for, to show me. It’s awesome to meet so many Vocaloid fans here in Japan.

So surveys show that compared to a few years ago where only a fraction of Japanese people knew about Vocaloid, it’s really began to permeate the public consciousness over here. Now that’s not to say that everyone is a big Vocaloid fan or anything, but it’s actually possible for songs like “Senbonzakura” to get big over here and Miku has been making lots of in-roads as another popular “cute icon”, similar to things like Hello Kitty and Pikachu, ect. You will meet lots of people who don’t really know much about Vocaloid music but just love Miku as a character and have all different kinds of merchandise. My biggest surprise came when I told the little 3rd graders I was eating lunch with that I like Vocaloid and watched them all get excited about “Miku-chan!”.  You can even tell most older adults about Vocaloid and Miku and they will know what you are talking about (heck even the Empress knows her right?). An 8th grader actually had a Lat-Miku folder the other day. That was one of the bigger surprises for me so far.

The thing about the mountains around my town is that they are basically a 360 degree thing. Being right in the midst of them they form the backdrop scenery no matter which direction you look.

The mountains around my town are basically a 360 degree kind of thing. Being right in the midst of them, they form the backdrop scenery no matter which direction you look.

So I’ve done my best to get by cooking on my own here and not going out to eat. Since school lunch is so well balanced and varied, (a whole article to come on that once I’ve collected a few weeks of pictures) what I eat a home is usually pretty simple. In terms of fruits and veggies I get by on Kiwis, grapes, carrots, and cucumbers. I compliment that usually with somen or soba noodles, natto (fermented soybeans), Japanese pickles (called tsukemono, made from lots of different veggies) tofu (eaten raw with soy sauce, it’s actually a really nice simple meal), eggs, grilled fish, rice, and lots and lots of tea.

One of my first serious forays into Japanese cooking. Here is my version of oden, a Japanese stews/soup consisting of fish cakes, konjac, mushrooms, daikon radish, eggs, and other ingredients.

One of my first serious forays into Japanese cooking. Here is my version of oden, a Japanese stew/soup consisting of fish cakes, konjac, mushrooms, daikon radish, eggs, and other ingredients.

-Since descent-sensei is the new, interesting thing here in town, and usually compliments all the Japanese foods given to him to try (I’m being honest I swear), lots of kind, older ladies who work at the various schools like to share random little treats and such which me. Just to share Fridays anecdote with you:

At the first elementary school in the morning this teacher gave me some little tea cakes she got on a weekend trip. Then I visit my second school and compliment the homegrown watermelon they gave me to try, so while I’m leaving work some of the ladies come and force me to take a huge chunk of it home in my already bursting backpack. Then when I go to the middle school for meetings, the secretary decides to let me in on her and Tony’s (the previous teacher) “secret milk stash” by giving me a bag with 8 little cartons in it. (as a skim drinker all my life, adjusting to whole milk is actually a little intense, but there is no choice here) I thought the “secret” part was a joke until she shushed me when I tried to thank her. So I was feeling generous after all this kindness, so instead of cooking like usual I decide to go patronize the family restaurant next to my house that’s run by these other ladies. But sadly while I’m trying to order my 5 dollar bowl of noodles I have all these homemade pickles and this Japanese yogurt drink forced on me to the point the once again I’m almost 100% sure that there’s no profit for them to be had here. That feeling might have been solidified when I handed her my 550 yen and after all that she gave me back the 50 yen coin, said “it’s service” and wouldn’t take it back.

I really do appreciate these little acts of kindness and the way they make me feel welcome and appreciated. It really is one of the benefits of being a foreign English teacher in a small town (if you make a good impression), you’ll never be just a face lost in the crowd. These are the kind of things that help me feel like part of the town and make me want to work hard for the sake of everyone.

Miku shows up from time to time in art class as well.

Miku shows up from time to time in art class as well.

So hopefully that was a little bit of everything for those who are interested. I’ll be sure to be back with more translations and updates from Japan as well. As always you are welcome to ask any questions about Japanese, Japan, or Vocaloid in the comments or by any of the many other means through which you can reach me, so feel free to drop a line any time!

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7 Responses to Hello from Japan! (a late update)

  1. Apparatus says:

    It looks like things are going well!!
    It’s my dream to one day go to Japan for work, but I have a long way to go and I had such a late start. haha! My parents always tell me not to go overseas because people are nasty to foreigners, but It’s not the case, at least not much anymore. Your students and people around town really seem to enjoy you. I keep wishing you lots of good luck! (That stew looks AMAZING by the way! I love Japanese stew.)

  2. Ariane says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your adventure with is ! It seems like you are having a wonderful time. As much as i wish i could visit japan one day, I can’t see living there. However It’s great to learn about the daily life, the one that they didn’t show at animes and stuffs, hehe. Good Luck and i hope you will get only great memories ! Also, uhhh, i want that novel, I’m a little jealous of your students ! Ok, just joking, sorry…

  3. Manx says:

    Congratulations on your appointment to Japan! I’m no longer active at the Vocaforum so I had no knowledge of this new and wonderful development; a FaceBook link from FB’er MikuStar lead me here.

    A wonderful blog entry! Charges my batteries toward revisiting Japan next year. Thank you for sharing Koori Machi with us.

    Looking forward to further blog entries. Cheers!

    • Descent87 says:

      Hi Manx, thanks for the comments! Work is busy but I’ll try to keep posting! I do hope we get a chance to meet up, if even for a little bit when you come here next year! Best wishes and please feel free to contact me whenever you like.

  4. Samuel says:

    Hello Amir, best wishes for this wonderful new job. I loved your article full of these little details that help a lot understand Japanese culture (incidentally I had never heard of 挨拶 till your post).

    • Descent87 says:

      Yeah haha. Both you and I of course already know most of these Aisatsu expressions, but I didn’t realize how often people actually referred to this word and concept in conversation everyday. Before and after class, teachers (and now me too) literally tell the students: “now it’s time for Aisatsu”. Sometimes before meetings and parties, people in the office or at the board of ed will say “Bahrami-sensei/san you will have you say Aisatsu to everyone”. We always have “Aisatsu” before and after club meetings (heck before and after every single ping-pong match). And of course during cleaning time everyone in unison says “onegaishimasu” (please) when we begin and “gokurousama deshita” (thanks for your efforts) when we end. It’s just deeply engrained into the culture here.

  5. MikuManiacal says:

    I’m really finding your blog fascinating because it’s confirming so many of the “stereotypes” about Japanese lifestyle and culture. Shamefully, my insight into Japanese culture has been limited to what I see in anime and movies, and while similar images are consistent in many things I had seen, I always sort of thought it was a “romanticized” depiction. To find that school life is indeed very much like I’ve seen in my anime series makes me wish I had been is such a system and that we here in the West could adopt more of the Japanese communal attitudes. Looking forward to the next installment Descent. Continued good luck and thank you! 🙂

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