Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I'll be home for Christmas...if only via webcam.


Merry Christmas from Japan!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hair cut!

Went and got my hair cut today. This after weeks of gathering the courage and looking up hair related vocabulary. I didn't have a spectacular experience last time at what is essentially the Japanese version of Great Clips so I decided to try for the place next to my house the Hair Stage. A little old lady who has gotten me wet on more than one occasion while she washes her front sidewalk in the morning worked on me. I asked for a "edage kitte" (cut off the dead ends or trim) but to put in some layers and I emphasized over and over that I wanted it long.

We had a little trouble communicating but I had explained at the beginning that I didn't really speak Japanese. This sets everyone's expectations very low so when I was able to chat with her, she was impressed. (So was I, frankly.) But my vocab search didn't extend quite far enough so when she was trying to ask me about how I wanted the layers done I had no idea what she was saying. She eventually just said, "eh, we'll try it." What we were trying I don't know! I'm still not sure exactly what I got because after she and another lady dried it, they put curlers in. I now have cascading curls down my back that look quite nice. No way it will ever look like this again anytime soon but I feel like I should go out tonight since my hair looks so good.

And it wouldn't be a trip to the salon unless the hairstylist commented at least once on how much hair I have. I couldn't explain in Japanese that I actually used to have more hair but this always shocks the stylists in the US. Quite a bit fell out when I lived in France and it's never come back in. It freaked me out at the time but it turned out to be a good thing. This lady added that I also had a small face, which I think is supposed to be a compliment. They also liked the little curls around my ears (I do too.)


The best part was that it was only 3500 yen or about $35! I kept telling myself while they were curling my hair that it was Christmas and it was okay to splurge, thinking it was going to be expensive. But 3500 yen? That's awesome. Now that I know that it's cheap and I can get by with my Japanese I won't be so nervous to go the next time. Add that to the list of "one more thing that should be easy but isn't because I live in a foreign country but I have finally managed on my own." Hurray!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Let it Snow

On the first snow of the year my mom always calls up my grandma and before she can even say much more than hello, my mom launches into a rendition of the song "Let it snow." When I moved out I used to do the same thing to her. Except now I don't really get snow in Tahara. Sometimes a few flurries will swirl around but nothing ever sticks. And we never get snow like they are getting back home this week.

So the only way I was getting any snow was of the symbolic kind, so when we went to Maeda-sensei's house for a calligraphy lesson two weeks ago, I chose the word yuki to write. The top half written by itself means "rain." The bottom half changes it to "snow."

I liked writing this kanji. This one, like "mother" last time, is a beginner kanji so there weren't too many strokes. But Maeda-sensei for some reason also wanted me to write it in hirigana ゆき but the first character ゆ proved to be really difficult. I won't even post my results because it was really that bad. Afterwards, we had tea and cookies and chatted about the upcoming winter vacation. It was another relaxing Saturday afternoon calligraphy lesson.



Friday, December 18, 2009


I went to two bonenkais (end of the year parties) this week. Thursday night was the Board of Education enkai which I was dreading. And last night was the choir enkai which I was only slightly dreading. I'm not really a party person and I'm really not one when I don't speak the language but both parties went better than I had expected.

The part that gives me the most stress is the seating. Unless it's a small group you aren't allowed to sit where you want. You have to draw a number and sit at that seat. I'm always afraid I'm going to be sitting next to someone who won't bother to try and speak English or at least speak slowly in Japanese. I got lucky both nights and had people who were both friendly and willing to slow down for me.

The good thing about the assigned seating is that after the opening speech and the kanpai (cheers) you can get up and move around. People crawl around on their knees and pour drinks for other people and chat. Actually you're really not supposed to pour your own drink. If you want some more to drink then you pick up the beer/sake/tea and pour for your neighbor and then they will hopefully return the favor.

I didn't really drink Thursday night because I had work the next morning and I didn't feel like a hangover. Besides, I'm not a big beer or sake drinker. I did drink a little though just because there is a lot of pressure to drink. I drank more last night not only because it was Friday but because one of the choir members makes his own red wine and brought some along. Wine is my drink of choice so I had to have some. Besides it's weird to get plastered in front of your boss, it's not weird to be tipsy in front of the choir members.

At the choir enkai we also played bingo and got to pick out presents. I got a basket with some candy. The woman sitting next to me also gave me a book of photography published by her husband. It has some beautiful pictures of the beaches in Tahara and it's so I can remember Tahara when I leave next summer. We had a nijikai (second party after the first one disperses) at the local karaoke place. Almost everyone at the first came to the second and we got down with some jpop, anime theme songs, enka, and my few additions of English songs. This is why I haven't quit yet. Because I really did have fun last night.

But I am glad that I am done with bonenkais for the season...possibly forever. I will miss having enkai style dinners. The tatami rooms are gorgeous and the food is usually delicious (I chowed down both nights!) But I won't miss all the drunkenness and awkwardness of not knowing enough Japanese to sustain conversation for three or four hours.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Merry Christmas!

December is nice because not only do I get a two week break for the holidays but my lesson planning requires very little thought. I teach about the differences between Christmas in America and Japan and the students are very surprised to learn that we don't eat Christmas cake or KFC and everyone from children to grandparents get presents. Then we make Christmas cards or some other sort of craft and end with We Wish You A Merry Christmas. This has been successful for the last three years and this year was made even better by the addition of a 300 yen Santa suit I found at the 100 yen shop.

Christmas quiz!

Exchanging cards.

Merry Christmas from the 4th grade!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Three weeks ago I met my friend C in Shimoda for the weekend. We chose it because it was close to Tokyo (where she lives) and is on the coast. It's not on any must see list of Japan but it notable in that it's the port where Commodore Perry arrived in 1855 with his eight black ships and "suggested" that it would be nice if Japan were to end its self enforced isolation and trade with the US. (A few cannonballs convinced the Japanese that it would be wise to comply.) And so Japan was opened.

What the Lonely Planet Guide does not tell you, however, is that there are TWO Shimodas in Japan. And the one where we were headed does not have a very easily identified train station name. I knew that I needed to go to Izukyu-Shimoda because I was the one who poked around on the internet and booked our hotel. C is a trainee lawyer in an international firm and frequently works until 10pm so she didn't really have the time to do any research. We found out though when she ended up north of Sendai, hours away from where she wanted to be. By the time she realized her mistake there were no more trains back to Tokyo, let alone Izukyu-Shimoda. So I spent the first night and morning alone.

But after that small hiccup, we had a lovely trip. We took a cable car ride up for some views of the bay and the Pacific. We rode on a poor imitation of a Black Ship. And we visited a local onsen (a first for C.) Sunday, we hiked along the beach and wandered around town before heading back. We talked so much on the train back that I left my bag on the overhead rack when we got off. I was almost on the shinkansen back to Nagoya when I realized I was sans suitcase. I had to sprint back to the other train, which luckily was a local and hadn't left again yet.

Our plan was to meet again before Christmas but it looks like the only way that is going to happen is if I steal up to Tokyo and hang out in the afternoon by myself while she works on yet another deadline. Makes me glad I'm not a lawyer!



Small island with a shrine and a few fishermen.

Perry Road - named in honor of Commodore Perry

Tourist gimmick that we totally bought into.

Temple where the US and Japan signed their first treaty.

How Japan "really" felt about the US. (Actually they held a sumo contest in honor of signing the treaty.)


Thursday, November 19, 2009

I don't care what language you speak, please don't ever tell me you don't need to study another one. Unless you want to start a fight. Then you've found one.

And if your teacher ever asks you whether you (as a Japanese student) should study English then you should answer yes. Always. Even if you disagree because if your teacher has decided to devote their life to teaching you that subject then they probably aren't going to like it if you tell them it's a waste of your time.

The foreigner and native English speaker who has to grade your papers also doesn't appreciate comments like "Japan better culture has than English." No one who wrote "I agree, I think we need not study English" got an A this week except the kid who thought that "English liking students should study English and Chinese liking students should study Chinese." He didn't like not having a choice, which I totally get.

Not valid reasons for not wanting to study a foreign language:

1. It's hard.
2. Other people should just learn English/Japanese/other (This is especially absurd when you think that Japan is the ONLY country that speaks Japanese and it's not an especially big country.)
3. I'm never going to leave the country anyway. (Way to think big!)
4. "If I speak with a foreigner I will use gesture." (Good luck with that! And I hope you don't have a yeast infection!)

This isn't to say that I don't think foreigners in Japan shouldn't learn Japanese, because it certainly does make your life easier. And foreigners in America should also learn English for the same reason. In fact learning English makes your life pretty easy no matter where you go because it is the international language thanks to British imperialism and American economic power after WWII, BUT just because touristy places will certainly have some English speakers doesn't mean your life won't be easier if you learn some basics.

Learn a language. Make a friend. Visit new and exciting places. The end.

/steps off soap box

Friday, November 13, 2009


Next month I am taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are four levels, level 1 is ridiculously hard and I admire anyone who can pass it. You have to be able to read around 2,000 kanji and know some really obscure grammar. It takes around 900 hours of study to pass it. Most people equate level 1 with fluency. Level 4 is the easiest with only about 80 kanji and only the most basic grammar.

I am going for level 3. I know 300-400 kanji and have finished a beginner's course (both Genki textbooks.) I'm not really that interested in staying in Japan past next year but I think a level 3 certificate would look really great on my application to the Peace Boat. The test is December 6th and I lucked out and am scheduled to take it at the university near me. I don't even have to change trains!

I took my first practice test last night and was really worried I was going to fail it since I've had a hard time so far working through my test prep workbook. But I got a 75%. With a passing grade at 60% I might just pass this thing. Obviously I still need to study in order to get that up and guarantee a passing grade but I'm a lot more confident than I was last week.

So here are some more random thoughts about the JLPT -

- They are changing the test next year so level 3 will actually be harder, so it's important I pass this year. I'm not sure I will ever go for level 2. Studying Japanese is interesting but my first love is still Spanish.

- I really thought I was going to be better in grammar since the vocab lists in the Genki books are so random, but it turns out I suck at grammar. Really this shouldn't be a huge surprise since this was (and still is) my weakness in Spanish and French as well. My head does a good job of grasping the overall concepts of grammar but to ask me the nitty gritty details like which particle to use "ga" versus "no" for example then I blank out.

- I know more kanji than you actually get on a test and this sometimes confuses the heck out of me. I'm so used to reading the kanji that I sometimes blank out when I see only the hirigana. I tried looking up jusho (address) in the dictionary yesterday and felt like an idiot when the kanji popped up and I realized what an easy word I had messed up on.

- I studied pretty sporadically before I decided to buckle down and take this test. It's amazing how much progress I've made with both listening comprehension and speaking skills in my daily life here in Japan since I've made a concerted effort to study more regularly. Without Nathan at school to distract me I am going to try to keep up this trend until I go home in the summer. It's a good motivator to have instant results. That's something you don't get when you are studying in your own country versus being in the country where the target language is spoken.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

So last year I had Thanksgiving dinner in my apartment and although it was a lot of fun it was also stressful and really crowded, so this year I worked with the Tahara International Association (TIA) to host a Thanksgiving Party at the welfare center this past Sunday. What a difference it made! We had six ovens to cook in and they were big enough to fit a normal sized turkey. Like last year I ordered it over the internet from and had it shipped frozen to my apartment. It just barely fit in my refrigerator but it was definitely worth it.

We had about 12 people. They showed up starting around 10:00 on Sunday. Most of them were ladies from the TIA but we had one guy and two of my friends that I know from school and we had one mom and two kids (one of whom is in the second grade at one of my elementary schools.) I gave a quick run down of how and why we celebrate Thanksgiving in America and then we set about cooking. The original ideal was to have separate groups make different dishes but the timing of things didn't work out so that almost all of them were made separately, but that just meant that everyone could learn how each dish was made. It was a little disorganized but we had everything on the table in about three hours with no major mishaps. Although they did try to set the table with chopsticks instead of forks and knives but we fixed that. This was to be an American meal all the way around.

I think everyone had a good time. The ladies from TIA are especially sweet. I've worked with them before and several of them have come to my adult English classes. But most importantly, I ate until it hurt. And then I came home and took a nap in true Thanksgiving tradition. We sent everyone home with some leftovers, another tried and true tradition. Overall, it was a great party. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays so I was very glad to be able to celebrate it with some real American food this year (although I will say that tako-yaki and turkey last year was fun.)

Making the green bean casserole. They were fascinated by the idea of a casserole. I had to explain that we have many different kinds.

Carving the turkey - this was my first time so I made a mess of it. But it still tasted great.

A traditional Thanksgiving dinner with green bean casserole, stuffing, turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes with gravy.

And pumpkin pie of course! I didn't supervise this one closely so it came out a little dry because they didn't add all the cream the recipe called for. They were worried it looked too soupy.


Happy Thanksgiving from Tahara!

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Last month my friend Danielle and I headed over to Ise and Futami to visit the sites there. I had already been to Ise-jingu and the Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba back in May (pictures here) but it had been rainy that trip and I had missed seeing Futami so I was excited to go again.

Futami is a small town with not much to see except the Meoto Iwa or 夫婦岩. It translates to the Husband and Wife Rocks. These two rocks tied together with a special rope that ways over a ton symbolizes the union of a man and a woman in marriage. The shrine next to it specializes in selling love fortunes, which tell you almost everything but your future mate's name (their blood type, sign, etc.) I didn't buy one because I don't believe in that sort of thing but Danielle did and she had a good time trying to translate it. We'll have to wait and see if it was correct or not! Either way, it was a beautiful shrine and the rocks are gorgeous too. Apparently the best time to go is in the summer at sunrise because the sun appears to rise between the rocks and if you are really lucky (not me!) you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. I'll settle for this view since it's pretty awesome as it is.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Calligraphy and Happy Birthday Mom!

Here are some pictures of my latest attempts at calligraphy with Maeda-sensei. I couldn't post them earlier because I framed this one and gave it to my mom for her birthday. I painted 母 or haha. It means mother in Japanese.

My initial plan was to paint 友人 or "friend" but I talked to my parents that morning and my mom suggested "mother" since "you know my birthday is coming up soon." That means next time I have to try "father" so she can have a matching set to hang in the living room. It's too bad that "family" isn't easier or I could have just given her one. ;-)

This one is a fairly easy one to write and I was really happy with the results. The smaller characters down the side are my name. I joked that I should have written it across the top with a "no" so it would say Jennifer's mother. And I got to use my stamp! I'm really pleased with this one and needless to say my mother loved it. Although she couldn't remember asking for it and had to call and ask what it meant. (That might have something to do with the fact that I mailed it two weeks after her birthday so almost a full month after that conversation...oops.)

I bought the frame at the bookstore where they sell frames especially sized for calligraphy boards. Before I go home I need to go back and buy at least one more for myself for my other attempts.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tahara Festival

I'm about a month behind on posting. The Tahara Festival took place at the end of September while Kristin was here visiting.

We woke up to fireworks going off at 6am. At Tahara Castle we were kidnapped and forced to drink beer with ten old men at 10:30 in the morning and then invited to sit in VIP seating for the Buddhist ceremony at the temple the next day (which sadly we could not make.) We watched floats go by on our way out to Long Beach and again when we returned. And again the next day when we headed to Takigashira to hike. Sunday night I dragged her along to a City Hall function where she got to see me introduce myself in shamefully bad Japanese to a room full of drunken bureaucrats and then we watched as fathers put their lives in the hands of their sons, draped over live fireworks. We ended the weekend with fireworks and what Kristin loves best - karaoke.

Keely and Jovan came to stay too and we occasionally crossed their paths at breakfast and bedtime while they tried to say their goodbyes to their Tahara friends since they go back to N. America this month. It was a really great weekend.

Check out the random white guy from Cincinnati pulling this float. It is really is a small world after all.

Everyone helps out young and old.

Two floats come together.

Some of my students carry flags.

My students were so excited to see me. Aren't they cute?

Taking a short break.

All three in front of Centfaire.

A smaller handmade float later in the afternoon with some dancing women.


I love these little girls with their hair and makeup all done up.

Regular fireworks.

Crazy fireworks. The father drapes himself over the pipe firework while the son waves a flaming stick around. Then once dad is out of the way they light it. Awesome!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Typhoon Update

So the weather now is gorgeous - blue skies and sunny - but man it was pretty bad last night. I didn't sleep very well because the rain and wind was so loud. It's pretty windy here but this was worse than normal and then the power went out at around 4am. It stayed off until almost 1pm. Luckily I have a gas stove so I was able to cook breakfast but I still had to improvise a little. I made my toast in a frying pan since the toaster wasn't working and I used the hot water left over from boiling an egg to wash my dishes with because while my water heater is gas the controls to turn it on are electric.

Around 11 I went to the grocery store to pick up some things for lunch and discovered I wasn't the only one without power. The traffic lights were down so people were taking turns at the intersections and I shopped by candlelight at the grocery store. On the floor, lining the aisles, they had small candles sitting in cupcake tins. Although they must have had a generator because there was one room in the back that had lights on and their cash registers were working but most of the refrigerated items weren't out and you had to put your face to the shelf to see what you were looking for. The 7-11 across the street didn't even have that. They were packed to the gills with people looking for easy to cook things like Cup of Noodles while the poor cashiers had to add up all the totals by hand.

I read most of the morning, tidied up a bit, and played some sudoku, but I was ecstatic when the power buzzed on at around 1. You don't realize how much noise your refrigerator, computer, and other electrical devices make until they stop making them. The silence was starting to creep me out. I'm a product of the modern world I guess.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


It's been raining since Monday afternoon although the typhoon isn't supposed to really hit until tomorrow. That didn't mean that my commute to school by bike wasn't absolutely sodding miserable though. The bus schedule changed a few months ago and I can no longer take the bus to this school so I was left with no choice but to climb on my chari and go. Despite the rain coat and rain pants I was wearing I still showed up soggy (although without them I would have been drenched.) It was horrible, but luckily one of the English teachers loaned me some dry clothes.

The day didn't get better really when I found out I had five classes, four of which consisted of grading speech tests. I listened to 150 horrible speeches about their summer vacations. Things finally looked up when they told me speech contest practice was canceled and because I only have one class tomorrow and school is likely to be canceled anyway, I should just not come tomorrow. One of the teachers drove me home and since I left my bike at school I will take the bus to school on Friday. It doesn't get there until 10:15 but she said since I didn't have a class until 3rd period that that was okay.

So in review...had a bad morning but I came home early, don't have to work tomorrow, and can come in late on Friday. Awesome!

I'm still deciding whether to go to the gym tonight or just hang out in my pajamas watching TV and eating Kit Kats.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dragon Festival at Kiyomizy-dera

I've now been to Kiyomizu-dera three times. It's not really that exciting but it really can't be left off any list of "Things to see while in Kyoto." So we went. This time I decided to spice it up by making sure that we were there for the Dragon Festival. This is my story and I'm sticking to it! (Although the truth might be that I had no idea when or what this was and just got lucky.) The dragon came by in a procession that also included guys dressed up as warriors, some monks, and musicians, two of whom were playing conch shells like trumpets to announce the dragon's approach- totally awesome. The dragon made its way to each of the smaller shrines within the temple and paid its respects (or at least that's what it looked like to me. Wikipedia failed me when it came to details.) It was a scary looking dragon but as far as I know it didn't eat anyone but we left early so it's hard to say. Enjoy the pictures!


The procession goes by.

The dragon.


It stopped at each shrine within the temple. Here it is at the shrine by the love rocks.


On its way to the next shrine.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


There are two kinds of geisha sightings in Kyoto. You can see fake geisha and maiko (geisha apprentices) which are really tourists dressed up and then get their picture taken. And then there are real geisha sightings. If you see one in the middle of the afternoon wandering around a park or temple with a photographer...tourist. If you see one quickly walking down the Hanamachi in the teahouse district of Gion around 5 or 5:30 on the way to an appointment...real maiko. See one in a taxi in Gion...real geisha. Looks like it's not really her hair but possibly a wig...tourist.

Unless you are my dad and then every maiko you saw in Kyoto was very really real.

Kristin and I spotted some true maiko while in Kyoto. We showed up in the right neighborhood at about the right time but we weren't having much luck other than a few geisha in taxis until we noticed an American girl and her Japanese host-mom standing in the same spot that we had seen them in 20 minutes earlier. We hung around for another 5 minutes or so and spotted our first maiko on her way to a tea house. When the host-mom took her exchange student down the way to wait at a different spot, we followed. And were rewarded with seeing two more maiko.

Apparently, you have to walk as an apprentice maiko but once you graduate to geisha you can take a cab. That's one way to tell a geisha from a maiko. Another difference is the red in the maiko's hair and her collar. It signifies that she is still in training. The sleeves of her dress are a little longer, but with the geisha in the taxis it was hard to make out the difference.

Overall this was one of my favorite days of our trip. We hiked Fushimi Inari in the morning, stumbled across the Dragon Festival at Kiyomizu Dera in the afternoon (a separate post coming soon,) and spotted maiko in the evening, finishing the day with my favorite Japanese meal ever - sukiyaki.

Spotted in Gion along Hanamachi.

Look at her hand and how elegant she pats her hair.

Doesn't she look young?




Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ryoanji (and some nuns)

I've been to Kyoto twice before so I wasn't exactly thrilled when Kristin said she wanted to go there. Although really it was my fault because I did suggest it. But we did manage to see some things I hadn't seen before (and some things I had that I wanted to see again like Fushimi Inari.) One of them being a convent! That's right, because Kristin's mom works for the Sisters of St. Joseph we were able to stay with some sisters connected to them in Kyoto. I told them early on I wasn't Catholic so I didn't get the pressure to become a nun/missionary that Kristin did but they were all lovely and took good care of us.

The other great thing was that their retreat house was right across the street from Ryoanji Temple - one of the many hundreds of temples that hadn't really made it onto my radar, but I was very happy we went. Ryoanji is famous for its Zen rock garden. There are 15 large rocks floating in a sea of gravel that is raked every morning. 15 is a perfect number but from the viewing platform you can only see 14 at a time. If you move to see the last one, another rock slips from view. Only through attaining Enlightenment can you see all 15. (No luck so far! But I did fit through Buddha's nostril at Todaiji so there's hope yet.) It might have been a very peaceful experience if there hadn't been a crowd of junior high school students also visiting at the same time.

And if you take a picture you can only get five boulders.



Besides the rock garden there is a beautiful garden.

And a nice pond!

And Sister Jeannie and Kumiko and maybe a future Sister Kristin??? ;-)