Saturday, November 29, 2008

Knockin' at the door

Before I came to Japan, I hoped that I would be able to learn what it means to be Christian apart from helping in church ministries.

A year and four months into my time here, and, well, I've got to admit I really haven't a clue.

My thoughts are really disjointed right now, but I thought I should at least share some of the things God's been doing to remind me that he is in my life, even if I'm not making much of an effort to spend time with him.

For a while (maybe three days?) I managed to get my act together to do some of the Disciple readings. It just so happened that where I left off was apt for my current situation: chapter 17, "A Time of Transition." For the chapter, I read Esther, and what really struck me was Esther's reaction when she found out that Mordecai was wearing sackcloth and ashes at the king's gate: she wanted him to put on clean clothes. It struck me as odd because throughout Biblical history, the donning of sackcloth and ashes has meant great suffering/mourning, or grief/repentance. But Esther didn't get it right away. She only asked Mordecai what was wrong after he refused the clothes. I wondered, too, if maybe she sent the clothes to Mordecai out of embarrassment over his actions.

We always have this vision of Biblical heroes as just that--God's chosen: larger than life and "holier-than-us"--but reading that, I wondered just how "set apart" Esther was at the time? I mean, she wasn't like Daniel, sticking to Jewish customs in opposition to the king's orders. I mean, she was the queen for how long without anyone realizing that she was Jewish? I've always thought that I needed to be "out there" with my faith, that it should somehow be more obvious to people who see me.

Maybe it's just that I was looking for justification for myself, but reading Esther made me think that maybe "being a Christian" doesn't always have to be something that is super obvious to others--like a giant cross tattoed on my foreheard--and that maybe it's ok to be subtly different. Of course I also thought that despite all the years of "blending in" and possibly losing track of some of her Jewish traditions/beliefs, Esther was nonetheless willing to answer to God's call when it came. And I don't know if, in the state I'm in now, I'd be able to hear a message from God, much less act on it.

When we were waiting to try our kimonos on before the big November dance performance, my dance partner (and dance teacher's niece), Maki, suddenly asked me if I was a Christian. I naturally answered yes, and she asked a bit about going to church and some Christian beliefs (like thoughts on Halloween). As usual, I was caught unawares and probably didn't give very good answers. She was particularly interested in church because many Japanese will say that they're Buddhist or Shinto without feeling the need to go to temples/shrines or to follow any religious practices at all (or if they do, it's more for tradition than any sort of religious piety). The entire time I was talking with her, I was thinking: "Heck, how can I talk about the importance of going to church to Christians when I haven't gone since April?"

And really, that's the bottom line, isn't it? I clearly don't believe in the importance of church enough to go out and find a church to attend regularly or to persevere in attending a church with an environment that makes me uncomfortable.

Then last week I was teaching a Christmas lesson with the ninensei at Sanbongi Elementary School. I gave a talk about some of the differences between Christmas in Japan and in Canada (fried chicken VS turkey, a couple holiday VS a family holiday, etc.) and one of the students asked (in Japanese, of course): "Why is Christmas so important to Canadians?" So there I was trying to explain in broken Japanese with some basic English (it was an English class, after all) that it's important because it's the birthday of Jesus Christ, God's son (and how that translates into a family holiday, well...).

Most recently (this past Tuesday, in fact), my dance teacher asked me if I'm Christian and if I knew the Nakanowatari's from church. Apparently she was speaking to one of them and it came out in the course of the conversation that I went to their church for a while. ^^;; I still feel a little guilty for the way I just stopped going to church and didn't get in contact with them after I moved from the old house, but not enough to do anything about it.

*sigh* Putting all these things down in writing forces me to face the fact that I'm really lazy, and a coward to boot. I know that I should be responding to these "signs" somehow, but instead I choose to absorb myself in my work and to prioritize anything and everything above spending time in real conversation with God to avoid the risk hearing something from him that I don't want to listen to/act upon.

And though I've never had doubts about my beliefs, good old James 2:17 has been haunting me recently (when I give myself time to think, that is): " by itself, if it is not accompanined by action, is dead."

Friday, November 28, 2008

School Trip: Day 1

This year I was extremely lucky--I'd even go so far as to say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance!--to be able to go on the school trip with the ninensei at Kirita JHS. Maybe it doesn't seem so amazing to others, but I imagine that if even one of the many factors that worked out in favour of my going had been different, I might not have been able to go:

1) my JTE (Japanese teacher of English) at Kirita, Tomabechi-sensei was one of the teachers responsible for the ninensei this year, so she was already scheduled to go on the school trip (the math teacher, Ikeda-sensei is their homeroom teacher, so of course she also went)

2) I get along extremely well with Tomabechi-sensei, so she was more than OK--happy even!--with the idea (of my going on the school trip) when I asked her in the summer

3) My Kocho-sensei (principal) and Kyoto-sensei (vice-principal) like me and therefore had no problem with me going

4) My Japanese is good enough (although still very broken) that I wasn't worried about creating extra work for the other teachers by going

5) I get along well with my office and I think they appreciate/respect the amount of work that I put into my teaching, so they were willing to let me take four days off for the trip in the middle of the busiest school term (last year I had pretty much all elementary visits while the students were on the school trip)

6) (Closely related to number 3 & 5) I'm a second-year ALT and I've put in the work to justify the privilege of going on the school trip

7) Since I didn't use much nenkyu (vacation days) last year, I could use the four days for the trip without having to sacrifice plans for going home this past summer (not ot mention this Christmas)

8) I don't have any debt/financial obligations back home, so I could afford to use what would normally be one month's savings from my paycheque to pay for the trip

So yeah, I feel super blessed to have been able to go on the trip!

Now, onto Day 1!

The thing that struck me the most on the first day was the amazing degree of organization for the trip. I mean, if I was in most of the planning meetings so I knew all the stuff that they had organized/scheduled, but it didn't really register until I saw all the planning in action. I mean, they had assigned seats not only for the train (which is a given), but also for the bus that took us to the Hachinohe JR Station and for the tour bus that picked us up from Ueno Station for our first day's excursions! Then too, on the train, we had scheduled snack and lunch times, and outside of those times, the students (and teachers) weren't supposed to eat on the train. Moreover, for their train snacks, everyone was only allowed to spend 500 yen and no one was allowed to buy anything from the in-train vendor cart.

Now, it's been a long time since I went on any sort of school trip/excursion, but I'm pretty sure it was anything goes as far as eating/spending money, so long as the appropriate opportunity presented itself.

Anyway, the ride to Tokyo went smoothly and the first place our tour bus took us was the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Even though I like history (Japanese in particular), I wasn't really expecting much from the place, but it turned out to be pretty fun. They had various displays that you could interact with (like a palanquin and a rickshaw to sit in) and since it's a big city museum, there were English translations! (I've gotten used to not being able to read all the display information here in Aomori.)

After the museum, we went to the Unicef House. Interestingly enough, it was near Shinagawa Station and the hotel (apparently quite well known within Tokyo) where Brenda, Cecilia, my parents stayed in April! Anyway, I've always kind of known what Unicef does (mostly from those trick-or-treating donation boxes we had in elementary school) , but it was something else to see and hear about the specifics of their work to improve early childcare, water & sanitation, education, nutrition, etc. in so many countries all over the world. It was also interesting to learn that Japan received Unicef aid immediately following World War II--and I suspect that the current school lunch program in Japan has at least some roots from that Unicef aid. I was further impressed that it was volunteers and not paid staff who led the tour; they were so knowledgeable!

(Side note: Kyoto-sensei's initial choice for our first day excursion was actually the Canadian Embassy--in my honour. Thankfully the arrangements didn't work out since I suspect that it would've been super boring! Also, I think it was really good for the students to get an idea of how fortunate they really are; living in a smaller city in Northern Japan, I think it's easy to get caught up in thinking about how "the grass is greener" in bigger (and particularly more Southern) cities.)

Following the Unicef House tour, we drove to Yokohama to check out the night view from Yamashita Park. It was really cold though, so we didn't spend too much time there (it was off the water) but just took a couple of group pictures before heading out to the Chinatown area where we had dinner reservations. We were quite early, so we wandered around the shops for a while; it was definitely the cleanest Chinatown I've seen yet! Our dinner was at a Chinese buffet. I've never been a particularly picky eater, but I've got to say, I think my trip to Hong Kong one month earlier had me spoiled. Even given that Chinese food in Missisauga/Toronto is pretty darn good, I'd say that before Hong Kong I would've described the char siu, siu mai and Peking duck I ate in Yokohama as "OK," but after Hong Kong, I felt like it was mediocre at best (although when asked, I actually said it was "futsuu" which is more like "average" or "normal"). I thought the veggies were pretty good, though. Since it was buffet-style, the boys really pigged out. They had a variety of ice cream flavours and puddings in small, individual size cups, and I think that between them, the boys (8 in total) ended up with some 50-60 cups stacked up on their table!

After dinner it was back to the hotel. Again, I was amazed by the level of organization for the trip when we--the teachers, tour guide and the student group leaders, a.k.a. hancho) had our end of the day meeting. All the group leaders had to fill out and bring health check forms for their group members (one student had the beginnings of a fever when we left the Unicef House, so we checked up on her). Then too, each hancho had to give a short report on what they thought went well during the day and what (behavioural) things they would work on for the next day--stuff like walking more closely together on the sidewalk so as not to block other people, or being punctual, etc.

Oh, and students weren't allowed to buy anything from vending machines, so each hancho was given enough drinks (Pocari Sweat on the first day, I believe) for their group members for the night.

Probably the most surprising thing was that the hancho also had to turn in the key for their room to one of the teachers staying on the same floor! Since they had autolock doors, this meant that students couldn't all party it up in one room and they also couldn't really sneak out late at night (unless they left one student behind in each room). Also, since the teachers had the keys, when they were doing the lights out check, they could (and I'm pretty sure they did) just open the door and look in without warning, rather than having to knock and wait for a response! Somehow I can't imagine a similar situation occurring on a school trip in Canada...

Anyway, following the hancho meeting, Kyoto-sensei, Tomabechi-sensei and I went out for a coffee (cocoa in my case) at Starbucks. =P Ikeda-sensei was feeling kind of tired, so she kindly volunteered to stay behind in case a student needed something. Kyoto-sensei treated us which was really nice, and when we were leaving, he told Tomabechi-sensei and I that we should feel free to wander around Akibahara (our hotel was very close to the area!) for a bit before going back to the hotel.

Most of the stores were already closed and I think a lot of the "otaku" (fanboys/fangirls) had already gone home, so it didn't have the atmosphere I was expecting, but it was still amusing to see the signs for maid cafes and to try to pick out the "otaku" among the people we saw walking by (stereotyping for sure, but oh well...). Tomabechi-sensei did ask if I wanted to try going into a store (with all the UFO catcher machines) or even a maid cafe, but we were both pretty tired, so I said thanks but no thanks. =P

And that was the end of our first day.

I've posted the link before, but again, you can see my Day 1 photos in this Facebook album.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


The school trip (four days in Tokyo with the ninensei from Kirita JHS) was awesome and I have a lot to talk about, but I'm still feeling too tired/lazy to write in detail about it, so for now, enjoy the pictures!

2008 Kirita School Trip Day 1: Edo-Tokyo Museum, Unicef House, Yokohama
Day 2: Tokyo Tower, Free Time

Day 3: Tokyo Disneyland!
Day 4 (Part 1): Sensoji Temple, National Museum of Science, Ueno Zoo
Day 4 (Part 2): Ueno Zoo (continued), Trip Home

P.S. - This is the one hundred and first post for this blog!! ^_^

Friday, November 7, 2008

A dancer I am not...

...but I feel that I at least carried myself credibly at the Towada Culture Festival this past Sunday (November 2nd).

Even though my (Japanese) dance performance lasted only 8 minutes, I spent pretty much the whole day at the Towada Bunka (Culture) Center in preparation. I arrived a little before 10:30am to get my hair done by a mother of one of the elementary students performing. It took 1.5 hrs, 2 elastics, 5 small rubber bands, 1 U-pin, 55 bobby pins and a lot of hairspray/mousse to get my hair done up properly for Japanese dance.

Then I had to get my make-up done (they whitened my face, neck, and arms). After the make-up, I had a short time to eat a bit (they ordered trays of maki rolls, mini croissants, fried chicken, etc. for everyone) before we all had to put on our rental kimonos.

I really learned from this experience how amazing and tireless Japanese mothers (okaasan) are. For the weeks leading up to the festival, the mothers were always at our rehearsals, often working on things (hair ornaments for the kids, flower bunches for their dance, etc.) for the performance.

The Saturday before the performance, the okaasan who was going to do my hair did a practice run that took an hour to do! Then, of course, she tirelessly worked on my hair for an hour and a half on the day of (she couldn't get it to stay the way she hoped/wanted it to, so she ended up changing the style a little from the practice run--hence the extra half an hour). While she was working on my hair, the other mothers were helping the kids get their make-up on and doing their hair. They set up and distributed all the food. They helped all the children get into their kimonos, etc. and made sure they were ready and in their proper places for their curtain calls. And of course they helped with the clean-up. Really, they were amazing and I only wish I could've expressed my admiration to them more fully on the day of!!

But back to my preparations...

There were seven of us wearing the rental kimonos, and it took about 20-30 minutes to put on each kimono, so we had to around 1pm to make our 3:45pm curtain call. Since my sensei (very thoughtfully) wanted me to be able to take pictures/have pictures taken of me in the kimono, Maki (my dance partner and I) were the first ones dressed.

Once I had the kimono on and was finished taking photos, it was just a matter of sitting around and waiting for our curtain call. Maki and I practiced a little, but we got a little hot/flushed, so we figured it was best to just sit and wait patiently.

When the time came for us to go on, I was super nervous. I was so nervous, I actually felt slightly nauseated; I always used to get that feeling before major tests/exams during high school and university, or before doing any sort of public speaking/performance, but it had been a long time since I’d last felt so nervous. Still, when the music started and we made our entrance, I slapped on a smile and tried to stay focused.

Luckily it was really dark in the theatre and the spotlights were really bright, so even if I’d wanted to look for familiar faces in the audience, I probably wouldn’t have been able to spot any. It wasn’t my best performance (I think that happened at our final rehearsal on the Wednesday before), but at least I didn’t make any major mistakes. ^_^

After the performance everyone (there were some 40-odd dancers for about 7 or 8 different pieces) took pictures before changing and cleaning up. Thankfully it didn’t take quite as long to get out of the kimono as it did to put it on, but still, getting everything put away/cleaned up took a fair bit of time.

Before I left, I was given the flowers my supervisor had thoughtfully sent for my performance. Given that she had been in Canada for almost a week before my performance, this was no small consideration on her part! Unfortunately I wasn't able to take a picture of myself in the kimono with the flowers, but I still had all the make-up on and my hair up when I got home, so I took a self-shot of just my face/head and the flowers to send to her in my thank you email.

After taking the photo, I had just enough time to get all the make-up off and to change to go to the Hanasuzukai (the dance group's name) enkai. I didn't have enough time to take out my hair (they'd put so much stuff into it, I would've needed to wash my hair as well as taking out all the pins, etc.), but that was OK.

I walked to the enkai since it was pretty close and it was an unusually warm night. I was expecting the enkai to last about two hours (the usual length), but it ended up going for five! They even had a nijikai (and I later heard about a sanjikai), but I skipped out on that and went home.

It was fun and there was quite a lot to eat. My conversational Japanese is still pretty horrendous, but there were a couple of people who had pretty good English, so that made things easier.

All in all, it was a good experience. Even though I was rather ambivalent at first, I'm glad now that I started taking the lessons. Next I just have to take the initiative to ask about joining taiko (which I've been wanting to do since last year's Aki Matsuri)!

(For more photos, see my Culture Festival Dance Performance Facebook album! I've also added an album with pictures from the 2008 Kirita Halloween Party.)