Saturday, February 28, 2009

Romance in the air

Before you get too excited, no, the title does NOT have anything to do with me personally! I just wanted a catchy title that would be applicable to two big February events: Valentine's Day and the wedding of one of the teachers at Kirita!

First, Valentine's Day. Like last year, I received a heck load of chocolates/cookies (most of which were
homemade) from the girls at Kirita. Since Valentine's was on a Saturday this year, the school designated Monday (rather than Friday) as the celebration day. (This is a big difference between elementary school and junior high school: In elementary school, kids aren't allowed to bring Valentine's chocolate to school!)

Of course, Monday isn't my Kirita day, but luckily I was at Sawada Elementary School that day, s
o I didn't have to be at the school until about 10:15am. This enabled me to drive to Kirita to drop off the cookies for all the students and teachers (and even to help a bit with marking!) before I went to Sawada.

And since I wasn't there, I didn't have to sit at my desk labeling e
verything I received this year: Tomabechi-sensei did it for me! (Lucky for me, but I feel kind of bad for making extra work for her.) When I got to school on Tuesday, I had a big bag on my desk waiting for me.

Of course I had to photograph every single one and write down who gave it to me when I got home. (The writing down the names was so I could give White Day presents to everyone who gave me something.) As I was photographing everything, I couldn't help but be impressed all over again with the care Japanese girls put into making their homemade chocolates.

In total, I got
19 Valentine's presents, 17 from students, 1 from a Kirita teacher, and 1 from Mukainakano-sensei. One student present was actually not from a Kirita student, but from a Kamikirida Elementary School student! I've taught at Kamikirida a couple of times so they all know me as the Kirita ALT (since the students usually go to Kirita for junior high school). Anyway, this particular girl is the younger sister of a sannensei girl and an ichinensei boy at Kirita. I happened to see the two girls in the Daiso on Saturday morning buying stuff to make Valentine's chocolate, so I guess that's why she (the younger sister) decided to make me something.

Basically the note says
that she hopes I will enjoy the chocolates because she made them herself, and that my English classes are fun. ^_^

As always, you can see all the pictures of my Valentine's chocolates in my Facebook album.

Today (February 28th) was the wedding of Satou-sensei from Kirita. It was in Hirosaki so they chartered a bus to take everyone in the Misawa-Towada-Shichinohe area down. It was great not having to drive or to pay for a train down, but it was tough because I was so sleepy (we were supposed to be at the station by 9am and usually I sleep until noon on Saturdays, barring any engagements) and I didn't want to sleep because I was wearing contacts and I had my hair up in a bun. Towards the end of the ride, I did fall asleep, and regretted it because my eyes were SO dry, even after putting in eyedrops.

(Digression: I was pretty proud of my hair! I've never been able to figure out how to do anything more than a basic braid with my hair, but after looking through various hairstyle websites throughout the week, I finally figured out a style that would work on Wednesday night! Basically I pull my hair into a medium-high ponytail, twist it all up, tie it in a knot, and then wrap the remainder around the knot. It's the first time I've actually benefited from having super thin (quantity-wise) hair! Because I have so little hair, I was able to secure it all with just FOUR bobby pins!! No styling products, or even elastics were required to get it to stay up!)

Anyway, when we got the hotel, we loitered around in designated waiting areas until everything was ready to start. In Japanese weddings, the actual ceremony part (at the church/shrine/temple) is usually just for family, so the newlyweds and their parents were standing outside the doors to the banquet room greeting everyone. On the guests' part, we just bowed and said congratulations as we passed each couple. The bride and groom were wearing the traditional wedding kimonos (black for the groom, white for the bride). Plus the bride was wearing the traditional white wedding headdress--hard to describe, but I'm sure you can find a picture somewhere on the internet. It looked really heavy! The groom was bowing to everyone who greeted him, but it seemed like Satou-sensei could barely nod her head for fear of disturbing the headdress!

When everyone was seated, the lights were dimmed, a spotlight was shining, and music was played with much fanfare for the entrance of first the groom and then the bride being escorted by her mother. The master of ceremonies gave brief introductions about the bride and groom, and then it was onto speeches from the principals of their respective schools (yes, they're both teachers), followed by the "kanpai" (toast). After that, the groom's mother performed a Japanese dance. Then the bride was led by her mother around the room before she exited to change dresses and everyone started eating.

At some point I'm guessing the groom also left to change, but I really didn't notice until Satou-sensei made her re-entrance in the Western style white wedding dress and veil. Again the lights were dimmed and the spotlight was on (making it hard to take any decent photos without flash), but this time she entered on the arm of her father. Her husband (now wearing a suit, so obviously he changed!) shook her father's hand before Satou-sensei rejoined him.

It was interesting because the wedding planning company's people were right t
here, prompting him to shake the father's hand! In fact, right from the beginning they were around, leading things! Even in during the first entrance, there was a guy walking in front of the groom (pacing him, I guess?) and a lady leading/helping the bride and her mother. I wonder if they had to have helpers they don't have wedding rehearsals like in Canada/America? (Besides, with both of them being teachers living in different cities hours away, it wouldn't have been practical for them to have a rehearsal.)

Anyway, after the re-entrance they cut the cake and served each other bite. It was funny to notice that while the guy gave Satou-sensei a piece with strawberry, she just gave him a normal bite without any fruit! =P Following that they had a mini-procession of children (girls) carry bouquets which they presented to the couple. (I'm guessing that was a variation on the flower-girl?!) Then the "best man" and "matron of honour" (I doubt they're actually referred to as such in Japanese) made speeches, followed by presentations from the teachers at the groom and bride's respective schools.

He has been at the same school for six years, so the school presentation for him was pretty lengthy: a videotaped message from his students, the teachers' presentation, and a presentation from the baseclub he coaches. I felt kind of bad going after them with our Kirita presentation. We also had videotaped messages from each grade, but our teacher performance was less...energetic. We performed a popular song ("Kiseki" by Greeeen) on handbells. It sounded pretty good, but the mics didn't really pick it up, so I don't know if anyone other than the bride and groom and nearest couple of tables could even hear it. ^^;;

When we returned to our seats, dessert was served and the bride left for yet another outfit change. When she returned, she was wearing a blue gown (symbolizing happiness, we were told) and she and her husband went around performing the candle ceremony.

I thought the candle ceremony was the neatest part of the wedding. On each table there was a candle on a fairly tall stand. The groom carried a giant lighter/torch-thing (don't know how else to describe it--it looked like a fencing foil with a flame coming out of the tip or something!) and they went to each table and lit the candle. I didn't really catch the full explanation (I was caught up in how lovely the effect was), but basically the candle ceremony symbolizes the bride and groom's appreciation towards the guests. I guess we have basically the same thing with the bride and groom walking around and toasting with all the tables, but with the lights once again dimmed and the spotlight on the couple, the effect was a lot more impressive than the toasting I'm used to. (Or maybe it's just because it was a novel concept to me?)

After that the bride made her thank you speech and the two of them walked from the head table to the doors where their parents were standing. They presented their new in-laws with flowers for the mothers and sake for the fathers (i.e. Satou-sensei gave the gifts to her husband's parents and vice-versa). Then the groom made his speech, and since they were so conveniently standing by the door, they exited right after that. After a few minutes, all the guests were invited to depart and we once again congratulated the newlyweds and their parents as we left.

Being so used to the Chinese church weddings (ceremony in the morning, sometimes followed by light refreshments, a break while the couple do the tea ceremony, and off to a banquet hall/restaurant for a dinner/dance) I was expecting my entire day to be spent at the wedding, so I was pleasantly surprised when we boarded the bus straight away and were back in Towada before 6pm!

It was definitely a good first experience of a Japanese wedding. Before the wedding I was kind of worried that there'd be a lot of Japanese wedding etiquette that I'd have to figure out from watching other people, but for the most part all I had to do was sit back and enjoy! And enjoy, I did--the food in particular! ^_~ You can see pictures of the food in my Facebook album.

Then too I was quite pleased with how my outfit for the wedding turned out. When I went back to Canada for Christmas, I finally found a simple black dress that was actually fairly flattering on me! Luckily I knew I'd have the wedding to attend when I went back to Japan, so I brought it with me. Since it was fairly low cut and also short-sleeved, I went shopping last week to find a camisole to fill in the top a bit, and a cover-up of some sort. I lucked out and found exactly what I was looking for at Uniqlo! (I never realized how useful a nice stole can be until I found the one I got at Uniqlo! It doubled as a scarf when I was wearing my jacket!) Then I went jewelry shopping on Friday (I wanted some nice dangly earring and a necklace to balance out all the bare skin I was showing with my hair up and the cut of the dress) and found the perfect pieces (unfortunately you can't see them very clearly in the photo) at Chambre. ^_^

I don't know if it's just a matter of my sense of style improving with age/experience, or whatnot, but definitely since coming to Japan I've felt more like I can be at least passably pretty with a little bit of effort. And of course, losing a couple of kilograms is always provides a nice self-image boost (although I'm still not back to the weight I was at before going back to Canada for the holidays! =P). Anyway, I suspect that I'm going to be wearing the same outfit to pretty much every formal occasion I have to attend while I'm in Japan. ^_~ Well, maybe not to the graduation party since it'll be with all the same people from the wedding, but definitely for the ALT farewell party in June/July!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An ounce of prevention... worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes.

So yesterday the sannensei had a test. This morning, my JTE showed me their marked test papers. Usually I skim through the answers to see where they had difficulties, but this morning I was kind of out of it (I'm really not a morning person!) so I barely glanced at the answers and mostly just looked at the scores.

Of course, it's Murphy's Law that the one time I do this, it's going to come back to bite me in the behind!

Anyway, we're going over the answers in class and there's one question where they have to make an appropriate response for a blank in a dialogue that goes something like this:

Mike: I think some of these books look very interesting.
Ken: _________________
Mike: OK. Thanks.

They have to fill in Ken's part using the word "want" in a sentence of 6 or more words. The answer my JTE had written down was "I will give some books to you, if you want." That was fine, but when she was explaining where students lost marks and how students could correct their answers, I realized that she had made a mistake in her marking of the answer.

My JTE was under the impression that the main difference between borrow and lend is that lending is more for matters involving money and/or institutions, while borrowing is more casual. But of course, the difference is much bigger than that. In the case of Person A "giving" something to Person B, the person lending is the owner/giver of the object (Person A), and person borrowing is the person who wants what Person A has (Person B). In Japanese, they also have different verbs to show this distinction--"kariru" for "borrow" and "kasu" for "lend"--and the usage is pretty much the same. That is, you either allow someone to borrow something or offer to lend something to someone. (Conversely, you have to ask permission to borrow something from someone or request that someone lend it to you.)

Anyway, it was fine that she wanted the students to use "borrow" so I didn't really say anything, but then I saw that a student who had written: "I will lend you some books, if you want"--a perfect answer!--didn't get full marks. I tried to explain the whole giver/receiver lender/borrower distinction at that point, but the discussion got stopped at "it's wrong because they haven't learned "lend" yet."

Fine, maybe penalizing a student for knowing more than they've been taught is a cultural difference in the educational system, but the problem is that the students were told it's OK to say "I will borrow you [something]." But of course, under NO circumstances could a person use that constrction in a grammatically correct way. (You could say "I will borrow you"--full stop--but that has a totally different meaning!) The correct way to use borrow in the above example would be: "You can borrow some books, if you want."

Being the "non-confrontational" type that I am, I was thinking about letting it slide, but really there's no way I can and still call myself a teacher. Besides, it was my fault for not checking the marked papers more carefully before class--which, unlike in the middle of class, would have been the appropriate time to have an extended discussion about the difference between "borrow" and "lend"--so it's up to me to broach the topic even if it's awkward for me to bring it up a full day later.


Yet again I've learned the importance of taking a little care beforehand to prevent trouble later on.

Monday, February 16, 2009

At least it's practical

Since I'm lazy, I'm going to plagiarize the email I sent to my family and close friends back home about a week ago instead of writing a new post explaining what happened with my car:

So, two weeks to the day of my accident and everything's pretty much settled (NOTE: written on Feb. 11th). . . .

The repair estimate for my Vitz turned out to be 440,000 yen (my insurance coverage was up to 450,000). The damage really looked a lot more spectacular than it was thanks to the built-in crumple space, but unfortunately it wasn't purely cosmetic damage since the radiator did get damaged/pushed back a little into the engine. If I wanted to repair the car, I would've had to pay a 100,000 yen deductible.

Considering that the car had already been driven over 150,000km and the possibility that undetected accident-related engine problems might crop up later, I decided to get a "new" car instead. Besides, if I bought a new car, the insurance company would give me a "gift" of 100,000 yen to help with the purchase--thereby negating the deductible costs. (Guess insurance companies would also prefer that people get new cars rather than repair their old ones after serious damage.) Also, the cost for junking the car and for the storage/estimate fees from Toyota ended up being only 25,000 yen.
Since my old car was a "white plate" (normal car), I decided I should look for a "yellow plate" a.k.a. K-car. K-cars have smaller engines (800cc compared to my 1300cc Vitz), require less gas, and cost far less in terms of insurance, shaken (bi-annual required maintenance), and car taxes (annual). So I spent about a week being driven around by Andy car shopping. In the end though, I ended up finding a car through my JTE, Tomabechi-sensei. She asked her father about where I could find a good but cheap K-car and he referred me to a friend of his working at the Towada Honda Dealership. After hearing my story, the dealership friend, Komukai-san offered to sell me his wife's car for 420,000 instead of the 500,000+ price it would be sold for through a dealership.

So my new car is a 2000 Honda Life with about 65,000 km on it. (Less than half of what my Toyota Vitz had on it when I bought it!) It has 4WD, a CD deck (some of the cars I looked at still had tape decks!) and an autostarter, and it came with winter & summer tires and wipers. (As a present, he's actually giving me new "aluminum" summer tires--they're apparently very good tires.) Even though it was a personal sale, he did the shaken transfership papers through the dealership (so I didn't have to pay anything extra) and he told me I have a bit of parts/maintenance coverage through the dealership if anything comes up.

I haven't actually heard my new insurance quote, but should definitely be less than the 17,000 yen per month I would've had to pay if I'd repaired my car or bought another white plate (up from 9,400).

Definitely I've learned a bit about buying cars from this experience, and I've also (re-)learned how kind people can be in times of trouble. I mean, Komukai-san didn't know me (or, it turns out, Tomabechi-sensei--he only knew her parents and one of her other siblings!) but when he heard that I was a foreign English teacher who had had a car accident and was looking for a cheap K-car, he offered to sell me his wife's car. Andy's busy with all of his moving preparations (I'll definitely miss him and Rie when they go to Canada in April!) and writing, but he spent several weeknights and a Saturday morning taking me around car shopping. He also gave me an interest free 150,000 yen loan since I had to pay for the car first and then submit the receipt to the insurance company for reimbursement. (Definitely keeping an emergency fund available here in Japan from here on!) So yeah, I'm glad I could learn something from the car accident even though it was a sucky situation brought on by my own stupid carelessness.

Oh, and since the new car is smaller/lighter and has a smaller engine, its handling is the opposite of the Vitz! Its brakes are much more responsive (on my drive home from the dealership today I made a LOT of jerky stops) but it takes much longer to accelerate and you can really hear the engine working. ^^;; It kind of reminds me of the old Honda Accord I drove in high school. I suspect going too fast won't be as much of a problem with this car since it takes so much more effort to even get it up to 50km/hr! From my brief experience driving one so far, it seems like K-cars are designed for an optimal speed of 40km/hr. =P


End of plagiarism, start of original writing.

So I've had the "new" car for almost a week now, and well, at least it's practical.

It's funny because I never thought I would be the type to care about the car I drive--I mean, apart from the van, I only ever drove super old full-size sedans--but after making the switch I'm really missing my Vitz. Every time I see a Vitz (or similar-looking car) on the road now while I'm driving, I can't help but sigh in regret. I really loved the Vitz--the size, the design, the colour (it's immediately obvious when white cars get even the tiniest bit dirty), the handling, the power...

But I chose to be practical instead of repairing it (which was my initial instinct), so there's no use in whining about it now. And it
is a good car that I got at a really good price. Hopefully it'll grow on me.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Giving Air Canada a second chance

In all fairness to Air Canada, I felt that I should post the messages I've received from/sent to Air Canada since my initial "why Air Canada sucks!" post.

I received the first reply to my follow-up post about 15 days after I sent it. And this time, it was from an actual person and not a standard/cookie-cutter response:

Response (D--) - 01/29/2009 09:40 AM
Dear Ms. --:

Thank you for your follow up email.

I am sorry it has taken so long to respond. I needed to contact Vancouver for an explanation and it took a little longer than I expected.

An aircraft swap was needed and the aircraft that replaced the original one had less seating capacity. That is why a few people were bumped from the flight.

As a gesture of goodwill, we are pleased to provide you with a future travel credit in the amount of $100.00 CAD. This transferable credit may be used toward the purchase of an Air Canada ticket for future travel on Air Canada and/or Air Canada Jazz and is valid until January 29, 2010, one year from today. This means that it must be applied to a new ticket purchased within that time frame, however, travel does not have to commence within the year. Your credit number is: -----.

If booking through our Call Centre, simply provide the number shown above to the agent at the time of booking.

If booking on our web site or through a travel agent, please wait until travel has been completed, however, no longer than 90 days, and then email the new ticket number along with the travel credit number shown above, to They will refund the value of the credit back to the credit card used to purchase the new ticket. If you wish to transfer the credit to another person, please include a note in your correspondence authorizing the transfer.

You may also fax or mail the electronic travel credit number and new ticket number to our Refunds Department.

Fax: (204) 941-2789.

Air Canada Refund Services
P.O. Box 6475
Winnipeg, MB R3C 3V2

We apologize for this inconvenience to your travel plans. Thank you for allowing us this opportunity to review your concerns.


Customer Relations

I still wasn't particularly satisfied with that, so I sent yet another follow up response:

Customer - 01/30/2009 03:07 AM
Thank you for your response. I feel a little bit better at least knowing what happened. However, this does raise other questions for me, such as why was the airplane switch necessary? And why weren't passengers informed about this decision at the time?

Moreover, how is it decided as to which passengers get bumped off the flight in such circumstances? And what is airline policy regarding compensation in such situations (disregarding the complications arising from the weather)?

And most importantly, what is being done to improve the customer service provided in such times of difficulty? (Even with the recent explanation, I still think it's completely unacceptable that no one bothered to explain what was going on to us at the time.)

I mean, I understand a little better what happened now, but I think a flight credit as a "goodwill gesture" is pretty pathetic considering that the experience of being put into standby hell in Vancouver was traumatizing enough for me to question whether I would ever fly Air Canada again, since apparently it's an airline that simply bumps people off flights without any apologies, explanations or meaningful compensation. (It doesn't really count when *I* have to keep emailing after the fact for a satisfactory explanation.)

Honestly, up to now I've liked Air Canada. I thought that Tokyo-Toronto flights were both convenient and reasonably priced. But after all this, I'm seriously considering not using Air Canada simply on principle. I'd rather fly with an airline that takes better care of and shows more respect to its customers, even if it means spending more money or dealing with the inconvenience of stopping in the US.

Customer service's response was very fast this time:

Response (D--) - 01/30/2009 11:47 AM
Dear Ms. --:

I certainly do understand your present feelings. I would probably feel the same way you do. Normally, when an aircraft swap is required, we are able to get our passengers to their destinations within the same day. I know it was a very trying time and emotions were high with it being Christmas and everyone wanting to be home with family.

When we need to choose who to bump off a flight, we usually choose passengers who are only going to that destination and do not have a connection onward.

I would like you to know that Air Canada has learnt from these events and is reviewing their methods and procedures in irregular operations in order to help our agents help our passengers. Customer Relations has a good idea of what needs to be done and we will be included in these revised procedures. I am extremely hopeful that our future irregular operations will be less chaotic and more productive.

I am not attempting to minimize the situation but this was a very unusual holiday season for our airline also. With so many flights being cancelled and delayed our employees probably did not know what to do half the time. The flights were already full and reprotecting passengers became almost impossible. Often, if an agent found a new routing to get someone home, then that flight was later cancelled or delayed also. Everyone was really overwhelmed.

When we experience one major storm within our network, it can take a couple of days to recuperate from the flight cancellation and delays. Rescheduling our crews and aircraft to their new destinations takes a lot of planning when they are stuck in a different city than planned. This winter's storms just came at us one after another after another.

Our goodwill offer of 25% was to show our passengers that we do care. The additional $100.00 voucher was also to let you know that we do value your support. I am only asking you to realize that these were some unusual circumstances and to give us another chance to provide you with the quality service you have experience with us in the past.

We are hoping to welcome you on board a future flight to Tokyo.


Customer Relations

Well, that response made me feel like I was being a bit too churlish, but I still wasn't completely ready to drop the issue, and I still had one more pressing question:

Customer - 01/31/2009 09:46 AM
Thank you for your fast response. I'm sorry to be so doggedly persistent on the issue, but I feel it's reasonable for me to want to know WHY was there an aircraft swap "needed"?

The latest response:

Response (D--) - 02/04/2009 04:25 PM
Dear Ms. --:

I have been trying to see if I could have more information on this issue. Unfortunately, I have not been getting anywhere. I will take an educated guess from what I can see, however, do not hold me to it.

It looks like they swapped the planes in order to operate an aircraft with more capacity on a flight to Hong Kong. I believe this was to accommodate all the delayed passengers in the last couple of days due to the bad weather. Air Canada will always give a priority to an international flight.

It is easier to protect passengers traveling on a domestic flight than on an international flight especially when the flight is going to Asia.

If I hear anymore on this issue I definitely will email you with this information.


Customer Relations

Well, as a passenger coming into Vancouver on an international flight myself, I could accept and understand that they would prioritize getting the international flight backlogs cleared before the domestic ones. I still think the way Air Canada handled their customer relations during the whole "crisis" was completely sucky, but I'm no longer angry at what happened (just at how it was handled). I'm still going to try to fly with other Star Alliance member airlines (so I can still collect Aeroplan miles), but if Air Canada's the most logical option (as it is for the Tokyo-Toronto flight), I'm going to give them another chance.

My final email:

Even if you ultimately can't find out the specifics, I appreciate the educated guess. Thank you very much.

So this August I'll be using the 25% discount and $100 travel credit to come back for WAY camp. If Air Canada screws up again, I'm not going to be so forgiving, but for now, I'm willing to give them a second chance.