Sunday, May 31, 2009

Embrace the inaka

I recently learned that the first person who was chosen to come to Towada declined, and so now we're waiting on a reply from an alternate. If this person accepts, s/he'll be in Group C and won't get to Towada until around the 20th of August. If s/he also declines, the next alternate probably won't make it until September. @_@

I seriously hope this person decides to come to Towada! We already have probably at least 50% more school visits/classes than the average ALT with three of us in the office, so it'll be a problem if there's only two of us available.

Now I can understand that most people want to work down south and/or in the big cities when they apply for JET, but if they don't have family/relationship or other concrete reasons to request a specific place, I really wish they wouldn't write off JET just because they've been placed in Northern
inaka (rural) Japan.

Particularly when they've been placed in TOWADA!

Yes, we have a lot more work than many other ALTs, but in my mind, Towada is one of, if not
the best places to teach as an elementary/junior high one-shot (or semi-regular) ALT.

I mean, most schools/students have a fairly high level of English (even first graders can usually be taught question and answer patterns and not just words) and behavioural issues are generally the exception rather than the rule. Also, thanks to the hard work of previous ALTs, the schools/teachers have a pretty high level of trust in ALTs and, for the most part, do their best to make good use of us in classes. In elementary schools in particular, apart from some fifth and sixth grade classes (where they're following the new
Eigo Note textbook very closely), most teachers are more than happy to accept suggestions for changes to the lesson plan. (Actually, many want the ALT to take complete control of the class.)

As a teacher, it's a pretty sweet team-teaching set-up.

In terms of working in the
inaka in general, the best argument in its favour I've heard is that you can get an experience of Japan that couldn't be had any other way. Big cities are pretty much big cities anywhere in the world. Sure visiting is different from living/working there, but you can get a pretty good feel for a big city even if all you do is travel there as a tourist. It's easy to remain an anonymous outsider in a big city--particularly if you're a one-shot and don't get as much of a chance to develop close relationships with your schools/students.

On the other hand, when you work in the
inaka, you often become an important part of the community itself. Kids are thrilled when they recognize you on the streets/in the stores. You get invited to participate in various community events. Sure, sometimes it's a lot of extra work/expectations, and there are times when it probably feels like you're being observed all the time, but for me, the community aspect is the second best part (the first being teaching, of course) of being here in Towada.

Being in Northern Japan in particular has many inconveniences, I know: travel is expensive and time-consuming; winters are a pain; people's exposure to English is generally on a lower level than in the south. But, then again, how many people (even among native Japanese) can say that they've been to, for example, the Tohoku region? That they've participated in the Aomori Nebuta (I still haven't, actually), visited Lake Towada, seen cherry blossoms in Hirosaki, or watched fireworks at Omagari? (Incidentally, both Lake Towada and Hirosaki are mentioned, respectively, in the first and third grade New Horizon English textbooks used across the country.)

I definitely would never have been able to say I'd...

...seen the Hotokegaura and gone off-roading in Sai

...or that I'd eaten "Arandoran curry" (cheese in a ball of meat on rice with curry) and seen
Osorezan ("one of the three holiest sites of Japan" according to the pamphlet) in Mutsu...

...if I hadn't been placed in Aomori Prefecture!

(By the way, you can see more pictures of my weekend excursion to visit Carly in my Facebook album: Sai Mura and Shimokita Peninsula)

Admittedly my rosy perspective on the inaka is heavily based on the fact that I landed a placement in Towada--if I could go back and choose my placement, I wouldn't give up Towada for anything, not even to be able to live in Hiroshima and eat okonomiyaki at Sankanou on a regular basis!--but I think many fellow Aomori and other inaka ALTs would agree that there as many benefits to living in the inaka in Northern Japan as there are to living in a big city in Southern/Central Japan. They are different benefits, to be sure, but I think that if people gave it a chance, they'd come to think that they didn't really need the big city benefits as much as they thought they did.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hiroshima Day 4 - Shukkeien

(Back dated to 5 May 2009)

I was still full from the okonomiyaki the night before, so I skipped breakfast and let myself sleep in a little. I'd packed the night before, so after brushing my teeth, changing, etc., I only had a few things to put away and I was ready to go. With all the omiyage, my luggage was pretty heavy, so I decided to splurge on a taxi ride to the station (even though it would've only been a 10-15 minute walk).

At the station, I dumped everything but the essentials into a coin locker and headed out for Shukkeien, a garden near the station. In my pre-departure planning, I hadn't actually planned to go to Shukkeien, but since I'd already looked through the Fukuya book selection, I didn't really feel like shopping (what was originally on my itinerary).

I wasn't expecting the admission fee, but since I was already there, I paid for the (slightly discounted) combined park and Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum ticket. And I'd have to say it was quite worthwhile. The park was really a nice, relaxing walk and I took a ton of pictures. And it was really huge!!

The Art Museum was pretty interesting, too. They had an interesting mix of domestic and international artists displayed; they even had a Dali painting!

On my way back to the station from the Art Museum, I stopped at Family Mart to buy some onigiri and drinks for dinner on the train ride back. I wandered around the Fukuya B1 food section a bit (and bought gelato!) and then wandered around the Asse (store) as well.

It was still pretty early, but I was tired of walking around and ended up collecting my stuff from the coin locker and going into the Shinkansen area a bit before 12pm. Thankfully, unlike Kyoto Station, they had a decent waiting area and I was able to sit down (on a chair!) and just chill for 20 or so minutes before going up to the platform.

Then it was a long set of train rides back.

Oh, and remember how I'd parked at the onsen next to Misawa Station? Well, I've done it before and never had a problem, but apparently they've gotten wise to the trick and I found a yellow "please don't park here" sign taped to the driver side window. Thankfully it wasn't an actual parking ticket (which it definitely would've been in Toronto or any big city), so I was able to say "OK, I'll take the Towada-Misawa Totetsu next time" without having to pay for the lesson learned! ^^;;

And that was the end of my Hiroshima "hitori tabi." After the trip, I've got to say that Hiroshima is now my #1 ranked travel spot in Japan, and Hakodate has been pushed down to #2. The thing is, it's a really convenient/easy place to travel around for English speakers. Pretty much everything--transportation, attraction, etc. information--is available in English and it's a small enough city that you can easily walk to any of the major attractions within the city center within 15 minutes. And Miyajima is easily accessible by a combination of streetcar/bus/train + ferry.

Of course, the clincher for me, as I've indicated previously, was finding Sankanou. It's probably my favourite restaurant in all of JAPAN right now! If I lived in Hiroshima, I'd probably go there at least once a week! As it is, I'm planning on writing a letter to the Master-san, and trying to work my schedule/budget so I can go back at least once before going back to Canada for good!

[Edit: After reading the comment, I realized I forgot to post the link for my Facebook album photos!! Here it is: Shukkeien Park.]

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hiroshima Day 3 - Miyajima

(Back dated to 4 May 2009)

Again, I'd planned to get an early start--9am at the Hiroshima Museum of Art and/o
r the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art--but I once again slept in. In the end, I nixed the art museums and just headed for the Miyajima.

It was about an hour-long streetcar ride, but since I got on fairly early on the l
ine, I was thankfully able to get a seat. I slept off and on during the ride, but when I was awake, I was impressed by the scenery. Particularly towards the southwest side (as we got closer to the Miyajimaguchi ferry terminal) there was a lot of green and the houses looked very old, with the tile roofing. It was kind of how I'd expected Kyoto to look--with the "ahh this is Japan" feeling.

I guess I was still kind of sleepy when I got off the streetcar, since I got into line for the wrong ferry at first! The streetcar/ferry one-day pass I'd bought was good for the Matsudai ferry, but I nearly tried to go on a JR ferry!! ^^;;

Anyway, it was a quick 10-minute ferry ride to the island. Right out of the station, I immediately saw some deer roaming about. I'd known about the deer beforehand, but it was still a bit of a surprise to see them on the streets, walking fearlessly among all the people. I'd heard that Nara deer were kind of scary (lik
e they'd come after you if you had food), but these ones didn't really bother people; they were just milling around.

My first stop was the Miyajima Traditional Crafts Center. I considered making momiji manju, but decided not to, so it was a quick, 2-minute stop. Then I made my way down Omotesandano (front approach), heading towards Itsukushima Shrine. It was around 11 o'clock, so I stopped along the way to eat anago man (broiled conger eel steamed bun) , and an oyster cream croquette. I also passed by the world's biggest rice scoop (shakushi). It is 7.7 meters long and weighs 2.5 tons!

Finally I made it to the famed Otorii! I spent a LONG time taking pictures from various distances and angles. Since it was still low tide, I was able to walk
right up to it! Once I finished taking pictures of the Otorii, I went through the (UNESCO World Heritage Site) Itsukushima Shrine and spent a long time taking pictures there, too--including more pictures of the Otorii!

Upon exiting the shrine, I made my way to the Miyajima Rekishi Minzoku Shiryokan (Museum of History and Folklore). It was pretty interesting to see all the intricately carved wood pieces (trays, tobacco boxes, etc.) and also to read a pictorial history of the Ouchi clan and the conflict between Sue Harukata and Mori Motonari . The gardens are also quite lovely.

Next was the Tahoto Pagoda and Treasure Hall. I took a quick walk through the Takikoji Alley on my way to Momijidani Park. Unfortunately I was too more than a little late for cherry blossoms, and way too early for fall foliage, but it was still a nice walk. (Not as pretty as Oirase G
orge, but...) I thought once I reached the ropeway I'd be tired and want to take the free bus back to the park entrance, but it was such a quick walk, I almost didn't even realize I'd made it to the ropeway! At first, I thought I was at the park entrance bus stop (I thought I'd been traveling westward along the mountain, rather than up it) rather than the Mt. Misen Ropeway Station! So I had no problem walking back down the mountain.

I'd worked up a bit of an appetite walking around the mountain/park, so I bought some fried oysters from a street vendor. Then I found a restaurant that had tasty-looking shaved ice, so I overcame my embarrassment over asking for a table for one and took a short break. It wasn't quite the parfait I'd been craving, but it was very tasty!

Finally I went up to get photos of the Gojunoto (five-storied pagoda). Of course, it was pretty much the same as the one in Kyoto (but smaller), but since I was there... I debated going into the Toyokuni Shrine, but I figured it probably wasn't all that different from other shrines I'd seen in Kyoto, so I decided to save myself the admission cost.

When I came down from the Gojunoto, the tide had already started coming in, so I was able to take more pictures of the Otorii Gate. High tide was scheduled for about 6:30pm, and I'd originally planned to stay until after high tide, but the water level at about 4pm made for a nice enough picture, so I decided to buy my omiyage and head back.

Before the omiyage, though, I had to have some grilled oysters! I've never been a huge oyster fan, and it wasn't exactly prime oyster season, but they were nonetheless very good! Finally I went off to buy omiyage.

It took me quite a while to decide what to buy--there were just too many different shops with the same products and roughly the same prices! In the end, I went with the shop that had the nicest packaging. I bought koshi an (red bean paste) momiji manju for the students, and the slightly more expensive tsubo an (whole bean red bean paste) momiji manju for the teachers and office. I also bought boxes of assorted flavours for friends, and a box (of all five flavours) to split between myself and the Master-san from Sankanou. I ended up spending about 10,000 yen (a little over $100 with the current exchange rate), so the shop clerk gave me two koshi an manju for free. =P

The bags were pretty heavy, so I was more than ready to take the ferry back. I did stop on the way for a fried anko (red bean paste) momiji manju, though! I got to the ferry terminal just in time for the next departing one, and in short order was on the streetcar (managed to get a seat this time, too!) heading back to the hotel.

After dropping the bags off at the hotel (and packing up the omiyage for Sanka
nou's Master-san), I went back down towards the park. Before the park, though, I walked around one of the main shopping streets, hitting Okonomimura (Okonomiyaki Village) and Hondori (again)--just passing through for pictures, really.

Then it was back to the Peace Park to take pictures of the candle displays! It was really quite beautiful, and I spent more time than I intended wandering around. Making good use of my streetcar pass, I took the streetcar to Hiroshima Station (we caught so many red lights, though, it was only marginally faster than walking!) and went back to Sankanou.

The Master-san was quite pleased to see me again (apparently he and the other customers had talked about how they regretted not asking my name when I was there on the Saturday), and I had a good time talking with him and the other customers. He (Master-san) even gave me a bunch of snacks (Giant Pocky and Collon) as presents, plus a Lupin (Zenigata) figure!! And that was before I'd given him my Miyajima omiyage!

This time I tried the udon nikutama okonomiyaki (although they know that Hiroshima style okonomiyaki uses soba, apparently udon in okonomiyaki is completely unheard of in Osaka). The guy next to me had cheese mochi okonomiyaki, though, and it looked really tasty. Even though I was pretty satisfied with my udon okonomi, I really wanted to try it, so I ended up ordering it!

The guy next to me, Okubo(?)-san and the Master-san were pretty amused that I was going for another one! (Okubo-san even said he'd have let me try some of his if he'd known I'd wanted to!) I managed three quarters without any difficulty, but really thought the last quarter would be impossible. It didn't seem worth it to get a doggy bag for that small amount, though, so I persevered, and gamely managed to finish it all off.

By the time I finished, though, it was nearly 11pm (closing time!), so after final farewells, I waddled off back to the hotel.

I've got to say, finding Sankanou is probably what made the trip for me. The Peace Memorial Park and Museum, as well as the Flower Festival and Miyajima were totally awesome, but at the end of day, what I looked forward to the most all throughout the Monday (and even the Sunday) was going back to Sankanou.

My biggest worry about traveling by myself was feeling lonely/awkward eating out on my own. At Sankanou, though, it was totally cool because I could talk with the Master-san and other customers. Even if I was just listening, I never felt excluded from the conversations. And even without the Master-san saying so (although he did say it explicitly), you could totally tell that he enjoyed the work and talking with all sorts of different people--regulars and visitors alike. I'd say he's truly a person gifted with hospitality--the ability to make people feel comfortable and at home!

Even if it's just to eat at Sankanou again, I really want to go back to Hiroshima sometime before I leave Japan for good!

Facebook Albums for Day 3:
Miyajima Part I
Miyajima Part II
Miyajima Part III

Peace Memorial Park - Flower Festival (night photos)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hiroshima Day 2 - Flower Festival

(Back dated to 3 May 2009)

Originally I'd planned to wake up and eat breakfast early and be at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (again) by 8:30am (opening). Since I'd stayed fairly late at Sankanou, though, I was tired and ended up pushing my schedule back by an hour. That's the nice thing about traveling solo, I guess--complete freedom to change your itinerary however you please!

Anyway, when I got to the museum, I saw that it was super crowded. So I checked out the free admission (basement) part of the museum instead of lining up to get an admission ticket. It was pretty much empty, so I went through the survivors' sketches and recent acquisitions collections slowly--reading just about everything. There was also a special exhibit about filming Hiroshima, so I went through that. There were a lot of fairly lengthy video clips, and since I wasn't in any rush, I was able to sit and watch a good portion of them.

After that I went up to the museum gift shop and bought a museum book and book of drawings by A-bomb survivors.

When I finished making my purchases, it was nearly time for the opening ceremonies for the Flower Festival, so I went outside and was surprised by the huge crowd that had gathered. The sitting section was pretty much full, so I staked out a spot by the stairs--the view from there was partially obscured by shrubbery, so I was able to get a decent spot (although later there were tons of people standing behind me!).

The opening ceremony wasn't really all that thrilling, but at least I could say that I saw it. A local school's choir sang, there were some cheerleaders, and various dignitaries. Jero (Japan's first black enka singer) was performing that day, so he also gave aisatsu (greetings) during the opening ceremony. It was pretty crazy. The emcee was saying that some of the people in the first row were waiting in front of the stage before he even arrived! When he asked them, they said that they had been there since 5AM because they wanted to see Jero!! But he wasn't even performing until 4pm!! (I wonder if they stayed there the entire time, waiting for the performance?!)

Anyway, there was also a lighting of the flame atop the big flower monument (tower thing). After that, and once Jero had left the stage, the crowd started to disperse, and I decided it was time to get some food! Before I made my way to the food area, though, I noticed that the parade was starting. Fittingly, it was led by a Hiroshima Carps (baseball team) float; the Festival was started as a result of fan celebrations of the Carps' first championship in 1975.

I didn't stick around to watch too much of the parade, though. Instead I made my way to the street vendors and started eating!! First was ice cream (vanilla-chocolate mix), followed by sweet potato "sticks," hashimaki (okonomiyaki wrapped around chopsticks), Pocari Sweat (to wash it all down), and anko taiyaki (forgot to take a picture!!).

Then I headed away from the park down Heiwa Odori (Peace Boulevard). I managed to find the JT booth and got my garbage bag and tongs to collect garbage with. I wandered around picking up garbage and watching some of the parade procession. The procession wasn't that interesting, though, since apparently the groups only perform around the Peace Park area. They were just walking and waving as they headed down Heiwa Odori (unlike the Towada Aki Matsuri where you're performing the entire way, with rest stops every couple of blocks).

After turning in my garbage and garbage (and getting a free eco bag!), I headed back to the museum. The line-up for admission tickets wasn't so long, so I bought one and went back in. I spent another 1.5-2 hrs going through the museum again, this time reading through everything I hadn't read before--even if it meant waiting 2-5minutes for the line of people to move along.

Then I walked back through the park taking more pictures. I thought I'd go to the hotel and drop off the books (since they were heavy) and on the way I stopped at the Hiroshima Art Museum. Unfortunately I got there a couple of minutes after 4:30pm, which was too late to enter, since the museum closed at 5pm.

I was pretty tired by the time by that point, but I needed to find out about buying a streetcar/ferry pass and I wanted to check the predicted high tide time at Miyajima for the next day, and I knew that if I stopped by the hotel I wouldn't want to leave again, so I continued on from there to Hiroshima Station.

When I was done there, I thought about going back to Sankanou for dinner, but I wanted to turn in early, so I decided to eat something from one of the restaurants on the 11th floor at Fukuya Department Store. I ended up going for "ladies" curry at Tsuboyaki Curry. Other than the presentation, it was pretty much normal curry, but it was cheap and tasty, so no complaints.

Although I'd originally planned to hit the 10th floor book section (reputed to have a decent selection of English books) on the 5th, just before leaving, since I was already there, I decided to check it out. I didn't buy anything, though. I started to feel a stomachache coming on (whether it was all the street food or the curry that brought it on, I don't know), so I went back to the hotel.

I got an internet cable from the front desk and spent the night leisurely browsing the internet (and checking the weather forecasts for the next day)!

Facebook Album Photos from Day 2:
Flower Festival
Peace Memorial Park - Flower Festival

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Hiroshima Day 1

(Back dated to 2 May 2009)

My first "hitori tabi" (solo trip)! I was both excited and nervous... Drove to Misawa Station and cheated by parking in the next door onsen parking lot... (More about that later ^^;; )

Then began my long day of train rides. I pretty much slept up to Tokyo, then looked over the translation for volume 4, chapter 19 of Hotaru no Hikari. Upon arriving in Hiroshima, I checked into my hotel and then headed out to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum.

(Photos: Genbaku Dome; Flame of Peace; Peace Memorial Park from the Museum)

The museum was pretty crowded, so I actually went through it a lot faster than I thought I would. But I figured that was OK since I’d be back the next day first thing in the morning. After leaving the museum I wandered into the Memorial Hall. It was pretty empty, so I was able to go through at a leisurely pace and to spend some time reading memoirs from the bombing, etc. After that I wandered around the park.

After the park, I headed back towards the station to find a teppanyaki-style okonomiyaki restaurant recommended on Wiki travel called Sankanou. It's really close to the station (across the street from the Ekimae Green Hotel, next to the Ekinishikoka Bridge) and is a great place for people traveling alone or in pairs.

Unfortunately I got a bit turned around leaving the park, and what should’ve been a 20-30 minute walk turned into a 90 minute walk. I wasn’t walking around the entire time, though; I stopped at a Book-Off I came across on the way. I was pleased to find a couple of last volumes of various manga I’d been looking for.

Anyway, the long walk was worth it! The master is super friendly, and there was a Hiroshima Carp fan from Fukuoka about the same age as me there, too, so I had some good conversations. (I wish I'd had the guts to ask him to take a picture with me! He really reminded me of Anton in terms of facial features and friendliness--or maybe that's just because I was talking with him (Anton) about his mission work recently?) Being me, of course, I didn’t talk very much, but I enjoyed listening and I didn’t feel like a loner/outsider even though I couldn’t really participate in the highly baseball-centric discussions.

I learned a bunch of random things, like baseball stadiums have set seating sections for home and away fans. Also, that I could get a plastic bag from a JT booth at the Flower Festival, and if I returned it with some garbage in it, I could get something! One of the customers even gave me a toy banana and crab claw (made out of squishy, stress-ball material). I’m not 100% sure, but I think he was saying that he likes to get the things (from UFO catcher or some such machines?) even though he doesn’t particularly want the stuff.

Originally I’d planned to arrive at Sankanou around 7pm and be back at the hotel to watch Godhand Teru at 7:56, but since I didn’t find the place until about 7:30pm, my plans had to change. I actually ended up staying until about 10pm!! All in all, a successful first day!

Facebook Album Photos from Day 1:
Genbaku Dome
Peace Memorial Park Area
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Other Day 1 Photos