Monday, August 31, 2009

Potsin' around in Hagi

Hagi's pottery is known for its fine glazes and pastel colors.

Summer break's over, and it's time to get caught up reporting on all the fun we've been having. Teachers in Japan do have to work in the summer even when the students are on break, but we took a few vacation days to make a couple of trips over long weekends.

First up: Hagi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Western Japan).

Hagi is a sleepy little town on the Japan Sea famous for its prized pottery (hagi-yaki). It's also a historically significant place, having played a key role in the overthrow of Shogun rulers that led to the end of the feudal era and the modernization of Japan.

Many samurai warriors used to live in Hagi, and some of their homes still exist. Walking through the streets of Hagi's old Samurai quarter, you can get a feel for what this place looked like hundreds of years ago. White stucco walls line the streets, creating a border over which you can spy traditional wooden houses. Unfortunately I apparently never took pictures of the walls, but here's one from ETripTips.

Here are a couple interesting structures we passed along the way.

Meirin-kan school

This preserved school building, founded in 1718, originally served gifted students who were meant to improve the country. This building today is used as part of an elementary school.

After checking out the castle ruins — today just the stone foundation remains — we peered into the moat and saw a large collection of carp. Joe pitched them a few potato chips and within 2.3 seconds we had attracted the attention of every living creature within the moat. Literally dozens of turtles came paddling up, little heads bobbing out of the water, hoping for a handout. I had never seen so many turtles before.

From there we went to check out an old samurai house.

This place housed samurai foot soldiers belonging to the Asa Mori Clan. It's really just a simple, long rectangular structure with tatami room after tatami room and the same kind of sliding doors we have in our apartment.

I expected something grander, to be honest. This is it? Weren't the samurai an elite class of warriors? Maybe if I knew more about Japanese history I would have appreciated this more... but I felt a little let down.

We rented some bicycles and rode around town, enjoying the atmosphere of the old streets, dropping by the beach and visiting a few temples.

Hagi's beach

Gangsta Buddhas outside Toukouji Temple. Note the English smocks.

Random kiln by the side of the road.

As evening approached, Joe suggested we ride our bikes out to Mt. Kasayama, a small extinct volcano, and watch the sunset over the Japan Sea. Judging from the map, it seemed to be just a couple kilometers, so off we set.

At the base of the mountain we stumbled across Myojin Pond, and this turned out to be the most interesting place we encountered in Hagi. Imagine my surprise when I looked into the waters and saw stingrays gliding just below the surface. It turns out this pond was salt-water, drawing water from underground channels connected to the sea.

I watched as an old man alternately threw chunks of bread into the water for the fish and into the air to feed dozens of hawks that circled over the pond.

The hawks would swoop down and snatch the bread right out of the air with their talons. Of course, this was something I could not resist, so we bought a bag of bread chunks from a road-side vendor and joined in the fun.

Want to see a look of pure terror? Click on this photo above. Joe snapped that right after a hawk swooped within inches of my head to snap up a piece of bread.

Once our bread was exhausted, I crossed the street to nose around a little restaurant where a lady had hung some squid out to dry.

She was grilling some sea snails in green shells. Riding some adrenaline after nearly getting my skull cracked by a rogue hawk, I decided to buy one and test it out. How was it? Let Joe's pictures tell the story.

Inspecting strange green snail.

Preparing to eat strange green snail. With a happy face!



It was chewy. And salty. And fishy. I proudly finished it. But I wasn't about to eat another one.

Once fortified on snail, we began plodding up Mt. Kasayama. I should mention, by the way, that this "couple kilometer" trek had in fact turned out to be at least three times that long, and by the time we'd heaved our bicycles to the peak we were both bathing in our own sweat.

Inside the volcano's crater, the walls were an intriguing red.

Then we settled in for sunset and enjoyed the sea view for a while.

It was pretty, though more clouds began rolling in as the sun sank lower, obscuring the view. We finally decided to book it back down the mountain before the sun fully set rather than make the descent in the pitch darkness.

Heading back to the hostel, we spent a sticky hot night in dorm rooms filled with hyper high school students visiting town for sports matches the next day. By morning we were more than ready to start the next leg of our trip — on to the little mountain town of Tsuwano.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What's that you say?

This week has been the kids' first week back to school following summer vacation, and in honor of this loss of freedom all of my first-year students are now experiencing the perennial joy of... can you guess it?... Speech contest! Hurray! Loyal readers will recall my previous accounts of this baffling exercise here and here.

Actually, this year they were not assigned to give a speech so much as a recitation. All the students were told to memorize a passage from one of the first few chapters of their English textbook. Ninety percent of the students have chosen the same passage — about how Charles Schultz included experiences from his daily life in his Peanuts comic strip — no doubt because that one is the shortest.

So, over the course of a week, I get to listen to a two-minute passage about this Peanuts comic. Approximately 300 times. Charming.

Notwithstanding the dubious educational value of requiring students to memorize boring segments of their textbooks, I have actually been able to find some redeeming qualities in this assignment.

The first silver lining on this storm cloud is that it has forced me to be more thankful for simple things. Before I could start to feel sorry for myself while listening to the 182nd rendition of a stilted, monotone textbook recitation, I reminded myself that I am just lucky I'm able to hear. See! Things could be worse! I should be happy I can hear my students' speeches. I am Pollyanna.

More seriously though, I have found a way to make the assignment into some kind of a positive, if only for a handful of students. Each class tends to have one or two stand-out students who really kick ass on this assignment. So when those students complete their recitation, I make a big show of calling out "Great job!", and even though I'm sure this is embarrassing, there is no missing the grins they get when they hear that praise. At the end of class I make sure to again point out the students who did well and praise them further, and you can just see them light up. A little praise goes a long way. Suddenly this public speaking task, which I'm sure they ignored all summer and then approached with dread once school was back in session, turns into a nice self-esteem booster for them. And it's at least a little more gratifying for me, too.

The other bright side to all this is the entertainment value in it. Yeah, it is boring to listen to the same dry anecdote from Charles Schultz 300 times, but this particular passage produces a consistently humorous mispronunciation from the students, who often have a hard time pronouncing a soft 'S' sound. They want to pronounce it 'Sh' instead. So instead of "CD", my students always say "She-D". Therefore, today I lost count of how many students recited, "The whole family was shitting around the dining room table" instead of "sitting around the table." Somehow this never gets old. I actually did call attention to this unfortunate mistake at the end of one class, but I don't think the students understood and the Japanese teacher did not translate it for them. Not surprisingly, teaching profanity is a no-no, so I'll just have to let this one go.

Oh well. The funny thing is, I know students have been in my shoes before. I know they've heard me make horribly goofy mistakes with Japanese, too, and they don't feel like they can clue me in. I'm sure they just don't want to embarrass me. I'll just give a few examples:

Japanese Gaff #1: Kowai/Kawaii
In Japanese, kowai (pronounced koh-why) means scary. Kawaii (pronounced like Hawaii but with a K) means cute. If you're not careful, it's very easy to say kowai when you mean kawaii. And when I first got to Japan, I mixed this up. All the time. I am certain that I inadvertently told some students they were scary.

This leads me into my next major Japanese flub:

Japanese Gaff #2: Kawaiso
A while back, Joe taught me that by adding the syllable "so" onto the end of adjectives ending with "i", you add the meaning of "looks". For example, in Japanese the word for "new" is atarashii. So if you say atarashiso it means "looks new." Oishii means delicious. So oishiso means "looks delicious." Excited about this newfound grammar point, I proceeded to practice it in my daily life, saying things to co-workers, students and perfect strangers I passed on the street. In a lot of cases, this involved me telling people I passed on the sidewalk that their babies or dogs were kawaiso — cute. Only problem is, I wasn't saying cute. There's an exception to this rule that Joe neglected to mention. Yes, kawaii means cute. But kawaiso does not mean "looks cute." To the contrary, it means "poor", "pathetic" or "pitiful". For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why people looked at me strange when I called their darling angel sleeping in the baby stroller kawaiso. Perhaps because a perfect stranger was remarking "Oh, your poor baby." Poor baby to have a parent like you!

Joe finally clued me in one day when I asked him why I kept getting odd looks from the old Japanese lady with the chubby chihuahua I like to pet.


Japanese Gaff #3: Hayai/Hidoi
In Japanese hayai means early or fast. Hidoi means terrible. They both start with H, end with I. So of course my mushy brain gets them mixed up. A couple months ago my school had its annual chorus festival in a performance hall downtown. Every class in the whole school rehearses a song and performs it at this event, along with musical renditions from the brass band, guitar club, teachers, parents and so forth.

Around 11 a.m. I ducked out to stretch my legs and found half a dozen teachers sitting in the lobby eating their lunch. Everyone had ordered a boxed lunch to be delivered to this hall. When they saw me they motioned me over and tried to tell me in Japanese that I should go downstairs to retrieve my lunch and eat with them. I tried to ask them why they were eating so early — in Japanese, because none of these teachers spoke English. I pointed at the lunch belonging to one female teacher — the one, shall we say, "big boned" Japanese teacher, a bit of a rare breed considering how slim most people are here — who was trying so earnestly to communicate with me. And I attempted to say in rudimentary Japanese "But you are eating early. Why?" What came out of my mouth though, was "Demo tabeteimasu... hidoi. Doushite?" This produced a wave of confusion as they looked back and forth laughing and chattering in Japanese. I thought that they just didn't understand what I was trying to say, so I kept repeating it, pointing at the fat lady and saying Demo, hidoi! Hidoi! Hidoi! When it was clear no one was understanding I just came out with the English, "But you're eating early!" A couple beats later one of the younger female teachers exclaimed, "Ah! Hayai!" Instantly I recognized my mistake. I'd been pointing at the fat teacher and saying "But you're eating. Terrible! Why?" Say it with me now...

All this is to say, I enjoy my students' silly English mistakes, just as I'm sure they must enjoy my dopey Japanese. We just don't always know how to tell each other.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beautiful wagasa

Between summer sightseeing and developing the Wide Island View, I haven't had much time for blogging this month, so till I've got a chance to sit down and capture my muse, I thought I'd share this photo of a traditional Japanese umbrella, or wagasa. These beautiful umbrellas are made of bamboo and washi, Japanese paper, and I always admire them whenever I see them. I photographed this one outside the Yakushiji Temple in Nara.