Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Thursday, February 28, 2013
I talk about a lot of cultural things on this blog, but many of my posts are not so much connected to my career in Japan as they are my after-school life. However, teaching seems to still be the #1 method people use to get started in Japan, as there are lots of companies and exchange programmes that do this, and take away much of the headache of getting you established in the Land of the Rising Sun.
I taught English in Japan as part of Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme. JET is a fantastic programme sponsored by three Japanese Ministries and serves not only as a way to educate schoolchildren in English, but also as a grassroots cultural exchange effort. ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) are recruited from all over the world via a lengthy application process, followed by an intense orientation session in Tokyo, and are then dispersed all over Japan to their new schools. Junior high and high school are the most common placements, though elementary schools are slowly taking on more JETs.
When I was accepted, I received one of the most coveted placements - Osaka. Osaka no longer hires prefectural ALTs via the programme (only municipal ALTs, now), so I was very fortunate to have gone when I did, as Osaka was my first choice and has since become my second home. My three years living there were some of the best years of my life.
The JET application process is very extensive. The paper application was enormous, and required a number of documents that took time to put together. A medical self-assessment, proof of Canadian citizenship, university transcripts, a copy of my degree and letters of reference (one of which had to be from a teacher or professor) are just some of the items that had to be included for the application, due in November - to go to Japan the following August!
I had a lot of tutoring experience, which I'm sure is what pushed me to the next stage - I had spent a summer in my third year of university doing a work experience program very similar to an ALT's job at a local school. However, I was certain I'd blown the interview when they asked questions I hadn't ever considered a possibility, like Canadian census information. Luckily, my personality seemed to make an impact, and I even managed to answer the question about location so well that I received my first choice of destination. I gave the interviewers an explanation of how my hometown dialect was so different from most Canadians' that I knew I'd feel right at home in Osaka, where the people speak in a relaxed and easy way.
I was determined to broaden my cultural awareness - I initially hoped to join a few clubs at my school, but I felt like I would make them uncomfortable by being there, or be unable to commit the kind of time needed. My students were often at their club practices until evening - every evening! As an ALT, though, I was a de facto supervisor with the ESS (English Speaking Society), and made that my only school-related extracurricular.
In my spare time, I tried out aikido, ikebana, and yosakoi dancing for a time, and stuck with aikido for about a year, as I'd always been interested in martial arts. I returned to yosakoi after returning to Canada, as well. Through school and JET seminars I had opportunities to try out glass bead making, Noh theatre, and tea ceremony. I saw many Takarazuka theatre shows in nearby Hyogo Prefecture. I participated in holiday rituals, including setsubun, tanabata, and New Year's hatsumoude every year.
The cultural divide was very tough at points. I struggled a lot with the Japanese work ethic - work long hours, socialize with your co-workers, and keep busy even when there isn't anything to do. I was free to go at 4:30 as per my contract, but I was always the first person out the door when I did so - it was tough to stay in the office and look occupied when I was itching to go, but I felt bad saying "see you" and strolling out two hours before my co-workers. Besides the work ethic, I was the youngest person by far in the office for most of my time there. I got along well with the students because I was young and approachable and quite media-savvy - but it did set me apart from many of my co-workers.
Aside from that, I really disliked being such an obvious cultural outsider - one of the things that really did bother me about Japan was that no matter how hard I tried to understand, the sense of being "other" was always there. Fortunately, it got better with time!
The most important thing I learned about communication was that insecurity wasn't going to get me anywhere. For a long time, I didn't have the courage to try starting conversations or even going someplace where I'd encounter words that I didn't know - even the grocery store was frustrating at times.
It wasn't too long before I realized that my Japanese wasn't going to improve unless I used it, though, and that I didn't need to be afraid of talking to strangers - all of my best encounters came as a result of taking a chance with people. City-dwellers often keep to themselves, so many seemed unapproachable at first, but Osakans are some of the friendliest people in Japan!
By far, the thing I missed most about home was familiar foods. Even though I love Japanese food, I found myself craving "comfort food" when I was feeling down - not just my mother's home cooking, but even food from restaurants I almost never visited back in Canada! At one point, I was bringing home McDonalds 2 or 3 times a week - even though I had probably only eaten it a couple of times in the past decade. I craved the familiar, and took what I could get when it came to the selection.
I also missed the friendliness of Canadian people, and the tendency toward helping strangers - the Japanese showed their friendliness in somewhat of a different way that I found, at times, to be quite a lot more detached. The people of Kansai (including Osaka, and Mie, where I had a wonderful local experience) are somewhat more open, but not in quite the same way as the town I'd been raised in.
Toward the end of my exchange, I visited nearby Mie Prefecture, an area I had been to just once before, despite it being so close to Osaka. It was the first time I truly felt the "small-town values" so many rural JETs had spoken of. While my visit to Mie was supposed to have been a day trip, a local festival prompted me to make very last-minute plans to stay the night, even though I had only the contents of my purse (a book, a pen, a netbook and less than 6,000 yen in cash) to work with. Thanks to the attention and generosity of a local hostel owner, I had a place to rest my head and a way back to the train station at 5 o'clock the following morning in order to make it to work on time. Even though she had other guests to attend to, the hostel owner graciously made up a bed for me, a surprise guest, and offered to take me to the station, so that I wouldn't have to call a taxi so early in the morning. I will never forget that hospitality.
Teaching in Japan made an immeasurable impact on my life. When I returned to Canada, I knew I had to stay connected to this experience in some way - it really shaped my career aspirations, which until then had been very vague. I moved to Toronto and began working with a youth exchange program, at first as a volunteer and later as a part-time coordinator, helping high school students considering spending a year abroad. Japan is one of the most popular programs we offer, so I feel extra-confident sharing my advice with these students, since I've seen "life in a Japanese high school" first-hand!
As for my travel plans, going back to Japan to visit is in the cards for me in the next two years, I hope. I'd also like to visit Scandinavia, Europe and other parts of Asia - being abroad really opened my eyes to how many different people and cultures were out there. I want to see them all!
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Today's entry is a guest blog post.
I have to admit a little secret - I have a particular infatuation with a certain handsome Japanese singer. Takanori Nishikawa, better known by the name TM Revolution, is my dream guy. Even though he stands only 5'1', he is a tough little guy, and his height is no factor in determining his extreme sense of fashion, his upbeat ear-catching tunes, and irresistible live performances. Plastered on my walls are life-size posters of him, cluttering up my shelves are his CDs, DVDs, and official concert books, and the majority of my MP3 Player is filled with his songs. I am what you might call "a die-hard fan." He is my obsession! I would follow him to the ends of the Earth!
Ok, I am not that nuts, but I am a pretty crazy fan.
When I went to Japan for a ten month exchange in high school, I hoped that Nishikawa would do a concert so I could see him in person. I knew I was hoping for a lot, because since he is getting older, he doesn't do many live performances. In spite of this, I hoped and prayed my dream of seeing Nishikawa perform live would come true. "Oh please oh please," I said. "Please let my dream come true!" I even crossed my fingers and toes. Yes, my friends teased me, said I was crazy and told me to give up, but I never stopped believing!
Then, in early December, my prayers were answered. Nishikawa had announced four concerts in Osaka City, a mere twenty minutes from my home! I was ecstatic! I couldn't believe my luck. Nothing, not typhoon nor tsunami nor earthquake, could stop me from going to at least one of those shows. I patiently waited for an announcement regarding where I could get tickets. If I had to tackle someone for a ticket, I was prepared to do so.
As the days turned into weeks and no announcement, I started to worry that the concerts might somehow have been cancelled. The only thing that was for certain was the "Boys Only" concerts (yes, Boys Only. Please don’t ask.) tickets would go on sale shortly. Days passed and still nothing. Finally, I heard the most devastating news a girl could hear: the other three concerts on the itinerary had been made Fan Club Only. I - somewhat surprisingly, I suppose - was not a member of this elusive fan club, only because I was not a permanent resident of Japan - one of the main requirements. (Otherwise, I would probably be President by now!)
The Fan Club requirement was slightly unfair, I know, yet the unbearable truth. My teacher and I got on the phone and called everyone and anyone who we thought might allow me to purchase a ticket. The ticket sales, the fan club, the fan club president! But, it was all for naught. No one would take pity on this poor foreign Nishikawa fan. It seemed my dream was going up in smoke...What was this heart-broken girl to do?
Then, my teacher spoke the words that set a strange course of motion, "If you want to see him so badly, buy a ticket for the boys' concert, dress up, and go enjoy yourself."
My jaw hit the floor. "WHAT?! Are you INSANE?!" I thought.
...I am crazy. I realized this a long time ago, but I thought I had a bit of sense left in me yet. However, I knew I had lost it completely when I stood days later with a ticket to the Boys Only Nishikawa concert, tight in the grip of my shaking palm.
The preparations began. I had clothes to assemble, a wig to buy, and I had to practice my rough and tough guy attitude. I even learned to walk like a man. I left no stone unturned. I had to get in! On the day of the concert, ironically Christmas Day, I was a bundle of nerves. Taking place in a little concert hall in a popular area of the city, the young men surrounding me seemed to be staring right at me like guards, peering into the depths of my soul to uncover the lie. I felt somewhat like a secret agent as I walked up those stairs towards the fortress known as Big Cat Concert House. I tried to be as calm and collected as I could as I handled over the ticket to the man standing at the door. His eyes lingered on me for a moment, as though he knew my terrible secret, but was deciding whether or not to be merciful. Luckily, his words were like music to my ears.
I wanted to jump, scream, and dance around the room with excitement, but I was sure that would have blown my cover.
While I stood waiting for the concert to begin, I couldn't help but observe males in their natural environment. They are strange creatures; their true habits unknown to the rest of the world while they jump around and yell various profanities. I had officially gone were no female should ever go. When the concert started, I found myself in a herd of elephants, being pushed this way and that, barely able to catch my breath. I closed my eyes and held onto my wig for dear life, and to my extreme glee, was pushed to the front of the concert hall. I ended up less than three feet from the stage. I held my breath.
And then - there he was. Takanori Nishikawa. TM Revolution. In the flesh and just as God made him; perfect. I was in a dream! Nothing in life is this perfect, right? But it was. I had done it! Our eyes met at one point, and my heart skipped a beat.
We met after the concert; we fell in love!
Okay, I'm joking there, but our eyes did meet. The fact that there was a foreigner at his concert probably gave him quite a shock.
That night seemed to be so short. I didn't want it to end. But, once it did, I realized I had done something crazy and amazing. I’m not the first female to see Nishikawa, but I am sure that I am one of the only fans willing to go that far. If this was living on the edge, I had stepped clear over it. Furthermore, I would do it again in a heartbeat. So, remember, if you ever need someone to give you pointers on how to get into a boys-only concert in a foreign country, tell them to give me a call.
-Brynn from Ontario
Thursday, January 17, 2013
|"At 5:46, on the morning of January 17th 1995, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake caused |
this marina to collapse, and at that point, the clock was damaged. This clock now
indicates that time as an eternal reminder of the earthquake."
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Monday, December 10, 2012
|Cramped business hotel bathroom is still pretty neat.|
This is called a "system bath" or a "unit bath" style -
it was introduced during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
I love Japanese bathrooms.
Yes, I said it! Though I'm referring primarily to the room that contains the bathing facilities, not the toilet room/W.C. I thought the bathing rooms in Japanese houses and apartments were very neat. Three primary reasons for this:
1) Shower and toilet are usually separated (unless you're in a cheap hotel bathroom, see above)
2) Completely waterproof (so easy to clean!)
3) Super-deep tubs and separate shower area
I suppose I was raised to appreciate bathroom decor to some degree, but there was something gleefully satisfying about just being able to hose down all the walls and see it all go into a big drain in the floor. This is a common feature of prefabricated unit baths, which are typical in small apartments, though some unit baths are so small that the washing area is eliminated in favour of a toilet. There are usually no windows in unit baths, either, so the small space makes it wonderfully comfortable for a winter shower or bath. None of the steamy air had anywhere to escape to! I steamed my clothes on a rack above the bath by just turning on the hot water for ten minutes. The idea behind it is to keep the room watertight and thus reduce damaged caused by wet rot, which can be particularly weak in earthquakes.
Many Japanese baths are also set up on a heating system called oidaki. In oidaki, one pipe sends water from the tub to the heater and the other sends the heated water back into the tub. It conserves energy and allows the bath to be used by the entire family or even re-heated the following day. This is popular in larger apartments and homes, though less common in the smallest unit baths.
If prefab plastic isn't your thing, well, there's always the more traditional type of deep bath found in Japanese houses, usually metal or ceramic, but sometimes made of wood in the style of onsen tubs. And who can turn down cypress (hinoki)? The scent of cypress is so relaxing and nostalgic! I wanted to bring home a cypress bath set (stool, basin, water pail) but they run a little expensive. When I have my own place with a sizable bathroom, I'll kit it all out in cypress.
I dearly miss my little bathroom in Japan, and look forward to having a huge deep bathtub again someday.
Posted by Ash at 10:50 AM
Friday, December 7, 2012
|Nothing special, but this was the flower arrangement I did as part of Mid-Year-Seminar cultural studies in December 2008.|
I always really enjoyed ikebana (flower arranging) and wanted to study it more, but it seemed like such a waste to bring home beautiful flowers, and put them...where? On top of my VCR? I just didn't have the space to display them. The few times I did ikebana, I brought the arrangements to school, but transporting and re-setting them was quite the hassle.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
|The backstreets of Gojo, Kyoto|
Sometimes I will think back to some incredibly insignificant detail of my life in Osaka and just be completely floored by how strong a reaction those memories elicit. Nothing is immune - today, glimpsing a photo of Ebisuchō Station on the Sakaisuji subway line, a filthy hovel at best and an unpleasant place to visit even in daylight, caused the wind to just go out of me, remembering those nights I spent wandering Den Den Town.
Of course, that's what I created this blog for. I really hope that at times other expats and ex-expats see my posts and find a little bit of themselves in them, too. Even though the sad nostalgia can be draining at times, it's better to remember well now so that we can continue to remember fondly, later.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
|These traditional mailboxes can still be found around Japan.|
This one was in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.
I've mentioned before how fun and interesting it is to take part in holiday traditions in Japan. During my first year in Osaka, as winter set in and Christmas decorations began to appear, so too did New Year's (oshougatsu) paraphernalia. For those unaware, New Year's is the biggest holiday in the nation, and loaded with customs very interesting to a visitor. Each New Year's, I took in a different type of celebration - once I did it traditionally, with ozouni and a shrine visit on January 1st, once in Tokyo at Aqua City Odaiba's shrine and osechi, and once in my own town with toshikoshi soba, watching the shrine next door burn its old offerings.
Every year, though, I sent the customary New Year's postcards, called nengajou (年賀状). These cards are sent out to friends, family and co-workers, and as long as you pop them in the mailbox by December 25th, they will arrive in mailboxes everywhere on exactly January 1st. There are markings on the card signalling to postal workers to keep the cards until New Year's; in fact, in my city, many mailboxes had one of their slots (usually there is a 'domestic' and an 'other' slot) entirely converted into nengajou drop-offs. I bumbled through my first year with some awkward store-bought cards, then moved onto making my own cards with special New Year's stamps.
Before leaving for Japan, I did a Christmas card list, and it was a tedious venture with the amount of friends I included at the time. After moving back to Canada, though, I continued sending nengajou rather than switching back to Christmas cards. I tend to forget about keeping up with communication when you take Facebook and Twitter out of the equation, but I can at least make a commitment during the holidays to remind people I've fallen out of touch with that I'm thinking of them, and sending cards for New Year's is a little more unique than sending Christmas cards...plus, nobody wants to receive a Christmas card after December 25th, but New Year's cards can trickle in a little late with no repercussions during a rough holiday season. It helps when you're sending cards all over the world - my biggest batches go out to the U.S. and Canada, and some to Japan where there'll be held until January 1st as long as I get them in the mail early, but some also go out to the Netherlands, Venezuela, Germany and points beyond, where I can't control when they'll arrive. The time flexibility there is definitely great.
Store-bought nengajou have lottery numbers on them which you can use (if you live in Japan) to win prizes. I never quite caught on to this when I lived abroad (admittedly, I sent far more cards than I ever received) but it's a great concept. Even homemade cards are often made using blanks from the post office with all the lottery information pre-printed. I feel a little bad that the cards I now send to Japanese friends have no lottery opportunities, but living in Canada restricts my opportunities to buy cards. Instead, I pick five or six of the free "make-your-own" templates Japan Post offers every year in November, and I have them printed up with a pre-printed address and 年賀 mark on the back, in the more traditional landscape-style design that we see on Western postcards. Looking over the designs for the year is a joy and writing out my messages and addresses for Japanese friends is a good way to practice handwriting skills.
|My first batch of template cards, in 2011.|
Not great examples of my handwriting, but this year's batch looks much better!
Spreading this little bit of Japanese culture that many living outside the country wouldn't normally get to experience is great fun, and I love receiving postcards from my friends in Japan. I also like to think that when my co-workers back in Osaka receive a card from me, they feel a little better about the sort of revolving-door situation that is the unfortunate reality of ALTs in Japan, and know that I am still thinking of them, even years on.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
They said I would have my own empire to stand over, and it was true; for no one stood closer to the sun than I.
When I came to life, my kingdom was but a construction site. Only metal, sand and plastic, as far as my eyes could see. But I saw gleaming potential in every direction. My eyes, looking hungrily futureward, already saw the world as it would be.
And it would be glorious.
It was 1969 when my eyes first opened. Back then, my view was of the parkland and the beginnings of the Ferris wheel; when they placed the Golden Mask upon my face, it was then that I came to have Suita within my sights, and foresee the way the city would grow and change. I could look back into the past, as well, into Festival Plaza. I would see everything that was, and everything that would be.
I saw it all from there on the hill.
When you already know how your short life will end, or how it will begin to end, you have the most magnificent sense of perspective. The time between my birth and when the Tree of Life was taken out of my body was no more than an eyeblink for me – and of course the empire too began to disappear, bit by bit. Soon my coverings were gone, and then I stood alone.
My faces, though, always continued to stare in those three directions – past, present, and future. I never wavered, even when the lights of my eyes went out. Even when the park before me – for so long that pinnacle of the ‘future’ – was torn to the ground. I could see my end as sharply and clearly as I saw that the future I had been built to represent would never be.
Ah – but was it so bad? After all, no one else was blessed or cursed with such knowledge. No one else could see the whole of Osaka in quite this way. And even though other towers came to be taller than I, I was ever the closest to the sun.