One Year In

Well, today is the day! On this day a year ago, I arrived in Japan, head swimmy with jet lag and overwhelmed with the thoughts of living two whole years in a different country. A year later, I can say that I have safely survived the effects of culture shock and the stress of starting a new job, and have learned to manage all kinds of new experiences – navigating the train system, using appropriate work greetings, and digesting things like natto (fermented beans) and fish eggs.

It’s been quite a year of wonderful experiences, tough experiences, and everything in between. So in honor of my first year here, I’ll do one of my favorite things: making a list!

Best Memory: I can’t choose just one! But the highlights would be the excitement of going into classes for the first time, the thrill of being able to manage simple things (like mailing something at the post office and using public transportation!), and participating in the students’ fun school events such as sports days. It’s also been cool to experience things that are “authentically Japanese” – things like planting rice, soaking in an outdoor tub, and making and eating soba noodles.

Worst Memory: Feeling awkward and making embarrassing cultural and language mistakes. Experiencing the after-effects of culture shock, with a dollop of homesickness for good measure…

Favorite Food: Golden, crispy tempura (battered and deep-fried vegetables and seafood). My favorites are squash and sweet potato. Oh, and I love daifuku (cream-filled rice cakes), too. Can I have two favorites?

Least Favorite Food: Natto. And fish eggs. Natto just smells, and even though it doesn’t taste bad, it can have a gritty consistency. Fish eggs are something I can get down, but the thought of what they are just kind of grosses me out.

Something I’d Like Japan to Start Using: Warm water in public restrooms. And soap. And paper towels!

Something I’d Like America to Start Using: A train system in my area. Then I would never have to drive again…

Favorite Thing About Teaching English: Playing games with my students. Seeing the faces of my sweet first-graders, happy to be there and eager to learn. (Not that I have a favorite class or anything…)

Least Favorite Thing About Teaching English: Some of the rote things we have to teach that are part of the curriculum. But I guess that’s true of teaching anywhere in the world! Also, the attitudes of students who don’t want to be there or who make snide remarks (it doesn’t matter if I can’t understand your language, I can still tell if you’re saying something snarky). Yes, I guess students are the same all over the world, too!

Looking back over the year, I am incredibly grateful for all of the things I’ve had the chance to experience, and for the ways that I have grown. I’ve adjusted little by little, of course, but I feel like I’m only just starting to feel more comfortable here and to feel a sense of familiarity with my home and surroundings. In some ways it’s been a rough year as I struggled through a bunch of mental and emotional turbulence triggered by the change. But, thanks be to God, He has been leading me through that, and I feel like I’ve done a lot of growing in the past year. As the new school year starts, we will have a new work schedule, some different students, and a new set of teachers from America!  I’m looking forward to experiencing another year in this amazing country, hopefully with less culture shock this time around!

Graduation Time!

It’s that time of year in Japan when schools are wrapping up their final term and getting ready to end the school year. Here, the school year ends in March, and a new one begins in April. So that means there’s only a couple of weeks from when a student ends one grade and begins the next one! It’s a little hard for my American mind to fathom, but that’s the way it is!

Because it’s the end of the school year, all the five-year-olds at the kindergarten where we work graduated last week. I don’t know how it is in America, but kindergarten graduation here is a BIG DEAL. I’m not sure if it’s different in public kindergartens, but at the private one here in town, it’s quite the event. The students have uniforms, and they have specific ways of marching in, walking up front, and receiving their diplomas. It really amazed me to see the time and dedication that they put in to practicing these things. No wonder Japan is considered to be such a disciplined culture!

My four coworkers and I actually got to participate in the event by handing out diplomas, which was a little nerve-wracking.  Well, technically we handed them to our boss, and he handed them to the students. But there was still a lot of ceremony involved. Each child’s name was called out by his or her teacher, to which the student jumped up and responded “Hai!” (“Yes!”) in a loud voice. Then he or she, along with one or two other students whose names had been called, marched up front, taking care to make sharp right turns. They paused before the stage, waiting for the preceding students to exit, then marched up together. This was followed by a bow to the principal (our boss) and whichever American happened to be helping him at the time (we had to take turns!). The principal and American teacher bowed at the same time. Then the American teacher handed the diploma to the principal, who handed it to the student while simultaneously shaking right hands over the diploma. The student then stepped back and waited for the other student(s) he/she had marched up with to receive their diplomas. Then, the group of students turned together and marched off the stage back to their seats.

Not only was marching and bowing involved, but good posture while sitting was also enforced. The students sat with backs straight, many of them with hands on their knees. Of course, with five-year-olds this is impossible to maintain constantly, but they at least tried!

All this, of course, was practiced ahead of time. We American teachers went to two of the rehearsals, but I imagine they must have had even more. It seemed very formal for children this young, but it was also really cute, and very heart-warming to see students we had taught all year receiving their diplomas!

The graduation itself involved several main parts. First there was the marching in and receiving of diplomas. Then there were several speeches by key figures – the principal, the head of the PTA, and the mayor, among others. The poor little five-year-olds probably didn’t get much out of that, though!

There was also a farewell greeting by the four-year-olds, who sang a song to the five-year-olds. The five-year-olds gave a choral speech, commemorating different experiences of the past year (at least that’s what I gathered from the little that I could understand). The five-year-olds also turned toward their parents, who were sitting in the back, and sang a song to them, which resulted in a lot of tears and handkerchiefs on the part of the parents.

Not only were the parents tearful, but so were the kindergarten teachers. They work with the same students for both years of kindergarten (ages four and five), so they must develop really close bonds with them.  There was a lot of weeping, and I looked over at one point during the ceremony to see two of the teachers with their faces buried in their handkerchiefs!

Since pictures are better than words, here a couple of videos showing the grand and glorious occasion!

The students marching into the auditorium:

Receiving their diplomas. I had to limit this video to protect individual students’ privacy, but hopefully this gives the basic idea:

The farewell greeting by the younger students, and a farewell speech by the five-year-olds.

The whole occasion was fun to watch, and it was an honor to be a part of it. Happily, even though the students have graduated, we will get to see some of them at the local elementary schools. We’ll look forward to seeing them again in the new school year, when it starts up again – next month!

A Very Merry White Day


This past Wednesday, March 14, was White Day. And let me tell you, it is quite a fabulous day. This is how it goes in Japan:

On February 14, Valentine’s Day, women give chocolate to men. It doesn’t have to be someone they like – it can also be coworkers or other males in their lives.

One month later, on March 14, the men reciprocate, and give sweets to the women. This is called White Day. No, it does not mean that everything one receives on that day is white! Some of the sweets can be white, or are in white packages, but gifts this day can be any other color, too. See the link at the bottom of the page for more about the origins of the name!

This year, my boss asked us to make some treats to give to different men in our work circles – our male coworkers, the men who work in the kindergarten office, the kindergarten bus drivers, and several key people at the board of education and city hall. She also gave us chocolates to give them. We made some special trips to visit everyone, passing out sugary goodness along the way. It was a little nerve-wracking, especially when we had to go to city hall. However….

…on March 14, it was our turn! We got treats back from most of the people we had given gifts to, and in most cases, each of us four teachers got our own box. That means we got quite a pile of goodies! Most of it was cookies, as that seems to be the thing to give on White Day, but we also got cake, chocolates, and other snacks, all packaged beautifully in neatly wrapped and beribboned boxes.

Here’s a picture of what White Day looked like for us. It felt a little bit like Christmas!

The biggest box contained a variety of cake. Yum!

For those interested, I did a quick search and found more information about White Day, including how it got its name! Here’s the link:

Happy White Day, everyone! Think it’s a tradition we can get started in America…?




Castles and Candles

Hello readers! I’m back with another episode of my winter adventures during our long weekend in February. I posted previously about the visit my teammate and I took to Ouchijuku, an Edo-period village. What I didn’t write about is where we we went afterward…

As I mentioned before, we had wandered around Ouchijuku for awhile, eaten lunch, climbed the snow-covered hill behind the village, and taken in some dance performances. Although we could have stayed for more activities, by mid-afternoon we both felt as though we had gotten our fill of the village. So we decided to hop back on the train and take a little detour (which was on our way home anyway) to the city of Aizu Wakamatsu. It just so happened that this particular weekend coincided with the city’s painted candle festival (read more about that here), so we decided to add to our repertoire of experiences for the day and go visit that as well.

After arriving in Aizu Wakamatsu, we took a bus to Tsuruga Castle. This was the castle we had visited in the fall, when our employers brought us for a visit after the samurai parade. This was a completely different experience, however – snow blanketed the ground, and the place was lit with the glow of hundreds of candles. It was a beautiful sight!

The side of the road leading to the castle was dotted with lanterns, each containing a candle:

Since I was ravenously hungry, our first stop was at a small food shop near the castle. I bought a stick of tempura manjuu (deep fried buns filled with sweet bean paste), which I promptly devoured. Let me tell you, if you haven’t tasted one of these skewered balls of crispy sweet goodness, you haven’t lived yet. AMAZING.

Next, we ventured up to the castle grounds, admiring the different kinds of lanterns that we saw. The field by the castle was full of them:

There was a display of creations representing different schools, which were also lit up (with candles, I presume, although I didn’t actually look in any of them).

The field was surrounded by a border of pretty fluted lanterns:

View of the castle from the far side of the field:

As we wandered around, we also discovered a small area that was filled with punched metal lanterns. This was one of my favorite displays – the handiwork on the lanterns was exquisite!

After taking in the sights at the castle, we waited for what seemed an excessively long time for a bus to take us back to the train station. I tried not to freeze to death as I clutched my kairo, or heating pack. They have an abundance of these self-heating packs over here – just bend them back and forth, and they give off heat! They may have them in America, too, but I’ve never used them there. Anyway…eventually, the bus did come, and we managed to make all our train connections and arrive safely back home before it got indecently late. Even though we’d had hours of commuting time for just a day trip, we’d visited the historic village of Ouchijuku, eaten hot soba and delicious fried manju, and seen the beauty of Tsuruga Castle in the candlelight. Not a bad way to spend a winter weekend!