Thursday, December 21, 2006

Teacher for a Day

This Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I went to teach classes at Seikadai Elementary School. Since elementary school children in Japan haven’t formally begun to learn English it is luckily not my job to go and teach English. Rather I go to the school and give classes in Japanese with the title of “International Understanding.” Basically I introduce myself and talk about my country and my own experience growing up in America. I also told the kids about the similarities and differences between Japanese and American elementary schools. Rather than trying to teach the kids English I think it is great for me as a foreigner to just talk to them in their language and let them know that foreign people aren't that much different and to let them see a different perspective.

The first day I went around to all four of the 6th grade classes at Seikadai Elementary. This proved the toughest as I was reminded that 6th graders are right at the cusp of becoming teenagers and therefore are worrying about self-image and being cool. The kids didn’t seem too excited that I was there and even less interested in what I had to say. Or at least this is the attitude they portrayed. I am hoping that they actually liked it but just didn’t want their classmates to think so. Usually when I do this sort of thing I give my self introduction and then let the audience ask questions to fill up some time. When I asked them if they had any questions the whole room was silent and I was just thinking, “Oh boy, this is going to be a long day.”

Then on Tuesday I went around to all the 3rd grade classrooms. The third graders were so cute and so full of questions and excitement. I was so happy that they were so excited about me being there and what I had to say. I played all sorts of games with them including; Simon Says, Heads Up 7-Up, and a game where a group of kids get in a circle and randomly join hands so that they are all knotted up and then see if they can undo the knot by squirming around. One of the classes was so happy that after I finished all the kids wanted me to give them my autograph! I was totally shocked but happy to do it for them.

Then I went back on Wednesday to see the same 3rd graders for the second time. They were even more excited to see me again and had thought of a million random questions for me the second time around. Some of the kids even gave me origami presents that they had made.

The cutest thing about Japanese elementary is that at lunch time they bring up a big pot of what ever that days lunch is and a few of the kids put on hairnets, masks, aprons, and gloves and serve all the other kids lunch. Plus all the kids have their own individual lunch kits that they bring from home with includes a cloth placemat, plastic chopsticks and toothbrush. All the kids sit down in their class and eat lunch together with the teacher, since I was a guest teacher I got to eat lunch with the kids who all fought over who got to sit next to me. Then after lunch a song comes on over the loudspeaker singing in a jingle about how great it is to brush your teeth after a meal.

The whole experience was so much fun and the kids were so cute and so funny. I really do have an odd job were I get to do all sorts of things from hanging out with kids, senior citizens, translating and who knows what else!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Recently my supervisor came back from her honeymoon in Europe. Her husband is quite a good photographer and took some beautiful pictures of Germany and Switzerland. I liked some of the photos so much I asked her if I could post some of them here for all to see. While sitting at my desk at work sometimes I dream of taking trips to places like this!

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Hanging with the Seniors

Everyday this week I have been going to the Kashinokien Senior Citizens Day Service Center to talk and hang out with the silver members of Seika’s population. At first I was kind of nervous and unsure of what I should talk about or how I would be received. I had planned a few games and activities to do with the elderly folks just in case me talking bored them. But after the first day I ended up scrapping the games and just talking with them and telling them stories about my life.

I suppose that not many of the older folks have really had a chance to talk with a foreigner or have more than a basic interaction with one. I was happy and relieved that they all seemed pleased with my visit and where interested in what I had to say. I also got a lot of tough questions from some of the feisty ones. I was asked questions like; what I like and don’t like about Japan, why do I think they need to teach English in Japanese elementary schools, and why America seems to have more national pride than Japan? I was kind of caught off guard by a lot of these questions and had to improve appropriate yet polite responses.

The other thing that I like is that all the ladies all swoon over me and tell me how handsome and manly I am! I get a little ego boost every time I go from getting so many compliments and smiles. I know that it has been interesting for me to get some perspective on what older Japanese folks who have been around for a long time are thinking about the modern world. I just hope that the folks at the center appreciate my visits and get something out of them too.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Autumn in Kyoto

Yesterday I decided to take a half day off work and go to see the beautiful scenery of Kyoto while the leaves are still in the midst of the Fall color change. It seems that I picked the perfect day to do so because yesterday was an unusually warm and sunny day. I first took the train up to Arashiyama which is in western Kyoto City. Arashiyama is full of gorgeous parks, temples, shrines and has a beautiful river that flowers right through. I thought I could avoid the crowds of people by going on a Wednesday afternoon, but it was still jam packed even on a weekday! I shudder to think how crowded it must be on the weekends. Around Arashiyama the colors where amazing; the reds, yellows and oranges of the tree leaves were so vibrant that I felt as if I was in a dream or possibly that I had died and gone to heaven.

Later in the evening I took the train back towards eastern Kyoto City to see the “light-up” at Kiomizudera temple. I have been there before in the day time but it is so much different to be there at night with all the fall colors illuminated by lights. It is such a peaceful and ethereal experience to see the fall colors lite-up to a stark black night backdrop. One of the things that I love must about Japan is the sharp contrast of the 4 seasons. Coming from California where the weather is pretty moderate year round it is great to experience a real Fall with all its glorious colors.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Whether Rain or Snow the 2006 Seika Town Festival Proceeds

Despite the rain, wind and cold many people still showed up for the Seika Town Festival on Sunday November 19th. With all the hard work and preparation that so many people put into the festival nobody was going to let a little rain stop the fun. But while all the booths were able to endure the rain, unfortunately the parade and most of the concerts had to be canceled due to the heavy rain that began to fall right around noon.

As volunteers with Seika Global Network my workmate Chris and I helped out at the children’s face painting booth. At first the kids were hesitant to have us paint their faces but once a few brave souls took the plunge it snowballed into dozens of children lined up to get their faces painted. The majority of kids wanted Pikachu, Anpan-man, flowers, stars and mushrooms painted on their cheeks, but there were also a few other random requests that we tried our best to accommodate with our limited artistic skills.

Of course Chris, I and the other volunteers did our best to show the kids how much fun it was so I had a big yellow Pikachu on my cheek and Chris had an American flag on top of his head and a Japanese flag on his cheek to symbolize the importance of international exchange. Once the line started getting pretty long we were really painting a lot of faces and having a lot of fun. It was nice to have a chance to chat with each child for a couple minutes while we painted their faces and then send them off with a heart shaped balloon. The kids seemed to really enjoy it as well as they would often come running back later with a new friend to have them get their face painted too. So despite the rain on the day of the festival I think that the TV spot and the face painting were successes for our grassroots internationalization project in Seika Town.

Live on TV!

On Saturday November 18th my workmate Chris and I got our 5 minutes of fame on TV! The funny thing is that it was literally 5 minutes, no more no less. What happened was that in preparation for the Seika Town Festival a TV crew from KBS Kyoto Television came down to Seika to do a short spot on some of the local groups, people and products that were going to be featured at the festival.

The TV crew interviewed Seika Town Mayor Kimura, a group of high school kids, a local strawberry grower, the local pastry chef, and Chris and I. We did a quick rehearsal but the TV spot was actually done live so there was no room for mistakes or blunders. Personally I have never been on TV so that alone was kind of scary to me, but to be interviewed live in Japanese on TV just made it even more scary. But even though I was nervous I was also excited about being on TV and getting the chance to promote Seika and the festival.

When it came around for our turn on the broadcast the reporters asked Chris and I about how we liked Seika, what we do at work, and what we would be doing at the festival the following day. Since we were going to be doing face painting at the festival Chris was asked to give a quick demonstration by painting the cheek of one of the reporters during the live interview. Chris and I were both nervous and excited and then it was over so quick. We were both happy and relieved that it went off without a hitch and now we can say that we were on TV and had our 5 minutes of fame!

Monday, November 13, 2006

16th Annual Seika Town Relay Race

This past Sunday morning Seika Town held the annual Relay Race around Higashi Hikari Elementary School. Despite the harsh weather including chilly winter breezes, spurts of rain, and cloudy skies many people of all ages came out to run or to cheer on the runners.

Recently it has felt like Fall has been skipped and that we’ve gone straight into Winter. Sunday was really cold and there was a strong wind and dark ominous clouds in the sky the morning of the Relay Race. But regardless of the weather everyone still came out and gave their best effort in the race.

The race was broken up into two parts with the elementary school teams running first. After the young children finished their race the second part began which included everyone from junior high and high school age kids, and all ages of adults.

Each leg of the relay was only a little more than 2km so I didn’t figure it would be that difficult when I signed up for the race. Little did I know that the course was in the hilly region of town and that the last stretch of the course took us straight up a steep hill. Due to the cold and early sunset I have been a little lax on my jogging schedule so I felt out of shape for this race. All the factors including the weather, hills and the early start combined for a straining race for me. But in general the race was a lot of fun, and once we finished everyone was treated to a steaming hot bowl of udon noodles.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

5th Annual Baroque Music Delight

On Wednesday November 8th, Seika Town held the 5th Annual Baroque Music Delight Concert at the Town Office Exchange Hall. Seven students from the Doshisha University music department were invited to play for a crowd of over 100 people. The concert is organized for classical music lovers but also to display the beautiful pipe organ that Seika Town has in the Government Office.

There was solo pipe organ performances, a flute trio, and two vocalists. The young women played various Handel classics and mixed solo performances with combos of vocalist and singer as well as a full group of flutes, vocalists and organ. The performance was beautiful and having taken a look at the questionnaires concerning the concert it was obvious that the audience was quite moved by the performance.

It was pretty fun for me because I got to usher in the people when they arrived for the concert. The look of surprise on some people's face when they entered and had a foreigner greet them in polite Japanese and ask them, "Please kindly take a seat towards the front of the Hall" was unforgettable. It is always nice for me to be able to participate in community events because I get to meet the local people and more people see that there is an American working at the town office who actually participates in local events.

Seika Town offers a number of concerts and events of this type for the residents of Seika Town to enjoy. The next concert will be the “Fureai Concert” at the Keihanna Plaza on January 13th, 2007. If you live in or near Seika you should really take advantage of this upcoming show!

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Seika Elementary/Junior High School Culture Exchange Concert

Yesterday, at the concert hall at the Keihanna Plaza local elementary and junior high school children showed off their musical talent and hard work. Various school’s bands paired together to perform songs and become better acquainted. There were hundreds of children from various schools and they all got a chance to perform for each other.

The hard work and practice that the kids put into the music was evident as the performances were near perfect and the smiles on the kids faces afterwards were beaming. Much like my visit to Seika Junior High when I was surprised by the skill level and talent of the kids I was again blown away at how talented even the elementary school bands in Seika are. The event was a lot of fun and the kids all seemed to be happy to have been able to perform in front of their peers.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Seika Hits the Press!

Wow! Today there is an article in the Mainichi Shinbun (newspaper) about the "Life in Seika, Japan" blog. Just a few days ago Mr. Shingu from the Mainichi Newspaper came to the Seika Municipal Office to have an interview with me about the blog, my work in Seika, and my experiences in Japan. I knew that he was interviewing me for an article for the paper but to actually go to the store this morning open up the paper and see a big picture of myself and an article about this blog was quite a shock.

The main purpose of this blog is to expose more people to the great qualities of Seika Town and to develop more interest and participation in the great events that are going on in Seika. So, to have the honor of being featured in such a widely distributed newspaper like the Mainichi Shinbun is not only exciting but will hopefully introduce this blog, and more importantly Seika Town, to a larger group of people. I hope that those of you who read the article in the Mainichi Shinbun and checked out this page enjoy the articles here and I want to thank you for visiting this site. I also want to thank Mr. Shingu for coming all the way to Seika to interview me and feature Seika Town and this blog in his article. What a great honor, this really made my day!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Seika Junior High School Student Presentation Assembly

On Friday October 27th Joel, Chris and I were invited to judge the Seika Junior High School English Speech Contest. We went to Seika Junior High and were able to watch the students perform a variety of presentations for their fellow students, teachers and parents.

The main reason we went was to judge the English Speech Contest but we were also treated to a performance by the school orchestra, class choirs and student dance groups. I was extremely surprised by the skill level of the student’s English as well as their musical talent. The school is comprised of 3 grades and each grade choose about 6 of their best students to compete in the English Speech Contest. It fell on our shoulders to judge and choose one winner from each grade. As all of the students were quite good it was a very hard choice to make and we struggled over our decision. After we finally came to a decision we presented the winners with certificates, congratulating them in front of the students and parents. In America students don’t typically start learning a foreign language until high school so I was amazed that the students here are already speaking impressive English and taking part in English speech contests at such a young age.

The school orchestra played a number of difficult songs and I was shocked at how talented the group of junior high musicians are. Each class also has their own choir which performed 2 songs each accompanied by piano and conducted by members of their own class. As my junior high school in America had neither choirs nor an orchestra I was amazed at the skill and organization of the young Japanese students. It was a really fun day and a great experience for me to be able to watch and judge the student performances. I was very impressed by all of the performances and hope that I will be invited back for future events!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Children’s Festival

On Saturday October 14th the Seika Town Education Committee held the annual Children’s Festival at Mukunoki Center. Hundreds of kids showed up and were treated to a wide variety of games, crafts, activities and entertainment. For a young child this must have been the most enjoyable day of the year! All the children were laughing and playing, happily enjoying all the different booths and events set up just for them. After opening remarks from Mayor Kimura a children’s orchestra played the theme song to Star Wars, and there were even robots in attendance.

As volunteers with Seika Global Network, my colleague Chris Bagwell (Coordinator for Sister City Relations) and I set up games and activities for the children to enjoy while trying to sneak in a quick English lesson. We taught the kids how to play a favorite American game, Twister, and read the children English language picture books. Seika Global Network also had a corner set up for the kids to draw pictures of dinosaurs in preparation for the “Dinosaur Art Contest” set up with Seika’s sister city Norman, Oklahoma.

The Children’s Festival was great fun for the children and also for all of us who worked as staff for the event. The children were so cute and seeing their smiling faces and watching them play Twister was so much fun for me. At lunch the children were treated to free curry and rice for lunch and the whole day was a great success. If the Children’s Festival was any indication of how much fun Seika Town Festival will be next month then I am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Agricultural Experience with the Home-stay Participants

Seika Global Network and the Planning and Coordinating Division of Seika Town work together to bring foreigners to Seika for weekend home-stays with local Japanese families. These home-stays are planned during times when there are significant local events going on so that the home-stay participants can take part in local festivals and community events. Last Friday the participants for the Seika Children’s Festival Home-stay period arrived in town for their weekend home-stay.

After picking up the participants and giving them a tour of Seika by bus we went to a local farm for an agricultural experience. We all went to Hanayagi Farms for picking sweet potatoes and black edamame. I have to admit that I am a city boy and so this was the first time in my life that I have actually gone out into the fields and done real farm work. First we went in and got our hands dirty while rooting around in the soil for sweet potatoes. It was really fun to just stick your hands in the earth and feel around until you got hold of the purple sweet potatoes. It was really exciting to grab hold of something unseen and then yank out a really big sweet potato!

Next we went over to where the black edamame were growing to harvest the beans. The farm guide brought a large pair of clippers to cut the base of the edamame stocks, but I thought that was no fun so I asked if I could just yank it out of the ground by hand. At first he looked at me like I was crazy, but said it was fine if I wanted to. Rather than just cutting the stock and walking away it felt like real work to have to rip the roots out of the ground by hand using raw strength. Of course we only pulled one plant each so if we were doing it all day I’m sure I would want to use the clippers.

After we finished our harvests we were surprised to find that we got to take home the sweet potatoes and edamame that we picked! Having a huge bag of sweet potatoes that I doubt I could eat on my own I gave some to neighbors and coworkers. The next day I boiled the edamame and put a little salt on them and they were delicious! My neighbor and her little daughter who I gave sweet potatoes came by my apartment the following day and gave me a dish of the sweet potatoes she cooked up and they too were amazing.

That day that we went out to the farms was a beautiful Autumn day with clear sunny skies and a cool breeze. Right next to the potato fields were rice fields that were also being harvested. All the home-stay participants really enjoyed the agricultural experience and we all had a lot of fun out in the fields picking potatoes and edamame. The participants then went home with their home-stay families and we all parted for the night, but would meet again the next day as we were all going to help out at the Children’s Festival the next day.

To be continued…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Culture Day

As part of Seika Junior High’s Culture Day some of the students learned about the local Yamashiro history from local author and historian Yoshihisa Azuma. Then after the lesson the students took a trip to one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Seika Town. Takenouchi Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in town which has several old buildings and gorgeous surroundings. The resident Shinto Priest, Mr. Tanaka, gave them a brief background lesson about the shrine’s history, showed them some artifacts that date back to the 14th Century and gave them a tour of the grounds.
Even though Seika is a relatively small town it was a long history and due to its rural location the shrines and temples have withstood the years. Seika is located right in between Kyoto and Nara and was part of the ancient roads linking the two important capitals. Therefore Shines like Takenouchi and others were able to flourish during those periods and are now considered invaluable local cultural assets.
It is said that this shrine once sat side by side with Inayazuma Castle, the last remaining fort of the Yamashiro Region Riots which began in the fuedal times of the Middle Ages (17th year of the Bunmei Era-1485) when the citizens demanded peace and a self-government. Some wooden planks on this shrine that date from the Kamakura Period (1318), together with some of the shrine's ornately designed roof ornaments, are designated ‘Important Cultural Properties’ of Kyoto.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Seika Global Network Japanese Cooking Class

Due to the various international research facilities that compromise the Kansai Science City there are about 200 foreign residents living and working in Seika Town. A local NPO called Seika Global Network offers various programs to help support and integrate the foreign population of the area. Not too long ago I was invited by Seika Global Network to come to their weekly Japanese language class that they offer free of charge for the foreign population of Seika. Normally this is a classroom environment where Japanese tutors help the foreigners with their Japanese and also teach some key cultural lessons. The week that I went was a special day and instead of having the normal class we went to the local community center (Mukunoki Center) for a Japanese cooking class!

Mukunoki Center is a new and really big community center that has everything from cooking rooms, music practice rooms, judo and kendo practice areas, basketball courts to an exercise gym. On this day about 40 of us gathered in the immaculately clean and spacious cooking room to make vegetable tempura, sushi and various other dishes. I think for most of us it was the first time we had a chance to make traditional Japanese cuisine and all the Seika Global Network volunteers were extremely helpful and nice in instructing us on the proper way to prepare the dishes.

The foreign population is quite diverse here in Seika and there were people from China, Korea, Peru, Eastern Europe and India. So it was really interesting to meet the people who live in town that I do various things for at work but rarely have a chance to meet face to face.

It was really fun to make the food but as it started piling up and looking more and more delicious it became harder and harder to hold myself back from eating the tempura right out of the fryer. But once everything was done we all sat down and had a big (40 people) group dinner and ate all the great food that we had just made. Everything was good and Nishi Sensei gave us some essential pointers on Japanese table manors.

After the meal everyone pitched in and we washed all the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. It was funny as having so many people from different cultures together there were a few people that seemed surprised to see men cooking and cleaning! All in all it was a fun night and I think everyone did learn a lot about Japanese cuisine, language and of course about each other.

Sports Day at Seika Junior High School

Children at Seika Junior High are pretty lucky kids! The school semester started about a month ago and already the school has a week long Fall break. Wow, we never had a Fall break where I went to school in the US. Even better than that, they had Sports Day at the school, where the kids can play all sorts of different sports. Unfortunately it was pouring rain today so all the outdoor sports activities including kickball and tennis had to be canceled. But there was no lack of fun to be had inside. When I first showed up the kids were playing Ping-Pong and badminton. I myself play a little Ping-Pong, but these kids were way better than me. Maybe that’s because they are shorter and therefore closer to the table with a better eye on the ball?! No, these kids are just well practiced and intense.

Then they took down all the Ping-Pong tables and badminton nets and set up a soft volleyball tournament. You may be wondering what “soft” volleyball is right? I was wondering too, basically it is exactly the same as regular volleyball except the ball is bigger and softer. Its almost like a beach ball made of soft rubber. It is easier to hit and seems to float more than a regular ball. Along with the kids a lot of the teachers and some parents had come to play and they set up teams to play against the kids.

On a dark rainy day like today having a sports day at the school seemed like the perfect thing to do. It seemed like a lot of fun for the kids and the grown-ups as well. No doubt this was not just set up for the kids to play and have fun. Sports of all types are very popular in Japan and seem to play an important function in society teaching kids teamwork, the value of practice, and the ever present importance of hard work and perseverance. There is a very pervasive phrase in Japanese, “Ganbatte!” It roughly translates as “Do your best!” or “Give it your all!” If you ever go to any sporting event you will hear “Ganbatte” or some of its other forms as reminders for everyone to do their best, and to encourage everyone. But this doesn’t apply to just sports, at work or even when out with friends Japanese people are constantly encouraging others to do their best and persevere. Sports Day at Seika Junior High was great fun for everyone but also a good lesson in the value of perseverance for the kids.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

First Impressions of Seika

I’ve been in Seika for about 3 weeks now and I’ve been pretty preoccupied by setting up my apartment and getting accustomed to my new job. So far I really haven’t had much time to explore the town or meet that many people, but it seems that everywhere I go people seem to know exactly who I am! The first few projects that I did as the new Coordinator for International Relations was to write an introductory article about myself for the town newsletter, get interviewed by a local newspaper, and give a short speech in front of the town council meeting that was apparently televised. So even though I don’t know many people around town lots of people have read all about me and recognize my face from the pictures in the papers. Wow, this is a completely new experience for me!

Having lived in big cities like San Francisco and Tokyo and never having had even one minute of fame, I am used to a life of complete anonymity. I don’t know if any of you have ever had this experience but it is strange to be recognized by people I have never even met before. In a small town like Seika I feel like a celebrity. At first it was alarming to hear that people actually read the articles I wrote and saw my pictures in the paper, but now I am starting to see how close of a community I live in and that I actually have a position that people take notice of.

So this is the Japan I always heard of: Not the glitzy buzzing frenzy that is Tokyo, but the small town where people know each other and actually say hi on the streets when they pass. Everywhere I go people are friendly and are happy to help if I have what seems like a random and possibly stupid question. For example, I actually stopped a women in the market to ask which was the best type of rice to buy. She seemed pleased to take 5 minutes to explain to me all the different types of rice and how to prepare them. Also it seems like it may be impossible to actually pay for a meal when I go out as I always end up having a lively conversation with an unknown person sitting close by who ends up treating me to my meal. These are things that I heard happened in Japan but never actually experienced having lived in Tokyo for a year.

Seika Town seems to represent the essence of small town Japanese life and is truly a great place to live. Now I am really starting to see why my predecessor said that I was lucky to have gotten a job in this town.