The JET Life

LEARN, EXPLORE AND BE MERRY.

Shiraishi Island And The First Of The Lasts

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Shiraishi is a small, quaint island accessible only by ferry in Okayama prefecture that has become a popular destination for international travelers. With only 700 permanent residents, mostly fishermen and rice farmers, Shiraishi draws tourists that want a beachy laid-back weekend and a taste of rural Japan. 

Come August, a small number of my close friends and I will be leaving; returning back to our respective countries to start the next adventure. My wonderful friend Katie came up with the idea to spend the last weekend in June on Shiraishi to hang, relax, and reminisce on the ride we’ve been on this past year. We stayed in an enormous, beautiful log cabin, went kayaking, ate tacos, drank summer brew, and reveled in each others company.

It was the first of many lasts. July was full of them…last days of work, last stops at my favorite restaurants, last trip to Hiroshima, last ride on the Shinkansen, and now my last weekend in Hiroshima. On Thursday I say good bye to Japan and jet off to China, Cambodia, and Vietnam before returning to Chicago on August 15th. Helluva year it’s been.

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Photo cred goes to Ariele North

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Gangnam Style

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Almost two years after it topped the charts, I finally understand  what Psy means when he sings “Gangnam Style”. On a recent trip to Seoul I discovered that Gangnam, the glitzy, high-end shopping, dining, and clubbing neighborhood of Seoul, is where the beautiful people go. And man, was it a surreal experience when that song came on and a club full of Koreans started doing that dance in perfect synchrony.

But there is so much more to Seoul than just world class nightlife. It’s a thriving metropolis, the perfect combination of old and new. The remains of history centuries old are still hidden within the small, narrow allies and the palaces scattered throughout the city, but they can be easily missed as you walk past the endless bright lights and towering skyscrapers. It is a city for everybody; Hongdae for the young and eclectic, Gangman for the glamorous, Itaemon for the hardcore partyers, Gyeongdung for the shoppers, Namdaemun for the market strollers, Jongno for the history buffs. A couple of weeks ago, four friends and I took a trip there and got a taste of it all.

On our short three day trip four friends and I ate incredible bibimbop and Korean barbeque, took a fascinating tour of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, strolled through the bustling markets in Namdaemun, visited Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s oldest and largest palace, and sampled some of Seoul’s famous nightlife. I can confidently say that it was one of the best trips of the year.

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The Hiroshima Carp

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A few weeks ago I went to my first baseball game in Japan- the Hiroshima Carp vs. the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Yes, those are their official names. When I moved to Japan I quickly learned that Japanese people are diehard baseball fans. My students are obsessed, both boys and girls alike, and I constantly hear baseball talk among my coworkers. Or at least I think that’s what they’re talking about.

The sold-out Sunday afternoon game was a blast, but some of the staples of the traditional baseball experience were missing. It was a little disorienting…the hot dog and hamburger stands were replaced with ramen and takoyaki, the mustached, middle-aged beer sellers replaced with cute, young Japanese women, and the reverberating organ was replaced with the shrill fanfare of trumpets and a white-gloved cheer conductor. I gotta hand it to the fans though, they cheered and chanted their little hearts out (and in perfect unison) until the game was cancelled due to rain in the bottom of the 5th. And the Carp walked away with a win. IMG_4466 IMG_4471 IMG_4459

Kintai Bridge

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Event-less weekends have been a rarity the past couple of months, so when one rolled around a couple of weeks ago we decided to do some sightseeing close to home. Iwakuni is a city just past the Hiroshima-ken border on the far side of the prefecture. It is famous for it’s Kintai Bridge, a picturesque walking bridge with five sequential arches over the Nishiki River. A walk across the bridge takes you to Kikkou Park, a hotspot for young, hip Japanese families and people walking their sweater-clad dogs. But maybe even more exciting were the post-bridge margaritas and burritos at Mike’s Tex-Mex. It was a great day.

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Happy Birthday America! Love, Americans in Japan

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Fact: During 4th of July weekend alone, Americans eat enough hot dogs to stretch between Los Angeles and Washington D.C. five times. You can imagine the squeals when I told that to my ESS Club last week during our 4th of July party. To celebrate we made a red, white, and blue dessert and watched Youtube videos of fireworks and parades. And once again, the American flag vest proves to be the best investment I’ve ever made.20140606-093850-34730228.jpg20140707-213010-77410400.jpg 20140707-213007-77407893.jpg 20140707-213008-77408738.jpg 20140707-213009-77409578.jpg

A big thank you to the Brits, Canadians, Welsh, South Africans, Irish, New Zealanders, Australians, and Japanese who helped the Americans celebrate the 4th of July that evening. It was humorously makeshift, but we worked with what we had. We lit stuff on fire. We ate hamburgers. We drank beer. Happy birthday, America!

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Wind in my hair and sand in my shoes

The Tottori Sand Dunes are an anomaly in Japan, a country of abundant forests and mountains. The sight is truly jaw dropping… 16 sprawling kilometers of sand along the Sea of Japan and dunes reaching 2 kilometers wide and 50 meters tall. The views themselves are a draw for tourists, but it’s the opportunity to try some unique sand sports that appeal to those a bit more adventurous. And then there’s the laughably hokie camel rides that do the atmosphere a serious disservice, but let’s be honest, Japanese tourists love that stuff.

A couple of weekends ago, Linda, Fiona, Katie and I packed up Linda’s car and drove from Onomichi to Tottori, the entire width of Japan, to try our hand at paragliding. It was a crazy feeling, flying 100 feet in the air attached to what is essentially a kite. A really cool experience.

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OnoKita Culture Festival

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As is true all over the world, the Japanese education system is not perfect. We JETs love to moan about the flaws in the Japanese education system (English in particular) and it’s true, there are a lot of problems in the way they approach language learning. My students learn English the way they learn science and math…as an equation, not a means of communication. There’s little room for inventiveness or flexibility, and students aren’t taught to think for themselves. But there are some things that they do right.

The emphasis on cooperation and a strong team relationship is one of those things. In high school, this begins week one when they go away to what is essentially summer camp, complete with trust falls and canoe races. Teachers are  nurture that connection as the students grow older year by year and it’s been amazing to watch them find and play their role in the group…some leaders, some caretakers…some problem solvers….some jokesters. Even with a language barrier I can see them become the cohesive unit that is so highly valued in Japanese culture.

There are two school festivals during the year that perfectly exemplify the team ethic and the value for traditional culture that are uniquely instilled in Japanese children. The first is in October—Sports Day—you can read about OnoKita’s here. The second is Culture Festival, or Bunkasai, which was held this past May.

As the name implies, Culture Festival is a day for students in academic and cultural extracurricular activities to teach their classmates about their niche. Students, teachers and parents spent the morning wandering from classroom to classroom and learning from each club’s projects. Some were interactive, some visual, some funny, some literary. In the afternoon, each homeroom in the school participated in a choral competition that they had been preparing for for the last month. It’s serious…they cancelled classes so the kids could practice. I spent most of my afternoons in May wandering the halls, watching the students perfect their song of choice. The teachers remained completely hands off as the students followed their elected leaders and worked as a team to memorize and perfect their songs. Honestly, they worked together better than most American adults can. Pretty remarkable.

My ESS club members each made a poster about their favorite foreign film and then visitors could take a quiz about the displays. Word had spread that the ESS club was handing out candy with the completion of the quiz, so we had a full house all morning. Advertisement and presents…PR at it’s finest. I can’t take much credit though, they organized and executed everything themselves. I just bought the candy. And they had such a great time. It was so fun to watch. These are some pictures of what they created.

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20140606-093606-34566523.jpg(Mari, the ESS President, turns anything she can into an excuse to dress up in a Halloween costume.)

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This is what some of the other clubs created.

Tea Ceremony club performed a traditional tea serving ceremony, or Chado.

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Art Club displayed their member’s paintings, sketches, and sculptures.

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Flower Arranging club created bouquets that showed the uniquely simple style of Japanese flowering arranging called “Ikebana”.

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Biology club gave radishes and lettuce grown from the school garden to their visitors.

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Visitors to the Chemistry club’s room got to make gloop.  No translation necessary.

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Calligraphy club did a Performance Calligraphy presentation where, in rhythm with a modern Japanese pop song, they painted this in front of the audience.

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