“Whale Day”

Japan has been hunting whale for centuries – for food, and also for the sake of the practice, which has long been an integral part of Japanese culture. In the last few decades though, Japan has faced quite a bit of criticism from abroad (and from its own citizens) over whale hunting, due to the rapid decline of endangered whale species in surrounding waters. Though whale hunting has decreased dramatically since the 1960’s, the practice still continues: certain species are illegal to hunt, but a few, like the minke whale, are not deemed an endangered species and are still hunted on occasion for their meat and distributed throughout Japan. Which, in effect, is how whale ended up on every lunch tray in every junior high and elementary school in Minoh on a sunny Monday afternoon.

Yup, you read that right – whale on every plate.

Once a year, all of the junior high and elementary schools in Minoh serve whale for lunch. Affectionately deemed “whale day” by my fellow JET English teachers, I’ve been anticipating this strange and mildly concerning event for weeks now, unable to fathom the idea that the city would be serving whale to its students for lunch. Yet, sure enough, Whale Day arrived – along with enough whale meat to feed a city’s worth of kids.

Because of dietary restrictions, I don’t eat the lunch that my elementary school provides daily for teachers and students, so I wasn’t able to taste the whale myself. But, luckily, I was able to sneak a few pictures of my fellow teachers’ trays before they were claimed.(There’s no way I’d let Whale Day pass me by without at least taking a photo or two!)

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On the menu: soup with carrots, konnyaku, daikon, and seaweed simmered in a dashi broth, rice with dried seaweed, a carton of milk, and deep fried whale meat

I also asked a few other JET’s what the meat tasted like. They described it as “tough” and “gamey” – much more like red meat than fish. One person said that it tasted similar to deer. Overall, everyone agreed that they didn’t dislike it, and wouldn’t decline a second helping if offered, but weren’t blown away by the taste or the texture. Nor was anyone interested in searching after whale meat again in the future.

IMG_E7745At the time, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to sample a piece, but after hearing my friends’ reports – and after looking at these pictures again – I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten over my disappointment.

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English for Japanese 3rd graders: cookies and cola

English education in Japan usually starts in 5th grade, but Minoh – the city where I’ve been assigned to teach – has their students taking English classes as early as 3rd grade. Minoh even created their own English curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders, since there is no official designated textbook for students younger than 5th/6th in Japan.

So, I’m lucky – all of my classes for 3rd through 6th grade are written out in Minoh’s English textbook. Every lesson for the 45 minute period includes the topic/subject, expressions related to the topic, and target vocabulary words. It also includes a detailed schedule for activities, with time estimations and everything.

Every lesson has a similar structure. First, the teacher (either me, the other English teacher I work with, or the homeroom teacher ((yep, there are 3, sometimes 4!, teachers in the class at the same time)) greets the students, asks them the date, what the weather’s like, and how they’re doing. Usually students respond with I’m tired, or I’m hungry, but occasionally we’ll get a response like I am so angry!

Then, it’s phonics time. We’ll review English words that Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing by saying the words out loud and asking the students to repeat them back to us multiple times. There’s quite a few sounds in English that students don’t know how to pronounce, like r and l and the low i sound, so phonics gives them a chance to improve their pronunciation. And the younger they can get pronunciation down, the better.

After phonics, it’s time for the actual lesson content. We start by either reviewing vocabulary and expressions from the previous week, or we’ll introduce new English words. Topics are drawn out for about 4-5 weeks, so students have an ample amount of time to practice hearing and speaking the target language over a long period of time.

These past several weeks, the 3rd graders have been learning the names of a bunch of desserts, like pudding and cake, as well as drinks. The specific desserts/drinks we’re required to teach are at the top of the lesson plan:

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After reviewing the words and phrases, it’s time for the fun part – games! We play at least one game every class, as a way for students to practice the material, and to keep them active, engaged, and entertained. English isn’t graded in elementary school – it’s more of an elective, like music and home economics. But, it is a graded subject in junior high school, so the intent of elementary English is to ensure students have as high of an opinion of English class as possible. That way, they’ll look forward to continuing their English education after graduating elementary. And playing games is definitely a way to keep their opinion of English high. (Or, neutral, at least.)

This week, we played Lucky Card game. In a nutshell, students get into groups and are given a set of mini vocabulary cards. Each student then picks two cards, shows their neighbor the cards and ask, ‘What do you want? and their neighbor responds, ‘I want_____’ and chooses one of the two cards to take in their own hand. The dialogue continues until the teacher says stop. Then, the teacher picks one card out of the set and calls out the vocab word on that card. Students holding that card get a stamp! (Stamps are a big deal – getting a stamp is probably the highlight of English class for most students.)

IMG_E7387Usually, review and a game or two should take up the 45 minute class. Once the bell rings to mark the end of that period, the students pack up their things, say goodbye, and English is finished for the week.

It isn’t much, but hey as long as the students are learning something – and having fun – I’m happy!

First week of classes – my jikoshoukai

Ah, the jikoshoukai… Ask any JET about theirs and they could probably recite it to you by heart, word for word. At least I know I could (though I wouldn’t want to) because I’ve given mine 16 times as of today, so I’ve just about memorized every single slide.

In English, jikoshoukai (自己紹介) means self-introduction. Every new JET is expected to give a jikoshoukai, or introductory presentation, to each class during their first week, as a way for students to get to know more about their new English teacher and his/her cultural background.

Every JET’s intro is different, of course, but intros tend to include the same content: interesting facts about said JET`s home country/home town, pictures of friends and family members, hobbies, interests, future plans, etc. My self-intro included all of those, and I also talked about going to UCLA and what I studied since I just graduated in June.

I included lots of quiz-type questions throughout the PowerPoint to keep the students engaged, like how old am I? and What is my favorite Japanese food? (the students were always surprised to hear that the answer is kabocha) and How old is my little brother? etc. At the end, I gave out the no. 2 pencils I`d bought at Target months ago to students who were first to answer the questions correctly.

My presentation has usually lasted about 25 minutes, which is only about half of the class period, so there’s plenty of time for students to ask me questions afterwards. I’ve gotten the same questions for the most part – favorite color, favorite actor, favorite animal, favorite sport… But I’ve had a few particularly memorable ones too. Like, What would you do if you were President? or What`s your favorite kind of building? or Do you have a favorite train? or How big is an American hamburger in comparison to a Japanese hamburger? And my favorite question by far was: Do you prefer animes that were released in the Heisei Period (the current era in Japan) or the Showa Period? (Sadly, I was unable to provide an answer to that question, to the student’s dismay.)

Today was the last day that I had to present my self-introduction, which I admit I’m pretty happy about. Though I’ve enjoyed telling my new students a little bit more about myself and where I come from, it’ll be nice to not have to explain that my university is called UCLA, and not Mr. Bear University, for the 17th time.

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Why I took a taxi to work

I`m assigned to two elementary schools: the first school, which I wrote about in a previous post, is my main school, or the school where I`m officially based. I work at that school Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, but on Mondays and Tuesdays I`m an assistant at a different elementary school.

I`d been at my base school for the last few days, including Monday. On Tuesday, I was scheduled to go to the secondary school to introduce myself to the other teachers. So, Tuesday morning, I left my apartment at 7:30am. The school is less than 5km away, but I wanted to get there early with the hopes of making a good first impression at a new workplace.

Walking to the bus stop, I checked Google Maps again to confirm the route. The day before, my supervisor told me to take a bus that starts at Minoh`s main train station​, but that station is about a 15 minute walk from me. On the other hand, Google Maps told me that there was a different bus I could take instead, only a few minutes’ walk from my apartment, that supposedly stopped right next to the school. I`d never heard of the bus before, but being the lazy self that I am, I decided to try taking it. Besides, I thought, Google is always right.

So the bus was scheduled to come at 7:52am.

7:52am arrived. The bus did not. I waited. A minute passed. Then another. By 7:55, I began to accept the fact that the bus was not coming and that relying on an unfamiliar route had probably been a huge mistake.

I stood there, stranded at the bus stop, with no idea how to get to school. And I was supposed to be in the teacher`s room in 20 minutes!

Heartbeat accelerating, a prayer beneath my breath, I checked Google Maps again for alternate routes.  One of the first options said I could take the next bus at that same station. It was either that, or run to a stop 10 minutes away and risk the possibility of missing that bus too. So I waited at the same stop and got on the next bus to show up.

After tapping my pass and finding a tiny corner of space to stand, I checked Google Maps again – and realized that the routes had completely changed. In other words, I had no idea which stop to get off at.

I spent the ride pressed up against the window, in a bus filled past maximum capacity, wondering how I was going to get myself out of this one. At the fourth stop, I decided to get off.

After exiting the bus, I checked Google Maps, yet again, only to discover that I was still more than 3 kilometers from school – and there weren`t other buses coming to save me anytime soon.

By then, it was 8:20 – I had to be at school 5 minutes ago.

Id managed to stay calm up until that point, but I finally started panicking. I paced up and down the sidewalk, wondering how on earth I was going to make it to work in time – or at least without arriving 2+ hours late. I was so desperate that for a few minutes I even stood at the side of the road and tried to work up the courage to wave someone down that`d be willing to drop me off.

And that`s when I remembered the taxi app. Before coming to Japan, I`d researched lists of useful apps to have while traveling in Japan, and the Japan Taxi app was one of them. Uber isn`t widespread in Japan like it is in the States, but taxis are common. I didn`t expect to ever actually use the taxi, because I`d heard that they`re outrageously expensive – especially in Osaka – but I`d downloaded the app in case of emergencies. And I`d say that the situation I`d driven myself into could be considered worthy of an emergency.

I`d never opened the app before, but luckily it was straightforward, simple to use, and in English (for the most part). I added my name and phone number and set my current location – kind of like Uber I guess – and pressed call. I waited an excruciatingly long 45 seconds for a taxi to answer. To my relief, one did. The driver took about 6 minutes to get to me. By then, it was 8:30.

I`d given up trying to get to school on time, but now that I`d found a proper method of transportation, at least I wouldn`t be an hour late.

I hopped in the car, told the driver the name of the school; he typed it into his GPS and drove. During the ride, I couldn`t figure out if I was relieved or frustrated or if I wanted to start laughing or burst into tears. I was still in debate when the driver pulled up at the school`s front entrance.

I pulled out my wallet and checked the fare. The total, for about 3km, ended up at 1880¥, or $17.27. With a heavy heart, I handed my driver the money, including a little extra for tip. (He gave me back exact change though, which surprised me, but hey I`m not complaining).

I admit that I was expecting worse than 1880 after hearing horror stories of absurd fares; expecting worse somehow softened the blow of having to dish out nearly $20 for an 8 minute ride.

But considering that a bus could have taken me to the same destination, I`d much prefer to travel via bus for 220¥ next time, even if I do have to walk 15 minutes to Minoh train station.

New school, new shoes: my first day of work 

I arrived at the bus stop, nervous, excited – donned in business formal, purse in one hand and a Trader Joe`s bag filled with Skittles in the other. I waited for the 7:43am bus. It arrived a minute early. I tapped my pass at the entrance and nudged my way into the corner between a middle-aged man playing Pokemon Go and an elementary school student reviewing vocabulary. It was a weekday morning, so the bus was packed – probably beyond legal capacity.

I sat my Trader Joe`s bag down between my feet, clung to a hand ring to keep from falling over on my fellow passengers, and counted the stops. The ride went by quickly, what with the majority of it spent concentrating to keep myself upright against bumps and sudden brakes.

From the bus stop, I walked about 10 minutes up a steep hill. I`m not a fan of the incline, but at least the route is scenic. The walk takes me through a neighborhood that`s quiet and clean and every once in a while there`ll be a little statue of a tanuki greeting me.

At the top of the hill, I found my school on the right hand side. I went through the teacher’s entrance at the back. Before entering, I took off my shoes and put them inside a locker. I took out my new pair of “indoor shoes” from my purse and slipped them on, excited to finally be wearing them since they’d been sitting in my closet for weeks anticipating this moment.

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In Japan, both students and teachers wear a different pair of shoes that are specifically for use inside the school. There are shoe lockers at the entrances where students and teachers can switch in and out of their indoor and outdoor shoes. This of course keeps the interior of the school a lot cleaner and also teaches the students to treat shared property with respect. Also, in Japan, students are expected to clean their classrooms all by themselves, so they’re very careful to keep their rooms as clean as possible.

After strapping on my new indoor shoes, I found my way to the 職員室 (shokuinshitsu), or the staff room/lounge.

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The shokuinshitsu is where all of the teachers’ desks are located and where everyone gathers for lunch and bi-weekly meetings. It’s also where all of the supplies are kept for class, and has a tiny kitchen at the back as well where the staff can make tea and coffee.

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I arrived about thirty minutes early, before most of the other teachers. The Vice Principal, who happens to be nearly fluent in English, showed me to my desk. (My desk is conveniently located right next to the kitchen!) I sit right across from another JET, who has been working at the school as an Assistant Language Teacher for two years now. The two of us will be working together from now on.

After introducing myself to the other Japanese teachers, my fellow ALT gave me a tour of the school. Most elementary schools in Japan have the same design and are usually equipped with a gym, an outdoor playground, classes for extracurricular activities, and 2-3 rooms for each grade, 1-6. My school also has our very own English classroom! Itt isn`t being used right now since there isn`t air conditioning just yet. The AC should be installed next week though, so it looks like I arrived at just the right time!

After the tour, I took out my Trader Joe`s bag and started passing out my little individually-wrapped packages of Skittles, which I`d brought specifically as omiyage.

Omiyage – roughly translated as souvenirs – and gift-giving culture in general (though omiyage-giving and gift-giving are different), is really important in Japan. Especially in the workplace. Whenever someone travels – whether it be to a different country or a different region in Japan – it`s expected of them bring back omiyage to pass out to each of their fellow staff members, as well as family and friends. Usually, the omiyage will be a small, individually wrapped snack from the area where they traveled to.

After reading article after article written by other JET participants about the importance of picking out the perfect omiyage to bring for my teachers, I freaked out and ended up buying multiple different kinds of omiyage just in case. I even worried that Skittles weren`t good enough to hand out and nearly ordered a more expensive set of candy from the States after I`d already arrived in Japan. But the teachers were surprised that I`d brought anything in the first place and they accepted the Skittle packets with a smile and a bow.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing the students` English curriculum, getting accustomed to the walk to and from classes, and settling into my new workspace. By the end of the day, I already felt right at home!

(I even received my very own locker, where I can keep my new pair of shoes.)

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A Tentative Self-Introduction 自己紹介

Jikoshoukai 自己紹介じこしょうかい is the Japanese word for “self-introduction.” Self-introductions are very important in Japan. The last time I visited the country, I found myself having to give this “mini speech” to just about every new person I met. Luckily, self-introductions are simple enough – they’re meant to be short and sweet: you say hello, your name, where you’re from, a little about your country’s culture, and a little about yourself too. You only get one first impression though, so it’s important to do it right. I’ve written my intro out in advance this time and memorized it too because I already know that I’ll be reciting it quite a bit once I get to Japan.

はじめまして。私はジュリアエバーハートと申します。私はアメリカのロサンゼルスから来ました。ロサンゼルスはアメリカの西の方です。もう二年前に日本に来たことがありますが、箕面に来たことがありませんから楽しみにしております。私の趣味は本を読むことですが、日本にいる間は生け花に興味持って勉強したいと思います。皆様と一緒にお仕事が出来ることを光栄(こうえい)に思います。どうぞよろしくお願いします。

Hello! My name is Julia Eberhardt. I’m from Los Angeles, in the United States. Los Angeles is located toward the west of the U.S. Two years ago I visited Japan, but I’ve never been to the city of Minoh before, so I’m looking forward to it! As for my hobbies, I enjoy reading books, but while I’m in Japan, I’m interested in studying Japanese flower arranging. Overall, I’m really honored to be working with everyone here. Thank you for having me.