Archive for the ‘School’ Category


March 22, 2009

Last Friday was, I think, the end of the school year in Japan, and graduation ceremonies would have been held the week before.  These are always emotional affairs, at junior high schools as much as at high schools.  In the US, graduating from junior high is a non-event, but in Japan it’s a big deal.  While enrollment at public elementary and junior high schools is determined simply by home address, high schools have competitive entry, such that getting into a “good” school requires a high score on entrance exams.  So students go to school with the same people up through 9th grade, and then they’re scattered.

Sakura – flowering cherry trees – bloom around spring break, and while they’re generally associated more with the beginning of the school year than with the end, there’s a Japanese pop song that likens their scattering blossoms to friends going their separate ways in life.  The song, “Sakura,” by Naotarō Moriyama, is often played at graduations.

This is Moriyama performing a version with piano accompaniment.

It’s a bit sappy, but not outright maudlin.



March 16, 2008

Rather abruptly, it’s spring here in Kobe. Temperatures are at least ten degrees higher than last week, birds are chirping, and the non-evergreen plants are showing signs of life again. Unfortunately, spring has also brought several days when the air is filled with yellow dust from northwest China. Blah.

Last Wednesday was the graduation ceremony at the junior high school. The first and second year students still have a week and a half of classes, though. On the same day, the board of education sent out notice of school placements. I’ll be staying at the same school for my last term.

This news is a month old, but I’ll mention it anyway: I passed the level two JLPT. So I have “mastered grammar to a relatively high level, [know] around 1,000 kanji and 6,000 words, and [have] the ability to converse, read, and write about matters of a general nature.” Still can’t read the blasted newspaper without consulting a dictionary every sentence, though.

Speaking of old news, the conference at Yokohama two weeks ago was in fact worthwhile. Most of the speakers were former JETs, and it was really interesting to hear them talk about where their lives took them after they left the program.

Before and after the conference, I had a little time to explore Yokohama.

Its Chinatown – Chūkagai, literally “China Street” – is purportedly the largest in Japan.

Yokohama Chinatown

Another JET said, “It feels just like Taiwan. Except that it’s clean.”

I also visited Sankei-en, a garden built a hundred years ago by a silk tycoon. More interesting than the garden itself is that the owner had almost a dozen historic buildings moved to the garden.

This one – a 1623 construction of unusual design- was taken from the grounds of Ni-jō, the former shogunal castle in Kyoto.

Yokohama Sankei-en Choshukaku

This is inside a villa built in 1649 by relatives of the shogun.

Yokohama Sankei-en Rinshunkaku

And this isn’t the best picture, but the building shown here was taken from Daitoku-ji. It was built in 1591 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to celebrate the long life of his mother.

Yokohama Sankei-en Oido

Hideyoshi unified Japan at the end of the Warring States period and led invasions of Korea in the 1590s. He died in 1598, and as the country started to fall apart again, Tokugawa Ieyasu took control and established stable rule with the Tokugawa Shogunate.

That’s all for now.

Conferences and Broken Windows

March 1, 2008

Also: Elementary school visits. I’ll start from there.

The junior high school had final exams this week, for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Rather than have me sit around doing nothing for three days, I was sent to teach classes at the neighboring elementary school. My classes went well and the kids were cute.

My kids – the junior high students – have been distinctly not cute. Or some of them, anyway. On Friday morning, it was discovered that overnight, all the windows had been smashed in one of the second year classrooms. Now windows getting broken at my current school is nothing new, but an entire room’s worth is a lot (they cover the upper halves of two walls). Because of the scale of the vandalism and the fact that it required breaking into the locked school, the police were called in to do an investigation. I overheard the summary of the immediate findings and it was impressive how much they could work out.

I’m interested in finding out who did it, but that will have to wait until Thursday. For Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week, I’ll be in Yokohama, at the conference for departing JETs. The conference is optional, and participants have to arrange and pay for travel, food, and lodging on their own, but it’s three days of “special leave” from work, and that’s not bad. I’ve never been to Yokohama, so I’m looking forward to it, and hopefully the conference itself will be worthwhile, too.

Home with the Flu

December 6, 2007

I’ve been really busy lately. I took the level two Japanese Language Proficiency Test last weekend. 9:45am-2:40pm. Holy crap, that was hard. I have no idea if I passed, but I’ll find out in February. School, meanwhile, has been crazy. To give one example: There is a elementary school next door to my current junior high school. A couple weeks ago, one of our 8th graders brought an air gun to school and shot an elementary school student. Now seriously, that’s not okay.

Speaking of the elementary school, it seems that I’ll be teaching classes there every Thursday. I did that last week, which is probably why I’m now sick with the flu. Taking sick leave here is a hassle, by the way. We have twenty days of sick leave, but we can’t just use them as we like. One day of leave requires a receipt from a doctor’s visit or from a pharmacy. For more than one day (like my current case), you need an official, sealed doctor’s note, which costs about $30. What a racket.

Upside: I have time to write a post for my poor, neglected blog.


The last stop in my big summer trip was in Nagoya, the home of Toyota. I don’t really have much of interest to say though. Well, I don’t want to say nothing, so here’s one thing.

Nagoya Atsuta-jinguu Kusunoki

This camphor tree was planted around 1,200 years ago by the monk Kūkai (better known by his posthumous name, Kōbō Daishi), who was the creator of Shingon Buddhism. He founded dozens of temples, including one I saw in Fukuoka. This tree isn’t at a temple, though, it’s at Atsuta Shrine, which is said to house the sword that is one of the three imperial regalia. The real sword was probably lost a long time ago, but they have a museum that includes an impressive collection of swords received as offerings.

Alright, that’s it for Nagoya.


The weekend before last, I made a trip to Matsue, a city near the Sea of Japan (map pilfered from

Matsue Map

Matsue is a nice place, although a bit short on attractions in and of itself. My reason for making the journey was to see the Adachi Museum of Art and Izumo Grand Shrine, an hour to the east and west, respectively.

The Adachi Museum was built in 1970 by Adachi Zenko, then 71, a self-made businessman with a large collection of 20th century Japanese art (FYI, the museum’s English website says 1980, but that’s a typo). The art is quite good, but the museum is more famous for its garden.

Adachi Museum Garden

The design of the garden often feels like a painting, and a few windows in the museum explicitly create that effect.

Adachi Museum Picture Window

The white gravel usually represents water, but this section looked like some strange desert landscape.

Adachi Museum Pines

The museum was my first stop in the area, but when I moved on to Matsue itself, heavy rain moved in, so that was it for the day.

The next morning I headed for Izumo.

Izumo is known as “the home of the gods” and tradition has it that in October all the gods of Japan gather in Izumo, so for the rest of the country October is the month without gods (except for the god Ebisu, who is deaf and doesn’t hear the summons).

Izumo Taisha

The shrine’s history says that the original main hall was much taller than the current structure and the recent unearthing of the remains of huge pillars supports this. Supposedly it looked something like this.

Izumo Taisha Original

At shrines, you can get “omikuji,” which are slips of paper with your fortune written on them. They don’t predict events, rather they simply say things like “great luck” or “bad luck.” If you get a bad fortune, you are supposed to tie it to a tree.

Izumo Omikuji

After looking around Izumo, I returned to Matsue.

Matsue Castle.

Matsue Castle

Sunset over Lake Shinji.

Matsue Shinji-ko Sunset

And this is in the wrong place chronologically, but for one last picture, here’s the bullet train arriving in Kobe.

Kobe Shinkansen

Sports Day and Harvesting Rice

September 27, 2007

. . . are two unrelated things I took part in last weekend.

Sports Day is the same annual school event that I talked about last year. Alas, this time my vantage point was lousy, so I don’t have any good pictures. This will have to serve.

Hibarigaoka Taiikukai

Sports Day at my current school was fairly similar to how it was organized at my first school, but there was one big difference. Rather than doing pyramids and other mass acrobatics, the boys did a dance. They were less than enthusiastic.


The following day I harvested rice with some teachers from the special needs school (where I worked every Friday for my first term), also accompanied by their families and a new JET and his wife. I did this last year, although it was in October that time. Last year I forgot my camera, but I didn’t make that mistake again.

Rice Harvesting 1

Grain! Sickles! Barbecue!

Rice Harvesting 2

Okay, the barbecue part isn’t pictured, but we did have one. But first we cleared the plot. We only did half of it by hand, then the kids got to drive a combine.

Rice Combine


I still owe an explanation of Yasukuni Shrine, but I’ll leave that for my next post. If I don’t put this entry up now, then I won’t get to it until Saturday, and then it would be that much less likely that I’ll write or at least start another post this weekend. So I’m hitting Publish.

Neon Crosses

June 11, 2007

It’ll probably be another week before I get to my post on Fukuoka. Among other things, I’m preoccupied by my upcoming 90-minute English lesson for my school’s PTA this Wednesday. I don’t know how many people will be there or where their ability levels will be (all over the map, probably), and I’ve never taught adults before. But the best part is how I found out about this task. A week ago a pair of PTA members came into the teachers’ room after school, approached me, and said (in Japanese), “We want to have an English conversation class. We talked to the vice principal and he said you’d do it . . .” Yeah. At least they gave me notice.

But enough whining. Like I was saying, it’ll be a while longer before I have time to write up my intended post, but in the meantime, there is one more thing from my trip to Korea that I forgot to mention.


One particularly striking aspect of modern South Korea is the degree to which Christianity has taken root. During my trip, I was approached by Jehova’s Witnesses three or four times and twice by members of a Korean church that seemed similar to Seventh-day Adventists. Apparently, Korea is the second largest source of Christian missionaries, after the US. Looking out over Seoul at night reveals red neon crosses throughout the city.

About 28% of South Koreans are Christian, with Buddhists accounting for 23%, 1% for “other,” and the rest not claiming any particular religion. In Japan, meanwhile, less than 1% of the population is Christian. Why has Christianity taken off in South Korea and not in Japan? There are a number of reasons.

One reason is the existence of a supreme creator deity in Korea’s rather amorphous, native, shamanistic religion that was around before Buddhism swept in. There were demigods in this old folk religion, but as the creator was the unchallenged god, total monotheism wasn’t much of a conceptual leap.

But in Shinto, Japan’s pre-Buddhist folk religion (which is partly tied to the imperial institution and has mostly coexisted with Japanese Buddhism in a complimentary relationship), there are innumerable “kami.” Kami is translated to “god,” but the concept is different from gods in Western polytheistic traditions (e.g. ancient Greek gods) and it’s nothing like the Judeo-Christian God. Monotheism and a land devoid of kami is an alien world-view in Japan.

The other reason is a matter of history and identity. When Christianity entered Japan in the 16th century it gained some converts, but along with declaring national isolation, the Tokugawa Shogunate outlawed Christianity as a foreign faith that subverted people’s loyalties. Today, Japan has freedom of religion guaranteed in its constitution, and there are about a million Christians in the country, but Christianity doesn’t lend itself to the syncretism embedded in Japanese culture.

Christianity came to Korea at the same time it entered Japan and it also had a rocky start. I don’t think it was banned, but Christianity was severely criticized by Neo-Confucian scholars. However a group of anti-establishment scholars embraced Christianity for its egalitarianism, and churches were founded in a native movement, without the assistance/control of foreign churches (which is an important detail).

I’m skipping some significant history to wrap this up more quickly.

During the Japanese occupation (1905-1945), Korean churches became associated with nationalism and the resistance movement, because they refused to take part in Emperor worship, which was made mandatory in the 1930s. Thus, Christianity became viewed not as a foreign religion, but as patriotically Korean.

And that’s that. I’m leaving a lot of things explained poorly or not at all, but this post ended up growing much longer than I was expecting, so I’ll call it good. Next time: Fukuoka. (I’m just tempting fate every time I say “Next time: X,” but it’s good to have goals, right?)

Korea: Part III

June 4, 2007

Busy, busy.

Today I joined the 7th graders on a field trip. We planted rice seedlings and potato cuttings.

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of last week, the conference for re-contracting JETs in western Japan was held in Kobe (eastern Japan’s is in Tokyo). The conference is only for first-time re-contractors, not for those going into their third year, but there were still about 900 of us [edit: not 1,800; that’s the national total]. Everyone, including Kobe JETs, was given a room at the hotel where the convention took place. I stayed the first night at the hotel, but one of my two roommates snored unbelievably loudly, so I slept at home on Tuesday. Blessed silence.

Okay. Korea.


After Seoul, I returned my port of entry, Busan, where I stayed for two nights. Busan (“Pusan” is an older Romanization) is Korea’s second largest city (~3.6 million) and its largest port. Here’s a view of the bay.


Busan isn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world, but it does have some interesting spots.

Beomeosa (“buh muh sah”) is a Buddhist temple in the mountains north of Busan. It was founded in 678 and is still an important and active temple today. However, none of the buildings are more than 400 years old, as the temple was burned down during – I’m sure you can guess by now – the Japanese invasion of the 1590s.

Busan Beomeosa Roofs

I appreciated how, although the roofs are patched with concrete in spots, they haven’t been given conspicuous concrete frames like the palaces in Seoul.

I liked this door.

Busan Beomeosa Door

It was the only one I saw that had a picture, but I think it’s just a random decoration and not a sign of any particular significance.

There were a bunch of these monuments leading up to the temple.

Busan Beomeosa Turtle

I have no idea what they are. They were all slightly different from one another, but each had a turtle as its base. The inscriptions are in Chinese.

After Beomeosa, I went to see the ruins of a fort in the western mountains that has a wall stretching several miles. Unfortunately, the part I visited was one of the more boring sections, although still good for a hike. This was about all there was to see.

Busan Wall

I should have been afforded a fantastic view of the city, but the white haze that you can see in the picture obscured everything beyond a certain distance. At first I thought that the haze was fog, but when I actually paid attention to it, it became obvious that it was something else.

As the day progressed the haze grew increasingly thick. Back down in the city, people were covering their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs and some wore surgical masks. Eventually I couldn’t see the end of the block, and when the light breeze blew into my face it stung my eyes. So what was this nastiness? Dust from northern China. Yup.

After six days in Korea, I took the hydrofoil ferry back to Japan. I spent a couple days in in the city of Fukuoka (which is a post in itself) and then took the bullet train back to Kobe.


My trip to Korea was sometimes stressful – I traveled alone and I don’t know the language – but I’m really glad that I went. It was fascinating to experience a different culture, and despite many shared influences, Korea is very different from Japan. There are little things, like how Koreans use metal chopsticks and eat rice with spoons, and then there are significant differences in how people interact. People yell a lot. They don’t have the Japanese’ extreme concern about imposing on others. Once, when I was riding the subway, an umbrella seller made his way through the cars, loudly hawking his wares. For a couple seconds, before I figured out what he was doing, I was worried that he was drunk or mentally ill. On another train, a couple of college students were soliciting donations for some sort of charity, loudly giving their spiel to the whole car before going to each person with their collection box. These intrusions, which would be unimaginable here in Japan, weren’t exactly welcomed by the locals, but they were clearly regarded as being perfectly ordinary.

Well, I could keep rambling, but I’m tired and its getting harder to arrange my thoughts into anything coherent, so I’ll end this here. Next time, Fukuoka.


Ah, but one more thing: Congratulations Susie and Ronald! May you have health and happiness in abundance.


April 8, 2007

Or, “Even if I Have a Strong Liver, My Other Organs Don’t Appreciate All That Drinking.”

On Friday night, I had a farewell party with the teachers from my old school. In grand Japanese tradition, this involved drinking like fish. Now I’m rather proud of the fact that I’ve never once drunk to the point of throwing up, but while that record still holds, this time I apparently drank so much that I gave myself gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). I felt lousy on Saturday morning, but ate breakfast with no problem. However, I grew increasingly nauseous and wasn’t able to eat lunch. Around 1pm, I threw up some bile (my stomach was empty), and at 4 I wasn’t getting any better, so I walked to the hospital. They gave me a prescription (three actually), for a couple days worth of meds and I’m feeling much better now, but I didn’t get a darn thing done yesterday. At least I learned some new Japanese: gastritis = 胃炎 (“ien”). Anyhow, I’ll have to be more restrained at my new school’s welcome party on next Friday.

Speaking of my new school, I went there on Friday afternoon and met a few teachers. According to the head of English, the school has had 90% of its staff change in the last three years. The current crew should be much tougher, though, which was the point of all the transfers.


I was going to talk about Korea, but then I realized that I have pictures of my old school that I’ve been meaning to share, so I’ll do that first.

This is the teachers’ room. Well, half of it.

Sumiyoshi Teachers’ Room

“Congratulations on Graduating”

Gosotsugyou Omedetou

Alas, I forgot my camera on graduation day, but I brought it for the last couple days of class. That means that I don’t have any pictures of third-years though, since their last day (graduation) is a week before the end of the term.

A first-year English class.

Sumiyoshi 1st Grade English

Posing for a shot with some first-year students . . .

Sumiyoshi 1st-Years

. . . and with some 2nd-years.

Sumiyoshi 2nd-Years

After school, the students have to clean.

Sumiyoshi Cleaning

Then club activities last until 5 or 6.

Here, softball practice is starting, with tennis in the upper right.

Sumiyoshi Softball

Not pictured, but also using the same field: track, baseball, soccer, and volleyball.

Brass band members always warm up outside or in the halls.

Sumiyoshi Band

The school has a small martial arts hall, used by the kendo club and the table tennis club.

Sumiyoshi Budoujo

Sumiyoshi Kendo

Basketball and badminton have the gym and the swim team does dry-land practice during the off season. There’s also a science club, a broadcasting club, and the student council.


Next time: Korea.

I Didn’t Get Kidnapped by North Korea

April 5, 2007

Nor was the ferry harassed by Chinese warships. So my trip was a success!

I have lots of pictures to sort through, but that and the related travel report will have to wait until the weekend. Tomorrow, all of the Kobe JETs will meet with their new schools at the Board of Education. After that, we’ll probably adjourn to be shown our respective campuses. And then in the evening, my old school has a dinner party to bid farewell to teachers who are leaving and to welcome the new arrivals.

In other school-related news, I’ve been assigned the position of ward team leader for my new ward, so I’ll be a point of contact between the Board of Education and the JETs in my ward, and I’ll be in charge organizing quarterly-ish ward team meetings. Crap. Responsibilities.

The End of the School Year

March 22, 2007

Today was the last day of class and tomorrow is the closing ceremony. The next two weeks are Spring Break and then the new school year begins.

Speaking of which, I finally received my new assignment. For the entirety of the new school year, I’ll be working at Hibarigaoka Junior High, which is five train stops west of downtown and a fifteen-minute bus ride up into the mountains. My predecessor describes the school as”hell,” with students walking in and out of class, windows getting broken all the time, one of the English teachers apologizing to judo club members when they tell her off, and so on. However, as an upside to Kobe’s policy of transferring teachers fairly frequently, that particular teacher (plus yet another English teacher) are being moved, and the replacements will be probably be chosen from tougher characters. And my current school also has a reputation for wild, impossible-to-teach students (albeit not too violent), and I’ve loved it there. We have a lot of enforcer-type teachers though, so the state of my next school might depend on the quality of the transfers. But before I have to deal with that, I’m going on a vacation.

Last weekend I went on a trip with the second grade teachers. Originally, we were going to Fukuoka, a major city in Kyūshū, the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands. Unfortunately, one teacher had to attend a funeral and another’s wife has been battling cancer, so instead of going anywhere far, the venue changed to the town of Maiko, which is technically part of Kobe. We stayed in a resort-ish hotel near the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge. The bridge was pretty, but the trip was a bit lame. I enjoyed spending time with the teachers, though.

So. Last week I realized that the school year is almost over and I hadn’t made any plans for Spring Break. I want to visit China, but it was already too late, since you need to arrange a visa in advance. So I thought, why not make that trip to Fukuoka? And to get to the point, while researching Fukuoka, I discovered that there are ferries to Korea. So after making plans and then reserving tickets and hotels through a travel agent, my vacation looks like this:

On Tuesday, I’ll take the bullet train to Fukuoka and then catch a hydrofoil ferry to Busan, South Korea. I’ll spend a day in Gyeongju, three days in Seoul, and two days back in Busan, returning to Japan on Monday, the 2nd. Then I’ll stay in Fukuoka until I head home on Wednesday evening.

Ack. I was going to write more, but I need to get to bed.