Monday, February 18, 2013

Ryuugakuchuu no baito? (A part time job while studying abroad?)

So, when I first started writing this blog I thought I would write about each trip I did, in its entirety. So I would only write posts about Japan, then only posts about Hawaii, etc. Lately I've been thinking that maybe that gets tedious for people, to only read about one place for so many posts. So I decided I am going to mix it up and start posting about my other experiences, as well as the rest of my Japan experiences. I'm also working on starting my Colorado spotlight, but it may be a while because a.) it's winter and b.) I am broke. But expect to see posts about my home state soon. Unfortunately, I don't have a post about something other than Japan written up yet, so until I do, please enjoy the following post about teaching English in Japan.

Most people when they study abroad tend to take it easy on any sort of responsibilities and focus only on having fun. While this is great, I was not so lax. Not only did my grades transfer directly back, requiring me to concentrate on school while having fun, I also picked up a part-time job. A student visa lets exchange students work for less than 20 hours. I was offered a position teaching English at an after-school program in Akita city. You might think I was hesitant to work, but in fact it was a great opportunity, a fun experience, and gave me a little extra spending money. What’s not to like?

I worked on Saturdays, and occasionally on Wednesdays if my recruiter, coworker, and fellow AIU student needed a shift covered. The first day I went into the city was to visit my new employer, with my friend to guide me. The drive there was lovely, as we passed seemingly endless rows of rice farms. Once we reached the city, however, I was a bit taken aback by the sudden urban scenery. Signs in half-familiar Japanese flanked me from all sides, with bright colors and cute mascots beckoning. Akita city is by no means a busy or crowded city, but it is still a stark contrast to the countryside of AIU.

The company I was to teach with was in a small building, surrounded by a sushi restaurant on one side, and a convenience store (konbini) across the street. When I walked in, I had to take off my shoes in the front area called a genkan. Japanese people are very particular about taking off shoes, and this is a distinct feature of Japanese homes. As silly as it may sound, I was delighted to be performing in this daily ritual of Japanese life. My boss was a Japanese man who had lived in the United States for much of his life. He didn’t need to give me a tour, because there was only one room, bisected by a tall book shelf. The d├ęcor was bright, cheerful, and very similar to any other elementary/middle school classroom. He gave me the textbook to take home and study, and told me what my students were like. He said that they were considered to be advanced for their age in the English language. With more than a little pride, he told me, “They are pretty smart.”

My second trip there was terrifying and great all at once. I had instructions from my friend on which buses to take, and where to get off, but I was very nervous. I gave myself a ridiculous amount of time to make sure I could make up for anything I might do wrong. Somehow I managed to get it all right, however I fumbled for a long time trying to count out the right change when I paid. I got a lot of awkward stares. (After that I would always have my fare ready and counted out.) Miraculously, I wasn’t late.

My first class was somewhat awkward. I had 3 students, two younger ones in late elementary who were brother and sister, and an older girl in middle school. They were all lovely, if a bit shy. I introduced myself, using my much practiced jikoshoukai (self-introduction). I asked them where they were in the book, and tested them a bit to get a grasp of their level. My understanding is that most Japanese students know how to read and write English fairly well, but can hardly speak or understand it. Thus I wanted to really focus on the oral part of the lesson. To get them used to hearing it, I would explain first in English, try my best to clarify in Japanese, and then repeat the explanation again in English. (My opinion is first-language support while learning in the lower levels of a second language is more effective than full immersion classes.) I also quizzed them in English. Luckily, they were fast learners and the awkwardness faded after a couple weeks.

Teaching them was a lot of fun, and I had the pleasure of teaching them a little about the United States, as well. I learned more about them and more about being a kid in Akita. On my last day with them, I bought them all cake to thank them for being so awesome. Before, I didn’t want to teach English in Japan, which is a common first career move for Japanese majors. This experience changed my mind. Now I am thinking that I might not just teach English in Japan, but maybe around the world! After all, I know from experience how crossing language barriers can help you cross country borders. J

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kimono Culture

As you may remember from my last post, I’m kind of a kimono fanatic. This stems from my long time fascination with geisha culture, which places particular importance on what geisha or maiko wear. So I thought I would share with you a little about kimono, and what makes them so awesome.

Kimono literally translates as “thing to wear”, but really only refers to the traditional, robe-like style of Japanese clothes you are probably familiar with. There are various types of kimono. The kind with the short sleeves that most women wear are generally just referred to as kimono, but may have specific names relating to their patterns. The beautiful, elaborate kimono with long sleeves are called furisode, and they are only worn by young women who have not married. They are often worn at the coming-of age-ceremonies that Japan holds for everyone who turns 20 in that year. (One is considered to be an adult at age 20 in Japan.) This kind of kimono is worn by maiko, apprentice geisha from Kyoto. In addition, they are used by maiko and geisha who specialize in dancing, because the longer sleeves emphasize the delicate movements. There are specific kinds of for mourning as well as marriages. There is also a summer Japanese robe called a yukata, which is thinner and easier to put on. Men’s kimono are often much simpler, usually in dark shades of blue, grey, green, and brown.

(A furisode kimono, worn by a kabuki performer. This is a photo borrowed from a friend.)

(Me and Justin at the kabuki performance. You can see how Justin's kimono is much simpler than mine. Note: My obi is a yukata obi because I didn't have time to learn how to wear the regular obi.)

Kimono are somewhat complicated to put on, and involve numerous pieces. It takes practice and specific instruction, and most people need help to put on fancier kinds of kimono. All kimono are a “one size fits all” deal, and they are made to fit through lifting and folding. Although the robe is all one piece, there are various necessary accessories that go with it. One such addition is the undergarments. Because kimono are expensive and made of fine silk, it is important to keep them as clean as possible, so they are not to be worn against bare skin. The most obvious accessory is the obi, or the belt that goes around the middle. These belts are usually very decorative and beautiful. Beneath the obi are many unseen accessories. There are a few simple cloth ties, used to hold up the hem of the kimono and to keep all the folds in place. There is also often a stiff rectangle of thin plastic to smooth out any wrinkles behind the obi. There are special collar inserts used to help keep the collar stiff. There are also various decorative accessories, such as an obi-jime, which is a thin, cord-like tie that goes around the outside of the obi, and is tied in pretty knots. The obi may be tied in a multitude of ways, each with its own particular set of steps. Luckily, a yukata is much easier to wear. You only need a couple ties underneath, and the obi is thinner and much easier to handle. However, keep in mind that yukata are very informal.

(My obi and a closeup of the wave pattern.)

(My purple yukata. You can see my obi-jime, which is pink, in the middle of my yellow obi.)

The art of pairing a kimono with its obi and obi-jime can be very deep, and it is something geisha must master. The color palate must be carefully considered. Obi should always stand out from the kimono, and not be too matching. Sometimes the obi will be the color of a small detail included in the kimono. For example, my yukata is mainly purple with pink flowers. The pink flowers have little yellow dots in the middle, so I chose a yellow obi. It stands out, but still goes with the outfit. Alternatively, obi are chosen based on pure color contrast and will often not be any shade involved in the kimono. You can think of this as choosing colors from a color wheel. Blue is on the opposite side of orange, so these colors look well together. However, Japanese aesthetics differ from our Western concepts, so the color wheel rule does not always work, but it is a good starting point. One must also consider the time of year. Seasons heavily influence which colors and patterns are appropriate to wear.

(Me and my roommate, wearing yukata. My roommate, Mai, chose a pink obi, but a green one would have worked as well, because of the green leaves in the robe.)

Kimono are very expensive. They can easily set you back a couple hundred collars, especially after buying all the accessories. However, they are also often sold to second hand stores, which is where I bought my kimono. I bought a green one that had a barely noticeable stain near the bottom for around $25, and then a beautiful orange kimono that had a tiny tear in the shoulder that had been sewn up for about $15. The problems were barely noticeable, and they were absolutely gorgeous. I also purchased a gold obi, which was another $20, I think. I haven’t bought all the necessary accessories, but I would say if you went to one of these thrift shops, you could easily buy a full set for around $100. Yukata are cheaper and often sold in complete sets, new, for around $50 or $70.

(Above: My second hand green and orange kimono, which closeups of the detailing. My gold obi works well with both of these.)

All this may sound complicated, but if you have a passion for the unique Japanese aesthetic, I highly recommend looking around to see if you can find a set you like. Even if you don’t wear them back home, they make beautiful wall pieces if you can find a way to mount them.  (Don’t use nails. Please.) My kimono and obi are definitely one of my favorite souvenirs I brought back with me, and I can’t wait for another chance to wear them.

Do you like kimono or other kinds of traditional clothing from around the world? Do you dream of owning your own complete kimono set? What kind of color combos sound appealing to you? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Kakunodate: Time Travel to the Days of Samurai

The third part of our first bus trip completely made up for the slightly gloomy second stop. The last area we journeyed to is considered to be the “little Kyoto of Akita.” It's a beautiful neighborhood called Kakunodate, which was formerly a samurai town. It still retains much of the traditional architecture and style of pre-war Japan, and walking around there feels like stepping into another time. Many of the samurai houses—expansive buildings with large gardens—are open to the public as museums. One of these houses was the first place we went to. Since it was still early spring, the gardens were not that green, but it was still a beautiful house.

The first section inside the house was a collection of samurai suits of armor, swords, and other assorted weapons. This place was like a dream come true for Justin, who is a sword fanatic. This was the one time he insisted on operating my camera, taking as many pictures as possible. He admired the designs in the blades, caused by carefully controlling temperature differences in the final stages of forging. As a student of iaido, or the art of drawing one's sword, his respect for the katana is considerable, but I think he might have left some drool on the cases surrounding them. We were also impressed by the full sets of armor, in bright red and blue colors, with fierce helmets used to intimidate the opponent.

(A couple sword blades. You can see the color variation in the center of the blade. It's almost like the signature of a craftsman.)

(A set of red samurai armor. It looks like he has the face a demon on his helmet. Rawr!)

After the swords was a treat for me: two beautiful kimono as well as sleeping kimono. The normal kimono were gorgeous and intricately detailed. The sleeping kimono were fascinating; they were pretty much like Japanese Snuggies, where they covered the whole body but you slept in them like sleeping bags. They were thick and looked pretty comfy. After that we perused Japanese furniture, artwork, and pottery. There was a beautiful collection of old cameras, as well as a collection of old music players like gramophones and a Thomas Edison phonograph.

(Two beautiful kimono on display.)

(The toasty sleeping kimono.)

(My favorite of the old cameras.)

(Edison phonograph, surrounded by the music cylinders.)

One of my favorite parts of the museum was the doll collection. They had these beautiful flat dolls made out of cloth, as well as an assortment of extremely tiny figurines. I was especially excited to see antique versions of the hina matsuri dolls I mentioned in a previous post. In the picture below, you can see that even after years of weathering, and although her colors have faded, the old Empress doll is still as beautiful as the bright new one.

(One of the flat dolls made of cloth.)

(The antique hina matsuri empress doll. Isn't her headdress just gorgeous?)

After the first museum, we wandered into the streets. With only the pavement to mark their place in the modern day, I felt like I was walking through the Edo period down pathways of cherry blossoms. Across the way, a vender was selling soft-serve cherry blossom flavored ice cream. Trying our best to smile while the Japanese visitors stared at us, Justin and I each ordered a cone topped with ice cream the color of ballet slippers. Sakura ice cream has a very interesting taste. There is definitely the taste of cherry, but it is quite floral, with a slight tang to it. It was delicious, but at the same time each bite made me go “hmm” just because it tasted so unusual.

We visited a second museum, where we saw a complicated instrument called a shou, made of 17 bamboo pipes that is said to imitate the sound and shape of a phoenix ( It sounds sort of like a mini organ.

(The Japanese instrument called the shou).

(The first couple minutes of this video show you how the shou is played, and what it sounds like.)

I also saw tools made in the mokume gane fashion, which is a style of melding different kinds of metal together to look like wood. This style was invented by Denbei Shoami in the 17th century, and it usually includes soft metals such as gold, silver, copper, and various alloys ( Below is a beautiful jewelry box, but there were also bowls, vases, and even a matcha tea container and scoop. Incidentally, my mom and step-dad's wedding rings are also made in the mokume gane fashion.

(A mokume gane jewelry box. It looks like gold laminated wood.)

After the second museum, Justin and I wandered over the the sakura lined river that runs through Kakunodate. Although it was still cloudy, the white blossoms stretching over the water was breathtaking and tranquil. I think we were there during a cherry blossom festival, because next to the river was an array of stands. Justin and I bought some delicious meat kabobs, and watched school-age children dance in a nihon buyo performance. If you have read my post about Japanese traditional dancing, then you have seen these videos, but I'll post them again at the bottom.

(The sakura lined pathways above the river bed.)

(The sakura trees along the bank of the river.)

(Looking through blossoms.)

(Am I the kami of this beautiful tree? No just a delighted tourist!)

Kakunodate was beautiful and full of wonderful things to see. There were many shops I never got to visit, because before long we were all ushered back onto the bus to go home. I wish I could have stayed many hours more. Like Lake Tazawa, I hope to return to this lovely little town, untouched by time, and experience all its charms.

Have you ever been to Kakunodate or another town designed to preserve traditional culture? What did you think of it? Would you ever get a wedding ring made from woven metals? Do you think the shou sounds like a phoenix?

(Me by the pinkest cherry tree I saw my whole trip!)

(The young nihon buyo performers at the cherry blossom festival near the river.)

(Even younger performers. So cute!)