Sunday, April 26, 2009

Badminton club

I found out that there was a badminton club on campus and inquired about playing with them.  I think they were a bit hesitant at first, but since I have been coming to the practices when I can and doing all the training (running, sprints, footwork drills, etc.), I think they can see that I am taking this as seriously as I can.  However, I could barely walk after the first practice.  I forgot what lunges can do to the glutes if you haven't done them in awhile...

I played badminton as a kid in England and then took a number of classes in college (one of the deans was a former Olympian), so I know my way around a birdie and racquet.  Also, when Joan was in grad school, I played with a large group of international folks on Friday nights and Sunday mornings.  I wasn't the worst player of the 30 or so people, but I was the only American.
Yet it has been seven years since I played serious, and wow, am I rusty!  It is really frustrating, but I think it will start to come back. I also realized that the strings on my racquet are also seven years old and have lost some of their 'snap.'  I took it to "Racquet Shop Fuji" over in Kichijoji on Friday and paid 2,200 yen (approx. $20) to have it restrung.  I am hoping that the new strings will compensate for everything else.

To help me remeber their names, I took photos of some of the guys with their names.  I am having the hardest time remember Japanese names, especially the men!  I put them in this entry just for the heck of it.  Aren't they a handsome lot?

Engrish rulz!

Here is a classic from a festival we went to today...

Second Week of School

Things are starting to settle down with my schedule - finally!

I have met with both my Econ and International Relations (IR) freshman for eight classes, and I am starting to build a relationship with them.  The IR class continues to be "genki" (full of energy) and will do what I tell them with enthusiasm.  All I have to do is remind them that they are going to America in a short time or start speaking with them at a normal American speed, and they are filled with motivation.  The Econ class is still a little tough.  However, I am learning how to motivate them and best work with them.

The Sohphmore English class is good.  I barely remembered them because I only met them once on Tuesday and had seen a boatload of other students since then.  This class's high level will make it easy and fun to teach.

The Freshman English Repeater class...  Well, I can appreciate the idea, but as an affective way to teach English...

My Comm L class of extremely high level students has been interesting.  The lower level students who showed up on the sign up day did not return, which made it much easier.  On the second meeting, we talked about their English needs and desires and hit upon the idea of each student creating their own blog as the vehicle for their writing, as well as teaching them a potentially useful skill.  They, and I, are pretty excited about the project.  If the students are willing, I will post their blog links on this blog, and perhaps you can read them and make comments about their writing (postive and constructive, please!).  I think they would appreciate the international feedback.

For my Comm A class, on the first I had over 70 students sign up!  So, as per my plan, I only chose Freshman IR students going to America, starting at the bottom level and going up till I had enough students.  From level 11 (16 being the lowest), I made it to level 6 by the time I chose 27 students.  The second meeting went well, with more genki students and lots of English.

Overall, I have a good schedule.  I only have two early morning classes, and the rest of the days have nice blocks of time free between classes to get organized, run to the gym, or go shopping.  On Friday, I only have one class at midday, so that opens up some good opportunities for early starts on weekend trips.

I'll try to keep you updated on teaching stuff, but it is very quickly becoming mundane.  I will try to keep the fresh stuff coming!

A Hot Time in the Sento!

Friday night was the official welcome party for new teachers at CELE (Center for English Language Education).  It was mostly current and new Visiting Faculty Members (VFMs) and some Japanese teachers and staff who work with us or know some of the Americans.  Some of us ate too much, drank too much, and stayed up too late.

So combined with the fact that Saturday was cold, rainy, and miserable, few people left their apartments.  I managed to drag myself to the AU gym for a pretty decent work out, and Joan went for a run in the fairly heavy, chilly rain - brave girl!

That evening, nobody was in the mood to do anything, but I had been agitating for awhile for an excursion to the local sento.

A sento is a traditional public bath in Japan. Before most houses and apartments had indoor plumbing and bathing facilities, the public bath was the place to get clean and warm and practice “skinship” – which I think is actually how they pronounce the word. I don’t know how they spell it… Skinship is the set of social skills and the ability to feel comfortable around other people, especially naked people. I read somewhere that the older generation in Japan is concerned that the younger generation has lost that skinship and now feel uncomfortable around strangers and even more alienated from society.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the experience in the “onsen” while on the Freshman retreat, a resort/spa-like natural hot springs experience. The sento is similar but very practical and utilitarian. Those of you who have experienced public “banyas” in Kazakhstan or Russia or perhaps some other type of public bath would recognize it immediately. Some things are the same all over the world.

So, back to Saturday night. Joan, Josie, and I bundled up and trudged the three and half blocks through the rain toward the train station. The doorway was half covered by a hanging curtain, and just inside was an area with small lockers for footwear and umbrellas; ladies to the left; gentlemen to the right. Through the sliding door was a changing room split in half by a wooden wall that did not reach the ceiling. Sitting in a raised booth just inside the door with a commanding view of both genders’ room was an old lady, who very kindly took our 450 yen apiece and graciously (we assume) told us to enjoy our bath.

There was nothing else but to strip down under her watchful gaze, store clothing in the larger lockers, and walk with pride through the steamed up glass doors to the bath! And so I did…

Inside was a large, hot, steamy, tiled room. The first two thirds was divided up by waist-high walls with shower heads and spigots. I grabbed one each from the pile of stacked plastic stools and wash basins and chose a spot. Before entering the communal pool, one must be scrubbed clean, if not raw. After a cold and chilly day, the endless hot water and soap felt good. There was one other patron in one of the pools, but for all apparent purposes, it was a solo adventure. Over the not to the ceiling wall, I could hear Joan and Josie giggling and talking to other bathers.

Once clean, I walked up to the pools, the smaller one brown from mineral water and the others green from underwater lights. I stuck a foot in both and quickly decided the green pool was way too hot for my pre-chilled state, so I slipped into the brown pool with a sigh. After a few minutes of soaking, I was ready to move up the temperature scale, so I changed pools and gingerly lowered myself into the green water. Wow! It was hot…

After I don’t know how many pool switches and cooling showers, I finally wrapped it up and took my lobster red body out to the changing room. A small bottle of generic 7 Up from the little glass fronted fridge was deliciously refreshing. I heard Joan and Josie changing on the other side, so I sent a text to let them know I was also ready to go.

We met out side, all of us glowing and extremely clean. The cold air and rain on the wind now felt much better. We floated home and slept extremely soundly. I think that especially in the winter time, the sento is going to be a regular event.

Friday, April 17, 2009

We are officially aliens!

Hurrah!  We finally have our alien registration cards!  Every time we say that phrase, Joan makes an alien beeping sound.  This  will let us do things like use the community sports center, register for a cell phone account, and other stuff.  I really like the way my head looks asymmetrically bald...

Also, I have included an image of my AU ID card that I have swipe in the card reader in our building every work day.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

First week of classes

One more day to go. Friday will be my first Communication A class, a low-level elective class that meets for 90 minutes at midday. I have no idea how many students will show up as it is an elective class. Some of the other teachers have had well over 100 students show up for sign up. They usually have an idea of what level the class will be and are able to quickly eliminate more than enough.

However, when I had my Communication L class on Tuesday, only 11 students showed up! One reason for the poor turnout may be that the class begins at 4 pm, and many students do not want a class that late in the day as they have a one to two-hour commute every day. Unfortunately, the class is supposed to be a higher-level reading and writing class (I have to choose/create the content/syllabus), and only seven to eight of the students have good enough English to function at that level. I am going to let the four lower students been in the class if they want, but I am going to warn them that it will be a difficult class. Maybe that will scare them off...

So the class tomorrow will be aimed primarily at low-level freshman who are going to America next semester with the AU exchange program. Hopefully I will have enough students at approximately the same level. This class will also require its own book/syllabus that I need to figure out.

I have two Freshman English (FE) classes: Econ 11 and International Relations (IR) 11 (16 being the lowest). The number indicates the level of English skill based on assessment tests and oral placement interviews. These classes meet Monday through Thursday for 45 minutes. The IR class is 'genki' (outgoing/energetic) and really excited about going to American next semester. The Econ class is a little quieter and is taking longer to open up and relax. Their textbook has already been chosen and has a great deal of supplemental and teacher-helpful materials. (The photo is of my Econ 11 class - notice the classic 'peace' hand gesture...)

I also have a Sophomore English (SE) 4 (12 being the lowest) class that meets on Tuesday at 2:30 for 90 minutes. Most of these students went to a university in Washington state last semester as an exchange student and are pretty fluent. The curriculum is all written out and quite detailed and will be quite easy to teach.

And the last and certainly the least is Freshman English Repeaters (FER). For students who fail FE, they are required to take this class by the end of senior year. There is a writing/reading component that I do not teach and know little about. I will "teach" the speaking/listening part on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The students are required to meet with me seven times a semester, each time having watched a movie in English and filling out a handout about it. We then meet for five to six minutes, talking about that movie. That's it. However, apparently many students are able unable or unwilling to do this and end up failing FER.

So that's it. It is not a very heavy teaching load compared to some. The Center for English Language Education (CELE) is very hands off about teaching and let's us teach the classes as we see best. It is quite refreshing to not be micromanaged. The new vice director is very laid back and open to new ideas. Plus there is just loads of vacation time!


For great examples of Engrish, go to

Here is a link to a great one...

Also, cool blog is


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Day two of teaching

Things are looking good!  My Econ students warmed up a little bit today, and my IR students were very 'genki.'  We talked about them going to America next semester and how important their English ability will be.  I gave them some examples of how Americans talk in a casual setting, and their jaws hit the floor when they heard it...

In my communication class, an elective one, I had 11 students come to sign up for class. Unfortunately, their levels range from almost fluent to pretty basic.  I think I may have to cut some students, which could lower the number to seven.  Luckily, I have complete autonomy in my class, but it is still a pretty small class.  I'll to talk to my vice director tomorrow and see what she thinks.

I meet with my lower level communication class on Friday.  I plan to focus the class on Freshman and other students who are going to America next semester.  I guess it all depends on who actually shows up to sign up for the class...

Monday, April 13, 2009

First day of classes

Well, so it has begun... Actually, it was kind of fun. My Econ 11 Freshman English (FE) class was not very very excited to be there. Perhaps they were unsure of having a foreigner at the front of the class after years of learning from Japanese teachers. If I put myself in their shoes, back when I had studied Spanish in high school, I think I would also be a little nervous about a class taught in Spanish by a Hispanic teacher...

The International Relations (IR) 11 FE class was a little more 'genki' - energetic and upbeat. They actually tried to use their English and laughed a little at my weak jokes.

The afternoon class was Sophomore English 4, mostly students who had spent the last semester studying in AU's sister schools in Washington state. There English is quite good, and I can tell they are used to dealing with America in the classroom.

It was also the day when all the clubs do their recruiting, so the quad was full of tables promoting their activities. It was chaotic but cool. I saw some students and did some chatting. I also 'joined' the soccer club and hope to start playing with them tomorrow. There is no practice this week with the badminton club, which is good because my body could use a rest. Here's a video of the scene on the quad today:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Freshman Retreat

Asia University takes the freshman class to Kinugawa, a small town in the foothills of the mountains outside of Tokyo, for a retreat. The purpose is to let the approximately 500 students in the law and international relations faculties get to know each other, met some of the faculty, and ask questions about the school and classes. We all went in 13 coach buses, but for comparison, it is 2.75 hours away by train. It is a two-nighter for the students and some staff and faculty, but for the 13 CELE faculty, it was just an overnighter.

As we left Tokyo and passed through the countryside, it was interesting to look out the window. Otherwise, the trip was hellish because of the three upperclass team leaders who took turns yelling into the microphone attached to the bus PA system. They were trying to keep the students energized by playing quiz games and other ice breakers. If it hadn't been for my mp3 music player, I think I would have gone insane.

For lunch, we stopped at a rest area where everyone was handed a 'bento' box - a pre-prepared box of sushi and other tasty foods. The photo here is not of my bento but of a friend's who had to buy a vegetarian one from a stand.

Once, at the hotel, we quickly checked in and then had to go meet a group of students with their assigned Japanese faculty leader. We were to introduce ourselves, practice some English, and explain to them about Freshman English and its requirements. A few students were able to communicate a little in English, but for the majority of them, this was the first time interacting with an English-speaking foreigner. The video at the end of the blog captures only a little bit of the experience.

After that, we were free to have dinner at the buffet. There was a wide variety of interesting food but nothing inspired. In fact, the only thing I went back for seconds for was the pizza!

Back in the room, we had a few beers from the hotel room fridge while sitting at the low table on the tatami mats. We were staying with the law faculty, and they generously offered to pay for the fridge contents. After we finished with our fridge, we raided some of the other teachers' fridge. Then, the seven other CELE teachers who were staying at a nearby hotel that was not quite as nice came on over to join us. We had a very nice time relaxing, telling stories, and getting to know each other.

Around midnight, everybody left, and Russell and I decided to go to the 'onsen' for a late night soak. An onsen is a Japanese hot springs bath and is a wonderful thing. Somewhat similar to the banyas we experienced in Kazakhstan, you start out by sitting on a small plastic stool in front of hot and cold water taps and bath away. Then, you saunter over to the clear pools of hot water and gingerly lower yourself in. Oww... Ohh... Ahhhhhhhh...

We couldn't go to the outdoor pool as it was closed. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily because it made for a tiring day) my roommate starting snoring at 5:30 AM, so it was easy to get up and go for an early morning onsen. I sat there in the steaming water with the chill air on my head and shoulders, looking up at the mountains and listening to the bird chirps. Not a bad cure for a hangover. Click on this link to see a photo of a similar outdoor onsen pool.

Another uninspired buffet of breakfast food but decent coffee helped, as well. I especially enjoyed the seaweed medly that I had with my eggs and sausage (see photo)!

The midmorning was take up with more speechs for the students about school stuff, and then a form of a job fair where the different faculties set up tables and answered questions from students. I think the reason we had student come up to us was because some of the International Office staff made them. However, they were quite brave and tried to talk to us about Freshman English. As there were not enough students for all of us CELE people, I volunteered to walk out in to the room and accost poor unexpecting students and viciously force them to speak English with me. Oh, it was glorious to watch them squirm...

Then it was lunch time, and we were free to leave. A very comfortable train ride through the country eventually got us to the bustle and noise of the city.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Where everybody knows your name...

I think we may have found our local watering hole! On Thursday night, after dinner, I suggested that we go to a little izakaya (a bar that serves snacks and such) up the road that we had seen before. It looked incredibly small, with room for only 10 stools pressed up against the bar, the wall almost scraping the chair back. It had looked funky and full of character.

So, with Ryan as our translator and guide, we got Derek, another teacher, to go with us for drinks and snacks. It was a total blast! It was one of those great cultural experiences where everyone has a good time, laughing at each others jokes in languages we don't understand, sharing food and fun. I am sure the beer and sake helped...

When the four of us opened the door and crowded in, there was only one customer at the bar and two guys behind it. They were right out of central casting. The tall younger one was goofy and chatty. The short older guy who ran the grill was quieter but still funny in a reserved way. They were quite surprised to see four foreigners appear out of the night. Once Ryan told them where we lived and worked, they relaxed and opened up almost immediately.

We ordered a round of 500 ml Asahi beers and some snacks: grilled fish (whole), shitake mushrooms, and large green onions. We drank and nibbled, learning vocabulary from the bar guys. Soon, more customers came in, filling the bar. The building is slightly wedge shaped, so one end of the bar had to narrow to make room for the chairs. The space behind the bar is so narrow that the bartender cannot get his body to the end of the bar where the beer taps are, so he has to lean way over and reach for the taps. At one point, one of the regulars just leaned over the bar and refilled his own mug. The grill is tucked back in the other corner and looks like a complete fire hazard with a buildup of grease on the wall. And when I say grill, I mean like a BBQ grill with charcol burning in a rough metal box...

A lady was sitting next to me, probably in her 50's. She had ordered some food that we saw being made but couldn't tell what it was. When Ryan asked, the cook held up this long pink ribbon of flesh. Oh, grilled pig intestine, of course. So, when the dish was put in front of her, I eyeballed it with some concern. We had been talking earlier, trading bar vocabulary, and when she saw me looking at her food, she grabbed one with her chopsticks and said, quite clearly, "Challange!" I looked at Ryan, and he said, "Yep, that's what she means." I turned back to her and opened my mouth to say no thanks and, you guessed it, she stuck that nugget right in my mouth!

So I had to chew that tough but tasty piece of grilled pig intestine. As I struggled to break it up with my teeth, I said, "Chewy, like gum!" She said, "Hai! Chewing gum!" Then she poured a glass of warm sake and pressed it into my hand. It really helped wash down the 'snack.'

When we left, the guys behind the bar and the customers all told us to come back soon. It seems like a nice little local place, and I think we just may have to become regulars...

I forgot to take any pictures, but this link will show you a collection of photos of other izakayas that might help you imagine ours.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cool cars

One of the neatest things about different country are the differences in cars. We take them for granted at home: the styles, colors, shapes, etc. When you start to see other varieties, it really catches your eye.

We bought a Honda Fit about two years ago, a small, fuel efficient hatchback. It looked really small in the States. Here, it is a mid-size car, almost a sedan! I've taken a few snapshots of interesting cars...

No pickup trucks! Mini vans are tool boxes on wheels.

A Honda Vamos!

A crazy Star Trek Toyoto van...

Joan is a giant among cars - a Suzuki something...

A Honda Move.

Loving the cuteness!

Today we went for a trip to Kichijoji today for some cherry blossom viewing (lots of people in Inokashira Park) and shopping. Joan wanted to pick up some Japanese herbs she had learned about from Ryan: shiso and sansho (sounds like the name of a Mexican police detective drama).

I remembered that in this hub of commerce was Yodabashi, a crazy big store with lots of electronics and stuff. We decided to check it out because we wanted a mouse pad. How come there are million of them around when you don't want one?

So we walked around with big eyes, all epilectic with the bright lights and loud noises. We found a mouse pad for Joan and a screen duster/wrist rest for me. He makes me sleepy...
Oh yeah, check out this link for random photos of Kichijoji - it comes from a program Flickr has called Hive Mind. Check it out - you can find really cool random photos about whatever tags you put in the search engine...

Friday, April 3, 2009

First trip out of the big city

Last Monday was a free day at school, so we decided to take another teacher's recommendation and take a day trip to Takaosan, or Mt. Takao. Originally, the plan was to go on the Saturday, but as it was one of the first nice weekends in spring, people told us not to go on the weekend because it would be completely packed with other visitors and hikes.

So, with a day pack of snacks, inigri (triangle-shaped, seaweed wrapped rice with a tasty filling), and water, we made an early start and rode the train for about an hour, looking out the windows at new areas of Tokyo. Wow, it is a big city and goes on and on...

Once at the mountain, we found ourselves on the map and starting hiking up the rather steep trail. At approximately 600 meters (1800 feet), 'mountain' is probably and overambitious word to use for Takao, but it is still tiring to get to the top. There is a ski lift and a cable car that will take visitors halfway up. As the majority of people take these, we quickly left behind the sounds of people and machinery. It felt wonderful to climb through the quiet forested hillside, listening to different birds and the wind blow through the tall cedars. The views of the city were dramatic at the overlook spots.

Halfway up or so, the trail met the cable car and ski lift, and the tourism begain: snack bars, souvenier stands, and toilets, oh my! However, there was a great deal of history as the mountain has been a destination for religious visitors for over 1,200 years. The Takaosan Yakouin Yukiji Temple is there and is dedicated to Yakushi Nyori, the Medicine Buddha. One thing we had not seen before was that all the statues of Buddha had crocheted red hats!

One of the religious elements of Mt. Takao is the long nosed goblin or tengu that is said to inhabit the mountain. He, or it, is a kami or supernatural creature, and originally tengu had been viewed as disruptive or harbinger of war. They are now seen as protective, yet still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests.

At the top of the mountain, the views were spectacular, and we stopped for a quick picnic lunch. However, as it was quite crowded and noisy, we took a dirt trail that followed the ridgeline to another mountain top about an hour away. Quickly it became quiet again, and we only saw a few people along the trail. Most of them were elderly people with backpacks and trekking poles. Further looking at the map revealed there was an extensive web of trails up into the mountains with wooden sleeping shelters. We are already making plans for train trips deeper into the mountain valleys and longer day hikes, perhaps even some overnighters, although we did not bring any camping gear with us.

At the top of the next 'mountain,' we found what I called a 'hillbilly cafe': a rough and tumbled place with homemade picnic tables, hot food, and cold drinks. Again, the views were great, and we'd like to go back for a meal. While standing there looking around, we saw a cat. Joan made the universal cat ' kiss kiss' sound, and kitty said, "Bring it on!" So, Joan got some serious cat lovin' on the mountaintop. Don't tell Gooby or Yezik, please. It would be awkward.

By the time we made our way back down Mt. Takao, it was early evening, and the crowds had thinned significantly. We were tired and footsore, and the train ride back was long and sleepy, but it was well worth it. When you come to visit and if you are up for a good hike, we'll happily take you there...

For the full photo tour, click on this link!

Hive Mind link photos

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Everyone texts

Cellphones are popular here, but not so much for talking. Most people text (type short messages using the alphanumeric keys on the phone. It is much cheaper and less disturbing to those around you. On the trains, there are signs and phones telling people to turn their cell phones to silent vibration and to not talk on the phone. If someone does, they get many dirty looks from other people in the car. When most Japanese people do talk on their cell phones, they usually duck aside to a quiet corner and speak quietly, covering the mouth with one hand.

But, boy, do they text! They text while walking down the street. They even text while riding their bikes...

One night on the way home by train, we were standing at the queuing markers on the platform that show people where to stand to be in position when the doors open (no cutting in line here). I was talking to Joan and happened to look past her. I quickly got out the camera and semi-sneakily snapped the following photo over her shoulder...

Good food at 735 feet

Last Saturday night, before a couchsurfer arrived, Kristina and Tim, one of the other couples in the Arms invited us out for dinner. They were taking the train to Shinjuku, a busy shopping and entertainment center on this side of Tokyo. We were to meet one of Kristina's students, Junko, who had recently returned from studying in America. She knew the location of many of the best places to eat.

When we arrived at the station, it became clear that Shinjuku really is one of the busiest train stations in the world! The constant flow of people, bright lights, and signs everywhere created quite a chaotic rainbow.

After we met Junko, she led us on a wandering walk into the city, following the screen of some GPS program on her cell phone. Eventually we arrived at what looked like a regular, yet massive, office skyscraper. An express elevator that bypassed the first 40 floors whooshed us to the 49th floor, our ears popping along the way.

We ate at a restaurant called "Asian Kitchen" that had a spectacular view.

The five us of us split many interesting and flavorful dishes. We really liked the beef and avocado Thai salad and the Okinawan bitter gourd with tofu dishes. Oh, the eating opportunities seem endless...