Sunday, October 25, 2009

English camp and Iga festival!

Wow, what a week! Tuesday I worked at an English camp in Watarai, a tiny town near Ise. It was about an hour north of Nabari by train, but it was well worth the trek. We were up in the cold, brisk mountains surrounded by green tea farms, and the kids were just phenomenal. There were seven assistant language teachers and about fifty kids, so we each had a group of about seven students. My group was the best. You think I`m kidding? Just wait and see.

We started off with an interview game. Each ALT went around to different groups and the kids interviewed us using set questions. Basic stuff like, “what`s your name, what`s your favorite color, how old are you?” Then the regular ALT in charge, Dan, made statements about us like “Laura`s favorite color is red.” Students stood to the right or left of a true/false line. If they were wrong, they were eliminated. After about five questions, they counted up the students from each team, and the teams got a point per student. Most people had none, but mine had two.

The second game was pictionary. Even though I wasn`t allowed to give the students any hints, I sorted the cards from easiest to hardest, so we could get as many points as possible. They didn`t say we couldn`t do that, so it wasn`t cheating. And we won both rounds. Then we played telephone. Kids had to whisper a sentence in English down the line of seven team mates and see how garbled it got at the end. Again, the ALTs weren`t allowed to whisper anything, but I stayed near the kids and listened as each one spoke. If they got it wrong, I just shook my head, and they would try again. We didn`t get the highest score, but we were close. (I think other teams had a similar strategy.)

Then there was a relay game. Kids ran to me, I asked them a question, and when they answered, they ran back and passed the baton to the next person. Other teams made the mistake of speaking very slowly so the kids would understand every word, but I`ve learned that the fastest way to learn and understand a new language is to listen for keywords, and this is a good skill to teach the kids. So I spoke the questions rapidly, and simply shouted the most important words. “WHEN is your BIRTHDAY?” From the average of the two rounds, we got the most points.

For the last game, students wrote a word, and then the next student had to write another word starting with the last letter of the former word. It looks like this: are, ever, return, nice, etc. We only got points for correct spelling. I wasn`t allowed to say anything or write a new word, but as the students went down the list, I corrected all the bad spelling so we got a point for each one.

At the end of the day, my team won! The kids got a very nice prize of snacks and cookies. What did I get? Other than the very nice selection of candy given to all the ALTs and a very generous stipend which was nearly double the amount of my travel costs, I got this really awesome victory photo:

The camp ended around 4:20, and I was planning to go to the huge shrine in Iga, but the local ALTs advised me it wouldn`t be worth it since everything closed at 5:00. That saved me a good deal of disappointment and some money. The shrine isn`t going anywhere. All things considered, I`d say it was a good day.

For the rest of the week I taught a Halloween lesson at my school. I printed off the lyrics for the Ghostbusters theme song and blanked out some of the words, then had them fill in the words while listening to it play twice and me speak the words once. They really liked that. Then I talked about the history of Halloween and had the students practice a fun Halloween dialogue. As they left the room, if they told me “trick or treat” they got candy!

All but one class was really good and had a lot of fun, and that bad class belonged to the one teacher I have to work with who dosn`t speak very good English. She is also timid and dosn`t know how to control the class. I must have said, “sit down, be quiet, please listen,” about a hundred times before I finally lost my temper and shouted, “kiite kudasai!” (please listen) in Japanese. Nakayama sensei heard me in the next room and asked me later if everything was okay. It`s just this one corner of three boys, the same group that likes to curse me out in the halls. Ug. All it takes is a few to ruin the whole class.

On Saturday I went to the Tenjin Festival in Iga, which is their danjiri, or harvest festival to pray for good crops. Iga`s is particularly special because it is over four hundred years old, has some beautiful floats, and includes the oni, or demon parade. I went with my friends Fabio and Kayoko, and if you ever get a chance to go, it`s really something to see! The floats are also over four hundred years old, each one representing a different machi or town in Iga-Ueno. Here`s some pictures of the floats. This is the sun goddess float:

And this is the emperor float:

The tapestries on the floats were really ornate.
Here`s a creepy-looking “deer dragon.” I have no idea what it`s actually supposed to be:

All along the road there were stalls selling games and food. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday I had the grilled corn with soy sauce, a crape, chicken gyro (which was better than American gyros but too small to be worth the price), a strawberry candied apple, fried chicken, and an okinawan donut. Pretty tasty. Fabio insisted that all the people working the stalls had to make deals with the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. All of them? I doubt it. Only the ones with the “good spots” maybe, and I didn`t buy from them because they were the most expensive. These sorts of stalls are set up at every festival in Japan. A word to the wise: examine the majority of stalls before you buy anything. You can easily get swindled into paying 400 yen for a corn cob when someone else is selling it for 300. Or an even smarter idea, (what I did last time), pack a lunch and if you`re really bent on buying fare food, just get one thing. You`ll save a lot of money.

Anyway, this is a stall selling baby turtles from Mississippi of all places!

I was really tempted to buy one, but I thought, “what happens when I go home to America?” That little guy might be hard pressed to find a new home, as most of the other JETs don`t share my obsession with cute little animals. I`m sure I could find someone, but more importantly, long trips would become impossible. They have to eat twice a day!

The whole festival was supposedly centered around the city`s local Shinto shrine, but I only saw a few folks there. This is a typical “cleansing area” before you enter. They drink the water to purify themselves, then give some to the dragon (pour it into his mouth) for good luck. Here`s a picture of the fountain:

In the evening, they decorated a large float with dozens of beautiful red lanterns. Here`s two pictures of that.

Notice the guy on top of the float in the second picture? Can you imagine standing on a four-hundred-year-old wooden contraption like that, surrounded by dozens of tiny flames in paper containers?

On Sunday, Kayoko went to church with me and we had a nice turn out, meaning ten, not including the two pastors. She really enjoyed it. Kayoko and I actually met through this blog, and she said she was looking for a home church. I feel bad about only one thing. We had communion, and the pastor said, in Japanese, “Anyone who has been baptized please stand up.” Everyone stood up except Kayoko. Then, seeing that everyone else was standing, she looked around uncomfortably and stood as well on slightly shaky knees. I shouldn`t have said anything, but knowing this particular church`s policy and not wanting to put her on the spot later when the pastor asked her “have you been baptized?” I told her she could sit down. Kae, the lady who gives me a ride every week, told me this was good, but I felt a little guilty about it. Growing up, our church practiced open communion, meaning anyone who professed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, regardless of denomination or anything else, was welcome to the communion table. I felt as if I myself had barred her from the sacrament, that maybe if I`d said nothing she could have taken it.

This plays a big role in the research I`ve been doing lately for an American historical novel I`m writing. It takes place during the Great Awakening around 1740. During that time there are two “communion camps.” There`s what I call the “Jonathan Edwards camp” that is very strict about communion and who can take it. After all, it is in some symbolic fashion the blood and body of Christ and should not be taken lightly. The second camp, the “Solomon Stoddard camp,” (Jonathan Edward`s grandfather and predecessor), is very liberal about the sacrament, seeing it is a gift given freely by God that can actually lead the partaker to repent and believe in Christ. There is biblical evidence to give warning against both extremes, so as with most matters concerning my faith, I tend to take a middle, moderate route.

One time a Jewish friend of our family came to church and took communion. I don`t think that`s right. First of all, he wasn`t aware of what he was doing; he was unwittingly committing blasphemy against his own personal faith and while I don`t know if he felt guilty or not later, the possibility exists that he might or that his parents might. Secondly, it`s just disrespectful. It would be like a Christian dressing up as a Buddhist monk and chanting words they don`t understand while haphazardly flailing incense. That`s one reason why I refrain from participating in any Shinto and Buddhist rituals unless I know what they mean and am certain they don`t conflict with my Christian beliefs.

At the same time, the Jonathan Edwards camp took it way out of proportion. While I normally agree with his theology, come on, communion tokens? You have to have a special little piece of metal that says you can take it, after passing a lengthy test that proves you`re in agreement with the doctrines of that particular church? The disciples didn`t even have to do that! Besides, there`s nothing wrong with learning and experiencing new cultures, and Christ instructed us to share communion whenever believers gather together. Therefore I think it`s wrong to expect, as some churches do, for non-believers to leave the room during communion, or for folks to have to be a member of that church or denomination or whatever. As far as the baptism requirement…that makes sense, yet at the same time, if the person intends to get baptized, who`s to stop them from partaking in the sacrament? The disciples weren`t baptized when they took their first communion, or at least not all of them.

Anyway, we got it all straightened out in the end and Kayoko isn`t mad at me. She wants to keep coming, which is a good sign.

After church and the rice pudding I brought, Kayoko and I went back to the festival to see the oni, or demon parade. It`s basically the Japanese equivalent of Halloween; Japanese people used to dress up as demons to “scare away the evil spirits.” Today it`s just for fun, though they do say if the oni make a baby cry they will give that child good luck. Here`s a video of the beginning of the parade:

And this is the oni and a passing Samauri with his...umbrella bearer. It has something to do with a big battle that was won in Iga during feudal times.

And my personal favorite, a really cool dragon float. You can see the musicians on top:

Very repetitive, atonal music, but then check out some of the European folk music from the same time period, especially in Eastern Europe, and you`ll have a similar impression.

I had a lot more pictures and videos, but they`re not downloading for some reason. Oh, well. Next week I`m going to Toba for two days. I`m really excited!

Prayer requests for this week: I`m having some guy trouble. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Just pray for guidance and that I don`t do anything naïve and stupid. Also, there`s a little snag in setting up my English/Bible class for non-Christians on Thursday nights. There`s been some issues with other JETs teaching outside the schools and also preaching the gospel. So I`m having to get written permission from my supervisor and principal. If this is God`s will, pray that they agree and that there will be no more delays! And the teacher at our school with cancer is getting better! That`s a definite praise.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Writers Conferences and the Kyoto Imperial Grounds

Good morning (or for some of you out there, good evening)! My apologies for the switch in blog sites; livejournal told me I was out of space in my account to post pictures and video! I don`t like this site`s layout nearly as much, but if you have any suggestions on how to make it look nicer/easier to read, please let me know and I will fix it!

This weekend I went to two writers` events, a meeting in Osaka and a conference in Kyoto! There were only four of us at the English Writers and Readers club meeting in Osaka, but I feel it was very productive. They tore apart (figuratively) my story “Tapestry of Time,” but now I know how to make it better! I hope to be finished with the rewrites by the end of this week. With a church family and solid critique group and tons of international friends, what more could I ask for? Japan could very easily become a long-term home. If only I didn`t miss my family so much! Skype helps with that a lot, though. Now that I have home internet up and running properly, I can talk to my family and see them at least once a week! I talked to my mom for two hours on Saturday morning and got to see my cat, Cuddles! I don`t have a digital photo of him on hand, but I`ll add one soon.

One of the girls in the writers` club, Rianna, was really sweet and let me stay with her Saturday night. On Sunday morning, I headed off to the writers` conference in Kyoto. I was supposed to go with a British girl named Katie, but she slept through her alarm (who could blame her; I asked her to get up at 7:30), so I ended up going by myself. I missed the first session on publishing in Japan, but I talked to the guy afterwards and was a bit disappointed. Good luck trying to publish an English fiction book in Japan because no publishers here accept them. But I did get an interesting printing contact, so after my books are published in America or wherever I can print them and publicize them in Japan. There is a market here; it`s just not attainable by traditional means.

Here`s a picture of the “Revising Your Novel” seminar. Very useful:

Again, how I just happen to run into the right people at the right time is providence to me. At lunch time I was looking for a place to eat my bento (box lunch) and sat with three ladies outside. I could have picked from a dozen different locations to eat, but I happened to pick that one with those ladies. We got to talking, and one of the three happened to be Suzanne Kamata who I`d been trying to get a hold of for some time. She`s an American published young adult writer living in Japan who`s involved in the SCBWI (Society of Children`s Book Writers and Illustrators). She invited me to go to their major conference in Yokohama that`s going to host Alvina Ling, a Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and explained the easiest and cheapest way to get to Yokohama. Sweet!

After the conference, I decided to sightsee in Kyoto for a few hours. I went to the old Imperial Palace grounds with a lady named Susan. She reminded me of my mom because she had surgery on her eyes and coudn`t see well, so I guided her as I sometimes do for my mom late at night. This is Susan:

And this is me in front of the gate to the Emperor’s old palace:

As it started to get dark, Susan had to leave, so I continued exploring by myself. I saw a beautiful park with a gate around it. I examined the gate.

Pretty low. I could jump over that.

What are you thinking? the part of me that`s becoming Japanese demanded. There`s a fence. Maybe it`s there for a good reason!

The obnoxious, rebellious American part of me glanced all around. There`s no one here. No one will know if I take a quick peek.

Don`t do it!

Too late. I`d already stuck one leg over the fence.

Bark, bark, bark!

Oh, no, what`s that?

I told you not to hop the fence!

My leg still draped awkwardly over the bamboo bars, I jerked my head around. Oh. Just an overactive long-haired wiener dog.  The owner was looking from it to me and patting it gently. “Daijobu, daijobu” he was saying.

Since “daijobu” literally translates to “it`s okay,” I took that as my permission. I hopped the fence.

And got this awesome picture!

That`s right, L.J. Popp takes you where no other non-Japanese person has ever gone before! Whether or not it`s smart.

I was hoping to see flowers around the palace, but they were all out of season. Getting to see an ancient park built in 794 AD was pretty cool in and of itself. I kept looking at the trees and forest paths wondering, did a pair of famous Samurai duel here? Did a geisha walk through these ancient trees with her secret royal lover, gazing at the gorgeous changing leaves as I now did? All the plaques were in Japanese so I had no way of knowing, but it was almost more fun that way, getting to make up my own fantasies about the place.

As I was heading back to the subway, I happened to run into a woman who spoke pretty good English, and, as always seems to occur in such circumstances, we “got to talking.” She was studying Portuguese, and again I was amazed at how close it was to Spanish. Whenever we couldn`t understand something the other said in English or Japanese, we would revert to Spanish and Portuguese, and I could always understand her and she could understand me, though the verb conjugations and noun endings were a bit different. She told me quite boldly and out of nowhere that she was a Christian, and when I told her I was too, she got very excited and decided to guide me to the subway. She told me the story of how she got kidney cancer and how the doctors said she would die. But everyone in her church prayed for her and she was miraculously healed. She started to cry from happiness and we hugged for awhile. I could tell we`d both been needing a hug for some time. I asked her to tell her story to as many people as she could, and to please pray for the lady at my church who has cancer. I always get so encouraged when I meet people like that.

So I got the subway about 6:00 and got to Tsuge around 7:30. From there my Brazilian friend Fabio (remember Fabio from last week?) picked me up and dropped me off at my apartment. Yea! I have really good friends.

And this was my dinner:

I wanted to include a picture because the eggs are so tiny. I think they`re quail eggs, or else they come from a really small chicken. They`re like a dollar twenty for ten, which is equivalent to about three or four regular chicken eggs. I get them because they last longer than regular eggs and I can actually finish them. If I get half a dozen regular, two go bad before I can eat them. I like my eggs raw over rice and vegetables. That`s how the Japanese do it. It`s supposedly really healthy.

And last but not least, one more video of the starlight parade from Monday. Who can resist Cinderella and silver birds?

Prayer requests for this week: Thanksgiving for that lady who was healed! And for great, loving, supportive, communities and friends. But also, I got an email from a friend in Tulsa back home telling me that the senior pastor of Victory Christian Center and a founder of over 903 Bible college campuses all over the world, has been diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. Please pray for him.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
L.J. Popp

Thursday, October 8, 2009