Friday, April 15, 2011

Kyoto Imperial Palace, Gardens, and my school

Wow, life is just amazing! A new trimester started April 8th and the new students seem excited to learn! For the opening ceremony, they all marched into the gym in pairs, their proud parents looking on. The school band played between the buildings and the parking lot as the parents were leaving as a way of saying thank you. People always ask to see more of my students, but it's illegal in Japan for me to post their faces on the internet. So the only time I can show them is when their backs are to me. I did get two videos of the band like that, so here you are!

Jazz song:

Anime song:

That evening, we teachers all had an enkai, which literally translates to "drinking party," but I didn’t have to drink. Most of the women don't. Enkais are a huge part of Japanese society, and all employees of a company or organization are expected to attend at least twice a year. It starts with an obligatory cup of sake which you kampai, or toast with, but after that nobody cares if you just drink ocha, roasted tea. There was a whole huge meal involved, and lots of speeches by the new teachers and those who are leaving, and singing of the school song by those who were drunk. The whole thing lasted about three hours, from 6:00-9:00. It was kind of fun. The food was really good, anyway. Here's a picture of my baby squid.

So maybe my tastes are changing. There was also bean custard, deep fried peppers, sashimi (raw fish and beef) and shabushbu, or raw meat and vegetables that you cook yourself in a broth. Shabushabu gets it's name from the sound that the food makes when you mix it back and forth in the broth. I guess the translation would be "swish swish." It's one of my favorite Japanese foods.

Oh, backup just a little. Wednesday, April 6th, I taught my Wednesday night adult class. Gail, the American refugee from Tokyo who's staying with me, came too and said it was a really good lesson. We started with a really fun song called "To Be with You" and the students filled in the blanks on the lyrics worksheet I gave them. By the third time around, we were all singing along, having a great time. We then made a list of things for our earthquake safety kits in English, and when they finished I passed out a list of items recommended by the U.S. embassy. We then made our earthquake safety plans, preparation for the earthquake, during the earthquake, and after. I again passed out a list of procedures recommended by the American embassy. The students really appreciated that class, and Gail said she learned a lot too. I certainly did, after doing all that research. That's one reason I really like being a teacher. I never thought I would like it so much. In fact, as a kid, I swore I would never be a teacher. But basically, I get paid to do what I would do for free: research, writing, music, and making educated conversation. Those are my four favorite things, so I guess this is the job for me. I'm really excited about the new trimester at the high school too, because I really like the textbook this year, Voice. It focuses on practical oral communication, doesn't have mistakes in usage like the old one, and has a lot of room for fun activities. The other teachers actually asked my opinion and picked the textbook I wanted! Yea! I like being in control of my own classes!

Saturday, April 9th, Gail, my Japanese friend Kayoko, and I went together to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Twice a year the palace opens to the public and you can see their beautiful gardens and treasures like the golden sliding doors and painted folding screens. Mom and I went before, but it wasn't opened up, so we were pretty disappointed. This time it was amazing!

The cherry blossom gardens were also so beautiful! Here are some pictures:

After that, Gail had to get some things she left at a school in Kyoto, so we walked to the school along the famous Komo river lined with sakura, cherry blossom trees. Here I am crossing the river on the turtle rocks:

And here are the trees lining the river:

Here is Gail and Kayoko beside a cherry tree and some "ground sakura."

Near the Kyoto botanical gardens there are pink weeping cherry blossom terraces:

At a festival booth there, I met an old friend, a woman who worked at the combini, or convenience store I frequented near the school. She wanted to move back to her hometown Kyoto to be closer to her family and do the work she loves there. I was happy to see her dream come true! She's the one in front making the peace sign:

After Gail got her things, we went to the special light up at the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, because it was dark, the pictures didn't show up very well. But the illuminated cherry blossoms were like magic, veils of white and pink shimmering under the lamp light. But I would say the fall leaf illuminations are better. Nothing can beat them.

Wednesday, April 13th, one of my adult students, Junko, took Gail and me to Onodera temple. (We joked that the best way to remember the name is to think "on no!" temple (dera means temple in Japanese.) They had a famous weeping cherry tree that is over 300 years old! Here is the picture of us in front of it:

There were many other beautiful flowers too, including a kind of daffodil I'd never seen before:

This year is very strange in Japan. The daffodils, plumb and cherry blossoms, and magnolias are all blooming together! Even the Japanese have never seen anything like it! What a beautiful spring, after such a long, harsh winter. It's as if the earth itself were trying to cheer us up after all the terrible disasters.

The centerpiece of the temple is a giant carving in the adjacent stone wall, about thirty feet high, of a famous Buddhist saint. It was carved just after the Hein period, about 800 years ago, so it's faded over time and unfortunately you can't see it very well:

This is the most famous view in the garden:

The best part about Onodera temple is that it's free! Junko took us in her car, and there was no entrance fee. What a deal!

Recently, I've made a new friend, a preschool English teacher who lives near the school. I often go walking and talking with her on my lunch break. She has a beautiful Persian cat who sometimes follows us. So Thursday, I visited the park near the school with her. It too has lots of beautiful sakura trees:

The petals had fallen into a small pond:

Friday, May 1st, the English teachers had their own enkai. More speeches, more toasts, more good food. We ate fried chicken, fried shrimp in mayonnaise, squid pancakes with barbecue sauce (okonomiyaki), fermented beans and pickles, seaweed salad, cinnamon pasta, and some Korean hot-pot thing with chilly peppers. I'm so spoiled.

Another way I'm spoiled is through the day off I'm taking today. In Japan, there is something called "women's days." Basically, if a woman is having, to use the Japanese euphemism, "the visitor who comes once a month" and she feels bla, she can stay home, no questions asked. Today is definitely one of those days. Would I ever get that in America? No. But it's written into the Japanese business code of ethics. Women are entitled to take up to three days a month of menstrual leave, kind of like in the Old Testament, and in India today. Of course, I can't take them on a day that I teach classes. Today is a sort of special testing/club day. In some contracts, women's days are paid. In others (like mine), they're unpaid, but they're really nice either way! So I can stay in bed and do my lesson plans/intercultural exchange part of my job from here instead of going to the office miserable. One more reason to love Japan.

Oh, that reminds me. A lot of people ask me, "what do you do at your job anyway?" When I'm not teaching, correcting papers/tests, making lesson plans, or tutoring the other teachers in English, I am a kind of cultural ambassador. It's hard to say whether that's "part of my job" or not, but I consider it my responsibility while I'm here as a civil servant in Japan. It's up to me how I do that; one way is through these blogs, another is through the newspaper articles I write, through community activism, the volunteer work at the church, organizing and participating in relief efforts for the earthquake, organizing foreigner and exchange events, etc. It's pretty sweet. Like I said, I’d do this stuff anyway, so I really like having it as my full-time job. I love the amount of freedom and getting to do what I feel called to do.

Prayer requests for this week: Golden Week, a week of national holidays from April 29th-May 8th, I'm leading a group of about 10 foreign English teachers and Japanese to the Tohoku area (probably Sendai or Nasu city) to work with CRASH, Christian Relief, Assistance, Support, and Hope. We'll be cleaning up the rubble from the tsunami, helping people find their lost valuables and pets, distributing food and other resources, cooking meals at the shelters, playing with/teaching orphans, and providing emotional support for the victims. We really need prayers for safety, as there have been continued aftershocks. We're not really worried about radiation where we're going, as the levels in the air have hardly gone up at all (just no swimming in the ocean or eating the seafood/local grown produce).

Also, Sunday, April 24th, Easter, we're having a big charity concert at the church. 29 of my students are coming to play with the school band! Please pray that they will have a good-sized audience, that we will be able to raise a lot of money for the earthquake victims, and that their hearts will be opened to our message of God's love for Japan in the midst of all this devastation.

Please also continue to pray for Gail, the cancer patient refugee from Tokyo who is staying with me. She's having a really hard time right now with finances. She lost EVERYTHING because of the earthquake. She also has to find a job and permanent place to live in Kyoto. My friend Pearl from the Philippines also lost everything and must decide whether to stay in the Philippines or return to Japan. My Singaporian friend Ying-Ying also has to make that difficult choice. People think it's a no-brainer, but it's so hard. Asians really value promises and sticking together and not abandoning their friends and family in need. It's the core of honor. Everybody can't just up and leave Japan, or everything would fall apart worse than it already is.

There are many, many people who have suffered fates as bad or even worse in these disasters. I'm really worried about the family of the two girls who stayed with me before, because they refuse to leave Fukushima where the radiation is much, much higher than is safe for human beings. Please pray for all of them. In my opinion, everyone needs to be evacuated out of the 20km danger zone and move somewhere else in Japan.

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

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