Monday, March 29, 2004

Another week has gone by and again I haven’t been updating this weblog regularly in order to use my internet time at the office to search for a job. (Sigh, at least in theory. See previous couple posts).
Anyway, since I haven’t been posting regularly this past week, it’s time for another (dum dum da dummm)
Week in Review
And again, I know some of you don’t like reading my longer posts, so I’ll try and break this into subsections, and you can just skim and read the parts you are interested in.
End of the year stuff
The end of March is the end of the scholastic year in Japan. Regular readers of this site will recall that the 9th grade students graduated a couple weeks ago, but classes didn't finish for the 7th and 8th graders until this week. And graduation for the Elementary schools didn't happen until this week either. Which brings me to...
Elementary school Graduation
Graduation is a lot different in Japan. It is held on a regularly school day instead of in the evening. Many parents (especially fathers) are working and can’t attend, so the primary audience is just the fellow students and the local VIPs from the community.
Although I've been in Japan almost 3 year now, this was my first year to attend an elementary school graduation. Since I only go to the elementary school 2 days a week, the previous years graduation just happened to fall on a day I wasn't present. But this year I got to see it. It was very similar to the Junior High School graduation, only not as much crying.
And as for the Junior High Schools, this week we had...
Cleaning and closing Ceremony
Of course, Japan, with its love of ceremonies, has to have a special ceremony to mark the end of the school year. This was a little boring to sit through, but thankfully short this year.
Another interesting thing about the Japanese schools is that no janitor is employed. The students clean the schools themselves everyday after lunch. And at the end of the year, there is a big cleaning. The kind of big cleaning where all the desks are pulled out of the room and every nook and cranny is cleaned. (Um, at least in theory. The kids here in Japan are like kids all over the world, they've been known to cut a few corners when the teacher's back is turned).
I tried to explain to my schools that the JET is not supposed to clean, but simply to sit in his desk and drink coffee.
No, just kidding. I participate in cleaning time every day, and it is a nice opportunity to interact with the students. It lets them practice their English on me, and I occasionally practice my Japanese on them.
So the big cleaning on Thursday and Friday allowed me a nice opportunity for more of the same interaction. Although I must admit, I was as bad as any of the kids when it came to cheating on the cleaning and acting like I was working when I was really just talking (a skill I perfected during my summers cleaning dorms at Calvin). But good interaction time.
Another oddity about the Japanese system, at the end of the school year the teachers get transferred to different schools. About 3 years is the average time for a teacher to stay at one school before getting transferred to another one. So, after 3 years, I’m beginning to find myself one of the most senior faculty members at the schools I teach at.
It is a different system, and it has its ups and downs. It has allowed me to meet and get to know a large variety of different teachers, but it is always a bit sad this time of the year saying good-bye to people who are transferred.
And what is true in the schools is also true in the town office and even private businesses in Japan. Everyone gets transferred around this time of year. In the Board of Education my friend Issei is getting transferred.
Issei is only a few years older than me, and has been my best friend at the Board of Education. Although since he got married he hasn't been available for socializing after work, at the Board of Education he has always bent over backwards to help me out with everything I needed. I was a bit sad to hear he was leaving, but given the Japanese system I knew it would happen eventually.
With his transfer, it also means that no English speakers are left at the Board of Education. I’m actually feeling confident enough in my Japanese recently that I think I’ll be able to get by, but when the new JET arrives in August, he or she is going to have a hell of a time. The Board of Education is not only responsible for the JET’s work duties, but also for helping him or her get settled into Japan, sorting out banking accounts and telephone bills and apartment arrangements, etc, etc, etc. The new JET who arrives in August is going to be in for a rough start.
Charity Cycling Ride
This week Friday, Saturday and Sunday was the annual charity cycling ride through Oita Prefecture. It is organized by JETs, but is a mixed group of JETs and Japanese people. It is a 3 day cycling ride through the countryside, somewhat reminiscent of the bike trips I went on in High School with the Church youth group. Although the topography of Japan is a lot different than Michigan. The mountainous landscape makes the Japanese countryside very beautiful, but a challenging cycle. Cyclists collect pledge money and it is donated to charity (this year to the earthquake victims in Iran).
My Past Experience
The first year I was here I did this bike trip, and although the up hills were frustrating at the time, I have fond memories of the trip. The Japanese country side is beautiful, and the cherry blossom trees were blooming early that year so I remember riding down from the mountain into valleys filled with the red cherry blossom flowers. Perhaps one of my best memories of my time in Japan.
Unfortunately in Japan finding a bicycle my size was a challenge. After driving all the way to Fukuoka, I was able to find a bicycle that was almost big enough for me. Almost. My legs were never able to fully extend on the down stroke, even with the seat raised well past the safety levels. And the handle bars couldn't be raised on this bike, so after raising the seat all the say up, I was bent over at a slightly awkward angle to grab the handle bars.
Not a big deal for the short term, but when biking on a trip like this and putting in 100 kilometer days, these little things start to matter. I almost didn't do the trip my first year because I was worried about the short comings of my bike. But I did it anyway, and ended up having a great time. In the months that followed I even rode that bike frequently around my town, and on my way to work.
And then rainy season came. As a Michigan native, I was unprepared for rainy season. I had my bike under a shelter, but not inside. When it started to rust, I just let it go. It was never really a great fit for me anyway.
Unwilling to put forth the money for another bike that wasn't going to fit me anyway, I just sat out the bike trip last year. And had a rather boring weekend because all my friends ended up doing it. So this year I decided to join as a...
As a veteran of 5 cycling trips with my High School youth group, and 1 in Japan, I was always curious as to what things would be like as a volunteer. Driving along in a car and making sure everyone was doing okay always seemed like an easier job than cycling all day. I thought it would be kind of fun to be a volunteer. Drive alongside the cyclists, make sure their water bottles were full, and just watch everyone else struggle up those hills.
And although volunteering in a car is no doubt a cushy job compared to cycling 100 km, it was not without its challenges. There was a lot of confusion, and I was zooming all over in my car trying to make sure everyone was going the right way, and trying to chase down those who had made wrong turns. At one point I was given the job of chasing down some cyclists, and informing them that they had gone several kilometers in the wrong direction. There was some concern that I wouldn't have the tact to do this, so Eoin cautioned me, “try to be diplomatic when you tell them.”
At confusing intersections, I just parked my car and yelled directions at the cyclists who drove by. As the route for this years bicycling trip went through Ajimu, I ended up making a fool of myself in my own town by positioning myself at an Ajimu intersection and yelling at cyclists.
Since being in the car alone all day can be a bit boring, we volunteers were paired up with each other. On Saturday, much to the envy of everyone else, I had a beautiful Japanese girl the same age as me assigned to my car through the luck of the draw. It was a very nice day. But I am a bit of a sucker for a pretty face, and when she asked if I could teach her how to drive on my car, I gave in immediately.
Actually for a new driver, she learned very quickly. But the mountain roads of the Japanese country side are steep, windy, narrow, and not an ideal learning environment. Like many new drivers, she had a tendency to drive too close to the edge of the road. Since there was no shoulder or guard rail on these old windy mountain roads, I was a bit worried at points. It was amazing how quickly I turned into my mother, constantly giving advice and always telling her to slow down or saying that she was too close to the edge again.


Anonymous said...


Hope you don't mind my comment... I am living near London UK, but I lived in Oita from '98 - 2001 (as a JET). My friend Rowan organised the first Bike Trip back in 1999. With another friend I organised the second trip in 2000, and I rode the third the following year. I am very glad it is still taking place! And that it is still as taxing as when we first started it. 300km over three days, I remember the struggle!


Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for the comment.
The Bike trip is indeed still ongoing (or at least it was in my last JET year in 2004, and I think it's still continuing on after that). Good job on you guys for getting it started.