Monday, March 30, 2009

School Holidays?

My daughter has been on holiday since Thursday. The holidays finish on the 8th of April. So why on earth did she have to go to school today? Because... this is Japan and you could never go for an entire holiday without going to school! Today they all had to go to school to farewell the teachers who are being transferred. Unlike in New Zealand where you apply to work at a given school, here in Japan you usually apply to work for a given board of education and then on the 27th of March (or thereabouts) the transfers are announced (decided by the board of education) and from the start of April (that's right folks - a whole 4 days notice) the teachers begin at their new school - with the new school year beginning a week later. Of course the announcement is made just after the school term has finished hence the need to come back and farewell the teachers. It seems like teachers are transferred every 3 or 4 years, with some rare cases of teachers being in schools for 6 years or more. Just as they get used to one school they are moved on.... this is also the case for workers at the city office - they are transferred between different sections just as soon as they get used to one. One day they might be a member of the board of education and the next they are in charge of waste management... according to my husband (who wasn't transferred this year) this is to prevent the workers learning too much about one section and therefore doing "bad things". However, considering how many government officials etc. that have been arrested lately this argument doesn't seem to be valid!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

All over... at last!

A few days late, but... we all survived my son's last day at kindergarten and the ceremony that went with it. My son managed to receive his certificate with the appropriate bowing, holding and folding and I managed to get through my speech with a minimum of tears. Although I rubbish all the ceremonies here a lot, I actually think they are very important for the children in terms of finishing an era and signally the start of another era. The 18 children in the class will all split up and go to 9 different primary schools so it was the last time that we will see a lot of the children - apart from random sightings at the supermarket etc. To be honest there will be a few parents that I won't mind not seeing, but a lot of the mothers became good friends so I hope we will be able to keep in contact. It was nice to be accepted as a "mother" rather than a "foreigner".
My son also received a special trophy for not missing one day of kindergarten all year. I guess that makes up for the 3 months he missed last year when we went to New Zealand.
Graduation ceremony finished... entrance ceremony to come - can hardly wait!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Will I ever learn?

Tomorrow is the farewell party for my son's class at kindergarten. All the children who aren't graduating make presents to give to those who are graduating and vice versa. The parents also pool their money and give something to all the teachers at the kindergarten to say thanks for all their hard work. Usually they buy a t-shirt or some socks... but, me being the stupid person that I am suggested that we give them something a little more memorable and suggested tumblers - after all my Christmas efforts I thought that I could probably whip up the required 10 without too much trouble. Unfortunately I hadn't counted on all the other mothers thinking it was such a great idea that they wanted one too. So today I finally finished all 28 cups... next time I think I will keep my mouth shut or suggest that no one can ever have too many pairs of socks!
I also made a key holder for all the children with pictures of all their classmates. Maybe next time I should just claim that the printer is broken!
I also discovered today that I have to do a speech not only at the graduation ceremony, but also at the entrance ceremony for the new children at kindergarten in April. I thought my reign as chairperson was over, but obviously not quite. yet..... bugger!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

While the cat's away.....

Again two posts in one night.... having had no coffee for three days (see post below for reason) that one cup I had earlier tonight has worked miracles!
While I was working hard at camp my husband was "playing" hard. Unfortunately the kind of play he was doing was not cheap play. He had to go to a Japanese wedding for a co-worker. For anyone that is not familiar with the Japanese wedding custom here it is not a cheap experience! As an invited guest you are expected to bring along a pretty envelope - like the one pictured here which is stuffed with cash. As a co-worker my husband was obliged to pay 30,000 yen (approx. $NZ 560). Family members pay two to three times this (or more....). For this he got a nice meal and ample alcohol, got to watch the bride and groom change outfits 3 times (well not literally watch them getting changed, but you know what I mean!) - making a grand entrance each time, and then when the set 2 hours was up was given his bag of goodies and sent home. In general the guests are given gifts worth about half the amount of money you originally give, but I have the feeling he was ripped off this time! The second picture is what he received - a box of small cakes, a box of special red-bean rice, and a photo album which was filled with cards which formed a catalogue from which he could choose his own gift - all of them looking like the 3,000 yen range gift. Both of us looked right through the catalogue and were unable to find even one thing that vaguely interested us!
I know that by stopping this gift giving tradition the economy would probably dive even further, but I really wish you could just pay half the money from the start and then use the other half to buy yourself something that you really, really want - or better still, use it to buy that week's groceries! I think this week we might be in for vegetables from the garden, rice from the parents-in-law and not a lot else - all because my husband was invited to a wedding!
Oh - another interesting piece of information - although there were close to one hundred guests at the wedding (you can work out the profit that someone is making from this!) there were only 6 friends of the groom and 2 friends of the bride.... all the rest were co-workers (okay so some of these may have been friends too), friends of the parents and close family members. I am so happy we didn't bother to have a Japanese wedding!

A LONG weekend away

I have just spent the 3-day weekend here "working". I had to run a camp for 40 children, while also looking after my children - I definitely call that work! They are a group that I work with twice a year, and although that makes it easier in many ways, thinking of ways to challenge and entertain them gets harder each time. One of the biggest problems I have is that despite my daughter being 2 years younger than the youngest participants and my son being 4 years younger than the youngest participants they are taller than a lot of the participants... which means that they get treated as being a lot older than they are. They love this in many ways, but also get extremely tired trying to keep up etc. It is great being able to take them to work with me, but ...... it was also nice being able to bring them home tonight! And even nicer that tomorrow I have a completely free day (I hope I haven't spoken too soon!).
Every time I work with this group I am grateful that my children don't have the option of going to a private primary school here (sorry if anyone reading this is offended....). The difference in the ways of thinking and attitudes towards other members of the group of the private school students is sooooo different to those at public schools. They are so used to being pushed to be number one that they don't bother to think about others in the group and are always trying to gain an edge on others rather than working together (which is the aim of these camps....). I guess it all comes down to what you believe "good education" is, but I would far rather have children that don't always get 100% on their tests but think about others than children that get 100% on tests, but have no consideration for other people. Personal preference I guess!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Trial Run

Today I went to my first "ceremony" of the "ceremony season". It was a graduation ceremony at a kindergarten that I teach at and because I was invited as one of the VIPs I got to sit with the policeman, the post office chief, the education board chief etc. The main problem with this is that whenever anybody does anything during the ceremony they have to bow at the VIPs table before and after doing it and then the VIPs have to bow back.... every time.... I was going to pass the time by counting how many times I had to bow, but lost track after 21. The kids were so funny though - they lost track of when they should be bowing, standing, sitting etc. after the first 10 minutes and ended up making it into a great game.
Next week is my son's graduation ceremony (that's right, from kindergarten.....) so at least today I got to see what the current "fashion" is so I don't make too much of a fool of myself. Traditionally all graduation ceremonies are very somber events and therefore you wear your black funeral outfits, but fortunately more and more people are adding a bit of colour. I would hate to break the rules... again!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Final Kindergarten Outing

Today was yet another "last" day. It was my son's last outing with his kindergarten friends before he graduates next week (yes, for anyone unfamiliar with the Japanese system... children "graduate" from kindergarten here). They went to the park that they always go to and had a great time running around and basically tiring themselves out. I am always impressed by how much energy the teachers have - the mothers tend to sit down and chat with a nice cup of coffee, but the teachers are always up and down the slides, playing soccer etc. I guess it is their job, but they do it so well! The last outing also meant the last weekly Wednesday "bento" (packed lunch) too.... or at least until the first outing at school! I can't say I made a huge effort with it, but there wasn't anything left in it when it came home - perhaps because they weren't allowed to eat their snacks until they had finished everything in their lunch box!
After such a busy day I didn't think my son would have much energy left for his swimming test, (they go to swimming lessons and are tested every 2 months) but he managed to do a great job and passed a few more levels - the final level being swimming 10 meters freestyle without taking a breath. My daughter also managed to pass her test of swimming 25m freestyle in less than 45 seconds. Actually she managed to do it in about 38 seconds - which wasn't too bad considering it was the first time she had actually attempted 25m freestyle without any floating assistance! They both did a great job, not that I am biased!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The hikers are back

It's been a few months since my friend Joe brought any guests to the cottage, but he was back in full form on Sunday with a lovely lawyer from England. His guest has come to Japan many, many times before, but has always been centered in Osaka or Tokyo for business meetings. This week he is experiencing the full extent of the Japanese countryside by climbing up lots of mountains with Joe. Every morning after breakfast I always encourage the visitors who are with Joe to make themselves a couple of sandwiches, take some muffins, bananas etc. with them as Joe has a bit a of problem remembering that he is supposed to feed his guests sometimes! Fortunately they don't usually follow Joe's lead in terms of sandwich fillings though. Yesterday it was peanut butter, apple, raspberry jam and cornflakes....

Monday, March 16, 2009

The final run

Two updates in one night.... to be honest I am avoiding having to put the children to bed by hiding in the bedroom pretending to do some work!
On Saturday the overnight "Fuji" train which ran between Tokyo and Oita made its final run before being put to sleep. For the last few weeks there have been increasing numbers of train spotters on the tracks near here trying to get the perfect shot. It looked like they were out in record numbers on Saturday - the only problem was that it was an absolutely freezing day (snow in some areas) and.... that the train was running almost 2 hours late due to an accident somewhere up the line. Considering trains here in Japan usually run to a 12:13 kind of schedule this delay caused a lot of worry. But being hardy train spotters they all seemed to stick around and the train seemed to whistle at every person that it passed. The reason it was stopped was due to lack of patronage - now everyone is complaining saying that for the last 10 years they had planned to ride that train..... I personally prefer the quick shinkansen!

New Desk

For the last few weeks my son has taken an unusual interest in the weather forecast. Every morning he informs me that it will be sunny with the occasional cloudy period, or cloudy with occasional rain etc. It took me ages to work out why there was such a sudden interest in the weather. And then I remembered... I had told him that we wouldn't be able to go and get his new desk (a hand me down from a cousin) unless it was a fine day. Of course I meant a fine day in the weekend that also coincided with his father being free and his auntie being at home to let us in to get the desk. It has taken over a month for all these things to be right, but he now has his new desk - and I think he has spent at least 7 hours sitting at it since Saturday.... here's hoping that when he actually starts school and starts getting homework that he is as keen to sit at it! For anyone who has been to our house... the desk is in his room.... up those terrible stairs. There was more than a little bit of swearing going on as it was being maneuvered up!
Along with preparations for my son entering first grade there are the additional preparations required for my daughter entering third grade. The latest item that needed to be purchased was a calligraphy set. They all learn calligraphy here from the third grade with the proper ink set, brushes etc. The only other extra that I know about so far is a recorder that we already had at home.... I'm sure that next week another list will be handed out with more requirements. I can hardly wait!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Heart attack

My mother sent me this picture of the moon in February during the massive fires that swept Australia. The problem was that she lives in New Zealand - so the red smoky moon really highlighted how terrible those fires were. Fast forward a month or so and with those memories still fresh in my mind I was more than a little shocked as I turned the corner to our house the other day and discovered that the river in front of our house was literally on fire. The flames were jumping up and almost reaching our trees. Everything was pretty dry and there was a stiff wind blowing. The washing was hanging outside (in the smoke). It took me a few minutes to discover that my father in law was also amongst the smoke - with his gas burner thingy helping to fuel the flames! For some reason he had decided to set all the vegetation in the river on fire. Heart attack averted.
Fast forward another couple of hours when after swimming lessons we turned the corner and it looked like the back of our house was on fire.... another heart attack until I discovered that my mother in law had taken it upon herself to clean up all the wood shavings etc. from the wood cutting and felt the need to burn them rather than use them on the paths to keep the weeds away (what I had planned!). The photos don't do the fires justice.... I just don't understand the need to burn everything here.... especially when the washing is hanging outside!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


For anyone who is interested in Japan there is a wonderful Australian author (I guess Australia does produce a few good things....) called Lian Hearn who wrote a really good fantasy trilogy based in Japan called "Across the Nightingale Floor". I read the trilogy a few years ago and really enjoyed them. The problem is that after she wrote the trilogy she decided it wasn't really complete so she wrote not only a sequel, but also a prequel to the trilogy. I have just completed the prequel. I am not an incredibly fast reader (most of my reading is done just before I fall asleep...) and so my dilemma is whether I should reread the trilogy to remind me of the story or just skip to the sequel and hope things make sense. I'm heading towards the later... it might take me another year or so to actually get through the trilogy again!
For anyone who hasn't heard of this series you can read more on her website here - my advice - start with the prequel and end with the sequel - you are lucky you didn't discover this great author before she wrote the whole series!

Monday, March 09, 2009

The season of paper flowers

Is it just me or is Japan obsessed with making tissue paper flowers? For anyone who has never seen them, basically you make a concertina of about 6 sheets tissue paper, staple it in the middle and then separate out each individual piece of paper and voila - you have a paper tissue flower! They even have a machine for folding the paper. Today I went to kindergarten to help make literally hundreds of them in preparation for the graduation ceremony. The piano is now covered by white paper flowers, the stage is decorated with yellow ones and the ball that they pull in the middle of the room is now covered in yellow and green ones. We haven't even started on the "congratulations on your graduation" sign! The process is never ending. I'm sure it will all be worth it in the end....

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Final Marching

Wow - two posts in one night. Maybe that third cup of coffee wasn't such a wise thing! On Friday my son had his final marching display at kindergarten. Every March the fire department asks them to do their marching at the Usa shrine and also at the local supermarket to help raise awareness of the risk of lighting fires. Every year it is freezing cold and every year the kids do a great job of ignoring this fact and doing a wonderful display - despite having numb fingers. Every year the fire chief starts his speech at the end of the display with the same words: "the children must be at their limit in this freezing cold" and then proceeds to speak about random things for 10 minutes while the kids stand there extremely patiently, shivering in their shorts and thin shirts hoping that their reward for doing so will be some delicious snack... bad luck kids this year was a big stack of origami paper! Just what you want to nibble on in the bus on the way back to kindy!

More school visits

Over the last week I seem to have spent far too much time at various schools. On Wednesday I had my last visit for the year at one of the local schools and they honored me by having the whole school eat lunch together in the library. At most schools this would mean a crowded room, but at this school there are only 20 students (plus 11 teachers ... another unbelievable situation here in Japan!) so they fit very nicely. Unfortunately the lunch was one of the worst I have had in a while, but I am so good at smiling and nodding and swallowing things whole now that I was awarded an Academy award for my performance!
The next day it was off to my daughter's school for the final PTA for the year. Each person in her class (all 11 of them) did a presentation of their life history so far (all 8 years of it) and then showed us their "talent". In my daughter's case it was to do 20 double skips in a row... in the classroom... in front of the kerosene heater.... more smiling and nodding and biting the inside of my cheek while scratching holes in my jeans as the skipping rope went closer and closer to the heater! In the end there were no accidents and everyone did a great job. It is amazing how quickly they progress.
I only have one more kindergarten class before the end of the "year" so I'm hoping to finally get some things done in the garden.... of course that means it will rain solidly for the next week!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


This weekend my social calendar was filled to the brim. On Saturday morning I had to "perform" at a kindergarten concert - fortunately all I had to do was my regular English lesson and received many claps, hand slaps etc. Then in the evening I was invited to the after-concert dinner. Unfortunately it was not at my son's kindergarten so I really knew none of the people there, but a free meal and a night out with adults is always worth the effort.... or is it? I always find the Japanese way of socialising very difficult. Firstly you are never invited anywhere as a couple - for example I would never be invited to anything related to my husband's work - even to weddings etc. So everyone becomes "single" again. You are generally given a seat based on your position in the hierarchy of things - those of low hierarchy are at the bottom closest to the door and therefore the most available to do the ordering and general running around after everyone. People then gradually move around the place, taking with them some kind of beverage to pour to each other (never pour your own drink in Japan) as a way of saying thank you for your efforts. They always seem to come just as you have stuck a huge piece of chewy meat in your mouth or when your long awaited ice cream arrives and therefore you either talk with your hand over your mouth and try to swallow without gagging or watch as your ice cream slowly melts away into a milk shake. And then of course when the 2 hours is over - no matter how much fun you are having - the party is over and you either all say goodbye or move on to the second party - often karaoke. I opted for the first in the case!
Then on Sunday I went to the movies for the first time in a very long time. Unfortunately no romantic outing, just "High School Musical 3" with the kids instead. I would have to say that this movie is not my ideal entertainment at the best of times (thanks Dad for getting Emily started on it so many years ago....) but when they are all speaking in Japanese and singing in English it gets a little confusing! However the popcorn was good and the 1st of each month is cheap day here so I shouldn't complain too much.
Sorry no photos today!