Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Teacher transfers

I know I probably write about this every year, but today has been one of those "what were they thinking days".  It was the last day of primary school for the school year and the teacher transfers were announced at the school after all the children had gone home.  Of the 11 teachers/administrators at our school 7 will be changing.... that includes both the principal, vice principal, school nurse and the most experienced teacher in the school.  Of the 4 teachers who are remaining 2 of them have been at our school for only one year, one arrived 2 years ago and the other teacher has been there for 3 years.  So between all four of them they have a grand total of 7 years experience at our school.  I'm not saying that they are inexperienced teachers, but due to the small size of our school there is a lot of input from the community and it is very hard to maintain that when there are no familiar faces around.  
I don't understand the necessity for changing teachers so often and in such large numbers at one time.  I don't understand how a school is supposed to build any real strengths in any area if the teachers are changing so often.  I don't understand why the announcements of the changes can't be made earlier.... although the students officially finished school for the year today they now have to go back on Thursday for an official farewell.  I just don't understand why that couldn't have been done today !
I have already had 6 phone calls tonight from various parents trying to work out who is staying, who is going and what we need to do in order to farewell them properly.  Should we buy gifts as a class, or as a whole school?  Who will do what and when?  And of course there are the phone calls from those who have false information and are thinking certain teachers who are actually staying are leaving... I think I'll just switch off the phone and go to bed!

The next school year starts on April 8th... between now and then the 7 leaving teachers need to clean out their desks and move to their new schools.  The new teachers need to come to our school and all have meetings about which grade they want to teach next year and then prepare themselves for it.  No specialist teachers mean that the 6th grade teacher often becomes the 1st grade teacher the following year.  They have approximately a week to prepare for this.  Crazy, crazy, crazy!  I hate this time of year!!!!!!

Another win!

Last April I wrote about winning a food package in a competition that I had completely forgotten I had entered.  As I wrote then I don't really bother with the zillion competitions that they seem to have here, but I'm thinking that perhaps I should do more often as I managed to win another one the other day!  This time it was through amazon jp and again I really had no recognition of entering it and when the e-mail arrived saying that I had won a prize and could I send all my contact details I actually became suspicious that it was in fact just spam....   But then the prize arrived and although it was probably the least needed prize from all the things on offer I guess I shouldn't complain!  
The prize was a box of 24 packets of pre-cooked rice - not exactly an essential item for rice farmers, but handy for the days when I forget to turn the rice cooker on and definitely better than nothing.  Stay posted for my next win...... here's hoping it is the lottery next time!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hygiene course

When we built our cottage in 2006 I put in a kitchen which I had visions of eventually using for a business.  Seven years later things are slowly starting to head in a direction where this may be possible.  The first step was for me to attend a food safety and hygiene course.  It was yet another insight into some of the crazy ways things are run here in Japan.... or perhaps just in our part of Japan.
The course itself was in a cold room and was from 9am to 4:30pm, with a one hour break for lunch.  All the seats were allocated depending on when you applied for the course and I was lucky (?) enough to sit next to a very talkative lady.  She never introduced herself, but immediately asked what I was doing for lunch and whether I would like to go somewhere with her.  I couldn't exactly say no, and soon discovered that she had an ulterior motive... she couldn't drive and the course was run at a place that wasn't close to any food joints so she was actually asking if I could be her taxi.  In the end I said that we wouldn't have time to go to a restaurant, but that I could take her to a convenience store if that was helpful.  Of course she jumped at the ride and I got a free coffee for my trouble.
The course itself was incredibly long and for the most part very boring.  There were different speakers for each section of the course, but none of them watched the others presentations so they generally repeated each other and generally showed all the same slides.  There was no test or any practical aspect to the course so more than half of the participants used the opportunity to take a nap at some stage during the day.  Of course I was very diligent and even took notes during the lectures - of all the things I thought were a little "different".  Some of my highlights were:
  • The first man talked for 30 minutes about something and then proceeded to say that he would talk about it in detail later.... and then proceeded to say that nothing he had said so far actually applied to any of us anyway.....
  • The second man asked if filleting blow fish was a part of any of our jobs and when we all said no he proceeded to talk for 10 minutes about it and then said.. but this doesn't apply to any of you.
  • The third man covered 15 pages of the manual in 2 minutes and then just told us to read it ourselves.  He apologised for finishing his section 4 minutes later than his allocated time....
  • The fourth man had the task of talking at us after lunch and started by saying "please just pretend that you are awake".  Not many took his advice.... 
  • The last man could see how pointless the whole day was and spent more time saying "you don't have to listen to this, but I have to say it" than anything else.  His favorite line was "I'm not a specialist in this area, so if you actually want to know anything you should contact a specialist".
At the end we were all presented with a certificate and told that we now have a fantastic qualification that we can use all over Japan.  It makes me wonder about how valid most of the qualifications here are.....
Next step health inspectors visit....

Saturday, March 23, 2013

School graduation

6 years ago I wrote a short post about Emily's kindergarten graduation, followed shortly by a post about her entrance ceremony to elementary school.  Now I can add to the theme with a post about her graduation from elementary school.  For anyone who is reading this from another country here is a rundown of what elementary school graduation here in Japan entails (I say in Japan rather than "in our area" because from what I can tell it is pretty universal....).  For anyone who has experienced this just skip to the photos at the bottom!
1. The graduating students entered the gym to the song "Pomp and Circumstance", walking in straight lines, bowing at specific points then sat down facing the front.  The remaining students from the school, all the important guests, parents and teachers are already seated. They could wear whatever they liked, but most chose to wear their junior high school uniform... much cheaper than buying a new outfit that they would only use once!
2.  The students went up one by one to get their graduating certificate (this may vary if the school is very large....), again bowing at specific points on the floor before putting their hands out in very stylised movements to receive the certificate from the principal before bowing again, putting it under their arm and walking back to their seats... with a few more bows at specific points along the way.
3.  The speeches begin... in our case one from the principal, one from the head of the education board, one on behalf of the mayor, and one from the head of the PTA (in our case my husband...).  Probably about 20 - 30 minutes in total.
4.  Introductions of all the important people who are in attendance were made - the head of the old people's association, the head of the local post office, the local policeman etc. etc.... There were about 20 of them and they are all introduced by name and each given the chance to say a few words to the graduates.
5.  Any telegrams that have been sent are read.
6.  The graduating students thanked all the message givers and then thanked the parents for all their efforts in raising them so far and presented us with flowers.  My daughter had lost it by this stage and cried from here on in... most of the teachers cried, but she was the only student to do so.
6.  The students finally got to do something more than just sit there and try to stay awake.  I really liked this part of the ceremony.  The graduating students each said one thing about their school life and then the  students who are remaining at the school replied by telling them all the wonderful things they did for them.   Farewell songs were sung by both groups - with only 11 kids in my daughter's class they did a great job of making themselves heard in the large gym.
7.  A representative of the parents made a speech thanking the teachers and community for their support so far and asking them for further support in the future.
8.  The graduating students file out of the gym followed by the important guests, then the parents.  The total length of the ceremony was about an hour and a quarter.
9.  There is one final class with the teacher and then all the remaining students and teachers make an arch for the graduating children and families to go through.  
And that is the end of elementary school life... until next week when they have to go back and farewell any teachers that are leaving!

My views on the whole thing... far too much practicing, but I am not as against these kind of ceremonies as I used to be.  It seems to be a good way to make the students really feel like they are moving on, growing up and taking one more extra step towards entering the real world. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Duties in the countryside

One of the things about living in the countryside is that there are not very many young people around.  There are however many "duties" that need to be done, so the young people often have to do quite a lot of the work.  For the last two years I have been the representative responsible for taking birthday presents to all the residents in this immediate area who are over 88 years old.  The city provides the presents (last year it was hard rice cakes, this year it is soap... both probably taste very similar!) and I just have to take them to the birthday girls (no old men around here...), wish them a happy birthday and go on my happy way.  There are 52 residents in our area, more than half of them are over 65 and there are 6 women who are over 88 - the oldest turned 98 this year.  There are only 5 children in our area......
I delivered the above present to a lady who is living alone and just turned 95.  When I was younger I can remember thinking that anyone over the age of 60 could usually be found in a rocking chair, sipping tea and telling stories about how far they had to walk in the cold, without shoes to school when they were young.  This lady is far from that image though - she is incredibly active, no mobility or hearing problems and was incredibly grateful for her present of soap.  If I manage to make it till the ripe old age of 95 I would like to be just like her - perhaps not living alone, but just as active.

A few people have asked where we actually live... hard to find on a map, but we live in Oita prefecture which is in Kyushu.  The blue marker in this google map is where we are.... if the technology is still working!  Nearest station is Usa Station if you want to come and visit!

View Kiora Cottage in a larger map

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Uniform costs

A few people have asked about the costs of uniforms etc. here so here is a breakdown of the costs for my daughter's junior high school.  Sorry I am only going to include rough conversions for New Zealand dollars, so if you are interested and reading this in another country you will have to work it out for yourself!!  I'm guessing that most public schools around Japan are fairly similar.

Sports uniform- includes t-shirt, shorts, track pants and long sleeved top: (we have only bought one of every thing so far, but will probably need another t-shirt or two when the sweaty season begins!): \13,700 (NZD 175)

School uniform - includes winter skirt and blazer and summer skirt and shirt (again only one shirt at this stage... ) \43,785 (NZD 560)

School Bag (no regulations... apart from the fact that it can't be bright colours...) \6,200 (NZD 80)

Outside shoes  - basic sneakers, only restriction is that they must be white and there can only be 10% of another colour on them.  Worn to and from school and for outside P.E. classes \3,970 (NZD 50)

Inside sports shoes - regulated... \2,835 (NZD 36)

Inside slippers - regulated - the incredibly horrible, plasticy ones pictured above with the school uniform.  They use these all day when they are inside the school.  \945 (NZD 12)

Socks - no set length requirement, but they must be white and only have one small emblem or picture on them \1,810 (NZD 23)

Umbrella - not essential or regulated, but handy when getting from the bus to home and vice versa in the rain \500 (NZD 6)

Total Costs to Date: \73,724 (NZD 940)

Here's hoping everything last for 3 years!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Renga Renga Lillies that weren't....


Way back in 2006 I wrote about incorporating a taste of home (ie New Zealand) into my garden and there was this photo of some Renga Renga Lillies which I had proudly grown from seed.  They have grown well under the magnolia tree and each year have gotten bigger and bigger.  Unfortunately each year they have also become more and more like cabbage trees... and I now have finally started to acknowledge that either the seeds I bought were mislabelled or I somehow mixed up the labels when they were seedlings.  I personally can't believe that I would ever make a mistake with labelling so am thinking it was the seed company's fault..... much easier to blame someone who isn't here!
Either way I now have a dilemma - the trees need to be removed...  if I try to dig them out and replant them somewhere else I am likely to kill off the magnolia tree which my husband planted when his second daughter from his first marriage was born.  But, if I don't try to dig them out and just cut them down then I lose a little bit more of New Zealand from my garden.  I think I'll just think on it for a few more months and see what happens...... a much easier option than actually making a decision!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Spring is in the air again....

Spring has definitely arrived in our part of the world.  It used to be the season I would look forward to the most.  The warm sun finally arriving after a cold winter, the daffodils blooming all over the place, the reports on the news of predictions of cherry blossom viewing (which seems to be about 10 days earlier than usual this year.....).   Unfortunately with the onset in recent years of allergies to the cedar pollen around here I don't look forward to this season quite so much!   
I used to laugh at the "pollen watch" on T.V. which had cartoon faces of smiley faces for days where they predicted low volumes of pollen and frowning faces for the days when they expected large volumes.  I used to laugh at the people wandering around in their masks and refusing to hang their washing outside in this season.  I used to snicker as I walked passed the rows and rows of items relating to allergies that sprung up in all the shops during this season.  
But that was in the past.... now with a continually runny nose, itchy eyes, inflamed mouth, regular sneezing. I don't laugh quite so much and my excitement relating to the onset of spring isn't exactly as great as it used to be!  Medicine helps a lot (when I remember to take it...) and I'm hoping all of the trees around here have given up most of their pollen to the wind and I can now really enjoy the onset of spring.
For anyone interested in what volumes of pollen cedar trees produce I found this video... just skip passed the advertising at the start.  The views of the forests are very similar to what we saw around here this year.   

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Gifts from neighbours

I know that I have written in the past about neighbours and how they love to stop and chat while I am trying to get on with weeding the garden.  I don't have a lot of time to spend in the garden during the week, so when I can get out there I tend to try to keep my head down, blinkers on and get one area cleared... having neighbours come to chat is nice, but it does mean my weeding time decreases and motivation often flies out the window.  Sometimes these chats are actually very productive though.  The best one I have had so far was when I was complaining about how long it takes to weed the path areas around my garden, leaving me with less time to actually weed the garden parts.  The neighbour I was chatting to agreed with me and said she'd drop something off for me the next day.  As promised the next day I came home from work and found some rolls of weed mat stuff that she was given and that I have put down and from what I have seen so far will reduce all path weeding to zero!  Not the most attractive way to make paths, but definitely effective. 
The kind neighbour saw me doing it and saw that there is not enough to do all the paths... so she'll bring me some more in the very near future.  I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't complain quite so much about chatty neighbours from now on!!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wearing thin

This is the view  of the world my bottom has when I am in my gardening clothes. 
I don't think of myself as a stingy person.  I try to be as generous as I can with friends and family and I even give lemons and eggs to random mountain climbers who happen to pass by and admire the chickens and lemon tree.  I am not obsessed with money - when we have it I spend it and when we don't we don't spend it.  I am pretty good at throwing away unnecessary things.  
But....... when it comes to some things I just don't seem to have the ability to throw them out or replace them with something new.   From memory the above trousers came to Japan with me when I first arrived 16 years ago.  They were my lazing about at home in the weekend trousers and then became my gardening trousers a few years ago.  They now provide wonderful airconditioning on hot days, but as most of my gardening is done in a squatting position I have to be a little careful which direction I am squatting when cars drive past or friendly neighbours come to chat.  I'm thinking that one day very soon I'm going to have to say goodbye to these trousers.  Perhaps next week.... or perhaps I'll wait till they turn more into a skirt than trousers.  I'm sure that would give the neighbours something extra to talk about!

PS - apologies to those who tried to comment on the last post.  I tried to block anonymous commenters, but ended up stuffing up all the settings....

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Kindergarten music

On Saturday I was lucky (???) enough to be invited to attend a girls festival concert at one of the kindergartens I teach at.  While I get a bit sick of the singing and dancing I am always impressed by the music education they have at kindergartens here.  There are two instruments in particular that seem to be very common at kindergartens and both teach not only rhythm, but also actual "melody".  The first is hand bells.  This class of 4 year olds managed to use the bells to play a pretty good rendition of a dolls festival song.  Each had their own bell with its distinctive sound and they not only played them in the correct order, but also with the correct timing.  The 5 year olds then played with their mouth pianos - another great way to teach kids basic music without having to have a classroom crammed full of actual pianos.  I think there are about 2 octaves on each keyboard and they power it by blowing into the tube.  Again they played a relatively complicated tune and all managed to do it really well.
I can remember when my children were at kindergarten and they were doing marching.  I always admired how the teacher managed to get all the children to be able to play at such a high level.  Having taught the children in these photos I know that they are far from angels all the time.... but somehow they always produce a great show.  They seem to have a performance switch.  Now if they could just turn that performance switch on for me when I teach them for the last time next week I would finish the year happy!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Braces part 2

In June last year I wrote about getting my daughter braces for her teeth.  She coped really well with them and I think in the end was a little sad about getting them off.  But, on Saturday she had them removed and spent the next few days smiling and smiling and smiling some more!  She chose not to tell anyone that she had had them removed and it was interesting that no one actually noticed.  She has to have a retainer for another 2 years, but the orthodontist managed to attach one on the inside of her teeth so nothing is visible from the outside.  She is finally starting to enjoy eating foods that require a bit of extra chewing and biting - something that she was unable to do with the original positioning of her teeth.
As I have never had any orthodontic work done in New Zealand I can't compare the service etc., but my experience here was very positive.  They told us up front exactly what the costs were going to be, they told us how long each appointment would take and it took exactly that time, we never waited after our appointed time, they had free tea and coffee in the waiting room for me and lots of comics for my son to read.  Of course the final result also looks pretty good.  The only advice I have for people who are thinking about getting orthodontic work done here in Japan is to do it before the children enter junior high school.  Apparently the costs rocket even higher after that....

Friday, March 01, 2013

I know I promised, but...

I know in my last post I said it would be the last post about wood till next season, but... there have been quite a few questions in the comments about where we get our wood etc., so I'll answer them and then promise once more that there will be no more talk about wood for a while!
 We have never paid for any of our wood.  To be honest, I am not sure that there is anywhere around here that actually sells it.  There are an increasing number of people putting in wood fires, so the potential is there to start a business, but it won't be us starting it!.  We have a lot of land which has many trees on it, so in theory we could just fell trees every year and get enough wood to keep us warm, but in reality this is the first year that we have actually felled any trees - and the trees we are felling are the sawtooth oaks which are used for growing shitake mushrooms and which regrow from their cut-off trunks.  So I don't feel too guilty about cutting them down.
Until now we have contacted the electricity company, construction companies etc. and when they fell trees to make way for power lines, new roads etc. they are more than happy for us to come and take them away - grateful in fact.  Neighbours are also a great source and we often discover a neighbour has felled a tree and then brought the logs to us to use.  Of course they are not always cut in perfect 1m lengths, but we tend not to complain!
Before we put in our fire we used a standard kerosene heater... it wasn't so much the cost of running it that bothered me, but the fumes which it produced - especially when you turned it on and off.  With small children around I just hated it and found that I was getting headaches every day from the fumes.  I know the heaters are starting to get a bit better here now, but you can't beat the heat from a real fire.... and that is all I have to say about fires till next season - I REALLY promise this time!