I was sent to Japan to represent Richmond Public Schools. I'll do my best not to embarrass them! Nihon-GO!!!
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  • Day5

    First Day of School

    June 25, 2018 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 31 °C

    Katayanagi Elementary School
    Almost got on wrong bus!
    School Picture
    Class Size
    ALT
    Teacher Room
    School size
    Music class sang =D
    Left early then couldn't reach Jun-Jun

  • Day4

    Ticket to Ride

    June 24, 2018 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 23 °C

    I ended up spending most of Saturday with my host mother Jun-Jun, but Sunday was spent primarily with my host father Iijima-sensei. Since I would be traveling to so many different schools other than his, he was nice enough to spend a good chunk of the day teaching me the train and bus routes to some of them. Luckily I had gotten my train/bus card (called a Suica) when Heather and I were with Keiko-san on Friday, so I didn't have to worry about figuring out the cost of tickets or how to buy them. Also, it just so happens that the Iijama's live very close to the biggest station in the city, which makes it much easier to find an easy route to where you want to go without having to transfer.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the station is not very crowded on a Sunday, which was nice because not only could I see where I was going, but we were able to get a seat on every route instead of having to stand. We only practiced the route for two schools, but that still took almost 2 hours and was enough to get me through my first week. I got to use both the bus and the train - which was useful. I can't say that I have anymore piercing insights into Japanese public transportation other than to say that it's very nice and I wish we had more like it in America.

    After train practice we went to lunch, which turned out to be another Italian restaurant. Who knew I would end up eating so much Italian in Japan? Of course I wasn't about to play it safe, so I ordered the squid ink pasta. I did take a picture of that, because how often do you see pitch black pasta? I had read that it doesn't really have a fishy flavor and is mostly just salty and maybe a little briny, which is exactly how I would describe it. It did take me a while to eat it though because the taste does take getting used to - but I ate the whole thing! I have noticed that I eat much slower in Japan - probably a combination of the unfamiliar tastes and having to use chopsticks more (take note Mom!).

    After lunch Iijima-sensei was kind enough to take me to the local science museum. I didn't realize until we were in there that it is actually a children's museum, so we didn't stay that long. There were some pretty cute exhibits/activities - my favorites were the puzzles of the various way the continents used to be connected and the computer that scanned plastic models of various types of sushi and told you about the fish they were made of. My favorite part of the museum as a whole was not an exhibit but the little library they had. I don't think you could check out the books (I could be wrong), but I thought it was a really nice touch.

    After the museum and on our way home we stopped at an electronics shop briefly because I needed an adapter for my laptop. American two-prong plugs mostly work in Japan with no problem, but you do need an adapter for three-prong plugs. You can get one really cheap though in Japan, mine was the equivalent of around $3, so if you plan to visit Japan don't buy an expensive one before you go; that's my travel tip for the day.

    Now I believe that I have mentioned before that Iijima-sensei speaks almost no English. He also has a stutter. As you can imagine, this made spending most of a day with him was a little awkward. That's not to say that we couldn't communicate at all - I have Google Translate on my phone and he had this little handheld translator he can speak into. I hope his translator wasn't too expensive because it did not work well at all, but it was good for entertainment when it translated what he said into nonsense. Google translate however, is incredibly handy and can even roughly translate printed text using the camera (and it's free!). But yeah, it was a little weird.

    Once back home it was basically a lazy Sunday afternoon until dinner, when we went out to eat with Ayako and her daughters. Iijima-sensei is so cute with them, especially Miko (the three-year old). I guess Ayako's husband works a lot on the weekends so her and the kids spend a lot of time with her parents during that time. Just like at the hobby club, little Koto spent a great deal of time intensely staring at me. She had quite the appetite, but Miko is apparently in that phase where she takes forever to eat. Nothing exciting to report really, but I had to tell you all of this so I could include the adorable pictures.
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  • Day3

    Weekend in Japan! Time to...Hula?

    June 23, 2018 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    I didn't know what to expect from my first weekend in Japan, but I must say I was surprised. The first reason is that I apparently didn't understand Jun-Jun at all when she told me what we were doing Saturday. I thought she said we were going to her "cycling" club, and I can't say I was looking forward to that given my general aversion to exercise. However, it turns out she was saying "hobby" club (don't ask me how I heard "cycling", I don't know either). Jun-Jun's hobby is foreign language and travel, which is why she can speak a good amount of English despite not having to use it for a job. Her and several other people (mostly other older women) meet at a community center type building on Saturdays and I guess just share experiences about foreign travel and sing foreign songs or something? Look, I said I learned SOME Japanese - I had no idea what was going on most of the type.

    What I did understand was that there was a young woman there who had spent 10 months in a home-stay and attending an American high school in Montana of all places. She talked about her experiences and read a paper she had written for her English class there about Affirmative Action. Since it was in English, this was about the only part of the who meeting I understood. It was really interesting, if more than a little awkward for me, to hear her perspective. Perhaps unsurprisingly she took the position against affirmative action, and cited data and anecdotes about how the policy can discriminate against Asians. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know a lot of the fine details about affirmative action, but when she asked me what I thought I tried my best to explain SOME of the reasoning behind the policy - mostly how there is a lot of child poverty in America and that African-Americans and Latinx people are often more strongly affected and how that can lead to worse performance on tests that determine college acceptance. Like I said, it was pretty awkward for me and I know I didn't have all the facts. The good news is that I'm pretty sure only the girl who studied abroad really had any idea what I said because I said a lot and it was all in English. After that the group started talking about various things in Japanese so I mostly just sat there and quietly ate snacks and hoping someone would tell me what they were saying. I did ask at one point in the conversation and apparently they were saying that young people in Japan aren't paying attention to what is going on in the world. While I kind of question the accuracy of that statement considering older people are genetically predisposed to complaining about "kids these days", I said that it felt like almost the opposite in America. After the 2016 election all the older people just seem to want to live in a bubble while the millennials are worried about the end of the world and global crises.

    Other than the young woman's paper (and the food), the one other nice thing about the hobby club was that Jun-Jun's daughter who lives in Saitama (she has two, but the other lives further away) came and brought her two little girls. One is three (Miko) and the other is one (Koto) and they are sooooooo cute. While everyone was talking I was mostly watching Miko draw on the whiteboard in the room and Koto stare at me because I guess I would look really weird to a Japanese baby.

    After the hobby club meeting we went to a convenience store to buy lunch - a very common occurrence in Japan. Japanese convenience stores sell a lot of read-to-eat foods like sandwiches, breads, and rice balls that are cheap, often somewhat healthy, and taste good. While Japan does have drive-thrus, I haven't really seen any and apparently they aren't as common here and there isn't enough space for them in the city anyway.

    The reason we got such a quick lunch was because we were heading to see a show. Jun-Jun goes to a hula class, and her teacher was going to be in a recital. A few people may think that having a hula class is a weird (I hear you making Pearl Harbor jokes) but in fact Hawaii is a very popular tourist destination and Japanese people make up about 17% of the state's population, not including those that are mixed-race. Now I've been to several dance recitals and most of the performers are usually small children, but this show was at least 75% older women! It is well known that Japan has an overwhelmingly large aging population and as I was watching the show I was able to appreciate what a great low-impact workout hula can be. Go for it ladies!

    We didn't stay for the whole show, which I was very grateful for. While I was enjoying it, I was also falling asleep during it. When we got home I took a much needed nap, then ate dinner and watched TV with Jun-Jun and Iijima-sensei until it seemed like a socially acceptable time to go back to sleep.
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  • Day2

    Meeting the Mayor

    June 22, 2018 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 25 °C

    The main event for our first full day in Japan was meeting the mayor. Heather and I had to meet the gentleman who picked us up yesterday (I can't remember his name - sorry sir!) at the train station nearest city hall. To do that, I had to take the train with Jun-Jun. Apparently she lives near the biggest station in Saitama. It's practically a mini-shopping mall with a 4-5 floor department store in it and everything. We rode in a women-only train car, which are available in mornings and evenings. While a lot of people use their smartphones to read, no one talks on the phone on the train as it is considered very rude.

    From the station we had to walk about 10-15 minutes to City Hall. Now's as good a time as any to mention that the weather in Saitama is very similar to that in Richmond - the city is only 2° latitude further south - so it is very hot and humid out this time of year. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am rarely seen without a water bottle and sure enough I had one with me. However, I forgot to fill it up before I left the house so I was (metaphorically) DYING of thirst by the time we got to City Hall. I don't remember the last time I was that thirsty. In fact, I find I am more thirsty more often since I got to Japan; perhaps it is a combination of the food, weather, and perhaps different air quality. Maybe everyone in Japan feels this way and that is why there are drink machines EVERYWHERE.

    Somehow I survived without passing out, managed to fill up my water bottle, and was taken to the floor where we met our host families the previous night, which is where the school system offices are. I say offices, but really the only office is the superintendents and the rest of the staff sit at rows of desks facing each other. It's pretty cramped and crowded, but it does feel more collaborative I guess. We went into a large meeting room and met with the ALT coordinator, Keiko Tonegawa. ALTs are Assistant Language Teachers - teachers from other countries who help teach English. If I were to come back and spend a year or more in Japan that's what I would do.

    Since she has to work with English teachers who often don't speak Japanese, Keiko-san is fluent in English. She told us she spent about 3 years in San Francisco about 10 years ago. She told Heather and I about Japanese curriculum requirements, which are set by their national Board of Education. School districts who want to modify or add to the curriculum have to ask the BOE for permission. Saitama did this so that they could teach more hours of English, in classes they call "Global Studies". At the elementary level it's basically just conversational English, but maybe they learn more things in Junior High. A lot of areas around Tokyo are really putting a lot of time and resources into teaching English in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Saitama also has a unique class called Human Relations - which is usually taught as a few hours after each semester break from 3rd-7th grade to help fight bullying and teach the kids relationship skills. Even in Japan adults think the kids don't know how to talk to each other anymore!

    All in all the curriculum is actually quite complicated, because the number of required hours for each subject is different by grade - I can't imagine how complicated it is to build the school's schedule! Not only that, but 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders actually have fewer total hours, with 1st have the fewest and then gradually adding more until 4th grade, which means the kids may leave at different times every day. Then when the kids get to Junior High (which is 7th-9th grade here), they have slightly more hours. Kindergarten and pre-K aren't part of the school system here, but many children go to private Kindergartens. High school in Japan also isn't compulsory, and students have to pass an entrance exam to attend, but something like 98% go anyway (they can go to a remedial school for a year if they don't pass the entrance exams). I'm still trying to figure out how much control the BOE has over high school education.

    After our briefing on all things Saitama Schools-related, Keiko-san took us out to lunch. I let Heather pick because, as I mentioned previously, she doesn't like a lot of Japanese foods. She decided on a pasta and pizza place because she figured she wouldn't be having any "American-style" food for the rest of her time here. Apparently Italian food is SUPER popular in Japan, although obviously it is not the same as Italian food in America (or Italy for that matter). I opted for a cold vegetable pasta because it was so hot out, but I also tried Heather's pizza. Both were good and actually did taste like dishes you could probably find somewhere in the US. While we were out for lunch Keiko also took us back by the train station so we could buy passes, which are also good for the prefecture's buses. An interesting note about the train system is that you actually pay based on how far you need to go (calculated by which stations or bus stops you scan your card on as you enter and leave) - so you should check your route if you don't have much money left on your card or have to buy a single ticket. We also stopped at a 100 yen store to each get a small hand towel - a must for any person living or traveling in Japan because you're always wiping away sweat and most bathrooms don't have dryers or paper towels.

    After lunch we still had to wait a little longer to meet the mayor, so Keiko-san was nice enough to introduce us to the head of Special Education and her team, since she knew I was interested. With Keiko-san acting as our translator we had quite a long conversation. Based on what the woman (I can't remember her name either) said, Japanese and American special education have a lot in common. However, because of the language barrier I'm not sure how much of that is really true and how much is us not really understanding what the other was describing. I guess I'll have to see for myself.

    So finally it's time for our meeting with the mayor. We were actually meeting the mayor at the same time as a group of students from Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield (one of the counties outside Richmond). As part of the same Sister Cities Program that sent Heather and I, Saitama sends a group of high school students to Clover Hill every year in the spring and Clover Hill sends their own group in the summer; this year they happened to be coming the same time as us. Most of the 10 kids from our group were actually learning Japanese at their school, since I guess Chesterfield has the money for that (not that I'm bitter or anything). We got a chance to talk for about 15 minutes before the meeting and of course they were super excited and practicing how to introduce themselves. Their teacher chaperones this year had never been to Japan either so they were nervous.

    Anyway, either meeting the mayor is a big deal in Saitama, they just wanted to show off, or (mostly likely) Japan has formalities for everything, because the meeting was held in this huge conference room at a table about 20 feet long and had an MC and everything. There was no chit-chat and it was all scripted, right down to giving him and the superintendent the gifts we brought. Heather and I actually got small gifts in return - a cute pen with the Saitama mascot on it and a towel from the city's Bonsai Museum, yay! Many photos were taken and it was all over in maybe 30 minutes tops. All in all I said maybe five words to the mayor so saying that I "met" him feels like a stretch, but it was an experience that I'm very glad I got to have.

    After the meeting the superintendent invited Heather and I to her office to talk. It turns out she used to teach English and was very excited for a chance to use her conversation skills. She was very friendly and relaxed; we talked about American versus Japanese schools and I told her about what I had heard from the Special Education team. By the time we finished talking to her it was after 5:00 and time to use our new train passes to get back. I'm pleased to say I made it back without getting lost or, as far as I know, breaking any international laws! I'm also pretty sure I didn't embarrass myself, Richmond Public Schools, or America any more than usual over the course of the day, so double win!
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  • Day1

    WE HAVE ARRIVED!!!

    June 21, 2018 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 22 °C

    Between flights, layovers, and driving I think we've been traveling for about 21 hours. I don't know how I haven't collapsed.

    We were driven from the airport to Saitama City Hall, where our host family picked us up. I knew I was staying with the assistant principal for one of the elementary schools I'm visiting, Iijima-sensei (in Japan they use suffixes the way we might use "Mr." or "Ms.", and "-sensei" is used for teachers, doctors, and some other professionals). I noticed on the schedule they sent me that it said his wife will be taking care of me and now I know why - he barely speaks any English! He picked my up by himself and I felt bad when I asked him in the car, in English, when his school gets out for the summer. I could tell he didn't understand the question so I used Google Translate to ask again in Japanese, but then he spent literally 5 minutes trying to remember the word for "July". Thank goodness I know a little Japanese and have a smartphone! His wife, Jun-san (-san is used for most adults, but her nickname is Jun-Jun) speaks much more English thankfully.

    Once we got to the house I of course wanted to go to bed, but instead we went out for sushi. Sushi > sleep so I couldn't complain too much. It was a conveyor belt sushi place, which are always fun. It was exactly what it sounds like - there is a conveyor belt wish sushi on it that goes around the restaurant past all of the tables and you just grab what you want. Some, like the one we went to, also have touch screens at every table so you can order a specific thing. When you are finished you are charged by the plate. The best part (and lets be real, it was all amazing) was dessert, which was Japanese shaved ice (kakigōri). Again, I didn't take a picture of mine but it was similar to the one posted here. American shaved ice can't compete; kakigōri is shaved much finer and often has sweet condensed milk on top along with syrup, giving it a much smoother texture. I promise this whole blog won't be about food (if only because I won't remember the name of everything I've eaten), but I had kakigōri once when I went to Australia and I've been craving it ever since!

    Anyway, once we got home I was finally able to take a shower/bath and go to bed (I'm not going to talk about Japanese shower rooms now but spoiler: I really like them). I don't remember the last time I feel asleep that fast! Hopefully this means I won't have trouble adjusting my body clock to Japan time.
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  • Day1

    So tired...

    June 21, 2018 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 21 °C

    After about 18 or so hours of travel we arrived in Japan at Narita Airport. The flight itself was fine, a little turbulence here and there but pretty smooth for the most part. However, I didn't have the most comfortable seat. I guess I checked in too late for the flight online because my ticket said to get my seat at the gate. I ended up with the middle seat in the middle aisle in the middle of the plane. I was in between to American men and behind a Japanese or Japanese-American mother and her two small children. I didn’t really talk to anyone much, but the two men were plenty nice. Heather lucked out - she was in an aisle seat next to two adorable little Japanese girls.

    Unfortunately I couldn’t sleep on the plane at all. I go about two hours after they gave us dinner but that was it. I had bought an inflatable “face-hole” pillow and foot rest, and while they made me much more comfortable they weren’t enough apparently. I took melatonin twice too. I will say that even though I didn’t sleep much, it didn’t feel like 14 hours went by. While I spent a lot of the time trying to sleep, I did watch two movies and played a lot of Bejeweled. I watched Black Panther and Phantom Thread and both were very good. There were actually a lot of really good movies available, which was nice.

    As a quick aside - I know it’s a running joke that bad comedians talk about airplane food but it was actually much better then Armstrong’s school lunch (see pictures), so there’s that. I have to wonder how much those meals cost the airlines; do they cost a lot more than the spicy chicken sandwiches and pizza we always serve?

    Anyway we made it to Narita Airport just fine and were able to get through customs and find the person who was picking us up without much trouble. It was about 3:30 pm local time. Heather and I ended up renting WiFi hotspots at the airport because we were warned that the schools don’t have it and many homes don’t either. Even though I have unlimited data on my phone, I figured that I might need to use my computer to look up pictures of American things at the schools.

    The poor gentleman who picked us up was sent with a smaller car (though as I will probably mention later, most Japanese cars are small) and both Heather and I brought two suitcases! Fortunately he was was able to fit them all in and have enough room for us. It was an hour and a half or so car ride from Narita Airport to Saitama city hall and I didn’t get any sleep then either!
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  • Day0

    On our way...

    June 20, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    So far so good! The flight to Dulles Airport was on a very small plane but it was only 20 minutes so it was fine. Heather and I chatted about what to expect in Japan. I was a little surprised because she doesn't know any Japanese and doesn't like seafood. I guess it's a good thing she's not going to do any sight-seeing by herself!

    While we were waiting to get off the plane a man in front of us told us he works for the federal government and goes to Japan every month and was taking the same flight to Narita. Since neither of us knew the airport very well we decided to follow him to the gate for the next flight - it was easy since he was wearing a bright orange shirt. He later told us his wife tells him to wear orange for every flight so "they can find his body". His name was Dean and he was very nice. He invited us to use his guest tickets to United Lounge so we got free food and a nice place to rest for an hour or so. Dean helpfully told us where we could rent WiFi at the Narita airport since most places in Japan don't have it (even schools), which is surprising. I guess they just use Ethernet cables.

    I'm glad we got a chance to relax somewhere nice before being crammed onto a 14 hour flight!
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