January 21, 2008

SNOW!!

So it snowed last night. Only in the mountains though. But still. The first snow!!! I took pictures, but I'm at school now, so I can't upload them yet. Of course, along with the snow come cold temperatures. Japan is not a fan of central air or heating in general.I'm not sure, but I think even up in the north. So at school the classrooms are all cold. In the elementary schools they do have space heaters that they turn on occasionally. At my school, I guess since there are air conditioner/heaters installed in each room,they haven't purchased space heaters. And I guess it hasn't been deemed cold enough yet to turn on those heaters. Except in the teacher's office, for which I'm glad, even though my toes still get cold. But when I was vacuuming after break -- remember opening ceremony day? I vacuumed the whole teachers' room for about an hour --I saw a mini-space heater under a teacher's desk. A very good idea that I might have to copy. Anyway, I hope to remember to post the snow pictures later. I love snow.

UDON!!!!!!

We made Udon on Friday. Udon are Japanese noodles. But they are a specialty of Kagawa, my prefecture. They are often called Sanuki udon. (Sanuki being Kagawa's former name) It was our cultural workshop for the Mid-Year JET Seminar. It was a lot of fun. And surprisingly easy. But there is an art to it and a precision to making it just right that is not so easy. So I should say, making bad to not-so-bad udon is easy. Making it just the way you like it is difficult. Udon noodles were introduced by a monk who came to Shikoku from China back in the 8th century. They are a thick flour noodle that shouldn't be too hard and not too soft. They can be eaten hot or cold. They can be eaten in a broth or with a broth on the side to be dipped in. Usually they are topped with scallions, sesame seeds, ginger and a red spice - or any combination thereof. There are variations to the ingredients that can be included with the broth. You can have meat or a fish cake, tempura or tofu, seaweed or fish flakes. I don't know all the names or types that are possible. I usually just point to choose. Or I just order the same thing as the person in front of me.

Anyway, on to the noodle making. We were at a cooking school with our instructor being a famous udon making chef who owns several udon restaurants. He showed us in steps how to make it allowing us to complete each step after a demonstration of the step. You start with 700g of flour in a bowl. Pour in 200cc of salt water (10% concentration). You mix it together by rubbing the forming dough between your hands quickly. It should result in an even dispersal of the water and a uniform texture to the flour. Then you add 150cc of the salt water a little at a time and you begin kneading the dough. You probably won't use all the water. The dough shouldn't be too soft or sticky, but it shouldn't be too hard either. Then you take the dough and and place it in sturdy plastic bags. 2 should be good. And you knead it again with your heels (no shoes). It's good to put some cardboard down. After you have kneaded it, you pull it out and roll it up. Then you knead it again. And repeat once more. Once it is sufficiently kneaded, you take it out. Then, you fold over three "corners". Then you take the last corner and the three combined corners and you try to pull them together. You must work slowly so the opposite side remains smooth and uncracked. You are trying to work the corners together so that no lines or creases appear in the dough. It should end up like small puckered mouth on the bottom of a dough mushroom. When you have the right shape, you put the mouth part down, so it looks like a proper mushroom and you mush it down with your hands. You don't knead it completely; you just want a nice round mound of dough with no cracks or creases on the top. Then you use cornstarch to dust your dough and your surface. You begin to roll out your dough into a circle with a rolling pin. It should be like a small pizza. After that, you then work it even thinner, but into a square. You can get a square by choosing where your diagonals will be and then rolling the dough on those diagonals. But you don't roll it the traditional way. You actually roll the dough onto the pin. Then you knead it out from the center while it's on the pin. Then you unroll it and move to the next consecutive corner and repeat. Make sure you are using corn starch to dust your dough and surface when you need. Eventually, it should magically take the shape of a square. It should make a rather large square. Almost a meter on each side. When, you have the right size and shape, you roll the dough onto the pin one more time, but from an edge, not a corner. Then hovering in one spot, you unroll the dough moving back and forth so that you are folding the dough over itself, like an accordion or a paper fan. Each fold should be about 2 or 3 inches. Make sure to dust the dough with cornstarch once more. Then you pull the folded dough close to you and with a sharp knife, you cut the dough into noodles. You just need to move along the folded dough and slide it as you go. The slices should be less than half a centimeter. So about 4 millimeters. Maybe even less. Be consistent as you go and make sure you slice all the way through. We didn't slice all the way through at our table and had to cut again to separate the noodles. As you're cutting stop (or have someone else) and pick up the noodles and shake the folds out and get the excess cornstarch off. Then lay them out elongated. Make sure that you separate them well where the cuts have closed up. You should have your water boiling by this point. And you plop the noodles down into the water. You should have enough water to allow them plenty of room as they boil. As you boil them for 15 minutes, you should be constantly stirring in a figure 8. If you like harder noodles, stop sooner and for softer noodles let them boil longer. Then you use a ladle or chopsticks to get them out of the water into a bowl. At this point you can add the broth or the various ingredients you plan to use. Some people will put the noodles immediately into cold water to help the noodles maintain their texture (or if they are going to eat them cold) and then heat them back up later with the broth. I think the broth is just water and soy sauce. But it's probably got more to it or at least can have more to it.

If you made it this far, wow. I really need to learn how to be more concise. It would be helpful.

Here's a couple of links to the news footage from the day. You can see me in the background of the group shot (where everyone is watching the chef demonstrate) in each of the videos. And in one of them you can see me in the background to the right wearing a brown sweater standing next to another guy who is bald in the background (That's Matt, my neighbor).

http://www.rnc.co.jp/news/index.asp?mode=1&nwnbr=2008011809

http://www.ksb.co.jp/newsweb/meta/jn08011804.asx

January Update

So, this month has been typified by a lethargy due in large part to my inability to decide whether I should recontract or not. Generally, when I have a major decision looming over my head, I tend to do anything and everything but that which would be beneficial. So, rather than discuss the issues with people close to me or make lists with pros and cons in an effort to bring myself closer to a decision, I become lazy and find activities that will take my attention away from that decision. Usually, it involves reading lots of books or playing lots of computer games. Lately, it's been the latter, but one day I read this really good French book called La grammaire est une chanson douce (Grammar is a Sweet Song). When this happens, it not only allows me to procrastinate the inevitable 'to stay or not to stay', but also to put off any unrelated by still quite important work that needs to be done. So the weekend after making mochi, I had three days to recover more fully from traveling and prepare for a presentation to be given on Wednesday to a group of Mitoyo teachers. Did I do either? No, I stayed up late and didn't really sleep in and did no planning at all. So I spent Tuesday and Wednesday preparing.

The Presentation

I really enjoyed myself. I was told to give a talk to a group of teachers and "any topic is OK, maybe American culture." I could get no other information of any use for me to plan. I finally decided on "American School Life from the Perspective of a High School French Teacher". Maybe boring, but something I know about so I can easily liven it up with anecdotes and be more comfortable than with an unfamiliar topic. Once I got going, I couldn't stop. I told them I can talk forever. And me not knowing when something is over in Japan because the cultural context clues are different didn't help the matter. So, the hour-long talk, after starting fifteen minutes late combined with my interest in the topic and the cultural misconnection, turned into an hour and forty-five minute deal. Oops. But I really tried to end it. First at 7:15, since that was an hour from when we started. I said, "Well, it's 7:15 now, and that makes it an hour. We can end there even though we haven't made it through the outline. As I said at the beginning, I planned more than I would be able to finish." Even though I wasn't done, we were at a clear breaking point in the outline with the last part not directly related to school life. It was more a discussion of methods. But no one reacted. I thought I made it clear enough that it was over. And silence isn't always fun, so I started talking again. And that happened a couple more times before finally it ended. But nonetheless, I really enjoyed myself. And the teachers said they found it interesting. (Though I know Japanese culture prevents them from giving any negative comments publically.)

Mid-Year Seminar

Thursday and Friday were given over to the JET Mid-Year Seminar. Of course, I had left my computer and important papers at the school after giving my presentation. And so I wasn't sure of the time the seminar started and I just wanted my computer so I could use email and skype. I sent a text to Matt and found out that he would be leaving at 7:33. So I planned to get up early enough to get ready and get to the school and get my things before then. ZZZZzzzzz.... I slept until 7:05. But I still managed to get up, take a shower, get dressed, ride my bike to school, get my papers and computer, ride back home, drop off my computer, grab my bag, (5 minutes left to the train coming at this point), race to the station and get on the train. I made it with about a minute to spare. This "extra" time almost resulted in me getting on the wrong train since mine hadn't actually arrived yet. It would have taken me in the wrong direction. And in a funny turn of events, Matt missed the train. Then got in the wrong section of a train and, when it decoupled from the rest of the train at a later stop, ended up going across the Seto Inland Sea. Anyway, the first day of the seminar was filled with workshops to make us better ALTs. The funny part is, most of us are gungho about doing our job well. At least at the beginning. And most of what they tell us is not news to us. It's a shame that our JTEs cannot attend the workshops with us, so that we can all have a better understanding of each other's expectations. After the first day though, I was in a foul mood. I didn't even want to eat lunch. I can't remember a time when something made me lose my appetite. It happened when I found out that all the repetitions that we do in class are actually deeply cultural. They have a name and are almost considered a cultural heritage. Definitely a tradition. I thought it was maybe just that methods were a little behind the times here for teaching English. But in actuality, these repetitions are used in all subjects in some way. I thought before that maybe I could influence the teachers to use them less and less or maybe in different ways. But I see now that it's not something that will change. The only thing that I could hope for would be that we use them less in the lessons when I am in there. But for my teachers, I think they really like having their students repeat after a live native speaker rather than the recorded ones. So maybe not so hopeful. Apparently there is a large body of Japanese research that supports the success and usefulness of this repetition. I don't know if it specifically targets language education, but if it does, it contradicts most everything that I have read or learned about language education. If it is successful, it is successful at helping generations of Japanese English learners be able to recite a dialogue (both parts one after the other) 20 years after they learned it. But as most everyone knows, reciting a dialogue is hardly communication. In the unlikely event that a situation presents itself that closely resembles one from the book, the learner may be able to actually start the conversation, but if it differs from the one in the book, chances are there will be miscommunication. Now, what the repetition does do, is help the students memorize bunches of vocabulary. If they work hard at it. And when I put a student on the spot outside of class, it may take a minute, but I can see their brain chugging away searching for a word that they know they know. And eventually, sometimes, they can put together some of those words to make something intelligible to me. Success! But it takes many, many of those opportunities for the student to be able to put all of that random vocabulary to use on their own. And it's when the students use the language on their own, that they can solidify the language in their own mind. If whatever they say is met with a response and it matches their expectation, then they are successful, and the language they used is given a power up. If they get a confused look or the wrong reaction, then they must start over at the beginning. And if they don't get these opportunities to try the language out and get feedback, then eventually time runs out and game over. Most of the useful language is gone from lack of ever being acquired. What is learned can be forgotten, what is acquired is there forever. Like riding a bike. When you are starting out, the explanations you internalize are examples of learning. When you are on the bike and your body is getting accustomed to the sensation of finding equilibrium, it is acquiring.

Anyway, see I love talking about teaching and I could go on forever. Let's just say learning about the repetition made me feel hopeless. And made me focus on whether or not I should re-contract. I had been leaning towards staying, but that made me feel like I would never be really happy at the junior high. And I only go to the elementaries so often. And even there, I don't always get to have a big impact on the lesson planning. After the seminar, I went to eat with friends and then went home.

Friday was better. We got to go in later and it was our cultural workshop. We made UDON!!! See the next post. And after that we had someone from CLAIR (a governmental organization related to JET) give a talk called "Making the Most of your Team-teaching Relationship". It was excellent and included research date from surveys they recently sent out. It was quite interesting. But again would have been made better had the audience included our JTEs. But luckily he had a copy of the notes in Japanese and I plan on showing that to my teachers.

Afterward, a bunch of us went bowling. That was good times. While we were there, we saw the Udon making workshop on the news. We were celebs. And after that we had Indian food and then I went with a group to karaoke where I fell asleep, as usual. I just can't make it through. I stayed at another JET's apartment. We got in around 3 and had to be up at 8 to get back to town to get tickets for the opening of Sweeney Todd. I stayed in town by myself after we got the tickets. I spent TOO much money on doodads at this really cool store called Loft. Then I bought some clothes (as I hadn't packed an overnight bag). I grabbed lunch from the grocery store and went to the international office where I watched the news in English on CNN until 3 when the Robin Hood the Musical auditions were being held. Some JETs are trying to get the play started to put on in June. They have done plays in the past, but it's been difficult to get interest this year. Not enough people showed up to audition. So we've got to recruit more people or it won't happen. It should be fun though if we can pull it off.

After that, a group of us went to Sweeney Todd. That was a pretty interesting if not terribly grotesque movie. I enjoyed it though. It was well done. And afterward, we went to dinner at this really cool cafe type place called Umie. Great food! But I missed the last train that would get me in at a decent time. I can either get home a quarter to 11 or 25 minutes after midnight. I always seem to miss the train by just a few minutes, too, which is incredibly frustrating. Anyway, yesterday was an almost wasted day. I started off pretty well. I did a load of laundry and had it hanging and a second one started and then I let myself get sucked back into the computer. Eventually around 10, I got up and got everything done. I picked up all the junk on my floors, cleared my kitchen table, cleaned my room, hung up that second load of laundry, did the dishes, took a shower, and got to bed. I think part of the wasted day was from not getting good sleep and just being tired. Because I felt pretty energized around 10. Obviously. Made this morning a little difficult getting up and all. But I've managed.

Monday

And once again I failed to know (either by my own deductions or by someone telling me) that I would be teaching no classes today. I mean I guess I don't mind. It's better than when I don't know I'm supposed to be teaching. But I feel like it's such a waste of my being here in Japan. Please utilize me. I'm sure there's an elementary school that would be happy to have me or maybe a kindergarten or pre-school where I could go and give students a small dose of English. But at this point it's kind of late to try and arrange something. Oh well.

January 10, 2008

Mochi!!!!!

Bet you thought my next post would be about the Thailand trip. But I'm back and already the Japanese fun starts. After a bit of boring stuff.

Work was a bit dull the first day back. I thought the re-opening ceremony would be bigger and more interesting. Instead the students came in as usual and the teachers all met for about 20 minutes. Then it was cleaning time for a half-hour. Then everyone met in the (freezing) gym for about 30 minutes where the principals talked and presented various awards. Then they had an extended homeroom after which the students went home. That was all done before 11 am. In the afternoon, there was a teachers' meeting. So I just sat in the office until 3:45.

Yesterday was more interesting. I had a couple classes where I talked about my trip and one where I sat for most of the period while the students went over a recent test. Taught a little at the end.

BUT, in the afternoon, the real fun started. I went to Ninomiya (ニノ宮) Elementary for a special day. They were making mochi. Mochi is this mushy rice dough usually used as a dessert. In the olden days, they made it by hand. You make sticky rice first. There is a big stone bowl called an usu. You have to warm it up by pouring in boiling water. But it can't be too wet, so you have to continuously pour it in and ladle it out before you start to make the mochi. When the rice is ready, you pour it in to the usu. There is a special wooden mallet called a kine. It's big and long like an ax, but the end, of course, is like a wooden hammer. You start by kneading the rice in the bowl holding the kine near the top and putting a lot of pressure on it. This gets the rice to start losing it's individual grains. After a bit, you back up and start hammering away at the rice. Usually the men use the hammer. The women have the dangerous job of taking care of the mochi. To make sure all of the rice gets mushed together, the women have to keep turning it over and pulling the rice from the sides of the usu. They do this in between throws of the hammer. It takes good timing so that their hands don't get mashed. While the hammer is down, the women wet their hands, and when the hammer goes up, they move the mochi. It doesn't take long before there is no more rice; it's just a big mushy ball that looks like dough.
video

Nowadays most families don't make mochi by hand. If they make it at home, they use a machine to do it. The principal wanted the students to have this experience. We did it yesterday because traditionally the Japanese will make mochi for the new year. They make "mochi-bana", mochi flowers. They take branches and wrap pieces of mochi around them to look like flowers. They hang this branch up at the entrance to their houses so it hangs over and brings good fortune and a good harvest for the following year. Mochi is white because it's made of rice, but they add red coloring to it (not sure if it's just dye or something special) to get pink mochi and a type of grass (mugwort) to get green mochi. Since the Ninomiya area is known for its green tea, they used that to make the green mochi.



The principal invited important community members and parents to come in and help make the mochi and she also asked journalists to come in. I got my picture in the paper with some of the kids and a mochi-bana branch.

You can eat mochi in different ways. You can just have a piece of mochi as is. Usually it's powdered with flour since it would be too sticky to handle otherwise. Often there is an that is rolled up inside. An is a sweet red bean paste that you can find EVERYWHERE in Japan. They put it in bread, ice-cream, mochi, cookies. It's a dessert ingredient. You think you're buying a pastry with some berries inside because that's what the picture looks like. NOPE. It's an. (pronounced AHN). You get used to it and you might even begin to like it. Anyway, that's what they did with the mochi from yesterday. But today for school lunch, there was mochi in the soup. Sometimes you can find mochi with ice-cream. The texture is very interesting. Think of a marshmallow but much thicker and less flavorful. If it's in soup, the added moisture changes the consistency. Think of cotton candy but where you can't feel the individual strands. It's like your biting into nothing, yet there is something there.

Not sure if you could ever find it in the states, but mochi is definitely worth trying.