Trying Calligraphy

An element of Japanese culture that called me to Japan has always been calligraphy. The smooth, thick, brush strokes that make up words have always tugged at my fascination. Calligraphy is a subject my students learn in school, and for those with a strong interest in it, they can join the after-school calligraphy club. 

Visiting this club has been on my Japan life list since the very beginning. Just recently, I got to have that wonderful experience. 

When I entered the room the faint smell of the black ink filled it completely. A small group of about eight girls awaited my planned arrival and they ushered me to the seat they had set for me. I felt a bit like royalty as they all centered their attention completely on me and my experience. Roles were reversed as those who were my students by day, suddenly became my teachers by night. Together they collectively pooled their English ability to communicate a hard and fast calligraphy lesson to me. 

We started with the basics. I practiced a few of the basic lines and was taught how to hold the brush correctly. As time went on they added more and more best practices. Lines of communication were formed through a mix of short phrases and words, drawings, and gestures. Easily enough I was able to follow all their collective knowledge. 
After some practice with the basics we moved on to some words. Japanese calligraphy is written in Kanji (Chinese characters) and makes up words written in Japanese. The girls wrote the characters in front of me so I could see how it was done. They gave me several sheets of paper to practice on before I would be doing the final one of a thicker piece of patterned cardboard. 

With each practice round the girls gave me more and more hints. They wrote down the stroke order and wrote me notes for what I was supposed to do with my brush. Though I could never make it look exactly like theirs, they praised me all the same each time. 
Watching someone do calligraphy proved much more relaxing than actually doing it. Watching the girls  make the smooth, fluid strokes had a calming effect on me. Though when it came time to do it myself, it induced a little stress. However, at one point one of my teachers took my hand in hers and guided me through the strokes in a team effort. Being enveloped in all their collective desire for my success made me feel warm and positively connected. 
I was excited to for them to give me this cultural experience. Though I enjoy teaching in the classroom, I so much enjoy these extra moments outside of the classroom to interact and connect with my students. They got to use their English in a real world and practical way, talking about something they loved. They had a moment to see their teacher in a different light. I got to be humbled and learn something from girls half my age. I won't soon forget their kindness.

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Valentine's Day in Japan

Valentine's Day is fully present in Japan, but the gifting process is a bit different that Westerners are used to. Relax men, you don't need to buy anything! That's right all the chocolate gets given to you! 

There is a long standing tradition in Japan that girls gift chocolate to boys. There are two different kinds of chocolate gifts. Non-romantic chocolate given to friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances. Then there is romantic chocolate given to a boyfriend from a girlfriend. Many girls and women make the chocolate or sweets themselves, as it is considered a more true attestation of love than buying chocolate in a store. 

But there still is much store bought chocolate to be found. A few weeks before Valentine's Day I saw pink and red heart shaped boxes popping up in many grocery stores. 

My school was festive on Valentine's Day. I could see many treats being given, mostly from girls to their girlfriends as tokens of friendship. In my two classes of the day, I presented all the students with a small piece of chocolate (store bought) and they were excited to receive it. A few other girls presented me with small handmade baked treats that were individually wrapped or bagged. 

On the chalkboard pictured above, the girls of this class came in one hour before school began to compose this masterpiece. During the break time in that same class the girls told the boys to look under their chair, where they had taped a bar of chocolate for each of them. 

Think the boys need to step it up? They will have their day, one month from now on "White Day", March 14th, a Japanese holiday where boys give chocolate to the girls that gifted it to them on Valentine's Day. The color of these treats is often white in coordination with the name of the day. 

While each of this holiday's are cash goldmines to confectionery companies it's still very cute to see my students expressing their love and admiration to each other as well as their teachers. 

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English Speech Competition

Every year there are numerous competitions held in English for Japanese students to showcase. their English ability. Recently I had three students take part in a speech competition. The participants in my school are part of the after school English club so they enjoy learning English and participating in competitions which use it.
This was the third speech competition I have counseled students in since arriving last August. My students have also participated in a national debate competition and a 30-minute play competition, all in English.
When students begin preparing the for speech competition they first think about an issue they are interested in talking about. Once they have that issue in mind, they should start drafting ideas in Japanese to begin adding the body to their speech. In this most recent speech competition my students came to me with ideas jotted down in Japanese. At this point is it best for them to work with their Japanese English teacher, with whom they can better communicate, to get their ideas down in English.
Ayaka choose to write about the importance of space exploration, Fuka about the use of therapy dogs in hospitals, and Megumi about women and the glass ceiling.
Next I can correct any grammar troubles they are having and help the speech to sound more natural and fluent. Once their speech is completely written and there are happy with the product they begin the process of memorizing it. Students in my school, and Japan in general, are exceptionally hardworking and studious. They read over the speech time and time again to commit it to memory.
Then they begin working with me, performing the speech out loud, so I can correct any unnatural pronunciation they have. They have a goal of making it sound as natural as possible. We also work on natural gestures, volume, speed, and inflection which gives their speech character.
On the morning of the competition we found out there were to be 16 speakers total, all in grades 10 and 11. Each speaker had between 4 and 5 1/2 minutes to speak and would be docked points for being over or under the time. The speeches must be given from memory and they aren’t allowed to look at their script while at the podium.
A few of the speakers had moments of silence as they lost their place in their memory and quietly mumbled to themselves to get back on track. Some speeches lacked some organization and as an audience member is became hard to follow the point. Others didn’t speak loudly or clearly enough.
Now you may call me bias, but my three students did spectacular! So spectacular that my girls took 1st 2nd and 3rd place out of five prizes to be won. I think everyone in attendance from our school was shocked at the wonderful result we had received. We were all so incredibly proud.


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Life List Item #14: Visit Universal Studios

When I added this item to my list I had no idea it would involve Japan. As things would turn out it did. My friend Mari and I took an amazing trip to Universal Studios Japan, in Osaka, where I had the time of my life.

After the three hour train ride from Kanazawa to Osaka we were getting off the in Universal City. After purchasing the ticket we began taking in the surroundings. I should say I  took in the surroundings as a first time visitor, for Mari she has seen this all before. I was beaming with joy. My surroundings make me feel as if I was back home! All the street signs were recognizable and even the American mail box got a squeal out of me.

Each area of Universal is set up to look like a different U.S. city. As we traversed through the different areas I got to see Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, Amity Island, Jurassic Park, and of course the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As this attraction is the most popular it requires a timed entry ticket, so our first priority was to head to the ticket machine to get one. It didn't cost any extra, it is just a way to bring people into this area at a staggered rate.

We rode for Forbidden Journey 3D ride which took us through the world of Harry Potter from the Great Hall to the Quidditch Pitch and through the Forbidden Forest feeling as if we were riding on a broomstick just feet behind Harry and Ron. We felt fire as a dragon breathed in our faces and felt as if we were going to crash when our broom took a nosedive to catch the golden snitch. Before we boarded the ride the line took us through different parts of the castle where we got to see Dumbledore's Office, the Gryffindor Common Room, and the talking paintings. These were absolutely amazing because they looked so real. They were speaking Japanese, so I didn't know what they were saying!

Being in each tiny city is like actually being in the real place. Everything down to the trash receptacles, the street signs, and the smallest details bring you into a pocket of a world so far away. The music playing in each area helps to create the surrounding experience, like you are really there.

The whole day could not have been better.  The weather was mild,  the company was great, and all the sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings did not disappoint. I loved absolutely every second of my experience at Universal Studios Japan.

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Nara Deer Park

One of the places on my Japan travel list was the city of Nara, known for it's famous Deer Park. I recently got to visit and experience the over 1,000 wild Sika deer that roam the park.  I found out that in  the Shinto religion these deer are considered to be messengers of the gods. 

The deer inhabit in this 1,200 acre park, doing their thing, and waiting to be fed crackers by tourists. The deer are extremely friendly, but can get a little aggressive when they know you have crackers to feed them, many of them tugging at your coat or nuzzling their head into your side. None that I could see had large racks of antlers and the few male deer that I witnessed had their antlers sawed off. Safe for the visitors, but of course not natural for the deer. These deer were smaller and a bit more stout than the whitetail deer native to my state of Michigan. 

Deery want a cracker?
Do you have a message for me?
A second reason I was eager to visit Nara Park is because it is the site of Todai-ji, spectacular Buddhist temple complex. The Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world and it houses a 50-foot bronze Buddha statue, the largest bronze Buddha in the world. (That's a lot of superlatives to hit!) When I learned of it's presence there, I knew I wanted to see it in person.

Coming from a person who adores Buddhist art, seeing something like this in person is an incredibly moving experience. As I was approaching the entrance I was becoming more and more excited and when I finally beheld the site, I had my breath taken away. Pictures are a poor representation of what it is like to experience this being's presence in person. 

Another surprise experience was getting to see the statues of Agyo and Ungyo at the entrance of the temple. You may remember my post about this a while ago. The statues I had pictured in that post were in fact the very ones that guard Todai-ji! When I was approaching and realizing that I was going to get to see these statues in person I got butterflies in my stomach. They did not photograph well, but maybe you can get some idea of their size.

Being in the presence of these two figures was a similar but heightened reaction that I had before when seeing similar figures like these. I don't think I scare easily, but these two send a chill down your spine like being alone in a dark forest. Though they are stationary, their expressive movement makes you feel like they are going to jump down and engulf you at any moment. I wanted to look at them, and stand between them, and experience the sheer power they radiated. Though it's frightening their craftsmanship undoubtedly leaves the viewer in awe. These guardians of the temple surely do their job at warding off evil.

While traversing the park their are numerous other temples and shrines to visit. Please enjoy a few more pictures from my trip to Nara Deer Park.

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