Scallop Harvest on Saroma Lake

This Tuesday morning I went out again with the Sumiyoshi family on their boat into Lake Saroma to haul up the nets of one year old scallops, and dump them in crates for their eventual transfer to the Sea of Okhotsk where they will grow to maturity.  Once again, my favorite part of the whole venture is the boat ride out to the nets.  All of the boats from Toppushi Port slowly maneuver out to a demarcation, where they wait for the signal from the fishing cooperative to go.  Then they all throttle up their engines and race to find their buoy.  Here’s a video of our second foray into the lake, taken at around 4:30 AM.


A Wintry May

A quick post.  Have a look at the change in the weather over the last week in Saroma.  After several weeks of steadily strengthening spring, the temperature dropped for a few days and it snowed about 6 inches.  Here are two photos I took, one on Monday, and the other today, Sunday.

education English Middle School Saroma

Write Your Own Calvin Comic

This is a lesson I designed and did several years ago and have done a few times since.  I introduce Calvin and Hobbes, explain who the main characters are, and then give the students a handout with a few comics on the front.  We read the comics together and I try to make sure they understand the meaning.  Of course, the explanation sort of removes the humor from them, but that’s OK, because the fun part comes next.

On the back of each sheet, there is a different comic printed, one for each pair of students in class.  The comic has had the wording removed from the speech bubbles, so their goal is to assess the comic, try to figure out what is happening or what the author intended, and then either write something they think fits in the bubbles, or take it in a different direction.  Sometimes students ask if they can add drawings to the comic, or extra bubbles not originally there.  I say sure, why not.

Here are some selections of comics that last year’s 3rd graders at Saroma Junior High did (9th graders).  They’re gone and graduated now, but I’ve kept the comics they wrote, and per a request from a friend, I’ve scanned the best ones: (Images link to larger versions, and are browsable using the arrows)



Last week I installed a spray toilet seat in my bathroom (13,000 yen, Amazon).  I bought it without knowing for sure if it would be installable, figuring I could return it if it wasn’t.  So, last Monday night, after searching for hours for the water shutoff valve for my house (under the sink, behind the wall, inside the sink cabinet, down in the crawlspace) and finally finding it in plain sight next to the boiler, I installed the new toilet seat.  It was easier than I thought it was going to be, maybe because I actually read the manual, which was surprisingly clear.

After the install and a few tests, proud of my accomplishment, I snapped a few photos of the seat and sent one off to my father and stepmother, who have never been to Japan and have no concept of the “washlet” spray toilet that Japan is so famous for.

My father responded:

I’ve never seen such a thing.  Who knew?

The next day I sent another photo of the button panel on the side of the toilet seat, to which my stepmom replied:

I want to know what all the buttons on that toilet lid could possibly be for!!!!!!!

So, I thought I’d have a little fun, and quickly sent off this reply:

Here’s what the buttons do, from left to right.

• shuts the toilet so when you flush, water overflows everywhere.
• summons a ghost butt to mirror your own butt (superstitious thing)
• calls the maid
• shakes the toilet left and right violently
• the rest of the smaller ones each order a different type of rice ball snack. Flavors include kelp, fermented soybeans, fish flakes and cod roe.

Of course, that couldn’t be more of a big, fat, fib.  I assume all of those reading this frequently rinse their tushes with a Japanese style spray toilet several times a day, but for those who haven’t had the pleasure of electronically douching their derriere, here is what the buttons actually do:

• stop button.  Very important.
• sprays warm water on your tush.
• bidet
• gyrates the spray nozzle from front to back
Little buttons: left to right, from top row
• first two: adjust the power of the tush spray
• adjusts water temperature
• cleans the nozzle
• different energy saving modes
• first two on bottom: move nozzle position from front to back
• seat temperature
• air freshener


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Hokkaido Saroma

The East End of Lake Saroma

Snowshoeing along Tsurunuma Slough at the eastern end of Lake Saroma near Baro. Mt Horoiwa in the distance.


education Japanese Sapporo

Why The JLPT N1 Was Worth it Even if I Failed.

Yesterday I took the highest level test of the JLPT, level N1, in Sapporo at Hokkaido University. The test consists of three main sections: A language knowledge section and a reading comprehension section administered in one 110 minute session, and a 60 minute listening section.

I took and passed the old level 2 (barely) JLPT in December 2008, after having passed level 3 in December of 2007. I began studying Japanese for the first time in the fall of 2004. I felt that retaking level two, even if it is the new, modified level N2, was sort of chickening out. Why take a test I’ve already passed? On one hand, I don’t have much faith in what these tests say about my Japanese ability. They measure only receptive skills, and no productive skills, which are 50% (or more) of one’s language proficiency, and arguably the harder part. On the other hand, not taking the test seriously as a measure of ability gave me an excuse for my unwillingness to commit to the kind of serious self-study necessary to actually pass it. So, this fall, after a visit back to America that caused me to question where I am going next in life, I decided to go for level N1, to see where I have come in these 7 years studying Japanese, travelling to Japan, living in Japan, marrying a Japanese person, and seeing no end in sight for my connection to this country.

First, I should admit that even after I registered for the test in August, I did not do anything more than cursory browsing of study guides until the week before the test, when of course I panicked, realized that if I were still going to take the test, I would be going in with whatever knowledge I just happened to have, along with whatever I could practically cram into my head in four or five days.

I should also plug some JLPT study guides that I purchased and found extremely useful, not just as a prep course for the test, but as a reference for anyone studying Japanese. These are the 総合まとめ “Sogo-matome” series of textbooks that are written specifically for the new N- prefixed tests. I feel that these textbooks present the vast amount of testable material in a very logically structured, friendly way. I bought the Kanji, Grammar, and Vocabulary books. There were many times while studying that I realized there was a word that I knew, and the kanji for which I also knew, but never knew that kanji had that reading. Big “Doh” moment. There were also English glosses of all example sentences – many N1 textbooks profess to teach all definitions in an intuitive way, with all definitions and explanations in Japanese. I’m almost there, but not quite yet. Overall, the textbooks are something that I feel are useful to have on my bookshelf even if I am not actively studying for this particular test. In addition to the three that I bought, there are also volumes on Reading Comprehension, Listening Comprehension, and a book containing two full practice tests that I plan on buying as well.

Ok, so, I didn’t bother studying, I don’t feel the test is a good measure of my overall ability, and I don’t even plan to do anything specific with the certification. Why was it worth the effort? Well, I think because sometimes we have to put ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to do what the situation requires. Wow, that’s circular reasoning. Let me be more clear. If I did not take this test, I would have risked continuing to float through my life only learning those words which I stumble over or happen to notice, getting along just fine with the Japanese that I have. The test made me realize how much I don’t know, and that I actually want to remedy that. As one studies more specialized vocabulary and grammar, the applicable usefulness of that knowledge becomes inverse to the effort required to attain it. I think it’s easy to become complacent, satisfied with the significant effort required to reach an intermediate level, and lose sight or put out of mind of all of the things which you don’t understand. The JLPT tested a wide variety of words used in politics, industry, scholarship, most of which are outside of my comfort zone (I do happen to know lots of words relating to primary education). I want my Japanese to be more versatile, deeper, and more refined.

Basically, taking N1 reminded me why I began studying Japanese in the first place and why I really do want to continue studying. It humbled me to realize the hundreds of kanji and thousands of combinations that I still know nothing of, but encouraged me to know that my listening was remarkably good, and that my reading just needed to be much faster. It was enlightening, and it made me feel like I knew where I was in in my long, arduous slog through the Jungle of Nihongo.


Let’s studying.

education Middle School

English Used at School

Now that the days have become cooler, the heaters are regularly turned on in the classrooms at my junior high school. Since the thermostat controls are all centrally located in the teachers room, we have to call down there and ask someone to flick the switch to off for our particular classroom. Often, when this becomes necessary in one of my English classes, I will call down to the room and sort of surprise whoever answers by making my request in English. Sometimes the teacher will make a student do this. Today, for the first time, I was in the teachers’ room while this happened. The English teacher who teaches 1st grade English, and prefers not to teach with me, had a student call down and ask. The nurse answered and freaked out, handing the phone off to the secretary who by now is used to that sort of thing.

So, now that this has become a “thing” at my school, I wonder why I’m so bored of it. In principle, the idea of using English in a way that even ever so slightly breaks the typical bounds of the classroom environment (all the way downstairs!) is a good thing. However, I don’t expect that they will start requiring class leaders to use English when asking about preparations for the next day’s class, or conducting daily business in their homerooms. Why? It’s just too hard. In principle, this is a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that it is treated as a novelty (Oh my god, he’s speaking English, on the phone, to a teacher!) and not as something that everyone should be able to do.

One of the major failings of English education in Japan, by no fault necessarily of the teachers, is its inability to demonstrate the use of English in a normal or casual way, to show students that “yes, this is something that you can do too.” The common criticism is that there is not enough emphasis on a “communicative” approach to teaching. While valid, there is a more encompassing criticism in regard to the attitude taken toward English: It’s always set up as a sort of performance, rarely given utility or any plausible application. Obviously, that can be hard to do at the junior high level, given the balance required by testing and national standards and the simple rigor of the bukatsu-laden schoolday. Which is why my jaded view of these phone calls puzzles me. I should be embracing it as a tiny step toward my view of an ideal introduction of English. But I find myself rolling my eyes at it because I see it becoming another way English is treated as an other, as something else that exists in another world beyond the consciousness of everyday life.


Rock Climbing in Abashiri

Last week, on culture day, Tim invited me along rock climbing with him. He is a fairly hardcore rock climber, but needed someone along to belay him, plus I am great company. We went to a rock climbing site near Cape Notoro in Abashiri, about an hour from Saroma. After scrambling down to the beach, we scoped out the climbing routes. Tim was not impressed, and even I could tell that many of the anchors were not trustworthy.

Tim decided instead to freeclimb a large outcropping in the ocean, removing his shoes beforehand. I opted to stay on the shore and observe. Nonetheless, I was very impressed by his agility and confidence in hauling himself up, several times, to the top of this massive rock. Below is a panorama and a video of Tim’s little adventure. After this, we did a bit of climbing, and I had a go, which was humbling to say the least. The consolation prize was an untouched and totally inaccessible shoreline full of beach glass. I took home a large pocketful.

There is something off about the way the panorama is embedded – the controls are screwy. Try viewing it larger at this link.

education elementary English Murakami

Curricular Grumbling

Why do we teach Japanese 1st and 2nd graders about fruit, colors, animals, and numbers? Are these truly the first words that they need to learn in their progression of English education? Should the simplest structures always be presented first? Should we expect students to remember words, or should they be encouraged to use them?

When I was a first-year ALT in Murakami City, I assisted in a model English class conducted at Senami Elementary School, with a teacher named Mrs. Hiki. She was a 1st grade teacher and spoke great English, mostly from her own personal study. She often taught English as part of her class’ general study time and the effects showed. Her students were very attentive and treated English like a special realm within the school day. For the model class, Mrs. Hiki’s goals were: colors, shapes, AND an activity employing the language of colors and shapes. The students practiced these and then participated in a shopping game, where they got to ask for and receive different shapes of a certain color, then glue them onto a larger piece of paper to show their accomplishment.

This class was attended not only by teachers from that school, but a representative from the regional school board, the Kaetsu Board of Education. In the summary discussion of the class afterward, I was rather shocked that his main criticism of the class was that the lesson included too much language, that first and second grade English classes should be sufficient with just teaching the vocabulary words, without any ‘difficult’ communicative language.

I still encounter this attitude sometimes, that students shouldn’t be challenged with “using” language but should just be given the opportunity to “touch” it.  I wonder if this stems from a wish to insulate younger students from the frustrating aspects of language learning, or perhaps from the personal language learning experiences of adult Japanese teachers?