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?

Japan Murakami


On Sunday, at the urge of Julie, a couchsurfer from Montréal and former ALT in Hyôgo Prefecture, I visited Kannon-ji Temple in Murakami, about 300 meters from my base school and a very short walk from a 7-Eleven.  The significance of this temple is that it contains the last monk in Japan to attain sokushinbutsu, the attainment of buddhahood during life.  The shingon sect of buddhism achieved this through a gruesome and bizarre process of gradual self-mummification.  The monks would essentially deny their bodies of nutrients and self-preserve their flesh using natural toxins over an arduously long period.  Effectively suicide, it was outlawed in the second half of the 19th century.

The Thinking Blog gives this succinct and graphic description of the process:

For three years the priests would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. They then ate only bark and roots for another three years and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which contains Urushiol (same stuff that makes poison ivy), normally used to lacquer bowls. This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids. Finally, a self-mummifying monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.

The very last monk to successfully attain sokushinbutsu is enshrined at Kannon-ji temple in Murakami, and is named bukkai which literally means like Ocean Buddha.  The loud, nutty old wheelchair-bound woman who showed us the mummified corpse of Mr. Bukkai told us that we couldn’t take pictures, which is probably all well and good.  It was like staring at death.  Death behind double-paned glass, wearing a strange ceremonial hat, sitting in proper cross-legged position with hands clasped in prayer, head facing down.  The mummies of Egypt are impressive, but I find this far more so.  It’s a lot easier to have someone else do the job after you’ve had a nice easy death.  Try doing it all by yourself!

Here’s the front of the temple:


This is the tomb that the monk finished things up in:


America elementary Japan Murakami





America elementary Japan Murakami

Senami Coast War Memorial

This is my translation of a war memorial that I came across near the Senami coastline in Murakami. The original Japanese is posted on the Japanese version of this site, so feel free to add translation advice, especially concerning the second paragraph, which I don’t completely understand.

On October 3rd 1945, around 10 AM, the shapes of 22 American military landing craft appeared suddenly off this coast, and 700 officers and men from the 11th division of the American Army made landfall at this point.  At that time, military supplies such as railcars, tanks and heavy machinery began to be unloaded, which continued into the end of December that year.  The unloaded supplies were used to construct roads and the schoolgrounds of Senami Elementary, as well as the plaza of the railway station.  During that time, the officers and men stayed at inns (including the old Japan Sea Dojo) and Senami Elementary School.  Afterward, the men moved on with the military supplies toward Niigata.

At that time, to the people of Senami, The American Army were met as a sudden bolt out of the blue.  However, the fact of such a serious matter was that you can’t even see any memorials to the end of the war.  To continually express the wish for eternal peace and to communicate this historical fact for the purpose of future generations, this was posted here.


elementary English Japan JET Murakami

The Nature of The Goodbye

Today I said goodbye to Kamikaifu Elementary, my very favorite school in Murakami.  Over the past year, I have visited the school 17 times.  This is far less than any other school, but it only has 41 students.  The school was comprehensible, and friendly.  The staff talked to me about interesting things.  No one ever forgot about me during lunchtime.  The vice-principal and I basically became a two-man comedy team.  The children were exceptionally, astonishingly good.  I knew their names.  I knew I was appreciated when I visited this school, so I went the extra mile for them.  With eight staff and 41 students, my efforts could hardly be diluted.  I dressed up as Santa Claus and no one tried to undress me.  I dressed up as The White Rabbit and no one tried to tear off my tail.  I always felt lucky to come to this school, and I think the students are lucky as well.  Huge classes and large grades at large faceless schools turn out average citizens.  There are standouts in every group, but somehow the kids at Kamikaifu all stood out.  It’s hard to explain.

It’s quite hard for me to really smile.  It’s quite hard for me to really cry.  I relish a good cry, because it’s like a rare treat that I cannot willfully order.  Today I came pretty close.  At the end of the 1st and 2nd grade class, I sat down and told them thank you, how much fun I had with them, and that they please do their best after I leave.  They had a gift for me, a yearlong calendar, starting in August.  There are 12 students in the combined class – six first grade and six second grade.  Each student drew a picture for one month of the year.  I almost melted when I realized the simple significance.  The 3rd and 4th graders sang me a song.  It put me in the mood that popular dramas like Lost and the House M.D. do during the closing montage, in which a popular song wafts loudly through crossfades of the characters’ dramatic circumstances.  It was like watching a movie, all of the happy, lively, intelligent young faces that have really brightened my day so many times right there in front of me to reflect on for three whole minutes.

I came to realize today that the Goodbye has a bad name.  Unfairly so.  A well done, proper Goodbye at the right moment can be fulfilling and rewarding.  A Goodbye is a testament to the effort invested in a relationship, in a community, in a friend.  I will have many more to do in the next 20 days; some will be labored, some will be awkward, some will be a relief.  But my last day at Kamikaifu makes up for any of that.


elementary JET Murakami

English Swim Lessons


Funnest day ever!  Me and the 1st and 2nd graders at Senami Elementary School went fishing in the swimming pool today.  We learned the names of things like whales, squid, octopus, starfish, and dolphins, then we imitated them in the water.  Then I tossed about 40 or 50 laminated cards into the water and the students had to “fish” for the type of sea creature that I shouted out.  Then the students who had cards and those who didn’t separated and the cardless kids had to catch those with the cards.


At the end we had a huge game of Marco Polo, which I don’t think the students understood very well, but was nonetheless a lot of screaming fun.


elementary JET Murakami

Taco Night

I had my supervisor from Senami Elementary, Hiki-sensei, her two children, and two other teachers from Senami over on Thursday night for tacos. Japanese people don’t really have very good knowledge of tacos, and it doesn’t help that tako in Japanese means octopus. The ALTs in town came over too, and we had a great time playing boggle and scrabble, and eating pop rocks, pixy sticks, and peeps. Here’s a photo of Kudo-sensei from Senami Elementary, and Hiki-sensei’s two children with Hannah, the ALT in Kamihayashi-mura.

Taco Craziness

Murakami travel

Spring Riding in a Carriage

Last Sunday, the 9th of March, I dusted and oiled (off and up, respectively) my Air Friday and set off toward the Asahi Super Line. This is a winding, scenic mountain road that is closed due to snow in the winter. One of my dreams here in Japan is to go on a spring ride on a closed-off mountain road once it is passable with a bike but before the road has officially been opened to traffic. I read a Hokkaido ALT’s blog about a similar experience up there, and it sounded awesome. Well, there was still a ton of snow, even a guy taking his snowmachine down the road. It was a wonderful ride nonetheless, maybe 30km roundtrip in about 3 hours, with lots of stops, including one at the Jomon no Sato (縄文の里)which is sort of a history museum from the Jomon period (14,000 BC to 300 BC).  I tried to buy a coffee from the vending machine but it was shut off for the winter.  The guy at the front desk was very nice and made me coffee, even though I had no intention of paying the 400 yen to go look at a bunch of thatched huts and broken pots by myself while daylight was slipping away.  Apparently I was the first person to show up all day.  It made for a nice chat, and I learned a few things, including how most of the artifacts in the place were unearthed during excavation for the two giant dams on the Miomote River a kilometer or two back in the mountains.  Here’s a nicely staged shot of my bike and the enticing view back into the Miomote River valley.

Biking in Asahi

Ok, there was no carriage, but there was riding and it feels like spring to me.  That and an eagerness to flaunt my knowledge of Japanese literature led me to title my post after Yokomitsu Riichi’s depressing short story.

Alaska English JET Middle School Murakami

License Plate English

I did a hastily prepared worksheet today with four classes, from first grade to third grade (junior high 7th through 9th). I got the idea from a feature on the Anchorage Daily News website showcasing reader submitted vanity plates. The goal was for the students to figure out the meaning of real Alaska license plates. For example, “SNOMAN,” “IXLR8,” and “LVWNTR.” They then had to create six-letter plates from “Murakami” and “I love English,” then create their own personalized plate. If they wrote it on the board, they could get a sticker. It was an amazing success. I was astonished at how quickly they understood the concept, and how creative their own vanity plates were. Click the image below to see a whole gallery of my third graders’ creations.

Study Hard


Snow Jumping

Chris coaches me on a 15-foot castle jump.