Weekly Ikenobo: Arrangemnet #2

Ahh arrangement #2. This was my second week of lessons and the first time I would be alone with my new teacher. Well not totally alone. I was wasn’t the only student studying under her. Sometimes, there are women there taking lessons or finishing up when I arrive. Time is very flexible.

I arrive after work and I sit and chat with my teacher and others students over black coffee and numerous treats that the teacher lays out for us. I haven’t figured out exactly where all the food comes from but I think most of it is omiyage (souvenirs usually in the form of individually packaged treats) from her travels or her students. At 88 years she is still quite active.

This process is both a source of stress and relaxation. Part of me wants to go in, do my thing, and get out, but the coffee and chatting helps break the ice and forces me to speak Japanese. At first, I’m always tense and quiet but soon I relax and jump into conversations or answer questions.

I think this a part of traditional culture in Japan; giving treats and snacks that is. I have been given tea and coffee at meetings with my schools, the fire department, and even in a Chinese medicine shop while waiting for my friend. It’s polite, thoughtful, and slows you down. In the West, you are often on the go and straight to business. Taking time to sip tea and nibble on a sweet treat doesn’t take away from business or your goal but instead gives your time to others and maybe unconsciously shows your commitment and respect to them. It’s abstract and roundabout but most of the Japanese traditional culture is like that – especially ikebana.

Don’t believe me? Ikebana at its core is meant to be appreciated and admired, often during tea ceremonies, which can take hours. It reflects nature with all of its beauty and imperfections. A Western bouquet is full of the brightest and most beautiful flowers and greenery. Ikebana embraces the imperfections of nature. Nothing is symmetrical, you will rip and cut leaves and branches to create a sense of space. You imagine how wind would shape the growth of plants (this is sooooo difficult to get right). You must take your time to examine your flowers and create a small scene of nature inside a tiny ceramic world. There is no one single answer but you must around stand certain key elements that make an arrangement good.

As a beginner you kind of flounder around trying to figure out how you are supposed to put it together. You are taught a few basic lessons but then you are on your own. You must take your time and a try and use the lessons you were first taught. The real lesson begins after you finish your attempt and yes I meant attempt. There have been many times I had no idea how to use a certain flower or branch. Those times I usually ask the teacher to teach me the best way to manipulate the branch (its usually a branch). Your teacher will then observe your arrangement and make changes. Sometimes the changes are small and other times it barely resembles what you first created … like this:

Arrangement 2

Next week I delve more into what actually makes an Ikenobo arrangement and some of the lessons my teacher has taught me. See you next week!

Karatsu Kunchi: Feasting and House-hopping

Food and alcohol are undeniably an important part of Karatsu Kunchi. Locals open their houses to family, neighbors, friends, and even strangers to come and spend a little time eating and drinking. Most of the women and some of the men in the family will work tirelessly to prepare a variety and large quantities of food. Every year ALTs are invited to the homes of co-workers and friends. One house we visit always has an elaborate spread of local food.

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This giant delicious fish was the centerpiece of the entire meal! Photo courtesy of Jess 2014

The centerpiece of the feast is a large fish called Ara あら, or seabream in English. Families save up money all year-round for this massive fish. One fish can cost several hundred to a couple thousands of dollars. No corners are cut when it comes to a Karatsu Kunchi feast.

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Japanese Seabream in the centerpiece of a Kunchi Feast

People never stay too long as they will probably visit many houses during the festival and there are many mouths to feed. The alcohol is always flowing and I usually bring a decent sized bottle of sake to the houses I know I’m visiting as a gift to help replenish supplies. Beer is always on hand as families tend to stock up on crates of beer.

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A beautiful presentation of sashimi

Sometimes you get spontaneous invitations from friends going to other houses or running into people you know. Last year I ended up in the house of a firefighter who was friends with one of my teachers. There we got a front row seat to the hikiyama parading through the neighborhood.

Food Platter

For Americans and Canadians, think of Kunchi as a Thanksgiving of sorts. Everyone is celebrating the good fortune of the year and show their appreciation by sharing food with not only family but the community and strangers as well. After pulling the floats, the men hop between houses in their home neighborhoods and those of their friends. Children and teenagers visit their friend’s houses or hang out at the food stalls downtown.

Top of Food Platter

Kunchi house fair is usually made up of raw and cooked fish, shellfish, rice balls,  hamburger steaks, sushi, tempura, bread, fruits, and cooked vegetables. This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to a very important house. The husband was a leader for one of the floats and he knew one of my teachers. We spent a good time chatting and eating delicious food. As we were leaving we thanked the wife and other women for the food.To my surprise, she gave each of us a hand embroidered dish towel and cute squid shaped sweet called youkan. It’s like a firm jelly and it pairs well with strong green tea.

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Yuzu flavored youkan, a traditional Japanese sweet, in the shape of a Yobuko squid.

Karatsu Kunchi is my favorite festival in Japan. I love the food and hospitality that is given to old friends and strangers alike. As an ALT, Kunchi is the time I really feel like I am a part of the community. For foreigners wanting to experience Kunchi for themselves, I don’t recommend just popping into any old house. Enjoy the parades and the delicious stall food. But if you get an invitation, I recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and take the chance to experience a true Karatsu Kunchi.

Karatsu Kunchi 2017 Album

Check out my pictures from Karatsu Kunchi 2017. The first slideshow is from the first night. Sorry if some of the quality is bad, all of these photos were taken with my iPhone.

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Day 2: The Sand Pull and too many people.

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And finally, a couple videos I took during the first two days of Kunchi!

Return to Ikebana: Arrangement 1

After a year I am returning to Ikebana. I am excited to get back to my flowers. Originally, I was taking Ikenobo classes at the local community center in my neighborhood but it became too expensive in the long run.

after a few months of quitting the community program, I found out that one of my Japanese teachers knew the woman who taught the community class. At first, I was embarrassed because I hadn’t given any notice to the teacher (which is kind of a big no-no). I explained to her that it had become too expensive in the long run especially if I missed classes. She understood and over the following weekends she started dropping hints about me starting Ikebana lessons again. A comment one week, an ikebana magazine the next three – from the ikebana teacher, and finally she mentioned that the teacher also hosts individual lessons at her house.

I was immediately interested and flustered. The ikebana teacher had told my Japanese teacher to offer the lessons to me and tell me that she wanted to keep teaching me. It was impossible to refuse after that.

Later that week, we went to her house for the first greeting and lesson. The atmosphere was much more traditional and formal, the lesson taking place in a large tatami room with beautifully carved wood beams and my Japanese teacher walking me through respectful Keigo greetings which I don’t remember how to say.

After the greetings and agreeing on when lessons would take place. My re-instated sensei instructed me to grab a bundle of newspaper-wrapped flowers just outside the front door and get started.

I was familiar with this process as it was the same at the community center. Greeting the teacher, grab your flowers, make your arrangement, and finally call for the teacher to critique your work and give you tips and lessons. And if you are like me, snap some before and after pictures with your phone.

I was surprised to find that I wasn’t too rusty. I still have a long time before I can make arrangements like my teacher’s. But that comes with time and a good teacher. I’m excited and thankful to be given a second chance. I won’t waste it.

 

Arrangement 1
Side-by-side comparison of my attempt and my teacher’s lesson

 

 

Is Homework Compatible With Personalized Learning? (Autumn Hillis)

This post is originally from EdSurge and was posted on October 3rd.

I really like the idea of personalized homework. While it might take time prep assignments and build resources (hence one of the tips being ‘take it slow’), I believe it is worth it for both students and teachers.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Autumn Hillis works with middle schools in the middle Tennessee region as an open educational resource curriculum specialist. She has taught at the middle school and high school level for six years with a focus in life and physical sciences. She is also currently working with Tennessee universities to train Tennessee science educators about personalized and project based learning.”

This post appeared in EdSurge, October 3, 2017

Differentiating content and instruction for each individual learner was once considered the pedagogical holy grail. Yet it could be tiresome. Offering three tiers of worksheets, four centers with varied ways to access content, or five levels of text was what defined a master teacher. But just as continual development of the iPhone eventually renders older prototypes obsolete; so too are new educational technologies pushing us past differentiation towards personalized learning.

Transitioning to a personalized learning environment doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process. There…

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JLPT Failure: Life Lessons, Culture Clash, and Sunburn

Life will send you important lessons to learn. And sometimes life has to send them again because you didn’t learn your lesson the first time. That is what happened last weekend when I went to take the N4 JLPT. I studied for months and took two Japanese lessons per week so I could pass the exam.

I was confident in the visible growth in my Japanese. I could understand and respond to everyday conversations. I could read a lot more kanji than when I took the exam the first time. Overall, I just felt better about my ability to pass the test. And this time wasn’t going alone. My friend Itty was also taking the N4 with me.

It was the two of us and four other ALTs taking various levels. We decided to carpool with two other ALTs to save money and gas. We arrived about 30 mins early but because examinees are not allowed to park at the university we had to walk about 15 mins to the test building. And that’s where life reminded me:

Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.

Upon arriving at the building we see a giant board with the exam levels and their assigned room numbers. We read, N1, N2, N3, N5……but no N4. This was the exact building I took the N4 exam in last year. I was sure this was the place. Our test cards said Saga University on them. We thought we might be in another building. A few Japanese women were at the door so we asked them if they knew where the N4 exam was.

Her response (translated) was as followed:

“The N4? Oh, dear. It’s on the Nabeshima campus.” She looks at her watch. We asked her where that was. “It’s a twenty-minute drive north.”

……What?!

We were flabbergasted. How? How could we have made such a mistake? We only had fifteen minutes before the exam started and if you aren’t in the room when the door closes you are disqualified from taking any part of the four-hour exam. There was no way we could make it in time.

The real irony here is that I had been nagging my friend to sit the N2 exam she had signed up for but didn’t want to take. She sat the exam while I sat in a park. We had wished them luck and then found a shady park to wallow in for four hours.

We weren’t angry. We were disappointed, embarrassed, and resigned. Both of us are well traveled and travel teaches you that things go wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you prep or double-check, sometimes things don’t work out and you have to deal with your lot. This was an avoidable human error. You learn your lesson and move on.

The Cultural Difference

As we sat in the park we reflected on our situation. I started to fall into the trap of “at an American test, they would have tried to keep the test in the same building or at the very least on the same campus. Why would you move only one level to a completely separate campus? That’s really stupid.”

Itty reminded me that there was a cultural difference here. One that he experienced in France. In both Japan and France, the test examiners have the final say. It doesn’t matter what is convenient for the customer because you have already paid for the product. If you want the product you paid for (in this case a test) you will go where ever they tell you to go. End of story. Didn’t read the instructions properly? Not our problem.

In America, if the building didn’t have enough room for all of the examiners they would probably try to move it to a nearby building or find a new test site that could accommodate everyone.

Neither one of these thoughts is wrong. They are just different.

I made an honest mistake by assuming this Saga University was the same campus as the Nabeshima medical campus and that even if it wasn’t in the same building it would be in the area. So, I learned my lesson. I will read the entire test card next time. I will look up the address on a map. I will arrive at the test site an hour in advance just to be safe.

And maybe next time I pack some sunscreen, too. Just in case I get stuck in a park again for four hours at high noon. I look like a lobster.

On the bright side, I wasn’t alone.

After the Rain – Ouchi Ajisai Matsuri

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Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the rain to come. In the week after my first trip to the Ouchi Hydrangea Festival, it rained. By Friday, the rain had stopped and I dashed over to Ouchi after work to enjoy the refreshed flowers in the evening light. Along the way, I picked up Jess and Jhanice and the three of us went up the trail.

The thing about going to see the hydrangea on a weekday after work is that nothing is open and almost no one is there. On the weekend, there are a small 200 yen (about $2) to enter the festival and that fee goes towards helping the community. However, since the road to the falls is public and people live on that road it’s open all the time. The downside is that all of the food, craft, and plant stalls are packed up. On the weekend we had seen the stalls so we weren’t too disappointed to find them closed.

We began the walk up the road. Along the why we passed the hills, river, and gazebos surrounded by the blues, purples, whites, and pinks of the hydrangeas. Many of the plants had started to bloom since the rain. The flowers looked much more lively. When the festival is open there is a bus that takes people directly to the waterfall.

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There is a small parking lot at the waterfall but I didn’t want to miss any of the flowers. Instead, the three of us took to the road on foot. We passed a few houses and a restaurant. At some point up the road, you can choose to follow the road or take the hiking path. The hiking path is pretty. It takes you across the river and up the mountain. It’s about a 500meter walk either way. We decided to stick to the road as the ground would be slick from the rain, the sun was beginning to set, and we didn’t want to brave any of the giant spider webs.

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Even the climb up the road is steep so if you plan to walk up to the waterfall then make sure to walking shoes. Once at the top we took a few minutes to rest in front of the waterfall.

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While Jess and Jhanice continued to rest I made my way up the stairs to check out the small shrines and Buddha statues that lined the steep stairway. It was my last stop before heading home. I love the waterfall but love exploring small shrines and finding secret sacred spots. The last time I had visited was winter when nothing was in bloom and I was asked by an old grandma to help carry jugs of water to the shrine at the top of the staircase. Every time I visit the waterfall I make sure to stop by the shrine.

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And that begins my excursion to the Ouchi Hydrangea Festival to an end. I’m glad I was able to return after the rain. Almost all of the hydrangeas were blooming and I enjoyed all the colors. It’s amazing that there are so many flowers in the area. The bushes at the bottom were obviously planted on the hill but the bushes at the waterfall are wild and overgrown. It was a beautiful sight. If you ever find yourself in Kyushu in June please make your way to the small town of Ouchi, you won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.

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Ochi Ajisai Matsuri 2017

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I apologize for the lack of posts this month. I caught a bad bug earlier this month and was out of commission for about a week and then I had to play catch up at work. On top of that, we are preparing for the arrival of our new JET ALTs in Saga! It’s an exciting time for new JETs as everyone is finding out their placements. So will out further ado – ON WITH THE POST!

I am excited to present the Ouchi Ajisai Matsuri!

Ouchi is a small town on the outskirts of Karatsu City. Driving through it doesn’t look like much it holds one of my favorite spots in Karatsu, the Mikaeri Falls. The Mikaeri Falls are accessible year-round but the most popular time to go is throughout June to view all the Hydrangea. It’s so beautiful that the folks in Ouchi have made a festival out of it. In Japanese ajisai means hydrangea, and they are popular flowers after sakura and wisteria.

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Japanese hydrangea typically blooms during the rainy season. In Kyushu, hydrangea reaches its peak in June. Ouchi runs the Ajisai Matsuri for almost the entire month of June. Unfortunately, like many places around the world, Kyushu has been hot and dry. On the weekend my friends and I went, well into June, it had yet to rain. It was a hot and sunny day and lots of kids played in the river, but the flowers were suffering. We did our best on a tight schedule and a hot day.

 

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Friends nerding out over the genetics of a hydrangea bush with multiple colors. You know, normal stuff.

 

Be warned, going on the weekend means traffic. There is only one road leading to the festival so it’s busy. Police direct traffic efficiently so the wait isn’t too long. After parking, we decided to grab lunch at a house advertising soba noodles. This house is right next to the road and surrounded by recently planted rice fields. The family runs a small lunch spot in the front tatami rooms of the house. All of us order the soba lunch set. The coolest thing about this lunch set is that it’s two servings of noodles cooked on a stone roof tile.

After waiting in traffic and enjoying an extended lunch, we realized we didn’t have a lot of time left before we needed to return for David to catch the train. So, we took our time with the front half of the festival and vowed to come back after it rained.

 

Stay tuned for Day 2 of the Ajisai Festival, where I return after the rain and get some gorgeous pictures of te hydrangea around the waterfall!

Check out it here!