Destination: Gakuen-ji

Gakuen-ji is one of the oldest temples in the Izumo area. It rests inside a seaside mountain range and is considered one of the best places in Izumo to view the fall leaves.

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Every year, the temple hosts the Momiji (maple tree) Festival. When I went there, I came late, so I missed the festival. I was just in time to see the last leaves of the season, though!

According to legend, Gakuen-ji was built in 594 to commemorate a monk, Chishun Shonin, who was thought to play a role in curing the empress ruling at the time of an eye disease. The temple used to be made of up several buildings, but today consists of only a few main buildings plus the home of the current temple priest. For much of the year, few people go to visit Gakuen-ji. However, in late November, the grounds are crowded with sightseers, pilgrims, and photographers hoping to see the Momiji Festival and the changing leaves.

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The easiest way to get to Gakuen-ji is to drive and leave your car in the parking lot by the ocean (500 yen). From there, a free shuttle will take you the rest of the way up the mountain to the temple. There is a parking lot in this area that you can use yourself, but the road up the mountain is pretty narrow, so it might give you more peace of mind to have someone familiar with the road driving you.

From the parking lot, you walk for a short time up a narrow paved road to get to the temple. The trip to Gakuen-ji is worth it for this walk alone! Up in the mountains, you feel completely secluded from the city. Trees and rock formations tower above you and the entire path takes you along a crystal-clear stream. Along this path, there are signs with pictures explaining the temple’s history and folklore. These are all in Japanese, though, and I couldn’t read them because I was unfamiliar with much of the kanji and vocabulary. Even if you can’t read the signs, though, the pictures they feature are interesting to look at.

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Eventually, you come to the temple gate. There’s an entrance fee of 500 yen for adults and a little less than that for children. The reason for the entrance fee, according to a friend of mine, is that the temple is such a popular sightseeing spot that it became overcrowded in recent years. The temple decided to start charging admissions in attempt to slow some of the crowds. I’ve also read that one of the most recent temple priests started charging admissions for the purpose of raising money for the preservation of the remaining temple buildings.

You cross a bridge over the stream and then begin a climb up a flight of stairs. Along the way, there are some excellent places to take pictures.

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The main part of the temple is made up of two larger buildings plus a small Inari shrine off to one side.

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From some more reading I’ve done on the temple, there’s also one more building a short walk away from the main temple grounds that’s built into the side of a mountain and behind a waterfall! Sadly, I didn’t get pictures of this area on this visit. But the fact that I didn’t get a chance to see this particular area this time means that I’ll definitely be back to Gakuen-ji sometime in the future. If you happen to be in Izumo during the fall season, don’t miss Gakuen-ji! And if you’re interested in learning more about this temple, here’s the website where I learned a lot of the history of this site. It’s connected to more than one legendary figure!

http://www.japanvisitor.com/japan-temples-shrines/gakuenji-temple-shimane

And with that, here’s some more pictures of Gakuen-ji in late fall.

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Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: tree, plant, sky, outdoor and nature

 

 

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Destination: Tottori Hanakairo

This year, Thanksgiving happened to fall on a holiday in Japan; Labor Thanksgiving Day. Basically, it’s a day off of work and school (that often happens in the middle of a week) to commemorate all of people’s hard work for the year. There aren’t really any festivities. But luckily, I still got to do something for this holiday and (coincidentally) for Thanksgiving!

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On November 23rd, me and the lovely folks from Hamayama Church went to Tottori Prefecture’s Flower Park. The Flower Park is a set of botanical gardens near Mt. Daisen. I wasn’t expecting there to be that many flowers since it’s late autumn now, but I was so wonderfully wrong.

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The main feature of the Flower Park is its glass dome. It’s a giant greenhouse that’s always kept warm. Inside, there are tiers full of orchids, hibiscus, and other flowers that change for the seasons. Since Christmas is coming up, the dome was decorated for the season.

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I counted three different Santa Clauses and poinsettias were everywhere! The centerpiece of all of this was the flower tree.

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If you look closely, you can see that the base of this is a plastic Christmas tree, but the branches are stuffed with tiny flower pots. The result is a beautiful flower sculpture!

There are several benches around the dome so you can just sit and take in the flowers. If you get hungry, though, there’s a stand on the bottom tier that serves soft serve ice cream! The ice cream comes in three flavors that are a local specialty; pear, blueberry, and cream. The pear flavor is what Tottori is most famous for. My personal favorite flavor, though, is the blueberry and cream mix.

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Right next to the ice cream stand, there’s a craft table where you can make your own pressed flower key chains, coasters, and bookmarks.

Aside from the flower dome, one of the other main attractions of the Flower Park is the view of Mt. Daisen. If you take one of the elevated walkways out the back of the flower dome, you’ll reach a field full of red flowers. Mt. Daisen is visible from there on a clear day, and this area makes for some amazing pictures!

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I really didn’t expect for there to be anything blooming outside. This whole field seemed like a miracle.

Between the flower dome and Mt. Daisen, there are a whole bunch of other hidden treasures around the garden. One of my little favorites was the area near the entrance that was decorated with a few dinosaur sculptures.

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There are also smaller flower domes and buildings that specialize in different kinds of flowers. One is entirely dedicated to lilies and another is dedicated to orchids. These smaller areas are worth visiting for the smell alone. The second you walk through the doors, the smells of at least a thousand flowers wash over you. If you spend enough time inside one of these places, you’ll probably come out smelling like flowers yourself.

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There were a few areas of the park that I didn’t get to see, like the flower beds that float in water features. These areas seemed a little barren because of the cold, but I bet they’re gorgeous when it gets warmer. And even in the colder seasons, there are still places like Mt. Daisen and the flower domes that are worth seeing. Also, there are elevated walkways, trails, and even a small train that can take you on a tour around the whole park. Even in the cold, I think this is still a nice place to take a quiet walk. On top of all of this, there are a few seasonal events. For example, (I didn’t get to see this because I came to the park during the day) all through winter, the flower park has a display of Christmas lights set up!

Admission to the park is pretty reasonable. 1000 yen (about 10 USD) for the warmer months and half that for colder months. If you come with a group, admission is much lower, as is the fee for young kids. Just inside the gates, there are brochures in a few different languages that guide you around the park. There’s also a cafe and restaurant, so you could spend at least half a day here enjoying food and flowers. Make sure you stop by the souvenir shops, too. They have a lot of free samples set out of different local sweets you can buy. I also (finally!) found a general guidebook to the folklore-related areas around Shimane and Tottori here.

If you ever find yourself in Tottori and you like nature walks, flowers, or photography, I can’t recommend this place enough! I especially recommend it for photographers. One of the people I got to go to the park with is a teacher from my smaller school, and a professional photographer. He had been to this park two weeks before to take pictures and he mentioned that a few things about the flowers on display had already changed since then! This is a place that changes with the seasons and likely won’t look the same twice Definitely worth going to for a unique experience!

 

 

On School Uniforms

When I was little, I had a friend who went to private school and I was envious of her uniform. I thought school uniforms were really cute, and I thought that if the public schools I went to had them, that a lot of problems would be solved. For example, I thought that if everyone wore the same thing, teachers wouldn’t have to worry about students wearing things that were against a dress code; or that if everyone wore the same thing, no one would be bullied because of their clothes. Basically, when I was little, I just wanted to wear a school uniform, and I thought that wearing them would make school better. Today, I have no idea if wearing school uniforms actually makes school better. If I had to make a guess, I would think that they probably didn’t make much of a difference in what a school was like. But since it’s been on my mind lately, I’m going to dedicate today’s post to talking about school uniforms in Japan versus dress code rules from my schools in America.

 

In elementary school in Japan, uniforms aren’t required. However, elementary schools students all typically have the same style of backpack. Also, when elementary school groups go out somewhere (such as on a field trip) they tend to wear uniform hats. These hats are usually a bright color, like yellow. Personally, I think this is genius because it makes the kids really easy to find in a crowd.

From middle school on, it’s a different story. Every student needs to wear a different uniform for classes in the summer, classes in the winter, and gym. A while back, I found a pamphlet at my school that explained what the students at my bigger school had to wear for their uniforms.

 

For Girls:

-A white shirt in the summer

-A sailor-style blouse in the winter

-Skirt all year round

 

For Boys:

-A white shirt in the summer

-Black collared jacket in the winter

-Long black pants all year round

 

My smaller school has the same style of uniforms. The gym uniforms are basic shirts and gym shorts/pants. A lot of the students have uniform track jackets, too. The one thing that really surprised me about the school uniforms was how expensive they were. One regular uniform from my bigger school can cost about 23,000 yen or about 200 dollars! I asked one of my JTEs about this, and she told me that usually, first year students will buy one uniform that is a few sizes too big for them, and then just wear that same uniform through their three years of middle school. That way, they don’t have to worry about spending that much money on uniforms each year. This actually explained a lot, because I noticed that many of the first years’ uniforms seemed really big for them. Luckily, though, there is an option to get uniforms for a cheaper price. At my bigger school’s culture festival, one of the events was a “Recycle Bazaar”, where they sold old uniforms from previous students.

Students have to wear their uniforms for as long as they’re at school. Sometimes, they need to wear their uniforms outside of school, too. At the speech and recitation contests that happened over the last two weeks, all the students participating wore their school uniforms even though the contests took place on a weekend and one of the contests was held at a public library. Another example is my bigger school’s anniversary celebration; it was held on a Saturday and students had to meet at the school in their uniforms before going to a different venue for the main events of the day.

When you wear a school uniform in Japan, everyone knows what school you belong to. If you wear a blazer-style uniform, you’ll probably have the school’s emblem somewhere on your blazer. My school’s have a different style of uniforms, but all of my students wear nametags with their name and the school’s name printed on it. On top of that, the buttons of the boys’ uniform jackets are stamped with the school’s emblem. If you skip school in your uniform, everyone knows where you should be. If you get into trouble in your uniform, everyone knows which school to talk to about it.

In general, the rules I’m aware of for uniforms are pretty straightforward. However, I feel sorry for my students during the changing seasons because throughout the year, their uniforms won’t change much. Girls have to wear skirts, even in the dead of winter. Boys have to wear long black pants, even in the middle of summer. None of my schools have central heating or air conditioning. This is pretty typical in Japan from what I’ve heard. One of my schools did install air conditioning/heating units in the classrooms, recently, but there aren’t any in the hallways. In schools that haven’t installed air conditioning/heating units, teachers will pull out space heaters or electric fans for the rooms. However, since it’s typical for buildings to not have insulation in Japan, any heat put into the rooms doesn’t stay there for long if the heaters are turned off.

If it’s cold outside, girls are allowed to wear tights or leggings under their skirts. So far, though, I haven’t seen many students actually do that. Over the weekend, it started getting really cold and rainy to the point where it started snowing further inside the mountains. When I came to school today, though, pretty much all of the girls I saw at school wore short socks! When I think back to my own time in middle school, I remember a lot of girls would wear shorts through the winter and I could never understand how they could stand it. I guess my students here must have the same cold-withstanding superpowers.

By far the most interesting story I’ve heard about students dealing with the weather in their uniforms came from a friend of mine here in Izumo. According to her, boys at a middle school once tried to convince their principal to let them wear shorts during the summer. They came up with some decent arguments, like how the shorts they wanted to wear were the exact same color as the uniform pants. The principal wasn’t going to let them wear shorts, but allegedly, he did say, ” If it bothers you, you can wear skirts.” He said this because he thought the boys wouldn’t want to wear skirts and drop the idea. But, as you’ve probably guessed, the boys who asked about wearing shorts actually did show up the next day wearing skirts. They probably weren’t allowed to keep doing that, but I’m glad they got to do it for a little bit at least. With how hot and humid the summers can get here, maybe wearing skirts should be an option for everyone. The same “No Shorts in the Summer” rule applies to male teachers at my schools, too, and I feel just as sorry for them as I do the students.

Now compare this to the schools I went to in America. I went to public schools for elementary, middle, and high school. Uniforms weren’t required at any point unless you were a member of a sports team going out to a game. My middle school technically had a dress code that forbade things like sagging pants or spaghetti-strap tank tops, but people broke those rules all the time and I don’t clearly remember anyone getting in big trouble for that. In high school, literally no one cared what you wore as long as you wore something. On the last day of senior year, a boy I knew from the drama club wore a wedding dress to the last day of school because he was “marrying his future.” Also on the last day of senior year, my younger brother wore a suit and top hat with a stuffed turtle on top of the hat. In elementary and middle school, we weren’t allowed to wear Halloween costumes to school, but in my high school, we were. Teachers even joined in with costumes sometimes. I also remember one history teacher who was famous because once a year, he would wear a dress to school. If anyone in his classes thought it was weird for him to do that (and someone always did) this teacher would use that to start a discussion about why people thought it was weird for men to wear dresses.

The closest thing to anything like this in my schools in Japan was the one time I wore a witch hat and Harry Potter scarf to school when I taught a lesson about Halloween. Even then, I only wore the hat and scarf during class and not in the staff room or anywhere else outside of class. Other ALTs I know have done similar things in their schools for Halloween, but we can do it because we’re ALTs. Also, I’ve heard it said that if someone is coming to visit a school on Halloween, other teachers might ask an ALT not to wear a costume for Halloween lessons.

In short: uniforms are law in Japan. Not necessarily in America. On a final note, a while back, some students from Finland came to visit my bigger school. When the Finnish students explained that they didn’t have to wear uniforms to one of my classes, basically all my students murmured, “Lucky!”

 

 

 

 

On Sports Days and Culture Festivals

It’s been a long time since I wrote something here. There are a few reasons for that, but the main one is that I’m now going through one of the busiest times of the Japanese school year! First it was Sports Day, then it was the speech contest, then it was the Culture Festival, and then the Recitation Contest was after that. Anyway, since it’s been a while and since I’ve now experienced both events, I’m going to dedicate this post to Sports Days, Culture Festivals, and where ALTs fit in to both of them.

If you’ve watched literally any anime with a school in it, you probably have a good idea of what Sports Days and Culture Festivals are. For those of you who don’t know, Sports Days are events hosted every year where the classes in a school break into teams (at my schools, there were four or five teams), and compete in different team sports and relay events. The students’ teams win points for every event they win, but they also compete in presentation. At both my bigger school and smaller school, each team had to make a banner for their team, a group cheer routine, and costumes to wear during said cheer routine. In the end, awards are given for most points in the sporting events as well as best banner, best costumes, and best cheer. My schools’ Culture Festivals, on the other hand, are all about the chorus contest. According to some of my teachers, in elementary and high school, chorus contests aren’t necessarily the highlight of the Culture Festival, but in middle schools, they often are. In the chorus contest, each individual class practices singing a song together. Someone from each class will play the piano and conduct their class’s song, too. Awards for this event go to the best class performance, the best conductor, and the best pianist. On top of the chorus contest, though, students get to host other events throughout the day, too.

 

On Sports Day:

 

My schools’ Sports Days were held in September. At each event, I was a judge for the teams’ banners, cheers, costumes, and marches. The thing that surprised me the most was how much time students put into their team presentations. They practice their cheer routines from mid summer, all the way up to the Sports Day. They work on the costumes and banners for at least that long, too. Third year students (the highest grade) have some of the most responsibility; they have to choreograph their team’s cheer routine themselves, and then teach it to the younger students.

The events on Sports Day might include things like tug-o-war and baton races. Those aren’t the most fun events to watch, though. The bulk of sports events at both of my schools were these relay races that made students do some seriously unreal stunts. To name a few:

-A race in which teams of two students had to run inside of giant bloomers.

-The Centipede Relay, where groups of about six students all tie their ankles                      together and have to run together around a track like that.

-A race where students basically turn themselves into a human treadmill so that      one of their classmates can walk on their backs up and down a course.

-The Bamboo Relay, which is a pretty complicated obstacle course race that           teams of three students have to run while they all hold onto this giant pole. (And     at one point, the student in the middle has to hang onto the pole while their     teammates carry them through part of the course.

Honestly, I was pretty jealous of my students. These relays looked like a lot of fun, but I could just picture parents back home suing someone for safety in a lot of these events.

I did get to participate in one event at my smaller school. After the students finished their rounds of tug-o-war, me, the principal, and vice principal got to play a tug-o-war match against about thirty preschoolers and a couple of their teachers. I went into this match ready to let the kids win, but the second the match started, it turned out these kids were really strong, so I gave it everything I had. We still lost and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The final event of Sports Day is the award ceremony. I can’t speak for other schools, but both my bigger and smaller schools have trophies for each award that get passed around between classes each year. Each trophy is covered in red and white ribbons. When a team wins the trophy, all of the team members’ names are stamped onto a new ribbon and added to the trophy. I love this idea, and when I first heard about it, I kept picturing how nostalgic it would be to come back to your old school years later and find your team’s ribbon.

Sports Day and the awards ceremony is all about the students. Afterwards, the teachers all get together and go out for an enaki, a group drinking and eating party. I could write a completely different post on enkai, so I’ll forego explaining it for now. At the two enkai I went to, the teachers played slideshows made up of pictures and videos from the day. The principals and vice principals gave speeches, and since I had just joined the team of teachers recently, I had to give a speech, too on what I thought about Sports Day. I told everyone that I loved watching the event and being a part of it, and that I wish we had something like this back home. Aside from being a fun event to experience with classmates and a great memory for parents to watch, I love the teamwork that goes into Sports Day. A few of my JTEs have joked to me about how little things like students cleaning the school every day and participating in events like Sports Day is a way to “train” them; train them to work well with others and have respect for people and places they interact with. The same sort of thing you might develop for working with a club or sports team for several years. Except instead of a group of like-minded people in a club or team, you need to work with everyone from your class. Back in my undergrad studies, I read so much about how important building a class community is. And I really love the idea of Sports Day because it’s a fun way to practice that.

 

On the Culture Festival:

 

Unlike Sports Day, where I helped out at both my bigger school and smaller school, I only got to see what the Culture Festival was like at my bigger school. That was just because of a time conflict.

Anyway, at the Culture Festival, my bigger school gave me no responsibilities. I’ve heard from other ALTs that sometimes, they’re asked to judge the chorus contest or announce different performers on stage. When I asked my JTEs if there was something I should help with, they just said, “No, please enjoy the festival.” So I watched the whole event with another one of the teachers.

The chorus contest took up the whole first half of the day. The whole school walked to a nearby theater and we used the stage there for the contest. From about 8am to 12 pm, classes just sang one after another.

After the contest was over, we went back to the school for lunch. Then we had about an hour to wander around and see different things set up inside the school. On each floor, galleries were set up with student artwork and posters they made about things like their future dream or what they got to do on the school trip that they took a little while back. The special needs classes were running a store, selling things that they had made over the past few months. They had made everything from face masks to lunch bags to coasters! There were a lot of parents walking around the festival. The main event at this point for the students, though, was the stamp rally. In a room on every floor, there was a station set up where one student would ask you a question and if you could answer it correctly, you get a stamp. A sheet full of stamps will win you a small prize.

After wandering around the school, everyone went to the gym to watch some more performances. Students from each year showed videos they had made. My favorite was a comedy one about getting ready for the Culture Festival. The brass band performed, as well as students participating in the speech and recitation contests, and a few groups of students who had put together dance routines. After all this, the winners of the chorus contest were finally announced. One of the students who I had been working with in the speech contest actually won a prize for Best Conducting! I was so happy for her.

All in all, the Culture Festival was a lot different than I thought it would be, but I’m glad I got to see it! It was a lot of fun to see more things the students had put together and organized themselves. Plus, they’d been practicing for the chorus contest since Sports Day ended, so it was great to see their hard work finally come to something.

 

And that’s my two cents on my first experience with Sports Day and the Culture Festival! I really don’t want to start neglecting this blog, so I’ll try to post a lot more often. So until, next time, I hope you enjoyed reading today!