times they are a’changin’

A lot happened yesterday, but I think that the most important thing was at the very end: the long discussion Evan and I had about our future. We have both decided that I will not be re-contracting with the Japanese Exchange Teaching Program (JET) for a fifth year, and so we will be leaving Fukuoka in August 2018.

Right now I feel a little bit like a goldfish that’s become too big for it’s bowl, and I need more space to swim around in. My role as Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) is beginning to plateau. I don’t feel like there’s anything left for me to learn as an ALT. These days I simply pass the time and get through work until my next big trip abroad or new experience here in Japan. Now that all those places and experiences on my list have been getting crossed out though… What do I have to look forward to? And is there anything actually tying me to this place any more?

After close to three years of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), Evan and I are both able to say that it is not where our passions lie. It isn’t that we don’t love the people or the kids, or that we’ve grown tired of Japan, and we aren’t jaded exactly. We’ve just both come to realize that we have more to give to the world, and that we want more in return as well. What do I mean by “more”? Neither of us are really sure.

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kanji progress

Today is day 5 of my 97-day kanji challenge. I am going at a pace of 20 new kanji a day, so today marks my first 100 kanji. As I mentioned though, I did come into the challenge with roughly 300 or so kanji under my belt already. I decided to look over what I’ve done thus far and the count shook out like this: sixty of the hundred are totally new kanji for me and forty of them are ones I’ve had memorized for a while.  All right, so only sixty new kanji in 5 days.

Want to see the mountain I am trying to climb? BEHOLD! The hundred I learned this week are in bold.

一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 九 十 口 日 月 田 目 古 吾 冒 朋 明 唱 晶 品 呂 昌 早 旭 世 胃 旦 胆 亘 凹 凸 旧 自 白 百 中 千 舌 升 昇 丸 寸 肘 専 博 占 上 下 卓 朝 嘲 只 貝 唄 貞 員 貼 見 児 元 頁 頑 凡 負 万 句 肌 旬 勺 的 首 乙 乱 直 具 真 工 左 右 有 賄 貢 項 刀 刃 切 召 昭 則 副 別 丁 町 可 頂 子 孔 了 女 好 如 母 貫 兄 呪 克 小 少 大 多 夕 汐 外 名 石 肖 硝 砕 砂 妬 削 光 太 器 臭 嗅 妙 省 厚 奇 川 州 順 水 氷 永 泉 腺 原 願 泳 沼 沖 汎 江 汰 汁 沙 潮 源 活 消 況 河 泊 湖 測 土 吐 圧 埼 垣 填 圭 封 涯 寺 時 均 火 炎 煩 淡 灯 畑 災 灰 点 照 魚 漁 里 黒 墨 鯉 量 厘 埋 同 洞 胴 向 尚 字 守 完 宣 宵 安 宴 寄 富 貯 木 林 森 桂 柏 枠 梢 棚 杏 桐 植 椅 枯 朴 村 相 机 本 札 暦 案 燥 未 末 昧 沫 味 妹 朱 株 若 草 苦 苛 寛 薄 葉 模 漠 墓 暮 膜 苗 兆 桃 眺 犬 状 黙 然 荻 狩 猫 牛 特 告 先 洗 介 界 茶 脊 合 塔 王 玉 宝 珠 現 玩 狂 旺 皇 呈 全 栓 理 主 注 柱 金 銑 鉢 銅 釣 針 銘 鎮 道 導 辻 迅 造 迫 逃 辺 巡 車 連 軌 輸 喩 前 煎 各 格 賂 略 客 額 夏 処 条 落 冗 冥 軍 輝 運 冠 夢 坑 高 享 塾 熟 亭 京 涼 景 鯨 舎 周 週 士 吉 壮 荘 売 学 覚 栄 書 津 牧 攻 敗 枚 故 敬 言 警 計 詮 獄 訂 訃 討 訓 詔 詰 話 詠 詩 語 読 調 談 諾 諭 式 試 弐 域 賊 栽 載 茂 戚 成 城 誠 威 滅 減 蔑 桟 銭 浅 止 歩 渉 頻 肯 企 歴 武 賦 正 証 政 定 錠 走 超 赴 越 是 題 堤 建 鍵 延 誕 礎 婿 衣 裁 装 裏 壊 哀 遠 猿 初 巾 布 帆 幅 帽 幕 幌 錦 市 柿 姉 肺 帯 滞 刺 制 製 転 芸 雨 雲 曇 雷 霜 冬 天 妖 沃 橋 嬌 立 泣 章 競 帝 諦 童 瞳 鐘 商 嫡 適 滴 敵 匕 叱 匂 頃 北 背 比 昆 皆 楷 諧 混 渇 謁 褐 喝 葛 旨 脂 詣 壱 毎 敏 梅 海 乞 乾 腹 複 欠 吹 炊 歌 軟 次 茨 資 姿 諮 賠 培 剖 音 暗 韻 識 鏡 境 亡 盲 妄 荒 望 方 妨 坊 芳 肪 訪 放 激 脱 説 鋭 曽 増 贈 東 棟 凍 妊 廷 染 燃 賓 歳 県 栃 地 池 虫 蛍 蛇 虹 蝶 独 蚕 風 己 起 妃 改 記 包 胞 砲 泡 亀 電 竜 滝 豚 逐 遂 家 嫁 豪 腸 場 湯 羊 美 洋 詳 鮮 達 羨 差 着 唯 堆 椎 誰 焦 礁 集 准 進 雑 雌 準 奮 奪 確 午 許 歓 権 観 羽 習 翌 曜 濯 曰 困 固 錮 国 団 因 姻 咽 園 回 壇 店 庫 庭 庁 床 麻 磨 心 忘 恣 忍 認 忌 志 誌 芯 忠 串 患 思 恩 応 意 臆 想 息 憩 恵 恐 惑 感 憂 寡 忙 悦 恒 悼 悟 怖 慌 悔 憎 慣 愉 惰 慎 憾 憶 惧 憧 憬 慕 添 必 泌 手 看 摩 我 義 議 犠 抹 拭 拉 抱 搭 抄 抗 批 招 拓 拍 打 拘 捨 拐 摘 挑 指 持 拶 括 揮 推 揚 提 損 拾 担 拠 描 操 接 掲 掛 捗 研 戒 弄 械 鼻 刑 型 才 財 材 存 在 乃 携 及 吸 扱 丈 史 吏 更 硬 梗 又 双 桑 隻 護 獲 奴 怒 友 抜 投 没 股 設 撃 殻 支 技 枝 肢 茎 怪 軽 叔 督 寂 淑 反 坂 板 返 販 爪 妥 乳 浮 淫 将 奨 采 採 菜 受 授 愛 曖 払 広 勾 拡 鉱 弁 雄 台 怠 治 冶 始 胎 窓 去 法 会 至 室 到 致 互 棄 育 撤 充 銃 硫 流 允 唆 出 山 拙 岩 炭 岐 峠 崩 密 蜜 嵐 崎 崖 入 込 分 貧 頒 公 松 翁 訟 谷 浴 容 溶 欲 裕 鉛 沿 賞 党 堂 常 裳 掌 皮 波 婆 披 破 被 残 殉 殊 殖 列 裂 烈 死 葬 瞬 耳 取 趣 最 撮 恥 職 聖 敢 聴 懐 慢 漫 買 置 罰 寧 濁 環 還 夫 扶 渓 規 替 賛 潜 失 鉄 迭 臣 姫 蔵 臓 賢 腎 堅 臨 覧 巨 拒 力 男 労 募 劣 功 勧 努 勃 励 加 賀 架 脇 脅 協 行 律 復 得 従 徒 待 往 征 径 彼 役 徳 徹 徴 懲 微 街 桁 衡 稿 稼 程 税 稚 和 移 秒 秋 愁 私 秩 秘 称 利 梨 穫 穂 稲 香 季 委 秀 透 誘 稽 穀 菌 萎 米 粉 粘 粒 粧 迷 粋 謎 糧 菊 奥 数 楼 類 漆 膝 様 求 球 救 竹 笑 笠 笹 箋 筋 箱 筆 筒 等 算 答 策 簿 築 篭 人 佐 侶 但 住 位 仲 体 悠 件 仕 他 伏 伝 仏 休 仮 伎 伯 俗 信 佳 依 例 個 健 側 侍 停 値 倣 傲 倒 偵 僧 億 儀 償 仙 催 仁 侮 使 便 倍 優 伐 宿 傷 保 褒 傑 付 符 府 任 賃 代 袋 貸 化 花 貨 傾 何 荷 俊 傍 俺 久 畝 囚 内 丙 柄 肉 腐 座 挫 卒 傘 匁 以 似 併 瓦 瓶 宮 営 善 膳 年 夜 液 塚 幣 蔽 弊 喚 換 融 施 旋 遊 旅 勿 物 易 賜 尿 尼 尻 泥 塀 履 屋 握 屈 掘 堀 居 据 裾 層 局 遅 漏 刷 尺 尽 沢 訳 択 昼 戸 肩 房 扇 炉 戻 涙 雇 顧 啓 示 礼 祥 祝 福 祉 社 視 奈 尉 慰 款 禁 襟 宗 崇 祭 察 擦 由 抽 油 袖 宙 届 笛 軸 甲 押 岬 挿 申 伸 神 捜 果 菓 課 裸 斤 析 所 祈 近 折 哲 逝 誓 斬 暫 漸 断 質 斥 訴 昨 詐 作 雪 録 剥 尋 急 穏 侵 浸 寝 婦 掃 当 彙 争 浄 事 唐 糖 康 逮 伊 君 群 耐 需 儒 端 両 満 画 歯 曲 曹 遭 漕 槽 斗 料 科 図 用 庸 備 昔 錯 借 惜 措 散 廿 庶 遮 席 度 渡 奔 噴 墳 憤 焼 暁 半 伴 畔 判 拳 券 巻 圏 勝 藤 謄 片 版 之 乏 芝 不 否 杯 矢 矯 族 知 智 挨 矛 柔 務 霧 班 帰 弓 引 弔 弘 強 弥 弱 溺 沸 費 第 弟 巧 号 朽 誇 顎 汚 与 写 身 射 謝 老 考 孝 教 拷 者 煮 著 箸 署 暑 諸 猪 渚 賭 峡 狭 挟 頬 追 阜 師 帥 官 棺 管 父 釜 交 効 較 校 足 促 捉 距 路 露 跳 躍 践 踏 踪 骨 滑 髄 禍 渦 鍋 過 阪 阿 際 障 隙 随 陪 陽 陳 防 附 院 陣 隊 墜 降 階 陛 隣 隔 隠 堕 陥 穴 空 控 突 究 窒 窃 窟 窪 搾 窯 窮 探 深 丘 岳 兵 浜 糸 織 繕 縮 繁 縦 緻 線 綻 締 維 羅 練 緒 続 絵 統 絞 給 絡 結 終 級 紀 紅 納 紡 紛 紹 経 紳 約 細 累 索 総 綿 絹 繰 継 緑 縁 網 緊 紫 縛 縄 幼 後 幽 幾 機 畿 玄 畜 蓄 弦 擁 滋 慈 磁 系 係 孫 懸 遜 却 脚 卸 御 服 命 令 零 齢 冷 領 鈴 勇 湧 通 踊 疑 擬 凝 範 犯 氾 厄 危 宛 腕 苑 怨 柳 卵 留 瑠 貿 印 臼 毀 興 酉 酒 酌 酎 酵 酷 酬 酪 酢 酔 配 酸 猶 尊 豆 頭 短 豊 鼓 喜 樹 皿 血 盆 盟 盗 温 蓋 監 濫 鑑 藍 猛 盛 塩 銀 恨 根 即 爵 節 退 限 眼 良 朗 浪 娘 食 飯 飲 飢 餓 飾 餌 館 餅 養 飽 既 概 慨 平 呼 坪 評 刈 刹 希 凶 胸 離 璃 殺 爽 純 頓 鈍 辛 辞 梓 宰 壁 璧 避 新 薪 親 幸 執 摯 報 叫 糾 収 卑 碑 陸 睦 勢 熱 菱 陵 亥 核 刻 該 骸 劾 述 術 寒 塞 醸 譲 壌 嬢 毒 素 麦 青 精 請 情 晴 清 静 責 績 積 債 漬 表 俵 潔 契 喫 害 轄 割 憲 生 星 醒 姓 性 牲 産 隆 峰 蜂 縫 拝 寿 鋳 籍 春 椿 泰 奏 実 奉 俸 棒 謹 僅 勤 漢 嘆 難 華 垂 唾 睡 錘 乗 剰 今 含 貪 吟 念 捻 琴 陰 予 序 預 野 兼 嫌 鎌 謙 廉 西 価 要 腰 票 漂 標 栗 慄 遷 覆 煙 南 楠 献 門 問 閲 閥 間 闇 簡 開 閉 閣 閑 聞 潤 欄 闘 倉 創 非 俳 排 悲 罪 輩 扉 侯 喉 候 決 快 偉 違 緯 衛 韓 干 肝 刊 汗 軒 岸 幹 芋 宇 余 除 徐 叙 途 斜 塗 束 頼 瀬 勅 疎 辣 速 整 剣 険 検 倹 重 動 腫 勲 働 種 衝 薫 病 痴 痘 症 瘍 痩 疾 嫉 痢 痕 疲 疫 痛 癖 匿 匠 医 匹 区 枢 殴 欧 抑 仰 迎 登 澄 発 廃 僚 瞭 寮 療 彫 形 影 杉 彩 彰 彦 顔 須 膨 参 惨 修 珍 診 文 対 紋 蚊 斑 斉 剤 済 斎 粛 塁 楽 薬 率 渋 摂 央 英 映 赤 赦 変 跡 蛮 恋 湾 黄 横 把 色 絶 艶 肥 甘 紺 某 謀 媒 欺 棋 旗 期 碁 基 甚 勘 堪 貴 遺 遣 潰 舞 無 組 粗 租 狙 祖 阻 査 助 宜 畳 並 普 譜 湿 顕 繊 霊 業 撲 僕 共 供 異 翼 戴 洪 港 暴 爆 恭 選 殿 井 丼 囲 耕 亜 悪 円 角 触 解 再 講 購 構 溝 論 倫 輪 偏 遍 編 冊 柵 典 氏 紙 婚 低 抵 底 民 眠 捕 哺 浦 蒲 舗 補 邸 郭 郡 郊 部 都 郵 邦 那 郷 響 郎 廊 盾 循 派 脈 衆 逓 段 鍛 后 幻 司 伺 詞 飼 嗣 舟 舶 航 舷 般 盤 搬 船 艦 艇 瓜 弧 孤 繭 益 暇 敷 来 気 汽 飛 沈 枕 妻 凄 衰 衷 面 麺 革 靴 覇 声 眉 呉 娯 誤 蒸 承 函 極 牙 芽 邪 雅 釈 番 審 翻 藩 毛 耗 尾 宅 託 為 偽 畏 長 張 帳 脹 髪 展 喪 巣 単 戦 禅 弾 桜 獣 脳 悩 厳 鎖 挙 誉 猟 鳥 鳴 鶴 烏 蔦 鳩 鶏 島 暖 媛 援 緩 属 嘱 偶 遇 愚 隅 逆 塑 遡 岡 鋼 綱 剛 缶 陶 揺 謡 鬱 就 蹴 懇 墾 貌 免 逸 晩 勉 象 像 馬 駒 験 騎 駐 駆 駅 騒 駄 驚 篤 罵 騰 虎 虜 膚 虚 戯 虞 慮 劇 虐 鹿 麓 薦 慶 麗 熊 能 態 寅 演 辰 辱 震 振 娠 唇 農 濃 送 関 咲 鬼 醜 魂 魔 魅 塊 襲 嚇 朕 雰 箇 錬 遵 罷 屯 且 藻 隷 癒 璽 潟 丹 丑 羞 卯 巳

I don’t know why, but looking at all 2,200-ish kanji in a group like this makes them seem less intimidating. Memorizing them all in 3 months feels doable when I have them all in front of me and can check them off one by one, ya know? Let’s see if I still feel this way after a few more hundred brand new characters…

Oh and also, I don’t think I am going to continue posting my memory palaces anymore. I know I’ve only posted two of them, but I feel like maybe it’s too much like when you’re friend is trying passionately to tell you some wild dream they had last night but you really don’t give a shit because in the end it’s not real and has nothing to do with you whatsoever. I’ll probably still write them out like stories and post them here privately, but don’t worry, dear readers. I won’t subject you to them anymore! Although I may at some point down the road make a list of the places I’ve turned into memory palaces. I will eventually make 56, and it was an interesting process picking out the places I know well enough from memory to transform into sanctuaries for my kanji ramblings.

That’s all for today. Will write again in a few!

2,136 kanji in 97 days

There are 2,136 “regular use” Chinese characters in Japan and they are commonly called joyo kanji. This is not actually a comprehensive list of all the kanji used regularly in Japan, but it is a literary baseline for compulsory education and does compromise all the permitted characters for use in official government documents. 1,006 of these are taught in primary school and the remaining 1,130 are taught in secondary school.As of this moment I probably know a grand total of between 3- and 400 kanji. That means my current Japanese literacy is roughly in line with a Japanese elementary third grader.

UGH.

I have never really been good at self-study. I think it comes down to having a lot of trouble motivating myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other without someone breathing down my neck and checking my work every step of the way like I had all through school. Getting some grit and resilience is just something I have to work on.

I believe kanji are beautiful. Frankly, each one is a piece of art. That’s why I thought that writing them over and over again would be a fun and relatively easy way to memorize them. It only took a little while to realize that doing that really didn’t help me. Although the stroke orders make sense to me, the way the kanji is written combined with its meanings and the different sounds they make feel straight up arbitrary. I would spend a ton of time writing something repeatedly while chanting all its parts out loud, and then a couple days later it’s as though none of it ever happened.

It can feel defeating to work so hard and not get any results. I started getting pretty salty and avoiding studying altogether. I can’t tell you how guilty I feel for having wasted so much time in Japan without actively learning and practicing Japanese in a disciplined way. That’s why I decided that it’s time for me to sit down and find a way to make sense of all these damned kanji.

I hit the internet and found loads of different study techniques. One article in particular got my attention though. The title read Hacking the Kanji: 2,200 Kanji in 97 Days. Pffffffft yeah right – there’s no way! But it had peaked my interest. Before I knew it I was well into a very detailed and long step-by-step breakdown of how to learn all the joyo kanji in less than four months. I won’t go into all the details, but Niko at Nihongo Shark basically whittles it all down to systematically using a set of tools in a set process every day until all the kanji are finished. The tools are:

  1. Anki flashcards (to keep us from forgetting what we learn)
  2. Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji (to break the kanji into parts)
  3. Using mnemonics, mainly memory palaces (to solidify the kanji and all their parts into our brains)
  4. Reviewing the Kanji (to get inspiration for when we have trouble making our own mnemonics)

A lot about Niko’s process really drew me in. I love how he explains practically every detail of it, from the why’s to the how’s. He doesn’t sugarcoat. He says it’ll be hard and frustrating at times, but could it really be more frustrating than all the wasted hours I’ve put in already? But what really got me was the really thorough explanation and application of mnemonics and memory palaces.

For any of you who’ve watched Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, I am sure you’ve got a general idea as to what a memory or mind palace is. While watching Sherlock I didn’t get the sense that anyone aside from some sort of autistic genius or savant could actually create a working memory palace but watching Joshua Foer talk about memory and the history of mnemonics in this TED Talk convinced me otherwise.

I am a highly visual person, and I love telling stories, especially ridiculous ones. This is when I realize that Niko’s method just might work with me. Of course, I have been making short stories about each kanji to help me remember them, but the problem is that each story stands completely alone. They aren’t tied together in any way, much less tethered to a real place that I can conjure in my mind’s eye. And I am a real sucker for a highly planned out and regulated system. Why not combine my silly imagination with a strict learning regimen and really give this a shot?

The biggest hole in Niko’s method for me is how he focuses 100% on memorizing the meanings of the kanji only without any time spent on how to actually say them in Japanese. According to both him and Heisig, once you can see and recognize the meanings of the kanji, the way they are read and how they are used in vocabulary comes like second nature. I am still a bit suspicious of this. But at this point, any progress at all is good progress, not to mention this is the first time in a long time I’ve actually felt excited to study kanji. That has to count for something!

So here starts my journey deep into the recesses of my mind and the joyo kanji. I plan on writing out and posting the memory palaces I make and the kanji they are linked to in the hopes that the more often I think about and jot them down the better I will remember them. I have no clue how this will really turn out so…. Wish me luck!

winter is here

Hey all. Winter is in full swing and it’s cold as hell. I can see my breath in the apartment, so layering up with multiple hoodies in the house along with the kotatsu in the living room and the electric blanket at bedtime have all been musts. This cold makes working out feel totally impossible too. Even though I know it’d feel good and I would warm up quick enough, getting out from under my layers and electric heaters feels like torture. So there goes my Hot Hiker Body Routine I planned to prep for Myanmar and Laos! Maybe I can get it in action post-trip…

Speaking of, there is just a little less than a week and a half before the trip! Evan, Kohji, Fiona and I have one more meeting on Sunday to collect all important paperwork and sort through details. On Saturday Evan and I are going to go shopping for last minute things, like travel toiletries, his hiking shoes, a set of hiking pants for me, a first aid kit and things of that nature. I am getting so excited to go adventuring and get out of the cold for a while! But I am also nervous about traveling with two people whom I have never traveled with like this before. I am sure we’ll get on just fine, I just want everyone to have a good time! Oh, and I am dreading packing lol I just never feel like I have everything I need, and then I get there and think “oh no I have too much” or “why the hell didn’t I bring blah blah?!” Anyway, that too shall pass.

Oh yeah, remember that painting I did recently? The one of my father-in-law in his band, with the flowers and patterns? Well, I did indeed submit it to that exhibit, and then a few days later I got a letter saying that it was rewarded a prize..! I was totally shocked. The awards ceremony is this Sunday, and Evan says I have to go so that he can photograph me with all the pomp and circumstance. I feel really embarrassed about it, and I think I will be really nervous, but I am sure I will treasure the photos he takes later haha. It is nice to be recognized, ya know? I went and saw the show the other day too, and there were a lot of lovely pieces there. To be honest though, it makes me wonder… Did I win this award on merit? Or did I win because I was the only foreigner who entered? I am only suspicious because I really do think there were loads of other pieces that were much more deserving of an award than mine was… but here I am, and no use worrying about it now, I suppose!

All right, I will leave you with two stories from today that really feel like they represent Japan for me in a lot of ways.

Story 1: The Ten Yen Coin

For months there has been a ten yen coin on a table in the ladies’ changing room at the high school where I work. I couldn’t even tell you how long it’s been there. But there it is, totally unmoving day after day. By this point it feels like a permanent installation. Every morning I go into the changing room, hang up my jacket, do my makeup and I can’t help but look over and think, “I can’t believe no one has taken that coin. Maybe today’s the day I will take it, just for the hell of it,” but I never do.

Anyhow, today I walked into the changing room, and by God the coin was gone! I was actually kind of relieved. Someone had finally taken it, no harm no foul. So I hung up my jacket and went to the mirror to do my makeup, and there on the mirror was a note on a post-it in Japanese. It read, “If you are looking for a ten yen coin, the one that was on the table, it is being held in the office for safekeeping. Please claim it anytime.” I was totally dumbfounded. Ten yen is roughly equivalent to a dime in the States. A dime, people! If someone took ten cents off the table, even if it wasn’t theirs, who cares?! Jeez Louise, this is absurd! I think I actually guffawed out loud.

And yet, after a moment of thinking about how this scenario would absolutely never happen in America, I realized that this sort of thing happening in Japan is really not shocking at all. The level of honesty and the sense of justice that I have seen while living here has rivaled anything I have seen anywhere else by far. So as silly as it seems to me, I think that it must be obvious to people living here that if a thing is not yours, however inconsequential, you must not and should not claim it as your own. Period. Not even a ten yen coin.

Now I am not saying that everyone in Japan is some pure-hearted saint and that shit doesn’t go “missing” and crimes don’t happen. But I do believe that this is just one example of the many small, kind and earnest acts I see on a day to day basis in Japan, and these kinds of acts are what make living here so lovely.

Story 2: Merry Christmas, Merry Funeral

I mentioned in a previous post that I was planning a Christmas-themed lesson. And indeed, I planned it and have executed said lesson seven times for seven different classes already. After practicing this lesson so many times, I can say without hesitation that I have it down, from my first greeting to the students to my summing up the homework and ushering them out the door. So today I had my eighth and final Christmas lesson, and I was excited for it, firstly because this class of kids is in some ways my favorite (not too clever, but really open, personable and attentive), and secondly because I could finally stop doing the same goddamned lesson day-in-day-out!

In the middle of the lesson I do this activity I call Quiz Quiz Pass. I won’t go into the details too much, but basically you go around the room asking people different questions in English. The questions change every time, so this time I had questions like, “Who will you be with on New Year’s day?” and “Can you tell me three things you like about winter, please?” The students really like this activity because they can walk around, talk to whomever they like, and the questions are all randomized so you never really know what you’ll be asked when. At the end of the activity I like to have everyone sit and then I choose two or three kids to answer a question in front of the class.

For this particular lesson, the single-out-a-couple-kids-and-ask-them-in-front-of-the-class part is really fun for me. First, I pick a sort of shy girl to say three things she likes about winter, and everyone is quiet and listening earnestly (I hope, anyway). Maybe she stumbles over some words, but I help her out and all is well. Everybody applauds. And then I pick a boy and ask him, “What will you do on Christmas Day?”

Now before I go any further I should let you in on a couple things. First, in Japan Christmas has more in common with American New Year’s Eve than American Christmas. By that I mean it isn’t really a family event at all. The more common image of Christmas in Japan is going on a date, holding hands and viewing Christmas lights in the snow with that special person, and exchanging romantic presents, or maybe having a gift exchange party with friends. Second, I know my students pretty well. I may not have memorized all 250 of their names, but when I am in a class I know which students hate being called on but love when I stop by their desk for a bit of a chat, I know which students typically know the answers and understand directions and don’t mind when I ask them to explain stuff to the class in Japanese, I know who the sleepers are, and most especially I know the outgoing kids, the ones who love to speak out, share their opinions, and can handle a bit of gentle teasing now and then.

All right, back to my story. So I pick a boy, a boy I know pretty well, who has a sense of humor and seems to enjoy being made a spectacle of in front of his classmates, and I ask him, “What will you do on Christmas day?” He immediately responds, “I want money for Christmas!” The people who catch his goof laugh a bit and I gently ask again, “What will you DO on Christmas day?” He realizes his mistake and starts again. “I will….” He pauses with a look of confusion and starts making gestures in the air. His classmates laugh at his struggle a bit. And then I go into the routine that I went through will all the other boys before him. “Oh, are you going on a date on Christmas Day?” I ask coyly. Everyone laughs. He smiles and shakes his head and I ask, “Will you be with your girlfriend on Christmas Day?” and receive another round of laughs.

I am telling you, this schtick is really effective with my classes. Everyone gets a kick out of it. Eventually, the guy either gives in and says, “Yes, I will go on a date,” which is met with oohs and ahhs and applause, or he firmly states his actual plan, which is met with a mixture of laughter or sympathy or whatever is appropriate. And then I move on to the next activity with everyone in high spirits.

This time though, my guy is taking a lot longer to answer. He is muttering to himself (stuff like, “what do you call it… how do you say…”) and finally bursts out a word in Japanese that I don’t know. Everyone goes still and somber. A bit perplexed, I look to my co-teacher. “What’d he say?” I ask, to which she replies, “He’s going to a funeral on Christmas day.”

And then I feel like a total ass. Here I am teasing him about girlfriends and dates, and he’s just lost someone, maybe even someone dear to him. I say that I am really sorry for putting him on the spot like that, and he smiles and waves it away like it’s no big deal. What’s so funny is that all his classmates seem to be looking at me with something like sympathy, like they could tell how embarrassed I was and they feel a bit bad for me as I awkwardly switch gears into the next activity. But in my head I was screaming, “Who the hell has a funeral on Christmas day?? This is unheard of! I would never in a million years have expected something like that!” But of course, Christmas isn’t even a real holiday in Japan, just a quirky sort of event vaguely known about and ever so slowly gaining popularity amongst young people as a chance for a bit of romance and a few presents.

Anyway, the class continued and all was well. Nobody brought it up again, and after class I went to that kid and apologized one more time for any embarrassment I caused. He seemed totally fine and unworried about it, then went about his day.  Indeed, I seemed to be the one most affected by the whole thing. I was left alone in the classroom thinking about how Christmas is an entirely different animal in Japan than in America, and how these days I have become nostalgic and have begun longing for the merriment, bustle, family and festivity surrounding Christmas back in the States, and I wondered when I would experience that again, and how much I am looking forward to it.

transitioning into winter

After getting back from Kyoto, all I thought about was slamming some content for classes together and, more importantly, studying for the JLPT test (which was on December 4, Sunday)! While Evan and I were roaming to, around and from Kyoto/Osaka I didn’t do nearly as much studying as I intended. And before then? I was memorizing some kanji using the White Rabbit flashcards I bought a while ago, and I also wrote down a collection of grammar points geared toward the N4 level and started using them in my own original sentences. After getting back from the trip, kanji and grammar are what I mainly crammed. The day before the test I tried out a couple vocabulary, reading, and grammar practice tests, and I am really glad I did. They really got my head in the game as far as how the test is formatted and what type of questions I would have to answer.

How’d the test itself go? It’s hard for me to say with certainty if I passed or not, but I feel much more confident and optimistic after finishing the test this time than last summer, that’s for sure. Last summer I felt like I frequently went up against questions that I couldn’t even make an educated guess about, but this time those popped up way less frequently. I felt good about the reading section this time around too. Last summer I felt very rushed (almost ran out of time, actually) and was often uncertain about the meanings of texts or even the questions themselves. This time I got through the reading part quickly with time to spare to check my answers, and I never felt stumped as to the meanings of both the texts and the questions. Last summer I felt pretty good about the listening part and it was by far my highest score. But this time? I’ll be honest, and I hope I am not making an ass out of myself when I say this, if I get less than 90% of the listening section correct, I will be really shocked. It felt like such a breeze. Every answer seemed really clear and obvious, and there was never any doubt in my mind while I filled in those little bubbles. God, I hope I wasn’t totally delusional or in some alternate dimension during that section of the test though… because if I get my results back next month and see I bombed the listening I will feel like such an idiot, hah.

Regardless of how I end up doing, so glad that test is over with! I am going to officially put studying Japanese on the back-burner until after winter vacation, and then I want to push really hard to memorize kanji like mad! But, like I said, let’s not continue this conversation until January rolls around.

In the meantime… so much stuff on the horizon! I am going to make myself a list of it all here and now, just so that I can see it in one place:

  • Start my newly-crafted Hot Hiker Body Routine (explanatory post to come) TONIGHT so that I don’t die while hiking and traveling over winter break
  • Get new glasses because the ones I have now are scratched to hell and the perscription is over two and a half years old
  • Go shopping for Christmas presents and ship them to the folks they belong to
  • Celebrate Fiona’s birthday with drinks and karaoke this coming Friday and/or Saturday
  • Double-booked bounenkai next week 12/16 Friday, oh no! I have to choose which one to go to… Ariake Shinsei High School’s party or the Miike English teachers’ party
  • At least one more preparations and logistics meeting with Fiona and Kohji to square away packing, money, documentation and day-of departure plans for the big trip
  • Get through two more weeks of classes with all my ichi-nensei (sophomores) and san-nensei (seniors), which means making some sort of Christmas lesson…. and I have no idea what to do yet, so I have to plan that!
  • Clean the apartment so that we don’t return to a total mess after 15 days of crazy filthy backpacking and planes rides
  • Actually pack for the trip!
  • Something small but sweet to celebrate Evan’s birthday on 12/24
  • Happy Day’s big all day Christmas Party on 12/25
  • And FINALLY on 12/26 take off for Myanmar and Laos with Evan, Fiona and Kohji!

Ya know, seeing it all in a simple list like this makes all this stuff seem much more manageable. Let’s hope I can actually get all of it done in a sensible and stress-free way though, shall we? Updates to come…

laying the groundwork: goal 2 of 30

After perusing my 30 before 30 list, I want to address five of my goals and how I plan on reaching them. Let’s start with the one that inspired this entire train of thought…

Goal 2 of 30: Pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) N3

So you should all know by now that I failed the JLPT N4 I took in July. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the JLPT, N4 is a step down from N3. According to everyone I’ve spoken to it’s a pretty sizable step at that. N4 is described as a test for high beginners, whereas N3 is the midway point of fluency. At N4 level you’re able to survive living in Japan, travel domestically without getting lost, and make small talk. At N3 level you’re living fairly comfortably, expressing your opinions, and having more complex conversation. Here are some specific differences according to JLPT Boot Camp:

  • Grammar… N4: Passive voice, basic verb conjugations and basic conjunctions // N3: More nuanced grammar points and more complex conjunctions
  • Kanji… N4: Approximately 300 of the most basic and well-used kanji // N3: Approximately 650 (including the previous 300), or the first four grade levels of kyoiku-kanji (the official system for teaching kanji by the Ministry of Japan)
  • Vocabulary… N4: Aproximately 1,500 words total // N3: Approximately 3,500 total
  • Resume-worthy?… N4: No // N3: Yes

Putting all the differences in plain sight like this is actually a real eye-opener for me as far as what a true undertaking this goal is. I mean, the folks over at JLPT Boot Camp say that passing the N3 requires 450 hours of studying, which is roughly three years of college Japanese classes! So far I have been happy to just soak up whatever Japanese has conveniently come my way, but that’s just not going to cut it to reach N3.

So what am I going to do?

Step One: Retake and CRUSH the N4 on December 4, 2016

How? Here’s the game plan.
  1. Start going to Evan’s Japanese class once a week on Thursdays starting the first week of September. This will give me the structure and accountability I need to start improving and, more importantly, start good study habits.
  2. Use White Rabbit kanji flashcards. I am thinking about giving myself weekly kanji goals, adding new ones to my stack every week, and drilling them until they stick. After doing the math, I need to do 20 kanji every week until December. Luckily I have a handful of kanji already under my belt, so I can start in right away on the new and/or shaky stuff and still have at least a couple weeks in November for pure review.
  3. Go through the entire 日本語500問 book. The book is laid out so that you answer 15 questions every day for 4 weeks straight. Each question and its answers are explained thoroughly so that you can pinpoint the exact grammar, vocabulary or kanji that is stumping you. The difficulty ramps up from N5 at the beginning to N4 by the end. I am really hoping this book helps me catch those outstanding loopholes in my Japanese skills before they catch me yet again in December. Once I finish 日本語500問 I am going to switch to another textbook (maybe Genki 2?) and create a study plan for that too, so be sure to check in 4 weeks from now!
  4. Take advantage of my commute time to and from work to practice kanji and vocabulary. On days that I go to work I spend 50 minutes on the train (25 minutes there and 25 minutes back). That’s 250 minutes in a typical work week of hands-free sitting on the train — more than 4 hours! Right now during that time I usually bumble about on social media, fiddle with my Neko Atsume or Pokemon Go, or simply close my eyes and nod off. I have this lovely gift of super convenient public transportation (thank you, Japan), and here I am wasting it! What better time is there to cram those kanji flashcards or hop onto that Memrise app and blast through some vocab? So that’s what I am going to do, for at least one leg of my commute every day I go to work from now on.

Step two: Begin climbing that N3 mountain

After I pass the N4 in December, I have about 7 months to study before the next JLPT test date in early July. Can someone actually go from N4 to N3 in such a short time? I really don’t know, but I am going to try like hell because the next available test date isn’t until after my 30th birthday!

But before I get too far ahead of myself and start saying exactly what I plan on doing to prep for the N3 like I just did for the N4, I want to wait and see how my study habits form, what methods work and what don’t, and how much I really am able to self-study and progress between now and December. Using that information, I intend to work out my N3 game plan in the week or so following the N4 test. That way I can jet off to Laos and Myanmar for my winter vacation adventure worry-free and with a map laid in place for a fresh start when I return in January!

I am hoping that with the support of the people around me, especially Evan, Vicki, and Ayame-san (aka. the people I will be forcing to be my study partners), this groundwork will not have been laid in vain!

What are my other four goals I will be dissecting? Stay tuned to find out!