Train Fares in Japan

May has been a big month for my blog. I've posted 6 entries, with many pictures. Thanks to Site Meter, I know that 356 different people have visited A Brave New Word. They live in 11 countries! USA, Canada, Japan, Jamaica, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, Belgium, Thailand, Taiwan, Bolivia, and Poland. I know people in the first 7 (except Canada) so the rest are people just surfing the web and finding me. Cool! Few of them show up in my Frappr map because they didn't choose to put a tag on it. Now how can I get visitors from Africa and Australia to round out my continental coverage?

Over the weekend I went to Nara, the old old capital of Japan, from 710 to 784 ce, for a professional association meeting. My friend Nathan lives on the other side of the mountain range from Nara, in Mie prefecture. He'd borrowed some camping supplies a few weeks ago and will be leaving for good next week. So I offered to "stop by" and pick them up since I was relatively in the area.

The train systems here track where you enter and leave the stations, by velocity instead of distance. So I arranged to meet Nathan in the station for the drop off and then head immediately back to Osaka. I would only be charged the fare from Nara to Osaka instead of Nara to Yokkaichi to Osaka. There's probably an ethical dilemma to this. I see it this way: if the train is of value to me based on where it takes me from and to, then I should be charged based on where I get in and out. You could live in the train system if you wanted to, but no one does. One has to come out sometime and the computer doesn't care where they've been in the meantime.

I still ended up paying more fare because I bought reserved seats on the limited express train. That made the Nara-Yokkaichi journey just about 100 minutes. If I took the rapid express trains, I would have had a much later night than I already did. I arrived home from the whole affair at 11 pm.

Feel free to lend your voice to the train fare ethics debate!

In other news, I'm giving a talk at the Junior High Chapel tomorrow. Entirely in Japanese. Thanks to a fellow teacher who translated my whole speech. I'll record it on MD (mini disc) and try to upload it to my blog. That could be my podcasting debut! Until then, genki de!


A Whirlwind Tour of Tokyo

It seems to me that Japan is nothing if not efficient. How many other places can you be in the downtown of one city at noon and then be in the downtown of another city 340 miles away by 2:30 pm? That is the beauty of the bullet train (shinkansen in Japanese). I took the fastest one available from Osaka to Tokyo right after I taught my morning class at KGJH. There was an alumni meeting for MIIS graduates in Tokyo that I really wanted to attend. Sure it would be an expensive weekend, but how can you put a price on friendships rekindled and a new experience and perspective? This trip was at the end of a very long week of test design for midterms, so I didn't get to give this weekend all of the planning it deserved. I'm not sure it would have done me much good. Take a look at the subway map of Tokyo, and you'll understand why. I budgeted 2 hours for myself to get my bearings, check into my capsule hotel (more on that later), and get to the party. It ended up taking me 3.5 hours. I didn't factor in the labyrinthian underground passageways that allow no one to get their bearings with cardinal directions or landmarks, just signs, of which there are never enough in English. Still, there are a lot in English and I'm grateful for the Metropolitan government to give me that.

It was a hot day and I wore my suit on the train because the dress code for the alumni meeting was "business attire". I've overpacked because I threw stuff together after class and didn't get to weed out the unneeded stuff like I usually do. I've double backed through subway stations, bought the ticket to the wrong subway line, and now I'm looking for a capsule hotel that's 5 floors up. I walk the streets of Shinjuku, passing girls dressed up as baby dolls, Goths, super tan barbie dolls, and men dressed in hip-hop gear like they live south of 8 Mile (but actually in their parents' condo). Quite the swinging urban scene.

I finally made it to the capsule hotel and began the second phase of my overwhelmtion in Tokyo. If you're totally new to the concept, check out this guy's blog entry on them. My hotel said no photos or you're out, so I played it safe. Too safe, but for the first time, just scout and take risks later. My impression of the capsule hotel was that it has all the amenities of a regular hotel room, but they're all spread out communally over several floors. Bed - 3rd floor, closet (locker) - 4th floor, bathroom - 6th floor, restaurant - 5th floor. The Green Plaza capsule hotel also ran a sauna, so they included admission to it in the price of the lodging.

I made it an hour late to the alumni party, but the hour that remained was enough to touch base with the other TESOL grads there and set up an after party with some other folks from the different programs. Half were Japanese, half were something else (mostly Americans). We got a private room in the basement of a bar, had a few drinks (I was the designated subway rider, so I had tea) and of course, exchanged business cards.

Sunday morning I checked out of the capsule hotel. I didn't get much sleep because I was 2 feet away from 6 snoring men while I could hear someone heaving up his yakitori in the bathroom, another one flatulating away his curry udon into the still air of the sleeping quarters, and I was lying on 1 inch of mattress between a plastic floor to my capsule. Still, it was a unique experience so now I can say, "been there, done that, probably won't do it again unless for kicks and whinneys". I didn't have a place to stay in mind for Sunday night, but I was hatching a plan to take an overnight bus back to Osaka based on the return of my prospects for meeting up with friends I had contacted prior to my trip.

I went to the Christian Science church in Harajuku. It is off a beautiful street lined with big shade trees and wide brick-paved sidewalks. I was warmly welcomed by the ushers and sat down for a nice respite before the service. The readers read the scriptural selection and benediction in English for the handful of English-speakers in the congregation. The architecture inside the Tokyo church is what I would call typical of churches of Christ, Scientist with two walls behind the readers bearing quotations from the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy, organ, pews, and vaulted ceiling. In contrast, our Kyoto society was formerly a Japanese home, so we have stained virgin wood beams, a small garden, and paper walls separating rooms. Even Christian Science institutions reflect Japan's new & old living side by side! There was a membership meeting after the service where a young new member was going to be welcomed, so I didn't linger too long to speak with many of the members. Instead, I headed off for a "nationally famous" ramen shop in search of the most delicious bowl of noodles and pork cuts. In a total coincidence, I ran into one of my classmates from MIIS as she ascended the subway steps and I descended. In a city of 11 million where both of us were in town for less than 48 hours, what are the odds of that? She was with two other friends and let me tag along with them as they searched for an art bookstore.

Then I enticed them to join me for ramen. The restaurant was touted by Lonely Planet as having usual lines out the door, but our word on the street was that is was "ma-ma" so-so. I held the jury for my own judgment. I was picturing some hole-in-the-wall that just relies on the recipe to draw its customers like some tucked-away Southern US BBQ joint. Ippudo apparently has chained off into a number of branches, so maybe that has dispersed the crowds. I ordered the lunch set with rice, gyoza (pot stickers), and extra pork cuts - what Suzanne would call "the carbohydrates lunch". My fetish with ramen noodles dates back to September 2003 when I saw the movie Tampopo in my language teaching methods class. So when the pork cuts melted in my mouth at my first bite, I knew that I had found a very special place. The others had their favorite in Nagoya, so I guess I'll have to try it before I leave!

My final sightseeing stop was the Edo-Tokyo Museum which chronicles the history of the city while providing a lot of hands-on opportunities to experience life for Tokyo residents of yore. You can pedal a rickshaw, walk through a era-specific home, bear a fireman's standard, and balance weighted water jugs on your shoulder. I give it two thumbs up!

Finally, I met some of my friends from Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) who visited MIIS on a study abroad last March. We went to an izakaya (bar) eight stories above the Tokyo train station. What an incredible view. We had a private room for the five of us where we ordered plate after plate of finger food and glasses of alcohol to chase it down (I was designated bus rider so I had ginger ale). This was a very special evening for a number of reasons. I have felt quite lonely in Nishinomiya for lack of Japanese peers who I can talk to. Here I could talk about some very personal things with them. At first I was watching my words and sentence construction so as not to say anything that was over their heads. Then Yoko said that I didn't have to do that because they've been to the USA and could handle the authentic speech. I felt bad for low-balling their English ability because I knew what a remarkable teacher they had at KUFS. And finally that we could have our own space to talk instead of competing against the volume of other restaurant patrons. It made our group interaction feel just a bit more special.

9:30 pm came and I knew that the night busses to Osaka started to leave around 10. We paid our bill (20k yen split evenly between 5 of us came to $35, expensive but worth it for the relationship building) and dashed across the street to get me on a bus. Two of my friends paid to come inside the train station to help me get my bag out of the coin locker while the other two went to find the bus depot. Then we all regrouped to find and purchase a ticket for the best bus to get me back to Kansai. I am constantly impressed by moments of unselfish teamwork like this from my Japanese friends. We walked out to the loading bus and said our goodbyes. There was an awkward moment when they stood there looking at me. I was waiting for typical bow and they were waiting for a typical American hug! Never the shy one, Yoko asked for one and then we all exchanged hugs. It is not typical to express such public affection, but things are changing in Japan, and these abroad-traveled students are on the vanguard in some ways.

I had a slow 9-hour ride to Osaka to reflect on the special moments that Tokyo gave me this weekend. I think it has been a turning point in my time here. On my first day back to Nishinomiya I had an extended conversation in Japanese with a past-student and another one with a woman on the street who was walking her dog. Most times I am left alone, but perhaps my trip to Tokyo to build relationships with Japanese friends has made me more approachable to other Japanese. Just a theory.


The Politics of English

Recently I learned a lesson to stay out of political discussions and just learn more about my own profession which has plenty of facets that I can spend my time investigating. But when politics comes to my profession, I suppose I can add my two cents to the conversation.

Tonight, President Bush gave his first oval address on a topic besides the war on terror or Iraq. It was on immigration. This is something to which my profession as an English teacher is inextricably linked. When the President speaks for over a paragraph about the English language, the professionals who teach it should take notice. That is an indication of many people behind the scenes in policy think tanks and organizations who are working to make it happen. Here is what the President said in his speech on Monday night in the USA:

Fifth, we must honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one nation out of many peoples. The success of our country depends upon helping newcomers assimilate into our society, and embrace our common identity as Americans. Americans are bound together by our shared ideals, an appreciation of our history, respect for the flag we fly, and an ability to speak and write the English language. English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America. English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices, from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own. When immigrants assimilate and advance in our society, they realize their dreams, they renew our spirit, and they add to the unity of America.

Keywords and phrases in this paragraph are: melting pot, assimilate, advance, opportunity. To me, it seems like what the President is saying is that English is the language of power and anyone who wants access to that power must learn it. I know there are people in the USA who want to assimilate into what they see as America and there are others who are there to take advantage of an opportunity that doesn't require English fluency and then hopefully go back to their own country without assimilating. And there are those who want both: to gain citizenship, maintain their own language and culture, and stay in the USA. Can we include these kind of people in the label "American"?

I think we already do. The Amish of the Midwestern States maintain their own language and culture with varying degrees of contact with mainstream Americans. What about people who trace their ancestry to the Spanish settlers of Florida, and the states considered to be the Southwest? Are they entitled to their language as part of their identity? True, the USA annexed these areas from Spain and settled them with its own citizens. But the culture still remains. Great Britain received New France in the 1760s. This would later become Canada with its French-speaking province of Quebec. Canada has two official languages, English and French. Can we recognize both languages and have unity as a nation? Canada has 7.1 million people who speak French at home (24% of total population in 2001). The USA has 28.1 million people who speak Spanish at home (10% of total population in 2000), yet no official language. Is it about the number of people or the percent? Why does the USA drag its feet on declaring one or more official languages? It could be a matter of resisting enforcement of something that is sufficiently being pandered by other social forces to keep English as the de facto language of power and the others at bay. One of those forces, to me, is the concept of the USA as a "melting pot".

The idea of "melting pot" to me is about homogenizing. The term was coined in 1908 by a playwright whose play featured a Jewish man falling in love with the daughter of an anti-Semitic Russian. They could overcome their differences thanks to the melting pot. The term persists to this day, but the diversity of our country has grown beyond the Europeans who came in the early part of the 1900s. When immigration was reformed in the 1960s, many more people from every other continent could come to the USA. The question now is: with so much more diversity of people and beliefs in the USA, does the melting pot metaphor still embrace what it means to be American?

The funny thing is, that Mexicans, Argentinean, Venezuelans, and other New World citizens will argue that they're American, too! The USA hasn't cornered the market on the term because we've got two continents named for America.

I'm concerned about what President Bush means by, "English is the key to unlocking the opportunity of America." There are some who want to make English the official language of the USA and therefore exclude any government effort to translate official documents into other languages. In essence saying, "Hah! Now you have to learn English because there's no other way to access information and therefore power." I'm an Applied Linguist who knows that children who are literate in their home language go on to become more proficient users of a second language. I know that language is identity. I know that first generation immigrants have diverse capacities and motivations for learning a second language. I know that the children and grandchildren of those first immigrants have different attitudes and capacities. So to insist on English literacy for every first generation citizen of the USA isn't respecting the diversity of what eventually makes us American through a process that takes place over many generations.

So my position as an English teacher is not to be an agent of American assimilation towards immigrants. My position is to motivate my students to learn English while respecting each one's language learning history. Language is power, there is no getting around that. The question is: are we comfortable sharing that power with other language speakers and still be able to identify ourselves as (United States of) Americans?


Reflections on my World Perspectives major in College

I received an email from my alma mater, Principia College, asking me how my World Perspectives major affected me. A lot of what I wrote is good background for why I am a language teacher today and why I am presently in Japan. I'm posting my comments here in case you're interested.

So, how has being a Global Perspectives major affected...


Skills that I developed as a result of the required courses for World Perspectives:

* I am a more conscious global citizen because of the weekly geography exercises and tests that we did in world focus seminar (W Pers 270).
* I am a savvy reader of the CS Monitor from the 10 international articles a week that I read for 5 quarters for world focus seminar.
* I never take a book's message at face value, but I research the background of the author, the bias of his/her perspective on the subject, and all contextual information about the book before making a conclusion. This skill was developed from reading a multi-100 page book a week and writing a paper on it for Worldography (W Pers 431).
* Accessing primary source material from sources around the world to write my capstone project (W Pers 401).
* Synthesizing information from different disciplines to capture a more global perspective [now I see why there's the name change!] of an issue

How it affected me as a person? That's a little bit harder to say 7 years out of graduation. But I've been a lot of places since then, so I guess you could say that World/Global Perspectives launched my international career.

the way you see the world?

It expanded my thought beyond the cliffs of Principia, beyond national borders, to investigate strands of humanity that unite us. I am capable of evaluating the information sources that I am pummeled with everyday to form my own conclusion. I can listen to conservative AM talk radio and watch Fahrenheit 9/11 in the same day and feel more informed for having explored two perspectives instead of seeing any source (besides God) as all-knowing and absolute truth!

I see a lot of value in cross-cultural communication. I want to immerse myself in world cultures for months, if not years, at a time in order to understand them beyond their surface features of art, fashion, and language. I want to understand what they value in life, their perspective, on the same things that I deal with in a different way.

the way you approach learning?

World Perspectives hands down prepared me for the demands of graduate school. My MA is in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a combination of applied linguistics and education studies. I didn't have much of either at Prin, but I did have the writing and project coordination skills that were developed by writing the 70+ page Capstone project. And of course GP, and Prin moreover, has inspired a desire for life-long learning.

I have learned 6 languages that I speak with at least intermediate ability: English, Jamaican Creole, Spanish, French, Russian, and Japanese. I don't see language acquisition as limited by age or vocabulary size. This is thanks to MK Morgan who said, "education is not the accumulation of facts but the unfoldment of ideas."

what did you appreciate about the interdisciplinary nature of the major?

My interests were so varied at Prin that I needed the flexibility of the Global Perspectives major to legitimize my broad studies. People are always fascinated when I tell them I was a WP & Russian Studies major with a minor in Biology. "Was there anything you didn't study" they ask me. Not much! When you take such a breadth of courses in an intense time like the quarter system, I think you learn how to learn in addition to the specific subject.

In the field of language education, one of the recent trends in content-based instruction (CBI). CBI is where a subject like geography, psychology, physics, etc is taught through the medium of the target language. Where the focus isn't on the grammar or language forms but on understanding and communicating the content of the subject. So an English speaker would study geography in French with a teacher who is competent in both langauge instruction and geography. I felt drawn to this area because of the interdisciplinarity of my Global Perspectives major

Most especially-- what are you doing these days?

I'm far away from the "water resource conflicts of transnational river basins" that was my capstone topic. I am teaching English as a foreign language at a private, Christian all-boys Junior High school between Kobe and Osaka in Japan.

Right after Prin, I joined the Peace Corps first in Benin, West Africa then in Jamaica, West Indies. I taught environmental education in rural schools. It seems like the more I travel and work abroad, the more I discover that I really didn't have to leave my own country to address global issues. The infant mortality rate of Jamaica was equal to that of the Mississippi Delta. California's policy on English education is based on a silicon valley engineer's opinion instead of sound research. These sorts of injustices need ground workers who can grasp the facts and be a fair advocate for policy change. In September I'll be moving to back California to teach ESL in an urban school.

what are your aspirations, dreams goals?

I'd like to start a summer camp for English language learners in the USA to learn leadership and peacebuilding skills. I'd like to contribute to global communication by training language teachers all over the world how to create effective and interesting lessons.

Thanks for a great trip down Memory Lane, Bonnie and Andrea. Good luck!


Lake Biwa & Hikone

Many Japanese use Golden Week as their time to take an extended vacation. Many international flights were booked and expensive, so I'd decided to stay at home. Other Japanese use the holidays to come back to their hometown to visit family. A friend of mine from the Monterey Institute, Yuka, lives in Hikone. It is an important city on the largest freshwater lake in Japan: Lake Biwa. Considered the fringe of the Kansai area, Shiga Prefecture and its Lake Biwa are about two hours away from Nishinomiya. So on Thursday, I took a direct train to Hikone to stay the night with Yuka's family.

Yuka studied International Policy at MIIS, so she landed a job in Tokyo with the Japan Foundation for International Affairs. She works way too many hours, but such is life for many of us here in Japan! She was certainly relieved to have the week off and enjoy her mother's home cooking. And Yuka's mother wanted to make sure that I learned how to cook some Japanese food. Hooray! Now I can buy some different things at the supermarket instead of the same old same old. I learned how to cook tempura (deep fried ___), yakiudon (friend thick rice noodles), okonomiyaki (savory pancake), chawan mushi (steamed custard with chicken, mushroom, and fish sausage) and chirashizushi (rice with marinated vegetables, egg, and seaweed). Of course everything was delicious. I haven't found a Japanese food that I haven't liked yet. I must admit that I have avoided nattoo (fermented soybeans) to this day, but I will try it before I leave!

Yuka lives about 500 meters from Hikone Castle, a national treasure. Between the castle and her home is "old new town": a main street designed in the architectural style of 150 years ago. One these warm dry May days off, there were many people strolling the sidewalks. It made for a wonderful atmosphere. Yuka's family has a Golden Retriever, Ryu (dragon), and we walked it many times up and down that route. Ryu is very smart; he can get the newspaper and "business bag". I had a Boxer as a child and Paige never did any of that stuff. But if getting things is what Retrievers were born to do, perhaps I shouldn't be so impressed.

Anyway, we toured Hikone Castle on the second day I was there. Yuka was so kind to translate the signs for me. I wish I could have remembered all the details! But I think its a national treasure because most of the materials in the castle are original. Many tall and wood structures of Japan have a long history of getting struck by lightning and burning to the ground several times. Apparently Japan didn't have a Benjamin Franklin to invent the lightning rod. You'll see a sign that reads, "originally constructed in 782, rebuilt in 1234, 1583, 1729, 1839, and restored in 1954". Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. Who expects a wood structure to last 1300 years? But you get the idea. Hikone Castle wasn't as tall or fortified as others I have visited, but there was an important transfer of power at the Castle before the Meiji Restoration. So that's why it's significant. Here's a view of me at the plateau before you go into what I'll call the "keep". The grounds of the Castle are lined with Cherry trees, which make for a beautiful display of o-hanami (Cherry Blossom viewing) in April.

On the first day, we drove out to a restaurant on the shores of Lake Biwa. There's plenty of rice fields outside of Hikone. Over the past few weeks, I've been noticing farmers preparing their fields for growing rice. Being from the Midwest, I've seen tilling and plowing and reaping. But rice grows in standing water. The soil must have a large amount of clay to hold that water. Ever wonder why you see pictures of hillsides terraced off for growing rice? That's so the gravity can distribute the rainwater from one level to another! This is all very "duh!" to the Japanese and other Asians, but for dry soil growers in the Midwest, its all very fascinating. So I think this tractor is loosening up the soil to plant the rice which will grow very tall by the summer.

It was wonderful to get away from the urban bustle and see only green and blue for a while. The winding mountain roads took me back to my childhood summers in Michigan. Of course if you live in the innaka (countryside) of Japan you see this everyday and die for the neon lights! But this was our time to get away, relax, and reflect. We sat on the patio enjoying takezumi kohi (coffee percolated by a bamboo charcoal fire) and me with an orange soda. The sun shimmered over the lake and Yuka taught me the word for shimmer to be "pika pika" or something like that. These home stay experiences have really helped me to learn more Japanese. Yuka is a kind teacher.

So I think I just gave you a reverse chronological narrative of my trip to Hikone and Lake Biwa. That was fun! I hope you followed along and feel confident enough to read backwards and piece it all together. Until next week, o-genki de!


Children's Day

Something festive is in the air! Around this time, households are flying kites in the shape of carp on their porch or balcony. This was originally called Boys Day
but after 1948 they included girls too to make it Children's Day. My students told me that the biggest carp on the pole is for the father, the red one is for the mother, and the remaining ones represent the children in the family. Here's an example of a 3-member family.
The carp represents endurance and strength because it has to swim upstream fighting waterfalls, currents, and being caught by fishermen. So families wish for the same qualities in their children.

Children's Day is the first in a string of 3 holidays that make Golden Week. Most businesses are closed and many people go on vacation or to their hometowns. As a result, today was very quiet day with no giggling girls on the street or scooters whizzing by my house!
Tomorrow I'm going to the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa, to visit a friend from the Monterey Institute (check out their new website! its about time) who's originally from there. She works long and hard in Tokyo, so its a treat to get to see her for a whole day. Look forward to some beautiful scenery pictures when I return on Friday!

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA