All Around Ubuyama: A Guide To My Corner Of Aso

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This entry marks the end of my life in Ubuyama-mura, and so I am retiring my old banner for a new one. I think it is a good image for the blog up until now, but it is time to move on and to start afresh.
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I have been meaning on posting pictures from all around Ubuyama with the purpose of making my own guide to the village for a long time, and today I finally sat down and did it.
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I was pleasantly surprised to find that the great majority of signs in my village are labeled in Japanese and English. I do wish that they kept the sign as “Pubic Office” for the picture’s sake.
Ubuyama is a really small village with a population under 1,800 and falling. There just aren’t an abundance of jobs and young people tend to move out of the village in pursuit of employment, relationships (there just aren’t many young people around), or entertainment. Lacking these staples of life, many would ask “Why would you choose to live in some place so remote?”. Well, I can tell you that the reason why I stayed 2 years were for the children, the natural setting, and being in the center of Kyushu. I loved teaching here because the younger children were so enthusiastic about learning and because I felt that I was making a difference in their lives.
I enjoyed teaching at middle school too, but I didn’t get to set curriculum and the students tended to lose their enthusiasm for English due to the radical change in lessons. From nursery school until elementary, the lessons were full of games and conversational English, but from their first day in junior high school without any transitional period, they were pushed to learn by rote memorization and much of the fun and spontaneity instantly vanished. Luckily, some of the kids retained their interest, and I tried to keep their attention by making unconventional lessons and incorporating games whenever I had the opportunity.
But this post isn’t supposed to be about my teaching experiences, it’s about introducing Ubuyama from my perspective. For this, I will examine the village as a whole and then break down Ubuyama into three main areas: Hokubu (Northern Ubuyama), Yamaga (Central Ubuyama), and Nambu (Southern Ubuyama).

Continue reading All Around Ubuyama: A Guide To My Corner Of Aso

Higothai Koen Pics

Earlier, I erroneously posted a thistle that I thought to be the village flower of Ubuyama called the Higothai. These are pictures of the real flower, which should right now be coming into full bloom. The first two were taken in the Hokubu region of Ubuyama and the last one was at Daikanbo on the Northern section of the rim of the Aso Caldera.
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The Souring Of A Bittersweet Goodbye

I am frustruated with my Board of Education and with a principal with whom I work with, as they are putting me in the worst sort of position. I feel an obligation to help prepare my successor for her new life in Ubuyama-mura and to prepare the village for her. Everyone is very concerned about having a female ALT (all three previous JETs have been male), and so there is a flurry of last minute preparations being made in order to make sure that she will not be scared away by the living conditions in Ubuyama.
I understand and support their decision to fix everything that has been broken in my apartment for these two years, and feel good for the next JET. I initially felt jealous for the great efforts they are making to renovate this place, but I am glad they are doing it, because it is hard enough acclimating to living deep in the inaka as it is.
Lately, the BOE and principal have been making many demands of me to meet the hastily devised renovation plans in my apartment, including giving me short notice to get my stuff out and to clean the apartment. I was irritated, but I understood their concerns, and so have gone along with it as best as I could. However, I find myself feeling angry, disappointed, and regretful at a time where I should be enjoying the rich pains of leaving behind the kids who I have come to love, and other good friends.
The principal and the BOE have shoved me into a corner regarding my car. As I am trying to help out in any capacity that I can, I have been providing any information that they ask for without hesitataion. Last night at the farewell enkai, the principal asked me what I planned on doing with my car. I explained that I was going to sell it, and had notified my successor of the cost, condition, and improvements made to the car. He told me that she should not have to buy my car, and so I explained that I recently paid the vehicle tax and inspection tax (shakken) to the tune of 40,000 yen and 130,000 yen respectively, and was asking a fair price considering the money that I put into the car. After all, the shakken is good for 1 and a half more years! In addition, I have spent money on improving and keeping the car well maintained, so that it is running better than when I first got it. He argued that no one drives cars that old in Japan, and I pointed out that almost all of the JETs drive cars that old. I told him that my intention was not to take advantage of my successor, and that I was open to suggestions, and he replied that a friend could give her a car for free. When I said “Thats great, what type of car will he give her?” he replied “That was just an example (there is no free car).”. I asked what the cheapest price that my successor could hope to buy a used car for is, and he replied 200,000 yen. I pointed out that the price that I was asking for (70,000 yen) was less that the other JETs had offered their old cars for, but this didn’t make much of an impression on him. I ended the conversation by suggesting that we further discuss the matter.
This afternoon, I got called into the BOE by the new supervisor, a man whom I get along with rather well. It became aparent that the principal had taken the liberty of going behind my back, and telling my supervisor to talk to me. He offered me two options: junking my car (at most likely a loss of income- cost of junking the car but getting a partial refund for the car tax) or handing over ownership to my successor with a suggestion that asking for any money would be an unacceptable course of action. Because of this, I may have to sell the car to a friend instead of selling it for a reasonable price to my successor (who will need a car to stay sane in this village. now, she will probably just have to pay three times as much to get one.).
Let me say this: I understand the BOE’s and principal’s recent actions are the result of their deep-seeded concerns about the impression that they cast on the first female ALT to come to Ubuyama. I support their efforts, and wish her the best of luck, and I am staying for about 10 days past my contract VOLUNTARILY WITHOUT PAY to help show her around and to help the BOE get things settled. I don’t think it’s too much to expect the professional courtesy of receiving sufficient notice about when they want me out of my apartment, about letting me know when I am to give farewell speeches and when the ceremonies are (considering that I am the obstensibly the one for whom the ceremonies are being held), and I surely expect that I would be treated with the professional courtesy of DISCUSSING points of disagreement instead of talking behind my back and not trying to see things from my perspective. They wouldn’t do this to a Japanese person, so what makes them think it is acceptable to do this to a gaijin (oh, wait… I think I answered my own question)?
I feel that I have worked my hardest to fulfill my duties as a JET, as both a representative of the United States (I don’t fancy myself as an ambassador, but realize that I am one of only two Americans that these kids have met and know that they associate me with the whole of America in some ways) in Japan and as a teacher. I have gone out of my way to make myself useful, and have done things like setting up an English club run out of my house free of charge to my students. I have taken an active interest in studying about teaching methods during my free time and implementing them in class, often staying after working hours to do a good job. I have made a point of learning the customs and studying Japanese to bridge the language gap between us. Is it really too much to ask for a little consideration, professionalism, and consideration of ethical behavior in the workplace in return? As much as I will miss the students, I most definetely will not miss the treachery, insincerety, or the incompetence I have witnessed during my two years. The speeches made about how much I am appreciated for my efforts have lost all meaning, as dishonest actions have revealed the words to contain little integrety. I would have had more respect had the principal called me a worthless gaijin in front of the whole village and revealed how I was truly regarded.
These qualities are not held by the majority of those with whom I work, only by a few individuals. On the contrary, I was quite shocked by this behavior because it greatly contrasts the values held by almost all of the teachers, faculty, and others working in Ubuyama-mura.
To end on a positive note, I believe that the JET Programme is a great program that has a positive net effect both on the Japanese society in which it works as a part of the educational system and on its participants. I belive that negative attitudes and widely held false beliefs of Japanese people about foreign languages, cultures, and peoples are slowly changing. I do not regret my time on JET, as I feel that I have made a difference.
I have noticed a marked improvement on the confidence and abilities of my students. They have learned about different cultures (not just in my class, as I work with many good teachers), and have a genuine interest about people that are different from themselves. Watching the students grow and mature into the curious, enthusiastic learners that they are today has made me feel really good about investing two years into this community. The students are the ones who are greatful for my efforts, paying me back with their rapt attention. It is them, along with some of the other wonderful people I have had the honor of meeting in this small community, that I will miss. Goodbye and farewell, but I fear I shall never return Ubuyama, except for the Ubuyama in my mind.

The Shogakkos of Ubuyama-mura

I translated this from Japanese last year, and just found it as I was looking through old documents. These are the elementary schools where I have worked for these past two years.
Our Village
Yamaga Elementary School is located in the northern region of Ubuyama-mura, at an altitude of 640 meters. The school was constructed in Showa 45 (1970), and the gymnasium was rebuilt in Heisei 8 (1996). Northern Ubuyama covers a large area, so it is necessary for the children, who live in the southern part of the village, to ride on the bus to and from school.
Yamaga Elementary School is nestled among the scenic mountains. A forest sprawls out to the East, South, and West. Moreover, the mountains of Kuju (Oita Prefecture) can be seen to the North, off in the distance. To the West of the school, steps made of stone descend the mountain, leading to a large road. If you follow this road to the right, you will pass many points of interest. At the bottom of the slope (after passing through the tunnel), on the left hand side you will see (in this order) Ubuyama Junior High School, The Agricultural Cooperative Association(JAA), A-Mart, the Ubuyama Public Office, the Health Clinic, and a couple of gas stations. Across the street from the public office is a JA Bank, and the Post office.
Sweet Potato Digging
Each year the children of Yamaga Elementary School, and their parents, go hiking in the local mountains. Another interesting event is the rabbit hunt, after which the rabbits are used as the main ingredient in a rice dish, and also in a stew. In back of the school building, children enjoy using the playground for all sorts of outdoor activities.
A charcoal kiln is set up beside the playground where students are taught how to make charcoal.
Hokubu (Northern Ubuyama) Elementary School
Located in Northern Ubuyama is Hokubu Elementary School. A prefectural road stretches along the front of the school. On their way home, the children often pass through the cedar forests surrounding the school. The people of Hokubu look forward to attending various school events, such as the Harvest festival and the Source music festival.

Thank You, Ubuyama-mura

It feels as if I have spent a long, long time in Ubuyama, but I also feel that my stay in your village has passed so quickly. These days are very busy as I pack up my house, make preparations for your new JET, and give my last lessons. Saying goodbye makes me sad and churns up a feeling of dread in my stomach, and yet, I cherish this feeling. It means that we have developed a meaningful relationship that I really don?t want to lose.
Two years ago, when I first learned where I was to teach, I knew very little about Ubuyama. I only knew that it was near Mount Aso and that it was right in the middle of Kyushu. I was concerned about what life out in the deep inaka would be like, but I have grown to love the life out here. Living in Ubuyama is a rare opportunity, especially for an American like me. I have traveled all over Japan, and I know that this place stands out as a diamond in the rough. This is most likely the last time in my life that I will live somewhere where I can leave the keys in the ignition of my car and be sure that it will be completely safe.
After spending some time in the city I have noticed that many things, ranging from the people to the food, seem more genuine in the inaka. The food has a simpler, purer, earthier taste and not fancy packaging. The emphasis on locally produced food is for nutrition and taste, as opposed to appearance and cost. The people don?t act as superficially as they do in the city, and are quick to lend a hand in a time of need. I wake up to the sounds of songbirds singing and crows scrounging for food, and go to sleep hearing the sound of rain pelting against my roof and the magnificently loud frogs calling from the rice field next to my house. Not to mention the air and water. Where I come from, you need a special filter to treat your water, and when you blow your nose, the black particulate matter from the air is visible in your mucous.
Thank you for giving me so many rare opportunities to be part of your community. Many people have expressed envy when I tell them of how I was allowed to be part of the fire brigade. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity and for spending time to help me learn how do perform the drills. Also, I know that many people, including teachers, students, workers from the yakuba, neighbors, and various other people have helped me over the two years I have been here in one way or another, and I want to express my appreciation. You all helped my life to run much smoother and I couldn?t have survived without you. I have learned much about the Japanese language and Japanese culture (especially the culture of central Kyushu and Kumamoto) and I am in your debt.
Lastly, I want to say thank you for allowing me to teach your children and to get to know them. The kids were always my favorite part of the job, and it has been especially hard saying goodbye to so many of my little friends. I have never encountered such a nice, innocent, and intelligent batch of kids before and it is them that I will miss the most. I wish Ubuyama the greatest success in its innovative plans for the future, both in development of the village and in education. Thank you very much for hosting me for these two wonderful years, and know that I will never forget the small, wonderful village hidden away in the middle of Kyushu known as Ubuyama.

Go/Roku Nensei Pets

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Yoshihiro: Dad, do you remember that you said I could have a pet if I brought up my grades?
Yoshihiro’s dad: Hmmmm… You have been getting good grades in school. I think you’re ready for the responsibility. You can pick any cow you like. Toshiki, pass the steak would you?
Yoshihiro: Can I have the calf with the big eyes?
Yoshihiro’s dad: Why not? What’s her name?
Yoshihiro: Britney! She’s so cute, just like my cow!
Yoshihiro’s dad: Great Yoshi-kun, make sure Britney eats a lot every day, and don’t make her get too much exercise. On another note, have you boys noticed that beef prices at an all time high, thanks to the BSE situation in America? We’re going to Disneyland this Summer!
Yoshihiro: What’s wrong Toshiki?
Toshiki: I can’t find Mary. I looked everywhere, but she just isn’t on the farm! It’s all my fault dad. I lost her… forgive me!
Yoshihiro’s dad: There, there son. I forgot to tell you that I had to send Mary away to Bovine University. You want her to be happy, right? Wow, this steak is awesome!
Toshiki: Yeah… I do, but I don’t understand…
Yoshihiro’s dad: Great! Glad that’s settled. Yoshihiro, can you pass the A-1?

Higothai

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This is the Higothai flower, the flower of Ubuyama village. As some of you may know I used to hate bees. They used to sting me quite often. even though I avoided them, they would regularly land on me and jab me with their stingers. One time, I had to take a Tae Kwon Do orange belt test even though I had been stung on the sole of my foot- I passed, but it hurt like hell. I have since overcome my fear, and so I was able to get really close to this one.

Continue reading Higothai

The Last Undokai

The undokai is described as a “sports festival”, and that’s exactly what it it. I had a hard time accepting this term at face value, because the concept was foreign to me, but that’s exactly what it is. The whole community comes together to participate in the festivities, and play wacky Japanese-style group games. Undokai are an important social event that brings everyone together for one whole exhausting day.
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This year, I was on the victorious red team. The kids are gettin’ their kung-fu poses on, Big Trouble In Little China style.
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My students put in hours practicing a really cool dance, but I think that the dude on the right (Chiyuki) blew it, judging from the looks on Tomoyuki’s (center) and Masaoki’s (right) faces.
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I really like my student’s paintings this year. The red team’s character wielding the wakizashi looks “Sassy” (Sprechen sie sassy?).
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Now that’s sassy!