Friday, March 27, 2009

Endings and Beginnings: The Spring 2009 Version

The school-year has finished at S.I.T.  Final tests have been taken and last minute projects completed.  All the kids are now on Spring Break (which, on a block schedule, is like finishing for the summer vacation), taking with them a new status of being another grade older in their high school careers.

March brings with it a huge changing frenzy for high schools all over Japan.  Middle schoolers have to take crazy entrance exams to get into the high school that they want, an event not much unlike our SATs and ACTs that high schoolers back in the States take to determine which colleges they are eligible for.  In Japan, one does not go to the high school predetermined by his or her school district, but instead takes the coveted high school(s)'s entrance exam in hopes of making it in, resulting in many students boarding a few hours or more from their families and hometowns in order to be closer to their high school.

The posting day of the results are ceremonious within themselves.  Big-eyed middle-schoolers, parents, grandparents, and even homeroom teachers flock to the high schools to see who made it in, often with resulting hugs, tears, phone calls, and photos in front of the results and with friends!  Our high school posting day looked like this at exactly 10am, when results were put up in the window:

Another March event, or events I should say, are the mounds of farewell parties for teachers and administration leaving the schools.  A few teachers leave because of retirement (mandatory at age 60), but many of them get re-assigned to other schools and districts by the Board of Education in a shifting-ritual which I think is cruel and unfair (especially when you've allowed yourself to grow close to some of them)!  

My first farewell party was that of all the English teachers at S.I.T.  I absolutely adore everyone in this group as they are the people that I, naturally, speak and interact with the most on a day-to-day basis.  I've neglected posting many photos of the people I work with, but feel that they are all such an important part of my life here in Japan that leaving them out just wouldn't give a complete story up on this blog (however, to keep any of them from showing up on internet searches and the like, all names have been withheld or changed):

The biggest and second party promoting the dreaded goodbyes was the one with ALL of the teachers at school...yes, there are more than 100 of us, so it's usually quite the party!  I love these parties because I usually am sitting next to someone who I don't normally talk to and who doesn't speak English, therefore forcing Japanese-language practice AND (many times) newfound friendships!

Finally, one of the most bittersweet farewell parties, was that of our all girl's group, The Secret Society of the Mystic Cherry Blossom (which you can read more about here).  Due to retirement and reassignment, we are losing three prominent members (and fun friends) of our fabulous group!  One being Prez (pic below).  If you can believe it, she is at RETIREMENT age!!!  Yes, this woman is SIXTY:

The last change of March is the total revamping of our teacher's office and shifting of teachers to new desk locations and teams.  Before all of that can happen, all of our desks have to be cleared off, our belongings stored in various other rooms, and ALL of the chairs and desks (like I said, 100+ of them) moved out of the office for cleaning.  It basically went from this...

To this...

That's our fabulous Kyoto Sensei (vice-principal) for ya...always working, desk be damned!  We did, however, hook him up with a temporary setting:

So this should be my schpel where I cleaverly put a twist on the "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end" bit.  Instead, here's hoping for some amazing new beginnings to balance out these pesky old endings a bit.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival

We had a three-day weekend this week, prompting us to use it for a chance to get out of the city for a bit and up north into the mountains. We headed to Japan's largest national park, Daisetsuzan, and into the little village of Sounkyo (population: 300) for their magnificent Ice Fall Festival. This festival is an amazing man-made fantasy of frozen waterfalls, twisting grottos, ice caves, slippery ice staircases, and lots of bruised butts, all of which are psychedelically lit up at night. I'd like to think that if Dr. Seuss and Timothy Leary had lunch together, this is probably what they would come up with:

This is the kind of weather we were up against, even in late March! Tripods and long-exposures didn't stand a chance:

The festival thoughtfully had a large, warm hut selling all kinds of popular foods from Hokkaido, and especially our favorite: hot, sweet sake:

And there was a traditional Ainu woodcarving shop set up as well. The Ainu are the traditional peoples of the Hokkaido area whose rich heritage and culture are just now beginning to be appreciated by the Japanese people (and government):

Entrance to Daisetsuzan National Park:

Self-portrait in front of the little mountain village of Sounkyo.

The festival during the day is just as much fun, and was also another excuse to sip on some more of that sweet, hot sake!

Although I am DEFINITELY ready for Spring to grace us with its presence, I have to say that I truly love Hokkaido's winter-time festivals and frolicking! This weekend was an amazing getaway and it makes me so excited to further explore Daisetsuzan this summer and fall! For more photos of the Ice Fall Festival, check out its flicker photo set!