A Travellerspoint blog

March 2006


... or why the Japanese put their children on elk in Banff

We got up late, as we tend to do on those days in which we decide to do things, and decided to make our way into Nara for a nature fix. We made our way to the trains, and got on a really comfortable looking one heading in the right direction, and we though everything would be just fine. Well, it was, but then one of the train workers came up to us and apparently we had gotten on the super duper fancy express train which cost a whole lot more than we planned on spending. So there went most of our travel budget for the day. No big deal, though, as we were able to pay the man directly, and we didn`t have to worry about negotiating in a language neither of us can speak. Score!

So we arrived in Nara, and found the tourist information office. Andrew went in for about 15 minutes. I waited outside for him to finish. He emerged with a map, which had been drawn on by one of the kind ladies in the office, showing us exactly what we should take in with the time we had available to us. Off we went!

Nara is beautiful. Pretty sure I want to live there. It's a tie between Nara and Arashiyama. It's surrounded by hills for hiking, and full of temples. And deer.

Oh the deer. They're considered sacred here, and there are vendors selling biscuits to tourists who wish to feed the deer. Andrew and I, after working in the Rockies, have an ingrained mindset that wild animals should not be fed. Ever. Regardless of how sacred they are. So we refrained from purchasing the deer biscuits, and shook our heads at the others who did. I expect that this is the only way the deer get fed; there didn't seem to be a whole lot of natural habitat around that they could use. And the tourists seem to enjoy it. And to be quite honest it was enjoyable for me to see people run out of biscuits and get harassed by the deer they had previously been feeding. They are so fearless; they would walk in amongst the throngs of tourists looking for handouts. And that was the deer.

J feeding Deer.JPG J feeding Deer 2.jpg

(Jamie, I think these pictures explain why there are so many run ins between Japanese tourists and the elk in Banff!)

Nara is also home to the world's largest wooden structure, T┼Źdai-ji's Daibutsu-den, which happens to house the world's largest bronze Buddha or Daibutsu. You pay to get in past the surrounding wall, and you enter this open area, in the middle of which is the temple containing the Buddha. It's big, that's for sure, and apparently it's only two-thirds the size of the original (which burned down). I entered the Hall of the Great Buddha, and looked into the darkness.

Nara Buddha.JPG Nara Guard 2.JPG Nara smaller Buddha.JPG

And I wondered to myself, 'I thought there was supposed to be a big Buddha here. If it's here, then I'm not seeing it.' Even after my eyes adjusted, I still didn't see what I was supposed to be looking at. And then I figured it out: it was a forest from the trees situation. I could`t see the Buddha because there wasn`t anything that I was looking at that wasn`t Buddha. Huge. They`re not kidding. And it was flanked to two other shinier statues that were almost as massive. It`s difficult to describe, and pictures don`t even really do justice to the scale.

As you walk around the Buddha, there are carved wodden warrior statues, as well as a scaled down replica of a temple. There is also a wooden column with a hole in it. The hole is exactly the same size as one of the Buddha's nostrils. Apparently if you can squeeze through the hole, you are assured of enlightenment. Yeah, we didn't try. A couple of our Aussie friends told us a story about when they were at the temple and they saw a western girl try to crawl through it. However, they are a little bigger than most Japanese people and they got stuck. The end of the story is all the Japanese people there gathered around and took pictures of the poor gaijin (Japanese word for foreigner, I'm not sure if it's offensive or not.) girl stuck in the pillar. And, they all cheered when she finally got out. So, the moral of the story is do not crawl through any holes in pillars. Moral #2 The Buddha's nostrils aren't that big.

There were huge crowds at the temples this day, as it was a national holiday. Unfortunately Andrew started to feel a little under the weather, so we came home early. We will definitely be making our way back to Nara again, though.

Posted by agc_cwm 20:10 Archived in Japan Comments (0)


You don't realize how bad you are at English until you try to explain why some things are the way they are.

After a week of living in Japan and sort of adjusting to the time difference we finally started our training. It was a VERY intensive two weeks of training. It usually involved 6 hours at HQ doing the training then either homework at night or preparing to demonstrate one of our lessons.

I think it took a lot of courage for us to move to Japan and to start teaching English. But, there was a woman in our training group that I think was a lot braver than us and the bravest in our group by far. She was an Australian woman who had been a Primary School teacher for 35 years. Her son married a Japanese woman, had one child and has another on the way. So she moved to Japan to be a Grandmother (well, and teach English) for a year!

Our training was broken down into the three main lesson types:

[1] FTLs or Free Time Lessons

These are forty minute lessons that students can take whenever they want. The classes are a maximum of four students. For these classes you generally sit around a table as if you were going to have a conversation with someone. They are a lot more relaxed and informal than a normal class room, but there are pretty strict procedures that you have to follow so the students get the most out of the lesson.

The students are broken down into 5 different levels, based on their skill level.

  • Level 1/2- These are the students that generally question everything and question it in grammar terms. Which always screws me up. I also learned that, "I don't know, it's just the way we say it" is not a good answer. But, saying, "Enh, it's British English, I'm from Canada" is an acceptable answer. Usually they have lived in another country or studied in a very intensive English program. Level 2 and 1 differ only slightly in the complexity of the language they possess. Level 2 students can put together complex sentences and can carry on very good quality conversations. Level 1 students are VERY close to being fluent. These students are a lot of fun to teach because you can actually have conversations with them. One of the lessons types for these levels centre on teaching idioms; 'to be at death's door', 'working day in and day out' and other fun sayings that, for the most part, mean something entirely different than they sound. It`s always interesting when you ask a student what an idiom means and they give you the literal meaning of the words! But once you try to teach them to students, you realize that they make no sense at all and how much of a pain in the ass they would be to learn!

  • Level 3 - These students are right in the middle. They can start to put complex sentences together, but they need a lot of prompting. These students are starting to get their grammar down, but turn things around. Courtney, however, loves these classes, because the students are confident enough to speak a lot, but aren't afraid to make mistakes. In higher levels, students think they should be speaking properly all the time, and if they're unsure about something, they won't speak at all. Level 3 students are a great balance between lots of talking and highly structured lessons.

  • Level 4 - These students are slightly better than the beginning level of English learning. They can answer questions other than what you just taught them in that day's lesson, but if you use big words or idioms they are completely lost. You also have to keep the grammar pretty simple.

  • Level 5 - These are the beginners of English learning. Most students at this level can only really use simple sentences and basic grammar. They sometimes try harder stuff, but it always gets turned around.

The focus of all these lessons is to teach conversational English. Most Japanese people learn English in school, but it is the same way we learn French in Canada. "Ok, everyone. Here's a list of 10 verbs, go ahead and conjugate them. I`ll be at my desk if anyone has a question". (Thank you Carm and MJ) So, we are here to teach them how we really speak.

Because we are working with some very low level English speakers we had to work very hard on minimizing our teacher talk. Basically we have to use as few words as possible. During these lessons we have to chorus a lot of different vocabulary, so the students can get the pronunciation. We were also told with the lower level students they will only pick out a few words, but if they here "please" they will know we are going to ask them to do something. So we learned the classroom phrase, "Please, Listen and Repeat" (complete with gestures, for those really low level students) We said this a STUPID amount of time during training and an even stupider amount every day. So it became our mantra for our trip (and our subheading).

So I think the best section of our training was when we really stopped and looked at how we speak. So we broke down how we really talk. Whocich means instead of us saying, "What do you want to get at the store?" we say, "Whadda ya wanna get at da store?" We teach them the second one because if they are travelling that is what they will hear. Most students love it when you show them things like this because it is something different than they ever seen before when they`ve been studying English.

[2] Group Lessons -

This type of lesson is set up like a traditional class room. You have the same students every day of the week and you teach them. So, you stand at the front of the room and teach your students. These again are a conversation based lesson, so we're not up there teaching Grammar and all that GREAT stuff. Each one of these classes lasts 80 minutes.

These types of lessons are broken down into three levels, Pre Intermediate (level 5 & 4 above), Intermediate (level 3) and Advanced (level 2 & 1).

Both Courtney and I are teaching an Advanced Level class. Our teacher`s guide describes these students as the cream of the crop. So, far I've enjoyed teaching this class more than anything else I've taught so far. Basically, as teachers, we are given a lot of flexibility to do whatever we want. We have the textbook and have been told what material we need to do out of it, but not how. So, we can really reach the lesson objectives however we want.

[3] Kids Classes (The bane of most ECC teachers existence.) -

In kids classes you have to sit on cushions on the floor in a carpeted room; there are no chairs. Before you go in to the classroom you have to take your shoes off.

(Cultural note: in Japan, the soles of your shoes are considered to be VERY dirty, so you don't wear shoes in your house and you DEFINITELY do not wear them in carpeted rooms.)

Kids classes fall into three different categories:

  • Mini-Kids (18 months to 4 years)-

    These students have their moms (PC term: guardians) in the room as well. They help keep the kids focused on what's going on: they also participate so that the kids will know what to do. But, if you get the youngest ones, some of them can't even speak Japanese. At first I questioned why they were even there. However, I found out the theory is that your ability to learn a language is at it's highest when you are young, so if you expose your kid to some foreign English teacher that is hopping around singing songs and playing games then they will be better at English later on. It makes perfect sense to me.

    Our trainer told us a story about one kid whose grandfather had to bring his granddaughter to the lesson one day (cultural note: in Japanese society, age demands respect. Elder men are the most respected members of society). She said that he sat directly behind his granddaughter with his arms crossed and a straight face. Our trainer asked his granddaughter to volunteer for something and she said the grandfather reached down and just nudged the kid forward a bit and crossed his arms. He had to bring the kid in, but he WAS NOT going to participate in anything.

    During training we had to learn a lot of really bad songs to sing with the kids. You take the songs you teach 2 year old English kids then tone them down, for Japanese kids and you get an idea of what we are singing. And half the time the kids don't say anything or do the actions. But I suppose they are 2 years old!

  • Kids English World (4 to 12 years)
    This group is divided into three different levels, A (4 to 6 years), B(6 to 9 years) and C (9 to 12 years)

    So, this training consisted of us learning/re-learning some high quality songs such as the Hokey Pokey and an Australian version of Head, Shoulders, Kness and Toes.

  • St Bernard's Junior Program - This is for all the teenagers/soon to be teenagers (12 to 16 year olds). For this they work with a Japanese teacher for 60 minutes on grammar and structures and then come speak/"play" with us for 40 minutes. We were warned two things about these classes, first you can't really control whether you have a good class or not. It really depends on the students you get because when you get into this age you never know what you're going to get. And with the older kids they have SO much going on that they may not be that interested in English lessons or they may too tired. Most kids this age would get up around 06:30 and go to their club activity (band, soccer, etc.), go to school and then either go to another club activity or Juko (cram school) for two or three hours after school (yeah, it is exactly what it sounds like) and then they will come to ECC, which may not be until 19:00 or 20:00.

Posted by agc_cwm 00:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)