Tuesday, April 6, 2010

BOE and Altia Bonding

This morning was our much anticipated meeting with the Toyota City Board of Education. The phrase “Board of Education” has a heavy feel to it, and I admit to a great deal of nervousness in anticipation of this event. Like everything in Japan, timeliness (ie: being 15 minutes early for everything) was highly important; the meeting started at 9am, we were supposed to meet in the parking lot at 8:45am, which meant 8:30 am for me. Being early in and of itself isn't a problem, once you compensate in your head for it. So for me, for example, who tends to run 5-10 minutes late for most things, this means a simple conversion: If you are asked to arrive at X time, subtract 25 minutes from it and aim for that.

Seems simple enough, with one very important complication: I was going to Homi (保見), a place in Toyota City I'd never been before. A place not in walking distance, but one which instead required an eleven minute ride on a whole new train, bound for Kouzouji (高蔵寺). Riding public transit in Japan is a breeze, especially as many of the signs are currently bilingual in English. What is not a breeze is land navigation by foot (or by car I assume, which has to be even worse). Streets are winding and often lead to dead ends (or beautiful Temples). It's a banquet for the eyes, but when you are trying to make it somewhere on a time schedule, getting lost in the beautiful countryside can be the end of you. Hence my absolute panic when I realized last night that I had (a) misplaced my English map of Toyota City and (b) I was mainly relying on Google Maps' notoriously incomplete directions. I scanned over my Japanese map of Toyota-shi and the surrounding area (with both maps side by side, it seems to me the Japanese map covers more area) but it was set to too large a scale for me to find the building I needed, once again forcing me to Google Maps for insight. All of this was again complicated by the fact that I don't have a printer. No printer = hand drawing your map vaguely to scale, and handwriting Google Maps' rather obscure directions onto the back of a sheet of used paper.

I drew the map out as a “just in case” but resolved to myself that though I could easily do an 18 minute walk, the safer and better choice would be to catch a cab at the station. Every train station I'd been to thus far had a cab stand, so it seemed like a great idea.

I got off the train at 8:1l, aiming for 8:30 am in order to be early for 8:45, which is the obligatory 15 minutes early for our 9am meeting. No cab stand..

Apparently Homi station was too small to warrant a cab stand, or even a bus stop. So it was up to my hand drawn map and my ability to ask for and follow directions (in Japanese) that was going to see me through. In a sense, getting to this BOE was like a Pop Quiz on every Japanese navigation skill I had picked up thus far. First, I made sure to ask for directions at the train station. People who work in public transit here tend to have excellent knowledge of the area and give good directions. Luckily I'd memorized the word for Board of Education in Japanese before I left (before I left Philly actually, but again last night just to make sure I had it right) “Kyouikuiinkai (教育委員会) (Teach + Grow Up + Committee + Employee + Meeting) wa doko desu ka?”

And sure enough, the nice older gentleman reaches behind the ticket counter and pulls out a map. Pointing here and there, I get a general idea that I'm supposed to go towards the large road, make a right onto it, and continue straight for a long time. This matched up almost exactly with my Google Maps directions, so with medium confidence, I set out.

The trick/problem with Google Maps is twofold: (1) the landmarks Google gives you are pretty much useless. For example, walking along, I pass a giant Elementary School by the side of the road. This would be an excellent landmark, but does Google use it? NO! Instead, there are three other things listed along the road, none of which I saw. The second major problem for me at least is that they don't tell you how long you're walking, but instead give distance between one part of the directions to the next in meters. So it's “walk 400 meters” then make a right. I don't know 400 meters from a hole in my head. It's around 400 yards, which is equally as useless. How the hell do you know if you've walked 400 yards? Is that 125 steps, assuming each step you take is a foot long? How the heck do you count that out?

After having gone straight for what felt like a fair amount of time, I saw an old woman sweeping and figured it was a good time and place to ask for more directions. “Kyouikuiinkai wa doku desu ka?” I asked. The good thing about asking older ladies in Japan for directions is that they usually know where everything is and are generally supremely helpful. The more difficult thing is that they rarely speak any English. So the sweeping woman tells me to go straight until I get to ?? and then make a right. In this situation, for me, I've found clarifying these points of vocabulary turns into a blank stare, so instead I asked,“How long am I walking,” Response: Quizzical eyebrows. I ask, “About five minutes,” as clarification (all in Japanese of course). Slightly furrowed eyebrows, brief nod, “hai, go fun gurai”. “Arigatou gozaimasu!” I bowed. And onwards I walked.

A bit further down the road, I got the feeling that I'd missed ?? and saw another old woman walking towards me, so it was time for more “doku desu ka.”

“Kyouikuiinkai wa doko desu ka?” I ask, with rising nervousness.
Sure enough, I'd overshot my mark. This lovely lady walked with me about a block (though blocks are a false term in Japan, it's more like back to a random place where two roads meet). We talk about the weather, and she asks me questions about where I came from as we walk. At the intersection, she turns left and points down the road. “Go straight. At the ?? you'll make a right.” “Sumimasen, wakarimasen.” I say, and try to repeat the ??. Brief pause. Then, “See the white car?” (shiroi jidousha). “Hai!” I'm very excited at this point because I know what a white car is. She continues, “Go there, make a right. Walk straight. Very soon you'll see a splendorous building.” (rippa na biru) Thanks to anime songs, I know what “rippa” means (amazing, splendorous, etc) and so I'm on my way.

Within five minutes, I hear the laughter of my other ALTs. I actually made it to the meeting at 8:33am, an amazing feat that shows my asking for directions Japanese is really growing in power and skill. Also, as I was walking towards the white car, I ran into a couple of Elementary school children who asked “Hello, how are you?” (this is ridiculously common, as it is one of the first things they know how to say). “I'm fine,” I respond, immediately kicking myself for saying “fine” instead of giving them a new word like “great” or “fantastic” “And how are you?” “Fine.”
After this exciting navigational obstacle course, the meeting itself was rather anticlimactic. I'd reviewed my Japanese self introduction, and even bought some postcards from Philadelphia to share in order to make a positive impression. None of this was remotely necessary. Basically, we just introduced oursleves in English, briefly met the School Coordinater, chatted with each other and then left. For a Board of Education, I had expected an event that was packed full of bowing and “onegai shimasu” for at least 1-2 hours. In fact, the meeting barely took 20 minutes. Afterwards, we all decided to go out for hot beverages. At that cafe, seven of the 16 of us hung out, drank beverages and partook of an area tradition of ordering the “morningu” : Coffee/Tea + hot buttered toast with jam + a hard boiled egg. It was delicious.

Also, having the chance to bond with my other ALTs was an excellent experience. Most have significantly more experience than me living in Japan and in Toyota even, which meant that I was able to learn more about shopping areas and places to visit in Japan. Because of this coffee meeting, I've decided to go to Kyoto on Wednesday to see the temples under sakura. It's only about 2.5 hours by regular train, about $25 each way.

My coworkers with Altia are amazing, generous and interesting people. I am glad I got to spend more time with them today for the cafe, and later with Mark for dinner. So far, in spite of the year's rough spot, it's been great time sin Toyota. I am looking forward to tomorrow and visiting Nagoya.

At some point I'll write out about my near painful cell phone buying adventure, but I'm falling asleep on my computer, so another day.