Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Spring in (and around) Sapporo

Spring is definitely starting properly, now. The sakura are starting to bloom already, considerably earlier than usual - the earliest for 23 years, or so I heard on the weather report - and other flowers are in bloom, too. I thought I'd take the opportunity to put up some of the photos I've been taking, and to point you in the direction of a few websites which give information on when and where the sakura are blooming. This is going to be a photo-heavy post, by the way.

Spring in Hokkaido comes later than in most of Japan, so if you are in, or going to, other parts of Japan, you'll have missed much of it, and certainly much of the sakura. But in Hokkaido, spring is now getting fully underway, and as mentioned, the sakura are blooming early. The recent warm weather has contributed, and it's about to cool down again, so that might help prolong them. But they'll probably be past in a couple of weeks or so, so I thought I should get a few things up now.

First, some recent pictures.

The first signs of spring in Sapporo: ha-zakura in central Sapporo, and another flowering tree in Odori Koen.

Sakura beginning to open, and some wild flowers, Jozankei onsen.

Magnolia on the route to school.

Sakura in bloom (and some in bud, just to show it's not all past just yet), outside the JLI and in Maruyama Koen.

As for general information about sakura, here are a few useful websites. The first couple are in English, and then the rest are in Japanese only.

The first website I would look at, which gives predictions for the progress of the sakura, is the Japan Meteorological Agency

As you might guess, there is a lot more on this site than just sakura (and depending on what time of year you are looking, you may not even see the sakura news: the 2008 page is here at time of writing). This is an excellent site for all sorts of weather and related information, including typhoon, earthquake and volcano warnings, as well as more normal weather forecasts and satellite images. But it doesn't go down to an very detailed level, in terms of location, and doesn't seem to be updated with actuals, to show how they fitted the predictions.

Japan-Guide.com have a summary of predicted or actual blooming dates (depending on whether the blooming had already happened or not at the time they were writing) in a selection of cities across Japan, with best viewing dates. There is a lot of useful information, including some historical dates for the blooming in the selected cities, if you follow through the links on the main page.

The remaining sites are in Japanese only, but have more detailed information.

Another site which has more detailed information, kept up to date, is the Yahoo Japan weather site. Although this is selective, for the places it does choose, it is very detailed, including dates when the sakura are expected to be at their best (見ごろ予想) in each location (although I believe this might be a typical date, rather than a specific one based on current observations), and an easy to understand pictorial representation of the current state of blooming.

Our friends at goo, who do us so proud for the Sumo, also have a sakura watch. Again, detailed information, including the expected best viewing dates: as the dates on this site actually quote the year, and are earlier than the Yahoo dates, this seems possibly more likely to be based on actual observations, although I can't be sure.

Obviously, in future years, these sites may move their pages around, but are probably good places to expect to find something. And if you are particularly interested in sakura, bear in mind that they are most fickle, and prone to disappear quickly if there is wind or rain, so keep a close eye on what's happening. You'll find plenty of information on other sites about good and famous sakura places, so I won't give a list here.

But the general thing is that spring in Japan, and certainly, from this year's experience, in Hokkaido, can be a wonderful time. I hope to enjoy the rest of it in the coming weeks, and to take in more sakura, other flowers, onsen, and other delights of spring which Hokkaido has to offer.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Dormitory Life

I thought it might be worth a brief post about life here in the Dormitory Maruyama, both to help with the decision of whether it's for you, and to let you know some things which might be worth knowing if you do come here. Some of these things may or may not apply to other dormitories: they each have their own facilities and rules, so I can only state with certainty what to expect at the Dormitory Maruyama, even though some of these things will certainly apply at other dorms.

Just to clear something up before I go any further, which was something I know friends of mine were confused by when I first told them I would be staying at a dormitory. A “dormitory” (in Japanese) is roughly what I would know as a “hall of residence”. It is not a “dormitory” in the English sense of communal sleeping quarters. We each have our own room (there are single and double rooms at this dormitory). It is single sex, and there is an 11pm curfew at mine.

There is a dining room (食堂) where breakfast and an evening meal are served Monday through Saturday, but not on Sundays or holidays. There are also basic kitchen facilities (gas hobs, microwave, toasters) and equipment in the dining hall, which students can use to prepare their own meals, on Sundays and holidays, or lunchtimes. By “basic equipment”, I mean a few pots and pans and cooking utensils. But be aware that there are no plates, chopsticks, knives, forks, spoons, etc. for students' use: you have to get your own. Still, if you go to a 100 yen shop, you can get all these pretty cheaply (105 yen each item, in fact: the extra 5 yen is sales tax!). Not a big deal, but the information I received didn't mention this (under “what to bring” it only listed “a pair of slippers or sandals, towels, soap, laundry soap, toilet paper etc.” and didn't mention cutlery or crockery – and in fact the dorm has slippers and does supply toilet paper in the toilets).

I previously mentioned the international telephone and internet access in the room, the latter which you have to apply for. You can also have a television in your room, (which gets a few basic channels: no BS2 or Space Shower TV here!). There is also extra charge for bedding. All of this information, and costs and the like, is included in what I was sent by the school. I won't repeat everything here which is easily ascertained from the school or from the dormitory website itself. You can choose between dormitories with and without private bathrooms. As a fan of the Japanese bath, I didn't feel the need for my own, inferior, bath, so I was happy to go for one without. The shared bath here at the Dormitory Maruyama is very nice indeed. For those less keen on the Japanese shared bath experience, there are showers, which you can use at any time. But really, the bath here is very nice!

As I have certain eating peculiarities (i.e. I don't eat meat) I always expected meals occasionally to be slightly difficult for me, but as I didn't want to make a fuss, I didn't mention my preferences in advance to the dorm (although I did to the school, when they arranged homestay for me). But the fact that I don't eat meat did come up when I asked for a particular dish without the meat, and since then they have in fact been quite accommodating, giving me fish or eggs and the like instead of the meat dishes. I imagine an actual vegetarian would have more difficulty (as indeed they would eating in Japan in general), but if you don't eat meat but do eat fish, certainly I'd advise you to let them know in advance, and they'll prepare special meals for you when necessary.

Apart from the dining hall, there isn't really a communal area, so most socialising tends to be done over the breakfast and evening meals. As there are several of us here from the JLI, we tend to eat together. But most dormitory residents are Japanese. Many are students at vocational colleges (専門学校), but there are even a few high school students here. We've become friendly with a couple of the Japanese vocational students.

I think that covers most things which you won't find in the information from the JLI or on the dorm website. As ever, if anyone who has stayed at this, or any other, dorm, wants to add anything, they can make comments.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

JLI Sapporo


My arrival was timed to be able to attend the orientation for students starting the JLI in April. They have these orientations quarterly, and are largely aimed at the long-term course students, who can only start in April, July, October or January. As a short-term course student can start any time, if you are not starting at one of these times of the year, there won't be an orientation. But as I was, I decided to get here in time for it.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the orientation, but in fact it mostly consisted of them giving us some bits of written information about school rules, school calendar and the like, and emphasising strongly that we shouldn't skip classes. If you do, and your attendance falls below 90%, you won't get your certificate. And lateness for classes adds up to count as absences, so you have to be on time. And having your mobile phone go off in class counts as an absence. And so on and so forth. Those were the main messages. How they did this was that they split us into various classrooms (mine was only students staying 90 days or less), and within each, they split the room into 3 areas for English, Korean and Chinese. The school officials made the announcements at the front in Japanese, and in each of the 3 areas a translation was given by a more senior student. The only other thing to note was that even though my room was only people staying less than 90 days, they announced things about the foreigner registration. You don't need that if you are staying less than 90 days on the tourist visa. That was what I understood, and I checked at the end of the orientation with them, and they confirmed I was correct. So if you're staying in Japan less than 90 days total, don't let that confuse you.

The final thing that day was the interview, for those of us who had not yet had one. This was where they tested you to decide which class the students would go in. The placement interviews were divided into different levels, based on the information the applicants sent in advance in a level check sheet, and then in the interview itself (in my level, anyway), each student was given a passage to read, and then asked questions about it. Based on what I've seen, from the class I was placed in, and the classes other people in my interview room were placed in, they seem to get it about right.

There are 11 classes, and Class 1 (1組) is the most advanced level, and Class 11 (11組) is beginner level. Whether there are always 11 classes, and whether any of the classes are the same level as each other, I don't know. I just know that, for example, I am in Class 4, and a friend I have made in Class 2 is using the same text book as I am, but starting at a later chapter, and people in Class 7, for example, are using less advanced textbooks, etc.

Lessons Begin

Having now completed the first (albeit short, as we started on the Tuesday) week, and also in that time completed the first chapter of our textbook, I've got a reasonable idea now of how classes work at the JLI and what sort of thing anyone coming here should expect. Although some of this is specific to my class, much of it will in general apply whichever level you are at.

The classes at the JLI are broken down into four 45 minute lessons a day, with a 15 minute break in the middle and two 5 minute breaks between the other lessons. One teacher gives the lessons before the 15 minute break, and another gives the ones after. So, for example, on the first day, the class began with Ichikawa Sensei giving us the syllabus, explaining something about how the classes would work for those newbies of us, and then going through the Kanji and starting on the grammar. And then after the break, a second teacher, Takeda Sensei, came in and took over. Takeda Sensei got us to fill in a sheet with our names, interests in things Japanese, and what we wanted to get from studying at the JLI. She then continued from where Ichikawa Sensei left off, but using a rather different style and method. A lot is down to personal style, and each teacher will be different. I've found the same thing with teachers at SOAS – but there, the teacher is taking the whole course, not just a part of it. It seemed a little odd to change teacher – and teaching method – part way through. But I guess it makes it more interesting, and as different students will respond to different methods, I guess it might be better for a class as a whole, too.

We had a total of 5 different teachers over the 4 days of the first week (so, that was Ichikawa Sensei, Takeda Sensei, Fujiwara Sensei, Kumamoto Sensei, and Ikeda Sensei). I have been told that the pattern of teachers each week will be the same, so, taking the first day as an example, each Tuesday we will have Ichikawa Sensei in the morning and Takeda Sensei in the afternoon. Takeda Sensei also announced that she is our “home room teacher” (a bit like a form tutor, or something), although we don't physically have a “home room” at the JLI, as they do at some other schools.

In my class, most of the students are doing longer courses – 1 year or more – and so this is just another term for them. My class is quite large (currently 18 students – although over the first few days there's been a bit of shuffling around as students get transferred to make sure they are in the best class for them), but at least one is larger, and the others are not a lot smaller, so I suspect that's not atypical. There is quite a varied mix of nationalities in the class: there are several Russians, several Hong Kong Chinese, a handful of Koreans, a few Italians, one Taiwanese, one American, and one English (that would be me). It's possible there are a couple of others. But as I'd hoped, there aren't a lot of Anglophones about, and even though in the breaks quite a few people are speaking in their native tongues, that mostly means I'm hearing Russian and Cantonese, rather than English. The same is true of the other JLI students I've met at the dorm, and seems again to be fairly typical of JLI classes. So I think that aspect of my choice of Sapporo, not hearing too much English spoken, is going to work out just fine.

Classes are either morning, starting at 9am, or afternoon, starting at 1pm (and, as they repeatedly made clear at the orientation, you are expected to be there for when the class starts). My classes are on afternoons. That actually is slightly less of a benefit than I might have thought. Firstly, I have to be up in time for breakfast at the dorm anyway, so I can't have much of a lie-in. And secondly, the 1pm start means I have to have lunch a little early. On the first day, that meant I had a small lunch bought at a local Seicomart convenience store, and then it was a long gap before dinner (although the dorm serves dinner from 6pm, that seems too early to me, and besides, the friends I've been eating with here are mostly in a morning class, so would have a later lunch, and we had dinner together around 7.30pm that first day). Although a bit of exploration has found some lunch options nearby which are open early enough to eat and be at the school for around 12:45. I may write something about them another time, if I decide to do a foody post later.

On the first day, there were 8 of us who were new, and so had to be given the text books and have explanations of how it all works. For my particular class, we are using Chuu-kyuu kara manabu (中級から学ぶ) from Kenkyusha (ISBN978-4-327-38443-2) and 200 Essential Japanese Expressions: A Guide to Correct Usage and Sentence Patterns (どんなとき、どうつかう日本語表現文型200) from ALC Press (ISBN978-4-7574-0174-7). Actually, I'm very familiar with the latter, as I already have a copy at home which I bought several years ago. I can highly recommend it: I've previously used it for self-study and to complement other text books on previous courses. It's particularly useful for clarifying subtle differences between similar expressions. But I didn't bring it with me from home, so it's not redundant being given another copy (although whether it's worth lugging home with me is another matter: if I can find someone here who can put it to use, I might pass it on before I leave).

By the way, there's a follow on book with 500 expressions which is also very good, though definitely a step above (the 200 expressions book has English explanations, but the 500 expressions one does not). I've already got that, too, although I haven't really made extensive use of it yet.

And talking about textbooks I'm very familiar with, some of the less advanced classes are using the Minna no Nihongo (みんなの日本語) books, which are used at SOAS for beginner through to lower-intermediate levels, and seem to be widely used, from my discussions with other students from various countries.

Anyway. The level of my course is aimed around about the Japanese Janguage Proficiency Test (JLPT) level 2 – which suits me fine, as I failed (or “didn't pass” -「不合格しまた」- as the result sheet nicely put it) that last year, and plan to take it again this year. So although it's not exactly a stretch, and I've previously studied (often more than once!) most of the Kanji and grammar we're covering, I don't know it all as well as I should or would like. Besides, for me personally, my main aim in coming to Japan to study is to improve my recall and retrieval of the Japanese I supposedly already know, and make myself a more confident, fluid communicator. So frankly, it suits me fine to be in a class which is maybe a little on the easy side (I was rather worried I was going to be in a class which was too difficult, from the interview I'd had at the orientation, so I'm somewhat relieved).

The syllabus for each lesson follows a similar pattern. So that we do Kanji and grammar, then the main text, with comprehension, then speaking and listening practice. For the main text for the chapter, first, we listen to it on CD without following in the book, then the teacher reads it in short sentences or phrases, getting the class to repeat it each time all together, then we read it over on our own, then we each take turns in reading a sentence or two until we'd read the text out again twice. After that, we go though it in great detail, to make us understand it as well as we'd need for the JLPT exam. We then answer questions on the text, to ensure we've understood it, and finally there is a precis exercise. There's not a lot of scope for interactivity in this part of the lesson, but in my current class, people seem a little on the quiet side, anyway. After that, the speaking practice was a little freer, with a bit of a game played to help us introduce ourselves to our classmates. I imagine this section will be the most interactive and least rigid. Then finally there is the listening practice, including dictation.

There is homework set on the Kanji and grammar, and there may be more on other sections, although it seemed a little light last week (of course, as we have a syllabus, less homework just means more time to prepare for class, though). Aside from the sort of thing covered so far, the syllabus also has separate grammar lessons, where we will be using the 200 Essential Japanese Expressions book, and there is a test: I don't know how frequent or infrequent tests will be, but there is only one in April.

Although it's early days, I think this probably gives a flavour of what to expect at the JLI. The pattern of the syllabus itself would seem to be fairly formal, although there is room for some variance according the the individual teachers' styles. Anyone looking for more conversational and interactive classes might prefer another school, based on this first week (but I will let you know if my impression of that changes as the course progresses). Again, I think it suits me fairly well, although I would like there to be more actual conversation in the class, and more scope for my spoken Japanese to be corrected: it's all very well having conversations with classmates, but as we're all learning, we'll all be making mistakes, and I would actually like to know the correct way to say things.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Arrival and preparation

One minor drawback of choosing Sapporo is that there are no direct flights from London. So that means changing, most likely at either Osaka or Tokyo. For Tokyo connections, it's important to remember that Tokyo has two airports: Haneda, which actually is in Tokyo, and which handles most domestic flights, and Narita, which actually is quite a long way from Tokyo (unsurprisingly, it's at Narita, which is in Chiba prefecture), and which handles most international flights. So if you're flying into Narita, and you want to avoid a long trip across town (well, into and across town), it's best to make sure your domestic flight is from Narita also, not from Haneda. For Sapporo, that seems to limit it to ANA domestic flights: JAL's seem all to go from Narita (but best to check for yourself, depending on your destination, and in case any of that changes).

When I was looking into flights, there seemed to be a very promising Virgin Atlantic connecting with an ANA flight to Sapporo from Narita. But as I'm by nature a bit of a pessimist, I didn't want to book my flights until I had my final confirmation of acceptance on the course in my hand, and by the time I'd got that, that Virgin-ANA-via-Narita option had disappeared (and in fact the flights which were available were considerably more expensive!). On closer examination, it seemed that it was the ANA flight which was now full. My guess is that in the time between my original investigations and my booking, the internal flight had become available for domestic booking (this happens two months in advance), and so it had become full with domestic passengers. So here's my first tip from this: if you can book your flight more than two months in advance, I suspect you'll get better options on connecting flights.

I didn't want to do the Narita-Haneda change, so that left me really with Osaka (Kansai International). Actually, some flights also connect at Nagoya, but either the flight times or the prices or both didn't suit me for those. So I flew JAL to Kansai, and JAL domestic from Kansai to Sapporo, New Chitose (but on the return, we'll be flying ANA domestic into Narita, and then JAL again from there). My connection at Kansai was 1 hr 15 minutes. My inbound was about on time, but even so, this is cutting it a bit fine, particularly as recent immigration procedure changes mean you are fingerprinted and photographed on your way into the country (same as you are entering the US). I joined the line (an unusual bout of optimism made me think Japanese immigration might be so efficient that the queue would move quickly) and waited patiently (and nervously) for some 20 minutes before deciding there was little chance of me getting through in the next 15 minutes or so, and I didn't feel comfortable cutting it any finer than that. So I got the attention of an immigration official, and got myself hurried through. And so my next tip from this is: either make sure your connection has a good couple of hours, or else get yourself hurried through straight away (if you don't speak any Japanese, I'm sure pointing at your boarding card and looking flustered will do the trick!).

Anyway, it was all pretty much plain sailing (or flying and taxi-ing) from there, and so I found myself delivered at the Dormitory Maruyama. The rooms are basic, but fine, with modern LAN phones in them, so you can make international calls direct (I haven't asked what the charges are, though: I'll wait until I get a bill!). The one minor disappointment when I arrived was that I had to apply for an internet connection: there isn't just a network you can plug into. They give you a form to complete, and theoretically you'll get an e-mail account with it, but until it's been processed, you won't be able to use the internet, and that will take a day or two. Unfortunately, I was so tired when I arrived that I couldn't understand the process, and why they were asking me to apply for an e-mail account when all I wanted to do was use the web, so I didn't fill it in straight away. And then there was confusion over where my LAN cable would plug in, as the only LAN socket on the wall is used by the phone (the answer is that there's a LAN socket labelled “PC” on the back of the phone itself – my thanks to Spank for suggesting I look there!). It took me a few days (including the weekend) and a bit of chasing by the nice people working at the dorm to get mine sorted. But if you fill the application in straight away, you should get it the next working day. Just don't expect to be able to Skype or e-mail someone the minute you get in to let them know you've arrived. But, as I said, there is international dialling direct from the rooms, and also there are two PCs at the JLI which students can use for free (obviously, only in school hours). And there's always internet cafes such as i-cafe. Anyway, that's why my first post from Japan has taken this long to do (and I didn't write anything else after my first post before I left because I had to spend my time getting ready to come here!).

Thursday, 10 April 2008

What am I doing here?

It's been a while since that first entry, and so now I actually am in Japan. And thereby lies the tale of part of the delay. And the continuation in delay that means you'll get several posts in rapid succession, starting with this one. But I will get around to saying more about that later.

First to rewind. Back to before I came here. Back to before I'd decided “here” was where I would be coming. I said before that I might say something about “Why Sapporo”, so here it is.

Once I'd decided I wanted to do a trip to study Japanese in Japan, I had 3 main decisions to make: when, where, and for how long.

How long was the easiest. I was in the position where I could get up to 6 months off work, so it had to be less than 6 months. But if I kept my trip to less than 90 days total, then as a UK citizen, I wouldn't need a visa and wouldn't need to register as a foreigner, which makes things considerably easier. The rules vary for other countries, so check with your own embassy if you're not a UK citizen. In fact, UK citizens can study over here up to 6 months without a visa, but you only get 90 days on entry, so you'd have to renew (actually, that's not too tricky: I did that as a tourist in 1999). But it suited me not to be away longer than that, anyway. And as I decided I'd like a bit of a holiday at the end of the course, I decided to go for a 10 week course.

The next decision would be when. In some ways, it would make sense to wait until the summer, as then my language school back home (SOAS) would be on long holiday, so I wouldn't miss any of their classes. But summer is probably the worst season in Japan. Early summer in most of Japan is the rainy season, and the whole summer in most of Japan gets very hot and sticky. I decided to go after a term at SOAS had finished, so I'd only miss the one term. And that led to wanting to come late March/early April, returning late June. That also fitted in with when I needed to tell my work I wanted the break, and meant I'd be back at work before the main summer holiday season, so suited them as well. And there is a significant personal date which it fits in with nicely, too.

Now to the biggest decision: where. First of all, I did some web searches, just bunging terms like “Japanese language study in Japan” into Google, and pulled an initial list together. But it's difficult to know just from a website whether a school is really any good. So I started asking around for recommendations. In fact, the two most promising recommendations both came from people I met at the Japan Society's Japanese Conversation Group. These were Yamasa, in Okazaki, near Nagoya, and the JLI in Sapporo. On top of these, I also wrote initial enquiries to two language schools in Tokyo and one in Kobe which I'd found in my web trawls and which had courses which fitted (or nearly fitted, in the case of the Kobe one) my date and course length requirements. Once I'd had the replies, I started narrowing my choices further. The Kobe one really didn't fit my requirements: the dates didn't quite fit, and there wasn't a 10 week option, just a 3 month one (if I'm honest, I'd only included it because I quite liked the idea of spending some time around Kobe). One of the Tokyo ones wouldn't arrange accommodation, and sorting that out myself wasn't something I wanted to bother with. So that left three serious options: Yamasa in Okazaki, Kudan in Tokyo, and the JLI in Sapporo.

So, why did I settle on Sapporo? Well, a couple of factors came into it. I felt I'd probably be better off avoiding Tokyo, even though I have friends near there, if I really wanted to get the most immersive experience. Also, the personal recommendations for Yamasa and the JLI counted in their favour. And both Yamasa and the JLI were very helpful and responsive to queries (also, Yamasa's website has a lot of information in the FAQs sections, so there wasn't as much to ask in the first place!). But Yamasa seemed to work out considerably more expensive than the JLI. Also, the location is a bit remote: I understand the school isn't that close to Okazaki, which isn't that close to Nagoya. OK, so that would be immersive. But mostly only with other foreign students of Japanese. But one other thing counted quite strongly in Sapporo's favour.

Remember what I mentioned earlier about why I didn't want to come in summer? The rainy season, and the heat and stickiness? Well, Hokkaido is a long way north, and doesn't get so hot and sticky as a rule, and certainly by the end of June, while the rest of Japan is rainy and/or sweltering, Hokkaido is likely to be pleasantly warm, barely out of spring. Well, that's the theory: I may let you know later if that turns out to be the case (I was first here in a very hot August, so I know it can get hot here, too). So although compared to the rest of Japan it's maybe a bit cool here still*, and spring doesn't get started properly for a couple more weeks, while the rest of Japan is seeing cherry blossoms now, winter has mostly passed, the snow has all been cleared away (it can still be seen on the sides on some roads and on the hills), and actually the weather has been quite pleasant so far. We'll get our blossoms in May.

*(Since writing this, other parts of Japan, including the Tokyo area, have been hit with heavy rain – which it looks like we're escaping for now).

Obviously, there are other reasons for choosing schools, and if anyone has other personal recommendations, feel free to write about them here, in the comments section. After all, at the time of writing, I haven't even started my course yet, so I'll have more to say about the JLI later. But so far my experience with them has been excellent. From the start they were helpful with enquiries and responsive to e-mails. They sorted out dormitory accommodation for me at a nearby dorm, having sent me information to make choices, and have also arranged homestay for me for later on. I also took up their airport pick-up service option, which worked out just fine: I'm sure I could have found my own way here with no problem, but having someone meet me off the plane after a long journey, and not having to lug my bags about on public transport or wander the streets of Sapporo was a luxury worth paying for. Besides, I'd never been one of those people who had someone holding up a card with their name on at the airport before!