27 April 2016

What Makes Ikejiri Ohashi the Best Area to Live in Tokyo?

It's the Ikejirians of course!

The time has come for me to say a fond sayonara to my room in Tokyo--inevitably forcing me to also say goodbye to the people and places which have made my stay all the more memorable. Just before heading off to explore many southern parts of Japan, I wanted to capture one last smile from the familiar faces of Ikejiri Ohashi. After bestowing delicious Tim Tams upon them as a parting gift, I asked whether it would be okay to take some snaps as a trade-off. If you ever visit Tokyo or take my advice and stay in the area, do yourself a favour and visit some (or all) of the places featured in this article. 

While most individuals spoke very little English, it was quite astounding to witness how unwaveringly kind and accommodating they were towards someone who largely remained a stranger in the background. It was only from saying our goodbyes that one of my favourites worked up the courage to ask me my name and what I was doing in Tokyo. I think especially when travelling overseas, it's the fleeting interactions and new friendships you develop that have the greatest impact on your impression of a place. Here is the short-list which makes Ikejiri Ohashi the best area to live in Tokyo!

Happiness spilling from a hole-in-the-wall

Every second or third evening I’d walk the Meguro river to buy my bargain 645 yen take-out dinner from the shy, but friendly mask-wearing duo. Despite operating out of space smaller than my bathroom back in Oz, the young men would always greet me with a smile (through their eyes) before confirming my regular order: Tuna, salmon and squid with large rice—strictly without spring onion (neggi nuki). Despite our limited ability to communicate, my heart warmed each time I loudly wished them a good night before accidently slamming the delicate sliding door behind me. The Japanese word ‘don’ simply means bowl. So sashimi (raw fish) don is thinly sliced fish, ginger and wasabi in a rice bowl. Alternatives to this are karage don (chicken rice bowl) or tonkatsu don (fried pork cutlet with rice).

Café Latte, kudasai

Similar to my experience at Don Maru, I’d developed a unique relationship with a number of baristas at The Works café and restaurant. Usually visiting five or six mornings a week to purchase one coffee and take advantage of the contemporary work space, free Wi-Fi and beautiful outlook toward the Meguro river, I’m still surprised by their unwavering welcomeness. Regularly sitting perched on one of the bar stools, my eyes often met with those of fitness fanatics jogging by between 9 and 12pm; the outside bustle frequently distracting me from my laptop screen. 

Despite living in Tokyo for almost a year now, it still bugs me that there’s virtually no difference between a latte and cappuccino, even at specialty coffee establishments. When ordering a cappuccino in Australia, there’s nothing better than spooning a thick layer of cocoa powder and froth from the surface before replacing the plastic take-out lid. With the exception of Starbucks’ self-serve station, I’m yet find a Japanese-run coffee shop with a clear distinction between these two highly popularised items listed on the menu.

The odd wedding exhibition and the day following the end of the coveted hanami festival were the few occasions The Workers shut up shop. Luckily there were other decent coffee stands close by to satisfy my discriminatory taste. Bubbles Chill and Good People, Good Coffee ooze sophistication which somehow helps justify the sky-high sidewalk take-out prices (570 yen+).

Highway Sky Garden

Featuring almost every species of Japanese flora, this rooftop garden provides peace and sunlight to a small bunch of informed locals. Only a short walk from the chaotic Shibuya Scramble, I regularly met with friends or ate my lunch here whilst admiring the vivid colours of various blossoms and flowers. I spent time pondering life’s most difficult questions and drawing comparisons to my strange existence in Tokyo and the nature surrounding me; its ability to infiltrate and thrive in the concrete jungle. 

BLAT at Golden Brown

With most standard set meals consisting of rice and soup, there were times I craved the comfort and familiarity of home food. Although Golden Brown specialise in making delicious (onion free) burgers, I rarely diverted from the BLT (with the addition of avo). With the surprise addition of alfalfa and a green pickle on the side, I usually sat at the counter overlooking the open kitchen as I scoffed my meal in record time. The first time I was handed a paper pocket to keep the contents of my burger intact, I thought the restaurant owner must have been a genius. I now have come to realise this revolutionary burger accessory comes standard with any handheld sandwiched consumable; one of the many trivial, yet pleasurable elements of dining out in Japan.   

The Meguro river

A reminder of nature’s transitory beauty and power to bring joy to all ages, the Meguro river calmed my mind as I strolled it each day without fail. Connecting Ikejiri Ohashi and Naka Meguro station, I always preferred walking this route so that I could enjoy the view of the ever-flowing river instead of the consistent traffic of the 317 highway. During winter, I passed by little more than an abandoned plastic brolly; a tell-tale sign of a windy evening or drunk salary man stumbling home. During hanami (cherry-blossom season) however, the area was invaded with souvlaki salesmen shouting ‘oishii’ to the hordes of tourists taking happy snaps.

The antitheses of Shibuya 109

Although high-end area Daikanyama was within walking distance, I didn’t have to stroll much further than my regular haunts to lay eyes upon numerous contemporary spaces housing designer fashion labels. The Meguro river rivals the popular ‘Cat Street’ stretch between Shibuya and Harajuku, featuring some of the best male fashion stores I’ve seen in Tokyo. I regularly indulged in visiting Bulle De Savon just to touch the beautiful fabrics. 

The most accommodating neighbours: Shop Detail homewares & Donki Hote discount variety store

I could spend hours admiring and touching all the knick knacks displayed on every surface of the long, thin store of Shop Detail. Although both of these stores are technically situated in Naka Meguro, they were no more than a brisk 10-minute walk away. Shop Detail stocks a variety of unique, trendy international and locally made gifts. The hanging prints, homewares and novelty items makes it a bit like a superior version of Urban Attitude in Melbourne. Here is a link to their online store: http://detail.co.jp/

For those of you who’ve never heard of Donki Hote, it’s a Japanese hybrid chain, mixing the likes of a grocer, department store and even naughty goods supplier to provide the masses with several floors of low-quality bargains. Over the past twelve months I’ve bought everything from fake blood for Halloween, to countless packs of Tim Tams wrapped in Indonesian packaging. Operating around the clock and likely to stock even your most obscure request, Donki Hote is every tourist and local's disorganised, yet reliable go-to. 

Whiskey just the way you like it…and more!

Top image supplied by Allen Ferguson

There is certainly no shortage of amazing bars and izakayas (traditional Japanese restaurant) in the area. While some suitably blaze neon signage like Orblight, most of the drinking holes which attract the rich and famous are situated in very discreet locations. Forget Coda bar until the rest of the neighbourhood has gone to roost, for most of Japan’s brightest stars only trickle in during the wee hours before sun rise. With the musical neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa just up the hill, I’ve seen brilliant rock stars such as Dan Hawkins (my brother) play in tightly-packed bars and shared many-a-drink with friends before stumbling back down the hill to my home base.  

Pan for everyone at Tolo

The word pan, meaning bread, has been taken directly from the Spanish language. Other than the term, I’ve found that Japanese bakers rarely adopt the Western art and traditions of bread making. They have managed to reinvented a sort of fluffy, dessert bread which all Japanese people seem to go nanas’ over. Forget sourdough or any trace of seeds, for most Japanese people cherish crustless bread as white as bleached copy paper; so airy it clings to the roof of your mouth or makes you want to get the rolling pin out and introduce them to the wrap. Having said this, Tolo is one of the few bakeries I’ve come across that does a few varieties of loaves and delivers plenty of incredible pastries. Their puff pastry and chocolate combos make up for the population’s concerning lack of appreciation for the delicious focaccia, sourdough and pumpkin seed roll.

Non-conformist all-girl team of vegan cooks

Another restaurant I frequent throughout the week is called Alaska. With a bunch of 30-something Japanese girls looking busy (and somewhat pissed off) behind the counter, their lack of unnecessary formality and forced admiration for customer approval is refreshing. I always order the avocado tofu salad—even when it’s not on the menu. They don’t even seem slightly bemused by the fact I’ve never tried anything else or that I say little more than hello and thank-you during each visit. With free Wifi, 1,200 yen set meals and lots of interesting looking baked goods, this hid-away vegan restaurant was a great place to chill out while keepin’ it real.

Tonkatsu take-out OK

Another cheap take-out establishment with a variety of don options is a Tonkatsu speciality chain called Saboten. Tonkatsu is panko-crumbed deep-fried or baked pork cutlet; sometimes wrapped around cheese or vegetables. Devastatingly, the sauce poured over the tokatsu-don contains many ingredients I can’t eat, so I had to settle for the simplicity of a fried cutlet topped with an egg which had been par-cooked by the steaming meat and rice combo underneath. Sometimes when I wanted the crunch of the panko crumb, I ordered a bento (lunch box) which separated each component and included an accompaniment of vibrantly coloured picked veggies.  

The colours of Setagaya Park

This park has already featured in one of my earlier posts due to its amazing play areas; inviting children to get dirty, build things and be adventurous. Although I’ve been tempted to join in, I appreciate other elements of the park just as much. During hanami, the park was gloriously raining delicate pink blossom. Watching children collect the falling petals in their hats was as equally enchanting as the view over the park from the beautifully maintained hedge hill next to the central water foundation. With each season comes a new surprise from nature, with several beds and open spaces spouting surreal looking flowers and trees.  

11 April 2016

ASG Teacher of the Year Award

In June last year I was made aware that I'd been nominated for a teaching award (AGS National Excellence in Teaching Award) by a member of my school community. While this honour was gratifying enough in itself, the judging process was as equally rewarding, as it helped me identify my teaching philosophy and determine what I'm most passionate about. 

Upon being named a state finalist, I was asked to produce a short film and answer a series of questions addressing some current concerns relating to Australia’s education system. The below video titled Challenges Teachers Face in the 21stCentury was my submission.

The judges' decision to select me as one of 12 national NEiTA awardees was based on the video as well as a series of written Q&A style submissions. Below you can read some of my answers and gain insight into my personal teaching philosophy. 

What inspired you to enter the teaching profession, and what maintains your enthusiasm for teaching?

During and after high school I worked in retail. I always volunteered to train new staff or take on roles that allowed me to get to know customers. Responding to the needs of others seemed relatively effortless to me, however, I came to realise that my ability to interact and quickly build rapport with anyone (no matter their age, race, background) was not a skill everyone possessed. This initially spurred me to consider a teaching career.

Learning new things, particularly about people, has the potential to excite, challenge and change me. All of which I find fascinating. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to get paid for such heart-warming, rewarding work. Having the ability to really listen and support each individual through their learning journey can change one’s whole attitude towards learning; essentially altering their future choices. Who said super powers weren’t real?

My enthusiasm is naturally maintained because I love what I do and the learner in me always finds new challenges. I’ve chosen a profession that’s never stagnant because technology and human behaviour is ever changing. Great teachers are dedicated life-long learners because they’re continually adapting to society’s developing needs.

On any given day, my students make me laugh, divert from the plan, test my knowledge and my patience. Having the ability to inspire them to change their ideas/abilities is exciting and life-gratifying. Seeing positive change and witnessing the power I have on others motivates me to seek out my next challenge.

How do you inspire your students to be resilient and achieve to the best of their abilities?

My last full-time teaching role was in remote Northern Territory. I loved that my students come from all over. I taught many local Indigenous students and students who’ve lived in every state/territory in Australia due to their parents’ work. With a mine operating in town where I taught (Alyangula), there was a high turn-over of families, therefore we were frequently welcoming new faces and trying our best to help them settle in. Everyone brought their own quirky talent and personality and we all learnt from each other. With such a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and religions, acceptance of others and embracing difference was discussed regularly to ensure everyone felt valued.

I made my students feel comfortable by showing them that I’m not a mystical being with a hard drive full of knowledge stored in my belly, nor do I have a hidden confidence button or the super power to replicate the skills of a professional just by watching them. Part of my role is to expose students to what learning looks like, sounds like and feels like. They need to recognise that attempting to complete difficult work, practising and making mistakes are all part of the learning process. As this is the case whenever someone is learning something new, no matter the age or experience level, it doesn’t make sense for teachers to always represent the polished end result. Beyond simply reassuring students that ‘it’s OK to make mistakes’, I model the behaviours of a vulnerable learner and allow my students to witness my errors and discuss what that feels like. My genuineness underpinned how I managed to build strong relationships with all my students and create an inclusive, inviting learning environment. 

I saw a quote on Pinterest saying ‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.’ This is something I believe whole-heartedly because I think being told what to see was what led to my disengagement in class as a student. I’d always put my hand up to share my answer but it was never the one in the teacher’s head.

In the twenty-first century everyone has information at their fingertips. The teacher is not expected to have all the answers; nor should she/he. A modern teacher’s focus should be to inspire children to develop a curious mind—and that’s what I aspire to do. I believe that if I can motivate students to set goals they really want to achieve, the hardest part is done. The power of self-belief helps us battle through the greatest of challenges.

What strategies do you use to get disengaged students to stay focused and make progress?

During my teacher career I’ve worked with a number of disengaged students who’ve struggled to adapt to the mainstream learning environment. I believe this often occurs when individuals have difficulty making purposefully connections to conceptual concepts taught within the classroom. By providing students with real life experiences, they are more likely to become engaged because the learning activity holds purpose within their life.

During my time teaching at Alyangula Area School (A.A.S), I organised a number of excursions which allowed students to learn ‘on country’, therefore enabling them to make meaningful connections to their home lives, often resulting in increased participation. I eagerly welcomed the presence and support of local community members to familiarise the students with the culture of the Anindilyakwan people. When coordinating such activities and overseeing their delivery, I believe my reassuring attitude and mindfulness towards cultural difference was imperative in making the environment comfortable and enjoyable for both students and the presenters. I explicitly taught students how to positively interact with presenters, formulate appropriate questions based on responses and identify what sorts of questions were going to provide them with answers that satisfy their interests.

Asking questions can a be powerful way to persuade students to participate in class. Aside from allowing us to gather information, questions can help us bond; often through determining similarities and trying to find common ground.

In recent years I’ve become interested in learning how to pose more meaningful questions to satisfy my own curiosities. When I began reflecting on the types of questions I would ask, majority fell into either of two categories: for personal interest or in an attempt to see things from another’s perspective. Whilst I do this without much thought, students haven’t had the same amount of experience or opportunity to critically assess whether they’re asking questions that will satisfy their interests. It may seem like a simple concept, but I figured that if I taught students how to identify what they really want to know regarding any given topic, with coaching and practise, they could become facilitators of their own learning in the most natural, meaningful way.

In my classroom I attempt to promote the sharing of ideas, stories, traditions, spaces and predominately respect for personal difference. One of the best ways to do this is to help the students develop their ability to learn from one another by asking questions in a respectful way.

My ultimate goal as a teacher is to inspire and support as many people as I can along the course of their learning journey. Whether the individual is off to a bumpy start or has already acquired an innate desire to build on their knowledge, my aim is to form a relationship that will allow me to have maximum impact in helping them achieve their goals (determined or undetermined). By giving students plenty of opportunities to practise asking questions and truly listening to what others have to say, they can be assisted in formulating their own answers to life’s toughest questions; What interests me? What do I want to know? What is my ultimate goal?

What are the benefits of working in a remote school setting?

Remote schools tend to draw students from all over with diverse living circumstances. Therefore, their family background, culture and school experience can greatly vary. The teachers are required to plan for a vast spectrum of abilities and learning styles and are often faced with challenging behaviours. With such challenges comes great personal growth as a teacher which is why I strongly advocate that all pre-service and/or graduate teachers gain teaching experience in a remote setting.

Upon having such positive experiences working in such a unique setting, I felt compelled to give others the opportunity to experience it for themselves. This thought propelled me to contact the education department at Monash University in Melbourne to recommend and offer teaching placements for forth year student teachers. With the help of one of the university’s professors, three students were given the opportunity to engage in a 2-week placement, observing lessons at three schools and undergoing cross-cultural training with a traditional land owner. 

The award I received was in recognition for Community Engagement on a remote island called Groote Eylandt; situation in the Gulf of Carpenteria. Read more: http://www.asg.com.au/neita

6 April 2016

Cultivating Creativity and Connections at Hakuba International School Japan

Last week I was fortune enough to be part of a project harbouring the rarest kind of energy— generated by the sharing of ideas and emotions among young and old. Through unrelenting determination, one Japanese lady by the name of Tomoko managed to gather a bunch of Japan’s most talented individuals to teach native Japanese high school students within the natural setting of Hakuba. Situated within Japan’s northern alps, the first day saw 17 nervous students enter the retired Norwegian Olympic ski lodging and collect their name tags. With the furthest student travelling all the way from Kyoto (6 hours away by shinkansen), majority of them commenced the 5-day spring program as strangers. After spending most of our waking hours together, many of us left as Facebook friends with genuine intentions to meet again.
The daily line-up of presenters and visitors rivalled that of any well-established private school within a major city. With the CEO of Yahoo Japan stopping by as well as the mayor of Hakaba, the students weren’t to know who would walk through the door next. The program they knowingly signed up for included an introduction to robotics, programming, animation and traditional Japanese music. Each facilitator delivered lessons which highlighted their expertise; exhibiting their exorbitant passion and knowledge towards their chosen field. This article will introduce you to these people and provide some insight into the stimulating programs they delivered. 
Left to right: Tomoko, Manabu Miyasaka (CEO of Yahoo Japan), HIS Spring School students  

          Robotics by Koji and Ichiro

The intriguingly quiet duo were invited to present and share what they're currently working on with students at Tokyo University Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. Before even meeting them, a giant cardboard robotic hand greeted everyone and spruiked the pairs’ accomplishments and humble brilliance. 
One of the daily sessions offered students the opportunity to construct their own robotic hand, made entirely out of household materials (cardboard, plastic string & sticky tape). The model demonstrated the basic function of the hand’s tendons and could even be constructed from recycled packaging such as Pocky boxes (see below video). 
During another session we were introduced to a concept known as tensegrity, which involves creating flexible constructions out of cardboard and rubber bands. Unfortunately, due to the presentations being in Japanese, my understanding of tensegrity is very basic. This link leads you to the pair’s website where you can familiarise yourself with the Paper Robot Laboratory and other projects they’re involved in: www.kamiroboken.com

Programming by Taguchi and Ishihara

On the first day students were given a small cardboard box which resembled the housing of an old disposable camera. They were instructed to open it and delicately handle the small exposed circuit board inside. No larger than a standard iPhone, I was shocked to learn that once connected up to a monitor, mouse and keyboard, this was a fully-operational computer. 
Over the course of four days, students used a beginner program known as Scratch to learn how to create their own basic computer game from, well…scratch. On the first day they learnt how to move the template cat character across the screen. On the final day, most students had not only built their own kawaii character, but had them moving in all directions on a background similar to my unsophisticated attempts to create art using Microsoft Paint. 
While the facilitators didn’t intend for students to complete their games, they wanted to highlight that programming is much more straightforward than most people assume. To put it simply, it’s writing a detailed recipe for the computer to follow—one which you can expect it to follow exactly, even if it means adding the shell along with the egg. With such limited time, Taguchi and Ishihara taught the students how to write a very basic recipe, which over time they can expand on and begin to experiment with confidence. 
The University of Tokyo is holding an annual Scratch Day on the 21st of May. If you’re in Tokyo, you can join in on the free event with 600 other expected attendees, ranging from beginner to freakishly proficient.    
You can find event info here: http://day.scratch-ja.org/

Stop Motion Animation by Casey (me)

While my program was focused on teaching students the basics of stop motion animation, its challenges was double-pronged because I presented everything in English. Despite English being a compulsory subject in high school, none of them were confident speakers and majority of the students had to rely on the few who could translate in order to understand what I wanted them to do. This additional element beared hefty pros and cons, as it forced students to work more closely together whilst creating a barrier between myself and those who were fearful of using English.    
The main objective in teaching students how to create a short animation was to get them to express themselves creatively. After showing them the method and some examples, I left it up to them to decide what the final product would look like. This proved very challenging, as for most students, making decisions as a group is not something they are regularly exposed to or feel comfortable doing. Having dealt with Japanese companies previously, I knew that (generally speaking) Japanese people struggle to make instant decisions, especially on behalf of others. I knew my request was going to spin them out, however, what I witnessed was even more concerning than I’d imagined; greatly impacting on time and the level of creativity among projects. On a number of occasions I felt like a bully, refusing to move away from a group until someone spoke up or took initiative. I think the conflicting expectations and attitude towards group work provided a great learning experience for everyone involved. 
Despite many set-backs, by the end of the program most of the students spoke fondly of making collaborative art. From start to finish, students had five and a half hours to familiarise themselves with an application called Stop Motion Studio, create a storyboard, construct clay characters and a paper set and shoot over 300 stills in order to create a short animation. Below is one example of what was achieved within this short time-frame. 

Music by Kano

Kano is a highly regarded, talented musician who is introducing the world to traditional Japanese music one country at a time. Although he claims to have produced many styles of music in the past, his pride and joy is his bamboo flute. Watching him perform each day for the students was a moving spectacle, as his energy and passion transferred just as loudly as the high-pitched flutter of the flute itself.   
Kano’s program was jam-packed with the sound of music and bustle. On day one, the students made a small bamboo bird whistle, on day two they’d produced their own drum from a recycled tin can. Day three saw them receive their own plastic flute which transferred me back to my own school days in the music room, achieving ear-combusting squeals from a manila coloured recorder. By the final day, under Kano’s led, students could echo the basic chords of his flute and harmoniously integrate with his impromptu melody to create something much more pleasurable than Mary Had a Little Lamb or Hot Cross Buns.     
The final performance was a collaborative effort to celebrate all four programs. The robotic hand was turned into a mikoshi (portable Shinto shrine), which is most commonly used at festivals to transport a deity from the main shrine. The paper backgrounds featured in the animations were used to decorate the mikoshi. The hand was programmed to move throughout the procession whilst students marched up hill to the sound of flutes, cymbals and drums. Whilst there was a humorous element to the exuberance of it all, its delivery was taken seriously and at no point did the students fall out of character, acting as though they were really part of a matsuri (Japanese festival). 
Daily reflection by Chris

Chris is the former principal of the The British School in Tokyo. Although he’s currently the headmaster of a school in Poland, he returned to Japan to oversee the spring program and intends to play a major role in HIS’s establishment as a full-time international school with boarding facilities. 
Chris is eager to see the project develop over the coming years and identifies countless benefits (local and national) as a result of offering the International Baccalaureate program within Hakaba’s unique natural setting. The above images were taken from a slideshow he presented on the final day to demonstrate how he intends to shape the mentality of Japan’s youth. He explained that unlike most nations, Japan’s people operate as one. Individuals don’t like to stand out from others or take charge of situations, often preferring to forgo their needs than potentially cause a stir. On the opposite end of the scale, citizens of many other countries operate singularly; making choices based on how they will be affected personally. While this model is by no means superior, Chris wants to create a hybrid work mentality by inspiring students to confidently break away from the pack, but work closely and remain compatible as a collection.  
Lunch break...what a view!

Performing at the base of the 1998 Nagano Olympic inrun ramp

Teachers and students perform together on the last day

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