Teaching In Socks

May 19, 2010, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , ,

This year’s Golden Week made headlines for having the best Golden Week-weather in recent memory. Kansai, the week went without a single rainy day. During the weekend I had the chance to take full advantage of the great weather during   a day trip to Naoshima.


Naoshima is a tiny island in the Seto Island Sea, which the seas between the main island, Honshu, and Shikoku.  Getting there requires a twenty minute ferry ride from Okayama City and, in my case, a two-hour car ride from my old haunting grounds in Ako.  Until recently, Naoshima was a fairly unknown, sparsely inhabited island. However thanks to the Benesse House complex and works in recent years by Pritzker prize winning architects Tadao Ando and the Tokyo-based SANAA, the town has become and art enthusiasts pilgrimage site.

As you might have noticed from this blog, I am pretty big fan of Tadao Ando. While my appreciation originates with his work that he did on the Contemporary Museum in my hometown, St. Louis, I have become a genuine admirer of buildings. I think this can partly be attributed to that fact that I have had to chance to see a number of his sketches and plans, and have a feel for the amount of thought that went into to his process. I also think that as a self-loathing pack rat, I really admire the simpleness and beauty of clean open areas and nice geometric shapes–these things are scare in my life.

The Benesse House, designed by Ando, must have been a challenging concept. The building is both a modern art museum and a luxury hotel. Luxury hotels aren’t the type of building that are in Ando’s wheelhouse. Who wants to pay $400 a night to sleep in a room with bare concrete walls–the answer of course is people who pay millions of dollars for Pollack’s splatterings and Morris’s stripes and Klein’s Color, so imagine many people find it money well spent.  I didn’t check out the room situation personally, but the rest of the hotel was filled with gallery rooms with a moderately sized collection of art. I really felt as though the layout of the hotel framed the Seto Sea and the surroundings very nicely. The balconies has great perspectives of the coast, and the interior of the building flowed really nicely. If anything, some of the building concepts were too nice and made you forget about the art. (this might be the biggest whine wine on the Internet right now)

The pinnacle of the island was the ChiChu Art Museum, also designed by Ando. The museum sits a couple hundred meters up the hill from the hotel. The building is entirely under ground, with the exception of a few lighting windows, the emerge from the top of the mountain to let light into the galleries. In fact,  from above the only clear indication that the museum exist are the windows that protrude from the ground to let light into the museum below.

fit for a Bond villian

There are only three displays inside the museum (well four if you count the museum itself). Two of them are interesting installations,  and the third is the Monet collection. By far, I enjoyed the Monet room the most. I must confess that before entering this room, I don’t think I had ever had an enjoyable Monet experience. That’s not to say I hated his work, but if I was going to make a list of artist I liked, I would probably not put him on the list, or probably only would so as to not to appear foolish or uncultured. The Monet room at the ChiChu art museum changed that. Mostly because looking at Monet in the ChiChu Art Museum is like looking at Monet in Space, in the future, hundred of years from now. To enter the room you have to take off your shoes, and put on sandals. The floor is made of small soft white stones, that somehow have the sensation of walking on felt.  On the walls five paintings hang, only illuminated by the small amount sunlight let in from above. The painting are encased in plexi-glass, free of the tradition frame. It would be cliche to say that I saw them in a new light, but something about the way these paintings were prepared allowed me to appreciate them in way I did not before.  That said, it will probably also make me critical of any other Monet I see, just hanging there, displayed in a manner that I know is highly inferior.

The only draw back of the island (if you call it a drawback) seems to be a popular destination especially amongst foreigners. While the island was packed over Golden week, we had to wait and hour and half to gain entrance to the museum, the crowd there had to be the highest ratio of foreigners  of anywhere I have seen in Japan, Kyoto included. Also, while we arrived on time for our ferry, the ferry was already full and we were forced to wait an hour and half for the next one, which of course was when we learned that the island doesn’t have many restaurant options, but that’s minimalism for you.

倒産 is the Japanese word for Bankruptcy
May 11, 2010, 5:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I suppose it’s only natural in this day and age of the credit crisis, CDS’s, CDO’s, prices at the pump, and sub-prime everythings that part of my Japanese educational experience involve participating in a bankruptcy.  I am fortunate in that it’s not my own personal bankruptcy, but unfortunate because, well, it sucks.

Two weeks ago my company declared bankruptcy during a press conference in Tokyo. I think people were surprised, but not shocked. The English conversation school market has declined rapidly (by over half in just the last three years) and most companies in this industry have not adapted quickly enough. My company was not the first fall, nor have we fallen the most spectacularly (if you want to hear about that, just google “NOVA Japan).

Apparently, one can still run a a successful English school in Japan–businesses in Japan still need employees that are fluent in English and schools and colleges still require their students to pass tests; however the company that I worked for was simply too big, and perhaps too poorly managed in a a shrinking market

The details of the in-the-boardroom-story that have emerged have been keeping the media busy. There are accusations (probably true) that board members embezzled money from profitable overseas school in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere) to keep the Japanese schools afloat.  Coincidently, the Australian schools were declared insolvent by the Australian Government in January.  The board was also apparently split on the decision to declare bankruptcy with the founder and President of the company filing a motion to try and halt the bankruptcy in court last week.

Somehow, through all of this, I have, for the moment, seem to have come out (sort of) alright. I lost a month’s worth of salary; however it appears that I may be covered by a Japanese government insurance policy that will repay and portion of my wages at a later date (go go gadget welfare state!). I lost all the vacation days I banked. I lost my contract. I lost my end-of-contract bonus. I lost one months worth of travel expenses. These are all things that are nice to have, but not necessary to survive. Also, I didn’t lose my job (yet).

A good chunk of the remaining schools were taken over by another language company, and they have kept the schools running and signed all the teachers at those schools to short term contracts–what happens after those expire no one knows yet. The employment with the new company, albeit in the same role maybe be a short-lived and oddly colored parachute, but it’s a parachute nonetheless.

The crisis at hand has been stressful, but at the moment I’m trying to view it as less of a stress and more as an interesting experience (although it takes a lot sometimes).

In the weeks following the bankruptcy it’s been interesting to see students who never showed up attend class seemingly out of the ether and worry about the status of their lessons that they used only sparingly before. It’s been interesting (and perhaps a bit sad) to see how my students react to bad news; while the new school has guaranteed to honor their contracts there is the general feeling that they are, and will be, getting screwed over somehow.  The mom types, complain to the managers, and then step into the classroom and immediately start checking that you’re getting enough to eat, the engineer types, excited to finally have something to talk about want to break it down matter-of-factly, innocently neglecting to consider that maybe it bums you out a bit

It’s been interesting. I get to learn some new Japanese words, memorize a few new strange kanji, and I even almost made my first appearance in the Japanese news when the reporters flocked to our school. My best friend, for reasons unrelated to this, was on Japanese Television four weeks ago, I guess God knew that I was subconsciously jealous and this is his interesting way of giving me what I wanted. Thanks.