hakodate (9)

Arigato Gozaimashita!

Today I visited HUE’s Hakodate campus. It’s smaller than Sapporo, but the team made it a packed day for getting a sense of the work they do here and how they connect to Japanese education overall. After a campus tour, I sat in on two classes, both in Japanese. The first featured student presentations on their visits to a nearby affiliated school. The students presented on the school’s approach to special education, including how the school interprets ministry guidelines and tries to foster students’ autonomy and independence. The second class was a high level language learning course. Several of the students in the class are “N1” students – the highest level for Japanese language learners and well above some of the other classes I visited last week. Beer taxes around the world was an unusual topic, but hey, it was interesting!

After lunch with my hosts I had the chance to meet with the head of HUE-Hakodate’s Regional Education program. We spoke through an interpreter (Andre, a Newfoundlander who teaches in the program), exchanging ideas about education and the different things HUE and UofC are working on. I’ve been lucky enough to chat with teachers from other programs in Canada about these things (how is your program structured? Why do you do what you do? What are you good at? What do you struggle with?), but this was the first time I was able to chat with someone running a program in another country with such a different perspective. We found a lot of common ground – Alberta and Hokkaido are both home to Indigenous peoples, for example – as well as differences and quirks in our systems (Japanese teachers are regularly moved every few years; French is one of our official languages yet most Canadians learn less French than Japanese students learn English).

Today’s my last full day in Japan and it was a great way to end off my stay here. I’ve been asked several times when I’m coming back. I don’t know – but I’d like to, and I’d definitely recommend Japan on the whole. It’s easy to get around, the food is great and has plenty of variety, and almost everyone I met was helpful and kind despite my linguistic bumbling.

The TABers coming here in the fall are in great hands, and I think they’ll learn a lot from the HUE team. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s adventures – 4 airports in a day and lots of places to get awkwardly lost in. See you in Calgary!

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Sushi and Convenience Stores

Nearly two weeks into my trip and I’ve finally had “real sushi.” It’s not that sushi is hard to find or that there aren’t a lot of sushi restaurants – but as you might have noticed, if something is easy to find, I usually miss it. But today I succeeded! There’s a sushi restaurant a stone’s throw away from my hotel, in the middle of the morning fish market. It was one of the pricier meals I’ve had in Japan - $30 for 12 pieces of sushi – but each piece was hand made to-order less than 6 feet from me, with fresh fish and pretty decent portions. The quality was definitely there and if you’re a sushi fan it’s worth the price.

In the afternoon I wandered back to the red brick warehouse district, which is where a lot of Hakodate’s souvenir goodies are. I’ll be mum on that for now but I do want to say a bit about convenience stores, since they’ve been a staple of my time here so far. Japan’s convenience stores are, well, much more convenient than the ones we have in Canada. For one thing, there’s many, many more of them – 7-11, FamilyMart, Lawson, and a few other chains have stores scattered every few blocks so you never have to walk far to get to one. Once you’re inside, you’ve got far more options. Beyond the candies, gum, hotdogs, and slushies you might expect at home, you can also buy all sorts of meals, snacks, as well as wine, dress shirts, and a few aisles of I-don’t-know-what-that-is-but-it-looks-fun.

Some (but not all) come with in-store seating where you can stop to eat or hop onto free wifi, and they also have garbage cans – something that’s fairly hard to find on the streets themselves. You can also get your food heated up for you if you want, but fair warning that a lot of the mini-meals come in plastic containers, which isn’t the greatest thing to stick in a microwave. Convenience store food isn’t as good as sushi or restaurant ramen, but it’s an easy fix, the staff are kind, and it’s nice to check out the stores that aren’t in the middle of tourist areas. All about the little things.

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HUE on the World Stage

Hakodate is a port city on the southeast side of Hokkaido, home to a few hundred thousand people and a large star fort. It’s had a long history as a port city trading with the rest of the world, and is the gate to the north for Japan and much of its tourism industry. It’s unsurprising, then, that Hakodate and Halifax are sister cities: they’ve got a lot in common. Goryokaku Park is a great parallel to Citadel Hill. Both started as military forts to defend the city from invaders (though Goyokaku actually saw a battle), and both have been converted into national historic sites for tourists and locals.

The park itself is free to get into, and there’s a small museum in the central building that costs $5. The grounds have lots of info plaques for many of the older buildings that no longer exist – each part of the fort is explained in English and Japanese, and copies of original blueprints are there as well if you’re feeling super architectural.


After lunch at a Bento Box shop I went down to a meeting with HUE’s international office where they were presenting on their JICA program. JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, connects Japanese institutions with peers in other countries, building bridges and the opportunity to share ideas across borders. HUE has worked with JICA to build teaching collaborations with countries in Africa and Polynesia. Most of the presentation was in Japanese, but some was in French and my hosts helped with the rest – so in short it was a great chance to learn about the work that HUE does with other programs around the world.

After the seminar the folks at HUE invited me to join them for dinner at a local restaurant. This was by far the most “Japanese style” restaurant I’ve been to so far, and it’s easily one of my favourites. After eating with the team and chatting with them about their work, their lives, and their families, we finished the night by going around the table and saying some closing words to the group. This was mostly Japanese-only (so they chuckled when it was my turn), but again it was a great way to thank the team for their work and get a better sense of how they interact with one another outside of the office. My hosts have been kind, generous, and great to learn from, so tonight was an especially nice treat.

Two more days in Japan – more news tomorrow!

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Climbing Mount Hakodate

Today started with an early flight out of Okadama airport. It’s the smallest airport so far on this trip – 1 gate, 1 plane, and not much more. We were airborne for only 40 minutes before landing in Hakodate, on the southern edge of Hokkaido, with Hakodate bay on the west and the Tsugaru Straits on the east. Before checking in I went down to the beach on the east end of the city. The water’s too strong to swim in (and probably not that clean), but it’s a nice view and the breeze brings the heat down on a warm day.


In the afternoon I went to the Museum of Northern Peoples, another site full of Ainu artifacts and history about the indigenous peoples of Hokkaido and the northern islands. Some of the rooms are a bit scarce on English translations, but for only $3 it was a nice stop and gave me a bit more information than the museum in Sapporo.


For dinner I went to a local restaurant not far from my hotel. Their specialty is Ika Sashimi – squid. Like most of the restaurants this close to the harbour, the walls are lined with tanks full of live catches – king crabs, scallops, shrimp, squid, and a ton of fish. This place’s squid comes as fresh as it gets, and the staff are kind enough to warn first-timers that the squid will still be moving when you get your plate. Squid hasn’t been my favourite meal here so far, but it’s something for the bucket list and I might go back to the restaurant to try out the rest of their menu.



To end the day I made my way down to Mount Hakodate, which sits just south of the city and gives a perfect view of the entire place. The hike itself only takes 45 minutes, but the best views are at the top, so unless you like hiking you can take the ropeway up the side for $12 round-trip. Once on top you should wait until the sky is dark – the views get better as the day goes on and it’s well worth the wait. On a Friday night the observation decks were very, very crowded, but the outdoor garden deck doesn’t get as much traffic and has almost exactly the same view as the top floor.

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Dream On...

It’s hard to believe that the program is coming to an end. I will surely miss all my new friends that I made in Hakodate, Sapporo and Siriuchi here in Japan.  It truly sometimes feels like a dream. All the time spent here in Japan for more than two months seems so surreal yet highly productive.  There is so much I learned and experienced through this program. It is not just different culture and teaching practise that I have experienced, but I have also learned about my own self.  I learned about my areas of improvement that I need to make as I progress along my career, and most importantly that I enjoy being in front of the class and learning about new things together with the students.

I believe that one of the most fascinating things about doing Teaching Across Borders (TAB) program is that it makes you become flexible and strong in adapting to constantly changing environment and situations. I personally had to change and improve my teaching style, communication methods, and even lifestyle or doing the things in a certain way.  TAB program is also a perfect opportunity for developing necessary attributes like self-efficacy and resilience that are highly regarded for becoming an efficient teacher. These kinds of qualities and traits are developed through the field experiences and hands-on classroom experiences that TAB program provides to students like me.   

I want to finish this final blog post by talking briefly about my experiences that I had in a Junior High School in Hakodate for the final one and a half week of the program. My partner teacher was kind and very amusing person. His approach in blending humor along with course content was unique and I found it to be highly effective in engaging students for language learning. I liked the approach that the teachers were using in the Junior High School of review, practice and repeat along with the teacher. There were a lot of ‘speak-out’ loud activities and games in the classrooms. I also liked the method of translating English words into Japanese words for the students to help better understand difficult vocabulary. My role in the school was to help students practice English grammar and correct them wherever applicable. I also assisted the teacher with pronunciation and sentence structure.  The more practice activities I did in class with the students, the more comfortable and ‘popular’ I felt in the class.

I was talking to a High School English teacher who was visiting as a guest in the Junior High School and I was given the following information by him that I found it interesting to share. In this particular high school in Hakodate, scaffolding techniques are highly emphasized for students in language learning. In the first-year, students converse with each other in English. Then in the second-year, students start to think logically in English and come up with problem-solving techniques on a given topic, such as transportation and work on a presentation. In the third-year, more technical writing in English is used.  I even got to observe one of the grade 9 Math classes where I felt very welcomed by the students. I even ended up helping students in their geometrical problems. At the last day of the placement, the vice principal and the partner teacher took me to see the opera performance in the city hall, where third year Junior High School students were also performing. It was fascinating to watch the orchestra and school opera at play.

I highly enjoyed my TAB experience in Japan!

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Halloween in Hakodate

Something that has surprised me since coming to Japan is the celebration of western holidays for fun and enjoyment. For example, right now it is Monday and Halloween day. This past weekend I saw many people dressed up in amazing costumes, stores have Halloween displays and special Halloween themed items, and multiple houses in my community are adorned with typical Halloween decorations. I was not expecting Halloween to be celebrated here, but I'm glad it is as it seems to make people, especially children, happy. 

Another place I have seen Halloween embraced is in the classroom. For the past two weeks or so, teachers I have worked with have been incorporating Halloween-themed lessons into their teaching practice. We played a pin-the-face-on-the-pumpkin style game to learn the English names of facial features, coloured Halloween pictures, played Halloween music, and decorated classrooms. The students seemingly really enjoy these activities and get very excited whenever a Halloween-themed lesson takes place. It's very cute and an easy way to foster students engagement. In the future, I wish to incorporate similar pop-culture and cultural activities into my class. 

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Mario and Luigi's Squid Dance

Hakodate is famous for its squid. Combine this with the popular Japanese video game Super Mario and you get an unique version of the 'Squid Dance’. This was the performance that was part of the school festival at an elementary school in Hakodate. It is mandatory for students in Japan to participate and perform in such festivals or events at the school. The students performing ‘the Squid Dance’ were dressed up as Mario with Red Hats and Luigi with Green Hats. I even got to participate in the school rehearsals. If you are or were ever a Super Mario fan, the performance at the school was definitely worth the watch.  

Biotechnology Lab visit and more squid related science-y stuff

At the university in Hakodate, I had an opportunity to meet with a professor of Biotechnology from whom I got to learn a bit about science and technology, and also about Atomic Force Microscopy and Cryo-Electron Microscopy. What was so interesting about this lab tour was to learn about the applications of squid ink in pharmaceuticals. Since, the ink is safe to ingest and has a wide spectrum to absorb light, it also has high molecular shape uniformity. It is used in labelling pharmaceutical drugs.

View from the top of Mount Hakodate. To the left of the city is Sea of Japan and to the right side is the Pacific Ocean.

Now we move on to the school placement experiences in Siriuchi town…

The school placements were unique. I got to attend High school, Junior High School, and Elementary Schools during my time in Siriuchi for about a week. There is only one high school in the small town.  Our visit in the school comprised of lesson activities and one grade 11 science class took an inquiry-based approach and I got to participate in it. The lab was about making a design experiment related to the physics concepts. Students in small groups would design their model that they built in the lab under a within the period of time set by the teacher and then test it out in the real time. After getting the results, the teacher would review and go over the concepts and relevant formulas with students. Then a second trial was carried out, where students got to improve and test out their design model again. I found this approach of learning science highly engaging, challenging, and creative.  

The hospitality of staff and people in Siriuchi was immensely kind and accommodating. Our accommodation and meals were covered by the university. This made the process of staying in a small town a lot smoother.  During our stay, I got an opportunity to visit a small historical museum, a Japanese Onsen (hot spring), and a Natural Park viewpoint.

                                                                                                     Hakodate has a lot of temples and churches to explore!

Elementary School Placements in Siriuchi

I also had an opportunity to visit couple of elementary schools in and around Siriuchi area. The first elementary school had less than 5o students, and the school size was a really big for such less number of students. There were a lot of games I participated in that involved music, sounds, visuals, and most importantly ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’ (Jan- Ken-Pon) which seems highly famous with students here in Japan.  Students in Japanese schools wear assigned school uniforms and they greet and thank their teacher every class. Other Japanese games that elementary school students play involving verbal, kinesthetic and visual language learning is: Kendama, Koma, Karuta, and Babanuki card game.  Many of the schools in Siriuchi are located next to mountains and Tsugaru Strait, so the view from the classrooms was not only well lighted, but breathtaking as well. This particular elementary school had a video and sound podcast recording room as well. So, the emphasis on technology and multimedia was given a priority in this education facility.

The next elementary school had more than 100 students and was a big school. The students welcomed us in a ceremony at the school gym. There were a lot of games, speeches, and music. I felt like a “rockstar” as some students asked me for an autograph. This has never happened to me before, so it was quite an enthralling experience. The kindness and enthusiasm of the students was a big highlight of the school placements. They were eager to learn from us, and most importantly the students in Japanese schools were much disciplined.  I did a lot of language learning activities with them such as playing the game of Evolution and role playing games, and even work and communicate with them either individually and/or in small groups. The Elementary school students seemed to be doing inquiry based experiments for a science class in the lab. I even got to help and assist students with their design experiments which was enjoyable. This Junior High School was relatively new. It had fashion and food classrooms that had all the equipment like laundry machine, sewing machine, stove tope, etc. for students to make something creative and challenging. The main gym stage area had a retractable music classroom wall which would converge into one giant staging area. It was a cool concept with retracting classroom walls to have more open space for students to perform or work in.

                                                              Japanese Calligraphy attempted in an Arts Classroom. "Vikrum" and "Yamato" ("Japan" of old age) written on the rice paper. 

Junior High School Visit in Siriuchi

I was welcomed by Junior High School students in a small opening ceremony and then at the end there was also a small closing ceremony.  During the school lunch, where I ate with grade 8 students in their respective classrooms, I found it interesting and amusing that the school played Canadian Pop Songs, such as Justin Bieber over the PA system. I found that some of the students spoke and understood English well while conversing with them during the lunch and in the classes in general. It was indeed a good opportunity for students to practise their English-speaking skills with non-Japanese speaking guests. In the Language learning lab, I repeated some English words for the whole class as per the teacher’s instructions, and then the level of difficulty was slowly and gradually increased throughout the class. Words become sentences and sentences become mini paragraphs for students to practice and learn in English. The lectures were always supplemented with visuals, text, sounds, and/or music. It was highly engaged classroom, and the teacher seemed to have great working relationship with students. Humour was often used by the teacher. I talked to students about topics like - Anime, Manga, sports, hobby, food, Canada, Japanese culture, etc. This helped with built great working relationship with students. I even got to play Judo with students (Japanese Martial Arts), and later in an Arts Classroom I got to try Shuji (Japanese Calligraphy).

So far, I am having memorable and productive school placement experiences where I am learning a lot in terms of teaching and communicating with students. It is hard to believe that only less than a week is left here in Japan with so much still to do…

                                                                         Convenience Stores or Konbini are everywhere in Hakodate. Your student life will never feel hungry!


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Tōtaru Rikōru

An overview of Japanese School Systems

This blog post is named “Total Recall”, and not after the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie, but because the school visits and volunteer teaching were a recall from the past practicums that I completed back in Canada. Although learning and teaching varies from school to school, here are some of the obvious differences and similarities I noticed between Japanese and Canadian schools during my placements in Japan.


I found the classrooms in Canada to be more collaborative in nature. Even though there is a lot of collaborative work involved in Japanese classrooms, there is still traditional setting present in the structural layout of the classrooms. Just like in Canada, Japanese classrooms have a lot of students’ work, relevant artwork decorated inside the classroom and in the hallways. School décor have themes like – Halloween, etc.  Teachers have blackboards, computers and television in the classrooms to show multimedia content to the students, similar to Canada.  Unlike Canada, in Japanese schools, students are expecting to clean the classrooms and schools. Everyone at school has lunch in the classrooms, and student take turns to serve lunch to their peers. The school lunch is highly important element of Japanese School traditions.  It brings the students together and they also learn about time management skills because everyone has to start and finish the lunch at the same time. The library in some schools (that I visited) in Japan is now replaced by learning commons, where students can work on computers and have meetings with fewer books around and more technologically focused study and work areas.  Teacher usually comes into the classrooms for each grade.  The classrooms have storage places at the back of the classrooms for Randoseru (Japanese Backpacks) used mainly by elementary students.  Schools have science labs, music rooms, gyms, food and fashion classrooms, art workrooms and wood workshops, and even nurse’s office.  Just like in Canadian schools. One of the schools had an engineering work room, where students could make model trains and work on other engineering and technology based projects.  Overall, I found the classrooms in Japan to be similar to that of Canadian ones with few differences here and there.

Learning Commons area in Japanese Schools

Pedagogical Relationship

Scaffolding and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) concepts are noticeable in both Canadian and Japanese classrooms. Most importantly, I found that some students in a group had much stronger English speaking skills than their peers, and were helping them operate within the zone of proximal development. Advanced English speaking students were helping their less advanced English speaking students to get better in conversing and writing in English.  Teachers show students visual images, sounds, and videos (both on blackboard and on projector), and a lot of repetition is involved in the classroom learning. In the end of the class period, the teacher summarizes the concepts and lessons learned in the class with the students. Again, a lot of visuals and textual presentations are involved in the Japanese classroom lessons.   Students get small break in between class periods, where they can read, interact with teachers and peers, or play games or do some activities with other students. It is very active during the break period. This reminds me of elementary schools back in Canada and how they include Body Break activities in the classrooms.


From my experience so far, I found that Japanese classrooms use both formative and summative type of assessments. Though, summative feedback seems to be commonly used, formative like students telling teachers about what they understand so far was noticed.  I found that a lot of elementary school tests in Japan (from what I observed), are highly visual and colorful in nature compared to that in the Canadian schools. This means that a lot of favorite characters and games are put in the tests, so that they are less intimidating and more engaging. For example, in a math test, students have to play a mini game which includes a favourite anime character in each step, to find the answer.  It can be a game of ladders or a simple arithmetic game. I found this concept of summative assessment very interesting. However, this may vary within schools and grade levels.  In Japan, when a student finishes the test early, they have to keep their test with them, but they read a graphic novel or some similar book while they wait for their test to finish.

Ninja Amazement Park

Student Expectations

All students are expected to participate in school activities, such as festivals, sports day, etc. It is compulsory and students spend after school hours to prepare for an event such as school festival. It can take up to a month to prepare for such events, that involve a lot of music, drama, costumes, etc. However, in Canada students can take Drama and Music classes as an option and they are not considered compulsory subjects like in Japan.  A lot of students in Japan also take tutoring classes in swimming, piano lessons, and Shuji (Japanese Calligraphy).  Depending on parents (and schools), students are expected to perform high academically, which can sometimes be overwhelming for some students.  I will find out more about how schools in Japan deal with such student stress issues, and report it in the next blog post. However, we asked about this issue, and schools say they are aware of it and try to provide as much support to the student as possible, though I like to find more about the kind of support available to the students.  

Temaki Zushi (Hand Rolled Sushi)

Teacher Training

My role as Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) involves conversing with students, and teach them pronunciation and grammar. I am learning to use a lot of activities and visual images and short videos with students to further engage them. For example, in order for students to practice English word, we would throw in a fun activity, where whole class dances, sings or participates while repeating English words. It’s really fun and engaging.  One thing I noticed so far is that not a lot of students or even the classroom teacher spoke much English, even if I tried to converse with them. I had to use some Japanese or take guidance of the student tutors to interact with the students and even the teacher.  I feel like it’s highly important for students to interact in English in order to practice and improve, but learning some Japanese and learning more about Japanese culture from them was surely a treat.  In my second practicum in Calgary, I learned from my partner teacher to add less content in my presentation, engage students with interest questions, and use whiteboards more often. I try to use these methods where ever possible in my role as ALT in Japanese schools. 

The next blog post will be called “Mario and Luigi’s Squid Dance!” and it will encompass more about my experiences in Hakodate and Siriuchi town.  

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Finding the Right Balance!


The flash from a camera spreads across the roof of the classroom. My eyes blink for a second and then are able to refocus their attention to students I am speaking to. With so many observers including school administers, student tutors, teachers and university staff watching us from a distance on how we present ourselves and communicate with students, it surely was an amazing moment of my school visits here in Japan. I am sure it was an awesome experience for the Japanese students as well in terms of getting to practice their English with us. What was surprising me was how calm and oblivious the school teachers were under so many guests in their classrooms. They continued to engage students with interesting lessons and activities in the class, even with so many spectators in the class. The teachers focus was only on students’ learning and nothing else. I want to be one of those kind of dedicated teachers that I am meeting in my school visits, who have the talent and the passion to foster students’ learning. 

I have had more adventures in Japan within four weeks upon my arrival, than the entire year back in Canada. It is a glimpse to what waits for me as a future educator… busy schedule with interesting and unexpected twists and turns that I will continuously learn to tackle and deal with a positive state of mind.

It takes a great deal of courage and risk-taking when doing a program like Teaching Across Borders, because you are going out of the comfort zone to explore a completely different culture and you are not only dealing with your own emotions, but emotions of those around you. It is a delicate balance to maintain when doing ‘volunteer teaching’ abroad. I maintained this balance by eating healthy and exercising as much as possible. I am learning to quickly adapt and not to think much about the different situations I come across daily.  Language continues to be a barrier as I am still picking up Japanese, but I work through this barrier by using sign language, respectful gestures, cellphone with a wide variety of images, videos, graphics – so keeping it multi-modal (still)!

As, I move on to another city in Japan…I will surely miss my home stay family. But, it’s a new adventure and my 'volunteer teaching' placements for October look busy. I am learning to cook Japanese food and do healthy groceries with my dorm roommates.  I will talk in detail about the differences between Japanese and Canadian schools I noticed during my time in Japan in my next blog post.                                                                

I will finish this post with one of the favorite quotes of mine:

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.”  
― Benjamin Franklin

Arigatou Gozaimasu!

(The picture was taken in Shakotan`s Kamui Misaki (God`s Peninsula), Hokkaido, Japan)

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