Sacred Forests: Atsuta Jingu Shrine

Finally, a new post about travel! I went to Japan at the beginning of May for a 5 day weekend and while I got rained on for most of it, I still had a great time. Nagoya isn’t exactly on the top of everyone’s Japanese travel itinerary, but I have a friend working there and it was nice to combine some travel goodness with some friend hang outs. Eventually, I’ll be writing about Nagoya Castle, Tokugawa Gardens, the awesome regional foods of Nagoya, and a few other gems, but for now I give you the epitome of “forest bathing” at this old and venerable Shinto Shrine.


I only got one sunny day on my holiday and this was not it. This was a special shame because I had actually planned my more touristy activities for Monday and Tuesday to avoid the holiday/weekend crowds. I swear I checked the forecast before this plan, and it was just supposed to lightly rain one of the days.

Thinking this, I picked some indoor activities for Monday, the light rain day, and planned to split Tuesday, the partly cloudy day, between the two main outdoor attractions I was interested in. However Monday is also the day all the indoor activities like the aquarium, planetarium, and science museum are closed! I could not be less interested in car and train museums, so I decided to brave the rain and head to the forest anyway. 

A Little Bit About Shinto Shrines
Generally in Japan, anything called a “shrine”shrine icon is Shinto, while a “temple” temple icon is Buddhist. The map icons help to distinguish, and no, that’s not a Nazi swastika, it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol that is much much older than Hitler. The Shinto tales of kami (kind of like gods and spirits) are every bit as long and sordid as the Greek or Egyptian myths and involve lots of improbable births, sibling marriages, and explanations for how the world got so messed up. I do not know the whole thing as well as I know Greek gods because I wasn’t raised on a steady diet of Kojiki myths, but they show up regularly in Japanese pop culture and anime and unlike the Greek pantheon, they are still relevant and widely worshiped inside Japan to this day.

There are three sacred objects in Japan: a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The sword is enshrined here at Atsuta Jingu. It belonged to Yamato Takeru in life and was enshrined along with some of his other belongings upon his death. The main god of the shrine, Atsuta, is the god of this sword.

Atsuta Jinju is said to be about 2000 years old. In addition to housing the sacred sword, it honors 5 major deities including Amaterasu (the sun godess), Susano-o (god of the sea and storms), YamatoTakeru (12th Emporer of Japan whose death inspired the shrine), Takeinadane-no-Mikoto and Miyasuhime-no-Mikoto (the first parents of the native people of Nagoya).

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Large, old Shinto shrines are quite different from their small cousins.  I ran across a smaller shrine in Osu (above) that was about the size of a house. There are dozens tucked in wherever a sacred spot can be located. The city sort of swallows them up. Larger shrines like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo (below) and Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya are located in sacred forests. The fact that Shinto is an active faith in Japan means that these forests have been preserved and protected throughout history and urban development. Now, some of the largest cities in the world have these crazy old growth forests right inside.

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I can’t really get into a full explanation of Shinto mythology and practice here because like every aspect of human culture it is huge and complex, but I hope this gives a little insight into the significance and history of the Atsuta Jingu shrine.

Into the Woods

Going inside, each gate is marked by a gigantic toori gate, usually left natural wood brown and decorated with shide (the zigzag folded paper) and sometimes fresh cut branches. The gates are enormous, and yet in photos they don’t look large beside the trees because the trees are even bigger. People bow to the forest both upon entering and leaving. It’s not just a park in the city, it is a truly sacred space.

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Walking into one of these gates on a sunny day is somewhat daunting because the bright sunlight and city noises are suddenly absent and you find yourself mystically transported to a world of green-gold half light and birdsong. Going through the gates on a gray and rainy day felt far more sinister as the path ahead of me was swallowed in near darkness. Mists clung to the trees and the birds were silent from the rain except for the occasional cawing of huge black crows. Super spooky and it gave me a real appreciation for the origin of some of those Japanese horror stories.

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Museum of Treasures

Once inside the forest, my eyes adjusting to the low light level, and my lungs filling with the most amazing air, I began to feel better at once. The museum is near the main gate, so I decided to go there first. I found a couple of chickens hiding in the lee of the building to stay dry. They had become superstars to the other guests, city dwellers who hardly ever see farm birds in any other context than a restaurant menu. I don’t know if it was more fun to watch the birds or watch the people react to them.

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On display in the museum’s main room is what I can only assume is a replica of the sacred sword said to be enshrined there. It’s loooong. Like taller than Shaq. When I first saw it, I didn’t yet know the myth and history of the shrine, but I assumed that it must have belonged to a god simply by it’s proportions. There is also a small gift shop, and a public restroom and snack machine. Upstairs looked like a library. The museum proper is 3$ to enter and since the shrine is otherwise free (donation based), I didn’t have any problem contributing. I’m a little sad they didn’t have any English, but I enjoyed looking at the relics nonetheless.

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My absolute favorite was an elaborate painting that depicted the history of Japan from the creation of the world by the gods through modern day. It was done as a spiral pathway that started with creation, followed the early emperors of Japan and the sacred sword being passed down until it was finally enshrined, and then further important events in the shrine’s history. I couldn’t really read the guide, but I know enough about early Japanese creation myths (presentations in Japanese class paid off eventually?) to have recognized the pictures in the center an extrapolated outward.

I was hoping to find an image or print somewhere to share, but it’s not in the brochure or on the website, which also says the relics on display are changed out monthly. It was easily the most distinctive thing in the museum. I enjoy the old ceremonial clothing, dishware and weaponry as well, but it didn’t stand out to me as unique the way that painting did.

Ookusu: Big Tree

Once finished with the museum, I headed back into the woods with my trusty travel umbrella. Different areas of the forest are further divided with more toori gates and the first one I encountered leaving the museum led me to the ookusu. It literally translates to “big camphor tree” and these big old trees are often centerpieces at shrines in Japan. Totoro lives in a camphor tree, after all. The sign next to this one says it’s over 1000 years old. Near the tree there is a chōzubachi (ritual purification water pool) and a decorative wall of empty sake barrels. Sake is used in offerings and rituals, and the empty barrels are turned into art to adorn the shrine. Usually the sake is donated to the shrine and the displaying of the empty barrels is similar to many other types of prayer where notes or paper decorations are displayed. Instead of buying a prayer paper to write on, these breweries donate sake.

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I look back at my photos now and realize there is just no way to show the context of the size of the forest in Atsuta because everything is built to god scale and you walk around feeling a little bit like a child in a grown up world the whole time. Maybe that’s intentional? Probably. It reminds me of my photos of the redwoods where all the trees are so big that they all look normal next to each other. I’m not saying that this ookusu is as big as a sequoia, but it’s still a big tree. I was holding my phone up at arms’ length and I’m still shooting up at the rope marker.

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The Honmyu

My next stop was the main shrine itself, called honmyu. Here I found several buildings surrounding a gravel courtyard. Photos of Atsuta taken here almost make it look like it’s open air rather than deep forested. It is a working shrine, so the main hall for services was lit, but closed to the public. I was pleased to be able to have a peek through the windows nonetheless. One building was a performance hall although it was empty the day I was there. I suspect that at least one of the other buildings was housing for the shrine maidens and priests.

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One building was a place to donate in exchange for a variety of charms or blessings. Lucky charms are a big part of Shinto and Japanese culture in general. There were small charms for almost everything. Additionally, there were prayer papers and wooden ornaments that individual prayers could be written on and hung around the shrine. I also saw arrows. I know that miko (shrine maidens) are famous for archery because (guilty look) the anime I watch shows them using bow and arrow to slay evil spirits. These demon breaking arrows are used to dispel evil and ward off bad luck. Absolutely nothing is in English, so I did my best to try and read the labels, but in the end I had to ask. I think I mixed up my pronunciation but the miko I asked seemed to figure it out quickly and I found a white swan for happiness. I don’t know if charms work, but I was happy to have the chance to visit the beautiful forest and that seems like a good reason to donate. Plus, whenever I hear the tiny bells jingle, I get a happy memory. Working already.

The main part of the shrine, where I believe the sacred relics to be enshrined, is not accessible to the public. We could walk up to a gate and get a lovely view of the beautiful buildings, but can go no further. Like many palaces, it’s a series of buildings and courtyards.

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The design is simple, natural and elegant made only of dark wood and a minimum of metal ornamentation. Unlike smaller shrines which are decked out in red and gold, the forest shrine was almost in camouflage to blend in to the trees around it. Despite the heavy rain that day, and the fact that it was mid-afternoon on a Monday, the forest still had a large number of visitors, and not only tourists, but locals who had come by to offer prayers and donations. Many people approached the shrine to drop coins and a formal bow.

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Spirit Houses: Jinja Shrines

In addition to the main shrine, the jingu, there are a number of smaller shrines or jinja around the forest. For some reason I thought these were usually open with an interior display of statues and gifts, but I have since gone back through my photos of other shrines and I was mistaken. All kami houses are shut up tight. These smaller shrines are also a kind of spirit house where the smaller local kami can dwell. Big global or national Kami like the goddess of the sun may have shrines all over Japan, but local kami may only have a few shrines… sometimes just one. People may pray to a specific kami because of it’s history, or because of a local or family connection.

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On the next leg of my walk I stepped off the main path to get a closer look at some of these jinja shrines. They were plain wooden tiny houses on stilts and I couldn’t make much sense of the simple signs adorning each one, so I just decided to enjoy the path when suddenly I noticed I could see my breath! I know the spring has been cooler than usual this year, but it was in the high 20s that day and for most of the day I had felt warm and a little sticky, now suddenly my breath was clouding up in front of me. I tried again, because I like to replicate results. And it happened again. I backed up down the path and it stopped happening. I moved forward, it happened again. I put a hand next to the shrine I was getting foggy breath in front of and I swear it felt colder. Just to be sure it wasn’t an effect of the shade or the wood, I tried the shrine next to it and didn’t feel any difference in the warm air on the path and that next to the shrine. I am not saying it was haunted, but … you know every time there’s a haunting in a movie the temperature suddenly drops and the characters can see their breath, so…

I did take a picture of the name of that shrine to check later, but all I can really find is that it seems to be related to water offerings. Maybe that’s why it gets excited in the rain?

Paper Cranes

After a delicious and filling lunch (which you can read more about in the food post) I felt well equipped to explore the rest of the grounds. I checked a few maps to try and guess which paths I hadn’t walked down yet. All the signs were Japanese only, and referenced the proper name of each building in the compound, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been to and what I’d missed without the map reference.

As I wandered down another wide road, shrouded in tall dark trees, Nagoya’s oldest stone bridge and megalithic 8m high, 400 year-old stone lanterns (said to be one of the three most significant in all Japan), I found a few more of the jinja shrines along the way. Most of them were brown and unadorned, but a few had splashes of color.

20180507_133742At first I didn’t know what they were. I only saw the bright colors from a distance and was drawn closer with curiosity. As I examined the strings of color, it became clear that these were chains of paper cranes folded and strung together in a way that most Westerners are familiar with from the story of Sadako and the 1,000 paper cranes.

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It was so stunning to me to see string after string of brightly patterned paper, neatly and identically folded into shape. The rain had soaked them thoroughly but the paper held together well and the water made the colors pop even more. This one smaller shrine received more attention than any but the largest center shrine, so naturally I was very curious. It’s called Kusu no mae Shrine and is described on the website as “god of amnesty” The sign goes on to mention both Izanami and Izanagi, who created the world and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The website says: “It is commonly called “God of Koyasu” or “Ogunsama”, it cures various diseases” courtesy of Chrome’s auto translate.

A Whole Other Shrine, What?

I was perfectly content playing “find the shrine” in the forest. It was beautiful, the trees kept most of the rain off, and it smelled absolutely amazing to breathe the air there. Thinking I’d almost walked every trail there was to walk, I suddenly turned the corner into a whole ‘nother shrine complex! The same courtyard surrounded by multiple buildings. A slightly smaller charms/gifts shop with similar items. And a nearly identical unapproachable series of dark wooden buildings with delicate gold trim. I thought at first I might have wandered around to the back side of the same area I’d seen before, but the map confirms it is a totally different shrine called Kamichikama.

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Trying to discover the meaning of this led me on a wild Google chase that resulted in me visiting the actual Japanese website for the Atsuta Jingu shrine. Previously I’d only been reading the made for English speaking tourists site. The native one is WAY bigger. It’s tricky to translate religious stuff and ceremonial language, but I found the map with building names and basic function (so much better than the English one) and Kamichikama is a Bodhisattva of wisdom. I can’t find his name anywhere but Trip Advisor in reference to this particular place when I search it in English, but Shinto has a LOT of local deities and honored persons, so it could be that he only exists at this one place and that is not weird.

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I poked around the Japanese version of the website after discovering the insane difference in the level of details. Google translate is not great, but it does give me a little more information than … nothing… I am not going to try to translate the whole site and detail every little shrine I found, but if you’re curious, the information is out there. There are a LOT of shrines inside this forest and they are all devoted to a specific kami  or sometimes historical event that is remembered. People regularly come to them to pray and make offerings. Some people seemed to treat it a little like a wishing well, while others had deeper reverence. The practice of Shinto may have changed over the centuries in Japan, but it is definitely alive, well, and a major part of the everyday lives of the Japanese people.

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Sadly, the low lighting and high humidity played merry heck with my camera and there are not enough good shots of the shrine to be worthy of a solo Facebook album, but I will put together a trip compilation album before the end of the series. Speaking of which… I’m not actually finished writing the rough draft of whole this trip yet… still. At my last school, I had 1-2 hours when I was stuck at my desk with nothing to do but write, but here I have to carve out time because there is no “desk warming”. It’s so tempting to just leave the office behind and go for a walk or take a nap. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of my spare computer hours nailing down plans for the summer holiday European trip which is going to be so awesome. I’ll do my best to get the rest of the Nagoya stories out before the end of the semester? As always, thanks for reading!

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The Tooth Saga: Cavities, Root Canals & Crowns, oh my!

Sometime in January 2017, while crunching some very hard candy, I noticed that there was a slight twinge in my left, rear, bottom molar. I made my first dentist appointment for a day in February when the students were not in class. It has taken 15 months to finish the work. Inspired by the “letters home” from early explorers on long and challenging treks into the unknown, or log books from ship’s captains lost at sea, I have assembled this saga as a series of Facebook posts, unearthed by future historian me.

Dentistry is not exciting, but this experience has shown me the solid consequence of the American health system that kept me financially barred from adequate dental care after I became an adult. I’m sure I could have found a dentist in the US who could have dealt with my issue more quickly and less painfully, but I would never have been able to afford it. However much of a struggle this was, I didn’t loose any teeth because I couldn’t afford to go, nor did I end up financially ruined because of a painful emergency. And if you don’t believe Americans go bankrupt from dental care, just ask Google.


20 February 2017
Dentist. ugh.
X-rays, told I need a root canal in one tooth and an inlay in another. Told the root canal will take 3-4 visits (not counting this one) and while it will be mostly covered by insurance, the crown will not be.

22 February
First root canal session.

28 February 2017
Root canal session 2: dentist agreed that I shouldn’t have felt pain the whole time since last appointment. Not sure what the problem was, but hopefully it it’s addressed. Only 2-3 more of these to go.

28 February 2017
I spent the week between in horrible terrible pain and when I got to the dentist to explain this, they went back in and found a second “root” of nerves that needed to be cleared out. They assured me it would be better after this, but that this would add some time to the process.

2 March 2017
I can’t find a record of the my thoughts from this visit. Perhaps it was unremarkable? All I have found is the text from the hospital confirming the appointment.

7 March 2017
Root canal session 4: actually the 5th visit to the dentist because the first was consult. We’re finally finished with the “root canal” portion of the procedure and although it hurt mucho ouchies, I was assured this is normal. I’m getting pretty fed up with this pain. Next week, we will start the crown procedure, minimum three visits, first visit extra long, show up an hour earlier.
14 March 2017
Dentist visit 4,378… I don’t know, I’ve lost count. Root canal is done but due to persistent pain, they did not start the crown process today. They put a temp back on and want me to wait two more weeks while I take some antibiotics. Yay.
29 March 2017
The root canal that would not end. They don’t want to do the crown until the pain stops, which is reasonable in case there is a real problem and they need to go back in. So after waiting for the last 2 weeks and having a decrease but not a cessation of pain, they topped up the temp crown and said to wait 3 more weeks. It’s a new form of hell.
19 April 2017
Remember that root canal I’ve been getting since February? Well, the pain in the tooth finally stopped and today we began the process toward a crown. This involved the dentist filing the tooth to a tiny square, then the dental tech making a temp crown of acrylic by hand. My gums are sore, but I’m happy to be making progress again. However due to the upcoming holiday, I have to wait about 2 more weeks to get the final crown installed. #longestrootcanalever
*From February 22 until April 19, I was in daily pain.
8 May 2017
This dentist… Same procedure from February… Turns out they weren’t making my crown at all, but just stuck a temp in there too kill time or something. So instead of getting my crown and being done with this ordeal like I expected, I have two more visits after this one to finish one forsaken root canal. I’ll be taking dentist recommendations for the other cavity.
17 May 2017
I have a crown!!!!! Let the normal chewing commence!
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From April 19 to May 17 is the time it took them to install the crown AFTER the pain had stopped. Although the pain in the tooth was better, there was still regular discomfort and irritation that would last 2-3 days after each visit when they poked and prodded me. Each visit I told them what hurt, when and for how long, and they continued to insist it was normal. 

Within 2 weeks, the tooth began to hurt again. I had read online that a crown could cause sensitivity as well and that some people had intermittent pain for up to 6 months after a root canal. However, as June continued, it became apparent that the pain was neither mild nor intermittent. It went from an occasional twinge at mealtimes to a constant dull ache with sharper pains when brushing my teeth or chewing.

16 June 2017
I couldn’t believe this pain was normal, regardless of how clear my exit x-ray had looked. I called the hospital but was told they were booked solid for the next 10 working days. When I told the nurse about the pain, she suggested I find another dentist. I don’t know if she was being helpful or trying to get rid of me, but either way, I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

19 June 2017
First visit to Dr. Kwon. It’s official. 2017 is the year of the dentist. Pray with me to the tooth fairy that the simple fix works because the alternative is redoing the root canal.

Dr. Kwon was a friendly if somewhat nervous man who spoke competent English. His suggestion was to grind down the crown a bit so that it wouldn’t hit the upper tooth anymore, thus relieving the pressure. He also gave me antibiotics and painkillers, and told me to wait two weeks.

It didn’t work.

27 June 2017
The tooth saga is not over after all. The pain resurges. The crown must go. Rage.
29 June 2017
Well, there goes 350$. The crown was cut off my tooth today.
6 July 2017
*This is a long rant about dentists and teeth. You have been warned.*

Trying not to nuke the dental industry at large. New dentist seemed so kind and helpful but keeps changing his mind, which is NOT reassuring… has changed the plan several times since the first time I visited, and I don’t understand why. He went from telling me that if altering the crown didn’t work, the next step was another root canal. Then today, asked me if I wanted to do another root canal or skip to the extraction… I don’t f*n know, I’ve never had this problem before ever, I go to medical experts because YOU’RE supposed to know. Extraction seems like it would suck if it’s anything like having my wisdom teeth out was, so hey maybe we should try the less invasive and less painful and less expensive thing first? But also can you please tell me what you’re going to do differently from the first dentist who clearly didn’t actually do it right? Now I’m being referred to a specialist who may or may not speak English…

The tooth has been hurting 80% of the time at least since Feb.

The referral of July 6:

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“He is a professor at Pusan National dental hospital”… I know English is not Dr. Kwon’s first language, but this sounds an awful lot like he knows a guy. Right?

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When Dr. Kwon finally texted me back, it was with a photo of a computer screen showing the website to Pusan National University Hospital…

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When I asked for the name of the specialist, Dr. Kwon said he didn’t know. When I asked about the referral, he simply sent the picture again and said “all the best and hope the treatment goes well”.

7 July 2017
Today the pain became so bad I couldn’t work. I got an appointment at the dental university hospital and started out seeing a resident, but got bumped up to specialist. She worked on the tooth for about 2 hours and found many more hidden nerves. She is pretty sure she got them all today. I’m still numb from the anasthetic, and my jaw is sore af from being open so long, but they think I should be pain free in a day or three. I’m going back on Tuesday and one more time after that. She’s trying to finish up before I go on vacation. It’s too soon to call it, but so far I feel like this is progress. Cross your everything.
8 July 2017
The good news is that the parts of me that hurt yesterday seem to have calmed down. The bad news is everything else hurts instead. My jaw aches, I can’t yawn. I bumped my front teeth with the rim of my water bottle and it hurt. I bit down too fast, it hurt… Oh yes and every muscle in my core and shoulders hurts from being clenched in pain and anticipation of pain for several hours yesterday. But nah, the dentists here are sure I’ll be fine with just Tylenol. -.-
11 July 2017
The dentist was surprised to hear I was still in pain. Surprised the Tylenol hadn’t helped. Surprised I was in pain even while sitting there not moving. They tried to begin *without anesthesia* and I nearly jumped out of the chair when she touched the tooth. It was clear to me that this is not what they were expecting.She used more lidocaine and after getting the tooth clear again, a microscope to see the smallest parts. She cleaned more, found more places that seared and stabbed through the local anesthetic.

Still in pain with the local anesthetic. Dentist finally agreed to pain meds, 3 days… My next appointment is in 7 days. Talked them up to 5 days of meds. Checked the medicine they offered. It’s a low-grade NSAID used for “mild to moderate pain” and not common in the US because if the side effects… Also 5 days worth of antibiotics and antimicrobials. While we wait. Again. To see if they finally got it all or if I have to lose the whole tooth.

16 July 2017
What a weekend. The tooth pain has receded from “OMG I’m gonna die” to “annoying persistent pain” which is nice because it allowed me to enjoy Pride yesterday and even march, but scary because I’ll take my last dose of meds today and see the dentist Tuesday and try to figure out a) why it improved, b) if it’s likely to keep improving, and c) how long we should wait to answer the question of whether or not to remove it…a week before I get on a plane to Seattle.
18 July 2017
My tooth of course did the most awkward thing if neither fully recovering nor staying bad. This half recovery led the dentist to want to try *one more* root canal cleaning to see if she can save the tooth. This was much better, no pain through the anesthetic. They still won’t give me pain meds because they think the meds aren’t what worked last week, and they said after a day or two of soreness from the procedure, I should be ok. One more appointment next week the day before I go on a trans Pacific flight. Down to the wire.
25 July 2017
Filled and temp capped the tooth today. It gets to rest 3 weeks while I’m on holiday then we check it when I get back. And if all is well we wait 3 months with a temp crown because of what happened last time. Still a game of wait and see but at least it hurts less and less often.
Went on vacation to North America for 3 weeks. Tooth pain was pretty rough for the first week, but Canadians have good meds.
16 August 2017
Theoretically, the last root canal procedure was done today (again), sans anesthetic and not that bad. Now we wait a healthy time before committing to another crown, I’m thinking a few months…
But wait! There’s more than one cavity! The original x-ray back in February showed ANOTHER problem on the upper right side of the jaw. No dentist wanted to deal with it, I later was told because they didn’t want me to be on a liquid diet since having work done on left and right at the same time would make chewing impossible. Considering I spent a few weeks not being able to chew anyway, this seems like a poor excuse… nevertheless- a new dentist must be found.

But first? LASIK and my bi-annual gov’t sponsored health check. After all, a girl can only visit a healthcare professional so many times a week without going crazy.

Had LASIK and recovery time, and managed to get lymphadenitis (Latin for “your lymph node is swollen but we don’t know why”) which got in the way of timely dental care while still keeping me in constant pain and regular hospital visits. Yay!

2 September 2017
Went to dentist number four to start on cavity number two. She says she’ll try to treat it by filling first but my fear that waiting and waiting (not my idea, every dentist I saw told me to finish root canal 1 first) now means it’s gotten worse and might need another root canal. She also found at least one maybe two other tiny cavities. And told me that I needed to do a full cleaning today (covered by insurance) before having more work done. Gentlest cleaning ever, tho. Now my teeth feel funny as almost 20 years of hardened plaque are gone, and next Saturday we’ll start on the problem tooth. The moral of this story is don’t wait two decades to get your teeth checked.
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Well, the bad news it’s another root canal. Good news, this is the gentlest dentist ever. Even the tool to administer the anesthetic was painless, and it didn’t numb half my face, and they let me hold this cute Teddy Bear. Still have 3-5 more visits for t
his root canal. Then the smaller cavities and the crowns. The year of the dentist continues.
12 September 2017
Supposedly the roots are eradicated. Now I wait 3 more hours for the anesthetic to wear off and find out if they missed any.
13 September 2017
Root Canal 2: My teeth seem to enjoy being ambiguous. This is just enough pain that I can’t be sure nothing is wrong, but not so much pain that I can be sure something is wrong… #dentalpainwaitinggame

18 September 2017
Although this is going much better than the first tooth, still some pain and she went looking for more nerves today. The anasthetic is somehow affecting part of my nose and right eye. It feels very strange. Next appointment, one week unless it hurts to much.

25 September 2017
My teeth hate me. Good news: still hurts less than the first one. Bad news: still hurts. Dentist 4 can’t figure it out and wants me to go back to Yangsan. But she’s writing an actual letter of referral so I can go straight to the specialist, and they’re refunding money since they can’t finish it there. Also, I am a dental mutant, my teeth are funny shapes. *Sobs quietly.

26 September 2017
Day 7/7 black and white photo challenge complete.

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It takes a long time to get in to see a specialist if you don’t have emergency level pain.

26 October 2017 
Finally got the the cavity filled today. Third (and easiest) tooth problem. Hooooraaaaay! Next week I start on getting the crown for root canal #1. I’m down to like 1.5 teeth problems!

31 October 2017
The second crown on the first root canal has been initiated. These folks are not kidding around. The amount of attention to detail is reassuring. Plus, when they made the impression, instead of multiple attempts with squishy molds, they waved a magic wand over me then and made a digital 3d image! I’m feeling pretty good about the fairly minor price bump over my last crown install.

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9 November 2017 
All the dentist. Got the crown, but extensive bite testing revealed it to be 4 micrometers too short. While waiting for this to get fixed, I got more lessons in oral hygiene including brush each tooth ten times, brush 4x a day, and use this metal mini bristle to harden your gums. Got the crown back with a temporary fixative and I get to test drive it for a week before the permanent upgrade. I can see the finish line (for one more tooth anyway).

Finally got the diagnosis on the mysterious lymphadenitis. It’s called “Kikuchi Disease”, a non-lethal, self-healing disease which mainly presents in women so no one bothers researching it, and it’s named after the man who “discovered” it.

17 November 2017
Dentist x2: yesterday I went to the specialist to work on root canal 2. They found a mysterious 4th canal. Follow up in a week. Today I went to get the crown perma attached on root canal one, but when they took it out to clean the temp adhesive and prepare for permanence, the tech dropped and shattered the crown, so now we’re starting over with a new temp crown and they’ll remake the crown again for trial next week. I swear this tooth is determined to be a hassle for the whole year. But at this point, it’s so absurd I can only laugh. Third crown is the charm?

dentist-schedule-e1521543814482.jpgI gave up posting dental updates on Facebook after this, but the third crown was a success, and by early December, I was deemed to be complete on the second root canal. Before scheduling the crown, however, I wanted to wait for the pain to fully dissipate and stay gone for at least 6 weeks. Best case scenario, that would be the end of January 2018.

On top of this, I didn’t know where I would be by the end of February and was hesitant to start what could be a month-long procedure if I would have to leave the country before it was finished.

In late February, I did have to move, but only to Gyeongju where I started a new job and spent all my free time in March handling moving, hiring paperwork, and staying legal in Korea paperwork (employment visa, etc).

The Final Crown

2 April 2018
Finally got all my ducks in a row to the point where I feel comfortable committing to several more weeks of dental work to finish this UNBELIEVABLY LONG PROCESS only to find out that the dentist I want to see has the same days off as me.
*headdesk

14 April 2018
Teeeth. I went in for the crown fitting today. Discovered that the mild pain is not related to the root canal, but instead some gum damage and a tiny cavity on the tooth next door. At least it was easy to fix. 10 days to real crown. Is it too much to hope my dental drama is almost over?

15 April 2018
Expletive deleted temporary crown came off and broke in less than 24 hrs. On bread.

16 April 2018
I think I just unintentionally haggled for dental care.

I had to go to a local dentist in Gyeongju to replace the temporary crown, since going without could change the shape of my teeth/jaw alignment enough to make my permanent crown not fit right. They tried to charge me 50$ and when I declined service and prepared to leave, they hurriedly asked if I had insurance, and then reduced the charge to 5$…

25 April 2018
Oh my fucking Christ. I need hugs now.

Although my next appointment was on this day, this post is not actually about the dentist. I went straight from the dentist office to the movie theater to watch Infinity War and the pain of Thanos was far worse than anything my teeth could muster.

2 May 2018
This dentist thing will never end. Some occasional mystery pain in the tooth and they want to wait two more weeks to see if it goes away. She checked everything today and can’t find any reason for there to be any pain. It’s not bad, and it’s very inconsistent, but they expect teeth to not hurt at all after a root canal is complete.

12 May 2018
Dentistry: my preferred dentist was in town today so I was finally able to see her about this last crown. She made some fine tuning adjustments the other dentist missed, and we did the final setting! The whole area is throbbing because as the tech cleaned the extra glue from around the crown it was rough on the gums. However, barring any further craziness. This saga is finally over! From now on I’ll try to get my regular check ups and catch any cavities before they become root canals.

Finally, my extended dental drama is complete. As long as I live in a country with affordable dental care, I’m going to make it a point to go annually for a cavity check. Here in Korea, an X-ray and basic cavity filling will cost me 50-100$ depending on the quality of dentist. It’s still not chump change, but unlike other health issues, cavities never go away on their own, they only turn into more painful and more expensive procedures. I wish that America would make the annual preventative dental care and basic filling affordable for everyone, because then I might not have put off going for 17 years until I was faced with this insane saga.

However sloggingly long and grueling this was, it is nothing compared to what would have faced me in the US where I would inevitably have waited until the pain was too severe to ignore, then been faced with emergency costs and probably lost both teeth, and just as probably been unable to afford implants to replace them. On top of health and hygiene issues, good teeth are a key to good jobs and good living situations since Americans tend to highly discriminate against visibly bad teeth as a sign of “moral failing” the same way they look at body fat. Yet both are more often a result of financially inaccessible health care. My teeth were visually fine, and didn’t actively hurt me, so I simply ignored them for almost 2 decades. Learn from my mistakes and go find a dentist you like.

The Evolution of an ESL Professor

Whenever I read memes or even articles about teaching jobs I sort of laugh and groan at the same time. I genuinely do not believe there is another career where everything from your day to day duties to your mission statement can change so much from one place of employment to another. I’m also sure that if my blog were more popular, a bunch of people would come out of the woodwork to tell me why their job changes as much or more. It’s not a competition. The point is, at the beginning of my career, I had one set of conceptions about the job of teaching that have continuously been challenged and forced to evolve every time I move to a new country or job. Starting my new job in Gyeongju was no exception.


*Disclaimer* Education is a deep and complex field. People get PhD’s in it. Libraries full of books full of educational theory exist. I’m not trying to encapsulate the total sum of the educator’s experience. I’m sharing my own personal experiences, my progress through this wild career, in the hopes that it is interesting and perhaps sheds a little light into the world of ESL Education and teaching abroad.

In the Beginning

Related imageI started my teaching career at the college level. I did tutoring before that, but it’s not really the same. Tutoring is a kind of gateway after school job for future educators. My very first gigs were at a community college teaching adult night classes in digital photography and Adobe Photoshop. This was so long ago and far away, I can’t even remember the name of the school or the dates of the classes to put it on my CV. It was also before the advent of quality camera phones, automatic everything and Instagram filters, so people actually had to learn the settings on their camera and the basic functions of Photoshop to produce the same quality image that your average phone can produce today.

I wasn’t originally even supposed to do it, but my roommate had accepted too many freelance jobs and needed to foist her classes off on someone else. I mean, I was basically qualified in education and work experience (using Photoshop as a part of my oh so glamorous job at the wedding videographer’s) but it was not a class I applied to teach nor interviewed for, it was one that I ended up doing as a favor.

I had no idea what I was doing as far as instruction, however. Knowing a topic and knowing how to teach that topic are worlds apart. Lucky me, it was adult continuing education and most of the people signed up were hobbyists who wanted to make better vacation photos. I basically showed up and demonstrated photography techniques then answered questions. There was no lesson plan or assessment or anything that I associate with proper teaching these days.

Image result for teaching assistant memeYears later I was a teaching assistant while in grad school. This is a wildly variable position that can mean anything from “teach this class for me because I’m busy with a research project” to “here grade these”. A “real professor” is listed as teaching a particular class, and then assigns a variable amount of work to the graduate student assigned to help.

In this case, the real professor also did all the hard work of lesson planning and designing assessment materials. I got to practice a little classroom management in smaller groups, and I started learning how to follow a rubric while grading.

No-Book, No-Syllabus, No-Fail Class System

Finally, I got my own classes in China. This was a bit like being thrown in the deep end of a trout pool. Initially terrifying, ultimately bewildering, but not actually dangerous. There were sometimes textbooks and sometimes not. There was no kind of departmental organization, no standard rubric or exams.

Image result for failure is not an option memeI was told that should a student fail, it was my responsibility as the teacher to let them take the test again, and if they still failed, to make the test easier and let them try again, and then if they still failed, they would be allowed to pay a fee to pass anyway. It seemed like a horrible waste of my time to fail anyone at that point, so I had a grading curve that gave the worst performing student the lowest possible passing grade.

It was the first time I was responsible for an entire course, from syllabus to final exam. I had to make all the assignments, all the quizzes, all the exams, and all the grading rubrics from scratch. Sometimes I also had to make the course reading materials from scratch too.

Most of the time my lesson plans were fly-by-night because I had no guidance and extremely minimal resources (like, chalk… and maybe occasionally I could get copies made if I was lucky). Mostly we had fun. I had a lot of very driven students and that made it easier because they wanted to learn and practice and ask questions. They were mostly only children from farming families who were under a lot of pressure to succeed in university and then make enough money to lift their families out of poverty. Students were hardly ever absent because their class leader would report them for skipping. Communism, eh?

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Over the course of the school year I got better and better at making plans, and learning how to judge how well an activity would work or how long it would take. I still made a lot of mistakes, but no one was watching except the students and they are by and large a very forgiving group about anything that means less work for them. I didn’t really make any progress on assessment techniques, however since most of my graded assignments were designed to be fail-proof.

Get You Some of That Training

I decided to get some more education before my next job. I tried to get into a program for an actual teaching certificate, but I discovered (despite a major teacher shortage) that WA state (where I lived at the time) would only offer teaching certification education as part of a (very expensive) master’s degree. The Americans reading this already know what a university degree costs, but for the rest of you:

And that’s just undergraduate, aka Bachelor’s degrees. If you want a Master’s in something, well…

But what about financial aid? Loans, grants, scholarships? Oh, that is only good for your first degree at any level. So my existing MA disqualified me from getting any aid at all on an M.Ed. while at the same time Washington State law made it impossible for me to get a teaching certificate without getting that M.Ed. The extra schooling didn’t phase me, but the extra $40,000 for even the shortest 18 month program (not counting cost of living during said 18 months) was just untenable. So, when people ask me if I’m a “real teacher” or a “qualified teacher” and what they mean is, “do you have a certificate to teach in America?”, I get a little cranky.

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Unable to afford a shiny and expensive teaching license, I went off to a local school in Seattle to get my TESOL certification. I took two quarters (WA schools are on a quarter system, 1 quarter is 10 weeks) of part time classes at a total cost just under 2500$ and was able to keep working while I did it. Of course I know it’s not the same. Of course I know that people who were able to get those M.Ed. programs got a much better education in teaching than I did. I’m never going to try to say a TESOL is equal, but it’s better than nothing. I can’t do anything about the financial gate keeping except take what’s left.

Nearly all overseas English instruction jobs require the TESOL or CELTA these days. A quick note to aspiring ESL abroad instructors, – DON’T DO THE ONLINE COURSE.  There are a lot of places offering TESOL online for a fraction of the cost, but most good jobs will not take your online certification. If all you want is a gap year abroad, fine. Take a crappy job that doesn’t need a TESOL at all and have fun working to death. If you actually want a decent job and some good tools to do it with, invest the time and money in a brick and mortar school to do your TESOL, classroom observation, and classroom practice experience hours.

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I got the TESOL because I’d been out of teaching a few years. The change in qualifications was part of it, but I also wanted something on my CV about teaching that was more recent when I started applying for jobs again. There was a lot of the material that was familiar to me from my previous experiences, but it was nice to see it all laid out in a clear way instead of the hodge-podge I’d cobbled together from trial and error. I still use stuff I learned there.

A Kingdom Where Students Are Paid

In Saudi I also taught university students. It was an intensive English certificate program they could do as an add on to their degree program. In reality, it was an adult babysitting service. I only taught women because gender segregation was still mandatory at the time. The women were paid to go to class. How’s that for culture shock?

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Since the women in Saudi can’t appear in pictures, this was our class photo at the end of year party. I am holding the knife and my ladies are posing with me.

They were in class for 5 hours a day with me (with breaks). Their level was very low despite 6 years of English language study prior to our program. Even though there was a better guide as far as materials and exams went, the school’s program was primarily based on an experimental kind of “self evaluation” that involved the students making portfolios of their work to show their progress through the semester, and then being evaluated on that progress with half the grade being from the teacher and half from themselves (with teacher veto power for obviously undeserved 100% grades). Again, I was basically in a no-fail, no-absence kind of program. Being absent meant not getting paid for the day, so it was a rare occurrence. Unlike my Chinese students, these ladies weren’t motivated to succeed by their family or future because as women in Saudi Arabia they reasonably felt that they had no future beyond making babies. (side note, this was before the new crown prince started noticing that women are people, so maybe that will change soon?)

The day was divided into 3 sections: Speaking/Listening, Reading/Writing, and A BS Made Up Title to Cover for Wasted Time. I don’t actually remember what they called it, but it doesn’t matter, it was the arts and crafts /adult day care portion of the day. I had to design creative projects to keep the students busy during this “class” that could show off their English skills to the Dean. The men did things like making videos and other technologically oriented creative uses of language, but girls can’t appear on video plus all our computers were sad and broken (unlike the men who had 21st century classrooms with digital whiteboards). So, we got down to it with poster-board and colored markers the best we could.

I also had to make lesson plans every week, which was a pain in my rear, but very good practice. Making lesson plans is one of those things that feels like it takes twice as long as actually teaching does when you first start, but then once you’ve been doing it for a while you find you can do it in 15 minutes while watching TV. However, they were often useless as things changed from hour to hour at the school, and goals and rubrics would be replaced any time the Dean felt like it.

We had a text book, but the students were not supposed to buy it. If I wanted to use material from the textbook, I had to put it on the overhead projector or print it out. There was too much haram (forbidden) material there for students to have unfettered access. I was not supposed to do more than two printouts a week (that’s 2 printouts per 25 hours of education). I couldn’t use any music, and was very limited in the kinds of images I could use as well. I spent a lot of time inventing activities that would work with just pencil and paper, whiteboard and marker.

I did have to write quizzes; however, tests were entirely supplied by the textbook publisher and were standardized across the school. They hardly mattered since the projects and self-evaluation notebooks accounted for most of the grade. I don’t actually know how many hours I worked because I often spent weekends making class materials and lesson plans. I had no incentive to work quickly because there was nothing for me to DO in my free time there.

Elementary, My Dear

When I came to Korea, I took a job teaching elementary school kids. Whut? I wasn’t even sure I could do it, but I wasn’t alone. There was a really good structure as far as books and materials, but there wasn’t much evaluation going on. Elementary kids in Korea don’t have “exams”, and even when they do take tests, it’s more like a practice thing or a way for the teacher to see if people are absorbing the material. There’s no pressure the way there is for middle and high school students. In a lot of ways, that’s great, especially for young kids. Elementary kids are also rarely absent because the school calls their parents if they are and wants to know why.

I didn’t really do “lesson plans” per se, as the Korean English teacher was primarily responsible for that, and also because the textbooks were broken down into the most insanely easy to follow blocks (2 pages per class, every class; CD with videos and activities included; plus stickers and activity cut outs etc in the back of the book… really… great… books.) I did make a lot of games and fun activities because it was my job as the “guest” or “native” teacher to Make English FUN!

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I really wish I’d known more about these kinds of games while I was in Saudi because I think it would have saved me some serious headaches and made the days more interesting. Nothing is really as boring as masses of repetition, fill in the blanks, or black and white worksheets.

I did make worksheets for the elementary kids too, but they were more like puzzles and were only used as “extra” for the kids who finished their regular assignment early, or the kids who wanted to earn some extra points (points were used to get candy, not for a grade).

I also assigned myself some assessment tasks when I realized that things like handwriting and spelling were much harder for the Korean teachers to check quickly and accurately.

Finally, elementary school kids are legally entitled to an education, so no matter how badly they behave in your class you can’t send them out. I’m not saying any of these are bad policies. I think in large part, they are great for kids in that age range. I bring it up, however, to contrast my previous educational experiences with my current job.

Going Pro…fessor

No two teaching jobs from my past have been the same. Even when I was teaching the same subject (ESL), I faced different issues of bureaucracy, cultural expectations and limitations, available materials, support (or hindrance) from other teachers and administration staff, as well as my own personal experience.

One thing they do have in common, however, is that all of my past jobs have been effectively “no-fail” and largely “no-skip”. Everyone shows up and does the work because there are external consequences of not doing so coming from family, government, or someone higher up in the school than me. Most of my past jobs were pretty laissez faire about the whole “teaching” thing. Some required a greater or lesser extent of paperwork from me, but generally nothing that I couldn’t keep track of on a single grade sheet.

Image result for shit just got real memeNow suddenly I find myself in (forgive me China and Saudi, but) a real university.

The paperwork here is a little daunting. There is a digital attendance tracker. Students install an app on their phones and then scan into the classroom when they arrive. I have to double check this, of course, because some smart alecks think they can run in before I get there, swipe their phones and then skive off while being digitally counted as “present”. Despite the fact that I always catch them, some still haven’t figured out how.

There’s another program that tracks the classes and students. I recently had to enter midterm grades on this all Korean website, and navigate adding a make-up class to the online schedule so that it would sync with the digital attendance tracker. Fortunately the office staff here are AH-MAZE-ING. They made little instruction sets with screen shots and step by step instructions. I love them so much.

Image result for teacher paperwork memeI’m also tracking all the grades in some Excel spreadsheets that were designed years ago. I’m not required to do it this way, but since I am required to have the same overall weight for each aspect of assessment (attendance, participation, homework, quizzes, exams) everyone says it really helps with the math, as in, you don’t have to do any. I have a paper version for back up and my own sanity.

I don’t have too much in the way of lesson planning or test making since everyone teaching the same level/using the same book is meant to be on roughly the same schedule and administering the same quizzes/exams. They’ve been teaching this stuff for decades, so the lesson plans and materials are all mostly made, available in Dropbox or Google Drive depending on the Team Leader’s preferences. I still have to check for mistakes or updates, and sometimes I’m a little blown down by what I find, but overall, it’s quite effective.

As the semester goes on, I’m getting faster at all of this, and more confident about making changes for my own needs. I’m actually hoping that next year I can start re-incorporating games into my lessons again. For the time being, I only get to use my fun games in the “extra credit” class I teach once a week in the Language Lab since it has no set book or lessons.

In a stunning move toward self-responsibility, our hours are not tracked. We’re expected to be in class during class time, but all the other various tasks of teaching are entirely up to me where and when I do them. Some days this means I’m in the office until 9pm. Other days I’m out after only a couple hours. Sometimes I’m doing marking in my pajamas with Netflix on in the background. The flexibility is great, but I also realize I never truly *stop* working since students can and will message me at any time.

Most magically, this is probably the best support network I’ve ever had at an educational job. It’s a little bit stunning and now that I’ve had a taste, I never want to work solo again!

Students Are Allowed to Fail

It’s not just the paperwork and administrative tasks that have changed with my new placement. The students, student interactions, and student expectations are wildly divergent from my other schools.

In the past, Korea was a lot more like my experience of China. (I hear they are changing, too, but I haven’t been back in a while) Students worked hard to get good test scores and get into a university, but then pretty much skated through an undergraduate degree afterward. Nowadays in Korea, students still have to work their butts off to get into university, but then they are expected to be self-responsible hard working adults once there.

Related imageMy university has a rule for the English department that only a certain percent of each class can receive an A or B grade. They call it a “curve” but it’s more like a ceiling. No matter how many do well, only the very best 15% will get an A. Another 30% can get a B, and everyone else will get a C or lower. Failure is entirely an option. 

I just can’t seem to get over the fact that I’m allowed to tell a student “tough” in response to some abstract complaint.

I don’t mean real issues. I’ll help a student all day long if they are genuinely trying to learn and are having stuff happen. I was texting one at 11:30 pm the other day because they were really worried they’d have to know the nuanced difference between “intelligent, smart, and clever” for the vocabulary quiz. Even after being told that for quiz purposes they could be used in the same way, they still wanted to understand the actual differences which is really great! I was fine spending my free time on that.

Image result for student excuses memeConversely, I had another student who was upset they were marked absent on the first day of classes (they were absent) and tried to argue with me for 30 minutes about why they shouldn’t be marked absent (because they were in another city) and why they shouldn’t loose points for trying to show me the absentee records on their phone during class instead of doing the work I assigned. That gets no sympathy at all, and eventually I dumped them on the admin staff who told them the same thing I said, only in Korean and in a sterner tone of voice.

Those are two very obvious examples of the opposite ends of the spectrum, but most of my student interactions are much harder to track and I spend a lot of time trying to weigh the effectiveness of my previous teaching styles developed in the no-fail/all-attendance environments when I’m clearly surrounded by students who think they can get away with coming every other class, or halfheartedly doing the homework, or making up terrible excuses for why they didn’t.

Some of these are so far outside my realm of experience, I can only stammer and stare when they happen. I had a student tell me they would miss class (good for telling me in advance) and I responded that they would still be marked absent (unless they had an official note), but could make up the quiz if they came to my office another day during the week, to which they replied, “thank you”. When the next class came around, I asked why he hadn’t come to take the makeup quiz. He told me he didn’t understand my text. How was I even supposed to know that? Now he has a zero.

Image result for headdesk teacher memeI’m still banging my head into my desk over these kids while my team leader (who is a very dedicated teacher and works quite hard and no he isn’t reading this blog, I’m just saying his reply is not born from laziness) is telling me to just say, “tough cookies” and move on.

All my instincts are to ensure that my students do the work in class and succeed. It’s been my responsibility to ensure this for my entire teaching career. I can’t just park myself in the front of class and lecture. I still move all around and talk with students one on one because I know they won’t speak if everyone can hear. I can’t just wait for students to ask me why they got that question wrong, or expect them to read the syllabus or homework, so we spend class time on it.

I think that some of my habits and instincts are good and helpful, but I can also see that some of them are causing me undue stress in this new environment and it’s going to take me a while to figure out what to hold on to and what to set free.

What Does Your Teacher Do?

Although most of my experiences have been as an ESL instructor abroad, I feel like the wild variation in the practical experiences of teachers is true in most fields. So, the next time you hear someone snidely remark, “those who can’t do, teach” think about the teachers in your life, in your kids lives. What do they do? What limitations are they laboring under? How much of what you’re complaining about is even something they control? Why I haven’t you called your local government officials to insist teachers all get paid fair wages for the work they do? How is the job in their school/community/country different and unique? How are they making the world better?

Then buy them some chocolates or something cause this shit is stressful.


Heyo! Still writing about the less travelly aspects of my life these days, but I’m pleased to announce that I am going to Nagoya, Japan over the long holiday weekend ahead (that is Children’s Day aka Golden Week). One of my friends from Busan got a job at a university over there (yay!) and I’ve decided to go and visit, stuff my face with Japanese food, and traipse through as many parks and gardens as possible. It might take me a couple of weeks to write about the trip, but I promise there is travel writing in the very near future.

In the mean time, I’ve taken up macro-photography as a springtime hobby. If you like pictures of really tiny things, you can check out my Instagram for a collection of extreme close-ups of flowers and cute little bugs.

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