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On August 1st Hikone's big fireworks (hanabi) display took place, as part of the Lake Biwa Festival. It has to have been the most impressive firework display I've ever seen, and it went on for well over an hour. The centre of activity was down around the harbour, where there were thousands of people and dozens of food stalls. Among the delicacies on offer were yakitori (chicken kebabs), okonomiyaki (savoury pancake/omelette-type things), squid balls, fried chicken, toffee apples, shave ice (resembles the slush drinks you get in the UK) and fresh pineapple skewered on chopsticks.
My next-door neighbours, the Kawanishi family, are very friendly. They brought presents back for me from their recent trip to Disneyland Tokyo, and dad - who speaks a little English - took a photo of me with his two daughters (Yuki, who's in the first year of junior high school so she's just started learning English, and her sister Miho, who's in the fourth year of elementary school) and presented me with a framed copy the next day! When I first moved in I did observe the custom of giving a small gift to the neighbours - just a London souvenir teatowel - and it certainly seems to have been appreciated! They also gave me quarter of a watermelon (and watermelons are frighteningly expensive in Japan); I brought them back a little box of cakes when I went away for the weekend, and the next day they brought me another bag of goodies! There was fruit preserved in jelly (very nice), and green tea flavoured jelly (not quite so keen). Green tea (o-cha) is a very popular flavour here; they even have green tea flavoured Häagen Dazs!
Posing with Yuki and Miho Kawanishi.
Appointment ceremony and study tour
On August 4th the prefecture-appointed (senior high school) JETs' official appointment ceremony was held in Otsu. This was filmed, and I believe it was shown on the local news later that day. After the ceremony we met up with the town-appointed (junior high school) ALTs for a "study tour" of the region, with visits to JCMU (the Japan Centre for Michigan Universities, just north of Hikone) and Hikone Castle. This was the first time that the 29 Group A and 23 Group B people (who arrived in Japan a week later) had had the opportunity to meet up. The castle visit was nice, but the JCMU visit was a bit of a waste of time. All I learned was that (a) they sometimes employ part-time English teachers (could be a possibility, if I find that I don't have enough to do (unlikely!); I don't think my contract actually prevents me from taking on additional work, but it has to first be approved by the staff at my school) and (b) they only hold Japanese classes in the morning (no use to me). On the bus we had a karaoke session - probably the first of many - where we sang the Lake Biwa song. Nice melody, but it's very difficult to learn the words when they're just a series of meaningless sounds! The day's official activities ended with a party at a hotel in Seta, not far from Otsu. This was "nomi-hodai" - all-you-can-drink - but the choice of drinks was limited to beer or orange juice. Still, shouldn't complain when it's free... Afterwards, some people went to Kusatsu to carry on drinking while others headed off home.
On the way up to Hikone Castle.
Looking east from Hikone Castle. You can almost, but not quite, see my apartment block.
Looking south from Hikone Castle. The big white building is my base school. (The fuzzy lines are the chicken wire they had over all the windows. A pity they had to use something that you couldn't even take a decent picture through!)
In Genkyu-en garden (you can see the castle in the background).
O-bon festival events...
The following day I cycled out to Taga, a small town near Hikone, to visit a festival there. In Taga there's a huge shrine called Taga-Taisha, and the shrine and surrounding streets were all festooned with "ten thousand lanterns". Japanese festivals often seem to feature "ten thousand lanterns", and it's usually not really that many, but in this case apparently there were actually twelve thousand!
One of the portable shrines arriving at Taga-Taisha.
A few of the ten/twelve thousand lanterns at Taga.
On Friday 6th August there was a smaller event in Hikone, where paper lanterns were floated down the river for a short distance. (Again there was a "ten thousand" reference, but in this case it was really only a few hundred.) It's to do with seeing off the ancestors - all part of the big o-bon festival which takes place all over Japan in August, when the ancestors' spirits are supposed to come back to earth. People go back to their families' home towns and all sorts of activities take place to entertain and appease the spirits.
Floating lanterns down the river in Hikone.
Yet another big festival event took place in the main street leading from the station to the castle, just outside my apartment, on Sunday 8th August. This was Bon-odori, a "dancing in the street" event. To begin with there were various small dances performed, and a flea market was held down one of the side streets. Then the proper stuff began. In the city hall car park, and at three points along the length of the street, there were musicians' platforms. First there was a dance in front of the city hall, with a couple of hundred people dancing round the musicians there, then the BIG dance took place. I estimated that there were around 3000 participants - including the four junior high school ALTs based in Hikone - and they danced up one side of the street and back down the other. This main dance went on for over an hour without a break (the musicians must have been doing shifts!), then those who had the energy went back to the city hall car park for another dance - the same one as before. We were told that both dances were traditional to the local area.
Grandad takes granddaughter through the steps.
The Hikone junior high school ALTs, Nate, Amani, Dan and Tim, in yukata and happi coats, with some bloke I don't know.
Dancing in the street in Hikone.
I called in to the International Exchange Lounge in the civic centre on August 6th, and succeeded in locating cheap Japanese lessons in the local area: they do lessons at the civic centre for only ¥100 (just over 50p) a time, just 5 minutes' walk from my apartment, every Wednesday evening. Who says everything in Japan is expensive? The lounge also has lots of information available in English: not just local information but also copies of the Japan Times (one of the English-language dailies) and Kansai Time out.
I went along to the next lesson, and found that I got one-to-one tuition! There were probably around 16 people in the room, with volunteer teachers each tutoring just one or two students. I was required to buy a copy of the textbook, at ¥2500, but in a lot of places you'd pay that much for a single lesson so I didn't object. My teacher was a middle-aged guy called Kondoo, and his wife was teaching too. The teachers and students seem to be matched up fairly randomly, so you might get a change of teacher quite regularly. It was pretty intensive stuff: 90 minutes of working through the textbook, supplemented by a bit of conversation. No "fun" activities or anything like that, but well worth my ¥100! I was surprised to see that there was only one other person in the room who looked remotely Caucasian (he turned out to be Polish); I think there are quite a lot of South Americans in this area so presumably that's who most of the others were.
My third visit to Hachiman Technical High School took place on August 11th. On my previous visit I'd mentioned that I was interested in learning calligraphy (I had a 40-minute lesson on the Japanese Weekend I attended at the Brasshouse in Birmingham in April, but that was the full extent of my experience) and Matsuzawa-sensei, whose grandmother is a calligrapher, insisted that she would teach me. So off we went to a stationer's to buy brushes, ink and paper (none of which I was allowed to pay for) and I had my first lesson. Below is the result of my efforts - my name in katakana. It's a lot more difficult than it looks, especially when you use the proper paper (hanshi).
My name in katakana. Top to bottom, right to left, it reads Do-na-ru-do-so-n Ri-n. They don't like having two consonants together in Japanese!
Also on August 11th I picked up my alien registration card from the city hall. Any foreigner spending more than 90 days in Japan is required to carry their card at all times. At least they're credit-card-size so it's less inconvenient than carrying a passport around with you, as you have to do until you get your card.
A weekend exploring western Honshu
Towards the end of that week my German friend Torsten, who's currently living near Tokyo, was going to come and visit. I mentioned the plan to Fuji-sensei and he arranged for me to not have to go into school from the 12th to the 16th, even though I hadn't actually asked for the time off. Officially I think I was supposed to be studying at home, although a lot of teachers wouldn't be in anyway because of o-bon. However, Torsten's friends talked him into driving them up to Hokkaido instead, so I got together with one of the other new ALTs, a Californian called Belinda who's living in the little pottery town of Shigaraki in the south of Shiga, and we went off to Hiroshima for the weekend.
We each got a rail pass called the juhachi-kippu (18-ticket, so-called because it's really meant for students, although anyone can buy it) which entitles you to 5 days of unlimited travel on local trains. A lot slower than the shinkansen (bullet train), but pretty good value: ¥11,500, which works out at about £12 a day. The five days don't have to be consecutive, but the ticket's only available around school holiday times so the days have to be used up by 10th September.
It took us about 8 hours to get to Hiroshima, and we spent the first night in Hiroshima youth hostel, which was nice, and fairly cheap by Japanese standards. No membership was required, as it was a public hostel. Unlike in the UK, where any hostel not run by the YHA can't call itself a youth hostel, youth hostels are run by several different organisations in Japan, and not all of them require membership. Unfortunately the hostel was full for the second night so we found a place in a minshuku (a fairly basic Japanese-style hotel) near the Peace Memorial Park, which was pleasant enough if a bit pricey. Visited the park and the museum, of course. The museum was very good value (only ¥50) - there was lots to see, but it all left me a bit lost for words. That was just a tiny bomb compared to a lot of the ones they have now, and the devastation it caused was still pretty incredible. It literally obliterated the entire city centre; the only things left standing were the shells of concrete buildings, and from what I remember, everyone within a 1km radius was killed.
Belinda and me in front of the A-Bomb Memorial Dome. The Children's Memorial in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The colourful things piled up on the ground are paper cranes made by schoolchildren all over Japan and beyond. They are in memory of the bomb's victims, and were inspired by a girl called Sadako who contracted cancer in the mid-1950s as a result of having been exposed to the bomb's radiation as a toddler. She resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes, in the belief that if she did so her wish to get better would be granted, but she died. That's her on top of the memorial. Today paper cranes still arrive in their millions and are distributed all over the park.
The cenotaph, looking towards the Atomic Flame and the A-bomb Dome. The flame (I'm actually not sure of its name) is intended to be extinguished when the world's last nuclear weapons are destroyed.
Inside the museum: models of Hiroshima before and after the bomb was dropped. The only things left standing are the shells of reinforced concrete buildings. (Apologies to the museum; it was only after I'd taken these pictures that I saw the "no flash photography" notices. At least by showing these photos I'm doing something to help convey your message.)
We ate at a place in Okonomi-mura, which is a building containing about 30 little establishments doing okonomiyaki (Hiroshima style, i.e. with noodles). Apart from that we mainly just wandered around the shops and laughed at the Japlish on stationery etc. Covering half the top floor of the enormous Sogo department store we found a nauseatingly cutesy "Hello Kitty" 25th anniversary extravaganza! Note for video game lovers, in case you ever find yourselves stranded in Hiroshima: on the top floor of the Deodeo electronics store (opposite Sogo) there are demo setups of about 40 of the video games they have on sale, and you can play them all for free. I think they were all Playstation ones, but I'm not sure.
Just a small part of the huge "Hello Kitty" display in Sogo. I think the thing that Belinda is holding is a waffle maker.
Belinda and me in the minshuku, wearing the yukata provided.
The next day we went to Miyajima Island, west of Hiroshima - and bumped into Liz, from Nagahama in Shiga, who was with a couple of friends from an even more westerly bit of Honshu. Miyajima is renowned for its famous shrine and gate, both built over the water, and is supposedly one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. (Don't ask me what the other two are.) It was very nice, and of course there were just as many tourists and gift shops as you'd expect. There were fireworks due that night, but we found out too late to be able to stay - we'd booked into Himeji YH so we had to leave in the earlyish afternoon.
Feeding the deer at Miyajima.
A little boy contemplating the deer (or something).
The famous "floating" gate at Miyajima.
Belinda near Miyajima's "floating" shrine.
Finding the YH in Himeji proved to be interesting; Lonely Planet said to get the no. 37 bus but we couldn't see a no. 37 listed anywhere at the bus terminal. The tourist information office was closed by the time we arrived so we tried the JR ticket office, where they tried to be helpful but ended up just sending us back to the bus terminal. So we tried calling the hostel, but the woman there didn't speak a word of English and I could hardly hear her for the buskers, so I had a hard time establishing that we had to get the train - Sanyo line - to Tegara Eki. It turned out that there were three Sanyo lines in Himeji: the JR one that we'd come in on, the shinkansen one and a private local one - not to mention the Sanyo department store! Anyway, one of the JR guys told us that we needed the local one, and when we got to Tegara the ticket bloke there told us how to get to the hostel (which was shown on the map at the station, but only in kanji). The guide books were spot-on when they described it as dingy - at a guess I'd say that it was pretty much unaltered since the 1940s. The place was clean enough, though, and extremely cheap - ¥700 a night for a bed (¥1000 for a place in a tatami room) as opposed to ¥2500-plus at most youth hostels in Japan. The tatami rooms looked nicer, but the beds - actually futons on tatami bunks - raised you up above cockroach level! If you thought of it as indoor camping it didn't seem so bad. We got there at 8.45 and bathtime finished at 9pm - in fact the old lady had already drained the women's bath (and you weren't allowed to use the bathrooms in the morning) so we had to use the men's one. Fortunately there only seemed to be about 4 other guests so nobody walked in on us! Warning: it's probably not a good place to stay in the winter, as there didn't appear to be any heating of any description, and there were no hot water taps; the only hot water was in the bath. There was also no air conditioning, but at least we had a fan in the dorm. Also, the toilets/washrooms were only labelled in kanji, so you had to know the kanji for male and female!
The grottiest youth hostel in Japan?
On the Sunday we went to Himeji Castle, which is not dissimilar to Hikone's but is considerably more impressive - it's generally acknowledged to be Japan's finest - and then spent the afternoon in Kobe, where we visited Phoenix Plaza (earthquake exhibition centre and support centre for local victims), took a monorail trip around Port Island (but didn't get off) and explored the shops and Chinatown. To my surprise the journey from Kobe back to Hikone took less than two hours.
Belinda and me in front of Himeji-jo (the -jo means castle).
AJET - the JET support/social organisation, which I've joined - does something called tatami timeshare, which is a network of JET people all over the country who are willing to have other JETs to stay in their apartments. The listings for this year haven't come out yet, which is why we had all that fun with accommodation. Hopefully we'll get them soon!