MY TIME AS A JET

PART THREE: 16th-31st AUGUST 1999


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16th-31st AUGUST

...and o-bon continues

On Monday 16th August a group of us went into Kyoto to see the huge o-bon bonfires, which are built on hillsides around the city to guide the ancestors' spirits back to the underworld. The best views were to be had from up on the mountains, but we opted for the city centre because it was easier. We saw two of the fires, which were in the shape of kanji. The first one we saw was "dai" which means big or great. I believe that if you read them all together they spelt out something about the great wisdom of Buddha. I think that's about it for o-bon now.

Kyoto bonfires
Some of the Shiga JETs in Kyoto for the bonfires.

New places, new people

On August 19th I finally got round to going to Sugimoto's, renowned gaijin hangout on a Thursday night. It's only a tiny place (made even smaller by the dogs wandering around) but I saw several familiar faces. A bit smoky, which will probably deter me from going too often, but it's less than 5 minutes' walk from my apartment so I suspect I'll be back there before long.

Friday 20th August was a big day at school: all the students were there (I'm not entirely sure why), I met the ESS members for the first time, and there was a teachers' meeting where I was formally introduced to everyone by the principal and had to give my short self-introductory speech in Japanese. Fortunately I wasn't required to stay in the meeting once I'd done my bit; it would have been a complete waste of time for me since I wouldn't have understood any of the proceedings! At the ESS meeting I ran through my ideas for the culture festival. The students (six of them, all girls) didn't say a lot but I think they followed what I was talking about. Fuji-sensei was there to translate when necessary anyway, but I think my performance would probably have got most of the message across without the use of language at all!

First earthquake

At 5.30am on August 21st I experienced my first earthquake. I woke up wondering who was shaking my bed, then remembered that "bed" was a futon on the floor, so it must be the floor that was shaking. When I worked out that it was an earthquake I shot out of bed wondering what I was supposed to do - lay the (tall) bookcase on its side so that it wouldn't come crashing down, grab my emergency earthquake kit (which I'd partially assembled but had unpacked because I needed the rucksack for the weekend), open the door, hide under the table? Or should I put some clothes on first? By the time I'd remembered the list of things you were supposed to do, the earthquake had finished - it had lasted about 10-15 seconds. It took me a while to get back to sleep though. When I spoke to the other ALTs later, one of them said she'd woken up, looked at the ceiling and decided that that was what was shaking, so it must be caused by whatever her neighbours upstairs were doing (which I'll leave to your imagination...) so she'd just gone straight back to sleep!

Party weekend

On the 21st of every month, Kyoto's biggest market is held at To-ji temple, south-east of Kyoto's main station. Esther, Matt, Michelle and I took advantage of the fact that the 21st of this month fell on a Saturday and went along. There was all kinds of everything, from second-hand kimonos to bonsai to food. At least a couple of hours were needed to get round it all. We also called into the JNTO office and picked up an assortment of maps and other tourist information covering most of the country.

From Kyoto we went straight up to Nagahama for Tiffany's 21st birthday party, which finished at some point between 4 and 5am. I'd opted out long before that but sleep wasn't an option, since I was staying overnight in Tiff's apartment, so I ended up going for a walk and then attempting to sleep on the concrete balcony until everyone else had had enough too.

Tatsu & Tiff Tiff's party Tiff's party
Photos from Tiffany's party.

In the morning, the hangovers were painfully apparent, but they didn't stop several of us from attending a beach party a couple of miles north of Nagahama. It proved to be well worth the effort! It was hosted by a Japanese guy called Takao, and was attended by a mixture of Japanese and JETs - about 20 of us in total, I think. Takao-san and his friends had a selection of speedboats, jetskis etc. which they took us for rides on. Besides that we had an excellent barbecue, and most people took advantage of the "hair of the dog" that was on offer.

Beach party Beach party Beach party
Photos from the beach party.

Job orientation at kencho (prefectural office) in Otsu

On 24th-25th August all the new ALTs had a job orientation in Otsu. This consisted of a detailed look at our terms and conditions, a 90-minute Japanese lesson each day, a bit of background on the Japanese education system, and techniques, workshops and advice on team-teaching. As usual, some of it was useful, some of it less so. For the Japanese lesson we were split into beginners and non-beginners, but the ability range of the non-beginners was far too wide for a single teacher to cover, so I'm sure there would have been better ways to use the time.

Even more o-bon!

Although the main o-bon festival seemed to be over after 16th August, other related events seemed to be continuing. On the evening of the 24th, Yuki from next door came round and read out a speech in English that her dad had obviously helped her to compose. It was something about "goldfish scoop" somewhere near our apartments at half past six (she called round at 6.28), so I went along with them, although I wasn't entirely sure what I was letting myself in for! I think this was the children's o-bon festival. Unfortunately I didn't take my camera so there are no photos. We picked up a few of their friends on the way and went to a shrine, where I was taken through the motions of ringing the bell, giving a prayer of thanks and making a wish on a sort of minaret-shaped thing sitting on cushion. Then we did the goldfish scoop and the "yoyo" game. I managed to catch one goldfish before my rice paper scoop disintegrated, but they gave me another three. Just what I always wanted... I didn't do too well at the yoyo game either. For this game, a paddling pool of water was full of "yoyos": small balloons part-filled with water, each with a rubber-band "string" with a loop at the end. You were given a piece of twisted paper with a wire hook on the end and had to hook it onto the loop of a balloon and lift the balloon out of the water - but you had to do it without putting the hook under water, otherwise the wet paper would break when you tried to lift the weight of the balloon.

From there we went on to a similar festival at another shrine down beside the castle. They had the same games again, but at this one they also had a "kendo" game where you were given a wooden sword, blindfolded and turned round, then you had to hold the sword overhead, walk forwards following directions from onlookers, and bring the sword down on a watermelon in front of you. It was an inflatable watermelon, presumably because a real one costs around ¥2000 plus! I did equally badly at this game.

When I got up on Friday morning one of the goldfish had died. This reinforced my decision to take them into school, where I was sure they would stand a better chance of survival than in my apartment. I took the remaining three in and left them in a bucket next to the existing goldfish tank, with some food and a note saying "please look after us" in Japanese (or at least that's what I intended it to say). The next time I came into school I found that they had been adopted and moved into the tank with the existing goldfish. Thank you Morino-sensei!

Trip to Tokyo

I used the remaining two days on my juhachi-kippu over the weekend of 28th/29th August, with a trip to visit a couple of friends in Tokyo. It took eight hours and four trains to get there (after cycling to Maibara because my departure was before the first train from Hikone), and another eight hours and six trains to get back. The guy in the ticket office at Ikebukuro looked as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing when I asked him for train times to get back to Maibara on a juhachi-kippu. Next time I think I might just splash out on a shinkansen ticket!

My first destination was Kichijoji, where I met up with Yu, a friend of Darren's whom I'd met on my previous visit to Japan. It was great to see her again. She showed me round Kichijoji city (the Tokyo metropolis isn't so much a single city as a huge mass of cities running into each other) and we explored the shops and had dinner before heading back to her apartment in Musashisakai for the night. Her mum was good enough to prepare a magnificent Japanese breakfast for us for the following morning, even though she herself had to go out to work.

Yu and her mum
Yu and her mum in their apartment (with the London teatowel I gave them as a thank-you).

Breakfast at the Matsumotos'
The Japanese breakfast I had at Yu's.

The next morning Yu and I went to Harajuku, by Yoyogi Park, where the local punks compete for the most outlandish appearance and hang around waiting for the tourists to take their photos. We headed for the shops again, including the trendy Laforet shopping centre, the famous Oriental Bazaar (good place to get a yukata) and the newly-opened branch of Boots the Chemist. We had lunch in a cafe/restaurant that had the UK's Virgin Radio playing - when I asked, they said they were getting it via the Internet. Not just English language radio, but genuine, live British radio!

After that we parted company and I headed off to Higashimatsuyama in Saitama-ken, north-west of Tokyo, to meet my German friend Torsten. We originally met way back in 1992, when I was working at Dornier in Germany on my year out from university and he had a summer job in the same department. We met up again in Stuttgart when I went back to Germany on holiday two years later, but since then we've only occasionally been in contact, mainly via e-mail. He now works for Bosch and is on a six-month placement at an affiliated company here.

Torsten's apartment, like mine, is described as a 2LDK, but it's really quite luxurious. His LDK area is almost twice the size of mine, and the smaller of his two other rooms is 6-tatami, the same as my larger room. His other room is western-style but would probably be 8-tatami. And I thought I had a big apartment for one person!

That evening we went out for a meal with a Japanese friend of Torsten's called Eiko. Afterwards one of Torsten's Japanese colleagues joined us too.

In Higashi-Matsuyama
Torsten, Eiko and me.

The next day it was proposed that we drive down to Kamakura, a former Japanese capital, to see the famous Great Buddha there. I hadn't been there before (the Great Buddha I saw on my last visit to Japan was the one in Nara) so that was fine by me. My host's estimate was that the drive would take about two hours, but in the event it took us more than four. My poor navigation was probably partly to blame, but the main reason was the huge volume of traffic. Going by train would probably have been a better idea. We saw the big Hachiman-gu shrine at the end of the main street, then went and saw the Great Buddha. It was a fair distance, and on the way back we made the mistake of trying to take a short cut back to the car. Bad move! Fortunately we didn't get too badly lost, and in the end we got to the station with 4 minutes to spare before my train was due to leave. So that day I spent two hours sightseeing and 12 hours travelling!

Hachiman-gu shrine Hachiman-gu shrine At Hachiman-gu shrine
Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura.
(First two photos taken with Torsten's digital camera.)

Great Buddha
Posing with the Great Buddha in Kamakura.


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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002