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November started with news of more visitors: my parents took the plunge and booked flights to come over for the second half of April 2000. Apparently a lot of flights were already fully booked, even that early. Their visit will probably coincide with cherry blossom season; Hikone Castle has over a thousand of the trees and is a favourite spot for "hanami" (cherry blossom viewing) parties.
The Japanese hairdressing experience
At the beginning of November I decided that it was time for a haircut, so I ventured into the nearest hairdresser's, a big glitzy place which also seems to be about the cheapest in Hikone. I was greeted by an extremely loud "Ohayoo gozaimasu!" (good morning) from one of the staff, immediately echoed, and at a similar volume, by all of the dozen or so other staff. This happened every time one of the staff greeted a customer: when someone came in it was either "ohayoo gozaimasu" or "irrashaimase"; when one stage of a hairdo had been completed - for example the hairwash before the cut - it was "o-tsukaresama deshita" (which roughly translates to "thank you for your hard work / patience / tolerance" and literally means "you must be tired"); and when someone left it was "arigatoo gozaimasu". This was in addition to the radio in the background and the noise of all the hairdryers, so it wasn't exactly a serene experience! I was happy with the haircut I got, though.
Hikone Castle Festival and Kyoto
The climax of the Hikone Castle Festival was November 3rd, also a national holiday. There were various markets, events up at the castle, and a big parade comprising numerous junior high school marching bands and several hundred people (the majority children of junior high school age, but also some adults) dressed up in costumes from the feudal era. I didn't see the whole event; I left once the parade had passed and went to meet up with Darren in Kyoto, who had the afternoon off from his conference. We wandered round Gion, Higashiyama and the Takase river, ending up in the Pig & Whistle, a "British" pub and well-known gaijin haunt.
Hikone Castle Festival parade.
On November 4th-5th our mid-year seminar took place in Otsu. In most cases, each ALT was accompanied by a JTL (Japanese teacher of languages) from their base school, so in total there were about 180 delegates at the seminar. It was the usual series of lectures and workshops, some of them useful, some less so. After the seminar finished on the Friday, the tradition of converging on Sele 932, a cheap izakaya (bar) in Kusatsu, was observed by many of the ALTs.
Hachiman Technical: bunkasai and running
My visit school's bunkasai (culture festival) took place in mid-November. Unfortunately I didn't get to see it, as it was on a Thursday and Friday, when I'm at my base school, but I did have one lesson-free day while the students prepared for the festival. That was the same day that one of the third years proclaimed his love for me. I think it was more a matter of vocabulary he knew than true emotions, but there are worse things he could have said than "I love you"! The students at Hachiman often seem reluctant even to say "hello" to me in English; usually I just get a nod and an "Ossu", which is an abbreviation for "ohayoo gozaimasu" but seems to be used at any time of day. It's one of those words that only men use for some reason; Japanese seems to have quite a few words like that. Another one is "boku", whch means "I" - but only if you're male.
Hachiman Technical, which is a very sporty school, has a compulsory run round the school - "Hachikoosoo" - during 6th period every Wednesday. (The school day consists of six 50-minute periods, with 10-minute breaks in between, and a 40-minute lunch break.)The "Hachikoo-" is an abbreviation of the school's name, and the "-soo" is the on (derived from Chinese) reading of the kanji character for hashiru, to run. Every student participates in the run, with the exception of those who are excused from PE for health reasons. I'm not aware of this happening at any other schools. They line up on the sports pitch and go through a routine of warm-up exercises, then the various classes are despatched at 30-second intervals. The run is somewhere around 2.5km, I believe. Up to the end of November I'd only done it once so far, but I intend to start doing it more frequently! The warm-up routine is one that's learned by every kindergarten pupil, and yes it's true, they use it (or a similar one) on a daily basis in many companies too. I've heard a tape playing at kencho, the offices of the prefectural education board in Otsu, when I've been there, and I often see it being done by the staff of a small office I cycle past on the way to my base school at about 8.15am.
13th November was my 29th birthday. This - to my embarrassment - was announced at the morning teachers' meeting the day before by the school principal, who also gave me a lovely basket of claycraft flowers made by his wife. A couple of the other teachers gave me presents too. All of this was completely unexpected.
I spent my birthday itself with just a few friends, exploring a couple of temples in Hikone (Ryotan-ji and Ohora Benzaiten, both quite well-known), going out for a meal and then getting a video. It was a beautiful mild day, and the temples were very nice; the only minor disappointment was that we were a bit too early for the dramatic autumn colours.
The garden at Ryotan-ji.
Keiko, Kazumi, Tracy and Pete at Ohora Benzaiten. Hikone Castle would be visible in the distance, but unfortunately the sun was in the wrong place when this picture was taken..
VOICE "Messages from Hikone"
VOICE is a local international friendship organisation (there seem to be quite a few of this kind of thing around). "Messages from Hikone" is an annual event where foreign residents give speeches, perform sketches etc. in Japanese. Michelle, the ALT based in the small town of Echigawa, was performing a one-person, condensed kyogen piece, so I went along to watch. Kyogen is a kind of comic interlude between Noh plays, or acts of a Noh play. A kyogen play is usually fifteen minutes long (or so I was told) but Michelle's was condensed into about five minutes and translated into contemporary Japanese. There were three characters in it, and she played all three parts plus that of the narrator. She had never studied Japanese before she came to Japan so it must have been quite a challenge - memorising not so much a series of words as a series of abstract sounds. The fact that she was a professional actress probably helped though.
After the event half a dozen of us went back to Michelle's apartment and feasted on okonomiyaki and pumpkin pie. (This was my first taste of pumpkin pie, and I liked it a lot better than I'd expected to!)
The okonomiyaki session at Michelle's.
Trip to Nagano
On November 20th I went on a HIFA (Hikone International Friendship Association) day trip by coach to Nagano-ken. There were about 30 participants: a few Chinese, a few Brazilians, one American (Amy, the ALT at Kawase HS), one Brit (me) and about 15 Japanese, many of them volunteer teachers from the Japanese classes I go to on a Wednesday evening. We went up the Kiso Valley, where the main industries are timber and tourism. All very pretty. We visited a small post town called Tsumago, preserved from the Edo period (1600-1867) - a tourist trap nowadays, but very nice nonetheless. Unfortunately we only had half an hour there. Then we went on to a kind of production-line resort-type place. Tourism at its most organised! First we went upstairs to the restaurant (which must have seated at least 500 people) and had lunch. Then we went into one of the noodle-making rooms and made our soba noodles (a local speciality). We didn't really do the whole job; they gave us ready-made blocks of dough which we rolled out, folded and cut to make the noodles. I gave mine to my neighbours the Kawanishis, since they always bring me back "omiyage" when they've been away. After that we had some free time to shop and/or use the onsen (hot spring baths).
Amy, Kobayashi-san, Yamada-san (Kazumi's mum) and Kazumi in Tsumago.
Autumn colours in the Kiso Valley.
Kazumi making soba noodles.
The HIFA group.
On the way there we had a non-stop running-commentary from the tour guide at the front of the coach. She must have told us about more or less every hill, river and building we passed (though it was all in Japanese so I didn't understand much); the only time she stopped talking was when put on some very loud music and gave us a karaoke performance instead. This is what all Japanese coach trips are like, apparently. We did get the key points translated by Kobayashi-san, but that wasn't even a twentieth of what the guide said. On the way back we had bingo and karaoke.
IFS Fantasy Camp
On November 21st I went to Omi-Hachiman again for another children's camp. This one was entitled "Fantasy Camp" - your guess is as good as mine as to what that means! There were only 14 kids on this one, all of them junior high school students, and although most of the organisers had been there since the previous afternoon, the camp only started on the Sunday morning. The kids were divided into three teams, and there were various English-language activities allowing them to win money (photocopies of American money) with which to buy food so that they could make their lunch. There were category races (two minutes to name as many animals / types of building / colours etc. as possible, with 1 point for each correctly-spelt answer), a pronunciation game and Chinese Whispers (where a message has to be passed along a line). Then "shops" were set up with everything needed to make lunch - including stoves, cooking utensils and washing-up liquid - and they had to bargain with the shopkeepers to buy the things they needed. Lunch took a very long time to produce, but was quite edible in the end. Once everything had been cleared away there was only time for the kids to write their impressions of the camp - something they're all asked to do at the end of every camp, but this time they'd to do it in English. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed it, although one boy expressed disappointment that there hadn't been an overnight stay. I'm sure I would have felt the same way when I was eleven or twelve years old!
The IFS log cabins at Maki beach, and the Fantasy Camp group.
Trip to Kobe
There was a Hikone Nishi staff trip to Kobe on November 27th. We went on the shinkansen, which was something of a relief; originally going by bus had been a possibility, but after the Nagano trip I felt that I could manage without the commentary! The journey from Maibara took less than an hour. From Shin-Kobe station we took taxis down to Meriken Park, arriving 20 minutes too early; the Maritime Museum didn't open until 10am. Fortunately the weather was good, but it's getting pretty cold now. Once the museum opened we had a bit of time to look round it and go up the Port Tower, then we boarded the Luminous Kobe-2 for a lunch buffet cruise on the Inland Sea. The cruise took us westwards, under the Akashi Strait Bridge (which links to Awaji Island), and back. The buffet was very good and even included dessert, which is a rarity in Japan. After eating we played bingo and then there was karaoke. Fortunately nobody tried to make me sing this time; there were probably no English songs anyway.
The Hikone Nishi High School staff in Meriken Park, in front of Kobe Maritime Museum and Port Tower.
After the cruise we got taxis back to Shin-Kobe and took the ropeway up to the Herb Garden visitor centre near the top of the hill. English-style gardens are popular here in much the same way that Japanese-style gardens are popular in the UK. We were even left with an hour or so to spend in the shopping centre by the bottom of the ropeway before it was time for our train back.
Kyoto - Ginkaku-ji and the Philosophers' Path
The next day I went into Kyoto again to meet up with Yoon and visit Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion temple). It was busy, but it gave us a good idea of why there's so much fuss about the spectacular autumn colours in Japan. True, the colours aren't bad at home, but as well as the oranges, yellows and golds, there are several types of tree around here that turn a really dramatic bright red.
Afterwards we walked southwards down the Philosophers' Path, a pretty riverside lane lined with gift shops and the like. We continued past several more temples and along Sanjo, before hitting the shops around 5pm. The shops generally don't close until 8pm, and Sundays and public holidays are big shopping days so they're all open then too. They'll often close for one day during the week though.
On the Philosophers' Path.
Winter's starting to set in now. When I got up on the last day of November it was only 7°C in my bedroom. Insulation in Japanese apartments is virtually non-existent, as is central heating. My air conditioners can be used as heaters but I'm told they're very expensive to run, besides which they're mounted up near the ceiling in the tatami rooms and so they won't do much to warm the floor or the LDK room. However, I found a small electric heater in the sodai gomi, and have borrowed a kerosene heater and a kotatsu from people at school. The kerosene heater doesn't smell great, but it's the cheapest way to heat an apartment, and I can move it around if I need to. A kotatsu is a low table with an electric heater built into it. You remove the table top and cover the frame with blankets, replace the top and then sit on the floor or a cushion with your legs underneath the table. It doesn't do a lot for your top half, but it keeps your legs lovely and warm!
The classrooms at school aren't very warm, which is hardly surprising when most of the windows in the corridors are constantly wide open! They say it's for fresh air, but do you really need so much fresh air that a bitterly cold wind blasts through you as soon as you step out of the staff room? In Japan, the answer is apparently yes. And it's going to get considerably colder before it gets warmer!