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Back to school

After my return from China there were just a few days left of the spring holiday, before the new school year started on April 10th. The teachers had been reshuffled, as happens every year. They're not given much notice of the changes; when I left for China nobody knew which teachers were going to be transferred. At Hikone Nishi we had about 8 new staff, including a new kyoto-sensei (vice-principal), and almost everyone except me had moved to a new desk. There were no changes among the English teachers though.

My timetable has changed significantly. I still have the same total number of students as last year (280+ at each school), and I'm teaching the same class numbers - which means an entirely new batch of students, none of whom I've taught before. I have 17 or 18 lessons to teach each week, which is one more than last year. At Hikone Nishi my classes all now consist of between 17 and 22 students, because the first year classes - like the second year domestic studies classes - have all been spilt in half. This is good in terms of class size, but since it means that I'm only teaching each group of 20 students once every two weeks, it's not going to be so good for continuity. Also, I'm working with SIX different teachers at Hikone Nishi alone, so discussing lesson plans with all of them could prove to be something of a challenge!

At Hachiman Technical the new first years have been organised into eight classes of 35 students rather than seven classes of 40. The classes are all of mixed courses, unlike last year, so maybe there won't be such huge differences between them. (My summary of last year's classes: 1 (Machines): lively but fairly well-motivated; 2 (Machines): rowdier than class 1 but not as difficult as class 3; 3 (Electrical): lessons made difficult by a few troublemakers; 4 (Information): lively, fun to teach, but easily sidetracked!; 5 (Information): quieter, not a bad class; 6 (Architecture): fairly quiet, some very good students (there's a considerable amount of competition to get onto this course since it's only available at two schools in Shiga); 7 (Chemistry): few students seemed interested in English - or sometimes even in staying awake!)

On the first day of term there were two ceremonies at Hikone Nishi: the usual beginning-of-term ceremony for the second and third years, and an entrance ceremony, not unlike last term's graduation ceremony, for the new first years.

Regarding my new classes, early indications are that the Hikone Nishi first years are quiet and mostly too shy to volunteer answers (with the exception of 1-1B); the new second year kateika (domestic studies) girls are mostly just as "genki" as last year's, except for one group who are almost as quiet as the first years; and most of the third years, for whom my lesson is an elective class, seem only to have elected to take English as the lesser of two evils. (I don't know what alternatives they had.) The classes at Hachiman are all livelier, with students in every class willing - and in some cases even eager! - to volunteer answers.

A quick observation: It's amazing how many students don't know the name of the Japanese emperor (Akihito). Most of them know Prince Charles ("Chaaruzu") though! Quite a lot of them don't even know who the Japanese Prime Minister is, even though the main headline throughout the last week of the spring holiday was Obuchi's stroke and the election of Mori as his successor. The people who interviewed me for JET were lying through their teeth when they told me that Japanese people would ask me lots of questions about the workings of British politics - most of them don't even seem interested in what goes on in their own country!

I won't be at Hachiman Technical any longer after this term, because it's getting its own base ALT when the new JET intake arrives in July. After that I don't know whether I'll be allocated a new visit school or based only at Hikone Nishi. Matsuzawa-sensei (at Hachiman) said that she'd actually requested me as the new base ALT, and she wanted me to request a transfer, so I must be doing something right! I wouldn't be allowed to transfer to a new base school though, even if I wanted to; I know of someone else who's made that request more than once and been turned down flat. (The situation varies from one prefecture to another though.)

We had our first ESS meeting on April 24th, and it came as a shock: I'd been told that the six existing members had rejoined and there were also five new first year members, but when we went to the meeting it turned out that the numbers had more than quadrupled! We had the six existing members plus one new third year, and twenty first years, making the club bigger than ever before - and bigger than any of my classes! It's difficult to organise activities without them resembling lessons when there are that many people. I'm sure a few will drop out, but we'll probably still end up with a lot more than last year.

Cherry blossom

I came back from China expecting the cherry blossom (sakura) to be out, but the weather had been quite cold and in fact Hikone's sakura didn't appear until April 11th or 12th. I did go up to the castle to check on its progress on Thursday 6th, and at that stage the buds were just beginning to look pinkish. The plum orchard was still in full bloom though. That Sunday I counted more than 30 coaches, parked in the coach park, by Hikone Castle Hotel and along Eki-mae dori - and there wasn't even any sakura yet! The delay was fine by me, though, because it meant that my parents had the opportunity to experience the sakura phenomenon when they came to visit.

Sakura in bud
Sakura in bud at Hikone Castle, April 6th.

During our Nihongo no kyoshitsu (Japanese class) at the civic centre on the 12th, we went out to view the newly-opened blossom around the castle moat between Omote-mon (the main gate) and Kuro-mon (Black Gate, by Genkyu-en). Numerous hanami (flower-viewing) parties were in full swing. Hikone Nishi had its own hanami party there on Monday 17th, but unfortunately it clashed with my other Japanese lesson, so I couldn't attend. (Together with another ALT, I'm aiming to do the Level 3 (sankyuu) Japanese Language Proficiency Test at the end of this year, and Nagahama-sensei, from the Wednesday kyoshitsu, is generously giving us extra tuition on Mondays.)

Nihongo no kyoshitsu
Japanese class at the cherry blossom festival.

Kansougeikai - welcome & farewell party

Hikone Nishi's "kansougeikai" took place on April 14th at the Hikone Prince Hotel. It was attended by virtually every member of staff, and held in a huge tatami room. The tables were laid out as at a wedding, with a long head table and several other tables arranged at right angles. At the centre of the head table was the principal, Matsuyama-sensei. To his right were all the teachers who had been transferred to other schools, seated in descending order of age, and to his left were all the teachers new to Hikone Nishi. The seating plan for the rest of us was decided by lottery.

After several speeches, none of which I understood more than a few words of, we had the toast then tucked into the food, beer and sake. Very nice sake it was too! The meal consisted of numerous small courses, beautifully presented and mostly very tasty, but not all that filling. The rice didn't come out until the end of the meal, as is normal practice in both Japan and China; rice is generally regarded as cheap food to fill you up once all the good stuff has been eaten. Throughout the meal, people were circulating, welcoming the new teachers and saying their farewells to the old ones.

Afterwards there was a "nijikai", or second party, at a bar in Fukuromachi for anyone who wanted to go along. (Fukuromachi is the nightlife area of Hikone; its name means "sack town".) That was mostly a drinking party, although a few people sang karaoke too. There may have been a third party as well, but I didn't stay that long.

Hikiyama Matsuri

On the weekend of 15th April, Hikiyama Matsuri was held in Nagahama - one of the city's two big annual festivals. The hikiyama are floats built as mobile kabuki stages, where boys of about 10 years of age perform kabuki. I was told that the performances were only on the Saturday, so I braved the rain and went through to have a look. Unfortunately the weather meant that I almost got my eyes poked out by umbrellas - since I'm taller than many Japanese, my eyes are just about at umbrella spoke height - and everyone was packed into the coverd shopping streets around Kurokabe so it was difficult to get close enough for a good view of what was going on. I returned the next day with Mum and Dad, when the weather was much better. It was also less crowded, and the performances were still going on so we got a reasonably good view. Didn't understand anything though; modern Japanese is hard enough, never mind kabuki Japanese!

Hikiyama Hikiyama
Boys performing kabuki at the Hikiyama Matsuri.

Mum & Dad's visit

My parents arrived around lunchtime on Sunday 16th April. For both of them it was the first time they'd been to Japan. They were tired after the long journey, but we had a full day's activities before they were able to sleep off their jetlag. We went through to Nagahama for the Hikiyama Matsuri, as described above, and had a walk round the town and a late lunch of noodles. Spent a while in the 100 yen shop, which Mum instantly fell in love with. As it got dark we crossed the railway line and went to have a look at the castle, stumbling across dozens of hanami parties on the way. So within 12 hours of arriving in Japan they'd seen a festival, kabuki, a temple (though only from the outside), a castle (ditto), Lake Biwa, cherry blossom and hanami parties - and a 100 yen shop!

The next day I went home at lunchtime and they were just surfacing, having slept for more than 15 hours. I was allowed to leave school a little early, and we went up to Hikone Castle. We were pretty thorough, and by the time we came out the hanami parties were in progress - including Hikone Nishi's. We said a quick hello, but as I've said, I had to go home for my Japanese lesson, and Mum & Dad weren't keen to stay without me. While I had my lesson they went off to explore the local Heiwado department store.

At Hikone Castle
With Mum & Dad at Hikone Castle.

Sakura & castle
Sakura at Hikone Castle (this is the same view as above, but the branches are lower because of the weight of the blossom).

Sakura by the moat
Sakura around the moat, site of the hanami parties. (Actually this picture was taken a few days later, when the blossom had started to fall.)

On Tuesday 18th I was allowed to leave school a little early again - my afternoon lessons had been cancelled for student health checks or something anyway - so I met up with Mum & Dad at Omi-Hachiman station and we walked down to the old town around Hachiman-gu (shrine). Took the cable car up Mount Hachiman (actually a smallish hill, but in Japan they don't seem to differentiate between hills and mountains), had a look round, then walked down. It was just as well that the guy manning the cable car showed us where the path started, or we'd never have found it!

View from Mt. Hachiman
View across the lake from Mount Hachiman.

The next day, Mum and Dad came into school. I did pre-warn some of the teachers, but wasn't prepared for the fuss that they would make over their guests! I introduced them to a few people then showed them round the school buildings. Then we bumped into Matsuyama-sensei (the principal) so I introduced them to him as well. Later on he presented them with a 12" tall reproduction of the famous Hikone Screen, a national treasure which is kept at the Hikone Castle Museum and only put on display for a few weeks once a year. I'd ordered school lunchboxes (bento) for Mum & Dad, so I left them eating lunch while I went off to teach a class and Fukunaga-sensei and Kawaguchi-sensei fussed over them. Fortunately it was one of my genki second year classes, and it was the second lesson I'd had with them, so Mum & Dad were able to come and sit in on the lesson after they'd finished their lunch. Their arrival was greeted with great excitement by the students! Mum's a maths teacher, so she'd asked to see some of the maths books that they use at school, and at the end of my lesson Fukunaga-sensei presented her with a full set. She was surprised to see that most of it is written in the same way as in English, and was also very impressed to find that the subject matter was well ahead of what kids the same age would be doing in Britain. She was even more surprised when Fukunaga-sensei pressed her to keep the full set of books. I told Fukunaga-sensei that their luggage was already very heavy (absolutely true - they'd brought a ridiculous amount of stuff with them) and in the end we compromised by taking just one of the first year books.

On Thursday Mum & Dad went to Kyoto. I was allowed to leave school early again (well, I usually stay late and never take my full hour's lunch break), so I went down to Kyoto and met up with them in the Maruzen bookshop. Got a couple of books for the sankyuu, but I was also after a pocket Japanese-English dictionary with the entries in kana, and they didn't have a single one. The only other place with a fair range of English books is Avanti, by the station, and Mum & Dad had already done as much sightseeing as they wanted to do for one day so we walked to Avanti - quite a trek - only to find that it was closed.

On Friday Dad took it upon himself (with my encouragement) to make sukiyaki. We did the shopping together, since I was more able to identify the ingredients than he was. The sukiyaki took a long time, but it was worth the wait.

Dad & sukiyaki Sukiyaki
Dad making sukiyaki.

The Taga Matsuri took place on April 22nd. We took the train up to Taga, arriving a bit too early because we hadn't known when the procession was due. There seemed to be a production line of baby blessings going on at Taga Taisha (the shrine) - presumably the Shinto equivalent of christenings - and monks(?) were chanting on the stage to the right of the shrine. The festival stalls were open for business, and a few horses were tethered near the shrine, but not much seemed to be going on apart from that.

At Taga Taisha
Mum & Dad at Taga Taisha.

Monks chanting
Monks(?) chanting at Taga Taisha.

While we waited for something spectacular to happen, we had a good look round the town, including a visit to the school where Tracy teaches. The parade was at 2pm, and proved to have been worth the wait.

Taga matsuri Taga matsuri Taga matsuri Taga matsuri
Taga Matsuri procession.

After the procession had passed, we went down to Shigaraki. As we queued for tickets in Taga I managed to decipher enough of an advert to work out that we could get unlimited travel all day on the Omi-Tetsudo lines for only ¥550 (S.S Kippu, only available on the second and fourth Saturday of every month).

It took a while to get to Shigaraki, and most of the pottery shops had closed by the time we got there. There were plenty of Shigaraki's famous tanuki(s) still on display though, with virtually nothing to prevent them from being stolen or vandalised. Only in Japan! Fortunately not all of the shops were closed, and I came home with my very own tanuki to stand outside my house in Birmingham. It's only a smallish one, about 12" tall, but if it were any bigger I'd probably have great difficulty getting it home as hand luggage!

Tanuki(s) in Shigaraki. A tanuki is a real animal as well as a pottery character, and is known in English as a raccoon dog. Japanese folklore is full of tanuki stories; the tanuki can transform himself into different shapes and gets up to all kinds of mischief. The Shigaraki tanuki is a kind of lucky mascot which can be seen by the doors of shops and houses all over Japan.

On the Sunday we went to Nara for the day. The place was pretty busy, far more so than when I was last there, in July 1997. We wandered up the main shopping street and around the deer park, stopping off at various temples, pagodas and shrines and frequently being accosted by junior high students on school trips who had English questionnaires to do. The majority seemed to be from Yamanashi(?) and Saitama-ken, both not far from Tokyo. They were all nice kids so we didn't mind - though it got a bit much when you had a queue of people waiting for you to fill in their sheets!

5-storey pagoda
Mum in front of the 5-storey pagoda.

Filling in questionnaires for junior high school students.

3-storey pagoda
3-storey pagoda and shrine.

With JHS friends
With some of our junior high school friends, outside Todai-ji (we kept bumping into these particular girls - this was the third time we met them).

At Todai-ji
At Todai-ji (temple). The building behind us is the Daibutsu-den, the world's largest wooden building, which houses the Great Buddha.

Great Buddha
The Daibutsu, or Great Buddha.

Kasuga Grand Shrine Kasuga Grand Shrine
Kasuga Grand Shrine, and the collection of lanterns by the entrance.

We had a lunch of noodles in the deer park, and Mum bought a tacky luminous Buddha keyring and a bell for the Christmas tree. At Todai-ji we got our fortunes; Mum and I both got different versions of "Good Luck" and Dad got "Bad Luck". Fortunately he didn't take it seriously, and claimed that it was the best hundred yen's worth he'd had all day!

My and Dad's fortunes.

On the way back we stopped off in Kyoto - which was actually ¥90 cheaper than if we'd gone straight through to Hikone! - so that I could go to Avanti. They had nine dictionaries fitting my criteria, which made it pretty difficult to choose one, but the shop was about to close so I had to make my decision pretty quickly. Gave Mum & Dad a quick tour of the station building before we returned to Hikone.

Monday 24th was spent locally, visiting temples and climbing Sawayama, then on Tuesday Mum and Dad returned to Kyoto and when they came back it sounded as if they'd walked the entire city.

Dad with a particularly large daruma in Ryotan-ji. (The daruma is the round red one.) A daruma is a good luck charm. They come with white eyes; you paint in one eye and make a wish, then paint in the other eye when the wish comes true. Ryotan-ji's famous zen garden can be seen on the November page.

Mum and Dad spent Wednesday and Thursday around Hikone. After school on Wednesday we went to the Hikone Castle Museum and saw both the original Hikone Screen (see Mum & Dad's school visit, above) and a full-size replica that was on display in the lobby. On Thursday night we went for the okonomiyaki experience, which involves cooking your own okonomiyaki (a kind of thick savoury pancake) on a hot plate that's built into your table. The nearest place was closed so we went to the one on Bell Road, which was very good.

Mum & Dad's last full day in Hikone was Friday 28th April. I think they spent most of the day packing! In the evening we went over to Viva City and ate there. They left very early on Saturday morning; they had to get to Kansai International Airport in time to check in for a 9.40am flight.

Golden Week

Golden Week - a week containing four public holidays within seven days, when the whole of Japan goes on holiday - began on April 29th, the day my parents returned home. I haven't made any special plans; maybe I'll brave the crowds and go somewhere during the second half of the week, but more likely I'll just stay around Shiga.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002