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Summer's on the way!
On my way to Omi-Hachiman on May 2nd I noticed that all the Japan Rail staff had changed over from navy to beige uniforms. A lot of organisations do this; there is usually an official date when you change from winter to summer uniform and vice versa. For JR presumably it was May 1st. The main difference at school is that the students shed their blazers, which makes it a lot more difficult to identify which students come from which school! (With most of the boys' uniforms it's difficult at the best of times, because the only difference is the jacket buttons.) The official changeover date at my two schools was in the week of 1st June.
During Golden Week, I barely ventured out of Hikone except for one day in Kyoto. On that day I went to a UK Open Day at the International Community Centre, visited the Heian Shrine, chanced upon a martial arts festival, and visited the Kyoto Handicraft Center. The Handicraft Center is very tourist-oriented, of course, but there's a good range of stuff and I was happy to find that they offer hour-long taster sessions in cloisonne-making (a kind of enamelling), kimekomi doll-making and woodblock printing. Woodblock printing is something that I've wanted to try for a long time, so I'll definitely be going back there.
Scottish pipers at the UK Open Day. First time I've ever heard "London Bridge is falling down" played on the bagpipes!
The Heian Jingu (shrine) in Kyoto.
I picked up a copy of the monthly English-language tourist magazine at the "tourist informants" (sic) office by the Heian Shrine, and found that the spring geisha dances were currently in progress at a theatre in Ponto-cho. I was curious to see this, having read about a similar event in the book "Memoirs of a Geisha", so off I went and and paid my ¥2000 for an "ordinary seat", which turned out to be space on a square cushion, about half the size of a tatami mat (the mats in my apartment measure 88 x 176cm), and shared between four people. Fortunately there was a ledge at the back which two of the people could sit on. The performance lasted about an hour and twenty minutes, which is a LONG time to sit "seiza" (in the formal Japanese kneeling style) if you're not accustomed to it, but mercifully there was a short interval in the middle. Our seats were on the south side of the theatre, and the stage had a kind of extension that went directly underneath us, so we couldn't see anything that went on there, but it didn't really matter since I couldn't understand most of what was going on in any case.
Inside the theatre in Pontocho. The white cushions in the right-hand picture each seated four people.
A couple of pictures from the Kamogawa Odori. (I took more but the others didn't come out so well.) The girls in the left-hand picture, with the huge bows on their obi (sashes) and long hanging sleeves (called furisode) are the maiko, or apprentice geisha. The older geisha - right hand picture - have simpler loops at the back of their kimono, and shorter sleeves. At least, this is my understanding from reading "Memoirs of a Geisha" - highly recommended if you have any interest in the geisha culture - and it ties in with how ordinary women wear their kimono: young, unmarried women wear brightly-coloured kimono with furisode and big bows (but not as big as those worn by the maiko), and older/married women normally wear more subdued colours with shorter sleeves and just a simple loop at the back. Notice how the collar is pulled down low to expose the back of the neck; this is considered very erotic in Japanese culture.
On May 5th I cycled to Maibara to look for a festival I'd read about which apparently entailed girls wearing special kimono and paper pots on their heads, but there was no sign of any activity in the town centre and I didn't know where else to look. I'd also read of a festival described as "boys dance with chicken wings on their heads", which sounded intriguing, but that one was right down in Tsuchiyama, in the south-eastern corner of Shiga, and would have been tortuous to get to.
By the end of April, the rice fields were all under water, ready for the new crop to be sown. Acres and acres of submerged paddy fields made quite an impressive sight. By the end of May the rice was several inches tall in most places.
Rice fields under water.
Sachiko, from the International Exchange Lounge, had invited me to a barbecue on Saturday 6th May down at Matsubara beach. She herself arrived about two hours late, but I managed to identify the group by the presence of another foreigner who turned out to be a friend of Sachiko's called Pamela. We played Scrabble, which I hadn't played for about ten years, and while the game was going on the rest of the participants arrived. Most of the other foreigners present were associated in some way with an English conversation school called Amerika Eigo Gakuen (AEG). Between us we'd brought vast amounts of food - and Sachiko and her husband Justin had brought about a tonne of marshmallows to toast round the campfire! So we feasted on barbecued stuff, toasted marshmallows and "s'mores" - a piece of chocolate and a toasted marshmallow sandwiched between two Graham crackers, so called because you always want "s'more"! (For fellow non-Americans, Graham crackers are a biscuit a little bit like digestives (assuming that you know what they are) but less crumbly.)
Barbecue at Matsubara beach.
There was another group near us on the beach who were really wild, dancing on their car bonnet and running around screaming drunkenly. This was fair enough - they weren't bothering anyone - but when they left the beach they just left all their rubbish lying where they'd dropped it. The state of a lot of Japanese beaches is shocking because of this kind of behaviour. Streets in town are kept very clean, which is surprising bearing in mind the fact that litter bins usually aren't provided by the authorities, and the only place you will find one is outside a convenience store or in a station. However, once you get out of the town a lot of people seem to lose all conscience as regards dropping litter - or maybe it's just that in town they feel that they're being watched whereas on the beach or in the countryside they can get away with it.
On the last day of Golden Week I got a treat on TV: a film in English! It was Shakespeare English (the modern-day "Romeo & Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio), but it was still a lot easier to understand than Japanese, particularly when that was the play I did for my English O-level! On satellite there are plenty of films in English with Japanese subtitles, and if you have a bilingual TV then you can opt for the "original language" soundtrack for foreign films on terrestrial TV, but unfortunately the TV that the school provided me with doesn't give me that option. Usually, the only films I can get in English with Japanese subtitles are either shown at about 3am or rented from the video store.
We had our sub-prefectural block meeting (a monthly event for local ALTs to exchange ideas and help each other with any problems) in Taga on May 13th, hosted by Tracy. We were caught in a downpour and ended up holding the meeting in a bus shelter by the station, which we found we were sharing with one of the highly poisonous and virtually indestructable local centipedes. It was about 4 inches long, and the rear third of its length looked as if it had been crushed and dragged uselessly behind, but the centipede didn't seem to consider it much of a hindrance. We watched it warily, but fortunately it didn't seem too interested in us. When the rain stoped we visited the Taga Taisha (taisha = great shrine), where there was a wedding in progress, then went to a good noodle shop in Taga, where they make their own udon on site.
With Amy and Steven at Taga Taisha.
Wedding at Taga Taisha.
Hikone tour guide
During the first week of May I got an email from an American called Gilbert who'd found my site (via the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree discussion board) and wanted some advice on rail passes for his imminent trip to Japan. On May 14th, he and his companion Joy came up to Hikone for a day and I showed them round. We went to the castle, Genkyu-en and a few temples, and I introduced them to the delights of okonomiyaki.
Gilbert & Joy's visit.
Daruma in Ryotan-ji. (They're just next to the big one that Dad had his picture taken with last month.)
Developments at school
On May 3rd there was great excitement on the TV, with wall-to-wall coverage of a bus hijack that took place on Kyushu and went on all night, ending a little way east of Hiroshima. It was in the world headlines (I managed to work out from the endlessly-repeated subtitles on TV that it was a hijack and one person had been killed, but had to find out the details from the BBC and Yahoo) so you may have heard about it - and about an incident a little while ago where another Japanese teenager hijacked and aircraft and killed the pilot, apparently because he wanted to see what it was like to play video games for real. A couple of weeks later a notice landed on all the teachers' desks. When I asked what it was about, I was told that it was asking the teachers to tell the students, parents and other members of the community that hijacking vehicles and attacking/killing people really isn't a very nice thing to do. As if people couldn't work this out for themselves! It doesn't seem to be relevant that the two hijackers (or at least the bus one) had a history of mental illness and probably wouldn't have listened to their teachers anyway. This is the kind of social responsibility that teachers have in Japan; parents often rely on the teachers to discipline their children, and you can bet that the bus hijack has resulted in at least as much stress for the hijacker's homeroom teacher as for his parents.
ESS numbers had dropped dramatically by the second time we met, and since then have levelled out at about 10-12 students each time. Much more manageable than the 26 we started off with! At the moment they're busy preparing for the STEP exam in mid-June, so we're not doing a lot in the way of activities.
On May 17th the teachers had their mandatory annual health check. We JETs aren't contractually obliged to take this test, but I had no objections. (Some foreigners view it as a breach of privacy, but the Japanese see it more as a privilege: healthcare paid for by someone else! I tend to side with the Japanese view - though admittedly it could be embarrassing if you have to use an interpreter to discuss an intimate health issue with a doctor in the corridor.) The check included a brief interview regarding general health, lifestyle and diet; a urine test; height and weight check; blood pressure check; a quick test of sight and hearing; and an X-ray/electrocardiogram (are they the same thing?). Blood samples were taken too, but only from those over 35. I managed to get through the whole thing without the use of either a dictionary or an interpreter, so I was quite pleased with myself! Couldn't understand much of what the X-ray guy said to me, but I think we got there in the end by trial and error.
Mid-term exam week began on 16th/17th May and ended on the 20th. The run-up to exam week is quite busy, with papers to be prepared and tapes to be recorded for the listening tests, but apart from marking papers, I don't have much to do at school during the week itself. At Hikone Nishi only the second years had a listening test, because I've only had one or two lessons with each of the first year groups so far. One class only had three of my lessons scheduled before the end-of term exams, so an extra lesson had to be arranged with that class.
On the Tuesday of exam week, all the Hikone Nishi English teachers went out for a meal at a restaurant called "En" ("Circle") in Castle Road. The food and surroundings were about as Japanese as they come. One of the courses included Omi beef, a famous local speciality, but I've never seen any cows in Shiga (for which Omi is the old name) so I asked where they all lived. I was told that they live indoors, near the lake in Omi-Hachiman, and what makes their meat really good is that they get no exercise (the Japanese like an even sprinkling of fat, called "shimofuri" (falling frost), through their beef) and are fed on beer! Ohata-sensei is expecting for the second time - her baby is due on September 9th - and news of her replacement was greeted with great excitement by the other female teachers. Apparently it's a young male teacher, former captain of the baseball team at Maibara High School.
The Hikone Nishi English teachers. Rear: Nakamura-sensei, Ito-sensei, me, Kawaguchi-sensei, Ohata-sensei. Front: Fuji-sensei, Tomikawa-sensei, Mukai-sensei, Taguchi-sensei.
On the afternoon of May 18th there was meant to be a staff game of softball, but it got cancelled because some students had been caught smoking by Hanafusa-sensei (the teachers' social secretary) and had to be disciplined. (The cancellation didn't bother me too much as I didn't know the rules of softball anyway; telling me that it's like baseball doesn't help much since we don't play baseball in the UK!) Smoking is a serious offence in a Japanese school, and generally results in a few days' suspension. Where I come from, suspension tends not to be a very effective measure because the kids view it as a holiday, but I was told that in Japan, where belonging to the group is so important, it's considered a form of ostracism. In Japan it is illegal for a teacher to exclude a student from lessons, no matter how disruptive his or her behaviour; suspension is not an option at junior high schools, but evidently it is possible at a high school if sanctioned by the principal.
In the evening we had a "ganbarou-kai", which basically was an informal meal out for any member of staff who was interested in coming along. Eleven of us went to an okonomiyaki place on Castle Road. It was a fun evening, and I really felt as if I was beginning to get somewhere with communicating in Japanese. Afterwards a lot of the others went on to a nijikai (second party) and I heard the next day from a seriously hungover Hanafusa-sensei that three of them had continued to a sanjikai.
That Saturday I attended a Mexican night hosted by Neal, one of the AEG teachers who was at the Matsubara beach barbecue, and his wife Machiko, at their apartment in Omi-Hachiman. Besides gorging on the scores of tortillas that Neal had been up all night making, we played Scrabble again and exchanged tongue twisters (hayakuchi kotoba) with some of the Japanese guests. Among the ones I learned in Japanese were "Nama mugi, nama gome, nama tamago" (fresh wheat (or barley), fresh rice, fresh eggs); "Tonari no kyaku wa, yoku kaki kuu kyaku da" (the guest next door is a guest who eats a lot of persimmons); and "Akamakigami, aomakigami, kimakigami" (red scroll, blue scroll, yellow scroll). I found all of these easier than the single words meaning "it was warm" (atatakakatta) and "it wasn't warm" (atatakakunakatta)! The Japanese present had great difficulty with "She sells sea shells" and even more with "Six thick thistle sticks".
At Neal and Machiko's Mexican night.
I decided that it was time I got some exercise besides the ten-minute bike ride to work, the five-minute walk to the station, and a run once in a blue moon (now that I can't do the Hachikoosoo any more). There's a private C-MAX gym in Hikone but it's ridiculously expensive; if I joined during one of their special offer periods and then went six days a week, 52 weeks a year, I'd still be paying more per session than I used to pay to go to my local municipal sports centre in Birmingham - and I wouldn't go more than twice a week anyway. Discovered that there is also a municipal sports centre in Hikone, but when I went to see what was available it turned out that the only adult class available in the evening was an aerobics class once a week which clashed with my Japanese lesson at the civic centre. (It cost ¥1000 per session and no membership was required, so that wasn't too extortionate - only about twice as much as at home.) There was a gym with some exercise machines, but most of them were either running machines or exercise bikes, and I couldn't see any point in paying to run and cycle in a gym when I can do it outside for free. Of course, I do have the option of getting involved with one or two of the school sports clubs, but none of the ones that I'm aware of particularly appeal to me. I suppose I could do a bit more research into what's available though.
Whole school outing
On the afternoon of May 25th there were no lessons at my visit school. Instead, the entire school migrated to the culture centre in central Omi-Hachiman, about half an hour's walk away, to see a play entitled "17-sai no orugooru", about a handicapped girl. I wasn't sure of what was going on for most of it, but did manage to grasp that at the end of the first act she was wishing she'd never been born, and at the end of the second act she was given a music box ("orugooru") as a birthday present and then thanked her mother for her life.
In late May I was "headhunted" by ELT News; they'd come across this site and wanted to know if I would consent to them "serialising" my account of life in Japan on their site. I agreed to their proposal, and so my "diary" is going to be featured in monthly instalments starting this July. Not bad for something that started out as just an open letter and photo album to save me writing the same stuff to 20 different people!
A much-needed beach clean-up in Nagahama, organised by AJET, was scheduled for the end of May, but unfortunately it had to be postponed due to rain. The alternative date is June 18th, which is in the middle of the rainy season, so there's a significant likelihood that it will be rained off then as well - but maybe we'll be lucky. The evening drinking session still went ahead, so I went through to Nagahama to join in, since there were several people there whom I hadn't seen for quite a while.
On May 28th I joined in with a TES event in Kusatsu. TES is the "Table-talk English Society" and consists of IFS staff and junior high and high school students who meet each week in Kusatsu to speak English. Most of them also attend the IFS camps at the Maki Beach log cabins. There were about a dozen of us in total. First we played a couple of name-learning games, then (as they'd requested) I taught them the Strip the Willow dance again, and then we played another game or two. After that it was time to organise the cooking activity, so we split into three groups and hit Heiwado to do the shopping for our respective courses. We prepared and ate the food in the IFS office. The office is based in an apartment which is used by several different groups, and a few members of another group - including one girl who's just graduated from Hikone Nishi - were there at the same time as us.
JET Renewers' Conference
On May 31st I took the train down to Kobe for the JET Renewers' Conference, attended by every renewing first year JET in Japan - about 2000 people in total. There isn't a single hotel that's big enough to hold all of us, so people were spread between four different hotels and had to be bussed from one to another. The actual conference was held at the Portopia Hotel on Port Island, and I was based there too, but other people were staying in Shin-Kobe (northern Kobe) and on Rokko Island. I would have thought there'd be a place somewhere in Japan with 2000 hotel beds within walking distance of each other...
The conference didn't start until 4pm, to give people coming from far away a chance to get to the hotel (though some people had been permitted to travel to Kobe a day early). I travelled down in the morning with Tracy, so we had time to go shopping and take a look round Chinatown beforehand. The opening ceremony was held in one of the halls of the International Exhibition Centre neighbouring the Portopia, and the later workshops and presentations were held in various function rooms in the hotel and lecture rooms in the International Conference Centre next door. To begin with we had 2½ hours of speeches, including the keynote address by a Karel von Wolferen which went on for an hour and was followed by questions. It was all about Japan's politics and economics, and I switched off after the first five minutes, but there was quite a queue of people waiting to ask questions so it must have been interesting for some of those present.
After all the speeches we had a short break and then there was a reception and buffet in one of the hotel's banqueting halls. This was a good opportunity to catch up with people we'd met at the orientations last summer and see how they were getting on. I found a few people I'd met at the pre-departure orientation in London: three of them are in Shizuoka, one in Niigata, and one just down the road in Kyoto. (I've been in touch with Jamie, the guy in Kyoto, by email a couple of times but we haven't got round to meeting up yet.) They all seemed to be enjoying life in Japan, but then I don't suppose they'd have been at the Renewers' Conference if they weren't. Unfortunately, though, having 2000 people in one room made it pretty difficult to get to the food!
When the reception was over, everyone dispersed. Some people went out on the town; I stayed in the hotel and went to the AJET charity swing and salsa event. I missed most of the "swing" part of it but was there for the salsa. It was a bit crowded so everyone kept stepping on each other's toes, but it was fun. I just about got the hang of the two basic steps, and could manage the turn too - until I tried to do it with a partner, then it all went pear-shaped. It didn't help that my partner (Firas) was also a complete beginner!