Previous instalment
Next instalment

If you see a photo that looks interesting, click on the thumbnail for an enlarged picture, then use the "Back" button on your browser to return to this page.


Bound for China

Kazumi, one of the volunteer teachers at the Japanese lessons on Wednesdays, is off to teach Japanese in a high school in China sometime in August, so Amy, Erica and I took her out for a farewell meal at theViva City shopping centre at the begining of July. Afterwards we indulged in a session in one of the "purikura" (Print Club sticker) booths upstairs, to give each of us a memento of the occasion.

With Kazumi at Viva City Purikura
Kazumi, Erika, Amy and me, and one of our "purikura" stickers.

Visa and handicrafts

On Thursday 6th July I went back down to Kyoto, together with Amy, to pick up my new visa. Once the visas had been dealt with, we went along the road to the Kyoto Handicraft Center for the woodblock printing taster session (as mentioned under Golden Week in May). Incidentally, the Japanese word for woodblock printing is "hanga"; I think the term "ukiyo-e" refers more to a particular style of woodblock printing, but people will know what you mean if you use it. We were given the choice of three designs, each about 6" x 8" in size and consisting of six different colours. We opted for the geisha. We were shown a short video explaining the process, then the materials were laid out on the table, we were each given two sheets to print onto, and a professional demonstrated the process for us. (He only spoke Japanese but there was also a lady present who spoke good English.) For each colour to be printed you have a block of wood (they prefer to use cherry wood) with the design, and a small lip and a corner at the bottom to show you where to position your paper, carved into it. For each block of wood there's a pot of paint (very thin watercolour) and a brush a bit like you'd use to polish your shoes. You slop a bit of paint - not too much - onto the wood, and spread it out smoothly with the brush, then carefully position your paper, smooth side down, on the block. You then take a kind of paddle - a flat circular piece of wood with a leaf wrapped round it (it looked like a banana leaf to me but I think the video said it was bamboo) and a handle on the back - and rub it firmly over the back of the paper to transfer the paint.

For the geisha, the six colours were: yellow, for some of her hair ornaments; dark blue (more hair ornaments); a turquoisey colour (more hair ornaments and her kimono); red (yet more hair ornaments, and her lips); brown (the background) and black (outlines, her hair and face, and stripes to give a slatted effect to the brown background). You can see the result below.

Amy at work Finished! My print
Woodblock printing: Amy at work (showing the various tools and several prints at different stages of completion); us with our finished product; and a close-up of the better of my two prints.

I'd really like to learn how to do the whole process, including making the woodblocks, but unfortunately there are no classes available in Hikone (the nearest thing available was a wood-carving group). Maybe I'll be able to find something if I search further afield. If all else fails, I suppose I could always resort to books and art shops...

Sumo basho

The July sumo basho (tournament), in Nagoya, began on July 9th, and a group of us from Shiga went along for the opening day. We went down early to be sure of getting on-the-day tickets; we were expecting to get standing-room-only for ¥1500, but in fact the only tickets available (for under ¥10,000, that is) were ¥2800. We did get seats, though (moulded plastic ones), and in my opinion they were preferable to the more expensive cushions on the floor, certainly in terms of comfort.

Since you can only enter the sumo hall once and the bouts are fought in ascending order of rank, most people don't go in until the early afternoon. (The first rikishi (sumo wrestlers) who are of senior enough ranks to earn a salary have their ring-entering ceremony at 2.40.) So we went back into the centre of Nagoya for a few hours, before returning to the hall around lunchtime. As we left, we met several rikishi heading for the hall, and noted that most of them smelled of baby powder!

Previously I had only the vaguest idea of what sumo was all about (though I felt relatively knowledgeable when I heard some of the questions that the guy behind us was asking his friend!) so, in case you're in the same position, here's a short description of what it involves. A basho is held in every odd-numbered month, starting on the Sunday nearest to the 10th, and goes on for 15 days. Besides the Nagoya one, three are held in Tokyo, one in Osaka (March), and one in Kyushu (November).

Each rikishi fights one bout per day. Almost every aspect of a rikishi's life is determined by his rank, which in turn is determined by his competitive record. The very highest rank is yokozuna (if you know Akebono, Takanohana and Musashimaru, this is what they are). Only 62 yokozuna have been created since the rank was introduced 300 years ago. They belong to the maku-uchi group, which includes the top five ranks and numbers about 40 men in all. In total across all the ranks, there are about 800 professional rikishi. The next level is juryo, followed by maku-shita. The lower ranks, whom most of the spectators don't bother turning up to see, are sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi. A rikishi can be promoted or demoted, depending on his performance. Only yokozuna cannot be demoted; if they perform poorly then they are expected to retire. The rikishi are divided into two sides, East and West, although they don't actually compete as teams. I think this originates from when East Japan used to compete against West Japan, but the division is pretty arbitrary these days. Akebono and Takanohana are the top rikishi for East and West respectively.

A rikishi's objective is to make his opponent either set foot outside the dohyo (ring) or touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. Only the higher ranks spend a long time throwing salt into the ring and trying to psyche each other out before their bouts; those of the highest ranks have a 4-minute time limit, after which they must start fighting, and the limit gets shorter the lower you go. The salt-throwing is to purify the ring and exorcise malice, by the way, and of course all the other rituals have symbolic significance too. The referee is called the gyoji, and there are five judges for all bouts. They're the ones in black kimono who sit round the ring.

I was surprised how easy it was to get close to the rikishi; you could get up and wander around at any time, and quite frequently you would find yourself standing just a few feet from a yukata-clad rikishi. The tunnels through which the rikishi enter the dohyo are also used by the spectators; we were sitting a lot further back, but there was nothing to stop us from wandering down there. Outside, too, rikishi could frequently be encountered walking backwards and forwards between the hall and their respective accommodations.

Amanda, who's a fan of Takanohana's, bought an example of his handprint as a souvenir. It was the same size as mine! Mind you, I do have very long hands...

Kate & me at sumo Our group at sumo Apron adjustments Ring-entering ceremony Ring-entering ceremony Adjustments to the mawashi Sumo bout
Pictures from the sumo: Kate (right) and me at the basho; our group; one of the juryo rikishi - Wakanojo - adjusting his apron before the ring-entering ceremony; the ring-entering ceremony (2 pictures); a high-ranking rikishi having his belt (mawashi) adjusted by his lower-ranked assistant; and one of the maku-uchi bouts in progress.

Hikone Nishi sports festival

My base school's sports festival (taiikusai) took place on July 11th. I would normally have been at my visit school on that day, but since it was after the exams I was told that they didn't need me to teach the two lessons that I had scheduled for the morning, so I could attend the sports festival. In a way it was a shame, because those two lessons would have been my last with two of my best classes, and I haven't said goodbye to them. In the end I wrote a note to each class (in slightly dodgy Japanese, but at least they'll know that I wrote it myself) and gave it to their homeroom teachers to pass on.

Back at Hikone Nishi, between the end of the exams and the day of the sports festival, the students were putting a huge amount of time and effort into the preparations. As at Hachiko last September, the school was divided into seven teams with students from every year in each team, and each team made a huge poster and rehearsed a kind of cheerleading act. But whereas the Hachiko students performed their routines to taped pop music, the only musical accompaniment used by each team at Hikone Nishi was either a taiko drum or a whistle, and they sang as well as dancing. Besides preparing posters and cheerleading routines, they spent time practising skipping (ten people jumping, two turning the rope) and practising for the "mukade" (centipede) race, which is a bit like a three-legged race but involves 20 people from each team, one behind another, with their legs tied together. The sports ground was prepared the day before the event, with the tracks being marked out with chalk, the long-jump pit (of very earthy-looking sand, and overgrown after a year of disuse) being dug up, grass being cleared from the lesser-used parts of the pitch (I helped with this), and canopies being erected.

Practising routines Practising routines Clearing grass from the pitch
Preparing for the sports festival.

The day of the event dawned fine; if it had been wet, the festival would have been postponed to the Wednesday. First the students assembled in their teams in the staff car park, and then marched onto the sports pitch for the opening ceremony and warm-up routine (the standard one that every Japanese has been practising since kindergarten), then the events began. The first set of events consisted of long jump (habatobi), high jump (takatobi), and running races varying in length from 50m to 800m. The running and jumping events were organised simultaneously. There weren't any throwing events, possibly due to the limited amount of space; a lap of the running track was only 200m, and with 800 students on the pitch it probably wouldn't have been a good idea to be throwing things around! After that was Hikone Nishi's manic version of the tug of war, using wooden poles instead of ropes. 20 boys (or 25 girls) from one team lined up opposite - but about 40 metres away from - the same number on the opposing team, with five poles laid on the ground mid-way between the teams. When the starting pistol went off they had to dash to the middle of the pitch and grab their end of one of the poles, and try to pull it back over their starting line. Once one pole had been won or lost, the people who'd been pulling it would rush off to help their team-mates with one of the other poles, and the team that got three of the five poles won the battle.

Team posters Marching in Opening ceremony
Sports festival team posters, Team 1 marching onto the pitch, and the opening ceremony.

50m sprint High jump Tug of war
Morning events: 50m sprint; high jump (an unusual technique!); tug of war.

After lunch (fancier bento than usual; I don't know who paid for them but it wasn't me!) was the cheerleading event, in which every team performed admirably. Then it was the skipping competition (two two-minute periods in which each team had to complete as many jumps as possible), followed by the "karimono" (borrowed things) race. This was somewhere between a sprint and a scavenger hunt; one person from each team ran a short distance and picked up a sheet of paper naming something - for example a whistle, a female teacher, a pencil - which they had to borrow and take to the finishing line as quickly as possible. Then it was the mukade race, which was actually a relay. I found it difficult to tell who was racing against whom, but it was entertaining nevertheless! The final event of the day was the team relay. Six people each ran 100m, three each ran 200m, two each ran 300m, and the anchor ran 400m, or two laps of the track. I was on the teachers' team, and we lost miserably. It didn't help that the baton was dropped on my handover to Akada-sensei (mainly my fault, I think), but we were already trailing before that stage so I don't think it made a lot of difference really.

Cheerleading Human pyramid Cheerleading costumes Mukade race Mukade race
Afternoon events: cheerleading; mukade race.

Finally, there was the closing ceremony, during which certificates were presented to the top three teams in each event or set of events. A lot of the girls on the winning teams were in tears! After that it was time to clear up. As I helped to dismantle one of the canopies, the leg that I was holding fell out of its socket and landed on my toe. I went to the health room to get the wound attended to (I don't think it's too serious though), and was told that there had been about 60 injuries during the course of the day, so business had been pretty brisk!

ALT farewell

On Friday 14th July all the Shiga ALTs had to go down to Kencho in Otsu for the end-of-year reporting meeting. It was similar to the mid-year reporting meeting that we had in February, but this time it was the 42 departing ALTs who had to make speeches (in Japanese, of course), so I was spared - though I still had to give a farewell speech at my visit school's morning staff meeting the following Tuesday. Before the speeches, each departing ALT was given a large certificate (with no means of keeping it flat, so most of them were getting a bit dog-eared by the end of the day), and there were also "presents" for the prefecture-hired ALTs, though I have no idea what these were. (The town-hired people would have had "presents" too, but from their towns rather than the prefecture.) Some of the speeches were actually quite entertaining, including a song with guitar accompaniment and a trombone solo!

After the meeting we had a farewell party in Zeze, a couple of stops up the railway line. This was in the same hotel as our welcome party last summer, and they'd even (somewhat inappropriately) recycled the sign saying "Welcome new Shiga ALTs". The party ended at 8pm and was followed by the usual chaos of thirty people disagreeing about where to go but seemingly incapable of splitting up and going their separate ways (well, it was the last time that a lot of them would see each other), and of course that many people weren't going to get into an izakaya without a booking at that time on a Friday night. After an hour of dithering and being turned away from izakaya in two different towns I gave up and went home. At the risk of sounding callous, most of these people I've met no more than half a dozen times anyway, and most of the people I see a lot of are staying for another year, so I'm not going to miss many of the non-renewers very much.

Gion matsuri

That weekend was the climax of the Gion matsuri in Kyoto, classed as one of Japan's three biggest festivals (everything in Japan seems to be one of the three biggest, or the five most beautiful, or the hundred most important in some category or other). I happened to be in Kyoto at this time in 1997, on my first visit to Japan, but this was the first opportunity I'd had to see it again.

I spent Sunday 16th July in Kyoto with the TES group - ten of us in total. It was a sweltering hot day; the weather report the next morning indicated that the temperature in Kyoto had reached 37°C! We visited Sanjusangendou (the temple with the 33 bays and 1001 statues of Kannon), then went and sat in the shade under one of the Kamogawa bridges for lunch. After that we went up to Yasaka shrine in Gion, where many of the Gion matsuri activities are centred - though not a lot was going on at that time. From there we crossed the river and walked up Pontocho, then across to Teramachi and down the Nishiki food market. As we approached Teramachi we were given fans which showed the locations of the 32 festival floats which were on display in the streets of their respective neighbourhoods. We were already aware that they were in the Muromachi/Shinmachi textile area, but none of us had actually known where that was; it turned out to be more or less exactly in the middle of Kyoto, around Shijo and a few streets to the west of the Nishiki market. Traffic was still flowing on the main roads, even though a few large "hoko" (the huge two-storey floats decorated withe tapestries and each housing a band on the top storey) were on display at the roadsides, but all the smaller roads were completely pedestrianised and full of festival stalls and more floats. In return for a fee it was possible to climb up onto the hoko, usually via a temporary wooden bridge built out from a neighbouring building.

The TES group at Gion.

Gion hoko
One of the "hoko".

Shortly after we reached the area where the floats were on display, the TES group headed back to the station, but I opted to stay on for a bit longer; this was a part of the Gion festival that I hadn't seen in 1997, and I also wanted to go back and see the heron dances at the Yasaka shrine a bit later. As well as the Gion matsuri floats, there was a Byobu (folding screen) matsuri in progress, where a lot of houses had their fronts opened up so that passers-by could view the folding screens and other treasures inside. This being the textile area, there were also lots of little textile shops.

Folding screens Family treasures
Folding screens and other treasures on display.

By the time I'd battled my way through the crowds and got back to the Yasaka shrine, the heron dances were already in progress, surrounded by a huge crowd which made it very difficult to see anything more than the herons' heads. The heron dances were in the middle of the courtyard, but there was also a stage set up for another performance which turned out to be a series of dances called "Iwami Kagura", originating from Shimane-ken. I'm not quite sure why dances from Shimane-ken were being performed as part of a Kyoto festival, but I think it had something to do with shrines in the two places being dedicated to the same emperors. (The blurb says that "it is acted in the eve of the Gion festival every year", but I'm sure I was at the Yasaka shrine at exactly the same stage of the festival three years ago and don't remember any dances being performed then. Maybe they've just moved the venue.) I'd worked my way into quite a good viewing position by the time the performance started, but at the end of a long day I was just too tired to stay standing there for the entire 2½ hour duration. It was a shame because the final "Yamata no Orochi" dragon dance was described as the climax, with four 16-metre snakes on the stage, and I would have liked to see that if only I'd had the energy. Maybe next year...

Heron dance
Heron dance at the Yasaka shrine.

New ALTs arrive

The first batch of this year's new ALTs - 22 of them for our prefecture - arrived in Tokyo on July 16th and, after the Tokyo Orientation, came up to Shiga on Wednesday 19th. That Friday, following their survival orientation, we had a get-together in a pub in Kyoto, followed by (for some of us) a karaoke session. Another group, of about the same number of people, arrived a week later, but I was in the UK by then.

Baby talk

On the 23rd I paid a visit with some friends to Pamela, Hiro and baby Tatsuro, who had just turned one month old. Choosing his name had been tough; the registration deadline was almost upon them by the time they settled on Tatsuro, which can be translated at "achievement boy".

At the Sakamotos' Mother & child Tatsuro
At Pamela & Hiro's, and the star of the show.

Back to Britain

The weather was sweltering before I left on my two-week trip to the UK - up to 35°C during the day, and 40°C in my apartment - but on the day I had to travel down to the airport (July 25th) it was mercifully cool and damp. As well as a large rucksack and a smaller one as cabin baggage, I was carrying a box containing a 12-inch tall ceramic tanuki (a "raccoon-dog" character, made in the Shiga pottery town of Shigaraki and seen outside restaurants and homes all over Japan) which I was taking home to stand outside my house. When I got to the immigration control at the airport, I put the tanuki box down on the shelf while I checked that I had the right documents, and realised only after going through the control that I'd left it behind. Fortunately the area wasn't busy at the time, so I rushed back through the barrier telling the officer (in Japanese) that I'd forgotten my tanuki. The idea of this strange foreign woman running around looking for a forgotten tanuki reduced him to spluttering with laughter - which is pretty incredible when you remember how deadpan immigration officers invariably are!

The journey back to my parents' house in Cumbria took 31 hours in total, including a transfer in Hong Kong and a stop in Amsterdam en route to Manchester. Spent a couple of days at Mum & Dad's, then we all went up to Perth to visit Gran, stopping overnight in Musselburgh (just outside Edinburgh) on the way back down. While in Musselburgh we caught part of the centuries-old tradition of "Riding of the Marches". It's something to do with staking out the parish boundaries, and used to only be carried out once every thirteen years but is now done annually.

Whitehaven harbour
The harbour at Whitehaven, the town I grew up in. (That's Dad, Mum and my sister Rhona walking along the Old Quay on the left.)

At Gran's
Visiting Gran in Perth (she's the one on the right).

Riding of hte Marches Riding of the Marches
The Riding of the Marches in Musselburgh - horses lined up at the start of the parade, and crossing the ford by the Roman Bridge.

After a night back in Whitehaven we headed off in the opposite direction, down to Gloucester to see my sister there.

Click here to go back to the previous instalment
Click here to continue to the next instalment

Visitor number

If you

  • have any comments on the content of my site
  • have spotted any broken links
  • would like to link to my site
  • wish to use any of this site's content elsewhere

then please mail me (you'll have to edit the address in your email client) or sign my guestbook.

© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002