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From Gloucester I went up to Birmingham/Solihull, where I was staying with friends since my own house was rented out. I had numerous small jobs to take care of while I was there: catching up with friends; reminding my former employer of my existence; visiting the doctor & dentist, and so on. At the end of the week I picked up a hire car and drove across to visit Anne-Marie, a friend based in Coventry, before going on to Karen & Richard's in Brackley, near Banbury. On the Saturday (5th) we went to Oxford, since I'd never been there before (I surprised some Japanese tourists by speaking to them in their own language!), then in the evening it was Karen's hen night. For anyone unfamiliar with British English, a "hen night" is a girls' night out prior to the "hen"'s wedding. The male equivalent is called a stag night; why a stag and a hen are counterparts, I have no idea! During the evening I managed to injure my foot, and as a result part of the next day was spent at the local hospital making sure that nothing was broken; it turned out to be only a sprain. Fortunately driving was a lot less painful than walking, so I was able to drive up to Manchester (where I stayed with another friend, Jayne) and return the car to the airport the next morning as planned.
In Oxford with Karen & Richard, and the meal at the beginning of the hen night.
Got no sleep at all on the long flight back to Hong Kong, partly because my body clock was still in daytime mode, but also because the girl next to me seemed to be incapable of keeping her elbows and knees to herself for more than 30 seconds at a time. Fortunately I had enough space on the final flight to stretch out for a couple of hours. The jetlag was definitely worse following the return journey. I attracted a lot of strange/concerned looks as I hobbled around airports and railway stations with a large rucksack and a shoeless, bandaged foot!
Now I'm in the process of planning my next big trip, which will probably be to Singapore and Malaysia over New Year.
Although it's the summer holidays, teachers in Japan are still expected to go into school for at least a couple of hours each day. As far as I'm concerned it's no great hardship, since the school is only a 10-minute bike ride away from home and I have free air-conditioning and Internet access there. Most of the time during the holidays I have no responsibilities at school, except for advance lesson planning, so I use the time to surf the Internet and study Japanese. During the O-Bon festival (13th-16th August, in this part of Japan at least) very few people go into school. O-Bon is a time for returning to your home town and visiting ancestors' graves. Some schools are completely closed up, but in most cases there's a skeleton staff.
Since my return from the UK, I've been avidly following the "Big Brother" TV series, via its website. The series started with ten volunteers living in a purpose-built house infested with cameras, broadcasting non-stop via the Internet and daily on TV. They have no contact with the outside world. Each week the housemates nominate two people for eviction, and there's a public phone-in vote to decide which of the two should go. The sole survivor at the end of the "game" gets a £70,000 prize. I wonder if the participants really realised what they were letting themselves in for when they volunteered to take part? Many JETs who live in the inaka (remote countryside) complain that everyone knows their business and they have no privacy, so I suppose you could say there are some parallels...
On August 12th I attended a barbecue in a park in Omi-Hachiman, laid on by AJET. Most of the people there were new first year ALTs, and a lot of them were from Group B, so this was the first time I'd met them.
AJET barbecue in Omi-Hachiman. (Note to Megan's mum - your daughter is here!)
The following Tuesday I went with Tracy and Kerry, two of the other local ALTs, for a swim in a river up the hill from Taga (freezing cold, but much cleaner than the lake). Later on I went to a "blue party" at Pam and Hiro's in Yokaichi. Guests were required to wear blue, and the decor, food and drink were, as far as possible, all blue - Pamela had managed to find the necessary food colouring in a local supermarket. (She'd got the idea from me - I'd once held a purple party - and I'd got it from Scott, an American friend, who'd hosted a yellow party with drinks served in urine sample glasses! Purely by coincidence, the Big Brother contestants also held an orange party just before Pam's blue one!)
Tracy and Kerry in the river.
At the blue party.
The following Friday, some of the Hikone Nishi staff had an away-day with an overnight stay, in a nearby town called Omi-cho. The purpose of the day was to discuss school life and problems, so I wasn't really able to participate in that section of the proceedings, but in the evening there was a barbecue, attended by at least half of the staff, and afterwards a total of fifteen people stayed for the night. The venue was difficult to describe - a kind of conference/function centre next to the lake, with a restaurant attached. It was traditional Japanese style - communal (but single sex) baths, and futons laid out in tatami rooms. All twelve of the men were in one room, and we three women were in the other, though everyone congregated in the men's room until they were ready to go to bed. The discussions about school life continued, so it all went over my head, but it was quite amusing to watch people becoming more and more vocal as more and more alcohol was consumed. We were up pretty early in the morning for breakfast, and had dispersed by about 8.30.
Hikone Nishi staff barbecue in Omi-cho.
IFS summer camp
The same day, I went to Omi-Hachiman for the IFS summer camp at the Maki Beach log cabins. I arrived in time for lunch, which was a cold noodle "dish" called nagashi somen. It's explained in the caption of the picture below. After lunch it seemed to be free time, so Justin and I took an excursion to Daiei. I found a large wallet full of money on one of the supermarket packing tables (in a Japanese supermarket the checkout assistant takes your purchases out of your basket, scans them and then puts them into another basket, and after paying you take them to the packing tables to pack into bags), but a very flustered-looking lady appeared and claimed it immediately after I'd handed it in. Back at the cabins, the evening meal was another barbecue. (Incidentally, did you know that in Japan they barbecue slices of potato rather than baking whole ones in the embers?)
Nagashi somen for lunch: cold noodles washed down a half-pipe of bamboo, and scooped out with chopsticks by whoever could catch them on the way past. They're eaten with a dip and assorted garnishes.
Once the barbecue was over, there was an activity that I thought would have been better-suited to Hallowe'en. The idea was to tell the kids a spooky story to get them in the right mood, then to send them walking down a path in the dark in small groups and have people jumping out to scare them. Unfortunately, not enough preparation had been done and so nobody could think of a suitable story (the only one I could think of was a Stephen King story I'd just read, called "The Breathing Method", and since it was about a decapitated woman giving birth, it wasn't really the sort of thing you'd want to tell a bunch of ten-year-olds). Still, most of the kids seemed to enjoy the activity. They all walked together to the far end of a lane and then were set off walking back in small groups (no torches allowed), and helpers jumped out at them at various stages. Really, though, the lane was too wide and the "scarers" could have been more inventive if they'd had a bit more time to prepare. Say, jumping out behind a group and putting a bag over one person's head - now that would have given them a fright!
After the "ghost" walk we had fireworks down on the beach - as did at least two other groups. Safety doesn't seem to be a major concern here. in Britain we get public safety campaigns exhorting us to stand well away from fireworks and never go back to one that's been lit, but here it's quite common for people to hold them in their hands while they set them off. Nobody in our group did so, but some of our neighbours did.
The next morning, before breakfast, we were put into four groups for the dinner competition. Each group was to spend half the afternoon preparing a meal, then everyone would get to taste a bit of everything and vote on which group had come up with the best overall offering. My group decided to make "macaroni cheese plus" (that's just normal macaroni cheese with assorted vegetables, bacon and whatever else you have available added to it for a bit of interest), "chicken rice" (just fried chicken in rice, from what I can make out), and a sort of fruit salad thing with that white (lychee?) jelly stuff that you often seem to get in fruit salads here. After breakfast, everyone piled into the bus and did the shopping in Heiwado. I was the only one with a loyalty card so I did pretty well out of it!
Lunch was an interesting variation on the hot dog - again, see pictures and caption below. Afterwards we played a couple of games, including the manic cup & saucer game that we used to play when I was in the Guides - it went down very well - and then we started work on our culinary masterpieces. The cheese sauce for the macaroni cheese was almost a disaster (due to the inadequacy of my instructions), but we managed to salvage it, and it proved to be a hit. It's strange to think of macaroni cheese as being an exotic treat! Once the eating was over, the voting took place, and to my surprise, our team won! Only by a single vote, mind you. After that I had to return home; the camp continued until the Monday afternoon, but I had commitments at school that day.
One of the more unusual vending machines I've seen - this one is in Maki, on the route between the bus stop and the log cabins, and it sells eggs!
An unusual way of preparing hot dogs: make up the hot dog, wrap it in almunium foil, put it in an empty milk carton and put the whole thing on the fire. When the milk carton has burned away, it's ready to eat (though the sausage will probably still be cold).
The cup and saucer game.
Our "macaroni cheese plus".
A poke in the ear with a sharp stick
On the Sunday of the kids' camp, I woke up partially deaf (after sleeping with earplugs in) and decided I needed to get my ears syringed. I got this done for the first time by the nurse at the company where I worked a year or two ago - she gave me a little bottle of olive oil with an eye-dropper to put drops into my ears for 2-3 days to soften the wax, then I went back and she just washed it all out with a big syringe full of water. No problem! The olive oil stage was a bit uncomfortable, admittedly, but it was better than a poke in the ear with a sharp stick. However, judging by the plethora of wooden and metal ear picks available in the shops here, I suspected that the syringing treatment may be less commonly used in Japan. Unfortunately, I was right. My usual doctor referred me to a local ear, nose & throat specialist. I tried to describe the syringe method to the specialist, in the hope that it was one of the options available for treatment, but either he didn't understand what I was trying to say or he just wasn't interested - probably the latter. Instead, he scraped around inside my ears with scary-looking metal tools (pretty unnerving, especially when you come from a country where doctors advise you never to stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear), put in bits of dressing soaked in oil to soften the wax, and told me to come back a day or two later. He did this not just once, but five times over the course of a week. Sometimes it was very painful. Besides all that, there was no privacy at all; while one patient was being treated, other patients waited in the same room. The fifth time he asked me to come back, I just said no, that's enough. I can at least hear again now, and if I have any further ear problems I'll be looking for a doctor who uses less old-fashioned methods.
Meeting in the mountains
Over the last weekend in August, I went up to the Kiso valley in Nagano to meet up with Henry, a translator from Tokyo. I got to know him through the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board, where I've been a regular for quite a few months now. We've been in touch by email and postcards since the spring, but this was the first time we'd actually met. We met up in the town of Kiso-Fukushima and spent Saturday afternoon exploring the town and visiting most of the tourist attractions there: the Fukushima Sekisho (the reconstructed old checkpoint on the Nakasendo highway), Kozen-ji (a temple with Japan's biggest stone garden, along the same lines as the ones at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto and Ryotan-ji in Hikone), and the local history museum. Not much remains in Kiso-Fukushima in the way of Edo period buildings. The youth hostel that Henry had booked us into was closer to the next station up the line, so we got the rain to Harano and walked from there. It turned out to be a lot further than anticipated: well over an hour's uphill walk, which was tough on my still-injured foot. The bath felt really good when we eventually got there! During the evening we looked at local tourist literature to decide what to do the next day. Hiking was out because of my foot, and I'd already been to Tsumago, at the southern end of the valley, so in the end we settled on a visit to Narai, at the northern end.
Henry examining the terrain model in the local history museum, and one of the gardens (not the stone one mentioned above) at Kozen-ji, both in Kiso-Fukushima.
My dormitory in the youth hostel,and the view from my window.
A traditional roof (made of slats of wood held down with rocks) just across the lane from the youth hostel.
On the Sunday we intended to get the bus back down to the station, but found that we'd missed the 8.15 bus and the next one wasn't until nearly three hours later, so we ended up walking again. At least it was downhill this time. Had noodles for breakfast, at the first place we found open, then got the train a few stops to Narai. Narai turned out to be a pretty town with a long street of Edo period buildings - and a fair number of tourists, of course, but no other foreigners that we saw. We had a leisurely few hours wandering around the town and looking round temples and shrines (and making the most of the drinking fountains) before parting company and heading for our respective homes.
In Narai: view down the main street; a Zen temple; Henry & me in front of one of the drinking fountains.
Bell Road international festival
Bell Road Trade Association, in Hikone, held an international friendship festival on August 29th. Sachiko in the International Exchange Lounge had managed to rope in almost every ALT in the area to help on various stands. Steven was helping with the soft drinks, Rodney was doling out the draught beer, Amy was doing the salted grilled fish on skewers, Cat was on the yakitori, and so on. I was manning the bouncy space shuttle (described in the publicity in Japanese as "fuwa fuwa supeesu shatoru" and translated as "fluffy space walk"!). This was surprisingly hard work, since every time more than one child entered or came out, we had to stem the flow of kids and close the entrance to allow the thing to reinflate. A bouncy castle would have been much easier! I also somehow got talked into organising about half an hour's worth of kids' entertainment, but that turned out to be a bit of a flop; they were more interested in queuing for the space shuttle than in being entertained. I got Kerry to help me, with his juggling and yo-yos, and he had a little more success at getting their attention, but keeping their interest, or getting enough people together to organise a game, was another matter entirely. I can amuse a captive audience of ten or twenty kids reasonably well (with a bit of preparation), but it's not so easy when they're surrounded by distractions.
Phapyn (Indonesian) and Yamanaka-san manning the canned beer stand.
I was surprised at how big a turnout there was. I didn't see any of my students there though, even though my base school was less than a mile along the same road; most of the people who came were either adults or under-twelves. The festival began around 4pm and went on until just after 9, with performances including a rock'n'roll band, Brazilian dancers, Chinese balancing and juggling-type acts, a Mongolian dancer, a Chinese dragon dance, and some very strange antics involving heaps of bananas and some foreigners who - unlike me - spoke enough Japanese to understand what was going on. The event ended with a big raffle - tickets had been handed out with purchases of food and drink, and prizes including several bicycles and at least one TV were given away. Once it was over and everything had been cleared away, all the helpers who were still around were treated to a tabe/nomihodai (all you can eat/drink) session at a neighbouring izakaya.
Me with Camilla (right) and Larissa, the Brazilian dancers. They performed very well, but the dances that they did really didn't look as if they'd been designed for primary school children!