MY TIME AS A JET

PART SEVENTEEN: OCTOBER 2000


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OCTOBER

Beatlemania and British food

I started October with a shopping trip to Kyoto, and found a Beatles festival going on at the station there. There was a shop selling all kinds of overpriced Beatles memorabilia, including magazine supplements which had come free with a British newspaper a year or two ago and were on sale for about ¥1500 (almost £10). There was even a free live concert by a Beatles tribute band.

A John Lennon museum also opened in Japan a few days later, not far from Tokyo, on what would have been Lennon's 60th birthday. Beatlemania is alive and well in Japan!

We had a cooking session with ESS in early October, and made that favourite British dish, macaroni cheese. Well, maybe it's not originally British, but it's something that I and many other kids grew up with, and anything based on a white sauce is fairly unusual - even exotic! - in Japan. It went down pretty well, though it was a bit on the bland side and needed quite a lot of salt. I blame the cheese. In Japan, cheese doesn't come in many varieties; words like Cheddar, Edam, Stilton and so on mean nothing to the average Japanese (although you can buy them in certain imported-goods shops). Most Japanese cheese is somewhere between mild cheddar and the processed stuff that you put in burgers, and usually comes ready-grated.

Did the earth move for you?

On October 6th, as I was teaching a lesson at my base school, the hitherto quiet class suddenly all started jabbering excitedly. I realised why when I felt the building shaking. The students had felt the earthquake before me because they were sitting still, whereas I was moving around. It felt like quite a strong one, probably magnified by the fact that we were on the top floor of the four-storey building. It didn't go on for all that long though, only a matter of seconds. A few hours later I found news reports on the Internet telling us that the earthquake was centred on western Tottori-ken, about 200km west of where I live, and that at its epicentre it was of almost the same magnitude as the one that devastated Kobe in 1995: 7.1 on the Richter scale as opposed to Kobe's 7.2! Fortunately, though, it was in a far more sparsely populated area and there were no fatalities. The aftershocks continued for a week or two, I believe, but I didn't feel any of them in Hikone.

Out and about

Over the weekend of 8th-9th October, Nagahama hosted an arts and crafts festival, with the streets full of little handicraft stalls. On the way home I also called in on the Maibara Railway Festival, but the day's events were coming to an end by the time I got there so there wasn't all that much to see. That day I was accosted twice - once in Nagahama and once on the platform at Maibara station - by the same middle-aged Nova student wanting to practise his English. He asked me almost exactly the same questions the second time as the first (though he did correct his previous "Where long have you been in Japan?" to "How long"); he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he'd had the same conversation with me about two hours earlier, even though I told him so. It made me wonder how many foreigners he'd pounced on that day, and how much of each conversation had actually meant anything to him... Generally it's nice when people make an effort to speak to you in your own language, but this kind of behaviour - using random foreigners as practice dummies - can be a bit annoying.

Friday 13th was a fairly eventful day. (I'm not superstitious about Friday 13th; if anything I consider it lucky, since I was born on one!) In the morning staff meeting I picked up something about a softball game that afternoon, which I hadn't heard about before. This was later clarified: the staff of Nishiko were playing away against Maibara High School. I wanted to go along and watch (but not play - I don't know the rules and was always pretty useless at rounders at school anyway) but needed to get changed beforehand. I was planning on going home to change during 4th period, when my usual lesson had been cancelled, but a few minutes after the period had started, Nakamura-sensei came rushing into the staffroom and told me that there had been a mistake and we did have that lesson after all. Fortunately I'd already prepared the necessary handouts so it was just a matter of grabbing a few things and dashing down to the classroom. We were on a 45-minute timetable that day, as opposed to the usual 50 minutes per period, and by the time we got to the classroom there were only 35 minutes left, but luckily it was one of my best classes and we got through everything we needed to do.

I had two more lessons to teach in the afternoon, but still had just enough time afterwards to go home and change for the softball. The match was fun, with some impressive fielding by Hayase-sensei and a spectaular dive by Hanafusa-sensei. They made me have a go at batting, and of course I made a mess of it. I sort of managed to hit the ball on the third attempt, and was out before I got to first base. Still, we won 14-9, or so I was told, though I didn't fully grasp what was going on.

Softball team Betsumiya- & Torii-sensei
Hikone Nishiko softball team and supporters.

My day's exercise continued with a 20-minute bike ride over to a community centre in Minami Hikone to participate in my first aerobics class in Japan. Of the 50 names on the list, about 30 people turned up. The class started with a bit of conversation which I didn't follow, then we had about 40 minutes of "normal" aerobics, just the kind of thing I felt I needed after taking no real exercise for months on end. After a short break, the instructor then attempted to teach us two fairly complex dances in the space of about 20 minutes. Just the first one would have been plenty for most of us, particularly in the first lesson. Then she tried to split the class down the middle, at which everyone rushed over to my side of the room, so she had to coax people back to the side they'd come from. Eventually I managed to ascertain what was going on: the centre was holding some kind of open day on October 28th, and the aerobics class was going to be performing these two dances at it. We were going to have a had a whole TWO classes by then! (I already had a booking for that weekend so I couldn't do it anyway.) Question one: why do they have to do this kind of event at all? Is it to attract people to subscribe to the courses they run? As far as I'm aware, all the courses have only just started and will be running until next March, and I don't know about the other courses but the aerobics class certainly wasn't under-subscribed. This brings me to question two: If they do have to have the event, why are they holding it when all the courses have just started and nobody has yet had enough time to produce anything worth putting on display? Wouldn't it make more sense to hold it shortly before this round of courses finishes and people start signing up for the next round?

Contributing to Japan's conservation

On October 14th I went out for the first time with a group of conservation volunteers based in Yokaichi, a small city about half an hour away from Hikone. A friend from university gave me the contact details of someone at the BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers), they put me in touch with a professor in Kyushu, and he gave me the details of Mutoh-san, who runs the Yokaichi group. They go out on the 2nd Saturday of every month, if it's dry. (The Japanese will spend weeks planning an event only to cancel it if it rains!)

There were about 40 people, doing various tasks, and it was a really good day. I was evidently the first foreigner who'd ever joined the group, and several people recoiled in horror at the prospect of having to communicate in English! They were all told that I could speak, read and write Japanese (which is true to a limited extent) but quite a few of them were still wary of talking to me - though they were very friendly in a wordless kind of way! There were also a few who were eager to practise what they could remember of their English, though, so we chatted in a mixture of the two languages.

I didn't actually do much work in the morning - the guy in charge took everyone on a short nature walk to begin with (they seem to have at least half a dozen different varieties of tree which bear acorn-like things), then he spent some more time showing me and the other newbies around. I got told the names of loads of different plants in Japanese; nearly all of them went in one ear and out the other, but it was interesting nevertheless. There are about 300 types of plant in that little forest, and 60 different butterflies - not to mention all the dragonflies and mosquitoes (we were all given mosquito coils to wear, but I got eaten alive regardless). After that I was paired up with a lady who was placing bamboo stakes near various types of burr to indicate to visiting elementary school kids where they should look for them. Effectively that was another nature walk; I even came home with a bag full of wild ginger! Lunch - prepared in the forest using a barbecue, a couple of makeshift stove fires, and even the heat coming off a charcoal burner - was something of a banquet, with soup, rice and roasted sweet potatoes, plus yakitori (chicken kebabs) and persimmons (a fruit which looks a bit like a giant orange tomato but I'm not even going to attempt to describe the taste). After lunch I joined a group that was creating three small fields - sandy, normal and clay soils - in which to grow rare plants. So in the afternoon I got some proper exercise, with shovelling and raking soil. I'll definitely be going back next month (weather permitting!).

Nature walk Nature walk
Nature walk, led by Mutoh-san (the guy in the checked shirt).

Gathering sand Our fields
Creating fields for the cultivation of rare plants.

Charcoal burner
Charcoal burner at work.

The following day I spent a couple of hours at a local festival in Taga with Tracy, the ALT there. We bumped into dozens of her pupils - she teaches just about every child in Taga between the ages of 6 and 15 - but none of mine. It seems that local festivals, especially daytime ones, just aren't cool enough for high school kids to attend.

Storyteller
A storyteller at the festival in Taga. The thing he's holding is called a tamasudare. He tells the story as a kind of chant set to traditional music and uses the tamasudare to illustrate it (as I understand it).

School stuff

The mid-term exams were held around the third week of October at both of my schools. I recorded listening tests for some classes at both schools, but the teachers at Genko wanted to do a live listening test for the four classes of first years that I'd taught. In fact I had to do the test six times, because besides the four classes there were also a handful of students who had been segregated into another room because they were in breach of school uniform rules, and a couple more who were sitting their exams in yet another room because they were currently suspended from school (I think they'd been caught smoking; the usual punishment for this offence is a week's suspension).

The following week at Genko I had a bit of a drama involving a couple of keitais (mobile phones). Having made my "If I see a keitai, I will take it" threat (see last month), I had to follow through, but the effect of this policy turned out to be more hassle than I anticipated. Some boys in one particular class, which I taught during second period, were being particularly badly-behaved, so I took two keitais from them and initially said that I would keep them for a week as I'd threatened. However, these boys had been absent from my previous lesson and so hadn't been forewarned (except at the beginning of that day's lesson, but the warning was in English so they argued that it didn't count), so I relented and told them that they could have the phones back the next morning, or at the end of the same day if they were well-behaved in all the rest of their lessons. This wasn't good enough for them, though - it really was as if I'd deprived them of something essential to their survival! They came and pestered me for the entire lunch break (for once I was glad that we only get 30 minutes at Genko), and again for the break between the next two lessons. They tried to get the other teachers to take their side - even the kyoto-sensei (vice-principal), who happened to drop by - and argued that their employers (some high school kids here do have part-time jobs, referred to as "arubaito", although it's generally frowned upon at more academic schools) might be trying to contact them. As if their employers don't know perfectly well that they shouldn't be using their phones in lessons! Ishiwaki-sensei helped me to track down their other teachers for that day and enquire about their behaviour. I think most of the staff found the saga quite amusing. Whether they got their phones back the same day ended up depending on their behaviour in the final period, which was with Odani-sensei, a particularly strict teacher who at the time was also standing in as their homeroom teacher. They passed muster (they knew that he knew) and had their keitais returned, but didn't look very happy about it. I dread to think what their behaviour will be like the next time I teach them...

Kyoto festivals

On October 22nd I went to two festivals in Kyoto-fu (the -fu means prefecture, as does the -ken of Shiga-ken). The first was the Kyoto Jidai Matsuri, or Festival of the Ages - a big procession of about 1700 people in a range of costumes depicting Kyoto's history. The festival itself isn't all that old, having been started sometime around the turn of the century. There were lots of nice costumes, and horses too, but you'd have to know a lot more about Japanese history than I do to really appreciate it. I met up with a couple of ALTs from Fukui-ken (Steve & Ramona) to watch the parade; we bagged a piece of pavement fairly early to get a good view, but unfortunately the buses continued to run along our side of the street so we got our view obscured every so often, as well as being on the receiving end of the exhaust fumes. Still, as you can see, I got a few reasonably good photos.

Jidai matsuri Jidai matsuri Jidai matsuri Jidai matsuri
Kyoto Jidai Matsuri.

From there, I went on to the Kurama Hi Matsuri, or Fire Festival. The literature warns you to get there early, but it doesn't warn you to get there early enough! The event has obviously grown hugely in popularity over the last few years (I was speaking to one Japanese woman who said it had been much smaller and more fun when she went ten years ago), and the fact that this year October 22nd fell on a Sunday, and the weather was good, probably made matters worse. Kurama is a half-hour ride from Kyoto on the private Eizan railway, and I suspect that this event singlehandedly makes the line profitable! I got to Demachiyanagi station at 4.15pm and still had to queue for 40 minutes to get a train, and of course the trains (two carriages each on a mostly single-track line) were all packed solid. Got into Kurama at 5.30, and it was already pretty crowded. The area around the station was all crowd control, but if you headed right up or down to one end of the town it was more relaxed, with room to breathe and, once they got started around 6pm, nothing to stop you from mingling with the torch bearers. It was a spectacle worth seeing, but I think that if I'd just stayed in the crowded areas near the station & the central shrine I would have found it a bit disappointing. Before the torch-parading started, many of the house fronts were lit up and the children posed in their kimono - and one or two of the older boys/men in their traditional outfits, which consisted of a G-string with a kind of short rope loincloth at the front, a "short shirt" which consisted of very little besides long sleeves, and tabi (split-toed socks) with straw sandals. The torch-parading started around 6ish with the small kids, helped along by their parents. Then the older boys & men started lugging their bigger torches around. Once the event got going and you got swallowed up by the crowds, it was difficult to move anywhere except back to the station, where you were channelled into a queuing system for a train back to Kyoto. The climax of the festival wasn't due until 9pm but by 7.30 (when I left, since it looked as if being stranded there for the night would otherwise have been a very real risk) there was already a half-hour queue to get a train back. At that stage people were still arriving too, though the incoming trains weren't as jam-packed as before.

Kurama Kurama Kurama Kurama
Torch bearers at the Kurama Hi Matsuri.

Bike accident

One wet evening in late October, Sachiko and I were on our way to meet some friends, when we saw what looked like the scene of an accident, so we stopped to see if we could do anything to help. It turned out to have been a collision between two bicycles, ridden by a high school girl and a boy who looked a little older. The boy didn't appear to be injured, but the girl had a deep gash on her knee and, once she stood up, was limping noticeably. (Her umbrella had been completely destroyed; I have no idea why almost everyone here prefers to cycle while holding an umbrella rather than wearing a waterproof jacket with a hood. If you ask me, it's a wonder that collisions like this don't happen more frequently!) We were close to the shiminkaikan (civic centre), where Sachiko works, so we went to the sewerage office, the only part of the building that was still open, where Sachiko cleaned up and dressed the wound. The girl called home on her mobile phone, and her father arrived soon afterwards. I went out to the car park to meet him, and when he drove into the car park and I went up to his door and asked if he was Yumiya-san (I would preserve his anonymity but he doesn't deserve it), all he did was grunt before following me to the entrance. I wanted to put this down to anxiety for his daughter's welfare, but no - to my horror, within seconds of walking into the building, he slapped her across the face and started shouting at her! Why? Because she had embarrassed him! It didn't seem to occur to him that he was embarrassing himself infinitely more with his own behaviour. The possibility that the accident may not have been deliberate didn't seem to have any relevance; all that mattered was that he was embarrassed and she was to blame. Sachiko handled the situation very diplomatically, speaking calmly to him and (as far as I could understand) urging him to be a bit more gentle with her because she was probably suffering from shock, and he did seem to calm down a bit. A little later I went over to the car to get a phone number so that we could let the others know why we were late, and when I came back the police had arrived. The father's first words to his daughter when he saw the police were, "Now look what you've done to me!" Sachiko commented that there are a lot of fathers in Japan with this kind of attitude: their own pride is more important to them than their family's welfare. I know a little about the importance of saving face in Asian cultures, but this father's attitude was so extreme as to have the opposite effect.

A busy weekend

On Friday October 27th I had a visit from two first year ALTs and their JTLs who came to observe a couple of my lessons. Lessons had been rescheduled so that they got to watch two classes which provided a significant contrast in terms of genki-ness, but neither of which was particularly difficult. (Coincidentally, they also happened to be doing two consecutive lessons from my series on prepositions and directions.) The two lessons were also each observed by the kocho-sensei (principal) and at least one of the other JTLs I teach with. Afterwards we had a meeting to discuss teaching methods and exchange ideas, and immediately that was over, I had to rush off and catch a train to Otsu for the Mid Year Seminar planning meeting. The MYS for Shiga takes place on November 9th/10th, and I'm going to be moderating Tracy and Amy's workshop on elementary schools and special needs students.

That evening it was the AJET Hallowe'en party in Omi-Hachiman. I'd been working on my costume for several weeks: a "ko-gyaru" high school student. Ko-gyaru means something along the lines of "trendy girl". After numerous enquiries I'd succeeded in borrowing a Nishiko uniform from a former student (it was a bit on the small side but passable), and had forked out for the essential loose socks and borrowed an old pair of plastic school slippers that a graduating student had left behind. I had wooden beads made out of acorns gathered on the Yokaichi conservation day, and everything else came from the 100 yen shop: clip-on hair extensions, lots of glittery hairclips, thick false eyelashes, and vast amounts of make-up and glitter. I bought the darkest foundation they had, for that fake tan look, but unfortunately it turned out to be hardly any darker than my natural colour. Oh, and of course I turned the waistband of the skirt over until the skirt was actually shorter than the shirt at the back, adopted the "cute" pigeon-toed shuffle favoured by high school girls, and spent the evening constantly touching up my make-up in a mirror covered with purikura stickers. The transformation took place in the toilets at Pasta Pasta, where the party was being held, and when I emerged, a lot of people initially failed to recognise me! Just before the nearby Daiei closed at 8pm, I went on a chocolate run in all my finery, together with Monica Lewinsky (Freya) and Eimi, a Japanese friend of hers, and nobody batted an eyelid! Eimi reckoned this was just because they were being professional, though, not because they hadn't noticed anything unusual.

When the fancy dress competition came round, I didn't win anything. Maybe I was just too authentic - you can't really parody something that's already a parody in itself! My costume was lacking in originality to some degree too. The winners were all more original: Brenda as a butterfly, Cat as Miss Chiquita Banana (with a basket of bananas on her head) and Murray as an oversized Bam-Bam.

Hallowe'en party Hallowe'en party Hallowe'en party Hallowe'en party Hallowe'en party
Pictures from the AJET Hallowe'en party.

The next morning I was back in Omi-Hachiman, this time for the IFS Hallowe'en camp at Maki Beach log cabins. I met up with the staff and helped with the shopping, then we went back to the cabins, had lunch and decorated the big cabin in preparation for the kids' arrival. Unfortunately it rained non-stop from about noon onwards, so we were mostly limited to indoor activities. After self-introductions and an introduction to what Hallowe'en is all about, several weird and wonderful giant pumpkins were produced and we made jack-o-lanterns. Most of them were bottomless, because we had to saw the ends off the pumpkins to make them stand upright. Then we had dinner, the main dish being a vaguely haggis-like concoction steamed inside a hollowed-out pumpkin (very good actually). After that the kids made their Hallowe'en costume (or got changed into the stuff they'd brought with them) and went trick-or-treating in the rain. We didn't have tents like last year, just people stationed at various points around the cabins. By the time that was over, it was almost bedtime, but there was a guitar-and-singing session first. Of course, it was several hours later before the staff went to bed.

Making jack-o-lanterns Jack-o-lanterns Costumes
IFS camp -jack-o-lanterns and costumes.

Dinner
Ino prepares dinner.

For once we were permitted the luxury of being able to sleep until 7.40am without being rudely awakened by energetic children. That may be early for a Sunday morning, but it's pretty late for an IFS camp. After breakfast the kids spent a while doing the Shingo Mama "O-ha" dance (very popular here at the moment; Shingo is a member of a pop group called SMAP who dresses up in drag and goes and looks after people's kids for a day). They were led by a smaller group of high school students who were also using the cabins that weekend. Then, by popular request, I taught everyone the "Strip the willow" dance for about the fourth time (fortunately Sunday wasn't so wet so we were able to do it outdoors). After that we ducked for apples - or rather for slices of apple, since apples are so big and expensive here - an essential Hallowe'en tradition. Once everyone had dried off from the apple-bobbing, we had a relay race which involved using your mouth to fish a chocolate out of a tray of flour. This eventually resulted in nearly everyone getting their faces completely covered in the stuff.

Apples Apples Apples
Ducking for apples, and fishing for chocolates in a tray of flour.

I left shortly after noon because I wanted to go to the Nagahama Kimono Festival. Last year I saw part of it, but had to spend most of the day rehearsing for the fashion show I was in, so I didn't want to miss out again this year. Because of the intermittent drizzle, the benches hadn't been set out in the area in front of the temple for the girls in kimono to sit on. Most of them were standing under umbrellas or sheltering wherever they could, but it was still an impressive sight. At 3pm everyone congregated in the temple area for the prize draw, which was a raffle with prizes such as trips to Guam or Hawaii, and even a car as the top prize. I think there was a prize awarded for the best obi (kimono sash) as well.

Purikura queue Modern vs traditional (look at the boots!) At the temple Gathering at the temple
Pictures from the kimono festival.


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This page last edited 18th October 2002