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Hikone Castle Festival
November 3rd was a public holiday (Culture Day) and was also the date of the Hikone Castle Festival. Together with Amy and her boyfriend Akio, I visited the festival market, food stands, flea market, and antique market, watched the parade (which was like a scaled-down version of last month's Kyoto Jidai Matsuri parade), and got to bash a huge drum.
Pictures from the castle festival parade.
Having a bash at the biggest drum (but that's not me!).
That Sunday was the final day of the festival, with assorterd performances up at the castle, including a koto (Japanese harp) concert by the group of which Erika, Notogawa's former ALT, is a member.
Performances at the castle: the koto concert (Erika's the one in the pink kimono) and a tamasudare act.
November seems to be the month for fire drills. The fire service did a practice rescue at the apartment block opposite mine on the morning of November 5th (coincidentally also the date of Bonfire Night in the UK!). We'd all received notes a couple of weeks beforehand, asking us not to park outside our apartments on that day - as if there won't be any cars parked there when there's a real fire!
The fire service's practice rescue. In the second photo the castle is just hidden behind one of the trees. These trees were felled just before the end of the month, so now I can just about see the castle from my balcony, provided that next door's balcony isn't festooned with washing! In the third picture you can see my small apartment block on the left - the one with the staircase visible.
After the fire drill I went for a short hike up Sawayama, the original site of the castle (it was completed on its present site in 1622). I'd been meaning to get round to doing this for over a year!
View from top of Sawayama.
A local example of one of Japan's peculiarities, the love hotel. (To date, these aren't something that I have first-hand experience of!) Note the curtained parking area and the boards obscuring the car number plates, to preserve customers' anonymity.
Two days later we had a fire drill (hinankunren) at school as well. We were working to a short-period timetable all day (45 minutes per period instead of the usual 50) to allow time for the fire drill at the end of the day, so of course everyone knew that the alarm was going to go off five minutes before the end of 6th period, just like it does every year. I was teaching that lesson, and the class got a bit restless as the time aproached, but at least they weren't all lined up outside the classrooms five minutes in advance, as I've heard they do at some schools. When the alarm went off, we all trooped out to the sports pitch (which had conveniently been marked out to show each class where to line up) - indoor slippers and all (so that was one thing that was realistic!). Attendance checks were carried out, speeches were made, and then everyone went back indoors.
Mid Year Seminar
This year's Mid Year Seminar for Hikone ALTs and JTLs, on 9th-10th November, took place not at the offices of the Prefectural Board of Education as usual, but at a purpose-built conference centre called the Japan Intercultural Academy of Municipalities. Being mandatory, it was attended by all 94 of the Shiga ALTs and over 100 JTLs (though some of the JTLs only came for one day). On the second day, I moderated for a workshop given by Tracy and Amy on teaching elementary and special needs students. In my teaching situation, I don't deal with either of these groups, but Amy and Tracy both live near me so presumably I was allocated this workshop for geographical reasons. We had to go at breakneck speed to fit in everything they'd planned to include, but fortunately, unlike the previous workshops, we only had native English speakers attending (with the exception of one JTL who must have sneaked out of the workshop she was supposed to be in) so we didn't have to worry about taking non-native speakers into account. I thought it was pretty successful, but it remains to be seen whether the feedback will confirm this.
After the second day of the seminar, many of the ALTs went to the Hub, a "British" pub in Kyoto. We don't often get the chance to meet up with other ALTs from outside our own local areas, so most people take advantage of the opportunity when it does come up. I've been to the Hub a few times before, but it was only on this visit that I found out it had an upstairs section with a pool table!
More social stuff
On Saturday November 11th I went out to the forest for the second time with the Yokaichi conservation volunteer group. This time I spent most of the day cutting bamboo - not getting rid of all of it, but thinning it out considerably in order to give other plants a chance to grow.
Rainbow over Hikone Castle (photo taken from the station on the way to Yokaichi).
Yokaichi - cutting bamboo and having lunch.
That evening I had my 30th birthday do (Monday, my actual birthday, not being the best night of the week for that kind of thing) - an excellent night. There were 14 of us for the meal, which was a tabehodai & nomihodai (all-you-can-eat/drink) yakiniku (meat etc. grilled on a barbecue or hot plate) and shabu-shabu (food cooked by briefly dipping in boiling water). There were two teachers from my base school, two from my former visit school, one from my current visit school, the other three members of my Japanese class, my Japanese teacher, and a handful of other Japanese friends. Afterwards eight of us, plus three latecomers, went on to karaoke. I was given several presents - including, to my amazement, a kimono! The kimono was from Matsuzawa-sensei, an English teacher from my old visit school. She said she'd worn it when she was younger. A new kimono is frighteningly expensive - generally well over £1000 once you've got the obi (sash) and other bits and pieces to go with it. This one came with the obi, but not the extra bits. It's a married woman's kimono rather than the "furisode" kind worn by single girls, so the sleeves don't hang as low, the design is fairly subdued (predominantly pink & white) and the obi is worn with a fairly simple loop at the back rather than a fancy bow. So it's not really the right kind for me to wear at the moment, but I suppose I'll be too old for furisode before long in any case, and at least it won't become redundant if and when I do get married. Now I need to find someone to teach me how to put it on!
Pictures from my birthday do: at the meal, and after the karaoke.
At school the following Monday, the kocho-sensei (headmaster) gave me the generous gift of a big coffee-table book of paintings by a Japanese artist. I was glad that he didn't announce my birthday in the morning staff meeting like he did last year. That was a bit embarrassing - nobody else ever gets their birthdays announced!
That week's day at my visit school fell on day two of the school's culture festival - the majority of schools seem to have their culture festivals around this time of year - and the whole school spent the day in the shiminkaikan (civic centre). This was very convenient for me as it's only a five-minute walk from my apartment, though I'm not sure why they didn't just use the school gym, like most other schools do. The civic centre auditorium actually didn't have enough seating for everybody, so the aisles were lined with folding chairs, which I'm sure would be considered in breach of fire regulations in Britain. We had eight performances, mostly by 3rd year classes. On the whole they were quite a bit more professional than the performances given at Hikone Nishi's bunkasai. First, class 2M1 did a play tracing the life of a class from school opening ceremony to graduation, but the lines were inaudible so I had no idea what was going on (not that I would have had much clue even if I had been able to hear!). The next play, by 3I, was very good: a sad story about a clown who had a sad face but wanted a happy one. I more or less got the gist of the story on that one. Then there was a performance of a couple of songs by 2M2; there were some good instrumental performances but the singing was pretty feeble. After that the Public Works course (mainly, but not all, 3rd years) did a short play that seemed to be about a newcomer joining a class, followed by a kind of exercise routine set to a taiko drum which apparently they always perform. I was told later that this kind of routine is called "Essassa". The last performance of the morning, by 3A, was something about samurai through the ages which I couldn't make head or tail of, but which seemed to have Columbus coming to Japan, able to speak fluent Japanese, sometime around the 17th century.
Genko bunkasai: inside the theatre (I think this was a scene from the samurai play) and the "Essassa" performance.
Most of the performances were quite short - about 15-20 minutes - so we had an early lunch break. I missed the next performance, which was some kind of taiko thing by 3E. After that came 3C's "Sazae-san 2000", which was their version of the popular "Sazae-san" TV cartoon and ended with the same title sequence of people chasing each other backwards and forwards across the stage followed by "small children" on bicycles. Finally there was 3S's version of the traditional Japanese fairy tale of Momotaro (Peach Boy), which started off pretty close to the traditional version but diverged later on. Instead of a dog, a monkey and a bird, Momotaro made friends with a monkey, a tanuki and an elephant (maybe these were the only costumes they could get hold of), then, when they were fighting the evil ogres, Momotaro's adoptive mother suddenly appeared and gave them all guns, so they all shot each other, then rose up from the dead, each paired off with an ogre and waltzed off the stage! Once assorted prizes had been presented (I think the clown story won the prize for the best performance), the closing ceremony took place, and that was the end of this year's culture festival.
Thanksgiving in Shigaraki
I attended my first-ever Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by Belinda and Andrea in Shigaraki, on November 23rd (which happened to be a public holiday in Japan as well as in the US). The event was held at Belinda's house, which had a relatively large living area downstairs, though with 30 or so guests it was a bit on the crowded side! Although the interior fittings seemed quite new, I got the impression that it was a fairly old house; there was a non-flushing drop toilet (though apparently these are still pretty common in rural areas, and at least it was a Western-style one and was indoors!), and the bathroom, a prefabricated box taking up about a quarter of the kitchen, had obviously been added as an afterthought.
The meal included a 14lb turkey, bought from the Foreign Buyers' Club; normally turkey just isn't available in Japan, and a couple of my Japanese colleagues commented when they saw the photos that they'd never even tasted it. Ovens don't come as a standard fixture in Japanese homes - if you have an oven at all then it's likely to be a feeble thing called a toaster-oven, which in size is somewhere between a toaster and a small microwave. Finding somewhere to roast the turkey had therefore presented something of a challenge, with Belinda traipsing around Shigaraki, carrying the turkey and looking for an oven big enough to take it! In the end the local old folks' home gave permission for their oven to be used. Besides the turkey, almost everyone had brought enough food for several people, so it was a real feast. I participated wholeheartedly in the gluttony, and ate so much that I spent the remainder of the day regretting it!
Andrea's house surrounded by colourful momiji (Japanese maple); you can also see Belinda's house in the background.
Thanksgiving dinner: the turkey arrives; Belinda in the kitchen; the feast in progress; and Belinda tackling turkey and cranberry sauce with chopsticks (not enough knives and forks to go round)!
Bus trip to Yamanaka-onsen
On November 26th I went on Hikone International Friendship Association's annual bus trip, which this year was to Yamanaka-onsen, a spa town in Ishikawa-ken, about two hours north of Hikone. Included in the price of the trip was the opportunity to try a handicraft; the choices we were given beforehand were lacquerwork, woodwork and pottery, but in fact these weren't the best translations, because what was actually on offer was lacquerwork, woodturning and painting china plates. I opted for the lacquerwork: we each chose a black, Japanese-style tray and a design to paint onto it, and the lady in charge of us rubbed the required template onto the tray so that it left a chalky yellow outline. I chose the bamboo motif, but some people opted to do their own original designs. We then painted in the designs using lacquer paint - not easy since the paint is very thick and the brushes weren't very fine. When we'd finished, the trays were fired and we picked them up to take home.
Lacquering trays, painting plates, and woodturning.
We only had three hours in the town; four would have been nice, especially with it being such a beautiful day, but that would have meant paying overtime rates for the coach, driver and tour guide, which would have pushed the cost up significantly. We could easily have done without the tour guide - most people didn't seem to be paying any attention to her anyway - but apparently that wasn't an option offered by the coach company. I suppose that spending more time travelling than at the destination, and having a rapid-fire commentary on everything you pass on the way, is all part of the Japanese experience...
Although our time in the town was so limited, after we'd done the lacquerwork there was still enough time for a lunch of noodles, a walk along the riverside to admire the autumn colours, and a brief visit to the public hot spa bath. A lot of people didn't bother with the bath, but I thought it was a waste to go all the way to an onsen and not make use of it. It's not as if we have one on our doorstep in Hikone; there are public baths dotted around, but the nearest natural spa is somewhere north of Nagahama and you need a car to get to it.
With Justin, Sachiko and Lisa at the Cat's Cradle Bridge (why did they choose that nasty pink?), and a few shots of the autumn colours. The bright orange and red shades are mostly on the momiji (Japanese maple) trees.
The men's public bath (the women's wasn't in such a pretty building). I think the string "teepees" around the plants are to prevent them from being crushed by the weight of snow in winter.
Posing with our trays (Noda-sensei, Rachel, Lisa and me), and the whole group.