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More autumn colours

The autumn colours were at their best in Hikone around the end of November and beginning of December, so on December 2nd I took a short break from studying for my Japanese exam and went out to Genkyu-en and the castle to take a few photos. A couple of days later I also took a picture from the top floor of my base school, to match the snowy one I took in January.

View from Genkyu-en Genkyu-en View over Lake Biwa Hikone-jo & momiji
Views around Genkyu-en and Hikone Castle.

View of the castle from my base school.

Persimmons on a tree in Minami Hikone. These are a very common sight in this area, though most of the persimmons are getting past their best by this time of year.

The sankyuu exam

The date of the Japanese Proficiency Test was Sunday December 3rd. About half a dozen Shiga ALTs were taking sankyuu (level 3) at Kyoto University; ikkyuu (level 1, the highest) was also being held there but I don't know anyone who took that. A few others from Shiga were taking yonkyuu (level 4) and nikyuu (level 2), but for those levels they had to go to either Kobe or Nagoya.

Steven and I set out early rather than risk arriving late, and ended up getting to the venue over an hour before we needed to be there. The exam consisted of a 35-minute paper on kanji and word usage, a 35-minute listening paper, and a 70-minute paper on reading and grammar. For some reason there were ridiculously long breaks in between the papers - almost two hours for lunch and almost another hour between the second and third papers - so the exam didn't end until 4.15pm. Most people seemed to think it would have made more sense to start later (giving people coming from far away more chance of getting there the same morning) and have shorter breaks.

The building was old and dingy, and the general feel of the place reminded me more of China than Japan (though admittedly I haven't been inside a Chinese university). There were several hundred people taking the test, and we were spread across several rooms with about 50 people to a room. There were radiators in the rooms, but they weren't turned on; I think the literature had warned us to dress warmly, so presumably this absolved the organisers of any responsibility to provide heating! Fortunately it was fairly mild for December. Although we got there early, we were by no means the first to arrive, and the corridors were full of nervous-looking people. It was all pretty depressing!

Outside the building where the exams were held, with Jandy (from Osaka) and Shiga ALTs Steven, Shawna and Belinda.

The Yoshida shrine, just next to the university. We spent most of our long lunch break here.

I found the first paper fairly easy; there were only a couple of questions that I hadn't been sure about, but when I checked them afterwards I'd got them right. Unfortunately the other two papers were a lot more difficult. Most of the other candidates I spoke to seemed to agree. The listening test was too fast - you only got to hear each question once and had no time to consider your answer or correct mistakes - and the early sections of the grammar paper were very nasty, with several idioms and grammatical structures that I'd never encountered before despite my belief that I'd covered the syllabus fully. Fortunately I found the later sections easier, and I think they're worth more marks per question too. I believe the pass mark is 60% overall, with each of the 35-minute papers worth 25% of the total and the 70-minute paper worth the remaining 50%. There doesn't seem to be a requirement to pass every paper individually.

The entire exam was multiple choice and will be marked by computer, and yet we have to wait more than two months, until mid-February, for the results. Why? I suppose it's just one of those things you have to accept as the Japanese way of doing things. No matter how well they've automated the process, it still takes a long time to get those bureaucratic cogs turning. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to keep the papers - presumably to prevent us from sending information to people in different time zones (and to milk more money out of us by forcing us to buy the papers later if we want to see them again) - so we can't even do a proper post-mortem in the meantime.

Kimono lessons

On December 5th I started kimono lessons with Mori-sensei; Pamela, another of her students, introduced me to her, and she's giving me free lessons in exchange for English conversation. There are five other ladies in the class, one of them the mother of one of my (less enthusiastic) students at Hikone Nishi. None of them can speak a significant amount of English, so it's going to be good for my Japanese! My kimono was away being altered - the sleeves weren't long enough for my arms - but at the first lesson we were concentrating on the obi (sash), so my lack of a kimono wasn't a problem. I was shown how to tie mine, and had a go, but it's very complicated. I think it will take several weeks to get the hang of it. The necessary foundation garments and whatnot are going to require a fairly significant amount of investment, but Pamela doesn't need hers at the moment so she's loaned me them for a few weeks.

At the second lesson Mori-sensei had numerous kimono and obi on approval from a wholesaler, so she explained the different types to us and then we had a dressing-up session. Each garment was marked with its wholesale and retail price, and the wholesaler must have had a sale on because everything was discounted by between 20 and 50 percent. So if I'd wanted to buy a kimono, at wholesale price with a discount of 30% or so, this would have been a good time to do it! There was a glittery deep turquoise one which I liked: wholesale (pre-discount) ¥128,000, retail ¥198,000. That was about average. I think the discount wholesale prices for the obi ranged from about ¥8,000 to ¥70,000.

Exam/party week

Exam week at my two schools (the end-of-term exams at my base school started on December 6th) coincided with party week for me, with three bonenkai ("forget-the-year" parties) and one Christmas party. On the Wednesday it was the bonenkai for my Wednesday night Japanese class, the lessons having finished for the winter at the end of November (apparently they get a low turnout in the winter so they close the class down and use the time for teacher training instead). That was held at a local izakaya, with a karaoke session afterwards for about half the participants.

On the Friday it was Hikone Nishi's bonenkai, held in a Japanese-style banqueting hall at the Futaba-soh ryokan at the northern end of Matsubara in Hikone. The vast majority of the staff attended the event - more than 40 people in total. It was one of those meals consisting of about ten or twelve small courses, all beautifully presented and mostly unidentifiable to a non-native diner, and none of them particularly filling. The room was equipped with a karaoke machine (but there were only old songs on it, none that I knew) and a small stage, and each group of teachers put on a short performance. The office staff sang karaoke; the staff based in the "guidance counselling room" put on a magic show (which kept everyone entertained but didn't fool anybody); the second year homeroom teachers did a karaoke-and-dance act with the male teachers dressed up in drag (one of them obviously loving it and the other two looking severely embarrassed); and so on. We also played bingo - I was the first person to get "riichi" (for some reason that I can't fathom, Japanese bingo players yell "riichi!" when they're waiting for one number to get a line) but in the end I didn't win anything - and there were gifts for everyone; I got a photo frame, a ticket for the end-of-year lottery, and a phonecard.

In the banqueting hall at the Futaba-soh.

Playing "janken" (scissors, paper, stone) to decide who gets first choice of the bingo prizes. If a decision has to be made in Japan, janken is the way to do it. The Japanese have all been playing it all their lives and can process the results incredibly quickly, leaving me and other foreigners completely befuddled!

Seitokai Hayase-sensei 2nd year homeroom Matsui-sensei
The seitokai (student council) and 2nd year homeroom teachers' performances. That's Hayase-sensei (PE teacher) dressed up in school uniform, and Matsui-sensei (Japanese teacher) in the tutu. The other two teachers in drag would probably prefer to remain anonymous!

On Saturday I had two parties to go to. First was the Yokaichi forest conservation volunteers' bonenkai, which was held in the forest after a morning's work. Fortunately it was a beautiful day, turning quite mild after a frosty start. After a couple of hours of felling dead trees and stripping ivy off living ones, the enkai began at noon and went on until about 4pm. Various weird and wonderful drinks were doing the rounds, including Calvados and one guy's (illegal) home-made sake.

Momiji Sakura surgery
Momiji in the forest, and cutting dangerous branches off a cherry tree.

The bonenkai. The second picture is of the chef, who quite happily spends the day outdoors wearing nothing on his feet but flip-flops, even in December. He was drinking his sake out of a soup bowl so it's no wonder he passed out! Shortly before doing so he invited me for a homestay at this house (if I understood him correctly), but given his state of inebriation at the time, I think it would be wise to take the invitation with a pinch of salt!

That evening's event was a Christmas party organised by Pamela and held at an "Italian" restaurant close to my apartment, called Milk House. Maybe the stuff they normally serve is Italian, but what we got was more nouveau-cuisine-meets-Japanese. It was pretty good though, and there was even a dessert course, which is a rarity in Japan. There was a gift exchange to which each of the 40 or 50 guests had contributed a present costing around ¥1000 (I'd bought a sake set in Shigaraki, going a little over budget, but for some people it was a handy way to get rid of unwanted gifts that they'd received from other people). Pamela's husband Hiro dressed up as "Santa-san" (as they call him here) and carried armfuls of presents around the room, letting each person choose one. I got some kind of game; it looks as if it's similar to Jenga but uses zabuton (floor cushions) and lucky cats instead of wooden blocks. There were a few door prizes, of which I won one - a Christmas decoration in the form of a string of wooden snowmen - and a game of bingo with smaller prizes, mostly Christmas decorations. The party went on quite late, but a few of us still had the energy to go on to karaoke.

Megumi & Kimiko Mikaru & Tomoko Group
"Santa-san" being loaded up with presents by his helper (Pamela); Megumi, Kimiko, Mikaru and Tomoko showing off their presents; group photo at the party (Sachiko, Freya, Megumi, Tomoko, Mikaru and me).

As you may have noticed, most of the parties I've been going to have been end-of-year events rather than Christmas parties, with the exception of the one organised by a fellow gaijin. This is because Christmas is a bit of a non-event in Japan; it's Christmas in the shops (you get really sick of hearing "Sleigh ride" "Santa Claus is coming to town" and "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus" - sometimes even all three simultaneously coming from different tape recorders - in every shop you go into) but there's not much evidence of it outside. Christmas to the Japanese is like St. Valentine's Day to us Brits: a time for couples to get cosy together.


We had our first snow of the winter in northern Kansai on December 12th, with snow and sleet showers throughout the day. We didn't have any more for a while after that though. In northern Japan it's been snowing since about the middle of November. I'm spending quite a lot of time sitting under my kotatsu now (have moved my PC onto it because it's getting too cold to sit at the kitchen table, where it was before), and using the kerosene heater when I get up most mornings. Getting into a cold bed at night is no longer the torture it was last winter, though, because I now have an electric blanket and a nice British hot water bottle. (Japanese hot water bottles, or yutanpo, are made of hard plastic or aluminium and look a bit like legless turtles; British ones are soft and floppy and made of rubber. You can heat the metal Japanese ones up on the stove, which I suppose is handy if you don't have a kettle or pot to heat the water in.)

At my visit school on 14th December they had the first day of a three-day ball games tournament, with homeroom teams playing games of football, softball, volleyball, and something called gateball which (with my very limited knowledge of the game) looked a lot like croquet to me. A later Internet search revealed that gateball is actually a separate game invented by the Japanese in the 1940s and based on croquet but with different rules.

I've splashed out and bought myself some second-hand mod cons: an answering machine and an electric nabe, from the recycling shop in Omi-Hachiman. The answering machine is oldish but works fine and was a fifth of the price of the cheapest new one I could find! A "nabe" is a pot, but the word is also used for casserole-type dishes that you cook in a nabe. A portable gas ring or an electric nabe allows you to cook your meal at the table, which is a nice sociable way of eating. I christened it at Freya's a few days later. I've also finally got round to buying two proper pedal bins for the kitchen, to replace the multitude of bags and boxes that I've had festooning the place up to now. Each one has two compartments, and in Hikone I have to sort my rubbish into five classes: burnables, plastics, glass bottles/jars, metal, and other non-burnables. And that's not including sodai gomi (large rubbish, collected four times a year), batteries, and the various things that I take for recycling (paper, PET bottles, milk cartons and polystyrene food trays). Just before Christmas I also inherited a brand-new unwanted toaster oven from one of my kimono teacher's other pupils, so I can have pizza at home now! (Not very big ones though - like most toaster ovens here, it's only about half the size of my microwave.)

Making use of my nabe (the big red lidded thing on the table) at Freya's: me, Freya, Mariko and Sachiko.

Heading for Singapore

On Christmas Eve I set off for Singapore. Had some time to kill at Kansai Airport so I went searching for the convenience store that I'd heard was there somewhere. It turned out to be in the basement, down some stairs that were very easy to miss; I went straight past them twice before spotting the sign. (It's just to the right of the coffee shop half way along the concourse on the bottom floor.) When I finally got to the store, my tenacity was rewarded with a piece of Christmas cake, which they were handing out at the door. Japanese Christmas cake is nothing like the heavy fruit cake we have in Britain - it's sponge cake with strawberries and cream. Incidentally, "Christmas cake" (or rather "kurisumasu keeki" as the Japanese pronounce it) is also a term used in Japan to refer to unmarried girls over 25, the idea being that Christmas cake is best on the 23rd when it's fresh, and by the 25th it's starting to go stale and nobody wants it any more. Attitudes are changing, though, and nowadays the average age of Japanese women at marriage is somewhere around 28-29. Thirty is still regarded as something of a watershed, mind you.

Christmas cake
A slice of Japanese Christmas cake, as served up in Lawson's at Kansai Airport.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002