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March 1st was Graduation Day, at (I believe) every public high school in Shiga and possibly in Japan. At Nishiko, the first years had the day off because the gym wasn't big enough to hold them as well as the second and third years and the various guests.
As I mentioned last month, I'd decided to wear my kimono for the event. Since I couldn't very well cycle to school in it, I brought it to school with me and got changed in the security guard's tatami room. Made the loop of the obi knot a bit big, but it wasn't too bad, and most people were probably none the wiser in any case. It was just as well that not many people knew how to put on a kimono, because just about everyone who did (including one of my second-year students) felt compelled to make a minor adjustment or two! Actually, it wasn't only Okagawa-sensei and me in traditional dress; a few of the mothers were in kimono too. I didn't notice that last year. Fortunately it was milder this year, so we didn't freeze half to death during the ceremony.
Okagawa-sensei in hakama and me in kimono.
The ceremony was the same formal affair as last year: graduating students filed in; opening address; national anthem (about half of the teachers, including those on either side of me, sat down just before this, so I did too, not realising why until the music started); school song (which people actually sang for once!); roll-call of graduating students followed by presentation of certificates to a representative of each course; headmaster's address; introduction of VIP guests (local dignitaries and junior high school representatives); congratulatory telegrams (this is in the programme but I'm not sure whether there were any); presentation of a gift from the graduating students to the school; "souji" (sending-off speech, given by a second-year student); "touji" (response from a third year); "Hotaru no hikari" (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne); closing address; graduating students filed out; and finally a short speech from Yamanaka-sensei (head of third year) to the parents. I didn't have as hard a time fighting back the tears as I'd anticipated, but the same couldn't be said of the third-year girl who gave the "touji". Just like the girl who gave the same address last year, she got about half way through before dissolving into tears. It seemed to be the mention of volleyball that set her off; Hikone Nishi has a thriving volleyball club, run with great enthusiasm by one of the two Nishimura-senseis.
Graduation ceremony: the 2nd years waiting for the ceremony to start; the third years coming in, led by their homeroom teachers (Yano- and Yoichi-sensei); tearful third years filing out at the end of the ceremony.
After the ceremony the graduating students had a final homeroom session, while the non-third-year teachers cleared the gym. (I was excused this duty because of my attire.) Then the students went mad with their disposable cameras, and I think I must have featured in more photos in the space of an hour or so than I usually do in a year!
With some of my kateika students, past and present.
The staff had a special sushi lunch (I was relieved to find that this time it was wasabi-free). By this time most of the students were dispersing, and the afternoon was fairly quiet. After school we had a staff enkai at a local hotel. I was expecting the usual tatami room, but it turned out to be a Western-style dining room. The third-year and senior teachers were at the "top" tables, the "seiseikai" (teachers' social committee, who had organised the event) were by the door, and everyone else was seated by drawing lots. Nice meal, but expensive (¥8000), and as usual the presentation was wonderful but it wasn't particularly filling. One of the teachers at the same table as me actually asked me if I was American. Oh well, I suppose you can't expect everyone to know the nationality of the resident foreigner; I mean, I've only been at the school for 19 months, and of course all gaijin are Americans anyway, aren't they? The event ended with everyone standing in a big circle and singing the school song, conducted by Hisaki-sensei.
Hisaki-sensei conducts us for the school song.
There were at least two nijikai (second parties); the one I joined went to a karaoke box, while the other went to one of the little bars in Fukuromachi, the nightlife area of Hikone. Initially we booked in for two hours of karaoke, but fuelled by copious quantities of beer and chu-hi (alcoholic fruit drinks) the session extended into a four-hour marathon.
At the nijikai.
Japanese web editing
Further to what I said last month about the difficulties I was having with editing Japanese web pages on a non-Japanese computer, I've now found a text editor which allows me to do this. It's called JWPce and it's freeware, and the author, Glenn Rosenthal, has been very helpful in answering my questions. The interface takes a bit of getting used to because it works differently from a lot of other Windows applications (for example Save is not Ctrl-S but Alt-S) and the text input system is different from the Microsoft Global IME, which is the only system I've used previously. It has very limited formatting capabilities at present, but it fully supports Japanese text (can cope with every form of Japanese encoding I've ever heard of and a few more besides) and it has built-in dictionaries and numerous kanji lookup functions. I've found out that you have to use Unicode to export to other Windows applications, for example copying and pasting into a mail message in Outlook Express, but that Shift-JIS is the safest option to use for web pages. It seems that Unicode is gaining in popularity, due to its ability to represent all character sets, but at present it's not supported by a lot of the online space providers (including mine, as I discovered when I uploaded an update and found that the page had turned into gobbledegook).
School entrance exams
The high school entrance exams took place on March 7th. The same exam is taken on the same day at every public high school in Shiga, so the candidates only get a single chance to get into a public high school. Many choose their schools based on their academic or vocational aspirations; some, usually less academic pupils, just opt for whichever is the most convenient for them; and a few make their choice on the basis of which uniform they like best! Well, they are going to be wearing that uniform almost constantly for the next three years - far more than pupils in British schools do. Because Hikone Nishi is a pretty middle-of-the-road kind of school, most of the students live in the local area, but some of the students at Genko come from a very long way away, because of the specialised nature of the courses there. I don't fully understand the application process; it seems that the junior high school third years put in their high school applications about a month before the exams, and have the option to withdraw them a week or so later and then re-apply, to either the same school or a different one, shortly after that. Presumably they are notified of the ratio of applicants to places after the first round of applications. Even if a school is undersubscribed, the exam process still takes place, and everyone passes. Makes me wonder where the private schools get their students from, because I thought that a lot of them catered mainly for kids who'd failed the entrance exam for their public school of choice.
Anyway, starting at 3pm on the exam day we had a big marking effort; teachers were put into pairs and each pair was given a particular section of the papers to mark. Those teachers whose subjects were not examined were drafted in to mark the multiple choice sections. Once you'd marked your section on all the papers, you started adding up the totals, or checking the ones that had already been added up. It was all very methodical. The marking process took about two hours, and apart from a few examining committee members, we all had the next day off. (I would have been at Genko the next day but they worked to the same system.)
Japanese class restarts
That evening, the Nihongo kyoushitsu started up again after the winter break. There must have been about 40 people in the room, with probably three volunteer teachers for every two students. The classes are being rearranged from last year, but haven't been decided yet. This first lesson was spent on brief self-introductions, exercises to determine our levels (it was quite satisfying to get full marks on all the questions, but left me in some doubt as to how accurately they'll be able to evaluate those of us who've got beyond the beginner level), and review exercises.
Thought we'd seen the last of the snow for this year, but we had a lot of it on March 9th. In the morning it was about four inches deep on the ground, but by the end of the day most of the ground snow had melted. It stayed cold for a few more days.
On March 10th I attended a Homestay Bank meeting at the shiminkaikan. This was a kind of information seminar for local people who might take visiting foreigners in for homestays. (Homestays are a concept that the Japanese are very keen on!) It was chaired by Mabuchi-sensei from the local Board of Education, and there were about eight panel members, all of different nationalities, from Canada to Myanmar. I was the UK representative. The event took place entirely in Japanese so I was a bit out of my depth at times - most of the other panel members had been in Japan for much longer than I had and spoke considerably better Japanese. Fortunately I had Tracy sitting beside me so I was able to turn to her for help when I hadn't understood what was being said, and I think I managed reasonably successfully to make myself understood by the audience. First we introduced ourselves and explained a bit about how naming systems work in our respective countries (such as whether the given name or family name comes first, and what names people are normally addressed by), then we discussed how our various nationalities tended to react to Japanese food, and bathing habits. Then there was a break for lunch; I thought we were going to reconvene later and discuss other aspects of hosting foreign guests, but it never happened. I thought that was a bit of a waste, since there were still quite a few things that we could have done with discussing and which hadn't been included in the subjects already covered.
My last visit to Genko this term - and this school year - was on March 15th. A ball games tournament was scheduled, weather permitting, but unfortunately it rained so I had four consecutive lessons to teach instead. (Fortunately they were only 30 minutes each.) In the afternoon all the female staff had a tea-and-cakes party in the school's seminar house, with numerous varieties of brown tea (the kind usually drunk in Britain). One of the teachers was quite a connoisseur and gave a lecture on the various types and how they are supposed to be prepared and drunk. The word "Igirisu" came up several times, making me feel like something of a poor ambassador for my country, since I don't actually like tea! The cakes were good though; we had three each and I guzzled the lot, but everyone else seemed to eat one and take the other two home.
That evening I went out with the other Genko English teachers, Takizawa-sensei (whose desk is in the counselling room with Ishiwaki-sensei and me, and who is about to retire) and Hayashi-sensei for an informal enkai at an izakaya on Castle Road. You'd think that after more than a year and a half in Japan it would be reasonable to assume that I had encountered sashimi before, but I still got the "Do you know sashimi?" question from one of the teachers present. And the "Do you like Japanese sake?" one. I find that question a bit tiresome, because sake, when used as an English word, is Japanese by definition; if it wasn't Japanese then it wouldn't be sake. It's like saying "Do you like Scottish scotch whisky?" or "Have you worn Japanese kimono?" Anyway, a lot of the stuff was consumed during the meal, and afterwards most of us went on to karaoke.
A visitor from Tochigi
Over the weekend of 17th/18th March I had a visitor: a guy called Richard who came over to Japan from the Seattle area last November to teach English, and ended up living in Tochigi-ken, north of Tokyo. We'd had an email correspondence going for over a year, starting from a posting he'd made on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin board, but this was the first time we'd met face-to-face. We went down to Kyoto for Saturday afternoon, and visited Kiyomizu-dera, the famous temple built on stilts on the hillside. Also stopped off at Myoho-in temple and the Otani Mausoleum on the way there. Unfortunately it was a bit of a miserable, drizzly day. That evening there was a get-together at Pamela and Hiro's.
Floral displays at the Otani Mausoleum. The first one means "love and respect"; I'm not sure about the second.
The next day the weather was much better. We started off with breakfast at a coffee shop (going out for breakfast is an alien idea to me, but quite normal to most Americans I've encountered) followed by a visit to Hikone Castle. It was very crowded; once inside the main donjon we had to queue for quite a while to get to the upper levels. Since my last visit they've put plastic treads on the lethally steep and slippery wooden stairs inside the castle, and started providing slippers for visitors to wear. The stair treads are a definite improvement from a safety point of view, but you still have to carry your shoes with you in pathetic little polythene bags with no handles. Maybe the next step will be the installation of pigeonholes for shoes; it's not as if they don't have enough space. The other thing that annoys me about the castle is the chicken wire that they put in the windows in summer (though at the moment they stil have the winter glass in place); with the Japanese passion for photography, you'd think they would use wire with holes big enough to at least poke a camera lens through!
Hikone Castle main donjon.
In the afternoon we went to Omi-Hachiman for the Sagi-cho festival (I also went to this festival last year). This being the year of the snake, each of the thirteen participating chos (neighbourhoods, formerly small towns) had built a mikoshi (float) with a snake as its centrepiece, made mainly of food. About thirty people carried each mikoshi, making a great show of spirit and stamina (not to mention drunkenness). Most of them wore make-up and had their hair dyed outlandish colours; in the past they used to wear kimono, but they don't nowadays. On the Saturday of the festival, the mikoshi are just paraded around the town, but on Sunday battles are held between them; they appeared to be pretty random, but in fact there was a prescribed order for who was to fight whom. In the evening, one cho at a time, the bearers of the mikoshi lurched round and round in circles in front of the torii (gate to the Hachiman-gu shrine) chanting "Mase mase" repeatedly - an abbreviation for "mawase mawase", meaning "round and round". This was all part of the demonstration of stamina, so it went on for a long time. Finally, once about five of the mikoshi had lined up in front of the shrine (in most cases with the bearers still "mase mase"ing as if their lives depended on it), they were halted, and the carrying frames were removed, presumably for re-use next year. The decorative parts of the mikoshi were then set alight with bamboo torches.
Sagi-cho matsuri: one of the mikoshi; Tatsuro in all his finery (including eye make-up); the centrepiece of another mikoshi (the blue bit in the middle is Lake Biwa, and the design is all made of lentils and suchlike).
Inter-mikoshi battle; one of the mikoshi in front of the torii; the Shinmachi mikoshi goes up in flames; exhausted mikoshi bearers celebrate being freed of their load.