If you see a photo that you'd like to enlarge, click on the thumbnail, then use the "Back" button on your browser to return to this page.
The annual school staff changeover took place at the beginning of April. The new staff at Hikone Nishi include a new headmaster, Mano-sensei (male), and a new English teacher, Houshou-sensei (female). They are both replacing retiring teachers: Matsuyama-sensei and Taguchi-sensei, respectively. Altogether, including the school office, there are about ten new members of staff. This year I'm teaching the 2nd year kateika girls with Houshou-sensei, and I'm no longer teaching the 3rd years. The idea of team-teaching half-classes of 1st years has been abandoned, and I'm back to teaching all 40 members of each class once a week, rather than only 20, once a fortnight. (Half-classes are still being taught by the JTLs once a week.) So this term at Nishiko I'm teaching four classes of 20 kateika 2nd years and five classes of 40 futsuuka 1st years. The situation with the 1st years isn't as good as last year in terms of student-to-teacher ratio, but it's much better in terms of continuity; with two weeks between lessons, the kids tend to forget what they did in the last lesson, and last year I only had about four lessons per term with each group. They're also inclined to forget their handouts in spite of having been clearly told to bring them next time, but this year I'm trying to address this by giving them all punched handouts and a folder to keep them in. To encourage the less academic ones to participate more actively in lessons, we're also basing part of their exam mark on their attitude in class, which seems to be considered something of an innovation!
There's also a new English teacher at Genko: a newly-qualified female teacher called Nishino-sensei. I'm going to Genko on Tuesdays this term, because Nishino-sensei has training seminars to attend on Thursdays. The old teachers are all still there but Tsutsumi-sensei has gone part time.
Amy, whose base school is just across the railway line from my visit school, has been told that Genko is going to be her visit school from September. She's a little apprehensive about teaching in a technical school, since she describes her students at Kawase as angels! Later in the month I was informed that I'm not going to have a successor based at Hikone Nishi, but that instead a new ALT based at Yasu HS is going to be making twice-weekly visits to Nishiko. This came as something of a shock; as far as I know, Yasu HS doesn't even have a visit ALT at the moment, so it seems strange that they're going straight to having a base ALT while my school is moving in the opposite direction. It's also going to be a bit of trek for the new ALT to get to Nishiko - about half an hour on the train and then a good 20-minute walk, plus whatever it takes to get to the station at the beginning of the journey. And my current Nishiko workload of nine lessons per week is pretty light when spread over four days, but packing it all into two days, every week, is going to be hard on the new ALT. (I don't know how Michael, my predecessor, managed it when Nishiko was his visit school.) And the worst bit of news for me is that it probably means I'm going to have to clear EVERYTHING out of my apartment - I won't even be able to leave the pots and dishes behind!
Digital camera purchase?
I've been toying with the idea of buying a digital camera for a while (my website photos are taken with a 35mm camera and scanned at school), so I did a bit of research on the Internet at school during the spring holidays. Decided to go for a Fujifilm FinePix 1400, but then came to the conclusion that buying in Japan isn't such a great idea, so I think I'm going to leave it for the time being. The main reasons are price and language compatibility. If I buy a camera in Japan, unless I go to Den Den Town in Osaka (or Akihabara in Tokyo) and buy an international model at one of the tourist shops there, the software is all going to be in Japanese. (With cameras where a mains power source or battery charger is included, mains voltage will also be an issue, but this doesn't apply with the one I was thinking of getting.) The prices are also not as cheap as in the US, though they are cheaper than the UK. The going rate for the Fuji FinePix 1400 is around JPY34,000 (+5% tax) in Japan, GBP250-300 in the UK, and USD250-300 in the US, so the US offers by far the best deal as well as including English software. The only trouble is, most of the American retailers on the Internet omit to tell you - until you attempt to place an order - that they won't ship overseas. When are they gong to realise that the Internet is not restricted to North America?
Even though I'd made return trips to both Kyushu and Tokyo on my juhachi-kippu, the ticket hadn't been stamped on a couple of occasions when I left a station after an overnight journey, so I still had a day left to use up before the April 10th expiry date. My kimono teacher also had a few spare days to get rid of, so Amy and Akio bought two of them from her and we spent April 8th going right round Lake Biwa. It was the second consecutive day of T-shirt weather - hard to believe that it'd been snowing in Tokyo only a week before! First we stopped off at Takatsuki to visit Dogan-ji, a temple housing a 1300-year-old eleven-headed Kannon (goddess of mercy - actually it had one main head with lots of smaller faces sprouting out of the top and sides). Next stop was Yogo-cho and Yogo-ko, a small lake just north of Lake Biwa. Overlooking the lake is Shizugatake-san, one of the "eight scenic beauties of Lake Biwa" and the site of a major battle in Japanese history, but it just looked like another hill to me. The sakura wasn't out yet in Yogo-cho. After that we'd intended to change in Omi-shiotsu and get a train down the west side of the lake, but it turned out that we were going to be stuck in Omi-shiotsu for two hours, so in the meantime we went to Tsuruga for lunch. Didn't see much of Tsuruga - just the main street in front of the station and the inside of the local Heiwado department store.
Dogan-ji in Takatsuki; Amy, me and Akio at Yogo-ko, and Amy with some carp streamers (being flown for the forthcoming Boys' Day) in Yogo-cho.
Next we got a train to Makino-cho, which is known as the place in Shiga for viewing the sakura. It was a day or two later than Hikone's, so it was just coming out (would probably have been at its best about two days later) but there were already plenty of people out to admire it. The main sakura-viewing area is a 4km stretch of lakeside road at Kaizu-osaki, lined with cherry trees. There was a free shuttle bus for the ride from the station to the point where the sakura began. It was nice, but would have been prettier without the traffic jams! We followed the lakeside path and climbed up to a temple on the hillside then down to a small beach, before retracing our steps back to the shuttle bus. The water on this side of the lake was much clearer than on the eastern side. Our final stop-off was at Omi-maiko, which has one of Shiga's best beaches, of white shingle.
At Kaizu-osaki, Makino-cho.
At Omi-maiko: Akio and Amy on the beach; sunset over the hills.
The sakura in Hikone really started to come out on Thursday April 5th, so the following weekend was a lively one for hanami parties. Hikone Nishi's party took place on the Monday. The blossom was magnificent until the Thursday, when an all-day downpour left it looking distinctly bedraggled.
Hikone Nishi HS staff hanami party; Hikone Castle and sakura by night.
A trip (or eight) to the dentist
Unfortunately my trip around the lake with Amy and Akio was marred slightly by the fact that I was suffering from severe toothache. With a combination of chewing gum and ibuprofen I managed to tolerate the pain until Monday (the first day of term - the opening ceremony was very uncomfortable because I couldn't very well chew gum during it!), then I went to a dentist whom I'd had recommended by Sachiko. I'd been a bit apprehensive about this, having heard stories of Japanese dentists not using anaesthetic, but in fact it was fine - a lot like going to the dentist at home, and it should be cheaper too, since most of the cost was covered by my national health insurance [though, as I later found out, I wasn't able to claim the rest back on my JET policy]. The dentist's English, like my Japanese dental vocabulary, was pretty limited, but he did try hard! The main differences I noticed from home were that the mouth rinse was just plain water rather than the pink stuff we get in the UK, and that the main job (a root canal filling) plus a few other minor fillings took a total of eight visits to the surgery and would probably have been done in four or less at home; it seems that Japanese dentists, like the doctors, make their money by having their patients make multiple visits. (I initially put a description of the treatment in here but the page was getting too long so I dumped it.)
Visitors from home
On April 11th, Dad and my youngest sister Rhona arrived for a 12-day visit. They landed at Kansai International in the morning and got to Hikone shortly after noon, and I kept them on the go for the rest of the day - all part of getting them adjusted to the local time zone! After they'd had a bit of time to settle in at home, we went up to the castle and to Genkyu-en. It was a beautiful day, so they saw the sakura at its best. I left them to go to my Japanese lesson in the evening, and by the time I came back at about 9pm they were both pretty well comatose. The next day was wet, but they spent half the day sleeping off their jetlag anyway, and in the evening we went to an izakaya and karaoke with some friends. Unfortunately, because they came at the beginning of term, I wasn't able to take much time off school to spend with them, but they were quite happy trundling around town on their shopping bikes (borrowed from Amy), and they also made excursions to Kyoto and Nara. Rhona was just as enthusiastic about the 100 yen shops as Mum had been, and I think she averaged at least one visit for every day she spent in Japan!
With Rhona and Dad at Hikone Castle; stairs inside the main donjon. It amazes me that they don't have regular fatalities on these stairs, with all the 90-year-olds and young children who come to visit. Until this spring the stair treads were just slippery polished wood, too - the plastic covers are a new addition - and you go round the castle in just socks (or barefoot in summer), carrying your shoes with you in a silly little plastic bag with no handles.
At karaoke with Mikaru, Tomo-chan, James, Megumi and Sachiko.
Hikone Nishi's kansougeikai (leaving-and-welcome party for outgoing and incoming staff) took place at the Prince Hotel - the same venue as last year - on Friday 13th April. As usual, the food was beautifully presented but not particularly substantial - but the person who would have been sitting opposite me didn't turn up so my neighbours and I divided the spare food between us. At the end of the event we all stood in a big circle and sang the school song (we did this at the Graduation Day do too, but I don't remember ever doing it at previous enkais), then all the male teachers who were leaving got thrown up in the air (kind of like birthday bumps) by some of the remaining male teachers. They tried to give Okagawa-sensei the same treatment, but she escaped. On the way home I stopped off to take a couple of photos of what was left of the sakura around the moat.
Matsuyama-sensei, the outgoing headmaster, being congratulated on his retirement at the kansougeikai.
Sakura and the moat.
There was also an English teachers' enkai a couple of weeks later, in honour of Matsuyama- and Taguchi-sensei (retiring) and Houshou-sensei (incoming).
Took Dad and Rhona to two festivals on the weekend of 14th April: a fire festival that formed part of the Hachiman-matsuri in Omi-Hachiman, and the Hikiyama-matsuri in Nagahama. The fire festival was on the Saturday night (there was also a taiko (drum) festival on the Sunday afternoon/evening, but we didn't go to that) and the action started shortly after 8pm. There were a few fireworks, then teams of men started dragging burning bundles of straw up and down the road in front of the Himure Hachiman-gu (shrine), and one by one they set fire to the dozen or so 10-metre-high straw towers that had been set up beforehand. Large taiko drums were also being beaten constantly. As with the Sagi-cho matsuri last month, if you didn't want to get injured then the onus was on you to get out of the way.
Fire festival in Omi-Hachiman.
For the Hikiyama festival, we met up with Yuichi, a Japanese guy whom I met in the guest house I stayed in in Malacca, Malaysia, just after Christmas; he'd just returned from his travels two weeks before and was was on the way home to Chiba after a stint of job hunting in Osaka. Spent the afternoon wandering around Nagahama, watching about five minutes of one of the children's kabuki performances (that was enough for all of us!) and paying far too much for some very ordinary sandwiches in a cafe. We visited the big temple and the castle park, then I left Dad and Rhona browsing happily in the 100 yen shop and took Yuichi to see Hikone Castle, before he headed back to Omi-Hachiman to see the taiko festival. We could hear distant drums when we were at the castle, so presumably that was where the sound was coming from.
With Rhona and Yuichi in front of one of the Hikiyama.
I had been able to take one full day off school during Dad and Rhona's visit, so we used the time to take a two-day trip (20th-21st) down to Ise-shima in Mie-ken. We made our first stop at Futami, where there are two famous "married" rocks called Meoto-iwa, which have some link with Japanese mythology - I think they're supposed to represent gods that gave birth to Japan, or something like that. They were situated just opposite a shrine on the seafront which for some reason was festooned with frog statues. From there we went on to a resort island called Kashikojima, in the south of the peninsula. This area is known for its ama (women divers) but there was no sign of any when we were there. In fact there was very little sign of any life at all. We'd been planning to take a ferry across the bay to a little fishing town called Goza, but the ferries were running a lot less frequently than was indicated in our information, so we had to abandon that idea and stick to exploring Kashikojima.
Meoto-iwa, the "married" rocks.
Rhona, Dad and oyster beds around Kashikojima.
From there we headed back up to Ise-shi and found our accommodation: the Hoshide Ryokan (tel. 0596-28-2377) in the old merchant quarter of Kawasaki, only about ten minutes' walk from the main station. Staying in a ryokan was an adventure for Dad and Rhona, and a rare experience for me too. It was built about 80 years ago and the style is very traditional, though there are a few modern touches such as Western-style toilets - and even a small sauna! We were the only guests, and the lady who looked after us spoke a little English and was very accommodating. The prices quoted in the leaflet we had, and on the board outside, were very reasonable (no more than ¥6000 per person with two meals, including tax) but as it turned out, we were charged even less.
At the Hoshide Ryokan. The last picture shows Dad and Rhona listening to the the suikinkutsu, or water zither. The sound is made by water trickling out of the stone washing bowl and dripping into a large pot which is buried upside down on a subterranean bed of clay and gravel. Without the bamboo listening tubes it just sounds like water dripping in a cave, but when heard through a bamboo pipe it has a musical, almost bell-like sound.
After leaving the ryokan the following morning, we took a walk around Kawasaki and then headed over to the Ise shrines, which are what the area is most noted for.
Kawasaki: the entrance to a small shrine, and koi streamers flying over the river.
The Ise-jingu, Japan's most venerated shrine, actually consists of two separate shrines, Geku (outer shrine, on the edge of the city centre) and Naiku (inner shrine, about 5km away). Both are surrounded by sacred forests with trees hundreds of years old, and in each case the main shrine buildings are fenced off; only senior priests and the emperor's family are allowed to enter. There is a small observation/prayer area at the entrance, where you can get a reasonably good view, but photography is not permitted there. The shrine buildings at Ise-jingu are replaced every twenty years with replicas on adjacent sites, so each shrine has an empty gravel area alongside it, waiting for the next rebuild. It seems that nobody is quite sure why this rebuilding takes place; one possible reason is to keep traditional skills alive, and another is to do with the Shinto belief that it's good for things to be fresh and new.
We walked over to Geku first, and then took a bus up to Naiku, which has the more impressive surroundings (and therefore more tourists and neighbouring souvenir shops), although both are beautiful. It drizzled all day, but even in the rain the shrines were worth seeing.
Naiku: Dad and Rhona at the Isuzu river, where pilgrims purify themselves (and/or feed the numerous koi) before visiting the shrine; the best view that we were able to get of the main shrine buildings (obtained by heading for a small shrine slightly off the beaten path, as advocated by the Lonely Planet). In the foreground is the vacant plot waiting for the next rebuilding.
Afterwards we tried to find somewhere to indulge in a bit of shopping, but although the city is about the same size as Hikone, Ise-shi seemed to have very few shops. Presumably the locals go to either an out-of-town shopping centre or another city. In the end we took a train back to Nagoya and hit the shopping arcades there instead.
That Sunday was Dad and Rhona's final day in Japan. We spent most of it in Taga, since the Taga-matsuri was on and Tracy's friend Atsuko had invited us all for a delicious lunch of temakizushi (make-your-own sushi rolls) beforehand. Afterwards we went down to the shrine area to see the festival parade, which Atsuko's daughter Yukiko was taking part in.
Meal in Taga, and Atsuko showing Rhona how to make an obijime (decorative rope for securing an obi).
Yukiko waiting to join the parade, and a pack of drunkards carrying a mikoshi.
We ended the day with a yakiniku meal with friends, followed by another session in a karaoke box. During this session we were introduced to a Queen medley which had been translated into Japanese - highly amusing if you could understand some of the lyrics. Some of them sound daft enough in English; can you imagine what direct translations of Bohemian Rhapsody, I Want to Ride my Bicycle, Killer Queen, Another One Bites the Dust ("Mou hitori shinu" - literally "one more person dies") and We are the Champions ("Warera yokozuna'su" - literally "We are the top-ranked sumo wrestlers") sound like in Japanese?
On the 23rd, Dad & Rhona left on an early morning train back to the airport.
Anne's leaving do
The leaving do of Anne-Marie, a teacher at AEG who's been in Hikone for a year, was on April 28th. It was an izakaya meal followed by a mad 3-hour karaoke session in the party room at Alldays.
Anne-Marie's leaving do.
Japanese Mountain Trek
Two days after Dad & Rhona left, I got an unexpected phone call from a dodgy-sounding bloke called Tom, who said he was a former ALT (had got my number from a friend's copy of the Tatami Timeshare listings) and wanted to know if he and his companions could use my address to apply for alien registration cards. Needless to say I was taken aback at this, but after a bit of investigation including a look at their website, I was sufficiently convinced to agree to their request, provided that it wasn't going to get me into trouble!
Tom, Paul and Ben are part-way through a 6500km hike covering the entire length of Japan (excluding Okinawa) and taking in all of the Hyakumeizan, or 100 famous mountains of Japan. It's in aid of a landmines charity and as far as they know they are the first people ever to undertake this challenge. In British terms, it's roughly equivalent to doing Land's End to John O'Groats four times, and taking in most of Scotland's munros on the way. The number of mountains they're climbing is fewer than the number of munros, but the mountains themselves are considerably higher.
They arrived in Hikone on the Sunday; about an hour before we were due to meet up, I went out to Heiwado (the department store by the station) and found three very scruffy gaijin with big rucksacks on the doorstep having their lunch - which included heating the water for instant noodles on a camping stove! Back at my apartment, they showered and shaved and emerged looking (and smelling) a lot better. Most of the time they're camping, pitching their tents wherever they can find a space, and having to wash as best they can in rivers, public toilets and the occasional sento or onsen, so the opportunity to stay in a real building, with a shower and a washing machine (which they made good use of) is a rare treat for them! They were also able to check their email for the first time in over a month, and see their own website (being maintained by a friend in the UK) for the first time, so they spent a lot of time online. That evening, after another trip to Heiwado, we had a nabe for dinner.
Catching up on the email.
The next day, Monday, they'd been intending to go to the city hall to sort out their alien registrations, but it was a public holiday. So instead, they had another rest day (Sunday is usually their weekly rest day) with visits to the castle and Genkyu-en, several hours spent online, and a huge tabehodai meal at an Italian restaurant with Cat, Tim and myself (all Hikone ALTs). It was good to spend some time with people of my own nationality - apart from Dad & Rhona, it's several weeks since I last spoke to even one fellow Brit, never mind three at once!
At the castle and Genkyu-en.
Turtles and a swan in the moat.
At Cat's after the meal. (We took a "sensible" picture too, but Tim got chopped off that one.)
On the Tuesday morning we parted company. Their next mountain was Ibuki-san, Shiga's highest (though, at 1377m, it was one of the smallest on their list), and then it was on towards the Alps. I hope to be able to do Mount Fuji with them in July.