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On the morning of July 7th I was taken out for a few hours by Hisaki-san, the wife of Hisaki-sensei at Nishiko. She took me to a merchant's house on the old Nakasendo highway in Toyosato (at one time the Nakasendo was one of the two main routes from Tokyo to Kyoto, the other neing the Tokaido); to the Kinkame (Golden Turtle) sake brewery, the oldest in Shiga (where we were given a lengthy tour, very little of which I understood, by the owner); and to Kongo-en, a traditional factory where they produce indigo-dyed hemp and silk. Finally we went to a purpose-built tourist trap in Aito-cho called Marguerite Station, for lunch.
At the sake brewery (by the fermentation vats, and upstairs in a room that used to serve as the local primary school), and vats of dye at Kongo-en.
That same weekend I had a visit from Seiko, a Japanese friend whom I met on a National Trust Working Holiday in the UK in 1998. This was the first time we'd met up again since then; she lives in Chiba, east of Tokyo. I took her to the castle and Genkyu-en, of course, and we called in at the Eco Festa that was going on (environmental awareness is not one of Japan's strong points, but efforts are being made to improve the situation). (I would have had a stall on the flea market there, with Tomo-chan and Megumi, but they were already fully-booked by the time we made our enquiry.) Also went down to Castle Road and visited the Light Gallery (above the candle shop - I'd been meaning to go there for ages but somehow had just never got round to it) and a few of the other shops in the area, before Seiko headed off home. I'm going to call in on her when I pass through that part of the country in August.
Seiko in the Castle Museum garden, and a candle-maker giving a demonstration in the candle shop on Castle Road.
At 9.55am on Sunday 8th July I was waiting at the station ticket office for seat reservations for the Moonlight Nagara (Tokyo - Ogaki rapid train) on 8th August to go on sale, because I'd read that this train is very popular and seats usually sell out immediately. For around this particular date they'd probably sell out even faster than usual, because O-Bon falls on the weekend of the 11th/12th so a lot of people will be on the move that week. Being there early paid off; I got a seat in the first carriage, and it's only the first three carriages that stay reserved all the way to Nagoya.
My base school had its taiikusai (sports festival) on July 10th, and my visit school's was the next day. Preparations for Nishiko's event - and presumably for Genko's too - started as soon as the exams were over, with students working late into the evening on their team banners, cheerleading routines and costumes, and techniques for various events - especially the mukade (centipede) race, which has 20 people, one behind another, with their feet tied together.
Preparing for the Nishiko taiikusai.
Both days were fine, hot (around 33°C) and humid. Both festivals followed the same basic format of having the teams march onto the pitch for the opening ceremony, standard warm-up routine, then the events, and finally the presentation of prizes and closing ceremony, but there was quite a lot of variation in the events between the two schools, and also in the way the teams were formed. Each team consisted of one class from each year, but whereas at Nishiko they were all different classes (e.g. 1-3, 2-6 and 3-4 might form one team), at Genko the entire event was course-based, so all three years of the Electrical course were in the same team, and so on.
Nishiko's events went as follows: 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m (qualifiers in the morning, finals in the afternoon); high jump and long jump; obstacle race (while moving around the track you had to open and drink a bottle of Ramune (fizzy drink); use mouth only to unhook a wrapped bread roll suspended from a pole; unwrap it and carry it in your mouth; and run the last section also holding a ball between two empty drinks cans); "bou-hiki" (race to drag wooden poles over the line on your side of the pitch, a bit like a tug-of-war); cheerleading competition; skipping (20 people jumping per team); mukade relay; and team relay (12 people per team running distances ranging from 100 to 400m). The individual events were held separately for boys and girls, but team events were mixed and usually had a specified proportion of each gender.
Nishiko taiikusai: taking the oath as part of the opening ceremony; high jump; obstacle course; bou-hiki; cheerleading contest; mukade relay.
At Genko it was: 100m, 300m, 600m; mukade race (with 6-legged "centipedes" since each team was only represented by three members at a time); "adventure race" (an obstacle race run in pairs); "typhoon's eye" (a relay where four people at a time ran carrying a bamboo pole, rotated the pole horizontally around a marker and then ran back to the start line); "40-nin 41-kyaku" (40 people, 41 legs - like a 3-legged race over 25m, but with entire classes tied together; smaller classes were given handicaps); tug-of-war; bou-hiki (same idea as at Nishiko); class and team relays (run in half-laps of the 300m track); and a club relay which of course the Track & Field Club won. The P team (Public Works, which I think is the same thing as civil engineering) also performed their traditional "Essassa" routine (they did this at the bunkasai in November too). There was no cheerleading contest, though. There were no girls' events, or quotas on how many girls should participate in each event, since some of the courses are all-male for all three years.
Between 3rd and 16th July I had a total of six social events related to my forthcoming departure to attend, and almost as many farewell speeches to make (in Japanese, of course). The events were: a karaoke session with my kimono class; my official school soubetsukai (leaving party) with the Nishiko teachers; a karaoke session with the Nishiko ESS members; a small official ESS party at school the next day; a final get-together for the current ALTs in the Hikone area; and the official reporting meeting at kencho followed by a buffet and party at a nearby hotel. I had to make speeches at the Nishiko soubetsukai, the kencho reporting meetings, and to the entire population of each of my schools (in both cases at the taiikusai, since I wasn't going to be at either end-of-term closing ceremony).
At the kencho party: Steven, Tracy, Olivia, Michelle and me (plus James' hand), and singing the Biwako song at the end.
My school soubetsukai was the usual deal of a meal at a restaurant with speeches, unidentifiable food and plenty of sake and beer. About 18 people came along.
My school soubetsukai.
The ESS karaoke session was held in our own time rather than as an ESS meeting, since the school would not allow me to take students to karaoke as a club activity (even though the idea was to get them singing English songs), because the karaoke place served alcohol and I evidently I couldn't be trusted not to allow them to drink. So we arranged to meet at 5pm on a Wednesday, and Masahiro and I both arrived at the appointed time to find that the other members, plus a couple of friends, had already been in there for four hours, and still had the stamina to keep going for another two hours after we arrived!
On Saturday 16th July I met up with Freya in Kyoto, to go to the Gion-matsuri. At this stage of the festival (the big procession isn't until Tuesday), most of the action was taking place in the Nishijin textiles area. The hoko (2-storey floats) were on display in their respective neighbourhoods, the streets were lined with festival stalls, many houses were opened up to display their folding screens and other treasures, and the local textile shops were doing a brisk trade. I spent far too much money that day. I'd already spent nearly ¥19,000 on sending my belongings home (a 20kg box of miscellaneous stuff and 18kg of printed matter), and then I got a bit carried away with all the little textiles shops, buying an outfit for a friend's baby, a noren (split curtain for hanging in doorways, though I'll probably use it to disguise a clothes rail or something instead)... and a brand new tomesode kimono! I'll probably never have the occasion to wear a tomesode - it's the most formal kind of kimono for married women, worn only to the likes of a close relative's wedding - but I thought a black kimono would look good with my gold, black and cerise fukuro-obi, and ¥10,000 was a very good price. (The shop owner claimed that they usually cost ¥400,000; I know they're ridiculously expensive, but I'm sure that was something of an exaggeration.) The kimono was unfinished (and unlined), but that's not such a bad thing when you're considerably taller than the average Japanese and so would probably need to get it adjusted anyway. It's made of Hama-chirimen, silk crepe produced in Nagahama. I don't know why it was in the bargain bin - there's nothing obviously wrong with it that I can see. (The design is mismatched at the seams but the kimono has to be taken apart and reassembled in any case.) Hisaki-san, who took me to the sake brewery and Kongo-en fabric factory, sews kimono as a hobby, so she's going to do the sewing for me.
Gion-matsuri: one of the "hoko", and treasures on display in a house in Nishijin.
The remainder of my time in Hikone was taken up with preparations for my departure; although I wasn't due to return to the UK until August 12th, I had to vacate my apartment on July 17th. In fact I didn't just have to vacate it, I had to clear out EVERYTHING that wasn't part of the fixtures and fittings - even one of the ceiling lights had to go, since it had been provided by the school. A lot of my belongings were being passed on to Julianne, and since I had no way of getting everything to Yasu by myself the school agreed to store it until it could be transferred to Julianne's new apartment. By around noon the place was completely empty, and an hour or so later I'd finished cleaning it and returned the key to the school.
My poor empty apartment.
That evening I set out on my post-contract travels, with a night bus to Shimonoseki, ready to catch the ferry to Busan in Korea the next afternoon. The bus was comfortable, but unfortunately I had a seat right at the front with a kind of partition where there should have been space for my feet, so that detracted considerably from the comfort rating.
Since I had until 3pm to check in for the ferry, I had the best part of a day in Shimonoseki, but it didn't prove to be a particularly interesting place. And it seemed to be full of elderly women who were bent on directing me into the gents' toilets - this happened twice in the space of about three hours! Younger people don't seem to have any trouble identifying my gender, but a lot of women over 60-ish seem to automatically equate short hair with being male. I suppose it's a bit like the "Gaijin - must be speaking English!" syndrome, where some people are completely unable to understand a foreigner's Japanese, even if it's perfect, purely because they're convinced that anyone who doesn't look Japanese is incapable of speaking any language other than English (even if they're Brazilian).