Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Call me when you're soba

Or, "Hey little sister, shotgun, shotgun" (obscure video game reference)

I'm on holiday! And as is often the case when I've just been to Kappa Sushi, I'm in high spirits. Actually, I'm glad I went today, as they have some one-week only New Year specials. The highlight of these was a single nigiri (you know you're getting something a bit special when 100yen only buys one instead of the usual twin set) with pretty much the entire leg of what must have been quite a large crab balanced precariously on top of it. As I drove home, I managed to find a radio station playing Western pop music, which is a rare enough occurrence that you feel like high-fiving someone whenever it happens. The DJ had a curious habit switching into English for whole sentences at a time, making me momentarily think I'd mastered Japanese. The song that was playing when I tuned in was Bob Sinclar's Love Generation, which will always make me think of Joy. How's it going anyway, Ms Hadden?

So, I've hung up my Santa hat, and my official duties are over for the decade. Christmas Day was a little depressing, because I had to go to work as usual. I didn't even get to go home early, drink mulled wine in the office, or anything. The only concession made to the occasion was that a few of us went out for lunch, to a soba restaurant (soba is one of the two main styles of Japanese noodle, the other being - superior in my opinion - udon). Thus, my Christmas Dinner consisted of noodles, rice and tofu.

As I ate my supermarket bento box for dinner that evening, washing it down with some imported Bowmore I treated myself to, I felt a little glum thinking about all the excitement of Christmas morning that was unfolding in my homeland. This was my first Christmas not spent in the bosom of my family. I spoke to them on Skype, and even took a virtual seat at the dinner table later in the evening. It was really nice to talk to them, but I felt quite rueful that they were clearly having more fun than me.

Thankfully, I got to have something approaching a traditional Christmas on Boxing Day. An ALT in Yonezawa, who is evidently quite handy in the kitchen, invited me and a bunch of other foreigners round for a turkey dinner. We had a gloriously lazy afternoon variously drinking, watching festive movies (I somehow managed to get The Sound of Music played all the way to the intermission), playing Wii and doing a Disney jigsaw puzzle that I had won in a raffle at yet another Christmas party. I'd forgotten the simple pleasure of a good jigsaw. When the food was finally ready (Japanese ovens are underpowered little electric affairs), it was delicious. Because our hostess was Italian-American, meatballs were a welcome addition to the more traditional festive fair.

I had to spend yesterday (monday) at City Hall, which particularly irked me because it had been marked on my schedule as a holiday. In Japan, it is customary to do lots of cleaning at this time of year, so that one starts the New Year with a tidy house. Evidently, this custom extends to the workplace on the last workday of the year, so I spent the afternoon doing things like sorting out all the paper for recycling. To be honest, it beat doing nothing. I was also given the job of putting up the 2010 year planners, because I'm the tallest person in the office.

Many of my fellow gaijin have gone home for Christmas. However, those who haven't seem determined to make the most of their brief festive break, so I don't think there's too much danger of me getting bored or lonely. I'm going drinking in the bright lights of Yamagata City tonight, and tomorrow I'm planning to go boarding at Zao again - there might even be some sunshine this time.

Also, my import copy of Bioshock finally arrived, so I'm having to fight the temptation just to spend all day curled up on the sofa (in a hat, jumper and blanket) with the PS3. First impressions of the game: I'm very impressed with how free-form the combat is, there really are many many ways to skin a cat in Bioshock. And while I remain deeply skeptical about storytelling in games (people hold up Half Life 2 as a shining example, and while I love the gameplay, the plot is about as deep as a poor-to-middling Arnie movie), Bioshock's creators seem to recognise the inherent limitations of the medium and go more for an interesting premise than a plot-driven narrative. I am however a little bit troubled by the way that the enemies keep their damage when you respawn, meaning that you can just grind your way through using persistence rather than skill.

Oops, I seem to have gone off on a tangent that will interest at most about two people who read this. Sorry!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That don't impress me mochi

Been a while, hasn't it? I've been really busy in the run-up to Xmas, as I am about to explain in detail. But today I find myself in City Hall for a whole day with nothing to do. Brace yourself, this post could be massive.

While I used to worry about looking like I was doing something important at times like this, I'm becoming more and more cocky about the kinds of clearly non-work activities I get up to. It occurred to me last night that I'm getting on for five months here, and while other people have been gallivanting all over SE Asia, I haven't ventured outside of southern Tohoku. So, I've spent the last hour and a half considering the baffling rail and air options for a trip to Sapporo. So far, I'm liking the sound of an epic 11-hour, 5-train trip including the world's longest rail tunnel.

Anyway, the most significant thing that's happened since my last update is that the legendary Yamagata winter has arrived, with all the subtlety of a tactical nuke. After teasing us with a few minor flurries early last week, it got its act together on wednesday and has been snowing more often than not ever since; even down here on the plain there is a good couple of feet on the ground. If this were Britain, the resulting disruption would have reduced the country to a state of lawless anarchy by around sunday lunchtime, but here people barely bat an eyelid. The trains continue to run, albeit with slight delays. Old people spend all day shovelling snow off their driveways. Armed with winter tyres, people happily drive on rink-like roads (more on that later). Life goes on.

So what have I actually been up to? Last sunday (13th) was my Japanese class Christmas party. Everyone was to bring food from their respective country, so I busted out one of the tins of haggis my parents (dubiously legally) brought me, and some oatcakes. While I think I lost kudos points for not actually making something myself, my contribution was undoubtedly the most alien foodstuff among all the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fair. Being tinned, it was fairly sketchy haggis, but people seemed to enjoy it anyway. Of course, I donned my kilt. Any excuse.

There were some Japanese cultural activities at the party. First up was the inevitable tea ceremony. Foolishly, I let myself end up in first place again, so all eyes were on me. Though I could see the pain in their eyes, my fellow tea-drinkers were all stubbornly staying in the seiza (kneeling) position, and I'd be damned if I was going to be the first to crack. I remained in the exquisitely uncomfortable position for the entire 20-odd minutes of the ceremony. I honestly struggled to walk when I got up.

After tea ceremony, I got my first taste of ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. As the instruction was in Japanese, I didn't really know what was going on. I tried to take a minimalist approach, but the instructor was having none of it, encouraging me to cram more and more foliage into my weird spongy block. Clearly, when it comes to ikebana, more is more. I wasn't particularly happy with the result, but when our arrangements were all lined up on display, I was pleased to see another bouquet that looked roughly as crappy as mine. When I later discovered that it was made by a five-year-old girl, I felt a little put out.

On tuesday night Marie had invited me to a Christmas party. As is de rigueur for me these days, I didn't really have any clue what form the party would take, but luckily I wore some reasonably smart clothes, since it turned out to be happening at a swanky hotel.

As we took our seats (or rather cushions on the floor), some men in ceremonial dress were furiously attacking something in a big wooden crucible with large mallets. I ascertained that they were pounding mochi, a bland, sticky, putty-like foodstuff made from ground rice, which is traditionally eaten around New Year. Being the only foreigner in the room, I was given the honour of pounding the mochi (not a euphemism) in front of all the partygoers. This is quite a physical activity; one raises the strange asymmetric mallet high above one's head, and brings it crashing down on the rubbery white blob in the manner of a fairground test-your-strength game. Confused by the aforementioned asymmetry, my first stroke embarrassingly missed, connecting instead with the rim of the mega-mortar. I don't think I did any damage. Between each stroke, a woman would lean in and fluff up the mochi ready for its next smacking. I was terrified that a timing mix-up would result in me killing the mochi-fluffer with a skull-shattering mallet blow. Thankfully that didn't happen.

The meal itself was delicious, featuring steak, an intimidating shellfish platter, and lots of mochi in various guises. While I wouldn't really recommend eating mochi on its own (it's not unpleasant, just tasteless and chewy), I would heartily endorse edamame-mochi. I avoided the natto-mochi, which is presumably sticky enough to be used as an industrial binding agent. The booze was flowing freely; at one point I had glasses of beer, red wine, sake, and whisky and soda ('whisky highballs' are a bit of a fad here, it seems) lined up in front of me. After the meal was a weird raffle, in which literally upwards of 80% of the ticket holders got a prize, leaving a small minority feeling rather cheated, I imagine. I won a Suntory T-shirt. I was also called up to cut the cake, resulting in an almost dangerous level of honour being bestowed on me for the achievement of coming from a place other than Japan.

If you are a Japanese kindergarten pupil with an exceptionally good command of English, please don't read the next two paragraphs. On friday morning I was to make the first of four kindergarten appearances as Santa Claus. This is evidently taken very seriously, as my Caucasian services were booked back in August, and on thursday afternoon I had to go along and be given a detailed briefing to ensure the whole thing went smoothly and without illusion-shattering cock-ups. This involved sneaking around like some kind of festive ninja, lest any child see me in my civilian clothes and rumble my identity.

On the morning itself, I was a little nervous. This wasn't helped by the fact that the staff kept giving me coffee while I was waiting, making me a little edgy. Also, I couldn't risk a trip to the toilet in my red felt outfit, so my bladder was weighing uncomfortably on me as I prepared to make my entrance. I think I did alright for my first time; the most painful part was an a capella rendition of Jingle Bells way too fast, because the kids were clapping at the wrong tempo. My second kindergarten appearance was on monday, and I think I did quite a lot better that time round as I'd relaxed into the role a bit more.

Friday night was the City Hall bounenkai, or end-of-year party. It seems the boozy Christmas party is a universal phenomenon, since the name translates literally as "forget the year party" We went to a very classy (not cheap, mind you) Chinese restaurant on the twelfth floor of a hotel in Yamagata City. The food was excellent; I've never really liked sweet and sour, but tasting theirs I could suddenly understand what everyone else had been going for. The portions were a bit meagre, though. Sitting there sipping weird Chinese liqueur, watching snowflakes tumbling by the window as a violinist played a Christmas medley for us, I had one of those moments where I wondered where it had all gone right.

The obligatory nijikai ("second party" was, predictably, at a karaoke bar. By this stage some of the salarymen among us were getting very drunk indeed, but I was carefully pacing myself because I had things to do the next day. It turns out the number two in my office (and ranking officer aboard that particular party) is a massive Beatles fan, so I did a little bit of brown-nosing by singing (I use that term loosely) A day in the life with him. That effort was probably my best; I overreached horribly when I selected the vocally challenging Killer Queen. At the end I tried to be topical by singing Merry Xmas (War is over), but despite all my classroom practice still got the verse totally wrong.

On saturday I was entertaining children once again, though with less deception this time. My Japanese teacher also runs English classes for primary school kids, so she was throwing a Christmas party for them, at which she asked me to help out. Since she volunteers to teach me and the other gaijin Japanese, I felt it was the least I could do in return. She requested I wear the kilt, so when I stopped off for lunch at Kappa Sushi on the way there (remember, there's a foot of snow on the ground at this point) I got some very funny looks.

I provided some activities for the party. Pass the parcel was fun, but it took a lot of preparation to wrap a tiny present in 14 layers of paper and a couple of dimension-concealing boxes, only for kids to rip it all apart. Also, despite my best efforts not to, I kept stopping the music (Girls Aloud's massively underrated 2005 Christmas bonus CD, if you're interested) on the same kid. I then taught the kids the Gay Gordons, but apparently overestimated the dancing capabilities of six-year-olds. Rotating the hold in the first part proved particularly confusing for them, and the exertion of skipping around for ten minutes necessitated an unscheduled juice break. Finally, the old chestnut of making snowflakes from repeatedly folded paper was fairly successful as a craft activity.

My karma levels riding high from this voluntary Christmas cheer spreading, I decided to take advantage of the copious snow with a trip to Zao Onsen on sunday. Whenever I tell anyone here at City Hall that I went alone, they looked shocked, as if this was the most tragic and/or eccentric thing they've ever heard. I thought about inviting someone (with a snowboard in it, my Suzuki can only take one passenger), but I actually enjoy the freedom of solo riding. Driving at a very cautious pace because of the weather, it took a little under an hour to get to the resort, which is nice.

Zao Onsen is an impressive size, at least three times as big as Cairngorm (in my mind, that's the standard unit of ski areas; the Three Valleys would be about 15Cg). It has 40 lifts, and not one of them is a poma or T-bar, which is good news for everyone's legs. Even though I went on a weekend, the queueing time was negligible. And it's just much prettier than the icy wastelands of Scotland, with many of the pistes cutting through forests. Most of the steeper slopes was closed, presumably due to avalanche risk, but it was perhaps no bad thing that I was confined to gentler inclines for my first day of the season.

I do have a couple of little niggles (that's not a word to say with a Japanese accent) with the place though. It clearly wasn't designed with boarders in mind, with many of the lifts being separated by an annoying 50m or so of flatland. And none of the chairlifts had footrests, which although sounding like a churlish complaint from someone who grew up with surface lifts, does make them substantially less comfortable for us snowboarders. The map was a little confusing, and not just because it was in Japanese. It wasn't clear where the parks were (I didn't actually succeed in finding any of the alleged three), or what exactly was downhill of what. Furthermore, the Japanese piste classification system only has three levels, as opposed to the four I'm used to. I really miss that level of detail; I feel that important distinctions exist between green, blue, red and black runs. Still, most of these things will no longer be an issue once I learn the lay of the land, and as I'm planning to buy the 10 non-consecutive day ticket (the Grover Cleveland) for a 25% saving, I'll have plenty of opportunity to. Tomorrow is a holiday (the Emperor's birthday), so I'm heading back there. With people, this time.

Driving back from Zao, I had my first scary winter driving experience. They are pretty good about clearing the roads here, but when it's snowing non-stop there's really only so much you can do. I wouldn't have said I was driving recklessly, but as I made my way down the hill I felt the back start to slide out. I've played enough racing games to know that steering into the skid is the only way to rectify such a situation, but I overcorrected and sent the car turning the other way. Right about then I decided to give up on this whole 'steering' nonsense, and just slowly but firmly pressed on the brake. I came to a stop on the wrong side of the road, perpendicular to the direction I should have been going. Fortunately the road was quiet enough that no-one even saw my mishap, though my snaking tyre-tracks should have served as a warning to other road users until the snow obscured them a few minutes later. After that, I realised that when you're driving downhill in the snow in an tiny automatic Kei-car, it really is essential to use those mysterious two manual override gears.

Well, that's a long one. Merry Christmas, everyone! And congratulations to Jude on her recent motherhood!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nihongo, Nihongo, they drink it in the Congo

(Nihongo is Japanese for 'Japanese'.)

Two posts in one day? What do I think this is, Twitter?

You see, my morale is running very high right now, and I wanted to share my good cheer with the folks back home. Could I be pushing through to the fabled Stage 3 already? Also, I would like to apologise preemptively if this post takes on a slightly hubristic tone.

I just had my last Japanese class before the lengthy winter break. Part of me is stoked that I won't have any Thursday night linguistic stress for two and a half months, but I'm also a little rueful that I will now have to either motivate myself to study or suffer some depressing Japanese atrophy, or Japatrophy. Anyway, because it was the end of the course, they sprung a grammar test on us. This was totally unexpected; normally the class is a fairly casual, speech-oriented affair, but here we were sitting at separate desks in exam conditions. Not knowing it was coming, I hadn't prepared. Thankfully however, I didn't go drinking with Marie last night for once.

I got 88%. Top of the class, bitches! Considering that everyone else has lived in Japan for a matter of years compared to my months, I feel particularly proud of this achievement. I would hasten to point out that I still can't actually speak Japanese for toffee; I just can't think fast enough to hold a conversation at this stage. I suspect that a written grammar test really plays to my strengths, as having done more than a little programming and maths in my time, I'm quite good at manipulating symbols according to rules.

During my protracted education, I think I got addicted to acing tests. To most well-adjusted people, the recognition that you were willing to jump through hoops more conscientiously than anyone else in the room would be scant cause for celebration. But to someone as lacking in self-esteem as I was for most of that time, each of those tiny but objective validations of my worth as a person was like a hit of some glorious drug.

It's been a long time since I've had that feeling. Once you get past the masters level, there are no more tests to sit (other than your viva, but that's more a surreal and terrifying initiation ritual than an actual test). I think this test-withdrawal may have been part of the reason for my PhD malaise. Looking back, I suspect I started looking for the positive feedback I craved in the wrong places, most notably in romantic relationships, with predictably disastrous consequences.

So, all of that is a very over-analysed and navel-gazing way of saying that I'm pleased I did well in my Japanese test. As if that wasn't enough, in the class tonight I also literally played Chinese whispers, by which I mean that I played the children's entropy-demonstrating communication game with two actual Chinese people. My life is complete.

The sweetest thing

I appreciate that gushing about my students could be almost as vomit-inducing as new parents bleating about the cuteness of their own offspring, but I felt the need to share this with you. Below is a very impressive piece a third-grade (15 year old) girl - who shall of course remain anonymous - wrote in her homework jotter that I was marking today. It is to a boy in her class, whose name I have blanked out, just in case some very unlikely series of events occurs to bring this post to the attention of its protagonists. I have reproduced it complete with the mistakes, which I think only make it cuter. The only context that you need to know is that they are presumably going to different high schools at the end of the school year in March.

Do you know you makes me happy?
You talk with me everyday. Are you aware that your simle makes me glad? Are you aware that your gentle?
You sure not notice. Thank you.
12 years have passed since I come across you.
But I don't know of all you. So I'll try to know about you.
The rest of the 3 month.
I and you are more good friend.
And we'll do our best to study English.
I think you are goot at English.
******. May I talk with you?


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You can stand under my a capella-ella-ella-eh

The following was written yesterday, at school. I never got round to publishing it last night. Apologies for the recycled pun.

Just a short and fairly stream-of-consciousness sort of update today, because I feel bad about not updating over the weekend. This was due to nomihodai (all you can drink)-induced catastrophic hangover on saturday, and ironing and Wipeout HD-induced apathy on sunday.

They're certainly keeping me on my toes at this school. Yesterday I was busy literally all day from 8:20 to 4:15, and then had to spend a couple of hours in the evening putting together a lesson about Christmas in Scotland. But, I find myself with a spare hour on a tuesday afternoon, so I thought it was time to squeeze out a blog. My desk is in a good stealthy position in this staffroom, and besides, I feel I've earned it.

I normally reserve workday blogging for times of extreme underemployment, doing something more productive like studying kanji at times like this. But I'm feeling a little sleepy and unfocussed right now. This is because I was awoken at five in the morning by blood trickling steadily from my nose. I'm working on the theory this haemonasal discharge was somehow triggered by the extreme chilliness of my bedroom. I can't quite bring myself to leave a heater on all night, as it seems just too wasteful, not to mention a little dangerous. But I did seriously consider sleeping with a beanie on last night. I think I will actually assess whether there is sufficient clearance under my kotatsu (under-heated table) to accommodate both my slumbering form and blood-spattered futon.

Anyway, you'll be pleased to hear that my lesson on the horrors of war went down a storm. Well, the first time I gave it, I think it was merely alright. But the teacher gave me some suggestions and, crucially, more time in the lesson when I came to do it again, and I smacked it out the park. The social studies teacher sat in on the class, presumably eager to keep an eye on the gaijin encroaching on his educational territory. He and the other teachers were very complimentary afterwards. For the record, I chickened out of mentioning Japan's war crimes, and I decided not to go any more disturbing than a low-res photo of a mass grave at Belsen.

What I hadn't bargained for was that I would then have to teach the class Happy Xmas (War is over) by singing it one line at a time and having them sing it back (like Moloko). I'm like Johnny A. Capella these days. It's quite a tricky song; on some lines I'm pretty sure SingStar would have rated me 'bad', at best. Thank the lord we didn't go with Christmas Wrapping.

The third-grade (i.e. oldest) students' English is so good here that the teachers are confident enough to pointlessly showboat by having me teach subjects other than English, in English. So yesterday I became a math (yes, that's how I have to say it) teacher, and delivered a lesson on solving simultaneous equations using the addition method. That is of course my favourite method as long as there are only two equations, after that you have to resort to Gaussian elimination really. It seemed to go reasonably well; as Cady Heron says, math is the same in every country. I feel like a full house of subjects could be on (gotta catch 'em all!), though teaching Japanese in English might be a bit of a struggle.

I'm back writing in the present now.
This morning I had to record myself reading out a story (the story of Tezuka Osamu, as it happens) as a model for a student preparing for a speech contest. Due to my long-standing hatred of hearing my own voice, I wasn't looking forward to this. But I actually surprised myself by not minding it at all. I have quite a nice voice really. I still sound way more Scottish than I do in my head, though. I was particularly taken aback to notice that I make the peculiarly Scottish distinction between the vowels in cIrcle and lUrk.

I'm taking this shedding of an old neurosis as another sign that this whole Japanese escapade is making me a less uptight and more together person. Tangentially, another example occurred to me when I was reading Charlie Brooker's column recently. I still think the man is a genius, but while I used to love his bleak, vitriolic, misanthropic worldview, it now strikes me as just a little needlessly negative.

Anyway, back to today's events. I was really struggling to come up with a activity for tomorrow's first-grade class (teaching 'me', 'him', 'her', etc.). I've been getting quite creative lately, drawing pictures for worksheets, making badges for the kids to wear for games, etc. But I was really drawing a blank on this one. Then I remembered my little sumo JavaScript that I made months ago, and had shelved after its inaugural outing was only so-so. The teacher was blown away, and beckoned over everyone else in the staffroom to have a look. I did my own bit of pointless showboating by using my phone to control it over Bluetooth (which is actually quite useful in a classroom setting, as it allows you to move around). They reacted as if I was actually magic. I love this school.

There is insufficient room to sleep under my kotatsu.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Oh, here it gyoza-gain

I'm feeling a little depressed right now. But this is only because I've spent the last half hour reading about various genocides. I'll explain why.

This week I started at school six of six. It's the smallest school in my jurisdiction, and I've taken an instant shine to it. The students there are remarkably good at English, and I quickly worked out why. The main English teacher teaches harder than anyone I've ever seen. He's not an unreasonable slavedriver or anything, he just packs an incredible amount into a lesson. It's like a datablast. (That's a nerdy reference even by my standards.) He makes extensive use of music for speaking and listening practice - today I was singing Ob-la-di, ob-la-da (btw, I'm still not sure how The Offspring got away with this) and We will rock you, and as I was saying goodbye at the end of the day, some kids started singing Hello Goodbye unprompted.

He asks a lot of his students, and also of me. I'm absolutely not complaining though. I was kept busy all day today, at no point having to crack out my kanji cards to kill some time. That almost never happens. I've been doing lots of marking, which I've rarely had to do at other schools. If any Japanese teachers of English are reading this, please get your ALT to do marking! It's great to actually feel useful, and since the students write about their lives, it helps me to feel more connected to them. I now know what bands Japanese 14-year-olds are into! Having checked them out on youtube, I'm a little worried that I'll end up on some kind of register. Seriously, what is it with Japanese people and school uniforms?

So, since Christmas is almost upon us, yuletide-themed lessons are the order of the day. The aforementioned teacher asked me what my favourite Christmas song was, so he could use it for a lesson. Clearly, it's The Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping. We decided that five minutes of rapid-fire pseudo-rapping was probably a bit too tricky for the kids, though he did consider it - that's how good they are at English. "What's your second favorite Christmas song?" he asked (he speaks American English). Fairytale of New York, I said, but quickly pulled that suggestion when I remembered some of the colourful language it features. So I finally settled on Merry Xmas (War is over). Being a big Beatles fan, he seemed to approve, and I suspect he was secretly hoping I would say that, since he immediately launched into a lesson plan idea.

He is concerned that the students are not sufficiently grateful for having safe, comfortable lives. So, for Thursday I have to come up with a five minute presentation on the horrors of war as an introduction to learning the song. This is quite a delicate task - I want to have an impact but without actually traumatising any children. Wikipedia has plenty of harrowing images, some of which I'm sure are too disturbing. I'm just not sure where the cutoff should be. Also, do I mention Japan's less-than-spotless record on the atrocities front? I feel like I should, but I'm a little scared of causing some kind of diplomatic incident. It's still quite a sensitive topic.

Wow, another of my preambles has become huge. Nonetheless, I'm going to talk about my weekend now.

I was invited to an international exchange event in Kawanishi (a nearby town which aspires to having one horse) by a very friendly Korean woman who helps out at my Japanese class. I slightly resented having to get up for nine on a saturday, but I thought it would be rude to decline. Besides, promoting international understanding is part of my job description. So I went along, and I'm glad I did. The plan was to cook food of various nationalities, and then eat it. Since all the foreigners around here - with the exception of ALTs - are Asian, it was a kind of oriental fusion affair, with Japanese, Chinese and Korean food on the menu, as well as cream cakes for dessert, which I guess are French? I joined the gyoza (Chinese dumpling) group, because I love eating the things. I think I impressed by being a man and being able to cut up cabbage at a reasonable speed. (Though I did later cut my finger peeling an apple. I blame the Japanese apple peeling method, which is to use a big knife, hold the apple in your left hand, and cut towards yourself.)

The cooking was fun, even if my dumpling folding technique was rather shaky. The feast which followed was delicious and ample. Though it was only lunchtime, I was offered beer, which I accepted. Then an unexpected musical dimension to proceedings opened up. After some Chinese one-string violin, a fairly ad-hoc but capable band took the stage. Leader of said band, a kindly middle-aged Japanese guy, had gone to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to some English songs. As one of only three English speakers in the room, I didn't see any way out of getting hauled up for a singalong. With my two fellow ALTs (one of whom is Brazilian, so isn't even a native English speaker, the poor guy), we gave an absolutely dire performance of Scarborough Fair, and an only marginally better Amazing Grace. Embarrassing.

He then started taking requests. I temporarily took leave of my senses, and commented to my table that the band would know the tune to Auld Lang Syne, since it is a popular song over here, albeit with Japanese lyrics. (These are to do with a kid being so dedicated to his schoolwork that he studies by the light of fireflies when there is no other light available, which although crazy, does explain a level of We love katamari.) Of course, my table-mates didn't miss this opportunity to force me to sing. For some reason, the band leader told me to do it a capella. So there I was with a mic, singing Auld Lang Syne unaccompanied to a room full of people of various nationalities. I'd only had one beer. I still can't really believe I did that.

Present at this event was a little girl of four or five years old, who I think was related to someone organising the event. Now, I really really don't consider myself the kind of person who would relish an opportunity to play with pre-school children. But she was, and I can't believe I'm saying this, adorable. The way everything, from eating a strawberry, to pretending to be an insect by putting your fingers up to your face like mandibles, was a source of infinite fascination and delight to her was truly beautiful to watch. I ended up playing tig with her, and having a number of tickle fights.

I know, this blog is becoming a bit "who are you, and what have you done with Finlay?".

Closing bombshell: I had whale for school lunch today.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hit me with your religion stick

It's friday afternoon on my last day at school five of six, so you know what that means – it's blogging time! My social calendar has been and continues to be packed this week, so I've having to use my ample downtime at school to keep the blog posts coming.

For my last twenty minutes with each class, the English teacher here gave me free rein to do something fun. I've had them dancing the Gay Gordons and learning the lyrics to Edelweiss. It's been awesome. Also, I dazzled some teachers today by using Blu-Tack, which apparently doesn't exist here. They thought I was using chewing gum as an adhesive at first.

But, I promised last time to tell you about my thrashing at the hands of a Zen Master, so I shall stick to this remit. Tuesday and Wednesday last week I was at a JET training seminar (which was quite fortuitous, since my school was on swine flu lockdown at the time anyway). I picked up some good teaching tips, but as far as stories to tell go the highlight was undoubtedly the 'cultural activity' segment. For a bit of a break from the lectures, we got to try our hand at one of: taiko drumming, origami, sumie painting, or Zen meditation. I actually requested taiko but that session was oversubscribed so I got meditation. Maybe that was Buddha working in mysterious ways...

Having changed into casual clothes (I didn't really have a concept of what one wears to mediate, but I felt fairly sure it wasn't a suit) I went to the meditation room and took my place on one of the zabuton (square cushions) that had been laid out. Leading the session was a man who looked every bit the part of Buddhist priest: he had a shaved head, long black robes, a weird bib thing, and a permanently warm, patient expression on his face. Speaking through a slightly sketchy interpreter, he explained the pre-meditation rituals of bowing and holding ones hands in what looks to a Westerner like a prayer position. Given that making a cup of tea can be a highly ceremonial business in Japan, this rigmarole was not unexpected.

Then came the main event. He explained the correct seating posture, allowing all the gaijin (and most of the Japanese people there) to settle for the half-lotus position. I can actually get my legs into a full-lotus, but I suspected that the agony associated with such a pose would hamper my efforts to clear my mind. We had to hold our hands in a special way, and he explained that since it is very difficult for beginners to think about nothing, we should just focus our attention on our thumbtips touching together. Also – and I didn't know this before - meditation is performed facing the wall, so you aren't distracted by whatever is going on in the room. Ok, so far so good.

Then he produced a long, tapered wooden stick. He explained that he would hit us with it if we were losing concentration. There then followed a priceless few seconds where all the gaijin (myself included) thought he was joking, didn't hear the laugh they were expecting, then glanced around the room anxiously. “This stick is not for punishment” he assured us (via the interpreter), “it's for encouragement”. Presumably he uses a carrot for punishment.

To our considerable relief, he explained that he would only hit us with our consent. With the help of a model, he demonstrated the protocol. To request a beating, the model raised his hands into a prayer position. The Zen Master then approached him from behind (since he was facing the wall) and tapped him on the right shoulder to warn him that the smackdown was imminent. At this point, he advised us to lean our heads to the left, to avoid a painful ear-clip. He then swept down with surprising speed, and connected with the guy's shoulder with an impressive slap that seemed to echo around the room. Cue a sharp intake of breath and more anxious glances from the audience.

Introduction over, he started the zazen (literally, sitting Zen) session with three rings of a bell. I'd never tried to mediate before. How exactly was I supposed to think of nothing? I'm a pretty highly-strung kind of guy; it often takes upwards of an hour for my mind to quieten down enough to allow me to sleep. I started furiously thinking about not thinking, then thinking about that, and soon lost count of just how meta I was being.

While I was failing to find any inner peace whatsoever, some of the more plucky among us had already to started to request a Zen-lamping, the resounding cracks of which were further distracting me from realising my true Buddha-nature. I started to wonder whether I should request a swatting. Probably yes, I thought: how often would I be in this position? But then I wondered if it was somehow disrespectful to request a holy chibbing just for shits and giggles. The man was a Zen Master – maybe he would know I wasn't taking it seriously. Maybe I should wait until I was actually losing focus. But wait, maybe I am losing focus now, I thought. But I never had focus in the first place. Does that count? (This kind of internal turmoil is the reason why I should never do drugs.)

In the end, I decided that worrying about whether to get hit with the stick was, in itself, preventing me from meditating properly. I identified that the only way to solve this problem was to get it over with. So I put my hands up. The tap came, I got my head out of my way, and I felt the kiss of the Stick of Zen (it's not really called that). It was certainly more than a tap. It stung for a good few seconds after the Master had shuffled over to his next target. His life must be like a kind of spiritual Whac-a-Mole. But it wasn't excruciatingly painful, and with that done, I could get down to some serious meditation.

For a while my over-analysing, skeptical nature prevented me from getting into it, in much the same way that it does during romantic comedies, and for that matter, romances. But I realised after a while that since there was no getting out of it, I may as well make an earnest effort to meditate rather than just sit there smugly resisting like some insufferable Richard Dawkins wannabe. So I went for it.

One keeps their eyes open but lowered during zazen. Have you ever tried keeping your eyes still, not looking at anything in particular, for several minutes at a time? I hadn't. Because the brain works by detecting changes (please back up that profound oversimplification, fellow neuroscientists), if you give it a constant stimulus for a while it starts to do weird things. I began to see patterns, like when you rub your closed eyes too hard. After a while, I couldn't really see anything. I wasn't blind; I was aware my eyes were open, but I just wasn't really paying attention to the information coming from them. This is starting to sound quite Zen, isn't it? I hasten to add that I don't think there is anything mystical about this, it's just an interesting thing that you're not used to doing. It's tricky though. Just like lucid dreaming or nailing a guitar solo on 'Expert', it's one of these things where the mere act of noticing that you're doing it can be enough to break your concentration.

Just as I was surprising myself with my apparent Zen proficiency, the Master rang the bell for the end of the session. It turns out this whole mental voyage had only taken 15 minutes; if he had told me it had been twice that I would have believed him. We then did some walking meditation which seemed a bit goofy but was good for getting the circulation in my legs going again. We finished up with another ten minutes of zazen. At first I was struggling to clear my mind; I think I was trying too hard to recapture what I perceived to be my former success. So I requested the stick. I think this time I actually saw the point of it. The sudden jolt of physical pain helps to snap you out of whatever mental loop you're stuck in, and draw a line under it. When I ceremonially bowed to thank him for the thwacking, I did it with some sincerity this time. Leaving the session, I felt very calm, just like waking from a particularly pleasant sleep.

There was a book exchange at the seminar, and before any of this had happened I had bagged a book called Hardcore Zen, just because I thought the title was amusing. I have since read it all, and found it very interesting. I won't go on about it here because a) this post is really long, b) I'm worried I might be freaking some of you out with this uncharacteristic spirituality and c) I'd probably just make an ass of myself talking about Zen having read one book. I'll just say this: It appears to me that Zen is entirely compatible with atheism. While most religions exalt faith and seek to suppress questioning, Zen practitioners are actively encouraged to question everything, including their conception of reality. That appeals to me.

At the weekend I did some zazen in the comfort of my own home. I'd like to keep that up for a while just as a kind of experiment. You're advised to do it every day, but I've found that difficult because quite a large proportion of my job is sitting around not doing very much, so the last thing I want to do in my own time is gaze quietly at a wall.

If I achieve enlightenment anytime soon you'll be the first to know.

Monday, November 23, 2009

I don't like crickets... I love them!

You're not going to believe this, but it's a public holiday again. "Labour thanksgiving day". I've managed to find time in my busy schedule of being thankful for the Japanese workforce's productivity to conclude the tale of the Stewarts in Yamagata.

Wednesday: It rained heavily all day, so we decided it was a good time to take a break from sightseeing. Blair and I spent much of the day playing Rock Band and Katamari Damacy, mum tidied, and dad trawled the 100yen shop for bargains. He couldn't get enough of 100yen shops. That evening Marie threw a party for us, inviting her usual circle of friends and thus making the whole affair feel a little like one was on the Japanese version of Loose Women. It was quite a feast: each person (except us) brought a home-made dish, and yakitori were ordered in from the local izakaya.

Earlier in the week Blair had happened to mention that he knew how to make an origami bear, and had taught this to kids at his schools. Imagine his surprise and mild panic when a pack of paper was produced and he was expected to lead an impromptu origami class. There was something distinctly surreal about a 23 year old white indie kid teaching a room full of Japanese women how to make a paper bear. As it turned out, this was some pretty advanced origami, so it took the best part of an hour to produce a family of brightly coloured bears of various degrees of wonkiness.

Once again Marie and her husband showed us an almost embarrassing level of hospitality. Towards the end of the night they opened a commemorative bottle of millennium whisky they had been saving since, well, 2000. Said whisky came in a bottle which, like a Weeble, would right itself following any mechanical perturbation. The look of childlike delight on Marie's husband's face when he discovered this was the source of much hilarity.

Thursday: It was time for our most ambitious trip yet, to Sendai, the largest city in the all of Tohoku (the northern part of the main island of Japan). It was my first time there, and I took an instant shine to the place. It had enough neon and giant TV screens to feel like a kind of little Tokyo, with a big city buzz that doesn't really exist anywhere in Yamagata, but it was also surprisingly green, with tree-lined boulevards that put me in mind of Berlin. However, it didn't really have that much in the way of sights, due largely to the fact that the place was more-or-less flattened during the Second World War. Umm, sorry about that, guys. Actually, maybe that's why it felt like Berlin - that only occurred to me now.

We took in the remains of Sendai Castle, which to be fair was mostly trashed during the civil war of the 19th century, with the firebombing of the 20th just finishing the job. Though there wasn't much castle to see, its elevated location did offer a very nice view of the city. We then went to a modern art gallery, and as always happens to me in modern art galleries, I experienced the not unpleasant mental challenge of trying to enjoy the art for what it is without getting outraged by the flagrant piss-taking of some of the works. A 2x2m black canvas with a big white circle on it caused me the most cognitive trouble on this occasion.

After the train ride home, on which Blair and I invented the excellent game "Guess what scene from Jurassic Park I'm thinking of", my plan was to take the family out for spicy pork ramen (Chinese style noodles), an Akayu speciality. However, ramen bars are slightly intimidating places, with lots of wired-looking salarymen sitting in silence save for the slurping of their noodles, and not a word of English in sight. So we 86ed that plan and headed to the more family-friendly Sukiya. Now, I feel like I owe Sukiya an apology. I've banged on about Kappa Sushi in this blog on several occasions, but the humble Sukiya has never got a look-in. It is a franchise fast food shop selling gyuudon (beef and rice bowl) and karee raisu (curry rice), the latter of which I'm developing a particular fondness for. The service is almost precognitively fast and very polite even by Japanese standards, and the dishes come at a price which David Dickinson would surely compare to French fries. My family loved the place, with my mum in particular pushing the boat out with both gyuudon and kareeraisu, and a melon soda float to boot.

Friday: With tourism fatigue starting to set in, we took it fairly easy on friday, only venturing out to do a little souvenir shopping in the local area. Blair wanted to buy a daruma doll, a Buddhist good luck charm which also has Weeble-like properties. Due to some confusion on my part, I took him to a ramen bar. In my defence, it was a ramen bar with a daruma as its mascot. Defeated on the daruma front, he settled for buying his girlfriend a ludicrous amount of Totoro merchandise. In the convenience store next to my house they had a whole selection of trinkets related to Mameshiba, a Japanese pop-cultural phenomenon that I'm not even going to attempt to explain. Blair particularly fancied the socks. However, one could not simply buy these items. It was a lucky dip, where you paid your 500yen for a ticket and you took your chances. He did so, and got a crappy little plastic thing to dangle from his phone - clearly the booby prize. Undeterred, he didn't hesitate to take a second bite at the cherry, and got another plastic bean on a string. He got soundly mocked by the rest of us for blowing £6.50 on such tat, but still had to be talked out of going back for more. (Of course, I realise that I forfeited all rights to scoff at other people's gambling the moment I embarked on my ruinous experiment with commodity trading.)

The previous week there had been some talk at school of a party for me on friday night. However, I had received no communication on the matter all week. As the evening approached, I was getting increasingly stressed out about whether I was expected to attend some event or not, but I didn't have the contact details of anyone I thought was likely to be involved. So, just after five, I cracked and drove out to the school to ask in person. The upshot was that I arrived back at the house at about 17:40 to tell my family that we were to be at a restaurant for 18:00. Miraculously, we were only about ten minutes late. At the party were eight or nine of Nanyo's English teachers. I was really glad the my family got the opportunity to witness the curiously formal yet drunken spectacle that is a Japanese work party. Before the initial kampai (toast) we were all required to give a little speech. I was first up, and as I turned the politeness up to 11 all I could think about was the alarm bells that must have been ringing in my brother's head at that moment. But everyone managed to pull off it off without incident.

The beer and conversation flowed agreeably for the rest of the meal. The most embarrassing moment was when I choked on a squid ring, but my family assured me later that I 'recovered well'. I'm still not really sure what that means, other than that I didn't die. At the end another bout of extreme politeness ensued, with one of my co-teachers in particular going way over the top in singing my praises. I felt rather embarrassed.

Although my family had to catch the 08:10 shinkansen (bullet train) the next morning, we still felt it would be rude not to swing by Marie's one last time on the way home. At the previous party there had been - naturally enough - a lot of discussion of Japanese food, including the revelation that people around these parts indulge in entomophagy. Specifically, they eat inago, which is grasshoppers coated in a sweet soy sauce. After pouring the sake, Marie nonchalantly produced a bowl of sticky insects as a snack. We all visibly recoiled. I manned up and tried one first, and found it actually quite agreeable. The rest followed suit, although I don't think they were quite so keen on it. Having worked for four years in an insect lab I of course realise that crickets and grasshoppers are not the same thing, but I trust you will cut me some slack for the sake of a pun.

And that was it. Hosokawa and my actual official supervisor insisted on showing up at the station the next morning to see them off, which was nice if a little unnecessary. A lot of people have asked me if it was hard saying goodbye, and I'd have to say it wasn't at all. It was great having them here, but I can talk to them every weekend on Skype. And at this stage, I don't have any longing to be home. Sure, I miss people, and I do occasionally fantasise about being able to go for a pint in the Old Bell with the guys, but I think I'm actually pretty happy with my life in Japan. I feel more content and well-balanced than I have in a long time.

Stay tuned for my next update, in which I get hit with a stick by a genuine Zen Master.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kitty vacant

I'm stealth-blogging at school again. As I write, they are boarding up the windows with planks of wood. “Are we expecting another typhoon?” I asked. “No, no,” came the reply, “it's for the snow”. Evidently the snowdrifts here can reach window-shattering proportions. Awesome.

Anyway, enough of that. Let's get back to my family's visit.

Monday: Monday morning was my family's official appointment to meet the head of the board of the education (the gentleman who presented me with my contract back in August) at City Hall. I think it is fair to say they were bricking it, and the chief exporter of bricks was Blair-kun. My family grilled me about etiquette, and I had to confess that I didn't really have a clue, especially about the finer points of omiyage (souvenir) giving. We dressed as smartly as we could, I taught them a couple of polite Japanese greetings (“hajimemashite” and “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”), and we went for it. So eager was I to be punctual that I overshot and arrived a somewhat awkward 20 minutes early. The meeting itself was a little tricky because no-one there was properly bilingual, but we muddled through - my parents' idea to bring brochures from their respective places of work as visual aids was a lifesaver. After about 15 minutes of bowing, handshaking and green tea sipping, we were finished, with no significant diplomatic gaffes. Job's a good 'un.

That afternoon the two generations of Stewarts went their separate ways. Mum and dad took the train to the charming little city of Yonezawa for some sightseeing, while Blair and I went to a theme park called Lina World. The most notable thing about this place is that it is affiliated with Sanrio, the company behind the kawaii empire that is Hello Kitty. So one couldn't move in the park for likenesses of the mouthless feline and her various cutesy friends. Andrea, I was thinking of you.

Disneyland it was not. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the place as entirely wack, since it did have a couple of decent rollercoasters. The trouble was that it was a rainy afternoon in November, and there couldn't have been more than about 20 people there, giving the whole thing a slightly 28 Days Later kind of vibe. There's something inherently depressing about a theme park where the staff comfortably outnumber the customers; I suspect even Alton Towers would seem a bit bleak in those circumstances. But on the plus side, there were no queues, meaning that one could easily compare and contrast the experiences at the front and back of a rollercoaster (for the uninitiated, the front is generally more visually exhilarating, while the back offers greater G-forces).

A few attractions are worthy of particular comment. The haunted house was genuinely unnerving, for two reasons. One, there was no vehicle, with the punters simply walking through it. For my money, this makes it much more immersive and frightening. Second, it was themed as a haunted shrine, and the fact that it was another culture's spooky cliches instead of the standard skeletons, ghosts and vampires made it all the more unsettling. I think maybe the Japanese just do creepy really well.

The nadir of Lina World was Carnival Fantasy, which was a very low-rent It's a small world rip-off, with primitive automata decked out in various national costumes (including, hilariously, Britain). The prize for oddest attraction undoubtedly goes to the room that was kept at a temperature of -20°C and contained lots of oversized foodstuffs, the idea being that you were inside a giant fridge. I mean, that's not even internally consistent for a start. Who keeps beer and milk at -20°C? Having said that, it was quite well executed, and -20°C is impressively cold. I just couldn't help but imagine the conversation that must have taken place in some Yamagata pub a few years ago: “A mate of mine has a walk-in freezer he's trying to get rid of, know anyone that might want it?” “Hold on, I have an idea...”.

The most awkward moment came when we attempted to board the Amore Express (yes, the name should have tipped us off). The attendant seem reluctant to let us on, but I couldn't understand what she was trying to tell us. After calling over someone who spoke marginally better English, I established that the ride first went forward, then it went into reverse and canopies emerged to cover the cars, giving the occupants some privacy. So, not really appropriate for two brothers. Now, maybe I just have intimacy issues (I definitely do) but this strikes me as just about the creepiest thing I've ever heard of. Copping an illicit feel on a ferris wheel or whatever is one thing, but that fact that this is a park-sanctioned opportunity for awkward adolescent fumbles really troubles me. It just doesn't seem right to have what is essentially a miniature seedy motel on rails surrounded by that many images of the innocent Kitty-chan.

Tuesday: Tuesday morning was the one work commitment I couldn't get out of; it was to be my kindergarten teaching debut. I was quite nervous about this, since I don't even have elementary school experience, and junior high to kindergarten is arguably an even bigger leap than undergraduate informatics to junior high English. It went pretty well considering – Head, shoulders, knees and toes went down a storm, since kids that age instinctively mimic anything you do. My colour-based games weren't quite so successful: no matter how simple you try to make a game, trying to explain it to 36 preschoolers who can't speak English is always going to be tricky. Anyway, I'm not the kind of person who is prone to gushing about the cuteness of small children, but I did find these kids extremely cute, especially when they knelt on the floor instead of sitting cross-legged.

With that weight off my mind, we went to Tendo in the afternoon to check out an art gallery in a sake brewery, which was a pleasant change of pace. There were two featured artists, one of which – Saito Shinichi – I really liked. Our parting gift from the gallery was a free sample of a weird yeasty paste they sell, which I'm pretty sure is a by-product of the brewing process. It wasn't the nicest thing I've tasted in Japan. I'm unclear on what one is supposed to do with it, although I think the lady said something about adding it to miso soup.

After that was a trip to Sagae's Cherryland. We didn't have time to see everything this place had to offer, so maybe I'm not doing it justice, but it seemed like a tourist attraction that was missing the attraction. By that I mean that it had all the cafes, restaurants and gift shops that one would expect to find surrounding your average tourist trap, but without any ostensible raison d'etre other than a vague cherry theme (the area is famed for its cherry production). The reason we went was that my guidebook said they had an ice cream parlour with 100 different flavours, but as far as I could tell only about thirty were in evidence. One of these was a troubling dark grey colour, and surprisingly my Japanese was good enough to work out that it was sesame flavour. I went for a sesame and cherry combo (I felt I had to really, being in Cherryland), and it was delicious.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Konnyaku sunset's fine

Sorry blog fans, it's been a while. This is of course because my family were in town. Without any further ado, I'll tell you how that went. I suspect I will split this story into several posts, because I can see it being epic even by my verbose standards.

Friday: The other 75% of the Stewarts arrived in Akayu to find me caught up in a kind of stress tsunami. Having rushed from my school to get to the station, I was fielding texts and emails from about five different people at once, most of whom were trying to arrange various social engagements with my aforementioned relatives. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the gaijin family. My stress was boosted by certain people (cough-Marie-san-cough) who speak perfectly good English sending me messages in Japanese. Normally I am grateful for this bonus language lesson, but it was hassle I didn't need on this occasion. I literally got a nosebleed.

Once everything was sorted, we headed out to - where else - Kappa Sushi. There we were the centre of attention - a little boy (whose big brother I apparently teach) was very keen to talk to us, but due to the language barrier just spent most of his time staring at us, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Then a bunch of guys (who I think may have had a beverage or two) came over and asked us where we were from. My family were amazed at the celebrity status we appeared to possess, and I had to explain to them that this kind of thing doesn't usually happen to me. I guess one foreigner can be accepted as an anomaly, but a whole family of pale-skinned, red-haired gaijin? That's something you don't see every day. Anyway, my family seemed to enjoy the sushi, though they understandably stuck to the tamer-looking items gliding past our table. We rounded off the night with the first of many visits to hostess-extraordinaire Marie-san's, who was so pleased to see us that she cracked out the nine-year-old sake, despite our protestations.

Saturday: We had a fairly quiet one on saturday, with Blair and I spending much of the morning playing Rock Band while my dad went exploring the local supermarket and my mum tidied out one of my cupboards. Now, I neither ask nor expect her to do this, but she insists and I've found it's best just to acquiesce. Not that I'm complaining though; she discovered no fewer than three heaters that I didn't know I owned. In the afternoon we went for a stroll around Akayu, taking in the shrine and surroundings. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the autumn leaves were stunning. We spotted a Japanese hornet, a huge insect which, on account of its fearsomely venomous sting, you definitely don't want to mess with. We then bumped into Marie, who invited us all in for tea and ice cream.

The evening's entertainment was a trip to an izakaya in Yamagata City with Hosokawa and archeologist, anglophile and raconteur Yoshino-sensei. We had a huge meal of yakitori, fried tofu, seaweed salad, sashimi, and nabe stew. I must say, I was impressed with my family's willingness to eat the alien cuisine, and for their dogged determination to do so with chopsticks even though cutlery had been thoughtfully provided for us. Between Yoshino explaining what we were eating and offering various related titbits of interesting Japanese trivia, and us detailing esoteric features of Scottish culture, conversation was lively. My dad ambitiously tried to explain the Scots saying "Lang may yer lum reek", and clearly his efforts were not wasted because I later got an email from Yoshino asking for more details.

After the meal we headed to a European bar with a wide selection of Scotch whisky. It was all very pleasant, but drinking imported malts in Japan is not cheap. Because I'd already had a few drinks, I offered to step up and pay the Stewart's share, which meant handing over a cool ichiman en (10000yen = £65) for eight drinks. What was I thinking?! I'm still reeling from it a bit.

Sunday: It was now time for some proper sightseeing. However, getting my family organised to do anything is a bit like piloting a supertanker by post, so it was past noon by the time we actually hit the road. Our destination was Yamadera, a whole complex of temples situated up a mountain and accessed by climbing over a thousand steps. My parents and I did the whole tourist routine of ritually washing our hands, wafting the incense, and touching the Buddha (a euphemism waiting to happen there), but Blair hung back, anxious about disrespecting people's beliefs. I'm pretty sure most Japanese people don't actually believe in Buddhism but rather see it a a fun collection of traditions and stories, but whatever, each to his own. After our descent I bought a stick of konnyaku, the weird negative-energy savory jelly snack that is inexplicably popular around these parts. No-one was particularly keen to share it with me.

Next on the agenda was the Okama crater lake, which regular readers will already know about. Despite not looking that far away on the map, when one factors in the zigzag nature of the steep ascent, the journey becomes a rather more serious undertaking, especially when you have four people inside a puny Suzuki K-car. The drive became something of a frantic race against the setting sun, which I'm sorry to say we lost. With just two more switchbacks to go before the top car park, we found that the road was closed for the night. In the fading light, we parked the car by the gate and started charging up the last 150m of the ascent on foot. I couldn't help but think of the stories you hear every winter of woefully ill-equipped morons dying on mountains. Like the sun, my confidence was sinking fast. Then a car with flashing lights came along and told us in no uncertain terms to get off the mountain, and I think we were all somewhat relieved to have an excuse to call the whole thing off. Still, it was worth it for the drive there - the views of the mountains covered in flame-coloured trees were spectacular. Since Yamagata City was (sort of) on our way home, we finished our day out with dinner at Mos Burger followed by dessert at Mister Donut.

Alright, that's enough for now. The next update may be a little while because I'm on yet another training seminar for the next two days.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Culture shockafeller skank

It's November, which means I've been here three months now. This is precisely the time that the dreaded phase 2 of culture shock is supposed to set in, and I think I am experiencing it a little. So far, it's not too bad; compared to the emotional torture of finishing a PhD, this is a walk in the park. On Prozac. Culture shock is also known as culture fatigue, and while this sounds less cool I think it's a more accurate description. Gradually, one's enthusiasm for greeting strange new experiences is depleted, and being permanently confused due to one's inability to speak the language gets a little tiresome. But I've just got to keep studying Japanese, try not to become too much of a hermit (I just bought a hi-def TV to go with PS3) and ride it out into stage 3.

Fortunately, I have something to look forward to. My family are coming to stay with me for a week from this friday - they should already be in Tokyo. My own personal Jesus Hosokawa-san pulled some strings so I have the whole week of their stay off work. I'm looking forward to some big sightseeing, and freaking them out with various raw seafoods and naked bathing opportunities. I think my house is more or less ready for their arrival; I have bedding sorted out, I've got a big can o' kerosene, and I've found the power cable for my kotatsu. What I didn't realise previously is that the heat is produced by incandescent bulbs, meaning that I essentially have a coffee table with ground effects. I feel like Tim Westwood.

I guess I'll give you a quick roundup of what I've been doing. In the last week I have not once but twice been out-drunk by Japanese women about half my weight. Wednesday night was a trip to my town's swanky Italian restaurant with Marie-san and friends. (It occurs to me that I've never really explained who she is. She and her husband own a sake shop in Akayu, and she also tutors maths and English part time. Thus she speaks excellent English, and has been a friend to all of the ALTs that have come to Nanyo over the years. She has shown me an extraordinary level of kindness since my arrival.) In my last post I vowed to stop getting drunk on wednesdays, and I stuck to this resolution, but it wasn't easy. I had to weather a storm of peer pressure, with them telling me that they all had work in the morning too, go on, have another. I honestly can't understand how they can drink so much and function at work the next morning. Maybe there's some miracle substance in natto that confers invincibility to hangovers? Or maybe I'm just a big wuss. Anyway, I managed to limit myself to four beers and bed before midnight, and let me tell you, it was glorious going to Japanese class with a clear head the next day.

On friday night, despite (or possibly because of) having work the next day (more on that below) I really had that friday feeling. I treated myself to a trip to Kappa Sushi, and I think I enjoyed it all the more because I was imagining going there with my family soon. After that I cashed in one of my booby prize tokens and went for an onsen here in Akayu for the first time. It was an upmarket joint, and had two separate pools, one of which was extremely hot while the other was merely very hot. I'm convinced you stay hot for some hours after an onsen; it's like Ready Brek. I rounded off the evening by sitting wistfully by the shrine looking out over the town. How's that for an evening of Japanese entertainment?

The second time I was drunk under the table (where at least it's well illuminated) was saturday night. A female ALT from a nearby town was going out drinking with three teacher friends of hers, and invited me along. We kicked the evening off with - what else? - nomihodai at an izakaya. These ladies were downing beers at an almost alarming rate, determined to get their money's worth. Their English was incredibly good, and there was a pleasing absence of Japanese formality - after a few drinks we were having a very amusing discussion about K-Y Jelly. Once our time was up we moved on to a karaoke place, where they displayed a surprisingly thorough knowledge of Western pop music from the 1970s to the present. I wowed them with one of my better renditions of Creep.

I was working on saturday because it was the 'Chorus Festival' for the school I'm currently teaching at (see last post). A whole day of competitive choir singing did get a little tedious, but when all 300-odd students linked arms and sang together at the end I was actually quite touched. The most surprising event of the day was when the parents and teachers of each grade took to the stage to sing a song. I was expecting fairly ramshackle performances, but no - they were in tune and split up into different harmonising parts. I asked someone whether they had rehearsed. Oh yes, I was told, they all came in between 7 and 9pm four or five times to practice. I'm still struggling to get my head around this. Parents gave up ten hours of their free time to practice singing for their kids' school concert? With that kind of work ethic, I'm starting to see how Japan managed to recover so quickly from losing the second world war.

Anyway, I had monday off because of that, and today was yet another public holiday: Culture Day. The closest I came to doing anything cultural was an epic Rock Band session last night. Another ALT expressed an interest in Rock Band, so I invited him round. When he showed up with a drum-stool, I suspected he was hardcore. Turns out he's an actual drummer and guitarist (though the latter is of less use for the game) and also played Rock Band obsessively before coming out to Japan last year. He was more than a little handy. We played more-or-less solidly from 7pm to 1:30am, trying to tackle career mode on expert. It was good to play with someone who took the game that seriously, but I think maybe 6+ hours is too much - I had all sorts of addled rhythm-based dreams last night.

Alright, now I'm going to watch Return of the Jedi. I identified that Star Wars is a very conspicuous gap in my nerd knowledge; I probably have seen them all (the originals that is, I really don't care about episodes 1-3) at some point in my life, but definitely not in the last ten years. However, from the likes of Spaced, Kevin Smith movies and the work of Adam and Joe I feel like I pretty much know the plot, so I figured it was time to actually watch the trilogy. Between teaching, socialising and Playstation, it's taken me weeks to get around to them, but I think tonight is the night to put it to bed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This kerosene, it's a goddamn arms race

(Warning: contains a very minor The Wire spoiler.)

It's really getting cold now. When I yawned the other morning and saw my breath coming out, I decided it was time to investigate heating. You see, Japanese houses generally don't have central heating, and mine is no exception. Instead, portable kerosene burners are used. I dug mine out of the cupboard and found it still had a little fuel in it, so I gave it a whirl. It delivers a pleasingly intense blast of heat, although I am more than a little concerned about the twin threats of burning my house down and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. I don't think I'll leave it on when I'm asleep. It also makes my house smell like a petrochemical plant when it's running, but I don't mind that so much. The smell is heavily associated in my mind with good memories of my snowboarding trip to Nagano three years ago, because the hostel there was heated the same way. All I need to do now is figure out how one goes about buying kerosene and I'll be sorted. (I have read on the internet that using stale fuel is bad for your burner, but I'm not sure about how one responsibly disposes of smelly and highly flammable liquids.)

I should also work out how to operate my kotatsu, which is the low square table my laptop is on right now. It's no ordinary table, as its underside contains an electric heater. The top comes off allowing you to sandwich a blanket between the heater and the tabletop, creating an enclosure into which to slide your legs to keep them warm and toasty. I tried one out at someone's house last week and it was delightfully cozy.

Ok, I don't actually intend for this post to be entirely devoted to heating. This week has seen my debut at school four of six, which I definitely won't be identifying by name for reasons that will become apparent. Whenever I start at a new school I have to introduce myself to the whole school in Japanese. This never seems to go smoothly, so this time I was determined to nail it. Before I went in on monday morning, I practiced it, and I came armed with my notes in my pocket. But a quick self-intro in the staffroom was all that was requested from me. Oh well, I thought, this place must just roll in a less formal way. Today I stroll in at 8:18am, two minutes before the first bell, and the instant I make it to my desk I'm ushered to the gym hall for assembly, at which I am of course required to introduce myself. No notes, no preparation. I think I did pretty well, considering. A few short months ago, forming coherent English sentences at 8:20am would have been a struggle.

I'd heard tales that this school was a little rough, and they turned out to be not entirely unfounded. For the first time since I got to Japan, I've seen disobedience. There are a few kids at this school that could do with some new collars. And for the first time, I've heard teachers raise their voices to deliver reprimands that sound, to my ears, as terrifying as they are incomprehensible. I don't want to give the impression that I'm like Prez; I haven't had to deal with any classroom stabbings as yet. But today I gave three back-to-back self-intro lessons and in two of them I was competing with chatting students to make myself heard. It was fairly exhausting. As I was told in my training, the Japanese approach to classroom discipline is strangely non-interventionist to a Westerner - students very seldom get shouted at or sent out for misbehaving in class. Apparently discipline takes the form of stern talkings-to in private.

The regular schedule is all up in the air this week, because there is a 'chorus festival' this saturday. From what I can gather, this will be an inter-class competitive singing spectacular. It's being taken very seriously, with the time from lunch to well into what I would consider 'after school' being devoted to singing practice. It seems a little cruel to me to make 12-15 year old boys sing competitively; I mean, I still haven't really got the hang of my post-puberty vocal chords. This does perhaps explain why Japanese people are so good at karaoke though. I can only assume there is a tenpin bowling festival in the spring.

It's not all bad news though. The attitude problems seem mainly confined to third grade, and the younger students are very spirited (genki) when I see them outside of the classroom. The girls in particular have an interesting habit of telling me their names and testing me on them later. As you may know, my memory for faces is woeful at the best of times; I think I may actually have mild prosopagnosia. Matching Japanese faces with Japanese names is a total nightmare for me. ("Hmm, let me see, the girl with brown eyes and straight black hair... Yuka? Yuki? Yuko? Oh, Motoko. Sorry.") Still, they don't seem to mind too much when I get it wrong.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quake me up before you go-go

I'm having a very lazy day today. My house is in dire need of some cleaning, but it's now past five and I still haven't found the motivation to do so.

I'm going to get the negativity out of the way early on this one. I had a rubbish day on thursday. This was, in large part, my own fault. As is becoming customary for a wednesday evening, the previous night I had been invited for dinner by a friend of Marie's. It was a fun evening, but I ended up drinking a little too much and staying up rather too late. It is pretty unprofessional for me to be getting drunk on a weeknight and being hungover the next day, but in my defence I would say that it's very easy to get carried away when Japanese hospitality demands that your hostess keeps endlessly refilling your glass. You know the way that hangover intensity can be surprisingly loosely correlated with the quantity of alcohol consumed? Well, the next day I felt way worse than I thought I deserved to. Even my legs ached for some reason. I suspect I'm coming down with a cold, which is an occupational hazard for someone working in a school at this time of year.

Anyway, thursday was no ordinary day. It was a training day, meaning that all the English teachers (and teachers of other subjects) of Nanyo went to one school and observed demonstration lessons and discussed them afterwards. I hadn't had much briefing on this, so didn't really know what to expect. My heart sank as I showed up in my usual schoolday attire (black trousers, long-sleeved checked shirt, tank-top) to see everyone else in suits. It quickly became apparent that formality was the order of the day. All the headmasters and various other VIPs from city hall were in attendance.

Before things even got underway my glasses mysteriously fell apart, requiring a helpful colleague to hurriedly ask around for a screwdriver set. The demo classes themselves were alright; it was the rest of the day that was rather more painful. It consisted of various long meetings conducted in Japanese, which I had to sit through attempting to look professional rather than bored, hungover and inappropriately attired. I don't think I was very successful in this regard, as people kept asking me if I was alright, and commenting that I looked tired. At the end of an 80 minute discussion about the demo English lesson, of which I had understood perhaps 5%, I was asked in English for my opinion. Having entirely zoned out, I was caught on the back foot, and I fear gave a rather negative appraisal of the poor teacher's lesson. As if I, as a hungover non-teacher, was in any position to criticise anyone. All in all, I fear I made quite a poor impression.

After it finally finished I wanted nothing more than just to go to sleep, but I had to go to my Japanese class in the evening. I was all over the place, which was frustrating; I felt like explaining to everyone that I'm actually smarter than this when I'm not exhausted. Then another student and I got taken for coffee by one of the assistant teachers, which was a very nice gesture but was the last thing I needed by that stage. I will be more restrained with my midweek drinking from now on.

Thankfully, the next day back at my school was better. In the morning I gave a lesson where we played a game called 'grammar gamble', in which the students had to bet on whether sentences were grammatical or not, using poker chips I found in my house. It was really fun, and I liked that I was teaching 13-year-olds real gambling. They seemed to love it too. I really had to fight the urge to shout "Prace your bets now!" in a terrible Japanese accent.

Next period was free, so I was chilling in the staffroom with my kanji flashcards. Suddenly I felt the room start to shake. My first earthquake! Everyone stopped talking and looked at each other, then after a few seconds it stopped and everyone kind of shrugged and went back to whatever they had been doing, rather like people do when the hear a rumble of thunder. Everyone, that is, except me. Wide-eyed and breathless, I blurted out "Was that an earthquake?!". People nodded, as if to say, "What do you want, a medal?". For the detail fans out there, it had a magnitude of 5.0 and its epicentre was 186km away, just off the east coast of Honshu.

Instead of regular lunch on friday, we had an imonikai, or beef-and-potato stew party. This local custom is what people more traditionally do at the venue where I had my paella party a few weeks back. The kids were split into eight teams and ran the whole show themselves, from building the fires to cooking the stew to cleaning up afterwards. Without any prompting, the boys instinctively assumed fire-related duties, while the girls handled most of the cooking and cleaning, demonstrating that gender stereotypes are pleasingly universal.

I was impressed with how much trust the teachers had in their students. They allowed them to build the fires with minimal supervision, and didn't bat an eyelid when one group seemed more intent on building a bonfire with a pot of stew somewhere at its heart than actually cooking food. Even when the grass around the stove started to catch fire they appeared unconcerned. But I think I was more surprised that one of the ingredients the kids were given was a big bottle of sake. In my high school you could put money on that being furtively drunk dry within minutes. But I didn't seeing any students swigging from it, so they were either very responsible or very stealthy. Anyway, the stew was delicious and there wasn't a cloud in the sky; it was a very pleasant way to spend a friday afternoon.

Back in august a teacher at one of my schools invited me to a concert at which she would be playing the koto, a traditional Japanese musical instrument that blurs the boundary between harps and guitars. This event finally rolled around yesterday, so I took a trip to Yamagata City for some culture. Before the event I went for my first sober Mos Burger for lunch, despite there being a perfectly good McDonalds across the street, so keen was I to embrace Japanese culture. Their Japanese take on American fast food is certainly interesting, though I find their burgers are difficult to eat without getting sauce all over one's face and hands.

The concert itself was very enjoyable, although the audience was composed mostly of geriatrics. The first half was all traditional Japanese music: predominantly bamboo flutes and koto. It put me in mind of the scene in pretty much any kung fu movie where the white-haired old master sits by a lotus pond serenely sipping tea. The second half was Western style, the highlight being a piano/cello/singer trio. At 2.5 hours, the concert was maybe a little overlong (in particular a choir of middle-aged women towards the end dragged on a bit) but it was very agreeable in a mellow sort of way.

I returned to the city that night for more musical entertainment. Things were rather less genteel this time around, as the event in question was a hip-hop night at J's Bar, a slightly divey basement bar and popular gaijin hangout, run by an American guy. It turns out it was Halloween themed, which I hadn't appreciated, but I managed to appropriate a pair of sparkly black horns as my very token concession to the occasion. Other people had made more of an effort, including a female DJ who was dressed as Tinkerbell, and was therefore approximately the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed.

Surprisingly given that this is rural Japan, there were some very serious B-boys and B-girls in attendance, many of whom looked suspiciously young to be in a bar in the first place. For most of the night they just practiced their moves in front of mirrors that were on the walls. Then the dancefloor was cleared and they performed their meticulously choreographed routines in turn. It was undeniably impressive, but I'm not sure they really grasped the spirit of hip-hop. Being a middle-class white guy from Inverness, I appreciate I'm not particularly well qualified to talk about life in the ghetto, but they seemed to be treating it more like a martial art to be studied and perfected, rather than the the playful freewheeling form of expression that I take breakdancing to be.

Having so many accomplished dancers around does make people like me, whose moves extend about as far as the Running Man and a very poor Robot, rather less inclined to strut their stuff. But I drank enough that this ceased to bother me, and proceeded to flail around like a fool on the dancefloor. The music was fairly good, but if all the breakdancing teens didn't make me feel old, the strong bias towards recent autotune-heavy joints by the likes of Akon certainly did. As some of you will know, I have a long-standing problem with women dancing with me in a manner that I find inappropriately provocative. Specifically, I'm talking about the ass-grind here. This situation arose at one point, but by the time we left I was drunk enough that it seemed like a good idea to raise the issue with the poor girl on the drive home. Smooth. Thankfully, she didn't seem too offended.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Don't go chasing waterfalls

(Not the tortured pun you've come to expect, but it just seemed too apt to pass up on.)

I don't have a drinking problem! It's after midnight on saturday night, and my drinks total for the weekend is one beer, plus the whisky I'm drinking now. Admittedly I got a bit mashed on wednesday, but that's besides the point.

Last night I was sober because I was driving. I went to play some pool and darts in Yonezawa with other ALTs and associated gaijin. I imagined that this would take place in a bar, and I was a little rueful that driving was the only practical transport option. But I was wrong! It was in a place mysteriously called 'Space Create', which was a peculiarly Japanese facility for which there is no Western analogue that I'm aware of. It's partly an internet cafe - it had rows of private-ish booths with TVs, high-spec computers and PlayStations for people to get some electronic entertainment. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were also racks full of manga, so you could get your otaku on with the printed medium if you so fancied. I know what you're thinking, and yes, there was an 18+ section tucked away in the corner where presumably the booths were fully private. There were also larger 'family rooms', which I'm struggling to understand the rationale behind.

Having more sociable pursuits in mind, we availed ourselves of the pool, darts and table tennis facilities that were also on offer. Despite my school lunchtime training, I still received many a sound drubbing at the ping-pong table. The dartboards were plastic electronic affairs, which although offering a reasonable emulation of real thing, weren't quite the same as throwing real weapons into a bristle pad. On the plus side, the scoring is automatic. Anyway, what was good about this place was that the games were all free; you simply paid for the time you spent there, and at 1000yen for three hours, this works out very cheaply assuming you're in for the long haul. Being Japan, potential awkward and undignified quarreling over whose turn it is to play which game is avoided by having people explicitly choose their table/board, and logging these assignments on a computer.

Also included in this price is unlimited use of the drinks bar, which offered just about every kind of non-alcoholic drink you can think of, including soup. I alternated melon slush puppies and Earl Grays. It's no surprise that inventive vagrants have taken to living in these places.

Today's entertainment was a trip to an allegedly haunted waterfall, with a large group of ALTs. (What's the collective noun? A skive? An annoyance?) An impressive body of folklore surrounds this place. Some selected highlights, in descending order of sanity:
  • In feudal times, it was an execution site.
  • Many people have committed suicide there.
  • The statue at the shrine there has repeatedly been found to be beheaded.
  • It's unlucky go there in a white vehicle, or as a couple.
  • People report feeling their hair being pulled.
  • Pictures taken there often feature ghosts (the advent of digital cameras has really taken the fun out of that one, presumably).
Particularly detailed myths surround some swords which were to be found at this place, but were apparently removed some years ago. These swords were supposedly used to carry out the aforementioned executions. It is considered very unlucky to touch the swords, but apparently fate will conspire to make some member of any party who goes there accidentally touch one.

The waterfall itself was underwhelming, being essentially just a stream tumbling down a few metres of rocks, and the shrine was very modest. The place was noticeably cooler than the surrounding area, lending it a slightly eerie air, but I think that can be readily explained by the dual phenomena of trees and shadows. Indeed, as a representative of Science, I felt it was my duty to demonstrate the foolishness of such superstitious beliefs, so I went into full-on unbearable Richard Dawkins / James Randi / Penn and Teller mode. I dearly wanted to touch the cursed swords, but since they were not in evidence, I settled for touching the stone swords of the statues. Since some of these were located in the waterfall, it meant clambering around like a buffoon on slippery mossy rocks, offering Fate an open goal to give me my comeuppance. Nothing happened. Some of my more credulous companions insist that my bad karma is biding its time, and some unpleasantness is sure to befall me in the coming weeks. I'm unconcerned.

After the waterfall we went for some bowling. After an early spare/strike one-two, my performance reverted to its normal level. Fortunately, since I was playing with Westerners, my score of 85 didn't look quite so pitiful. The bowling alley had an amusement arcade, so I played a spot of Dance Dance Revolution, throughout which I was apparently being stared at by a schoolgirl, presumably awed by my moves. I didn't notice, being fully focused on the scrolling arrows.

Then, not for the first time, I did some purikura. This is another Japanese pop-cultural institution, the name being a very unlikely contraction of 'print club'. They are essentially photo booths, but have been carefully designed to maximise their appeal to their target demographic of pubescent girls. The are decked out in pastel pinks and flowery script, with pictures of models that explore the intriguing area between kawaii and straight-up hot. There are tables and mirrors next to them for you to do your hair and make-up. Once inside the booth, you stand in front of a green screen and select various background and foreground effects. But, taking the pictures is only the first step. You then get to customise the images by using a bewildering menu system to add various graphics and doodles with a stylus. I tend to just go crazy with sparkles. Finally, you print out your super-kawaii efforts, and cut them out to share with your friends and stick on your jotters or pencils cases or whatever. I must say that I've never actually seen any teenage girls using these machines, just twenty-something gaijin like me who should really know better.