Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hello from Japan!

Today I got internet access set up in my house, so I can now do all the things that I felt were a little too frivolous for City Hall, the only place I could previously get online. Straight away, I uploaded some pictures to flickr - please use the widget to the right and have a look. Now, I shall make my first proper post to this blog.

Tempting though it is to adopt a Memento-style narrative, for the sake of clarity, I guess I'll start at the beginning. I arrived, jetlagged, in Tokyo 16 days ago. From Narita Airport I was very efficiently herded onto a bus by an army of JET assistants, and taken to the super swanky Keio Plaza Hotel. My first task was to go out and find some food. I went with another Edinburgh-departing JET to Yoshinoya, which I vaguely knew to be a popular, cheap Japanese-style fast food chain. Staring at a menu I couldn't read while a waiter politely but incomprehensibly tried to elicit my order, in my tired and emotional state, I realised that this kind of thing was going to happen rather a lot in the following year, and I became a little panicky, then glum. My companion bailed me out by managing to order two gyuudon (a beef and rice number that is to Yoshinoya as a Big Mac is to MacDonalds).

The next two days were filled with talks and workshops. With 640 new JETs and the aforementioned army of hangers-on, I was pretty well insulated from Tokyo in a bubble of Anglophones. Like any event of its kind, there was much small-talking to be done, but the atmosphere was more pleasant than academic conferences I've been to because everyone was very much in the same boat, i.e. excited and more than a little terrified of what was about to happen. Having said that, I was a little disheartened to realise that our American and Australian cousins generally had a greater command of Japanese than the predominantly novice Brits, among whom my feeble Japanese had seemed more respectable.

I managed my jetlag rather well, if I say so myself, and didn't go on any late-night karaoke benders, so I was able to diligently attend everything, unlike some. I am glad I went to the workshops, but everything was necessarily in generalities - 'every situation is different' is the unofficial motto of the JET Programme. When you haven't yet set foot in a classroom, it's difficult to take it all in. A bit like teaching someone to drive who has only ever seen pictures of cars.

Anyway, monday night was a trip to an izakaya (Japanese pub/bistro) with the rest of the (seven-strong) Yamagata crew, who I haven't seen since Tokyo but hopefully will next week at prefectural orientation. They seemed nice; certainly none of them gave the immediate impression of being a dick. On tuesday night I was off to the British embassy, the highlight of which was a performance from the embassy taiko drumming team, after which we got to have a go. Hitting a big drum with chunky wooden sticks whilst adopting a kung-fu pose is fun. Mini Cornish pasties seemed to be the only concession to British cuisine among the vol-au-vents; sadly no macaroni pies.

Wednesday rolled around and it was time to leave the gaijin bubble and head for our new lives. The apprehension was palpable, at least among Team Yamagata. At Yamagata airport I was met by two men holding a big sign saying 'Welcome, Finlay!', complete with crepe paper flowers. (Yes, if you looked at my predecessor's blog, this will sound familiar.) No-one else seemed to be getting this level of welcoming. Though I felt a little self-conscious, I was touched by the gesture.

One of the men spoke very good English. I later learned that he is head of English and vice-principle at the biggest junior high in Nanyo - so someone worth bowing that extra few degrees for. He was to be my interpreter for the day. The other man spoke somewhat poorer English, although obviously still far better than my embryonic Japanese. It turns out that while not actually my supervisor, he's the guy who has looked out for my wellbeing on a day-to-day basis, which when you're illiterate and mute, is no mean feat. He's been incredibly helpful and considerate.

Anyway, back to my the car ride from Yamagata Airport. The proficient English speaker fired questions at me. Among them was "Why did you join the JET Programme?", which I should really have seen coming and prepared for. But I hadn't, so I gave some long waffly answer which I fear sounded suspiciously like "I'm in my late twenties and I still don't know what to do with my life". And in my panic I mentioned the PhD, which I told myself I wouldn't in case it sounded conceited. (Having subsequently been asked this question many more times I now just say "I've always been interested in Japan, and I wanted to challenge myself in a new way".) First stop was City Hall, to meet the head of the Board of Education. A big cheese, and my first tentative foray into the minefield that is omiyage (Japanese gift-giving custom). I went for the whisky miniature and the Japanese-language Edinburgh guidebook, determined not to seem stingy. I bowed, shook hands, said my little Japanese spiel I'd been fretting over for the whole flight. It seemed to go alright, but that's the trouble - when you have little or no understanding of the language or culture, you have exactly zero chance of picking up on subtle cues that you're messing up. I decided I'd just assume all was going well and that someone would tell me if I did something wrong. Sure enough, this has happened a couple of times - for instance, one of the lines of my self intro apparently wasn't in formal enough language for meeting a VIP, so I was instructed to change it for the next such occasion.

This self-intro business is very important, it seems. Many times during the first few days I would be stood in front of an office full of people and instructed to introduce myself in Japanese. I now have different levels worked out, from a brief "How do you do? I'm Finlay, nice to meet you" for chance corridor encounters (this got a lot of use the day I was given the job of handing out the newsletter) to the full extended dance remix for when I'm called upon to give some kind of speech.

Oh, and the bowing thing is not just some stereotype, like Italians saying 'Mamma mia' (actually, the only Italian I know does say that). Everyone bows, all the time. Also, they have a lot more words that have to be said for certain occasions. When you come into the office, you must loudly declare it a good morning, and everyone must acknowledge this observation; when someone leaves they must apologise for their laziness, and everyone else must dismiss this apology and thank them for their sterling work. And don't even think about starting to eat or drink before the appropriate permissions have been obtained.

Alright, this post is becoming a marathon and I'm nowhere near caught up to the present yet. I'll tell you about my first evening's entertainment in Nanyo and call it a night. Once I'd been shown to my house (more on that in later posts) and allowed to change out of my suit, it was off the the onsen. This is a public hot spring which the Japanese are very fond of bathing in. This bathing takes place without any clothes. Now, luckily I was forewarned and thus forearmed: not only had my predecessor told me to expect this, but I actually had some onsen experience back in Nagano '07. Even so, floating around in an outdoor pool with three Japanese gentlemen, my conspicuously white genitals for all to see, was a rather surreal experience. Considering what all had happened since eating chips for breakfast at Keio Plaza (I think they were trying a little too hard to accommodate their Western guests), I was worried I might go into some kind of sensory overload shock.

Next we hit the sauna and despite thinking I was about to expire, I was determined not to be the first to crack, so I solemnly discussed the Bon festival (much more on that later) and how it differed from my culture's ways of remembering the dead, until someone else declared that they could take no more of the heat, at which point I darted for the cold pool.

Naked recreation over, we each put on a kind of light bathrobe and went for a meal in the same complex. Of course, the table was about a foot high (as is the table at which I'm writing this) and there were no chairs. The meal was excellent - in typical Japanese style I had perhaps eight little dishes in front of me, less that half containing food I could visually identify. I ate everything though, and delicious it was too - the sashimi (raw fish) being the highlight. All the while we drank a lot of beer. I am continually amazed at the Japanese fondness for alcohol. These people are generally smaller and lighter than me, and I was led to believe were genetically lacking in alcohol dehydrogenase. More to the point, I come from Scotland - a place only rivaled in the hard-drinking stakes by Ireland. Yet here I was getting humiliatingly outpaced. I could probably put this one down to jetlag and exhaustion, but it keeps happening.

I got home, more than a little tipsy, and set about properly investigating the contents of the house. My predecessor had left me a welcome note, a bottle of Yamagata wine, and a box of Yorkshire tea. In my bedroom (I say that, there is of course no bed but a futon) were folders full of teaching materials. Looking in the kitchen, I found bottles of Kahlua and Japanese whisky with decent amounts left in them. In the spare room was the snowboarding gear he had mentioned he was leaving, but which I had by this point forgotten about. I could have kissed him had he been around, rather than stuck in a typhoon in Okinawa. I went to bed feeling thrilled and exhilarated about my new life in Japan.

Ok, that's me covered up to wed 5th. More later.


  1. I always thought some Singaporean dude just named his Japanese restaurants Yoshinoya. Didn't know it actually originated in Japan. Silly me. Have you tried Mos Burget yet? xx

  2. According to Google Maps, my town doesn't have a Mos Burger; the nearest one is in Yonezawa which is about half an hour away. I will make a point of checking it out when I'm there.