I have the day off today, because I was at sports day all of yesterday. I shall take this opportunity to continue catching up. Thankfully, things quietened down a bit from the second week onwards, so hopefully I can actually start narrating faster than real time.
I spent my first weekend exploring my new town, on bike and on foot. I think people thought I was a bit odd to go walking in the rain at night, but it was so hot that I was relishing the rain. I took my first solo trips to the supermarket. This was quite daunting at first. The fresh foods in particular are very different to what I'm used to, with countless varieties of seafood but the humble apple nowhere to be seen. And of course, I can't read any labels. So, my first shopping trip took upwards of an hour to buy maybe seven or eight items. There are Western foods I sorely miss - I've yet to discover tortillas, bagels or muffins in any of my town's three supermarkets, but I very much like the Japanese approach to convenience food. A vast section of the supermarket is devoted to bento boxes, onigiri, yakitori, tempura and sushi. The yakitori are very greasy and probably best avoided, but the sushi is tasty and indecently cheap compared to the UK.
Because the schools were on summer holiday, I spent my working week at city hall. I had very little to do, but was expected to put in a full 8-hour day. Now, that's an easy sentence to write, but imagine the reality of that for a moment. I was in this very formal environment, surrounded by busy-looking Japanese people, with sweet FA to fill my day. I studied Japanese in the mornings, but I find you hit a wall after a couple of hours. I prepared my self intro lesson. Thankfully I had internet access at my desk (a luxury I'm lacking now that I'm at a school), but I felt that while checking email was legit, writing this blog would be a bit too cheeky.
The latter part of that week was the Bon festival, or Day of the Dead. It's a Buddhist custom where people remember their deceased ancestors, but it's not as sombre as it sounds - this remembrance appears to be achieved through eating, boozing and dancing. People come back to the bosoms of their families, so my small rural town's population swelled, as it seems to be the kind of place youngsters can't wait to get out of.
On the wednesday, my supervisor mysteriously told me "you should go out tonight". I took his advice and after a slightly terrifying jaunt through a forest teeming with wildlife (which I wasn't 100% sure wasn't venomous) I re-emerged in Akayu town to the sight of fireworks and the sound of taiko drums. I followed these cues, and found myself at a street party beside a pond with lots of floating lanterns, and one big lantern bearing the image of the recently deceased King of Pop. In a display of Louis Theroux-style outgoingness that I'm still quite proud of, I strode into the festival. I stood on my own watching the taiko and looking white for a few minutes, and then someone greeted me in very broken English, led me to the bar, and before I knew it I had a beer on the house poured for me. "In for a penny, in for a pound" I thought, and pulled up a chair beside some middle-aged guys.
My Japanese is abysmal and their English wasn't much better, so we had some fairly painful chat; explaining that someone was someone else's grandfather pushed our communication to the limit. I kept drinking beer (I think refills were free) and eating snacks, and gradually people who spoke better English were beckoned over and encouraged to act as interpreters. Now, a word about these snacks. Edamame - baby soy beans - are ubiquitous here, serving as both side salad and beer snack. I was struggling to eat the damn things, finding them bland, tough and chewy. About a week after Bon, someone explained to me that you pop the beans out and throw away the fibrous outer pod. Sure enough, this makes them a lot more palatable. You'd think someone could have demonstrated this move to me - it doesn't really require any verbal communication - but I guess watching a gaijin chew on soy bean pods was just too amusing. Or maybe they assumed I knew, and was just hardcore.
The party wound up about nine, and I strolled off in a homeward direction. At this point I discovered that the shindig by the pond was only a small satellite party; Akayu main street was closed to traffic and filled with revelers. I wandered around, watching a talented kid simultaneously sing and rollerskate, then admiring a collection of ice sculptures (remember, the temperature is comfortably in the mid 20s even at night). Once I'd seen the entertainments on offer, I once again tried the trick of standing around looking conspicuously foreign, and within minutes a drunk family had given me a drink and invited me to join them. The configuration of this group cause much confusion to me; I think I charmed them by confusing a mother and daughter for sisters (the mother jokingly told me she was 28, and being totally unable to guess the age of Asians, I believed her), but then immediately undid this smoothness by thinking her husband was her father. Apparently the daughter was Miss Yamagata, but I'm taking that with a big pinch of salt. They took me to an izakaya (Japanese style pub) where they gave me yakitori and yet more drink, and finally back to theirs for a final sake and riceball for the road.
By this time it was after 11 and I had to be in the office for half eight the next morning. While it probably is unprofessional to show up hungover at this early stage in a job, I felt that my behaviour was justified in terms of cultural exchange. Unfortunately the next morning was spent touring my various schools and meeting their teachers, and the winding mountain roads between them were not good for my churning innards. But I'm still glad I took part in Bon.