Monday, September 28, 2009

Sony happy when it rains

I've just got a PS3 and Rock Band 2. I've very happy to report no language or region problems. Blog updates may become less frequent for a while.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poor and simple

My two-day week is over! I'm pleased to say that I did something approaching an honest day's work today. You see, in my experience of being a junior high ALT, one has a lot of downtime. On an average day I might have three lessons, with essentially nothing to do for the remaining three periods. I usually study Japanese to pass the time, but there's only so much of that you can take in a day. I think I might start making a serious attempt to learn kanji - the 2000-odd Chinese characters you have to know to be literate in Japanese. I'm hoping that activity will be suitably different from my other Japanese exercises that I can switch between them when I get too bored with one or the other.

Anyway, my point is that sitting around with nothing to do is not much fun, and it's hard to shake the feeling that somehow I should be doing something and I just don't know what it is. At times like that I feel start to feel guilty about how much taxpayers' money I'm costing, but at least I'm used to that feeling from doing an esoteric (some might say useless) PhD.

But today was different. I had four lessons, was given a bunch of marking to do, and best of all was asked to plan a short activity for a lesson on monday. This is the kind of responsibility that I was afraid of at first, but am now crying out for, for the reasons above. I didn't even have enough free time to do my Japanese homework from last night's class! Unfortunately, my block schedule means that just as I'm building up a nice working relationship with an English teacher at this school, I'll be off to another one the week after next.

Doing said marking, it struck me that it's not until you start teaching English that you realise just what a complicated and nuanced language it is. Normally adjectives can either prefix a noun ('the ginger goatee') or be associated with a noun using the verb to be ('the goatee is ginger') with the same semantics either way. But consider the adjective poor, which my third-graders were having big problems with today. 'The poor man' could mean a man that has little money, or a man deserving of pity. But with 'the man is poor', the second reading mysteriously vanishes. Attach 'poor' to certain inanimate nouns and suddenly it means 'of low quality' ('a poor novel') with both the monetary and pitiful senses going out the window. Some nouns can ambiguously accommodate any of these meanings: what does 'a poor singer' mean? Try explaining all that in Japanese, when you can't speak Japanese.

The word 'poor' has lost all meaning to me.

I'm going to watch Mamma Mia now because:
  • I'm comfortable with my sexuality.
  • I'm hoping to screw up any kind of taste profile database the DVD rental shop might have. There can't be many people who rent both Crank (confusingly, titled Adorenarin in Japan) and Mamma Mia.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Okama kama kama kama kama chameleon

I'm feeling jubilant after a highly successful day's sightseeing. But first, I'll briefly cover yesterday's middling efforts.

I took the train to Yonezawa, a mere 15 min journey to the opposite end of the mountain-locked plain where my town is situated. With a population of around 90,000, it's quite a bit more urbane than Nanyo. Maybe it's just because the sun was shining, but I liked the cut of Yonezawa's jib. It has a nice river running through it, with plenty of parkland by its banks. The steep mountains to the south provide a striking backdrop. And I found an impressive moated shrine, where there was some kind of festivity going on, with lots of stalls selling yakitori, takoyaki (octopus dumplings), bananas on sticks, and so on. Alas, konnyaku was also in evidence - a local speciality which I must say I'm not very keen on. It's a bland savoury substance with a texture I can only describe as being like hard jelly. If you ever have to eat some, I recommend dousing it in mustard.

I then met up with another JET based there, and went for steak. Proper steak is hard to come by here, and not cheap. A 150g (5.4oz) Yonezawa beef steak would set you back £20 at this restaurant. Needless to say, I went a little more downmarket. It was good to eat some proper bloody red meat - I think my rice, noodle and fish diet is causing me to crave iron a bit. The steak was served with wasabi, which I would heartily recommend as a steak sauce.

Ok, onto today. This morning I met up with another first year JET from a nearby town. We took a trip to Mount Zao, the ski resort where I intend to spend an obscene amount of time this winter. An exceptionally winding road took of up to 1600m (a good bit higher than Ben Nevis), my Wagon R's engine complaining all the way. We then ascended the last 250m to the summit on foot, on the way taking in some stunning views of the Okama crater lake - an active volcano! They say the lake can be five different colours depending on the weather, making my title pun all the more apt. Today it was a deep green. We actually strayed over the border into Miyagi prefecture, so that's four down, 43 to go, prefecture fans.

After that we went to the village at the foot of the ski slopes. Yamagata generally is famed for its hot springs (onsen) but this place, being up in the mountains, seems to have a particularly high density of them. The whole village had the slightly pungent smell of sulphur, and there was steaming water running through yellow-stained gutters by the side of the road. The resort has a big outdoor onsen in a forest, but we couldn't find that so we settled for a more traditional indoor one (bathing separately, since my travelling companion lacked a Y-chromosome). It was basic: it had no showers, and appeared to unmanned, having just an honesty box for you to put your 200yen into. The water was hotter than any onsen I've been to before, and so sulpherous that it stung if you got it in your eyes. I felt has if I had to make a conscious effort not to pass out. But despite all that, it was pleasant in a funny sort of way. Though I do still smell of sulphur.

After that it was a slow trip back to Akayu in the holiday traffic, then we went to my favourite conveyor belt sushi restaurant Kappa Sushi for dinner. I was pleased to find that the sushi bullet train filled my sightseeing buddy with the same childlike delight as it did me. Finally, to kill some time before her train arrived, we went to a pachinko parlour. Pachinko is an essentially random pinball/bagatelle sort of game that is hugely popular in Japan. My town has at least three huge pachinko halls, so I've been feeling for some time that I should really give it a try, but was too scared to venture in on my own.

I feel my misgivings were justified. It is astonishingly noisy in a pachinko parlour due to the clatter of thousands of little ball bearings and the frantic bleeping of the machines that accommodate them. This place was clean and modern and friendly, but for all that still had a pretty depressing air to it: there's no escaping the fact that it's just tawdry gambling. And fairly serious gambling at that - a ball bearing costs 4yen, and some people had box after box of the things: many thousands of balls. We burned through 1000yen pretty quickly, and promptly left. I can understand (from bitter experience) how people can get hooked on poker or playing the stock market, where there is an element of skill and you can convince yourself that you can beat the odds. But when it's just blind luck, and you know the house always wins, I don't see the attraction. So I don't think there will be much more pachinko for me.

Still, best Respect for the Aged Day ever.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kelly's Heroes-shima

Don't worry, I haven't been attacked by a bear.

It's silver week! I have a five day weekend thanks to a very fortunate arrangement of Respect for the Aged Day, Autumnal Equinox day, and the rule that a single day falling between two public holidays becomes a holiday too. This in turn was made possible by the introduction in the last decade of the Happy Monday System, a holiday during which the Japanese traditionally take lots of drugs and dance with maracas.

Yesterday I went to Yamagata City, the capital of my prefecture. I'll be the first to admit that it wasn't a particularly successful day of sightseeing. I went with the vague plan of finding a big games shop that might sell imports, and buying a PS3 and Rock Band 2. Yes, having disposable income after a year of careful saving has gone to my head a little. Not only did I fail to find Rock Band, I failed to find a video game store. I'm not really sure how this happened - I wandered the streets for hours in a city of 280,000 in the homeland of Sony and Nintendo. I can only assume the games shops are tucked away in retail parks far outside the city centre.

Maybe I didn't give it a proper chance, but I'd have to say Yamagata didn't have a great deal to recommend it. According to my guidebook its number one attraction is Yamadera temple, but that's a 15min train ride away from the town, so I didn't see it. I found a reasonably nice park where there used to be a castle, but unfortunately it was destroyed 130 years ago, leaving only a series of small walls. Exhausted from the heat and the walking, I shamefully went into McDonalds for a daburu kwoutaapaundaa chiizu. When I came to Japan with Danny we must have averaged about 0.7 McDonalds trips per day, but I'm pleased to say this was my first time in any Western fast food joint in the 7+ weeks I've been here. Maybe I've been eating healthy Japanese food too long, but I didn't enjoy it at all. I found the burger greasy and the fries far too salty. I'm hoping it was just a bad McDonalds.

Today I'm going to hit Yonezawa (home of the delicious beef), and then I have some more ambitious travel plans for the rest of the week. But let me briefly talk about the week just past.

On tuesday and wednesday I helped coach a student for a speech contest after school. Though this meant I was working eight to six, I actually enjoyed it. It was at my smallest and most rural school, which I haven't yet had an official tour of duty at. The English teacher there seemed genuinely grateful for my efforts, which felt really good - when you're doing a PhD no-one thanks you for working late. He showered me with compliments for being able to write phonetic symbols on the blackboard. That one undergrad course in linguistics I did back in 2002 is really paying off in spades now. I still don't think speech contests are a good method of English instruction, but I've decided to think of them as being more like an after school drama club that happens to be in a foreign language. When I remembered that actors painstakingly memorise their lines verbatim, speech contests didn't seem like quite such an outrageous and cruel waste of time.

Thursday was 'sketch day' at my school - all classes were canceled and the students were given art supplies and told to paint pictures. I joined in, glad of the opportunity to flex my artistic muscles for the first time in years. I think we were really supposed to paint, but I just stuck with a pencil sketch - a medium I'm more comfortable in. I figured one of the perks of being a teacher is the ability to selectively ignore rules that the students have to follow.

Drawing the picture, I remembered what I used to like about art, and also why I grew to hate it and turn my back on it. It's just so much work for something that could be achieved in seconds using a camera. Still, my picture seemed to go down well with staff and students alike.

On friday I had my most emotional English lesson so far. The textbooks have a curious tendency to use rather bleak material for reading exercises. One example is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, a story about a leaf's realisation that he will die come Autumn and his eventual acceptance of his place in the cycle of Life. But at least that one has a kind of Zen quality to it; it's nothing on A mother's lullaby - the topic of friday's lesson. This is about the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and tells the story of a girl trying to comfort a young boy whose parents were killed by pretending to be his mother and singing him a lullaby. The boy dies from his injuries but the girl keeps on singing. Eventually she falls asleep and never wakes up. It's harrowing.

I felt more than a little awkward being the only Westerner in the room, though I was glad not to be American. Wisely, my co-teacher had me pretty much sit this one out. Still, I couldn't help feeling deeply guilty, and then getting defensive - 'yeah, but what about Nanjing?' I started thinking. Obviously kids should be taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it seems very strange to do this in English as opposed to history classes.

I seem to have inadvertently ended on a downer. Oh well.

(Yes, the title is incredibly weak, but it does have a contrived and obscure double tie-in to the post. I'll probably change it later.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Stop! Manners time

For reasons I'm a little unclear on, there was no school lunch today, so as is customary in this situation, we ordered in bento boxes. Thankfully the menu had photos of all the boxes on offer, so I went for the manpuku bento, a nice-looking 480yen (£3.20) number with some rice, fried noodles, breaded fish, and (slightly incongruously) chipolata sausages. When lunchtime rolled around, I was a little surprised to find that my bento was approximately twice the size of everyone else's. I whipped out my electronic dictionary to look up manpuku. It says: 'fullness' or 'repletion', and offers the phrase 'eat until one's stomach distends'. It seems I unwittingly helped to promote some negative Scottish stereotypes. Still, I ate it all, and it was good. I just felt a little sick afterwards.

Inspired by this culinary faux pas, let me review Japanese dining etiquette in a manner blatantly ripped off from this site.

Chopsticks. I'm really coming to like eating with chopsticks. In fact, my monster bento came with a spork, but I eschewed that in favour of chopsticks. Though I'd still say that the majority of foods could be eaten more easily with a knife and fork, I like that chopsticks offer a fully one-handed dining experience. This is good for disabled people, and means that everyone else can have a designated drinking hand. Japanese rice is sufficiently sticky that it's pretty easy to pick it up with them once you get the hang of it. Furthermore, the Japanese seem to understand the limitations of chopsticks, and will give you a spoon to eat anything liquidy, like curry rice. A notable exception was the time I was expected to eat sweetcorn with chopsticks, which is taking the piss in my book. B+

Don't stand your chopsticks up in your rice. Ok, I wasn't going to anyway. C

Don't point with your chopsticks. I have real trouble with this one. Admittedly, I wouldn't point at anyone with a fork, because that seems rude. But a fork is very easy to pick up and put down. Chopsticks need to be held in quite a specific grip, so once I'm holding them I like to keep them in my hand until there's a good reason to let them go. Thus, if I'm talking, and especially if I've had a few drinks, it just seems natural to incorporate them into my gestures. Anyway, what's the big deal? Having two blunt piece of wood pointed at you is way less threatening than a knife or fork. C-

Use the other end of your chopsticks to take food from a communal plate. I'm not down with this either. What if the food is saucy? Then you have to carefully hold your chopsticks midway down to avoid getting sauce all over your hand. And what if you want to put them down? Unless you do some precarious balancing you're going to get sauce on the table. This behaviour seems borne out of the kind of OCD mentality that prohibits double dipping, seemingly unaware that we possess immune systems. I'm not having it. D-

Sitting on the floor. Alright, enough with chopsticks. As I've mentioned before, I'm no fan of seiza (kneeling). But even at a fairly formal meal, one is only expected to keep this up until the first 'Kampai', when everyone relaxes and starts eating and drinking. I quite like this in a masochistic sort of way. The discomfort before the meal adds to your eventual enjoyment, a little like when you really need to pee but you deliberately hold it in for a few extra seconds once you're safely in position at the toilet. Other people do that, right? More to the point though, I like that the absence of chairs allows for a very fluid approach to seating plans; one is free to move around and talk to whomever one likes as the evening progresses. A

Slurping noodles. I have no problem with other people doing this; I don't find it disgusting. And it does appear to dramatically increase the speed with which one can put noodles away. I just find it very difficult to take part in this custom because of all my years of Western conditioning screaming at me to eat quietly. Also, when I do make the effort to deliberately slurp my noodles, I don't think I'm doing it right. I say this because I usually end up spraying droplets of noodle juice all over the table and my shirt. Maybe I need to practice in front of a mirror or something. B

Saying itadakimasu and gochisou samadeshita. The former is said before eating, like a sort of non-religious grace, and the latter is said when you finish your meal. This is alright if it's a formal meal and everyone starts at the same time, but what if it's a more asynchronous, lunchtime cafeteria sort of setting? Some people do indeed say itadakimasu to themselves, but I feel like a ponce doing this. It's like you're announcing "I'm going to eat now, 'kay?", as if anyone cares. C-

Don't pour your own drink. This sounds silly and annoying, but I support it wholeheartedly, for the simple reason that reciprocal drinks pouring provides an instant icebreaker. Combine this with the no-fixed-seats rule (see above) and you're in mingling paradise. Admittedly it does probably mean you end up drinking more than you would otherwise, because it's nigh impossible to gauge how much you've had when the top-ups are coming thick-and-fast, and when people are so keen to offer top ups, I feel duty bound to drink up to make some room for them. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. No, the reason I'm marking this down is the inevitable and lame 'giving good head' jokes that result whenever women pour beer. A-

Friday, September 11, 2009

How do you solve a problem like Katamaria?

Nobody here seems to have heard of Ghost in the Shell, which I'm very surprised at. Admittedly, I'm using the English title, because I couldn't remember Koukaku Kidoutai. Hopefully now that I've looked it up and written it down I will.

However, everyone has heard of Katamari Damacy. It gets a huge reaction when I mention it in class, and even the secretary in my office laughed when I said it and mimed pushing a huge ball around.

Also, at the risk of tempting fate, nobody has attempted to kancho me yet. And I've been wearing a kilt, which you'd think would be like a red rag to a bull, offering as it does a relatively unimpeded route to my anus.

Ok, I'm off to the big city to go for a curry and then to a European bar with local legend Yoshino-san, who I've only met briefly but have exchanged quite a few emails with. He's a huge Anglophile whose passions include Scotch whisky and the work of Julie Andrews. I think we'll get along just fine.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stop! Grammar time

It's half nine at night, and I'm shattered. But since I've had a couple of people (specifically, my granny via my mum, and Dr Mark Payne) saying they're enjoying the blog, I feel encouraged to keep it ticking over. Maybe I'll try writing shorter but more frequent posts.

Why am I shattered, I hear you ask? My reasons are fourfold:

1. I have to be in school by 08:20, and since the Japanese take punctuality very seriously, I give that quite a good error margin. When I was a PhD student I considered being in the office pre-10 a triumph. Pre-9 would warrant high-fiving anyone else in the lab who had turned up at that ungodly hour.

Reason the second: Last night I went to a judo class. My quasi-supervisor and all-round diamond geezer Hosokawa-san asked me if I was interested in trying judo, and while it's not exactly top of my 'to do' list, I figured it would be churlish not to take up some kind of martial art while I'm here. When in Rome, and all that. I spent most of the time watching from the sidelines, but I did get a brief lesson in how to fall properly. Falling and getting up repeatedly can really take it out of you. The most physically demanding part, however, was probably the respectful kneeling. I really can't kneel.

I'm fairly up for judo, but I have a couple of reservations about this class. One is the language barrier, but I guess that's not such a big problem since not that much talking is required. The real issue is that the class appeared to be entirely composed of primary school kids. For as much as martial arts are supposed to let you use someone's strength against them and all that stuff, it doesn't really seem fair to pit a hulking 87kg gaijin against an 11 year old girl. Also, they were the most exuberantly energetic kids I've ever seen. (The Japanese word would be genki, which I hear all the time, but is hard to translate into English. My textbook says 'energetic', but it kind of means 'on top form', in a gung-ho sort of way. How an ALT should be, essentially.) Anyway, I spend every day in schools, so I don't know if that's really what I want in my freetime. We shall see.

Reason san: Today I did some proper teaching, and flew solo for the first time. Now, this isn't really in my job description; I'm supposed to be an assistant teacher only. I could get all arsey about this, but I was quite pleased to be given this amount of responsibility at this early stage. My brief was to listen to the students give self-introductions they'd prepared and give them feedback. Considering they were first-years, the average student could only manage about four sentences, which is fair enough but meant I had a good twenty minutes left to fill. I whipped out a vocab game straight from my training seminar, and it went down a treat. Well, the kids were jumping around and screaming, which I'm going to take as a positive outcome.

IV: I just had my second weekly Japanese lesson. I'm in the second class (of four), so I'm not a total n00b. I think it'll be alright once I get into the swing of it, but for now it's keeping me on my toes because they keep pulling out vocab from the first class that I don't know. It's also made tricky by the fact that there is no English in the class - most of my fellow students are Chinese.

The super-kindly Marie-san recommended I join the third class, but when I showed up and failed to answer their Japanese questions they stuck me in the second one. It's just as well - I think I'd be in a world of pain in class three. I'm not sure why Marie overestimated my abilities so much - she says I have a good ear for phonetics, which I guess I do having studied some linguistics in my time. But it doesn't matter how good you are at noticing vowels becoming unvoiced between voiceless consonants if you don't actually know any grammar. Or words.

Alright, I'm going to bed. Oyasuminasai!

Monday, September 7, 2009

It's only natto-ral

Alright, let's try and get caught up. The tuesday after Bon Odori was my first time in the classroom. When meeting a class for the first time, one gives a special lesson called a jikoshoukai, or self-introduction. Since I have six schools, I'll probably give this lesson upwards of 40 times between now and Christmas. I've known about the jikoshoukai for some time, so I've put a fair amount of preparation into it. I hook my laptop up to a TV and show essentially a slideshow about Edinburgh, Inverness, Scotland, my family, my hobbies, etc. To keep things interesting I include lots of music (the Gay Gordons, Scotland the Brave on bagpipes, a bit of Theatre Fall and Radiohead) and some (mad) props. My premier prop is my kilt, which I wear throughout the lesson. This gets a big response in the classroom and staffroom alike when people see it for the first time. I'd say my second most popular prop with the students is a crappy little Nessie toy I bought in a Royal Mile tourist tat emporium for a fiver. As you can see, I'm not ashamed to milk my Scottish heritage for all it's worth.

My first self intro under-ran horribly. A period is fifty minutes, but my presentation was done in less than 25, and despite my (excellent) co-teacher's efforts to string out the quiz activity I prepared and the Q&A session at the end, we still ended up resorting to the textbooks to fill the last five minutes. But I was determined not to let this get me down; it was my first attempt and plenty had gone well, I'd just misjudged the timing. Fortunately I had no choice but to get straight back on the horse, as I was up again with a new class next period. I hastily chucked in a couple more slides in the five minutes between lessons, and generally slowed the pace down as much as I could. While the end was still a bit of a pad-a-thon, I managed to fill the whole lesson. On the whole, I felt fairly pleased with my first morning's teaching.

It is quite tricky to hold the attention of a class for that long, given that in first year at least, they have very little understanding of English. I've found giving out British pennies for answering (or asking) question is a good way to motivate the students to respond, and it breaks up the lesson a bit. And I can usually get a laugh when I explain how little the prize is worth.

The end of that week was taken up with a three-day training seminar for all the new JETs in Yamagata. This was for the most part enjoyable and useful; it was good to get some specific pointers on how to teach and what to expect in the workplace. It was tiring though. The days were long and we had dorm accommodation, which for a poor sleeper like me meant substantially less than my requisite seven hours.

Scanning the itinerary, I was filled with dread when I saw 'Video making activity' on the second afternoon. I have an almost pathological aversion to seeing myself on film. However, this turned out to be the highlight of the orientation for me. We were giving the task of making short films loosely based on some aspect of Japanese culture. Avoiding the 'drama' group like the plague, I signed up for 'food'. The organisers had a bag of Japanese foods, and from the get-go offered not to tell us what they were, so that we could use the element of surprise in the film if we so chose. We took them up on this suggestion, and decided to take the thing in a fairly silly Jackass sort of direction. We devised an obstacle course which we would tackle in two teams of two (girls vs boys), with food stations along the way. The mystery foods would have to been eaten at each checkpoint before the team progressed, with the added twist that one could not put food in one's mouth using one's own hands.

Camera rolling, I charged into the room with my teammate on my back, as the course dictated. The first checkpoint was dried squid, which my piggybacking teammate thrust enthusiastically into my mouth. This looks fearsome, but didn't taste all that bad. It was however incredibly chewy, and thus challenging to eat quickly. Next I was feeding some kind of nuts to him in a crab-crawl posture. Then, I ate a seaweed-topped rice-cracker while he held me in a wheelbarrow position - child's play (though rather dry). Pulling ahead of the girls, we were just a semi-blindfold three-legged sprint away from the final food station. Getting a bit mixed up with the protocol, he donned the blindfold, meaning that when we got there he would be the feeder and me the feedee. We arrived to find a styrofoam tub of a pungent smelling substance that looked a little like a Rice Krispie square. Alas, I was not so fortunate. It quickly dawned upon me that I had to eat natto. I should have seen it coming.

Let me explain. Natto is fermented soy beans (is anything in Japan not made of soy beans?), and is the Japanese equivalent of Marmite, i.e. an acquired taste that is either loved or hated, but seldom treated with indifference. It is notorious for being something that gaijin can't stomach. People are often impressed by my willingness to eat various forms of raw seafood, but will then say, 'Ah, but do you like natto?'. I sampled this foodstuff when I came to Japan before, and my bumbling sidekick Danny inadvertently bought some natto sushi at a convenience store. In the context of a sushi roll, I had found the stringy, smelly, mushy beans fairly unpleasant. Now I had to eat a whole tub of the stuff straight up.

My teammate, blind and tethered to my leg, scooped a big handful of the mush into my mouth. Gooey tendrils stretched from his hand back to the tub. Overcome by its yeasty stench, I gagged, spraying some natto onto the table in front of me. But the camera was rolling, and I was determined. I gulped down the foul substance and demanded more. Meanwhile the girls had caught up, and after one taste their appointed eater had thrown in the towel. Her teammate stepped into the fray, but couldn't hack it either.

With grim determination, I chomped my way through the rotten soybeans that were fed to me. It was all over my face, in my beard. Finally, I guided my partner's hand to the gobs of natto I had previously spat onto the table, and once I put those away, we triumphantly high-fived.

When the videos were played back that night, I got a round of applause for my efforts. You see, I wouldn't consider myself to be an especially introverted person these days, but the kind of people who get accepted to JET tend to be fairly gregarious. Among these big personalities, I had felt like I was fading into the background at the orientation. But thanks to natto, I'd become a legend. I'd like to think my soybean gluttony symbolises my open-minded and flexible attitude to adjusting to a new culture, but it probably just reflects my fondness for dumb food challenges. I am, after all, a man who has eaten 51 chicken nuggets of an evening.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mr Loverman... shabu!

I haven't quite caught up to the present yet, but I feel like writing about what I did last night. I went to a swanky izakaya with some of my colleagues, and we had shabu-shabu. At the risk of sounding like an uncultured rube, I'd never had this before, and it made quite an impression on me. Let me explain how this fairly complicated mode of dining works.

In the middle of your low table is a bubbling cauldron of water, with what I think was some seaweed thrown in for flavour. You are supplied with various vegetables and the like to cook in the pot: carrot, onion, shiitake mushrooms, tofu, and so on. You get special massive chopsticks for this task. These things are put in to boil away for a while, and then whenever you feel like it you dip in with your chopsticks and fish out something which you then dip in some soy-based sauce and eat. The tofu, being mushy, requires a skillful touch.

But the veggies are just a side show to the meat. We had thin slices of Yonezawa beef, a local delicacy that is apparently famous throughout Japan. You dip a slice in the boiling water, swish it around a bit ('shabu-shabu' is onomatopoeia for the sound this makes), and then pull it out after maybe 20 seconds. This is dipped in a creamy sesame sauce and eaten immediately. I cannot describe how delicious this was; it was literally the best beef I have ever tasted. Japanese for delicious is oishii, but it's a word that gets bandied around a lot: whenever someone gives me some weird Japanese food to try, they eagerly ask 'oishii desuka?' ('is it delicious?'), and to be polite, if it's even vaguely palatable I'll say, 'hai, oishii desu' ('yes it is'). Now, this devaluation left me nowhere to go to describe this incredible beef: 'totemo ois
hii' ('very delicious') didn't really cover it. So I just made lots of 'mmm' noises and eagerly took another slice.

There were other treats accompanying the shabu-shabu, including eel and beef-liver yakitori (I think yakitori only actually refers to chicken, but whatever, it was grilled meat on sticks). But most notable was the beef sashimi. That's right, little slices of raw beef (I think - I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it was equine rather than bovine in nature). I was initially taken aback at this development, but I manned up and had some. It's eaten just like its marine counterpart, i.e. with wasabi and soy sauce. It's actually really nice, with a tender, melt-in-the-mouth kind of texture. However, today my digestive system seems to have taken a minor dislike to something, and I'm treating this as the prime suspect.

Eventually, udon (think Japanese noodles) was (were? I'm not sure whether noodles are a count or mass noun, and Japanese cheekily sidesteps the issue by not having plurals) put in the pot, and once this were served up, the meal was concluded. All the while we had been knocking back beer like there was no tomorrow - we had nomihodai, or all-you-can-drink for a certain period of time. This, I'm learning, is quite a popular way of doing things in Japan. I'm still struggling to get my head around this concept; people would literally die if we had this setup in the UK.

Next stop was karaoke. Everyone was keen that I sing a Michael Jackson song (again), but I manage to talk them round to the Beatles. Perhaps unwisely, I went for 'I am the walrus'. I was terrible, but for some reason my companions demanded an instant encore.

The karaoke bar also appeared to be operating on an all-you-can-drink basis, with endless refills of shochu (like vodka, but weaker) being the order of the day. These refills were administered by provocatively dressed flirty female waitresses. I quickly realised we were in some kind of hostess bar. My town has an almost unbelievable number of these 'sunakku baa's (snack bars), as they are euphemistically called, but this was my first time inside one. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable, and I was glad I didn't speak enough Japanese for it to be worth the hostesses' effort to talk to me. This didn't stop them from trying some non-verbal flirting by getting all up in my personal space. Depressing.

After that, we went for some ramen, which I think is the Japanese equivalent of an end-of-night donner kebab. After the shabu-shabu I wasn't even slightly hungry, so I left most of mine. And then for some reason, we went for more drinks at a fourth place. By the time we left there, my colleagues were properly mashed, and in full-on "I love you, man" mode. At this stage, a remarkable level of touchy-feeliness emerged, with man-hugs a plenty.

I've just about shaken off my hangover now, and not a moment too soon - I'm about to head off to some mysterious party in the middle of nowhere with other ALTs. Bye!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ouen, ouen, will I be famous?

In my third week here I started going to one of my schools (I won't identify it or its staff by name, although if someone really cared I'm sure they could deduce the information). Let me explain my situation. I will teach at six junior high (12-15 year old) schools. Somewhat unusually, none of these is my base school; I am officially based at city hall, though I only spend one afternoon a week there. Also a little unusually, I have a block schedule, meaning that I spend two or three weeks at a time at each school, so a full rotation takes around four months. There are pros and cons to this setup: I'm never really going to feel at home anywhere, but the frequent changes should keep things fresh. I like to think of myself as a educational ronin.

I was immediately struck by a number of differences between the Japanese school environment and that which I grew up in. Since I have only experienced one school, I'm not sure how universal these points are, but anyway:
  • The students stay put and the teachers move between classrooms.
  • For students, the staffroom is not the forbidden sanctum that it is in the UK. In fact, students are always floating in and out, though they do have to ask permission to enter at the door. This setup makes a little more sense when one considers that the teachers do not have classrooms, so the students must come to the staffroom if they need to talk to them.
  • The dress-code for teachers is very casual. Everyone pretty much wears sportswear, which initially caused me to erroneously conclude that everyone was a PE teacher. It's like being in a school run by Goldie Lookin Chain. I think it's because it's hot here (the classrooms appear not to be air conditioned; the staffroom thankfully is), and the teachers often join in with the student's sporting activities.
  • The students clean the school every day. At first this idea made me feel deeply uncomfortable, since it seemed pretty close to being child labour. But actually, since there are several hundred of them, their many hands make light work. So really it's just 15 minutes of holding a broom or a duster and chatting to your mates. The other day I found a bunch of kids playing baseball with a broom and a ball of sellotape in the music room. They didn't stop when I appeared, cementing my status as not a real teacher. Which I'm fine with.
  • The students pretty much live at school. They are there at half eight, and although the school day officially ends around four, it seems very few actually go home then. Instead, they participate in various after school clubs which seem to go on until six or later. There are clubs at the weekend too. Thus, the teachers seem to work crazy hours. Fortunately, not being a real teacher, I am allowed to approximate a 40-hour week. I do feel like a bit of a jerk leaving before everyone else though.
  • The students seem to spend a staggering amount of time doing various character-building exercises rather than actually learning anything. To my Western value system, this is the hardest part to stomach. For example, twice now the school has spent the first period weeding the playing field. Eager to show that I was willing to (literally) get my hands dirty, I joined in, once I figured out what the hell was going on. I'm no horticulture expert, but giving kids little trowels and telling them to dig up plants does not seem like an effective method of weed control. Either use weedkiller or live with a weedy field, I would have thought. I suspect it's purpose is actually to teach some lesson in community spirit, or something. I was very pleased to notice that the kids would just sit in circles chatting, occasionally making ineffectual weeding motions. However, this pales in comparison to the hours they spend practicing ouen - more on that below.
Term hadn't really started up properly for my first week there, so I did no teaching. Thus, more exhausting attempting to look busy all day. I'm not being sarcastic; I would say that looking professional with nothing to do is substantially harder than actually working. My only educational duty was to help some students prepare for an English speaking contest after school. I realise this post is getting close to breaking my no-negativity rule, so I'll just say this: I'm not convinced that drilling students to memorise the exact pronunciation and intonation of a piece of text is the most beneficial way to promote English proficiency. But speech contests are commonplace in Japan and thus are a part of most JETs lives. An added difficulty is that they have been taught American English, so my Scottish vowels were causing all kinds of havoc.

The highlight of my first week was the opening ceremony. Boy, do the Japanese love a ceremony. This was an exception to the sportswear rule, so all the teachers were wearing suits. Though of course no outdoor shoes are allowed anywhere inside the building, so even very serious people were wearing white trainers. It was now more like being at a school run by Run-DMC. I was somewhat bricking it, as I had to get up in front of everyone and introduce myself in Japanese, and I felt I should retool and extend my speech a little bit for the occasion. I muddled my way through, and at the end I was asked some questions, including - I thought - "Are you a singer?". "No, unfortunately not," I replied, to confused looks. I then deduced that that the question had been "Are you single?", with the classic Japanese l/r difficulty. Which is a pretty weird question to ask in the situation anyway, now I come to think about it.

My self-intro over, it was the students' turn to welcome me. They all produced red headbands which they tied around their heads, and proceeded to do a kind of mass synchronised cheer/chant/dance that was approximately two-thirds Maori Haka and one-third Vogue-ing. They were led by a spirited boy at the front, who was standing on a table, bellowing at the top of his lungs, and waving his arms wildly. Another kid was at the side was keeping time by pounding a taiko drum. It was a surreal and oddly gratifying sight to see 300+ Japanese schoolkids chanting in my honour.

This ritual is called ouen, which according to my dictionary means support or boost. I have since seen the effort that goes into this display. The school usually splits into four houses, each with a different coloured headband and their own leader and drummer. Hours are spent ensuring that their vocal and physical synchrony is perfect. Towards this end, some older kids are appointed as spotters, and prowl around correcting anyone who is, say, not leaning back far enough. Thinking back to social psych, I was cringing inwardly. Arbitrarily assigning kids into groups and giving some power over others? What could possibly go wrong?

However, I feel it is very important to remain Zen. As much as the Japanese way might frustrate me at times like this, I should strive to keep an open mind, and not dismiss things just because they are different to what I have been brought up to accept. "Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it", as my man Lao Tzu said. Anyway, now that I'm actually teaching, things are a lot more fun, but that will have to wait for another post because this has become an epic.