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.

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