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.