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.