Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Call me when you're soba

Or, "Hey little sister, shotgun, shotgun" (obscure video game reference)

I'm on holiday! And as is often the case when I've just been to Kappa Sushi, I'm in high spirits. Actually, I'm glad I went today, as they have some one-week only New Year specials. The highlight of these was a single nigiri (you know you're getting something a bit special when 100yen only buys one instead of the usual twin set) with pretty much the entire leg of what must have been quite a large crab balanced precariously on top of it. As I drove home, I managed to find a radio station playing Western pop music, which is a rare enough occurrence that you feel like high-fiving someone whenever it happens. The DJ had a curious habit switching into English for whole sentences at a time, making me momentarily think I'd mastered Japanese. The song that was playing when I tuned in was Bob Sinclar's Love Generation, which will always make me think of Joy. How's it going anyway, Ms Hadden?

So, I've hung up my Santa hat, and my official duties are over for the decade. Christmas Day was a little depressing, because I had to go to work as usual. I didn't even get to go home early, drink mulled wine in the office, or anything. The only concession made to the occasion was that a few of us went out for lunch, to a soba restaurant (soba is one of the two main styles of Japanese noodle, the other being - superior in my opinion - udon). Thus, my Christmas Dinner consisted of noodles, rice and tofu.

As I ate my supermarket bento box for dinner that evening, washing it down with some imported Bowmore I treated myself to, I felt a little glum thinking about all the excitement of Christmas morning that was unfolding in my homeland. This was my first Christmas not spent in the bosom of my family. I spoke to them on Skype, and even took a virtual seat at the dinner table later in the evening. It was really nice to talk to them, but I felt quite rueful that they were clearly having more fun than me.

Thankfully, I got to have something approaching a traditional Christmas on Boxing Day. An ALT in Yonezawa, who is evidently quite handy in the kitchen, invited me and a bunch of other foreigners round for a turkey dinner. We had a gloriously lazy afternoon variously drinking, watching festive movies (I somehow managed to get The Sound of Music played all the way to the intermission), playing Wii and doing a Disney jigsaw puzzle that I had won in a raffle at yet another Christmas party. I'd forgotten the simple pleasure of a good jigsaw. When the food was finally ready (Japanese ovens are underpowered little electric affairs), it was delicious. Because our hostess was Italian-American, meatballs were a welcome addition to the more traditional festive fair.

I had to spend yesterday (monday) at City Hall, which particularly irked me because it had been marked on my schedule as a holiday. In Japan, it is customary to do lots of cleaning at this time of year, so that one starts the New Year with a tidy house. Evidently, this custom extends to the workplace on the last workday of the year, so I spent the afternoon doing things like sorting out all the paper for recycling. To be honest, it beat doing nothing. I was also given the job of putting up the 2010 year planners, because I'm the tallest person in the office.

Many of my fellow gaijin have gone home for Christmas. However, those who haven't seem determined to make the most of their brief festive break, so I don't think there's too much danger of me getting bored or lonely. I'm going drinking in the bright lights of Yamagata City tonight, and tomorrow I'm planning to go boarding at Zao again - there might even be some sunshine this time.

Also, my import copy of Bioshock finally arrived, so I'm having to fight the temptation just to spend all day curled up on the sofa (in a hat, jumper and blanket) with the PS3. First impressions of the game: I'm very impressed with how free-form the combat is, there really are many many ways to skin a cat in Bioshock. And while I remain deeply skeptical about storytelling in games (people hold up Half Life 2 as a shining example, and while I love the gameplay, the plot is about as deep as a poor-to-middling Arnie movie), Bioshock's creators seem to recognise the inherent limitations of the medium and go more for an interesting premise than a plot-driven narrative. I am however a little bit troubled by the way that the enemies keep their damage when you respawn, meaning that you can just grind your way through using persistence rather than skill.

Oops, I seem to have gone off on a tangent that will interest at most about two people who read this. Sorry!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That don't impress me mochi

Been a while, hasn't it? I've been really busy in the run-up to Xmas, as I am about to explain in detail. But today I find myself in City Hall for a whole day with nothing to do. Brace yourself, this post could be massive.

While I used to worry about looking like I was doing something important at times like this, I'm becoming more and more cocky about the kinds of clearly non-work activities I get up to. It occurred to me last night that I'm getting on for five months here, and while other people have been gallivanting all over SE Asia, I haven't ventured outside of southern Tohoku. So, I've spent the last hour and a half considering the baffling rail and air options for a trip to Sapporo. So far, I'm liking the sound of an epic 11-hour, 5-train trip including the world's longest rail tunnel.

Anyway, the most significant thing that's happened since my last update is that the legendary Yamagata winter has arrived, with all the subtlety of a tactical nuke. After teasing us with a few minor flurries early last week, it got its act together on wednesday and has been snowing more often than not ever since; even down here on the plain there is a good couple of feet on the ground. If this were Britain, the resulting disruption would have reduced the country to a state of lawless anarchy by around sunday lunchtime, but here people barely bat an eyelid. The trains continue to run, albeit with slight delays. Old people spend all day shovelling snow off their driveways. Armed with winter tyres, people happily drive on rink-like roads (more on that later). Life goes on.

So what have I actually been up to? Last sunday (13th) was my Japanese class Christmas party. Everyone was to bring food from their respective country, so I busted out one of the tins of haggis my parents (dubiously legally) brought me, and some oatcakes. While I think I lost kudos points for not actually making something myself, my contribution was undoubtedly the most alien foodstuff among all the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fair. Being tinned, it was fairly sketchy haggis, but people seemed to enjoy it anyway. Of course, I donned my kilt. Any excuse.

There were some Japanese cultural activities at the party. First up was the inevitable tea ceremony. Foolishly, I let myself end up in first place again, so all eyes were on me. Though I could see the pain in their eyes, my fellow tea-drinkers were all stubbornly staying in the seiza (kneeling) position, and I'd be damned if I was going to be the first to crack. I remained in the exquisitely uncomfortable position for the entire 20-odd minutes of the ceremony. I honestly struggled to walk when I got up.

After tea ceremony, I got my first taste of ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. As the instruction was in Japanese, I didn't really know what was going on. I tried to take a minimalist approach, but the instructor was having none of it, encouraging me to cram more and more foliage into my weird spongy block. Clearly, when it comes to ikebana, more is more. I wasn't particularly happy with the result, but when our arrangements were all lined up on display, I was pleased to see another bouquet that looked roughly as crappy as mine. When I later discovered that it was made by a five-year-old girl, I felt a little put out.

On tuesday night Marie had invited me to a Christmas party. As is de rigueur for me these days, I didn't really have any clue what form the party would take, but luckily I wore some reasonably smart clothes, since it turned out to be happening at a swanky hotel.

As we took our seats (or rather cushions on the floor), some men in ceremonial dress were furiously attacking something in a big wooden crucible with large mallets. I ascertained that they were pounding mochi, a bland, sticky, putty-like foodstuff made from ground rice, which is traditionally eaten around New Year. Being the only foreigner in the room, I was given the honour of pounding the mochi (not a euphemism) in front of all the partygoers. This is quite a physical activity; one raises the strange asymmetric mallet high above one's head, and brings it crashing down on the rubbery white blob in the manner of a fairground test-your-strength game. Confused by the aforementioned asymmetry, my first stroke embarrassingly missed, connecting instead with the rim of the mega-mortar. I don't think I did any damage. Between each stroke, a woman would lean in and fluff up the mochi ready for its next smacking. I was terrified that a timing mix-up would result in me killing the mochi-fluffer with a skull-shattering mallet blow. Thankfully that didn't happen.

The meal itself was delicious, featuring steak, an intimidating shellfish platter, and lots of mochi in various guises. While I wouldn't really recommend eating mochi on its own (it's not unpleasant, just tasteless and chewy), I would heartily endorse edamame-mochi. I avoided the natto-mochi, which is presumably sticky enough to be used as an industrial binding agent. The booze was flowing freely; at one point I had glasses of beer, red wine, sake, and whisky and soda ('whisky highballs' are a bit of a fad here, it seems) lined up in front of me. After the meal was a weird raffle, in which literally upwards of 80% of the ticket holders got a prize, leaving a small minority feeling rather cheated, I imagine. I won a Suntory T-shirt. I was also called up to cut the cake, resulting in an almost dangerous level of honour being bestowed on me for the achievement of coming from a place other than Japan.

If you are a Japanese kindergarten pupil with an exceptionally good command of English, please don't read the next two paragraphs. On friday morning I was to make the first of four kindergarten appearances as Santa Claus. This is evidently taken very seriously, as my Caucasian services were booked back in August, and on thursday afternoon I had to go along and be given a detailed briefing to ensure the whole thing went smoothly and without illusion-shattering cock-ups. This involved sneaking around like some kind of festive ninja, lest any child see me in my civilian clothes and rumble my identity.

On the morning itself, I was a little nervous. This wasn't helped by the fact that the staff kept giving me coffee while I was waiting, making me a little edgy. Also, I couldn't risk a trip to the toilet in my red felt outfit, so my bladder was weighing uncomfortably on me as I prepared to make my entrance. I think I did alright for my first time; the most painful part was an a capella rendition of Jingle Bells way too fast, because the kids were clapping at the wrong tempo. My second kindergarten appearance was on monday, and I think I did quite a lot better that time round as I'd relaxed into the role a bit more.

Friday night was the City Hall bounenkai, or end-of-year party. It seems the boozy Christmas party is a universal phenomenon, since the name translates literally as "forget the year party" We went to a very classy (not cheap, mind you) Chinese restaurant on the twelfth floor of a hotel in Yamagata City. The food was excellent; I've never really liked sweet and sour, but tasting theirs I could suddenly understand what everyone else had been going for. The portions were a bit meagre, though. Sitting there sipping weird Chinese liqueur, watching snowflakes tumbling by the window as a violinist played a Christmas medley for us, I had one of those moments where I wondered where it had all gone right.

The obligatory nijikai ("second party" was, predictably, at a karaoke bar. By this stage some of the salarymen among us were getting very drunk indeed, but I was carefully pacing myself because I had things to do the next day. It turns out the number two in my office (and ranking officer aboard that particular party) is a massive Beatles fan, so I did a little bit of brown-nosing by singing (I use that term loosely) A day in the life with him. That effort was probably my best; I overreached horribly when I selected the vocally challenging Killer Queen. At the end I tried to be topical by singing Merry Xmas (War is over), but despite all my classroom practice still got the verse totally wrong.

On saturday I was entertaining children once again, though with less deception this time. My Japanese teacher also runs English classes for primary school kids, so she was throwing a Christmas party for them, at which she asked me to help out. Since she volunteers to teach me and the other gaijin Japanese, I felt it was the least I could do in return. She requested I wear the kilt, so when I stopped off for lunch at Kappa Sushi on the way there (remember, there's a foot of snow on the ground at this point) I got some very funny looks.

I provided some activities for the party. Pass the parcel was fun, but it took a lot of preparation to wrap a tiny present in 14 layers of paper and a couple of dimension-concealing boxes, only for kids to rip it all apart. Also, despite my best efforts not to, I kept stopping the music (Girls Aloud's massively underrated 2005 Christmas bonus CD, if you're interested) on the same kid. I then taught the kids the Gay Gordons, but apparently overestimated the dancing capabilities of six-year-olds. Rotating the hold in the first part proved particularly confusing for them, and the exertion of skipping around for ten minutes necessitated an unscheduled juice break. Finally, the old chestnut of making snowflakes from repeatedly folded paper was fairly successful as a craft activity.

My karma levels riding high from this voluntary Christmas cheer spreading, I decided to take advantage of the copious snow with a trip to Zao Onsen on sunday. Whenever I tell anyone here at City Hall that I went alone, they looked shocked, as if this was the most tragic and/or eccentric thing they've ever heard. I thought about inviting someone (with a snowboard in it, my Suzuki can only take one passenger), but I actually enjoy the freedom of solo riding. Driving at a very cautious pace because of the weather, it took a little under an hour to get to the resort, which is nice.

Zao Onsen is an impressive size, at least three times as big as Cairngorm (in my mind, that's the standard unit of ski areas; the Three Valleys would be about 15Cg). It has 40 lifts, and not one of them is a poma or T-bar, which is good news for everyone's legs. Even though I went on a weekend, the queueing time was negligible. And it's just much prettier than the icy wastelands of Scotland, with many of the pistes cutting through forests. Most of the steeper slopes was closed, presumably due to avalanche risk, but it was perhaps no bad thing that I was confined to gentler inclines for my first day of the season.

I do have a couple of little niggles (that's not a word to say with a Japanese accent) with the place though. It clearly wasn't designed with boarders in mind, with many of the lifts being separated by an annoying 50m or so of flatland. And none of the chairlifts had footrests, which although sounding like a churlish complaint from someone who grew up with surface lifts, does make them substantially less comfortable for us snowboarders. The map was a little confusing, and not just because it was in Japanese. It wasn't clear where the parks were (I didn't actually succeed in finding any of the alleged three), or what exactly was downhill of what. Furthermore, the Japanese piste classification system only has three levels, as opposed to the four I'm used to. I really miss that level of detail; I feel that important distinctions exist between green, blue, red and black runs. Still, most of these things will no longer be an issue once I learn the lay of the land, and as I'm planning to buy the 10 non-consecutive day ticket (the Grover Cleveland) for a 25% saving, I'll have plenty of opportunity to. Tomorrow is a holiday (the Emperor's birthday), so I'm heading back there. With people, this time.

Driving back from Zao, I had my first scary winter driving experience. They are pretty good about clearing the roads here, but when it's snowing non-stop there's really only so much you can do. I wouldn't have said I was driving recklessly, but as I made my way down the hill I felt the back start to slide out. I've played enough racing games to know that steering into the skid is the only way to rectify such a situation, but I overcorrected and sent the car turning the other way. Right about then I decided to give up on this whole 'steering' nonsense, and just slowly but firmly pressed on the brake. I came to a stop on the wrong side of the road, perpendicular to the direction I should have been going. Fortunately the road was quiet enough that no-one even saw my mishap, though my snaking tyre-tracks should have served as a warning to other road users until the snow obscured them a few minutes later. After that, I realised that when you're driving downhill in the snow in an tiny automatic Kei-car, it really is essential to use those mysterious two manual override gears.

Well, that's a long one. Merry Christmas, everyone! And congratulations to Jude on her recent motherhood!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nihongo, Nihongo, they drink it in the Congo

(Nihongo is Japanese for 'Japanese'.)

Two posts in one day? What do I think this is, Twitter?

You see, my morale is running very high right now, and I wanted to share my good cheer with the folks back home. Could I be pushing through to the fabled Stage 3 already? Also, I would like to apologise preemptively if this post takes on a slightly hubristic tone.

I just had my last Japanese class before the lengthy winter break. Part of me is stoked that I won't have any Thursday night linguistic stress for two and a half months, but I'm also a little rueful that I will now have to either motivate myself to study or suffer some depressing Japanese atrophy, or Japatrophy. Anyway, because it was the end of the course, they sprung a grammar test on us. This was totally unexpected; normally the class is a fairly casual, speech-oriented affair, but here we were sitting at separate desks in exam conditions. Not knowing it was coming, I hadn't prepared. Thankfully however, I didn't go drinking with Marie last night for once.

I got 88%. Top of the class, bitches! Considering that everyone else has lived in Japan for a matter of years compared to my months, I feel particularly proud of this achievement. I would hasten to point out that I still can't actually speak Japanese for toffee; I just can't think fast enough to hold a conversation at this stage. I suspect that a written grammar test really plays to my strengths, as having done more than a little programming and maths in my time, I'm quite good at manipulating symbols according to rules.

During my protracted education, I think I got addicted to acing tests. To most well-adjusted people, the recognition that you were willing to jump through hoops more conscientiously than anyone else in the room would be scant cause for celebration. But to someone as lacking in self-esteem as I was for most of that time, each of those tiny but objective validations of my worth as a person was like a hit of some glorious drug.

It's been a long time since I've had that feeling. Once you get past the masters level, there are no more tests to sit (other than your viva, but that's more a surreal and terrifying initiation ritual than an actual test). I think this test-withdrawal may have been part of the reason for my PhD malaise. Looking back, I suspect I started looking for the positive feedback I craved in the wrong places, most notably in romantic relationships, with predictably disastrous consequences.

So, all of that is a very over-analysed and navel-gazing way of saying that I'm pleased I did well in my Japanese test. As if that wasn't enough, in the class tonight I also literally played Chinese whispers, by which I mean that I played the children's entropy-demonstrating communication game with two actual Chinese people. My life is complete.

The sweetest thing

I appreciate that gushing about my students could be almost as vomit-inducing as new parents bleating about the cuteness of their own offspring, but I felt the need to share this with you. Below is a very impressive piece a third-grade (15 year old) girl - who shall of course remain anonymous - wrote in her homework jotter that I was marking today. It is to a boy in her class, whose name I have blanked out, just in case some very unlikely series of events occurs to bring this post to the attention of its protagonists. I have reproduced it complete with the mistakes, which I think only make it cuter. The only context that you need to know is that they are presumably going to different high schools at the end of the school year in March.

Do you know you makes me happy?
You talk with me everyday. Are you aware that your simle makes me glad? Are you aware that your gentle?
You sure not notice. Thank you.
12 years have passed since I come across you.
But I don't know of all you. So I'll try to know about you.
The rest of the 3 month.
I and you are more good friend.
And we'll do our best to study English.
I think you are goot at English.
******. May I talk with you?


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You can stand under my a capella-ella-ella-eh

The following was written yesterday, at school. I never got round to publishing it last night. Apologies for the recycled pun.

Just a short and fairly stream-of-consciousness sort of update today, because I feel bad about not updating over the weekend. This was due to nomihodai (all you can drink)-induced catastrophic hangover on saturday, and ironing and Wipeout HD-induced apathy on sunday.

They're certainly keeping me on my toes at this school. Yesterday I was busy literally all day from 8:20 to 4:15, and then had to spend a couple of hours in the evening putting together a lesson about Christmas in Scotland. But, I find myself with a spare hour on a tuesday afternoon, so I thought it was time to squeeze out a blog. My desk is in a good stealthy position in this staffroom, and besides, I feel I've earned it.

I normally reserve workday blogging for times of extreme underemployment, doing something more productive like studying kanji at times like this. But I'm feeling a little sleepy and unfocussed right now. This is because I was awoken at five in the morning by blood trickling steadily from my nose. I'm working on the theory this haemonasal discharge was somehow triggered by the extreme chilliness of my bedroom. I can't quite bring myself to leave a heater on all night, as it seems just too wasteful, not to mention a little dangerous. But I did seriously consider sleeping with a beanie on last night. I think I will actually assess whether there is sufficient clearance under my kotatsu (under-heated table) to accommodate both my slumbering form and blood-spattered futon.

Anyway, you'll be pleased to hear that my lesson on the horrors of war went down a storm. Well, the first time I gave it, I think it was merely alright. But the teacher gave me some suggestions and, crucially, more time in the lesson when I came to do it again, and I smacked it out the park. The social studies teacher sat in on the class, presumably eager to keep an eye on the gaijin encroaching on his educational territory. He and the other teachers were very complimentary afterwards. For the record, I chickened out of mentioning Japan's war crimes, and I decided not to go any more disturbing than a low-res photo of a mass grave at Belsen.

What I hadn't bargained for was that I would then have to teach the class Happy Xmas (War is over) by singing it one line at a time and having them sing it back (like Moloko). I'm like Johnny A. Capella these days. It's quite a tricky song; on some lines I'm pretty sure SingStar would have rated me 'bad', at best. Thank the lord we didn't go with Christmas Wrapping.

The third-grade (i.e. oldest) students' English is so good here that the teachers are confident enough to pointlessly showboat by having me teach subjects other than English, in English. So yesterday I became a math (yes, that's how I have to say it) teacher, and delivered a lesson on solving simultaneous equations using the addition method. That is of course my favourite method as long as there are only two equations, after that you have to resort to Gaussian elimination really. It seemed to go reasonably well; as Cady Heron says, math is the same in every country. I feel like a full house of subjects could be on (gotta catch 'em all!), though teaching Japanese in English might be a bit of a struggle.

I'm back writing in the present now.
This morning I had to record myself reading out a story (the story of Tezuka Osamu, as it happens) as a model for a student preparing for a speech contest. Due to my long-standing hatred of hearing my own voice, I wasn't looking forward to this. But I actually surprised myself by not minding it at all. I have quite a nice voice really. I still sound way more Scottish than I do in my head, though. I was particularly taken aback to notice that I make the peculiarly Scottish distinction between the vowels in cIrcle and lUrk.

I'm taking this shedding of an old neurosis as another sign that this whole Japanese escapade is making me a less uptight and more together person. Tangentially, another example occurred to me when I was reading Charlie Brooker's column recently. I still think the man is a genius, but while I used to love his bleak, vitriolic, misanthropic worldview, it now strikes me as just a little needlessly negative.

Anyway, back to today's events. I was really struggling to come up with a activity for tomorrow's first-grade class (teaching 'me', 'him', 'her', etc.). I've been getting quite creative lately, drawing pictures for worksheets, making badges for the kids to wear for games, etc. But I was really drawing a blank on this one. Then I remembered my little sumo JavaScript that I made months ago, and had shelved after its inaugural outing was only so-so. The teacher was blown away, and beckoned over everyone else in the staffroom to have a look. I did my own bit of pointless showboating by using my phone to control it over Bluetooth (which is actually quite useful in a classroom setting, as it allows you to move around). They reacted as if I was actually magic. I love this school.

There is insufficient room to sleep under my kotatsu.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Oh, here it gyoza-gain

I'm feeling a little depressed right now. But this is only because I've spent the last half hour reading about various genocides. I'll explain why.

This week I started at school six of six. It's the smallest school in my jurisdiction, and I've taken an instant shine to it. The students there are remarkably good at English, and I quickly worked out why. The main English teacher teaches harder than anyone I've ever seen. He's not an unreasonable slavedriver or anything, he just packs an incredible amount into a lesson. It's like a datablast. (That's a nerdy reference even by my standards.) He makes extensive use of music for speaking and listening practice - today I was singing Ob-la-di, ob-la-da (btw, I'm still not sure how The Offspring got away with this) and We will rock you, and as I was saying goodbye at the end of the day, some kids started singing Hello Goodbye unprompted.

He asks a lot of his students, and also of me. I'm absolutely not complaining though. I was kept busy all day today, at no point having to crack out my kanji cards to kill some time. That almost never happens. I've been doing lots of marking, which I've rarely had to do at other schools. If any Japanese teachers of English are reading this, please get your ALT to do marking! It's great to actually feel useful, and since the students write about their lives, it helps me to feel more connected to them. I now know what bands Japanese 14-year-olds are into! Having checked them out on youtube, I'm a little worried that I'll end up on some kind of register. Seriously, what is it with Japanese people and school uniforms?

So, since Christmas is almost upon us, yuletide-themed lessons are the order of the day. The aforementioned teacher asked me what my favourite Christmas song was, so he could use it for a lesson. Clearly, it's The Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping. We decided that five minutes of rapid-fire pseudo-rapping was probably a bit too tricky for the kids, though he did consider it - that's how good they are at English. "What's your second favorite Christmas song?" he asked (he speaks American English). Fairytale of New York, I said, but quickly pulled that suggestion when I remembered some of the colourful language it features. So I finally settled on Merry Xmas (War is over). Being a big Beatles fan, he seemed to approve, and I suspect he was secretly hoping I would say that, since he immediately launched into a lesson plan idea.

He is concerned that the students are not sufficiently grateful for having safe, comfortable lives. So, for Thursday I have to come up with a five minute presentation on the horrors of war as an introduction to learning the song. This is quite a delicate task - I want to have an impact but without actually traumatising any children. Wikipedia has plenty of harrowing images, some of which I'm sure are too disturbing. I'm just not sure where the cutoff should be. Also, do I mention Japan's less-than-spotless record on the atrocities front? I feel like I should, but I'm a little scared of causing some kind of diplomatic incident. It's still quite a sensitive topic.

Wow, another of my preambles has become huge. Nonetheless, I'm going to talk about my weekend now.

I was invited to an international exchange event in Kawanishi (a nearby town which aspires to having one horse) by a very friendly Korean woman who helps out at my Japanese class. I slightly resented having to get up for nine on a saturday, but I thought it would be rude to decline. Besides, promoting international understanding is part of my job description. So I went along, and I'm glad I did. The plan was to cook food of various nationalities, and then eat it. Since all the foreigners around here - with the exception of ALTs - are Asian, it was a kind of oriental fusion affair, with Japanese, Chinese and Korean food on the menu, as well as cream cakes for dessert, which I guess are French? I joined the gyoza (Chinese dumpling) group, because I love eating the things. I think I impressed by being a man and being able to cut up cabbage at a reasonable speed. (Though I did later cut my finger peeling an apple. I blame the Japanese apple peeling method, which is to use a big knife, hold the apple in your left hand, and cut towards yourself.)

The cooking was fun, even if my dumpling folding technique was rather shaky. The feast which followed was delicious and ample. Though it was only lunchtime, I was offered beer, which I accepted. Then an unexpected musical dimension to proceedings opened up. After some Chinese one-string violin, a fairly ad-hoc but capable band took the stage. Leader of said band, a kindly middle-aged Japanese guy, had gone to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to some English songs. As one of only three English speakers in the room, I didn't see any way out of getting hauled up for a singalong. With my two fellow ALTs (one of whom is Brazilian, so isn't even a native English speaker, the poor guy), we gave an absolutely dire performance of Scarborough Fair, and an only marginally better Amazing Grace. Embarrassing.

He then started taking requests. I temporarily took leave of my senses, and commented to my table that the band would know the tune to Auld Lang Syne, since it is a popular song over here, albeit with Japanese lyrics. (These are to do with a kid being so dedicated to his schoolwork that he studies by the light of fireflies when there is no other light available, which although crazy, does explain a level of We love katamari.) Of course, my table-mates didn't miss this opportunity to force me to sing. For some reason, the band leader told me to do it a capella. So there I was with a mic, singing Auld Lang Syne unaccompanied to a room full of people of various nationalities. I'd only had one beer. I still can't really believe I did that.

Present at this event was a little girl of four or five years old, who I think was related to someone organising the event. Now, I really really don't consider myself the kind of person who would relish an opportunity to play with pre-school children. But she was, and I can't believe I'm saying this, adorable. The way everything, from eating a strawberry, to pretending to be an insect by putting your fingers up to your face like mandibles, was a source of infinite fascination and delight to her was truly beautiful to watch. I ended up playing tig with her, and having a number of tickle fights.

I know, this blog is becoming a bit "who are you, and what have you done with Finlay?".

Closing bombshell: I had whale for school lunch today.