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!