Friday, December 17, 2010

Just like the prodigal son I've returned

That's right, for the next couple of weeks the title of this blog is rather misleading, as I'm back in sukottorando. I arrived in Edinburgh late last night after an epic 24-hour journey involving a car, a bullet train, a conventional train (on which I befriended some eight-year-old boys, letting them play Angry Birds on my Archos), two planes, a bus, and a chilly but nostalgic walk. Thankfully, Edinburgh largely dodged the recent snowfall, so the only hitches were waiting for 45 minutes in Amsterdam while our plane was de-iced, and me upending an entire glass of water into my lap during the subsequent flight. I'm still pretty jetlagged, so apologies if this is a little unfocused.

From tonight I have a hectic social schedule, so I'm taking it easy today. I just went for a long stroll around all my old stomping grounds. It's a very strange feeling being back. On the one hand, it's like I never left. But it also feels very unreal; for the last 16 months Edinburgh has only existed for me as a place inside my mind, so it feels a bit like I'm walking around in a dream. Maybe that's the jetlag talking. I'm expecting Leo DiCaprio to show up with a spinning top that doesn't make any sense.

Anyway, I had a successful jaunt, opening my foreign foods account with a falafel and hummus wrap from my Mediterranean take-away of choice on George IV Bridge, which I ate by the castle. I washed that down with some much-missed ginger beer, and then managed to bag some re-usable chemical hand warmers. I happened to mention these in a conversation with Marie, and she reacted as if I'd just casually referred to my teleportation device: grilling me with skeptical questions about how such a thing could possibly work. While hokkairo are commonplace in Japan, it seems they only have the single-use disposable ones for some reason.

A few things have struck me about re-entering my culture. I should remind you that I've come from a rural town of 34,000 to a cosmopolitan capital city of 478,000, so as an experiment comparing Japan and the UK, this is pretty badly confounded.
  • First, something that just about everyone in my position says: everyone around you speaking a foreign language is a good thing. When you can actually understand the conversations of random people in the street, you realise that 90% of what they're saying is at best inane and at worst actively annoying.
  • I'm having to make a very conscious effort not to speak Japanese in shops. It's only a matter of time until I slip up and confuse a barman or something with an "arigatou gozaimasu".
  • Things are a lot more multicultural here. I've seen a lot more races and heard a lot more different languages on the streets of Edinburgh than in Yamagata. In fact, the high proportion of East Asians is helping to smooth the transition for me a little.
  • I'm sorry to say it, but Edinburgh is just dirtier than Japan. The streets are strewn with litter and dog turds, and I had to dodge several "pavement pizzas". It's not even the weekend yet!
  • There are a lot of young, attractive student types around here (I'm staying in Newington). Nanyo really lacks a compelling reason for people to stick around past their eighteenth birthday.
  • Beggars. I've already had to turn down several requests for spare change (very nearly saying "sumimasen"), which never, ever happens in Nanyo or Yonezawa, and you don't even see much of in the big Japanese cities.
Alright, I'm off to try and insinuate myself into a neuroinformatics Christmas party.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I'm always touched by your presents (rein)deer

I'm sitting in a brand new staffroom that smells of paint and optimism. For the last two days my current school has been relocating from the crappy old post-war building it previously occupied to a spiffy new one on the same site. Presumably there will be an exciting demolition in the not-too-distant future.

Although on a more modest scale, the place is uncannily similar to Edinburgh's new Informatics Forum. The world over, it seems generations to come will be able to instantly identify buildings erected in the early part of the 21st century by their ostentatious multi-floor atria spanned by weird bridge-corridors, their copious exposed wood, and their colour scheme of mostly white walls with the occasional deep fuchsia or electric lime stairwell.

It's all very flashy and modern. There seem to be plasma screens bolted into the ceiling all over the place. One of these in reception is proudly announcing how many kilowatts the solar panels on the roof are generating, which I can't look at without wondering what percentage of that output is being spent on advertising the fact. On the walls are boxes with antennae that look just like wifi routers. I got all excited about the possibility of unfettered internet access at school, but I've just been told that they are in fact some kind of weird building-wide voice communication system. Denied.

Most of the big stuff has been moved now, so I've decided that my lifting services aren't really required anymore. Coordinating 340 kids to move the entire contents of a school is a tough logistical problem, like a really hard and tedious level of Pikmin, but with tracksuited Japanese teenagers instead of flower-headed imps. Because the second- and third-graders still have the tracksuits from their pre-merge schools, there are in fact two easily distinguished tribes. I'm curious as to whether the ones in blue can survive indefinitely underwater. I did wonder whether a bucket-brigade approach would be more efficient; we certainly had the manpower for it. However, we'd probably end up forgetting Susie-chan. (I think that reference, to a removal firm advert that aired on Grampian TV about 15 years ago, is comfortably the most obscure one ever to appear on this blog.)

The move has been a fun opportunity to hang out and chat to students. I just had a very confusing trilingual conversation involving a poor kid who recently moved here from China and appears to be worse at Japanese than I am. Fortunately, another student, who I know relatively well as I've coached her for speech contest, turns out to be Chinese too - I had no idea - and was acting as interpreter.

The other thing I've been doing this week is appearing at kindergartens as Santa Claus. The inherent deception in this task stresses me out a little. I know they're only little kids, but I'm clearly quite a bit younger than most depictions of Saint Nick. Having said that, I have pretty big problems judging Japanese people's ages, so maybe the same thing works in reverse. However, surely even the three-year-olds are sharp enough to detect that my beard is not the real thing, but in fact a crude facsimile made of felt and held on with string.

On these visits I am accompanied by a little helper in the shape of my supervisor from City Hall. He's there to translate, although I'm much more able to field the kids' questions on my own than I was this time last year. (Weirdest question so far: "What kind of (eye) glasses do you like best?") Yesterday, the kindergarten supplied a Rudolph costume for him to wear, which never stopped being hilarious for me. He initially put it on backwards, and the resulting positioning of the tail caused me to momentarily think it was an unusually anatomically accurate reindeer likeness.

As ever, I am surprised at just how adorable I find the children. They always perform a little song as their present to Santa, and now that I can actually understand some of what they are singing, it's almost unbearably sweet. Before anyone suggests it, I'm not getting broody (does that word even apply to men?). Chimpanzees are cute too, but I wouldn't want to share a house with one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Make way for the S-O-V

You know, because Japanese is a subject-object-verb language?

I'm not quite out of the woods of my hectic December yet, but the worst of it is over so I have time for a quick post.

Sunday was the day of my Japanese exam (JLPT level N4, detail fans), taking place on a university campus in Sendai. Having paid 6 kiloyen for the privilege of taking the test, I was anxious not to be late. I set off bright and early, and paid a further 700 small ones to drive through rather than over Tohoku's mountainous spine. Consequently, I arrived with over an hour to spare, which I spent shooting the breeze with other Yamagata ALTs who were waiting in the winter sunshine.

When the time came we shuffled into the exam hall and took our assigned seats. Intimidating formality is something the Japanese have a real flair for; prior to the test starting we had to sit in tense silence broken only by the invigilator (who had a somewhat Gestapo-esque armband identifying him as such) repeatedly reminded us (in Japanese, naturally) to turn off our phones and have nothing on our desks other than pencils, erasers, and our ID voucher. There was a yellow / red card system to deal with breaches of this protocol - some poor chump got booked for prematurely opening his question paper. Needless to say, this oppressive atmosphere was doing nothing to help my focus.

First up was the vocab paper, a rapid-fire barrage of 35 multiple choice questions in 30 minutes. The first couple of sections were concerned with kanji (i.e. the hard writing system, with the semantic as opposed to phonetic characters). My kanji is pretty strong if I say so myself, so I breezed through them with minimal problems.

The latter half of the paper hit me like a breeze-block on the shinkansen line. It was testing recognition of words written phonetically, as they are in books aimed at young children (and, of course, in the entire English language). Japanese is a language with a very high degree of homophony - searching for the phonetic word kou yields 42 exact matches in my dictionary, ranging from the obvious 'high', to the moderate 'to love romantically', to the challenging 'stork' and the Call My Bluff-level obscure 'hundred nonillion (10^32)'. Searching my mental lexicon's many-to-many mapping between phonetics and meaning was something that I found very difficult to do quickly, which is why I still struggle with conversations. Also, since I was in the unusual situation of taking an exam for no reason other than my own satisfaction, I decided that there was no point in tactically studying specifically to pass the test. I think vocab is the place where this policy caused me most problems. I ended up making a lot of educated guesses, and quite a few uneducated ones.

Everyone else seemed to be surprised at the difficulty of the first paper, which made me feel a bit better. Thanks to my kanji performance I reckoned all was still to play for. Next up was grammar and reading, for which we had a more generous 60 minutes. Grammar went reasonably well; I was confident about most questions and on the rest I could typically at least narrow it down to a 50/50 shot. The reading went swimmingly. You know when you're playing Rock Band and you get into that almost mystical state when you're hitting all the notes but you don't quite understand how? It was like that. I found myself actually skimming through the passages, rather than having to laboriously decrypt every word.

The third and last part was listening. This is the one I was most worried about; you only get to hear each clip once, so mental focus is key. I downed a bottle of the slightly dangerous looking stimulant tincture you can buy in convenience stores, and headed in for the final round.

The first couple of sections were a lot easier than I expected, with only a couple of questions causing me any trouble at all. In those cases, I found it was best to just whack down a guess and forget about it, in order to devote one's full attention to the next question. For the last section, the question book was blank, as both the questions and potential answers were in the spoken medium. This was tough, and the wheels started to fall off my bid a little at this stage, but I figured I'd racked up enough marks by that point to pass anyway.

So, on the whole, I reckon it's in the bag. I'll find out in February.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

He ain't heavy, he's my blubber

(I really thought I'd be able to do better than that, but all I could think of were artists, not songs: Bob Marley and the Whalers, Freddie Mercury, Baleen-da Carlisle, Moby (Dick)...)

Like an interplanetary probe, I think I have slingshotted around my gloom and am in a really good mood today. (No, it wasn't bipolar disorder that I was fretting about having.) However, I am still feeling very ponderous. Today I have been mostly pondering whale meat.

Now, I realise that this it getting into somewhat political territory, and I've made a strenuous effort to avoid that on this blog. But the whole whale thing is an issue that most gaijin here will be confronted with at some point, so I reckon it's legitimate to discuss it as a part of my culture-clash experiences.

After my whale lunch of yesterday, I got into a phone-email discussion with a friend of mine who reckoned that the stuff was poisonous. Of course it's not, I scoffed, they wouldn't serve it to kids if it was. To my enduring shame, I assumed that she was just being a stupid hippie, and that my PhD in science automatically trumped her English lit degree when it came to matters of marine mammal toxicity. I reasoned (and I use that word loosely) that most health scares turn out to be the inventions of scoundrels pushing political / ideological agendas and/or trying to sell news media: the MMR vaccine brouhaha, the BSE/CJD kerfuffle, the entire organic movement in general and its especially repugnant anti-GM sect in particular, take your pick. Since many people object to whaling on ethical grounds, I assumed this was more of the same.

But you know what they say about assumptions, and it turned out I'd just bought some prime real estate in Wrongville. She stuck to her guns and insisted that whale meat contains dangerous levels of mercury, such that the pregnant or breastfeeding probably shouldn't touch it with a bargepole and everyone else would do well to seriously restrict their intake. A quick look on the internet reveals that she's right: whale meat on sale in Japan does indeed contain very high levels of mercury relative to international standards, and samples from people who eat it regularly contain substantially more than those from people who don't. Of course, everything including water is poisonous if you ingest it in sufficient quantity, so one should always be skeptical of people labelling anything 'poisonous'. Nevertheless, it seems that very low concentrations of mercury can be bad news (particularly during development, be that pre- or post-natal), and there's not really any amount of mercury that could be said to be good for you.

Obviously, one plate of kujira isn't going to kill anyone. If an adult, knowing the risks, wants to eat it then that's fine by me; after all, we allow people to skydive, have unprotected sex, and poison themselves with certain arbitrarily selected drugs, and I wouldn't have it any other way. (It's just become my ambition to do all three simultaneously.) But it does seem rather dubious to give it to children who:
  • are still developing and are thus more vulnerable to mercury's effects.
  • aren't old enough to understand the dangers.
  • even if they do understand the dangers, would find it difficult to avoid eating the stuff. In a way that is very surprising to a Westerner, everyone is served up the same meal and everyone eats it, with no-one whining about allergies, ethical scruples or religious taboos. Furthermore, the kids are encouraged not to waste food - I've even seen the waste being weighed and used as the basis for a kind of demerit system for the class.
So why do they do it? Well, according to the Japan Times (if you only click one link, make it that one), Nippon is sitting on a huge whale meat stockpile; it seems demand has collapsed recently, possibly because it's poisonous. So the producers of the stuff have started flogging it to cash-strapped schools at a steep discount.

So, there you have it. I'm amused to think that if Greenpeace et al really want to stop people from hunting whales, they should start dumping more mercury into the Pacific.

Alright, I can't resist foolishly sticking my oar into the question of whether it's morally acceptable to eat the stuff, which I've diligently avoided doing thus far. As with so many issues, I'm inclined to take South Park's position on this one, which that it doesn't make a great deal of sense for anyone who eats beef to be spluttering with rage at the thought of slaughtering whales, and that perhaps there is a whiff of xenophobia / racism about their position. I can just about buy that whales are probably more sentient than cows (although good luck to anyone trying to prove that in a rigorous way), and if you choose to draw your own personal line in the sand to include one and exclude the other, then that's fair enough. But you can't then claim that people who've come to a slightly different conclusion are barbaric monsters. It seems to me that it would be just as rational, if not more so, to draw the line at eating mammals. I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for the oft-mocked pescetarians. When I went through a memorably insane four-day vegetarian phase in 2005, I decided to draw the line at vertebrates, which is, evolutionarily speaking, probably the most sensible subdivision that could be made of the animal kingdom.

The reason I gave up on that was that I figured that it's probably worse to keep a chicken locked up all its life to harvest its eggs than it is to swiftly dispatch it, so by using the slippery slope argument on myself, I'd have to become some kind of weird prawn-eating vegan, and that was just silly, ergo, doner kebabs all round! What I'm saying is, only vegans and people who'll eat any non-human life-form can make any kind of claim to logical consistency, and everyone else should just do what they think is right and not be judgemental about it. But go easy on the whale, for you own sake.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Still alive

Konnichiwa, bitches! Well, it's been an interesting week for school lunches. Yesterday we had a historical lunch: a spartan offering a plain rice ball, seaweed salad, and a very salty cured fish, which was apparently a typical dish of the Meiji Era. Not sure I'd want it every day, but it was a nice change of pace. Then today the kujira (whale) surfaced once again. It's only wednesday; by friday we could be eating acorns or the concept of pity or something.

I know it's been almost a month since my last update. At first there just wasn't much going on to blog about (having said that, the bike ride was a resounding success; the highlight was seeing a graveyard full of monkeys). Then I got a bit busy with seminars and Thanksgiving dinners and the like, and then I got stressed out about having to give a ten minute speech in Japanese next week. Then for the last few days I have been in a truly weird mood, brought on by at least some of the following:
  • The aforementioned speech. It's been a while since I've had to just grit my teeth and spend hours toiling through a task that I really didn't want to do, such as attempting to write an interesting and engaging bit of oratory in a language at which my level is low-intermediate at best. It put me in a really foul mood. I started writing a blog post whilst in that mood, but luckily had the sense to 86 that one before letting it see the light of day.
  • I've had a cold, and the associated nasal blockage made it difficult for me to get a good night's sleep. Insomnia always seems to coincide with my episodes of gloomy soul-searching, but I'm not sure which is the cause and which is the effect.
  • Culture shock? I feel that at t=16 months, this rationalisation for my mood swings is wearing a bit thin.
  • The existential angst of being 28 and still not really knowing what you're doing with your life. I believe this is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis, in which case I'm either hitting it a bit late or I'm going to live to 112.

Or maybe I just had the blues. Anyway, I spent several days pondering the question of whether I have a certain mental disorder - can you guess which? - I think I've pretty much pulled out of this funk now, and while I'm not 100% convinced that I don't have it, I've decided that it doesn't really make any difference to anything so the point is moot.

So, this is really just a placeholder post to say that everything's cool and that normal, less emo, blog service will resume shortly. Although it might actually be a while, since between now and getting on the plane in a fortnight my schedule is looking pretty packed, what with the speech, my Japanese exam, three Santa Claus appearances, a kids Christmas party, and all the usual midweek drinking. Well, it is December after all!*

* This would be a joke in Japanese, albeit a lame and predictable one. The months are simply called 'one month', 'two month', etc. But they also have archaic traditional names that are a little more poetic, of which December's is shiwasu, meaning 'teachers running'. This is because at this time of year even the usually serene priests (who I guess were teachers of a sort in those days) run around taking care of all the end-of-year religious rites. I believe I have got in before anyone else by making this gag on Dec 1st. I'm the king!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dancing in the disco, bunka to bunka

(Are the Sultans of Ping FC a bit obscure? Perhaps. But if there was any justice in the world Where's me jumper? would be a lot better known.)

Alright, let's bash out a post to flush the unsavoury image of my pasty buttocks off the front page.

I had a day off today, and I spent it quite productively. I took the car to the garage to get the tyres changed for winter, which necessitated cleaning out a whole summer's worth of empty Pocari Sweat bottles and ice coffee cans. I then finalised the route for the 70km bike ride myself and a bunch of other ALTs are going on tomorrow, and labouriously programmed the 34 waypoints into the Archos. Then food shopping, then ironing (lord of the weekend, Graham), then a spot of light tidying to bring my house up to the level of 'shithole'. I uncharacteristically cooked dinner, and now I'm blogging. All day I have resisted the temptation to play either Dead Rising or Super Crate Box, the latter being a dangerously addictive old-school arcade platformer (it's free, check it out). Not bad, huh?

The reason I had today off is that wednesday was Bunka no hi (Culture Day), a public holiday during which I was at a school culture festival. The school I was at this time last year just went for a straightforward chorus competition, but my current school is a bit more gung-ho about everything, so they put on a two day cultural spectacular.

The first day, we got to choose one of 16 cultural activities to try our hand at, which we would then demonstrate in front of the school. The curious thing about this is that they couldn't be anything too mainstream, like judo or taiko drumming, because there are after school clubs for those things already. So here is what a list of 16 second-string Japanese cultural pursuits looks like, in order of ascending weirdness:
  • Karate. When a Westerner thinks of Japanese martial arts, this is probably the first one that springs to mind. But for some reason it isn't taught at school. I think maybe it's not seen as being quite as noble as the ones that end in -dou, which means 'way': juudou (judo) is the 'gentle way', kendou (kendo) is the way of the sword, and kyuudou is the way of the bow. Or maybe karate is just less suited to competition, I'm not sure.
  • Baking cookies. I'm not sure how this slipped in, since it's basically just home ec. If my kanji skills are to be trusted, I think their angle was that the cookies were made using local produce. Weak.
  • Making decorative lamps. And this is just craft and design! These two were on the end of the list, leading me to believe that some making up the numbers was going on.
  • Patchwork quilt making.
  • Pastel painting.
  • Tanka. This is a 31-syllable poetry format, and it seems not to have caught on in the way its 17-syllable cousin has. It's perhaps the Nicola Roberts to haiku's Cheryl Cole.
  • Chigirigami. Japanese collage, made by both cutting and tearing paper to create different textures.
  • Social dancing. Some Western influence here; it looked to be fairly upbeat but chaste sort of ballroom dancing.
  • Tea ceremony (sadou - way of the tea. Seriously!). I still consider tea ceremony to be deeply weird, but it's a weirdness that I've become accustomed to, like toilet slippers or not having central heating. So I'm going mid-table with it.
  • Korean language lessons. Korea is en vogue in Japan (I mean the South, obviously). Korean food, Korean TV dramas, and K-pop are all pretty big. They even have a word - kanryuu - to refer to the influx of Korean pop culture into Japan. But as an English teacher, I'm not entirely happy with this activity. If they want to talk to Koreans, they should concentrate on learning English - by all accounts the levels of English in S. Korea put Japan to shame.
  • Sign language. The kids 'sang' a song in sign language, which seemed like an odd thing to do, since the set of people who can enjoy both the music and the lyrics will be very small indeed.
  • Christmas wreath making. This is weird only because it's the start of November.
  • Collaborative giant kite-making.
  • Hip-hop dancing. As I've observed a couple of times, hip-hop dancing is strangely popular here. Sadly, it seems to be more 'urban' street dancing than honest-to-goodness backspins, six-step, popping and locking breakdancing. I was astonished that one of my fellow teachers had such supafly moves, but I think he went too ambitious with his choreography as most of the kids seemed to have no idea what to do.
  • Hyakuninisshu. (literally: 100 people, one poem) This is a fast-reactions card game where someone chants a poem, and you must slap your hand down on the card representing that poem. It's a bit like snap, in the same way that a Ferrari is a bit like my Wagon R.
  • Tree protecting. Around this time of year, everyone erects plank-and-rope structures over their ornate trees and bushes to protect them from the weight of the forthcoming snow. This is all very well, but I never really considered it a cultural activity.
I chose karate, figuring that something physical would present the fewest language problems. The class consisted of an intimidating sensei, 20-odd boys, one girl, and me. Of course, I ended up partnered with the girl. Thrusting one's fist towards the face of a 14 year old girl goes against all one's instincts as a teacher, and indeed as a decent human being. It actually turned out that she was the only student with any prior karate experience, and thus was the star pupil and capable of evading my moves with ease.

It was kind of fun - there is something satisfying about punching the air and grunting - but I don't think martial arts are for me. Like so much in Japan, they are all about protocol and rules, which isn't really what I look for in a leisure activity. I really like that I've had a grand total of two snowboard lessons, and just figured the rest out for myself, having a lot of fun in the process; there isn't really a wrong way to snowboard. There are most definitely many wrong ways to do karate, judo, or kendo.

In the afternoon I got to witness an impressive example of the Japanese obsession with manufacturing spurious harmony and consensus, as all 350-odd students were assembled in the gym to collaboratively compose a new ouen chant. The first line ended up being 'Akachuu damashii!', the first word being a contraction of the school's name and damashii meaning soul or spirit, as in Katamari Damashii (lit. 'clump spirit'), to give the game its proper Japanese spelling. (It's proper proper Japanese spelling, 塊魂, is a kind of visual rhyme, as you can see.) When the time came to compose the melody, I was very tempted to see whether I could get away with suggesting the Katamari Damacy theme.

The second day of the festival was a choral competition very much in the same vein as the one I experienced last year, though it took place in a local concert hall rather than the school gym. Once again, I was very impressed by the standard of singing, not to mention piano playing - how does every class have a least a couple of accomplished pianists? (I said pianists.) The 70-strong PTA choir, complete with pianist, violinist and saxophonist, also blew my mind. But a whole day of sitting in small, uncomfortable seat, watching kids sing did get a bit tiresome after a while. A welcome change of pace came in the form of a display by the taiko drumming team. I'm still amazed by taiko. I took some photos which I'll probably put on flickr, but in the interests of data protection, whenever I have photos that show students' faces I make them private. So much as I disapprove of "social" "networking", if you want to see them, become my flickr friend!

In other news, my 5 kilos of rice that I planted and harvested just got delivered. Score!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bad no-pants

I've never really been a big fan of Halloween, or indeed of fancy dress more generally. This attitude would appear to set me apart from most of the ALT community. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I resent putting any serious time - or more importantly, money - into crafting and/or purchasing a costume which will only be used once, and indeed will only be funny for approximately ten minutes.

Of course, one can simply avoid fancy dress parties. This is what I did for last year's big ALT Halloween party, but this year I felt like being more sociable. I considered some kind of Braveheart effort using my kilt, but that just seemed a bit lame, like science or medicine students going with some weak lab-coat based shtick. If I'm going to do something, I don't like to do it half-assedly. Go large or go home.

So, how could I make an impact without too much expenditure or effort? As the lazy and uninspired so often do, I decided to go for shock value. Cross-dressing is an obvious shock tactic, and as my fondness for Lady Gaga is well known to everyone who has ever been to karaoke with me, it seemed appropriate to take a leaf out of her impressive book of sartorial mentalness. Unfortunately, most of her outfits are elaborate to say the least, which was exactly what I was trying to avoid. Then, I remembered the brief portion of her turgid Telephone video where she appears dressed only in police tape. Cheap, easy, and it represents a potent combo of transvestism and near-nudity. Shock and awe!

The party was on saturday, so after work on friday I went and bought some tape. Of course, I couldn't get police tape, so I settled for some that said 'under construction' in Japanese and 'NO ENTER' in Engrish. Armed with a few screengrabs from Youtube, I initially tried to faithfully reproduce her costume. It quickly became apparent that this would not be feasible, for two reasons:
  • Despite considerable speculation to the contrary, Ms Gaga, being a woman, lacks bulky external genitalia to conceal.
  • In a music video, one need only worry about protecting one's modesty from one angle, and for seconds at a time. In the interests of basic decency, by costume would have to be a little more comprehensive and durable.
I went back to the hardware shop for some yellow duct tape, and started again, this time constructing essentially a skimpy pair of briefs from the duct tape (sticky side out, obviously), which would serve as the foundation (chassis?) of my costume. This worked better than I expected - if nothing else, my PhD did a lot for my duct tape-fu. After that, it was a simple matter of coiling some tape around one leg and running some up around my neck and a couple of times over my chest. Another piece wrapped around my head and covering one eye (with my glasses on over the top) completed the ensemble.

On saturday I had a look around the shops for very dark red lipstick, but all I could find was a multitude of barely distinguishable crimsons, scarelts and vermillions. I guess the goth market isn't very lucrative in Yamagata. To be honest, I didn't look all that hard. I felt rather conspicuous being a white male in a Japanese cosmetics aisle, and the constant barrage of chirpy "Irasshaimase!"s (Welcome / How can I help you?) wasn't helping matters. Empty-handed, I went over to Alda's, who - after a fit of stunned giggles - sorted me out with heavy black eye makeup and some slightly inaccurate red lipstick. Dad, I imagine you're very proud right now.

Once Alda put the finishing touches on her gypsy costume, and I put some clothes on over the top of my tape, we set off on the long drive, stopping to pick up Wonder Woman and a swan. When the average density of your social circle is on the order of 0.1 per sq km, you think nothing of driving two hours for a party. I was sipping whisky at quite a rate on the way there (Alda was driving), but nothing could really prepare me for the embarrassment of walking in.

An entire room full of people looking at you is disconcerting at the best of times. When you are wearing nothing but yellow tape and makeup, it really takes mortification to a new level. This might sound weird, but I think having one eye covered made it considerably worse; being bereft of depth perception and a large part of your visual surround makes one feel vulnerable on quite a primal level.

I gradually realised that at least 80% of the room had no idea what I was supposed to be; evidently, not everyone is as ardent a follower of Gaga as me. I began to wonder whether I had made a massive error of judgement. Sure, Halloween is supposed to be about the frightening and grotesque, but perhaps a pale, flabby nerd in lipstick and no actual clothes is creepy in all the wrong ways. I took to showing everyone the screengrabs on my Archos in desperate bid to contextualise my outfit.

But, I'd come this far, so I had no choice but to tough it out. It really wasn't so bad, especially once I had a few more drinks. Actually, I'd been in a situation like this before, when Joy had offered Tim and I all the white Russians we could drink if we worked as drinks waiters at a party of hers wearing only Speedos and bow ties. Although on that occasion, I could at least take refuge in it being someone else's idea. Anyway, on both occasions, people generally asked me whether I was cold (answer: yes) and hilariously told me that I had balls.

There were various fairly ad-hoc prizes given out for costumes, and I won 'best overall package', in yet another genital-based witticism. There were some actually very impressive costumes on display; my favourites included:
  • An uncannily accurate likeness of The Dude.
  • Kancho-man, a superhero based on the Japanese schoolboy prank of sneaking up behind someone and thrusting your index fingers in the direction of their back passage. I am happy to report that unlike many of my colleagues, I have still never experienced this at school. However, covered as it was by only a length of tape, my derriere was a very soft target for Kancho-man. Which is ironic, when you consider that I was the only person explicitly prohibiting entry to my person.
  • A couple who came as two halves of a torii (Shinto archway). The slightly nauseating cuteness of this was more than offset by their excellent execution; they called themselves Torii Odori ('torii dance') and did a little upright, bobbing jig together.
Final paragraph change of subject: You may have noticed from my Flickr stream that I had a rather more successful day of exploring abandoned tourist attractions the weekend before last. Impressive though it was, I never got round to blogging about it, partly because I though back-to-back posts about haikyo would be a little monotonous, and partly because I got the gloriously dumb zombie hack 'em up Dead Rising 2 for my PS3 last week.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wreckless abandon

Or, 'Walking into spiderwebs'.

As you may have seen from my Flickr, I did something a bit unusual at the weekend: I visited an abandoned theme park.

This all started because someone on the mailing list that the Yamagata ALTs use to communicate was discussing going to creepy abandoned places for Halloween. My curiosity piqued, I did some googling and discovered the 'urban exploration' movement (or urbex, if you're into Orwellian-sounding contractions). There's a bunch of people all over the world who like sneaking into abandoned facilities of various kinds and having a look around.

Japan is something of a hotspot for this pastime, it turns out. The hubris of the postwar boom, followed by twenty years of economic stagnation/recession, plus a falling population, are perfect conditions for generating haikyo (ruins), as the Nipponese wing of the urban exploration movement refers to them.

I learned that there's a defunct theme park situated a little more than an hour's drive from Nanyo, in neighbouring Fukushima prefecture. As haikyo go, 'theme park' is surely right up there with 'mental hospital' or 'nuclear bunker' in terms of awesome creepiness. The are lots of beautiful photos on the web of rusty roller coaster rails and decrepit ferris wheels rising eerily out of a misty forest.

It wasn't entirely straightforward figuring out the exact location of the place. Obviously, abandoned theme parks don't advertise, and urban explorers are understandably secretive about locations because they don't want every Tom, Dick and Haruki going there and trashing the place. But with a little bit of sleuthing (for which my limited Japanese literacy proved handy) I was fairly confident I'd got the co-ordinates nailed.

Being a spineless goody two-shoes (I phrase I've never really understood - do real rebels wear a number of shoes ≠ 2?), I was a little worried about the legality of this pursuit. I suppose it could constitute trespassing, but surely no-one is going to be too worried about land which they have abandoned. I reassured myself that, if the worst came to the worst, I could just about plausibly deny being able to read 'no entry' signs. However, I was adamant that I wouldn't compound my crime with breaking and entering, vandalism, or looting. "Take only photos, leave only footprints" is a kind of motto among responsible urban explorers, and I adopted it as my credo. Of course, one must also consider the dangers posed by entropy and physics - floors cannot generally be assumed safe to walk on, etc.

My friend Alda was to be the Scooby to my Shaggy, so I thoroughly briefed her on these guidelines, warned her that we might not be able to find the place - indeed, that it might no longer exist - and we set off on our adventure. Homing in on the GPS waypoint, there was a distinct absence of towering roller coasters. Nevertheless, we'd come this far, so we parked the car and went in for a closer look.

Only a few tens of metres from the road we found an abandoned building which looked to have been some kind of eatery. There were trashed vending machines, and strewn across the tatami mats were plates, cups and the like. It felt quite a lot like Fallout 3, though naturally with fewer guns and giant mutant scorpions. There was quite a bit of graffiti and human-looking damage, so it appears the place had hosted quite a few loutish youths since closing for business. The most interesting booty we uncovered was a pile of tickets and maps of the park. Slightly breaking my self-imposed rule, I pocketed one of each as souvenirs. I figured the map could actually be quite helpful, though I couldn't find the cafe I was in. Judging by the looks of the pictures - particularly the clothes of the park-goers - the leaflet couldn't have been made any later than about 1990.

There were tarmac paths leading off from the building, but these quickly became difficult to follow as the forest had all but reclaimed them. We fought our way through the foliage and spider webs - man, you have no idea how many spider webs there would be if there were no people to disturb them. If the human race died out tomorrow, I think Japan would be three inches thick in gossamer by about Christmas. Anyway, we found a few tantalising indications that the terrain we were slogging through had at one point been an amusement park: weird swathes of concrete, stairways that went nowhere, the odd bench amongst the trees. We even found a broken sign in the shape of a frog indicating that this was where to queue for the 'Jetcoaster'.

Alda, possessing a better sense of when to give up, headed back to the car, which was parked beside a picturesque lake. I pressed on, through increasingly dense forest, in search of a rusty dodgem, a decayed candy floss machine, anything. I found one or two mildly diverting sights, like a tree growing through a forgotten picnic table, and the go-kart circuit, its walls still lined with tyres, though the encroaching flora had rendered sections of it impassible even on foot. After encountering a couple of deserted clearings, I concluded that someone had done a pretty thorough job of removing every last ride and stall at some point in the last few years. After about an hour I called it quits, returning with ripped trousers, strands of spider silk hanging from me, and a collection of insect bites on my face and neck.

So, my first foray into the world of urban exploration was unsuccessful, but not an unmitigated failure. I don't know why they left that one building standing, but I'm glad it was there for us to find. At the very least, I got some good exercise clambering through the woods. Apparently there's another abandoned amusement park in Niigata...

An abrupt change of subject to conclude: My classrooms are invariably decorated with various motivational posters made by the students, promoting unity, co-operation, courtesy, positivity, and all that shizz. ('All for one, one for all' is an English slogan that pops up surprisingly often.) At lunch today I decided to entertain myself by deciphering a rather more involved class rules poster. The third rule (自分勝手な行動しない) translates to 'Don't do things your own way', which surprised me a little, being pretty much contrary to the advice given in my Western education. It's nice that as I'm starting to make in-roads with the language, I'm beginning to perceive these more subtle cultural differences.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rice up your life

Or, 'Sorry seems to be the harvest word'.

You may remember that back in May I planted some rice. Over the months this grew into a work of tanbo aato (rice field art), with the three different colours of rice forming a picture of a famous local samurai, distorted such that it could be viewed correctly from a nearby hill. Well, on sunday it was time to literally reap what I had sowed.

I was feeling a little the worse for wear on sunday morning, as I had overindulged somewhat on rice already, specifically the fermented variety. Marie-chan had invited me round for a sake tasting session, which I realised had got a bit out of hand when it was half past midnight, we had four empty (small) bottles in front of us, and I was giving barely coherent financial advice.

Arriving at the venue, the foreigner turnout was rather lower than it had been for the planting. In fact, I was the only ALT there, though there were a couple of familiar faces in the shape of a Venezuelan masters student (studying robotics of all things) and a friendly English-speaking woman from the international association.

Virtually everyone present had had the foresight to wear wellies, but I was sporting a pair of old walking shoes. Thankfully, it was a glorious sunny morning, but it had rained overnight so the field consisted of ankle-deep mud. (Rice paddies are only flooded for the early stages of growth; they are drained once the plants get established.) Fortunately I'd had the sense to wear shorts, so I just mentally wrote off my shoes and socks and plunged in.

We were each issued with a small serrated hand-scythe and some twine, and given a quick demonstration of how to use them. Take-home messages: cut diagonally downwards for safety, and don't make your bundles too big - about a dozen plants is sufficient. And don't mix up the colours, obviously.

There was something quite satisfying about the work, more so than the planting of five months ago. I found myself getting into a rhythm, trying to chop each bunch down with a single effortless-looking swipe rather than sawing away at them. We had some good division of labour going: while the front line hacked down the stems, people floated around behind them bundling up their output and then hanging it up on sticks to dry out. No one shouted at me for doing it wrong this time, which was a bonus.

As I was working up a sweat in the field, I was approached by an interviewer and cameraman. At many of these kinds of cultural events TV crews for ludicrously parochial cable stations show up. They always make a beeline for the foreigners, and I step aside to let someone more proficient at Japanese and/or less averse to looking like a tool on TV take up the slack. It was more difficult than usual on this occasion, but I managed to palm them off to my Venezuealan buddy.

When the field had been reduced to a matrix of truncated tufts, we were rewarded with lunch. This was yet more imoni, and - fittingly enough - riceballs. As before, our ticket price also bought us entry to a local onsen, which represented a useful opportunity to wash off the mud caked onto my shins.

Bidding farewell to my companions, I browsed some gift shops looking for presents for my forthcoming trip back to the UK. I bagged a couple of choice items, then took a very indirect route home, going high into the mountains marking the southern border of the prefecture. At one point I saw a large group of monkeys right by the side of the road, but there wasn't a safe place to pull over for several hundred metres. I disembarked the vehicle and stalked back, camera zoomed to the max, hoping to get a good look at the simians. But alas, all I found were a few shattered nutshells - I reckon that's what they were doing on the tarmac in the first place.

Yesterday was another holiday: Health and Sports Day. There was a race / fun run in Nanyo that it might have been advisable for me to attend, but no-one specifically told me to. I had, however, been invited to a wine festival that day, which seemed like a more appealing prospect all round.

Although Japan has never traditionally been a wine-drinking culture (except for rice wine, of course), we do grow a whole lot of grapes in this region, so it's not that surprising that people have taken to fermenting them in the last few decades. There are quite a few wineries around, but I didn't realise until very recently that one in Takahata - a nearby town even smaller than Nanyo - is actually modestly famous. With its award-winning produce, it is apparently quite a big fish in the admittedly smallish pond of Japanese winemaking.

For the three days of the long weekend, this place opened its doors, offering free wine tasting, live entertainment, and all the usual festival food stalls. I went with a couple of other ALTs, both British guys as it happened. Once again we hit the jackpot with the weather; sitting under a cloudless sky at 25°C, it was hard to believe it was mid-October. We spent the whole day sitting around in the sunshine, chatting and getting slowly drunk on wine. A particular highlight for me was wine ice cream (1% alcohol!), a concept which I would like to see catch on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Witness the fitness

Or, 'Don't believe the hype-rtension'

It's that time of year again, when I'm legally obliged to have a surprisingly thorough health check. Thus, I was forbidden to eat anything from 8pm last night until I wolfed down a cheeky riceball on the way out of the clinic this morning, because I wasn't convinced I could make it to lunch without fainting. I am a man who likes his breakfasts.

This year, I actually enjoyed some patient confidentiality, as I was able to muddle through without the aid of an interpreter. Though my improved Japanese certainly helped, as with so many things here, simply having done it once before and thus knowing the drill makes all the difference. It's like when Bill and Ted meet themselves; things make a lot more sense the second time around.

It's set up very much like a production line: first you have the blood pressure check, then the eye test, then the stethoscope, and so on. The blood sample is always the bottleneck, because that takes a bit longer than the rest. (Interestingly, the nurse asked me which hand I eat with (i.e. hold chopsticks in), shortly before sticking a needle into the opposite arm.) The slightly unsettling thing was that everyone else was shuffling between these stations in medical gowns, while I was still wearing my regular clothes. Either no-one could be bothered with the hassle of explaining to me where to change, or they were worried about insulting my cultural sensitivities.

Of course, it'll be a while before I get the results of the blood test and the like, but based on the more immediate tests I'm feeling good about my health. I'm 1.4kg lighter than I was a year ago, which just happens to be the average weight of a human brain. But I'm more excited about my b.p., which came in at a pretty optimal 109/65. I'm so laid back I'm horizontal! That's a massive 21% drop in systolic pressure from 18 months ago, which just goes to show that postgraduate degrees should probably come with some kind of government health warning.

Fingers crossed for the cholesterol...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

You kendo it, put your back into it

I'm conscious that it's been a while since I last blogged. The thing is, nothing particularly interesting has happened in the last couple of weeks. This is not to say that my life has become less eventful than it was a year ago per se, but rather that the more I settle in, the less my day-to-day experiences seem worthy of reporting on the internet. It is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

I actually have a long blog post all about my deliberation over my future saved on my hard drive, but I decided that it was just a bit too personal, and possibly somewhat imprudent to put in the public domain. In a nutshell: I have a nagging feeling that I should grow up and get a sensible career, but I like my life here and the money is good so I'm tempted to re-re-up for a third year. Encouragingly, I was officially invited to do so today, indicating that I'm not a total frakup. I don't have to make my mind up until February.

Anyway, though there hasn't been much excitement of late, things are good. Summer is truly over; I have deployed my winter duvet and as soon as my current batch of ironed shirts is exhausted, I will be switching to long sleeves. On reflection, summer is easily my least favourite season in Japan. If I do stick around next year, I will make a point of going somewhere cold in August. Autumn's nice though. The leaves are just starting to turn now; in a few weeks the predominantly deciduous mountainsides are going to look amazing. And I'm really developing a taste for imoni, Yamagata's autumnal delicacy.

Another good thing about autumn is the unusually high density of public holidays. Possibly because there are actual holidays in the other three seasons (New Year in winter, Hanami / Golden Week in Spring, and O-bon in summer), it seems that the powers that be have sprinkled all the spurious one-day celebrations liberally onto the autumn months to compensate. I like this; I reckon you get more joy out of five long weekends than you do out of a solid week off.

The weekend before last was devoted to inter-school sports tournaments. I was told to tag along with the brass band, who were supporting the school's baseball and softball teams. In case, like me a fortnight ago, you're not clear on the difference, softball is girls' baseball, played on a smaller field with (presumably) a softer ball, which must pitched underarm.

Although I still have very little interest in spectator sports, I think baseball is better than most. If sports were video games, baseball would be a turn-based RPG: slow-paced, low on action, but very tactical. (I'm not sure how sports games would fit into this confusing analogy.) It pains me to say this given how much I've mocked the sport in the past, but I suspect I could really get into cricket if I gave it a chance. However, to fully enjoy one of these batting/running/catching games I think you need to be getting slowly mashed during the course of the match, which of course was not an option when cheering on my students.

As I sat, alternately clapping along with the band, chanting encouragement ("Kattobase, Ken-su-ke!", assuming the person currently at the plate is called 'Kensuke'), and bashing bead-containing plastic bottles together, I was struck by just how susceptible we are to tribalistic thinking. In one match, the school I was then attending was playing another of my schools (the one I'm now at, as it happens). So, I had no real reason to support one over the other. But just the fact that I was sitting where I was, surrounded by students of that particular school, I found myself willing them to win, and feeling deeply bummed out when they got trounced. It's incredible how quickly objectivity and impartiality give way to mob instinct, particularly if the mob in question have trumpets.

The softball girls made it into the knockout stage the next day, but then got the drubbing of a lifetime at the hands of my other school. It wasn't clear what the brass band were supposed to do with themselves at this point, so rather than just hanging around I decided to take the initiative and request permission to watch the kendo competition. It turned out to be in another town, but it was a nice day so I cycled there.

For those who don't know, kendo is Japanese fencing. I occasionally see kids decked out like samurai for their after school clubs, and it's always intrigued me. Also, I've struck up quite a good relationship with one of the kids on the kendo team. She's a first-grader with freakishly good English (she gets private lessons), better than all but the very strongest third-graders. I feel bad for her because she is obviously bored out of her gourd in English class. We have started writing notes to each other that we exchange during cleaning time. So, I wanted to cheer her on, and I knew at least there would be one person I could chat to.

Whereas I managed to more-or-less figure out the rules to judo from watching it for a few hours at the last sports tournament, kendo proved rather less transparent. It appears that to score a point one has to hit the opponent in a very specific way; several times a kid would soundly and repeatedly thwack his or her adversary over the head whilst the judges remained stony faced, only for the opponent to strike back with what looked to me like an identical move and be awarded the bout. Points only ever seemed to be given for head shots, but the kids would still attack the torso every now and then, making me wonder why they bothered. Baffling though it was, it was quite enjoyable; it's not every day you get to see a bunch of teenagers in armoured dressing gowns smacking each other with bamboo sticks.

I had the following monday and tuesday off in lieu. Having a non-holiday weekday off is valuable, as it gives one an opportunity to interact with Japanese public bureaucracy. Although I have a visa allowing me to stay in the country for three years, that period must be continuous. If I want to leave and come back - which I shall this December! - I must obtain a re-entry permit, the international equivalent of having the back of your hand stamped at a gig. This privilege costs me 6000 yen (ok, you can get one for 3000 but that only allows you to leave once) and a two-hour trip to Sendai. This is yet another reason why I disapprove of the concept of nation states.

So, on tuesday I drove to Sendai with another ALT needing to jump through the same hoops. Arriving, I realised that Sendai, with a population of around a million, was comfortably the biggest city I've ever driven in. And in the smallest car, ironically. But with my trusty Archos Blu-tacked to the dashboard to guide me, we made it to the immigration office without incident.

We got the permits, and then I had another administrative errand to handle. I wanted to pick up the application forms to sit the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), on sale in major bookstores. Admittedly, I probably could have found them somewhere in my own prefecture, but I wasn't taking any chances. I got them, and have since sent them off. If all goes to plan I should be sitting the level N4 test at the start of December. N1 is the highest and N5 the lowest, so if speaking Japanese were snowboarding, N4 would be linking turns on a green run. I'm reasonably confident. The money level is N2, as this is generally what Japanese employers ask for when recruiting gaijin.

A large part of the attraction of big cities is the opportunity to eat foreign food, so we had a tasty and very reasonable Indian lunch - you've gotta love Wikitravel. For entertainment we went to an arcade populated by youngsters with frankly disturbing levels of skill at the rhythm games, and otherwise sensible-looking salarymen pumping money into the gambling machines. We just did a spot of the taiko game and left it at that. I got pwned, as my companion is actually on a taiko team. After that we went for a cheeky hour of karaoke. Even by my low standards I was in dismal voice, with the notable exception of the Japanese song I've learnt. On its maiden outing, I'm pleased to say that I smacked it out of the park.

Then it was time to head home, which involved a minor meltdown on my part as the Archos' combination of cheap hardware and free software spazzed out so impressively that it reported our position as being just outside the Arctic Circle. But we somehow got on the right road, and eschewed the expressway for a white-knuckle ride along the twisty single-track mountain road in the fog.

I'll conclude by telling you what just happened at lunch with the third-graders. Boys being boys, they were competing to see who could down their mini-carton of milk fastest. As one kid achieved a respectable six seconds, the girl next to him noticed that I was watching intently, and announced "Nihon bunka da yo!" - "It's Japanese culture!". Yup, forget geisha, origami, samurai and sumo - competitive milk drinking is the true spirit of Nippon. The six-second record stood for most of lunchtime, until the boy sitting next to me bagged a 5-seconder. "I'm the strongest in the whole class", he proudly informed me in English.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Imoni sleeping

It's maybe a little un-Japanese of me to say so, but I think I'm really starting to get the hang of this teaching lark. It's about time.

If you work in junior high like I do, you are seldom required to plan whole lessons. However, the ability to pull a 10, 15, 20-minute activity out of your arse at short notice is extremely valuable. For a long time, this caused me considerable anxiety. Initially, I needed to spend at least half an hour meditating on the task at hand before I could even start crafting worksheets or whatever. And I lacked the confidence to just come up with something and run with it; I would always want to check with the teacher that what I was doing was alright. Given how little free time teachers have during a school day, this is not entirely straightforward.

The other day, just as a teacher was heading out to her second period class, she asked me to come up with an activity for the third period one we had together. In some ways, I think this kind of time pressure can be helpful, as it forces you to keep things simple. Some of my most debacular lessons have been the result of overthinking it and coming up with something rather too high-concept. Anyway, I managed to whip up a whip up a fairly routine worksheet, complete with instructions in Japanese (you have to cut the first-graders a bit of slack) in time for it to be dropped, hot off the photocopier, into the following lesson.

Today I had a similar request, but with literally 20 minutes' notice. Drawing heavily from an activity I cooked up this time last year, I delivered the goods. Rather like programming, I think one of the keys to successful teaching is to have an ever-expanding bag of tricks from which you can draw whatever the situation requires. What I'm particularly pleased with is how I introduced by hastily improvised activity. Often, in seat-of-the-pants moments like this, I'll panic and give way too little by way of instruction, meaning that the smartest 20% of the class have a rough idea of what is required of them, while the rest are baffled. But today I got it right: model what is expected, practice the pattern, check the meaning, practice again, and only then commence the activity.

Anyway, enough self-congratulation, I'll tell you about my weekend. I got up reasonably early on saturday, and though I felt a little jaded from the teacher's party the night before, I decided that if I just refused to acknowledge that I was hungover, then I would be cured by the power of suggestion. I jumped on my bike and rode the 1.5 hour trip to Yonezawa. I was attending an imonikai (potato stew party). As I've mentioned before, these events are an autumn institution in Yamagata. A couple of weeks back I went to the big one in Yamagata City. I didn't bother to blog about it because nothing all that remarkable happened. Executive summary: it was an uncomfortably hot day and they had a really big pot of stew.

This one was a more intimate affair, and was organised by the local international relations association. Events like this are a bit weird, but quite enjoyably so. They are always composed of a bunch of Westerners (mainly ALTs,) assorted Asians (mostly women), and Japanese people who are, for whatever reason, interested in engaging with gaijin. I find it quite touching that people are willing to go to the trouble of hosting stew parties to welcome foreigners. Do we have equivalent events at home? I'm guessing not; the British populace seems more intent on telling immigrants to stop taking our jobs and go back to where they came from.

Also present at these events are kids, many of them half-Japanese. I don't seem to engage with young children quite as effortlessly as some people, but I'm getting better. I banked some goodwill early on by having a kickabout with a very lively boy of about seven. Although I am terrible at football by the standards of a British male, I can hold my own among American/Antipodean twenty-somethings and Japanese children. I took a painful spill on some gravel (sandals aren't really ideal sports footwear) and as a result my grazed knee has been weeping plasma ever since. It's shaping up to be an excellent scab, almost as good as when I nutted a rock while snowboarding back in '01.

We ate the imoni (pronounced like the mid-leg joint of a member of My Chemical Romance - the title pun works better in writing than it does out loud) and then, as appears to be the done thing, we finished off the stew by adding curry powder and noodles to make karee udon. The party wound down about 2pm, but since we had plans for the evening, we had a couple of hours to kill. Along with a couple of Chinese students we'd befriended, we chilled out at Uesugi Shrine. If you're ever at a loose end in Yonezawa, that's the place to go. It's lovely there.

That evening there was a festival to celebrate the 450th anniversary of... something. (Yup, still not interested in history.) This meant a samurai parade, and our man in Yonezawa had managed to swing it so that we could take part. For the second time, I donned the armour of a lowly samurai foot soldier, though this time I was in the more understated blue-and-brown squadron - no bright red pantaloons for me on this occasion. Also, this time I got a long spear as well as my katana, giving me the opportunity to literally not touch things with a ten-foot pole.

We paraded through the streets to the shrine. I wasn't quite sure whether we were supposed to act like fearsome warriors, but I decided not to and instead grinned, waved, and gave peace signs to onlookers. There was then a period of hanging around, during which my morale crashed a bit. I was tired, dehydrated, wearing heavy armour and sadistically designed sandals, and finding it increasingly difficult to keep up my hangover denial. However, after a sneaky run to a vending machine to buy some Calpis with the money I'd stashed in my sheath (clattering the machine with my back-flag when I tried to retrieve the can), my spirits were buoyed.

For the return leg of the parade, we were to dance. Thankfully we were relieved of our huge spears. The dance was mercifully simple, and seemed well suited to samurai, both in terms of its macho air (lots of punching movements) and not requiring too much flexibility from our armoured bodies. By the time we were approaching the end-point of the parade, the gaijin squadron (including the Chinese girls we'd acquired at the imonikai) had it down, and were looking rather impressive (obviously, I couldn't see myself). I think we were dancing with more gusto than most of our fellow warriors, and we seemed to attract quite a few cameras.

The climax of the parade saw us circling around a plaza to the ever-quickening beat of a colossal taiko drum in the centre. There was something exhilaratingly primal about being part of a crowd all dancing in synchrony to that pounding rhythm. If I do another top ten next year, I think that moment will feature.

Once the festival was over, we hung around for a while posing for photos before retiring to take off our sweaty outfits. There then followed a surreal episode where we went to a convenience store that appeared to be the premier hangout for youths who, judging by their attire, appeared to be straight outta Compton, rather than a small city in rural Japan. We were none-too-subtle about laughing at them; gleaning particular amusement from the gender balance of the crew being similar to the average computer science tutorial. Having said that, the few shawties who were present deserve a special mention for just how ludicrous their get-up was. Anyway, for all the gangsta attitude they were trying to exude, they didn't give us any hassle. Which was good; this was one occasion when I didn't want any Yonezawa beef.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Talking 'bout my demonstration

What a week! Unusually, I really feel I've earned every last yen. Which makes it all the more galling that the Japanese government is overtly devaluing them.

Let's start with last saturday. There's an annual tradition among Yamagata JETs (and hangers-on, i.e. private ALTs and foreign university students) of having a big party in the woods to welcome the newcomers. I'll admit that I did drink rather heavily during this bucolic shindig, as did most other people. For reasons that are difficult to elucidate, by the end of the night virtually all of the men, and a surprising number of the women, were shirtless.

So, when I hit the futon in my rustic log cabin, I was expecting to wake up to a hangover. However, nothing prepared me for just how horrendous I felt. It turned out that I had simultaneously fallen victim to a nasty head cold as well as my own overindulgence. (No, honestly; the cold persisted through the week, and quite a few other teachers around the staffroom are sneezing and coughing into their facemasks.) On top of that, hanging out in a forest for hours gives the local insect population carte blanche to feast on one's exposed limbs (few limbs are as blanche as mine). So I also had a collection of fiendishly itchy bites to contend with on sunday. It was, to use an overused phrase, a perfect storm.

On monday I was still feeling distinctly under the weather, but unfortunately there was serious work to do. You see, Japanese schools regularly hold demonstrations lessons, where some poor teacher(s) is required to give a lesson with a room full of important people watching, who will later pick over their every move in excruciating detail. I had dodged this bullet for a while, but it was only a matter of time until an English demo lesson coincided with my stint at a school. It was my turn on Friday.

The teachers I was assisting had decided that the lesson should showcase our use of digital media. The point of the lesson was "how to X" and "what to X", so I spent a couple of free periods taking photos of myself looking like a dumb gaijin: "I don't know how to buy a train ticket", "I don't know what to do at tea ceremony", etc. My favourite was the very much based-on-a-true-story "I don't know how to eat edamame", where I'm stuffing whole pods of baby soybeans into my mouth.

After that, I had to face my fear and be videoed pretending to be a reporter interviewing someone so rich that she didn't know how to cook for herself. This was at the end of a ten-hour day, during which I'd been feeling like condensed shit. In the resulting awful video, I am visibly flushed and sweaty.

We iteratively trialled and refined our demo lesson on the other third-year classes through the week. On top of this, I had a reasonably full schedule of classes anyway, as this school embraces team teaching rather enthusiastically. Not that I'm complaining; I'm generally happy to be occupied and feel valued. On top of that, I was helping out with after school speech contest training at a different school. I'm a victim of my own success: two of my kids won their respective divisions so have gone through to the prefectural competition.

Friday came, and although I was a little nervous, I don't think I was bricking it nearly as much as my co-teachers (it was actually two classes; I was to do a crafty transfer halfway through). I think there were two reasons for my comparative calm:
  • As an ALT, I felt I was under less scrutiny than them. I consider my status to be somewhere between that of a legitimate teacher and an educational resource. A tool, if you like.
  • I was under the mistaken impression that the purpose of the exercise was training. Only after the event was I informed that it was in fact assessment. The people watching were not other teachers there to learn, but inspectors there to pass judgment.
I felt fairly pleased with how the lesson went; there were, at least, no glaring cock-ups. Afterwards I got to sit in on another lesson. I opted for 'morality', because this is an entry on the timetable that has always intrigued me. I was hoping to get a glimpse of some sinister social engineering that would explain the unsettling community-mindedness of the Japanese people. Alas, no such luck - it appeared to be just your standard overcoming adversity shtick. With some furious dictionary work, I figured out that the gist of the lesson was about a famous ice skater whose father died of cancer, and then she got diagnosed with it too.

In the afternoon we had a feedback and discussion session. Of course, I had only the most rudimentary grasp of what was going on. Nevertheless, my opinions were solicited. Only being able to output your views without inputting anyone else's puts one in quite a precarious position, so I tried to keep quiet and play it safe as far as possible. At one point, I was pleased to hear that we were being complemented on our 'pattern practice ju jitsu'. Turns out, ju jitsu literally means something like 'fulfillment' or 'perfection'. Anyway, I was later filled in on roughly what had been said, and our lesson was received largely positively, with only a few minor and constructive criticisms on specifics. Job's a good 'un.

After school we went out for a traditional party to celebrate. It's been a good few months since I did the whole sitting on the floor, eating sashimi, pouring drinks for each other thing, so I was well up for it.

There's an inter-school sports day coming up (there seem to be quite a few of these). Virtually every teacher coaches a club of some kind. Thus, the highlight of the night was going around the room, with everyone taking it turns to give a rousing speech about how they would lead their team to certain victory. The tone was very much tongue-in-cheek, and as far as I could gather the oratory was a mixture of Kanye West-style ludicrous grandstanding and playful trash-talking directed at the other coaches. When it comes to school sports, it seems that the scrupulously modest demeanour usually upheld by the Japanese can be suspended for a few minutes of good old-fashioned bragging.

I tagged along to the obligatory nijikai (second party), which was at an izakaya. By this point things were starting take a turn for the disgraceful - there was a lot of talk of 'Amazons' and 'Asian beauties' being directed at slightly unimpressed-looking women by boozy, rowdy men. This sort of behaviour isn't really becoming for a bunch of teachers, but fortunately we had taken some stealth measures. For one thing, we went out in the opposite end of town from the school. But just in case that wasn't enough, everyone was cunningly not addressing each other as sensei, but rather using the terms appropriate to business colleagues. It was an ingenious plan, only slightly undermined by the fact that they talked about school for a solid half hour.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ska tissue

It's official: in the 113 years since records began in Nippon, this has been the hottest ever summer. At least I can now feel smugly hardcore while sweating my gonads off in the 35°C September heat.

Thanks to a combination of school trips and work experience, there has been a distinct lack of pupils at school for the last three days. For once it is not just me who is underemployed; all the teachers who aren't off herding kids around museums are taking it pretty easy. We've been going out for lunch, where of course we are served by our students doing their work experience.

I feel I have put this slack time to quite good use, in that I reckon I am now ready to take on 3月 9日 (March 9th) by レミオロメン (Remioromen; doesn't mean anything as far as I can tell) in a public karaoke setting. The song was recommended to me by one of the speech contestants I was coaching - his English is outstanding, and he reckoned that if I liked Radiohead I would like these guys. In fact, this music chat happened when I was supposed to be making him practice his speech. Before anyone objects to my lackadaisical approach, he won the contest. It was a cunning educational stratagem on my part.

Let's carry on catching up with August's events. My grand-predecessor (who had my job from 2004-7) came to town, and I went out drinking with him twice, once with my civil servant hat on, and once with Marie et al. (Incidentally, both events were at the same ever-popular Italian bistro, where I also went for lunch today.) He seemed like a really nice guy, and my only regret was that we didn't have more opportunity to discuss the realities of the job without having to worry who was listening. (Though mumbling quickly in colloquial English is a useful stealth measure in a pinch.)

He was quite an inspiration to me on the Japanese front. From talking to Marie, I got the impression that he, like me, didn't take naturally to the language in the way that some do. But he persevered, and while far from fluent, was able to handle izakaya chats in a way I can currently only dream of. Listening to him, he wasn't producing that much grammar or vocab that I didn't understand; the crucial difference was that he was able to think fast enough to bust these linguistic moves at a pace approximating a normal conversation. My competitive streak came out, and I started to push the communicative envelope to keep up. At one point we realised we were rather redundantly talking to each other in Japanese. Anyway, I think getting up to his level is a worthwhile goal for me to aim for.

August is when JETs get turned over. Due to my friends' visit, I had missed most farewell parties, which was fine by me since I'm not great with goodbyes. But one somewhat close friend of mine had lingered to the very end of his visa's one month's grace period, and called me up out of the blue to invite me for one last Kappa Sushi before he got the shink out of here (my town may be small, but it is on the shink line). As the assembled party of well-wishers waved goodbye at the station, I was astonished to find that I was choked with emotion. I didn't actually cry, but I was unable to speak for a good ten minutes. I wasn't even that upset when I said goodbye to my family at Edinburgh airport. I can only attribute this to a) being a bit overtired b) some lingering effects of culture shock and c) having had no warning and thus not being able to mentally steel myself.

Last weekend I went to a small music festival, at none other than Zao. There are two main benefits and one problem with holding a festival at a ski resort.

  • The altitude takes the edge off the heat slightly.
  • While being suitably remote for an event of its kind, the amenities (toilets, car parking) to accommodate a large number of people are there.

  • Con:
  • Getting to the 'Moon Stage' means walking several hundred metres up a red run, criss-crossed by sneaky drainage ditches, in the dark.

  • The festival was free; I only had to pay 1000yen to park my car. There were of course no bands there that anyone had ever heard of, but that didn't bother me. The overall tone seemed to be quite reggae; in any other country the air would have been thick with deadly marijuana fumes. Fortunately, the music frequently bled over into ska territory. I think the Moon Stage had some banging techno, but no-one could be bothered to go there.

    I was in two minds about whether to drink. I had friends there offering me space in their tent, but I knew that even in the unlikely event that I drank a sensible amount, the next day would be written off due to the terrible night's sleep I would undoubtedly have. Predictably, I gave into temptation within minutes. There had been a lot of talk lately about playing (I use that verb loosely) Amy Winehands. In case you don't know, this is a drinking 'game' where you duct-tape wine bottles to each of your hands and are not permitted to remove them until they are empty. Thus, a fellow reprobate and I ended up with bottles taped to our hands. She was Amy; I took it in a slightly different direction and became Edward Sakehands. (They were only 300ml bottles, I'm not insane.)

    We chilled on the hillside, we skanked, we watched some skaters that had set up a small half-pipe. We met some new JETs from the other end of the prefecture, and although the sake was no longer bonded to my hands, it was firmly attached to my GABA receptors, so I doubt I made a very good impression. I got chatting to a French punk band. As we got into the small hours and the music ended, we ended up befriending some Japanese hipsters. Even through my drunken haze, it was painfully apparent that they were much, much cooler than us (and younger than me, naturally), and if it wasn't for our gaijin mystique our conversation would never be happening. I spent a long time talking to a man who - as far as I could make out - was unironically wearing a trilby, though to be fair he actually came across as a sincere and intelligent guy, if a little over-confident. Also present was a tiny, elfin-looking chick who was very cute in that slightly annoying way that seems to be popular among certain young Japanese women. She claimed to be a talent scout for a record label.

    Looking back on the whole experience, I realised that when I was around 20 and (more) impressionable, this would have seemed like just about the coolest conceivable way to spend an evening. A music festival! With ska! And skaters! Up a mountain in Japan! With hot Japanese chicks! Now that I'm well on my way to being a curmudgeonly old man, my enthusiasm was tempered by the feelings of derision and vicarious embarrassment that are inevitably roused in me when I see bongos or Che Guevara T-shirts. I'm not sure whether that's progress. Nevertheless, it was an excellent night.

    As forecast, I got a pretty bad night's sleep, and woke to find myself in a superheated tent with amateurish karaoke blasting from the PA system. I had a 'biggu baagaa' (big burger) for breakfast, which turned out to be a grotesque lardfest that made a doner kebab look like a chick-pea and tofu salad. I hung around only long enough to convince myself that I was safe to drive, then headed home. That (saturday) afternoon, I had to help set up for the following day's sports day, which was a task I needed like a hole in the head.

    In the evening it became clear that I had food poisoning. Though it could have been the curry I barely remember eating the night before, I'm pointing the finger of suspicion squarely at the biggu baagaa. However, as long as one has unfettered access to a toilet, I find there's something almost enjoyably cathartic about a serious bout of the Brad Pitts. Just think, some idiots pay good money to have their bowels so thoroughly evacuated.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Shiny happi people

    When will the summer end? My house seems have a bit of a fruit fly problem, although it is of course nothing compared to the fruit fly problem I had from 2005-9. Last night, after the third D. melanogaster drowned in my Laphroaig, I decided to take action. I caught the two huge spiders that live outside my front door, and in an unorthodox move, released them inside my house. (I'll let you know when I end up with a horse.) Hopefully this will have the fringe benefit that I won't be walking into spiderwebs (like Gwen Stefani) when I leave the house every morning. Only after doing this did I remember that Japan is home to some venomous arachnids. I was simultaneously disturbed and amused to learn from Wikipedia that my new pets have the same neurotoxin as black widows in their fangs, but thankfully at a much lower dosage that shouldn't cause any problems for a mammal of my size.

    You may have noticed that I've posted virtually nothing about what I've done in August. Well, it wasn't a particularly exciting month, but I've got a few blogworthy experiences to write about. I'll start with Hanagasa.

    Festivals are a big deal in Japan, and most of them take place in summer. In the Tohoku region (i.e. the sparsely populated northern leg of the J-shaped main island) there are four Great Festivals. (The Japanese seem to like enumerating things - three views, seven fillings in ehou-maki, 100 places to see sakura, 1000 paper cranes for good luck, and "[May you live for] 10,000 years!" - Banzai!) One of these is Yamagata City's very own Hanagasa, or the flower hat dance festival. Because I missed it last year, I went along to check it out at the start of the month.

    For three consecutive evenings in early August, approximately a kilometre of street in central Yamagata is closed to traffic and becomes the venue for a particularly linear dance. Locals I've talked to admit that there are really three Great Festivals plus Hanagasa; while the others have rich histories, apparently this one was contrived sometime in the last century, presumably in a desperate attempt to put Yamagata on the map. Though the festival may not have been that much of a spectacle to watch, I nevertheless found it an interesting insight into Japanese culture.

    The dance itself consisted of a repeated loop of movements maybe 45 seconds long. The dancers came in big teams representing various organisations. Some of these were dance clubs, which ranged from the traditional, favoured mostly by aged women; to the contemporary, in the form of krews of street dancing youngsters. My favourite troupe were dressed (inexplicably) as pirates, and had beefed up the sedate dance with krumping and handsprings. In fact, street / hip-hop dancing seems to be bizarrely popular; it was like Step up 2: The streets at times. But less racist.

    Another crowd-pleasing contemporary act was the belly dancing. My guide for the evening taught me the phrase hana shita nagakute naru (as memory serves), meaning "the upper lip [actually, they say under-nose] lengthens", describing the facial expression a man supposedly assumes when aroused. Thanks to watching anime I knew that a nosebleed signified the same, but this was a new one on me. Actually, this guy (the retired archeologist raconteur; I've mentioned him before) delights in telling me all the smuttier aspects of Japanese culture. Ever since he described wakamezake to me it's been something of an ambition of mine to try it.

    Besides the dance groups, there were various commercial organisations jigging for publicity. The high rollers (Toyota, Panasonic, etc.) had floats packed with some combination of: cute children, taiko drummers, demure geisha-looking young women, and local head honchos of the company waving and smiling like they were the Pope. But less racist.

    Smaller companies had to make do with teams of dancers. Cosmetics firms seemed to be out in force, and it was very noticeable that the all the young attractive employees were decked out in elaborate costumes and led the pack, while their ordinary-looking colleagues (that is, assuming the pretty ones weren't ringers) were left to bring up the rear in basic happi (loose coats worn to festivals). My companion was of the opinion that although dancing practice would probably have taken place outside of office hours, it would not have been a smart career move to skip it. Also noteworthy was a team of handsome men with very effeminate haircuts, who turned out to be representing a local host bar. That's right, paying to have awkward flirty conversations is apparently no longer the sole domain of men, at least if you live in the big city.

    At the end they threw the street open to all comers, so naturally I procured a flower hat and joined in. I had done the dance before at last year's Bon-odori, but you trying remembering a dance from a year previously, particularly when you were drunk then and are drunk now. Ok, so I had been watching the dance for a couple of hours immediately prior to that, but every group had their own variations, so I wasn't sure what the canonical version was. I wasn't helped by the fact that the people around me appeared to be similarly clueless. Once I found some people who knew what they were doing and shadowed them, I fared slightly better.

    The festival over, we retired to a Spanish-themed bar (excellent garlic mushrooms) and consequently I almost missed my train home. Thankfully I didn't, and on the train I befriended three happi-clad cosmetics ladies and one of their young sons. As happens whenever I talk to small children in Japanese, he took the piss out of my accent, the punk.

    Monday, August 30, 2010

    The annual countdown

    I've been in a bit of a slump lately. I think there were a number of reasons for this:
    • Heat. It's an unusually hot summer; the temperature has consistently topped 30°C every day for a fortnight, and it's been pushing up to 35° at its peak. I've heard some talk that La Niña is to blame. Even the locals are struggling with it; it just saps your energy and your enthusiasm for doing anything other than sipping ice tea in an airconned room whilst wearing only boxers.
    • Hectic social calendar: For various reasons, I've been doing a lot of drinking with assorted Japanese people this month. I know I've laboured this point already, but if you haven't been here, it's difficult to appreciate just how pushy the hospitality can be. Back home, if someone declines a drink you might offer again, in case they were just being polite and actually wanted a drink. But if they continued to refuse, you'd probably drop it; it is, after all, their business what they ingest. But not here. Short of being out-and-out rude, it's very difficult to avoid spending the next day sleepy and hungover. On top of this, I'm actually making a reasonably serious attempt to lose weight - I bought a set of digital scales and have a spreadsheet recording my mass at daily intervals (currently: 85.2kg) - so I have an added reason not to down too much Asahi. I'm starting to experiment with using white lies to avoid boozing sessions.
    • School holidays: As I've said before, doing nothing all day is harder than having some moderate tasks to take care of. It's especially galling when you do nothing for your contracted eight hours, then are asked to stay until seven to help with speech contest coaching.
    This malaise has manifested itself as extreme laziness. Despite having copious spare time, I haven't been blogging and I haven't been studying Japanese. I've also been neglecting to take part in the gaijin social scene. The new JETs arrived this month and while I really should have taken the opportunity to meet them and give them the benefit of my year of experience, I felt a curmudgeonly reluctance to deal with their wide-eyed, breathless enthusiasm. Instead, I've been becoming even more of a nerd than I was previously. At the moment I'm watching Firefly and playing Final Fantasy Tactics, a strategic RPG from 1998.

    But I'm getting it together now. Term has started, and it has to start getting cooler soon. Yesterday I cracked out the kanji cards again, and here's a blog post.

    In the manner of a lame saturday night Channel 4 show, I'm going to count down my top ten most memorable moments of the previous year. I had been planning a post like this to mark my one year anniversary in Japan, but that ship has now sailed. I shall exclude my recent holiday, since you only just heard about that. Without any further ado:

    10: School imonikai
    Slipping in at number ten is the only entry directly relating to my work as an ALT. I feel a bit guilty about that, but what can I say, it's my job. I do get a fair amount of satisfaction from teaching, and there have been a few genuinely touching moments: the picture of me a kid with learning difficulties drew, the tearful goodbyes of the departing third-years, the sweet English diary entries...

    However, I'm going to go with something less sappy and more fun. Imonikai (potato stew parties) are a Yamagata tradition in autumn - I missed out on the big one in Yamagata City, so I intend to bag that this year. But one of my schools held their own, where we spent a sunny October afternoon variously building fires, cooking stew, eating it, and hanging out on tarpaulins.

    It's a slightly bittersweet memory, this one, because it was at one of my now-defunct small schools. I doubt anything similar will be happening this year; while it's just about practical to get 80-odd kids organised into stew-cooking teams, it's probably not going to happen with 300.

    9: Hanami
    Spring hadn't properly sprung when a bunch of ALTs gathered in my hometown for the quintessentially Japanese activity of cherry blossom viewing. This caused two main problems: a) the blossom hadn't bloomed yet and b) it was freezing. But we didn't let these setbacks dampen our spirits. Once we'd had enough of our chilly hilltop picnic spot, we warmed up in the onsen, and then went back to mine for further drinking, accompanied by Rock Band and Chatroulette. Not only was it a fun day, but I got to enjoy the Hannibal-style satisfaction of something I'd planned coming together nicely.

    8: The Stewarts at Marie-chan's
    Of course, Marie and her friends were going to feature in this list. I think I covered this one in a decent amount of detail at the time, but to reiterate, the highlights were my brother teaching the Japanese origami, and my first experience of eating insects. While the entertainments of the evening were a lot of fun, what really made it such a happy occasion was that I could see how pleased my parents were that I had such nice people looking after me here in Nanyo.

    7: Boxing Day at Alda's
    Christmas Day was a bummer. I had to go to work, and though it was nice to see my family having Christmas dinner on Skype in the evening, it made me feel very far from home. Fortunately, my buddy Alda cheered me up the very next day by throwing a traditional Italian-American Christmas dinner party for all the homesick gaijin. We watched Christmas movies, we did a Disney jigsaw that I'd won in a raffle, we got slowly drunk throughout the day (a rare pleasure in fast-drinking Japan), and we ate turkey and potatoes and stuffing. Although everyone there would probably rather have been with their respective families, there was a really nice feeling of camaraderie and making the best of a bad situation. Like the Blitz, possibly.

    6: The stick of Zen
    My interest in Zen has pretty much run its course now, and since I get drunk with a Zen priest on a semi-regular basis these days, the novelty value of the enigmatic religion has worn off a little. But when I was a n00b, my session with a real live Zen master (he had the robes and everything) at a JET seminar made quite an impression on me. I'm really glad he hit me with his stick; even most Japanese people have never felt the sting of pure Zen.

    5: New Year
    As Hogmanay is kind of a big deal back home, New Year threatened to be another time of crushing homesickness. But thankfully, oshougatsu (literally 'righteous month', which is a funny way to refer to New Year) is the biggest event on the Shinto calendar. Marie and her husband invited me round for a smorgasbord of lucky foods, and we watched Kouhaku uta gassen, the campy five-hour musical extravaganza that is a Japanese New Year institution. But probably the most memorable part of the evening was going to the temple at midnight. It was a beautiful clear winter night, and looking out over snowy Akayu as we welcomed in the oneties by ringing a massive iron bell is an image that I think will stay with me for some time. Little did I know that twelve hours later I would be immobilised with excruciating lower back pain, but that's another story.

    4: Bon-odori
    I'm going way back to the beginning on this one. The biggest event on the Buddhist calendar is O-bon, or the festival of the dead, which happens in mid-August, so has in fact just occurred. You can imagine my excitement when, on just my second weekend in Nanyo, I was given a yukata (light summer kimono), a straw hat with crepe paper flowers, and a plentiful supply of beer, and instructed to dance up and down main street with a bunch of other civil servants. The evening pretty accurately summed up the year that was to come; I was out of my element and had no idea what was going on, by everybody was really nice to me and I had an amazing time. And I was drunk.

    I wasn't invited to dance this time round though, which I'm slightly peeved about.

    3: Uesugi festival
    In terms of iconic Japanese experiences, it's pretty hard to top being dressed in samurai garb and re-enacting a battle in front of hundreds of cheering onlookers and a backdrop of cherry blossom. The reason this is only at number three is that it wasn't actually that much fun; for my few minutes of combative glory I had to spend all day waiting around in the blazing sunshine, wearing armour. This is one of those things where I'm glad I did it and have the story to tell, but I'd be in no real hurry to do it again.

    2: Sumo in Osaka
    As my end of term assignment for Japanese class, I had to write an essay titled (in Japanese, obviously) "My most enjoyable experience in Japan". I wrote about the day I spent at the sumo during my spring holiday in Kansai. I went with this, despite it only being runner-up on this list, partly because 'memorable' and 'enjoyable' are different criteria, and partly because I though the vocabulary would be easier to handle. I shall now give you a direct translation of what I wrote. Please note that this was the result of a lot of dictionary work; I couldn't just freestyle something like this in a month of sundays.

    I came to Japan one year ago. Since then, I have had lots of enjoyable and interesting experiences, so it is difficult to choose one. Dancing the Hanagasa down Akayu Main Street at O-bon, snowboarding at Zao in winter, drinking with my new friends while viewing the cherry blossom at hanami in Eboshiyama Park...

    But, I think my most enjoyable time was watching sumo in Osaka. In the spring holidays, I took a five-day trip to Kansai with three friends. One day we got up early and went to the [sumo] gymnasium. If you arrive early, there are few people there, so you can sit very close to the ring. Thus, we were able to watch the rookies' bouts very well. After about two hours we went to eat lunch. We wanted to try Osaka cuisine, so we went to a kushikatsu restaurant beside the Tsuutenkaku tower. Because it was busy, we had to wait a long time. But, the kushikatsu was delicious.

    After that we returned to the tournament. The atmosphere was totally different. There were many cheering people. Luckily, the neighbouring box was empty, so we could sit comfortably. While watching the sumo, we drank warm sake and bet loose change with one another on the bouts.

    What a very enjoyable day!

    1: Firewalking
    Walking across burning coals is a pretty interesting thing to do anyway, just from a physics standpoint. But it was the beautiful setting that really made this experience special. Along with a crowd of gaijin, I was at a shrine in the woods. The shrine's roof looked ready to collapse under the two feet of snow that covered everything, and huge flakes were tumbling lazily down throughout the ceremony. Clutching our paper cups of warm rice drink, we watched priests in bright yellow robes build a roaring conflagration, then flatten it out and serenely walk across it, before throwing it open to the public.

    So there you have it. I should point out that by listing memorable experiences, I have neglected lots of things that were very enjoyable in a slightly more pedestrian way. Most notable is snowboarding - Zao gave me many, many hours of enjoyment, but no real standout moments. Similarly, the humble day-to-day pleasures of things like eating kaitenzushi or having a karaoke night with my friends don't appear on the list either.

    As a scientist, I can't resist analysing the data I have just presented. There seems to be a fairly even split between times spent with natives, gaijin, and both. That seems about right; I think my social life is usually quite well balanced between the two. Sixty percent of the events on this list involved alcohol (I'm not counting the sake in the stew), which I think is actually respectably low.

    There is a noticeable bias towards the start of the year. This is to be expected, as the glorious honeymoon period of culture shock means unfamiliar experiences are initially greeted with great enthusiasm. This then gives way to frustration (although I don't think I suffered too badly from this) and eventually just acceptance, as these things cease to be new. This is where I am now, and I think it's safe to assume that the coming year won't hold quite as much wonder for me as the one just past. But that's ok, that's just how things go. Hopefully I will experience the more subtle pleasures of properly settling in and beginning to understand the culture that surrounds me on a deeper level, though I'm going to have to pull my finger out on the language front before that can happen.

    Alternatively, I could just attempt to ramp up the excitement level by embarking on increasingly rash and ill-advised adventures; bigger and bigger hits. Naked man festival? Trip to Pyongyang? Get married?