Monday, May 31, 2010

Get this paddy started

Or, "Heart of grass".

My last post was a little morose, so you'll be pleased to hear that I'm back on genki form.

On friday I went for drinks with one of my teachers. I don't often go out in Akayu - there's a couple of places I regularly go with Marie et al, and there's the occasional work-related drinking party, but my gaijin friends have little reason to come to this little town, being as it is about half an hour away from two much larger settlements: Yamagata City and Yonezawa. Also, being a cautious type, I'm reluctant to just rock into a random drinking establishment, mostly because the probability of it turning out to be a sleazy hostess bar is dangerously high. Recently, a local advised me that I was right not to venture into strange bars, as there are some that are operated by the Yakuza, and are not above a little extortion of unwary foreigners. I'm taking that with a small pinch of salt, but I was still quite taken aback at the thought that gangsters could be operating in sleepy little Nanyo.

So, I was surprised at how lively things were on Akayu high street at 8pm on a friday. The place was jumping! We got turned away from the first two izakaya we tried, as they were full - unlike pubs, izakaya are strictly seating-only. Once we found a place, a very enjoyable evening of frank discussion / bitching about the education biz ensued.

When we eventually finished talking shop, we moved on to Japanese culture more generally. My drinking buddy taught me an excellent new word: soushokudanshi. This literally means 'herbivorous boy' (sou: grass, shoku: eat, dan: male, shi: child), but my dictionary informs me that it idiomatically means 'young men who reject the avid pursuit of money and sex as masculine, and who may also be kind, co-operative and family oriented'. It seems that as a kind of backlash to Japan's strictly patriarchal society, and the cult of flashy high-powered executives in the post-war boom, a new breed of gentle, sensitive men who feel they have nothing to prove to the world has sprung up. The older generation are filled with predictable consternation at the thought of these un-Japanese, emasculated meek inheriting the earth. Even my drinking partner, a young and progressive-minded sort, was concerned that the grass-eaters would be the downfall of a country whose economy and birthrate are both slowing already. I however embrace the movement fully, and am thinking of getting a T-shirt made.

Saturday was lazy. I tried and failed to repair my bike, but it wasn't a complete waste of time as I feel that I now understand enough about my bike that I'm confident for the next attempt. Then I watched Inglorious Basterds: pretty good. However, it did once again anger me that European languages are so comparatively easy to understand.

On sunday I planted some rice. This is a task that is usually done by machines, but as a special event members of the public were invited to stand ankle-deep in mud and poke seedlings into the ground the old fashioned way. We were in fact creating a work of tanbo (rice field) art - the paddy was marked out with sticks and tape indicating where to plant which colour of rice (green and purple seemed to be the main ones). The image was distorted beyond all recognition, in order that it would appear correctly when viewed from a nearby hillside. Neil Buchanan eat your heart out. Wisely, they put the gaijin (along with the primary school kids) on a background section of uniform green.

However, this didn't stop me from screwing up. I listened intently to the instructions we were given at the start of the day, and managed to hear that the shoots were to be placed 15cm apart. Apparently none of the other foreigners had bothered to listen, and just copied roughly what everyone around them was doing. I meanwhile stuck rigidly to my 15cm grid like the scientist I am. After a while, a woman came over to me. "You're doing it wrong. Take these ones out. Everyone is worried about your planting," she barked at me. I don't think it was her intention to be mean; I think she just lacked the English finesse to sugar-coat her instruction. I ascertained that the shoots were to be placed 15cm apart in the y-dimension, and 30cm apart in the x-dimension, and thus my patches had twice the rice density they were supposed to. Seldom has there been a clearer illustration of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

Though this stinging reprimand took the shine off it a bit, it was still a very pleasant morning, wallowing around in the mud in the sunshine, with frogs leaping around our shins (phonetically at least, 'frog' and 'return' are the same word in Japanese, facilitating some weak puns). For the 1500yen asking price we got lunch, during which I discovered that I have finally acquired the taste for konnyaku. Also included was a trip to a local onsen to clean off all the mud. This was pleasant enough, but I'd have to say onsen are less appealing on a hot summer's day than they are after a day of snowboarding. As an added bonus, 5kg of rice will arrive on my doorstep come harvest time, assuming that the crop doesn't fail due to overly dense planting.

After that a few of us went for ice cream, with me going for an avant garde soybean and sesame combo. Since it was still only mid-afternoon (the rice planting had started early), we decided to go for my first daytime karaoke session. I'm now convinced that daytime karaoke is the way forward: it is literally as cheap as chips. In fact, if you go during the day on a weekday, the price can be as low as a token 10yen per hour. I attempted singing a Japanese song, with predictably disastrous results.

As of today I have rotated to a new school, which means introducing myself to the new first years. My first lesson went really well; I donned my kilt for a shortened version of my jikoshoukai (self-intro), and spent the rest of the lesson playing various revision games. The kids loved it. Admittedly, it's quite an easy sell - stressed out kids with mid-terms coming up are glad of the opportunity to spend an hour playing hangman and watching a gaijin in a skirt waving fluffy Nessies and Highland cows around, rather than hitting the textbooks. But it still felt good - I led the entire lesson, which hopefully redeemed me a little in the eyes of the learning support teacher, who appears to be on the same schedule as me.

For lunch I was invited to another meeting of the Rotary Club. Of course, TANSTAAFL, so I was required to give a 15 minute English lesson. I was a little anxious about this - I had a very vague brief, and clearly one can't do any meaningful language teaching in so short a period. I was worried too about patronising the esteemed businessmen who were to be my class. While I obviously had to go fairly basic, every Japanese adult knows some basic English because of the ubiquity of Western culture. So, I decided not to take the obvious route of greetings and introductions, and instead taught them how to order drinks in a British pub, complete with an intro in (probably very bad) Japanese. It's always hard to guage how well these things are being received by the inscrutable Japanese, but I felt it went alright. I got a laugh by using some local dialect, at least. Afterwards I experienced that buzz of relief that something you were worried about is out of the way; the same feeling I used to get after delivering a seminar. While I am very glad on the whole that my life involves a lot less dread these days, I do quite enjoy that rush.


  1. You wouldn't believe the man-hours it took me, but I'm very pleased to say that my bike is operational once again. I may be a soushokudanshi, but I'm still manly enough to repair a bicycle.

    Top tip: trying to patch a flat tyre is for suckers. Just buy a new inner tube.

  2. Why don't you just throw the bike away and buy a new one?