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 NiƱa 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?


  1. To think the owners of Lina World went to all that bother - and didn't even get a mention!! Dad

  2. Long time since your last post, most have been a massive slump. Go to the pineapple park in Okinawa.