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.


  1. Have you already done N5 - which I presume is just naming sushi and shouting 'Banzai!' between each one?

  2. No I haven't, N5 is for chumps.