Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Drop dead gorge-ous

Or, "Gangsta's paradise".

It's August, which means a number of things. First of all, it means a permanent sheen of sweat over mosquito-bitten skin. It means emotional goodbyes to departing friends, and awkward introductions to potential new ones. It means slack days without any teaching. And it means summer festivals.

Actually, I'm not too badly underemployed this summer. I'm on the committee organising the Yamagata JET seminars for this year, so I'm busy preparing to orientate some noobs next week. Also, the board of education have decided that the way to improve English standards is to hit 'em young, so I have been involved in teaching kindergarten teachers how to teach English, which is actually a lot more challenging than my regular job. And, I have the standard biannual irritation of speech contest training.

In what may turn out to be quite a formless post, I guess I'll tell you about my weekend. On saturday I met a whole bunch of new JETs in Yamagata City. As of this year, Yamagata City has terminated all of its private ALTs, and replaced them with JETs. This is quite an eyebrow-raising move in these austere times, as we are considerably more expensive, but it seems they decided that the hassle of running everything through a third party was not worth the saving. (Private ALTs are employed by their companies, whereas JETs are employed directly by schools or boards of education.) So anyway, this means a large influx of new faces, most of whom I went out boozing with. I look forward to discovering just how wildly inaccurate my first impressions of everyone were.

As we drank pitchers of beer and screeched into karaoke mics (yes, I sang Rinda Rinda), I was mildly shocked to realise that, as the only third year present, I was the most senior member of the party. Furthermore, I had probably the strongest Japanese of anyone in the room. I still feel that my understanding of what's going on around me is tenuous at best most of the time, but when I consider how truly clueless I was at first, I suppose I have come quite a long way. I guess I have become a monocular monarch in the land of the blind. Or at least a partially sighted prince.

After a classic hangover breakfast at the bakery in Yamagata - one of the few places where one can obtain decent bread around here - Amber and I headed for some possibly mythical 'gorge' near Yamadera. As you know, I'm the kind of guy who can barely take a piss without locking the GPS co-ordinates of the toilet in first, whereas she is the kind of shoot-from-the-hip chick who considers some random guy in a bar mentioning a gorge near a town to constitute an itinerary. You can imagine my fury when she managed to find the place more-or-less immediately.

But as we strolled down into the picturesque creek, my frustration soon gave way to delight. It was a hot, sunny day (one of the thermometers on the road there was reporting 37C), but the water was cool and refreshing. We waded around in the slow-moving river a bit, before eventually just getting in and swimming in our clothes. Then we just basked on a big rock for a while, like a couple of soggy lizards.

The place was a popular spot, with lots of kids splashing around, mums sunbathing, and dads tending barbeques and swigging Asahi. A few guys were snorkelling with what appeared to be spring-loaded tridents, and unbelievably they would occasionally surface with a fish impaled on the prongs. But perhaps even more surprising were the number of people there with very conspicuous tattoos.

You see, tattoos are rather taboo in Japan. This is because they are very much associated with the Yakuza, and thus many onsens and swimming pools will deny entry to those bearing ink. This could explain why these people had come to a river to get their swim on. I guess we'll never know whether we were in fact sharing the gorge with a bunch of mobsters, but I'd like to think we were.

Let's flash forward to monday night, back in Nanyo. Monday was Bon-Odori ("Bon dance"), the climax of the O-Bon festival. This is the Buddhist festival of the dead, where the Japanese 'believe' (no one really believes it, which is good) that the spirits of dead ancestors return home. It's probably the second biggest event on the Japanese calendar, after New Year. Long-time readers will recall that I took part in this two years ago, but no-one thought to invite me last year, at which I was a little put out. So, it felt good to don my borrowed yukata and straw hat once again, and take to Akayu high street with a bunch of civil servants. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day, which meant that the evening was less oppressively humid than most: perfect dancing conditions. I decided to go for it, and attempt to make up in enthusiasm what I may have lacked in grace and poise. My yukata was soon soaked through with sweat, and my spirited moves were eliciting compliments from my fellow dancers. They may have just been being polite.

I didn't really know anyone on the City Hall dancing team very well, so it was a good opportunity to make some friends. Over beer and sashimi at the after-party I was chatting to a guy (I think he may he been appointed to look after me) who took it upon himself to work out a way to render my name in kanji. This requires even more mangling that my katakana name ('Suchuwaato Finrei'), because katakana is able to represent certain sound combinations (e.g. 'fi') that would never occur in a native Japanese word. He came up with 須茶和斗 品麗 ('Suchawato Hinrei'), using characters meaning 'necessity', '(green) tea', 'harmony', 'sake dipper', 'refinement', and 'beauty', respectively. At six characters it's not exactly catchy (four is typical), but I like it.