Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hayama-n anarchist!

As of yesterday, I am working (and, for the time being, living) at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (or Sokendai, to give it its abbreviated Japanese name), in Hayama Town, Kanagawa Prefecture. Relocating my life 300-odd kilometres south was, and indeed continues to be, quite the mission. However, things are quiet enough now that I can give you a quick run-down of what's been keeping me way too busy to blog for the last several weeks. Somewhat arbitrarily, I'll start about a fortnight ago.

Wednesday March 21st
This was a day of goodbyes. That afternoon I donned my suit in order to officially resign to the mayor of Nanyo. Protocol dictates that this exchange should take the form of a chat over green tea lasting at least ten minutes, but my Japanese still isn't quite up to that, so after I'd given him my prepared gratitude spiel, he just shot the breeze with my boss, mostly about judo from what I could make out.

In the evening I had not one but two farewell parties. The first was with my board of education colleagues, and wasn't specifically for me, but for everyone doing the end-of-year shuffle. I ate my nabe (Japanese stew), drank my sake, and then made my excuses and left for dinner number two. This was with Marie and the ladies, and was at easily the most up-market sushi restaurant I've ever visited. The delicacies on offer included deep-fried fugu (pufferfish) and a drink containing five little fish, live and swimming.

Thursday March 22nd
Feeling a little the worse for wear, I had to go to Sendai for the second time that week. This was part of a last-minute scramble to get my visa status changed from 'instructor' to 'professor', a detail which everyone had overlooked until very recently. I had planned to take the train, but it wasn't running due to a minor avalanche on the line, so I drove. After I had attended to my business at the immigration office, on a whim I decided to visit the coast, something I hadn't done since the Great Quake. Over a year on, all the debris has been cleared away, but it's still very clear that a disaster took place there. I walked around neighbourhoods that had been reduced to roads and foundations, with the occasional crumpled metal barrier or twisted railing serving as a reminder of the fearsome power of a 10m wall of water.

Saturday March 24th - Wednesday March 28th
My final duty as an ALT was to help run a five-day "English camp" for high school students from all over Yamagata - my first experience of teaching that age group. For the middle three days, I put my scientific spin on things by having the kids design, perform, and present (in English, obviously) simple psychology experiments. These were based on the Stroop effect, the oldest and nuttiest of old chestnuts, familiar to anyone who's done an undergrad psychology course. Anyway, it went better than could reasonably have been expected.

The camp was exhausting. From the wake-up call at 6:30am to the end of our allotted bathtime at 9:55pm, we were on duty more-or-less constantly. But, it was a good way to go out. These students were the best-of-the-best: able, highly motivated, and a joy to teach.

Thursday March 29th
Though I had been packing and tidying up whenever I'd had the time, it was now my last full day in Nanyo, and thus, time to get serious. Though the house had been full of two decades of accumulated ALT detritus when I arrived, I was expected to completely empty the place, for reasons that have still not been adequately explained to me. Thankfully, I had help. For one thing, Amber (who had also been at the camp) had joined forces with me. She has a real flair for housework; I've added that to "being able to play a melody on the piano by ear" on my list talents of hers that I shall never possess. A trio of teaching assistants, who would otherwise have just been sitting in city hall, we also dispatched by the BoE to help in the cleanup operation. Many hands made light work, and it really wasn't that bad. Having said that, there were a few fraught moments as my supervisor relayed the landlord's ever more unreasonable demands and I had to suppress the urge to gun down the messenger.

Friday March 30th
The day of departure had come. Thankfully it was a dry morning, as the landlord insisted that the house be empty for the inspection at 9:30am, and not realising this, I had booked the rental van from 10:30. So I just piled up my boxes and fake musical instruments on the front step. He pocketed the lion's share of my deposit, but I'd been expecting that - Japanese landlords seem to act as if their clients are in fact their serfs - so I was happy to get anything back at all. Then it was round to Marie's for one last goodbye, during which she presented me with an enormous bottle of that sake with the gold flakes that we customarily drink at New Year. And then, we hit the road just after noon.

Amber took the wheel for the first little bit, taking us as far as the outskirts of Fukushima City. I then took over, powering down the expressway through the bulk of Fukushima and Tochigi. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, and I felt more than a little melancholy to be leaving behind the still snow-capped mountains. At tea time we stopped off at a service station, where - unbelievably - we witnessed a man walking a monkey on a lead.

With dusk falling, Amber got back in the driving seat for the tough part: Tokyo. Navigation is not among her surprising talents, so we figured it was best to have me on GPS duties for this. People had given me dire warnings about the difficulty of negotiating the tangled expressways around the capital, so it was with some trepidation that we set off.

While my doomsaying friends might have been laying it on a bit thick, I will say this: I don't know how anyone navigated the Tokyo expressways before the advent of GPS navigation. Even with GPS, you really had to be on the ball to take all the right exits; I'm not sure I could have done it alone. We only really came unstuck once, after being in a mental corkscrew tunnel for about 10km and thus having no clue where we were. This necessitated a brief but highly stressful detour through the streets of Shibuya.

We finally arrived at the university dorm, in our seventh prefecture of the day, at around 10pm. As we got into bed, it all hit me: leaving Yamagata, the tension of the drive, my anxieties about my new life, and most of all, the realisation that the days of jumping in the car to see Amber of a friday night were over. I was soon sobbing uncontrollably.

Saturday March 31st
As they always do, things seemed better in the morning. We unloaded my possessions to my room in the dorm (I am temporarily homeless, as I can't move into my new place until later this week), and then drove into Zushi (where I will soon be living) to return the van. We then spent the day doing some low-level sightseeing, strolling around my new hometown, then taking the train to nearby Kamakura, where I introduced Amber to geocaching, and we went inside a 760 year old, 121 tonne bronze Buddha, before walking along the beachfront at sunset. My first impressions of the region are:
  • It's a lot warmer than Yamagata.
  • There's a lot more money around here. During our epic walk, we stumbled into a weird sort of gated community (except that it didn't actually have gates) full of BMWs and ostentatiously avant-garde architecture.
  • It's a lot more crowded; space is clearly at much more of a premium around these parts.
  • It's much more cosmopolitan. Within five minutes walk of Zushi station we found Italian, Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants, and supermarkets selling the kind of imported goods that would previously have required a trip to Yamaya.
Sunday April 1st
This was never going to be the funnest of days. After bagging a quick cache in the complex that the university is part of (there are like eight in all of Yamagata prefecture), I accompanied Amber into Tokyo. We went to Harajuku to see the cosplayers who supposedly hang out there on sundays, but all we saw were lots of other gaijin looking slightly disappointed. Then we just had time for a quick tofu burger (I had a real burger, obviously) before Amber had to get her train back north. There were emotional scenes at the station.

It was a beautiful evening, so I walked the hour-and-a-half back from Zushi station to the uni. I checked in with Marlo on Skype, and then, in something of a symbolic gesture, forlornly shaved my hair, which had got very long and unkempt as a result of Amber's pleas for me to grow up, stop shaving my own head, and go to a barber.

Monday April 2nd
My very first task was to unpack and set up the super-flashy quad core 23" touchscreen that had been provided for me at my request. I spent much of the day assembling the software tools of my trade, and I took the opportunity to try to instill (and install) some good habits that were sorely lacking during my PhD, by downloading a proper citation manager and the exciting up-and-coming open-source stats program R.

In the afternoon I had to officially receive my contract. Though there was a certain amount of the classic Japanese formality about this, it was substantially toned down compared to working for Nanyo City. In the little time I've spent at Sokendai, I've noticed that there are two kinds of people who work here: administrators and scientists. They are easy to distinguish, because the former wear the standard suit of the Japanese civil servant, whereas the latter wear jeans and open-necked shirts.

Tuesday April 3rd
More of the same today; I still haven't got started on any proper work yet. However, I did attend my first ever faculty meeting, which was conducted in Japanese and thus while I had a rough idea of what was being discussed, I was still a long way from being able to contribute usefully. Actually, the language thing is worth commenting on. Back at the BoE, I had got to a stage where my broken, faltering Japanese was probably a little better than most people's broken, faltering English, so most communication was does in the former. Here, because everyone has to attend international conferences and read English journals, the average level of English is much higher, so people invariably talk to me in my native tongue. I fear that this may be bad for my Japanese studying. But I suppose I'll have five years of tuesday lunchtime faculty meetings to practice on.


  1. Academia again, Dr Finlay is back!

  2. Welcome to Kanagawa!! :)

    Yeah, it's a big change but I'm sure you will get used to it!

    You won't miss the tonnes of snow I'm sure!

    And yeah, I'm pretty sure the cosplay in Harajuku has been finished for a while. Someone needs to update the guidebooks!