A Visitation

It’s been exactly a month since my last post, which while unintentional gives this a rather nice sense of balance. In that time the trees have gone from yellow to red to brown, and the snowline has crept from its dramatic perch atop distant mountains to fall for the first time down at ground level. Over the course of the day a thin but persistent dusting has built up, and it’s only going to get deeper form here on out. Winter preparation in the form of wooden teepee-esque structures over trees and supports for their branches, as well as the removal of certain road barriers and the erection of others, seems to be nearing completion. All that’s left now is for the temperature to plummet.

Oh wait, that’s happened too. Outside lows at set to hit -8 degrees this week, and it’s normally about 7 degrees indoors when I return home. My windows are single glazed, my walls are paper thin, but at least I have a paraffin heater to keep me company one room at a time.

However, the real subject of this update is the recent visit of my parents and 6 bulging bags of goodies from home.

Stage One: Tokyo

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Shown here in traditional tourist dress with Jaz

We (Jaz and I) met up (with my parents) in Tokyo first, for what would be a very unseasonably warm (by Yamagata standards) weekend. We’d all seen this wonderful city before, so the pressure was off when it came to seeing touristy sights. Jet-lag for 50% of the party didn’t help matters. Nevertheless, we made it to the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park, two favourite haunts, in time to catch sunset and allow the two who needed it a nap on the grass. Our first cat café also featured.

Subsequent days were a little more active. Shinjuku Gyoen showed us wonderful autumn colours, and the Tokyo National Museum was interesting for me at least. The ladies got to dress up and show up the boys, as you may have gathered from the explosion of photos on Facebook last week.

A further highlight was a lamb festival, held in Nagano, which led not only to some cutout photos (which are excellent for posterity) and absurdly long lines for decent-enough lamb, but also to an entertaining cross-cultural lesson. Nigel bought some (soft) drinks while Jaz and I queued up for lamb kebabs, and was half way down his ‘very tasty lemonade’ before it was pointed out to him that, as chū-hai, it ran about 6% ABV. It seems that even unintentionally, my parents are determined to get the drinks in while on holiday.

Stage Three: Yamagata

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‘Stage Three’ because my parents cruelly decided to go to Kanazawa after Tokyo rather than come straight to me. By the sound of it they had a great time with Jaz, but as I was slaving away at work I can’t speak for them with any certainty.

Their arrival in Nanyo occurred latish on Tuesday night. The legendary Ryu-Shanghai Ramen being closed, we went to Yamagata (and personal) favourite Tonpachi for some tonkatsu before considering the precise logistics of fitting three people into my apartment. The advantage of tatami and futons is that one can sleep pretty much anywhere, and there was just enough floor space to allow us to do so.

On Wednesday we went to school/work and were greeted with some matcha and mini-tea-ceremony hospitality, courtesy of some of my students. After photos we were chivvied up to have tea with the principal and only just escaped fast enough to be 10 minutes late for the first lesson.

Brian and I had planned the lessons to be an interview, where the kids would ask questions and receive answers entirely in English. In the most part it worked very well, once parental expectations about their language ability were managed! At break time and after the final lesson we were once again frog-marched by the vice principal back into the principal’s office. Thankfully the latter’s charisma makes up for his lack of English.

Subsequent days we spent around Nanyo and Yamagata, taking in the autumn colours and eating the most melt-in-the-mouth beef imaginable, as well as proving Lonely Planet more or less right when they devoted a single apologetic paragraph to our prefecture’s capital.

The real highlight of any trip to Yamagata, however, is Yamadera. This marks (if memory serves) my fourth trip there so far. What is a gruelling, sweaty trudge in summer becomes a cool skip in Autumn, however, with a view even better than usual.

Yamadera would be our one truly excellent day of weather. Any hopes we might have had to climb some holy mountains were well and truly dashed by the utterly accurate weather forecast. So, off to Sendai we went.

My first brush with this city had been in high summer, and with a local guide, while the second had been a bit too boozy to properly appreciate its geography. It was good, therefore, to get a tourist’s-eye view of the place at a temperature I could function in.

After a bit of wandering and shopping for a sewing kit (of all things), we strode off with purpose to Sendai’s main attraction, the Zuihoden. This is the mausoleum of Tohoku daimyo, one-eyed Yonezawa local boy and all-round city-founding good chap Date Masamune. The amount of colour on the gates and halls themselves is quite out of character, but one might expect as much from someone with such audacious headgear.

And just like that, time was up. Having rounded off the trip with Jack’s Big o’ Furniture Shop IV: The Reckoning, it was time to pack bags and huddle round a table to eat some home-cooked shabu shabu.

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Stay tuned soon for The Winterising Post because this ordeal is too big to fit into one day or one blog post.

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Running before I Crawl

Joints intact

I returned (properly) to Tokyo for the first time in several years with Jaz at the beginning of the month. It rained almost constantly and we were liberal with our wake-up times, so you’ll have to take my word for it that we had a lovely time. As we were staying in Kōenji, I could take her round my old haunts, which meant UFO Club and Penguin House, primarily. The former hosted a mod event at which we both felt very underdressed.

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A chocolate pizza in Harajuku also featured, which had to be tasted to be believed.

Pre-race fuel

Pre-race fuel

Unfortunately, the big achievement of the month has passed that window where I could actually inform you about it here, but what the hell, here’s that sweaty picture once again for luck.

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Yes, I ran a half-marathon, and did so in (just) under two hours. This was a bit over a week ago at the time of going to press. Unfortunately, while the post-race hobbles wore off after a day or two, the shin-splints which have remained steadfast since January returned in full force a few days later after a moderately-active 15 minutes running around with some 10-year-olds. The lack of running goal means I can and have put it to rest until I’m properly recovered.

Unfortunately the same had to go for kendo, at least until next week. I’m a little worried about how I’ve come across to the higher-ups, turning up for two sessions then disappearing completely. Thankfully my landlord is one of them, so I’ve hopefully been able to stave him off with an explanation for the time being.

 

Gorging Ourselves

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What better way to rest my legs than by walking up a mountain and along a gorge? So went the thought process that weekend when I returned to Yamadera for the third time with some friends: Jess, Evan and Andréanne. The original plan had been to join up with a larger group of Yamagata JETS, but a mishap with the station we were supposed to be meeting at caused us to work in reverse, climbing Yamadera then tacking Yamadera Gorge second.

The views at the top were predictably beautiful, and I managed to get one more page of my temple passport filled by a monk who blessed the book with a hoarse growl before handing it back to me. Although I maintain that Jess’s assertion that Yamadera is an hour long and difficulty hike is utterly unfounded, the ease at which we climbed when the temperature was in the mid teens (as opposed to the low thirties) is testament to the power of the climate.

I had seen Yamadera before, but the gorge was a new experience for us all. Jess and Andréanne got their first sight of real life genuine Japanese monkeys and we all slipped at least once on the thin ledge that constituted a path. Nevertheless, the water was clear and cold and especially as the afternoon wore on the whole experience was utterly beautiful. Then someone had the idea to take a photo on the train tracks (because “you can hear them coming”) before we all had to scatter from the oncoming ‘waterfall’ that had been growing louder in the distance.

The next day, Andréanne, Evan and I participated in some ‘German Health Walking’ in nearby Kaminoyama after Andréanne was roped into participating by her employer. Cue two hours of very gentle walking with stops to check our heart rate every hour, and many comments by the old people who seemed the only other real participants. We got a free blood pressure test and udon out of it, however, so all was not lost.

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Alcohol-number-place

Last night I went on my first pub crawl, or 酒番所 (sakebansho). This was rather different from those as I understood them in England, where some friends and I would tackle several bars along a route hopefully pre-defined by natural barriers or ancient fortifications.

The sakebansho, on the other hand, was an enormous, and mid-week, affair. About 150 people packed into a community centre and were assigned to one of about ten groups, which were in turn split into teams of four to five. I was with Brian and two junior high school teachers. Our five stops were marked out for us on a map, and we were free to choose the order as long as we went to the highlighted one first. Having paid up front, a drink and a snack at each was provided, and we had to be back by 9pm for a prize draw.

Akayu is not wanting for drinking places. Unfortunately, almost all of them are スナック (snakku) bars. The shadiness of such places varies wildly, but in one we were greeted and served very intently by two women in very very short dresses. It’s rather difficult to write about without sounding either overly prudish or a little seedy, but suffice to say the regular bars had a more comfortable atmosphere.

One highlight has to be the traditional-feeling and very pleasant bar who cheerfully served us snails. The pictures below prove that I did, indeed, eat it, though I wouldn’t again.

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Come 9pm we gave the numbers attached to our lanyards to the organiser, who began the prize draw. At least three numbers were within one place of my team’s, but regardless we missed out on many bottles of wine and a significant amount of beef. Thankfully ramen and another drink or two afterwards washed away most of the injustice we felt.

 

And Finally

As part of the current lessons on countries and travel for my Year 6’s I decided to set the record straight on what ‘England’ is and how it relates to the UK, which they (and some teachers) had never heard of. As far as I can tell there were no real winners in the map I drew.

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I told you there was mountains

4It’s been longer than I’d expected since my last post, so forgive me if I race through things somewhat.

Drinks!

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Two weeks ago was Sendai Oktoberfest. This was the second such event I’ve attended in Japan and in my life, and was just as weirdly resplendent as I remember it. Having just come from an international event with some school children wherein I served tea and scones and Jay taught German dancing in lederhosen, it was a little bizarre to seeJapanese waitresses in (rather more flamboyant) German clothes just a few hours later. Nevertheless, the city found some real Germans to play for us in the beer hall tent while we concentrated on getting as much overpriced beer into our systems as possible. Friend of the show Josh and I shared a two litre boot which was very nearly upset as we put it down on the table and attracted a lot of attention from passers by. We probably gave up all of 100ml to strangers wanting a photo with it.

 

Blisters!

At long last I have (re)started kendo in Japan. The first session was very daunting indeed, with about 35 members present. For better or worse, most of them were school children, and some of them my students. The order and content of practice was, as expected, different, but the extent to which my arms and feet have softened was much more so. I felt like I was going at half the speed of everyone else, but with practice things can only improve.

In the end, however, it was not an enthusiastic ten-year-old but my own body that cut the first practice short. I missed the last 20 minutes or so to avoid bleeding over the whole dojo and devote a bit of time to cleaning and taping up the blisters that had developed. This was not the most impressive start to my new kendo career, but at least everyone was understanding.

The second session went rather smoother, not least because there were half as many people present. This caused me to be the fourth-highest ranked member of a club I’ve only visited twice. Hopefully I can rise to meet the standard expected of me by the younger members when they (inexplicably) defer to me.

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Mountains!

Yamagata is big on their mountains. It’s in the name, it’s on the flag, it’s in the scenery. Three mountains in particular, the holy Dewa Sanzan, are known for being sites of pilgrimage and general hiking challenge. What better time than the morning after a large party to tackle one of them?

Gassan looked resplendent in autumn colours and sweeping views during our ascent, but was overcome with clouds by the time we finished our lunch break at the summit. The whole thing took about 5 hours in total. It proved an excellent hangover cure and a bracing walk that completely justified our later indulgences in onsen and enormous plates of tonkatsu.

A Festive Weekend

JNGR7934I no longer write a journal. To some extent, this fact will affect what I choose to post here. Thus, this update is not a record of anything earth-shattering (our friends to the west are still winding up for another go at that one) but just a bit on the past weekend and the two festivals it hosted.

Not Named by Accident

JNGR7569The first was Cherry Boy Jamboree. Bizarrely named (although the implication may become a little clearer later) and tiny, this music festival was held in the mountains around Ōe, about two hours northwest of Nanyō. I had decided to drive myself and a few friends (one of whom needed to be back that night) up there, which was a right little road trip made a lot longer by our driving to completely the wrong campsite. Nevertheless, an hour of Alpine winding mountain roads with dubious levels of maintenance later we arrived at a small (and correct) campsite with a teepee stage and a bonfire in the centre.

Having only ever been to the V Festival c.2010, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this. The music was folky and the sun was glorious, and despite my inability to enjoy a refreshing lager beer with the others (Japanese drink-driving laws are as strict as they can get) it was very easy to enjoy the afternoon. More JETs arrived periodically, and the music seemed to change genre with every set. One band had bagpipes made out of Minion inflatables, another had about 7 guitars on stage at once.

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After a chainsaw sales pitch and a go at chopping some wood the old-fashioned way, the light began to fade and the live music (which had been getting increasingly heavy) was replaced by a dancey DJ set and a firespinning/spitting/throwing show. It was obvious the bonfire was going to come into play, but the method of ignition was rather special.

JNGR7752Eight men in loincloths carried on their shoulders a gigantic wooden phallus and, after being shouted at by an equally underdressed and sake-swigging man with a staff, proceeded to place the wood between their legs, light the tip, and thrust it with grave symbolism into the bonfire’s opening. Then they started shouting the tune of Amazing Grace and it turned out two people were getting married. Truly a beautiful moment.

JNGR7851After this, the drums and dancing started — leaping about in a wide circle with no inhibitions is tough to do when stone-cold sober, but thankfully the atmosphere and smoke inhalation did their bit. As the bonfire wore down, the acts began again. Of particular note were a reggae-jazz fusion group led by a monk who had everyone spellbound. Plus a metal band consisting of three very underdressed-except-for-luchi-libre-masks men who were joined by one of the JETs when he played the saxophone for a song.

Other highlights included meeting a British man who ran a food stall who gave me some homemade cider (home-brew laws are, like drink-driving, strict when it comes to selling) and a trip to a gorge with several very drunk ALTs.

Driving home in the middle of the night was a less pleasant experience, as was the very prevalent smell of woodsmoke that dominated my Sunday, but the experience overall was well worth it.

Extra-Dimensional Bedsheet

JNGR8027Sunday saw one of Nanyō’s main festivals: Furosato Matsuri [Hometown Festival]. Given that this occurred five minutes walk from my house, the logistics were less tiring. Aside from being a standard Japanese festival (with lots of food, taiko drumming and predatory drunken old ladies), the event features O-Shishi-sama, a lion mask/costume/statue of the type seen in many East Asian festivals. These normally have a cloth surrounding them to cover the person operating the mouth. This one had enough cloth to be pulled up and down the main street by about 60 men on two teams, while and yellow. Over the course of the night, they pulled it further and further up the stops of Akayu’s main shrine before being dragged back down again and disappearing for a few minutes. They at last reached the temple at about 10:30pm, and all of the sudden the festival was over without much ceremony (all things considered).

Three friends came over to witness the festival with me, and as a group we were accosted with particular vigour by my students, many of whom had been asked by Brian to come and say hello to me if they could. This they did, and to their credit, they were forthright when I asked them to introduce themselves in English. Rumours did spread, however, that I had three more girlfriends apart from Jaz, and knowing them it may be a little while before they can be completely quashed. Sorry Jaz.


With Furosato over, the festival season is all but over. The leaves are just starting to turn and rain has become more frequent. Sometimes it’s even a little bit chilly in the mornings. Hopefully things will only get more comfortable, until they very certainly don’t when Winter comes.

(Not quite) One Month In

Well, hello again. It’s been a (very) long time since my last post, but I figured I had already given out this website to the friends and family who wanted to stay abreast of my time in Japan the first time, so it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to include those who wanted to know this time around.

I might adjust the site more to make this split a bit clearer, but for now I’ll simply dive in with an update, seeing as the emails and messages are getting numerous. This time around, this is to be a purely personal blog, with none/very little of the previous more generally informative posts. I’m not here to sell Japan or anything, I just want you to be able to find out how I am at a glance. Apologies also for the lack of pictures in this post — I wasn’t really intending to write one and as such I’m pretty unprepared on that front.

I arrived in Nanyō, sweaty and blinking in the noonday sun after a four hour train ride from Tokyo on the 10th August. A rather boozy and (at first) nerve-racking welcome party greeted me, but it was undeniably helpful to meet the staff at the Board of Education. The next few weeks were spent gallivanting about the city and its environs with Brian, my successor who’s been hired separately from JET because he’s just that good at his job.

We bought all manner of things to fill my completely empty apartment, including a futon, a desk, a low table, some cushions, etc. etc. The two main rooms are tatami, which makes sleeping and sitting on the floor a far more comfortable prospect than might first appear, if you can do without back support in the latter case.

Nanyō itself stretches the definition of ‘city’ by British standards, but nevertheless is a beautiful place of about 30,000 people. It formed of 4-5 villages in the 1950s and remains reasonably well separated into different districts, especially the main three: Akayu (where I live), Miyauchi and Nakagawa. It’s in a large plateau to the south of Yamagata City, the prefectural capital, and is surrounded by mountains and rice fields. Truly a beautiful place, at least in summer.

My day-to-day work in the first few weeks was, as already said, being shown round the city, and stocking up on everything for the most part. Some time was spent at city hall, including one time meeting the mayor and being interviewed by the local paper and local TV in the same sitting. In the afternoons, I helped coach some students who were entering an English speech contest. Being 3rd year junior high schoolers (Year 9), their English was variable but not non-existent, particularly due to the efforts of Jay, the other JET teacher in Nanyō.

After a few weeks of this, I started on the real thing: working across seven different elementary schools in Nanyō alongside Brian. Having visited all of them, and the three junior high schools  with my supervisor, Mr. Yano, a week earlier, I at least knew the general layout, but the prospect of 22 separate self-introductions lessons was daunting. Nevertheless, they only got easier as the week progressed, and after all that practice I feel rather more confident standing in front of a room of rowdy ten-year-olds and shouting at the top of my lungs that I have a pet tortoise. A few of these first visits involved (Japanese) self-introductions in front of the whole school, too.

In between these, I’ve had a little downtime. I’ve visited friends up in Yamagata city several times, and got to know a lot of the new JETs at a three day orientation in Tendo, about an hour north of Nanyō. Jaz has come for a weekend and I’ve gone to visit her in Kanazawa. Much has been imbibed, and most of it not of my own specific volition. I’ve tried taiko drumming (thanks Jay) and signed up for a half marathon. I’ve also interviewed a rapper for the AJET magazine, Connect.

As it stands, writing this, I have completed my first ‘normal’ day of work with Brian, going through ‘I like,’ ‘Where is’ and ‘I can’ phrases across four classes in two different schools.

That is, as far as I can tell at 9:30pm on Monday, pretty much everything so far. I’ll try to update this as interesting things happen, so expect frequency to vary. And, of course, you can still chat to me. Get in touch and I’ll give you my address if you want to be old-fashioned, or my Japanese phone number/LINE ID if you don’t.

 

-Jack

Boku no Hosomichi

(Additional emotion to accompany reading can be found here)
And thus we come to the end of my journey and this blog designed to record it. After Hong Kong I met an English friend of old and a relatively recent Japanese host, but the events and photos from that week shall remain on other platforms in order to preserve some semblance of integrity in this one.
Although this journey to Narita Airport is one of reflection, I shall do my best to avoid too much whimsy (although I can make no promises). I do not intend to return with an overly romantic middle-distance gaze (any more than I already do) and a conviction that no one could possibly grasp the profundity of a six month city break, and I suspect that many lessons learned will become far more obvious upon my actual return and starting at university.
It would be foolish, however, to pretend that nothing has come out of this trip. My Japanese has improved from some theoretical basics to conversational ones, I am now competent with chopsticks and have been fully converted on the viability of enormous shower rooms and heated, water-jetting toilets. I have made many friends, most of them far more multilingual than myself, from all over the world, who I trust I can call upon should I need to go into business in Holland, listen to some truly bizarre music at Penguin House or do just about anything north of Tokyo.
As I watch the city change steadily into countryside outside my window I realise just how attached I have become to this at times scarily odd country with all its societal flaws (cynicism is just one way to ease the pain of departure), horrifying insects and bewildering cultural revelations, and just how little of it I would have been able to experience without the language skills I had when I arrived and continued to develop. I suppose Koichi et al at ToFugu as well as my teacher Yuka Isaacs deserve special mentions in this department for helping me to get some sort of grounding before I stumbled over here way back in January.
My destination draws near. I am superlatively glad I took the opportunity to experience a place so different from home (although it scarcely feels so now) and an already planning my return after university. I advise in the strongest terms anyone even vaguely considering a similar venture to do so. You will not regret it.
Until next time,

Jack