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.



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.



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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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.


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.



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,