So, besides our ryokan stay in part 1, there was a lot of other things to do in Shiga Prefecture. Other things we did in and around Lake Biwa were…
The Katsube Fire Festival
When Emperor Tsuchimikado fell sick sometime in the 13th century, a fortuneteller traced the cause of his sickness to a dragon living in a nearby marsh. The dragon was killed and burned, so every second Saturday of January, the Katsube Himatsuri (Fire Festival) is celebrated to commemorate that event. Oh right, and yeah, the emperor recovered after that happened.
So, to presumably represent said dragon, massive torches made of hay are constructed, hauled into the shrine grounds by men in traditional loincloths, and set aflame. As the torches burn, the men dance in circles and chant.
Small fireworks inside the torches go off just as the torches are spent, signifying their end. Then, their remains are hauled out through the shrine gates. Man, Japanese festivals are so cool.
Mount Hiei via the Biwako Valley Ropeway
Biwako Valley Ropeway is Japan’s fastest, and it takes you to the top of the local Mount Hiei. Activities included my first encounter with snow this unconscionably warm winter, and my first time sledding in over 15 years.
We also spent what must have been an hour trying to get the perfect picture on the edge of the infinity pool at Biwako Valley Terrace. Perfect for Instagram! Too bad I don’t have one.
Mount Hiei stands at a modest 2,782 feet (848.1m), which still makes for a great view above the clouds.
The Michigan Cruise
Nothing is more Japanese than an American paddle steamboat straight out of 1880s Mississippi River. You can take a 60, 80, or 120-minute cruise on the fantastic Michigan, four stories and also featuring a bar and live performances.
Keeping with the American theme, the performers even sang in ENGLISH, which is always a surprise. It was mostly Disney music, including Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” Mary Poppins’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You.”
Much like the Naruto cruise in Awaji, you can also feed the birds here, since they follow the boat the whole time and are pretty unafraid of humans. I had a perfect moment of symbiosis with one particular gull, who snatched my stick of Pretz right out of my hand. They flew a little too close for comfort a lot, even when we were just leaning on the railing looking out at the scenery.
Daiichi Nagisa Flower Park
Conveniently located a several-mile walk next to turbid rivers, Communist-block architectural monstrosities, rice paddies, and homes for getting to a train station in less than half an hour is only a dream, is Daiichi Nagisa Park, where you can catch over 12,000 early-blooming rapeseed flowers.
So now, thanks in large part to Stanzi and others encouraging me to travel more, I’ve made a not-insignificant dent into the prefectures of Japan!
To end on a more interesting note, Ogoto, the immediate area of Shiga that we stayed in, has a little bit of a seedy undertone and history to it. Our lovely 4-star hotel was right behind a huge pachinko parlor, and closer to it still was this:
A “soapland” in the process of being demolished. Soaplands are essentially brothels that just barely, barely skirt by in the eyes of Japanese law. We saw them dotted all over our travels across Shiga and around the lake. Oh well, perhaps on my next solo travel trip ;^)))
“Have you gone to Kyoto? Have you gone to Tokyo? What about the mother lake of Japan?” nobody ever has often asked me. Sticking with my program of travelling only to places that people probably never Google, this last weekend I took a trip to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, one of the oldest on Earth at 4 million years, and located in the Shiga Prefecture, which is next to Kyoto. It’s shaped like a dog, apparently.
First and absolutely foremost, this was a golden opportunity to stay in one of the nicest, most expensive hotels in my entire life, in a traditional Japanese hotel, or ryokan. My girlfriend Stanzi and I stayed at Kyo Oumi, located in Otsu, the capital of the prefecture, whose population numbers only 300,000. Very inaka!
A stay at a ryokan, especially a fancy one, entails the following amenities:
Your own yukata robe, so you can walk around the hotel and bathe in style.
Kaiseki (multi-course, ultra-traditional) meals, the local delicacies and specialties of the region. For Shiga, it is tai (red seabream); Omi beef, in the same class as Kobe beef; fried and smoked fugu (poisonous blowfish); and of course fresh sashimi, local umeshu (plum wine), and also apparently edible chrysanthemum flowers.
My personal favorite was absolutely the third day’s course, shabu shabu hot pot, where you swish thinly-sliced meat back and forth in boiling broth with your chopsticks, and it cooks almost instantly owing to its thinness. Traditional-traditional Japanese cuisine is such a different animal from regular Japanese cuisine, where you go from fried meat cutlets, curry, and ramen to steamed, boiled, pickled, or uncooked… somethings from the ocean. Absolutely delicious and memorable, but my mind wasn’t blown all across the dog-shaped lake as one might’ve expected.
Finally, the most amazing thing about a ryokan is the room itself.
It was absolutely massive, big enough that I could run laps around it (which I did upon excitement first coming into the room). It is all tatami, featuring the main room, a sitting room, windows with views of the lake, and an onsen-style (sitting) shower complete with a bathtub ACTUALLY big enough to lay down in!
Without a doubt, the pièce de résistance of the entire thing, really the main attraction aside from the kaiseki, is your own. Private. Onsen! That is, your own private hot spring, overlooking Lake Biwa. Absolutely magnificent.
One final note about ryokan hotels, is that there is no bedroom. You sleep on the floor, really wherever you’d like, on a futon. Each time we came back from our kaiseki dinner, the staff had already laid them out for us! Otherwise they are stored in closets, and you can lay them out yourself.
And that was all just the hotel! Lake Biwa had much more to offer than just our accommodation of course, which will follow in part 2… and, unlike Fukuoka, I swear I totally will write one.
Two wrestlers enter the sumo ring. Together they might weigh as much as a BMW Isetta. They drink water from ceremonial cups, served to them by the last opponent they defeated. They throw salt in the ring to spiritually cleanse it. The judges signal they can start– but not yet, the match starts only when both wrestlers put both their fists on the ground, and the timing of that is completely up to them. There’s a lot of psyching out, feinting, and intimidation. They crouch, ready to clash, but then stand up again to the cheers of the crowd. They slap their bellies, stomp on the ground to drive bad spirits away, and some throw even more huge handfuls of salt to really be theatrical. This pre-match metagame is sometimes more intense than the match itself, which often last just a few seconds. This is, of course, sumo, and last-last weekend I took a trip to Fukuoka to watch Sumo Kyushu Basho, or the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, one of four annually around Japan.
Firstly, it was held in Fukuoka Kokusai (International) Center, and you know what’s cool about sumo? You sit on the floor! So Japanese!!!
There’s also chair seating, but those are in the very back rows. We instead opted for a “box seat,” where instead of buying individual seats, you have to buy the whole “box” of floor space and four cushions. The cost was a flat ￥46,400 ($427), regardless of whether one, two, three, or four people sit. These were the third-best seats, with the first being ringside, where you might actually get to experience a sumo wrestler falling on top of you, then the front row, then us.
Sumo tournaments run for about two weeks at a time, and every rikishi wrestles once each day. Their rank/division is determined by their win and loss record by the end of the tournament. Think of it as working the same as relegation in the English Premiere League, and the tournament being a squashed-together season. The current grand champion, or yokozuna, is actually a Mongolian rikishi named Hakuhō. This elusive rank has been given to less than 100 people since 1630!! Adding on to the fun, sumo tournaments start around 8 in the morning, with the low-tier divisions going first, up till 6pm when you get to see the grand champion himself!
There’s just so many neat things I really like about sumo. While I can’t claim to be a super-fan (nor can I with soccer, despite my many references to it thus far), I think that in sport there is beauty in simplicity. When there are so much fewer rules, then you must strive for absolute perfection in every little aspect. Two ways to lose– be pushed out of the ring, or touch the floor with anything but your feet. Despite this, there are over 82 recognized ways to win a sumo bout, which is included in the referee decision at the end as well as statistically tracked. There’s also, amazingly enough, a few foreign sumo wrestlers, the top division having a few dudes from Mongolia, and then Georgia and Bulgaria. Especially impressive because they are required to be fluent in Japanese, take a Japanese name, and live the entire sumo lifestyle.
We got to Kokusai Center around noon because of quite a night the night before, which’ll follow in part two. The stadium was nearly empty for the makushita division, the third-highest and the lowest featured at Kyuushu Basho. Even the wrestlers looked smaller. The gyōji (referees), whose outfits change from tier to tier, are barefoot and their robes a lot less elaborate. Compared to the top division, it seemed like the bouts lasted a little longer on average, as well as a LOT less pre-match feinting. It also seemed a lot less serious; there was one particular bout where the wrestlers were just staring each other down, and the gyōji yelled out something that sounded like “Wake up!” which even got some laughs from the crowd.
Yet another just absolutely badass thing about sumo– the gyōji at the topmost rank, called tate-gyōji, carry daggers in their belt to signify their willingness to commit suicide if they make the wrong decision. But as a perk, they DO get more elaborate robes, as well as wearing tabi socks and zōri straw sandals instead of barefoot. From what I’ve read, though, they don’t actually need to commit suicide if they make a wrong call, and no one has done it in modern history. At the current time there is only one referee/gyōji at this level, named Hideki Imaoka.
Anyways, the Center didn’t start getting packed until around the afternoon, near the end of the second-tier jūryō and the beginning of the top-tier division, makuuchi. One of the first things that happens is all 42 wrestlers of makuuchi file in, wearing banners made by their sponsors. They bow one by one as they are introduced, make a circle around the sumo ring, clap, pull up on their banners, and raise their hands to the air. Perhaps calling the attention of the gods to bring prosperity to their sponsors?
In the same vein, before every bout a few attendants will circle around the ring holding up the match sponsors’ banners. Another small TERRIBLY interesting point– the rikishi are referred to west vs. east, rather than left vs. right. Seeing as each makuuchi wrestler wrestles 15 times, if their wins outnumber their losses, they’ll be promoted within the division. And vice versa, they may be demoted, or perhaps even relegated (at least I assume they would be). Simple, simple!
There was so much that went on, compounded with my bad habit of writing blog posts WAY after the fact, that it’s difficult to me to lay out what happened chronologically, so a few highlights:
Finding that slapping is allowed, as well as open-palm thrusts. Some matches were basically just giant slap-fests, so intense that the sounds echoed across the stadium.
Seeing Yuta Tomokaze get injured falling out of the ring, and being taken away in an (admittedly, comically large) wheelchair. In fact, it was pretty strange. After he fell out of the ring, he didn’t get up. It took a few minutes of confused silence before anyone even came to help (and they didn’t look like paramedics), and even then Tomokaze mostly had to get up by himself. It looked like he either broke or dislocated his leg in the fall from the ring. Luckily, not career-ending, but he did have to withdraw from the tournament.
The final match of the day, which on this one was Hakuhō versus Hayato Daieisho, happened around 6pm. It was actually over in less than a few seconds: the refereed decision was Daieisho won by oshi-dashi, or by simply pushing his opponent out of the ring. And wow, the grand champion had lost! Now it is day 12 of the tournament, and Hakuhō is currently 11-1. So we were privileged enough to witness his only loss thus far. Wow! If this had been the last day, and Hakuhō had lost the match, there’s a tradition of the crowd straight-up picking up their and throwing their cushions at the ring. This also kick-ass practice was banned 11 years ago, but people still do it, Shinto Buddha bless them.
And lastly, the day’s action is concluded with yet another ceremony, this one called yumitori-shiki. A wrestler from the makushita division twirls a huge bamboo bow in the air and sweeps the ground with it to even further drive away bad spirits and cleanse the ring.
Coming away from the tournament, you (slash no one) may be wondering, “But Patrick, who is your favorite wrestler after all?” And of course, I’d have to respond “Why, it’s the world fourth-ranked Hideki Asanoyama!” because of all the wrestlers we ran into outside, he was nice enough to let me take a picture with him. Now, I’m a fan for life!
Himeji Castle was built in 1333. Since then, it has never been burned down, and it survived the bombings of World War II, even as the city of Himeji himself was leveled twice, leaving it as one of only twelve “original” castles left in Japan. Apparently, at one point over 5,000 existed. Fret not, the Allies did not destroy exactly 4,988 castles. A lot of them were lost in, you know, regular war between shogunates in Japan back when that was en vogue, and utterly bizarrely, many were just straight-up intentionally destroyed as part of the Meiji Restoration, that period of modernization following Japan’s opening itself to the world again. Then, though yours truly has visited the area and park several times, this past Saturday was the first time that I actually went inside the castle.
First off, the way up the castle is winding and rather steep– a way to force attackers to have to take as convoluted a route as possible, while at the whole time keeping them in clear/open sight from inside the castle. Those holes you see in different shapes are sama, their being different shapes for different ways to shoot at invaders: oblong for bows and round/triangular/square for different types of guns. I wonder if way back when, Tanaka-Samurai ever tried to fire a blunderbuss out of a arquebus hole or something and his friends made fun of him all day at work the next day. Just another day at the office!
I also forgot to mention that Himeji Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. The all-wood interior is still intact, and you have to take your shoes off before traversing up all six floors to the top. Which, by the way, you are given a plastic bag for to carry in until you reach the other end, a pretty common practice in shrines, temples, and other such historical places. Even inside, you can still see how invader-centric the construction and layout is. Stairs are very steep and narrow, and there’s even rooms with “high windows” designed for the express purpose of allowing gun smoke to escape should there ever be such a melee. I hit my head on a low ceiling going up one of the floors, so I guess that’s where I would’ve died had I been invading. Much better than my unfortunate friend Stanzi, who had foolishly stopped to take a picture around one of the sama holes. Well, I did too, but I was much more ninja-esque about it of course.
It’s finally cooling down from summer in Japan, so that may have contributed, but there was just amazingly refreshing, constant wind flow through the windows at the very top. It was definitely a lot more pleasant a temperature compared to outside, and I find it really fascinating to think about how things like summer climates affect architecture and building design, as well as what passive/electricity-less solutions existed before A/C was invented, such as the windcatcher towers of the Middle East. Re: the other point, older Japanese apartments and schools, for example, all doors directly communicate with large sliding, screen-less windows to create channels for airflow. I really couldn’t tell what exactly made the air so refreshing in the castle aside from us being so high up, but I’m sure there was more to it than just there coincidentally being a breeze that day.
The interior was, again, all-wood, and pretty barren. Obviously, none of the original furniture or whatever else that may have decorated the inside remains. Just a lot of big, flat, empty wooden rooms. I really do wonder what this castle would’ve looked like in its heyday– there’s just so much usable space. What were the entertainment rooms like? What would most of the castle rooms have in them/be used for anyways? The only relic that remained was an incredibly well-preserved flat screen TV.
One of the only rooms I saw for whose purpose was obvious was this armory.
Another, located in the “west bailey”, another section of the castle devoted to living quarters, contained the only tatami room to be seen, and this very creepy statue of Princess Sen, famous resident and wife of the original owner of the castle, Honda Tadatoki.
Besides the history, the castle is also amazing from an architectural standpoint. Above is the interior framework of the castle. And also, did you know, Japanese castles are built without nails? Instead, they’re completely made out of interlocking wooden beams. If I’m not mistaken, it was borne out of necessity because the quality of Japanese metal was pretty poor. I must admit, high quality woodwork is a lot more impressive than high quality metal… existing.
I also wondered what the actual surrounding area of the castle would’ve looked like in its time, and there was a nice miniature scale model to answer that question, and a map as well. Neat!
Anyways, at the very top floor of the castle had been a small shrine, which I totally forgot to take a picture of. It was apparently moved from somewhere else on site. For modern times, our tour ended with the prospect of making a wish to the protector of Himeji Castle, who’d kept it safe for nearly 700 years. In less modern times, who knows what awaited a plucky samurai who managed to make it past the moat, gunports, stairs, and ambush rooms and made it to the top?
A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.
It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.
After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.
Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.
After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!
Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!
Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!
* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.
Since I’m here a second year, I also got to experience my second undōtaikai, or Sports Day, which, by far, has been my favorite Japanese high school tradition I’ve experienced. From the students marching in to military cadence, to 40-student dance routines choreographed completely amongst themselves, it’s an entire day filled with spectacle, fun, aesthetic, and of course sports. I’m also glad that I can finally give it proper justice, as ours occurred just less than a week ago while last year’s post had been written nearly two weeks after the fact.
Sports Day kicks off around 9 AM with the student council members marching onto the track with the flags of Japan, of Hyogo prefecture, and of the school itself. The entire school is divided into four teams– for us, it was red, yellow, white, and blue, and each team is made up of at least one or two classes from each of the three grades. They all, of course, sport matching bandanas and flags made by the classes themselves. Everyone lines up in formation, and the principal opens the event with a speech. We all rise for the national anthem as the same three flags from earlier are raised on their poles.
Following that is rajio taisō, or radio calisthenics, all done in unison. It’s to this exact track and this exact sequence, of a man counting with some classical-sounding piano music in the background. You’ll find that military discipline will be a common theme running throughout the event– and speaking of running, there will be a LOT of relay races throughout the day. I still have no idea whatsoever how the brackets work, how points are calculated, or in fact, anything at all about this event that I’m supposed to be explaining to you. I just know there’s a lot of moving around involved.
The first few events are regular baton-passing relay races. There’s also mixed relay where for the first 50 meters, they have to skip rope while running, for the next crawl under a net, carry a heavy sandbag, and finally link up with five other students for an epic six-legged race finale. There’s also teachers versus students, which I got to run 50 meters in. I was told that it would be at 3 PM, but when I went to the bathroom around 2ish PM a teacher came running up to me to tell me that the schedule has suddenly changed and I have to run NOW. I was passed the baton pretty much as soon as I got to the track– it sums up what it’s like to be a JET/ALT pretty well, in that last-minute changes and heads-ups will be the bane of your professional life. In fact, the official motto of the Japanese school-ALT relations is “Haha WHOOPS!”
Before lunch is the dance competition, for which the third-years from each team has prepared their own choreographies to their own chosen playlists, performed in their own chosen matching outfits. I thought red was the clear winner, and naturally I was so mesmerized I didn’t take any pictures or videos of it. The music is usually a mix of J-pop and American pop, though re: Western music I feel like Japan is just around a decade behind. Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” showed up twice. And nightclubs here still play “Shots” by LMFAO really often.
Anyways, now it’s lunch time. On special school-wide event days like this, the school will have bento lunches delivered to the office. So here’s what a typical, but also slightly fancier, school lunch looks like. Tempura and rice, just arranged more aesthetically than usual.
After lunch, each of the club activities (sports) teams march onto the track in their uniform, from aikido to basketball to kendo to table tennis. The sports teams also competed against each other in relays, in uniform. Track & field obviously won, although soccer did sometimes come close. The worst runners were the martial artists, but that was mostly due to their uniforms. Since they were so clearly last in every race, they would put on a little demonstration after each lap, like flipping their teammate over with a judo throw as a way of passing off the baton. Pretty cool.
After putting to rest the age-old debate of whether track & field kids really can run fast, the students then change back to their regular PE clothes and now the non-relay stuff (interspersed with more relays) begin!
Tug-of-war with ship’s rope. The team that manages to knock the flag down toward their side is the winner. This one’s one of the few co-ed events.
For some reason a girls’-only event, it’s the return of tug-of-pole. Nine large metal poles lie in the middle of the field. When the starting pistol fires, two teams run onto the field and fight each other over them. Once a pole is taken past their own team’s side/endzone, the people who won that pole are free to run back onto the field to help with the stealing of another. This would have been even more badass if they somehow combined it with kendo, or maybe incorporating land mines and robots in some way.
Kiba-sen (cavalry fight), which I had mentioned before, but now I have slightly better pictures. Three boys form a horse, one sits atop as a rider, and he either wants to knock his opponent off his horse, push his horse out of bounds, or snatch his opponent’s hat off inside a very small (maybe 6 feet/2 meters across) circular ring. Teachers stand all around to catch anyone in case they fall. Besides running in the teacher’s relay, it was the only other time I felt like I was actually part of the event. Everything looks so fun you can’t help but want to participate in all of it.
There is no grand finale, really. The final event is the final relay race. But again, I have no idea how the heck the whole thing works. Every team participated in every event; it didn’t look like there was any elimination, and I noticed the same students doing multiple events regardless of whether they had won or lost the previous ones. During the ending ceremony, during which all teams line up again in formation, and sit on the field, the student council announced the team winner of each single individual event. There were so many winner announcements that I really, truly, have no idea who actually won overall. I know, this is not Sports’ Day’s fault. I just don’t speak Japanese. It probably is an accumulated-points system. Either way, I asked the next day and it turns out white team won. Nice!
It’s been exactly 20 days since the anniversary of my first arriving at my apartment in Akashi to begin the JET Program. In that time– you know, I spent a long time sitting and staring at the screen, wondering what highlights to put to make it sound like I’ve had the experience of a lifetime in Japan. You know, “in that time, I’ve loved and lost, danced the night away in the neon streets of Dotonburi, watched the sun set over the hills of the origin of the world, and made relationships with people whom I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Even then, I had to try really hard to make it sound like I really made the most of my time here. I didn’t. I also didn’t love and lose either, just wanted to sound poetic. But I still enjoyed this year more than any other out of my entire life. Instead of another wall of text let’s make a list of more things I’ve learned about myself, and about Japan, in my 365+ days here:
Nobody uses soap. Ever since I first noticed a teacher not wash his hands with soap after using the bathroom (rather just running water over their fingers for a few seconds), I can’t stop noticing it among everybody– in train stations, bars, homes, everywhere. It’s the exception rather than the norm to see someone actually use soap when washing their hands. Some bathrooms, like at temples or older train stations, don’t even have hand soap at all. Why not have a bottle there, it’ll last years anyways.
Japan can still be pretty dirty. For example, our school, over three decades old, has probably never been deep-cleaned aside from the daily dry-broom-pushing from the students. The toilets, including the teachers’, are also cleaned by the students, but that is done probably once a month or less. And since students clean them, well, how thorough and diligent would you be about school toilet cleaning if you were 14 years old? A lot of places are like this, with the idea that they are “ritually” clean (outside shoes have never made it in) rather than literally clean. Some districts, especially the nightlife ones, are absolutely filthy come morning time, with trash strewn all over the street. Nevertheless, outside of these old buildings or happening places, are still just as the stereotype of Japan is. Kirei!
I still can’t speak Japanese. Immersion helps a lot, but I have been too lazy all the time. I was hoping to make JLPT N3 by this last July, but, well, I have no excuse other than that I’m worthless. I can mostly order at restaurants, but I’m hopeless in any kind of conversation.
I have barely traveled at all. All the blog posts in the Travel category is actually all the travel I’ve done, with the exception of Kyoto. I have no good reasons for why I haven’t done it. Various things have kept me lashed to the Hyogo area, and although I know I won’t be here forever, I got settled in and comfortable pretty quickly. That shall change this year.
Students are still incredibly well-behaved. The “worst” in-class behavior I ever witnessed was a group of boys who would purposely be out of sync/louder than everyone else when the class was repeating after me from the textbook. That’s it.
I still feel the same about teaching. Before JET I had only the barest minimum of experience– just a few weeks here and there of volunteering. But when I did do it, I always enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough that being in a teaching position has never made me nervous. A year later, I have a better grasp of what activities to do in class that work with the kids, and of what doesn’t, but my core approach still hasn’t changed: be confident, make the kids like you, and try your best to make English fun.
I still feel the same about Japan.Studying at Osaka University in the summer of 2014, being in Japan for the first time ever, was one of the highlights of my college career and indeed life. As I said in my personal statement for JET, hokey as it is, “I was awed by people’s friendliness, by the culture of mutual respect, and a rich history that spans thousands of years.” I still see evidence of it every single day.
Without language, you’ll never know people’s true feelings. Of course, people hide their true feelings all the time, in all cultures. There are people who put on a public face and hide what they are really thinking and feeling, to the detriment of themselves and of forming potential intimate relationships. In Japan, it is widespread and prescribed as the correct course of action, as the two concepts are very clearly defined, named as honne (what you are really thinking) and tatemae (what you present to society, in order to preserve its harmony).
Social interactions are all about “getting the hint.” For example, there is a teacher who I know for a fact dislikes me. Though they teach classes with me, they avoid speaking with me as much as possible, so I do my part to also avoid putting them in such a situation– for example, volunteering to go unlock the classroom first and wait for them there, so we don’t have to walk together. Before this, there had been a lot of subtle signs that I wasn’t able to pick up until a few months in, to be able to unequivocally conclude that they are not a fan of me.
Even with language, you probably might never know people’s true feelings. After all, the concept of honne and tatemae reaches beyond merely a language barrier. It is a way of life and a way of keeping society running, in a collectivist nation where 98% of the people are Japanese. Even with Japanese friends who speak very good English, it’s really difficult to ever get them to admit anything negative.
Many friendships are fleeting. I’m not just talking about with Japanese people. Being in a big, unfamiliar place, people tend to stick together with people like them, in order to feel safe, secure, and socially supported. You see this when first moving into the college dorms, or during study abroad programs. People are brought together by the context and excitement of where they are, which is why I feel you’ll often find yourself hanging out with people in Japan, Italy, Peru, or wherever that back home, you usually don’t hang out with or even get along with. I am fully aware that many people I meet here, I will probably never see again upon leaving this country. Nevertheless, I am always searching for genuine, deep emotional connections, but having a fun night out with strangers and acquaintances is always fun too.
Foreigners are still foreigners. Being from America, many of my students, and people at large, may still think of me as a Westerner. Japanese people have occasionally still expressed surprise that I am so deft at using chopsticks, or that I am capable of sitting seiza, on top of your legs tucked under you. They don’t seem to realize that Asian cultures still share a lot of similarities.
I’m glad I came here with more experience. Most JETs come straight out of college, and with that, I feel that among some there is a sense of entitlement and the idea that “the world should conform to ME!” It is a common complaint that we have to work during the summer, even when there is no class. We still get paid, yet people either want to get paid for not working, or pass up on free money by getting summer vacation like the students. Coming from a hustle-and-bustle, fast-paced industry as Hollywood, I’m incredibly thankful for how lenient this job can be. Yet, for many it’s still not enough. Complaints abound of working too much, working too little, or even about being so strictly expected to arrive on time.
Coming here at all, and then recontracting, are two decisions I have zero regrets about. Though I still vaguely worry about what to do after this program, I am happier than I’ve ever been before. I don’t dread waking up in the morning– perhaps for the commute, yes, but for the actual job, not at all. I’m wholly satisfied with the work-life balance, of the workload, and the amount of interaction I get to have with the students. I only wish I could travel more, but that could be fixed at any time. I certainly have the freedom to.