unallersimple: (hectopus)
This is an absolutely monster sized post so to keep things tidy I've hidden it all behind something called an lj cut.

Simply click here and all will be revealed! )
unallersimple: (japan poster)
I'd like to introduce you to someone called Adam Hacker who contibutes to a site called JapanTourist. We were both ALTs in Shimane and whilst we don't know each other well, we have vaguely kept in touch with each other via Facebook and Twitter since then. I have long admired the photos he uploads, especially his ones of Martha's Vineyard. I only found out he writes for JapanTourist this week but really enjoyed looking through his articles. If you are interested in reading about Shimane and other less well known aspects of Japan then I recommend his stuff. His profile on the site can be found here.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Vogel Park again because I really, really love that place and its super cute penguins.
Never one to miss an opportunity to post a penguin photo, I immediately spammed Adam with one I'd taken the last time I was there. On a similar note, one can never watch this video too many times!
unallersimple: (snoopycomp)
A friend posted this on the book of face the other day and I'd like to share it with you all. Shimane has been using a funny and interesting advertising campaign lately, mocking it's obscurity and poking fun at the misconceptions many Japanese people have about it. My favourite one is its joke (or fact?!) that it's the 47th most famous prefecture. (Out of the 47 in Japan.)

I wonder whether it's enough to get the city dwellers over there?

I find this especially interesting because as a foreigner living in Shimane, my thoughts and opinions about tourism were often asked. Over the two years I was there ALTs had various questionnaires to fill in and various meetings with city councils members and people who worked in tourism. Sometimes we even had to fill in the same form as the year before. People usually asked the same token questions, very little changed. The ALTs always gave the same answers, that the tourist information office is great, the city signs are bi-lingual and really useful etc... The problem is no one outside of Shimane knows where it is, and there is no advertising in other regions of Japan. ALTs would always urge them to make leaflets and get them displayed in travel agents' offices, hotels and hostels, as Shimane does genuinely have a lot of nice things to offer. Matsue is worth a visit for Lake Shinji alone, the views are amazing.

Before I left Japan, I went to a little ceremony and was made an ambassador to the city. We met the vice-mayor too (the real one was busy that day). The usual question about tourism popped up and because the vice-mayor was a lovely gentleman with a good sense of humour, we joked and lamented about Shimane's unknown status. I suggested the tag line of "Shimane, next to Hiroshima!" to capitalize on Hiroshima's fame. After all, we're just above it, and loads of people go there! (For Miyajima and to see where the atomic bomb was dropped.) Now of course I can't say my jokes had anything to do with it. I'm 99.9% sure they didn't, but I like to pretend that just for once, my comments and questionnaire filling in wasn't in vein! ;)

unallersimple: (boat)
My headteacher from my base school was kind enough to take me and Emily on a day trip around Shimane today. We were picked up by him and his daughter Kumiko (who I've become friends with recently) in the morning, then drove for about an hour to the Oku-Izumo winery. When you think about Japan you don't really think of wine and grapes but there are some good quality wineries here. We picked a great day to go on a day trip as the weather was so warm and sunny for January.

^Here's a view of the fields though sadly it's the wrong season to see any grapes.

^For some reason the winery was also home to some donkeys. I was surprised at how happy I was to see them as I haven't seen a donkey in years!

After eating lunch at the winery we drove over to an onsen (a natural hot spring) which was on the side of a river in a really remote location. Unfortunately I forgot the name of where we went! I saw some of the most beautiful scenerey I've ever seen in Shimane there. Before going in we took a quick walk around the banks of the river.

The building that housed the onsen was a tiny little place made of wood. I couldn't take any photos inside (unless I wanted old Japanese women chasing after me for taking photos of them in the baths) but I did take a photo of the foot spring outside.

Inside we did the usual onsen routine. Men and women are in separate changing rooms and hot springs. First we took off all our clothes, then washed thoroughly to ensure that we were squeaky clean before going in. That way the water in the hot spring is clean for everyone to use. The changing rooms were so cosy, beautiful and warm with wooden walls, floors and benches. It had real character and charm. The onsen itself was split into two parts, one pool inside and one out. Don't worry though, the outside one had wooden screens so nobody could see in! The hot spring had stone floors and steps into the water which really added to the natural feel of the place. The water itself is completely untreated and contains a lot of minerals that are beneficial for your health. I love onsen as they're really good for my scabby skin. (I have eczema.) I wish I had one next door so I could use them all the time!

On the drive home my headteacher was even kind enough to let us nap while he drove. I guess us girls were sleepy and relaxed after all the eating and bathing! I'm so grateful to our headteacher. Unlike many Japanese people he's comfortable and relaxed around foreigners and doesn't mind listening to and trying to speak English. He has had me, Emily and Bryan around to his house many times now and this is the second day trip he's taken me on. (Remember last year he took me and Bryan cross-country skiing?) I'll miss him and his family so much when I leave.



Jul. 23rd, 2009 12:15 pm
unallersimple: (snoopycomp)
A few weekends ago I went to see some of the Shimane ALTs compete in a jujitsu tournament.
Ju (idea or thought) jitsu (action, the way you fight) is a sport native to Japan and is hundreds of years old. I'd never seen a martial arts tournament before so it was really exciting for me. The men and women taking part were all excellent fighters, and I ended up taking a lot of photos and videos. The competitors also seemed to be amazingly flexible and could maneuver themselves and each other into the most amazing positions trying to pin each other down and get out of holds.

Here's two clips from the videos I took. When I was filming one pair the fight spilled out of the ring so I had to skidaddle pretty sharpish before two burly blokes landed on me. You can see how exhausted they are. At some points they can barely keep going. It's awesome stuff!

Sadly all the ALTs who took part lost their matches, but they all fought really well despite the heat.

unallersimple: (japan poster)
A few weeks ago there was a lot of excitement across the prefecture because one of the biggest events our end of Japan was taking place in Matsue. The event was Horan Enya, which is the name of a boat festival which happens only once every twelve years. The festival features around 100 boats and is the third biggest traditional boat festival in Japan. It started about 360 years ago after bad weather caused a severe food shortage in the region. In response the feudal lords took a portable shrine from Matsue Castle to a different shrine in a town 10km away, where they prayed for the blessing of the Gods, a good harvest and of course better weather. After this the harvest and weather did improve, so people continued the tradition every 12 years to show their gratitude and ensure good fortune in the future.

During the weeks leading up to the festival there were signs and posters all over the city. I saw some of the rowers who would take part practicing on the river which added to my levels of excitment. There was a real atmosphere of build up and anticipation throughout the city for the big day.
I wanted to make sure I got the best spot so asked around for information and where the best place to watch it would be. As the event is so rare I only found one or two people who'd seen it, but was told that it would be absolutely packed as people travel from all over Chugoku to see it. The advice I was given was to head down to one of the bridges on the river well in advance of the start time.

As you can see they weren't wrong; the bridges, riverbanks and any other available space were absolutely rammed!

^Many photographers had the right idea!

I woke up early and cycled down there for 9:30am. It was already was packed so I shoved my bike down a side street, hurried over to one of the bridges and elbowed my way past some tall people to get a good spot. I had to wait about an hour and a half until the boats started sailing up the river but it was worth it, I was so close to them when they finally sailed my way.

The parade began at the castle like always and the shrine was carried to the river where the boats were waiting. Once everyone had boarded the parade continued on water. Matsue is a city divided into two by a river and there are four main bridges that connect the north and south sides. People started rowing the boats around the space between the two bridges nearest the lake first. After about 20 minutes, the boats lowered their masts and rowed under the second bridge to start rowing in the space between the second and third bridges. I was on the third bridge from the lake, so it was then my turn to watch.

I've never seen anything like this festival. There were so many boats! The traditional boats were all filled with local people, some were so young they were still in high school. Only men were allowed on. Some rowed, while others danced at the front and the back of the boats. Other people lowered and raised the masts for low bridges or sat ready to take over the oars when the rowers got tired.

There were also some large boats which were the main ones in the parade which had people in costume and dancers. These were followed by small boats with important looking men in suits. Zipping around these were little motor boats full of photographers and camera men covering the event for the news.

After another 20 minutes or so, the masts were lowered again and the boats sailed under the third bridge (where I was standing) and began sailing around the space between the third and fourth bridges.

When that part of the parade had finished the boats pulled over to the riverbank so those taking part could rest and hop on shore for a while. An hour or so later the boats lined up once more and the parade sailed on to the other town 10km away.

I took some videos of the event too. The first two clips are the boats sailing between the second and third bridges. The final clip shows one of the boats about to sail under the third bridge with the mast lowered.

Sadly there was rain and skies so grey they could give Kendal a run for their money, but despite that it was still an amazing morning. There atmosphere was amazing. It felt like everyone in the city had come out to watch. When the boats were sailing on to the space between the next two bridges the noise of the applause from the crowd was immense. I felt so lucky to be living in Matsue this year. Most JETs will never get to see Horan Enya.

unallersimple: (onsen)

Yesterday I arrived at my junior high school and had the following surprise:

JTE: We only have two lessons today.
Moi: Oh, really?
JTE: Yes. The first grade students...their English lesson is canceled today.
Moi: Why?
JTE: They will plant rice in the afternoon.
Moi: Ah, I see. Erm, plant rice?!
JTE: Yes.
Moi: At school?
JTE: No, they will plant the rice at about one or two hundred meters along the road.
Moi: Well...should I go too?
JTE: Maybe.
Moi: Maybe?
JTE: If you want to watch, you can watch the students.
Moi: I'd like to, if that's ok?
JTE: Yes.
Moi: So when do we leave?
JTE: We will go in the afternoon.
Moi: After lunch?
JTE: No, after soji (school cleaning).
Moi: I see, thank you. Do I need to bring anything?
JTE: I think it's ok.
Moi: Ok.
Moi: So...do the students plant rice every year?
JTE: Yes.
Moi: All the students?
JTE: No, only first grade students.
Moi: I see.

Sometimes it's difficult not to get really frustrated. It can feel like some Japanese teachers of English strive to answer questions with as few words and as little information as possible sometimes. And why didn't anyone tell me the week before? If they had I could have joined in with them. As I had no clue until that day, I didn't have a towel or any appropriate clothing. I couldn't help feel a little sad; this chance probably won't happen again.

Communication frustrations aside though it was a jolly good afternoon. I'd never seen rice planting before. I had no idea how to do it and was able to learn not just from one person, but from 30 twelve year olds!

After cleaning time the students got changed and grabbed their towels and bottles of water. We walked a short way through the tiny village the school is in. It was a lovely chance to chat with the students. Topics such as gardening and our favorite Harry Potter characters were discussed. The students practised the phrases they had recently learned from the textbook.

Genki students: Are you from Americaaa?!
Moi (playing along): No, I'm not!
Genki students: Are you from Igirisu?! (They forgot how to say England, bless.)
Moi: Yes, I am! Are you from Japan?
Genki students: Yes!
Moi: Really?! No way! Oh my God! (For some reason all students, no matter how old or young, know "Oh my God!".)
Cute Little Genki students: *giggle for about 5 minutes*

We arrived at the rice field and were greeted by the local farmers. They had ploughed the field ready for the students to plant the rice. I saw that the field consisted of thick, squelchy mud about 30cm deep. I looked over at the students, then back at the mud, then back at the students. I had a feeling none of them would be clean for very long!

Thankfully I'd remembered to bring my mobile so I could grab a few snaps.

^As Bryan once said "You know it's spring when you see old ladies wearing bonnets!"

Before every one joined in, one of the students was able to try ploughing the field with a hand pulled wooden plough. This is done to make patterns of small squares in the mud to mark where each bit of rice should be placed in the soil. It's important that they're all evenly spaced from each other.

^ Rice before planting. The students had to tear off little stands of it to put in the mud.

After ploughing we watched the expert farmers at work. They told us what to do and gave a quick demonstration. They must have been doing this their whole lives. I think this is how the elderly here end up with backs so crooked they're permanently bent double.

It was hilarious to see the boys jump right in while the girls screamed and shrieked with every toe dipped in the mud. The boys were soon flinging mud at each other and then chucking it at the girls they fancied too. The girls were soon clinging on to each other and shrieking every time some mud was flung their way. By the end a lot of students were covered head to toe in mud, some had it all over their faces and hair too!

In the autumn the students will go back to harvest what they planted. It's a great way to reap the rewards of their hard work. It's also a great way to contribute to their own community. (And give the adults a chance to rest while they do some of the work!)

unallersimple: (lost)
To the new JET Programme participants,

It's an exciting time for you now, isn't it? After waiting 3 months to hear if you managed to get an interview, you'll now be in the middle of waiting 3 more to see if you'll go to Japan or not. After that life will get even better when you try to fill in all the paperwork on time.

To help you pass some of that time (and put off writing that essay due in soon) I thought I'd send some pictures of your new home.

It's called a rice field. Chances are, you'll be living in this area of Japan from August (especially if you requested Tokyo or Kyoto on your application form).

It might not look it, but it's actually a really convenient place to live. Food for example, can be found just a few minutes walk away. The vegetables are really fresh!

Okay...so I'm clearly exaggerating a lot here. Most people won't end up living somewhere quite so rural. But it gives you an idea of what sort of scenery to expect. These photos were taken in the tiny town I teach in one day a week.

unallersimple: (Japan Flag)
The personal adviser for JETs in Shimane told us that our prefecture had made international news recently. The New York Times published an article about how the country has a gigantic problem with spending money on the wrong things. Especially with infrastructure, where more and more roads, bridges, highways and dams that are not needed are being built. I remember reading somewhere that only three rivers in Japan remain dam free. When I've traveled around Shimane I've seen no end to the concrete. Imagine someone building a motorway around every corner of the Lake District, after literally blasting through the middle of the mountains to build a road right through them. That's kinda like how Shimane is now. The rural areas of Japan are being covered with concrete. While it's impressive to see a motorway bridge, dozens of meters high, run between two hills in a town of a few thousand (the town where I made soba last week in fact), it's ugly and it's just not necessary. It must have cost millions.

This questionable allocation of funds is one of the things that has been keeping Japan in an economic recession all these years, and one of the things contributing to it's current downturn now. Between 1991 and last year a mega 6.3 trillion dollars was spent on infrastructure. It's such a shame. It's such a waste. Every Wednesday when I take the bus out of Matsue to the small town where my junior high school is, I see roads that lead to nowhere. I see more and roads and paths being built in tiny towns that don't need them. Imagine if the money was better spent. The failing health care system here could be improved. The problems of an aging society could be ameliorated. Education could receive more funding.

However like all things it's not so easy to change. If the government stops funding this sector millions of people will be out of work. This would be especially devastating to the towns where the majority is employed in this area of the economy. They have no other source of employment to turn to. When a government's popularity falls, coupled with job losses from the recession, it's easy to up the spending on infrastructure to provide more jobs. What I don't understand though is how the men in charge have failed to change the situation after years of watching this policy fail to provide any stable and long term solutions. Why don't people complain that their taxes are being badly spent, especially when they can literally see all the concrete they're being poured into?

Happy driving.

unallersimple: (japan poster)
On Sunday I went to a small town near Matsue called Tamayu. It's the town where Regina works. It's the kinda place that's so small only 3 children will be graduating from one of her schools. The people in the town had a gathering on Sunday to make and eat soba noodles.

I as had already tried my hand at making soba (buckwheat noodles) before, and as they're my favourite Japanese food I headed straight for the eating area. Even though it was only 2pm, a number of oldies were already sitting, eating and drinking beer and sake. This kind of event is one of the reasons why I love Japan. It only cost 100 yen too. That's about 70p, what a bargain! Few places would offer you the chance to eat and drink as much as you want for two hours.

Regina made some tasty noodles from scratch. I enjoyed eating them.

Later on a lot of people drifted off home and soon it seemed to be only me, Regina and a bunch of elderly people. One lady beckoned me over to sit with her and her friends. She had asked me where I was from earlier in the afternoon, and I kept noticing her pointing me out to other people and telling them that I was British with such enthusiasm. It was really sweet. She began to speak in the local Japanese dialect (called "Izumo-Ben") that I couldn't make head nor tail off. That and the fact that she was talking faster than a shinkansen while mumbling. She kept telling me to learn the dialect so I could come back and talk with her and her friends. I said I would try! As these women were in their 70s and 80s their memories weren't as sharp as they once were. After I told them I lived in Matsue for example, they would all nod until one asked why I was living in Oda. Then another would correct her, and someone else would ask what my job is. Then another would tell her that they already asked that too!

I was so taken with this bunch of people that I got their signatures and had a photo taken with them. I found out that they were all born in the very room we were making and eating soba in! They were born together, went to school, lived, worked and had a family together for a grand total of 70+ years. It was fascinating to listen to. (I can just see Yvette shaking her head now saying something along the lines of, "You and old people...")

^You'll also notice that when we sit to eat, we sit on the tatami mats on the floor without chairs.

I wish I could eat soba for two hours with old people every Sunday.

unallersimple: (stars)
Last Saturday I went skiing with Bryan and the school principal. He was kind enough to drive the two of us to a special skiing and animal tracking event at Mt Sanbe a few hours away. What a dude. Few people would spend a whole day driving a bunch of foreigners around Shimane! He was so patient too, and would always wait for me to finish trying to talk in Japanese before replying.

After the drive we first went to a lecture on the various different animals we might see and what their paw prints and poo looked like. I didn't follow a word of it, but didn't need to worry as a lovely little booklet had been prepared with illustrations. After a tasty soba noodle lunch we got kitted out for cross country skiing. We didn't need full ski gear, but had to wear little ski boots and things that look like waterproof leg warmers. So sexy, so 80s!

^Bryan trying out the waterproof leg warmers and cross country skis for the first time.

The skis were a lot thinner than normal ones and were a little tricky to try and walk/slide in. At first it was really hard to stay upright and move at the same time. With cross country skiing the toes of your boots are strapped in, but the heels aren't. This makes it really easy to twist both ankles in just a matter of seconds. After a bit of practice and one awkward moment where I got stuck from standing on my own skis, I was good to go.
Soon after the group was off, wiggling and wobbling into the distance. We spent the afternoon in the woods and the surrounding area. A little bleak because of the snow and grey skies, but still beautiful.

The thing about skiing through the woods is that until you learn how to stop, you have only two options when you're on a slope. Fall or crash into a tree! Both are painful. Both are impossible to get up from without assistance.

While I wasn't too bothered about tracking any animals, it was kinda fun to see their paw prints in the snow. We didn't catch sight of any though. I personally think they're way too smart to be tracked by a bunch of people learning to ski! At one point I had to catch up with the group after falling over. Wondering why everyone was gathered round in a circle I hurried over excitedly. I was a little disappointed to find they were all having a good look at a small pile of "usagi fun", or rabbit poo as it's known in English. After that I don't think I'll sign up to anything involving animal tracking again, but I'm at least happy to have learned some new Japanese!

It was a great day, and so much fun to try new things and see new places. This event was something that I wouldn't have been able to find out about or do on my own. The countryside in Shimane is awesome. So remote. Can't wait for the summer to arrive so I can explore it in better weather.

unallersimple: (onsen)
At my high school there are four classes in every year. I teach all of the first year classes. But the fourth class in every year is on a special English course. This means they have more English classes than the other students and have to suffer lessons from foreigners for three years instead of one. They also get to have a trip away. The first years go on a two day English camp. The second years go to Australia (for most a real highlight in their lives) and the third years get to...erm...leave school.
The English camp was about a month ago.

The school hired some other genki ALTs to help run the show, which for me meant that three more of my friends got to join in on the fun. Yay! We set off bright and early to reach the center where we would be staying. I was a little bit worried when we arrived at the train station. Very remote. If anything went wrong I would be trapped with 24 teenagers and no means of escape!

We started by introducing the new ALTs to the students and teachers and playing a few warm up games. Pass the parcel and a number game went down well. I, overcome by an overwhelming urge of nostalgia, forced everyone to play the "musical islands" game that we all know and love from our children's party days. I had great fun pretending to be a shark and eating the students after stealing away more and more pieces of newspaper.

After lunch the workshops began. I was a workshop leader and had to run four workshops over the two days (the same one four times). I chose to make Halloween lanterns and threw in a few games to play while we waited for the paint to dry. I regretted the idea of painting glass jars to make the lanterns while I was trying to cycle to the train station under the weight of them all. Next time I'm making things out of paper!

Here's some of the jars they made. The idea was to paint a Halloween themed picture on them. Then they could take a candle and light it up at home later. Many students however, drew an alarmingly large amount of love hearts despite my best attempts to tell them that Halloween was not really a love celebration.

While the paint was drying I got the students to wrap each other up with toilet roll to be a mummy (and explain that this was dead person, rather than a mother!). Some students took to this task with a little bit too much enthusiasm, eagerly wrapping up their friends' faces before any other part of their body.

And of course, I wouldn't be a good sport if I didn't let them do the same to me. How often do you get to wrap your teacher up in loo roll?! Many students happily seized this chance and enjoyed taking photos of me.

In the evening we had a campfire in the grounds. I remember the feeling I had after Bryan asked how many of the students were experiencing their first campfire, and about half raised their hands. At one point everyone held hands around the fire to sing a few tunes. Later when we were making s'mores (for the non-Americans, toasted marshmallows with nutella and biscuits!) one girl put about 10 marshmellows on her stick to melt. I accidentally set my stick and marshmallow on fire. Oh well, it was my first time to make s'mores too.

To warm up after the cold and rainy campfire (If it doesn't rain, it's not a real campfire experience that's what I say!) we took a bath. A Japanese style bath. If you're a regular reader you'll remember the naked onsen experience with Regina in Tottori. It was like that. Except that even though we went down at 10pm the last of the students were still drying their hair. So me and the other ALTs had to get changed in front of them if we wanted to wash before the baths closed. (There were no personal showers or baths at the building where we were staying. I remember thinking, where else in the world would you get to be naked in front of your students without being arrested? I knew that they would be curious about the way our bodies looked. The whole day some students had been stroking my arms because they were so smooth. Having blond, near invisible arm hair I just ignore it. Most women here have black arm hair, so shave their arms to get rid of it. As a result their arms don't feel as smooth. I never really gave arm hair much thought before.

If I decide to stay another year, then the English camp is one of the things I'm already looking forward to. It was so great to interact with them outside of school. To have fun and be silly (more so than usual!) and chat without uniforms and rules. I wish we could all go to English camp more often. In terms of learning about each other's culture, it achieved more than a term of lessons ever could.

unallersimple: (japan poster)
The Matsue Doh Drum Festival, or Dohgyoretsu in Japanese, started as a tradition after an event that happened hundreds of years ago. I heard that during the time of feudal lords and samurai rulers a marriage between two ruling families was arranged to bring the two regions together. A party and display of drum playing was made to welcome the rulers who had traveled from Kyoto to Matsue. Every year since then the drums have been brought out and paraded around the city center. It's a popular event for people to watch and brings everyone together. A little bit like the Kendal Torchlight Procession if you will, except during the day, only with drums and people only wear traditional costumes...and there are no motorized vehicles... ahem.

Anyway there are maybe a dozen or so drumming groups around Matsue, each representing one of the city's neighbourhoods and each with their own float and costume design. The festival happens every October.

Our group started the day at 10.30 where we met for an early lunch together. Here we all are eating bento, the Japanese name for a packed lunchbox.

A fun game during meal times is trying to guess what you're eating...

After lunch we started playing the drums and pulling our cart down the road to join the other drumming groups by the castle in the center of Matsue. There, all the groups were lined up along the road waiting for the opening ceremony. During this free time I walked around to see the other groups, costumes and fellow ALT friends. I quickly realized that this proved to be an unwise thing to do. By being one of a few foreigners in the area in costume I had somehow attained a celebrity like status. Alone I was photographed as often as any other person in costume. If I did anything other than stand or walk, I would be photographed about three times as much. This does prove to be a bit of a shock when you sit down to rest and find three people taking your picture. When I went to find my friends talking to them could attract up to 8 people. What should one do when this happens? Refuse? Throw their camera back at them? Dance? I found that taking a picture of them with my own camera soon had them running and didn't make me seem too rude either. The amusing and slightly annoying thing was when they started giving directions. Natural look please! Please talk! Since when could a group of complete strangers tell me what to do for their own photographs!? Very few asked my permission beforehand.
A few minutes later I reminded myself that most of these people would have rarely seen a foreign person wearing a traditional Japanese costume and it's just surprise, curiosity and a good photo opportunity that caused so many people to photograph me. I spent the rest of the day feeling like a actress on the red carpet though. Elderly people were shocked to see me, children were amazed and wanted to touch me or give me a high five... it was strange and funny and weird all at the same time.

^ Three people take my photo while I do the amazing, never seen before action of...sitting!

^My group all lined up and ready to go.

The weather was so hot we ended up stripping our top layer and tying it around our waists so we were just playing in our undershirts. The rest of our costume was made of white shorts, white socks (specially designed to be worn with traditional shoes) and said traditional shoes that were like a wooden version of flip flops with a slight wedge. The soft drinks were soon consumed in the heat so we left with a choice of sake or beer to drink throughout the afternoon!

Around 4-5 hours later we finally finished the parade around the city and pulled our float back to its shed to stay there until next year. We then had 40 minutes to shower and change for our group party that evening, an event for everyone to eat plenty and drink even more. When I set off for home I thanked everyone for their kindness and was met with cheers and rounds of "sankyou" (most Japanese people can't say "th" so say sankyou instead) while they tried their hand shakes with me (a novelty as they bow instead here).

It was an exhausting but wonderful two weeks of culture exchange. Exactly the kind of thing I came I came to Japan for. It was such an honour to join in with this festival.

unallersimple: (japan poster)
On the 19th October all my hard work finally paid off when I had an amazing experience in a traditional Japanese festival. After two weeks of rehearsing nearly every night we spent one Sunday walking around the city in costume banging huge Doh drums. Tiring but fun!

There was so much about this experience to enjoy. During the rehearsals I had a chance to meet more locals and practice speaking Japanese with them. It was nice to meet some more adults too as I tend to only see teenagers because of my teaching job. Break times in the rehearsals were fun when the elderly men in the group had too much sake to drink; they had a tendency to wander onto the road into oncoming traffic... Sometimes the group leader got a little silly and would sneak up on the flute players and speak in their ear with his megaphone on.

At first it was difficult to learn the two drumming tunes I needed to know. The people there didn't speak any English (and the ones that did didn't let on until afterwards as usual!) and my Japanese sadly didn't extend to drum related vocabulary. A lot of the time my drumming stance wasn't right so someone would come up and jabber away in Japanese while illustrating the correct way. I just tried to copy everyone else.
Eventually I got the hang of things and realised that by listening to the flutes (the only other instrument used as well as the drums) I could keep a better rhythm and know when to change between the two drumming tunes.

As the big day drew nearer my costume was prepared. Thankfully the clothes fit fine but my feet were a bit of a problem. They were too big for the women's shoes! I never felt self conscious about my feet or believed them to be oddly sized until a bunch of Japanese people all gathered round to watch me try on some men's footwear.

On the big day I cycled to our group's starting place to see dozens of people in costume getting their make up applied, having photos taken and practicing for the last time. The drums had been decorated and taken out of their holding place to the roadside.

I think some people thought I would be walking with my own drum similar to a marching band or something but the drums were much to big to be able to do that with. My group had three drums, all about 2-3 feet in diameter. They were embedded in a huge wooden float on wheels pulled along by local children and any adults who were walking with us but not drumming. The drummers walked alongside the float sideways and played the drums at the same time. (Quite tricky to do, especially when the float suddenly stopped or speeded up!)

Here's the float waiting to go. (Note how practical drums can be, here it seems to be perfect seating for small children!)


Aug. 24th, 2008 12:04 pm
unallersimple: (japan poster)
Last weekend I went to a shrine in Matsue called "Gessho-ji" (I think the ji at the end is the Japanese word for temple). It was a really beautiful moment because nothing like this exists in England. It was so good to finally see the things I have been looking at in pictures for so long.

Sadly the English translation of the handout was about two paragraphs long so I had to find out about the place using Google later. I learned that in 1664 an existing temple was transformed into "Gessho-ji", meaning the "Temple of Moonlight". It served as the temple for the Matsudaira clan, which I:m guessing is a group of powerful leaders from feudal times. Not all of the original temple has survived but the graves of nine generations of the Matsudaira clan have.

The place has a layout like a huge garden where you can only walk along a paved stone walkway to follow the route around the graves. This walkway was lined with candle holders which must look beautiful when they are all lit up in the dark. As it was a rainy weekend morning I was the only one there at the time I chose to visit. It gave me a really exciting feeling of stepping inside something secret and ancient, something that no one has seen in decades.

Each grave has an intricately carved wooden gateway to mark the entrance.

One of the graves inside.

The grandest burial site at the temple has a gigantic stone turtle in front of it with an obelisk on its back. An old story mentions that the turtle used to take nightly strolls around the grounds and stop to drink from the pond in the main courtyard. This is why the obelisk was driven into its back; to keep it in one place! It is also said that if you rub the turtles head you can live a long life, but I didn:t find this out until afterward so I:ll have to go back and pet it affectionately.

I:ve come across a few statues which have stories about how if you touch a certain part you will be happy, healthy or return to the place again. They seem to be located all around the world, I wonder why all these different cultures have them? (For another reference to this kind of thing in my journal, see the post about touching a statue of a child in a really wrong place in Vigeland Sculpture Park, Norway!)

Random but cute find was this sign near the exit. I love how someone covered it with an umbrella to keep it dry.

unallersimple: (hectopus)
Wow I thought keeping in touch with people would be really hard. I sent long, rambling dramatic emails to people declaring how I would be unable to contact anyone for weeks after my arrival because of lack of Internet and the time it takes to send letters. How wrong was I!? Turns out there is an Internet cafe about a 15 minute bike ride from my apartment!

Settling in a lot better than I thought I would. Maybe it:s the first stage of culture shock showing it:s face? Euphoria and happiness because after a long time of planning you have finally arrived. Wahooo! Also at first you can only see how great everything is and how things are similar to your own country. Vending machines everywhere? What a great way to deal with the heat and stay hydrated! People drive on the left here, same for my country! Etc. Etc. After reading about the culture before arrving it:s great to see it first hand. Exciting that I:m not looking at a book any more but the real thing. Bowing?! Bring it on it:s fun! When in doubt, bow again! Bow to everyone, more to superiors! I love it, what a great way to show respect and politeness. Now people in England seem so rude. Our customer service is appalling.

During this stage anything bad or unpleasant that occurs is ok, these things happen. Laugh at the mistakes and carry on with the day. Didn:t like octopus? No worries I won:t eat it again! Haven:t riden a bike in about 6 years and now have to ride one all the time? Challenges are fun, it:ll get me in shape! Can:t find that damn apostrophe key on Japanese keyboards? Well actually that one really annoys me...where is it?!

Some things are so weird and strange to me. Two words; Japanese TV.

The heat! Yes I go on about it but really, yesterday at work I had to mop myself with a towel all day (the humidity is so great there is no way for your sweat to evapourate off you) and I kept sweating off my sunscreen! Hmmmm sexy look there. Today I did as the locals and bought a face towel and fan to carry around. That should help. Was glad to find that the locals literally had sweat dripping off them too. Felt like less of a weak and silly foreigner then. Yesterday I also had way too many conversations about how England was cold, even in summer and that no, we don:t carry around towels or fans there!

Yesterday was my first day of work. I helped on a day trip run by the local board of education for elementary school children of 10-11 years old. My job was to supervise them and speak English with them. To encourage them to learn and try new English comfortably and increase their motivation for when the summer holidays end and school begins. At first they were so shy (and so cute!!) and wouldn:t look at me. When I asked them a question like, "Do you like sports?" they would giggle and turn to their friend saying something along the lines of, "Aaeghh she just asked me a question in ENGLISH!!!". Bless. If only they knew how terrified I was too, I:be never done anything like this before.

It was a great day. We took part in a tea ceremony and saw a beautiful castle. As I:m not here on holiday I didn:t really pay too much attention to all the touristy stuff there and besides, I was too busy answering questions about what sports I like. Conversations usually went like this:

Moi: Hello! I am from England! Nice to meet you!
Child: Nice to meet you tooooooooo! (Japanese people often extend the ends of words with enthusiasm, especially when speaking in English is still a novelty.)


Child: Do...you rike....food?
Me: Yes! I love chocolate!

Child: What is favourite animal!?

Me: Do you have a dog?
Child: Yes! I have one dog.

So cute! For elementary school students their English was great. I was really impressed. English children that age can:t speak French that well. I tried to include as many as the shy and quiet ones as possible. I also tried to highlight similarities between us because people from any country (me included) tend to see foreigners as weird and different which encourages isolation and hostility. I did this by speaking as much Japanese as possible, when they saw I made mistakes, they knew they could speak and try new words without worrying too. I went over to any child wearing glasses and did that thing where you make your specs wiggle up and down. Thankfully they found this funny and didn;t run away crying. They soon got into the swing of my silliness and started doing things like pretending to drink my water.

At one point I was sad because I thought these two girls were gesturing for me to back off, until a fellow JET told me in Japan the gesture for shooing someone away with your hand means come here!

By the afternoon I was showing them photos of my graduation on my camera and they were trying to translate the Japanese handouts for me and cover me from the rain. I felt like I had knocked down a huge stumbling block for me. These were not strange people with a crazy and scary culture, they were primary school children, no different from English ones or any other from around the world. They just speak Japanese and do a few things differently to my own society. There is no right or wrong way to do anything. I had come to Japan bracing myself for something so mysterious and oriental and instead found a place like any other. If anything I was the student and they were the ones teaching. I was learning about their culture and their language and my mind was being opened up too. I couldn:t sleep last night for thinking about all these things. Well that and wondering where the hell the apostrophe key was.

unallersimple: (Japan Flag)
Today I finally found out where I'll be living in Japan and the actual date that I fly out there. I'll be leaving for a city called Matsue on 2nd August, though I spend about a week in Tokyo first for orientation before moving on.

Before I couldn't really imagine much, but now I know where I'm going I have details that I can plan and think about. I've been looking at photos and I'm sooooo excited! So excited in fact that I could hardly write anything down when I was revising this afternoon because my hands were shaking so much!

I did a lot of comedy dancing around around my bedroom heh.

A quick scout round the usual sites has informed me that the city is known as "the water city" due to its two lakes, moats, canals and the fact that it's not far from the coast. Yay seaside! It also has a rather lovely looking medieval castle. I like castles. :)

This website about the city - http://www.city.matsue.shimane.jp/kankou/en/getting_en.htm - has photos, information on where it is and how to get there. It's about 6 hours left of Tokyo on the train.

The word "prefecture" is the Japanese equivalent of counties in England. The link below shows where the prefecture I'm staying in (Shimane) is in Japan.


Squeeeeeeeeeeeee excitement and fear!



unallersimple: (Default)

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