Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nov 21st - an invitation

21st Nov
Broken this weekend up into two entries, because this experience deserves one on its own.

So, from the river, we stopped in for lunch at a tiny isolated chicken place. Upon exiting the car we were instantly beckoned over by a group of people, who proceeded to place giant platters of sushi and Japanese food in front of us. Also, after determining the driver, beer. I find our status as foreign people in Japan is similar to that of escorts. We are fed, liquored up, and generally pandered to, in return for our experimental Japanese, rapid-fire English, and awkward eating habits. With only one competent Japanese speaker among us, we were, as it were, a group catch.

So many food demonstrations and bumbling introductions later, it came out that this party we had been so enthusiastically welcomed into was actually the two month anniversary of the host’s husband’s death. After the brief shock, I must say I was overall heartened by the idea of the event. It’s pretty much the same as when we drink and get onto the subject of funerals and losses in our lives, and reach out to each other as humans. Except, this way, it is organized, so you never have to feel guilty about “bringing the mood down” as it were. It’s a nice idea that while you will inevitably suffer alone, for one day a month you suffer together. To surround this widow with family and friends on what will possibly remain the hardest day of the month for years to come, is such a life affirming, humane thing to do. Among the alcohol, food and laughs, there is real tenderness here. Aren’t people just simply good?

Another thing I found interesting about the experience was that there was a snack mama there. These are a really interesting concept to me. Basically, instead of clubs or raging parties (as I have oft-lamented), there are hundreds of snack bars. They are run typically by an alpha female or male and are quite expensive to drink at, because you are paying for their company. They pretty much entertain you. If you are flagging, they bring out drinking games. If you are sad, they will joke. If you are lonely, they will ask you about your life. It’s like having an uplifting life of the party that never gets tired or falls into morosity or aggression.

What I’m assuming is that she was hired for the occasion, to keep some sort of atmosphere alive. It is a good idea, but, I can imagine, so exhausting. Imagine keeping an entire group up. When they need a healthy cackle about something ridiculous, like “boob shochu”. Or, knowing when to let them work as a group through their feelings. You have to be an incredibly charismatic, perceptive person and I admire them for that immensely. While also feeling that same sadness that here there is a niche for that sort of career at all.

I wasn’t really too sure on the mechanics, but at one point we got to cackling about something, and she gave me a healthy belt on the arm. It sticks out in my memory, because so many people are afraid to touch so familiarly. Then, when she showed me to the bathroom, she lent me her own hand towel. On the way back I used my crude Japanese to tell her she was very entertaining. What I meant was, you are doing well. Expecting another cackly slap, her reaction surprised me. She just stopped, turned, bowed and quietly said thankyou.

While we were there we got to see two giant birds of prey swooping down for raw meat the widow was throwing for them. Through this entire experience I am reminded of a poem where Bukowski repeats again and again, “people are just not good to each other.” Do I dare disagree with a Great? Perhaps my favourite? People are not good to each other, all the time. But they are good to each other.

K? K.

19th-20th Nov - Another weekend out

19th Nov
Friday. Thought about staying home (it’s gotten cold quick) but decided at the last second to train into the city for John’s birthday. Went to a bar called The Bar, which is NZ owned. The owner is from Waitomo (closest to Taupo out of all the JETs) and seems very familiar, but probably just typical NZ mannerisms. There were heaps of little Kiwis and NZ flags all over the place, a sports screen, an actual bar, and a pool table. All things that have suddenly become incredibly rare and precious to me. It was also good to hear a NZ voice in a bar. We belong in bars.

From here we went to another place which was tiny but full of instruments. Everyone there seemed to know a little about music which made for a very hippy-ish sort of jam session. How nice to have relaxed talent. It’s not like work or pottery or something, but something you can bring to drinking to enrich it. Like sports.

Fell asleep in bar. No longer shocked by these actions. When the latest train is 10pm and the earliest is 6am, there’s not a lot else you can do. I think this is part of the reason there is no real violence in Japan, because none of the places you go are tailored for it. You don’t have big clusters of people elbowing each other on a dance floor. There are no bouncers. The music is soft, or karaoke. (I’m not sure, but I don’t think you can get into a fight while singing a song.) You don’t “go outside” because you can smoke inside. You don’t chuck your drinks back because after you have done so there is still nowhere else to go. You don’t go home from town pumping, skipping, hollering, you ease yourself gently into a taxi or onto a train and maybe get a nice hot drink and look out the window.

Nobeoka. Wine, cheese, and great company. I’m starting to think my constant gratitude for the company here is making seem like an empty phrase. In trying to think of specific occurrences to illustrate the greatness I have this gem of a memory: belting the NZ national anthem –English and Maori, with Jono (am I spelling this right?) who is so relaxed and wise he is called Dad even by JETs older than him. And Tracey, who cooks giant curries for her drunken brood and has endless upbeat music. These are the connections we are making and long after JET has finished I can imagine myself sitting at a different desk, maybe surrounded by heaps of people that are there and easy to talk to about our average lives, but not quite so special. Not quite calling them Dad.

Right, off to town. It’s crazy how much you can crave pounding music when there is none (except for that coming from the host bars, sigh). I even miss strip clubs, good lord anything for a good beat. We went to a restaurant and ate and drank with two Japanese people we met on the street. When it came time to leave, they adamantly refused to let us pay, despite us (quite literally, to my momentary shame and everlasting amusement) throwing money at them.

So we went to karaoke, two new friends in tow. We started out strong, I particularly enjoyed selecting dancing songs with Jack (who was on fine form and an excellent drinking accompaniment, might I add) and pretending we were clubbing. I discovered a magical drink called blue beach which is, I suspect, a cup of sugar with alcohol in it. Cue momentary hyperactivity and then rapid, rapid, decline into a sugar coma. Woken up at 4am to split the (20,000yen – 300NZD) bill, then to Lilly’s to sleep. Oh, exhaustion.

Absolutely beautiful day. Perfect views over Nobeoka. A lovely cup of tea with Lilly, complete with awesome piano playing and conversation on the merits of traveling, culture shock, etc. It was extremely interesting on the level that she went from an American culture to an English atmosphere (on exchange) and I had gone from a (somewhat) British atmosphere to an American one. It was incredibly world affirming to realize the things we had struggled with (appropriate levels of directness, reservation, expressiveness) had been exactly the same, except from opposite ends. These differences in interaction, though small, are all the more shocking because you do not expect them. It is easy to think that the same language would equal the same personality communication, when it is not always the case. I came away from this grateful to be in a position with people where we can see the world from a higher standpoint, to see past our reactions and to a wider view.

I want to visit everyone’s houses in Miyazaki, it’s always so good to see how they live and what they’re about!

Finding the river (somewhat of a Sunday returning home tradition) culminated in a moment for us that could have been a signpost for evolution. To my right, three scantily clad males quite literally throwing a giant rock to one another. Slightly apart from this, four females standing around talking about the intellectual facets of Japanese porn. There’s a message there, somewhere.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

15th Nov week at work in which lovely things happen

My supervisor gave me an “early birthday present” today. It was a bunch of candy, 10 hand warmers, and a little reindeer pouch to keep them in. With these and the books he’s lending it’s like he knows my only 3 weaknesses. My elation was only dampened by my Western need to hug to show appreciation. (Don’t worry I didn’t). Just doesn’t feel like I can be grateful enough!

On my way home I stopped in for a haircut. Because it was so spur of the moment I didn’t have my dictionary so the conversation was limited to “sukoshi” (a little bit) “anata no kami kirei desu” (your hair is beautiful) and “Nihongo benkyou shimasu to kaerimasu” (I will study Japanese and come back again)

16th Nov
Today my supervisor comes up with a dictionary. He points to the word pervert. “parvart?” “pervert.” “Ah. There is a… pervert in the Nichinan area.” I express shock. “If he comes up to you” he mimes hitting someone over the head. “MEN!” (That’s my head strike yell for Kendo). He then picks up my soft toy Kiwi which lives on my pencil holder. He points to the Kiwi. “Pervert.” He walks the Kiwi along the desk. Then he makes it leap onto his body. He then picks up my pen and hits it over the head, saying “MEN!” He thinks for a moment. “Except, maybe lightly.” He taps my Kiwi lightly with a limp wrist. You say, “pervert!” After he has put my kiwi down and started to go back to his desk he turns suddenly. “Or, maybe, growl.” He growls. “Growl. Okay?”

After this instructional episode he and another teacher get into a conversation about Japanese and English terms for perverts, sexual offenders, and the like. I taught them the word for bestiality and explained trafficking. I love my office more than words can express.

In class today I taught with the same teacher. One of my groupwork tasks was on giving advice. I had previously explained to the kids that we call Kiwis Kiwifruit, and Kiwis are a rare bird. So you cannot eat a Kiwi. My task then was, “I ate a Kiwi. What should I do?” One girl stood up and said, in all seriousness, “you should return the Kiwi. From your mouth.” I laughed so hard I cried.

17th Nov.
Last night I thought there was an Earthquake. I woke up because the whole room had been lurching and took note of the time so I could see what it was on the richter in the morning. There was no earthquake.

My supervisor came up again, this time with a meat pack ordering form. Before I can say anything, he says “the delivery date is our birthday.” (We have the same birthday). “I have ordered you a kilogram of bacon.” I express shock that he is getting me another present, to which he says “noone in the office will get us a birthday present. It is a present for me and you.”

I am kindof an experimentation board for English idioms at work. What’s cute is how hesitantly they are said, because these are intellectual people. You can tell they’ve looked up every word of the phrase “don’t catch cold” and know it doesn’t make sense and are like oh man I hope this isn’t just a big joke as they are saying it. I can’t bring myself to break it to them when the terms are outdated, like “hunk”, or “full of get up and go”.

I can’t remember if I’ve already put this in here but at work I am called “Oriko-san.” I couldn’t find it in any dictionaries, but in asking fluent speakers I think the general idea is what you call young kids who work hard. I’m the equivalent of a 6 year old who does all her homework.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

12th Nov Miyakonojo and Kobayashi trip!

second post, 12th cont.
Went home, then decided at about 8pm that I wanted to go to Miyakonojo. So I jumped on the train and 2 hours later was met by Sam at the station. His apartment is set up really well, it has a good stereo, fairy lights and about one million records. It was really good just to sit on the floor, have a drink and some music and a shit-talk. Reminded me of home.

We then went to a sweet 50s dinner, which is tragically always empty but it is such a cool place it really deserves to be bustling all the time. Because of the emptiness and the décor, it gave a weird sense of having gone back in time to some sort of ghost town. The owners were cool though, we had a chat to them and one of them pulled down a hot pink and black electric cello for a jam. So many random, awesome things happen here I can’t quite believe it. We also saw a record that read “Music to ruin any party. Good enough to make you shit in your pants.” Oh, Japan.

After this and a forced conbini stop for my ravenous hunger where I got caught out by a ridiculously flavoured onigiri (plum and leaf) and then a fish full of bean paste, we returned to Sam’s where my allergies proceeded to destroy the next 24 hours. Luckily Sam knows how to make an English tea which makes everything pretty much 100% again.

13th. After looking at flowers all morning (Sam is starting a garden and a teacher helped) which was actually really interesting, we went second hand store shopping. The first place was just this incredible assault on the senses. The outside looked like the entrance to a theme park ride, and the inside was the loudest, light flashingest, confusing place I have ever been. At the front door you are greeted by a dinosaur. Every different section had a different song blaring, so the whole place is just a cacophony of noise and stimulation. As awesome as it was, it was also exhausting and I was happy when we went to the next place for quiet time. This next place, though deceptively quiet, had the randomest shit ever. Sam ended up coming out with a singing, dancing, Saddam Hussein.

On the train further inland, to Kobayashi for Jordy’s birthday. She has a lovely place. Everyone was well on their way by 8.30 and by everyone I probably mean me. Highlights of the night include making human sculptures, the excellent group of people, making friends at a nomi, making friends at a hip hop bar (no dancing of course), making friends in the street. There’s never any instance of being friendly and it being ignored or thrust back in your face. There is absolutely no risk in the communication here.

My favourite part of my weekends here is always the next day group meal and drive home. We came to the conclusion that Lachlan and I are going to get hungry and have a grumpy-off, as we both have that unfortunate (endearing) trait of becoming mad when we are empty. This will be a grand moment in history.

I think JET really is a filter for awesome.

After a coffee and a positive group shit talk, with a day to kill, John and I went to a bookstore for the afternoon. I can’t get over the musical mindedness here, (among foreigners and Japanese alike). The closest I have ever come to something like listening to a friend play piano in a store is drinking Steinlager (fondly referred to as wife beater beer) in a barn listening to a heavy metal drummer and burning a sewing machine. (Which is still a beautiful experience).

Had my first okonomiyaki. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover. It’s like, everything satisfying, in a big fat cabbage pancake. Then for a nice walk in the park where I thought there were alligators. I think not knowing what to expect in Japan means I will believe quite literally anything. The parks here are really nice, they have lovely lighting and atmosphere and knowing you (probably) are not a target just by being there. In NZ I could pretty much imagine going to the police and them being like, was it dark? Were you in an open space? WELL THEN.

8th Nov week at work

8th Nov
Day off, got up early and went to the city to get a re-entry permit for my trip to SAN FRANCISCO :D :D Got the buildings mixed up horribly and ended up on the second floor of a governmental building with about 5 people anxiously clustered around me. The one who knew a little English proceeded to lead me out of the building, down the road, and to the international building where another lady asked me (in blistering heat) are you cold? It’s very cold today isn’t it? Shoulder baring McSlutty strikes again. Pointed in the right direction, I finally got my permit which was a relatively painless procedure. While waiting for processing, who should walk in the door but the only other first year Kiwi in Miyazaki! Considering I had today off specially and both of us live at least an hour from the city, it was a coincidence of grand proportions. We also found NZ wine in a store. Fate. I had to stop myself at buying two bottles, as I would never have gotten the ideal number (all) home on my bike. Off to get coffee, it was hilarious to hear Jono’s NZ slang and conversation patterns next to the little patter of Japanese coffee shop ladies. It’s odd now, to think we were in NZ together, meeting up for orientations where Japan just still seemed like it would never happen, and then going to our separate homes and friends houses, and now we’re in Japan where we can’t do that at all and have actually become the friends whose houses we go to.

9th. Work. All I have written down for today is that I finish every lesson with a fine coating of chalk dust, and that every time I say “it’s a race” for a language game the teacher has to interpret that I am not saying “rice”. Oh New Zealand.

10. Today my supervisor sidled up to me and said, “I stole this from the sick bay. For you.” (I taught him sick bay instead of “room where students sometimes go and counseling is an option”. It was a heat pack! They are the best inventions ever. You shake them, and they’re full of some kind of magical sand that heats up for 24 hours. So, so lovely.

Today I had Jodo for the first time. While feeling incredibly guilty for not going to Kendo, I was also shocked by how much the instructor put up with from us. (The whole class is foreigners.) We talk, we muck around, we botch up every single bow. I think if I did this in Kendo I would get belted with a Shinai and pushed over for good measure. I actually took on the role of the Japanese person, inwardly wishing for the instructor “please understand they’re Gaijin!” Nevertheless, it’s a good class in that it is a lot slower than Kendo, and there is no real contact. It’s more about perfecting movement. I decided to sign up for every Wednesday. Afterwards I was nervous, not so much for breaking the news to my Kendo instructor, but to be seen by him in his town in a McDonalds.

Today in class a student gave me a mini-heat pack. I think there is some behind the scenes communication about my body temperature going on here. When I told my supervisor he was like, did she get it out of a little bear case? To which I replied, yes, she did. He nodded and walked away.

So many lovely things have been happening. Later on in the same day, he gave me a sheet he had printed with a very simple Japanese cartoon with a cat on it. And then, thrust two books into my lap, saying, “I never lent these to Ted.” I love my role here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kendo and school ceremony 5th-7th Nov

4th Nov.
Learnt a backwards strike in Kendo. Extreme. Also started being attacked this week. (Up till now noone has been allowed to hit me.) It’s terrifying. To stand there with your sword up while someone screams and runs towards you, lifting their sword above their head, takes a bit. Then, if that is not enough, once they have crashed down on your helmet (which is loud and definitely still feel-able, it just spreads the blow and the first time it happened I nearly threw up in the grille) you turn on your heel to face them again, otherwise their momentum will send them crashing into you. I learnt this the hard way more than once. If you turn the wrong direction, they will hit you even harder. Once you feel like you’re getting the hang of being beaten around the head, they start aiming for your arms. The Kote (arm protector) is worn loose, so you can slide it on and off. So when you are hit, it’s essentially just flapping a piece of hard plastic onto your forearm. The stomach strike is the one you barely feel, provided they get you on the armour. I never thought I would get used to it, but already after a week I’m finding I don’t mind it so much. If there’s one thing of practical value Kendo teaches me, I think it will be how to take a beating.

5th. Dinner and sober karaoke for the first time ever. Time does not pass so magically. They are rooms designed for drunk people, I think. Still, good company. Constantly feel lucky for the people around me. Sickly, but that’s okay because I have work this weekend.

7th. 90th School Ceremony. Basically involved me getting up at 6am on a Sunday, going to school, and sitting in the gym with all the other teachers and students while people did one million Japanese speeches. To my horror, I startled awake halfway through and realized I’d fallen asleep in my chair. My startle startled a couple other teachers, so any hopes of not being noticed were quickly dashed. It worked out for the best however, because one of the teachers who has never spoken to me pulled up his chair after the ceremony and was like “I saw you.” Oh dear. But he turned out to be very cool and when I told him he looked roughly 7 years younger than his actual age we turned into friends for life. Then he and a student had an argument in Japanese over who talked English with me better. Kyoto Sensei took an interest and asked “which do you like better, Kuma or Totogawa Sensei?” To which I replied, “Onaji. Same.” And was met with “sugooooiii!” from all sides. Thankyou, I’ll be here all week.

The best part about ceremonies is that they are always followed by enkais. I didn’t even think to bring my camera, and we ended up at the flashest reception in the flashest hotel eating the flashest food ever. Goddamn. The custom here is to fill people’s cups to show your appreciation for them, and not your own. Because of my new friend, I literally would have my cup filled, and then he would look over twenty seconds later and squeeze another couple of milliliters in, without me having taken a single sip. Then when they asked if I wanted shochu and I mimed sleeping, he proceeded to collect every bottle of beer left on the table, and line them up in front of me. “Present”. Oh, you are very good.