Monday, 21 September 2009

Nio Doll Festival

Today I took a daytrip with my colleague Taoka-sensei.

This is a terrible picture of myself but I want to show you Taoka-sensei because she is so wonderful. I love her and Taoka-sensei loves life. She enjoys growing vegetables,going to square dancing classes and "laughing until my eyes spout tears". She sits behind me in the staff room and I can always hear her chuckling away to herself. Her e-mail address is laid.back.mama;the perfect description of the kind of lady Taoko-sensei is.

Today we took a trip to a small fishing town called Nio for the town's annual Doll Festival. Nio is apparantly the sunniest place in Japan. Hinamatsuri (The Doll Festival) is a day to pray for young girls' growth and happiness. Most families with daughters, display a set of dolls on a tiered stand in their home and decorate it with peach blossoms. Like this:

The Doll Festival is a national festival on 3rd March but the town of Nio celebrates Hinamatsuri on 21st September. Hundreds of years ago, Nio Castle was attacked and taken on the 3rd March by feudal lords from Kochi prefecture hence why the event is not celebrated on that day.

The whole town was decorated so beautifully. We walked up and down the little streets where we could see shop fronts and houses displaying dolls to show traditional Kagawa folk tales. Everybody in the town was really excited and proud of their Doll Festival, it was the nicest thing to see.

The displays were sweet but I didn't think that the dolls were that beautiful. I preferred the dolls made by children in the local primary school. They were so colourful and made me smile so much:

There were lots of signs dotted around the town saying that there was one particular shop at which there would be a mechanical, moving display of a folk tale! At 1pm, the shop was filled with chattering old women and children, waiting in anticipation for this newfangled take on a very traditional Japanese custom. It was hilarious. At 1pm sharp, from behind the curtain of the display, out rolled a stuffed toy tortoise on a pair of wheels.The wheels were stuck onto the bottom of the tortoise, making him look somewhat futuristic. I have seen this tortoise in the 100 yen store, so I suspect that the town of Nio may have had a smaller budget for this year's festival. Balanced precariously on top of the tortoise was one of the traditional clay dolls. It was the most incompatible pairing I have ever seen. So anyhow, as the tortoise reached the top of the display, the clay doll fell off onto the floor which prompted lots of 'ohhh zannen desu!' 'ehhhh?!' from the audience. Many of the old ladies looked genuinely upset. It was the funniest thing , especially given the numerous signs encouraging people to come to this wonderful event.

There was also a Japanese drumming performance which was dead good; the drummers were in perfect unison for the entire performance. The drumming was interspersed with lots of hearty yells from the drummers.

For lunch, I tried Nio's local dish; rice topped with shredded egg, seaweed, a little orange and seabream which had been made into a paste. It was delicious. I love the carrot cut into a flower shape.

One of the folk tales I learnt about today is that of Taro the Fisherman. I think it is really whimsical and beautiful.I don't want to forget it, so I am going to write it down. If you want to read the tale, please do, I would love to know what you think of Japanese fairy tales. If you are not a dreamer like me, skip the next few paragraphs!

Long ago in Japan, there lived a kind young fisherman called Taro. One day when he was walking along the seashore, he saw some boys hitting a large sea turtle with a stick. He told the boys to release the turtle back into the sea. The next day, Taro was out fishing when he heard a voice calling his name, "Taro, Taro". It was the large sea turtle who had come to tell Taro that the Sea Princess wanted to meet him to thank him for his kindness. Taro jumped on to the turtle's back. He had heard of the palace under the sea and had always wanted to visit it. The turtle took him to the deepest part of the ocean, to a magnificent palace of coral and crystal.

Taro had a wonderful time at the palace; there was fine food, dancing and singing recitals by the fish. After a few days however, Taro began to feel a great sadness in his heart. He missed his family and his village, so asked to return home. The palace people were saddened by Taro's request. The Sea Princess gave Taro a parting gift; a beautiful jewel box, tightly bound with a red cord. "Don't forget me, Taro", said the Sea Princess. "Keep this box with you and never open it. That way you will always remember me. Do not forget!" Taro bowed and thanked her repeatedly. The turtle started off, moving slowly through the water, for he did not want to say farewell to kind young Taro. Soon, the palace was out of sight and Taro was back on the beach of his village. He recognized the rocks offshore, the curve of the beach and the Ebisu shrine not too far away. But the other buildings were not the ones he knew, and many were unlike anything he had ever seen - not as wonderful as the Sea Palace, but every bit as strange. His own hut had been near the shrine, but there was nothing there now.
After a period of confusion he decided to ask an old woman who was slowly making her way down the path toward him. "Good morning, may I ask you something? I was looking for the home of Taro."
" Taro?", replied the old woman "When did I last hear the name of Taro? My grandmother told me that her grandmother told her that she had heard the story of Taro, who lived in this village 300 years ago. A kind young man, but he disappeared before he could marry. Ah, don't they all! I don't think I've seen you before. Who are you staying with? My grand-daughter could stand to meet a nice young man, but they don't come to this village often."

Taro thanked her and walked back to the beach. He had left his home for the Sea Palace three hundred years ago?! He sat on the sand and longed for his village, the village he had known, but realised that not even the fastest sea turtle could take him there. With that, he took out the jewel box; perhaps this could help him. With difficulty, he removed the tight red cord, and raised the lid. There was nothing inside but a white mist, which rose, its tendrils curling slowly in the air. He breathed it in and smelled the mat in his hut, the salty wind of storms he had escaped, the fish he had cleaned, the wine he had offered to Ebisu-- the box held the 300 years Taro had lost, and as he breathed them in, he became a very old man.

Here I am with Taro and the Sea Princess!

The Sea Princess was so beautiful :-) They gave me painted sea shells to make wishes and this bag of oiri sweets; small rice puffs flavoured with cinnamon - delicious

I really enjoyed the festival. One of the things I wanted to do in Japan was to learn as much as possible about a culture that is not my own. I learnt heaps today and I loved the folk tales so much. In the evening, Taoko-sensei drove me back to her house. Taoko-sensei lives very traditionally; The house has sliding doors and tatami mats, there are bonsai trees in the garden, and her mother and father live in the house next door and grow vegetables. All the vegetables that Taoko-sensei and her husband eat are grown by her parents. We ate watermelon and figs grown by her mother, they tasted so good. It felt great to be eating watermelon in Japan without paying over thirty pounds for it!

Taoko-sensei collects yukata and kimono and she was really keen for me to try some on. Initially, I felt a little reluctant - although I can't put my finger on the reason why, seeing foreigners dressed in the native costume of another culture always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Taoko-sensei was so excited however, that I couldn't refuse. She spent ages picking out different ones, taking pictures and cooing "Ooooh sugoi! Kawaii!" Here I am:

My trip to Kobe, seeing lots of handmade things today and reading this blog everyday: are really inspiring me to do creative things again. I have been writing lots of letters, making things for my lessons and I am making a felt cake (utterly pointless, but it is nice to sit, sew, listen to music and see felt, thread and stuffing, slowly but surely, become something beautiful) Tomorrow, my friends who live in Okayama are coming to visit. I am having a great Silver Week :-)


Kobe > Stolen Bike

Hello loved ones :-) This week is Silver Week in Japan - it's a national holiday of five consecutive days so everybody at school was very happy at the arrival of a rare break in the Japanese education system. Today is Respect for the Aged Day - so happy Respect for the Aged Day Nana and Grandad. I love you. <3

Unfortunately, my Silver Week didn't start very well. My beautiful bike, Betsy Blue was stolen from the train station on Friday night. Without a bike, it is truly impossible to live life with ease here in Marugame; everything is spaced out by mountains and ricefields and a journey from the station to home, which is a swift ten minute cycle, takes an arduous half an hour to walk. I was so disappointed; I loved my bike so much. Having a bike like Betsy made me the happiest girl in this town. For now, I am reluctantly riding my friend's old bike. It is a vomitous orange colour, the brakes don't work,it has no light, so I am breaking the law by riding after dark, and it sounds like it has asthma. It is so noisy so I get even more stares than usual.

When I bought my bike, I paid for a security tag to be put on it, so that if it ever went missing, the police could attempt to locate it. Yesterday, I went to the police station where I was able to tell the police in Japanese (I felt proud of myself!) that my bike had been stolen on Friday night, the colour of it, the security number and the approximate time of the theft. The policeman I told this to promptly shouted to his colleagues, at which point, seven very small and slight police men bounded down the stairs and said that they would begin the search for Betsy straight away. Eight police men helping to look for one lowly bike is,I feel, deliciously indicative of the non existent crime scene in Marugame.

They then advised me that I shouldn't buy a new bike just yet. Quite often, stolen bikes turn up again....because they haven't really been stolen, they have been borrowed. Apparently, it is common here for people to 'borrow' bikes, ride them to the grocery shop and leave them there. It was very amusing but utterly bizarre to hear the local law enforcers attempt to persuade me that my bike had not in fact been stolen but had been borrowed. I don't think it would be possible to find police men in any other country in the world who would try to depict a minor criminal offence as a neighbourly, sweet and lovely thing! After having left the Koban, I almost felt that I had done a good deed by 'allowing' one of my fellow citizens to 'borrow' Betsy. I hope she turns up. Here is a picture of her. I miss her.

Here is my desperate attempt to make my temporary rusty contraption look attractive. A lady who lives just down the road from my apartment has the most beautiful garden. It is truly a pleasure to cycle past it on the way to school as it is brimming with colour and fragance. I bought some flowes from her for under a pound. It was really idyllic to cycle in the sunshine with flowers in my bicycle basket. Do you think I did a good job?

The special thing I decided to do for Silver Week was take a day trip to the city of Kobe which is in the south of Honshu, the main island. Kobe is an interesting city as it was one of the first Japanese cities to open its port for trading after Sakoku, the policy of seclusion imposed in Japan in 1633, ended in 1868. A famous Kobe quote is 'If you can't go to Paris, go to Kobe'. I have talked about my frustrations with Marugame and for a while, I was beginning to think that Marugame was typical of all of Japan. I felt disappointed that Japan was failing to enthuse me...until I visited Kobe. I had the most amazing time, it gave me a renewed sense of enthusiasm and happiness about being here. Kobe is a big city;I adore cities. I love the buzz of a city. I love seeing shiny glass windows, behind which are the most beautiful displays. I like stumbling upon cute little cafes and interesting shops. The thing I love most about cities is that because they ooze with so much life and creativity, there are exciting things going on, half of which you are unaware of until you mistakenly stumble upon them.

Kobe had all of these things; I loved the European influenced architecture and the harbour. The bakeries selling proper cakes (!) melted my heart,the narrow streets full of curious little shops made me grin inanely and the friendly people made me feel welcome (people didn't stare at me like I was a leper!)There were so many beautiful things that my eyes ached at the end of the day. The city is where I belong and Kobe is the first place I will return to once I get my October pay check. I feel so excited about taking Mum, Dad and Oliver here at Christmas time.

A typical Kobe street brimming with curious shops. The wires above look very hazardous don't they?

Down by the harbour.

In 1995, there was a huge earthquake in Kobe which killed over 6000 people. This spot down by the harbour was left untouched after the earthquake. It was eerie to see.

It was Kobe Fashion Week and here are some beautiful girls.

Look at all of the people! There were probably more people in this little courtyard than the entire population of Marugame - I was so happy!

The day trippers - happy and content after having eaten some delicious cake - we took so long choosing a cake that I almost missed my bus back to sleepy town, oops.

Ed and I found a piece of home in Kobe.

I'm going to write some more in a separate blog post as I realise I am beginning to ramble now. If you have a penchant for reading things chronologically, please read this post first, followed by the one above!


Sunday, 13 September 2009


I spent this weekend at Maruko's school festival. On the Friday before the festival, all lessons were cancelled in order to devote the day to preparations and classroom decorating. I am certain that I was the happiest girl in Marugame that Friday; to spend an entire day cutting and pasting,sewing bunting, colouring in and getting covered in glitter glue and felt tip pen in the process is the closest thing to heaven for me. I helped to make this display with the Art Club:

I also helped Aya and Haruko, two of the English Club members with their room decoration. Aya and Haruko are funny little things; they spent half of the afternoon cycling to the 100 Yen Store to buy pens, pencils and fabric...these proved to be unecessary trips as they spent the other half of the afternoon cooing at pictures of Zac Efron. As a result, the room of the English Club was very poorly decorated, or rather hilariously so; at half past seven, Aya began to panic as she saw how beautiful the other rooms looked, so decided to do some research on Thailand. This choice puzzles me slightly, since the theme of our room was 'England' but she seemed quite intent on her choice. This is Aya's last minute attempt at room decoration, I love the caption underneath so much ('he is not Thai) -doesn't it portray the sheer last minute attempt so perfectly:

The festival was ace. I spent a lot of time talking with the students and I am starting to put names and personalities to faces now, which feels really nice. I took part in the Tea Ceremony, played lots of party games for Japanese snacks, made a hairslide at the Art Club,and iced some biscuits at the Home Ec club.

Incidentally, I noticed an interesting cultural difference at the Talent Show;there were so many groups of boys who did dance routines to pop songs and what is more, by no means were the routines half hearted or sardonic. This was something that would never happen in the UK and it did make me wonder about gender constructs in different parts of the world. In the public sphere, women tend to be somewhat subservient to men here in Japan, so by implication, does that mean that men exert their masculinity? Perhaps so, but my encounters with my male colleagues and students seems to disprove this. I find men and boys here to be as kind hearted and gentle as the females. It seems also that compared to the UK, 'macho' culture is not so pervasive in high school culture here; my male students are just as enthusiastic as the female ones about activities involving glitter glue and making things and groups of 18 year old boys were (shamelessly) crying with joy when they won the Talent Show on the merits of their dancing this afternoon. Hmm, I am beginning to ramble a little and lose track of the point I am trying to make, but I hope you understand!

Anyhow, back to Maruko School Festival...

Tonight was also my first experience of the staff party (enkai). I was so intrigued to attend an enkai as some of my fellow ALTs have had interesting experiences at theirs. Our enkai was at a famous chicken restaurant in Marugame called Ikkaku. My vegetarian comrades, forgive me, I am now a meat eater. I found my diet of tofu and a poor selection of vegetables to be insufficient for long days of teaching and biking around everywhere. Ikkaku is a very traditional Japanese eating place with low tables and tatami mats. The evening began very formally with speeches, lots of toasts and bowing but as the beer flowed, it turned into a real party... was hilarious.

I sat with my favourite teacher, Ohmiya-sensei who got progressively drunk as the evening went on. Williams-sensei had warned me earlier, with her sharp tongue and rolling eyes, that Ohmiya-sensei gets drunk after about two beers and his personality becomes magnified x 10. This was indeed true and by the end of the night, he had bitten my arm, suggested that I take a trip to Thailand next weekend with him and his wife and told me that because I am here on my own in Japan, he wants to be a father figure to me (he said this with such sincerity that it made me want to cry).

At the enkai, I sat opposite another English teacher called Yamaguchi-sensei, who yesterday invited me to share a meal with his family at his home next week. Yamaguchi-sensei spent some time studying in Birmingham and empathised with me when I told him that I often felt frustrated at my inability to express myself in Japanese. He told me that his solution to this when he was in Birmingham was to go to the pub, get drunk and talk to people. Alcohol = confidence in language. He then shouted really loudly 'Yes, and when I left Birmingham, my friends bought me a pint glass with 'Pisshead' printed on it. I lovu biiru!!'.

After being at work for seven consecutive days, I am so exhausted, but I have had such a happy time this weekend. .


Monday, 7 September 2009

'What do you think of Tada-sensei's face?'

Today was the beginning of my second week of 'teaching' here in Marugame. I teach at two high schools which differ hugely from one another. One school is a very academic school and most of the students do a study abroad term in their final year. The other school is an industrial school; most of the students are the sons and daughters of rice farmers, so most will follow in the footsteps of their parents, with just a handful going onto university. As the two schools are so different, there has been great disparity with regard to how my lessons have been received.

I found the first week of my new job to be the most unsettling and overwhelming experience. It seems also that my responsibilities somewhat belie my job description (that of an Assistant Language Teacher). Rather than assisting the Japanese teacher of English, it is my job to plan, prepare and lead all the lessons. Having had just five days of training, I feel terribly underqualified. What makes the situation more difficult is that the Japanese teachers seem to think that I am a teacher when in fact, I am just a few years older than most of the students at school.

Most of the lessons in week one have involved some sort of self introduction to my classes. I have only been at school for six days, yet I have given the self introduction lesson more than ten times. I know it inside out and now seem to be able to reel it off whilst my mind wanders elsewhere...

My first few classes were a disaster. My self introduction was met with no response at all. Most of the students sat with glazed looks on their faces and many put their heads down on the desk and fell asleep for the duration of the lesson. It was so disheartening to have put so much thought into the lesson, only for it to fail miserably. I am sure you can therefore imagine the painfully awkward'question and answer' session that followed my presentation....whenever I attempted to get one of the students to answer a question at the industrial school they would either a) look straight through me or b) look directly at me with frightened eyes and quivering lips.

There is a proverb here in Japan: ' The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down'. In other words, individuality is not encouraged. The students are all very reluctant to speak up so I have had to change my approach drastically. Every time I plan a lesson, I make sure that each and every activity is goup based. All quizzes, questions and presentations are done in teams. It is the only way that I can get any kind of response. Comedic competition seems to work well too. In my past three classes, we have done little other than draw funny pictures; I'm not sure that this is so good with regard to language acquisition and cultural exchange but the kids seem more at ease and the Japanese teachers spend most of the lesson nodding their heads in enthusiasm, so perhaps things are just fine for now.

Slowly but surely, the students at the academic high school are beginning to warm to me a little; there have been smiles and genuine laughter in the classroom and it makes me so happy to see. As I walk down the school corridoors, lots of the girls peep their heads out of classrooms and shout 'Kawaii desu!' (you're cute!). The boys on the other hand are very funny; the only topics that will make them communicate with me is my marital status and love life. Here are some of the questions that I have been asked by the boys:

'What are you doing on Saturday? It's date time with me!'

A response to my question 'What is fun to do in Marugame?' 'It is fun to come to my house and see me'

'Why are you so beautiful?'

After telling the students that my favourite man was Jonny Depp, one boy piped up 'Oh, Isabel-sensei, my father said that I look like Jonny Depp!'

Progress at the other school is painfully slow,,,

This weekend, I am going to the school festival at Marugame High School (the academic school). School festivals in Japan are enormous events and there is so much preparation taking place at school. When I take a cycle at around 8 or 9pm, so many students are still at school working on huge bamboo structures, playing instruments, singing, dancing and making bunting.

One of the things I am most excited to experience at the school festival is the tea ceremony. I have done Japanese tea ceremony once already since my arrival in Japan and it really is the most beautiful thing. Every single movement is so perfectly rehearsed and has such significance.

Here is a picture of Kayo and I doing tea ceremony at Ritsurin Koen. My knees were gone by this point and it was hard for me to ignore the pain, hence the grimace on my face.

Here is some green tea and a chestnut sweet. Both were so good and complimented each other perfectly.

I am beginning to develop a fondness for Japanese confectionary and an accompanying appreciation for its subtle tastes. These sweets are called sakura dango. They are cherry flavoured rice balls, eaten with red bean paste - delicious. :-)
Here I am looking very pleased with my Saturday treat at the park.

As for the teachers at my school...there are certainly some characters. My two favourites work at Marugame High School. In the staff room, I sit next to a teacher called Williams-sensei. She is married to an English man and perhaps because of this, she does not come across as very Japanese in her ways. First of all, she wears perfume, something that Japanese women don't tend to wear. Williams-sensei loves perfume and this has encouraged me to wear mine with renewed gusto! Today I applyed it on three separate occassions which was great, given my previous habit of very small and tentative sprays in the morning. Williams-sensei is the first Japanese person I have met who is skilled in the art of sarcasm. She rolls her eyes a lot at Ohmiya-sensei....

....who is my other favourite teacher. I get the impression that Ohmiya-sensei irritates a lot of the other teachers at school. I find him hilarious. He is the tiniest man but it is possible to hear him from all the way down the corridoor. Most of the teachers in the staffroom are very reserved....not Ohmiya-sensei. He bounds in yelling 'Today, I am going to teach the students about amusement parks woooooooooo!' When I gave the teachers my gift of Earl Gray tea and shortbread biscuits, he wouldn't stop shouting 'Earu Gurayu is laaaavely!' He is forever approaching me with his Japanese/English dictionary, (which is probably bigger than his head) asking me questions with a very quizzical facial expression. Today he asked me 'Isabel-sensei, what is the difference between a lot of traffic, and a traffic jam?'. I'm uncertain as to why Ohmiya-sensei would ever need to use those phrases in his daily vocabulary; there is never any traffic in Marugame.

The teachers at the other school are much quieter...and they all wear tracksuits. At first I thought that the school had a lot of P.E teachers but then found myself in a classroom with the Japanese teacher of English who was wearing tracksuits bottoms, a t-shirt and sandals with socks...

Another oddity I have noticed at school is that many people wear masks that cover their mouths due to their fear of influenza. I have yet to see what the headteacher at Marugame High School looks like as he has been wearing a mask since the day I started.

As for life here, I am finding it very difficult to balance lesson planning, making new friends, studying Japanese and trying to figure out how to live life. Consequently, I've experienced some days where I have wanted to just give up and come home to the familiar. Sometimes I feel uneasy at being so conspicious in my town. People stare all the time. I feel irritated and frustrated that I can't understand anything. It takes me so long to go food shopping for example, because I can't read anything. My mind feels so overwhelmed by all of these new things that the things I enjoyed doing back home seem to have been left by the wayside. I haven't sat down and read a book, written a long letter or made something silly for ages. I worry that I will lose all the creativity I possess. Perhaps there will be time to get back into my books and silly crafty things again when I have established more of a routine here.

The weekend before last, I met up with three other ALTs here; fellow Londoner Ed, Jared (from Chicago) and Sean (from New Jersey). We drove to the most beautiful waterfall up in the mountains and had fun swimming there, though we later discovered that the waterfall is a sacred Shinto place and people are not supposed to swim there. This explains the bemused looks we had been getting from passers by, oh dear. Here is a picture of the Shinto trespassers:

We then took a trip to the beach to take a look at this huge coin made of sand; it's over four hundred years old. It was incredible...

This evening, as I was cycling home from school, I noticed that there is a new arrival in the rice field opposite my apartment. I like that despite this scarecrow's frightening looking face, he still looks cute in his beribboned bonnet (there is always room for some cuteness in Japan)

Finally, here is a picture of Ed, a couple of other guys from training, two sweet Japanese girls and myself at a super cute photo booth station in Hiroshima. This is Japan...