Archive for September, 2009

The First Day

I had a bit of a nightmare.

After a waiting for a month, school finally started. My speeches, in the morning, went fine. First, I was formally introduced to the teachers during the first weekly meeting of term, along with someone joining the school office and a Belgian exchange student, and I said a few words in Japanese and bowed. Next, it was off to the school gym (in my bright new white gym trainers, which went rather well with my suit, I thought). Again, I was introduced with the Belgian student, but this time to the school’s 800 students. I was surprisingly nervous (much more so than all those times I was on telly in my former life). But my few words in Japanese went fine, and several teachers congratulated me and told me how amazingly amazing I am at Japanese (which is actually just a standard response to foreigners speaking Japanese).

Things started to go wrong during the cleaning. In Japan, the students are responsible for cleaning the school. In my school we do it every day after lunch, and it’s my job to supervise half of the corridor outside the teachers’ room. It is the vice-principal’s job to supervise the other half, and he was supposed to be helping me, but unfortunately he didn’t turn up (because he had to take another teacher to hospital, I later found out), which is where the problems began, because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and then the wrong students turned up, and then I had to give all of the students a grade for their cleaning performance, so I just gave them all an A because that seemed to be what the last supervisor had done all the time.

But things really went wrong during my first class. I had planned a quite elaborate Powerpoint presentation (requiring projector and screen), complete with a video clip of me playing Sonic (badly) on the news, and various props – books, maps of Ireland, newspapers, etc. I had intended to follow this up with a game of snowball: I had prepared worksheets with ten simple questions on them, along with most of the answers (eg. What is your favourite sport? My favourite sport is __________; What is your favourite book/manga? My favourite book is __________). The idea is that I would read out the questions; the students would write the answers; they’d scrunch up the worksheet and have a snowball fight; then they’d pick up the nearest snowball and, buzzing from the excitement, they would overcome their shyness and hesitation and read the answers out.

In practice, the other teacher turned up late, and took quite a while to hand out all the namecards. Then, 15 minutes into the class, when I asked all the students to come to the front of the room and gather round the screen, he told them all to move the desks to the back. Which, after some confusion (precipitated, I think, by the conflicting sets of instructions in English and Japanese) they did. Slowly. Scraping the desks to make as much noise as possible. So then I started my presentation, with over half of the lesson gone. The students chatted among themselves and my teacher spoke over me in Japanese. Then it started to rain, so all the kids rushed to the window to look, and the teacher chatted to them about the weather, in Japanese. Eventually, I managed to start asking the snowball questions. Three of them. Most of the kids didn’t write anything down. Then the bell went for the end of the lesson, at which point the teacher started asking the kids to read their answers.
(As a brief aside, we have been repeatedly warned during our many orientation seminars and preparatory lectures that school discipline is handled differently in Japan – much of the discipline is, apparently, handled outside of lessons, with teachers going to extraordinary lengths to supervise their students and improve their behaviour. Despite all of those warnings, I was still very surprised at how brazenly these students misbehaved.)

So then I was ten minutes late for the next class. In quite a marked contrast to my first class, all of the students were sitting in silence, waiting obediently with their teacher. In quite a marked contrast to them, I rushed in sweating, with three bags swinging into the students and their desks, and worksheets falling out from under my arm. By the time I had set up my elaborate audio-visual equipment, it was pretty clear that I had failed to make a good impression. Compared to the first class, my second class went okay, and we even got to throw the snowballs. Still, even though I had been repeatedly warned about the students’ fairly rudimentary English ability, I was surprised that most of the students found it difficult to answer the questions.

But like I told my students when I showed them the Sonic clip, you learn from your mistakes. So now I’m about to de-elaboratise my PowerPoint presentation, and cut down the number of snowball questions. Fingers crossed for my first lesson tomorrow…

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Shaking until horse

So after arriving in Yamanashi, and making myself at home, I had nearly a month to wait before the start of the school term. For all of that time, I was expected to come in to school to work, but really, I found it difficult to find any real work to do. I took my time going through my predecessor’s notes, and tried to organise my materials and so on, and I would dearly loved to have used the time to plan lessons and prepare for the coming term, but really, I had no idea what the kids were studying, or how much English they would understand.

So instead I spent this time, mostly, trying to learn some Japanese, and trying to pin down the other English teachers to ask them about the syllabus and the students, and so on (which was more difficult than it sounds…). I also had my first encounter with the famous Japanese reluctance to be direct – something that we had been frequently warned about during our orientation in Tokyo. It came one day while trying to cross the road.

Outside the school is a pedestrian crossing that I have to cross to get home. To do so I have to press a button and then wait – usually for a pretty long time, actually. Except one day, when I thought I had pressed the button, it turns out that I hadn’t. So I stood there and I waited for even more than a pretty long time, and after a while a student joined me at the crossing on her bike and then we both waited. And we waited. And she looked at me and didn’t say anything. And we waited. And she looked at me and smiled. And still we waited. Until eventually she got off her bike, walked around behind me, and pressed the button herself, before smiling, bowing, and getting back on her bike. And then we waited one last time until the lights changed so we could cross. Perhaps the strangest thing about this experience was that, for at least half the time we were waiting, there wasn’t a single car in sight. We were both waiting for the lights to change even though it was perfectly safe to cross.

Anyway, apart from not being able to cross the road, I also spent a couple of days attending a local orientation programme with the other Yamanashi JETS, where we were taught how to teach again. There were a few other highlights, too, like the bit where they told us what to do in an emergency. It seemed to boil down to hiding under tables or finding yourself in a fairly modern tall building. It couldn’t have come at a better time: in the early hours of the next morning, while still shitfaced from the night before, I experienced my first real earthquake.

I’ve experienced one or two earthquakes before, in England, but most of the time I was either sleeping or drunk, and the earthquakes were so mild that I barely noticed. This one was far from mild. It was, according to my mother-in-law, the strongest one that she can remember. And to make things weirder, my newly acquired Japanese mobile phone comes with an earthquake alarm. So what actually happened was that my phone alarm went off and I reached over, half-asleep and fully drunk, to switch it off. Then I lay in bed for a moment wondering where on earth I was and how on earth I could still be so drunk if it was already time to wake up.

And then my hotel room started to shake. It shook so much that I could visibly see the walls going all diagonal, where once they were straight. It shook so much that I was nearly shaken right out of my bed. And it kept shaking. And while it kept shaking I lay in bed, remembering the advice from our orientation seminar, that the safest place to be in the event of an earthquake is in a tall building – like, in fact, the very hotel in which I was staying. Until, eventually, the shaking stopped. At which point, relieved I went back to sleep.

So it’s not like I had any nerves to calm the next day, but all the same, I went, with my wife, mother-in-law, and nephew, to the nearby onsen town of Isawa, where we enjoyed relaxing in extremely hot water and watching fireworks. That much is pretty normal for Japan, but even I was surprised to find that the shampoo and shower gel were made from horse oil. Good job I’m not a vegetarian I guess. Although I suppose vegetarians would only object to eating horse – not boiling one down and then washing in it.

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So I arrived in Tokyo at the end of July. My real arrival, however, was a few days later, when I reached what will be my new home for the first time: Yamanashi. There were maybe ten or fifteen of us on the bus from Tokyo, and we were dropped off in Kofu, the prefectural capital, where we were to meet our new supervisors before departing for our ultimate destinations. In my case, that was five minutes down the road, at a commercial high school.

I knew very little about Kofu before I arrived, and very little about what to expect from the school at which I would be teaching. I was met by two English teachers, who drove me to a fairly imposing grey building, with what appeared to be a building site in front of it: lots of men in hardhats digging up rubble with all sorts of bulldozers, diggers and assorted other articulated machinery.

“Great,” I thought to myself. “I’ll be walking past a noisy building site every day.”

“Some of the students are taking tests,” explained one of the teachers, pointing out that what I thought was a ‘building site’ is actually just a piece of land that’s used for the students to study various disciplines relating to building and construction work. That’s because my new school is a ‘commercial’ high school. Although it isn’t compulsory to attend high school in Japan, about 97% of kids do so from the age of fifteen or sixteen – by which point, as I understand it from my wife, the eventual course of their lives is largely decided. If they get into an academic high school, they’ll go on to attend university, and then to professional office jobs. In a commercial school, such as mine, the students will study a wide range of commercial disciplines, such as IT, or construction work, or nursing. When they leave, the chances are that they’ll go on either to some sort of vocational course at university, or straight to work. (There are also even more specialised schools, such as agricultural schools, or even, near me, an aviation school).

When I arrived at school, however, it was the middle of the school holidays so there were hardly any students around. (Although I found it interesting that some students do come in to school for extra lessons, or club activities.) So next, it was off to my new apartment. Or, rather, old apartment. Forty years old. From the outside it looks like a deserted concrete bunker, surrounded by detritus and junk – like something you might find at ground level in Bladerunner. Inside, it just got worse. It smelled bad. It was dirty. I think my two hosts were slightly embarrassed.

Maybe I’ll start with the kitchen: the height of the sink is somewhere about the middle of my thighs, but it was made more difficult to reach by half-hanging-off shelf at head height above it. Behind it, there was an old cupboard full of crockery that I didn’t want. The gas range, as I mentioned earlier, was old and encrusted with grease and food, and it uses an expensive type of gas that has to be refilled every month by a man who comes round (so even if we haven’t used up all of the gas in the tank, we still have to pay for it).

In fact, when the man came round to install the gas, he pointed out that the water heater next to the bath in our tiny bathroom should not be used under any circumstances, in case it blows up. He also pointed out the pipes that run across the ceiling, next to a bunch of electrical cables, as another potential hazard, since if they burst we will be showered with scalding hot water and possibly electrocuted. Next to the bathroom is a changing area that’s separated from the kitchen by just a yellowing, stained curtain. It contains a sink that is below knee-height, with a shelf-above it (below waist height) that makes it very difficult to brush your teeth. And in the bedroom, the tatami floor was filthy; the sliding doors had stains dripping down them (blood? puke? your guess is as good as mine…), and foam insulating material hanging off the door frame. When I stepped outside on to the balcony the sliding net door fell off completely, rather undermining its effectiveness as a barrier against insect intruders.

It was not the most welcoming of abodes. But by far the worst thing about it was, and still is, the toilet. Since our arrival, Shino has scrubbed and cleaned and beautified the place. We now have an attractive name plate on the front door, a new kotatsu table in the tatami room, and our landlady was kind enough to replace all of the tatami and fix the broken shelf above the kitchen sink. But the toilet was, and still is, what is known in Japan as a washiki. Which means that it is basically a hole in the ground.

To elaborate, it is a bit like a trough, in the ground. The idea is that you squat over it, release your burden, and then, when you flush, a burst of water sweeps away the waste into the sewage system via a hole in the floor at the end. Now, washiki aren’t totally uncivilized: in some very important ways they are profoundly better than western-style toilets – mainly because the squatting position reduces ‘fecal transit time’ and seems to encourage a cleaner break than sitting down with a book and straining until you’ve induced a haemorrhoid. But whenever I’ve seen them before in Japan, I’ve always refused to use them out of principle (that principle being that I shouldn’t have to shit into a hole in the ground in the country that’s responsible for the most advanced toilet technology in the world).

This particular one happens to have a plastic seat over it, which is intended to convert it into a western-style toilet, although really it only manages to resemble a laughable parody of one. For a start, the maximum weight it can take is 100kg. That’s not such a problem – I’m only around 82kg, so I reckon I’ve got a few years of curry donuts until I’ll be forced to squat. But having been used for years by my predecessors, the underside of the plastic seat was stained and smelly with years of accrued effluent. Moreover, it continues to be the victim of such splashback, requiring constant cleaning with loo brush, dedicated detergent wipes, and a spray bottle full of bleach that we leave in the smallest room especially for this purpose. But perhaps the worst thing about our washiki-converter loo seat is that even without the advantage of the reduced ‘fecal transit time’, a leisurely, relaxing, pensive poo, is become the remotest of dreams; since any waste deposited in the washiki remains exposed to the atmosphere (unlike the true western toilet, wherein it is submerged beneath the water in the basin), the smell is simply unbearable.

And so that was my first impressions of Yamanashi: a bit shit.
Things did (eventually) get better. But more on that later.

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New gear

There’s a moment during one of John Updike’s Rabbit books where the protagonist, in the middle of swapping wives, finds himself preoccupied with his friend’s medicine cabinet; with how the small details of consumerism reveal big differences in the way people live. Life in Japan is the same as in England, but different. Perhaps, like Rabbit, some of those differences are most apparent from the new and different things that I have acquired since living here.

In the bathroom, for example, I have a new charcoal and hinoki oil shampoo with a special rubbery head brush/massage thing. The special shampoo was a gift from my mother-in-law; the rubbery massage thing, a gift from my wife. Apparently the regular use of both will stop my rapidly receding hairline in its tracks. I’m not sure of the scientific basis for these claims, and I’m not sure my wife and mother-in-law are sure of them either. But I’m not quite ready to dismiss their wacky supernatural (also eg. their belief in the effectiveness of Core Rhythms DVDs etc.) just yet. About three years ago we visited a couple of temples on New Year’s Day with my wife’s family, and we all made a wish at each one. When we asked my nephew what he had wished for, it turned out that he had wished for a brother at one temple and a sister at another. Nine months later both wishes were granted: his mum gave birth to twins. The next year we were walking together on such a clear day that we could see Mount Fuji. “I wish I could live close enough to see Mount Fuji every day,” said my wife. Two years later and here we are.

So no, I’m not quite ready to dismiss the crazy, wacky beliefs of my wife and her family. But I think there is a sounder scientific basis for my next piece of new gear: an exfoliating towel, which is a replacement for an exfoliating sponge that rapidly started to smell bad because it never dried out in our humid shower room. I use it in combination with another new thing – some special soap that will apparently address one of the problems caused by the intense heat of the Yamanashi summer: I now have a really, really spotty back. I spend most of my days drenched in sweat. When I sleep at night I sweat. When I get out of the shower, I sweat. When I walk to work, I sweat. When I sit down at my desk, I sweat. When I stand up at the front of the classroom, I sweat. When I walk home, I sweat. And when I go running along the Arakawa river, boy do I sweat.

And the upshot of all that sweat is the blocked pores on my back, which have turned into nasty red pimples. I’ve only just started using my special soap, but it’s already stopped the painful itching, so I’m hoping it will also get rid of the spots. But in case all that talk of spots has you choking over your cornflakes, perhaps I should move into the kitchen.

Like many other Japanese families, we are now the owners of a small gas range that sits on top of our worktop. In fact, these gas ranges are so common that you can get all sorts of equipment for them, like a magnetic metal shield to stop food splashing up your walls; and a special foil cover that sits underneath the gas hobs to stop food splashing all over the cooker itself. Before we could install these, though, we had to clean our gas range for what was probably the first time in its 10-15-year-old life (ie. about twice the usual lifespan of these things). My wife chose to do so just after I’d got out of the shower, before I had a chance to get dressed. So picture me, if you can, wearing nothing but a pair of rubber gloves, cleaning the accumulated grime and grease of ten years of cooking. And now picture me, if you can, discovering the dead carcass of a cockroach, right underneath where we cook our food.

Which brings me on to the next category of equipment: bug-killing. Apart from that solitary dead cockroach, the first major problem we had with insects was that our tatami mats were infected with mites (that leave a tell-tale two-pronged bite). To get rid of them we used a bug bomb, which is a metal can that contains poison. To use it we cleared all of our belongings into the closet, and then ripped off the top of the can. There was a brief burst of flame, and then poisonous smoke started billowing out. At which point we went shopping. When we returned, four hours later, there was no more smoke, or tatami mites.

That wasn’t the end of our insect problems, though. We also have a little electronic pig in the corner of the room, which dispenses some chemical in the air to kill off mosquitoes. But even mosquitoes aren’t the end of our insect problems. Wandering into the kitchen one evening, I found myself gazing at one of our dishes, wondering how come I had never noticed the sort of red-ink floral pattern on the side. Then the red-ink floral pattern on the side started to move and I realised with a grisly sinking feeling that I was staring at my first live cockroach. I didn’t expect to have any sort of psychological problem with cockroaches because I’m not that squeamish about insects, and as far as I can tell, cockroaches aren’t any more unclean than any other household insect. But the way this one seemed to emerge from some alien cloaking device – and the sheer size and speed of the thing, crawling all over our plates – left me feeling properly violated.

That first cockroach escaped. The second one, I attacked with some bug spray until it was on its back, legs whirring and kicking in agonised death throes. The third one, I will admit, I was lucky, lifting up the loo seat at just the right time to knock it into the toilet, where those little legs performed the same macabre dance, before I flushed it away. A minute before or afterwards and they’d have been crawling all over my exposed privates. So since then, in the interest of cockroach-free private parts, we’ve also added some little black plastic capsules to our array of new equipment, each one home to poison that the cockroaches will apparently bring back to their breeding grounds. Let’s hope they work.

And so, finally, we get to the bedroom, where the most important piece of equipment is our air conditioning unit and fan, because since we arrived in Yamanashi it has mostly been impossibly hot. For the first few nights we would leave our aircon on all night, just so we could sleep. In the interests of the environment, however, (and our bank account) we gradually weaned ourselves off it, replacing it with special ice pillows that we take out of the freezer and wrap in small towels to place under our heads at night. (My wife also has similar ice packs for her feet).

By far the most important piece of new gear in our apartment, however, is the plastic loo seat in our tiny sweatbox of a toilet. That’s because our apartment is 40 years old, and 40 years ago, the most cutting-edge toilet technology consisted of a hole in the ground. But that brings me on to the subject of the apartment itself, and that’s a whole other story that I’ll hopefully get round to telling you next time.

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Tokyo Orientation

So as you may have gathered, I have started a new adventure. I’m in Japan. Living. I arrived in Tokyo at the end of July, emerging into the midsummer heat to start a new life.

At the end of last year I applied for a place on the JET programme, a teaching and cultural exchange programme that places (mostly) English speaking university graduates in Japanese schools as Assistant Language Teachers. The idea is that these ALTs (as they’re called) co-operate with Japanese Teachers of English (or JTEs, as they’re called) to encourage students to learn (and enjoy) English, and to learn about foreign cultures. On their return to their home countries, the ALTs (who are, by then, ex-ALTs) are expected to become cultural ambassadors for Japan, using their experiences in Japan to increase understanding of Japanese culture abroad. It’s a scheme that has placed thousands of English-speaking graduates across Japan for over forty years, but recently it has come in for a fair amount of criticism and come under considerable financial pressure from commercial operations, which provide ALTs without promising any sort of cultural exchange.

I’ll get on to that later, though. For now; my arrival, which was greeted by about a hundred beaming JET reps, all wearing eye-hurtingly purple T-shirts, and lined up to make a human cordon to guide all incoming JETs towards the buses that would take us to the Keio Plaza hotel in Shinjuku. And that’s where I stayed for my first two nights in Japan, sharing a room with two other Irish JETs. There followed two days of lectures and seminars that were apparently aimed at turning all of us into fully-functioning English-teaching cultural ambassadors, though I suspect that the real reason behind the orientation is to act as a buffer zone between the dazzling sense of security offered by Tokyo’s bright lights and the removal of the safety net when most new JETs are sent to their remote and potentially lonely new homes –  where the only new friends they might make are the cockroaches and centipedes.

But you can’t get the Japanese government to pay for a two-day party to prevent all the JETs going home crying, which is why they have all the lectures. Like all orientations, it was difficult to process the information without any meaningful context: if your only experience of the classroom is misbehaving at school, it seems a bit optimistic to expect that two hours of seminars are going to turn you into Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. In any case most of the sessions, aimed at the recent graduates who make up the vast majority of JETs, were beyond useless to anybody who has actually had a job before (really? We have to turn up to work? On time? Wearing work clothes? And, what, then we have to work? At work? Wow, this whole work thing is much more complicated than I thought!).

Just as an example, there was a lecture that would apparently provide us with ‘some ideas about self-motivation, materials, and methods you can use to start or continue advancing your Japanese language skills’. In actual fact, two guys, one wearing a bow-tie, spent nearly an hour telling us that it’s a good idea to learn Japanese. Really? It’s good to learn Japanese? In Japan? Now there’s a conclusion that a roomful of university graduates who are about to embark on a cultural exchange programme that involves MOVING TO JAPAN couldn’t have reached by themselves. Maybe I was just annoyed by the guy’s bow-tie. But I was more annoyed when I bumped into his partner at the Irish embassy drinks and told him that there was a great textbook that wasn’t on the list he handed out at the end of his talk. “I know,” he said. And that’s all he said. (Oh, really, you KNOW that you left out the best textbook? Okay. Well here’s my tip for students of Japanese: keep an open mind.) I will concede that if you’ve just given a lecture about how it’s great to learn Japanese because, y’know, you’re in Japan and that, then it’s probably a bit annoying for someone to come and tell you that it lacked something. But really, I offered the information in the spirit of friendly advice since, to judge from the presentation, his Japanese is no better than mine.

But on the subject of embassy drinks, it seems that many of the Irish JET participants had taken the cultural exchange dimension of the programme to heart and were determined to dispel any sort of preconceived notions that the Japanese might have had. So the Irish embassy drinks were held in an Irish pub (unlike all of the other embassies, who held theirs at their actual embassies), and the previous night several Irish JETs stayed up drinking, stopping only to say Mass in Latin and sing The Angelus at the breakfast table to the puzzled bemusement of all the Americans. Oh, and one of them came back to the hotel room he shared with me and, not wanting to wake us up, retired to the bathroom to eat his cup noodles. Which he then spilled, all over the floor. Where I found them the next morning.

As my dad said to me in an email: I guess I’m going to have to get used to all the noodles from now on.

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Mr James

So yeah, I’m in Japan. More on that later. For now, this: as I write this (several weeks before you read it because I’m still waiting for an American hippy to connect me to the internet), expatriate blogs and messageboards are incandescent with rage about the new advertising campaign that McDonald’s is running in Japan. The star of that new campaign is called Mr James. He’s a bespectacled, slightly geeky-looking American (who looks, to me, a bit like the sort of stereotypical middle-American that you might see in British advertising campaigns). Everything he says is spelled out in katakana, the one of the three Japanese systems of writing which is normally used to spell foreign words (like ‘doa’, or ‘door’ as it’s better known in English, for example).

The reason that all these gaijin are so incredibly, venomously furious with this Mr James is that apparently he is a deeply racist stereotype, who is making it intolerably difficult to live as a foreigner in Japan. I have seen posts on messageboards suggesting that this ad campaign is comparable to trying to sell some French fries by depicting all muslims as suicide bombers, while other forum firebrands have been suggesting that the actor who plays Mr James is actually evil and should be physically attacked. The individual leading the anti-ad campaign campaign (with much more moderation than these forum posters, I should add) is some guy called Arudou Debito.

As far as I can tell, this Debito guy is some American who moved to Japan a while ago and, since changing his nationality to Japanese, has made a name and a moderate media profile for himself, by becoming a prominent critic of negative treatment of foreigners in Japan. In an open letter to McDonald’s, he outlines his concerns, which are as follows:

1) The character speaks broken accented Japanese (using the katakana script, one used for foreign loanwords).  The impression given is that Caucasians cannot speak Japanese properly, which is simply not true for the vast numbers of non-native (and Japanese-native) foreigners in Japan.

2) The character is called “Mr. James” (again, in katakana), promoting the stereotype that foreigners must be called by their first names only (standard Japanese etiquette demands that adults be called “last name plus -san”), undoing progress we have made for equal treatment under Japanese societal rules.

3) The image used, of a clumsy sycophantic “nerd” for this Caucasian customer, is embarrassing to Caucasians who will have to live in Japan under this image.


I think those concerns are fairly minor. In England we have ad campaigns that make fun of the way Europeans like a lot of head on their lager, or that use Japanese salarymen as sources of humour. We have comedians who characterise the French as onion-selling smellies who eat too much cheese and garlic (and in any case, as an American, Mr James probably thinks all of the French are cheese-eating surrender monkeys). I list these examples not as an argument that other are people are racist so it’s okay for the Japanese to be racist too; but as an argument that there is a difference between mild cultural stereotyping for (in this case equally mild) comedic purposes, and actual outright racial stereotyping.

I understand that those mild cultural stereotypes do run the risk of perpetuating misconceptions and so on, but the only way you can eliminate them is to actually ban comedy and humour. Judging from the tone of this Debito’s blog, I guess that’s what he wants. As far as I’m concerned, the only misconceptions that Mr James might perpetuate are very mild ones. Here’s my advice for any foreigners in Japan who have their lives ruined by some idiot Japanese assuming that they can’t speak Japanese, or can’t read kanji: say something in Japanese! Perhaps you could even try telling them you can read kanji!

Also, I would hazard a guess that since about half of all of these indignant internet warriors who are threatening to boycott McDonald’s and/or attack the actor who plays Mr. James are Americans, they probably eat about 20 Big Macs a day – although I guess I should add the caveat that I don’t actually believe that! I’m just joking! It’s probably closer to three-quarters!

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In Medias Res

I’ve been in Japan for about three weeks. In that time I have had to deal with a filthy, internetless apartment, dead cockroaches, the unbearable heat, the humidity, some earthquakes, a near-tsunami, a bathroom full of (someone else’s) noodles, and at least one significant hangover. But yesterday (as I write this) I had one of those special, life-affirming days that remind me why I’m here.

In theory, my new home is in the shadow of Mount Fuji. In practice, it is so close to Mount Fuji that we can’t actually see it when the weather is cloudy. Since my arrival, the weather has been mostly cloudy. It was at least a full week before we saw that Fuji-san’s characteristic flat top, peeking out from behind a row of smaller mountains (which, according to my mother-in-law, serve to protect the modesty of Mount Fuji).

Near my house, there is a river. I like to run along the river. In theory, I should be able to see Mount Fuji the whole time I’m running. In practice, the first time that happened was yesterday, and it felt great. It felt like one of those moments in a movie, where they play Brian Eno’s An Ending and everyone sits around having their life affirmed by a sunrise or something. One of those fleeting moments that makes your life feel wholly original but still like you’re part of some cosmic skein that connects the whole of history and life.

While I was running, and having my own life-affirming moment in the shadow of Mount Fuji, I noticed several locations along the river where they were busy preparing for Obon – a Japanese holiday during which the spirits of the dead are supposed to return to visit their living descendants. It takes place at different times in different places, and Obon celebrations encompass various customs and traditions – including the famous Bonodori dance. But these people were setting up for Toro Nagashi; the climax of the celebrations, where they send paper lanterns down the river to symbolise the return of the spirits to the world of the dead.

So after returning home (and dousing myself in cold water in an attempt to bring my body temperature back to some semblance of normality), my wife and I set out to see the Obon celebrations.

We reached the first, smaller, festival as they were releasing the lanterns. Taking up position slightly down river, we could make out several men standing in the water below us, helping the lanterns on their way. With incense smoke drifting through the air and a sombre, understated drumbeat throbbing in the background, the impression was, indeed, a ghostly one: the line of people passing the lanterns along a jetty towards the water were only dimly visible in the dark in the distance, so the lanterns seemed to bob through the air in a sorcerer’s dance until they flitted down to the water, where they flickered and bobbed along the river’s current towards a small set of rapids where most of them toppled over and fizzled out.

Lanterns at Toro Nagashi

Lanterns at Toro Nagashi

Behind us we could see in the far distance occasional fireworks, from a bigger festival that I had run past earlier, further down the river. So we set off to find their source. When we found it, the air was even more thick with the smell of incense and the droning sound of priests reading out the okyou; the ground was thick with people; families queuing up to send their lanterns off down the river, men hanging back drinking beer, and children running around eating crushed ice or hot dogs on sticks or takoyaki or enjoying one of the various other snacks and entertainments on offer at the stalls that lined the side of the river. When the priests had finished their prayers the whole thing reached its conclusion with more fireworks – specifically a flaming waterfall that sparked into life across the other side of the river to release coruscating torrents into the water, changing colour for several minutes until they gradually died out; this being the signal for the assembled masses – including us – to head home.

Fireworks mark the end of Toro Nagashi

Fireworks mark the end of Toro Nagashi

Soaking up the atmosphere, watching these families crowding to the riverside to enjoy the simple pleasures of watching lanterns float down a river and then walking home with bats flitting overhead and screeching cicadas drowning out the sounds made by busy traffic… I found it impossible not to come away with the impression that Japanese culture remains far more rooted in the natural (and supernatural) world than in the west, in spite of the urban sprawl that reaches all the way out to my relatively remote new home. Of course, that may just be the misty-eyed view of a new arrival. I guess I’ll find out over the next few years…

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