Of students and sushi: one month in Japan

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As I beat my now familiar path from Matsubaradanchi Station to Dokkyo campus one sun-drenched morning earlier this week, it occurred to me that it is now a month since I arrived in this marvellous land called Japan. This is absurd. Perhaps it’s some kind of influence from the high-speed transport system, but time is hurrying by like a Salary-man across Shinjuku Junction. And just like Shinjuku, life here continues to present me with a delightful combination of new faces and experiences in a sort of frenzied but weirdly coordinated rush.

To mark the one-month anniversary of my love affair with Japan (and we are – DEEPLY – in love), this week’s post will feature some of the impressions I’ve gathered so far, but which didn’t quite fit into other posts, followed by a quick coverage of this weekend’s truly spectacular culinary exploits…

The students. I often catch myself inwardly laughing at how truly jammy I am to have landed this gig teaching some of the most sweet-natured, dedicated students imaginable. Their learning approach fascinates me, from the way they finger-trace words on their palms when recalling vocab to the way they construct every phrase so thoughtfully and methodically, usually accompanied by a good deal of hmm-ing and an occasional self-directed “ehh?” Getting them to be deliberately controversial or antagonistic in class debates can prove challenging, and can be likened to shoving together the repelling poles of industrial-strength magnets, so unwilling are they to create disharmony or friction… Out-the-box thinking and spontaneity are also problematic, most likely due to a language education of verb tables and bone-dry grammar explanations. Nothing a bit of creative lesson planning can’t remedy over time, of that I am sure ūüėČ

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And then there is the perennial /r/ /l/ pronunciation issue, a daily source of difficulty and also hilarity. Some classic (and completely genuine) examples from recent lessons include:

  • I had created a bizarre mental image of one student tootling merrily on a hollowed-out pineapple before realising that she is in fact a flute player, not a fruit player.
  • I was about to ask a student whether it is commonplace to use tiny insects as a garnish in Japan, then realised that he was talking about eating lots of rice rather than lice.
  • After some confusion, it turned out that one student’s future ambition was actually to fly planes, and not to pillage towns, dig up treasure and drink too much rum… yep you guessed it – wanted to be a pilot rather than a¬†pirate.

Despite Рno, actually because of Рthese obstacles and the way they doggedly work towards overcoming them, I have developed a deep fondness and intense respect for the people I came over here to teach; I only hope that they are able to learn as much from me as I have from them.

The people: a few observations. As in most cosmopolitan areas across the globe, people here come in all shapes, sizes, ¬†outfits and accessories. The not insignificant amount of time I have been spending on trains has provided me with some excellent people-watching opportunities, of which I never tire…

Men are often to be found snoozing in a standing position, slightly dishevelled after what I suspect are days of productivity in some coffin-like cubicle buried deep in the financial district. On later-night journeys, many sway and stumble sedately in a combination of drunkenness and exhaustion (no drink-fuelled ranting at bystanders here; even in semi-conscious stupor these businessmen remain remarkably controlled and unassuming).

Female commuters¬†vary from hyper-coiffured power women, their fingers thrumming across iPhone screens, to china doll pre-teens with plaid prep school kilts, hair scrunchies from circa 1995 and contact lenses of varying unnatural shades giving them the glassy, exaggerated stares of anime characters. It is clear that the vast majority of women here take great pride in their appearances, dressing their slight frames in wide-legged, floating trouser and blouse ensembles, shining locks pulled back into precise, geometrically-shaped hairdos, all of which produces a curiously dated quality that I can’t quite put my finger on… Alaina and I have come to conclusion that the Japanese have nailed hipsterdom in a way that the self-consciousness of the West has made impossible; there’s an oddly charming clunkiness about these outfits that we perhaps left hanging up somewhere in the 90’s, which is at once adorably doddery and effortlessly classy.

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Weekend exploits: Ikebukuro, Kita-Koshigaya and Tsukiji. Together with a group of fellow teachers, on Friday night I found myself in Ikebukuro, raising a flagon or two of Moscow Mule to the end of the working week. Went down a treat… and straight to my head. My spectacularly low alcohol tolerance had me burbling all the way home, where I thankfully had the sense to neck some water and a re-hydration sachet left over from Nicaragua. Gratefully hangover-free, the following morning I headed out with Sam and Luke to investigate ‘Cafe Camden’, Obukuro’s would-be alternative hotspot. Not bad coffee actually, if a bit overpriced… Finding ourselves suitably caffeinated, we went on to join Alaina, Kako, Yasuko and her Paraguayan friend Jessica at a Japanese cookery event in Kita-Koshigaya. I had a superb time munching on samples and expanding my food vocabulary to include hijiki (seaweed with soya beans), konnyaku (gel-like grey noodle… thing) and “onaka ga ippai” (“I am full”). We were also joined by a hilarious crew of Chinese exchange students, all inexplicably wanting photos of/with us after the briefest and most broken of conversations… bizarre and wonderful.

By far the stand-out event this weekend, however, was the SPECTACULAR dinner devoured by Alaina and me, together with my colleague Peter and his Japanese friend Shoko, who had kindly reserved us a tatami table at one of Tsukiji district’s top sushi joints. Her impressive bilingualism meant that we were able to progress far beyond the usual picture-pointing and phrase-cobbling charade, ordering tray after mouth-watering tray of salmon, eel, mackerel, urchin, eel and scallop, which arrived atop delicate beds of wasabi-infused rice or enveloped in sticky seaweed sheets. Every mouthful was a sensation, each bite ineffably clean, fresh and succulent. By far the best meal I have had so far in Japan, if not my life. Didn’t come cheap, but my god was it worth every yen. And what an utter joy to meet Shoko, whose excellent conversation and infectious laughter made the meal complete.

…aaaand you’re now just about up to date! I leave you with the latest perplexing pop culture sensation to come out of Japan (courtesy of Alaina’s students). Make of this what you will:

…Oh, and p.s: Here’s a praying mantis I almost accidentally squished on the way out of the shop the other day. As you do.

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Take care my dears!

Trina x x x x x

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