Japan: a swan song

My cases have been sent off to the airport, my passport is in my carry-on and I have just spent the last several hours scrubbing my apartment within an inch of its life – PHEW. While I wait for a company bod to come and pick over the place with a tooth comb, I thought I’d write up some parting thoughts before my departure tomorrow morning.

Criminally cliched to say though I know it is, time truly has flown these past few months. I cast my mind back to my arrival in Japan, glimpsing Fuji-san away in the distance on my first commute to work, the shoal-like crowds of Shinjuku on that first dizzying day in Tokyo, discovering sake flavoured Kit Kats and green tea ice cream… it all could have happened no more than a week ago. The past week has been peppered with many such rememberings, and as I gather my belongings together for the long flight ahead, so too are my memories of my final week being collected in this final report…

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Nabe = NOM

Student farewells. After a brief stint in hospital with norovirus over the weekend (joyous), both my stomach and I were relieved to be more or less back to normal by Tuesday, in time to spend a last couple of days with my fabulous flock. I set them to playing an adaptation of the Million Pound Drop using Christmas trivia (they can ALL now recite me a much more accurate version of the Nativity, although one or two still feel Rudolph should make an appearance somewhere between the shepherds and the three wise men). I rounded off the day in a cracking little sashimi joint in Soka with some of the ladies from work, reminiscing about the term’s activities, puzzling over the opacity of kanji and hearing their take on the Japanese refusal to talk politics in public. Fascinating stuff.

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The ladies

Then on Wednesday I decked out the classroom with some particularly high-quality pieces from the hundred yen store, bought enough sugary crap to keep everyone wired until Christmas 2026 and spent a wonderful day having students drop in for Christmas games, chit-chat and good-bye-for-nows. I know I have a job to come back to, but I may be sent to a different university next semester (although the students have promised to badger the management into sending me back – a touching vote of confidence to be sure!) Listening to their gentle chatter made me immensely proud of them all – particularly of those for whom I know speaking is an incredibly daunting prospect. They have pushed themselves right out of their comfort zones, made some excellent progress, and often both delighted and baffled me in the process; adapting my teaching to an eastern mindset has been simultaneously a steep learning curve and an utter privilege.

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Lovely Haruka, what a gem

 

No clowns. I am currently reading an excellent book called Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, a long-time admirer and collector of all things Japanese. In a chapter I have just finished, Kerr proclaims that “being average and boring here is the very essence of society”, observing that the education system is rigged to produce a high overall average rather than polarised excellence/drop-out levels. I reflected on this with my own classes in mind. I have on occasion become inwardly frustrated by my students’ unwillingness to be enthusiastic about creative tasks, to speak out in class, to take a stance, to allow themselves to shine (although they are all more than capable of all of these things, no doubt about that). This apparent reluctance to court the limelight and eagerness to tow the line initially struck me as shockingly unambitious for such able people. But although I still believe they have much to gain from allowing themselves to express a little more individuality, I have also come to realise how western my own mindset is when it comes to this issue,

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‘Harmony’

coming as I do from a system that prizes star performances and exceptionalism, a pressure to which I know I have fallen victim in the past… Round here, maintaining group harmony reigns supreme.  I am generalising, of course; I would hate for you to be imagining some dreary monochrome classroom of identical students sitting in rows copying and chanting in perfect unison! Not remotely accurate. But it is true that there are no starlets in my classroom, no class clowns. And for me at least, that has been a breath of fresh air. Indeed, surely what we need now, in so many aspects of our societies, are collaborations and collective efforts, rather than charismatic big-talking individuals whose promises miraculously never seem to materialise? I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of done with superstars. Good work Easterners – I think you’re onto something.

A bow is worth a thousand hugs. Until Wednesday,  I had experienced a hug with a Japanese person only twice. The first was what Alaina and I have come to refer to as the Awkward Back Pat, in which the recipient was clearly caught off-guard and I, still un-attuned to the Japanese level of appropriate personal space, was definitely over-zealous in my offering of affection (poor thing didn’t half look shell-shocked). The second was from Miho the yoga instructor, whose profession probably steers her in a more tactile direction than most of her compatriots I would imagine. On Wednesday, however, I clocked up no fewer than THREE hugs from students (after my permission was hesitantly sought, naturally). Not bad going eh.

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A stand-out moment from the day, however, was when one of the older ladies came rushing up to me at the end of our session, at a pace that suggested a heart-felt hug was her next move. But she stopped quite suddenly a pace or two in front of me, and began instead to lower her head in a series of profuse, measured bows, which I of course returned in kind. Bowing has become second nature now, but there was something about the emotion conveyed by this student’s way of executing the gesture that touched me far more deeply than any passing squeeze would have done. In a bow there is respect of course, maybe gratitude too. But in this kind of bow there was also a kind of surrender, a revealing of the self… and therefore there was trust, complicity, connection… and acceptance. Came through to me loud and clear, and made me peculiarly weepy all of a sudden. To feel that I had been accepted, even to a slight degree, in what can easily feel like such an impenetrable country, was really quite overwhelming.

I will round off by simply saying that being in Japan has enriched me in ways I could not have predicted; its stunning cultural offerings and natural phenomena have provided the perfect backdrop against which to re-discover old friendships (Alaina: you ROCKSTAR. I miss you already you fantastic human) and ignite many new ones across different nationalities, languages and perspectives. I have also developed my pedagogical ideas, which have often taken a good beating, but which have been reconstructed more robust and also more fluid than ever before.

I shall leave you with some photos that didn’t make it into previous posts, along with a long series of heartfelt virtual bows for reading about my Japanese exploits. I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates as much as I’ve enjoyed putting them together (next one scheduled for March!). Have a splendid Christmas everyone, and may 2017 bring you health, energy, luck, love, knowledge, light, prosperity, laughter, happiness and all manner of splendid shizzle.

Over and out for now!

Katrina x x x x x

 

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A Buddha, a bombardier and a beautiful yogi.

Greetings all!

Must be December – the sky is a beady blue, my hat with the outrageously large bobble is now making regular appearances and all the supermarkets have started blasting out high-pitched J-Pop versions of festive classics (a rendition of “Winter Wonderland” by someone who could well have done the v/o for Pikachu has been a particular highlight). Not to mention the stacks of Christmas tat that are now spilling out of every shop doorway, despite the fact that the vast majority of my students couldn’t tell me anything about the origins of Christmas (“Something about Santa having a baby?”). Like Hallowe’en, Christmas is merely another American import, unquestioningly snapped up by the great jaws of Japanese consumerism. Bonkers.

With one full week of teaching to go and an eye towards home, I’ve been doing my damnedest to leave as few experiential stones unturned as possible… HOWEVER. My urgency has also been tempered by the fact that MY CONTRACT GOT RENEWED – WAHOOO! So plenty more time to delve deeper into this exceptional country – there is still oh so much to grapple with, linguistically and culturally and personally… I’ve really only just begun.

Kamakura. Back-tracking a wee bit to last weekend, Saturday morning dawned in a dazzle of wintry opalescence, and Alaina and I ventured south to Kamakura, the one-time Japanese capital often referred to as ‘Mini Kyoto’ due to its comparable wealth of shrines, temples and general oriental beauty. The giant bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) is Kamakura’s crowning glory, so we wasted no time in paying this grand old sage a morning visit. As we entered his residence at  Kotokuin Temple, the Daibutsu’s magnificent heft towered instantly over us, his great bronze eyes closed in contemplation. We soon discovered that we could climb up inside for a mere 20 yen, so proceeded up a dark stairwell to find out what really goes on inside a famous Buddha’s head… Not much, is the answer – tourist selfies, mostly. But we did have an excellent game of ‘If you were an interior designer what would you do with the place?’ while examining the dimly-lit nooks and crannies within.

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Deciding to keep energy levels at a manageable mellow, we ambled over to Hasedera Temple, and spent a very pleasant hour or so admiring the myriad statues, shrines and explosions of autumn foliage, the latter having arrived much later to these coastal parts. The compact intimacy of Hasedera, and the way in which it clings to a tumbling but floral rock face with excellent views out to sea, made this one of my favourite temples so far. Well worth taking our time to absorb before grabbing some budget ramen back in town and racing the setting sun back home.

 

Yokohama. Fast-forward a week to the Saturday just gone. Again I set my course southward, this time alighting from a packed train at Yokohama Station (where the crowd density easily rivals that of Tokyo – the chaotic, low-ceiling-ed concourse is not one for claustrophobes!). I waded through the throng as quickly as I could, because I had a mission: to locate a certain Lance Bombardier Bullen, who served alongside my Grandpa during their time here in Japan with the British Army at the end of the Second World War. I had discovered that the Commonwealth cemetery lay just outside of the city, and was determined to find the missing bombardier, who never returned home after dying of typhoid in 1946.

20161203_105251-1A local bus dropped me off a few yards from the cemetery gates, and the trees lining the drive soon opened out onto an immense grassy expanse, dotted methodically with miniature shrubs and grave markers far off into the distance. Had I lost my life to the hardships of war, I feel it would have been of some comfort to know that my final resting place would be one of such stunning beauty and tranquillity. The December sun squinted over the swaying tree tops, the silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional swoosh of far-off traffic… Perfect, really.

I was poring over an information board, wondering how on earth I was going to find Bombardier Bullen if he was here at all, when a tall man carrying several bags of fresh veg wandered over and asked me what I was looking for in heavily accented but precise English. His name was Osawa, it turned out, and we proceeded to wander along the path discussing his time living in Britain and Germany, my life here in Japan, as well as his favourite nabe (Japanese hotpot) recipes and my reason for visiting the cemetery. He said that he would be pleased to help me look for my Grandfather’s friend, an offer I enthusiastically accepted; two pairs of eyes would no doubt be better than one when working through the few thousand non-alphabetised graves ahead of us.

Osawa managed to locate a shed-like office building to the side of the entrance, and explained our mission to the dishevelled attendant within. With an interested eye-twinkle, the attendant sprung into action, disappearing back into the shed and emerging several minutes later with an old crumbling folder of cemetery plans and name lists. After a few tense minutes of rifling through different sections, disappointed to find no Bullens several times, suddenly there he was: Plot B, Row 9! The three of us hurried over to the spot, and sure enough there he lay, his grave marked by a single pink rosebush and a simple slab:

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I stood at Bombardier Bullen’s graveside for some time, the flush of achievement at having tracked him down turning to contemplation of what he would have made of being discovered by his friend’s grand-daughter and her new Japanese acquaintance, and what he would have thought of my being over here in general, living and working with the people whose country had once been in conflict with his own. I imagine he would have met the information with disbelief and also, I hope, relief that things have changed so very much between our nations, that so many bridges have since been built. Standing at Bombardier Bullen’s grave with Osawa instilled in me a wonderful sense of hope. My thoughts came to linger upon the uncertainty and animosity generated by current political tensions, but I reflected that my very presence here is proof of the fact that it must be possible to seal even the largest of divides; with time, old wounds can heal and all things can and must move on – however unlikely that might seem at the time. Reassuring indeed.

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Yoga Sunday. A profound sense of rightness with the world followed me into Sunday, when I found myself at my first Japanese yoga class thanks to a tip-off from a student. I had been craving some communal practice, and discovered that the class was taught in English in order to give attendees a practical focus for their language learning: marvellous. The class took place in the living room of our gracious, bubbly and ineffably graceful teacher, Miho, whose eyes are like starlight and whose laughter seems to tumble out of her like water (yes I am apparently mildly infatuated). We were welcomed into her tatami room, and were soon treating our bodies to a couple of ours of glorious conditioning, followed by home-made bean soup, sweet rice, many cups of tea and lively chatter about yoga and language learning. To say I was in my element would be quite the understatement. 😛

Maaaan I have some cracking student anecdotes to share, but I’ll save them for the next instalment I think. I’ve planned an ‘Escape Room’ treasure hunt-type thing for them tomorrow, so may add a report of how that goes to other material gathered over the past week… depending on whether the whole thing falls flat on its arse or not. Stay tuned.

Until then, have a gander at some more recent photos below, and stay warm and well wherever you are!

Oodles and boodles of love, as ever.

Trina x x x x