Of hauntings and hydrangeas


Good evening, one and all!

It’s been an intense old week, wouldn’t you say? The political action last Thursday had me feverishly refreshing the Guardian live results page throughout the day – bulletins which I dutifully delivered to my mildly amused students before every class (making them have a May-vs-Corbyn debate the previous lesson had hopefully provided them with enough insight and interest to at least be able to humour me). For fear of stepping aboard a rant train that I may not be able to alight for some time, I shan’t address the subject further here, but will confine my election reaction to a single syllable: HA.

parental-advisory_custom-d61ea6192ebc478d3a7ff147dbbe3e884ebcb5ac-s900-c85Classes also hit a high note on the intensity stave, with discussions of male vs. female on-screen nudity and Miley Cyrus’ pot-fuelled publicity stunts in a series of lessons on censorship (“Katrina, what is joint?”). The following lesson was dedicated to rumour-spreading role-plays, during which one linguistically adventurous lad jubilantly announced his suspicion that I was a certain type of promiscuous woman, the term for which begins with ‘s’ and rhymes with ‘nut’. I quickly arranged my face into what I hoped was cool nonchalance, and gently advised him of the potency of the word and the inadvisability of its usage, meeting his bashful apologies with assurances that I wasn’t remotely offended, and more relieved that he’d had the sense to take this exciting acquisition (courtesy of Skins, apparently) out for an initial spin in the cushion-padded testing ground of my classroom, and not in the more unforgiving wider world.

A saner person might have taken the weekend to unwind from a 45-hour week of such concentrated controversy. But plans were in place and weekends are precious, so at 4.30 on Saturday morning Amanda and I folded away our grown-up selves along with our work suits, and bounded out to the foot of Mt Fuji, where Japan’s (self-proclaimed) most famous theme park awaited us…


Fuji Q. I am pleased to report that I did exactly as I had intended, and spent about eight hours running from ride to gravity-defying ride, high as a kite on E-numbers and adrenaline, laughing inanely at every jolt, whoosh and lurch. I also put some time aside to get the poo scared out of me at Japan’s (also self-proclaimed) scariest haunted house: 30 minutes of unadulterated terror during which I screamed and swore fluently, and probably cut off the circulation in the imperturbable Amanda’s arm due to my supreme wussiness. The place is done out like a post-apocalyptic hospital, so we were pounced on by a delightful cast of zombie surgeons in blood-spattered gowns and semi-dismembered, un-dead patients, made all the more menacing by sporadic bangs, disembodied screeches and flickering overhead bar lights. Bloody awful. Amanda’s refusal to so much as flinch at anything we encountered, plus the prospect of having to report back to the students on Monday that I’d wimped out, got me through the ordeal. Glad I did it. No desire to do it again. The whole pleasure-in-fear thing still very much a mystery.


Hie jinja and Hakusan. Taking intensity levels down a notch on Sunday, Mayu and I spent several sublime hours wandering around Hie Jinja in Akasaka, babbling happily about anything and everything while bearing witness to the Chigo Gyoretsu – a delightful procession of kiddies done up in traditional Heian-period garb, accompanied by traditional musicians and dancers to have health and happiness bestowed upon them by the Shinto gods.

Mayu’s excellent translation of the ceremony information informs me that the coloured dots painted on the kids’ faces symbolise their divine status on this special day, although some seemed rather too young to appreciate the magnitude of their office…


We drifted on to the other side of the shrine, where a kendo tournament was underway. I had never seen a kendo dual before; if I had, I might have been prepared for the moment when the two Nazgûl-esque participants broke their solemn circling by raising their swords and launching themselves at one another, the change in pace announced by a series of bizarre squawking cries. Successfully resisted urge to burst out laughing, although only just.



19105254_1375694402512346_2084514890_oHakusan hydrangeas. These stunners really are pulling out all the stops at the moment, exploding all over the city in a fit of deep blues, pinks and purples. Mayu and I continued our Sunday saunter by heading to hydrangea HQ at Hakusan, where a huge flower festival was in full swing. One of the many aspects of Japanese cultural life with which I have fallen deeply in love is the role of nature as the heart of the celebration, rather than as some kind of secondary symbol or bi-product (think of our holly at Christmas or roses on Valentine’s Day). I’m not saying that such appropriation isn’t also in evidence here, and cherry blossoms, maple leaves and hydrangeas alike have unquestionably been added to Japan’s consumerist arsenal. Nevertheless, there is something extraordinarily pleasing about the fact that people here turn out in their thousands for the primary pleasure of admiring 19095937_1375694649178988_2031878612_oflowers. It’s as though, despite the capitalist crap that’s been heaped on top, on some level Japanese society still understands that nature does not have to have man-made symbolism impressed upon it in order to have value. I may be sentimentalising the subject somewhat; it is true that such natural beauty is being consumed more than ever by the relentless jaws of Instagram and Facebook. But uncomplicated admiration is still clinging on in there somewhere. Long may it continue!

Have a gander at some snaps while I brew up the next update – with an exploration of Kagurazaka and a bit of firefly watching on the cards, this weekend is looking like solid blog-fodder already 😉

Take care lovely, lovely people. More soon! X x x x x x x





It’s a twinkly Thursday morning, and first period is underway. As part of a ‘Through The Keyhole’-inspired task, students are busy speculating about the occupants of various different bedrooms, photos of which I have stuck up around the room. I slink about behind them, listening out for errors to pick up on later, pleased with the gentle enthusiasm transmitted through their murmurs and giggles.

I call out for group feedback, and we all gather round a photo of the squalid student digs featured in Fresh Meat. It seemed to provoke the most hilarity and the most extensive discussions. It’s a dead cert for lengthy feedback, I feel sure.

“So, who can tell me what kind of person lives in this beautiful place?”



More nothing.

“I heard some great ideas about this one – please share your thoughts, people!”

The students stare contemplatively at the photo, as though expecting it to begin explaining itself so that they don’t have to. An imaginary tumbleweed rolls by.

I’m not giving in this time. The discussions I heard were sustained and competent. I know that each of them has something to say. It is a battle of wills. I will not be the first to crack.

The seconds are swollen with gallons of nothing.

There is no awkward shuffling; no nervous glances are exchanged. There is no apparent discomfort whatsoever, in fact. Not from them, anyway. Just seconds upon seconds of excruciating, silent nothing, stretching out ahead of us into the foreseeable future with no signs of let-up.

I crack. The closed questions are coming out.

“Are the people who live here young or old?”

The question hangs in the air for another long moment. Possibly sensing my inward agitation, some benevolent soul finally offers me a single syllable: “young”.

I simultaneously scream, sigh and chuckle to myself. I’ll drag this out for a minute more before getting them back to some pair work, the relative intimacy of which seems to yield far better results than plenary scenarios.

Not all classes are quite this stagnant, I hasten to add, and there are a handful of students who can usually be relied upon to ease the rest through such group feedback sessions. But I have certainly cut down on these kinds of exchanges since beginning my job here. Past students from different cultures have seemed to rely upon them for validation and/or motivation. Not the Japanese, for whom hitting the mute button at the end of an exchange seems not only permissible, but wholly preferable.

It occurs to me that, as I navigate the delights and perplexities of Japanese culture, I have unwittingly been picking up not one, but two of Japan’s native languages: Japanese, and silence.

And true to form, this abstract noun-loving language has a ready-made word for its non-verbal counterpart: chinmoku. Rather than the uneasy, frustratingly ambiguous silence abhorred by many Westerners, however, chinmoku is considered something of a virtue, connoting truthfulness rather than dissimulation. In chinmoku, we find meaning in its purer form, before it is contorted by the duplicity and inadequacy of words. For many of my students, it seems that this reverence for the unsaid is in-built, and that is why I will never win these battles for sustained verbal interaction in class; any need on their part to break the silence would have occurred long after I have fidgeted my way onto a new topic of conversation.

And I begin to think that, just as with silence, where communication lies exclusively in what is not said, so my inability to bear it says far less about any shortcoming on the part of my students, and everything about my own Western need to plaster over the cracks of conversation with empty babble. It is a sod of an insecurity at which I hope Japan is steadily chipping away. What a relief it will be to hang up my Mrs Dalloway costume at long last, to stop giving parties to cover the silence…

I would love to incorporate more chinmoku into my lessons, to allow students to dedicate many more minutes to silent contemplation of the material I present. But what with it being a speaking class lasting only forty precious minutes, I fear this might prove counter-productive… In a wider sense, however, I do feel that if we made time for a bit more chinmoku, perhaps what does emerge from our mouths might be ultimately more worth saying.

In this same spirit, I shall do away with words for the rest of this post, and leave you with a selection of snaps from the past week or two. Been a grand ol’ time 😀

Silently contemplating you all from afar! All my love as always.

X x x x x