Of hauntings and hydrangeas

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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.

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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 say 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

 

Chinmoku.

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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?”

Nothing.

“Anyone..?”

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

The many meanings of May… also who is Morris?

Readers readers readers… in a convenient reflection of my state of mind this weekend, this update has been lounging about unhurriedly in my drafts for almost A WEEK, in which time developments have begun to pile up and I have fallen woefully behind. In an attempt to bring you smoothly up-to-date with the Japanese happenings, I have gone for general coverage of events over coherence of theme – I hope that your enjoyment is not curtailed in the process!

18641652_10158722335115300_996540097_oSuccessful haircut. Happy to report that, after much prevarication, I finally got myself down to the hairdressers and had a healthy 10 cm lopped off of the mane. Unsurprisingly refreshing considering what fell on the floor around my chair wouldn’t have looked out of place on top of a cottage in the Cotswolds. Most satisfying of all, however, was the opportunity for some top-quality language practice, a fortuitous bi-product of sitting motionless for an hour whilst being circled by someone for whom being affable and indulgent is just under “can cut hair” on her job description. Relieved that I had had the sense to nail some key hair vocab en route, I sat with my genial stylist and braved the key topics of length, volume and layering, before moving on to the intricacies of fringes, feathering and frizz control… I even got to slip in a lament of my appalling eda ge (split ends). My hair vocab all but spent, we moved on to general travel/work/leisure-related chit-chat, and I felt the warm trickle of satisfaction that comes from rooting vocab out of your brain, successfully deploying it ,and receiving signs of comprehension in return. I left the salon with a head of much healthier hair and a face flushed with linguistic triumph. This lasted all the way to the supermarket, where I promptly mis-read the characters on an innocuous-looking soup carton and walked out with 500ml of chicken stock. I wonder if there’s an equivalent expression in Japanese about pride coming before a fall…

Work developments. Term is fully back in swing now, and I must say I am bloomin’ loving it. The days are long, but the students are as industrious and sweet-natured as ever, not to mention (usually unintentionally) hilarious. Particular highlights from the past week include students’ bemusement at being told that the Yorkshire pudding is not, in fact, a real pudding, and amusement at the naming and practice of Morris dancing (“But Katrina, who is Morris?”). Later in the week, I asked students to complete a visual ‘My Life So Far’ shield, which included a section in which they had to write down each other’s personal strengths. I feel the following responses do a good job of demonstrating the extent to which the Japanese resist self-congratulation of any kind. Some of the top personal strengths recorded:

“I like cycling, and therefore I personally have strong legs.”

“I am strong at sleeping for the same amount of time each night.”

Whether the question had been wilfully misinterpreted or not, I was all at once pained, delighted and tickled… They’re an truly excellent bunch, really. My only wish is that they find it in themselves to push themselves less in terms of hours spent working and more in terms of self-belief, trying out new language without being quite so prodded. I can’t complain though really; classroom discipline is utterly unnecessary, they are willing, curious and receptive, and they’ve kept me topped up with a steady stream of everything sugary from matcha lozenges to pigeon-shaped cookies since term began… so all in all I’d say that Dokkyo University is currently playing host to one pretty happy English sensei.

The many meanings of May. Turns out the fifth month is a pretty significant one here in Tokyo, with said significance ranging from the celebratory to the frankly morbid. I was moaning about the uncharacteristic train delays at Kita Senju over dinner with Mayu the other week, to which she responded that I’d better just get used to it this month as gogatsu-byou (May Sickness) was about to set in. This is not, as I initially imagined, a flu strain contracted only by train staff, but something far more sinister: a suicide epidemic in which scores of desperate Tokyo-ites seek the ultimate respite from the extreme pressures of the new academic and financial year by chucking themselves onto the tracks. Horrific. I made an immediate mental note to tell all my students how extra especially well they are doing, in the interests of preventing that unparalleled work ethic from sliding into irreparable masochism.

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RIGHT at the other end of the significance spectrum, the weekend just gone has been one big celebration of May-time warmth, hope and promise (emphasis on the warmth – it is getting bloody baking over here!) Sweaty, sun-burnt tourists and equally sweaty (but rather less sun-burnt) locals poured into the streets of Asakusa for the Sanja festival, which featured hundreds of teams of traditionally-clad mikoshi-bearers spreading luck from the gods onto the hoards of onlookers. Mayu and I squeezed our way through the crowds, ending up at a stage at the far end of the shrine complex, where our people-shoving efforts were rewarded by a show more bewitching than any I have thus far been treated to here in Japan. As a musical duo struck up a haunting drum and shamisen accompaniment, a series of immaculate, chalk-faced dancers glided out from behind silk screens and began a routine of ineffable grace and poise, their every move a masterclass in suggestion and subtlety, their faces fixed with smiles of Sphinx-like inscrutability. I was utterly enchanted.

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I’d best be off now loves – lesson planning and some French correspondence are beckoning… Leaving you with extra updates of the visual variety (see below). Will do my level best to chuck in a new post sooner rather than later next time in order to avoid omitting a ton of happenings, as has been the case here! Until then, sending you oodles of Japanese May-time good fortune – and given my and Amanda’s new collection of four- (and FIVE-)leaf clovers gathered on a perfect, lazy riverside Saturday, I’d say I have a fair bit of luck to spare 😉

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Big love everyone x x x x x

 

 

Tokyo Tipples and Translated Nipples

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Oh dear reader, how behind and neglectful I am! I swear I blinked and lost about two weeks in the time it took my upper lashes to make contact with my lower ones. And I now inexplicably find myself back at The Matchbox having just been smacked in the face by my first full day back at work. Quite the system jolt…. had it coming though – I suspect my recent existence has been a wee bit too hedonistic//carefree to be considered sustainable. Reality’s a swine eh. “So what was this hedonism, exactly?” I hear you ask. WELL.

Smashing it in Shibuya. It all began with a natter chez les francophones at SpeakEasy, my French meetup bar of choice over in Otsuka. The atmosphere was electric somehow, and after an hour or so of GnT-fuelled Le Pen-bashing, I was feeling stirred up and boisterous enough to grab some teacher colleagues and press on into the epicentre of Tokyo insanity that is Shibuya. Karaoke happened. Nomihodae (all you can drink) also happened. And suddenly it was several hours later and we were waking up in a ramen restaurant, having sufficiently annihilated Backstreet Boys and provided John with a dead cert Turner Prize entry (see below). Plus two of the group fell asleep on their trains home and ended up the other side of Yokohama. A solid effort overall.

 

Odaiba: where one festival (or three) just ain’t enough. Golden Week in Japan is, as far as I can tell, less an actual week of cultural significance and more a composite of different May-bank-holiday-ish doss days, during which the sun shines, stages are erected and a load of stalls pop up over massive venue spaces selling everything from overpriced German beer to Mexican sombreros, by way of mystery meat on sticks and Hawaiian bikinis. Indeed, a visit to Odaiba on Friday ended up involving not only the midday margaritas we had been anticipating at the Cinco de Mayo festival, but an additional stumble upon the Odaiba Hawaii Festival, Japanese Oktoberfest (in May, I know) and my personal favourite of course: the Golden Week Meat Festival. Didn’t linger long there shockingly. But did have an excellent mooch around the others, drinking in the festival freedom in addition to other, less figurative beverages and ending up staring out to sea in the company of Lady Liberty herself. The Japanese one anyway.

 

Pride. Despite the return to work creeping to the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t end the week’s whimsy without jogging on down to Yoyogi on Sunday to witness Tokyo at her Proudest. I was curious to see what kind of a show the city would put on, especially given my impression of the lingering conservatism that surrounds LGBT issues here in Japan. After Amanda and I had been high-fived by a good 100-or-so fabulously glitzy parade-goers, we weaved our way between techni-colour flower floats, pop-up photo booths, food stalls and activist promotion stations, all swarming with bright-eyed, even brighter-dressed supporters of love, peace and equality. Bloody beautiful actually.

 

Apologies for this slightly text-light update. Feeling a bit of a cop-out this week, but the the distance between my head and the desk is rapidly closing, and the sandman is tugging me insistently towards my futon. Power to resist rapidly diminishing.

I will end with a quick report that the new students are a bloody delight, and a whole troop of last semester’s brood are back for more! My only issue so far is that in one class I have two blokes both named Ryo, who also have incredibly similar family names, both wear glasses, have the same haircut, wear similar clothes, love soccer and want to move to New York. So far I’ve named them Ryo1 and Ryo2 but feel that a more inventive alternative is required. Suggestions most welcome!

Over and out for now beautiful people! May the leftover rays of Japanese Golden Week illuminate yours with as much beauty and whimsy as they did mine 😉

Leaving you with a photo round-up, including some happenings that haven’t made it into the post in written form and one of the best Google mis-translations I have so far come across, produced after scanning the back of a new shampoo bottle. Enjoy!

Trina x x x x

Coastal paths, bubbling baths and miscellaneous discoveries

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As I sit down to write this update, I am already sensing that the result will be a bit of a higgledy-piggledy amalgam. Life is certainly not quite one thing or another just now, what with waiting for term to start and not being able to travel far due to being ‘on call’. I’ve been doing some quality pootling, however, trying to make the very most of this down time before the hubbub of term time sets in. The self-administered French top-up is simmering away nicely, with my Japanese knowledge base growing steadily alongside. I was especially chuffed to unearth a French-Japanese vocab book at Koshigaya library the other day during a study date with Yasuko, which is serving my dual-language focus marvellously!

Other than forging ahead linguistically, this week I have been fortunate enough to discover the following:

  • the best udon in town: Mayu and I slurped our way through two vats of chewy wheaty goodness at Tsurutontan last night, successfully overcoming my previous association of these super-sized noodles with worms. Thank god for that.
  • the best inari in town: Yasuko led us to a superb lunch place in Koshigaya where the chef prepared me a delectable spread of mountain veggie ramen accompanied by two generously-sized inari (rice balls in sweet tofu jackets). He emerged mid-meal to check we were enjoying ourselves and, on hearing I was British, gasped with glee and launched into a feverish description of his life-long obsession with The Kinks. After presenting us with a stack of veggie tempura on the house, our chef friend returned to his kitchen, whence Waterloo Sunset rang out on a loop for the rest of the meal.
  • that Shameless series 1, 2 AND 3 are on Netflix (Joe Rattue you are both a legend and a sod for getting me re-hooked!)
  • that the good folk at my local Lawson 100 have reduced their apples to ¥49 EACH. What with around 80% of my monthly salary going on fresh produce due to Japan’s bizarre pricing system, trust me that this is a big deal.
  • that there is a toilet in Shibuya that not only emits fake flushing sounds to disguise the inevitable tones of your no.1s and 2s, but goes a step further and has options to add a waterfall effect, birdsong and/or zen music over the top of your tinkling. How very thoughtful.
  • wasabi ice cream: glad I tried it. Might not go back for seconds.

 

I’ve also had time for many pensive riverside walks here at Ichinowari to indulge in some quality boketto (a Japanese gem of a word meaning to gaze vacantly into the distance – SUBLIME). Plus a splendid little coastal jaunt to boot! So much for down time. Interludes of boketto aside, turns out I’m not particularly good at relaxing. Might try and work on that.

Izu. After navigating the bewildering labyrinth that is Tokyo Station on Friday morning, Amanda and I took our seats on a south-bound service to Ito on the Izu peninsula, a spa town and favoured getaway spot of overworked Tokyo-ites in need of respite. We were greeted by noticeably fresher air, the thrum of the capital replaced by the occasional lazy squawk of a seagull, the tallest features in view now palm trees instead of sky scrapers. All very pleasant indeed.

In an unusual departure from the majority of my travel experiences, our hostel turned out to be the town’s stand-out highlight. A gracious receptionist showed us around the immaculately-kept tatami (straw-floored) rooms and private onsen (thermal baths)  of the traditional ryokan (guest-house – lots of Japanese vocab required for this description apparently!). Seriously, but for the dorm-style sleeping quarters and laughably low price, the place was quite unlike any other hostel I have parked up in, and feel it needs its own accommodation category really… the comparison with some of the hovels I have ended up in in the past had me chuckling I can tell you (*cough dog kennel cough*).

 

I spent a good portion of the first night slooshing about contentedly in steaming spa water, visualising the natural minerals nursing my skin, infusing my straw-like split ends with magical silkiness (never did go for that haircut). This was followed by a feast of bento in the living area of our glorious digs, during which I guzzled on a few sugary alco bevs and became quite expansive (and Amanda was subjected to her first Katrina Rant, which I must say she dealt with admirably if fuzzy memory serves). Rosy-cheeked, onsen-cleansed and frankly quite drunk, I shuffled off to my futon and was out for the count by midnight.

Mercifully sans hangover, the next morning we kicked off two days of hiking with an exploration of the Jogasaki coast, followed by Mt Omuro and Kawazu’s Seven Waterfalls; impressions of these stunning scapes are probably best relayed in photo form (see below). Am very much anticipating Heather Dyson’s “It’s quite like Scotland isn’t it” comment, which she manages to apply to most places I visit: Mum, on this occasion you’re not wrong! Said superb hikes were also fuelled by a few interesting gastronomic discoveries, including the aforementioned wasabi ice cream (just not sure spicy soft scoop is the way forward…) and wild boar soup (Amanda fielded that one, needless to say) for which the region is renowned. We returned to Tokyo on Sunday evening, suitably refreshed by Izu’s coastal air and rugged splendour, and deciding how best to go about getting a private onsen installed in our match-box apartments.

 

I’ll sign off here for now, dear reader – don’t want to saturate you. I know that life is busy and short and sweet posts are the order of the day! Plus I seem to have inadvertently gone to town on the Japanese vocab in this post, so will allow you some absorption time. Leaving you with hike photos, as well as a few snaps of the week’s wanderings, socialisings and gastro delights 😉

More love than ever my dears,

Trina x x x x x x x

 

Springtime Tokyo, je t’aime!

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In the absence of any Easter tradition here (unless you count the bizarre glazed popcorn eggs being doled out in Harajuku this weekend), I shall start by sending everyone the happiest and bounciest of springtime wishes from the East! The air feels alive with optimism and productivity, which I am hoping wafts its way across the internet to anybody in need of a boost – at the risk of being obnoxious, there’s plenty to go round 😀

 

Last of the sakura. By mid-week last week, blossom season had reached its zenith in a fit of fairy-tale frilliness, transforming some of the university campuses I visited into snowy, petal-drenched wonderlands. The stand-out winner in the sakura stakes was Tokyo University of Science at Noda, which treated me to perhaps the most blissful lunch break of my life. I am finding it difficult to capture the sublime contentment of sitting in the grounds beneath a cerulean sky, feeling the soft spring rays on my cheeks and watching the petals flutter gently around me. Just glorious.

The weekend provided a last opportunity to enjoy this seasonal sensation with a night-time visit to the illuminations at Roppongi with Mayu, and a saunter through Yoyogi and Shinjuku with Amanda. Extraordinarily, the blossoms had all but vanished a few days later, apparently giving summer its cue to get to work with an insane temp leap to 26 degrees! As Mayu told me in her ineffably succinct Japanese way: “I think that is why we love the sakura so much; they are beautiful because they are gone so soon.”

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Tokyo, je t’aime. Once relegated to the periphery of my mind, the French language is fast nudging its way to centre-stage, and it is WONDERFUL. Daily I enjoy an immensely soothing sensation of half-forgotten knowledge trickling back through the cracks of my brain, revitalising a once stagnant linguistic pond and rippling out into new reflections on my language learning strategies. I cannot stress enough the true value of large amounts of genuinely enjoyable input within the learning process. For me, this has included watching Jean-Luc Mélenchon give Corbyn a top-notch lesson in left-wing leadership (and he could no doubt do with the extra tuition given the snap election announcement!) in the race for Président de la République, chatting with new contacts in Toulouse and La Réunion, plotting out my diary with French conversation exchanges in Tokyo and devouring some cracking French travel writing (Aurélie Conti’s Une nuit au mont Fuji has proved both entertaining and apt!)

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Trying to master a language without sizeable doses of said input is comparable to trying to get through the working day without eating – it becomes a case of staggering forward, surviving rather than delighting in the day’s activities, forgetting the joy of it all and probably building up a good deal of stress and resentment instead. Indeed, I feel I am sitting back and enjoying this language in a way that I have not allowed myself to do in a very long time (have I ever, even?!?). Incredible really. Years of box-ticking and hoop-jumping will do that to you I guess.

The stars truly aligned over this French-flavoured period yesterday, when the teacher of my new yoga class in Shibuya turned out to be a sparkly-eyed Parisian named Virginie, with whom I spent a happy half-hour post-class nattering about our respective yogic practice and language exploits. Her delight at the opportunity to speak in her native tongue fuelled my delight in speaking it, and whether due to the bubbly exchange or the intense sequence of stretches within Virginie’s routine, I left with a profound sense of lightness and rightness with the world.

Later on, I met Mayu at a super kawaii Keralan restaurant near Kamiyacho, ending the spice-stuffed evening with a visit to Tokyo Tower. Not only does the landmark afford those who ascend superb views over this magnificently bonkers city, but it is also an unabashed copy of the Eiffel Tower. How’s THAT for neat synchronism?!

 

With sample lessons out the way and the new semester on the horizon, I’ll be filling the intervening time with more language loving (both of the French and Japanese variety I hope), writing and a jaunt down to the Izu Peninsula at the weekend! Before that, however, I face my next linguistic challenge: my first JAPANESE HAIRCUT. Some of you will be aware of my unfortunate track record with dodgy hair-dos, but the vocab is prepared and I fully intend to do as much monitoring and wild gesticulating as is necessary, so I am confident! If I stop taking video Skype calls and posting photos in which I appear, you’ll know it didn’t go well.

Leaving you with some shots from the week, mes chers. I’m brimming with new observations but don’t want to cram it all in the same post, so stay tuned for those 🙂

Love and light to one and all! Have yourselves a smashing week.

Trina x x x x x

Katorina-sensei and the cult of yuumei

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Hanami picnics in Yoyogi

Happy Sunday from a rainy/muggy Tokyo one and all! The cherry blossoms are at their peak, dressing the trees like bridesmaids and showering the streets like confetti: Tokyo is thus transformed into what could be a truly sensational city-wide wedding venue. Bloomin’ marvellous! (been itching to drop in that horribly predictable pun, had to be done). The good weather has turned on its heel and buggered off elsewhere today unfortunately, but the preceding days provided me with enough photo ops to ensure that this post is suitably sakura-filled 😉

Linguistic leaps. I’m not sure what I’ve been adding to my morning miso (and given the fact that I can decipher about 5% of the ingredients on the packaging, it really is anyone’s guess), but I have gone on something of a language learning rampage this week. The French renaissance is going swimmingly, with daily doses of RFI, blow-by-blow updates on the presidential debate and online correspondence with a host of fabulous francophones. Despite the relatively tiny amount of time I have spent actively speaking French, the language seems to gently tap me on the shoulder like an old, sadly neglected acquaintance, and I am thrilled to be building the relationship once more 🙂

Progress is certainly slower with the Japanese, but my future mastery is looking more and more hopeful thanks to some invaluable new input. I befriended Yumiko-san, one of the admin ladies at work, under whose patient tutelage I am forging ahead, one clumsy construction at a time. Homework from her this weekend is to master discussing the weather, and she assures me she will prepare “very difficult test for Katorina-sensei” on Tuesday. Best get studying!

A glorious reunion with Yasuko and Kako followed on Thursday, bringing with it the usual hilarious Spanish/Japanese/English code-switching madness, and the linguistic bonanza was capped off last night with a visit to an English/Japanese conversation cafe down in Chiyoda. The Japanese-Canadian host provided mugs of discounted drinks and a charming space abuzz with chatter and collaboration. In this sublime setting I struck up several halting, at times excruciatingly inept conversations with a series of miraculously encouraging Japanese speakers, in exchange for correction of their far superior English. The highlight was undoubtedly meeting Mayu, a Tokyo University staff member whose kind words and clear, gentle corrections meant more to me than I’m sure she realises.

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English Only Cafe, Chiyoda-Ku

Setsumeikai and the cult of yuumei. Besides ambling about enjoying the local flora and lashing together the linguistic neurons, my week has consisted of shuttling around Tokyo giving taster lessons, or setsumeikai, to lecture theatres of prospective students. So far so good I think! The groups vary greatly in size, level and enthusiasm, so flexibility is the order of the day… and my general strategy of less teaching, more acting, seems to be paying off. This leads me to a by no means new observation, but one which I would like to pick apart briefly…

I had just emerged from a particularly well-attended setsumeikai (500 odd students), when I caught sight of a gaggle of girls, barely beyond adolescence in stature, voice-pitch and style of dress. On noticing me, said group dissolved into fits of giggles, almost stage-whispering “Oh my god it’s HER!” to one another in bashful conspiracy. I waved and did a lot of beaming: cue a fresh wave of hysteria.  The only moment in my life when I will have anything resembling empathy for Justin Bieber.

“I’m famous!” I joked to Yumiko-san – having just learnt the word for ‘famous’ (yuumei), I was chuffed to have identified a chance to use it. My new mentor met this with a sharp intake of breath, followed by a girlish giggle not dissimilar to the one emitted by aforementioned post-adolescents. “Katorina-san, you must not say this – Japanese person would never say this about himself!”

I got to thinking (à la Carrie Bradshaw) about the Japanese relationship with fame: how is it that a culture can raise up others to a level of deification largely unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and yet also set such store by humility and self-deprecation? I’m thinking of the hoards of adoring J-Pop/anime/Hello Kitty fans, or the reception Daniel Radcliffe and other bewildered stars received here in Japan, their arrivals throwing some crowd members into a state of almost medically dangerous fervour. And yet, to be the subject of such idolatry, to imagine yourself better than others must be near the top of the nation’s cultural no-nos list; recognising yourself as famous is no less unacceptable than referring to yourself using the honourific title san. For the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the over-quoted Japanese saying goes.

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Harajuku girls

Perhaps idolisation of others is acceptable, but elevation of the self is where the line is drawn. And yet, one need not venture far into Tokyo before encountering some of the most flamboyant sartorial creations I think I have ever feasted my eyes upon -technicolour get-ups, fake peacock-feather lashes and glam-rock sequined stack heels positively abound. Although I am arguably not describing mainstream tastes, self-expression seems to be on the up… or is this outlandishness simply the new conformity? Once you’ve seen one neon wig, you’ve seen them all I suppose.

Perhaps, as Peter Carey notes in my current read Wrong About Japan, these expressions of ‘individuality’ have much to do with simple freedom of expression:

“You think Japanese are great conformists. Remember, though, that this was a country which once had strict laws about what you wore, where you lived. God help you if you acted like a samurai when you weren’t. Can you imagine what it feels like to wear what you damn well please? You want to be a robot pilot, that’s your choice.”

If individuality is simply about being free, then getting attention from others when doing so must be decidedly secondary, even irrelevant. Maybe that’s the difference between Western fame monsters and Eastern dresser-uppers: the former’s goal pivots on external validation, whereas for the latter the key is simply internal emancipation… So when a group of blushing teenagers appear to elevate me into the stratosphere after a setsumeikai – a show of sorts for which I do rely on a form of yuumei – perhaps the subtext is not “Wow you are so great, I want to emulate that”, but rather “Wow, you are being what you want to be – good for you!” I wonder, though, whether the external validation part just lies further down the road than I have so far explored…

The latter part of this post is no doubt lacking in intellectual rigour, but am glad to have got some of my ponderings down in any case. Thoughts/comments/constructive input more than welcome!

Coming up this week:

  • More lecture halls of (hopefully less hysterical) freshmen
  • Results of Yumiko-san’s Very Difficult Weather Test (wish me luck!)
  • Final sakura viewings
  • Bilingual yoga in Shibuya!

Enjoy your weekends and coming weeks mes chers. More Japanese musings making their way to you very soon. Until then, I’ll leave you with a few extra shots from the week – enjoy!

Trina x x x x x