Lotus Pocus and other stories

Happy Sunday everyone!

Blog update time again. This one comes to you from the same tatami table whence the previous post emerged. Between then and now, I think my heart rate has dropped by about half as I have fallen deeper and deeper into step with countryside languor. That said, I’d say my usual writing output has increased at least five-fold and, most pleasingly, my Japanese language knowledge is now permitting me to discuss my friends, family and future plans in quite some detail. Amazing what can happen in a week eh!

Basically, I’ve spent the week having lots of lovely experiences then coming back here and writing about them in exchange for food and a futon. Suited me down to the ground, as you can imagine! And before I leave this bucolic idyll tomorrow, I thought I’d share with you a handful of the week’s scribblings (click on the titles below), which will eventually feature on the family’s nascent tourism business website. Feel free to peruse at your leisure 🙂

Discovering Ottobatake

 

Shodō 101: a brush with calligraphy

 

When is a temple not a temple? When it’s a shrine.

 

Ottobatake okonomiyaki

 

Lotus Pocus

 

Off to pack now poppets. Updates from the road soon! Leaving you with the news that Japan has reached new levels of bonkers with its ice cream flavours – see below. Generally quite disturbed.

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Flavours left to right: oyster, clam, miso-ramen, abalone (sea snail)

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Flavours left to right: burdock root, Sendai beef, beef tongue

Get your hypothetical taste buds around that lot! Try not to barf.

Love love love x x x x x

 

From Hokkaido to Tohoku: a week of spectacular scenery, fabulous flavours and sensational signage

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Greetings from muggy Miyagi!

After a week of hurtling around Hokkaido and northern Honshu, I have screeched to a halt and am adjusting to a rather different state of affairs here in the Tohoku countryside. The stream that trickles alongside Ottobakate House and an orchestra of hissing cicadas are forming the bass line for the laziest of soundscapes. Even the torrential rain that drums down onto the roof appears to be doing so rather unhurriedly.

I’ll say no more about my current location for now, as I feel it deserves a much more detailed rendering than is possible in a post which could already end up being pretty chocca if I’m not careful… all I will say for now is that I am kicking back in a very rural, very traditional Japanese pad, the minimalist furnishings and fascinating inhabitants of which I am finding an utter delight. Teaser photos below.

 

 

Let’s wind back the clock to this time last week, which saw Amanda-chan and I exchange the smouldering heat of Tokyo for the thoroughly welcome freshness of The North…

Sapporo. From the moment the plane’s wheels grazed the runway, we agreed that Hokkaido felt different. I watched the new landscape whizz by through the window of the airport shuttle bus; the scrubby, rain-starved flora of greater Tokyo had been replaced by verdant meadows lined by swelling spruces, and everything looked decidedly well-rained-on. That said, the sky was a promising forget-me-not blue, and the air maintained a crispness long since dampened into non-existence further south. By dusk, we were knocking on the door of our Sapporo host, a lady named Akiyo whose pad has definitely secured itself a high ranking on the quirky accommodation roll of honour… The myriad emails I had received containing all manner of annotated diagrams and Youtube links with which to locate the place might have been some indication of what we would find within… every inch of the place had been plastered with explanatory notes about how to operate the house’s every fixture. “How to open milk carton” next to the breakfast things was a particular highlight. More gems below – incredibly sweet and thoughtful, if not altogether useful.

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Furano and Biei. Now well-versed in operating the toilet, cranking up the air-con and switching on the hairdryer, we rocked up to Sapporo Station early the next day for a full schedule of northern tourism. We jumped aboard a bus along with a crew of predominantly Chinese and Japanese sightseers, and were soon being driven 20535917_10159116852980300_1615374795_oeastwards up and down the undulations of Furano. It was entirely idyllic, and recalled strongly the twinkling summer days with which England occasionally blesses its inhabitants: orderly, patchwork fields of corn and wildflowers bobbing in the breeze… The road through this most pleasant landscape led to far less familiar sights, however. Before long, we were off-loaded at a little wooded area concealing a lake so eerily blue that even the most filter-obsessed Instagrammers would have felt no need to enhance their snaps. The inventively named Aoiike (Blue Lake) owes its unearthly hue to a high concentration of minerals dissolved in the water, and put me in mind of the copper sulphate crystals I remember growing as a child. Quite stunning.

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Farm Tomita a.k.a. Lavender Central was next on the itinerary. Alongside the sweeping carpets of purple, we discovered multi-coloured strips of white baby’s breath, red poppies, pink garden catch-flies and orange California poppies. We spent a good while attempting to capture these striking colour combos in photo form, pausing to slurp lavender-flavoured ice cream (MAKE THIS A THING, UK) and to note that signage explaining the history/reason behind the place’s existence was nowhere to be found. I reflected that there may well have been some information in Japanese lurking somewhere on the plot, which my brain had simply dismissed as an auto-response to non-comprehension. But the pronounced lack of info versus the abundance of lavender-scented/flavoured/shaped products on sale, plus the hoards of photo-takers (ourselves included), did seem to indicate an unabashed doing-away with the pretence that anyone actually wants to know facts any more, and that a much more commercial, image-based brand of tourism is here to stay…

 

Onuma and Hakodate. We made our way southward the following day after an all-too-brief mooch around Sapporo itself – a clean, spacious city to which I really must devote much more time at a later date! The Hakuto Express snaked its way along the coast, bringing us down to Onuma, which I was keen to visit on account of its celebrated “QUASI-national park” (quite how a park can be quasi-national remains something of a mystery to me, but there we go..). There was nothing quasi about the beauty of the place at least; we ditched our backpacks in a station locker, rented a couple of bikes from a nearby store and spent a blissful couple of hours pedalling around the lakeside, dismounting every so often to wander up to a particular beauty spot or lakeside shrine. Back near the bike rental, there was time to snarf a squid ink-flavoured ice cream (surprisingly not gross at all, despite its unpromising appearance) before jumping aboard a cutesy one-carriage local train down to our next stop: Hakodate.

 

If there is one place in all the world in which to take a sneaky break from veganism, it had to be Hakodate. This curiously higgledy-piggledy port town is so crammed full of fresh, locally-caught seafood that resistance was, for me at least, completely futile. Within an hour or so of arriving, we were tucking into grilled mackerel and crab soup,  followed the next day by a market-place lunch of scallops served in their shells. The extensive fish market comprised hundreds of stalls selling seafood of every description, from bright orange, brain-like sea pineapple to giant slabs of monstrous-looking monkfish. Watching visitors catch their own squid from a large tank in the centre was at once traumatic and hilarious, as each creature thrashed about on the end of its captor’s rod, squirting onlookers with jets of water before being carried off by the proprietor and returned to the captor minutes later, sliced up on a plate with a side-dish of soy sauce.

 

By nightfall, we had picked our way around various impressive mansions on the other side of town, and Amanda had struck gastronomic gold yet again by stumbling upon “the Second Most Delicious Melonpan in the World”. Now how’s THAT for smart advertising. Another classic example of the Japanese obsession with weird food combos, melonpan is a heated, melon-flavoured roll with a generous dollop of soft scoop sandwiched in the middle. What the MOST Delicious Melonpan in the World must be like I can only imagine…

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Oma to Osorezan. 9:30 next morning saw us watching Hakodate disappear into the distance from the deck of a ferry bound for Honshu. I was delighted to discover that we had no ‘seats’ as such, but rather a large space to lie about in (shoes off, of course!), 20170726_091527.jpgrather like a child’s play area. Well-rested after a couple of hours in the play pen, we disembarked at the remote town of Oma and boarded a local bus that ran us alongside the glistening sea through a string of tiny fishing villages. We arrived in the small town of Mutsu, where we befriended a crinkly-eyed Swiss lady with irises the colour of the Blue Lake and who, it turned out, was also heading to Osorezan: the mountain at the end of the world.

Osorezan is one of those places that has to be ‘felt’ to be understood. The mountain plays host to the 1000-year-old Bodaiji Temple, which itself sits alongside a lake so still and other-worldly that it’s easy to imagine why some Buddhists consider it to be the entrance to the afterlife, and why it is often likened to the River Styx of Greek Mythology. We spent a good few ours roaming the desolate, volcanic landscape, getting acquainted with the numerous Buddhas that hold vigil over the mountainside, breathing in the sulphurous air and imagining the lost souls gliding to their rest across the lake…

 

Wow this is shaping up to be a long’un eh! Such a lot to cram into this post, but I’ll stop here and let my photos do the rest of the talking… News of shenanigans in rural Tohoku on their way very soon!

Stay happy and healthy, one and all! BIG love.

K x x x x x

 

…and one final gem for you. Pay particular attention, if you will, to the bottom right-hand corner.

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“If you lose balance you are gonna fall down on shit.”

YOU’RE WELCOME.

Otsukare! Highlights great and small

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Another sultry, sticky summer evening in Tokyo, and I have just returned from a final amble along the river that runs beside my soon-to-be-vacated apartment. The key motive was to get some distance between myself and the large piles of half-sorted papers, bin bags of clothes and chaotic nest of extraneous plugs and leads that constitute my possessions. Procrastination was not the only achievement, however. The glimmering tower block reflections, combined with the lazy buzz of the cicadas and faint breeze whispering through the waterside rushes, seemed to beckon my brain towards some fruitful pondering, and consequently maybe some decent blog fodder…

As I plodded along, it occurred to me that the past weeks’ Blog Block may have been due to my desire to impose some kind of narrative on recent events, to bind key moments neatly together under some overarching theme in order to reveal something profound about Japanese society. But the truth is that life is rarely so obligingly cohesive, especially not of late. Or perhaps my brain is just failing to identify any central connections at the moment. Either way, for this post I have decided simply to compile a list of recent highs: some experience-defining, some seemingly unremarkable. But all crucial contributors to my current elation at being alive and at large in Japan!

 

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Highlight #1: Last day of term. There were photos. There were gifts galore. There were tears. There was a ‘pin the toupée on Donald Trump’ game. There was even a spot of karaoke (turns out one student knows ALL the words to ‘My Sharona’, and does some spectacular air guitar work to boot). There was Marmite tasting (see varying reactions below -SUCH FUN). And there were enough sugary snacks to keep the students buzzing all the way through to next semester. But most importantly, there was a group of exceptional students, of whom I am immensely proud and whose eager wee faces I will miss so very much.

For almost a year now, I have been bewildered by their silences, tickled by their anecdotes, awed by their diligence and humbled by their dedication. And mostly, I have been deeply moved by their determination to progress, to smash through the insecurities that I know their previous uncommunicative language learning has created. They have battled the urge to scurry back to the familiar comfort of their textbooks, and have instead bravely raised their heads, opened their mouths and looked me in the eye. And in so doing, they have reached out beyond the borders of their lives and dared to embrace otherness, which for me represents not only an incredible accomplishment on their part, but an inspiring example to anyone striving for a future of tolerance and intercultural understanding. What sparkly, wonderful people.

In this spirit and true to form, I decided to close proceedings with a quick speech delivered in my very best Japanese (Mayu prepped me magnificently). Apart from pointing out that instead of saying samishii (miss you) I managed to come out with sashimi (raw fish), students assured me it was a triumph. More than happy with that!

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Highlight #2: My local Maruetsu had been consistently selling the juiciest Jazz apples for the past week, for a very reasonable 94 yen. This pleases me immensely, as you can imagine.

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Highlight #3: A return to Yasukuni. Perhaps ‘highlight’ is the wrong word for this one, but it certainly needs mention nonetheless. I was eager to get back to this central Tokyo shrine, which I have visited many times, but which now holds renewed significance for me, in light of having just finished Richard Flanagan’s superb novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Yasukuni stands in commemoration of those who gave their lives in defence of the Japanese Empire. The shrine’s honours list, I now know, includes names of over a thousand war criminals. What’s more, while the Burmese railway locomotive shown below is displayed at Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese might, spirit and will, there is no mention of the many thousands of POWs who were enslaved in the Siamese jungle and tortured into constructing the railway in some of the most appalling conditions conceivable. Some recognition of this horrific human sacrifice wouldn’t go amiss at the exhibition, I feel…

 

Highlight #4: Veggie fest and lantern lighting. Mayu and I spent a blissful (if stonkingly hot) few hours in Ueno Park munching on vegan kebab and burger, and slurping down a magnificent bean and soya milk kakigori (flavoured shaved ice in a cup). Tokyo is waking up to a glorious new veggie future, I tell thee!

Post eco grub, we wandered across to the lake which was burgeoning with lily pads so large they would have towered over our heads had we not been standing on a raised platform. We watched the watery smear of a sun melt into the horizon behind the skyscrapers, talking of hopes, dreams, and far-off places. As the darkness gathered around us, a group of chanting monks took to the water in rowboats laden with thousands of little box lanterns, each a dedication to someone who has passed away. As they set the golden boxes a-bobbing on the water, the effect was one of magical serenity – at least until a few wisps of evening breeze seemingly proved too much for the tealights within, and snuffed them out. Lovely while they lasted.

 

Highlight #5: I found a pair of Hello Kitty flipflops for 54 yen in a bargain bin. I was in the market after my Nicaraguan ones finally bit the dust one evening last week, and what with the smashing cheesiness of the design and the comfort they afford me, this purchase has made its way into my current list of life wins.20205860_10159053468265300_1603245152_o.jpg

 

Must be off now, dear reader – alas, my flat is still resembling the very bargain bin which coughed up the new flipflops, and I’ve got to be out of here by tomorrow… GAH. So much to do. So many emotions slooshing round my brain, too – currently a disorienting mix of wistfulness for the past few months and anticipation for imminent adventures in the north… keep a look out for a Hokkaido update very soon!

Extra highlights from the week recorded below through photos – have a gander at your leisure 🙂

Happy Friday, lovely people! Otsukaresama deshita, one and all 😀

 

 

 

Ii shashin ne! Four weeks in pics and a vid

Guess who’s back…

 

Baseball (of which I understood very little but which I thoroughly enjoyed). I put this down to the rousing atmosphere, excellent company and the 9% Chu-Hi drinks, rather than to the game itself…

 

Downtown explorations: Kagurazaka and Yanaka. Courtesy of my good friend Ichiro, with the fabulous Junko, Kumi, Mari and Ms Alabama in attendance.

 

Enoshima island mooch, beach time and Tanabata festival at Hiratsuka… in a day. Boy did Amanda, Mayu and I cram it in!

 

There you have it, folks. Apologies for lack of deeper cultural observations/engaging prose; I hope the selection of photos at least brings you some amusement until the next update (which I am determined will NOT take so long to appear!)

More love than I can shake a stick at. Thanks for bearing with me 😉 x x x x x

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 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

 

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