Monday, 19 August 2013

pirikura, yukata and gaijin problems

It’s the start of a lovely week in Miyakonojo. It’s a little cooler today and the sun is bright so the mountains are clear and stunning, rather than shrouded in mist. I’ve met a bunch of great, warm people and tried many new things (all of which I’ve taken great pleasure in documenting on my kawaii hello kitty iPhone). However, I don’t want this blog to just be a carefully edited collection of Kodak moments. I’d hope that if a future JET stumbles on it, they might actually find it useful to hear what the experience is really like. And honestly, hearing about people’s mistakes and difficulties is way more interesting than just instagram-worthy exploits. 

That’s not to say that I’ve had any real difficulties! It’s more a matter of adjusting, which I expect will take months, if not the whole year here. I’ve enjoyed every day here and, while I miss everyone very much, haven’t had any unbearable pangs of homesickness. (That said, I’ve been consciously avoiding music since a taiko drum performance brought tears to my eyes! Except reggae, which for some reason has become my go-to musical crutch). 

There have been a few unexpected times, like when I had a minor crash with another cyclist, where the culture shock has come through as a physical rather than mental reaction – like a hiccup or sneeze of momentary panic and despondency. Today I tried to go to a bakery to write, thinking all I’d need would be I’d like a coffee please. However, being effectively deaf, mute and illiterate resulted in not being able to understand closing time, the complex cafĂ© recycling system, how to work the machine, and whether one paid for extra drinks or not. I fled with a cake I didn’t want, disproportionate woe and many sumimasens

The only other thing is how much attention one attracts just by walking down the street or shopping aisle. Normally I have zero problem with staring, catcalls, etc – heck, I even quite enjoy it mostly – but being stared out by 15 people/ cars in a row is a new sensation. Sometimes, the novelty does wear off and the behaviour simply feels rude. But mostly I try to smile, keep my sense of humour and remember that it’s harmless curiosity. 

I genuinely think studying anthropology has made a difference to the way I approach these new encounters and attitudes and I’m grateful for it. Having been trained to look for the structures and reasons behind social behaviours means that all these new things generally feel interesting rather than strange. I hope that my default setting of seeing things relatively and being open-minded and understanding – often to a fault – will serve me well here. In any case, the experience of being in a total minority – the population of Japan is over 99% Japanese – is probably a valuable, or at least enlightening, experience. 

But, I know what sets me on the right track (namely, half an hour somewhere natural and green, a list and a piece of cake) and aside from these small and inevitable moments of faltering (and some mysterious bites – maybe futon bugs?!), this weekend has been fantastic. 

I had a date on Friday with a new friend, Hana, who very kindly messaged me out of the blue and suggested we go out for dinner. First though, to my delight, we drove to the mall and indulged in the very Japanese pastime of pirikura…

Ta da! You enter a large photobooth equiped with bright lights and takea  bunch of selfies – so far so simple. However, the machine then edits the pictures automatically to redden your lips, bleach and photoshop your skin and somehow enlarge your eyes and perfect your hair! 

You then proceed to the other side of the booth where you sit in front of a masive screen with e-pens and edit to your hearts’ content. Kawaii! (I’ll write more on that word another day). Hana was a pro but my pirikura skills need sharpening... this could fast become a habit/ addiction... 

Pictures in hand, we went on to have an amazing Italian/ Japanese fusion meal of tomato and chicken ramen with parmesan and aubergine, and cold China tea on the side. Perfect.

Later on in the evening we met a bunch of other ALTs, teachers and their friends, many of whom were at the yukata party I attended last night. I drove with Hana and another ALT, Jo, who I shared a room with in Toyko, to our hostess’ house in the neighbouring prefecture Kagoshima, with no idea what to expect and a small gift of fruit in my lap. We were welcomed to a beautiful Japanese garden wooden house near a shrine and ushered inside to put on our yukatas!

As far as I can tell, a yukata is a casual summer kimono, generally made of cotton. What followed was my idea of heaven – we picked out yukata and matching obi (sashes) to match and got dressed up, with extensive folding and bow-tying. 

Suitably garbed, we enjoyed a wonderfully chilled evening of good chat, pot luck food, beers and a strange drink that tastes of sherbet dib-dab and has a floating glass marble in the bottle. The garden was cool and dark and buzzing with crickets and cicadas. 

To top it off, we played with sparklers. My cup runneth over! 

It was such a beautiful sultry evening that when the rain came we just sheltered under the eaves, listening to Brazilian music and sipping sweet plum wine. It was a pretty good moment. 


  1. I loved reading this, Sophia, and the pictures are absolutely gorgeous. We're all following eagerly! Thanks for telling us about your amazing experiences!

  2. Kurstin, thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing the blog! I'm so happy it's being enjoyed :)